Saturday, January 09, 2016

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Jason of Star Command (1978): "The Trojan Horse" (December 16, 1978)

In “The Trojan Horse,” Dragos (Sid Haig) believes that his plot to destroy Space Academy in a galactic typhoon has succeeded.

While Dr. Parsafoot (Charlie Dell) repairs Peepo, Jason (Craig Littler) decides it is time to take on Dragos aboard his dragon ship.

His plan is to steal Dragos’ medallion and destroy it, an act which will free all of his enslaved minions.

But first, he and Nicole (Susan O’Hanlon) and Jason must get aboard the Dragon ship and make their move.  

Jason remembers the story of the Trojan Horse, and finds a piece of debris from the typhoon that can support life.  He knows Dragos, believing it to be debris from the academy, will not be able to resist bringing it aboard. He and Nicole hide aboard it.

The plan appears to succeed, with Jason even going so far as to signal Space Academy regarding his success and making plans for a rendezvous.

But Dragos has one last trick up his sleeve!

We’re almost to the end of Jason of Star Command’s (1978-1980) serial-like first season, and frankly it’s about time.

The overall story has been so stretched out, by this point, that it no longer has much in terms of momentum or pace.  Overall, the season has been a series of captures, rescues and escapes. And through it all, Sid Haig (as Dragos) cackles maniacally.

That about sums it up.

In this story, “The Trojan Horse,” Dragos hatches his final strategy (this season, anyway…) and tricks Jason into leading his friends into a deadly ambush.

Jason, of course, falls for it, and all looks lost.

Next week, the season reaches its denouement with “The Victory of Star Command.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Space Academy: "Johnny Sunseed" (December 17, 1977)

This week, on Space Academy, (in an episode directed by Ezra Stone and written by Don Heckman), a representative from the Federation is en route to investigate the Academy, a facility whose expenses are running high.

The representative, however, is a weird guy named Johnny Sunseed who wishes to free mankind from the technical domination of machines. He also happens to be Gampu's (Jonathan Harris) brother.

At the same time, a strange sickness is affected many of the students at the Academy. Cadets, (including Adrian) suffer from a "systemic imbalance" that causes "silliness...detachment" and "an inability to do your job correctly."

As the Academy nears the space farm (which has been providing food to the Academy commissary...), Paul also goes bonkers while piloting a Seeker. He strafes the Academy in the ship, buzzing between the towers of the Facility in some very nicely orchestrated miniature effects work.

Sunseed checks out the space farm with Peepo (whom he consistently calls Peppo) and proceeds to damage the computer-run gardening system, "overloading" power systems not just at the farm, but on the distant Academy planetoid!

As a result, the Academy drifts on a collision course towards the space farm, but Gampu dispatches Chris (Ric Carrott), Tee-Gar (Brian Tochi) and Adrian (Maggie Cooper) in Seekers 1, 4 and 5, which are equipped with "presser beams." 

The seekers keep the Academy from smashing into the space farm, while Gampu attempts a psychic link with his faraway brother. It works, and the space farm gets repaired.

Sunseed decides that nature and technology can exist hand-in-hand, and all's well that ends well, to quote a famous writer.

I enjoy watching this live-action Filmation show from the 1970s so much, even today, though sometimes have to laugh at the weird stories. For instance, it's a fairly lousy system that a computer on a planet far away could affect the Space Academy's propulsion and power systems. I mean, there's a ready-made sabotage plan, right there! If you can't attack the heavily armed/defended Academy, find the weak link on the space farm and incapacitate it from there. This reminds me of Return of the Jedi and the fact that the under-construction Death Star couldn't generate its own force field.

Also, it doesn't really seem plausible to me that Johnny Sunseed could be a high-ranking official in the Federation since he despises technology. He's more like a cranky environmental activist than a government official. And why does Johnny Sunseed boast a different name from Isaac Gampu if they are biological brothers? Did Sunseed just adopt his flamboyant-sounding name in adulthood, given his proclivities towards nature? That could have been explained better.

I hate to finish this review, because this is the final episode of Space Academy, a series that I really love, and despite flaws, among the best live-action Saturday morning series ever (behind only Land of the Lost.) I wish I had 16 more episodes to review.

