Saturday, March 31, 2018

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Monster Squad (1976): "No Face"

In “No Face,” Walt and his monster friends are shocked when Chief Running Nose (Sid Haig) uses an old clause in a long-standing contract to buy the city for a mere twenty-four dollars. 

Although the Mayor (Edward Fleming) complains, No Face cannot be swayed. “The city is my reservation now,” Running Nose informs his new employee. His first order of business: disarming the police.

When Walt and the Monsters investigate further, they learn that Chief Running Nose has actually been replaced by the diabolical criminal master-mind known as No Face, a genius with make-up whose next task is to imitate the Mayor, and make all crime in the city legal…

Although all the persistent pidgeon English “Chief Running Nose” shtick is highly questionable, if not downright offensive to some, today, “No Face” is nonetheless a slightly better-than-average episode of Monster Squad (1976).

This so largely because of Sid Haig, one of my favorite actors, and a man who can make the most ridiculous dialogue sound plausible, or -- as he does here -- even menacing.  In short, there are some moments in the episode with Sid Haig as No Face in which he seems legitimately fearsome.  Most villains on the series are not drawn in so effective fashion.

The episode also provides some nice history about Walt’s group.  When the Mayor (really No-Face) tells the Monster Squad he doesn’t need its help, Frankenstein notes that “We’ve saved this city once a week for at least five years.” 

It’s nice too that Edward Fleming is back as the Mayor, after originating the role in “Mr. Mephisto.”

If we look to the familiar formula that Monster Squad has established, one can see how “No Face” conforms. The Squad learns about the villain of the week on TV (as in ‘Music Man”), and heads off to defeat him.  The cliffhanger threat at the villains’ headquarters (A movie studio) is a giant candle. Specifically, the Wolf Man is put inside the giant wax tube, and it is actually lit!  Finally, the villain is hoisted by his own petard, by bottles of his hair spray “Forever Hold” and make-up putty.

Finally, another crib from Batman (1966 – 1969): “No Face,” a make-up master with the ability to change his appearance, seems like a reflection of Malachi Throne’s villain on the Dozier series, False Face.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Cult-TV Blogging: The Immortal: "To the Gods Alone" (December 31st, 1970).

In “To the Gods Alone,” Ben Richards (Christopher George) is trapped in a wintry log cabin with his pursuer, Fletcher (Don Knight), about to be delivered to Maitland.

In close proximity to each other for a sustained period -- for the very first time -- Richards shares the story of Jordan Braddock’s (Barry Sullivan) last days.

Early in his “run,” Richards had been captured, and then found himself forced to help the aging millionaire, and CEO of Braddock Industries.  Dying of old age, and fearing senility and dementia, Braddock begged for help, seeking to know Richards’ price for helping him.

Then -- as now – Richards proved that he had no price. He couldn’t be bough. But what he did have was a sense of decency. After first leaving Braddock in the custody of two dangerous rednecks, he returned to save his tormentor, and even went so far as to give Braddock the blood transfusion he so desperately needed.

In the end, however, Braddock did not survive, and Fletcher was forced to find a new employer in Maitland.

One of the things I cherish most about The Immortal (1969-1971), is its occasional ability -- despite a rusty and repetitive premise -- to totally surprise (and thus impress…) the audience. 

This episode, “To the Gods Alone” was veritably thrown away by the network with an airing on New Year’s Eve of 1970, when no one would have been watching TV.  And yet it is, in so many ways, “To the Gods Alone” is one of the best episodes of the series.

“To the Gods Alone” has one foot in TV’s past, and one in its future. In terms of the past, the episode is nearly a “my enemy/my ally” tale, with Fletcher and Richards trapped together in a snow-bound cabin. Similarly, the story proceeds via flashback, a tried-and-true TV technique.

But in terms of the future, the episode remembers that this series has a history, and a continuity. Specifically, Braddock is the man who hunted Richards in the original, highly-rated pilot movie. In the series, he is replaced with (the less-interesting) Maitland. All we really need to know to understand the series is that Braddock is dead, and Maitland is his replacement.

