I just got back from seeing Man of Steel, and I can’t recall the last time I had such intensely mixed feelings about a movie. There were some things about it that were simply wonderful, ways in which it captured or interpreted aspects of the Superman story better than I’ve ever seen a live-action adaptation manage to pull off. But there were other aspects that were horribly, offensively wrong, and I’m astonished anyone who knew the first thing about the character could think they were acceptable in a Superman movie.
On the plus side: Henry Cavill, as an actor, is just about the perfect Superman. Nobody since Christopher Reeve, at least, has been so effective at convincing me that I’m looking at Superman, that this is a guy who has both incredible power and the fundamental clean-cut decency to be trusted with it. He’s a bit blander as a performer than Reeve or most other screen Supermen, but I could absolutely buy him in the role, which is more than I could ever really say for Dean Cain, Tom Welling, or Brandon Routh. This is someone I want to see donning the cape for years to come.
The rest of the cast is mostly good, my favorite being Diane Lane as Martha Kent; I’ve always found her a very effective, engaging, and beautiful actress, and she was no different here. Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer were a good Jor-El and Lara. Michael Shannon was an effectively menacing and nuanced Zod. Laurence Fishburne was given a one-note authority-figure role but it was right in his wheelhouse and he Fishburned the heck out of it. Harry Lennix and Christopher Meloni were good as the military characters, and Richard Schiff was fun if underutilized as Emil Hamilton. Amy Adams was not the ideal Lois — she didn’t really have the edge or the attitude — but she was competent and reasonably engaging in the role, and was definitely not as profoundly miscast as Kate Bosworth was the last time around. As for Kevin Costner… well, I’ve always felt he was a negative void of charisma, sucking all the interest out of any scene he was in, but here he actually managed to be neutral and maybe slightly engaging, which is about the best I could’ve hoped for. And it was also nice seeing cameos by a number of familiar Canadian TV stars such as Flashpoint‘s David Paetkau and Battlestar Galactica‘s Tahmoh Penikett and Alessandro Juliani (who was also Smallville‘s Emil Hamilton, so it was amusing to see him sharing a scene with Schiff’s Hamilton).
There are some bits that range from good to marvelous. The sequence where Kal-El (I guess he wasn’t called Superman yet) turned himself in to the military and talked with Lois and Gen. Swanwick was just perfect, the one part of the film where he was most effective at being Superman. The Kryptonian nanotechnology was cool — I absolutely loved the retro, Art Deco-meets-Melies styling of the ultra-high-tech visual display that showed Kal-El the story of Krypton’s history. I liked the worldbuilding and backstory for Krypton, which was better thought out than most live-action screen versions I’ve seen. I liked the film’s fresh take on certain things, like the way it pretty much casts aside the whole secret-identity thing from the start. Lois working alongside Superman every day and never suspecting it has never been flattering to her intelligence, and she’s known his identity in the comics long enough to prove that the secrecy isn’t really needed. I liked the thread about Kryptonians needing to adjust to Earth’s environment — and I absolutely loved how Zod and Faora were crippled by their inability to cope with their supersenses kicking in. That was a superb payoff for the setup scene with young Clark earlier.
*sigh*… I’ve been trying to think of more things I liked, but I guess I can’t put off talking about the bad stuff any longer. To sum up, this is a movie where they cast an ideal Superman, set up a great and clever backstory for him to become Superman… and then didn’t let him be Superman. Because what defines Superman is that he’s the guy who saves people, and this guy hardly saved anyone. It’s like the screenwriters went out of their way to make him as ineffectual at doing his job as they possibly could.
The film is simply overloaded with disaster porn, with populated areas being devastated by the battles and attacks going on. It’s taken to ridiculous excess, and Superman is at best unable to do anything about it, at worst complicit in it by not choosing to take the fight away from populated areas. The most he does to save anyone in the Smallville sequence is to say “Get inside, it’s not safe” — which proves to be useless and hypocritical advice as half the battle involves Superman, Faora, and the other guy smashing each other into occupied buildings. But that’s just the appetizer for the pointless orgy of destruction in Metropolis — with Superman literally on the exact opposite side of the planet, useless to save thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, from certain death.
And then they defeated the world engine and things calmed down and I thought it was finally over — but then Zod showed up and we got a whole new wave of disaster porn. I’m usually not a guy who talks in the theater (I’m not going to the special hell), but when the interminable wave of building collapses started all over again, I all but shouted “Really?” at the screen. I did not need any more of it. By this point I had lost patience with this movie and just wanted the destruction to for Rao’s sake stop.
Look, if I want to see a movie with cities being destroyed and everyone helpless to prevent it, I’ll watch a Godzilla movie. The whole essence of Superman, the thing that makes the fantasy of him so compelling, is that he’s the guy who can prevent it. It’s that when Superman is among us, nobody has to feel helpless anymore. In a Superman story, the action should be driven by Superman saving lives — giving us the same positive thrill we feel when we see firefighters saving people from burning buildings or people in disaster areas selflessly coming to one another’s aid. My favorite portion of the disappointing Superman Returns is the sequence where Superman is saving various Metropolitans from the disasters befalling the city. And it’s significant that Superman’s big debut sequence in the 1978 movie doesn’t end after he saves Lois and the helicopter pilot, but goes on to show him foiling crimes and saving lives all through the night. Superman is here to help. He saves people. That’s what makes him Superman. A Superman movie should not be a straight-up disaster movie, since he’s the guy who can stop disasters in their tracks.
But here, he hardly saves anyone, at least not on purpose. There’s a bit where Perry, Steve Lombard, and Jenny (Olsen?) are watching Superman with Lois in the lull between huge battles and Jenny says “He saved us.” Now, I’m usually a very easy audience when I see a movie in the theater; I let myself go with the visceral feel of the film and reserve my more critical reactions for later. But as soon as she said this line, I found it totally unbelievable. Why would she say that? As far as she was aware, the only person Superman had saved was Lois when she fell out of the exploding plane. And that’s not far from the truth. Sure, he did accidentally save the Planet staffers from getting crushed when he coincidentally destroyed the world engine at that moment. But that’s pretty much all he did. Superman didn’t save the world. Jor-El saved the world, by formulating the plan that was then enacted by Lois, Col. Hardy, and Hamilton as well as Superman. Sure, he had a key role to play, but he was just following instructions. He seemed like the least proactive participant in the plan, just a weapon to be pointed in the right direction while everyone else did the clever stuff. Now, I generally love it in superhero stories when the ordinary characters get to be heroic too. Heck, I even wrote a Spider-Man novel where J. Jonah Jameson got to be a hero. So it’s cool that all these other characters get their chances to be heroic. The problem is that it comes at the expense of Superman’s heroism. He comes off as a secondary character in a story about Jor-El and Lois saving the day.
Worse, he doesn’t even manage to save most of his own allies. Hardy and Hamilton and the rest of the flight crew all sacrifice themselves, and Superman only flies in at the last second to save Lois. Pro tip: if there are many people in danger and your superhero only belatedly arrives to save one person after many others have died, he’s not doing it right. The Green Lantern film had the same problem.
(For another thing… why did Zod choose Metropolis as one of the anchor points for the world engine? Superman hadn’t yet made it his home — as far as I could tell, he’d never even been to Metropolis at that point. Did Zod choose it to spite Lois? We didn’t get any sense that he felt any particular animosity toward her. There was no indication that Zod had any specific reason for the choice. So that made all the destruction even more monumentally gratuitous.)
And I have to join in the chorus of voices complaining about how Superman finally defeats Zod, by snapping his neck to stop him from killing innocent bystanders. I’m actually glad that I was spoiled on this, because it didn’t shock me and I was able to focus on how it was handled. I did like it that Superman reacted to having to kill Zod as a tragedy, that he mourned it rather than celebrating it. That ameliorates it somewhat. But it should never have been necessary in the first place. Again, it’s missing the point of Superman, which is that he’s the one who makes it possible to find a better way. By doing what he did here, he just sank to Zod’s level and, essentially, proved him right. Again, he’s a passive figure letting others dictate his choices. How can he live up to Jor-El’s exhortations to lead and inspire if he’s just reactive, if he doesn’t stand up and find his own, nobler path? He talked to Swanwick about how he had to help on his own terms, but then he let others, even Zod, define those terms for him.
But maybe that’s because this version of Jonathan Kent was such a dreadful role model. Usually, Jonathan is portrayed as Clark’s moral anchor, the one who inspires him to become the hero he grows into by instilling him with the good, wholesome values he lives by. But this time, Clark becomes Superman in spite of Jonathan, not because of him. Jonathan is basically wrong at every turn, leading Clark astray and teaching him to hide and mistrust and do nothing to help others. He even quite stupidly gives his own life out of fear of Clark’s discovery. Now, in a way I kind of liked this, because it gives Clark a motivation much like Peter Parker’s — he lost his father figure because he chose not to act when it was in his power, and that gives him an incentive not to let it happen again. But it really came at the expense of Jonathan Kent as a character. Just as Jor-El is effectively the real hero of this movie, Jonathan is essentially the villain, someone whose influence Clark has to reject before he can become a hero.
(Plus Jonathan was an idiot to tell people to get beneath the overpass to escape the tornado. The enclosed space would actually intensify the winds and increase the danger — that’s basic physics. Overpasses are one of the worst places to shelter from a tornado. It’s one thing for a movie to mishandle its character or to callously play on 9/11 imagery for gratuitous shock value, but the filmmakers may have actually endangered lives by recklessly perpetuating this myth. Which is pretty much anathema to what a Superman movie should do.)
Now, I might be able to forgive Superman’s killing of Zod and his failure to save lives in general… if he never lets it happen again. I’d like to see a scene very early in the sequel (if there is one) which establishes that he’s deeply unsatisfied with his failures and that they’ve motivated him to become much more careful and dedicated about saving lives and finding nonlethal ways of dealing with his enemies. Then I can chalk up the grotesque shortcomings of this movie to Superman’s learning curve. I can forgive a mistake more easily if the culpable party admits the mistake and strives to do better as a result. The same goes for the filmmakers, of course — this would also show that they’d recognized their own monumental mistakes here and resolved to correct them. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s likely. We seem to live in an era where the cinematic superhero is not required to care about saving lives. True, one thing that worked about The Avengers is that the heroes remained focused on protecting civilian lives throughout the climactic battle — a lesson Snyder and Goyer really, really need to learn from — but they were still utterly callous about killing the invaders, and in other Marvel movies the heroes don’t seem to be bothered by killing human beings. (And it’s very hypocritical for Tony Stark, who’s supposed to be on a journey of repentance for his complicity in building weapons, to be so cavalier about using Iron Man’s superweapons to kill bad guys left and right.) Filmmakers just don’t seem to remember that superheroes should be rescuers first, not warriors or vengeance-seekers.
