Thursday, August 29, 2019

Buck Rogers: "Space Vampire"

When I was eleven years old, the Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 - 1981) episode about a monster called a "Vorvon," was probably the scariest thing I had yet seen on network television (with the exception of Space:1999's "Dragon's Domain.")

That episode, titled simply "Space Vampire," aired on January 3, 1980 on NBC, and the Kathleen Barnes and David Wise teleplay concerned Captain Buck Rogers' (Gil Gerard) chilling encounter on Theta Space Station with a cosmic Nosferatu or "Undead," a soul stealer known as a "Vorvon."

Although Buck Rogers might rightly be accused of exploiting the popularity of Dracula in the pop culture in 1979 -- a year which saw the release of John Badham's Dracula, Werner Herzog's Nosferatu and even Love at First Bite -- the "Space Vampire" episode of the first season nonetheless remains one of the series highlights: unnervingly creepy, uncharacteristically somber, and wholly dread-filled. This is true even if by adult standards we today judge the program to border on camp.

On the other hand, I watched the episode again  a few years back with a friend's ten year old son and it thoroughly freaked him out. So there's definitely something frightening there; at least to impressionable young minds.

In "Space Vampire" a "space age vampire stalks a lonely space station," according to the teaser, and that summary pretty much nails the whole story. Buck and Wilma drop-off Twiki for repairs at Theta Station but instead of getting away for their vacation on Genesia, they witness a starship (the Gemonese Freighter from Battlestar Galactica actually...) plunge through Stargate Nine and collide with the station.

The inner atmosphere of Theta is contaminated, and the logs of the derelict -- the I.S. Demeter -- suggest the crew and passengers were suffering from hallucinations and "mental deterioration" brought on by the Denebian virus EL7.

After the station's Dr Ecbar (Lincoln Kilpatrick) reveals to Buck that the crew of Demeter is not dead, but rather drained of "spirit," Buck suspects a being, not a disease, is the culprit.

He's right. The evil Vorvon (Nicholas Hormann) creates undead minions out of the station crew (who appear replete with two discolorations on their neck...). He then prepares to make the uncharacteristically terrified Wilma Deering (Erin Gray) his immortal bride.

One aspect of "Space Vampire" I rather enjoy is the deliberate homage to the epistolary nature of Bram Stoker's 1897 novel. As you'll recall, the literary Dracula was crafted in the form of various collected letters and communiques. The whole story was conjured through the filter of newspaper clippings, Mina's Diary, Seward's phonograph recordings, and Jonathan Harker's journal.

For all its disco-decade glitz, cheap sets and callow characterization, Buck Rogers actually pinpoints a decent "space age" corollary to Stoker's literary approach, permitting the stalwart Buck to assemble the story (and history) of the Vorvon from various 25th century media sources, though all visual in nature: the captain's log from the Demeter, the servo drone recordings of a Demeter passenger (and bounty hunter) from "New London" named Helson (Van Helsing), and even helpful communiques from Dr. Huer and Dr. Theopolis on Earth.

The other parallels to Dracula are much more obvious. The only thing to ward off the Vorvon is called an "ancient power lock," the "25th century equivalent of a cross," in Buck's own words.

What's funny (and silly...) about this "ancient power lock" is that it is really just Commander Adama's collar medallion from Battlestar Galactica. And ironically, Adama was played by Lorne Greene, a man who had recently portrayed Dracula himself in an episode of The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries in 1977! Yep, it's Six Degrees of Cult-TV Dracula...

The Vorvon can also mesmerize his victims and change forms at will, another recognizable trait. Just as Dracula could turn to mist, wolf, bat or other form, the Vorvon here often takes the shape of a red, pulsating energy blob that hovers overhead. This non-corporeal form gives the makers of the episode license to provide some examples of crimson-hued, P.O.V. shots. Call it "Vorvon Vision," all rendered from dramatic and doom-laden high-angles as Wilma is stalked by the Monster.

