Saturday, September 03, 2016
The omnibus space-age Super Friends knock-off Space Stars continues with this week’s stories.
In the Space Ghost story, “Eclipse Woman,” the “energy thief” known as Eclipse Woman attacks a primitive planet, draining it of all life…until the Phantom Cruiser and Space Ghost comes to the rescue.
Meanwhile, the Teen Force appears in “Decoy of Doom.” The teen guardians detect a distress call originating from empty space.
Actually, it’s a decoy by Uglor, who is testing a new weapon: the Magnetron. He captures the heroes in this magnetic “space net.” Fortunately Kid Comet and the Astromites escape, and return to help their friends.
The Herculoids adventure this week is titled “The Energy Creature.” A “danger from the endless night of space” arrives on Quasar in a meteor: an energy creature that can alter its shape. The monster attacks Igoo and the other Herculoids, but Zandar tricks it into taking the form of a native plant that hibernates for a thousand years.
The second half of the hour kicks off with “Attack of the Space Sharks.”
Vicious space sharks have been attacking the passenger ships on the regular space lanes. When Space Ghost and his friends investigate, they learn that the space-going sharks are actually starships controlled by the shark people of a water world. Their leader, Remora -- who is dressed like Santa Claus for some reason -- has been collecting “souvenirs from the space lanes” in an attempt to take over the galaxy.
Apparently space magnets are the theme of the week since Astro and the Space Mutts, like the Teen Force story, involves them.
In this case “Menace of the Magnet Maniac” involves Mario Magnetti, a magnet thief who attacks a “used rockets” lot. It’s Astro and Space Ace to the rescue.
The Space Stars finale is titled “Magnus,” and if features two grave threats for the Herculoids and Space Ghost to contend with.
The first threat is a space criminal in an exo-skeleton suit, named Magnus.
The second is a weird alien who is actually a child playing with strange, alien toys, not weapons.
Magnus is defeated, and the alien’s parents arrive to take him home, in an ending straight out of Star Trek’s (1966-1969) “Squire of Gothos.”
The Space Magic interstitial this week finds Moleculad and Astromites performing a trick involving a one-step move to arrange coins in two rows of three.
The Space Fact black-out stars the Herculoids and involves a discussion of gravity as it relates to Earth’s moon.
The Space Mystery involves life on Quasar’s moon. A warrior from that moon is a powerful enemy on his own planetoid, but on Quasar, the gravity differential renders him a weakling. The Herculoids defeat him and send him home, where he can once more be a proud warrior.
Finally, there’s a numeric space code introduced by Space Ghost.
In this first season episode of the 1970s Filmation live-action series, Shazam, Mentor (Les Tremayne) and Billy (Michael Gray) see a fishing trip derailed when two irresponsible high school athletes intentionally spook a horse and its rider, Kellie.
It turns out that these athletes are attempting to keep Kellie Owens (Stephanie Steele) off the all-boys track team…and are willing to do so by intimidation or even physical threat.
Later, the two boys frame Kellie for cheating on a school exam, an infraction which could also jeopardize a college scholarship.
Later, the two boys frame Kellie for cheating on a school exam, an infraction which could also jeopardize a college scholarship.
Mentor and Billy intervene, and one of the athletes reveals the truth…just in time. Kellie goes on to win the scholarship, and a slot on the track-and-field running team.
This is another relatively undistinguished, small-potatoes episode of Shazam, made memorable almost exclusively by the fact that the “bad” athlete, Jack, is played by a teenage Butch Patrick, the cult-TV star of The Munsters (1964 – 1966) and Lidsville (1971).
Otherwise, “The Athlete” bucks the series format by featuring a first-act appearance of Captain Marvel (Jackson Bostwick), one which precedes the weekly tete-a-tete with Elders.
In this case, Captain Marvel saves Kellie and her runaway horse. He also appears later in the episode, when Kellie nearly rides her motorcycle into a tractor on a dirt road.
In this case, Captain Marvel saves Kellie and her runaway horse. He also appears later in the episode, when Kellie nearly rides her motorcycle into a tractor on a dirt road.
As is par for the course, there’s an After-School Special vibe to the proceedings, although this week the Elders offer a nugget of wisdom that is indeed true, and describes the great sweep of Civil Rights in America:
“Even when change is right and just, there are those who through their attitudes resist it.”