There is so much in this movie that I like, yet so much that not only displeases me but actually makes me angry and bitter. I rarely react that way to any movie, but… come on, this is Superman. And that carries certain expectations with it. True, earlier Superman movies haven’t really surmounted these problems either. Reeve’s Superman also apparently killed his Zod, and did other pretty bad things like using his superpowers to get revenge on a bully and forcibly robbing Lois of her memories. But here it was just so over-the-top, so tiring having all this gratuitous, pointless destruction rammed down my throat (with a tediously blaring Hans Zimmer score only intensifying the sensory assault), and knowing that Superman should have been there to make a difference but wasn’t being allowed to because the filmmakers had no idea what to do with him. And it’s just so frustrating because this could have been a great movie. There are things about it that are wonderful, but there’s too much that totally ruins it.
Maybe the reason filmmakers have so much trouble getting Superman right is that they keep feeling they have to apologize for him, that they have to distance their takes from the perceived cheesiness or unrelatability of the basic premise. This film shied away from even using the name Superman, as if they were embarrassed by it. They didn’t use it in the title, they barely used it in the script, and they even credited the lead character as “Clark Kent/Kal-El.” How can you make Superman work if you’re embarrassed even to admit that he is Superman?
Well, trying to look on the bright side: I didn’t think Batman Begins was very successful either. It also fell apart in the third act due to excessive, implausible action and a hero who was uncharacteristically callous about letting people die. But then we got The Dark Knight, which hugely surpassed its predecessor (though also, sadly, its successor) in quality — which built on the parts that worked and improved on the parts that didn’t. I’m hopeful there’s a chance that will happen again — though at this point I really don’t feel like I ever want to see another Zack Snyder movie. I do want to see more of Henry Cavill as Superman, and I do want to see an interconnected DC movie universe. But, as with this movie’s Clark and Jonathan, that would have to happen in spite of this movie, as a rejection of its approach, rather than because of it.
When I did my overview of the Heisei era of the Godzilla franchise, I was only able to cover the last five films, since the first two were not yet out on DVD in America. In the interim, the second, Godzilla vs. Biollante, has come out, and though Netflix still hasn’t gotten it, my library has. So I’ve finally been able to see it.
This is a tough film to summarize, since it has a convoluted plot. But it has interesting and ambitious ideas that unfortunately suffer in the execution. In the wake of Godzilla’s 1984 attack on Tokyo in The Return of Godzilla (after which he ended up buried in a volcano), we see that a number of factions are battling to obtain a sample of Godzilla’s cells to study their remarkable regenerative properties: the Japan Self-Defense Force, an American terrorist group called Bio-Major, and an Arab country called Saradia, whose lead agent/assassin ends up with the prize. A Saradian biotech firm is working with Dr. Shiragami (Koji Takahashi) and his daughter Erika to develop hybrid crops to make the desert bloom, and Shiragami wants Godzilla cells to make them indestructible. Although it’s hard to figure that out from the original Japanese audio track, since the actors are speaking in awkwardly translated and badly pronounced English, with Japanese subtitles. (The first dialogue spoken in the movie is all in English, so at first I thought I’d selected the wrong audio track on the DVD.) Anyway, a Bio-Major bombing kills Erika, leading Shiragami to swear off further research with Godzilla cells, due to what I’m going to assume is a grief so profound that it permanently robs him of the ability to form facial expressions. Seriously, even the rubber Godzilla mask is less deadpan than this guy.
Five years later, Shiragami is working with the roses Erika was with when she died, and he’s working with the 17-year-old psychic Miki Saegusa (Megumi Odaka) because he thinks Erika’s soul is in the roses somehow. Miki, of course, will be a regular character for the rest of the series, but here her role is secondary, basically just a walking exposition engine. The female lead is Asuka (Yoshiko Tanaka), who apparently works for the “Japan Psyonics Center” [sic] that studies Miki and other psychic children. There’s a nice chilling moment where all the psychic kids draw pictures of what they dreamed, and they all hold up drawings of Godzilla. It seems he’s awake and moving under the volcano. This lets the government convince Shiragami to work on using Godzilla cells to develop anti-nuclear energy bacteria (ANEB) that can be used as a weapon against Godzilla. There’s an interesting attempt to touch on the kind of ethical questions the original film raised, because bacteria that could neutralize nuclear materials, while potentially beneficial for cleaning up disasters or fighting kaiju, could also be turned into weapons and disrupt the global balance of power. As with the Oxygen Destroyer, the threat of Godzilla compels the weapon’s development despite the risks. But the terrorist groups want the ANEB too, and Bio-Major plants bombs to release Godzilla from the mountain to blackmail the government into giving up the ANEB. But the Saradian assassin fouls up the exchange, the bombs go off, and Godzilla’s free.
I almost forgot — meanwhile, Shiragami has crossed G-cells with rose cells and some of Erika’s surviving cells because… I don’t know, he’s basically insane, I guess. And this has somehow created the plant monster Biollante, with killer vines and stuff. Biollante ends up planted in a lake, a giant fat stem with arms and tendrils and a rose-head with teeth in the middle — one of the least intimidating kaiju ever. Godzilla is drawn to it, sensing his cloned cells within it, and they have a fight that’s rather dull because Biollante is stationary throughout. Godzilla eventually sets it on fire and it seems to burn up, but sparkly spores or something rise into the sky and Shiragami says something about Biollante being immortal that everybody (including him) subsequently ignores. After this detour, we get back to the plot as the military tries to deter G from reaching a nuclear power plant to recharge, since the Heisei Godzilla feeds on nuclear energy. The main military characters are Lt. Gondo (Toru Minegishi), a snarky/tough comic hero type I rather liked, and Major Kuroki (Masanobu Takashima), who’s more ultraserious and is in charge of remote-piloting the Super X 2, a high-tech flying machine whose main weapon is the Fire Mirror, an array of synthetic diamonds for reflecting Godzilla’s atomic ray back against him, and which works about as well as human weapons ever do against Godzilla (i.e. it works at first but he then rallies and overwhelms it).
Miki’s most striking moment in the film is when she faces down Godzilla alone to try to telepathically or telekinetically nudge him to divert or delay his march on Osaka. But it’s unclear what, if anything, she accomplishes, since Osaka is soon being trampled underfoot (but maybe she gave them more time to evacuate it). Gondo retrieves the ANEB from the Saradians and puts it in shells to fire at Godzilla. Gondo gets in a nice heroic jab at Godzilla, with both weapon and wisecrack, before Godzilla gets his own back. But the ANEB doesn’t seem to work, and the brain trust deduces that it’s because this giant, intensely energetic, nuclear-powered monster has a very low body temperature because he’s cold-blooded. Uhh, yeah, right. So they use an experimental “Thunder Controller” technology to heat him up so the bacteria can grow and kill him from the inside. Oh, and Biollante’s spores rain down and it regrows into a final form whose head now looks like a cross between Audrey II and a crocodile, and she (?) holds Godzilla at bay for a while… but it’s the bacteria that finally do G in (at least enough that he has to retreat into the cooling ocean to hold them at bay, ending the threat for now). Then the various human-level plots are resolved somewhat anticlimactically.
Wow, that was a longer summary than I intended, but it’s hard to encapsulate this story briefly because there are so many entangled threads. But they don’t really come together into a very coherent story. Most frustratingly, the thread about Biollante, one of the title characters of the movie, is the most expendable plotline of the lot. Biollante doesn’t even defeat Godzilla, just has a random fight with him in the middle of a sequence of human technology defeating Godzilla. There’s some half-baked moralizing about the dangers of genetic engineering, with Biollante as the poster child for the monsters it could create, but Biollante doesn’t really cause any harm except to a couple of Bio-Major terrorists. Mostly it’s just there for Miki to stare at and talk about how Erika’s soul is inside it, or not, or whatever.
There are some good ingredients here. Gondo is a good character, well-played. The attempt to use kaiju to address ethical questions about the development of dangerous technologies is a nice callback to the original, even if it lacks payoff and is weakened by Takahashi’s totally wooden performance. And there’s merit to the idea of adding Miki, a character who can sense Godzilla’s thoughts and give him a “voice” of sorts, which is a useful storytelling device; but there’s essentially zero attempt to give her any personality yet, unless you count her one impressive moment, her fearlessness in standing up to Godzilla and making him flinch (though I’m still not clear on what the heck she was supposed to be doing and whether she succeeded). But ultimately it ends up as kind of a jumble, and the parts that don’t work overwhelm those that do. All in all I’d call it a weak film with some very good touches here and there. (Like a scene set in a Godzilla Memorial Restaurant in Tokyo, in a building that still has an unrepaired Godzilla claw mark in its wall with windows built within it. That’s a nice bit of worldbuilding.)
The music is a mixed bag too — literally a mix of reused Akira Ifukube cues (including the lively Godzilla main theme, the more ponderous Godzilla horror theme, and the oddly cheerful military march from the original film) and new music by Koichi Sugiyama, which is a mix of styles. Some of Sugiyama’s music is nice, but his Super X 2 leitmotif has a kind of cliched heroic-music sound, a very “Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder” quality. The wackiest bit is his motif for the terrorists, which is a ’70s-funk remix of the Godzilla main theme. (It’s Charlie’s Angels vs. Godzilla!) All in all, it’s pretty inconsistent, like the film itself.
By the way, I came across another series of Heisei-era reviews in this thread on the Ex Isle BBS. I raised the question I had about The Return of Godzilla, namely whether it treated its title monster as the regenerated original or a second member of the same species. As far as anyone who’d seen that film could tell me, it treated Godzilla as the original with no explanation for his return. But I’ve seen other sources say it was a “new” Godzilla, and Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, the final Heisei film, treated it as such, though the third Heisei film Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah treated it as the same one.
So in that thread I formulated a hypothesis that may or may not work, which I now repost here:
TRoG is like GMK in that it’s set in a world where there have been no Godzilla attacks for several decades since the events of the original film. So maybe it’s also like GMK in that a lot of the details of the ’54 attack have been forgotten or suppressed. Perhaps the Oxygen Destroyer was classified here as well. So maybe the Heisei Godzilla is a second member of the species, but the characters believe it’s the original Godzilla returned because they don’t know that Godzilla was killed. And the folks from the future in GvKG are confused about it too, since it’s from centuries in their past. So the Godzillasaurus they relocate in the past was actually the progenitor of the second Godzilla — and maybe there was another one left behind on that or a neighboring island that mutated into the original G and attacked in ’54. And then, sometime between GvKG and the final film, the truth about the Oxygen Destroyer and the original Godzilla’s death was declassified. So it wouldn’t be a continuity error, just a change in what the inhabitants of the Heisei universe believed about their past.
Of course, this doesn’t help resolve the huge time-travel logic holes in GvKG, like how come everybody remembered the recent Godzilla attacks if that Godzilla’s history had been changed. But what I’m kind of suggesting here is that we ignore that bit of nonsense and retcon it away — pretend that the reference to people remembering recent Godzilla attacks is actually a reference to remembering the original ’54 attack.
I just caught the classic 1953 monster movie The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms on Turner Classic Movies. This is a seminal entry in the genre in many ways. It was the first feature film on which the late Ray Harryhausen worked as lead special-effects creator, and the debut of his trademark “Dynamation” technique for incorporating stop-motion creatures into background film footage through the creative use of split-screen effects. It was the first movie about a giant monster unleashed or created by the power of the atom, launching a whole genre of monster movies. Or perhaps two whole genres, since it was a direct inspiration for the following year’s Godzilla, whose legacy I’ve covered in an earlier series of posts.
