Saturday, July 29, 2017

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Ark II: "The Wild Boy" (September 25, 1976)

This week on Filmation's post-apocalyptic Saturday morning TV series Ark II,  Captain Jonah (Terry Lester) and his crew conduct a geophysical survey in Sector 14, Area 31.  The mission is to discover “rare minerals.”  But before long, a primitive-appearing young human, Isaiah (Mitch Vogel), interferes with their work, and Jonah is nearly trapped in a dark cave.

Local villagers warn the Ark II team that Isaiah is dangerous and that they plan to “put him in a cage and take him out to the great desert.”  Rather than allowing this exile to happen, the crew attempts to befriend the wild boy.  Isaiah is welcomed aboard the Ark  II vehicle and taught how to operate the craft's systems.  However, when Isaiah spots the recently mined crystals, he grows violent and angry, and runs away.

Soon, Isaiah's reasons are all too clear.  The crystals release a dangerous gas that sucks up oxygen, making the Ark II crew suffer from lassitude and fatigue.   While Jonah and Ruth go off to find Isaiah, Samuel loses control of the Ark II, and Jonah must re-board it while the great vehicle is in motion.

Isaiah reveals that his parents died in the cave where the minerals were recovered, and now he fears both it and the crystal.  Understanding this, the villagers make peace with Isaiah and welcome him into the family.  Jonah, meanwhile, arranges for the cave with the dangerous minerals to be permanently sealed.

The twin lessons on Ark II this week are “trust and affection can accomplish more than fear,” and, no less important, even evolved, peaceful folks like Jonah and Ruth can “still learn from those who haven’t had,” the same level of education.

In less didactic terms, “The Wild Boy” is a cool episode of this 1970's Saturday morning TV series for a few reasons.  

The first is that this story provides for the closest thing to a car chase we  get on the program's roster.  Samuel loses control of the Ark II, and Jonah and Ruth must catch up in the Roamer and board the craft in motion.  This sequence is well-shot, and amps up the action quotient of the episode and the series considerably.

Secondly, and I know this probably seems minor, but this episode features a great aft-to-fore pan of the interior Ark II set.  It’s one thing to see the set in close-ups, or in establishing shots.  It’s quite another to track the whole set, and see the breadth and scope of it.  It’s really an impressive design, and so far as I can discern, this is a new shot.

Next Week: Robby guest stars in “The Robot.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: The Bugaloos: "Courage Come Home" (October 3, 1970)

In “Courage Come Home,” Benita Bizarre (Martha Raye) fires Funky Rat and all her other minions after an incident with a runaway vacuum cleaner. While these incompetent minions picket the juke box, Courage (John Philpott) unexpectedly falls from the sky in a storm, and is separated from the rest of the Bugaloos.

Benita finds Courage, and learns that he has amnesia. She tells him that he is her cousin -- and house keeper -- Melvyn Bizarre.  The Bugaloos attempt to rescue Courage, but he now believes he is really Benita’s cousin.  Instead of going home to the Tranquility Forest with them, he holds the Bugaloos captive.

In the ensuing scuffle, Courage falls, and gets a second bump on the head, which cures his amnesia.

Benita is also injured, and she develops amnesia. This condition allows her rejected minions to return and pretend that she is their housekeeper.

This week’s installment of The Bugaloos (1970-1971) opens with the song of the week. Some of the lyrics include: “Fly away with us in space and far beyond.” It is sung by the group, in mid-air, before Courage succumbs to amnesia.

Here’s the number:

Other than a memorable song, this episode contends in a very familiar TV cliché: amnesia. In particular, one bump on the head causes amnesia, and a second bump cures said amnesia. Courage gets amnesia this week, and thinks he is related to Benita Bizarre even though, as he rightly notes, she doesn’t have wings like he does.

This episode feels a lot like one of the series’ key inspirations, The Monkees (1966-1968), especially during the sequence in which Joy dresses as a French maid, I.Q. becomes a butler, and Harmony (Wayne Laryea) becomes a chef. The costumes, and the mad-cap nature of the action all recall The Monkees, though in an enjoyable, fantasy-based manner.

Lidsville (1971-1972) later did a story similar to “Courage Come Home” in which Hoodoo (Charles Nelson Reilly) got amnesia, and his minions convinced him that he was their servant, not vice versa.

Next week: “The Love Bugaloos.”

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Films of 2017: War for the Planet of the Apes

(Spoiler Warning: Details of this film are extensively described below).

It is a welcome surprise to report that the new Planet of the Apes franchise has gone three-for-three in terms of quality.

This saga -- consisting of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014), and War on the Planet of the Apes (2017) -- has proven to be a dramatic high-point of modern, reboot cinema.

In short, all three of these science fiction films are better, merely as stand-alones, than we have any right to expect, given Hollywood norms. 

But the most delightful thing about the trilogy, as proven firmly by War, is that the series also coheres beautifully as overall tale, or large-scale narrative.

War on the Planet of the Apes not only dramatizes a satisfying and emotional story about Caesar, with resonant, and powerful characters all around, it also weaves the whole saga together in a successful, artistic manner.

And then, finally -- with laser-like focus -- it aims that saga straight on course for the 1968 Planet of the Apes film, which is set in a future 2000 years hence.

But here’s the thing of import:

I did not hope or expect for War on the Planet of the Apes to fit so ably into or establish the continuity of the original Apes franchise.

