Wednesday, March 31, 2021

V: The Series: "The Champion"

In “The Champion,” the fourteenth episode of V: The Series (1984 – 1985), Mike Donovan (Marc Singer) and Kyle Bates (Jeff Yagher) go on a crucial supply run to Tucson, but are intercepted by corrupt police running a “toll road,” en route.  

The Resistance fighters escape and take safe haven at the ranch of a plucky single mother, Kathy Courtney (Deborah Wakeman).  Kathy and her teenage daughter, Jessie (Sherri Stoner), inform Mike and Kyle that a corrupt sheriff, Roland (Hugh Gillin) is collaborating with the Visitors.

Mike and Kyle resolve to help fight the corrupt regime, but Jessie wants Mike to stay with the family permanently, and he is tempted.

Meanwhile, on the Visitor mothership, Inspector General Philip (Frank Ashmore) arrives to determine guilt in the case of Charles’ murder. 

Lydia (June Chadwick) is entitled to “combat to the death with her accuser,” Diana (Jane Badler), and the two women go a round before Philip puts an end to it.  

As Philip gathers evidence, however, he determines that Diana and Lydia should each be responsible for the other’s safety, lest any unfortunate “accidents” occur…”

“The Champion” continues the format alterations that I registered on the series last week, regarding “The Rescue.”  

Specifically, the Resistance/Earth-based story is dreadful, and the alien/mothership story is a soap opera hoot, enlivened by tongue-in-cheek performances and outrageous dialogue.

To put it another way, the material with Diana, Lydia and Philip (Martin’s brother) is a helluva lot of fun in a campy, outrageous sort of way, even if lands far astray from the franchise’s origins. 

The highlight this week occurs when Diana and Lydia engage in a ceremonial one-on-one battle while wearing glittery make-up that makes them resemble members of KISS.

The scene is not merely amusing because of the silly costuming choices, but because Diana and Lydia share some great adversarial dialogue. For instance, Lydia boasts that she has never lost a contest involving “mortal combat.”   Diana responds that Lydia is an “idiot” and that if she had lost, “she’d be dead.”  It’ just totally wicked and totally bitchy material, and Chadwick and Badler go for broke with it.

The only baffling point: why does Lydia so sincerely protest her innocence?  She was the one, indeed, who acquired the poison, and put into a cup in Charles’ chamber.  Diana may have switched cups, realizing Lydia’s plan, but the trail leads back to Lydia, pretty clearly.

By contrast to the fun intrigue on the mothership, the Resistance material is just uniformly horrible here, and hackneyed to boot. In this case, “The Champion” is a reiteration of an old 1970s-1980s TV cliché: the Single Mother in Jeopardy Syndrome. 

In stories of this type, the series protagonists stumble upon a noble woman living with her teenage child, but without the support of a husband.  She’s a feisty, independent sort – usually a widow -- but she falls in love with the series hero, who is then tempted to stay to fill in as husband and father to this broken family unit.  

In terms of the genre, the Single Mother in Jeopardy Syndrome was seen on Battlestar Galactica (with Apollo, in “The Lost Warrior”) and in Buck Rogers (“The Satyr.”)  Outside the genre, the same story appeared on The A-Team, and MacGyver, to name just two popular programs of the era.  

Here Mike is tempted to stay with Kathy and Jessie but -- of course -- does not do so.  I suppose the story fulfills sort of wish-fulfillment for the male writers and for the character of Mike.  He could just walk away from the Resistance and right into a ready-made family and “normal life.”  But of course, he has too many responsibilities to live that particular, idyllic life, doesn’t he?

Meanwhile, Julie Parrish (Faye Grant) -- Mike’s should-be romantic partner -- is out of commission for most of the episode and seen wearing a neck brace.  WTF?  

I suspect the good doctor got whiplash from all the series cast (and premise…) changes she was forced to endure over the previous three week period.  Seriously: Julie is a wonderful character, and a great role model.  Yet here she is, sitting on the sidelines so Mike can have his fantasy romance episode.

