Saturday, April 08, 2017

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Lidsville: "Let's Hear it For Whizzo"

Chief Sitting Duck gives Mark (Butch Patrick) and Weenie (Billie Hayes) a map of a trail that should lead Mark back home (though it leads through the Hair Forest) 

Mark says his sad goodbyes to Lidsville, but after he leaves, Hoo-Doo (Charles Nelson Reilly) and his minions strike.

They evict all the people of town for not paying back taxes, and threaten them with magical reprisals -- zaps -- if they don’t obey.

Mark learns what has occurred back at Lidsville and returns to town immediately. Once he meets with his friends, he realizes he must “out magic” the magician, to keep Hoo-Doo scared and prevent him from returning for his tax money.

Coming up with a plan, Mark and the others create an alter-ego for Mark: Whizzo, a “first rate” magician with powers to challenge anyone.

At high-noon, Whizzo challenges Hoo-Doo to a magic duel, but Mark’s powers are all tricks created by Weenie and the others.

The fifth episode of Lidsville (1971-1973) may be its most entertaining one yet. In this story, Mark and the denizens of “the world of hats” strike back against the overbearing Hoo-Doo.  The rub is that they have to do so without benefit of magic, instead resorting to tricks, gimmicks and illusions.  So Mark goes in disguise as “Whizzo,” and actually beats Hoo-Doo at his own game.

This set-up proves that team-work may be more powerful than destructive forces, and simultaneously exposes Hoo-Doo as a coward.  The scenes involving Hoo-Doo and Mark “dueling” are well-done, and tons of fun. There are lots of pyrotechnics, jokes, and even a little tensions (when Weenie is late detonating fireworks).

I also find quite fascinating the central threat of this episode. Hoo-Doo wants to collect back taxes, and “forecloses” on all the properties of Lidsville. 

In other words, he is a heartless representative of the modern -- or 1970s -- tax state. John Fenton Murray, the author of this story, could have picked any motivation for Hoo-Doo to kick people out of their homes. He could have wanted territory, or he could have wanted to build something.  Instead, we get him as a wicked tax collector!

Lidsville is a Saturday morning series, but it’s clear that the makers of the show understood that some adults were watching. Why else the comical threat of an aggressive, zap-happy tax collector?  Future episodes return to this covert commentary on modern politics.

Finally, one last note. “Let’s Hear it for Whizzo” does a superb job of juxtaposing Hoo-Doo’s cowardice with Mark’s heroism. Mark might know a way home (which, of course, he promptly forgets next episode…) but he doesn’t take advantage of it. He doesn’t think of himself first. Instead, he goes back to help his friends. 

By contrast, Hoo-Doo runs away from a challenge, tail tucked between his legs.

Next week: “Is There a Mayor in The House?”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: The Ghost Busters: "Which Witch is Witch?" (October 25, 1975)

A witch (Ann Morgan Guilbert) and her minion, Gronk (Huntz Hall) materialize in the graveyard on the outskirts of town.

There, they plot their sinister revenge against “you know how,” the witch-hunter who sent them to the Great Beyond centuries centuries earlier, at the Salem Witch trials.

Unfortunately, the spirits have to settle for the witch hunter’s descendant: Spenser (Larry Storch).  

The witch disguises herself as the lovely Salem (Leigh Christian) to lead Spenser to his doom…

At one point in “Which Witch is Which?,” an episode of Filmation’s The Ghost Busters (1975), a character notes significantly that “history repeats itself.”

Well, so do episodes of this series!

Once more, we get a formulaic story that trots through all the oft-told jokes. 

Let’s do a catalog.

We open in the grave-yard and the threat of the week appears. This threat (a ghost and sidekick) spies the castle and decides to settle down there. 

Then, we go to the Ghost Busters office, and Spenser and Tracy do something crazy (like magic tricks, jogging, or whatever the gimmick of the week is).

This mischief requires Kong (Forrest Tucker) to shoo the duo away to get the message of the week from the Mysterious Zero.  He says something along the lines of “go get our next ghost busting assignment.” Then we get the driving gag, and the self-destructing tape gag.  The tape always self-destructs in five seconds, and always explodes on Tracy, leaving him a mess. This week, the tape is in a kitchen sink.

Then it’s back to the office for more research, and we get the next gag: the file-cabinet gag.  (I have to confess, I often find this one the funniest, for some reason). Basically, Spenser can’t open the file cabinet properly. It’s a battle of wills between Spenser and…the cabinet.

Then we’re off to the castle, and the final battle with the ghosts. The antagonists are finally zapped back to the Great Beyond with the ghost de-materializer, and we get one more comedic scene at the office, before the end credits roll.

This is what happens in, literally, every episode of the series.  It’s incredibly repetitive.

I suppose there’s comfort in routine. But the question here is: are there also laughs in routine?

I might have to argue yes, because this series has broken my will, and I’ve found the last half of the series generally more amusing than I did at first half.  I guess once you know what to expect, you free yourself, in some sense, from wanting anything different. You can just give in to the silliness, and start observing the curve-balls in the oft-seen formula.

