Wednesday, September 28, 2022

35 Years Ago: Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Encounter at Farpoint"

Although by no stretch one of the best installments of the series’ seven year run, the inaugural episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation gets the job done.  

Whether it does so in style or not, perhaps, is the key question.

“Encounter at Farpoint” introduces the new characters and their world (and affectionately) reminds the audience of Star Trek history. It also offers at least two marvelous images that remain impressive and resonant, even thirty years later.  Sadly, some of the performances in the episode are straight up terrible.

But let's pause a minute and gaze at historical context. 

Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered in the year 1987, at a high-point in Trek's history and popularity. Star Trek: IV: The Voyage Home (1986) had won accolades and treasure at the box office the year before, and it felt like a good time to bring the series back to television. Paramount brought Gene Roddenberry -- who had been sidelined from the movies -- back to the fold to work his magic a second time.

Instead of airing on a major network, however, Star Trek: The Next Generation went where original series like The Starlost (1973) and Space: 1999 (1975-1977) had gone before, choosing to create its own ad-hoc network of local affiliates; known as syndication. The move made abundant sense, Star Trek's popularity had skyrocketed in the early 1970's in reruns, in syndication, so airing original episodes of the new series in the same markets made good business sense.

The behind-the-scenes squabbles on Star Trek: The Next Generation are, at this point, legendary, and the series didn't really find its footing for the first two seasons. This was also a time of cast-upheaval, as actors and their characters came and left. In the first season, the Enterprise-D had a revolving door of a half-dozen chief engineers.

A close focus on the first season episodes of this particular series actually point out something relevant in today's world: the utter bull-shittery of fans complaining about Star Trek: Discovery (2017). 

As a thought experiment, watch the first nine episodes of Discovery, and then the first nine episodes of Next Generation. And then tell me again -- with a straight face -- how Discovery is a bad show, and Next Generation is a classic.

The Next Generation became a classic, only because fans gave it time to prove itself. Some of today's fans aren't giving Discovery the same opportunity. This is funny, since Discovery is already better, at episode nine, than Next Generation was at the same juncture.

But let's leave comparisons aside for the moment and continue with a little in-universe background on The Next Generation.  The story is set in the 24th century, just about one hundred years after the adventures of Kirk, Spock, and the original starship Enterprise.

In this century, the Klingons are (sometimes uneasy) allies of the Federation, the Romulans have gone quiet in their own space, and a new enemy looms. This new enemy is known as the Ferengi.

Technology and terminology have both changed since the days of Kirk and Spock as well.

Communicators are Comm-badges in the shape of the Starfleet delta are worn on all uniforms. Starships are also outfitted with recreational holodecks, and carry families aboard them. Landing parties are a thing of the past; now known as "away teams."

As “Encounter at Farpoint” begins, the new Galaxy Class U.S.S. Enterprise (NCC-1701-D) investigates the mystery of planet Deneb IV.  The primitive people there have apparently constructed a new base precisely to Starfleet specifications, but how they did so remains unknown.  

While the crew investigates, it must also deal with an interfering, all-powerful alien being called “Q” (John De Lancie), who puts Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) on trial for the “crimes of humanity.”

This episode, directed by Corey Allen, opens with a textbook perfect visual.  Captain Jean Luc Picard steps out from the shadows, and we get our first good look at the regal commanding officer who will soon step “out” of Captain Kirk’s shadow.   

At the same time as we watch the figure transition from silhouette to light, we hear the pleasing, authoritative cadences of Picard's voice.  They exude command and control, discipline and power.  

It’s quite an entrance, and a good example of Stewart’s ability to hold the camera and rivet one’s attention.  Picard is quite a commanding figure indeed, and the specifics of his on-screen introduction remain positively iconic.  

No one should doubt that casting a bald, British, middle-aged Shakespearean actor in the role of a (French) starship commander was risky in 1987.  

But from virtually image one of the series, Stewart shows that he’s got the chops, and the screen presence to pull it off.

A captain in the shadows...

...a hero emerges in the light.

Later in the episode, there is another visual that always thrills me. Captain Picard welcomes Wesley Crusher (Will Wheaton) to the bridge of the Enterprise for the first time, and Allen’s camera adopts a first person subjective angle or P.O.V.  