But “To the Gods Alone” goes further than that, and explains what happened to Braddock, in his final days. Most of the episode is spent with Braddock and Richards together in a rural area, attempting to survive, and see which of them can gain the upper hand. Their dynamic is best dramatized in the back-and-forth dialogue between the two stubborn men. Braddock states “I want to live.” Richards replies “I want to be free.”  Between those two extremes, the audience wonders if compromise is possible, beneficial, or necessary.

Ultimately, the episode humanizes Braddock. He is a selfish, greedy man who wants more life, and our first instinct might be to conclude that he has done nothing to make us feel he deserves to go on living.  This episode, however, makes us feel sympathy for the man. When sick and dying, Braddock calls out for Miriam, his dead sister, and the only person who genuinely loved him, or cared for him.  Braddock possesses all the material riches of the world, but none of the emotional ones.  Perhaps he wants more life because, as he suggests, there is some part of his life that is still empty. He has lived so many years, and accumulated so many things, and still his time on this mortal coil feels incomplete to him.

It’s fascinating too, the way that Braddock talks about selfishness in this episode.  There’s nothing wrong with selfishness,” he tells Richards. Rather, he claims, it is the very thing that drives men towards “achievement.”  In this episode, we are able to see that the viewpoints of both men -- Braddock and Richards – come from a place of selfishness.

Braddock wants more life, at all costs. Richards wants to be free at all costs, even when his blood could save people.

Neither man is a saint.

Perhaps that is why, in the final scenes, Richards relents and agrees to a transfusion for Braddock.  He has started to understand where his need for freedom ends and his selfishness begins.  Compassion is an insidious thing,” Braddock says, and yet Richards proves here his compassion, even for his enemy, on two occasions.  First, he saves Braddock from the rednecks, secondly, he attempts to transfuse him (before tragedy strikes).

The truly great thing about this episode is that when it ends, we have a better and deeper understanding of these two important characters, both Braddock and Richards. Richards realizes that he can’t hold onto hate and selfishness. And Braddock realizes how much he has missed in life, and yet must face his greatest fear: death.

Fletcher gets a meatier part here than usual, but doesn’t reveal any great depths, alas. He’s a gun for hire, a man hired to do a job, and that’s about it. His commitment is to the man (or woman) paying him at the moment.  For Fletcher, selfishness has eclipsed compassion totally in his psychological gestalt.

“To the Gods Alone” is a story that The Immortal might not have told -- and strictly speaking, probably didn’t need to tell -- but I’m glad it did. It fills in an important gap in Richards’ narrative and history, and brings closure to one of the most memorable and important characters featured in the property.

And on top of these virtues, the great Bruce Dern guests here as a surly, avaricious redneck. What more could anyone want?

Next up: “Sanctuary.”

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Star Trek: The Next Generation 30th Anniversary Blogging: "Home Soil" (February 22, 1988)

Stardate: 41463.9

The Enterprise proceeds to Velara III, where a Federation terraforming mission has fallen behind schedule. When contact is established from orbit with Director Mandl (Walter Gotell), Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis) determines that he is “hiding something,” a fact which necessitates further investigation.

An away team led by Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) beams down to look more closely at the terraformers and their laboratory. In short order, one of the scientists, Malencon (Mario Roccuzzo) is murdered by a runaway laser drill. After this death, Picard orders the terrraformers to return to the Enterprise.  Riker learns more about the group’s interactions from the optimistic but emotional Kim (Elizabeth Lindsay), while Geordi (Levar Burton) and Data (Brent Spiner) find evidence of a unique life-form, composed of crystal, on the planet.

The crystal is beamed up to the Enterprise, and Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden) works to determine if it is indeed, alive. Further investigation reveals that the crystal exists in the planet’s water table, and uses the saline in the water to conduct its thoughts to other crystals, creating a kind of corporate entity. The terra-forming drilling – and the very terraforming mission -- threaten to destroy this unusual life-form and its habitat.

