Saturday, June 17, 2017

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Ark II: "The Tank" (October 16, 1976)

In this episode of the Filmation bicentennial era TV series Ark II, the moving “repository of scientific knowledge”—the Ark II -- cruises Sector 18, Area 93 and finds an “old battleground” there.  Captain Jonah’s stated mission is to make sure that “nothing dangerous still exists” there.

Nearby, scavengers attack and abduct a young woman named Jewel (Bonnie Van Dyke). She was visiting the battleground with her friend Zachery (Christopher S. Nelson) in defiance of their village’s laws.  There, Jewel’s dad -- the leader – has decreed that all machines are forbidden because they are “evil.”

Jonah visits the village to tell the village leader of Jewel’s abduction, and responds that machines are “just tools” and that “good and bad exist in the men” who use them.  This opinion doesn’t sway the leader, but when he and Samuel and Adam are also captured by the scavengers, Jonah and Ruth deploy a pre-apocalypse tank to help free the captives from a mountainside jail.

After the scavengers are successfully dispatched, the village changes its rules about machines, and the tank – an ancient war machine – is converted into a useful farming vehicle.  It’s a literal reading of the notion of turning swords into plough-shares, and a terrific final image for the episode.  Jonah’s final log entry in the episode reminds viewers that men can “seek out the good or bad in anything.”

Like all Ark II episodes featured thus far, “The Tank” is heavily moralistic and didactic in tone, but again the series was oriented towards children and these social messages were part of the Filmation formula.  What I appreciate so much about the program is what Ruth notes explicitly in this episode: “We don’t carry weapons.  We don’t believe in them.”  Instead, the Ark II team again uses that defensive weapon I mentioned last week: a hand-held light device which momentarily blinds enemies, a nice variation on the ideas of phasers set to stun, you might say.  It’s nice to see, each week, that the Ark II crew lives up to its values and don’t carry guns.

In terms of visuals, the opening of “The Tank” is a little intense for kids.  A group of male scavengers snatch a protesting, wriggling, screaming woman, Jewel.  This abduction looks and plays like a moment more appropriate to The Road Warrior (1982) than a children’s TV series.  The implication, at least at this point, is that Jewel is going to be physically assaulted.  Like I said, tough stuff for a kid’s program of the 1970's.

Once more, the Adam character is a bit of a stumbling block for me.  The talking ape is used often as comic relief, and here he makes banana on bread sandwiches for the crew’s lunch.  Again, I really wish they wouldn’t have the monkey preparing the food for the humans.  I’ll be blunt: this series would be a heck of a lot better without the talking chimp, especially since the series writers make no effort whatsoever to explain him.

Finally, there are some new sound effects featured in this week’s installment, and they all sound like they are borrowed from the original Star Trek.  Aside from that, “The Tank” features some nice new footage of the Ark II activating its force field, and of the vehicle roaming the battlefield of ruins.

Next Week: “The Slaves."

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Lidsville: "The Old Hat Home"

In “The Old Hat Home,” Hoo-doo (Charles Nelson Reilly) is refused a slot in the charity talent show for the Old Hats Home. 

In response, the angry wizard transforms Mark (Butch Patrick), Weenie (Billie Hayes), and the Good Hats into stooped-over senior citizens. Then, he steals the charity money they have raised for the home.

When Hoo-doo realizes that old, infirm hats can’t work and pay him back taxes, he returns his victims to normal...but keeps the charity money. 

Mark comes up with a plan, however, to get the box of charity money back. And it will require Hoo-Doo to believe that he didn’t successfully restore the good hats to their youthful look.

This episode of Lidsville is, as usual, quite strange. But the action that precipitates the narrative is also oddly unnecessary. The Good Hats plan a talent show to raise money for old hats. Hoo-doo learns of this development, and wants to participate. He wants to do a magic act in the show, and even sings a song about himself (“who does magic like Houdini wishes he could?” he croons).

But the good hats refuse Hoo-doo a slot. Mark claims that the show is already full, but would one more act really hurt?  It seems to me that this is a (missed) opportunity on the part of the Good Hats. 

Why? While Hoo-doo is on stage, it would be an ideal opportunity for Mark and Weenie to escape, unimpeded.  Secondly, what does it really harm to let Hoo-doo participate?

By this point (episode #15 of the series), however, the formula has hardened, and the narrative flies largely on automatic pilot. Hoo-doo acts evilly and vengefully, and Mark suggests a disguise (old age costumes!) to get back an item Hoo-doo has stolen.  In the end, Hoodoo -- ever the incompetent wizard – botches a counter-attack, and he becomes victim of his own magic. In this case, he is made young by his “zap of youth,” and turned into a baby.

It’s not exactly bad, but it’s not fresh either. Just more of the same.

Next week: “The Great Brain Robbery.”

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Films of 1990: Predator 2

The opening shot of Predator 2 (1990) is a remarkable one.

Director Stephen Hopkins’ camera rockets over a dense jungle landscape, thus reminding audiences of the 1987 John McTiernan film and its Central American locale. 

Then -- as the camera continues to speed over myriad tree tops -- it pans up to reveal…modern Los Angeles, the urban jungle, on the horizon.