I guess I’ll just have to revisit it in another ten years or so…

Friday, January 08, 2016

Found Footage Friday: Paranormal Activity: Ghost Dimension (2015)

The Paranormal Activity franchise goes out with a whimper in Ghost Dimension (2015). It’s a film that strongly competes with Paranormal Activity 4 (2012) for the title of “worst of the bunch.”

As readers of this blog are aware, I’m a big fan of found footage movies, so obviously this result is a disappointment. I wanted nothing so much here as to see the franchise come back from the dead.

Admittedly, Ghost Dimension features a great conceit -- a customized camera that can “see” the supernatural -- but the gimmick has the unintended effect of draining all suspense from the film

Allow me to explain. In previous franchise entries, viewers would nervously pore over every inch of the camera frame for signs of invisible demons. The films featured long stretches of silence, as evidence of activity was sought. Viewer focus was galvanized, and intense. 

Here, by contrast there’s no need to pay such close attention, or any attention, really. The camera obligingly shows you the evil “Toby” front and center on numerous occasions.  He's a special effects powerhouse, a kind of dripping black ooze in the rough shape of a biped. But because we see him regularly, he's not frightening.

The franchise’s very reason to exist -- to capture strange, inexplicable footage of something not quite right or normal -- has been compromised in service of this new idea. Horror has moved from the periphery of our senses and vision to a placement much less subtle and intriguing.

And yet I can live with this flaw in the film, at least to a certain extent. 

The conceit of a supernatural camera is, at least, original and fresh. And after five movies, perhaps it was time to try something new and different. I credit the filmmakers for attempting something inventive. They had ambitions and the desire to attempt something unique. That they failed is not as important, perhaps, as the attempt to chart new territory.

But where Paranormal Activity: Ghost Dimension (2015) really goes south is in the concrete details of the narrative and the characters.  

Nobody in the movie behaves in anything approximating a reasonable fashion, especially given that the camera has recorded monstrous entities from a nether realm. So the movie’s real and terminal flaw is that it strains plausibility well past the breaking point.

I predict the series, having apparently finished off its (ultimately lame) story arc here, will be back at some point, however.  

Likely with a re-boot, because there’s just nowhere else to go in the original continuity. At least nowhere worthwhile.

“There are particles of dip shit in your aura.”

The Fleege family has moved into a home on the property where little girls Katie and Kristi once lived.  

When Ryan’s (Chris J. Murray) brother, Mike (Dan Gill) shows up to spend the holidays with the family, they discover a customized camera in a box of old decorations. The camera can apparently see supernatural entities. Ryan becomes obsessed with the device.

The camera's unique capability to see into the spirit world comes in handy when Ryan’s daughter, Leila (Ivy George) develops a disturbing rapport with an imaginary friend named Toby, really a demon looking to become corporeal and able to travel between dimensions and across various time periods.

Ryan and Mike also discover video tapes from the 1980s; ones revealing Katie and Kristi in the care of a witch’s coven or cult.  The two young girls apparently have the ability to see into the future, and into Ryan’s house.  They apparently need the blood of an innocent -- Leila -- to complete the ritual that will make Toby fully human.

Ryan and his wife, Emily (Brit Shaw) attempt to exorcise (or exterminate) the demon in their midst, but are unsuccessful.  

When Leila disappears through a rift over her bed, Emily must follow her daughter through…

“Your daughter may be being stalked by a demonic being.”

The biggest and most insurmountable problem with Paranormal Activity: Ghost Dimension is that none of the characters behave in any way that approximates sanity, or the behavior of real people.

For example, Ryan records on camera the presence of a huge, monstrous demon lingering in his young daughter’s bed room. 

The daughter is allowed to sleep in that very bedroom, the next night.  No sane parent would permit this. The child would be sleeping with her parents, in their bed. Probably until she was eighteen.

Worse, the girl -- who can also see the demon -- has no fear of it. This plot development plays as believable in some films when the demon is invisible. We can imagine it takes the form of a child, for instance, to trick its young prey. But there is no seven year old kid in the universe who would feel comfortable befriending this particular denizen of Hell.

Similarly, a series of witch’s runes are found surrounding the bed and wall nearby it, in Leila’s room, and the parents' research proves such runes are used for opening portals in time and space. 

