Saturday, November 11, 2017

Matt Allair Joins Creature Features Tonight!

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Far Out Space Nuts: "It's All in Your Mind" (September 6, 1975)

This week, our Saturday morning cult-TV blogging takes us back again to the Kroffts, and the year 1975. Although Land of the Lost (1974-1977) and The Lost Saucer (1975) were both airing on NBC at the time, another genre production from the duo found a berth on CBS: Far Out Space Nuts (1975).

This live-action series ran for 15 episodes in 1975, and starred Bob Denver of Gilligan’s Island as Junior, a hapless maintenance man thrust into space on a U.S. rocket alongside his equally hapless buddy, Barney (Chuck McCann). 

After their unfortunate take-off, the duo tries to return home to Earth in their lunar lander, meeting up with a cute, if diminutive alien, Honk (Patty Mahoney), on the journey.

The whole show is basically an even more slapstick version of The Lost Saucer, though without androids and the time travel angle.

The first episode of Far Out Space Nuts is “It’s All In Your Mind.” On a distant planet, Barney and Junior attempt to repair their ship’s engine, a “space combustion system.” Barney tries to teach Junior how to complete the repairs, and he shows a bizarre knack for it.

Meanwhile, the denizens of the planet -- minions of an intelligent computer called G.A.L. 36-24-36 -- seek to capture Junior. These mindless drones serve the machine, which in turn demands complete control over the will of everyone on the planet. “All thoughts on this planet must be mine,” G.A.L. reports, showing an obsessive interest in Junior.

The Drones captures Junior, and attempt to transfer his mind into the machine’s storage banks. Meanwhile, Barney and Honk are held captive behind a magnetic wall. Fortunately, Junior’s extreme illogic causes G.A.L. to malfunction, and the drones are freed after an imprisonment of 132 eons.

As you can tell from the preceding synopsis, “It’s All in Your Mind” sounds very much in keeping with the other Saturday morning programs I’ve covered here on the blog over the years. We have our hapless heroes (acting firmly in the tradition of Abbott and Costello), the cute costumed side-kicked, and a moral or didactic lesson about the importance of thinking for yourself.

What the synopsis does not capture, however, is the truly creepy nature of this episode. The drones march, Cyberman-style, in lock-stop, after their prey, throughout the tale. And their attacks are accompanied by unsettling sound effects and music. 

Sure, the story isn’t scary in a conventional sense, but the elements add up to a presentation that actually feels a bit less kiddie-friendly than one might expect. The Kroffts, to their everlasting credit, went this way occasionally in their entertainment, with the Sleestak on Land of the Lost, for example.

The result is that for all its budgetary restraint and dopey comedy, “It’s All in Your Mind” is actually a pretty compelling little tale, which is a claim I can’t necessarily make for many episodes of either Lidsville (1971) or The Bugaloos (1970), which I’ve covered here recently.

Far Out Space Nuts also seems lower-budgeted than even The Lost Saucer. That series had a great standing set (the saucer interior) and elaborate costumes for its stars, Ruth Buzzi and Jim Nabors.  

Here, we never see the inside of the lunar lander craft, only its landing site, for example. And the enemy minions, though fearsome, number under half-a-dozen.

Finally, here's our series intro:

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Challenge of the Super Friends: "Wanted: The Super Friends" (September 9, 1978)

Lex Luthor and the Legion of Doom use a “dream machine” to control the will and actions of the Super Friends.

Under the influence of the dream machine, Superman steals the gold from Fort Knox. Meanwhile, Batman and Robin commit a “strange crime" (!) at the U.S. Mint.  Also, Flash steals the Crown Jewels of the U.K, while Black Vulcan raids King Tut’s tomb, and Wonder Woman steals fine art from the Louvre.

Once the Super Friends realize what they’ve done, they turn themselves over to the authorities, but that action, too, is part of Luthor’s strategy to conquer the world.  Once they are in jail, their cell is launched on a collision course with the Sun.  Then, Lex uses a "mutation ray" to turn the world's human population into doppelgangers of Bizarro and Cheetah.

