Saturday, April 14, 2018

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Monster Squad: "Ultra Witch" (1976)

In “Ultra Witch,” Walt (Fred Grandy) and the Monsters are alarmed by a world-wide emergency. All the cows in the world have spontaneously stopped producing milk! This event could ruin the global economy, and deprive children of cookies for its duration.

The Monster Squad discovers that an evil witch (Julie Newmar) has cast a powerful spell to affect the cows in the fashion.  But when Dracula, The Werewolf and Frankenstein confront her, Ultra Witch uses a ray-gun on them that transforms the trio into life-sized black-and-white cardboard statues.

Walt swoops in to help, and realizes that the only way to restore his friends is to steal Ultra-Witch's ray gun and reverse the beam…

“Ultra Witch” is a good bit better than last week’s entry of Monster Squad (1976), the god-awful “The Astrologer.”  The episode owes its comparative success to two significant factors: Julie Newmar, and some adult-themed jokes.

On the former front, Julie Newmar -- Catwoman on Batman (1966 – 1969) -- clearly understands how to do high camp: with a sense of grace and restraint. Newmar doesn’t shout her lines in an attempt to make them play funnier.

Also, she doesn’t deliver her dialogue in such arch and knowing fashion that the audience wants to cringe at the wink-wink/nudge-nudge approach, either.  Instead, more often than not Newmar is soft and melodic. She lets the material -- such as it is -- speak for itself.  She is a very graceful performer, and in a low-budget, slap-dash production like this one, that grace matters.

The jokes are also better this week on Monster Squad

Although the premise of magic (!) being used to brainwash cows into not providing humans milk is patently absurd, some of the comedy nonetheless hits the mark.

For instance, early in the episode it is noted that all cows in the world are refusing to give milk. Except one specific cow. It’s from the Middle East, you see, and has instead placed an embargo on its milk.

Yes, it’s silly, but for a country living through the OPEC oil embargoes of the 1970s, the joke hits the mark. Would kids get it?  Probably not.  But the adults of 1976 certainly would have.

Another joke, delivered by Dracula (Henry Polic II) involves his taste for blood and the fact that he is now “on the wagon.”  

Again, the lingo there -- on the wagon -- is not something that a kid watching Saturday morning TV would necessarily understand (or relate to) though the adults in his or her life would.

Before it ends, “Ultra Witch” also takes shots at “bleeding heart liberals,” and “census takers,” again creating the impression of an episode that is pitched just a bit higher than the norm.  It’s as if the writer actually had the parents in mind for this one. And that's a relief.

So this episode isn’t great -- none of the Monster Squad episodes are, frankly -- but “Ultra Witch” is watchable and tolerable, and that combination has been a high reach for the program thus far. 

Next week: "The Wizard."

Friday, April 13, 2018

Lost in Space: "The Hungry Sea" (October 13, 1965)

In “The Hungry Sea,” Penny (Angela Cartwright) and Will (Bill Mumy) are rescued from the dead city tomb by the rest of the family and Don (Mark Goddard). They all flee from the city to the Jupiter 2, only to learn (from the Robot) of the planet’s irregular orbit.

If the Robinson family doesn’t seek warmer ground, it will all freeze to death -- even in the safety of the Jupiter 2 -- within an hour. 

As the temperature drops precipitously outside, the Robinsons and Major West board the chariot and head across a lake of ice, bound for warmer temperatures. A petulant Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) refuses to leave the Jupiter 2, however, and stays behind.

En route to warmer territory, the Robinsons are shocked to learn that the temperature is now rising again.  They can return home!

But to do so, they must survive a scorching sun, and a sea of ice now turned to churning, roiling water…

“The Hungry Sea” is another rip-roaring Lost in Space adventure episode that could be classified as a transplanted Western.  If you ignore the sci-fi bells-and-whistles, what you really have here is a story of pioneers attempting to survive in a new and dangerous land.

That land is dangerous, the weather is dangerous, and the people -- in such a crisis -- grow tense and irritable.  Through it all, however, the central unit of human civilization, the family, holds together and tries to find and acknowledge cause for hope.

I am not a religious persona at all, as most of you know, but I enjoyed the moment in “The Hungry Sea” wherein the Robinsons huddle together and pray, and read a verse from their Bible. They give thanks, according to their belief system, for their continued survival in the most difficult of circumstances. There’s just something humble and true about this moment.  No matter where man goes, or how far he travels, he will take his identity and world-view with him.  In a new land, anything from home -- family, Scripture, the basic necessities -- is something to grab onto, and to hold tight.

