Monday, March 08, 2021

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 conscripted into the Zone Troopers, and sent off to basic training.  


His worried parents attempt to rescue him from a life-time of involuntary service, but Trace realizes something important about himself at the 13-week boot camp: the training he receives is valuable.  It changes him.

As the episode opens, Trace is failing at his new school in a small, out-of-the-way agricultural community.  He just can’t get very excited about a high-school exam concerning…corn.  Trace’s low grades result in a “yellow warning,” meaning that the Zone Troopers are free to break into the Sterling house and take away Trace in the thick of night.  

As Mr. Sterling insightfully notes “this culture is not as permissive regarding teens as 1980s America.”

Indeed.  


Soon, the sheltered Trace is undergoing rigorous training at the draconian hands (and torch…) of merciless Perel Sightings (Mark Lenard), the equivalent of a drill-sergeant.  But where this new Z.I.T. (Zone Trooper in Training) differs philosophically from his mentor is in weighing the importance of compassion and loyalty.  Perel sees such  qualities as weaknesses, but Trace knows they are strengths.   

On graduation day, Trace demonstrates his compassion – and independence from the Zone Troopers – by refusing to destroy several rebel encampments from the cockpit of his “vampire” air-craft.  He betrays Sightings, but Sightings allows Trace to escape, having learned, perhaps, to respect the young man.

In short, I’ve always considered “The Zone Troopers Build Men” to be one of Otherworld’s finest hours, in part because of the strong presence of Star Trek's Mark Lenard in a significant role, but also because it offers a rather three-dimensional examination of the so-called military mentality.  


Military service is about being part of a hierarchy and following orders, but too often people forget true service is also about becoming a fully-realized, capable individual…one who knows when orders are wrong, and will do something about that fact.  


Trace clearly benefits from the skills he learns in the Zone Troopers, but that fact doesn’t change the truth that the organization – no matter its revered “Hall of Heroes” – takes its marching orders from a corrupt and cruel state.  Trace is able to separate the commendable ethos of the Zone Troopers ("proficiency, pride and prowess") from the unfit command structure that deploys it.

This is undeniably Trace’s best episode in the series because the young man takes responsibility for his actions (and failures in school) and emerges “with a deeper understanding” of what it means to commit to something.  "The Zone Troopers Build Men" is about Trace finally growing up, and about Hal's recognition of that fact about his son.  


Written by Coleman Luck and directed by Richard Compton, “The Zone Troopers Builds Men” also does a fine job of reminding viewers that “this is not the United States.  They don’t look at things the way we do,” as Hal Sterling comments.  

In other words, there is still enough alien about this world to distinguish it from home.  Like holographic tests in high school, and computerized lockers that “talk” to student.  Or a "combat" robot that nearly offs Trace (but which looks kind of ridiculous, and must be hidden with some manipulation of color in the frame.)

All that established, the budget is clearly stressed here.  The Zone Troopers drive contemporary mini-vans, and the vampire aircraft – designed for “psycho terror” campaigns – are clearly pretty flimsy little gliders.  You'd think this army would be better equipped.


On the creepy and oddball side, this episode features a wonderful and bizarre interlude in which Trace is led through a Zone Trooper museum, and there are all of these weird, totally-unexplained wax figures -- heroes of the Unification Wars -- displayed there.  


You get the feeling the creators of the series had some interesting history in mind there, and I love when Otherworld heads off on these unexplored weird tangents.

Otherworld (1985): "Rules of Attraction"



"Other Worlds lie outside our seeing; beyond the beyond; on the edge of within. The Great Pyramids: erected by the Ancient Ones as a barricade at the portal between two dimensions; two separate realities. This is the story of one family drawn through a mysterious vortex into the other world and their perilous trek homeward."
-Opening narration to Roderick Taylor's Otherworld (1985)


From the age of nuclear family sitcoms such as The Cosby Show (1984 – 1992) and Family Ties (1989) arrives this family-oriented science fiction series, Otherworld (1985). Created by Roderick Taylor and airing on CBS,  Otherworld -- much like The Fantastic Journey (1977) -- concerns a tightly-knit group of displaced people trapped in an alien world, moving from place to place, civilization to civilization, in search of a path home. 

