Saturday, February 18, 2017

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle: "Tarzan's Trial" (December 18, 1976)

In “Tarzan’s Trial” the alien flying saucer that once visited the jungle returns. It sends out air ships piloted by robotic minions to abduct Tarzan.

Tarzan is forced to submit to a memory scan and a dangerous experiment. In particular, a computer probes his memories so that it can transfer his abilities to the new leader of the aliens. The alien believes that Tarzan's physical and mental capacities would endow him with everything he needs to be a great hero.

Fortunately, Tarzan’s memories are returned to him, and he is able to defeat his extra-terrestrial enemies.

“Tarzan’s Trial” is a cartoon clips show! 

Seriously, Tarzan undergoes a memory scan in this episode, and his thoughts -- visualized as clips from earlier shows (such as “Tarzan’s Rival”) -- are displayed on a screen to represent his cleverness, agility and cunning. Only about sixty percent of the material in the episode is new.

Worse, Tarzan doesn’t prove himself victorious in a compelling way. Instead, the alien leader’s body “rejects” the foreign memories, and return, apparently, to Tarzan.  I didn’t realize that memories can leave the brain, fly away and, failing to find a home, fly or migrate back to their original owner.

The message of “Tarzan’s Trial” is simple and straightforward. The alien leader erred when he attempted to become just like Tarzan. Instead, we all must learn to “appreciate our own talents.”

Next week, the final Tarzan episode of season one (and the last episode I’ll cover for the time being): “Tarzan, the Hated.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: The Ghost Busters: "Dr. Whatsisname" (September 13, 1975)

The second episode of Filmation's Ghost Busters (1975) is titled "Dr. Whatsisname."  

In this tale, the spirit of Dr. Frankenstein (Bernie Kopell) and that of his famous monster (Bill Engesser) materialize in the graveyard near the ghost busters' office.

Frankenstein is tired of his monster making stupid mistakes, and wants to replace his brain with the "most gullible brain in the world," so his orders will be followed. 

Lo and behold, that gullible brain belongs to Spenser (Larry Storch). 

Dr. Frankenstein and the Monster set out to capture Spenser, but fail.  

Proving his gullibility, Spenser finds them, instead, at the castle in the graveyard, and Kong (Forest Tucker) and Tracy (Bob Burns) must save their friend before brain transplant surgery occurs.

The term sophomoric can't even begin to describe this episode of the live-action Saturday morning series, The Ghost Busters.  

The episode features fights using cream pies, jokes about a gorilla's heritage, and the spirits of famous mad scientist Dr. Frankenstein, and his monster. In the former case, the good doctor is portrayed by Bernie Kopell, who seems intent on repeating his Siegried shtick from Get Smart (1965-1970).

Siegfried was funny, in part, because of the rapport between Kopell and Don Adams. There is no real corollary here. He's acting in his own little world, resurrecting an act that was once popular, but feels odd in isolation.

The same corridor gag from last week also gets repeated here, with the ghost busters being chased through the same castle. I guess that's supposed to be a joke too. The same castle every week! You have to admire the gall of the production company, using the same flimsy set for each episode, and then commenting slyly on it.  

I realize a lot of people grew up with the show, and feel nostalgia towards it, but I don't yet see the appeal of the characters or the situation.  The jokes are funny only on a sub-moronic level.  

That said, I did enjoy the under-the-radar reference connecting Tracy to King Kong (1933): "Don't mention the Empire State Building. His grandfather had a very unhappy experience there."

Perhaps I'd feel a little bit better about the series, or more fondly disposed to it, if I felt that some thought went into stories like this one. For instance, it's really unwieldy that Dr. Frankenstein and his monster appear here as ghosts, and can miraculously bring all the objects of his old laboratory with him.  They travel a lot, open doors, operate lab equipment, and so forth. So they don't *seem* like ghosts.

So it's just weird that these characters are supposed to be ghosts, and easy to forget that they are supposed to be ghosts. Why not just famous monsters?  

But the problem is there is no thought devoted in the show to what being a ghost means, or what the limits or parameters of a ghost's powers could be.

If you tell me I am expecting too much here from a 1970s kids show, I need only to direct your attention to Land of the Lost, Ark II, Space Academy, or Star Trek: The Animated Series, which managed not insult the intelligence of children or adults. 

