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At last, the 1984 show: Thoughts on THE RETURN OF GODZILLA

As I mentioned before in my overview of the Heisei Era of the Godzilla film franchise, I was unable to see the first film in the rebooted series, 1984′s The Return of Godzilla (known simply as Gojira in Japan, despite being a sequel to the film of that same name rather than a remake), due to its unavailability on home video in the US. But I’ve just discovered that the entire Japanese version of the film is available on the video site Metacafe: Gojira (1984). So now I’ve finally gotten to complete my survey of the Heisei series — which is timely, since it’s just weeks before the release of the new American Godzilla (the fourth film in all to bear that title in one spelling or another), and it should be interesting to compare the two reboots.

TRoG has a fairly straightforward story, but with some intriguing complications. It begins like its 1954 namesake, with a Japanese fishing boat coming under attack. Our reporter hero Maki (Ken Tanaka) finds the sole survivor, Okamura (Shin Takuma), who identifies the monster that attacked the ship as Godzilla. In this continuity, this is the first sighting of the big guy in 30 years. There’s no attempt to reconcile Godzilla’s survival with his death at the end of G’54; the characters are too busy coping with the ramifications of his return to theorize about how it happened. And they have no Dr. Yamane to theorize about a second Godzilla (as in Godzilla Raids Again), so it’s never really addressed whether it’s the original or another one. Which fits into my hypothesis for reconciling Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (in which he was treated as the original) with G vs. Desotoroyah (in which the same Godzilla was explicitly the second and the original was unambiguously killed), namely that the characters in the Heisei continuity simply didn’t figure out it was a second one until years after his return.

Anyway, that’s all post-game analysis. What matters in the story itself is that the Japanese government, led by Prime Minister Mitamura (Keiju Kobayashi), initially chooses to quash the news of Godzilla’s return, in order to avoid a panic. Maki investigates anyway and speaks to Godzilla expert Professor Hayashida (Yosuke Natsuki), whose assistant Naoko (Yasuko Sawaguchi) is Okamura’s sister and has not yet been informed of his survival. Maki tells her the truth, ostensibly as a kindness, but is actually using her so he can snap a newsworthy photo of their reunion, which offends Naoko.

Mitamura’s decision to keep the secret almost goes catastrophically wrong when Godzilla destroys a Soviet nuclear sub (according to Hayashida-Sensei, Godzilla feeds on nuclear energy) and the USSR blames the Americans, bringing the world to the brink of war until Mitamura reveals the truth. Both the superpowers come to Japan and insist upon the right to attack Godzilla with nuclear weapons even if he lands on Japanese shores. Mitamura sticks to his guns and insists that if nuclear weapons are used once, they might be used again for other reasons. He is adamant that nuclear weapons will never be used on Japanese soil, and asks the superpowers’ ambassadors: “What right do you have to say we must follow you?” He convinces both governments to back down, while Hayashida-Sensei, Okumara, and Naoko devise a plan to lure Godzilla to a volcano and bury him in an eruption. (Turns out he has a magnetic homing sense like a bird, which can theoretically be tapped into. This was around the time that theories on the relationship between birds and dinosaurs were coming into the public consciousness.)

But of course the superpowers have nuclear missile satellites ready to go just in case, and when Godzilla does attack Tokyo, he damages the Soviets’ control ship, starting the countdown to missile launch. The Soviet captain heroically tries to stop the launch, but dies before he can reach the cutoff switch. (Notably, in the American version Godzilla 1985, this is changed so that the captain intentionally launches the missile, which is said to be 50 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, rather than 50 percent as powerful as in the original version.) The Americans intercept the Soviet missile with one of their own, but the radiation from the aerial explosion revives Godzilla after he’s been tranquilized by a Japanese weapon. Hayashida and Okamura must try to escape Godzilla’s attack and reach the volcano with their equipment, and are forced to leave Maki and Naoko behind to fend for themselves and play out their role as romantic leads.

This is the most serious, solemn Godzilla film I’ve seen since the original, and I’ve now seen pretty much all of them, except maybe for a few of the sillier ones from the ’60s and ’70s. It’s intriguing to see a serious-minded Godzilla film made during the height of the tensions of the Cold War; the scenario of Godzilla being a wild card bringing the world to the brink of nuclear holocaust is intriguing. It echoes Godzilla’s use as an allegory for nuclear devastation in the original, but in a way that’s more topical for 1984, since the represented threat is not just the United States, but both superpowers and their hyperaggressive mentality. The film is an interesting glimpse of how the superpowers must have seemed to the rest of the world, to nations like Japan that were caught in the middle and constantly being pushed around and endangered by the superpowers’ brinksmanship. There’s an element of wish fulfillment in the scenes where the Prime Minister of Japan puts the superpowers in their place and condemns their arrogant assumption that they’re entitled to tell everyone else what to do. But it’s very effective. Who has greater moral authority than the Japanese to say “never again” to the idea of using nuclear weapons?

So I found the film quite effective as an allegory and a political statement, and the characters were fairly effective too, although the leads weren’t as richly drawn as in the original. Kobayashi is the standout as the troubled, principled Prime Minister. But the action and effects sequences weren’t nearly as impressive. The Godzilla costume (and puppet for close-ups) wasn’t very well-made, which undermined an otherwise quite effective initial reveal, starting with a panicked watchman at a nuclear plant and panning slowly up Godzilla’s body to his head. And the action sequences were kind of sluggish, unfocused, and sloppily edited. The final act features a gorgeously realized, enormous miniature cityscape of the Shinjuku district at night (not nearly as built up in 1984 as it is now, I think, but still impressive), but Godzilla’s rampage through same is somewhat desultory, like his heart isn’t in it. It’s not entirely clear why he’s even come to Tokyo beyond it just being the obligatory thing for him to do. (The US version apparently claims he was drawn by Hayashida’s experiments, but I don’t think that explanation works in this version.)

The music is okay, but lacking in Akira Ifukube’s themes (although they are used in the film’s trailer). The film’s treatment of Godzilla’s roar is pretty good, though, incorporating the familiar version with the rising flourish at the end, but enriching it with more of a deep, growly quality in the middle. (Oh, and I almost forgot — the end title song is ridiculously out of sync with the tone of the rest of the film. Its lyrics, in English, are singing to someone who’s going on a journey in search of something and wishing him well — and the refrain makes it clear that the addressee is Godzilla. “Goodbye now, Godzilla, goodbye now, Godzilla, until then! Take care now, Godzilla, take care now, Godzilla, my old friend!” Say what now?! Who thought this song was a good idea at the end of one of the darkest Godzilla films ever?)

All in all, this was a much better film than I expected based on the reviews I’ve read. It may be the best use of Godzilla as an allegorical figure other than the original film, and it’s a fairly good companion piece to the original in its tone and gravity, though it’s not on quite the same level. I’d definitely put it on my list of the most essential and important Godzilla films (and I’ll be editing that list accordingly).

The American version of this film, in addition to the changes mentioned above, brought back Raymond Burr to shoot new framing material as his character from Godzilla, King of the Monsters, Steve Martin (though they just called him “Mr. Martin” to avoid reminding people of the comedian of that name). This material was a lot less extensive than in the original, though, and mostly involved Martin advising the Pentagon on the situation. Godzilla 1985 actually referenced the events of the original more extensively than the Japanese version did, and apparently had Martin pointing out that the Japanese hadn’t found a body after their attack on Godzilla in ’54, strengthening the implication that it was the returned original. (Although the Oxygen Destroyer totally disintegrated Godzilla, so there wouldn’t have been a body anyway.) A lot more was changed as well, and reportedly the tone of 1985 is somewhat lighter than that of TRoG, to fit American audiences’ expectations (though nowhere near the campy comedy dub that was originally planned until Burr put his foot down). Wikipedia has more.

The new American Godzilla, due out in May, sounds like it’s aspiring to be far more serious and potent, in the spirit of the original. In other words, it has very similar aspirations to this film. But it’s being made in a different era with different fears and concerns, not to mention in a different country with a different perspective. The comparison should be intriguing.

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First thoughts on The CW’s “The 100″ (spoiler review)

Disclaimer: I have no familiarity with the Kass Morgan novel The 100, on which the new TV series on The CW is based. I’m only assessing the show’s pilot based on the pilot itself.

And so far I’m very impressed. I think this is the best pilot I’ve seen on The CW in years. Okay, it’s a little rushed setting up the exposition at the beginning; I would’ve liked to see the situation on the Ark fleshed out a little more before the main characters were thrown into their situation. If this had been a movie-length pilot, they could’ve done so. But for whatever reason, those seem to have fallen out of favor these days. Given the time frame they had, the pilot was actually pretty well-paced, handling the exposition and character establishment efficiently and without too much awkward dialogue.

The premise is that a nuclear holocaust wiped out life on Earth 97 years before and the various orbital space stations housing the only survivors clumped together in “the Ark.” Conditions are draconian on the Ark due to limited resources and space, so any crime committed by anyone over 18 is a capital crime, both as a way of maintaining strict control and to keep the population size in check. But now The Ark’s life support systems are failing, so the leaders send their population of about 100 juvenile delinquents down to Earth, nominally to assess whether it’s habitable again and pave the way for the others’ return, but more immediately to give the Ark another month’s worth of life support. It explains why the survey party sent to Earth would be such an ill-suited group as a bunch of delinquent teens, since they weren’t really expected to survive or function effectively anyway — or at least that was secondary to the real purpose of sending them. So the Botany Bay-meets-Lord of the Flies scenario is reasonably plausible.

So far there’s pretty complex politics going on both on the Ark and on Earth, as factions jockey for power, and the motivations generally ring true. The clear villain up top is Councilman Kane (Henry Ian Cusick), who’s utterly ruthless in enforcing the letter of the law, but who genuinely seems to believe it’s necessary for the species’s survival. The heroine up top is Dr. Abigail Griffin (Paige Turco), who has a nice line when she says to Kane that she cares more about making sure we deserve to survive. I suppose I’ve seen that idea set up and delivered more effectively in other stories, perhaps, but it’s a sentiment I’m fond of, so I liked it here.

But the main story is down on the planet with the teens, the lead character being Abigail’s daughter Clarke Griffin (Eliza Taylor), who’s a natural leader, helper of others, and problem-solver, just the kind of person the 100 will need to survive — but of course these are delinquent teens, so not a lot of them have the good sense to follow her. And rabble-rouser and stowaway Bellamy Blake (Bobby Morley) encourages them to act up and misbehave, and to take off the bracelets sending vital-sign telemetry back up to the Ark so that the adults will think they’re dead and won’t follow them (the ship’s radio was trashed in the landing). He also apparently tried to assassinate the Ark’s chancellor (Isaiah Washington) and escaped to Earth, so he’s not a nice guy. But he has a motive for considering his actions self-righteous: his parents broke the law by having a second child, his sister Octavia (Marie Avgeropolous), who was thrown in prison for the crime of existing, and banished with the rest of the teens. (Odd that there aren’t any, you know, 11-year-0ld delinquents in the group. But then, maybe there’s been a ban on childbearing for the past 15 years or so, due to lack of resources?)

So there’s a lot going on, a nicely complex situation and a rather believable one, given the austerity that would be necessary for survival in a desperate situation like this. I do have trouble buying the idea of a global nuclear holocaust at all — it doesn’t seem as likely an apocalyptic scenario today as it would have 25 or more years ago. But allowing for that premise, the rest works pretty well — although some of the shots of the Ark itself are questionable from a physics standpoint. (I’m not sure the structure as shown would be stable given all the rotating sections, and if they’re using rotation for gravity, then the shot of Cusick staring out his window at a stationary vista of the Earth and another part of the Ark made no sense.)

And I really like the cast. It has a number of familiar and welcome faces like Paige Turco, Kelly Hu (adoring sigh), Alessandro Juliani, and a couple of familiar faces from Continuum, Terry Chen and Richard Harmon. (Gee, d’ya suppose it’s filmed in Vancouver?) Eliza Taylor is a very appealing lead; she has a really nice strong voice and conveys her character’s competence, charisma, intelligence, and emotion quite well. The other young leads are engaging as well, and Marie Avgeropolous is utterly gorgeous. The one thing that bugs me is that the core cast is disproportionately white; there’s good ethnic diversity in the supporting cast, but they’re still, well, supporting. Of maybe nine signfiicant players among the teens on the ground, there’s one central black character and one peripheral Asian character. On the Ark, though, it’s more even; the group of six significant adult players in the episode (Turco, Cusick, Hu, Chen, Washington, and Thomas McDonnell) was only half-white.

Still, overall I find The 100 quite engaging so far. I can’t remember the last time a CW show hooked me this thoroughly right off the bat. Even Arrow, currently their best genre show, took a while to become compelling after a merely decent pilot. I was lukewarm at first about their other new genre show this year, Star-Crossed, but it’s really started to intrigue me now that DS9/Andromeda veteran Robert Hewitt Wolfe has joined the writing staff. The central “alien Romeo and human Juliet” romance is kind of a dud so far, but the stuff around it gets more interesting every week. But it took a while to get there after a slow start. As for The Tomorrow People, I’ve been watching regularly but with little more than mild interest; the thing I like best about it is the theme music. And Madeleine Mantock. As for Beauty and the Beast, I’ve been so bored with it this season that I just started letting the episodes accumulate on my DVR for a few weeks and then realized I had no intention of ever watching them. And I don’t watch any of the vampire stuff, and I could never get into Supernatural because I find the leads uninteresting.

So I really hope The 100 can maintain the level of this pilot, or surpass it. I suppose there’s a lot about the “unsupervised sexy teen castaways in a mutated wilderness” premise that could go in a very hokey or gratuitous direction, but so far the storytelling and worldbuilding are effective and I’m eager to see more.

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Thoughts on the ROBOCOP reboot (spoilers)

I’ve talked in the past on this blog about my fondness for RoboCop: The Series and my opinions about the movies, so it seems appropriate to post my thoughts about the new movie version directed by José Padilha and starring Joel Kinnaman. I’ve seen mixed reviews, but it seems to be more popular with audiences than with critics, at least going by Rotten Tomatoes, so I figured it was worth a try.

I was never opposed to the idea of a RoboCop reboot; if anything, the issues of corporate power and robotic law enforcement are even more relevant today, so it seemed like a worthwhile and timely idea to revisit the concept in a way tailored to 2010s concerns rather than 1980s concerns. I wanted a film that would not try to copy the original, but would instead take the core concept in a distinct and fresh direction. Now, the last remake I saw of a Paul Verhoeven film, Len Wiseman’s 2012 Total Recall, was a big disappointment in that regard, superficially attempting something new but ultimately too slavish in its imitation of the forms of the original without the substance. So what I heard about this film’s fresh approach was encouraging.

And in that respect, I wasn’t disappointed. Padilha’s RoboCop is a radically different take on the premise, a more serious and realistic film than the comedy-satire Verhoeven made — perhaps fittingly, since its premise of a cyborg enforcer in a decayed Detroit is far closer to reality today than it was in 1987. Its version of Alex Murphy (Kinnaman) doesn’t even die; he’s just horribly injured and retains his identity and memories. And the story focuses more on his wife (Abbie Cornish) and son, and on the scientist who creates and mentors him, Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), than on the criminals who attempted to kill him — although the machinations of the corporate executives led by Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) are about as prominent as in the original. It definitely meets the criterion of being a novel take. There are a couple of subtle nods, but they don’t get in the way of the new story being told: The Basil Poledouris theme is briefly heard at times; the original Rob Bottin costume design is glimpsed as a “combat mode” concept (and there are some nice echoes of Bottin’s classic work in the first version of Murphy’s armor); a character at one point says “I wouldn’t buy that for a dollar”; and there’s a variant on the original’s Directive 4, a program block prohibiting Murphy from turning on his corporate controllers, though it’s handled in a very different way (and Chekhov’s-Gunned in the opening sequence of the film). And the line “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me” is used, but in a way that cleverly inverts it and gives it new meaning. So even in those rare cases where it references the original, it doesn’t feel gratuitous or derivative. (Though I admit, I was a little disappointed that Murphy never said “Somewhere there is a crime happening.”)

It’s also a very well-made movie, with good designs and cinematography and convincing CGI, though a couple of the big action set pieces seem a bit video-gamey. The cast is solid and effective. (And as a fan of the TV series, I’m pleased that much of the location filming was done in Toronto, where R:TS was made.) I don’t get why they had to gender-swap Lewis (Michael K. Williams), but they also replaced Sgt. Reed with a female Chief Dean (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) and built up Mrs. Murphy’s role as well as giving prominent roles to Jennifer Ehle as Omnicorp’s legal executive and Aimee Garcia as Norton’s assistant, so I guess it balances out.

But is it a good story? I felt it was rather slow-paced in the first act, taking quite a long time to establish things that could’ve been handled more concisely. But I appreciated that increased level of detail when it came to delving into Murphy’s family life (in the original, we barely met him before he was killed) and into the mechanics of his rehabilitation and operations. Once it got into the meat of the story, it held my attention quite adequately through the end of the movie.

But after the movie, I began to realize some things were lacking. For a movie inspired by contemporary concerns about drone warfare and the surveillance state, it didn’t really do anything with those concerns. It set up a political conflict between a senator and his constituents who didn’t want unfeeling robots to wield deadly force on US soil and the corporation that sought to increase its profits by putting drones n the streets, but we never saw any actual negative consequences to individual liberty or safety once Murphy’s emotions were suppressed to let him operate in full-on drone mode. If anything, the movie presented ubiquitous surveillance as a pretty unambiguous positive, letting Robo track down bad guys in mere moments. (And it just now occurred to me to wonder, why couldn’t the rest of the police use the same tracking software?) The only people he endangers in emotionless drone mode are criminals and corrupt cops. The only negative consequences to Omnicorp’s progressive dehumanization of Murphy were the emotional consequences to Murphy himself and his family, and those prove pretty easy to overcome. So not only does the film not have much to say about the issues it superficially engages with, but it has little in the way of stakes. It tries to make Murphy the test case and linchpin for a national debate about drone warfare — played out through talk-show segments hosted by Samuel L. Jackson as the type of pundit of which Stephen Colbert is a parody — but it’s all just Greek-chorus exposition that doesn’t really connect to the small-scale story of Murphy and his family and doesn’t have any real payoff or impact. So the attempt at social commentary is all telling and no showing, and no clear point of view on the issues really comes across.

Also, Oldman’s Dr. Norton is somewhat unfocused as a character. He seems at first like a total do-gooder, but then is shown being willing to do some pretty nasty and dehumanizing things to Murphy in the name of Sellars’s profits, but then ends up on Murphy’s side once again in the final act. Maybe they were going for something about how easy it is for decent people to be persuaded to obey immoral orders, the Milgram experiment and all that, but Norton’s inner life isn’t examined enough for any such arc to become evident. It’s more like he’s just switching back and forth between two ethical states to serve the momentary needs of the script.

So in the end, I think all I can say about this movie is that it’s decent. It’s easily the second-best RoboCop movie, but only because the two sequels to the original were so weak. It’s an adequately well-told and extremely well-made story without a lot of substance to it. It’s nowhere near as good as the original — not because it’s different, since it should be different, but because it’s just not as interesting or clever or substantial. It’s worthwhile for the production values and the performances, and for the freshness of its take on the concept, but it had the potential to be so much more, potential that it never really embraced.

Questor addendum: PROJECT: TINMAN (1990)

February 20, 2014 1 comment

Once upon a time, before home video and cable movie channels, network television showed movies in prime time. Usually it was either edited theatrical films or original TV movies. Occasionally, though, the slots would be used to burn off failed pilots — often two hourlong pilots shown back-to-back. By their nature, these rejected pilots usually weren’t all that good, but sometimes there were some interesting might-have-beens.

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One such pilot, aired in 1990, was called Project: Tinman, and it interested me because it was along similar lines to Gene Roddenberry’s The Questor Tapes: An android protagonist fleeing the government, searching for his creator and the mysteries of his origin, and bonding with a human who helps him navigate the world. It also interested me because said human was played by the gorgeous Catherine Mary Stewart. Thus, I’ve kept it around, on the same VHS tape that contained my copy of Questor (or rather, the copy I just replaced with the legitimate DVD release, reviewed in my previous post). Now that I’ve begun archiving my old tapes on DVD-R, I’ve revisited Tinman for the first time in quite a few years. But I find it holds up more poorly than I remembered.

(Note: I don’t usually bother to include screencaps, but I’m doing it here for several reasons: One, because I can, now that it’s on DVD. Two, because it’s obscure and there can’t be many images of it out there. And three, I specifically wanted to show the title screen because I’ve seen the title misreported in various places, e.g. as Project: Tin Men. Unfortunately, my DVD-player program has flattened the aspect ratio on the screencaps to fit modern widescreen format, and I can’t figure out how to fix that, so I apologize for the distortion of the images.)

The android hero — called simply “The Man” on IMDb, though he briefly adopts the alias Daniel — is played by an actor with the improbably macho name of Hunt Block, who reminds me of a cross between Kevin Sorbo and Robert Hays in the Starman TV series. Apparently he was a pretty prominent soap-opera actor and more recently played the US president in Angelina Jolie’s Salt.

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The pilot opens with a vaguely Clockwork Orange-y scene of The Man watching violent footage from films and cartoons (all from the Warner Bros. library, for they produced this) — although it’s not to create an aversion to violence but to train him for it. He walks out into Hazzard town square — err, the WB backlot — where Stewart’s Dr. Naomi Fischer (or Fisher?) is in a wedding dress, throwing her bouquet, which provokes a kid to run out into traffic and almost get run down by a speeding car before The Man — aw, heck, Daniel — saves her. The car is driven by a mad gunman who goes around shooting people at random, and Daniel spots a dropped gun and picks it up, with Naomi exhorting him to fire. But he can’t shoot, instead starting to sing “Frere Jacques” and passing out. Turns out the whole scene was a simulation to get the android to kill, and it failed. Nice use of the backlot as they reveal the rear of one of the building facades, exposing the illusion. But the whole thing seems kind of weird. Wouldn’t the government want him for military use? Why not simulate combat? And was the kid supposed to run out in traffic? What would’ve happened if they’d been more successful at eradicating Daniel’s regard for life?

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Cut to exposition scene in dark, smoke-filled conference room, where it turns out the reason The Man can’t kill is that his creator, Dr. Robert Alan Craig, hardwired him with a moral sense. The government didn’t even build him, they stole him and wiped his memory, but couldn’t wipe his conscience. (This is another similarity to Questor: There, the android was built by a scientific consortium that didn’t understand the advanced work of its missing creator, and they’d inadvertently erased half his memory tapes. Here, it’s just a bit more sinister.) So they decide to shut him down, attempting to neutralize him by cutting off all light so he can’t recharge the solar cells in his palms. That’s actually kind of clever, a sensible way to deal with the risk that this superstrong, bullet-resistant android might fight back against annihilation. Except it’s combined with the totally non-sensible choice to leave his door unlocked so he could wander the base looking for light, then confront the project director, try to shoot him in self-defense, fail, and accidentally electrocute him anyway, then manage to flee to the outside just before his batteries run out.

