Saturday, November 27, 2021

Blackstar: "The Air Whales of Anchar"


Blackstar’s star-sword is damaged beyond conventional repair during an attack by vampire men.

The only thing in the universe that can fix the damaged weapon is the song of an air-whale. 

Mara and Blackstar proceed to search out the air-whales of Anchar, only to learn that a villain called Neolis has captured a calf and is enslaving it.

Blackstar boards Neolis’s airship, but is captured and forced to work in the ship’s bowels. 

If he can only convince Neolis’s daughter, Lila, to help him, he has a chance of freeing the air whale and repairing his sword...



“The Air Whales of Anchar” is an amusing Blackstar story, and one that combines a lot of intriguing elements.  

We get some information about the nature of the star-sword, for instance, and meet a Captain Ahab of the air: Neolis. He is missing one hand, instead of a leg, but the comparison to Melville's antagonist is clear.


Also, viewers meet the air whales, inoffensive creatures who apparently inhabit the skies of Sagar.

The only disappointing aspect of the episode is its reliance on the love story subplot. This story was used a lot in Filmation’s Flash Gordon (1979-1981) as well.  Basically, a hero from another planet gains the trust of a beautiful woman, and she helps him overthrow the villain.  

Here, Lila helps Blackstar engineer a slave rebellion on the air ship, in defiance of her father. The story relies on some pretty far-fetched ideas, like a woman falling so helplessly in love with a strange man that she would choose him over her ostensibly beloved family.  It’s 1970s (or 80s…) sexist, as Joss Whedon might aptly note at this juncture.

Still, it is nice that Blackstar goes a little off-formula in this episode. For a change, Blackstar isn’t battling an evil spell from the Overlord.  Instead, the quest is to repair his damaged star-sword.  Of course, even that plot element defies logic.



If Blackstar’s star-sword explodes, he will lose it; it’s true. 

But it will also be lost to the Overlord, and thus he will have no opportunity to become the all-powerful ruler of Sagar. So, from a certain viewpoint, it would make more sense for Blackstar to allow the sword to be destroyed.  It would put an end to all he Overlord’s plans…permanently.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

John, Space:1999, and The Bloody Pit!

I recently had the great pleasure of appearing as a guest on Rodney Barnett's podcast, The Bloody Pit, to discuss Space:1999 (1975 - 1977).  Our wide-ranging discussion also includes the Powys Space:1999 novel line, and Blake's 7 (1978-1981)!

You can listen in to the conversation here.

Monday, November 22, 2021

25 Years Ago: Star Trek: First Contact (1996)



Star Trek: First Contact
 (1996) is likely the finest of The Next Generation feature films.  In part, this is so because the film combines an extremely popular villain, the Borg, with an extremely popular idea in the franchise: time travel.  

In part, First Contact also thrives because the film is more action-oriented and visceral than some of the other entries in the canon. The screenplay, by Brannon Braga and Ronald Moore also goes through fewer contortions than Generations did to fashion its compelling tale.  Where Generations seemed confusing and contrived, First Contact feels stream-lined and sleek. 

Perhaps most importantly, Star Trek: First Contact – while occasionally gory and quite violent – remembers that the core of Star Trek’s appeal does not rest in warfare and hatred, but rather in the exploration of the “human adventure.”  

By ending on the high note of humanity’s first contact with the Vulcans, First Contact honors Star Trek’s important legacy of hope and promise.  This vision of a better tomorrow (and of a better humanity, to boot), differentiates the franchise from virtually all other space adventures, and makes the film a pleasure to watch, even fifteen years after its theatrical release.  An average Star Trek movie can excite you with space battles, certainly, but only a very good one can tap into the inspirational nature of Gene Roddenberry’s celebrated creation.

Accordingly, film critics approved of and admired the film, and First Contact remains one of the best-reviewed Star Trek films in the saga’s history.  Variety wrote: “Star Trek: First Contact" is a smashingly exciting sci-fi adventure that ranks among the very best in the long-running Paramount franchise. Better still, this is one TV spinoff that does not require ticket buyers to come equipped with an intimate knowledge of the small-screen original. Fans and non-fans alike will line up for this wild ride, and many will be repeat customers.”

Lloyd Rose at The Washington Post praised Jonathan Frakes’ direction, and opined “There are moments of visionary beauty in this film that rank with "Metropolis," with Josh Meador's interior vistas in "Forbidden Planet" and Irvin Kershner's and Ralph Quarrie's work in "The Empire Strikes Back" -- that is to say, with the best fantasy films ever made.

As a reviewer and unapologetic Trek fan, I boast deeper reservations about First Contact than Rose apparently did, and feel that while the film is indeed the best of the Next Generation cinematic efforts, it still falls short of the cinematic majesty and scope of The Motion Picture (1979), or the sheer emotionality and humanity of The Wrath of Khan (1982).  

Part of the reason that Star Trek: First Contact doesn’t work on the same rarefied level as those aforementioned titles is that many of the earthbound scenes involving James Cromwell’s recalcitrant Zefram Cochrane boast no effective foil for the mischievous inventor of warp speed technology.  Riker, Troi and Geordi are beloved characters to be certain, but they are never really established effectively in the script as larger-than-life personalities with the heft to match Cochrane note-for-note and blow-for-blow.  As a result, the film’s pace lags badly every time First Contact returns to Earth and the Borg are shunted off-screen.

By contrast, the Borg themselves (itself?) are incredibly effective in design, concept and execution.  They are visually-inspired, dynamic villains, and First Contact benefits strongly from their presence, even if aspects of their culture (namely the Borg Queen) now seem contradictory and unnecessarily muddled.   As a longtime Star Trek fan, I was also disappointed with some of the shoddy continuity in the film, especially because in most cases the flaws were unnecessary and could have been easily rectified in post-production.

But such quibbles aside, Star Trek: First Contact remains a fun and involving science fiction adventure.  It’s an eminently sturdy entry in the long-lived franchise, and comes close to recapturing successfully the character chemistry that made Star Trek: the Next Generation so beloved an endeavor. 


