Saturday, August 27, 2016

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Space Stars Episode #4 (October 3, 1981)

In the fourth episode of Hanna Barbera’s Space Stars (1981), Space Ghost encounter the Nomads, a group of aliens seeking to escape persecution by their dictatorial people. SG saves them from a space snake and offers to take them to the galaxy core so the free governments can discuss a place to settle them. 

Unfortunately, the Nomads are really conquering robots in disguise; their transports really battleships.  Space Ghost threatens to send the nomadic robots into a black hole if they don’t surrender, so they comply.

This episode, like so many, features villains who appear to be biological, but are actually disguised robots.  This trope recurs once more in this episode alone. It also re-appears in a Space Ghost story next week ("Attack of the Space Sharks.")

In “Trojan Teen Force,” the Teen Force seeks to help the Trojan Emperor and his daughter, who have been foolish enough to seek a peace treaty with Uglor.  

Uglor wants to marry the princess, however, and holds the royals captive until she acquiesces to his demands. The Teen Force uses a “Trojan Horse” trick to get aboard Uglor’s ship and conduct a rescue.   This story features the unusual scene of Uglor’s marriage. He is about to wed the princess when a second Trojan horse is revealed: she is really a shape-shifted Moleculad!

In this week’s segment of The Herculoids, titled “The Invisibles,” the family comes under attack from a series of invisible weapons. Igoo gets trapped behind an invisible force field, for instance. 

Zandor suspects the Zeelos, “the flying monkey men” who live nearby on Quasar, have broken a peace treaty with the Herculoids. The King of these villagers reveals that his rebellious son may actually be behind the attacks.  Space Ghost arrives on Quasar and reveals that the prince has been using “magna lite” -- debris from an explosion inside a black hole -- to render matter invisible.

In “The Space Dragons,” miners come under attack from space dragons. Space Ghost fights them and learns the dragons are giant robots attempting to steal the most valuable fuel in the universe.

In “Astro and he Space Mutts,” the dog cops fear they will be outmoded when Space Ace gets a new partner: Brucie the robot “Wonder Dog.”  The robot performs admirably but ultimately malfunctions and goes bananas.

The Space Stars finale this week is called “Mind Witch,” and the action starts when foragers on Quasar accidentally awaken a diabolical witch from suspended animation. 

Zandor reveals that these sinister, all-powerful mind-witches once ruled the planet. Space Ghost arrives to help the Herculoids, but is brainwashed into being a slave by the witch.

The black-outs for this week’s omnibus episode are as follows: 

In “Space Magic,” Jan, Jace and Blip do a “mind reading” trick.  

In “Space Fact,” the Herculoids discuss what it would be like to travel at the speed of light, and ponder the effects of time distillation. This bi makes no sense, however, in light of the technology of the series.  

For the ships and cycles to cross the distances they do in each Space Stars story, they must possess faster than light travel, but no time distillation is ever featured.  In fact, several episodes mention a “hyper drive,” which is a faster-than-light form of propulsion, and again -- no time distillation is featured.

In “Space Mystery,” a stranger claiming to have traveled faster than light speed attacks Quasar, but the Herculoids know he is lying because faster-than-light travel is impossible. The stranger is revealed as a mole-man who came from beneath the planet surface.

The Space Code this week is “JHPP,” which in code spells out the name of one of the Herculoids.

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Shazam: "The Treasure" (October 19, 1974)

In “The Treasure,” Billy (Michael Gray) and Mentor (Les Tremayne) learn that thieves have been stealing Native American treasures from sacred ground, and desecrating “the desert,” which is a prime concern of the Elders, who declare the territory “rich” in Indian “history.” 

Billy and Mentor team up with a Native American boy, Johnny and his grandfather to stop the thieves, and preserve “the beauty of the land.”  

The thieves, however, nearly escape from a nearby airport…until Captain Marvel stops them.

Like almost every episode of Shazam’s first season thus far, “The Treasure” features no interior locations, only exteriors. 

What makes “The Treasure” fun, however, is the nature of the location shooting.  

The episode is shot at the famous Vasquez Rocks, home of the Zanti Misfits (The Outer Limits), the Gorn (Star Trek), and other cult-TV series including The Invaders, Man from Atlantis, Space: Above and Beyond, and Alias.  

The famous angled/pointed mountain rock can be seen in “The Treasure” but from a different angle than featured in most programs.  Here, Mentor’s RV -- with the Captain Marvel lightning bolt emblazoned on the hood -- drives down a path right in front of that craggy outcropping.

Otherwise, “The Treasure” is distinguished primarily by its more-accomplished than-usual final action scene.  

Here, Captain Marvel (Jackson Bostwick) chases down a fast-moving plane on the runway, grabs a rudder, and brings the craft to a dead stop.  Through the use of fast-motion photography and a few other tricks, the super heroics actually come off looking rather impressive.

And for those cataloging such factors, “The Treasure” marks the second time in seven episodes (after “The Brothers”) in which Billy’s secret identity as Captain Marvel is learned by an outsider. In this case, it’s the trustworthy Grandfather who knows the truth.

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Films of 1969: Captain Nemo and the Underwater City

Across the various Jules Verne-inspired films surveyed here on the blog the last few weeks, we've seen the classic literary anti-hero Captain Nemo depicted as self-sacrificing savior and anguished anti-hero (Fleischer's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea [1954]), and Nemo as older (and perhaps wiser?) benevolent benefactor of mankind (Mysterious Island [1961]). 

