Saturday, March 24, 2018

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Monster Squad (1976): "Music Man"

In this week’s installment of Monster Squad (1976), called “Music Man,” the monsters and Walt (Fred Grandy) watch a telethon being held for the “scourge of all scourges” and mankind’s “greatest ailment:” death by natural causes.

Unfortunately, the telethon is interrupted by a super villain, The Music Man (Marty Allen), who steals all the money raised and makes off with it.

The Monster Squad tracks the Music Man to the Lorenzo Music Academy, and Drac, Frank and the Werewolf pretend to be students seeking music lessons.

The Music Man sees through this ruse, however, and traps the Squad in a diabolical “Echo Chamber,” leaving Walt, back at the wax museum, to figure a way out of the crisis.

“The Music Man” is notable primarily for the central presence of Marty Allen (1922 - ), a performer who was an American hero in World War II, and later became part of the famous comedy duo, Allen and Rossi.  Marty Allen also appeared on The Ed Sullivan show more than three dozen times.

Genre fans may also recognize Allen from the Rod Serling’s Night Gallery episode “Make Me Laugh,” directed by Steven Spielberg.

Unfortunately, Allen isn’t given much of a character to play here, and he comes across as one of the series more generic villains. No doubt, he deserved better. 

In fact, “Music Man” is one of the least interesting episodes of Monster Squad.  The heroes show up at the Lorenzo Music Academy (perhaps named for Batman writer Lorenzo Semple Jr.), and (ineffectually) attempt to go undercover there…even while donning their full monster regalia.  They are then, predictably, captured and held prisoner for the remainder of the episode.

“Music Man” reveals that the creative arteries of the series have hardened into an unchanging and unchangeable formula. Every week we learn of a new crime at the wax museum, meet the villain of the week, and the Monsters investigate him or her.  The monsters are then captured, and held in some diabolical trap until one of the squad (and sometimes Walt…) figures out a way to turn the tables.

Here, all the jokes about death by natural causes are a little mystifying. They play, perhaps, as a critique of telethons. In other words, people will raise many for any cause if the heart-strings are pulled, even dumb ones.  In my opinion, this is a bit ungenerous…

Only two other things of significance left to note in this review. 

First, when the Werewolf climbs the wall of the Music Academy, the visual is a retread of the famous Batman and Robin wall-climbing trick from the Batman TV series of the 1960s, yet another way in which Monster Squad apes that (far superior…) series.

And finally, there’s a nice bit of continuity here as Music Man notes that his favorite performing venue is Madison Round Garden, the city locale we saw in the episode “The Ringmaster.”

Next week, a slightly better episode: “No Face.”

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Cult-TV Blogging: The Immortal:"The Return" (December 17, 1970)

In “The Return,” Ben Richards (Christopher George) returns home to the small town where he and his brother, Jason, were raised after leaving an orphanage.

Their adoptive father is Joe Carver (Richard Ward), an African-American man who owns a gas-station and auto-shop. Joe is happy to see Ben again, but has no information on Jason’s current whereabouts. He is also hurt that Ben has not visited him for six long years.

Soon, Joe is accused of assaulting a white boy, Steve -- the son of his best friend, Roy Adkins (Harry Townes).  The boy will not survive his injuries, according to Dr. Arliss (Ted Knight), unless Ben can transfuse him with his special blood. Joe refuses to talk about the incident, or defend himself from legal jeopardy. But he is not a violent man by nature or inclination.

Ben stays in town to learn more and help Joe, but Fletcher (Don Knight) and his newly hired mercenaries know where he is. Fletcher insists that “emotions are every man’s worst enemy,” and proceeds to capture Ben.

Ben escapes from custody after shrugging off the effects of a tranquilizer dart, and learns the truth from his adoptive father. The boy, Steve Adkins, wants to marry Joe’s daughter -- Ben’s adoptive sister --Carol (Marlene Clark), and their discussion about it grew heated. Steve fell and injured his head in the accident, so Joe is innocent of assault charges. 