Here, for instance, Kong says, off-handedly, that his ghost-busting weapon will zap the evil ghost doctor and his monster away for five hundred years. 

Why five hundred years? Is it a time-displacement weapon? 

This is a line that demands some explanation, or background.  Of course, if you go down this route, you start asking all the other questions the show doesn't answer. Who built the ghost busting devices? Who is Zero? Why are two men hanging out with an ape?

Next week: "The Canterville Ghost."

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Films of 1960: Dinosaurus!

True confessions: I loved, loved, loved, loved this movie.

When I was six years old.

Each time Jack H. Harris's Dinosaurus! aired on the local TV station in 1975 or 1976 (I can't remember whether it was WPIX or WWOR...), I was there.

I was there with my plastic dinosaur toys clutched in my hands and my Aurora dinosaur model kits (built by my Dad) in tow. You couldn't drag me away from the TV. 


I was deep in my extended dinosaur appreciation phase when this movie was making the TV rerun rounds, and Dinosaurus! -- in case the title didn't give it away -- is a film all about a Tyrannosaurus Rex and Brontosaur. These giant lizards wake up on an isolated island in the tropics in 1960 and promptly wreak havoc until a visceral man vs. nature coup de grace with a bulldozer

Next to King Kong, Godzilla, The Last Dinosaur, or The Land That Time Forgot, this was as good as it got for kids in the seventies pre-Star Wars.

Today, the film simply doesn’t have much appeal. Time has passed it by, which, ironically, is the movie's theme.

Dinosaurus! (don't forget the exclamation point, please...) concerns an American construction company working on the Virgin Islands to build a new harbor for the locals. The "locals," by the way, consist of Irish drunks, a Cuban villain called Hacker, and his French-sounding henchman, not to mention assorted Latinos and black extras. Oh, and lest I forget, there's also a mental midget named "Dumpy," who -- for some reason  never explained -- is allowed to handle heavy machinery (not to mention Molotov Cocktails).

One day, a lovely and plucky gal named Betty (Kristina Hanson) happens into the harbor in a motorboat while hunky construction team leader Bart Thompson (Ward Ramsey) is detonating explosives nearby. An explosion knocks Betty's picnic lunch into the water, and she dives in after it.

Unfortunately, she finds not lunch, but a giant hibernating Tyrannosaur. It appears to be dead -- or mostly dead, anyway -- but is "perfectly preserved." The explanation given is that there's a cold subterranean channel down there, just off the beach.

In the tropics?

The construction workers then drag the dinosaur out of the sea, up to the beach alongside a companion: a perfectly preserved brontosaur.

"One look at them and you'll never forget them!" declares one character in description of the dinosaurs. He's right, of course. Because when lightning strikes the slumbering dinosaurs (as well, apparently, as a slumbering cave man...), the behemoths come to life and begin walking the island in full view. 

And once you've seen them...I promise, you won't forget them, either. The special effects were created by Wah Chung and Gene Warren (who later collaborated on Land of the Lost), two greats of the film industry, actually. They do great work on a budget, and for the time. And yet, to go back to the kind of comment I made this week about Ray Harryhausen’s Valley of the Gwangi, the effects don't really hold up very well today, even though I appreciate the 1960s era artistry.

Soon, the unfrozen cave man, played by Gregg Martell, is exploring the island. Right off the bat, he finds a hatchet and ends up smashing the only working radio in a thousand miles. He also confronts a 20th century woman in rollers and facial lotion...and runs screaming away like a little girl.  This is the film’s idea of comic relief.  Today, it plays as very juvenile.

While the Neanderthal goes in search of his two unfrozen buddies, the islanders -- led by Bart and Betty -- team up and decide to make a last stand at the local ruins. They dig a moat around an ancient fortress and wait for the tyrannosaur to show up. Meanwhile, local politician and villain, Hacker thinks he could get rich off the Neanderthal...

So, we have a comment here about avarice and greed in a capitalist system.  Or that may be giving Dinosaurus! too much credit.

Before Dinosaurus! has ended, there's a noble self-sacrifice on the part of the cave man, the brontosaur fails to elude fate, and ends up dying in quick sand, and Bart goes mano-e-mano with the T-Rex from the seat of a bull-dozer.

