“The Secret Sceptre Affair”: Napoleon and Illya parachute into a nameless Mideastern country to help Solo’s old colonel from Korea, Col. Morgan (Gene Raymond), who’s accused the nation’s Premier Karim (Jack Donner) of planning a coup which he intends to thwart. UNCLE has found no proof of his allegations, but allowed Solo to come on a personal mission. Morgan convinces him to join him in stealing the royal sceptre that the nation’s “primitive tribesmen” hold sacred, following whoever holds it “as if he were Allah himself” — which isn’t remotely how Islam works — so that Karim will lose his claim to power. Although it’s rather blatantly telegraphed that Morgan is up to something and Solo hasn’t been told the whole truth — and that Karim is clueless about the treachery of his own imperious, Celia Lovsky-esque mother (Lili Darvas). The innocent of the week is Zia (Ziva Rodann), a female soldier in Morgan’s outfit who’s unaware of Morgan’s secrets and who helps Solo try to escape after the theft — though Illya gets captured and Solo takes a detour to free him. It’s refreshing for the innocent to be someone who has a legitimate reason to be involved in events rather than a civilian who gets caught up in them somehow.
I didn’t find this one very well-written; the secrets are too obvious, and the attempts to make Illya sound profound just come off as meaningless. And the whole thing about Solo’s trusted mentor being unworthy of his trust makes Solo seem more gullible than sympathetic. There’s also a gratuitous deathtrap involving a bear pit, of all things, though at least they mostly keep the guy in the bear suit behind a cage door so that the fakery isn’t too obvious. Still, it’s a guy in a bear suit for no good reason. The score, credited to Jerry Goldsmith and Morton Stevens, is evidently stock, which seems to hold true for the next few episodes as well.
“The Bow-Wow Affair”: It’s our first episode that sidelines Napoleon in favor of Illya, as Solo, who’s emerged unscathed from battles with spies and mobsters, has been brought low by tripping over the office cat and spraining his knee. (Unfortunately the cat is never seen.) But he’s not the only one with animal problems. Waverly asks him to look into a threat received by a distant cousin — actually Leo G. Carroll in a dual role, though his performance isn’t greatly different. The threat involved a “Gypsy” dagger, and that’s been established before as a culture Illya knows well. And apparently someone is after some valuable stock that the cousin owns. Illya fails to save the lookalike cousin from being mauled to death by his own guard dog, and the investigation reveals that all the stockholders in the company are being attacked by their own dogs either to get them out of the way or scare them into selling their stock (and why do they all own dogs?). Yet the cousin’s slightly ditzy daughter Alice (Susan Oliver) is too busy flirting with Illya — successfully, for a change — to be bothered with grieving for her horribly murdered father. The episode overall is played for humor, and there’s a fun sequence where Illya and Alice consult with a dog expert (Pat Harrington, Jr.) for advice on how to deal with the attack dogs, and the number of (friendly) dogs in the scene keeps multiplying to a nearly tribble-like degree.
Remember how I said that the last “Gypsy”-focused episode was relatively respectful and light on negative stereotypes for a ’60s show? Well, this one’s the opposite. Here, the “Gypsies” are not only villains and charlatans, but possess eldritch power over animals, according to the dog expert. The nominal main villain, Delgrovia (Paul Lambert), initially shows up in a Dracula cape and seems quite menacing, but he’s almost passive in the climactic scenes, with more attention paid overall to Delilah (Antoinette Bower), one of the scammers, who initially shows up as a fortune-teller to try to frighten Waverly’s cousin, and ends up in a catfight with Oliver in the final act.
Despite the conceptual/cultural problems, though, this is actually a rather charming and witty episode by Alan Caillou, with a number of good gags and moments. And it’s nice to see Illya get the spotlight for once. Plus there’s a startling number of Star Trek guests here — not only Oliver and Bower, but bit players Tom Troupe, Reggie Nalder, and George Sawaya. Another notable guest is Leigh Chapman, who takes over from May Heatherly as UNCLE’s resident office babe/tech advisor; she appeared as “Receptionist” two episodes before, but here gets a promotion and a name, Sarah. She’ll be in four more episodes.
“The Four-Steps Affair”: We open with sexy THRUSH agent Angela (Luciana Paluzzi) tricking an UNCLE operative to his death. The operative’s name is Dancer — perhaps a relative of future Girl from UNCLE April Dancer? (Though the name is awkwardly overdubbed in some shots, suggesting it was changed after they were shot.) Anyway, he manages to get a partial message to Waverly before he’s cut off, and Waverly and Illya deduce its meaning with very little assistance from the somewhat vacuous agent Kitt Kittredge (overplayed by Donald Harron with a fake English accent). Infuriatingly, the show’s tendency to treat all Asia as one big jumble is worse than ever here: Dancer uses a line from the Rubaiyat, a Persian poem, as a code for Miki (Michel Petit), the 10-year-old reincarnated lama of a Himalayan country, and somehow Illya is able to deduce the meaning of this huge geographical non sequitur. Illya and Kittridge retrieve the boy, his nurse, and his regent or “potentate” Kaza (Malachi Throne) from a safehouse, but Illya, the boy, and the nurse are captured by THRUSH. Meanwhile, Solo has the more pleasant job of playing cat-and-mouse with Angela, who tries to seduce him into the same trap, though he’s more suspicious than Dancer was. Of course, he manages to keep up the flirty banter while keeping his guard up otherwise.
This is the second episode scripted by Peter Allan Fields, so I was expecting something good. I suppose if you can look past the geographical and cultural ignorance on display, it’s a decent episode, with some fun banter here and there, but overall it doesn’t hold together very well. The main appeal is Paluzzi’s Angela, who’s very nice to watch.
“The See-Paris-And-Die Affair”: The Van Schreeten brothers, Max (Lloyd Bochner) and Josef (Gerald Mohr), are petty criminals who’ve stolen enough diamonds to flood the market and crash prices, and are blackmailing the mob to pay them off regularly lest they release the diamonds. UNCLE wants to retrieve the diamonds and prevent the economic catastrophe or something. So Napoleon recruits the weekly innocent, Mary Pilgrim, a woman that both brothers desire and that Max has arranged to bring over to his Paris nightclub. It’s basically the same premise as the pilot, using the villain’s old girlfriend as a mole. Mary is played by Kathryn Hays, whom I’ve always known as the mute Gem in Star Trek‘s “The Empath,” and I think this is the first time I’ve ever heard her speak. I’d always kind of thought she was solely a dancer/mime and was hired for that purpose, but here she not only acts, she sings as well. Her voice is nothing like I would’ve expected, a salty, brassy alto, and her manner here is totally unlike the sad and poignant Gem, bright and lively with a big, adorable grin that she deploys at the slightest provocation.
Anyway, our UNCLE boys are competing with a THRUSH agent played by Alfred Ryder, another Trek guest (“The Man Trap”), and his boss, Kevin Hagen of Land of the Giants. No doubt THRUSH wants the diamonds for more nefarious reasons. So it’s a jolly chase between the two with lots of schemes and counterschemes, with Solo being unusually forceful about getting what he wants, but at his most impish while doing so. (At one point Mary’s overprotective voice teacher sics the police on Solo for supposedly kidnapping Mary, so he steals the police car at gunpoint, but before leaving he delivers the disclaimer, “In no way do I represent America’s foreign policy.”) I recently read a suggestion that David Tennant would be a better choice than Tom Cruise to play Solo in the recently-announced movie remake, and I could totally see that as I watched Robert Vaughn here.
Anyway, the whole thing leads to Max scarpering with both the diamonds and Mary (without consulting her about the sudden elopement), ultimately leading to a well-done action sequence with a helicopter chasing a van. And Mary acquits herself very nicely in dealing with Max and the cops while Solo and Illya are otherwise occupied. All in all, it’s quite a fun and madcap adventure, with lively dialogue courtesy of Peter Allan Fields once again. The music is credited to Scharf and Stevens, and there seem to be some new bits that are recognizably Scharf-like, as well as a fair amount of nightclub source music performed by a guest group called The Gallants. They’re credited with doing an arrangement of the main theme, but it must’ve been hidden in the background of a nightclub scene somewhere. Hays herself sings a song from the MGM library, “It’s a Most Unusual Day” by Jimmy McHugh and Harold Adamson.
“The Brain-Killer Affair”: When Director Waverly gets too close to identifying a pattern of important smart people suddenly losing competence, THRUSH poisons him so he’ll be taken to a clinic they control, where they plan to perform the same endumbening operation on him so he’ll undermine UNCLE from the inside. The mastermind of this subtle “assassination” method is Dr. Agnes Dabree, played by Elsa Lanchester wearing a frizzy, skunk-striped hairstyle that’s a clear homage to her defining role as the Bride of Frankenstein (though more backswept). She’s set up as a recurring villain, but is never seen again in the series. The innocent is Cecille (Batgirl herself, Yvonne Craig!), whose mentally crippled, mute brother was named by Waverly before he passed out, leading Solo to investigate. There’s a rather uninteresting thread where she’s resistant to cooperation and Solo keeps paying her off with bigger and bigger sums, leading her to become more and more enamored with money — not leading to any sort of lesson, even. It’s rather a waste of Craig’s talents — though I had no idea what a prodigious screamer she was (as we discover when she’s captured by Dabree).
This isn’t a very good episode, and I found myself particularly annoyed by how casually Solo waved a loaded gun around in various scenes — even pointing the barrel directly at Waverly’s head while checking his pulse after he’s poisoned. Vaughn and the director are treating his gun as a prop rather than a deadly weapon, and it undermines the illusion. But the episode surpasses even “Bow-Wow” for the number of Star Trek guests it features. In addition to Craig, we’ve got David Hurst, Nancy Kovack, and Mickey Morton as Dabree’s assistants, Abraham Sofaer as the substitute UNCLE director flown in from Calcutta when Waverly’s compromised (a nice bit of organizational exposition), Liam Sullivan as one of the “brain-assassination” victims, and even Bill Quinn (McCoy’s father from ST V) as a waiter. The only credited guests who weren’t in Trek were Lanchester, Henry Beckman as an UNCLE doctor, and Rosey Grier as an UNCLE bodyguard. Plus Trek’s second-pilot director James Goldstone directs, and Jerry Goldsmith contributes a few minutes of what sounds to me like new music and a lot of stock cues.
“The Hong Kong Shilling Affair”: Uh-oh. This show doesn’t do well with anything Asian. Anyway, this time, Napoleon and Illya are following a courier, Max, who’s with the Bondishly named Heavenly Cortelle (Karen Sharpe) while delivering a stolen item to a criminal organization that auctions state secrets to the highest bidder. For reasons I’m still not clear on, Max is attacked by the organization’s henchman (future Bond uber-henchman Richard Kiel). A passing student, Bernie (Glenn Corbett), sees the fight and runs in to be a good samaritan, but gets so distracted by ogling Heavenly that he lets Max get stabbed to death before he finally intervenes. This gets him mistaken for Max’s partner by everyone involved, including UNCLE at first. He tells them Max’s dying words that he was killed for a pine tree shilling, and why a single coin is so valuable is the mystery of the episode, along with its whereabouts and the identity of the villains’ unseen leader Apricot — though the latter two mysteries share a very obvious solution.
Solo recruits Bernie to spy on Heavenly and find out more, with strict instructions that Bernie blithely ignores, getting himself into bigger trouble and requiring his rescue. He continues to make matters worse through his bullheadedness and his growing (and reciprocal) crush on Heavenly, whose own loyalties and agendas are themselves a mystery. But he and a captured Solo manage to learn the identity of an incoming bidder, and Solo and Illya intercept him at the airport.
Here’s where it gets problematical. The bidder is a Mongolian warlord, and Illya impersonates him through heavy makeup and an accent — plus his voice is processed to sound a bit echoey and staticky, perhaps in an attempt to disguise McCallum’s voice, though it just makes it all the more obviously faked to the audience. The weird voice treatment is almost as annoying and unpleasant as the yellowface acting, though not as offensive. I mean, seriously — we’re shown that Hong Kong has its own UNCLE branch office, so shouldn’t they have agents of the right ethnicity to pull off a more believable impersonation, rather than sticking a Russian in unconvincing makeup?
All in all, it’s kind of a mess, and Bernie is the most unsympathetic “innocent” in the series so far (though Cecille was kind of unsympathetic too, with only Yvonne Craig’s innate charm redeeming the character). They did a decent job making part of the MGM backlot look like a Hong Kong harbor, with some help from stock footage, but really, I wish this show would just avoid portraying Asia altogether, because they’re terrible at it. The music is credited to Stevens, and it’s mostly in his generic-Oriental vein that we’ve heard before — if not the same cues, then at least the same style that’s hard to pin down to a particular culture. (Oh, and Solo is still casually pointing his gun at his friends and waving it around carelessly with his finger on the trigger. Now that I’ve noticed it, I can’t stop seeing it.)
I’ve recently finished a watch-through of the trilogy of films featuring the last of Universal Studios’ classic monsters, the Gill-Man: Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Revenge of the Creature (’55), and The Creature Walks Among Us (’56), courtesy of Netflix and a 2004 “Special Edition” 2-CD set that, oddly enough, is under the title of just the first film but contains both sequels as “bonus features” on disc 2. These are films that I haven’t seen in decades, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the third film, so I was able to come into them pretty fresh.
The original film, directed by Jack Arnold (The Incredible Shrinking Man, It Came From Outer Space), is based on a reputed South American legend of a half-fish, half-man that carried away native women, which producer William Alland heard from a guest at a party held by Orson Welles, IIRC. The movie Creature is based pretty closely on the legend. The first film portrays him as a missing link between sea life and land life, unchanged since the Devonian period some 400 million years ago — conveniently overlooking all the stages of life between fish and hominid, like amphibians, synapsids, mammals, and primates. It also claims that the whole Amazon rainforest is unchanged since the Devonian, which reflects a 1950s view of science — not only unaware of continental drift and the many climate changes the Earth has gone through in the interim, but unaware of findings that have only recently come to light (and are still not universally accepted), that the Amazon is not so much an untouched wilderness but one of the most expansive human-cultivated areas on Earth, essentially a vast orchard developed and managed by the native South Americans for many centuries before European contact, due to the unfeasibility of standard agriculture in that environment. (See Charles C. Mann’s book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus for more.)
Of course, one shouldn’t expect scientific accuracy from a Universal monster movie in the tradition of Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy. But what’s interesting about the Creature films is how non-supernatural the Gill-Man is, and how he’s approached throughout as a subject for scientific investigation, more a large, exotic animal to be captured and studied than a force of evil. True, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Invisible Man were creations of science, but it was a fanciful pseudoscience of an imaginary past, and both characters were more human than the Gill-Man.
And to me, that’s kind of the weakness of CftBL. The Gill-Man here is not a very impressive monster. He’s certainly well-designed, a great-looking creature, and very well-performed by Ricou Browning in the underwater scenes (Ben Chapman played him on land). And one has to admire the cutting-edge cinematography, with the filmmakers inventing the first portable underwater 3D camera and doing things that had never been done onscreen before. But since the Creature is more animal than monster, he doesn’t really have a lot of motivation or personality to make him interesting. In the documentary on the DVD, there were people talking about a “love story” between the Creature and female lead Julie Adams, but the Creature was too much of a blank slate for that to come across to me. I guess the idea was that he “fell in love” with her while watching her graceful swim in the beautiful but voyeuristic underwater sequence which is the highlight of the film and which both sequels copied. But it felt like the movie was just going through the motions — like the Creature’s only motivation for carrying Adams off is that that’s what ’50s movie monsters were obligated to do to beautiful women, whether it made any sense or not. (Also because the film was basically a knockoff of King Kong.)
And few monsters’ love/abduction interests have ever been as beautiful as Julie Adams. Really, I’d say that Adams is the highlight of the film, a stunning beauty who spends a lot of time in what for the era was a very daring, high-cut one-piece bathing suit. She’s a charming presence and more interesting than most of the rest of the human cast. (Although she was doubled by Ginger Stanley in the underwater footage, which was shot second-unit in Florida while the aboveground stuff was shot in Hollywood.) There is a fairly dull scientist-hero played by Richard Carlson, who was in a lot of sci-fi movies of the day, and a comparably dull heavy played by Richard Denning; Carlson is the compassionate scientist who just wants to study and understand the Creature in its natural habitat, even after it kills a bunch of people and kidnaps his girl, while Denning is the macho hunter who’d rather have him stuffed and mounted. (Genre stalwart Whit Bissell is also on hand as a scientific colleague, but is underutilized.) But Carlson comes off as more ineffectual than really heroic, and the film comes to a rather weak climax — though the ending is deliberately inconclusive, since a sequel was already planned.
I suppose you could say there’s a subtle theme of environmental abuse, with the explorers using heavyhanded tactics like drugging the lagoon in order to capture the creature; there’s even a shot where Adams tosses a cigarette butt in the water and we tilt down to see Gill-Man looking up with an attitude that reminds me of the iconic crying Indian in ’70s anti-pollution ads. So maybe the Creature’s motivation was supposed to be self-defense and retaliation against these heavy-handed invaders. But I’m not sure if that was intended or just a modern reading imposed on the film, since such harsh tactics were pretty typical of how scientists treated animals at the time.
This theme becomes clearer in the second film, Revenge of the Creature, also directed by Arnold. The film has an almost entirely new cast, aside from Browning returning as the underwater creature (Tom Hennessy takes over on land) and Nestor Paiva as the boat captain from the first film (whose main role is to recap that film’s plot for the audience). Yet despite this, it’s a pretty direct followup to the original, as a second expedition comes back to the Black Lagoon a year later and succeeds in capturing the Gill-Man (actually called that by name in this film, and I think only in this film), bringing him back to the “Oceanarium” in Florida for study and display. The Oceanarium is actually the Marineland aquarium, where much of the film was shot. Here, even more than in the first, the Creature is treated like an animal being studied by science rather than a conventional monster. Usually the monster is out there unseen, able to strike at any time, but here the Creature spends much of the film in captivity, being studied by the new leads, a scientist played rather blandly by John Agar and an ichthyology grad student played by Lori Nelson, who doesn’t hold a candle to Julie Adams. Their “study” involves chaining the Creature by the leg and shocking him with a bull prod (which somehow fails to shock them too even though they’re underwater with it) to teach him the meaning of “Stop.” So here it’s easier to understand why the Gill-Man gets enraged and fights back (echoes of Frankenstein’s Monster being tortured by Fritz in the 1931 Frankenstein), though his persistent stalking of Nelson once he’s escaped is just monster-movie formula again. Basically this was meant as the second half of the King Kong homage, but the fact that the surrogate Fay Wray is an entirely different character this time around makes it even harder to justify. You’d think, given that Nelson’s character was one of his jailers and torturers, that he’d sooner kill her than abduct her.
Overall, I find this the weakest film of the trilogy. Too much of it is just an extended infomercial for Marineland, padding that gets tiresome after a while. And the cast just isn’t as engaging this time around. Plus the ending has the same faults as the first film’s, with Agar’s hero not really accomplishing much in the climactic moment and the story just kind of fizzling out afterward.
(And yeah, here’s the obligatory mention that Clint Eastwood makes his film debut as a lab tech in the first act. Which doesn’t mean much to me personally, but yes, I am aware of it.)
Going by the DVD commentary, The Creature Walks Among Us (from first-time director John Sherwood) is apparently regarded as the weakest of the trilogy by many, and I didn’t expect to like it much, because its premise — the Creature being burned in a fire and somehow turned into a land-dwelling humanoid — seemed silly. But it turned out to be my favorite of the three. It reunites Rex Reason and Jeff Morrow, who had been in This Island Earth the previous year, as the male leads, alongside female lead Leigh Snowden, who’s not at Julie Adams levels of hotness or likeability but is comfortably in second place among this series’ leading ladies. And it has the most interesting character development of the three. Morrow is a borderline-mad scientist who wants to capture and experiment on the Creature, intending to transform it through surgery in the odd belief that this will alter its genetics too (I guess he’s a Lamarckian?), with an eye toward developing techniques to engineer humans for space colonization. (I find it intriguing that even in a movie having nothing to do with space, the characters were motivated by the idea of space travel. That says something about the ’50s.) Reason is a geneticist who believes in letting nature evolve at its own pace, humans included. (So Morrow is Dr. Moreau and Reason is the voice of reason. That’s easy to remember.) Morrow is also psychologically abusive and insanely jealous toward his wife (Snowden); she’s resolutely faithful to him, but he’s unable to see it and feels threatened both by Reason (who hits it off chastely with Snowden) and by an assistant (Gregg Palmer) who’s constantly hitting on Snowden without success. The DVD commentators call this padding, but I think it makes the characters richer, and Reason and Morrow’s debates about science and philosophy add some depth to the proceedings.
Anyway, the Creature’s original form is seen mostly through underwater footage shot but never used for the first movie — a clever bit of recycling. The DVD commentators claim there’s no footage of Browning swimming in the unmodified Gill-Man costume in this film, but they overlook one shot of the Creature hiding in the seaweed while the film’s three leads swim past. Otherwise, the only newly-made scene of the original-look creature is the brief one where he attacks the boat the explorers are in, whereupon he’s badly burned and taken captive. This burns away the outer scales and reveals a more humanoid anatomy within, and an unsuspected pair of lungs starts working (there’s some science behind this; a type of lungfish whose lungs are only seasonally in use is referenced). The land form of the Creature is played by Don Megowan.
And it’s when the Gill-Man becomes a land Creature that he begins to take on more personality. Not only is he more human in appearance, but being out of his element, he’s more helpless and dependent, and is affected when Reason shows him compassion, saving his life when he tries to dive back into the water without gills (and Browning makes his final appearance as the creature in this underwater sequence). He then becomes a spectator to Morrow and Palmer’s respective abuses of poor Snowden, and his role changes from the designated abductor of the film’s heroine to her defender, at one point saving her from attempted rape by Palmer’s character. It took three films, but the Creature has finally become sympathetic. And that further underlines how much these films treated him not as a monster, but as an animal, an entity that could be understood by science and even reconciled with through compassion. It reflects the era in which these films came out, the ’50s, when science had displaced the supernatural as the most powerful perceived force in the world, or at least in the world of cinema — when science was the source of both our greatest fears and our greatest hopes. Maybe that’s why the Gill-Man was the last of the Universal monsters. It certainly makes him one of the most unusual.
Walks Among Us is also the strongest film musically. The three fims were scored with a mix of stock music and new cues by various uncredited composers, including future Lost in Space composers Herman Stein and Hans J. Salter as well as a young, pre-fame Henry Mancini. Stein composed the Creature’s strident, rising three-note leitmotif, a shock cue which was used constantly throughout the first two films, less so in the third, while Salter did the main title cue that I think was used in all three films, or at least the first two. But it’s Mancini’s work that’s the most impressive. He does some beautiful work for the underwater scenes in the first film. I don’t think his music is used in the second, but the bulk of TCWAU’s music is original scoring by Mancini, and it’s very impressive stuff.
All in all, it’s impressive what a tight trilogy these films make. Even with all the cast changes, and even with the third film’s retcons about the Creature’s biology, there’s a remarkably cohesive narrative throughline to these films, an arc about human civilization intruding on an ancient part of nature, taking it out of its environment, mistreating it, and indelibly transforming it — until one voice of reason (or Reason) belatedly tries to treat it with respect and understanding, offering a tentative ray of hope for the future. I kind of regret that there was no followup to the third film; it might’ve been interesting to see the further development of the transformed Creature. But maybe it’s just as well that the series ended with three films, since further ones might not have fit together with their predecessors as smoothly as these three did. I think the first two films work better as chapters in this one big three-part saga than they do as standalone movies.
Still, in my ideal world, Rex Reason would’ve been the star of all three films, his character filling the Carlson and Agar roles in the previous ones (since they were all pretty much the same character) and providing continuity as the leading Gill-Man expert, and Julie Adams would’ve been the female lead in the second film as well as the first, with maybe a cameo in the third (Snowden’s role as Morrow’s wife is too important to the third film’s story for her to be replaced). Then again, the male leads do have different specialties in the three films: ichthyologist, animal psychologist, geneticist. It’s hard to say whether a single scientist could’ve played all three roles without some significant rewrites, and I’m reluctant to embrace Hollwyood’s tendency to treat all scientists as interchangeable polymaths. But Adams’s character could’ve been subbed for Nelson’s quite easily.
