Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Buck Rogers: "The Satyr"

"There are strange viruses here on this planet."

- Cyra (Anne E. Curry) warns Buck about the dangers of Arcanus in "The Satyr."

One of the real bright spots of Buck Rogers' abbreviated second season in 1981 remains the episode titled "The Satyr" written by Paul and Margaret Schneider and directed by Victor French.

On first glance, however, this development seems unexpected since the episode's storyline stems from a long-standing and ubiquitous sci-fi TV trope: "the single mother in jeopardy."

In this all-too-familiar genre TV chestnut, a series protagonist encounters a lovely single mother and her child (usually a son) who are being menaced by some malevolent outside force.  The series hero then becomes a stand-in husband/father to the duo, defeats the menace, and -- in a heartbreaking moment -- must say farewell to his new family so that he may continue his episodic adventures romantically unimpeded.

Examples of the "single mother in jeopardy" convention can be found on the original Battlestar Galactica (1978 - 1979) in "The Lost Warrior," where the convention is played well as a variation on Shane (1953) and as a commentary on gun control, in V: The Series as "The Wildcats" (wherein Marc Singer's Mike Donovan steps in to save a Mom and her daughter from the Visitors), and on MacGyver, "To Be a Man," which featured the late Persis Khambatta as Zia, the single mother in jeopardy from Russian military forces.

In Buck Rogers': "The Satyr," Captain Buck Rogers (Gil Gerard) explores the planet Arcanus, the site of a failed Earth colony while the star ship Searcher is away for ten days on a mission to "sweep" an asteroid belt.

On the planet surface, Buck soon meets Cyra (Anne E. Curry) and her son, Delph (Bobby Lane), the only two settlers who have remained behind on the planet.  Buck soon discovers that the duo is regularly harassed by Pangor (Dave Cass), a half-man/half-goat or "satyr" who seems obsessed with them.  Buck steps in to battle the violent Pangor, but is bitten by the satyr.

Over a period of days, Buck begins to transform into a satyr himself, a creature obsessed with women and wine...and little else.

After being bitten, Buck learns that Pangor is actually Jason Samos, the founder of the Arcanus colony and Cyra's much-mourned husband.  She has been unable to leave the planet behind because she still feels attached to him, despite Jason's transformation into a rampaging monster.

As I've noted above, the "single mother in jeopardy" cliche has been depicted on television many times, but "The Satyr" illustrates nicely how a science fiction program can explore contemporary issues that "regular" dramatic programs either cannot, or if they do seems too on the nose, like an Afterschool Special.

 Clearly, this episode of the series sub textually concerns alcoholism; and the effect of alcoholism upon the entire family unit.  This subtext and social commentary actually elevates "The Satyr" above its familiar and cliched premise and makes it one of Buck Rogers' finest hours.

In "The Satyr," Cyra and Delph live a relatively happy life, until Dad -- Pangor -- shows up at their home, demanding wine and violently threatening Mom. 

In one well-staged scene, we watch with Delph through an exterior window as, inside the home, Pangor pushes Cyra onto her back (behind the kitchen table), and threatens physical violence.  He wants more wine, you see, even though, as Cyra tells him, "he drank it all the last time."  The subtext here isn't just violence, but sexual violence, at least in terms of the staging/blocking.

What we get in "The Satyr," particularly in this camera view from the outside-in, is the notion of a child dwelling in a terrifying household of alcoholism and domestic violence, and seeing/experiencing things that no child should.  Worse, the P.O.V. suggests isolation and helplessness.

At several points during the episode, Delph is also policed by his mother not to be too conspicuous, so as not to gain the attention of the alcoholic/Satyr.  At one point, Delph plays "flute grass" and at another point he calls out innocently for his Mom.  In both instances he is quickly "hushed" -- "Don't shout!" --  lest the angry man of the household focus his violent attention upon him.  Half the battle is staying off Pangor's radar as he pursues his vices.

Additionally, the boy, Delph, soon sees himself as his mother's defender, eventually fighting the angry Pangor and telling the beast to "leave my mother alone."   In the homes of many alcoholics, it is indeed the child who eventually becomes the protector of the Mom,or other siblings, and who stands-up to the offending drinker.

