Saturday, July 18, 2015

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Valley of the Dinosaurs: "Rain of Meteors" (November 23, 1974)

In “Rain of Meteors,” a herd of Allosaur (called “Tahargas” by Gorok’s people) close in on the village. John Butler constructs a catapult to stop their advance.

Unfortunately, when John is testing his catapult, the boulder crashes near a scout from a neighboring tribe, the Sky People. 

The injured boy is the son of Krona, Sky People leader.  And the Sky People -- who believe in Sky Gods and worship shooting stars and lightning -- are historically enemies of Gorak’s people.  

Now that they believe Gorak’s people are on the war path, they will be impossible to reason with.

The Sky People prepare for war, but John thinks he can trick them into peace by using the catapult and hot rocks…

“Rain of Meteors” is not the best episode of Valley of the Dinosaurs (1974). In part, this is because the central plot involves trickery, and a bit of mockery.  Although the series often goes to great lengths to preach the value of diversity and empathy, that is not the case here.

Instead, John Butler pretty openly mocks the belief system of the Sky People, and when summoning their Gods (really a trick involving catapulted hot rocks…) he mockingly says nonsense words like “abra cadabra.” The vocal performance accentuates the mocking aspect of his story.

It’s a bit smug and condescending, and thus out-of-character for Butler, an educated man who would certainly understand that the Sky People, at their stage of development, are not primitives simply because they believe in Sky Gods.  That’s just where they are, based on tradition and heritage. Butler's behavior actually transmits as an ugly and patronizing moment in this episode.

After John Butler’s trickery, Gorak steps forward and asks the Sky People for their friendship.  They readily agree.

But how will the Sky People feel if they learn that they have been tricked, and their beliefs in the Gods mocked?  

It will be very difficult to forge trust with them again, once they know how John used the catapult to manipulate them into peace.  

Valley of the Dinosaurs, naturally, doesn’t go there, but one can’t help but consider the repercussions of the events in "Rain of Meteors."  It would not be at all unlikely to see a holy war occur between village and Sky People, based on the disrespect shown by 20th century man, John Butler.

Again, it’s just sort of baffling that the episode takes on this tone, since a key aspect of Valley of the Dinosaurs is the notion that our differences are what make us strong.  The cave people know about the valley and its denizens.  The Butlers know modern science.  Together, the families can survive, and thrive.  Yet in “Rain of Meteors,” the Sky People aren’t treated very honorably, in my opinion. The better story might have seen John explaining the nature of the lights in the Heaven, or forging peace without mocking the Sky Peoples' belief system.

Still, there’s the counter-balance of this narrative to consider.  Gara heals the injured boy, and uses a local plant to bring down his fever.  It’s clear that her intentions -- and Gorak’s too -- are noble. So in this episode, the cave people come off great, while the 20th century people come off like heels.

Next week: “To Fly a Kite.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: ElectraWoman and DynaGirl: "The Empress of Evil" (October 9, October 16, 1976)

In “Empress of Evil,” Frank Helfrin (Norman Alden) is surprised when a new villain, the Empress of Evil (Claudette Nevins) materializes in the Electra-Base. 

The Empress commands him to summon Electra-Woman (Deidre Hall) and Dyna-Girl (Judy Strangis). They are on assignment covering a flower show (as Lori and Judy), but return immediately.

The Empress of Evil, assisted by the Great Lucrecia (Jacquelyn Hyde), plans “simply to rule the entire world,” but realizes she must remove her first and greatest obstacle: the superhero duo.  She decides on the plan of “divide and conquer,” practically ripping Electra Woman and DynaGirl apart on a molecular level.

Then, she renders the Electra-Comps useless.  Finally, the Empress reprograms the Crime Scope to self-destruct.

With time running out, ElectraWoman realizes that the Empress derives her strength from a kind of “anti-power” and that Frank’s new “electra-split” Electra-Comp app may reveal a crucial secret about the villainess’s nature.

 “Empress of Evil” is probably the best episode of Sid and Marty Krofft’s ElectraWoman and DynaGirl I’ve reviewed thus far.

This is so, I wager, because the teleplay (by Dick Robbins and Duane Poole) throws some monkey-wrenches in the by-now standard formula.

For one, The Empress of Evil has a secret nature, and is not the real threat or primary threat.  As the episode reveals, Lucrecia -- a great illusionist -- built an amazing android.  That android is the Empress.  Thus Lucrecia is the real villain, even though she appears to be the minion.