But it’s a film I haven’t seen in far too long, since I barely remembered any of it, aside from the iconic sequence of the title creature (the Rhedosaurus, reputedly named in honor of Ray Harryhausen’s initials and/or the sound of his first name) eating an overconfident policeman. Thus I was able to come at it pretty fresh.
So how well does it work as a monster movie? Reasonably so. It opens with the kind of faux-documentary narration that was common in sci-fi films of the decade, with a young Bill Woodson’s voice intoning about an upcoming military experiment in the Arctic with characteristic Woodsonian gravitas. The experiment, of course, is an atom bomb detonation, which breaks up the ice and releases something that a pair of radar operators (one of whom is a young James Best, the future Rosco P. Coltrane from The Dukes of Hazzard) briefly detect and dismiss. A pair of scientists examining the aftermath of the blast run afoul of the rhedosaur, which I think was revealed way too openly too early; there should’ve been more mystery about its appearance at this stage. Anyway, only one of the scientists survives, and he’s our hero, Tom Nesbitt (Swiss actor Paul Hubschmid under the name Paul Christian — it’s odd for a ’50s US film to cast a lead actor whose accent is so distinctly not American, and there’s even a line about Nesbitt being an immigrant). The rest of the first half of the film gets a bit plodding, since it’s mainly about Tom and others being told they’re crazy for seeing a monster, interspersed with brief glimpses of the hungry rhedosaur trashing ships and stuff (including a lighthouse sequence which reminded Harryhausen’s friend Ray Bradbury of a story he’d published, leading the studio to buy the story rights from Bradbury so they could use its title; Bradbury subsequently retitled his own story “The Fog Horn”). Things get more interesting when Tom meets eminent paleontologist Dr. Elson (the charming Cecil Kellaway) and his assistant Lee (the lovely Paula Raymond), who’s the first to believe Tom and becomes his obligatory love interest.
The film picks up when Tom finds another witness to convince Elson, who then leads a diving-bell expedition to find the creature, only to be eaten by it. What’s appealing here is how dedicated Elson is to the cause of science; even though he sees the beast coming after the diving bell, he devotes his final moments to reporting his observations to Lee for posterity. I suppose one possible reading is that he was so blinded by his ivory-tower mentality that he didn’t have the sense to realize he was in danger, but I felt it came off more positively. Maybe it depends on the viewer’s attitudes toward science.
Soon thereafter, the beast attacks Manhattan, with no particular motivation beyond that it’s just what giant monsters do — an arbitrariness that might be more excusable if this weren’t the first entry in the genre. Well, I suppose maybe it’s justified by the earlier dialogue about the creature’s extended hibernation in the Arctic ice giving it a ravenous appetite; New York City would be the densest population center on land near its native territory in the undersea canyons off the New York shore. (Godzilla will be said in the following year’s film to have been displaced from his natural feeding grounds by the atomic tests, so that might have been his motivation as well vis-a-vis Tokyo — although the sequel claimed he was angered by the city’s bright lights.) Interestingly, there’s a fair amount of police effort to battle the creature before the military (led by Kenneth Tobey) gets called in — I’m not sure how often that happened in later monster movies. Another nice twist is that the filmmakers remembered that less visible organisms could survive from prehistory; the creature’s blood is discovered to contain a virulent disease that humans have no immunity to, so the military can’t risk blowing it up or burning it. Tom has the idea to use a radioisotope grenade to burn/sterilize it from the inside — although that leads to a climactic showdown at Coney Island where the roller coaster catches fire and burns down around or behind the creature, making me wonder if the heroes really just made things worse instead of better, since if the fire did engulf the creature’s body, then the smoke would spread not only the disease contamination but the radioactive contamination as well. They sort of sacrificed story coherence for spectacle here.
As with many Harryhausen films, it’s the effects that are the real standout. It doesn’t have the greatest lead actor, but Kellaway does a good job and Raymond is a striking leading lady. The story is a pretty much by-the-numbers template for the genre to follow, without a fraction of the philosophical and character depth of the original Godzilla, but a decent beginning. (I hadn’t realized that the movie was co-written by Fred Freiberger, who would later produce the third season of Star Trek and the second of Space: 1999.)
One interesting thing: I don’t think the rhedosaurus is ever actually called a dinosaur in the film, just a prehistoric creature from 100 million years ago. Which is good, because it doesn’t have the anatomy of a dinosaur, instead having splayed-out legs and a dragging tail. Wikipedia calls it a diapsid, a member of the larger class that included dinosaurs as well as lizards, snakes, and crocodiles.
I’ve caught a few other monster movies on TCM in the past month or so, and though it’s been a few weeks, I thought I’d offer some thoughts on them as well.
It Came From Outer Space (1953) is one of the classic SF films directed by Jack Arnold, whose work I covered in my earlier review of the Creature from the Black Lagoon trilogy. It also has producer William Alland and star Richard Carlson in common with Creature, as well as composers Herman Stein and Henry Mancini. It’s one of the best “alien invasion” films of the genre, because it’s one of the few (along with The Day the Earth Stood Still) in which the aliens are benevolent and the paranoia of humanity is the real threat. If anything, the film suffers a bit from the aliens’ benevolent intentions being made clear too early on. There are a lot of “cheat” scare moments in the film, characters (particularly leading lady Barbara Rush) screaming at things that turn out to be harmless, and it felt like a cheap attempt to shoehorn obligatory scare beats into a film where they didn’t really belong. But maybe the effect was deliberate, to underline the message that our fears are often nothing but our own imagination — to make viewers embarrassed by their own fear of the unknown and thus drive home the message about paranoia. In which case it’s a nice subversion of genre formula.
Of course, a key factor in the film’s quality is that it’s mostly the work of Ray Bradbury. Bradbury was hired to do a treatment for a monster movie and offered the studio the choice of a more conventional evil-alien movie or a more thoughtful piece with benevolent visitors, and was surprised when they asked for the latter. He then did a very long and detailed “treatment” for the movie telling pretty much the entire story and dialogue, and credited screenwriter Harry Essex basically just adapted that treatment into script format, leaving most of it intact. Well, there are conflicting reports on how much Essex contributed, but the dialogue has Bradbury’s unmistakeable poetry to it, so I think it must be mostly his words.
The Magnetic Monster is another film Richard Carlson did in 1953, produced and co-written by Ivan Tors and directed by Curt Siodmak. Apparently it’s the first of a loose trilogy involving the Office of Scientific Investigation (OSI), not to be confused with the Office of Scientific Intelligence from the ’70s bionic shows. This is a weird film with kind of a faux-documentary flavor, in which Carlson and his team of scientific investigators tackle the theft of a powerfully magnetic radioisotope which turns out to be a magnetic “unipole” (I guess they meant monopole) that somehow has the ability to generate mass, threatening to enlarge exponentially and tilt the world off its axis unless they find a way to neutralize it. (Actually Carlson claims it would throw Earth out of orbit altogether, but that’s not how physics works.) There’s some halfway decent portrayal of the scientific process and of a real-life early computer called MANIAC to crunch numbers, alongside a rather bland subplot about Carlson and his wife hoping to move into a bigger house because they’re expecting a child, even though they had to be circumspect about it because you couldn’t say “pregnant” onscreen back then.
But what’s totally bizarre about the film is exemplified in the title. Even though the menace is a radioactive substance, the film persists in treating it as a living monster, even a consciously malevolent force. The characters talk about it in those terms even though it’s clearly ridiculous. Early on, when they first begin to realize that the isotope has vanished from where it was initially being studied, they talk about the threat of it running loose, rather than about hunting down the person who took it, even though the latter is what actually happens. It’s a deeply awkward and unconvincing attempt to trick audiences into thinking they’re watching a monster movie. I only cover it here because it’s too freaky not to mention.
Tarantula (1955) is another Jack Arnold-William Alland collaboration, again scored by Stein and Mancini, and starring Revenge of the Creature‘s John Agar as well as Nestor Paiva, who was in the first two Gill-Man films. It also stars the delightfully named Mara Corday and The Man from UNCLE‘s Leo G. Carroll. This is Arnold’s first stab at the giant-monster genre, in a similar vein to the classic giant-ant movie Them!, but with the innovation of using travelling-matte techniques to incorporate footage of a live tarantula into background plates. The FX are pretty good for the day, though there are some shots where the mattes don’t line up with the scenery and the giant spider’s leg vanishes in midair.
Carroll plays a scientist who, as we see early on, is experimenting with creating giant animals. There’s a marvelously convincing use of rear projection in the set to make it look like there are giant rabbits and such in the cages behind Carroll, as well as the titular tarantula, which escapes when Carroll is attacked by an assistant suffering from acromegaly as a result of the experiments (the assistant dies in the resulting fire and Carroll buries him in secret). Agar is a doctor trying to explain another case of acromegaly (or “acromegalia” as they called it) in the scientist’s assistant, who had normal proportions not long before. Corday plays Carroll’s new assistant, who’s supposed to be a smart career-woman scientist, but is actually pretty dumb — even when she discovers that Carroll is working on accelerating animal growth, it doesn’t occur to her to make a connection with the earlier assistant’s acromegaly death (or the disappearance of the other one), even though he’s standing right next to her while he mutters about taking more care with human trials “next time.”
Anyway, this is kind of like Beast in that it takes a while before the characters figure out there’s a giant monster out there; this time even our hero Agar is slow to catch on to the threat. It also has kind of an anticlimactic ending; after the main characters are unable to defeat the tarantula themselves, they call in a military napalm strike that takes it down handily, pretty much leaving the protagonists irrelevant to the resolution of the film. True, it was rather common in ’50s monster movies for the heroes to take a back seat to the military in the closing action, but it seems particularly egregious here.
The main point of interest to Tarantula is the portrayal of Carroll’s Dr. Deemer. At first he comes off as a mad scientist, but ultimately it turns out that he’s got the entirely noble motivation of ending world hunger by developing a super-nutrient (and there’s a passing reference to the power of the atom being the key to its creation, just to work in the obligatory radiation/monster connection), and that he was more the victim of his assistant’s rampage after the experiment went wrong.
The Monster That Challenged the World (1957) is kind of an interesting little film, though not a great one. It’s certainly a misnamed one, since there are multiple monsters — giant mollusks a bit bigger than human-sized — and they only challenge the Salton Sea in Southern California and the canals surrounding it (although there’s an implied risk to the world if they should spread beyond the region). This time there are no nuclear tests involved, just a sea-floor earthquake exposing and rehydrating a desiccated nest of ancient creature eggs. The main characters are the staff of the military base that discovers and must fight the creatures, mainly Col. Twillinger (Tim Holt), who initially comes off as stern and rigorous but softens for secretary Gail (Audrey Dalton) and her young daughter. He’s an odd choice for a leading man, in sort of a Jack Webb vein, I guess. The most notable star here is Hans Conreid as the main scientist. The monsters are fairly nasty-looking, but they don’t look much like the mollusks in the nature film Conreid shows. Yes, one apparently common monster-movie trope that this film and Tarantula both share (along with Them!, IIRC) is the lengthy sequence of the scientist narrating documentary footage of the normal-sized versions of the giant animal in the film. I suppose these scenes are useful at inserting a bit of scientific justification for what we see, but even by ’50s standards they seem to go on awfully long, and they can undermine the plausibility of the fake monster by contrast with the real footage. (Beast from 20,000 Fathoms has something similar — during Elson’s dive, there’s a big chunk of stock footage of a shark-octopus fight, though it’s passed off as something Elson is watching live.)
