Saturday, February 24, 2018

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Monster Squad: "Queen Bee" (September 11, 1976)

Monster Squad (1976 - 1977) -- not to be confused with the late 1980's movie, The Monster Squad (1987) -- is a one-season Saturday morning series developed by Stanley Ralph Ross, one of the key writers of the Adam West Batman (1966 – 1969) series.

Like Batman, Monster Squad’s style is high-camp, meaning that all the heroes face their various crises with melodramatic solemnity, a solemnity that plays to adults as funny but kids as serious. 

Also like Batman, Monster Squad is famous for its rogue’s gallery of celebrity villains.  Some of the actors who wore crazy get-ups and twirled their metaphorical mustaches on the program included Julie Newmar as “Ultra Witch” and Jonathan Harris as “the Astrologer.”

Briefly stated, the premise of Monster Squad is that a young and hopelessly earnest criminologist, Walter (Fred Grandy) has developed a fantastically advanced crime computer at the Chamber of Horrors exhibit in the basement of Fred’s Wax Museum. This large-scale computer can rise out of a sarcophagus platform when in operation, and features a “secret government” channel and radio transmitter.

One day however, the “oscillating vibrations” of Walter’s crime computer awaken three of the museum’s figures, Dracula (Henry Polic II), the Frankenstein Monster (Michael Lane) and The Wolfman (Buck Kartalian). These figures are apparently the real deal, resurrected, and not merely wax representations of them.  However, it is never explained why the wax museum was housing the bodies of such dangerous monsters.

Regardless of their precise nature, these three “monsters” from history wish to atone for their sins by solving crimes with Walter, and thereby making reparations to society.

With Walt operating out of the Chamber of Horrors, Dracula, The Wolfman and The Frankenstein Monster are thus frequently dispatched -- in a black 1970s van -- to combat evil-doers around the city.

The first episode of Monster Squad, “Queen Bee” -- which aired on NBC the morning of September 11, 1976 -- stars Alice Ghostley as the insect matriarch, the aforementioned Queen Bee. As the episode commences, she has ordered her bee minions around the world to attack unsuspecting humans.  This “unexplained rash of bee stings” is noticed by Walt, who captures a bee and attempts to interrogate it with the Crime Computer.

One will notice here that the Crime Computer has a slot designed and labeled for insect analysis. This makes one wonder how often evil bugs show up in town…

After a time, Walt frees the bee, and Dracula tracks it in bat-form to Queen Bee’s headquarters. There, he and his monster must stop the Queen Bee’s plans before the United Nations can surrender the world to her.

The 1970's represents the great era of “killer bee” entertainment, from the movies Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973) and The Swarm (1978) to TV series such as The Starlost (1973-1974) which featured an episode about giant bees called “The Beehive.” 

In terms of “Queen Bee,” the Monster Squad episode reports about the South American killer bee briefly, but otherwise conjures up little in terms of fact.  Instead, the installment features about a hundred bad “bee” puns for Ghostley and her buzzing minions. 

“I bee-seech you,” says one character.  “Bee-ware your fate,” says another.

After a while, we also get “bee-lieve me,” “bee-guiling,” “bee-wildering,” “bee-headed,” “bee-trothal,” “bee-tray” and other variations on the theme.  One non -“bee” joke is Queen Bee’s comment that one of her minions always “bumbles.”

As you can probably guess, this approach grows tiring after a while, though it anticipates the approach to Mr. Freeze in Batman and Robin (1997).  

The episode -- like all Monster Squad episodes -- plays as particularly arched, and not overly amusing. Everyone is in on the joke, but the joke isn’t as amusing as it is on Batman, and this Saturday morning series also lacks the resources, and hence production values of that camp classic.  For instance, here Dracula is put in a vat of honey, and the vat is a tiny little barrel.

Viewers who were kids in the 1970's may be most interested here to see a Mego toy re-painted and used as a prop in “Queen Bee.”  Ghostley’s “bee” communicator is actually a Star Trek walkie-talkie from the age, but painted gold.  The prop -- with a different paint job -- recurs as Walt’s crime computer remote control in the next episode, “Mr. Mephisto.”

