Thursday, December 31, 2020

Land of the Giants: "Crash"

The final Irwin Allen sci-fi TV initiative of the 1960s, Land of the Giant (1968 - 1970) ran for two seasons and fifty-one hour-long episodes on ABC, and involved a group of desperate castaways trapped on a dangerous world of gigantic humanoids and other over-sized threats.

The first episode of Land of the Giants, written by Anthony Wilson and directed by Irwin Allen, "Crash" commences on the far future date of June 12, 1983.  

A sub-orbital ship, The Spindrift, encounters "solar turbulence" upon final sub-orbital approach to London.  Before long, the small vessel crashes on a strange world, and the crew and passengers encounter the peculiar dangers of this planet, namely giant spiders, cats, lizards...and (apparently) humans.

The Spindrift crew contingent includes Gary Conway as Captain Steve Burton (Gary Conway), co-pilot Dan Erickson (Don Marshall), and Betty (Heather Young), the stewardess or flight attendant.  

The passengers include the Dr. Smith-like trouble-maker, Alexander Fitzhugh (Kurt Kaszner), a young boy, Barry (Stefan Arngrim), the beautiful Valerie (Deanna Lund), and an impatient businessman, Mark Wilson (Don Matheson).

In "Crash," Steve and Valerie are captured while exploring the jungle surrounding the downed Spindrift and abducted to a laboratory inside a scientist's (Dan Watters) insect specimen container.  

The alien scientist -- a dead ringer for a young George Lucas -- discovers his unusual trophies, and straps the helpless captives to specimen slides, where he prods the helpless humans with scalpel and pencil.  

In short order, Dan and Mark engineer a rescue, exploding a gas line in the giant's laboratory as a distraction.

All together once more, the Spindrift team takes refuge in a garbage dump, even as an angry dog nears...

Like much of Irwin Allen's work in cult television, Land of the Giants is long on production values and action, and short on inventive character development or social commentary. Here, in the premiere episode, the same existential threat repeats again and again.  In "The Crash," our heroes are endangered by one gigantic creature after another, which leaves the women screaming in terror.  

It gets a bit old before even the first hour is over...

Despite the relative emptiness of the narrative in terms of stock characters and villains, "Crash" remains quite an accomplishment in terms of special effects and production design.  The mist-enshrouded jungle studio set, for example, is colossal, and more-than-convincing for its day.  

Additionally,  it's important to recall that Land of the Giants was crafted well before the age of CGI and digital effects, so the over-sized sets and props all had to be constructed, and then meticulously matched with "regular"-sized live-action footage.  By and large, the special effects haven't aged very much at all, and are still incredibly effective.  This is as it should be: each episode of Land of the Giants was budgeted at a then-whopping $250,000 dollars.

Sometimes, the strong effects actually do create high drama. Good tension arises in "Crash," for instance, when the George Lucas lookalike giant pursues the escaping Earthers to a small gutter, and then stretches his arm into the tunnel after them, shouting "come back."  The scene represents a dazzling and effective blend of viewpoints and effect techniques.  

In terms of the continuing series, "Crash" also sets the tenor for Land of the Giants.  Here, Steve and Valerie quickly debate about whether or not they should attempt peaceful communication with the planet's giants.  Valerie wants to try, but Steve insists they will merely be treated as "six inch tall" freaks. 

Very rapidly, it is Steve's view of things that legitimized by the events of the episode, since even a scientist is not inclined to treat the tiny people very well.

By episode's end, the castaways from the Spindrift, including Barry's dog, Chipper, end up at "the bottom of the barrel," a garbage dump, and encounter a vicious dog there.   Already the die is cast: this is a world of danger, and the giants are to be treated as enemies.

Over the course of two years, Land of the Giants presented much information (some of it contradictory, if memory serves) about the planet of the Giants.  The Giants, for instance, had an awareness of Earth's existence and were also conscious that transit between the two worlds was possible.  Yet, at the same time, the giants did not seem to be as technologically-advanced as Earth of 1983.  Various episodes of the series saw the castaways either attempting to repair their ship and leave the dangerous planet, or effect change on the planet itself, which seemed to be ruled by a repressive totalitarian state.

I grew up watching Allen's Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Lost in Space, but not The Time Tunnel or Land of the Giants.  Accordingly, I find the latter two programs a bit difficult to "get into" today, and even a bit empty in terms of ideas, characters and situations.   In short, I admire how Land of the Giants looks in terms of design and execution, but that isn't enough to keep me tuned in for the full fifty-one hours.  

Rather, I see Land of the Giants as intriguing because it fits entirely Allen's basic formula in science fiction television: showcasing, essentially, how technology can go wrong, stranding people in time, outer space, or other hostile environmental domains.  

In at least three of Allen's programs -- excluding Voyage --  the technologically-superior people end up forsaking the advanced tools of technology to "live off the land," more or less, and embrace a more primitive, pioneer life-style.   I suspect Allen's TV work looks this way, in part, because of the popularity of the Western genre on television in the 1960s.  

But also, as you can detect in many Star Trek episodes of the day ("The Ultimate Computer," for instance), there existed a general distrust of technological progress in the late 1960s, mainly in the form of computers and automation.  I submit that Lost in Space, Time Tunnel and Land of the Giants all key off both the rampant techno-phobia of the decade while also hoping, contrarily, to tap the "Camelot"-styled optimism of the age as well.  These two opposing impulses make Allen's series somewhat schizophrenic, but also damn interesting, at least on a broad, analytical  level.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

The Time Tunnel: "Rendezvous with Yesterday"

"Two American scientists are lost in the swirling maze of past and future ages, during the first experiments on America's greatest and most secret project...the Time Tunnel..."

