Sunday, June 25, 2017

28 Years Ago: Batman (1989)

"I don't know if it's art, but I like it!"

- The Joker, in Tim Burton's Batman (1989)

Bob Kane and Bill Finger's Batman character has gone through nearly as many cinematic and television incarnations, perhaps, as Bram Stoker's Dracula or Shakespeare's Hamlet.

The Adam West Batman TV series of the 1960s showcased a colorful world of campy characters, stereotypical comic-book affectations (ZAP!) and obsessively-labeled Bat gadgets and devices (like the Batcave's clearly marked "Lighted Lucite Map of Gotham City").

Contrarily, Christopher Nolan's currently in-vogue interpretation of the mythos adopts the opposite tack, grounding absolutely every aspect of Batman's universe in kitchen sink, War on Terror Age reality.  Here, the Batmobile is more Hummer than hot rod, an all-terrain military vehicle adapted by the Dark Knight for urban use.  The Caped Crusader's costume, according to Batman Begins (2005)  is actually a "Nomex Survival Suit" not a mere "costume," and Gotham City appears to be a very real, very grounded metropolis (actually Chicago in The Dark Knight [2008], if memory serves).

Between these opposite poles of  tongue-in-cheek comedy and naturalistic, gritty realism, director Tim Burton presented his own unique take on the Batman legend in the final year of the 1980's.  Given what we understand of Burton's aesthetic, it's not at all surprising that his vision for the Caped Crusader is largely expressionistic; one that distorts reality, essentially, to create an overwhelming sense of mood or psychological and emotional experience. 

In short, Burton's blockbuster 1989 film largely concerns two men (Bruce Wayne and Jack Napier) who  owe their very identities (and their mutual senses of alienation...) to the failed city-state where they dwell.  Batman and Joker could conceivably exist, according to this film, nowhere but in Gotham City.  The city -- heir to skylines like those seen in  Metropolis (1927), Blade Runner (1982) and Brazil (1985) -- functions  itself as a character in the drama, and as an important player in the action.  In some ways, the very architecture of the city  reflects the mental landscape of the Joker and Batman.  All three "characters" are strange, jumbled, "new" edifices (psychological and concrete) built upon old, shaky, crumbling and "dead" personalities or foundations.  Or as Jack Napier notes, "decent people shouldn't live here."

If you remember the summer of 1989 at all, you'll likely recall the "Bat Frenzy" that seized the nation upon release of Burton's film.  It was an authentic and unforgettable Zeitgeist moment. Although many fans had grown concerned about the casting of "comedic" actor Michael Keaton as Batman, most complaints evaporated once the film was screened.  Never before on-screen had Batman been taken so "seriously," and his world rendered so impressively and expensively.

Accordingly, most critics raved about the picture and the power of Burton's vision.  Ken Hanke, writing in Films in Review, called the film "a work of brilliance" (October 1989, page 480), and David Sterritt of the Christian Science Monitor commended Batman's "haunting tone." (June 29, 1989, page 10).

For me, those things that remain so vital and and impressive about Burton's Batman are the canny psychological underpinnings.   Batman becomes an understandable/relatable personality only because Burton erects the Caped Crusader's universe from the ground-up. 

In other words, Gotham is indeed the "prime actor" on Batman's psyche, and the very thing responsible for making one man "The Bat" and  another The Joker.   In focusing on the surrounding universe (rather than merely the people inhabiting it), Burton's Batman more readily functions as an epic fantasy than either its comedic antecedent, the Batman TV series, or Nolan's big-budget pictures, which are basically action-films played straight, with few fantastic or fantasy elements at all.

Burton's Batman also thrives on its two central performances: Michael Keaton as a man dwelling in the past and wholly absent-minded about the details of the present, and Jack Nicholson as a monster who leaves behind day-to-day matters of concern (like his physical appearance) to dwell on a more abstract (if terrifying...) plateau; that of a "fully functional homicidal artist."  These men, joined by their twisted "origins" -- or more accurately their twisted resurrections -- fight to control Gotham City, and also the love of a woman, Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger).

"Haven't you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?"

In crime-ridden Gotham City, crooks and thieves fear a new presence in town, the nighttime avenger known as "The Bat."

Actually, criminals fear Batman, the alter-ego of millionaire philanthropist Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton), who each night patrols the mean streets of Gotham and recalls (and relives?) the crime that robbed an innocent child of his parents.

As a nosy reporter, Knox (Robert Wuhl) and a beautiful photographer Vicki Vale (Kim Basinger) plot to learn more about the mysterious Batman, Gotham's Underworld undergoes a dramatic shift.  After a confrontation with Batman at Axis Chemicals, thug Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson) is transformed into the mad Joker, and murders crime boss Carl Grissom (Jack Palance).  He assumes control of the Grissom operation and begins a reign of bizarre terror.

While Bruce and Vicki embark upon a romantic relationship, the Joker terrorizes Gotham with his deadly Smilex toxin.  After Batman unravels the Smilex puzzle, the Joker challenges Batman to meet him during the nighttime parade celebrating the 200th anniversary of Gotham City.  For the people of Gotham, the big question is: who do you trust?  The clown, or the man in a bat suit?

