Saturday, December 12, 2015

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Jason of Star Command: "Chapter 11: The Haunted Planet" (November 18, 1978)

In Jason of Star Command’s (1978-1980) Chapter 11, “The Haunted Planet,” Jason (Craig Littler), Nicole (Susan O’Hanlon), and Parsafoot (Charlie Dell) must crash on an icy planetoid when their Star Fire’s radiation detector fails and the ship’s atomic core overheats.

They escape from the ship just as it explodes, and are soon confronted by a man named Bork (Angelo Rossitto), who claims to be an emissary from Queen Vanessa (Julie Newmar).  

Bork attempts to capture the folks from Star Command using a local monster enslaved by an obedience collar, but Jason frees the beast, who is actually an “energy” being.

Jason and the others see Vanessa on their own terms in a mountain base, and she addresses them.  She implores Jason to switch sides and work for Dragos, but he refuses. 

Accordingly, Vanessa informs them they will never leave her world alive.  She then incapacitates them using a toxic gas…

Julie Newmar -- the greatest Catwoman ever, bar none -- guest stars in this segment of Jason of Star Command. She is, as always, beautiful and poised, though the character she plays is hardly worth her time. 

Vanessa is called a queen, but where are her people? Why is she alone on this icy planetoid with just one servant (Angelo Rossitto of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome [1985]).

Similarly, Vanessa is in league with Dragos, but we don’t learn why she has chosen this course, at least not yet.  Hopefully future episodes will reveal more about her.

Also, it seems like going to a lot of trouble bringing Jason to the planet just to ask him to change sides, when his answer is pretty much pre-ordained.  Wouldn’t Dragos (her ally, remember?), have preferred her simply to let the ship’s atomic core blow up with all hands aboard the Star Fire?

I always find it laughable, and an example of poor storytelling, when a villain decides to lay a trap for his arch-enemy, thus doing the very thing that will assure his mission fails.  The Master did this all the time on Doctor Who, inviting, basically, the Doctor into his plans, and then cursing his name when the Doctor made them fail. Here, we are to believe that Jason is such a strong adversary to Dragos that the villain would rather “turn” him than kill him, given the opportunity.

Not likely.

Jason’s odyssey on Kesh continues in the next episode.

Next week: “Escape from Kesh.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Space Academy: "The Cheat" (November 19, 1977)

Well, there's another crisis on the 1977 Saturday morning live-action, Filmation TV series Space Academy this week. An "energy distributor" on asteroid BX3 is leaking and could poison outer space for three parsecs, including an inhabited space colony.

But on the Academy, the cadets are embroiled in a crisis. Captain Chris Gentry (Ric Carrott) has ordered Cadet Matt Prentiss (John Berwick) called up on charges because he showed "flagrant disregard for procedure" on their last mission. Commander Gampu settles the crisis by suspending the hearing on the matter, and putting Matt Prentiss, a laser technician, in charge of the mission to seal the malfunctioning energy distributor.

The mission proves dangerous, and Matt orders the Seeker through an ion storm and - again - Chris reacts negatively to Matt's irresponsibility. 

But when Matt is injured during his attempt to seal the energy distributor, Chris takes over and saves the day, using the Seeker's bulldozer-like arms to push a small asteroid into the energy distributor, thereby creating a new "artificial" sun to provide energy to this part of the galaxy.

"The Cheat" is essentially the same story as the previous installment of Space Academy, "Life Begins at 300."

A pushy non-regular learns a valuable lesson about working with "the team" after initially being a hothead. This episode distinguishes itself primarily because Matt asks Laura (Pamelyn Ferdin) out on a date(!), and also because the episode features a funny slow-motion interlude wherein Tee Gar Soom uses his karate skills to break down a jammed engine room door on a Seeker.

Meanwhile, fans may remember that John Berwick's character, Matt Prentiss shows up in a first season episode of Jason of Star Command (1978-1980). In Chapter 10, "The Disappearing Man," it is reported that he has been missing for months. In truth, he has been a guinea pig for the invisibility experiments of Dragos (Sid Haig).  So Berwick's character represents a little cross-series continuity.

I do think that Space Academy missed a bet on teaching a good lesson to kids with stories like "The Cheat." In both this and the previous installment, our heroes were proven to be correct in their convictions all along, and it was the dangerous interloper who had to learn a lesson. 

All the good guys really had to do was express "forgiveness" for the trespassers. 

Wouldn't it have been nice had Chris or Gampu or one of "our" team been proven wrong in "The Cheat" instead? 

And Matt -- the guest star -- been proven correct? 

Sometimes, a good lesson for kids to learn is that it's okay to be wrong; and to be the one asking for forgiveness. Right? It seems that Chris reacts negatively to Matt's position of authority...maybe he was just threatened all the way along by someone as capable as he was...and again, that's something that kids should learn about: feelings of competition and jealousy and how to deal with them.
Otherwise, this episode introduces a new feature for the versatile Seeker.  Here, we see that the front section can extend arms, which prove useful in pushing an asteroid from its collision course.