Beyond reiteration of the routine, “Which Witch is Which?” also features Storch performing more classic Hollywood imitations; this time of Clark Gable. And Tracy, once more, seems to be the character with the most intelligence.

Not bad for a gorilla. He’s my favorite character.

Okay, accuracy requires me to point out one more thing before I close.  There is a new joke here, though it is a variation on an old one. Here, Spenser starts reading books in the office, and the tomes each start attacking him. He reads Moby Dick, for example, and the book squirts water in his face. The book Call of the Wild howls at him.  A few episodes back, the same joke was pulled with a TV set.

But heck, at least the joke changed a little bit.  That’s progress, I suppose, 1970's Saturday morning TV style.

Next week: “They Went Thataway!”

Friday, April 07, 2017

The Films of 1977: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

The second-highest grossing film of 1977 (right behind George Lucas’s Star Wars) was Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of The Third Kind, a science fiction film concerning mankind’s first official contact with alien life-forms. I've been thinking about the film a lot since I saw Arrival (2016), which also concerned this topic. 

Close Encounter’s narrative also involves the mystery behind alien abductions and the truth regarding a government conspiracy to keep the existence of UFOs a secret.

Throughout the film Spielberg cross-cuts between two major plot-lines: a scientist’s (Francois Truffaut’s) efforts to develop a language so as to communicate with the visiting aliens, and one blue-collar worker’s (Richard Dreyfuss) personal journey to better understand their uncomfortable -- but growing -- presence in his daily life…and inside his very head.

Importantly, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) was described by Science Digest as a film that is “tantamount to faith.”

The same publication noted too that Close Encounters’ sense of faith, so “wondrous and thoroughly spiritual – is registered in nearly every frame, reaching a climax in its messianic ending.”(Joy Boyom, Feb 1978, p.17).

Similarly, Gregory Richards’ monograph, Science Fiction Movies (Gallery Books, 1984, p.61) contextualizes Spielberg’s disco-decade UFO epic “as more of a religious film than a science fiction one.”

So the primary question that viewers must reckon with regarding this cult classic is: why have so many reviewers contextualized the Spielberg film as one of an overtly religious nature? Does an understanding of the religious allegory open up new avenues for understanding this work of art?

Or contrarily, does the religious explanation of Close Encounters only serve to cloud the secular, humanist message beating at the movie’s heart?

Close Encounters as Religious Allegory

In part, the categorization of Close Encounters of the Third Kind as a film about spirituality and faith arises because Steven Spielberg’s movie so abundantly features what David A Cook, author of Lost Illusions: American Cinema in the Shadow of Watergate and Vietnam, 1970 – 1979, calls “an aura of religious mystery.” (University of California Press, 2000, p.47).

Roy Neary -- much like the apostle Paul on the road to Damascus according to Paul Flesher and Robert Torry in Film and Religion: An Introduction -- experiences a kind of spiritual dawning or awakening.

In particular, Neary sees a UFO and hears the call of the aliens (transmitted via a telepathically implanted, subconscious “message” or “vision.”)

At first he does not understand the alien message. What is the meaning of the strange thoughts in his head? Why does he feel compelled to undertake a pilgrimage -- a journey to a location of great importance to one’s faith -- to some mountain he has witnessed seen only in his mind?

Eventually, however, Neary surrenders to the vision, to his faith. He forsakes all his worldly belongings and connections -- including his family -- in a devoted (and perhaps mad…) attempt to understand why he has been “chosen” to hear this call from a (literally) Higher Power.

Clearly, Neary seeks communion with the message’s sender…with a stand-in for God. His quest in Close Encounters thus reflects Scripture and Romans in particular. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Here, Neary has heard and honored that word, but it is the words of the aliens.

Neary’s hardship and trials are eventually vindicated. At last, he meets the aliens at the mountain of his vision (ironically at a place called Devil’s Tower), and then watches as a version of the second coming of Christ is re-enacted before his eyes.

According to Flesher and Torry (Abindgon Press, 2007, p.200), the returned abductees whom the aliens release from their landed mother ship symbolically represent the dead rising, or the resurrection of the dead as foretold in Scripture. And furthermore, the ascent of the alien craft to outer space with one of the faithful (Neary) ensconced aboard it similarly represents the Christian rapture, the trip to Heaven, essentially.

Even the physical appearance of the aliens in Close Encounter might be readily interpreted as strongly reflecting Christian apotheosis.

In form, the extra-terrestrial bodies “have no clear blemishes or gender, suggesting that superior beings transcend the normal categories of physical existence and approach the ethereal qualities associated with spirits and angels,” notes scholar Eric Michael Mazur, (Encyclopedia of Religion and Faith (ABLC-CLIO, LLC 2011, page 388).

In his final ascent to the stars, to Heaven, Roy Neary is wholly affirmed in his unyielding faith and belief in the vision he received, over his wife’s cynicism and stubborn skepticism, and over the U.S. Government’s attempt to “control” the meeting of man and alien.

