Saturday, March 26, 2016

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Jason of Star Command: "Little Girl Lost" (November 17, 1979)

This week, on Jason of Star Command, Jason (Craig Littler), Samantha (Tamara Dobson) and Professor Parsafoot (Charlie Dell) rescue a young girl, Heidi (Heather O’Connell) from a spaceship crash on a desolate planetoid.  

Unfortunately, strange things are afoot there.  Dragos (Sid Haig) has shown an interest in the mission, and worse, Heidi’s toy doll, Mimi seems to be alive.

Even as Dragos dispatches Queen Medusa (Francine York) to the planet, Jason learns that Heidi’s father is a renowned scientist, Eric Van Demon.  

But where is he, and what’s become of him?  What was he working on before he disappeared, and what does Dragos want with him?

“Little Girl Lost” is actually a fairly interesting episode of Jason of Star Command, one that plays its cards close to the vest, presumably for a lot of reveals in the next episode, “Mimi.”  

The special effects are again incredibly good for a 1970s Saturday morning adventure, and this week we get to see Jason and his friends go toe-to-toe with a giant, ape-like monster.  It’s a man-in-a-suit, not a stop-motion creation (Think the 1976 King Kong), and yet it still looks pretty good.  Mimi – the living, and apparently malevolent doll – is created through stop-motion animation, however, and she’s very creepy, even though at this point we don't know her motives.

One of the reasons I continue to find Jason of Star Command so visually impressive is the care in the vetting of the miniature effects.  For instance, this week, Samantha takes off from the planet in the Star-fire capsule, leaving the body of the vessel on the ground.  

Throughout the remainder of the episode, the miniature is seen landed on the surface without that pod, which accurately reflects the story.  This was something that a contemporary, prime time series, Buck Rogers, didn’t always get right.  If you watch Buck episodes closely, there are constant special effects mismatches with the miniatures, particularly with the Directorate starfighters (two seaters vs. single seaters).  The Jason special effects are emblematic of a lot of love, and a tremendous attention to detail. 

If only the stories here were a little deeper, a little less bad guy vs. good guy.  But of course, as I have written before, the show was aimed at children, so thematic complexity just wasn’t in the cards. Which is too bad, because the production looks so good.

Next week, Heidi’s mysterious story continues with “Mimi.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Flash Gordon: "Chapter Ten: Blue Magic" (November 24, 1979)

Flash Gordon's Chapter Ten, "Blue Magic," (by Samuel Peeples), involves Flash's adventure in yet another Mongo kingdom commanded by a gorgeous Queen. 

Let's see, there was the underwater queen, Undina and then the Fridgian Queen, Fria. Now there's Azura, "witch queen" of Sik, a ruler "linked with the Evil Gods themselves." 

Like her queenly counterparts, Azura has a lust for Flash Gordon, which makes me ask the question: 

Aren't there any eligible males on Mongo besides this guy?

Anyway, we find out in "Blue Magic" that Flash is the spitting image of Azura's long-departed lover, named "Gor-Don."

"Gor-Don" was once the all-powerful ruler of Mongo, a sort of Alexander the Great figure. He ruled the planet wisely with Azura as his mate, but then he left to conquer other worlds and his high priest -- Ming the Merciless -- seized power on Mongo. 

Ming once attempted to defeat Azura but she used her magical powers to destroy his million-man army, to freeze them in a form of stasis in the deep caverns. Now, Ming gives Azura a wide latitude and no longer attempts to conquer her domain.

In this episode, Azura, who commands the "Blue Fire Worms," captures Flash, Thun, Zarkov and Dale while they are still riding the rocket railroad back to Arboria (from Fridgia) to rendezvous with Barin and Vultan. 

Inconvenient that the rocket rail passes right through her kingdom, right? 

But anyway, the captives are ushered into the blue cavern kingdom on a magic carpet (by a wizard.) 

Then Zarkov, Thun and Dale are entrapped in a giant crystal ball, as Azura imposes the personality of Gor-Don upon Flash with a "memory crystal," thereby making him forget his friends and become her consort.

But Zarkov, realizing that "knowledge is the sharpest weapon of all," manages to outfox the evil wizard minion, and he and the others race to stop Flash as the Earther leads Azura's army (on a chariot, no less...) into battle against Barin and Vultan, who have come to his rescue.

The most intriguing aspect of this episode, perhaps, is the philosophical debate of science vs.  magic between Dr. Zarkov and Thun. Zarkov asks how Thun, how has seen the wonders of Mongo's technology, could possibly believe in magic or sorcery. Thun responds that he believes his own eyes.

Zarkov takes this in stride, and sets about to out-magic (or is it out-science?) the wizard  Flash Gordon doesn't often tread into this kind of terrain, and other series (such as Thundarr the Barbarian [1980])  better chart the line between science and magic. Still, the subplot gives this episode a little more thematic heft.