Obviously, the name of the derelict ship, the Demeter, itself originates from Stoker's novel and serves the same purpose in both texts: carrying the "disease" (Dracula or Vorvon) to civilization.

Even the uni-browed, long-fingered physical appearance of the Vorvon is similar to Stoker's written description of the vampire.

From almost a century of vampire cinema, the episode appropriates the idea that the Vorvon cannot survive in sunlight, and in an interesting final twist, Buck destroys the soul sucker by flying it into a star itself.

There are actually some pretty solid horror compositions featured in this episode too. A slow, steady pan ominously marks the Vorvon's first appearance as a humanoid. We pan across the Theta Station Lounge (where an arcade video game unit, circa 1979 is plainly visible...) and see Buck ordering drinks at the bar. When the camera pans back (all in one shot), the Vorvon is suddenly seated at a previously empty table...staring at Wilma with malevolent eyes.

There's also a great shot (pictured above), in which the undead Dr. Ecbar is struck down and collapses directly in front of a flashlight, his ghoulish pallor suddenly illuminated in the relative darkness. Together, a few clever compositions like these examples economically enhance Wilma's stated fear of "death as a tangible presence."

And finally, you haven't truly lived until you've seen Erin Gray -- in a skin-tight spandex cat-suit -- playing the soulless, avaricious, seductive bride of the Vorvon. But seriously, what makes "Space Vampire" resonate, I think, is Wilma's pervasive fear of the Vorvon, and the fact that nobody seems to believe that it is hunting her. Wilma just knows she can't escape it...and she almost doesn't. There's a feeling of powerlessness here; and a sweeping inevitability in the narrative. It may not be Shakespeare -- or Stoker -- but it works pretty well.

"Space Vampire" may not be the best episode of Buck Rogers (I'm rather fond of "The Plot to Kill a City"), but it is certainly the installment that most people of my generation seem to remember most fondly.   I think that may be because it is so different from the other stories.  This isn't space espionage, or a space caper, in any way. On the contrary, "Space Vampire" is a horror through-and-through.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

50 Years Ago Today: Journey to the Far Side of the Sun

From Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey until George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977) the space film genre -- in film and on television -- evidenced a deep belief in man’s capacity to tame the solar system, and offered a realistic rather than glamorous portrayal of man himself. 

In other words, man’s technology had improved to the point where (near) space could be conquered, but humanity itself remained as venal, as grasping, as competitive, and as conflicted as ever. 

Another film from the same milieu is Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (British title: Doppelganger).  This science fiction film was a perennial on WABC Channel 7’s 4:30 pm movie in the New York market during the mid-to-late 1970's, and as such, represented an early obsession both for me and my older sister.

To this day, you can likely ask my sister about that strange science fiction movie from the 1970's in which a man removes his eyeball in a red-lit darkroom, or another man pile-drives his wheelchair into a mirror, and get a visceral response from her about the imagery.

Beyond those personal memories, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun arises from the impressive stable of British producers Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, and seems a perfect representation of their brand in its glory days.

And what does that brand entail, precisely?

It's a simple three-part formula, really. 

The gadgetry and miniatures.

First, the typical Anderson production boasts high-tech gadgetry galore, created with an eye towards scientific accuracy, and with elaborate, state-of-the-art costumes, sets, props, and miniatures. 

Near future man on the cusp of space exploration.
Secondly, said production showcases a narrative focus on the near future "space age,” when man is not yet so “evolved” that he is unrecognizable as man.  In the Anderson canon, stories often occur just as turn-of-the-century man is taking his first footsteps into the solar system at large. The advantage of this setting is its appeal to the young.  I’m a perfect example, I suppose. I was captivated by Journey to the Far Side of the Sun and Space: 1999 at a young age, and believed that such futures were possible -- nay probable -- in my life time.

The Mystery.
And finally, the perfect Anderson production highlights, a macabre, deeply disturbing "twist" that exposes the nature of the universe as something beyond modern man’s capacity to conceive or conquer.  In space, we are confronted with a realm where there are no easy answers, no pat solutions.

