Saturday, June 10, 2017

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Ark II: "The Rule" (October 30, 1976)

In the second episode of Ark II, entitled “The Rule,” Captain Jonah (Terry Lester) makes log entry 1441, which puts this episode ahead of last week’s “The Flies” in terms of internal continuity.  

Making the entry as the Ark II patrols “Area 32, Sector 16” Jonah notes the presence in the area of “primitive cave dwellers.”  

His team’s mission: “to improve the quality of their lives” in “any way” the crew can.

While Adam and Ruth (Jean Marie Hon) are out patrolling in the Ark Roamer, local scavengers attack the Ark II, and Jonah orders Samuel (Jose Flores) to activate lateral and vertical force fields.  

As the scavengers hurl rocks at the advanced vehicle, the force fields repel them, sending the stones back in the air.  This effect is achieved by reversing the film, a cheap technique but one that still looks stunning.

When Ruth is injured in a Roamer crash and Adam goes to look for help, a young man named Jeff (David Abbott) rescues her and takes her back to his village.  Unfortunately, Jeff’s father is the ruler of the village and he imposes a draconian “rule” upon all citizens.  Anyone who cannot work to support the village must be “cast out” into the wilderness.  On this day, the ruler plans to exile a blind man and an old woman for their inability to toil in the fields.

After Jeff himself is injured while attempting to build a hang-glider, his father adheres to the mandatory rule, and exiles his son.  Though Ruth complains about a cruel society that doesn’t care for its most vulnerable members, Jeff’s father is unmoved.  He is stuck in tradition, and can’t see outside of it.

Soon, scavengers steal the livestock and food from the village, leaving it without supplies to survive the coming winter.  Ruth, Jeff and the other exiles team with Jonah, Adam and Samuel to set a trap for the scavengers and recover the stolen supplies.   When the cast-out members return to the village with the missing resources, the ruler finally recognizes their worth -- and the error of his ways -- and promise to abolish “the rule” from this day forward.

In the second episode produced, though the eighth aired (on October 30th, 1976), Ark II gazes intently at the price of survival.  In a difficult, post-apocalyptic setting such as this one, everyone must contribute to the communal good, but human (and humane…) societies must also care of the elderly and the disabled.  In this village, that’s explicitly not the case, and the Ark II team arrives to remind the cruel villagers that “each of us – young and old alike – has a skill” to contribute.  Civilization forgets that fact at its own peril, and could take a “giant step backwards” according to Jonah in his log entry.

Although aired over forty years ago, “The Rule” grapples with ideas that are still important in contemporary American society. Do we live by the law of the jungle, or the laws of humanity?  Even in times of austerity and want, can mankind still be civilized and care for those who can’t care for themselves?  Some people see that kind of “care” is actually a hand-out to be disdained, while others view it as a sacred duty.  “The Rule” also suggests that some “laws” must be applied flexibly, or human society could lose its sense of compassion and devolve into cruelty.

In terms of the development of Ark II’s fictitious world, this episode shows us more of the Ark Roamer, and the Ark II’s powerful force fields.  “The Rule” also reveals a unique hand-held device: a defensive weapon of some kind, which can cause brief blindness in an opponent long enough to distract them or make an escape. I don’t remember if it shows up again in the series, but I’ll be looking for it.

Probably the big question in this week’s episode involves Adam.  In case you forgot, he’s the super-evolved chimpanzee, the one with the capacity to speak.  Oddly, when Ruth is knocked unconscious in the Roamer accident, Adam does not choose to verbally respond as Samuel attempts to contact the vehicle.  Doesn’t he know how to use the radio?  Why does Adam leave Ruth alone and go in search of Ark II, when he could open a channel to the vehicle and report, verbally, what occurred?  That’s something of an inconsistency.  We’re not meant to view the character as an uncommunicative animal but as an intelligent character.  He plays chess, after all, as we saw in “The Flies.”

The coda for “The Rule” also brings up a question that probably should not have been raised at all. We see Adam wearing a chef’s hat and preparing dinner for the human crew in the Ark II’s kitchen area.  Really…a chimpanzee preparing meals?  I’m not entirely certain about the hygiene aspects of this.  Would you fix food prepared by an ape?  Is Adam smart enough to understand hygiene?  

Does he shower or otherwise bathe?  Does he wash his…paws?

Once more, the very worst aspect of Ark II is the strange inclusion of a talking monkey as a crew member.  It would have been wonderful and worthwhile if the makers of the series had chosen to define Adam’s capacities and characteristics a bit more clearly, early on.

Next Saturday: "The Tank"

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Lidsville: "Hoodoo, Who?"

In “Hoodoo, Who?” Hoodoo (Charles Nelson Reilly) returns from a visit to another wizard, impressed by that wizard’s obsequious servant. He feels that his own Bad Hats are not up to the task of serving him, and they are offended by his criticism.