Also, this could have been the most dynamic episode of the first season -- Flash as the re-incarnation, essentially, of Mongo's greatest ruler -- if only earlier episodes had not hammered so relentlessly on the idea of Flash as a queen/princess's savior.  Every woman on Mongo loves him instantly and unconditionally, so Azura's story feels run of the mill, instead of like something mysterious and wonderful.

Next week: "King Flash."

Friday, March 25, 2016

Found Footage Friday: Special Bulletin (1983: NBC)

Many folks of my generation still vividly recall the first prime-time broadcast of the grim TV movie, The Day After (1983).  That landmark tele-film, directed by Nicholas Meyer, gazed at life in the American heartland immediately following a devastating nuclear exchange.

So powerful in imagery and so bleak in narrative, The Day After actually altered the course of real-life international politics. After watching the TV-movie, President Reagan re-committed himself to peace with the Soviet Union, a strong shift away from the "we start bombing in five minutes"/"Evil Empire"-rhetoric of his young administration.

Although not as widely remembered as The Day After, another TV-movie of 1983 also dealt powerfully with the issue of nuclear annihilation.

On March 20, 1983, NBC aired a startling program from director Edward Zwick titled Special Bulletin that -- despite a disclaimer -- presented itself as an authentic news broadcast.  In other words, Special Bulletin was the TV equivalent of Orson Welles' notorious 1938 War of the Worlds radio presentation.

Special Bulletin commences innocuously with an advertisement for the (fictional) RBS Network, replete with its catch-phrase, "we're moving up!"  In the middle of the advertisement for game shows and soap operas, the screen goes to static and the title "Special Bulletin" pops up.  Suddenly, we're in a bustling network news room following a breaking story in Charleston, South Carolina.

Specifically, a small tug boat has pulled into the Port of Charleston and is carrying aboard her a group of American terrorists.

After a shoot-out with dock security, a reporter and his cameraman are captured by the terrorists and taken hostages aboard the ship, the Liberty May. The terrorists promptly request a direct feed to RBS, so they can make their demands known to the world at large.

After very little discussion, RBS agrees to the terrorists' terms. and soon the leader of the group, Bruce Limon (The Thing's David Clennon) speaks. 

According to his wishes, the U.S. will turn over 968 warhead detonators in its nuclear arsenal, or the terrorists will explode a home-made nuclear bomb in Charleston, effectively destroying the city and all of its people. 

Limon, we soon learn from the news reporters,  is a former Pentagon official who is upset at the hard-right shift in American policy to the belief that nuclear war is winnable.

Along with a brilliant physicist, Dr. McKeeson (David Rasche), Limon believes that nuclear blackmail is the only option left to save the planet from itself. He plans to illustrate "what we all have to fear," should his attempt at unilateral disarmament be rejected.

Without even the smallest hint of artifice, Special Bulletin structures itself as a real news program of the epoch, right down to communication glitches, infrequent bursts of static, shaky-images and the occasional dopey remark from a reporter or anchor-person. 

As RBS news anchors John Woodley (Ed Flanders) and Susan Miles (Kathryn Walker) monitor the crisis, as nuclear terrorism becomes"stark reality," we are asked to follow the story down blind alleys, countenance talking-head blowhard pundits, and detect truth in a multitude of conflicting images, all rendered on (appropriately) cheap-looking video.

The presentation of the story is truly pitch-perfect, in large part due to excellent supporting performances by the likes of Christopher Allport, Lane Smith and a very young Michael Madsen. Nobody show-boats and no one has a really substantive role, either. These are just "reporters on the street" and interviewees, reacting to events as they unfold.  A perfect ensemble piece.

Occasionally the news anchors in Special Bulletin cut back to the live feed to watch events spiral out of control aboard Limon's ship, but they also consult experts on nuclear technology, and check in with reporters at the F.B.I Headquarters, the Pentagon, and on Capitol Hill. It's an effective, whip-smart presentation in a mock-documentary-style, and one that reportedly had quite a few Americans (especially in the South) wondering if the film could possibly be the real thing.  I remember that at school the day after Special Bulletin first aired, all of my friends were talking about it and also the film's absolutely take-no-prisoners approach to storytelling.

As Special Bulletin continues into the story's second day and it is confirmed that McKeeson and Limon indeed have an operational nuclear bomb, an evacuation of Charleston commences. A countdown clock ticks down the minutes till 6:00 pm, the time when the terrorists have threatened to detonate their weapon. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, politicians dither about "negotiating with terrorists" and argue about whether an accommodation can or should be reached.

The last fifteen minutes of the film involve a government ruse to appease the terrorists, and a bloody assault by U.S. soldiers on the Liberty May. The terrorists are put down effectively, but the bomb still ticks down towards destruction.  Then, terror follows short-lived relief.  In the last few moments of the film, something truly unthinkable occurs, and in a weird, unsettling way, Limon's point about the hazards of nuclear weapons is made.