For example, in UFO (1970), we learn that aliens are harvesting our organs. In Space: 1999 (1975 – 1977), the moon is blasted out of Earth’s orbit and sent careening into a universe of monsters and mysticism that 20th century man is psychologically and technologically unprepared to encounter.

Personally, the Anderson creative formula represents one of my favorite types of storytelling, and Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is a potent, crisply-edited declaration of all the ingredients I tallied above.   It is a sharp -- and often unsettling -- mix of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the James Bond films of the Connery era and even a little bit of Planet of the Apes (1968) tossed in for good measure.

The explicit premise of Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is that there exists beyond the sun a “mirror” world.  It is a heretofore-hidden planet and a reverse “copy” of Earth. 

As the movie explains, all the matter here on our Earth has been “duplicated” there on that planet, but in reversed fashion, much like you’d see while gazing into the mirror.  Accordingly, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun supports its theme by featuring a number of compositions involving mirrors or other reflective surface.  I find this visual approach quite intelligent, and the leitmotif of mirrors forecasts a brilliant line of dialogue spoken in Solaris (1972) a few years later: “We don’t need other worlds, we need a mirror.”

In Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, an American astronaut, Glen Ross (Roy Thinnes), and the men and women of a European version of NASA called EUROSEC discover that very mirror, and in the end knowledge of that mirror (and that world) drives at least one man, Jason Webb (Patrick Wymark) insane. 

What remains delightful about this fact is that the movie leaves the exact reasons for Webb’s insanity open to interpretation, as we shall see.

Beyond the creepy idea of a world identical to ours, but in reverse, Journey to The Far Side of the Sun impresses due to a few other key factors. 

First, the film climaxes with an unrelentingly grim final act, and an uncompromising, bleak finale.  You can’t make the claim the movie lacks the courage of its convictions.  There is no ameliorating Hollywood bullshit to make serviceable the possibility of a happy ending (see: Oblivion [2013]) here.

And secondly, the film’s Anderson-esque approach to space travel -- basically that it’s a dangerous and expensive enterprise -- makes the whole film feel incredibly grounded, and therefore incredibly believable.  One of the film’s main protagonists, the aforementioned Webb, is downright Machiavellian in his manner of getting things done.  He’s on the side of the angels, but his methods aren’t exactly…nice.

Journey to the Far Side of the Sun remains a dazzling head-trip from an era (and team) that believed space travel was inevitable, but one that proves --- because of the meticulous nature of the production -- both compelling and scarily believable, even in 2014.

 “You wouldn’t want anyone else to get there first, would you?”

Journey To The Far Side of the Sun dramatizes the story of EUROSEC, a European space agency run by the hard-driving Jason Webb (Wymark), a man determined to launch a space mission to examine a new planet discovered in the solar system, one that we can't observe from Earth.

The recently launched Sun Probe snapped images of the alien world using its "cine camera" and brought back to Earth the "first photographic evidence" of the heretofore undetected planet. This discovery is vetted in a sequence that forecasts today's video-conferencing capability, with Webb making an address and visual presentation to EUROSEC members across the globe.

Because a space flight to the new planet will cost a billion dollars, America and NASA are brought in to share the cost of the journey.  An American astronaut and the first man on Mars, Colonel Glen Ross (Thinnes) will command the mission.  At home, however, Ross is facing more earthbound problems. He has not been able to conceive a child with his sexy but harsh wife -- the daughter of an ambitious American politician -- who tells him his sterility is due to his work in space.

“You went up there a man, but you came back less than a man,” she snipes.

Going along with Glen on the mission is John Kane (Ian Hendry), a British astrophysicist who has never been to space before. Together, these men train for the arduous six week mission and the film follows every detail of the process. From there, the audience is treated to sweeping shots of colossal rockets on launch pads (courtesy of special effects wizard Derek Medding), pans across vast mission control centers, and intense close-ups of space-suited astronauts ready to commence the mission.