A note on the DVD commentaries: The first film’s commentary was done solo by film historian Tom Weaver, and was basically an ongoing monologue of historical background and film trivia. Some might find that boring, but I actually enjoyed the more scholarly approach to the analysis of the film. I wish more DVD commentaries were in that vein. In the second and third commentaries, Weaver was joined by Bob Burns, a major figure in classic genre-movie fandom and a veteran monster-suit wearer himself, while Lori Nelson joined them for the second film’s commentary. These were more in the standard conversational vein of commentaries, and I found the Revenge commentary to be the weakest of the three just as the film was, with far too much of Nelson and Burns relating anecdotes of their Hollywood experiences and far too little background and analysis of the film itself. The third commentary was somewhat better, but not as focused as the first, and I don’t think Weaver and Burns were as interested in the film as I was.
“The King of Knaves Affair”: Investigating a mysterious effort to buy uranium and the abduction of the racketeer making the offer, Solo and Kuryakin travel to Rome, where UNCLE HQ is situated behind the local branch of the Del Floria’s tailor franchise. (Clever to have identical UNCLE HQs all over the world, so the same standing sets can be used everywhere.) The local agents include Gemma (Arlene Martel, best known as Spock’s betrothed in Star Trek‘s “Amok Time”), who poses as Illya’s wife when they go undercover, and a receptionist who doubles as a dancer at the nightclub they investigate (played by belly dancer Tania Lemani, who uses a lot of the same dance moves she’ll use a few years later in ST’s “Wolf in the Fold”). The club’s proprietor is Fasik, a deposed Middle Eastern monarch played by the decidedly non-Middle Eastern Paul Stevens (a frequent Mission: Impossible guest, often playing characters impersonated by Martin Landau, whom he resembled). It turns out he’s building an army and recruiting allies as part of a genuinely clever multipronged plan to undermine the credibility, finances, and military strength of the populists who deposed him in order to pave the way for his reconquest. The innocent-of-the-week is Miss Pepper (Diana Millay), whom Solo suspects is a rival agent but who turns out to be a notary seeking the abducted racketeer’s signature on some document so some person back home won’t be rendered destitute — the explanation is very convoluted and not that important, mostly playing out in the background while Illya fights off an assassin on Solo’s balcony. It’s a fairly interesting episode overall — the villain’s plan really is most ingenious and alarmingly credible — but the show’s insistence on shoehorning an innocent civilian into every adventure is already starting to wear thin after just a baker’s dozen of episodes. It’s the sort of thing I feel would work better if they only did it when there was a good reason for it, rather than having to concoct all these contrived excuses to drag civilians into things every single time.
The episode makes effective use of the MGM backlot, including a castle courtyard set that we haven’t seen before on the show, though I expect we’ll see it again sometime. Jerry Goldsmith gets the music credit again, and this time I’m certain it’s a mostly or wholly original score. Some of the motifs are familiar, but from the thematic unity of the overall score and the way the music fits the action and editing, I’d say it’s not stock music, but Goldsmith developing his established motifs further. It’s a solid, effective score with a classic Goldsmithian flavor to the rhythms.
“The Terbuf Affair”: In a subtle bit of continuity, Napoleon and Illya are still in Rome on vacation, implicitly in the wake of their last mission. Napoleon is approached by old flame Clara (Madlyn Rhue, best known as Khan’s love Marla in ST: “Space Seed”), who seeks his help getting a “Gypsy” named Emil (Jacques Aubuchon) out of the Balkan country of Terbuf with proof of the corruption of its leader Col. Morisco (episode writer Alan Caillou). Clara is married now, but Solo still has a thing for her, and Illya determines he needs to go along to keep Solo anchored. But Clara confides in her husband Stefan, who turns out to be loyal to Morisco and tells him of the plan. Morisco doesn’t return his loyalty, having him imprisoned and ordering the smarmy Major Vicek (Albert Paulsen, whom I liked in his several Mission: Impossible appearances) to impersonate her husband, with the real Stefan held hostage to force her cooperation. Illya uses his familiarity with Roma culture to infiltrate the suspicious local “Gypsies” and convince them they can trust Solo with Emil. It’s an elaborate tale of plots, counterplots, false identities, arrests, abductions, rescues, and a couple of de-pantsings.
All in all, an entertaining story of intrigue, making further good use of MGM’s really impressive backlot (although I recognized one of the outdoor locations from the Kurt Russell episode, and it used the same interior prison set we just saw in “King of Knaves”). It makes up for last week’s contrived insertion of “the innocent” by having the innocent be the one who instigates the story in the first place. There are lots of familiar faces in the cast, including two more future Trek guests, Michael Forest and Rex Holman. The portrayal of the Roma is actually relatively positive for ’60s TV despite the use of the “Gypsy” label. And there’s a solid score (mostly new, I think) by Goldsmith and Walter Scharf.
Best of all, this episode is the strongest showing Illya’s had since episode 3, I’d say. Usually, even in episodes where Illya’s on the mission with Solo instead of sidelined back at HQ or whatever, he’s nonetheless been very much a second banana, with most of the focus being on Solo and his interaction with either the innocent or the villain. Here, though, he’s equal in prominence and importance to Solo, and we get a good feel for their friendship, the way their contrasts make them a good pairing. It’s not so different from the relationship Kirk and Spock would have in a little show that came along a few years later. It’s nice to see, and I hope it’s a harbinger of things to come.
“The Deadly Decoy Affair”: They’re playing with the opening again. There’s new music, and after the usual sequence of the shadowy figure shooting at Solo and cracking the pane of bulletproof glass in front of him — whereupon we usually get a freeze-frame for the episode title and then cut right to the main titles — instead Solo strolls out from behind the glass and gives the audience a little verbal teaser for the upcoming episode. Weird. I half-expected him to segue into talking about the sponsor’s product. Anyway, this is followed by a slightly modified arrangement of the main title theme, with the main melody a bit more clearly articulated than before. IMDb says Morton Stevens did the new arrangment.
The story is a comedy of errors as Solo and Kuryakin try to escort captured THRUSH lieutenant Stryker (Ralph Taeger) to Washington past a gauntlet of THRUSH agents trying to retake him, while Waverly leads a decoy intended to draw their fire, which proves unsuccessful — or does it? The way the innocent-of-the-week, Fran (Joanna Moore), gets dragged into the chase is the biggest contrivance yet, although I guess it’s forgivable since they were going for comedy. Illya gets left behind on a train and it becomes a three-person show as Solo and Stryker flirt with Fran and the three of them try to shake the relentless pursuers, and there’s a plot twist that became obvious to me about half an hour before it was revealed.
Kind of mediocre overall, with an underwhelming guest cast (and not just because it’s short on faces I find familiar). Its best feature is an all-new Walter Scharf score, the first one he’s done for this show that I’ve been impressed by, reminding me of some of his Mission: Impossible work.
“The Fiddlesticks Affair”: No talking to the audience this time, but we still get the Stevens arrangement of the main theme. The episode is another one that could be considered a proto-Mission: Impossible story: a casino heist to destroy THRUSH’s Western-hemisphere treasury, with Napoleon and Illya recruiting allies to form a team. They even have Lalo Schifrin doing the music, and his scoring during the heist portions is very reminiscent of some of his future M:I work. However, their recruits aren’t of the caliber that the IMF used. Their main specialist is a safecracker named Rudolph (Dan O’Herlihy) who gets pressured into helping and who’s more than willing to betray them to score points with THRUSH. The other is Susan (Marlyn Mason, herself a future M:I guest team member), a perky Midwestern girl trying to make a break from her wholesome life and do something scandalous, making her ripe for recruiting by Solo. (Though it’s rather startling that they’d draw a civilian into such danger rather than using a professional agent. What they need is some kind of, I dunno… girl from UNCLE, maybe. They should look into hiring one.)
Despite the sketchiness of the situation, it’s a fun, solid episode due mainly to a strong and clever script by future Columbo and Deep Space Nine scribe Peter Allan Fields. The character interplay and badinage between Napoleon and Illya is a lot of fun; this time out, we get the sense that the normally stoic Russian somewhat resents that Napoleon hogs the womanizing part of the mission all to himself. I didn’t care for some of the ridiculously implausible spy gadgets they used, though. For instance, a “treated” 100-dollar bill which, when placed in the casino vault, can somehow detect the turning of the combination lock and transmit the numbers to Solo’s receiver. Or a magnetic coating which, when rubbed onto ordinary dice, allows a special watch to control their rolls. Even with microcomputers and nanotechnology, that would be hard to pull off. In 1965, even with the sci-fi tech many spy shows used at the time, it’s just preposterous.
There’s a scary moment in the scene where Illya’s coercively recruiting Rudolph: David McCallum shoves O’Herlihy back onto the hotel-room bed, and it looks like O’Herlihy just misses hitting his head fairly hard on the corner of the bedside table. A centimeter more to his left and he could’ve really been hurt. He reaches back and puts his hand on the back of his head and goes “Sh…”, but then he recovers and they both just carry on with the take. A real trouper, O’Herlihy. And it makes the scene a lot more convincing.
“The Yellow Scarf Affair”: Oh, dear. It’s Napoleon Solo and the Temple of Doom, as Solo (without Illya) takes on the so-called Thuggee cult in India, replete with Western stereotypes about Hinduism, a lot of talk about how indigenous Indian culture is a relic of the past and how enlightened modernity equals Westernization, and plenty of non-Indian actors in brownface. It embraces the traditional media image of the Thuggees as a cult of assassins who preyed on travelers as a sacrifice to the “death” goddess Kali — in this case, a revived and modernized version in which they arrange plane and train crashes and the like and steal the victims’ valuables, including a top-secret lie-detector that an UNCLE agent had been bringing back home. Now, what I recall from Indian History class is that such cults of murderous fanatics were largely invented, or at least had their prevalence greatly overstated, by the British Raj in order to paint indigenous peoples as violent savages who needed British rule and Westernization to “civilize” them for their own protection. Even if they were real, they were an extreme fringe group whose practices were falsely held up as symbolic of Indian religion as a whole, and this episode is a classic example of that, implying that the Thuggee cult is synonymous with traditional Indian culture in order to paint that culture as primitive and well-forgotten.
The episode has other problems. For instance, the McGuffin’s case is said to have a nitroglycerin self-destruct capsule–quite implausible because the slightest jolt could set it off. What’s more, it gets jolted plenty in the climactic fight and nothing happens. Not to mention that Solo’s stunt double in said fight looks nothing like Robert Vaughn and there’s hardly any attempt made to conceal his face even by the standards of lower-resolution ’60s TV sets and broadcasts. Plus, while Morton Stevens’s music is generally good, he bizarrely uses a faux-Middle Eastern musical style to establish the Indian setting, presumably on the principle that American audiences would consider all things “Oriental” to be interchangeably exotic.
There are a few decent things about the episode, mainly Kamala Devi as the “innocent,” a flight attendant who helps Solo. Not only is she the only actual Indian performer playing an Indian character, but she’s quite lovely and delicately appealing, though she doesn’t show a lot of range as an actress. (And it’s quite silly seeing Murray Matheson standing next to her as her uncle — it just throws his cheesy brownface makeup into sharp relief.) There’s also an entertaining turn by Linden Chiles as the world’s most affable THRUSH agent, alternately competing and cooperating with Solo to retrieve the McGuffin from the cultists (a formula the show has used before). But my favorite part is probably Madge Blake’s brief appearance at the beginning, passing the McGuffin to the ill-fated agent. Aunt Harriet is a secret agent! The aunt from UNCLE! How awesome is that?
“The Mad, Mad Tea Party Affair”: Time for a bottle show, set mostly on the standing sets of UNCLE HQ and Del Floria’s tailor shop. UNCLE is preparing for a secret summit of world leaders, and a THRUSH mole within HQ, Riley (Peter Haskell), is planning to blow them all up — following a plan masterminded by Dr. Egret (Lee Meriwether), who’s narcissistic enough to demand that Riley join her in narrating the entire plan for the audience’s benefit, a deeply awkward scene. But a third party, an eccentric older man named Hemingway (Richard Haydn), is launching his own campaign against HQ, a series of seemingly harmless but high-tech pranks that expose some serious gaps in their security system — and it’s not hard to guess that that’s his whole intention. One of his pranks is to trick a random innocent, Kay (Zohra Lampert, whose voice I found very annoying), into the changing booth at Del Floria’s and through the secret HQ entrance therein. Kay is initially terrified, since for some reason UNCLE, the spy agency whose agents constantly go around telling people who they are and discussing secret missions at crowded parties, and whose HQ location is already well-known to their enemies, are suddenly so hyper-secretive that they refuse even to tell Kay who they are and where she is. But Kay turns out to be the second innocent in the past three weeks (and at least the fifth this season) to be tired of her ordinary life and thrilled by the chance to get involved in excitement and intrigue. It’s getting a bit repetitive, guys!
So yeah, you can tell I’m not enthralled by this one. It has some decent ideas, but the execution has a lot of flaws — particularly in the climax, where the bomb’s trigger device, which is supposed to be innocuous and understood to be a detonator only by Riley himself, is shown sizzling and smoking for a good 20 seconds or more, long enough that anyone could figure it out. Plus it criminally underuses Lee Meriwether, who’s only in one scene plus a voiceover later.
The music is credited to Goldsmith and Stevens, and is mostly built around familiar motifs, but at least some of it seems newly arranged and tailored to the scenes.
I finally decided to buy the print-on-demand DVDs of Genesis II and Planet Earth, two of the failed SF pilot movies that Star Trek‘s Gene Roddenberry wrote and produced in the early ’70s. I used to have them on videotape, but I apparently lost the tape somewhere along the line, so this was the only way I’d get to see them again, and I found a place where I could get them pretty cheaply.
Genesis II (1973) was Roddenberry’s attempt to do another series built around the “thousand worlds” premise of ST, a team of heroes travelling to a different exotic society or environment each week. In this case, it was a post-apocalyptic future where the survivors of global nuclear war had fragmented into multiple diverse, bizarre societies — but, with typical Roddenberry optimism, the fall of civilization had cleansed the planet and let it (eventually) become a pristine paradise again. The hero was Dylan Hunt (played here by Alex Cord), a 20th-century scientist trapped in a suspended-animation experiment in 1979, and revived in 2133 by a society called Pax, nominally dedicated to rebuilding and restoring the best of civilization. But the woman who nurses him back to health, Lyra-a (Mariette Hartley), belongs to a civilization of superhuman mutants called Tyranians, and she claims Pax are aspiring conquerors and helps Dylan escape from them — whereupon he soon finds that Tyrania isn’t the paradise she claimed. (Really, a name like Tyrania is kind of a giveaway.) The cast also included Percy Rodriguez (Commodore Stone from ST: “Court-martial”) as the Pax leader, Primus Isaac Kimbridge, and genre stalwart Ted Cassidy as Isiah — the most unfortunate part of the film, supposedly a “white Comanche” who speaks in stereotyped TV-Indian broken English.
The premise made use of a vehicle called the subshuttle, essentially an underground bullet train system started in Dylan’s time (when fear of war had made aboveground transport seem too vulnerable) and expanded in the decades before the war. The system has survived and been maintained by Pax, serving as the means for Pax’s operatives to travel the world. (And it couldn’t possibly have worked as depicted. With so little clearance between the shuttle and the tube walls, with no evident vents, and with the tubes clearly not in vacuum, air resistance would’ve kept it from going as fast as it was shown to travel.)
It’s an interesting film and the concept had potential, but Cord is not the most appealing lead actor, and there are aspects of Pax that might’ve been offputting in a weekly series — they lived in underground bunkers in Carlsbad Caverns, and they embraced a rather ascetic “unisex” philosophy that disdained lust and sexuality as the cause of civilization’s downfall, as explicated by the uptight supporting character Harper-Smythe, played by Lynne Marta (though it was suggested that the young were starting to reject that view). All in all, it could be better, and it’s understandable why CBS rejected the series (instead opting for the similar Planet of the Apes TV series which lasted for only half a season), and why, when Roddenberry then pitched it to ABC, they asked him to retool it for the second attempt (Roddenberry had a knack for getting second pilots made, it seems).
This was 1974′s Planet Earth, this time starring John Saxon as Dylan Hunt and Janet Margolin as Harper-Smythe, with Ted Cassidy returning as Isiah (the only holdover from the original cast) and Christopher Cary added as Hunt’s fourth team member, the “esper” doctor Baylok. (Which is pronounced the same as Balok from ST’s “The Corbomite Maneuver” — a character that Cassidy provided the voice for, kind of. That always weirded me out a little.) This time out, Pax has relocated to a beautiful, advanced aboveground city (about where Albuquerque once was, judging from a shot in the opening titles), and the “unisex” beliefs are nowhere to be found — female extras in Pax City are wearing revealing William Ware Theiss outfits, and Harper-Smythe now appears to have a thing for Dylan. Isiah’s portrayed a little better, speaking more coherent English and no longer in what I guess you’d call “redface” makeup, but Baylok still calls him “the savage” at one point.
ST’s former associate producer Bob Justman was brought in as producer this time, and Roddenberry cowrote the script with future Rockford Files staff writer/producer Juanita Bartlett. The story is a very ’70s conceit: to find a missing doctor, Hunt and Harper-Smythe must infiltrate a society where women (primarily Marg, played by Diana Muldaur) keep men as slaves and pets — which Dylan actually describes as “women’s lib gone mad.” There are definitely ways in which it plays out as the kind of sex-preoccupied male fantasy you’d expect from Roddenberry, or from ’70s TV in general: Dylan uses his virility to seduce Marg and convince her that men aren’t so bad. But it seems to me that Bartlett’s hand adds some wit to the proceedings, so that Dylan’s seduction plays out more comically and tastefully than it otherwise might have, more about getting Marg drunk and philosophizing about mutual respect than getting her laid.
The movie also features villains called the Kreeg, a brutish, warlike band of mutants with electronically deepened voices and knobbly head ridges that appear to be a prototype for the revised Klingon makeup that would be introduced five years later in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. (I can’t find a makeup credit for Planet Earth, though, so I don’t know if it was designed by the same person, Fred Phillips.)
All in all, despite the iffy gender politics of the premise, Planet Earth is an improvement on the first pilot. Saxon is a much more charismatic and sympathetic lead than Cord, as much of an improvement as William Shatner was over Jeffrey Hunter as the Enterprise captain. Margolin is also a more appealing Harper-Smythe than Marta. There’s more charm and wit to the writing. The aboveground setting and the new Pax-team uniforms are an improvement (despite the uniforms’ unappealing color scheme), and Pax’s society seems more worth fighting for. Isiah is less offensive, and Baylok could potentially be an interesting character, but was quite underutilized here. The downside is that there’s less ethnic diversity in the lead cast; the first pilot featured a team member named Singh (seemingly the only South Asian surname Roddenberry knew) in a fairly prominent role, but here, Dylan’s team is all-white, and the one major black character, Kimbridge (here retitled “Pater” and recast as Rai Tasco), is sidelined. This is something of a reversal from the Trek pilots; in “The Cage,” the main cast was all-white, but the network pushed for more diversity in the second pilot (since recent analyses had revealed the buying power of minority viewers), and that’s how we got characters like Sulu and Uhura. Here, things unfortunately went in the reverse direction.
Planet Earth didn’t succeed as a pilot any more than its predecessor did. In his entire career, the only non-Trek series that Roddenberry ever got on the air was his first, the non-SF series The Lieutenant in 1963, and that only ran for one season. However, in 1975, ABC attempted to rework the post-apocalyptic premise one more time without Roddenberry’s involvement, keeping Saxon as the lead and retaining the name Pax, and using the Trek-inspired title Strange New World, but changing the rest of the premise and the character names. (The leads were astronauts on a sleeper ship who returned to an Earth devastated by asteroid bombardment.) So it doesn’t count as part of the same series and I haven’t bothered to track it down.
Of course, the concept of a hero named Dylan Hunt who slept through the fall of his civilization and fought to rebuild peace and stability in the post-apocalyptic world was resurrected after Roddenberry’s death as the premise of Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda, transposed to far-future outer space and starring Kevin Sorbo as Hunt. A couple of other elements from the original films made their way into Andromeda: Harper-Smythe inspired the Harper character in name if nothing else, and I daresay the genetically superior Tyranians inspired the genetically superior Tyr Anasazi and his Nietzschean race. But otherwise it was a very different show, more the creation of Robert Hewitt Wolfe than Roddenberry, and blending the fragments of the Dylan Hunt universe with concepts from other failed Roddenberry pitches (such as the idea of an intelligent starship as a lead character, from an unused premise called Starship). Not to mention that the show went badly astray once Wolfe was fired after a season and a half. I really don’t want to get into that here; it would be reopening old wounds.
One reason I decided to buy these movies was to test a hypothesis. I’ve long entertained the conceit that maybe the G2/PE universe was an alternate timeline of the Trek universe, maybe one where the Eugenics Wars were more extensive and escalated to a nuclear conflict. That was never more than an idle musing before; but in recent years, since Pocket published its Mirror Universe and Myriad Universes anthologies, I’ve taken to cataloguing alternate Trek timelines more systematically in my personal chronology notes, and I got to wondering about whether I could actually add these movies to my list.
At first I was concerned it might not work, because the state of things in 1979 in G2 already seemed rather different from what we know of the Trek world in that time (not too different from ours, but with a more active space program). But then I thought, what if the divergence was earlier? What if, say, Gary Seven hadn’t intervened in “Assignment: Earth” and after? In that case, Earth would’ve begun an orbital nuclear arms buildup starting in 1968, which would fit neatly with the mid-’70s war fears that led to the creation of the subshuttles in G2. Also, according to the novel continuity, without Gary Seven’s intervention, the eugenics program that produced Khan and the Augments would’ve been more extensive, and the Eugenics Wars would’ve been bigger, potentially escalating to the level of global cataclysm. And the “mutant” Tyranians and Kreeg, claimed in the films to be the products of radiation, make far more sense if they’re descendants of the Augments. The timing works too. The undated cataclysm had to be after 1992, the date given for the construction of a subshuttle station seen in PE. However, the most advanced technology Pax has dates from Dylan’s century according to dialogue, suggesting that the end came no later than roughly the turn of the millennium. Which is no doubt where I originally got the idea that it was a bigger, alternative version of the Eugenics Wars. So I think it works rather neatly. The Dylan Hunt timeline could well be the future that Gary Seven was sent to Earth to prevent. (Which would mean that in the Trek universe, without the war fears driving things underground, Dylan’s hibernation experiment would’ve most likely happened elsewhere and he would never have been trapped in stasis by a cave-in. Indeed, his research could’ve led to the cryogenic technology of the Botany Bay.)
The other question I had was whether the two films could fit in the same timeline as each other, given the changes between them. The recastings are easily waved away, just like any TV or film recastings (e.g. Saavik or Cochrane in Trek). The change in Isiah’s makeup and hair can be just as easily ignored, or rationalized by saying he was in disguise in G2. The character changes can be rationalized; Isiah could’ve learned better English, Harper-Smythe could’ve softened in her unisex views after Dylan deflated some of her cherished myths about his era, and Kimbridge’s change in title could’ve been the result of either a promotion or a retirement from the Primus council. The hardest thing to rationalize is the Pax city suddenly materializing between movies; but maybe Pax had had the city all along, yet had retreated to the Carlsbad bunker due to the threat of Tyranian attack, a threat which was resolved by PE. Alternatively, maybe Pax made an alliance with the city and relocated there between movies — which might better explain the different, non-unisex clothing style. (If the city’s about where Albuquerque was, that would make it a bit under 300 miles NNW of Carlsbad Caverns, explaining why we didn’t see it in G2. The climax of G2 suggests that Tyrania is considerably closer to Carlsbad, though, not far over the horizon. Since they had nuclear weapons, they might’ve been somewhere around Alamogordo or White Sands, perhaps. Lyra-a mentions Phoenix as they ride toward Tyrania, but it can’t possibly be that far away.)
One other minor discrepancy: in G2, Majel Barrett plays Primus Dominic and Titos Vandis plays Primus Yuloff; whereas in PE, Barrett has a tiny role as a character credited as Yuloff. But Barrett’s PE character was never addressed by name onscreen, so the credit could simply be an error. Or maybe Dominic married Yuloff in the interim.
