Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Return to Tomorrow" (February 9, 1968)

Stardate 4768.3

The Enterprise receives a distress call from a dead planet, and is contacted by a being called Sargon.  This individual asks that a landing party beam down to a vault beneath one hundred miles of solid rock.  Mysteriously, Sargon refers to the crew as “my children.”

Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley) and Dr. Ann Mulhall (Diana Muldaur) beam down and discover that Sargon is from a long-dead race of god-like beings who once explored the stars, and even visited the human race. 

A destructive and terrible war tore apart their world, Arret, half-a-million years ago, and now Sargon, his wife, Thalassa, and a representative from the other side, Henoch, are all that remain of the planet’s populace.

They exist, however, not as physical bodies, but as incorporeal forms encased in large orbs.  

Sargon’s proposal for Captain Kirk is simple. He, Henoch and Thalassa would like to use the bodies of Kirk, Spock, and Mulhall to inhabit while they build robot bodies for themselves to spend eternity dwelling in.

McCoy is unhappy about the idea, because each body “possessed” undergoes dangerous spikes in cardiac function, and risks being “burned out.” Sargon insists that this symptom can be tempered with regular injections, but Kirk must sill convince his crew that they should take the risk, because the possibility of interacting with the incredibly wise Sargon, and his wealth of knowledge, promises to be worthwhile.

What Kirk has not counted on, however, is that Henoch has no desire to live in a robot body. Instead, Henoch would rather keep Spock’s. And knowing that Sargon would never let that happen, Henoch plans to murder his -- Kirk’s -- body…

Like last week’s “A Private Little War,” “Return to Tomorrow” is one of those thoroughly entertaining and impressive episodes of the original Star Trek (1966-1969) that seems to get forgotten when lists of ten best, twenty best, or even season best episodes are drafted.

“A Return to Tomorrow” deserves at least some consideration for ten best of Season Two, I would suggest, because of Kirk’s incredible speech about risk, and the reason that mankind must accept risk if he wishes to thrive, and move forward. It is an inspiring speech, and I like to think of it as the Kirk Doctrine, or the Kirk Manifesto.

It goes something like this:

“They used to say that if man could fly, he’d have wings. But he did fly. He discovered he had to. Do you wish that the first Apollo mission hadn’t reached the moon, or that we hadn’t gone on to Mars, and to the nearest star? That’s like saying that you wished you still operated with scalpels and sewed your patients up with catgut…

…I'm in command. I could order this. But I'm not because Doctor McCoy is right in pointing out the enormous danger potential in any contact with life and intelligence as fantastically advanced as this.

But I must point out that the possibilities, the potential for knowledge and advancement is equally great.

Risk….risk is our business. That’s what this starship is all about. That’s why we’re aboard her.”

Looking back, this doctrine isn’t merely inspirational, it’s a blueprint for the next steps that we need to take, right here, right now, in 2017, to move forward into the universe. I love this particular Kirk speech, and believe it speaks to the core appeal of Star Trek as a franchise, and indeed, as a philosophy, or futurist movement.

The speech also speaks to Captain Kirk’s character; his heroism, his innate optimism.  It demonstrates his ability to lead, to rally others to his cause, even to be an effective public speaker. (Sorry, I teach public speaking, and one lesson I enjoy teaching every semester concerns the art of persuasion, and how the great speakers summon us by calling to the best angels of our nature, not the gutter emotions.) Kirk’s speech in this episode is a textbook perfect example of that approach. He acknowledges that there is danger, but then moves right into the inspirational talk about the rewards that lay beyond the danger. He tells us not only to strive, but why we should strive. And he ties that striving right back to human history, and the history of space travel.

Because Captain Kirk has this opportunity to lead, and to inspire, “Return to Tomorrow” takes on a special quality, at least as far as I’m concerned. Kirk isn’t just reacting to a crisis here. He isn’t just choosing a course of action. He is proving why he sits in the center seat, and why his crew would follow him to the edge of the galaxy and beyond.

Of course, the episode possesses other values worth noting

In fact, “Return to Tomorrow” is nearly a textbook example of why William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy were each cast in the series. Shatner gets the opportunity to go big, to make us feel inspired with his character’s rhetoric and discourse. 

And Leonard Nimoy -- who holds back so much as Spock -- gets to play a diabolical, smirking character, Henoch.  Since we are so accustomed to seeing Spock as an emotionless persona, it is a shock to the system to see small changes, like that devilish smirk, or Spock leaning casually against a door frame.  It’s as if Leonard Nimoy understands that just by doing little things – by turning outward his performance just a notch or two, the impact would be huge.  It was a brilliant calculation.