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After which the new project director, the chain-smoking Forrest (Leon Russom), fires Naomi, because apparently she disapproves of the project, even though we were shown no real sign of that before. It’s not clear why he wants her gone, except that they generally dislike each other — and except that it gives Daniel a way to smuggle himself out in her car, which the guards don’t bother to search even though the facility’s on total lockdown as they hunt for what they believe is a killer android. So, scorecard: one smart decision, two monumentally stupid ones. Advantage, stupidity. (Again, kind of like TQT, in that the android escapes with a human who’s mistrusted by the project’s leader. The details are quite different, though.)

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Naomi isn’t pleased to find the killer android in her car, but a feeble “It was an accident?” is enough to convince her to take him home with her. The fact that she’s stopped in the middle of the road and almost gets run over is a factor too. Once at her implausibly palatial home, they start bonding, and she tells him the truth about his origins. And she lets her hair down for maximum hotness:

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Yup, sure didn’t take long for those puppy-dog eyes and broad shoulders to win over this clear-headed scientist.

But Forrest has figured out the obvious and sends his security people to stately Fischer Manor. (Seriously, how many scientists make that kind of money?) Daniel speaks over the gate intercom in Forrest’s voice (edited from a conversation he overheard) to send them away, but that only works long enough for him and Naomi to make a break for it in her car. After they ditch pursuit, she suddenly wants him to hold her because she’s scared, and then they go to a bar and talk about his desire to find his creator and how she wishes it were that easy for her to get answers to her questions. It’s vaguely touching on the same “search for our creator” themes as Questor, but doesn’t examine them in any depth. Because it’s time for them to go to the supermarket so Daniel can have some cute “android puzzled by everyday items” bits, followed by a confrontation with the police (at least Forrest had the sense to put out an APB), in which he uses his glowy-palm interface to do something to the checkout scanner that magically causes every electrical device in the store to go crazy, up to and including the coffeepots spilling over. This is 1990. I doubt every item in the store is wirelessly networked. So how the hell did he do that?

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They end up at the company where Craig worked — which just seems to be some fancy private home with a tech-company sign stuck by the front door — but find it’s vacant, its personnel fled because Forrest’s men were there first, although they’re gone now. They study Craig’s lab, and Naomi plays a tape of his music for some reason while Daniel discovers a video disc showing some of his “infancy” as Craig taught him like a child. Daniel recognizes a coded pattern that Craig meant for him to find in the music, even though Craig had no way of knowing that Naomi would be there and would randomly play the tape. It’s an exhortation from his creator to live up to his potential, saying that he’ll need help from others so he should help them in turn, and that he should reach for the light. Basically he’s advising Daniel to act like the protagonist in a Fugitive knockoff. So maybe you can see where this is going, especially once the pathetic-fallacy rainstorm starts up: Forrest’s people show up with snipers, Naomi throws herself in front of Daniel, Naomi gets shot…

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…Naomi tells Daniel to run before the authorities arrive, Naomi dies, and Daniel walks off into the rain like Bill Bixby, albeit with a cheesy 1990 synth score instead of Joe Harnell’s piano.

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Writing it out like that, I see it really is a lot worse than I remembered. It isn’t structured or developed all that well. The villains are blatantly cartoon evil with no ambiguity. The characters and their motivations are thinly drawn. Perhaps worst of all, The Man/Daniel doesn’t make a choice to be good. He doesn’t refuse to kill — he makes a sincere effort to become a murderer, but fails because of a hardwired prohibition, and isn’t at all bothered about killing the director by accident. He has no motivation beyond self-preservation; even Craig’s message tells him to help people so that they’ll help him in turn. He’s nice enough, even mildly charming, but he’s not heroic. Granted, Questor’s prohibition against killing was also a programmed block rather than a moral choice, but at least he has goals more altruistic than self-preservation — indeed, he’s quite willing to sacrifice himself to protect lives — and he has Jerry Robinson as a moral compass, a role Naomi doesn’t bother with and wouldn’t have been there to provide in a series. (The extent of her moral guidance is telling Daniel that people love Twinkies even though they’re lethal. And then eating one before she’s paid for it.)

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And I’ve always felt that killing Naomi was a wasted opportunity. Not only would it have been a shame to lose the gorgeous Ms. Stewart, but she could’ve served the same role as Jerry in Questor or Jenny Hayden in Starman (or Scott Hayden in its TV sequel): the guide to humanity, a vehicle for commentary about human nature and discussion of the episodes’ themes. But I suppose they wanted to go the Fugitive route instead. I mentioned before that the reason The Questor Tapes was abandoned as a series was that the network wanted to write out Jerry and make Questor a solo hero on the run, adhering to the Fugitive formula, and Roddenberry refused, preferring to scrap the project altogether. Project: Tinman gives us a hint of what it would’ve been like had he given in. (Although it occurs to me now that Naomi’s death scene is ambiguous enough that she could’ve been easily enough revived for a series, if Stewart had been available and the producers so inclined.)

This pilot’s creator and writer, Lawrence Hertzog, went on to create another Fugitive-style series five years later: UPN’s Nowhere Man, a conspiracy-thriller series that was basically “Like The Prisoner, but with the whole country instead of one controlled village.” Which did not work at all for me, since it pretty much required that 95% of the entire United States population be complicit in the conspiracy against this one guy, a conspiracy that never really made sense anyway.

I’ve always wondered whether Hertzog was inspired by Questor, though it’s distinct enough to count as a variation on the theme, a second try at the format. Of course, it could be coincidence, since every story gets told more than once; there are only so many ways to put ideas and tropes together. Given the timing, The Man could’ve been inspired by Data, making its descent from Questor more indirect — although in that case it’d be quite a coincidence if it independently retroengineered something so close to the original story. But it’s definitely not as well-told as Questor was. It’s never ambiguous who the good guys and bad guys are, there’s no more than a passing attempt at philosophy, there’s no nuance to the characters, and the ending set up exactly the kind of formulaic continuation that Roddenberry killed his own series rather than settle for. I think I was so attached to this pilot because it felt to me like the closest thing we’d ever get to a continuation of Questor. But it really doesn’t hold up very well in comparison.

Gene Roddenberry’s THE QUESTOR TAPES

February 19, 2014 3 comments

I finally got around to buying the print-on-demand DVD of Gene Roddenberry’s 1974 pilot The Questor Tapes, featuring the android character who would be the prototype for Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Data. The reason it took me so long, after acquiring his Genesis II and Planet Earth pilots on DVD last year, is that I already had TQT on VHS tape and figured I’d use my VCR/DVD dubbing deck to archive it digitally. Now that I’ve actually found the time to begin transferring my old tapes, though, I realized my copy of TQT was way too low in quality — I’m pretty sure my VHS tape was copied in turn from a Beta recording off a TV movie — and that I’d be much better off paying for the inexpensive DVD release. Granted, the quality of that release isn’t that much better. It’s not remastered from the source, but is apparently just a reissue of a pay-TV edition, judging from the opening copyright disclaimer. Still, it’s the best we’ve got.

Questor was Roddenberry’s attempt to revisit the Kirk-Spock dynamic, with a logical, hyperintelligent lead character relying on the moral and emotional guidance of his human best friend. For the pilot, he brought in former Star Trek writer-producer Gene L. Coon to cowrite the script, which was a great choice, since Coon had a knack for writing close friendship between men. Batman producer Howie Horwitz is the credited producer (with Roddenberry as “executive consultant,” a title generally used for a creator who’s no longer in charge of the production), and the pilot was directed by Richard Colla, who would later direct the pilot movie of Battlestar Galactica.

The pilot is interesting in that it’s structured as a mystery revolving around the title character’s purpose for existence, creating a lot of ambiguity about who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy. It opens at Cal Tech, where top scientists from five nations (evidently including the US, the USSR, China, France, and one other) have come together in Project Questor, an initiative to assemble a revolutionary android designed by the Nobel-winning Dr. Emil Vaslovik, who’s been missing and presumed dead for three years. It quickly becomes evident that nobody understands the advanced technologies underlying the android’s components, not even the lead assembler, Vaslovik’s protege Jerry Robinson (Mike Farrell). And the programming tapes Vaslovik left have been half-erased by the project’s attempts to decrypt them. At first, the programming seems to fail; the android remains inert.  But that night — as project head Geoffrey Darro (John Vernon) is digging into Robinson’s background, suspicious that he may know more than he’s telling about Vaslovik’s intentions for the android — Questor himself awakens and gives his smooth plastic form a makeover using the project’s equipment, turning himself into Robert Foxworth. It’s actually a very clever effect — in continuous shots, we see the equipment removing the “robot” makeup and revealing Foxworth’s features underneath, creating the illusion that it’s actually molding those features onto the mannequin-like form. I’d forgotten that these scenes have a horror-movie quality, since at this point the audience has no way to know whether Questor is the hero or the villain.

Indeed, his actions are quite morally ambiguous at first. Once he breaks out of the lab, he forces a terrified Jerry to come with him, although it gradually becomes clear that he is programmed to be incapable of killing. Still, Jerry convinces Questor to accede to his guidance on matters of morality. Although he lets that slip a bit when they get to a casino in Universal-backlot London and Questor uses his computer senses to cheat at craps in order to obtain “specie,” as he keeps calling it. Virtually this same sequence, right down to the android using his superstrength to unload a pair of loaded dice, was later reused with Data in TNG’s “The Royale.”

Questor remembers enough about Vaslovik’s past to lead him to the home of Lady Helena Trimble (Dana Wynter), a prominent socialite and alleged courtesan,who turns out to be an information broker who worked with Vaslovik, leading Jerry to suspect that Questor may have been built for espionage purposes or worse. Especially once he discovers the secret information center where Questor, like Vaslovik before him, can monitor spy images and sensitive secrets from all over the world, possibly affecting millions of lives. Helena insists the motives behind this technology are benevolent, but Jerry has already called in Darro. Will his trust in Questor’s friendship win out over his doubts, and can Questor win over the cynical Darro to their side?

Spoiler alert: The movie climaxes at Mt. Ararat, where we learn that Vaslovik was himself an android, the latest in a line of androids who’ve been subtly guiding and safeguarding humanity for 200,000 years. Their mission is not to control us, but only to assist us to make our own decisions. But Questor is the last; if humanity survives to the end of his 200-year lifespan, it will have outgrown its childhood and won’t need a nanny anymore.

I think the pilot still holds up pretty well, although it’s not perfect. Foxworth’s jerky line delivery as Questor is a bit annoying after a while, although it gradually softens over the course of the movie. The Questor-Jerry relationship maybe develops a bit too quickly, but the same can be said of many TV relationships; a certain amount of shorthand is just part of the form. And some of the dialogue doesn’t flow as smoothly or logically as it could, and there are some abrupt transitions. It feels like a fair amount was cut out, although the running time on the DVD (96 minutes) is consistent with what the runtime for a movie in a 2-hour time slot would’ve been in 1973, so the cuts would’ve been in the original.

Still, Foxworth, Farrell, and Vernon are strong leads, and the core relationship is pretty solid — inspired by Kirk and Spock, but different enough to be fresh. Jerry is no Kirk, particularly not where women are concerned; at one point, Questor encourages him to seduce Lady Helena for information, but he’s terrible at it and can’t bring himself to use her that way. And Questor, much like Data, is rather the opposite of Spock: lacking the inbuilt potential for emotion (part of what was erased from the programming tapes) but eager to learn more about how to be human. The suspense over the purpose and morals of Questor’s creation is interesting, although resolved a bit too easily. And I kind of like it that there’s no villain in the story, just people with conflicting views and goals, doing what they think is right.

And there’s a lot here that seeded later SF productions. I’ve mentioned Questor as the inspiration for Data. Also, the music cue that composer Gil Melle uses in the Project Questor lab scenes would be repurposed later that year as the theme for Kolchak: The Night Stalker. And when Questor finds Vaslovik’s Mt. Ararat lair, the device that “heals” him and infuses him with his missing knowledge makes the same “ta-ta-tang” sound effect (albeit truncated) that would later become the trademark sound of The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman (also from Universal).

The sad thing about TQT is that it almost became a series. As detailed in this excellent overview article (no longer “live” but preserved in the Internet Archive), a season of the show was actually commissioned, but the executives insisted on changes to make it more like The Fugitive — drop Jerry, ignore the ending where Questor found his answers, and have him be a lone hero on the run from the authorities. Apparently they wanted the benign-intervention angle dropped, uneasy with the idea of alien androids playing God — which I think was unfair, because the movie made it clear that Questor’s interventions were meant to be rather subtle. Rather than cave to network pressure, Roddenberry walked away from the show altogether, killing the project. This one movie is all we got. Although maybe that’s just as well, if the only alternative was to see a watered-down version that eliminated the core relationship and the core premise. (Said premise itself being Roddenberry’s latest attempt at the “aliens secretly guiding humans” premise from his Star Trek backdoor pilot episode “Assignment: Earth.”)

There was an attempt to reboot the series in the early 2000s, under the guidance of Herbert J. Wright, a former TNG producer who’d been attached to the abortive 1974 Questor series. Unfortunately, Wright passed away in 2005 and the project fell through. The rights are currently held by Imagine Entertainment, and in 2010 there was talk about a reimagining to be developed by Tim Minear; but nothing seems to have come of it. They keep trying, but they just can’t seem to get it off the ground.

Foxworth would later go on to play two major villains in the Trek franchise: Admiral Leyton in Deep Space Nine‘s “Homefront”/”Paradise Lost,” and Administrator V’Las in Enterprise‘s Vulcan Civil War trilogy. Farrell would never appear in another Trek or Roddenberry-related production, nor would Vernon. However, the pilot features a couple of Trek veterans in bit roles at the Project: Majel Barrett (who was in every Roddenberry production from TOS onward) as Dr. Bradley, one of the scientists, and Walter Koenig (unrecognizable under a Sonny Bono-ish hairdo and mustache) as Darro’s assistant Phillips. The matte paintings and visual effects in the movie were done by the great matte artist Albert Whitlock, who had previously done the matte paintings for TOS. (His paintings do enhance the “Ararat” location, but there are enough moving shots to make it clear that the featured mountain peak is real; I just wish I could find out where it was. It looks nothing like the real Mt. Ararat, but is extremely striking.)

Despite the abandonment of the series, the pilot got a novelization by Roddenberry’s former Trek colleague D.C. Fontana — the only novel on her resume other than Star Trek: Vulcan’s Glory, although oddly the front matter of the book credits her with a Ballantine title called The Winds of Space, which was actually the title of a TV pilot that Fontana reportedly had in development around 1972-3. Perhaps there was a plan for her to novelize the pilot script, but it fell through.

Although it was Fontana’s first novel, it reads pretty well. It’s quite faithful to the script for the most part, but it adds a lot of material that fleshes out the story considerably and fills in a lot of the gaps in the movie. Notably, there’s a new thread of intrigue as the various nations partnering in Project Questor are all eager to get possession of the technology for themselves and trying to co-opt or bribe Jerry into selling out to them. It helps raise the stakes and helps explain why Darro is so concerned about Questor falling into the wrong hands. We learn a lot more about Lady Helena and Dr. Vaslovik, and there’s an added subplot about Questor using his precise computer projections to play the stock market and make millions by buying and selling at exactly the right moments — somewhat prophetic, I think, given how much stock trading today is dependent on computers. Although it clashes a bit with the movie plot, since the reason Questor suggested that Jerry seduce Helena was because they didn’t have the means to pay her. Fontana doesn’t provide a suitable alternative motivation for the wealthy Questor of the novel to suggest seduction.

The biggest departure from the movie is in the third act. The movie gives Questor a deadline of three days (after their time at Helena’s) to find Vaslovik, or something terrible will happen, and he figures out Vaslovik’s location just before he’s recaptured by Darro’s men. In the book, though, the deadline is extended to seven days, and he doesn’t get the vital clue before his recapture. Instead, there’s a sequence where he’s given the resources and personnel needed to attempt to track down Vaslovik — which seems a rather pointless addition, since after days of futile searching, he ultimately ends up getting the vital clue in the same coincidental way he did in the movie. It’s the one part of the novel that feels like it serves no purpose beyond padding the word count.

But it’s also just about the only part that doesn’t feel like an improvement. Although the novel is long out of print and much harder to track down these days than the DVD, I recommend it as a valuable supplement to the film. Some parts of it should be taken with a grain of salt, but others enhance the “reality” of the film considerably.

In my Genesis II/Planet Earth review, I talked about how I choose to interpret them as an alternate timeline of the Trek universe. But I’ve always liked to think that Questor actually took place in the Trek universe itself — and that maybe Data’s creator Noonien Soong learned some of what he knew about androids from Questor somehow. (Although a direct lineage doesn’t work, because Questor’s brain was based on something called “bionic plasma” rather than a positronic matrix.) Of course, since TQT was from Universal, that can never be officially asserted, but there have been several references in various Trek novels implying that Questor may have existed in that universe:

In Greg Cox’s Assignment: Eternity, Roberta Lincoln reminisces about helping Gary Seven retrieve some secret robot plans called “The Quasar Tapes, or something like that.” Roberta recalls that they were in the Pentagon rather than Cal Tech, but that still fits; maybe the Pentagon stole the plans from Vaslovik, and Gary and Roberta got them back into civilian hands.

In Jeffrey Lang’s Immortal Coil — and its followup, the Cold Equations trilogy by David Mack — we see that Flint, the immortal android-builder from “Requiem for Methuselah,” would live on into the 24th century and adopt the pseudonym Emil Vaslovik, becoming a mentor to Noonien Soong. There’s no mention that Vaslovik was the name of a real historical figure — indeed, given that TQT’s Vaslovik was a famous Nobel laureate, it might’ve been a bad idea for Flint to choose such a conspicuous pseudonym — but it’s possible to fudge things and surmise that Flint had known Vaslovik and/or Questor back in the 20th century and learned about androids from them.

And I’ve followed their lead and inserted a reference in my own work: in Watching the Clock, a member of Gary Seven’s Aegis organization refers to “those damn androids” as if they were the competition. And there’s another very subtle nod coming up in my DTI eBook The Collectors.

Although that competition thing is the main problem with having Questor in the Trek universe: aren’t he and Gary Seven basically doing the same thing? And since Gary and Roberta have been doing it six years longer, are Questor’s efforts even necessary? But seeing the movie again, I’m thinking maybe they don’t overlap that much. We know that Gary’s mission was to prevent humanity from destroying itself as it moved through the era of its greatest crisis. So he and Roberta are dealing fate-of-the-world stuff. By contrast, the Vaslovik androids are on a much subtler mission, just guiding and protecting human beings who have the potential to do good and make the world better — not making their decisions for them, but helping them survive or get the education or resources or opportunities they need to fulfill their potential. Maybe speaking a word in the right ear, as Questor puts it, to nudge someone in the right direction. They’ve been at it since the dawn of Homo sapiens‘ existence as a distinct species, and while there have been times in that 200,000-year span when we were at risk of extinction, it probably hasn’t been a concern for most of that span — or at least it wasn’t something that could’ve been affected by the ability to influence human decisions, not until the nuclear age. So maybe Questor’s activities are on a small enough scale that Gary’s activities don’t render them redundant. They could have even complemented each other, with Gary and Roberta tackling the big crises and Questor and Jerry and Helena helping out the little guys who fell through the cracks. Maybe that’s why Gary wanted to make sure the Questor Tapes ended up in the right hands.

Of course, that idea is somewhat dependent on the fact that neither show went past the pilot stage. If both shows had been made, they might have ended up telling fairly similar stories — and of course neither would’ve acknowledged the other. But then, if A:E had been made, Roddenberry wouldn’t have tried to revive the concept with Questor anyway. As it is, though, we’re free to fill in the gaps and imagine what might have been.

If there be an ELYSIUM on Earth, it ain’t this (movie review)

(Title source)

I just got Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium from the library, and I’m glad I didn’t have to pay for it, since it wouldn’t have been worth it. Blomkamp’s District 9 was a very imaginative and powerful SF allegory, albeit overly violent for my tastes, so it’s startling how poor a job he did with his followup. Elysium is a clumsy, heavy-handed allegory about the one percent and the hoarding of health care, trying to be about something but ultimately being about little more than over-the-top, lowbrow violence.

Matt Damon is reasonably sympathetic as Max, a reformed felon trying to get by in the horrific poverty on Earth while the wealthy elites live in paradise on the Stanford torus space habitat Elysium, where Sufficiently Advanced Technology medical beds can instantly “re-atomize” anyone back to perfect health. When an industrial accident gives him a lethal dose of radiation, he hooks up with a former criminal colleague who runs a rather ill-considered operation to smuggle “illegals” up to Elysium to steal medical care, and makes a deal to steal personal data from an Elysian’s brain in order to make megabucks. But his target just happens to have the key to taking over all of Elysium, because he’s working for the evil government official Delacourt (Jodie Foster), who plans a coup to take over the habitat, and who sends her ruthless mercenary Kruger (Sharlto Copley) to hunt Max down. Oh, and there’s Max’s token love interest, childhood friend Frey (Alice Braga), whose daughter is coincidentally terminally ill and could use a trip to Elysium herself.

But although Max gives the story a reasonably strong center, none of the other characters have much substance. Delacourt and Kruger have little motivation beyond being the designated villains, and many of their actions make little sense. Particularly, in the third act, Kruger suddenly decides he wants to take the data in Max’s head so he can personally rule Elysium — and nothing in this thuggish mercenary’s established character has provided any precedent for the idea that he has ambitions of conquest on that scale. And at the same time, Delacourt, who has had clear political ambitions and makes more sense in that role, is unceremoniously tossed aside for reasons I have trouble fathoming — unless it’s simply the fact that she lacked a Y chromosome.  This is a very guy-focused action film, like something out of the ’80s, with few female characters, and Frey is basically just there to fill the traditional damsel role. The film doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test unless you count a single “No” from Delacourt to Frey as a conversation. Meanwhile, Foster’s performance is strident and awkward, partly due to the French (?) accent she employs, but largely because of the one-dimensional characterization she’s saddled with.

Elysium itself is pretty, thanks to Syd Mead’s conceptual designs, but the physics in the film are atrocious. Heck, not just its physics, its sense of scale. Elysium’s curvature is pronounced enough that it can’t be more than a few kilometers in diameter, and yet it’s depicted as being so immense that its disk can be clearly discerned from the surface of Earth at daytime — and in one shot it’s even shown rising from behind the Earth’s horizon in a shot that would require it to be probably a couple of thousand kilometers across. It’s somehow able to hold in an atmosphere just with rotational gravity alone, with the habitat sections open to space on top — which would not work on that small a scale, since an air column less than a kilometer deep wouldn’t have remotely enough weight. Not to mention the lack of radiation protection. Also, Elysium seems to be keeping permanent station over Los Angeles, which isn’t possible since LA isn’t at the equator. And in some shots, Elysium looks far enough from Earth to be in geosynchronous orbit (if you assume it’s immensely larger than it appears in closeups), while in others, particularly the shots of shuttles traveling up to it from Earth, it seems vastly closer. Oh, and the shuttles thrust continuously in a straight line directly for Elysium, which is not even remotely how orbital maneuvering works.

The physics of explosions in the action scenes are pretty inept too, like a grenade going off in an enclosed space and only injuring the guy closest to it (Kruger), while everyone else is unharmed and even Kruger suffers no brain damage; realistically, they’d all have been killed by the concussive shock propagating in that enclosed space and Kruger’s brain would’ve been jelly. Even by the fanciful standards of Hollywood explosion physics, that one’s hard to swallow. Oh, and when the magic medbed rebuilds Kruger’s face post-explosion, it comes complete with a full beard! Couldn’t they at least have bothered to have Copley shave for the final act?