“A group of cybernetic creatures from the future have traveled back through time to enslave the human race... and you're here to stop them?


In the 24th Century, the cybernetic Borg attempt a second invasion of Sector 001, the home of the human race.  Instead of warping to planet Earth to join the battle, however, Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) and the U.S.S Enterprise-E are ordered to stay away.  Starfleet fears that Picard’s traumatic experience being assimilated by the Borg could make him an “unstable element” in the critical defense of Earth.

With his crew’s support, Captain Picard ignores Starfleet’s orders and assumes control of the fleet battling the Borg Cube.  Able to hear the Borg’s thoughts, Captain Picard pinpoints the cube’s weakness and destroys it, but not before a Borg escape craft opens a temporal anomaly and travels into Earth’s past.

Caught in the energetic wake of the escaping Borg sphere, the Enterprise crew can only watch as Earth of the past is assimilated by the cybernetic organisms.  The starship follows the Borg to the past, to April of 2063 in an effort to prevent the change.  There, they learn that the diabolical aliens plan to scuttle Earth’s “first contact” with alien life forms following the successful test flight of Zefram Cochrane’s (James Cromwell’s) experimental warp ship.  

Picard realizes he must preserve the timeline, or the human race will become…Borg.

Before long, the Enterprise herself is infested with Borg invaders.  Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner) is captured by the Borg Queen (Alice Krige), who requires the information stored in his android brain if she wishes to access the ship’s computer and stop Cochrane’s historic flight.  

Meanwhile, on Earth’s surface below, Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) must convince Cochrane to make his historic flight…

“I am the beginning. The end. The one who is many. I am the Borg.


The Borg are really no-brainers as movie antagonists.  The most beloved episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation remains the two-parter “The Best of Both Worlds,” concerning a Borg incursion into Federation space. The Borg are such popular villains because they promise a fate much worse than death.  

It’s one thing to be killed by drooling, murderous aliens; it’s another thing entirely to have your individuality wiped away and your intelligence sublimated into the Borg Collective.  In that state, your memories belong to the Borg.  Your physicality belongs to the Borg.  Your very soul…is theirs.  

Somewhere inside, you may want to struggle against the Collective or Hive, but you can’t succeed.  You must stand by and watch in a kind of living Hell as the Borg exploit your knowledge and exploit your body, perhaps even condemning your very loved ones to the nightmare of being “one” with the collective. It’s a horrid fate to imagine, let alone endure.  

The Borg threat also works remarkably well in the context of The Next Generation, a series that -- through the inclusion of half-Betazaoids, Klingons, androids, the blind and other colorful characters -- champions diversity as a worthwhile human ideal.

The Borg destroy diversity, making all life-forms conform to their vision of perfection, thus making them a perfect adversary for our colorful and very individual 24th century heroes.

Assimilation into the Borg group consciousness is such a powerful, frightening notion that it would be nearly impossible to ruin the threat of the Borg in a two-hour motion picture.  And yet, First Contact almost achieves the impossible by giving the Borg a heretofore unseen new ruler, a single individual called the Borg Queen.  

Now, let me be plain: Alice Krige is remarkable as the Borg Queen here.  She gives a performance simultaneously terrifying and sensual.  Similarly, her appearance is both frightening and incredibly sexy.  And yet the very idea of a Borg Queen represents a terrible undermining of the original notion of the Borg: a collective life form. 

Now, suddenly – after several years of Next Generation episodes – we learn that that the Borg are ruled by an individual leader?  By the equivalent of a Queen Bee?  And worse, this Queen Bee is apparently seeking a human mate?  Here, it is plain she seeks not to make drones of protagonists Captain Picard or Data, but to make them her lovers and companions, co-rulers of the lower Borg caste. 

In one fell swoop, then, the terror and anonymity of assimilation is largely undone.  For one thing, the Borg can maintain individuality after assimilation, as the presence and personality of the Borg Queen prove.  For another, our heroes don’t face total erasure of individuality.  Instead, they get to hob-knob it with the sensual, if sadistic, Borg Queen.  There are some humans who may not consider that arrangement so terrible, frankly, given her overt sensuality… 

I understand the (flawed) thinking that individuals make a “better” enemy in a movie than a group of bad guys, but the popularity of the Borg as a collective in the Next Generation TV series proves the fallacy of such thinking.  First Contact invents a new character in the Borg Queen that -- while beautiful and menacing -- totally undercuts the terror of the Borg equation.

Her presence raises important questions too.  How does the Queen exist in multiple dimensions at once, since First Contact suggests that she was present on the Borg ship with Locutus, although though we never saw her there in “Best of Both Worlds?” 

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, how do the Borg survive (into episodes of Voyager) if their multi-dimensional Queen keeps getting destroyed?  How many Queens are there?  How does she die?  Does Star Trek now possess an un-killable character?   Also, because she can apparently be in more than one dimension at a time, why does the Queen have to bother with sending a message to the Borg of her time by sensor dish?  Why not just transition from one place to another, one time to another?

Another serious problem in First Contact again comes down to how writers Ronald Moore and Brannon Braga choose to highlight crew interaction.  Specifically, superficial “movie thinking” undercuts what could have been incredible scenes of conflict and drama between Enterprise team members.  

Here, Patrick Stewart delivers an incredibly well-written Moby Dick speech about the Borg, explaining in detail why he won’t fall back again, why he won’t let the Borg win.  Stewart does a terrific job with the material.  It’s the monologue of an obsessed, driven man, and it works quite effectively in terms of the character we love, even if it seems logical that he would have exorcised these Borg demons already, given the span of time between “Family” and First Contact.


But forget all that. Picard gets called on the carpet and called out for his obsession with Borg… by Lily (Alfre Woodard), a one-time guest star in the franchise.  She goes toe-to-toe with Picard and points out how his pursuit of the Borg doesn’t make sense.  She’s known him for maybe a few hours, when she makes the speech.