Truer words may never have been spoken…at least on a Saturday morning superhero program.
Friday, September 02, 2016
"I am Captain Nemo. I have been asleep for 100 years aboard my submarine, Nautilus. I would probably still be left encapsulated had it not been for two intrepid agents of American Naval Intelligence...who quite by chance came upon my ship trapped by seismic underwater quakes..."
-Opening voice-over narration to The Return of Captain Nemo (1978)
On March 8, 1978, CBS began airing in prime-time the latest science fiction TV series from the master of disaster Irwin Allen (The Towering Inferno, The Swarm, etc.)
In essence, this new venture -- which represented Allen's final attempt at series work -- was an unholy hodgepodge of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968) mixed with a little Jules Verne, and with a huge helping of Star Wars, which was still playing in theaters and had become nothing less than a national craze.
The extremely short-lived series was called The Return of Captain Nemo, though some viewers may remember it by its foreign, theatrical title, The Amazing Captain Nemo.
Only three hour-long episodes of The Return of Captain Nemo ("Deadly Black Mail," "Duel in The Deep" and "Atlantis Dead Ahead") were produced and aired, and the obscure, extremely rare series has mostly been seen since in an abbreviated compilation movie format.
This strange broadcast and distribution history has resulted in some apparent confusion about whether or not the original production was a mini-series, a made-for-TV movie or simply a series. All the evidence suggests the latter, since the three 45-minute segments feature individual titles and writer/director/guest star credits.
The series aired in prime time, drew terrible ratings, was unceremoniously canceled, and then exhumed from its watery grave as the theatrical or TV-movie that many nostalgic folk of my generation remember.
The first episode of The Return of Captain Nemo, "Deadly Blackmail" commences as a diabolical mad scientist, Dr. Waldo Cunningham (Burgess Meredith) blackmails Washington D.C. for the princely sum of one billion dollars from his perch in the command center of his highly-advanced submarine, the Raven.
Unless the President pays up in one week's time, Cunningham will fire a nuclear "doomsday" missile at the city. To prove his intent is serious, Cunningham destroys a nearby island with a laser called "a delta ray."
This introductory scene sets the breathless tone and pace for much of the brief series, proving immediately and distinctly reminiscent of George Lucas's Star Wars. Specifically, Cunningham's right-hand man in the command center is a giant, baritone-voiced robot/man called "Tor." This villain -- when not speaking directly into a communications device that resembles a high-tech bong -- looks and sounds like the cheapest Darth Vader knock-off you can imagine, right down to the rip-off James Earl Jones voice.
Tor even boasts psychic abilities not unlike the power of the Force. When intruders steal aboard the Raven, for instance, Tor can psychically senses their presence there; just as Vader could sense the presence of Obi-Wan aboard the Death Star. Yes, I know Darth Vader isn't actually a robot and his power wasn't actually psychic, but this is the kind of distinction that escaped the creators of The Return of Captain Nemo.
And speaking of The Death Star, Cunningham -- who essentially plays Governor Tarkin to Tor's Lord Vader -- the submarine Raven's deadly delta ray looks an awful lot like the primary weapon of that destructive imperial space station.
Much more troubling for this fan, however, is the fact that the Raven, Cunningham's powerful submarine, is actually a just barely re-dressed Space:1999 eagle spaceship, replete with the four rear-mounted rocket engines, the dorsal lattice-work spine, the modular body, and the front, bottle nose capsule.
Yep, it's all there.
Many of the underwater sequences in The Return of Captain Nemo are incredibly murky and feature superimposed bubbles and dust in the foreground (probably to hide how bad the miniatures look...), but I've attempted to post a few photographs of the Raven here, so you can see for yourself that Cunningham's ship is an underwater Moonbase Alpha eagle transporter.
Anyway, while Washington D.C. puzzles over the nefarious threat of Professor Waldo Cunningham, two Navy frogmen, Commander Tom Franklin (Tom Hallick) and Lt. Jim Porter (Burr De Benning) happen upon an ancient submarine trapped on an undersea reef. From an exterior port hole, they detect a figure trapped inside a smoke-filled glass tube. They board the ship and find that this figure is actually the legendary Captain Nemo...in cryogenic freeze!
The two men immediately free Captain Nemo (Jose Ferrer) from hibernation and he steps out heroically, wearing a cape and ready for action (after exclaiming "my experiment worked!")
