Saturday, April 30, 2016

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Blackstar (1981) "Search for the Starsword" (September 12, 1981)

In “Search for the Starsword,” a volcanic eruption rocks Sagar, and monstrous Lavalocks -- fierce minions of the Overlord – emerge to steal the Star Sword, interrupting a picnic between Mara, Klone, Blackstar and the Trobbits in the process.

The Lavalocks attack the Trobbits and get the sword, but Blackstar isn’t out of the game yet.

We learn a bit more about the characters and world of Blackstar (1981) in this second episode of the series. 

For instance, John Blackstar is categorized as a “rebel who stands against the Overlord,” suggesting that the Overlord represents established authority.  The Overlord is not merely a factional leader of outcast from society (as Skeletor might be described on He-Man.) Rather, he is the Establishment; the real power on Sagar. 

Another scene also suggests this fact. We briefly see the Overlord in a room surrounded by a menagerie of creepy life-forms or aliens. These are his retainers, one might conclude, and he is holding court.

We also learn that the Overlord’s over-arching quest seems to be to unite the two pieces of the Star Sword – Power and Star.  If he does so, we must assume he would become incredibly powerful.

We see, as well, in “Search for the Star Sword” that one of Mara’s many powers involves “the power of prophecy,” to see what is bound to happen. She is very reminiscent of Ariel on Thundarr: The Bararian (1980 – 1982).

This episode also finds a lot of action for the Trobbits, and the little red-skinned, white haired denizens of the planet. It is intriguing to realize that The Smurfs (1981-1989) were introduced on Saturday morning the same year as were these little tree hobbits, but that the Smurfs took off in the pop culture.  Blue gnomes won out over red ones!

Next week: “The Lord of Time.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Flash Gordon: "Revolt of the Power Men." (December 29, 1979)

"Too long Ming has held my city and people captive," King Vultan notes solemnly in this chapter of Filmation's Flash Gordon (1979-1982) series, numbered 15.

Yes, the worm is turning, and the final battle is nearing. For the last several chapters, Flash has been gathering allies. Not just Vultan and Barin and Thun. He has also recruited leaders from Frigia, Tropica and the like.

"It is time for action," Flash agrees, noting that the rebellion needs "an edge" against Ming the Merciless, and that the edge may well be Sky City, the domain of Gordon's "feathered friend."

Flash, Barin, Thun and Vultan thus determine to re-take Sky City, unaware that Ming has dispatched his chief lieutenant, Captain Erzine, to capture Aura and Dale and to make the latter his bride.

In this section of the episode, as the women are kidnapped, there's a lovely view of the interior of Ming's dome-shaped hanger bay, and it's an impressive design (and shot), as a warship in Ming's fleet is lowered into the chamber, surrounded by docked vessels.

Meanwhile, Flash joins up with Ergon, leader of the Power Men, on Sky City. The campaign to capture the city goes badly, however, and a stray blast hits the power generator.

The city plunges out of the sky, but Ergon realizes before it is too late that the failed anti-gravity beams can be fed directly into the energy matrix, or some such thing.

In the end, Sky City belongs to the Allies. Is this the equivalent of re-taking Paris in World War II?  Perhaps.

"A good day's work," is how Flash describes the battle before determining that now the fight is between Ming and him. He heads off to Mingo City -- and is promptly captured and frozen by Ming the Merciless.

One episode to go.

Next week: “Ming’s Last Battle” (for Season One, anyway…).

Friday, April 29, 2016

Cult-TV Movie Review: Satan's School for Girls (1973)

All considerations of quality aside for the moment,  a conscientious reviewer has to give Satan's School for Girls (1973) some pretty serious plaudits over that incredible title. 

But then again, Satan's School for Girls comes to us from the great age of TV-movies; when they boasted colorful and memorable monikers such as Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973), or A Cold Night's Death (1973). 

As the title makes abundantly clear, this made-for-TV movie was also produced during the rarefied age of  1970s Devil film: the wonderful spell between Brotherhood of Satan (1971) and The Exorcist  (1973).