I’ll be blunt: this confrontation should have occurred between Captain Picard and Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden).  She has known Captain Picard longer than anyone else aboard ship, she can speak from experience -- not hear say --  that his orders usually make sense, and she boasts the standing as chief medical officer of the Enterprise to stop Picard in his tracks if he is acting in a manner that is dangerous to the well-being of the starship’s crew.  

If this were an original cast Star Trek movie, do you have any doubt that it would have been McCoy calling Kirk on the carpet over his behavior, as he did, explicitly in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), to name just three incidents?  McCoy could do it because he was Kirk’s confidante, and because he had that standing as CMO to question a captain’s behavior.

Again, Crusher – who shares breakfast with Picard every day as we know from the series – is that person in The Next Generation universe.  Yes, Stewart and Woodard are powerful in the confrontation scene together, but it doesn’t resonate deeply in terms of Star Trek history, because Picard doesn’t get checked by one of his own, by one of his crew. These movies are supposed to be about how starship crews work together to resolve problems, right?  Shouldn't the person who actually knows Picard be the one to question him?  You may recall, I had a similar problem with how Generations used Crusher.  She should have been Picard's "Nexus" ideal, given their relationship there. And she should do her duty as CMO here, in First Contact. It's not that I have a thing for Crusher (though I like her just fine).  It's that as a member of the team, when there is an opportunity to use her character appropriately...she should be thus used.  And she never is.  In any Star Trek movie.  Even Chekov, Sulu and Uhura had moments in the sun in the original Star Trek films when there was opportunity.

I’ve always believed this a major flaw in the Next Generation movies: they give the supporting cast members little to do, and farm out the dramatic work to guest stars inside of established characters.  The Moby Dick scene would have been infinitely more powerful if Gates McFadden – whom we know and love as Crusher – had been given the opportunity to stand up to Captain Picard.  I wrote above how Riker, Geordi and Troi don’t seem equal to the task of countering Cochrane here.  The same is true of Crusher in First Contact: she’s written like a doormat.  She remains on the bridge, without questioning orders, while Lily enthusiastically performs her job as chief medical officer. 

This reveals -- as we see time and time again – that there’s definitely a pecking order in the Star Trek: The Next Generation movies:  the men get better roles than the women do, and Picard, Riker, Worf and Data get the lion’s share of the drama, while the rest of the characters are afforded only brief moments that play as the equivalent of shtick.  Troi gets to play drunk, for example.  In First Contact, Crusher not only shirks her duty to hold Picard’s feet to the fire over a bad decision, she actually loses a patient (Lily again…) who is under her protection.  That’s the best the writers could come up with for a character who raised a son, overcame the tragic death of her husband, commanded the Enterprise from time-to-time and even headed Starfleet Medical?

In short, for First Contact, the writers decided to go out and invent a woman tough enough to challenge Picard, when a woman already in the Next Generation stable could have done it just as well, and it would have resonated far more with the Trek fan base.  All they needed to do was to write Gates McFadden a decent part.

In the introduction to this piece, I wrote about some careless errors in the film.  Let me name just a few.  At one point, Picard tells Lily the Enterprise consists of 24 decks. Later, Worf’s security chief replacement reports that the Borg control "deck 26."  If we’re to believe Picard, that deck doesn’t exist.  By looping “24” over the “26” dialogue, this would error would not have occurred.  I just can’t believe that nobody was checking continuity on a major studio’s tent-pole franchise.

Other matters of concern include the origin of Zefram Cochrane.  He is a character from the original series episode “Metamorphosis,” and one with an entirely different look and origin (in terms of home planets, apparently) than what this movie establishes. But First Contact feels no obligation to explain the discrepancies in Cochrane’s biography.  

Also, since when can Captain Picard hear the voices of the Borg?  Is this a common side effect of those who have been separated from the Collective?  If so, did Hugh, the Borg refugees of “Descent” and Seven of Nine also hear Borg voices in their heads whenever they encountered them?


In spite of such problems, Star Trek: First Contact is a highly entertaining movie with many dramatic and visually-appealing high points.  


Prime among these is the zero-gravity sequence in which Picard, Worf and Hunt must battle the Borg on the exterior of the Enterprise hull, on the main deflector dish.  This scene is splendidly-directed, buttressed by incredible special effects, and it features an undercurrent of anxiety throughout, as the Borg – slowly becoming aware of Picard’s interference – begin to menace the crew as the team works to stop them.  

I remember, circa 1994 or so, I was deeply disenchanted with the Star Trek universe and consequently looking back at Space: 1999 (1975 -1977) with much appreciation, because I felt that the world of the Enterprise had become too safe and predictable.  Space adventuring was no longer dangerous.   Now it consisted of vacations on holodecks, endless resources and material wealth, courtesy of replicators, and even families living on the saucer section while exploring the final frontier.  I lamented the fact that not once in Star Trek: The Next Generation or Deep Space Nine up to that point, had any main character been seen in a space suit, actually reckoning with the actual environment of space.  The crew members of Starfleet seemed to me too insulated from danger.

So I was delighted that Star Trek: First Contact included this zero-g sequence and put my qualms to rest, at least momentarily.  The zero-gravity action scene in Star Trek: First Contact reminds us that these men and women are in a dangerous profession, and that even with all the comforts of “technology unchained” in the 24th century, they must still sometimes go out into space with precious few resources to fight enemies, or attempt to repair their ship.   The zero-gravity fight scene is actually my favorite in the film because it is so tense, and because it features so many nice character touches, from Picard’s unconventional cleverness (blasting a Borg into space by shooting the deck of the ship…) to Worf’s “always be prepared” mentality, bringing a blade out into space with him.  It’s terrific stuff.

I also enjoy the climax of Star Trek: First Contact tremendously because it remembers that Star Trek isn’t always supposed to be about battling hostile aliens.  This is one of the reasons why I’m not all that impressed with Star Trek Online. It’s a game about going out to other worlds and fighting aliens, about firing phasers and engaging in battle. 

