Saturday, December 03, 2016

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle: "Tarzan and the Graveyard of the Elephants" (October 9, 1976)

In “Tarzan and the Graveyard of the Elephants” a greedy king named Aga -- of the distant city Navordia -- captures Tarzan to learn of the secret location of the legendary graveyard of the elephants.

Tarzan refuses to divulge the information, and bears witness to a city obscenely rich with ivory. 

The evil king then makes Tarzan fight a “great beast:” a woolly mammoth called Bentor. Tarzan recognizes the beast as an “animal who belongs to an earlier time,” and seeks the help of lions, apes and elephants to protect the graveyard.

King Aga responds violently, burning the jungle to terrify the animals and make them retreat. Tarzan will not back down, however. He fights the mammoth and defeats the evil king.  His elephants reclaim the tusks stolen to decorate the city, and return them to the graveyard, which remains “the greatest secret in the jungle.”

The graveyard of the elephants, a key element in the early Weismuller Tarzan films, recurs in this episode of Filmation’s Legend of Tarzan series.  As before, Tarzan is a zealous protector of the graveyard’s location, and proves once more that he is a friend of the animal kingdom.

Much of the story’s theme is transmitted through the visuals.  Aga’s city is a decadent, terrible place, where elephant tusks – ivory – are everywhere. There are ivory towers at the entrance, and dotting the roads. Aga wears tusks on his helmet. We see that the motif of the city is over-used, and unnecessary.  They are a sign of extravagant wealth, a decoration or affection.

The wrong they represent is undone in the episode’s denouement, as the elephants storm the city and show the (missing) respect for the dead.  They take the tusks from the city, one at a time, and transport them...home.

It’s fascinating too, that the monster of the episode is a Mammoth, another creature with tusks that many people associate with elephants. Aga worships it as a God, but Tarzan sees it for what it is: an angry animal.  He talks respectfully to Bentor, and does not kill him or harm him. He collapses a bridge so the animal can no longer terrorize the innocent.  In other words, Tarzan even shows his enemies respect, a characteristic which makes him a true hero (and role model).

Next Week: “Tarzan’s Return to the City of Gold.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Shazam: "Fool's Gold" (September 20, 1975)

In “Fool’s Gold,” Billy (Michael Gray) and Mentor (Les Tremayne) are contacted by the Elders. 

The wise ones inform Billy that “Gold is where you find it,” and that “friendship is also a form of gold.”  Furthermore, Billy will soon encounter “someone who doesn’t know this yet.”

Their words come true when Billy and Mentor meet Seldom Seen Slim (Dabbs Greer), an old prospector near a gold mine, who is being hassled by some local kids.  The kids plot to torment his donkey, Beulah, and also steal the ores from Slim’s small shack.

But soon, the children’s attitudes change, and they start to realize that old Slim can teach them things, like about prospecting in the mine. 

Unfortunately, Slim is caught in a cave-in, leaving the kids to seek out the help of Captain Marvel (Jackson Bostwick). He uses his great strength to free Slim from the sealed cave.

“Fool’s Gold” is another inconsequential, harmless episode of Shazam (1974-1976).

Jackson Bostwick returns to the role of Captain Marvel (before disappearing again next week), and Dabbs Greer portrays a nice old codger who realizes he still has something important to offer the world. 

And, the icing on the cake is that the whole affair is shot at familiar old Vasquez Rocks.

Like last week’s show (“Debbie”), this one feels a little anti-kid, which is weird. In this case, the children torment and bully Slim until they have a change of heart.  The big lesson this week is not just for the kids, but for Slim, who sees that even though he is old, he is not yet obsolete.

Next week: “Double Trouble.”

Friday, December 02, 2016

Logan's Run: 40th Anniversary Blogging

In the 23rd century, the survivors of a nuclear war live inside The City of Domes, a paradise of plenty. The world is a hedonist’s delight with the Love Shop and other pleasures, but the metropolis is not without a downside. 

Every citizen must die at age 30, and hope for “renewal” in a state-sponsored ritual called Carousel that keeps the civilization perfectly balanced.  Policing this edict are a cadre of armed law enforcement officials, the Sandmen. 

