Sunday, June 30, 2019

Guest Post: Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)

If He Spits His Webs All The Way to Europe, Does Spider-Man Still Need a Passport?

By Jonas Schwartz
Peter Parker has always been the most relatable Avenger. He is an everyday kid thrust into greatness by circumstance. His gee-whiz attitude towards the gadgets and special powers he’s gained are endearing. Yet, at the end of the day, Peter Parker just wants to be a regular boy. He wants the prom, first dates, birthday parties, and true love, and sometimes battling a ginormous creature can cramp a kid’s style. The team that helmed Spider-Man: Homecoming, director John Watts, writers Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, launch Tom Holland in his latest adventure as the swinging super-youth, in a clever romp, Spider-Man: Far From Home.
In the Marvel equivalent of The Facts of Life Go to Paris, the latest Spider-Man film finds Peter longing for his close friend MJ (Zendaya). His high school is in minor chaos because many of the kids had blipped (They disappeared for the five years between Avengers: Infinity Warsand Endgame), and some have merely grown up and are now interacting with other kids who had vanished at a time when they were in elementary school. 

The science team has a cross-Europe trip planned and Peter wants to leave the Spidey-suit at home so he can focus on being a kid. Thankfully, Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) has packed it along because a monster made of water attacks the vulnerable city of Venice, almost drowning Peter and his friends. Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) are on hand, and a new friend, a human from another dimension, Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), substitutes as a mentor for Peter now that Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) has passed away. Though the team destroys the water beast, there are other elementals (creatures using the power of the elements: water, fire, earth, air) out to demolish the planet. 
As the first film in the MCU to follow Avengers: EndgameSpider-Man: Far From Homehad the great responsibility of handling Tony Stark’s death, and revealing and how planet Earth dealt with the return of millions of blipped people. The movie handles both in funny and touching ways. Writers McKenna and Sommers, who before joining MCU produced both Communityand Happy Endingson TV, two sitcoms rightfully considered most inventive in their genre, manage to create levity and goofiness without dumbing down the humor.  It’s a silly film, but very enjoyable.  There is a very clunky exposition scene that the writers probably felt they handled adeptly, but it still feels like 10 minutes of a villain telling people in the room something they all already would know. But that’s a minor quibble.
Director Watts matches the youthful humor with exhilarating action sequences. Like the successful Mission Impossiblefilms, Watts takes glee in decimating world landmarks: The Washington Monument in Homecoming, the Venice and London towers in Far From Home. Because the audience is invested in not only Peter, but his friends, those in danger are not faceless extras. 

Tom Holland is engaging as a more juvenile Peter Parker than either Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield. Audiences can sense he’s crossing over to puberty, while Maguire and Garfield’s Parkers always seemed like they were a month away from AARP mailings. Zendaya, Remy Hii, Jacob Batalon and Angourie Rice make great counterparts as Peter’s friends. Gyllenhaal is commanding as the new hero on the block. And Samuel L Jackson can do no wrong. He was born for this role ,and always is a delight when he shows up in the MCU. 
Peter Parker and his alter-ego have been celebrating a renaissance. Besides the successful Homecoming, an animated version Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,was a creative, financial and award success last season. Though light fare, Spider-Man: Far From Homewill delight kids and thrill adults. It’s a quirky summer epic.

Jonas Schwartz is Vice President / Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle,  West Coast Critic for TheaterMania, Contributing Critic for Broadway World, and a Contributing Critic for ArtsInLA

Saturday, June 29, 2019

40 Years Ago Today: Moonraker (1979)

This may be the most schizophrenic review I’ve ever written, and I would like to apologize in advance.

But for this space-kid of the 1970's -- and also long-time fan of the James Bond films -- the 1979 film Moonraker represents a serious difficulty.

On one hand, the film is undeniably one of the silliest of all the 007 pictures made in the franchise’s fifty years.

The epic comes replete with hover-craft gondolas, pigeons performing double-takes, and other really cheesy comedic shtick, like Jaws (Richard Kiel) flapping his arms -- trying to fly -- when his parachute cord breaks at 35,000 feet.