In case you couldn’t tell, we are moving now into V’s final death spiral as a series.  The Visitors have become infinitely more entertaining and fun (and three dimensional…) than the shallow human characters, and the Los Angeles Resistance has been relegated, basically, to a van full of clichéd people (the alpha male, the resident alien, the comic relief, and the secondary alpha male [!]) wandering oft-seen Southern California locations.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

V: The Series: "The Rescue"

In “The Rescue” -- the first post-cast-massacre episode of V: The Series (1984 – 1985) -- Lydia (June Chadwick) and Charles (Duncan Regher) realize that Diana (Jane Badler) is a loose cannon, but that it will be immensely difficult to remove her from Visitor Command since her attack on Earth has been successful. 

Before long, a scheming Charles devises a devious way to get rid of Diana: Section 48 of the Code of Raman.

As Visitor royalty, he can select any Visitor woman as his bride by law, without fear of the woman's refusal. 

Then, because Diana's primary job will be child-bearing, his bride can be shipped back home to the Visitor home planet, out-of-commission on the front line.

When Charles proposes to Diana, she realizes she has been (temporarily) out-maneuvered. Charles intends to send her far away once she is "married...with lizard."

However, this clever strategy goes awry when Charles catches a glimpse of the fetching Diana luxuriating in a glowing-green Visitor tub during a pre-nuptial ceremony. 

As Diana swims in the nude alongside ceremonial eels ("may the venom give you strength, and make your body fertile..."), Charles realizes he isn't so keen to send the sexy Diana away after all. At least not until he has enjoyed his honeymoon.

To that end, Charles has already "installed the most comfortable bed in the fleet." 

But Lydia is jealous, and plots to murder Diana with cat poison.  Diana sees through the plan, however, and sees to it that Charles drinks the poison instead…

On July 29, 1981, Prince Charles and Diana wed at St. Paul's Cathedral in London before a global TV audience of one billion people. 

On February 1, 1985, however, the real fireworks commenced when Diana married Visitor royalty, Charles in “The Rescue.” 

It was a match made in science fiction heaven. The groom wore black. The bride wore...scales

The ceremony in the episode is officiated by a hissing lizard-man in a Cardinal hat, and the wedding banquet consists of spiders, gerbils, rats and other small animals. (And the banquet table is decorated with a statue of Godzilla spray-painted white.) 

Forget the traditional wedding cake, Diana and Charles instead share their "ceremonial mouse.”

By this point in the franchise continuity, V: The Series has become sort of wickedly-amusing high-camp, and yet one can’t help but feel compassion for Diana as Lydia and Charles conspire against her.  The material, though silly on one level, also achieves relevance in 1980s America, particularly about the role of women in Visitor society.

Even a female who has risen so high in a military power structure as Diana has is ultimately undone by her society's expectations of her as a biological female. Accordingly, everything -- from that very command structure to the dictates of her religion -- subverts her individual desire to "achieve" in what seems a "man's" world. Even though Diana is unequivocally evil, you cheer when she defeats Charles' thoroughly unfair plan for dispatching her. 

Again, it seems worthwhile to point out that, whatever its specific failings, V: The Series was a pioneer in terms of depicting strong female characters, and even in an episode like this -- and with a character who is ostensibly a villain -- these characters are written sympathetically.  Yes, the series more closely resembles Dynasty or Dallas at this point than It Can't Happen Here, but there is still a strong connection between Diana and the audience.  She is a character we love to hate, but we also don't like to see a person of such power treated shabbily.

At the very least, the intrigue and back-stabbing on the mother-ship in “The Rescue” proves entertaining and droll.  The same can’t be said for the dire, hackneyed subplot with the Resistance.  In this case, a family seeks Julie’s (Faye Grant) help delivering a baby in the thick of the Los Angeles war zone.  The story is incredibly clichéd and hackneyed, and once more, Elizabeth demonstrates a new power that happens to help in the very moment it is needed.  She can now perfectly recall and imitate any human or visitor voice.

