Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" (January 10, 1969)

Stardate 5730.2

The Enterprise proceeds to a critical decontamination mission on the heavily-populated world of Ariannus, but en route the sensors detect a shuttlecraft in distress. The ship was recently reported stolen from Starbase 4, and there is one inhabitant aboard: Lokai (Lou Antonio).

Lokai is a strange individual, at least in terms of physical or biological characteristics. He is white colored on half of his body, and black colored on the other side. Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley) believes he may be a one-of-a-kind, a mutation.

This theory is proven wrong, however, when another being from Lokai’s planet, Cheron, arrives aboard an invisible spaceship in pursuit.

At first blush, Commissioner Bele (Frank Gorshin) seems to resemble Lokai, possessing white skin and black skin, in opposition.

But all of Bele’s people are black on the right side, whereas Lokai’s people are white on the right side.

This (apparently minor) color difference seems to be the source of huge distress and anger between the two individuals. Bele claims to have been hunting Lokai for 50,000 years, and wants to return him to Cheron to pay for his crimes of insurrection. Lokai, by contrast, wants disciples to follow him, arguing that Bele and his people are violent, tyrants, and that his people are enslaved.

When Captain Kirk (William Shatner) refuses to hand over Lokai, determining that he should stand trial for the theft of the shuttle, Bele takes control of the Enterprise, forcing the ship to alter course for Cheron. 

With no choice, Kirk demonstrates that his authority over the Enterprise is final by activating the self-destruct sequence. He aborts the one minute countdown only after Bele relents, and returns control of the ship.

After the decontamination mission at Ariannus, Bele again takes over directional controls. This time, he burns out the self-destruct mechanism, so Kirk cannot stop him.

On arrival, the Enterprise crew finds that Cheron is a dead world, one that has been engulfed in the flames of hatred and division for too long. Lokai and Bele’s people are all dead, having been unable to overcome their race hatred.

This knowledge, however, does not prevent them from continuing to fight and chase one another.

Originally titled “A Portrait in Black and White,” this episode of Star Trek (1966-1969) from Gene Coon (writing as Lee Cronin) is often described by critics and fans as being heavy-handed or preachy. 

I reply to those criticisms (perhaps as an “idealistic dreamer,” as Bele terms Kirk) in the following manner:

Preach on, Star Trek.

“Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” is a brilliant episode, I would argue, for the way it addresses the utter stupidity and subjective nature of racism, or race hatred.

The message is heavy-handed or preachy? Really? If that’s the case, how come in fifty years man still suffers from this brand of stupidity? 

If the message of “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” is so blooming obvious, it seems that this is a lesson would have taken hold. And for so many people, it has not done so.

I term the episode brilliant specifically for the manner in which it explains racism, or rather reduces the concept of racism to its most basic (and therefore ridiculous) tenets. In a remarkable scene between Kirk, Spock, and Bele, the Starfleet officers attempt to talk reason to the commissioner from Cheron. They note that Bele and Lokai seem to be of the same race.

Bele responds, offended: “I am black on the right side. Lokai is white on the right side. All his people are white on the right side.” 

The inference in Bele’s response is that being white on the right side (rather than on the left side) is inherently, obviously, inferior to being white on the left side.

But no supporting evidence for this belief is offered. It’s just an assumed fact; something unquestioned by Bele’s people. It's a self-reinforcing, comforting myth, or bias, with no grounding in science.

Naturally, they are superior! They’re black on the right side!

And if you gaze at racism here on Earth, in the twentieth and twenty first centuries, racism makes no more sense than Bele’s statement does.

Why are black, brown, yellow, or red considered, often, inferior to white by some? Are these skin colors encoded with quality ratings, a hierarchy?

Or are they the product, instead, of self-righteous, comforting beliefs? 

The definition of racism is “a system of belief that all members of one race possess characteristics specific to that race in order to distinguish it from other races.” So if you are black on the right side, you are good, smart, and hard-working. If you are black on the left side, you are violent, uneducated, and lazy.

See how that works? Your skin color is your destiny; never mind your individuality. Never mind your experience. Never mind your achievements.

Spock responds to Bele’s statement by offering up the example of Vulcan. The Vulcan people would have destroyed themselves over such irrational, unfounded beliefs, had they not found the discipline of logic. He recommends that Cheron should adopt the same policy, lest its people be destroyed.

Kirk also attempts to talk reason to Bele, noting that a dialogue could be started between Lokai’s people and Bele’s people. 