Specifically, this Aaron Spelling TV-movie first aired on September 19, 1973, and later earned a reputation, according to The New York Times, as one of the most "memorable" made-for TV horrors of the disco decade.  It was even re-made in the year 2000, with Shanen Doherty in the lead role.

The original Satan's School for Girls stars scream queen Pamela Franklin (And Soon the Darkness [1970], Legend of Hell House [1974]) as Elizabeth Sayers, a young woman investigating the apparent suicide of her beloved sister Martha. 

To that end, Elizabeth masquerades as a new student at Martha's former school, the exclusive and 300-year old Salem Academy for Women.

Elizabeth enrolls immediately in two classes: Behavioral Psychology with creepy Professor Delacroix (Lloyd Bochner) and an art class with hunky Dr. Clampett (Roy Thinnes). In the latter class, Clampett urges the female students to "hang loose" and remember that everything in life is both "illusion and reality." 

Elizabeth soon befriends several students, including resourceful Roberta Lockhart (Kate Jackson), popular Jody (Cheryl Ladd) and the troubled Debbie (Jamie Smith-Jackson).  Debbie, in particular, appears afraid...and has painted a creepy portrait of the dead Martha trapped in what appears to be an old cellar.

Elizabeth locates that ancient cellar in her very dorm, Standish Hall, and learns from Roberta about a creepy local legend; about eight Salem witches who were hanged in a cellar just like that

After Elizabeth discovers that Debbie has also committed suicide, she investigates the files in the office of the Headmistress.  She learns that all the students at the school have been orphaned; just as Elizabeth herself has been orphaned.  She also learns that student files on Debbie and Martha are missing...

Then, late at night, when the power goes out, Dr. Clampett evacuates the campus save for Roberta and Elizabeth.  

In the dark, quiet loneliness of the cellar, Satan soon makes his play for eight young, impressionable and father-less souls to replace the ones he lost in Salem all those years ago.

"I welcome what man rejects," he tells his would-be acolytes with open arms

And he's reserved a spot just for Elizabeth...

Now, I'm not quite old enough (but almost old enough!) to remember Satan's School for Girls from its original transmission  Rather, I first saw it sometime in the early 1980s in weekend syndication.  I probably saw it when I was eleven or twelve, and it has stayed with me ever since.

And now, after watching Satan's School for Girls again, at least I have a better understanding of why that's the case.

The movie, released on DVD by an outfit called "Cheezy Movies," looks like a relic from another lifetime. The TV-movie is simple, straight-forward and even innocent in a weird sort of way by today's standards. 

Yet some of the horror moments really do get the blood pumping.  This is a major accomplishment, because it's clear the movie was made for next to nothing.  There are no real visual or make-up effects to speak of, and almost the entire film takes place in just four of five interiors.

But Laurence Rosenthal's steroidal musical score works over-time to build shivers and anxiety, and director David Lowell Rich does an effective job keeping to the basics. Many scenes have been shot entirely at night, or in the dark, Gothic passages on the campus. Thunder roars on the soundtrack, lightning crackles, and heavy doors creak regularly.  The fear expressed here -- simply -- is of being alone at night, in the darkness, and wondering if something malevolent might be hiding in the impenetrable blackness close-by. 

Nothing more complicated than that.

Yet it's amazing how many modern horror movies forget that it is the simple things that scare us the most.  A basement in the dark.  A storm at midnight.  The intimation of the diabolical.  

The performances -- much like the narrative -- are oddly naive and almost child-like  But if you're willing to buy into the movie (and it helps if you have some nostalgia for it), Satan's School for Girls unnerves in a very efficient, very 1970s fashion.  You want to giggle and assure yourself that a cheap TV-movie effort like this couldn't possibly bother you.

But just try watching it alone in the dark.  At night.  The cheesiness sort of evaporates and you find yourself in the midst of this very sincere, very straight-forward and eminently creepy tale.  Everyone involved really committed to it (just look at that actress screaming for her life in the photographic still near the top of this post!) so what the hell is our excuse for not doing likewise, right?