Turns out Nemo has been asleep for one hundred years, and it is now April 9th, 1978. The spry captain reveals to Tom and Jim that Jules Verne was no mere novelist, but actually his biographer...and that all his adventures are true.
Furthermore, Nemo wants to resume his search for the lost continent of Atlantis immediately. Jim and Tom, meanwhile, are astounded to see that the 127-year old Nautilus is a nuclear-powered submarine, one equipped with all the latest technology...including radar scopes. Interestingly, it is not just any radar device Captain Nemo has invented (along with cryogenic suspension and nuclear-powered submarines...), but rather radar devices that are identical in shape, mode and design to ones we have now on board our state-of-the-art ships.
Incredible coincidence, no?
Jim and Tom help free the Nautilus from its perch and convince Captain Nemo to return to their headquarters in San Francisco. There, they all report to the leader of an Elite Navy Group commanded by a man named Miller (Walter Stevens). Miller promptly recruits Nemo as a secret agent for the government, and in return the Nautilus gets a refit (though it clearly doesn't really need one...) and a full Navy crew.
At this point in the story, I must admit, I nearly lost my lunch.
The independent, head-strong, world-weary Captain Nemo of Jules Verne is -- without much argument or debate -- transformed into a dedicated agent for the U.S. government?! After a history of decrying war? After a history of sinking warships? After exiling himself to the "liberating" world under the sea? After leaving the world of man permanently behind?
This man of science just becomes...a tool of one particular government?
Methinks Irwin Allen (along with Franklin, Porter and Miller) never actually read any Jules Verne.
Instead, Allen must have been secretly screening recent episodes of Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman Man from Atlantis (1977), since the series premise (fish-out-of-water individual becomes government agent) of The Return of Captain Nemo shares more in common with those seventies superhero TV series than it does the literary work of Jules Verne, or any previous screen incarnations of Captain Nemo, for that matter.
Regardless, here we are presented with the most bizarre film interpretation of Captain Nemo imaginable: as genius creator of suspended animation (!), and as dashing, adventurous secret agent (!) for the United States Navy. This iteration of Nemo boasts not a whit, not a scent, not even an iota of a dark or even melancholy side.
Instead, this Nemo is an exuberant man of action.
In fairness to Ferrer, he's quite charismatic and physically capable in this leading role, even if the writing (and the entire scenario...) is ridiculous to the point of inanity. One wonders what Ferrer might have accomplished playing the character in a more faithful incarnation of Captain Nemo's world.
This Nemo gets to voice some flowery language ("We must stroll through this orchard without bruising the fruit," he notes metaphorically of an undersea waste dump, in the second episode), and this Nemo does seem "above" worldly concerns (like Star Trek's Spock), but Nemo almost never asks Tom and Jim any questions about the new world he has arrived in.
He shows no curiosity about the 20th century or its customs, which seems odd. Wouldn't Nemo the scientist wish to see what man has accomplished? Or does he just assume he's already accomplished more?
Captain Nemo's first assignment as a government agent is to prevent Waldo Cunningham from firing his doomsday nuclear missile at Washington D.C.
The Nautilus hunts the Raven at the bottom of the sea, and Nautilus evades destruction by delta beam when Nemo activates the Nautilus's protective electric force field.
Deciding he needs to understand his nemesis better, Nemo boldly boards the Raven and is promptly taken hostage by Tor and Cunningham. Together, Nemo and Franklin escape custody and run down an advanced corridor that also appears to have been lifted directly from the Death Star construction blueprints.
Captain Nemo -- now equipped with a hand-laser, destroys a bevy of Cunningham's storm-trooper-type robot goons in this very corridor, and the music actually sounds remarkably like a sped-up Star Wars theme. Again, I kid you not. The imitation is just...brazen.
Eventually, Nemo destroys Cunningham's nuclear missile by firing a laser beam weapon he invented(!), and the Raven slinks away under the sea to fight another day. In case you don't detect the pattern here, the writers left themselves an easy out.
Whenever threatened with destruction, Captain Nemo has a new invention up his sleeve that saves the day. A suspended animation device, a radar, an electric force field, now a ship-mounted laser beam. Not only is Nemo a genius, I guess, he's a super duper uber genius. There's nothing this guy didn't invent a hundred years ago. Nothing.