He doesn't exactly say "Get away from her, you bitch," but Bart utilizes the mechanical device to duel the dinosaur to a standstill, clubbing the beastie off a high mountainside with the scoop bucket. Young Julio, who had befriended the Neanderthal, is sad, but Bart explains to him how confusing it can be to wake-up with a million-year hangover.

Imagine you woke up one day in the twenty-first century, Bart offers, by way of explanation, to Julio.

Or, if you are me -- seeing this movie for the first time in forty something years -- imagine you were a kid and loved this movie and then woke up one day in the twenty-first century to realize how ridiculous and silly the whole thing is.

Because that's what happened with Dinosaurus! I told one of my friends I was going to watch the movie and how much it had meant to me as a child, and he said something along the lines of "why are you going to do that? Why do you want to ruin good memories?"

Unlike, say King Kong (1933) or Godzilla: King of Monsters (1956) - Dinosaurus! doesn't really hold up to adult scrutiny. It's a perfectly adequate time-waster and B movie, but I can't make any arguments for the artistic merit of the film, and boy does that bum me out. I wish I could write a review about how the movie goes beyond its 1960s context to speak to us, here, directly in the twenty-first century.

I will always feel fondly about Dinosaurus! because it was a movie I loved and needed at age six.  I also understand, as an adult, that nostalgia and quality are two different characteristics.  I have long felt nostalgia about Dinosaurus! but that doesn’t mean it is a quality film worth revisiting today.

Still, as the movie started to play on this viewing, I felt a funny pang. 

I wished I had my old plastic dinosaurs and model kits in hand for the experience.

Movie Trailer: Dinosaurus! (1960)

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Logan's Run 40th Anniversary Blogging: "Crypt" (November 7, 1977)

The seventh episode of the short-lived 1977-1978 Logan's Run TV series is also the best. "Crypt" comes from a story by Harlan Ellison (teleplay by Al Hayes), and the installment is directed by Michael Caffey.

In “Crypt,” Logan, Jessica and REM drive their solar craft into an honest-to-goodness destroyed metropolis this time -- a ruined modern city, not just the California countryside.

REM informs his friends that the poison air killed most of the people there, not the bombs. In one of the buildings, the threesome discovers a recorded message from March of 2120. A very sick woman explains that the last survivors of the scientific community -- six chosen people -- are frozen in cryogenic units in the basement.

Though they are alive, they suffer from a plague that arose after the thermonuclear war. Fortunately, there are still two vials of serum left; enough for all six scientists. The staff died and a door malfunctioned before the scientists could be saved. Now, the woman leaving the message begs for the visitors to complete her mission.

After fixing the stuck door, Logan, Jessica and REM head for the crypt in the basement to revive humanity's last hope, only to endure a terrible tremor. In the earthquake, one of the vials of antidote is destroyed, meaning that only enough serum remains to save three of the all-important scientists.

Logan and his friends awaken all six sleepers, but now must decide which three will survive. Among the choices: a robotics expert (Neva Patterson), a bureaucrat/administrator (Liam Sullivan), a telekinetic (Soon-Teck-Oh), a medical doctor (Ellen Preston), an engineer (Christopher Stone), and a young scientist, Sylvia Reynes (Adrienne La Russa).

While Logan and Jessica interview the awakened scientists to determine who should live and who must die, REM discovers an alarming fact from the facility's computers: one of the scientists is actually an imposter.

And then a murder occurs. The administrator, Lyman, is murdered, but the crime is made to look like an accident.

One of the scientific minds of the future is not merely a fake, but a murderer, willing to resort to criminal behavior to survive.

Now, Logan and Jessica's task takes on an even greater significance. If they choose wrongly, a murderer will decide the future of humanity!

No argument about it: "Crypt" the best Logan's Run episode, just nosing out Noah Ward's "Man out of Time." For once, Logan and Jessica actually have something critically important to do: choose the path of the future.

If they choose wrong in this situation, their world could face the repercussions for generations.

More to the point, the writers of this episode put the mission into a kind of personal context for Logan, a world-view which generally seems missing from the series. Here, Logan sees this predicament in very human, very specific terms relating to his tenure in the City of the Domes. There, as he points out, a select handful of people (The council of the Elders) chose who lived and who died, deciding on an arbitrary date of termination (the age of thirty).