Bele refuses to believe that Lokai’s people are capable of change (another trope familiar to racists), and Spock then speaks one of the core tenets of Star Trek; one paraphrased again just this weekend in the new Star Trek: Discovery (2017) trailer:

Change is the essential process of all existence.”

Racism can’t exist with new input, with new facts, with new experiences. It thrives on ignorance, and stereotyping (the failure to note a person as an individual). 

If Bele lets himself believe that Lokai can change, or grow, then he can no longer cling to the myths around his own superiority.  He would have to re-examine the world, and find, perhaps, that he is not better than all others. Instead of being God's chosen, or biology's chosen, he might learn he is  just one star in a constellation of worthy beings. Clearly, at least from Bele's example, racism stems from the desire to be viewed as superior, while all others are inferior.

That idea of racial superiority based on skin color, as this episode points out, is antithetical to Star Trek and its messages. 

We may all be different. 

We may possess different strengths, and different weaknesses. 

But we are all worthwhile, and we all possess individual gifts that are separate from skin color, gender, orientation, and so forth. 

That is the heart of IDIC (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations), a concept introduced to the series earlier in the third season.

When I was a child, I did not fully understand the episode, I admit. I thought that one Cheron-ian was evil (Bele), and that one was good (Lokai). 

As I matured and re-watched the episode, I saw that the episode is not heavy-handed and obvious, because it recreates the complexity of the social unrest of the 1960’s in an even-handed way. 

Bele represents bigoted, unreasonable, privileged authority and racism, it’s true. But Lokai represents the counter-culture, and its willingness to overturn everything, in a day, without considering what could be lost by throwing the baby out with the bath water. 

Another way to put this: Bele wants to preserve the status quo, at all costs, because he strides atop it. There can be no change, especially from inferiors, that would lessen his seat of power, privilege, and prestige on Cheron. 

Oppositely -- like a cracked mirror reflection -- Lokai is against the status quo, at all costs, and sees nothing worth preserving there. He would overturn all laws, cause violence, and undertake sweeping change to the social order without recognizing the good things in the status quo.

They are diametrically opposed, and neither character is angel. They are both devils in their own way. Remember, "fundamentalism" isn't about what you believe, it's how you believe that thing. Bele and Lokai share their extreme brand of fundamentalism, even if they believe different things.

But the episode’s ultimate message is that it doesn’t matter who is right, or more right in this, or any conflict. 

Irrational hatred, for or against the status quo is destructive, divisive, and has no positive end. The episode’s final imagery, of cities in flame, is a potent warning to the riot-struck America of the 1960’s that unremitting hatred from any corner, is unproductive, and worse than that, self-destructive.

Looking around at the world today, I don’t see why this episode is considered preachy or heavy-handed.  On the contrary, I would say that Star Trek found a way to fully expose how stupid and destructive racism and hatred can be. 

Sure, it’s all about the color(s) of skin, but that, of course, is the tether that racism is often bound to. “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” is not stupid or obvious. Contrarily, it is about how stupid and obvious racism is, as a belief system.  

As Kirk compassionately notes to the survivors of Cheron, “You must both end up dead if you don’t stop hating.”

As America grows more divided, more ill-informed, more enraged about “the other” in our midst (liberal, conservative, Republican, Democrat, gay, straight, atheist, Christian, white, black, male, female), this is a message worth repeating. 

Hate, finally, is not a governing strategy. Hate, in the final analysis, is not a way forward. It is a path, ultimately, to a burned-out cinder of a planet, where no partisans survive, and where no one can claim victory, moral or otherwise.

This doesn’t mean we should ignore hate when we see it, or fail to call it out. Only that, we must always remember Spock’s axiom that “change is the essential process of all existence.” Those whom we think can’t change….can change. 

We can’t give up hope that they will.  “Idealistic dreamers” must not give up on those dreams of a better future.

This message is the essence of Star Trek. Think about Kirk’s journey in The Undiscovered Country (1991), or the relationship of the Federation and the Klingon Empire over the whole franchise. Hate cannot be allowed to carry the day. Racism falls when we have to see our perceived enemies as people capable of compromise.

I love that “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” exists in the episode canon, and I hope that those who call it obvious or heavy-handed go back and actually experience its messages, again.