And, if you dig just a little under the surface of Satan's School for Girls the movie actually features some interesting  ideas.  It's a movie about girls who don't have fathers, and who try to find a father figure in either Professor Clampett or Professor Delacroix.  Clampett urges the girls to "condemn nothing" and "embrace everything" -- the 1970s equivalent of "just do what feels good," and Delacroix treats the students like rats in a maze; hoping to awake them from their "passivity" should they ever encounter real "terror."

If you've seen the film, you know which of these guys is really the Devil in the disguise -- either the liberal artist or the paranoid psychologist -- but the push-pull between the clashing philosophies at least gives the viewer something to think about between scenes of screaming ingenues.

Satan's School for Girls is worth a curiosity viewing just for the cheeky title (as well as the bizarre opening sequence in which Martha grows terrified -- terrified I tell you! -- at the  sudden, unexplained appearance of not one, but two strange old men). 

But more than that, if you let yourself buy into the premise of this 1973 made-for-TV movie, you might just get a good schooling in old-fashioned terror.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Cult Movie Review: Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (1975)

Historically-speaking, the science fiction and fantasy cinema has battled high camp -- a form of art notable because of its exaggerated or over-the-top attributes -- for over five decades. 

That long battle is definitively lost in Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (1975), a tongue-in-cheek film adaptation of the pulp magazine hero (or superhero) created by Henry W. Ralston and story editor John L. Nanovi (with additional material from Lester Dent)  in the 1930s.   

The seventies movie from producer George Pal (1908 – 1980) and director Michael Anderson brazenly makes a mockery of the titular hero’s world, his missions, and even his patriotic belief system.  That the film is poorly paced, and looks more like a TV pilot rather than a full-fledged motion picture only adds to a laundry list of problems.

First some background on high camp: when camp is discussed as a mode of expression, what is really being debated is a sense of authorial or creative distance.  When a film is overtly campy, the author or authors (since film is a collaborative art form…) have made the deliberate decision to stand back and observe the property being adapted from a dramatic and in fact, critical distance.  They find the subject matter humorous, or worthy of ribbing, and have adapted by that belief as a guiding principle. 

Notably not all creative “standing back” need result in a campy or tongue-in-cheek approach, and instead can help a film function admirably as pastiche or homage.  In movies like Star Wars (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and even Scream (1996), there is a sense of knowing humor at work, but a campy tone is not the result.

In short, then, the camp approach represents sort of the furthest artistic distance a creator can imagine him or herself from his or her material.  Worse, that great distance often seems to emerge from a place of genuine contempt; from a sense that the adapter is better than or superior to the material being adapted…and thus boasts the right/responsibility to mock said property. 

Although Dino De Laurentiis’s King Kong (1976) and Flash Gordon (1980) are often offered up on a platter as Exhibits A and B for “campy” style big-budget science fiction or fantasy films, those examples don’t actually fit the bill very well. 

Rather, close viewing suggests that Kong and Flash boast self-reflexive qualities and a sense of humor, but nonetheless boast a sense of closeness to the material at hand.  In both films, in other words, the viewer gets close enough to feel invested in the characters and their stories, despite the interjection of humor, self-reflexive commentary or rampant post-modernism.  When King Kong is gunned down by helicopters…the audience mourns.  And when Flash’s theme song by Queen kicks in and he takes the fight to Ming the Merciless, we feel roused to cheer at his victory.  We may laugh at jokes in the films, but we aren’t so far – distance-wise - that we can’t invest in the action

However, a true “camp” film negates such sense of meaning or identification, and instead portrays a world that is good only for a laugh, no matter the production values, no matter the efforts of the actors, director, or other talents. 

Doc Savage: Man of Bronze is such a campy film, one that, post-Watergate, adopts a contemptuous approach to anyone in authority, and, in facts, makes heroism itself seem ridiculous and unbelievable.  There are ample reasons for this approach, at this time in American history, but those reasons don’t mean that the approach is right for the Doc Savage character.   After all, who can honestly invest in a hero who is so perfect, so square, so beautiful that the twinkle in his eye is literal…added as a special effect?

