Saturday, May 28, 2016

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Blackstar: "Spacewrecked" (October 17, 1981 )

In “Spacewrecked,” John Blackstar’s lover, Katana follows his trajectory by tracing the photon vapor trail from his ship.  It leads through the black hole, and on the other side of the phenomenon she is reunited with him. They make plans to leave Sagar together. The Trobbits are heartbroken.

Their joy is short-lived, however, because The Overlord wants to possess the spaceship -- a “time ship capable of multi-verse travel” -- for his evil plans. Overlord captures Katana and hypnotizes her into stealing the star-sword.

But the Overlord hasn’t reckoned with the greatest power in the universe: “love.”

Filmation’s Blackstar focuses on Sagar, and the battle between the human astronaut and the Overlord. But in the case of “Spacewrecked,” audiences get to see a bit more detail about Blackstar’s personal life, as well as the hierarchy he operates under. 

The episode starts with Katana communicating via radio to her home base, as she contemplates a trip through the black hole. 

And the episode ends with the promise that she will return to help Blackstar.  She communicates again with Earth, and tells mission control “I’ll need the entire fleet for my mission. I’m going back there to help him.”

Unfortunately, Blackstar was canceled after one season of just 13 episodes, and audiences never saw Katana’s return.  It’s certainly possible, however, to imagine a final episode in which the cavalry from Earth comes over the hill (through the black hole...) so-to-speak and defeats the Overlord once and for all. Indeed, that would have been a great note to go out on, though the Trobbits would have been sad, in any regard, to see John Blackstar leave Sagar.

“Spacewrecked” is likely a candidate for “best episode” of the series primarily because it reveals that Earth has not forgotten about John Blackstar, and reveals that its technology is coveted by the Overlord as a great weapon, even though he typically relies on magic.  

Finally, we meet the love of Blackstar’s life and thus can start to fill in some gaps about his background and history.

Next week: “Lightning City of the Clouds.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Flash Gordon: "The Game" / "The Seed" (October 2, 1982)

In “The Game,” the rulers of Cavern City burrow into Arboria (interrupting a dance) and capture several denizens -- including Flash -- to serve as gladiators in their arena games.

In “The Seed,” Ming the Merciless embeds a new weapon inside a meteor, and then crashes it into Arboria. The strange seed sprouts a giant tentacled monster, which goes on a killing rampage.

The second season of Filmation’s Flash Gordon (1979-1982) doesn’t gain much momentum from the two stories in this installment.

We have already seen Flash in an arena fight before (in the first season installment “Chapter 12: Tournament of Death”), and we’ve also seen him lead slave rebellions too.  Accordingly, "The Game" doesn't break much in terms of new ground.

However, this story does feature a nice opening shot. We move down, from Mongo orbit, through the clouds -- down to Arboria.  It’s a nice segue, and one that gets reused a few times in the second season, and in the next batch of episodes.

As, we get to see Flash act like a “first rate ham” dancing with Dale in “The Game,” and it is hard not to reflect how his character has become more cocky and less sincere than in his first season incarnation.  He doesn't feel like Flash anymore. He doesn't take anything, even danger, seriously.

“The Seed” is pretty dire too. 

The monster that the seed looks like a cross between The Real Ghostbusters’ Slimer and the creature from Cloverfield (2008), but is vaguely humorous all the same.

Here, the best character touch involves Dae Arden learning to fly a rocket on a simulator in Arboria (about time too…).  I also liked the new hovercraft design we see during the attack on the creature.  

The episode’s ending, with the monster turning on Ming in his science lab, is pretty risible. It's a typical cartoon ending.  The villain gets his comeuppance, but by the next episode everything is back to normal.  We are never told how Ming gets rid of the beast.