The Adkins and Carver families reconcile as Steve recovers, and Ben must head on his way with a final gift from Joe: a car to drive on his cross-country travels.

On one hand, it is rewarding that Ben Richards’ youth and background is examined in “The Return.”  It is also refreshing that the episode takes such a progressive view of family relationships, and reveals that Ben is the adopted son of a black man.  On the other hand, however, this installment still feels a bit like the formula, with Ben showing up in a town, saving a life, solving a problem, and the story raising a social issue.

Still, credit where credit is due: it was a courageous choice in 1970 to have the lead protagonist of a series be from an interracial family. Today, I hope we don’t look twice at an arrangement like this, but such family relationships were not the norm at the start of the disco decade. Consider, this episode aired years before All in the Family premiered, and brought discussions of race (and racism) part of the national conversation.

The social currents in the episode are fascinating to watch, by today’s standards. Joe has spent his life as a crusader for African-American equality and civil rights, and he experiences a burst of anger when Steve calls him an “Uncle Tom.”  We get this story from Joe, but sadly, the episode doesn’t have the courage to show us that scene.  In fact, the interracial lovers -- Steve and Carol -- don’t have a single scene of dialogue together. He’s comatose in the hospital, throughout.

So, the story gets credit for tackling an issue -- interracial tensions and family dynamics in 1970 America -- but the way it tackles that issue isn’t always great.  I will say this, the episode offers a strong depiction of Joe Carver, as a man of integrity and morality, who finds himself navigating unexpected and surprising territory in his family.

Outside the central story, Fletcher gets a larger-role than usual in “The Return.” The episode begins with him briefing his mercenaries about Richards, and about the belief that he will return to his childhood home, because he is hobble by emotions. Later, he and Richards interact more here than they have since the very first episode of the series, following the pilot, “Sylvia.”   At one point, Fletcher dons a blue jacket, and with his short 1970 haircut looks a bit like Ed Straker from Gerry Anderson’s UFO.

But back on point, Fletcher discusses how emotions hobble Ben, and make him easy prey. His theory is proven true, as Richards risks everything to help the man he considers his Dad. This material all works fairly well, since Ben isn’t always emotionally invested in the encounters of the week.  On the other hand, it is odd that Fletcher doesn’t appear in the latter half of the episode, to continue his pursuit of Richards. He captures Richards. Richards escape. And then Fletcher disappears, even though he knows exactly where Richards is headed (back to Joe).

At least there’s no romance shoe-horned in this week.  Finally, I wonder if this episode was produced early, and held back to be aired later in the season. Some of the chase scene in this episode is excerpted in the opening credits each week.

Next week: “To the Gods Alone.”

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Action Figures of the Week: The Creature from the Black Lagoon (Remco Edition)

Jigsaw Puzzle of the Week: The Creature from the Black Lagoon

Model Kit of the Week: The Creature from the Black Lagoon (Aurora)

Halloween Costume of the Week: The Creature from the Black Lagoon (Ben Cooper)

The Creature from the Black Lagoon Drinking Glasses

Lunch Box of the Week: The Creature from the Black Lagoon

Board Game of the Week: The Creature from the Black Lagoon Mystery Game (Hasbro)

Movie Trailer: The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Star Trek: The Next Generation 30th Anniversary Blogging: "When the Bough Breaks" (February 15, 1988)

Stardate: 41509.1

The Enterprise proceeds through the Epsilon Mynos system in search of a legendary world of fantastic technology known as Aldea. Riker (Jonathan Frakes), in particular, is fascinated by the myth.

Miraculously, Aldea suddenly de-cloaks in the Enterprise’s path. The mysterious planet is visible, but protected by a highly-advanced defense shield which can repel all attacks, and block transporter beams.

The leader of Aldea, Radue (Jerry Hardin) reveals to the command crew of the Enterprise that the people of Aldea can no longer bear their own children, and that to preserve the legacy of their world, they must have children from the Enterprise. The people have become sterile, and aren’t certain why.

The Aldeans abduct Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton) and six other “gifted” children from the starship, and give them to Aldean families.

Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) must now negotiate with the Aldeans for compensation for the stolen children, even as he, Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden), and the entire crew surreptitiously search for a way to overcome the powerful Aldean shield and transport the abducted children home.

It is soon learned that a computer called “The Custodian” runs Aldea, and that the Aldeans no longer understand, even, how it operates.  Worse, Dr. Crusher learns that the all-mighty cloak/defense shield has been causing the sterility affecting Aldea, and nearly destroyed the humanoid society.

With Wesley’s covert assistance from the planet surface, Captain Picard must convince the Aldeans that the Federation can help them with their problems, if only they are willing to give up their shield; their tactical advantage, and the source of the legends.

First and foremost, “When the Bough Breaks” is an environmental story. It’s about what happens when people deny-- or forget -- science, and are unwilling to see how their own actions impact not only the world, but their own destinies.

The Earth’s ozone layer is often brought up in relation to this Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) story, which is even more timely today, with so many climate change deniers holding positions of power.. In 2018 It’s always easier to do nothing than to address a serious problem (especially one that affects the pocket book, or wallet), and “When the Bough Breaks” is all about this issue of sustainability and cost.

Specifically, the Aldeans must give up a part of their lifestyle -- a world of leisure and security -- if they wish to undo the physical damage their people have incurred through a damaging technology.  In other words, the Aldeans must make a tough choice, and one that so many people in power are unwilling to make.  They must put aside personal comfort (or in the case of oil company executives…wealth) for the well-being not just of the world, but the people.  After all, what use is it to be rich, if the Earth can’t sustain us? If the planet can’t support us?  It’s not just short-sightedness that dominates the thinking of these individuals; it’s cynicism.  It’s the idea, “I might as well enjoy the party while it lasts,” without considering that small tweaks could allow the party to continue longer…for everyone.

Star Trek has always been a vehicle for social commentary, and “When the Bough Breaks” clearly comes from this noble tradition. The previous episode was a commentary on the Iran-Contra weapons-for-hostages deal sponsored by the Reagan Administration. This week’s episode is about coming together, globally, for the well-being of the environment that sustains an entire people.

However, as I always tell my students in film class (and Public Speaking, for that matter), the real test of quality is not what a story is about, but “how” it is about it. In this case, “When the Bough Breaks” doesn’t emerge as a particularly stirring or memorable tale in the Trek canon.

In fact, despite the best efforts of a great director (Kim Manners), this episode by Hannah Louise Shearer suffers from opposite approaches. Manners brings great style and drama to some scenes on the bridge of the Enterprise, for instance, when Wesley is scanned by the Aldeans, with dramatic, slightly off-kilter close-ups.

However, the drama of this situation is lost in the planetary scenes, where the children grapple with new parents and family issues.  The musical score, while beautiful and memorable, is gentle and sweet

So, though the act of stealing children is harmful, the scenes on Aldea make it all feel harmless.  The children are never in any real danger, or threatened, so the episode never feels that urgent or important.  We get a scene of parents in the briefing room angry and upset about losing their children, but Picard does such a good job soothing them that viewers never believe for a moment that a reunion is impossible, or that the issue won’t be resolved.

It all feels…inconsequential.

A much more fascinating and compelling take on this material (children taken from their families) is seen in Torchwood (2006-2011), particularly the season-long tale called “Children of Earth.” There, the possibility of reunion between parents and children is distant, and the fate of children captured by aliens is absolutely horrifying.  “Children of Earth” is urgent, tragic and unforgettable. “When the Bough Breaks” seems downright toothless by comparison.

The episode’s reliance on an old TV-trope, the culture-running computer, doesn’t help “When the Bough Breaks” feel any fresher.  In the original series, the idea of a computer-run humanoid society was run into the ground, but the variations were fascinating, commenting specifically on organized religion (“The Return of the Archons”), the Vietnam War (“A Taste of Armageddon”) and more (“The Apple,” “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky.”) It is rewarding that the trope is utilized here for reasons of environmentalism, but the whole story feels milquetoast.

Next week: “Home Soil.”