The timing’s also a bit tricky. In PE, Dylan says he was born on February 3, 1944 and is 189 years old, adding up to 2133, the same year as G2. But it’s easier to reconcile the movies if you assume some time passes between them to allow for the changes. But there’s an easy handwave: Dylan was drunk when he calculated his age. He could easily have been off by a year or two.
So I think the two movies can be treated as a single continuity if you squint a little — which is true of a lot of continuity in any TV or movie universe. Sure, if I’m defining them as an alternate Trek-universe timeline to begin with, I could just as easily say they were two slightly variant timelines; but with only two movies, I’d rather treat them as a connected series if possible.
Of course, this all has to remain strictly informal speculation. The copyright on these movies is owned by Warner Bros., not CBS, so I wouldn’t be allowed to incorporate these characters and ideas into a licensed Trek novel. But that’s why it’s fun to think about. It lets me get back to speculating about something Trek-related purely for recreation, rather than for work.
It’s worth noting, however, that Roddenberry himself may have worked some ideas from G2/PE into his ST:TNG pilot, “Encounter at Farpoint.” The chronology precluded them from fitting in the same universe even then, but a lot of concepts in TNG were recycled from earlier, failed Roddenberry projects: Riker and Troi were reworked from Decker and Ilia in TMP and the failed Phase II sequel series, while Data was a blend of Phase II‘s Vulcan character Xon and the android lead of the 1974 pilot film The Questor Tapes. The depiction of “the post-atomic horror” in “Farpoint” bears some similarities to the G2/PE universe, so I wonder if maybe Roddenberry had the idea that Trek history could’ve happened similarly but with different timing, that the Federation could be descended from a group equivalent to Pax which had rebuilt the Earth after a less extensive WWIII. It definitely reflects the same idea that things would have to get much worse for humanity before we finally came to our senses and built a better world. Of course, later Trek installments, primarily First Contact, depicted Earth history in a very different way. But it’s interesting to speculate about what Roddenberry may have intended.
More U.N.C.L.E reviews…
“The Giuoco Piano Affair”: A sequel to “The Quadripartite Affair,” as UNCLE finally tracks down evil mastermind Gervaise Ravel (Anne Francis) and her rich husband/backer Bufferton (John Van Dreelen) and tries to draw them out for capture. The title references a chess gambit that, according to Solo, involves using a lesser piece as bait to draw the queen into a vulnerable position. This involves bringing back Marion Raven (Jill Ireland) for a return appearance. Ireland was David McCallum’s wife at the time, and there was an idea that Marion could be Illya’s recurring love interest, though this would be the character’s final appearance (though not the actress’s). The plan is to use her as bait for Gervaise to kidnap so they can use her as bait to capture Solo when he tries to rescue her, and then track her to Gervaise’s lair using an implanted transmitter. Except the execution doesn’t make sense, because Solo is right there with her in the Andean town where she’s paraded as kidnap bait. He’s already on hand for Gervaise’s goon to try to assassinate before the abduction and Bufferton to make contact with after — so why would Gervaise feel she had to abduct Marion to lure Solo into her reach if Solo was already in her reach? It just doesn’t make sense.
Also, even though this episode is by the same writer who created Marion, Alan Caillou, she doesn’t seem to be as assertive and adventurous a woman as she was before, instead being portrayed as more traditionally timid. Plus the way she’s recruited is weird — Illya comes to her while she’s throwing a party (whose guests are the show’s production staff, including the episode’s director Richard Donner — yes, that Richard Donner – as a drunk), and they have a loud conversation about the secret mission he’s trying to recruit her for right in front of all these party guests he’s never met. As before, UNCLE has an oddly cavalier approach to operational secrecy.
Walter Scharf does the music, and again, it’s sadly less memorable than his Mission: Impossible work. It’s largely source music for the party and the South American village, plus some cues that sound recycled from Scharf’s earlier episodes.
“The Double Affair”: Only eight episodes in and we already get an evil twin! Robert Vaughn gets to flex his acting muscles again by pretending to be someone pretending to be Napoleon Solo, as THRUSH replaces him with an impostor in order to gain access to the super-top-secret August Affair (and yes, UNCLE really does call its missions “The [Something] Affair”). The first act is a much better chess match than the previous episode which was named for a chess gambit; as THRUSH tries to abduct Solo by having the waiter summon him to the telephone, he quickly catches on that it’s an attempted abduction and gets the upper hand on his lovely abductor (Senta Berger, who somehow gets billed above David McCallum here), but THRUSH anticipated his anticipation and has countermoves, and so on. It’s a nice dance between players who see each others’ moves coming, but THRUSH has the advantage of having had more time to prepare. And so they manage to gas him unconscious and spirit him off to their hideout in the Austrian Alps, which looks exactly like the Griffith Park Observatory. Those fiends! On top of everything else, architectural plagiarism!
Unfortunately, the cleverness and perceptiveness drops off on both sides starting in Chapter 2. The Solo impostor, who was so carefully altered and trained to imitate Solo exactly, has one glaring and obvious flaw in his impersonation: He doesn’t flirt with every woman he encounters, and indeed doesn’t even notice them. This includes not recognizing the flight attendant Solo was on a date with before his abduction — even though the impostor was right there in the restaurant and should’ve recognized her! And even though Illya supposedly knows Solo so well that THRUSH tried to assassinate him before starting the mission, he totally fails to notice Solo’s uncharacteristic asexuality or any of the other anomalies that should’ve tipped him off.
(By the way, the attempt on Illya’s life is enacted by a pair of rocket-firing robot/toys right outside Del Floria’s Tailor Shop, the front for UNCLE HQ. If the bad guys know where HQ is, why even hide it? Again this show’s use of spy tropes is hard to reconcile with its portrayal of the UNCLE as a fairly open global-security organization.)
The rest is a bit of a mess too. There’s a sci-fi twist to the secret behind the August Affair, but it serves little story purpose. There’s a big mistake the impostor makes, a clue he accidentally leaves in a damning place, but it serves little purpose other than to give him an excuse to kill off the token black agent in Chapter 3 — again, part of Illya’s total failure to notice anything wrong. And when Solo manages to escape from Griffith East, his escape is made easier by the most poorly-designed evil-lair self-destruct mechanism since… well, actually most evil-lair self-destructs are poorly designed in one way or another, but this one you just have to see to believe.
The music is by Morton Stevens, and I found it much more striking this time, a very interesting, somewhat avant-garde sound. Stevens, I’ve discovered, was a protege of Jerry Goldsmith, and he’s best known for writing the Hawaii Five-O theme. Oh, and this episode also introduces a new, briefer prologue — instead of the instructional-film tour of UNCLE and the leads introducing themselves to the audience, we get a tauter, more stylish opening built around the scene in the pilot that gave us our first look at Napoleon Solo. It’s a much more effective beginning.
“The Project Strigas Affair”: This is the one episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. that I’ve seen before (not counting the ’80s reunion movie), an episode I’ve been aware of for a long time as a piece of Star Trek trivia — the one time that William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy worked together before ST. But they’re on opposite sides here. The episode has a somewhat Mission: Impossible-ish setup (though it predates M:I by a couple of years): an Eastern European warmonger, Kurasov (Werner Klemperer), is threatening to destabilize international relations, so our heroes are assigned to discredit him so he’ll be removed from power, and they employ an elaborate con game to do so.
Like M:I’s Jim Phelps, Solo and Kuryakin recruit a specialist to help them with the scam, but unlike M:I’s team members, that specialist, Michael Donfield (Shatner), is taken rather by surprise and needs to be talked into it. He’s a chemical engineer who’s given up a lucrative job to open a small exterminating business with his wife Anne (Peggy Ann Garner), which is something that S&K can spin to make it look like a cover for a secret government project. The idea is to get Colonel Klink, err, Kurasov to believe Donfield’s working on a secret weapon called Strigas (rhymes with bypass) and get him to think he’ll score a major career coup by obtaining the formula for his nameless country, thus humiliating and ruining him when it turns out to be nothing. But the plan hits rather more snags along the way than your typical M:I scheme, and there’s a fair degree of improvising. It doesn’t help that Kurasov’s aide Vladeck (Nimoy), an ambitious sort who resents Kurasov’s constant insults, does some digging of his own and disrupts plans on both sides.
It’s a pretty fun episode overall, with nice performances from Shatner, Nimoy (if you can get past his unconvincing accent), Klemperer, and Woodrow Parfrey as one of Kurasov’s agents. I always enjoy seeing Shatner in this early phase of his career, when he tended to give more laid-back and unaffected performances. Donfield, though reluctant at first, gets into the thrill of the spy game much like Pat Crowley’s character in the pilot — and unlike her, he has his spouse right there to wipe the grin off his face when he’s told he has to assume the role of a womanizer. The role is a good fit for Shatner. Mainly, though, I must admit that the principal charm of this episode is watching Napoleon Solo and Captain Kirk take on Colonel Klink and Mr. Spock. It’s a little hard to look past who the actors are to focus on their characters.
Again, Scharf does the music, and again it doesn’t stand out as much as I would’ve expected.
“The Finny Foot Affair”: Ugh, let’s just get through this one quickly. Solo and Illya play Andromeda Strain, investigating a Scottish island where everyone’s died of old age due to a bioweapon that some supposedly Japanese bad guys are also trying to get hold of (it was made by one of their countrymen during WWII and then lost until now). True to ’60s form, the speaking bad guys are white actors with eye prosthetics and phony accents and the only real Asians are in nonspeaking roles. The bad guys wing Illya so he’s stuck at London HQ while Solo pursues a lead to Norway, where the infectious agent originated. Teenage Kurt Russell latches onto Solo as a potential replacement for his dead father, and tags along to Norway, being annoyingly cute and Opie-ish the whole way. Solo keeps trying to ditch him but keeps having to drag him along as the fake-Japanese henchwoman and her muscle pursue him. Illya passes along a screamingly obvious clue (a strange oversized ring with an inscription to “marry the maiden” — I caught on in seconds that it was meant to go on a statue’s finger to reveal a clue) that Solo totally failed to figure out for two acts (though in his defense, he is a confirmed bachelor). Baby Snake Plissken remains mawkishly cute and rather stupid throughout, even as the boy is forced to experience abduction and killings and other stuff that would turn a real kid into… well, into Snake Plissken, maybe. And it all turns out to be for nothing. In-story and out.
Nothing good to say here. Morton Stevens’s music wasn’t enough to impress me this time. And even famously curvaceous ’60s exotic dancer/martial artist/actress Tura Satana was mostly wasted as the henchwoman; she had a token dance scene early on that was kind of interesting, but was too mired in confused Orientalism to be really enjoyable (why is a fake-Japanese woman dancing to belly-dancer music?). Let’s just move on before my headache gets any worse.
“The Neptune Affair”: Illya is mad — not because he’s hardly in this one, but because some rogue faction in America is launching missiles containing a fungus that’s destroying wheat fields in the USSR. Solo has 3 days to stop the next launch or they’ll retaliate and nuclear holocaust begins. Heather McNabb makes her final appearance, alas, and hypnotizes Solo with a hayseed cover identity (just an act for the most part, but he can trigger himself to really believe he’s the guy for a few hours if he’s caught and interrogated). Robert Vaughn’s performance here isn’t as interesting as the fake persona he adopted in the Carroll O’Connor episode. There, he seemed like a totally different person; here, he just seems like Solo putting on a corny accent.
Solo searches for the scientist who developed the fungus, and meets his daughter, played by Lost in Space‘s Marta Kristen, as well as her fiancee Gabe (Jeremy Slate), who’s working for a Mr. Lockridge, who’s played by Henry Jones so you know he must be evil. Solo wheedles his way onto their boat when it goes out for “night fishing,” and they knock him out and interrogate him with help from — hey, it’s Sgt. Schultz! Yup, John Banner’s being his usual jovial self, but more evilly than usual. But true to form, Schultz sees nothing and hears nothing; Solo has activated his cover persona, so their interrogation is unproductive. Their fishing expedition a failure, they cut him loose.
Later, Marta Kristen catches on that he faked his cover, but manages to clue him in that the bad guys must be based on an oil derrick just offshore. She convinces him to take her with him in exchange for the use of her rowboat, since he wants to sneak aboard. But it’s no use, since they’re monitoring everything and catch them, bringing them down to their deep undersea base where Lockridge’s band of scientists plan to wait out the apocalypse they’re about to trigger, after which they’ll ascend and rule the world scientifically and emotionlessly. Solo (who annoyingly keeps up his fake persona well after they’ve figured out he’s a spy) manages to appeal to Gabe’s emotions to get his help in stopping the plan.
Hey, just imagine if UNCLE weren’t around — WWIII happens just on the schedule that Captain Shark from “The Shark Affair” thought it would, because Lockridge triggered it. Civilization is wiped out, and the only survivors are Shark’s group of well-intentioned utopians aboard their ship and Lockridge’s group of conquest-minded technocrats in their undersea base. That could make for an interesting post-apocalyptic struggle between the two factions.
An okay episode, but the past two have sort of a similarly awkward format — a tense, high-stakes setup being largely ignored as it’s just an excuse for the ensuing hijinks of the episode. I suppose plenty of Mission: Impossible episodes, Bond movies, and the like are structured similarly — the evil plot being just a McGuffin to motivate the story — but in these cases I didn’t find the hijinks as interesting as the setup.
The music this time is credited to both Goldsmith and Scharf, though a lot of it sounded like stock. Goldsmith’s work remains my favorite among the composers so far.
A weird dubbing issue here — there’s an explosive gas that’s a plot point here, and every time they say its name, it’s awkwardly dubbed over with “hydro.” I’m guessing it was originally “nitro” and they changed it at the last minute, but why?
“The Dove Affair”: This one’s too convoluted to summarize point-by-point, so I’ll just given an overview. This is the most Illya-free episode since the second; he isn’t even mentioned. It’s Solo truly solo, playing a cat-and-mouse game against Ricardo Montalban as Satine, the charming-but-deadly secret police chief of a fictional Balkan country. Solo was sent to retrieve the premier’s dove medallion containing vital information about THRUSH, but the premier was murdered just before he got there, and he must steal the dove. The cabinet secretary works for THRUSH and wants Solo arrested and accused of the crime to discredit UNCLE. Satine’s boss, the new, weaker premier, doesn’t want that, so he orders Satine to retrieve the dove (which they need for reasons of their own) and keep Solo from being taken alive — by either helping him escape or killing him. So Satine and Solo keep charmingly and deviously going from working together to battling each other, and a school tour group led by teacher June Lockhart gets caught in the middle. It’s fun to watch Vaughn and Montalban banter and play out their gentlemanly rivalry, but there are some plot contrivances like a couple of convenient hangups Satine has that give Solo an edge over him at key moments, and some conveniently accidental interventions by a couple of Lockhart’s schoolkids (the kind of TV “kids” played by actors in their 20s).
I also have to wonder why a spy chief in a Balkan country would have a Mexican accent, but then, I’ve often wondered the same thing about Khan in Star Trek. Montalban was like Sean Connery, I guess: you want him, you get the accent with him.
The music’s credited to Goldsmith, but I think by this point in the season it’s reasonable to assume it’s all stock. I definitely recognized some of it.
Well, I finally got my author copies of the Only Superhuman audiobook adaptation from GraphicAudio. It’s been getting uniformly 5-star reviews at their site, which is nice to see. Here’s what it looks like:
(There are seven discs, in four two-pocket sleeves. No liner notes or anything, just a GraphicAudio catalog and a promotional postcard for a couple of their other products.)
So what does it sound like? Pretty good. Naturally my experience of it is going to be different from most people’s, since I’ve had my own idea about what the major characters sound like for years, and can’t help comparing the voice cast and their performances against the soundtrack in my head. And naturally, a number of the voices and performance choices are different from what I imagined. But considering that I had no input into the production, it’s actually gratifying how close it comes to what I had in mind.
GraphicAudio is apparently based in the DC area, since (as far as I can Google) many of their actors seem to be stage performers from that area. Unfortunately, the end credits only list the five lead performers by role, so I can’t identify who played the rest of the characters.
The director and narrator is Nanette Savard (who also plays Lois Lane for the company’s DC Comics adaptations), who has a voice quality a bit like how I imagine Emerald’s voice — not much, but enough to make her an appropriate choice to narrate a book told mostly from Emry’s POV. (And enough to spark the idle thought that maybe the narrator is an older Emry, or maybe a descendant, telling the story in retrospect.) She does a solid job, striking a good balance between detachment and emotional expressiveness.
Emerald herself is played by Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan (billed here as Alyssa Wilmoth). She’s not exactly what I had in mind (she’s mezzo rather than full soprano), and she’s not the screamer Emry’s described as in the text (which might’ve been too hard on the actress’s voice, granted), but she’s actually quite a good choice for the role vocally, with the right kind of rough edge and attitude, and she does a good job of capturing Emry’s blend of street-hardened toughness and youthful vulnerability. I’m really quite pleased with her performance, especially in some of Emry’s big emotional speeches in the final chapter or two. Wilmoth’s husband Thomas Keegan plays Zephyr, and he’s almost exactly what I was going for — a mellow baritone with a very human, laid-back, amiable delivery, rather than something more robotic as I feared we might get. Having a married couple play Emry and her devoted ship is a good choice chemistry-wise.
Eliot Thorne is played, coincidentally, by Elliot Dash, who’s very effective in the role. Dash’s voice took me a bit of getting used to, since I’ve always imagined Thorne as sounding like Avery Brooks or Keith David’s Goliath from Gargoyles, a smooth, controlled basso, while Dash’s voice reminds me more of Paul Winfield’s, and he imparts the role with more passion and less reserve than I imagined. Still, he gives the role the gravitas, intensity, and oratorical splendor it deserves.
I’m afraid I wasn’t quite as impressed by Colleen Delany (also GraphicAudio’s Wonder Woman) as Psyche. She has broadly the right type of voice and does an okay job, but her performance is a bit too polished and announcer-like to be entirely convincing for me. Perhaps the problem is that the bar in my mind is set so very high. Psyche’s supposed to have an incredibly beautiful, warmly seductive voice, a smooth and mellow alto — my ideal voice-casting choice would be Gina Torres. It would’ve been difficult to find anyone who really lived up to my hopes.
As for the rest of the cast, there are more hits than misses, and I wish I could match the actors to the roles. The performers playing Greg Tai and Sally Knox are ideal. The portrayers of Emry’s parents splendidly capture their personalities; Lyra’s pitch is lower than what I had in mind, but that was probably a better choice in terms of casting a maternal voice. Arkady Nazarbayev turned out very well; I didn’t have a clear voice for him in my head, but they cast an actor who sounds uncannily like Clancy Brown, which is just the sort of voice-casting choice I might’ve made myself had it occurred to me. Javon Moremba is very close to what I wanted, and in fact the way their actor delivered the line “But I loved this car!” was almost exactly what I hear in my head. And while there was no hope of getting Hanuman Kwan to sound like he does in my head (because I wrote him with Roddy McDowall’s inimitably wonderful voice in mind, despite claiming he was Australian), their actor, while more of a Tony Randall-ish baritone, captured the delivery and personality I had in mind quite well. Plus, though it’s a tiny role, Blitz is handled better than I ever imagined, sounding almost like a Mark Hamill villain voice. Other supporting characters like Rachel, Lodestar, and Hijab are solidly handled.
There are a few choices that don’t work as well for me. I feel their Koyama Hikari was miscast; the actress’s voice and delivery would’ve worked well for Ruki Shimoda but just aren’t right for Kari. I’m not crazy about their Cowboy, whose accent is too goofy; granted, it’s supposed to be a corny affectation that Emry finds ludicrous, but they took it too far and I feel it undermines the character’s menace. And their Sensei Villareal is just completely wrong. Sensei is supposed to be a wise, charming mentor figure, a respected hero renowned for his integrity, an aging swashbuckler and Latin lover. (My mental model for the character was Henry Darrow, who played Zorro in two early ’80s shows and Zorro’s father in a ’90s show.) The actor here doesn’t come close to conveying any of that, and has a stilted and unconvincing delivery. It’s the one performance that works against, not only my own intentions and expectations, but what’s actually there in the spoken text.
Still, given how many voices they had to cast, and given my total lack of input beyond what’s on the page, it’s impressive that there were so few misses.
(Other “voices in my head” that guided me as I wrote: For Emry, Lenore Zann, the voice of Rogue from the ’90s X-Men animated series — though I often thought Bernadette Peters would be a good alternative, and lately I’ve felt that Amy Jo Johnson’s voice would be a great fit. For Tai, Daniel Dae Kim. For Javon, Khary Payton. For Bast, Julie Newmar or Eartha Kitt. For Zephyr, I’ve always tended to imagine Kevin Conroy doing a deeper version of his Bruce Wayne voice, but I’ve never been sure that was the best choice; Zephyr’s supposed to have a voice women find really sexy, and that’s not something I’m particularly qualified to assess. Thomas Keegan actually sounds a lot like Conroy, though with a bit of David Hyde-Pierce mixed in.)
I do wish they’d consulted me on a couple of pronunciations, though, as well as some of the casting choices. They use Americanized pronunciations for “Villareal” and “Lydie Clement” (they rhyme “Lydie” with “Heidi”) when I intended them to have, respectively, Spanish and French pronunciations. On the other hand, I realize that I’ve been Americanizing the pronunciation of “Arkady” all these years, saying it like “arcade-y” when the Russian A is pretty much always pronounced “ah.” So the audiobook has set me straight on that one.
So what about the adaptation of the text? At nearly 8 hours, it’s fairly thorough, but not comprehensive; a significant amount of stuff is trimmed out. In particular, Kari’s scenes are heavily cut down, making her a considerably more minor character here than in the original. (Ironic, since I’ve grown very fond of Kari and intend to feature her heavily if there are sequels.) In general, supporting characters’ backstories are glossed over, so a lot of the personal detail — as well as some of the technical detail and exposition — is absent. Action scenes are streamlined, which makes sense from a pacing standpoint; and most of the sex is trimmed down or omitted, though a lot of the nudity remains (and there’s even one point where the streamlining of the text results in more nudity than there was originally). A few of the cuts are a bit awkward, though, deleting a scene but leaving in a later reference to something from that scene. (In particular, Kari’s battle peace and personal guilt are mentioned even though the explanations for both are deleted.) There are a couple of points where lines are assigned to the wrong character, but they’re ambiguous enough that they kind of still work that way. Also, it’s not based on the final copyedited draft of the manuscript; there are some details and word choices that I remember altering in the final version, and my last-minute addition of Kari using high-tech tessen fans as weapons is missing.
There are a couple of sound-editing choices that surprised me, but I realize it’s because of the lack of stage directions I gave. One is the scene in chapter 3 where someone notifies Lyra Blair of an incident young Emerald was involved in, which I wrote as dialogue-only for effect; I always assumed it was someone coming to Lyra’s front door, but here it was interpreted as a phone call. That probably makes more sense, come to think of it. And the brunch scene with Emry and Grandma Rachel (here called lunch instead) was supposed to be a very private, personal conversation in Rachel’s home, but they did it with restaurant ambience in the background. I guess I needed to make the setting clearer than I did. It’s a common failing of mine, writing a scene with too little description of the setting. Or maybe they chose to change it for acoustical variety. I suppose their interpretation could work if the characters were in a private booth or balcony of some sort, isolated enough that they wouldn’t be overheard by other diners.
But while there are some details that could’ve been improved if I’d been consulted (something I should try to negotiate for in future contracts), overall it’s an impressive work. The majority of the actors are appropriately cast and give good, convincing performances, and the sound effects and Foley work are good (although I’m not crazy about the use of sound effects for things happening in vacuum, particularly when they were being described in narration anyway). The music seems to be drawn from a stock library spanning a variety of styles, but it mostly fits fairly well and is used in appropriate places. All told, this is certainly the most lavish audiobook production I’ve ever heard.
In sum, this is a good supplement to the novel, but not an exact, unabridged equivalent to the prose version. Rather, it’s an adaptation, an alternative take on the story. To those who’ve only bought the audiobook, I’d recommend getting the novel for the complete, canonical story; if you don’t want to spring for the hardcover or e-book, the paperback’s only 6 months away, or at least you could look for it at the library. As for those who’ve bought the novel, I’d say the audiobook is still worth getting, a good interpretation of the novel, capturing the essentials of what I created (mostly) but putting a different spin on it, thus adding another dimension to the experience. Besides, I don’t know if there will ever be a movie adaptation (Hollywood doesn’t seem interested in female-led superhero films these days), so this may be the only dramatization the story ever gets.