Next week: “Witch Woman” and “Micro Menace”

Friday, May 27, 2016

Cult-TV Movie Review: Trilogy of Terror (1975)

Perhaps the most famous TV-movie ever made, Dan Curtis's Trilogy of Terror (1975) boasts an impeccable pedigree.  The anthology, which aired on March 4, 1975 as ABC's "movie of the week," consists of three Richard Matheson stories, two teleplays by William Nolan, four memorable performances by Karen Black, and sterling direction from Dan Curtis, the man behind Dark Shadows and the TV adaptation of The Night Stalker. 

If you're a fan of the genre on television, it really doesn't get much better than this...

The first Matheson story in this TV anthology is called "Julie," with a teleplay by Nolan. 

Here, a callow university student named Chad (Robert Butler) eyes the apparently prim-and-proper English Lit. teacher, Ms. Eldrich (Karen Black).  He fantasizes about her without her clothes on and then sets about making his fantasy real.  

Chad works up the courage to ask Julie Eldrich out on a date -- to go see a drive-in movie.  She accepts, and they watch The Night Stalker (!) on the big screen together.

At the movies, however, Chad drugs Julie's soda pop and takes her back to a seedy motel, where he snaps incriminating photographs of the teacher.  He then uses these photographs as a form of sexual blackmail, and makes poor Ms. Eldridge, essentially, his sex slave.

There's only problem.  Chad has assumed from the very beginning that he is in control of the situation; that Ms. Eldrich is exactly who and what she appears to be, a repressed, librarian-esque school marm.  Turns out that was an incorrect assumption, and Ms. Eldrich teaches an important life lesson to the "singularly unimaginative" Chad.

Although not the most-remembered segment of this horror anthology, "Julie" is pretty intense, especially because of the story's kinkier aspects: a student-teacher sexual relationship, and an early appearance on television of date-rape (replete with rape drug). The lurid segment's final revelation, that Julie is a veritable man-eater who maintains a scrapbook of her sexual conquests and murder victims, is also scarily effective.  Although it becomes clear that Julie is actually a wolf in sheep's clothing, the story nonetheless works as a "cosmic scales of justice righted" tale.

Chad certainly had it coming, given his misdeeds...

Prime among the Trilogy of Terror stories, "Julie" makes fine use of Karen Black's talents, understanding the raw, unusual allure of this distinctive performer.  Sometimes Black can look absolutely gorgeous, but she can also be made-up to appear somewhat homely.  In other words, Black is a performer with layers, and all those layers are put to tricky and clever use in the TV-movie's first story.  In "Julie," Black exudes coiled-up, repressed sexuality even in the most innocuous school room scenes.  Even "hidden" under ugly glasses and dressed in unflattering clothes, Black manages to project this electric sense of the dangerous, of the erotic.  And that's what this story is all about.

In Trilogy of Terror's second story, titled "Millicent and Therese" another apparently prim-and-proper woman, a spinster named Millicent (Black) plans to destroy her younger sister, the sexually-promiscuous and possibly Satanic, Therese (also Black). Millicent communicates with a psychologist  (George Gaynes) about Thesese, and then plans to use her sister's own fondness for voodoo against her.

Of the triumvirate, "Millicent and Therese" proves the weakest story in short order.  It's pretty obvious from the get-go where the story is headed, and what relationship these "sisters" actually share.  There's much talk of sex in "Millicent and Therese," but in many ways, this story feels like a retread of "Julie" in that Black again plays both reserved and overtly sexy.  Despite the familiarity of the material and obviousness of the story's final "twist," Dan Curtis does an effective job of directing the tale.

Millicent and Therese
For example, most of the story occurs inside one room, inside a library in Millicent and Therese's mansion.  Curtis films several scenes in this locale from a low-angle that accentuates the architecture and decorations of the old world library. 

The idea being, I suppose, that those things which ail Millicent and Therese emerge from this particular milieu.  From this house; from this room. Even from the books on the shelf.

For instance, Therese may have killed her own mother as a child.  And she also seduced her own father when she was sixteen. The books in the library -- all about the supernatural and paranormal -- reflect those "evils" after a fashion.  These volumes also prove the gateway to the destruction of both sisters. 