The theme underlining “Return to Tomorrow” is also powerful. The episode concerns vanity, or overconfidence (rather than a fear of progress). Sargon and his people reached a point of advancement so great that they began to consider themselves Gods. 

Considering oneself a god means that laws are no longer needed, or simply required for others. That rules no longer matter.

Henoch believes he is owed survival, and Spock’s body as well, because of the gifts he could bring the galaxy. Thalassa nearly travels this route too, until she sees how much she is privileging her own happiness over the existence of the others.  She is horrified to realize she has been so selfish, so impulsive.

The message is that even as we advance, even as we grow and develop, we maintain our “human equation,” which consists of jealousy, avarice, selfishness, and other emotions. We can walk forward into a brave future, but we will still carry these cave-man legacies with us.  We must master them, or they will be our undoing, as Spock might remind us.

That’s what happened to Sargon’s people. They thought they were Gods.  They forgot they were human, and still tethered to mortality, and fallibility.

The story is a powerful tale of love, too. Sargon and Thalassa have loved one another for 600,000 years, through war and a virtually incorporeal existence. Here, they face the possibility of oblivion, but face it together.  It’s a powerful argument for love, for connection, even for monogamy, if you wish to take the lesson that far.

I haven’t mentioned Diana Muldaur yet, and I must do so, before closing.  She is an important actor in Star Trek history, for her roles in the original series and The Next Generation. She is an exceptionally strong presence in this episode, and transmits brilliantly an understanding of the conflict that her character, Thalassa, faces.  She is not evil. She is not a menace to the universe. She is a person who wants, above anything else, to live, to be human again And in wanting that, she is able to look right past the rights of others. Muldaur makes Thalassa very human, both petty and transcendent.

Indeed, that seems to be the whole point of this episode, to explore the human condition and our ability to be those things.  We must take risks and strive as we move forward, but heaven help us if we ever forget that we are mortal and fallible.

Next week: “Patterns of Force.”

Movie Trailer: The Disappointments Room (2016)

Monday, January 30, 2017

Memory Bank: Cosmic Clipper (Airfix; 1981)

In April of 1981, the American space shuttle Columbia first took (glorious) flight, and model and toy makers anticipated another "space toy" boom.  

Airfix got into the act with the release of a second "composite" spaceship model kit like Starcruiser One (1979), but this time without the imprimatur of Gerry Anderson.

The Cosmic Clipper -- much like its Airfix predecessor -- is actually several ships at once, though three instead of four, like Starcruiser One. T

he model kit came in 55 pieces, was a "snap fix" toy, and consisted of a large command ship, an attack interceptor, and a shuttle.  The command section had small transparent domes at the fore, and the shuttle looked like a mini-Concorde, perched on the rear.

The Cosmic Clipper was re-released in 1982 and 1983, and it was one of my favorite models from my childhood.  I love how the design seems to a blend of so many different 1960s-1970s influences.  

There are Enterprise-like nacelles here, a Cygnus-type body, and an overall Space:1999 utilitarian feel, though the pointy-nosed fighter feels very much like a ship from Star Wars (or, perhaps, Battle Beyond the Stars.)

Looking back at the kit and my memories of it, I remember that the nacelles were easily removed, and handily re-positioned across the command craft. They could stand out at the sides, or be attached from above, which gave the Clipper a very different look.  You could even stand them at a diagonal position, and have the craft look something like a Starfleet freighter.

While writing this Memory Bank post I found a print ad on the web for the Cosmic Clipper, posted by the vintage toy advertiser, in which it is stated that Airfix "builds excitement."  

That was certainly the case for me, as an eleven year old, endlessly fascinated by space ship toys and models that were not from any particular franchise.  With an original design in hand, it was up to me to decide what kind of universe the ship would fly in, and what characters would take the helm.

I've had a lot of luck over the years getting old kit from my childhood on E-Bay, but I've never managed to get my hands back on a Cosmic Clipper!

One of these days...

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Pointy Ears

When we finally encounter intelligent beings from another world, I think many of us will be disappointed if they don't possess pointy-ears.

For more than fifty years, pointy-ears have represented cult-television's way of physically marking a being as an other, either as an alien or a demon, depending on the genre.

The most famous of all pointy-eared individuals is, of course, the half-Vulcan Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) of Star Trek (1966-1969).  

His pointy ears were a constant source of humor for Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley), and an apparent source of admiration for other aliens, including the Horta ("The Devil in the Dark.")

But Spock was neither the first nor last alien to be defined by pointed ears.  