“Wanted: The Super Friends” is the first episode of Challenge of the Super Friends (1978), the Super Friends variant that is my favorite for one reason: The Legion of Doom.

The other variants of the series feature didactic life-lessons, magic tricks, safety instructions, and morality tales for children, but -- dispensing with all that -- Challenge of the Super Friends pits the DC Justice League against a diabolical mirror image in the Legion of Doom.

Besides, the Legion acts from of the most awesome villainous headquarters ever: a giant, rocket-powered Darth Vader head. 

When I first saw that HQ, at eight years old, I knew I was hooked on this superhero series. I would have done anything, at that age, to have a play-set of the Legion of Doom base.

In broad strokes, Challenge of the Super Friends features the “thirteen of the most sinister villains of all time” battling against the Justice League, which, as in previous Super Friends series, operates out of the famous “Hall of Justice,” responding to “Trouble-alerts" from across the globe.

The thirteen bad guys, introduced in this episode are: Lex Luthor, Captain Cold, Sinestro, Bizarro, Solomon Grundy, Cheetah, Brainiac, Grod, Black Manta, the Riddler, Toy Man, Giganta, and Scarecrow.  It’s a great and colorful rogue’s gallery, and one that represents variety of villains from DC's Valhalla. The rights could not be acquired for Joker, or the Penguin, but strangely, that's okay. It's nice to see Scarecrow and The Riddler, get a little more action than usual.  My favorite villain, at least in terms of appearance: Black Manta.

In terms of the heroes, the series features Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman and Robin, The Flash, Green Lantern, Apache Chief, Aqua Man, Hawkman, and Samurai. Neither Wendy and Marvin, nor the Wonder Twins, are featured. And that may be another reason why I prefer this series to the other Super Friends iterations. It’s straight up superhero action, and down to business, without the goofy comic relief.

Of course, the central problem with the series is that if you are a fan of the “modern” or contemporary Justice League of America, you will find the DC superheroes here quite toothless and generic. Batman isn’t the Dark Knight in this iteration, and Aqua Man is not the long-haired, hook-handed, angry character of the modern age, either.  

All the heroes, in terms of character, are largely interchangeable. They are distinguished only by their specific powers, not by any personality differences. They all love justice, and they are all "good."  That's about as deep as the characterization gets.

The stories are also largely free of any attempt at scientific accuracy, and stick rigorously to a predictable formula. In every episode, the Legion of Doom comes up with some new device to threaten the world, and plans to use it. 

The villainous strategy succeeds, and the Super Friends are defeated. 

However, the Super Friends manage to turn the defeat into a victory, and capture the Legion of Doom. But before the story ends, Lex Luthor uses some trick to free himself and his comrades from custody, while the Super Friends note, almost dogmatically, that justice will always carry the day.

Virtually no episode varies from this rigorous structure. “Wanted: The Super Friends” is no exception, although it does feature a novel early section which spends a lot of time introducing the Legion’s individual members.

In terms of scientific flaws, this episode sees the Super Friends launched into space in a jail cell…toward the Sun. 

Can Batman and Robin breathe in space, and survive without pressure suits? Here, they clearly do. This is one of the aspects of the series that drives me crazy. The characters will sometimes name-check physical qualities like "gravity" or the need to breathe air, but then are depicted traveling in space in just their uniforms, and sometimes at warp speed equivalents.  I accept this with Superman or Green Lantern, or on an understanding day, perhaps even Wonder Woman. But Batman and Robin?

Also, bizarrely, in this episode a 1970’s satellite is equipped with “mutation rays” that transform everyone on Earth into duplicates of Bizarro and Cheetah.  It is just completely nonsensical and anti-science.

Also, the Super Friends are depicted as being so advanced here that it would seem impossible to beat them. At one point in this story, Batman tells Alfred to bring him “another nuclear power pack.”

How many does he have? And if he's such a powerful and good superhero, why isn't he tending to the energy needs of the globe?

Finally, this episode features a line that, with no exaggeration, recurs in every episode of Challenge of the Super Friends:That’s what you think!”

