Saturday, July 16, 2016

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Blackstar: "The Zombie Masters" (December 5, 1981)

While visiting the royal family of Gandar in hopes of securing the city’s help in the rebellion against the Overlord, Blackstar and his friends are shocked to see the flying city of Marakon -- the city of zombies -- fly into view.

The evil floating metropolis lays waste to Gandar, and the evil wizard who controls the city, Shaldamar, transforms Mara and the city's  princess into mindless zombie slaves.

Now the prince of Gandar and Blackstar must destroy the zombie city, and restore the souls of all the slaves.

The last episode of Filmation’s Blackstar (1981) is a highly enjoyable one.  

The villain, the grotesquely obese Shaldamar, utilizes an orb which “absorbs” souls, and creates zombies out of the bodies left behind.  A few scenes of destruction are also genuinely impressive as Marakon destroys a peaceful city, and sets its aim for the Trobbits’ Sagar Tree.

Once more, the star-sword is the weapon which saves the day. Blackstar uses it to destroy the soul-sucking orb, and it’s a bit disappointing that the hero of this series rarely has to seek a method of saving the day.  Rather, he owns it.  It’s just a matter of pointing it at the menace of the week.

Still, it’s gruesome good, macabre fun in “The Zombie Masters” when Mara and the others are transformed into gray-skinned, creepy-eyed drones.

The series ends without a final appearance from The Overlord, he was last seen in episode eleven, “The Overlord’s Big Spell.”

Looking back at Blackstar as a whole, the best episode is probably “Spacewrecked,” although I also enjoyed “The Air Whales of Anchar,” “The Crown of the Sorceress,” and this episode, “The Zombie Masters.”  

Overall, the series has more depth than something like the (infinitely more popular) He-Man, but less depth than something like Thundarr the Barbarian.

Blackstar is one of those series where, if you feel nostalgic for it, you could watch one or two episodes and feel satisfied that you’ve re-captured the experience. It’s not a series I will likely revisit on the blog.  There’s simply not enough there to merit another re-watch.  But I did enjoy reconnecting with the series.

Next week, the series primer for...Space Stars.

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Shazam!: "The Joyriders" (September 7, 1974)

The first episode of the Filmation live-action series Shazam! (1974 -1976) is titled “The Joyriders” and it establishes the formula and parameters for the Saturday morning eries’ (abundantly-cheap) storytelling brand.  

This first adventure involves a kid named Chuck (Kerry MacLane) who feels peer pressure to be part of a gang that has become involved with stealing cars and going on those titular joy rides.

Meanwhile, on this “far out day,” Billy Batson (Michael Gray) and Mentor (Les Tremayne) drive the back roads of an unnamed town in a Winnebago and learn that the Elders want to communicate with them.  

Using a small red-dome like device decorated with blinking lights, Billy speaks an incantation to establish contact: “Oh Elders fleet and strong and wise -- appear before my seeking eyes.”

Once in the (cartoon) realm of the Elders, the Gods inform Billy that he will encounter someone soon who “can’t be himself.”  

One of the Elders then quotes Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Polonius in particular: “This above all, to thine own self be true.” Future episodes feature quotations from Wordsworth and Aristotle.

Soon, Billy and Mentor cross paths with the timid Chuck, who fears being called a “chicken” by his friends.  The gang steals another car, and it’s up to Captain Marvel (Jackson Bostwick) to save the day when the gang, including Chuck, end up in a dangerous junkyard….nearly crushed.

As the preceding synopsis makes plain, this is very juvenile storytelling.  And by that I mean it is storytelling literally about juveniles, made in juvenile fashion.  

Of course, one must remember the time slot and historical context: Saturday morning in the mid-1970s.  

Accordingly, “The Joyriders” involves a “teenage dilemma” and a message about that dilemma.  The story is didactic, to be certain, but also lacking in any genuine scope or real danger.  In the age of Captain America: Civil War (2016), this feels like superhero storytelling in a very minor league indeed, but of course, it is fruitless to make such a comparison, since decades separate Shazam! and such productions.  

But importantly, Shazam! also does not travel the route of its contemporary superhero series like Batman (1966 – 1969).  It deliberately eschews  campy super villains for more “real” (if, again, small-potato) stories.  

Honestly, the series would be more interesting to watch with more dynamic and colorful villains.

Despite the small-potatoes nature of the narrative, Hollingsworth Morse shoots the first episode with crisp authority, and there are some nice, if workman-like set-ups featured throughout the half-hour  

Shazam actually looks as though it was filmed under the auspices of modern guerrilla filmmaking principles, with shots grabbed in parking lots, on back streets, in junkyards, and so forth.  There isn’t a single interior shot in the whole half-hour, unless one counts the front seats of Mentor’s RV.

In terms of character background, very little information is provided in “The Joyriders.”  