Now Logan is put in the position of making such a choice himself, and doesn't want to be arbitrary like that, or choose unwisely. The question here is: do moral obligations still exist (as one character asks)? 

And more importantly, what are those moral obligations? "Crypt" answers that question in a dynamic way that actually seems to reflect how Logan, given his experiences, would feel.

Logan reacts violently and emotionally when he is confronted with the murderer. He is able to contextualize this murder in terms of his own experience. “I left the City of Domes to find a place” without murder as a means to an end, he tells the killer.

It is also clear from this episode that REM, by far, is the character that the writers seemed to enjoy writing for the most. Here, the kindly android not only gets his feelings hurt at one point, but steps into the role of a mechanical Sherlock Holmes in order to solve the locked room (or closed crypt) mystery.

Using deductive reasoning and his intellect (and his understanding of human nature), REM comes to his conclusion about the identity of the killer, and in classic mystery fashion gathers all the suspects together to declare his findings. 

Afterwards, one of the scientists claims that REM's reward for ferreting out the murder should be a city named after him. "REMSville," REM suggests. Or even better, "REMsylvania."

Because it has a sense of humor, because the episode is about more than a straw man society easily toppled, because the episode stops to think about Logan's point of view, "Crypt" is quite an entertaining and valuable hour of this series.  It demonstrates, truly, the potential that this 40 year old series had.

Still, even in its finest installment, the Logan’s Run formula proves limiting. 

Here, Logan and Jessica and REM have a real task to accomplish: to help these scientists rebuild the world. They could serve as their security, their assistants, or even their guides in the post-apocalyptic ruins.  Instead, formula insists that our heroes must run off, drive away, and leave the important task of world-building behind.  For what?

Again, some hazy concept of “Sanctuary.” 

The very format is flawed not only because it requires the three protagonists to go on traveling forever (or until they find Sanctuary). But because requires them to leave people in need, rebuilding society, all in favor of a fantasy. 

It would be nice if Logan and the other started building a Sanctuary for all mankind to prosper from, instead of just running off to a place that is already up and running, that they believe will harbor them.

Cult-TV Movie Review: A Cold Night's Death (January 30, 1973)

A scientist named Vogel who is station at the Summit Research Station atop snowy Tower Mountain, mysteriously goes radio quiet after communicating erratically. Specifically, his final transmission involves the claim that he is in communication with Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Augustus Caesar, and other historical leaders.

Two other scientists, Robert Jones (Robert Culp) and Frank Enari (Eli Wallach) are assigned to investigate Vogel’s silence, and continue with his research, which involves subjecting chimpanzees to extreme environmental stress. 

The mission is the work of NASA, which wants to understand how different environmental stresses may impact astronauts on long-term space voyages.

Once they research the station with their helicopter pilot, Robert and Frank discover Vogel locked in the base’s electronics room… and frozen to death.  His corpse is is taken away by the helicopter pilot for investigation back home.

The laboratory, meanwhile, has been ransacked, or overturned.

Robert and Frank acquaint themselves with the facility and clean it up. They also acquaint themselves with the apes -- Aggie, Gengi, Allie, and Geronimo -- and resume experiments on them. Before long, however, strange events begin to occur. Windows are left open at night, freezing the pipes, for instance.

Suspicion grows between Frank and Robert, as if some force is pitting them against one another.  When Robert gets locked out from the base, he fears he knows the answer.  But Frank has grown violent, and pulls a gun on him…

“There’s nothing unnatural here. Or supernatural. There’s just you and me.”

A Cold Night’s Death (1973), a TV-movie that aired on ABC in the early 1970s, is a spare, contained and very effective horror piece. The film’s virtues involve the heightened senses of claustrophobia and isolation it carefully nurtures, and, not least of all, a creepy electronic score from Gil Melle that makes the action all the more unsettling.

After one watches the film, one may not feel totally satisfied as to the nature of the mystery on Tower Mountain, at the Summit Research Base, but in this case, the destination may not be quite as important as the journey is.  

In this regard, director Jerrold Freedman provides many shots of darkened corridors or laboratories, anticipating John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), and on the soundtrack is the ever-present howl of an arctic wind. The film succeeds as an anxiety-provoking, slow-burn kind of horror film.