There was one bit that seemed like a mild concession to good physics, since in the climactic battle in some kind of huge industrial underbelly of Elysium, there was a wind continuously blowing through in one direction, a nice nod to the Coriolis effect resulting from the habitat’s rotation. But the way we knew the wind was there was because it was blowing cherry blossom petals around. Okay, a climactic battle accompanied by blowing cherry blossom petals is a nice stylistic touch, very samurai-movie-ish — but in the middle of a gigantic industrial complex? Granted, that’s part of the established aesthetic of Elysium, plants growing all over everything, and that’s fine in residential or governmental sectors. But it seems like a bad idea to have petals blowing about down below and getting into the vital machinery.

The ending is as overly simplistic as the rest; the heroes supposedly bring the system down and restore justice and health care for all, but it’s pretty clearly a temporary victory at best, and will probably bring even harsher crackdowns once the Elysian authorities reimpose control. After all, the big change is brought about only through a computer hack, not by changing anyone’s minds, so the elites wouldn’t just accept it. I suppose it could work as an ending if you interpret it as a token victory, a gesture of defiance and a statement that needed to be made; but it’s unclear whether the film is treating it that way or just expecting us to assume it’s a permanent solution. And the rest of the film hasn’t given me any reason to expect that kind of nuance or complexity. It’s all really very big, dumb, and heavyhanded.

All in all, a very unsatisfying movie, considering the talent involved. So much less than it could’ve been.

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SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN thoughts: Season 2, Eps. 21-22 and overview (Spoilers)

February 8, 2014 2 comments

“Outrage in Balinderry”: Balinderry is basically ’70s Northern Ireland, an occupied island country ravaged by terrorism, but with much worse Irish accents. Steve and Oscar are at a NATO conference with Steve’s friend Ambassador Collins (William Sylvester), who’s been working on a peaceful compromise between a moderate faction of the freedom-fighters and the (implicitly British) government, when he learns that his wife has been kidnapped, ostensibly by that same faction. The US can’t officially get involved, but somehow Steve, despite being a USAF colonel and OSI agent representing the United States government at a NATO convention, is able to say he’s not acting on behalf of the US when he goes in with Collins to help find his wife. En route, he meets a Balinderry-native stewardess, Julia (Martine Beswick), who’s sympathetic about the kidnapping. When he’s left a message by another passenger inviting him to meet the moderate faction’s mysterious leader Commander 10, he convinces Julia to be his native guide, since Collins is too distraught to help. Or maybe it’s just since he wants to spend half the rescue mission flirting with her. Look, I know continuity was not the order of the day back in the ’70s, but Steve just lost the love of his life last week in “The Bionic Woman,” so you’d think they could’ve at least had the consideration to schedule an episode without a romance plot the following week. Consideration and continuity aside, the complete lack of chemistry between Majors and Beswick, and the detached way they go through the motions of their whirlwind courtship, is quite the anticlimax after the great rapport Majors and Lindsay Wagner had.

Anyway, they go to meet the moderates, and ironically the actor with the most painfully inept Irish accent is the one with the most Irish-sounding name, Gavan O’Herlihy as resistance member Dan (the guy who left the note on the plane). Dan assures Steve that his unit had no raisin to sabotage the pace talks (honest, that’s what he said). They’re being framed by a radical faction that wants to scuttle the pace, err, peace process by discrediting the only faction that can bring it about. Anyway, Dan conveniently knows of a witness to the kidnapping and leaves the meeting, after which the others are taken captive by the government — including the traitor in the ranks, Slayton (Richard Erdman), who’s the actual kidnapper, working for dam operator Breen (Richard O’Brien), leader of the militant wing. Slayton bargains for his freedom by revealing that Commander 10 is actually Julia herself. Pause for reactions of complete lack of surprise. What is surprising is that the general (writer/actor Alan Caillou, whom I recognize from several Man from UNCLE episodes) lets Slayton go immediately, without any paperwork or anything, so that Dan can conveniently follow him back to Breen’s dam and then report back to Steve and Julia after the former breaks the latter out of jail. But the government troops think Breen’s on their side and are protecting the dam, so there’s some conflict as Steve tries to break in with the resistance members and rescue Mrs. Collins.

I appreciate the episode’s effort to resonate with the political issues of the day, and it’s unusual to see an episode this political at all on this show, given that the international intrigue is usually kept quite distant and vague. But this attempt at allegory for the complex Northern Ireland crisis is awkward, unfocused, and unsuccessful. Not to mention sluggishly paced and kind of imbalanced. Steve doesn’t do anything bionic until nearly 20 minutes into the episode (counting main titles but not commercial breaks), when the eye comes into play, and he doesn’t use bionic strength until 26 minutes in. As Kenneth Johnson said in his commentary on the preceding 2-parter, they liked to pepper the show with brief “bionic gags” to satisfy the kids in the audience. The kids must’ve been getting very restless on this one. It’s not really a bad episode — at least it has an original score — but it’s relentlessly mediocre and nobody’s heart really seems to be in it. (And the fact that every single citizen of Balinderry has a different idea of what an Irish accent sounds like is not easy on the ears.) It’s a disappointment in the wake of “The Bionic Woman,” and it’s a disappointment in relation to the serious issue it tried to address.

“Steve Austin, Fugitive”: Wait a minute… the fugitive is the one-armed man?? Anyway… The episode opens with Steve getting acquainted with Oscar’s new secretary, Miss Callahan (Jennifer Darling), while Oscar and Rudy are out of the country. (Allegedly they’re at a nuclear arms conference, but why would Rudy need to be there? In retrospect, I’m tempted to believe this was a secret mission to gain some technology necessary for reviving Jaime Sommers, and Oscar lied about it to Steve.) Peggy Callahan will become a recurring presence on both this series and The Bionic Woman for the next three years, even though Oscar says here that he changes secretaries every three months for security reasons.  Jennifer Darling, for her part, will later go on to be the voice of Irma in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series, as well as one of the main villains on the 1987 animated series Bionic Six, which is otherwise unrelated to this franchise.

Callahan fields a call for Steve from Rudy’s assistant Charlie (Andy Romano), who tells him that some of Steve’s bionic data has been stolen and he’s being blackmailed, insisting that Steve come to his apartment at once. Turns out he’s actually working with Hopper (Gary Lockwood), a returning villain from season 1′s “Eyewitness to Murder.” Charlie thinks he and Hopper are partners in a scheme to extort money out of the OSI for the stolen data, but actually Hopper has used the data to make a glove duplicating Steve’s bionic hand, which he uses to kill Charlie and plant Steve’s fingerprints all over the gun and the apartment. He then tranquilizes Steve on his arrival, so he’s there when the cops arrive and seems drunk or stoned. Somehow, the dart leaves no mark that police lieutenant Dobbs (Bernie Hamilton) can find on cursory inspection. Dobbs lets Steve go on the strength of his reputation, but keeps him under surveillance. Steve calls Oscar to fill him in, and Oscar instructs Callahan to help Steve as needed. Then the cops come to arrest Steve. He goes quietly, but when he spots Hopper in the street, he breaks out to chase him (as Hopper planned) and gets shot in the bionic leg. (Per the resulting APB, Steve is 6’2″ and 185 pounds. IMDb says Lee Majors is only 6’0″. But then, people sometimes lose height as they get older.)

So he goes to Callahan’s apartment for her help in getting parts to repair the leg, verbally elevating her security clearance three levels when he reveals his bionics to her. The electronics store clerk she goes to for parts appears to be Hopper in disguise, but this is never addressed as a plot point, aside from the same set being reused as Hopper’s lair later; I think something was lost in editing. Anyway, Steve breaks into an OSI office for files on Steve’s past nemeses; he’d requested those files before his arrest, but Callahan doesn’t have clearance for the building. Meanwhile, Callahan uses her own initiative to interview Charlie’s neighbors — one of whom is Hopper, who gaslights her with fake info on the shooter, then follows her home and spies on her and Steve with a shotgun mike. Turns out the Hopper that Steve arrested died in prison; this Hopper is the twin brother he used to give him alibis. Which I suppose explains why he wants Steve to rot in prison rather than just shooting him, although he had no trouble shooting Charlie.

Anyway, Hopper kidnaps Callahan and uses that leverage to get Steve to meet him in a park, and tips off the cops to his location. But Oscar is back in town and convinces Dobbs to let him come along. Steve spots Hopper watching and he and Oscar convince Dobbs to work with them to sting Hopper and give Steve a chance to rescue Callahan. This is set up to make it look like Steve made a run for it and was killed by the police, but we already know he’s playing for Hopper’s benefit, so it’s never a remotely convincing fakeout for the audience. But it leads to a fight between Steve’s bionics and Hopper’s warehouse vehicles. Guess who wins.

This is the season finale, but of course it would still be some years before season finales became big events rather than just normal weekly episodes. But as ’70s finales go, this is an okay one, and certainly a marked improvement over last season’s clip-show finale. While the story is imperfect, it’s pretty entertaining, mainly due to Darling’s performance as Callahan. Oddly, although she’s the most central guest star, she isn’t billed until the end titles. But she’ll get a recurring role on two series out of this, so I guess it worked out okay. (And I guess the fact that she found out Steve’s secret is why Oscar kept her around for three years instead of three months. No sense changing secretaries for secrecy’s sake if your secretary’s already in on the secret.)

Oh, and I think we get the first use of the “ta-ta-tang” sound for the bionic grip, when Steve forces open a doorknob. Another slightly novel use is when he raises his legs to block a descending wheel-loader bucket. Even this late in the season, it’s still unusual to hear the sound used for bionic-leg stunts.

The bonus features on the season 2 DVD, aside from Kenneth Johnson’s “Bionic Woman” commentary, are deeply lame. One is a piece about the sound effects that’s more about random fans making awful attempts to imitate the bionic noises than it is about providing useful information such as how the sound effects were created (there’s a vague speculation offered for the origin of the “ta-ta-tang,” but it’s unconvincing). It acknowledges the sound-effect evolution I’ve been tracking, though asserts that the “ta-ta-tang” was established as a bionic exertion sound earlier than I’m willing to admit. (Since it was originally used as sort of a “swish” sound for things swinging or flying through the air in slow motion, I don’t count it as a bionic sound effect until we hear it used for other types of bionic actions, which didn’t happen until late in the season.) It does confirm, however, that the sound effects don’t become truly standardized until season 3, which also introduces the “bionic impact” sound (a sort of electronic “thud-thud-thud” that echoes at about the same pace as the exertion sound) and the standardized bionic jump sound (a rising or falling electronic tone accompanying the rising or falling jumper, rather cartoonily).

The other feature is a guest-star overview that’s mostly just episode clips; I don’t think any of the guest stars themselves were interviewed for it. And it overlooks Jennifer Darling, who should’ve warranted mention as a new recurring player.

So how did season 2 stack up to season 1? Well, it was longer, for one thing, and it was pivotal in establishing important conventions of the series: The emergence of the bionic sound effects, the debut of aliens in the bionic universe, the introduction of Jaime Sommers (and Peggy Callahan), and behind the scenes, the grooming of Kenneth Johnson for the producer role he would assume on both bionic series the following season.

But was it better than season 1? Sadly, no. It started out very strong, with three excellent episodes out of the first five: “The Pioneers,” “The Pal-Mir Escort,” and “The Seven Million Dollar Man.” But after that, we don’t get a really good one until “The Bionic Woman” near the end of the season, although there are some decent but flawed ones like “Straight on ’til Morning,” “The Deadly Replay,” “The Peeping Blonde,” “The Last Kamikaze,” “The Return of the Robot-Maker,” and “Steve Austin, Fugitive.” It seems as though the attempt at intelligent drama that characterized the rear half of season 1 and the early part of season 2 gave way to a trend toward more superficial action stories. There was also a decreasing emphasis on Steve’s astronaut side, which figured into four episodes in the first half of the season (though just barely in the case of “The Peeping Blonde”) and none in the back half. I’m not sure why this is. True, the Apollo missions were a couple of years in the past by this point, but Skylab was still in active use, so at the time the US manned space program would still have been seen as a going concern. But maybe the popularity of it was waning as the Moon landings faded into memory.

As far as actual science fiction stories, there weren’t that many (not counting general bionics stuff or stories with “new technology” McGuffins): “The Pioneers,” “The Seven Million Dollar Man,” “Straight on ’til Morning,” “Return of the Robot Maker,” “The E.S.P. Spy,” and “The Bionic Woman.” Other stories driven mainly by scientific undertakings would include “The Deadly Replay” and “Taneha” (though that’s more conservation than research per se). The majority of the season was about more conventional TV fare, whether spy missions, crime stories, or bad situations the hero stumbled into.

Best episodes of the season: “The Bionic Woman” (both parts), “The Pioneers,” “The Seven Million Dollar Man.” All were strong character-driven dramas with ideas worth exploring. Worst episodes: “The E.S.P. Spy,” “Stranger in Broken Fork,” “Taneha.” “Spy” is painfully inept and annoying, and (as I forgot to mention before) contradicts prior continuity, in that Oscar doesn’t believe in ESP even though a psychic was already used in the first season’s “Operation Firefly.” “Stranger” is sluggish, generic, stupidly set up, and poorly directed. And “Taneha” is inconsequential, corny, and melodramatic, with annoying gender attitudes. The most promising episode that didn’t quite work: “Straight on ’til Morning.” The most science-fictional episode yet and the first alien story in the franchise, written by Star Trek‘s D.C. Fontana, but nonetheless cliched and having nothing of substance to say. Also “Outrage in Balinderry,” which made a respectable attempt to be socially relevant but sabotaged it with mediocre writing, a chemistry-free romance subplot, and astonishingly bad Irish accents. Most entertaining but completely insubstantial episode: “Return of the Robot Maker.” Lively and fun, with some of the series’ best special effects to date (which, believe me, is damning with very faint praise), but totally devoid of any meaningful characterization, emotion, or theme.

So basically this season offered generally superficial, generally passable but often cheesy action-drama stories, with occasional attempts at something more substantial. I think it was mainly nostalgia, and Oliver Nelson’s music, that made it generally entertaining for me, but it definitely could’ve stood to be better. (There were surprisingly few stock musical scores this season — almost disappointing, really, since there were some very good cues it would’ve been nice to hear repeated.) The heartening thing is that “The Bionic Woman,” basically the demo reel for incoming producer Kenneth Johnson, was so much stronger than the rest of the season. It gives me hope for future seasons (if they ever become available on Netflix) and for the spinoff The Bionic Woman (which is available now, so I might move on to that).

SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN thoughts: Season 2, Eps. 19-20: “The Bionic Woman” (Spoilers)

“The Bionic Woman”: We open with Steve actually on a mission, to recover a stolen US-currency printing plate from Ronaugh (Malachi Throne), who sees Steve’s face and swears revenge. But then we cut to Steve going on his third vacation in the past four episodes. He’s now officially the laziest TV action hero ever. This time, though, he’s gone home to Ojai, California to buy a ranch and put down roots, helped by his mother Helen (Martha Scott, returning from “The Coward”) and stepfather Jim Elgin (Ford Rainey, debuting here). He’s excited to learn from them that another famous Ojai native is back in town: tennis pro Jaime Sommers (do I even need to say Lindsay Wagner?), who was as close as a sister to him growing up, but that he’s long harbored more than brotherly feelings for. They reconnect effortlessly, and though screenwriter Kenneth Johnson (making his 6M$M debut) puts up the token obstacle of another guy she’s dating, she breaks up with that guy off-camera and without explanation, leading to the inevitable courtship montage. Except this montage has a cheesy twist. It features “Sweet Jamie” [sic], the second of two songs written for the episode, the first one being “Got to Get Loose,” which was played under the first-act opening. The songs, with music by Oliver Nelson and lyrics by Lionel E. Siegel, are performed by Lee Majors himself. They, um, aren’t especially good, with lyrics rather baldly and unsubtly stating the emotions being expressed. And Majors is the kind of singer who doesn’t feel any need to come anywhere close to the rhythm of the musical accompaniment. Which can work well — cf. Sinatra — but only if the singer really knows what he’s doing, and I didn’t get that sense from Majors. (Majors’s other, uhh, major singing credit would be the theme song to his later series The Fall Guy.)

But the slow pace and cheesy songs are more than made up for by Johnson’s witty dialogue and Lindsay Wagner’s amazing charm and animation. I’ve always found her an absolute delight to watch and listen to, so expressive and fun and spontaneous, with such a marvelous naturalness and humor to her delivery. (Great legs, too. I’d forgotten that. I’ve always really liked her but never really seen her as a sex symbol. In retrospect, I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because her own show didn’t really sexualize her the way something like Charlie’s Angels did with its leads. She was more of a girl-next-door, best-friend sort of presence. At least, that’s my recollection.) And she brings out the best in Majors too. They have excellent chemistry, and he’s as relaxed and animated with her as he was in the closing scene of “Taneha” that I liked so much. (In Kenneth Johnson’s commentary — the only one on this season’s set — he says that Wagner’s spontaneity tended to bring out a similar quality in the performers who played off of her, and that’s entirely clear in her scenes with Majors. She makes him a better actor.) Their relationship is much more credible than the out-of-nowhere old flame from “Lost Love” a few episodes back. That’s partly due to the chemistry, but just as much due to the writing. Making them friends since childhood,giving them a history and a well-established ease with each other, makes it less contrived that she could’ve been out of his life for the duration of the series so far and yet quickly fall into a devoted relationship with him.

Of course, it can’t last. Just as things are getting serious, they go skydiving, and Jaime’s chute inexplicably fails. The accident isn’t very clearly depicted — since it was constructed from stock skydiving footage and a few close-ups of the actors — but the chute evidently gets tangled in its lines somehow. (Johnson’s commentary explains it was based on a real type of skydiving accident where a chute gets caught in an updraft and “streams,” collapsing in on itself.) Her injuries are coincidentally similar to those that befell Steve three years earlier: both legs and her right arm and shoulder a total loss, her right ear deafened. Apparently she’s in danger of dying from her injuries too. A desperate Steve goes to Oscar and pleads with him to make Jaime bionic. Oscar insists it’s not that easy, that the cost has to be justified to the government. If she becomes an OSI agent as Steve suggests, there will come a time (says Oscar) when he’ll need her for a mission and Steve will refuse. Steve promises he won’t, pleads with Oscar, and it’s the finest acting I’ve seen from Majors up to this point. He really pulls out all the stops here, even without Wagner to play off of. Oscar is convinced, so Rudy (making his first appearance in 14 episodes) brings in his team and bionicizes her. (Fittingly, the bionic ear implant looks like a larger version of a modern hearing-aid battery.) Steve helps her through the recovery, revealing to her that he’s bionic too, and by the end of the therapy sequence, he proposes marriage, and she accepts (oh, she’s so doomed). Ronaugh (remember him?) sees the wedding announcement in a Russian-language paper (on the front page, because of course it is), so now he knows where to find the guy he wants to kill. To Be Continued!

Part 2′s recap montage is narrated by Richard Anderson (out of character, since he refers to Oscar in the third person), and reveals that, contrary to the impression given by the editing in part 1, Jaime’s surgery and therapy took months. Ronaugh will later say it’s been seven months. Perhaps some of the earlier episodes took place during the time that Jaime was in therapy?

Anyway, Jaime begins to question what Uncle Sam expects in return for her bionics, but Steve dodges the issue. They bionic-race each other home, and Helen sees them running at superspeed and jumping over tractors, so Steve has to have a talk with her. This is handled very nicely; in lieu of audible dialogue, the conversation is revealed through facial expressions and illustrated with sound and sepia-toned image clips from the main titles and the pilot. (Johnson’s commentary says this was inspired by a scene in North by Northwest.) Anyway, Oscar then shows up and says it’s time for Jaime to pay the piper; Ronaugh has a perfect counterfeit plate now and they need Jaime’s bionic ear to crack his safe — plus he conveniently hosts a tennis tournament (something that never came up until now), so she has a way in. Steve predictably tries to renege on his word, insisting Jaime’s not ready, but of course she hears every word of their conversation from outside and insists on going in. Steve comes on the mission as her fiancé and backup, unaware that Ronaugh saw his face in their earlier encounter, though Ronaugh isn’t exactly subtle about hinting they’ve met before. Jamie performs the switch smoothly, and is inexplicably unable to hear Ronaugh and his men waylaying Steve at gunpoint in the hallway outside, even though it should be easier than her former feat of bionic hearing with Steve and Oscar. (Johnson’s commentary doesn’t address this inconsistency.) But then, her bionic arm is glitching, causing her to trigger an alarm, so let’s be generous and assume the ear was glitching too. They break out and run from Ronaugh, who ends up getting accidentally shot by his own henchman (Paul Carr).

But that’s far from the end of the story, for Jaime’s bionics keep glitching. She hasn’t been telling anyone since she thinks it’s normal adjustment, but when Steve finds out, he takes her to Rudy, who can’t find anything wrong with the equipment. But she has mood swings and personality changes that keep getting worse, and eventually Rudy finds her body is rejecting the bionics and a clot is forming around the control processor in her brain. He says he needs to operate right away, but Jaime has a freakout and runs out of the hospital, and Steve follows the trail of property damage she leaves. The pathetic fallacy kicks in and a thunderstorm begins, yet another surefire sign that she’s doomed for a tragic end. (Johnson does this a lot; see the pilot and the “Married” episode of The Incredible Hulk. Not only does the first Hulk transformation scene in the pilot take place in a rainstorm, it uses one of the same stock lightning-bolt shots used here.)  By the time Steve finds her, it’s too late; she dies on the table. There’s some more really nice editorial work here, with a slow-motion “memory” shot of Jaime superimposed on a close-up of Steve’s face and slowing to a stop at the moment she flatlines. I originally wrote “nice direction,” but Johnson says this was a replacement for the scripted action that the director somehow failed to film. Harve Bennett was already grooming him to become a producer, so Johnson was given unprecedented access in the editing room and suggested this editorial fix, or so he recalls the event decades after the fact. In any case, it works very well.

And that, aside from a bit more flashbacky stuff and a reprise of “Sweet Jamie,” is the last we ever see of Jaime Sommers.

Or is it…?

Well, as far as the episode itself was concerned, it definitely was. Johnson’s original plan was to leave Jaime in a coma, but Love Story had just come out and the network insisted the girl had to die. (Uhh, spoilers for Love Story, I guess.) But Lindsay Wagner’s charm won over the audience, this 2-parter got the series its best ratings yet, and the network demanded more, quite understandably. However, this is the last time we ever see Alan Oppenheimer as Rudy Wells, to my regret. For the rest of the franchise, he’ll be played by Martin E. Brooks, whom I never liked as much as Oppenheimer. (Sure, he may have had a full head of hair, but he never played Skeletor.)

Perhaps it’s fitting that here is where the “ta-ta-tang” sound effect really begins to become standardized as a bionic exertion sound. It’s used here for a lot of bionic stuff, including jumps for the first time, as well as throws, kicks, fence post driving, and rowing a canoe really fast. Still not used for running or crushing/bending things, though. We get the first bionic-ear sound effect here, but it’s not the sonar-like double chirp we’ll later come to know — more a single, drawn-out, descending chirp.