But each time "The Rescue" returns to Charles and Diana and their nuptials, viewers may find themselves smiling in spite of themselves. 

Badler, Regehr, and Chadwick keep (forked) tongues in cheek throughout, and are clearly having the time of their lives with this material.  The episode is outrageous, and yet it is also fun.  “The Rescue” sucks you in, despite your better judgment.  It many not be a great episode, but -- right down to the Charles and Diana wedding joke (art imitating life) -- it is an unforgettable one.

Monday, March 29, 2021

V: The Series: "The Betrayal"

In “The Betrayal,” Willie (Robert Englund) is wounded while attempting to contact another Fifth Columnist, Simon, and Diana (Jane Badler) presses her case for John (Bruce Davison) to impregnate Robin Mawell (Blair Tefkin) for the purpose of creating a second Star Child.

While the Resistance attempts to abduct a Visitor doctor to help Willie, Kyle (Jeff Yagher) learns that Chiang (Aki Aleong) is the real power in Los Angeles now, standing-in for his terminally-wounded father, Nathan Bates (Lane Smith). 

After Nathan is killed in a confrontation at Science Frontiers, and Robin learns she is not pregnant, all-out war comes to the once “Open City.”  

Accordingly, Ham (Michael Ironsides) and Robin makes plans to leave Los Angeles.

The cast massacre that commenced with Elias (Michael Wright) in “The Hero” culminates in “The Betrayal,” as the series loses three main characters and actors: Lane Smith’s Nathan Bates, Blair Tefkin’s Robin Maxwell, and most devastating of all, Michael Ironside’s Ham Tyler.

It’s fascinating that all the “pain” lands on the human side of the equation, but it would have been unthinkable to remove Diana, or Lydia from the format.  Badler's Diana is a series lynchpin (and the break-out character).  And without Lydia (and June Chadwick) the great Jane Badler would have had no one of consequence to play against.

It’s not difficult, perhaps, to see why Tefkin’s Robin gets cut.  She is not a fighter or a doctor, like Julie, and does not possess a unique set of abilities like Elizabeth.  Furthermore, she is not involved in any sort of romantic duo.  

Furthermore, writers have done her character no favors, especially in her last, brutal space in the spotlight.  She is nearly impregnated by a Visitor for a second time in "The Betrayal, and there’s an old saying: fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice…shame on me.  Robin doesn't transmit as either especially likable or especially smart.  She is no longer fits the "Anne Frank" character-type of the mini-series.

The loss of Nathan Bates occurs, I suspect, for pure cost-cutting reasons. I wonder if the producers knew the series was going to be canceled at this point, and so it was necessary to prune the cast.  If the Open City concept was done, there is simply no reason for the unaligned Nathan Bates to be involved in the series.  

The most grievous loss here, is, of course, Ham Tyler: one of the most popular and beloved characters in the V franchise.  

For me, Ham is a dramatic necessity because he often adds a sense of realism to the episode conflicts.  He’s not an idealist, he’s not a hero, and he's not a romantic lead.  He’s just a guy getting things done the best way he can, and trying to avoid layers of moral conflict.

I suspect Tyler was cut loose at this juncture because if you just look at the characters from a distance, he and Kyle serve what could be mistaken for the same purpose.  They each play the role of the guy reluctant to join the group.  If this is your viewpoint then Ham is redundant, especially given Kyle’s importance to Elizabeth.

What’s missed, largely, by the brutal cast/crew massacre of V’s mid-season is that every-time you remove a character of interest, like the morally-ambiguous but dedicated Ham, or the suburban girl grown up and trying to make her way, or the businessman just looking out for his bottom line, you start to subtract from the reality of the program, and often substantially.  Since we also lose Howard K. Smith of the "Freedom Network" in this episode as well, that's another net-minus.  His short news briefs made it feel that there was more to the world war than the action in Los Angeles.

So now -- suddenly -- you have two male action leads, a female lead, the resident alien, and the comic relief…and that’s it.  You don’t even have a person of color, anymore, among the human resistance.  

