Saturday, October 22, 2016

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Space Stars Episode #11 (November 21, 1981)

The eleventh and final hour-long episode of Hanna Barbera’s Space Stars (1981) opens with the Space Ghost story “Web of the Wizard.” 

Here, the Phantom Cruiser is trapped in a cosmic web of illusion.  Space Ghost and his friends encounter wacky delusions like killer chairs and dogs in space. Behind these illusions, however, is the Wizard, an evil space criminal. Blip saves the day because he is not impacted by the illusions.

The Teen Force episode in this last episode is called “Pandora’s Warp” and it involves a space station attacked by weird visitors from another dimension. These visitors resemble devils and demons, and are secretly controlled by Uglor, who has punched a hole into “the dimension of magic.” The Teen Force uses magic spells to repel the space invaders.

In “Mindbender,” the Herculoids encounter a weird alien in a suspended animation cylinder. Using a pendant which restores the evil telepath’s power, this interloper sets to awaken his brothers from suspended animation too.

The Herculoids (improbably) trap the villain in his own stasis chamber.  It’s ridiculous how they do it.  They tell him his missing pendant is in his cylinder, and the dome-headed, ostensibly brilliant alien invader willingly crawls inside to retrieve it. Then the Herculoids slam the door on him and submit him to another eternal deep freeze.

The second Space Ghost episode of the week is “The Shadow People.” In this one, Blip is possessed by an evil shadow bat on Romula Station, an abandoned space facility. There, the people have legends of Shadows, demons from another sector of space. Electra of the Teen Force helps Space Ghost rescue Blip and puzzle out the mystery.

The final “Space Ace” segment of the series is “Revenge of the Zodiac Man.” In the Stardust Constellation Ring, the most valuable gem in the universe is stolen by a criminal named Zodiac Man. Space Ace and his dog partners chase the villain to a galactic amusement park called “Play Station,” and then to the villain’s HQ on a “Zodia-steroid” to retrieve it. 

The Space Stars Finale, “The Cosmic Mousetrap” finds the Teen Force and Space Ghost battling Mega Mind, a villain who tests the heroes in combat to the death with three creepy aliens.  This episode is a veritable knock-off of the Space: 1999 (1975-1977) episode “The Rules of Luton.”

The Space Magic of this final Space Stars episode involves another lame card trick. The Space Fact finds Space Ace and Astro grappling with a black hole, and the Space Mystery similarly involves a black hole.

Having now watched all agonizing, eleven hours of Space Stars, I can report that it is mindless juvenilia that any self-respecting fan of science fiction -- or superheroes, for that matter -- would find a terrible embarrassment to watch.  

The attempt to ape the success (and formula) of The Super Friends fails utterly, and none of the long-lived Hanna Barbera properties featured prominently -- Space Ghost or The Herculoids -- are well-served by the simplistic storytelling and the even more simplistic understanding of the cosmos. 

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Shazam: "The Braggart" (November 30, 1974)

In “The Braggart, a boy named Alan (Steve Gustafson) tells one lie after the other and gets away with it.  In fact, he not only lies, he brags too.

After damaging a friend’s bike, for example Alan tells his friends that the boy is a bully, and that he beat him up using his karate skills.

Mentor (Les Tremayne) and Billy (Michael Gray) are contacted by the Elders, and they say to Batson: “There are those who avoid the truth to gain attention and hide their mistakes.”  They also tell him that covering up a mistake, or a lie, is a second mistake.

Billy realizes, when he encounters Alan, how this lesson applies to the teenager. He learns from Tim (Sean Kelly), the boy with the bike that Alan never fought him, and doesn’t even know karate.

Alan, however, doesn’t get the message.  Instead, he brags to his friends about the time he strolled through the rhino habitat at the local zoo. 

When his friends don’t believe his story, he offers to do it again, believing they won’t take him up on the offer.

But they do.

Because there are too many visitors at the rhino habitat, however, Alan decides to enter the vulture habitat. The large animal escapes, and Alan chases it into the lion paddock.