-opening narration to Irwin Allen's temporal opus, The Time Tunnel (1966-1967)

Love him or hate him, it's fair to state that producer Irwin Allen boasted a unique and distinctive take on science fiction television throughout the 1960s. His genre programs are undeniably kiddie-oriented, but they also reflect (in an almost reflexive, unthinking way...) a major philosophical conflict of the epoch.

In particular, Allen's adventurous cathode ray tube fantasies straddled the line between almost hysterical "techno-phobia" -- the fear that new inventions (like nuclear weapons or computers) would annihilate us outright, or at least put us out of work -- and, oppositely, the age's burgeoning Camelot/Kennedy-style "can do" optimism. This was, after all, the dawning of the Apollo Age; a period in which America's space program would achieve what was once believed impossible: a trip to the moon.

If you gaze across the wide array of Allen's TV programming from this age, you can detect how this unusual conflict plays out in various forms and colors. In Lost in Space (1965-1968), the future man of 1997 was able to reach the stars in advanced spaceships (such as the Jupiter 2) and build robots with human personality and individuality, but the first space flight also became hopelessly and irrevocably lost in the stars.

In Land of the Giants (1968 - 1970), the same conflict between techno-phobia and techno confidence was also present. In that series, man has developed (by the far-flung year of 1983...) high-tech "sub-orbital" spaceships like The Spindrift...but it still plows through a storm and ends up marooned on a planet of giants.

And in The Time Tunnel (1966-1967) -- which has aptly been described as "Lost in Time" -- mankind has developed the technology to conduct time travel at a top-secret facility (a huge subterranean complex in the Arizona desert...). 

But the behemoth, when activated, almost immediately misplaces two scientists (Dr. Doug Phillips and Dr. Tony Newman) in the corridors of time. 


On one hand: technological achievement and advancement

On the other, technological terror plus error. 

What these Irwin Allen speculative programs seem to tell us, I suppose, is that humans boast the intellect and skill to create amazing devices; but not the wisdom, perhaps, to adequately control them.

Of all Allen's storied sci-fi series, The Time Tunnel was perhaps the least successful on its original sortie. It aired for just a single season of 30 hour-long episodes on ABC. Broadcast from September 9, 1966 to April 7, 1967, the series involved the aforementioned scientists -- Newman (James Darren) and Phillips (Robert Colbert) -- tumbling (literally...) through various historical (and future!) time periods, a circumstance which enabled the series to frequently re-use footage and costumes from such films as Titanic (1953), The Buccaneer (1958) and Khartoum (1966).

Despite this crafty, cost-saving measure, the Time Tunnel pilot was still one of the most expensive ever produced at the time, costing a then-whopping $500,000 dollars. You can readily observe where all the considerable expense went in the pilot episode: there are some amazing matte-paintings of the Time Tunnel complex. The whole facility looks like it was outsourced to Krell construction workers. 

Also, the Time Tunnel control room set is vast and impressive: a testament to 1960s-style futurism. There are banks of giant computers with lots of blinking lights, reel-to-reel tapes, and that massive, whirly-gig tunnel itself taking center stage. The visual effects are opulent too, particularly views of the lead actors somersaulting through a moving, glittering temporal vortex.

The Time Tunnel's first episode, "Rendezvous with Yesterday" (written by Harold Jack Bloom and directed by Irwin Allen), features guest star Gary Merrill as Senator Clark, a budget-obsessed politician who visits Project Tic-Toc (location of the Time Tunnel device...) in the Arizona desert. The colossal underground complex, which houses over 12,000 technicians and stretches over 800 floors, has already cost the U.S. government a whopping 7.5 billion dollars. This is simply unacceptable!

"Is time travel worth it?" 
Senator Clark asks pointedly.

The response from Dr. Phillips is that time travel is "potentially the most valuable treasure man will ever find."

Still, the impatient senator isn't convinced that time travel is a worthwhile endeavor, and he demands a demonstration of the not-yet-operational time tunnel. Scientist Tony Newman impulsively complies and -- without permission or preparation -- jumps through the machine.

The result? Lots of smoke and explosions. And then Tony lands on the HMS Titanic on April 13, 1912, just hours before the "unsinkable" liner is destined to strike an iceberg and go to a watery grave.

Unfortunately, the techs at Project Tic-Toc, including the lovely Dr. Ann McGregor (a woefully underutilized Lee Meriwether), can't return Tony to the present. Not even with their high-tech "location probes" or other tools. They are able, however, to visualize Tony's chronological location with a "tele screen." And, as a last resort, the technicians can also yank Tony out of one time period and into to another random one...and hope they get lucky.

It's sort of...a temporal crap shoot.

Back aboard the Titanic, Newman realizes immediately attempts to change the time line by warning the ship's captain, a regal Michael Rennie, of the impending disaster. The captain doesn't believe Newman's stories and voices a variation of a line oft-repeated on this series; something along the lines of: "you don't expect me to believe that wild story, do you?"

One might also note, at this juncture, that Tony seems to have no preparation or schooling whatsoever for the event of actual "time displacement." He's one of the key designers/inventors of the time tunnel juggernaut and yet he has no plan, no philosophy, no agenda whatsoever about dealing with the temporally-challenged natives of other time periods. Apparently on instinct, he simply warns people about the future and is immediately incarcerated or beaten-up for his trouble (another tiresome convention that is repeated throughout the series).

Now, my point here is simply this: whether or not time can actually be altered, why does Tony want to change the flow of time at all? 

Was the time tunnel constructed so that the American government can interfere in the past? 

I mean, if the captain of the Titanic had actually listened to Tony's warning and averted the nautical disaster, some several hundred additional souls would have survived the maiden voyage and thereby altered Tony's entire time-line (since he is born in 1938, after the Titanic accident).

Let me make this even more basic: what if one of those "new" Titanic survivors caused a car accident that killed Tony's Mom before she gave birth to him? See my point?

Besides wanting personally to survive the Titanic disaster (and I don't blame him for that...), what could possibly motivate Tony to reveal the details of the future to the denizens of 1912? 