For me, that’s but one small aspect of Star Trek, and not, for me, the one with the most appeal.  Star Trek: First Contact features great battle sequences, but more than that, ends on the high note of first contact.  It shows us an important and inspiring scene in human history, our first, peaceful meeting with extra-terrestrials.  In this case, the humans who broach that contact are fatigued from war, and not “perfect” (like our 24th century protagonists).  And yet they lead with trust and peace, and a wonderful, new era is opened up because of their willingness to go out on a limb.  Frankly, I find the final scenes of First Contact absolutely inspiring, reminding us of the better angels of our nature.  We can greet the unknown not with fear, paranoia and suspicion, but with hope and peace and trust. 


In ending the film on this high note, rather than the (admittedly-satisfying) defeat of the villainous Borg, First Contact remembers and honors the highest aspirations of Gene Roddenberry and the Star Trek saga.  Remember “the human adventure is just beginning?” the tag-line of Star Trek: The Motion Picture?  First Contact literalizes that motto, and shows us the wondrous beginnings of man’s odyssey to the stars, beginning with the first moments of brotherhood with another race.  It’s a fantastic and inspiring story-point.

I also appreciate the creativity involved in Data’s subplot in First Contact. I didn’t care for how Data was utilized in Generations…as a veritable bi-polar psychotic. Here, he seems more...balanced.  He faces temptation as the Borg perform an assimilation in reverse.  Usually, the Borg apply mechanical prosthetics to biological skin.  Here, they apply biological skin to a mechanical apparatus.  It’s an interesting idea, especially since Data suggests early on that he can’t be assimilated by the Borg.  The Queen proves him wrong, and in a diabolical fashion that tempts Data.  We never really believe he has turned to the dark side...but as Data suggests, a few seconds can feel like eternity when we're uncertain of his exact motivations. 

I understand that Star Trek fans are divided on the subject of Frakes as a director.  He gets good performances from the cast here, and manages several action scenes nicely.  Judging by First Contact, he certainly seems up to the center seat...the director's chair. 

Between the zero-g action, the up-lifting last moments of first contact, and Data’s unique experience being Borgified, it’s largely futile to resist First Contact, a high-point for the Next Generation cast at the movies

Have a Monster-ous Holiday, 1970's Style



When I was growing up in the New Jersey burbs during the seventies and early eighties there was a great Thanksgiving Day tradition that I’d like to share on the eve of the holiday.  

Every year, WOR Channel 9 would broadcast King Kong (1933), Son of Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949) on Turkey Day.

Then, on Friday, the same station would host a Godzilla marathon consisting of such films as King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster (1971) and many others.  Some years, if memory serves, War of the Gargantuas (1968) also played.

I remember showering and dressing early on those Thanksgiving Days, so I could be lodged near the TV when the Kong movies started. Meanwhile, my Mom and Dad would be busy in the kitchen preparing a great meal of turkey, stuffing, baked carrots with cinnamon, and home-made biscuits.  The house would fill with the delectable aromas of the feast, and even downstairs -- while glued to WOR-TV -- I could feel my appetite for dinner building.

Our guests, usually my grandparents and aunts and uncles, would arrive sometime in the early afternoon, around 1:00 pm and I would socialize with them, and then sneak back to the family room for more King Kong.  Sometimes my uncle Larry, a horror fan after a fashion, would join me.

Then the meal and dessert -- a chocolate cream pie and a pumpkin pie -- would be served, and we’d all enjoy each other’s company over the delicious food.  After an appropriate interval of visiting and socializing, I’d high-tail it once more back down the stairs to watch more of the movies. 

I’m certain my description of Thanksgiving makes it sound weird and anti-social, but you must remember that in the seventies, there were no VCRs (let alone DVRs or movie streaming), which meant that if you wanted to see a movie like King Kong, you had to seize your moment, or else wait for another year. 

I believe it took me the better part of four Thanksgivings to see all of King Kong, and then not even in chronological order.  I actually saw the entirety of Son of Kong first, perhaps because it was often scheduled between our early afternoon dinner and dessert course.

This tradition of King Kong Thanksgiving and Godzilla Black Friday continued over a long period at my house -- the better part of a decade -- so much so that I still irrevocably associate the Holiday season with WOR Channel 9 and its monster movie broadcasts.  

I still remember, a bit guiltily, forcing my parents to watch the 1970s Godzilla movies on Fridays, while we ate Thanksgiving leftovers in the family room.  My folks liked the King Kong movies, but when it came to Japanese monster movies, they weren’t exactly big fans.

Happy Turkey Day!

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Blackstar: "Tree of Evil"


After escaping The Overlord’s latest trap, Blackstar and Klone return to the Sagar Tree only to find it in a dark sinister forest.  The tree itself is inhabited by twisted, evil trobbits.

Blackstar and Klone realize they have fallen into another trap, and that the Overlord has grown an evil tree to vex them, one that can create through seed pods evil versions of all their friends.  

The evil tree even conjures a diabolical version of Blackstar…



“Tree of Evil” is the “Mirror, Mirror” of Filmation’s Blackstar (1981), one might rightly conclude.  

In this story, heroes stumble upon an evil mirror of their own world and encounter evil duplicates of their friends.  Of course, in this case, all this does not happen in an alternate universe, but merely another forest.  There's also a touch of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1954/1978) here since the evil spawns from pods.

The primary question “Tree of Evil” raises, however, is: how come Blackstar and friends never knew about this forest before? 


And why -- other than a bad sense of direction, perhaps -- do they mistake it for their own home?

It seems to me that if the evil forest is close enough to be mistaken for the “good” forest, then the two must be side-by-side, or at least in close proximity.  And if the evil forest is far from the good Sagar Tree and trobbits, how does Blackstar end up there?

This is likely a spot in which the “kiddie” nature of the series works against the overall series.  As adults, these are not difficult questions to ask.  Maybe, as children, we just glossed over them.

On the other hand, one might argue that the “how” of this story is less-important than the aura of creepy dread  that “Tree of Evil” creates.  The evil forest and its minions certainly make for some of the most menacing villains featured on the series.  