In terms of continuity, the episode is vital to the franchise because it sets up, precisely, the parameters of starship self-destruct sequences in the 23rd century. The codes, the multi-officer input, and the countdown are all featured again in The Search for Spock (1984), and the connection is a wonderful touch of continuity with the series. Even the auto-destruct in The Next Generation (“11001001” and “Where Silence Has Lease”) is based on the process we see explored in this particular episode.

Also, as I have noted above, it looks like Spock’s line about “change” in this episode has been re-parsed (and spoken by a young Sarek) in Discovery (2017), an indication that it will continue to carry importance across the Trek-verse.

What is the end-game for an episode such as “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield?” 

Where do such idealistic dreams lead us? 

Sulu and Chekov share a conversation in this episode, wherein it is clear they have no first-hand experience with bigotry or racism. “There was persecution on Earth once. I remember reading about it in my history class,” they say.

That is the world worth building. 

This is the world we can build. And episodes such as “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” light the way, as Star Trek often does. We can either end up like Bele and Lokai, dining on the ashes of hatred, or like Sulu and Chekov, looking back and wondering how people could have ever been so damned hateful.

In two weeks, another episode laced with social commentary: “Mark of Gideon.”

Monday, July 24, 2017

Ask JKM a Question: Savage Cinema Fridays?

A reader named Gene writes:

"Savage Fridays was my most anticipated entry on your blog several years back. Is there any chance of you possibly bringing this back in the short-term? "

Gene, your question takes me back!

I believe it was 2012 -- already five years ago!! -- when I devoted Fridays to the Savage Cinema.  

As readers may remember, the savage horror films (not necessarily supernatural...just violent) are among my favorites. These films symbolize a recognition, it seems to me, of life's essential absurdity, randomness, and chaotic nature. I love their brutal qualities, and their equally blunt social commentary.

Some of the films I reviewed in the series include Straw Dogs (1971), Deliverance (1972), Last House on the Left (1972), I Spit on Your Grave (1978), and Irreversible (2002), as I recall.

There are still many savage cinema entries I haven't reviewed on the blog, including my all-time favorite: Martyrs (2008).  Another of this type that I enjoy, and need to review is Wolf Creek (2005).

As far as getting back to those films and reviving the blog series, I would love to have the opportunity!

In fact, I want to extend my thanks to everyone who has stuck with me and the blog this summer, as my posts have been less frequent.  

I am teaching two classes all summer (Intro to Film and Public Speaking), and when not teaching, I have been with my son, who is off from school for the summer. He is ten, and we have been gaming, playing with Legos, and having other adventures together. Most of his friends are away at camps or on vacation for the summer, so we spend a lot of (wonderful) time together.

So it has been more and more difficult to find time to blog. It has been a real challenge. I still haven't gotten to my review of War for the Planet of the Apes!  

However, I am anticipating and planning a re-birth of and re-commitment to blogging once I am back at school full time, and Joel is also back at school full time. That's mid-to-late August.  So if you can hang around till then, I can plan to revive Savage Fridays, and start with Martyrs and Wolf Creek.

Thank you for asking the question!

Don't forget to ask me your questions at Muirbusiness@yahoo.com

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Fishing

Fishing is the activity of catching fish, for food or for sport.  

Based on my experiences with my late, beloved father-in-law, I also know that fishing is, in many cultures, a bonding experience between parents and their children.

Throughout cult-television history, fishing has been depicted in both regards, as a means of survival in a primitive (or non-technological setting), and as a meaningful relationship experience.

I'll tackle the latter aspect first.  

The act of sitting together on a pier, or in a boat -- parent and child -- while waiting to catch a fish at first may not seem important or valuable. But in those long hours, often in the early morning, wisdom is transferred from one generation to the next.  If not wisdom, experience, or even laughs.  These moments of talking are punctuated by the excitement of catching a fish

This idea is encoded in the very genetic fabric of The Andy Griffith Show (1960-1968). The introductory montage features images of a father and son (Griffith and Ron Howard) together, fishing rods slung over their shoulders, as they walk side-by-side.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999) opens, similarly, with Commander Ben Sisko (Avery Brooks) and his young son, Jake (Cirroc Lofton), fishing in a holodeck program. More than two hundred years separate, chronologically,  these two images (in-universe, speaking), but what remains unchanged is fishing, and the culture of bonding that surrounds it.

The Simpsons (1990 - ), over the years, has also featured numerous instances of fishing, featuring Grandpa and Homer, and Homer and Bart.  And, of course, the occasional mutant fish.