I did not even know, at this point, that I wanted such a thing. 

I suppose that I am jaded or cynical enough about Hollywood, at this point, to have given up on that particular dream of an Apes continuation.

Yet War on the Planet of the Apes succeeds in forging that link, and it does so in ways that appear unforced, effortless, and smooth.

So War on the Planet of the Apes is a remarkable standalone adventure, a brilliant apex for the reboot trilogy, and, finally, the “perfect” bridge between the 1960’s and 1970’s Apes chronology, and this 21st century one.

To complete and contextualize the Gospel of Caesar -- which is really what the three films amount to -- War on the Planet of the Apes relies on antecedents such as the story of Jesus’s crucifixion, and the film, Apocalypse Now (1979). 

But what truly makes this 2017 film remarkable, I believe, is not the “origin story” of the Caesar’s apes arriving at their home (a Garden of Eden beyond the Forbidden Zone-like desert), but rather the film’s sad, haunting commentary about the way that man loses his supremacy of the planet.

We live in an age of so much shouting, don’t we?

So much blind, stupid rage, and hateful yelling. It is an age not merely of hatred, then but loud, noisy hatred. 

In War on the Planet of the Apes -- as though punished by God for his wicked, savage tongue -- mankind irrevocably, permanently goes silent.

This is apt punishment, given the nature of the film’s humans, particularly the villain played by Woody Harrelson.

I found this "fate" to be a terrifying but appropriate justice for man; for so foolish and self-destructive species.

With this film, the war is over, and man goes into that good night without even a whimper of protest. 

We did it, finally, to ourselves.

War on the Planet of the Apes is the best franchise film of the summer of 2017, and one of the best pictures I’ve seen this year. It is the origin story of a people (the future apes of the Schaffner ’68 film) and simultaneously a poignant elegy for the human race.

“There are times when it is necessary to abandon humanity to save humanity.”

Following Koba’s attack on humans, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his apes find themselves plunged into a vicious war with human soldiers.  

These heavily armed soldiers are led by The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) and his rogue "Alpha/Omega" outfit, and they work with enslaved apes they derisively call “donkeys.”

The war hits Caesar too close to home when the Colonel launches a decapitation strike, but succeeds only in killing his eldest son, and wife.  

Enraged, Caesar determines to go on the war path.  He sends the majority of the apes on a pilgrimage to a new, hopefully safe land, far away, and takes Maurice (Karin Konovol) and a few others to hunt down the Colonel at a northern border.

En route, Caesar, Maurice and the others befriend a mute girl that Maurice names Nova (Amiah Miller), and then, a solitary chimp, Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), who possesses knowledge of the Colonel, and his brutal work camp.

Soon, Caesar learns that his people have been captured on their pilgrimage, and made slaves at the camp. 

He must attempt to free them, and his only son, Cornelius.  

The Colonel takes special delight in humiliating Caesar, but also tells him of a strange side-effect of the Simian Flu (which all humans carry). Man is becoming mute, and may even be losing his capacity to reason.

Caesar must now set his people free, find his apes a new home, far from warring humanity, and also reconcile his feelings of rage and hatred with his more fair-minded, judicious nature.

“Make sure my son knows who his father was.”

From 2011 to 2017, movie-goers have witnessed the Gospel of Caesar, but War for the Planet of the Apes in particular utilizes religious (scriptural) symbolism to help us understand the religious nature of the story. 

Consider that the film depicts Caesar’s crucifixion, at the hands of the Colonel and his men. The tale even provides a Judas in the form of Winter: an albino gorilla who betrays Caesar and his people to the humans.

The crucifixion in the work camp is only the most apparent religious symbol. Consider, as well, the matter of Caesar’s fatal wound at the end of the picture. He is shot in the side with an arrow. That arrow comes from one of the Colonel’s soldiers. The position of the wound, and the nature of the weapon knowingly mirrors Jesus’s wound from the lance of Longinus. Longinus was a Roman centurion, who stabbed Christ. Again, the parallels between Christ and Caesar are telling: a fatal wound in the same place, both given by an enemy soldier.

Maurice, of course, is the franchise's version of Paul. He is Caesar’s greatest apostle, and it is clear from the film’s final scenes that he will grow into an early teacher o Caesar’s “lessons” to ape culture. This was also Paul’s role. Specifically, Maurice promises to teach Caesar’s surviving son, Cornelius, about his life, and his nature. We can extrapolate that other apes will also be taught about the sacrifices and morality of Caesar. We now know his humble origins (as the child of an ape, but not, actually, only an ape), his life of toils and pain, and ultimately, with this film, his fate.

If readers prefer to be reminded of Old Testament comparisons, Caesar, in this film, acts as a Moses-type figure. He leads his “tribe” to the Promised Land away from human subjugation and war. Caesar doesn’t part the Red Sea, but he does survive nature’s dangers. His people begin their quest, importantly, by surviving an avalanche which buries, for eternity, the surviving human military, and their weapons. The Colonel’s corrupt kingdom is Egypt in this metaphor, and Caesar and his people are the Israelites, seeking a home. Instead of parting the red sea, Caesar and his apes go above the treacherous avalanche by climbing trees. This image is also a beautiful call-back to Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), and young Caesar's exercise regimen in Muir Woods

None of this symbolism is over-bearing or heavy-handed. One can absolutely enjoy the film without making comparisons to Christianity. However, the specific nature of Caesar’s quest, and his death, suggest -- importantly--  that in the future history of the planet Earth, his people will revere him as something akin to a God among apes.

