Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Ultimate Computer" (June 8, 1968)

Stardate 4729.4

A special “honor” is bestowed upon the U.S.S. Enterprise.  The vessel will be the “prey” in a war games scenario involving four other Constitution class starships: The Lexington, the Potemkin, the Excalibur and the Hood.

During the war games exercise, the Enterprise will also play host to the brilliant Dr. Richard Daystrom (William Marshall), and his new invention: the M-5 multi-tronic computer.  The M-5 is a “thinking” machine that can perform the operations of the Enterprise’s crew. 

Only Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and his command crew, along with Daystrom, will remain aboard the vessel as the new computer’s capabilities are tested.

Kirk is not happy about M-5 assuming operational command of his ship, and even less happy when Commodore Wesley (Barry Russo) refers to him as a “dunsail,” a nautical term that means “superfluous,” “useless or “unnecessary” part of a vessel.

Once underway, the M-5 malfunctions, destroying a freighter, the Woden, that it encounters. The M-5 also kills a technician who attempts to “pull the plug.” 

Now Kirk -- with a reluctant Daystrom’s help -- must appeal to M-5’s morality before the “ultimate” computer destroys four starships and their crews…

It’s always amazing to consider how far Star Trek (1966-1969) was ahead of its time. Although the sets and costumes may seem aged by today’s standards, the ideas and themes of most episodes remain as relevant, timely, and significant as ever.  Case in point: “The Ultimate Computer.”

This story involves a machine, the M-5 that renders man himself “obsolete.” In a future Starfleet of M-5s, humanoid crews -- and captains too -- are superfluous.  In the story, Kirk faces the very real possibility that Starfleet, in five years, will have no use for his abilities and training.  He faces the possibility of losing his job, in other words, to a machine.

This is not some remote possibility, for many of us, living here on Earth in 2017. Indeed, in the June 25th, 2016 edition of The Economist, there was a special report published titled “Automation and Anxiety” which examined the impact of artificial intelligence on jobs, and asked the question: will smarter machines cause mass unemployment?” 

So, some 49 years and an odd number of months after Star Trek’s “The Ultimate Computer” aired, the very themes it obsessed upon were part of our reality here in the 21st century.  There has been much talk of governments in Western countries providing citizenry a “basic income,” not because people are entitled or lazy, but because machines are developing at such an incredible rate, and will soon render obsolete many jobs, careers, and whole fields of work.

I have written here before how it is sometimes bothersome to me the way that Star Trek suspiciously views “progress” (think of how the androids are handled in “What Are Little Girls Made Of,” or how the rehab colony is handled in “Dagger of the Mind.”)  In this case, however, it is important to note that Star Trek is very tempered and even-handed (not to mention accurate…) in its exploration of this problem.

Kirk faces the possibility of losing his job to a machine, even as the machine is proven to be undependable, and he can breathe a sight of relief.  But leave it to Mr. Spock to note, in the episode, that though computers make excellent tools, he has no desire to serve under one.  This is a valid statement, and one that I think people of all beliefs can get behind.

As Spock might remind us, better machines are always going to be developed, and utilized. But humanoids must always be the ones managing and overseeing these tools, lest disaster result. 

Today, we live in a world of drone warfare, and robot expeditions to other worlds.  But in both cases, the operators are human. There is still, therefore some connection to our laws and moralities.  The machine do not operate alone, without oversight, as M-5 would eventually operate.

Dr. Daystrom’s way of overcoming this drawback is by impressing human “engrams” on the machine. In other words, M-5 is programmed with his sense of morality; with his very world view and belief system.  Daystrom believes this will make the machine more human, more capable of making compassionate decisions. And ironically, this detail is the only thing that permits Kirk to “talk” this computer to death. It holds the same “human” beliefs as its creator.

What we see, intriguingly, is that M-5 suffers from the neuroses of his master. Therefore, a machine can’t make the “jump” to being human, without terminal malfunction.  Star Trek returns to this idea, of machines needing humans, to be “whole,” in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979).