It may not sound like much, but the nice staging of these sequences in the library somehow suggests a place of evil looming in the sisters' twisted history together.  And given what we come to know about them, it makes perfect sense.

In the third, final and most memorable of the tales in Trilogy of Terror, titled "Amelia," the audience is introduced to a weak-willed, mild-mannered woman, Amelia (once more, Karen Black). Amelia is constantly being bullied by her (off-screen) mother.  In particular, Amelia's mother does not like that her daughter has moved out of the house (to a spacious apartment sub-let) and that she is dating an anthropology professor.

On one Friday night, Amelia decides not to visit her mother and instead spend the evening with her boyfriend, since it is his birthday.  As a gift, she has purchased the anthropologist an authentic "Zuni Fetish Doll," a miniature monstrosity with sharp teeth and armed with a spear.  According to legend, the Fetish Doll houses the spirit of a great hunter, but the murderous soul is trapped inside the doll so long as he wears a golden necklace around his neck.

In short order, the necklace is removed (it falls off, actually...) and Amelia is forced to wage war in the apartment against a violent, miniature predator.

Based on Matheson's short story, "Prey," "Amelia" is pretty clearly the go-for-broke segment of Trilogy of Terror.  After the relative restraint of the first two tales, this one truly goes all-out to get the blood pumping. 

Curtis and director of photography Paul Lohmann, un-tether themselves from they expectations they have knowingly fostered in the first two tales (of a relatively staid presentation) and with tremendous gonzo indulge in expressive, action-packed film making. 

Accordingly, this story features rocketing cameras bearing down on the imperiled Amelia, and other dramatic tracking shots, all lensed from the killer Fetish Doll's unique perspective.

Curtis achieves something else here as well, and it bears mention.  In particular, he stages many deep-focus long shots of the apartment, with Amelia framed in the background -- surrounded by door-frames on some occasions -- and only emptiness in the foreground.  The result is that we're actually looking furtively under coffee tables and chair legs for any sign of the murderous Zuni Fetish Doll. 

In many such cases, the doll is not present in frame at all...but we know he's nearby, and the deep-focus, long shots expertly set up the terrain of the battle and more than that, a sense of expectation.  These moments of silence and emptiness linger, and increase and enhance the mood of suspense. 

We wonder where the bloody monster is hiding this time...

As the battle grows more violent and intense, and Amelia grows more and more imperiled, Curtis makes these deep focus long shots turn cockeyed, which admittedly sounds cliched (like something out of Batman), but instead proves an effective tool in fostering real terror.  As the balance of power shifts towards the supernatural threat, it's only right that the "real" world's sense of order begins to literally and metaphorically tip over.  This technique of off-kilter shots successfully transmits the full-breadth of the monster's threat to Amelia.

Trilogy of Terror's Zuni Fetish Doll lives even today as one of the most potent 1970s "kinder traumas," responsible for God-knows-how-many youthful nightmares.   The creature has lost none of his macabre effectiveness some thirty-years later.  The Zuni Fetish monster boasts the sharpest teeth you've ever seen, has a big grinning mouth, and utters terrible, strange yells at it repeatedly attacks the imperiled Amelia.  You'll never forget what this creature is like in action; and you'll never forget the sound of his "voice," either.

Thematically, the Zuni Doll is surely an avatar representing Amelia's personal dilemma: the fact that in her personal life she constantly and continuously surrenders to others; to her Mother and also to her boyfriend.  The Zuni Doll makes Amelia -- for once -- fight back.  It's too little too late, perhaps, and Amelia makes the ultimate surrender to the Zuni Doll in the film's final, chill-inducing close-up.  But she puts up a hell of a fight before then, using everything from suitcases to the bathtub to the oven to battle the monster lurking in her apartment.

Another reason "Amelia" works so well is that it lunges directly into the horror territory that the other stories studiously skirted.  We don't know exactly what Julie's power is in "Julie," and in "Millicent and Therese" the voodoo doll is almost an afterthought in a psychological tale about multiple personalities. 