In The Fantastic Journey, that prized destination was the Devil Triangle's “Evoland” (in the East…) where wayward travelers could return to their time periods and lands.  In Otherworld, that destination is “Emar,” a city where wayward travelers could also find portals home and return to their lands as “sorcerers” and “kings.”


But where 
The Fantastic Journey concerned a group of characters who became an ad-hoc family over the course of many episodes and adventures, Otherworld focuses instead on an already-existing American family: The Sterlings.  That name sounds a lot like “Serling” (as in Rod Serling), which may or may not be an intentional tribute given the Twilight Zone nature of the premise. 

More importantly, the word Sterling is defined as “genuine, pure or true,” and those descriptors very much apply to this suburban family.  The family consists of resourceful engineer and Dad, Hal (Sam Groom), Mom and veterinarian June (Gretchen Corbett) -- seemingly named after June Cleaver -- teenagers Trace (Tony O’Dell) and Gina (Jonna Lee), and little Smith (first Brandon Crane, then Chris Hebert).


In the first episode of Otherworld, titled “Rules of Attraction,” the Sterlings are finishing up a summer vacation in Egypt, where Hal has been working to construct a hydro-electric plant. 
On the day of a great planetary alignment -- which has not occurred for 10,000 years -- the family visits the Great Pyramids.  In short order, the family is zapped through a whirling vortex (shades of The Fantastic Journey, again), and whisked into an entirely new, alien world. Specifically, the Sterlings arrive in a barren “Forbidden Zone” outside the province of Sarlex, and have a terrifying run-in with a Zone Trooper Kommander named Nuveen Kroll (Jonathan Banks).  After Kroll attempts to arrest the family for traveling in a restricted area, the Sterlings overpower him and appropriate his military hover-craft.  More importantly, the Sterlings take Kroll’s “access crystal,” a small, cylindrical key which permits unlimited access to travel and information banks in this bizarre totalitarian world.  In short order, Kroll is ordered to catch the fugitives and retrieve his access crystal.


Hoping to hide and blend in with the populace, the Sterlings soon settle down in the mining Province of Sarlex, which seems a weird reflection of 1950s America.  Everyone seems to live by the edicts of a strangely-worded Bible, and in Leave it to Beaver-styled family units.  The government of Sarlex even orders Mom – a medical professional – to become a “housewife.”  Meanwhile, Trace falls in love with a high-school classmate, the beautiful Nova (Amanda Wyss). But the Sterlings have a shock coming. Everyone in the town, including Nova herself, is an android, a “plasmoid replicant” designed to work the mines, which produce a radiation poisonous to human beings.

When June falls ill from exposure to the radiation, the Sterlings realize they must flee their new home, in search of another, and Nova helps the family escape through a series of subterranean tunnels.  Before Nova says farewell to the Sterlings, she also tells Trace of Emar, the capital province where a technology is located that can send them home.  She also informs them that in this strange world “every province is completely different” and also  that “a long time ago, people would follow” strange monuments to reach Emar.


Cutting to the chase, “Rules of Attraction,” the pilot for Otherworld is a really great opening hour, and one that wastes no time beginning the adventure.  We learn just enough about the family before the unexpected trip through the vortex, and then suddenly, we’re in an entirely different world, and in a new adventure. 
In the finest tradition of science fiction television, “Rules of Attraction” also involves a social critique of the then-contemporary “real” culture in which it was produced.  Specifically, Trace has trouble accepting that Nova – as an artificial life form – can feel love as fully as he does.  “It’s not the same,” he declares

This is the old, widely-accepted fallacy we have all  heard over the past few generations in America: that people of different ethnicity, religion and race don’t possess the same evolved sense of family, love and humanity as we do; that they are somehow “inferior” beings. In this case, Trace suggests that Nova must leave Sarlex with him, since he can’t possibly leave his family.  Of course, she points out that she can’t leave her family, either.  But Trace has a tough time seeing the families as equivalent.  “If you cut me, I bleed.  It’s the same,” Nova declares, hoping to sway him.


Making her point in brilliant, pointed fashion, Nova later shows Trace exactly where her “soul” is located (in a wall of computerized machinery beneath the city), and then challenges the Sterling boy to show her his soul.
Of course, he can’t so easily pinpoint his own soul, and so the question becomes, how do we know we have souls?  Is it possible that the machines are more “alive” and “spiritual” than we are? 
      
