Sunday, April 28, 2024

A Reflection on My Father, Ken Muir (1943 - 2024)

If you are a regular reader of the blog, you know that in February and March I shared pages here from "The White Book," my father's personal journal of his last days, during his battle with stage IV metastatic cancer.

I am sorry to report that my father has passed away. Ken Muir (1943-2024) was a bit over 80 years old when he died yesterday.

I am so glad that many of you knew my father, and many more of you got to know him through his remarkable journal.

However, this is not an obituary, but rather, a retelling of a part of his story.

Many long-time friends from my hometown, Glen Ridge may remember Ken as an American History teacher at Verona High School, then, Mountain Lakes High School in New Jersey, and then as the vice principal at the latter school throughout the 1980’s. 

In the 1990's, he taught at Garinger here in Charlotte, North Carolina. There, he was a Time-Warner Star Teacher.


One funny note on my dad as vice-principal: Ken was a cool vice principal. 

For years, he donned leather pants and a leather jacket while commuting to work on his motorcycle, a Suzuki 750 cc, which he only half-jokingly referred to as "a demon."


Believe me, you didn’t want to report to that guy’s office for disciplinary action if you misbehaved...

One day, in the 2000’s, my Dad gifted me those legendary leather pants, and I still have them. I even wore them at Halloween last year at Monsterama Con. 

The torch has been passed. But I'll never be as cool as my dad was.

Again, this isn't an obituary.  

My Dad's story is worth re-telling, because, frankly, he is something of a miracle. I will try, to the best of my ability, to explain. You see, the shadow of cancer hung over his life for nearly twenty years, and it never stopped him from living a great life, or from being there for his family. It never stopped him from being a great dad, or a great husband, or an amazing grandfather.

Ken Muir’s nearly two-decade long war with cancer began most unexpectedly, in December of 2005. 

One evening, after dinner, he felt intense abdominal pain, and my mom took him to the emergency room to be checked out. I still remember receiving the telephone call. I was living in Monroe with my pregnant wife, Kathryn. We had ordered take-out and were playing Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Chaos Bleeds on the Nintendo Game Cube when we picked up the phone.

I had never heard my mother sound so frightened before. The news was bad. The doctors had found a large, black spot on my Dad’s pancreas. After a few anxiety-provoking and hectic weeks of biopsies and tests, which my dad endured with his characteristic good temperament, the grave news was confirmed. He had pancreatic cancer. His prognosis was six months to live. At best. Again, this was 2005.


It seemed, in those dark days, my father would not even live to see my son, Joel, born. We were all utterly devastated. 



I remember so well those frantic, desperate days around the holidays of 2005. We all researched, non-stop, experimental treatments – anything – that might prolong my dad’s life.  It seemed for a while that we were destined to lose him before he reached his next birthday. He was in his early sixties.

But the pancreatic cancer diagnosis was not an obituary, either.


We soon found that there was risky option for treatment. It was a radical and dangerous surgery called a Whipple that could cut the cancerous portions of the pancreas out. But the procedure required a complete re-wiring of my Dad's digestive system. Some doctors advised him not to have the surgery, because the chances of surviving it were not good. 

There were few surgeons available, even, who had the training and knowledge to perform a Whipple. 

One ghoulish doctor contacted my Dad out of the blue by phone, and really wanted to do it, so he could "learn" on my father how to do the surgery.

So, surgery or no surgery?

My leather-wearing, motorcycle-riding Dad made the call. 

He said it was better to try, than to do nothing. He chose the fight. He must have been afraid, but he didn't show fear.  In my family, we all clung closer to each other than ever.

At surgery, almost instantly, his surgeon started to lower expectations for a positive outcome. It was possible he would open my dad up, see there was nothing to do, close him back up, and send us all home.

A roll of the dice...


I’ll never forget sitting in the waiting room at Johns Hopkins’ in Baltimore with Kathryn and my mom, for what seemed like an eternity as my father underwent that grueling, eight-hour-long Whipple procedure.  I sat there proofreading Horror Films of the 1980’s, my gut clenched non-stop in anxiety. Kathryn had it worse than me, truth-be-told. She was expecting, and let's just say that the waiting room chair wasn't doing wonders for her back.


Finally, the surgeon called us in at the end of the operation. He had a story to share with us, not an obituary.

He told us the surgery was successful. I’ll never forget his exact phraseology. The surgeon said that the tumor on my dad's pancreas had “slid out like butter” under the scalpel's blade. 

Words you want to hear!

And though my Dad’s stomach did not re-start for a few days (which was terrifying…), he soon came home, to North Carolina, and began the long process of recovering from the Whipple. My mom was at his side the whole time, helping him every day back to health. This is my mom in a nutshell. My dad is strong, and but she is an absolute titan.


Soon enough, Ken Muir was healthy again, and he was there at the hospital -- smiling and happy -- to meet my boy, Joel, just twenty or so minutes after my son was born, in October of 2006.  


It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, those two. Ken became known, forever after to Joel, as “Pa.”   

Where once we had fear and sadness, suddenly, our family life was full of hope and wonder again.