Indeed, there are two lines to expect in each episode of Challenge of the Super Friends.  First is “That’s what you think!” And secondly is Robin’s exclamation of “Holy…something.”  Here, he says, “Holy coincidences, Batman!”

One element of the episode that I enjoy, by contrast, is the moment in which the individual characters are seen in their individual environs: Superman at the Daily Planet (as Clark Kent), and Batman and Robin in the Batcave.

Next up: "Invasion of the Fearians."

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Films of 1979: The Black Hole

In 1979 and in the wake of Star Wars, Walt Disney Studios released a big-budgeted outer-space adventure called The Black Hole directed by Gary Nelson. It was the first movie in Disney history to be rated PG rather than G for general audiences. And it faced direct competition in theaters from the likes of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), the long-awaited revival of the popular sci-fi TV series.

Reviews of the film at the time were generally negative. The word from science-fiction magazines and writers was far less gracious. "Poisonous" might be a better descriptor.

Even three decades after the film's theatrical release reviewers were still deriding the movie in articles with titles like "Does The Black Hole still suck?"

The main point of contention for most science-based writers appears to be The Black Hole's flagrant ignorance about the laws of physics.

For instance, there appears to be a breathable atmosphere in outer space at the mouth of the black hole during the film's fiery finale.

And then there is Kate McCrae's (Yvette Mimieux's) famously mangled line of dialogue early on insisting that the Palomino and Cygnus vessels share the same mission: "to find habitable life" in space.  

Technically, the learned scientist claims to be looking for "life" that people can inhabit or live in, and obviously that makes no sense. Had Kate simply said they were in search of "habitable worlds" or new "life forms," this wouldn't have been a concern. But there you have it: The Black Hole didn't do itself any favors by featuring a nonsensical line that should have been cut.

Despite such problematic moments, The Black Hole has survived and endured mainly on the affection of fans, I suspect, who first viewed the film in childhood and never forgot it. But is there more to The Black Hole than the inescapable gravitational pull of nostalgia? Exactly what are the film's merits? And why, thirty years on, does it remain such a polarizing and influential film?

Foremost among The Black Hole’s merits is its exploration of Manichean universe. More about that aspect of the film, and other positive attributes too, after the synopsis, below.

"If there's any justice at all, the black hole will be your grave!"

A small Earth space craft, The Palomino, has been charged with seeking out and discovering life in space. On mission day 547, however, the exploratory craft commanded by Captain Dan Holland (Robert Forster) discovers something else of interest: the largest black hole ever detected by man.

Intriguingly, the ship's robot, V.I.N.Cent (Vital Information Network Centralized) (Roddy McDowall) detects a stationary object near the black hole: the shrouded silhouette of a vast spaceship. The crew soon recognizes the craft as Space Probe One, or the Cygnus...the costliest fiasco in America's space program history.

The Cygnus's eccentric commander, Dr. Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell) -- "one of the greatest space scientists of all time" -- refused Mission Control's recall order and the Cygnus has not been seen or heard from since.

Now, the quiescent Cygnus sits at the lip of the swirling black hole, miraculously resisting the pull of the devouring maw.

After acquiring some damage the Palomino lands on the Cygnus and the crew comes to learn the secrets of Reinhardt and his vast "death ship." V.I.N.Cent learns from another robot, Old B.O.B., that Reinhardt is insane; and that he lobotomized his mutinous human crew, eradicating their will and leaving the men and women of Cygnus mindless, spiritless automatons.

Also, Reinhardt has created a devilish red robot, Maximillian to help him carry out his plans to travel inside the black hole, inside “the mind of God.”

The survivors of the Palomino attempt to escape from Reinhardt even as the Cygnus sets a fateful course for the black hole. The escape attempt fails, and characters good and evil meet their fates inside the strange, mystical forces of the black hole

"Some cause may have created all this, but what caused the cause?"