This composition is a great visual way to connect the two films in the franchise, and a sure sign that Hopkins boasts an active intellect and more to the point, a great eye.

It’s as if the last moments of Predator have become, literally, the first moments of Predator 2. 

Predator 2 is also appreciated by many horror movie fans because it provides the first cinematic evidence of a “shared” universe with another beloved franchise: Alien (1979). 

During the climax of this sequel cop/warrior Mike Harrigan (Danny Glover) finds his way aboard a grounded Predator spaceship and sees a trophy room that boasts a Giger-style alien skull.

At first blush this might seem like a throwaway moment, but, certainly, it paves the way for the Alien vs. Predator movies of the 2000s. Already, Dark Horse had seen success by pairing the two monsters in a comic series, but Predator 2 is the first such evidence of a shared universe on the silver screen.

Whether that’s a good thing or not, I’ll leave up to you, the reader, but Predator 2 intimates a shared history between two great movie monsters in a way that isn’t entirely obvious or craven (like, say, Freddy’s finger knives dragging Jason’s hockey mask down to Hell.)

Instead, the reveal of the alien skull in Predator 2 is an awesome moment that expands significantly both franchises.We now know that Predators have defeated the acid-dripping, silver-jawed monstrosities, and likewise that those monstrosities have been around since well before Ripley’s first encounter with them. This moment in the film thus succeeds in the manner that was intended.  It tantalizes us with possibilities, and with a history/relationship we don’t fully understand...but can imagine.  Sadly, this summer's Alien: Covenant (2017), largely overwrites this history, since the android David doesn't create the Xenomorph we know (and love?) until centuries after the events of this film.


This sequel also shares much with another science fiction film of 1990: RoboCop 2.

For example, both Predator 2 and RoboCop 2 feature moments that suggest the tabloidization of American news, the rise of such fare as Inside Edition or A Current Affair. Both films also worry about runaway crime rates in America at the time, and obsess on the notion of our streets becoming the battleground for drug and gang wars. 

And both films -- truly -- are anarchic in visualization, graphic violence and tone, suggesting that the near future will be a time of visceral, bloody horror, sensational news and beleaguered infrastructure. 

In both films, the cops can barely hold their own.

Predator 2 never quite reaches the provocative and anarchic highs or lows of RoboCop 2 but -- to its ever-lasting credit -- the Hopkins sequel is more than willing to acknowledge the humor inherent in its central scenario.

At one point, the hulking Predator ends up in the bathroom of a cranky old woman, and at another juncture attacks a busload of commuters (including a Bernard Goetz character…) simply because they are all armed. 

This scene may represent the best argument for gun control ever put to genre film: Don’t carry a weapon on your way to work, because the Predator -- while on safari -- interprets all gun-owners as “soldiers” and wipes them out with extreme prejudice. Seriously, this film imagines Bernard Goetz-vigilantism as the norm of 1997, and it's a commentary right in line with the imaginings of the RoboCop films.

I admire many aspects of Predator 2 and consider it a worthwhile sequel overall, yet I don’t see it necessarily as an equal to its predecessor in terms of suspense and storytelling. The movie occasionally suffers a bad case of Alien-itis too: cribbing too liberally from 20th Century Fox’s other space monster franchise.

That tendency doesn’t help the film to cement its own individual identity, and works against the director's best efforts.

“Shit happens.”

In the near-future year of 1997, Los Angeles is choking under perpetual smog, and its streets are a war-zone. 

There, rival gangs -- the Jamaicans and the Colombians -- duke it out for superiority. One of the city’s best cops, Mike Harrigan (Glover) attempts to bring order to the streets, but soon finds that a third, chaotic element has been added to the summertime bloodshed.

In particular, a stealthy alien hunter or predator has arrived in L.A. and begun picking off gang members, as well as cops like Harrigan’s trusted friend, Danny (Ruben Blades).

When a federal agent, Keyes (Gary Busey) begins interfering in his investigation, Harrigan suspects a dark secret. 

He soon comes face to face with the intimidating alien hunter, and learns that Keyes and his men are planning to capture it…

“There’s a new king in the streets.”

When I think back on Predator, which I reviewed last week on the blog, the images that stay with me, in particular, come from the last third of the picture. There, Arnold’s character, Dutch went up against the Predator with no advanced technology in a primordial jungle, and won.  

The battle could have occurred in prehistoric times.

Obviously, a sequel to Predator couldn’t plumb the identical imagery or locale, or even concept, and so Predator 2 tries hard to carve an original space for itself.  The sequel notes, for example, that in the 1990s, “cops” are the warriors of civilization, fighting back criminals on the streets and protecting an endangered populace. 

This is a valid concept, and also feels very much of the epoch. If you gaze at the 1990s, and consider series such as Law and Order (1990 – 2010), or movies such as The First Power (1990), Fallen (1998), Resurrection (1999) or End of Days (1999) it’s not difficult to see how the police procedural format became incredibly popular, and dominated genre entertainment.