One such Sandman, Logan 5 (Michael York) is tasked by the city’s controlling Computer with determining if the destination of refugees, called Sanctuary, is real.  Logan enlists the help of a young woman, Jessica (Jenny Agutter) in escaping the city, but is tagged as a “runner” and hunted by his former partner, Francis. 

When Logan and Jessica manage to escape the city, first they find a malevolent robot, Box, and later see the outside world for the first time. 

In the ruins of Washington D.C., they meet an Old Man (Peter Ustinov) who proves that the edict of “death at 30” is not natural.

Logan's Run serves as a critical "bridge" production of the 1970s. It blends the dystopian qualities of such film predecessors as Soylent Green (1973) and Planet of the Apes (1968), with the elaborate, expensive visual effects and action-adventure qualities of the Star Wars (1977) age.

Logan's Run is based on the William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson novel of the same name, which was first published in 1967. The novel depicted a bizarre world set post-"Little War," in which the ascendant youth society of the turbulent late 1960s (think student demonstrations and sit-ins) had grown to become the globe's dominant social force. In an attempt to stave off overpopulation, starvation, and poverty, a new society of the young was forged in which the mandatory age of death was 21 years of age. It was "never trust anyone over thirty" (or 21 here...), but as a governing philosophy.

Citizens of this New World Order had "palm flowers" embedded in their hands which displayed their age and their chronological proximity to "Last Day."  On said "Last Day" (their 21st birthday...) they would willingly report for mandatory termination at a local Sleep Shop. Those who didn't choose death would illicitly "run" instead, seeking escape through an underground railroad, in search of a place called "Sanctuary." Policing the populace and destroying these rebellious runners is the bailiwick of a young, fascist military force called "Sandmen."

In the book, a dedicated Sandman named Logan 3 teamed with a female runner named Jessica to locate Sanctuary, but he was secretly a double-agent for the government, tasked with the destruction of Sanctuary. Logan was pursued on his "run" by a Sandman friend named Francis, who also boasted a secret Ballard, an ally of runners and the man who knew where Sanctuary was actually located. In the book, Sanctuary was but a rocket trip away, on Mars...

Many aspects of Nolan and Johnson's brilliant novel were significantly altered for the blockbuster film, which earned over 50 million dollars on a cost of less than 10 million. 

Specifically, Michael York's Logan 5 (not Logan 3) was the hero of the silver screen version, and his Sandman comrade, Francis (Richard Jordan), became a dogged enemy and Agent of the State instead of a secret aide to the Runners.

Also, the Sleep Shops (actually seen in Soylent Green....) were replaced with the bizarre but impressive public spectacle of Carousel, a festival in which those aged thirty (not twenty-one) would be blown up before the eyes of excited crowds who believed that the doomed were actually being "renewed," miraculously reincarnated.

The general setting was altered for the film too. In Logan's Run the movie a nuclear war rather than a "Little War" precipitated the creation of the City of Domes, meaning that the world outside the City was almost entirely rather than merely futuristic. Perhaps the most significant change in the movie was that there was no real place of safety and peace for the runners. Instead, Sanctuary was a myth, a fairy tale.

Despite such radical changes from the source material, Logan's Run thrives as a worthwhile, exciting, and intriguing science-fiction artifact of the 1970s for quite a few reasons. The one-of-a-kind disco-era visualizations and tenor of Logan's Run -- the aura of “anything goes” hedonism -- continue to ably support the film’s didactic narrative. The glittering, sexy-but-shallow production design, abundantly rich in neon and mini-skirts, suggests youth and sexuality, even forty years later.

But perhaps the finest aspect of Logan's Run is indeed the film's capacity to build in the viewer's imagination a believable and frightening future dystopia. The City of Domes and its byzantine laws and practices fit the very definition of an authoritarian or totalitarian state.

Let's gaze a little at what the pieces of that definition are, and how Logan's Run successfully conforms to them.

First, according to one definition, a totalitarian state "creates myths, catechisms, cults, festivities and rituals" designed to "commemorate" the State. The central myth of the City of Domes, of course, is "Renewal," the State-supported lie which promises immortality. Upon death, the souls of the fallen (those who attend Carousel) will transmigrate to new, young bodies.