At least that’s a possibility, and we have the “sign posts” (the imagery) to cue us in about Caesar's extraordinary -- or even “divine” --` nature.

Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) is clearly also an influential text in this work of art too. In the film, we see graffiti that reads “Ape-pocalypse Now,” and Harrelson’s Colonel shares a rank with Marlon Brando’s character, Kurtz. 

Both men/characters have also gone “rogue” from the chain of command, and are worshiped by their people as demi-gods. They are cult-leaders as much as military officers.  

Going back to Conrad’s Kurtz in Heart of Darkness (the source for the Coppola film’s character), he was a man who is remembered for having said “exterminate the brutes.” He was referring to intelligent human beings in the Free Congo. Harrelson’s Colonel in this film similarly launches a pogrom of extermination against Caesar’s apes, aware that their survival will doom the human race. 

If the character of the Colonel boasts any antecedent, in particular, in the classic film franchise, it is likely Otto Hasslein, from Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971). Both men believe that fate or destiny can be averted by taking violent, murderous action in the present.  They both commit fully, and mercilessly to this course.

So how does this sage connect, specifically, to the old franchise?  

You may recall a throwaway image or two in Rise of the Planet of the Apes discussing the launch and fate -- lost in space! -- of Taylor’s spaceship, the Icarus. 

In this continuity, the flight occurs in 2011, not the early 1970’s but the name of the ship is the same, as is the fact that the ship seems, to denizens of Earth, to disappear. It is, as we realize, really traveling into the future, on a course that will day return it home.

So that spaceship is out there, destined to return to Earth in the 3900’s.  

In War for the Planet of the Apes, some of the other pieces that set-up the 1968 film are locked into the puzzle. 

Caesar’s people leave the West Coast, travel through a desert (the future Forbidden Zone, presumably), and find a beautiful green glade, on the banks of a thriving river. This is the location, we can infer, in New York (or at least on the East Coast) of Ape City in Planet of the Apes (1968). So this film's final moments get Caesar’s people to the right coast (and in proximity of the Statue of Liberty!), to set up Taylor's experience there.

Finally, Maurice takes on his role as an apostle, as a speaker of Ape History, and, perhaps, becomes the future Lawgiver. 

Consider that Maurice is, like the Lawgiver, an orangutan, and that he has been tasked with the job of teaching the Gospel of Caesar.  It is very likely that one day, he will take on the title of the most revered ape, The Lawgiver.

What proves so interesting about this development is that, in the Ape Future of the original film, Caesar’s name is never spoken. The legend of the Lawgiver (and his written word: the Sacred Scrolls) thus comes to supersede Caesar as the messiah/divinity figure of ape culture.  

So if you wonder what the next ape trilogy might concern, I have an idea the role of Maurice, and his fall from grace or innocence. 

At some point he must stop trying to make peace with humans, and start to write of humanity as a “the beast, man.”  It is also entirely possible that in the generations between Maurice and the 3900’s, his gentle philosophies and beliefs will be perverted or misinterpreted by ambitious, man-hating apes.

What might happen between the events of War and the 1968 film? 

I suppose the final piece may be a nuclear war. A group of humans, offshoots of the Colonel’s Alpha and Omega group (a callback to Beneath the Planet of the Apes [1970]), perhaps, will detonate a bomb near Ape City, or perhaps, on a global scale, decimating whole swaths of the planet. The destruction of the environment, a useless, bitter gesture, given man’s fall could be the very thing that turns Maurice from an advocate for peace into a hater of mankind.

And, of course, most importantly, War for the Planet of the Apes sets in motion that final fall of mankind. 

Man will go down into history as a foolish, self-destructive being, who can’t even argue his own case for supremacy, because he has lost his capacity to speak. As the movie dramatizes, the Simian Flu mutates so as to rob humanity of his ability to speak. It is not entirely clear, but the Colonel also believes the virus robs humanity of his ability to reason; to think logically.  If this is the case, then the Sacred Scrolls of the first film are, in a sense, truer than we ever realized.  Man of the future world is a dumb brute, unable to reason, or think. He is a blind consumer of resources, an animal.

As I wrote in my introduction, to see man lose his voice in this film is haunting, and breathtaking. Not just because the loss connects to the details of the 1968 film, but because of the world we live in now, in 2017. 

Cable TV is a bastion of bitter taunts, hate speech, and gotcha politics. Look at how we’ve chosen to use Twitter and other social media: as opportunities to troll others, to hate others, to spread lies, to forward , even, conspiracy theories and racist memes.

What War for the Planet of the Apes implies, in some sense, is God’s disappointment, and punishment of man for using his intellect in this manner. 

Not only will mankind die, but he will be robbed even, of the power to speak, to argue, to debate. He has squandered that great gift of voice, and now his fall will not even be accompanied by screams, or crying. 

He will go silently into that good night, unthinking, un-speaking, unable to mourn aloud his fall from favor.

I confess that this aspect of the film was incredibly impact-ful to me. I vacillate between dreaming of a Star Trek-kian future utopia, and fearing a Planet of the Apes-style apocalypse. Our fall from grace in this film seems especially appropriate, given how we have chosen to use our “voices” in the public square, and on the net.