Secondly, the episode starts with an invasion of home turf. The Empress accosts Frank, revealing her abilities in the first scene, and putting ElectraWoman on the defensive.

And third, the Electra-Comps don’t work on the Empress for much of the episode.  The Electra-Comps are a bit of a crutch for the series writers, frankly. They can always get the heroes out of a jam.  Here, nothing seems to work until the very end.  It’s true that, keeping in formula, a new app saves the day at the last minute, but for much of the episode, EW and DG can’t rely on their gadgetry.

Like all episode of ElectraWoman and DynaGirl, “Empress of Evil” moves at a breakneck pace in both parts, and the result is an entertaining Saturday morning adventure.

Next week: “Ali Baba.”

Friday, July 17, 2015

Support Tom Mandrake's Kros: Hallowed Ground at Kickstarter

I do not often feature Kickstarter campaigns on the blog, but when I see a great one, a worthy one, I like to write about it, and see if I can help garner support for it.

And boy, do I have a great one today.

Right now, artist Tom Mandrake -- a talent whose work I adore, on everything from The X-Files/30 Days of Night to To Hell You Ride -- is collaborating with writer John Ostrander on a graphic novel called Kros: Hallowed Ground.  

This 128-page horror adventure involves a vampire hunter battling the supernatural at the Battle of Gettysburg, and the project has been in the works for ten years.

Just look at the art work above, and you get a sense of Mandrake's brilliant style, and also the powerful genre imagery involved. The story premise sounds great (a human battle by day; a supernatural battle by night) too.

There's still time to support and fund this project, and I hope you'll consider doing so.

You can check out the Kickstarter campaign here:

And here's the Kickstarter video:

Teaser Trailer: The X-Files Returns (January 2016)

Found Footage Friday: Unaware (2010)

Over the last few years, found-footage horror movies have begun to seriously explore UFO lore. Films such as Dark Mountain (2013), Skinwalker Ranch (2013), Alien Abduction (2014) Extraterrestrial (2014) and Area 51 (2015) have all gazed at facets of popular UFO mythology, from the Brown Mountain Lights of North Carolina, to Dreamland in Nevada.

Similarly, one of the early examples of the form, Unaware (2010), takes its dramatic cues from the Roswell UFO crash of July 1947. Specifically, the films involves the accidental discovery -- in a rural Texas work shed of all places -- of an alien life form recovered from that incident in the New Mexico desert.

I should be upfront about this. I like Unaware quite a bit, and yet I will be the first to acknowledge that it will prove a divisive film for horror fans.

This is so because, without exaggeration, it look just like your average home movie.

The film revolves around just two characters (Joe and Lisa) and so only one person is on screen for the majority of the film’s running time.  The other is holding the camera. 

Similarly, the framing of many shots -- including an engagement supper at a ranch house’s kitchen bar -- is so bad that you may conclude that Unaware is an amateur production.

But here’s the deal: I don’t believe it’s an amateur production at all.

Rather, I believe that the makers of Unaware have gone to extraordinary lengths to make Unaware fully appear to be a legitimate home movie -- down to fuzzy shots of the ground while characters are running in terror -- and that the bad framing of the principal actors during some crucial scenes is absolutely intentional, and perhaps even inspired.  These moments add immeasurably to the film’s aura of reality.

Indeed, Unaware’s visual approach represents part of the reason I enjoy found footage as a format. This paradigm removes the filter of third-person traditional film style, thus eliminating visual artifice. It simultaneously enhances urgency, immediacy, and terror by mimicking reality.  I can only say that Unaware looks and plays very, very real, save for two unfortunate aspects, which I’ll get to in the body of the review.

The down-side of a committed approach that apes amateurism is that, for long spells during Unaware, some viewers will conclude they are indeed watching the most unprofessional of unprofessional movies.

Two actors.

One camera.

Cinematography that looks like your last summer vacation video. 

In short, if you are unwilling to accept that Unaware attempts to scare its audience by looking and feeling very natural, very real, you aren’t going to enjoy what thrills the film offers.  Instead, you’ll judge the film as a weekend shoot with a very small crew, and few very resources, and write it off as simply a bad movie.