But here, the audience finally sees a supernatural monster in action; one with snapping, hungry jaws, and inhuman powers.  Crimson blood flows pretty freely in this segment too -- a surprise for 1975 television production -- and so again, the effect of the story is amplified.  The first time you see Trilogy of Terror, you aren't really prepared for the third story to descend into bloody murder and wildly expressive camera-work, and so "Amelia" becomes all the more powerful and stunning. 

The thrill of Trilogy of Terror after all these years is three-fold.  On one hand, it's terrific to see Karen Black's versatility used to such dramatic and purposeful effect.  She is a gifted, idiosyncratic performer who isn't afraid to express seamy, powerful and unattractive emotions.  Secondly, the Zuni Fetish Doll is the high octane fuel of a million (or more) bad dreams, and can still provoke throat-tightening terror in audiences. And thirdly, the imaginative and terrifying stories by Richard Matheson plumb the depths of our worst nightmares.

For these reasons, Trilogy of Terror doesn't play like a funny old artifact from the disco decade, but as a damn fine horror movie.   The spirit of the film -- like the spirit of the malevolent Zuni Fetish Doll -- endures.  The film's final shot -- a zoom to close-up of Amelia in her new state as a "hunter" --  is not something you can easily forget or put down.

So make sure you check for Zuni Fetish Dolls under your bed before you go to sleep tonight...

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Ask JKM a Question: Rank all the 007 Movies and Choose the Next Bond?

Great friend and regular reader SGB writes a follow-up to the question I answered on Monday of this week:

“Hi John,

I thoroughly enjoyed your "How would you rank the Bond movies by actor" post and agree with it with the exception of Moonraker only because I am fond of the extensive use of the NASA Space Shuttle Orbiters a.k.a. Moonrakers. 

I do agree that it was not a reality-grounded Bond film and thus the script was weaker.  At the end of the The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) it stated in the credits the next Bond film was to be For Your Eyes Only so we know Moonraker was made abruptly to exploit the success of Star Wars (1977). 

My challenge is in two questions:

1-Rank all the Bond movies mixed together from best to worst from Dr. No to SPECTRE
2-If Daniel Craig departs the Bond role, then which actors make your top ten list to be the next OO7 ?

Thank you.

SGB, those are two great challenges, for certain.  Thank you for posing the question.   

And by the way, I agree with you about Moonraker (1979). I enjoy it as a post-Star Wars fantasy, but not as a James Bond film if that makes any sense at all.  I also loved seeing those shuttles launch, dock, and carry troops into space.

So, my Bond movie rankings, top to bottom, eh? I will, but with the understanding that some of the titles in the middle of the pack may move up or down, based on re-watch, or my mood.

All right, here goes:

The Great:

1. From Russia with Love (1963): Greatest fight in the series (Train Car); greatest soldier villain (Red Grant), and Sean Connery at his most charming/fit.

2. Goldfinger (1964): Greatest villain (Auric Goldfinger), greatest car (Aston Martin), great pre-title sequence prototype, great car (Aston Martin with ejector seat!), great sacrificial lambs (Jill and Tilly Masterson), and greatest overall leitmotif or organizing principle (gold).

3. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969): The most human Bond film. The first “re-grounding” effort in the saga, and one that considers Bond as a person, not just an agent.  Greatest Bond Girl Ever: Diana Rigg’s Tracy Bond. Greatest ending in the series, too.

4. Casino Royale (2006): Another great “re-grounding” effort, after the ludicrous Die Another Day (2002) gives us the most physically-fit, believable Bond in Daniel Craig, and offers a solid villain (Mads Mikkelsen) and great Bond Girl, to rival Tracy: Eva Green’s Vesper. In a way, a great “origin story,” and in the 20-something other films, we’ve never really had that.

5. Licence to Kill (1989): Timothy Dalton’s final film was only twenty-five years ahead of its time, giving us a bloody, serious, tortured Bond on a mission of vengeance. Features one of the franchise’s all-time great villains, the quasi-Shakespearean Sanchez (Robert Davi), and a remarkable action scene involving trucks on a winding highway.