It is a timely and artistic choice for the makers of this saga to make man mute, at this juncture, at this time in our culture. It plays as more powerful today, than it did in earlier generations. Today, everyone has the power to contribute their voice to the community. But what we have seen is not a community lifting its voice to help others. Instead, we have seen a rebirth and broadcast of hate, racism, sexism, paranoia, and conspiracy theories. We have seen the rise of extreme narcissism, the dawn of widespread propaganda, and a war to obfuscate facts, and to hold onto the tenets of science.  

When people discuss -- seriously -- in 2017, a new flat Earth theory, the fall of man, the de-evolution of man, seems only years away. Perhaps we reached our pinnacle as a species when we landed on the Moon. Perhaps our fall from grace has already begun.

War for the Planet of the Apes thus captures beautifully, if tragically, the real terror and fear of our times; the idea that we can't stop sniping at each other long enough to take care of the species, let alone the planet.

Lastly, I would be hard-pressed to name a better film trilogy of the 21sts century than this one. 

I know The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit sagas have their champions, and for good reason, but the amazing gift of this new Planet of the Apes saga is that it does so much so smoothly, and with so much discipline. None of these films feel over long, or retreads of old material. They all work, in tandem, as original stories, and as pieces of a grand, overarching saga. 

And now, as this trilogy ends, we can see a grand plan to connect to the original franchise (or some version of the original franchise). The ambition was there all along, but the filmmakers demonstrated patience, and laid their bread crumbs, without drawing over attention to them.

I have to write, too often, about the creative failings of remakes and reboots (see: Tim Burton’s 2001 Planet of the Apes). It is therefore a pleasure and a privilege to behold the wonders and victories of this reboot series. The “new” Planet of the Apes series pays homage to what came before, honors the spirit of social commentary those old films championed, and it breaks new ground at the same time.

Like the best science fiction films, War of the Planet of the Apes makes us see ourselves more fully, more completely.  The scary thing about the film is that as much as it frightened me, I also thirsted for the humans to fall, to be, finally, silent. For the hatred to end.  This feeling made me think of Armando's (Ricardo Montalban) words in Escape:  "If it is man's destiny one day to be dominated, then oh, please God, let him be dominated by such as you."

It's a special genre motion picture, indeed, that has the audience rooting against its own kind.

Finally, I hope that Andy Serkis, and the film itself are remembered at Oscar time next year. Serkis’s work as Caesar is extraordinary.  Roddy McDowall created Caesar more than forty years ago, but Serkis has honored that work and carried it several steps forward. He has made the character his own in a remarkable, and dare I say -- human --fashion.

Movie Trailer: War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Planet of the Apes TV Series Blogging: "Up Above the World So High"

In “Up Above the World So High,” Galen (Roddy McDowall) spies a human flying a high glider.  Unfortunately, the pilot has also been detected by a curious gorilla patrol.

The fugitives make contact with the human pilot, Leuric (Frank Aletter), who has not quite perfected his hang glider.  He is suspicious that they want to steal his invention.

Shortly afterwards, an ape scientist, Carsia (Joanna Barnes), also makes contact with Leuric, and gives him the materials he needs to build a functional glider. 

She has a dastardly plan. She intends to use 20th century fragmentation bombs to destroy the ape council of Central City, a decapitation strike and coup that will create a new ape order.

Now, the fugitives must make sure that flying is seen as an impossibility, an act which requires Galen to be the first ape pilot in history.

“Up Above the World So High” is the second Planet of the Apes (1974) episode in two weeks that features the threat of weapons of mass destruction, and an upturning of the social order. 

In “The Liberator,” a human sought to use toxic gas to kill the ape overlords and free his people. Here, a human pilot’s creation of a glider has dark consequences. A chimpanzee insurgent wants to use the glider as a delivery system to destroy the Ape Council; using fragmentation bombs – another relic of the twentieth century and man’s self-destructive nature.

Perhaps these two stories appear at the end of the run because the earlier stories seem, well, inconsequential. The stakes tend to be “freedom,” or “escape.” In “Up Above the World So High” and “The Liberator,” the stakes are raised. The possibility of social disorder is high. If Galen, Virdon and Burke fail, people -- apes and humans -- will die.

This story is also an unusual inversion of the typical formula. Usually, Virdon and Burke embrace enlightenment and progress. They show the world of the future how to fish more efficiently (“Tomorrow’s Tide”), cure Malaria (“The Cure,”) and undertake blood transfusions successfully (“The Surgeon.”) In all these stories, enlightenment wins out over ignorance.  In this final tale, however, they sabotage flight intentionally, keeping that advance from the Dark Age world, so that it cannot be abused by power hungry people such as Carsia. Perhaps flight is too much, too fast, given the divisions and ignorance of this future world. 

Still, I can’t believe that Carsia won’t try again, with or without the help of Leuric. I find her a fascinating character, both in terms of her intelligence and ambition. I wonder if, at some point, Wanda, the brilliant chimp we met in "The Interrogation" was intended to return in this episode.

One bizarre aspect or theory about the Planet of the Apes series that I find intriguing is this: Burke, and Virdon, essentially, prove the fears of Urko and Zaius. 

Just months after these future astronauts arrive near Central City, ape culture faces threats from nerve gas and fragmentation bombs, both products of man's self-destructive nature. Early on in the series, we heard Zaius and Urko lamenting how the astronauts promise to bring threatening ideas with them. Of course, it’s just a coincidence in terms of timing, but that’s precisely what occurs, it seems.

