Saturday, April 09, 2016

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Jason of Star Command: "Battle for Freedom" (December 1, 1979)

“Battle for Freedom,” the final episode of Jason of Star Command (1978 – 1979) really pulls out all the stops.  The episode features several new miniatures, a grand space battle (with more space craft per shot than we’ve seen before…), some terrific character interaction, and, finally, even a sense of resolution.

In this installment, Commander Stone (John Russell) is intercepted by Dragos while en route to Fleet Command to accept a medal for his outstanding service. Dragos holds Stone hostage and informs Jason, now acting Commander of Star Command, that Stone will not be released unless Jason cedes the peaceful planet Chryton to the tyrant.

Chryton’s prime consul, Jo-neen, visiting Star Command, officially requests protection for her planet. Jason attempts to stall Dragos, leaving Parsafoot in command while he searches the D-2 Star System for Stone.  Unfortunately, the planets in that system have strange effects on humanoids. Jason and Samantha take an antidote created by Parsafoot and head out to rescue their superior officer.

On the planet, Jason and Samantha find Commander Stone, but he has lost his memory. Jason is able to help Stone recover his identity. In part he does so by reminding Stone of Dragos – the man who forced Stone’s people from their planet -- and in part by reminding him that he is “the best commanding officer Star Command has ever had.”

As Jason, Samantha and Commander Stone leave the planet in the D2 system, Parsafoot launches a fleet of Star Command drones to meet Dragos’ attack fleet in space and defend Chryton.  It’s a rout, but the defeated Dragos has one last trick up his sleeve. 

He attempts to use a deadly anti-matter ray or “projector” to blast Jason’s Star-Fire into another dimension.  Jason uses a nearby red dwarf to reflect the beam, and Dragos instead is cast away into another reality “for a long, long time.”

You might expect a Saturday morning’s kid show, at the end of a long season, to do a bottle show or something rather modest, having run out of budgetary resources. Instead, Jason of Star Command goes out in grand style, with a whole host of new special effects and miniatures. For the first time, we see the unmanned Star Command drones, and by the half-dozen, no less. We also see Dragos’ fearsome battle stations in orbit of Chryton. 

And, of course, we get the final tango between the deadly Dragonstar and Jason’s zippy Star-Fire.  There are more miniature shots – and of greater complexity – in this twenty-minute segment than in the last several episodes of the season put together.

Although certainly the intention would have been to have another season of episodes, “Battle for Freedom” provides a nice sense of closure to the Saturday morning series. 

The socially-inept Parsafoot begins a romantic relationship with Jo-neen, and more importantly, Jason and Commander Stone finally seem comfortable with another. They have some nice banter in “Battle for Freedom,” and come to an acceptance, you might say, of their different way of doing things.   

They started out as uncomfortable allies at the beginning of season two, and end the same season with a strong sense of mutual respect. In this regard, the cast change from James Doohan as Commander Canarvin to John Russell as Commander Stone really works in the series’ favor. So much so, in fact, I’m inclined to agree with Jason’s explicit assessment: Stone is the better commander.

And, of course, Dragos is finally defeated in this valedictory episode. As the villain disappears, shouting maniacally “some day…Jason…” it’s clear he could return, had the series come back. But as the final episode of the show, the defeat of Dragos also plays as a final victory for the heroes. The scourge of the universe is gone. 

Watching Jason of Star Command today, it never lets you forget it was made for children.  The stories are simple and straight-forward, so much so that they become rather boring at times for an adult.  

Yet -- from time to time -- the character interaction is really great, particularly as it pertains to Stone and Jason. More to the point, the special effects remain astonishing examples of 1970s post-Star Wars state of the art.  They compare favorably, in fact, with prime time efforts such as Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979) and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981).

I can’t say I wouldn’t have appreciated more thematic depth in a lot of these second season episodes, but again…these shows were designed for kids, and they're fun.  Adios, Jason!

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Flash Gordon: "Chapter 12: Tournament of Death" (December 8, 1979)

Our multi-ethnic, multi-cultural Mongo/Earth team in Filmation's Flash Gordon (1979-1982) is now in the clutches of Ming the Merciless and Princess Aura, as Chapter 12, "Tournament of Death," commences. 

There are some lovely views of Mingo City in this installment of the animated series as Gordon, Zarkov, Dale, Thun, Barin and Vultan are escorted (in shackles...) into the metropolis to participate in "the great games."

As for Prince Barin, he has a plan. If he wins in the arena, he can marry the woman of his choice; and he wants Princess Aura. 

Unfortunately, she wants to be the bride of Flash Gordon. Barin is jealous, and angry with Flash, even though Flash claims to have no interest in Ming's daughter.

Before the games commence, Flash engineers an escape into the caves beneath Mingo City, using Zarkov's inviso-ray to take out several of Ming's metal men. The team subsequently escapes, but Aura sends three dragons -- the "Royal Groks" -- after them. 