And so V’s resistance looks a lot less like real America, and more like a traditional Hollywood B-movie.

By subtracting these characters, the producers also removed the sources of almost all inter-character conflict.  Although the Robin-Kyle-Elizabeth love triangle was dropped long before “The Hero” and “The Betrayal,” losing morally ambiguous characters like Nathan Bates, Ham Tyler, and even to a degree Elias, means suddenly that the surviving characters have no one to rub up against, or chafe against.  Kyle can''t battle -- for form alliances with his father.  And Mike and Julie can''t argue a course of action with Ham.

At this point in V: The Series, the dramatic interest and initiative clearly moves to The Visitors, especially in terms of the next several episodes (“The Rescue,” and “The Champion,” especially).  Now the conflicts on the Mothership involving Diana’s ousting from power and (arranged) marriage to Charles become far more compelling than anything that happens on Earth, where everything is sort of…vanilla.

Other than the scenes involving Diana, Lydia and the Visitors, the final episodes of V are generally poor.  The L.A. Resistance seems to consist of five characters riding around Southern California in a van, and that’s it.  It’s just very underwhelming.

In a sense “The Betrayal” is really a betrayal because what V: The Series gains in terms of economy (and in terms of cut-throat drama…) it loses in terms of realism and interesting characters.

And yet this is undeniably a strong episode in context, and one followed by an even stronger one: “The Rescue.”  

The series has short term success here for the next few weeks, and then all the cast/character/budget cuts start to really hurt V in a dramatic fashion.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Thundarr The Barbarian: "Harvest of Doom"

In “Harvest of Doom,” Thundarr, Ookla, and Ariel encounter a train carrying crates filled with “the death flower,” a plant that can overcome the human will and transform people into willing slaves. 

The death flower cargo is being shipped by the lizard people, Carocs, to an evil wizard hoping to use the powerful plants against a village of innocent humans.

Ookla is affected by the death flower, leaving Ariel and Thundarr to try to free him with the help of a “swamp urchin” and her friend, a beast that resembles the legendary Sasquatch but lives in the waters of the bog.

The Carocs, however, don’t take kindly to Thundarr’s interference with their plans…

Thundarr the Barbarian (1980 – 1982) is a Saturday morning TV series that doesn’t often trade in half-measures, or temper the storytelling to preserve the sensibilities of its audience, and that’s a good thing, at least on (adult) retrospect.  

Here, Thundarr and Ariel encounter the aforementioned “swamp urchin” -- a pre-adolescent girl, basically -- and the episode doesn’t sentimentalize her to any significant degree.  She is not found a healthy home with adopted parents, nor reunited with her original biological family.  She survives to live another day, and that’s about the best that can happen for her in this post-apocalyptic realm.  Many other shows would take pains to suggest that she is okay, and taken care of, but not Thundarr.

Similarly, the Carocs waste no time in ordering Ariel and Thundarr killed.  They are dumped in a pit, and left to die.  There’s no talking their way out of a grim fate.

Even the climax, which finds Thundarr setting fire to sprawling fields of the death flowers, is final, punchy, and uncompromising.  A deadly threat to humankind is extinguished without a second thought. 

The message from all of this is that-- in this future universe -- the denizens (and even the good guys…) play for keeps.

Last week, I wrote a bit about my favorite image in the premiere story: Medieval-styled knights jumping from a 20th century military helicopter to attack Thundarr and his friends.   

Here, the combination of pre-apocalyptic tech and post-apocalyptic life finds the Caroc -- the green crocodile people -- manning an ancient locomotive.   Another resonant image in “Harvest of Doom” depicts Thundarr and his white steed near a railroad bridge, with the shattered split-moon in the night sky.  

Again, this sort of fantastic image -- which conjures the past and the future -- captures perfectly the imaginative nature of the series.