Because Star Wars is ripped-off so dramatically in the opening episode of The Return of Captain Nemo, the series changes tactics in its second episode ("Duel in the Deep") and rips off the premise of Space:1999 instead. Here, Waldo Cunningham (again!) threatens the safety of the world when the Raven begins ripping up (with grappling hooks...) the radioactive nuclear waste containers at the bottom of the sea, 35,000 feet down, at the Mindanao Trench near the Philippines.
Just think the dark side of the moon, the atomic waste dumps, and the inaugural 1999 episode "Breakaway."
The Nautilus and Captain Nemo are assigned to repair the breaches in the nuclear waste dumping ground before a wave of radioactivity leaks to the surface, destroying all life there. Two nuclear physicists come aboard to help out, the beautiful Kate (Lynda Day George) and the duplicitous agent, Cook (Mel Ferrer). If you've ever seen any episode of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, you know that Irwin Allen really loves his submarine saboteurs (secret spies show up in every other episode during the early seasons of that series...) and here the Nautilus is drawn off course by undersea magnets, surrounded by sea mines, and Nemo's bathosphere is also sabotaged.
Fortunately, Kate helps Nemo save the day, defeat Cook, and joins the Nautilus crew, becoming a regular on the series. At the end of the day, Cunningham escapes again and the breach in the nuclear waste dumps is repaired by a lucky rock fall.
The third -- and mercifully -- final episode of Return of Captain Nemo boasts the name of Robert Bloch as one of its writers, but one has to assume he was heavily re-written, or had little to do with the show's development.
"Atlantis Dead Ahead" also features Horst Bucholz as Atlantis's King Tibor and a very young Anthony Geary (General Hospital's Luke of "Luke and Laura" fame) as an Atlantean retainer named...Bork. In this adventure, Captain Nemo easily locates Atlantis (did I mention he's a super duper, uber genius?) but finds that Waldo Cunningham has already beaten him to the lost continent and enslaved the underwater people there with dastardly mind-control head-bands.
Cunningham captures Nemo and Tom Franklin and paralyzes the crew of the Nautilus (including Kate) with a "z-ray" that freezes the unlucky crew "in time," whatever the hell that means. Tom is fitted with his own individual brain-washing head-band (which makes him look like he's ready to participate in a Jane Fonda aerobics video...) and forced to torture Nemo.
Nemo himself is attached to a brain-sucking device that will reveal to Cunningham all of his one-hundred-year old secrets, including the formula for Nautilus's laser ray. Since Cunningham already has a death ray, why he needs Nemo's death ray is a bit of a mystery.
Anyway, Nemo outsmarts Cunningham by re-playing in his mind (and broadcasting his thoughts on the view screen...), information about the Navy and U.S. government that re-activates Tom's sense of patriotic loyalty. They escape together and there's yet another shoot-out between Cunningham's robot storm troopers and our heroes in the very same Death Star corridor. Still, Cunningham proves more dangerous than ever because he posses twenty pellets of a poisonous element called "Crosar" which he plans to release in 20 world cities.
After an undersea battle between Nautilus and Raven -- in which the Raven is apparently destroyed-- Captain Nemo decides to leave the freed Atlantis behind, "untouched by our progress." King Tibor thanks him and then jumps into the water, never to be seen again.
Then, apparently with nothing left to accomplish, Nemo turns to Kate (a possible love interest...) and suggests they head back to San Francisco and have a meeting with Mr. Miller, so the boss can give the Nautilus new orders. Yep, the inventive and brilliant captain Nemo can think of nothing else to do with Nautilus, and just wants a new assignment from a government bureaucrat.
A sad end for a sad re-vamp.
I was nine years old when Return of Captain Nemo first aired on CBS, and I have to confess...I loved it at that age. It had lasers, submarines, evil robots, Captain Nemo, underwater adventure...everything a young, imaginative mind could ask for.
As an innocent, impressionable youngster I had no inkling just how nonsensical, how ridiculous, how vapid, how inane and how derivative the Allen series was. Seeing the program today, I'm amazed but just how craven it remains: how desperate and frenzied it is to latch on to the latest trend in the pop culture (Star Wars) and artlessly exploit it.
I've blogged many, many TV movies and series here -- and if you read my blog often, you know I endeavor to highlight the positive -- but off the top of my head, I can't recall another TV series so regularly, so routinely, dreadful. The Return of Captain Nemo is so bad, so confused about itself, that it's actually baffling at points.