This was a solid 2-parter, though it had room for improvement. The first act or two are kind of slow-paced, and Jaime’s accident is rather random and contrived. It might’ve worked better if, say, her accident had been caused by Ronaugh’s men as they attempted to assassinate Steve — like if they sabotaged the wrong parachute. Then it wouldn’t seem like such a huge coincidence that the love of Steve’s life just happened to have the same kind of accident. It also has kind of a weak ending. Plus they seem to have blown the music budget on the songs for Part 1, since Part 2 is saddled with a stock score that’s a letdown after the fully original score to Part 1. We don’t even get a reprise of Oliver Nelson’s Jaime theme (the same melody as “Sweet Jamie”) until her final minutes.

(About the song title — there’s a story that her name was originally spelled “Jamie” until Wagner misspelled the name on a chalkboard, but Johnson says it was always supposed to be “Jaime” and they got it wrong here. I always figured it was from the French j’aime, “I love you,” but Johnson says she was one of many characters he named after people he’d known.)

But there’s still a lot of strong writing here from Kenneth Johnson, especially in the endearingly witty yet natural-sounding dialogue among Steve, Jaime, and his parents. And Lindsay Wagner really makes it shine. She was still quite young and showed some signs of inexperience as an actress at the time, but her charm and exuberance more than made up for it, and her spontaneous, natural delivery was a rare talent in the ’70s. It’s easy to understand why the network rushed to give Wagner her own series — and rather startling and disappointing that it was her only series lead role.

SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN thoughts: Season 2, Eps. 17-18 (Spoilers)

Just doing two in this post, since these next few came out pretty long:

“Look Alike”: As the title suggests, this is our second impostor story in three episodes (although it aired after a 2-week hiatus, so it was just under a month after “The Return of the Robot Maker”). While Steve is on a fishing vacation, using his bionics to cheat and catch more fish, a lookalike for Steve shows up at the OSI and convinces Oscar to leave him to lock up his top-security vault for the night, whereupon he takes spy-cam photos of everything in it. He also convinces Oscar to show him “the Omega Project,” which seems to be just a laser/holography research project, so it’s unclear why it’s so top-secret or has such an ominous name. And I have to say, for someone who was replaced by an android duplicate less than a month before, Oscar is remarkably unsuspicious about the flaws in the fake Steve’s impersonation. Anyway, the impostor’s employers — including a man called Breezy (Robert DoQui) — have sent some thugs to take out the real Steve at the lake, but he bionics them into submission and goes back to Washington. On spotting him, the impostor anticlimactically runs into traffic and gets killed. Learning that he’s an ex-boxer, John Dine, who had plastic surgery and studied recordings of Steve’s voice, Steve decides to turn the tables and impersonate Dine to get to his employers and the stolen films.

Making time with Dine’s girlfriend, Steve learns of his manager Jasper, who’s played by The Incredible Hulk‘s Mr. McGee himself, Jack Colvin. Steve tries to get info from him about Breezy’s bosses, but Mr. McGee warns Steve that he wouldn’t like Breezy when he’s angry. (I’m sorry. I had to.) Indeed, Breezy tries to have him killed, but Steve survives (in part by throwing a piece of wood at a stuntman who would’ve been missed cleanly if he hadn’t deliberately lifted his arm to be struck), then bionic-boxes Breezy into submission to get him to take Steve to the big boss, leading to a climactic fight with a bunch of thugs (including Dick Durock) in a boxing arena, one which I recognize from other Universal shows including an Incredible Hulk episode or two. Boxer George Foreman is crowbarred into the story as an OSI agent who shows up in the last act to help Steve pummel the thugs, and then grills him (I’m sorry, I had to) about where he got such a strong right hook.

This is a mix of a formulaic plot used in countless old TV series with a contrived setup for a George Foreman guest appearance, so it’s not all that impressive, but it has a few noteworthy features. For one thing, Lee Majors is surprisingly good at giving Dine a different voice and personality in the one scene where we get to see him out of character. Sometimes Majors proves he’s a better actor than he usually seems to be, and that just makes me wonder why he doesn’t do it more often. There’s also a full original score which is pretty good, and amusingly features some Nelson Riddle-ish trumpet stings when Steve bionically punches Breezy in their bout (although there’s no BAM! or POW! superimposed on the screen).

Most notably, this is a key episode in the evolution of the “ta-ta-tang” sound effect. It’s consistently used for everything Steve does with his bionic arm, as well as for a bionic kick — and at one point it’s even used in the boxing ring to represent his footwork on the mat (I guess he was moving his feet really fast or something?). And it isn’t used for George Foreman’s punches, even though he’s shot in slow motion too. It still isn’t used for bionic jumps, but this is the first time it’s been unambiguously coded as a “bionic” sound effect rather than a “forceful motion through the air” sound effect.

One thing that struck me — the last episode ended with Steve taking some vacation time, and this one began with Steve on vacation. It made me realize — for a show about a government agent, 6M$M has surprisingly few episodes involving government missions. I’d say only five of the season’s seventeen episodes so far (“Nuclear Alert,” “The Pioneers,” “The Pal-Mir Escort,” “The Cross-Country Kidnap,” and “The Last Kamikaze”) have had a government mission for Steve as the driving factor of the plot, although a few others (including this one) have had him take on an assignment as a consequence of the inciting incident. And the international-intrigue elements are always so nebulously defined. This isn’t the spy show the pilots set it up to be.

“The E.S.P. Spy”: Okay, so sometimes it’s a spy show. One of Steve’s many never-before-seen friends, Harry (Dick Van Patten), is arrested for selling secrets to the enemy, since he’s the only person who knows all the details of the laser weapon he’s designing (not the same laser project as last week, apparently) and a component he hasn’t even put on paper yet has been built in the Ukraine (the closest the series has come yet to identifying the USSR as an enemy; in the pilots and season 1 they were portrayed in more friendly terms). We’ve already been shown that it’s actually the titular psychic spy reading his mind with the help of a mental power booster device. Oscar lays out the damning evidence that Harry’s the only possible culprit, but as a total non sequitur, Steve guesses that his mind has been read. Oscar is a skeptic, even though he’s already met a telepathic alien in “Straight on ’til Morning,” but Steve takes him to meet a “super-psychic,” a teenage girl named Audrey (Robbie Lee), who has an annoying, maudlin voice that sounds very much like Sniffles, the cutesy mouse character from those very early Chuck Jones cartoons before he learned how to be funny. Audrey can read minds with perfect clarity, but still struggles to learn her school subjects. Huh?

Somehow, just being shown that psychics exist in general is enough to convince Oscar that a psychic is actually being used in this specific instance, which doesn’t make any sense. Not only is this a basic logical fallacy, but the scientist studying Audrey claims there are only 4-5 “super-ESP people” in the world, so statistically speaking it’s still overwhelmingly more probable that Harry just turned traitor. Nonetheless, Oscar and Steve free Harry and tell him to pretend to work on a fake project. Dudes! Don’t tell him that, the psychic’s going to know what he thinks! Except we later see Harry working on the fake project with an echoey voiceover of Oscar’s instructions, which is a standard Hollywood device to tell us that he is thinking about that, and yet somehow the power-boosted psychic doesn’t notice it. Meanwhile, Steve and Audrey drive interminably around Malibu psychically scanning houses (which surely constitutes an illegal search and violates an amendment or two) until they find where the bad guys are, and…

Um. You know how I’ve been saying they sometimes cheat by applying bionic effects to actions any ordinary person could perform? This time, Steve, while parked on the street in front of the house, uses his bionic eye to zoom in on… the address plaque by the front end of the driveway.

Yes. He needs his bionic eye to look at the one part of the property that’s specifically designed to be legible from the street.

Oh yeah, and then there’s the part where Steve is attacked on the beach by some thugs, and then later — while he and Audrey are searching for a mind-reading enemy agent — he wonders how the enemy could possibly have found out where he was.

(Safety tip: facepalms and bionic arms don’t mix.)

So Steve decides the way to keep this teenage girl safe while he goes after the bad guys is to drop her at a gas station, give her money, and tell her to go to the airport and fly home all by her lonesome. Were the ’70s really that innocent? He needs to drop her at the gas station so she can call Oscar from a phone booth, since for some reason they’ve switched cars since an earlier scene where they had a car phone. There’s actually dialogue earlier mentioning the car switch, but it feels kind of arbitrary. And why wouldn’t the new car also have a phone in it? If Steve could afford to rent one car with a phone, why not two? The OSI is paying his expenses, after all.

Okay, so Steve breaks into the bad guy’s house and gets captured, and the first thing he does is tell the bad guys that the false intelligence Harry’s been feeding them to sabotage their project is false. Um, why, exactly? Doesn’t that kind of defeat the whole purpose of feeding them false intel? Gee, he goes on so few spy missions that he must be out of practice. Anyway, he gets a tranquilizer injected into his bionic arm (how the heck did the bad guy find a vein?) and fake-thinks something that the enemy psychic reads that convinces the bad guys to bug out, I’m not sure how or why. Then he just attacks them and beats them up anyway, and I wonder why he didn’t do that to start with. And then we get an awkward scene on the beach where Steve tries to teach Audrey a shallow self-affirmation mantra to compensate for the crushing insecurity about being a weirdo that she’s exhibited exactly never prior to this scene. Which means my final auditory memory of this episode is that whiny voice just going on and on and on and oh gods why did this have to be the last episode I watched before going to bed?

And it won’t even be the last time we have to endure her voice. She’ll be back in another episode in season 3. *shudder*

So… yeah. The worst episode yet. It combined the ’70s obsession with “ESP” with a story seemingly written largely as an excuse to let the production crew spend a week in Malibu. No new music, but there were some brief reprises of some very nice cues from earlier episodes, which were just about the only worthwhile things here.

Well, I lived through the ordeal of “The E.S.P. Spy,” and now the healing can begin, for next comes the long-awaited debut of “The Bionic Woman!” Oh, Lindsay Wagner… you make everything better…

SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN thoughts: Season 2, Eps. 13-16 (Spoilers)

January 25, 2014 2 comments

“Lost Love”: Steve is reunited with Barbara Thatcher (Linda Marsh), an old flame whom he was willing to marry but who couldn’t stand to compete with the time demands of his astronaut training, so she left him and married an older man, scientist Orin Thatcher. But Oscar tells Steve that Dr. Thatcher died in a plane crash at sea three months ago, so Steve promptly shows up at Barbara’s door (he says he got her name from the phone book, but didn’t do her the courtesy of calling first) and starts in with the re-romancing. He promises to take it slow, but Steve Austin doesn’t do “slow” (unless you count slow motion), so we go right into a courtship montage consisting mostly of stock footage of Washington, DC landmarks at which Majors and Marsh are conspicuously not present. After he drops her off that night, she’s attacked by a couple of badly-acted thugs (neither of which is even credited) and Steve saves her. Oscar explains her late hubby was working on a gas to purify the air in case of bioweapon attacks, and the baddies may think she knows the formula, so he assigns her protection, though Steve insists on doing the bulk of it himself. Although when he’s with her, he’s clearly not only interested in guarding her body.

But before he can get past first base, Barbara gets a phone call from her not-dead hubby, who’s apparently defected to the “Begarian” embassy in Lisbon and insists she come to him immediately. Steve insists on tagging along, and they’re met by the embassy attache Markos (Joseph Ruskin), who explains to Steve that Thatcher has defected. (Orin Thatcher is unfortunately not played by Torin Thatcher — they got Jeff Corey instead.) Steve is shocked when, after talking with her husband, Barbara says she’s staying with him. But all is not as it seems; he’s actually faked his own defection to help another scientist defect in the other direction (by insisting they work together in a neutral country, thus getting him out from behind the implied Iron Curtain). Steve helps them escape the embassy, and naturally Barb goes back to her heroic hubby.

This is a decent episode, but it’s undermined by the fact that Linda Marsh, to put it simply, is no Lindsay Wagner. She’s blandly pretty, but doesn’t have a great deal of charisma and tends to overact. Plus the outcome of the relationship is rather predictable, although one could say that about every romance episode in a ’70s TV show. Still, maybe it’s unfair to “Lost Love,” but I can’t help being aware that the 2-parter “The Bionic Woman” begins only six episodes from now, making this episode feel rather extraneous, like a failed first draft.

I’m starting to realize that a lot of the bionic stuff in this show consists of beats that could’ve easily been done without bionics — like Steve using his bionic eye to look at someone who’s just downstairs and across the room, or using his bionic arm to shove one of the thugs into a wall. A lot of the time they’re just using slow motion and sound effects to make fairly conventional beats play as superhuman. Although he did get a fair amount of legitimate bionicking, like jumping over a car when the thugs tried to run him down (though the wire catches the light and becomes quite visible when the stuntman descends), breaking a wooden beam he’s been chained to (though one would think his left arm would’ve been broken/dislocated in the process), and using infrared vision to take out the bad guys in the dark. The “ta-ta-tang” is used for Steve jump-kicking a door open, so it’s still technically being used for people or things moving sideways in slow motion, but the lines are starting to blur a bit more. It’s still never been used for bionic running, jumping, or feats of strength that don’t involve rapid horizontal motion of some sort.

“The Last Kamikaze”: A private defense contractor (Ed Gilbert) confesses to Oscar that they were illegally shipping a prototype tactical nuke aboard a passenger aircraft that just went down on an island in the South Pacific. The contractor warns that the prototype could be detonated by fire or shock (seriously? A nuke?), not to mention the danger if it falls into the wrong hands. Cut to the wreckage on the island — and at this point I was thinking it would be so perfect if Gilligan came into the frame. But no, it’s John Fujioka as Kuroda, your standard “WWII Japanese soldier who doesn’t know the war is over” type. (Come to think of it, Gilligan met one of those too.)

The first team sent in gets attacked by Kuroda, and the island is in “another country’s” territory, so Oscar sends in Steve along with a Filipino guide, Gabella (Robert Ito), who has experience tracking down Japanese soldiers who don’t know the war is over (were they really that common?). He guides Steve through various booby traps but then falls afoul of one himself; Steve saves him from a grenade but gets caught in the blast and knocked out. Gabella feels his bionic arm and gets no pulse, so assumes he’s dead and reports to an ally, revealing he’s an enemy agent looking for the bomb. (That’s hard to reconcile — why not just let a booby trap get Steve?) Kuroda shows up and conveniently chooses Steve’s left wrist to feel for (and find) a pulse. He also rifles through Steve’s wallet, revealing that Steve’s address is 13537 Federal St., Washington, DC, and his number is 555-7892. (Oddly, that info is on his OSI ID card rather than a driver’s license.)

Anyway, what follows is a rather predictable tale of Steve trying to convince Kuroda that the war is over and Kuroda being all kamikaze this and bushido that, with Steve eventually protecting Kuroda from Gabella’s men and winning his respect. It’s kind of a nice character interplay, and it comes to a rather touching resolution, but it has some conceptual problems. For one thing, there’s the episode’s assumption that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were something unprecedented, that those were the only two Japanese cities destroyed in the war. In fact, at the time the atomic bombs were dropped, most of Japan’s major cities had already been destroyed by a systematic Allied firebombing campaign, some of them suffering even greater damage than the atomic bombs inflicted (at least in the short term). The other problem is that the episode treats convincing Kuroda that time has passed and technology has advanced as equivalent to convincing him that the war is over. That doesn’t make a lot of sense. Okay, he’s probably lost track of exactly how much time has passed, but he was a teenager when he crashed on the island and is fiftyish and bald as of this story, so surely his own body must be sufficient proof that a long time has passed. It shouldn’t be a shock to him that it isn’t the 1940s anymore, so there’s no reason that alone should convince him that America is no longer Japan’s enemy.

There’s also a bit of a conceptual mismatch toward the end, since in the climactic action it looks very much like Gabella shoots one of his own men (whom Steve has hurled toward him) and then gets felled by a land mine, but then in the tag Oscar says he and his men will be put on trial. I understand they wanted to tone down the violence, given the show’s popularity among children, but this one seemed to be sending mixed messages.

Oliver Nelson contributes a mostly original score again, with some Japanese-sounding elements to it, but not to the point of caricature.

“Return of the Robot Maker”: Henry Jones is back as Dr. Dolenz, last seen in the first season finale “Run, Steve, Run.” This time, Dolenz has built a near-perfect “robut” replica of Oscar (he still pronounces it Zoidberg-style), one that can even eat and drink — and it’s supposed to be unclear who it is until he puts the face on, but it’s clearly Richard Anderson’s voice coming out of the robut (though the hairline of the faceless robut is completely different). While Dolenz tranks Real Oscar and substitutes Robut Oscar, Steve is chatting with Barney Barnes (Troy Melton), a wannabe Q who’s kind of the inverse of a cliche: a field agent who desperately wants to get into the lab. So he’s invented various spy gadgets he shows off to Steve, all but one of which will inevitably come into play in the course of the episode. (The odd one out is a bulletproof glove to protect Steve’s bionic hand. Wouldn’t it make more sense for the left glove to be bulletproof?)

So anyway, Robut Oscar is a great improvement over Dolenz’s first robut, giving a performance that totally convinces Steve, aside from the minor glitch of being able to drink large quantities of wine or scalding coffee without being affected. (But he has a pretty good sense of humor, chalking it up to a cast iron stomach.) At dinner with Steve and a couple of ladies (and Steve’s date seems more into Oscar), he gets a call from Dolenz and pretends it was “the Secretary” ordering Oscar to use Steve to test the defenses of a secret government facility. He tells Steve it’s a mock exercise that the facility will be in on, but of course that’s a lie. This serves two purposes: one, as a distraction to let Robut Oscar photograph the secret plans (which are in a heavy vault that for some reason is not locked), and two, to kill off the one person who could detect and stop Robut Oscar. (Does this mean Steve is Oscar’s only friend close enough to recognize any flaws in the impersonation, or the only one familiar with Dolenz robuts? What about Rudy Wells?) But one of Barney’s inventions is a really thin bulletproof vest, so when Robut Oscar and Dolenz think Steve is dead (overlooking the conspicuous lack of blood), he’s able to trail the automaton and interrupt him and Dolenz before they can bump off the real Oscar. There’s a half-hearted attempt at “which one is the real Oscar,” but Dolenz forgot to design his robut to sweat, so Steve has no trouble discerning them. A superfight ensues, with plenty of ta-ta-tanging from both Steve and Robut Oscar, but still in the usual contexts. Steve ultimately karate-chops the robut’s head off, and Oscar decides to keep it as a macabre souvenir. The last shot is a closeup on the robut’s head in Oscar’s hand, actually Richard Anderson’s head matted into the shot and turning back and forth — which I think is the most elaborate optical effect this show has ever done up to this point, and surprisingly well-done by this show’s primitive VFX standards. When you throw in the split-screen shots of the two Oscars, this is probably the most opticals-heavy episode in the series so far.

Oh, one more category of opticals in this episode: Shots of Steve running are matted into the security monitor in the installation. Hilariously, Steve is running in slow motion on the monitor while the security officer’s hand is moving at normal speed — and then the officer voices amazement at how fast he can run!

One more case of the show dressing up normal action as bionic: A bionic-jump sound effect is added to a shot of Lee Majors vaulting a low fence entirely by himself, no stunt doubles, no springboard, no cutaways, no slow motion. Okay, technically any jump made by Steve is a bionic jump, but it wasn’t a super-jump, so it’s kind of stretching the point.

Despite the quibbles, this is actually a pretty fun episode. It’s quite insubstantial, with no real character drama or emotional conflict or thematic weight, just pure plot and action. It’s probably the shallowest episode of the series so far, though probably just the kind of episode the network wanted. It has another original score, though not as strong as the “Day of the Robot” score was. I’m actually surprised Nelson didn’t reprise the robot motif from that episode.

“Taneha” is the name of an endangered cougar, the last male of his subspecies, that ranger Bob (Jim B. Smith) is trying to capture and take to a preserve. But E. J. Haskell (Jess Walton) wants to kill it to avenge her father’s death, and the local ranchers want to kill it for preying on their livestock. When Bob is injured by the very cougar he seeks to protect, he calls in his old friend Steve, the only man he knows with government contacts, to try to get an injunction to protect the cougar. It must be a slow week at the OSI, since Oscar tries to help Steve with this problem (in his one brief, contractually obligated scene in the episode), but doesn’t have the right contacts in that branch of the government. (Maybe he should’ve said he wanted to make the cougar bionic.) So Steve decides to catch Taneha himself. The ranchers tell him to take E.J. as his guide, knowing she’ll do her best to sabotage his efforts. (They insist on calling him a “dude,” i.e. a city boy/Easterner out of his element in rural country,  despite Lee Majors’s downhome accent coming out more strongly than usual.) Indeed, she tries to ditch him, but isn’t counting on his bionic speed.

Of course, this is 1975, so even though the episode is written by a woman (former Star Trek scribe Margaret Armen), E.J. can’t just be a tough woman, she has to be a tomboy desperately trying to be the son her father wanted and ashamed even to acknowledge her feminine given name (Ellen Jane). She’s got such a huge chip on her shoulder about Taneha that she seems to genuinely believe the Paiute legend that the cougar is a demon. She’s so broadly painted in her hatred that it’s unconvincing when a little talking-to by Steve in the climax leads to a complete turnaround as she protects Taneha from the hunters.

For the most part, this is a weak episode. Even by the standards of a ’70s show with no story arcs, it feels like filler, and the conflict is too histrionic and melodramatic. Jess Walton is striking to look at, with beautifully dark, intense eyes — the kind of woman who makes me understand the saying “You’re beautiful when you’re angry” — but prone to overacting. And the ’70s gender attitudes make it hard to like her character or Steve’s relationship with her. On the plus side, though, she and Majors have pretty good chemistry. The high point of the episode is the final scene where, their mission achieved, Steve and E.J. just hang out on the courthouse steps watching small-town life go by, and Steve is happier and more in his element than we’ve ever seen him. It feels like they just pointed a camera at Lee Majors and let him ad-lib — he’s never been so animated and natural and charming, never come alive so much until this scene. It’s loads of fun to watch, and almost worth sitting through the rest of the episode.

Nothing gets bionically thrown or swung through the air here, so no ta-ta-tangs, though the bionic-eye boops get quite a workout as Steve scans for the cougar by day and night. (I was about to say I’d forgotten how much use the show made of Steve’s infrared vision, but then, when I watched this show growing up, it was on a black-and-white TV, so I just wasn’t aware of the red filter they used for that effect. I’m sure I saw it in color later on at least once, but not enough that I remembered this.) The most interesting thing here technically is that several shots use what we now call speed ramping, going from regular speed to slow motion and back within a single continuous shot to show Steve shifting gears. Presumably they shot the whole thing with a high-speed camera and removed frames from the portions they wanted to play at normal speed. But it’s an interesting stylistic innovation in a mostly unremarkable episode.

SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN thoughts: Season 2, Eps. 9-12 (Spoilers)

January 22, 2014 1 comment

“Act of Piracy”: Steve is on a research vessel laying earthquake sensors in the Caribbean (introduced via an oddly antique map at the start of the episode), near the island nation of Cuba Santa Ventura, which has just broken off diplomatic relations with the US. Oscar warns Steve to get out of there, but Steve can’t be bothered with petty politics, since he has important sciencing to do. Not to mention flirting with team member Sharon (Lenore Kasdorf), who’s really hot (and braless — I love the ’70s) but only has eyes for the sciencing. Anyway, there’s a spy on board who arranges for the ship to cross within the 12-mile limit so that the Venturan General Ferraga (Carlos Romero) can arrest them on trumped-up espionage charges to embarrass the US, or something. (The Santa Venturans have no specified political ideology beyond general villainy.) They strike just when Steve is down in a diving bell that looks antiquated even by ’70s standards, and the spy makes sure he isn’t brought up before Ferraga’s lieutenant cuts Steve’s line and sends him to the bottom (leading Sharon to lament later that she wasted the opportunity to be his latest weekly conquest). Not to worry, though! Steve has his bionic powers, so he escapes certain death by… um… putting on an oxygen tank, opening the bell’s hatch, and swimming to the surface, just like any other competent diver could probably have done in the same circumstances. I dunno, maybe he was supposed to be kicking the hatch open with his superstrength, but it didn’t play that way. (The lack of a standardized bionic sound effect at this point may be creating confusion.)

Okay, I guess it would take bionic legs to swim the 10 miles to Santa Notcuba. Once there, he hooks up briefly with a token member of the resistance who only seems to be there to give Steve someone to talk to and to forward a message to Oscar, who’s on his way to an aircraft carrier to supervise… things. Then Steve breaks into Ferraga’s compound to rescue his friends, and the spy tries to warn the lieutenant, but the Santa Venturan military is kind of a bunch of overconfident idiots, which may be some kind of “lazy Latinos” stereotype, I suppose, and really undermines them as a threat. So it’s not really all that hard for Steve and his pals to escape, although Ferraga’s men chase them in a motorboat (Steve disabled their patrol boat) and Steve has to stop them from… err… shooting a few rifles at a much larger boat and somehow theoretically impeding its escape by doing so.

So, yeah, not a very substantial narrative. And it’s hampered by an apparently severe lack of budget. Oscar’s entire subplot, aside from the closing scene aboard the sciencing yacht, takes place in his car (don’t phone while driving, Goldman!) and in a tiny set representing an aircraft carrier’s cabin; the rest is Oscar talking to disembodied voices speaking over stock footage of Washington buildings, aircraft, and carriers. And there are a couple of points where Steve does underwater sabotage to Venturan boats, but they couldn’t afford the stunt/FX work so it’s all sound effects. I also could’ve done without the cheesy Latino accents. Basically all this episode has going for it, aside from Lenore Kasdorf, is the musical score. Oliver Nelson provides two new musical motifs, breaking down more or less as one for the Americans and one for the Venturans, and in the climactic action he has both of them and the main title/Steve Austin theme playing simultaneously, which is kind of confusing, but he somehow makes it work.

“Stranger in Broken Fork”: Man, does this episode have a lame beginning. While Steve is up in a jet, Oscar is meeting with Dr. Carlton (Arthur Franz), who was obviously meant to be Rudy Wells, but Alan Oppenheimer must not have been available. Dr. Fake-Rudy warns Oscar that there’s a “short” in Steve’s nuclear power pack that will cause a “bionic spasm” and nerve damage to his shoulder and neck, which Dr. Fake-Rudy reports will cause amnesia — “Amnesia!” Oscar gasps in full-on soap opera mode — and then kill him. Okay, I’m really not clear on the pathogenesis here. Shoulder damage causes amnesia, so predictably that Dr. Fake-Rudy can know in advance it will happen? Anyway, Oscar gets on the phone to try to reach Steve, but of course it’s a given that Steve will develop bionic spasmnesia while he’s up in the jet, and Dr. Fake-Rudy’s dialogue telegraphs that likelihood just like it’s telegraphed the rest of the plot. Naturally the jet goes out of control, flips over, and is going down — and the clouds behind it are upside-down too! Gee! Almost like they took stock footage of a climbing jet and inverted it. Then they cut from this scene of Steve Austin crashing an aircraft to… the main titles, in which Steve Austin crashes an aircraft. Why do they keep letting him up in these things?

Hey, this episode is directed by Christian Nyby, and the previous one was directed by Christian I. Nyby II. Son and father doing back-to-back episodes. Cool! I don’t think I ever quite realized there were two Christian Nybys.

Anyway, Steve bailed out during the commercial (cheaper that way), but now he’s lost in the woods without his memory. He runs across Angie (the striking Sharon Farrell, whom I recently saw in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.‘s “The Minus-X Affair,” though she’s 8 years older and more Farrah-haired in this one), who’s a psychologist running a sort of halfway house for nonviolent mental patients (which this episode interprets as mute and withdrawn — perhaps she specializes in autism?). The house is on the outskirts of a small town of bigoted hicks who hate and fear the mentally ill, because apparently Angie’s boss thought that would be therapeutic, I guess? The lead bigot, Horace, is played by the go-to actor for violent small-town bigots or fanatics in ’70s and ’80s TV, Robert Donner. He’s trying to bully Angie and her people into leaving, and takes an instant dislike to Steve when he stands up for her. Horace tries to manhandle the amnesiac Steve, who pushes his arm away without knowing his own strength, and somehow just tosses Horace bodily into a stack of cans rather than fracturing his arm or dislocating his shoulder or something.

Anyway, the rest is Steve not remembering who he is and being disturbed by the powers he’s discovering, while occasionally confronting Horace’s goons and having to fight them off. Interestingly, during the first big fight, he’s using his bionic strength, but without slow motion being used — perhaps because he doesn’t know he’s doing it? Oh, and he’s periodically experiencing twinges of pain in his shoulder, because apparently that’s where his memory center is located. Amnesia! Plus there’s a subplot about a little neighbor girl who’s curious about one of the mental patients, an elderly gardener, and whose mother is a bad guy for telling her to stay away from him, because this was the seventies and times were still innocent enough that encouraging a little girl to reach out to a strange older man wasn’t seen as a dangerous thing. Although it plays out very awkwardly, not for those reasons but just because it’s ineptly written. And in the climax, when Horace’s goons try to drive the patients away and take Steve off to be killed, and afterward when Steve has been rescued by Oscar and makes a speech to the watching townspeople about the terrible thing they almost allowed to happen, many of the shots of the townspeople (who are just standing there watching dully, pretty much indistinguishable from the borderline-catatonic mental patients) are shot in very poor quality, like 8mm home movies or something. I’m not sure if Nyby was trying to be stylish and experimental or if it was just sloppy work. Either way, it’s bizarre.

So yeah, this is a mess. It doesn’t even have new music. Farrell is a fairly entertaining presence, though, perpetually bright and brassy and optimistic and rather nice to look at.

“Stranger in Broken Fork” feels like one of those ’70s TV scripts that got dusted off and rewritten from some earlier show. The bionic elements seem tacked on to a rather generic “hero wanders into small town and helps the locals” plot. But I can’t find any similar episodes in the bios of the credited writers, Bill Svanoe and Wilton Denmark. Maybe it was a generic spec script that got tailored to this show on its first and only outing.

Sound effects watch: We get a couple of “ta-ta-tang”s for Steve throwing people through the air, and the standard bionic-jump sound effect seems to be in place now, along with the “ballistic whistle.”

“The Peeping Blonde” is the unflattering nickname for Farrah Fawcett-Majors in her second guest role on her husband’s series. She plays Victoria Webster, an ambitious reporter for KNUZ TV (pronounced “Kay-News”), who stumbles upon — and films — Steve using his bionic strength to fix a malfunction at a rocket-launch site. She tells Oscar and Steve what she’s got and that she plans to expose them, for the good of the world but mainly for her own career advancement. Even after she finds out that her film was somehow left blank, she continues to bluff them into giving her more, and Steve convinces Oscar (who’s making insinuations about having her bumped off for national security) to take them with her on their Baja vacation so they have time to convince her to keep the secret. But Victoria’s unscrupulous (and sexually harassing) boss Colby (Roger Perry) has actually swapped the films, and calls some unspecified foreign power asking how much they’ll pay for a bionic man. He hires a couple of thugs led by Karl (Hari Rhodes) to hunt down and capture Steve, and insists on coming with them.

Now, a plan depending on Steve Austin’s eloquence is flawed on the face of it, so they don’t have much luck dissuading Victoria, who goes so far as staging a literal cliffhanger in order to get film of Steve bionically rescuing her. But since she’s played by the lead actor’s wife, it doesn’t take long before she finds herself overcome by Steve’s laconic charms and begins doubting her laser focus on her career instead of all that touchy-feely stuff that wimmenz is supposed to care about. She’s almost won over when the bad guys arrive, which she takes as a ploy by Oscar to convince her of the danger she’s putting Steve in, until she discovers Colby’s really behind it — while Karl is tying her up in her camper with the gas stove turned on. (Why not just shoot her? He’s been making tough and ruthless noises all episode, and they’re in the middle of the desert with plenty of handy places to bury her body.) This, of course, gives Steve time to break free, disable the baddies, and save Victoria (the gas flow in that range must’ve been really feeble). And she’s naturally convinced to squelch the story — though she and Steve (who’s on her side) use that last can of film to blackmail Oscar into getting her a job at a Washington news station. (He demurs that he has little clout with TV news people, which is unconvincing when it comes just seconds after he was threatening to ensure her story never got broadcast.)

This is certainly an improvement over the last two episodes, and actually ties into the core ideas of the series rather than being a generic adventure. Fawcett is pretty good in her way, and we get a few minor moments of character insight into Steve as she interviews him about what he went through after the accident. There are some awkward contrivances in the story, but mostly it works reasonably well.

Musically, the score is largely stock (drawing heavily on “Act of Piracy”), but I think there’s an original motif used for Steve and Victoria’s romance (at least it’s a consistent motif, and I don’t remember hearing it in previous episodes). Sound-effects-wise, we get two uses of “ta-ta-tang,” once for Steve kicking someone out a camper door and once for him throwing someone through the air. It’s still fitting the “lateral movement through air” motif for that sound effect, but particularly in the former case, it’s starting to move toward becoming a “bionic exertion” sound effect at last. There’s also a new sound effect, a jackhammer sound as Steve drives a metal tube into a rock face to restrain the bad guys.

By the way, IMDb says that Hari Rhodes was billed herein as Harry Rhodes, but that’s wrong. It definitely said Hari.

“The Cross-Country Kidnap”: Liza Leitman (Donna Mills) is a top computer scientist who’s just programmed the government’s secret communications network, making her a target for kidnappers working for the usual undefined enemy powers, and led by Ross (Frank Aletter). She’s also an equestrian determined to compete in the Olympic trials despite Oscar’s concerns about the kidnapping rumors he’s picked up. He insists that Steve shadow her for her protection, but she insists that if she sees him, she’ll call the police and “scream rape” — and I’m not crazy about the implication of women using rape charges as deception, but, well, I don’t always love the ’70s. Although when she does catch him shadowing her anyway, he manages to convince her to tolerate his presence as a bodyguard. Which provokes the kidnappers to try to bump Steve off so they can get to Liza, it seems. And Liza’s trainer buys it in the crossfire, driving home the seriousness to her. But there’s a deeper level to the villains’ plans; the hitman they’ve hired is really a diversion for something else (though I don’t want to spoil it).

This episode seems like mostly an excuse to show off a lot of horse-jumping, though it’s not a bad story. There’s a moment where a couple of random people with no other role in the episode and no evident acting talent congratulate Liza on her form, making me think they were real Olympic equestrians making a cameo, but IMDb says nothing about them. There’s also something unusual for the ’70s under the Act 1 credits: a flashforward to action from later in the episode. (Which is something The Outer Limits did all the time in its teasers, but is generally seen more as a modern trope.) But the footage also freeze-frames under each credit, which is very ’70s.

Random production glitches: Both the villains and the OSI evidently rent their helicopters from the same company, for its logo is on the side of both. And when Steve breaks into the villains’ facility and trips their security camera, the footage on the security monitor is from a handheld camera aimed at his feet — and showing the same footage of him that’s used several shots later (another flashforward!) Musically, we get another mix of new and stock cues. Sound effects watch: We get the first use of the “ta-ta-tang” for an action that doesn’t involve something flying or swinging horizontally through the air, for a shot of Steve swinging his arms upward to disarm two guards flanking him (and somehow both arms are equally effective at this), as well as a more conventional use when he hurls a bale of hay to knock down a sniper. In any case, it’s coming to be more consistently used for Steve; it’s been a while since we’ve heard it used for anyone else.

Asking a favor of my readers

January 19, 2014 2 comments

I’ve noticed that Only Superhuman has very few reviews posted on its pages at Amazon (11 as of this writing) and Barnes & Noble (7 as of this writing). I’ve gotten a fair amount of feedback for the book in various places, so I know people are reading it and talking about it, but surprisingly little of it is showing up on those two pages. Yet I gather that the reviews on those sites help generate attention for a book, at least among their customers. So I wonder if I could ask folks who’ve read the novel to post reviews on either or both of those pages. It doesn’t matter whether you bought the book there; this is about increasing attention and discussion. And of course I’m not just soliciting positive reviews. Please be honest, but make your thoughts heard. And feel free to use the like/share buttons on those pages too. And if you’ve listened to the audiobook versions of Only Superhuman or Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder, feel free to post reviews on their GraphicAudio pages.

Only Superhuman MMPB coverIf nothing else, getting more reviews might produce a more statistically useful sample size. As it stands, OS is averaging 2.8 stars out of 5 on Amazon and 4.5 out of 5 on B&N, so clearly the samples are too small to give representative results. Of course, what I’m asking for isn’t going to produce statistically unbiased results either, but it couldn’t hurt.

Feel free to do the same for any of my other novels as well, of course, although my Star Trek novels generally get more reaction already, and my Marvel novels are out of print. Only Superhuman is the one that I think could benefit the most. Plus it would just be nice to get more feedback from my readers.

SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN thoughts: Season 2, Eps.5-8 (spoilers)

January 14, 2014 1 comment

“The Seven Million Dollar Man”: Author Martin Caidin, who created Steve Austin in the novel Cyborg, wanted Monte Markham to play the role on TV. The part went to Lee Majors, of course, but here Caidin got a consolation prize of sorts, for Markham guest stars as the title character, the second bionic man.

We open with Steve undergoing his regular psych review with Rudy and his nurse, Carla Peterson (Maggie Sullivan). We learn that Carla helped Steve through his post-bionic depression and had a romance with him at the time, but has now moved on. This means that Carla is taking the place in series continuity that was filled by Barbara Anderson’s Jean Manners in the pilot movie, much as Oscar Goldman (from the original novel) replaced the pilot’s Oliver Spencer as the head of the project. Plus, of course, Steve was a civilian astronaut in the pilot and an Air Force colonel in the series. Still, it’s too bad they didn’t bring back Anderson, who was far more appealing than Sullivan’s Carla.

Anyway, Steve spots Carla handing his evaluation tape to a man who’s cleared to leave by the gate guard, but the guard, Rudy, Carla, and Oscar all deny that any such man was ever in the facility. Resenting being “gaslighted” by his closest friends (of whom Carla is suddenly one even though we’ve never seen her before and never will again — ahh, ’70 TV), Steve presses and finds that the man is former racing champion Barney Miller (Markham), who somehow survived a horrific crash about 18 months earlier. It’s not hard for Steve to put the pieces together. Barney is bionic too, and is having trouble adjusting, as Steve learns when he confronts a drunk, depressed Barney in a bar and loses to him in a tense arm-wrestling match. Oscar comes clean; he resisted making a second bionic man, not liking the idea of his superiors considering Steve expendable, and kept the secret to spare Steve’s feelings. But now that the truth is out, Steve volunteers to chaperone Barney on his first assignment, retrieving some plutonium stolen by agents of an unspecified foreign power. (Richard Anderson pronounces “plutonium” with a short o, like “plutahnium,” oddly enough.) The depressed Barney has a mood swing when he gets to use his strength, getting carried away by the rush and beating the bad guys pretty seriously, within the limits of ’70s censorship, until Steve (who took forever to carry the plutahhnium to their van) stops him. Barney is now addicted to the power and it becomes clear he can’t handle it. It makes sense, in a way: Steve’s an astronaut, a team player, while Barney’s a racer, a highly competitive adrenaline junkie. He feels as driven to compete with Steve as he does to beat up the bad guys, and it’s making him dangerous. So Steve convinces Oscar to dial his bionics down to normal strength. But Barney fights back and tries to destroy all of Rudy’s files on bionics so that he’ll remain indispensable — or maybe he’s just trying to give them an excuse to kill him. Steve is determined to take him down before that happens.

This is a potent, dramatic episode by Peter Allan Fields, whose work on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. didn’t impress me much but who went on to do terrific work on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It’s good to revisit the issues Steve had to face as a result of his transformation, something that hasn’t been touched on much in the series — although it’s disappointing that Steve is a bit too idealized, his problems all totally conquered, leaving all the character flaws to the guest star. But that’s ’70s TV for you, and within those strictures, it’s a strong dramatic piece. Markham does a very effective job as Barney, his expressive acting a drastic contrast to Lee Majors’s deadpan. One wonders what the series would’ve been like with him as Austin, but it’s hard to tell from this, since he’s playing a troubled and dangerous man rather than a clean-cut hero.

Still, the final fight between Barney and Steve is underwhelming. Since they’re evenly matched, there aren’t many strength gags, aside from a shaking of the image (created in post-production) when one slams the other into a wall. Aside from the slow motion and one smashed door, it could’ve been a fight between two normally powered men. (And watching the fights on this show drives home how much the influence of Hong Kong cinema and mixed martial arts has changed American film and TV. These days the fights in a show like this would be so much more sophisticated in technique, as opposed to the cruder brawling style used in this show.)

Barney will return in season 3, but with a name change to Barney Hiller, since the police sitcom Barney Miller premiered in the interim.

Sound effects watch: The ta-ta-tang sound is used repeatedly for people or fists flying laterally, consistently with its earlier usage, but in this case every instance is the result of bionic strength (Steve’s or Barney’s), so we’re getting a bit closer to the familiar standard. The bionic-throw whistling sound — let’s call it the ballistic whistle — is still in use, so I guess we can call that one standardized now. And there was another bionic-jump sound here, when Barney and Steve(‘s stunt doubles) jumped down from a telephone pole to attack the plutahhhnium thieves.

“Straight on ’til Morning”: Star Trek‘s D.C. Fontana is back with another script, and fittingly, it brings aliens into the bionic-verse for the first time. Steve is consulting (or something) on the impending launch of a lunar probe, one of Oscar’s projects, when he spots a UFO (read: a small blue dot) similar to one he saw three years ago during a spaceflight. He’s one of many to report the sighting, so the next morning he goes to the nearby town of Denbow to investigate and discovers a local man has suffered radiation burns when confronted by a prowler who stole clothes from his line. The prowler is actually one of four aliens — whose alienness consists of shiny reddish pancake makeup — whose ship crashed in the sea nearby and are trying to survive. Apparently they burn humans just by touching them, and are harmed by the touch in turn, though the reverse mechanism is unclear. They’re telepathic, with specialized skills so that only one of them, Minonee (Meg Foster), can communicate verbally. She tries to reason with the local hick cops who find the aliens, but TV hick cops are immune to reason and it doesn’t go well. The aliens flee, leading the search party astray with a psionic illusion, but Steve’s infrared vision sees through it and he finally catches up to them, after some futile attempts by the group’s guardian Eymon (Christopher Mears) to fend him off by telekinetically hurling rocks and trees at him. Finally Minonee has found someone who’ll listen to reason, and she explains they’re a family of marooned explorers, and Eymon and their parents are dying from being touched. Minonee expects she’ll die here too, but Steve gets an idea when he learns they have a mothership standing by near Pluto’s orbit. The others soon die, and Steve sneaks Minonee onto the base, planning to send her up in the lunar probe where she can get picked up when it passes behind the Moon (aggravatingly, they refer to the “dark side of the Moon” instead of the far side). But sending the signal alerts Oscar, who confronts Steve because he wants to take Minonee prisoner and study her for the good of Science (and the millions of dollars that would be wasted if Steve sabotages the probe to get her home). Will Steve be able to convince Oscar to choose compassion over duty? Well, duh. We all know by now that Oscar’s a complete teddy bear.

The addition of aliens to the series was a big step, but it’s a weaker episode than I would’ve expected from Fontana. The aliens are too cliched in their mental and physical powers, piled on with whatever attributes the story needs. Maybe it would’ve felt less hackneyed and corny in 1974, but if so, it hasn’t aged well. It isn’t helped by the cheesy sound effects when the aliens use their powers — and though Oliver Nelson’s score is pretty good, he falls back on the cliche of using a Theremin-like sound for the aliens. Too much time was wasted on the manhunt in the woods, and there’s not much thematic weight to the story. Sure, it shows ordinary humans fearing what they don’t understand and hounding the peaceful aliens because of it, but that idea just sort of lays there, and it’s already familiar from films like The Day the Earth Stood Still and It Came From Outer Space. It’s not a bad story, but it’s weaker than it deserved to be.

(Oh, and Steve and Minonee don’t actually learn each other’s names until her final scene, where she actually says “I don’t know your name” shortly before they part. Huh? She’s a telepath who’s been reading his mind for half the episode, and she hasn’t come across his name? Not impossible, I suppose — we probably tend to think of ourselves as “I” most of the time — but it’s the sort of thing that seems to warrant an explanation, at least.)

“The Midas Touch”: Back down to Earth now, in more ways than one. Oscar arrives at a closed government gold mine in Nevada, now reopened and run by a bunch of hired thugs led by MacGregor (Noam Pitlik, who coincidentally would later become the main director for the aforementioned Barney Miller). Oscar seems oddly pleased by how much gold they’ve mined. Has Oscar gone bad? Are we already at the one where he got replaced by an android? (Oops, spoilers!)

When Steve investigates Oscar’s disappearance, he finds that Oscar was researching some handwavium byproduct of a new gold-smelting technique, with potential applications for energy generation. So naturally Oscar’s interest in the mine is above board. But the project director, Oscar’s oldest friend Carrington (Farley Granger), tells Steve that he’s been getting strange orders from Oscar, issued from a private office Steve doesn’t know about. It looks like he’s been planning a gold heist for which Carrington would be framed. Not believing it, Steve goes out to the mine himself and gets captured by MacGregor’s men. The main thug is Connors (Rick Hurst, who would later be Cletus Hogg on The Dukes of Hazzard), whose manner toward Steve is probably meant to be amiably threatening, but comes off as almost flirtatious, particularly given how he calls Steve “pretty boy.” (At least, I assume it was accidental. Although Connors did have a line about not knowing Oscar’s whereabouts because “I don’t date him.” Hmm.) MacG has Connors put Steve to work in the mine, where there’s a convenient accident that lets Steve save Connors from a runaway ore tram. (And for the duration of the scene, Steve’s left arm seems as powerful as his right.)