When Joel was a baby, he had difficulty with reflux and couldn’t sleep, and Pa – my Dad – was the only one who could regularly get him to fall sleep. He would pat Joel's back, walk him around, and sing "She'll Be Coming Around the Mountain..."-- for hours.


Joel’s favorite thing as a baby was, actually, to be carried around in my father's strong arms, through his garage workshop. There, Joel could see all of my Dad’s tools in action. Drills, saws, canisters of nails, hammers, you name it. Joel and Pa bonded instantly over their love of tools (and oddly, clocks). Joel’s first word, while being carried about in my dad’s arms, was “tick tock," as my Dad showed him the mechanical workings of a cuckoo clock hanging in my parents' kitchen.


So, from 2006 to 2016, Ken was healthy, vigorous, strong and able to devote his retirement to the people, the relationships, and the things that he loved most. He suddenly had a new lease on life. To read. To work in his backyard, in the Great Outdoors.  And, of course, to bowl with my mom. He loved to bowl.


Then in 2016 came the SECOND dark cloud.  This one hurt more than the first.

A routine exam showed that my dad’s PSA was unusually high. Further tests revealed that he had prostate cancer, and not just any prostate cancer, either: aggressive prostate cancer. He had a Gleason Score of 9, which is about as bad as it gets. 

Very quickly, my Dad had surgery, but the bad news didn’t stop coming. 


The surgery had come too late. 


Cancer was detected in his lymph nodes, and my father’s diagnosis was officially Stage 4 Metastatic Prostate Cancer.

But you know my refrain. This isn't an obituary. 

And, I've got to tell you, the diagnosis of a second life-threatening cancer was not treated as such by my father. 

For the last eight years, since March 2016, my father fought this particular demon with strength, good humor, and resilience. His doctors have been nothing short of amazing. They have never stopped looking for ways to trick the cancer. My mom was at his side every minute. And I mean every, single minute, right until yesterday morning.


Now let me tell you something about the villain of this tale. About this cancer…it adapts like the Borg do. 

A treatment would work for a while, and then fail, and the cancer would grow again. My dad often likened fighting it to “whack-a-mole.”  


My dad underwent radiation treatment, chemotherapy, infusion, more radiation, and on and on. 

And he lived well, surrounded by love, and the things he loved doing. He made it to eighty+.


The war has finally ended and, of course, it could only end one way. In the way all battles with cancer end.


But I am so grateful to report that in the last 8 years, my dad gave that fucking cancer a run for its money.


Ken survived the COVID pandemic with us, even with that cancer.


We went on family trips together in 2017 - to Washington D.C., in 2018 to Universal to Orlando, and in 2019 to Colonial Williamsburg.  We had summer trips to the beach every June for eight years as a family.


Ultimately, Ken saw all three of his granddaughters graduate from high school and he lived to see Joel get just about through his junior year in high school (while also working on his Associates in Art degree), and get inducted into the National Honor Society.


Cancer didn’t win, I insist, because I didn’t lose my dad when I was 37 years old, when Joel wasn’t even here yet to meet my father.  

My dad foiled cancer’s evil plan for him, and lived to know Joel, and to spend eight more years with his wife,  his children and grandchildren.


And my dad told me not long ago, when all lines of treatment had been exhausted, that the ending of story didn't need to be an obituary.  

He took me aside one day in March and told me that he was okay. He told me not to worry. Or to feel sad. Or to lose sleep.  

He said, “John, this is how it is supposed to be. It’s the cycle of life.”


Even with cancer as a constant in his life all this time, my Dad lived happily and fully to his 80th year, my 54th year on this earth. 

I think about what my Dad would want me to write today, in his absence, specifically.  Because the totality of Ken Muir is so much more than the cancer that he tricked for so long, but which in the end, still took him too soon.


Ken Muir was a humble, sweet, gentle, erudite person, and I think he wouldn’t want me to go on about him too much. (But I have, of course...I'm a writer.)


So I will say this of my beloved father: he was a man who loved learning, and devoted much of his life to educating the next generation (which is a lesson, I hope, I learned from him). 

Ken Muir was a man of great curiosity and intellect. 

He was a man who studied history, and was fascinated in particular by World War II. He was born during that conflict and it defined so much of his studies and interests.

He loved to garden and take care of the grounds on his property.  

He loved a good game. Family game nights with him were so much fun.

He loved his Barracuda!  Classic American "muscle" he called it.

Most of all, Ken loved being with his beloved wife of 56+ years.  They were a team for the ages.


I knew this day was coming.  I have dreaded this dawn for so long, and now it has finally arrived. 

Cicero said that “the life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living,” and so I ask you all to join me in remembering Ken Muir, today, through his story, through his fight, and through his victories. Not his obituary.

Thank you for reading about my dad, and his journey these last few months.

Friday, April 26, 2024

Happy LV 426 Day! The Return of Alien (1979)

It is quite difficult to believe, but in 2024, Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) turns 45 years old. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Alien to consider on this occasion is that the Scott film does not seem to grow old in terms of its impact, even with the passage of time, even with the acute knowledge that some of its scares have become familiar ones in the pop culture firmament. For Alien has been oft-imitated, and never equaled.