"You can't make an omelet without breaking some eggs."

The Batman character first appeared in May of 1939 in an issue of Detective Comics.  \Importantly, Burton's Batman film seems to seize on that era of American history (say 1939 - 1945) and to forge a sense of reality with that epoch as its creative basis. 

Accordingly, the Gotham City featured in Batman is one in which the Art Deco and "Futura" style of the late 1920's and early 1930's has given way to the terrors of both fascism and more utilitarian architecture.  The beautiful deco Gotham -- representative of elegant, stylish and streamlined modern architecture -- has been "built over" willy-nilly by a melange of industrial grunge and blight.  It's as though someone constructed a beautiful contemporary city in one decade, and then just kept building and building upon it randomly for generations, with no thought or strategy about how to expand.  And each expansion is uglier, less stylish...less optimistic than the last.

You can detect the late-1930's early-1940's touches not merely in the architecture featured in Gotham in Batman, but in the costumes as well.  The policemen wear leather jackets, and male citizens are adorned in fedoras and other hats.  Also, aspects of the dialogue purposefully play up this era of American history.  Knox (Robert Wuhl) talks like he's out of a snappy, 1940's-era Howard Hawks movie (perhaps His Girl Friday [1940]) and Joker's base of operations is called Axis Chemicals.  As other critics have rightly pointed out, "Axis" is the name of the military alliance between Germany, Italy and Japan circa 1936 - 1945, and so again, a particular era of world history is alluded to, at least sub textually, in Batman.

If we remember what was happening in the world at the time of the Axis Powers perhaps we can understand why this reference is important to an understanding of Burton's Batman.  After the defeat (or death) represented by World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was "resurrected" as a global player...and terrifyingly so, as a monster; as the much-feared Nazi movement. The Joker's journey in the Burton film actually mirrors Germany's in some odd fashion  Jack Napier meets his Waterloo (or Versailles) at Axis, and is resurrected from the toxic (primordial?) goop as the Joker...only to ascend to greater power and tremendous madness.  Like Nazi Germany, he nearly wins his battle for domination too.

Thus, in some sub textual fashion, Batman seems to be about the idea of a "good" world going very, very wrong, taking a nearly fatal wrong turn; of art deco modernity giving way to industrial blues, and the rise of fascism.  Incidentally, this is also the very production design pattern that George Lucas utilizes in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999), showcasing in that film how a chrome, Art Deco Republic transforms into a  utilitarian, totalitarian state, where the ugliness of the movement is reflected in the ugliness of the new architecture.  In both cases, production design and wardrobe represent audience cues to express for us something important about the film's milieu.

Another way to explain this aspect of the Burton Batman: It's as though the film maker's took a snapshot of Batman's world in 1939, on the comic book's very parturition, and expanded that snapshot into a full-length film.  Also encoded in that "snapshot" is the idea of one "free" man (Wayne) utilizing his resources and wealth to challenge a system that isn't working.  In Gotham, the police are mostly helpless and citizens cower in fear because of the rampant crime.  In 1939, as America saw Nazi-ism rise overseas and countenanced the ascent of a more socialist state in America, some people would have viewed a capitalist crusader Batman as the express antidote to both: an entrepreneur using his own resources, by his own will, to restore justice.

Interestingly, both Bruce Wayne and Jack Napier are depicted in Burton's Batman as victims of what Gotham City has become.  Even as an adult, Bruce remains obsessed with the death of his parents in Gotham, a result of out-of-control crime and the failure of the establishment.  To  characterize this on-going obsession, Burton features at least two similarly-staged scenes.  In the film's opening scene, Batman arrives (too late) to save a family of movie-goers as they are accosted by criminals.  Later, Bruce remembers the death of his parents (in flashback) after a similar night at the movies, and an encounter with young Jack Napier.  These scenes are very similar, right down to the single-child nature of the family, and they suggest that Bruce is caught in a kind of endless, obsessive loop, unable to put the past down.   His nightly ritual of crime-fighting is in fact an attempt to exorcise the images he can't get out of his head: the death of his parents.  A third scene adds meaningfully to this conceit, showcasing Bruce brushing off the optimistic present (a date with Vicki) to return to the alley where his parents tragically died, and lay flowers at the spot where they expired.

This approach is intriguingly contrasted with Bruce Wayne's inability to focus on the details of the present.  He can't be bothered to pay attention to a gala being hosted at his house (in support of the 200th anniversary of Gotham City), and is glib about his wealth and belongings, even offering Knox a "grant" for his work, seemingly off-the-cuff.  A later scene involving Vicki and Bruce on a date at Wayne Manor, in a vast dining room, purposely seems to reflect a famous scene in Citizen Kane (1941) that -- through the spatial gulf across a colossal dining room table -- expressed the idea of marital alienation between an obscenely wealthy man and his emotionally-desolate wife.  Here, the scene reveals the gulf between Bruce and his present.  He can't quite reach it; can't quite touch or embrace it.  Again, notice how the focus in this Batman is upon the psychological state of the characters; on an expression of their interior dilemmas.  And also notice, please, how a visual film allusion to Citizen Kane also functions as a call-back to the time period I mentioned above, say 1936 - 1945.

