Thursday, May 31, 2018

Kolchak Blogging: "They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be" (September 27, 1974)

As the World Series begins, Kolchak (Darren McGavin) is drawn into an investigation of several animal deaths at the Lincoln Park Zoo, as well as the unusual theft of two tons of led ingots from a local warehouse, one owned by Raydyne Electronics.

The story leads Kolchak to a resident on Mariposa Way, Mr.Brindle (Dick Van Patten), who complains about a foul-smelling substance on his lawn, which he believes the local government left there.

All these incidents relate to an extra-terrestrial incursion on Earth by apparently-invisible aliens. They have been eating the bone marrows of the zoo animals, and leaving the strange black muck behind, which Kolchak surmises is an alien digestive secretion.

Kolchak tracks the aliens to their flying saucer.

In inescapable cheapness hangs over “They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be,” an early episode (sometimes known by the alternate title of “U.F.O.”) that qualifies as Kolchak: The Night Stalker’s (1974-1975) most disappointing installment.

The visiting aliens are invisible (a cheap expedient), and so there is no visible monster-of-the-week to speak of. The episode’s last act reveals the alien saucer, and it’s a silver-plated jalopy, too, a chintzy vehicle that fails utterly to capture any sense of mystery, wonder, majesty or terror about the beings that have arrived on our world.

There are a lot of fireworks, stunts, and slow-motion photography in this “They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be,” and yet none of these bells-and-whistles do anything constructive. They only slow down the narrative. 

Basically, Kolchak puts all the disparate pieces together, and recounts (a fascinating) summation about “a traveler who has a break down, and stops for a bite to eat” on Earth, but the individual pieces involving led, hydrochloric acid, and bone marrow, don’t amount to much, individually-speaking, or together. There is some interesting discussion of “Wormwood” and the fact that there is no existing U.S. government agency dedicated to the study of UFOs, but not much else of interest occurs. An X-Files (1993-2002) episode in the 1990’s, intriguingly includes some of the same elements. “Fearful Symmetry” from the second season also features zoo animals, invisibility, and aliens.

The high-points of “They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be” are all non-genre related. Dick Van Patten puts in a great guest-appearance as an argumentative Chicago-an, dealing with an unwanted mess in his yard. Gordy the Ghoul is also back, running his illegal gambling pools from the city morgue, and acerbic, gravelly-voiced James Gregory plays Quill, the stone-walling police captain of the week. Gregory is suitably caustic and condescending to Kolchak, warning hi that “responsible journalists” risk “losing credibility” when reporting on a story-like this one.

The episode’s best moment involves the repartee between Kolchak and Vincenzo (Simon Oakland). Vincenzo of the “cast-iron” stomach is tested mightily, eating his gourmet dinner, as Kolchak goes over the nauseating tales of eaten bone marrow and the black excrement consisting of the marrow and hydrochloric acid.

It’s intriguing that Kolchak: The Night Stalker typically exceeds in sharp language, and crafting distinctive, memorable characters, even when the horror (or in this case, sci-fi…) aspects fail egregiously. That’s the case in this episode, and some of the scenes featuring the invisible extra-terrestrial border on the ridiculous.

Next week: “The Vampire.”

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Collectible of the Week: Archie Bunker's Grandson (Ideal)

Book Tie-In of the Week #2: Edith Bunker's All in the Family Cookbook

Book Tie-in of the Week: The Wit and Wisdom of Archie Bunker

Record Album of the Week #2: All in the Family (2nd Album)

Record Album of the Week: All in the Family

Board Game of the Week 2: Archie Bunker's Card Game (Milton Bradley)

Board Game of the Week: All in the Family (Milton Bradley)

Theme Song of the Week: All in the Family (1975)

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Star Trek: The Next Generation 30th Anniversary Blogging: "Skin of Evil" (April 25, 1988)

"... death is that state in which one only exists in the memory of others; which is why it is not an end..."

- Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby) in "Skin of Evil."

In this post, I remember the controversial first season effort "Skin of Evil" written by Joseph Stefano and directed by Joseph Scanlon.  It's an episode that has been widely termed an "unmitigated disaster."