Finally, the energy distributor is a nice new miniature for the series.  It is asteroid-based in terms of construction too, which marks it as being produced by the same culture that created the "planetoid" for Space Academy.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Cult Gallery: Spaceships of the 1980s

Here's a look back at the spaceships featured in the films and TV programs of the 1980s.  

The big innovation of this decade?  Well, audiences saw the first computer-generated spaceships in this decade.  

Also, a major design change: curves.

How many of these do you remember?  And do you remember any that I missed?

Identified by Bruce Nims; Flash Gordon (1980)/The Ajax.

Identified by Pierre Fontaine: Galaxina (1980)/Infinity.

Identified by Bruce Nims: Saturn 3 (1980)

Identified by Bruce Nims: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)/Slave One

Not identified: Blake's 7/The Scorpio.

Identified by Bruce Nims: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century/Searcher.

Identified by Bruce Nims: Battle Beyond the Stars/Nell.

Identified by Bruce Nims: John Carpenter's The Thing.

Identified by Bruce Nims: Outland.

Identified by Bruce Nims: E.T.

Identified by Bruce Nims: V (1983).

Identified by Bruce Nims: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan/Reliant.

Identified by SGB Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone.

Identified by Bruce Nims: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock/Klingon Bird of Prey.

Identified by Bruce Nims: The Last Starfighter/Gunstar.

Identified by Bruce Nims: Dune.

Identified by Bruce Nims: Enemy Mine.

Identified by Ponch: The Ice Pirates.

Identified by Bruce Nims: 2010/Discovery and Leonev.

Identified by Pierre Fontaine: Explorers.

Identified by Bruce Nims: Lifeforce.

Identified by Bruce Nims: Starman

Identified by Bruce Nims: Predator.

Identified by Bruce Nims: Aliens/Sulaco.

Identified by Duanne; Flight of the Navigator.

Identified by Bruce Nims; Spaceballs.

Identified by Bruce Nims: Star Trek: The Next Generation/Enterprise D
Identified by Bruce Nims; Star Trek: The Next Generation

Not identified: Earthstar Voyager.

Identified by Donald G: Mystery Science Theater 3000/Original S.O.L.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Films of 1984: Gremlins

Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984) is one of my all-time favorite Christmas movies, right up there with Die Hard (1988), and Rare Exports (2010).  But Gremlins is more than just a film for the season, it is a brilliant and wickedly funny horror movie that concerns “corruption and violence beneath the surface of small-town American life,” according to William J. Palmer’s The Films of the Eighties: A Social History.

Yet perhaps Gremlins’ greatest quality involves the fact that the film's central threat -- which Harlan Ellison once termed “The Muppet Chainsaw Massacre” -- can be analyzed or viewed in so many competing ways.

On the surface, of course, the film is all about a small, Norman Rockwell American town -- Bedford Falls -- overcome by violent mischievous critters at Christmas time. One might also view the film as a story of friendship involving a young man, Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) and his unusual pet, a Mogwai called Gizmo.

But peel back the onion a little bit, and one can detect how Gremlins might be read from any number of different view-points, or according to a variety of societal critiques. What's a bit amazing is that the film stands up to scrutiny no matter which lens one chooses to apply. 

One monster -- the diminutive, green-skinned, sharp-toothed Gremlin -- stands in, essentially, for many (cultural) monsters.  

Or, as one character in the film asks of Gizmo: "how come a cute little guy like this can turn into a thousand ugly monsters?

First, for example, there’s the ethnocentric/technophobic angle, which sees WWII veteran Mr. Futterman (Dick Miller), lamenting the rise of foreign imports, and suggesting that people should only purchase and trust American-made products. 

His (protectionist?) argument is essentially that foreign goods come replete with saboteur gremlins and should thus be avoided.  The Gremlins, essentially then, are the second coming of Pearl Harbor, an attack concocted by "foreigners" to bring America to its knees.

Since the Mogwai do originate with a dealer from the Far East according to the film’s narrative, there’s a certain plausibility to Futterman's stance, one might conclude. But this particular reading grows more complicated when one considers the fact that original masters/owners/care-givers of the same Gremlins are able to control them safely, without violent incident.  Why can’t Americans accomplish the same feat?   The Old Man, Mr. Wing, suggests that we are not ready to control Gremlins/technology. That we are not wise enough.

That the Gremlins are equated with new-fangled technology is established, in large part, by Jerry Goldsmith’s masterful score, which creates a conflict or dichotomy in terms of musical choices.  Much of the film is traditionally orchestral, creating an epic, lyrical sweep.  But the actual Gremlins Theme is electronic in nature, signaling the creatures' origin as something from modernity, from technology.

Also notice that a cold metallic hue is applied or seen in many of the scenes involving Gremlin attacks.  This color equates them either with electricity (again, a technological creation), or the blue static-y glow of television (another technological toy.)  The images below reflect this palette.