On the other hand, Moonraker arises from that magical year of my youth: 1979.

This was the stellar season of Alien, The Black Hole, the theatrical release of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

In other words, 1979 was the first full year of the post-Star Wars (1977) boom, and thus a great time to be a kid. All the aforementioned films were set in space, visually-dazzling, and adventurous and imaginative to boot.

Moonraker fits right in. I will forever associate the film (positively) with that time in my life.

There are non-nostalgia reasons to praise the film as well.The film’s special visual effects by Derek Medding are astonishingly good, even today.

And the final battle in space -- while undeniably a re-imagining of the infantry battles in such Bond classics as You Only Live Twice (1967) and The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) -- seems dazzlingly original in its execution. Two teams of astronaut soldiers pour forth from open space shuttle cargo-bay doors, wielding blue-light lasers that zip across the heavens.

To a nine year old kid -- not to mention a 44 year old adult -- that finale is, simply, outer space nirvana.

Yet, my biases established, Moonraker today doesn’t seem a particularly strong entry in the James Bond film canon.

I don’t count it among the very worst of the franchise (a position I reserve for Die Another Day [2002], Diamonds are Forever [1971], and A View to a Kill [1985]).

But Moonraker isn’t in the series’ top tier.

And maybe it isn’t even in the middle tier, either.

I grew up with Roger Moore as James Bond, so I bear no dislike for him, or his films. He was my “first” Bond, and so I can’t even complain about his arch, knowing, borderline-parody approach to the material.

It was 1983 -- when I saw at Cinema 23 in New Jersey a double-feature of From Russia with Love (1963) and Never Say Never Again (1983) -- that I was introduced to Sean Connery, and his Bond-ian style. After that, From Russia with Love became my all-time favorite Bond film, and it has not yet been knocked from its perch (though Casino Royale [2006] and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service [1969] have come close…)

But back to Moonraker: the film is still spectacular and exciting, even if it doesn’t represent the best of the Bond brand. 

Furthermore, there’s much evidence to suggest the film achieved precisely what it set to do. That mission, simply, was to appeal to the kids who loved Star Wars. 

Writing in the St. Petersburg Times, for instance, critic Roy Peter Clark wrote that Moonraker was “designed to please children….” and that the film would “appeal to the generation of Luke Skywalker.” (July 30, 1979, page 5B).

The Miami News put it another way: “Roger Moore is suave, the villains are treacherous, the women are gorgeous, and the special effects outstanding.  The formula never changes, and neither does the result. James Bond is as delightful as ever.”
So what’s my beef? The film was a huge hit! In fact, Moonraker quickly became the highest-grossing Bond film of all time immediately following its release.

From a certain 1970s perspective, I can really buy into The Miami News’ positive description of the film. That’s certainly how I experienced Moonraker as a nine year old kid. It has only been in adulthood -- and with the rest of the Bond franchise as comparative context -- that reservations about this 1979 film have crystallized.

Long story short: Moonraker is a helluva lot of fun in a post-Star Wars context, but not a great Bond film, in almost any context. The movie is entertaining as hell, but it turns the serious world of Bond into a place for silly laughs. 

And, finally, when you get down to the film’s narrative terms, Moonraker is also just a thinly-disguised remake of The Spy Who Loved Me, with space shuttles replacing submarines, Drax replacing Stromberg, and space replacing the bottom of the sea.

When the high-tech Moonraker space shuttle is stolen from British custody, agent 007, James Bond (Roger Moore) is assigned by his superior, M (Bernard Lee) to recover it.

Bond’s mission commences at the headquarters for Drax Industries, the manufacturer of the shuttle in California.  The company is owned by a man named Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale) who is “obsessed with the conquest of space.” 

Soon, Bond teams up with a beautiful C.I.A. agent, Dr. Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles) to investigate Drax, further, and the globe-hopping adventures leads them to Venice, Rio De Janeiro, and finally to the final frontier itself.  In each of those locations, the Drax Organization seems to be manufacturing elements for…something.

Soon Bond learns the horrifying truth: Drax has prepared a space shuttle fleet for a space rendezvous with his secret space station. 