Billy reveals that he and Mentor are on vacation, and that he is relieved he doesn’t have to prepare and deliver the morning news cast at his school. 

But other than that information, we don’t know how Billy and Mentor met, how Mentor came to know of the Elders, or upon what principles the strange communication dome in the RV operates.  

Instead, the episode is an immediate descent into SoCal juvenile delinquency and After School Special-type lessons about moral behavior.

I have a nine year old child, so it’s not like I’m  opposed to TV stories containing a “lesson” in good behavior, but Shazam sure feels relentless in its moralizing.  Still, what this episode diagrams is the importance of empathy. 

Chuck has had his bike stolen, so he understands what it would feel like to have a car stolen.  Today, I find that a lack of empathy -- across the culture -- is perhaps the biggest problem facing us as a nation.  

We have politicians who grew up with a social safety net -- a social safety net that sent them to college or helped them endure deaths in their families -- and yet today those very same politicians want to gut the same programs that were there for them in those times of need and pain.  Why is it so hard, I wonder, to put oneself in the position of the less-fortunate “other?”

So perhaps I shouldn’t complain that Shazam chooses this idea of empathy as a part of its inaugural “lesson.”

In terms of the performances, Jackson Bostwick plays Captain Marvel here, and he brings a gentle, quiet strength to his scenes as the superhero, never saying too much, or contributing to the episode’s talkiness.  His taciturn nature is a nice change from all the overt moralizing.

Next week: “The Brothers.”

Friday, July 15, 2016

Cult-TV Movie Review: Planet Earth (1974)

Planet Earth (1974) represents creator Gene Roddenberry's second effort to get his Genesis II (1973) series premise aired on American network television.

As you may remember, Genesis II concerned a 20th century scientist, Dylan Hunt (Alex Cord) awaking in 2133 AD and helping the pacifist organization called PAX (Latin for peace) restore the "best of the past" while ignoring "the worst."

Because of his 20th century knowledge and know-how (and because of a system of sub-shuttles "honeycombing" the post-apocalyptic world...), Dylan proved a perfect "agent" of PAX to accomplish this critical mission of planetary reconstruction (think Irish monks in the Dark Ages...). Still, Dylan Hunt had to overcome his own twentieth century addiction to violence and killing.

Star Trek fans will also recall that Gene Roddenberry created two pilots for that classic NBC series, before the series was finally picked up for network television. 

Specifically, Star Trek underwent a dramatic change in leading man (from Jeffrey Hunt to William Shatner), and shifted radically in tone from the first pilot ("The Cage") to the second one ("Where No Man Has Gone Before.") In particular, the "cerebral," introspective nature of "The Cage" was replaced by a more action-packed, upbeat tone for Shatner's first episode, "Where No Man..."

One can detect a nearly identical shift at work from Genesis II to Planet Earth. In Genesis II, the brave men and women of PAX lived underground, in dark, depressing and dimly lit caverns. In Planet Earth, PAX folk live above ground, in a shiny, technological metropolis
replete with flower gardens and elaborate skyscrapers. Even Dylan Hunt's first voice-over is more upbeat and bright in language, explaining to the audience that in 2133 AD the land is "renewed," and the "air and water are pure again."

In Genesis II, the people of PAX wore simple garments and looked like Roman slaves. In Planet Earth, the people of PAX wear form-fitting and futuristic uniforms that are brightly reminiscent of Star Trek.

In Genesis II, PAX had no advanced technology or advanced medicine. By contrast, Planet Earth reveals a PAX replete with handheld computers, view-screens and large computer banks. The people of PAX are also more knowledgeable here, and there are doctors available who can perform advanced "bioplastic" heart surgery. These changes reveal a completely made-over PAX, one which (like the United Federation of Planets) represents a virtual utopia.

Other changes have been made as well.

A "recurring" enemy in the form of the barbaric mutants called "The Kreeg" has been added to the mix. These dangerous mutants, like the Klingons of modern day Trek incarnations, boast ridged (or bumpy) foreheads and a style of life geared heavily towards the militaristic. The Kreeg drive around the post-apocalyptic landscape in ancient, souped-up automobiles, and carry twentieth century fire-arms. 

Basically, It's like Mad Max with Klingons.

Some character relationships have also been tarted up to be as colorful and dynamic as the new environs. The flirtatious relationship between Dylan Hunt (here played by John Saxon) and sexy Harper-Smythe (Janet Margolin) is more pronounced. The other members
of Hunt's "Team 21" include the hulking Isiah (Ted Cassidy) and a physician named Baylock (Christopher Cary) who is an "Esper" capable of healing wounds with his mind. Baylock and Isiah share a friendly rivalry that is reminiscent of the Spock/Bones relationship on Star Trek, with Baylock dismissively referring to Isiah as a "savage" when Cassidy's character kneels down in prayer at one point.

