Friday, November 11, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Mars Attacks! (1996)

I distinctly recall reading a review of Mars Attacks! which stated unequivocally that the act of directing the bio-pic Ed Wood (1994) had finally caught up with director Tim Burton.  After all, here he was - making an absolutely terrible 1950s-styled sci-fi movie all his own.

Something about that particular comment struck a chord with me at the time (though I don't remember the reviewer...). And yet the uncharitable remark doesn't tell the entire story of this 1996 Burton film, either.

Sure, Mars Attacks! might be considered a bad movie from a certain perspective. The actors, especially Jack Nicholson, go way over the top,  and the first thirty-five minutes of Mars Attacks! -- before the Martians arrive -- are pretty dire.  It's a mystery too why certain actors and their characters are present in the film at all, save for marquee value (Danny DeVito, j'accuse).  The film feels burdened with subplots that go nowhere, and characters who serve no narrative purpose.  The entire Art Land (Jack Nicholson) interlude is poorly-acted and contributes little.  It just dies on-screen.

Yet despite such apparent flaws, Mars Attacks! works effectively as a diabolical subversion of the Hollywood blockbuster format (see: Independence Day [1996]), and simultaneously as a commentary on American political life, circa 1996. Specifically, the alien Martians as depicted by Burton are a kind of joyful physical representation of Loki or Chaos.  They happily rip to shreds both the pillars of contemporary American political thinking (and PC thinking, specifically...) and the conventional pillars of Hollywood decorum. 

Simply stated, these cinematic aliens are a politically-incorrect, gleefully monstrous lot: a walking, quacking embodiment of the philosophy that to save a village (or planet...) you must destroy that village (or planet).  Everything from the Martian's bizarre croaking language to their byzantine technology and unhealthy obsession with Earth women (!) is thus fodder for outrageous laughs. 

For instance, these alien creatures go (far...) out of their way to murder boy scouts, or to sneak up on an unsuspecting granny with an over sized laser canon. In toto, their wanton behavior makes tolerance of them an absolute impossibility.  And that's what's so funny. 

The Martians reveal absolutely nothing of themselves beyond  unloosed Id; beyond the devilish inclination to destroy everything, everywhere.  And yet the world-at-large keeps attempting to treat these invaders as if they're just poor, misunderstood foreigners. Earth men give the Martians second chance after second chance, and every time the Martians revert to bloody, rapacious form.

This is a notable inversion or up-ending of the typical Burton aesthetic about sympathy for misfits and outsiders.  Mars Attacks! is not a heartfelt plea for tolerance (like Edward Scissorhands) but rather a pointed suggestion that tolerance can absolutely be taken too far in some instances.

As you may guess by the tenor of my comments thus far, my thoughts on this Burton film are decidedly mixed.  Mars Attacks! drags and sputters throughout its running time, often falling flat.  And yet it occasionally rises to the occasion too, with Burton's trademark, brilliant visual invention.  I also love how the picture looks, for instance; how it successfully and gorgeously evokes its unusual source material from the 1960s.

In the end, I must respectfully refuse to dismiss outright any film that ends with crooner Tom Jones breaking into a rendition of "It's Not Unusual" (accompanied by alighting birds...) as a re-assertion of order and nature, I suppose.   This just isn't something you see every day, especially coming from mainstream, conformist Tinsel Town.

Accordingly, Mars Attacks! is one of those rare cult movies that entertains me just about every time I choose to watch it. I always enjoy it on some ridiculous, fun level, even while openly acknowledging that parts of the enterprise flatly don't work.

"Why destroy when you can create?"

Mars Attacks! is based on Topps' popular trading card line from 1962, a perennial collector's item which featured some fifty colorful cards depicting Earth's invasion by nefarious, big-brained Martians. 

The Topps cards were a source of major controversy in their time for depicting Martians capturing and torturing human females. Much of the Mars Attack imagery also revealed brave American servicemen being burned alive ("Saucers Blast Our Jets"), frozen to death ("The Frost Ray"), bloodied, and otherwise abused by the sadistic Martians.