We see exactly what we have to fear in the event of a nuclear exchange.

Today, it's almost impossible to watch Special Bulletin without thinking of the harrowing events we've seen on the nightly news since 2001. For instance, the evacuation of Charleston goes poorly, and one local reporter goes into detail about how the city's plans were not detailed enough, and did not take into account traffic congestion and other problems.  This seems very much reminiscent of what our country witnessed during and after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

But in general, what Special Bulletin gets so dead-on accurate is the horrifying sense of chaotic life spontaneously unfolding before our eyes, out-of-control, on the TV as our journalists and "experts" try to play catch-up in a game of TV ping-pong. I suppose the feeling here is roughly analogous to what seem people call the"fog of war:" False reports come to light, and even though we're watching events unfold live, we hesitate to believe our eyes that such a thing can happen here, in the United States.  I still remember listening to radio reports on 9/11 that the National Mall was on fire, and that Air Force One was imperiled. Neither of those things were actually true, but in the heat of the moment, reporters (and listeners and viewers) believed the reports.  Facts only became plain much, much later.

Thematically, Special Bulletin boasts two primary concerns.

The first involves the media itself. How complicit is the media, the film asks, in creating and extending situations like the one depicted here?  In the film, RBS gives over a live feed to the terrorists, an act which gives their demands a national audience, and which spurs panic in the citizenry.  There's something to be said for that argument that had Limon and McKeeson not been given access to television, their plan would have failed rather dramatically.  Or at the very least, the situation would have developed far more slowly, and allowed for a more reasoned response by the government.  The movie explicitly raises a question about the role of the press: is it a witness to this story, or part of the story, or both?

More than that even, the film looks at the way TV networks package and "sell" crises for higher ratings. Here, a colorful logo -- wrapped in stars and stripes -- pops up that reads "Flashpoint: America Under Siege." The logo even comes with its own dramatic theme song.  Although the news people are undeniably presented as heroic and straightforward in the film itself, there's also an undercurrent here; the uncomfortable feeling that RBS is riding this crisis all the way to the bank, with "exclusive" control of the live feed and a direct line to the action. At one point, McKeeson points this out to John Woodley, asking why RBS hasn't shared the feed with the other networks.

The end of Special Bulletin delivers a one-two punch  hat is hard to shake.  After the nuclear bomb detonates and Charleston is no more, there is a period of mourning -- 3 days to be exact -- on RBS before the media begins to seek news stories elsewhere. 

This is, perhaps, the tele-film's sharpest and most incendiary insight.  There's always more grist needed for the mill, and that fact is even more true today, in the age of cable television and the 24-hour news cycle than it was in the 1980s. We move willy-nilly from crisis to crisis without taking a breath because we have to be worried about something -- anything -- all the time. 

Don't touch that dial!  America Under Siege, indeed.

The second thematic concern of Special Bulletin involves, pretty clearly, the colossal danger of nuclear weapons. 

The "terrorists" in the film are actually concerned citizens who nonetheless cross the line and can't see how they have let their ideology blind them.  They are hypocrites, threatening to destroy innocent people with nukes because the government can't see how dangerous nukes are to innocent people. 

Long story short, you can't preach peace by threatening force. 

And the government is culpable in all of this too. Attempting to look strong and resolute, the President and his people first attempt to dismiss the terrorists as hoaxers, and then seek to trick and manipulate them, finally overtaking them by force.  The government experts never acknowledge or seem to believe Dr. McKeeson's all-too-sincere testimony that he has protected the bomb with an "anti-tamper" device. The government, essentially, plays a high-stakes game with the city of Charleston...and loses the gamble.

The message encoded in Special Bulletin is that nukes as deterrents or nukes as weapons are much too dangerous to trifle with, for ideologues in any party.  Why?  Purely and simply because the destruction caused by nuclear weapons is immense, beyond our worst imagining.

In Special Bulletin, Charleston is destroyed -- rendered a desert -- and a whole swath of South Carolina will remain uninhabitable for years to come following the detonation.  And that's just the result of one nuke.  Imagine America's arsenal of 968 warheads in action, and the kind of devastation it could render.  This is destruction on a Biblical scale, and we would be fools to forget that fact. The final scenes of the film, set in a burning Charleston, with reports of "people burned beyond recognition" are the stuff or real nightmares.

One part a critique of the news business as show business, and one part a blunt-faced look at the terrifying power of nuclear weapons, Special Bulletin remains a blazing, unforgettable viewing experience. As far as mock-documentary films go, it's deftly-presented, and will leave you pondering, among other things, our strange, self-destructive nature.   