Although Monster Squad doesn’t hold up particularly well-today, I remember that I absolutely loved it as a seven year old, and that I wished and hoped for action figures, playsets and other toys featuring these lovable and familiar monsters. There was, as memory services, a board game available at one time.

As bad as some of these episodes are, the opening theme song and introductory montage still provide me a nice kick of nostalgia…

Next week: “Mr. Mephisto.”

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Cult-TV Blogging: The Immortal: "The Queen's Gambit" (November 12, 1970)

A beautiful and duplicitous double agent, Sigrid Bergen (Lee Meriwether), captures Ben Richards (Christopher George) and then stages his death, so that Fletcher (Don Knight) will call off the hunt for the immortal,

Then, Sigrid flies Ben via helicopter to the remote estate of millionaire Simon Brent (Nico Minardos), who wishes to study Ben’s blood, and produce medicine that will cure the world of disease, and perhaps even old age.

As Ben soon discovers, escape seems impossible as the estate is heavily patrolled, and geographically isolated. Ben attempts to get a message out via a visiting doctor, but fails.

Sigrid, however, begins to develop an affection for her former prey, and teams with Richards to help him escape.

“The Queen’s Gambit” is likely my favorite of all The Immortal (1969-1971) episodes produced since the pilot. It features a terrific central performance from Lee Meriwether as a mercenary who, for a considerable time, outsmarts Ben Richards, Fletcher, and even her employer, Brent. 

Meriwether is a beloved cult-TV actress (Time Tunnel [1966]; Batman: The Movie [1966], Star Trek: “That Which Survives”) but I’ll go on record as stating that The Immortal gives the actress an opportunity to deliver her most dynamic (and sexiest) performance in this medium. 

Although Sigrid eventually succumbs to Ben’s charms -- as every single woman on the series must, at some point -- she is otherwise depicted as a brilliant tactician and expert in her field. Sigrid is one of the most imposing antagonists Ben has yet faced, even if that antagonism gives way, eventually to sexual attraction.  

On that front, I will merely note that Meriwether and George boast good romantic chemistry here, and that such chemistry hasn’t always been the case for the romance-of-the-week.

“The Queen’s Gambit” is such a strong episode, no doubt, because it isn’t some random story about Ben Richards arbitrarily walking into a ranching conflict, or randomly encountering a corrupt sheriff. It’s a story actually about Ben, his predicament, and his life choices. There is some excellent dialogue in this episode about the fact that, from a certain perspective, it is selfish of Richards to continue to run rather than making a pro-social use of his unusual blood.

At first Ben says “I’d like to be free to decide what I want to do with my life,” but it’s clear that the arguments for helping the human race have an impact on him.His stubbornness is reinforced, ultimately, by the fact that Brent -- like Maitland -- is more concerned about himself than humanitarian causes.  Brent isn’t so much concerned that everyone “share” Richards’ blood, so much as he is concerned that he reap the rewards.

There's even a discussion of immortality in this episode -- what it means, how it could change things -- and if you have watched The Immortal you know this subject almost never comes up.

“The Queen’s Gambit” succeeds, as well, because of its twisting narrative. The episode starts with Ben encountering Sigrid seemingly at random. Then the audience sees her attempting to cash in, with Fletcher, for the reward.  This too, however, is a carefully set-up ruse to throw Fletcher off Richards’ scent.  Basically, Sigrid is a version of Fletcher, only a competent (and better looking) one.  I should add that, unlike Fletcher, she has a conscience and comes to regret imprisoning a man for what could be an eternity. Then, there's another twist, Sigrid's change of allegiance, and the final whammy: Brent's estate isn't on another continent after all, by outside Los Angeles!

So many The Immortal episodes are just re-heated versions of tales already featured on The Fugitive (1963-1967).  “The Queen’s Gambit” is a high point in the catalog because it feels individual to the series, because Meriwether's performance drives the drama, and because surprises drive each plot twist.

Next week, we’re back to random adventuring in “By Gift of Chance.”

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Comic Book of the Week: Gargoyles (Marvel)

Action Figures of the Week: Gargoyles (Kenner Edition)

Trading Cards of the Week: Gargoyles (SkyBox)

Gargoyles GAF Viewmaster

Board Game of the Week: Gargoyles (Milton Bradley)

Lunch Box of the Week: Gargoyles

Theme Song of the Week: Gargoyles