Consider that Alien “indicts big business,” (Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy, page 920)) and that viewpoint has never been more popular than it is today. 

Also, the 1979 film explodes our understanding of sex roles in the intelligent and unconventional presentation of its iconic survivor, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver).  

Most importantly, perhaps, the film also creates a metaphor for the uncertainty America faced during the “crisis of confidence” 1970s.  

Here, the crew of the Nostromo is always battling the previous enemy, and never the next, dreadful iteration of the shape-shifting beast.

Whether one gazes at Alien as a simple “haunted house in space” movie, a social critique of Big Business’s callous disregard for workers, or as a trend-setter in terms of female roles, however, the film remains a masterpiece in both the horror and science fiction movie constellation. The world it forges continues to feel real, vital and relevant, and its scares never cease to thrill and unsettle.

In deep space, the commercial starship Nostromo is diverted from its homeward route when the ship’s computer, Mother, detects a distress call in a nearby solar system.  Mother awakes the crew from suspended animation, and the non-military men and women must investigate the signal on planet LV-426 or forfeit their percentage of the mission’s profit. 

The Nostromo lands on the inhospitable world and an expedition consisting of Captain Dallas (Skerritt), Kane (Hurt) and Lambert (Cartwright) finds a strange alien derelict there.  

Inside the macabre wreckage, a cargo bay is filled with leathery egg-like organisms, and something alive bursts forward from one, and seems to strangle Kane.  Kane survives, but as the crew soon learns on their return journey to Earth, the being has laid some kind of embryo down his throat, in his gut.  

The embryo grows and bursts out of Kane’s stomach, eventually becoming a seven-foot tall alien whose physical strength is matched only by its hostility.  One-by-one, the crew-members are killed or secreted away by the alien, which is hiding in the ship’s vent system. 

Desperate, one of the last survivors, Ripley (Weaver) plots a strategy to self-destruct the ship and return to Earth in a shuttle.

The story of astronauts accidentally picking up a monster in space is an old one, yet just as Star Wars gave the old swashbuckling Flash Gordon template new life in 1977, so does Ridley Scott’s Alien breath much new life into the monster-on-a-spaceship story of It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), Planet of the Vampires (1965) or The Green Slime (1968). 

The director largely does so by pinpointing and focusing on the very quality that those films determinedly lack: a grounded sense of reality in terms of how human characters might behave while traveling on a spaceship in “the future.”  

So if George Lucas imagined a “lived in” universe for Star Wars, one that implied history, use, and even entropy, Ridley Scott carries that ball a yard or two further down the field. He imagines and presents a blue-collar future, one where work-stations are trashed, where computer consoles make good coffee mug holders, where characters don sneakers and ball caps instead of snappy uniforms, where pornography is pinned-up on the personal cubbies of the personnel, and everyone sleeps in pods they call “freezers” rather than traveling at faster-than-light speed.

This daring visual aesthetic, termed “space truckers” felt new and unique in 1979, though Dark Star (1975), also written by Dan O’Bannon had put “slackers” in space and helped to begin the de-glamorization of life in outer space that Alien assiduously continues. The effort to de-romanticize space makes life seem more immediate and real, and that’s the important thing here. 

In Alien, space travel is not a glorious calling or great mission to explore brave new worlds.  On the contrary, it is a monotonous and dull occupation.  Consider that in this future, corporations like Weyland-Yutani are still in charge, and the average astronaut is not a hero or a pioneer, but rather a guy (or gal) still trying to make a living wage and get his fair piece of the pie.  He makes it through the day on copious amounts of coffee, and swears like a sailor when shit starts falling apart. 

In the film, Brett (Stanton) and Parker (Kotto) make this dynamic especially clear.  They are not “miracle workers” like Star Trek’s Mr. Scott, but overworked repairmen, putting out one fire after another and not immune to the idea of a work slow-down if they feel they are being taken for granted or abused.  In fact, Alien features a kind of upstairs/downstairs dynamic regarding the Nostromo’s crew. The bridge crew-members are, at least barely, responsible and dutiful truckers, doing their jobs with a modicum of professionalism.  But Brett and Parker sweat it out in the boiler room, making mischief and slacking off wherever they can.
The terror in Alien emerges partially but not only from the revolutionary design and appearance of the monster (as envisioned by Giger), but in the conjunction of that frightening unknown with the very-well known world of these ruckers.  If the audience had to imagine “futuristic mankind” and his advanced, perfect technology, the very threat of the alien would surely be mitigated.  Instead, Scott depicts a world of ships, wardrobe, people and environs that we all immediately recognize and identify with. Because Brett and Parker, Dallas, Kane and Ripley are all immediately believable, that factor makes the crew’s encounter with something truly unknown, something truly alien, all the more scintillating.

The contrast between us “now” (but in space) and the alien itself also forges a nice contrast.  One species is single-minded and brutally efficient. The other is…not.