Tor, for instance, is not only a robot sidekick with psychic powers (why? why?), but also a xenophobic bigot! For some reason, he is constantly seen railing against "aliens."
Only problem, there are no aliens on the show. Tor keeps blaming aliens for everything...and there aren't any aliens around.
Why would Cunningham program a robot with this weirdo tic? If Tor is not a robot, what the hell is he, and why is he working for Cunningham in the first place?
He can't be an alien and hate aliens, can he?
It's clear the character was just thrown in to the mix, apparently at random, to appeal to the demographic that thought Darth Vader was super cool. But no real thought was ever given to Tor as a character. No thought was given to his background, his creation, his very nature.
Tor's not alone, either. The two Navy officers, Tom and Jim, continually play second fiddle to Nemo and have absolutely nothing of interest to do but issue orders from the bridge of Nautilus in Nemo's absence. In Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Captain Crane suffered from some of the same issues (always proving far less interesting than his boss, Admiral Nelson), but Tom and Jim are approximately a million times more uninteresting even then Crane.
And for Cunningham to act as the primary villain of all three episodes, escaping and returning, forever escaping and returning, makes the series seem repetitive and dull. And that's being polite.
Imagine if The Master were the only villain the Doctor ever encountered, and you'll understand what I mean. Some essential sense of jeopardy is lost because you just know here that Waldo is always going to get beaten, always escape, always return, always gets beaten and always escape, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. Burgess Meredith is a good actor, of course, but at times (particularly in one view screen exchange with Nemo...) you can see the veteran glancing down out of shot and then back...apparently to read the off-screen lines.
A talented writer could probably tell a Captain Nemo story with a flavor of Star Wars thrown in and get away with it if he or she had an airtight narrative, interesting characters and some sense of style. But The Return of Captain Nemo is bereft of all those ingredients. It is poorly-written and seems dashed off from the Irwin Allen assembly line in order to exploit Star Wars before the craze wore off.
Again, you have to feel sorry for Jose Ferrer. He's got the gusto, the presence, the intelligence, the wit, the attitude, and the physicality to make an excellent Captain Nemo, but the scripts here require him to speedily race from one crisis to another, saving the day like a campy superhero, and the result is that he never seems like a fully-developed human being.
Many genre fans of my generation have -- like me -- spent an inordinate amount of time seeking out The Return of Captain Nemo. It's an item of nostalgic remembrance, something that appeared on a major network (and remember, in those days of the disco decade there were only three networks...) and then disappeared, never to be heard from again.
The pull of such a production is tantalizing. Did I really see that? Did it really exist? Have I lost my mind? Was I dreaming? Was it any good?
Indeed, this is the very journey I undertook.
Unfortunately, in the case of The Return of Captain Nemo, this is but a dismal voyage to the bottom of the barrel.
Go ahead and watch it if you dare, but sometimes old memories -- like Captain Nemo himself -- are best left in stasis.
I'll always cherish my memory of watching (and loving) the show as a nine year old kid, but I dare not re-visit this series again as an adult. Not trying to be mean here. Believe me, I'm being as charitable as possible. The great Captain Nemo deserves so much better than this travesty.
Thursday, September 01, 2016
Just about my favorite period of science fiction film and television endured from 1968 (and 2001: A Space Odyssey) to 1976, the heyday of Space: 1999.
During this all-too-brief a span, writers, directors and production designers imagined mankind reaching out -- and sometimes faltering -- on his journey to the stars.
Sometimes man’s technology -- whether HAL the computer, or dangerous nuclear waste facilities located on the lunar surface -- vexed him. Yet despite such crises, mankind was on the very brink of some great awakening about himself, and about the nature not merely of the cosmos, but existence itself.
This promising future, as presented in films like Moon Zero Two (1969), and Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969) and on television programming like UFO (1970) or Earth II (1972), had crisp, white, minimalist lines and bright lights. It featured talking computers, video-phones, and characters who faced the realm of outer space with a cool, even dispassionate temperament, at least at times.
The new film Space Station 76 (2014) from director Jake Plotnick imagines that this early-seventies vision of the future endured, and then actually came to pass.
In other words, the seventies never ended.
Instead, we took these visions of the disco decade with us not just to the turn of the Millennium, but into the very “space age” future itself.