Although many critics also mistakenly term Superman: The Movie (1978) campy that film revolutionized superhero filmmaking because it took the hero’s world, his powers, and his relationships seriously.  Certainly, there was goofy humor in the last third of the film, but that humor was never permitted to undercut the dignity of Superman, or minimize the threats that he faced, or to mock his heroic journey. 

Again, Doc Savage represents the precise opposite approach.  The film plays exceedingly like a two-hour put-down of superhero tropes and ideas, and wants its audience only to laugh at a character that actually proved highly influential in the World War II Era.  The result is a film that might well be termed a disaster.

"Let us be considerate of our country, our fellow citizens and our associates in everything we say and do..."

International hero Doc Savage (Ron Ely) and his team of The Fabulous Five return to New York City only to face a deadly assassination attempt upon receiving the news of the death of Savage’s father. 

After dispatching the assassin, Savage decides to fly to Hidalgo to investigate his father’s death.  He and his Fabulous Five are soon involved in a race with the nefarious Captain Seas (Paul Wexler) to take possession of a secret South American valley, one where gold literally bubbles-up out of the ground…

"Have No Fear: Doc Savage is Here!" 

With a little knowledge of history, one can certainly understand why Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze was created in full campy mode.

In 1975, the United States was reeling from the Watergate Scandal, the resignation of President Nixon, the Energy Crisis, and the ignominious end of American involvement in Vietnam.  The Establishment had rather egregiously failed the country, one might argue, and so superheroes – scions of authority, essentially – were not to be taken seriously.  You can see this quality of culture play out in the press’s treatment of President Gerald Ford.  An accomplished athlete who carried his University of Michigan football team to national titles in 1932 and 1933, Ford was transformed, almost overnight, into a clumsy buffoon by the pop culture. It was easier to parse Ford by his pratfalls than by his prowess.

High camp had also begun to creep into the popular James Bond series as Roger Moore assumed the 007 role from Sean Connery, in efforts like Live and Let Die (1972) and The Man with the Golden Gun (1974).  And on television, the most popular superhero program, TV’s Batman (1966  - 1968) had also operated in a campy mode

But, what films like Doc Savage fail to do, rather egregiously, is take a beloved character on his or her own terms, and present his hero to an audience by those terms.   Instead of taking the effort to showcase and describe why Doc Savage’s world exists as it does in the pulps, the film wants only to showcase a world that easily mocked.  The message that is transmitted, and which, generously, might be interpreted as unintentional is simply: this whole superhero world is silly, and if you like it, there’s something silly about you too.

In some sense, Doc Savage is a reminder of how good the British Pellucidar/Caprona movies of Kevin Connor are.  Their special effects may be poor by today’s standard, but the movies take themselves and their world seriously.  You can see that everyone involved is generally working to thrill the audience, not to prove to the audience how silly the movie’s concepts are.

Alas, camp worms its way into virtually every aspect of Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze.  An early scene depicts Savage pulling an assassin’s bullet out of a hole in his apartment wall, and knowing instantly the caliber and the make of the weapon from which it was fired.  In other words, he is so perfect (a scholar, philosopher, inventor, and surgeon…) that his skill looks effortless…and therefore funny. 

Yet the pulp origins of the character make plain the fact that Doc Savage achieved his knowledge through hard work, and rigorous training.  When you only see the end result in the movie, his intelligence and know-how is mocked and made a punch-line.  The movie-makers didn’t need to do it this way.  Savage could have undertaken an investigation, but it’s funnier just to make him all-knowing, to exaggerate his admirable qualities as a character.

