Saturday, October 01, 2016

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Space Stars Episode #8 (October 31, 1981)

More juvenile space adventuring is the order of the day for Hanna Barbera’s Space Stars (1981), episode 8. 

At times, the patronizing, kiddie nature of the adventure is downright distracting.  Science-free, thought-free, and maturity-free, the series is a huge disappointment at this point. I can’t imagine being a fan of Star Wars or Star Trek in 1981, and then tuning into this pre-adolescent program on Saturday mornings.  It gives science fiction a bad name.

First up is Space Ghost in “Space Spectre.”

This short is a riff on Star Trek’s (1966-1969) famous parallel dimension episode, “Mirror, Mirror.”  

Only here, a black hole is the passageway between mirror realities.  In one universe, we have Space Ghost, the hero, and in the opposite dimension is Space Spectre, an evil space pirate.  

The two heroes cross universes, and Jan isn’t even able to detect that the Phantom Cruiser -- now jet black instead of immaculate white -- has changed colors, before docking with it and immediately being captured. 

In the end the counterparts fight, and Space Spectre is defeated because Space Ghost has “friends” and Space Spectre does not.

Second in the roster is the Teen Force with “Ultimate Battle.” 

That name is a bit of misnomer since this is yet another story -- the same one we see each week, essentially -- in which our space cycle-bound heroes combat the hapless Uglor. 

When Uglor uses a weather control device on the “Free Planets,” the Teen Force surrenders to the warlord. They then suggest to him a contest in which they fight one another. But Uglor chooses the local: “The Evil Island” (which happens to be surrounded by an acid sea).

There, the story takes a weird and derivative turn -- becoming a strange knock-off of The Island of Dr. Moreau (1977) -- as the Teen Force encounters Uglor’s “humanimals.” These creatures, including a wolf-man and a giant star-fish, rebel against their cruel lawgiver.

The Herculoids story this week is a modest, though not insulting affair called “The Thunderbolt” in which the Herculoids contend with a friendly dinosaur who becomes electrified, and attacks them. 

The Herculoids must also save Zandor from a rock collapse.

The second part of the hour opens with another underwhelming Space Ghost story: “The Big Freeze.” The narrator tells us that this tale has a “chilling nature,” and so we are in for ten minutes of bad “ice” puns that would make Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze cringe with embarrassment.

Basically, Space Ghost and his sidekicks must face off against an Insta-Freeze beam controlled by an alien troll in a purple robe, named Pharon. 

He is angry because all the inhabited worlds are tropical, but his people can only live in icy conditions.  Therefore, he is re-arranging planets to his biological requirements.

Following “The Big Freeze” is an installment of “Astro and the Space Mutts” called “The Greatest Show Off Earth.”

Here, Space Ace and his canine partners attend the Space-ling Flying Circus, but the circus -- and the crew’’s clothes! -- are stolen by a villain called Cosmic Clown. He is literally a clown; one flies in a circus tent spaceship and voices dialogue such as “Hang it up, Turkeys! Nobody catches Cosmic Clown!”  The Teen Force has a guest appearance in this segment, when Cosmic Clown is pursued into Uglor’s territory.

The Space Star Finale is called “Endangered Spacies,” and yes, the person responsible for that pun should be ashamed.  Here, a spaceship attacks Quasar. The alien who commands it abducts Zandor and wants to add him to the Alien Country Safari, “The Greatest Human Show in the Universe.” Astro and the Space Mutts also get involved, when Space Ace is similarly captured.

The “Space Magic” black-out this week involves the Herculoids, and a rope trick about tying knots. The coda finds Gleep tying himself into a bow tie. 

The “Space Fact” of the week features the Teen Force, who discuss why it gets dark at night, and comment on Earth’s rotation.  

The “Space Mystery” follows up on that “fact” and features a villain who hides in a planet’s arctic zone that features no night or day.  Finally, Space Ghost attempts to decipher the week’s “Space Code.”

Only three more episodes of this terrible series, but I’m going to power through!

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Shazam: "The Brain" (November 9, 1974)

In “The Brain,” Mentor (Les Tremayne) and Billy (Michael Gray) befriend a smart but lonely boy named Jimmy Carter (!) (Christopher Man). 