In some sense, Close Encounters is all about taking a leap of faith, and that very idea finds resonance in one of Spielberg’s compositions. Confronted with the government lie about a deadly and toxic nerve gas spill in Wyoming (near Devil’s Tower), Neary chooses to “believe” his own narrative instead. He rips off his protective gas mask and breaths the purportedly contaminated air. But he is proven right…he survives, and his faith is replenished.

Given the alien angels, the metaphor for the Second Coming and even this leap of faith, the overall effect, therefore, of this cinematic journey is indeed, well, rapturous.

Strangely, however, there is a dark aspect to this story of religious awakening that one must also weigh.

While it is true that Roy Neary transitions from an unhappy and spiritually bereft life to one of faith and purpose, the cost of such knowledge of God (or God surrogate, in this case) is his very family. In the act of proving his faith and his worthiness of being “born again” in the stars, Roy abandons his family on Earth. This abandonment is literal, not metaphorical.

The non-believers -- including his children -- get “left behind” to toil in the world without his guidance or even presence. And again, the message could be interpreted as strongly religious.

If you don’t “believe,” you don’t get saved.

Close Encounters as a Humanist Film

An alternate reading of Close Encounters suggests this cinematic work of art from Spielberg is actually a humanist film, the secular tale of a man who chooses to no longer be enslaved to society’s destructive constructs (including government, career, and family), and to follow his own individual path instead.

The story, again, is of Neary breaking free of constraints, but the breaking free in this reading is from a society that lies, cover-ups, and demands his perpetual unhappiness for its continuance.

The fact that Spielberg plays the song “When You Wish Upon a Star” at the conclusion of Close Encounters of the Third Kind is the primary support for this reading. 

One lyric in that composition suggests a direct rebuke of faith, or religious identification. When you wish upon a star it “makes no difference who you are,” the song goes. In other words, you need not be affiliated with any particular group or belief system if you hope to achieve your dreams. You need not believe in God or a higher power. Instead, if you must merely “wish” and voice your “dreams,” you will be rewarded for following the best angels of your -- human -- nature.

In terms of history, Close Encounters of the Third Kind followed closely on many frissons in American politics, and this context, likewise, suggests a more humanist reading. 

President Richard Nixon had been toppled in the Watergate Scandal in 1974, for example. His resignation and culpability in illegal activity suggested that “faith” or “belief” in the pillar of leadership was not such a good idea.

Similarly, the Vietnam War had ended in ignominy for the U.S. in 1975. The cause that so many Americans fought for (and died for…) was lost, and this very idea seems reflected in Close Encounters’ final scene.

There, a line of carefully vetted and approved government officials (surrogates for soldiers in Vietnam?) are overlooked by the aliens in favor of the “Everyman,” Roy Neary.

By contrast to these seemingly emotionless, expressionless, thoughtless drones, he is a man who chose explicitly not to believe the fairy tales his government was peddling. He has thus established his independence and his resourcefulness outside of Earthly and national considerations.

In this reading, the “leap of faith” of taking off the gas mask is actually the dawning awareness that -- because of Watergate and Vietnam -- the U.S. Government could no longer be trusted, or be considered an agent for honesty.

But again, in this reading of Close Encounters, one must reckon with Neary’s pure selfishness, his very questionable decision to leave his children and wife behind for his own individual “self-fulfillment.” And again, one must note that very idea of “sweet fulfillment” is explicitly voiced in the lyrics to the song “When You Wish Upon a Star.”

Yet I would suggest that Neary’s act of leaving his family (and his government, and his job…) behind in 1977 would not have been looked at by many audience members as purely a bad thing.

One must recall that the 1970s was determinedly the decade of the “self,” a fact reflected in the hedonism of disco music, and the blazing ascent in popularity of the “self-help” book genre. Popular buzz-words of the day included “self-realization” and -- sound familiar? -- “self-fulfillment.”

Yet as the movement of “self” grew in the late 1970s, many people were concerned that the new ethos was merely one of “self-involvement. The consumption-oriented life-style of immediate gratification soon gave rise to President Carter’s notorious 1979 “Crisis of Confidence” speech, which warned against judging success on material wealth rather than intrinsic human qualities of character and morality.

Meanwhile, the nation kept building more shopping malls, and imagined worlds futuristic (Logan’s Run) and apocalyptic (Dawn of the Dead) set at these new shrines to materialism.  he 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake deals explicitly with this notion too, of the idea of people “moving in and out of relationships too fast” because they wanted to be happy and fulfilled, all the time.

But in a way, this is what Close Encounters concerns as well. Roy Neary helps himself, finally, to achieve his “dream,” even if his family can’t share in that dream. He gets what he wants -- to go with the benevolent aliens to the stars -- and in the late 1970s, this result is what qualified as a happy ending

In his text How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity (Three Rivers Press, 1997, page 291) author Bruce Bawer wrote of Close Encounters of the Third Kind that “salvation, meaning, and transcendence come down from the Heavens in a spaceship.”  The question to ponder today involves the brand of salvation and transcendence. 

Is it a spiritual reckoning, or a secular one that the alien spaceship brings with it?