Perhaps most significant is the change in Dylan Hunt himself. Saxon's version of the character is a man of action (like James T. Kirk); one who is firmly in command this time around. He barks orders, plots strategy and is a firm, decisive leader, with precious little of the introspection or moodiness of Cord's incarnation. Honestly, John Saxon is a much better lead in this particular role, and his central performance holds Planet Earth together pretty damn well. Like
Shatner's Kirk, he is a combination of physical agility/beauty and charming arrogance/swagger.

Another Star Trekkian touch: Dylan Hunt chronicles his adventures on a handheld device.  It's not the captain's log, but damn close.  Instead, he calls it "a log report to the PAX council."

Given the changes to a punchier, more upbeat tone, philosophy is also played down in Planet Earth. Genesis II ended with the high-minded pacifists of PAX lecturing to Dylan Hunt (who had just saved them all from nuclear annihilation...) about the evils of violence and murder. In Planet Earth, the PAX folk are still peaceful in nature (they continue to use sedative darts as their primary weapons, called PAXer darts, for instance), but they never stop the action to wax philosophic or lecture about pacifism. And judging by the fight sequences here, the people of PAX have also learned the fine art of self-defense.

Directed by the late, great Marc Daniels (who helmed many episodes of Star Trek), Planet Earth (co-written by Juanita Bartlett and Roddenberry and produced by Robert Justman) also features a plot that is easier, in some sense, to identify with. In the opening minutes of the episode, gentle Pater Kimbridge, a leader of PAX, is wounded during a kerfuffle with the Kreeg. Dylan and Team 21 get Kimbridge back to Pax, but they require the skills of a surgeon named John Connor to save the old man's life. Unfortunately, Connor disappeared a year earlier in an "unexplored region" ruled by a matriarchy called "The Confederacy."

There in the confederacy, "males are bought and sold like caged animals." Hunt wonders aloud if is this "women's lib...or women's lib gone mad?" Anyway, he resolves to infiltrate the Confederacy as a slave "owned" (as property) by Harper-Smythe, to locate John Connor and rescue his dying friend. He has just sixty hours to accomplish this task. What Planet Earth establishes with Dylan's mission is the bond of friendship between Kimbridge and Hunt. Hunt states that Kimbridge "is" PAX; both "grace" and "warmth." So underlining the action and weird central scenario in this pilot is a narrative that could have come from Star Trek; about the lengths friends will go to for friends.

Once inside the Confederacy of Ruth, Hunt becomes the property of a dominatrix named Marg (Diana Muldaur), who wins ownership of him in combat with Harper-Smythe. Marg decides she wants him to be a "breeder" (yes!), and Dylan soon learns that all the males here -- called "Dinks" -- are rendered docile by a drug extract in their gruelish food that controls the human "fear/fascination" response. Unfortunately, a side-effect of this drug is sterility. Fewer and fewer children are being born in the Confederacy. The mission is now two-fold for Dylan: set right this topsy-turvy culture (men's lib!) and find the missing Dr. John Connor.

Unfortunately, that's easier said than done. Hunt soon rebels against his new training, and Marg notes that "the human male is an unstable creature." She trains him herself (yippee!), forcing a tied-up Hunt to ingest a full vial of the dangerous extract, rendering him docile. But, in the best teeth-grinding, jaw-clenching tradition of Captain Kirk, Hunt fights the effects of the drug.

Once again, here's a Gene Roddenberry story with a decidedly kinky bent. Dylan Hunt is soon remanded to Marg's home as a "breeder" and once there he promises her that he's, uh...well...good in bed. He claims he has fourteen wives and that his body is attuned to "different practices" than The Mistress might be familiar with. Marg and Hunt share a scene that includes bottles of wine, a bullwhip (whoo-hoo!), and ultimately...a bed. In the sack, Marg and Dylan proceed to discuss the failure of both 20th century men's lib and post-apocalyptic women's lib as governing philosophies, and settle on "people's lib."

Yep, in the words of Dylan Hunt, it's all just a "little non-verbal mutual respect."

Before long, the Kreeg attack the Confederacy, but Dylan has executed a plan to free the Dinks from their drug-induced docility and stand-up and fight. In the end, PAX outsiders, Dinks and Mistresses fight back the violent Kreegs (led by John Quade) and Dylan and Harper-Smythe get Connor back to PAX to save Kimbridge's life.

Before this viewing, I hadn't seen Planet Earth in probably fifteen years, and my memory has always been that it wasn't as good; wasn't as "pure" perhaps, as the original, Genesis II. However, on a fresh viewing, I must admit, I actually prefer Planet Earth. John Saxon seems very comfortable and appealing as a leader of men (and women), and he's adept with the romantic and action bits. He's also highly charismatic and appears to be enjoying himself.