This lie is reinforced by the numbering system employed to "name" individual citizens (Logan 5, Jessica 6, Francis 7, etc.) These numbers, which replace last names in this future society, explicitly indicate the march of generations; that a new baby is actually a "new" version of a person who has already existed, "died" and "renewed." The numbers are also totally de-humanizing. Humans become one in a vast indistinguishable line.

The Carousel "festival" -- a state-sponsored celebration of "Last Day" -- is attended by all citizens of the City of Domes, and is essentially the equivalent of, for example, a contemporary NASCAR race, only govt. run. The people down on the track or field (those who are ostensibly to be renewed...) circle around and around, and many of them "wreck" before our eyes, blown apart by a ceiling-mounted laser device that resembles a crystal. Spectators watch and cheer for Carousel participants to "renew," but what they are really cheering for is the violent, explosive deaths of friends and fellow citizens.

The State has thus transformed a mandatory death sentence into the very "ritual" or "festival" inherent in the tradition of totalitarianism, one that actually reinforces (or "commemorates" as the definition goes), the Law of the State: mandatory death at 30.

Economically, this ritual of Carousel combines the "bread and circuses" aspect of Rome's gladiator games -- satisfying the blood lust of the crowd -- with a "spiritual" or "religious" church function: the honoring of the dead (or dying); the belief in transmigration or reincarnation.

This ritual of Carousel is also supported by a State-created and encouraged catechism, an education in the faith meant to indoctrinate the people, here termed in short-hand, "One for One."

In the film, we witness Logan and Francis debate the dogma/doctrine of "One for One." Francis accepts it blindly (by simply repeating it mindlessly) while Logan questions it...the first sign of his independent streak.

This easy-to-remember phrase means -- in simple terms -- that one person dies/one person renews. It's the seamless, simple transmigration of the soul or spirit from the dead to the living. From Logan 4 to Logan 5. From Francis 5 to Francis 6. It's so simple that there can be no denying it.

It's essentially programming through mnemonics and repetition, a phrase/teaching/sound-byte repeated so often and so widely that it is accepted blindly for "truth." The idea of "One for One" (and catechism) is part and parcel of entrenched absolutism (or totalitarianism) because it is representative of a "cliche-ridden language whose formulaic utterances are designed to impede ambivalence, nuance and complexity."

People don't die in the City of Domes, they "renew" (as if they are just TV programs, not living human beings.) The light on your palm which signals your death is not a "death clock" but, tellingly, a "life-clock." Sandmen don't kill. No, they never kill, according to Logan. They simply "terminate" Runners. And Runners are like "Terrorists" aren't they? Just a faceless boogeyman...not real flesh and blood people. Additionally, the day of a citizen’s death isn't called "Death Day or "Execution Day," but known by the pleasant euphemism Last Day.

This is precisely how Orwell's double-speak, jargon and euphemisms work. These phrases are widely-disseminated simplifications designed to impede questioning; to preserve and nurture an authoritarian regime and its agenda.

A totalitarian state is also defined as one with a "culture of military solidarity" in which "the pursuit and elimination" of Enemies of the State has become a primary purpose.

Again, it's easy to detect how Logan's Run fits this aspect of the definition of totalitarianism. In general, the Sandmen lord it over the non-military personnel of the City of Domes, as Francis specifically does when an innocent civilian bumps into him at Arcade. Furthermore, according to City of Domes-style catechism, the Sandmen (the military of this State) are elevated above other citizens in matters of transmigration too.

"Sandmen Always Renew," the catechism goes.

The enemies of the state are termed "Runners," but they are those, simply, who question the status quo and consequently opt out of Carousel, attempting to live longer than their allotted thirty years. The Sandmen are in place to destroy the Runners and prevent all knowledge of "Sanctuary" from the distracted populace. Runners can't be imprisoned (that would imbalance the population control system); they have to be "terminated" on sight. And again, the State employs euphemisms like terminate (instead of "kill") to make the act more palatable. When a runner dies, the corpse is melted down by strange hovering, futuristic machines, but this gory act is euphemistically termed "cleaning up." If people were to see the destroyed human body and count it as such they might begin to question the government's simplifications and slogans, not to mention the status quo.