The Outer Limits (1963-1965) for example, featured many beings that possessed pointy-ers. The extra-terrestrials of "The Keepers of the Purple Twilight" had pointy ears, as did the super-evolved human being of "The Sixth Finger."  The weird beings of "The Children of Spider County" also possessed ears with pointed tips

The Draconians of Doctor Who (1963-1989) also possessed pointy ears, and even the Ocampa of Star Trek: Voyager (1995 - 2001) featured same.

Pointy ears are also seen in animated programs.

A fantasy being, the shape-shifter Klone of Filmation's Blackstar (1981) is another being with pointy ears, for instance. 

And the superhero Namor, or the Sub Mariner of The Marvel Superheroes (1966) is similarly distinguished by this physical characteristic.

In terms of horror programming, pointy ears apparently denote "evil." 

Consider The Twilight Zone's (1959-1961) Devil in "The Howling Man," or Buffy the Vampire Slayer's (1997 - 2003) first "Big Bad," The Master.  Both possess pointed ears.

The Cult-TV Faces of: Pointy Ears

Identified by Hugh: The Twilight Zone: "The Howling Man."
Identified by Hugh: The Sub Mariner.

Identified by Hugh: The Outer Limits.

Identified by Hugh: Star Trek: "Spectre of the Gun."

Identified by Hugh: Lost In Space.

Identified by Hugh: Doctor Who.

Identified by Hugh: Blackstar.

Identified by Hugh: Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Identified by Hugh: Star Trek: Voyager.

Identified by Hugh: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Identified by Hugh: Farscape.

Not Identified.

Identified by Hugh: South Park.

Identified by Hugh: Grimm.

Identified by Hugh: The Flash.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Advert Artwork: Have A Super Year - DC 1976 (With Shazam!)

Robots of the 1990s: A Gallery

Pound for pound, it seems like 1990s cinema and TV series did not feature many robots, at least in comparison to the seventies and eighties. 

Robots guest starred on episodes of the ascendant Star Trek franchise infrequently, and old designs, like the Lost in Space robot, or Mecha-Godzilla, were re-booted for a new age.

Still, some amazing robots appeared for the first time in the 1990s, including the (animated) Iron Giant, and the new droids of the Old Republic Age, in The Phantom Menace (1999).

Identified by David: Hardware (Mark 13)

Identified by Hugh: Robocop 2

Not Identified: Robot Jox

Identified by Hugh: Star Trek: The Next Generation "Quality of Life" (Exocomps)

Identified by SGB: Alien 3 (Bishop)

Identified by David: MechaGodzilla.

Identified by Hugh: Earth 2

Identified by Hugh: Space Precinct

Identified by Hugh: Star Trek Voyager: "Prototype."

Identified by Hugh: Alien Resurrection (Call)

Identified by Hugh: Lost in Space (1998)

Identified by Hugh: The Iron Giant

Identified by Hugh: Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (1999)/Battle Droids

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Tribute: John Hurt (1940 - 2017)

I woke up to the news, this morning that the world has lost another brilliant and beloved talent. The press is reporting the devastating death of John Hurt (1940 - 2017) a great actor, and one instantly recognizable, globe-wide, for his unforgettable roles, and distinct, gravelly voice.

Mr. Hurt is responsible for some of the best remembered film-performances of the 1970s and 1980s. Famously, he starred as Kane in Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), and gave the world what is, arguably, the most memorable death scene in over a hundred years of cinema. 

Hurt repeated that touchstone chest-burster death scene, to great comedic effect, in Mel Brooks' Spaceballs (1987).

In 1980, Hurt portrayed the tragic John Merrick in David Lynch's classic film, The Elephant Man.  An to great impact, he also portrayed George Orwell's protagonist, Winston Smith, in an adaptation of the novel 1984, in 1984.

In the age of modern blockbusters, John Hurt proved a dependable, solid, frequently seen presence in franchises such as Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Indiana Jones.  He also graced the science fiction film in Contact (1997), based on the novel by Carl Sagan.

John Hurt was also a notable presence on genre TV. 

The first time I ever saw him, for example, was in SPECTRE (1977), an unsold, supernatural pilot from Gene Roddenberry.  Later, he acted as the narrator on Jim Henson's anthology, The StoryTeller (1988).

Most recently, science fiction TV fans had the chance to rejoice when John Hurt appeared in the 50th anniversary episode of Doctor Who (2005 - ) as a forgotten incarnation of the beloved Time Lord, The War Doctor.

Although Mr. Hurt succumbed to illness at age 77, his performances on the silver and small screen will remain immortal.  Rest in Peace, John Hurt.

National Twilight Zone Day: "Come Wander with Me"

There are, perhaps, several episodes of Rod Serling's classic   The Twilight Zone  (1959-1964) more sharply-written, more morally-valuab...