6. For Your Eyes Only (1981): The Bond re-grounding film -- following the excesses of Moonraker (1979) -- that proved Roger Moore can be a great James Bond. The film eschews fantasy, and shows how resourceful Bond can be. The car chase with the junky old Citroen proves it’s not the car mode itself that matters, it’s the man behind the wheel. The film also features the most suspenseful action scene in all the canon, with Moore’s 007 scaling a sheer mountainside as villains attempt to send him plummeting to his doom. That scene is absolutely nail-baiting.

The Good:

7. Skyfall (2012): Who knew Bond had a Mommy Complex? This film, in keeping with the Craig Era, gives us more insight into the creation of Bond’s world, adding flesh to the bones of Moneypenny, Q, and even the new M.

8. Dr. No (1962): The first Bond film, and the one to set the tone/style for the series.  Features a great villain, an amazing Bond girl  (Ursula Andress), and made Sean Connery a star.

9. The Living Daylights (1987): Another re-grounding film (this time after A View to a Kill), giving us a younger, more vigorous Bond in Timothy Dalton. The film speaks meaningfully to then current events (the Reagan Administrations’ shadowy arms deal with the Iranians), and gives the audience the most human, flawed 007 since Lazenby’s in 1969.

10. Never Say Never Again (1983): Overall, this one gets high marks from me because the film acknowledges that Bond (Sean Connery) has aged, and must now rely on his wits and cunning. The film’s villains are of the 1980s “push button” age, playing video games and remotely detonating bombs, but Bond is a moving human target, relying on his instincts and physicality.  Great antagonists here, too.

11. The Spy Who Loved Me (1977): A veritable remake of You Only Live Twice (1967), only with nuclear submarines instead of rockets. But this movie features a great Bond car (the Lotus Esprit) and the finest pre-title sequence of the saga, with Moore’s Bond skiing off a mountainside and deploying a parachute.

12. Live and Let Die (1973): This Bond, the first starring Roger Moore, apes the Blaxploitation movie trend of the time period, but still holds together well.  Features the best title song of the franchise, and one of the finest Bond girls, Jane Seymour’s Solitaire.  The presence of Baron Samedi – Death Himself – also adds a layer of visual and thematic artistry to the affair.

13. Tomorrow Never Dies (1997): Brosnan’s best Bond; a rip-roaring social critique of the 24-hour news cycle, and the rise of cable news at the turn of last century. Michelle Yeoh is a fantastic ally for Bond, and Brosnan seems especially committed to the proceedings, notably in his scenes with (sacrificial lamb) Teri Hatcher.

14. Goldeneye (1995): After the ahead-of-its-time Licence to Kill, Pierce Brosnan’s first outing is a perfectly entertaining -- and perfectly bland -- re-establishment of the series’ spectacular side.  Unlike other re-grounding Bond films, this one is all about re-establishing the series’ “big,” outrageous moments. One huge downside is the funeral dirge-like soundtrack, which casts a pall over what should be a fun, buoyant, Bond film.

The Fair:

15. Quantum of Solace (2008): Craig’s sophomore outing in the 007 role is best enjoyed as the second half of Casino Royale (2006). On that basis – as well as its pastiche-style recycling of classic Bond images (girl in oil; girl in gold; Quantum = SPECTRE) -- the film is worth revisiting.

16. Thunderball (1965): This Bond film is over-long, edited poorly, and features one of the dullest villains ever: Largo. By this time, it’s also clear that Sean Connery is also getting bored in the role of 007. This is the “tipping” Bond in his era, the film that starts the descent towards utter crap (see: Diamonds are Forever.)  The fight scenes lose their effectiveness too, by the over-use of fast-motion editing to make them seem more pacey.