Here we see a lovely family -- like yours our mine -- on an alien world trying desperately to survive against impossible odds, and stopping to acknowledge forces in the universe larger than itself. 

Again, I’m an avowed (and happy) atheist, but this moment is beautifully presented, and suggests the universality of the human condition.

I especially enjoy “The Hungry Sea,” too because it is another chariot-centric episode.  Here, the Robinsons pile into their all-terrain vehicle, and it carries them across ice fields, and -- terrifyingly – a swirling, hungry sea. 

The special effects that depict both of these obstacles are well-vetted, and hold up nicely after fifty years.  As far as I’m concerned, Lost in Space is at its best not contending with so-called alien life-forms or invasions, but simply showcasing how difficult the pioneers have it in an environment very unlike Earth’s.  With a little ingenuity, the writers could have stuck to this template, and avoided a lot of the silliness that is to come.

There are only two things in “The Hungry Sea” that I found troublesome. 

First, Smith has only an hour to live before he freezes to death on the Jupiter 2.  Fortunately, the temperature rises, and he survives. 

But, we just saw in a recent episode that the suspended animation tubes/facilities on the craft still function.  Smith was imprisoned in one such tube – frozen – for a spell in a previous episode.  If he risks being frozen now, why not go into a tube and ride out the freezing temperatures in suspended animation?  In fact, the whole family could have stayed at the Jupiter 2 and used their respective tubes, though West and Smith would have been out of luck. 

But again, it’s an option that should have been weighed.  John and Maureen might have left their children in the suspended animation tubes, while they sought warmer land on such a treacherous journey.

Secondly, I am intrigued about how dangerous this planet is turning out to be.  I love the moment in the episode when the sun starts to scorch the Robinsons’ make-shift encampment, and the chariot gets too hot to touch. 

But, again, this is really is one hell of an irregular orbit.  Since the Robinsons are stuck on this world for a while, that means the wild extremes of weather should repeat, and repeat often.  But, at least so far as I know, they don’t.  The settles should be dealing with this cycle of extreme heat/cold more frequently, right?  And of course, if that is true, it would be hell on the crops.

“The Hungry Sea ends with a radar blip bearing down on the Jupiter 2, and that leads us to the next story: “Welcome Stranger.”

Happy Friday the 13th! (Friday the 13th [1980])

Happy Friday the 13th!

Surveying the eleven-strong Friday the 13th saga (twelve if you count Freddy vs. Jason…) the weight of several really bad entries in this slasher-styled film cycle is a difficult cross to bear.  This is especially true for the occasionally-inspired franchise entry, such as this sturdy and even visually-accomplished 1980 originator from director Sean S. Cunningham and writer Victor Miller.

There’s no doubt that the original Friday the 13th is an exploitation film designed to capitalize on the success and popularity of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978).  But there’s also little doubt that this first entry in the long-lived series is a much stronger film than most people likely remember, at least in visual and symbolic senses.

Although Friday the 13th doesn’t always succeed, particularly because it overuses the stalker P.O.V. shot, other visual flourishes remain impressive, or at least laudable.  In other words, the exploitation here is -- at the very least -- grounded in some solid craft.  And the narrative details and structure as crafted by Miller are both sturdy and simple, thus permitting director Cunningham to shape the visuals in a unique direction.

Today, I want to shine a light on some of the film's more unique and intriguing visual touches, and point out a few reasons Friday the 13th boasts social and cultural value as a work of pop art, and as a product of its time period.

“We ain’t gonna stand for no weirdness out here.”

A group of camp counselors, led by Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer), prepare for the grand re-opening of Camp Crystal Lake, even over the objections of locals like Crazy Ralph (Walt Gorney).

These objections stem from Camp Crystal Lake’s checkered history.  In 1957, camp counselors failed to pay attention when a young boy, Jason (Ari Lehman) drowned in the lake.  Soon afterwards, two counselors were murdered.  Then, some years later, the water in Crystal Lake inexplicably “went bad,” scuttling an attempt to re-open the camp.

But Steve is committed to the cause, and with the help of a sensitive artist and fellow counselor, Alice (Adrienne King) gathers the troops for the big day of the camp’s re-opening.