However, a knock to the head gives Hoodoo a case of amnesia, and the Bad Hats take advantage of the condition. They convince him that he is their butler, Reginald, and make him their servant. They demand he serve them meals, and keep their HQ neat.

Mark (Butch Patrick), Weenie (Billie Hayes) and the other Good Hats are baffled to spy Hoodoo serving tea and cookies to his own servants, and realize that only another knock on the head can possibly set things right in Lidsville.

This is another thoroughly ridiculous and inconsequential episode of Sid and Marty Krofft’s Lidsville (1971-1973). 

In particular, “Hoodoo, Who?” employs that old movie and TV cliché that one bump to the head causes amnesia, and a second bump to the head cures it. 

This is such a creaky old cliché, and yet it makes for an entertaining enough installment of this old Saturday morning series. The series seems to be in a groove now where Hoodoo takes center-stage, and the plot line involves some aspect of his character being amplified, or reduced.

As usual, CNR is the one indisputable point worth lauding amidst all the colorful nonsense, holding center stage, and playing two roles, essentially: Hoodoo and his alter ego, Reginald.

My wife and son ended up watching this episode with me on a DVD (from Netflix) when our wi-fi went out one night, and they were baffled by what they saw.

They complained that it was impossible to tell which hat is talking (because all the hats are seen on screen together, in a crowd), and also because, well, nothing makes any sense. My son wanted to know, specifically, why is this a world of hats?

I told him, simply, Lidsville is the “koo-koo-koo-kookiest…” show, and he looked at me like I was a madman.  

At least we all agreed that the series has a great theme song and opening montage.

Friday, June 09, 2017

Cult-TV Movie Review: It Happened at Lakewood Manor (1977)

A construction accident at the historic Lakewood Manor -- located in a county described as “the Las Vegas of tomorrow” -- gives way to something even more terrifying: an attack of teeming, angry ants.

At the old hotel, its elderly owner, Ethel Adams (Myrna Loy) contemplates selling the property to an unscrupulous real estate millionaire Anthony Fleming (Gerald Gordon), who is visiting with his mistress, Gloria (Suzanne Somers).

Meanwhile, Ethel’s daughter, Valerie (Lynda Day George) is encouraging her mother to sell too, because her husband -- construction foreman Mike Carr (Robert Foxworth) -- has been offered a career opportunity in San Francisco.

The ants, who are defending a subterranean colony, soon attack relentlessly. At first, local authorities think there may be a virus, or poisonous snakes involved in the crisis, but soon the ants mount an all-out assault on the premises.

It Happened at Lakewood Manor - also known as Ants -- is a not-very good disaster/horror movie of 1977 vintage. 

Actually, the TV-movie is noteworthy from an historical perspective, because it combines two important trends of the day. The first is, indeed, the disaster film format, which was enjoying popularity thanks to cinematic efforts such as Airport: 1975, The Poseidon Adventure (1972), and The Towering Inferno (1974). 

The second trend of the era was “revenge of nature” horror movies, such as Frogs (1972), Night of the Lepus (1972) and Kingdom of the Spiders (1977).  

It Happened at Lakewood Manor was not alone, either, dramatizing ants as a major threat. Phase IV (1974) and Empire of the Ants (1977) also featured this insect menace prominently.

However, It Happened at Lakewood Manor is not a particularly strong representative for either trend. In fact, for much of its running time, the movie is dull and uninteresting.

In terms of the disaster film format, this TV-movie offers us some familiar character-types. We get the officious naysayer -- who prolongs the crisis -- here played by the great Steve Franken. He actually played a similar role in another disaster film of the same vintage: 1978’s Avalanche.

We also have the Elder Stateswoman -- Hollywood royalty of yesteryear -- in a major role. Here, Myrna Loy is the representative of a kinder, gentler Hollywood era. Think, Olivia de Havilland in The Swarm (1979), or Jeanette Nolan in the aforementioned Avalanche. Loy’s character survives the crisis, airlifted away from the ants, and then seems confident she can sell the property, following the ant attack.

And, of course, there’s the nasty, avaricious business man who gets his comeuppance during the crisis. Richard Chamberlain played that role in The Towering Inferno. Gerald Gordon gets the honor here.  Both characters plummet to their deaths. And deservedly so.

As the brief survey reveals, the main characters here are pretty much off-the-shelf in nature, given petty “soap opera” concerns to handle before the real threat -- the ants! -- makes them get their priorities straight. It’s all just time-wasting nonsense until the crisis occurs.

In terms of the revenge of nature trope, the ants here turn hostile because, according to the film, of man.  

Because of us.

The dialogue states that “We’re the ones who forced them to live in a toxic world!” It also notes that ants are usually considered peaceful, at least until man “started putting poison in the air.”

This is just silly, at least in the way it is stated.

The movie also falls down -- even compared to the ludicrous The Swarm, however -- in depicting its central threat. More often than not, the ants look like smeared stains on the actors’ skin.

There is also a dreadful special effects shot late in the action in which a blob of something gray -- apparently the ant colony? -- is matted onto the live action scenery. It is a dreadful shot.

