Saturday, June 16, 2018

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Sigmund and the Sea Monster: "Frankenstein Drops In"

In “Frankenstein Drops In,” Sigmund’s brothers -- Blurp and Slurp -- along with his father, Big Daddy, lament that there is no one left to clean up the cave for them, since Sigmund left. When they see Scott (Scott Kolden) on the beach, they decide to capture him and make the boy their servant.

When Johnny (Johnny Whitaker) and Sigmund learn what has occurred, they sneak into the cave and realize it will be impossible to rescue Scott without a distraction. When they see the sea monsters watching The Monday Night Super Monster Movie, “Frankenstein Goes Ape,” they get an idea. Johnny dresses up like the Frankenstein Monster, Big Daddy’s idol, visits the cave as a friend, and asks to take Scott back as his slave.

Unfortunately, the sea monsters soon realize the gambit, and try to capture Johnny too.  Johnny, Scott, and Sigmund are able to make a quick escape together.

As is often the case with Krofft series of the 1970s’, this series is getting weirder the longer it goes. 

In this episode, Scott is made a slave by Sigmund’s family, and the monster-loving sea monsters get a visit from a being they presume to be the Frankenstein Monster, though he is constantly referred to as Frankenstein by the episode writers.

The insertion of “famous” monsters into the series mix is an odd choice, to say the least. After all, this is a series about sea monsters living in a cave at the beach. But in this episode and the next one, two Universal Monsters appear: the Frankenstein Monster and the Wolf Man. The Creature of The Black Lagoon might have made more sense, given the aquatic nature of Sigmund’s family.

Most of the humor this week derives from the sea-monster-flavored entertainment on the cave “Shellovision” as reported by the brothers.  Big Daddy sits down to watch his favorite series, “Ghoul in the Family,” And later, the sea monsters complain to the Frankenstein Monster about the quality of one of his films: “Frankenstein Meets Gidget.”  

One genuinely funny moment sees Scott express surprise about being captured by Sigmund’s family, and Big Daddy notes, “Well, we ain’t the Partridge Family.”  Of all the early 1970’s Krofft shows, Sigmund and the Sea Monsters is the one that appears most obsessed with disco decade pop-culture. Today, this quality of the series makes it a kind of time capsule for early 70’s generational touchstones.

The overall narrative here, not surprisingly, doesn’t make a lot of sense. Scott is captured right off the beach, and dragged to the monster cave, to be a slave. After escaping the cave together, Scott, Johnny and Sigmund go right back to the exact point he was captured, and linger there long enough to sing a song.  If I were them, I would have waited to sing that song, until getting back to the clubhouse.  At any minute, the monsters could have reappeared from their (nearby) cave and grabbed them again.  

The sea monsters are a dangerous threat only until the writers decide they are not.

Next week: “Is There a Doctor in the Cave?”

Friday, June 15, 2018

Excellent Journey Returns: First Season Wonders/Second Season Blunders

The next episode of John and Jim's Excellent Journey, a podcast with James McLean and myself, is now posted at Beyond Kasterborous.  

The subject "First Season Wonders and Second Season Blunders" looks at Cult-Television programming which had a strong inaugural year, but wasn't able to keep up the momentum due to second season changes.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Kolchak Blogging: "The Werewolf" (November 1, 1974)

In “The Werewolf,” Kolchak (Darren McGavin) is asked, at the last second, to replace Vincenzo (Simon Oakland) on an assignment aboard a cruise ship, the Hanover.  The Hanover is an old ship about to undertake its final voyage, and it is now housing a swinging singles cruise.

Kolchak boards the ship and befriends some swinging singles, including the movie-loving Paula Griffin (Nita Talbot).  As he gathers stories about the ship and its passengers, a new threat emerges. A NATO officer named Bernhardt Stieglitz (Eric Braeden) is grappling with lycanthropy.  As the full moon rises, he transforms into a murderous werewolf, just as he did in Montana, when he murdered an unsuspecting family.

With werewolf murders proliferating on the Hanover, Kolchak consults Paula about the only way to kill a werewolf. He soon realizes he must melt the buttons on the captain’s (Henry Jones) dress uniform to fashion silver bullets. 