It is a testament to Spielberg’s skill, perhaps, as a filmmaker and storyteller, that Close Encounters can be interpreted through two such opposite lenses or world-views.

Movie Trailer: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Logan's Run 40th Anniversary Blogging: "Turnabout" (January 30th, 1978)

Here’s some bad news: the best hours of Logan’s Run: The Series (1977-1978) are behind us. Only two episodes remain, “Turnabout” and “Stargate,” and both are very poorly done.  If I had to compare them, I’d say that “Turnabout” is somewhat better than “Stargate,” while still proving largely unsatisfactory.

"Turnabout" is a story by Michael Michaelian and Al Hayes wherein Logan (Gregory Harrison), Jessica (Heather Menzies) and REM (Donald Moffat) stop for water in desert and find an unconscious woman in the sand. She's wearing a burqa to hide her face.

An armed patrol on horseback finds the Runners and escorts them to the city of Zidar, a repressive, theocratic society where books are not permitted.  In fact, knowledge is considered a danger.  Soon, Francis (Randy Powell) and another Sandman show up in pursuit of Logan and his friends, and are captured too.

Both groups are taken before "the Judgment Chair.” There, the city leader, a restrictive, draconian man, proclaims that they should be executed in accordance with the traditions of the city With the help of Mia -- the woman they saved in the desert -- Logan and his pals escape, but are captured by Francis. 

Then, they are all captured again, and Francis is forced into a "duel" before the Judgment Chair. 

At the end of the day, there is regime change in Zidor to a more moderate ruling philosophy, and the Runners continue on their way, seeking Sanctuary.

“Turnabout” features some fascinating, if ultimately poorly explored underpinnings.

The desert city of Zidar is depicted, for instance, through a fantastic and intricate matte painting. What the matte painting reveals is very intriguing: Zidar looks like an Islamic city of the Middle East. Just take a gander at some of the architectural flourishes. Look hard enough you’ll spy the domes, and arabesque touches we associate with the historic architecture from this region of our globe.

That’s important, because clearly this episode is an attempted commentary on the restrictions of Islamic fundamentalism, or radicalism. Women in the theocracy of Zidar are treated as second class citizens, with abrogated rights and freedoms, and they forced to hide their features. Furthermore, books and knowledge outside of tradition are considered frightening, and therefore banned by the government.

Since Logan’s Run: The Series suggests here a post-holocaust version of restrictive, extremist Sharia Law in America, the episode seems more relevant post-9/11 than it did when it was produced in the mid-1970’s.  Still, one wonders how this restrictive, anti-woman society came about post-Holocaust, especially in the America heartland.

What world events were the writers responding to here to attempt this social commentary? I suspect that they probably looked at the demonstrations occurring in Iran in 1978. Although the Iranian Revolution didn’t technically occur until April of 1979, there were protests against the Shah, and general unrest in 1978. Perhaps the writers saw where it was going, and what a theocracy would be like.

The fascinating thing about “Turnabout” is that it suggests -- again drawing a parallel to history -- that Zidar was once a society of glittering advancement and advanced judicial precepts. It was a place of learning, and knowledge and freedom. It was a place that welcomed visitors.  But extremists have taken over, and transformed the state to a restrictive one.

This is all quite fascinating material, especially given our 21st century context, but “Turnabout” treats the themes inherent in this story with a kind of slapdash inadequacy.  Basically, the allegorical extremist state is but an excuse for a Star Wars-esque sword fight between Francis and a Zidor guard (played by Gerald McRaney).

And, Logan, Jessica and REM are so busy running to and fro that they don’t actually cause the revolution that turns-over the society.  Instead, we are simply told at story’s end that the leader has been deposed in favor of a new, and less radical one.  

So our heroes take no productive part in changing the society for the better, and restoring it to its historical nature as a just, civil, even artistic state.  It just happens while they are there…being captured, escaping, being captured, and escaping again.

So even though “Turnabout” clearly references a real life culture (and shift to extremism in that culture), Zidor is still a "straw man" society, there for the collapsing, in accordance with our 1970's American values.  I must admit, I find this cognitive dissonance laughable. According to Logan’s Run lore, the world destroyed itself, based on the values of the Cold War Era.  Russia and the U.S. fight to the death, and launch global nuclear war, over possession of a fearsome technology: time travel (per "Man out of Time.")

Now, long after, Logan, Jessica and REM are championing those very ideals, against other cultures…even though these ideasl destroyed their world. I’m not saying that our values here are bad, just that in a series that discusses how our culture fell, it is weird that our culture is championed…even though it was at least partially responsible for destroying civilization. 

Another series that I love, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981), features the same fallacy.  Future heroes pursue the ideals American Exceptionalism, but do so after America has been a key player in the destruction, essentially, of the human race in some form of holocaust.

But the real problem with “Turnabout” isn’t this. It’s the general lack of meaningful plot development. Who's rescuing whom? Who's going back for whom?

These plot machinations are all become increasingly tedious.  o much so that it’s clear that the series is on its last legs.  Running around has supplanted ideas as the central tenet of the series.