Flash gets the Groks to fight each other instead of the humans, but then there's another obstacle to face. The group encounters "The Cavern of Fire," and the only way to escape is through a tunnel on the far side of the "flame barrier." A cable car can carry them there if they wear protective biohazard suits, but Aura intercepts the fugitives and re-captures Flash, Dale and Zarkov. Vultan, Thun and Barin are free.

But again, Barin has a plan...

While Ming threatens to take Dale to his "apartment," Flash is led to the arena. 

"Let the Great Games begin," Ming declares, as Flash the gladiator fights many of the creatures we've seen in previous episodes. There are royal Groks, the lobster-like "Talors" (The Fire King...), and the giant blue magic worm from Azura's kingdom, among others.

Flash makes short work of the beasts and other gladiators (including a man with a bull-head - a minotaur?), but then runs into a tough masked warrior who suspiciously resembles Prince Barin. In fact, he uses a bow, and is garbed in Barin's gear, but wears a black sack over his head.

At the end, only Flash and the Arborian prince stand, and Ming warns that the gladiators must next face the dreaded "cable of green flame." Whatever that is...

Next Week: "Castaways in Tropica."

Friday, April 08, 2016

Cult-TV Movie Review: The Love War (1970)

Producer Aaron Spelling and director George McCowan presented this sci-fi "ABC Movie of the Week" on March 10, 1970, over forty years ago now. 

Since that time, The Love War has remained an affectionate favorite for some; a little-remembered oddity for others.

Penned by David Kidd and Guerdon Trueblood, The Love War follows a reserved, emotionless alien warrior from the distant planet Argon, a "man" named Kyle (Lloyd Bridges).

Kyle and his lieutenant (a very young, pre-Hill Street Blues Daniel J. Travanti...) have traveled to Earth to play a most serious sort of "game." The outcome of that game could spell salvation or destruction for all of us.

Some background: Our happy little green planet rests between the "overlap" of two cosmic Empires. Both Argon (Kyle's world) and hostile Zenon claim that our world belongs to them.

But, to avoid use of "the bomb," a weapon which has all-but destroyed both alien civilizations, the two empires have agreed on a new kind of warfare. Monitored by the impartial "War Arbitration Control," each side sends three of their best warriors to Earth.

There, in human form, these representatives will wage a war according to "rules." They must abide by a "schedule" -- "the clock by which our lives run," according to Kyle. And "any change in the schedule will be dealt with harshly," according to War Arbitration.

The aliens also battle in designated "Skirmish Zones," and make certain that their enemies, once destroyed, are disintegrated, leaving no trace of their presence. Throughout the film, we see several alien corpses glow green and then burn up in orange puffs of smoke.

Most importantly, the aliens choose to fight in a peculiar manner: in "the way man does on Earth." This description means one-on-one gunfights or shoot-outs, specifically.

The alien enemy combatants can detect each other only by two means, since they are hidden inside human bodies. 

The first way involves the use of a small hand-held scanner. It beeps white when enemies are near; red when they are within shooting range. 

And secondly -- and forecasting John Carpenter's They Live (1988) -- the aliens can only see each other for their true form when they adorn glasses

If Argon wins the war, Earth will become part of "The Federation." If Zenon wins, however, the human population will be destroyed and Zenon's people will be "substituted." In the event of a total draw, Earth will be "bypassed forever," according to Kyle.

Things don't go according to plan, for Kyle anyway, because this world-weary alien has begun -- for the first time in his 150 year lifespan -- to experience emotions. This development is anathema to him at first. Between "the effects of the bomb" and Argon's "relentless drive for intellectual superiority," all emotions, and all physical needs have been sublimated.

Until Kyle meets a beautiful fellow traveler named Sandy (Angie Dickinson), that is.

They meet, apparently by accident, on a bus bound for Fresno, where the next skirmish is scheduled to occur. Sandy is friendly, funny, sexy and a free spirit...all the things Kyle -- bearing the weight of two worlds -- can never be. She is also vulnerable, stoking his protective nature. "I ran out of destinations a long time ago," Sandy says cryptically at one point, like a little girl lost.

When Kyle informs Sandy he has had no "contact" with women for some time, Sandy then launches into an entertaining meditation on the various meanings of the word "contact," which is really an excuse to slip her hand over onto Kyle's leg.

In short order, Kyle and Sandy are hiding out at the Majestic Hotel in Fresno together. Kyle reveals his true alien identity to Sandy, and after some apparent difficulty, she accepts his story of interplanetary war and alien combatants. A love affair between Kyle and Sandy blossoms, even as the final battle between Argon and Zenon nears. "I've never felt this close to anything in my whole life," Kyle tells Sandy, as their bond seems to grow.

Unfortunately for Kyle, he has permitted his new-found emotions to blunt his warrior's instincts and in The Love War's shattering finale, he pays the price for his folly. The Argon makes a terrible - and pretty damn basic -- mistake. 

And it is here, in this surprising and effective coda, that The Love War truly becomes memorable (perhaps even a 1970s TV-movie classic).

The Love War's finale, which I speak of here only in generalities, suggests something about the nature of men and women; about love; and even, in some fashion, about warring. These were timely topics during the original broadcast. In 1970, America was still bogged down in Vietnam (the My Lai Massacre occurred just seven days after The Love War aired...), while Second Wave Feminism and Écriture Féminine were also on blazing ascent.