1969's Captain Nemo and The Underwater City provides yet another interpretation of the character, and to put it bluntly, it isn't one of my favorites.

Here, as played by diminutive, thin Robert Ryan, Captain Nemo is portrayed as a soft-voiced, beardless, kindly, grandfather-type. In this British-made feature, Nemo commands not merely the advanced submarine Nautilus, but serves happily as friendly ruler of a golden undersea utopia, a domed metropolis called "Temple Myra," if I have it right.

More to the point, however, this 1969 version of Captain Nemo is rather toothless, given to the occasionally 'bout of grumpiness, but overall most determined, apparently, to forge a romantic relationship with a castaway named Helena (Nanette Newman) whom he has rescued from a sinking ship. I suppose there's nothing intrinsically wrong with a film dramatizing the softer side of Nemo, but it's still a bit jarring to see such an edgy character rendered so...harmless.

Captain Nemo and The Underwater City (shot by the always-impressive Alan Hume) depicts the tale of six men and women who are rescued by Nemo when their vessel sinks during a storm on the high seas. These characters include the honorable U.S. Senator Robert Fraser (Chuck Connors), plucky widower Helena Beckett (Newman), her young boy, Phillip, a twitchy claustrophobic named Lomax (Allan Cuthbertson) and two petty crooks -- Barnaby (Bill Fraser) and Swallow (Kenneth Connor) -- who comprise the film's egregiously tiresome comic-relief duo.

Nemo transports these survivors to the bottom of the sea and to his gold-plated commune, a domed city of peace and prosperity. 

In fact, Nemo is even planning a construction expansion there: two additional domes are in the offing

Life in Temple Myra is a paradise, but for the people from the surface, it's also a cage because Nemo won't permit the new arrivals to return home out of fear that they will reveal the existence of his amazing metropolis to the warring nations above. 

Soon, Fraser romances a sexy citizen in the city, Mala (Lucianna Paluzzi), which enrages her current beau, Joab (John Turner). We know Mala and the Senator are hot for each other, because she serenades Fraser with a strangely phallic musical instrument that she strokes romantically (and in soft-focus), while Fraser looks on, entranced.

Meanwhile, Nemo becomes a kindly father-figure to young Phillip, and develops a a close friendship with the obstinate women's libber Helena. When offered the choice to betray Nemo and leave the city, or stay with Nemo and form an ad hoc family (along with Phillip's little kitten...), Helena chooses to remain.

As all this soap opera occurs inside the safety of the city walls, a deranged giant manta ray named "Mobula" threatens the peace outside. Fraser becomes a hero after dispatching the murderous beast while in command of Nautilus.

Despite this act of bravery, Fraser plots escape aboard a brand new Nautilus #2 with the help of the treacherous Joab and the avaricious Barnaby...

I first saw Captain Nemo and The Underwater City with my (patient) parents sometime in the very early 1970s, on a drive-in double-bill, as a I recall. As a child, I loved the movie simply because it featured cool submarines, undersea domes, and the giant Mobula monster. 

And did I mention Lucianna Paluzzi in a bathing suit?

Watching the film as a more discerning adult, however, Captain Nemo and The Underwater City doesn't wear quite as well.

For instance, the production design is rather underwhelming. Specifically, the underwater city is saddled with an unfortunate and hackneyed leitmotif: not only is everything gold Futura, but every architectural detail is ridiculously marine-life-centric. What I mean by that is that Nemo makes his announcements through a microphone that is molded into the shape of a fish. And when a siren sounds, the alarm bell features a vibrating lobster figure

Nemo's diving suits are also somewhat silly in appearance. The suits feature transparent shoulder epaulets in the shape of fish fins. This sort of decoration resembles a bad seafood theme restaurant rather than the Utopian headquarters of the world's greatest genius.

The miniature work is also terrible. I should add, this is not a case of the years being unkind to good special effects, to be certain. If you go back to 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea in 1954 or Mysterious Island in 1961, you can see some amazing and convincing miniature work and optical effects. In both cases, those effect still hold up remarkably well: you believe the Nautilus is a full-sized vehicle ramming actual surface vessels. 

Captain Nemo and The Underwater City's effects never achieve that level of verisimilitude. It puts forward inferior -- and obvious -- model work.

Captain Nemo and the Underwater City also wastes an inordinate amount of its melodramatic narrative concentrating on unfunny comic-relief. Barnaby and Swallow make pests of themselves -- and in one cringe-worthy moment -- Barnaby squirts a stream of alcohol in his face while trying to master an undersea drink dispenser. 

Much more troubling and difficult to accept is the fact that secretive Captain Nemo not only goes out of his way to rescue a few survivors from a passing ship (when in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea he was willing to let Ned and the others die in the sea...), but that he here turns around and bestows upon them his instant and unquestioning trust. 

Specifically, Nemo permits Joab to give the Lomax and the gold-hungry Barnaby and Swallow full access to the city (except for a carefully labeled "Forbidden Area.") Joab obediently and politely shows these visitors everything: the gold repository room, and the pressure control room...the one room in the city that could be sabotaged, and could destroy the utopia.

Frankly, Nemo's insistence that these visitors remain at the bottom of the sea (10,000 fathoms below the surface...) is also more than a little mystifying. The good captain should have just dropped the survivors off on the nearest island, or given them a small raft so they could find help from a passing vessel. Nemo's stated motive for not permitting Fraser and others to return to the surface is that they would tell the world about his underwater utopia.