Jimmy is nicknamed “The Brain” and wants very much to belong in a group of friends.

A bully, Greg (Biff Warren), however, arranges an initiation ritual for Jimmy at a dangerous construction site at a nearby beach.

Greg also participates in the initiation and becomes endangered when a conveyer belt unexpectedly activates.  It’s up to Captain Marvel (Jackson Bostwick) to save Greg from injury or death.

“The Brain,” by Donald F. Glut, returns to the Filmation series’ of tradition of having the Elders quote a famous historical and/or literary figure. 

In this case, that figure of renown is Davy Crockett. The Elders warn Billy about the fact that some people would place themselves to be put in danger to be accepted. And then comes the quote: “Be always sure you’re right. Then go ahead.”  So, it's not hard to determine that the message of this episode involves peer pressure.

Jimmy Carter -- the boy that Mentor and Billy encounter in the “Brain” -- besides anticipating the name of a 1970s President is a seventies-style geek. He is a devoted reader (currently reading Oliver Twist), and he possesses a fascination with making costumes and masks. On his bedroom wall, he hangs a poster of Captain Marvel. 

Today, of course, we live in a culture wherein the geeks won. 

They rule the world, and they especially rule in Hollywood (sometimes to the detriment of the movie business, actually…). But in the early 1970s, when this series was made, the war was not yet won. Young boys who didn’t love sports were thought to be somehow inferior, or wrong.  Jimmy is the person who the Elders make note of, who would do something dangerous to be accepted.

Intriguingly, that may not actually be the case, if you read between the lines.  In fact, the bully, Greg, is the one who is nearly hurt, and one wonders if he is putting himself in danger to be accepted; knowing that he is not likable, or smart.

It’s nice to see this episode of Shazam show the geek, Jimmy, to be a bright, engaged, resourceful person. In my experience, that’s the way geeks are, or at least they were, before the Internet allowed some to exercise their Ids so vociferously.

“The Brain” is a good episode of Shazam, buoyed by the shooting locations, namely that huge, industrial wreck on the beach.  Once again, this series features no standing sets, save for the interior of Mentor’s camper. 

And this week, the locations work to help sell the danger of the “initiation.”

Next week: “Little Boy Lost.”

Friday, September 30, 2016

TV Series Trailer: Westworld (2016; HBO)

Beyond Westworld: "The Takeover"

In "The Takeover," Dr. Quaid (James Wainright) tests a new chip that can be installed in the human brain, and make people obey his orders.

He tests this new device on a Los Angeles police officer, Captain Nicholson (Monte Markham), and uses his new servant to get close to California's governor, Eric Harper (Robert Alda), who is up for re-election and may one day run for President of the United States.

John Moore (Jim McMullan) and Pam Williams (Connie Sellecca) investigate, and most stop the assassination of Harper at a televised debate in Los Angeles.

The final episode of Beyond Westworld (1980) attempts to change things up a bit, at least before walking that change back. 

This week, a robot neuro-surgeon, played by Star Trek's (1966-1969) George Takei, installs a tiny chip into a human being, making that human a kind of brainwashed agent for Quaid.  Nicholson has no awareness that he is being controlled, or acting strangely, right up until the last minute.

This plot device opens up a lot of possibilities. 

Now, John and Pam have to worry not merely about robots, but humans who have seen their will dominated by Quaid because of the implant  Obviously, there are much more overt moral questions involved in killing a human being, than deactivating a robot.

But by the end of the episode, Quaid decides the tiny implant is a failure and to abandon it, thus bringing viewers right back to square one, and the perennial concept of evil lookalike robots.

I do confess at being a bit baffled by this episode's conclusion.

In the episode's finale, Governor Harper is shot in the head (on live TV, at the debate...) and is revealed to be a robot. 

So, Quaid sent a controlled human (Nicholson), to kill one of his own robots, one who was already the governor of California, and primed to become a presidential candidate?

All to test the implant?

That seems...ridiculous. I would have kept the governor in place, and let him become President, still acting as my agent. 