When Doug returns to the past next, he mindlessly adopts the same plan. He even brings a newspaper from the day after the disaster to convince the Captain of Tony's veracity. I mean...jeez, what's the end game here? Saving the Titanic? Changing the course of 20th century history? Altering the time line? What?

Closely examined, the motives of the characters in this story make no sense. By my reckoning, Tony and Doug should be focused on one thing: keeping a low profile and escaping the disaster. They don't need to be sounding alarm bells, and they sure as hell don't need to commandeer the Titanic's radio room! One might expect more dispassion and weighing of variables here. Especially from two genius scientists, right?

It occurs to me while watching The Time Tunnel that the series would have been much more interesting if in stories like "Rendezvous with Yesterday," the heroes had to preserve the flow of time as they had already experienced it. Wouldn't it have been more interesting if Tony and Doug landed on the deck of the Titanic and realized it wasn't going to sink at all? That they had to aim it at an iceberg themselves, to ensure that their histories remained sacrosanct? I realize there would be moral questions there, but they'd still be "heroes" in the conventional TV sense, since they'd be preserving our chronology.

Oh wait, this was the premise for Voyagers! (1980)...

Anyway, I'm not trying to be dismissive of The Time Tunnel. It is what it is: a product of the time period from which it arose (the 1960s), and for a very specific audience (children). It's harmless escapist fantasy, nothing more...and if you saw it as a child, I'm sure you would get a nostalgic rush watching it. 

That established, it's not a very smart series by today's standard (and remember, Star Trek was a smart series, and it also aired in 1966). Oh, there's definitely an occasional moment of real drama here, such as the instance in "Rendezvous with Yesterday" when Doug and Tony must inform the captain of the Titanic that he is destined to die that very night. However, for the most part, time travel mysteries and human emotions are curtailed, slighted, or outright ignored in favor of James Bond-ian fisticuffs and action. It's all cowboys, Indians, soldiers, spies, aliens, and disasters. Color! Action! But not much real characterization or drama.

During the over-two-dozen episodes of The Time Tunnel, Tony and Doug visited the "Crack of Doom" (don't laugh...), the volcanic eruption at Krakatoa on August 27, 1883. They went to Pearl Harbor on December 6, 1941 (but didn't encounter the U.S.S. Nimitz there....) They experienced the French Revolution first hand ("Reign of Terror), averted the (first) assassination attempt on Abraham Lincoln ("The Death Trap") in 1861, witnessed D-Day ("Invasion") at Normandy, met General Custer ("Massacre"), Billy the Kid ("Billy the Kid") and...Robin Hood ("The Revenge of Robin Hood.")

Yes, before watching The Time Tunnel, I too always thought Robin Hood was a mythical hero, not a historical one, but who's counting? Doctor Who played with this very idea recently, too.  Another episode "One Way to the Moon," landed our wayward heroes on a rocket ship in flight, one bound for Mars...with a saboteur aboard.

As the series wore on, The Time Tunnel increasingly lapsed into empty-headed, monotonous phantasmagoria. The final episode, "Town of Terror" was set in the future year of 1978 and involved strange aliens with tin-foil faces and black capes who, for some unfathomable reason, are referred to as "androids"(!). 

These fishy-looking invaders have taken over the idyllic town of Cliffport, Maine (population 700), where they begin sucking all the oxygen from the Earth. Tony and Doug land in the town and put a stop to the plan, but not before an alien saboteur gets to Project Tic-Toc and starts sucking the air out of the room there too. It takes an inordinate amount of time for the brilliant project scientist, Dr. Swain -- gasping for air -- to realize the oxygen is being depleted.

The last moments of the series are actually the most interesting, at least from a certain perspective. Following the landing in Cliffport, Doug and Phillip are shunted back in time the Titanic

Now, on one hand, this return to the beginning was no doubt a lead-in to summer reruns of the first season. However, considering that there was no second season of The Time Tunnel, viewers might interpret this twist of fate to mean that our heroes were not merely stuck in time, but trapped in a loop too. 

Alas, we may never know...

Again, I don't want to rain on anyone's parade here -- and all sci-fi TV has its fans and adherents -- but The Time Tunnel is sometimes difficult to take seriously. The lead characters - Doug and Tony - are about as cardboard as could be, not to mention the most physically fit and physically skilled "scientists" of all-time. Some of the technobabble on the series is inconsistent too. Sometimes the scientists in the tunnel control room can talk directly with the time travelers on a microphone, and sometimes the men can't hear them.

And you have to wonder, too, why are the time tunnel techies always rolling the dice and scrambling these unlucky guys from one time period to another? 

I'll tell you what...if I came from 1968 and ended up in 1978 (as Tony and Doug did in both "One Way to The Moon" and "Town of Terror"), you know what? I'd just call it a day. 

I'd rather live ten years in the future,than risk ending up in 1184 BC ("Revenge of the Gods"), or 1215 AD ("The Revenge of Robin Hood.")

Close enough for government work, and all.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Lost in Space: "The Reluctant Stowaway"

"This is the beginning. This is the day. You are watching the unfolding of one of history's great adventures. Man's colonization of space. Beyond the stars..."

With these portentous words, so begins Irwin Allen's 1965-1968 science fiction TV series, Lost in Space, fifty years old in 2015.

Visually, the episode "The Reluctant Stowaway" commences with a majestic camera sweep of an impressive LBJ-era mission control center populated by numerous technicians. 

Well, it's not LBJ era, technically, but rather an LBJ era imagining of how the future would likely look. Thus computers are gigantic, wall-sized machines with beeping gauges, reel-to-reel tapes, and blinking lights…lots of blinking lights.

The day is October 16, 1997, the viewer is informed, as Alpha Control is dominated by the hustle and bustle of expectant activity. A narrator with booming voice next informs us that the space program is in preparations to send a family into space, to a habitable planet in orbit of Alpha Centauri. 