In Tim Burton's version of Mars Attacks! the imagery is arguably just as violent, but played in a much lighter vein. 

As the film's story commences, the world is taken by surprise when Martians land on Earth and prove not to be good-will ambassadors, but a wholly malevolent and destructive force. 

Although the President of the United States, James Dale (Jack Nicholson) again and again attempts to forge a peace with the alien invaders over the objections of his top General, Decker (Rod Steiger), the Martians persist in their all-out war on humanity. 

Finally, it is up to a shy teenage boy in Kansas, Richie (Lukas Haas), to locate the unlikely key to destroying the aliens: his grandmother's Slim Whitman records!  Once broadcast across the air-waves, the strange Slim Whitman performances pulp Martian brains and end the invasion of Earth once and for all.

If one bears any familiarity with the Mars Attacks card set, the first significant thing to note about the Burton film is that the handsomely-mounted production goes to great lengths to accurately capture the pulpy, 1950s/early-1960s vibe of the set.  It does so by visually aping a few of the more notable, specific cards. 

Cards such as "Burning Cattle," (pictured above)  "The Shrink Ray" and "Robot Terror" are all staged directly as action sequences in the film.  "Burning Cattle" actually opens the film, in a memorable scene set in Lockjaw, Kentucky). 

Meanwhile, another Topps card "Panic in Parliament" seems to be the direct inspiration for the Martian attack on both houses of Congress seen in the film.

Likewise, the card "Burning Flesh" reveals the full (disgusting) impact of advanced Martian weaponry on the human body; a perspective which is repeated (on Jack Black) in the film during the Martians' first landing in Nevada. 

Some of the more spectacular and bizarre card imagery is left deliberately unvetted ("Saucers blast our jets," "Terror in Times Square,") and the film also wisely avoids staging several Topps cards which shifted the focus from the Martian invaders to giant, overgrown hazards to mankind's domination of Earth (giant flies, giant spiders, giant tidal waves, etc.).  

The film incarnation of Mars Attacks! also features a different denouement than the card set.  In the cards,  the last act saw Earth man take his fight back to Mars, smash the Martian cities, and ultimately destroy the red planet.

Despite such notable differences, the movie version of Mars Attacks! does a fine job of bringing the imagery of the card set to vivid life, particularly in regards to the Martians, their colorful biology, their space age costumes and their wanton acts of violence.  These aspects of the film are delightfully and memorably rendered.

Some amusing scenes aboard the Martian saucer in the film even find the aliens in a surprising state of undress (wearing just tiny little underpants!) in much the same mode of trading card examples such as "Watching from Mars," which similarly saw Martian citizens luxuriating (but in their Martian homes) while watching the destruction of Washington D.C. on wall-sized television screens.

After the distinctive and impressive look of the film, however, Burton's Mars Attacks! plays an entirely different game.  Where the cards were gory and bloody, and sought to present a truly terrifying invasion of Earth by nightmarish monstrous creatures, the movie is played entirely for laughs, both as a satire of disaster movies and of Washington politics.  The Martians, though evil, are cinematic figures of fun and jokes, not of surreal, outer space terror.
"This could be a cultural misunderstanding."

In impressive fashion, Mars Attacks! knowingly adopts the familiar cliches and traditions  of 1950s era science fiction alien invasion film and then gazes at them through the prism of 1990s political correctness. 

The film is not overtly partisan in its targets, but rather casts blame across the entire spectrum of Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. 

The film rather definitively does not find hope in politics (in Nicholson's president), in the military (as represented by Steiger's character), in big business (in Nicholson's Art Land), in the media (in Sarah Jessica Parker and Michael J. Fox's attention-seeking but vapid reporters), in parental authority (represented by -- shudder -- Joe Don Baker), or in science (as represented by Pierce Brosnan's egghead character, Dr. Kessler). 