When Ross and Kane reach the distant planet, their lander crashes on the surface and Kane suffers devastating life-threatening injuries. But Ross awakes to find himself on Earth…or a duplicate of Earth where everything – including the writing -- is reversed. 

After several interrogations by EUROSEC, Ross is able to convince the alternate version of Jason Webb of the truth: he completed his mission successfully, and now he stands on an alien world.  Just as another Ross – originating from this world -- is now talking to a “mirror image” or doppelganger of Webb on Glen’s Earth.

Webb and Ross devise a plan to get him home, but a miscalculation involving the polarity of electricity scuttles the mission, killing Ross and nearly destroying EUROSEC in the process.

Years or perhaps decades later, later a defeated Webb -- an old, very sick man -- gazes in a mirror at a rest home, and reaches out longingly for the mirror image there…

“How much is it going to cost us this time?”

Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is dominated, oddly enough, by discussions of money. Jason Webb is the head of EUROSEC, and a man who finds himself a beggar, asking for money to further man’s scientific frontiers. 

French, German, and American members of EUROSEC are not impressed by his proposal to land men on the distant, newly discovered planet, and tell him so. 

How much is it going to cost us this time?” asks one character. 

A realistic estimate?” queries another. 

“Such a sum is out of the question!” declares a third council member, when talk of a billion dollars is bandied about.

The point here I suppose is, well, when was the last time the Emperor asked Darth Vader how much it would cost to build another Death Star? 

That’s not a dig at Star Wars so much as an acknowledgment that many popular space or science fiction franchises simply ignore matters of money or the economy because their creators assume that such talks are boring, or out of place in science fiction drama.   

I would argue a different tact: discussions of space travel economics tend to make futuristic productions seem more realistic, and that’s an important task when you consider that -- nestled at the far side of the sun -- there exists a mirror planet housing duplicates of every single one of us. 

It helps us to accept the unbelievable, in other words, if we know the rest of the story is, actually, grounded in recognizable reality.

When he must solicit funding from the Americans for his mission, Webb must also compromise and accept an American commanding officer for the task.  He is willing to make this accommodation because he understands the importance of the space flight. Again, what is being showcased quite explicitly in Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is the horse-trading of politics.   It’s not romantic and it isn’t pretty, but again, it’s true to who we are as a species.

Some of Webb’s compromises are much more distasteful, however, and that’s a realistic touch too. 

For instance, Webb knows there is a security leak at EUROSEC and, at least tacitly, allows information about the new planet to be leaked to Europe’s enemies (presumably The Soviet Union or Red China…) so as to get the Americans on his side for the mission.  He has the spy (Herbert Lom) killed, but not before the leak occurs.

Because now he can taunt the Americans with being second-best. “You wouldn’t want anyone else to get there first, would you?”

Mission accomplished.  The only thing that could get us to Mars tomorrow is the knowledge that Putin is trying to get there today.

This idea of space travel as a political and expensive game also plays out in Space: 1999 episodes such as "Dragon's Domain" and in several UFO episodes, wherein Commander Straker (Ed Bishop) must go before the unimpressed faces of bureaucracy to request more funds for SHADO.

Again, I view such discussion of politics and money as a necessary bow to reality and accuracy, and in Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, Webb is able to afford to build the Phoenix -- the rocket bound for the alien world -- only because he knows how to play the political money game better than anyone else does.

In Moon Zero Two, we saw how big money was “civilizing” the moon and squashing personal freedom.  Here we see how money is a necessary evil if space is to be explored.  It’s the other fuel source that powers our rockets, our moon bases, and so on.

Outside this acknowledgment of reality in a genre that is often given to wild flights of fancy, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun is resolutely creepy because it subtly asks vital questions regarding its unusual “doppelganger” premise.

What if there were two versions of you? What if everyone here on Earth had an exact duplicate there, on the other world?

Would the existence of that duplicate take away from our own senses of individuality and identity?  Would society collapse?

Could we still claim that Earth is the center of the universe (and center of God's universe), if just across the solar system existed a second Earth, exact in every way?