 Talk about a heady brew for a first outing on network television...but Otherworld is extremely ambitious in terms of its subject matter and perspective on that material.  At its root, “Rules of Attraction” brilliantly discusses racism in this subplot of Trace/Nova, which involves, essentially, an interracial romance.  I must confess, I was gratified to see the series so quickly and so efficiently move into the “meat” of its theme, when so many opening episodes of cult-TV require laborious set-up and lengthy exposition.  But Otherworld gets right to the action, and right to the beating heart of its premise.
            
There’s an even more subversive aspect of “Rules of Attraction” as well.  The Sterling family meets with neighbors (who resemble the Flanders on The Simpsons) and there’s this uncomfortable sense of someone  behind-the-scenes (the androids progenitors?) intentionally creating a world of social inequality, a world of 1950s stereotypes.  For instance, women are not supposed to hold down jobs, only do the shopping.  Why have the androids been created in the image of...an outmoded patriarchy?

At episode’s end, Hal battles for replicant rights by destroying a main computer under Sarlex that can audit the personal memories of each android, thus freeing them from domination by the Zone Troopers.  With this very Captain-Kirkian blow against a corrupt establishment, one gets a sense of Otherworld’s burgeoning sense of morality and ethics.   I remember watching this pilot in January of 1985 and thinking, at the time, that Otherworld was as close to a new Star Trek as we were likely to get in the 1980s in terms of TV sci-fi probing the edges and parameters of the human equation.


Of course, Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered less than two years later.  So I was wrong.
 Still, there was a delight in discovering Otherworld on CBS, and its full-throated sense of humor and social commentary.  Simply put…I loved this show.  And I can't figure out why in Hell it isn't available on DVD, or at least for streaming.  I know it boasts an avid cult-following...

Although produced cheaply, "Rules of Attraction" features some good visuals that hold up pretty well today.  For instance, there's a nice matte painting of Sarlex (later re-used on TNG in episodes such as "Angel One") and also the bizarre monuments of the Other World.  Also, underneath Sarlex is a vast computer center and that wall of souls, and the breadth of the domain is impressive considering the TV budget.  You may also notice here the series' trademark upside-down Zone Troopers guns.  The barrels are below the handles, in other words.  I always thought this was another creative way of showcasing the topsy-turvy, upside down nature of the Otherworld, but the weapons still take some getting used to.

Saturday, March 06, 2021

Land of the Lost: "Scarab"



“Scarab” is the “evil Chaka” episode of Land of the Lost.  And while it is a little strange to see the kindly Pakuni (Philip Paley) acting so violently and anti-socially, the installment works as a cautionary tale, especially for children. It’s all too easy, as Jack Marshall (Ron Harper) notes at one point, to let bad behavior grow and grow until it becomes self-destructive.

In “The Scarab,” Chaka doesn’t want to do his daily chores at the temple homestead.  Instead, he decides to capture a golden scarab that has caught his fancy.  Chaka captures the insectoid, which is some weird “variety of beetle.”  But when he mishandles it…it stings him.  The sting, alas, transforms Chaka into a violent, deceitful individual.  He puts out the fire in the Marshall’s temple, even as a thunderstorm approaches. He turns over shelves.  He directs Grumpy into his friends’ path.  He even runs to the Lost City and steals the head of the Oracle from The Library of Skulls.  And when confronted about his misdeeds, Chaka is unrepentant.



The Sleestak capture Will (Wesley Eure).  They blame him for the theft of the Voice of Wisdom from the Library of Skulls, and threaten to drop him into the Pit unless the Marshalls find and return the skull.  However, Enik saw Chaka steal the skull, and warns the Marshalls that the Paku has offended the Gods. Now Chaka must atone for his mistreatment of the beetle.  The Marshalls help Chaka do just that, offering the golden scarab flowers.

In the end, Will escapes and Chaka is returned to normal just as a thunderstorm comes down on the Land of the Lost.

One thing I never want to do while writing these reviews of Land of the Lost is forget that the series is, by time-slot and design, conceived for children.  Sometimes the series is so well-done and so intelligent that it is indeed easy to forget that.  While I don’t think “Scarab” is a particularly strong entry in the Land of the Lost canon, I can nonetheless see its didactic value.  In short, a lot of kids feel that if they do something wrong, they can’t come back from that something.  Instead, they are now simply “bad” and must live up (or down…) to that reputation.  That’s very much what happens to Chaka here. He’s unable to recover, until the Marshalls help, from a kind of anti-social death spiral.