The proverb "man proposes and God disposes" could have been re-purposed here to substitute "woman" for God, because of the role Sandy ultimately plays in the warfare. She serves as "the sum total of every woman who ever lived," according to her own dialogue.

Some viewers may argue that Sandy's final act is one of betrayal and treachery, or even callous. But one thing is definitive: she has ended a war run by -- and played exclusively by -- men. When she alone is left standing at the film's denouement, the result is deliberately ambiguous: are the Zenon attack craft now ready to launch? Or has Sandy -- by her rule-breaking appearance in the arena of combat -- rendered the final battle a draw, thus saving us all? 

Thus ending all wars, forever?

Food for thought in a strange, intimate-little TV movie, I suppose. Given a bit of deep interpretation, it's not difficult to detect how The Love War actually follows in the footsteps of such anti-war (and feminist) texts like Lysistrata. 

Here, the indictment of men, and men's warring nature is clear. At one point, Sandy comments on succinctly on men and their desires: "you want what you want when you want it." 

Kyle responds, emptily: "what's wrong with that?"

To be blunt, The Love War features no exceptional locations or incredible special effects. It boasts not even a single interesting action scene. The style of the film is rudimentary, to put the matter politely. Even the battle royale is shot in hackneyed fashion, from a cockeyed 45 degree angle. And director George McCowan turns the (over)use of the zoom into -- if not an art -- at least a bad habit.

And yet, some unexplored quality of The Love War resonates. The story feels...intimate. The focus is on what it means to be human, and Lloyd Bridges and Angie Dickinson are a pretty compelling couple. When the film revolves around these two secretive, emotionally-battered characters falling in love and looking for a way to survive, you can't help but like The Love War. All the other bells and whistles don't matter. It's almost like a stage play or something. If it's not quite Death in Venice, it's Death in Fresno. With aliens.

Otherwise, The Love War is relatively efficient the manner in which it co-opts the Frederic Brown "Arena"-story template (already recruited by The Outer Limits and Star Trek...) to make a case about the personal cost of war.

And I must say, I admired the setting of the film's last shoot-out far more than I did the execution of the scene. The duel is set in an abandoned ghost town. It is here that the future is decided; but that choice about all our tomorrows is rendered by the rules of man's violent yesterdays; in a historical, not futuristic venue. There's just something inherently meaningful about the presentation: two humanoid aliens with ray guns quick-drawing in an Old West street, deciding the fate of a planet.

The best gets saved for last, however. After the final duel, we're granted a quick, haunting glimpse of the only surviving alien. The mask of humanity is gone, and in its place is something glowing and gorgeous...something powerful and yet delicate. 

Not the monster we were led to expect.

The Love War's big surprise is likely telegraphed in the title, but if you do take a gander at this old TV-movie, try to forget that you know the destination, and simply enjoy the journey. 

By my reckoning, the best love stories are always tragic ones, and The Love War certainly fits the bill.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Cult-Movie Review: Road Games (2016)

Some of my all-time favorite horror films over the years (and decades) have been set on barren highways, or rural roads.

And Soon the Darkness (1970), set on a treacherous stretch of road in France, is one of the absolute best of this school. 

As you may recall, the film concerns two young women on bikes navigating a stretch of road in which a vicious murderer is working.

Pamela Franklin stars in the film, and the film feels like a nightmare from which one cannot awake. Franklin's protagonist keeps going back and forth over the same paces, seeking help, while night looms ever closer.  We are conscious that she plays a losing game, as she is racing against not merely a murderer, but sunset itself.

This (great) film features an air of inevitability, and there is no escape valve by which the audience can escape the dread and tension. Even years after my last re-watch, I can remember the specifics of the final, overhead shot.

And Soon the Darkness is literally that good. It’s a highly underrated film.

Richard Franklin’s Road Games (1981) is another beloved film of this type. 

Here, Jamie Lee Curtis plays a hitchhiker in the Australian Outback. She teams with a friendly trucker (Stacy Keach) and his pet dingo to stop a serial killer who likes to strangle young women. 

This artfully-constructed thriller is like a mobile (and playful) version of Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). Although featuring far more in terms of its wit or gallows humor, Road Games shares with And Soon the Darkness a sense of utter inescapability.

This choking atmosphere of inescapability is no mean feat for a movie set on an open road.  

A road, by definition, is a path to distant destinations. Escape should be a foregone conclusion: just set your eyes on the horizon and run in one direction until you are safe.

But both films find plausible -- as well as maddening -- reasons to keep the protagonists on that increasingly closed-in road, in constant danger.

A new French-made horror film -- also titled Road Games -- is not a remake or a reboot of the eighties film, but instead an intriguing variation on the themes of both And Soon the Darkness and Franklin’s film.

From And Soon the Darkness we get our primary setting: another stretch of isolated, rural French road.

And from the Road Games of the 1980s, we get hitchhiker protagonists.

Similarly, all three “road horror” films, of course, revolve around a serial killer whose identity remains unknown to the audience until the climax. 