Secondly, there’s the economic angle, or critique in Gremlins

In Billy Peltzer’s America, the rich are getting richer, even if it means bank foreclosures for middle class families. At the same time, yuppies (represented by Judge Reinhold) reign supreme...plotting to be millionaires by thirty and bragging about their cable TV. Meanwhile, artists and other creative personalities, like Billy, are being shoehorned into “business” jobs that make them miserable. The pursuit of money has become everything -- the gold standard -- in this version of eighties America.

Significantly, absolutely everything is a commodity in this world as it is rendered, even the Gremlins themselves. Consider the old Grandfather’s (Keye Luke) horror upon hearing Mr. Peltzer’s description of Gizmo being “sold.”  It was really a scam, not a fair transaction, wasn't it? The Grandfather had no say in it, no choice.  

Similarly, Mr. Peltzer seems to view Gizmo primarily as a commodity, noting that he bets “every kid in America would like to have one….this could be the big one.” A unique, un-classified animal --  La life form -- is no more than a get-rich quick scheme. It's something that be used to help one acquire vast amounts of wealth.

The picture-perfect Rockwellian appearance of Bedford Falls -- deliberately likened in the body of the film with the cinematic world of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) -- is thus a contrast to real life there. As Billy learns the hard way, the town is far astray from the American Dream. All the bells and whistles of the holiday season seem empty and cynical when the eighties equivalent of the Wicked Witch -- Polly Holliday’s Mrs. Deagle -- controls the bank, real estate, and the town itself.

Next up, one might consider the season portrayed in the film more closely. Gremlins might actually be considered a “gleeful trashing of everything America holds dear about Christmas,” according to author Mark Connelly in Christmas at the Movies (page 138). Specifically, the 1984 film seizes on the dark, unsettled emotions some people feel during ostensibly the most joyous time of the year.  Once more, Dante's film presents a powerful dichotomy: the appearance (of happiness) and the reality (danger and sadness).

For instance, Mrs. Deagle threatens to throw a family of renters out on the street, informing a mother (Belinda Balaski) and her children that they should wish for Santa Claus to pay the rent.  And late in the film, Kate (Phoebe Cates) shares a haunting story about a family Christmas gone horribly wrong.

All the symbols of the holiday, ultimately, prove dangerous or threatening to Americans. The Peltzer family dog is strung up or hanged in Christmas lights. A Gremlin eats Christmas cookies and is killed in the blender along with the cookie dough…which turns green. 

And a Mogwai even hides inside a Christmas tree, ready to strike an unsuspecting suburban mother. Few Christmas “symbols” survive the movie intact. We get a dead Santa stuck in a chimney, Gremlin carolers, and more holiday-themed atrocities.

When I reviewed Gremlins in my book, Horror Films of the 1980s (2007), I considered the environmental aspects or argument of the film too. The film seems to concern, generally, how something innocent, beautiful and unspoiled (in this case Gizmo) can be perverted, or destroyed by its irresponsible use. The Gremlins are harmless creatures if a certain set of rules are applied and obeyed, but if those rules are ignored, the creatures become a hazard.

Yet when I screened Gremlins for the first time with my son, Joel,  I noticed another aspect of the film I hadn’t really considered fully. 

On some level, the film seems to involve responsible parenting. 

Billy and Mr. Peltzer take stewardship of an innocent life: Gizmo. He will grow up to be happy, healthy and well-adjusted if the three Mogwai rules are obeyed. These rules are: no bright light, no water, and no feedings after midnight. 

All three rules are violated in short order, and the Peltzers soon find themselves contending not with innocent, cuddly babies, but rambunctious, mischievous creatures who crash cars, tear up the town, and make life miserable for them.

Being a father myself, it’s impossible for me not to view the film as an argument directed at irresponsible parents.  If you want to raise a kid “right” you have to establish responsible parameters (the equivalent of the film’s rules), and then stick to them. 

If you don’t do so, those babies don’t transform into green, scaly monsters, but they transform into something worse: irresponsible, defiant teenagers!  Before you know it, they are listening to loud music, drinking beer, and otherwise acting out. Your baby grows up in a terrible way because you couldn't be bothered to be consistent, or responsible. In the film, the Gremlins go on a rampage that is childishly excessive, like a teenager experiencing freedom for the first time.

Even the film’s discussion of television seems to reflect the parenting angle. Grandfather, or Mr. Wing, returns to find that his wayward child has been allowed to spend his time….watching television.  

And of course, TV is the most common babysitter in the world, right?  Essentially, Gizmo goes from being held in one box (which keeps him safe from the dangers of the world), to being captivated by another box -- the television -- that exposes him to those dangers, at least vicariously.

Gremlins is a manic, unruly film, and one of my all-time favorites The anarchic antics of the wee monsters grant the film its umbrella of unity, but also permit for a series of vignettes which shine a light (or reflect a crack’d mirror) on American life in the 1980s.  

Bruce G. Hallenbeck wrote of Gremlins in Comedy-Horror Film: A Chronological History that “there is a dark and subversive undercurrent that keeps viewers off-guard, wondering in which direction it will veer next.” (page 131)  This is a powerful observation, and helps to explain how one film can be viewed through so many different lenses

Or how one cute little guy like Gizmo can turn into a thousand ugly -- and relevant -- monsters.