Although some elements of “The Scarab” don’t really work very well -- such as the idea of soliciting favor from an insect as the cure to a sting -- the episode certainly makes its point.  I especially appreciate how Jack and even Enik [Walker Edmiston], for a change) don’t pass judgment on Chaka.  Instead, they try to help; to talk to him. This is indeed what we expect from adults and caretakers: patience and love.

Speaking of Enik, this episode represents the Altrusian’s last appearance in the series.

Friday, March 05, 2021

V: The Series: "The Hero"



In “The Hero,” Diana (Jane Badler), Charles (Duncan Regher) and the other Visitors adjust to a new reality in Los Angeles. 

Strong man Nathan Bates (Lane Smith) has been fatally wounded and is on life support at Science Frontiers.  This means the Visitors most work with his assistant, Chiang (Aki Aleong), who proves all too willing to collaborate with them. In return, the Visitors provide Chiang with software to create a kind of virtual Nathan Bates, one who immediately declares martial law.

With Los Angeles under draconian rule, Charles sets out to “break the back of the Resistance” once and for all.  He immediately takes hostages in Los Angeles, and promises to execute them one at a time with a deadly disintegrator gun.  

Among the captives is Robin Maxwell (Blair Tefkin) and John (Bruce Davison), a Visitor masquerading as a war photographer.

The Resistance plans to rescue Robin, but Elias (Michael Wright) is murdered by the Visitors and their new weapon…



Although V: The Series (1984 – 1985) rarely lives up to the standard for excellence set by the 1983 miniseries, there are a number of memorable episodes.  “The Hero” certainly falls into that category.

There are two factors that make this episode work effectively.  One is the totally unexpected and sudden death of Elias (Michael Wright), a regular character.  And the second is the plot-line involving Robin Maxwell.

I was fifteen years old when I first saw “The Hero” and most television up to that time, at least in America, was “safe” in the sense that you knew regular characters were going to be survive harm week in and week out.  

I had not yet seen Blake’s 7 (1978 – 1981) at that juncture, so it wasn’t a valid comparison point.  Suffice it to say I was quite shocked when in “The Hero,” Elias stepped out from the shadows, took a courageous stance…and was promptly disintegrated by the Visitors.

Elias’s death was shocking, not just because it occurred, but because of when it occurred in the drama.  His death wasn’t even the climax or high-point of the story.  It was just one more “event” in an action-packed episode, and it transmitted quite fully, the danger of life in the Resistance, and during the War.


The only antecedents I knew at that time for this kind of “cut-throat” approach to TV characters were Edith Bunker, who died between seasons of All in the Family/Archie Bunker’s Place, and Colonel Henry Blake on M*A*S*H who also died off-screen.  Victor Bergman had disappeared from Moonbase Alpha on Space: 1999, but viewers were never told definitively on-screen if he had died, though it was the logical assumption.

There’s just something incredibly savage -- and random -- about Elias’s death and it really stuck with me. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.  

In years to come, beloved characters died (on-screen) in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Power, The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but I believe that it’s fair to state -- at least in terms of American genre television -- that Elias’s death represented a beginning point for that kind of storytelling…where nobody was safe.

Elias’s demise is a gut-punch that suddenly raises the stakes on V: The Series.  The program often comes across as silly, and Diana’s antics waver between menace and camp.  But then there’s this episode and the no-nonsense murder of a beloved character.  It just kind of rocks you back, almost as if the series has lulled you into a sense that nothing is for keeps.

Suddenly, it's all for keeps.


The other reason “The Hero” remains a strong episode is that Robin falls for another Visitor, though this time one in disguise. She believes he is human, and sleeps with him, but the truth is that he is a double agent tasked by Diana with impregnating Robin and thus creating a second Star Child.

This plot-line works so well, I believe, because it’s just so damned evil.  Robin has gone through Hell and who -- in a million years -- would believe she might have to go through it all again?  It’s just so cruel and horrible, yet perfectly in keeping with Diana’s despicable and diabolical nature.

I remember vividly watching “The Hero” in the mid-1980s and being blown away by it. 

Elias murdered? Robin impregnated again?  