In short order, however, the curse of “Camp Blood” resumes as a secret assailant begins killing the camp’s new denizens.  The crisis comes to a head during a powerful thunderstorm, and the murderer is revealed as someone who was very close to young Jason…

“God sent me.  You’re doomed if you stay…”

One quality most people forget about the original Friday the 13th is the film’s strong sense of place.  In particular, Crystal Lake is visualized as an idyllic American town, one filled with abundant pastoral and natural beauty.  Early scenes in the film document this beauty, creating an almost Rockwell-ian vision of the surrounding area (actually Blairstown, New Jersey).

This is Friday the 13th?

And this?

And this?

These visualizations serve a crucial purpose, because Friday the 13th largely concerns innocence lost or destroyed. Two camp counselors, while making love, allow an innocent child to die.  Thus while they sacrifice their (Biblical) innocence, Jason loses his innocence…his very life.  At the same time, Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) loses her son and therefore her innocence, along with her mind.

The beauty of the natural environs subtly reinforces the film-long conceit of a Garden of Eden-type setting, but one that is now corrupted.  For example, one short scene relatively early in the film reveals a snake inside one of the counselor’s cabins, a snake in the garden, as it were.  The snake is promptly decapitated by a counselor’s machete, putting an end to the threat and thus restoring order.

Symbolically speaking, that moment is intentionally reiterated in the film’s bloody denouement as our final girl, Alice, lops off the head of a more dangerous snake in the garden – the killer -- also utilizing a machete.  The two images connect meaningfully.

In both cases, we get the idea of natural order overturned by the presence of evil (a serpent, specifically...), and then order is restored, even if the respite is brief.

A snake in the garden gets decapitated by machete.

And then a second snake in the garden gets decapitated by machete.
The Serpent -- the dangerous and murderous invader in the Garden of Eden -- spends much of the film watching and stalking prey, and thus the film frequently repeats one specific composition.  In particular, the camera takes up a position outside while it gazes inside a building (a cabin or a bath house), through a window-glass.  Outside the window is only darkness since the setting is mostly nighttime. But inside the buildings, the characters are brightly lit and attending blithely to their mundane business, unaware of danger.

I wrote about this intriguing composition some in Horror Films of the 1980s, but it’s a significant element of the film’s tapestry.  It reveals not merely the voyeurism of the killer as she stalks her prey.  It also visually constricts the space of the protagonists within the rectangular frame, literally boxing them inside a series of smaller and smaller boxes.  In the tightest, most claustrophobic of those boxes, our heroes go about their business without realizing their world has become limited and closed off by the (invisible) presence of the slasher nearby.

Tight-framing is a regular and de rigueur feature of horror films, but Friday the 13th goes a step further with its relatively ingenious framing technique. Here, characters blindly walk into bloody death, a fact which we, the audience, can recognize and anticipate, but they cannot.  The result of this near ubiquitous staging is that the film becomes more genuinely suspenseful.   We wait, and wait, wondering when the terror will strike, and how it will strike.

Victim in a box #1

Victim in a box #2

Victim in a box # 3

Victim in a box #4
At the same time that the film "boxes in" its victims, the original Friday the 13th also offers wicked sub-textual commentary on the teenagers’ fates because stenciled and stickered camp legends reading “danger” and the like punctuate the Camp Blood's landscape.   Just as the characters are unaware of how their lives have become limited and finite by the presence of the unseen killer, they similarly take no notice of signage which constantly warns them of a threat.  They literally can't see the forest for the trees.

Well, the sign (on right) does say "DANGER."

Well, the sign (upper right) warns "KEEP OUT."

On a basic level, these visual touches make Friday the 13th more intellectually adroit than your average example of the slasher film.  Although the film wants to ape the energy of Halloween, it clearly boasts its own, frequently clever life force as well.

Where Friday the 13th treads even deeper into sub-text, however, is in the explicit connection between man and nature.  The film’s full-on bloody assault occurs under cover of thunderstorm, pounding rain and lightning.  If you watch every Friday the 13th film, you’ll find that this idea recurs more frequently even than the presence of Jason Voorhees.  The “invader” arrives with natural cover, thus with the implicit help, perhaps, of a force beyond the human world.  Is God on Jason (or Mrs. Voorhee's) side in this battle?