Another example of how camp undercuts and mocks the heroes of the film occurs later in the action.  Doc and his team of merry men (The Fabulous Five) are invited aboard the antagonist’s yacht for a dinner party. While the bad guy, Captain Seas, and his henchmen drink alcohol, Savage and his men drink only…milk.  Again, this touch is so ludicrous when made manifest on screen that it only succeeds in stating, again, the essential “silliness” of the Doc Savage mythos.  Worse, Batman had done this joke, and better, in its 1966 premiere.  So the milk joke isn’t even original.

Perhaps the campies aspect of the film involves the atrocious soundtrack.  The movie is scored to the work of John Phillip Sousa (1854 – 1932), the “American March King.”  Rightly or wrongly, Sousa’s marches have become synonymous with Americana, Fourth of July parades and firework displays, with the very archetype of patriotism itself. To score Savage’s silly adventures to this kind of stereotypical “American” march is to say, essentially, that one is mocking that value.

I have nothing against mocking patriotism, if that’s your game.  I can’t pass judgment on that or you.  For me as a film critic, the question comes back to, again, the sense of distance created by the adapters, and whether that distance serves the interest of the character being adapted.  In the case of Doc Savage, I would say that it rather definitively does not serve the character.   The choice of soundtrack music essentially turns all action scenes -- no matter how brilliantly vetted in terms of stunts and visuals -- into nothing more than grotesque, unfunny parody.

Why do I feel that the character Savage is not well-served by this approach?  Consider that all five of Savage’s “merry men” are important, philosophically not in terms of raw strength or athleticism, or even super powers. 

Indeed, one is a legal genius, one is a chemist, one is a globe-hopping engineer, one is an archaeologist and one is an electrical wizard.  Throw in Savage -- both a man of action and also a surgeon, for example – and consider the group’s original context: post-World War I. 

These men survived the first technological war in human history, but a war – like all war – spawned by irrationality and passion.  Their quality or importance as characters arises from the fact they are a modern, rational group of adventures, dependent on science, the law, medicine, and other intellectual ideas…not emotions or super abilities.   In 1975, the world certainly could have used such an example; the idea that being a superhero meant rationality and intelligence.  But the movie completely fails to deliver on the original meaning of the characters it depicts.  Instead, Doc Savage makes a mockery of these avatars of reason, and fails to note why, as a team, they represent something, anything of importance.

Some of the camp touches in Doc Savage are also downright baffling, rather than funny. One villain sleeps in what appears to be a giant cradle, and is rocked to sleep.  The movie never establishes a reason  -- even a camp one -- for this preference.

Although it is great to see Pamela Hensley -- Buck Rogers’ Princess Ardala -- in the film, I can think of almost no reason for anyone to re-visit Doc Savage.  Who, precisely is this film made for?  Fans of the pulps would be horrified at the tone of the material, and those who didn’t know the character before the film certainly would not come away from the film liking him.

In 1984, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai successfully captured what was funny about characters like Doc, while at the same time functioning as an earnest adventure.  Indeed, though I often complain about all the doom and gloom superhero movies of today, and what a boring drag they are, they are, as I have often written, a valid response to the era of Camp.

What is needed for the genre now, I think, is some kind of judicious middle ground.  The humorless, joyless, mechanical, special-effects laden superhero movies of today are a drag on the soul (and the patience), and yet I am so glad to be rid of the mocking humiliation of high camp. 

At either extreme -- camp or angst -- the superhero film formula proves almost immediately tiring and unworkable, it often seems. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Pop Art: Grizzly Adams TV Guide Edition

Halloween Costume of the Week: Grizzly Adams (Collegeville)

Action Figures of the Week: Grizzly Adams (Mattel; 1978)

Space Stars Intro (1981; Hanna Barbera)

GAF Viewmaster: Grizzly Adams

Board Game of the Week: Grizzly Adams

Lunch Box of the Week: Grizzly Adams

Theme Song of the Week: Grizzly Adams (1977)

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Squire of Gothos" (January 12, 1967)

Stardate 2124.5

While the Enterprise traverses a void or “star desert” en route to the colony on Beta 6, it unexpectedly encounters a rogue planet; one incapable of supporting human life for any significant duration. 

Then, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Mr. Sulu (George Takei) are abducted from the bridge by an unseen force.