In other words, the audience takes up the position of Crusher’s “eyes,” looking out across the command bridge for the first time.  Enticingly, Captain Picard enters the frame and asks Wesley -- and by extension, the audience -- if he’d like to try out the center seat, the captain’s chair.

This is an invitation one of us would resist, I suspect.  

In fact, many of us in 1987 had dreamed of just such a thing; of living inside the Star Trek world of optimism, brotherhood, and peace, and charting our own starship’s course for adventure and knowledge. 

It’s wonderful that, without it seeming like a cheap gimmick, the first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation  pays heed to this deepest wish. It’s a lovely visual touch, and one aimed right at Trekkers who had grown up with the franchise and come to respect Star Trek's philosophy.

"Try it out."  Every Star Trek fan's dream come true.

Another pitch-perfect moment occurs about half-way through “Encounter at Farpoint” when Lt. Data (Brent Spiner) escorts an aged Admiral McCoy (DeForest Kelley) through the corridors of the new Enterprise.  

The elderly Bones -- a dear, old friend with whom so many adventures have been shared -- reminds the android to treat the starship like a “lady” and that “she’ll always bring you home.” This scene explicitly reminds the viewers of Star Trek’s heritage and history, and does so in a fashion that is funny and respectful.  

This scene represents a promise to the fans too. The new show is going to treat the franchise like a lady as well, this moment seems to promise. In other words, the dream is in good hands…

Treat her like a lady, and the Enterprise will always bring you home.

Also commendable in “Encounter at Farpoint” is the ultimate message of Farpoint and the Bandi, denizens of Deneb IV.  

They are so desperate to achieve their goal (support within the Federation) that they cut corners and hurt living, sentient beings to achieve success they aren't ready or equipped for.  

In other words, the ends justify the means, in their eyes. In the year of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street and the age of rampant Yuppie-ism in America, this is a powerful message to convey; that getting there fast (but badly) is wrong, is less important than patience and morality. It’s a great -- and indeed, remarkable -- philosophical foundation for The Next Generation to build upon.

Unfortunately, some of that valuable message gets buried in the Q subplot, which seems to eat up most of the time in the premiere story.  

This is unfortunate, because we have seen many aliens like the Q before in Star Trek history (in episodes such as “Squire of Gothos,”) and the Bandi story might have been much more interesting and dramatic if better developed. I like "Q" as much of the next Trekker, but he tends to suck all the air out of the room.  

If he is present, he becomes the story, in other words.

Sadly, some of the performances here are not the best. The actors still had a lot of growing to do in their roles. Tasha Yar's defense of Starfleet, while impassioned, is embarrassing. It also smacks a bit of indoctrination. She tells people at the court that they should get down on their knees to worship what Starfleet is.  I respect Starfleet tremendously, but people should bow down to it? Is that really the Starfleet ethos?

I love Jonathan Frakes, but he is ramrod straight in posture, and absolutely wooden in delivery, here.

But of all the new cast members featured in "Encounter at Farpoint," Marina Sirtis likely fares worst as Counselor Troi.  The actress has been very blunt about assessing her performance in this episode, and I commend her for her honesty.  She shouldn’t feel bad, however, because clearly she grows in the role, and today Troi is beloved by fans for good reason. 

But in “Encounter at Farpoint,”  Troi looks like a “space cheerleader” and acts like an emotional basket case.  At every development of the story, Sirtis over-emotes as Troi, suggesting a dangerous personal instability.  She cries, she gasps, she grimaces…she’s way over-the-top. 

And the dialogue doesn’t help the actress out a lick.  

After Q freezes a crewman on the bridge and the audience clearly registers that he is frozen, Troi runs up to him and declares, dumb-founded “He’s frozen!” In other words, she’s declaring the obvious, and thus comes across as stupid...again playing into the space cheerleader cliché.

Unfortunately, Troi's character became famous -- or rather, infamous -- during the first season for sating the obvious.

Also, Troi’s continual over-emoting robs the episode of some of its genuine, nuanced pathos. The climactic moment when the two space creatures are rejoined over Deneb IV stands quite well on its own without Troi offering emotional play-by-play about “great joy and gratitude.”  