And heck, it’s just impressive that a bunch of actors and other folks got together to put on a performance of something I wrote, to bring it to life. And that most of them really seemed to get it, just from what was on the page. Both of those are quite heartening, and I’m grateful for the hard work and care the creators and performers put into this adaptation.
I’ve recently begun renting season one of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. from Netflix, and I wanted to post some thoughts about it. This won’t be as detailed as my Mission: Impossible reviews; I think I got a little too in-depth with those, and I’m not sure I have the time to go to such length. But I wanted to post my thoughts about it anyway.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. premiered in 1964, and was developed by Sam Rolfe from concepts by Norman Felton and an uncredited Ian Fleming, so it has some James Bond-like elements. It was originally meant to focus on a single lead character, as the title suggests; indeed, Robert Vaughn’s character is actually named Napoleon Solo. But David McCallum made such a strong impression in his brief appearance as Illya Kuryakin in the pilot that they made him a regular — though we didn’t actually see him partnered with Solo until episode 3.
U.N.C.L.E. is the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement — something the show’s producers made a point of specifying in the introductory sequence and the closing gag credit where they thank the organization for its help in the production. The original plan was for it to be a United Nations organ, but the real UN objected to having its name used in a fictional context, so the “Network” name was coined and repeatedly stressed to appease the UN. In the episodes I’ve seen so far, Solo usually gives the acronym as “the U-N-C…L-E,” to further drive home the distinction. (Which makes me wonder if the title of the show is meant to be pronounced “The Man from You-en-see-ell-ee” rather than “The Man from Uncle.” I doubt it ever has been, though.)
Anyway, despite the careful separation from the UN, UNCLE is very much an international organization, with even hostile nations like the US and the USSR cooperating against enemies that threaten the whole world — primarily the Fleming-created organization THRUSH, itself an international organization of aspiring world conquerors, ruthless assassins, evil scientists, and other assorted villains. Their acronym was never explained in the show, though the tie-in novels claimed it stood for “Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity.” In addition to Vaughn and McCallum, the show starred Leo G. Carroll in a charmingly stodgy performance as UNCLE’s New York branch chief, Alexander Waverly. (UNCLE HQ is hidden behind a secret wall in Del Floria’s Tailor Shop in Manhattan.)
Moving on to the episodes, all of which are called “The [Something] Affair”:
“The Vulcan Affair”: This is a black-and-white, cut-down version of the original color pilot, which also had a theatrical release with some expanded footage. The color pilot will be on the last disc of the season 1 set. Anyway, the episode is written by Sam Rolfe and is very strong. I quickly became fond of the clever dialogue and character writing, and it establishes the season’s wry but relatively serious attitude. Vaughn establishes Solo’s persona clearly right away — unflappably professional, cool under pressure, and with a Bond-like eye for the ladies (and vice-versa), but with more of a sense of whimsy and occasionally almost childlike playfulness, as if the whole thing is a game to him. The word “impish” comes to mind.
In the pilot, Solo tries to foil an assassination plot masterminded by THRUSH agent Andrew Vulcan (Fritz Weaver), and recruits Vulcan’s old flame Elaine (Pat Crowley) to get close to him. Housewife Elaine is drawn to the excitement of the spy life and the glamorous identity she assumes, and torn by her reawakened feelings for Vulcan, while Solo has to cope with the consequences of drawing this innocent into his spy games. The pilot establishes the pattern of the series, with most every episode involving an “innocent” getting caught up in the story. The way Solo (and Kuryakin in later episodes) interacts with civilians is surprising after all the off-book secrecy of Mission: Impossible; the U.N.C.L.E. (as they themselves call it, or “Uncle” as everyone else calls it) is a well-known organization, and Solo & Kuryakin openly introduce themselves to civilians as its agents, rather than using cover identities and deception. It’s a little confusing; is (the) U.N.C.L.E. a spy agency or more of an international police force? The show seems to want to play it both ways.
The music is by Jerry Goldsmith, and thus is excellent. I really like Goldsmith’s theme for the series, which has a syncopated Latin rhythm that reminds me of West Side Story while also having elements of orchestration and melody that remind me of John Williams’s themes for Irwin Allen shows. But it has some very Goldsmithian touches too, like a driving and rhythmically complex ostinato that makes a very welcome earworm.
The conventions of the show’s title sequences are established here as well. Like many ’60s shows, it followed the shots of the regular cast with shots introducing the featured guest stars of the episode, and each act opened with a chapter title shown onscreen, usually a quirky reference to something in the scenes to come or a quote of a line of dialogue from the act. I love that. I’m fond of titles, and I love it that not only every episode, but every act (or “chapter”) gets its own title.
“The Iowa-Scuba Affair”: The title tells the tale. Solo (truly solo, since Illya isn’t in the episode at all) investigates murder and sabotage in a farming town next to an underground Air Force base, and explores the mystery of why the saboteurs are using SCUBA gear in the middle of Iowa, and what Slim Pickens has to do with it. (Spoiler: he does not end up riding on the back of a nuclear bomb and going “Yee-haw!” Though there’s a moment or two when it seemed he might be headed in that direction.) The “innocent” is a farm girl (Katherine Crawford) who was dating an Air Force man who turned out to be a saboteur (and was killed by Solo, something the farm girl is rather blase about).
All in all, not as impressive an episode as the pilot. Although it has a great bit establishing Waverly’s dry British wit: After Solo survives an assassination attempt (poison gas in the shower head) and reports it to HQ, Waverly says: “Report further such attempts immediately.” (Thoughtful pause) “Unless they’re successful.”
The music is by Morton Stevens this time, and it’s not bad, but doesn’t stand out in my memory. The episode is most notable as the debut of May Heatherly as recurring UNCLE HQ staffer Heather McNabb, who’s basically Miss Moneypenny only in more of a researcher/tech support capacity, and who’s really, really hot (replacing a different actress/character in an identical role in the pilot). Unfortunately her run on the series will be brief.
This episode introduces the standard opening, a very stilted introduction to the premise and characters that feels like an old instructional film or documentary. The lead characters actually speak directly to the audience to introduce themselves and tell us their jobs within UNCLE. It plays very oddly to the modern eye and takes way too long.
“The Quadripartite Affair”: UNCLE vs. the Scarecrow! The bad guys this time are a scientist who’s invented a fear-inducing gas and the unspecified evil organization planning to use it for nefarious purposes. The innocent is Marion Raven (no, not Karen Allen, but Jill Ireland), plucky daughter of the first fear-gas victim, whom Illya is assigned to protect and who later insists on accompanying the duo on their mission to the villains’ mountain stronghold. This is Illya’s first big episode, and he’s established as a dour and driven Russian in contrast to Solo’s droll and playful persona. He keeps advising Marion to treat him as not even there, just part of the scenery, but she’s not inclined to play along. It seems they were already playing on the fact that David McCallum was anything but unnoticeable, having made such an impression in one brief scene that they made him a regular two episodes later. McCallum became a major sex symbol with female viewers, and my personal suspicion is that the real reason Gene Roddenberry created the Russian Mr. Chekov for Star Trek was in hopes of emulating Kuryakin’s audience appeal (since the Pravda article that Roddenberry claimed to be his inspiration apparently never existed).
The weirdest thing about this episode for me is that it features a heroic Harry Mudd against an evil Oscar Goldman. Roger C. Carmel plays a local mountain man who helps the team infiltrate the enemy base, and Richard Anderson plays the surly, bitter military man who heads the enemy force. (I was surprised to see that Anderson was balding here. All that time, Oscar was wearing a rug! Although now that I think about it, that was kind of obvious, wasn’t it?) The bad guys are working with, or for, a wealthy woman named Gervaise Ravel, played by Anne Francis, who makes a stunning brunette. She gets away at the end and will fortunately be back in episode 7.
The music here is by Walter Scharf, whose work I praised in my M:I reviews (and whose best-known work is probably the National Geographic theme). It’s nice to hear his work again, but unfortunately the music doesn’t carry the action and storytelling to the same extent here as it did on M:I, so he doesn’t get to be as impressive here (or in the next episode, which he also scores).
And I’m amused to learn that the episode’s writer, Alan Caillou, was also an actor who played The Head, Conrad Janis’s boss, in the brief but memorable sci-fi sitcom Quark from the late ’70s.
“The Shark Affair”: UNCLE vs. Captain Nemo! Investigating a series of odd pirate raids, abductions, and disappearances — of supplies as odd as shoelaces and building supplies and professions as odd as thatchers, glaziers, and piano tuners — leads Napoleon and Illya to a ship commanded by Captain Shark, a modern-day Nemo played brilliantly by Robert Culp (just a year before starring in his own spy show, I Spy). And I’m not kidding — aside from having a ship rather than a submarine, this character is a virtually exact pastiche of Captain Nemo, a good man grown disillusioned with the warfare of the world and using advanced technology, cunning, and surprisingly debonair piracy to build his own utopian community aboard his vessel, with Solo and Kuryakin somewhat filling the roles of Aronnax and Ned Land. Shark is convinced that nuclear holocaust is only months away and is building an ark of survivors with the range of skills and knowledge necessary to rebuild. He’s an admirable character in a lot of ways and Culp makes him deeply sympathetic, but Solo still has to stop him, arguing that good men need to participate in solving the world’s problems rather than retreating from them.
The downside of the episode is the innocent, a caricatured Brooklyn housewife played for laughs by Sue Ane Langdon. There’s kind of a cute running gag where she keeps accidentally hitting Illya in the face with doors, but the comic broadness of her character and her interactions with her husband (one of the disappeared, with whom she’s reunited aboardship) get a little annoying and clash unfortunately with Culp’s marvelous dramatic performance.
“The Deadly Games Affair”: UNCLE vs. THRUSH vs. Nazis! Solo & Ilya are pitted against a THRUSH agent in the chase for valuable secrets left by a Nazi scientist who’s not as dead as was believed. The THRUSH agent, Angelique (Janine Gray, who’s a somewhat Julie Newmar-esque type only not quite as attractive), is a past — and current — romantic interest for Solo. Illya doesn’t understand how his partner can be so amorous with someone who’d kill him without a qualm, but it’s just part of the way Solo sees his business as a game, with Angelique seeing it much the same way. They’re kind of like Ralph Wolf and Sam Sheepdog in the Chuck Jones cartoons — trying to defeat and/or kill each other is their job, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be friendly off the clock (though Ralph and Sam were never this friendly). In their efforts to track down or flush out the Nazi (Alexander Scourby) with the help of the innocent, a student he recruited by mail to sell his valuable stamp collection for funding, they go from cooperating to battling; Angelique naturally betrays Solo the moment their truce is no longer useful to her, but ultimately needs him to rescue her from the real menace. I don’t think I’ll spoil the big secret the Nazi scientist is keeping (though IMDb and Wikipedia both spoil it, and you can probably guess it), but let’s just say it’s something that horrifies Angelique as much as it does Solo. And it’s the most science-fictional, implausible premise to show up in the series so far. I’m afraid I found it to be a bit too much to really buy into.
On the plus side, Goldsmith is scoring again, and is still doing great work, here and in the next episode, which is…
“The Green Opal Affair”: UNCLE vs. Archie Bunker! Okay, that gag is wearing thin. Solo goes undercover to infiltrate the organization of eccentric rich guy and THRUSH supporter Walter Brach (Carroll O’Connor) in order to uncover and dismantle his brainwashing operation, but it turns out to be a trap to capture and brainwash Solo. The innocent is another housewife, Chris (Joan O’Brien), whom Brach is going to brainwash so she’ll push her genius husband to be more ambitious and rise to a high position that THRUSH can exploit. Why they don’t just brainwash hubby instead is unclear and seems to be just a plot contrivance so Chris can learn a lesson about ambition not being all it’s cracked up to be.
The most impressive thing about this episode is Robert Vaughn’s acting. Solo goes undercover as a foppish, effeminate personal secretary in order to infiltrate Brach’s organization, and Vaughn does a fantastic job of Clark Kenting, totally transforming his body language and appearance and coming off as a completely different, if somewhat broad and theatrical, character. It’s really impressive work, and I hope there are more undercover-Solo episodes to come so I can see more of what Vaughn is capable of as a character actor. (By the way, Illya is hardly in this one, appearing just in the early expository scenes. I wonder if this was an early episode that got delayed and reshot/rewritten to add Illya to a scene or two.)
Otherwise, the episode is mainly notable for giving Heather McNabb her biggest role yet. It gives the impression they were setting her up as a major recurring character, so it’s odd that this is her second-last appearance.
…and this time around I definitely noticed a lot of the flaws that have been pointed out in the film by various reviewers. The stock market and chase sequence going from broad daylight to pitch darkness in under 8 minutes of story time is one of the most glaring. And while, sure, the cops still being clean-shaven after months in the sewers is a problem, I’m more troubled by a) why they sent virtually the entire police force on the manhunt in the first place instead of keeping a reasonable number of cops in reserve aboveground and b) why all the cops were still trapped by the explosions even though we saw Matthew Modine order the cops out of the sewers a whole minute before the bombs went off.
As for Commissioner Gordon still having the speech in his jacket pocket at least a day after the scene introducing it, I can buy that. I’ve been known to leave things in my coat pockets by accident. So that part didn’t bother me. Although I did wonder if maybe the scenes with Selina getting her payoff and the police raid afterward, leading to Gordon’s capture in the sewers, were perhaps scripted to take place on the same night as the opening scenes but then shuffled later in editing to improve the pacing.
But there was a problem that occurred to me about the film’s plot that I haven’t heard anyone else point out. Namely, the idea that Bruce developed this revolutionary fusion reactor technology, the key to clean energy and saving the world from environmental disaster, and he just sat on it and refused to put it to use because… because he was afraid someone would use the technology to make nuclear bombs.
Now, never mind the physical absurdity of turning a fusion reactor into a fusion bomb. In real life, fusion bombs need fission bombs as triggers, so the only way to make a fusion reactor explode is to drop an atom bomb on it, in which case it’s pretty much going to explode anyway. But this is fiction, and it’s supposed to be a whole new kind of fusion power, and only one guy in the world has ever figured out how to turn it into a bomb so clearly it’s not easy to do. That’s enough of a fudge that I can suspend disbelief for the sake of the story.
No, my problem is with Bruce’s moral reasoning. I can understand someone not wanting people to build nuclear bombs. I think just about everyone not of the supervillain persuasion can agree that those are bad things. But, see, here’s the thing… we’ve already got nuclear bombs. There are already more than enough of them in existence to destroy all life on Earth multiple times over. So, really, how would things have gotten any worse if Bruce had distributed the reactor technology? He deprived the world of something very beneficial and positive in order to avoid the creation of a threat that was already created nearly 70 years ago! I’m sorry, but that seems like an indefensible moral calculus. Okay, maybe the danger was of the reactors falling into the hands of terrorists or rogue nations, but there’s already that same danger with nuclear arsenals and weapons-grade materials. Bruce was desperately holding the barn door closed, but the cattle were long gone. He should have released the reactor tech — and made the world’s governments fully aware of the potential dangers of its abuse so they could be safeguarded against. There was no good reason for him not to do that.
Also, if Bruce and Lucius Fox were so concerned about preventing dangerous technologies like the reactor and the various weapons and military vehicles in Fox’s secret warehouse, then why did they keep them? Why not dismantle them or not build them at all? Didn’t it occur to them that if you don’t want the bad guys to get their hands on this stuff, then maybe it’s not wise to stockpile it all in one handy location?
On the plus side, Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman is still awesome. It’s totally unfair that they aren’t making a spinoff movie about her.
For a while now, I’ve noticed that my local library branch had all four volumes of the Diana Prince: Wonder Woman trade paperbacks. These are a comprehensive collection of the 25-issue (bimonthly) run from 1968 to 1972 when Wonder Woman gave up her superpowers and star-spangled costume and became a civilian crimefighter modeled on The Avengers‘s Emma Peel, a fashionable martial artist who was easily the equal of any man. (This was initially billed as The New Wonder Woman, then Diana Prince as The New Wonder Woman, and finally Diana Prince as Wonder Woman.) The change was masterminded by writer Dennis O’Neil, who did a lot in the early ’70s to bring new maturity and relevance to DC Comics. O’Neil is known for bringing Batman back to his serious, gritty roots (at least compared to the former goofiness of ’50s/’60s Batman comics which the Adam West sitcom quite accurately captured, contrary to popular belief) and for bringing Green Lantern down to Earth and sending him on an extended road trip with liberal activist Green Arrow to find America and explore the conflict between the letter of the law and true justice. The New Wonder Woman reboot was an earlier attempt to make one of DC’s iconic figures more grounded and relatable — and more to the point, an attempt to revive flagging sales of a series which had been under creative decline under former writer/editor Robert Kanigher and was verging on cancellation. The reboot succeeded in that respect, creating new interest and saving the title from the axe, but critical reactions to it in retrospect have been mixed, making me hesitant to read the issues. But recently I read this column on Comic Book Resources which examined the beginning and end of the era, and the excerpts made me curious enough to want to read the whole thing. And yeah, it’s a bit of a mess, but an interesting one.
Also quite a good-looking one. The pencil art for most of the run was by Mike Sekowsky (who also wrote most of it) with inks by Dick Giordano, and their version of “Diana (Wonder Woman) Prince,” as she was referred to in captions, was rather striking and glamorous. The character was not generally sexualized in the way modern comic-book heroines tend to be (although there are a couple of covers of Diana in bondage), but she was definitely nice to look at. Rather than wearing a costume, she went through a variety of “mod” fashions, initially in a range of colors, but by about a quarter of the way through the run, the colorists had settled on dressing her in pure white all the time — perhaps a sort of compromise between the original fashion-plate idea and the comic-book convention of having the main hero in a recognizable “costume.”
The story begins by dismantling the series’s old tropes. First, in issue 178, WW’s love interest Steve Trevor is framed for murder, and WW’s honesty forces her to give damning testimony that Steve had hated the victim, leading to his conviction. Feeling she’s failed him as Wonder Woman, she decides to investigate as Diana Prince — and to blend in with the “hippie crowd” she needs to investigate, she gets a “mod” makeover, ditching Prince’s former frumpy-Army-secretary look for a much more glamorous and contemporary one. She frees Steve, who gains a new appreciation for Diana (unaware that Diana is WW), leading WW to think she has to change to hold Steve’s interest. But clearly the ideas were in flux, because this isn’t followed up on at all. The big changes that happen next issue arise from entirely unrelated factors.
And they happen quite quickly, within a few pages. Steve is convinced by a superior to go undercover as a traitor to infiltrate the organization of the evil Doctor Cyber. WW intends to help prove his innocence, but she’s summoned home to Paradise Island. In just two pages, she learns that the Amazons are leaving for another dimension to recharge their fading magic, chooses to stay behind to help Steve, renounces her costume and powers, and sees her home vanish forever. Now she’s just an ordinary, broke mortal looking for a job and a home. Within another page, she encounters an elderly, blind Chinese man who turns out to be a martial-arts whiz and has unexplained mystical knowledge of her identity and past. He’s named I Ching, improbably enough, and he initially speaks in a stereotyped broken English that fortunately gets toned down later. He’s also an enemy of Dr. Cyber, and spends weeks (but only two montage panels) training Diana into a martial-arts expert. Steve shows up injured and beaten by Cyber’s agents and is hospitalized. But in the next issue, Diana, Ching, and a hardboiled detective named Trench pursue Cyber, and as they enter her lair, Steve randomly shows up with no explanation and gets randomly shot dead. Which is far from the most cursory and ill-justified major change we’ll see in these pages. For one thing, we’re subsequently shown that Diana has opened a clothing boutique sometime during all this training and tragedy. She was thinking about opening a shop of some sort just before she met I Ching, but the details were skipped over and the shop is later presented as a fait accompli.
Dr. Cyber turns out to be a beautiful woman in a high-collared cloak, a Bond-style evil scientist out to conquer the world with various convoluted schemes involving high technology and sexy henchwomen. Diana, having added to her repertoire with spy gadgets disguised as jewelry, works with Ching and Trench to pursue Cyber over the next few issues, though Trench bails on them at the same time that O’Neil turns over the writing reins to Sekowsky with issue 182. From here on, there will be a different romantic interest for Diana turning up every few issues, and she’ll kind of chastely fall for all of them within a few pages even though many of them are kind of jerks. As Sekowsky writes her, Diana is less in control of her emotions now that she’s mortal, and has to learn to cope with this thing we humans call love.
Sekowsky wastes no time reversing one of the key ideas of O’Neil’s reboot. He uses his first issue to wrap up the Dr. Cyber arc, then right after that, Diana is summoned back to Paradise Island to help them fend off an invasion by Ares — just four issues after Diana supposedly cut ties with the Amazons forever. The island is still in an alternate dimension, but now easily accessible — though Sekowsky doesn’t bother to explain why Diana still has to go without her superpowers and equipment if this is the case. Here we also get our first demonstration of the fact that, as written by Sekowsky, Diana is a warrior with no qualms about using deadly force — something that’s often part of how she’s written in modern times, but apparently made its debut here. (Also, weirdly, Diana summons help for the Amazons from other dimensional planes where mythic heroes like Arthur and Siegfried dwell, but it never occurs to her to ask her old Justice League teammates for help.)
The weirdness continues when Diana returns home. She liberates a young girl named Cathy from a trio of weirdly dressed women called “THEM” who keep her as a slave, then gives Cathy a job in her boutique — whereupon in subsequent issues the ex-slave repeatedly jokes quite cheerfully about Diana being a slave-driver of a boss. Either it’s a serious failure of character consistency, or it’s implying that Cathy actually liked being a sub and had something kinky going on with Diana.
The trades include Diana’s crossover appearances in other comics during the era, starting with a completely insane Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane issue by Robert Kanigher, WW’s former writer. The way Lois was portrayed at this time is hard to reconcile with the strong, independent Lois we know today — in her own book, she’s completely, pathologically obsessed with getting Superman to marry her and seeking to destroy any real or imagined rivals for his affections, in this case a Diana who suddenly seems to have her powers back and then some, though all is not as it appears. The cover sums up the whole mentality behind this issue, with Superman cheerfully watching the catfight as Wonder Woman tosses Lois, his own official, titular girlfriend, over her head. Superman really was a jerk back then. This issue is followed by a somewhat less insane crossover, a Sekowsky-Giordano issue of The Brave and the Bold teaming Diana with Batman as they take on an evil race-car driver who kills all his opponents and is somehow still allowed to drive race cars professionally. In this story, Bruce Wayne recognizes Diana as the former Wonder Woman, but she doesn’t know he’s Batman (even after Bruce is injured and “calls in a favor” to arrange for Batman to race in his stead).
Next comes a multiparter set mostly in Hong Kong and bringing back Dr. Cyber, as well as I Ching’s daughter Lu Shan, who turns out to be working for Cyber and accuses Ching of murdering her mother. It’s never explained why she thinks this or whether it’s true. Cyber has her face scarred by hot coals in one issue, and in the next is rather definitively killed off. We next get another rather violent issue where Diana follows I Ching across the Chinese border to help some villagers escape the Communist government.
But the book continues to veer from topical to fanciful, since the next storyline has Diana swept into a parallel dimension where she helps some noble “barbarians” defeat an evil queen who rules from Castle Greyskull (okay, just Castle Skull) by violating the Prime Directive big time and inventing gunpowder and cannons for them. Sekowsky sure didn’t stint on the violence. This story was published across three issues, but the middle issue is actually a reprint of issue 179 with a few framing pages setting up the flashback. The TPB collection doesn’t include the reprint part.
After another more down-to-earth issue where Diana helps catch a murderer, we get an ill-conceived retelling of The Prisoner of Zenda (the credits actually read “Adapted from a story by Anthony Hope Hawkins.”). Diana’s traveling in Europe and turns out to be an exact double for the local princess, and ends up impersonating her to protect her from an abduction plot. Sekowsky seems to forget that our mod mortal heroine spent most of her life as an Amazon princess, since Diana seems clueless about the whole royal lifestyle. I could buy it if she were putting on an act to conceal her past secret identity, but it extends to her private thoughts as well. And this is just two issues after a storyline that depended on her Amazon ties. The inconsistencies in this run are very weird.
After a ghost-story one-shot, we get World’s Finest 204, crossing Superman with Diana in an O’Neil-scripted story touching on the student riots that were topical at the time, though mainly dealing with time travel to a desolate future resulting from the death of a key person in the riots. The story has an interestingly, though awkwardly, ambiguous ending.