I’ve seen this movie twice now, but the main thing that stands out for me is a scene at the end where the secretary and her daughter are trapped by a creature that hatched in the lab because the daughter was playing where she wasn’t supposed to and turned up the thermostat. Twillinger is facing down the creature, trying to get past it and save the girls, and there’s a large fire ax clearly visible on the wall behind him. He looks around for a weapon, turns to look at the wall so that the ax is right in his line of sight… and then he picks up a fire extinguisher and sprays the beast with it instead! I’ve never seen such a blatant Chekhov’s Gun be so completely ignored.
“The Never-Never Affair”: The parade of great ’60s-TV guest stars continues, with this episode featuring Cesar Romero and the magnificent Barbara Feldon, about half a year before her debut as Agent 99 on the spy comedy Get Smart. Feldon plays Mandy, an UNCLE translator who (like many of the show’s “innocents”) craves the adventure and excitement of the spy game, and is constantly trying to convince Solo to let her go on missions. (She wears heavy glasses that were probably meant to make her look plain but completely fail to do so, because she’s Barbara Feldon!) Romero plays Gervais, the head of THRUSH’s French agency who’s working with its American branch to intercept courier Illya and the list of French THRUSH agents he’s carrying. (The American THRUSH agent, Varner, is played by John Stephenson, the original voice of Dr. Benton Quest from Jonny Quest.) Unlike your usual villain type, he reacts to Varner’s failure to capture Illya with patience and gentle encouragement to do better next time, although one can sense the underlying threat in his words. He’s my favorite THRUSH character so far.
Anyway, while Waverly is arranging a second courier for the list (now on a microdot), Solo decides to do a favor for Mandy; he sends her out on an errand to refill Waverly’s tobacco humidor, but makes her think it’s a secret mission and gives her a complicated “evasion pattern” to the tobacconist which he promptly forgets. Predictably, she ends up telling the microdot guy that she’s the special courier, so he gives it to her, and now Napoleon has to fix his mistake and track her down before THRUSH does. It leads to a convoluted game of cat and mouse through the New York streets (of the MGM backlot), leading to an accidental encounter between Mandy and Gervais, who initially doesn’t know she’s the “courier” and, being a gentleman, inadvertently ends up almost helping her escape before he catches on. Eventually both Mandy and Solo end up in Gervais’s clutches, but Mandy proves more resourceful than expected.
This is one of the very best episodes yet, a delightfully clever tale by Dean Hargrove, who in later decades would become a fixture of TV mysteries, developing The Father Dowling Mysteries and creating Jake and the Fatman and Matlock as well as producing the Perry Mason revival movies. It’s very well-written and fun with excellent characterization, and you can’t go wrong with the Joker vs. Agent 99. (Indeed, I’m tempted to believe that this was 99′s origin story, and that soon after this she got a job for CONTROL. After all, we never learned 99′s real name…)
“The Love Affair”: Cute — finally a title that’s a pun on the title format itself. And all the act titles are mock love-song lyrics or sayings that fit the action: “Love is a Bump on the Head,” “Love is a Hand Grenade,” etc. But “Love” in this case is revivalist preacher Brother Love (Eddie Albert), actually a THRUSH agent (or “satrap” as Waverly calls it here) who’s using his cult as cover for recruiting/blackmailing/abducting scientists to build a nuclear rocket to blackmail the world. A scientist Illya was sent to track has a heart attack on her way to the revival meeting, so the recurring background UNCLE character Sarah (Leigh Chapman) is sent to take her place, with Solo chaperoning. But when they find a young lady has taken the scientist’s seat, they swap tickets and Solo chats up the girl to find out who she is. Turns out she’s the innocent, a college student named Pearl (Maggie Pearce) who’s doing a paper on the cult. But the cult’s “acolytes” mistake her for the scientist and abduct her afterward.
The next day, Solo goes to find her at a society party Love is holding, and for the first time we get a sense of Illya’s proletarian politics, as he expresses disdain at the wealthy partygoers and their conceit that they’re better than anyone else. Solo finds Pearl but ends up getting abducted himself, and Illya is thrown off pursuit by a grenade in the road. (Love calls it a “magnetic” grenade, but he drops it right next to his own car and it doesn’t stick to that, nor does it seem to behave any differently than an ordinary grenade when it blows in front of Illya’s car.) UNCLE gets a surveillance report that Love’s cult has flown to a compound in LA (and the voice of the decoding computer may be Dick Tufeld, but I’m not sure). Said compound is made of several familiar sets and backlot locations. Solo passes himself off as the late doctor’s assistant willing to sell out her secrets, but the cult keeps him under observation anyway. Solo has to find a way to rescue Pearl and sabotage the cult’s plans.
A decent episode, but a little unfocused. It might’ve worked better to use an evil revivalist cult if their plan had actually tied into that cover in some way, like some kind of mind-control scheme. And I’ve previously expressed my distaste for the episodes that contrive to involve an innocent by random chance. The main point of interest here is an entirely original score by Walter Scharf, the first full score we’ve had in quite a while and a reasonably good one, dominated by a hymnlike leitmotif for the cult.
“The Gazebo in the Maze Affair”: Illya is kidnapped by Partridge (George Sanders), a British gentleman and wannabe feudal lord who was displaced from his rule of a South American country by Solo and UNCLE seven years ago and is now seeking revenge. He takes Illya to his estate in Eastsnout, England, where he’s pretty much taken over the whole region as his petty fiefdom and rules over the people, keeping everything as old-school as possible, since he idealizes the past. His rather nebulous plan is to use Illya as bait to lure in Solo, then use Solo to lure in Waverly, and apparently he somehow hopes to lure in the entire worldwide UNCLE organization one person at a time, which doesn’t make a bit of sense, but it’s all recited in a very classy and mannerly tone so at least it’s pleasant to listen to. Partridge shares his estate (which is the same castle exterior and mansion interior that we’ve seen in countless other episodes this season) with his wife Edith (Jeanette Nolan), who seems quite ditzy and senile at first but turns out to be cannier than she appears. Solo is assisted in infiltrating the estate by the innocent of the week, a servant girl named Peggy (Bonnie Franklin doing an unconvincing English accent), but naturally he ends up being captured anyway and taken to the dungeon. Oh, and the dungeon’s beneath a gazebo in the center of a hedge maze laden with deathtraps plus a hungry wolf.
This one’s not bad, but kind of goofy. The main appeal is in the Partridges’ character quirks and their performances by Sanders and Nolan. Scharf gets music credit again, but it sounds like a stock score.
“The Girls of Nazarone Affair”: THRUSH scientist/master of disguise Dr. Egret, briefly played by Lee Meriwether in “The Mad, Mad Tea Party Affair,” is back in a new disguise (Marian McCargo, who’s significantly shorter than Meriwether), and for no clear reason is leading a gang of pretty blondes this time. She’s in Cannes at Grand Prix time, and has stolen a rapid-healing formula that Napoleon and Illya were also sent to retrieve. Their hunt for the missing inventor of the formula causes them to barge into his former hotel room, now occupied by schoolteacher Lavinia (Kipp Hamilton), who doesn’t appreciate the intrusion. Upon further investigation, they see “female race car driver” Ms. Nazarone (Danica d’Hondt, who’s sort of like a more Amazonian Mariette Hartley) get gunned down by Egret yet then turn up alive and well the next day, and sufficiently strong to overpower Solo. THRUSH already has the formula! So Napoleon has the idea to keep them in town by convincing them that Lavinia has a copy of the formula that UNCLE is paying her handsomely to hand over. Lavinia’s not interested, still reeling from the bad first impression they made, but changes her tune when Solo gives her 25 grand to throw around conspicuously. Somehow Illya lets Lavinia lead him into an obvious trap, but fortunately the villains obligingly toss him down a well rather than just shooting him, and he escapes in time to save Napoleon and Lavinia from a similarly inefficient (though better-justified) deathtrap. It climaxes in a car chase through the French Riviera, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the mountain roads of the Los Angeles area. (When they got into race cars and said they were heading for the race course, I was expecting the climax to be built around a bunch of stock footage of the Grand Prix. I think this is one case where I actually would’ve preferred stock footage.) Oh, and the resolution of the magic healing formula subplot is telegraphed a mile away.
All in all, a rather unfocused, not very coherent episode, a disappointment coming from scripter Peter Allan Fields. Basically this episode was made for people who like looking at blondes and fast cars — that’s about where its intellectual level resides.
“The Odd Man Affair”: Illya is on a plane, tailing a radical terrorist and master of disguise named Raimonde (I’m guessing on the spelling), when the latter is exposed by a tip sent to the pilots. Raimonde locks himself in the bathroom and there’s an explosion which sends the plane temporarily out of control, yet even though it’s obvious what happened, Illya still insists on breaking down the door and almost getting sucked out of the hole in the side. Fortunately, the rest of the story makes more sense. Raimonde was on his way to a meeting with his fellow right-wing radicals to discuss an alliance with the radical left to work together at overthrowing the world’s governments. The proponent of this, Mr. Zed (Ronald Long), sent the tip to get Raimonde killed, because Raimonde opposes the alliance. UNCLE found that opposition useful since it kept the radicals from uniting. But since nobody knows what he looked like, the UNCLE boys have the idea to impersonate him in order to scuttle the alliance. Waverly consults an UNCLE file clerk named Albert Sully (Martin Balsam), who’d been an OSS agent in the war and encountered Raimonde then. Sully leaps at the chance to get back into action and insists that he’s the only one who knows enough about Raimonde (and is the right age) to pull off the impersonation. Napoleon and Illya fly him to London, intending to shepherd him closely, but he eludes them to meet with an old wartime friend, Bryn (Barbara Shelley), since he actually doesn’t know a thing about Raimonde and needs her to fill him in. Once the men from UNCLE track him down and find the truth, they have to bring Bryn along and hope that Sully’s improvised impersonation doesn’t blow up in their faces. Meanwhile, Zed’s men discover that “Raimonde” is still alive and try to kill him more decisively this time.
This episode feels like a different show from most of its predecessors. It’s less focused on Napoleon and Illya’s antics or humorous and fanciful spy games, and more a character drama about Sully and Bryn. It’s in the vein of the kind of show that was common in ’60s TV, when episodic series tended toward a semi-anthology approach with each episode focusing on a guest star of the week and their personal drama. Sure, TMFU has given us the innocent-of-the-week all along, but never really overshadowing the leads to this extent — indeed, Solo is wounded in the third act and isn’t seen again until the tag. But it’s kind of a refreshing change of pace, especially after the borderline-campy mess of the previous episode. And it’s kind of an appropriate coda to the first season of TMFU, because reportedly it gets far campier from here on out. “The Odd Man Affair” is the last hurrah of the original, at least somewhat dramatic format.