After weeks of diffident storytelling and silly old tropes like the evil twin suddenly V: The Series seemed surprising, dangerous, and willing to take crazy chances in terms of its narrative.  Accordingly, I feel that the run from “The Hero” to “The Rescue” may just be the series’ strongest.  The original concept -- It Can’t Happen Here -- is long gone, of course, but the back-stabbing, murders, and reversals of this portion of the series are nonetheless enough to keep the audience off balance and in the dark.

After weeks of the Visitors getting their asses kicked and the action getting re-set to the status quo, suddenly everything is up for grabs in “The Hero,” and that’s a very good thing.

V: The Series: "The Conversion"



In “The Conversion,” Lydia (June Chadwick) returns to Earth, having survived Diana’s (Jane Badler) attack on her shuttle. 

And worse for Diana, Lydia returns with the imposing Charles (Duncan Regher): a decorated Visitor leader renowned for his successful campaigns and his larger-than-life…persona.

Charles takes command of the fleet on Earth, demoting Diana in rank to chief science officer. His first order of business is to discredit the L.A. Resistance.  

When Ham Tyler (Michael Ironside) and Kyle Bates (Jeff Yahger) are captured, Charles has just the means he seeks to accomplish that goal. He forces Ham to undergo Diana’s conversion process, and transforms the resistance fighter into a secret assassin working for the Visitors. His plan is to have Ham assassinate Donovan on live television.

When Lydia is captured by the Resistance, a prisoner exchange is arranged: Lydia for Ham and Kyle. 

But the Visitors and Nathan Bates (Lane Smith) are in league, and plan to assassinate the Resistance leaders by using the converted Ham as their shooter.

At the tense prisoner exchange, however, Ham shoots Bates instead of Donovan…and all Hell breaks loose.




A fearsome (and fun) new enemy, Charles (Duncan Regher) arrives in “The Conversion” and he is just the injection of fresh blood that V: The Series (1984 – 1985) so desperately required at this particular juncture. 

In short, Charles scrambles the power structure aboard the Mothership and confounds the Resistance in Los Angeles. The arrival of Charles, Willie (Robert Englund) reports, also means that “The Leader intends to win.”

Charles is always seen garbed in black -- and never in Visitor uniform -- and this is just one character quality that distinguishes him a bit.  

We also learn that he has a reputation among his own people as being especially well-hung, though Diana believes that this description is just a rumor and mere self-promotion.  One on hand, this sort of material is far astray from the It Can't Happen Here origin of the franchise, and a further symptom of V's Dynastyification. On the other hand, as mentioned previously, it's sort of fun.

But Charles represents real trouble for Diana because he is flippant and condescending to her.  She means nothing to him. So when Diana warns him about Lydia’s frailties, Charles responds that it is his perception of Lydia -- not Diana’s -- that matters.  By failing to take Diana and her concerns seriously, Charles clearly sets himself up for trouble with the scheming lead lizard.  She doesn’t take challenges to her authority well…


Diana, meanwhile, proves as kinky as ever in “The Conversion.”  She attempts to seduce the captured Kyle Bates, and informs him that she “learned much” from human “mating rituals.”  

Yikes.  

Honestly, I love it when V: The Series isn’t afraid to be bold in terms of Diana’s avarice for power…or sexual satisfaction. The stories on the series simply aren't that good or that distinctive, but Diana's character is one of a kind, and she adds dynamic colors to otherwise lackluster narratives.

“The Conversion” is also a strong episode for Ham Tyler, as he is forced to endure the torturous conversion process. In V: The Final Battle, Ham counseled the others that they could never trust Julie again because she had been through the process. Now Ham must reckon with the fact that he may not be as strong as Julie was, and may not be able to shake off his murderous programming.  I find Ham's self-doubt here far more interesting and appealing than the character's over-emotional turn in "Reflections of Terror.'

Interestingly, Ham is converted by the Vistiors based on two psychological qualities: his guilt over losing his wife and child in Cambodia, and his fear that Donovan is a better man than he is.  In his conversion dream, Ham imagines Donovan with his wife and little girl. This is a psychological foible that could have been developed further, because helps to more fully explain Ham's reluctance to really be friends with Gooder.


All the pieces of V: The Series’ continuing overall story arc are beginning to fit together nicely here too.  Charles has usurped Diana, which leads into a several-week long story arc.  