In fact, "Skin of Evil" is often considered one of the series' worst installments. That's an honor I would more readily reserve for early first season programs such as "Code of Honor," "The Last Outpost," "Haven," Too Short A Season," "Home Soil," or the second season clips show "Shades of Gray." 

The reasons for the generally low-opinion of "Skin of Evil" are clear and definitely understandable.

First, the episode kills off a popular regular character, Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby) and more than that, does so in a purposefully random or "meaningless" fashion.

In short, the beloved Enterprise security chief dies the ignominious death of a red shirt.

Star Trek: The Next Generation itself attempted to rewrite this apparently unworthy demise in the excellent third season episode "Yesterday's Enterprise," by granting the character a more noble and meaningful second send-off.

Beyond this character exit, there are certainly other grounds by which to deride "Skin of Evil" too, if that's the game. For example, the episode relies heavily on repeat footage of the central threat, the oil-slick monster, Armus. One shot of him rising from the muck is repeated three times in less than an hour.

Seemingly routine scenes are not staged very well, either. To wit, Deanna Troi is trapped in a shuttle craft for the duration of the episode with an injured pilot named Ben. We never even see Ben until the last act, wherein Picard beams into the shuttle, checks him out, and concludes he is very weak indeed.  Why wasn't Deanna tending to him herself before this moment?  She may be injured, but is she physically paralyzed?  Why don't we see her limp over to the poor guy (he's two feet away, at most, for goodness sake...) and just check for a pulse?

In another scene -- right after Armus takes Commander Riker -- we get a blooper.  We see Geordi's phaser "plop" into the black muck, visible to the naked eye. Again, this moment is indicative of the fact that the episode -- and the physical creation of the alien Armus -- was likely a nightmare to vet.

Also, it's difficult to deny that at least a few lines of dialogue are real groaners. The holographic Tasha's comment during her funeral that Deanna taught her she could be "feminine without losing anything" was horribly antiquated-sounding even back in 1988.

Would that really be a concern of a Starfleet officer in the 24th century? I don't think people even worry about this in 2018, let alone 2363, or whatever.

Finally, an early scene in the episode that features Tasha discussing an upcoming martial arts competition with Worf is so sentimentally scored and so overplayed by the actors that it telegraphs immediately what is bound to happen next: Tasha's untimely death. A little more subtlety would have been nice here, rather than a neon sign which seems to shout out "SHE'S GOING TO DIE!"

Yet -- going out on a limb -- I have always really enjoyed and appreciated "Skin of Evil" for the things it gets right rather than the things it gets wrong. Therefore, I'm going to focus on those positive elements in this review, having already at least paid lip-service to the admittedly-numerous complaints Trekkers might have regarding this segment.

First, a re-cap.

As the Enterprise is en route to rendezvous with shuttle craft 13 and Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis), something goes terribly wrong.  The shuttle crashes on apparently uninhabited Vagra 2 and both Troi and her pilot, Ben, are injured.  A force field seems to be blocking the Enterprise from beaming up the injured.

When an away team consisting of Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes), Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden), Lt. Data (Brent Spiner) and Tasha Yar beams down to attempt a rescue, it is deliberately blocked by a sentient oil slick, a sadistic and hostile creature called "Armus."

When Tasha attempts to circumvent Armus to rescue the wounded, the creature strikes her down in an instant; murdering her. The away team returns to the Enterprise immediately, but there's nothing Dr. Crusher can do to help save the fallen security chief.  Though now in mourning, the crew turns its attention towards rescuing the downed shuttle crew.

Counselor Troi, meanwhile, uses her gifts and talents as an empath and psychologist to learn the truth about Armus and his motives.  She learns that his world was once home to a race of "Titans."  In order to become beautiful, these aliens cast off their darkest, most evil qualities and created Armus...literally a skin (or shroud) of evil.

Once free of him, these aliens abandoned Armus on the desolate planet and headed off to the stars to meet their great destiny.  Alone and miserable, Armus now wishes only to strike out and hurt those who rejected him.  Troi determines he is "empty," and worse, wants to fill that emptiness with acts of pure malevolence and sadism.