Predator 2 fits in with that trend, and Danny Glover makes for a very different kind of “soldier” than Arnie did. Both men are fiercely protective of their teams, but Harrigan is -- living up to his name: “harried” -- forced to accommodate multiple levels of hierarchy and bureaucracy in a fashion that Dutch simply did not.  Dutch eventually had to deal with Dillon’s duplicity (as Harrigan deals with Keyes’ secrecy and cover story), but Harrigan is more constrained from the get-go based on his job, his heavily populated “arena” of battle, and other factors of late 20th century human civilization.. 

One way to gaze at the Predator franchise is simply as a study of soldiers, an examination of the qualities that go into the making of a good one. Predator, Predator 2, and Predators (2010) have different things to tell audiences on that topic, and all the observations are intriguing. Certainly, Predator suggests that  good or advanced weapons don’t make for the best soldiers.  

Predator 2 seems to suggest that a good soldier succeeds by overcoming not his enemy, but those unofficial enemies who make his task more difficult. Harrigan must contend with the presence of innocent civilians, bureaucrats, and infrastructural impediments on his mission to stop the alien hunter. Meanwhile, Predators seems to suggest that real soldiers are a breed apart, and that breed seems to span all cultures.

The downside to Predator 2’s approach is simply that as soon as you have a rampaging alien creature in familiar, city environs, some moments there are going to read as…funny. You can’t play on the feelings of isolation that you might in the jungle setting.  

So when a Predator crashes through a bathroom wall here and nearly runs into an old woman brandishing a broom, you’re in a whole different kind of territory. The last act of the film suffers from a tonal ping-pong between action, comedy, and horror. I prefer the back-to-basics, straight-on approach of Predator’s finale in the jungle. It’s more pure, somehow; more consistent.

Predator 2, at times, seems to verge on camp. If the film featured a more pronounced, consistent social commentary (as is clearly the case in the gonzo-crazy RoboCop 2), the tone-changes in Predator 2 might have tracked better. I like Gary Busey just fine, but his presence -- and line readings -- ratchet up the tongue-in-cheek aspects of the film.

Lions, and tigers and bears. Oh my.

In the introduction, I also noted creeping Alien clichés in this film. There’s one scene here in which right-thinking Harrigan watches on a row of high-tech monitors as wrong-thinking Keyes leads an ill-fated attack against the Predator. The Predator decimates the team, and Harrigan -- tired of being on the sidelines -- steps up to save the day, or win the battle.  

This scene is an exact mirror of a scene in Cameron’s Aliens (1986).  There, Ripley watches on a row of monitors as the Colonial Marines get their asses kicked on Sub Level 3. She must take action herself, because she is right, and Lt. Gorman is so clearly wrong.  

There's even a similar deer-in-the-headlights moment in Predator 2 for  one Gorman surrogate, Garber (Adam Baldwin).

Similarly, Harrigan appropriates a Ripley-ish line from Alien, while talking to Keyes. “You admire the son of a bitch,” he realizes. 

This is also what Ripley realized vis-à-vis Ash and the xenomorph in the Ridley Scott 1979 original

It’s just baffling that a film seeking so aggressively to artistically break free from its successful predecessor would mindlessly ape another film series at the same. These moments are transparently derivative, and undo some of the creative success Hopkins achieves with this sequel.

Still, I appreciate the final revelations of Predator 2. These moments prove chilling. One of the final scenes, inside the spaceship, features not only an alien skull, but evidence that the Predators have been interacting with humans for a very, very long time indeed. They have been here, are here now, and will return soon.  

That’s a creepy thought, and I love how the old Predator leader demonstrates grudging respect for Harrigan, his prey, by gifting him a gun from the 1700s…a souvenir emblematic of their differences, and shared history.

Writing for The Washington Post, review Rita Kempley wrote persuasively of Predator 2’s “dismal irony” and “brooding fatalism” (November 21, 1990). 

I like those qualities too, and I enjoy this sequel quite a bit. I’ll take it over AVP: Requiem (2007) or Alien Resurrection (1997) any day. Predator 2 doesn’t scuttle its franchise, and in some ways it expands the cycle's reach in a wonderful, creative way.   

And yet the tonal lapses into comedy and rip-off territory prevent Predator 2 from being a truly great sequel to one of the best action-horror films of the eighties.

Movie Trailer: Predator 2 (1990)

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Planet of the Apes TV Series Blogging: "The Deception" (November 1, 1974)

In “The Deception,” Galen (Roddy McDowall), Alan Virdon (Ron Harper) and Peter Burke (James Naughton) unexpectedly become enmeshed in a local racial dispute when the death of an ape at human hands results in vigilante acts by angry apes.

These vigilante apes ride on horses, wear hoods, and torch farms belonging to humans. They are also willing to commit murder to assert their supremacy (and their hatred for humans). These are the monsters known as the Dragoons.

The fugitives meet with the daughter, Fauna (Jane Acton), of the slain ape, Lucian, and learn that she is blind.  She mistakes Burke for an ape and falls in love with him, an act which precipitates an unfortunate deception on the part of the heroic trio.

Meanwhile, Galen pretends to be a human-hating ape so as to infiltrate “the dragoons,” the ape vigilante cult. His mission fails, which means that Alan and Pete have no choice but to seek the help of local ape authorities.