As for Cyra, she's dramatized in this episode as the traumatized, exhausted victim of sustained domestic abuse.  She hides bruises on her neck from Buck, and, quite understandably, doesn't like "to be touched."  

She also has much trouble letting go of the "good man" who was once her husband, clinging to old photo albums which reveal happier, more romantic days.  Much of the blocking depicts Cyra cowering or retreating.  She is someone who is used to being terrorized and fears being struck.

Cyra also maintains the family home on Arcanus -- despite the danger to herself and her son -- in the misguided belief that somehow Pangor can change.  In fact, Cyra spends her life appeasing the violent satyr.  "If he's supplied with enough [wine]," she informs Buck, "he's content" and leaves the family alone.

At the same time that she must handle Pangor, Cyra worries that the "virus" that affected her husband -- a metaphor for alcoholism -- could affect her son too "when he's a man."  In other words, the cycle of abuse and violence could continue to the next generation.  Yet by keeping Delph on Arcanus, in a terrorized home, Cyra makes it more likely that this will happen to Delph.

This social commentary in "The Satyr" is intriguing by itself, but the episode gains some real unexpected juice and power when Buck actually grows sick with "the virus "and quickly loses his status as the white knight.

Buck sets up house with Cyra and Delph (even teaching the boy to fly his shuttle craft) and then -- just when things are good -- succumbs to the same "virus' and begins to show signs of physical violence like Cyra's previous husband.   In one sequence, Buck tries to hide evidence of his transformation from Delph, ashamed to show his true nature as a "monster" to the boy he clearly cherishes.

Here, the subtext isn't about alcoholism so much as the nature of (some) men in general, and how some women seem to attract these monsters, one after the other. It's something in their individual nature and lack of self-esteem perhaps, and part of a deadly symbiosis involving abuser and victim. '

"The Satyr" tries to make viewers understand why Cyra stays on Arcanus, imperiled by one satyr after the other, and gives us some insight into the mentality of a perpetual victim.  In this case, Cyra just can't let go of the past and the (vain) dream that Pangor could again become the husband she once loved.

Of course, Buck -- as our stalwart series hero -- is able to kick the virus and save the day. Still,  it was pretty daring in terms of 1981-era television to create a metaphor for alcoholism and then see the likable series protagonist succumb to that  "disease."  In visual terms, Buck's horns literally start to come out, as he transforms from man to beast.

I am old enough to remember the promotional materials and interviews for the second season of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.  The overall promise by the producers was that Buck would become more recognizably and fallibly human, and less the quipping, boogeying, Burt Reynolds-in-space figure of the first season.

Whether or not that promise was fulfilled entirely is up for debate, but certainly "The Satyr" showcases Buck at his most human and interesting.  He exhibits real remorse when he believes he is responsible for the death of Cyra's husband, Jason, and then must battle his growing "dark side" as the satyr virus takes hold.

This episode is also intriguing for the way it ties the myth of the Satyr (a wine loving man/goat) to the alcoholism/domestic violence symbolism, and for the implicit "reason" behind alcoholism provided by the show.

Jason had the "pioneer spirit," you see, and had hoped to turn Arcanus into a "garden of Eden."  When that dream failed, he couldn't handle it...and that's when he first acquired "the virus."  Again, this idea fits our contemporary world well.

What leads people to drink?  Failure?  Tragedy?  Loss?  Desperation? 

All of my commentary on this episode no doubt suggests that "The Satyr" is some labored "message" show about an "important" life lesson (see: Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Symbiosis.")  But that's not actually the case at all.

Like the best social commentary in science fiction television (from The Twilight Zone to Star Trek to The X-Files to Buffy), this is an episode that plays ably on two levels.  You can watch it just as a gripping, good adventure, or as a story with a bit more relevance and meaning in our own world.

In other words, the metaphor for alcoholism holds powerfully (right down to the blocking of the actors), but you aren't hit over the head with a "lesson."