So what do Mom and Dad do? The parents leave the runes up, of course! They don’t cover them up with paint, or scribble them out. And still the girl -- sleeping under a portal to hell, apparently -- is allowed to sleep in her bedroom.

Also, when the daughter is alone, with just the camera, a ghost hand reaches out towards her from a mirror in the bathroom, and cracks the glass.  

The parents never notice this, or comment, even, on the broken mirror. Again, it seems like an important clue that the paranormal activity is real, one that could be used as evidence of the supernatural.

Then there’s the appearance of a demonic being dressed like Santa Claus, and who is never explained.  What's that all about?

And then, next, there's the off-screen visit to the police, with tapes in hand, but no follow-up report.  

Did the police believe the parents? Not believe them? How did the police dismiss the footage? Why did they not even send an officer to the house to check on the story? 

Or a social services employee to remove Leila from her psycho parents' care?

And then finally, there's the climactic scene (lensed in night vision) in which one character spontaneously spits up some sort of acidic substance, and melts the face of another main character. This development comes out of left field.

Over and over, Paranormal Activity: Ghost Dimensions makes these huge jumps from plot point to plot point with no mind or attention to how the previous plot point might reasonably impact the characters. 

Again and again, the characters behave recklessly, even stupidly, especially considering that a child is involved.

In short, the movie is a disaster in terms of the reality it attempts to forge. The characters' implausible behavior recurs so often that every four or five minutes, the audience is reminded of it, and jarred out of the narrative.

Even the conclusion, which explains all “the activity” of the previous films is a huge bust. 

Leila and her Mom travel through time to 1992 and there are involved in the ritual to manifest Toby as a human being.  Forget for a moment that we never see Toby in the film's finale as anything other than two legs and feet, this conclusion raises a more important question.  

If Toby was raised in 1992 to bring about Hell on Earth, what’s taking him so long to make it happen?  He would have been walking around as a human for 21 years by the time the Fleege family is involved.  What's he waiting for? 

Certainly, I appreciate the attempts to bring together the plot-lines and elements of all previous Paranormal Activity films, but I don’t believe the final results pay off very well.  

Lastly, this is the first film in the franchise proper not to feature an appearance from Katie Featherston. Thus far, she has been (the appealing) glue that holds everything together. It doesn’t seem right to cap the whole thing off without explaining, precisely, where she is now, and what she is doing.  I'd like to know more about how she fits in.

Paranormal Activity: Ghost Dimension features the same flaw as many earlier entries in the series, namely that nobody seems to be reviewing the tapes in a timely fashion.  If they did so, they’d be scared as hell and get out of the house. But worse than that, this sequel invents new flaws.

Its aura -- to put it politely -- is dip shit. 

And again, this thought comes from a huge admirer of found footage films.

Movie Trailer: Paranormal Activity Ghost Dimension (2015)

Thursday, January 07, 2016

50th Anniversary Star Trek Blogging: Star Trek and Identity

Ask any group of Trekkers about the enduring appeal and popularity of Star Trek and you're likely to get a dozen different answers. 

The series is relentlessly optimistic about the future; or the series is a futuristic version of those Hornblower sea-faring novels, and thus the height of swashbuckling adventure. 

Or the series is about brotherhood and diversity.

Or Star Trek brings up feelings of nostalgia for "Camelot," President Kennedy, the space program, and the 1960s.

In terms of drama, of course, one could point to the fact that the original series is especially well-written and uniformly performed with charm (and even a degree of kinkiness). 

On a basic level, Star Trek is also a science fiction adventure featuring cool spaceships and monsters...a reason that kids have loved it for for several generations. When you are ten years old, nothing beats Captain Kirk battling a Gorn at Vasquez Rocks.

However, there is also a philosophical umbrella of unity coursing throughout Star Trek's DNA (and also its later incarnations) that bears mention. 

In virtually all the franchise's myriad forms, Star Trek explicitly concerns the psychology of man, and in particular, how the rigors of alien contact and space travel illuminate and bring to the surface all aspects of that psychology. 

Literally almost every episode of Star Trek deals with the idea and meaning of one aspect of human psychology: identity

For our purposes today, we might define identity as "the condition of being oneself and not someone else" or a "a sense of self that provides sameness and continuity in personality over time."