The Robinsons have been selected for this particular mission out of 2.2 million prospective families. And their vessel, the "super spaceship" Jupiter 2 is seventy-five minutes from launch.

The Robinsons, the audience also learns, best fulfill three necessary criteria for explorers in the space age: scientific achievement, pioneer resourcefulness and emotional balance.

These qualities will hold the family in good stead for their 5.5 year journey (though most of the trip will be spent in suspended animation). 

Still, the future of the human race rests on this mission. With the "explosive increase of population" on Earth, the colonization of the stars is nothing less than an imperative. The President of the United States appears in the episode, shortly before launch, and delivers an address. He wonders about the future of Earth and humanity.  

Is this the beginning of a "dawn of plenty" or a planetary "disaster?"

The debut episode of Lost in Space also provides a splendid, highly-detailed tour of the unique craft carrying the Robinson family to the furthest reaches of space. 

The Jupiter 2 is not only a home away from home, we are told, but "the culmination of 40 years of intensive research" (at a cost of 30 billion dollars...); one which makes possible "man's thrust into deep space." 

This two-story craft accommodates state rooms for the crew, a galley, a control deck (with freezing tubes), a med bay and the powerful atomic motors.

One noteworthy piece of equipment on board the craft (to help the Robinsons conduct their mission) is an environmental control robot. The machine is designed for physical examinations of an alien world.

But unfortunately for the Robinsons, as "The Reluctant Stowaway" continues, we learn that someone else is (illicitly...) aboard the Jupiter 2, a foreign saboteur with the rank of colonel, a fella by the name of Dr. Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris).

He has programmed the robot to -- at precisely "launch plus eight hours" -- destroy the vessel's inertial guidance system, radio transmitter and cabin pressure control system. 

What Smith doesn't realize is that he's the stowaway of the episode's title. He is trapped on board the ship during launch, and thus he will share in the Robinson family's fate.

Written by S. Bar David and directed by Tony Leader, "The Reluctant Stowaway" introduces television audiences to the main characters and central concepts of this space drama. As one might guess from the title of the series, the Jupiter 2's maiden flight will experience all sorts of difficulties and disasters, with the Robinsons and Smith hopelessly...
lost in the space.

The dramatis personae on Lost in Space also include Dr. John Robinson (Guy Williams), the patriarch of the clan. He's a rock solid man's man, a geologist and space scientist perfectly suited to the colonization of space. 

His wife is Maureen Robinson (June Lockhart), a loving matriarchal-type who admits to some fear and misgivings about the mission. "I should say something light and clever," she notes as the journey begins, "I just can't." 

Then there's Judy (Marta Kristen), the eldest Robinson daughter and a brilliant scientist in her own right. 

Adolescent and mischievous Penny (Angela Cartwright) and the little genius, Will Robinson (Billy Mumy) round out the family. They are average American kids (of the space age...) and one charming scene in the episode reveals them playing in a weightless environment, care-free and innocent.

Piloting the ship is Mark Goddard's stolid Major Don West, who -- quite rightly, given his options -- sets his eyes on Judy. He notes in the episode that if the Robinsons wake up and find him driving the boat, they'll know they are in trouble.  That's actually precisely what occurs.

Shot in crisp shades of beautiful black-and-white, "The Reluctant Stowaway" chronicles the launch of Jupiter 2 and its subsequent "stranding" in deep space. 

With Smith aboard, there are 200 extra lbs. to account for, and the ship strays from its trajectory even before the robot breaks bad and fulfill its sabotaged programming. 

In the course of the hour, a number of space hazards emerge, including an asteroid belt which pelts the Jupiter 2's hull. The robot goes on his destructive jag too, thus causing the ship to go further off course ("As of this moment, the spacecraft has left the limits of the galaxy," one character breathlessly intones). 

The episode ends on a cliffhanger note as John heads outside the ship for EVA repairs. His tether breaks...and he spins into the void, out-of-control. Maureen dons a space suit to rescue him, but time is running out.  

This is the only scene in the episode that seems to have aged in fifty years. It takes too long, moves too slowly, and the effects don't hold up. The remainder of the pilot episode is superlative, both well-written and exciting.

The sci-fi TV works of Irwin Allen concern an interesting conflict or tension. In series such as Lost in Space, Time Tunnel (1966), and Land of the Giants (1968 -1970), man is on the cusp of possessing great technology, but it fails him, or strands him in environments that are hostile.  

It is then up to resourceful man (and woman!) to eke out survival, rescue or escape. 

So it would be fair to state that Allen's works of art depict technological advances as tricky things. They make great journeys through time and space possible, but in the end, man must still make his own way.

Accordingly, Lost in Space -- at least in the first season -- is a sincere, straight-faced action-adventure, a transposition of the American Western genre; about the newest frontier and the pioneers required to tame deep space. It is, literally (as its source material suggests...), Space Family Robinson.

What I found most fascinating while watching "The Reluctant Stowaway" was the impressive (and apparently obsessive) attention to detail. The production values are superb.

Everything -- from the sets to the costumes and props to the miniatures -- appears absolutely beautiful and carefully devised and constructed.  The Jupiter 2 is a gorgeous set, for instance. And ultimately, the show is quite convincing from a mid-1960s perspective.

Have we outgrown it? Perhaps the melodramatic, humorless tone more than the technology, I'd say.  I still love the "retro" futuristic look of the Jupiter 2. I could easily imagine spending a long space voyage aboard that gorgeous ship.

The episode ends with that cliffhanger and the legend "To be continued next week. Same time, same channel." I found myself immediately wanting to find out what happened next. Truly, the only thing that marks this first incarnation of Lost in Space as silly or outdated is the opening credits sequence, which depicts a cartoon spaceship tugging in its wake a line of tethered, space suited astronauts. It seems frivolous for a series about a mankind's "greatest" adventure.