Ultimately, Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) is able to defeat Armus by reminding him that although the creature may boast the capacity to control and hurt the crew, only Picard possesses the ability to command them.  After the final confrontation, the shuttle crew is rescued, Armus is abandoned, and aboard the Enterprise,the bridge crew attends Tasha's funeral, an event meant to "celebrate" her life.

One of the reasons I admire "Skin of Evil" so much is that --  up to this point in Next Generation history, at least -- the series was kind of...well, soft.

Although I love and respect the Star Trek ideal of peacefully broaching contact with alien life forms, the very heart of good drama remains conflict.  In Star Trek: The Next Generation's first season, the Enterprise crew had already met aliens who wanted to debate philosophy (Portal, in "The Last Outpost"), or worked matters out peaceably with other races ("Home Soil," "Encounter at Farpoint.")  Some episodes even featured no overt "alien" conflict at all, but played merely as standard soap operas set in an idealistic future ("Coming of Age.")  The show felt perilously like a space adventure without the adventure.

This "safe" approach changed radically with "Skin of Evil" as the crew encounters an absolutely implacable foe.  Armus can not be reasoned with or negotiated with.  You cannot appease him by "asking" what he wants and then "mediating" a way to give it to him.  On the contrary, he is a creature who exists only to oppose, only to obstruct, only to negate.

If he is not actually pure evil, then certainly Armus is hostility and Id personified.  On a program that so often pitched soft ball alien interaction,  Armus -- the piece's villain -- really plays hard ball. He is dangerous and capricious, and explicitly does not share the Starfleet belief that "all creatures have a right to exist."

Killing Tasha as he does is brutal, nasty and, unmotivated, but the unnecessary and savage act reminds our stalwart crew that not everyone in the galaxy thinks in the same way as they do.  And this fact, I submit, brings out the steel in their spines, and makes the characters actually reconsider and re-evaluate their noble beliefs.

In particular, I love the moment in the episode wherein Armus asks Dr. Crusher if she is "scared" and she admits that she is, but doesn't back down. That's a wonderfully human character touch, and McFadden is magnificent in that moment.

Another great character moment sees Data refusing to help Armus taunt Geordi, and then conclude that Armus should be destroyed. Armus scoffs at this "moral judgment" from a machine, but the matter is of great import.

By killing Tasha and mocking Geordi, Armus has made Data reconsider Starfleet's core belief, that all creatures have the right to exist.  Again, this is a pretty powerful moment for Data and for the show.

A big complaint about Star Trek: The Next Generation is that the characters can afford to be magnanimous and noble because they live in a Utopia, one where they are the most powerful folks on the block.  In this case, however, Data is not insulated by the paradise of the UFP, and must put those morals to the test in practice.

In a flash -- when his friends are hurt -- he abandons noble principle for expression of blood-thirsty vengeance, actually advocating murder. An interesting shade of gray for the child-like android, no?  A very human (and understandable) response too

I also believe Riker is developed well here. Worrying for Deanna's safety,  he allows himself to be absorbed by Armus. Will goes from shouting to Data for help as he is dragged across the dirt to actively forbidding help and facing intense personal danger.  This selfless decision speaks volumes about his character, and how he applies his own sense of morality to conflict.

This is also likely one of Troi's strongest episodes in the first season, and perhaps the series in totality.  Instead of offering up blatantly obvious information about alien commanders such as the tiresome bromide "he's hiding something," she sharpens her psychological skills in "Skin of Evil" and really dissects -- effectively too -- Armus's mental weaknesses.

The series should have permitted the character to do more of that kind of thing; to counsel not just in treacly, touchy-feely terms, but in pointed strategic ones as well. A counselor to a captain on a star ship would need to demonstrate his or her practical value in times of danger, and not merely belabor off-point opinions about how the crew is coping with stress ("they're anxious" or "they're inexperienced.")  Kirk had Spock to (logically) analyze situations and tactics on the bridge, and one can see from "Skin of Evil" how Troi might have served the same useful purpose if the writers had not been so blindly committed to featuring her in the tiresome "caregiver" mold.