Logan's Run succeeds as a film in no small part because of the carefully designed and constructed totalitarian state that our protagonists, Logan and Jessica flee.

This world -- run by an unfeeling computer -- is so inhuman, so callous, that it does not even permit mothers and fathers to raise children. No, families create a sense of personal loyalty outside of loyalty to government, and that cannot be tolerated in a totalitarian state.

A good villain goes a long way towards making an effective movie, and in Logan's Run there is a great one: a 23rd century Big Brother ordering mandatory executions and destroying humanity's spirit.

Note too, that like many real life dictatorships, the City of Domes is carefully erected on lies and deceit. Inherent in the system of the City is the belief that one does not need to work or produce.  Its people are occupied entirely with leisure.

This lie is laid bare when Logan visits the outer workings of the city and finds that a mad robot called "Box" has frozen the 1,056 unaccounted for runners to be used as food for the city goers. Box ran out of plankton and animals some time ago, and now has resorted to capturing and storing unlucky humans in stasis. So the City of Domes is actually feeding on itself to survive. The self-sufficient system (which demands death at 30) is not so self-sufficient after all.

Rather, it is cannibalizing itself.

Yet if the City of Domes is a cage for its people, it's rather definitively a gilded cage. The people who dwell there, according to the film's opening card "live only for pleasure." And that's another core aspect of the Totalitarian/Absolute State: distraction.

The government wants your mind on "other things," not the government, not the way things are.  One way to avoid politics and matters of national import is to focus on materialism, on owning things, or in the vernacular: shopping.  Well, the people of the City of Domes have been told to go shopping in perpetuity.

Their beautiful City is actually a colossal shopping mall, and the film was, in fact, shot in a shopping mall in Texas. This Arcade offers every manner of distraction and entertainment imaginable.

So if you're feeling vain, why not head over to the New You Shop, where you can get a quickie face lift (or tummy tuck) and come out looking absolutely fabulous? If you hurry, you can make your work-out at the gym this afternoon too (as Logan and Francis do during one critical scene...). If you seek companionship, head over to another part of the mall: the Love Shop -- the 23rd Century equivalent of Studio 54. There you can take legal (and safe!) mood-altering drugs called "lifts" (think Prozac or Xanax). 

Then, you can have casual sex with gorgeous strangers (all under 30!). If you want to stay in your deluxe Sandman apartment tonight instead (conveniently located right off the mall's promenade...), Logan's Run even offers the 23rd century corollary to our Internet Porn: the so called computer "circuit" which materializes sexual partners (male or female), right at your doorstep.

What does all this mean? Well, clearly the City of Domes is consumed with youth, beauty, sex, and hedonism. Again, this is a pointed reflection of our culture in the 1970s, and even more so today. Who cares if the world is burning? We want our MTV! 

Logan's Run's antidote to dystopia may be naive, however, especially in 2016.

The film espouses, among other things a renewal of the natural order: a return to the re-born outside world, and a prescribed departure from computers, climate-controlled shopping-malls and 24-hour-a-day leisure.

Alas, that's a genie you can put back in the bottle easily.

Although Logan literally sees the "light of day" when he leaves the City of Domes -- his first vision of the natural world is an apricot-colored sun rise -- it is not until he encounters The Old Man (Peter Ustinov) that the pieces of a re-born future start to come together. In the end, the message of Logan's Run is that with age comes wisdom, but -- heck! -- "older" leaders were the ones the original youngsters of the City of Domes inherited the messed-up Earth from in the first place.

One thing is for certain: Logan's Run favors humanity over machines. When faced with the reality that Sanctuary is but a fairy tale, Logan and the humans go on to (hopefully) construct a better society, a new "Sanctuary" where death is not mandatory at 30.