Again, this is not personal. This isn’t Marina Sirtis’s fault. Her dialogue once more belabors the obvious, and puts a fine point on information that doesn’t need to be repeated, or spoken aloud

Looking back, “Encounter at Farpoint” is a strange mixture of boldness and timidity.  

It is bold in the way that it critiques 1980''s America, with Q appearing as Colonel Oliver North, essentially, and mocking unprincipled right wing "patriotism." Yet it is timid in the very concept that underlines Q: a Star Trek “God” rerun.   

In Star Trek, man is always being tested, it seems...

Similarly, "Encounter at Farpoint" is bold in the way it attempts to move the Star Trek mythos forward with new characters, yet timid in the way many new characters seem like Mr. Spock, only dissected into multiple pieces.

Consider Spock's pieces, in new beings: Data (outsider), Troi (with special powers of the mind) and Riker (as first officer) all seem like little slices of the half-Vulcan character.  About all you can say here, again,  is that each character grows into a full-fledged and unique individual over time.

Of all the new supporting characters, I feel that Dr. Crusher comes off the best in "Encounter at Farpoint."  

She’s not a crusty-McCoy doctor, but a bit prickly and edgy nonetheless.  I like her snarky put-down to Riker when she accuses him of ingratiating himself with the Captain, and then her eminently rational turnaround when she realizes he’s actually got a point. The message is plain: she’s not interested in shipboard politics, but knows when it’s time to do her job. I wish she had been written this way more often: as someone in firm command over her department and areas of expertise, but boasting a no-nonsense attitude when it comes to her interactions with others.

I remember after “Encounter at Farpoint” first aired, the response from my friends at high school was extraordinarily negative.  

Everyone hated it!  

I remember that one exceptionally bright (and dear) friend noted that too many of the new characters seemed to boast super powers (meaning Geordi’s vision, Troi’s psychic empathy and Data’s strength), and that everyone looked like they were dressed as superheroes.  He had a point.  You can argue the validity of having an indestructible android, a telepathic counselor and a helmsman with extraordinary vision, one-at-a-time, but taken in toto as a command crew -- and without knowing how these qualities would play out over a series -- it does seem a little like overkill.  

Isn't this supposed to be a show about the human adventure?

In the case of this series, however, patience paid off, and The Next Generation’s characters found their way, growing more likable, unique, and human over the span of several seasons. “Encounter at Farpoint” may not be great, but overall it’s a decent shakedown cruise, especially for the iconic introduction of Picard, the affectionate ode to Trekdom (in the form of that POV shot on the bridge), and the promise of respectful care-taking of a proud history and legacy (represented by Dr. McCoy's admonition to treat The Enterprise -- and Star Trek -- like a lady.)

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

70 Years Ago: 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 1950's incarnation of the Superman legend -- turning 70 years old this week -- 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.  I fondly remember watching this series as a kid, in the 1970's, on WPIX in NY, and always hoping the station would rerun this "origin story."

Monday, September 19, 2022

35 Years Ago: Hellraiser (1987)

At the risk of embarrassing some readers, I will nonetheless write the following statement regarding Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987), which premiered 35 years ago.

It’s all about sex.

If that description is too debauching, just consider for a moment how much of our great literature actually concerns sex. 

What started the Trojan War, and led to the events of Homer’s Iliad?

Sexual desire (for Helen). 

Or consider, Lysistrata

Or Othello.

At the center of all those tales is the human sex drive, or perhaps put more aptly, the mysteries of the human sex drive.  How it can be manipulated.  How it can be used.  How it can be sated.

An extremely gory horror film from 1987, Hellraiser is very much in the same camp as the aforementioned works of literature. The film involves, specifically, one “uptight and frigid” woman’s desire to experience, again, the best sex of her life.  

That sex (with Frank Cotton) is so amazing that Julia (Clare Higgins) -- as we see in the film -- would do literally anything to experience it again, even commit murder…repeatedly. Family ties fall by the wayside as Julia single-mindedly pursues a resurrection of not only her lover, but her slumbering passion.