It’s true that some of the exterior sequences don’t hold up well today, with the snowstorms realized by (obvious) double exposures, but this limitation hardly matters.  Instead, A Cold Night’s Death comes alive by settling down in that dark, creepy base, and buffeting the facility (and its inhabitants) with relentless wind and snow. 

It’s clear that Robert and Frank can’t expect help, as they are far removed from civilization. And it is equally plain that they can’t go far from the base, without risking their lives. In one of the climactic moments, Robert finds himself locked outside the base, and realizes he will die within fifteen minutes, from exposure to the environment. Desperately, he seeks a way inside, and the tension ramps up.

This is also a story of two men who, dealing with isolation and claustrophobia, come to view each other suspiciously.  Actually, they begin to view each other with sheer paranoia.  Robert is convinced that some “unseen force” killed Vogel. Frank is convinced, however, that Robert is running an experiment on him, trying to get him to believe that theory.  Robert is arrogant. Frank is defensive.  It is a fatal chemistry they share.

Another reason that A Cold Night’s Death succeeds involves the fact that, for a good, long while, the audience can’t be certain who is right.  

Is there an unseen force at work? Or did Vogel go crazy, with Robert and Frank following suit?

When the answer arrives, it is satisfactory, certainly, but my favorite part of a mystery is never the solution, but rather the set-up. Here, if you’ve seen the film, you’ll remember the answer: the chimps are experimenting on the scientists, much as the scientists have been experimenting on them.

If you think about it more deeply, the film truly involves circles within circles, or layers within layers.  Scientists conduct experiments involving extreme conditions on the chimpanzees, unaware that because of their location and altitude (as well as the intelligence of the apes), they are similarly being subjected to a test involving extreme conditions.  It’s an intriguing narrative circle, and the film’s final shots are actually, terrifying, because of the loop they close.

One scientist has killed another scientist, out of paranoia and fear. The survivor goes to the electronics room -- where Vogel died -- to contact help.  Too late, he witnesses the door closing, and locking, trapping him inside, in a room exposed to the outdoors.  Then, a face rises into the window pane of the door.  It is an inhuman, or primate face.

Considering the movie’s setting, it’s appropriate to call the final punctuation of the film “chilling.”  It definitely reflects Frank’s line that “there’s nothing unnatural here, or supernatural.” That much is true. However, his next comment is wrong: “There’s just you and me.”

Clearly, he didn’t factor in the chimpanzees, who all boast the names of brilliant leaders and tacticians. In this way, the story may be about human arrogance or vanity. Frank and Robert never even entertain the only other possible source of the strange events in the lab: the chimpanzees.  In the final shot of the film, we see what a mistake this is, as man is led into a trap by the apes.

There isn’t a great deal of action or thrills in A Cold Night’s Death, and it has been termed “talky” and “ponderous” by genre scholars. And yet the finale is perfectly executed, and perfectly prepared for.  It may feature what some deem a preposterous ending, but at least the ending isn’t a betrayal of anything the audience sees, or is told.

Watching A Cold Night’s Death, I must again reflect on how remarkable many of these 1970s horror TV-movies truly are.  In terms of resources and budget, they have nearly nothing to offer. In terms of special effects, again, there’s nothing to see here.  

But so many of these films, this one included, master a real sense of unease, and discomfort.  There’s something subtly terrifying and disturbing about every moment this film. Even more than 40 years later, the sounds (thank you, Gil Melle...) and frozen sights of A Cold Night's Death will leave you mesmerized until the final revelation.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Wizard of Oz Coloring Book

Wizard of Oz Colorforms (Off to See the Wizard)

Trading Cards of the Week: The Wizard of Oz (Pacific)

Halloween Costumes: The Wizard of Oz (Ben Cooper)

GAF Viewmaster: Wizard of Oz

Board Game of the Week: The Wizard of Oz (Cadaco)

Lunch Box of the Week: The Wizard of Oz

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "By Any Other Name" (February 23, 1968)

Stardate 4657.5

The U.S.S. Enterprise answers a distress call from an uninhabited M-class world, only to be waylaid by an advance scouting mission from the Kelvan Empire, a powerful political force in the distant Andromeda Galaxy.

The Kelvans are led by Rojan (Warren Stevens), a commander who uses his people’s advanced technology to reduce the vast majority of the Enterprise crew to cuboctahedron blocks. These small blocks store their patterns for later restoration, leaving only the command crew intact.

