Saturday, March 12, 2016

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Jason of Star Command: "Face to Face" (November 3, 1979)

This week on Jason of Star Command, the Saturday morning Filmation series pulls out a familiar genre convention: “My Enemy, My Ally.”   

In this staple of sci-fi television, two enemies must work together to resolve an existential crisis.  It was Geordi and a Romulan officer on Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “The Enemy.”  It was Peter Burke and Urko on Planet of the Apes’ “The Trap.”  Paul Foster and an alien pulled the same trick on UFO’s “Survival,” as well.  Even Land of the Lost saw Rick Marshall and a Sleestak named "S'latch" team-up in "The Hole."

This "My Enemy/My Ally" story universally concerns team work, and more than that, diversity.  A Romulan doesn't believe he can learn anything from a human...but he does, and so forth. Here, the different skill-sets of the people forced to work together prove valuable in overcoming a hurdle.  That hurdle might be a cave-in ("The Trap"), or an inhospitable terrain (the moon in "Survival," or Galorndon Core in "The Enemy.")  

I realize that "diversity" as a concept or virtue has come under heavy fire over the last several years as being "PC," but its merit is obvious in a sci-fi setting: a different (and alien...) background offers a different viewpoint and opinion about survival, and often a different philosophical approach to facing death. Such qualities are incredibly useful.  It's always better to have more viewpoints and more knowledge, from varying sources, when trying to assure survival. IDIC and all that.

Here, Jason (Craig Littler) and his enemy, Adron (Rod Loomis) are trapped on a planet with a poisonous atmosphere, and must between them share one portable life-support system.  This means that they are literally chained together by the wrists, in a dynamic visual call-back to The Defiant Ones (1958).  

At first, Adron is reluctant to trust Jason, but Jason is optimistic.  “I believe all life is worth saving,” he tells his new friend.  

Finally, Jason gives up his claim on the life support system to help Adron survive, and this softens the alien’s heart. “It is better to live with brotherhood than hatred,” Adron agrees, noting he must “heal” his conscience after working with the evil Dragos.

Adron also reveals to Jason that Dragos is “amassing” alien power sources so as to invade “the universe,” and that’s where this particular episode leaves off. Jason and Adron part, and the implication is that Jason is off to stop Dragos' fiendish strategy.

It’s undeniably fun to see the My Enemy/My Ally dynamic re-stated so bluntly on Jason of Star Command, even if the idea is incredibly familiar. 

At least the re-use of  such an old concept gives this installment some philosophical and cerebral heft, so it isn’t just action all the time. This episode of JOSC doesn't feel as empty as some, as a consequence.

Another nice touch in "Face to Face" is that Adron and Jason are trapped on a “living planet,” one which attempts to kill all invaders, and which starts setting off explosives across the landscape. At one point, a cave wall comes to life and attempts to crush the duo.  It's one thing to work together in a dangerous environment, it's all together something else when that environment is consciously trying to murder you...

About the only misstep in “Face to Face” is the fact that, once more, Dragos seems to be able to see  and hear everything that is happening to every moment. How Dragos manages to possess constant universal, inter-dimensional, intergalactic surveillance on his target is a total mystery, and one that the series never explains.

Next week: "Phantom Force."

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Flash Gordon:"Chapter 8: The Frozen World" (November 10, 1979)

This week on Filmation's Flash Gordon, we have Chapter 8: "The Frozen World." 

In Arboria, Flash, Baron and Dr. Zarkov are hatching plans to unseat Ming the Merciless (while Dale dutifully brings them tea). 

The group realizes that the rebellion will need huge quantities of fuel to power their fighters, in particular: Orium. 

Prince Barin notes that Orium can be found in large quantities in the kingdom run by his cousin, Fria. It's called "Fridgia," and it is located at Mongo's North Pole. Unfortunately, she and Barin are not close, necessitating a different emissary.

Flash, Dale, Zarkov and Thun head off in a leaf fighter to meet Fria and request her help. Once again, Fria is a beautiful woman and Dale gets jealous (Hey, didn't that also happen with Queen Undina?) 

Flash informs Fria that "the time is coming when the people of Mongo will rise up." Fascinated by the Earthling, Fria escorts Flash on a tour of her snow castle and informs the delegation that "ice itself" is the building block of her culture. She also tells Flash that he will find the "pleasures" in the city to his liking. 

Translation: she may live in Fridgia, but the Queen's not frigid. Flash is now lusted after by Dale, Aura, Undina, and Fria.

Alas, one of Fria's suitors, Count Mallow grows angry over Fria's attentions towards Flash, and attempts to kill Dale and Flash while they're swimming in a pool. 

Later, Flash rescues Mallow from a giant ice worm, and Mallow recants his evil ways. Unfortunately, before everyone can kiss and make up, Mallow, Dale, Zarkov and Thun are captured by a race of giants, and Flash and Fria are buried in an avalanche.