Another fact: Dr. Zachary Smith is one sinister cat at this juncture. He's not the buffoon he would become in later seasons. Instead, he is ultra-menacing and dark. He wants to kill the Robinsons. And he doesn't take that job lightly. He's not a bumbler...he's a killer. Not exactly a playful sort.  He uses every trick in the book in this episode to get Robinson to turn the boat around, back towards Earth. At one point, he even attempts to quarantine Will, claiming that the boy has a virus that will kill him if he returns to suspended animation.

Also, there's a legend that Smith was a minor character at first, and only later took center stage.  It's pretty clear in "Reluctant Stowaway" that Smith is the main character. He is the first primary character introduced, and we spend more time with him individually than with any other character. He is the prime motivator here, for certain.

As noted above, Lost in Space is a sci-fi series about a pioneer family pulling together in hard times, and it's good, adventurous fun. It may not be deep or kinky or adult or modern, but it is beautifully-shot and it conveys well the dangers and thrills of space travel in a way I haven't seen on any show in some time. There's a fairy tale aspect to many entries of the series, especially in the well-done first season. 

Monday, December 28, 2020

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea: "Eleven Days to Zero"

As you may recall, at first Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was a successful 1961 motion picture starring Walter Pidgeon as Admiral Nelson.  

The film's detailed miniature for the submarine Seaview and the amazing, high-tech, live-action sets were put into storage afterwards, and by 1964, Allen took them out of mothballs for a new TV series starring Richard Basehart as Nelson, and David Hedison as Captain Lee Crane.  

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea then ran on ABC for four successful seasons and 110 hour-long episodes (most transmitted in color; but with the first season only in black-and-white). 

What remains so compelling about Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea after all these years is that it began as high intrigue on the high sea, with an action quotient that is mostly unmatched even today.  

But, around the time of the second season -- when the series went to color -- the accent moved  away from action towards science fiction and fantasy, and the series began featuring aliens, leprechauns, mummies, "Frost Men" and sea monsters of all shapes and sizes. Season Two also introduced another amazing vehicle to the program, the fantastic "Flying Sub."

But for "Eleven Days to Zero," Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea remains a high-tech action and intrigue series, more along the lines of an early James Bond film than a Star Trek or Lost in Space episode.  Irwin Allen's pilot is not a direct remake of the 1961 movie, though it does re-use miniature footage from the film, and the plot is also pretty similar. 

In this case, instead of dispersing dangerous radiation from the Earth's atmosphere, the Seaview -- "the most extraordinary submarine in all the seven seas" -- is required to avert another planetary emergency.

The Earth has only has eleven days remaining before a huge tsunami  strikes Hawaii, California, the British Isles and even America's East Coast. Millions of people will be killed in the flooding. 

But brilliant Admiral Nelson (Basehart) quickly develops a plan called "Operation Counter Force" with the help of nuclear engineer Fred Wilson (guest star Eddie Albert). 

Specifically, the Seaview will detonate a nuclear device at the North Pole, thereby setting up "opposing lines of force" and "breaking the back" of the enormous tidal wave. 

"We can't debate," Nelson urges U.S. government officials.  "We have to act."

And act he does. 

Before long, the Seaview has set sail with its new captain, Lee Crane, at the helm. Unfortunately, agents of a "hostile" foreign force would prefer to see America and Great Britain decimated, and they make every attempt to prevent the Seaview from accomplishing her critical mission. 

On the way to the North Pole, the Seaview is dogged by an enemy submarine, rattled by depth charges, and ambushed by drone plane attack. Meanwhile, the hard-nosed Crane must prove his worth to the suspicious crew of Seaview, "highly skilled experts" each and every one.

"Eleven Days to Zero" is an exciting and surprisingly violent hour. The episode opens with the brutal assassination of Seaview's first Captain, John Phillips.  In a stunning, non-stop action scene, Phillips' car is run off the road. It tumbles down a hill, and we see the good captain take a bullet wound to the head. The enemy agent -- dangling from an attacking helicopter -- is shot down by Nelson, and the villain plunges into the roiling sea below with a scream.

Again, all this occurs in the first five minutes of the show...

I must admit, I was struck by the high quality of the stunts, action, and pacing on display in "Eleven Days to Zero."  Television today is certainly much  more expensive, but it rarely gets down to such Bond-like action set-pieces, even within the genre. 

And the action scenes aren't the only  impressive ingredient of this over 50-year old broadcast pilot. 

Because Irwin Allen was able to re-use sets, miniatures and underwater footage from the 1961 feature film, he could apparently afford quite a bit in terms of acting extras and new locations/sets. Due to this fact, Seaview actually seems like a real submarine, populated by a real crew.  

In particular, the Seaview bridge (with visible ceiling, no less) is an impressive-looking set even by today's standards, and it appears to be manned by more than the typical TV skeleton crew, as you can see from the accompanying photo. 

It's funny, but in a lot of outer space dramas, the main spaceship always boasts roomy corridors, and relatively few extras on screen at any given point...a visual misstep which seems to go against reality.  

In the final frontier -- as under the sea -- space would surely be at a premium, and a fully manned vessel would seem like...well, a fully manned vessel, not a sparsely-attended hotel.

In terms of sets, "Eleven Days to Zero" depicts a Bond-ian enemy headquarters replete with walls of blinking, 1960s-era computers and strange pulsating light columns. In addition, the pilot's climax -- set at the North Pole -- involves plenty of ice, Seaview's conning tower, and a blinding snow storm.  Not to mention aerial bombardment from the aforementioned drone plane.  It's all pretty impressive.