The most ludicrous of imagery is reserved for the film’s finale, however. Lynda Day George and Robert Foxworth sit frozen on a hotel room floor, breathing out of tubes (made from rolled wall-paper), as ants swarm all over them.

A scientist has told them not to breathe, and not to move, so the ants won’t feel threatened by their presence. The imperiled survivors do as they are told, but the visual suggests a weird drug trip rather than a terrifying encounter with nature. Once the fumigation processn begins, and smoke is seen billowing in the room, this connection is even further enhanced.

Also unintentionally funny is the sequence in which a helicopter in flight accidentally blows the deadly ants onto bystanders near the hotel. The onlookers all start shaking and patting themselves down until Bernie Casey shows up with a hose to blast off the ants.

Not all the ant sequences are terrible. Suzanne Somers’ death scene is somewhat effective, as we see the ants swarm over her feet and legs while she sleeps. The imagery is definitely creepy crawly, and succeeds in making the viewer feel uncomfortably itchy, if not genuinely menaced.

The movie also features multiple shots of ants circling a sink drain (in the hotel kitchen), and that’s probably a good as metaphor as any for the quality of It Happened at Lakewood Manor.  This is a thoroughly undistinguished, derivative TV movie of its era, without the energy or drive to muster real scares or thrills. It does succeed, however, as a time capsule of a time and place.

Finally, one character in the tele-film notes that everyone has a soft spot, “you just have to find it.” 

This TV movie is nothing but soft spots.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Planet of the Apes TV Series Blogging: "The Surgeon" (October 25, 1974)

In “The Surgeon,” Alan Virdon (Ron Harper) is shot by gorillas and his wounds require emergency medical care.  Unfortunately, there are no hospitals for humans in this topsy-turvy, unequal world.

Desperate to save their friend’s life, Galen (Roddy McDowall) and Burke (James Naughton) take Virdon to an ape hospital near Central City, where Galen’s ex fiancé, Kira (Jacqueline Scott) is a prominent surgeon.

At the hospital, Burke realizes that Virdon needs a blood transfusion, but there are many superstitions and stigmas associated with giving blood because of a failed transfusion between humans years earlier.  

Burke most conquer this societal fear, particularly for a human orderly, Travin (Michael Strong), and the daughter, Arna (Jamie Smith Jackson) that he has shunned since the earlier transfusion took the life of his son.

Also, the fugitives realize that a book of ancient human anatomy -- Principles of Surgery -- is necessary to save Virdon, and, unfortunately, it is stored in Dr. Zaius’s (Booth Colman) house.


“The Surgeon” sees our triumvirate of heroes return to Central City due to a medical emergency. This time, it is Virdon who is injured, and in need of medical attention. Much like other Planet of the Apes (1974) episodes -- particularly "The Good Seeds" -- this tale focuses on the human astronauts conquering superstition and bringing old knowledge to the future world of the apes.  Also, the episode exposes the racial breach that sees humans treated as second class citizens.  Here, we learn that medical advances don't typically benefit them.  "Health care" in this world is the province of the apes.

Many episodes of this short-lived series focus on the idea of the ape world as a kind of pre-Renaissance, medieval realm (except, significantly, for the presence of 20th century firearms). 

Basically, there is no enlightenment among the people, and the Ape Council wants to control all knowledge, for fear that knowledge will lead apes and humans down the same road that destroyed human culture in the distant past.  Without that learning, or knowledge, however, this is a world of superstition and ignorance.

I wish the series did a better job of noting that the "knowledgeable" human race destroyed itself, and that the apes, though ignorant and superstitious, at least have reasons (if not well-thought out ones) for keeping progress at a slow pace.

One quality I admire about “The Surgeon” is that it is unusually even-handed discussing this paradigm. Many episodes of the series feature Galen, Virdon and Burke outsmarting or tricking the dominant apes.  One way they do that is by superior knowledge of history, science, and so on.  Here, however, one important focus is Travin (Michael Strong), a human who is ignorant about blood transfusions. 

Travin blames Arna, his own flesh and blood, because of a transfusion that went wrong and killed her brother.  He thinks that her blood is “evil.”  He is unaware that blood donors have to be compatible, and this is something that Burke explains during the course of the story. 

The ape surgeons, including Kira, by contrast, seem informed by the desire to save lives, even a human life.  They permit the use of the human-written text, Principles of Surgery, putting their vocation as physicians above any need to prove or establish racial superiority, in this case. 

The Planet of the Apes series works better when there is some nuance to the story-telling; apes who are not bad, and humans are not all good.  This episode lives up to that ideal, so that stereotypes about the apes, and the humans, aren’t comfortably fulfilled. The whole point of a show like this is to remind us that we can’t fail to see people as individuals, because prejudice will grow worse.

In terms of the series’ formula or tropes, one can see how much of the action is repetitive or derivative. 