Captain Marvel (Jackson Bostwick) must now save both the boy and the bird from a lion.  He ends up wrestling the lion into submission, and saving the day.

Alan, meanwhile, learns a very important lesson…

“The Braggart” is pretty much the same as every other story we see on Shazam! (1974-1976) with only a few twists in the tale. 

The high-point of this story is likely Captain Marvel’s wrestling match with a lion.  The good captain is obviously a stunt double, and yet the fight still looks pretty good. We saw an earlier episode involving a bear, so there is clearly a fascination with having a superhero fight wild animals here. This episode offers two for the price of one, once you factor in the large and very excitable vulture.

Also, Alan is a little more comical than the usual guest character, racing his bike all over the place, splattering dirt on his t-shirt (so it looks like he’s been in a fight), and practicing ridiculous karate moves.  He’s clearly a compulsive liar, and yet he’s entertaining to watch, especially as he gets in deeper trouble.

Again, however, it’s just nuts to think how much the culture (and the culture’s perception of superheroes) has changed since the mid-1970s.  Today, we have mythology-heavy, big-budget extravaganzas with appearances by the most obscure comic-book characters and villains. Back in the 1970s, the superhero program on TV, at least as produced by Filmation, was simply an excuse to offer a moral lesson or too.

Next week: “The Past is Not Forever”

Friday, October 21, 2016

The Films of 2013: The Purge

“…there are 47 percent…who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. ... My job is not to worry about those people.

-Mitt Romney (2012)

The science-fiction horror thriller The Purge (2013) takes place in a dystopian-styled future world where the wealthy elite have thoroughly internalized Mitt Romney’s 2012 “makers and takers” narrative (quoted above) and re-created America in that very image. They have done so intentionally and purposefully, and branded themselves the U.S.’s “new founding fathers.”

This film from James DeMonaco thus showcases what might reasonably occur when Americans by-and-large decide that nearly half-of-their fellow citizens are worthless moochers who -- shockingly -- feel entitled “to food!”   

How dare they?

Long story short: it’s okay to kill such moochers, because they are just miserable takers sucking off the tit of an otherwise healthy society.  The new founding fathers have thus pinpointed a way to cut out society’s apparent “fat:” by imposing one 12-hour period of lawlessness a year in which all crimes, even murder, are legal. 

During that span, called “The Purge,” many of the rich especially enjoy murdering representatives of the so-called 47 percent, who, in keeping with Romney's coded comment, tend to be of an ethnic minority, or live in poverty.  Those people don’t actually see themselves as victims,  as the quotation suggests, however, but those executing the violence of the purge certainly do…

I realize some readers don’t like it when politics are mentioned here regarding movie analysis.

That’s fine, but if you can’t intelligently talk politics in regards to movies sometimes, you have nothing left to interpret or discuss, except special effects, or performances.  And there are plenty of other movie blogs out there that will focus on those subjects.

But as I've said before, I believe every movie is a reflection of its times and context to one degree or another. 

Some movies carry messages that might be considered conservative (think of Zardoz [1974] with its re-assertion of traditional family values over the left-leaning “communes” of its age), and some movies carry messages that may be considered liberal (think of John Carpenter’s take-down of the Reagan Revolution in They Live [1988]). 

If we ignore what those films “say” in terms of their visuals, narrative, and thematic content, we aren’t fully engaging with and understanding that work, or the artist’s intent.

But more than either of those two science fiction films, perhaps, The Purge is really an incendiary polemic, a work of art which knowingly and determinedly raises controversial issues so as to play the role of agent provocateur.

The Purge has already been frequently compared to Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (1959 – 1964), a series that played the role of provocateur on a regular basis, and which created fictional dystopian societies that commented on conformity (“Eye of the Beholder,” “Number 12 Looks Just Like You,”) or illiteracy (“The Obsolete Man”) to name just two issues.  