By contrast, the Computer that runs the City of Domes is not able to conceive of such a silly idea -- a fantasy utopia and paradise -- and it goes haywire in response; short-circuited. Once again, we see imagination as a critical human quality; but it is a heritage that Logan's people have largely neglected for hedonism. It takes the odyssey outside by Logan and the return visit to the City by the Old Man to rekindle it.

Those who watch Logan's Run and deride it as cheesy or outdated may have missed the point. Perhaps they have not gazed deeply enough at the world it so confidently creates. The film -- for all its silliness and outdated special effects -- reveals what might happen to a society that finally turns irrevocably inward; becoming obsessed with youth and beauty at the expense of wisdom. If we let that future become reality, then Washington D.C. and all the beautiful national landmarks there will end up but monuments to irrelevancy; artifacts of an age when liberty and intellect actually meant something. Indeed, they have become in Logan's Run: meaningless, empty ruins from another epoch.

In the final analysis, Logan's Run is a good cautionary science fiction film, one that reminds us to hold Big Brother accountable. And to -- at least every now and then -- peer out of our happy little gilded cages and ask, precisely, what is happening in all our names.

Totalitarian States believe you are either with them (and Carousel) or against them (Runners), but Logan and Jessica find that a rich life exists beyond dogma, sound-bytes, catechism, and jargon. After their visit to the ruins of Washington D.C., they find that, at the very least, life possesses nuances. And that also -- with human experience and age -- should follow...wisdom.

Movie Trailer: Logan's Run (1976)

Thursday, December 01, 2016

The Films of 2016: Independence Day: Resurgence

So, it took twenty long years for filmmakers Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin to give audiences…this movie.

I won’t mince words about it: Independence Day: Resurgence (2016) is a terrible, awful, no good movie.

I’ll go further. This is quite possibly the worst big budget studio release in a generation, or at least since I’ve been reviewing movies. 

Big, would-be emotional moments in Emmerich’s Independence Day: Resurgence fail utterly, and even the supposedly spectacular action scenes are flat and lifeless. Beloved characters and actors return to the franchise, and have almost no impact whatsoever.

Now, I know there are readers out there who hate Independence Day (1996) with a passion, but I don’t feel that way. 

For all its inherent, generic, goofiness, ID4 remains a nineties pop-culture touchstone. The scene of the alien flying saucer destroying the White House is absolutely iconic. 

And the dramatic material, while schmaltzy, nonetheless carries authentic emotional impact. President Whitmore’s (Bill Pullman) final, inspirational speech in the film, about the human race joined as one, finally, in opposition to an outside threat, is remarkably delivered.  It also captures an idea often spoken, by the likes of President Reagan and others: that the human race will only truly be united in opposition to an alien attack.  

If the Earth is at stake we will come together as one.

For whatever flaws the 1996 film possesses -- namely and most importantly, the relentless pandering to a wide audience -- ID4 still feels like a huge pop culture event; one with grand, carefully orchestrated special effects, and an ominous sense of build-up and tension as the alien attack on Earth commences.

The new film, Resurgence feels utterly slapdash in comparison. It looks like a cash grab that should have been released in 1998, two years after the original film premiered so as to capitalize on some of the good will generated by the original film.

But this is twenty years later -- not two years -- later, and Independence Day: Resurgence is a disaster of epic proportions. It’s shocking, actually, to watch the whole enterprise go up in smoke before your eyes.

Twenty years after an alien invasion nearly destroyed humanity, the human race is once again thriving. 

Utilizing technology reverse-engineered from captured and shot-down alien ships, the Earth Space Defense, sponsored by the UN, has established based on the Moon, and operates from an HQ at Area 51.

As the twenty year mark nears, however, a mission to the Congo -- consisting of scientist David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), Dr. Marceaux (Charlotte Gainesbourg) and the warlord Umbutu (Deobia Oparei) -- discovers that a crashed alien ship has been transmitting a distress signal to deep space.

Similarly, those who were once telepathically-linked to the aliens -- including ex-President Whitmore (Pullman) and Dr. Okun (Brent Spiner) -- begin receiving mental impressions again.

Meanwhile, at Earth’s Moonbase, where hot-dog pilot Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth) is stationed, a small spherical ship approaches. It is shot down immediately, but is not actually part of the invasion. Instead it harbors the secret to defeating the aliens, known as “Harvesters.”