And the two negative aspects of the film -- which I will discuss below -- add considerably to that negative judgment of the film because they puncture the idea that the film has been meticulously-crafted to look like an on-the-fly home video. These elements encourage one to disregard the film’s style as carefully crafted.

Yet outside those two flaws, Unaware works efficiently, just as it is intended to. While watching, you may feel that you have stumbled upon a “real” home video of a patently unreal event. 

In some fashion, that’s the highest aspiration of the found-footage format, to ape down-to-earth, everyday reality to such a degree -- but with a fantastic/horrific twist -- that you start to question if the film is “real” or just a carefully-constructed hoax.

I feel, frankly, that Unaware is the brand of movie that those who despise found-footage movies will also despise.  So I don’t recommend it to these horror movie fans.

But for connoisseurs of this horror subgenre, Unaware hits all the hot-spots with precision and skill. It’s just that all that skill is utilized to a specific end: making the movie look amateurish, and thus genuine. 

If you can work that equation out in your mind, and go with the filmmakers’ approach, Unaware will provide you moments of real entertainment, and real terror too.

A young couple, Joe and Lisa, decides to visit the rural Texas home of his grandfather Roy for the weekend, unannounced. 

When the couple arrives, however, it appears that Roy and his wife Betty are gone for the weekend.

Joe lets himself into the house anyway, and soon begins to hear strange noises from a work shed in the back yard.  While growing up, Joe was never allowed to see what was in that shed, and he feels this would be the perfect opportunity to peek. 

Lisa counsels discretion, but Joe ignores her and enters the shed.

Inside, he finds evidence that ties his grandfather, a veteran, to the Roswell UFO crash of 1947. That evidence includes newspapers, and much more ominously, a shipment invoice for a large crate.

What dwells inside that crate, however, is the stuff of nightmares.

Unaware features all the tropes of the modern found footage format that are now par for the course. 

We get the extended car-driving scene (the set-up for a road trip, or voyage to a remote location, and a key plot device in the likes of Evil Things [2009], Hollow [2012], Willow Creek [2014], and Exists [2014]), the periodic visual distortion that reminds us that the footage we see is supposed to be real and from a non-professional source (V/H/S [2012]), and even the unexpected wedding engagement surprise (a plot element which also appears in Extraterrestrial, and Safari [2013]).

But Unaware truly thrives on the qualities that make it different from other found footage films, not similar to them. 

For example, the film consists of just two characters for much of its running time, and the actors (who are not identified in the credits, or at the IMDB) do a remarkable job of seeming real, both in their reactions to the unknown, and their reactions to each other. 

This isn’t your typical “documentary film crew” bunch, a worn-out, off-the-shelf character brand, but rather two likable and highly individual youngsters filming a vacation.  Much of the film’s hard-won sense of reality comes from the central performances, and their total naturalness.  There are times, watching Joe and Lisa, that you feel convinced you are observing two real people, not movie characters. They seem so at ease in character, and with one another.

Similarly, the footage itself looks like something that Joe and Lisa could have reasonably filmed. For example, the camera gets set down on a bar during a dinner, for example, and just sits there for a long while, so we can’t even see the top of the characters’ heads.  Back in the 1990s, when I made a lot of home movies, I would do the same thing at holidays: just set the camera down and let it film, only to discover later that not everyone was in the frame all the time. 

Although it really isn’t necessary for the film to note self-reflexive things like “this is some creepy Blair Witch-looking shit,” in general the characters speak, relate, and act in a way that feels true and relatable.  Joe, for instance, keeps pushing boundaries, both with Lisa and with his grandfather’s property.  His recklessness grows ever more apparent, but no specific attention is drawn to it.  Ultimately, he goes too far and Lisa pays the price, but, commendably, this is a leitmotif that becomes apparent while watching, but is never handled in a heavy-handed fashion.

Just two things break the spell in Unaware.  The first is the performance by a supporting actor who appears for one scene as an FBI agent. His line readings are so artificial and theatrical that his whole persona feels at odds with the rest of the picture.  He practically sinks the whole movie in just five short minutes. 

Secondly, the alien, when revealed, does not hold up to viewer scrutiny.  For the vast majority of the time, the found footage approach -- moving cameras, dim light, herky-jerky motion – cloaks’ the costume’s deficiencies.  Once or twice, however, in Unaware, you get a good look at the costume and it just isn’t impressive. Or even adequate, actually.