The Purge takes our world’s 2012 fascination with the “makers and takers” narrative, Ayn Rand philosophy, and gun rights issues to forge a cold-hearted, futuristic world in which the answer to American prosperity is not to lift all boats, but to shoot holes in the boats that are already sinking so we don't have to tend to the survivors.

As a critic, I admire The Purge for so nimbly tying together virtually every aspect of our recent national debate into a polemic of such power, rage, and imagination.  My only wish is that the film used logic more liberally in terms of character behavior, and cleared-up some relationship points between the dramatis personae so that the details of the story were more absorbing or suspenseful.

In other words, The Purge works better as a searing polemic than it does as an actual story that makes sense, or features characters we are meant to care for.  I still would give the film a recommendation, however, for the issues and context it addresses with such brawny, blazing imagination.  

It’s been a long-time since we have gotten a dystopian film of such raw power and energy (I was reminded, actually, of the cut-throat British film No Blade of Grass [1970] in that regard). Accordingly, The Purge might be forgiven its story and character trespasses -- of which there are many -- because it sincerely attempts to function on almost entirely cerebral or intellectual territory.

Where most movies are dumb and appeal to the lowest common denominator, The Purge is smart and scary.

In the year 2022, America has been “reborn” thanks to the “new” founding fathers.  The crime rate and unemployment are down, thanks to the institution of “the Purge,” an annual 12-hour spree of violence in which all crimes -- including murder -- are legal.

As the 2022 purge nears, affluent security-system salesman James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) goes into home lock-down mode with his wife, Mary (Lena Headey), his daughter Zoey (Adelaide Kane) and son Charlie (Max Burkholder). 

But during the purge, young Charlie witnesses a bloody stranger (Edwin Hodge) crying out for help beyond the Sandin home, and releases the security system to permit him access. 

Unfortunately, the bloody stranger is being pursued by a group of rich, preppy “purgers” who see Charlie’s decision to save the bloody stranger as a violation of their Constitutional rights.  

They inform the Sandins that the Bloody Stranger must be released, or the purgers will break into the house and kill everyone…including the Sandins...

The Purge hinges on a basic question of morality.  

That question involves the nature of the Bloody Stranger. He is a black man, and homeless, according to the dialogue in the film. Because he is defined as a “taker" in terms of this future-society, then, does that mean he deserves to die?  

Does he have no value at all?

More to the point, does the Bloody Stranger's nature as one of the “non-elite” mean that his life counts less than Mr. Sandin’s life does, or Mrs. Sandin’s, or Charlie’s, or Zoey’s?  

Is it right to trade his life for theirs because he has the wrong skin color, or was unlucky enough to be born in the wrong neighborhood

Because the Bloody Stranger can’t afford to contribute in the way that Mr. Sandin can, is he a “moocher,” and a “vermin,” as the lead purger suggests?  

And does being without money or a home mean that you have nothing worthwhile to contribute to society, and therefore deserve to be killed?

If one believes in the makers vs. takers argument, then The Purge presents the logical conclusion to that brand of thinking.  If people are to be judged bad and useless because they feel entitled “to food” and to health care, as Romney suggested in his unforced comments, then what should their punishment be for that perceived trespass? 

Now, this may be a slippery slope argument.  Romney most certainly wasn't advocating the murder of Americans. But the point is this: once political rhetoric divides American people into makers and takers, discounting almost fifty percent of the population in the process, is it at all unlikely that hatred and judgment are stoked in some quarters towards those termed takers?

Well look at where we are right now, in 2016, three years on. The hate between those who are privileged and those without privilege is even worse.  And we have a candidate for President who lacks Romney's restraint, and advocates for physical violence at his rallies.

But back to the point: if the line of demarcation is that the “moocher” people feel entitled “to food,” then it’s even worse than that. 

Food is a basic survival need.  I mean…who doesn’t feel that their children are entitled to eat?  

They're all moochers extraordinaire, by this heartless philosophy of life.