Another quality I appreciate in "Skin of Evil" is the absence of techno-babble. Over the years, The Next Generation descended into a mind-numbing morass of meaningless science fiction jargon.  Any alien, any phenomenon -- anything at all -- could be justified, explained, and ultimately defeated by the mealy-mouthed, nonsensical tech-talk.

"Skin of Evil" sidesteps this dramatic plague and writer's crutch, and instead forges a chilling sense of mystery about Armus.

As Data reports, the alien has "no proteins known to us, no circulatory system, no musculature, and no skeletal framework."  And lives.

Star Trek is supposed to be about encountering alien life forms, and Armus, at the very least, is not the routinely-seen bumpy-headed humanoid.  There's a real sense of alien menace -- and difference -- about this being. In short, the crew really deals with something unknown and horrifying here, and I appreciate that dedicated sense of ambition, that imagination to go beyond the conventional.

And "Skin of Evil" works overtime to terrify. There are some great compositions of Riker's tortured visage, subsumed inside Armus, and terrifying views of the alien rising from the black bile, looming over the crewmen in the screen frame and appearing truly illimitable.  Perhaps we do see some of these shots one too many times, but again, I appreciate the risk-tasking that's on display here, the concerted effort to show us something we had not seen before.

In terms of style, I can also admire how the camera-work goes hand-held once Crusher reaches sickbay with Tasha, and attempts to revive the fallen officer. The immediacy-provoking, jerky camera-work is much different from the program's typically formal approach to visualization, and it lets us know -- viscerally -- what's at stake. The scene's final punctuation, Picard's disbelief that Tasha is "gone," thus proves gut-wrenching.

In fact, Picard gets a pretty good makeover in this episode. He brilliantly outmaneuvers Armus and brings his people home safe, without firing a single phaser shot. But his talking here is not for consensus-building or to convince an enemy of his peaceful ways. Rather, Picard uses words to weaken Armus, to trick and deceive him, and that's a nice twist on the perpetually action-less hero.

I also appreciate the fact that Picard doesn't lecture Data about mortality at episode's conclusion.  Instead, Picard is magnificently terse.  Data asks Picard if by thinking of himself and his own feelings he has missed the point of Yar's memorial. Picard replies, "No Data, you got it," and the episode ends.  It's a sharp comeback that makes the episode's point without explanation or excessive spoon-feeding. 

I suppose there's ample reason to dislike this episode because it dispatches Tasha the way it does. And yet, I suspect that the decision to kill the under-utilized character in such fashion is a brave and worthwhile one.

God knows, we don't all get to end our lives the way we wish, and exploring the stars is exceedingly dangerous business.  On top of that, Tasha selected a dangerous specialty.

Accordingly, Yar's death may be the most realistic character death in Star Trek history.  And that's an important distinction. We're not immortal supermen, even in the 24th century.  We're humans...and we die, sometimes unexpectedly.  Tasha's death reminds the audience of its own mortality, and again, that's a good thing, a bold move in a show that too often played things safe.  I appreciate the moment in the episode when the away team reports Tasha's death, and we see Worf's reaction, just for a few seconds.  He doesn't say a word; he doesn't over-emote.  He just silently gives this look...and it speaks volumes of his emotional state.  Another nice character touch.

I still remember watching "Skin of Evil" for the first time in 1988, and being pretty impressed by it.  The episode is thrilling, dangerous and emotional...and anything but soft. I suppose these qualities render it out of step with other installments, but for me, that's all to the good too.

You see, a problem I discern too often in Star Trek: The Next Generation, even thirty years later, is that the characters are too comfortable. They possess too many resources with which to meet the unknown, and too much discipline in controlling their fear and anxieties. Medicine and technology can bring back the dead and dying  ("Shades of Gray," "Lonely Among Us," "Unnatural Selection").  All life forms can be reasoned with ("Home Soil," "Encounter at Farpoint," "The Neutral Zone" etc.) and unchained technology makes life a virtual paradise, a world of material wealth and plenty.

For all of its flaws in terms of execution, "Skin of Evil" proves a dramatic reminder that there are some dark corners of outer space where reason can't save the day, where logic doesn't hold sway, where medicine can't bring back the lost, and technology can't give Starfleet an easy win.