In terms of episode rankings, I’d rate “Tree of Evil” relatively high because of the evil, fairy tale forest, and the “dark” trobbits. 

Overall, the plot is the same as always -- an evil scheme by the Overlord vexes Blackstar -- but the mechanism of that scheme (an evil duplicate of the Sagar Tree and its inhabitants) is a fresh touch.

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

40 Years Ago: Goliath Awaits (1981)

From "Operation Prime Time" ("for better programming...") came this 1981 made-for-television, prime time extravaganza starring the late Christopher Lee, Robert Forster, Mark Harmon, Emma Samms and Frank Gorshin (in the performance of his career).

If you were around in the 1980s and paying attention to pop culture currents, you likely will recall this Kevin (Motel Hell) Connor-directed genre TV venture; one which was advertised with the haunting image of a winsome woman (Samms) gazing out of a porthole on a ruined old ship; staring out at the murky depths beyond.




That evocative, Gothic image alone probably generated some great ratings for this impressive four hour mini-series (shown over two nights, November 16 and 17, 1981, as I recall.)

Goliath Awaits opens in 1939 as Edward R. Murrow reports that England has just declared war on Hitler and Nazi Germany. Unfortunately, the British sea liner Goliath is already at sea and imperiled by a pack of German U-Boats.


Soon, the magnificent vessel is sunk with all 1800 hands aboard, and lost to the tides of time. Her exact fate (and location) becomes a nautical mystery.

In 1981, however, an exploratory ship captained by Peter Cabot (Harmon) discovers that Goliath is -- miraculously -- intact (and positioned upright) some 1000 feet beneath the surface of the sea. As a deadly hurricane approaches, Cabot dives to investigate. He hears an S.O.S. emanating from the rusting hull of the "most famous ship of all time" and more incredibly, peers into a porthole and sees that beautiful porcelain face staring back at him.

Cabot quickly goes to the U.S. Navy for help solving this mystery. Admiral Sloane (Eddie Albert) is intrigued by the discovery and orders Commander Jeff Selkirk (Forster) to lead a rescue team to Goliath




Sloan boasts a secret too. Aboard Goliath (and in the care of a U.S. Senator named Bartholomew...) is a diplomatic pouch with an eyes-only message for President Roosevelt. The contents of that communique could conceivably tear down the NATO alliance. Now there are two jobs for Selkirk: rescue Goliath's survivors and also acquire (and destroy) the communique, which is believed to be a Nazi forgery.

The British vessel Enterprise 4, from British Oceanics leads the rescue attempt. After receiving a message from Goliath in Morse Code (which warns the air is "toxic" and to "beware of McKenzie"), Enterprise's submarine docks with Goliath far below the surface, and a Navy team enters the ship through a torpedo breach. There, Peter, Jeff and Dr. Sam Marlowe (Alex Cord) learn that 337 souls now live aboard Goliath thanks to an air-bubble that has existed aboard the sunken ship once "equalization" occurred with the sea outside the hull.

In charge of this isolated society on Goliath is Mr. McKenzie (Lee), a former third-engineer and a man of extraordinary resources and intelligence. When the ship was struck by the torpedo all those years ago, McKenzie thought fast and managed to convert the ship's engines into air processors. Even more than that "miracle," he created an entire Utopian society, one featuring hydroponic gardens, fish hatcheries, and other wonders. Accordingly, the people of Goliath virtually worship the man.

Alas, there are also rebels aboard Goliath, deformed "Bow People" (suffering from the bends) who -- according to McKenzie -- just don't "fit in." They are lead by a man named Ryker (Duncan Regeher), a man who rejects McKenzie's brand of authoritarian leadership.



McKenzie's major domo is a petty Irish criminal, Wesker (Gorshin), who performs the difficult (and morally questionable...) tasks required to make a society like Goliath's thrive. This means that Wesker commands a virtual gestapo security force, and administers lethal injections to the physically or mentally infirm...those who can't work, but would use up precious resources.

Even as Peter finds himself growing attracted to McKenzie's fetching daughter, Lea (Samms), he starts to see the downside of Goliath's society and a the world where an "old man made himself king." 

Soon, he becomes convinced (thanks to Ryker) that McKenzie and Wesker will never permit the rescue, because they will  lose their hold on power. Commendably, McKenzie puts the decision up to a democratic vote, but lies to his people about the feasibility of continued survival aboard ship. In truth, the vessel is running out of fuel, and the environment will soon turn bitter cold and inhospitable.

What you get, then, in Goliath Awaits is a thoughtful meditation on the idea you find in some Space:1999 episodes of the 1970s: that (to quote the episode "Dorzak"), it is the battle for survival that makes monsters of us all. 


McKenzie is a fascinating character: a man who achieved technological miracles to save his people. He created a workable society from the ground up, one that -- amazingly -- flourished for forty years. Yet, at some point, he got used to the power, to "playing God," and his miraculous victory on Goliath became an oppressive terror to those whom he ruled.

You may recognize some elements of Goliath Awaits' plot from the fourth season Twilight Zone episode "On Thursday We Leave For Home," a story in which another charismatic, brilliant leader (James Whitmore) of an isolated community (on an inhospitable planet) came to resist a rescue mission because he simply couldn't give up his authority; can't give up the idea that he is "needed."

Goliath Awaits is sort of "On Thursday We Leave For Home" meets The Poseidon Adventure


Despite the fantastic nature of the scenario (300 people survive in an air bubble over the generations...), Goliath Awaits is contemplative, deliberate and smart. It doesn't skimp over the difficult aspects of a rescue mission at the bottom of the sea. 

In fact, it even paints a relatively full (and realistic) presentation of the world's reaction to the rescue, from White House Press conferences to TV news bulletins, to the diverse reaction of Goliath's citizenry. Since I've always been fascinated by stories about strange disappearances and mysteries at sea, I very much enjoyed the film and the fictional world it created.  Imagine if James Cameron took his submersible to the sunken Titanic and found three hundred people aboard, still alive.  That's Goliath Awaits in a nut-shell.