The other aspect of the film that viewers today may take for granted is the fact that in Alien, the monster is never seen in the same form twice until the last few scenes.  

After three alien sequels, two AVP movies, and a prequel, people the world around can recite the Alien life-cycle from rote memory: egg, face-hugger, chest-burster, and adult or drone.  But in 1979, audiences had no way of knowing any of that, and so were unsettled because they could never be certain what the alien was going to “be” the next time they saw it.  

If the crew in Alien is recognizable as truckers in space or blue collar workers, the alien is utterly unrecognizable, even incomprehensible on first reckoning.  

So much tension arises in the film from the conflict between these two poles, of total recognition, and total lack of recognition. The alien’s constant shifting, its universal state of flux, seems to reflect the anxieties of a decade that witnessed three presidents in ten years, and upheavals in Vietnam, Iran, and on the home-front.  An overwhelming fear in the 1970s was that we didn’t know what, or from where, something else was going to hit the country as it was trying to get on its feet again.  

Would it be another oil crisis? Stagflation? Another political upheaval? A nuclear reactor meltdown? The indeterminate nature of the alien seems to point out, again and again, that the protagonists are falling behind, unable to catch-up with a problem that has spiraled out of control.

Today, we’ve seen so many aliens and so many shape-shifters at the movies that we’re inured to the concept and it no longer frightens us as it did in 1979, but Alien got it right, in revolutionary fashion. 

The fear wasn’t that the alien would be familiar the next time we saw it, the fear was that it would be unfamiliar, that all our learning, all our experience with it would ultimately prove useless.

I have written about Alien’s subtext before, notably in my book Horror Films FAQ (2013), and sometimes it is a bit uncomfortable.  

But on a very basic thematic level, Alien also concerns sex, and a “perfect” being  that can use human sexuality and reproductive drives against prey for its own breeding and survival purposes.  

There are moments in Scott's original that appear to involve homosexuality, sexual repression, and sexual stereotypes or roles. Again, this seems fitting considering the historical context. The end of the 1970's brought the disco era, and a new level of hedonism to the American public. Americans had become more promiscuous, and the 1970's has become notorious, even, for its sense of sexual experimentation. This idea has most often conveyed in films that focus on the decade’s “key” parties (The Ice Storm [1997[), wherein which married couples would swap partners for a night by randomly selecting car keys from a dish during a suburban party. At the end of the 1970's, sex clubs such as Plato’s Retreat in New York had also become part of the new tapestry of the culture.

Given such a cultural background, it’s not entirely surprising that the monster in Alien should be a creature consumed with reproduction, and thus sex. To wit, John Hurt's character Kane becomes the first recipient of the alien's reproductive advances. British, whisper-thin and sexually ambiguous, Kane is depicted at one point in the film donning a white undergarment that appears to be a girdle; something that is distinctly "feminizing" to his appearance. 

In addition, Kane lives the most dangerous -- or is it promiscuous? -- lifestyle of anyone in the Nostromo crew. He awakes from the freezer first, he initiates the mission to the derelict, and he is the first to enter the derelict’s egg chamber. But Kane‘s daring is rewarded with alien impregnation. He is made unwillingly receptive to an oral penetration: the insertion of the face-hugger's "tube" down his throat...where it lays the chest-buster. What emerges from this encounter is "Kane's son" in Ash’s terminology.

Consider also Ash (Ian Holm) and his sexual underpinnings. Ash is actually a robot, a creature presumably incapable of having sex. The film's subtext suggests that this inability, this repression of the sexual urge, has made him a monster too. 

When Ash attacks Ripley late in the film, he rolls up a pornographic magazine and attempts to jam it down the woman’s throat. It's his penis surrogate. The implication of this particular act is that he can't do the same thing with his physical member, so Ash must use the magazine in its stead. 

And when Ash speaks of the alien life-form, he admits envy for it. One must wonder if this “envy” arises because the alien can sexually dominate others in a way that the disliked, often dismissed Ash cannot manage. 

It is also significant that when Ash is unable to satisfy his repressed sexual desire for Ripley, the pressure literally causes him to explode.  The android blood is a milky white, semen-like fluid in AlienAnd it spurts. When confronted with his own sexuality and inability to express it...Ash can't hold his wad.

The most hyper-masculinized (again, stereotypically-so) character in Alien is undoubtedly Parker (Yaphet Kotto), an African-American man who brazenly discusses “eating pussy” during the scene leading up to the chest-burster revelation. 

Parker boasts an antagonistic, adversarial relationship with Ripley, one in which an interest in sex is clearly the undercurrent. Furthermore, the character is often-seen carrying an over-sized weapon (a flame thrower), a phallic symbol.

In another type of film, Parker might be the hero, the guy who saves the day. But here he dies because of the stereotypical quality of male chivalry or machismo he exhibits. In particular, Parker won't turn the flame thrower on the alien while a woman (Lambert) is in the line of fire. The alien dispatches Parker quickly (mano e mano), perhaps realizing he will never co-opt an alpha male like Parker to be his "bitch;" at least not the way Kane was used.