In terms of tone, there is also something refreshing today about "Eleven Days to Zero" and the episode's total, utter lack of irony or self-reflexive humor.  Every moment of high adventure -- even a tangle with a not-entirely-convincing giant squid mid-episode -- is played  absolutely straight, with the finest production values of the day.  There is no winking or nudging at the audience, only an attempt to portray the action vividly and memorably.

The result of this approach is that "Eleven Days to Zero" moves fast and is actually even sort of gritty in presentation, with the clock ticking down to doomsday, and the threat of death ever-present on all legs of the doomsday mission.

If this pilot had been produced today, no doubt the temptation would have been to provide either Nelson and Crane some canned  "emotional angst," like a bad marriage or a history of alcoholism, or some father-son issues, but Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was born in a different age and so it avoids the modern (and by-now tiring...) fascination with soap opera plotting.  The characters are simply heroic; and the narrative -- the plot -- takes precedence over facile personal psychology.

Which isn't to say that Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was always great....or even particularly good. There are limits to its old-fashioned approach to storytelling too.

To wit, "Eleven Days to Zero" is a cinematic, action-packed pilot, yet it is decidedly humorless, and the characters - though undeniably heroic -- also lack much in terms of individuality and color. In that regards, series such as Star Trek are plainly superior. 

In the Gene Roddenberry series, for instance, the dynamic characters added so much to the sense of action and drama, that the crisis scenarios of the week became all the more interesting...and immediate.  Though the performances here are solid, neither Nelson or Crane ever comes off as nuanced as a Kirk or Spock.   In fact, the only character arc of sorts in "Eleven Days to Zero" involves Crane proving himself to the crew, and establishing that he doesn't "lack imagination" to Admiral Nelson. 

The paucity of character development remains easy to overlook in a single film, or even a series of films.  But on TV, you ultimately come away looking to forge a deeper connection with characters you see every week; with either Crane or Nelson.  The show doesn't have to be a soap opera; it just has to be written with an eye towards the individual characteristics of the protagonists; and their way of relating to their world.

Every film or TV series ever made is a reflection of its time, and so Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea is very clearly a production inspired by the Cold War. Here, a bald, Blofeld/Dr. No/Far Eastern-type villain plots the end of the West (and our freedom...) and is soon taught a destructive lesson in underestimating America and the Free World.   

And Admiral Nelson -- stolidly -- declares at the end of Operation Counter Force that "Seaview's job is never finished.  Not as long as there are destructive forces in the world."

This is not a particularly nuanced approach, but it sure as heck is fun, in a kind of blockbuster movie one-off type-way. 

And that's where Irwin Allen productions, especially in the early days, really excelled.  Both the first season of Lost in Space (1965) and the inaugural year of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964) are absolutely superb in terms of production values and visual presentation.  Both series are eminently worthy as escapist fare, even if they resolutely lack some of the social commentary and artistry of The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Star Trek and the other, more appreciated genre efforts of the epoch.

On the same DVD set as "Eleven Days to Zero,"  the last thirteen episodes of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea are also included.  These episodes see the Seaview tangle with a pirate ("The Return of Blackbeard,")  a sea monster/humanoid ("The Lobster Man), mythical monsters ("The Abominable Snowman" and "Terrible Leprechaun") plus aliens from an "ice planet" ("Flaming Ice.")

Out of curiosity, I watched "Flaming Ice" (by Arthur W. Browne) to see how much the series had changed in the 105 or so episodes since "Eleven Days to Zero." 

Succinctly stated, the changes were pretty enormous. 

Though the color photography was lush, the performances strong (especially Michael Pate as the leader of the "Frost Men," named "Gelid") and the sets still impressive, there was not even a casual sense of reality -- scientific, political, moral or otherwise -- about the claustrophobic installment. 

And yet, I still found myself drawn to the colorful, vivid action and stunts of the piece.  In general terms, there's a high nostalgia factor here for me, I suppose.  

I watched this show in reruns as a kid in the 1970s and, honestly, enjoyed it as much as if not more than Lost in Space.  

What appealed to me as a child is what appeals to me about the show now: the amazing, retro-high tech futurism of the 1960s vehicle designs (particularly in the case of the Flying Sub and the Seaview) and the steadfast focus on action, action, action.  I've always been a sucker for stories about submarines and their crews (hence my fascination with Captain Nemo and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea...), and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea still sparks the active imagination with abundance.

In the 1990s, Steven Spielberg embarked on a variation of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea called SeaQuest DSV (1992-1995).  It also began with a focus on hard-tech, adventure and "marine research" and then, in its second season, began featuring underwater Greek Gods, giant sea monsters, aliens and the like. 

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea set that identical course first, nearly thirty years earlier, so it is odd to say the least that SeaQuest didn't learn from its predecessor's missteps.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

Saturday Morning Flashback: Land of the Lost: "Survival Kit"

It’s very rare to come across an episode of Land of the Lost -- in any season -- that I vehemently dislike and judge almost entirely worthless. 

But “Survival Kit,” the second episode in the third season catalog, certainly fits the bill.

In this story, an arrogant Cro-Magnon man, Malak (Richard Kiel), whom the Sleestak apparently revere as “The Exalted One,” seizes control of the Land of the Lost’s river and threatens to drown the denizens of the Lost City unless he is continually brought “tribute.”  He also wants a slave to serve him.

The Marshalls see the Sleestak take their “survival kit,” after Uncle Jack recovers it from the Marshalls’ raft at the bottom of the lagoon and Uncle Jack realizes they must retrieve it because it contains medicine that can treat Holly (Kathy Coleman), who is suffering from a terrible fever.

Accordingly, Jack (Ron Harper), Will (Wesley Eure) and Chaka (Philip Paley) visit Malak in his stone home, a structure also never-before-seen in the Land of the Lost, and attempt to trade goods for their survival kit.  Jack treats Malak’s tooth-ache and tricks him with the “magic” of a flash light before Malak acquiesces to his demands and also agrees to release control of the river. Holly is healed, and Malak is never seen nor spoken of again.