The later Hellraiser films -- as horror sequels often do -- adopt a much more literal, straightforward stance.  Those films are about, simply, people opening the gates to Hell and their adventures with Cenobites such as Pinhead (Doug Bradley). 

But Barker’s inaugural film is about sexual frustration in Julia, and sexual awakening, after a fashion, in Kirsty Cotton (Ashley Laurence).

Barker explores these notions about human sexuality -- about the flesh -- through repeated instances of remarkable (and either sensual or horrific) visual symbolism.

I have read, over the decades, negative reviews of Hellraiser that don’t understand why people like so much a movie concerning an “evil box.”

In some cases, those critics have failed to understand the central idea that built the franchise; the idea that Hellraiser isn’t about opening an evil box, but rather  mastering and unlocking the puzzle-box of human sexuality.

The Hellraiser movies go from brilliant to terrible in short order, and I’ll review at least the first four in the next few weeks here on the blog, but the first film remains a masterpiece of the macabre primarily for its deep exploration into these ideas about sex and desire.

“Some things have to be endured, and that’s what makes the pleasures so sweet.”

Julia (Clare Higgins) and Larry Cotton (Andrew Robinson) move into the family house formerly occupied by Larry’s loner brother Frank (Sean Chapman). Julia and Frank once had an affair, and she covets the memory of it.

But now, bizarrely, a chance arises for Julia to have a second chance with Frank. He died in the house at the hands of demonic beings called Cenobites. In particular, he opened a puzzle -- the Lament Configuration -- that opened a door between Earth and Hell.

Somehow, Frank escaped the tortures of the Cenobites, and was left for dead.  His consciousness and bones still survive, but for him to be whole once more, he must have Julia bring him the blood of the living to devour.

She does so, bringing back strange men to the house with a promise of sex, and then bludgeoning them to death with a hammer.

Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), Larry's daughter, grows increasingly concerned for her father, and is troubled by bad dreams. One day, she goes to the house and learns what Frank and Julia are up to.  She also gets her hands on the Lament Configuration Puzzle, summoning the Cenobites as Frank once did.

Now Kirsty must make a deal with Pinhead (Doug Bradley), the leader of the Cenobites, to turn over Frank, lest they tear her soul apart. instead...

“Like love…only real.”

I first saw Hellraiser (1987) in movie theaters in 1987. I was seventeen, and had never seen such a bloody film.  And yet, I could detect on repeat viewings (especially after I was in my twenties), how all the blood and violence in the film served a dramatic purpose. The cold, empty Julia would do anything to feel her blood pumping again, to feel the heights of passion, even it meant spilling the blood of someone else, someone she didn't care about.

Julia’s passion for Frank and blood-letting are first connected by Barker in a remarkable (and remarkably disgusting...) bit of cross-cutting early on. 

Julia is in the attic, remembering the first time Frank made love to her (over her wedding gown, actually…). 

Meanwhile, downstairs, Larry is attempting, with several movers, to get a mattress up a narrow staircase. The mattress becomes stuck, and Larry must pull at it. He tugs at it repeatedly, even as we see Frank thrusting atop Julia. 

Unfortunately for Larry, he drags his hand across a rusty nail. Blood fountains from his hand.

The symbolism is unmistakable. As Julia has intercourse with Frank and achieves orgasm (in her flashback), that fevered motion is mirrored by Larry’s hand, dragging the mattress. Both moments end with, presumably, the release of fluids.  

But in this case, Julia’s driving memory of sex with Frank is linked to explicitly to injury, to blood and death. 

Indeed, that’s what her passion will ultimately bring to Larry, his family, and anyone else that gets into her orbit. Her love for Frank is a death sentence to everyone else.

That’s not the only time that visual symbolism comes into play. 

Consider specifically how the puzzle box, the Lament Configuration, is opened. The demons are released after the user runs a finger across a small circle of gold filigree.  

This small circle (by a roaming finger...) across a surface is mirrored by Julia and Frank’s sign of affection for one another. Several times in the film, they run their fingers across each other’s lips in a circle…even when fingers and lips are drenched in spilled blood.  