These two factors undo so much good work in Unaware, and lend credence to the argument that the film is really just a glorified amateur production.  I feel differently, as I’ve noted, but it’s a shame these issues couldn’t have been handled better.

Folks who have never tried to make a film, especially one that could pass for “real” footage, may be “unaware” how hard it is to get right; to capture moments in a way that you or I would recognize as being true, or real.  Unaware achieves the desired impact about eighty percent of the time, which is an astounding figure for a no-budget, indie production.  But when the film fails, whether due to an un-calibrated performance or a bad monster suit, those failures support a negative judgment of the film as a whole. That’s a shame.

One can point to the bad acting in a supporting role, or the lameness of the suit, and weigh in that the movie is unprofessional. But the fact is that Unaware, especially in its conclusion, proves terribly scary.  To see a truly amateur found footage movie, check out Crybaby Bridge (2013) or Bucks County Massacre (2010).  Those (bad) found-footage movies don’t convince, ever, that they are real, or populated by authentic human beings.  They aren’t scary because we are aware, throughout their running time, of their total artifice.

But Unaware absolutely suspends disbelief, and looks like what it means to look like: a video that you and your significant other might have shot on a road trip gone badly wrong.

Again, the viewer will have to judge if that’s enough to merit a recommendation.

Movie Trailer: Unaware (2013)

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Films of 1999: eXistenZ

The year 1999 brought audiences a slew of virtual reality or “simulated world” works-of-art. A few-month span – from early spring to fall of 1999 -- saw the premieres of The Matrix, The Thirteenth Floor, the Chris Carter TV series Harsh Realm (1999-2000), and the subject of this review: David Cronenberg’s often impenetrable eXistenZ.

Why did all these science fiction productions -- about people interfacing with artificial or alternate realities -- filter to the surface of the pop culture virtually at once? 

One seeking answers to that question might consider the historical context.

In 1999, a major technological concern was on the horizon, for one thing, in the shape of Y2K, or the Millennium Bug. That problem, as you may recall, turned out to be nothing but hype.  However, the very thought of what might happen as clocks ticked over to January 1, 2000  roiled a culture that was, very quickly, growing accustomed to the Internet and the online world of entertainment, news, and information it offered. 

The fear inherent in the Y2K Crisis was that too much of our world had been erected around computers, online and offline, and so to lose computers would send society back to the equivalent of the Dark Ages.

Planes would fall out of the sky.

Power grids would go dark.

Everyday appliances, PCs, and other devices would freeze up…becoming no more than glorified paper-weights.

The year 1999, similarly, was the era in which violent video games were blamed, in large part, by the media, for the Columbine Shootings. 

The press went on and on about “the Trench Coat Mafia” and the fact that the teenage Columbine shooters enjoyed playing first person shooter video games. Years later, we know that much of this detail was fabricated, exaggerated, or at the very least mis-reported.

Nonetheless, efforts like The Matrix were targeted by moral watch-guards for creating violent fantasies that young people not only found appealing, but could, essentially, get lost in.  The video game world could, -- according to the same paranoia -- replace the real world and real life for some people.  Impressionable youngsters would become lost morally, and rudderless spiritually, unable to determine the difference between the game world and the real world. 

And if they learned to kill in the game world, what was to stop them from doing the same thing in reality?

Today -- a long way down the line since 1999 -- such concerns seem a bit quaint; naïve even.

You can’t walk down the street -- any street -- without finding people gazing into their hand-held i-devices. Games of all varieties can be found on these mobile devices, on at-home game systems, and on your TV too. So the wholesale integration of commercial game worlds and consensus reality is complete -- and permanent -- in the world we live in today.

But eXistenZ cannily, memorably and often grotesquely blends the 1990s fears of technological/human integration with director David Cronenberg’s career-long obsession with body horror tropes.  In 1983, for example, his film Videodrome explored the terrifying possibility that people would become living VCR machines, playing the VHS tapes, as it were, of nefarious programmers. 

eXistenZ takes a step further down that weird road, depicting the complete union of mankind with his game systems, which, in the film, are depicted, perversely, as fleshy pink outcroppings attached to organic umbilical cords. To operate the game, players literally finger or manipulate mounds of flesh, or nipples for lack of a better word.

A brilliantly crafted -- and yet wholly bizarre --- film which plays strongly with the viewer’s sense of reality, eXistenZ also mirrors, in the words of the movie’s programmer character, a strong “anti-gamer” view-point.