Accordingly, Space Station 76 features some intriguing anachronisms. In this future age, for example, gay men are still firmly in the closet. African-Americans don’t get assigned to the most “exclusive” space ships. Astronauts smoke cigarettes. Kids watch recorded entertainment on giant VCR recorders and VHS tapes. And the latest fashion trends from Earth are displayed not on the Internet (which doesn’t exist…), but on imported-from-Earth GAF View-Master discs.
Yet despite an overt lack of the social and technological progress that we recognize and covet in 2014, men and women in this “future” live on space stations, see robot therapists, and travel the stars together.
So the future is fantastic and…retro.
Space Station 76’s premise is abundantly tricky and fun, and the film’s knowledgeable visuals make it an absolute must-see for fans of 1970s science fiction. Several sets and ship designs will, certainly, ring a bell for genre fans.
The film also deals powerfully, at times, with its central metaphor that people are like asteroids. They fly together “in space” in close proximity but never touch, and never actually connect on a meaningful level.
Instead, sometimes they merely collide, smashing into one another with catastrophic force.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there’s a feeling of widespread malaise among the characters in Space Station ‘76 and a spiritual emptiness too. Not coincidentally, those things are part and parcel of the 1970s aesthetic as well.
Conspicuous consumption arose (as did President Carter’s “crisis of confidence”) in the seventies when many people began to fill the empty places inside with the pursuit of material things, including wealth. This shift towards material avarice -- which came to symbolize America in Reagan’s Era -- is embodied in Space Station 76 through the overt failure of several adult relationships, and the burning desire of space station residents to move to Starship 8, a destination which features, among other things, a shopping mall.
Unfortunately, and despite all its intelligence and promise, Space Station 76 struggles mightily to find a consistent tone. The film vacillates between grim, The Ice Storm (1997)-like revelations about human relationships and overt physical comedy, But it never finds the right mode for coherently blending the two. Some of the characters, including the vixen Misty, come off as barely-two dimensional cartoons, whereas others, like Liv Tyler’s Marlowe, seem more realistic.
This inconsistent approach to the material and characters means that those seeking a laugh-out loud comedy will be disappointed by the general seriousness of the enterprise, and those seeking a consistent, dedicated story about life in this “retro universe” will find the bows to conventional, crowd-pleasing humor distracting.
Space Station 76 is smart and knowledgeable in its discussion of the 1970s, science fiction visions of that time period, and human nature, so it’s a shame that, in the final analysis, the film doesn’t come together quite as well as it should have.
“Just relax and let the drugs work.”
A new warrant officer, Lt. Cmdr Jessica Marlowe (Liv Tyler), boards Space Station 76 following the departure of the well-liked Daniel, who left because of some secret scandal.
Captain Glenn (Patrick Wilson) has told various crew members different stories about Daniel’s absence, including the lies that he was promoted, and that he suffered a family crisis. The truth is that Glenn and Daniel were lovers, but that Glenn has not yet accepted his homosexuality, even as he finds himself longing for Daniel’s companionship.
Meanwhile, the ship’s technician, Ted (Matt Bomer) is trapped in an unhappy marriage with Misty (Marisa Coughlan), who is having an affair with another crewman, Steve (Jerry O’Donnell).
Medicated by the station’s therapist, a robot called Dr. Bot, Misty is also the insecure mother of a young child: Sunshine (Kylie Rogers).
As Marlowe settles in, she and Ted start growing attracted to one another, and Marlow befriends Sunshine, to Misty’s chagrin.
Meanwhile, Captain Glenn is unhappy working with Marlowe because of his feelings about Daniel, and Steve’s wife, Donna (Kali Rocha) is looking to move to luxurious and exclusive Starship 8.
As the holiday season nears, interpersonal stresses on Space Station 76 increase, and a deadly asteroid approaches on a collision course…
“Your whole vibe is stressing me.”
In terms of its visuals, Space Station 76 takes knowing and loving inspiration from the science fiction cinema and television programming of the 1970s.
The shuttle pod which first carries Marlowe to the station, for instance, looks very much like the Seeker from the Filmation live-action Saturday morning series Space Academy (1977).
Additionally, Marlowe spends much time in the film inside a hydroponics dome, the interior and exterior of which both resemble a similar garden dome on the Valley Forge, from Douglas Trumball’s Silent Running (1972). Domes of this very design later appeared on other productions of the 1970s including Battlestar Galactica (1978) and The Starlost (1973).