Issue 196 combined three stories: a new Sekowsky-Giordano story about Diana protecting an ambassador from assassination, and a couple of Golden Age reprints, one previously unpublished. The trade includes only the original story. This is Sekowsky’s final issue, and I wonder if his departure was abrupt, because the next two issues are double-length reprints of issues 181-184, with only the covers included in the trade.
O’Neil returns as writer for the next few issues, with Don Heck pencils and Giordano inks in #199 and Giordano solo art for the rest of the run. The first 2-parter brings back Lu Shan and the supposedly dead Dr. Cyber, who wants to put her brain in Diana’s body to restore the beauty she lost (an all too typical motivation for female villains in the era). Oddly, in these later issues, O’Neil assumes that Diana Prince is publicly known as “the Wonder Woman,” even though there was no prior indication that the secret of Diana’s former identity had ever been exposed. It’s just another bit of sloppy continuity. However, there’s no specific reference to Wonder Woman ever having been a costumed Amazon superhero; it’s treated as just a nickname that Diana’s picked up through her exploits.
After this is a 2-parter in which Diana gets dragged into the pursuit of a sacred jewel that Catwoman (in one of her less flattering costumes) is also hunting — and in part 2, with SF writer Samuel R. Delany taking over as scripter, the cast gets dragged by the magic jewel into the world of Newhon, home of Fritz Lieber’s prose characters Fahfrd and the Gray Mouser! Apparently this was a backdoor pilot for a short-lived, O’Neil-scripted comic series starring the duo. There’s another random continuity change here, since O’Neil has Diana sell off her boutique to fund her trip in pursuit of the jewel. I don’t know why this is, since it was O’Neil who gave her the boutique in the first place. Lu Shan is also in this storyline, but is rather cavalierly written out, and her accusation that I Ching murdered her mother is never resolved or explained.
Next comes another Brave and the Bold Batman team-up by Bob Haney and Jim Aparo, and in this story, Diana knows that Bruce is Batman, though she didn’t discover that in their previous meeting. It’s also the first story in quite a while where we’ve seen Diana wearing anything that wasn’t pure white, presumably due to a different colorist at work (though it’s still mostly white). Diana is randomly assisted by an “Amazon guardian angel” who shows up in all of three panels and is never explained.
The final mod-era issue, scripted by Delany, is something of an embarrassment. It’s billed as a “special women’s lib issue,” and involves Cathy (remember her?) trying to persuade Diana to support a women’s-lib group fighting for equal pay at what turns out to be a crooked department store. Bizarrely, Diana resists supporting women’s liberation and says she doesn’t even like women much.
Yeah. The former Amazon princess… who spent her formative years and perhaps centuries of immortal adulthood on an island completely devoid of men… and who was sent to the outside world to teach patriarchal society the superior ways of her Amazon sisters… and who’s spent much of the past two dozen issues giving her enemies backtalk about how they shouldn’t assume women are helpless… and she doesn’t like women and needs to be talked into standing up for women’s equality. Excuse me?!
Apparently this was meant to be the first in a 6-issue arc by Delany in which Diana confronted women’s issues, culminating with Diana protecting an abortion clinic. But if this was how it began, maybe it’s just as well that we didn’t see the rest of it play out. And perhaps this rather screwed-up take on women’s lib was a somewhat fitting wrap-up for this era, because it was around this time that Gloria Steinem complained about feminist icon Wonder Woman having her superpowers and costume stripped away. Because of the public protest she raised, DC hastily abandoned the mod era and brought back Kanigher as writer/editor to restore the former status quo.
This happened in a painfully cursory way in issue 204, the final issue in the trade collection, written by Kanigher and illustrated by Heck and Giordano. I Ching is unceremoniously killed by a random sniper, and the police inexplicably allow Diana, a civilian, to ride on their helicopter as they go after him. She’s injured defeating the sniper and wakes up with total amnesia, but feels a salmon-like compulsion to go home, so she steals a jet. She’s conveniently shot down just off the coast of Paradise Island, which is back in our dimension without explanation. The Amazons restore her memory and her old costume; there’s no mention of restoring her superpowers, but she’s implicitly back to her old self, apparently with no memory of the entire mod era. She’s hired as a UN translator by some old guy who thinks she’s a “plain Jane” just because she’s in glasses and a sweater but otherwise looks exactly like she did before. Thus she is somehow “reborn” and the comic is restored to status quo in the most slapdash and creatively bankrupt way possible.
Was Steinem right? I don’t think so. It’s not as if Wonder Woman had been portrayed in a remotely feminist way over the decade that Kanigher had been writing the comic prior to the “mod” reboot. And for all the inconsistency and wackiness of the mod era, I think that removing Diana’s powers made her more effective as a feminist symbol rather than less. It showed that even a typical mortal woman could be a hero on the same level as Batman, achieving great things just with training, intelligence, courage, and compassion. And her wardrobe in this era was rather more practical and less objectifying than the star-spangled bathing suit. For its time, I think it did a good job at portraying Diana in a feminist way, and more understatedly than Delany attempted to do — just matter-of-factly treating her as ultracapable and independent. True, I Ching was an unfortunate stereotype, but less so than he could’ve been, given the era. I think there were definite merits to this version of Wonder Woman, and it didn’t deserve to be retconned and abandoned as completely as it was. At the very least it deserved a better wrapup than that dreadful Kanigher story.
(Some may remember the 1974 Wonder Woman TV pilot starring Cathy Lee Crosby as a non-superpowered Diana who wore a star-spangled track suit rather than the classic costume. That came about because the project began development during the time when the comics’ Wonder Woman was powerless and costumeless. Since the book returned to its original format during development or production of the movie, it ended up being sort of a hybrid of the two different versions of the character.)
Here’s an interesting essay I found covering Wonder Woman’s history in the comics from the beginning through 1986. It reveals (on p. 7) that as soon as issue 212, new editor Julius Schwartz and writer Len Wein did acknowledge that the mod era had happened, and that Diana had lost all her memory of it. Kanigher’s return as writer and editor of the series didn’t work out and lasted only seven issues. Which is no surprise, considering that he’d presided over its decline to the verge of cancellation. The mod era saved the comic and was the first attempt to make Wonder Woman a strong, serious hero since her creator William Moulton Marston had stopped writing her. I’m definitely glad I read it, and I wish it had lasted longer, or at least been allowed to have more of a lasting influence on later storylines. Although in its way, I think it did pioneer some important aspects of the modern version of the character.
Recently I rewatched the 2002 TV series Birds of Prey, a loose adaptation of the DC comic of the same name, which was produced for The WB (one of the two networks that later combined into what’s now The CW) by the executive producers of Smallville, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, and developed for television by Laeta Kalogridis. The series ran for only 13 episodes, all of which are on DVD along with the unaired initial version of the pilot.
The BoP comic is a spinoff of DC’s Batman titles, and in the version of the DC Universe that existed at the time, it was about Barbara Gordon, the former Batgirl who had been paralyzed by the Joker and gone on to become Oracle, information broker for the superhero community and leader of a team of female crimefighters including Huntress (Helena Bertinelli) and Black Canary (Dinah Lance). The TV series took some liberties with the backstory. Its version of Oracle, played by Dina Meyer, was quite faithful to the comics, but Huntress was a blend of the modern version and the original Earth Two version who was the daughter of the retired Batman and Catwoman. In this version, Batman (played briefly in flashbacks by Bruce Thomas, who had played Batman in a series of OnStar commercials) and Catwoman had been involved fairly early in his career, and Catwoman/Selina Kyle had borne his daughter, Helena Kyle (Ashley Scott), without informing either of them of their relationship. Seven years before the series begins, Batman and Batgirl had broken the Joker’s criminal empire once and for all, but the Joker (whose brief dialogue in the flashbacks is dubbed by Mark Hamill, voice of the Joker in the DC Animated Universe) had eluded capture long enough to murder the retired Selina in front of Helena’s eyes and to shoot Barbara, paralyzing her. A few months later, a mentally broken Batman left Gotham, leaving it in the care of Oracle, who eventually recruited Huntress. The series is set in the city of “New Gotham,” rebuilt at some point after a massive earthquake much like the “No Man’s Land” storyline in the comics, although the chronology of when these events happened in the series’ past is quite nebulous.
Oh, and in this version, apparently Catwoman was a metahuman with catlike superpowers that Helena inherited — a weird twist that was probably something the network insisted on so the series would be more like Smallville. Dinah Lance (Rachel Skarsten) is also changed considerably — she’s a 16-year-old runaway telepath/telekinetic who turns out to be the daughter of Black Canary, who in this universe was named Carolyn Lance. She’s drawn to New Gotham by a psychic vision of Oracle and Huntress and becomes their apprentice. The cast is fleshed out by the late Ian Abercrombie as Alfred Pennyworth, now serving the BoP as he served Batman; Shemar Moore as Jesse Reese, a cop who starts out unaware of metahumans (in this world, Batman and his foes waged their war in secret) but becomes Huntress’s colleague and eventual romantic interest; and Mia Sara as Dr. Harleen Quinzel, a prominent psychiatrist who’s secretly the Joker’s moll Harley Quinn and his successor as leader of the New Gotham underworld.
Conceptually, BoP is a bit of a mess. That’s not entirely its fault, since it was adapting a series that was an offshoot of a larger comics continuity and built on a lot of complicated backstory. But some of the choices made in the adaptation complicated things still further and made it harder to swallow. The writing is inconsistent, often bordering on the campy in its deadpan utterances of corny superhero cliches, while simultaneously trying to deconstruct superhero tropes, keep costumes to a minimum, and approach the characters in a more grounded way — or at least a more WB-melodrama sort of way in the vein of Charmed, say.
Also, the whole thing feels far too insular — both in the sense that it looks very stagey and confined to studio sets and backlots, and in the sense that everything seems to happen to the same small cast of characters. Harley isn’t just the evil mastermind, she’s also Helena’s therapist and the police’s go-to psychiatric consultant. Reese is not just seemingly the only detective in the entire city, but he also turns out to be the estranged son of the city’s leading mobster. And Dinah just happens to be the daughter of Black Canary, who was the archnemesis of that same mobster. It’s all pretty contrived.
The artificiality of the show’s look and dialogue, and its somewhat broad approach to superhero tropes, was most likely due to influence from the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher Batman films (since Batman Begins and its more grounded version of Batman was still three years in the future). The show does recycle costumes from those films; Barbara’s Batgirl costume, seen mainly in flashbacks, is a repainted version of the one Alicia Silverstone wore in Batman and Robin.
The main thing that makes this series worth watching is the cast, though that might only be true on a rather shallow level: to wit, all the women in the show are quite beautiful. I suppose Shemar Moore is rather good-looking too if your tastes run toward men. As for the acting, it’s a little more uneven. Dina Meyer is the standout; she’s a fantastic Barbara/Oracle, the best thing about the series by far. Mia Sara, playing very much against her usual type, does an excellent job as a version of Harley Quinn who’s more mature, menacing, and high-functioning than the Harley of Batman: The Animated Series and later the comics, but still has recognizable traces of Harley’s accent and her zany style of psychopathy. Ian Abercrombie makes a fantastic Alfred. Skarsten and Moore are just okay; Skarsten has improved greatly as an actress, and become significantly hotter, in the decade since she did this show (she was 17 at the time), and it’s been interesting to contrast her work on BoP with her current appearances in the third season of Lost Girl.
The greatest casting failure of this show, and perhaps part of the reason for its quick cancellation, is Ashley Scott as Helena/Huntress. She’s certainly nice to look at, but not a very strong actress (at least not at the time she did this series) and a rather poor choice for the part. Helena is supposed to be the daughter of Batman and Catwoman, and should be as impressive as they are. She’s intended to be feral, aggressive, driven, morally ambiguous, and embittered by tragedy — basically a distaff Wolverine. But as played by Scott, she comes off more as snarky, playful, kittenish, and pouty. I don’t know, maybe that was largely what the network wanted — again, I get the feeling they were looking for another Charmed and thus pushed for a similar tone. But it just didn’t fit what the character was supposed to be. And Scott simply didn’t have enough substance to carry the show as its nominal lead (yes, she got first billing), or to be convincing as Batman’s heir.
Also, the show seemed to lose track of the Dinah Lance character in the last few episodes. She had an arc that was developing in a promising direction, but in the last couple of episodes she was barely there, and was either ignored or depicted as useless in situations where her powers could’ve been instrumental in solving a problem. Although, granted, the writing in the final episode or two was forced and accelerated because (I think) the producers knew they’d been cancelled and wanted to bring the show to a resolution.
As for the unaired pilot, there are several things about it that didn’t work well and were correctly changed in the aired version. Mainly, in the original version, Sherilyn Fenn played Harley, and she gave a much more mediocre, much less distinctive performance than Sara’s (she wasn’t even blonde). Also, the Barbara-Helena relationship was played with more hostility (the dialogue was much the same but the performances were harsher), making both characters less sympathetic. It did make the emotional climax of the pilot more significant, but the trade-off wasn’t worth it. And Barbara’s romance with schoolteacher Wade (recurring cast member Shawn Christian) is portrayed as ending uncomfortably due to her secret crimefighting life, rather than just beginning as in the aired pilot. However, one thing about the unaired pilot is much better. In the aired version, the extended backstory sequence at the beginning is narrated by Alfred, but in the unaired version, it’s shown without narration, with exposition coming via newsreaders on TV. It’s actually a lot clearer that way. I think the execs must’ve thought the narration was needed to clarify things, but it just clutters the sequence and makes it feel more complicated and forbidding, because it comes off as a massive infodump, a lecture of stuff we need to know before the story starts, rather than just the first phase of the story we’re watching. “Show, don’t tell” is very true here. Every episode of the series had a trimmed-down but still rather lengthy version of this opening exposition at the start, and I think it may have been off-putting for viewers. Maybe a concept dependent on so much backstory just wasn’t a good choice to adapt for TV. And having Abercrombie deliver it as if he were telling a fairy tale didn’t make it easier to take the show seriously.
So basically, this was a show that had a few really worthwhile aspects, a few promising but mishandled elements, and a lot of mediocre and disappointing ones. It has one of the best ever screen portrayals of Barbara Gordon (even allowing for the rather dull romantic subplot with Wade that she’s saddled with) and of Alfred, and it deserves note for an interesting alternate interpretation of Harley Quinn (also the first live-action Harley, and still the only one outside of fan films). It also deserves credit for what, at the time, was a rather impressive digital cityscape of New Gotham. (Although its version of the BoP’s clock tower headquarters didn’t make sense; the clock was far too small to be visible from street level. Ironically, I think a different skyscraper from this virtual city ended up recycled as the exterior of Chloe’s clock tower in Smallville.) And it was kind of nice to have, for once, a live-action series set in a world where superheroes were abundant and had a whole pre-existing community and history like in the comics, even if it was handled somewhat awkwardly. But there was so much else about it, from concept to casting to writing to production values, that just didn’t work. It’s an interesting novelty but ultimately not a success.
Lately I’ve been revisiting two more animated shows from my youth, Filmation’s The New Adventures of the Lone Ranger from 1980 andThe New Adventures of Zorro from 1981, which aired as part of The Tarzan/Lone Ranger/Zorro Adventure Hour. Both are available on a combined DVD set (on alternate discs); however, Netflix only has the second Lone Ranger disc in stock at this time, so I’m having to settle for only seeing half the series. These shows date from the two years just after Filmation’s classic Flash Gordon, when their production values became more sophisticated. They, along with Blackstar, were the final adventure series produced by Filmation under producers Lou Scheimer and Norm Prescott together; after 1981, Prescott left and Scheimer continued alone.
As you can see from the titles mentioned above, Filmation at this point was heavily into adaptations of classic adventure heroes, and both Lone Ranger and Zorro were fairly faithful interpretations. The New Adventures of the Lone Ranger starred actor/announcer William Conrad (star of the TV series Cannon) as the voice of the Lone Ranger and the announcer of the opening titles, which faithfully recreated the narration from the original radio and TV shows, and used the standard William Tell Overture as the theme music. According to the special features, Conrad did the role out of love for the Lone Ranger but didn’t want to be credited by name (perhaps because he was a big star by then and didn’t want to be associated with kidvid, or perhaps as a more benevolent gesture so Filmation didn’t have to pay him as much as his name was worth), so he was billed pseudonymously as J. Darnoc — just his surname in reverse, with the “J.” probably an homage to Jay Ward, producer of shows such as The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Dudley Do-Right, which Conrad narrated. (At least that’s what I’ve always assumed; one of the people interviewed in the bonus features said it was Conrad’s middle initial. In fact his real name was John William Cann, Jr., so it would’ve been his first initial.) Tonto was played by Native American actor Ivan Naranjo; Filmation was generally pretty good at inclusive casting, making sure that “ethnic” characters were played by actors of the same ethnicity. The rest of the cast was… variable. Again, I’ve only gotten the second half of the series, but in the first few episodes on the disc, all the male voices other than the Ranger and Tonto are by Scheimer himself, and the female voices are by his wife Lane and his daughter Erika. All the Scheimers often did supporting voices in Filmation shows, but Scheimer was no Mel Blanc; he had a relatively wide repertoire of character voices, but they weren’t different enough that he could really carry an entire cast all by himself, so it quickly grew tiresome. And the female Scheimers simply weren’t very good actresses, especially the shrill-voiced Erika. Fortunately, the great Frank Welker took over as the main male “guest” voice after a while — a bit surprising, really, since the prolific Welker didn’t do much work with Filmation over the course of his career, except for a brief period from about 1979-81. Another few uncredited voices showed up here and there, including Alan Oppenheimer (Ming on Flash Gordon, Skeletor and Man-at-Arms on He-Man). Some of the Native American characters had a voice I recognize from the ’70s show Lassie’s Rescue Rangers, an actor who played a regular Native American character on that show; IMDb credits Hal Harvey in that role, but I’m not sure how much I trust that attribution. And there’s one guest role whose voice I’m almost certain belonged to Mission: Impossible star Greg Morris!
Anyway, Ranger followed a formula that probably wasn’t too different from the original television series, with the Ranger and Tonto travelling the West and nonviolently helping people in danger. The Ranger carried his gun and used his silver bullets, but only for precision shooting of ropes, branches, playing cards, and other inanimate objects. (In fact, silver bullets would be terrible for precision shots; the soft metal deforms easily and the bullets tend to spin or fragment.) He’d usually catch bad guys with his lasso. And the bad guys were often exceptionally bad for Filmation; usually Filmation antagonists tended to be misunderstood and readily reformed when shown a little kindness, but these were unrepentant scoundrels. In one episode, a pair of cattle rustlers/land thieves get their lives saved by the homesteader they were trying to rip off, and I expected them to apologize and repent their sins, but instead they remained the same lily-livered varmints they’d always been.
So maybe Filmation was a little less determined to be wholesome at this point, but they still strove to make the show educational, by having the Ranger and Tonto constantly get involved with real events and people from the Old West, including Mark Twain, Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley, Belle Starr, the James brothers, Matthew Brady, Nellie Bly, etc. I actually learned a lot about history from watching this show back in the day. The problem is that these events range from the brief run of the Pony Express in 1860-61 to the Oklahoma Land Rush in 1889, and yet the Ranger, Tonto, and their horses remain ageless and unchanging over this span of nearly three decades (which is not presented in any kind of chronological order). So in the course of teaching history, the show played a bit fast and loose with it.
Filmation’s limited animation at this point had reached the stage where they created some fluidly animated movement sequences — in this case, mainly involving riders mounting, dismounting, and riding horses, horses rearing up, etc. — and kept using them over and over and over again, often several times an episode. The highlight here is a rather nice shot of the heroes riding away from the camera, with Silver’s and Scout’s tails sweeping in to fill the frame with white and then rather gracefully swishing away while the riders recede into the distance. It’s a lovely bit of animation, but it does get a bit tired when you see it five times in eleven minutes. As usual for Filmation, though, the background art is superb — lush vistas of Western landscapes and towns, rendered in a painted-line-art style that’s unusual for Filmation but is quite elegant and beautiful. Some of the background art looks like it may have been traced from vintage photos or illustrations.
Zorro was a moderately faithful adaptation of Johnston McCulley’s creation, featuring characters from the original book — not just Don Diego/Zorro (one of the models for Batman, a masked hero who hides behind a foppish, dissolute facade), but his corrupt rival Capitan Ramon, the bumbling Sergeant Gonzalez, and his father Don Alejandro. Although they replaced Diego’s deaf/mute servant with Miguel, who’s basically the equivalent of the Green Hornet’s Kato — a servant who fights alongside the hero and has no nickname of his own (Zorro just calls him “amigo,” leading me to wonder how many non-Spanish-speaking kids thought that Amigo was his hero name). Most of the episodes were written by Arthur Browne Jr., a veteran writer of TV Westerns for decades, including The Rifleman, Gunsmoke, The Virginian, and The Big Valley. They did a good job capturing a classic adventure flavor, and Zorro’s personality as a dashing gentleman thief and Errol Flynn type, though the stories could be fairly simple, and quite repetitive if watched back to back on DVD. The remaining episodes were by Robbie London, who would go on to work on many later Filmation shows (notably He-Man) but who was just starting out here. His first episode, “Fort Ramon,” is an incoherent mess: Ramon takes over a mission and somehow manages to turn it into a fort with high stone walls in a matter of hours; then Zorro and Miguel plant explosives to blow it up but are discovered and driven off, yet it never occurs to Ramon to search the fort and find the explosives in plain sight; etc. Fortunately they weren’t all that bad.
What makes this show unique in Filmation’s canon is that it wasn’t animated in the US. This was the only time that Filmation gave into the trend of outsourcing the animation work to Asia, since the abundance of other work they had in 1981 required sharing the load. But they had the good sense to go with the best animation studio in Japan, Tokyo Movie Shinsha (who made Akira and did fine work on plenty of other US animated shows including The Real Ghostbusters, Batman: TAS, Superman: TAS, the ’90s Spider-Man, etc.). The storyboard and layout work was still done in-house at Filmation, though, as is usually the case. The show thus looks very different from Filmation’s usual work. On the one hand, the animation is much more fluid and less repetitive, though it still depends heavily on stock rotoscoped animation of swordfighting moves, with different characters traced over the same set of movements in different episodes/scenes. And it has some of those nifty little touches that make TMS work so expressive, like what I’ve come to think of as “the TMS run.” Most animation houses give running characters a pretty basic, regular motion cycle, but when TMS characters run, they often move irregularly, flailing and off-balance, their pace syncopated and uneven, and it just gives it such a sense of character and energy and naturalism. So overall, the animation is a great improvement on Filmation’s usual work. (It was rather amusing to hear Scheimer in the special features complaining that TMS’s work was below Filmation’s usual standard.) Yet on the other hand, TMS’s drawing and painting style at the time was rougher and messier than Filmation’s — the lines less clean, the background paintings more impressionistic. It doesn’t work as well for me, and it just doesn’t feel like a Filmation show.
Indeed, despite the fact that Zorro was the only collaboration between two of my favorite animation studios, Filmation and TMS, I’m surprised at how lukewarm I am about it. The production values are cool, but the stories don’t grab me. It’s a very straightforward historical series where the threats are things like pirates and floods and the oppressive policies of the greedy governor-general, and I guess that just doesn’t captivate me. And it has the usual problem of kids’ shows built around swordfighting, in that the fights always have to be inconclusive (see also Mystic Knights of Tir Na Nog). In the show, the fights always end with Zorro or Miguel disarming their opponents — which just makes me wonder why the opponents never just pick their swords back up. Although there are a few times when they do.
And one thing strikes me as odd about Zorro, watching it so soon after the 2012 presidential election. I’ve always thought of Filmation’s shows as socially liberal in orientation — promoting racial tolerance and diversity, peace over fighting, things like that. Yet Zorro‘s narrative of the corrupt government using taxation as a tool of oppression and theft, with the heroic outlaw returning the people’s money to them, feels like kind of a right-wing propaganda message, particularly considering that the show came out right after Ronald Reagan’s massive tax cuts were signed into law. I’m not saying that was the intent, and it probably wasn’t. Scheimer just picked up the rights to Zorro because it was an established property and an easier sell to the networks than an unknown concept, as he explained in the bonus interviews. And it certainly never occurred to me as a kid watching in ’81 to think of it in those terms. Still, watching it in a 2012 political context, it comes off a little oddly for Filmation.