The climax of the film involves an elderly Jason Webb -- wheelchair bound and debilitated by heart disease -- pondering, no doubt, the very questions I ask above. He spies his reflection -- his double -- in a wall-sized mirror and reaches out for it.  His “other self” is just out of reach, and he begins racing for attempt to touch the unknown, to understand the self, to bring together two opposites.

So has Jason gone mad because he can’t truly encounter his other self?

Or is he insane because he now possesses knowledge of that other self’s existence, and information that, therefore, he is no longer the singular creation he believed himself to be?

Or finally, is the reflection in the mirror simply a notation, a deadly reminder, that he lost his greatest game?  He never got back to that planet.  He never succeeded. 

When Jason reaches out so desperately, is he trying to strangle the memory of his greatest failure? Or accomplish by touch that which rockets could not: intimate interface with the other world?

I love that Journey to the Far Side of the Sun literally boasts a smashing ending, but also one open to many interpretations.  

The leitmotif of doubling or reflections builds splendidly to this emotional pay-off.  Throughout the film, we see reflections in ponds, and even the imaginary “other” Ross as he delivers his theory of doppelgangers to Jason. 

In the end, Jason is near death, and he must reckon with the knowledge that the universe is far more bizarre than he could have imagined.  His final act is one of exploration failed.  And that’s a mirror image of the Phoenix’s failure. In the end, the mirror is shattered, and contact with the other planet is not made.

Certainly, there will be those among us who gaze at Journey at the Far Side of the Sun and decry the deliberate, methodical pace (a trait it shares in common with Kubrick's Space Odyssey).

In our day and age, we've become accustomed to shock cutting, myriad close-ups, and the whiz-bang pace of blockbuster films. By contrast, this film is perhaps a relic of an earlier, less adrenaline-addicted age.

To enhance its sense of reality, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun literally wallows in the details and minutiae (but also the beauty...) of space travel. It attempts to methodically and precisely capture the details of the endeavor, from its accurate depiction of weightlessness to the impact of G-forces on the fragile human body. I'm afraid this is the kind of thing that movies today just don't have the time for anymore. CGI monstrosities and vistas have made us forget about the wonders of our own age: rocket launches, weightlessness, or the view of Earth from space.

Even the opening credits of Journey to the Far Side of the Sun seem to boast this love of technology.  We are treated to multitudinous shots of spinning tape reels, the digits on computer punch cards, whirring teletype machines, and other touches that don’t exactly seem “romantic.”  And yet there is a real beauty to them too as they are presented in montage form alongside Barry Gray’s soaring sound-track.  In the early 1970s, Robert Wise adopted a similar approach with the credits of The Andromeda Strain, making them a brand of computerized art-form.  One can sense the same idea at work here: Our technology is our doorway to other worlds, other experiences, and it is, in a way, quite beautiful.

That idea of beauty, of course, is countered, in the film’s finale, when man makes a mistake with his technology, and disaster blossoms.  But still, there are moments in Journey to the Far Side of the Sun that veritably promise a golden age of space travel and space technology. These moments still have the capacity to inspire.

I’ll be writing more about this idea in the weeks ahead, but I’ve always believed it was a bum rap that Anderson programs and films got tagged with the description of “wooden.”  On the contrary, the characters and the presentation of the characters in Journey to the Far Side of the Sun are realistic, and multi-dimensional.  There’s an administrator who is fighting for the side of good, but does bad to get the job done.  There’s an astronaut who gets hosannas from the world, but only raw hatred from his wife at home.  There’s a EUROSEC security chief who is a beautiful female, and yet doesn’t feel the need to be butch or bullying, or even domineering.  Instead, she is gentle and kind.  Every one of these characters shows the inherent contradictions and surprises that humanity is capable of.

There’s a perfect scene here, too, that expresses this notion. 

It occurs right before the Phoenix lifts off.  The scene is set in Mission Control at EUROSEC, and all the sounds of computers and intercoms go silent for a moment, replaced with the solitary pulse of a human heart-beat

This sudden, unexpected, living beat reminds the viewer that we -- the human race -- are at the center of all this technology.  Humanity is what makes space exploration possible.  We may make mistakes, we may miscalculate, but our heart-beat is at the very center of things, making all accomplishments possible. 