In some ways, the film also captures the Occupy Wall Street movement of the early 2010s, which established that the 1% was taking an inordinate amount in terms of societal resources.

Notice, for instance, that the Sandins live in a very upper-class gated community of McMansions.  In the past decade, most middle-classers have been priced out of that life-style, so what we’re talking about here is a world of the ultra-rich vs. everyone else.

That same dynamic appears in the nature of the film’s villain, the masked “purger” who is clearly the scion of some ultra-rich family, right down to his prep-school/academy uniform.  This purger is not only well-educated, but entitled about his rights.  He feels his constitutional rights are being violated because he is not allowed to kill a homeless person.

The scary thing is that in this case, the law is on his side. The laws in this case seem to have been made by the privileged few, to perpetrate violence on the many. 

A key moment in the film also establishes the inherent unfairness of the purge. 

What happens to people who can’t afford The Sandin’s expensive security system?  

On the night of the purge, they are on their own. No help. No police, no firemen, no emergency services. 

In a not entirely oblique way, this facet of the film is the critique of Ayn Rand, I mentioned above. Rand is a philosopher who believed in enlightened self-interest, and the benefits of a true meritocracy, called “objectivism.”  

Yet what some people might remind us at this juncture is that Ayn Rand never accounted for the fact that for a true meritocracy to exist, everybody must start at the same point, not at different points in the race we call life.  

If everyone is to have the same access to the American Dream, or the same opportunities that a meritocracy implies, then they all must begin on the same starting line, or in lieu of that, at least get help in the form of oversight from government to ameliorate the difference.   

For example: how hard was it really for Mitt Romney to succeed as a businessman given his starting place in life as the son of a wealthy entrepreneur and former state governor?  How hard was it for Donald Trump to be wealthy, getting a "small" loan of 14 million dollars from his Dad?

I don't know about you, but I presume I would be doing very well in life had I been gifted with such a small loan.

Now contrast that starting point with the poor kid who was raised with a father in jail, and with a single mother working two-shifts a day. Is that mother a moocher and a taker, or someone who didn’t get the same shot as Romney did to begin with?  She's working fifty hours a week but still is her child entitled "to food?"

One could reasonably conclude that this is the inherent unfairness and fallacy of Ayn Rand’s philosophy, if applied as a philosophy of governing.

The Purge goes further and says that in the new age of American prosperity, the rich actually get the benefits of their wealth in terms of their very continued survival.  They can afford the weapons to defend themselves and kill others, as well as the security systems they require to protect their families.  These are defenses that the poor can’t afford.

The film also suggests that the purge is actually a new form of corporate welfare: a tool specifically utilized to drive up gun sales (as the closing radio voice-over establishes) and security system sales at the same time that it drives down the number of poor “takers” mooching off the system. 

There’s also evidence of modern Congressional hypocrisy at work here in the workings of the purge. The Purge reveals that members of Congress are immune to the dictates of the Purge.  They have thus exempted themselves from the danger that they expose Americans to every single year.   

In other words, it’s the Purge for thee, and not for me.

What’s so impressive about The Purge is the way it accounts for all of these roiling factors and ideas in modern America, from the corporate/government nexus, to the influx of Ayn Rand’s philosophies in the public square.  

But the final question the movie raises is one of paramount importance: Is this the kind of America we really want?  

Where your fellow American is deemed worthy of death because he or she has faced some hard times, because he or she feel entitled to…food?

The Purge explores these ideas with imagination, and sometimes to the exclusion of narrative clarity, alas. 

For instance, the Sandins in the film continue to separate from one another during the invasion on their home, a factor which provides for repetitive, multiple, and tiresome hostage opportunities.  You would think that after one such hostage situation, the family would get the message, and stick together. 

Similarly, the film makes a major point about young Charlie feeling upset about the nature and violence of the purge.  This anxiety about such a dangerous night is natural, at least starting out.  But Charlie looks to be twelve or thirteen years old, and so he would have gone through this family and national ritual several times already.  