To one extent or the other, each human character in every one of those above-listed "categories" seems blinded by agendas which don't fit the pertinent debate (about how to handle the Martian invasion).  In other words, nobody really seems to address the pressing problem effectively.  There is never a compromise between the scientists and the military, for instance, just an "either/or," binary approach. 

And again, in real life this was the era of  hyper partisanship as exemplified by opponents President Clinton and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.  It was the era of government shutdowns because successful compromise could not be broached and diverse viewpoints were not accommodated.

Here, Nicholson's Commander-in-Cief must deal with Steiger's jingoistic general, who rabidly wants to use nuclear weapons despite the fact that such weapons would render Earth largely uninhabitable for the human population.  That's a non-starter.

On the opposite side, the same President must also deal with Brosnan's bleeding-heart scientist, who can't seem to accept overt hostility for what it is, and keeps foolishly preaching peace in the face of definitive Martian malevolence.

Both sides of the debate are blinded by pre-existing belief systems.

Meanwhile, the mass media merely views the Martian invasion as another ratings-grabbing circus to cover endlessly, and redneck Joe Don Baker and his wife decide quickly that -- in times of war -- it's okay to write off Grandma (Sylvia Sidney) first.  That's the patriotic thing to do. 

Again, not a pretty picture in either case.

In the middle of all this turmoil stands an irresolute U.S. President who seems terrified to act one way or another, and keeps trying to contain the situation in decidedly milquetoast, half-measure terms.  Delightfully, this President isn't a jab at any specific Chief Executive in American history, but rather a lethal combination of at least three of 'em.  Nicholson's character boasts the cluelessness and affability of Reagan, the wimp factor of the first Bush, and Clinton's love of polls (to help him decide which way the wind was blowing.)

As I noted above, the president's unfortunate character traits represent a lethal combination for the Earth in this situation. This President just won't stand up and fight, stating in PC-terms instead that the Martian bad behavior could be but a "cultural misunderstanding." 

Later, he invokes that famous plea for tolerance from another 1990s celebrity, Rodney King: "can't we all just get along?"   That's an interrogative later Burton revived, also jokingly, in his 2001 Planet of the Apes

Regardless, the overall effect of such ineffectual presidential leadership is the wholesale destruction of the Earth, and a kind of "Pox on Both Your Houses" message of principle from the film itself.

To wit, in Mars Attacks! last act, it is the next generation by necessity that takes the helm after the destruction of the military, scientists, parents and the ruling political class. 

With the establishment wiped out by its own dottering, indecisive ways, it's up to the president's resourceful  young daughter (Natalie Portman) and likable, common-sense Richie to lead the planet to a better future.

And again, the film's last scenes -- notably post-Martian and post-establishment -- re-assert visually a sense of natural order.  Even the cute little animals of the Earth can finally come out of hiding because both the Martians and human nincompoops are finally gone.

 On the ash heap of history, as I wrote above, are the politicians, businessmen, generals, scientists, parents, and the mainstream media.   And ensconced amongst the survivors, notably, are recovering alcoholics (Annette Benning), blue collar African-American folks (Pam Grier, Jim Brown), and idealistic kids (Portman, Haas).  In other words, the disenfranchised of America.  A new world order? 

Regardless, the Martians thus function in Mars Attacks! as a kind of wicked (but necessary?) "clean-up" crew, one malevolently destroying Earth and yet also taking out the very players that seem to keep our culture from ever truly moving forward: politicians, businessmen and even lawyers, in the case of DeVito's character.

Burton doesn't reserve all his satirical jabs for politics, either. His film comments on generic Hollywood blockbusters too.  Mars Attacks! thus concerns an in-vogue American  obsession of the 1990s  (alien invasions), one featured on TV in the X-Files and in theatrical productions such as Species (1995), The Arrival (1996) and Independence Day (1996). He also revives the Irwin Allen template for disaster films.  In other words, big, expensive casts, and lots of destruction.  Only in this case, he plays both aspects not for spectacle...but for humor.