As much as the remade Battlestar Galactica concerns American "War on Terror" politics and divisions in space, or Space: 1999 is about the technological downfall of 20th century man, a millennial imagining, I believe that Star Trek is quite explicitly -- and quite powerfully -- a contemplation of all aspects of the human identity. 

David Gerrold famously wrote that the final frontier is not outer space; but rather the human soul, and I agree with that sentiment; only narrowed down a bit.  The final frontier is but a mirror for mankind; a reflection, a challenge to and for his very identity. 

For it is "identity," -- the very measure of a man (or woman; or Vulcan for that matter) -- that is the concept is at the heart of every great Star Trek hour. 

What does it mean to be a human in the 23rd century? 

We get many answers in the series, and learn not merely about character identity, but species identity too. 

I believe this idea came about because Gene Roddenberry was a brilliant and insightful thinker but also because the 1960s was the era in our history in which psychoanalysis and therapy came out of the closet, so-to-speak, into mainstream American television and film. 

What Gene Roddenberry's series stated, essentially, is that to conquer the stars (the exterior world), you must first conquer your own interior world; the world of human psychology; the mysteries and foibles of your individual and racial identity.

This point is illustrated in the first pilot, "The Cage." 

There, Captain Christopher Pike (Jeffrey) must see through the illusions of an alien race called the Talosians to determine the identity of Vina (Susan Oliver). More than that, by facing a world of illusions taken from images in his own mind, Pike must determine what kind of man he is: A warrior (fighting Kalars on Rigel), a family man attending a picnic with his wife, or an amoral dealer in Orion Slave Women? 

Pike's fantasies  force him to question the sort of man he is, but ultimately he arrives at an interesting conclusion: morally he cannot remain on Talos IV (even in a world of fantasy) because the Talosians would use him to breed a race of slaves. That result is immoral to Pike, and his identity as a moral human precludes the acceptance of slavery. Again, individual and "group" (human) identity are core issues here.

The second pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before" is a more action-packed musing on the same subject. Here, an Enterprise crewman, Gary Mitchell (Gary Lockwood) is adversely affected when the Enterprise passes through a barrier at the edge of the galaxy. He begins to develop psionic powers that render him -- essentially -- a God. So, the question of the episode becomes: when man exceeds his built-in limitations, like mortality and morality, what does he become? 

"Absolute power corrupts absolutely" is the stated theme of the episode, but "Where No Man Has Gone Before" asks the viewer to accept that man's identity is tied inexorably with the things in life that are difficult to accept. We age, we die, we have to get up and push the warp speed buttons ourselves, or get our own cups of water in sick bay. Gary Mitchell, buoyed by telekinesis,  can do whatever he wants without lifting a finger or performing any other "physical labor." His new identity is thus distinctly inhuman.

"The Man Trap" aired on September 8, 1966, and it is the story of an alien shape-shifter, a salt vampire, the "last of its kind." 

Dr McCoy, Captain Kirk, Crewman Green, Yeoman Rand, and Lt. Uhura each experience the shape-shifter in a different form and in a different way. Physical appearance -- an outward symbol of identity -- dictates how people are treated, this story reveals.  Uhura finds herself attracted to the alien when it turns into a tall, attractive African man who speaks Swahili (her language; a common point). This is all a ruse to kill her and extract the salt from her body, but how the creature understands identity is critically important. In particular, the salt vampire likes how McCoy views it: the affectionate, unconditional love of an old boyfriend, "Plum." It senses this is how it will be protected, by manipulating the good doctor's feelings of romantic attraction for an old flame.

"Charlie X," the story of a boy who has been raised by non-corporeal aliens on the planet Thasus, deals with the idea of what it means to be an adolescent boy: to be driven by urges you don't understand, and to always feel a little awkward. Kirk also -- mostly unwillingly -- assumes the identity of father to the lonely Charlie.  

In "The Naked Time," a mysterious disease acts on the Enterprise crew like alcohol intoxication and brings to light dark, buried aspects of the crew's various personalities. With emotional boundaries torn down, the crew spirals into chaos at the same time the Enterprise spirals out of orbit towards a planet's surface. 