Still, as with Lone Ranger, Filmation deserves credit for ethnically inclusive casting. The principal cast here was mostly Latino, headlined by Henry Darrow as Zorro/Don Diego. Darrow was actually the first Latino to play Zorro, and this was the first of three consecutive Zorro TV series that Darrow starred in, interestingly enough. Two years later, in the short-lived sitcom Zorro and Son, he played an aging Don Diego trying to train his bumbling son to take his place (yes, nearly the same premise as Anthony Hopkins’s The Mask of Zorro); and in the ’90s, Darrow played Don Alejandro opposite Duncan Regehr’s Zorro in the Disney Channel Zorro. The rest of the cast consists of people whose names I’m unfamiliar with, though Sgt. Gonzales was played by Don Diamond, who had a recurring role in the 1957 Guy Williams Zorro series as the assistant to Sgt. Garcia, the Gonzales-equivalent character in that show. So aside from Darrow, the only voice I recognize is Scheimer, who inevitably shows up doing various bit roles.
Both these shows are also from a new era musically; from about ’79 onward, Filmation stopped reusing musical cues from its earlier ’70s shows and its composers Ray Ellis and Norm Prescott (under the pseudonyms Yvette Blais and Jeff Michael) produced lusher, richer scores. Both LR and Z still used score libraries rather than scoring each episode individually, but each show’s library cues were written specifically for it rather than recycled from earlier shows, though a couple of Lone Ranger cues were recycled in Zorro and both shows cribbed the occasional Flash Gordon cue. Both scores are in a classy, rich orchestral style evocative of old adventure movies and serials, and are probably the best things about both shows. Although each show just recycles the same cues over and over (and whoever was editing Filmation’s music around 1980 liked to jump between brief fragments of different cues, which can be quite jarring), the cues themselves are really good, among my favorites of Ellis and Prescott’s work. Both shows’ scores are very reminiscent of the gorgeous Flash Gordon score, with the flavor of ’30s or ’40s movie and adventure-serial scores, but more tailored to their genres — more Western-sounding and Copland-influenced for LR, more Latin-tinged and Errol Flynn-esque for Zorro. Repetitive though it is, it’s gorgeous music, and I deeply wish somebody would unearth the original master tapes for all of Filmation’s music, restore and remaster it, and put it all on CD. Sadly, it’s unclear whether those masters even still exist. And there’s no telling what kind of clearance complications there would be, with so many of the scores written for licensed productions.
The Dreamworks movie How to Train Your Dragon just had its network TV premiere on FX, which is the first time I’ve seen it. I have caught the sequel TV series, which has the awkward although possibly AnneMcCaffrey-inspired title Dragons: Riders of Berk, and been underwhelmed by it; I found it okay but not very engaging. So I was curious to see how similar or different the movie was, but my expectations weren’t very high.
But it turned out to be pretty amazing. Well, it has a weak start — a big exposition dump with the hero narrating the backstory to the audience is kind of awkward. But the more I watched, the better it got. The story was pretty rich, with some good character dynamics and dilemmas, mainly between lead character Hiccup and his father the chief. There was some very good, subtle character animation, good music, a lot of quality stuff — and Jay Baruchel’s vocal performance as Hiccup was less annoying than it is on the TV series, because he had more subtle and multidimensional material to work with. And I really like the theme of the film — not only that there’s a better way to solve problems than violence and hate, but that intelligence, curiosity, and imagination are more powerful than brute force. But especially, the movie did an amazing job capturing the joy of flight. There were some moments of real visual grandeur and awe in the flying sequences, and I’m still a little stunned and breathless, even a bit misty-eyed as I think back on them. Really, really well done.
I think I’ll probably give the show another chance now. Maybe having a better sense of the characters and background will help. I still don’t think it will come anywhere close to living up to the movie, though.
I just discovered that Library Journal has named Only Superhuman its SF/Fantasy Debut of the Month. The money quote from the review by Jackie Cassada:
The sf debut and first original novel by the author of Star Trek: The Original Series: Ex Machina and other TV and comics tie-ins has created a world of believable supermen and women set against a complex world of rival factions not unlike those of Renaissance city-states. VERDICT: Bennett brings believability to the larger-than-life world of superheroes in a story that should appeal to sf and comics fans alike.
That last sentence is just about exactly what I hoped people would say about my book. Really great to hear. I admit, there are a couple of less flattering reviews out there, and I was starting to worry. I’ve long believed that anything with enough substance to evoke strong positive reactions in some people would inevitably evoke strong negative reactions in others, so I’d be okay with a mix of both. (I’ve gotten a similar reaction to the T’Ryssa Chen character I created for my Star Trek: TNG novels, a character who has a lot in common with Emerald Blair; some people strongly dislike her, while others are very fond of her.) But until now, the positive reactions have been a little sparse, and I’ve been getting a little neurotic about it. So this review is very reassuring. (Actually it’s dated 9 days ago, but somehow I’ve missed it until now.)
The comparison to Renaissance city-states is interesting. Insofar as I had a historical model in mind, I was probably thinking more in terms of ancient Greek city-states — and to a large extent of modern ethnic and religious nationalism and the ways it divides us and causes more problems than it solves.
(Edited to add the review link)
Recently Turner Classic movies aired both the 1931 and 1941 film versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on consecutive days, giving me a good chance to compare the two. The ’31 version was directed by Rouben Mamoulian and starred Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins, and Rose Hobart. It was a remarkable piece of filmmaking for its day, very technically innovative, with an impressive use of POV shots, including a brilliant opening sequence that’s shot almost entirely from Jekyll’s own point of view, which must’ve taken some very creative camera work. Our first view of Jekyll himself (here pronounced “Jee-kle,” a more correct pronunciation than the “Jeckle” version we use today) is from his own POV as he looks in a mirror, foreshadowing the later shot where we see Hyde for the first time also from his own POV — both no doubt achieved by building a duplicate set behind a clear piece of glass so that the “reflection” was actually March himself. There are also lots of clever scene transitions, particularly the recurring use of diagonal split screens to juxtapose characters and events and convey the theme of duality. I’d love to see a “making-of” featurette or article about the movie. Plus there were all the transformation effects, of course, and though the dissolves and jump cuts are familiar techniques today, there was one technique used that’s still impressive, and that only works in black-and-white. I read about it in The Twilight Zone Companion — they’d paint the first stage of the transformation makeup on the actor in red (say), then light him through a red filter so it was invisible, and then they’d switch to a green filter so it would fade into view, and he would visibly begin to transform right before our eyes, purely in camera. It was done quite effectively here.
I found Hyde’s makeup (by Wally Westmore) and his behavior more comical than frightening at first, but when it got into his ongoing abuse of Ivy (Hopkins), it became quite chilling and dark, and surprisingly modern in its frank portrayal of a sexually abusive relationship. The sexual content was pretty blatant for the era, even with a partial nude scene (plus some nude paintings/sculptures clearly visible at some points), though I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised since it came out before the Hays Code was enforced.
I also feel Hyde’s appearance was given away too soon. There should’ve been more mystery about what was going on in that first transformation, some suspense about what the results of Jekyll’s experiments were. Heck, in the original Robert Louis Stevenson story, we didn’t find out that Hyde and Jekyll were the same man until after he/they died! True, most of it was told in flashback, which was a very clumsy format for the story, but the movie could’ve tried to capture some of that sense of mystery.
Unfortunately, the 1941 version is a greatly inferior film. Despite being from a rather accomplished director, Victor Fleming, who’d done Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, it was a much less innovative, much more ordinary production than the previous film, with nothing really intriguing done with the direction, cinematography, or special effects. The casting was also pretty bad. Spencer Tracy was just too nice a guy to be effectively menacing, and as much as I like Ingrid Bergman, it was kind of painful to listen to her trying to pretend to be a Cockney. Though on the other hand, I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen a Lana Turner movie, and she was really lovely.
The movie also suffered greatly from the Hays Code. The hand of censorship was so heavy that the movie couldn’t really explore or depict what made Hyde so evil. It implied that he was sexually violating and abusing Ivy off-camera, but it was executed so sedately that what we saw onscreen made Hyde seem more just uncouth and annoying than cruel and terrifying, so it never really sold the sense of menace. Given the radical difference in censorship, I’m surprised the ’41 movie hewed so closely to the ’31 film’s storyline. I mean, that’s a movie that’s heavily dependent on the sexual nature of Hyde’s relationship with Ivy to demonstrate how brutal and abusive he is. Try to tell the same story with the sexuality swept under the rug and it’s rendered hollow. Maybe they should’ve told a different version of the story altogether, one where Hyde’s evil was demonstrated through crime and violence and stuff they could actually show, instead of nebulously implied sexual cruelty. After all, the original Stevenson work doesn’t include the Ivy character or Jekyll’s more wholesome fiancee, and avoids specific description of Hyde’s debaucheries aside from a murder or two.
Jack Dawn’s makeup for Hyde was also way too subtle, basically just a wig, a small appliance on the brows and nose, some wrinkles around the eyes, and bushy eyebrows, with the rest being just Tracy bugging his eyes and grinning. Fredric March’s Jekyll turned into an apelike brute, but Tracy essentially turned into Burgess Meredith as the Penguin. No, strike that; at least the Penguin was interesting to watch. Plus it was completely ridiculous that nobody could tell that Jekyll and Hyde were the same man. At least Clark Kent had glasses. The whole thing was kind of embarrassing, and greatly disappointing.
Although I guess it’s kind of appropriate that of two consecutive versions of DJ&MH, one would be good and the other would be bad.
The folks at the Flavorwire website recently solicited opinions from various comics- and superhero-related authors about which comic-book characters they felt deserved their own TV series (other than their own), and thanks to the efforts of my publicist at Tor, I’m one of the people they asked. To see my answer (which is tenth on the list), read the article:
Well, it’s been an interesting journey: three eras of Godzilla films and at least seven different continuities. (My previous posts: Shōwa Era, Heisei Era, Millennium Era Pt. 1, Millennium Era Pt. 2.) Which would I say were the best? Well, keeping in mind that I’ve only seen about 8 of the Shōwa films in recent months (though I’ve seen most of the later Godzilla films from that era in decades past) and only the last 5 Heisei films, I’d say the most important and worthwhile installments are:
- Godzilla (or Gojira) (1954)
- Mothra (1961)
- Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)
- Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth (1992)
- Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993)
- Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995)
- Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (2000)
- Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (or GMK) (2001)
I’d also more grudgingly recommend 1955′s Godzilla Raids Again as an important member of the Shōwa continuity. It’s a relatively boring film, and a huge letdown after the original, but it’s significant from a continuity standpoint in establishing the existence of a second Godzilla and explaining in retrospect why the original one attacked Tokyo in the first place. Similarly, 1991′s Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah is quite important to the Heisei continuity, though it brings in some very problematical time-travel concepts and some uncomfortably jingoistic politics (which are diametrically opposed to those of GMK). And the first Heisei-series film, The Return of Godzilla from 1984, would certainly be an important part of the series, if only it were available on DVD.
I’d say my favorite era overall is Heisei. Certainly the original 1954 film was the best by a very wide margin, one of the most powerful, thoughtful, dark, and dramatic monster movies ever made. But if we’re talking overall eras, then Heisei was the one that had the highest percentage of strong entries, and the tightest continuity binding it together. The various Shōwa films are treated as a single continuity, but that’s largely retroactive due to popular monsters being brought back in later films, and really the whole thing doesn’t fit together all that smoothly. But Heisei had continuing human characters and a loose evolving storyline through seven films, and though it has some glaring continuity issues in a couple of movies, overall it does the best job of conveying a sense of a consistent and developing universe. It’s also perhaps the most satisfying era musically, with Akira Ifukube distilling and refining so many of his best themes from the franchise in four of the seven films.
Still, consistency isn’t everything. It’s fascinating to me how the Godzilla franchise has handled continuity overall. In Star Trek fandom, I see so many people (not the majority, but certainly a vocal minority) complaining when tie-in novels or comics aren’t consistent with each other or are superseded by later episodes or films, or crying bloody murder that the new Abrams films dared to create an alternate timeline. But I look at something like Godzilla, where the creators have intentionally embraced multiple conflicting yet partly overlapping realities and made it a feature rather than a bug, and I have to wonder what Trek fans are complaining about. If anything, they’re missing out. Remixing a fictional universe, reinventing it and giving it a new identity and approach, comparing the different ways its history and ground rules can be constructed, is a lot of fun.
And what’s particularly wild about the Godzilla/daikaiju franchise is that its separate continuities aren’t completely separate, but have certain films in common. The original Godzilla is a part of virtually, if not literally, every different universe in the franchise. Mothra, War of the Gargantuas, and possibly other non-Godzilla films are part of the Shōwa, Kiryu, and Final Wars continuities. And at the risk of offending purists, I can make a case that the 1998 American Godzilla has a place in more than one continuity (see below). And yet these aren’t simply alternate timelines, histories diverging from a shared origin; they’re wholesale reimaginings of the underlying premise of the franchise. Many of them reinterpret the very nature of Godzilla and his 1954 attack — including the same events but changing their meaning, context, and history, offering different theories of what Godzilla is, where he came from, and why he attacked. They’re different, incompatible realities from the start, but they include equivalent events. It’s an intriguing ongoing experiment in invention, and it demands flexibility and an open mind.
So since I love making lists, here are my semi-conjectural overviews of the various Godzilla continuities to date. This will not be a strictly chronological list, since some of the continuities are more closely related than others and I’ll group them together for easier comparison.
1) Shōwa universe: Includes all Toho daikaiju/tokusatsu films from 1954-1975, more or less
In this reality, many giant prehistoric animals survive to the present in remote areas of the Pacific or in dormant states. Beginning in the 1950s, atomic radiation and the spread of civilization displace or revive them, leading them to jeopardize human populations. The first attacks come in 1954-5 by two members of a giant amphibious dinosaur species named Godzillas, a name the Otoshima natives gave to one or more of the creatures which they worshipped as a sea god. The first Godzilla was killed by Dr. Serizawa’s Oxygen Destroyer, but the secret of the weapon was lost, so the second Godzilla could only be temporarily incapacitated or contained, usually through the intervention of other daikaiju including the island deities King Kong and Mothra. A series of alien invasions also imperiled Earth, and in time Godzilla II and other kaiju, driven by territorial instinct, became defenders of the Earth in grudging cooperation with the human military. Godzilla II mellowed further upon adopting a third, juvenile member of the species, and eventually became somewhat friendly toward humans. In time, Monster Island was established as a nature preserve for daikaiju, and they lived in relative peace with humanity.
2) Kiryu universe: Includes Godzilla (1954), Mothra (1961), The War of the Gargantuas (1966), Space Amoeba (1970), Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002), Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2003), possibly other Shōwa-era non-Godzilla kaiju films
This reality is much like the Shōwa universe, except that Godzilla I’s skeleton survived the Oxygen Destroyer, Godzilla II did not emerge in 1955, and no alien invasions occurred. A second Godzilla finally emerges in 1999 and has a spiritual connection to the remains of the original. The original Mothra apparently dies in battle against some kaiju other than Godzilla, and leaves a single offspring. (To explain how Chujo could recognize an attack from a movie not part of this continuity.)
3) Final Wars universe: Includes Godzilla (1954), Mothra (1961), Godzilla: Final Wars (2004), probably Godzilla Raids Again (1955), King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964), and other non-Godzilla Shōwa films
Another Shōwa variant in which the alien invasions of the ’50s-’70s do not occur, but the Xilians of Planet X interbred with humanity at some point in the past, leading to the rise of a breed of superhuman mutants within the last generation. The second Godzilla did emerge, perhaps as seen in Shōwa, but without the invasions, Godzilla II never “reforms” and continues to menace Earth until he is buried in the Antarctic c. the early 1980s. Earth’s nations unite against the ongoing kaiju menace, forming the Earth Defense Force, which recruits the mutants as part of its anti-kaiju forces.
4) Heisei universe: Includes Godzilla (1954) and all films from The Return of Godzilla (1984) through Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995), though G v SpaceGodzilla (1994) is dispensable
In this reality, very few prehistoric giants survive to the present. The main exception is a land-dwelling carnosaur of the Godzillasaurus species, which is mutated by American atomic tests into the much larger Godzilla, attacks Tokyo in 1954, and is defeated by the Oxygen Destroyer. Either this Godzilla regenerates or two different mutants were created the same way; reports are unclear and conflicting. The second or regenerated Godzilla, possessing a nuclear reactor for a heart and needing to feed on nuclear energy, emerges to attack Japan again in 1984 and periodically throughout the early ’90s. The Japanese government employs psychics to assist in its conflict with Godzilla, the most powerful of whom, Miki Saegusa, eventually joins G-Force, a UN-operated anti-Godzilla task force employing reverse-engineered technology brought back from the 22nd century. Other prehistoric survivors include unhatched Rodan and Godzillasaurus eggs which are revived by radiation, causing the former to become giant; the latter begins at normal size but is later mutated by radiation exposure after being adopted by Godzilla. All other daikaiju in this reality are created by science or mutation, except for the prehistoric Earth spirits Mothra and Battra.
5) Steve Martin universe: Includes Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956), Godzilla 1985
Evidently a variant on the Heisei reality. Events of Godzilla’s 1954 and 1984 attacks occur slightly differently and may take place 1-2 years later. In this version, American reporter Steve Martin is peripherally involved in the events of the initial Godzilla attack, and plays a role in persuading Dr. Serizawa’s fiancee Emiko Yamane to reveal the existence of the Oxygen Destroyer, a decision she reaches on her own in most realities. Three decades later, Martin serves as a Pentagon consultant during the second Godzilla attack.
6) Millennium universe: Includes Godzilla 2000: Millennium (1999)
The vaguest of all Godzilla continuities. Godzilla exists, feeds on nuclear energy, and has been troubling Japan regularly for years, but evidently not very many years since scientists know little about him. It is not even clear whether the original 1954 attack occurred in this reality. Given Godzilla’s attraction to nuclear energy, this could hypothetically be a Heisei variant in which the psychic research program and G-Force never arose, and in which Godzilla’s more recent attacks began later or came more infrequently.
7) G-Graspers universe: Includes most or all of Godzilla (’54), Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (2000)
In this reality, Godzilla either was not attacked by the Oxygen Destroyer at all or was incompletely destroyed and regenerated (I suspect the latter, since a character says that “this time” they must make sure nothing remains of him). Godzilla makes his second attack in 1966 when Japan’s first nuclear reactor goes online. His periodic attacks on nuclear plants lead to the outlawing of nuclear energy in Japan. Decades of alternative-energy research, and the absence of other daikaiju, produce a fairly prosperous and technologically advanced present.
8) GMK universe: Includes Godzilla (1954), Godzilla (1998), Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001)
Godzilla is a receptacle for the restless dead killed by the Japanese war machine in World War II, and attacks Japan in 1954 out of vengeance. After his defeat, Japan is kaiju-free for half a century, and the government suppresses many details of the original attack to avoid humiliating the Self Defense Force, leading to a world where the Japanese have little memory of Godzilla and underestimate him as a threat, with some even considering him a legend. Thus, when a similar giant lizard mutated by French nuclear tests emerges in 1998 and attacks New York City, some Japanese observers mistake it for Godzilla. Years later, the real Godzilla completes regenerating and attacks Japan again to punish its populace for forgetting the crimes of WWII, but is confronted by the ancient spiritual defenders of the land, the Yamato Monsters Mothra, Baragon, and Ghidorah.
9) H.E.A.T. universe: Includes Godzilla (1954), Godzilla (1998), Godzilla: The Series (1998-2000)
Events unfold similarly to the GMK universe, with the real Godzilla’s attack and destruction occurring in 1954 and its details being largely forgotten. The mutant lizard misidentified as Godzilla attacks New York and is killed, but its one surviving offspring imprints on biologist Nick Tatopolous, who “tames” it and calls it Godzilla as well. This namesake creature assists Tatopolous’s Humanitarian Environmental Analysis Team in dealing with other giant mutant creatures that emerge around the world, as well as an alien invasion or two. Whether the real Godzilla ever returns is unknown. (Although the ’98 film fits neatly into the GMK universe, G:TS does not, since the characters in GMK were unaware of the spate of kaiju incidents in the animated series.)
It seems the various realities break down into three clusters: One where Godzilla is one of many giant prehistoric species that survive to the present; one where Godzilla is an atomic mutant who needs to feed on nuclear energy; and one where Godzilla is a force of spiritual vengeance and was unique in the world until around the turn of the millennium.
I’m not counting the Hanna-Barbera Godzilla cartoon in this listing since its version of Godzilla is too different from the original, breathing actual fire instead of an atomic ray and having Superman-like heat vision, as well as being quite different in appearance. It also has no sense of a backstory and no evident connection to the original film, so there’s really nothing to discuss.
I’m tempted to include the excellent 1954 American film Them! in the Heisei continuity, since it predates Godzilla by several months and was perhaps the first film to depict animals (in this case ants) being mutated to giant size by atomic radiation, a characteristic trope of the Heisei continuity. Since it ends with the lead scientist acknowledging that other giant mutant creatures may arise in the future, it makes a natural lead-in to the emergence of Godzilla. Although it treats mutation somewhat more credibly than the Heisei universe does, since its giant ants only emerge after multiple generations of mutation, as opposed to specific individual creatures actually transforming into giants. Of course there was a spate of later American giant-monster films, some of which might also be compatible with the Godzilla continuity, but I’m not well-versed in them. We might also consider 1953′s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which was a direct inspiration for Godzilla. There’s also Harryhausen’s It Came from Beneath the Seafrom 1955, featuring an irradiated giant octopus displaced from its natural feeding grounds by the very same Marshall Islands nuclear tests that led to Godzilla’s rampage the previous year. I’m unsure whether to include it, since there’s no mention of the Godzilla incident in contexts where the characters would normally be expected to bring it up; but then, the same probably goes for films like Rodan and Mothra too.
One thing the Godzilla franchise has few of are recurring human characters. For whatever reason, the tendency in the Shōwa era was to build each film around a new set of characters, even though they often reused the same actors in different roles. The Heisei era had several recurring characters but also quite a few one-time characters. Millennium only had one (briefly) continuing universe, yet replaced most of its characters between the two films. But there were several cases of “legacy” characters from early films being brought back decades later.
So here’s my attempt to create another list, in this case of recurring characters from the Godzilla/daikaiju franchise. I tried to find if something like this already existed online, to save myself the trouble, but I couldn’t find anything. So here’s my best try, which might be incomplete:
- Dr. Kyohei Yamane (Takashi Shimura): Godzilla (’54), Godzilla Raids Again (’55): Paleontologist, the first Godzilla expert
- Emiko Yamane (Momoko Kōchi): Godzilla (’54), Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (’95): Daughter of Dr. Yamane, fiancee of Dr. Serizawa, adoptive aunt of reporter Yukari Yamane and student Kenichi Yamane
- Shinichi Chujo (Hiroshi Koizumi): Mothra (’61), Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2003): Linguist on expedition that discovered Mothra, father of Yoshito Chujo, grandfather of Shun Chujo
- Professor Miura (Hiroshi Koizumi): Mothra vs. Godzilla (’64), Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (’64): Polymath scientist (uncertain; see below)
- Miki Saegusa (Megumi Odaka): Godzilla vs. Biollante (’89), G v King Ghidorah (’91), Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth (’92), G v Mechagodzilla II (’93), G v SpaceGodzilla (’94), G v Destoroyah (’95): Telepath and psychic instructor/researcher, government consultant, member of G-Force following its establishment in 1993
- Takayuki Segawa (Kenji Sahara): G v Mechagodzilla II, G v SpaceGodzilla, G v Destoroyah (aka the G-Force trilogy): Government minister overseeing G-Force (note: Sahara also played an Army Commander Segawa in Terror of Mechagodzilla in a different continuity)
- Commander Takaki Aso (Akira Nakao): G-Force trilogy: Commanding officer of G-Force
- General Hyodo (Koichi Ueda): G v Mechagodzilla II, G v SpaceGodzilla: Deputy commander of G-Force
- Akane Yashiro (Yumiko Shaku): G against Mechagodzilla, G: Tokyo SOS (Kiryu duology): Pilot of Kiryu/Mechagodzilla
- Lt. Togashi (Ko Takasugi): Kiryu duology: Backup Kiryu/White Heron pilot
- Lt. Hayama (Yusuke Tomoi): Kiryu duology: Backup Kiryu/White Heron pilot
- Hayato Igarashi (Akira Nakao): Kiryu duology: Prime Minister of Japan
- Chief Hitoyanagi (Takeo Nakahara): Kiryu duology: Head of JXSDF
- General Dobashi (Koichi Ueda): Kiryu duology: Member of JXSDF
- Dr. Gorou Kanno (Naomasa Musaka): Kiryu duology: JXSDF scientist
I could also include the two pairs of actresses to play Mothra’s heralds the Shobijin: Emi and Yumi Ito in Mothra, Mothra vs. Godzilla, and Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, and Masami Nagasawa and Chihiro Otsuka in Tokyo SOS and Final Wars. But they’re not technically human, and the latter case is across two different continuities. There’s also the borderline case of Shelley Sweeney, who’s a Mechagodzilla operator named Susan in the first G-Force film and an unnamed technician in the third; it’s unclear whether they’re meant to be the same character.