Mani was a Persian philosopher of antiquity (210-176 AD) who contended in his writings and teachings that that the universe was split into two opposing natures: Darkness and Light. He furthermore suggested that these warring forces fought their battles in the terrain of the human being. Man's body -- the material world -- was the world of sin and darkness. And man's soul -- his spirit side -- represented the Light. Roiling inside all of us is the never-ending conflict between these forces.

In The Black Hole, viewers can detect a number of Manichean ideas expressed in the dramatis personae and the narrative situations. This is especially so during the metaphysical journey through the black hole in the finale, a strange religious twist on the trippy denouement of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Mani believed that Evil had many faces...but that at all those faces were part and parcel of the same Evil, not different ones.

In The Black Hole, audiences see Maximillian and Hans Reinhardt as two faces of Evil (mechanical and human, respectively) throughout the film, but in their nightmarish last scene, these two evils literally join to become one: Reinhardt is subsumed inside the robot demon Maximillian.

Hauntingly, we see Reinhardt's frightened human eyes peering out from the machine's mechanical shell. This is our last close-up view of the characters, of twin evils welded together.

This strange inhuman union occurs inside the black hole, in a realm that resembles a Boschean vision of Hell, with hopeless souls (the spirit-less humanoids) trudging across a Tartarus-like underworld as flames lick at the bottom of the frame. High atop a hellish, craggy mountain, the Maximillian/Reinhardt Hybrid rules, like Milton's Lucifer.

In keeping with Manichean beliefs, this is visibly the realm of physical things: bodies, mountains, fire...materialism. It is no coincidence either that the production designs of the film have colored Maximillian, Dr. Hans Reinhardt and Hell itself in crimson tones.

This bond of red -- whether Reinhardt's uniform, Maximillian's coat of scarlet paint, or the strange illuminating light of Hell itself -- connects all of them as "the One Evil," not separate evils, as conceived by the ancient philosophy of Mani.

Contrarily, the four survivors of the Palomino expedition (Holland, McCrae, Pizer and V.I.N.C.ent) find not Hell in at the event horizon of the black hole, but rather a celestial cathedral of sorts. Their vessel, the probe ship, is guided through this realm of the spirit (not the body), by another soul...a white guardian angel. The protagonists temporarily seem to exit the world of the body, and the film reveals their thoughts -- past and present -- "merging" during a brief, strange scene involving slow-motion photography.

What this scene appears to portend is that the three humans -- and robot (!) -- have been judged by the cosmic, Manichean forces inside the black hole and found to be above "sin," hence their journey through the long, Near Death Experience-style "light at the end of the tunnel" and subsequent safe re-emergence back into space.

Instead of remaining trapped in a physical Hell (like the Reinhardt/Maximillian hybrid), the probe ship and those aboard it pass through the gauntlet of "spirituality" where nothing -- not even sin -- can escape, and arrive safely in what appears to be a new universe. The closing shot of the film finds the probe ship on course for a giant white sun...a beacon of light and hope, and perhaps even a new beginning for the human race (and again, oddly enough, robot-kind...).

Reinhardt's final utterance before entering the crucible of the black hole is simply a mumbled..."all light."

This might be an allusion to William Wordsworth's poem, An Evening Walk Addressed to A Young Lady: "all light is mute amid the gloom," It may be Reinhardt's (too late...) recognition of the fact that just as he has squelched out all light in the souls of his crew so will the black hole mute out his spiritual light...sending him into utter, eternal darkness.

Whether intentionally or not, the climactic and symbolic final moments of The Black Hole -- long a subject of debate among the movie's detractors and admirers -- fit the philosophical tenets of Manicheism perfectly, positing for audiences the metaphor of devouring black hole as a spiritual testing ground or judgment day: one where humans understand that the secret of man's spirituality; his sense of morality.

So the use that the movie ultimately puts the black hole to is not scientific at all, but rather spiritual or even religious. For some viewers, that may simply be a bridge too far in belief. For other', it's a recognition, perhaps, that man must ultimately reckon with himself, especially when facing what Reinhardt explicitly terms the Mind of God.

Another, all-together different way to appreciate The Black Hole is as a virtual compendium of Jules Verne concepts and characters as they appeared in both literature and film history, only translated from the sea to the realm of outer space.