"The Frozen World" re-uses some footage we've seen before in Flash Gordon. The lair of the giants is actually the headquarters of the Beast Men from an earlier chapter. It wouldn't be so noticeable except that Frigia is all icy blue, and the Beast Man mountain is desert red and orange.  At one point, it looks like gusts of icy wind have been superimposed over the old footage.

Some other fun facts from this episode: Thun lets us know that "worry" is the natural state of the lion men. 

And also, Zarkov points out Sol, Earth's sun, to Dale, during the voyage to Fridgia. It looks very, very far away indeed.

If you're keeping tabs on his progress, Flash has thus far united The Hawkmen, Barin's Arboria, the Lion Men, the underwater kingdom of Undina, and now he's added Fridgia to the list. It's his own coalition of the willing to stop that despotic dictator, Ming.

If this episode, "The Frozen Word" re-uses familiar footage, it also re-used the plot line for "Chapter 6: Into the Water World."  In both instances, Flash uses his charms to sway the opinion of a lovely queen in a distant and inhospitable biome or kingdom of Mongo.  "Into the Water World" was just two episodes back, so the repeating of this plot line feels especially egregious.

Next week: "The Monster of the Glacier."

Friday, March 11, 2016

Cult-TV Movie Review: Shadow on the Land (1968)

"These are the symbols of democracy. A democracy we take as for granted as the water we drink. But democracy is a living thing; its skeleton an ideal; its bloodstream dissent; its tissue comprised of all the people who inhabit it.  All the people.

But what happens if the life of democracy is paralyzed by fear, or greed, or simple laziness, and the country is yielded up, or co-erced, or persuaded into accepting a dictatorship, a leader whose word alone is all of law? 

The skeleton of democracy is destroyed, its bloodstream, dissent, is bound in the barbed wire of concentration camps. And the leader's special police...terrorize the bulk of the people into acceptance.  And the flag of the Internal Security Forces -- the symbol of fear and darkness -- will fly over our land."

- A Voice of "God" narration, from the opening of the TV-movie, Shadow on the Land (1968).

The stirring and unsettling words printed above are accompanied on screen in Shadow on the Land by impressive views of national landmarks that we Americans hold dear: the Lincoln Memorial, the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument

Yet these words are also accompanied by images that terrify every American citizen, regardless of political stripe or political party: a giant black "X" marked through our country's Constitution; red arm-bands decorating the uniforms of  a gestapo-like police force.

This TV-movie created by Sidney Sheldon and written by Nedrick Young contemplates something that we all fervently hope is absolutely impossible: the rise of a fascist, totalitarian dystopia in America.  It's a 1960s TV variation on Sinclair Lewis's classic 1935 literary work, It Can't Happen Here.

In Shadow on the Land, The United States has been a dictatorship for some forty years, ever since the country's Leader exploited a national emergency ("riots in the ghetto" according to the screenplay) to seize total control of the nation and declare martial law.  

The people, in essence, gave the Leader "a blank check."

Over the years since the takeover, "discipline" has replaced "freedom" in America as an ideal.  Dissenters -- part of an organized resistance group called "Society of Man" -- are sent to detention camps where they are they are beaten and tortured.  The police force, the ISF, is ubiquitous and well-armed.

As the drama commences, an ISF officer, Colonel Andrew Davis (Jackie Cooper) is arrested by authorities for stealing documents pertaining to the Leader's new top-secret initiative, "Operation Hammer."  

Davis is hauled off to Detention Camp 12, and tortured for information. The resistance movement attacks the camp and rescues Davis in an extremely violent sequence with overturned cars, soldiers electrocuted on fences and bullet-ridden corpses.  This night-time action scene is impressive as such on its own, but there's one important moment of undeniable real power here as well.

In particular, two nameless Society of Man fighters attempt to bring down the ISF flag and fly our Stars and Stripes instead. The first man is gunned down viciously (on-screen). 

Without thought, a second man jumps into the breach and raises the flag...and is also gunned down with extreme-prejudice, right before our eyes.  

But the flag goes up; Old Glory reigns. 

This moment goes by quickly, and without comment, but it certainly makes a powerful statement.  These two men died to make a symbolic gesture that few people would ever see (in this context of a night-time prison break). They didn't die freeing other men, or retreat to fight the good fight another day. Instead, they gave up their very lives in service of a representation of liberty. 

As I was sitting on my comfortable sofa watching this scene I tried to imagine myself in those men's shoes.  Giving up my life -- everything I hold dear -- for the simple but powerful and universal idea of freedom.  

We've seen people doing this very thing, or something quite like it, in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Fighting to the death for the cause of freedom.  But as Americans, we really haven't had to do that. We recently fought two wars, but most citizens haven't had to give up our sons or daughters to wage them.  We haven't even had to endure tax hikes, or conserve our oil.

How many Americans of today, I wonder, would sacrifice their personal futures just to see the U.S. flag raised?  I'm no better or more noble than anyone else.  And when I realized that, while watching this old TV movie, I was a little shaken.  

What would you and I do if you lived in the America portrayed in Shadow on the Land?

Shadow on the Land delvers further into this concept. 