Professor Miura may not actually be a recurring character; some references list Koizumi’s character in Ghidorah as Professor Murai instead. But I get more hits from “Miura” than from “Murai,” so for the moment I’m going with that. If both of Koizumi’s consecutive professors were in fact Miura, then there are apparently three actors who’ve played two recurring characters, not just two as I said in my last post: Hiroshi Koizumi, Akira Nakao, and Koichi Ueda. And all three of them are in Tokyo SOS. So if not for Tokyo SOS, there’d be nobody who’d played two different recurring human roles in the franchise, but because of it there are three (or at least two).
But Miki Saegusa is the most frequently recurring character by a factor of two, appearing six times while the next highest number of appearances is three in the case of G-Force Commander Aso and Minister Segawa (who might have appeared four times if you count his Shōwa namesake as the same character), and the ’60s generation of Shobijin if you want to count them. (The Shobijin in SOS are explicitly different individuals.) All other recurring characters (that I know of) appeared only twice. And Miki, Chujo, and (maybe) Miura are the only ones who appear as central characters in more than one film, though that’s borderline in Chujo’s case. Generally they’re either supporting characters or characters who are featured in one film and then cameo in another.
A final note: There’s a new American version of Godzilla in production from Legendary Pictures for a 2014 release, in time for the franchise’s 60th anniversary. From the production art we’ve seen, this Godzilla will be far closer in appearance to the various Toho versions than the 1998 American Godzilla was. Reports are that it’s a reboot, but I’m hoping that it, like essentially all prior Godzilla movies, will turn out to be a sequel to the 1954 original. After all, even the Emmerich film can be implicitly interpreted to be in a universe where the original film occurred, especially since it was directly referenced as part of the GMK continuity. (“Zilla” appears in Final Wars as well, but the ’98 film could not have occurred in that daikaiju-plagued reality.) If the goal this time is to be truer to the original character and franchise, then it seems to me that a core element of what defines the franchise is that the original film is virtually always included as part of its history. And it would be nice to add a tenth universe to my list above.
Kirkus Reviews has posted its list of “Can’t-Miss Science Fiction and Fantasy Books for October” — and, well, Only Superhuman didn’t technically make the “Can’t-Miss” part of the list. However, it is listed in the “Worthy Runners-Up” section at the bottom as a “worthwhile” title for “more voracious readers.” And you know, in a month that features the Gregory Benford-Larry Niven “Big Smart Object” novel Bowl of Heaven (also from Tor) and the new Iain M. Banks “Culture” novel The Hydrogen Sonata, that’s kinda not bad.
In other news, the cover to Only Superhuman may have inspired a fundraiser for charity, courtesy of fantasy author Jim C. Hines. Admittedly, it’s kind of about poking fun at the cover, but I can be philosophical about that because a) it’s for a good cause and b) it brought a good deal of new attention to the book and to my blog, which has gotten a record number of views in the past few days.
The first three Godzilla films Toho made in what’s called the Millennium Era, which I covered in the previous post in this series, were all set in different continuities — treating the original 1954 film as canon just as every sequel has, but disregarding every other film since. I gather that the idea was to test out three possible directions for the series before settling on one to carry forward in subsequent films. The “winners” were the makers of Godzilla vs. Megaguirus: director Masaaki Tezuka, writer Wataru Mimura (who also wrote my favorite Heisei-era film, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II), and composer Michiru Ohshima.
But instead of staying with the new continuity of Megaguirus, this time they went back to an old one, more or less. 2002′s Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla, or GXMG as it’s abbreviated on the Japanese poster (in fact, it’s the third film to bear the identical title Gojira tai Mekagojira in Japanese), is set in a universe that’s essentially a variant of the original Shōwa-era kaiju continuity, incorporating non-Godzilla Shōwa films including Mothra and War of the Gargantuas in its backstory — but which only experienced the one Godzilla attack in 1954. So Japan’s Anti-Megalosaurus Force has gotten pretty good at fending off daikaiju over the decades. But when a second Godzilla does finally emerge in 1999, they’re flatfooted, because Godzillae are in a class by themselves. A young (and very, very pretty) lieutenant, Akane Yashiro, panics during a retreat and gets her commander killed. She’s transferred to the file room as punishment, and spends the next three and a half years being very, very serious and harnessing the power of the training montage to perfect her abilities. Meanwhile, single-dad scientist Yuhara, who’s invented the bionic trilobite for some reason, is recruited to a government project to build an anti-Godzilla weapon literally out of the bones of the original Godzilla, which in this continuity survived the Oxygen Destroyer rather than being disintegrated as in the original film. (The first Godzilla’s death scene is recreated using CGI which somehow looks even more ridiculous than the original effects.) He only agrees when he’s allowed to make every day Bring Your Daughter to Work Day, and little Sara becomes a fixture at the project, somehow not aging over the 3-4 years it takes to complete.
Sara coins the name “Mechagodzilla,” but the cyborg’s official code name is Kiryu, don’t ask me why. Somewhere along the line, the AMF is renamed the JXSDF, the Japan Counter-Xenomorph Self-Defense Force. (The Millennium series films put “X” in their titles in place of tai/vs., and I guess here they wanted to extend the branding and thus concocted that labored designation.) The JXSDF commander decides Akane’s been a good girl and is the best pilot around (which is the first we’ve heard that she even was a pilot), so he picks her to drive Kiryu, earning her the resentment of Hayama, kid brother of the commander she got killed. The goofy Yuhara is smitten with Akane and comes onto her a bit creepily, though it’s supposed to be endearing. Sara doesn’t like her, since she still misses her late mother.
Unlike the Heisei Mechagodzilla, Kiryu is piloted remotely from a plane called a White Heron. The new Godzilla shows up during Kiryu’s big unveiling, so they scramble into action to take on the big guy, pinning their hopes on Kiryu’s Absolute Zero freeze ray. Akane manages to send Godzilla into retreat. But as soon as G gives off his famous roar, it triggers something in Kiryu that causes it to go rogue and act just like the Godzilla whose bones and DNA it contains — or rather, how that Godzilla would behave if he had shoulder-mounted missile batteries. There goes the neighborhood, literally. All the JXSDF can do is wait until his batteries run down. Oh, and Akane saves Hayama’s life and earns the team’s admiration, but Hayama still resents her.
Yuhara realizes that maybe it was a mistake to build his DNA computer (which uses the four DNA bases for quaternary calculation rather than binary and is thus far faster) using DNA extracted from Godzilla I’s skeleton, causing Kiryu’s “brain” to resonate with its Godzillan heritage. The fix is ridiculously simple: he’ll just build a new computer out of some other source of DNA. Meanwhile, he bonds further with Akane, revealing how his wife died while carrying their second child, leaving Sara rather troubled by death. Sara wishes Kiryu could just be friends with Godzilla like Kiryu “wants.” Akane tells her she identifies with Kiryu, feeling worthless and unwanted, her birth a mistake, but Sara tells her no life is worthless.
The prime minister who initiated the Kiryu project is facing a scandal after its runaway attack, but when Godzilla comes back — drawn to the skeleton within Kiryu — there isn’t any other way to fight him, and Yuhara and company have completed their suspense-free repairs, so it’s off to another battle. The climactic fight in this short movie isn’t very impressively shot; it takes place in what looks like a Power Rangers cityscape, with an implausibly wide central street bracketed by cheap-looking miniature buildings. There’s a big fight, Kiryu’s remote controls get knocked out, so Akane risks her life by going down and taking manual control from inside Kiryu. Godzilla knocks her half-unconscious, but she’s rallied by a memory montage (girl likes her montages) and calls on Kiryu to fight alongside her as “buddies” (so say the subtitles, which I don’t think were written by a native English speaker). Hayama makes a kamikaze run to try to give Akane a window to fire the Absolute Zero cannon, but she refuses to let another Hayama die and saves him — then inexplicably flies Godzilla into Tokyo Bay and sets off the AZ gun there, basically wasting most of its energy on freezing the water, even though she had plenty of opportunity to zap him on land. Godzilla is driven away for now but still alive. Basically Akane’s guilty of gross negligence here, far worse than in the 1999 accident, but the movie doesn’t see it that way, since of course the filmmakers need the battle to be a draw so there’ll be a sequel. And Sara accepts Akane now and she and Yuhara go out to dinner, but for some reason we don’t find that out until the post-credits scene. (I wonder if they went out for shawarma.)
Given its pedigree, I was hopeful this would be a good one, but it’s pretty mediocre. The plot’s fairly shallow, the miniature effects aren’t great, and nothing is done with the partial reintegration of Shōwa continuity beyond a stilted exposition scene near the beginning. It does have its merits, though. Yumiko Shaku is the prettiest leading lady I’ve ever seen in a kaiju film, though she’s playing very much against her girlish type and does well as the somber Akane. And the Godzilla suit this time is the best one in the Millennium series so far, looking more like the Heisei version but with a heavier, more reptilian neck like the first Millennium design and a very sinister-looking face. Ohshima’s music is pretty good, reviving the same themes he used in Megaguirus, though it’s quite repetitive and I’m less happy to have it stuck in my head all day than I am with Akira Ifukube’s Godzilla themes. And there’s an interesting bit of realpolitik where we get a hint of the public and press reaction to the Japanese government’s decision to build a weapon of mass destruction to fight Godzilla, although there wasn’t any real follow-through. Still, it’s the weakest film yet from Tezuka and Mimura.
The second Kiryu film was released in 2003 as Godzilla × Mothra × Mechagodzilla: Tokyo SOS, though it’s known stateside simply as Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. It’s a direct sequel to the 1961 Mothra, and something of a remake of Mothra vs. Godzilla. It begins in 2004 with Mothra and the new generation of Shobijin (the foot-high twin ladies who are Mothra’s heralds/warmup act) dropping in on Shinichi Chujo, one of the main characters from the original Mothra. They tell him, his nephew Yoshito Chujo (who happens to be on Kiryu’s maintenance crew), and his young grandnephew Shun that Mothra’s very cross with humanity for desecrating Godzilla’s bones to make Kiryu, and will declare war on them if they don’t return the bones to the sea. When asked how Japan will protect itself from Godzilla, they say Mothra will defend them.
But Young Chujo the engineer has a geek-crush on Kiryu and doesn’t want to hear it, and when Old Chujo takes it to the Prime Minister, the latter is skeptical, since Mothra wasn’t exactly kind to Tokyo the first time. Still, Kiryu’s badly trashed from the last movie, and the Absolute Zero cannon is beyond repair, so we’re stuck with some mediocre character stuff while they try to fix the thing. Unfortunately, Akane and the other pilots from the previous film only appear briefly before being shipped off to the US for advanced training, and we’re introduced to two new pilots: the obligatory jerky rival who will learn to grudgingly respect Chujo by the end and the obligatory vague romantic interest for Chujo that nothing will really come of. Why even replace the characters if they were just going to copy the same basic dynamic?
There’s a bit more politicking about Mothra’s threat, but nobody’s willing to act on it, and apparently neither is Mothra. It’s not long before Godzilla returns, again drawn to the bones of the original, and little Shun defies the evacuation order and runs to his school, somehow managing to single-handedly move dozens of desks and chairs outside to make a large version of the symbol that summons Mothra (they must have very high physical fitness standards in Japan — kid wasn’t even winded). The PM holds off on using Kiryu to see what Mothy can do, but she’s frankly a little ineffectual and does more damage to Tokyo than to Godzilla, and takes some serious damage herself. Eventually Mothra begins her last-ditch attack of shedding her scales onto Godzilla, and Old Chujo, who’s come into the evacuated city to find Shun, recognizes that Mothra expects to die and thus is using the scale attack she can only use once. The problem is that Old Chujo shouldn’t know this, because that only happened in Mothra vs. Godzilla, a movie that isn’t part of the Kiryu continuity.
Anyway, the PM is moved by Mothra’s defense and attempts to save her — by doing exactly the thing she’s mad at him for and launching Kiryu into battle. Which doesn’t work that well, since Mothra gets blowed up real good and Kiryu ends up damaged and nonfunctional. But the Shobijin have sung the famous Mothra theme song to hatch the latest Mothra egg, and just as in MvG, there are twins inside who come to mommy’s defense. And Young Chujo, who’s in the area to find Old Chujo and Shun, volunteers to repair Kiryu — and naturally gets stuck inside when it goes back into action. The Mothra larvae eventually encase Godzilla in their silk, exactly what happened in MvG — and really, given how effective that attack is every time it’s used, I have to wonder why Mommy Mothra didn’t just lead with that. Finally the Godzilla bones inside Kiryu assert control again (after giving Young Chujo a psychic vision that makes him understand Kiryu’s craving to rest in peace) and fly the cocooned kaiju out to sea for a joint burial. And everything seems hunky-dory, except for a post-credits scene suggesting that somebody with very, very bad judgment is trying to clone Godzilla, a setup for a sequel that never happened.
Tokyo S.O.S. wasn’t much better than its predecessor. It was nice to see Mothra again, and to see another classic character brought back, but too much of the film was a rehash of previous Mothra films and MvG in particular, and even of the immediately previous film. The business about the threat from Mothra went nowhere, aside from serving as an excuse to reintroduce Mothra and the Shobijin and a setup for the film’s theme about how desecrating the dead is bad. And I would’ve rather seen more development of Akane and the cast from the previous film, instead of the cookie-cutter new characters we got here. On the plus side, the action scenes looked better than last time, though still far from the best this series has had to offer. The music is also an improvement; it’s still Ohshima, and revisits the themes from his last two Godzilla scores, but is less repetitive than the previous one. (The two Kiryu films are the only Millennium-era films to have no Akira Ifukube music in them, although this one quotes Yuji Koseki’s original Mothra theme.) Also, the new Shobijin are just about the cutest ones yet.
Many actors in the kaiju franchise have played multiple roles, but this film is noteworthy for featuring both of the only two actors (as far as I know) to have played more than one of the Toho daikaiju franchise’s handful of recurring human characters. The Prime Minister in both Kiryu films is Akira Nakao, who also played the G-Force commander in the last three Heisei movies. And Hiroshi Koizumi, who reprises the role of Shinichi Chujo here, also played Professor Miura in Mothra vs. Godzilla and Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster — as well as playing different roles in half a dozen other Toho daikaiju or tokusatsu films.
The Kiryu films performed poorly at the box office, leading Toho to decide to cancel the series; yet since 2004 was Godzilla’s 50th anniversary, they decided to do one last film, Godzilla: Final Wars. It abandoned the Kiryu continuity and portrayed another variant on the Shōwa history, a world where humans have been battling daikaiju, including Godzilla, for decades. But in this reality, Godzilla never turned good, and the alien invasions that characterized the Shōwa series never occurred.
Yet this is not just a celebration of the past, but an attempt to update the franchise for the present. They brought in a hot young director, Ryuhei Kitamura, who turned out a hyper-stylized, hard-rocking, ADD-edited martial-arts film with the occasional kaiju content thrown into the mix. It’s basically Godzilla meets the Power Rangers in the Matrix on Independence Day.
Some unspecified time in the past, the supership Gotengo, a high-tech flying submarine with a drill on the front (from the ’63 film Undersea Warship, called Atragon in the West), buried Godzilla in the Antarctic ice, immobilizing him. We then get a frenetic montage expositing that in the interim, not only have Earth’s nations united to battle the kaiju threat, but a new race of mutants has arisen, superhumans with awesome martial-arts skills. Our hero is the mutant Ozaki, who looks a bit like a Japanese Ted Raimi. He serves under Captain Gordon, a badass rogue captain who looks like a cross between Dick Butkus and Macross‘s Captain Global and delivers his all-English dialogue in a voice that sounds like Scruffy from Futurama. Gordon’s younger self fired the missiles that buried Godzilla in the opening flashbacks. (So judging by his age, that burial had to happen no earlier than maybe 1983-4.) But Gordon gets thrown in the stockade for punching a superior, and Ozaki gets assigned to shepherd Miyuki, a pretty biologist who’s found a mummified alien cyborg whose genes contain an “M-base” also found in the mutants. The Shobijin (same actresses as last time) show up and reveal that the monster is Gigan (a rather silly-looking monster from 1972′s Godzilla vs. Gigan) and that the M-base is evil, though Ozaki has the power to choose his fate and Mothra will be on his side if he chooses good (and they give him a dagger-shaped amulet).
Then a bunch of daikaiju attack all over the world — including a version of the ’98 Emmerich Godzilla, here called “Zilla.” The UN Secretary-General (played by a kaiju-film stalwart who was the male romantic lead in the original Godzilla) is in his jet when it’s blown up by one of the kaiju. But then all the kaiju are teleported away by alien ships. The aliens reveal themselves as Ekkusu-seijin, literally “X-Aliens,” or Xilians as the subtitles and Captain Gordon render it. They’re a variation on the “Xians” of Planet X from 1965′s Invasion of Astro-Monster. Like the Xians, the Xilians claim to come in peace, and they seem to have rescued the Secretary-General, who shills for them; it’s obvious from the start that he’s an alien duplicate, and it doesn’t take our heroes long to figure that out, and to discover that other key leaders have been taken over as well. (This includes Earth Defense Force Commander Namikawa, played by the same actress who played a Miss Namikawa in Astro-Monster, yet I doubt it’s the same character since the two films aren’t in continuity.) Ozaki releases Captain Gordon to help them, knowing he hasn’t been replaced. They expose the fakes on TV, and the Xilian General, who prefers taking a subtler, less brute-force approach to taking over the world, gets shot down by his hotheaded, punk-kid second-in-command the Controller, who then mind-controls all the mutants except Ozaki, who’s immune for some reason, and has them turn on the good guys. The good guys flee and there’s a motorcycle fight between Ozaki and his mutant partner Kazama, which manages to rip off both The Matrix and Akira at the same time. Ozaki wins, but doesn’t kill Kazama because they’re partners.
Fat lot of good it does, though, since the Controller releases all the daikaiju and devastates all human civilization overnight. The world is ruined, but our heroes manage to escape in Gotengo and Gordon formulates a desperate plan of revenge against the Xilians, namely to free Godzilla from the Antarctic ice and lure him into battling all the other kaiju. So finally, more than an hour into the movie, it remembers it has “Godzilla” in the title! What follows is a rather cursory sequence of Godzilla effortlessly trashing other kaiju — which works with the pretender Zilla, whose complete inadequacy next to the real thing is a blatant dig at the ’98 film, but isn’t so effective when it keeps happening with other classic monsters. Eventually we get the inevitable big battle in the ruins of Tokyo, and while Mothra and Godzilla respectively battle an upgraded Gigan and a creature called “Monster X” (with two shoulder-mounted half-heads bracketing its head), the heroes battle the mothership. Kazama redeems himself by making a kamikaze run into the ship’s Death Star reactor to take down its shields so Gotengo can drill inside, but the Controller captures them before they can do any damage. He gives the obligatory exposition about how humans are their cattle and they need to feed on our mitochondria, etc., but also reveals that mutants are descended from Xilians and he couldn’t control Ozaki because the latter is a latent “Keizer,” a special one-in-a-million mutant, like the Controller himself. He zaps Ozaki to activate his Keizer powers and orders him to kill his friends, but Miyuki stabs him with the Mothra dagger and frees his will, so he’s now Neo and can telekinetically stop laser blasts. The two Keizers have a big fight scene while the others — including the real Secretary-General and EDF Commander, who are conveniently still alive and have conveniently escaped from captivity — try to get to the ship. Oh, and there are occasionally some big monsters fighting or something, but the director doesn’t seem too interested in that. Eventually the good guys get away and the ship blows up, but Monster X turns into Keizer Ghidorah, and Godzilla and Gotengo (with an infusion of Ozaki’s Keizer power) fight together to destroy it. And then Godzilla turns on the humans… but then something really stupid happens that I won’t spoil because I… just… don’t want to talk about it. I’ll just mention that there have been a few scenes involving a little kid and his wise old grandfather discovering Minilla, the stupid-looking baby Godzilla, and driving him toward Tokyo. For most of the movie these scenes are just incongruous, seemingly pointless comic intrusions, and when their purpose finally is revealed, it’s hokey as hell. Well, it might’ve been a decent ending in a way if it hadn’t felt so tacked on.
Frankly, Final Wars is a mess. It’s too conceptually cluttered and sloppily executed. And the problem isn’t just that director Kitamura was more interested in the hyperstylized, anime-esque martial-arts action than in the traditional kaiju stuff — the problem is that even the hyperstylized, anime-esque martial-arts action is often clumsily assembled and lacking in coherence. There are some fun character bits, rare in a kaiju film; Captain Gordon’s unrelenting badassery is actually kind of fun, and mixed martial artist Don Frye’s one-note, expressionless performance in the role actually works at conveying a character who’s so tough and self-possessed that nothing gets to him. And Kazuki Kitamura (no relation, apparently) does a fun, if caricatured, turn as the spoiled, smug, hotheaded Controller, who has some flamboyant tantrums as his daikaiju fall like dominoes before Godzilla. But overall the film just doesn’t hold together very well and doesn’t fit neatly into the Godzilla/kaiju franchise. It’s too derivative and self-consciously stylized, and overall too cluttered and noisy. Although there are some brief quotes of Ifukube’s themes at the beginning, most of the score (done primarily by British musician Keith Emerson) is the kind of loud, hard-driving rock that gives me a headache, and it’s representative of the film as a whole. Even the special effects weren’t that great; the Godzilla suit here, while not as bad as the GMK one, is probably the most rubbery and stiff of the Millennium-era suits. The other daikaiju were okay, but Godzilla should be the most impressive one, and he was just the opposite. Just another way in which Godzilla’s 50th-anniversary film didn’t serve him very well.
That’s it for the Millennium Era, which turned out to be rather a disappointment overall, with only two of its six films, the second and third, being reasonably satisfactory. I’ll be back with some final thoughts and an overview later.
After my incomplete overviews of the Shōwa and Heisei continuities of the Godzilla franchise, it’s time to move on to the Millennium Era, the most recent incarnation and the first I’ll be able to review in full. This is also the first time Toho returned to Godzilla after the deaths of the franchise’s creator/producer Tomoyuki Tanaka and chief composer Akira Ifukube.
From what I read (mainly at this old fansite, which admittedly has a fair amount of errors and subjectivity), the Heisei Era was ended to make way for the American remake of Godzilla in 1998, which was directed by Roland Emmerich and written by Dean Devlin and Emmerich, the team beyond Stargate and Independence Day. The expectation was that TriStar Pictures would do a trilogy and that Toho wouldn’t bring back the Big G until 2004, the half-century anniversary. But the Emmerich film flopped and earned the hatred of the Godzilla fan community. I actually think it’s a decent monster movie if you treat it as its own separate entity and don’t compare it to Godzilla. But as an attempt to create an American version of the Godzilla franchise, it failed (although it spawned an animated series that came much closer to the spirit of Godzilla), so Toho quickly got back in the game. This time, so I gather, Toho decided to try out several alternate takes on Godzilla before deciding which one to carry forward as a continuing series. All would count as sequels to the 1954 original, but otherwise would be in alternate realities, interpreting the daikaiju and his history in different ways.
The first alternate reality we get is 1999′s Godzilla 2000: Millennium. And that’s its actual Japanese title (Gojira Nisen: Mireniamu), unlike the 1984 The Return of Godzilla which got titled Godzilla 1985 when it came to America a year later. Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel that different from what came before, perhaps because so many of its makers were Heisei-series veterans. On the plus side, it’s directed by Takao Okawara, who directed the three best Heisei films (Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth, G. vs. Mechagodzilla II, and G. vs. Destoroyah). It’s also produced by Shogo Tomiyama, who co-produced all but the first Heisei film alongside Tanaka. On the writing side, though, it teams the screenwriter of the superlative Mechagodzilla II with the co-writer of the abysmal Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla.