So far as execution is concerned, “Up Above the World So High” leaves much to be desired, particularly in its final act. 

While still in the sites of the apes, Galen, Leuric and the others are seen paddling away in the ocean.  Are we to believe that the apes didn’t go search for bodies? Or follow up to see if they survived?  OR recover the remains of the aircraft?  Here, our heroes (and the secret of flight, incidentally), make the lamest, most obvious escape imaginable.

And sadly, that’s our very last view of the series’ heroes.

So we come to the end of another cult-TV series retrospective. I enjoyed returning to a future world of talking tapes in 2017, but can’t help but feel that the 1974 series represents a missed opportunity on a colossal scale. Some individual episodes are good, indeed, but there is no urgency or dynamism to the program.  It often feels small potatoes somehow.

Next week is Beach Week, and the week after that we start a new retrospective of a 1970's cult program - Star Maidens (1976).

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Comic-Book of the Week: The Micronauts

It's strange and little disconcerting for me to admit that more than a few of my favorite comic-books of all-time originated; with merchandise. 

This means these epics were born of -- essentially -- marketing "synergy."

Somehow, that makes me feel remarkably shallow. Still, it's useless to deny the truth: the comic-books that I fell in love with as a youth in the late 1970s carry titles such as ROM: The Space Knight, Shogun Warriors and the best of all: The Micronauts.

The Micronauts
comic (from Marvel) premiered in January of 1979 (for just thirty-five cents!). 

This was the era of Star Wars and the original Battlestar Galactica, and I suspect that one of the reasons I adored this comic so much is that this complex book serves as an excellent combination of all the genre elements I appreciated in both those franchises, and in Star Trek as well. 

The stories of the Micronauts are rife with colorful and heroic characters, spectacular space battles, and even a sense of galactic "exploration" in terms of the characters leaving their "Microverse" and ending up on Earth in the twentieth century.

The first issue sets up the premise for the epic saga (which begins a "micro-cosmic NEW SERIES in the MIGHTY MARVEL tradition!"). 

Written and drawn by Bill Mantlo and Michael Golden, "Homeworld" lands the reader on a far away world ("once the proudest planet in the subatomic microverse...") that has been torn apart by political and class strife.

In a clever nod to Russian history and the story of the Czars, an insurgency led by the evil scientist Baron Karza wipes out the upper class and royal family. Or, as the comic puts it, "The elite of Homeworld have been overthrown by a small body of insurgents." 

The entire world, it seems, has "turned upon its hereditary rulers!"

In turn for destroying the ruling class, the people have been promised virtual immortality by Karza, who runs the planet's grim "Body Banks," which ensure replacement body parts and eternal life for all those who obey the despot. 

In this world, organs and body parts are a commodity to be traded and used, and one suspects there is a Cold War parable here about Communism and a perceived lack of individuality amongst the Marxists.

The noble ruling family, led by Prince Argon and Princess Mari, can't compete with the promise of never-ending life, and is all but massacred in the rebellion. Argon is captured by Karza (and submitted to experimentation in the body banks...), and Mari is forced to cloak her identity, becoming "Marionette," a kind of pleasure-bot. 

Meanwhile, Karza's Dog Soldiers and his Acroyear minions destroy the so-called elitists with their "hovering strata-stations" and other weapons of mass destruction. These devices are given beautiful life in the comic; essentially the Micronaut toys made to appear hyper-realistic, and extremely cool.

While the peoples' revolution burns hot on Homeworld, an old starship called Endeavor returns from a thousand year voyage of exploration. The ship is "old...pitted and pocked by the ravages of time and space." 

Aboard the ship is Commander Arcturus Rann and his robot servant, Biotron. He expects a hero's welcome on return to Homeworld, but instead is termed a dangerous "X-Factor" by Baron Karza (Rann's former instructor at school...) and greeted with a firing squad.

After being blasted by Dog Soldiers, Rann awakens to find himself an unwilling gladiator in Homeworld's deadly games (bread and circuses for the bored populace.) As a prisoner, Raan meets a noble Acroyear warrior/prince who refused to submit to Karza (and whose Brother, Shaitan, is the primary collaborator with the Baron). 

Rann also encounters an "Insectorvid" named Bug from the planet Kaliklak ("hive world of the Insectivorids")...and teams with them, as well as Princess Mari, to escape the games. An attraction grows between Ran and Mari, and he even learns that his parents -- Dallan and Sepsis -- are revered as symbols of the Resistance because they were the first to defy Karza nearly a millennium ago.

Before long, Rann, Mari and the others flee the planet in the old Endeavor (kind of a cross between the Enterprise and the Millennium Falcon...) and are pursued by Karza's "Thorium Orbiters." In an attempt to escape from the dedicated pursuit, Rann takes his straining ship beyond the very limits of the "space wall" separating the tiny Microverse from another reality all together...and these dynamic characters are soon bound for adventures on Earth.

For a comic-book based on a set of (highly-popular) toys, there's a commendable amount of complexity to The Micronauts; complexity which makes many issues a highly-involving read, even thirty-five years after original publication. 

For instance, Rann spent a thousand years probing microverse space "telepathically" aboard the Endeavor, and in the process, accidentally created a mysterious doppelganger for himself, called "The Time Traveler," (also known as "The Enigma Force." ) This character plays a crucial role in the resolution of the rebellion and the destruction of Karza. There are also the mysterious "Shadow Priests" of Homeworld, pursuing their own strange and hidden agenda.