A high-ranking Colonel in the ISF, Shep McCloud (Marc Stanger) is actually working for the Resistance, and he delivers a wounded Davis to Davis' brother, a priest at the local Midnight Mission, played by Gene Hackman. 

This priest believes that all of life is a trial, one leading to death, and doesn't want to help his own biological brother.  He says that he "renders unto Caesar that which is Caesar's" and that "God" should decide. But Shep insists...and he's a tough man to refuse.

In fact, Shep needs a lot of help, from both the priest and from a lovely ISF psychologist, because Operation Hammer could mean an end to the Society of Man.  On this very night -- Christmas Eve -- the Leader plans to stage a "false flag" operation, one equated to the the Reichstag fire in the teleplay. 

Specifically, ISF soldiers will dress as resistance fighters and attack a power plant control room in California, plunging the state into darkness and cold.  This terrorist act, the Leader believes, will finally turn the nation against the Society, and pave the way for the enforcement of "new restrictions" and the doubling of the ISF force size.

Most of this 1968 TV movie involves McCloud's attempts to prevent Operation Hammer from succeeding, and finding unexpected allies along the way.  

Even the hesitant priest comes to McCloud's aid, after Colonel Davis's death by torture.  The movie ends at the dawn of Christmas, with the reminder that "there's always another battle to fight."

One of the most interesting facets of Shadow on the Land is its alternate reality viewpoint.  It is still the year 1968, but fascism has reigned in America for forty years, since 1928 ostensibly.  

Still, America in 1968 looks almost the same as we remember it. There are freeways, Christmas decorations, office meetings, restaurants, etc. The only difference is that no one is free.  That concentration camps dot the landscape, and every park, every avenue, every building is is monitored by the ever-present ISF soldiers.

Perhaps the tele-movie's second most powerful moment occurs when Davis attempts to find sanctuary following an ISF raid on the mission.  He begs people for help in the park, in the streets, even in a diner.  He tells them he's an army officer. He's bleeding, and desperate.

And no one lifts a finger. 

No one even makes eye contact with him.  

The point transmitted by this scene is plain and clear: a fascist state depends on two things: a militia to bully people, and an apathetic, cowed populace.   Again, this got me thinking. Who would I rather be?  The guy who dies raising the flag?  Or the guy staring down at his lunch plate as a free man is captured and tortured?

Shadow on the Land was apparently a backdoor pilot for a TV series.  The concept was never picked up for broadcast, but I was struck how timely it seems today.  For instance, the opening narration discusses America losing democracy in three ways. 

First by fear, and certainly, this country knew crippling fear after September 11, 2001, in the age of color-coded terror alerts and warnings about powerful politicians of "mushroom clouds over" American cities.  Lately, we have seen fear ginned up over Ebola and ISIS, but as usual, the media tells us to be afraid of the wrong things.  Many more people die a year from heart attacks or in car accidents than have from Ebola or Islamic terrorism

The second way is by greed, and indeed we saw Wall Street's sickening greed bring this great country to her knees in the Economic Meltdown of 2008.  We bailed Wall Street out and now look where we are.  They've got bonuses, and there's no money left for our schools, our workers, or, apparently, a middle class.  Today, we worship wealth...and the rich.

And third, finally, by laziness

So many voters are poorly educated, not taking the time to know the positions of the candidates they support, much less American history.  

In terms of action, Shadow on the Land is pretty-fast paced and brutal. And John Forsythe gives an, icy performance as high-ranking ISF officer, General Bruce.  

But again, while watching, I just kept thinking that something like this TV-movie could be done very effectively today, when we've moved into a more technological age, when both political parties have apparently accepted surveillance of U.S. citizens without oversight, and the right of American interests to torture anyone deemed an enemy.

I also liked the film's notation that all the people in a democracy deserve equal rights.  Not special rights...equal ones.  

This was a crucial point in 1968, a tumultuous year that saw the death of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.  It was the year of the riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, too.  
Today, such issues are still with us. 

If this concept had gone to weekly series in 1968 (when the optimistic Star Trek was still on the air), 

I wonder how it would have been welcomed... 

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Cult-Movie Review: Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)

Upon viewing Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988) this week, I was struck with an illuminating thought. 

There are two kinds of horror movies in 1970s and 1980s franchises.

The first kind of movie is an artistic masterpiece, one that thrives on visual imagery, on symbolism, and on subtext. In this category, I land movies such as Halloween (1978), Phantasm (1979), A Nightmare on Elm Street and Clive Barker’s original masterpiece, Hellraiser (1987).  These films operate on both a literal level and a metaphorical one.

And then there’s the second kind of horror movie in these franchises, which viewers will often detect in the first sequel.

This second brand of franchise horror film eschews the overt, careful artistry of the first film and doubles down instead on internal mythology.  In other words, the details of the world are hammered out, and character motivations are more deeply explained. A sketch is colored in, essentially, but in terms of symbolism some things get lost, forgotten, or over-written.

Why do horror franchises from this era operate in this fashion?

