Thursday, May 25, 2017

Happy 40th Anniversary, Star Wars (May 25, 1977)


 

I will always remember the summer of 1977 and the coming of Star Wars.  It is difficult for me to reckon that it happened forty long years ago.

Where has the time gone?

I was in second grade in 1977, and a friend who lived up the block from me in Glen Ridge, N.J. came to school one morning clutching a Star Wars movie booklet; one that featured imagery of Dewbacks, Banthas, Tusken Raiders, Jawas, C3PO, Chewbacca, Darth Vader and other characters of seemingly impossible and unbelievable imagination. 

I had never seen so many strange creatures assembled between two covers, and I so listened in awe as Stephen, my friend, described the film to me in some detail. I still didn't quite understand why robots were co-existing with monsters and other creatures. 



It seemed...weird.

At this point, I should add, I was still high on King Kong (1976), and could not quite believe that any movie might possibly surpass that particular viewing experience.  

So sue me.  I was seven.

Soon after my introduction via Stephen to Star Wars, my parents took me and my sister to see the film at a movie theater in Paramus N.J., and I couldn’t wait to see what I would make of the movie.


Only -- in actuality -- I could wait. 

In line. 

For close to three hours. 

The line at the theater stretched around the large rectangular building -- around three corners -- and then led out into the huge parking lot. And the line moved at a snail’s pace.

Finally, of course, we got into the auditorium, and it was absolutely packed. Everyone in my family had to squeeze past other patrons to find four seats together. For awhile, it looked like that might not even be a possibility.

And then the movie started, and my life changed.  The movie swept me away into another world; nay another reality. My father remembers to this day, that he actually felt breathless during the final Death Star attack scene, it was so exciting.

That's how I felt too.

That night -- before I went to bed -- my mother asked me if I had liked the movie. My mind was still reeling, and I said that I did.  But I suppose I was a little reserved in my answer. 

She then absolved me of my guilt: “It’s okay, John if you liked it better than King Kong,” she said, apparently sensing my loyalty and allegiance to the big ape.  

My façade cracked quickly at that point and I was glad and relieved to admit the truth.

I had liked Star Wars a whole lot better than King Kong.  It truly was…amazing, like nothing I had ever imagined.  

But at that point, I could not imagine what Star Wars would one day become, or how it would change our world.

I did not imagine, at age seven, that the film would open up the floodgates for other space movies that I would come to love and cherish, like Alien (1979), The Black Hole (1979), and Moonraker (1979).

I did not imagine that George Lucas's vision would change the shape of television, a medium which would soon bring us Battlestar Galactica (1978-1981), and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1982).

I did not understand that Star Wars' success would be the impetus to finally bring back the long-on-hiatus Star Trek franchise.

Nor did I understand that the film would shape science fiction and fantasy cinema for decades to come.

And finally, I could not imagine that one day I would be taking my very own nine year old son out of school early to catch an afternoon show of a Star Wars sequel (The Force Awakens) or prequel (Rogue One).  

Star Wars has, finally, become something that I share with a different family; with my wife and son.

At seven -- way back in 1977 -- I suppose, I was just thinking about my favorite character, Han Solo, and how cool it would be to play Star Wars (1977) on the playground at school with my friends.

Forty years have now passed, and I am, a middle-aged man. That school playground is back, quite a distance, in my rear-view mirror. There is more white than red in my beard now. 

But Star Wars endures, evergreen, -- a veritable cinematic fountain of youth.  

It is a story, and represents a kind of storytelling that -- across the generations -- possesses the power to make each one of us feel young again. It is a call to adventure of an innocent and joyful type.  It evokes childhood, and yet is not childish.

Where were you, and how old were you, when you first saw Star Wars?  

Let me know in the comments section below.  And happy fortieth birthday to Star Wars.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Tribute: Sir Roger Moore (1927-2017)


I am reeling from the news, just reported, that Sir Roger Moore (1927-2017), has passed away following a short struggle with cancer.  

It was just a few short weeks ago here on the blog that I answered a question from a reader about why Roger Moore was, in some ways, the critical factor in the survival of the 007 film series in its second decade.

I  have appreciated his film performances as 007 since I was ten years old.


Indeed, I grew up with Roger Moore as James Bond, and the first Bond film I saw in theaters was 1979's Moonraker.  Right from the start, I loved Moore's humor and grace in the role of 007, and I have always felt that his contributions to the franchise were wildly (and grossly) underestimated.

Moore truly made the character his own, instead of attempting to ape Sean Connery's performances, and that choice by Moore, I believe, contributed immeasurably to the longevity of the character. That choice also paved the way for the interpretations of Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and Daniel Craig.

Sir Roger Moore played the role of Bond in a total seven films, from 1973-1985.

These films are: Live and Let Die (1973), The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), Moonraker (1979), For Your Eyes Only (1981), Octopussy (1983) and A View to a Kill (1985).