A landing party to the planet led by Lt. De Salle (Michael Barrier) discovers that Kirk and Sulu are now on display in the home of the retired General Trelane (William Campbell), a flamboyant man who seems obsessed with Earth cultures of the late 1700s and early 1800s.

Released from stasis, Kirk demands that his men be set free at once, but Trelane refuses. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) manages to beam the crew up anyway, but Trelane again uses seemingly-miraculous powers to return his “guests” to his home on the planet.

Kirk theorizes that Trelane’s powers are aided by advanced technology, and destroys a mirror that houses his power device.  This action earns Kirk Trelane’s wrath, and the strange alien condemns Kirk to death by hanging…

...Fortunately, Trelane's parents intervene, and make the naughty boy come home for the night.

Remarkably, “The Squire of Gothos” is yet another classic episode of Star Trek; one that is so commonly-known (and oft-imitated) that it seems to have permanently entered the pop culture firmament.  

For example, Futurama paid homage to “The Squire of Gothos” in one episode ("Where No Fan Has Gone Before,") and the 1970s Filmation live-action series Space Academy (1977) featured a similar story of misbehaving alien youths in the narrative called “Space Hookey.”

Basically, in “The Squire of Gothos,” the Enterprise crew is menaced by a dynamic, selfish individual who proves, in the final act, to be nothing more than a spoiled-rotten alien child. This story resolution is another way for Star Trek to explore its oft-held viewpoint that what appears evil at first blush is often quite understandable, once all the facts are actually known. 

Harking back to "The Corbomite Maneuver," what is fearsome or terrifying is only to be considered such until more information is gathered.

Trelane, believed to be a grave threat, is actually just an indulged alien kid.

By the same token, “The Squire of Gothos” -- much like Paul Schneider’s other first season episode, “Balance of Terror” -- is strongly anti-war in both conception and execution. 

The character of Trelane, for example, is a child who pretends to be a great soldier (and great general), and who plays dress-up too. 

Trelane has plainly never experienced war personally, since he views it as some glorious, positive experience. He doesn’t understand the the costs of war. For him, war is colorful banners, braggadocio, and dreams of conquest.  

When Kirk shows him that he could get hurt, or that his toys (like his sword) might get broken in real combat, Trelane pouts and complains.

Trelane could have been fond of great political leaders, scientists, or artists, but the fact that he worships soldiers proves the anti-war bent of the program's writers. Too many sons and brothers, no doubt, grow up playing dress-up and pretending to shoot guns, or swing swords. 

Yet by the same token, one might conclude that Trelane is indeed a perfect stand-in for some notable politicians in our own culture who never served in any war and yet like to talk tough, or even don flight suits so as to appear like they are victorious heroes. 

I tend to “object” to such politicians, and view them as mere boys with toys.  And I love how this episode of Star Trek allows Spock to object to Trelane in such a cutting way..

Spock states: “I object to you. I object to intellect without discipline. I object to power without constructive purpose.” 

This is a great description of Trelane, and a great put-down to those who see war only as an opportunity for personal glory or power, and not as a thing to be avoided because it is ugly and destructive.

“The Squire of Gothos” works so effectively not merely because of the brilliant writing and anti-war stance, but because William Campbell is so utterly dynamic -- and unforgettable -- in the role of Trelane. 

He makes Trelane a preening child indeed, one who is all “Id.” Although one might conclude that he is charming, Trelane is also one of the most dangerous foes Kirk has ever encountered because he boasts so much power, and so little constructive purpose. 

He’s a spoiled brat who thinks it is okay to torture his pets, essentially.  He never stops, even for a second, to conclude that his pets might resent being hurt. Or that his pets have feelings in the first place.

Many fans of Star Trek see Trelane as the antecedent to The Next Generation’s Q, yet there is an important difference. 

As obnoxious and dangerous as Q (John De Lancie) is, he generally boasts some (hidden) reason for interfering in the affairs of man. He sounds the warning bell to the Federation about the Borg, for instance, in “Q-Who.”  At least in this appearance, Trelane possesses no such overriding purpose. He is selfish and capricious instead.