Alas, one gets the impression that Burton is overwhelmed by the colossal cast (Nicholson, Glenn Close, Steiger, Martin Short, Lisa Marie, Christina Applegate, Jack Black, Paul Winfield, Haas, Jim Brown, Danny De Vito, Michael J. Fox, Natalie Portman, Pierce Brosnan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Pam Grier, and on and on...). 

Contrarily, the director seems to have a good time demolishing national monuments.  In Mars Attacks! Mount Rushmore gets re-painted with a Martian (not Martin) sheen, and the Washington Monument gets tipped over upon a squad of helpless Boy Scouts.   These moments are emblematic of a diabolical vicious streak, and accordingly, Mars Attacks! comes across as Tim Burton's nastiest picture. 

And yet, simultaneously, by the end of the movie, Mars Attacks! writes itself off as a lark, breaking into song with Tom Jones and lunging full-bore into tongue-in-cheek laughs.  This is a daring and wicked, if precarious, creative combination.  I can't  really say it's a very commercial one, either.  

Think about it: Tim Burton spent over eighty million dollars to create a schlocky, big budget satire of a 1960s trading card franchise in the same summer that Independence Day premiered.  Talk about brass balls.   But his film is schizophrenic too.  It's a little too gory to go over as easy comedy, and much too comedic to be taken as a serious sci-fi epic.

Instead, Mars Attacks! occupies a weird terrain in the Burton canon.  It's a box office disappointment of tremendous invention but also scatter shot execution.   Really, Mars Attacks! is the Cannonball Run of alien invasion movies.  The movie is girded with recognizable stars and top-notch production values, occasionally uproarious, and yet strangely self-indulgent all at the same time.

But damn if those Martians aren't completely awesome creations.  Someone should give them their own TV series. The time is ripe for another mean-spirited, gory alien invasion, if you ask me.

 Just imagine these guys at a Tea Party Rally, or Occupying Wall Street...

11/11/11 - Nigel Tufnel Day!

I've got a blog post entitled "11 Reasons Why This is Spinal Tap Still Rocks" posted over at the Hal Leonard Performing Arts Blog today to celebrate 11/11/11, or as the web is terming it, "Nigel Tufnel Day."

As I write in the piece:

"Today goes up to eleven. Or three elevens, really, if we’re being technical. But since today is 11/11/11, it seems an appropriate occasion to remember the production that made the idea of “going up to eleven” a famous (or infamous) catchphrase: 1984’s This is Spinal Tap.

Even twenty-seven years after release, the Rob Reiner comedy endures as one of the funniest ever made, and so below I enumerate the eleven reasons the film continues to “rock.”
Check out the eleven reasons here!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"You wanna conquer the world, you're going to need lawyers, right?"

- Mars Attacks (1996) 

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

COLLECTIBLE OF THE WEEK: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier Limited Edition Action Figures (Galoob; 1989)

Action figures from the most critically reviled and despised of all Star Trek feature films ( least till Nemesis?)  Why not! 

Actually, I remember that when Star Trek V: The Final Frontier premiered in the summer of 1989, I was hoping for some great new Star Trek toys.

And I didn't just mean marshmallow dispensers, either.

During the late 1980s, Galoob owned the licensing rights to Star Trek, and had already produced a fine line of small Next Generation action figures and even a few ships (including a die-cast Enterprise-D), so it was only natural that the company would celebrate the release of the fifth Star Trek movie with a line of action figures. 

These Galoob releases included Captain James T. Kirk ("Captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise"), Mr. Spock ("Science Officer of the U.S.S. Enterprise"), Bones ("Chief Medical Officer..."), Sybok ("Mysterious rebel leader of Nimbus III") and the Klingon Captain Klaa ("Klingon captain in search of battle.") 

I would have loved to see the well-muscled Klingon warrior Vixis in the mix too, but it was not to be, alas.
As advertised on the side of each figure box, the Star Trek V: The Final Frontier figures were "numbered, limited edition collectibles," "authorized by Paramount Pictures" and included "display base with scenic backdrop." 

Okay, so those features aren't particularly exciting, I admit. 