At the very least, "The Satyr" adds some much-needed depth to an old TV trope. In this Buck Rogers episode, the single mother was again in dire jeopardy, but it's the nature of  that jeopardy and the source of the jeopardy that make this installment meaningful and unique, even after four decades.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Buck Rogers: "The Crystals"

When the Searcher loses all engine power and requires new thurbidium crystals to restore power, Buck (Gil Gerard), Wilma (Erin Gray) and Hawk (Thom Christopher) explore the volcanic planet Phibocetes to collect them.  The world is believed to be much like Earth was before animal life developed there, and thought to be uninhabited.

However, the trio soon finds a strange mummified humanoid near the lava pools and brings it back to the shuttle for further examination. The mummy soon takes the crystals they have mined, and disappears.

On the Searcher, Crichton searches the archives and learns that a human colony left Earth and settled on Phibocetes some four hundred years ago. They also seem to have suffered from a strange lifecycle which saw the normal humans devolve into strange mummy creatures. All contact with the colony was lost three hundred years ago.

Meanwhile, n the planet, Buck befriends a young humanoid woman, whom he names Laura (Amanda Wyss). She has no memory of her past, and fears that she too, will devolve into a hideous monster. Buck tries to help Laura resolve her amnesia, without success.

As Buck and the other struggle to get the crystals to the Searcher, Crichton reports that he has made a mistake. He had the information from the archive backwards. The creatures on the planet actually evolve from mummy to humanoid, part of a deliberate, genetically-engineered life-cycle that would speed up colonization and remove such pesky human difficulties as pregnancy, infancy and childhod.  Now, Laura realizes she is kin with the mummy, and the he will soon be a fully-developed human male.

"The Crystals" is another decidedly mediocre second season entry of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981). It's not one of the worst episodes by any means (see: "Shgoratchx!") but nor does it rank with "The Guardians" or "The Satyr" as one of the best.

It seems like the makers of the series were obsessed, at this point, with life-cycles moving in reverse. In the previous episode, "The Golden Man," Buck and the Searcher crew met aliens who aged backwards, from physical adults to children.  In "The Crystals," they meet beings who they believe, at least at first, devolve from human to Mummy.  

Alas, the actual Mummy costume featured in the episode is ill-fitting and very fake-looking, down to the rubber zipper on the back. Adding further cheapness to the endeavor, the video imagery of the Mummy's blood is actually stock footage of the microscopic alien "bug" from The Andromeda Strain (1972).

"The Crystals" also adds to the perception that the Searcher is the worst run ship in the galaxy. In "The Golden Man," the ship runs aground on an asteroid in a magnetic storm. Here, the ship's engines go dead as it runs of its needed power crystals.  Does the ship not have a re-supply schedule, or an itinerary to visit star bases or planets with the materials they need? It seems awfully inefficient that the ship should have to depend on (hopefully) finding an Earth-like planet somewhere nearby in space, and then mining crystals they find there.

Also, the ending of "The Crystals" didn't entirely cohere. The teleplay establishes that the crystals are needed on the planet to activate the life forces of Laura's people. That is why the mummy kept stealing them. The crystals required to spur the evolution process.  But the episode ends with Buck and his team packing up the crystals to take back to the Searcher.  Won't that prevent Laura's people from evolving?

I do like the idea of the Searcher's archives being highly imperfect, however. The Buck Rogers chronology has the Holocaust occurring in the 1980's, shortly after Buck left Earth on his ill-fated mission. One group of humans apparently remained on the planet, and tried to rebuild following the nuclear war.  These people became the founders of the Directorate.

But there was another branch of humanity, apparently, that left injured Mother Earth, the so-called "lost tribes" that went out into space to settle other worlds.  The colony featured in this story would be one example. I always wished that the series spent a little more time explaining this second branch of humanity, especially since it isn't clear how the humans who had Earth had the technology to explore distant worlds, in distant solar systems.

Again, "The Crystals" isn't terrible, it just isn't great.  It feels like a story that might have just barely passed muster on an average week of Star Trek, or Space:1999.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

The Cult-TV Faces of: Prison

Monday, February 17, 2020

Buck Rogers: "The Golden Man"

In "The Golden Man," the Searcher explores the Alpha Centauri asteroid field, even as a powerful magnetic storm approaches. A life pod automatic distress signal is intercepted by Wilma (Erin Gray), and the Searcher brings a hibernation tube aboard.