A later episode "Q Who," gave the series a similar "kick" in its complacency with the introduction of the Borg, but "Skin of Evil" -- regardless of all its bloopers and drawbacks -- aimed the show in that very direction too, and courageously so. 

In my opinion, it's still a pretty worthwhile and imaginative course correction.

Monday, May 28, 2018

The Cult-TV Faces of: Gold Skin










Sunday, May 27, 2018

Pop Art: All in the Family (TV Guide Edition)

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging; Sigmund and the Sea Monsters (1973-1975): "The Monster Who Came to Dinner" (September 8,1973)

Sigmund and the Sea Monsters (1973-1975) is the first live-action Sid and Marty Krofft Saturday morning series to run more than one season. The program ran for two seasons and nearly thirty episodes on NBC, though its record for broadcast was soon usurped by Land of the Lost (1974-1977), which ran three years and forty three episodes.

Sigmund and the Sea Monsters remains beloved by young and old alike, and was recently re-booted for a six episode run on Amazon Prime. The original seventies series follows the adventures of two young brothers, Johnny (Johnny Whitaker) and Scott (Scott Kolden), who live near a beach, and discover a friendly, diminutive  sea monster named Sigmund (Billy Barty) near “Dead Man’s Cove.”

The boys bring him back home to their clubhouse. Notably, Sigmund is unlike the other sea monsters of his kind, because he doesn’t want to frighten people. Having run away from his family of origin, he finds a new family with Johnny and Scott, though he must stay hidden from the family housekeeper, the stern Zelda (Mary Wickes).  Johnny and Scott’s parents are “away” and never seen throughout the series.

Over the weeks and seasons, Sigmund’s sea monster family tries again and again to bring him back home (in part so the family’s rich uncle Siggy, Sigmund’s namesake, will leave the family his inheritance when he dies), and fail repeatedly.

The first episode of the series, “The Monster Who Came to Dinner,” establishes much of this premise. It begins with the boys carrying Sigmund home to their clubhouse on a surf-board, and nearly being run-over at a road intersection (a scene in the opening montage)

Meanwhile, Sigmund’s sea monster world is simultaneously established back in his family’s cave. The gruff, insulting Big Daddy (Sharon Baird) is voiced by Walker Edmiston, and is an obvious knock-off of All in the Family’s (1972 -1979) bigot-in-residence, Archie Bunker, right down to his memorable catchphrases “Dingbat,” “stifle” and (in the episode “Puppy Love,”) even the put-down “Meathead.”  One of the brothers, meanwhile, sounds exactly like Jim Nabor’s beloved Gomer Pyle, from the series of the same name (1962-1964).

We learn in this episode of the Krofft series that the monsters have “Shellovision” (instead of television) and watch their favorite channel: MBC (Monster Broadcasting Company.)  The series they watch in this episode is a knock-off of Sanford and Son (1972-1977) called “Serpent and Son.”  Since Sigmund and the Sea Monsters aired in 1973, both the Sanford and All in the Family references would have been considered very timely and relevant when the series first aired.

“The Monster Who Came to Dinner” may be Sigmund, himself, who nearly ruins a home-cooked dinner between Zelda and her beau, the local sheriff, Bevins (Jim Higgins), or it may be his namesake, Uncle Siggy, who comes to the family cave and is upset that his favorite sea monster, Sigmund, is nowhere to be found.

This episode, like so many episodes of Sigmund and the Sea Monsters ends with a song, sung by the boys.  In this case, the song is “Friends.” 

Next week, episode two: “Puppy Love,” but in the meantime, here’s a look at one series theme song:

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Kolchak Blogging: "The Zombie" (September 20, 1974)

During an investigation of the murder of several mobsters, Kolchak (Darren McGavin) learns that the victims had their spines snapped by the murderer, one with chicken blood on his person.  Looking into the case further, Kolchak learns that Francois Edmunds, a Haitian, was shot and murdered by the mob. He has returned from the grave to murder those responsible for his death. He is now a zombie, controlled by a zombie master, who leaves his earthen bed each night, and targets those who ended his life.