Still, it is interesting to note that when this episode was made, another former governor of California was also making a run for the highest office of the land: Ronald Reagan.  I wonder if he was a robot too...

Going further down the rabbit hole of this episode's narrative, what does it mean to the citizenry of California, and the United States, to see a sitting governor shot on TV and outed as a robot, for all to see?  

Does all the citizenry know about the Delos robots and their escape form Westworld?  It seems like, if not, this would be a huge media incident.

California Governor shot on stage! Revealed to be Delos Robot! More at 11:00!

But again, Beyond Westworld can't be bothered to explore deeply a single interesting concept.  This episode, instead, is an excuse to play cops and robbers.  Moore goes undercover (again), as a police officer.

Despite all the flaws in "Takeover," I did really get a kick out of the cast. This episode features Monte Markham, George Takei, Hari Rhodes, Robert Alda and Martin Kove. It's a veritable "who's who" of second-string 1970s TV actors.

As noted above, "Takeover" is the final episode of Beyond Westworld, and it showcases, perfectly, why the series failed to catch on. The narratives were monumentally uninteresting, and really good story ideas and concepts were poorly handled, or ignored all together.  

We can only hope the new Westworld (2016) series is a big improvement.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Beyond Westworld: "The Lion" (Unaired)

In "The Lion," John Moore (Jim McMullan) is rooting for his friends at Lionstar Motors to succeed in an important test drive of an experimental new car with a "gasahol" engine  The so-called Lion could thus revolutionize travel. 

Unfortunately, there is a terrible (apparent) accident during the test drive, and driver Corey Burns (Michael Cole) is injured, and left paralyzed, much to the chagrin of his future wife and the heir to the Lionstar Company (Christine Belford).

Enraged by the injuries to his friends, John investigates and learns that Quaid's (James Wainright) robots are somehow involved at Lionstar Motors.  

Apparently, Quaid controls several oil rich countries in the Middle East, and now wants to control a fuel-efficient car too.

When Corey gets back in the car to drive the Lion, the robots plan to finish him off. 

But John Moore drives defensively to save his friend...

The first of the two unaired Beyond Westworld is just as terrible as one might expect, given the quality of the episodes that were broadcast in 1980. 

Once more we have an utterly ridiculous premise that finds Quaid thinking small time instead of big time, attempting to influence the outcome of a test car race.  Again, this is a man who can build exact robot duplicates of heads of state, airline pilots, celebrities, and so forth.  Imagine the havoc he could wreak on a global stage.

Instead, this is a repeat of  "My Brother's Keeper," wherein he tries to control a company or corporation.

The episode reaches ridiculous eights after one character reveals in a briefing that Quaid is already in control of several small countries in the Middle East, controlling their oil.  Now that sounds like a big deal to me; a much bigger deal than a family-owned car company and its struggles with a special fuel efficient engine. I would have loved to seen an episode involving that premise.

And indeed, it seems like John and Pam (Connie Sellecca) might want to devote their time to helping those foreign countries fight back against Quaid, rather than worrying about Lionstar's attempt to bring the experimental engine market.

Another ridiculous moment comes later. We watch as Quaid performs surgery on a robot. He installs the robot's programming on a mini-cassette.  So yes, the Westworld robots all run on 1980s mini cassette tapes. Pretty amazing.

Or pretty analog.

Fans of cult-TV will be intrigued to note that Russell Johnson -- the Professor on Gilligan's Island (1964-1967) plays Quaid's new flunkie in "The Lion, replacing the character played by Severn Darden in early installments. Also the great Michael Pataki is here, in a nothing role.

Finally, I don't like being one-sided in my reviews, so I should add that "The Lion" features one very entertaining scene.  

Specifically, Quaid wishes to meet with John, and arranges a rendezvous in a trailer.  There, he implores John to join him.  "Imagine what we could accomplish together," he implores.

John refuses to team with him, and Quaid -- actually in a different location -- detonates an explosive at John's location. That means that he isn't really talking to Quaide at all, but a robot duplicate.

The series really, really needed more surprises like this one. 

Next up, tomorrow, the final episode of Beyond Westworld: "The Takeover."