17. You Only Live Twice (1967): Features a great villain (Donald Pleasence), a great gadget (Little Nellie), and a great villain headquarters (inside a volcano), but also feels bloated, and is weighted down by Connery’s apparent disinterest in the whole enterprise. Also, there’s his terrible Japanese make-up…

18. The Man with the Golden Gun (1974): Roger Moore’s second film is fun but pretty unmemorable, overall.  A low point in the film is the return of Live and Let Die’s bigoted Southern sheriff. A high point is Maude Adams.

19. Spectre (2015): After starting out with real flair (and remarkable cinematography), this (final?) Craig effort peters out quickly. A villain’s headquarters is shown briefly, and then literally exploded with one well-placed shot.  And the retcon of Blofeld’s back-story is ludicrous, cringe-inducing and wrong-headed on a near cosmic scale. The film’s most interesting female character is played by Monica Bellucci and she gets almost no screen time.  Craig is still impressive, however.

20. Octopussy (1983): Another disposable entry in the Moore Era. Not bad, but nothing special either (except for the pre-title sequence with the AcroStar mini-jet). Roger Moore looks old and disinterested, and the last thing the series needed at this juncture was to feature his 007 dressed as a circus clown.

21. The World is Not Enough (1999): Sophie Marceau is fantastic in this film as Bond’s lover/nemesis, but Denise Richards isn’t exactly cut out to be a nuclear physicist. More than Brosnan’s first two Bond films, this one feels like little more than re-shuffled elements (another boat chase, another ski chase, another submarine set-piece…).

Below Average:

21. Moonraker (1979): Pardon my schizophrenia. As a Star Wars kid I love this film without reservation.  As a Bond fan, this film is low-points of source, made so by the campy, tongue-in-cheek approach and every single scene featuring Jaws (Richard Kiel).  That said, I could watch this any day and be thoroughly entertained. Still,I could do without the pigeon doing a double-take, and the gondola-turned hover-craft.

22. A View to a Kill (1985): I should look as good as Roger Moore does in this filmwhen I’m his age. That said, he’s still way too old to be a convincing James Bond at this point.  The film is bloated and slow, and Tanya Robert’s Stacy Sutton is the most annoying Bond Girl of the series.  Christopher Walken, Grace Jones, and Duran Duran are all “fresh” ingredients in the franchise that nonetheless utterly fail to enliven this beached-whale of an epic.

23. Diamonds are Forever (1971): Terrible, awful, no-good effort that sees Connery’s retirement from the role until 1983. The film’s steadfast refusal to connect itself to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is insulting, as is Blofeld’s death scene.  Overlong and with a confusing plot.  The seventies lounge-lizard look hasn’t exactly aged well, either.

24. Die Another Day (2002): The first twenty or so minutes of this Bond film -- which see 007 (Pierce Brosnan) captured, tortured, and humiliated in North Korea -- are great; a fresh launching point for the saga. But then -- after a serious first act -- the film devolves rapidly into fantasy excess: ice palaces, invisible cars, power gloves, and Bond surfing CGI tsunamis. Excessive, stupid, and a sad end for Brosnan’s era.

Now, who are my choices to be the next 007?

I have to break that down into answers, actually.  

If the goal is to go with a non-traditional choice, as many fans and movie-goers seem to desire at this point, my top choice is Gillian Anderson, and second: Idris Elba. 

If we go the traditional route my top ten choices are (in order):

1.          Tom Hiddleston.

2.          Hugh Dancy

3.          Michael Fassbender

4.          Ewan McGregor

5.          Jonathan Rhys-Meyers

6.          Clive Owen

7.          Timothy Dalton (he looks fantastic, and has experience, right?)

8.          Tom Hardy

9.          Aiden Turner

10.        Gerard Butler

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Action Figures of the Week: Laverne and Shirley (Mego)

Pop art: Laverne and Shirley (Dynamite)

The Cast of Laverne and Shirley Sings

Laverne and Shirley GAF Viewmaster

Lunch Box of the Week: Laverne and Shirley

Board Game of the Week: Laverne and Shirley (Parker Bros.)