Empire Magazine‘s site has posted a feature on Pocket’s Star Trek novel line, focusing mainly on the series that expand the universe beyond the aired shows:
This includes some series that I’ve been a part of; Department of Temporal Investigations gets a whole page, and their “if you read only one” recommendation for Titan is my Over a Torrent Sea. Plus there’s an oblique reference to The Buried Age on their page for The Lost Era, though they don’t mention it by name. I do wish they’d spelled my last name correctly, but otherwise I appreciate the attention, both on my behalf and that of my colleagues.
“The Secret Sceptre Affair”: Napoleon and Illya parachute into a nameless Mideastern country to help Solo’s old colonel from Korea, Col. Morgan (Gene Raymond), who’s accused the nation’s Premier Karim (Jack Donner) of planning a coup which he intends to thwart. UNCLE has found no proof of his allegations, but allowed Solo to come on a personal mission. Morgan convinces him to join him in stealing the royal sceptre that the nation’s “primitive tribesmen” hold sacred, following whoever holds it “as if he were Allah himself” — which isn’t remotely how Islam works — so that Karim will lose his claim to power. Although it’s rather blatantly telegraphed that Morgan is up to something and Solo hasn’t been told the whole truth — and that Karim is clueless about the treachery of his own imperious, Celia Lovsky-esque mother (Lili Darvas). The innocent of the week is Zia (Ziva Rodann), a female soldier in Morgan’s outfit who’s unaware of Morgan’s secrets and who helps Solo try to escape after the theft — though Illya gets captured and Solo takes a detour to free him. It’s refreshing for the innocent to be someone who has a legitimate reason to be involved in events rather than a civilian who gets caught up in them somehow.
I didn’t find this one very well-written; the secrets are too obvious, and the attempts to make Illya sound profound just come off as meaningless. And the whole thing about Solo’s trusted mentor being unworthy of his trust makes Solo seem more gullible than sympathetic. There’s also a gratuitous deathtrap involving a bear pit, of all things, though at least they mostly keep the guy in the bear suit behind a cage door so that the fakery isn’t too obvious. Still, it’s a guy in a bear suit for no good reason. The score, credited to Jerry Goldsmith and Morton Stevens, is evidently stock, which seems to hold true for the next few episodes as well.
“The Bow-Wow Affair”: It’s our first episode that sidelines Napoleon in favor of Illya, as Solo, who’s emerged unscathed from battles with spies and mobsters, has been brought low by tripping over the office cat and spraining his knee. (Unfortunately the cat is never seen.) But he’s not the only one with animal problems. Waverly asks him to look into a threat received by a distant cousin — actually Leo G. Carroll in a dual role, though his performance isn’t greatly different. The threat involved a “Gypsy” dagger, and that’s been established before as a culture Illya knows well. And apparently someone is after some valuable stock that the cousin owns. Illya fails to save the lookalike cousin from being mauled to death by his own guard dog, and the investigation reveals that all the stockholders in the company are being attacked by their own dogs either to get them out of the way or scare them into selling their stock (and why do they all own dogs?). Yet the cousin’s slightly ditzy daughter Alice (Susan Oliver) is too busy flirting with Illya — successfully, for a change — to be bothered with grieving for her horribly murdered father. The episode overall is played for humor, and there’s a fun sequence where Illya and Alice consult with a dog expert (Pat Harrington, Jr.) for advice on how to deal with the attack dogs, and the number of (friendly) dogs in the scene keeps multiplying to a nearly tribble-like degree.
Remember how I said that the last “Gypsy”-focused episode was relatively respectful and light on negative stereotypes for a ’60s show? Well, this one’s the opposite. Here, the “Gypsies” are not only villains and charlatans, but possess eldritch power over animals, according to the dog expert. The nominal main villain, Delgrovia (Paul Lambert), initially shows up in a Dracula cape and seems quite menacing, but he’s almost passive in the climactic scenes, with more attention paid overall to Delilah (Antoinette Bower), one of the scammers, who initially shows up as a fortune-teller to try to frighten Waverly’s cousin, and ends up in a catfight with Oliver in the final act.
Despite the conceptual/cultural problems, though, this is actually a rather charming and witty episode by Alan Caillou, with a number of good gags and moments. And it’s nice to see Illya get the spotlight for once. Plus there’s a startling number of Star Trek guests here — not only Oliver and Bower, but bit players Tom Troupe, Reggie Nalder, and George Sawaya. Another notable guest is Leigh Chapman, who takes over from May Heatherly as UNCLE’s resident office babe/tech advisor; she appeared as “Receptionist” two episodes before, but here gets a promotion and a name, Sarah. She’ll be in four more episodes.
“The Four-Steps Affair”: We open with sexy THRUSH agent Angela (Luciana Paluzzi) tricking an UNCLE operative to his death. The operative’s name is Dancer — perhaps a relative of future Girl from UNCLE April Dancer? (Though the name is awkwardly overdubbed in some shots, suggesting it was changed after they were shot.) Anyway, he manages to get a partial message to Waverly before he’s cut off, and Waverly and Illya deduce its meaning with very little assistance from the somewhat vacuous agent Kitt Kittredge (overplayed by Donald Harron with a fake English accent). Infuriatingly, the show’s tendency to treat all Asia as one big jumble is worse than ever here: Dancer uses a line from the Rubaiyat, a Persian poem, as a code for Miki (Michel Petit), the 10-year-old reincarnated lama of a Himalayan country, and somehow Illya is able to deduce the meaning of this huge geographical non sequitur. Illya and Kittridge retrieve the boy, his nurse, and his regent or “potentate” Kaza (Malachi Throne) from a safehouse, but Illya, the boy, and the nurse are captured by THRUSH. Meanwhile, Solo has the more pleasant job of playing cat-and-mouse with Angela, who tries to seduce him into the same trap, though he’s more suspicious than Dancer was. Of course, he manages to keep up the flirty banter while keeping his guard up otherwise.
This is the second episode scripted by Peter Allan Fields, so I was expecting something good. I suppose if you can look past the geographical and cultural ignorance on display, it’s a decent episode, with some fun banter here and there, but overall it doesn’t hold together very well. The main appeal is Paluzzi’s Angela, who’s very nice to watch.
“The See-Paris-And-Die Affair”: The Van Schreeten brothers, Max (Lloyd Bochner) and Josef (Gerald Mohr), are petty criminals who’ve stolen enough diamonds to flood the market and crash prices, and are blackmailing the mob to pay them off regularly lest they release the diamonds. UNCLE wants to retrieve the diamonds and prevent the economic catastrophe or something. So Napoleon recruits the weekly innocent, Mary Pilgrim, a woman that both brothers desire and that Max has arranged to bring over to his Paris nightclub. It’s basically the same premise as the pilot, using the villain’s old girlfriend as a mole. Mary is played by Kathryn Hays, whom I’ve always known as the mute Gem in Star Trek‘s “The Empath,” and I think this is the first time I’ve ever heard her speak. I’d always kind of thought she was solely a dancer/mime and was hired for that purpose, but here she not only acts, she sings as well. Her voice is nothing like I would’ve expected, a salty, brassy alto, and her manner here is totally unlike the sad and poignant Gem, bright and lively with a big, adorable grin that she deploys at the slightest provocation.
Anyway, our UNCLE boys are competing with a THRUSH agent played by Alfred Ryder, another Trek guest (“The Man Trap”), and his boss, Kevin Hagen of Land of the Giants. No doubt THRUSH wants the diamonds for more nefarious reasons. So it’s a jolly chase between the two with lots of schemes and counterschemes, with Solo being unusually forceful about getting what he wants, but at his most impish while doing so. (At one point Mary’s overprotective voice teacher sics the police on Solo for supposedly kidnapping Mary, so he steals the police car at gunpoint, but before leaving he delivers the disclaimer, “In no way do I represent America’s foreign policy.”) I recently read a suggestion that David Tennant would be a better choice than Tom Cruise to play Solo in the recently-announced movie remake, and I could totally see that as I watched Robert Vaughn here.
Anyway, the whole thing leads to Max scarpering with both the diamonds and Mary (without consulting her about the sudden elopement), ultimately leading to a well-done action sequence with a helicopter chasing a van. And Mary acquits herself very nicely in dealing with Max and the cops while Solo and Illya are otherwise occupied. All in all, it’s quite a fun and madcap adventure, with lively dialogue courtesy of Peter Allan Fields once again. The music is credited to Scharf and Stevens, and there seem to be some new bits that are recognizably Scharf-like, as well as a fair amount of nightclub source music performed by a guest group called The Gallants. They’re credited with doing an arrangement of the main theme, but it must’ve been hidden in the background of a nightclub scene somewhere. Hays herself sings a song from the MGM library, “It’s a Most Unusual Day” by Jimmy McHugh and Harold Adamson.
“The Brain-Killer Affair”: When Director Waverly gets too close to identifying a pattern of important smart people suddenly losing competence, THRUSH poisons him so he’ll be taken to a clinic they control, where they plan to perform the same endumbening operation on him so he’ll undermine UNCLE from the inside. The mastermind of this subtle “assassination” method is Dr. Agnes Dabree, played by Elsa Lanchester wearing a frizzy, skunk-striped hairstyle that’s a clear homage to her defining role as the Bride of Frankenstein (though more backswept). She’s set up as a recurring villain, but is never seen again in the series. The innocent is Cecille (Batgirl herself, Yvonne Craig!), whose mentally crippled, mute brother was named by Waverly before he passed out, leading Solo to investigate. There’s a rather uninteresting thread where she’s resistant to cooperation and Solo keeps paying her off with bigger and bigger sums, leading her to become more and more enamored with money — not leading to any sort of lesson, even. It’s rather a waste of Craig’s talents — though I had no idea what a prodigious screamer she was (as we discover when she’s captured by Dabree).
This isn’t a very good episode, and I found myself particularly annoyed by how casually Solo waved a loaded gun around in various scenes — even pointing the barrel directly at Waverly’s head while checking his pulse after he’s poisoned. Vaughn and the director are treating his gun as a prop rather than a deadly weapon, and it undermines the illusion. But the episode surpasses even “Bow-Wow” for the number of Star Trek guests it features. In addition to Craig, we’ve got David Hurst, Nancy Kovack, and Mickey Morton as Dabree’s assistants, Abraham Sofaer as the substitute UNCLE director flown in from Calcutta when Waverly’s compromised (a nice bit of organizational exposition), Liam Sullivan as one of the “brain-assassination” victims, and even Bill Quinn (McCoy’s father from ST V) as a waiter. The only credited guests who weren’t in Trek were Lanchester, Henry Beckman as an UNCLE doctor, and Rosey Grier as an UNCLE bodyguard. Plus Trek’s second-pilot director James Goldstone directs, and Jerry Goldsmith contributes a few minutes of what sounds to me like new music and a lot of stock cues.