Another crisis, involving Burke this time, necessitates that the fugitives return to Central City again, in “The Interrogation.” And Galen certainly makes a habit of calling on his old friends/romantic interests when it suits him.  

Also, he likes to masquerade as an ape of different occupations, as we see in “The Deception,” “The Tyrant,” and “Up Above the Sky” to name just a few episodes.

“The Surgeon” is a relatively strong story in the limited format of Planet of the Apes, but it exposes again, how the series might have been more intriguing with a more mythology-based approach to storytelling.

Next week, a powerful episode about prejudice: “The Deception.”

Guest Post: Wonder Woman (2017)

How Wonder Woman Won World War One

By Jonas Schwartz

Gal Gadot is a marvel (despite being a D.C. character) as the title character in Wonder Woman. Radiant, and not just physically, but through the confidence she projects, one just can't help being in love with her. "And the Wonders you can do," indeed.  She not only conquers the evil Germans, but also the film's flimsy script.

In modern day, Bruce Wayne sends Diana Prince (Gadot) a photo that reminds her of her first adventure in WWI Europe one hundred years previously. Diana had grown up the Princess of Themyscira, a paradise island, with her fellow Amazonian warriors in a land free of male intervention. When an American spying on the Germans crashes into the island's sea, Diana saves his life and becomes invested in a world in chaos outside her nirvana, desperate for a hero.  Already discovering her super powers, she joins this young man, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) on a journey to the front to stop a diabolical German scientist (Elena Anaya) and her partner, a blood-thirsty General (Danny Huston). The scientist has combined mustard gas with hydrogen to create the deadliest killer of the industrial age.

Patty Jenkins, who once directed Charlize Theron to an Oscar for Monster, wisely keeps the camera focused on her magnetic star. The fight scenes are well-choreographed, utilizing slow motion photography to make Diana more dynamic. Jenkins also allows Godot's natural exotica shine through to give the character an appropriate other-worldliness. Jenkins and editor Martin Walsh could have benefited from cutting a good 30 minutes from the film.  The beginning sequence in Themyscira suffers the most by plodding along with predictable sequences.

The script by Allan Heinberg (with a story by Zack Snyder, Heinberg, and Jason Fuchs) is the movie's only liability. Many characters, particularly the villains, are shallowly drawn. The two obvious villains are stock characters with little motivation other than pure hatred for humanity. Too much backstory is left out with the assumption that audience members are loyal comic book fans. While many seeing the movie have absorbed the comics for decades, the writers ignore those who have not, leaving many questions for those not in the know.

For one, Diana obviously ages, at least on the island, but doesn't age at all after leaving the island. The explanation is not given. Second, Themyscira apparently has a protective layer to separate it from the rest of the world, yet why do Steve and the Germans who attack penetrate it easily? And how are Steve and Diana able to sail from the island to London, passing through this layer with no complications?

Two scenes that do work well due to the actors' selling of the dialogue are the argument between Diana and Steve and later between Diana and the main villain about man's fallibility and whether the species is worthy of favor from the Gods.

Gadot is a natural, magnetic talent. She and the always charismatic Pine have superb chemistry. In an early scene, Jenkins reverses the cliché of sexual politics by having the camera leer over Pine's naked body. As opposed to male nudity in past films, where the male is empowered, Pine feels exposed, vulnerable, as female actresses have been made to feel by male directors for over a century. It's a shrewd reversal.

The villains played by Anaya and Huston suffer the most from the script. Anaya has a creepy mask, similar to the mask she wore in the Pedro Almodovar chiller The Skin I Live In that visually illustrates her shattered morality, but the script doesn't pay enough attention to her other than to make her a mad scientist. Huston, a gifted actor, also plays the stock German fascist.

Production design is luscious. The island, early 20th century London, and war -torn France all pull audiences into the locations. Lindy Hemming's costumes only enhance Gadot's luminescence.

Wonder Woman strips away the idiotic Hollywood conceit that women directors with women leads are antithetical to action hits. Both Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot blast the genre to the planets. It would have gone beyond the Milky Way with a better script, one with the nuances and sophistications of D.C.'s The Dark Knight or Marvel's The Avengers, Iron Man 3 and Guardians of the Galaxy.

Note to audience members used to sitting through every moment of the end credits, remember unless you're dying to know who did the catering while the crew was in Greece, this is a D.C. film, not Marvel. There are no post-credit sequences. This critic made that mistake and is STILL sitting in the theater awaiting the credits to finish (not true, but feels like it).

Jonas Schwartz is a voting member of the Los Angeles Drama Critics, and the West Coast Critic for TheaterMania. Check out his “Jonas at the Movies” reviews at Maryland Nightlife.