Rojan’s plan is to take the Enterprise through the barrier at the edge of the galaxy, to Andromeda, a trip which will take 300 years.

However, to make this lengthy journey, Rojan and his people have assumed human form, and Captain Kirk (William Shatner) realizes that with human form comes human emotions.  With the help of his crew, Kirk seeks to sow emotional instability in the Kelvans and re-take the ship.

To that end, Scotty (James Doohan) introduces one Kelvan, Tomar, to alcoholic beverages. Meanwhile, Kirk sets his sight on seducing Kelinda (Barbara Bouchet), an act which stokes Rojan’s feelings of jealousy...

I can -- and will -- the count the ways that I absolutely love “By Any Other Name,” an episode from Star Trek’s (1966-1969) late second season. 

This season sees many attempts at overt humor (from “I, Mudd” to “A Piece of the Action” and “The Trouble with Tribbles”) but in some ways, this episode -- from Jerome Bixby and D.C. Fontana -- best transmits the series’ sense of humor without going overboard into silliness or over-the-top performances.

The episode’s good humor derives, specifically, from an acknowledgment of the crew’s human foibles, and the way that the characters deploy those foibles to extract themselves from a crisis.

To put it another way, the way that the crew defeat their enemies in “By Any Other Name” is to bring their own special quirks and gifts to the problem. We have seen this formula work again and again in Star Trek, in The Search for Spock (1984), The Voyage Home (1986) and recently in Star Trek: Beyond (2016). 

Here, Kirk, Spock, Scotty and McCoy each get to be at their mischievous, ornery, cunning, hilarious best in order to knock down the antagonists of the week. It’s true that aliens who don’t understand human emotions are a familiar trope in sci-fi TV, but that scenario nonetheless allows for some great comedy in “By Any Other Name.”  

Scotty drinks Tomar under the table, (and utters the famous line “it’s….green,” regarding some alien type of alcohol), and Kirk -- of course -- goes for the pretty lady, teaching Belinda to kiss.  This is a lesson he has taught before (see “The Gamesters of Triskelion.”)

Spock, meanwhile, dispassionately and logically gets to Rojan, spurring his jealousy and paranoia.  And Dr. McCoy enacts a little medical tomfoolery on Hanar (Stewart Moss) that has the poor Kelvan climbing up the walls and becoming a hypochondriac.

In the end, these efforts enough to retake the ship, and a thorough victory for Kirk and his crew.  The humor is adroit too, particularly in the climactic moment when Rojan hurls Kirk into Spock and Bones in the briefing room doorway 

They catch him, and Kirk says “I’m stimulating him.”

Delightfully, they heave Kirk right back into the thick of the fight, to continue his campaign of emotional overload.

But if the comedy works so well in “By Any Other Name,” and clearly, it does, the episode succeeds too on a few other fronts.  Namely invention and continuity.

On the subject of invention, this episode presents the unforgettable notion of transforming human beings into small cuboctahedrons which can store their biological information.  The special effects are powerful in the depiction of these (delicate) blocks, as we see beloved characters (including Chekov and Uhura) reduced to these powdery things.  

And, of course, we are introduced to the small blocks through one of the nastiest reveals ever to be featured on Star Trek.

Specifically, on the planet’s surface, Yeoman Thompson (Julie Cobb) and a security guard Lt Shea (Carl Byrd), are reduced to the cuboctahedrons, and one block is crushed by Rojan.  When the survivor is restored, we see that it is the male, Shea, meaning that the young, frightened Yeoman Thompson was the victim.  This moment carries tremendous impact both in terms of establishing Kirk’s feelings of responsibility, and the power of the Kelvans.

In terms of continuity, “By Any Other Name” clearly remembers a great deal of Star Trek history. For example, the incidents on Eminiar 7 (from “A Taste of Armageddon”) are recalled here, as Spock attempts to place a (false) thought into the mind of a captor, Kelinda. 

Later, the Enterprise leaves the galaxy, and encounters the barrier seen in the pilot episode, “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” This is an especially nice touch, from a continuity standpoint. The Enterprise looked different,  and the crew had different uniforms (and in some cases, different jobs) in that story.  This episode suggests, however, that they still take place in the same universe, meaning that Starfleet boasts a history of updating its technology, uniforms, ships and so forth.   The universe seems more "real" because of these developments, at least in my eyes.