What is kind of cool, however, about these figures is that Kirk and Spock are not depicted wearing their familiar red movie uniforms, but rather the commando outfits actually featured in the film, for their ill-fated raid on Paradise City (where the grass is green and the Romulans are pretty...). 

Also, so far as memory serves, this is the avid Trekker collector's only opportunity to own a figure of Sybok, Spock's quasi-apocryphal, emotional half-brother.   Share your pain with me, and gain strength from the sharing... 

I can't imagine that these limited edition  figures (who have phasers, tricorders and the like molded right into their hands) are much fun to play with.  There is no leg articulation and, in some cases, no arm articulation, either.  

Yet, on the other hand, these "limited edition" figures look pretty great on display in my home office. 

In a few short years after these figures were released, the Trek license went to Playmates, a company that did an amazing job with the property.  Sadly, no more Final Frontier figures were forthcoming.

And frankly speaking now -- as a Star Trek fan -- wouldn't you want an action figure of...God?  

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

CULT TV FLASHBACK #146: Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Skin of Evil" (1988)

"... death is that state in which one only exists in the memory of others; which is why it is not an end..."

- Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby) in "Skin of Evil."

In anticipation of Star Trek: The Next Generation's 25th anniversary in 2012, I've begun to look back at some early episodes of the program which -- while largely unpopular -- actually seem better and more ambitious than their reputations indicate. 

My first review in this series of posts was for the first season installment "11001001," featuring the Bynars. 

And again, I'm not featuring retrospectives of the episodes everyone seems to agree were terrific ("Best of Both Worlds," "Yesterday's Enterprise" or "The Inner Light," for instance), but rather the unheralded or unappreciated treasures that might deserve a re-evaluation, or at least, a second look. 

Today, I remember the controversial first season effort "Skin of Evil" written by Joseph Stefano and directed by Joseph Scanlon.  It's an episode that has been widely termed an "unmitigated disaster."  In fact, "Skin of Evil" is often considered one of the series' worst installments.  That's an honor I would more readily reserve for early first seasoners such as "Code of Honor," "The Last Outpost," "Haven," Too Short A Season," "Home Soil," or the second season clips show "Shades of Gray." 

The reasons for the generally low-opinion of "Skin of Evil" are clear and definitely understandable.  

First, the episode kills off a popular regular character, Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby) and more than that, does so in a purposefully random or "meaningless" fashion. 

In short, the beloved Enterprise security chief dies the ignominious death of a red shirt. 

Star Trek: The Next Generation itself attempted to un-write this apparently unworthy demise in the excellent third season episode "Yesterday's Enterprise," by granting the character a more noble and meaningful second send-off.

Beyond this character exit, there are certainly other grounds by which to deride "Skin of Evil" too, if that's the game.   For example, the episode relies heavily on repeat footage of the central threat, the oil-slick monster, Armus. One shot of him rising from the muck is repeated three times in less than an hour.

Seemingly routine scenes are not staged very well, either.  To wit, Deanna Troi is trapped in a shuttle craft for the duration of the episode with an injured pilot named Ben.  We never even see Ben until the last act, wherein Picard beams into the shuttle, checks him out, and concludes he is very weak indeed.  Why wasn't Deanna tending to him herself before this moment?  She may be injured, but is she physically paralyzed?  Why don't we see her limp over to the poor guy (he's two feet away, at most, for goodness sake...) and just check for a pulse?

In another scene -- right after Armus takes Commander Riker -- we get a blooper.  We see Geordi's phaser "plop" into the black muck, visible to the naked eye.  Again, this moment is indicative of the fact that the episode -- and the physical creation of the alien Armus -- was likely a nightmare to vet.

Also, it's difficult to deny that at least a few lines of dialogue are real groaners.  The holographic Tasha's comment during her funeral that Deanna taught her she could be "feminine without losing anything" was horribly antiquated-sounding even back in 1988. 

Would that really be a concern of a Starfleet officer in the 24th century? I don't think people even worry about this in 2011, let alone 2311, or whatever.

