Saturday, December 28, 2013
Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Return to the Planet of the Apes: "Mission of Mercy" (November 1, 1975)
In “Mission of Mercy,” a number of crises strike all at once for the astronauts.
First, the World War II airplane that Bill, Jeff and Judy have been utilizing to defend the humanoid pueblo city runs perilously low on aviation fuel, meaning another dangerous foray to Ape City for supplies.
Meanwhile -- and even as General Urko searches “New Valley” for the humanoid populace -- Nova falls gravely ill from an illness in her lungs which is highly contagious.
Unless a serum can be acquired, Nova will die, and the rest of the humanoids, including the astronauts, will follow..
This week’s episode of Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975) actually concerns a pretty good idea, and one which has re-surfaced in the pop-culture in The Walking Dead. Specifically, after the fall of human civilization, the survivors will fall prey to diseases and illnesses once conquered by modern medicine…but now once more grave threats. Talk about having to swallow a bitter pill! In this case, Nova nearly succumbs to a treatable disease, and Judy must make a dangerous trek to Ape City to get help from Zira and Cornelius.
Despite the interesting concept, the execution of it leaves something to be desired. In particular, Judy -- an astronaut capable of flying spaceships and even World War II war planes -- doesn’t know about serums and how they work. No doubt, her ignorance is a result of the writers wanting to explain the topic to young audiences. But still, it's handled pretty poorly.
Beyond this hard-to-swallow aspect of the episode, “Mission of Mercy” is mostly an action-oriented episode, with the astronauts struggling to beat the clock and once more save the day. Bill and Jeff must cross a rickety bridge in a truck, just as it collapses. And then their truck breaks down…in a lightning storm. Suffice it to say that a lot of obstacles get thrown up against the astronauts as they struggle to hold onto the one advantage they have (the war plane), and keep Nova alive at the same time.
In some sense, the focus on action is true to the Apes film franchise, but the five movies alternated serious action with cerebral science fiction concepts (like infinite regression) and a sub-text about racism and religious zealotry. As a cartoon series aimed for kids, Return to the Planet of the Apes doesn’t quite rise to that level, but “Mission of Mercy” seems a bit more pedestrian, even, than other installments.
Also, it’s getting a little difficult to believe that Zira and Cornelius can go out into the wilderness outside of Ape City on yet another mission to help the humanoids, and not get caught either by Urko or Dr. Zaius. The pacifist chimps take big risks in every episode, and with no repercussions.
Next week: “Invasion of the Underdwellers.”
In “Heat Wave,” the Porters and all the denizens of the Land of the Lost endure a terrible and long-lasting drought. In desperate need of water, Kevin and Mr. Porter hike to a local watering hole only to discover that the Sleestak are already intent on using it.
Given a choice between leading the Sleestak back to their compound or sending them on a merry chase, the Porters choose the latter option, and head out into the wild…
“Heat Wave” is a relatively undistinguished, though harmless, episode of the 1991-1992 Land of the Lost remake. It’s more of a “runaround” than anything else, and the episode eats up its running time with the Porters being chased by Sleestaks, or simply hiding from them.
The main idea of “Heat Wave” is that it would be “game over” for the Porters if the Sleestak learn the location of their treehouse and compound. This is so presumably because the Sleestak are so powerful and threatening. They would take the house by force for themselves, and kill or enslave the Porters and their entourage.
Unfortunately, the new series has routinely treated the Sleestak as comic buffoons, and demonstrated again and again how the Porters out-smart and out-fight them. In other words, the episode’s central threat doesn’t really work as meaningfully as it should.
By contrast, on the original series the Sleestak were indeed menacing, and I remember some terrifying episodes in which they swarmed the Marshalls’ home (a temple, at that point) by night, and could barely be repelled. The three Sleestak outcasts of the new series – seen in broad daylight -- just don’t rise to that level of terror.
Accordingly, “Heat Wave” is never particularly thrilling or interesting. The only interesting aspect of it is the pairing of Porter and his son, Kevin. The episode becomes about their “father/son” bonding, but even this aspect of the tale would have felt more meaningful if the conflict with these re-done Sleestak were stronger villains.