Beyond Westworld: "Sound of Terror" (March 19, 1980)

In the final aired episode of Beyond Westworld, "Sound of Terror," Quaid (James Wainright) uses his robots to steal two canisters of uranium and build a nuclear bomb. 

He intends to give the weapon to a North African warlord, so he can become president of his country. Then, that country will be able to offer safe haven to Quaid.

John Moore (Jim McMullan), and Pam (Connie Sellecca) trace the stolen uranium back to a nuclear power plant where a famous pop music act, Power and Ruth, performed recently at an anti-nuke protest.  They fear that one of Quaid's robots has infiltrated the act.

Moore goes undercover with Power and Ruth's band, pretending to be their new PR agent, while secretly trying to determine who might be the robot in hiding.  

Pam and Moore discover that Power (Rene Auberjonois) and his wife, Ruth (Ronee Blakeley) are estranged. He desires more fame, fortune, and fans.  She wants a home and children.

The robot is outed as a member of a band, and John must destroy the machine -- who has become a living bomb -- while the band's plane is in flight.

The third episode of Beyond Westworld focuses on a key issue of 1980: nuclear power, and anti-nuke demonstrations. Here, Quaid uses protesters to steal nuclear materials, essentially using their own agenda of peace against them.  

Also, the whole "Power and Ruth" act seems like a fictional corollary for the then-popular act, The Captain and Tenille.

Once more in "Sound of Terror," a totally unmotivated close-up reveals the identity of one robot, early on, and is then followed almost immediately the by-now familiar robot P.O.V. shot. 

I call this approach anti-suspense.  The editing and shot choice telegraph the identity of the robot, so no one will be too surprised, I suppose. I guess the series had to be family friendly, so that the robots wouldn't really scare people.  

But as a consequence, these episodes are not compelling at all.

Later in "Sound of Terror," another robot is unearthed, wearing heart-shaped sun-glasses, a fashion choice which sort of undercuts his menace. 

And the scene in which Moore opens a plane door while it is in the air is also undercut by the explosive decompression effects.  The robot sort of slow-walks out the plane door....backwards.


Intriguingly, the robot grabs Moore's boot on the way out, and falls out of the plane in a great stunt that clearly forecasts a similar one in The Living Daylights (1987).  There again, a boot was involved ("he got the boot...).

Again, I just want to point out that this could have been a much more powerful story with just a few tweaks.  

What if Ruth was actually the robot?  What if her drive to be a mother, and have a home...was programmed?  What if she discovered she was a machine, incapable of being a mother?  What if the only thing she could give life was the nuclear device in her chest?

That would have been an affecting, amazing story. 

But instead we get this dull story, another runaround that ends with lame fisticuffs and another robot easily destroyed.  

The fourth story, coming up, is the first unaired tale of the series: "The Lion." Stay tuned.

Beyond Westworld: "My Brother's Keeper" (March 12, 1980)

In the second episode of the short-lived sci-fi series Beyond Westworld, titled "My Brother's Keeper," mad scientist Simon Quaid (James Wainright) attempts to use his humanoid robots to gain control of the Stoner family empire, which includes oil interests, and the management of a professional football team.

Quaid's point of entrance into the Stoner family fortune is Dean Stoner (Jeff Cooper), a loser and gambler who owes 200,000 dollars to debtors. 

Quaid plans to buy off Dean's debt, and then when Dean's brother Nick (Christopher Connelly) is murdered by a robot, assume control over the estate himself, per a signed contract with Dean.

Working for Delos, John Moore (Jim McMullan) teams with a new partner, special agent Pamela Williams (Connie Sellecca) to stop Quaid's plan.

They discover, together, that the killer robot is a team quarterback. The robot will throw a football at Nick, using robotic strength, and make the murder look like nothing more than an unfortunate accident.

Meanwhile, to help succeed in his scheme, Quaid has produced a robot duplicate of Pam...

Connie Sellecca joins the cast of Beyond Westworld this week, replacing Judith Chapman as the series' female lead.  

Personally, I liked Chapman's character better, simply because Dr. Garry has a grounding in science, rather than "security" or "espionage" (like Pam), and that gave her some nice differences with Moore. We already have a dashing person of action.  It seems undramatic to match him with another.