Specifically, the game system in eXistenZ is equated with the rape of the natural world.

And life in the game world begins, importantly, with an act suggesting sexual violence or aggression, the penetration and insertion of a “port” into the human flesh so tgat one can access the meta-flesh game pods. 

Even the act of playing the game, finally, is visually equated with a solitary sexual behavior: masturbation.

But the film’s final point, intriguingly, is a refutation of the “movies/video games cause violence” argument so prevalent in fin-de-siecle 1990s culture. Contrarily, as eXistenZ’s finale points out, real-life attitudes (such as an anti-gamer belief system) influence game play instead. We bring our (pre-existing) attitudes to the game, eXistenZ tells us, so that life changes the nature of the game, not vice-versa.

In other words, eXistenz, for all its apparent concern and discomfort about the union of man with technology, reminds audiences of a crucial fact: Art mirrors life.  The game in the movie turns murderous and bloody not because of its core nature as a game, but because it reflects the attitudes of the people -- the gamers -- who have entered its simulated world.

“It wasn’t me! It was my game character!”

At the test launch of celebrity programmer Allegra Gellar’s (Jennifer Jason Leigh) new game system, eXistenZ, an assassin from an anti-gamer sect attempts to murder her. 

A man responsible for security at the event, Ted Pikul (Jude Law) whisks her away to safety, but the duo learns there is a price on her head. Every anti-gamer in the region is out to collect a substantial reward.

Allegra, meanwhile, is desperate to link to her game after the shooting, hoping to determine if it survived the attack intact.  To do so, however, she needs Pikul to jack in from his own port. 

The only problem is that he doesn’t possess one.  To fix that problem, the duo visits a local gas station attendant and gamer, Gas (Willem Dafoe) who has the skills to surgically provide him with a port.

Gas is a betrayer however, and installs a faulty port in Pikul in an effort to kill the game.

Next, Allegra and Pikul seek assistance from one of Allegra’s friends, Dr. Vinokur (Ian Holm), who can perform surgery on her sick pod, and also install Pikul’s port correctly.

Once equipped, Allegra and Pikul enter the game world, and find themselves visiting a virtual factory by the sea where pods are crafted from living tissue.  There, they uncover the dark world of anti-gamers, and the dark secrets that make meta-flesh pods possible.

 “The game makes reality feel completely unreal.”

The first inescapable conclusion one must draw from eXistenz is that the meta-flesh pods are alive. They are not just mechanical game-systems, like an X-Box or Wii Universe.  They are game-systems that incorporate and are comprised of living tissue. 

And if they incorporate living tissue, one must wonder about their predicament.  The pods serve us; they are slaves to the gamers.

In terms of the pods being living creatures, Allegra refers to the game pod as “her” throughout the film, suggesting it has life, and more so, gender. 

And inside the game world, Pikul and Gellar end up working (as spies…) at a factory assembly line were mutated amphibious creatures are harvested from the sea and placed inside the meta-flesh surroundings.  These creatures are taken from their natural environment, and used in the pods so that humans can play games. 

In every meaningful way, this is slavery.

Similarly, when Dr. Vinokur conducts surgery on the pods, the interior we see is an amalgamation of blood and guts, again, living tissue.  And one way for the gamers to destroy eXistenZ is to “infect” the pods.  We see the pods turn purple with biological disease.

The inescapable fact, then, is that humans are co-opting a biological process --- life -- to enjoy a game world. This is not even remotely a moral act, one might conclude. And therefore, the anti-gamer personalities in the film who want to kill Allegra (an apparent metaphor for the fatwa against Salman Rushdie), may have some valid point for their concern. They have organized in a militant and violent fashion to prevent the moral wrong of harvesting living beings, but their cause, on some level, seems just.

On the other hand, these anti-gamers may be against games not because of the biological processes that incorporate the pods, but because they fear that real life is jeopardized by the existence of such games.  At the end of the film, the anti-gamers declare “the victory of realism.”  In this sense, the characters might be “read” or interpreted as being the moral watchdogs of the larger culture; the ones who don’t play games, but worry nonetheless about societal impact of games.

Secondly, eXistenZ depicts a sort of sexual violence in terms of the union of pods and people.

To interface with a pod, a port is “injected” into the base of the human spine through a large, phallic tube. 