Not only are we fully capable of destroying ourselves, it seems.  We actually want front row seats to the show.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Films of 1982: Q: The Winged Serpent

One  reason I admire low-budget exploitation films so much is that, in many cases, writers and directors don't feel compelled to trot along happily with the Hollywood party line.

A three-act structure patterned after the Campbell Monomyth may be tiresome de rigueur for the big budget extravaganza, but filmmakers such as Larry Cohen or Tobe Hooper are subversives and non-conformists. They march to the beat of their own (distinctive) drums and, in the process, shatter audience expectations.

Not every film they make is great, but every film they make is theirs, not the product of committee. I prefer that approach because I'd rather see a unique, oddball effort than a "product" that looks the same as everything else out there.  I've seen movies like Thor or Green Lantern a dozen times. By contrast, there is only one Q: The Winged Serpent, to modify the tag-line from the 1976 King Kong.  The descriptors "strange" and "offbeat" don't even begin to do this 1982 film justice.

Q: The Winged Serpent, released in September of 1982, is a perfect example of a movie that, on cursory description, sounds like a lot of other monster movies, namely Godzilla or King Kong, but which as been gloriously corkscrewed by writer/director Cohen to play as a totally different, totally unique viewing experience.   

Most importantly, Cohen's point-of-entrance/attack on Q: The Winged Serpent is revolutionary.  The film features a small time crook, Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarity) as protagonist, if not "hero."   And it's not even that he's just a crook that's important. He's actually a coward too. In monster movies we've been conditioned to expect the square-jawed romantic hero, one who is courageous and noble.  Jimmy Quinn is a different...bird.

Additionally, Cohen -- on a low budget, no less -- reveals to audiences a visual aspect of New York City we've never really seen before in film.  It's an eagle's eye, roof-top view of the metropolis and much of the action occurs there.  Notably, such moments atop high-rises, including the vicious opening attack on a window washer, don't appear faked in terms of exteriors or stunts.  The real location shooting -- in Manhattan and atop the buildings -- thus grants the sense a film of gritty authenticity and legitimacy.  Watching Q, I appreciate the contrast between Jimmy Quinn -- a rat on street level --  with Quetzlcoatl, a winged monster in the sky.

Despite such virtues, critics by-and-large dismissed Q: The Winged Serpent.  Janet Maslin wanted to offer "only a very few words" about the film, as if it wasn't worth the energy of a full review.  She also viewed the script's humor as "inadvertent," an opinion I would strongly contest given the comedic sheen of Cohen's work in films including It's Alive (1973) and The Stuff (1985).  Meanwhile, Roger Ebert famously championed Michael Moriarity's tic-filled lead performance as Quinn while dismissing the rest of Q as "dreck." Chicago Reader's Pat Graham called the effort "curiously disengaged and sloppy."

Again, for me the very opposite holds true.

I find Q: The Winged Serpent absolutely engaging because of its droll, edgy, unconventional nature, and because Michael Moriarty absolutely rivets the attention, though often in deliriously oddball fashion. The conventional and disengaged approach, in my opinion, would have been to feature stalwart, heavily-armed heroes of the military and U.S. government battling Quetzlcoatl throughout, with scientists theorizing about how to destroy the dangerous creature.

Instead, Cohen takes the extraordinary route of weaving the story of Quetzcoatl -- an Aztec God "prayed" back into existence -- into the life story of a neurotic, twitchy crook who, perhaps, feels more at home in prison than among free men.  Again, this is a character who might have a supporting role in a "regular" monster movie, perhaps even played as comic relief.  But here, Quinn is Q's raison d'etre.

Can a movie about a giant, man-eating serpent actually be a terrific and illuminating human character piece?  Larry Cohen seems to think so, and in Q: The Winged Serpent he explodes long-standing monster movie cliches to make the point.

"What else is God but an invisible force that we fear?"

In New York City, something strange is happening.  A serial murderer seems to be flaying (willing?) victims in accordance with ancient Aztec rites of human sacrifice.

Detectives Shepard (David Carradine) and Powell (Richard Roundtree) investigate these horrendous crimes at the same time that an urban legend multiplies in the city: the legend of a giant bird/serpent that strikes from the sky, and claims human prey as food.  People have gone missing, and blood has literally rained down upon the streets on occasion.

Meanwhile, small time crook Jimmy Quinn (Moriarity) has been seeking legitimate work at his girlfriend's (Candy Clark) insistence.  Unfortunately, he gets involved in a diamond heist (at a jewelry store called Neil Diamonds...) and runs afoul of both the law and his law-breaking cohorts.  After Quinn loses 77,000 dollars of diamonds in an accident, he hides on the top floor of The Chrysler Building and learns that the city's monster is no legend.

There, he discovers the nest for Quetzcoatl, the Aztec God of blood and human sacrifice.   Pursued by his former partners in crime, Quinn leads the crooks to The Chrysler Building...where they are promptly eaten.