Although, again, there is no real mythology presented in this episode of Planet of the Apes (1974), “The Deception” is nonetheless one of the strongest episodes of the short-lived series. There are two reasons why this is the case.

First, the episode focuses on an unfortunate mistake or accident. Fauna, an ape, falls in love with Burke, a human, and he can’t correct the situation without putting himself and his friends in danger. In other words, Burke must go on, with Galen’s help, pretending to be an ape, so as not to be discovered. Burke is acutely aware that this deception is hurtful to Fauna. Galen actually gets angry with Burke about the situation, though there is nothing else to be done. 

I could write that this is a very “human” predicament, but that may not be an appropriate description given the circumstances. The bottom line is that this episode allows Galen to show anger and irritation when he perceives that a gentle, kind ape is mistreated. And it also permits Burke to express regret over his own actions. Too often, the main characters on this series seem infallible or are grappling only with simple-minded action plot-lines. Here, the cost of the fugitives’ deception is very personal.

Secondly, “The Deception” works beautifully on an allegorical or metaphorical level.

Here, apes who boast monstrous race-hatred towards humans don hoods, burn down human farms, and threaten humans with terror so as to achieve their agenda of dominance. “The Deception” calls these monsters “The Dragoons.” 

We recognize them, in our world, as the Ku Klux Klan.

The Klan (and the Dragoons) believe first and foremost in their own superiority, and secondly, that their superiority gives them the right to circumvent the law to achieve their ends. The Dragoons, and their real life model, are but cowards who hide in hoods so they can commit their crimes without reprisals from law enforcement, and society at large.  

It is rewarding that Planet of the Apes would tackle the problem of race-based hate groups in America, in 1974, and the comparison to our world is powerful, and impossible to miss. The presentation of the “Dragoons” is similarly a reminder that not everybody accepts diversity, or people of different beliefs. Some people respond to evolving social order with terrible violence. Some people seek to destroy that which is different, or which they don't understand.

Notably, the gorilla sheriff, Perdix (Baynes Barron) in this episode is treated in an even-handed manner, which is quite a surprise given the franchise. He may be a gorilla, but nonetheless he sees the value in the rule of law, and does not succumb to the hatred that other apes -- including a chimpanzee -- do, in this situation.  

Gorillas are almost universally treated as one-note, or two-dimensional characters in this series; they are dumb, militaristic brutes. This episode stands out as a notable and remarkable exception.

Fauna is also a terrific character, and the fact that she is blind is not a gimmick. Instead, it is a significant reminder that we can't always "see" the truth, even when it is right in front of us. Fauna hates humans because she believed they killed her father. She is unaware that her own kind -- apes -- are responsible for this crime.  

She falls in love with Burke, as well, because of the kindness she senses him. She has closed herself off the possibility that the quality of kindness could exist in a human being. Without her eyes to confirm her hatred, she is a different person

“The Deception” is a powerful, well-constructed episode because it isn’t just a series of captures and rescues, but a story about people who make mistakes, and about dark tendencies that we recognize from our own world, even today.

Next week, a journey back to the mundane: “The Horse Race.”

Cult-TV Movie Review: Spectre (1977)

Paranormal scholar (and egotist) William Sebastian (Robert Culp) summons his old friend, alcoholic physician Dr. “Ham” Hamilton (Gig Young) to help him in his pursuit of knowledge of the supernatural, and in particular, one diabolical case. 

Hamilton’s presence is necessary -- despite a recent falling out between the two men -- because of Sebastian’s unusual physical condition.  His heart has been injured in an occult fashion. A voodoo doll effigy of Sebastian was stabbed with a pin, and now it may be fatal for Sebastian to exert himself physically. 

Unfortunately, Sebastian has not been able to locate the actual doll, and prevent further injury.

After contending with a succubus in his study using The Apocryphal Book of Tobit, Sebastian informs Hamilton that he has had his housekeeper, Lilith (Majel Barrett) cast a spell to rid him of his alcoholic addiction.  Sebastian needs a stable Hamilton on his next investigation, in London.

There, Sebastian plans to help Anitra Cyon (Anne Bell) determine if her brother, Sir Geoffrey (James Villiers) has been influenced by a demonic figure. Not long ago, a Druid tomb was found beneath the family estate. This subterranean Stonehenge, called “The Fire Pit” is believed to possess occult powers.

Sebastian and Hamilton investigate further and discover that a demon of corruption and lust -- Asmodeus -- is indeed using the body of one of the Cyon siblings, but it is not Geoffrey who is possessed, but rather Mitri (John Hurt).

And worse, if Geoffrey fails to act as Asmodeus’s priest, the demon has a replacement in mind: Sebastian.

Spectre (1977) is the late Gene Roddenberry’s (1921-1991) final failed pilot or TV movie of the disco decade.

Previously, the Star Trek creator had attempted to make series from Genesis II (1973), Planet Earth (1974), and The Questor Tapes (1974), all to no avail. Today, I would love it if an enterprising producer resurrected any of these creative genre projects for our twenty-first century era. Each one possesses incredible promise.