His fears would already be quelled.  He’d know what the purge was all about, and not feel the level of anxiety he reveals in the film.

Alarmingly, the Sandins are a weird bunch too.  

They don’t relate like members of a normal family, and in a situation like the yearly purge, that’s a problem because as viewers, we immediately suspect that they could turn on one another in a heartbeat.  Ethan Hawke and Lena Headey have no chemistry together whatsoever, and so as they sip their huge goblets of red wine, one inevitably wonders if Mrs. Sandin has poisoned her husband, or is looking to kill him in some other way.  

The Sandins also have a discussion at one point about whether or not the family has ever gone out and “purged.”  They meet eyes, and a pregnant look crosses between them.  A shared secret?

But whatever experience they seem to be remembering and sharing is never transmitted to the audience...and it seems important given the film's context.  Did they kill someone?  Do they not really believe in the purge philosophy?  

The film’s polemic would be stronger with more information about how these protagonists actually feel about this new, government-imposed ritual. Mr. and Mrs. Sandin are, after all, old enough to remember a time before the purge.   They spout propaganda about the purge, but viewers don't ever know if this is just a parroting of said propaganda or genuine belief.

Finally, however, The Purge succeeds because it culminates with an incredibly powerful idea: that real strength comes not in killing the weak, but in showing mercy and love to those less-fortunate than yourself; those who have not had the breaks that you received.  

The Sandin family continues to exist after a night of purging because of one act of mercy that it shows the Bloody Stranger.  Abraham Lincoln once noted that mercy often bears  “richer fruits” than strict justice, and the film’s conclusion is an example of that fact. A good deed is returned, thus proving the inherent value of the "moocher," since he understands what he has been given, and returns that gift in kind.

We will always be a strong nation when we take care of our brothers and sisters, says The Purge, rather than disdaining those who weren’t born into lives of excessive wealth and privilege.  

For (per William Blake) "where mercy, love, and pity dwell, there God is dwelling too."

Movie Trailer: The Purge (2013)

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Films of 2014: The Purge: Anarchy

The Purge was the surprise hit of the summer of 2013, and also a well-made dystopian horror film. 

The first movie in the series was about, broadly-speaking, the normalization of violence in the American society of the near future. The first film was a “siege” horror film, with a normal (think: dysfunctional) nuclear family hunkered down for a night of terror in their supposedly secure suburban home. The film grappled with racism, privilege, and the necessity of meeting violence with violence. That last thematic element might even qualify The Purge as an example of my favorite horror sub-genre: the savage cinema.

Films of that type almost universally concern a key concern: what to do when those you love are faced with brutal violence? Even if you deplore violence -- even if you are a pacifist -- you have to act, right?

The Purge: Anarchy (2014) also succeeded with critics and audiences two summers ago, in part because it so successfully “grows” the nightmarish future world established the first film, and takes the audience outside -- into the pandemonium -- on Purge Night. 

Accordingly, there is a feeling of vulnerability and exposure ever-present in this sequel, as though a violent attack could come at any second, or from any direction. There is almost no safety, after all, in a society that has committed the night itself to murder.  All the police stations and hospitals are closed. The government is hiding.

It’s just you…and the crazies with guns.  I love the sound of the Purge “horns” as the yearly ritual commences.  Hunting season has begun, and that noise captures the feeling of menace and danger perfectly.

Additionally, The Purge: Anarchy begins to develop a real political conscience for the burgeoning franchise, but perhaps even more pertinently, examines the issues of personal morality raised by “the purge” ritual.

When is it right to kill?  And when is it right, if ever, to sacrifice yourself?

The Purge: Anarchy, in short, offers a remarkable amount of philosophical development for the fledgling franchise, and thus never appears to be a rehash or regurgitation of past glory.  The decision to move the series from the relative safety of “indoors” to the total insecurity -- or anarchy -- of the city at large, ultimately pays real dividends in terms of the movie’s horror quotient, as well.