Once the bullets are fashion, Kolchak must stalk the decks of the Hanover to find his supernatural quarry.

“The Werewolf” is a fun episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-1975), though by this point the episode formula has “hardened” so that there are few surprises. Similarly, the monster costume for the titular werewolf is terrible, and does not bear close scrutiny.

The format or formula for stories on this series is well-established at this point. Kolchak ends up in some setting while reporting a story where he discovers that a supernatural or paranormal monster is involved, but runs smack up against the stonewalling forces of authority, who attempt to cover-up the truth, and keep it hidden from the public. Kolchak clashes with these forces of the Establishment, and then must take matters into his own hands, eliminating the monster himself. Throw in some witty repartee and sparring between Kolchak and Vincenzo, and you’ve got a recipe that repeats throughout the program.

The “swinging singles” context gives “The Werewolf” a sense of fun, as Kolchak must room with a ‘70s swinger played by Dick Gautier who persistently refers to him as part of the “fifth column,” rather than “the fourth estate.” Paula is also a fun character, and proves a worthy and resourceful ally for Kolchak. But like Faye in last week’s episode, she doesn’t recur in the series, despite the fact that there is strong chemistry between Paula and Kolchak.

Our stone-walling figure of the week is Henry Jones’ ship’s captain, who uses Maritime Laws to foil and block Kolchak at every turn. The episode’s best moment involves Kolchak’s decision to make silver bullets from the captain’s dress uniform, an act which doesn’t endear him to the officer.

Intriguingly, Stieglitz is a tragic character. He suffers from claustrophobia, dizziness, and nightmares. He is a sick man, not an intentional murderer, and yet the episode treats him with literally no sympathy, or empathy. So far, we have met homicidal murderers (“The Ripper,”) aliens who kill to return home (“They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be”) and blood-suckers (“The Vampire.”)  The werewolf here seems to be the most innocent, or at least not directly culpable of this rogue’s gallery.

The confrontations between the ship’s crew and the werewolf in the episode are laughable by today’s standards. There are a lot of acrobatics as people get thrown around, but not much in terms of scratches, bruises or bites. It’s very “G” rated, and very cartoonish.  

And the monster looks terribly fake.  

Also, there are some focus problems in the photography this week, with Carl being out of focus in the foreground of a shot for several seconds. The poor quality of the make-up and camera-work contribute to the idea that this is a series flying-by-the-seat-of-its-pants.

Next week: “Firefall.”

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Star Trek: The Next Generation 30th Anniversary Blogging: "Conspiracy" (May 9, 1988)

Stardate:  41775.5

A call from Captain Picard’s (Patrick Stewart) old friend, Captain Walker Keel (Jonathan Farwell) of the starship Horatio reroutes the Enterprise from its visit to Pacifica.  Keel asks Picard to rendezvous with him in secret, and meet with two other Starfleet captains too, Captain Tryla Scott, and Captain Rixx. Only reluctantly, Picard agrees to the clandestine meeting.

When the group meets, Captain Picard hears about a conspiracy in Starfleet, mirroring reports he heard from Admiral Quinn (Ward Costello) some months earlier. After the rendezvous, the Horatio is reported destroyed, confirming for Picard his old friend’s story about a dark conspiracy. Data (Brent Spiner) is able to determine odd patterns in Starfleet’s recent actions, as well.

Captain Picard orders the Enterprise back to Earth, where he investigates the presence of a conspiracy in Starfleet Command. What he finds there is almost unbelievable. Alien parasites have taken over the Admiralty, and are subverting the Federation. Admiral Quinn has also been compromised by a parasite, as has his adjutant, Remmick (Robert Schenkkan).

Apparently “Conspiracy” is a divisive episode, with some long-time fans loving it, and other fans hating it. My own assessment is that this title is one of the best, and most exciting episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s (1987-1994) first season (and indeed, of the series in its totality).

Why? “Conspiracy” feels downright dangerous. There are moments in the episode that are unpredictable, and filled with real, sinister menace. At one point, it looks like Captain Picard will not escape from the parasites.  Offhand, I can think of only one other episode that is as terrifying and unpredictable as this one: “Q-Who,” which introduces the Borg.