For instance, Hans Reinhardt is clearly a futuristic version of Captain Nemo. Like his literary predecessor, Reinhardt is a figure associated with a magnificent and highly-advanced vessel. In this case, that vessel is Cygnus not Nautilus. 

But consider that both Reinhardt and Nemo also grant their "guests" (prisoners?) an extensive tour of those ships, with special attention paid to technological innovation. In the book 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Nemo created a ship that ran on electricity; in the film it was atomic energy that powered Nautilus. In The Black Hole, Reinhardt discusses his creation of a limitless power source called "Cygnium" after his beloved ship. This is the thing that allows his ship to resist the forces of the black hole.

Furthermore, both Nemo and Reinhardt are defined as characters in terms of their ingenious ability to live off the resources at hand; off the sea or off outer space, as it were. In both 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and The Black Hole, the Nemo figure explains this fact in a dining room setting to his guests.

In the former tale, Nemo serves Aronnax and the others delicacies acquired from the abundant sea. In the latter narrative, Reinhardt discusses his personal hydroponic garden, which has grown all of his food.

Again, it's intriguing that both dining rooms (on the Nautilus and Cygnus respectively...) genuflect to the traditions of the past in terms of decor (candelabras, crystal glass ware, a naval telescope, statuary...) while the remainder of rooms on each ship suggest an overtly technological future.

As is the case in Mysterious Island (1961) and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954), The Black Hole's screenplay explicitly debates the essential, conflicted, and perhaps Manichean nature of Hans Reinhardt with the very words we've seen utilized before in relation to Nemo: "insane" and "genius."

Similarly, like Nemo, Reinhardt is a man who has left mankind behind, dwelling in a realm of exile. Yet there's an important distinction here: Reinhardt is not an anti-hero like Nemo. He is not a hero of any kind. Reinhardt is actually an egomaniac who has robbed his crew of their very souls in his quest to probe the mysteries of God.

Reinhardt is so narcissistic in fact, that he has forced his soulless crew members to wear reflective, mirrored face-plates over their own visages. What does this mean in practice? When Reinhardt looks at his crew, he sees only his own face reflected back. This is arrogance and vanity far beyond anything which Nemo ever aspired to or considered.

It seems clear that if the film Mysterious Island transforms Captain Nemo into a more palatable, rational 1960s "man of peace," Reinhardt is a post-Watergate, post-Three-Mile-Island, post-Vietnam figure of corruption, avarice, and madness. He is Nemo, perhaps, but Nemo skewed heavily to the dark side, instead of to the light.

The remaining characters in The Black Hole also seem to have distinct corollaries with those found in Verne's works.

Most clearly, Alex Durant (Anthony Perkins) is a dedicated man of science and one in "search of his own greatness." He thus seems a skewed version of the noble Professor Aronnax (another French name...) from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Aronnax clearly boasted a healthy moral compass, however, and by comparison Durant seems mesmerized, star-struck, and overcome by the dreams and accomplishments of Reinhardt. Again, we see a character from Verne's universe skewed to the dark side. This is appropriate given the increasingly low public approval of scientists as the 1970s wore on.

Harry Booth is very much the same story. A journalist, he could very well be the "war correspondent" Spillit from the movie Mysterious Island, only once more decidedly tweaked to seem more negative: this time emerging as a treacherous coward. Both Mysterious Island and The Black Hole feature confrontational scenes in which the Captain Nemo figure reveals his disdain for the reporter. Perhaps it is because the reporter, in both situations, represents the interests of the population back home and their "earthly" concerns: the so-called "unwashed" masses.

The similarities between Verne's world and the world of The Black Hole don't end with character descriptions.

Consider that a crew funeral plays an important role in both the Fleischer version of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and also the Disney space film.

In 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, the underwater funeral is the first thing Aronnax sees of Nemo's nature, crew, and world. In The Black Hole, Holland spies a humanoid funeral and garners the first clue about the nature of those "robots."