Yes, but what could they do about it?

I mean, it's not like any nation in the world at this time in history (roughly the period of the American Civil War) boasted the technology to reach the city, let alone attack and pillage it. 

Nemo is the only human being in the world with the capacity to even reach the bottom of the sea at this juncture in time. Fraser and the others could be sent back freely with their wild story, and even if by chance they were believed by the authorities, there would be nothing that could be done about it

In fact, if you follow my logic, the only way malicious forces (or spies...) from the outside world could reach the domed city would if they were...rescued by Nemo and brought down by him as guests. 

Once inside they could then sabotage the city and escape back to the surface in his submarines. 

And that, in fact, is what happens. 

This is purely and simply a case of a narrative scenario without a whit of logical consistency.

A couple more things: it seems to me that if you wanted to write the story of Captain Nemo falling in love and becoming a father-figure, you would want to highlight his sad past, especially his alienation from the world-at-large. 

You'd want to include much information about the family he lost too. 

Captain Nemo and The Underwater City does none of that, providing instead a lukewarm romance between the elder Nemo and one of his much-younger visitors. It is also baffling that the anti-social Nemo, who exiled himself in the sea to escape his past, would cheerfully become the very visible leader of an undersea commune, presiding over school swimming competitions and the like. I'm not kidding, either. That's actually what Nemo is doing (celebrating All-Seas Day, poolside...) when Fraser steals the Nautilus # 2.

I've been rather tough on Captain Nemo and The Underwater City, but in closing, I would like to write something positive about it. 

And that is this: for all the hoary aspects of the movie (from the miniature design to the pedestrian script by Pip and Jane Baker), the film does boast a unique approach to villainy: Not one character is really a "bad guy" in the traditional movie sense. 

Lomax is a sick man, mentally unbalanced. 

Barnaby is simply greedy. 

And opponents Fraser and Nemo come to respect and admire one another, despite the fact they end up in conflict. Too often, movie villains are evil "just because," when in reality we know that battles are waged over ideologies or differences of opinion. 

As childish as Captain Nemo and The Underwater City sometimes seems, it's at least a little rewarding that the characters are occasionally less two-dimensional than the production design is. The movie has a nice way of focusing on character motivations and decisions instead of assuming that all the visitors to Nemo's world would reflexively want to return home.

"Even Utopia has its hazards," one character states in the film, but Captain Nemo and The Underwater City's best quality is that it realizes our world has hazards too. 

And that choosing a "home" ultimately comes down to more than just returning to the place where you started out.

Movie Trailer: Captain Nemo and the Underwater City (1969)

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Films of 2016: Green Room

Green Room (2016) is a terrifying and incredibly gory horror movie of the savage cinema persuasion. It’s a spiritual update -- at least in some ways -- to 1971’s Straw Dogs (from director Sam Peckinpah).

In both (brutal) films, for example, protagonists learn something about themselves -- and their human nature -- while contending with personalities who regularly use violence to dominate others. 

Both films depict fish-out-of-water stories in a sense too, and ones about cultural differences.

However, Green Room boasts a very modern spin. 

Today, the greatest horror we imagine does not involve going to a different country and running afoul of the locals and their “alien” customs there. 

Instead, the great fear of this decade of the 2st century is wandering into “cross-burning territory” here in the homeland, as one character puts it; about crossing the divide from tolerant modernity into hateful, backward nativism.

The cultures at war here are the mainstream, diverse, moral one, which strives towards egalitarianism and justice, and the resentful, backward one, still clinging to racism and race resentment like precious heirlooms from a past generation.

Specifically, Green Room involves irreverent clueless millennials -- and punk rockers -- running afoul of dangerous, militant white supremacists in the Pacific Northwest.

At first, the millennials don’t recognize the danger they are in, despite the fact that all the signs -- literal signs, hanging on walls -- are there.

I call these characters clueless, because despite their hard-driving, anti-establishment musical catalog, they possess “tolerant,” modern beliefs. And they don’t seem to understand that some people, and organizations, have been ginning up race hatred for years and they aren’t about to change. 

And worse, these monsters still exist, still thrive.

Once upon a time, horror films were about traveling to Transylvania, and encountering an exotic monster like Dracula there. By the 1970s, that concept had begun to change. With films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1973) or The Hills Have Eyes (1977), monsters were not ensconced in castles, across oceans. or beyond mountain ranges. 

Instead, they were just one wrong turn away, on a road trip gone sour.  They were here. They are here. With us.

Green Room duly follows this example, suggesting that even in 2016, civilization doesn’t extend as far and wide in America as many of us might fervently wish to believe.

Given what we have endured in terms of politics this year (wherein we’ve seen a white supremacist candidate support a major party candidate), the concept of Green Room isn't really fantasy at all. As we move into a better, more just future, there are forces of violence, ignorance, and hatred determined to drag us backward.

Green Room shows us just what happens when innocent kids wander into that battle, and must, ultimately, settle the conflict on the terms of the “monsters.” 

“This is a movement, not a party.”

A punk rock band called the Ain’t Rights, travels from gig to gig, not making much money.

After one gig falls through, and the band plays at a Mexican restaurant -- with members making just seven dollars a-piece -- it is suggested that the band could visit a club in the middle of nowhere. They could make a good haul there…so long as they don’t talk politics.