Well, perhaps because symbolic imagery and sub-text may be limited to a specific, singular narrative or set of characters. That imagery may be beautiful, canny and informative, yet when time comes for a sequel with a new story, new characters, and even a new setting, it is hard to sustain it. The zeitgeist has changed, for one thing, and so symbols change. 

Therefore, intrepid filmmakers turn to the internal consistencies of the world where they work. Like the idea that Michael Myers must have a concrete motivation for his murders, and is thus the sibling of Laurie Strode.

Perhaps this is why sequels so rarely live up to the originals. They don’t pinpoint an adequate new sub-text or deep imagery to sustain the series. So instead, additional concrete details are provided.

Yet, inescapably, familiarity is the enemy of horror. The more we know, the less scared we become. We are scared not when we know more, but when we no less.  The more vague the details, the better chance that we will be unsettled by the film.

Hellbound is the second kind of movie in terms of this paradigm.

Specifically, Hellbound: Hellraiser II is a mythology-based, world-building sequel to Clive Barker’s brilliant horror film, Hellraiser (1987). It’s a good mythology-based horror film on it own terms, but I miss the sheer artistic inspiration of Clive Barker’s inaugural film in the franchise.

Hellbound opens with a recap of Hellraiser’s scary ending, and then shows us the origins of Pinhead (Doug Bradley) himself. It also finishes off any personal business left lingering between Julia (Clare Higgins) and Frank (Sean Chapman), before settling down in Hell itself.  The details of Hell, and even an evil Deity (Leviathan, Lord of the Labyrinth) are all explored.

The focus, as that description suggests, is on deepening and broadening the Hellraiser universe. The focus is on providing more details, and revealing a consistent “universe.”

I can’t complain too much, however since the solid 1988 sequel shows audiences how Cenobites are manufactured, takes us to Hell for a grand tour, features the great Ashley Laurence in a starring role, and reveals to us precisely the kind of torment in Hell that Frank deserves.  There’s an overall reflection of literary mythology too -- an Orphean descent into the Underworld to retrieve a loved one -- but even that is broadly applied.

So by my estimation, Hellbound is a good horror film, of the second type.

It’s just that traveling from Hellraiser to Hellbound is roughly akin to going from Phantasm (1979) to Phantasm II (1988).

The first film in each series is richly symbolic and reveals something about the human condition, whether the fear of mortality, or mankind’s sexual obsessions. 

Then the ambitious sequel comes along, and it’s big and world-building and totally impressive as a straight-up horror flick, but it exists almost purely on a literal level, not a symbolic one. 

Therefore, in comparison to the original, I can’t help but register the sequel as a bit of a disappointment, or at least a come down. I admire so much the rarefied, symbolic level of Hellraiser and Phantasm

This is about me, as much as the film, a reader might conclude. I want my horror movies to do more than just scare me a little, like I’m on a roller coaster ride. I want the movie to concern or reflect something important; something that makes me think about the world, myself, and my relationships.
So I miss Clive Barker’s facility for visual symbolism in Tony Randel’s Hellbound, but I still like the sequel for what it is (a rip-roaring, gory horror movie), even if, at times, the movie looks to be held together by little more than spit and polish.

“The mind is a labyrinth…a puzzle.”

Following the ghoulish events with Julia and Frank, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) is remanded to the Channard Institute, an insane asylum.

There, she talks about the box, and doorways to Hell being opened and closed.

Listening intently to her strange tale is Dr. Channard (Kenneth Cranham), a man who has devoted his life to the study of the Lament Configuration. 

Another patient in his custody, young Tiffany (Imogen Boorman) is mute, but is an expert at solving puzzles. Presumably, he has in mind for this ward to solve one particular puzzle box.

Even as Dr. Channard takes gruesome steps to revive Julia (Clare Higgins), Kirsty receives a message that she believes is from her dead father.  “I am in Hell. Help me,” it reads, written in blood.

Kirsty determines to go with Tiffany, into Hell, and rescue her father.

After Tiffany opens the box, Channard meets his fate as a Cenobite, and engineers a coup of the Labyrinth.  Kirsty helps Pinhead (Doug Bradley) finds his humanity for one battle against this new cenobite, but it does not go well.

After an encounter with Frank, Kirsty must summon all her resourcefulness to escape Hell, and more than that, stop Channard.

“What tales will she tell us from the other side?”

In a significant fashion, Hellbound really is about tales from the “other side.”

The other world that we saw only briefly in Hellraiser, Hell itself, is depicted for long stretches of the film. Some of the visuals are generally amazing, while others prove a letdown.

The matte painting, for instance, of the labyrinth, looks astonishingly good. There are several shots which reveal Kirsty and Tiffany walking a long, narrow pathway across that Escher-like maze. The maze extends to the horizon, but also stretches downwards, across multiple levels. 