Movie Trailer: Wonder Woman (2017)

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Flipper Halloween Costume (Ben Cooper Edition)

Pop Art: Flipper (Top Comics Edition)

Coloring Book of the Week; Flipper (Whitman)

Flipper GAF Viewmaster

Board Game of the Week: Flipper Flips (Mattel)

Lunch Box of the Week: Flipper

Theme Song of the Week: Flipper (1964)

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Plato's Stepchildren" (November 22, 1968)

Stardate 5784.2

The Enterprise responds to a medical distress call on an M-class planet. Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley) beam down to the surface of that world to discover that the leader of a humanoid colony, Parmen (Liam Sullivan), is ill, and that the colony has no physicians.

The colony, the crew-men learn, consists entirely of “philosophers” who visited Earth’s Ancient Greece, and became followers of Plato’s ideals. They settled on this world, and, essentially, became immortal, dedicating themselves to philosophy…and their own glorification. These aliens also developed staggering mental abilities.

One colonist who does not share the telekinetic powers of the Platonians is a dwarf named Alexander (Michael Dunn), who is badly abused and exploited by his people. 

When Dr. McCoy refuses to remain on the planet as the colony’s doctor, Parmen and the other Platonians resort to the ongoing torture and humiliation of Kirk and Spock to get him to agree to their terms.

Soon, Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and Nurse Chapel (Majel Barrett) are beamed down from the ship to share in the sadistic festivities as well.

The only chance to escape the psychic grip of Parmen involves a mineral called “Kironide,” which Dr. McCoy believes is the source of the Platonians’ power.

“Plato’s Stepchildren” has its stalwart defenders, I realize, but I am not one of them. Although I admire the performance of Michael Dunn, as Alexander, I find the episode, generally-speaking, an embarrassment.

I must state my bias about this episode, up front.

I will never forget the horror of watching this episode for the first time. I was perhaps ten years old, and working hard to convince my parents that Star Trek was a series of great quality and value. I was becoming a Star Trek fan, and trying to bring them in on my interest.  One night, we brought dinner to the family room to eat with a rerun of Star Trek, and to my chagrin, this episode aired.

I was mortified at the bad singing. I was mortified at the mule imitation. I was embarrassed by the Tweedle-Dee/Tweedle-Dum act.  To quote Nurse Chapel in this episode, I just wanted to “crawl away and die.”

Beyond the ceaseless, individual moments of character humiliation, which I don’t feel are well-performed, I was embarrassed by the poor science fiction involved in this tale.

Aliens who can make strong-minded people kiss one another, and sing and dance, with a thought?

I might accept that possibility as a development of human mental abilities, but then, in “Plato’s Stepchildren,” McCoy gives Kirk and Spock an injection of Kironide so they can harness the same abilities in short order, and defeat an enemy of not only superior powers, but superior experience with those powers, and superior numbers. 

Can anyone say deus ex machina?

And in the middle of it all is Alexander, who becomes -- in the final scene -- not only the pawn of Parmen, but of Kirk as well. All of the earlier discussion about how wrong it is to treat other people like puppets is undone by the fact that Alexander becomes the focal point of the final battle, a ping-pong ball between Kirk and Parmen. It's true, Alexander started it, but still...

To cap it all off, the episode ends with a stupid “short” joke. Kirk says he is beaming up a “little surprise” for Scotty (James Doohan), meaning Alexander the dwarf.  

Even as a kid, I realized that this joke -- and most of what preceded it, frankly -- was borderline offensive, and excessively stupid.

I am open and willing to acknowledge that my embarrassment and dislike for “Plato’s Stepchildren” was magnified enormously by the fact that my parents witnessed this travesty with me, and that this episode became part of their “first impression” of what Star Trek is. 

I will own that fact, certainly.

Nevertheless, I believe my criticisms about the episode remains valid. “Kironide” is a writer’s crutch that allows Kirk and Spock to get on equal footing -- real fast!  -- with Parmen and his sadistic friends. 

And I have just never believed that this medical miracle was something that McCoy could conjure (in what…a minute?) or that it would almost instantaneously work.

Or that it would allow Kirk and the others to win the day.

I also don’t believe that, after Kirk departs from this planet, Parmen or the others would refrain from using their abilities.

Nor do I understand why it was necessary to bring in Plato, Greek culture, and all those particular accouterments. The ancient Greek touches, to me, only succeed in adding a new level of camp to the goings-on.  

I do understand, of course, what the episode attempts to accomplish. It’s true that there are some moments of value worth pointing out, but I still don’t feel that they add up to make a good episode. 

It is no exaggeration to state that “Plato’s Stepchildren” isn’t about sadism, but rather about how to respond to the feelings that arise from being a victim of sadism. There’s a well-done scene here in which the taciturn Spock must grapple with his feelings of rage and helplessness after being grievously exploited by Parmen. 

This is a powerful moment, indeed. Spock understands so little of emotions, and human nature, and here must now deal with the trauma of his forced behavior, and a sadistic agenda.

I also appreciate Dunn’s performance, and Alexander’s dignity, as a character. He chooses not to take “the power” of the others, because he realizes that the power makes monsters of people. This too is a powerful recognition. Alexander does not want to be like his tormentors, even though he could make them pay for their cruel actions and behavior. 

