Monday, July 30, 2018

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea: "Eleven Days to Zero" (September 14, 1964)

As you may recall, at first Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was a successful 1961 motion picture starring Walter Pidgeon as Admiral Nelson.  

The film's detailed miniature for the submarine Seaview and the amazing, high-tech, live-action sets were put into storage afterwards, and by 1964, Allen took them out of mothballs for a new TV series starring Richard Basehart as Nelson, and David Hedison as Captain Lee Crane.  

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea then ran on ABC for four successful seasons and 110 hour-long episodes (most transmitted in color; but with the first season only in black-and-white). 

What remains so compelling about Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea after all these years is that it began as high intrigue on the high sea, with an action quotient that is mostly unmatched even today.  

But, around the time of the second season -- when the series went to color -- the accent moved  away from action towards science fiction and fantasy, and the series began featuring aliens, leprechauns, mummies, "Frost Men" and sea monsters of all shapes and sizes. Season Two also introduced another amazing vehicle to the program, the fantastic "Flying Sub."

But for "Eleven Days to Zero," Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea remains a high-tech action and intrigue series, more along the lines of an early James Bond film than a Star Trek or Lost in Space episode.  Irwin Allen's pilot is not a direct remake of the 1961 movie, though it does re-use miniature footage from the film, and the plot is also pretty similar. 

In this case, instead of dispersing dangerous radiation from the Earth's atmosphere, the Seaview -- "the most extraordinary submarine in all the seven seas" -- is required to avert another planetary emergency.

The Earth has only has eleven days remaining before a huge tsunami  strikes Hawaii, California, the British Isles and even America's East Coast. Millions of people will be killed in the flooding. 

But brilliant Admiral Nelson (Basehart) quickly develops a plan called "Operation Counter Force" with the help of nuclear engineer Fred Wilson (guest star Eddie Albert). 

Specifically, the Seaview will detonate a nuclear device at the North Pole, thereby setting up "opposing lines of force" and "breaking the back" of the enormous tidal wave. 

"We can't debate," Nelson urges U.S. government officials.  "We have to act."

And act he does. 

Before long, the Seaview has set sail with its new captain, Lee Crane, at the helm. Unfortunately, agents of a "hostile" foreign force would prefer to see America and Great Britain decimated, and they make every attempt to prevent the Seaview from accomplishing her critical mission. 

On the way to the North Pole, the Seaview is dogged by an enemy submarine, rattled by depth charges, and ambushed by drone plane attack. Meanwhile, the hard-nosed Crane must prove his worth to the suspicious crew of Seaview, "highly skilled experts" each and every one.

"Eleven Days to Zero" is an exciting and surprisingly violent hour. The episode opens with the brutal assassination of Seaview's first Captain, John Phillips.  In a stunning, non-stop action scene, Phillips' car is run off the road. It tumbles down a hill, and we see the good captain take a bullet wound to the head. The enemy agent -- dangling from an attacking helicopter -- is shot down by Nelson, and the villain plunges into the roiling sea below with a scream.

Again, all this occurs in the first five minutes of the show...

I must admit, I was struck by the high quality of the stunts, action, and pacing on display in "Eleven Days to Zero."  Television today is certainly much  more expensive, but it rarely gets down to such Bond-like action set-pieces, even within the genre. 

And the action scenes aren't the only  impressive ingredient of this over 50-year old broadcast pilot. 

Because Irwin Allen was able to re-use sets, miniatures and underwater footage from the 1961 feature film, he could apparently afford quite a bit in terms of acting extras and new locations/sets. Due to this fact, Seaview actually seems like a real submarine, populated by a real crew.  

In particular, the Seaview bridge (with visible ceiling, no less) is an impressive-looking set even by today's standards, and it appears to be manned by more than the typical TV skeleton crew, as you can see from the accompanying photo. 

It's funny, but in a lot of outer space dramas, the main spaceship always boasts roomy corridors, and relatively few extras on screen at any given point...a visual misstep which seems to go against reality.  

In the final frontier -- as under the sea -- space would surely be at a premium, and a fully manned vessel would seem like...well, a fully manned vessel, not a sparsely-attended hotel.

In terms of sets, "Eleven Days to Zero" depicts a Bond-ian enemy headquarters replete with walls of blinking, 1960s-era computers and strange pulsating light columns. In addition, the pilot's climax -- set at the North Pole -- involves plenty of ice, Seaview's conning tower, and a blinding snow storm.  Not to mention aerial bombardment from the aforementioned drone plane.  It's all pretty impressive.