Also successfully depicted is Frank Cotton’s personal hell.  He lives in a room where ghostly women “promise” sex but never “deliver.”To Frank, this is a punishment on the scale of Tantalus, and quite appropriate. He lives, essentially, in a trap that will drive him mad for all eternity.  And that’s the reason he summoned Kirsty. He believes she’s a girl who keeps her “promises,” and wants to test that theory.

Unfortunately, when we don’t see the big matte shots, or visit Frank in his personal Hell, the underworld is depicted in less than inspiring fashion.

In fact it appears to consist of one hallway that branches off, and is filmed again and again. At one point, we get a P.O.V. shot with the camera hurtling through the corridor, and before the editor can cut away, it looks like there are some boards or lumber balanced against one wall.

This section of Hell: under construction.

When one couples shots like this one with the fact that Chatterer’s make-up design completely changes at one point, with no explanation, one gets the feeling that the film was made in a tearing hurry, and suffered from a lot of tinkering with.

Tiffany’s weird hall-of-mirrors/carnival scene is similarly crude in visualization, and doesn’t really add anything to the proceedings. Did she lose her Mom at a carnival? The sequence never makes us understand why this circus-like place is Tiffany’s personal Hell, or why she is permitted to escape it.

On the plus side, the Cenobite-making chamber is radically evil and neat, though it proves a stumbling block in future entries since it isn’t, apparently, required to make Cenobites after all. 

And though I wonder about the rationale of making Leviathan a huge puzzle box, I nonetheless love the deeply creepy black light it periodically shines across the realm. Instead of a lighthouse, Leviathan is a dark-house, shining darkness throughout every corner of Hell.

To get back to my treatise on mythology, Hellbound feels duty-bound to give us a lot of information.  It provides background on Pinhead, revealing his pre-Cenobite life. We learn he was a British soldier in World War I, and Hell on Earth, the next installment, even tells us his name.

We also get to reconnect in the film, powerfully, with Clare Higgins’ Julia. Once more, she gives voice to the film’s intermittent motif about literary mythology (seen in the Orpheus-like story and in the damnations of Hell being like the torments of Tantalus or Sisyphus). Here, Julia relevantly notes her role in the myth; that she is both the “wicked stepmother” and “evil queen” in Kirstie’s fairy tale. I love that Julia, formerly repressed and frigid, internalizes this role and emerges from Hell as a siren, a seductress.

Again, however, one has to wonder about the discontinuities between the two films, vis-à-vis revival via human blood. Frank had new skin after three strangers and Larry were killed in the first film. Julia in Hellbound kills a room full of prostitutes, and still doesn’t have all her new skin yet.

Another scene in the film is also incongruous. It shows a hospital ward of insane patients being tortured by many copies of the Lament Configuration, even after Pinhead has verbally confirmed that desire, not hands, call him. The scene doesn’t make any sense, in light of that remark.

Yet Hellbound’s heights of imagination generally tend to overcome such deficits. A movie would really have to go some distance to prove itself bloodier and gorier than Hellraiser was.  Hellbound manages that feat with ease. The scene involving a straight razor, a bloody mattress, and a very sick man, is one for the record books.

The Channard Cenobite is hugely creative too, for example. Who in his or her right mind devised an individual who is carried around by a giant worm that has burrowed into that individual’s head? The conception and imagery of the character is remarkable.

If the final battle between Channard and Pinhead’s team had featured a little more punch, a little more suspense, I’d rate the film even higher.  I very much enjoy the scenes of Kirsty and Pinhead teaming up, as it were, but I wish Pinhead put up a better fight before getting his throat slit.

As it stands, Hellbound is a perfectly satisfying mythology-based horror sequel. For those who “have to see, have to know…” -- like Channard -- the movie both promises and delivers.

For those audiences seeking a film functioning at at the same artistic apex as Hellraiser does, however, this first sequel may not exactly qualify as a “pleasure.”

Movie Trailer: Hellbound: Hellraiser (1988)

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

The X-Files: The Mystery of William

Last week, I speculated a bit about the directions The X-Files might take in season 11 in terms of Mulder's illness, Reyes, the plague, and the Conspiracy.

This week, I want to study the figure who is, literally, the key to everything.

That figure is William, the son of Mulder and Scully.

One of the reasons I so much admire this revival series is that it has been structured in such a way that it leads us to one inescapable conclusion: William is our savior.

We see and register Dana's despair about losing William in episodes including "Founder's Mutation," and "Home Again," for example.

In the latter case, she fears that she and Mulder treated William like trash by giving him up for adoption.  And it is clear from her daydream -- about an alternate life with William -- in "Founder's Mutation, that she feels his loss every single day. 

She is heart sick, even soul-sick, because of his absence in her life. Scully will be whole again, these episodes inform us, only when she reunites with William.  That is the only possible "cure" to what ails Dana.

Now consider Mulder. When we leave him at the end of "My Struggle II" Fox is near death, and only stem-cells from William -- his lost son (and the subject of Mulder's daydream, in "Founder's Mutation") -- can save his life.  

In other words, Mulder and Scully have arrived at the same place at the same time. They are both suffering, and can't be whole, can't be complete, without William's intervention. 