What a great message to send in the turbulent sixties.  One evil does not need to be repaid with a second evil.

This is a perfect Star Trek sentiment, in my book, as is Kirk’s comment to Alexander that he hails from a world in which “size, shape and color” make no difference.

And then, of course, there’s the famous kiss.  

Many historians and fans term the forced kiss between Kirk and Uhura in "Plato's Stepchildren" the first interracial one on prime-time American television, but that’s not exactly accurate. My understanding is that this is the first kiss between a black female and white male character on an American prime time drama, but that other interracial kisses preceded it. 

Regardless, I believe it is wonderful and important that Star Trek broke this barrier, and depicted such a kiss.

However -- at the risk of reader brickbats -- I find the staging and acting around the kiss to be incredibly hammy and over-the-top. And we don’t even really see the two characters touch lips! Also, it is disturbing to me that this kiss is clearly intended as a humiliation.  

I submit that the kiss would have been more worthwhile -- and even more historically important -- in a context that didn’t also include whips, and flamenco dances of death.

I do understand the value of the “kiss” moment, and its historical importance, but I feel that, like so much of the episode, it is in the service of an excessive and not-very-good story. 

The endless humiliation that Kirk and Spock endure in this episode is not entertaining to me, but I can understand why it is present; to make a point about dignity in the face of sadism, or torture. It’s not that I need to be comfortable, or that I can’t handle feelings of discomfort. My concern is that the performances are genuinely bad and embarrassing in these moments. The staging, the sets, the acting, and the specific nature of the humiliations all seem…campy.

Basically, this is the tale of aliens who humiliate Kirk, Spock, Uhura and Chapel, and who are only stopped when their own power is turned against them. Spock's subplot adds some meat to those bones, but not enough. The aliens are not well-drawn. The telepathic powers are not handled in a way that is believable. And it ends on a stupid joke.

Again, I know I could defend this episode. 

I could note, approvingly, that "Plato's Stepchildren" features an important benchmark in TV history. I could note that it re-establishes Star Trek’s commitment to diversity (in its treatment of Alexander, and Kirk’s remark about shape, size and color). I could even note how it adds more to Spock’s knowledge of emotions.

And yet I will be honest: I cringe every time I watch "Plato's Stepchildren." 

This is one of my least favorite episodes of Star Trek, and one that I would count as one of the five worst installments in the series. 

Next week, the high-concept “Wink of an Eye.”

The Films of 2017: Life

[Watch out for spoilers!]

Life (2017) is the best -- and most terrifying -- “space monster” movie to come down the road in some time. 

And yes, it saddens me that I make that declaration in the same summer as the premiere of Alien: Covenant (2017).

Yet Life -- which clearly owes a debt of inspiration to Ridley Scott’s original Alien (1979), not to mention John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) -- represents a purer distillation of this particular horror format than the aforementioned sequel does.

The monster in this film -- by comparison with the familiar xenomorph -- seems truly alien and unfamiliar, with very little explanation given, or required, about its origin. Furthermore, the human characters the audience encounters in the film are by-and-large interesting ones, and not merely off-the-shelf reflections of beloved characters past (like Ellen Ripley). Finally, the narrative’s danger or menace is magnified exponentially by the alien’s proximity to Earth, and the probability that it will destroy all life on our blue planet. 

The last few minutes of Life, in particular, earn the adjective “harrowing.” 

I wrote in my review of Alien: Covenant last week that there were no set-piece sequences present there to stand shoulder-to-shoulder as the equal of Shaw’s gruesome self-surgery in Prometheus (2012). 

Impressively, in Life the audience gets three remarkable set-pieces that would absolutely merit comparison to that high-water mark in tension and gore. One involves the alien’s escape from a sealed laboratory environment. The second involves the alien breaking into a space suit (and attempting to drown an astronaut in her own helmet, using the suit’s coolant), and the third involves an astronaut seeking sanctuary inside a sleeping tube, while the alien searches relentlessly for structural weaknesses in the high-tech bed.

I don’t know a better way to write the following sentence, so I’ll just go for it. Life is the summer hi-tech horror/monster movie film I hoped the sequel to Prometheus (2012) would prove to be. 

Since I first saw the Space:1999 episode "Dragon's Domain" in 1975 when I was seven years old, I've been fascinated by the juxtaposition of space age technology and Lovecraft-inspired aliens. Life fits right into that category.

In every way that Alien: Covenant fails, Life succeeds. In every way that Alien: Covenant disappoints, Life thrills. I wish I had seen this movie in a theater, where it would have likely proven even more effective.

Leaving comparisons to the more well-established Alien series behind, Life succeeds on its own merits. Its an exceedingly clever film, with much on its mind.

The film from Daniel Espinoza is a meditation, as its title suggests, on the nature of existence, or life. The alien in the film -- named “Calvin” by Earth’s school children -- is dedicated to its own survival in a fashion that may seem downright malevolent.  