From there, he intends to eliminate the Earth’s population with several globes containing deadly nerve gas.  His scheme is to re-seed the Earth with his hand-picked, genetically superior men and women, and create “the ultimate dynasty,” one in which man will look to the Heavens and see not anarchy, but “law and order.” 

Bond must now prevent Drax’s deadly plan from coming to fruition, but three of the toxic globes -- each capable of killing millions of people -- have already been launched from the station. With the help of a former enemy, Jaws (Kiel), Bond races to save the Earth before it’s too late.

As I note above, Moonraker is a remake of The Spy Who Loved Me, which in turn was a remake of 1967’s You Only Live Twice.  

Here, the unflappable James Bond confronts a megalomaniac bent on destroying the Earth’s population and then becoming the ruler of his own carefully-selected population. In The Spy Who Loved Me, Stromberg was obsessed with the sea, and planned to rule from the underwater complex called Atlantis.

In Moonraker, Drax (Lonsdale) is obsessed with the realm of outer space, and plans to rule his New Earth from his orbiting space station. 

The soldier villain in both films is Jaws (Kiel), the assassin with sharp metal teeth.

Unlike The Spy Who Loved Me, however, Moonraker goes rather far down the path of comedy, evidencing a campy sense of humor that comes to dominate -- and then destroy -- much of the proceedings. 

Here, potentially great action sequences take a twist not towards excitement, but cheap laughs.

The film’s stunning (and then risible…) pre-title sequence finds Bond being pushed out of a plane without a parachute.  He struggles to survive, battling a parachute out of the hands of a committed nemesis. 

But then Jaws shows up out of the blue on the tiny plane -- where was he hiding? -- and transforms the whole sequence into a living cartoon, a live-action version of Wily Coyote and Road-Runner. 

When his parachute cord rips, Jaws flaps his arms like a giant bird, and then plummets downwards into a circus tent.  Frankly, the circus tent is an apt destination for him since Moonraker often returns to a kind of circus atmosphere in its sense of humor.

Why do I find this sequence bothersome?

Perhaps it is because greatness was just within reach. In my opinion, the pre-title sequence of The Spy Who Loved Me is the very best in Bond history. It features a chase on skis, and Bond plunging over a mountainside, only to open his Union Jack parachute at the last possible moment.  The stunt is surprising, and jaw-dropping.

It would be difficult, I think, to devise a more deadly predicament for Bond, but Moonraker manages that feat. 

The film sees him tossed out of a plane with no chute, and thus with precious few options for survival. As I noted above, he must steal a parachute from another skydiver, battling in mid-air for possession of it.  This deadly fight is stunningly achieved in terms of visuals. The skydiving stunts are amazing, and there is a minimum of fakery involved. The stunt-man is a pretty good double for Moore, too.

Had the sequence played matters straight -- with Bond getting the parachute at the last minute, and then soaring to safety -- it might have been legitimately comparable to Spy’s opener. 

Perhaps even better.

Instead, we get a great villain – Jaws – turned into a figure of fun. We see him flap his wings like an idiot, and on the soundtrack, the song we associate with the circus plays, thereby completely deflating the character’s sense of menace. 

More than that, the-flapping-his-arms, falling-into-a-circus-tent Jaws absolutely deflates the entire threat of the sequence.

Well, Jaws survives, unharmed, from his fall.  So Bond could have too.  He might have also landed on a circus tent and walked away…

The jokey finale to this pre-title sequence robs Moonraker of its sense of danger. Worse, it’s a mistake the movie keeps making.

Later in the film, for instance, Bond is in Venice when attacked by assassins. Surprisingly, his gondola transforms into a land vehicle -- a hovercraft -- and the film then cuts to a ludicrous series of reaction shots.

A pigeon does a double take.

A waiter spills food on a customer.

A dog does a double take.

A sailor stares, open-mouthed, at Bond.

And a man looks at his bottle of wine, convinced he must be drunk.

One such reaction shot might have been sufficient. 

There are literally half-a-dozen of them here. So Moonraker tells a joke, comments on the joke, and then pounds the joke into your head until you beg for mercy.