Kevin Connor (who also directed Land that Time Forgot and some episodes of Space:1999), executes several brilliant compositions on what was obviously a relatively limited budget too. For instance, there's a P.O.V. shot wherein the camera adopts the position of a speeding torpedo, and we essentially "ride" it (underwater) as it strikes the Goliath's hull. 


Amazingly, the already-impressive shot doesn't end with the expected collision. Instead, there's a sort of optical cut and we actually enter the ship's interior with the torpedo, and see crew standing by unwittingly as it explodes. It's a fancy shot for the pre-CGI age, delightfully conceived and executed.

Another good composition also involves subjective P.O.V. A Navy rescue diver enters the Goliath, and emerges from the water, only to see Wesker standing before him, aiming a pistol at him. Before we can entirely register what's happening, the gun is fired, and we see the diving helmet's glass visor (over our eyes, essentially) shattered. Then blood hits it the visor in a spray.

Goliath Awaits also reminds me of Space:1999's "Mission of the Darians" or even The Starlost, genre entertainments in which a giant vessel is compromised, and mankind is forced to "evolve" or "adapt" based on limited resources. 


Here, the people of Goliath dwell not merely in an air bubble, but in the equivalent of a time bubble. They exist in a world where Hitler was not defeated, and where the ship's band is always playing "Happy Days are Here Again." John Carradine plays a movie star of the silent age, the only celebrity in residence on the ship, and another beacon of a long-gone age.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

50 Years Ago: Duel (1971)


In 1971 -- fifty years ago -- a promising young director named Steven Spielberg was locked into a seven year contract with Universal Studios and likely chafing at the limitations.   Then, his secretary handed Spielberg an issue of Playboy Magazine featuring the Richard Matheson short story of highway terror, "Duel."

The rest is film history.  

Spielberg shot the TV-movie adaptation of Matheson's classic tale in something like sixteen days (though some sources indicate twelve), on a budget of approximately 425,000 dollars.  The 73-minute version of the film aired on ABC for the first time November 13, 1971, and won the accolades of major national critics.  

Even more impressively, a 90-minute version of Duel played theatrically in Europe, and won the grand prize at the Festival de Cinema Fantastique in Avoriaz, France. 

Thanks to Duel, Spielberg's film career soon achieved escape velocity (at least after the relative hiccup of The Sugarland Express [1974]).  

In fact, Spielberg has always been the first to person to point out the many intriguing similarities between Duel and his first blockbuster hit, Jaws (1975). Both efforts  pit man against implacable, larger-than-life foes, either mechanical or natural, and both efforts also hint -- ever so subtly -- that the supernatural may even be involved in the clash.  

Less than a year from today, Spielberg's Duel will celebrate its fortieth anniversary.   Yet the mean, lean horror  film doesn't feel old or dated on a re-watch today.  On the contrary, it remains compelling and suspenseful; a veritable model of genre efficiency.

As New York Times critic Janet Maslin opined on the event of Duel's American theatrical release in 1983 (on the same day, actually, that Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead bowed...)  these early Spielberg effort "took advantage of the very narrowness of its premise, building excitement from the most minimal ingredients and the simplest of situations."

What this means in action is that Duel accelerates quickly from its first frame to its last, highlights only a few main characters, and showcases little dialogue.  The film is precisely what the title promises: a  "clash" between two dedicated combatants (a man driving a car and an unseen person manning the evil truck), with Spielberg's  splendid sense of visual metaphor carrying the day.

Much like Carpenter's brilliant Halloween (1978), the pure simplicity of Duel's structure and presentation permits the engaged viewer to layer on additional meanings and connections; to see more lurking beneath the hood, as it were, than the elegant screenplay literally expresses on the surface.  In this manner, Duel goes from being a basic tale of inexplicable road rage and survival to something infinitely more symbolic; a meditation on fate, and on Evil itself.  

European critics actually read Duel as a Marxist commentary on class warfare and capitalism in America, with the blue-class trucker pressing the gas hard as revenge against the entitled white-collar David Mann.  This is an interpretation which Spielberg famously and publicly resisted.  

Yet, as other critics have rightly pointed out there does seem to be a powerful subtext here about the state of masculinity in 1970s America, at the rise of the nascent women's liberation movement.

However, what makes Duel endlessly suspenseful and scary is not this admittedly-interesting social commentary, but rather Spielberg's canny visualizations of the sustained road battle.  In particular, he often frames the attacking truck as an invader in the frame itself; one that consumes and devours space and literally squeezes out [poor David Mann, "the little guy."  The impression given the audience is a world out-of-order, and of an over-sized, overpowered nemesis.

Late in the film, the beleaguered Valiant driver wonders how the malevolent, steam-belching truck can drive so fast, and in that one little moment the specter of the supernatural is appropriately raised.  Is the truck driven by the Devil?  Is it purely and simply Evil on 18-wheels?  This bit of dialogue is just a welcome implication -- the icing on the cake as it were -- but it contributes infinitely to the mythic and scary qualities of the 1971 film.

If you remember such films as The Car (1977), Christine (1983),  or the vignette in Nightmares (1983) starring Lance Henriksen, you can begin to understand the thematic and visual impact and influence of Spielberg's sterling adaptation of Duel.  

"Come on you miserable fat-head, get that fat-ass truck outta my way!"

David Mann (Dennis Weaver) calls for police help, while his 18-wheel nemesis barrels unexpectedly into frame.

Duel depicts a harrowing interlude in the life of a put-upon business man, David Mann (Dennis Weaver).  He departs for work in his red, 1970 Plymouth Valiant and -- on the open road -- ends up behind a filthy, smog-spewing Peterbilt truck.  Running late for a business appointment, David passes the truck on the road, crossing the lane into approaching traffic to do so.

Soon, the truck passes David, and he finds himself in the same predicament...choking down diesel fumes.  So David passes the big rig a second time, only, apparently, to spawn the enduring rage of the unseen driver.  Before long, the truck driver knowingly gestures David into the path of an oncoming car.  Then, the driver begins a relentless high-speed pursuit, attempting to run David off the road.