Going back to the Jean Renoir short film A Day in the Country (1936) -- an effort based on a story by Guy de Maupassant -- film has frequently connected human nature with Mother Nature.  The Renoir film depicts the tale of a family that vacations near a beautiful lake.  Two women in the family are seduced by burly farm hands that live nearby, and the romantic assignation culminates in an unexpected thunderstorm. 

Have they affected nature with their wanton acts?  Or contrarily, has nature affected them and thus spawned these very acts?

The equation in Friday the 13th is not that different, at least on a basic level. A storm rolls in and it is one that metaphorically "rains blood," according to one character’s dream, recounted explicitly in the dialogue.  

Accordingly, this storm brings with it a vengeful murderer.  

Is the storm thus a manifestation of the killer’s undying rage?   Is it a protest against the unnecessary death of an innocent child?  Or does the storm represent the tears of God, as it were, the fact that a mother’s love has turned to cold-blooded murder?

I’ve often noted that 1980s watchdog groups like the Moral Majority were foolish to protest the Friday the 13th films because, by one interpretation, these slasher films certainly tow the conservative line about human vices and bad behavior.  

One way of  gazing at the film is to consider that those who are negligent -- those who smoke weed, and those who indulge in pre-marital sex -- are punished by a supernatural avenger, the Hand of God, for their transgressions.  Mrs. Voorhees does the actual punishing via machete, but it is God himself – in the form of the rolling thunderstorm – that grants her murderous campaign the cover it needs to succeed.  You can take or leave that interpretation, but it represents one valid reading of the film's text.  As I like to say, in Friday the 13th and it sequels, vice precedes slice-and-dice.

There are other elements of this exploitation film that audiences now tend to forget about because of all the water and bad sequels under the bridge, yet which probably bear mentioning.  For one thing, the film is dominated by imagery which portends doom.  

One such moment involves Moravian Cemetery, the last turn-off on the road to Camp Blood.  In essence, the shot of the graveyard reminds the audience it’s a short commute from the camp to death.  

Secondly, one of the camp counselors -- the Practical Joker stereotype, Ned -- pretends to drown in the lake early on.  His cruel and thoughtless act foreshadows, of course, the motivation behind the murders at Crystal Lake.  He is re-enacting (unknowingly) the moment that killed Jason, and the moment that actually brings about his end.  Thus even his "joke" is portending of doom.

And then there’s Crazy Ralph.  He’s not a subtle guy, even in terms of his wacko, almost cartoon appearance.  But Ralph is undeniably the “Cassandra” of the film: the old man warning the young people about their impending doom. Like the mythical Cassandra of Ancient Greece, he is doomed to know the future and not to be believed.   Within the context of Friday the 13th, he is also, however, a conservative symbol of tradition.  He is the herald (or historian) who warns of danger, and who is ignored by irresponsible, unworried, callow youth.  They believe that tradition and history don’t apply to them; that they are free of those restraints.  Ralph knows this is not the case, but is dismissed as crazy.  

Again, many of these elements have been repeated so often in the formulaic slasher film sub-genre that it’s difficult to look the original Friday the 13th in its original context, before all this stuff – the Cassandra, the storm, the P.O.V. shot – became reflexive and de-rigueur ingredients.  But all these elements exist for a valid reason in Friday the 13th, and generally enhance the film’s sense of anxiety and danger.

Camp Blood?  Take a left at the grave yard. 

Crazy Ralph: The Cassandra Complex.

Did somebody drown here?
Slasher movies still get a lot of guff, even today, for lacking “socially redeeming features,” and many critics treat Friday the 13th as Exhibit A in that argument. The late Roger Ebert wrote, for instance, that the “primary function” of the teenagers in the F13 films is to “be hacked to death.”

On the contrary, I would argue the primary function of the teenager in films like Friday the 13th is to survive.   

While Mr. Ebert -- a personal and professional hero of mine, by the way -- reflects fondly in his review of Friday the 13th Part II on the innocence of his youth (and the cinema of his teenage years in the 1950s), he fails to acknowledge something important.  The cultural context that gave rise to the slasher format is entirely different from the one he nostalgically describes. 

Friday the 13th and its ilk arise from a teen culture that witnessed the Vietnam War played out bloodily on television news. It arises from a generation that witnessed a U.S. President toppled in the Watergate Scandal. It arises from a generation that saw the Energy Crisis, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, America held hostage by an Islamic regime in Iran, and the brutal madness of Charles Manson and his cult. 