Watching Thundarr The Barbarian as an adult today, it’s kind of fun, as well, to wonder where the characters are, in terms of geography. In last week’s installment, they visited Manhat/Manhattan.  In “Harvest of Doom,” Thundarr and his friends explore a Golden Pyramid that looks native to South America…perhaps Peru.   I suppose a Thundarr super-fan might be able to chart the barbarian’s path in the series, from one ruined vista to another, from one land to another. 

If there’s any sort of typical or predictable Saturday morning “sermonizing” in this episode of Thundarr, it is handled with relative restraint.  The sasquatch creature -- ugly and frightening -– turns out to be a gentle friend, thus reminding kids not to judge a book by its cover, I suppose.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

The Adventures of Superman: "The Wedding of Superman"

I’ve always enjoyed “what if” stories in the comic-book and superhero milieu.  What if Hal Jordan hadn’t been the recipient of the green power ring? What if Krypton had never been destroyed?  What if Batman’s parents hadn’t died that night in Gotham City?

Adventures of Superman provides a very early televised example of this form in the entry titled “The Wedding of Superman.”  As Lois Lane (Noel Neill) announces at the drama’s commencement -- breaking the fourth wall and addressing the camera -- “this is my story.”

Lois’s story involves the fact that she has been tasked by Daily Planet editor Perry White (John Hamilton) with answering the lonely hearts column, and is buried, literally, in thousands of letters.  She asks Perry for help from the Planet staff, but Perry White, Superman, and Inspector Henderson (Robert Shayne) are too busy attempting to ferret out the identity of the new criminal ring-leader in Metropolis to pay Lois much heed.

That night, Lois falls asleep reading the lonely hearts column, and -- though the audience doesn’t realize it at first -- concocts a romantic fantasy or “dream” about marrying Superman.  First The Man of Steel sends her flowers.  Then, he foils a jewelry store robbery and gives her a diamond.  Then, he proposes marriage, causing Lois to worry about how Clark will receive the news of her impending nuptials.  Superman tells her not to worry, that he is actually Clark Kent.

The wedding ceremony goes off almost without a hitch, except for the fact that there is a time bomb hidden in the wedding cake, one sheathed in lead, and therefore invisible to Superman’s x-ray vision…

When Lois awakens from her dream, she can’t believe it wasn’t real, though even she freely admits that the idea that mild-mannered Clark Kent could be the Man of Steel is incredibly far-fetched.

“The Wedding of Superman” is another enjoyable, fast-paced episode of this classic series, and a good “what if” scenario played out.  

The biggest problem with the episode today is that morals and sensibilities have changed so much in sixty years that at points the story comes off as horribly sexist.  Lois is ignored and generally treated like a child in the meeting with Perry and the other men, and her concerns about being over-worked are shunted aside and ignored.  

Also, the primary idea here seems to be that Lois just wants to get married and have a traditional 1950s family.  But, of course, she’s already achieved incredible success in her career as a reporter at a major metropolitan newspaper.  We all know that Lois pines for Superman, but she also pines for the big journalism “get,” right?  It does the character no service to turn her into a love-sick puppy.

As is often the case, this Adventures of Superman episode veritably thrives on George Reeves’ underplaying of moments that, in the wrong hands, could be campy.   As Superman, he exudes authority and dignity, and more than that even, crafty intelligence.  There’s always the sense with this incarnation of the Man of Steel that he’s thinking two steps ahead of everyone else, anticipating and avoiding pitfalls and land-mines.  I saw it in "Through the Time Barrier," and it is a factor in this story as well.

Reeves brings this high-level of intelligence to his portrayal of Clark Kent, and all his scenes as the “mild mannered” reporter practically sizzle with double-meaning, and with the knowledge that he is interpreting every event through a very different lens than either Jimmy or Lois might.  It’s a deft balancing act for the character, but Reeves is downright graceful in the part.  

Comic-book fans can debate the eras of Superman, and the important question of his identity.  Is Kal-El really Superman, disguised as Clark?  Or is Clark the real personality and Superman the disguise? If one had to choose an option from the Reeves’ portrayal, it would seem that Superman is the real personality, and Clark the disguise.  Lois and Clark inverted this dynamic.