Steve breaks out and finds Oscar, who’s been drugged, but they get caught — just in time to discover that the real bad guy is Carrington, a totally unsurprising development since otherwise Farley Granger would’ve only had one scene. Carrington intends to make Oscar use his security clearance to help get the gold out of the country, threatening Steve’s life if he doesn’t. But he offers Oscar a quarter of the worth of the gold if he goes into a willing partnership with Carrington. Which means, given that the worth of the gold is $25 million, that he’s just offered Oscar the opportunity to become The 6.25 Million Dollar Man. But the show can only have one title character, so Oscar refuses the deal, but still has to help Carrington to save Steve’s life. Carrington puts on a show of having Connors and another thug take Steve out two days’ walk into the desert and give him a canteen of water, but instructs Thug #2 to kill him. Once Connors figures out what’s really going on, he helps Steve escape.

Steve catches up with MacGregor’s gold-laden truck in a Jeep, and is somehow able to climb out of the driver’s seat and onto the truck without the Jeep swerving out of control the moment he lets go of the wheel. Is that some hitherto-unmentioned bionic power? He gets into the passenger seat and is somehow able to intimidate MacG into playing along even though he’s unarmed — though I guess he’s made it clear enough that he’s very strong. Steve is waylaid by one of MacG’s men, but once he gets into the plane, he’s able to save Oscar. Oscar’s bummed about his oldest friend turning out to be a murderous criminal scumbag, but given the track record of hitherto-unknown best friends in ’70s TV, it was either that or dying.

A decent run-of-the-mill episode. I suppose it illustrates the versatility of this show that it could go from a personal drama in “Seven Million” to high-concept sci-fi in “Straight on” to a more conventional heist story here, but this does feel kind of ordinary by comparison. It has a good score, but that’s kind of a given, at least if you like Oliver Nelson’s style.

“The Deadly Replay”: Once again, we get an episode that revisits — and retcons — Steve’s origin story. Last time it was his bionic recuperation, this time it’s the test-flight crash that precipitated it. Steve’s old engineer colleague Rogers (Robert Symonds) has rebuilt the test vehicle that crashed — herein depicted as the Northrop HL-10, although the footage used in the pilot and main titles is a blend of that and the similar M2-F2 (specifically a crash involving the latter), while Martin Caidin’s novel and the ’87 revival movie designate it as the fictional M3-F5. Upon seeing the rebuilt HL-10, Steve gets a flashback to audio and footage from the main titles — and it would’ve been such a clever segue if they’d had his flashback actually be the main titles, but TV shows hadn’t yet started getting creative that way with their title sequences, so instead we get the same audio and some of the same images replayed a few moments later when the actual titles start.

Anyway, Steve decides he has to get back up on the horse, but Oscar warns him that there was evidence — which Oscar had flimsy reasons for not revealing until now — that the vehicle was sabotaged. That makes it basically a mystery story, and the five members of the flight crew are all suspects — the most obvious suspect being surly Ted Collins (Jack Ging), who resents Steve for a former relationship with the flight doctor who’s now his wife, Andrea (Lara Parker). They make him so obvious a suspect that he’s never a remotely plausible one.

The plan is to run Steve through a simulation that will recreate the malfunction that almost killed him before,  to see if he cracks under the pressure. At first, he seems to, getting disoriented in the cockpit, simu-crashing, and then collapsing. Oscar comes running, and Steve insists to him that he was drugged by some conveniently undetectable substance. He convinces Oscar to let him run the simulation again, and he passes with simulated flying colors. So the actual flight goes ahead, and the HL-10 is sabotaged, conveniently in a way that can be overcome with a superstrong bionic arm. The saboteur turns out to be the least noticeable, least developed member of the group of suspects, which feels like a cheat. Turns out he was working for an aerospace mogul who wanted to poach the lucrative NASA contract for his own firm.

For a revisit of Steve’s origin, this feels a little underwhelming. The formulaic mystery structure and weak payoff thereof don’t do it any favors, and the motive for the sabotage seems anticlimactic. These days, there’d turn out to be some massive evil conspiracy underlying the hero’s origins, and while I don’t suppose I’d want it to go that far, it would’ve been nice if the secret behind the series’ formative event had been a bit more interesting than it was. It’s also a bit annoying that every time Steve flashes back to the crash, it’s the exact same audio sequence used in the main titles. The original pilot used a much more extensive sequence and it would’ve been nice if they’d drawn on that material for some variety.

But the strength of the episode lies where it did in the pilot: in the cooperation of NASA and Edwards Air Force Base in providing the vehicles, filming locations, footage, and presumably technical advice to make the test flight seem authentic. And given that the pilot is not strictly part of series canon, I suppose this is as close as we’ll get to a new canonical version of those events. (Although as I mentioned, later productions would disagree with this episode’s details. Continuity was a flexible thing in ’70s TV.)

Guess who made the “Top 5 Authors of Star Trek Tie-In Novels” list!

I’ve just been informed (by Keith R.A. DeCandido on Facebook) that Ian Coomber of the site What Culture has posted a list of the top 5 Star Trek tie-in novelists:

http://whatculture.com/tv/top-5-authors-star-trek-tie-novels.php

Number 1 is Una McCormack, #2 is David Mack, #3 is Keith, and #4 is yours truly! (#5 is a tie for the actors who’ve written or co-written tie-in novels: Armin Shimerman, Andrew Robinson, and J.G. Hertzler.) I made the list specifically for DTI: Watching the Clock, which he describes as “a novel whose ambition is only surpassed in its accomplishments” and “borderline epic.” Not bad for a novel that I only pitched as an afterthought.

DTItentative

Thanks to Ian for the recognition!

SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN thoughts: Season 2, Eps.1-4 (spoilers)

It’s been over a year since I reviewed the pilots and season 1 of The Six Million Dollar Man (Part 1, Part 2), but I finally got season 2 from Netflix, so now I can offer my thoughts on it as well. This time I’ll be going into a bit more depth, since these posts aren’t as much of an afterthought as they were before.

This season opens with the more familiar version of the main title sequence, with animated “computer graphics” showing schematics of Steve’s bionic bits against a wireframe human body, and with a statement of the main musical theme toward the end.

“Nuclear Alert”: When Arab sheik Sid Haig is outbid in an auction for a stolen nuclear bomb, he narcs to Oscar Goldman about the theft. Except it turns out the bomb hasn’t been entirely stolen yet; the auctioner still has to steal a “reflector fuse,” basically a large metal cheese log festooned with mirror discs and blinky lights. Half the episode is just Steve Austin following the McGuffin as it’s delivered in a truck, which is kind of underwhelming compared to what the title promised. The thief turns out to be a member of the OSI’s inner circle, and he abducts scientist Carol Lawrence in order to force her to assemble it. She’d told Steve how to sabotage the fuse so it wouldn’t work if it did fall into the villains’ hands, but he foolishly just puts the removed part in his pocket so that he still has it on him when he’s caught by the bad guys. So we get a relatively more intense climax aboard the villain’s private passenger jet which has the bomb aboard, with Steve having to beat the bad guys and defuse the bomb before the military shoots them down. Given that his plan turns out to be largely brute force, I had to wonder why he waited so long to enact it, except to build dramatic tension.

To my surprise, the show still hasn’t begun using the familiar “ta-ta-ta-ta-tang” sound effect for Steve’s bionic limbs. But we get a rare shot of sped-up film to represent Steve’s superspeed as glimpsed by a farmer whose field he runs past. It’s rather unconvincing, with things in the background clearly moving faster too, which helps explain why they adopted the paradoxical use of slow motion to represent superspeed.

“The Pioneers”: This is an old favorite of mine, largely due to a memorable guest appearance by Mike Farrell and an unforgettable score by Oliver Nelson. (Literally — I’ve forgotten so much of this series, but Nelson’s score for the climactic action has always stuck with me.) Farrell plays David Tate, one of a pair of scientists secretly testing a cryogenics process in space when their capsule crashes in the Minnesota woods. Oscar sends in Steve and Rudy Wells (still played by Alan Oppenheimer), who was also part of the project, but won’t fill in a frustrated Steve on the details until he needs to know. They find one of the astronaut-scientists, Nicole Simmons (Joan Darling), in an intact cryogenic pod and start working to revive her, but the other pod is empty. David got too much of the regenerative serum they were testing, and his body and mind are supercharged, running far too hot and turning him into a superstrong wild man driven by overwhelming pain. Steve must try to stop him from hurting anyone or being hurt himself, for the local lawmen led by Sheriff Robert F. Simon are combing the woods for the “wildman.”

This episode has more flaws than I remember. There are some continuity glitches. When Rudy is using Steve’s bionic power source to revive Nicole, he tells Steve repeatedly that he can’t move his bionic arm, but Steve jumps back and forth between two different positions in different camera angles, a continuity error between takes. There’s a part where Steve and Nicole are tracking David and pass through the same area where he tossed aside his spacesuit gloves, but all they find is a tiny scrap of cloth on a branch. There are a couple of “it’s in the script” moments where characters have knowledge they shouldn’t have; for instance, the sheriff says the campers attacked by the “wildman” described him as “strong as anything,” even though he didn’t actually demonstrate superstrength in the attack. And the episode evokes the hoary old “we only use 10% of the brain” myth, although it extends it to “10% of our full potential, mental and physical” (in Rudy’s words).

But it still holds up very well despite the glitches. In addition to the terrific music, the choice to cast Farrell as David is inspired, letting us see him as a decent, intelligent, sympathetic man during his moments of lucidity and thus highlighting the tragedy of what’s happening to him. There’s some nice characterization with Nicole as she and Steve bond as fellow experiments of Oscar’s, making them family of sorts (“country cousins,” as Steve puts it); and there’s a real poignancy to David’s lucid scenes, and to the superb closing scene where Steve helps Oscar cope with the guilt of his decisions in the name of science. Lee Majors isn’t quite up to the demands of the material, but Richard Anderson knocks it clear out of the park and I’ve got tears in my eyes just writing this sentence. (Although really, Oscar shouldn’t have been forgiven for his actions here. Secretly undertaking such a premature experiment with two people’s lives, going behind the government’s back? He should’ve lost his job and probably gone to prison for this. But it wouldn’t be the first or last time by a long shot that a TV series regular was forgiven for actions that would’ve been career-enders in real life.)

Oh, and sound-effects tracking: As in “Dr. Wells is Missing” from season 1, the “ta-ta-tang” sound effect is used, but only to accompany fists or objects being swung laterally through the air. (There’s one point where I initially thought it was being used for Steve lifting a railroad tie, but on rewatching — yes, I like this one so much I watched it twice — I realized that David was swinging another tie at Steve at that moment, so the sound must’ve been meant to represent that instead.) But the standard “bionically thrown item hurtling through the air” whistle is used when Steve kicks away the sheriff’s rifle, making it the second bionic sound effect to be standardized, following the bionic eye beep.

“Pilot Error”: This one’s back to the first-season title sequence for some reason, maybe because it’s shorter — though this episode is slow-paced enough that I don’t see why it would’ve needed a shorter main title. Pat Hingle plays Senator Hill, also a general in the Reserves, whose plane suffered a fatal crash when he was piloting it for recertification. Steve has been called in as an expert witness on the plane, and is unconvinced by Hill’s story that it was his deceased copilot’s oversight that caused the crash. Oscar wants Steve to support Hill’s story since he appropriated a certain Six Million Dollars for Oscar a while back (reportedly two years, though this aired only 18 months after the pilot — although a later episode will establish that Steve needed months to recuperate), but Steve is too clean-cut to play politics and promises only to tell the truth. Nonetheless, he agrees to accompany Hill in the latter’s private plane when their ride to the hearing is delayed, and they take off along with Hill’s son Greg (Stephen Nathan) and his sketchy aide Lannon, who you can tell is not a nice guy because he’s played by Alfred Ryder. Anyway, Steve and the others take naps while Hill foolishly changes the radio away from the tower frequency to listen to music (Steve is actually awake at that point but doesn’t notice it’s a bad idea), so he doesn’t get a weather warning. Hill then suffers a loss of focus and a partial blackout, and as a result they end up way off course and have to make an emergency landing in the desert. An electrical short in the panel flash-blinds Steve in both eyes, even the bionic one. So he needs to rely on the others’ help to fix the plane and clear the runway, and is in danger when Lannon decides to try to bump him off so he can’t testify against the senator — though this backfires against Lannon. Finally they get in the air, but Hill suffers a worse blackout (his son briefly thinks he’s dead even though his head is still upright, casting serious doubt on Greg’s competence as a pre-med), so Steve must fly blind with help from Greg and a perky female airman (Susanne Zenor) in the control tower, even though they have no transmitter and he’s only able to communicate via Morse code through the transponder.

In short, it’s your pretty basic small-plane-crash episode of the sort that many ’70s and ’80s shows did, where most of the story is about solving the various problems. There’s not really a lot of drama beyond that; the threat Lannon poses is rather half-hearted. It is sort of interesting to see Oscar’s more Macchiavellian side rear its head again, but it isn’t really followed through. There’s nothing really bad about the episode, but it’s pretty ordinary.

“The Pal-Mir Escort”: Salka Pal-Mir (Anne Revere) is a Golda Meir-like prime minister of an Israel surrogate called Eretz, and the organizer of a peace conference with the guerrillas her people have fought for decades. But she has only days to live unless Rudy Wells can give her the world’s first bionic heart. Oscar assigns Steve as the bodyguard for her escort, as much to reassure her about bionics as to protect her from the various factions that want to subvert the peace talks — including her own chief of security (Nate Esformes), who can’t tolerate the thought of peace with their longtime enemies and would sooner kill his own leader. (This is sadly prophetic — Meir’s successor Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 for that very reason.) Pal-Mir insists that planes don’t agree with her and they must travel by land, and Steve suggests using a “mobile command unit” that was used in Steve’s bionic testing and has full medical equipment — which sounds impressive until it turns out to be just an ordinary RV, an odd disconnect with the script. (It also supposedly only has room for Steve, Pal-Mir, and her doctor, but in fact it’s easily roomy enough to have held a couple more guards.) It’s supposed to be a nonstop trip to Rudy’s Tennessee facility, but Pal-Mir is stubborn and authoritative and insists on stopping to help a couple of stranded hippies (one of whom is played by future director John Landis, who’s credited for the role but is only glimpsed in the distance meditating — his lines must’ve been cut) and to stop at a vegetable stand to talk with a local farmer. This makes it easy for the bad guys hired by the security chief to overtake them and set up an ambush. (The chief gave Pal-Mir a rose with a tracking device, and she gives the rose to the vegetable-stand operator, yet this never becomes a plot point, since the bad guys have already found them.)

Sound-effects watch: We get a prototype for a bionic-jump sound when Steve leaps up to a helicopter, but it’s not the sound that would later become standard.

All in all, it’s a pretty effective episode if you can look past the plot and production glitches. Pal-Mir is an effective character and a good foil for Steve, who lets his old-fashioned male chauvinism show, admitting that the idea of a woman in charge isn’t something that he or other Americans have come around to yet. The resonances with Meir (and, unintentionally, Rabin) add some stakes to the story. As it happens, eight years after this, the show’s producer Harve Bennett would produce a Meir biopic, A Woman Called Golda, starring Ingrid Bergman as Meir, the final role of her life.

The Man From UNCLE Season 2 Affair: ONE SPY TOO MANY and overview (spoilers)

One Spy Too Many, as I mentioned in the previous post, is the theatrical version of the 2-part “Alexander the Greater Affair,” released five months after the episodes aired on television, and with more sex and violence added for the big screen. The violence comes first, with a new opening sequence under the movie titles, in which Alexander’s chief henchman Parviz (David Sheiner) breaks into an army base and battles its guards with gas grenades and a machine gun. The film periodically goes into jerky slow motion at several action beats (no high-speed cameras involved, just slowing down the regular film to a few frames per second), I guess to prolong them while credits are shown over them. It’s pretty awkward. Also, Sheiner sports an obvious bald cap (is there any other kind?) that he doesn’t have in the TV material; no doubt this scene was filmed some time later and Sheiner wasn’t willing to shave his head again. The most awkward thing about it, though, is that after this sequence of his breaking into the military installation, we cut to the opening scenes of the TV episode, in which he’s still waiting outside the gates of the installation and breaks in again. I guess the idea was to suggest that he broke through two levels of security, but the guards at the “inner” gate don’t act as though his van is out of place where it is, so it just doesn’t fit.

The added sex appeal comes largely courtesy of Batgirl herself, the delightful Yvonne Craig, who previously had a disappointing guest role in season 1. Here, she’s one of the various UNCLE communications women that Solo always seems to flirt with, and she’s constantly reminding him of impending dates that he can’t remember making with her; indeed, he can’t even remember her name. It’s pretty blatantly tacked onto/interpolated into the story, with Craig having a scene inserted every time the agents call HQ on their pen-radios, or else showing up and saying “Here’s that thing you talked about arranging in the previous scene” before flirting some more with Solo. She finally gets out of the office for a final scene at the closing reception (though the shape of the wine glass props changes from the episode footage to the movie footage). Its only purpose is to provide some semblance of a romance for Solo in a storyline where he’s uncharacteristically lacking in one. And to add a bit of skin: Craig does a repeat of the sunbathing-in-the-communications-room scene that I recall seeing in the pilot, but since this is the big screen, she’s got her bikini top unfastened. We don’t get to see much more than would’ve been allowed on TV, though. There is another added scene, though, of Rip Torn’s Alexander in bed with Donna Michelle as the neighbor’s wife he’s committing adultery with, in which Ms. Michelle shows her bare back and, briefly, a side view of a nipple. Ms. Michelle later has a brief added scene where Solo finds her in a jacuzzi, but only her shoulders are visible there.

A couple of things are deleted as well, notably the scenes with Alexander’s parents enslaved at the quarry (leaving the reasons for the quarry sequence unexplained in the movie) and the part-2 recap with the UNCLE accountant and Waverly. Despite these changes, though, the movie is very blatantly a recut television episode, complete with the act breaks left pretty much intact. And the original was already rather incoherent, cluttered with random digressions and side threads to pad it out to two hours, and the addition of one more subplot just makes things worse — although getting to watch Yvonne Craig makes anything better. It’s a shame they chose this 2-part episode to release as a feature, since the season’s other 2-parter, “The Bridge of Lions Affair,” was far superior. Although I suppose this one has more of the big action that would’ve been considered appropriate for a cinematic release.

Oh, by the way, in my original review of “Alexander the Greater,” I commented on the incomplete depiction of Alexander’s violation of the Ten Commandments. I said, “did he actually worship another god before Yahweh or make for himself a graven image which he thereupon bowed down to or served? This is left unclear.” However, this time around, I realized that one conversation between Alexander and his estranged wife takes place while he’s performing some kind of ritual in front of a statue of some bizarre creature with a placard on its head bearing the number 2. The episode couldn’t overtly call attention to it, no doubt for censorship reasons, but this must represent his violation of the second commandment, and might cover the first as well. Although he doesn’t seem to be sincerely worshipping the graven image, given that he finishes the ritual by using its flame to roast marshmallows.

So how to assess The Man from U.N.C.L.E. season 2? My initial understanding was that this season would be more comical than the first, but overall it seems to be about the same — maybe a little more tongue-in-cheek on average, but not yet actively campy. Still, I found its quality to be lower, with a lot of weak episodes, a significant amount of what seemed like careless acting and directing, continuity and production errors, and the like. It often seemed to me like the actors and directors — and, often, the writers — weren’t trying very hard. The addition of color doesn’t help much, since black-and-white gives things a certain class.

This was the first season where Illya Kuryakin was as central a protagonist as Napoleon Solo, although the show didn’t do a very good job of establishing them as a double act. Often they were pursuing separate parts of a mission, and often Solo was very unhelpful toward Illya, making out with women while Illya was getting beaten up and generally mistreated. In fact, it often seemed as though the two of them didn’t like each other very much. I guess the idea was to play up a sort of comic rivalry, but it was hard for me as a viewer to like them (especially Solo) when there were so few reasons shown for them to like each other. There were so many other partnerships in ’60s TV that worked far better: Kirk and Spock, Batman and Robin, Jim West and Artemus Gordon, Alexander Scott and Kelly Robinson, John Steed and Emma Peel, Maxwell Smart and 99. And note that most of those are spy shows. In this season, Solo and Kuryakin didn’t even feel like partners much of the time. They were more like two independent leads pursuing their own storylines that occasionally overlapped. And unlike most of those other pairings, they didn’t come off as people who would enjoy each other’s company or spend any time together between missions. Like so much else about the show this season, the partnership just didn’t mesh.

On the positive side, this season had less of the first season’s contrivances of getting the weekly “innocents” drawn into events by convoluted accidents, but on the downside, we did see a ruthless streak as UNCLE occasionally used innocents as decoys and bait for THRUSH without their knowledge or consent. And very much on the negative side, the season continued the pattern of embracing ugly or condescending stereotypes of practically every non-Western ethnic group, to the point that I was getting very sick of the show’s relentless racism after a while; but it actually more or less managed to avoid doing so once or twice, portraying Japanese culture almost respectfully in “The Cherry Blossom Affair,” and at least attempting to be sympathetic toward the cultures depicted in “Tigers Are Coming” and “Indian Affairs” while still ineptly and condescendingly portraying them and casting in brownface. At least most East Asian characters this season were actually played by Asian actors, but otherwise there was little improvement on the racial front. Worse yet, the season also demonstrated an uncomfortable streak of misogyny and sexual objectification toward women, particularly in scripts by Peter Allan Fields, though he seemed to grow out of it by the end of the season, and definitely had done so by later on in his career. The lowest point of all is at the end of “The Nowhere Affair,” in which erasing a woman’s entire memory and identity except for her attraction to Solo is portrayed as if it’s somehow a romantic and positive outcome rather than something absolutely horrific and exploitative. To be sure, there was plenty of sexism and ugly racial attitudes in ’60s TV, but I’ve rarely seen so much of it concentrated in a single show. And there were so many other shows, including competing spy shows, that did better. I Spy and Mission: Impossible were trendsetters in racial inclusion (and while M:I wasn’t great at depicting non-Western cultures, at least it generally avoided trying), and The Avengers and Get Smart had marvelously strong and engaging female leads.

I guess what I’m saying, basically, is that virtually every other ’60s spy show was better than this one.

The one relative high point this season was the music, though that’s a qualified success. Lalo Schifrin’s new arrangement of Jerry Goldsmith’s theme is far less interesting, losing Goldsmith’s Latin syncopation and strong orchestration in favor of a more simplistic rhythm and fewer instruments. While Schifrin scored episode 2, “The Ultimate Computer Affair,” all the other music in this season was done by either Gerald Fried or Robert Drasnin. It’s an unusual degree of musical consistency for a ’6os adventure show, and both composers did good work, though Fried’s work only occasionally rose to the standards of his later work for Star Trek, Mission: Impossible, and others. Notably, though there were a lot of stock scores, there was an unusual resurgence of original music in the final episodes of the season, which was good to hear.

There were a number of notable guest stars this season, including Vincent Price, Maurice Evans, Vera Miles, Ricardo Montalban, Martin Landau, Eve Arden, and Paul Winfield, plus quite a few really lovely guest actresses. Unusually, several actors played two different roles in the course of the season, including David Sheiner (“Alexander the Greater” and “Nowhere”), James Hong (“Alexander” and “Bridge of Lions”), Cal Bolder (ditto), Theo Marcuse (“Re-Collectors” and “Minus-X”), and Woodrow Parfrey (“Cherry Blossom” and “Moonglow”). While it wasn’t uncommon for actors in ’60s and ’70s TV to play multiple roles over the course of a series, it was unusual to do it twice in the same season, let alone for so many actors to do so. I’m not counting this as one of the season’s negatives, but it’s an odd quirk.