And that "light" Star Trek sense of esprit-de-corps and joie-de-vivre is definitely present too, so Saxon understands the style. True, there's less philosophical grandstanding, but the lighter touch is fun and entertaining, and it easily (and humorously) makes points about the timeless "battle of the sexes." Parts of the episode play well as satire; and in toto, Planet Earth is a lot less heavy-handed and grave than Genesis II. This is a planet you wouldn't mind visiting every week.

By making PAX more advanced in Planet Earth, Roddenberry is also better able to compare and contrast various cultures and societies. It's very difficult to be a committed pacifist when you live in desperation (underground in caves; wearing rags); a little easier to do so when some of the basic necessities of life -- like sunlight -- are met. The unisex uniforms also forge a sharp visual distinction between PAX and the other cultures. The character dynamics here also seem more promising, or at least more colorful.

Alas, Planet Earth didn't make the grade either, and never went to series. A third attempt with this formula, also starring John Saxon (this time as Captain Anthony Vico) -- titled Strange New World (1975) -- was next. Roddenberry had reduced involvement in that pilot, and it too failed to become a series.

Today, Planet Earth -- the best Roddenberry version of this concept -- is available for purchase at the Warner Archive.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Films of 1976: The Town that Dreaded Sundown

Charles B. Pierce -- the director who brought the world the box office hit The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972) -- also gave audiences another beloved horror picture in the same decade: the recently re-made and re-imagined The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976).

A fictionalized, semi-documentary telling of the Moonlight or Phantom Murders that went unsolved in Texarkana in the immediate post-World War II era, this bicentennial year film has earned praise from horror aficionados over the decades. In part this praise is due to the disturbing nature of the movie's unforgettable boogeyman: an anonymous killer who attacks unsuspecting victims at remote lover’s lanes by moonlight, and who dons a white sack over his head (much as Jason Voorhees would in Friday the 13th Part II [1981]). 

The mysterious killer in the film not only escapes detection and capture, but undertakes a genuinely harrowing reign of terror. Pierce, adopting a blunt approach to the action, spares the audience nothing. 

Accordingly, at least two sequences in The Town that Dreaded Sundown -- one involving a trombone as a murder weapon (!) and the other featuring Gilligan’s Island’s Dawn Wells as the prospective victim -- have achieved cult status today. They are effective genre set-pieces that raise one’s blood pressure significantly.

Uniquely, The Town that Dreaded Sundown also appears to forecast both the 1980s slasher movement in the genre and the 1990s obsession with serial killers. The boogeyman in Town is a strange combination of both types: a masked, murderous assailant who can be anywhere at any time, and a man -- sans “uniform” -- who can move freely about in Texarkana.  

That double-identity lends the film a significant degree of paranoia, since one is never certain if the killer hails from the police force or local government, or is otherwise nearby as Texas Ranger Morales (Ben Johnson) outlines his plans to catch the criminal. Clearly, the killer is someone who knows his way around the town, and regularly visits local establishments, like a restaurant seen late in the picture. Like Norman Bates in Psycho (1960), this madman can hide in plain sight.

A bizarrely-paced movie of highs and lows which pauses for some imbecilic humor and slow-motion car chases, The Town that Dreaded Sundown nonetheless impresses, even today, because of its strong period details, and its compelling story of a killer who emerges from nowhere to terrify a community and then, creepily, recedes to nowhere, leaving trauma and terror in his wake.

It's likely we will never know the identity of this real-life killer, and yet the movie places him squarely and prominently in the collective imagination, even attending a screening of the film itself...seeing his life's "work" reflected on the silver screen. In this way, Pierce ties the events of 1946 to the year 1976, and suggests that horror still dwells when the sun goes down.

“Texarkana looked normal during daytime hours...but everyone dreaded sundown.”

Just eight months after the end of World War II, on March 3, 1946, a Phantom Killer appears in Texarkana, attacking two youngsters at a local lover’s lane.

The killer goes silent until March 24, when he strikes again, this time murdering Emma Lou Cook and Howard Turner on a rainy night. 

While the Texarakana police, including Deputy Norm Ramsey (Andrew Prine) attempt to make sense of the killer’s motives and movements, legendary “lone wolf” Texas Ranger J.D. Morales (Ben Johnson) arrives in town to take over the investigation.

Meanwhile, the Phantom Killer becomes the subject of national news as the residents hide behind locked doors after sundown, and the killer strikes again, this time attacking a high school band player with a trombone and knife on the night of April 14.

Eventually, the Phantom Killer’s trail goes cold, but Morales and Ramsey get one last, unexpected chance to apprehend him…

“The fear spread like cancer…”

It looks like The Town that Dreaded Sundown actually got its title from Pierce’s The Legend of Boggy Creek. In that film, the narrator, Vern Stierman notes that the town of Fouke is fine by daytime. But by sundown it becomes a place of fear because of the Fouke Monster. 