The little circle that opens the box -- and this sensuous touch of the soft lips -- is also, apparently, a metaphor or stand-in for clitoral stimulation. That stimulation suggests another kind of gateway, one to passion and sexual satisfaction.  Frank is a kind of hyper-sexualized figure, an explorer in the realms of pleasure and pain, and he is adept, apparently, at opening the puzzle -- or unlocking a woman’s desire. Julia is ultimately undone by Frank (at least in this movie), because he uses these skills to get his life back, but doesn’t truly love her. He betrays her, instead.

I have always considered Julia's journey to be the emotional and thematic core of Hellraiser. The family house where virtually all the action occurs even seems to be a metaphor for the character of Julia. It is an empty place that, nonetheless, houses inside a monstrous or terrible desire.  

The house hides Frank, a dormant figure waiting to be re-activated. And Julia holds him inside her sealed-off heart, wishing him back.

Consider, in comparison, Kirsty’s journey. 

A young woman, she is permanently infantilized as "Daddy’s little girl." Kirsty is solicitous of her dad’s attention, and constantly worrying/tending to him. She runs to him whenever she has a problem.

Kirsty is also beautiful, and “ripe” as Frank describes her. She is totally unaware of her own (dawning) sexual power.  Kirsty's beauty arouses the movers in the house, and then Kirsty goes to a kitchen sink, which explodes with water, unexpectedly, in her face.  

Kirsty is surprised by this explosion, because she is unaware of the power she wields.  

To put it another way, Kirsty has not realized the power to unlock the puzzle box of her sexual power. But where Julia’s passion was associated explicitly with spilled blood, Kirsty’s is not. 

Instead, her desire is pure, and visualized by the water. Life hasn't twisted Kirsty yet, hasn't transformed her into something sick and co-dependent.

Later, Kirsty has sex with her boyfriend, Steve, and in general seems to have a much healthier attitude about passion than do either Frank or Julia. 

So when she gets her hands on the Lament Configuration what does Kirsty do? 

First, she teases Frank with the promise of controlling it. She does this not as a flirt, not out of desire, but so as to save her own life. 

Kirsty has realized, suddenly, that she possesses something he very much wants. She can bargain with it, and hold him at bay. Kirsty now has an awareness of the power she yields, and again, that's a metaphor for sexual awakening.

Then, Kirsty uses the box for another purpose.  She sends back the demons; destroying the sickness that Frank and Julia created. She wields the box for an end that saves her life, and saves others.  

Kirsty escapes the out-sized pull her father has on her life (exemplified by Frank’s gross come-on line, “Come to Daddy,”) and demonstrates responsible control over the Lament Configuration. She can use the box to destroy her demons, not summon them, not wallow in them. She governs her passions. She doesn't let them govern her, the way that Julia does.

This fact seems plain in the imagery that connects the two women. For a moment, each woman has a hand on the box. But Julia has destroyed herself playing with it. Kirsty takes it for purposes of escape.

What is presented in Hellraiser then, uniquely, is a story of two very different women. One lives in the memory of the past, and covets a sick relationship that gave her pleasure. The other woman is able to grow up, move beyond her family unit, and demonstrate an ability to conquer the threats that she encounters.

I admire Hellraiser so much not for the goopy special effects, the downright bloody horror, or even the spectacular and immortal Cenobite designs, but because the film focuses so clearly on Julia and Kirsty, and their encounters interacting with the “puzzle” of flesh, skin, and desire. 

The imagery -- whether revealed in cross-cutting, or related to the mastery of the Lament Configuration, enhance the film’s themes beautifully.

For me, no other Hellraiser film so perfectly captures the drive and illogic of human behavior. The sequels move into the realm of mythology.  I like Hellbound very much, but it’s such a different animal. 

In short, Hellraiser is all a about a woman bringing unsuspecting men back to a filthy room and beating them to death with claw hammers…so she can have the best sex of her life again. These particular scenes -- three of them -- are played to perfection by Higgins. Julia is both anxious and excited as she lures her would-be lovers to their doom. On that first encounter, she’s thinking about committing murder. Her mark is thinking about having sex. The line “there’s a first time for everything,” captures the moment perfectly. It is true of both murder and sex.