After slamming into a split rail fence, David stops at Chuck's Cafe.  There, he discovers -- to his horror -- that the offending truck has also arrived.  David attempts to ferret out the identity of the mysterious driver from the local diners, but only succeeds in making a scene with an innocent patron.

All day, the game of cat and mouse on the desert highway continues, escalating to pure terror.  The truck attempts to nudge David's Valiant onto railroad tracks as a locomotive crosses at full speed.  Finally, the implacable truck pursues David's out-matched Valiant up a treacherous mountainside.

When the Valiant's radiator hose breaks, and the car comes to a dead end at the mountain's apex, David must turn and face his oncoming enemy one last time...

"There you are, right back in the jungle again..."

David strikes a macho pose; but the specter of mechanical domesticity (a laundry dryer...) still looms over him.

On the surface, Duel is clearly a case of Man vs. Machine (or Mann vs. Machine), but roiling underneath the surface of this perfectly composed horror/action piece is an interesting  and unsettling commentary about masculinity in America circa 1970.  

A bit of history: Duel was crafted during the dawn of the "New Feminism" in this country.  The National Organization for Women, for instance, saw its ranks swell from 1,200 to 48,000 in the span from 1967 and 1970 alone.    

And in Spring of 1972, just a few months after Duel premiered, Time Magazine devoted an entire issue (March, 1972) to the subject of the Women's Liberation Movement.  The editors memorably termed the age a "time that tries men's souls." 

What that description indicates is that as much as women were fighting for an equal share of the pie at home in the work-place, some disco decade men felt, simultaneously...lost at sea.   

In the article "Women's Liberation Re-Visited," University of Michigan Psychologist Joseph Adelson was quoted as saying this:  "As any clinician knows, these days the problem in male sexuality lies in the opposite direction, not in phallic megalomania but rather in sexual diffidence and self-doubt,"  

It is in this cloud of "sexual diffidence and self-doubt" that Duel dwells.  This is where Dennis Weaver's protagonist -- and America too -- are living at the particular moment of the encounter with the evil rig.  "The concept of man as hunter and woman as keeper of the hearth, these feminists declare, is obsolete and destructive for both sexes," wrote Time Magazine.

But what ideal or order fills that void?  That's where the confusion rested for some men and some women, too, in determining what the new "role" for each sex was to be.

Early in Duel, this dissonance between "obsolete and destructive" tradition (patriarchy) and the new equality is evident.  When David Mann stops at a gas station, the attendant there tells him that "he is the boss."  David's response is simple, terse and telling: "Not in my house I'm not."   

This idea of a new sense of order is also reflected back at him by the attendant.  "Fill it with Ethel," says Mann.  "As long as Ethel doesn't mind," the attendant replies.  Encoded in that funny back-and-forth is the fear of offending an empowered woman; already the "the boss" in David's household.

A moment later, Mann enters the gas station to call his wife at home, and strikes "an exaggeratedly masculine posture" (pictured above), according to film scholar and biographer Nigel Morris in The Cinema of Steven Spielberg: Empire of Light (Wallflower Press, 2007, page 24). 

Mann strikes this pose, however, in an emasculating long shot, a directorial selection which actually distances us from the character, and makes him seem small and silly rather than large and powerful (as a low angle shot might have accomplished).

During that phone conversation, Spielberg cross-cuts to Mann's wife at home, where she is dusting and cleaning the living room (stereotypical "women's work") while two children play on the carpet around her, oblivious to their parents.  

But Mann's wife is very angry with David because at an office event the previous night, a co-worker "practically raped" her, and David did nothing about it.  Mrs. Mann pushes and prods her husband again and again, saying that he should at least "say something" (in other words, stand up for her honor; he thinks she means "punch the guy out.")

As this contentious conversation lingers, Mann's exaggeratedly masculine pose is  suddenly and totally eclipsed by a symbol of domesticity (and again, stereotypical "women's work)".  To wit: a woman's hand opens a laundry dryer door in the foreground of the shot; and David is essentially caged inside that transparent bubble.  

As Morris wrote on this topic:  "Mann literally is viewed through the female lens, this film repeatedly associating women, at the height of second wave feminism, with household labor." (Empire of Light; page 24)

At another point in the film, during David Mann's drive, the subject of endangered, confused (and diffident...) masculinity again arises. On the radio, Mann listens to a call-in program in which a confused man asks an important tax question (of a woman employee of the Federal government, importantly).  He is confused about filing his taxes because he is "the man of the family" but not "head of family."  He stays home and cooks and cleans; and his wife goes to work, so she is -- technically -- "head of household."  The caller seems abundantly confused about this upturning of the familiar social order, and even somewhat depressed by it.

Again, this particular radio show dialogue -- like the telephone conversation with Mann's wife, like the conversation with the gas station attendant -- harks back to the American crisis in masculinity during the rise of Second Wave Feminism.

Finally, Mann's masculinity is overtly threatened by the appearance on the road of a much larger vehicle (a phallic symbol?);  one ostensibly driven by a long-standing American representation of traditional masculinity: a cowboy, right down to his cowboy boots.   

This "real man" - a truck-driving cowboy 'merican -- plays for keeps, and is not at all henpecked, confused or diffident.  When this nemesis takes offense at another's actions, he doesn't apologize or choke down his emotions.  He doesn't "talk about it," as the effete Mann attempts to do with the wrong man in Chuck's diner.  No, he seeks revenge, pure and simple; he seeks to best his opponent, scorched Earth-style.  This is mankind at his most overtly,  confidently masculine, and paradoxically, at his most brutal and frightening.

So, finally, Duel becomes what author Andrew Gordon in Empire of Dreams called an "exercise in paranoia" in which "the hero is stripped of his secure, everyday identity and must prove his manhood [italics mine] by tapping hidden resources of endurance, resourcefulness, and courage." (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003, page 15). 