The self-same teen generation saw a U.S. President’s Secretary of the Interior, James Watt testify -- straight-faced -- before Congress that America’s natural resources need not be preserved for future generations, since Judgment Day would arrive in this one.  If you also recall some some of the pervasive cultural fears of nuclear apocalypse in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, you can see how America by 1980 had traveled a significant distance from Annette Funicello and The Mickey Mouse Club (1955). 

So why would discerning film critics expect the entertainment of 1980–1985 to be identical to the entertainment of 1950–1955?  The world had changed, and entertainment -- as it always does – changed with it.

The important question to ask, instead, is what kind of entertainment arises out of such a roiling, turbulent cultural context?   At the heart of Friday the 13th...what is it really about?

Consider that in these slasher films, the best and brightest teenagers battle for survival.  Many teenagers die, it’s true, but a handful of the smartest triumph over seemingly insurmountable, nay supernatural, odds. 

Even better, the slasher format -- Friday the 13th films included -- universally champion a very specific brand of hero: the final girl. 

This character archetype is female, obviously, but also smarter, more insightful, and more courageous than her peers of both sexes.  While those peers smoke weed or indulge in pre-marital sex, the Final Girl has instead detected that something in the world is not quite right; that something is off-kilter. While her friends waste time on momentary pleasures, she becomes clued-in to the fact that the world is a dangerous and troublesome place. She starts to "see" the world's dangers (as I enumerated them in above paragraphs...), and devises a life-saving response.

So where critics such as Zina Klapper argue that slasher films champion and actually “induce” violence against women, I’d again argue the contrary point.   Based on the cast dynamics of the Friday the 13th films alone, these movies are equal opportunity offenders in terms of murders, yet pro-woman in terms of survival.  

In other words, the slasher films kill a whole lot of teens of both sexes, but offer, almost universally, one type of survivor: the smart and resourceful female.

This is certainly the case with Alice in Friday the 13th.  She has no recourse but to trust herself -- and her instincts -- on the night of the attack.  No man comes to rescue her, or to sweep her off her feet.  She can rely on nothing beyond her own personal qualities.  Not government (Watergate), not the military (Vietnam), and not corporate interests (Three Mile Island).  

In the end, Alice gets locked in mortal combat with another woman, Mrs. Voorhees, and that's significant too.  How many times in horror movie history have women been afforded the role of primary hero and primary villain in a single work of art?  Sure Mrs. Voorhees is certifiably bonkers, but she is an example of a person who saw something in the world she didn't like and sought to change it.  She is thus the dark reflection of an assertive final girl like Alice.  Accordingly, I can’t see how this movie fits the established party line about misogyny and horror flicks.

Final Girl

Final Monster
When I look back at Friday the 13th, I do see a cheap exploitation film, to be certain.  It's a step down from the artistry and vision of Halloween, for instance.  Yet Friday the 13th undeniably speaks to a specific historical context. Given that historical context I described above, is it so surprising, so morally corrupt that one generation’s entertainment of choice concerns a crucible of survival in which only the clever, the moral, the resolute and the resourceful manage to survive an apocalyptic world that seems stacked against them?  Where evil always resurfaces, even if in a new form? 

Slasher movies don’t make audiences meaner, as Janet Maslin asserted in a column in The New York Times.  They simply take the real world of the 1980s as it already was and demonstrate to teens that they can survive it, given the right skill set. 

Impressively, that skill set is associated not with stereotypical male qualities or even with men at all, but with young, intelligent women.

I can’t legitimately argue that all slasher movies are well-done or social valuable.  Some are dreck.  

But I’ve always felt it was wrong to lump in the first Friday the 13th with the mountains of dreck because it features some visually accomplished moments, a smattering of interesting symbolism, and -- not the least of all -- it conforms to the slasher format’s most noble conceit by reminding kids (and particularly girls) that even if the Boogeyman is at the door (in the form of the Cold War or anything else), they can survive.  

And they can do so with the qualities they already possess in spades, namely intelligence and insight. 

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Lost in Space: "There Were Giants in the Earth" (October 6, 1965)

In “There Were Giants in the Earth,” the Robinson family takes productive steps to build a self-sufficient community on the strange world where their ship, the Jupiter 2, has crashed. 