It all fits together.

In Burton's Batman, Bruce as he appears now was "created" in the crucible of his parent's death, and has never been able to step outside that person.  He can't live in the present.  He can only live obsessively in the past; the past that Gotham City made for him.  In fact, Bruce has used all his considerable resources to trap himself in a cage, a technological cage in which he becomes a strange alter-ego; one who is always seeking to avenge the one act he cannot undo.  He can't quite reach across that dining room table to Vicki, even though a part of him desires that outcome.  "Are we at least going to try to love each other?" Vicki asks Bruce at one point, and his answer is determinedly a "no."  He's got work to do; a job to do.  Avenging the past.

By contrast, the Joker is cannot live in the past.  After being dropped into toxic chemicals and suffering botched plastic surgery (in a very dark, very creepy scene...), the present doesn't interest the Joker.  What interests him, instead, is the very act of creation, or perhaps, more accurately, of transformation.  He focuses on what he can make of himself, the world, and other people around him, like his unfortunate girlfriend.  The Joker realizes that he can be an artist: skilled at the very activity (with some sensitivity and imagination) of destroying and resurrecting lives.  The past is dead to the Joker, and he is characterized in the film by his need to "re-paint" or tarnish the present, which we see during his efforts at the museum.  The Joker survives his pain -- like a true artist -- by making the world share it with him.

For this reason alone, I must confess that I prefer Nicholson's Joker to Heath Ledger's in The Dark Knight.  Nicholson's Joker is engaged in the act of becoming; of transforming the world into a nightmare reflecting his own point-of-view (again, remember the fascism/Nazi subtext I noted above). By contrast, Ledger's Joker seems more like a force of pure chaos; one whose only purpose is to have no express purpose; destruction for the sake of destruction.

Both performances are powerful, but for me, Nicholson is both funny and terrifying, whereas Ledger was merely terrifying.  The powerful idea underlining a villain like the Joker is that he both attracts and repels; he's both charismatic and totally untrustworthy.

You can readily believe that Nicholson's "showman" Joker would inspire followers and "believers," whereas that's not exactly the case with the character in The Dark Knight.  Also, Burton expresses the hows and whys of the Joker's parturition in this Batman, granting the character a distinctive world view as a "homicidal artist."  The character in The Dark Knight, in my opinion, remains a bit charmless and opaque, if undeniably menacing.  Again, people of good will shall differ on favorites, and perhaps the bottom line is that Nicholson's Joker can exist only in Burton's vision for the mythos, just as Ledger is appropriate to Nolan's vision.

The idea or resurrection looms large in Burton's Batman. The once beautiful Gotham City has been resurrected as an industrial nightmare of out-of-control crime, Bruce has taken his obsession with is parents' death and resurrected himself as Batman, and out of the battle at Axis Chemicals Jack has been resurrected as that homicidal artist, the Joker.  Each character suggests what happens when a trauma isn't diagnosed or handled, but merely scabbed or built over.  The results, in all cases aren't "exactly normal" to quote Vicki's description of Batman.   The intertwining of Joker/Batman and Gotham is made explicit in the Batman screenplay as Joker and Batman fight atop Gotham's abandoned cathedral and argue "I made you?"  "You made me."

Batman premiered near the end of the pre-CGI age in terms of special effects, when miniatures, animation and other older creative tools were still widely in use.  For some audiences, the effects will seem dated, but for others, they will feel appropriately more tactile and bizarre, in some fashion, than what we have grown accustomed to in the digital era.  Like so many Burton films, this is a messy, organic effort.  We see acid burned on human faces, the bloody instruments from a botched plastic surgery, sweat-drenched criminals and other distinctive horrors.  There's always very much a feeling here that these horrendous events are real and happening, not flesh-less, gravity-less affectations superimposed after the characters were actually there.  This fits into the psychological underpinnings of the film, the idea of people living in a nightmare state, in a nightmare city.  You can't achieve that effect that so easily with green screens, or CGI blood spurts.  This movie is about making us feel we live in Batman's world, and for that reason, it's very successful as a work of art.

Back in 1989, I had a high-school friend whom I absolutely loved, who described Burton's Batman -- humorously -- as "pretty darn plotless," and perhaps there's some truth to that complaint.  The film is about a  lengthy grudge match between two men in a place "synonymous with crime."  The narrative details are less crucial than the expression of the locations, and the emotional, psychological particulars of the two combatants.  Danny Elfman's magnificent score adds to the aura of a moody, introspective rumination, one overcrowded with ideas, and in some cases, authentic horrors.

I realize that Batman is far from Burton's favorite film, and yet it does, quite readily, reflect much of his nature as an artist, stressing visuals as psychological symbols of fractured and damaged mental states. The film also diagrams the story of misfits and outsiders, a frequent Burton leitmotif.