Once the Hellraiser movies beyond both Julia and Kirsty, they seem a whole lot less intriguing.

Hellraiser also concerns tactile pleasures in a way that explores the Zeitgeist of its time. We experience the world through our flesh, through our skin. We want to do -- at least sometimes -- what feels good, not what it is actually right.  

That equation seems like a perfect metaphor for the excess of the 1980s, and so Hellraiser speaks to its time in a remarkably powerful way.

In a decade of “greed is good,” how far do you take greed?  In this case, greed transmits, pretty much, as sexual avarice. A merchant asks -- in the film’s book-end questions: “what’s your pleasure?” 

That’s the question, isn’t it? How far would somebody go to feel good? As far as Julia goes? Or Frank?

Today we remember Hellraiser as our introduction to Pinhead, Chatterer, Butterball, and the Female. But these Cenobites -- if I recall correctly from Paul Kane’s brilliant book about the series, The Hellraiser Films and Their Legacy -- only appear on screen for seven minutes.  These “explorers in the further realm of experience” carry such incredible impact, even today, because they are well-performed, and carefully-designed. But also because we don't see them too often, or get to know them too well.

Pinhead radiates a kind of noble or regal brand of evil. He’s a monster, and yet, in some way, he can be approached with reason and logic. At least if you have something to bargain with.  

The others are frightfully monstrous, and they make you wonder how they can be seen as “angels to some” instead of as “demons.”

This first Hellraiser film also features some blind alleys that were never adequately explored in the sequels. After this film, for instance, we never again saw The Engineer, or the bone demon that takes the box from the fire during the denouement. Those seem fascinating elements of the mythology that ought to be developed at some point.

But more troubling, I feel, is the fact that post-Hellbound films don’t’ really deal convincingly or well with human foibles.  

Pinhead and his buddies should function as ruthless exploiters of human vice, and each film in the franchise, conceivably, could concern the downward spiral of someone like Frank, or Julia. And in Hellbound, Pinhead notes that “hands don’t” summon him, only “desire” does. That edict is dropped like a hot potato by the third film, and Pinhead, Angelique and other Cenobites torture anyone who haphazardly opens the box and toys with it. 

That paradigm takes away much of the power of the franchise and robs Hellraiser of its galvanizing factor; the opening up of the complex puzzle of human desire.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Breakaway Week: Visualizing Space:1999

"Space: 1999" had a style, a feel, a look of its own." - Martin Landau (Lee Goldberg. Starlog: "Martin Landau Space-Age Hero." July 1986, page 45).

"...Space:1999 is like Star Trek shot full of methedrine.  It is the most flashy, gorgeous sci-fi trip ever to appear on TV.  Watching it each week is very close to being under the influence of a consciousness altering drug. - Benjamin Stein. The Wall Street Journal: "Sailing Along on a Moon-Base Way." 

Though TV reviewers were often quick to criticize the storylines on Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's Space: 1999, most nonetheless agreed that the visualizations of this classic series were unimpeachable.  

For example, TV/Radio columnist Charlie Hanna termed the sci-fi program a "visual feast," and The New York Times critic John J. O'Connor noted that the "visual lavishness is apparent from the dazzling array of electronic gadgets and hardware to the "moon city" costumes designed by Rudi Gerneich."

I can add my own testimony to this effusive praise. When I initially watched Space:1999 back in 1975, I was certain that this was indeed what the future would look like. It just seemed right and appropriate that by the year 1999 we'd all be able to communicate across mini-tv screens thanks to devices such as the useful commlock. And, of course, furniture and interior decoration would be immaculate, minimalist, and stream-lined by the eve of the 21st century, right?

Okay. It didn't quite turn out that way, but you can't convince me that it shouldn't have turned out that way. The sets for Space: 1999 were created by production designer Keith Wilson, and the exterior miniatures by special effects director Brian Johnson. In both cases, these gentlemen did extraordinary work. In short, they accomplished three critical things:

First, they created believable technology with one foot in the future and one in the present. 

In Space:1999, for instance, you'll see control rooms, nuclear generating plants, and high-tech medical units, but at the same time, you can note characters reading books, adjusting thermostats in their crew quarters, and even tanning themselves in a solarium ("Force of Life.")  