Now, one might observe that this port of entry on the spine is only inches above another, sensitive area on the human form, an orifice, in particular. 

If one looks at the framing of the scene wherein Pikul “receives” his pod from Gas, it is clear that he is undergoing a process that visually, resembles anal sex.  Gas is doing the penetrating, and Pikul is the one penetrated.  

Pikul is penetrated, incidentally, after noting -- quite relevantly -- that he possesses “this phobia about my body being penetrated…surgically.” And when he first enters the game, following activation of his port and attachment to the pod via umbilical cord, he notes, rather needily. “I feel really vulnerable.”

Again and the again, visuals and words reinforce the sexual nature of the union of pod and man.  At one point, we see Pikul actually stick his tongue in Alegra’s back port, to “lubricate it” so as to be ready for tube insertion.  He is facilitating the tube’s penetration.

But then, intriguingly, connection, following the union, is somewhat anti-climactic. 

The film provides us shot-after-shot of Allegra and Pikul on a motel room bed, in blissful -- but separate -- worlds, stroking their individual pods and experiencing the delight of the game reality. 

I believe this visualization is Cronenberg’s cheeky commentary that video game play is, in some way, masturbation.

Such play isn’t about connection to another human being, after all, but a connection to one’s own fantasies.  

I’m not saying that I agree with this belief, vis-à-vis video games.  There have been plenty of studies to suggest that video games are beneficial to people, and pro-social. Actually. But that’s not the message of the film.  The message of eXistenZ is that once the connection is set up, it’s all a matter of people playing with their own -- organic in this case -- joysticks.  They tune out the real world, and even tune out of their significant relationships.  Consider, in the game space, Pikul and Allegra are lovers, or at least passionate about each other, in physical terms.  But in real life?

The fact that the film’s gamers jack-in, for the first time, in a church, is a symbol, perhaps, that for some people self-love (masturbation; game play) has become the narcissistic temple of worship, replacing the symbol of communal spirituality and religion.

Cronenberg is a thoughtful, brilliant director, no doubt, and his “anti-gamer” material in eXistenZ possesses the unique flip-side I mentioned in my introduction.  In broad strokes, the film concerns the way that anti-game people infiltrate a game, and bring their zealous, down-with-games belief system to that realm.  It infects that realm, like the disease that infects the pod.  Finally, these zealots are willing to commit murder, even without knowing (per the film’s final sting…) whether they are in reality or in a game world. 

This is a literalization of the fear that games breed killers, but importantly, it is simultaneously a notation that games don’t make people violent, any more than movies might. 

Games are an art form, like film, that reflects the nature of those who “play.”  In games, this is especially so, because of the high-degree of interactivity.  You choose whether to go right or left.  You choose whether to shoot or hold your fire.  You choose which door to enter, which to exit.  The game doesn’t make that decision for you, although, as eXistenZ points out, it does provide parameters for those choices.

But in real life, your upbringing, your location, your family of origin all provide those parameters, too.

Watching eXistenZ cold, without understanding David Cronenberg’s fascination with body horror, may leave one concluding that “there’s a level of psychosis” here. But in a way that’s the film’s very point. 

Those who enter the game with the zealous desire to kill are bringing their psychosis to the game; not becoming psychotic because of the game.  That seems an important distinction, especially in 1999, and one that our culture has not yet entirely learned, or at least internalized.

The weirdest and most off-beat of 1999’s simulated world productions, eXistenZ is also, perhaps, the most ambiguous. 

I have provided here my reading of Cronenberg’s symbols and visual imagery, but I would not be surprised to read an entirely alternative reading that tracks just as effectively, or meaningfully. 

And that too is the point.

We watch a film like eXistenZ, and it bring to it our own parameters for interpretation.

Movie Trailer: eXistenZ (1999)

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Jonny Quest Crayon by Number and Stencil set (Transogram)

Jonny Quest in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Presented by Hanna Barbera)

Pop Art: Jonny Quest (Gold Key Edition)

Coloring Books of the Week: Jonny Quest

Lunch Box of the Week: Jonny Quest

Board Game of the Week: Jonny Quest (Milton Bradley)

Theme Song of the Week: Jonny Quest (1964)

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Lost in Space 50th Anniversary Blogging: "A Change of Space" (April 20, 1966)

In “A Change of Space,” the Robot (Dick Tufeld), Will Robinson (Bill Mumy) and Dr. Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris) unexpectedly happen upon a landed spaceship in the wild. 