Next week: “The Thief.
Friday, December 27, 2013
|A dangerous book: The NeverEnding Story.|
The NeverEnding Story's particular narrative arises from a popular and critically-acclaimed literary work by German writer, Michael Ende. Alas, Ende was allegedly unhappy with the film's translation of his 1979 book, in part, perhaps, because it depicts only the first half of his narrative. At the box office, the 27 million-dollar film was considered a bomb, though (lesser) sequels were eventually produced. Critical reviews were mixed.
In The NeverEnding Story, a sad boy named Bastian (Barret Oliver) is doing poorly in school after the untimely death of his mother. His father is cold and distant, and Bastian feels alone, rudderless. At school, he is relentlessly bullied by his classmates, and the world feels devoid of hope; of warmth.
One day, Bastian hides from the bullies in a book store and learns from an old man named Koreander (Thomas Hill) of a strange book; a book that is different from all others. It is called "The NeverEnding Story." Koreander claims that it is not a safe book. He hints it can actually transport the reader to another world, another time.
Alone in an attic, Bastian reads the mysterious book. It tells of a mythical world called Fantasia where a creeping "Nothing" is devouring the world a land at-a-time.
A young boy, about Bastian's age -- Atreyu -- is summoned to the Ivory Tower to embark on a heroic quest. The land's Empress is dying of a strange malady, one tied to the existence and spread of "The Nothing." Atreyu must learn how to cure the Empress's disease, an act which should simultaneously stop the "The Nothing." But it will not be easy.
Thursday, December 26, 2013
Some years ago, a dear friend presented me with a coffee cup inscribed with this legend: “To err is human. To really screw things up you need a computer.”
Many times over the years, I’ve been reminded of that quotation while watching episodes of cult television programming. The trope of the "villainous super computer" is now extremely well-established in horror and sci-fi, so today I decided to present my choices for the most dangerous of this TV computer bunch.
The selections range from mildly dangerous (#7) to most intensely, world-destroying, time-freezing dangerous (#1). In addition, I’ve also added a few examples of human-friendly computers below, so no one will accuse me of being rabidly anti-computer.
The giant machine was programmed to handle everything from manufacturing to transportation to other routine business matters. Unfortunately, when mankind doesn’t work, drive and meaning disappear from life and mankind suffers. Fortunately, the Super Friends realize that “it’s good for people to work, or they won’t have purpose.”
In the end, however it is a mouse that destroys the Goodfellow computer not a superhero, thus proving that machines are not infallible.
6. “The General,” from The Prisoner (1967). In this episode of the short-lived British series, the imprisoned Number Six (Patrick McGoohan) learns that some of his fellow villagers are being mysteriously educated by a mysterious and sinister force. Unraveling the puzzle, he learns that the education system – Speed Learn -- is actually an insidious form of mind-control, shepherded by a super computer known as “The General.”
Programmed with vast stores of knowledge, the machine can apparently answer any question about history, mathematics or any other subject. It's a veritable high-tech Oracle of Delphi. At least, that is, until crafty Number Six asks the General a one-word interrogative: “why?”
The General promptly and accommodatingly short-circuits.
5. Checkpoint Devices Model “Omega.” In the Ark II (1976) episode “Omega,” the intrepid crew of the Ark II discovers that a nearby village recently re-activated a super computer from the pre-apocalypse era.
This giant, monolith-like device can completely control human minds, particularly the minds of the very young. Seizing control of the children, Omega orders the youngsters to enslave their parents and grandchildren and put them to work in the fields. Soon, Ark II personnel Ruth and Samuel fall prey to Omega’s anti-social mind directives, while Jonah attempts to defeat the computer in a life-sized game of Chess...the only method of de-activating it.
When that gambit fails, it’s up to the talking chimpanzee (!) Adam – a life form that Omega has denigrated as inferior – to stop the computer from taking complete control of the village.
4. “Will Operating Thought Anologue,” or WOTAN, from Doctor Who: “The War Machine.” In this early era tale from 1966, the First Doctor (William Hartnell) matches wits with a super computer called WOTAN, which has concluded that mankind is a mortal danger to the safety of the planet, and accordingly sets out to create ambulatory war machines to eradicate this threat.