Stierman's vocal services are also retained for The Town that Dreaded Sundown, and he repeats, almost verbatim that (good) line of dialogue about the fading of the light, and the fear that comes with the shroud of darkness.

Although based on a true story, The Town that Dreaded Sundown also captures a slow-dawning sense of uneasiness, circa 1946, in the American psyche. World War II had been won and soldiers were returning home, buying houses and attending college, thanks to the passage of the G.I. Bill. 

But the end of World War did not mean, necessarily, the end of anxiety. 

For example, Russia was developing and testing atomic bombs as early as 1949 and there was a feeling of marking time's passage, perhaps, until the next crisis emerged..such as the Korean War. 

One might describe this feeling as waiting for the other shoe to drop. 

That’s the very fear that feels almost tangible in The Town that Dreaded Sundown: a knowledge that a killer will strike again, but without knowing when or where. Thus the film thrives on the same sort of anticipatory anxiety that we saw again in the nineties, and in particular, in the works of Chris Carter.  All exterior signs indicated that times were good, but fears nonetheless lurked underneath the surface. Both time periods, in a sense, represented retrenchment, either after either World War, or the Cold War, as focus returned to the homeland, and the problems brewing and growing there.

One idea dropped from (the good) 2014 remake of The Town that Dreaded Sundown is that the killer in Texarkana is some brand of sexually frustrated psycho. For example, he “chews” on his female victims, leaving bite-marks on their flesh, including their breasts.  

And the film’s famous trombone death is symbolic, no doubt of the sexual act. In this scene, the killer straps a knife to the end of a trombone, and then keeps stabbing the knife (and trombone) into the back of a female victim, then retracting it, and doing it again. 

It’s no stretch or over-reading to see the repetitive thrusting and retraction of the trombone/knife as a coded visualization for an act that the killer himself can’t seem to complete successfully: sexual intercourse. Today, the scene plays as weird and almost a little comical, and yet if one considers the imagery, it’s clear that the trombone is standing in for something…else.  

Later, the film goes further, describing the character’s pathology. He’s a “sadist…motivated by a strong sexual drive,” according to the police. The killer targets desirable women he sees at the remote lover's lane locations. He doesn't sexually penetrate his victims, however, likely because he can't do so, for psychological reasons. He's impotent.

More harrowing in a conventional sense than the strange trombone scene is the set-piece in which Dawn Wells (as Texarkana local Helen Reed) is attacked in her home at night by the Phantom Killer.  

He shoots Helen's husband through a closed window, shattering the glass. She runs to the telephone to call for help, and he fires again.  This time the bullet perforates the side of her face, and she falls to the floor, attempting to crawl away from her assailant.  

This scene is alarming not merely because of the extreme violence portrayed on screen and the likability of the victim, but because Wells’ character -- even after being catastrophically wounded -- must continue to fight for her life. The terror doesn’t end quickly for her, and as viewers, we root for her to escape the killer alive.

The trombone scene and the Dawn Wells sequence make The Town that Dreaded Sundown truly horrific on a gut, visceral level, but the film’s sense of terror runs deeper than either set-piece suggests.  

In particular, the killer is often identified on screen only by the style of his boots. We never see a face to go with them.

At one point in the film, those tell-tale boots are seen on a restaurant patron, one sitting very near Morales. The killer has been listening all along to the officer's strategies and plans, and has not been noticed. This fact is chilling. It means that the killer can move in and out of polite society with impunity, without a second glance, even. 

The punctuation for this chilling thought is the film’s final, lingering scare.  A line queues up to see The Town that Dreaded Sundown -- this very film -- and we see those trademarks boots again, walking on the sidewalk outside the theater.  

The notion is, explicitly, that the killer is still out there, still unidentified. Half-a-century after his killing spree, the wolf is still hidden among the sheep, among the flock.

This final gut punch isn’t simply chilling, it suggests Charles B. Pierce’s cerebral, even nimble approach to the material. 

To wit: The Town that Dreaded Sundown is a retelling of a true story. The film goes back to the beginning of the Phantom Killings in 1946, and then chronicles the time period right up to and including the premiere of the film itself.  

In other words, Pierce writes his own film into the legend, on screen, so that it becomes the de facto myth or version of the tale.  

So the movie is "meta" and post-modern in nature well before Scream (1996) was even a glimmer in Kevin Williamson’s eyes...which is no doubt why the scribe referenced it in that popular film. To its credit, the Town remake of 2014 plays gamely with this aspect of the story in a way that honors the original and escalates the self-reflexive aspects of it.

The last time I watched The Town that Dreaded Sundown was likely during the preparation of my text Horror Films of the 1970s, and so I must assume from the timing that I viewed a kind of faded VHS copy. For this screening, I watched an HD streaming version, and the film looked absolutely incredible, gorgeous even. The period details are crisp and attentively-drawn, and part of the film’s appeal is our absolute immersion in 1946 Texarkana. For a low-budget film, this remains a remarkable feat, to so convincingly excavate a long gone time period.