Certainly, Spectre’s occult/supernatural approach qualifies it as a proto-X-Files, especially with the focus on partners of opposite temperaments. There is also a Sherlock Holmes and Watson aspect to the central relationship of Sebastian and Hamilton.  Culp and Young possess a nice chemistry with one another here.

Spectre also fits in, generally, with the TV movies of the 70’s, including The Night Stalker (1972), and The Norliss Tapes (1973) in terms of subject matter. The decade saw a continuing fascination with demonology and occult trappings.  But Spectre differentiates itself with the added bonus of Roddenberry’s trademark kinkiness. The TV-movie possesses an undercurrent of sexuality.

Specifically, the TV movie features a scene with a succubus – a “carnal,” minor demon -- who attempts to seduce men to her death.  This is one of the best scenes in the telefilm.

And then Spectre features the (infamous) S&M bondage scene in the second act. To describe the sequence more fully, Ham awakes in bed (in the middle of the night) with a surprise lover, and then is joined by a dominatrix and a young woman who appears to be a school girl. A panel on one wall in the bedroom slides away to reveal a secret shelf of whips and chains. In a very funny scene, Sebastian walks in on the befuddled Ham, as he contends with this sexual surprise.

Additionally, if you catch the European version of Spectre, you’ll also see a lot of female pulchritude and nudity in the closing demon worship sequence. Apparently nudity was added for benefit of strong overseas sales.

The kinky, funny aspects of the tale definitely mark this as a Roddenberry production, but Spectre carries other value as well. The whole subplot involving Sebastian as the victim of an occult attack, involving a voodoo doll, is fascinating, and differentiates this from other programs of the era. Although this was the era of standalone televisions, rather than serials, it is fascinating that Sebastian here boasts this built-in background with the occult that could inform many stories.  I wonder what other dark rituals he explored in his hunt for the truth, before reconnecting with Ham.

Indeed, Sebastian’s back story is fascinating. He is a behavioral scientist who worked with law-enforcement to catch Charles Manson, and mass murderer Richard Speck. He became convinced that logic and science couldn’t adequately explain the “unspeakable” evil of these individuals and begin to investigate the supernatural as a possible reason. In fact, he nearly fell under the thrall of Asmodeus, until his humanity re-asserted itself and he refused to become the thing he hated. Now, apparently, Asmodeus is offering him a second chance to act as his acolyte or priest on Earth.

Would Asmodeus have offered him another chance?  Grounded ever more deeply in demonology, would Sebastian have accepted the offer?

The best parts of Spectre involve character background (Sebastian’s) and the character interaction between the two protagonists. There is a jaunty feel to the TV movie, which distinguishes it from many other occult films of the era.  If Star Trek had gone supernatural -- with its joie de vivre, colorful characters, and occasional tongue in cheek -- we might have gotten a masterpiece here, of supernatural series. 

Instead, we are left with a lot of “what ifs?”  And that’s the “specter” that hangs over this made-for-TV movie (and backdoor pilot) for forty years ago.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Pop Art: Howdy Doody (TV Guide Edition)

Howdy Doody Tru Vue

Trading Cards of the Week: Howdy Doody (Burry's)

Coloring Book of the Week: Howdy Doody

Lunch Box of the Week: Howdy Doody

Board Game of the Week: Howdy Doody (Milton Bradley)

Theme Song of the Week: Howdy Doody (1954-1959)

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Wink of an Eye" (November 29, 1968)

Stardate 5710.5

The U.S.S. Enterprise investigates a mysterious distress signal emanating from the planet Scalos.

There, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and his landing party discover an empty, highly-advanced metropolis on the surface, even as Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) reports that she is still receiving the distress call, and seeing those who sent it -- on the view-screen -- at Kirk’s position.

After a crewman in the landing party named Compton (Geoffrey Binney) vanishes into thin air, Kirk and his team return to the Enterprise, unaware that they have brought with them a squad of “hyper-accelerated” Scalosians.

These Scalosians are led by beautiful Queen Deela (Kathie Brown) and her head scientist, Rael (Jason Evers).

Rael’s task is to rapidly convert the Enterprise into a “giant deep freeze” so as to preserve the crew for future breeding stock with the Scalosian women.  The men of the planet, it seems, are sterile and the race is dying off.

Meanwhile, Deela has selected Captain Kirk as breeding stock.

Contaminating his coffee with Scalosian water, Deela accelerates Kirk’s metabolism, and explains to him that the process weakens human cells, meaning he is susceptible to accelerated aging if his skin is scratched, or broken. This means, for Kirk, that any resistance to the Scalosian plan could prove fatal.

Meanwhile, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley) work on an antidote to the hyper-accelerated Scalosian water so as to heal Captain Kirk.

But they must act quickly, before the Scalosians activate their freezing device…

“Wink of an Eye” is an extremely memorable, if not extremely high-quality, episode of Star Trek (1966-1969).  The episode -- which features hyper-accelerated aliens attempting to take over the Enterprise -- is another “high concept” show in a season filled with high concept shows.

When producer Fred Freiberger took over show-running Star Trek in its third season, the ratings were low, the expenses were high, and the future of the series appeared grim.  Without additional resources, he must have been at a loss regarding how to “punch” up the series.