Name just one other Bond film that edits so desperately for laughs.

The film’s barometer of tone is way off, and the jokey moments are notably at odds with the genuinely suspenseful ones, such as Bond’s near fatal “ride” in a centrifuge, or his last-minute attempt to destroy a nerve-gas bearing globe as it re-enters Earth orbit. 

Those moments represent two of Roger Moore’s best, in my opinion, as I wrote in an Anorak article, “Shaken,not Stirred.”

In the case of the centrifuge sequence, I love how a wounded, off-center Bond pushes away Goodhead’s entreaties for help. He’s pissed as hell, and he doesn’t want to talk about it. He just wants to be left alone.  I love that Moore’s typical suave composure as Bond is undercut here, and we see him get mad.  It’s clear he’s grappling with his pain.

In terms of the denouement, I love the moment when Bond must activate the Moonraker’s manual controls to shoot-down Drax’s final nerve-gas globe.  So many times during the Bond franchise, 007 must save the world with his actions, it seems. 

This is that idea taken to the nth degree. 

Bond gets one shot with a laser -- one shot -- and if he misses, a whole population will be wiped out. 

Moore is terrific in this particular sequence, which nicely reminds us of the responsibilities Bond must often face.  The scene is shot well too, with extreme-close-ups of Bond’s sweaty face as he blocks out all other stimuli and attempts to concentrate on his target.  John Barry’s tense score also helps to forge a moment of remarkable suspense.

It’s just too bad that this highly-effective moment follows a scene -- set in maudlin slow-motion -- with Jaws and the diminutive love his life reuniting.

It’s a shame that Moonraker so often goes for the easy laugh when the film clearly could have stretched for a more cerebral brand of humor.

For example, the movie has a lot of fun aping the “space craze” of the 1970s, and it could have stuck, perhaps to that notion.  In one instance, the three-note overture to 2001: A Space Odyssey is sounded (during Drax’s pheasant hunting expedition), and the key code to his secret lab is Close Encounter’s famous five-note “greeting.”  Those are funny -- and quickly passing -- touches, which don’t undercut character or drama.  We get the joke, but they don’t take us out of the film’s reality.

Perhaps the more legitimate gripe against Moonraker is that circus atmosphere I mentioned earlier.

James Bond as a consistent, human character is nearly lost in the film, and he’s much more like a jolly ring-master encountering a series of loosely-related perils and stunts. This epic, cartoon approach is fun and entertaining, to be certain -- and swashbuckling fun was the name of the game in the immediate-post Star Wars film boomlet -- but there’s also the feel that the 007 saga has run too far afield of realism or verisimilitude.

If Moonraker’s tone is wobbly, I can find absolutely nothing negative to say about the film’s stunning production design and visual effects. Everything on these fronts is top-notch.  In fact, Moonraker launched the space shuttle two years before the American space program did, and really nailed the opticals of that event.

There’s not a single moment of Derek Meddings’ work that tips one off that these are models, and not genuine spaceship launches. 

So…I love Moonraker…and I don’t love Moonraker.

It’s a big, fun, spectacular movie, and yet, at the same time, it loses track of the reasons why we like watching James Bond in the first place. It lunges into cheap laughs when, as we see from certain scenes, it could have sought out tremendous suspense instead.

For Your Eyes Only premiered in 1981, and that (excellent) film re-grounded James Bond in wonderful ways, in my opinion. It featured a much more human, rough tone, one much more in keeping with the era of From Russia with Love (1963). That’s my favorite Roger Moore Bond Film.

But there were no space shuttles or laser beams to enjoy, either…

Friday, June 28, 2019

Cult-TV Gallery: The space craft of Buck Rogers (Season 1)

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Cult-TV Blogging: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: "Planet of the Slave Girls" (September 27, 1979)

In “Planet of the Slave Girls” Buck (Gil Gerard) and Colonel Deering (Erin Gray) return to New Chicago, after meeting up in space with Major Duke Danton (David Groh) of Earth Recon #1. Duke takes an instant disliking to Buck, and is a rival to him, both for the approbation of his cadets, and for Wilma’s affection. Buck attends Danton’s class to explain 20th century tactics, but the visit degenerates into a pissing contest as Duke and Buck tackle one another to demonstrate football moves.