Next week: The last Logan’s Run episode: “Stargate.”

Cult-TV Movie Review: The Norliss Tapes (1973)

Author David Norliss (Roy Thinnes) mysteriously warns his publisher that he can’t finish his new book debunking the supernatural, and that all the extensive work for the text has been recorded on a series of cassette tapes.

When David then disappears, his agent and lawyer investigate, and his agent, Sanford Evans (Don Porter), listens to the tapes in his apartment.

The tapes reveal a bizarre and frightening story. Specifically Norliss was approached by a beautiful widow, Ellen Cort (Angie Dickinson), who reported something strange -- and possibly supernatural -- on her isolated estate. 

Specifically, Ellen saw the ambulatory corpse of her late husband, James Cort (Nick Dimitri), murder their German shepherd in the dead man’s art studio. He also attacked her. She shot him at point blank range, but there is no sign of the body.

Investigating further, David learns that James, a sculptor, went to the grave wearing an Egyptian scarab “Orisis” ring, an occult object which is reputed to render its wearer immortal.

Meanwhile, a young woman driving on a lonely roads near the Cort Estate late at night is attacked by a stranger, and drained of blood. The local sheriff, Tom Hartley (Claude Akins) refuses to reveal information about the condition of her corpse.

Soon another strange event occurs. The dead sculptor’s work is continued in a macabre new piece: a life-size clay creation of the demon, Sagaroth.

David fears that Ellen is in danger as James, a zombie, breathes life into the monstrous figure. 

Sargoth, David realizes, is made of clay, but the clay is filled with human blood!

As David learns with horror, Ellen’s sister, Marsha (Michele Carey) is also in danger, as is Mademoiselle Jeckiel (Vonetta McGee), the person who sold Cort the scarab ring...

The 1970’s saw the airing of many psychic/occult investigator TV movies. The most famous, and perhaps most-well-loved of all, of course, is The Night Stalker (1972), starring Darren McGavin as journalist Carl Kolchak. 

But Kolchak was not the only occult/or psychic investigator of the bunch. The TV-movies of the disco decade also gave us Alex Dreier in Sweet, Sweet Rachel (1971), and Leonard Nimoy in Baffled! (1973), to name just two others.

One of the most memorable of such psychic/occult investigator TV-movies, however, is The Norliss Tapes, starring Roy Thinnes. In this case, the occult investigator, David Norliss, is an author, and a skeptic, and his discovery of the supernatural is a surprise to him. Like Kolchak, Norliss is a man of words, and one who works alone to uncover the truth.

Norliss’s first (and thus far only…) adventure is vetted very much in the style of a classical film noir. Like films of that type, this Dan Curtis film involves the equivalent of a private detective, a lovely widow, and a mystery. 

In this case, the mystery involves what happened to the widow’s husband. Suffice it to say, James Cort made a corrupt deal for immortality, one that could bring great evil into the world.  As David investigates, he also “interviews,” essentially, members of the victim pool, and tangles with the local, corrupt authorities (here represented by Claude Akins’ sheriff).  

In the end, there is no meaningful resolution; society can’t help restore order because society itself is corrupt. And the endangered character flee rather than remain in clear-and-present danger (not unlike the denouement we get in the tech noir, Blade Runner [1982])

The Norliss Tapes' dialogue and voice-over narration are also effective in a pulpy way, and loads of fun to boot. At one point, Ellen colorfully notes “every time the house creaked, my skin crawled.”  

And Thinne’s laconic, laid-back delivery of the voice over narration perfect for such purple lines as “no one talks to anybody about the condition of the deceased.

Intriguingly this San Francisco-based noir ends without any real explanation or resolution. Norliss and Ellen -- apparently still jeopardized by Sagaroth -- disappear without a trace.  They have either escaped, or been done away with.

And, finally, those who care what happened to the duo are left with just one option: to sift through the author’s cassette collection listening to additional “tales” of the supernatural.

Did Sagaroth exact vengeance upon them? Or did the Ellen and Norliss flee the supernatural? The movie comes to an abrupt (and somewhat unsatisfying) halt, failing to provide the audience the necessary answers. It is a bit disconcerting for a movie (TV or theatrical) to end with no closure regarding its protagonists, but I suppose the idea here is that The Norliss Tapes -- a backdoor pilot -- would go to series, and viewers would thus have the opportunity to listen to future and further stories.  

Apparently, there were a lot of case studies of the supernatural on those Norliss tapes...

As I've noted, the noir elements of The Norliss Tapes grant it some life and energy, but the depiction of the antagonist: a zombie, helps even more in that regard. James Cort is a yellow-eyed, ash-gray-skinned menace who moves (and attacks) with unexpected, blazing speed. 

The make-up holds up today, and the film’s best (and scariest) moment occurs when Ellen pulls a window shade up in the art studio, and the zombie is right there, at the pane, peering in at her.  It’s a great (close-up) jolt that adds immeasurably to the terror of the piece.