It's all about him, and his fun.

So just imagine the most irresponsible and emotionally-immature bully in the world with the power of life and death over millions.  Now imagine he's holding you captive.

That’s what Trelane represents in “The Squire of Gothos,” but it’s more than that too.  

All of his musings are martial in nature. For him, life and death, war and peace, are but games that he can control. He’s an alien child, but on human terms he’s just another sociopath.

“The Squire of Gothos” is a nearly perfect episode of Star Trek, but it does have one memorable flaw. A key aspect of the episode is Trelane’s fallible nature.  

Although extremely powerful, he makes mistakes. One such mistake is that Trelane has been gazing back on Earth from 900 light years distance. 

According to the episode, he is looking at Earth, then, some nine hundred years ago. What does he see? The age of Napoleon and Alexander Hamilton.  

These historical allusions would put the Earth time at roughly 1800 AD.  But if that is 900 years ago, Star Trek time, then Kirk’s adventures are occurring in approximately the year 2700 AD!  

At this late date in the series -- roughly seventeen to nineteen episodes in -- it is shocking that Star Trek has still not settled on a firm chronology or continuity for its “future” world. Similarly, terminology (Space Command vs. Starfleet Command) is still in flux in this episode. 

Today, we know of course that Kirk’s adventures occur in the 23rd century, and that date is widely accepted.  

What’s not widely remembered is that it took Star Trek more than half of its inaugural season to start building a concrete line of historical continuity.

Besides that nit-pick, "The Squire of Gothos" is a brilliant and extremely entertaining addition to the Trek canon.

Next week: “Arena.”

Movie Trailer: The Forest (2016)

Monday, April 25, 2016

Ask JKM a Question: Did Marvel Spearhead The Cinematic Shared Universe?

A reader named Jake writes:

“I read the negative commentary on your blog about the MCU movies.

I understand why you (wrongly) feel that these movies aren’t of very high quality in terms of cinema. I won’t try to change your mind.

But won’t you at least give those movies the benefit of the doubt and really acknowledge them for innovating the brand new and complex concept of a shared cinematic universe?”

Jake, thank you for asking that question. You may not like my answer.

In terms of film history, it would be inaccurate for me credit the MCU with spearheading or innovating the idea of a shared cinematic universe.

Therefore I can’t give those films the acknowledgment or credit on the terms you desire.

I can note that the Marvel films have updated the shared universe concept, and would give them credit for that accomplishment, if that would satisfy you.

First, what is a shared universe?

In terms of movies, it’s a universe in which settings and characters re-appear entry to entry with a degree of consistency.

So a character can appear as a star in his or her own movie, but then recur as a supporting character in a different movie, with a different lead.

The underlying idea is that the universe offers an umbrella of consistency, and that various characters can operate underneath it in a multitude of stories with either weak or strong linkages.  Captain America can star in his movies, but also be a team member in The Avengers, for example.

Did Marvel spearhead this concept?

No. Not at all. It’s existed for between 50 to 60 years, actually.

Going back to the mid-1950s, one can find a shared cinematic universe operating under the auspices of Toho.

The Showa Era of Toho’s kaiju films, actually, is a perfect example of a shared cinematic universe that was executed in the 20th century. 

Here, characters get their own starring roles or star turns, such as in Godzilla (1954), Rodan (1956) and Mothra (1961), but then the same characters offer support in team movies such as Invasion of Astro Monster (1965) and Destroy All Monsters (1969)

Sometimes, less significant characters (a B team, as it were) are also featured in their own shared universe Toho films.  

Ebirah: Horror of the Deep (1961), for instance, is named for a kaiju lobster, but Godzilla and Mothra appear in the third act to maintain the integrity of the “shared” universe concept. 

Similarly, Anguirus shows up to help Godzilla in Godzilla vs. Gigan (1972), but as a sidekick. New (but beloved…) characters are brought into the fold too, just as Marvel brings in characters from other comic series.  Remember King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) and King Kong Escapes (1967).