A frightened Kolchak plots to stop the zombie massacre. He tracks the zombie’s home to a junk yard, and there – armed with a sewing needle, threat, white candles, and salt, plans to sew the monster’s mouth shut and end the horrifying killing spree

If I could only recommend one episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-1975) to a friend, it would be this episode, “The Zombie,” which is suspenseful, but also serves as a perfect time capsule of the mid-1970’s. Lest we forget it, Kolchak, The Night Stalker aired in the era of "hero" journalists like Woodward and Bernstein, right after the Watergate Scandal. Embedded in the series' DNA is the then-popular belief that one man can fight City Hall; that one man can make a difference. In the series, Kolchak is always battling corrupt cops or politicians and trying (and often failing...) to get the truth out to the people. This was before the age of a corporate news business and compliant "talking points" media. Kolchak -- for all his failures as a human being -- is a sterling journalist and a paragon of virtue in the sense that he always follows a matter where it takes him. Unlike today’s media, which is more interested n ratings than the truth, he isn’t afraid to speak truth to power.

"The Zombie" reveals this "man against City Hall" aesthetic in spades. While investigating a gangland "syndicate" killing, Kolchak begins to suspect that a Mamalois, a voodoo priestess, has activated a zombie to kill the mobsters who put out a hit on her grandson, Haitian Francois Edmonds. Kolchak works every angle of the case, which allows him to consult the series' colorful recurring cast members, like John Fiedler's on-the-take "Gordy the Ghoul," an enthusiastic informant who works in City Morgue. The case also puts Kolchak in direct opposition with police captain Leo Winwood (Charles Aidman), who has a dark involvement with the mob case. In voice-over, Kolchak describes his relationship with Winwood as "long and bloody; like the Crusades...only without the chivalry."

One of the episode's best moment involves Kolchak putting Captain Winwood on the spot while he conducts an official press briefing (a ritual Kolchak derides as "a foolish game.") The Helen Thomas or Sam Donaldson of his day, Kolchak pummels the evasive Winwood with facts until the dishonest police captain threatens to have him expelled. Why our White House Press couldn't push Sarah Huckabee Sanders this way is beyond me. A liar in the service of power needs to be called out, regularly.

Another aspect of the episode involves Kolchak tangling with Monique Marmelstein, the new partner Vincenzo has assigned him. Monique is a pudgy, annoying presence who got her job at INS through what she calls "nespotism" (but she means nepotism.) Just as the Winwood character is found to be corrupt; so does Kolchak here find corruption in his INS office. It turns out Monique's uncle is a powerful figure in local politics, so Vincenzo has no choice but to accommodate her on his staff. At a police shoot-out, however, Kolchak finds an inventive way to keep Monique out of his way: the always loquacious Kolchak jaw-bones Monique into hiding in the trunk of his car; and then locks her in. Not very nice. But undeniably effective.

The political undercurrents of Kolchak and the pervasive context of Watergate are always fascinating elements of the series, but as a horror fan I admire "The Zombie" for its spine-tingling denouement. Convinced that a zombie is being resurrected nightly for revenge killings, Kolchak researches the ways to kill it. He discovers that zombies often rest in the "places of the dead" (mortuaries, graveyards, etc.) and that to kill one he must pour salt into the mouth, and then use needle and thread to sew the lips "very tightly" together. However, that mode of execution only works if the zombie is dormant. If awake, the undead can be killed by strangulation. But ever try strangling a zombie before?

Kolchak finds his living-dead quarry at an unconventional "place of the dead," an auto junkyard (where cars go to die.). In particular, Kolchak happens across the zombie in a wrecked funeral hearse. We watch with mounting suspense as Kolchak crawls in through the back of the hearse and methodically pours salt into the zombie's mouth. He slowly takes out the needle and is about to begin sewing the lips shut when...

...the zombie's eyes open and Kolchak - terrified - shrieks and hightails it out of the hearse.