The dangerous black hole itself seems to represent the ocean-bound whirlpool, the deadly maelstrom that destroyed the Nautilus in Verne's literary masterpiece, serving the same function in The Black Hole.

Finally, it is impossible not to notice that Reinhardt and Nemo share very similar death scenes in both The Black Hole and the movie version of Mysterious Island. In The Black Hole, Reinhardt is crushed by a falling view screen, and we see him die with his (bulging...) eyes wide open. In Mysterious Island, Nemo also dies with eyes open, after a crushing beam has fallen on his torso.

While one or two of these Verne-style visuals, narrative points, characterizations or story traits might simply prove a coincidence, there is such a preponderance of them in The Black Hole that it becomes incumbent on us to view the film as almost literally a post-Star Wars adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. It is one that has updated the "fantasy" setting from the bottom of the sea to the most distant reaches of outer space; one that has re-fashioned the anti-hero Nemo as a more cynical, more corrupt 1970s-style figure. It is also one that has replaced atomic age fears of self-annihilation, with the 1970s "Me Generation" fear of personal oblivion and spiritual malaise.

Leaving behind Manichean interpretations and thoughts on its Jules Verne-ish qualities, The Black Hole impresses on another field of play.  I believe it was Nicholas Meyer, director of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country who discussed the idea that many of the greatest works of art leave some sort of "gap" for the percipients to fill in for themselves. When we listen to music, our mind supplies the images. When we gaze at a great painting, our mind fills in movement or "life," perhaps. And in great, artistic films some gaps in motive, narration, and explanation are left open so that we -- the viewers -- can bridge that gulf with our own imagination. We thus engage the material not with passive disinterest, but with active thought.

For all of its flagrant ignorance regarding science and physics, The Black Hole is positively filled with bizarre, almost throwaway moments of remarkable imagination and implications. For instance, late in the film, after Maximillian has disemboweled Dr. Durant with his spinning propeller blades, Dr. Reinhardt approaches Kate with extreme fear in his eyes. He begs her in a whisper (so that his machine minion cannot overhear...): "Protect me from Maximillian."

There is no explicit follow-up to this moment; no real mention of it later in the film, just this urgent, persuasive conversational alleyway (lensed in medium shot) that suggests -- for a fraction of a second -- that Reinhardt fears his own Frankenstein monster. That it is the hovering, scarlet cyclops named Maximillian who rules the Cygnus, not the fallible, eccentric human being. It is as though Maximillian is Reinhardt's Id, only physically separated from him, acting of his own volition.

We might extrapolate that this single line of dialogue helps better to explain Reinhardt's final disposition -- his personal Hell. Inside the black hole, he is forced to join with Maximillian, to go inside the beast and dwell there for eternity. We know from that single, odd line of dialogue that Reinhardt fears such a thing...a monster he can no longer control, but that controls him. Where many people believe that in death we leave our bodies for non-corporeal spirit forms, the Manichean truth of Reinhardt's afterlife is that the Darkness has prevailed and he will be trapped in a metal shell for eternity. There is no ascension for him because of his sins. We know this later when we hear (inside the probe ship), his repeated and tortured calls for "help."

There are several odd little moments like this one in The Black Hole that are worthy of mention and analysis.

Many critics picked on V.I.N.Cent -- the Cicero-quoting platitude machine -- as some kind of R2-D2 rip-off. They complained about his mode of communication too. Throughout the film, the robot speaks almost entirely in proverb and platitudes, throwing out one after the other in clearly...mechanical fashion. One can look at V.I.N.C.ent's mode of expression as a result of bad writing, or as something a bit more interesting. That V.I.N.C.ent apparently sees his world in terms of metaphors suggests that he possesses some sense of understanding of life beyond the literal.

Again, this uncommented-upon touch plays into the ending of the film: the robot boasts a "soul," apparently, and survives the crucible of judgment inside the black hole since he -- a machine -- is put there on equal footing with Dan, Kate and Charlie Pizer...and we are privy to his thoughts. Even his throwaway line about disliking the company of robots seems to indicate that V.I.N.C.ent for all his lamentable cartoonish more than mere robot.