As Bruce Wayne might characterize Batman in terms of Burton,  "some of it is very much me," and "some of it is not."   Though there's much of the film's director personal taste evident in the mix, Batman Returns (1992), in some ways,  is an even more perfect representation of the director's aesthetic.  It's weirder and wilder, even, than the gruesome sights on display here.  That film, in my opinion, is some kind of twisted Christmas, Burton high-point, a second run at the Batman legend that improves on the expressive, psychologically-adroit ruminations of this admirable 1989 effort.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Ark II: "The Slaves" (September 18, 1976)

In “The Slaves,” the Ark II team catches wind of a nearby village using slavery, a “miserable and immoral practice,” and Jonah sets out to observe.  

Unfortunately, he is captured by the forces of Baron Vargas (Michael Kermoyan), a tyrant who deploys magic tricks to keep the slaves from attempting escape, banding together, or asserting their rights.

In particular, Baron Vargas has convinced many of his exhausted slaves that he possesses the power to turn people into mindless animals.  The people, having no education or experience with such things, cower in fear.  One man, Gideon, has even become an informant for Vargas, because he believes his sister has been transformed into an animal.

When Jonah stands up to Vargas, the devious Baron stages a fire and light show in which he appears to transform Jonah into a rooster.  In truth, Jonah is simply put in prison, abducted in a cloud of smoke, out of the eyes of the crowd. 

Seeing the deception for what it is, Ruth and Samuel at the Ark II decide to out-magic the evil magician.  They rescue Jonah, and assert their own technological magic to free the slaves.  

In “The Slaves,” written by David Dworski, the audience gets to see a bit more of the grand Ark II’s interesting capabilities.  In this case, the vehicle projects a force field beam; one that is able to make it look like Jonah is actually walking on air.  The force field beam looks dangerous, like a laser, but like all of the Ark II’s devices is entirely defensive in nature. 

Other than that touch, this episode, directed by Hollingsworth Morse, hammers home the worthy point that fear stems from ignorance, and that knowledge can overcome ignorance, and thus fear.  

The villager slaves are all superstitious and terrified, but Jonah and his team pull back the curtain, to use a Wizard of Oz metaphor, to reveal the truth about the manipulative Vargas.  It’s a worthwhile point, especially because so many tyrants in today’s world use ignorant beliefs (usually of a religious nature) to hold back their populations. 

Watching this episode of Ark II, I understood, perhaps for the first time, what’s missing from the series format: a sense of how Ruth, Jonah and Samuel are educated and trained, and what kind of organization, specifically they hail from.  What are their skill-sets?  How did they become trained?   How were they chosen for these assignments?

It would have been great if the makers of Ark II had provided a bit more detail about these adventurers, and why they became involved with the Ark II mission, and what skills, precisely, they bring to the table.  It would have been neat to get an episode where they check back in at home base, as well. I'd love to see the society they hail from, and what it is like.

I also got to wondering, perhaps because this episode is a little dull: is Ark II the only vehicle in the fleet?  Is there also an Ark III or Ark IV out there, patrolling a different area of the post-apocalyptic terrain?

Of course, I realize that this Filmation series was designed for children.  But the episodes create an interesting enough world that as a viewer, you want to know more about the characters, their backgrounds, and the world they inhabit.  This is truly a series that would benefit from an intelligent remake:  You could take the core series concept, the characters, the production design and the world-view and then spin out new details about all of them, significantly deepening the Ark II-iverse.

Next week: “The Balloon.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Lidsville: "The Great Brain Robbery"

In “The Great Brain Robbery,” Mark (Butch Patrick) and Weenie (Billie Hayes) decide to fly away from Lidsville (and back to the real world), using a magic carpet. 

After they depart, however, Hoo-doo (Charles Nelson Reilly) unveils his brainwash machine, and plans to transform all the Good Hats into obedient slaves. The Bad Hats set the machine to the wrong dial, however, and the Good Hats become argumentative.

Hoo-Doo realizes that this is a fantastic turn of events, and he plans to use the Good Hats as an army to stage a coup against the Imperial Wizard.

Mark and Weenie crash  on the magic carpet during a storm, and discover what Hoo-Doo is up to. Now they must free their friends from Hoo-doo’s control.

This episode of Lidsville (1971-1973) focuses on the intriguing notion, that Hoo-doo is more than a buffoon, and actually a very real danger to the world of hats.  Sure he's a clown, but with power, he's incredibly dangerous.

For example, in this story Hoodoo attempts to raise an army for a very specific purpose: to attack and over-take the Imperial Wizard’s palace.  

This is a much more ambitious and power-hungry plan than we have seen before. He compares himself to Napoleon and (amusingly) notes that soon “Charlton Heston will be begging to play my life…in color.”

Also, we get a sense, in this episode of the world’s geography. While planning his conquest, Hoo-Doo says “Today, Lidsville, tomorrow Coatsville…then on to Shirtville…”

To the best of my memory, “The Great Brain Robbery” is the only episode of Lidsville that explores Hoo-Doo’s specific plans for world domination.  In the past, he has seemed content to terrorize the Good Hats and collect back taxes. This development makes him more of a sadistic bureaucrat than a world conqueror. But here, we see differently.