William Marshall proves a powerful presence as Daystrom, a tragic figure. As the episode makes plain, Daystrom achieved his (amazing) success with Duotronics at a young age, and has spent the rest of his adult life as a has-been. Therefore, M-5 is his “comeback” in the scientific community, and his whole sense of ego, his whole identity, rests on the computer’s success.  It is no wonder that he starts to go mad, as his creation does. He’s under a lot of pressure. 

And yet, Daystrom is not a typical mad doctor or “egghead” character. He is a man of morals, a man who wants nothing more than to prove to the world that he still has something to offer it.  These characteristics make him a three-dimensional person; and someone that we can feel great pity for.  His name is honored in the Star Trek franchise, and particularly in The Next Generation (1987-1994) wherein many episodes make note of “The Daystrom Institute” (“The Measure of a Man,” “Data’s Day.”)

As far as the episode’s climax goes, “The Ultimate Computer” has both virtues and drawbacks.  The virtues involve seeing the Enterprise pitted against four other starships in a war game scenario that proves frighteningly real. 

The drawback is that the main crisis arrives, and we are left to watch Kirk talk-to-death yet another super-computer.  This “talking to death” of a computer also occurred in “Return of the Archons” (a superior episode) and in the second season tale “The Changeling,” in regards to Nomad.

The problem with this solution is that Kirk has to be so persuasive in his arguments that a computer agrees, basically, to commit suicide, based on his discourse.  While Kirk is indeed one hell of a public speaker and persuader, it isn’t always believable, at least to this viewer, that computers would destroy themselves based on human rhetoric.

Still, I’ve always felt that “The Ultimate Computer” is a powerful episode of Star Trek because it grapples meaningfully with automation, and the impact of advancing technology on people, and their livelihoods.  

Furthermore, I’ve always loved seeing Russo’s Wesley in the command chair of his Constitution Class starship, ready to destroy the Enterprise, and M-5, to prevent any other loss of life. Marshall’s performance as Daystrom only adds to the episode’s virtues, and, finally, Kirk’s worry about becoming obsolete is one that many of us absolutely can identify with.

Next week: “Bread and Circuses.”

Movie Trailer: Sinister 2 (2015)

Monday, February 27, 2017

Memory Bank: Strange Change Super-Detailed Assembly Kits (1974; MPC)

I still carry vivid memories of the mid-1970s, and times seeing MPC's Strange Change model kits on shelves in the Toys R Us at Paramus N.J.

There were three kits in all: "The Strange Changing Vampire," "The Strange Changing Mummy" and the one I wanted more than anything, "The Strange Changing Time Machine." 

Basically, each model kit had a kind of switch or flip function, so that two views of the model could be seen.  

The vampire could change forms (from vampire to skeleton) and so could the mummy (from whole to ripped bandages). 

But the time machine was greatest. It had had one view of an inventor operating the gadgetry or instrumentation of the time machine. And the other view showed him getting attacked by dinosaurs, post-time travel.

I guess these Fundimensions kit might be construed as a little gimmicky, but they are great desk-toppers, and vintage curiosities to look at and enjoy.  

I never owned any of these, but I know the kits were all released by Round 2 in 2011. My Dad is a great modeler, so I might ask him to build me (or Joel) a strange changing time machine one of these days...

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Time Machines

A time machine is a (fictional) device or vehicle that transports a traveler (or travelers) to the past or to the future.

Time machines have long been a key factor in science fiction television. 

Perhaps the most famous of all time travel devices is the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space), a vessel -- and life form? -- used by the Gallifreyan time lords in Doctor Who (1963-1989; 2005 - ).   

The TARDIS has been to the dawn of mankind on Earth ("The Unearthly Child") and visited other time periods, past and futuristic. It has been "driven" (if that's the term...) by at least 12 incarnations of the Time Lord known as The Doctor.