In this universe, Godzilla has been a fact of life for an unspecified amount of time — at least in the English dub I was able to get. In theory, all the films count the ’54 original as canon, but if anything, he seems here like a more recent phenomenon, since there are things the characters are only now discovering about him. Also, he’s trashing all of Japan’s energy sources; it seems they’re making the same assumption as The Return of Godzilla that the big G feeds on nuclear power or other forms of high energy. This Godzilla is more reptilian than his predecessors, with green skin instead of gray, an iguana-like head, a thicker neck, and ridiculously oversized back spines.
Unlike the UN-operated G-Force of the Heisei films, here there are two rival Japanese organizations hunting Godzilla. One is the Crisis Control Intelligence Agency (CCI), run by the ruthless Katagiri, who’s determined to kill Godzilla. The other is the civilian Godzilla Prediction Network, perhaps the most interesting idea in the film, because it operates like the stormchasers who track tornadoes in the US. It’s an interesting analogy, treating Godzilla as a force of nature that can’t be stopped but only tracked and reported on so the public can try to avoid it. Shades of Godzilla Raids Again, the second Shōwa film. The GPN is run by Shinoda, who argues (like Dr. Yamane in the original) that Godzilla needs to be kept alive and studied for scientific benefit, and who has a longstanding rivalry with Katagiri based on this philosophical divide.
The CCI also gets interested in a long-submerged meteorite for no apparent reason, and brings it to the surface. Once exposed to light, it revives and turns out to be an alien spaceship, which takes off and attacks Godzilla in the middle of a standoff with the CCI and the military. The saucer hacks the computer of our heroine, reporter Yuki, for her information on Godzilla. (Despite the title, the access dates in her computer log all say 1999.) Later, Shinoda analyzes a Godzilla cell sample and, with help from CCI scientists, discovers the “Organizer G-1″ cells (called Regenerator G-1 in the dub) that allow Godzilla to heal and regenerate so rapidly. Again echoing Yamane’s hopes, Shinoda realizes that this discovery could revolutionize medicine. It turns out the saucer occupants, the Millennians, want to obtain those cells so they can adapt to our atmosphere and take over. After the CCI and GPN have unsuccessful run-ins with the saucer, Godzilla throws down with it in the heart of Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, and the Millennians vampirically acquire his Organizer cells, causing them to merge and transform into a monster known as Orga for the final battle.
The film has pretty good production values for its era, incorporating a CGI Godzilla in some shots to supplement the rubber-suit one in most of the film, although the CGI looks relatively crude by today’s standards. The best FX shots were the ones that smoothly matchmoved Godzilla into live-action plates with a moving camera at ground level, doing a good job of selling the idea that he was really there in the background. But attempts to do the same in helicopter shots in daylight overreach and don’t succeed. Godzilla’s roars still incorporate his classic bellow, but with more audio layers and variations added. The music is mostly by the same guy who scored SpaceGodzilla, but he does a better job here, and there’s still some use of Ifukube’s themes in the third act.
Even the English dub isn’t bad; TriStar made a point of getting Asian-American actors, and the dubbing cast is headlined by Francois Chau (the guy from the Dharma Initiative films on Lost) as Shinoda. There’s also a supporting role in the dub for Star Trek‘s John Cho, which means that both Sulu actors have dubbed Godzilla movies early in their careers, since George Takei was in the dubbing cast for Godzilla Raids Again.
All in all, though, Millennium is a bit odd for a new beginning to the franchise. It feels like a routine installment of an ongoing series, yet the history behind it is too new and cursorily developed for me to get really invested in it. It’s too half-hearted, neither close enough to what came before to feel grounded nor different enough to feel that the changes served a purpose. It’s a weak and forgettable start to the alternate-realities era.
Fortunately, the next film, Godzilla vs. Megaguirus: G Extermination Strategy, makes better use of the alternate-timeline idea, despite having the same writers and producer as the previous film (but a different director, Masaaki Tezuka). The film cleverly extrapolates how Godzilla’s existence would have changed Japan’s history. Usually G-movies just show a world that’s basically ours but with daikaiju and futuristic technology tacked on; major cities are periodically destroyed, but the economic and social consequences of that are never felt. Here, at least in the prologue, there’s an attempt to approach that more thoughtfully. It opens with a newsreel recapping the original film, with new effects shots recreating Godzilla’s 1954 attack, and with Ifukube’s Godzilla theme cleverly used as a newsreel soundtrack. In this reality, the destruction of Tokyo short-circuited Japan’s postwar economic boom and forced the relocation of the capital to Kyoto (awkwardly represented by showing the iconic Diet Building, seat of the Japanese government and a familiar Tokyo landmark in daikaiju films, relocated next to Osaka Palace). When Godzilla attacked the first nuclear power plant in 1966 (for he feeds on nuclear energy in this reality too), Japan outlawed nuclear power and spent the rest of the 20th century developing clean energy, culminating in the introduction of something called “plasma energy” in Osaka in 1996. When that draws another Godzilla attack, our main character, a Self-Defense Force soldier named Kiriko Tsujimori, refuses to retreat when ordered, leading to the death of her commander. But she blames Godzilla rather than herself and becomes even more driven to destroy him.
By the present day, the Japan of this timeline is not too dissimilar to our own, but apparently the clean-energy research has led to a somewhat more advanced technology in some ways. Tsujimori is a major in the Self-Defense Force’s dedicated anti-Godzilla unit, which, due to somebody’s reckless use of a translation dictionary, is called the G-Graspers. (In the original, not the dub. It’s written out in English in their logo and everything.) They’ve devised a weapon that will fire a micro-black hole, sucking Godzilla inside and trapping him forever. It’s given the poetic English name Dimension Tide, which more than makes up for “G-Graspers.” (The device’s inventor is played by the actress who was the female lead in Mothra vs. Godzilla and Ghidorah: The Three-Headed Monster.) However, testing it opens a wormhole that either mutates an Earth insect or lets one through from another dimension (this isn’t made clear), and its egg is found by a kid who takes it to his home in Shibuya, the Times Square-like shopping district of Tokyo (which I recognized by sight from its depiction in the brilliant anime series Serial Experiments Lain), where it soon hatches into a swarm of large dragonfly-like creatures, Meganula (named for some larval critters from the 1956 Rodan), that begin killing innocent bystanders in the goriest scenes I’ve ever seen in a kaiju movie. (Most of the films I’ve seen since the original have avoided showing human death outright. G. vs. Destoroyah had a fairly violent sequence of the Destroyers battling the army, but the implicit death shots were stylized and sanitized.) Yet instead of blaming the kid, Tsujimori figures it’s the fault of her own G-Graspers and their black-hole weapon.
Nonetheless, the G-Graspers ignore this risk and launch the Dimension Tide into space on a satellite. But they need a way to track and target Godzilla. When Tsujimori goes out to sea to investigate a Godzilla sighting — and a Meganula corpse that Godzilla presumably dealt with offscreen — her raft is capsized by the big G himself and she’s left swimming in the ocean right next to the deadliest monster on Earth. So what does she do? She swims right over to Godzilla. And. Climbs. On. His. Freaking. Back! This is the single most awesome thing anyone has ever done. “Oh, I used Godzilla as a surfboard today, what did you do?” Although she’s not going Ahab; she takes the opportunity to fire a tracking device into Godzilla’s hide.
Anyway, they try black-holing G from space once he makes landfall, but the Meganula swarm him and the shot misses. The big bugs feed on his nuclear energy and inject it into their queen, underwater in what’s now a flooded Shibuya, and the queen emerges as the dragonfly daikaiju Megaguirus. (Their resident paleontologist knows all sorts of things about this extinct Carboniferous species’ life cycle and behavior that he’d be unlikely to have any way of knowing — a tradition of Toho paleontologists going all the way back to Godzilla Raids Again.) Godzilla’s on his way to Tokyo because the obligatory corrupt government official has been secretly conducting plasma energy research in the city (why there?), and Megaguirus cleans his clock in the port of Odaiba, until Godzilla rallies and shows what a cunning fighter he can be. It’s really a pretty impressive, cleverly choreographed, and strikingly vicious climactic battle, although there are some odd moments of jerky slow motion (which mostly seems to represent Megaguirus’s POV, but is used in one key moment that clearly isn’t that). Then it’s up to Tsujimori to risk herself to fly her jet into the rampaging Godzilla so the Dimension Tide — which is falling out of orbit for no clear reason yet is still directly over Tokyo and able to aim itself while burning to a crisp — can lock onto her signal. I won’t spoil how it ends, but there’s a post-credits epilogue that rather weakly leaves the door open for sequels to this continuity.
It’s unclear how faithful this film is to the ending of the original film. The opening newsreel implies that Godzilla simply wandered off after wrecking Tokyo, as if the Oxygen Destroyer was never used. But later, the Dimension Tide’s inventor says that this time they must be certain there’s nothing left of Godzilla and they can’t make the same mistake again. That might be implying that the original did end as we saw, but the O.D. didn’t destroy Godzilla as completely as was believed.
While this wasn’t a perfect film, it was certainly much stronger than its predecessor, and one of the most interesting kaiju films I’ve seen. I could’ve done without the little kid, who’s responsible for massive loss of life and property but completely gets away with it, and whose only real role is to bring the egg to Shibuya, something which could’ve been arranged another way. But there’s a lot else in the film’s favor. Misato Tanaka is impressive as Tsujimori, a striking, distinctive-featured actress playing a strong, stoic character, very different from the female leads in prior kaiju films. The Godzilla costume seems better, a little closer to its Heisei design, or maybe I’m just getting used to it. The music, by Michiru Ohshima, is the most impressive non-Ifukube score I’ve heard in one of these. While not imitating Ifukube, Ohshima conveys a similar flavor, a mix of ominous, driving daikaiju themes and lively martial passages for the military and their gizmos, and uses a similar approach to Ifukube’s of having a number of cues that were repeated several times throughout the film and underlaid the action without really following it.
Next is one of the best-regarded Godzilla movies, 2001′s Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, or as it’s widely known, GMK. Unlike the previous two universes, this film follows the precedent of The Return of Godzilla, depicting a near-future Japan that hasn’t seen any daikaiju attacks in the half-century since Godzilla’s original rampage, and that as a result is fairly ignorant of kaiju, with many even disbelieving that Godzilla was real. (Which may seem implausible given how completely he destroyed Tokyo, but consider how many people in real life disbelieve in the Holocaust or the Moon landing.) In fact, so we’re told at the beginning, there was a giant monster that attacked New York several years before and was reputed to be Godzilla, but this was unconfirmed. That’s right, folks — in GMK’s continuity, the only prior canonical films are the 1954 Gojira… and the 1998 American Godzilla! Which kind of makes sense, since in the ’98 movie, various Japanese characters knew the name “Gojira” and associated it with giant reptilian monsters, and one has to wonder why that would be. It makes perfect sense if the Emmerich film took place in the GMK universe, where the original Godzilla has become a legend and not many people either believe he existed or know what he looked like. People mistaking other kaiju for Godzilla is in fact something of a running gag in this film. Not to worry, though; there’s only one passing reference to the ’98 film, basically just an in-joke for the Japanese audience.
GMK takes an odd tack for a kaiju film, initially having almost a slasher-film vibe as gangs of teen delinquents vandalize small Shintoist icons whose destruction unleashes a couple of kaiju who kill them in revenge for their desecration, or so it seems to me. The kaiju, glimpsed only briefly at first, are Baragon (a Shōwa-era monster introduced in Frankenstein Conquers the World and seen briefly in Destroy All Monsters) and a larval Mothra. Our lead character Yuri Tachibana (Chiiharu Niiyama), a plucky, pretty, auburn-haired reporter for an online tabloid-news video site, encounters an old man who tells her the kaiju are the Yamato Monsters — Yamato being an ancient term for Japan that’s used to refer to the ethnic or national identity of the Japanese people. The Yamato Monsters, Baragon, Mothra, and Ghidorah, are the guardians of the homeland — which, unfortunately for the people who get in their way, means the physical land itself, not its current occupants. The old man says they’re awakening now because the real Godzilla is returning and they seek to protect the homeland from his wrath. In this version, Godzilla is more blatantly supernatural than in the past; while still described as an ancient living beast that’s survived for eons, he has also absorbed the souls of everyone killed by the Japanese military in WWII (Yuri distinctly says “Amerikajin,” Americans, at one point in the discussion, though the English subtitles don’t acknowledge this). That means Godzilla is wrathful, intent on revenge against a Japanese people who have allowed themselves to forget the crimes of their nation’s past. The film is something of an anti-war statement by its director Shūsuke Kaneko.
In fact, I daresay that the characters’ disbelief or complacency toward Godzilla symbolizes their cavalier attitude toward the wartime past that Godzilla embodies here. There’s also a metatextual quality, as if critiquing the past indulgences of the franchise itself, for many characters talk about Godzilla as a joke (as if channeling the sensibilities of the kid-oriented Shōwa films) or show sympathy for him as a poor innocent animal (echoing Miki’s sentiments in the later Heisei films) — only to be promptly struck down by the cruel reality of Godzilla. Also, apparently the Japanese military covered up the use of the Oxygen Destroyer and took the credit for killing Godzilla themselves, so they wouldn’t look bad. Perhaps this gave the characters a false sense of security about how dangerous Godzilla really was. (And perhaps it’s why people don’t know what Godzilla looked like; the SDF may have confiscated the film from the Tokyo attack because it showed how ineffectual they were.) This also plays into Kaneko’s theme of modern Japan choosing to obscure and forget its imperialist past.
There are also some interesting resonances with scenes from the original; when Godzilla first comes onto land in the same area where he originally made landfall, the scene parallels his attack on Otoshima in the original film, in that we focus on the people inside the building being trampled and barely see Godzilla at all. There’s also a later shot of his head appearing over a hilltop that parallels his first major appearance in the original. And a pivotal sequence of Yuri bravely reporting on Godzilla’s climactic attack from Yokohama Bay Bridge, and almost dying when the bridge is trashed, reminded me of the scene in the original of the brave reporters on Tokyo Tower doing their duty to the bitter end.
But the most powerful way in which GMK evokes the original is that it confronts the death and human devastation caused by Godzilla, and the other daikaiju more directly than any kaiju film I’ve seen since the original. A lot of people die on-camera, and there’s attention given to their terror during the attacks, the grief of the survivors, and the like. Although the impact isn’t quite as potent as it was in the original. Perhaps these filmmakers, half a century removed from the era of the original, hadn’t had the same firsthand experience with the horrors of war and disaster, so their depictions of death and suffering are a bit less heartfelt, a bit more sensational — and with a bit too much comic relief tossed in to spoil the mood.
Anyway, Godzilla takes out Baragon pretty early, so when he reaches Yokohama, only Mothra (looking more realistic than in the past thanks to occasionally being CGI) and Ghidorah (finally awakened by the old man) are there to confront him. Ghidorah is briefly linked in dialogue with an eight-headed dragon from Japanese mythology, but it’s said he was awakened too young; perhaps that explains why he has only three heads. (And this is a hybrid version; Ghidorah’s heads here were modeled after the title kaiju from the ’50s film Varan the Destroyer, since Kaneko and the creature designer had originally wanted to use Varan. Maybe the change is fitting, since it’s the first time Ghidorah’s ever been a good guy.) Godzilla injures Ghidorah and incinerates Mothra, but Mothra pulls an Obi-Wan: “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.” Mothra’s sparkly remains surround the fallen Ghidorah and revive him as the sparkly-auraed, occasionally CGI King Ghidorah, who knocks Godzilla into Yokohama Bay where the battle reaches its climax — and it’s Yuri’s father, Admiral Tachibana, who plays a pivotal role in resolving the battle and the film.
Story-wise, this is one of the strongest Godzilla films I’ve seen, and certainly the darkest and most allegorical since the original. More care is put into the lead characters than usual for the franchise. Ms. Niiyama is effective as Yuri, and Ryūdō Uzaki is excellent as Admiral Tachibana, giving a very likeable and nuanced performance as a soft-spoken, thoughtful, yet strong authority figure, both as an admiral and a father. The music, by Kō Otani, is very different for a Godzilla film, synth-based and more modern, but quite memorable and in a similar spirit to Ifukube’s, with a John Barry-esque, minor-key main theme for Godzilla over a lumbering ostinato, and with the military getting its own more optimistic, marchlike motif. The only actual Ifukube music used here is a medley of motifs from the original film over the end titles.
The big disappointment here is the Godzilla suit itself, the worst one I’ve seen in the post-Shōwa films. They’ve given him a longer neck and more crocodylian head, which is often awkwardly puppeteered and looks almost as fake as the puppet-head closeups from the original film. The body is oddly chubby and pear-shaped, almost reminding me of Earl Sinclair from the old Dinosaurs sitcom, and the legs’ connection to the body is far from seamless. They used a different performer than usual, and the new guy doesn’t move as well in the suit, tending to flail his arms too much. The roar is built upon the original sound effect, but modifies it too much to work really well. The part that works best is the effect for Godzilla’s atomic breath/ray, which is actinic blue and has kind of a “wave motion gun” buildup effect, drawing in a halo of light before expelling the blast. Also, the warmup glow of his spines now has an electric buzzing sound effect added; I’m not sure that works as well. The rest of the special effects are inconsistent; the creature FX are mediocre, but the CGI is getting better.
Well, I’m only halfway through the Millennium Era, but there’s been so much to cover with the distinct histories and all that I’ll need to split this overview into at least two posts. To be continued…
I never got around to seeing Andrew Stanton’s John Carter in theaters because of the lukewarm reviews, but I finally picked it up on DVD at the library. A lot of us know the story of what happened with this film — it fell prey to a regime change at Disney, the new regime had no interest in it, it got almost no marketing, the title was too vague and unrevealing, etc. And the reviews said the movie was too confusing or cluttered or what-have-you.
I agree, the title sucks. This is a grand adventure story set on a fantasy version of Mars. This is an adaptation of a work of classic adventure fiction that was a major inspiration for Flash Gordon, Superman, Star Wars, and a wealth of modern adventure fiction. And yet if you don’t recognize the name John Carter, the film’s title tells you absolutely none of that. It would’ve been so much better to call it A Princess of Mars, or Under the Moons of Mars, or Warlord of Mars. Heck, even John Carter, Warlord would’ve helped. (The rumors were that Disney didn’t want a Mars-related title because of a recent failed Mars-titled movie, but apparently Stanton shied away from it because Carter didn’t become John Carter of Mars until the end of the movie. Nice idea, works fine for the initiated, but for everyone else it’s a terrible title.)
And I agree, the opening is poorly handled. The film has two prologues too many. The opening scene of the battle on Mars is too confusing, since we don’t know who these characters are or what’s at stake; and more importantly, it reveals too much at the start, and deprives the audience of the chance to discover Mars along with Carter (although I admit today’s ludicrously impatient filmgoing audiences might not be inclined to sit around for the slow-burn buildup). And we didn’t need to see Carter eluding his tail and sending the telegram to Edgar Rice Burroughs; that was just padding at this point and would’ve worked better at the end if it had been needed at all, which it probably wasn’t. The film would’ve done better to start with Burroughs’s arrival — which would’ve had the added advantage of reflecting the structure of the first book, the foreword with Burroughs explaining to the reader how he came into possession of the manuscript detailing Carter’s adventures — starting us out from Burroughs’s POV before we move to Carter’s.
But once you get past the problems with the opening scenes, the film starts to improve considerably. Stanton, the director of Finding Nemo and WALL-E, shows some excellent comic timing and sense of character in the sequence where Carter repeatedly attacks the cavalrymen who are trying to recruit him and repeatedly gets beaten down by them. And once the film does get to Mars . . . well, I don’t want to go into specifics, or I’d be here all day. In short, the Mars portions of this film are an extraordinary work of filmmaking, a masterwork of design, worldbuilding, and cinematography, with a mostly wonderful cast bringing out the best in the material. Stanton and his team really do an amazing job creating the world of Barsoom — its architecture, its costuming, the implied details of culture and history. It really feels like this is a whole world that’s been there all along and we’re just visiting and getting these glimpses of all this deep, intricate background that underlies it all. And despite being largely a computer-generated film with CGI aliens and virtual sets, it has the feel of a classic Hollywood historical epic. Michael Giacchino’s memorable score evokes the flavor of Lawrence of Arabia as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark, and it fits the movie very well.
The CGI itself is extraordinarily well-done. Of course it’s quite photorealistic, as one would expect from the technology today, and of course the character animation of the 10-foot-tall, four-armed, tusked Tharks is superbly handled, as you’d expect from a Pixar director. But what struck me was the discipline Stanton exercised in shooting this virtual world. Too often, filmmakers using CGI do all these impossible, swooping camera moves just to show off “Ohh, look how CGI we are and what a big impressive virtual environment we built and how easy it is to go zooming around all over the place,” and it just divorces you from any sense of reality and makes it look like a fakey CGI environment. But Stanton builds these huge, amazing virtual sets and landscapes and then photographs them as if they were live action, with the camera constrained by physical and practical limits. And that camera discipline gives it all a very realistic, grounded flavor which does a lot to sell the fantasy. There are so many filmmakers today who could learn from that.
But what about the story, the characters, the actors? Well, I’ll grant that the story is pretty complicated, even a bit cluttered, with so much going on. You have Carter learning about Barsoom, meeting the key characters like Tars Tarkas and Dejah Thoris, getting embroiled in the multilevel rivalries between the Tharks and Red Martians, between Barsoom and Zodanga, between all of them and the super-advanced Matai Shang (Mark Strong) who’s manipulating everything behind the scenes. But in its way, that fits into that overall sense of coming into a well-established world and having to deal with its complexities. In some ways the manipulations of Shang and his Thern race seem like a complication that could’ve been left out, but they do serve to explain how Carter got to Barsoom in the first place — I don’t think today’s audiences could’ve accepted that he just wished himself there — and they set up a mythology arc that could’ve been effective at tying a whole trilogy together if the film had done well enough to get sequels — which I really wish it could. Also, the visualization of the Therns’ technology was intriguingly novel and imaginative.
I also didn’t find Carter to be the most likeable protagonist, and though Taylor Kitsch was perfectly adequate in the role, he wasn’t exactly compelling. Still, Stanton’s writing made the character sympathetic where Kitsch fell short, and there was a brilliant bit of direction and editing when Carter is in the middle of a ferocious battle (the kind that, according to Stanton, happened every other chapter in the books, but that are kept to only a few in a film that’s surprisingly character-driven) and the scene intercuts with flashbacks of Carter burying his wife and child. Not only are the transitions between his movements in the two times very deftly handled, but it’s effective at countering the cinematic tendency to treat battle as something fun or glamorous. Carter is fighting for his life, using his superstrength in Martian gravity to decimate a horde of primitives, yet his thoughts are on the pain of loss, the devastating consequences of death. Okay, granted, the same doesn’t go for the later battle scenes, which get quite gory (albeit with PG-13-appropriate blue alien blood), but it was nice to have that one time.
And I’ve been saving my praise for just about the best thing in this movie, Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris. She is simply magnificent. She’s playing much the same sort of character as Princess Leia (naturally, given how Burroughs influenced Lucas) — a princess and administrator who’s an impassioned rebel leader and a strong, capable warrior who’s unimpressed by an aspiring male rescuer and quickly proves herself at least his equal in a fight, yet also has a deeply loving and compassionate side that only adds to her strength — and she sells it even better than Carrie Fisher did. She makes Dejah a deeply impressive figure, wise, powerful, commanding, and beautiful, and with a great voice too. It’s easy to understand why the bitter, reserved Carter would lose his heart to her and why armies would follow her. Dejah is an iconic figure in SF literature, and getting her right was a tall order — and Collins met every expectation and then some (except for, well, the customary nudism of Burroughs’s Barsoomians; I wouldn’t have minded a tad more authenticity there).
It’s a shame this movie suffered from the weak title, poor marketing, and flawed opening, because for the most part this is a superb bit of filmmaking that deserves to be remembered as a classic. I think in time it will be, as more people discover it on video. But it’s a real shame we’re unlikely to get sequels.