“The Hong Kong Shilling Affair”: Uh-oh. This show doesn’t do well with anything Asian. Anyway, this time, Napoleon and Illya are following a courier, Max, who’s with the Bondishly named Heavenly Cortelle (Karen Sharpe) while delivering a stolen item to a criminal organization that auctions state secrets to the highest bidder. For reasons I’m still not clear on, Max is attacked by the organization’s henchman (future Bond uber-henchman Richard Kiel). A passing student, Bernie (Glenn Corbett), sees the fight and runs in to be a good samaritan, but gets so distracted by ogling Heavenly that he lets Max get stabbed to death before he finally intervenes. This gets him mistaken for Max’s partner by everyone involved, including UNCLE at first. He tells them Max’s dying words that he was killed for a pine tree shilling, and why a single coin is so valuable is the mystery of the episode, along with its whereabouts and the identity of the villains’ unseen leader Apricot — though the latter two mysteries share a very obvious solution.
Solo recruits Bernie to spy on Heavenly and find out more, with strict instructions that Bernie blithely ignores, getting himself into bigger trouble and requiring his rescue. He continues to make matters worse through his bullheadedness and his growing (and reciprocal) crush on Heavenly, whose own loyalties and agendas are themselves a mystery. But he and a captured Solo manage to learn the identity of an incoming bidder, and Solo and Illya intercept him at the airport.
Here’s where it gets problematical. The bidder is a Mongolian warlord, and Illya impersonates him through heavy makeup and an accent — plus his voice is processed to sound a bit echoey and staticky, perhaps in an attempt to disguise McCallum’s voice, though it just makes it all the more obviously faked to the audience. The weird voice treatment is almost as annoying and unpleasant as the yellowface acting, though not as offensive. I mean, seriously — we’re shown that Hong Kong has its own UNCLE branch office, so shouldn’t they have agents of the right ethnicity to pull off a more believable impersonation, rather than sticking a Russian in unconvincing makeup?
All in all, it’s kind of a mess, and Bernie is the most unsympathetic “innocent” in the series so far (though Cecille was kind of unsympathetic too, with only Yvonne Craig’s innate charm redeeming the character). They did a decent job making part of the MGM backlot look like a Hong Kong harbor, with some help from stock footage, but really, I wish this show would just avoid portraying Asia altogether, because they’re terrible at it. The music is credited to Stevens, and it’s mostly in his generic-Oriental vein that we’ve heard before — if not the same cues, then at least the same style that’s hard to pin down to a particular culture. (Oh, and Solo is still casually pointing his gun at his friends and waving it around carelessly with his finger on the trigger. Now that I’ve noticed it, I can’t stop seeing it.)
I’ve recently finished a watch-through of the trilogy of films featuring the last of Universal Studios’ classic monsters, the Gill-Man: Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Revenge of the Creature (’55), and The Creature Walks Among Us (’56), courtesy of Netflix and a 2004 “Special Edition” 2-CD set that, oddly enough, is under the title of just the first film but contains both sequels as “bonus features” on disc 2. These are films that I haven’t seen in decades, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the third film, so I was able to come into them pretty fresh.
The original film, directed by Jack Arnold (The Incredible Shrinking Man, It Came From Outer Space), is based on a reputed South American legend of a half-fish, half-man that carried away native women, which producer William Alland heard from a guest at a party held by Orson Welles, IIRC. The movie Creature is based pretty closely on the legend. The first film portrays him as a missing link between sea life and land life, unchanged since the Devonian period some 400 million years ago — conveniently overlooking all the stages of life between fish and hominid, like amphibians, synapsids, mammals, and primates. It also claims that the whole Amazon rainforest is unchanged since the Devonian, which reflects a 1950s view of science — not only unaware of continental drift and the many climate changes the Earth has gone through in the interim, but unaware of findings that have only recently come to light (and are still not universally accepted), that the Amazon is not so much an untouched wilderness but one of the most expansive human-cultivated areas on Earth, essentially a vast orchard developed and managed by the native South Americans for many centuries before European contact, due to the unfeasibility of standard agriculture in that environment. (See Charles C. Mann’s book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus for more.)
Of course, one shouldn’t expect scientific accuracy from a Universal monster movie in the tradition of Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy. But what’s interesting about the Creature films is how non-supernatural the Gill-Man is, and how he’s approached throughout as a subject for scientific investigation, more a large, exotic animal to be captured and studied than a force of evil. True, Frankenstein’s Monster and the Invisible Man were creations of science, but it was a fanciful pseudoscience of an imaginary past, and both characters were more human than the Gill-Man.
And to me, that’s kind of the weakness of CftBL. The Gill-Man here is not a very impressive monster. He’s certainly well-designed, a great-looking creature, and very well-performed by Ricou Browning in the underwater scenes (Ben Chapman played him on land). And one has to admire the cutting-edge cinematography, with the filmmakers inventing the first portable underwater 3D camera and doing things that had never been done onscreen before. But since the Creature is more animal than monster, he doesn’t really have a lot of motivation or personality to make him interesting. In the documentary on the DVD, there were people talking about a “love story” between the Creature and female lead Julie Adams, but the Creature was too much of a blank slate for that to come across to me. I guess the idea was that he “fell in love” with her while watching her graceful swim in the beautiful but voyeuristic underwater sequence which is the highlight of the film and which both sequels copied. But it felt like the movie was just going through the motions — like the Creature’s only motivation for carrying Adams off is that that’s what ’50s movie monsters were obligated to do to beautiful women, whether it made any sense or not. (Also because the film was basically a knockoff of King Kong.)
And few monsters’ love/abduction interests have ever been as beautiful as Julie Adams. Really, I’d say that Adams is the highlight of the film, a stunning beauty who spends a lot of time in what for the era was a very daring, high-cut one-piece bathing suit. She’s a charming presence and more interesting than most of the rest of the human cast. (Although she was doubled by Ginger Stanley in the underwater footage, which was shot second-unit in Florida while the aboveground stuff was shot in Hollywood.) There is a fairly dull scientist-hero played by Richard Carlson, who was in a lot of sci-fi movies of the day, and a comparably dull heavy played by Richard Denning; Carlson is the compassionate scientist who just wants to study and understand the Creature in its natural habitat, even after it kills a bunch of people and kidnaps his girl, while Denning is the macho hunter who’d rather have him stuffed and mounted. (Genre stalwart Whit Bissell is also on hand as a scientific colleague, but is underutilized.) But Carlson comes off as more ineffectual than really heroic, and the film comes to a rather weak climax — though the ending is deliberately inconclusive, since a sequel was already planned.
I suppose you could say there’s a subtle theme of environmental abuse, with the explorers using heavyhanded tactics like drugging the lagoon in order to capture the creature; there’s even a shot where Adams tosses a cigarette butt in the water and we tilt down to see Gill-Man looking up with an attitude that reminds me of the iconic crying Indian in ’70s anti-pollution ads. So maybe the Creature’s motivation was supposed to be self-defense and retaliation against these heavy-handed invaders. But I’m not sure if that was intended or just a modern reading imposed on the film, since such harsh tactics were pretty typical of how scientists treated animals at the time.
This theme becomes clearer in the second film, Revenge of the Creature, also directed by Arnold. The film has an almost entirely new cast, aside from Browning returning as the underwater creature (Tom Hennessy takes over on land) and Nestor Paiva as the boat captain from the first film (whose main role is to recap that film’s plot for the audience). Yet despite this, it’s a pretty direct followup to the original, as a second expedition comes back to the Black Lagoon a year later and succeeds in capturing the Gill-Man (actually called that by name in this film, and I think only in this film), bringing him back to the “Oceanarium” in Florida for study and display. The Oceanarium is actually the Marineland aquarium, where much of the film was shot. Here, even more than in the first, the Creature is treated like an animal being studied by science rather than a conventional monster. Usually the monster is out there unseen, able to strike at any time, but here the Creature spends much of the film in captivity, being studied by the new leads, a scientist played rather blandly by John Agar and an ichthyology grad student played by Lori Nelson, who doesn’t hold a candle to Julie Adams. Their “study” involves chaining the Creature by the leg and shocking him with a bull prod (which somehow fails to shock them too even though they’re underwater with it) to teach him the meaning of “Stop.” So here it’s easier to understand why the Gill-Man gets enraged and fights back (echoes of Frankenstein’s Monster being tortured by Fritz in the 1931 Frankenstein), though his persistent stalking of Nelson once he’s escaped is just monster-movie formula again. Basically this was meant as the second half of the King Kong homage, but the fact that the surrogate Fay Wray is an entirely different character this time around makes it even harder to justify. You’d think, given that Nelson’s character was one of his jailers and torturers, that he’d sooner kill her than abduct her.
Overall, I find this the weakest film of the trilogy. Too much of it is just an extended infomercial for Marineland, padding that gets tiresome after a while. And the cast just isn’t as engaging this time around. Plus the ending has the same faults as the first film’s, with Agar’s hero not really accomplishing much in the climactic moment and the story just kind of fizzling out afterward.
(And yeah, here’s the obligatory mention that Clint Eastwood makes his film debut as a lab tech in the first act. Which doesn’t mean much to me personally, but yes, I am aware of it.)
Going by the DVD commentary, The Creature Walks Among Us (from first-time director John Sherwood) is apparently regarded as the weakest of the trilogy by many, and I didn’t expect to like it much, because its premise — the Creature being burned in a fire and somehow turned into a land-dwelling humanoid — seemed silly. But it turned out to be my favorite of the three. It reunites Rex Reason and Jeff Morrow, who had been in This Island Earth the previous year, as the male leads, alongside female lead Leigh Snowden, who’s not at Julie Adams levels of hotness or likeability but is comfortably in second place among this series’ leading ladies. And it has the most interesting character development of the three. Morrow is a borderline-mad scientist who wants to capture and experiment on the Creature, intending to transform it through surgery in the odd belief that this will alter its genetics too (I guess he’s a Lamarckian?), with an eye toward developing techniques to engineer humans for space colonization. (I find it intriguing that even in a movie having nothing to do with space, the characters were motivated by the idea of space travel. That says something about the ’50s.) Reason is a geneticist who believes in letting nature evolve at its own pace, humans included. (So Morrow is Dr. Moreau and Reason is the voice of reason. That’s easy to remember.) Morrow is also psychologically abusive and insanely jealous toward his wife (Snowden); she’s resolutely faithful to him, but he’s unable to see it and feels threatened both by Reason (who hits it off chastely with Snowden) and by an assistant (Gregg Palmer) who’s constantly hitting on Snowden without success. The DVD commentators call this padding, but I think it makes the characters richer, and Reason and Morrow’s debates about science and philosophy add some depth to the proceedings.
Anyway, the Creature’s original form is seen mostly through underwater footage shot but never used for the first movie — a clever bit of recycling. The DVD commentators claim there’s no footage of Browning swimming in the unmodified Gill-Man costume in this film, but they overlook one shot of the Creature hiding in the seaweed while the film’s three leads swim past. Otherwise, the only newly-made scene of the original-look creature is the brief one where he attacks the boat the explorers are in, whereupon he’s badly burned and taken captive. This burns away the outer scales and reveals a more humanoid anatomy within, and an unsuspected pair of lungs starts working (there’s some science behind this; a type of lungfish whose lungs are only seasonally in use is referenced). The land form of the Creature is played by Don Megowan.