In short, this scene is a perfect metaphor for the movie itself.

The Evil Touch: "Happy New Year, Aunt Carrie" (1973)

In “Happy New Year, Aunt Carrie” a woman limited to a wheelchair, babysits for her nephew and niece on New Year’s Eve. Across the way from Carrie’s (Julie Harris) home, a raucous party is held in an apartment to celebrate the occasion. Unfortunately, an unwanted guest -- a murderer -- spoils it. Looking through her own window, Carrie sees the murderer, and worse, the assassin sees her. 
Aunt Carrie prepares for the worst as the killer, Mr. Frank Bigelow makes his way to her apartment and plans to eliminate the only witness to his crime. But Mr. Bigelow has not counted on dealing with a “lucky amateur.”
This week on The Evil Touch, the flavor of the week is definitely Hitchcock pastiche. “Happy New Year, Aunt Carrie” eschews all supernatural elements, and is basically Rear Window (1954) on the cheap, with a character confined to a wheelchair observing what he/she believes to be a murder. The bulk of the episode builds suspense, as the gangster comes to get Carrie, and warns here “it’s just a matter of time. I’ll get you.”  Our narrator, Anthony Quayle ponders “how much of that (new) year” Bigelow will let Carrie live through.
As for Carrie, she is smart, and knows the secret to survival: “We’ve got to get our wits about us.” The episode cuts between three settings, mostly: Carrie’s apartment, the murder, and the New Year’s Eve Party. Fireworks are inter-cut with harrowing events for punctuation, and Auld Lang Syne plays on the installment’s soundtrack.  “Happy New Year, Aunt Carrie” plays like a not terribly memorable episode of Alfred Hitchcock  Presents or some other crime anthology, at least until Carrie gathers her aforementioned wits.
With the help of the children, Carrie mounts a strong defense. In fact, her defense of her apartment forecasts, pretty much, the whole of Home Alone (1990). Specifically, Carrie lays booby traps for Bigelow, including marbles on the floor, to trip him up.  In short, he doesn’t stand a chance, which Quayle writes off to good luck on Carrie’s part.
“Happy New Year, Aunt Carrie,” offers a good performance by Julie Harris but nevertheless strikes me as a not-terribly interesting or original tale. The set-up comes straight from Hitchcock, and in execution the episode can’t hope to match or even approximate the master of suspense. The lack of a real horror aspect to the tale makes one wonder what market, precisely, The Evil Touch hoped to corner. Four episodes in, the series is a bit unfocused, and helter skelter. It doesn’t yet have anything approaching an identity, only a format held together by Quayle’s narrations, and admonitions, at the end of each installment, of “pleasant dreams.”  That last comment is appropriate because this is one episode you could sleep through.
Next week’s tale with Darren McGavin, however, is an anti-rational doozy: “A Game of Hearts.”

Monday, August 26, 2019

The Cult-TV Faces of: VR (Virtual Reality)












Thursday, August 22, 2019

Buck Rogers: "Cruise Ship to the Stars"

In “Cruise Ship to the Stars,” Buck (Gil Gerard), Wilma (Erin Gray), and Twiki (Mel Blanc) board the space luxury liner Lyran Queen on a mission to protect Miss Cosmos (Dorothy R. Stratten), a genetically perfect human woman, and “beauty” contest winner.

Mystery assailants aboard the space liner realize that Miss Cosmos possesses a “staggering genetic value” and wish to sell her body parts on the black market.

Once aboard, Buck and his friends attempt to protect Miss Cosmos, unaware that their opponent is a dangerous “transmute.”  

Sometimes, the would-be-thief is the meek, gentle Allison (Kimberly Beck) and sometimes she is the avaricious, incredibly powerful Sabrina (Trisha Noble).  