For Your Eyes Only is, for me, a high point for Moore's era as 007. I actually liked his interpretation of Bond even more as the actor aged. As he grew older, Moore brought in a kind of world-weariness to go along with the arched eyebrows and white dinner jacket. I found this approach enormously appealing, as it added gravitas to the charm and humor.


Sir Roger Moore's long career encompassed more than 007, of course. He starred in TV series such as Ivanhoe (1958-1959), The Alaskan (1959-1960), Maverick (1960-1961), The Saint (1962-1967), and The Persuaders (1971-1972).  

Outside of acting, Sir Roger Moore is well-known as a humanitarian, and for many years served as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF.

He was a secret agent at the movies, but a superhero of sorts, in real life. He will be greatly missed.

Farewell, Mr. Bond.

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky" (November 8, 1968)


Stardate 5476.3

The Enterprise unexpectedly comes under attack from primitive missiles.  Curious about the origin of these weapons, Captain Kirk (William Shatner) orders the starship to backtrack the missiles to their point of origin: a large asteroid.

During the investigation, Kirk learns that Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley) is suffering from a terminal illness, xenopolycythemia. In one year’s time, the disease will take his life. Kirk undertakes the sad duty of requesting a replacement chief medical officer, even though Bones prefers that no one know what is going on with him, or his medical condition.

Kirk, Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Bones beam down to the surface of the asteroid, and learn that it is actually hollow. It is a spaceship with a technologically-advanced interior. The world is known as Yonada, and the high priestess, Natira (Kate Woodville) is the people’s link to the planet’s custodian: the Oracle.

The men from the Enterprise learn that Yonada is on a collision course with Daran V, a planet inhabited by billions. They attempt to interfere with the Oracle's stewardship, in hopes of re-directing the asteroid from its dangerous course.

When they fail to do so, McCoy asks to remain and marry Natira. In the tradition of the people, he is outfitted with an “Instrument of Obedience” so that the Oracle can punish him when he breaks the law..

Soon, however, McCoy must risk the wrath of the Oracle to contact the Enterprise. He believes a special “Book of the People” may hold the key to re-orienting the asteroid from its collision course.


Despite its poetic title, “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky” is not exactly lyrical. 

On the contrary, the story-line is trite for two reasons.  

First, the "society-controlled-by-a-computer" narrative has already been vetted on Star Trek. It has actually been done to death on the series, and done better (“Return of the Archons,” “A “Taste of Armageddon,” "The Apple.") 


Secondly, the romance involving McCoy and Natira feels as forced as does McCoy’s subplot about acquiring, mysteriously, a terminal disease.  Natira hardly seems strong-willed enough for McCoy. She is not a bad person, but she has accepted the Oracle's dominion over her life, which seems like McCoy would -- or should -- have a problem with.

“For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky,” however, is not a bad episode in the same vein of “Spock’s Brain” or “And the Children Shall Lead,” and it does possess some beautiful, if small moments. Two immediately jump to mind.  One is visual.  

I appreciate the shot for example, from between the rungs of a spiral staircase as the Enterprise landing party first descends into the hollow world of Yonada; its people gathering with curiosity.  This simple composition manages to capture the idea of a high-tech and claustrophobic subterranean world at the same time. The images suggests more than the low budget could possibly allow.  The viewer gets a sense of "being" there, in the subterranean world.

Secondly, I appreciate some of the episode's performances in the quieter moments, particularly in the sequence after Kirk has notified Spock about McCoy’s condition. McCoy awakens, weakened, after a battle with Yonada’s guards, and Spock is at his side, quiet and supportive, instantly. So much so that McCoy immediately and automatically senses that something is wrong; that Spock knows about his illness. Nimoy brings such quiet dignity to this moment. Spock loves McCoy, albeit in his Vulcan way, and that is plain from the performance.

Beyond such moments, I would state, without prejudice, that the episode never truly rises above its narrative contrivances.  


The first narrative contrivance is that McCoy would contract a terminal illness and fall in love, all in a relatively short span. 

And then, of course, the adventure of the week just happens to be one that can lead to a (heretofore unknown) cure for his disease. 

So does a (once-again healthy) Bones get his wedding to Natira annulled? Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) novelization suggests that McCoy leaves Starfleet to live with the people of Yonada (descendants of the Fabrini). But there is no indication of that action here.

Also, I don't much care for the “falling instantly in love stories” that appear semi-regularly during Season Three.  Spock falls in love in “All Our Yesterdays,” Kirk does so in “The Paradise Syndrome” and “Requiem for Methuselah."  And even Scotty falls in love in “Lights of Zetar.”  Two of those love stories -- “The Paradise Syndrome” and “All Our Yesterdays” -- are outstanding episodes, but the others merely raise questions.

I would have much preferred to meet McCoy’s grown daughter, Joanna, for an episode, rather than witness this not-very-believable romance for the character. I guess the series wanted to do a McCoy episode, so he gets a romance tale and a dying-of-a-fatal-disease story wrapped up in one. 