Before this rivalry can escalate further, Buck and Wilma learn of a developing crisis. In New Chicago alone, there are 25,000 cases of deadly illness, believed to be food poisoning. The illness has hit the Earth Defense Directorate especially hard, downing pilots and thereby imperiling the planet. A scientist, Dr. Mallory (Macdonald Carey), learns that there is a bio-chemical agent” poisoning the food supply, but before he can create an antidote, his assistant, Stella, sabotages his computer and flees the city.

The source of the poisoning, it is learned, is the distant world of Vistula, run by hapless Governor Saroyan (Roddy McDowall). Buck, Duke, and Wilma lead a mission there to learn more and befriend the governor’s son, as well as a slave girl named Ryma (Breanne Leary).  They learn, in short order, of a cult-leader named Kaleel (Jack Palance), who has poisoned the Earth in hopes of disabling its defenses, and then taking it over. His headquarters is in a desert mountain fortress in the “Sea of Stone,” one protected by an “energy leech” which disables spaceships.

While Buck and Wilma attempt to stop Kaleel on Vistula, Duke returns to Earth to marshal a defense, despite the lack of healthy pilots. Among the pilots: Twiki and Theo, and a retired pilot, Brigadier Gordon (Buster Crabbe).

The first Buck Rogers episode to follow the series premiere, “Planet of the Slave Girls” is a two-hour opus of incredible scope for 1970’s television. The episode starts with an intriguing mystery, comes to include a relevant topic in the culture (cults), and ends with one of the series’ most engaging and invigorating space battles. The character interaction is intriguing too, since Buck gets a charismatic nemesis (and then friend) in Groh’s unimpressed Duke Danton.

The event that leads into the main story here is a mystery illness felling Earth’s best pilots. Long-time sci-fi fans may recognize this as the same plot element or ingredient from the second episode of another Glen Larson-produced series, Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979): “Lost Planet of the Gods.” There, the rag-tag fleet was left defenseless as an illness incapacitated all the viper pilots.

After this derivative premise, however, “Planet of the Slave Girls” heads off into some original and provocative territory. Despite the pulpy and exploitative episode title, the episode narrative actually deals with a number of relevant issues in the culture at the time. The first involves the peril of colonialism, even benevolent colonialism. Governor Saroyan is not an evil man, but he willfully looks the other way regarding issues such as slavery, and freedom. His willingness to use the native people of Vistula to make money (and trade with Earth) is the very opening that Kaleel needs to rally the disenfranchised people to his cause.  Of course, his cause is evil and self-serving.

Kaleel, however, isn’t just a stand-in for the desert Mujahideen fighting an occupying power, like the Soviet Union in harsh Afghanistan. Kaleel is also a mesmerizing cult-leader in the spirit of Jim Jones, and Jonestown.  Just a year before this episode aired, the mass suicide at Jonestown in Guyana occurred, resulting in the death of 909 followers. Those who died succumbed to group think, and were therefore susceptible to Jones’ charisma and leadership. Kaleel is a character very much in the spirit of that real life figure, controlling his people to the extent that they believe he possesses supernatural powers: the ability to kill with a touch. He claims that his touch “is the truth,” and his people cower in fear of it. In one powerful scene, we see a woman rat out her husband, out of fear of Kaleel and his powers. “Planet of the Slave Girls” also aptly describes Kaleel as a “sorcerer who feeds off the adulation of a crowd.”  This was a meaningful idea in 1979, given the Jonestown tragedy.

Although the episode is a fast-moving comic-strip, essentially, it’s remarkable how this Buck Rogers tale is set-up to reflect a very nuanced concept: both the idea that colonialist attitudes create a backlash (in Saroyan’s blind leadership) and that the would-be replacement leadership for that colonialism, in Kaleel, can be fanatical and dangerous. In other words, neither option is workable, equitable, or just.