Like “Omega” in Ark II, WOTAN boasts the unusual capacity – for a machine anyway – to hypnotize human beings. It uses this insidious power to begin transforming the human race into mindless slave labor…for the manufacture and construction of more mobile units.
In the end, the Doctor is able to re-program the evil computer and save the Earth…again.
3. The M-5, from Star Trek. Invented by Dr. Richard Daystrom (William Marshall) “the M-5 Multitronic System” is installed aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise in the second season episode “The Ultimate Computer.” The ship maintains only a skeleton crew to oversee the machine while it assumes total control.
At first, all seems well, until M-5 begins to act…independently. Without orders, it begins shutting down life support on parts of the ship, and then it opens fire on an unmanned freighter, the Woden (no relation to WOTAN). All attempts to shut down the computer fail, and when a (red-shirt) ensign attempts to pull M-5’s plug, it incinerates him.
The key to M-5’s erratic behavior involves the fact that it has been programmed with Dr. Daystrom’s “memory engrams.” This development means that machine is as psychologically unstable as its creator. Unfortunately, there’s a catastrophic downside: The Enterprise is scheduled to go into a war game simulation against four other warships, the Hood, Potemkin, Lexington and Excalibur. The M-5 characterizes the game as a real battle situation, and sets out to destroy the Starfleet vessels…and all those aboard her. Captain Kirk (William Shatner) realizes it’s time to make an appeal to M-5’s human side, and that’s precisely what he does.
A runner-up from Star Trek might be the society-controlling Landru from “Return of the Archons,” which erases human individuality and creates a collective known as “The Body.”
2. “Alex 7000,” from The Bionic Woman: “Doomsday is Today.” This machine -- and apparent blood relative of the Hal 9000 -- is the invention and child of a pacifist named Dr. Elijah Cooper (Lew Ayres).
As the two-part episode by Kenneth Johnson opens, Cooper makes an announcement to the world that he has invented a “cobalt bomb” which can destroy the world. Worse, he plans to use this doomsday device if any nation on Earth attempts to deploy or even test a nuclear bomb. This is his (admittedly strange…) way of assuring peace.
A small Middle-Eastern country violates Cooper’s terms, leaving Alex 7000 to fulfill the doctor's orders and…destroy the Earth. The world’s first bionic woman, Jaime Sommers (Lindsay Wagner) attempts to de-activate Alex 7000 in the computer’s vast subterranean complex, but he is capable of defending himself with laser beams, machine gun fire, mines, and other devices.
1. “The Guardian of Piri.” This alien computer from Space: 1999 (1975 – 1977) -- not unlike a more advanced model of the G.E.E.C. – was initially created to relieve the physical and mental burdens of the people of the distant world of Piri.
Unfortunately, in making their lives “perfect,” The Guardian succeeded only in destroying its own creators. The Guardian locked Piri in a static bubble of time (because perfection must last forever...) and then transformed the humanoid denizens of the world into near mindless catatonics with no physical needs or desires.
When Earth’s errant moon passes into range of the Guardian’s influence, the deadly machine attempts to make the Alphans’ life perfect too, putting the humans next in line to suffer the same fate.
Only Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) resists the hypnotic call of the Guardian. He saves his people by destroying the Guardian’s sultry servant (Catherine Schell), another “perfect” machine. As the Alphans return to space, they see that life has returned to Piri, the Guardian’s hold over time itself also destroyed.
Other dangerous computers appeared in the Quark episode: “Vanessa 38-24-36” and in The X-Files episodes “Ghost in the Machine” and “Kill Switch.”
Despite the examples above, we must remember that cult-TV computers are our friends too.
Among the more benevolent were:
“The Old Man in the Cave.” In this fifth season Twilight Zone episode (1964) set ten years after a nuclear apocalypse, one handful of survivors owes its very survival to the always-correct advice of the Old Man in the Cave, an unseen stranger. They don't realize until the episode’s climax that the “old man” is actually a benevolent computer. They repay its kindness and loyalty by hurling stones at it and short-circuiting the poor machine.