The Quetzlcoatl attacks over Manhattan grow more numerous and brazen, and after Jimmy is arrested, he realizes he possesses a unique bargaining chip.  He offers to share the location of the monster's nest with the police if they give him a "Nixon-like" pardon and immunity, a million dollars, and exclusive book, movie and photograph rights to the monster's story...

"You are a betrayer and now you must humble yourself..."

At the center of Q: The Winged Serpent is Jimmy Quinn, the strangest monster movie protagonist you've ever seen.  He's a loser and a coward.  He "scats" at the piano, and creates his own bizarre musical numbers/voice-over narrations, such as the composition "Evil Dream."

Basically, Moriarity twitches and gesticulates his way through the film in a manner that captivates the attention, and feels strangely authentic and real. Quinn is neurotic and afraid: a rat trapped in the "mean streets"/cage of The Big Apple.   But he's not just your average crook, either. He's a hustler with delusions of grandeur and a creeping suspicion he'd be happier in prison, a place where he would be taken care of by the state, and perhaps do no harm to others. He'x an ex-junkie, an alcoholic, a loser...and yet you root for him to succeed.

In Q: The Winged Serpent, the audience gets to see all sides of Quinn, and some are appealing and some not.  For instance, as I wrote above, Quinn is trying to go "legit," and so the movie showcases his efforts to make it as a musician.  Efforts which are, I would estimate, pretty dire. You haven't really lived until you've watched Michael Moriarity scat at a small bar piano.

And then, further de-romanticizing our already-unconventional protagonist, Quinn and his girlfriend argue over the fact that, on many occasions, he has gotten drunk and hit her. This is a key part of Quinn's character.  When in a position of power, he's not just a small time loser, he's dangerous...and mean.  We see it in his treatment of his girlfriend, but also in the way Quinn holds the City hostage, and, of course, in his brutal, deliberate act of feeding two criminals to Quetzlcoatl.  He brushes off the latter act as self-defense.

Quinn clearly is against-type in monster movies, as I've enumerated above.  But what makes him truly fascinating is his dawning sense of self-realization that he is, to put it mildly,  a creep.  Cohen gives Moriarity a great monologue -- a clear analog to an important moment for Marlon Brando's Terry Malloy in Elia Kazan's On The Waterfront (1954) -- where he reflects that he's been a bum all his life, and that if things were different, he would change that fact.  "All my life I've been nobody," he reflects, "now I can be somebody."

Moriarity's Quinn is the glue that holds together Q: The Winged Serpent, and more than that, the very point of the movie. Here's a guy who discovers a man-eating monster, and decides to use that knowledge to better his position in life.

Importantly, Quinn's rather heartless approach to life is pointedly contrasted with the efforts of the ritualistic serial killer, who also uses the lives of others to remake the world in an image he prefers.

Amidst all of this selfish behavior -- a perfect reflection of the young, upwardly mobile values of the early 1980s -- Quetzlcoatl and its just-hatched offspring seem like true innocents.  The real "monster" in this monster movie isn't the man-eating beast with razor sharp talons, but the kind of man who would use tragedy and pain to make a personal fortune. There may even be a debate here about human nature.  The Q operates by its nature (to kill in order to survive), but what about Quinn?  Is he just acting according to human nature, or is he representative of the worst of human nature?

The special effects of Q: The Winged Serpent are clearly of their age, featuring very-good stop-motion animation from Dave Allen.  The monster really look pretty good in several impressive shots.
One of my favorite compositions in the film involves a nifty jump scare in which Carradine turns his back on an open window, and the giant serpent lunges in behind him (above).  The film's final battle, with police battling Quetzcoatl from perches atop The Chrysler Building, is also strong, and evokes clear memories of King Kong (1933) and the Empire State Building finale. But the monster scenes are largely not the point. This is a movie about what might really happen if a crook discovered a monster, not a movie about a monster's reign of terror. 

Another perpetual joy in Q: The Winged Serpent is the witty screenplay. Cohen's staccato, rat-a-tat, authentic "city" dialogue has been termed tongue-in-cheek in some circles, but in fact it plays as funny because it is so deadpan and earnest, so true.

If a monster were attacking New York City, wouldn't you expect to hear people asking questions like: "Did you find that construction worker's head yet?" It may seem silly, but it is appropriate. In short, Q: The Winged Serpent accepts and internalizes its bizarre premise, and that acceptane forges amusing dialogue (especially for David Carradine's character) from that real situation.

It's an equation that, for me, really works well.  This is one of those movies that may not seem great in a traditional or conventional sense, but which you just can't take your eyes or ears off of.

More than one critic has also pointed out how the 1998 Godzilla seems to play more closely on aspects of Q: The Winged Serpent than the Gojira mythos. It's an interesting observation, and not entirely without merit.