Kate is able to communicate telepathically with this distinctive robot, another indicator that  V.I.N.cent is more than the sum of his parts.

And that realization brings us to another interesting line of dialogue laden with implications: while on the Cygnus V.I.N.C.ent reveals the specifics of something called "Project Black Hole," a governmental operation which sent robots to the event horizon and telepathically recorded their responses to the strange events occurring there.

Again, this idea has no play in the remainder of the film, but it raises all kinds of notions. Are robots the slaves of man in the future envisioned by The Black Hole? Or are they an artificial life form slowly developing sentience? And if Project Black Hole existed a long time ago as V.I.N.C.ent indicates, then did Reinhardt know of it? Did he actually create Maximillian to house his body (knowing a robot could survive there...) in case of emergency? Was Maximillian's armor but Reinhardt's second fallback measure, behind the probe ship?

It's very easy to gaze at many moments in The Black Hole as being mere "fun with robots," or other such nonsense, but if one returns to the argument about Manichiesm, one might see how Maximillian symbolizes the realm of the body/darkness and V.I.N.C.ent seems to evolve beyond that, achieving the level of the spiritual/Light.  The movie is thus about not only about man, but the evolution of his machines into self-aware beings who are expected to conform to a moral compass.

Another thing that The Black Hole does remarkably well is hint at the larger universe of the characters. You see that in V.I.N.C.ent's casual mention of Project Black Hole, but elsewhere as well.

Early in the film, the crew of the Palomino attempts to identify the Cygnus on a holographic projector, and we are treated to a visual litany of missing ships. Arcturus 10 from Great Britain, Liberty 7 from the U.S., Russian Series 5 Experimental Space Station and the French Sahara Module.  Eventually the crew hits on the Cygnus, but not before we get a sense of how "dangerous" outer space can be in this particular universe.  This gives a much-needed context to the main storyline, that space is a dangerous and mysterious realm.

Indeed, another part of the film's longevity derives from the fact that it possesses this creepy, almost gothic texture of dread and terror. The humanoids are like faceless medieval monks, and Maximillian is deliberately a devil in red armor. The Cygnus itself is a vast, empty, “Flying Dutchman” of ghosts, loaded with mysteries (like limping robots, and eerily empty crew quarters...) that lurk around every corner.

The Black Hole even opens in macabre fashion, with an early digital representation of a black hole -- here something like a neon green spider-web leading to a kind of inescapable funnel. We spin inexorably towards this cosmic whirlpool faster and faster, all to the portentous strains of John Barry's Herman-nesque score. The stage is thus set for dark fantasy. 

But the creep factor finds its fullest voice in a scene set in the Cygnus control tower. Dr. Durant removes a humanoid's face-plate and in horrifying close-up we see briefly what a human looks like without his soul. The face we see is drawn, dry, and desiccated; awake but unseeing. It's a gruesome visage...and certainly nightmare fodder for children. And that moment is followed almost immediately by the sequence in which Maximilllian brutally slices and dices Dr. Durant (and Perkins' reaction is particularly effective.) Finally, the end of the movie takes us on a tour through Hell. Sci-fi movies don't get much darker than that.

So while it would be foolish and counterproductive to deny "nostalgia" as a reason for remembering The Black Hole fondly even today,  one must wonder if the movie's creepy, unsettling nature is the thing that, over the years, has brought many adults back to the movie a second, even third time.  

Like the cosmic force of its titular phenomenon, there’s something tantalizing about The Black Hole that draws in and captures the attentive and engaged viewer.  

Movie Trailer: The Black Hole (1979)

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Cult-TV Blogging: Star Maidens: "The End of Time" (1976)

In “The End of Time,” Octavia (Christiane Kruger) returns to Medusa with Professor Evans (Derek Farr), so he can help negotiate a hostage swap. Once Fulvia and Adam return to Medusa, Liz (Lisa Harrow) and Rudy Schmidt (Christian Quadflieg) can return to Terra.