Accordingly -- under Freiberger’s tenure -- the series featured many stories that were extremely memorable or distinct in terms of their imagery and narrative, perhaps in an attempt to hook those elusive new viewers. 

These stories were universally ambitious, but not all worked well. Consider: this is the season that see aliens steal Spock’s brain, features a look at Kirk with pointed ears (“The Enterprise Incident”), highlights black/white aliens (“Let that Be Your Last Battlefield”) and so forth. “Wink of an Eye” follows solidly in the tradition of a high concept show. The central hook is irresistible: aliens who move so fast that they are invisible to the naked eye.

So, yes, “Wink of an Eye” is the Star Trek in which aliens invade the Enterprise, but you can’t see them…you can only hear the “buzz” of their hyper-accelerated dialogue.  To make the (high) concept even more appealing, we see an alien character (Deela) out-walk a phaser blast on the bridge, and a series of skewed angles to suggest the wonky, slo-mo transition from normal time to accelerated time.

By-and-large, these touches work to make “Wink of an Eye” unforgettable. There’s no other show in the canon quite like it, even though the tale of aliens taking over the Enterprise is fairly common (“By Any Other Name,” “I, Mudd,” “Day of the Dove,” etc.)

Enhancing “Wink of an Eye’s” distinctive nature, this episode also features the famous (infamous?) moment wherein we see Captain Kirk dressing after having sex with Deela. He sits on the corner of the bed in his quarters, and the audience sees him putting his boots back on.  For 1969, this is a fairly overt indicator they have just had sexual intercourse. Or to put it another way, this is the most overt indicator on the series that Kirk has engaged in intercourse (as Sheri points out, in an out-of-wedlock relationship; see "The Paradise Syndrome!")

Again, these moments make “Wink of an Eye” unforgettable. But unforgettable doesn’t necessarily mean “great.” Specifically, the episode’s denouement proves mystifying. McCoy and Spock have developed an antidote that could restore Deela and her dying people to normal, but instead of sharing it, Kirk leaves the Scalosians stranded in hyper-accelerated time.

Why wouldn’t he offer these very human-like aliens the antidote? At this point, the Scalosians are no longer a threat.

Furthermore, if cured of their condition, they would have no further need to hijack and attack starships.

Instead of helping, Kirk says goodbye to Deela knowing that he could save her.

But he doesn’t save her. 

Why?Does the Prime Directive apply here, and forbid Kirk from altering the "fate" of the Scalosians?  He certainly interacts with Deela...right?

The episode features some other problems regarding logistics as well. For instance, Kirk and Deela are not alone on the bridge when he fires his phaser at her. She steps aside easily. But wouldn’t Spock and the others see the bright green beam fired, even if it can’t see the persons firing it, or being fired at? 

Also, phaser beams are amplified, concentrated columns of light, right? Don't these rays the speed of light?  If so, I don't care how fast Deela is...she would still get hit by the phaser beam.  Still, the special effects look great in this scene.

Similarly, wouldn’t the automatic doors aboard the Enterprise constantly be opening and closing (for no apparent reason…) when the accelerated Scalosians use them?  Or do the Scalosians just jump through open doors when non-accelerated people are already walking through them?

It also seems weird to me -- at least in 2017 -- that so much time is spent during the episode on the Enterprise crew puzzling out that the Scalosian message is recorded, and not live. This would have been an obvious conclusion, even in the 1960’s or 1970’s.

Fortunately, “Wink of an Eye” is a high-concept show, and a sexy one too. It moves effortlessly and with great pace, even if, at times, one stops to question the science, or the character motivation (particularly Kirk’s).

Next week: “The Empath.”

Thirty Years Ago: Predator (1987)

Back in the summer of 1987 -- thirty years ago -- the conventional wisdom about John McTiernan’s Predator (1987) was that it started out like Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and ended up like Alien (1979) or, perhaps, James Cameron’s Aliens (1986). At least, that's how critic Roger Ebert described the film.

By framing the film in this simplistic fashion, Predator could be viewed as a simple or derivative swipe at two separate genre inspirations. 

It was part action movie and part sci-fi/horror movie. 

And that, as Ebert declared, passed for originality in Hollywood.

That’s a left-handed compliment if I ever read one!

The truth about Predator, contrarily, is that it is all of a piece, and thematically consistent throughout. 

Indeed, the intense film forges a debate about warriors or soldiers, and asks, specifically, what the best soldiers are made of. 

Do soldiers succeed because of their technology? 

Or do the best soldiers succeed because of some combination of instinct, experience, and a tactical understanding of their enemy?

McTiernan’s film sets up this debate in the film's visualizations.

Specifically, a squad of American soldiers, led by Arnold Schwarzenegger's Dutch, rain down death and destruction on Third World, Central American soldiers, literally coming down to a village from a point on high to do so. 

This action occurs in the first act, and establishes, per the dialogue, that Schwarzenegger’s team is “the best.” We see that adjective vividly demonstrated in a siege set-piece of extreme violence and bloodshed.  The soldiers show no mercy, and give no quarter to their enemy.