Inside the tube is Velis (David Hollander), a golden-skinned alien who appears to be a child.  When awakened, he expresses concern that another of his kind, Relcos, is still missing. Before the Searcher can investigate further, the ship runs aground on an asteroid and becomes lodged there.  

Also, a beam from the control room's ceiling falls on Admiral Asimov (Jay Garner) during the accident. It cannot be moved until Velis changes the molecular structure of the ceiling beam, rendering it lighter. He reports that his people are capable of "subatomic oscillation," and that Relcos may be able to lighten the molecular weight of the Searcher, and free it from the asteroid.

Buck (Gil Gerard) and Velis head to the planet Iris 7, where Relcos' distress call has been detected.  They find it is a penal planet, and that the criminals living there covet the golden man, Relcos, for his ability to make them rich. After Buck and Velis are kidnapped, Hawk (Thom Christopher) goes in search of them, and masquerades as an interplanetary inspector general to rescue them.

Buck, Velis and Hawk manage to rescue Relcos and return to the Searcher, just as the magnetic storm threatens the ship.  As Relcos tries to change the Searcher's weight, Buck starts to realize that Relcos, who appears to be an adult, is actually a child, while Velis, appearing to be a child, is actually the boy's father.

Let me just say this to start: I strongly dislike this episode.  I'm sorry, I realize that isn't a very professional comment to make.  However, I still remember watching "The Golden Man" in 1981, and hating it, even as an eleven year old.  I didn't write a review of the episode last week, actually, because I didn't want to watch it again. How's that for avoiding?

Anyway, I buckled down, watched "The Golden Man" this weekend, for the first time in nearly forty years, and despised it every bit as much as I did all those years ago.  There may be worse episodes of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981), but this one still has to be near the absolute bottom of the catalog.

Why do I react so strongly, and in such a negative fashion, to this episode?  There are multiple reasons, but all of them have to do with the utter absurdity of the story, and, by implication, the contempt the writers and producers must have felt for fans of the series to foist it upon them.

First, it is wonderful that the Searcher rescues young Velis. But the hibernation pod is brought aboard, and not held for decontamination. With no examination of the device, Buck just opens it.  Again, he does so without even consulting a physician, or an engineer for that matter.  The Searcher just pulls the tube in on a tractor beam, and Buck opens it. At this point, he doesn't even know if the gold alien possesses the same needs so far as an atmosphere that humans do.  What if Velis were a plague carrier? What if exposure to humans was lethal to him? Or vice versa?

 In the scene after this, Buck actually asks Doctor Goodfellow if Velis is made of real gold.


So, basically, Buck is portrayed here as an idiot. First he opens an alien hibernation tube without the simplest or most basic of precautions or expert back-up, and then he asks if a humanoid is actually made of gold.  

Then, just when the episode can't get any more dimwitted, the Searcher suddenly runs aground on an asteroid.  I mean, the ship just piles into a huge space rock.  Who is driving the ship?  How could this happen?  Earlier in the episode, Admiral Asimov orders the viewer closed, but presumably the ship can still be steered by scanner or computer, right? Aren't there some safeguards in place to prevent a vessel of this size and complexity from just plowing into an asteroid, head first?  

Probably these are the same safeguards to use when opening an alien hibernation tube, meaning they are non-existent.

Once on the planet, Relcos is captured and held in a wagon and cage.  The scene in which he is mobbed by denizens of the penal colony is clearly and crisply shot. We see Relcos cowering in the cage, transforming the molecular make-up of several items, including a ladle, and the cage bars.  But for some reason, seeing is not enough.  There is an ADR voice-over narration explaining everything he does, in extreme detail.  "He turned that ladle to pure silver! He's turned the bars to glass!"  This bizarre play-by-play goes on and on throughout the scene and is absolutely inexplicable. The images carry the scene just fine without the narration.