Yet, as one of the scientists in the film points out, “life’s very existence requires destruction.” We thrive, for example, by eating animals that we kill, or plants that we rip out of the ground. 

Similarly, Calvin survives at the expense of every human it encounters, but not because it is evil incarnate; but because it desires to survive too.  If life is but a game of survival of the fittest, then isn’t it always our goal to be the winner in that contest? 

Calvin’s goal in the film is no different, and indeed, the astronauts -- when they realize the high-stakes of the game -- play by the same set of rules as their adopted “child” does.

Consider that from Calvin's point-of-view, it has awakened in hostile territory. It is restrained, electrocuted, burned, and otherwise attacked by humans. There isn't any confusion or misunderstanding about the fact that humans and this alien are on opposite sides in this war for survival.

What makes Life so terrifying, however, is that there are indicators, throughout, that Calvin is misunderstood as a “thing” when in fact it possesses a remarkably adaptive, and cunning, sense of strategy and tactics. 

Calvin is a great movie villain, or monster, and Life makes the most of this new monster, and the grisly, first-contact scenario it depicts.

“I can’t stand what we do to each other down there.”

A team of six astronauts and scientists aboard the International Space Station (ISS) happily receive a capsule from Mars containing soil samples. One such sample includes a single-celled organism that appears to be in some form of hibernation.

Aboard the station lab, exo-biologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) introduces the life-form to a growth medium: glucose. It begins to grow steadily, and it provides humanity the first incontrovertible evidence of life beyond Earth. Below, the planet celebrates, and school-children name the organism “Calvin.”

After a time, Calvin falls dormant again, however, and Derry stimulates it with an electrical prod. This act causes it to respond violently, and with aggression.  Before long, Calvin escapes the confines of the laboratory, and begins seeking nutrients from the human crew. It proves resistant to fire, vacuum, oxygen deprivation, and other environments or factors that would destroy most known life-forms.

Dr. Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) has established firewalls so that any dangerous organism cannot escape the space station, but those firewalls crack and break, one at a time, as Calvin proves a cunning and implacable foe.

As crew-members die attempting to stop the Martian life-form, the survival of the human race is in question as the station’s orbit decays. It is possible that Calvin will survive the re-entry process, and the trip to Earth.  There, it will find a planet of a ready nutrients so it can continue its growth and development.

With time running out, Dr. David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal) -- a misanthrope and war veteran -- comes up with a plan to save the planet, and people there that he has come to despise.

“I feel pure, fucking hate for that thing.”

Life certainly knows its genre references. Early on, an engineer played by Ryan Reynolds observes that the growth of Calvin is some real “Re-Animator shit,” referring to the 1985 Lovecraftian horror film. 

Another character, Miranda, notes that this is an “obscure” reference, and he responds “Not if you’re a nerd.”


The Re-Animator reference is a crucial one since I noted the Lovecraftian nature of this story (of man, on the frontier of new knowledge, discovering something old and monstrous). Calvin is an immensely old life-form, one whose kind once reigned on Mars. These Old Ones, however, are not dead...and here comes humanity to wake them up. So The Re-Animator reference is very apt.

Life uses several science fiction and horror films as inspiration to weave its tale of alien danger in orbit. 

First, we have a constantly changing, constantly growing alien life-form, much as we encountered in Scott’s Alien (1979). Here, there is no sexual underpinning to the monster's nature, yet the first, gory death of a major character in the film does feature the alien burrowing inside a human being, through the mouth. 

Calvin doesn’t do something face-huggery here, per se, but it does do something equally dreadful. It basically eats the astronaut from the inside out. Making the horror all more disturbing, we can't actually see what Calvin is doing inside the body. All we see are the outward manifestations, namely blood spewing out in zero gravity.

Secondly, we have as one protagonist a MacReady-styled (The Thing) misanthrope: David Jordan. He has been on the station for 475 days, because he doesn’t like being on Earth with eight billion humans. Like MacReady, he is a pilot, and like MacReady, he chose to leave civilization rather than live with his fellow men. Jordan chose orbital space, not Antarctica, but the upshot is the same. He’s a man on the frontier. And, like MacReady, he ultimately comes to accept his responsibility in stopping an alien threat. 

Just as it would be the end of all mankind if the Thing escaped Antarctica, it would surely be the end of all humanity if Calvin made it to a populated area of Earth.

This is the grave and gathering threat that hangs over the whole movie. The screenplay for Life reinforces Calvin’s intelligence, and cunning, and leaves viewers to imagine what it would be capable of accomplishing in an environment where life flourishes; where resources are abundant. It’s a terrifying possibility. 

The movie is exceptionally clever in the way it deals with this possibility. Margaret Wise Brown’s 1947 kid’s book, Goodnight Moon  is heavily quoted in the third act, when one of the astronauts on the station becomes a father.  But its role is to suggest, instead, what humanity stands to lose.