Finally, an early scene in the episode that features Tasha discussing an upcoming martial arts competition with Worf is so sentimentally scored and so overplayed by the actors that it telegraphs immediately what is bound to happen next: Tasha's untimely death.  A little more subtlety would have been nice here, rather than a neon sign which seems to shout out "SHE'S GOING TO DIE!"

Yet -- going out on a limb -- I have always really enjoyed and appreciated "Skin of Evil" for the things it gets right rather than the things it gets wrong.  Therefore, I'm going to focus on those positive elements in this review, having already at least paid lip-service to the admittedly-numerous complaints Trekkers might have regarding this segment.

First, a re-cap. 

As the Enterprise is en route to rendezvous with shuttle craft 13 and Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis), something goes terribly wrong.  The shuttle crashes on apparently uninhabited Vagra 2 and both Troi and her pilot, Ben, are injured.  A force field seems to be blocking the Enterprise from beaming up the injured.

When an away team consisting of Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes), Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden), Lt. Data (Brent Spiner) and Tasha Yar beams down to attempt a rescue, it is deliberately blocked by a sentient oil slick, a sadistic and hostile creature called "Armus."

When Tasha attempts to circumvent Armus to rescue the wounded, the creature strikes her down in an instant; murdering her. The away team returns to the Enterprise immediately, but there's nothing Dr. Crusher can do to help save the fallen security chief.  Though now in mourning, the crew turns its attention towards rescuing the downed shuttle crew.

Counselor Troi, meanwhile, uses her gifts and talents as an empath and psychologist to learn the truth about Armus and his motives.  She learns that his world was once home to a race of "Titans."  In order to become beautiful, these aliens cast off their darkest, most evil qualities and created Armus...literally a skin (or shroud) of evil. 

Once free of him, these aliens abandoned Armus on the desolate planet and headed off to the stars to meet their great destiny.  Alone and miserable, Armus now wishes only to strike out and hurt those who rejected him.  Troi determines he is "empty," and worse, wants to fill that emptiness with acts of pure malevolence and sadism.

Ultimately, Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) is able to defeat Armus by reminding him that although the creature may boast the capacity to control and hurt the crew, only Picard possesses the ability to command them.  After the final confrontation, the shuttle crew is rescued, Armus is abandoned, and aboard the Enterprise,the bridge crew attends Tasha's funeral, an event meant to "celebrate" her life.

One of the reasons I admire "Skin of Evil" so much is that --  up to this point in Next Generation history, at least -- the series was kind of...well, soft. 

Although I love and respect the Star Trek ideal of peacefully broaching contact with alien life forms, the very heart of good drama remains conflict.  In Star Trek: The Next Generation's first season, the Enterprise crew had already met aliens who wanted to debate philosophy (Portal, in "The Last Outpost"), or worked matters out peaceably with other races ("Home Soil," "Encounter at Farpoint.")  Some episodes even featured no overt "alien" conflict at all, but played merely as standard soap operas set in an idealistic future ("Coming of Age.")  The show felt perilously like a space adventure without the adventure.

This "safe" approach changed radically with "Skin of Evil" as the crew encountered an absolutely implacable foe.  Armus could not be reasoned with or negotiated with.  You could not appease him by "asking" what he wanted and then "mediating" a way to give it to him.  On the contrary, he was a creature (like so  many similar ones we find in the U.S. Congress today...) who existed only to oppose, only to obstruct, only to negate. 

If he was not pure evil, then certainly Armus was hostility and id personified.  On a program that so often pitched soft ball alien interaction,  Armus -- the piece's villain -- really played hard ball. He was dangerous and capricious, and explicitly did not share the Starfleet belief that "all creatures have a right to exist."

Killing Tasha as he did was brutal, nasty and unmotivated, but the unnecessary and savage act reminds our stalwart crew that not everyone in the galaxy thinks in the same way as they do.  And this fact, I submit, brings out the steel in their spines, and makes the characters actually reconsider and re-evaluate their noble beliefs.