In terms of the series, "My Brother's Keeper" begins to cement the formula established by the pilot episode, "Westworld Destroyed." 

Specifically, we now understand as viewers that we will be able to detect the identity of the robot through unmotivated close-ups of seemingly unimportant or insignificant characters.  

And similarly, we will get a shot of the robot's point of view, just to make certain we don't miss the fact that he or she is, actually a machine.

Why is this approach a poor one? 

Well, it eliminates suspense. 

These episodes, produced by Fred Freiberger, would be much more effective if we wondered about the identity of the robot right to the end instead of being told the identity via the unmotivated close-up and ensuing robo-POV. 

Also, the robots tend to be peripheral characters in the series, not ones who really motivate the action  in a meaningful way It would be amazing to be introduced to a character as a major player in the drama (say, like Nick or Dean here), only to find that they are a robot...and don't yet realize it.

But Beyond Westworld simply isn't that crafty, or suspenseful. It doesn't really seem interested in the potential of the premise -- lookalike robot infiltrators in humanity's affairs -- just surface action.

This episode also cements the standard visual clue (appearing at story climax) that a robot has been rendered inoperative. His or her eyes go white, or blank when it is deactivated. Here, the robot quarterback gets electrocuted, and his eyes go white.

A big question here involves Quaid and his approach. He told Jim and Laura in the first episode that he possesses an "impregnable" army of loyal robots.  

If this is the case, why mess with the penny ante  plot like the one explored in this episode? Why not just make a robot replacement of Dean? Why all the elaborate plotting to kill Nick, buy Dean's debt, and assume control of the family business?

The biggest problem, perhaps, with Beyond Westworld at this point is that it is crushingly uninteresting. The lead characters are cardboard, the evil genius's plans don't make much sense, and the stories so far generate no sense of tension or suspense. 

That only leaves action, frankly, to appreciate.  And the action scenes on the series thus far have been anemic.

Next episode: "Sound of Terror."

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Beyond Westworld: "Westworld Destroyed" (March 5, 1980)

Beyond Westworld (1980) -- a nearly-forgotten TV series that was broadcast a mere three times on CBS (though five episodes were produced) -- has long held a reputation for being absolutely dreadful.

I always chalked this reputation off to two important facts.  

The first fact is that newspapers and other periodicals tend to review the first episode of a series only, and don't typically revisit a series as it grows (and hopefully improves).  

Exhibit A: Star Trek drew terrible reviews from Variety and other mainstream periodicals (including TV Guide), on its premiere.

We all know how that turned out.  

I'm certain those critics wish they had been given the opportunity to update or modify their original harsh reviews. Today, their reviews look silly.

Secondly, circa 1980, science fiction was still generally considered by mainstream critics to be cheesy kid's stuff, unworthy of serious attention or study.

What this means is that there was little chance that critics of the day would like a series called Beyond Westworld in 1980, even if it had the name Rod Serling attached (which it does not). 

Even if it had the name William Shakespeare attached, actually. 

So going in to Beyond Westworld, I was hopeful. Perhaps I would unearth a lost, underappreciated treasure.

After actually watching the pilot episode, "Westworld Destroyed," however, I can understand, at least, why critics hated this series.  

In fact, I would be hard-pressed to name a worse introductory episode or a sci-fi TV series.  

My hope at this point is that the later episodes are better. I'm keeping an open mind, as I post reviews over the rest of the week.

The concept behind Beyond Westworld -- that lookalike robots are infiltrating important positions in 20th century society, at the behest of a misguided "creator," Dr. Simon Quaid (James Wainright) -- isn't bad in and of itself.  In a way, the remade Battlestar Galactica (2003-2008) adopts this premise closely.

Rather, at least in terms of this episode of Beyond Westworld, the story is incoherently executed. The story jumps from place to place, location to location, with seemingly little reason, and the result feels like visual whiplash.

But first, a synopsis of "Westworld Destroyed," or as Quaid calls it, "the final chapter of Westworld."

Dr. Laura Garry (Judith Chapman), an employee at Delos Corporation, summons security expert John Moore (Jim McMullan) by helicopter to the company's skyscraper.  