Too often in The Next Generation, menace and danger are undercut, or underplayed. So many stories in the first season don’t feel immediate, or urgent. The characters stand on the command bridge of their perfect starship, with their perfect ideals and philosophies, and get to talk down to planets and people who are not as evolved as they are. The drama in the storytelling lessened via this approach, and the lack of action adds to the feeling of the series as a sustained academic lecture, rather than a scintillating entertainment.

None of those things are true in “Conspiracy,” which takes the Enterprise back to Earth (for the first time in the series), and into the hive of the conspiracy.  The episode is a real life commentary on the Iran-Contra scandal of the day, which saw “patriotic” generals turning against the ideals of the Constitution to pursue their own radical ideological agenda. By my count, “Conspiracy” is the third time the series had taken on the scandal. “Q” appeared, basically, as Ollie North in “Encounter at Farpoint,” mocking the colonel’s brand of self-serving patriotism. Then “Arsenal of Freedom” dealt with the arms-dealing aspect of the scandal. And, finally, “Conspiracy” tackles the “enemy within” nature of American patriots subverting the law for their extremism. It would make an interesting paper, for some academician, to write about Star Trek: The Next Generation’s responses to this scandal of the Reagan Era.

Another strength of “Conspiracy” is the episode’s chilling ending, which has Data announce news that the parasites have sent out a beacon to their distant brethren. This code is one worthy of The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) and feels haunting to this day. The episode ends with the sounds alien messaging still “going out” to the final frontier.

I understand why the episode is controversial, however. In part, that controversy it concerns the hypocrisy of Gene Roddenberry. I remember reading an interview in Starlog Magazine with the Great Bird of the Galaxy after the release of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), in which he complained about Kirk phasering (to death) the Ceti eel that emerged from Chekov’s ear. It was a new and unknown life-form, Roddenberry insisted, and should have been studied and investigated. Instead, it was met with disgust and violence by a Starfleet officer.

So what does Picard do in “Conspiracy” when faced with a similar parasite? He grimaces, just like Kirk, and blows the thing away without a second look.

Picard’s actions are appropriate given the threat level here, but they also reveal that Roddenberry’s complaints about the Wrath of Khan were not valid. It’s amusing how Captain Picard’s log entry in the denouement of “Conspiracy” attempts to paper over the rampant phaser blasting.  He notes how repugnant it was to destroy life, after years of respecting it, but that he had no choice. 

Yeah, like Captain Kirk dealing with the Ceti eel, I guess…

So I suppose some Star Trek fans dislike the episode because Picard acts in a way that might be deemed out-of-character, blasting an alien “mother” creature to kingdom come. But again, in the context of what was at stake, who can blame the guy?!  Not every problem can be solved by mediation or arbitration, even in the 24th century, and “Conspiracy” is a prime example of that fact.  There are some life-forms that may say they desire “peaceful co-existence,” but what they really desire is conquest.

Part of the reason that “Conspiracy” works so well is that some of the elaborate story set-up was delivered in the earlier first season tale “Coming of Age,” and so this episode can actually take the time to develop suspense, and deliver action, without too much exposition (save for in the first act.). It is rewarding that as early as its first season, Star Trek: The Next Generation was beginning to experiment with serialized story-telling, which would become a mainstay of DS9, down the road (and then Discovery, of late).

Basically, “Conspiracy” is just so weird, and unlike any other TNG episode, and that makes it a special hour. We see an old man (possessed by a parasite) beat up Worf, and then get phasered to the ground by Dr. Crusher, in a stunning and dramatic scene. We see Starfleet admirals dining on worms. We see parasites crawl inside a human mouth. We see a human head explode. And we’re left with the ultimate mystery.  What are these things?  And finally, we are also left with the fear that they will return.

As I’ve written before, the first season run from “Heart of Glory” through “The Neutral Zone” was a beautiful time for this fledgling series, in that the program writers were finally starting to get down the right mix of cerebral science fiction and colorful action.  “Conspiracy” is likely the apex of that formula in the first season, an episode that scares, shocks, and delights, even on repeat viewings. I wish there were more episodes like “Conspiracy” in the TNG canon.

In two weeks: “The Neutral Zone.”