Time travel is also a factor in the Star Trek franchise. In the Original Series, Kirk (William Shatner) and his crew must restore Earth's proper time-line using an alien time machine or portal, called the Guardian, in the beloved episode "City on the Edge of Forever."  This portal re-appears in The Animated Series episode "Yesteryear."

Uniquely, the Enterprise herself may be considered a time machine. In episodes such as "The Naked Time," "Tomorrow is Yesterday" and "Assignment: Earth," the starship travels through time, either via a new engine intermix formula, or via a high speed maneuver around a star known as "the slingshot effect."

The same year that Star Trek premiered, 1966, Irwin Allen created a series called The Time Tunnel. The series saw two lost travelers in time moving through various historical eras. In this case, the machine itself was a vast tunnel ensconced in a huge, underground scientific and military complex.

The main time machine of Voyagers! (1982) was far more compact in construction: a hand-held watch device called an "Omni." In this case, the Omni was like a time compass, and had green and red indicator lights to suggest when the time line was accurate, and when it needed repairing by explorers called Voyagers.

In the short-lived Terra Nova (2011), survivors of a doomed future Earth use a gateway/time machine to travel a parallel Earth's "time stream," and the Cretaceous Time Period.

Time machines have also been featured on The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) in episodes such as "Back There."  "The Odyssey of Flight 33" sees a 1960s air-liner serving as an unwitting time machine device, traveling to the prehistoric age.

Time machines have also been featured in the Back to the Future animated series, and such series as Time Trax, and Timecop.

The Cult-TV Faces of: Time Machines

Identified by Hugh: Doctor Who: "The Unearthly Child."

Identified by SGB: The Twilight Zone: "No Time Like the Past."

Identified by Hugh: Star Trek: "City on the Edge of Forever."

Identified by Hugh: The Time Tunnel.

Identified by Hugh: Star Trek: "All Our Yesterdays."

Identified by Duanne: Fonz and the Happy Days Gang.

Identified by Hugh: Voyagers!

Identified by Duanne: The Simpsons.

Identified by Hugh: Back to the Future

Identified by Hugh: Time Trax.

Identified by SGB: Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.

Identified by SGB: The Outer Limits.

Identified by SGB: Star Trek Voyager: "Future's End."

Identified by SGB: Time Cop.

Identified by Hugh: MST-3K

Identified by Hugh: Futurama.

Not Identified (Terra Nova)

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Advert Art: Doctor Who Pinnacle Edition

Tribute 2017: Bill Paxton (1955 - 2017)

Today, I find myself writing another tribute that I thought for certain would not come for many years, or even more than decade from now.

The press has reported today the death of one of my favorite actors, Bill Paxton (1955-2017), an actor who has had the distinction of -- in his long and impressive career -- having fought the Terminator, the Alien, and the Predator. 

That note of trivia only tells a piece of the Bill Paxton story, though it is an important piece for sci-fi and horror fans such as myself.  

Paxton had a small role as a violent punk in James Cameron's The Terminator (1984), a major role, as the highly-quotable Hudson in Aliens (1986), and as a cop he faced off against the predator in L.A. in Predator 2 (1990).

Mr. Paxton collaborated many times with Mr. Cameron, also starring in True Lies (1994) and Titanic (1997), bot huge box office hits of the nineties.

More recently, audiences have enjoyed Mr. Paxton's work in series such as Big Love (2006-2011), and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2014).

Mr. Paxton's other genre credits include such films as Mortuary (1983), Weird Science (1985), Near Dark (1987), Mighty Joe Young (1998), and Edge of Tomorrow (2014).  Outside the genre, he also had unforgettable roles in Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan (1998), and U-571 (2000).

It is terrible to lose Mr. Paxton at the youthful age of 61.  He never failed to bring energy, humor and humanity to his roles. Many of his characters, like Hudson, have become touchstones for a generation of movie (and horror) fans.  