As for Lambert, the most-traditionally (and -- bear with me again -- stereotypically) female character in the film -- she gets raped by the alien, presumably by the xenomorph's phallic tail. Once more, the alien has exploited a character's biological/reproductive nature and used it to meets its own destructive, perverse needs.   

The monster is able to understand and kill each creature, essentially, according to their assigned, pre-programmed sex role. Kane’s daring and promiscuous life-style is what exposes him. Ash protects and envies the alien because he can’t perform sexually at all. Parker dies in an act of (in vain) machismo. And Lambert is the traditional screaming victim, unable to do anything but get raped.

And then, at long last, we get to Alien’s sense of brilliant non-convention, the character that explodes all the pre-existing stereotypes I have diagrammed. Meet Ripley: a character written in the screenplay for a man but played by a woman (Sigourney Weaver). She is the only survivor (along with Jones the Cat), of the alien's rampage on the Nostromo and there's a case that can be made that the alien cannot so easily "tag" Ripley as either male or female, and that's why she survives.

She is perfect, like the alien itself, an apparent blend of all “human” qualities.  

Ripley makes irrelevant traditional sex roles or sex stereotypes, and please recall that I have discussed all the crew in terms of the culture’s stereotypes. That’s because they are prey, and the alien hunts them by those qualities.  It can’t get a handle on Ripley because she exists outside familiar sexual dynamics.  

All the other crew members are somehow limited by their sexuality, whereas Ripley is the only character who successfully balances common sense, heroism, and competence. She is both strong and weak, in the appropriate measure, both daring and prudent. Given this uncommon mix of stereotypically male and female qualities, the alien is not quite sure how to either "read" or "use" Ripley for its own nefarious purposes.  This, perhaps, is one advantage of our species: it can outgrow biology, and not act as mere slave to it.

In the final moments of the film, the alien does make a decision vis-à-vis Ripley. It recognizes and catalogs her as the best of humanity whether male or female.  She is kindred; a survivor. So the alien rides in secret with her aboard the shuttle Narcissus as they escape the Nostromo. 

The alien could likely kill Ripley any time during that escape flight, but does not choose to do so. It knows it is in safe hands with her, at least for the time being. It uses her "competence," her skill (qualities of itself it recognizes in her?) to escape destruction...again establishing its perfection.
When viewed through the lens of human sexuality then, Alien is a film about the way that the reproductive or sex drive can subvert humanity.  

The film is a masterpiece in terms of visualization, in terms of how it approaches space travel and alien life, but more than it, it is a work of genius in describing what perfection might mean to an alien life-form.  It means not being easily tagged or cataloged as one thing or another.   The depiction of the alien itself recognizes the fact that it can be all things to all people.  The doorway to the alien derelict, for instance, is vaginal in appearance, and the alien skull itself resembles “the head of a penis,” (William Paul, Laughing Screaming, 1994).

So as the doors of sexual experimentation were swinging wide in the 1970's, Alien gave the world a monster to walk through that open portal…

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

50 Years Ago: Planet Earth (1974)

Planet Earth (1974) aired fifty years ago today, represents creator Gene Roddenberry's second effort to get his Genesis II (1973) series premise aired on American network television. 

As you may or may not remember, Genesis II concerned a 20th century scientist, Dylan Hunt (Alex Cord) awaking in 2133 AD and helping the pacifist organization called PAX (Latin for peace) restore the "best of the past" while ignoring "the worst."

Because of his 20th century knowledge and know-how (and because of a system of sub-shuttles "honeycombing" the post-apocalyptic world...), Dylan proved a perfect "agent" of PAX to accomplish this critical mission of planetary reconstruction (think Irish monks in the Dark Ages...). Still, Dylan Hunt had to overcome his own twentieth century addiction to violence and killing.

Star Trek fans will also recall that Gene Roddenberry created two pilots for that classic NBC series, before the series was finally picked up for network television. Specifically, Star Trek underwent a dramatic change in leading man (from Jeffrey Hunt to William Shatner), and shifted radically in tone from the first pilot ("The Cage") to the second one ("Where No Man Has Gone Before.") In particular, the "cerebral," introspective nature of "The Cage" was replaced by a more action-packed, upbeat tone for Shatner's first episode, "Where No Man..."

One can detect a nearly identical shift at work from Genesis II to Planet Earth. In Genesis II, the brave men and women of PAX lived underground, in dark, depressing and dimly lit caverns. In Planet Earth, PAX folk live above ground, in a shiny, technological metropolis
 replete with flower gardens and elaborate skyscrapers. Even Dylan Hunt's first voice-over is more upbeat and bright in language, explaining to the audience that in 2133 AD the land is "renewed," and the "air and water are pure again."

In Genesis II, the people of PAX wore simple garments and looked like Roman slaves. In Planet Earth, the people of PAX wear form-fitting and futuristic uniforms that are brightly reminiscent of Star Trek.

In Genesis II, PAX had no advanced technology or advanced medicine. By contrast, Planet Earth reveals a PAX replete with handheld computers, view-screens and large computer banks. The people of PAX are also more knowledgeable here, and there are doctors available who can perform advanced "bioplastic" heart surgery. These changes reveal a completely made-over PAX, one which (like the United Federation of Planets) represents a virtual utopia.