Otherwise, this story brings back the magic carpet we saw some episodes back (“Fly Now, Vacuum Later”), and uses it as a vehicle of escape for Mark and Weenie.  Of course, according to the rigid series formula, these characters can’t actually escape. So the carpet hits a storm in the sky, and the duo crashes back on the ground.

Stories like this always raise questions for me, though admittedly they may not have for the original audience of young children.  

Some of those questions include: why not try the magic carpet again at another time?  Or, for that matter, why doesn’t Hoo-Doo try the brain wash machine on another occasion?

Next week, the final Lidsville episode: “Mommy Hoo-Doo.”

Friday, June 23, 2017

Cult-TV Flashback: Knight Rider (1982 - 1986): "Goliath" (Parts I and II)

Knight Rider…a shadowy flight into the dangerous world of a man who does not exist. Michael Knight, a young loner on a crusade to champion the cause of the innocent, the helpless, the powerless, in a world of criminals who operate above the law.”

-Knight Rider’s opening narration.

In Knight Rider’s (1982 – 1986) two-part episode, “Goliath,” Michael Knight (David Hasselhoff) challenges a villain who has the same face: Garthe Knight (also played Hasselhoff). 

The evil Knight, is son of the Knight Foundation’s philanthropist, Wilton, and in cahoots with his mother, Elizabeth (Barbara Rush) on a secret mission.

Specifically, Garthe and Elizabeth hope to steal the plans for K.I.T.T.’s “molecular bonded shell plating,” the very aspect of the advanced car that makes him so impervious to damage and attack. 

The evil duo plots to build a new vehicle, a giant, 22 ton semi-truck called “Goliath,” and -- once it is equipped with the shell plating -- penetrate a top secret base in the desert, one that possess dangerous missiles.

Michael and K.I.T.T. attempt to stop Garthe and his plans, but Garthe feels that Michael is a “living, breathing insult” to his existence, and plots to destroy him.

K.I.T.T. battles Goliath in a dangerous and ill-fated first engagement, but comes back strong for a second time…even as Garthe and Michael go head to head…

You just have to love a series in which cars and people alike possess evil doppelgangers or twins.  

Earlier in the week, I reviewed one of the episodes featuring K.I.T.T.'s nasty twin, K.A.R.R., but today I remember this epic two-parter, which establishes the goatee-wearing Garthe Knight as Michael’s “antithesis,” his twisted, evil reflection.

In the case of “Goliath,” there’s actually a good reason why Michael so closely resembles Garthe.  Garthe is the son of Wilton Knight and has been spending time in prison…three life sentences to be precise.  Michael’s face, you my recall, was reconstructed by the Knight Foundation in the pilot episode. We learn in this episode that the model for that surgery was…Garthe.  

That’s a good explanation, and it doesn’t rate as terribly unbelievable. Since Michael has Wilton’s last name, it makes sense, in some way, that he would also have the face of his benefactor’s beloved (if wayward…) son too. Michael is the son that Wilton wanted; Garthe is the one that he ended up with.

“Goliath” is structured so that a major battle recurs.  

At the end of part one, K.I.T.T. and Goliath play chicken, headed straight for one another on a desert road.  K.I.T.T. gets struck by heavily armored truck, and is damaged badly. “I’m afraid we zigged when we should have zagged,” he reports to Michael.  

Echoing the earlier confrontation, the finale of the second part features a rematch between the two vehicles (and their crack’d mirror drivers).  In this case, of course, K.I.T.T. is triumphant, utilizing a laser to pinpoint Goliath’s weak spot. The results of the duels (in both cases) are not unexpected, and yet they are well-orchestrated, and surprisingly suspenseful. I remember film and critics of the 1970s and 1980s complaining endlessly about the ubiquitous nature of car chases and car crashes back in the day, but today these clashes are welcome. For one thing, there's no C.G.I. And for another the stunts are beautifully executed and filmed.

Rationally,  of course, the audience knows Michael and K.I.T.T. will eventually carry the day, and yet when K.I.T.T. is knocked over on his side and left for dead in the desert, you feel it in your gut.

Just a car? No…he’s a driver (and a kid’s…) best friend.

The most intriguing moment of the whole two-part episode occurs following K.I.T.T.’s injury. He makes a heart-felt query to Michael: “Do you think it is possible I could cease to exist?” 

We  thus see the self-aware vehicle (personality) reckoning with the idea of his own mortality, and what that could mean.

The Garthe vs. Michael rivalry in "Goliath" is handled with flair, and good stunt doubles for the most part.  As Garthe, Hasselhoff actually seems to stand taller, and similarly, is a snazzier dresser.  Perhaps it’s just that director Winrich Kolbe picks good angles to show-case the villain, often featuring him in motion, or capturing his action from a slightly lowered (and therefore more imposing) angle.

I watched Knight Rider regularly when I was twelve and thirteen years old, so my affection for it is nostalgic (it brings back good memories), but also technical: I love K.I.T.T.  The best stories, I always felt, where those in which K.I.T.T. and Michael had to go up against a vehicle that rival ed K.I.T.T.’s strength.  Hence my focus this week on K.A.R.R. and Goliath. 