She has bad news: Westworld -- a futuristic amusement park run by Delos -- has been destroyed ostensibly by the creator of the humanoid robots that populate it, Dr. Simon Quaid (Jame Wainright).  
Worse, Quaid has replaced a human crewman aboard a U.S. nuclear submarine, the Remora, with a robot duplicate.  That duplicate is preparing to launch a devastating nuclear attack against Delos.

Now John must identify the robot, and stop Quaid's plans.

First off, no Westworlds are actually destroyed in this episode.  The title is odd, considering that the series' lead characters actually visit Westworld, and leave it intact before the hour is over.

As you may be able to tell from the synopsis, Beyond Westworld feels more like an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man (1973-1978) or The Bionic Woman (1976-1978) than it does a legitimate follow-up to the 1973 film from writer/director Michael Crichton.

How so? An attractive young profession is assigned a mission to track down and dispose of fembots -- er, robots -- in different settings each week.  For "Westworld Destroyed," the setting is a nuclear submarine.

Of course, most Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman episodes are coherent. You have an idea how and why characters move from point A to point B, and what their goals are in that movement. 

Beyond Westworld's first installment doesn't achieve that level of competence.

Some of the things the story seems to leave out: how exactly and when did Quaid make his exact duplicate of the agent?  How did he get him aboard the sub? Wouldn't security be pretty tight?

Secondly, how is John able to get aboard the sub at sea so easily, several times in the episode?

Early on, we see a helicopter lowering John aboard aboard the sub, of course, but there is another interlude on the same sub later, and there's simply a scene change, with no indication that Jim has had to travel some distance, or take some time, to get to the submarine.  Both he and Laura seem to come and go to from the sub (which is always moving...) with no fuss at all. 

"Westworld Destroyed" also features a largely pointless return to Westworld. 

There, a gunfighter (Alex Kubik) -- a pale imitation of the iconic Yul Brynner character -- is activated by Quaid in an attempt to murder John and Laura.  John takes him out almost instantly, a fact that weakens the very premise of the series.  In the movie, the character was virtually indestructible. He was, essentially, the Terminator of his day, and of the 1970s.

Now, the robot is offed instantly by a mid-level security specialist, and that's rather underwhelming. 

Also, why does Laura tell John that Westworld is destroyed in their first scene together, and then take him to Westworld, which seems unharmed.

I won't go so far as to ask why there is a poster for Westworld (1973) in Laura's office, one featuring the faces of Benjamin's and Brolin's characters.  Aren't these real character, in this franchise?  Another poster for the film shows up later in the series, in "Sound of Terror."

Beyond Westworld also doesn't deal well with nuance. Quaid is intent on taking over the world with robots because he feels that the world's values are "obscene."  He sees the robots as a corrective, and is supposed to be the TV program's villain. 

Yet we also see, at Delos, an example of a female robot -- Jan -- who has been designed to survive cave collapses, and can therefore rescue trapped miners.

So Delos is already working on a way to integrate robots into daily life, which is only a degree removed from Quaid's plan.  It seems like Quaid and Delos want the same thing, to improve daily life with robots. Yet they are pitted against each other.

Some of the visuals of "Westworld Destroyed" don't hold up to scrutiny well, either.  For instance, when the robot is outed on the nuclear submarine, he gets sprayed with foam from a fire extinguisher. A close-up shot shows us the robotic face, with what looks like shaving cream, or worse -- cream pie -- all over it.  The shot gets giggles, not chills.

There are reports on the Internet that the original pilot for this series was two hours long, and if so, that may explain why this hour seems so slapdash and sub-par.  There is no connective tissue between scenes, no establishing of characters, and no real build-up of drama.  The hour just races from scene to scene with no apparent rhyme, reason, or logic.

It's also extremely interesting that Delos -- the villain of the features films -- has been transformed into the savior of humanity on the series.  I guess we should just think of it as the OSI.

Tomorrow, I'll move to episode two: "My Brother's Keeper."

Advert Artwork: Beyond Westworld (TV Guide Edition)

Pop Art: Westworld (American Cinematographer and Crazy Editions)

Pop Art: Westworld and Futureworld (Famous Monsters Edition)