In one of the most nihilistic endings in cult tv history, these ungrateful survivors soon die...after eating contaminated food that the Old Man in the Cave had warned them not to consume.
“Orac.” This super computer designed by the scientist Ensor was brought aboard the Liberator at the end of the first season of Blake’s 7 (1978 – 1981). Possessing, at times, human qualities such as stubbornness and pride, Orac is capable of interfacing with every computer in the galaxy possessing a “tarriel cell.” Orac can even predict the future, it seems, on some important occasions.
Orac is rendered functional by use of a small rectangular key, and also possesses a thirst for knowledge which equates, sometimes, to endangering the very rebels it works with. Orac alone survived the series’ final massacre on Gauda Prime, in the episode “Blake.”
“The Turk.” In Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008 – 2009), Sarah, John and Cameron at first believe that the computer “The Turk” is an early version of the destructive computer network, Skynet (on TV and in T3 a “worm” on the Internet, not an actual computer system). But in fact, the Turk is a “brother” artificial intelligence to Skynet, and one with the capacity to help the human race.
Other "good" cult-tv computers include SID on UFO, and Dr. Theopolis on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.
|SHADO Headquarters (UFO).|
|Earthship Ark Bridge (The Starlost)|
|Main Mission, Moonbase Alpha (Space:1999)|
|Command Center, Moonbase Alpha (Space:1999)|
|The Cetacean (Man from Atlantis)|
|Space Academy/Star Command HQ (Space Academy, Jason of Star Command)|
|Space Station Perma One (Quark)|
|Galactica Bridge (Battlestar Galactica)|
|Argo bridge, Star Blazers|
Wednesday, December 25, 2013
Space Academy (1977) is the story of futuristic young cadets at a university in space; flying on missions in Seeker space craft and learning lessons about the galaxy at large. The late Jonathan Harris played the wise instructor, Isaac Gampu.
These four Space Academy action figures were released in 1977 and distributed by Woolworth Co., (New York, NY, 10007).
They were produced by Hasbro/Aviva, and their price tag shows they cost $3.99 at the time (though Loki, being shorter than the rest, was $3.33).
I'm old enough to remember seeing these toys on the shelves and wanting desperately to own them. And what I would have given for a Seeker space craft toy or model!
Anyway, at the time, as a youngster (in second grade...) I just assumed the series would continue and become popular like Star Trek. Didn't quite happen that way, however since 1977 also saw the release of a little production called Star Wars...
Leaving that aside for a moment, there are four figures in this set. The packaging, as you can see, is quite exciting and colorful; each figure is adorned with eight photographs from the series, showcasing the fabulous set interiors as well as the impressive miniatures. Each figure boasts the Space Academy logo and the line "A Flying University, Almost a City in Size."
The Gampu figure features an illustration of the character (dressed in blue...) amid several computer read outs. Unfortunately, his name has been misspelled as Issac instead of as Isaac. On the back of Gampu's box is this description: "Instructor in Space Academy and Favorite of the students, Professor Gampu, "Issac" to his classes."
Chris Gentry, who is here described as a "Member of Space Academy" is shown in his illustration showing off his muscles. Although they didn't make a figure of his sister, Laura, they should have...because these two shared a psychic link in the series. On the back of his box: "Chris is an athlete, a linguist and has earned a reputation as being the Academy's most proficient cadet pilot."
The third action figure is "Tee Gar Soom," and his card reads "almost Super-Human Strength." His illustration reveals him hurling what appear to be giant purple and blue gum balls or something. The back side of the Soom card reads: "One of the Orient's contributions to the Space Academy, Tee Gar, or "Tiger" as he is better known, is a medical student, enrolled in the academy's school of space medicine." We don't use the term Orient in 2013, so I doubt we would in the thirtieth century either...
Last but not least is "Loki," "Everybody's mascot." He is described as "a young boy, perhaps thirteen, possessing certain supernatural power that enables him to become invisible." The whole Loki character and background, by the way, got assimilated for Odo on Deep Space Nine. (An orphan; in search of his home; with unique abilities that separate him from the humans he works with...).
Everyone here in Muir-ville wishes readers a very Merry Christmas.