Soon, the crystal replicates, multiplies in size, and takes over the Enterprise. Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) negotiates a peace with the unique life-form, and returns the crystal to Velara III.

“Home Soil” is an underwhelming and highly-derivative episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994). The concept of a silicon-based life-form was already explored in a more compelling and action-packed Original Series story, “The Devil in the Dark.” And season one of TNG already explored an encounter with a crystalline life-form in “Datalore.”

But “Home Soil” is also very derivative of an episode from another cult-TV series: Space: 1999 (1975-1977). In the Year Two entry of that series, “All That Glisters,” a team from Moonbase Alpha visits a seemingly barren planet for purposes of mining, and inadvertently harms a rock-life form in the process. That silicon-based life-form can communicate and bond with others of its kind (creating a corporate entity), and at one point the rock entities attempt to take over a spaceship (an Eagle, in this case).  In both stories, the lack of water is the thing that threatens the continued existence of the silicon life-form. In both stories, an uneasy peace between carbon-based and silicon-based life is forged.

The common elements are apparent from the synopsis above: a silicon based-life form, an intelligent corporate entity; the hostile take-over of a space-vessel, the importance of water and a peaceful resolution. That’s at least five plot elements that “Home Soil” ports over from “All That Glisters.”

Now, “All That Glisters” is not a widely beloved episode of Space: 1999, but it does have its virtues. Namely, the episode is shot with a surfeit of style, giving it a weird kind of “haunted house” atmosphere in some sequences. Similarly, when the intelligent rocks “zombify” human beings and use them as slaves, the concept conforms to a series precept I have discussed here at length: the horror mythology of Space:1999.

“Home Soil” has no such particular style to mitigate its weaknesses as a narrative. The guest performances in the episode are odd, and stilted. Walter Gotell -- who is wonderful as General Gogol in several James Bond film (The Spy Who Loved Me [1977], Moonraker [1979], For Your Eyes Only [1981], Octopussy [1983], A View to a Kill [1985] and The Living Daylights [1987]) -- is overly-theatrical in his line deliveries here, and comes off as a bizarre personality. Elizabeth Lindsay’s engineer character, similarly suffers from several strange, off-kilter moments and line readings.

Beyond this flaw, the episode doesn’t create much in terms of tension. Here, the crystals take over the Enterprise, but ultimately this is not a matter of life of death. In “All that Glisters” the story generated tension from the countdown factor, if nothing else. If the Alphans couldn’t negotiate their crisis successfully, they would never see home again. That element granted the story an immediacy that this adventure lacks, since the crystal’s threat is short-circuited so quickly.

I have read reviews online that claim this episode is based in “hard science” and that the series did its “research” when creating this story.  I agree that some research was done: into Space: 1999 in particular. I’m not certain that the episode deserves any credit for hard science or research, otherwise.  In fact, I can’t help but go “there” while on this topic: Star Trek: The Next Generation globally mirrors Space: 1999’s Year Two in another way: character hierarchy. Consider the dynamics: Prickly commanding Officer in love with a Doctor/First Officer in love with an exotic alien.  It’s Koenig and Russell/Verdeschi and Maya on Space: 1999. It’s Picard and Crusher/Riker and Troi, here.

But back to “Home Soil,” before I get into trouble with Trekkers.  I do find at least one scene in “Home Soil” fascinating, and worthwhile. Gathered together in sickbay, Picard, Data, Geordi, Wesley and Dr. Crusher attempt to determine if the crystal is a life-form, with Crusher in the lead role.  She explores the issue brilliantly, asking the ship’s computer a series of questions that lead towards a definitive answer. Crusher is authoritative here, and a leader, with Picard taking a backseat in a realm where he possesses less knowledge.  The moment is a great showcase for the good doctor.

Finally, I’ll simply say, Star Trek: The Next Generation remade this story for the premiere of Season Three, with another unusual life-form – Nanites -- taking over the Enterprise in a bid to stay alive. That episode is far superior to “Home Soil.”

Next up: “Coming of Age.”