John Robinson (Guy Williams) and Major West (Mark Goddard) set up a force-field to guard their settlement’s perimeter, while Judy (Marta Kristen), Maureen (June Lockhart) and Penny (Angela Cartwright) begin to plant a garden.

Meanwhile, Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) assiduously avoids working all-together.  But when he does help in the garden, he inadvertently spawns giant plant monsters.

Next, a weather station device in the mountains begins to malfunction, and Robinson and West learn that a strange, brutish cyclops has attacked it. The colossus attacks them too, but Will (Bill Mumy) comes to the rescue and saves the day.

Because of dropping temperatures, however, the new settlement will be unlivable in a matter of hours.  Robinson decides the family should flee in the chariot, and head for warmer weather. 

But Smith and the Robot stay behind, in the safety of the Jupiter 2. 

On their journey away from the Jupiter 2, the Robinsons discover an ancient tomb…another sign of life on the planet.

At this point, it is safe to say Lost in Space is moving so fast that one starts to feel some opportunities are being missed, or passed by.  This episode posits both a giant malevolent Cyclops, and an ancient civilization on the planet the humans have just landed upon.  Either one would have made good fodder for an entire episode.  Instead, we are left wanting more...and perhaps that’s the point.

Lost in Space, at this early juncture, is an exciting, thrill-packed series, a story of pioneers in an alien environment, facing challenge after challenge.  The series isn’t deep sci-fi at this juncture, but nor is it the camp apocalypse of the color seasons. I do know this: as a kid I was terrified and obsessed with that giant cyclops for a while. And I loved the interlude in the tomb, with the family finding skeletons inside.

In writing these retrospectives, I’m attempting to keep track of certain ideas and plot-lines. In one of those threads, I’m paying close attention to Dr. Smith and his behavior.  

Here, he is more amusing and shiftless than evil, a change in his usual persona. He ends up staying at the Jupiter 2, however, because of a production point. Harris was not an original cast member, and therefore not included in the pilot.  And the first several episodes re-use elements of the pilot episode. Therefore, having the Robot (another new addition, post-pilot) and Smith remain at camp solves the problem of explaining their absence.

Another point I’m focusing on is the way that sixties attitudes end up seeping into this futuristic adventure series. Last week, in “Islands in the Sky,” for example, the “girls” had to make dinner for the family.  Will?  He was free to do whatever he wanted.

Here, we see Maureen doing the family’s laundry, again with no male help. Still, the laundry operation as depicted here is Jetsons-style cool, with clothes emerging not just washed and dried from the family machine, but neatly folded as well.

Another sexist note to consider: Will reports “women are always getting lost!” Once more, a little boy is even judged superior to his female counter-parts.  Oy.

Despite these antique attitudes, Lost in Space remains intriguing because of the visualizations, and the production design.  This episode features the first use of the rocket pack (a gimmick later used on Ark II [1976]), a visit to an alien tomb, and several close-up peeks at hard Earth "tech," including the weather station, the force-field generator, and yes, the aforementioned laundry machine. 

I am not sure why this big, clunky "space pioneer" gear appeals to me so much, and on such a basic level...but I just can't get enough of these live-action props (the kind you see at the Robinson homestead).  At this point, I would say that the production values of Lost in Space far outstrip those of Star Trek (1966 - 1968). The narratives and characters, of course, are a different story.

Finally, this episode features Will singing Green Sleeves at a camp site:

Cult-TV Blogging: The Immortal: "Sanctuary" (January 7, 1971)

Fletcher (Don Knight) chases Ben Richards (Christopher George) onto a Native American reservation in the desert.

Richards’ dune buggy breaks down in that territory, and he is unexpectedly aided by the land’s rebellious youth, and its leader, Tsinnajinni (Sal Mineo).  He befriends Tsinnajinni, who has a bad impression of the white man, and his culture.

Meanwhile, Fletcher plans a full-scale assault on the reservation to attain his quarry. On the reservation, Richards attempts to repair his vehicle.

For my money, “The Sanctuary” is the least interesting episode of The Immortal (1969-1971) in the entire series run of sixteen episodes. The narratives trades in old clichés about Native Americans, fails to cast Native Americans in the central roles, and adds nothing to the series’ mythology…or even Ben Richards’ character.  The episode attempts to be progressive, I suppose, in some ways, but just ends up looking and sounding clichéd.  Time has done it no favors.