And at the end of “The Conversion,” Nathan Bates – “strong man of Los Angeles” -- is badly wounded and near death. 

If he dies, everything changes. The Red Dust will be released, and the atmosphere will be poisoned. In reckoning with this story line, we can finally see how V: The Series starts taking chances with its characters and stories, and stops playing everything so safe.

Thursday, March 04, 2021

V: The Series: "Reflections in Terror"


In “Reflections in Terror” it is Christmas-time in Los Angeles, the Open City. 

Mike Donovan (Marc Singer) and Ham Tyler (Michael Ironside) team up with their old Resistance friend, Mickey (Mickey Jones) to run an underground railroad out of Visitor territory for wayward children.

Ham befriends one of the children -- a little girl -- at a local church, and is reminded of his own uncomfortable past.  During the Vietnam War, he lost his wife and daughter in Cambodia, and has never been able to find them again.

Meanwhile, Diana (Jane Badler) manages through trickery to acquire a blood sample from Elizabeth (Jennifer Cooke).  

With that sample, she incubates a new Star Child, but this one is more feral and violent than her predecessor was. 

The new Star Child escapes into public, and undertakes a spree of terror.



That old hoary chestnut of science fiction television, the evil twin, is pulled out of the trope closet for this episode of V: The Series (1984 – 1985), “Reflections in Terror.”  Here, the Star Child, Elizabeth, is faced with a physical duplicate, but one who has never known a mother, or friendship.

From the war movie closet of clichés comes another moment in “Reflections in Terror:” dueling national anthems.  

In the Club Creole, a Visitor pushes Willie (Robert Englund) off the piano and begins to play the (discordant) Visitor anthem.  Julie responds by loudly singing “America the Beautiful,” which, while not the National Anthem, still gets the patriotic message across.  

But the kicker, I suppose, is that this scene is a straight-up lift from the classic film Casablanca (1942).  Of course, the whole Club Creole/Open City dynamic is a lift from Casablanca too, but this scene is the most overt example of V: The Series borrowing concepts from other productions.

There are two other major plot points in “Reflections in Terror” that are worth discussion. One is handled well, while the other is not.  

In the first case, Elizabeth and Robin (Blair Tefkin) finally have their woman-to-woman reckoning over Kyle (Jeff Yagher), and the fact that they are both in love with him.  Although Robin gives up her cause a little too easily by acknowledging that she knew the truth about Kyle’s affections, the scene is still very powerful, and well-played…just the kind of character confrontation that was too often avoided on the series. 

Not handled so well at all is Ham Tyler’s sub-plot. Ham Tyler is a great character, and one of the best things about the V franchise (beyond Jane Badler, who was, is, and always shall be the best thing about the franchise…).  

Again, this is a case of good concept scuttled by lousy execution.  It is terrific that the series starts to look into Ham’s history and background (and focuses on it again in the next episode, “The Conversion.”)  We love Ham all the more once we know that he was once like “Gooder,” a family man.  But now Ham has lost it all. He has withdrawn from the human race because of his suffering and pain.  He has shut down his emotions.

But “Reflections in Terror” treats this subplot -- if you’ll forgive the pun -- in horribly ham-handed fashion. Ham befriends a cute-as-a-button little girl but then goes off the rails when he thinks she has been hurt or taken by the Visitors.  Ham acts horribly emotional and irrational, and quite unlike the Ham we know and love.  My point: his shift in emotions could have been broached…more realistically.

And then the kicker: the last shot of the episode is Ham Tyler dressed up as Santa Claus, giving toys out to the little orphan children.  



This moment just seems monumentally out-of-character to me, not like something Ham would do at all.  

And besides, now Ham has no credibility with his friends.  He’s not only re-joined the human race, he’s bathed -- and wallowed -- in the sentiment and schmaltz.

A better scene would have seen Ham taking the girl aside, perhaps sitting beside her on a staircase, and showing her a photograph of his lost family. Then he could tell her that for him, Christmas will always be about the people in his life who matter.  And this year, she is the person who matters to him.

That would have been simple, direct and to the point, and would have preserved Ham as a  "tough" (but tortured) character. 

Instead, we get Ham in the Santa suit, and this moment is the absolute nadir for Tyler on V: The Series. 