In terms of tone, there is also something refreshing today about "Eleven Days to Zero" and the episode's total, utter lack of irony or self-reflexive humor.  Every moment of high adventure -- even a tangle with a not-entirely-convincing giant squid mid-episode -- is played  absolutely straight, with the finest production values of the day.  There is no winking or nudging at the audience, only an attempt to portray the action vividly and memorably.

The result of this approach is that "Eleven Days to Zero" moves fast and is actually even sort of gritty in presentation, with the clock ticking down to doomsday, and the threat of death ever-present on all legs of the doomsday mission.

If this pilot had been produced today, no doubt the temptation would have been to provide either Nelson and Crane some canned  "emotional angst," like a bad marriage or a history of alcoholism, or some father-son issues, but Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was born in a different age and so it avoids the modern (and by-now tiring...) fascination with soap opera plotting.  The characters are simply heroic; and the narrative -- the plot -- takes precedence over facile personal psychology.

Which isn't to say that Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was always great....or even particularly good. There are limits to its old-fashioned approach to storytelling too.

To wit, "Eleven Days to Zero" is a cinematic, action-packed pilot, yet it is decidedly humorless, and the characters - though undeniably heroic -- also lack much in terms of individuality and color. In that regards, series such as Star Trek are plainly superior. 

In the Gene Roddenberry series, for instance, the dynamic characters added so much to the sense of action and drama, that the crisis scenarios of the week became all the more interesting...and immediate.  Though the performances here are solid, neither Nelson or Crane ever comes off as nuanced as a Kirk or Spock.   In fact, the only character arc of sorts in "Eleven Days to Zero" involves Crane proving himself to the crew, and establishing that he doesn't "lack imagination" to Admiral Nelson. 

The paucity of character development remains easy to overlook in a single film, or even a series of films.  But on TV, you ultimately come away looking to forge a deeper connection with characters you see every week; with either Crane or Nelson.  The show doesn't have to be a soap opera; it just has to be written with an eye towards the individual characteristics of the protagonists; and their way of relating to their world.

Every film or TV series ever made is a reflection of its time, and so Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea is very clearly a production inspired by the Cold War. Here, a bald, Blofeld/Dr. No/Far Eastern-type villain plots the end of the West (and our freedom...) and is soon taught a destructive lesson in underestimating America and the Free World.   

And Admiral Nelson -- stolidly -- declares at the end of Operation Counter Force that "Seaview's job is never finished.  Not as long as there are destructive forces in the world."

This is not a particularly nuanced approach, but it sure as heck is fun, in a kind of blockbuster movie one-off type-way. 

And that's where Irwin Allen productions, especially in the early days, really excelled.  Both the first season of Lost in Space (1965) and the inaugural year of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964) are absolutely superb in terms of production values and visual presentation.  Both series are eminently worthy as escapist fare, even if they resolutely lack some of the social commentary and artistry of The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Star Trek and the other, more appreciated genre efforts of the epoch.

On the same DVD set as "Eleven Days to Zero,"  the last thirteen episodes of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea are also included.  These episodes see the Seaview tangle with a pirate ("The Return of Blackbeard,")  a sea monster/humanoid ("The Lobster Man), mythical monsters ("The Abominable Snowman" and "Terrible Leprechaun") plus aliens from an "ice planet" ("Flaming Ice.")

Out of curiosity, I watched "Flaming Ice" (by Arthur W. Browne) to see how much the series had changed in the 105 or so episodes since "Eleven Days to Zero." 

Succinctly stated, the changes were pretty enormous. 

Though the color photography was lush, the performances strong (especially Michael Pate as the leader of the "Frost Men," named "Gelid") and the sets still impressive, there was not even a casual sense of reality -- scientific, political, moral or otherwise -- about the claustrophobic installment. 

And yet, I still found myself drawn to the colorful, vivid action and stunts of the piece.  In general terms, there's a high nostalgia factor here for me, I suppose.  

I watched this show in reruns as a kid in the 1970s and, honestly, enjoyed it as much as if not more than Lost in Space.  

What appealed to me as a child is what appeals to me about the show now: the amazing, retro-high tech futurism of the 1960s vehicle designs (particularly in the case of the Flying Sub and the Seaview) and the steadfast focus on action, action, action.  I've always been a sucker for stories about submarines and their crews (hence my fascination with Captain Nemo and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea...), and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea still sparks the active imagination with abundance.

In the 1990s, Steven Spielberg embarked on a variation of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea called SeaQuest DSV (1992-1995).  It also began with a focus on hard-tech, adventure and "marine research" and then, in its second season, began featuring underwater Greek Gods, giant sea monsters, aliens and the like. 