I selected this episode of Adventures of Superman to review in part because it’s got that ‘what if’ quality, in part because it demonstrates how far we have come today vis-à-vis women in the workplace, and in part because, for a change, the focus is not on crime, but on the Lois/Superman relationship.  This is very much the direction that future versions of the Superman myth, adapted to television, would follow.  Both Lois and Clark (1992 – 1996) and Smallville (2001 – 2011) focus heavily on the central romantic relationships.

In terms of Lois and her psychology, I find it intriguing that in her romantic dream, she knows the truth that Clark is Superman.  Her conscious mind may not let her believe it, but somewhere, her subconscious knows and understands the truth.  Lois’s inability to “recognize” Clark as Superman is a facet of the mythos that irritates a lot of people, I suppose but it seems to mirror a universal human fact that the truth sometimes hides in plain sight.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

The Adventures of Superman: "Superman on Earth"

“Come now on a far journey…a journey that takes us millions of miles from Earth…”

-          - Adventures of Superman: “Superman on Earth”

The 1950s incarnation of the Superman legend commences in “Superman on Earth,” the inaugural installment of Adventures of Superman (1952 – 1957).  

Long-time fans of the franchise in comic-book and movie form will recognize the beats of this origin story, but the tale nonetheless remains timely and exciting more-than-sixty years later, in part due to the nature of the crisis which paralyzes Krypton, and the government council’s ineffective response to it.

In “Superman on Earth,” the wise scientist Jor-El (Robert Rockwell) speaks before the assembled Governing Council of Krypton on “urgent business.”  The planet has been suffering climatic change such as tidal waves, and also quakes and volcanic eruptions.   Jor-El’s “solar calculations” suggest that within a month the “gravitational pull of the sun will be so strong” that Krypton will be ripped apart.  Instead of planning for the crisis, the Council men laugh at this theory, calling it an “insult” to the intelligence. Out-of-hand, they dismiss Jor-El’s plan to colonize another world, planet Earth.

But very soon, disaster looms, and Jor-El and Lara must send their only son, infant Kal-El to Earth, where his rocket is discovered by corn-fed Kansas farmers Eben and Sarah Kent (rather than the more familiar sounding Jonathan and Martha Kent of later iterations).  

Kal-El grows up and feels like an outsider. He asks his mother: “Why am I different from all the other boys?  Why can I do thing that no one else can do?”  These very questions later form the gestalt of Smallville’s (2001 – 2011) interpretation of the legend.

After his father’s passing, Clark (George Reeves) says goodbye to his Mom at the bus depot, and heads to Metropolis. Sarah tells him “You’ve got a great responsibility to the world,” and Clark seeks a job at the Daily Planet because, by working as a journalist, he can be aware quickly -- before anyone else -- of local and international emergencies.

To get the job of reporter from cranky editor Perry White (John Hamilton), however, Clark must prove himself as a journalist.  He soon gets an exclusive from a mechanic who fell from a blimp in flight…and was rescued by Superman!

I was struck, watching “Superman on Earth,” how closely the later interpretations of Superman, including the Richard Donner film of 1978, follow the details presented here, though with superior production values. 

On that front, it’s clear that The Adventures of Superman is a low-budget show.  Jor-El wears an outfit left-over from the Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s, and the dome of Krypton’s governing council is actually Griffith Observatory.

Visuals aside, virtually very “core” aspect of the Superman, Shuster/Seigel mythos is here, from the opening act on doomed, arrogant Krypton, to the humble fields of Smallville, to the urbane spires of Metropolis.  The only primary incident that this TV adaptation fails to include is the creation of the Fortress of Solitude.

Today, the scenes at the government council of Krypton hold a special relevance as Jor-El’s science is mocked and dismissed by men who should know better.  Indeed, one loud-mouthed, insulting man on the panel could well be James Inhofe, the U.S. Senate’s climate change denier-in-chief.  Jor-El argues his points with reason and fact, but is faced with people of such small minds and limited imagination that there’s nothing he can do to prevent catastrophe  The result of such thick-headed ignorance: everyone on Krypton (save one child…) dies.  A civilization is destroyed.  