The zombie is rarely hidden from view throughout the telefilm, but often seen in full-sight instead. Some might consider this front-and-center approach a visual mistake, but the scenes with the zombie actually remain pretty effective, because of his speed and gruesome undead look.  

There is one scene here in which Norliss and Ellen attempt to flee the family estate in the rain, and the zombie attacks their car.  He rips a car door off, and then proceeds to brush off all physical damage, as Norliss attempts to run him down. The scene is relentless, and exciting.

The weakest aspect of The Norliss Tapes is, perhaps, the writing for the main character. Norliss is supposed to be a thoughtful skeptic who debunks the supernatural, but here never gets even a single word of dialogue about his belief system. The audience is told at the start of the film that Norliss is writing a book debunking the supernatural, but that’s the last thing we ever find out about Norliss’s skepticism.

Why is he a skeptic? What does he believe? What is his world-view? It might have been nice to see more of Norliss in the debunking role before seeing him embrace the supernatural world so thoroughly.

Even with an open-ended finale and no real background on Norliss or his beliefs, The Norliss Tapes is overall well-shot and engaging, and most importantly, scary.

I would love it if some relative of Norliss, in 2017, found David’s tapes in an attic, long forgotten, and started listening to them again, for a brand new TV series.  

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Action Figures of the Week: Voltron: Defender of the Universe (Matchbox)

Voltron Battery Operated Toothbrush (H.G. Toys)

Voltron GAF Viewmaster

Voltron Calculator (Impulse)

Coloring Book of the Week: Voltron: Defender of the Universe

Halloween Costume of the Week; Voltron: Defender of the Universe (Ben Cooper)

Voltron Tattoos (Topps)

Board Game of the Week: Voltron: Defender of the Universe

Voltron Shrinky Dinks

Lunch Box of the Week: Voltron

Theme Song of the Week: Voltron: Defender of the Universe (1984)

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Enterprise Incident" (September 27, 1968)

Boy, would this episode have made one hell of a third season premiere!

Of course, that's not what happened, and for over fifty years now, Trekkers have passionately debated the third and final season of ST: TOS (Star Trek: The Original Series, for the non-trekkers out there).

This was the spell during which the late Fred Freiberger (1915 - 2003) assumed the role of executive producer after series creator Gene Roddenberry -- the Great Bird of the Galaxy -- reduced his involvement.

A little background: Roddenberry had apparently promised NBC he would be a hands-on show-runner for the third season, but then the network pulled a fast one and re-scheduled Star Trek to the Friday night graveyard (or "death slot") at 10:00 pm. Roddenberry stepped down, and Freiberger arrived on the scene. Not everyone was a happy camper.

The general perception has long been that Star Trek took a significant downward turn in quality during Freiberger's tenure; perhaps as a result of his involvement. 

Yet the ratings-troubled series had other problems to grapple with too, including a dramatic budget cut in the third season which rendered location shooting impractical except on rare occasions (such as "The Paradise Syndrome," early in the new season). According to William Shatner's Star Trek Memories, the per episode budget dropped from a high in the first season of $193,500.00 to a low at the third season of $178,500.00. (William Shatner, Chris Kreski, Harper Collins, 1993, pages 290-291).

Now intriguing, visually-exciting location work -- "planet side" action -- had been a staple of Star Trek in the first two seasons; with episodes such as "Arena," "This Side of Paradise," "The Alternative Factor," "Shore Leave," and "Friday's Child" springing to mind. But in the third season, Freiberger -- in the words of original series star, Nichelle Nichols -- suddenly became a "producer who had nothing to produce with." (Nichelle Nichols, Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories, G.P. Putnam and Sons, New York 1994. p.189.)

So depending on mind-set, you can either appreciate Star Trek Season Three for what it is (and in some cases, by necessity what it had to be), or dislike it for the manner in which it differed from the first two seasons.

One can either laud episodes such "The Paradise Syndrome," "The Enterprise Incident," "The Tholian Web" and "All Our Yesterdays" or curse the quality of such outings as "Spock's Brain," "And the Children Shall Lead" and "The Way to Eden."

Other third season episodes remain even more controversial, both loved and despised by fans in equal measure: "Let that Be Your Last Battlefield," "The Empath," and "Spectre of the Gun." Failures, or, in some cases, almost avant-garde masterpieces?

You'll know exactly where I stand when I review those particular stories in the coming months

One third season episode that holds up remarkably well today is author D.C. Fontana's "The Enterprise Incident," which first aired September 27, 1968 and featured the Enterprise's secret espionage mission inside Romulan space to recover a new and deadly cloaking device technology. This was the second broadcast installment of the last season.

When I interviewed D.C. Fontana for Filmfax, she explained in detail about the origins of this episode: "It was a reflection of the Pueblo Incident, where a ship was captured in an area of sea where it shouldn't have been. The ship claimed not to be a spy ship, but in fact it was a spy ship."

Specifically, on January 23, 1968, the U.S.S. Pueblo, a Banner-class research vessel with six officers and seventy crew men aboard, was surrounded and captured by North Korean vessels. The U.S. government insisted the ship was well within international waters, but the Democratic People's Republic of Korea countered that Pueblo was inside its territory when captured.