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea set that identical course first, nearly thirty years earlier, so it is odd to say the least that SeaQuest didn't learn from its predecessor's missteps.

All this week, I'll be reviewing, for Beach Week 2017, several episodes of this classic series.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea Wisdom of the Week

“It started very well the first couple of years. Then it went downhill, I think, in the third or fourth year. They made it more for kids. I think the saving grace was that some of the acting was so good and my relationship with Basehart was terrific. We had a great rapport.”

David Hedison remembers his time as Captain Crane on the Seaview in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, at The Los Angeles Times.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea Introduction

Growing up, I was obsessed with all things that had to do with submarines and sea monsters.  I was a huge fan of Captain Nemo, Jules Verne, and The Land that Time Forgot (1975).  Accordingly, the Irwin Allen science-fiction series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964 - 1968) was also right up my alley.

As a kid, I loved all the sea monsters and other weird villains featured on the series (including lobster men, leprechauns, and killer clowns), but as I got older, I came to appreciate the restraint and more-reality based stories of the black-and-white first season.  

One thing remains unchanged:, even today  I love the design of the Seaview, the series' advanced submarine.

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea's final season features a great (if simple) introductory montage that, much like its predecessors, expresses many of the key aspects of the series.  

First, the titles are depicted as if on a sonar screen, which is a nice touch given the subject matter.

Notice how the series title, featured in the card below, has a watery coloring and font.

Next up, the sonar screen presents images of our cast-members in scenes revealing hard-driving action. First up: Richard Basehart as Admiral Nelson.

Next, we meet co-star David Hedison, as Captain Lee Crane.

Next, an image of one of the most popular "characters" on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea: the amazing flying sub.  

As a kid, I always wanted (but never got...) the model kit of this super-color sub/plane.

In the following card, we meet our creator and producer, Irwin Allen, the man behind Lost in Space (1965 - 1967), and The Time Tunnel (1966-1967) as well.

Finally, our sonar screen disappears, and we go right into the underwater action...

The Cult-TV Faces of: Numbers











Saturday, July 28, 2018

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Sigmund and the Sea Monsters (1973-1975): "The Curfew Shall Ring Tonight"

In “The Curfew Shall Ring Tonight,” Sigmund nearly gets caught by Zelda (Mary Wickes) while eating a sandwich in the kitchen. When the sea monster makes his escape, he also breaks her favorite salad bowl.  Now he must raise enough money to fix it, with the boys’ help.

Meanwhile, at the cave, Water Confright, the Sea Monster news anchor creature, announces on the shellovision that there is a curfew ordered for all local monsters. At the same time, in the human world, a curfew is announced by the sheriff because of “teenage trouble” in the area.

Now the boys and Sigmund must sneak out of the house by night, and go down to the monster cave to acquire Sigmund’s savings of fifty clams, to repair the broken salad bowl.

This episode of Sigmund and the Sea Monsters (1973-1975), at least, doesn’t borrow a plot from The Bugaloos.  Not much more can be said for “The Curfew Shall Ring Tonight” except that Sigmund’s clumsiness again precipitates a misadventure (“Oh, I did it again!” is quickly becoming the titular character’s refrain.). And said misadventure, inevitably takes him, and his human friends, down to the sea caves at Dead Man’s Point for an encounter with the hapless monster family.

There are no new monster suit this weeks, only the some humorous new monster names to chew over. I mentioned Water Confright (Walter Cronkite) above, but we also learn that the monster sheriff of Dead Man’s Point is Sheriff Shrock.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this episode, and the series overall, is the mirror premising. What happens in the human world is almost always reflected in the tale by what is happening in the monster world. The value of this mirror premising, if it isn’t apparent, is that we see how family fears, and problems, even loves and losses, are all the same, regardless of species differences. Some families may consist of “monsters” to the eye, but be totally recognizable in terms of human foibles and phobias. In a weird way, this is a 1970’s affirmation of diversity. Sigmund’s family may consist of monsters, but they have feelings too, right?

Another truly intriguing aspect of this episode.  The episode seems to be a variation on a poem from 1867, Rose Hartwick Thorpe's "Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight."  That's a remarkably obscure literary reference to be included in a Saturday morning series about sea monsters!

Next week: “Sweet Mama Redecorates.”

Friday, July 27, 2018

Memory Bank: Star Trek: Voyager: The Arcade Game (2002)

Imagine my delight and surprise, recently, when I was at a local bowling alley in Charlotte with my family, and strayed into a mini-arcade to find a deluxe cabinet version of this fifteen year old franchise game.  