Sadly, all of Pierce’s cerebral, visceral and period work is undercut, at least to some degree by the strange moments that lurch towards cheesy comedy. Pierce himself plays a character called Spark Plug (a policeman), who dresses up in drag in an attempt to catch the killer. Virtually every scene involving the character is hokey and dumb and off-putting.  

And the film’s third act foray into a Bonnie and Clyde (1967)-styled car chase is equally ill-advised. It's Smokey and the Bandit...forties style!

Pierce must have known that his movie had no real ending and been at something of a loss. After all, the Phantom Killer was never caught, let alone identified. So the director attempts to distract from the lack of an effective denouement with slow-motion stunts that would fit better in a Hal Needham flick than in a horror movie. The misdirection may be amusing, but it is hardly successful.

Despite the tonal missteps, one could make a case that The Town that Dreaded Sundown is Pierce’s most accomplished horror film, though The Evictors (1979) would have to run neck and neck with it. But Town is more well-known, for certain, and the scenes featuring the killer on the prowl remain the stuff of nightmares.

Movie Trailer: The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976)

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Alternative Factor" (March 30, 1967)

Stardate 3087.6

While exploring an uncharted solar system, the Enterprise seems to “wink out” of existence momentarily, as though all of existence is unraveling.

Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) localizes the “rip” in space-time to a nearby planet, and Starfleet Command fears an invasion of the galaxy may be imminent.

Upon beam down to the planet, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) encounters a humanoid named Lazarus (Robert Brown), who may be insane. Lazarus is hunting through time and space for a “monster,” he insists, one who could destroy all of reality itself.

After some time puzzling through the mystery, Kirk and Spock learn the truth. 

Lazarus is hunting an anti-matter duplicate using his time-space ship.  He requires the Enterprise’s Dilithium crystals to power his vessel, and trap and battle that duplicate.

The command crew comes to realize that both matter and anti-matter versions of Lazarus must remain trapped in a “dimensional corridor” -- a kind of gateway separating the two universes -- for all of time, if reality is to remain whole.

If there is one less-than-successful episode in Star Trek (1966-1969) season one, it would have to be “The Alternative Factor.”  The episode lands smack-dab in a run of great, classic shows, and stands out for not being of apiece.

There are no doubt hard, fast reasons why the episode is seen as an ambitious failure by many fans. 

For example, the actor originally cast to play Lazarus, John Drew Barrymore, did not show up to play the part on the first day of shooting.  Robert Brown replaces him on-screen and does a quite creditable job in a difficult role. 

But the upshot is that the episode was clearly made under the gun, and with difficulties.

Similarly, the episode’s concepts -- though relatively straight-forward – often transmit as muddled and confused. 

The matter and anti-matter Lazarus are often depicted switching places, with a head-bandage as the only visual cue, for example, of which individual we are "seeing." Spock comments on the bandage,  and the two Lazarus versions during a briefing room scene that seeks to explain the story, but it is baffling why he does not bring up the issue sooner, given its importance.

Also, each Lazarus instantaneously replaces the other during the rip in space sequences, at least to our eyes.  So the question becomes:, how can they ever meet if they spontaneously transpose in this fashion, simply flip-flopping one universe to the other?

The upshot, I fear, is that we never quite know which Lazarus we are dealing with, what the stakes are, and how everything works. 

His fate is fascinating (and horrifying) but Kirk’s repeating of the line “and what of Lazarus?” in the coda is over-operatic. Lazarus is not a character we have fallen in love with, and the episode works extra hard (hence the repeated line) to make certain we understand the character’s sacrifice.

Also, this is an episode in which it feels like our crew is playing guest roles. They stand-by and attempt to figure matters out, while Lazarus does his work to save reality. Kirk gives him a hand in the last act.  But imagine how much more immediate the story would feel if Kirk -- or someone aboard the Enterprise -- had to step in and battle the evil Lazarus for all eternity?

Ultimately, as I said, we just don't care enough about Lazarus to be crushed by his fate.

And finally, the wink-out effects are pretty lame. A beautiful image of a galaxy is simply superimposed over a shaking, quaking ship.

Despite these issues, I must admit that I boast a real fascination with “The Alternative Factor.” It is a story that is filled with so many ideas.  True, they tend to be half-developed, but still...

First, I really like the design of the one-man time ship. It’s a single-seater saucer, with a transparent bubble dome and a nifty cockpit. It must also be incredibly powerful, considering it eats up Dilithium crystals.

It sparks my imagination to think of Lazarus using this device for a life-time, chasing his “negative” mirror-self across time and space.

Secondly, I enjoy the “mythic” nature of the story. Remember, Star Trek is quite intentionally a secular adventure. Gene Roddenberry was an avowed atheist, and looked to eschew religious trappings in the series.