Classified, high-security material was eventually found aboard the was on an American spy mission after all. The ship was brought back to an enemy port (the nearest U.S. naval vessel was -- ironically, the U.S.S. Enterprise -- positioned some five hundred miles south and in no position to assist...). The Pueblo crew was then processed, tortured, and eventually returned stateside. The ship itself remains in the custody of the North Koreans.

In "The Enterprise Incident," you can see many deliberate resonances of the real-life incident, which had occurred scarcely nine months before the episode was broadcast. Here, a Federation starship, NCC-1701, strays into enemy waters, metaphorically-speaking. The Romulan Commander (Joanne Linville) plans to take the Enterprise back to a Romulan port as a prize, and process the crew before eventual release. Of course, that doesn't happen.

Here, history is re-written rather dramatically. The party that is actually in the wrong (conducting the espionage in enemy territory in the name of intergalactic security,) escapes with a secret device that could alter the balance of power. In fact, the Enterprise actually gets away scot-free, with an important captive in tow: the Romulan Commander herself. In other words, Kirk and Spock are on the side of the angels, keeping the Romulan-created technology...out of Romulan hands.

In space, all warriors are cold warriors...

In "The Enterprise Incident," Kirk and Spock's secret spy mission also involves the logical half-Vulcan science officer...uh...romancing the Romulan Commander to gain her confidence.

Like the rest of us, then, the Romulans prove themselves intrigued by Vulcan morals and ethics. In this case, they make a bad mistake. The commander is manipulated by the poker-faced Spock. Specifically, he distracts her while a surgically-altered Kirk (now resembling a Romulan) makes off with the top-secret cloaking device. Scotty does a lickety-split installation, and the escape is made.

Notably, Spock re-affirms in this episode that "Vulcans are incapable of lying" and live by a code of "personal honor and integrity." The Romulan Commander naively accepts his word on these crucial matters, and pays the price for trusting Spock.

Yet, "The Enterpise Incident" works so well because the noble Spock clearly takes no satisfaction, let alone joy, in manipulating this Enemy of the Federation. In the hands of another actor, Spock might very well seem like a heel or a cad for actively encouraging the romantic inclinations of the Romulan Commander, but Leonard Nimoy plays the role sensitively; humanely. This subtle approach comes to the forefront during Spock's final conversation with the Romulan commander aboard the Enterprise, in the turbo-lift.

The Romulan commander has been tricked and disgraced. She is angry, and rightfully so, over Spock's trickery. And yet Spock doesn't hide behind orders or regulations here. Instead, he expresses, perhaps obliquely, that this has all been a rather useless and short-lived game. "Military secrets are the most fleeting of all," he acknowledges. Rather, he suggests to the Commander that it is the connection that the two of them shared that will prove more permanent, more lasting.

This is one of the reasons I love and admire Star Trek. The character of Spock -- perpetually the outsider -- gives us a good, outside perspective on ourselves and our behavior. 

By contrast, Kirk is the giddy American cowboy, the dashing American secret agent, the guy who is going to accomplish his mission with heroic flair and dynamic action. He is entrenched in his mission (he cannot afford otherwise), and he doesn't really look outside it at the big picture. We love and admire Kirk for this clarity of vision and purpose.

But Mr. Spock thinks more analytically, and with a deeper perspective. He weighs matters outside of petty political and military concerns. Though as a Starfleet officer he performed his duty, he intimates that in this case, that duty involved something "fleeting," hence ultimately unimportant. Rather, the bond established by the Romulan Commander and Spock suggests that these two clashing races/empires can find common ground in the future, beyond the conflict of the present.

The second-to-last time we encounter Mr. Spock in Star Trek history, he is pursuing this very cause: the re-unification of Romulus and Vulcan. I've always wondered if Spock's personal encounter with the Romulan Commander was the impetus of his decision to pursue this tough-to-negotiate peace. In some subtle way, Star Trek -- despite the presence of all kinds of alien creatures and some imperialistic tales -- has really been, sub textually, about the bonds that unite humanity. 

We may differ with the Soviet Union (during the Cold War) or the Taliban during the War on Terror, but we hope and pray that in the future what unites us all as inhabitants of the planet Earth will overcome that which today divides us. In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), only Nixon could go to China; only Kirk could bring peace between the Klingons and The Federation. And here, way back in "The Enterprise Incident" in 1968, the seeds of peace between the Romulans and the Federation are being Spock; in his humane treatment of the Romulan Commander.

Now, Spock also manipulates the Romulan Commander very successfully and in some sense, it does play as cruel. But lest we forget, she is also manipulating him simultaneously, using what she perceives to be Spock's sense of racial superiority to harness resentment against Kirk and loyalty towards her. So they are both pawns of the mission. But I would suggest that -- all along -- Spock may have a better future in mind. He may be stealing a cloaking device and deceiving a beautiful woman in the present, but he also realizes that military secrets are fleeting and that one person can change the world; can alter the direction of the future (also a message of another Star Trek episode, "Mirror, Mirror.")