Since the game was still playable, I knew I needed to snap some photos and feature them all here on the blog.

Star Trek: Voyager: The Arcade Game was released in 2002 (after the end of the actual TV series), by Monaco Entertainment and Team Play Inc. It's a first person shooter (FPS)-styled game, though re-modeled appropriately for Star Trek concepts.  The guns (presumably phasers) don't have to be reloaded but rather re-modulated instead (think: fighting the Borg.)

The enemies in the game hail straight from the series, but are not just the Collective, however, but also Species 8472, and the Hirogen.  There also some...imaginative new aliens.

Additionally, some game modules involve space combat with the Borg and feature the customized shuttle, the Delta Flyer. 

In short, if you are a fan of Voyager, this is a great game, in no small part because it recreates the settings (like Voyager's bridge) and characters (Borg, especially, down to their First Contact sphere) of the series.

I was glad to see this game still in service!

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Kolchak Blogging: "The Spanish Moss Murders" (December 6, 1974)

In “The Spanish Moss Murders by Al Friedman and David Chase, it is nearly July 4th.  In Chicago, however, there is little reason to celebrate, as a series of mysterious murders plague the city. Each of the victims, from a lovely sleep research center assistant to the celebrated chef at the ritzy Chez Voltaire, is found with a crushed torso and covered in a leafy substance: Spanish Moss.

Kolchak (Darren McGavin) investigates and determines that the brutal crimes stem from Louisiana legend, from the old Cajun myth of “Pere Malfait,” a local boogeyman and “Bad Father.”

Kolchak immerses himself in the details of the old legend, including the fashioning of a weapon to stop the beast: a spear made from authentic bayou gumwood. 

He then faces off against Pere Malfait in the dark sewers.

Although the monster of the week (again) doesn’t bear close inspection in 2018, “The Spanish Moss Murders” has nonetheless always been one of my favorite installments of Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-1975). 

In part this is because the photography of the monster is quite powerful at points. The suit isn't great, but there are moments in the climactic sewer fight that nonetheless prove powerful.

Also, I enjoy the nature of the monster itself.  This swamp being -- from what I can determine, anyway -- was created just for the TV series, and therefore is not actually a local legend. That’s disappointing.  However, what I find tantalizing about the monster this week is that Pere Melfait is manifested from the dreams (or nightmares) of a man who has been in a constant state of REM sleep.  In other words, the monster is matter, made from a troubled mind.

There are many legends of regional swamp monsters (see: The Legend of Boggy Creek), so even the fact that Pere Malfait is not a real legend, doesn’t prove terribly troublesome in terms of the episode’s effectiveness.  The key idea here is that a man, afraid of his nighttime bogeyman, actually creates that boogeyman in the flesh. He creates what he fears. This is an idea that has had significant currency in horror movies and TV films in the last several decades.  From Freddy in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), to Augustus Cole in The X-Files episode “Sleepless,” to the very premise of the (short-lived) horror series Sleepwalkers, all such stories, including this one, tie the “realm” of REM sleep to the manifestation of consensus reality monsters.

The resolution to the mystery here is gathering information. And since Kolchak is a journalist, this is perfect. When Kolchak learns the myth of Pere Malfait, he also learns how to destroy the beast.  If the beast is manifested from a story, then it can also be killed by the resolution of that story; by the method used in that story. In some sense, tales like the one depicted seem to be about our ability to impose both chaos and order over our reality.  We can generate in the flesh monsters that terrify us, but we can also using the same mind, find ways to overcome that terror. I am reminded of Rod Serling’s definition of The Twilight Zone.  It includes “the pit of man’s fears” and “the summit of his knowledge.”  Both those places are housed in the conscious, and unconscious mind.

Perhaps this episode works so well, too, because of the “bedtime” story aspect.  Bedtime stories are frequently terrifying, and the idea of a bedtime story made real captures our sense of irrational, childhood fears. When we go sleep, even as adults, we are vulnerable, susceptible to things that, in waking consciousness, have no real power over us.

This episode is also particularly well-cast, with Severn Darden playing the fussy, unimaginative sleep scientist who doesn’t realize what terrors his work has wrought, and Keenan Wynn as the police authority of the week.  Wynn’s detective, Captain Siska, is particularly funny in this episode as -- in perfect 70’s fashion -- he has been to “Group Therapy” to control his anger.  He even says to Kolchak, “I’m okay, you’re okay.” 

But after a few hours of contending with Kolchak’s wild theories and aggressive investigation, the poor captain relapses into outright, out-of-control rage.  You can’t really blame him.