Theme Song of the Week: Laverne and Shirley

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Return of the Archons" (February 9, 1967)

Stardate: 3156.2

In “The Return of the Archons,” the U.S.S. Enterprise investigates the culture living on an M-class planet known as Beta III.  One hundred years earlier, another Starfleet vessel -- the Archon -- disappeared while exploring this very world.

Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) beam down to Beta III with a landing party, and find a humanoid culture there that resembles Earth of the late-nineteenth or early twentieth century…though with some unique differences. 

One of these differences is that all the denizens walk about constantly in a beatific state of mindless supplication.  They refer to being part of “The Body,” and worship an apparently benevolent and omnipotent deity called Landru.

Additionally, these repressed, controlled human beings are given opportunity -- during “The Red Hour” or “Festival” -- to shake loose from this shut-down, trance-like state, and act fully human, engaging in wanton sex and violence.

While Landru’s menacing robed lawgivers attempt to “absorb” the members of the landing party (who “infect the Body”), Landru himself tries to yank the Enterprise down from orbit to end the threat it poses to a “perfect” society. 

In the end, Captain Kirk discovers the truth about the God called Landru: he is an advanced computer imposing a machine’s vision of “peace” and “paradise” upon the humans of Beta III.

For several decades at least, the first season Star Trek episode “The Return of the Archons” has been interpreted by a majority of critics and fans as a coded critique of Communism or technological totalitarianism. I saw no reason to quibble with that assessment until I recently re-watched the episode.

Quite contrarily “The Return of the Archons” actually plays as a satire of organized religion, and in particular -- and with apologies -- Christianity.  

The episode’s questioning, and occasionally caustic spirit makes abundant sense given Gene Roddenberry’s oft-stated dislike of organized religion.

In terms of Roddenberry-ian, beliefs, these are just three prominent quotes from the Great Bird of the Galaxy about religion:

“Religions vary in their degree of idiocy, but I reject them all.” (In His Name, page 39).

“We must question the story logic of having an all-knowing, all-powerful God who creates faulty humans, and then blames them for his own mistakes.” (Can a Smart Person Believe in God? page 90).

There will always be the fundamentalism of the religious right, but I think there has been too much of it. I keep hoping that it is a temporary foolishness.” (Humanist, 1991 interview with David Alexander.)

On other occasions, the late Mr. Roddenberry also termed religion “largely nonsense, largely magical, superstitious….”

Certainly Roddenberry’s particular viewpoint is evident in “Who Watches the Watchers” and other episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 – 1994).  In the former episode, Captain Picard refers to the “dark ages” that go hand-in-hand with devout religious belief.  I suspect it was a lot easier -- outside of network interference -- to vet critical stories about religion in the 1980s than it had been in the more-traditional, pre-counter-culture1960s. 

Accordingly, much of “The Return of the Archons’” religious criticism or satire is laced in code that requires some deciphering. 

There are contextual clues throughout the episode about the story’s meaning, and the first and perhaps most significant may be that Regehr (Harry Townes), a denizen of Beta III, notes that Landru first came to the world 6,000 years ago and imposed his will. 

Of course, 6,000 years is the span that equates, precisely, to Young Earth Creationism’s belief about the time-frame for Earth’s (and the universe’s) genesis at God’s hand.  It’s so specific a number and date that it can’t be an accident that both God and Landru “created” their kingdoms on the same date.

Secondly, “The Return of the Archons” addresses various principles and dogma familiar from Christianity. 

When a citizen of Beta III for instance, decides to leave the flock or disobey the will of Landru, he or she is “absorbed” back into the body by the Lawgivers, and consequently spiritually reborn as a devoted adherent.  This process of “absorption” conforms to the idea in Christianity that “except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  If you replace the word God with “Landru,” the idea tracks perfectly. 

Importantly, those who are “born again” into the world of Landru (like McCoy and Sulu in the episode’s narrative) begin to aggressively “profess”  the perfection and beauty of Landru, just as the born-again here on Earth often feel duty-bound “professing Jesus.” 