I’m pleased to say that today, “Goliath” retains its entertainment value, and comes off as…very well-assembled.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Planet of the Apes TV Series Blogging: "The Horse Race" (November 8, 1974)

 In “The Horse Race,” General Urko (Mark Lenard) continues to operate an illicit operation under Zaius's nose. 

Specifically, Urko has been terrorizing local ape prefects via a gambling operation. He challenges these apes of means to a horse race, and then takes half-of-their-wealth, legally, when they lose against his fast horse.

Now, Prefect Barlow (John Hoyt) is the next in line to be conned into a losing horse race, at least until Alan Virdon (Ron Harper) proves that he is the one jockey who can defeat Urko’s horse. 

Unfortunately, it is illegal for humans to ride horses on the planet of the apes.

At the same time that this crisis unfolds, Galen is stung by a scorpion, and a local blacksmith’s (Morgan Woodward) son must ride a horse to retrieve the necessary medicine.  

Unfortunately, he is captured, and scheduled for execution for his transgression.

Barlow makes a deal with Urko: if his horse wins, the boy will go free…

After last week’s clever and allegorical story about race hatred ("The Deception"), Planet of the Apes (1974) falls back to Earth with the potboiler, “The Horse Race.”  

Basically, this short-lived TV series has two modes of operation. One mode tells a story, and also -- at the same time -- makes a point or offers commentary about race relations.  

The other type of story is basically a time-waster in which humans outsmart the talking apes with their superiority.  "The Horse Race" is the latter type.

Here, for example, a human being, Alan Virdon, proves that he is the best jockey around, so as to win a horse race, and stick it to Urko. 

The problem, of course, is that Virdon is an astronaut, not a jockey, and he no doubt boasts less experience than Urko’s best jockey…who runs this con for a living, basically.  

But this story demands that the “superior” humans defeat the apes, and that’s precisely what occurs here. It’s not only predictable, it’s insipid.  Are we such insecure beings that we must believe a person of our time and place must be superior to all others, even if they have superior experience and abilities?  The same notion of 20th century “American Exceptionalism” infects Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981), as I frequently point out.

Here, matters are made even worse in terms of the episode's believability. 

Virdon is thrown from his steed just before the race starts, and lands in mud.  The mud successfully obscures his identity so that Urko can’t recognize him as a fugitive astronaut during the race. Uh-huh.  
It might have been preferable for Urko simply not to recognize Virdon since, as he has said before that all humans look alike to him.  At least then, Virdon’s disguise wouldn’t have been random, or a matter of coincidence, and the series would have continued to study bigotry.  This way, it's just dumb luck that Urko fails to recognize the astronaut.

But more to the point, is it at all realistic that the human astronauts should continue to put themselves in such high jeopardy for strangers?  

It’s a regurgitation of The Fugitive’s format here, but in this case, matters are truly life and death.  Why would Virdon risk being discovered?

As usual, the series is well-cast, with John Hoyt and Morgan Woodward both fashioning memorable characters in "The Horse Race." But the script (by Booker Bradshaw and David P. Lewis) is largely undistinguished.  I don’t think the question is ever answered here: why do we need to see this story?  How does it contribute to the overall narrative and character development?

The only answer I come up with involves Urko. This episode proves that he’s corrupt as well as a racist. Yet, alas, this doesn’t jibe well with upcoming stories. 

In “The Tyrant,” the human fugitives and Galen go to General Urko in hopes that he will fairly arbitrate a dispute with a corrupt gorilla named Aboro. Why should they expect, after the events of this episode, that Urko would ever treat them fairly?

Although “The Horse Race” was reportedly Ron Harper’s favorite episode of the series, his sentiment is not shared by this author. In fact, I suspect that it is potboiler episodes like this one -- stories that do nothing to move the overall narrative forward -- that alienated prime time audiences in the mid-1970’s.

Next week, a better show arrives: “The Interrogation.”

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Action Figures of the Week: Stargate (1994 Hasbro)

Who would have guessed that a relatively-unsuccessful genre film released during the Christmas holiday of 1994 would evolve into one of the most popular sci-fi TV franchises of the new millennium? 

I'm speaking, of course, about Stargate (1994). The big-budget film, -- which starred Kurt Russell, James Spader and Jaye Davidson (the She Male from The Crying Game ) -- was only a modest success during its original theatrical run...but spawned a TV franchise that ran over a decade, and included at least three titles.

In 1994, Hasbro released a whole line of toys related to the original movie.

The box art work implored would-be buyers to "Travel through the STARGATE and discover a distant galaxy where a doorway to adventure unlocks the mysteries of another world!"

Among the Stargate toys released by Hasbro were an "all terrain cruiser" (replete with "shooting alien blaster!") that Kurt Russell could pilot. 

I get a kick out of the box art work, in which Russell is driving this military dune-buggy with one hand while simultaneously firing an uzi with the other hand (and wearing a beret!) 

This cruiser also came complete with two communication antennas, roll bars (w/missile launcher), an "armor-plated body," and a "video cam recorder." It also had "all-terrain sand dune tires." 