Bill Paxton will be terribly missed, even though his work shall be remembered and appreciated for years to come.

I extend my deepest condolences to his family and friends at this difficult time.

From the Archive: The Unforgettable Doomed Space Missions of Cult-TV

In the vast immensities of cosmic space, bold adventurers streak their way to join battle with strange enemies on strange worlds: the alien, the unknown, perhaps even the invisible, armed only with Man's earthbound knowledge...”

-          The Control Voice narration to “The Invisible Enemy” on The Outer Limits (1964).

One of my a favorite sci-fi and horror sub-genres (due to be explored this summer in Alien: Covenant [2017]) is the failed outer space expedition.   

In stories of this type, courageous astronauts brave the dangers of the void in their rockets and spaceships, and discover not wonders of nature…but the very horrors of Hell itself.

Films have visited this trope in such efforts as Alien (1979), and Europa Report (2013), but this list focuses on TV instead, a realm where the failed space expedition trope has seen many iterations.  

Many cult-television series are actually predicated on the concept of a “failed” space expedition, from Lost in Space (1965 – 1968) and The Starlost (1973 – 1974), to Planet of the Apes (1974 – 1975), Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 – 1981) and Farscape (1999 – 2003). 

Not all those series, however, tread in the terrain of pure terror: the unexpected conjunction of amazing high technology with Gothic “monsters” in an arena that should be reasonable, scientific, and wondrous…but determinedly isn’t.  Highly-trained and resourceful astronauts in these episodes suddenly find themselves confronting things that shouldn't exist at all; things like ghosts, dragons, and vampires.

Other TV series (not featured below) offer variations on the formula, but don’t necessarily focus on spaceships: Doctor Who’s “The Waters of Mars,” for instance, concerns a base on Mars that falls to an implacable alien horror called “The Flood.”  

In terms of categorization, a good “failed space expedition” story not only terrifies, it sets up a high level of danger for those who discover the expedition's aftermath, and must tread (warily…) in its footsteps.

So without further introduction, here are my selections for the five most horrific failed space expeditions in cult-television history. 

To be included on my list, the mission must end in abject failure, and with lots and lots of death and destruction.  

These are my choices, but no doubts others will choose other episodes.

5.The final journey of the U.S.S. Essex (“Power Play,” Star Trek: The Next Generation [1992]):   

Nearly 200 years before the days of NCC-1701-D, a Daedalus class starship called U.S.S. Essex, encounters terror on Mab-Bu IV and is never heard from again. 

When the Enterprise answers its distress call two centuries later, the captain of the Essex and his top crew are reportedly alive, albeit in a strange form.  They “survive” as disembodied “ghosts” inside a planet-wide storm.  

The truth is much more bizarre, however.  The planet is actually a penal colony containing the Ux-Mal’s most monstrous (but non-corporeal) criminals.  The Essex captain and his ship died generations ago, when the prisoners seized the ship, and it failed to escape the planet’s gravity well.

This is one of my all-time favorite Next Generation episodes because it boasts no preachy messages, and the Enterprise crew spends the hour trying to figure out exactly whom it is dealing with when Troi, Data, and O’Brien are apparently possessed by the Essex’s command crew.  

But in terms of the failed space mission premise, I love “Power Play” because it points out the danger of space travel in early Starfleet history.  Here, a starship “boldly went where non had gone” and encountered new life forms of a most malicious variety.  Star Trek isn't a universe where one expects to find "ghosts," but that's a good term for the merciless aliens Picard combats here.  This episode also offers one of the few instances in the series when it is possible to resolve a situation by peaceful diplomacy, and talking to an enemy.

4.The ill-fated mission of the M-1 (“The Invisible Enemy” The Outer Limits [1964]):

In the year 2021, the M-1 rocket lands successfully on Mars.  But this giant step for space exploration ends in terror, when the first astronaut on the Martian surface screams in terror, and then disappears without a trace.  The second astronaut heads out to the surface, and meets the same mysterious fate. 