The reason that climate change may be thought of when watching “Superman on Earth” today isn’t just the ignorant nature of the governing body, but the very nature of the threat.  There is talk of a recent tidal wave, for instance, which definitely evokes fears of global warming.

Only 26 minutes in duration, “Superman on Earth” doesn’t have the time to linger on the details of Superman’s journey, but rather hit the high points of his tale, such as his origin on Krypton, his feelings of isolation in Smallville, and his eventual maturity and acceptance of responsibility in Metropolis.  George Reeves only appears in the last few minutes of the show, but makes a strong impression both as the young Clark Kent mourning his father’s death, and as the determined, would-be reporter, attempting to impress his boss and land an assignment.  

As writer David Smith described the Reeves’ mystique (in Starlog #9, October 1977, page 54): “Reeves gave the TV character the same kind of visual appeal that Jerome Siegel and Joe Shuster had achieved with their original comic strip superhero. Handsome, humble and intelligent, the actor almost magically transformed into Superman.”

“Superman on Earth” also establishes Clark’s X-Ray vision and the fact that his costume is just as invicible as he is.  Sarah Kent reports that she made the Superman costume from the indestructible blanket she found Clark wrapped in when he crashed in his rocket.  Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993 – 1996) offered a variation of this idea, with Martha Kent noting that the “S” emblem on Clark’s costume came from the materials she found the boy wrapped in.

Fast-paced and fun, “Superman on Earth” is a great start to a classic series, even though series regulars such as John Hamilton, Phyllis Coates, and Jack Larson are not yet in the spotlight.

Monday, March 22, 2021

The Adventures of Superman (1952-1957) - Opening Montage

The introductory montage to Adventures of Superman is elegant simplicity. 

This introduction is concise, vivid, and blunt. 

In short, it transmits to the audience absolutely everything it needs to know about the superhero series in order to enjoy an episode.

The introduction opens with an adventurous title card (above), and then we get the perfect conjunction of voice-over and imagery.  What we see is, simultaneously, what we are told.

First, we get acquainted with Superman's amazing capabilities.

He is "faster than a speeding bullet," and the montage cuts to a gun firing. 

He is "more powerful than a locomotive," and so we see a train racing by on a track.

He is able to "leap tall buildings in a single bound," and the camera pans up and up across the exterior of a skyscraper.

Next, a voice implores us to "look up in the sky."  It's a bird! It's a plane!'s....Superman. 

During this interlude, we are treated to the series central (and stock...) special effects footage, of Superman flying through the air. We hear "wind" sound-effects as he travels.

The next series of compositions are all the same, modified only by one small change between shots, again proving the montage's economical nature.  

First, we learn that Superman is a "strange visitor from another world" as we see him striding over the Earth in his colorful costume. The background of the planet suggests this alien or interplanetary nature.

Then, the image shifts.  Only Superman changes, as the background remains the same.  Now, he is seen in his "disguise" as "Clark Kent, the mild-mannered reporter from a major Metropolitan paper, the Daily Planet.

Finally, the image changes again.  An American flag now appears behind Superman (back in uniform...) when he learn that the hero fights for "Truth, justice, and the American way."  The flag appears just as the narrator stress the word "American."

In just under a minute then, this colorful and terse montage introduces us to Superman's powers, his origin, his secret identity, and his quest.

In short, it's absolutely perfect. There is not a wasted breath, image or sound here, and in some sense, this brevity of detail captures the essential strength of the central character, the Man of Steel.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Thundarr the Barbarian: "Secret of the Black Pearl"

Although it was likely He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983 – 1985) that captured fully the imagination of young fantasy audiences in the early 1980s, I have always boasted tremendous affection as well for another genre piece of roughly the same age: Thundarr the Barbarian (1980 – 1982).  