Then, there's the final twist in the tail that reveals Relcos, a fully-grown adult male, is actually a child.  And Relcos, physically about a 12-year old, is a parent.  The aliens, who hail from Vella 5, age in "reverse."  This means that Relcos is actually a 5-year old child.  No wonder Relcos' mother is never seen in the episode. She's likely in a hospital. Imagine what these golden women must go through, having the physical dimensions of children, but giving birth to full-grown adults. All joking aside, it seems a physical impossibility. This touch is meant to be a clever "sci-fi" plot twist, but upon any consideration is revealed to be ridiculous.

There are other issues with the episode too.  Why are the people of the penal colony obsessed with getting their hands on jewels and fine metals?  From what we see, the colony is incredibly small - the size of a Colonial town, perhaps. Jewels and such baubles would only be worth something in a functioning economy with different classes, including a wealthy class, and a professional class.  In other words, someone needs to buy those jewels, or trade for them.  Based on the poor, uneducated colonists depicted in "The Golden Man," there would be no one to buy those jewels, or to sell them, even though the mob leader offers to pay with "Gold Solaris" the location of the Golden Man.

And what are we to make of this penal colony and its presence anyway? The leaders of the colony realize Hawk is not an inspector general because he is not aware of the ship that crashed there, which the colonists are repurposing for escape.  According to the criminals, the authorities know about the crash.  Okay, so the intergalactic authorities are in the loop, even if they haven't acted to retrieve the ship.  If that's the case, how come Crichton, Goodfellow and the Searcher databanks don't have any knowledge of the people of Iris 7, or the planet's designation as a penal colony?  The authorities all know the planet is there, that it houses criminals, and that a she crashed.  But no one on Searcher knows any of these things.  "The Golden Man" just can't be bothered to keep its facts straight, apparently.

I may be biased. I admit it. As noted above, I found this episode terrible the first time I saw it, and revisiting it in 2020 did not change my mind. By 1981, and by the time I was eleven, I expected a top-of-the-line science fiction TV series such as this one not to talk down to me, and to tell stimulating, intelligent, internally-consistent stories.

"The Golden Man" fails to deliver anything that doesn't feel like an insult to the intelligence.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Memory Bank: The Hindenburg (1975) "Hindelry Keepsake Medallions"

Now here is a weird film collectible from the disco decade.  In 1975, Universal Studios -- at the height of the disaster film craze that gave rise to The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Earthquake (1974) and others -- released The Hindenburg. The film was directed by Robert Wise and starred George C. Scott.

The movie recreated the time-period leading up to the 1937 disaster, and, at first blush, wouldn't seem the ideal movie candidate for merchandising efforts.

Yet, the ironically named "Good Time Jewelry, Ltd.," out of Rochelle Park was licensed by Universal to create a series of "Hindelry keepsake medallions" based on the film and the tragic historical events it depicted.  

On the card for the Hindenburg medallion, it was written: "the sensation of a lifetime that turned into one of the century's most remembered incidents." Weirder yet is the transposition of the art with the company's name. There are images of people running in terror from the exploding dirigible, while underneath them is the name "Good Time."

Apparently -- and I would love to see this -- there was also "Jawelry" released by the same company, based on Universal's Jaws, from the same year.

Monday, February 10, 2020

The Cult-TV Faces of: Holograms


Thursday, February 06, 2020

Cult-TV Flashback: Mission: Impossible: "Encore"

"Encore" is one of the most audacious installments of the entire seven season run of Mission:Impossible (1966-1973). At times, the premise of this sixth season episode beggars beliefs, but at other times, the execution is so convincing that the audience buys the whole thing.

In "Encore," William Shatner guest stars as a gangster named Kroll who, nearly forty years earlier, committed the murder of a rival mobster, Danny Ryan. Kroll hid the body, and weapon used to kill him, but nobody knows where.  Accordingly, to this day, no one has been able to pin the murder on the powerful Kroll, or his partner, Stevens.  Worse, to maintain their "innocence," Kroll and Stevens have been murdering all the witnesses to the crimes, arranging accidents for them. Their latest victim is a little old lady in a hospital.  Kroll and Stevens blow up her room in the hospital to keep her from talking.

Enter the IMF. 