For instance, both films end on the exact same cliffhanging note: evidence that an unhatched monster -- an egg -- remains even after the final, urban battle with the Mommy Lizard.

But where Godzilla was a colossal, focus-group tested, market-driven blockbuster, Q: The Winged Serpent is a much more intimate and human-scaled film. Again, this  approach is just incredibly unconventional in terms of the monster movie sub-genre.  When you consider the greats of the form, you begin to detect how the classics play with form and expectations.  Such innovation may be done with special effects (King Kong [1933]), a blazing political context (Godzilla: King of Monsters), or a man-on-the-street point-of-view (Cloverfield [2008]).

I'd argue Q: The Winged Serpent belongs on that select monster movie list precisely because it is so odd and so personal, and because it uses the story of a giant serpent almost as background noise for the character study of a memorable creep.

Because Q: The Winged Serpent so expertly grounds its wildest fantasy concepts with a study of Moriarity's sleazy little loser, this film from 1982 truly mimics the soaring behavior of its titular flying serpent.

Q: The Winged Serpent flies so close to the sun, it momentarily blinds you.  

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Coloring Book of the Week: Thunderbirds

Thunderbirds, by Dinky

Thunderbirds Halloween Costume (Ben Cooper)

Thunderbirds GAF Viewmaster

Lunch Box of the Week: Thunderbirds are Go!

Board Game of the Week: Thunderbirds (Waddington)

Theme Song of the Week: Thunderbirds (1965 - 1966)

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Menagerie" (November 17 and 24, 1966)

Stardate 3012.4

The U.S.S. Enterprise receives a message diverting the vessel to Starbase 11.  There, Commodore Mendez (Malachi Throne) insists that no such message was sent.

Mendez also reports some grave news. Fleet Captain Christopher Pike (Jeffrey Hunter/Sean Kenney) has been badly injured during a rescue attempt aboard a cadet vessel. Although Pike survived the incident, he was exposed to delta rays is now horribly scarred. He is also confined to a life-support chair, and is only able to answer “yes” or “no” through an indicator light. As Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley) points out, Pike is as alert as ever, but he is trapped in a convalescing body.

Pike is the former captain of the Enterprise, and was Spock’s (Leonard Nimoy) commanding officer for many years. Accordingly, Mendez suspects that Spock sent the phantom message so he could see his former friend.

The truth is somewhat different.

Spock abducts Pike and hijacks the Enterprise, stranding Captain Kirk (William Shatner) at Starbase 11.  Spock immediately sets a course for Talos IV, a mysterious planet that Starfleet officers are forbidden to have contact with.

Violation of this edit is punishable by the last death penalty on the books.

Kirk pursues the Enterprise in a shuttle-craft, and attempts to stop his apparently-mutinous first officer.  When Spock is held for court-martial, however, exonerating evidence is presented…straight from the mysterious Talos IV.

On a view-screen on the court room, images from nearly two-decades earlier play out. They reveal the details of Captain Pike’s visit to Talos IV, and his strange encounter with the beings there.

Star Trek’s only two-part episode -- the brilliant “The Menagerie” -- began as a production expedient. Because Star Trek was expensive -- not to mention complicated to produce -- there was the ubiquitous worry that deadlines would be missed, and an episode might not make it to air.

The result was a clever re-use of the original pilot, “The Cage,” with new wraparound or bridging material featuring the regular cast, standing sets, and so forth. Few would have imagined, no doubt, that a glorified “clips” story would become one of the most beloved episodes of the series, or for that matter, one of the best Star Treks ever made. Yet that is precisely what happened.

“The Cage” by itself is a clever, intelligent story about mankind’s indomitable nature, and humanity's refusal to give in to emotions or appetites (such as desire) in the face of, essentially slavery. 

But the bridging material included in "The Menagerie" adds so much to the story-line. It is the yin to “The Cage’s” yang.  

If “The Cage” is about the ways that illusions can be a trap (like an addictive “narcotic,” in the words of the teleplay,”) then “The Menagerie” is an even-handed, book-end opposite conclusion.  

Sometimes, perhaps, an illusion can be legitimately, life-saving. Sometimes, it can be a refuge from suffering.

In exploring that idea, “The Menagerie” deepens the character of Spock significantly. Not only because we meet a younger, apparently more impulsive version of him in the material from “The Cage,” but because we come to understand that beneath his cool, glacial exterior, he does feel. He does care.

And the bonds Spock forges with his friends are strong...even unbreakable. Here, he exposes himself to legal jeopardy and possibly death in order to save a friend, Christopher Pike. He acts against regulations, against orders, against prudence, even, to enact a positive outcome for a man whose life has been destroyed.  

The question, of course, is this: are Spock’s decisions based in emotion or in logic?   