The Ain’t Rights -- consisting of Pat (Anton Yelchin), Sam (Alia Shawkat), Reece (Joe Cole) and Tiger (Callum Turner) -- decide to take a chance for the money  They drive the club, in the middle of the forest, and find it is a heavily populated skin-head club.

To troll their nativist audience, the band plays a cover of the Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.”

It doesn’t go over well, but the band makes it through its set.

But before the Ain’t Rights can collect its money and leave, however, the band mates burst in on a murder in the club’s green room.  The band then holds up in the room while the club owner’s, a malevolent, older neo-Nazi named Darcy Banker (Patrick Stewart), attempts to lure the group out.

The scene soon descends into bloody violence, as the skinheads release pit bulls into the club to kill the interlopers.

“They knew real war. And they played real war.”

From the first shot of the film (an overhead view of the band’s van in a cornfield), Green Room thrives on the idea of a wrong turn into terror. The Ain’t Rights members live a modest existence, moving from cheap gig to cheap gig. They fancy themselves punks.

At one point, we see the band members siphoning gas from another vehicle, in an attempt to get to the next job.  The idea here is that the band lives off the radar, mostly.

But there’s off the radar and then there’s off the radar, if you know what I mean.

These “babes in the woods,” literally, soon find themselves at a club that not just promotes, but broadcasts race hatred.

There’s a bumper sticker on a car parked at the club that reads: “save our white race.”  There is graffiti on the wall that shouts “KKK.”  On and on, viewers will register signs and symbols of race hatred including the Nazi Gestapo insignia (SS) and the Confederate flag. 

There is also, in the club, a white power flag, and a sign that reads “white pride, worldwide.”

This is a place where people not only hate, but where they are proud of their hate. Hate is broadcast to all comers, a badge of honor.

Most frighteningly of all is the report that this hatred is not a political party, but a “movement.”

At least here, skinheads are ascendant.

The Ain’t Rights, who have made a point of skirting the law, are obviously out of their depth. They are used to thumbing their nose at authority figures, and so play “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.” During the song, people in the club spit beer at them.  The band is playing with fire, and it doesn’t realize it.  All the skin-head iconography should give them pause, but there’s the sense that the band -- dismissive of the law and authority -- feels there is nothing to fear by rejecting any establishment.  They suspect that in modern America, they are safe. Just a phone call from police help.

That belief is erroneous.  Instead, the band must hunker down in the green room as it falls under siege from the enemy. This is a change, as the band, thus far in the film, has been defined by its nomadic life-style.  Suddenly, the band must wait, and wait, and wait, as the skinheads try to break in, and execute various strategies to kill them.

As Pat (Yelchin) comes to realize after receiving a catastrophic injury, the only way to beat the skinheads is to go to war with them. With the survivors of his band, and a woman (Imogene Poots) who has left the Neo-Nazis, he launches a counter campaign that is clever, and vicious. At last, he embodies the ideals of “punk” music, one might conclude. 

I mentioned Pat’s injury. I watched this film shortly after the death of Anton Yelchin, and I won’t lie: the scene made me want to throw up. Not because it was gory, but because I knew what had happened to the actor in real life. This is an impact the film certainly could not have predicted, but as a responsible reviewer, I feel it my responsibility to warn you that Yelchin’s character does not emerge from the carnage unscathed, and it may raise unpleasant resonances of his death for some viewers.

Again, I don’t blame Green Room at all. It’s an unintended effect.  But the movie’s many clashes between the band and the skinheads are ultra-violent, and indeed quite gory.  For the most part, these scenes are highly effective, if in a fatalistic kind of way.  Once the siege on the green room has begun -- and the pit bulls have gotten into the picture -- a sense of creeping dread and anxiety blankets the film.

You just know it’s not going to “end well,” as Darcy notes.

The color canvas for Green Room is often a squalid, sickly lime green, and that seems entirely appropriate to the action, as the film presents a world populated by sick, monstrous people. Patrick Stewart is effective as the skinhead leader. The actor crafts here an individual of cunning and intelligence, but absolutely no empathy whatsoever.  That’s the real terror of skinheads, or racists in general, isn’t it?  They are often clever, even well-read individuals, and yet that intelligence and cunning is directed entirely towards hate, resentment, and bitterness.  It is intelligence they boast, but intelligence twisted -- and wasted -- by grotesque ugliness.

How else can I describe the mood and content of the film?

Well, consider this: the Ain’t Rights are in a punk band.  Punk rock is about death and irreverence.  Through the action of the film, the band members are revealed to be poseurs, essentially, who sing punk songs, but know nothing about death at all.  And their cheeky irreverence cannot compete with the fully formed -- if evil -- system of belief they encounter. This idea is reflected in a recurring subplot regarding band members’ choice of a desert isle band.

Each one ends up, finally, choosing not punk rock, but rather an artist outside the genre. These selections unwittingly telegraph their “softness” and innocence, despite their presentation as hipster punk rockers.

I watch horror movies to be challenged; to be frightened. And Green Room is challenging, frightening, and incredibly intense.  Like Straw Dogs it raises questions about violence, and about human nature.  In this case, we are left to wonder at the lost innocence of the Ain’t Rights. These young millennials can never quite believe the nature of the battle they are asked to fight. They can never quite believe that in 2016, there are still such atavistic hatred and forces at work, and in power, in the United States. They say they are “punk,” but they are really coddled innocents. Their eyes are opened in a most unpleasant way.