Accordingly, “The Alternative Factor” goes to great lengths to create a secular, scientific version of Hell.

Think about it: the two, opposite versions of Lazarus will live forever, outside time, at each other’s throats, so that the universe might live.

That dimensional corridor is thus a scientific version of Hell: a place of eternal suffering and damnation for those trapped there. I find it fascinating that a secular version of damnation has been proposed, and conceptualized by the series.

The fate of Lazarus, to fight with his opposite for all eternity reminds me, specifically, of the (afterworld) fates of such mythic and literary characters as Sisyphus or Tantalus.

Lazarus, of course, is named after a Biblical character, one raised from the dead by Jesus. The character appears in the Gospel of John (11:1-44, 12:1-11) and is known as Lazarus of Bethany. In Scripture, Lazarus represents Jesus’s ability to perform miracles, and in particular, conquer death itself.

Though not in a way of his choosing, no doubt, Lazarus in Star Trek also escapes death. He lives forever…though in ostensible torment.

I am also fascinated by the structure or “reality” as suggested by “The Alternative Factor.” 

Our dimension is pushed up against another, anti-matter dimension, and only the bottle-neck or dimensional corridor keeps them from annihilating one another.  

This idea strikes my imagination as well.  I would love to know if there was an ‘intelligent design’ behind this structure preserving two realities.  

And if there are other dimensions in existence, do they also have this structurally-vital escape valve protecting them?  I would love to see a scientifically-grounded but speculative (and yes, spiritual) Star Trek story about a ship exploring these two particular realities. How did the corridor come to exist? Is it a natural occurrence? Put there by some cosmic intelligence?

I realize that sounds more like the perfect Space:1999 story, but I still find it fascinating to speculate about.

Another one of the ideas that fascinate me most about the story, however, involve Lazarus’s background. He is a brilliant scientist who discovers parallel dimensions and grows insane when he realizes that he is not unique; that each dimension contains a “version” of him.  He loses his mind and wants to wipe out all other “versions” of himself...ostensibly because he is no longer unique.  He becomes genocidal, a maniac.  Again, a Biography/History novel of Lazarus’s life would, to me, make fascinating reading. 

Certainly, one can make the following claim about “The Alternative Factor.”  As wordy and as muddled as it remains, it introduces a number of fascinating concepts to the Trekverse.  

Not the least of which is parallel realities. A better meditation on that theme is season two’s “Mirror, Mirror.” 

Still, what of "The Alternative Factor?"

Next week: "City on the Edge of Forever."

The Films of 1986: Howard the Duck

In 1986, the comic-book adaptation Howard the Duck -- executive-produced by George Lucas -- landed in movie theaters with a splat. 

The fantasy film cost thirty-seven million dollars to produce (some sources report a budget as high as 52 million, however…), and barely made back its budget.

Meanwhile, audiences and critics hated the film from director Willard Huyck and writer Gloria Katz.

So much so, in fact, that the words “Howard the Duck” became synonymous with the term “Hollywood movie fiasco” (at least until Waterworld came out, in 1995).

It shouldn’t have been that way. 

Not because the 1986 movie is good.

It isn’t.

But because the source material, a Marvel Comic created by Steve Gerber in 1973, was beloved, inventive, and off-beat. In other words, Howard the Duck was the perfect fodder for cult-movie immortality in the age of non-conventional efforts such as Buckaroo Banzai (1984) or Big Trouble in Little China (1986). 

Thus Howard the Duck may still not have found favor as a mainstream audience attraction had it been a good movie, but it would have likely found a secondary half-life as a beloved movie, at least from cine-philes and aficionados of the comic.

Instead -- as is so often the case in comic-book movie adaptations -- too much got lost in translation to the screen.

Howard the Duck’s deficits are much too easy to rattle off, today. 

First and foremost, the film never decides on its audience.  Is it a toothless slapstick comedy made for kids?  If so, it is dull for long stretches of time, and not particularly amusing. 

Is it an adult social satire with scatological humor and sexual situations?  If not, the scene in which Beverly (Lea Thompson) extracts a duck condom from Howard’s wallet sticks out like a sore thumb.

Is the movie an adventure? A relationship drama? A fish-out-of-water story? A social commentary on human existence with a nihilistic bent?

Indeed, there are moments which qualify the film as all of the above. As Richard Corliss aptly reported, in Time Magazine, Howard the Duck is “too scuzzy to beguile children” and “too infantile” to appeal to their parents.

Even though Howard the Duck never finds a consistent tone and sticks with it, it might have succeeded had its central character not been such a letdown in terms of his portrayal.  The cinematic Howard is earnest and mopey, and a far cry from the cynical, caustic, cigar-chomping character of the comic-books. 