The next act of the film, however, deliberately reverses that equation. It positions Schwarzenegger’s team on the ground, and puts an alien hunter at an even higher position -- in the tree-tops -- to rain down death on his “primitive” Earthbound counter-parts. 

The soldiers who were the predators are now the prey. And they have no reason to expect mercy.

In both cases, the technologically-superior force wins, and the perceived primitive or lesser opponent is knocked down and defeated. 

In both cases, McTiernan vividly and explicitly associates that sense of superiority with a sense of geographical height; a high physical vantage point, captured by the camera's position.

The winner can, literally, reach heights that the loser can’t, and this is one important reason for his victory.

However, in the third and final act of Predator, Arnold and the alien hunter go head to head -- on equal footing -- and it is only on that terrain, one not involving technology, but rather instincts and know-how, that the best soldier is identified, and a victor is crowned.

So where many 1987 critics chose to see a film that is half Rambo and half Alien, I see a film that develops logically and consistently, act to act. You can’t get to that final, almost primordial reckoning in the jungle between the Predator and Dutch unless you frame the debate in precisely the way the screenplay does, and in the way McTiernan does. 

In short, the film depicts the best soldiers in the world demonstrating their ability to defeat all comers, only to be defeated by an enemy better than them; one not of this world.  

The first and second act are two sides of the same coin, the idea -- with apologies to Star Wars Episode I (1999) -- that there is always a bigger fish out there waiting to demonstrate superior technology.

Predator’s third act -- a glorious back-to-basics conflict that looks like it was authentically staged in a prehistoric setting -- makes the point that the greatest hunter or soldier is actually the one who understands his enemy, and trusts his instincts. 

Why make a movie in this fashion? 

Well, in a sense, Predator might be read as a subversive response to the militarization of action films in the mid-1980's, and the kind of shallow, rah-rah patriotism that gave rise to efforts like Heartbreak Ridge (1986), which celebrated an American military victory over…Grenada.


Was Grenada really a challenge to American domination, given our military budget and might? 

Contrarily, Predator takes a group of tough-talking “ultimate warriors” and puts them in a situation where they aren’t merely shooting fish in a barrel. 

They are the fish in the barrel.

In reckoning with this sudden and total change in fortunes, we begin to glean a true idea of courage and heroism.

All of the Earthly politics in the movie -- illegal border crossings, a false cover story, documentation about a possible invasion, and so forth -- add up to precisely nothing here, and there's a reason why. Those details are immaterial to the real story of soldiers who reckon with an enemy that goes beyond the limits of Earthly knowledge.

Ironically, to be the best soldier in a situation like that, it isn’t the big Gatling gun that matters. It’s the ability to adapt to and understand the kind of menace encountered.

Predator features a lot of macho talk and clichés about war (“I ain’t got time to bleed,”) but it succeeds because it cuts right through this surface, hackneyed vision of military might typical of its time period and suggests a different truth underneath.

There’s always a bigger fish.

“You got us here to do your dirty work!”

An elite squad of American soldiers, led by Dutch Schaefer (Schwarzenegger), is dropped into a Central American jungle to rescue a cabinet minister being held by enemy rebels. 

Going along with Dutch’s team is the mission commander, the not-entirely trustworthy Dillon (Carl Weathers).

Once in the jungle, Dutch and his men launch an attack on a rebel village, and find that Dillon has manipulated his team so as to acquire military intelligence about a possible Russian invasion. The group soon takes a captive, Anna, (Elipidia Carillo).

But before the soldiers can be air-lifted out of the jungle, an extra-terrestrial hunter -- a Predator – sets his sights on the group, killing Dutch’s team one man at a time. 

Anna reports a local legend: about a demon who makes trophies of humans and is often reported in the hottest summers.

And this year, it grows very, very hot…

Losing his men rapidly, Dutch must come to understand his enemy’s weaknesses and strengths, and makes a final stand in the jungle, using every resource available…

“Payback time!”

John McTiernan’s camera in Predator rarely stops moving. It tracks, it pans, and it tilts, but is seldom quiescent. 

The constantly-on-the-move camera conveys a few important qualities about the film. The first idea it transmits is that the soldiers inhabit a changing and changeable world, one that only instinct and experience can help them navigate.  

The always-in-motion camera reveals the soldiers -- sometimes violently -- intruding into new space, new frames, and new aspects of their world.  The camera’s movement -- a kind of visual aggression -- suggests the force that the soldiers carry with them.  

This movement, this force, is then balanced by McTiernan against the utter stillness of the Predator’s vision or perspective. A contrast is quickly developed and then sustained.

Throughout the film, we see through the Predator’s eyes, or in what might be termed Predator-vision. These shots, from high above the landscape (in the tree-tops), tend to be still, un-moving. They thereby capture a sense of the whole world unfolding before the Predator, a complete panorama or landscape.

This is an important conceit. The soldiers are  always moving through a changing, shifting world that they, through their actions, impact.  

But they don’t get the whole picture, so-to-speak.  

By contrast, the Predator vision gives us long-shots, and shows the entire jungle terrain around the soldiers.  This viewpoint suggests omnipotence and power.  