In Star Trek history, "The Enterprise Incident" may actually be one of the most significant episodes of all, especially in terms of impact on the franchise.

This episode establishes a Klingon-Romulan alliance (later shattered, with great resentment and animosity in the Next Gen era), and it introduces blue Romulan Ale, though not in name, as a "powerful recruiting inducement." The episode also establishes Spock's time in Starfleet as 18 years.

Much of the drama also hinges on the mistaken belief that "Vulcans are incapable of lying," a turn of phrase which returns in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986). Also, although Fontana introduced Vulcan "finger-touching" as a gesture of affection in "Journey to Babel," here we see a more...erotic...application. That too returned to Star Trek, in 1984's Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Additionally, in "The Enterprise Incident," the audience gets some significant knowledge of the Romulans, from the "Right of Statement" to the command structure inside the Empire.

And of course, "The Enterprise Incident" introduces the Vulcan Death Grip. Which, as you surely know, does not exist...

I'll go even further. I believe that "The Enterprise Incident" is very much a template for the modern Star Trek motion picture series, as it involves the Enterprise forced to take dramatic action to capture or otherwise stop a weapon of mass destruction. Here it is the Romulan Cloaking Device. But Khan had Genesis, Soran had the Ribbon -- which he wielded as a weapon, Shinzon had a tharalon device, and Nero had Red Matter.

Over the years "The Enterprise Incident" has not been without controversy, of course. Fontana told me that the "episode wasn't substantially re-written" from what she had imagined, but rather "was changed in ways that really bothered me. The relationship between Spock and the Romulan commander was somewhat different than what I had envisioned. From a production standpoint, the cloaking device was supposed to be small and easily hidden, but on the show it looked like a lamp. That didn't work for me, because they had to run around holding this large device, it was pretty obvious. More than that, the relationship between Spock and the Romulan commander wasn't what I had in mind. I wanted it to be more adversarial than it was."

Indeed, if "The Enterprise Incident" contains one weakness, it is that the Romulan Commander appears far too trusting, far too early, of Spock. Especially since she did not know he was stationed on the Enterprise and therefore could not anticipate her strategy before seeing him on the viewscreen

Of course, given a little thought, the Commander's actions might be written off as signs of a healthy, Kirk-sized ego. She believes she can appeal to Spock's ego, assuring him that he is a "superior being" and thereby offer him ample incentive to turn against the Federation. Given Kirk's irrational, arrogant behavior leading up this incident (all orchestrated, of course...) it is also easy to see why she could imagine Spock would prefer to serve her rather than the fragile, insulting Captain Kirk. Of course, that's what she's supposed to believe.

I think some fans also dislike "The Enterprise Incident" because it says, basically, that when Starfleet breaks its own laws, it is okay, because -- hey, these are the good guys.

Perhaps today, given all we've been through in the last decade, this makes the program feel a little simplistic. The (overlooked) fact of the matter is that this mission could have sparked an all-out war with the Romulans, one that could have cost millions if not billions of innocent lives across the galaxy.

And furthermore, the Romulans had not even used this cloaking device in battle yet. They had used a similar weapon in the past, on Federation border outposts ("Balance of Terror"), but still, this seems to qualify as a pre-emptive strike, right? 

For a second, imagine what a powerful episode this might have been had Kirk's mission failed; had he and the stalwart crew been taken hostage and interrogated back on Romulus; had the mission been exposed as a dangerous, irresponsible one; had Starfleet paid the consequences for issuing such orders. 

But you know -- honestly -- that sounds more like a Next Gen era story of DS9-flavored one. 

And if that had happened here, we might have lost the valuable message that is clear in "The Enterprise Incident:" that peace can begin in the heart of one person, or one Vulcan, as the case may be. That Spock is, for lack of a better word, emotionally affected by his contact with the Romulan commander...who, despite her manipulations, comes across as strangely vulnerable...and likable.

In closing, I submit that "The Enterprise Incident" is a worthwhile and memorable installment of Star Trek because in that last scene, Spock acknowledges something important and true. Kirk, the Romulan Commander, and Starfleet itself are all playing one dangerous move in a much larger chess-game. They are focused on that move: getting the Cloaking Device (or getting the Enterprise, contrarily). 

But Spock is thinking a long-term strategy, thinking several moves ahead, to something more permanent than a fleeting military secret. He was touched by his encounter with the Romulan Commander, more than he ever could have imagined.

On the other hand, you could also argue that Spock's entanglement with the Romulans, begun in earnest in this episode of the classic series, is the very thing that destroys his timeline some hundred years down the road. As the Vulcan himself might note, "fascinating..."

Also, I appreciate Leonard Nimoy's thoughtful take on this tale: 

"Episodes like "The Enterprise Incident" made it exciting to go to work. Like all of Dorothy's scripts, it had an edge to it, an adult level of complication, and social commentary. The characters' lives were being affected, their ethics violated, even their spirituality touched. Scripts like this added to the moral structure of the Star Trek universe." (Nimoy. I am Spock. Hyperion, 1995, page 118)