Soon, a 3,000 mile-in-diameter Harvester vessel approaches and destroys Earth’s defenses. It begins to drill into the Earth in an attempt to remove Earth’s core, killing the planet.

Levinson, however, believes, that there is a way to stop the procedure. The aliens possess a hive mind, and killing the Queen will stop the drilling operation.

There is a good (and very Japanese-ish/kaiju or Gerry Anderson-ish) idea embedded in Independence Day: Resurgence, but that’s about it. 

Specifically, the movie features the idea of a unified Earth developing a multi-national defense force against external threats.  It's a pseudo SHADO.  

All the Earth planes and ship designs featured in the film are futuristic in design, powered by the alien’ anti-gravity technology.  There isn’t a lot of dialogue about this upgrade in the film, which actually works in the movie’s favor.  It is a brand new world we encounter here, twenty years after the invasion, and a lot of the technological progress is (rightly) un-commented upon.  Rather, it is merely accepted as being a fact of life.

Beyond that idea, there’s not much here to recommend Resurgence to thoughtful audiences. The movie features three creative specific failures worth describing in detail. One involves the actual invasion, the second involves the new characters, created for the sequel, and last regards the handling of the characters who return from the original.

Let’s take each issue in turn.

In Independence Day, there was a slow-burn build up to the attack, and accordingly, a sense of suspense and mounting anxiety.  The aliens didn’t just arrive and start smashing landmarks. A signal was detected, suggesting a coordinated attack around the globe, and then a mysterious countdown.  That countdown was detected too late, and an evacuation of government sites began, only half-successfully.

I understand that the mystery is gone now about the alien intent. We know they are hostile. So the same card can't be played a second time.  

However, the whole premise of this movie seems to be, simply, that bigger is better. That’s it: shock and awe, CG style.  

Accordingly, we get a huge spaceship arrive, latch on to the planet, and pretty much wipe through Europe in one over-the-top scene. The ship is huge, the destruction is huge too, but it is over in a few short moments. There’s no sense of a pitched battle, no sense of the people who live in the affected city (London).  It’s a digital cartoon, without human scale, and therefore, without human impact.

The second such scene, with Julius Levinson’s boat escaping the giant space ship, is played more for laughs than horror, and it feels impossible. We know he is going to survive, even as every other ship in the sea is pulped. Why, because he's the movie's indestructible comic relief.

The special effects are lacking in human impact, perhaps, because the new human characters are conceived and performed in the most generic way imaginable. 

Liam Hemsworth, Jessie Usher, and Maika Monroe are utterly forgettable as this “next generation” of characters, and the audience doesn’t ever come to truly care about them. They never leave a footprint on your mind, let alone on your heart.  Jake (Hemsworth) and Hiller (Usher) are given some back-story conflict that goes nowhere and means nothing. It's just a way to waste time, and make you feel that there is a "history" to these cardboard creation.

But you know the movie is failing on a catastrophic level when it looks, for a minute, that the young heroes have died in an escape from an alien saucer, and you find you just don’t care.  The movie’s soundtrack rises to a crescendo, and you realize that you are supposed to be concerned, engaged.  You are supposed to care.

You don’t. 

I can’t remember, offhand, another blockbuster movie where the crowd-pleasing moments, the big victories, the prospective failures, fall so utterly, horribly flat.  The young, underwear-model cast is never able to generate any real or genuine interest on the part of the audience.

The returning characters don’t fare all that much better.  Bill Pullman registers strongly as President Whitmore at first, but then the character is sacrificed for what is, finally, a meaningless death. He gives another speech that is supposed to register as inspiring and stirring, but plays as a pale shadow of the original ID4 oratory.  His death, again, doesn't reach the emotional heights the movie aims for.

Judd Hirsch continues to be over-the-top as the senior Levinson, while Jeff Goldblum feels oddly disconnected from the material, simply walking through the part. By contrast, Vivica A. Fox gets what should be a powerful death scene, but again…the moment carries almost no emotional weight. She's been given so little screen time here, that there is no chance to reconnect with her.