The tide only turns for the band when the survivors do embody punk ideals, and bring the fight to the skinheads. But even at that point, there are moral questions raised by the film.

When is it right to end the fight?

When one’s safety is secured? 

Or, only when all your enemies are dead?

Green Room’s desert isle movie is likely Straw Dogs, so that may give you the answer you need.

Movie Trailer: Green Room (2016)

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

A Disneyland Record and Book: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Comic Book of the Week: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Classics Illustrated)

Model Kit of the Week: The Nautilus (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea)

Pop Art: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Life Magazine Edition; 1954)

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea GAF Viewmaster

Board Game of the Week: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Game (Walt Disney World)

Movie Trailer: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Changeling" (September 29, 1967)

Stardate: 3541.9

The Enterprise visits the Malurian Star System, previously inhabited by 4 billion life-forms, to find all life destroyed. 

The starship soon encounters the destroyer of such life, a powerful space probe, Nomad, which believes that its mission is to seek out and “sterilize” imperfect life.

When Nomad mistakes Captain Kirk (William Shatner) for its creator or father, scientist and 21st century Earthman Jackson Roykirk, Kirk orders the probe brought aboard the Enterprise for further analysis.

The wolf in the fold, however, causes great damage.  Nomad wipes Lt. Uhura’s (Nichelle Nichols) memory, and murders Engineer Scott (James Doohan).  

Fortunately, Lt. Uhura can be re-educated, and Nomad restores Scotty to life.

Spock attempts a mind-meld, and learns that Nomad is actually a hybrid, or changeling.  At some point after launch from Earth, the device collided with an alien probe, the “other” called Tan-Ru, and assimilated its power, as well as portions of its mission (to sterilize plant samples).

Nomad seeks more information about the biological units infesting Enterprise before setting a course to “sterilize” planet Earth, and now Kirk must out-think the machine, convincing Nomad that it is imperfect and must also be sterilized…

It is no secret that Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) is often referred to, not entirely positively, as “Where Nomad Has Gone Before” because of its similarities to “The Changeling,” an early second season episode of the original series.

The similarities are telling. 

Both Nomad and The Motion Picture’s V’Ger are connected with “The Creator,” a personality of some importance. V’Ger believes his Creator is on Earth.  Nomad believes, erroneously, that Kirk is his creator, Jackson Roykirk.

Both Nomad and V’Ger are also, in some way, hybrids. Following an accident, Nomad fused or joined with “The Other,” an alien probe, Tan Ru, which altered its programming and made it super-powerful. 

By comparison, V’ger fell into a black hole, emerged on the far side of the galaxy was made part of a giant spaceship by the denizens of a machine planet, in order to fulfill its programming.

Both Nomad and V’Ger similarly consider humans (carbon based life forms) to be pesky infestations, not true life forms.  

And both Nomad and V’ger also communicate at a rate of speed not immediately detectable by the Enterprise. In both adventures, Spock must modify rate of communication for the Enterprise’s friendship messages to be fully understood. His efforts occur as the Enterprise comes under fire from terrifying weaponry, and its shields begin to buckle.

Of course, both V’Ger and Nomad possess that incredible destructive power mentioned above, which they wield on their long journey to Earth. Nomad destroys 4 billion lives in the Malurian system.  V’Ger destroys three Klingon battle cruisers, and the Epsilon 9 outposts.

Lastly, Spock conducts a mind-meld in both “The Changeling” and The Motion Picture, and the information he gleans from it proves crucial in understanding and “defusing” their opponent.

The Motion Picture is much better visualized, certainly, and features a visual/thematic subtext of birth, or rebirth.  The Enterprise, entering the V’ger cloud and spaceship, is basically the corollary for a sperm moving through the birth canal of a human female. That sperm is delivered (in the person of the Creator; Decker), and a new life-form is born, a hybrid of V’Ger and humanity.  This concept is literalized at the end of the film, when McCoy muses upon how it’s been a long time since he “delivered a baby.”  But really, The Motion Picture is (beautifully) about the conception of that baby. 

Notably, the Enterprise/sperm also carries the foibles of humanity/carbon-based life-forms, which turns out to be the very thing V’Ger requires. We see Kirk’s obsession with the Enterprise, and the drive to “overcome” it.  We see Spock, cold and sterile, after attempting “Kolinahr” (the ritual to purge emotions) beginning his journey to embrace humanity and emotions.

Personally, I feel that Star Trek: The Motion Picture, while erected from familiar pieces (namely, the ingredients of “The Changeling”) is nonetheless one of the most beautiful and rewarding science fiction films of the late 1970s. It is also a very fulfilling Star Trek movie because the main characters, particularly Spock, grow in life-altering, humanity-affirming ways. I feel that the visuals and themes involving the Enterprise delivering genetic material, essentially, for the birth of a new life form, is handled in a remarkable fashion.

Although lacking that feeling of apotheosis, “The Changeling” is a compelling and ambitious episode in conception, especially considering the nature of Nomad. 

The small probe (parodied to perfection in The Mystery Science Theater 3000 [1989-1999] episode “Laserblast) is not a typical guest star, and I can’t even imagine how difficult this episode must have been to shoot, with the floating Nomad moving and hovering under its own power, through doorways, into turbo-lifts, and so forth.

However, in the final analysis, “The Changeling” is not much more than another episode in which Kirk talks to death a conflicted, evil computer (see also: “Return of the Archons,” “The Ultimate Computer.”)  