In particular, I love the moment in the episode wherein Armus asks Dr. Crusher if she is "scared" and she admits that she is, but doesn't back down.  That's a wonderfully human character touch, and McFadden is magnificent in that moment. 

Another great character moment sees Data refusing to help Armus taunt Geordi, and then conclude that Armus should be destroyed.  Armus scoffs at this "moral judgment" from a machine, but the matter is of great import. 

By killing Tasha and mocking Geordi, Armus has made Data reconsider Starfleet's core belief, that all creatures have the right to exist.  Again, this is a pretty powerful moment for Data and for the show.  A big complaint about Star Trek: The Next Generation is that the characters can afford to be magnanimous and noble because they live in a utopia, one where they are the most powerful folks on the block.  In this case, however, Data is not insulated by the paradise of the UFP, and must put those morals to the test in practice.

In a flash -- when his friends are hurt -- he abandons noble principle for expression of blood-thirsty vengeance, actually advocating murder.  An interesting shade of gray for the child-like android, no?  A very human (and understandable) response...

I also believe Riker is developed well here.  Worrying for Deanna's safety,  he allows himself to be absorbed by Armus.  Will goes from shouting to Data for help as he is dragged across the dirt to actively forbidding help and facing intense personal danger.  This selfless decision speaks volumes about his character, and how he applies his own sense of morality to conflict.

This is also likely one of Troi's strongest episodes in the first season, and perhaps the series in totality.  Instead of offering up blatantly obvious information about alien commanders such as the tiresome bromide "he's hiding something," she sharpens her psychological skills in "Skin of Evil" and really dissects -- effectively too -- Armus's mental weaknesses. 

The series should have permitted the character to do more of that kind of thing; to counsel not just in treacly, touchy-feely terms, but in pointed strategic ones as well.  A counselor to a captain on a star ship would need to demonstrate his or her practical value in times of danger, and not merely belabor off-point opinions about how the crew is coping with stress ("they're anxious" or "they're inexperienced.")  Kirk had Spock to (logically) analyze situations and tactics on the bridge, and one can see from "Skin of Evil" how Troi might have served the same useful purpose if the writers had not been so blindly committed to featuring her in the tiresome "caregiver" mold.

Another quality I appreciate in "Skin of Evil" is the absence of techno-babble.  Over the years, The Next Generation descended into a mind-numbing morass of meaningless science fiction jargon.  Any alien, any phenomenon -- anything at all -- could be justified, explained, and ultimately defeated by the mealy-mouthed, nonsensical tech-talk. 

"Skin of Evil" sidesteps this dramatic plague and writer's crutch, and instead forges a chilling sense of mystery about Armus. 

As Data reports, the alien has "no proteins known to us, no circulatory system, no musculature, and no skeletal framework."  And lives. 

Star Trek is supposed to be about the countenancing of alien life forms, and Armus, at the very least, is not the routinely-seen bumpy-headed humanoid.  There's a real sense of alien menace -- and difference -- about this being.  In short, the crew really deals with something unknown and horrifying here, and I appreciate that dedicated sense of ambition, that imagination to go beyond the conventional.

And "Skin of Evil" works overtime to terrify.  There are some great compositions of Riker's tortured visage, subsumed inside Armus, and terrifying views of the alien rising from the black bile, looming over the crewmen in the screen frame and appearing truly illimitable.   Perhaps we do see some of these shots one too many times, but again, I appreciate the risk-tasking that's on display here, the concerted effort to show us something we had not seen before.

In terms of style, I can also admire how the camera-work goes hand-held once Crusher reaches sickbay with Tasha, and attempts to revive the fallen officer.  The immediacy-provoking, jerky camera-work is much different from the program's typically formal approach to visualization, and it lets us know -- viscerally -- what's at stake.  The scene's final punctuation, Picard's disbelief that Tasha is "gone," thus proves gut-wrenching.