Much of the fun in this version of Road Games undoubtedly arises from the thriller’s “whodunit” game.  The film offers at least five different possibilities for the serial killer’s identity, and keeps the audience guessing to the bitter end.

Featuring no big special effects or elaborate set-pieces, only an atmosphere of mounting terror, Road Games is a good old fashioned “road” horror film and one that is a perfect -- even delicious -- companion piece for And Soon the Darkness and the earlier Road Games.

Like each of those genre classic, the 2016 Road Games manages to set up the nastiest of traps for the protagonist, again playing up against the apparent “freedom” promised by an open road.  

This 2016 film adds to the road horror film equation or formula in some fascinating ways, but mostly in its final reckoning that victory (and, indeed, escape) are illusory.

“Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers.”

A lonely English hitchhiker, Jack (Andrew Simpson), walks alone on a rural road in France.  

He is surprised when an approaching car nearly runs him off the road, and the driver and his passenger argue violently.  Jack rescues Veronique (Josephine de La Baume), the passenger, and the car driver leaves them stranded.

Jack and Veronique strike up a friendship as they hitchhike, and Veronique informs him that they are on a dangerous stretch of land, one where a serial killer preys on the vulnerable.  

They decide that there is “safety in numbers” and stick together.

The next day, Jack and Veronique get a lift from a middle-aged man named Grizard (Frederic Pierrot), who offers them a meal and a shower at his home nearby.  

They reluctantly agree to go to his home, after he reports that his wife, Mary (Barbara Crampton) is lonely, and likes visitors.

Jack and Veronique find that Grizard and Mary are an odd couple indeed, and that some unknown tension seems to roil the household. 

Veronique wishes to leave the household at once, but Jack convinces her to stay the night.

The next morning, after Jack and Veronique have made love, Grizard reports that Veronique has left the home, and resumed her hitchhiking.  She even left a note.

Jack doesn’t believe Grizard, and sets out to search for his missing friend...

“Sounds Too Good to Be True.”

There are five main characters featured in Road Games, and the “game” angle of the title comes into the picture in terms of audience attempts to discern the identity of the serial killer. 

Jack -- our protagonist -- is extremely nosy, and isn’t hitchhiking with any bags or luggage…which seems odd.

Veronique is “too good to be true,” perhaps -- every man's sexual fantasy -- and she reveals, around a camp fire, a grisly story about how her beloved brother was killed during a game of hide-and-seek, mangled by a tractor in a field.

Grizard is the oddest of birds, friendly and welcoming one moment, distant and aloof the next.  While driving his car, he eyes Veronique creepily. Throughout the film, he seems to operate on a secret agenda of his own design. As viewers, you never quite trust him.

Mary seems to be slowly going insane, and burdened by some heavy invisible baggage like guilt or shame. She possesses deep secrets, no doubt, as well as a penchant for creating ghoulish art.

Finally, there’s Delacroix, a man that Jack encounters on the road while looking for Veronique. It’s Delacroix's job to collect all the road kill in the area, and he goes about the task with perhaps too much enthusiasm.

Much of the film’s cleverness -- in terms of performance, writing, and staging -- emerges from the fact that all the characters seem a little bit off.  

The performances are strong, particularly Barbara Crampton’s. She plays a consistent character from point A to point Z, but our understanding of Mary changes, virtually scene-to-scene.  After the movie ends, it is clear who she is, and the demons she is grappling with.  She starts out as the most inscrutable or cryptic of individuals, but ends, in some fashion, as the most sympathetic.

Like the 1980s Road Games, this 2015 film features a strong gallows sense of humor. 

One of the first shots of the film finds the camera focusing on a sign that reads “Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers.” 

Almost instantly, we see Jack hitchhiking, right there.

If one were to read the subtext of the film -- and Jack’s character, in particular -- as concerning someone who “plays with fire,” or is impulsive, that leitmotif commences immediately, with this visual joke. It continues in his interactions and behavior with virtually every character he encounters.

By contrast, Veronique, who travels because is it “good for the soul” is a kind of fantasy figure in Road Games.  She skinny dips in a lake with Jack, and tells him, at one point, that she believes people should “live for the moment,” and “take what you want, when you want it.”  

Jack is not wrong to perceive this motto or manta as a kind of sexual come-on, which makes Veronique a single man’s “dream hitchhiker"...though with just one flaw, as the movie reveals.

In terms of inescapability, and indeed plausibility, Road Games scores pretty high. There is always a legitimate reason for Jack to stay in danger. I enunciated that reason above, perhaps: Veronique is a figure of spontaneity, liberation, and youthful vitality/sexuality. Until satisfied that Veronique really left him alone in Grizard’s house, Jack can’t bring himself to leave. He has to keep returning.  He must find her.

Road Games features several delightful and wicked moments worth lauding. 

Other than the mistaken identity game, which involves all the characters to some degree, the film makes a point of exploiting the language barrier. The film’s events would end in an entirely different fashion if only Jack could speak and understand French. 