Other changes have been made as well. 

A "recurring" enemy in the form of the barbaric mutants called "The Kreeg" has been added to the mix. These dangerous mutants, like the Klingons of modern day Trek incarnations, boast ridged (or bumpy) foreheads and a style of life geared heavily towards the militaristic. The Kreeg drive around the post-apocalyptic landscape in ancient, souped-up automobiles, and carry twentieth century fire-arms. Basically, It's like Mad Max with Klingons.

Some character relationships have also been tarted up to be as colorful and dynamic as the new environs. The flirtatious relationship between Dylan Hunt (here played by John Saxon) and sexy Harper-Smythe (Janet Margolin) is more pronounced. The other members 
of Hunt's "Team 21" include the hulking Isiah (Ted Cassidy) and a physician named Baylock (Christopher Cary) who is an "Esper" capable of healing wounds with his mind. Baylock and Isiah share a friendly rivalry that is reminiscent of the Spock/Bones relationship on Star Trek, with Baylock dismissively referring to Isiah as a "savage" when Cassidy's character kneels down in prayer at one point.

Perhaps most significant is the change in Dylan Hunt himself. Saxon's version of the character is a man of action (like James T. Kirk); one who is firmly in command this time around. He barks orders, plots strategy and is a firm, decisive leader, with precious little of the introspection or moodiness of Cord's incarnation. Honestly, John Saxon is a much better lead in this particular role, and his central performance holds Planet Earth together pretty damn well. Like
 Shatner's Kirk, he is a combination of physical agility/beauty and charming arrogance/swagger.

Another Star Trekkian touch: Dylan Hunt chronicles his adventures on a handheld device.  It's not the captain's log, but damn close.  Instead, he calls it "a log report to the PAX council."

Given the changes to a punchier, more upbeat tone, philosophy is also played down in Planet Earth. Genesis II ended with the high-minded pacifists of PAX lecturing to Dylan Hunt (who had just saved them all from nuclear annihilation...) about the evils of violence and murder. In Planet Earth, the PAX folk are still peaceful in nature (they continue to use sedative darts as their primary weapons, called PAXer darts, for instance), but they never stop the action to wax philosophic or lecture about pacifism. And judging by the fight sequences here, the people of PAX have also learned the fine art of self-defense.

Directed by the late, great Marc Daniels (who helmed many episodes of Star Trek), Planet Earth (co-written by Juanita Bartlett and Roddenberry and produced by Robert Justman) also features a plot that is easier, in some sense, to identify with. In the opening minutes of the episode, gentle Pater Kimbridge, a leader of PAX, is wounded during a kerfuffle with the Kreeg. Dylan and Team 21 get Kimbridge back to Pax, but they require the skills of a surgeon named John Connor to save the old man's life. Unfortunately, Connor disappeared a year earlier in an "unexplored region" ruled by a matriarchy called "The Confederacy."

There in the confederacy, "males are bought and sold like caged animals." Hunt wonders aloud if is this "women's lib...or women's lib gone mad?" Anyway, he resolves to infiltrate the Confederacy as a slave "owned" (as property) by Harper-Smythe, to locate John Connor and rescue his dying friend. He has just sixty hours to accomplish this task. What Planet Earth establishes with Dylan's mission is the bond of friendship between Kimbridge and Hunt. Hunt states that Kimbridge "is" PAX; both "grace" and "warmth." So underlining the action and weird central scenario in this pilot is a narrative that could have come from Star Trek; about the lengths friends will go to for friends.

Once inside the Confederacy of Ruth, Hunt becomes the property of a dominatrix named Marg (Diana Muldaur), who wins ownership of him in combat with Harper-Smythe. Marg decides she wants him to be a "breeder" (yes!), and Dylan soon learns that all the males here -- called "Dinks" -- are rendered docile by a drug extract in their gruelish food that controls the human "fear/fascination" response. Unfortunately, a side-effect of this drug is sterility. Fewer and fewer children are being born in the Confederacy. The mission is now two-fold for Dylan: set right this topsy-turvy culture (men's lib!) and find the missing Dr. John Connor.

Unfortunately, that's easier said than done. Hunt soon rebels against his new training, and Marg notes that "the human male is an unstable creature." She trains him herself (yippee!), forcing a tied-up Hunt to ingest a full vial of the dangerous extract, rendering him docile. But, in the best teeth-grinding, jaw-clenching tradition of Captain Kirk, Hunt fights the effects of the drug.

Once again, here's a Gene Roddenberry story with a decidedly kinky bent. Dylan Hunt is soon remanded to Marg's home as a "breeder" and once there he promises her that he's, uh...well...good in bed. He claims he has fourteen wives and that his body is attuned to "different practices" than The Mistress might be familiar with. Marg and Hunt share a scene that includes bottles of wine, a bullwhip (whoo-hoo!), and ultimately...a bed. In the sack, Marg and Dylan proceed to discuss the failure of both 20th century men's lib and post-apocalyptic women's lib as governing philosophies, and settle on "people's lib."