We see in this episode that the "identity" we have pinned on each Star Trek character does not represent the entire picture. Spock is not merely a logical alien, but a little boy who couldn't tell his (human) mother that he loved her. Kirk is not merely a leader among men and a great Starfleet officer, but a man of terrible loneliness because his position in the command structure isolates him from others. There is, he laments, "no beach to walk on.

Again, the issue here is the face (or identity) we present to the world, and the identity we hide, covet, and keep locked away.

"The Enemy Within" is a classic meditation on human identity and the contradictions therein. A transporter accident splits Kirk into two beings, one "good," one "evil." However, this is no ordinary Jekyll and Hyde story, because what Kirk learns -- to his chagrin -- is that it is his dark side, his negative self, that retains the power of command; the power of decision-making. His good side seems to possess intellect and compassion, but not will and discipline, so again, human identity is dissected and put under the microscope on a Star Trek episode.

In "Mudd's Women," scoundrel Harry Mudd provides a drug to three "homely" women to make them appear as irresistible beauties so they can be married off to space miners. Only thing is this: the drug is a fake, a phony. The women on the drug are  actually "high on themselves." As Kirk says: there are only two kind of men and women in the universe; either you believe in yourself, or you don't. So this episode concerns, once more, the notion that our feelings about our identity colors how we see the world...and how the world sees us.

In "What are Little Girls Made Of," Kirk is faced with an android duplicate of himself, one who bears his every memory and ability. But one who can think faster, calculate more effectively and is physically immortal.

But man is not a machine, and this episode is about the things that get lost translating "the soul" to a mechanism. Is identity something that can be transferred? Is it hard-wired into our souls? Or is it something so special that no machine can hope to duplicate it?

Other examples:

"The Alternative Factor" - an alien man named Lazarus has been driven to madness and psychosis by the discovery of alternate universes and a "twin" who is simultaneously both him and not him (essentially sharing his identity). To the Enterprise crew, the two men are interchangeable.

"This Side of Paradise" - strange spores on Omicron Ceti III turn the Enterprise crew into mellow layabouts, even Spock (who has the "gall" to make love to a human woman!). Exposed here is the idea that being productive - working - is a core (and indispensable) part of the human identity. No doubt a comment on recreational drugs; perfect for the late 1960s.

"Amok Time" - Spock's identity is subverted again; this time by the Vulcan physiological need to "mate or die" every seven years. The normally logical and thoughtful Vulcan becomes temperamental and rageful over his body's needs and desires.  This episode reminds us that we don't necessarily control our biology, and that our biology is a key component of identity.

"Mirror, Mirror" - what makes up our identity? Is it more than just DNA? Is it also the history of a nation or planet? This is the story of an alternate history, one in which humans have become war-like barbarians and the center of a cosmic Empire. The "good" people we know on the Enterprise - changed by some unknown event in galactic history - have set aside principle and morality for conquest and personal gain. But Spock remains the same in both universes, a bastion of goodness and decency (even with the beard).

"Metamorphosis" - an alien "Companion" and a dying human woman meld identities for the sake of love; only to run into human prejudice.

"Return to Tomorrow" - Spock, Kirk and Dr. Ann Mulhall allow three aliens to "possess" their bodies for a time; to make new android forms to house them. The only problem is that these three highly-advanced beings cannot control their emotions and desires when encased in the "flesh" packages of humanity. How much of identity is tied up in our biology? How much in our mind? How much of what we feel is emotion, how much is chemical?

"Turnabout Intruder" - all those things which make Kirk a being "special unto himself," -- distinctly another description for "identity" -- is landed in the body of a vengeful ex-lover who wants to be a starship commander.

You get the idea.

You can view virtually any Star Trek episode out there through this illuminating lens of "identity" and see how the stories of space travel are but a mirror for us to experience all sides of it. The films and later series expand on these ideas.

Right off the bat, I remember another Star Trek story in which our heroic, physically fit characters, must deal with the rigors and pains of aging ("The Deadly Years"), a shock to anyone's identity. And there are Next Generation tales that find some characters experiencing amnesia ("Clues"), buried memories ("The Schizoid Man") or reverting in age to childhood. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock is another meditation on identity, wherein Spock's katra (one might say his identity...) is housed inside McCoy. Until it is reunited with Spock's body, that body is just a shell.