He can’t, but thanks to subtitles, we can, and so the last several scenes -- involving speeding cars, a shotgun, an impaling, and a farm --are incomprehensible to him.

Again, not to us.  

Indeed, these moments set up perfectly a closing “stinger” that suggests more horror may yet arise from the likes of those who dwell on this pastoral stretch of road. Freedom isn't about getting away from a place, perhaps, but rather from the person who rides shot-gun in your car.

I would like to write more about the film’s numerous twists and turns, but as one character notes in Road Games,some things need to be hidden.”  I wouldn’t want to spoil for horror fans the thrill of finding a modern day version of And Soon the Darkness or Franklin’s Road Games.

This Road Games is very good indeed (but not too good to be true).

Movie Trailer: Road Games (2016)

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

At Nostalgic Theater Podcast: A Discussion of Batman on TV and at the Movies

I hope readers will check out Zaki Hasan's latest Nostalgic Theater Podcast, here.  

Zaki and I spent a delightful hour together recently discussing Batman's history on screen, but also the changing face of expectations in terms of superhero films.  

The context behind the conversation was two-fold: the fiftieth anniversary of Adam West's Batman and the then-impending release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

It was a great chat, and Zaki is a true kindred spirit.We love all the same genre/cult programs and movies. 

Hopefully, we'll get together one of these days to discuss Space:1999!

Video Game of the Week: The Shadow (Super Nintendo)

The Shadow Handheld Game (Tiger; 1994)

Puzzle of the Week: The Shadow (Milton Bradley)

Trading Cards of the Week: The Shadow (Topps)

Lunchbox of the Week: The Shadow (Aladdin)

Board Game of the Week: The Shadow (Milton Bradley)

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Balance of Terror" (December 15, 1966)

Stardate 1709.1

As Captain Kirk (William Shatner) officiates at a wedding of two young officers -- Lt. Robert Tomlinson (Stephen Mines) and Ensign Angela Martine (Barbara Baldavin) -- he also monitors a dangerous situation developing in the neutral zone separating the Federation from the Romulan Star Empire.

Specifically, two Federation outposts monitoring the zone have gone suspiciously quiescent, and a third, Outpost 4, reports coming under heavy attack by an invisible enemy.

The Enterprise arrives too late to save Outpost 4, but catches sight of an enemy vessel nearby; one with the ability to “cloak” and vanish from sight. Its weakness, however, is that it must become visible to fire its deadly plasma weapon.

Although the Earth-Romulan War is a century in the past, old race hatreds persist -- even aboard the Enterprise -- in the form of a bigoted helmsman, Stiles (Paul Comi). When the Enterprise learns that the Romulans are an off-shoot of the Vulcan race, he immediately suspects that Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) is a spy, or a traitor.

Captain Kirk soon recognizes the fact that he must destroy the invisible Romulan starship while it is still traveling on the Federation side of the Neutral Zone, so no question can be raised about who was the aggressor in this conflict.  

Meanwhile aboard the Romulan vessel, a war-weary commander (Mark Lenard) similarly realizes he must defeat the Enterprise if his crew is ever again to see the stars of home.

I must read like a broken record in reporting this assessment, but “Balance of Terror” is another all-time classic Star Trek episode, and likely one of the ten best stories of the entire series. 

“Balance of Terror” overcomes its obvious transplant of tropes from The Enemy Below (1957) -- a movie about a destroyer battling a submarine in World War II -- to forge a powerful statement about the futility of war. 

This Trek episode also brilliantly portrays its dueling commanders; men who are on opposite sides in a conflict, yet -- ironically -- share the same values. They are part of the universal brotherhood of soldiers, one might conclude. 

Again, this depiction fits in well with the strong anti-war theme of Paul Schneider’s teleplay.  In a universe without war, race hatred, territoriality and political gamesmanship, Kirk and the Romulan Commander might be “friends,” since they are clearly two-of-a-kind.  But in this universe, they are separated by their devotion to opposing governments and their martial philosophies.

Beyond these matters, “Balance of Terror” establishes a gigantic chunk of Star Trek continuity. This story introduces us to the Romulans, cloaking devices, the concept of a space neutral zone, and more.  

It creates, in fact, a whole lexicon and approach to battle strategy in space. Virtually every Star Trek episode or movie featuring two starships in tactical opposition owes something to the battle that is (splendidly) depicted here, including the “grudging” respect Kirk and opposite number afford one another in such combat scenarios (think Khan vs. Kirk; Kruge vs. Kirk, or even Chang vs. Kirk).

It is true, however, that the key genetic element of this episode is very clearly The Enemy Below.  In this film from the fifties, a destroyer captain, Murrell (Robert Mitchum) tangles with a German U-Boat commanded by Captain Stolberg (Curt Jurgens). In both cases, the so-called “enemy” commander may be described as war-weary and lacks faith or trust in his command structure back home (Nazis or the Praetor).

Secondly, the closing gambit to the engagement in both cases involves an attempt to draw in an enemy by appearing disabled. In The Enemy Below, Murrell orders fires to be started on the deck of the destroyer, the Haynes, so that the vessel looks hopelessly damaged. In “Balance of Terror” Kirk orders the Enterprise powered down, and lets her drift off-course, to create the convincing illusion that she is dead in space.