The episode’s final battle is a high note, and set-up well in the first scenes. Early on, Buck explains “red dogging” and “sacking the quarterback” in Duke Danton’s strategy class. In the final space battle, Buck puts these concepts into action. The final space combat sees Buck’s small group of pilots facing off against a huge, but inexperienced fleet. The key to victory is the destruction of the enemy fleet’s general, Galen, who is “calling the shots.”  The battle is splendidly rendered as Twiki, Buster Crabbe’s Gordon, and others use football strategy to sack this particular quarterback. The design of the alien fighters is also great.

Although this space battle is entertaining, and even invigorating, other special effects moments throughout the episode are not nearly so inspiring.  For example, the Cylon base from “Lost Planet of the Gods” fills in as a launch bay at one point.  At another point, on Vistula, we actually see the familiar spires of Earth’s New Chicago in the background.  And, a transport to the desert starts out as a Buck Rogers design, but soon becomes a shuttle from Battlestar Galactica…a completely different spaceship design.  These inconsistencies dramatically cut down the success of the episode’s visualization.  The miniature/effects moments are a mess throughout, even when some moments -- like the reveal of Kaleel’s space fleet in a vast desert landing field – are impressive.

In terms of characters, it is a shame that Duke never re-appears on the series, as he and Buck have a fun chemistry that goes from outright hatred, to fun, competitive rivalry.  The first season of Buck Rogers never really had a male character who could or would challenge Buck, and Duke could have done the job.  Sometimes Buck’s “know it all,” “always right” persona becomes tiresome, and it’s nice to see a character to provide a little push back.

Finally, “Planet of the Slave Girls” features some great moments with Buster Crabbe, as Brigadier (Flash?) Gordon. By featuring this beloved cult figure, the new Buck Rogers series remembers and honors the history of the name Buck Rogers.  It is great to see Crabbe in action again.

Next week: “Vegas in Space.”

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Memory Bank: Spyhunter (1983)

In the early-to-mid 1980s -- when I was in middle school and high school -- my best friends and I would sometimes walk down Benson Street in Glen Ridge to a diner on Broad Street in Bloomfield.  

Now, if you don't know this area of New Jersey (namely Essex County), that diner is not far from Holsten's in Bloomfield, the ice cream shop that appeared occasionally in The Sopranos (1999 - 2007).

We're going back more than thirty-six years now, so some of my memories are fuzzy, and I hope I have it right.  I'm open to the fact that I may not. 

But I believe the diner opened in 1981 and was called the Nevada Dinner.  

We were kids, however, so we weren't going there to sit down and eat.

Instead, we were going to play the arcade game in the diner; Spy Hunter, by Bally-Midway. It was an arcade unit, but not the kind that was designed for sit-down play.  

You had to stand, but at that age, we didn't care.

We would play the game for a good long while, assuming we had enough quarters.

Spy Hunter was designed by George Gomez, and originally intended to be a James Bond video game. When the 007 license couldn't be acquired, however, the game was modified, and became Spy Hunter.

But heck, you could still pretend to be James Bond while you played, even if the soundtrack song was not Monty Norman's, but Henry Mancini's theme from Peter Gunn (1958-1961).

The field of play in the game, as you may remember, is a bird-s eye view. 

You are looking down at a snaking road, and a car speeding down (or rather, up...) that road.  

Your car is the G-6155 Interceptor, and it has been modified with such 007-ish "extras" such as an oil slick, a missile launcher, and a smoke screen. These instruments prove useful as you engage with many bad guy cars.

While driving, you can also visit your mobile headquarters, a weapon's van, or convert your car to aqua/boat function, by pulling into a boat house. If memory serves, there are also, sometimes, icy conditions to navigate.

I remember all of us buddies standing in a small alcove, in front of that arcade screen, trying to see how far we could get in the adventure.  I guess the joke was really on us.  

Not only because the Peter Gunn song is addictive, and it won't leave your thoughts no matter how hard you try, but because the game had no ending. 

It just kept on scrolling, forever. 

Spy Hunter...the endless James Bond-ish adventure.

Soon enough, Spy Hunter was available in a home video game format. I had a game version for the Atari 800 home computer, I'm pretty certain.  

But it wasn't the same, somehow, as the arcade version.