On to the bests and worsts:

Best innocent: Depends on how you define it. Maurice Evans in “Bridge of Lions Pt. 1 & 2″ gives the standout performance of the season, but he’s kind of a borderline innocent, straddling the fence of good guy and bad guy. By the more conventional formula of a bystander caught up in events, I’d say my favorite was probably France Nuyen in “Cherry Blossom.” Though Jill Ireland in “Tigers Are Coming,” Susan Silo in “Children’s Day,” and Sharon Farrell in “Minus-X” were pretty impressive.

Worst innocent: Ann Elder, “Bridge of Lions Pt. 1 & 2,” for her atrocious Irish accent — although Nancy Kovack’s all-over-the-map attempt at an English accent in “King of Diamonds” is pretty awful too.

Best villain: When Vincent Price (“Foxes and Hounds”) is one of the villains, is there any contest? Although Vera Miles in “Bridge of Lions” comes close, giving one of the finest dramatic performances of the season.

Worst villain: Jerome Thor, “Arabian.” Strident and annoying.

Best episodes (chronological order): “Cherry Blossom,” “Bridge of Lions Pt. 1 & 2,” “Round Table,” “Minus-X”

Worst episodes: “Alexander the Greater Pt. 1 & 2,” ‘Discotheque,” ‘Re-Collectors,” “Deadly Toys,” “Children’s Day,” “Deadly Goddess,” “Nowhere” (!!!)

So out of 28 distinct stories (including two 2-parters), I count only 4 as good, 7 as bad, and the remaining 17 as mediocre. And even the good ones are a mixed bag, episodes that were flawed but had enough strong moments or overall entertainment value to be worthwhile anyway. Overall, this was just not a good season. The main things that made it bearable to sit through were the music and (for me, at least) the abundance of really lovely female guests.

At this point, I’m unsure if I intend to continue to season 3. I didn’t like season 2 much, and season 3 is reportedly far worse, so I’m not sure it would be worth it to subject myself to it. After all, it’s not like anyone is paying me to do these reviews, so what would I get out of it? Well, beyond getting my morbid curiosity satisfied. I’m almost tempted to continue for that reason alone. But at the very least, I’m going to take a break from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. for a while and take a look at some of the other shows piling up on my Netflix queue. I’ll shortly be getting season 2 of The Six Million Dollar Man, which I’ll be reviewing here. (Actually I’ve already gotten the first two discs — I needed a break from TMFU — but I wanted to get through this series of reviews before I began posting those.) After that… we’ll see.

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

The Man From UNCLE Season 2 Affair: Eps. 25-30 (Spoilers)

January 5, 2014 1 comment

“The King of Diamonds Affair”: Arrghhh, the accents! We open “Somewhere in Soho, London” (the same caption from “Bridge of Lions” — too cheap to make a new one?) as a restaurant patron with a Mockney accent only Dick Van Dyke could love gets her tooth broken by an uncut diamond in her plum pudding. This brings Solo and Illya to investigate Pogue’s Plum Puddings to see if they’re involved in diamond smuggling. A supposed new Brazilian mine is turning up stones identical to the kind sold by the Peacock company, which is buying most of them up, but the head of Peacock insists all his stones are accounted for. (Apparently diamonds were one of the anchors of the world economy at the time, at least in the UNCLEverse, which is why our spyboys are investigating this.) But the head of Pogue’s, Victoria Pogue (Nancy Kovack), seems to know nothing about it. She also knows nothing about English accents; Kovack’s delivery migrates freely between Prim English Governess and Scarlett O’Hara, with various unidentifiable stops along the way. Everyone else faking an accent in this episode is at least managing to fake a consistent one, but Kovack can’t even settle on a continent. It is probably the worst English accent I’ve ever heard, and in the context of this episode, that’s saying something.

But there’s a more authentic accent afoot, for the boys decide they need to take a closer, unauthorized look into the Peacock vault, which means consulting an expert, Rafael Delgado, the world’s greatest (and vainest) diamond thief — and it’s Ricardo Montalban in his second TMFU appearance! They come to him in Dartmoor Prison pretending to be Hollywood producers seeking his input for a movie. He catches on, but not before he gives them enough tips to let them break into the vault and find it’s already been broken into from beneath, a billion dollars in diamonds stolen. Peacock has hidden the theft for it would be catastrophic if word got out.

Delgado is broken out by his partners, implicitly the Mafia (for some reason the show had to tiptoe around that), though they dress like John Steed and put on fake English accents that are more convincing than those of the characters who are supposed be genuinely English. They’re led by Blodgett (Larry D. Mann). Delgado plies Victoria with Montalban’s Latin-lover routine in order to reach the mob’s plant inside the shipping department (and apparently the only other employee in the building), who was responsible for the shipping mixup that tipped UNCLE off to the crime. Solo then shows up, and through convoluted circumstances, he and Victoria get knocked out and stuffed in a box by the shipping guy, then shipped out to Brazil by Blodgett’s men. Oh, and the gangsters spot Illya watching them and apparently shoot him, causing him to fall into a pile of garbage, but when he recovers, his only complaint is a bumped head. Maybe he just pretended to be shot? Or maybe the episode doesn’t make much sense.

So they end up in Brazil and Blodgett finds Solo and Victoria and is going to kill them, but Delgado saves them for nebulous reasons and tries to get away with both them and the diamonds, but they get caught and they need Illya and two Brazilian UNCLE men (TIO men?) to save them, and the good guys manage to shoot the mobsters with cannons which affect them a la Yosemite Sam, but Blodgett gets off one last shot and Montalban gets to play a death scene, and then Solo and Illya are chilling with Victoria in front of a badly painted backdrop of Rio’s coastline, but then Waverly shows up just so he can pull rank and get some alone time with the girl. Oh, and there’s a casually racist allusion to cannibalistic Amazon natives.

So, yeah, kind of a mess, and oh good grief nobody ever let Nancy Kovack do an accent again. But on the plus side, Ricardo Montalban! Plus honorable mention to John Winston (Star Trek‘s transporter chief Kyle, and the one person other than the main Trek cast who co-starred with Montalban in both of his appearances as Khan), who plays a British UNCLE agent and, although Australian, does one of the least fakey English accents in the episode. Though admittedly that’s extremely faint praise.

“The Project Deephole Affair”: UNCLE is trying to smuggle a geologist past THRUSH, who want him captured for some evil project (as Waverly explains in an expository walk-and-talk where a huge microphone is on camera for several seconds as they leave his office). The THRUSH team is led by the Bondishly-named Narcissus Darling, who’s played by the lovely Barbara Bouchet and lives up to her mythic namesake in her fondness for self-reflection (and who can blame her?). Due to a mixup in their scouting of hotel windows, they mistake Buzz Conway (Jack Weston), a career failure and nobody, for the geologist when he tries to duck out of paying his hotel bill. Solo takes advantage of the accidental opportunity to use Buzz as a decoy, having Illya slip the real doctor out by another route. Conway later wakes up in a swankier hotel, finding a plane ticket to San Francisco and a sizeable wad of bills by his bedside (although the wad, when he examines it, is visibly just a few singles wrapped in a twenty). He also finds the apparent corpse of the geologist in his closet (never checking to see if he has a pulse), which spooks him into taking the flight to get out of town rather than cashing it in. (Creepily, Illya is monitoring Conway via a camera in the latter’s bathroom.)

So basically they’re risking this guy’s life as a decoy without his consent. UNCLE’s manipulated civilians like this before, but has usually given them a say in the matter. This is just sick. Anyway, he doesn’t remain in the dark for long, because once in San Fran, he’s hijacked via a drone control planted in his car, and there’s a fairly impressive freeway stunt as Solo (in Illya’s convertible) kicks out the car window and climbs inside to regain control (and somehow isn’t lacerated by all the broken glass). Buzz isn’t too happy and tries to get away, but stumbles into the bad guy’s clutches (I’m glossing over a lot of back-and-forth). Said bad guy is Elom (Leon Askin) — spell it backwards. He’s a narrow-eyed man who can’t stand sunlight, wears sunglasses, is insecure about whether Narcissus likes him, and wishes to “penetrate deep into Mother Earth” (oookay) in order to deploy a sonic earthquake weapon. Bottom line, this guy is essentially Marvel Comics’ Mole Man, taking a break from battling the Fantastic Four. Bizarre.

Anyway, Elom disbelieves Buzz’s insistence that he’s not the geologist, and threatens a captive Illya to get his cooperation. By random luck, Buzz actually proves to have useful knowledge and redirects the drill to strike oil instead of, err, nonconsensually penetrating the planet’s crust. And then Solo shows up and shoots everybody anyway. And then Elom falls down an elevator shaft, just at a point where there’s major damage to the film, streaks of blue dots going by. Presumably the DVDs are taken from the original masters, so are you telling me the episode actually went out with that much damage? They couldn’t afford to reshoot even for something so drastic? It makes the visible mike seem trivial. Although the technical problems make me feel a little sorry for the episode, which really doesn’t have much going for it anyway aside from Bouchet being really, really nice to look at.

“The Round Table Affair” opens with Illya in a lengthy car chase, the kind where, whenever they drive off the road into the dirt, you can see leftover tire tracks from earlier takes of the stunt. Why do they never get it on the first take? Anyway, the chase ends up in the flyspeck Duchy of Ingolstein, which has no extradition treaties with anyone. A crook named Artie King (Don Francks) has thus used his influence with the regent Fredrick (Reginald Gardner), a dissolute gambler deeply in debt to Artie, to turn Ingolstein into a haven for criminals. Solo and Illya inform the rightful Duchess, the tomboyish Vicky (Valora Noland), who immediately agrees to leave her Paris boarding school, take the throne, and kick out the crooks. But Artie and his gangster pal Lucho (Bruce Gordon) remind Fredrick that Artie basically owns him and the duchy (and Artie makes a nasty insinuation about droit de seigneur giving him ownership of Vicky as well, although I doubt it would grant a commoner any rights over a duchess), so the gangsters aren’t going anywhere. Solo and Illya make the mistake of gloating to Lucho and the crooks about their impending expulsion without actually having a plan for when the crooks inevitably bag them, although their imprisonment is oddly temporary.

Fredrick convinces Vicky that she needs to marry Artie if she wants to get the crooks out, insisting that a woman can mold a man into anything she wants — a perspective he’s gained from a lifetime of being wrapped around fingers. But when he makes the same proposition to Artie, Lucho sees it as something that benefits the crooks, for some reason. Also for some reason, confirmed bachelor Artie is apparently trapped into it, even though he was just boasting minutes before about how he had all the power. Lucho keeps Artie prisoner in the castle to keep him from ducking out on the wedding. While attempting to do just that, Artie finds Vicky in the chapel (which somehow contains the sword of St. George driven Excalibur-like into the stone, with an attached legend that the duchess must marry whoever removes it). They bond over mutually being trapped into marriage, which, of course, leads to them instantly falling in love and wanting to marry. The guy who was implicitly threatening her with rape in the first act is now suddenly being written as a sweetheart.

But Solo & Illya kidnap Artie so he misses the wedding. Lucho, though, gets a safecracking associate to (somehow, somehow, somehow) rig the sword so Lucho can pull it and force Vicky into marriage. When the boys from UNCLE hear of this, they realize the lovestruck Artie is the lesser of evils. They collaborate on a plan which entails Artie challenging Lucho to a clumsy duel in full plate armor, with Solo & Illya holding the gangsters at gunpoint so Artie can win fair and square, whereupon he instantly consents to the extradition treaty so the crooks can be taken in. That’s one heck of a job of molding there, Vicky.

Despite the flimsy and inconsistent plot, this ends up being a rather fun episode, kind of sweet and romantic too if you ignore the unfortunate droit de seigneur remark (which, to be fair, the episode did too). Robert Drasnin provides a partial new score in the vein of classic movies about knights and castles and European royalty and whatnot.

“The Bat Cave Affair”: Yes, this episode aired nearly three months after Batman premiered and took the nation by storm. But the episode doesn’t really bear any resemblance to Batman beyond the title, which could have been changed sometime during production.

While Illya is in Europe tracking down a THRUSH plot to throw air travel into chaos, a Dr. Transom (Peter Baron) is showing Solo the supposed psychic abilities of Clemency McGill (Joan Freeman), a very beautiful down-home girl from the Ozarks. He and Waverly are skeptical, but her abilities seem uncanny, and she even has detailed knowledge of Illya’s activities a continent away and where to go to find what he’s looking for. This turns out to be a trap, suggesting she’s working for THRUSH after all.

Illya is captured by Count Zark — in other words, Martin Landau doing a Dracula impression, though it’s nowhere near as good as his Oscar-winning performance as Bela Lugosi in 1994′s Ed Wood. Zark has engineered his bats’ “radar” sense to interfere with airport radar, even though it’s actually sonic echolocation and couldn’t do that. He also explains that THRUSH has been using microwave neural induction to implant thoughts in Clemency’s head and lead Illya into their trap in Transylvania, which is an absurdly convoluted way to go about it and a total waste of a technology that could have far more profound applications for evil. She’s a dupe rather than a traitor, and Solo finds the transmitter in her hair comb during his inevitable seduction, so they fly to Illya’s rescue. Zark releases the bats, but information that Zark conveniently handed Illya earlier enables him to recall/disrupt them. And Clemency provides useful information without the hair comb, suggesting she’s really psychic after all, ugh.

This is a pretty bad episode. The plot is a mess, and a lot of the Zark material seems to be played for humor but just falls flat. Landau makes a good try, but it’s simply too broad and awkwardly written a role; the villain doesn’t even get any comeuppance at the end. (Oh, and Whit Bissell is in it too, but is wasted in a fairly redundant role.) The main thing worth watching for is the lovely Joan Freeman, plus a full original Gerald Fried score whose use of ponderous tubas and cackling trumpets anticipates his score for Star Trek‘s “Catspaw.”

Although there is a fun metatextual moment; on the plane, Solo and Clemency are shown watching the final shot of the movie One Spy Too Many, a theatrical version of the 2-part “Alexander the Greater Affair” that opened this season, and Solo remarks that spy movies are light entertainment that’s too far-fetched for his taste. (It’s not the actual end-title card of the movie, though, since that was over a shot of Waverly and Illya. The movie is on the special-features disc and will be covered in the next post.)

“The Minus-X Affair”: When UNCLE learns that THRUSH is after the prototype Plus-X formula of Prof. Stemmler (Eve Arden), meant to heighten human senses and abilities, Solo warns the professor that THRUSH is likely to target her estranged daughter Leslie (Sharon Farrell), a wild child who lives “not wisely but too well” off the money Stemmler sends her in lieu of parenting. But he doesn’t check for bugs first, so it’s entirely his fault that THRUSH captures Leslie. Not that their man in Acapulco, Whittaker (King Moody, better known as Get Smart‘s Shtarker and as Ronald McDonald from 1975-84), has to work at it; the sexy, slutty Leslie is happy to run off with him, though not before Illya manages to get a tracer onto her.

But the abduction is just a cover, for Stemmler has been working with the Blofeldesque THRUSH agent Arthur Rollo (Theo Marcuse), who’s not pleased with her for keeping Leslie’s existence secret from him — and confiding about her to Solo. He wonders at her commitment to THRUSH, but clearly she’s more committed to her daughter than it seemed.

Rollo intends to use Plus-X to enhance his men and its secret opposite formula Minus-X to dumb down the guards at a government “synthetic plutonium” plant. Illya goes undercover at the plant while Solo gets captured at Rollo’s HQ. There are guinea pigs galore as Rollo injects Leslie with Plus-X and slates Solo for a Minus-X test. A bitter Leslie initially decides that being bad is in her blood so she might as well join team villain, but later she has second thoughts that could get her killed. Stemmler, it turns out, will do anything to protect her daughter; the only reason she sent her away was to insulate her from THRUSH. So she fakes the Minus-X injection and helps Solo escape. Still, Rollo takes Leslie as a hostage to the plutonium heist, as insurance. Whittaker has delivered the Minus-X to the guards, who have become mental 5-year-olds — and hey, one of them is Paul Winfield! It’s a minor role, but he does it well. Anyway, Solo and Stemmler follow, and it’s not hard to predict what Stemmler will end up doing to save her daughter and atone for her sins.

This is a solid episode, more dramatic than the season’s norm, and it’s the first time in this show that Peter Allan Fields has written female characters in a way that didn’t feel exploitative, misogynistic, or both. It’s a big step in the direction of his much better work in future shows. Both Stemmler women are effectively drawn and well-played, and Farrell is extremely sexy as Leslie. The direction by Barry Shear is also quite strong and stylish, particularly in the Acapulco sequence, which has some strikingly fast-paced and artistic editing that’s unusual for the era. This is definitely one of the few standouts of the season.

“The Indian Affairs Affair”: Needless to say, when this show does an episode about Indians, it’s an assemblage of cowboys-and-Indians tropes and cliches, beginning with a cigar-store Indian outside the Bureau of Indian Affairs, then onto a group of Indians using arrows and tomahawks to attack Solo and Illya in the city streets for reasons which are never adequately explained. But apparently it has something to do with THRUSH kidnapping Chief Highcloud (Ted de Corsia) of the Cardiac tribe — seriously — to force his people to let them use their reservation as a site for developing a new type of H-bomb. The tribe won’t talk to outsiders, so Waverly sends Illya to investigate and Solo to contact Highcloud’s New York-resident daughter, whose name is Charisma — seriously. Apparently this is the world’s only Greek-speaking Indian tribe. Speaking of names, Charisma is played by Victoria Vetri under her stage name Angela Dorian, the name she would subsequently use as a Playboy Playmate. Charisma’s a student who does stereotyped Indian dances to pay the bills. Solo tries to solicit her help, but THRUSH attacks and Solo “allows” them to kidnap her, though not before he manages to get a tracer on her (deja vu!).

The THRUSH team is led by L.C. Carson (Joe Mantell), who runs a historical museum and has a generations-long grudge against the Cardiacs for their massacre of a cavalry force including his ancestor — which he calls an atrocity by savages with no sense of guilt, conveniently ignoring the far larger massacre inflicted in the other direction over the preceding centuries. His men are the second band of THRUSH goons this season to dress as cowboys. Carson’s kind of a lunatic, at one point donning war paint and trying to rape Charisma because the “savages” have retained a virility the modern white man has lost. She fights him off fairly well and Solo ultimately saves her, though they’re recaptured.

Meanwhile, Illya is attacked by the tribe’s motorcycle-riding warriors, who make an inept attempt to torture him before he wins them over with his usual “You tribal people whom I respect must follow my leadership because I’m smarter than you and also blond” routine. He dresses up as a Cardiac (though with his very pale complexion unaltered) and gets Carson’s man Ralph (Nick Colasanto) to take him to the chief, where his escape attempt dovetails with Solo’s before the aforementioned recapture.

Anyway, the bomb project has involved scientists from multiple countries working on separate components without knowing their purpose, until they’re brought together at the reservation and turn out to be pieces of the world’s first suitcase nuke. In the words of project leader Dr. Yahama (Richard Loo), “We have transistorized a nuclear bomb.” (That was a ’60s term for miniaturization, since transistors allowed smaller electronic devices than vacuum tubes.) The plan somehow involves hiding the bomb in one of four cases and sending them all back to their separate countries without anyone knowing which one has the bomb. I’m not sure what the point of this was supposed to be, but ultimately it’s just an excuse to have a convoy of cars that can “circle the wagons” when an escaped Solo and Illya rally the Cardiacs on motorbikes to attack them Western-style.

In a number of ways, this episode by Dean Hargrove is an attempt to subvert cowboy-and-Indian tropes and align its sympathies with the Indians. The cowboys are cast as the villains and the Indians as the heroes, and Carson’s virulent racism is portrayed as evil and grotesque. Chief Highcloud is portrayed, to a point, as a dignified leader who dislikes seeing his people’s proud traditions mocked, and Charisma is embarrassed by her stereotyped dancing. So it was a decent try. But the episode is nonetheless laden with TV/movie Indian caricatures and cliches that are anything but respectful or authentic, like act titles written in stereotyped broken English. So while it tries to counter the cliches, it’s still a prisoner of them.

On the plus side, we get a mostly original score by Gerald Fried, largely doing his usual ethnic-sounds thing, though there’s an amusing cowboy-guitar motif for the THRUSH men as well. (And Jerry Goldsmith’s episode-wrapup motif is briefly heard at the end as well, arranged “Indian-style” by Fried.)

And that’s the end of season two. Up next, a review of the theatrical One Spy Too Many and a season overview.

Categories: Reviews Tags: ,

The Man From UNCLE Season 2 Affair: Eps. 19-24 (Spoilers)

“The Waverly Ring Affair”: After raiding a THRUSH message drop disguised as a storefront photo developing service (complete with an oddly blurry fight scene — perhaps there was a camera error and they couldn’t afford a reshoot), Illya finds a top-security UNCLE document in the captured packet, revealing that there’s a mole inside UNCLE HQ. We get to see more of UNCLE’s security procedures as Solo and Illya investigate. Suspicion seems to fall on a friendly Clark Kent-meets-Fred MacMurray type named George Dennell (Larry Blyden), who’s caught with a secret document and gets kicked out of UNCLE and “de-trained” using a spinny-disk hypnosis “beam” to erase his classified knowledge — but it’s really a ploy by Solo to use George as bait for THRUSH recruitment. It’s pretty easy to guess that the other new UNCLE employee introduced here, Carla (Elizabeth Allen) — who’s just friends with George though he wants more — is really the THRUSH mole. But when Solo gets captured by both of them seemingly working together, it’s unclear which one is the real mole — especially since they both seem to have so-called Waverly rings, a top-security device that can only be issued by Waverly himself to his most trusted operatives. Which one is the real spy? (Well, for THRUSH, I mean. Obviously they’re both spies.)

This is a fairly good episode, a nice look inside the title organization, though as is often the case, the climactic action gets a little incoherent. Still, there was a moment where I thought the story was going to go in a totally different direction. The de-training hypnotist, Dr. Lazarus (Jim Boles), had a very sinister-looking pointy goatee, so I thought, “Of course! He’s the mole! He frames UNCLE agents for security breaches, gets them kicked out, and pretends to hypnotize them into forgetting all UNCLE’s secrets, but he rigs the process with a back-door suggestion so THRUSH agents can capture them, trigger their suppressed memories, and get their secrets! It’s brilliant!” But none of that actually happened. Which is a pity, since that sounded more interesting than what we got. Not that this was a bad one, but it feels like a missed opportunity, and a less cohesive story, since the hypnosis angle has little payoff in the actual episode.

“The Bridge of Lions Affair, Parts 1 & 2″: Solo investigates the disappearance of elderly scientist Dr. Lancer, who looks like James Doohan in old-age makeup, and the appearance of a man with identical fingerprints named Bainbridge, who looks like James Doohan with a fake mustache. Bainbridge, of course, is a de-aged Lancer, as he reveals to the elderly Sir Norman Swickert, played in age makeup by the great Maurice Evans, who does such a convincing job playing an elderly man that I almost forgot he was still much younger at the time this was made. Swickert was once one of the great men of power in the UK, and he formed the Bridge of Lions Society, a chess club allowing world leaders to keep the lines of communication open so the misunderstandings that led to World War I couldn’t happen again.