There is so much wrong with this episode, it is hard to know precisely where to start…

But first, let’s get to Malak. He is apparently a long-time denizen of the Land of the Lost, but in two seasons worth of episodes, there has been no mention of his presence.  One might think his presence is important, since he -- like the Marshalls -- is a human being.  At one point in the episode, Enik reveals that the Sleestak live in fear of the time when the moons align and they must give tribute Malak. So he has apparently appeared before, and regularly at that. Yet none of the Marshalls (or Chaka) have noticed Eegah hanging around?  Or made note of his impressive home…which controls the river?

Then, there’s the matter of the titular survival kit.  It apparently sank to the bottom of the lagoon when the Marshalls arrived in the Land of the Lost, but as you’ll remember from the opening credits of the first two seasons, the raft did not land in the lagoon.  It landed on dry land. Remember the image of the family unconscious in the raft, as Grumpy’s roar awakens it? 

So had did the raft -- on dry land -- sink?

And while on the topic of the survival kit, how is it that Jack recovers it from the lagoon so quickly and easily?  Are we to believe that Lulu is the only critter in Land of the Lost Lagoon?

It’s hard to know which characters gets the worst of this particular story, but my vote would go to Enik (Walker Edmiston), the evolved Sleestak from Altrusia’s distant (but evolved) past.  Here, he misinterprets the Library of Skulls’ wisdom and responds by, essentially, robbing the Marshalls’ temple for “tribute” items.  A man who knows the great sweep of history and who can control time doors is here thus reduced to stealing crockery to appease a bully and cave-man.

By the way, the Skulls in the Library pretty much reveal that Malak is not a god, because Gods would not demand human things…like crockery.  But Enik misses the clue entirely, and acts as stupidly and irrationally as his Sleestak cohorts.  

This episode also reduces significantly the terror of the Sleestak, as they are held at the mercy of a giant brute in a fur loin cloth.  It’s a low-point not merely for Enik, but the entire Altrusian race.  I can’t believe that ten or eleven Sleestak from the Lost City couldn’t overwhelm the guy or his home.

The cheapness of “Survival Kit” is also shocking. We never even get one full-exterior shot of Malak’s home, which an is important oversight considering that last week (“After Shock”) the Marshalls and the Sleestak were fighting over the only real estate available: the Old Temple.  Only here, suddenly, Malak’s got a man-cave, literally.

All of this may read like nitpicking, but the obvious conclusion about “Survival Kit” is that it is written with absolutely no regard or respect for Land of the Lost history.  Malak surely would have been noticed in years past if he was there, and I can’t believe it is an established Sleestak tradition to kowtow to his demands.  And we know -- from our lying eyes -- that Marshall raft never sank in the lagoon.  

And worst of all, to dramatize this miserable, entirely unworthy story, Land of the Lost must make a fool of the dignified, regal Enik, and even of his menacing fellow-denizens in the Lost City, the Sleestak.

When fans claim that they dislike the series’ third season, “Survival Kit” must be a prime reason why.  There’s absolutely no attention paid to series continuity, detail, or even characters.  It’s a dramatic low-point for a series that had previously made it a point never to talk down to kids.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Krampus (2015)

For horror movie lovers, Michael Dougherty’s Krampus (2015) is a holiday present wrapped up with a bow.  

It’s a delightful, caustic, emotionally-resonant horror movie that feels like a throwback to a bygone era. It’s a (most welcome…) relic from age when audiences more easily or readily allowed fantasy and humor to inform the genre.

Of course, the great arc of movie history involves a push away from the theatrical and artificial towards the naturalistic and realistic. 

I don’t waste too much thought mourning this shift in my favorite genre, and I enjoy many modern horror movies tremendously. And yet, at the same time I cannot help but note that so many are, well, humorless, or lacking real imagination.   The genre I grew up with took fantasy and imagination as the starting point.

Today, too many new horror films feel that they must justify their realism, instead of entertaining us with fantasy, laughs, and screams too.

Not so with Krampus.

The film feels very much like a throwback to the era of Gremlins (1984), for example, with its commentary on Christmas, and its quasi-comedic monsters.  The demonic helpers in this film -- who count ambulatory gingerbread men among their number -- straddle the line between terror and comedy quite adroitly.

For about ninety percent of the film, Krampus is also delightfully cutthroat and vicious, in much the same way that one would apply that descriptor to Willie Wonka and The Chocolate Factory (1971).  

Bad children and bad adults get punished for their nasty behavior, and there’s no looking back or second guessing their grim fates.  One mean-spirited kid who guzzles soda from the bottle at a holiday dinner table gets lured up the chimney by a gingerbread cookie, and then dragged off to the underworld in chains.

It’s true that Krampus’s conclusion backs away from this delightfully mean-spirited approach a little bit, but then, delightfully, the film reconsiders the walk-back in favor of an ambiguous ending that could be read in a number of ways.

I suppose what impressed me most about Krampus was its perpetual sense of imagination. A central scene in the film is a spectacularly shot-and-edited but unconventional flashback.  This scene plays like a Christmas TV special from the 1960s, and yet is spooky and fun at the same time.

On a cerebral level, Krampus also clearly boasts a point or purpose. The film’s opening montage and characters remind us that we often live, today, in an ugly, materialistic culture. And yet, by film’s end, Krampus’s protagonists are all putting their differences and material desires aside for the things that are important -- like family -- and I liked the optimism and heart of that statement.

A visit from Krampus could clearly spoil any holiday season, but this cinematic version of the scary myth is an absolute cause of celebration and revelry if one is an aficionado of the horror film.

“It’s Christmas. Nothing bad is going to happen on Christmas.”

The Engel family prepares for another harried, exhausted Christmas holiday at home.  