Six years later, the crew of the M-2 discovers the grisly disposition of those unlucky men.  They encountered dragon-like shark creatures that “swim” the sandy terrain of the red planet.  Now, the four-man crew of the M2 is similarly imperiled by the over-sized, carnivorous beasts. 

This episode of the classic anthology series plays adeptly on the fear that something might exist beneath our very feet, something that could pull us down into the very ground itself, and destroy us.  And the episode’s final revelation -- of a whole school of the sand-sharks laying in wait -- is unforgettable in terms of its imagery.

Here there be dragons...

3. The bizarre fate of the E-89 (“Death Ship,” The Twilight Zone [1961])

This mysterious and unsettling story from the late Richard Matheson occurs in the year 1997, as three astronauts -- Captain Ross (Jack Klugman), Lt. Mason (Ross Martin), and Lt. Carter (Frederic Beir) -- visit a distant planet and are afforded an unwelcome glimpse of their own future.  
On the surface of the planet is a wreckage of a spaceship…their spaceship.  Captain Ross believes that they have somehow "circumnavigated" time and arrived on the planet in their own near future, perhaps as the result of a time warp.  
Now the question remains, how does the ship’s crew avoid a future in which it is fated to die?
Unlike the other stories on this list, “Death Ship” involves no overt “monster.”  There are no sand sharks, ghosts, vampires or other creatures to contend with.  Instead the crew’s nemesis is time itself, and perhaps that is an even scarier enemy.  As I wrote in my review of the episode, "Death Ship" is a great story because it arrives at its shocking ending side-ways.
The episode features all the trappings of futuristic science fiction drama, with discussions of time travel and alien life, but as is so often the case on The Twilight Zone (and in the work of Richard Matheson) the resolution of the enigma involves the very nature of man; the metaphysical not the technological. 
In crafting a tale of a protagonist and captain who sees what he wants to see, and the men who follow him in that (tunnel) vision, Matheson's "Death Ship" takes the mysteries of outer space and links them right back to the essential nature of humanity, right here on Earth. For a time it looks like the story is about "fear -- the "death fear" as one character describes it -- but the tale actually involves the acceptance of the unacceptable in our lives...and in our deaths.
This is one of the darker corners of The Twilight Zone, no doubt.

2. The last voyage of the I.S. Demeter (“Space Vampire” Buck Rogers in the 25th Century [1980])
An unknown presence -- believed to be the “Denebian virus” or “EL7” -- begins to kill the passengers and crew of the I.S. Demeter in “Space Vampire.”   

Although the last survivors hold out hope that they can reach their destination alive, it is not to be.  All hands have perished by the time the vessel passes through Stargate Nine and reaches Theta Station.   Their murderer is a strange vampiric entity called a Vorvon, known in legends for “draining the souls” of the living. 

On Theta Station, Buck (Gil Gerard) watches the Demeter’s captain’s log, and realizes the horror that now lurks on the station. 

The Demeter is named after the ship that transports the un-dead count to England in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and serves much the same purpose in this entry of the 1979-1981 series: setting the stage for the next appearance (and escalation) of a terrifying entity.

Where most episodes of Buck Rogers are light-hearted and breezy (and quite enjoyble so...), an atmosphere of  absolute gloom and dread hangs over "Space Vampire," especially the sections involving the Demeter.  There is an air of ghastly inevitably here as the captain reports death after death, until the Vorvon finally comes for her...

1.The horror of the Ultra Probe (“Dragon’s Domain,” Space:1999 [1975])

It is impossible for me to measure how deeply or profoundly this episode of Space:1999 impacted my psyche when I first saw it as a young lad (at the tender age of five).  I suspect, in fact, that “Dragon’s Domain” is the very production that catalyzed my life-long love of horror and science fiction.