Scully needs her son, or she will whither away, trapped in self-recriminations and feelings of shame. Mulder is physically dying, and needs an "infusion," one might conclude, from William, to be revived.

For all the press's stupid complaints of bad or stilted writing, it's amazing, isn't it, that these six 2016 episodes bring Mulder and Scully to the same precipice so cleverly and elegantly?  Both protagonists need William if they are to endure.  They must find their son.

This underlying structure goes much deeper however. It is not just William's parents who need him, if they are to live. 

The world needs him too.  For William is a messiah, essentially, in waiting.

To back-up this statement, we must go all the way back to the first episode featuring William. "Existence" (May 20, 2001). 

There, as you may recall, a bright light in the night sky leads Mulder to the location where Scully is giving birth in an abandoned dilapidated town.  

In the Gospel of Matthew, the author writes of a star (The Star of Bethlehem) that signifies the birth of a new "king."  It is that star which guides the Magi to Jesus. Again, it is not difficult to draw a comparison here.

Only in this case, the Lone Gunmen might be the Three Wise Men...

But all joking aside, William's birth is also witnessed by a group of strangers. They miraculously seemed to arrive at Scully's bedside, and they watched as the birth occurs. They leave without harming the child, or helping him. 

Who are they, and what are they witnessing?

Well, these people are super soldiers, alien replicas of human beings. So it might be that they are witnessing the birth of a "king" who will lead their people, or -- oppositely -- destroy their people. William is by birth what they have been engineered to be: a hybrid of human biology and alien technology/biology.

Consider that Scully possesses alien DNA and that Mulder, at one point, was considered a human/alien hybrid because of his encounter with the tablet from Ivory Coast UFO.  

William -- the product of their genetic union -- is a fully formed human/alien hybrid.  No one need "adjust" his biology via abduction experiments (see: Scully), or by exposure to alien materials (see: Mulder).  William is, by his very nature, what the Syndicate always sought: a fully biological human/alien combination.

The episodes which feature William suggest his unique nature. He is able to perform seemingly miraculous acts of telekinesis in his crib, for example. 

The looming question is, however, who is with William now, in 2016, and will he act as mankind's savior, or as his destroyer? 

Will he be the messiah who saves his father and the human race, or will he be an Anti-Christ figure, shepherding in a new era of slavery and subjugation for the survivors of the plague?

This, we can't know. At least not yet.

Some thoughts to ponder in this regard:

Could the Cigarette Smoking Man have had William at his side all along? Could he be William's adoptive father, the way he adopted Samantha ("Closure").  

If so, then William is no doubt his servant/accomplice at that point, and would be likely to fulfill the Anti-Christ role.

Similarly, what if Mulder and Scully find William, only to learn that he harbors resentment towards them for their choice to abandon him. 

What if he refuses to help his parents, and to take his role as savior in the great conflict?  What if, as Scully fears, he feels like he was thrown away with the trash, and doesn't matter?

Contrarily, Mulder and Scully could meet William, and help him to understand his destiny. As the savior, he possess the powers and the genetics (the body and the blood, so-to-speak) to stop the invasion, prevent alien colonization, and restore civilization before it is too late.

Intriguingly, "My Struggle II" is structured in such a way that the series could continue without either Mulder or Scully, at this point.  

Mulder could die before William is encountered, leaving a grieving Scully to approach her son with the truth.  

Or, Scully could be murdered by the ARV, leaving a sick Mulder (perhaps with the help of Einstein and Miller) to find his son, and tell him the truth.

I wouldn't want to lose either character, obviously, but The X-Files seems to have arrived at a crossroads.  

The end of the world is nigh, and the only person who can save Mulder's life, Scully's soul, and civilization itself is a mystery boy.  

A mystery boy we haven't seen in a decade-and-a-half.

As I wrote in The X-Files FAQ, we might even be watching, in The X-Files, the first chapter of a new religion: an origin story. Mulder and Scully are the players behind the messiah, and their son is the one who can bring change to the world. This figure had a miraculous birth because Scully was not supposed to be capable of bearing a child.  

And the stars themselves heralded his arrival ("Existence.")

So...I'm looking forward to meeting William in Season 11. He would be about sixteen years old at this point...

Memory Bank: Ding-a-Ling Robots (Topper; 1970)

"Stand back, world!" the advertisements blared. "You are witnessing the creation of an incredible new world," and the "most incredible new toy you've ever seen."

All this hyperbole concerned a toy competitor for Ideal's Zeroids. In this case, it referred to Topper's Ding-a-Ling Robots, a whole line of toys manufactured in the late 1960s and released in 1970.

Topper created several Ding-a-Ling robot characters with various jobs, including Fireman, Shoe Shine, Answer Man, Spy, Boxer, Rocky, Chef, gopher, Claw and Police Man. 

And then, those robots -- thanks to an innovative, interchangeable power pack -- could "defy all laws of gravity" and walk glide or race across "special skyways." They could also drive their own vehicles.