The Predator, quite simply, is able to see more of the world, and see it better. He is able to strike from the tree tops with his shoulder-mounted laser cannon, and target with laser-light his distant foes.  

His sight is superior, until -- importantly -- Dutch manages to “see” through it; recognizing the flaw in the Predator’s infrared vision.

Again, this is an argument against relying too heavily on technology. Dutch’s soldiers rely on big guns, and get decimated.  

The Predator relies on his mask’s vision system (infrared), and Dutch -- smearing himself in mud -- negates the advantage it provides.  

But again, what’s important is the way that all this material is visualized.

The soldiers, on ground level, cut through and move through the frame, violently interacting with the world on a tactile, aggressive level.  

The Predator, like some great vulture, sits still in the trees (until he strikes), silently hanging back and taking in the lay of the land. He has the luxury to operate from a distance, from up on high, unobserved.

The film sets up a battle between these two perspectives, and one might even argue that the Predator ultimately loses because he abandons his best perspective -- the tree tops -- in order to get down to (and enjoy combat on…) Dutch’s level.

Over and over again, however, McTiernan’s gorgeous, moving compositions suggest that the soldiers don’t have the full picture. Not only is the Predator cloaked, but he has access to the world above the soldiers, the world that they can’t see. A brilliantly-orchestrated shot mid-way through the film sees Dutch hunting for Hawkin’s missing body. He can’t find it. After capturing imagery of Dutch trudging through the brush, McTiernan’s camera suddenly moves upwards, and keeps doing so.

It goes up and up, past a bloody fern frond, and then continues its ascent, until we see Hawkins’ naked, bloodied corpse dangling from the tree top.  The Predator is operating in, metaphorically a more fully three dimensional environment, this shot reveals. 

Dwight and the other soldiers can’t compete on that level. They literally can't even see to that level. 

Those who don’t appreciate Predator tend to watch the film, listen to the macho tough talk, and consider the film a kind of stupid, macho action/horror movie. It's just Rambo with an alien!

Yet in its own way, Predator glides right past such clichéd dialogue and situations. In doing so, it actually comments on them; it comments on two-dimensional thinking.  These cliches are not points of strength, the movie informs us, but points of weakness.  When the Predator uses his duck call device, for example, he apes the men at their most verbally simplistic.  “Any time…”  Or “Over here.”  

Then he is able to trick them using their own words. Their macho mode of expression becomes a tool to use against them.

As a whole, Predator tricks the audience with its appearance or visual trapping too -- as a macho war movie -- and then treads deeper to examine our conceits about the military, and military might. 

When Arnold finally defeats the Predator, he does so not as a twentieth century soldier with high-tech weapons, but as a mud-camouflaged cave-man, relying on his instinct, his knowledge of the land, and hard-gleaned information about his enemy.

Even then, Arnold barely wins.  

The Predator sacrifices his superior technology, comes to the ground, and takes off his mask because he wants to fight like Arnie; he wants to experience battle like a human would. That desire proves to be the alien's undoing, a sense of vanity about himself, and an unearned sense of superiority to his nemesis.  

And again, this quality reflects dynamically on the first act of the film. Everyone keeps calling Dutch's team "the best,: and the team itself wipes out the Central American rebels while hardly breaking a sweat.

The bigger they are, the harder they fall, right?

Dutch, by contrast, demonstrates qualities that our culture doesn’t always value, especially in terms of our military men. He shows compassion and decency with Anna, a prisoner.  He trusts her when the situation changes, instead of continuing to treat her like a foe.  

He also rejects Dillon’s approach to war (that the ends justify the means), and does his best to get his men out of a situation in which they are not really fighting for their country, but acting as pawns in someone’s illegal agenda.  

Finally, Dutch is curious -- intensely curious -- and flexible enough to understand that he is being hunted by something inhuman. He doesn’t reject the possibility that this could be true, and instead contends with the facts. 

 “If it bleeds, we can kill it” Dutch concludes, and that is a perfectly logical and sensible argument in the face of what seems an irrational conflict: a battle with an invisible alien.

Dutch is lucky, of course, too. He discovers the secret of defeating Predator-vision by accident, by ending up in the mud. But he also makes the most of his opportunities by demonstrating flexibility rather than rigidity. He changes his very identity to win.  He goes from 20th century high-tech soldier to primitive cave man, to carry the day.

Thirty years later, Predator still dazzles, in part because of McTiernan’s often-moving camera and approach to visuals, but also because of that incredible final sequence in the jungle.  

Arnold and the colossal, frightening alien duke it out on a little parcel of land, surrounded by water.  The setting is picturesque, but more than that, it seems to evoke some kind of genetic memory, a feeling for the day when humans didn’t understand the world and were prey to saber tooth tigers or bears, or anything else that might find us when we ventured out of our caves. 

The film’s final battle -- shorn of high-tech military hardware -- gets down to the bloody basics and is incredibly satisfying on a human level.

Today, we have military drones, smart-bombs, and other incredible technology to help us win the day when we wage war, but Predator is a remarkable reminder from another movie age that the biggest, best guns don’t necessarily make great soldiers.   

If they did, the Predator would have won his battle with Arnie, right?