This particular brand of religious “professing” dominates “The Return of the Archons” in oft-repeated phrases such as “It is the will of Landru.”  Or “Do you say that Landru is not everywhere?”  The notion of “the will of Landru” is historically in keeping with such religious phraseology as “God willing,” “deux vult” or “Masha Allah,” the specific acknowledgment on the part of the faithful that life proceeds as according to an impenetrable divine plan.

“The Return of the Archons” also critiques the Catholic Church’s principle of papal infallibility at one point when of the denizens (who escaped life as a Landru supplicant) suggests -- tongue and cheek --  of the Lawgivers: “Are they not infallible?” 

Again, the word choice -- infallible -- can’t simply be a coincidence. It is utilized here in a religious context.

When Captain Kirk finds a planet of sheep bending their knee to an inhuman shepherd, he makes an interesting comment that boasts two meanings simultaneously.  Kirk confronts the hologram of Landru and notes that he (meaning the God he faces) is “a projection, unreal…” which is both a comment on Landru’s physical presence in the room, and, implicitly (in code) his status as a God.  

Some people might even state that the various versions of God created by man’s religions are also “projection,” but of the universal human desire to believe in something beyond the mortal coil.  These Gods are also “unreal” in the sense that no such deity apparently exists, at least according to the tenets of modern science.

On a global, symbolic level, however, what “Return of the Archons” suggests most plainly (and with the least amount of coding…) is that theocracy stymies human invention and evolution. 

Before Landru’s coming, Beta III was a highly-advanced world with technology surpassing that of the U.S.S. Enterprise.  After Landru’s coming, however, the world fell into a pre-technological, backwards state.  It has stagnated there for 6,000 years, the duration of Landru’s kingdom of peace. 

Again, this notion is not without real world parallel.  Some very faithful people are so obsessed about the next world that little attention is paid to the improvement of this one.  If we concentrate on our pleasurable fantasies of an afterlife and an “eternal” paradise, why end poverty, fix the environment, or otherwise improve our brother’s lot here? 

The Return of the Archons” acknowledges this religious trap by revealing how a theocracy strives on conformity and fear rather than innovation and evolution.  After all, any new technology could be against the will of Landru, right?  It might threaten “The tranquility” of the Body.

In this episode, Kirk finally sets Beta III right by destroying Landru and restoring the civilization to a more human standard.  What he’s really doing -- literally -- is freeing Beta III from an invisible overseer, one who promises peace, but actually offers only stagnation.

Although it is not widely hailed as one of the best Star Trek episodes, “Return of the Archons” features a potent visual imagination.  When Landru calls upon his flock to attack the landing party, the hypnotized followers pick-up weapons on the street and attack like mindless zombies.  Phaser fire puts them down, but then more attackers rise.  And then more rise after that.  It’s quite terrifying to witness men and women turned into a blood-thirsty, relentless mob, all consumed by their belief, all obeying the edicts of a God who demands violence from them.

Also, the “Red Hour” or “Festival” -- a limited span in which all emotional behavior is permitted -- proves a remarkably creative conceit, and one soon to be revisited in a summer release called The Purge starring Ethan Hawke.

But again, there’s a critique of religion underpinning the “Red Hour.”  If you live permanently under a repressive religious regime, the deepest human desires and emotions still require some outlet, some expression.  A theocracy doesn’t permit these desires to be expressed in a healthy, normal fashion, so when they do emerge -- as they do so memorably during “Festival” -- they appear monstrous, savage and out-of-control.

“The Return of the Archons” has been consistently misinterpreted, I believe, because it is easy to fit into the peg of being another Star Trek episode in which Kirk pulls the plug on a highly-advanced computer.  What he’s really doing here however is bringing down a stagnant, theocratic regime, one that uses an unreal God figure to assert morality. 

The episode thus belongs more in the camp of “Who Mourns for Adonis,” -- an episode which suggests mankind has outgrown its need to “worship” any God -- than it does fare like “A Taste of Armageddon.”