The greatest Ding-a-Ling, however, was "King Ding," a giant robot that dwarfed the rest.

No doubt this all sounds terrific, but the Ding-a-Lings never made a huge mark on the toy market of 1970.  

Personally, I discovered them in the mid-1970s, as a kid, on the secondary market. Week after week, we would see the Ding-a-Lings at yard sales, selling for about a dollar a piece. 

I soon had in my possession Brain (the Ding-a-Ling driver of King Ding), the snap-handed Claw, and Fireman.  I loved these little, hand-held robots, and I remember my Dad customizing them with special paint and decals. This worked for me because in their original, mint state, the robots are a bit too bright and colorful.  My Dad -- a consummate modeler -- dirtied them up for me, so they looked like they had a history and a story.

These days, my son Joel is big into robots, and so I found for him on E-Bay a few Ding-A-Lings, and at least two of the special skyways.  In particular, I bought the "straight space skyway"  and the "Pyramid Set" you see pictured in this post.  

He wants the King Ding, more than anything, but those toys cost a fortune.  If I ever get my hands on one, I'll let you all know.

In the meantime, here's the original commercial laying out the details of this Toy Robot Empire

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Dagger of the Mind" (November 3, 1966)

Stardate: 2715.1

On a routine mission beaming down supplies to the penal colony on Tantalus V, the Enterprise becomes embroiled in an unexpected crisis.

A mad-man, Simon Van Gelder (Morgan Woodward) -- formerly a doctor at the facility -- has smuggled himself aboard the starship during the cargo transfer, thus escaping the penal colony’s security force field.

Van Gelder is captured quickly, but the incident requires Captain Kirk (William Shatner) to conduct an investigation of the colony. He is sheepish about doing so, because he deeply respects the director of the Tantalus Colony: Dr. Tristan Adams (James Gregory), and his life’s work.

In particular, Adams has “revolutionized and humanized” the treatment of prisoners in the Federation, transforming prisons into “clean, decent hospitals for sick minds.”

While Mr. Spock attempts the Vulcan mind-meld on Van Gelder, to learn what happened to him on Tantalus.

Meanwhile, Kirk and ship’s psychiatrist, Dr. Helen Noel (Marianna Hill), beam down to the facility for an extended tour.

There, they learn from Adams that he has been experimenting with a rehabilitation beam -- “a neural neutralizer” that is supposed to help “incorrigibles.”

In fact, as Captain Kirk learns the hard way, the neural neutralizer is a method of control, and even torture.

The creative template for “Dagger of the Mind,” is rather obviously, and disappointingly, an installment from two weeks back: “What are Little Girls Made Of.” 

Consider: in both narratives, Kirk beams down to an isolated planetary location with a beautiful female medical practitioner at his side, and is experimented upon there by a deeply-respected individual who is using new technology to bend others to his will.  Kirk's idealism is shattered as he realizes that his idol is no paragon at all.

In “What are Little Girls Made Of,” Kirk and Nurse Christine Chapel visit the treacherous caves of Exo III, where the “Pasteur of Archaeological Medicine,” Dr. Roger Korby, is working on a plan to have androids infiltrate the highest levels of the Federation. Korby experiments on Kirk, making an android duplicate.  Fortunately, Kirk is able -- from the planet surface -- to send a message to Spock, so that the half-Vulcan first officer can intervene and save the day.

In “Dagger of the Mind,” Kirk and Dr. Helen Noel beam down to a penal colony protected by a force field, where a great humanitarian, Dr. Tristan Adams is controlling minds using the neural neutralizer. Kirk is forced to submit to the device. Meanwhile, on board the Enterprise, Spock uses the Vulcan mind-meld to determine what is happening on the surface, intervenes, and saves the day.

Sound familiar?

In both cases, deeply respected professional men go off the rails, and become monsters. Yet “What Are Little Girls Made Of” is a much superior episode because Korby possesses a reason to go off the rails. His consciousness has been transferred to an android body and his “humanity” didn’t survive the transfer.  He is no longer himself, and the message that viewers glean is that man is not meant for immortality, or mechanical bodies  Something vital -- something compassionate and beautiful -- is sacrificed.

There is a reason, or motivation, in other words for Korby's anti-social behavior. We pity him, because we understand he is not really evil, and not really,  even, at fault.

And Dr. Adams in "Dagger of the Mind?" 

There is no reason or motivation even suggested in the episode that such a deeply-respected humanist would change his nature, jeopardize and his reputation and life’s work, to act as the monster we encounter.  

His plan doesn’t even make sense, when one considers it. 

Dr Adams is going to experiment on Kirk and torture Kirk, a starship captain? 

Well, Dr. Noel will be able to testify what happened to him, even if Kirk can’t.  Or is Adams planning on keeping her act which would the Enterprise would surely respond to. 

If not, let’s assume Adams takes the extra step and tortures and plays with Noel’s memory too.  If this is his plan, he’s still taking an enormous risk that the Enterprise crew will discover the truth.  After all, even while in orbit of Tantalus for just a few hours, the crew has determined the identity and history of Van Gelder.  