And it’s when the Gill-Man becomes a land Creature that he begins to take on more personality. Not only is he more human in appearance, but being out of his element, he’s more helpless and dependent, and is affected when Reason shows him compassion, saving his life when he tries to dive back into the water without gills (and Browning makes his final appearance as the creature in this underwater sequence). He then becomes a spectator to Morrow and Palmer’s respective abuses of poor Snowden, and his role changes from the designated abductor of the film’s heroine to her defender, at one point saving her from attempted rape by Palmer’s character. It took three films, but the Creature has finally become sympathetic. And that further underlines how much these films treated him not as a monster, but as an animal, an entity that could be understood by science and even reconciled with through compassion. It reflects the era in which these films came out, the ’50s, when science had displaced the supernatural as the most powerful perceived force in the world, or at least in the world of cinema — when science was the source of both our greatest fears and our greatest hopes. Maybe that’s why the Gill-Man was the last of the Universal monsters. It certainly makes him one of the most unusual.
Walks Among Us is also the strongest film musically. The three fims were scored with a mix of stock music and new cues by various uncredited composers, including future Lost in Space composers Herman Stein and Hans J. Salter as well as a young, pre-fame Henry Mancini. Stein composed the Creature’s strident, rising three-note leitmotif, a shock cue which was used constantly throughout the first two films, less so in the third, while Salter did the main title cue that I think was used in all three films, or at least the first two. But it’s Mancini’s work that’s the most impressive. He does some beautiful work for the underwater scenes in the first film. I don’t think his music is used in the second, but the bulk of TCWAU’s music is original scoring by Mancini, and it’s very impressive stuff.
All in all, it’s impressive what a tight trilogy these films make. Even with all the cast changes, and even with the third film’s retcons about the Creature’s biology, there’s a remarkably cohesive narrative throughline to these films, an arc about human civilization intruding on an ancient part of nature, taking it out of its environment, mistreating it, and indelibly transforming it — until one voice of reason (or Reason) belatedly tries to treat it with respect and understanding, offering a tentative ray of hope for the future. I kind of regret that there was no followup to the third film; it might’ve been interesting to see the further development of the transformed Creature. But maybe it’s just as well that the series ended with three films, since further ones might not have fit together with their predecessors as smoothly as these three did. I think the first two films work better as chapters in this one big three-part saga than they do as standalone movies.
Still, in my ideal world, Rex Reason would’ve been the star of all three films, his character filling the Carlson and Agar roles in the previous ones (since they were all pretty much the same character) and providing continuity as the leading Gill-Man expert, and Julie Adams would’ve been the female lead in the second film as well as the first, with maybe a cameo in the third (Snowden’s role as Morrow’s wife is too important to the third film’s story for her to be replaced). Then again, the male leads do have different specialties in the three films: ichthyologist, animal psychologist, geneticist. It’s hard to say whether a single scientist could’ve played all three roles without some significant rewrites, and I’m reluctant to embrace Hollwyood’s tendency to treat all scientists as interchangeable polymaths. But Adams’s character could’ve been subbed for Nelson’s quite easily.
A note on the DVD commentaries: The first film’s commentary was done solo by film historian Tom Weaver, and was basically an ongoing monologue of historical background and film trivia. Some might find that boring, but I actually enjoyed the more scholarly approach to the analysis of the film. I wish more DVD commentaries were in that vein. In the second and third commentaries, Weaver was joined by Bob Burns, a major figure in classic genre-movie fandom and a veteran monster-suit wearer himself, while Lori Nelson joined them for the second film’s commentary. These were more in the standard conversational vein of commentaries, and I found the Revenge commentary to be the weakest of the three just as the film was, with far too much of Nelson and Burns relating anecdotes of their Hollywood experiences and far too little background and analysis of the film itself. The third commentary was somewhat better, but not as focused as the first, and I don’t think Weaver and Burns were as interested in the film as I was.
“The King of Knaves Affair”: Investigating a mysterious effort to buy uranium and the abduction of the racketeer making the offer, Solo and Kuryakin travel to Rome, where UNCLE HQ is situated behind the local branch of the Del Floria’s tailor franchise. (Clever to have identical UNCLE HQs all over the world, so the same standing sets can be used everywhere.) The local agents include Gemma (Arlene Martel, best known as Spock’s betrothed in Star Trek‘s “Amok Time”), who poses as Illya’s wife when they go undercover, and a receptionist who doubles as a dancer at the nightclub they investigate (played by belly dancer Tania Lemani, who uses a lot of the same dance moves she’ll use a few years later in ST’s “Wolf in the Fold”). The club’s proprietor is Fasik, a deposed Middle Eastern monarch played by the decidedly non-Middle Eastern Paul Stevens (a frequent Mission: Impossible guest, often playing characters impersonated by Martin Landau, whom he resembled). It turns out he’s building an army and recruiting allies as part of a genuinely clever multipronged plan to undermine the credibility, finances, and military strength of the populists who deposed him in order to pave the way for his reconquest. The innocent-of-the-week is Miss Pepper (Diana Millay), whom Solo suspects is a rival agent but who turns out to be a notary seeking the abducted racketeer’s signature on some document so some person back home won’t be rendered destitute — the explanation is very convoluted and not that important, mostly playing out in the background while Illya fights off an assassin on Solo’s balcony. It’s a fairly interesting episode overall — the villain’s plan really is most ingenious and alarmingly credible — but the show’s insistence on shoehorning an innocent civilian into every adventure is already starting to wear thin after just a baker’s dozen of episodes. It’s the sort of thing I feel would work better if they only did it when there was a good reason for it, rather than having to concoct all these contrived excuses to drag civilians into things every single time.
The episode makes effective use of the MGM backlot, including a castle courtyard set that we haven’t seen before on the show, though I expect we’ll see it again sometime. Jerry Goldsmith gets the music credit again, and this time I’m certain it’s a mostly or wholly original score. Some of the motifs are familiar, but from the thematic unity of the overall score and the way the music fits the action and editing, I’d say it’s not stock music, but Goldsmith developing his established motifs further. It’s a solid, effective score with a classic Goldsmithian flavor to the rhythms.
“The Terbuf Affair”: In a subtle bit of continuity, Napoleon and Illya are still in Rome on vacation, implicitly in the wake of their last mission. Napoleon is approached by old flame Clara (Madlyn Rhue, best known as Khan’s love Marla in ST: “Space Seed”), who seeks his help getting a “Gypsy” named Emil (Jacques Aubuchon) out of the Balkan country of Terbuf with proof of the corruption of its leader Col. Morisco (episode writer Alan Caillou). Clara is married now, but Solo still has a thing for her, and Illya determines he needs to go along to keep Solo anchored. But Clara confides in her husband Stefan, who turns out to be loyal to Morisco and tells him of the plan. Morisco doesn’t return his loyalty, having him imprisoned and ordering the smarmy Major Vicek (Albert Paulsen, whom I liked in his several Mission: Impossible appearances) to impersonate her husband, with the real Stefan held hostage to force her cooperation. Illya uses his familiarity with Roma culture to infiltrate the suspicious local “Gypsies” and convince them they can trust Solo with Emil. It’s an elaborate tale of plots, counterplots, false identities, arrests, abductions, rescues, and a couple of de-pantsings.
All in all, an entertaining story of intrigue, making further good use of MGM’s really impressive backlot (although I recognized one of the outdoor locations from the Kurt Russell episode, and it used the same interior prison set we just saw in “King of Knaves”). It makes up for last week’s contrived insertion of “the innocent” by having the innocent be the one who instigates the story in the first place. There are lots of familiar faces in the cast, including two more future Trek guests, Michael Forest and Rex Holman. The portrayal of the Roma is actually relatively positive for ’60s TV despite the use of the “Gypsy” label. And there’s a solid score (mostly new, I think) by Goldsmith and Walter Scharf.
Best of all, this episode is the strongest showing Illya’s had since episode 3, I’d say. Usually, even in episodes where Illya’s on the mission with Solo instead of sidelined back at HQ or whatever, he’s nonetheless been very much a second banana, with most of the focus being on Solo and his interaction with either the innocent or the villain. Here, though, he’s equal in prominence and importance to Solo, and we get a good feel for their friendship, the way their contrasts make them a good pairing. It’s not so different from the relationship Kirk and Spock would have in a little show that came along a few years later. It’s nice to see, and I hope it’s a harbinger of things to come.
“The Deadly Decoy Affair”: They’re playing with the opening again. There’s new music, and after the usual sequence of the shadowy figure shooting at Solo and cracking the pane of bulletproof glass in front of him — whereupon we usually get a freeze-frame for the episode title and then cut right to the main titles — instead Solo strolls out from behind the glass and gives the audience a little verbal teaser for the upcoming episode. Weird. I half-expected him to segue into talking about the sponsor’s product. Anyway, this is followed by a slightly modified arrangement of the main title theme, with the main melody a bit more clearly articulated than before. IMDb says Morton Stevens did the new arrangment.
The story is a comedy of errors as Solo and Kuryakin try to escort captured THRUSH lieutenant Stryker (Ralph Taeger) to Washington past a gauntlet of THRUSH agents trying to retake him, while Waverly leads a decoy intended to draw their fire, which proves unsuccessful — or does it? The way the innocent-of-the-week, Fran (Joanna Moore), gets dragged into the chase is the biggest contrivance yet, although I guess it’s forgivable since they were going for comedy. Illya gets left behind on a train and it becomes a three-person show as Solo and Stryker flirt with Fran and the three of them try to shake the relentless pursuers, and there’s a plot twist that became obvious to me about half an hour before it was revealed.
Kind of mediocre overall, with an underwhelming guest cast (and not just because it’s short on faces I find familiar). Its best feature is an all-new Walter Scharf score, the first one he’s done for this show that I’ve been impressed by, reminding me of some of his Mission: Impossible work.
“The Fiddlesticks Affair”: No talking to the audience this time, but we still get the Stevens arrangement of the main theme. The episode is another one that could be considered a proto-Mission: Impossible story: a casino heist to destroy THRUSH’s Western-hemisphere treasury, with Napoleon and Illya recruiting allies to form a team. They even have Lalo Schifrin doing the music, and his scoring during the heist portions is very reminiscent of some of his future M:I work. However, their recruits aren’t of the caliber that the IMF used. Their main specialist is a safecracker named Rudolph (Dan O’Herlihy) who gets pressured into helping and who’s more than willing to betray them to score points with THRUSH. The other is Susan (Marlyn Mason, herself a future M:I guest team member), a perky Midwestern girl trying to make a break from her wholesome life and do something scandalous, making her ripe for recruiting by Solo. (Though it’s rather startling that they’d draw a civilian into such danger rather than using a professional agent. What they need is some kind of, I dunno… girl from UNCLE, maybe. They should look into hiring one.)
Despite the sketchiness of the situation, it’s a fun, solid episode due mainly to a strong and clever script by future Columbo and Deep Space Nine scribe Peter Allan Fields. The character interplay and badinage between Napoleon and Illya is a lot of fun; this time out, we get the sense that the normally stoic Russian somewhat resents that Napoleon hogs the womanizing part of the mission all to himself. I didn’t care for some of the ridiculously implausible spy gadgets they used, though. For instance, a “treated” 100-dollar bill which, when placed in the casino vault, can somehow detect the turning of the combination lock and transmit the numbers to Solo’s receiver. Or a magnetic coating which, when rubbed onto ordinary dice, allows a special watch to control their rolls. Even with microcomputers and nanotechnology, that would be hard to pull off. In 1965, even with the sci-fi tech many spy shows used at the time, it’s just preposterous.