That assessment puts a fine point on it.  In the Age of Second Wave Feminism, a time that "tried men's souls," this guy needs to -- in the modern vernacular of Sharron Angle - "man-up" and slay the technological dragon.

During one of Mann's interior dialogues, he seems to recognize the fact that he must call upon the atavistic qualities of his sex (as hunter, and as warrior),  Specifically, he notes that he is"right back in the jungle now."   That may be a more dangerous place than mechanized, domesticated modern society, but at least Mann understands the rules of the jungle: kill or be killed.

And indeed, Mann only beats the evil trucker when he forgoes help from outside forces (like the police), and stops asking others for assistance.  In fact, he is denied assistance from another henpecked man, a senior citizen who comes across him on the road and -- at his wife's insistence -- refuses to call the police for Mann.  

Amazingly, the Trucker won't even let Mann surrender. "The highway's all yours Jack... I'm not budging for at least an hour," Mann says, deciding to hide in a cul-de-sac.  But the truck finds him.  Again and again.  

So it's  literally a case of Mann up or die.  

Finally, having exhausted his other options (including total capitulation of the road), that's precisely what Mann does.  And the film cuts to a sort of Western or action-hero styled "suit-up scene" in which Mann settles into his seat, affixes his seat belt, puts on his gold-tinted sun glasses, and takes the Valiant into battle.

"Looked like a big complication to me!"

The giant truck dominates the frame in Duel; again and again

In my estimation, there are some rare genre films that are literally perfectly composed; visualized with such skill, flair and talent that they simply can't be improved upon.  I count Carpenter's Halloween and Spielberg's Duel among these rare titles.  In the case of the latter, Spielberg brilliantly and elegantly makes the film's form imaginatively reflect its content.

Above, I noted how Mann is lost in the world of the 1970s: deflated and diffident about his place.  He's henpecked by his wife, and the film also suggests he's saddled with an overbearing mother.  Other men (on the job...) seem to take advantage of him, and his overall wimpiness, too.  

The bulk of the film involves Mann pitted against the ultimate enemy, a truck that literally wants to take his space in the world and squeeze him right out of creation.   The truck is thus literally a road hog of the existential variety.  

In the early scene wherein Mann parks his Valiant at a gas pump, Spielberg's camera is positioned in front of the approaching vehicle.  The Valiant stops close-by, but there is still some distance remaining in the frame between the camera and the  Plymouth's front end.  The shot feels appropriate to convention; not exaggerated or heightened.

But suddenly, the giant rig pulls into the parallel pump lane, and it immediately  traverses that remaining distance, virtually pulling right up to the lens.  This is an invasion, a usurpation of frame space, and it is a filmic metaphor for the truck's malevolent purpose in the screenplay.

Mann's space is again tread upon, here by the over-sized truck.
Later, there's another gorgeous shot in which Spielberg gives us a full view of the landscape, a long shot.  

In the foreground, bigger than everything (even mountains) is the giant truck, and small -- almost ant-like -- is Mann.  Our hero stands isolated in the middle of the road, outside his suit of armor (his car; the Valiant), metaphorically naked and unprotected.    

Even in this shot (pictured to the left), you can immediately see how the truck's position occludes spectatorship; how the giant truck overwhelms everything else, cutting into Mann's space in the center of the frame.  

In other words, the frame consists of a kind of symmetry: truck on the left; Mann in frame center; and the Valiant positioned on the far right.  But just look at how far into Mann's "middle" terrain the truck invades.  This is a deliberate usurpation of symmetry, of shot space, and again, it visually reinforces the narrative.

Another example of order overturned involves a phone booth in the desert (another shot pictured above).  Mann believes he is safe and secure in the phone booth as he calls the police for assistance, but in fact the booth is just another cage that traps him.  And, deliberately sowing disorder, the truck juts into frame and barrels through the booth at near warp-speed.  Mann escapes in the nick-of-time, but order and civilization are destroyed.

Again and again, Spielberg deploys gorgeous and contextually-appropriate mise-en-scene to express the movie's themes and central oppositional relationship; that of a man who feels small and diffident battling an unnaturally big and perhaps supernatural opponent.

Except for some great, paranoid interior monologues, Duel mostly eschews explanation and dialogue.  Instead, Spielberg makes the visuals dictate the shape of his narrative.  Sometimes these visuals are of road signs or other symbolic indicators.  A sign reading STOP appears at a pertinent moment, for example, and the legend on the back of the devil truck reads FLAMMABLE.  That's a nice way of saying the driver has a really bad temper: mess with him and he'll explode, literally.

At other instances in Duel, extreme close-ups of the odometer needle -- leaning right into the danger zone of "100 milers per hour" --  tell us what we need to know in any given moment.    These insert shots, like the "information overload" close-ups of shark books, police reports and  even doodles, etc, in Jaws, make us feel a sense of heightened immediacy.  It's as if we're driving the car in this case; or peering into the rear view with our own eyes.

To further heighten this sense of immediacy, the interlude in Chuck's Cafe is shot hand-held, almost jerky, as if we -- like Mann -- have become untethered from the natural order and are taking tentative steps into new, possibly dangerous territory.  We don't know where we stand in this place; and neither does Mann.

Finally, I love the metaphor of the finale: Mann literally "reaches the mountaintop" and destroys his enemy.  The battle royal is the summit of the extended duel; at a geographical apex of the landscape, and also the apotheosis of the character who -- appropriately suited-up -- finally beats his never-seen but intractable opponent. He has achieved his destiny as knight (a destiny suggested by the film's title; and the name of his car, Valiant.)  

In this instance, everyday, ordinary Mann has recovered and reclaimed his masculinity.

There's just no two ways about it.  Duel works on all kinds of levels: as straight, terrifying horror film, and as a loaded commentary on its time and the crisis in masculinity that accompanied the New Feminism of the early 1970s.   In later years, Spielberg has often lapsed into overt sentimentality  and schmaltz in some of his more popular cinematic works, but Duel remains-- wonderfully -- Spielberg at his nastiest and most efficient.  

Honk if you love Duel...

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