Yep, in the words of Dylan Hunt, it's all just a "little non-verbal mutual respect."

Before long, the Kreeg attack the Confederacy, but Dylan has executed a plan to free the Dinks from their drug-induced docility and stand-up and fight. In the end, PAX outsiders, Dinks and Mistresses fight back the violent Kreegs (led by John Quade) and Dylan and Harper-Smythe get Connor back to PAX to save Kimbridge's life.

I hadn't seen Planet Earth in probably fifteen years, and my memory has always been that it wasn't as good; wasn't as "pure" perhaps, as the original, Genesis II. However, on a fresh viewing, I must admit, I actually prefer Planet Earth. John Saxon seems very comfortable and appealing as a leader of men (and women), and he's adept with the romantic and action bits. He's also highly charismatic and appears to be enjoying himself.

And that "light" Star Trek sense of esprit-de-corps and joie-de-vivre is definitely present too, so Saxon understands the style.True, there's less philosophical grandstanding, but the lighter touch is fun and entertaining, and it easily (and humorously) makes points about the timeless "battle of the sexes." Parts of the episode play well as satire; and in toto, Planet Earth is a lot less heavy-handed and grave than Genesis II. This is a planet you wouldn't mind visiting every week.

By making PAX more advanced in Planet Earth, Roddenberry is also better able to compare and contrast various cultures and societies. It's very difficult to be a committed pacifist when you live in desperation (underground in caves; wearing rags); a little easier to do so when some of the basic necessities of life -- like sunlight -- are met. The unisex uniforms also forge a sharp visual distinction between PAX and the other cultures. The character dynamics here also seem more promising, or at least more colorful.

Alas, Planet Earth didn't make the grade either, and never went to series. A third attempt with this formula, also starring John Saxon (this time as Captain Anthony Vico) -- entitled Strange New World (1975) -- was next. Roddenberry had reduced involvement in that pilot, and it too failed to become a series. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Enter The House Between picks up Hermes Creative Award (Platinum!) for 2024

Enter The House Between, our audio drama that finished airing its first season in October of 2023, picked up its second award yesterday! 

This time, the series won a platinum statue for 2024 in the category of Audio/Radio Program.

The award itself is a Hermes Creative Award, which is sponsored by the Association of Marketing and Creative Professionals. 

The Hermes Awards have been around 18 years, and they honor the messengers and creators of the information revolution.  

According to the website, "Armed with their imaginations and computers, Hermes winners bring their ideas to life through traditional and digital platforms."

"Each year, competition judges evaluate the creative industry's best publications, branding collateral, websites, videos, and advertising, marketing, and communication programs," and this year, I am proud to say that Enter The House Between was singled out with a Platinum award.  (Other categories are Gold, and Honorable Mention).

I want to thank our tremendous cast and crew for making the first season of the series such a memorable one for our listeners. 

The second season is in post-production, and you ain't seen (or heard...) nothing yet!

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

90 Years Ago: Tarzan and His Mate (1934)

Tarzan and His Mate (1934) is the finest of the Johnny Weismuller/Maureen O’Sullivan MGM Tarzan movies. It is (shockingly…) frank in its sense of eroticism, and -- for the first time -- brings into sharp focus the franchise’s ongoing central debate or argument about the real nature of white “civilization.”

In this 90 year old film -- as in all succeeding MGM Tarzan movies -- white hunters enter the jungle and bring corruption, avarice, and violence with them. They steal, they lie, and they kill. 

And so, finally, audiences come to agree with Tarzan’s assessment: they can’t be considered truly civilized. They don’t live in harmony with nature, and they seek to plunder it for some non-existent thing called “wealth.”  

For Tarzan, by contrast, “wealth” is his companionship with Jane, the river from which they get their abundant water, and the sun that warms their skin. He can’t understand civilization’s focus on material things, like the ivory of the elephants at the sacred graveyard.

It’s strange how the film’s two ideas work hand-in-hand so well.

Jane and Tarzan share a very erotic, natural, innocent (but clearly sexual…) relationship, and the film depicts them in bed together, actually, at one point.  That sense of innocent joy in one another is contrasted with the white interloper’s sense of greedy avarice. 

That interloper kisses Jane against her will at one point, and ogles her, by light of lantern, when she strips down in a jungle tent. 

Where Tarzan sees Jane as someone he truly loves, Martin Arlington (Paul Cavanaugh), the aforementioned interloper, sees her as another resource of the jungle to use and “own.”

Tarzan and His Mate also features an amazing -- even by today’s standards -- siege-style conclusion. 

Martin’s safari, with Jane in tow, comes under attack by a tribe of lion men who send man-eaters to kill them. The lions charge and leap, most convincingly, as the white hunters (including Holt and Jane) take refuge on a rock formation. That formation is soon breached, and the scenes of lions battling men (and one woman) look remarkably convincing.