Somehow it was more fun hearing that music, driving that car, and playing that game with friends, after the walk to the restaurant.  

It was more fun knowing that you had a pocket full of quarters, and once they were gone, you were done...whether you liked it or not.

Of course, it was also very, very expensive to play the addictive Spy Hunter in a arcade setting, so I guess some memories seem more attractive with age and distance.

Buck Rogers Lunchbox (Aladdin; 1979)

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

UFO: "The Responsibility Seat"

In "The Responsibility Seat," Straker (Ed Bishop) reluctantly agrees to an interview -- as a movie studio head -- with reporter Josephine Fraser (Jane Merrow). The interview goes smoothly, but she leaves her microphone-equipped purse in his office, and it records a SHADO intercom summons, identifying him as "Commander Straker."

Straker pursues Fraser to recover the tape before she can become a security threat, leaving Alec Freeman (George Sewell) in charge of SHADO. In Straker's absence, Alec has a crisis of his own to solve. A Russian lunar rover is, for some reason, on a collision course with Moonbase.

Straker and Jo get to know each other, but Straker soon learns that she is a criminal, one who will use blackmail and extortion to get ahead in what she deems to be a "man's world."

Depending on one's point of view, "The Responsibility Seat" is either sexist itself, or a commentary on sexism. I prefer to see it as the latter.  

The world of UFO posits a future in which racism has ended, but sexism, apparently, has not. In this "man's world," Jo Fraser has found difficulty succeeding, professionally and personally, according to the rules.  So, she has broken the rules...and the law, to overcome this injustice.

It is clear that Straker is attracted to Jo, and they nearly have sex in this episode. One suspects he is attracted to her not only physically, but in terms of her personality. Jo is intelligent and strong, and  has found a way to succeed in the (unfair) world on her wits.

This is one of the few episodes of UFO that features a romantic interest for Straker, so Jo's unique attributes as a person who functions outside of law and order, and outside society, is fascinating.  Is Straker attracted to her because she is so unlike him?  She is strong, like he is, but separate from any hierarchy or organization. Is he drawn to her because he admires, in some way, her freedom and independence? Her ability to behave and do as she sees fit, free from the heavy burden of "responsibility" that he, by contrast, carries?

Since the episode is titled "The Responsibility Seat," this is certainly a possibility to consider. Straker wants to escape the so-called responsibility seat, and Jo is the perfect example of someone else who has done so. She goes from job to job, payday to payday, with no sense of responsibility or accountability for her actions.

Of course, the episode is also termed "The Responsibility Seat," because Alec is asked to fill in for Straker while he attempts to plug any possible security leak. And, in his role as commander of SHADO, Alec does face a crisis.  What's so intriguing about the episode's depiction of this crisis is that Alec is the one deemed to be carrying the heavy burden of responsibility, yet it is Paul Foster (Michael Billington) actually on the line. He must get aboard a runaway Russian rig, outmaneuver two husky pilots (who are basically drunk and disorderly), and turn off the rig's power before it strikes Moonbase. 

Yet Alec is the one feeling the heat? 

This is an administrator's view of responsibility and pressure, for certain. He is thousands of miles from the actual action, but knows the buck stops with him. But Foster is the one who could die, of course. All Alec really does is have to report failure or success to his higher-ups. What's at stake for him? A demotion?

Finally, the sexist reading of this episode is that Straker falls for an attractive con-woman, one who uses her looks to get ahead, illicitly.  I think my reading is preferable, however, because it suggests that Jo Fraser is fighting for more than merely herself, but rather against an unfair system. This reading also improves the characterization of Straker. He's not just a man running after an attractive woman and hoping to score with her, but a man looking for an escape from "responsibility" with a woman whom he admires, and is almost uncontrollably drawn to.

If one looks at "The Responsibility Seat" in this fashion, it fits in well as part of the tragedy of Ed Straker.  He is a man who has lost his family, and his personal life, for his role as commander of SHADO, defender of the Earth.  In this story, he finds a woman he could truly love, and yet, again, must give her up, in this case because they are from two such different worlds.

Next week: "Ordeal."

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...