I have to admit, this is one of the things I absolutely love about this character. So often in horror movies and television lately, characters face extreme situations (like vampires, zombies and werewolves) with a bit too much composure and acceptance for my taste. In keeping with Kolchak's 1970s-vibe and "everyman" nature, the character is foolhardy, but when faced with a monster, pretty damn terrified. Upon seeing the zombie awake, Kolchak turns tail and runs like hell. "Suspension of disbelief" is important in horror and science fiction, and if the characters don't respond in a truthful manner to the strange events around them, I found suspension of disbelief is lost. A lot of movies and TV shows today can't be bothered to actually generate suspense or have characters react in a realistic way. But Kolchak is a dogged everyman, and reacts how you or I might.

So Kolchak turns tail and runs through the junkyard, the white-eyed zombie hot on his heels. With a degree of ingenuity and on the fly, Kolchak manages to trick the lunging zombie into a noose, hence the necessary strangulation of the creature. But the point is that it all looks very unplanned, very spontaneous, and therefore very human. Kolchak: The Night Stalker did things in this fashion all the time, and the audience found itself rooting for the little guy not just as he battled City Hall, but as he battled terrifying monsters too (or more appropriately, a different kind of monster than he found ensconced in the hallways of power).

Of course, the very nature of episodic television assures that the protagonist survives his or her travails week-to-week, but the very fallible nature of this particular protagonist actually makes the viewer forget such convention and hold on tight to that critical suspension of disbelief. Carl has heart, but he's hapless and -- like most of us -- not exactly courageous in the face of the unknown. That's why I love the guy; he's us.

With its roving night-time camera, hand-held moments promoting immediacy, staccato character banter, sharp writing and unforgettably individual protagonist, Kolchak: The Night Stalker is really a shining jewel in genre television's crown. It's a one-of-a-kind production, and "The Zombie" reveals why. It moves effortlessly from comedy to social commentary, to monsters-on-the-loose with utter confidence, not to mention an overwhelming sense of charm and fun.

Next Week: “They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be.”

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Action Figures of the Week: The Simpsons (Burger King)

Comic-Book of the Week: The Simpsonsco

Video Game of the Week: The Simpsons Road Rage (Nintendo Game Cube)

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

The Simpsons Colorforms Playset

Trading Cards of the Week: The Simpsons (Topps; 1991)

Lunch Box of the Week: The Simpsons

Theme Song of the Week: The Simpsons (1990)

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Star Trek: The Next Generation 30th Anniversary Blogging: "Symbiosis" (4/18/88)

Stardate: Not Specified

The U.S.S Enterprise monitors a star with unusual properties, when it encounters a distress call from a malfunctioning freighter called the Sanction.

The freighter is from the planet Ornara, and its confused captain T’Jon (Merritt Buttrick), has no idea how to repair the ship. Nor does his crew. 

When the ship nears destruction, Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) attempts to beam its crew to the Enterprise. The Ornarans, however, beam over cargo, instead, as well as two survivors, T’Jon and Romas (Richard Lineback).

Also recovered before the freighter’s explosion are two Brekkians: Sobi (Judson Scott), and Langor (Kimberly Farr).

Almost immediately, the two factions begin arguing over possession of the cargo, a medicine called Felicium. The Ornarans are suffering from a deadly plague, and the Felicium is the only cure.  The Brekkians are the only people with the ability to make the cure, because it grows on their planet. Each side claims the cargo belongs to it.

As Captain Picard investigates with Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden), he learns that Felicium is actually a narcotic, and the Ornarans are all addicted to it. The plague was cured years earlier. The Brekkians, however, have not informed them of this situation.

Dr. Crusher wants to tell the Ornarans the truth, since they have been victimized, but Captain Picard realizes it would be a violation of the Prime Directive to interfere.  Instead, he must find another way to help the Ornarans.

“Symbiosis” is famous as the “very special” episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), or the “just say no to drugs” episode. Both of these descriptors are reductive, and don’t get at the actual quality of the episode itself.  Certainly, there is one scene that could be omitted from the episode, involving Tasha Yar’s (Denise Crosby) “just say no” speech to Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton). The rest of the episode is strong, however, as it involves Captain Picard having to arbitrate a heart-breaking, and at times, infuriating conflict between two sovereign societies.

The problem with the “Just Say No” speech is not its existence, or even “social commentary” purpose about drugs, and drug addiction. Rather, it is the character perspective of the speech in question. One of the key problems for Star Trek: The Next Generation is that the “perfect” people of the Enterprise get to (sometimes smugly…) lecture to life-forms who are outside the Federation, and don’t live in a veritable paradise. 