Joel, Kathryn and I hope your holiday is filled with love, joy, good food, good health...and great movies and television.
We also hope Santa Claus is very good to one and all...
Tuesday, December 24, 2013
Monday, December 23, 2013
A reader, James, writes:
“I liked your toys of childhood series of blogs recently which brought back many positive memories from my youth in the sixties and seventies when my favorite toys were the Matt Mason ones.
I also read that you allow your son to play with your vintage toy collection. Isn’t that irresponsible given the value of many of those toys today?”
James, thank you for the question. I absolutely understand your point, and my wife winces every now and then when a vintage robot or action figure falls off the shelf, it’s true.
But I made a decision when we moved into our house back in 2009 that my son would have access to the toys in my home office -- at least the open ones -- and that he would be allowed to explore them and play with them.
There’s nothing wrong with owning toys for display, but most of the vintage toys I write about on the bog were manufactured to be played with…by children.
I prefer to let my son enjoy these toys rather than worrying about them breaking, or fretting over their ultimate “value.” Already, some of my most-prized plastic toys from the 1970s are yellowing, so they may not last long anyway, let alone long enough for the perfect re-sale.
And the memories Joel and I make and share while playing with toys like Big Trak, Star Bird, Castle Grayskull, Snake Mountain, the Knight of Darkness, or Voltron are -- in the final analysis -- worth more to me than owning the toys in pristine condition. To misquote Indiana Jones, my toys don’t belong in a museum. I have already played with some of them (as a child), or some were purchased in used condition (at flea markets and yard sales). I don’t want to be too precious about "things."
Again, I’m not advocating my choice for anyone else. I’m just saying that it works for my family, and Joel and I are happy with the arrangement.
Besides, the deal is reciprocal. Joel lets me play with his toys too, as long as I’m careful (and my god, he’s got a great Doctor Who collection…).
Charles Dicken’s novella, A Christmas Carol (1843) tells the story of the nasty old miser, Ebenezer Scrooge, and the slow opening-up of his avaricious heart to his fellow man. This emotional awakening occurs because of interactions with the ghosts of Jacob Marley, and of Christmases Past, Present, and Future (or Yet to Come.)
A Victorian Era indictment of industrial capitalism, A Christmas Carol has been adapted to film and television innumerable times, almost universally to great acclaim. Amusingly, the story has also been adapted to cult-television on many occasions, and -- with some contortions -- made to fit into new formats and bizarre settings, such as those you might find on The Jetsons (1985) or Richard Diamond Private Detective (1949).
America sitcoms, in particular, have become a place for innumerable A Christmas Carol variations. “Ebenezer Sanford” was an episode of Sanford and Son (1972 – 1977), “Scrooge Get an Oscar” was an episode of The Odd Couple (1970 - 1975), “Bah Humbug” aired on WKRP in Cincinnati ( 1978 - 1982), and “A Keaton Christmas Carol” was an installment of Family Ties (1982 - 1989).
In more genre-centric shows, A Christmas Carol also saw new life. The Six Million Dollar Man episode “A Bionic Christmas Carol” concerned Steve Austin (Lee Majors) confronting Ray Walston’s Scrooge figure, and using his bionic capacities to scare some sense into the old man.
In Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 - 1994), Data played the role of Scrooge on the holodeck, in the fourth season episode "Devil's Due."
In Quantum Leap (1990 – 1995), Sam Beckett got into the Christmas Carol act in the episode “A Little Miracle,” which saw the time traveler using the hologram of Al as a “ghost” to turn warm the heart of a cold, ruthless land magnate.
The Real Ghostbusters also featured an episode called “X-Mas marks the Spot” where Spangler, Zeddmore, Venkman, and Stanz traveled back to England in 1837 and encountered Scrooge’s famous ghosts.
Here, The Doctor (Matt Smith) had to rescue his companions Amy (Karen Gillan) and Rory (Arthur Darvill) from a crashing star-liner. To do so, however, he had to convince a Scrooge-like miser, Sardick (Michael Gambon) to act, and act quickly. When Sardick refuses, the Doctor rewrites his life -- in Christmas Carol -type terms -- to make him a better human being.