The episode begins with the non-Native American playing a Native American Sal Mineo making critical observations about white men and white society. “You’re always fighting a war for a cause,” he says with dissdain. This is not a small matter in the age of the Vietnam War. By episode’s end, however, we’re in straight-up “White Man’s Burden” territory as Richards lectures the young man about life in the city. He turns patronizing and asks him “Are you ready for it?” Who is he to decide, really? Is he ready for it? What has been his experience, based on what we’ve seen?

Also, the episode ends in hackneyed format with the leader of the Native American tribe offering to say a “chant” for Richards, as he continues his journey. It’s all clichéd, and condescending at the same time.

The worst part of the episode, however, is that it just plays as dull. We know Richards is going to win over Tsinnajinni, get his dune buggy working, and be on his way.  At this point, the almost-weekly love interest would have been welcome!

For me, the most unique aspect of the episode finds Fletcher bribing one of Richards’ white friends at a local auto repair shop for the use of a vehicle, so he can launch a full-scale attack on the reservation.  In this episode, Fletcher basically wages war, with vehicles, soldiers, and explosives against the Native Americans on the reservation.  This subplot actually does have some cultural currency for 1971.  Not only is it a callback to a grim chapter in American history, with westerners attempting to take the land of Native Americans, but it works as a metaphor, of sorts, for Vietnam, with soldiers bringing their advanced war technology to another culture, without really understanding the “enemy” or the terrain. 

But this idea, like most in “The Sanctuary” is not very well-explored.

Next week: the final episode of The Immortal: “Brother’s Keeper.”

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Lost in Space: "Islands in the Sky (September 29, 1965)

In “Islands in the Sky,” Jupiter 2 approaches a habitable planet, and since the Robinsons are “settlers,” not “explorers,” John (Guy Williams) decides that the ship must set down…and his family must attempt to start a life.  He dons a space suit and para-jets to seek a good landing site.

Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) sabotages the para-jets, however, and John plummets into the atmosphere…and is believed dead.

The Jupiter makes a rocky landing on the inhospitable planet, and Maureen and the others immediately set about rescuing John.  They take the chariot vehicle to his crash-site, but don’t find him at first, only a weird space monkey.

Later, John is found, and the family is reunited.

“Islands in the Sky” makes one fact incontrovertible: Dr. Smith has attempted the murder of John Robinson.  He has sabotaged his para-jets, specifically.  In later episodes, Smith is treated as a nuisance and sometimes as comic relief, but in this early iteration he is a bad, bad man.

“Islands in the Sky” is the middle part of a larger story, and as such is a bit undistinguished in terms of narrative.  Still, there are a couple big moments that are worth noting.

The episode’s first big moment, in my book, is the reveal of the chariot.  This may well be my favorite piece of Lost in Space technology.  The chariot is a futuristic family buggy, and it has an entirely transparent interior. This vehicle has captured my attention since I was a small child, and I love the look of it. It's a wagon for the futuristic space pioneer, and I would love to drive one.

The second big moment in “Islands in the Sky” is the crash of the Jupiter 2 on the planetary surface.  The ship’s (terrifying)  descent looks absolutely real, and not like some tiny miniatures were used on a fake set.  The landscape and the vehicle in distress look terrific.  In part I feel this is true because of a focus on atmospherics.  There's fog in the air, and sunshine coming down from below.  Because of such touches, the crash of the J2 looks very authentic.

As for the space monkey, Debbie…she’s not as impressive in appearance as that great chariot.  Instead, she’s just a monkey with big pointed ears.  The monkey is actually wearing a hat appliance to accommodate for those ears, and it looks sort of ridiculous today

In terms of “futurism” Lost in Space still embodies a kind of sexist world-view despite being set in 1997.  Here, the female contingent of the family prepares dinner for the others. Will can’t help?  Boys are exempt from house work, right?

And speaking of Will, he shows something of his independent nature here, slipping away without permission to repair the chariot.  

There, he is confronted by the renegade robot, who once again is obeying the orders of Dr. Smith.  Still, we do learn a little about the robot this week.  “I do not vote,” he notes at one point.  “I am not programmed for free choice.

The "Islands in the Sky" episode also gives us our first look at the Robinsons' new home, a weird alien world of electrically-charged tumble-weeds and vegetation.  Future episodes show us the planet's temperature shifts, and strange (gigantic!) denizens.

Next up: “There Were Giants in the Earth.”