Some characters certainly appear reminiscent of Star Wars, particularly the big droid/little droid combo of Biotron (a 6000 series of "thinking roboids") and Microtron. And some elements seem familiar from Dune (the priests), and Buck Rogers too (the man returning to a world changed after several hundred years), but overall the comic boasts a deeper grounding in human history. 

I mentioned the story of the Czars, but the Prince of the Acroyears is another example of how our history has been re-cast as cosmic history. This character is often described as "Spartan" in nature, and in essence is a representative of a warrior race dedicated to combat and honor (think Leonidas, I guess...).

To some extent, Star Trek: The Next Generation picked up on this idea in the late 1980s, when the Mongol-like Klingons of the original series were transformed into honor-obsessed Spartan-type warriors in episodes such as "Sins of the Father." 

In issue #12 of The Micronauts, ("Blood Feud"), for instance, Prince Acroyear had to return home and combat Shaitan (a character not unlike Duras), for the ruler-ship of their rough world called "Spartak" (again, the Spartan reference...). I'm not saying that TNG stole anything (any more than Micronauts stole from anything in particular...), only that this comic is a place of intelligent, fascinating ideas; ones that reflect our history in interesting and telling ways.

I remember in 1980 and 1981 -- when I was in fifth grade -- I would stay home sick from school some days and spend the entire time reading Micronaut comics. This was before VCRs were common-place, and so the Micronauts -- in a very important way -- represented the only space epic at my fingertips. 

Through my entire adult life, I've kept those Micronaut comics and in going back and re-reading the adventures, I can't help but suspect that the time has come for a (faithful) movie adaptation. The saga features a distinctive look and style (based on the toys); colorful characters, some great metaphysical mysteries, and an epic, historical sweep.

The Micronauts: Andromeda

This is Baron Karza's "Star Stallion," with "magno-power action firing missiles."  The great thing about this horse is that he could be combined with Baron Karza to become an "Evil Centaur."  Also, you could remove Andromeda's legs and give the animal...wheels.

On the side of goodness was Baron Karza's opposite, Force Commander.  Force Commander rode a white steed named Oberon, and could also combine with his rider to become a centaur.

The Micronauts: Biotron

When I turned seven, one of the toys I wanted most for my birthday was "Biotron" a huge interchangeable robot from the Mego Micronauts collection.

My granny -- Tippie from Texas -- came through, and I was thrilled.  And incidentally, she came through for me again for Christmas that year with the glorious Micronauts Battle Cruiser.  But that's another story.

Biotron is a "motorized robot" who "holds up to three Micronauts" and "adapts to other Micronaut accessories," according to the box legend.  The same legend instructs kids to "use him four ways."

Fully assembled, Biotron is a huge robot, standing approximately a foot tall.  He runs on two "C" batteries, and when activated can kind of shuffle around on his jet-like, blue-plastic feet.  He's the perfect companion to another Micronauts robot, Microtron, and in the Marvel Comics, indeed, they were matched up together often.

One of the Micronauts (Space Glider, Galactic Warrior or Time Traveler) can ride inside Biotron's transparent chest panel, and I always loved Biotron's gripping, snapping hands, which could catch the enemy, the Acroyear.  

I don't know if I'm remembering it exactly right, but I think that Biotron was my first big Micronauts toy.  I had a few action figures (Galactic Warrior and Time Traveler) at that point, but none of the "big" items.  That soon changed, but I always had a love for this chrome-faced, goliath of a robot.

Today, Biotron has a good home in my office, though his box is showing a great deal of wear, and so are his hands.  The chrome has worn off his grippers in some spots, revealing a kind yucky green under-color.  (I hope it's not mold...).

The Micronauts: Hornetroid

It would be a tough call to select my favorite Mego Micronauts toy from the 1970s, but leading the pack would be 1979’s Hornetroid, “the fearsome Myriapod from the far-off galaxy of Thoraxia.”  The baddest MF in the Microverse, the Hornetroid is an interchangeable aerial attack ship that resembles a giant, malevolent insect.

The Hornetroid features a front cockpit which opens to house Micronaut action figures, gripping mandibles, four translucent purple wings, a cockpit canopy that resembles compound eyes, laser cannons and more.  The Hornetroid’s wings, for instance, could flap up-and-down by pressing a tab on the ship’s dorsal spine. 

Released at the same time as the “Terraphant” (a terrestrial vehicle resembling a monster elephant…) and personalities such as Membros (with the glow-in-the-dark brain), Hornetroid also shared an awesome quality with toys such as Milton Bradley’s Star Bird and Mattel’s Space: 1999 Eagle One.  In particular, the Hornetroid could come apart, and re-form into a scout mode by joining the aft and fore compartments and discarding the middle module. 

Mego’s Hornetroid was perhaps my most desired toy of 1979 because it looked so damn scary and cool.  I still own the one my Granny bought for me that year, but it is in really, really bad shape after three-and-a-half decades.  The back dorsal wing/spine is snapped off, along with one of the front compartment’s antennae.  

I’ve also managed to lose the weird transparent purple “bomb” to the ship.  I had it just a few years ago, but now it is gone.

The Hornetroid, though not the right scale, also appeared in the popular Micronauts comic-book series from Marvel.