I could very well our dispassionate friend explaining the utter illogic of Pike’s continued suffering, as well as the illogic of a zero tolerance policy towards visiting Talos IV.  In this one setting, in this one case, there is only one logical place for the injured Captain Pike -- Spock’s friend to live out the rest of his days. And that place happens to be Talos IV.

Uniquely, the Star Trek movies present a kind of mirror or reflection of this episode's ethos. In Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), Kirk risks legal jeopardy and death, too, to visit a forbidden planet called Genesis. 

As is the case in “The Menagerie,” he does so to save his friends, both Spock and McCoy. He must alleviate their suffering.  

In both examples, one cannot escape the conclusion that Star Trek has made a judgment on “rules.”  

It is more important to achieve a good (such as saving a friend) than it is to adhere to a policy, rule, or hierarchy. 

When one considers all the occasions in which Kirk chooses “normal human development” over the dogma of General Order One, or the Prime Directive, this philosophical viewpoint becomes even more apparent.  

Rules are good. They give us all guidelines.

Helping people is better.

The original “The Cage” possesses a much more “cerebral” philosophy for certain. Pike’s adventure is not about helping friends, about succumbing to your feelings or even logic.  

Rather, it is about the opposite. It is about how a starship captain, Pike, must remain disciplined in the face of sexual fantasy. 

If Pike succumbs to his appetites, to his sexual desires, he will be responsible for fathering a race of human slaves. The Talosians keep tempting him with those fantasies. They are inventive and relentless in their attempts. For example, they set up a scenario in which he is a knight in a shining armor, protecting a virginal princess from a Kalar barbarian.  Here, he is asked to fulfill his biological male role of protector.

And then the  Talosians tempt Pike again with a scene of domestic bliss.  He is home, safe and well-established. His beautiful wife adores him, and he her. 

And finally, unforgettably, the Talosians tempt Pike with Vina’s (Susan Oliver) final appearance: as a seductive “animal-like” Orion Slave Girl.  Vina's dance is one of the great moments in Star Trek, the promise of alien contact that is dangerous, different and desirable.

I have written here before about the kinky aspects of the original Star Trek, and the way that the later generations prove far more conservative (as a whole) in their approach to sex, and sexual fantasies.  

“The Menagerie” is a prime example of Star Trek getting its kink on.  The ship’s captain is attacked, essentially, with sexual fantasy after sexual fantasy, but he must not crack; must not succumb. 

The underlying theme of “The Cage” aspect of this episode is that appetites and desires must be controlled, lest a negative future be wrought.  Pike can indulge in every fantasy, every kind of sex he can imagine. But in doing so, he risks focusing on the selfish; on the personal, and not seeing the big picture. He would fail to consider the welfare of the human race itself.  It's a classic conflict between desire and morality.

The provocative sexual aspects of "The Menagerie" might be today viewed as somehow sexist by some, especially since female crew-members are referred to at one point as “breeding stock.” 

And yet, at the same time, “The Cage” is amazingly progressive in one very remarkable regard. Number One (Majel Barrett), a competent, highly-accomplished female, is second in command of the Enterprise during Pike’s voyages. 

She is depicted leading a landing team, in command during a strategy briefing aboard ship, and in other situations that demonstrate well her skill, training and judgment.  So of course, the network axe Number One. Who does she think she is?

Alas, there would be no other female character of Number One's ilk in Star Trek until the age of Deep Space Nine. Crusher and Troi on Next Gen were always firmly ensconced in caretaker roles, and Tasha Yar was so underdeveloped that viewers rarely if ever got to see her in a leadership role.

“The Cage” is also forward-thinking in its presentation of Captain Pike.  Although he keeps horses, he is much, much less cowboy-like than is Captain Kirk.  Indeed, Pike seems a more direct antecedent of Jean Luc Picard than he is of James Kirk. Pike is introspective; he is moody. He is reserved…and private.  Thus Pike does not feel like a product of 1960s TV. He is very un-Bond-like and un-cowboy-like at the same time.

“The Cage” also features fewer Western tropes, in general, than we see in many Star Trek episodes of the regular series. It feels ahead of its time, and spectacularly so.

“The Menagerie” is also brilliant in a way that was certainly not intended. 

More than any other episode in the original series, it establishes the reality of the Star Trek universe by granting it…history.  

In this episode we see a future that is twenty-years earlier than Kirk’s time. It is a clunkier time in terms of technology, and appropriately so given the arc of history. There are Flash Gordon ray guns about, goose-neck monitors, and large communicators that have their circuitry visible under transparent materials.  

We see older uniforms, a younger Spock, and more.  We see a starship bridge that is recognizable as such, but clearly of an earlier design.

My point is basically this: Had Star Trek attempted to invent this “earlier” future, it would have cost the series a lot of money, and been been practically impossible to do so. 