Will brings the rest of his family to see the advanced space-craft, and the Robot reports that it is a sixth dimensional vehicle, and an “extra-galactic delivery system.”

The vehicle is also in “go” condition for lift-off, and Will accidentally activates the launch sequence after boarding it alone. 

He goes on a fantastic, extra-dimensional journey and returns altered.  Now, he is a genius, a “latter-day Einstein” according to Dr. Smith. Will’s “tremendous acceleration in mental development” is a cause for concern for his parents, but a cause for curiosity for Smith.  He believes that he can become “lord of the galaxies" if the same change happens to him.

Smith decides to augment himself the same way, and also takes a ride aboard the alien spaceship.  He returns not a genius, however, but an aged, stooped, and senile old man.

Before long, the strange alien owner of the spaceship returns, alarmed that the humans have been using his vessel without permission…

Although this is yet another Smith-gets-intro-trouble-with-alien-artifact type of episode (think: “Wish upon a Star,” or “All that Glitters,”) I found “A Change of Space” a strong episode of Lost in Space (1965-1968), especially considering that it arrives near the end of a very long (29 episode…) season.

Perhaps I found this episode enjoyable because the focus isn’t exclusively on Smith’s antics, but rather the relationship between Will and his parents.  

After becoming a genius, Will is undeniably a different person. Some aspect of youth and innocence is missing from his personality, and this is terrifying to John (Guy Williams) and Maureen (June Lockhart).  

Yes, he is still Will, but now he can predict what people are going to think and say about any given topic, and read through motivations and secret agendas.  He is still a boy with childish emotions, but a boy with too much knowledge; too much awareness.

The aspects of the episode that contend with Will’s strange situation, and his parents’ response to it, are genuinely interesting, and moving.  

As parents, we all feel that our children grow up too fast.  Well, here comes a space age parable about that very topic: about a child artificially “rushed” into adulthood.  It’s wonderful that Will is so smart and so knowledgeable after his galactic journey, but he has lost something of value, the freedom to be a kid; and to have a child’s outlook on others.  After "Magic Mirror," this is yet another Lost in Space story that focuses on the wondrous qualities of childhood, and the pain involved in leaving it behind.

Other creative aspects of “Change of Space” are not as strong (though still, relatively, better than recent episodes).  

For instance, the Robot is now a veritable font of information and exposition, like Spock on Star Trek.  The difference is that Spock is a trained science officer, with the library computer at his finger-tips.  He can knowledgeably speak about a variety of topics.  

The Robot is a product of Earth technology (circa 1997) by contrast, and yet he speaks knowingly here about extra-galactic vehicles and the sixth dimension.  In “War of the Robots,” he similarly discussed “robotoids” with great knowledge, though how he had acquired such knowledge was a mystery.  

According to fan lore, if I understand correctly, the Robot has been a recipient of some kind of alien download of data, making him more knowledgeable than the Robinsons (and Smith, naturally…) about many aspects of the universe.  

That’s a decent ret-con (and I buy it…) but facts are facts: Lost in Space never really addresses how the Robot has suddenly become this font of galactic knowledge.  After Smith, the Robot is the character who changes the most during the first season.  He goes from being an automaton and unquestioning slave to Smith, to becoming a super-knowledgeable individual who gives as good as he gets, verbally, against Smith.

Also, and I’ve written about this before, but the writers are clearly not paying attention to details at this juncture.  In this episode, the elderly Dr. Smith is seen in a heavy wheel-chair.  

Where did the antique wheelchair come from? 

Again, the Jupiter 2 had a weight limit, I’m certain, to achieve escape velocity from Earth. In recent weeks, however, we have seen that it carried sand-bags and a World War II helmet, painting equipment and wardrobe, and now this very bulky, very heavy wheelchair.  

In all cases, these strange items are used in conjunction with Smith, to get across a sense of humor about his character.  But for every laugh gained by Lost in Space, the series loses a little in terms of plausibility, in my opinion.

In “A Change of Space,” I also like the design and execution of the alien being.  He’s like a plated-fish man, and the suit still looks pretty good (at least in black-and-white).  He’s much better in appearance than some of the recent hairy alien monsters we’ve seen featured on the series.

Next week, the first season finale: “Follow the Leader.”