“Dragon’s Domain,” by Christopher Penfold, depicts the tragedy of the ill-fated Ultra Probe, which began its weeks-long voyage to the newly-discovered planet, Ultra, in the year 1996. 

In orbit of the planet, however, the astronaut crew discovers a mysterious “parking lot” of alien spaceships. When docking with one such mystery ship, however, something...alien...gets inside the Ultra Probe (commanded by Tony Cellini), something horrible.

That horrible thing is a tentacled, slimy nightmare that can hypnotize the living, and...then devour them.  But even that isn’t the end of the terror.  After eating the crew, this monster spits out the corpses’ steaming bones from its orange-hot maw.  

The resulting image: a smoldering skeleton on a high-tech spaceship deck, is one that has remained with me my whole life, and captures perfectly the magic of the “failed space expedition story.”

You look at that image (below..) and wonder, how in the cosmos can this happen?  How can mankind achieve his highest aspiration -- the stars themselves – and end up like this? Merely charred food for something unimaginably horrific, unimaginably monstrous?

In the course of “Dragon’s Domain,” Tony Cellini gets a second chance to face his monster, and even when fully seen for a second bout, the creature loses none of his ghastly power.  The creature squirms, wriggles, shoots out fluid (ick…) before consuming its final victim.  In the end, the truth is that the parking lot of spaceships was a spider's web, and that this monster was the spider itself.

The story ends with a final, frightful thought to carry with you into your nightly slumber.  If the astronauts never determined, via their advanced scientific instruments, that the creature was alive... how could anyone be sure that it was really dead?

Alas, fans of failed space expeditions never got the TV sequel to "Dragon's Domain" that this chilling ending so perfectly set-up.

Other contenders for this list include "The Satan Pit," a Doctor Who story in which a team of space miners (again operating from a base, not a ship) excavate a "Beast" that is, in fact, the Devil, and "Planet of Evil," another Doctor Who story set at the edge of the known universe, and featuring an anti-matter universe.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle: Tarzan the Hated"

In “Tarzan, the Hated,” the Mangani accuse Tarzan of destroying their food supplies. 

Tarzan claims innocence. When he investigates, he learns that the Bolgani are actually responsible, and are seeking to re-locate their civilization to the geologically unstable region of Opar, which stands above lava pits.

The Bolmangi capture a human female archaeologist, and now Tarzan must rescue her as well as prevent the relocation to the dangerous land.

The final episode of the first season Filmation series, Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle (1976) is another pleasant enough time waster, with Tarzan battling intelligent apes.  The episode, like “Tarzan’s Trial” incorporates stock footage into it, and the menace of the Emperor Ape is undercut some by the fact he appears to be wearing a pink gown. It's a strange fashion choice for an ape hoping to intimidate.

Although the last few episodes of the season are not as good as some of the earlier installments, and show signs of being produced in a terrible rush, I still feel that Tarzan is a high-quality show of its era. The formula is repetitive and familiar by this episode, and yet some episodes in the canon offer genuine surprise, adding science fiction concepts to the adventure in stories like “Tarzan’s Rival” or “Tarzan and the Strange Visitors.”

The stories are still entertaining at this point, even if no new ground is being broken. We’ve had a season of lost worlds and high adventure, and for Saturday mornings in the 1970s, it must have felt like a dream come true. At a minimum, Tarzan and his world are treated with respect and dignity here.

For that reason, I would rank this show near other Filmation efforts that I like very much, including Star Trek (1973-1975) and Flash Gordon (1979-1981). I certainly appreciate the attempt on the part of Filmation to tell stories that are faithful to Burroughs’ vision, though there have been some missed opportunities too (see: “Tarzan at the Earth’s Core.”)

Next week, I’m going to leave Filmation behind, and visit the weird and wild world of Sid and Marty Krofft’s Liddsville (1970).

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...