Worse, some of the details of the story, namely Uhura’s re-education, leave much to be desired.

Specifically, Lt. Uhura has her mind wiped when Nomad attempts to understand “singing.” McCoy and Chapel (Majel Barrett) attempt to re-educate her.  By the following week''s episode, however, Uhura was normal and no one ever brought up the fact that she had to be re-educated in a period of weeks. 

If Uhura can be back to college level of education in just weeks, why does it take years for students to graduate from the Academy?  

Here, the scenes with Uhura speaking Swahili and learning to read vacillate between charming and risible, moment to moment.

Also, Uhura's subplot involves another "sixties sexist" moment. When Nomad reports that Uhura's brain is a mass of conflicting data, Spock notes that, well, she is a woman.


Scotty also gets killed and revived in “The Changeling” making him the second Star Trek character, beyond Mr. Spock, who has really “gone where no man has gone before,” into the undiscovered country (death).  I always laugh when long-time fans complain about Khan’s magic blood and how it has cured death in Star Trek: Into Darkness’s (2013) Kelvin universe.  

“The Changeling” has also conquered death in the prime universe.  

All you need is a house-call from Dr. Nomad, M.D.

Additionally, it seems vaguely inappropriate, perhaps even obscene, for Kirk to be joking about his son (Nomad) the “doctor” mere hours/days after 4 billion intelligent life-forms have been eradicated in the Malurian System.  

This is one of those TV stories in which you are expected, at the end of the story, to forget what happened at the beginning of the story.  

Instead, we just get a pat, happy ending, with Kirk and Spock bantering lightly on the bridge.

Finally “The Changeling” fits in with what I see as one of the key weaknesses of Star Trek Season Two: it attempts to create drama by forging huge, galaxy-spanning threats. In the span of one season, The Enterprise vanquishes Nomad (a killer of 4 billion life forms…), a giant killer space amoeba in “The Immunity Syndrome,” a space faring cloud vampire about to reproduce in “Obsession,” and the planet killer in “The Doomsday Machine.”  

Of all those episodes, only “The Doomsday Machine” qualifies as a great hour, and that’s because of the human stakes, involving Decker and his feelings of guilt/anger/revenge.  

By this time in the series history, and in regards to Season Two, there seem to be three types of stories the series is focused on: parallel Earths (“Patterns of Force,” “A Piece of the Action,” “Bread and Circuses,” and “The Omega Glory”), giant galactic threats (“The Changeling,” “Obsession,” “The Immunity Syndrome” and “The Doomsday Machine”) and Kirk vs. Intelligent Machines (“The Apple,” “The Changeling” and “The Ultimate Computer.”) 

Some of those individual episodes are quite good, even classic, and yet one can clearly see that the second season is more formulaic, in a sense, than the first season was.  

Many of the stand-out episodes of the second season include those that exist outside the formula, notably, presented by those three types: “Amok Time,” “Mirror, Mirror,” “The Deadly Years,” and forth.

“The Changeling isn’t a bad episode, and, in fact, I consider it a great “dry run” for the superior The Motion Picture

That Robert Wise film features important character growth for the series’ protagonists, and parallels their development and maturation with V’Ger’s own.  “The Changeling” is an imperfect first try at such material.

Next Week: “Mirror, Mirror.”

The Films of 1962: The Manchurian Candidate

“There are people who think of Johnny as a clown and a buffoon, but I do not. I despise John Iselin and everything that Iselin-ism has come to stand for. I think, if John Iselin were a paid Soviet agent, he could not do more harm to this country than he’s doing now.”

--The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

In every presidential election, the term “Manchurian Candidate” gets lobbed like a hand grenade -- by the press, and voters -- at some aspiring politico who is feared to possess allegiances beyond the American populace.

Such a candidate -- a Manchurian one -- is widely defined as an individual “seeking elective office who appears to support one thing or group, but is actually supportive of another thing, or another group.”

Most of the time, accusations pointing out a real-life Manchurian Candidate are false, or fit into the terrain of  conspiracy theories.

But here we are in late August 2016, witnessing the unfurling political scandal in which one candidate for U.S. President is suspected of being “a Manchurian Candidate,” or as at least a (possibly unwitting…) conduit, for foreign (Russian) influence.

But the fact remains that there appears to have been -- beyond this individual and his alleged actions -- a web of Russian influences in this particular campaign, which has primarily appealed -- ironically -- to nationalists and so-called “patriots” in the U.S. on the far right wing.

I point out this contemporary scandal out not to score a political point, only to note that right now, life seems to be imitating art. 

Fifty-five year old art, actually.

The 1962 film, The Manchurian Candidate concerned a similar hard-right-wing candidate, Johnny Iselin, who was secretly (and perhaps unwittingly) the tool for Russian and Chinese communist interests. 

These foreign powers interfered in an American presidential election using brainwashing and murder. 

So on one hand, the film’s candidate, Iselin -- described as “a clown and a buffoon” in the dialogue -- is a McCarthy-like hunter of communists who makes rousing, patriotic speeches. But on the other hand we have the knowledge that this candidate is a craven, grasping, hapless tool controlled by insidious foreign forces that stand to benefit -- or be rewarded -- by his election to the highest office in the land.

It isn’t every day that a film made more than fifty-four years ago becomes part of the 21st century national conversation, but there you have it.

Back in 1962, the John Frankenheimer film (based on the novel by Richard Condon) was generally considered far-fetched, imaginative, and wild in its plot and details. 