Next week: “The Energy Eater.”

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Comic-Book of the Week: The Bugaloos (Charlton)

The Bugaloos Record Album

Lunch Box of the Week: The Bugaloos

Board Game of the Week: The Bugaloos (Milton Bradley)

Theme Song of the Week: The Bugaloos (1970)

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Childhood's End: A Farewell to Toys "R" Us

This summer, America's children, and all children at heart -- meaning adults like me -- were forced to grow up in a most dramatic and unpleasant way. 

We had to say goodbye to Toys R. Us, an American institution since 1948. The store filed for bankruptcy in 2017, and now, in summer 2018, remains nothing but a cherished memory. The doors to this particular dreamland have been permanently shut.

But Toys R Us was just a store, some people might say, right? A temple to consumerism, and one that hooked our children young.

To which I would reply: not so fast.  Toys R. Us was a lot more than that.

For many of us, Toys R Us was a place where imagination and dreams took root, and where they began to sprout, to bloom. It was a place that led to hours, years, and even decades of make-believe and fun. I grew up in New Jersey and some of my earliest memories are of visiting Toys R. Us stores in Totowa, or Paramus with my sister and my parents.

Why was Toys R. Us so special? What made it significantly different from the toy section in Target, or Walmart? What made it different from

For children, Toys R Us was a place constructed just for them: a store devoted entirely to their interests and it told the world that they -- that children -- were important. Their interests were important too. In a world that moves fast and is always on the move, that message is one that is significant.  So I suppose you can conclude that Toys R Us was a place where children mattered, and made children realize that they mattered.  

And it was a temple in a way, I concede, but not merely to consumerism. It was a mecca of fun, excitement, and most importantly, possibilities. It was row after row, aisle after aisle, of creativity made manifest in the newest and best toys.  From bikes to trains to video games, it was the greatest toy store there is...or was.

For adults, like me, Toys R Us has become something else too: a legacy. My son Joel was born in 2006, and I have been taking him to the store since he was an infant. 

For approximately eight years, we have had a standing summer ritual. As soon as the summer starts, and either I am off from work, or Joel is out of school, we pick a day, drive up to Concord, N.C., together and visit the Toys R. Us there. We arrive just as it opens, and then spend an hour or so, checking out the newest action figures, or Legos. We then go out to lunch together, and drive home with bags filled of toys, or video games, or Nerf guns.  

In my childhood, of course, Toys R. Us was the place of Star Wars toys, or Micronauts, or Star Trek. For Joel, the store has fueled his interest in Transformers, Pokemon, Star Wars (again), Marvel, Nintendo, and, perhaps greatest of all, Lego. For both of our childhoods, I know nothing is better than arriving home with a new toy or two, and beginning a brand new adventure and letting our imaginations run wild.

A visit to Toys R. Us is about the toys, sure, but it is also about me and my son being together, and sharing interests and imagination.

I suspect it is precisely this way for many fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters too. 

So Joel and I had our last visit to Toys R. Us together in May of 2018.

My wife won't allow me to post photos of Joel on the Internet yet, but I do have a photo of him there on the final visit, and it is a little sad, to tell the truth. He is an eleven year old boy standing in the center of largely empty aisles, looking somewhat downcast at the state of the store. 

We actually had an opportunity to go back one more time after that, a few weeks ago, and Joel didn't want to go back.  He said he would rather remember the store the way it was, than see it at the very end, "cannibalized" in his words.

I will confess I felt a lump in my throat on our last visit, as we drove away from the store, and awareness settled in that it was the last time I would be there with my boy.

And that he would never take his son to Toys R. Us. 

And that a generation of American kids would grow up without a place, in every state and city, devoted just to them; reminding them how important they are, and how much they matter to us, and our posterity.

We can look at all the reasons why Toys R. Us closed. Perhaps it was mismanagement. Perhaps it was changing times, or the competition of the Internet.  But it is a crying shame that our culture no longer has the time or interest in a 60 year old, American institution designed for children.

Nothing lasts forever, of course, and all good things must come to an end.  I am grateful that this store has been a part of my life, and my son's too. But I am sad that this particular tradition ends here, when other children still need it. 

I'm not ready for Toys R. Us to go. To coin a phrase:  "I don't wanna grow up."

So, one final refrain:

Monday, July 23, 2018

The Cult-TV Faces of: Portraits















National Twilight Zone Day: "Come Wander with Me"

There are, perhaps, several episodes of Rod Serling's classic   The Twilight Zone  (1959-1964) more sharply-written, more morally-valuab...