The settings are generally the same: Japan, Infant Island, and Monster Island/Monsterland, for example.

The shared universe created by Toho is, similarly, elastic enough to incorporate message movies (Godzilla vs. Hedorah [1972]) and more overt kiddie fare, even, such as Godzilla’s Revenge (1968).  By comparison think about the tone differences between, say, Guardians of the Galaxy (2015), and Thor: The Dark World (2013).

Going back even further, one could look at the Universal Monster Movies of the 1930s and 1940s, and similarly make a case for a shared cinematic universe in that example.  Think again of the tone differences – Abbott and Costello got into the act! – and the monster mash-up or versus movies.

So basically, the MCU idea of a shared universe has been done before, only with giant monsters and classic monsters, instead of with superheroes.

I understand that I aggravate fans of the MCU when I note that these movies are generally too expensive and bloated, and too broadly plotted, with minimal distinction between entries. 

But that doesn’t mean that the shared cinematic universe concept itself is the basis on which to praise the films, at least if we are discussing who explored the idea first.

A debate could be had, for certain, about whether Toho, Universal, or Marvel films have handled the idea in a superior fashion, of course.

Thank you for your question, and don’t forget to ask me more at

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Force fields

A force field is a (fictional) invisible shield composed of energy, often used for purposes of security and protection. 

Force fields have been a key element of science fiction television going back fifty years and more.

One of the most famous tales involving a force field comes from The Outer Limits (1963-1964). A first season tale, "The Bellero Shield" stars Martin Landau as Richard Bellero and Sally Kellerman as Judith, his power-hungry wife.  

The story is quasi-MacBeth-like in tenor, as Lady Bellero attempts to acquire an impenetrable force field device from an alien who has stopped by Earth on her husband's latest invention, a kind of laser bridge. She kills the alien and takes the force field, only to find herself trapped inside it, unable to escape...

On Star Trek (1966-1969), force fields have also been an available technology to Starfleet from the very beginning.  Early episodes such as "Where No Man Has Gone Before" and "Charlie X" find Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and his stalwart crew trapping villains (such as Gary Mitchell or Charles Evans) behind force fields, usually to no good effect.

Later Star Trek series, including The Next Generation (1987-1994), Deep Space Nine (1993-1999) and Voyager (1995 - 2001) have all featured brig-like containment areas protected by force fields. Klingons escaped from behind them in "Heart of Glory," and Tosk escaped from Odo's prison cells, and force field, in DS9's "Captive Pursuit," to name just two examples.

In the Saturday morning, post-apocalyptic Filmation series,  Ark II (1976), the titular vehicle is equipped with no offensive weaponry, only force fields that can be modulated to defend or repel.

On Space: 1999 (1975-1977) the clever metamorph, Maya (Catherine Schell) found a way to penetrate a force field in the episode "One Moment of Humanity." She merely transformed into an insect, and crawled under the force field threshold.

A recent Doctor Who (2005 - ), "Asylum of the Daleks" featured a planet -- housing a dalek sanitarium -- completely shrouded by a force field.

The Cult-TV Faces of: Force Fields

Identified by SGB: The Outer Limits: "The Bellero Shield."

Identified by Hugh: Lost in Space.
Identified by Hugh: Star Trek: "Charlie X."

Identified by Hugh: Star Trek: The Animated Series.

Identified by Hugh: Ark II.

Identified by Hugh:Space Academy.

Identified by Hugh: The Fantastic Journey.

Identified by Hugh: Jason of Star Command.

Identified by SGB: Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Identified by Hugh: Star Trek DS9.

Identified by Hugh: The X-Files.

Identified by Hugh: Doctor Who: "Asylum of the Daleks."

Identified by SGB: Lab Rats.

The Road Warrior (1982)

I first viewed  The Road Warrior  on a double bill with  Superman III  at the Castle Theater in Irvington, New Jersey. I was thirteen or fou...