Of all the original characters, Dr. Okun is the only one who comes off well. Brent Spiner steals practically every scene he is in, but even he can only do so much heavy lifting.  He gets the last lines of the film, which should be a rallying cry for the sequel, but feels more like a slapdash joke.

At his best, director Roland Emmerich can rouse audiences with efforts such as Stargate (1994) or Independence Day (1996), and at his worst, he provides audiences empty thrills and brain-dead narratives like 10,000 BC (2008) and 2012 (2009). His Godzilla (1998), widely-derided, falls somewhere in the middle of the pack.

Independence Day: Resurgence is a new career low, as it leaves out even the emptiest of thrills. The whole movie flies on automatic pilot, with no apparent creative investment. It's all just a formula, without heart, without emotional connection or creative distinction. We have no idea, from this film, why we should love these characters, or invest in their world.

The title of this sequel was once proposed as Independence Day: Forever.

How about Independence Day: Forget It.

Movie Trailer: Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "The Visitor" (October 9, 1995)

The fourth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was one of authentic creative rejuvenation and rebirth for the series.

This sortie of episodes brought the addition of  actor Michael Dorn (Worf) to the ensemble cast, introduced a new Klingon-Federation conflict, and finally gave audiences a bald, bad-ass Captain Sisko (Avery Brook).

The season offered quite a few stunning episodes as well, including the epic "The Way of the Warrior" and my personal favorite Deep Space Nine episode of all time: "The Visitor."

Why do I enjoy this particular episode of Deep Space Nine so much?  In short, it concerns two topics that are near and dear to my heart: the father-son relationship, and...writing as a vocation.

Delightfully, the episode handles both subjects with flair, honesty and honesty.  Where so many Star Trek shows are appropriately epic in scope, "The Visitor" is all about intimacy, and the intimacy of a tragic life-story -- shared between strangers -- on a  portentous, rainy night.

In "The Visitor,"  young Jake Sisko (Cirroc Lofton) is hard at work trying to wrangle a recalcitrant short story when his dad, Captain Sisko (Brooks), asks him to join him aboard the Defiant to observe a twice-in-a-century phenomenon: wormhole "inversion" 

Jake reluctantly agrees to get his head out of his writing for a spell and does as his Dad asks. But on the mission, something goes terribly wrong.

The Defiant suffers a warp core breach and while repairing it, Captain Sisko is drawn into a realm of subspace beyond the reach of Federation science.  Although he re-appears infrequently, for all intents and purposes, Benjamin Sisko is lost...a ghost.

Jake mourns the loss of his father, and attempts to carry on with his life.  The years pass, and he marries a beautiful woman, and even becomes a successful, highly-respected author.  But still, Jake is scarred by what this episode tenderly and poetically terms "the worst thing that can happen to a young man:" the death of his father. 

Ultimately, Jake's driving obsession with rescuing his lost father drives away those that he loves.  He even abandons writing to focus on the problem of retrieving the captain.  When Sisko re-appears and finds that his now aged son (played with sensitivity by Tony Todd) has given up everything -- companionship, happiness, life itself -- for his father, he is shattered by the knowledge.

Given a choice, Sisko would have wanted his boy to live a complete life...a life with children and grandchildren and love.  Jake tells his father that he did it for him, and "for the boy that I was."

Told from a late point of attack, with an aged Jake sharing his moving story to a young writing student, Melanie, "The Visitor" concerns the lengths we would go to to save the ones we love. 

And though I'm often a critic of latter day Star Trek's obsession with tongue-tied techno babble, I absolutely love how the tech talk is used in this particular segment. 

Like Kirk in "The Tholian Web," Sisko keeps reappearing as a ghost...or as a memory that just won't go away.  Jake discovers that there is an invisible "link" -- likened to an elastic cord -- connecting the younger and elder Sisko to one another, and this description is a perfect metaphor for a familial connection.

We are all tethered to our loved ones by an invisible elastic cord, it seems like.  Life is the process of pulling that cord tight, giving it some slack, and loss...seeing it break.  And yet even in that loss, we feel like the connection is still present, even if we can't physically touch those who have left the mortal coil permanently.