Today -- with a mounting evidence pointing to foreign influence in our upcoming election -- we might view the film as prophecy; as the shape of things to come.

The Manchurian Candidate was remade in 2004, but it is the black-and-white 1960s effort which remains the superior work of art, in part because of the director’s careful use of symbolism (mainly images of Americana), and in part because of its use of contradictions, in terms of character and plotting, to constantly engender surprise and shock.

It’s true that the film has aged some, as all works of art do. 

Instead of casting a Korean man in a crucial supporting role, for instance, the filmmakers cast Henry Silva…a Sicilian, in that role. When this character speaks, he does so in the kind of broken English you hear in black-and-white World War II movies. Accordingly, the performance doesn’t translate well to today’s more culturally-aware context.  Similarly, there’s a talk, late in the film, of sending a Christmas card to a Buddhist that is, if not in bad taste, at least unnecessarily insensitive.

These are very small things, however, when one considers the remarkable artistry of the film, and its weirdly prophetic nature. 

After all, consider the following: This film not only predicted the idea of a sort of right-wing double-agent running for President, but imagined -- the year before the assassination of JFK -- how a “loner” (or patsy) could possibly be harnessed to inflict terrorism on a population.

 “It’s the most rousing speech I’ve ever read. It’s been worked on, here and in Russia, on and off, for over eight years.”

In 1952, during the Korean War, a troop of nine American soldiers are captured by Russian forces, and helicoptered into Manchuria, where they are brainwashed by a scientist from the Pavlov Institute. 

Among those captured are Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) and Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), step-son of Communist-bashing, right-wing U.S. Senator Johnny Iselin (James Gregory).

The soldiers are returned to the U.S. believing a false story that Raymond saved their lives. He is decorated for this act of (fictional) gallantry, but in truth, he is now an agent acting against the United States, though he does not realize it. 

Instead, he is triggered to obey his American handler (his mother [Angela Lansbury]) when he sees a Red Queen in a deck of playing cards.

Disturbed by nightmares of his brainwashing experience, Bennett Marco investigates Raymond Shaw in his capacity as a military officer. He comes to befriend Raymond, a not very “loveable” or likeable loner. 

When Raymond is ordered to kill a U.S. Senator Harding (John McGiver), and Harding’s daughter, Jocelyn (Leslie Parrish) -- Raymond’s new wife -- he must obey.  But his hatred for his mother grows.

When he learns that he is to be the assassin at a political convention, and pave the way for a “Manchurian” candidate, Raymond acts of his own accord, and earns the medal that his country awarded him.

“I’m on the point of winning for them the greatest foothold they would ever have in this country. And they paid me back by taking your soul away from you…”

Although I have described The Manchurian Candidate as prophetic, it also takes inspiration from recent American history.

The character of Johnny Iselin is clearly based on Republican senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-1989); a homegrown demagogue who made a name for himself in the U.S. Senate, and across the nation for his accusation that the U.S. Government had been infiltrated by communist agents and sympathizers. 

McCarthy undertook a witch-hunt to find and slime his enemies on those terms (as Angela Lansbury does in The Manchurian Candidate), and at one point claimed he had a list of “205 names” representing communist sympathizers in the U.S. Government. Later, he claimed to possess a paper with “57” such names instead.

In The Manchurian Candidate, Iselin first claims “207 names” and then, after seeing a bottle of Heinz 57 Ketchup, likewise modifies his claim to “57” communists.

The shift to 57 is both a biting attack against McCarthy, and a joke at the same time. The number 57 is easy for Iselin to remember because of effective product placement. It appears on a ketchup bottle. And like Heinz and its ketchup, Iselin is similarly advertising himself as a kind of brand name: a brave communist hunter! Intriguingly, the 2016 “Manchurian Candidate” I discussed in my introduction this review has pinpointed a modern corollary for this sort of witch hunt, noting that parts of America are now under Sharia law.  

The accusation is the same; only the face of the enemy has changed.

What The Manchurian Candidate suggests, via Iselin’s comical inability to settle on a particular number of communist infiltrators, is that the man is indeed a clown and buffoon, but a dangerous one who has the full attention of the national press. 

Reporters record and mindlessly transmit across the nation (via TV) the McCarthy-like senator’s every accusation, and that’s the point. Iselin is a huckster, but one who understands how to manipulate television and thus make a name for himself. 

As Mrs. Iselin notes, no one questions that there are communist sympathizers in the government after Johnny Iselin’s televised “stunt.”  They only question the number of them. In political conversations and rallies, lies are accepted as facts, even without evidence, if they are repeated often enough. 

What The Manchurian Candidate comments on, then, is the dangerous power of the Mass Media to not only inform, but to mis-inform. The press can spread truth, or fiction with equal power. It can highlight the words of a statesman, or an unrepentant, attention-hungry liar. Many people in the audience cannot discern which they are seeing, honest patriot, or serial liar. That’s a big problem for democracy, and one not easily solved.

Iselin, after all, gets the vice-presidential nomination of his party in the film, not for statesmanship, not for political accomplishments, but for his crusade to find communists in the U.S. Government, a crusade built entirely on fictional accusations.  His lies are his experience.  His lies are his portfolio. And he nearly rises to the highest office of the land based on those lies.

As other reviewers and scholars have noted, Iselin and his wife are associated, throughout the film, with imagery of Abraham Lincoln. 

Not simply Americana, but specifically of our sixteenth President.