I also find “By Any Other Name” worthwhile because of one particular scenario involving Kirk and his top officers.  They have all agreed that the Enterprise cannot remain in Kelvan hands. Accordingly, Scotty has rigged the engines to explode on contact with the barrier at the edge of the galaxy, when Kirk gives the order.  

When the fateful moment comes, Kirk does not give the order.

This could be interpreted as weakness, perhaps. The other officers are ready to make the sacrifice of their lives and their ships. 

But Captain Kirk does not ask for that sacrifice. Instead, he realizes that it is better to live to fight another day.  This strategic thinking is a key aspect of Kirk’s character, I would say.  Where some officers with more limited imagination would take the “safe” way out, and destroy the ship and crew, Kirk does not limit his thinking. He looks ahead to the possibilities, and the chance that additional time will give him a new option. He doesn’t play a zero sum game, but instead seeks…alternatives.

All the guest performances in this episode, from Stevens and Moss to Bouchet, hit exactly the right notes, and it is a pleasure to watch the Enterprise command crew get under the Kelvans' (thin) skins.  As for the series regular, in this case they manage some deft comedy without going overboard, or lurching into self-parody. The episode never becomes a lightweight comedy. Instead, "By Any Other Name" is a serious story with very real comedic moments and overtones. 

I know “By Any Other Name” isn’t generally regarded as a great episode of the series, but I still feel it’s an immensely accomplished hour of Star Trek, for all the reasons I’ve listed.

Next week, something totally different: “The Omega Glory.”

The Films of 1969: The Valley of Gwangi

The Valley of Gwangi (1969) is a fantasy adventure from a bygone epoch of filmmaking, perhaps even one that might, today, be described as prehistoric.

This colorful film mixes Western tropes with “lost worlds of fantasy” tropes, and is punctuated by visual effects from maestro Ray Harryhausen (1920 – 2013). These special effects were considered not merely extraordinary in their day, but state-of-the-art, as well. The film -- a project Harryhausen inherited from his mentor, Willis O’Brien -- is shot via a process termed, grandly, “Dynamation.” 

What that means, basically, is that the film’s dinosaurs (and elephants, at one point) are rendered via stop-motion animation.

Like many of you, at least presumably, I grew up with the wondrous cinematic works of Ray Harryhausen, including The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), Mysterious Island (1961), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), and Clash of the Titans (1981), to name just a handful. 

And when I was young, The Valley of Gwangi was on TV all the time.  Or at least it seemed that way.

I screened the film again for this review, in 2017, and came away with the uncomfortable feeling that in comparison to those other titles, The Valley of Gwangi is a bit lacking.  The story is very derivative and familiar; essentially a retelling of King Kong (1933). 

And the human protagonists are not particularly appealing or likeable characters.  On the contrary, they seemed designed to be cynical and flawed.  This may have been an attempt to make the film play as more adult and realistic, but the result is that there is no central character -- no Sinbad, Captain Nemo, Jason or Perseus for example -- to serve as a focal point of audience identification.

The visual effects, of course, are remarkable for their day and time, and wholly products of their 1969 context.  One can (and should) admire the artistry that went into the creation of the film’s major set-pieces. And yet today, we don’t believe that dinosaurs moved the way they do here.  Today, we see the flaws in the animation; namely that foregrounds are sharp and distinct and the backgrounds appear washed out and less distinct.

These facts established, at least one visual effects shot here is an undisputed masterpiece, and highly influential in terms of its execution.

It’s always difficult to review the films of one’s youth, and assess that time may be starting to pass them by.  Yet The Valley of Gwangi, despite its cult-status, seems a bit plodding and lacking thrills in 2017.

My father used to say it is not good to dig up the past.”

At the turn of the century, in Mexico, a gypsy, Miguel, dies while bringing back a rare treasure from the Forbidden Valley: an eohippus, or miniature horse.  An older gypsy woman (Freda Jackson) warns her son, Carlos (Gustavo Rojo) that the animal must be returned to the valley, lest a curse befall all of them.

Elsewhere, a smooth-talking cowboy, Tuck Kirby (James Franciscus) visits an old flame, T.J. Breckinridge (Gila Golan) who is now starring in a cheap, poorly attended rodeo show in Mexico. They were once lovers, but Tuck has returned not to rekindle old flames, but to negotiate a fair price for T.J.’s show horse.