But by importing an earlier production into its continuity -- in the form of “The Cage” -- “The Menagerie” presents a whole, incredibly believable, fully-realized three-dimensional “history” to the series we know and love. The differences and similarities in production design make the universe feel as though it is always developing, always in motion.  "The Cage" actually feels like it comes before Star Trek in history.

A critical flaw of Enterprise, I feel, is that it always looked like it came after Star Trek, and so didn't have the right vibe for a prequel.  It didn't feel like history. It looked and felt like something new.

When I finish blogging the first season of Star Trek, I’ll present my list for the ten best episodes of that span, but without giving too much away, “The Menagerie” will certainly make that list.

It dynamically expresses Spock’s under-the-surface humanity at the same time that it grows the universe dramatically, and transmits a message about discipline in the face of temptation.

Next week: “The Conscience of the King”

Monday, March 21, 2016

Ask JKM a Question: What Non-Genre TV Programs do I Watch?

A reader and friend named Terri writes:


We readers associate you so much with sci-fi and horror, I was wondering if you had any favorite TV shows that are not in those genres. 

Ones you are currently watching and/or ones that you have on your list to binge in the future. You must have a hard enough time keeping up with sci-fi and horror, but I was curious as to where some of your other tastes lie.

Thanks for your work,


Terri, thank you for such a great question, and thank you for your friendship.  

It's true that no one can live on a diet of horror and sci-fi alone.  Not even me.

I feel and hope that I am a better critic and writer if I sometimes go outside of the genre and sample something else; something different. Consider it a palette cleanser.

My wife and I have binged watched and -- absolutely loved -- Sons of Anarchy (2008-2015), Mad Men (2007-2015), House of Cards (2012 - ), Vikings (2013 - ) and The Americans (2013 - ) to name just a few of the non-genre programming that we've sampled.

Of that bunch, I am particularly taken with Mad Men and Sons. They are true masterpieces and works of art in my opinion.  Mad Men is meticulously-constructed and beautiful to watch, and I love how it captures the era of the 1960s. Sons of Anarchy satisfies my penchant for and love of blood-soaked gangster stories.

One of my all-time favorite movies is Brian De Palma's Scarface, and Sons of Anarchy absolutely feeds my love for that kind of violent action and tales of hubris. In way, Vikings is the same thing, but in a period piece setting. I love watching the power-plays, the maneuvering, the big reversals, and the victories in those shows.  And I have a crush on Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick) in Vikings.

I could never really get into Downton Abbey (2010 - 2015), despite all the critical approbation. I could never see the series as much more than a soap opera in dress-up, right down to the implausible plot twists. Worse, I felt it glamorized the relationship between the aristocracy and servants. I liked this story much better when it was called Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-1975). My wife watched Downton and liked it, and I sort of kept one eye on it while I read a book or wrote one.

I also watched -- from start to finish -- Californication (2007 - 2014) and am a card-carrying member of the Hank Moody fan club.  I loved that series.  I also love The Fall (2013 - ), and feel it is one of the best things going.

So to answer your question, I make it a point to watch non-genre TV series, and keep up with the culture as much as I can.  I generally don't have much patience, however, for sitcoms or reality shows. I rarely if ever watch them.

But man, do I love gangster drama and Mad Men

Don't forget to ask me your questions at

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Gambling

Gambling might be defined as taking a risk in hopes of winning, but gambling also, at least in our culture, often includes games of chance as well.  

Several cult-TV shows across the decades have involved stories with main characters gambling, and either winning or losing big.

In 1960, an early episode of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) called "The Fever" focuses on the addictive aspect of gambling.  A man named Franklin (Everett Sloane) is against gambling until he starts working one particular slot-machine.  That slot machine soon proves sentient, and stalks Franklin, demanding to be "fed" with more coins.

The Ghost Story (1972) episode "Time of Terror" is set at a casino and involves a married woman, Ellen Alexander (Patricia Neal), who wakes up in a strange hotel and learns that her number has been called in a game of "Keno."  She has drawn a losing number, or a winning one?

In the British series Blake's 7 (1978-1981), an episode called "Gambit" finds the crew of the Liberator visiting Freedom City, a neutral site dominated by brothels, bars, and casinos.  There, at the Big Wheel Casino run by a proprietor named Krantor (Aubrey Woods) Avon (Paul Darrow)  and Vila  Michael Keating) -- with the help of super computer Orac -- attempt to break the bank.

The Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981) episode "Vegas in Space" is also set at a futuristic casino in the gambling city called Sinoloa.  There, after playing several computerized games, Buck (Gil Gerard) attempts to break out a prisoner who has secret knowledge regarding Draconian hatchet fighters.

In Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), the weekly poker game is a recurring venue for gambling.  But another episode "The Royale," is set on an alien world and features a (bad) novel come to life.  Its setting, the Royale! 

In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993 - 1999), Quark's Bar is a destination for gamblers, although the games aren't always fair, as episodes such as "Move Along Home" point out.