Jim Phelps (Peter Graves) hatches a plan to turn back the clock. Using a potent combination of make-up, medicine, and a studio lot, the IMF endeavors to make Kroll believe it is 1937 again, and have Kroll relive the crime -- the murder of Ryan -- that they wish to solve, and nab him for.  They hope, in the exact recreation on the lot of his home in Long Island, Kroll will make sure history happens twice, and show them where he intends to hide Ryan's body, and the gun,

In previous (and later) episodes of this stellar series, the IMF has tricked "marks" into believing they have been in comas, encountered ghosts, been cured of diseases, stranded on a desert island and other wild outcomes, in order to glean important information from them. In "Encore," however, the IMF must perfectly recreate an era half-a-century gone. If one detail is wrong, the plan fails.  If one example of modernity is seen, the mission fails. If Kroll makes it off the studio lot, the plan fails.

More than any of that, even, the team must convince an old man that he is young again, both in appearance and stamina. It's a tall order. They are asking not only his mind to sabotage his sense of reality, but his body to do the same.

Doug (Sam Elliott), in his final appearance on the seires uses medicine to temporarily stop the pain in Kroll's aged, bum knee, and provides him a latex mask of youth that will last, precisely, six hours.  

All the details must be perfect in the studio lot version of 1937, and at one point Jim Phelps sees an "extra" wearing 1970's style sun-glasses and rips them off his face abruptly.

Adding tension to "Encore," Kroll's partner, Stevens, is aware that he has been kidnapped, and on the look-out for him. So the IMF team must get Kroll to reveal the location of the body, and they have two deadlines. First is the six hour make-up duration. The second is the circling Stevens, getting ever closer to the movie lot.

A few things make this audacious episode work, and, finally, feel believable. The first is William Shatner's brilliant performance as Kroll. He doesn't let the gangster fall for the trick at first.  That would make him seem gullible, and an easy mark. Instead, as the IMF team walks the mobster through a series of "clues" that make 1937 seem real, Kroll relents, but a little at a time.  A great moment occurs mid-way through the story when Kroll hears a plane flying by overhead, from his apartment.  He looks up from his window, and sees a plane above.  Amazingly, it is a plane appropriate to the 1930's era.  In other words, it is not a flaw in the plane, it is part of the plan! Phelps has thought of everything, including stopping flyovers of modern planes, and providing for the flyover by the older plane.  This meticulous detail, one can see on Shatner's face, is the thing that sells the idea of Kroll time traveling back to 1937.  Who would possibly go the trouble of having an era-accurate plane fly overhead, apparently at random?

Only Jim Phelps, who apparently has a huge budget to run his intelligence ops, given what he pulls off in "Encore."  Think about it. There's the plane flyover. There are dozens of extras. There are 1930's era cars. There's the complete make-over of two city blocks on the studio lot. There are the perfectly timed tape recordings of 1937 baseball games for the radio, and more.

But it is the denouement of "Encore," perhaps, which makes the episode so memorable in this M:I canon.  Jim, Barney, Willy and Casey get the information they need, and evacuate the studio lot, along with the extras who have been cast as 1930's denizens. After fingering the spot where he hid the body, Kroll walks out into a deserted metropolitan street. In minutes it has gone from bustling metropolis to ghost town. This is revealed in a stunning pull-back.

Kroll begins to realize what happens, and starts running, to escape the lot. As he runs, the medicine Doug gave him wears off, and he starts to limp, hobbled again by old age.  Then, the make-up on his face begins to melt, and he is fully restored to old age, and to the present  At just that moment, Kroll's partner, Stevens, finds him, and both men realize, without saying a word, the "impossibility" of the trap that has snared them.  It's one of the most colorful and satisfying conclusions in the sixth season of Mission:Impossible.

"Encore" is a controversial episode of this series, because for some, it is really about mission or format creep near the end of the series' long run.  They see the episode as an example of the series running out of good ideas.  Most stories in the canon, after all, are grounded far more clearly in reality. The plots are usually based on playing the mark's assumptions against him  or herself, and therefore psychological in nature.  

By contrast, the plan in "Encore" is big, bold, brassy and wild.  But the 1930's details, and the great (and largely forgotten) Shatner performance make this "mission" an unforgettable hour.  I would argue this episode isn't representative of mission creep, rather some kind of go-for-broke example of creative inspiration.

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...