Space Station 76 also uses a device similar to an actual 1976 film in one scene. Captain Glenn talks to Daniel on a multi-colored hologram communicator, one that reflects the imagery of Logan's Run (1976) and its hologram.
More intriguingly, perhaps, the interiors for Space Station 76 -- with their white lights and white walls – closely resemble the corridors of Moonbase Alpha in Space: 1999.
One panel seen in the film -- of three horizontal lighting ellipses -- actually looks like it was transplanted directly from that Anderson-ian facility.
Impressively, Space Station 76’s thematic approach is in fact visualized through this Moonbase Alpha corridor style. Early in the film, we see young Sunshine, replete with a purple crayon, coloring on the immaculate white walls. She scrawls the word “home” on the ivory panels as well.
The moment is not merely a call-back to Harold and the Purple Crayon (1955), but a visual representation of the film’s leitmotif. The purple scribbling on the white wall represents the idea of messy humanity imposing his chaotic nature on an artificial world of immaculate perfection and balance. The characters in Space Station 76 are deeply flawed, even tragic in nature, and they are out of place, and out-of-balance, with their perfectly calibrated environs.
Space Station 76’s robot therapist, Dr. Bot, is also a product of nostalgia for an earlier age of “futurist” imaginings. The robot shrink is actually Tomy’s Verbot, a toy from the early 1980s. The toy was advertised as being a real robot with “a dazzling personality” who would “blink and smile at your request.”
Dr. Bot in the film is not much more advanced than this description suggests, and he offers only off-the-shelf wisdom and platitudes. In a way, the robot psychologist’s nature as a proverb-quoting automaton may be an oblique reference to the robots in Disney’s The Black Hole (1979), who quoted Cicero and other philosophers. So again, a call back to the disco decade’s space operas.
All these visual touches make one aware that Space Station 76 has been created with a humorous eye towards our historic (and therefore deeply flawed…) visions of the future. When the film adheres to this concept, and crafts jokes based on the fallacies of those historic visions, it is indeed rather funny.
There’s a scene here in which Keir Dullea from 2001: A Space Odyssey video-phones Marlowe, his daughter, and they share a conversation. But all the emotional heart of the moment is sacrificed -- thus reinforcing the theme that people talk, but don’t connect -- because Dullea’s character can’t find the right place to sit on camera for the video phone to operate correctly. He ends up half off-screen, a funny moment which makes one grasp, instantly, the impracticality of such a device.
Other moments, such as Glenn’s periodic suicide attempts -- which are prevented by the station’s computer -- don’t work very well at all, and seem downright cartoony compared to the film’s relatively straight-faced exploration of relationship woes. I get the idea, of course. The late 1960s and early 1970s gave us talking computers that controlled space flight, telemetry, life-support and so forth. Think about HAL in 2001 or Alpha’s Main Computer on 1999 noting, in a moment of catastrophe that “Human Decision” is “Required.”
Here, Glenn makes the choice to kill himself, but computer protocols keep overriding his very human decision.
In terms of its overall story, Space Station 76’s inspiration seems to be The Ice Storm (1997), a film based on the 1994 book by Rick Moody.
The novel and the film both concerned an American middle-class family in the 1970s, post-Watergate, and during a time of sexual experimentation. Everything was being questioned in that span, from marriage, to patriotism (because of Vietnam), to the competence of the U.S. Government. Even marriage -- or perhaps, more accurately -- monogamy, was on the table.
Space Station 76 deals with similar concerns. Here families are coming apart at the seams, and there is one galvanizing outside event that serves as a manifestation of their disquiet, not a winter ice storm, but an approaching asteroid on collision course.
Although slapstick humor is always fun, Space Station 76 would have been a stronger film, perhaps had it not strayed so far from the tone of The Ice Storm, which is more cynical and darkly caustic than outright silly. The sillier moments in this retro space film seem out of left field, while the more serious ones, for the most part, are genuinely affecting. Played straight (at least on the surface), the film would have felt more powerful, and less scatter-shot.
There’s so much going on in Space Station 76, and I don’t mean to give the impression that the film is a failure. I admire it quite a bit both for its canny knowledge of the films and TV shows I love, and for the manner in which its visual form -- asteroids and malfunctioning video chats -- represent interpersonal alienation.
But the over-the-top jokes tend pull the whole affair back down to Earth.