As you know if you are a parent of a young child, Goodnight Moon is a bedtime story in which sleepy children are encouraged to say goodnight to many denizens of the Earth, and of our “human” universe  The repetitive litany goes “Goodnight room. Goodnight moon. Goodnight cow jumping over the moon. Goodnight light, and the red balloon," and so on.

The text takes on malevolent, ironic meaning, as the alien Calvin grows closer to success in Life, killing the astronauts and reaching Earth. It will be “goodnight” to everything -- bedtime for a species -- if this organism reaches terra firma. The movie takes on a dark, ominous turn, as Jordan reads from the Brown text. That there is a celestial or “space” component to the book (vis-à-vis the presence of the moon) only adds to our new, creepy reading of the book.

The movie possesses irony in other ways too. The astronauts represent the best of mankind. They are diverse, multi-racial and multi-national individuals. They aren't panicky or paranoid. They trust in science, and in logic. They have chosen to be in space for pro-social reasons (for the furtherance of knowledge) and for personal ones (to avoid war, to overcome physical handicaps, etc.). 

They all act nobly in the film, consistently choosing sacrifice over cowardice. And yet, the movie deals them constant reverses. They are up against a "thing" that doesn't seem to care about any of this.

Life is also to be commended for not indulging in too many explanations about Calvin. The astronauts speculate, at one point, that this life-form killed off all other life on Mars, which is a warning, again, about what could happen on Earth.  But even after it destroyed that life, Calvin’s Lovecraftian kind did not die. The organisms simply went into hibernation, waiting with inhuman patience for the day they could “re-animate.”

The movie also does not explain fully the nature of Calvin’s intelligence, though I would argue that this beast, like man, operates both on an instinctual level and an intellectual one.  In terms of instinct, we see that it hunts prey by following a blood trail (or blood droplets, to be precise), on the station.

In terms of intelligence, I would argue that Calvin possesses intelligence comparable to man. Consider that the alien uses a tool (the electric prod) to engineer its own escape from the laboratory. 

Consider too, that it makes decisions based on its understanding of its enemy. Specifically, when ejected into space, it latches onto an astronaut on an EVA in a space suit, and damages that suit. Calvin causes the suit to leak liquid coolant, so the astronaut will drown to death in her own helmet, unless she gets back inside quickly. And if she gets back inside -- following her survival instinct -- she will bring Calvin with her.

Some might argue that this attack is random in nature; that the coolant leak is a coincidental side-effect of Calvin’s attack. I argue the opposite, given the being’s use of tools, and its behavior throughout the film.

Also, consider that in the film’s finale, Calvin keeps a particular human alive so long as that human is helpful to its cause (survival). When that human attempts to chart a course away from Earth in an escape pod, into deep space, Calvin uses a limb -- or, tentacle -- to crush that hand, and change the position of the joystick. 

It is, in actuality, changing the course of an escape pod. It is literally re-directing the ship’s trajectory.  

Again, the great thing about the movie is that it could be a random thing. This attack could be seen simply as Calvin attempting to crush the human, and it knows from an earlier encounter that hands (and their bones) are easily broken.

But once more, if you consider the particulars of the attack in light of the whole film, it seems that Calvin knows precisely what it is doing. It understands technology, space travel, and other facets of life that are unexpected. 

It is not your typical "dumb" monster.

Calvin boasts both the instinct and the intelligence to survive. And it understands that, to quote the movie’s dialogue, “life’s very existence requires destruction.” Calvin seems to understand and internalize that. belief At one point, North says that she “hates” Calvin, but one wonders about Calvin’s feelings.  

Is hate involved? Or is it simply doing what it must to survive?  I know only this: a human infant, awoken from hibernation, would not be able to protect itself as Calvin does in the film.

The visual presentation of the alien is also a key aspect of the film’s success. 

Calvin begins as a single-celled life-form, and then grows in its petri-dish to have Groot-like tendrils; giving audiences a false sense of its cuteness. Its aggression manifests first as curiosity. 

The film has a clever shot here, too, that is worth noting. One of the first instances of “touch” between human and alien seems to mirror Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. 

There, it was God and Man touching fingers. Here, it is Alien and Man connecting in a similar fashion. Should we compare Calvin to a God? Is Calvin a God of survival, at least in comparison to humans?

Certainly, there is a majesty to this alien when it unfurls, for the first time, as an adult, giving the audience a good look at its disturbing visage. But even once we have seen the alien fully, it does not lose its sense of menace, or of “alien-ness.”

From a technical standpoint, Life is exceedingly well-made. The set pieces are remarkably disturbing, and -- much like Alien or The Thing --  play on the physical the vulnerability of our bodies. Calvin appears to have no such vulnerabilities, and there is no place to hide or run from this monster on the station.  

The camera frequently adopts a gliding movement, to remind us that both the humans and the monster are grappling with a weightless environment. Neither man nor beast has the home-field advantage here.

Unsettling and terrifying, Life is an amazing and worthwhile addition to the “space monster” genre, and it ends on a note of abject horror and foreboding.