Solo’s investigations lead him to Lancer’s daughter Lorelei, a model at the Paris salon of Mme. Raine De Sala (Vera Miles), who has ambitions to seize the power that the men of the world reserve for themselves, and who has her henchwoman Olga (Monica Keating) strangle Lorelei and shoot Dr. Lancer/Bainbridge/Scotty to keep them from talking to Solo. There’s also a Richard Kiel-esque strongman chauffeur, Fleeton (Cal Bolder), who tries to keep Solo from getting into Swickert’s estate by lifting the front of his roadster and rotating it to point in the other direction — whereupon Solo simply kicks it into reverse to get inside.

Meanwhile, Illya is tracking cats around Soho, trying to find out why they’re being, err, catnapped. And eventually THRUSH’s Hong Kong office, of all places, gets wind of these investigations, and their Waverly equivalent (James Hong) orders Jordin (Bernard Fox, without his usual mustache) to look into it all. Which is a slow scene that’s mostly for padding, but it’s mildly interesting to see inside a THRUSH HQ and to see how different James Hong looked and sounded back then.

It’s a while before all these plot threads come together. Raine reveals that she’s been in love with Sir Norman since she was a little girl — maybe it was his power she was in love with, but Vera Miles and Maurice Evans have a beautifully acted scene where Sir Norman speaks of how time has defeated him and Raine passionately insists she can give it back to him. It’s perhaps the finest acting I’ve seen on this show — which helps make up for the performance of the innocent, Sir Norman’s nurse Joanna (Ann Elder), who has an atrociously fake Irish accent. Anyway, the cats are research subjects for Gritzky (Harry Davis) and his age-reversing process, which Raine has developed so she could de-age Sir Norman in a machine that’s basically a big box with Robby the Robot’s head on top. That’s not a joke; it’s actually the outer part of Robby the Robot’s head used as the machine’s dome. (IMDb’s episode page actually says “Robby the Robot … Part of Rejuvenating Machine (uncredited).”) But even as Sir Norman is being de-aged, Solo and Illya try to win over Joanna, but she’s a prim lass who doesn’t like strange men showing up at her window, so she summons Fleeton, who knocks them out and dumps them into a wine press. Holy vintage! Can our heroes handle the pressure? Will they be turned into wine before their time? Tune in next week, same UNCLE time, same UNCLE channel!

Or, just play the next episode on the DVD. Which opens without a “Previously…” montage, instead replaying some of that well-acted Miles/Evans sequence interspersed with new material of Solo and Illya trying to shore up the wine press. Apparently lifting the floor left enough space underneath to save them, for Jordin subsequently retrieves Solo (while Illya plays dead) and quizzes him on recent events, recapping part 1 through dialogue — similar to what they attempted in their previous 2-parter, but better handled. Illya helps Solo get away from Jordin. Later, we see Sir Norman in the Robby-head contraption, and it actually plays out differently than in the closing shot of part 1: Rather cleverly, the de-aging machine causes no instant outward effect, but triggers the cells to gradually restore themselves over the ensuing days.

Some time later, Sir Norman has made a triumphant return to politics, and his old friend Waverly sends our boys to try to talk him into turning the process over to UNCLE before THRUSH gets it. But Sir Norman insists it’s his marriage to Raine that’s rejuvenated him and won’t reveal the truth. But Jordin has the room bugged, so he captures Dr. Gritzky and blackmails Raine into sharing the de-aging process with THRUSH. By this point, though, Sir Norman has realized that he’ll need monthly treatments to stay rejuvenated, and that he’s therefore trapped. He doesn’t like that, and he wonders if Raine ever really loved him.

Solo tries to reach Sir Norman and tries to persuade Nurse Joanna that he’s on their side. Having little success, he asks Mr. Waverly to fly over and talk to Sir Norman. But Jordin gets the drop on Solo and puts him and Joanna back in the wine press. Later, Waverly arrives, but Raine has Jordin take him prisoner — and the unflappable Waverly utterly schools him in the etiquette of proper hostage-taking. Leo G. Carroll is in rare form here, and later on as he and Solo contrive their escape from the press.

But Sir Norman has reached his own decision without Waverly’s help. He tries to convince Gritzky that the process is a trap and must be buried, even if Gritzky has to be buried along with it. Jordin just barely stops him from shooting Gritzky himself, but Sir Norman urges Gritzky to do the right thing. He then begins to confess the whole story to his assembled compatriots, and when Jordin attempts to shoot him, Raine surprises her husband and herself by taking the bullet for him. Gritzky subjects himself to an overdose of the machine, and booby-traps it, taking Jordin out of the picture. His secret is lost, except for a notebook that even UNCLE’s computers can’t decode — at least, not anytime soon.

This is one of those stories that would’ve been so much easier to resolve if not for the insistence on maintaining the status quo of the world. Sir Norman and Gritzky were trapped because only Gritzky held the secret and couldn’t let THRUSH have it — but if he’d just published it, then everyone would’ve had the secret and the bad guys would’ve had no advantage. Not to mention the potential benefits to humanity. Plus there would’ve been no need for Gritzky’s suicide.

Still, this 2-parter is the highlight of the season so far and one of the high points of the series. I’ve found this season rather disappointing on the whole, but this one really clicked, with a good script by Howard Rodman (story by Henry Slesar) and effective direction by E. Darrell Hallenbeck, as well as mostly excellent guest performances (with one or two exceptions). The main thing it was missing was an original score.

“The Foreign Legion Affair”: Speaking of original scores, this one has an entirely new one that’s immediately recognizable as Gerald Fried’s work, built around an Arabian-style leitmotif that presages Fried’s Capellan theme for Star Trek: “Friday’s Child.” Illya is caught photographing a THRUSH code somewhere in Morocco. He manages to escape, but the THRUSH agents get to his chartered plane before he arrives, and for some reason, instead of just shooting him, they replace the pilots and go through the charade of taking off and everything. For some reason, the plane’s stewardess Barbara (Danielle De Metz) doesn’t discover this substitution until after they’ve taken off, so she and Illya are both taken by surprise. But Illya fights the baddies off and parachutes out with Barbara, landing deep in the Sahara, where they stumble across a French Foreign Legion fort run by Capt. Calhoun (Howard Da Silva), who doesn’t know the Legion was disbanded five years ago and the Arab war ended, so he arrests them as enemy spies. (For some reason, he thinks the blond, Nordic Illya is a Tuareg, one of the Berber natives of Saharan North Africa.)  Meanwhile, Solo goes to Casablanca to investigate, gets captured, and predictably gains the support of a gorgeous and very lusty harem-girl type, Aisha (Vivienne Ventura), who helps him escape.

The “outpost commander who doesn’t know the war is over” trope is a hackneyed one, and it plays rather goofily at first (Da Silva’s character is supposedly Irish but you’d never know it from his New Yawk accent), but it ends up taking a rather touching turn when we learn of the unearned disgrace that drove Calhoun to the legion, and the reasons for the loyalty of his only underling, Cpl. Remy (Rupert Crosse). So what seemed like it was going to be a very silly episode turned out to be rather sweet. Although it’s certainly jam-packed with Arab stereotypes.

“The Moonglow Affair”: This is a backdoor pilot for the spinoff The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., which would premiere the following season. However, although it introduces that show’s main characters April Dancer (a name suggested by Ian Fleming, unsurprisingly) and Mark Slate, they’re played by different actors here, namely Mary Ann Mobley and Norman Fell rather than Stefanie Powers and Noel Harrison. Slate is introduced here as an older agent, the man who trained Solo, and now he’s been brought in to train Dancer, apparently UNCLE’s first female field agent. They’re needed to take over an investigation that’s gotten Illya captured and Solo exposed to a THRUSH radiation weapon causing sensory aphasia. Due to the importance of the mission, Waverly bends the rules that say agents over 40 (like Slate) aren’t allowed in the field.

The bad guys are Arthur Caresse (Kevin McCarthy) and his sister Jean (Mary Carver), whose front is the Caresse cosmetics company — seriously, why do so many THRUSH operatives go into the glamour business? Caresse is working on a new cosmetics line called Moonglow, and Waverly is concerned that they may be planning to sabotage America’s Project Moonglow rocket program, since of course the first thing that enemy saboteurs will do to keep their evil plans secret is to name their cover story after the exact thing they’re targeting. April goes in as a secretary, but inevitably (given that they cast Miss America 1959 in the role), Arthur takes one look at her and appoints her the new Miss Moonglow — much to Jean’s frustration, for while she’s trying to pick the best spokesmodel, he just picks the girl he most wants to sleep with. While April uses her feminine wiles on him, Mark tracks down Illya and saves him from execution, getting into fights with THRUSH assassins and generally being Too Old For This Crap. It turns out the plan is to irradiate the US astronauts’ space food so they’ll go loopy and crash, thus scuttling both the US and Soviet  space programs so that THRUSH can hold the high ground. While Mark scuttles this plan, April manages to find the microdot plans to THRUSH’s rocket base (as if there weren’t enough McGuffins already), and when Jean discovers her identity, she manages to get the better of both Caresse siblings, but unfortunately the episode wasn’t willing to let a woman save the day all by herself, so she gets irradiated and needs Mark to save her.

All in all, not a particularly good backdoor pilot. I can see why they recast the leads. I liked Mary Ann Mobley a lot in her Mission: Impossible appearance, but here, while she was certainly very nice to look at, she came off as a bit vapid and limited as a performer. And Norman Fell wasn’t very appealing at all. Really, I’m not sure why this pilot convinced them to go ahead with the spinoff. Although in the final show, Mark Slate was made British and de-aged ten years, no doubt to make him more Kuryakinesque. Odd that they  revised a character so completely in what was supposed to be the same continuity. Why not change the character name along with everything else?

The main virtue here is another full score by Gerald Fried, in a mode that’s at once very much a ’60s spy score (with lots of bass guitar and bongos) and very much a Fried score. I’ve commented on how Fried’s earlier scores for this show sounded kind of underdeveloped, sounding more like his early/contemporary comedy work (on Gilligan’s Island) but not quite having the full-fledged qualities of his familiar adventure/drama scoring on shows like Star Trek and M:I. But by now, between “The Foreign Legion Affair” and this one, I can safely say that Fried’s style had reached maturity.

“The Nowhere Affair”: A search for a map to a THRUSH facility takes Solo to MGM’s Western town backlot the ghost town of Nowhere, Nevada, where he’s captured by the enemy and takes a temporary-amnesia pill. The facility’s head, Longolius (David Sheiner putting on a Western accent), doesn’t believe he’s amnesiac, but his captive cybernetics expert Tertunian (Lou Jacobi) convinces him it’s real, and that the best way to break through the memory block is to “arouse” his metabolism — which predictably means sending a woman to seduce him. Just as predictably, the computer-dating algorithm Tertunian runs reveals that the ideal candidate is the one woman already working in the facility, Mara (Diana Hyland), who protests because she’s a bookish type who missed the obligatory seduction course for female THRUSH agents. Yet also predictably, she somehow manages to seduce Solo like a pro. (She even has a seminude scene that’s surprisingly revealing for 1966.) And even more predictably, she falls in love with him and helps him escape to sabotage the facility. (His memory returns when she puts a gun in his hand — which was almost a good scene, seeing his nonverbal reaction as he regained himself, but then they went and ruined it by redundantly revealing the same thing in stilted dialogue.) The predictability is only slightly offset by the revelation that Tertunian chose her with the full knowledge that this would happen, intending all along to sabotage THRUSH’s plans. But that doesn’t help any, since a few scenes earlier, we’d seen Longolius actually planning to let Solo escape so they could follow him to UNCLE, but then when Solo actually does escape, Longolius is outraged and betrayed. What?

Meanwhile, Illya is trying to track Solo down and ends up bizarrely allying with a stereotypical grizzled prospector (J. Pat O’Malley) who’s found the THRUSH map and thought it was leading to buried treasure. He helps Illya find the facility and then rig it to blow up once the good guys have escaped, and is oddly untroubled by the fact that he’s just killed a whole bunch of THRUSH agents, most of them dressed up like Yul Brynner in Westworld.

The THRUSH computer lab is a nifty set at first glance, with forced-perspective computer banks seemingly receding into the distance, but then they ruin that too by shooting from side angles that give away the diminishing size of the computers.

There’s almost a nice scene in the ending, where Mara reflects on THRUSH’s lifelong indoctrination that left her no choice but to become who she is, but then it takes a rather ghastly turn when Waverly decides the best solution for her tragic upbringing is to get her to swallow down a whole bottle of barely-tested amnesia pills and hope it wipes all her memory rather than just killing her, whereupon she evidently forgets everything she’s known since childhood except that she’s in love with Solo, and this ultimate roofie is somehow supposed to be a happy ending rather than the creepiest one I’ve ever seen on this show. Egad.

So, yeah, it’s an amnesia-themed episode that I really wish I could forget. Way to go, show. At least it has a mostly new Robert Drasnin score, plus a reuse of that nice jazzy, syncopated cue I liked from “The Tigers Are Coming Affair.”

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Reflecting on AN ADVENTURE IN SPACE AND TIME (spoilers)

December 8, 2013 1 comment

I haven’t posted anything here about the recent Doctor Who anniversary productions; I never seem to have gotten into the habit of discussing current TV on the blog, since I mainly do that on sites like the The TrekBBS and Tor.com. Suffice to say that I really enjoyed all of it — the wonderful return of Paul McGann in the short ‘The Night of the Doctor,” the anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor” which tied off a lot of continuity threads quite beautifully and had me jumping off the couch in amazement a few times, the Internet comedy film The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot in which the surviving classic Doctors who weren’t in the special get their turn in the sun… and the biopic An Adventure in Space and Time wherein writer Mark Gatiss lovingly recreates the spirit (if not the factual details) of the formative years of Doctor Who and William Hartnell’s tenure in the role. Yesterday on the TrekBBS I made an observation about the ending of that film that’s been quite well-received by the other posters, so I felt it was worth reposting here. Naturally there are spoilers.

The discussion was about the final scene of the film, in which Hartnell (played by David Bradley) is about to film his final scene as the Doctor, and he looks over and sees the current Doctor, Matt Smith, standing across the TARDIS console and smiling at him. Several people felt that was an odd moment, saying that it took them out of the movie or that it didn’t make sense within Hartnell’s point of view. Some said maybe he should’ve seen a montage of all the future Doctors, or something. But here’s the thought I had about what the meaning of that concluding shot was:

It’s occurred to me that the shot of Smith at the end wasn’t really meant to represent Hartnell’s POV. Smith was standing in for us, the modern audience, looking back at Hartnell from our POV. I mean, this is really a pretty sad movie. Hartnell finally finds a role he loves, a professional family where he feels he belongs, but everyone leaves him and then he gets too ill to continue and they kick him out and his career withers and then he dies young and it’s all very sad. So I think that final moment reflected our wish as fans — and Mark Gatiss’s wish as the writer — that we could go back and communicate with Hartnell and tell him that what he started would leave a legacy stretching forward 50 years and more, and that he would always be remembered and cherished. To let him know, as it were, that there should be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties, because Doctor Who had gone forward in all its beliefs and proven to him that he was not mistaken in his.

Realism in space: EUROPA REPORT and GRAVITY (spoiler reviews)

November 12, 2013 9 comments

In the past few days I’ve seen two recent movies that took an unusually realistic approach to portraying spaceflight: Sebastián Cordero’s Europa Report (which I watched on my computer via Netflix) and Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (which I watched in the theater). It’s very rare to get two movies in such close succession that make an attempt to portray space realistically, and I hope it’s the beginning of a trend. Although both movies did compromise their realism in different ways.

Europa Report is a “found-footage” movie presented as a documentary about the first crewed expedition to Jupiter’s moon Europa to investigate hints of life. It’s rare among such movies in that not only is the found-footage format well-justified and plausibly presented, but it’s actually thematically important to the film. On the surface, the plot follows the beats of a fairly standard horror movie: characters come to an unfamiliar place, start to suspect there’s something out there in the dark, and fall prey to something unseen one by one. But what’s fascinating about it is that it doesn’t feel like horror, because these characters want to be there, are willing to risk or sacrifice their lives for the sake of knowledge, and see the discovery of something unknown in the dark as a triumph rather than a terror. And that elevates it above the formula it superficially follows. It’s really a nifty work of science fiction in that it celebrates the importance of the scientific process itself, and the value of human exploration in space even when it comes at the cost of human lives.

The depiction of the ship, its flight, the onboard procedures, and the behavior of the astronauts is all handled very believably, with a well-designed and realistic spaceship relying on rotation to create artificial gravity. The actors, including Sharlto Copley, Daniel Wu, Anamaria Marinca, Christian Camargo, House‘s Karolina Wydra, and Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol‘s Michael Nyqvist, are effectively naturalistic and nuanced. The film’s low budget means they can only manage a limited number of microgravity or spacewalking shots, but what we get is reasonably believable. I do have some quibbles about procedures, though, like the lack of spacesuit maneuvering units during the spacewalk, and the decision later on Europa to send one crewperson out on the surface alone without backup. Really, a lot of the bad things that happened seemed to be avoidable. But I’m willing to excuse it since this was portrayed as a private space venture and the first of its kind. Now, I’m a big supporter of private enterprise getting into the space business, since history shows that development and settlement of a frontier doesn’t really take off until private enterprise gets involved and starts making a profit from it. And I’m sure that private space ventures in real life take every safety precaution they can. But for the sake of the fiction, it’s plausible that a novice organization might let a few safety procedures slide here and there.

The one thing about the film that really bugged me is one that’s pervasive in film and TV set in space and largely unavoidable: namely, once the crew landed on Europa, they were moving around in what was clearly full Earth gravity. Europa’s gravity is 13.4 percent of Earth’s, a few percent less than the Moon’s gravity, so they should’ve been moving around like the Apollo astronauts. Unfortunately, it seems to be much harder for Hollywood to simulate low gravity than microgravity. I’ve rarely seen it done well, and all too often filmmakers or TV producers are content to assume that all surface gravity is equal. In this case I suppose it’s a forgivable break from reality given the film’s small budget, but it’s the one big disappointment in an otherwise very believable and well-researched portrayal of spaceflight. Still, it’s a minor glitch in a really excellent movie.

Gravity is a very different film, much more about visual spectacle and action. Indeed, I’d read that it definitely needed to be seen in 3D to get the full impact, so I decided to take a chance. See, nearly 30 years ago I had some laser surgery for a melanoma in my left eye, and that left my vision in that eye distorted, on top of my congenitally blurry vision in that eye. So normally my depth perception isn’t all that great, and I tend to be unable to perceive 3D images like those Magic Eye pictures that were a fad not long after my surgery. So I’ve always assumed that I wouldn’t be able to experience 3D movies. But a few years back, I talked to a friend who had similar eye problems, and he said he could occasionally get some sense of depth from a 3D movie. So for this case, I decided to give it a try. And lo and behold, it worked! I could actually perceive depth fairly normally, though mainly just when there was a considerable difference in range, like when something passed really close to the camera, or in the shots of Sandra Bullock receding into the infinite depths of space (which were the key shots where you pretty much need 3D to get the full impact). I’m not sure if someone with normal vision could perceive more than I did, but it worked pretty well, considering that I wasn’t sure if it would work at all. There were occasionally some shots where I got a double image when something bright was against black space, but the double image persisted when I closed one eye, so I think it was a matter of the glasses filtering out the second image imperfectly. Anyway, it’s nice to know I can see 3D movies (and I didn’t get a headache or nausea either), though it costs a few bucks extra, so I’ll probably use this newfound freedom judiciously — for movies where the 3D is really done well and serves a purpose, rather than just capitalizing on a fad or being sloppily tacked on.

Anyway, as for the movie itself, it’s a technical tour de force, one big ongoing special effect that uses remarkably realistic CGI to create the illusion of minutes-long unbroken shots of George Clooney and Sandra Bullock floating in space and interacting seamlessly with each other and their environs. The technical aspects of NASA procedures and equipment and so forth seem to be very realistically handled as well. And best of all, the movie states right up front in the opening text that in space there’s nothing to carry sound, and it sticks by that religiously, never giving into the temptation to use sound effects in vacuum no matter how cataclysmic things get and how many things crash or blow up. The only sounds we hear when the viewpoint astronauts are in vacuum are those that they could hear over their radios or through the fabric of their suits when they touch something. It’s utterly glorious. Every science-fiction sound designer in Hollywood needs to study this film religiously.

The behavior of objects and fluids in microgravity is moderately well-handled too, although I’m not convinced the fire in the ISS would spread as quickly as shown, since fires in space tend to snuff themselves out with no convection to carry away the carbon dioxide buildup. But there were glimpses of what seemed like ruptured gas canisters spewing blue flame, so maybe they were oxygen canisters feeding the fire? I also wasn’t convinced by the scene where Bullock’s character wept and the tears sort of rolled away from her eyes and drifted off. I think surface tension would cause the tears to cling around her eyes unless she brushed them away.

One thing that both films handle quite realistically is the coolness of trained professionals in a crisis. In both Europa Report and Gravity, for the most part the astronauts keep a calm and level tone of voice as they report their crises. In real life, professionals generally don’t get all shouty and dramatic when bad things happen, but they fall back on procedure and training and discipline and rely on those things to see them through. And that’s what we mostly get in both these movies, although Sandra Bullock’s character in Gravity has more panicky moments because she’s not as well-trained as the other astronauts. I’m not sure it’s entirely plausible that they would’ve let her go into space without sufficient training to accustom her to it, but it’s balanced by Clooney’s calm under pressure.

However… all that realism of detail in Gravity masks the fact that the basic premise of the movie requires fudging quite a bit about the physics, dimensions, and probabilities of orbital spaceflight. The crisis begins when an accidental satellite explosion starts a chain reaction that knocks out all the other satellites and creates a huge debris storm that tears apart the space shuttle and later endangers the ISS. Now, yes, true, orbital debris poses a serious risk of impact, but we’re still talking about small bits spread out over a vast volume. In all probability a shuttle or station would be hit by maybe one large piece of debris at most, not this huge oncoming swarm tearing the whole thing to pieces. And the probability of the same thing happening to two structures as a result of the same debris swarm? Much, much tinier. Not to mention that I really, really doubt the fragments as shown could impart enough kinetic energy to these spacecraft to knock them into the kind of spins we see. It’s all very exaggerated for the sake of spectacle. And by the climactic minutes of the film it’s starting to feel a bit repetitive and ridiculous that everything just keeps going so consistently wrong over and over. (The film also simplifies orbital mechanics a great deal, suggesting you can catch up with another orbiting craft just by pointing directly at it and thrusting forward. Since you and it are already moving very fast on curved paths, it’s really not that simple.)

Gravity has a huge edge over Europa Report in its budget and thus its ability to portray microgravity; I wish ER had been able to use this level of technology to simulate Europa’s 0.134g in its surface scenes. But as impressive as Gravity‘s commitment to realism is in some respects, it’s ultimately a far shallower film than ER and cheats the physics in much bigger ways for the sake of contrived action and danger. It’s essentially a big dumb disaster movie disguised with a brilliantly executed veneer of naturalism. Gravity has the style, while Europa Report has the substance.

Now what we need is for someone to put the two together, and we could really be onto something.

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