Unfortunately, something strange has happened on Medusa. All the women have vanished, the men are tranquilized, asleep in their dormitories, and the vast city is abandoned.  The only other people awake and in the metropolis are Liz and Rudy, who are trying to determine what has occurred.

And what has occurred?  

Apparently, “The End of Time.”  As Liz, Evans and Rudy learn, the Medusan people mark time by the life and death of their presidents. Time (symbolically stops for the culture when a president dies, and it does not resume until a new president is selected.  President Clara (Dawn Addams) appears to be dead.

Worse, since Liz was awake during her death, she is accused of being a presidential assassin and exiled to the inhospitable surface of Medusa.

Upon closer inspection of Clara, however, Evans realizes she is not dead, only the victim of a bacteriological infection, a condition that the Medusans have no familiarity with, because they long ago conquered disease. He suggests antibiotics.

When Clara recovers, time is allowed to resume in the city, and Rudy rescues Liz from the surface. Evans returns home, having failed his hostage mission, but having saved a life.

“The End of Time” is another very intriguing episode of Star Maidens (1976), since much is learned about Medusa, and its customs and history. 

For instance, it is reported, at one point that men are put to sleep during the death of a President (the so-called period known as “The End of Time”) so that they do not launch an uprising or attempt to gain control of the planet. Apparently, at one point in Medusan history, a man did lead the planet, and was an unmitigated disaster as a leader.  The technology to tranquilize men is called a “hypnomat.”

We also learn, of course, about “The End of Time” ritual, the stopping of all life on the planet, since a president has died. Time only resumes, in the eyes of Medusa, when a new matriarch rises. Without leadership, without control, Medusa itself seems to die, or at least hibernate.  I wonder how this would work if the planet were at war, or in crisis.

There are two other observations worth making at this juncture (episode ten of thirteen). The first is that the writers absolutely seem to prefer dealing with the “Medusa” story, rather than the “Earth” story, where Fulvia and Adam are suspiciously circling another.  The series boasts a schizophrenic feel because the Medusa stories are presented as straight-up science fiction tales in a futuristic setting, whereas the Earth story is campy, romantic, and at times, blisteringly caustic.  

The last two stories set on Medusa (“The End of Time” and “What Have They Done with the Rain?”) feature strong, mysterious science fiction elements, and social commentary too. “What Have They Done with the Rain?” is about the way that human beings and destroy the environment, and turn a blind eye to the cause of inimical changes. 

“The End of Time” commences as an “Empty City”-type story (think: Star Trek’s “Mark of Gideon” or Space:1999’s “One Moment of Humanity”) but then evolves into a meditation on the idea that sometimes an advanced civilization cannot deal with a “primitive” problem, like a bodily infection. The Medusans so long ago conquered illness, that even the creepy robot doctor is not able to diagnose Clara’s “death.”

The point I am making here is that Star Maidens has a reputation, among those who have seen it, as a “campy” 1970’s science fiction series. That description is apt, but only for the Fulvia/Adam episodes set on Earth.  The episodes on Medusa grapple, ambitiously -- and seriously -- with genre concepts, tropes, and commentary.

The second point I’m going to make here involves the thematic underpinnings of the series. As was the case in last week’s story, this tale focuses on the idea that the women of Medusa can’t help themselves. 

In “What Have They Done with the Rain?” Rudy -- a man – saved the planet from its own environmental short-sightedness. In “The End of Time,” a different man -- Professor Evans -- saves the women of the planet by proving that President Clara is sick, but not dead, and that, therefore, Liz is not an assassin.

When you boil it down, the idea in both stories is that only men can lead, or come up with answers, and that the matriarchy of Medusa would be doomed without them.  

This very concept betrays the thematic thrust established early in the series, that Earth and Medusa are mirror images of one another, and that both are locked in nonsensical prejudices about which gender is superior.  

At this juncture, it’s clear that the series seems to suggest men are better capable of leading, or at least solving problems. We have yet to see a story in which the Earth is doomed, because of the short-sighted behavior we have seen in these two episodes, and only a Medusan woman can save it.

Next up on Star Maidens: a return to Earth in “Hideout.”