Tom (Adam Scott) and Sarah’s (Toni Collette) son, Max (Emjay Anthony), has been in a fight, and Sarah’s sister, Linda (Alison Tolman) is visiting with her obnoxious husband, Howie (David Koecher) and their four children.  Meanwhile, Tom and Linda’s daughter, Beth (Stefania LaVie Owen) is obsessed with her boyfriend, Derek.

Linda’s family arrives, and with a surprise additional visitor to boot: surly Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell). A family dinner goes awry when Linda’s kids steal Max’s letter to Santa Claus and mock him for it.

Fed up, Max rips up the letter to Santa, unwittingly summoning St. Nick’s dark, ancient reflection, a demon called Krampus.

The next morning, Krampus has trapped the family and its house in a grim winter wonderland, replete with creepy snowmen.  

Then, the evil being lays siege to the house with his monstrous minions. Among them are fanged teddy bears, murderous toy robots, cackling gingerbread men, and even a hungry jack-in-the-box.

Omi (Krista Stadler), Tom’s mother, has her own unique history with Krampus, and is able to warn the family of the dangers it now faces.  

She recounts a story from her youth, one in which a lack of the Christmas Spirit brought Kramus to her village, and resulted in her entire family being dragged to the underworld.

“He and his helpers did no come to give, but to take.”

Krampus’s critique of a 21st century Christmas begins right out the gate, with the opening montage. 

We watch as zombie-like crowds pour into a store -- Mucho Mart -- and begin fighting each other over the best deals.  There is rioting in the aisles, the constant passing of paper currency (in close-up) and views of children fighting in the store. The faces of the consumers are horrific, seen in close-up, and in slow-motion photography.  

The impression is clearly that Christmas has, in this age, become a crass and ugly season about the pursuit of material wants.

What makes this montage all the more caustic and effective is that it is scored with a nostalgic holiday tune: Meredith Wilson’s “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” sung by Perry Como.  

The song hammers home the scene's point. It makes the scene drip with droll and wicked irony.

Today, this is exactly what Christmas does look like to too many people.  It’s about having things; about getting things, about owning things.  

It’s not about, in the words of Omi, “sacrificing,” or giving to others.  

Not long after this montage, we see talking heads on TV debating the “War on Christmas,” another divisive aspect of the modern holiday.  The spirit of the holiday -- about giving and love -- is absent not just in terms of the violence and material desire the film showcases, but regarding the hostility with which we view those who are different from us.  We're all Americans, and yet we seem to hate one another. We can't even tolerate that someone might celebrate the holiday in a different way than we do.

That’s actually a key point of the film.  

The two sisters in Krampus, Sarah and Linda, come from opposite political views. Howie and Linda are Republicans who want to talk gun ownership at the dinner table, deny global warming, and who, when faced with “free gifts,” say that the recipients must be for “Democrats.”  

Sarah, by contrast is a somewhat holier-than-thou liberal, and one who can’t really tolerate the fact that others boast different traditions (in terms of food and behavior)

All the details of our red state/blue state divides are on display in Krampus, but I love the movie’s process of (murderous) attrition, because it galvanizes the attention of both families.  

Before long, the conservatives and liberals are working together to survive.  

The inescapable point? It doesn’t matter if you are a Democrat or a Republican, Krampus notes, because both types of Americans love their families, and want to protect their children. Part of “rediscovering” the Christmas spirit involves loving those who don’t believe exactly what you believe, and yet, finally, are your blood.

There’s nothing to focus one’s attention on the important thing like a giant, horned demon with a Santa beard and penetrating, deep-set eyes. 

I love and admire the film’s depiction of Krampus too. There’s a fantastic shot, set during a blizzard, wherein Beth runs for her life in the foreground of the frame while Krampus -- this huge hulking thing -- shadows her moves in the background, leaping from rooftop to rooftop.  

And when Krampus makes his entrance at the Engel hearth, he cracks the fireplace, and emerges hunched over. When he rears up and extends to full height, it’s a terrifying moment. Krampus is one scary dude.

I respect, as well, the way that Krampus attempts to defy convention by engineering awful demises for the film’s children and family members. 

A jack in the box swallows a child whole (sneakers last…).  

The aforementioned soda guzzler gets yanked up a dark chimney.  

Aunt Dorothy encounters a pack of gruesome, masked elves and is forcibly ejected from the family living room..  The film and filmmakers have terrific fun with the twisted Christmas imagery, and the deeply disturbing winter wonderland background too.

Some will see the film’s resolution -- set over the pit of Hell -- as a cop-out.  I admit that was my first thought, as well.  

But the film’s final imagery suggest a not-so happy or clear-cut ending.  

Either the family is now a Christmas decoration in Hell, or at the very least, Krampus will be watching the Engels to make certain they remain true to the spirit of Christmas, and don’t relapse into their conspicuous consumption or participation in the partisan divide.

I prefer the second alternative there, because it honors Max’s choice in the last act. 

Without giving too much away, let’s just say that the lad acts according to the best “spirit” of Christmas, showcasing self-sacrifice and personal responsibility for his actions.  He doesn’t blame others for his unhappiness, or love things more than he loves the people in his family.  To adopt a cliche, he comes to understand the real meaning of Christmas.

When I look back at a film like Gremlins (1984), I think of the humor, the scares, and the heart embodied in its text.  

Krampus possesses all the same virtues.  

The scenes with the attacking Gingerbread Men boast the same wicked ingenuity you might expect to find in the works of a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi. I’m glad the film doesn’t strive too much to be “real,” and makes room for such silly boogeymen.

For me, Krampus is the whole, twisted horror package, and I loved every sharp-edged, fantastic minute of it.

Otherworld (1985): "The Zone Troopers Build Men"

In the second episode of the short-lived 1985 cult series  Otherworld , “The Zone Troopers Build Men,” young Trace Sterling (Tony O’Dell) is...