This is one sequel that is as good, if not superior, to the material that spawned it.

“We no longer worship at the altar of Christ…but Smith and Wesson.”

On the night of the annual purge, in 2023, a man called the Sergeant (Frank Grillo) plans to purge. He has mapped out, in fact, his entire plan. A year earlier, his son was murdered by a drunk driver and now he plans to use the occasion of the Purge to take his legally-permissible bloody revenge.

Once The Purge has begun however, the Sergeant runs across two imperiled women on the streets of Los Angeles: Eva Sanchez (Carmen Ejogo) and her daughter, Cali (Zoe Soul). When the Sergeant hears Cali calling for her mother in terror, he intervenes and saves the duo from government troops.

Meanwhile, a bickering young couple, Shane (Zach Gilford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez) also run across the Sergeant’s path, seeking his protection on the one night a year in America when all crime in America, including murder, is legal.

The sergeant doesn’t want to help the bevy of strangers, but finds that they are up against powerful and wealthy forces of the establishment. Not only are unlucky citizens being shipped to exclusive events as “fodder” for the wealthy, but the government has dispatched special “death squads” to trim the fat out of American society.

“The redistribution of wealth upward through murder must stop.

The Purge: Anarchy features five characters trapped outside on Purge night, and only one of them -- The Sergeant -- is physically and mentally equipped to be there.

Accordingly, the film features some powerful jump scares, as well as some very violent action scenes. One character, a “purger” with a machete, wearing a white mask with the word “God” scrawled on it, is quite an effective avatar of terror.  The killer is both anonymous (his identity hidden) and memorable, or distinctive.  The legend on his mask suggests how he views himself. As one who take life, or preserves it, on his choice, on his whim.

Most of the film features the protagonists on the run, encountering both street level crime (blue collar) while the last portion of the film involves a different kind of terror, one (white collar) associated with being the playthings of the disdainful rich and powerful.

The Purge: Anarchy is also the film that introduces the idea into the series that the Purge exists for specific political, partisan reasons, and that the government secretly participates in the annual bloodbath.  As I wrote about regarding Election Year on Tuesday, the film concerns the idea that the rich can get out of paying their fair share of taxes by eliminating those who are subsidized by the government in terms of unemployment, or health care.

So in this world, being rich -- and remaining rich -- is more important than helping one’s fellow man.  That “fellow man” instead is seen as a drag on society, and one who does not deserve to continue to live.  It is the logical evolution of the makers vs. takers argument we see in the news all the time.  

Only the argument has been sanctified in this fictional world wby religion, and enforced by violence, the so-called “altar of Smith and Wesson.”

Blessed be the Purge?

The government soldier who commits mass murder in the film seems authentically debauched by the moral, decent sergeant.  You are supposed to end lives on the Purge, he insists, not save them.  Yet the soldier believes he is performing his duty, helping to trim the fat out of American society. He has drunk the kool-aid, and believes he is being patriotic by murdering his fellow citizens.

The Purge, a “policy” or program of the New Founding Fathers, only succeeds at all, we learn in Anarchy, because the government has been augmenting citizen purgers with death squads, sent to inner cities and other locales where society’s fat presumably lives.

This is an intriguing concept, carried into even more specific political terrain in Election Year.  What I enjoy and admire most about Anarchy, however, are the tests of morality for the specific characters. 

The Sergeant ultimately chooses not to kill the man who murdered his boy, and it’s a good choice.  Had he murdered that drunk driver, he would not have survived the night at all. The government soldier is killed, in fact, by that drunk driver. The message is clear. Revenge might be satisfying in the moment, but in the long-run it won’t serve you, or save your life.

Similarly, Eva’s father turns himself over to a family of rich purgers for the fee of $100,000 dollars. He is dying, and Eva can no longer afford his medicine. He too judges the morality of his situation, and determines that he can best serve his family at this juncture by sacrificing himself, and earning his daughter and granddaughter the money they need to escape poverty (and escape, by consequence, Purge Night).