I also admire how this episode frames the father-son dynamic.  Jake will stop at nothing to save his father.  And his father, Captain Sisko, simply wants Jake to have a life worth living.

Their purposes are crossed, and every time they meet, they re-engage in this debate. The captain wants grandchildren.  He wants his son's happiness.  Yet his son desires only one thing: the return of the guiding influence in his life; an overturning of the loss that his life could never sustain  or overcome. 

It's an emotional and beautiful dynamic, wonderfully portrayed by all the talents involved, and the story gets at another truth about family.  We all believe we know what is best for a child or parent, and we fight for that outcome.

Even if, importantly, that child or parent desires something else. The parent-child connection we see played out so dramatically in "The Visitor" is a "universal constant," as Dr. McCoy might report.

It's icing on the cake for me, I suppose, that "The Visitor" also concerns the profession of writing, and more than that, gets its observations about a writing career spot-on accurate. 

Jake is portrayed here as a mysterious, Salinger-esque figure who only wrote one book and then disappeared; the weight of crisis too heavy in his life to continue as a public figure. That's a nice bit of myth making, but other aspects of the tale are more realistic.

For example, I absolutely  love the moment in the episode when Jake's gorgeous Bajoran wife tries to lure him to bed (and sex...), but it's clear he would rather be writing his story.

As crazy as that image sounds, writing -- getting it down right -- can sometimes be just like that.  It consumes the mind, and when it's going well, you don't want to stop.  For anything.  Not even hot sex with a beautiful Bajoran soul mate.

But Jake's writing career fits into the story in another way as well.

Writing is a consuming passion, and as a career, it can be a cruel master.  Even a writing career as established as my own (nearly twenty years since my first book was published, and two-dozen books behind me...) is one of severe ups and downs.

You have years where everything you publish turns to gold, and years where nothing sticks. Your book sales go up.  Your book sales go down.  There's no security or consistency to a writing career, and yet -- because you love writing -- you stick at it.  You absolutely cannot stop.  And at some point, this dedication does take a toll on your family life.  It's silly to insist that it doesn't.  I'm blessed to have the support of those I love, but I'm sure that sometimes my wife, Kathryn, feels like she must share me with the art of writing.  I'm lucky she puts up with me.

The point of this meditation is that in "The Visitor," Jake does the one thing that every writer absolutely dreads doing yet must, at some juncture, seriously consider.  He gives up writing.

He gives up writing to save his father, and studies to become an engineer. This kind of transition is just absolutely murder for creative types.  I'm always being asked by well-meaning people: why don't you become a lawyer?  Or being informed that I'd be great at writing advertisements! 

As a writer, there's always that invisible but considerable gravitational pull to undertake a career that is more secure, or pays better than writing.  Today, I still write, of course, but my day job is as a full-time communication instructor at a local college.

So Jake bravely makes two supreme sacrifices for his family: both his writing career and his life.   

Star Trek is often about intergalactic politics, space battles, and adventures.  Occasionally, in episodes such as "The Visitor" or "The Inner Light," the franchise really gets down to the nitty gritty; about what it really and truly means to human; about the connections that make us who we are, and the things that we would do to preserve and protect them. 

In its meditation on fathers and sons, "The Visitor" is one of the most affecting Star Trek programs of any generation, and a real masterpiece of the canon.  I strongly identify with Sisko in this episode, because I understand his agony at seeing Jake age and suffer. 

When your child's life doesn't go as you hope -- even on a small, day-to-day level -- you don't merely feel real physical pain.  I see that pain in Avery Brooks' face and in his mannerisms too. 

Yet "The Visitor" also reminds us Dads (and Moms) to live up to our child's image of us; to remember how large we loom in their imagination and psyche. That's an ideal we must also seek to honor and cherish.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Runabout (Playmates)

Video Game of the Week: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - Crossroads of Time (Sega Genesis)

Comic Book of the Week: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Pop Art: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (MAD Magazine Edition)

Model Kits of the Week: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (AMT)

Trading Cards of the Week: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (Skybox)