Why on Earth would Adams not believe that the crew, especially with a Vulcan involved, could not discover what happened to its beloved captain?

The truth would come out, sooner rather than later.

More so, it simply isn’t clear what Adams has to gain by torturing people, particularly a starship captain. There is no plan in place here to take the neutralizer out into the universe and turn people into zombies, so it is difficult to understand, exactly what Adams’ agenda really is, besides being purely and simply evil.

Even assuming Adams is purely and simply evil -- that he has cracked under the pressure of his difficult vocation -- why would he torture and abuse his biggest fan? 

Captain Kirk treats him with tremendous deference and respect. He's looking for a reason, any reason, to exonerate a man he admires. And so what does Adams do?  He makes a friend and a supporter into an enemy.  

Instead of torturing Kirk under the neural neutralizer, Adams could have stuck with his story that the device is a failure, and the room is closed down.  He would simply not use it again, until Kirk left. Then, with the Enterprise long gone and the investigation closed, he could resume torturing the inmates at his leisure.

The character’s lack of real motivation makes Adams a poor guest start, and a poor villain.  Usually on Star Trek, when a character commits what is considered an evil act, his or her motives are examined. The agenda is understood, even if we don’t agree with it.  “Dagger of the Mind” fails that benchmark rather egregiously. Even assuming Adams is purely and simply nuts, his behavior makes no sense. It’s silly and self-destructive.

So not only is "Dagger of the Mind" structurally a rehash of “What are Little Girls Made Of,” it is an inferior one, in terms of the details.  

In a three week period, essentially, Star Trek has twice proposed that great, respected leaders in their field actually possess feet of clay, and can be transformed into monsters by their quest to push the limits of science. 

Again -- and I make no moral judgment or political preference about this -- the message is undoubtedly conservative in nature.  It is better not to broach a new frontier -- like the creation of androids or an experimental beam -- because doing so will make slaves or inferiors of the human race. 

Progress, in both cases, is arrested so that the status quo remains in effect.  I find it odd not that Star Trek would (wisely) question the pace of new technological development or the impact it might have on humanity, but that it would repeat this same idea over three episodes in three weeks.  "Miri" had the same theme of over-reaching scientists causing havoc.

If scientists are such dangerous, irresponsible folk, how did the Federation ever get to this point of space exploration? Isn't some advancement good?  Doesn't it sometimes improve the human condition?

I guess I'm saying it would be nice to see a little variation in the messaging. Let's have some conservative wisdom, but let's also talk about pushing boundaries too, occasionally.  Fortunately, next week's episode ("The Corbomite Maneuver") adopts that approach so Star Trek's message doesn't feel so consistently in favor of the status quo.

Sadly, “Dagger of the Mind’ is not made any more effective through its visualization. 

If you were Dr. Adams, hoping to keep your real work a secret, would you house your prisoners in a room with a giant vent shaft leading right to the power generator controls that feed into your security field?  

Again, you can’t assume there’s nowhere else to house Kirk and Noel, because this is a penal colony, presumably with housing units (cells?) for all the inmates.

But let's assume, for argument’s sake, that there is no other room to use but the one with the biggest vent shaft opening in cult-TV history.  

Would you not attempt to seal it off so your prisoners can’t use it?

I mean, it’s not like a starship captain and his psychiatrist aren’t going to notice a gigantic vent shaft right there, at eye level, in their quarters.

Although “Dagger of the Mind” makes no sense from a story or character perspective, and opts for easy ways out, in terms of narrative solutions (see: the giant vent shaft), it nonetheless does boast some strengths that should be note.

I like the idea, for instance of the “Devil’s Island” setting; a realm reachable only by elevator, and once a shield is de-activated.  In concept (but not design; again see: vent shaft) Tantalus should be an inescapable prison.  It is always fascinating to have characters cut off from the power and technology of the Enterprise, forced to manage their own escape.

Also, I admire the performances of Morgan Woodward and Marianna Hill. Both Van Gelder and Helen Noel are welcome additions to the Star Trek universe. Van Gelder must overcome his own mental demons to help the Enterprise crew, and Noel is truly ‘tantalizing,’ a gorgeous and smart love interest for Kirk.

Most notably, “Dagger of the Mind” introduces the Vulcan mind-meld to Star Trek, and for that development the episode deserves, certainly, to be remembered and lauded. Star Trek’s first season is such a great time of invention, especially for Vulcan culture, given that we see the nerve pinch in “The Enemy Within” and the mind-meld here.

It’s just a shame that Spock’s ability to mind-fuse with other beings is featured in a rehash story notably lacking in any other brand of invention.  

Also, it's intriguing to note how the concept of the Vulcan mind-meld being a very private, intimate matter falls by the wayside in franchise history. By the time of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), Spock performs, without hesitation, a mind-meld on Valeris (Kim Cattrall) in front of the entire bridge crew!

Next week, one of the most brilliant and well-made Star Trek episodes ever: "The Corbomite Maneuver."