The scene in which this old man -- serving as the sacrificial lamb -- is prepped for the slaughter, is quite upsetting, even in spite of the fact that it is his choice to die.  It’s pretty clear he had no other choice but to submit to this barbarism. And just look at the WASP-y, preppie family around him. The family members have protected their expensive mansion in plastic drapery, all around him, so they can murder him without staining the expensive carpet.  First they pray over him, and then they take their machetes to him. 

It’s sick not only that they “purge” as a family, but that they pray over their victim, believing that they are somehow made holy (or blessed) through the murder of an innocent.  They value themselves and their sense of morality too highly.

Still, this scene is rewarding for many reasons. It reveals that those who are rich are willing to “buy” the lives of others for Purge Night.  This act has made people, essentially, a commodity, a fact which recurs in the film involving the “God” purger.  But this development also makes sense, given the overall nature of the ritual.  This rich, entitled family would not want to go out and be endangered on Purge Night, so they order “take out,” essentially; bringing their victim to their home.

The scene in which the Sergeant and the others are auctioned off for the Purge, to the highest bidder, also captures the essential moral bankruptcy of this dystopian culture. Rich people sit at tables with fancy linens, sipping expensive drinks, hungering to murder the less valuable members of society.  It is a treat, indeed, when the Sergeant turns the tables on them, and shows that he is capable of “purging” too. Of course, when he commits murder, it is for self-defense, and the defense of innocent sheep in his flock: Eva and Cali, Shane and Liz.

The Purge: Anarchy succeeds by showing us new “geography” in this horrible future world, and by introducing us to characters we care about, and who must make tough choices about how to navigate the law, the Purge.  It’s a really good “middle” piece of the Purge series, because it develops and deepens the ideas of the first film, and leads directly into the deepening of the ideas highlighted in the third film.

Movie Trailer: The Purge: Anarchy (2014)

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Catspaw" (October 27, 1967)

Stardate 3018.2

In orbit of Pyris VII, the Enterprise becomes involved in a horrifying mystery. Mr. Scott (James Doohan) and Mr. Sulu (George Takei) disappear on the planet surface, while a security officer, Jackson (Jimmy Jones) is beamed back aboard.  However, he returns dead.  Aliens speak through his corpse as though he is possessed by spirits, warning Captain Kirk (William Shatner) to depart.

Kirk disobeys the ultimatum, and with science officer Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) beams down to the mist-enshrouded surface.  There, three witches attempt to warn them away, but Spock notes that they are not real.

The landing party soon finds a dark castle on a craggy mountain.  Inside, Scott and Sulu are the zombie servants of aliens Korob (Theo Marcuse) and Sylvia (Antoinette Bower), who appear to be a warlock and witch, respectively.  The strange duo is served by a familiar -- a black cat -- and Sylvia and Korob attempt to bribe the Enterprise crew to leave.

Kirk refuses, and learns that Sylvia and Korob have assumed human form. In doing so, they have made themselves susceptible to human emotions such as lust, and envy.  Kirk attempts to use this new-found humanity against the aliens, who have attempted to look “fearsome” by co-opting the old Earth symbols and figures of “trick or treat,” or Halloween.

Kirk realizes that if he can seduce Sylvia, he may be able to retrieve her power source: a magic wand of sorts called a “transmuter....”

“Catspaw” is a hokey and not entirely successful episode of the original series. It shares many story elements with another Trek, “The Squire of Gothos,” from the first season.  There, Kirk and Sulu (again!) are transported to a castle by a super being, Trelane. 

Similarly, in both stories, the key to resolving the crisis involves Kirk’s destruction of the alien power source, which can re-arrange energy and convert it to matter.  In “The Squire of Gothos,” Trelane had a mirror which could accomplish this, and which Kirk shattered.  In “Catspaw,” the transmuter, the magic wand, is the device of great power that must be destroyed.