The Micronauts: Micropolis

This is the Micronauts “building set that never stops growing” from Mego  

As the box art suggests: “Make this and dozens of fantastic space age structures for your micronauts.” 

These space-age construction sets “enable your child to build any number of different toys that can be taken apart and put together over and over again.  Using a simple five millimeter plug and receptacle system, Micropolis building sets will adapt to all Micropolis figures and accessories."

I have two Micropolis sets in my collection, the Interplanetary Headquarters and Mega City (which consists of 579 parts).  

Joel and I have a lot of fun building new configurations together, but the "plug and receptacle system" can really, really hurt your fingers...

Jigsaw Puzzle of the Week: The Micronauts (Baron Karza)

World of the Micronauts Colorforms

Halloween Costume of the Week: The Micronauts (Ben Cooper):

Board Game of the Week: the World of the Micronauts

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" (January 10, 1969)

Stardate 5730.2

The Enterprise proceeds to a critical decontamination mission on the heavily-populated world of Ariannus, but en route the sensors detect a shuttlecraft in distress. The ship was recently reported stolen from Starbase 4, and there is one inhabitant aboard: Lokai (Lou Antonio).

Lokai is a strange individual, at least in terms of physical or biological characteristics. He is white colored on half of his body, and black colored on the other side. Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley) believes he may be a one-of-a-kind, a mutation.

This theory is proven wrong, however, when another being from Lokai’s planet, Cheron, arrives aboard an invisible spaceship in pursuit.

At first blush, Commissioner Bele (Frank Gorshin) seems to resemble Lokai, possessing white skin and black skin, in opposition.

But all of Bele’s people are black on the right side, whereas Lokai’s people are white on the right side.

This (apparently minor) color difference seems to be the source of huge distress and anger between the two individuals. Bele claims to have been hunting Lokai for 50,000 years, and wants to return him to Cheron to pay for his crimes of insurrection. Lokai, by contrast, wants disciples to follow him, arguing that Bele and his people are violent, tyrants, and that his people are enslaved.

When Captain Kirk (William Shatner) refuses to hand over Lokai, determining that he should stand trial for the theft of the shuttle, Bele takes control of the Enterprise, forcing the ship to alter course for Cheron. 

With no choice, Kirk demonstrates that his authority over the Enterprise is final by activating the self-destruct sequence. He aborts the one minute countdown only after Bele relents, and returns control of the ship.

After the decontamination mission at Ariannus, Bele again takes over directional controls. This time, he burns out the self-destruct mechanism, so Kirk cannot stop him.

On arrival, the Enterprise crew finds that Cheron is a dead world, one that has been engulfed in the flames of hatred and division for too long. Lokai and Bele’s people are all dead, having been unable to overcome their race hatred.

This knowledge, however, does not prevent them from continuing to fight and chase one another.

Originally titled “A Portrait in Black and White,” this episode of Star Trek (1966-1969) from Gene Coon (writing as Lee Cronin) is often described by critics and fans as being heavy-handed or preachy. 

I reply to those criticisms (perhaps as an “idealistic dreamer,” as Bele terms Kirk) in the following manner:

Preach on, Star Trek.

“Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” is a brilliant episode, I would argue, for the way it addresses the utter stupidity and subjective nature of racism, or race hatred.

The message is heavy-handed or preachy? Really? If that’s the case, how come in fifty years man still suffers from this brand of stupidity? 

If the message of “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” is so blooming obvious, it seems that this is a lesson would have taken hold. And for so many people, it has not done so.

I term the episode brilliant specifically for the manner in which it explains racism, or rather reduces the concept of racism to its most basic (and therefore ridiculous) tenets. In a remarkable scene between Kirk, Spock, and Bele, the Starfleet officers attempt to talk reason to the commissioner from Cheron. They note that Bele and Lokai seem to be of the same race.

Bele responds, offended: “I am black on the right side. Lokai is white on the right side. All his people are white on the right side.” 

The inference in Bele’s response is that being white on the right side (rather than on the left side) is inherently, obviously, inferior to being white on the left side.

But no supporting evidence for this belief is offered. It’s just an assumed fact; something unquestioned by Bele’s people. It's a self-reinforcing, comforting myth, or bias, with no grounding in science.

Naturally, they are superior! They’re black on the right side!

And if you gaze at racism here on Earth, in the twentieth and twenty first centuries, racism makes no more sense than Bele’s statement does.

Why are black, brown, yellow, or red considered, often, inferior to white by some? Are these skin colors encoded with quality ratings, a hierarchy?

Or are they the product, instead, of self-righteous, comforting beliefs? 

The definition of racism is “a system of belief that all members of one race possess characteristics specific to that race in order to distinguish it from other races.” So if you are black on the right side, you are good, smart, and hard-working. If you are black on the left side, you are violent, uneducated, and lazy.

See how that works? Your skin color is your destiny; never mind your individuality. Never mind your experience. Never mind your achievements.

Spock responds to Bele’s statement by offering up the example of Vulcan. The Vulcan people would have destroyed themselves over such irrational, unfounded beliefs, had they not found the discipline of logic. He recommends that Cheron should adopt the same policy, lest its people be destroyed.

Kirk also attempts to talk reason to Bele, noting that a dialogue could be started between Lokai’s people and Bele’s people. 