In practice, this is quite an extraordinary combination. Despite the clean, minimal lines of Moonbase Alpha construction, crew quarters boast a sense of individuality and recognizable humanity ("Matter of Life and Death.") Areas of heavy use such as laboratories, as seen in "Breakaway" and "Voyager's Return," are cluttered and over-crowded. 

In other words -- despite the immaculate white conception of Moonbase Alpha -- man will be man, even in the future. He will use the "space" on the Moon in just the way he does here on Earth; and that way isn't always clean and austere...or even neat.Victor Bergman's laboratory is another example of this design approach.

Secondly, the designers of Space:1999 didn't skimp on a sense of scope.

This means that the vistas and views of Moonbase Alpha appeared more legitimately cinematic and impressive than virtually any other sci-fi series sets in history up to 1978 including Star Trek, wherein the Enterprise bridge famously did not include a ceiling.   

The control center of Moonbase Alpha, Main Mission, is a perfect example of this aesthetic.  It is a vast, two-story affair replete with a ledge and observation area, as well as a kind of mission control pit where analysts toil on a regular basis. Attached to Main Mission -- with a wall as a huge sliding door -- is the Commander's office. For privacy, Commander Koenig can shut the door to Main Mission. In cases of emergency, he can open the door, and his desk overlooks the Big Screen and his workers.   

What must be noted about this is that both Main Mission and the Commander's office are vast. The two (joined) sets present the appearance of a real life, sprawling complex.

Scope is sometimes achieved other ways on the series as well. Miniatures do the trick to convey passage on the useful Travel Tube, and in rare instances, Space:1999 joins live-action footage with rear-projection footage of Eagles and their hangar bay. Again, there's a powerful aura of a fully-operational Moonbase here.

Third, and equally important, the amazing technology and design of Alpha and the Eagles were merely the starting point of this adventure.

Week after week, our impressive views of Earth's high-tech turn-of-the-century moonbase were one-upped, essentially, by mind-blowing alien landscapes and worlds, as featured in episodes such as "Guardian of Piri," "Missing Link," "War Games," "The Last Enemy" and so on.  

After many of those trippy adventures, the high-tech environs of Moonbase Alpha felt not like a dazzling vision of a future age, but rather like "home," even fostering a sense of security. By creating alien worlds of such blazing distinction and originality, the makers of Space:1999 actually made their "future" Earth technology seem all the more believable (and desirable).

It would be impossible to write this post without commenting just a little on the Eagle, one of the most beloved spaceship designs of cult-televisions. These craft are perfectly in keeping with Moonbase Alpha: as remarkable embodiment of "near future" technology. No flying saucers or stream-lined nacelles in this world.  Rather, the utilitarian Eagles consist of interconnected modules, retro-rockets, landing pads and nose-cones.  All these facets are recognizable as dramatic extrapolations from the then-current Apollo program.  Again, Space:1999 had one foot in the future, and one in the present.

This is how Brian Johnson described the creation of the Eagles, in an interview with me over a decade ago (on the advent of Space:1999's release on DVD):

"I was in my "modular" design mode in those days. I reasoned that it made sense to make Pods that were interchangeable. The command pod could serve as a lifeboat, Eagles could be "chained" together, etc...My basic ideas came from looking at dragonflies and insects of all sorts. I copied nature to some degree - I think it made the Eagle believable."

Believability, scope, and then imagination.These are the sturdy foundations of Space:1999's set and model designs.  Below is a brief gallery showcasing Moonbase Alpha as it appeared in Year One.  Finally, I should add that these sets, models and designs look even more remarkable on Blu Ray.

Looking up to the Commander's office.


Minimalism meets clutter: a fully functioning machine laboratory.

A Room with a view.  Note the globe of Earth cast in gray and black to match the rest of the set.


Clock, communicator and more: The comm-post.


Against a backdrop of stars: a repair-man with a tool kit.

Remote control flying an Eagle.

The well-lit travel tube interior track.

The Solarium

Behind our heroes, a hanger bay filled with Eagles.

An Eagle spacecraft, with special module (from "Breakaway.")

Moonbase Alpha

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