Another interesting Stargate toy was the Mastadge, an alien "beast of burden" (like a cross between a camel and a woolly mammoth.) This happy-go-lucky guy came complete with a "shooting catapult launcher."

Also, this toy was equipped with a "removable shepherd's saddle" and a "customized mastadge transport sled." 

A card on the back of the box provided more mega-Mastadgy-type data, informing us that Mastadges "serve the villagers of Nagada," and that they are "loyal animals capable of withstanding the brutal sandstorms of planet Abydos. They can each reach speeds of up to 35 mph over the planet's desert landscape, making them an excellent form of transportation."

A third toy was the "winged glider" (which I don't own, alas...) but which was sold with "firing missile launchers."

In toto, Hasbro produced eight action figures to go with these toys: Archaeologist Daniel Jackson (Spader), Colonel O'Neil (Russell), Ra (Ruler of Abydos), Palace Guard Horus, Anubis, Attack Pilot Horus, Lt. Kawalsky and Skaara.

Also, on the back of the toy boxes were these funny little questions which could only be answered if you decoded the hieroglyphs. One such question: "In which country are the pyramids located?"

Young buyers were enticed to "collect all 8 figure cards to complete the hieroglyphic alphabet."

Video Game of the Week: Stargate (Sega Genesis; 1994)

Board Game of the Week: Stargate SG-1 (Fleet Games)

Model Kits of the Week: Stargate (1994)

Trading Cards of the Week; Stargate (1994)

Theme Song of the Week: Stargate SG-1 (1997 - 2007)

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Empath" (December 6, 1968)

Stardate: 5121.5

The Enterprise visits Minara II, a planet whose star is nearing a critical stage before nova. The Federation scientists stationed on the inhospitable surface of the planet -- Ozaba (Davis Roberts) and Linke (Jason Wingreen) -- have vanished without a trace.

The Enterprise is forced to break orbit because of solar activity, and the landing party -- consisting of Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley) -- also vanishes, abducted by inscrutable alien experimenters: the Vians.

The Vians have captured the crew men in a vast laboratory 120 meters below the planet’s surface. There, they hope to see what impact the Enterprise officers can have on their ward, Gem (Kathryn Hays), a mute empath with the incredible ability to heal the wounds of others.

When the Vians physically torture Kirk and McCoy, Gem is encouraged to help them, just as she has seen Kirk, Spock, and McCoy demonstrate friendship, loyalty, and sacrifice for one another during this crisis.

When the Vians plan to bring McCoy to the point of death, Captain Kirk and Spock must not only encourage Gem to reveal her humanity and save him, but they must also ask the Vians to demonstrate that quality as well,

Although at times stagy and operatic, “The Empath” is another "high concept" --- and terrific -- episode of Star Trek’s (1966-1969) third season. 

The episode’s deficits are visual, and therefore plain for all to see: a large black sound-stage doubles as a surreal alien laboratory (shades of Lost in Space!), and Kathryn Hays’ sometimes exaggerated performance seems almost silent-movie style..

Yet, even these deficits might be interpreted as strengths if viewed from the right perspective. 

The lack of meaningful background technology -- or even decoration -- suggests both the alien-ness of the Vian habitat, and forces audiences to focus on the story’s theme, which concerns above all, the friendship of the series’ heroic triumvirate: Kirk-Spock-McCoy.  There's very little background "noise" to detract from the actual storytelling here.

Secondly, Hays performance may strike some cynical viewers as overly florid or purple, yet she also creates moments of extreme tenderness and sensitivity in "The Empath." Her expressive, porcelain visage proves quite unforgettable and haunting, and it is upsetting to see it marred by the “wounds” the Vians create. There's a quality of vulnerability about the character that makes her suffering difficult to bear.

I suspect that if one can accept the nature of Hays’ physical performance, and the lack of good production values in the laboratory set, the viewer will find much of interest in this particular tale. Again, it is incumbent on us to be engaged with the material, and the episode's mise en scene.

In fact, “The Empath” is -- to coin a phrase -- pure “triumvirate porn.”  In a very real sense, the story explicitly concerns the suffering that Kirk, Spock and McCoy will endure to spare their friends physical and mental pain. 

The episode -- banned in some countries for years, if not decades -- revels in the sadistic treatment of these beloved characters (a commonality with the less successful installment, “Plato’s Stepchildren,”) and showcases their ability to persevere against the odds, and in the face of pain.

Afterwards, the characters are hailed in the episode for their special bond, and credited with imbuing Gem with the qualities that will make her species worth saving. “Your will to survive. Your love of life. Your passion to know,” the Vians enumerate.  

What they don’t say, but should, is that Kirk, Spock, and McCoy risk death and grievous pain to help the others. They never give up on one another, and they never surrender to their own weaknesses.

McCoy’s importance to the character triumvirate or triangle is given special attention in “The Empath.” 

First, McCoy outmaneuvers Spock, so that the doctor can be the one to endure the painful trials, and die. In doing this, he spares Spock unbelievable pain and suffering. Also, Bones simultaneously spares Kirk the agony of choosing which of his two officers should suffer and be killed. 