Allison and Sabrina both are being manipulated by their boyfriend and thief, Jalor Davin (Leigh McCloskey), who is plotting to use Sabrina’s abilities to capture and dissect and Miss Cosmos.

“Cruise Ship to the Stars” is another intriguing Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981) pastiche.  It’s another episode that seems basic, and even clichéd on the surface, until one looks at a little more deeply at the influences going into it.  

In this case, the episode takes its setting from one of the most popular TV series of the latter-half of the disco decade: The Love Boat (1977-1987). 

Instead of a sea-bound Pacific Princess, however, Buck Rogers sets its story on the gorgeous star-liner Lyran Queen.  The miniature for this spaceship is incredible and it would recur -- though with less-flamboyant coloring and trim -- as the starship Searcher in the series’ season two.  I’ve always loved this ship’s appearance, with the forward sphere, the long tube, and the over-powered, rear-mounted engine tubes.  It’s a fantastic design. I’ve always wanted a model kit of it.

In terms of interiors, the set used for the directorate hangar deck during the first season has been rebuilt or redecorated here as an elaborate Lyran Queen swimming pool (another set frequently seen on the Pacific Princess).

The episode takes a little bit from The Love Boat in terms of structure too. Here we meet a number of different passengers, all with a story to tell.  Even Twiki gets to fall in love with the gold ambuquad named Tina (Patty Maloney). I won’t comment on the fact that she says “booty booty booty” instead of Twiki’s “bidi bidi bidi.

In terms of characters, however, “Cruise Ship to the Stars” -- at least on its surface -- is really a kind of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde story.  That story first came into the pop culture firmament back in 1886, when Robert Louis Stevenson published his tale, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  The novella is a case study in the duality of man’s nature, both moral and immoral, and perhaps even a reflection of the conscious vs. unconscious mind.

Here, Buck tangles with an opponent who boasts two distinct personalities. One is meek and gentle, learning to assert herself and declare her needs. That’s Allison, our Dr. Jekyll in this case. The other personality is an out-of-control Id, a thief and a savage: Sabrina, or Mr. Hyde. 

The sci-fi concept that permits this doubling is the idea of a “transmute,” some who can alter their physical and psychological identity.  

The question becomes, I suppose, who is really in charge? Sabrina or Allison? And beyond that, who is the “real” personality, and who is the “created” one, if we look at the concept in that fashion?

When we look in the mirror, we could ask ourselves the same questions. What controls us? The unconscious mind? The Id? Or some higher, more “civilized” function of the new brain, rather than the prehistoric one?

On an even deeper level, “Cruise Ship to the Stars” is really all about identity and the way society judges the standard of beauty. 

Ms. Cosmos is beautiful inside and out, so much so that she is judged perfect by society. Her beauty is both physical and genetic, and therefore coveted by others who wish to profit from such “perfection.”  

Sabrina and Allison navigate standards of beauty in a fascinating way as well.  Sabrina is physically attractive, and yet her soul is monstrous. Her beauty is external; wrapped up in things like materialism and avarice.  Jalor considers Allison meek and weak, though she is also physically beautiful.  But as Allison asserts herself, as she undergoes the process of “becoming,” she might be seen as self-actualizing in a beautiful way as well.

I rather like the episode’s climax, wherein Buck, Twiki and Wilma close in on Sabrina and incapacitate her with sonic beams.  They make a good team.

Finally, I can’t end this review without noting the appearance here of Dorothy Stratten as Ms. Cosmos.  Stratten also starred as Galaxina (1980), and was named Playboy’s Playmate of the Year for the same year.  

And, of course, Stratten’s beauty was also coveted and manipulated by others.  At the age of 20, she was murdered by her former husband and manager.  It's a tragedy that still resonates in the pop culture.

Next week: "Space Vampire."