Iselin’s reflection, for example, is seen in a Lincoln portrait at one point. And at a party for his son and Jocelyn, Iselin actually dresses as Lincoln. Throughout the film, busts of Lincoln are seen in the Iselin study too.

Why associate a McCarthy-esque charlatan with Abraham Lincoln, a man for whom so many hold such high esteem? 

Well, some scholars have suggested that the Iselins have selected Lincoln as a paragon to hide behind. They have gone overboard with their Lincoln love, only to cloak their true anti-American proclivities. 

After re-screening the film, I think there’s more specific commentary here. After McCarthy (and indeed, today, with the nominee of 2016…), one must ask: what has happened to the party of Lincoln?  

This was the party that freed the slaves and ended slavery in America. How has it gone from the heights of Lincoln to the depths represented by McCarthy? 

How has it gone from holding the fabric of a nation together, to manipulating the press to tear that fabric apart for individual or personal gain?

The multitudinous images of Lincoln throughout the film remind us how the noble have fallen, how a party has fallen from greatness. It’s not just that the Iselins’ hide behind Lincoln, it’s that they use his party as a base from which to launch an attack on the greatness of our nation. They appear to be extreme patriots, and are, in fact, betrayers.

The Manchurian Candidate also associates the Iselins’ nemesis (a very responsible and noble member of the party of Lincoln, by contrast…), with a symbol of Americana even more ingrained in our national psyche than that of Lincoln: the bald eagle.

When Raymond declares his desire to marry Jocelyn, Senator Harding is seen in front of a huge symbol of a bald eagle, with wings unfurled. 

These wings seem to sprout, literally, from his shoulders. Similar eagle imagery is seen in association with him, later. When Raymond is a programmed assassin, he crosses the threshold into Harding's kitchen to murder the senator. Over the threshold, the symbol of an American Eagle is visible.

In the latter example, the symbol of the eagle showcases Raymond's point of transgression. The murder of Harding is the murder of liberty.

Also, consider the symbolism of Iselin wiping his cracker across the surface of a cake decorated as Old Glory, the American flag.  It's a desecration.  Just as Iselin's rise to office is a desecration to democracy, the Constitution, and to America.

So what does the film’s symbolism reveal to us then, if taken in conjunction?

Iselin is a McCarthy-esque demagogue who, if elected, would take the party of Lincoln down, and literally serve a foreign power. Harding, by contrast (a man of the same party) understands the real spirit of America, even though Mrs. Iselin has called him a “communist.” 

The battle in the film is thus between those who stoop to exploit patriotism and nationalism, and those who understand the real, true values of America, and seek to protect it. 

Raymond, similarly, appears to be a loner and assassin, but he is actually the courageous savior of American freedom, appropriately eulogized in the film’s moving coda.

I wrote in my introduction about the contradictions in The Manchurian Candidate, and how well they function to craft this particular. 

Consider, in this film, we meet a man who is a bitter, nasty loner, but who desires only to be lovable. Everyone seems to hate him, and he is a pawn of the villains. But, as noted above, he gives his life to save our country.  So the jerk and brainwashed assassin is also a great patriot, taking matters into his own hands when he knows the army and police are too late to act.

We also meet a nefarious communist scientist/agent, who loves a good joke. He is no Fu Manchu stereotype, but a jolly man who loves a good guffaw, and encourages humor in his compatriots. He doesn’t present as dastardly, but as jovial.

Similarly, we encounter a monstrous (and indeed, incestuous…) woman who hides behind the imagery of Abraham Lincoln, and calls out other Americans as communists when, in fact, she is a communist agent herself.

Part of the joy inherent in viewing this film, even several times, is grappling with these contradictions, and the way they simultaneously shade and reflect character, or identity. 

What are we to make of the eerie coincidence that Jocelyn shows up at the masquerade party as the Red Queen, the very figure that “activates” Raymond, the wolf in sheep’s clothing?

For years, many have also speculated about Janet Leigh’s character, who befriends Marco and engages in a weird conversation with him that also seems to suggest, at least tangentially, that she is a spy sent to handle him.

This, my friends, is a film with layers, and the contradictions are part of that layering. We are asked to look beyond the surface, and search for the truth.

And let’s face it, these contradictions are also a key part of the down-and-dirty fighting of American political campaigns. 

The camera records people and events, but it can’t tell us who is lying, or who is being truthful. It can’t expose the contradictions for us.

Instead, the camera goes to the loudest blowhard, not the smartest or most judicious individual.  Our very media, our method of discourse, appears to encourage and reward extreme behavior.

The Manchurian Candidate saw this problem clearly more than a half-century ago (as did A Face in the Crowd in 1957.)

The Manchurian Candidate is a well-made, well-filmed effort. Consider, the moment, for instance, at the Lady’s Garden Club, when the true nature of the event is exposed. Frankenheimer’s camera goes around in a circle. Upon the completion of the circle, the ladies have been replaced by the communist agents and audience.

Or consider the karate fight sequence, between Silva and Sinatra, which is masterfully choreographed and cut, and starts with a kind of lightning bolt or shock, as Marco recognizes Silva's character.

The film’s craftsmanship holds up well in terms of relating the twisting narrative to audiences, but the production’s use of symbol-laden imagery makes it a document of value and enduring truth in terms of understanding American politics. 

The Manchurian Candidate reminds us that the most independent, patriotic voice in the room -- or on camera -- may not, in the final analysis, be either.