The episode ends with an abrupt freeze-frame, coming very quickly after the reveal of the suit. It’s as if even if the editors and writers knew that this moment was atrocious, and worse, horribly false in terms of character.

Evil twins, Casablanca riffs and Ham Tyler with a creamy soft center? “Reflections in Terror” reveals V: The Series at a new low.

V: The Series: "The Dissident"


In “The Dissident,” Ham Tyler (Michael Ironside) and Kyle Bates (Jeff Yagher) stumble upon Diana’s new “toy:” a Visitor force field that will destroy all vehicles going in and out of Los Angeles at the touch of a button.

Realizing that Diana can effectively control -- and starve -- his city, Nathan Bates (Lane Smith) negotiates for a password that will allow his forces to pass safely through a tunnel or corridor in the force field.

Meanwhile, Donovan (Marc Singer) and Ham travel to the L.A. Mothership to rescue the only person capable of destroying the force field: its inventor, the blind Visitor named Jacob.

Now a member of the Fifth Column, Jacob is also the father of Visitor technology and Diana (Jane Badler) seeks to convert him to her cause.




After last week’s better-than-average installment, “The Overlord,” “The Dissident” is a return to the standard action-adventure fare the series was offering on a regular basis.

Once again, for instance, V: The Series (1984 – 1985) trots out the same stock footage of the sky-fighter battle from the original V miniseries. It has already been featured on the series at least once, in “Liberation Day” and the dogfight is instantly recognizable here.  Thus, it isn't particularly thrilling.

Worse, “The Dissident” features highly implausible action overall. 

Here, Donovan and Ham not only sneak aboard the L.A. mothership, but launch a successful strike on the bridge (while managing, yet, not to kill Diana in the ensuing gun-fight). V: The Final Battle explained well how to get to the colossal ship’s control center, the Resistance it had to penetrate levels and levels of security, and soldiers.
  
Here…not so much. Attacking the bridge is easy, and everyone important -- on both sides of the war divide -- survives intact.


If it were really this easy to infiltrate and attack the supreme HQ of an alien force, there would be no war. The Visitors would have been run off our planet after a month.

Also, the whole plot of “The Dissident” belies old-fashioned TV thinking. In short, we are not expected to remember next week what happens this week, or what happened last week.

To wit: the same plot is used again and again. Diana gets a new weapon, and the Resistance destroys it.  Everything ends in the restoration of the status quo until Diana invents the next scheme to destroy the Resistance.  

In a way, this was also the plot of “Visitors’ Choice.”  

In both cases, the weapon is introduced as a threat, removed as a threat, and the inventor of the threat (whether Sybil Danning’s Mary Krueger or Jacob, here) is killed so that the threat can’t recur. End of episode.

Don’t Visitors keep back-up files of their research?


This episode doesn't really track all that well with the final episode of the series, either.  In "The Return," we learn, for example, that the Leader himself is the Father of Visitor Technology, the creator of it all.  That seems to contradict with the information we get here vis-a-vis Jacob.

Nor is “The Dissident” helped by the fact that early in the first act it introduces a series of clips of Robin’s (Blair Tefkin) pregnancy from V: The Final Battle (1984) as the character’s nightmare.  The episode must have run short on original edit, and required this dramatic padding to reach the required length. 

In this case, however, the flashback only reminds one how much better the mini-series was than its follow-up series…

The end of “The Dissident” sees Diana blowing up Lydia’s (June Chadwick) shuttle, an act which seems to subtract a character from the long cast list.  But -- thank Heaven! -- the treacherous and scheming Lydia returns a few episodes down the line.  In fact, Lydia's apparent destruction (and surprise survival) sets up a nice upcoming story arc involving the Visitor commander, Charles.



What largely seems missing from “The Dissident” is any real or cerebral examination of Jacob as a meaningful character with a moral code. I like the idea that the builder of the destructive Visitor technology is blind, a nice visual indicator that he couldn’t really “see” the evil he was doing.  

But other than his physical condition, we find out precious little else about Jacob here.  How was he apprehended in the first place? Why did a man of his importance travel to the front line and Earth? What has he been doing to support the Fifth Column cause?  If he is a Dissident, what is his philosophy? What does he stand for?

In other words, the concept of Jacob is terrific but in practice he just feels like a cog in the machine, a character designed to appear for one episode and then be quickly forgotten.

Disposable character; disposable episode.

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...