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Evil Touch: "The Obituary"

In “The Obituary,” an “old newspaper man” with a cane, Pettit (John Morris) hobbles into an airplane hangar and confronts the pilot working there, Willie Tremaine (Leslie Nielsen), about an incident from his past. He flew a plane drunk, once, and the plane crashed, killing 53 innocent people.  Although Tremaine was vilified in the press, he was never charged with a crime, and he has always proclaimed his innocence. In short, Willie was “legally cleared, but never forgiven.”
But Pettit has shown up on this day to warn Willie that he has not escaped scot free. A murderer named Henderson has been released from prison. He lost a wife and child on that fateful plane flight, 3000 nights earlier. And now he wants revenge for the death of his family.
Willie reaches out to his own wife, Susan, and son, Billy, but can’t find them anywhere. They don’t answer his telephone calls, and they are not at home when he races there. Willie begins to believe that Henderson has abducted his loved ones, and is planning to kill them.  A desperate, weeping Willie confesses to being drunk on the flight and causing all the deaths.  “I made the mistake. How do you think I feel?” He acknowledges.
Willie soon discovers, however, this family is safe. Henderson died a month ago. And even more mysteriously, Pettit, the reporter is also dead. He had been in a coma for two weeks before his demise, meaning that Tremaine confessed to a ghost!

As Anthony Quayle’s narrator reminds the audience at the end of “The Obituary,” “confession is good for the soul.” This is the story of a man, Willie Tremaine, who has never taken responsibility for his actions, and for 3,000 days, has lived with the weight of a guilty conscience. He has never told anyone the truth about his actions, and only confesses when his family that is threatened.
The episode’s final sting, or kicker, is that Pettit, the newspaper man who visits Tremaine in the airplane hangar, is actually dead, forcing this confession as a kind of last act on this mortal coil. This is a twist that feels very Twilight Zone-ish, and yet works well for the episode overall.
What makes “The Obituary” such an intriguing cult-TV half-hour, however, is the fact that other than in the opening and conclusion, there is a lot less-talking here than there is action.  There are long stretches in this installment where there is no dialogue, as Tremaine goes in search of his family, looking for them everywhere, and coming up empty. These moments are tense, and we empathize with Tremaine as he dashes about. He races from scene to scene, hoping to prevent a disaster that he knows he has caused.  Still, the approach is intriguing. Perhaps the series’ low budget precluded more performers from appearing per half-hour, and also precluded more scenes of character development?  Instead, this is virtually a one-man show with Leslie Nielsen on the run.
The funny thing, of course, is that once upon a time, Leslie Nielsen had a well-known reputation as a dramatic actor, and more than that, an actor willing and able to play dastardly villains.  He appeared as a bad guy in series such as Rod Serling’s Night Gallery (1970-1973) and in films including Day of the Animals(1977) and Creepshow (1982).  Everything changed for Nielsen with Airplane (1980), and also, ultimately, The Naked Gun(1988). Those films cemented him as the perfect deadpan actor to feature in utterly outrageous comedies.  But in “The Obituary” Nielsen is still firmly ensconced in his earlier career mode, playing a morally compromised, not entirely likeable man.
Of the three stories I’ve reviewed thus far for this retrospective, I would say I enjoyed “The Obituary” the most, in part because it hints at the supernatural without delving deeply into it. As was the case in “The Lake,” there is a ghost haunting the main character, but in “The Obituary,” that ghost is really the past.  Pettit shows up as a phantasm, perhaps, during an out-of-body experience (while he is in his coma), but Tremaine’s haunting is all about what he’s done, what he’s responsible for, not the machinations of a villainous specter.
It’s also worth noting that The Evil Touchin three installments has approached three  distinctly different sub-genres of horror. “The Lake” was a supernatural ghost story. “Heart to Heart” was a serial killer show and thriller. And “The Obituary” feels of a piece with The Twilight Zone, a little paranormal, and very dramatic.
Next up, back to suspense thrillers: “Happy New Year, Aunt Carrie.”

Monday, August 19, 2019

The Cult-TV Faces of: Boxing










The Road Warrior (1982)

I first viewed  The Road Warrior  on a double bill with  Superman III  at the Castle Theater in Irvington, New Jersey. I was thirteen or fou...