This NBC Saturday morning series was created by Steve Gerber of Howard the Duck fame, and featured production design from Jack Kirby and Alex Toth. Produced by Ruby-Spears, Thundarr the Barbarian, according to its opening narration, involves “savagery, super-science and sorcery.” 

The premise of the series is that in the far-flung year of 1994, a runaway planet passes between the Earth and the moon, destroying man’s civilization virtually overnight.  The opening credits of the series are very picturesque, and reveal the moon shattered in two, and volcano lava encroaching on imperiled urban areas.

Two-thousand years later, a new world has arisen from the ashes, one of monsters, mutants, barbarians, and even heroes like Thundarr.  This great hero (another descendant, no doubt, of Howard’s Conan…) carries a special high-tech weapon called a “sun sword” which, like a light-saber, can retract into a special hilt.  Thundarr wears that sword hilt on a wrist gauntlet for easy access in times of strife.

Thundarr -- “a barbarian who fights like a demon” – also travels with two companions.  The first is the beautiful Princess Ariel, who boasts a working knowledge of pre-apocalypse times, as well as relics of that long-gone age such as “movies.”  

The second companion is a growling, Wookie-esque friend named Ookla.  He’s a creature called a Mok (amok, get it?) and a loyal friend as well.  

These three warriors ride together through the ruined and dangerous landscape, and battle many different colorful villains, including Groundlings (humanoid rat creatures), powerful wizards, and lizard people too.  Thundarr’s journeys often take him inside the ruins of ancient cities, where danger and intrigue await. Over the course of the series, he sees Manhattan, Washington D.C., Las Vegas, San Francisco, and London.

In Thundarr The Barbarian’s first episode, “Secret of the Black Pearl,” Ariel, Ookla and Thundarr rush to the aid of a “courier of the black pearl,” named Tyron.  

Tyron has been attempting to keep the mystical black pearl out of the hands of a deadly wizard named Gemini.  He was en route to the ancient city of “Manhat” (Manhattan…) when intercepted by Groundlings.  He had planned to deliver the pearl to the defenseless humans living in the ruins of old New York…

Now Thundarr assumes that mission, but faces the minions of Gemini, who are hell-bent on stopping delivery of the pearl. 

In one of the first episode’s finest visual inventions, we see the sword-carrying knights of Gemini jump from a hovering helicopter to attack Thundarr and his friends on the ground below.  This image is a perfect conjunction of sorcery/super-science/savagery, and fits in beautifully with the “apocalypse mentality” of the 1980s, a philosophy seen in films such as The Road Warrior (1982), Warriors of the Wasteland (1983) and Defcon  4 (1985).   Here, the ancient helicopter has been re-purposed as the weapon of primitives who would have no idea, even, about its construction centuries ago.

The latter half of “Secret of the Black Pearl” involves Thundarr, Ookla, and Ariel battling Gemini in the ruins of Manhattan, and there are many impressive frames of the ruination.  Humorously, we also see a poster for Jaws 9, at one point.

Later, Gemini utilizes his evil magic to bring the Statue of Liberty to terrifying life (a moment that forecasts the Weeping Angel Statue of Liberty in the new Doctor Who), but Thundarr is able to vanquish the monstrosity by using Gemini’s pearl against him.  Uniquely, even the visual appearance of Gemini is one with some relevance to new Who.  Gemini boasts two faces: a human, normal one, and a grimacing monster one.  The faces rotate to prominence. This facet of the character reminded me a bit of the Smilers/Winders in the Who serial “The Beast Below.”

Overall, “The Secret of the Black Pearl” is a pretty straightforward fantasy adventure, with elements of the productions I have listed above, as well as Star Wars, and Beneath the Planet of the Apes.  I find the series generally inventive, in part, because it couches its premise of apocalypse in terms of being an accident or disaster, rather than the result of nuclear war.  That was likely a necessity for Thundarr getting a billet on the Saturday morning schedule.  

But clearly, Thundarr the Barbarian is a kid’s version of much of the adult entertainment of the era, focusing on the end of technological civilization, and what might come next, after the fall of man. 

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