Action-packed, legitimately erotic (but not cheaply so, like the Bo Derek Tarzan [1981]), and featuring a social commentary that questions what the word “civilization” really means, Tarzan and His Mate is the greatest of all Tarzan adventures, and a film that has lost surprisingly little currency in the eighty-some years since it premiered.

“These are animals. They are not human. It’s different.”

A failed businessman, Martin Arlington (Cavanaugh) joins with hunter Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton) to go beyond the Great Escarpment in search of the legendary elephant graveyard, where he can gain riches by taking the ivory found there.  

When, another expedition, belonging to a hunter named Van Ness, gets a head-start, Holt and the bankrupt Arlington realize that they need the help of Tarzan (Johnny Weismuller).  

They seek out Jane’s (Maureen O’Sullivan) help, hoping she can convince the lord of the jungle to lead them to the graveyard. To convince her to do so, they have brought with them perfume, lipstick, and apparel from England.

Tarzan is not happy with the idea of men robbing the elephant graves, and he and Arlington clash almost immediately. 

Arlington attempts to kill Tarzan, and believes he has succeeded. While Cheetah and other chimps nurse him back to health, Harry and Martin convince Jane to return to England with them.

After looting the elephant graveyard, however, Martin’s safari is confronted by a hostile tribe, and an attack by man-eating lions.  

An injured Tarzan rouses himself for battle, even as Jane, Martin and Holt struggle to fend off the attacking beasts.

“Tarzan knows nothing about money.  That wouldn’t mean anything to him.”

In Tarzan the Ape Man, James Parker (Jane’s father) and Holt (Hamilton) were seen as good men who were, essentially, out of their element in wild Africa. They ultimately forged a peace with Tarzan.  

Tarzan and His Mate takes a hard turn away from that paradigm and gives the franchise its first fully-formed white villain: Martin Arlington. He won't be the last character of this type in the series, either.

The film was released in 1934, when America was still recovering from the stock market crash of 1929, and in the throes of the Great Depression. Accordingly, Tarzan and his Mate opens with Arlington explaining his financial woes to Holt, and his last chance to be rich. 

His “shot” involves the theft of the ivory in the elephant graveyard.  So though he has lost his fortune, Martin has learned nothing.  His agenda is to climb back to the top of the pack, as soon as possible; at least from an economics standpoint.

Arlington is defined, in Tarzan and His Mate by his repetition of extreme violence to achieve his ends. 

First, he shoots dead an African worker who refuses an order, making an example of him to others.  

Then, he shoots an elephant in the foot, so that it will instinctively lead him to the graveyard.  

And finally, he shoots Tarzan so that the jungle man will not stand in his way collecting the ivory. 

Arlington believes, then, that this technology gives him the means to control others, and that his designation as “civilized” gives him the right to command and manipulate others.

Martin also attempts to steal Jane from both Tarzan and Harry, proving that he boasts no moral code at all.  He also leers over Jane, when seeing her disrobe in a tent.  He is a man of endless appetites who believes that his privileged upbringing gives him the right to lie, cheat and steal if it keeps him in power.

Tarzan does not think so obsessively about himself. 

He thinks, instead, of the elephants, who have the right, he believes, not to have their graveyards desecrated. He also is tender and sweet with Jane upon visiting her father’s grave. Although he is powerful and strong, he is also gentle and caring for others in a way that the so-called “civilized” Martin is not.

Tarzan and His Mate is a great adventure, but it is more than a kid’s matinee movie, for certain.  

Early in the film, the adult Cheetah dies to save Jane from a rhino attack. The ape’s child, young Cheetah, mourns her death, and the film doesn’t whitewash this stark moment.  Death is part of life in the jungle. Wickedly, the movie also builds suspense by having the young Cheetah encounter a rhino later. Because of the earlier, emotional encounter, this moment gets viewers to the edge of their seats.

And, of course, though Tarzan and Jane are true of heart, their interest in each other is also, well, adult.  

Throughout the film, Jane wears an outfit that leaves her nude from midriff to toes, at least from certain angles.  

And there is a delightful and revealing swimming scene here in which Jane swims completely in the nude. This is most unexpected, but the moment reminds one of Adam and Eve in the Garden.  In any such comparison, Martin would be the snake, bringing lies and deceit to the couple’s world.

As I’ve noted, the eroticism is both surprising and, intriguingly, related to the film’s overall viewpoint about civilization.  

It is natural for Jane and Tarzan to be in love, and to express romantic (sexual) love.  Arlington’s ardent desire for Jane looks perverse in comparison.  The equation in these films is that Tarzan and the jungle represent a kind of innocence and moral code, and that white civilization interferes with that innocence and moral code.

The great thing, of course, is that while these deeper ideas are apparent to adults (and film critics too), the kids in the audience can focus on the thrills provided by rhino stampedes, crocodile attacks and the aforementioned -- and amazingly choreographed -- siege by lions. 

Tarzan and His Mate is my favorite -- and perhaps the best made -- Tarzan movie in cinema history.

National Twilight Zone Day: "Come Wander with Me"

There are, perhaps, several episodes of Rod Serling's classic   The Twilight Zone  (1959-1964) more sharply-written, more morally-valuab...