When Carlos gives T.J. the eohippus, she realizes that she now possesses an attraction that will make her rich.  Meanwhile, however, a paleontologist named Bromley (Laurence Naismith) wants to learn where the eohippus came from. He hires horse rustlers to steal the miniature horse and release it, so it will lead him to its home, to the Forbidden Valley.

A party consisting of Bromley, Carlos, and eventually Tuck and T.J. follows the horse to the secret valley. There, they encounter a pterosaur, a Styracosaurus, and a hungry Allosaurus.  When the Allosaur follows them out of the valley, they resolve to bring “Gwangi” back to civilization, making it an attraction at the wild west show.

That decision, however, has unforeseen and disastrous consequences.

“Until he is returned, a great evil will fall upon us.”

It is not difficult to see how The Valley of Gwangi mimics very closely the basic outline of King Kong (1933).  A group of adventurers (related to show-business) visit a secluded or remote area where prehistoric monsters dwell.  Once there, they discover that one beast dominates the others (either Kong or Gwangi), and tussle with the beast.  After some adventurers, the great beast is subdued (either by gas grenades or lasso), and returned to civilization.

Back at civilization, the caged beast is seen as a moneymaker at first. On opening day, however, it breaks from restraints and goes on a killing spree.  In King Kong, Kong is heralded as the “eighth wonder of the world.” Here, Gwangi is described similarly, as “the living wonder of the prehistoric world.”

The differences between tales are intriguing, however, to consider. Kong is an attraction in New York City, on Broadway, basically. Gwangi is an attraction on the edge or outskirts of show-business, at an under-attended wild-west show.  The result in both cases, however, is the death and destruction of that which was brought back from nature, from the wild. Something unique, in both situations, as a result of human selfishness or avarice.

As I noted in my introduction, it is fair to state that the lead protagonists in most Harryhausen films, and in King Kong as well, are colorful and dynamic. In the case of most Harryhausen films, the central characters are figures of myth, or great literature. We identify and side with them because of the larger-than-life heroism of characters like Sinbad, or Perseus, or Jason.  In Kong, we identify with the love story between Jack and Ann Darrow.  And though Denham is exploitive, we also view him as a hero, as a man on the edge of a great new frontier.

The Valley of Gwangi goes out of its way not to sentimentalize or mythologize the film’s heroes. On one hand, that’s a fascinating idea.  On the other hand, it robs the film of a central point of identification.  Tuck has returned to Mexico not to write a moral wrong (his treatment of T.J.) but to negotiate a transaction with her.  T.J. realize she loves Tuck and wants to live with him on a ranch, when he suggests it…until she realizes she could make a ton of money exploiting the eohippus. 

And Professor Bromley, a man of science, hires people to steal the miniature horse, so it will lead him to the Forbidden Valley. 

In some way, they are all quite cynical, all quite flawed.

Again, one might claim that this is merely a realistic rather than glamorous portrayal of mankind, and I won’t argue the point. However, by the same token, there’s nobody likeable or honorable in the picture, either, which makes it, to some degree, less compelling as a visceral experience. We’re less invested in the characters’ survival, because we don’t care deeply for them, or about them. Even Gwangi is less identifiable and relatable a figure than was Kong. Kong had flashes of emotions and feelings that we all recognize.  Gwangi doesn’t elicit the same feelings.

The Valley of Gwangi’s special effects earn respect and admiration, even though today we recognize them as not being quite photo-real. At least two sequences are still quite extraordinary: the battle with the Styracosaurus, and the scene in which Gwangi is lassoed and brought to the ground by the cowboys. Both scenes still rivet the attention.

The scene that became a major influence on dinosaur cinema, however, goes by almost unnoticed. It’s so real and so right that it feels almost like an after-thought (though it isn’t).  I refer to the scene in which a fleeing Ornithomimus runs across frame, only to be caught and killed in the jaws of Gwangi. This moment is repeated, almost as a film quote, in a Jurassic Park (1993) scene featuring a T-Rex and a Gallimimus.

Unlike Lope’s father in The Valley of Gwangi, I don’t believe it is “not good to dig up the past.”  There is still value in The Valley of Gwangi, for certain, and yet I don’t now consider it a classic in the same league as many other Harryhausen films.