But think about how McCoy, as a real person, might think back about these events from a later perspective.  O

h yeah, that was the week I came down with a fatal disease, fell in love, got married, and then had my fatal diseased cured.

What a difference a day makes, right?

Beyond the awkward love story (and contrived disease narrative), “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky” doesn’t do enough world-building for my taste.  



For instance, why must the people of Yonada be kept in the dark about the true nature of their planet?  

This act of suppressing the truth transforms the Oracle from guardian or custodian, to repressive autocrat.  I suppose it is a comment on the perils of technology, a point we often return to in Star Trek, yet there is not much focus on this aspect of the story.  The Oracle is just another computer to have its plug pulled, because it is bad.  But there is no reason for it to be bad in this episode. Landru thought he was saving the people in "Return of the Archons," and the citizens of Eminiar VII obeyed their computers because they thought they were avoiding the terrors of war.  What good does the Oracle do, or what problem does he manage, by giving pain to his people when they learn the truth about their situation.

The Yonadans live in a repressive, overbearing culture, and yet there is no underlying reason for that repression to exist.  It would be manifestly better, given their destination, for the citizens of Yonada to be well-informed about the galaxy. The Oracle should understand that.

Also, I have trouble believing -- given the oppressive nature of the Oracle -- that Bones would just willingly let himself be implanted with the instrument of obedience. I know it is a requirement for marriage to Natira, but McCoy hails from a free, democratic society. Why would he -- an enlightened individual -- accept the dominion of the Oracle?  I know that people convert to their spouse's religion all the time, but said people don't usually have evidence that a deity is a liar, and oppressing the people.

I would simply restate here that I don’t feel that “For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky” is a terrible episode, merely a woefully average one.  The execution and performances are all fine, and yet the story is not very scintillating, or memorable.  And the tale raises too many questions of motivations, both on the part of McCoy and the Oracle.

Next week, another mini-masterpiece of Season Three: "The Tholian Web."

Monday, May 22, 2017

Ask JKM a Question: LGBT Characters in Star Wars?


A reader, Matt, writes

“John, what do you think about J.J. Abrams’ promises for inclusion of a gay character in the Star Wars franchise? I see it is a good sign and hope you do too."





I did see that article you linked me, when it came out way back in 2016. But I would beware of reading too much into that statement. 

Abrams actually said, merely, that it was counter-intuitive to suggest homosexuality doesn't exist in a galaxy far, far away. 

He didn't say he was actually creating a gay character to be featured in the films. We didn't see one in The Force Awakens (2015), or in Rogue One (2017), after all.

I think it would certainly be appropriate to feature a gay character in Star Wars -- and not just in the books, but on screen -- yet I think it is going to be tougher to do it in this particular franchise than it has been to add a gay character to Star Trek (both in Beyond [2016] and the upcoming Discovery [2017]).

Why? Well Star Wars is this big, generic, monolithic entity that already struggles to develop characters adequately while moving the overall plot forward.  

Who was really satisfied, for example, with the information we got about Han and Leia’s marriage in The Force Awakens?  The relationship was managed satisfactorily, but I wouldn’t say it was handled with any sort of complexity or depth.

So how is the franchise going to find time to include a gay protagonist or antagonist, and explore his or her character?

That could happen, sure, but given the time constraints and the franchise ownership by Disney, I suspect it’s a no go.  Economic interest, in this case, is going to trump the desire for diversity.

I guess it could happen that we to get in Star Wars an update of the Lt. Hawk paradigm from Star Trek: First Contact (1996). 

As you may recall, we kept getting reports that the character was going to be gay, but when the movie was released there was no discussion at all of his sexual orientation. We were simply supposed to speculate and wonder, I guess.  

I could see Star Wars featuring an enigmatic, stoic new character, and the press getting “leaked” reports that he or she is gay or lesbian, but with no acknowledgment of this fact in the film itself.

Again, I’d be quite happy to be proven wrong. I hope I am proven wrong.

Here’s another pertinent question: does J.J Abrams strike anybody as particularly brave or forward-leaning in terms of his creative choices in major tent-pole franchises? 

I like and enjoy his work a great deal but his primary mode, it seems to me, is sort of generically paying respect to pre-existing, classic properties such as Mission: Impossible, Star Trek, and Star Wars.  All his films are enjoyable and entertaining, but they aren’t exactly the tip of the spear in terms of societal innovation or progress.  Instead, they rely a great deal on feelings of nostalgia.

Past is good prologue in this case. How many openly gay characters have appeared in major roles in J.J.’s blockbuster films so far? 

I may be forgetting somebody, but I think the answer is…one (Sulu in Beyond, which Abrams did NOT direct).

Which means that Abrams' desire to be inclusive in Star Wars, going forward, deserves serious and continued scrutiny. 

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