Bele refuses to believe that Lokai’s people are capable of change (another trope familiar to racists), and Spock then speaks one of the core tenets of Star Trek; one paraphrased again just this weekend in the new Star Trek: Discovery (2017) trailer:

Change is the essential process of all existence.”

Racism can’t exist with new input, with new facts, with new experiences. It thrives on ignorance, and stereotyping (the failure to note a person as an individual). 

If Bele lets himself believe that Lokai can change, or grow, then he can no longer cling to the myths around his own superiority.  He would have to re-examine the world, and find, perhaps, that he is not better than all others. Instead of being God's chosen, or biology's chosen, he might learn he is  just one star in a constellation of worthy beings. Clearly, at least from Bele's example, racism stems from the desire to be viewed as superior, while all others are inferior.

That idea of racial superiority based on skin color, as this episode points out, is antithetical to Star Trek and its messages. 

We may all be different. 

We may possess different strengths, and different weaknesses. 

But we are all worthwhile, and we all possess individual gifts that are separate from skin color, gender, orientation, and so forth. 

That is the heart of IDIC (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations), a concept introduced to the series earlier in the third season.

When I was a child, I did not fully understand the episode, I admit. I thought that one Cheron-ian was evil (Bele), and that one was good (Lokai). 

As I matured and re-watched the episode, I saw that the episode is not heavy-handed and obvious, because it recreates the complexity of the social unrest of the 1960’s in an even-handed way. 

Bele represents bigoted, unreasonable, privileged authority and racism, it’s true. But Lokai represents the counter-culture, and its willingness to overturn everything, in a day, without considering what could be lost by throwing the baby out with the bath water. 

Another way to put this: Bele wants to preserve the status quo, at all costs, because he strides atop it. There can be no change, especially from inferiors, that would lessen his seat of power, privilege, and prestige on Cheron. 

Oppositely -- like a cracked mirror reflection -- Lokai is against the status quo, at all costs, and sees nothing worth preserving there. He would overturn all laws, cause violence, and undertake sweeping change to the social order without recognizing the good things in the status quo.

They are diametrically opposed, and neither character is angel. They are both devils in their own way. Remember, "fundamentalism" isn't about what you believe, it's how you believe that thing. Bele and Lokai share their extreme brand of fundamentalism, even if they believe different things.

But the episode’s ultimate message is that it doesn’t matter who is right, or more right in this, or any conflict. 

Irrational hatred, for or against the status quo is destructive, divisive, and has no positive end. The episode’s final imagery, of cities in flame, is a potent warning to the riot-struck America of the 1960’s that unremitting hatred from any corner, is unproductive, and worse than that, self-destructive.

Looking around at the world today, I don’t see why this episode is considered preachy or heavy-handed.  On the contrary, I would say that Star Trek found a way to fully expose how stupid and destructive racism and hatred can be. 

Sure, it’s all about the color(s) of skin, but that, of course, is the tether that racism is often bound to. “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” is not stupid or obvious. Contrarily, it is about how stupid and obvious racism is, as a belief system.  

As Kirk compassionately notes to the survivors of Cheron, “You must both end up dead if you don’t stop hating.”

As America grows more divided, more ill-informed, more enraged about “the other” in our midst (liberal, conservative, Republican, Democrat, gay, straight, atheist, Christian, white, black, male, female), this is a message worth repeating. 

Hate, finally, is not a governing strategy. Hate, in the final analysis, is not a way forward. It is a path, ultimately, to a burned-out cinder of a planet, where no partisans survive, and where no one can claim victory, moral or otherwise.

This doesn’t mean we should ignore hate when we see it, or fail to call it out. Only that, we must always remember Spock’s axiom that “change is the essential process of all existence.” Those whom we think can’t change….can change. 

We can’t give up hope that they will.  “Idealistic dreamers” must not give up on those dreams of a better future.

This message is the essence of Star Trek. Think about Kirk’s journey in The Undiscovered Country (1991), or the relationship of the Federation and the Klingon Empire over the whole franchise. Hate cannot be allowed to carry the day. Racism falls when we have to see our perceived enemies as people capable of compromise.

I love that “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” exists in the episode canon, and I hope that those who call it obvious or heavy-handed go back and actually experience its messages, again.

In terms of continuity, the episode is vital to the franchise because it sets up, precisely, the parameters of starship self-destruct sequences in the 23rd century. The codes, the multi-officer input, and the countdown are all featured again in The Search for Spock (1984), and the connection is a wonderful touch of continuity with the series. Even the auto-destruct in The Next Generation (“11001001” and “Where Silence Has Lease”) is based on the process we see explored in this particular episode.

Also, as I have noted above, it looks like Spock’s line about “change” in this episode has been re-parsed (and spoken by a young Sarek) in Discovery (2017), an indication that it will continue to carry importance across the Trek-verse.

What is the end-game for an episode such as “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield?” 

Where do such idealistic dreams lead us? 

Sulu and Chekov share a conversation in this episode, wherein it is clear they have no first-hand experience with bigotry or racism. “There was persecution on Earth once. I remember reading about it in my history class,” they say.

That is the world worth building. 

This is the world we can build. And episodes such as “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” light the way, as Star Trek often does. We can either end up like Bele and Lokai, dining on the ashes of hatred, or like Sulu and Chekov, looking back and wondering how people could have ever been so damned hateful.

In two weeks, another episode laced with social commentary: “Mark of Gideon.”