Some viewers have also detected elements of Run Silent, Run Deep (1958) in “Balance of Terror,” particularly in the scenes involving Stiles (a prejudiced crew man) and the scene in which the Romulans dump their debris as a ruse. 

If one considers both sources as playing an important role, then “Balance of Terror” could actually be viewed more as a pastiche -- an accumulation of submarine movie tropes -- than as mere imitator. The transfer of the venue to the final frontier, however, makes the story appear original and fresh.

Even while pinpointing its inspirations, one can see how “Balance of Terror” travels well beyond them to offer Star Trekkian philosophy and comment on humanity.

Specifically, the episode features book-end scenes in the Enterprise chapel. 

In the first scene, Angela and Tomlinson are celebrating life, preparing to be married (with Kirk officiating as chaplain).  

In the final scene, Tomlinson is dead, and Angela returns to the chapel in mourning. 

Again, Kirk must act as a chaplain, but this time to comfort Angela, and help her through her grief and mourning.  

Importantly, the episode features a remarkable turn of events in its denouement. In some fashion, Angela actually comforts Kirk, telling him that she will be all right. This flipping of the roles is necessary, because it is clear that Kirk feels terrible guilt over what has occurred; over a battle that he won, but which ultimately cost crew-members their lives. In losing these crew-members, and wondering about the real purpose of the battle, in human terms, Kirk actually takes a step towards becoming more war-weary...just like the foe he just vanquished.

This is very much the anti-war theme that I mentioned above. 

What we see in “Balance of Terror” is that young people, inevitably, are the ones who suffer during the prosecution of a war. 

Tomlinson had hopes and dreams, as did Angela. The future they imagined for themselves are not to be. One may argue all day about the necessity of strength and resolve in a war-situation like the one featured in “Balance of Terror.”  But the simple fact is that the party is paid for with the Enterprise’s dearest “blood,” to paraphrase Kirk in The Search for Spock (1984). 

Consider that, as “Balance of Terror” aired in mid-December of 1966, 184,000+ U.S. servicemen were fighting in the Vietnam War. Just a dozen days after the episode aired for the first time, another 382,000 American men were sent to fight it.  

The reasons for that war, as is the case in “Balance of Terror,” are matters of state and politics. Not letting an enemy sense weakness; not allowing an opposing ideology get a foothold. These are all tactical decisions of a State that wishes to assert dominance and remain pre-eminent.  

Through the Martine/Tomlinson subplot, Star Trek makes plain that victory in war, while preferable to defeat, is not without heavy human costs. And the young --- those with the most to lose -- are the ones that bear that cost the most.  Ironically, they are probably the ones who care least about politics, brinkmanship, and so forth.

A second theme also comes through loud and clear in “Balance of Terror.”  

Hate only leads to more war.  Stiles is quite clearly living in the past, carrying the hatreds of a war he was not even alive to see. Yet his family has passed that intense hate forward, like a family heirloom, so that he is able to contemplate the idea of Romulans only as monsters and villains.

The episode balances Stiles' two-dimensional hatred of the enemy with the three-dimensional portrayal of the Romulan commander. He is not a monster. He is not a cliche.  He is a thoughtful person and an accomplished starship commander.

Mark Lenard is extraordinary in this role, and we sympathize with the character's plight. Like Captain Kirk, the Romulan Commander he is a creature of duty, and a man ensconced in a hierarchy. He has given his career, his life, to this hierarchy. And yet he knows too well the cost of war, and that there is nothing ennobling about the endeavor. 

Where Stiles is hungry to take the fight to Romulans, the Romulan Commander sees war only as an ugly duty, a necessity that he hates.He can game it all out, to the last move, and all he sees in war is death and more death.

Stiles also shows prejudice towards Spock simply because our favorite half-Vulcan resembles the enemy.

In this case, one might assert Spock stands in for a Japanese-American soldier in World War II, one who isn’t trusted by his peers not because of his actions, but because of his appearance. That appearance is enough to make some bigots worry that he sympathizes more with the enemy than he does with his own countrymen. Stereotyping occurs when people fail to see the individual, and see only skin color, or pointed ears. That is how Stiles views Spock.

In “Balance of Terror,” Stiles learns that he is wrong, after Spock saves his life in the phaser control room.  But again, the overall message seems to be that war encourages racism, division, aggression, suspicion and irrational emotions. We're supposed to not just want to defeat those who oppose us, but actually hate them and see them, somehow, as savages or sub-humans.

“Balance of Terror” introduces us to the Romulans, who re-appear in the original series in “The Deadly Years” and “The Enterprise Incident,” and who have been a mainstay of the franchise ever since.  

The neutral zone concept has been exported not just to the Romulans, but the Klingons as well, in productions such as The Wrath of Khan (1982).  The cloaking device, similarly, has been responsible for some of the most provocative Star Trek stories in series history, and it too falls into the hands of the Klingons. 

Even the concept of a spaceship “Bird of Prey” re-appears.