In terms of fishing to survive a hostile environment, there are many episodes of cult-television series that feature fishing as a necessary tool to one's survival.  "Stranded on a desert isle" programs such as Gilligan's Island (1964-1967), Land of the Lost (1974 - 1977), and Lost (2004-2011) feature many instances of fishing, to support the castaways.

An episode of the Planet of the Apes (1974) TV series, "Tomorrow's Tide" involves a fishing community of humans, ruled over by intelligent simians. The human astronauts from the past, Virdon (Ron Harper) and Burke (James Naughton) show the primitive humans how to more efficiently fish, using nets (instead of spears).

The Cult-TV Faces of: Fishing










Saturday, July 22, 2017

Saturday Morning Cult TV Blogging: "The Drought" (November 13, 1976)

In “The Drought,” the Ark II goes in search of a time capsule containing a pre-apocalypse “cloud seeder” to help avert a deadly drought in the nearby desert.  During the mission, Samuel programs the Ark II to run on voice control. 

 This proves a poor selection when the crew’s old nemesis, the scoundrel Fagon (Jonathan Harris) stages a trap for Jonah and steals the vehicle.

It turns out that Fagon and his gang of young “Flies” want the cloud seeder as well, and now, with Ark II, have the means to get it.  Unfortunately, Adam, Samuel and Ruth are all captured in the village of the time capsule by a primitive witch doctor who believes that the Rain God is angry with them.  He orders them to be sacrificed in “The Cave of No Return.” 

The young Flies want to help the kindly crew members, but Fagon refuses to join them.  Meanwhile, Jonah attempts to convince Fagon to give up possession of the high tech vehicle because “you can have everything in the world, but without anyone to share it with, you have nothing.”

Fagon helps to free the trapped crew members and show the witch-doctor the error of his ignorant ways. The Ark II continues on its mission, and this time, Samuel programs the vehicle to respond only to the voice commands of the vehicle’s crew.

Jonathan Harris guest stars here as the Ark II equivalent of Harry Mudd, a selfish, roguish man who proves a constant foil for the good-intentioned Ark II team.  What remains a little baffling about this episode is that Jonah and the others allow Fagon to attain a position of authority in the witch doctor’s community.  He promises to teach the villagers “irrigation” methods, but this is a variation of what he promised in “The Flies.”  There, he assured Jonah he would educate the wayward youngsters, but we see in this episode that he did no such thing.  

So why would Jonah trust him again now? 

There’s an old saying:  Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.  There’s every reason to suspect that Fagon will remain just as foolish and selfish in the future as he has been in the past.   This is hardly “mission accomplished” and the unsatisfactory conclusion of “The Drought” only points out again the kind of amorphous missions that the Ark II conducts.   The crew’s goals and rules are not always clear or carefully established.  Accordingly, it hardly seems like good procedure to leave the untrustworthy Fagon in charge of an important project.

In terms of Ark II technology, this episode introduces the “magnetic force beam” -- a kind of tractor beam-- that Fagon utilizes in order to steal the cloud seeder.  He gains the knowledge by using the Ark II’s technical manual…which looks a lot like a script book.

Next week: “The Wild Boy.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: The Bugaloos: "Our Home is Our Hassle" (September 26, 1970)

In “Our Home is Our Hassle,” Peter Platter announces from his uptown station a contest for best original song…with a money prize attached. Benita Bizarre (Martha Raye) desperately wants to win it, but needs a song.

She soon overhears the Bugaloos singing in Tranquility Forest. In particular, it’s a song about Sparky (Billy Barty) finding his inner courage and not being afraid to be alone. Benita realizes that she can also draw inspiration from Tranquility Forest and plans a field trip. Unfortunately, she and her minions are polluters and litterers.

There, in the forest, Benita also zaps the Bugaloos and plots her original song, “Nature Girl.”  

After being "un-zapped," the Bugaloos pretend to be ghosts so as to force Benita scurrying from the forest and back to her high-rise juke box.

Once more, Benita Bizarre is absolutely covetous of the Bugaloos and their talent, in this episode of the Sid and Marty Krofft live-action Saturday morning series of the 1970’s. 

Specifically, she believes that the forest will inspire her in the same way it inspires the Bugaloos. What she can’t understand is that even if inspired by the natural world, she can’t replicate the talent of the original singers.

The plot of “Our Home is Our Hassle” is very much in keeping with the first two episodes. Benita launches a crazy scheme against the Bugaloos, and the Bugaloos soundly defeat that plan.