In Star Trek: Voyager I remember one of the finest early installments was called "Tuvix," about a transporter accident blending the staid Vulcan Tuvok with the more jovial and likable Talaxian, Neelix. What emerged from that transporter platform was a third individual, a new identity separate from the earlier two.

In the various Star Trek series there is example after example of our heroes facing "twins" or "doubles" that confound the crews and make determining identity a difficult task. Spock must determine which version of Kirk is real, which a fake, in "Whom Gods Destroy," and Kirk himself is doubled not just in "The Enemy Within" and "What Are Little Girls Made Of," but in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

Riker gets himself a transporter duplicate in one episode of the Next Generation called "Second Chances," Picard meets his "parallel" from the future in "Time Squared," and Janeway and Voyager's crew encounter a duplicate crew in "Deadlock."

Ask yourself: if identity is not the crux of the Star Trek mythos why are there so many episodes in which characters must question the identities of their friends? 

Is it Picard or a formless alien hitchhiker in "Lonely Among Us?" Is it Kirk or Sargon in "Return to Tomorrow?" Is it Bones McCoy or a salt vampire in "The Man Trap?" Is it Geordi La Forge or a Tarchannen alien in the appropriately named "Identity Crisis?"

Consider too that each franchise series involves at least one outsider-type character attempting to define his or her identity in terms of a cohesive group. 

Who are Odo's parents? Is he alone, or -- as we learn later -- a Founder of the Dominion? What of Data? In "Measure of a Man" Starfleet (and Data himself) must ask the question if he is a toaster, or a living, sentient being? For Spock, is "logic" the beginning of wisdom or the end? Is he is mother's son, or his father's?  Or is he some kind of uneasy combination of his genes?

Again and again, characters must determine "who they are" both in terms of personal wants and desires, and in how the universe of the Federation defines and views them. 

Is the EMH a life-form or a program? 

Is V'ger a life form, or just a very advanced machine?

Also, I do not think it a coincidence that the scariest Star Trek villain in series history is likely the Borg. 

The Borg are scarier than the silver-toothed villains of Alien and Aliens, or the extraterrestrial hunters in Predator. Those outer space creatures may skin you alive or lay eggs down your throat and burst your chest...but in the end, all they really do is kill you.

The Borg are much more nefarious and frightening. They take you and "assimilate" you, replacing the colorful identity of the individual with a heartless, colorless hive mind. They take all your knowledge, all your memories, all your humanity and download it for consumption in the collective, but your body keeps walking around -- a zombie, a shadow of its former self -- because the human identity has been stolen. There can be nothing scarier in a series about identity than a monster who comes along and forcibly takes that identity away.

As we go back and watch the original Star Trek in 2016, keep a close eye for how the idea of identity fits in.

Spaceships of the: 1960s

It was the 1960s and that meant, in terms of spaceships -- rocket ship fins and flying saucers for everyone!

Those two concepts (rockets and saucers) began to fall out of favor as the decade ended, thanks in large part to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which adopted a more utilitarian-seeming aesthetic.

This was also the era that first introduced the starship Enterprise, a ship whose design has remained largely the same despite letters (A, B, C, D, E, NX-1) signifying different models.

How many do you recognize?

Identified by Pierre Fontaine: Fireball XL5.

Identified by Pierre Fontaine: Thunderbird 3.

Identified by Pierre Fontaine: First Spaceship on Venus.

Not Identified.

Identified by Nicolas Lemarignier: Gorath.

Identified by Pierre Fontaine: Robinson Crusoe on Mars.

Identified by Pierre Fontaine: Lost in Space.

Identified by Nicolas Lemarignier: Voyage to a Prehistoric Planet.

Identified by Nicolas Lemarignier: Monster Zero.
Identified by Pierre Fontain: Dalek Invasion Earth 2150 AD.

Identified by Pierre Fontaine: Star Trek.
Identified by Pierre Fontaine: 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Identified by Pierre Fontaine: 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Identified by Pierre Fontaine: Planet of the Apes.

Not Identified.

Identified by Pierre Fontaine: Moon Zero Two.

Identified by Pierre Fontaine: Journey to the Far Side of the Sun.

Identified by SGB: Planet of the Vampires

Identified by Pierre Fontaine: Journey to the Far Side of the Sun.