But perhaps the area wherein “Balance of Terror” succeeds most admirably and achieves its longevity is in its depiction of one character: Kirk. 

He is truly, a man alone, making decisions that could cost lives, and plunge the galaxy into a bloody war.  Kirk must carry that tremendous weight on his shoulders, and “Balance of Terror” shows him agonizing over it.  

McCoy’s advice to him is good: don’t destroy the one named Kirk. In other words, Kirk must not allow himself to be overcome by the gravity of the situation, or the hypothetical outcomes of each and every choice. He must function -- and function at his highest ability -- no matter the cost.

Kirk also grows as a character, intriguingly, because of the episode’s three-dimensional depiction of the Romulan. The Commander gets to voice some things that a “hero” can’t, but which Kirk must nonetheless feel as the commanding officer of a starship. This "enemy" gets to showcase the same characteristics (such as devotion to duty), but simultaneously transmits as older, and more war-weary than his counterpart. He may not be a precise mirror for Kirk, but a mirror for what Kirk could very well become in twenty years.

“Balance of Terror” -- an anti-war story -- is tense and suspenseful throughout its run. Although it showcases the cost of war, at the same time it creates a whole “universe” of believable space combat "rules."  

For example, the episode showcases how starship commanders can use the environment of nearby space (like passing comets) to seek strategic advantage, for instance, and is very much a cat-and-mouse kind of hunt. 

Each commander comes up with dynamic resolutions as they try to save their ship and carry the day.  Kirk’s ship plays dead, for example, and the Romulan ship launches debris (with a nuclear device in it) to trap the Enterprise.  This brand of space strategy is a core conceit of all generations of Star Trek.  

Next week: “Shore Leave.”

The Films of 1994: The Shadow

In terms of comic-book or superhero films, there’s a long-standing rule that Hollywood producers have forgotten on multiple occasions.

Period genre films fail at the box office.

Indeed, Hollywood history is littered with the corpses of period superhero or comic-book movies with titles such as Doc Savage: Man of Bronze (1975), Dick Tracy (1990), The Rocketeer (1991), The Shadow (1994), The Phantom (1998), Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) and John Carter (2012).

All these films either adapt older properties that are no longer popular enough to generate popular success, or are new properties that serve as homages (like Raiders of the Lost Ark [1982]…) to the decade of the 1930s.

Either way, these films don't meet with widespread audience approbation.

Because these films all failed, however, that does not necessarily mean that they are artistic failures.  

Indeed, I count The Rocketeer, Sky Captain and John Carter as remarkable successes in terms of universe-building, and in the successful re-capturing an earlier era in entertainment. 

I’m conflicted on Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy. It’s a beautifully-made film, but largely an empty one, at least in terms of human interest.

A reader this week asked me about The Shadow, the 1994 Russell Mulcahy adaptation of the Walter B. Gibson character created in 1931, and it occupies a slot close to Dick Tracy in terms of my admiration assessment.  

There are several powerful and successful elements at work in the film, and the jaunty, tongue-in-cheek tone makes it less dire (and less difficult to sit through...) than Beatty’s 1990 comic-book film.

Some critics of the day saw these virtues and made note of them. Jeff Laffel at Films in Review observed, for instance, that The Shadow was a “lot less pretentious” than Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and a “whole lot of fun.” 

In Cinefantastique, James Faller felt that the movie had “much to recommend it,” but that there was “never much sense of urgency or identification with the title character.” 

On the opposite end of the spectrum, The New York Post’s Michael Medved called The Shadow “the most embarrassing bit studio bomb of the summer.”

I don’t find the movie embarrassing in the slightest.  

On the contrary, I think The Shadow is a fun if overlong movie, buttressed by Alec Baldwin’s game performance.  I do agree with Faller that, by film’s end, the film feels more like a breezy, occasionally diverting effort than a compelling, necessary movie.

“The clouded mind sees nothing.”

In the early twentieth century, not long after the First World War -- in far off Tibet -- American ex-patriot Lamont Cranston (Alec Baldwin) has become a ruthless warlord who terrorizes the locals. 

One day, he is abducted from his HQ and brought before a Tulpa, a Tibetan instructor who teaches him how to ‘cloud’ the minds of enemies.  He will pay for his crimes by fighting other criminals.

Years later, Lamont lives in New York and operates as ‘The Shadow,’ a vigilante who strikes fear into the heart of Manhattan’s gangsters. The Shadow also controls, from his sanctum, a network of associates/agents who owe him favors since he saved their lives.

As Lamont falls in love with Margo Lane (Penelope Anne Miller), the telepathic daughter of a scientist (Ian McKellen), a new threat rises. 

The evil Shiwan Khan (John Lone) arrives in NYC to take over the world. He wields a deadly weapon, thanks to Dr. Lane; a Beryllium sphere, or atom bomb!

“You know what evil lurks in the heart of men.”

One quality that makes The Shadow a lot of fun is its bubbly, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor.  The film doesn't take itself too seriously, and that makes the re-assertion of dark superhero tropes bearable at times.