Here, Tasha explains to Wesley the drug addiction she witnessed on the failed colony she hails from (seen in the fourth season story “Legacy.”) Tasha lectures Wesley about drugs from that perspective, but importantly, it is still from a superior, and abstract point of view.  By contrast, this scene would have possessed real power -- and value -- had Tasha explained to Wesley that she lived with drug addiction before being rescued.  That the adults she lived with, the parents who abandoned her, what-have-you, were drug addicts, whose behavior had deleterious impact on not only their lives, but hers.  Better yet, she could have acknowledged that, on the colony, she was a drug user, before her life changed.  

Either of these revelations would have built Tasha’s character in a meaningful way, and made the point that no one sets out to make bad decisions, or become an addict. The speech would have also suggested that drug addiction doesn't have to be the end. It can be overcome.

But as delivered, Tasha’s speech is just a smug lecture from someone who has the luxury of living in a perfect world, and doesn’t understand want, need, hunger, or the desire to escape from a bad situation. In short, the speech becomes a message, instead of a philosophy that seems to come organically from Tasha's character.

Now I’ll go out on a limb and state that, in spite of the on-the-nose drug lecture, “Symbiosis” is nonetheless one of the more powerful and effective episodes of TNG’s first season.  In The Original Series, The Prime Directive is always brought up right before Kirk chooses, for various reasons, to break or bend the rule. What we don’t typically see in The Original Series, is the rule being followed, or observed.

Even in early TNG, the Prime Directive comes up when Picard must violate it (“Justice.”)  

So “Symbiosis” is that rare stand out: a story in which the wisdom of the Prime Directive is debated and, ultimately, upheld.  Crusher doesn’t like it being upheld, because she is coming from a humanitarian point of view. She wants to stop the suffering and exploitation of the Ornarans. Picard takes a broader view and realizes it is not her place, or Starfleet’s, to decide what should or should not happen in another culture.  He is still able to help the Ornarans, in the grand scheme of things, by denying them the coils that will repair their ships. This means that there will be no further shipments of Felicium, and, after withdrawal, the addiction of the people will end.  They will have to suffer, but Picard sees that suffering, no doubt, as something that should not be alleviated. It is an outgrowth of Ornaran and Brekkian choices, and so the two civilizations must contend with it.  From that suffering will come growth, and change. 

And who is Picard, or Crusher, to deny the people that change?

Although it does not concern Picard’s background, history, family, romances or other details, “Symbiosis” is actually an incredibly powerful story for the Captain. He must balance so many factors here, and demonstrate wisdom in his handling of the problem.He must rationally reason out the conflict, and determine how best to keep his oath to obey the Prime Directive, and correct a wrong.  His answer is elegant, even if, as Crusher notes, it won’t put an easy end to the Ornaran addiction.

There are no phaser battles, new planets to explore, or very memorable aliens featured in “Symbiosis.” Instead, this is a portrait of a captain grappling with his morality, and the rules that he claims to cherish and live by. We see Picard agonize over this, and more than that, live with the ambiguity that he may never know if he made the right choice, or the wrong one, for these people.  He does his best in the moment, even if Crusher disagrees with him. But Picard demonstrates why he deserves to sit in the Captain’s chair of the starship Enterprise. 

I have written at length here about how the writing of the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation did Captain Picard no favors. We’ve seen him surrender the Enterprise twice in four episodes ("Encounter at Farpoint," "The Last Outpost.") We’ve seen him go mad and lose his mental faculties in several episodes (“The Naked Now,” “Lonely Among Us,” “The Battle,” etc.). Even though people hate “Symbiosis” for the condescending, smug “just say no” drug speech, there is room to love this installment as a portrait of a captain forced to reckon with the philosophy he has chosen to live by.

Next week: “Skin of Evil.”

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Cult-TV Faces of: Security












The Road Warrior (1982)

I first viewed  The Road Warrior  on a double bill with  Superman III  at the Castle Theater in Irvington, New Jersey. I was thirteen or fou...