There are two new “props” in this episode.

The first is the “bug” zapper, a weapon which can immobilize the Bugaloos. The zapper knocks them out, and only by setting it to reverse can they be awakened.  The bug zapper prop re-appears throughout the series, in future episodes.

The second prop is the full-scale “Buggy,” a decked out Bugaloo car.

One new, and soon to be recurring plot element is that Bugaloos hatch an inventive plot, using disguises, to carry the day. An upcoming episode has them dress as domestics (“Courage, Come Home,”) while “Lady You Don’t Look Eighty” puts them in old age-make up. Here, in “Our Home is Our Hassle,” the Bugaloos over their aces and hair in white pancake make-up, don sheets, and pretend to be ghosts haunting Tranquility Forest.

Oddly, in this “white” form, they resemble nothing so much as the albino Family of mutants in the 1971 film The Omega Man.

The song of the week involves Sparky’s courage. The Bugaloos sing “Sparky…won’t you light your light shine on!”  The topic of Sparky’s courage also recurs, and re-appears in “The Love Bugaloos.”

Here's the song, "Sparky:"

Next week: “Courage Come Home.”

Friday, July 21, 2017

John and Jim's Excellent Journey Podcast #2: Space:1999

Check out the second chapter of my podcast with the extraordinary and learned James McLean. Our topic for this episode of John and Jim's Excellent Journey: Space: 1999 (1975 -1977).

This episode was recorded in April, well before Martin Landau's passing last week, but it is posting at the perfect time to remember one of the actor's most beloved roles.

Here's the link: http://beyondkasterborous.com/index.php/2017/07/19/excellent-journey-podcast-2-space-1999/

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Planet of the Apes TV Series Cult-TV Blogging: "The Liberator"

In “The Liberator,” the fugitives come across a village of enslaved humans who, every so often, must provide to the ape prefect workers in a dangerous mine. 

Unfortunately, the humans selected by the apes die in short-order, apparently because of contamination to some toxic gas or substance.

The fugitives -- Galen (Roddy McDowall), Alan (Ron Harper) and Pete (James Naughton) -- get captured by the villagers, and are to be offered up to the apes as fodder for the mines. 

They learn, however, that the toxicity is a result of toxic gas canisters from the twentieth century, stored in a temple.  The leader of the human village, Brun (John Ireland) plans to make gas bombs to kill the apes, and free his people.

The fugitives must dissuade him from this genocidal plan, as it could kill everyone -- human and ape -- in the vicinity.

“The Liberator” is a bit of a change of pace for Planet of the Apes (1974), the short-lived CBS series. In this installment, the devastating, high-tech weaponry of the 20th century is resurrected to be a tool of mass destruction in the distant future, and Alan and Burke must contend with mankind’s history and legacy.

This is the kind of story I had hoped to see more of on the series. Virdon and Burke must stop a fellow human, Brun, from his murderous plan, even though this rebel leader possesses valid reasons for hating apes. In particular, Brun has seen his people enslaved by them.  Not just enslaved, actually. He has seen his people die from that enslavement.

Our protagonists face a difficult choice here, forced to consider what the “greater good” really is.  Since they are people of the 20th century, they are, in a sense, responsible for the existence of the nerve gas weaponry, and this fact makes the human insurrection (and plans) their problem.

I also enjoy the subplot here involving the treatment of the devices of the 20th century. The weapons, and the gas mask which protects people from the deadly gas, are all perceived by this futuristic “Dark Age” society as supernatural relics of the Gods. The astronauts understand that “mumbo jumbo doesn’t kill men,” but to the apes and humans of the era, this is a realization they are not able to make.  Brun figures out the truth, but doesn’t tell his people. Instead, he creates a cult or religion, to make them fear and obey him.

“The Liberator” -- even down to its title -- also suggests a core conflict of all those societies in which some denizens possess more freedom than others. The human leader sees himself as a liberator of his people, but we would, today, classify anyone who kills an innocent population as a terrorist. The difference between liberator and terrorist is a difference of viewpoint. The oppressed see a liberator. Those in power see a criminal, a murderer.

I enjoy the fact that our heroic triumvirate is landed smack down in the middle of this difficult scenario, and forced to act for the good of all. Again, the fact that the toxic nerve gas is a product of their time makes Burke and Virdon feel a vested interest in the outcome.

Next week, the final episode of Planet of the Apes: “Up Above the World So High.”