Also, Alec Baldwin -- who would have been the ultimate Batman in the eighties and nineties -- is perfect as the urbane, and faintly sinister Lamont Cranston. 

Baldwin plays a man whom the audience can believe truly boasts a seething dark side. Not only is he saturnine in appearance, with piercing eyes, but he possesses a gravelly, authoritarian voice. In 1994, Baldwin was the perfect choice for The Shadow, especially given the character’s roots in radio (a voice-driven art form).  He looks right, and he sounds right too.

The Shadow’s opening scene set in Tibet also seems, in some crucial way, to forecast one of the crucial (and best) sequences in Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins (2005).  There, as you may recall, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale traveled to Ladakhi, a location inhabited by people of Tibetan descent. 

There, he trained to become a great warrior (and consequently a superhero), and master his fear. That’s pretty much what happens in the prologue of The Shadow, with the path of Lamont’s life altered forever by is training at the hands of the Tulpa.

In some ways, this period of Far Eastern training works better, at least in terms of character consistency, in The Shadow. 

Batman may be “the dark knight,” based on his childhood traumas, but Lamont is recruited to his superhero calling because, literally, of the darkness coruscating inside him. 

He is picked for training because he carries some essential understanding -- based on his history as the “Butcher of Lhasa” -- of his own psyche. He knows what evil lurks in the heart of men as The Shadow, because that evil lurks within him.  But Cranston's training has helped him master it.  

At least most of the time.

If The Shadow’s prologue forecasts Batman Begins, then it is fair to state the opposite case too. 

The Shadow also feels very much like a child of Tim Burton’s Batman. The first scene after the Tibetan prologue in The Shadow, for example, imitates the opening scene of Batman to an uncomfortable degree. Just as the mysterious Batman terrorized street level criminals in Gotham City in that film, The Shadow here confronts a number of thugs on the Brooklyn Bridge.  

It is fair, to state, of course, that all superhero films feature scenes of heroes in criminals in conflict. 

But just consider the underlying feeling or details at work in both sequences. 

Specifically, the Shadow and Batman are both such terrifying presences that leave their respective criminals shaking and quaking in horror at their existence.  

In both cases, the hero has become a near-mythical or superhero monster, not merely a superhero.  There is a connection, in both cases, with darkness, monstrosity, and villainy. The Batman and The Shadow are both icons of fright, in these productions, at least before the audience gets to know them. They strike fear into the heart of men.

Superman doesn't do that. And neither did Adam West's Batman. Post-Dark Knight/Frank Miller, superheroes at the cinema had to be thee brooding, creatures of the night, stalking their prey under moonlight.

Also to the downside, the love affair in The Shadow between Margo Lane and Lamont Cranston feels very de rigueur, much like the unholy combination of the Superman/Lois Lane relationship, and the Batman/Vicky Vale relationship.  

Like the former, the love interest is named “Lane” and represents a “threat” to the hero because of some experience or knowledge she brings to the table, either as a hardcore investigative reporter or a psychic,  

And like Vicky, Margo “gets inside,” finding access to the hero’s dark, closed off world.

I don’t believe that The Shadow is as visually compelling or inventive as Dick Tracy is.  That film’s overwhelming and distinctive color scheme -- as well as its fidelity to keeping action sequences confined to individual “frames”-- resulted in a singular entertainment.  Yet The Shadow does a remarkably effective and impressive job creating 1930s New York City, and locations such as The Cobalt Club, The Empire State Building, the Monolith Hotel, and the aforementioned Brooklyn Bridge.

I should also note the film’s “prophetic” touches. There are some fun moments in The Shadow that require one to understand the history of America since the 1930s. For example, Khan quips at one point about creating a “New World Order,” and that was a critical comment of the first President Bush’s era in American politics. 

By bringing in the future, through lines of dialogue such as this, The Shadow proves in fact, that it is not about a sinister and complex world, but an innocent one. The appeal is thus nostalgic.

Today, I'm not sure that's a quality the the film should have aimed for.

And even though The Shadow is actually one of the key influences behind the Batman mythos, the long-lived hero comes off in this film like a knock-off of such modern heroes as Batman, or even Darkman. 

Furthermore, the film's supporting characters -- Roy Tam, Margo Lane, Moe Shrevnitz -- are unfamiliar to most audiences.  Sure, they are faithful to The Shadow’s history, but there’s the feeling this feeling about the film that it is about ten-to-twenty years too late to please those who grew up with the Gibson character.

A sequel to The Shadow might have had the opportunity to build on the good things presented in this film (especially the Baldwin performance), but audiences never got the chance for a return engagement.  Instead, this film simultaneously seemed too new and too much the same not to ‘cloud’ the minds of its confused audience.

As I’ve noted, I like The Shadow. I think it’s a notch or two better than Beatty’s Dick Tracy, at least as pure, human entertainment.  

But I also think The Shadow proves the point that period superhero movies represent a tricky bet at the box office.

When we look to our silver screen superheroes, we don't want the adventures of yesteryear.  Instead, we want cutting edge technology and characters, apparently.  

Too late, The Shadow knows this.