Also, both stories involve alien beings of great power who misunderstand some aspect of human history.  Trelane looked through his scope and saw the Earth of Napoleon’s time.  He tailored his world to this primitive era, in an attempt to make the humans comfortable on his world, not realizing his error. 

In “Catspaw,” the aliens seek to keep Captain Kirk away and to do so mine the human collective unconscious for “spooky” imagery.  They also fail to realize that humanity has outgrown its irrational fears of witches, black cats, iron maidens, and so forth.

Even the episode conclusions are similar, as aliens are revealed to possess surprising forms.  Trelane is but a alien child, ordered to come home by his pure energy parents. And Sylvia and Korob are tiny bird/insectoid aliens.

“Catspaw” also relies on two familiar and formulaic Star Trek tropes. The first involves the idea that Captain Kirk must seduce some alien woman of tremendous power in an attempt to save the Enterprise.  Naturally, this alien female finds him irresistibly attractive.  In “Catspaw,” this plot-line requires Shatner to have his hands and lips on Antoinette Bower quite frequently.

Secondly, this story involves aliens from another galaxy who assume human form, and find that the “sensations” that go with human existence are over-powering, uncontrollable.  A better, more coherent version of the same story, replete with aliens from another galaxy, is the second season’s “By Any Other Name.”  That story features both a Kirk seduction of an alien woman, and emotionally arrested beings.  What “By Any Other Name” possesses -- and that which “Catspaw” lacks – is a sense of knowing humor about itself and the characters.

Known as the “Halloween” episode of Star Trek, “Catspaw” is probably as close as the series gets to Lost in Space (1965-1968) territory. In that series, as you may recall, aliens appear who have one human trait or occupation. The Robinsons encounter a space “knight,” a space “thief,” a space “pirate” and even a space “department store manager.”  There isn’t much rhyme or reason to these particular encounters, but Hollywood studio stock costumes and sets can be re-used and re-purposed, instead of invented.  “Catspaw” feels very much like a story of that type. Kirk and his crew encounter witches and warlocks in a castle, and get thrown in a dungeon.

The reason I mention Lost in Space is that the series makes no point of really explaining why aliens look like “types” from either 20th century Earth, or historical Earth.   Here, we have a reason: Sylvia and Korob are explorers getting a foothold in our galaxy and they try to scare Kirk and co. away with symbols of human superstition and terror.

The only problem is that this idea isn’t consistent. The aliens try to scare Kirk off with Jackson’s corpse, and they try to bribe him with rare gems.  But they must understand that as long as they hold Scotty and Sulu hostage, the Enterprise isn’t leaving.  So while they are urging Kirk to leave them be, they also continue to hold his crewmen, literally forcing his continued involvement.  The obvious answer would have been to use the transmuter to hide, not interfere with the crew, and send back Scotty and Sulu.

Still, even in the campiest of Star Trek episodes, there are nuggets of greatness, both in terms of character interaction and series philosophy.  In terms of the former, Spock gets a great line about the MacBeth-style witches reciting bad poetry. It’s a perfectly Spock-ian line. Fear is an effective tool only where emotion is present, and he feels none.

In terms of the latter, there’s the aforementioned -- and remarkable scene -- in “Catspaw” during which Sylvia and Korob attempt to bribe the landing party with rare gems and jewels.  Kirk points out that the Enterprise could manufacture such minerals with very little difficulty.

What this means in practice is that the pursuit of wealth is not a motivating factor in the 23rd century.  Rare gems are not even something that catches Kirk’s eye. Mankind has finally outgrown the need to be “rich.”  Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) takes this idea and runs with it, but “Catspaw” is an important piece of the puzzle.

Also, hokey or not, I absolutely love the scene in which Sylvia uses magic to “curse” the Enterprise, first floating a necklace of the ship over a candle’s hot flame, and then encasing it forever in a small lucite block.  It’s irrational and silly, sure, but strangely effective.

In two weeks: “I Mudd.”