Worse, Howard -- as devised by the filmmakers -- is largely inexpressive.  At the Chicago Tribune, Dave Kehr described the visualization of the title character and noted that “the disappointment is devastating.”  He went on to call Howard “A small person…in a latex rubber suit pasted over with feathers.”

His observation is right on the money. There is no life to this version of Howard.

Memorably, the tag-line for the Howard the Duck comic was “Trapped in a world he never made!”  The tag-line for the movie should have been, Trapped in a Movie That Doesn’t Know Who He is. 

Howard the Duck’s greatest deficit, in the scheme of things, is that the film successfully making an alien, talking duck an utterly dull and uninteresting character.  This Howard is a drag.

“No More Mr. Nice Duck.”

A highly intelligent duck, Howard, from Duck World, is unexpectedly dragged from his distant planet to Earth, and Cleveland. 

There, Howard befriends rock-and-roller Beverly Switzler (Lea Thompson) from the band Cherry Bomb, and hopes to find a way home.

He learns from Beverly’s friend Phil Blumbert (Tim Robbins) that a scientist, Dr. Jenning (Jeffrey Jones) was conducting an experiment the night he was transported, involving a giant laser and a process of “energy inversion.”

Howard hopes that by repeating the experiment, he will be able to return to Duck World.  Instead, Dr. Jenning accidentally pulls something monstrous from the Nexus of Sominus: A Dark Overlord of the Universe.  This monstrous creature inhabits Jenning’s body and wants to use the laser to bring more of his people to Earth.

When Beverly is captured by the Dark Overlord, Howard must make a choice. He can rescue Beverly and save the world, but by destroying the laser, he will be trapped on Earth permanently.

“You think I might find happiness in the animal kingdom?”

In his comic-book form, Howard the Duck was born one “hard-boiled egg,” to quote a funny line in the movie. He was an attitudinal, cynical duck who, based on his very appearance, seemed to be a twisted version of cartoon ducks throughout animation history. More than that, the comic-book version of Howard functioned as the ultimate outsider, able to comment sensibly on human beings (“talking apes” in Howard’s parlance) without, necessarily, sympathy or affection.

His cinematic counterpart, by comparison, has no edge whatsoever. Howard is voiced by Chip Zien, and whether it is a flaw in his characterization or in the writing of the character, he comes across as woefully milquetoast.

Almost none of his jokes stick the landing land, and that fact, coupled with the underwhelming visual presentation of the character, gives Howard all the charm and charisma of a wet blanket. Total Film, in 2009, latched onto the problem: “…he’s portrayed as a sweet innocent with gooey eyes and a squeaky voice (which manages to neuter the vitriol in even the more sassy lines.)”

I would argue that Howard the Duck exists for the vitriol. Take it away, and he has no purpose, and no reason to exist.

It’s clear that there’s a schizophrenic quality to Howard and his film.  At times he is supposed to be a lost, cute creature (think: E.T. The Extra Terrestrial [1982]) and at other times he is supposed to be an adult, agent provocateur (think of his relationship with a human woman).  It’s bewildering that the script never decides how it feels about Howard, or, finally, even the specifics of Howard’s identity. Is he an adult? An avatar for a child? A sex object?

I suppose Howard the Duck has gotten a bit of a bum rap in terms of its visualizations. The special effects are of their time, the mid-1980s, but nonetheless quite good.  The set-piece involving the Dark Overlord and Howard in a diner is probably the film’s best, at least in terms of pacing, effects and impact. 

And Jeffrey Jones certainly makes the most of his villainous character, mining every possible moment for twisted humor.  I also admire the stop-motion Dark Overlords that appear in the climax.  They are absurd, Lovecraftian beasts that feel like they belong in the same world as Howard of the comics.

Sometimes, when a film goes so far astray, it’s difficult to enumerate all the misfires.  I suppose one more criticism here, and hopefully a pertinent one is that the film mistakes pace, or velocity, for humor.  The film is frenetic and fast-paced, and everybody always seems to be running and screaming from location-to-location, set-piece to set-piece. 

To stand still, I suppose, would be to acknowledge that the film has no idea of its center.  Howard the Duck is thus loud, but rarely funny; save for those moments when the Dark Overlord is on-screen and making mischief.

“Every duck has his limits,” according to Howard, and I guess that goes for movie critics too.  I am always up for a re-evaluation of a critically-disdained cult movie, or a rehabilitation, even, of its reputation, if one is merited.

But Howard the Duck is sidelined by a colorless script, an eminently forgettable title character, a lack of bite, and even a lack of laughs.  This is a movie that has no idea what it wants to be.  One minute, it’s E.T.  The next it wants to be Ghostbusters. In the shuffle to find material to ape, Howard the Duck misses the comic book characters anarchic spirit.

Poor Howard, he’s right about something in this movie.  At least so far as this film is concerned, nobody laughs at the master of Quack Fu.