Later, McCoy also refuses Gem’s help, aware that if he accepts her empath's touch, she will, in all likelihood, die from the injuries he has sustained.  “I can’t destroy life, even if it’s to save my own,” he says, pushing Gem away.

In both instances, we see clearly McCoy’s empathy. One might even formulate an argument that he is the "empath" of the episode title. Consider that McCoy puts himself in Spock’s shoes, in Kirk’s shoes, and ultimately in Gem’s too. He can see how his actions -- and his alone -- could save all of them, and he doesn’t just talk the talk. He sticks to his ideals (though Gem ultimately saves him).

Kirk is also handled well in the episode too, and in a fashion that excavates the captain’s particular brand of bravery. He is more than willing to die (bare chested, of course…) to save his friends, but he does have one final request: he wishes for his death to carry a purpose.  “If my death is to have any meaning, at least tell me what I’m dying for,” he implores. Kirk accepts his death as inevitable, in other words, but still acts, in his final moments, as an explorer of sorts. He must know what is on the other side of the mountain (death), and in this case, that means understanding the reason for his final journey.

In toto, “The Empath,” written by Joyce Muskat and directed by John Erman, is elegantly constructed as a narrative. 

The triumvirate (Kirk-Spock-McCoy) ignites the spark of compassion and love in Gem, who shall spread that spark to her people.  In the same story, the triangle re-awakens those same, atavistic feelings in the Vians, who have become so cold, brittle, and remote that they no longer are affected by the emotional trials they force others to endure.  

The triumvirate, in other words, impacts everyone it encounters, and in a positive way. The dynamics of the trio both give birth to feelings of empathy and self-sacrifice, and rekindle those feelings for those in whom they have withered and died.

There may be no better exploration of the triumvirate (although another third season show, “The Tholian Web," is a likely contender…) than the one found in this tale. In “The Empath,” we see Kirk, without thought for himself, order McCoy and Spock to safety, while he negotiates to remain behind, and experimented on by the Vians. 

We see Spock, without missing a beat, “request permission” to be the one to remain, as if his sacrifice would simply be a matter of logic.  

And we see McCoy, as enumerated above, tending to the mental and physical well-being of his friends.

In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), Sybok states that the “bond” between Kirk, Spock and McCoy is “strong…difficult to penetrate,” and “The Empath" reveals to audience just how powerful that bond truly is.

I made a joke above about this episode being triumvirate porn, because it concerns each point in the triumvirate offering himself up for the others, and facing physical sensations of agony for that choice. In our culture, we don’t have a good name for the kind of love we see demonstrated in the heroic triangle, so it is natural, if not necessarily correct, to relate it to physical, romantic or sexual love. Indeed, there is much “slash” fiction about these three characters engaging in a sexual relationship (and sometimes a sadomasochistic sexual relationship, to boot). The plain fact of the matter is that Kirk, Spock and McCoy love each other in a way that goes beyond brotherhood and family, but that isn’t romantic, either.  

These three men -- in combination the id, ego, and superego  -- create a kind of perfect “corporate” human, and “The Empath” showcases the lengths to which each point in the triangle will go to save his friends. It is a beautiful episode for its recognition and development of this love, and also for the idea that such a bond can be modeled, and taught to those who are without love, or who do not understand its nature.

This message is so much more powerful than the occasional visual distractions in performance or production value. 

I know...there are plenty of viewers out there who complain that "The Empath" is depressing, or boring, or sadistic. They will write that Shatner overacts his scenes (particularly the slow-motion collapse on the surface). And yet all this criticism, I believe, stems from the episode’s uncomfortable nature and exploration of love. “The Empath” demands recognition that the Kirk-Spock-McCoy bond is a form of love, and for some that is just a bridge too far.

The aliens in this episode put the crew through Hell (but are not “light” and "jokey" about their sadism in the way that the Platonians are), and go unpunished for their actions, and I suppose that also disappoints some viewers, who are looking for some form of “justice” here. 

What they fail to detect is that the Vians do get  a comeuppance. In the final scenes, they are forced to reckon with all the emotions they had discarded and considered primitive. These intellectuals realize they are not above the emotional ebb and flow of lower beings in the universe, but still a part of it.

Finally, we must always remember that some science fiction and some Star Trek fans possess a special brand of of self-loathing. It is this impulse that is at the heart of the rejection of the Wesley Crusher character; fans couldn't stand to see a kid or teenager -- themselves, in some cases -- reflected in-universe. Instead of seeing the character as a point of identification, they saw him as someone to destroy. They were, in essence, destroying the "self" they saw in the mirror, and hated.

So I am certain that there are those out there who will claim that since "The Empath" is written by a Star Trek fan, it is somehow a Mary Sue story, or some such thing.  Hopefully this review addresses, instead, the depth and clarity of "The Empath's" narratives and themes, and its exploration of the triumvirate's unique dynamic.

All these touches make “The Empath” a “pearl of great price,” and a highly unusual addition to Star Trek canon.

Next week: “Elaan of Troyius.”