In fact, Picard gets a pretty good makeover in this episode.  He brilliantly outmaneuvers Armus and brings his people home safe, without firing a single phaser shot.  But his talking here is not for consensus-building or to convince an enemy of his peaceful ways.  Rather, Picard uses words to weaken Armus, to trick and deceive him, and that's a nice twist on the perpetually action-less hero. 

I also appreciate the fact that Picard doesn't lecture Data about mortality at episode's conclusion.  Instead, Picard is magnificently terse.  Data asks Picard if by thinking of himself and his own feelings he has missed the point of Yar's memorial.  Picard replies, "No Data, you got it," and the episode ends.  It's a sharp comeback that makes the episode's point without explanation or excessive spoon-feeding. 

I suppose there's ample reason to dislike this episode because it dispatches Tasha the way it does. And yet, I suspect that the decision to kill the under-utilized  character  in such fashion was a brave and worthwhile one. 

God knows, we don't all get to end our lives the way we wish, and exploring the stars is exceedingly dangerous business.  On top of that, Tasha selected a dangerous specialty.

 Accordingly, Yar's death may be the most realistic character death in Star Trek history.   And that's an important distinction.  We're not immortal supermen, even in the 24th century.  We're humans...and we die, sometimes unexpectedly.  Tasha's death reminds the audience of its own mortality, and again, that's a good thing, a bold move in a show that too often played things safe.  I appreciate the moment in the episode when the away team reports Tasha's death, and we see Worf's reaction, just for a few seconds.  He doesn't say a word; he doesn't over-emote.  He just silently gives this look...and it speaks volumes of his emotional state.  Another nice character touch.

I still remember watching "Skin of Evil" for the first time in 1988, and being pretty impressed by it.  The episode is thrilling, dangerous and emotional...and anything but soft. I suppose these qualities render it out of step with other installments, but for me, that's all to the good too.

You see, a problem I discern too often in Star Trek: The Next Generation, even twenty-five years later, is that the characters are too comfortable.  They possess too many resources with which to meet the unknown, and too much discipline in controlling their fear and anxieties.  

Medicine and technology can bring back the dead and dying  ("Shades of Gray," "Lonely Among Us," "Unnatural Selection").  All life forms can be reasoned with ("Home Soil," "Encounter at Farpoint," "The Neutral Zone" etc.) and our unchained technology makes life a virtual paradise, a world of material wealth and plenty.

For all of its flaws in terms of execution, "Skin of Evil" proves a dramatic reminder that there are some dark corners of outer space where reason can't save the day, where logic doesn't hold sway, where medicine can't bring back the lost, and technology can't give Starfleet an easy win.  A later episode "Q Who," gave the series a similar "kick" in its complacency with the introduction of the Borg, but "Skin of Evil" -- regardless of all its bloopers and drawbacks -- aimed the show in that very direction too, and courageously so. 

In my opinion, it's still a pretty worthwhile and imaginative course correction.

Monday, November 07, 2011

The Cult TV Faces of: The Lost

Identified by Will: The Twilight Zone: "The Odyssey of Flight 33."

Identified by Hugh: The cast of Gilligan's Island.

Identified by Hugh: The Robinsons (and Robot) in Lost in Space: "The Reluctant Stowaway."

Identified by Big Nick 0: It's About Time.

Identified by Hugh: The New People (1969)

Identified by Hugh: The Marshalls in the original Land of the Lost.

Identified by Will: Valley of the Dinosaurs.

Identified by Unknown: Planet of the Apes: "Escape from Tomorrow."

Identified by Hugh: Space:1999: "Breakaway."

Identified by Hugh: Patrick Duffy as Mark Harris in The Man from Atlantis.

Identified by SGB: The Fantastic Journey

Identified by Hugh: The cast of The Lost Saucer.

Identified by Hugh: the cast of Otherworld (pilot episode).

Identified by Will: SeaQuest DSV: "Splashdown."


Identified by Will: Star Trek: Voyager: "The 37s."

Identified by Will: Farscape: "Premiere."

Identified by Will: Andromeda, pilot.

Identified by Hugh: the cast of Lost.