There’s a scary moment in the scene where Illya’s coercively recruiting Rudolph: David McCallum shoves O’Herlihy back onto the hotel-room bed, and it looks like O’Herlihy just misses hitting his head fairly hard on the corner of the bedside table. A centimeter more to his left and he could’ve really been hurt. He reaches back and puts his hand on the back of his head and goes “Sh…”, but then he recovers and they both just carry on with the take. A real trouper, O’Herlihy. And it makes the scene a lot more convincing.
“The Yellow Scarf Affair”: Oh, dear. It’s Napoleon Solo and the Temple of Doom, as Solo (without Illya) takes on the so-called Thuggee cult in India, replete with Western stereotypes about Hinduism, a lot of talk about how indigenous Indian culture is a relic of the past and how enlightened modernity equals Westernization, and plenty of non-Indian actors in brownface. It embraces the traditional media image of the Thuggees as a cult of assassins who preyed on travelers as a sacrifice to the “death” goddess Kali — in this case, a revived and modernized version in which they arrange plane and train crashes and the like and steal the victims’ valuables, including a top-secret lie-detector that an UNCLE agent had been bringing back home. Now, what I recall from Indian History class is that such cults of murderous fanatics were largely invented, or at least had their prevalence greatly overstated, by the British Raj in order to paint indigenous peoples as violent savages who needed British rule and Westernization to “civilize” them for their own protection. Even if they were real, they were an extreme fringe group whose practices were falsely held up as symbolic of Indian religion as a whole, and this episode is a classic example of that, implying that the Thuggee cult is synonymous with traditional Indian culture in order to paint that culture as primitive and well-forgotten.
The episode has other problems. For instance, the McGuffin’s case is said to have a nitroglycerin self-destruct capsule–quite implausible because the slightest jolt could set it off. What’s more, it gets jolted plenty in the climactic fight and nothing happens. Not to mention that Solo’s stunt double in said fight looks nothing like Robert Vaughn and there’s hardly any attempt made to conceal his face even by the standards of lower-resolution ’60s TV sets and broadcasts. Plus, while Morton Stevens’s music is generally good, he bizarrely uses a faux-Middle Eastern musical style to establish the Indian setting, presumably on the principle that American audiences would consider all things “Oriental” to be interchangeably exotic.
There are a few decent things about the episode, mainly Kamala Devi as the “innocent,” a flight attendant who helps Solo. Not only is she the only actual Indian performer playing an Indian character, but she’s quite lovely and delicately appealing, though she doesn’t show a lot of range as an actress. (And it’s quite silly seeing Murray Matheson standing next to her as her uncle — it just throws his cheesy brownface makeup into sharp relief.) There’s also an entertaining turn by Linden Chiles as the world’s most affable THRUSH agent, alternately competing and cooperating with Solo to retrieve the McGuffin from the cultists (a formula the show has used before). But my favorite part is probably Madge Blake’s brief appearance at the beginning, passing the McGuffin to the ill-fated agent. Aunt Harriet is a secret agent! The aunt from UNCLE! How awesome is that?
“The Mad, Mad Tea Party Affair”: Time for a bottle show, set mostly on the standing sets of UNCLE HQ and Del Floria’s tailor shop. UNCLE is preparing for a secret summit of world leaders, and a THRUSH mole within HQ, Riley (Peter Haskell), is planning to blow them all up — following a plan masterminded by Dr. Egret (Lee Meriwether), who’s narcissistic enough to demand that Riley join her in narrating the entire plan for the audience’s benefit, a deeply awkward scene. But a third party, an eccentric older man named Hemingway (Richard Haydn), is launching his own campaign against HQ, a series of seemingly harmless but high-tech pranks that expose some serious gaps in their security system — and it’s not hard to guess that that’s his whole intention. One of his pranks is to trick a random innocent, Kay (Zohra Lampert, whose voice I found very annoying), into the changing booth at Del Floria’s and through the secret HQ entrance therein. Kay is initially terrified, since for some reason UNCLE, the spy agency whose agents constantly go around telling people who they are and discussing secret missions at crowded parties, and whose HQ location is already well-known to their enemies, are suddenly so hyper-secretive that they refuse even to tell Kay who they are and where she is. But Kay turns out to be the second innocent in the past three weeks (and at least the fifth this season) to be tired of her ordinary life and thrilled by the chance to get involved in excitement and intrigue. It’s getting a bit repetitive, guys!
So yeah, you can tell I’m not enthralled by this one. It has some decent ideas, but the execution has a lot of flaws — particularly in the climax, where the bomb’s trigger device, which is supposed to be innocuous and understood to be a detonator only by Riley himself, is shown sizzling and smoking for a good 20 seconds or more, long enough that anyone could figure it out. Plus it criminally underuses Lee Meriwether, who’s only in one scene plus a voiceover later.
The music is credited to Goldsmith and Stevens, and is mostly built around familiar motifs, but at least some of it seems newly arranged and tailored to the scenes.
I finally decided to buy the print-on-demand DVDs of Genesis II and Planet Earth, two of the failed SF pilot movies that Star Trek‘s Gene Roddenberry wrote and produced in the early ’70s. I used to have them on videotape, but I apparently lost the tape somewhere along the line, so this was the only way I’d get to see them again, and I found a place where I could get them pretty cheaply.
Genesis II (1973) was Roddenberry’s attempt to do another series built around the “thousand worlds” premise of ST, a team of heroes travelling to a different exotic society or environment each week. In this case, it was a post-apocalyptic future where the survivors of global nuclear war had fragmented into multiple diverse, bizarre societies — but, with typical Roddenberry optimism, the fall of civilization had cleansed the planet and let it (eventually) become a pristine paradise again. The hero was Dylan Hunt (played here by Alex Cord), a 20th-century scientist trapped in a suspended-animation experiment in 1979, and revived in 2133 by a society called Pax, nominally dedicated to rebuilding and restoring the best of civilization. But the woman who nurses him back to health, Lyra-a (Mariette Hartley), belongs to a civilization of superhuman mutants called Tyranians, and she claims Pax are aspiring conquerors and helps Dylan escape from them — whereupon he soon finds that Tyrania isn’t the paradise she claimed. (Really, a name like Tyrania is kind of a giveaway.) The cast also included Percy Rodriguez (Commodore Stone from ST: “Court-martial”) as the Pax leader, Primus Isaac Kimbridge, and genre stalwart Ted Cassidy as Isiah — the most unfortunate part of the film, supposedly a “white Comanche” who speaks in stereotyped TV-Indian broken English.
The premise made use of a vehicle called the subshuttle, essentially an underground bullet train system started in Dylan’s time (when fear of war had made aboveground transport seem too vulnerable) and expanded in the decades before the war. The system has survived and been maintained by Pax, serving as the means for Pax’s operatives to travel the world. (And it couldn’t possibly have worked as depicted. With so little clearance between the shuttle and the tube walls, with no evident vents, and with the tubes clearly not in vacuum, air resistance would’ve kept it from going as fast as it was shown to travel.)
It’s an interesting film and the concept had potential, but Cord is not the most appealing lead actor, and there are aspects of Pax that might’ve been offputting in a weekly series — they lived in underground bunkers in Carlsbad Caverns, and they embraced a rather ascetic “unisex” philosophy that disdained lust and sexuality as the cause of civilization’s downfall, as explicated by the uptight supporting character Harper-Smythe, played by Lynne Marta (though it was suggested that the young were starting to reject that view). All in all, it could be better, and it’s understandable why CBS rejected the series (instead opting for the similar Planet of the Apes TV series which lasted for only half a season), and why, when Roddenberry then pitched it to ABC, they asked him to retool it for the second attempt (Roddenberry had a knack for getting second pilots made, it seems).
This was 1974′s Planet Earth, this time starring John Saxon as Dylan Hunt and Janet Margolin as Harper-Smythe, with Ted Cassidy returning as Isiah (the only holdover from the original cast) and Christopher Cary added as Hunt’s fourth team member, the “esper” doctor Baylok. (Which is pronounced the same as Balok from ST’s “The Corbomite Maneuver” — a character that Cassidy provided the voice for, kind of. That always weirded me out a little.) This time out, Pax has relocated to a beautiful, advanced aboveground city (about where Albuquerque once was, judging from a shot in the opening titles), and the “unisex” beliefs are nowhere to be found — female extras in Pax City are wearing revealing William Ware Theiss outfits, and Harper-Smythe now appears to have a thing for Dylan. Isiah’s portrayed a little better, speaking more coherent English and no longer in what I guess you’d call “redface” makeup, but Baylok still calls him “the savage” at one point.
ST’s former associate producer Bob Justman was brought in as producer this time, and Roddenberry cowrote the script with future Rockford Files staff writer/producer Juanita Bartlett. The story is a very ’70s conceit: to find a missing doctor, Hunt and Harper-Smythe must infiltrate a society where women (primarily Marg, played by Diana Muldaur) keep men as slaves and pets — which Dylan actually describes as “women’s lib gone mad.” There are definitely ways in which it plays out as the kind of sex-preoccupied male fantasy you’d expect from Roddenberry, or from ’70s TV in general: Dylan uses his virility to seduce Marg and convince her that men aren’t so bad. But it seems to me that Bartlett’s hand adds some wit to the proceedings, so that Dylan’s seduction plays out more comically and tastefully than it otherwise might have, more about getting Marg drunk and philosophizing about mutual respect than getting her laid.
The movie also features villains called the Kreeg, a brutish, warlike band of mutants with electronically deepened voices and knobbly head ridges that appear to be a prototype for the revised Klingon makeup that would be introduced five years later in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. (I can’t find a makeup credit for Planet Earth, though, so I don’t know if it was designed by the same person, Fred Phillips.)
All in all, despite the iffy gender politics of the premise, Planet Earth is an improvement on the first pilot. Saxon is a much more charismatic and sympathetic lead than Cord, as much of an improvement as William Shatner was over Jeffrey Hunter as the Enterprise captain. Margolin is also a more appealing Harper-Smythe than Marta. There’s more charm and wit to the writing. The aboveground setting and the new Pax-team uniforms are an improvement (despite the uniforms’ unappealing color scheme), and Pax’s society seems more worth fighting for. Isiah is less offensive, and Baylok could potentially be an interesting character, but was quite underutilized here. The downside is that there’s less ethnic diversity in the lead cast; the first pilot featured a team member named Singh (seemingly the only South Asian surname Roddenberry knew) in a fairly prominent role, but here, Dylan’s team is all-white, and the one major black character, Kimbridge (here retitled “Pater” and recast as Rai Tasco), is sidelined. This is something of a reversal from the Trek pilots; in “The Cage,” the main cast was all-white, but the network pushed for more diversity in the second pilot (since recent analyses had revealed the buying power of minority viewers), and that’s how we got characters like Sulu and Uhura. Here, things unfortunately went in the reverse direction.
Planet Earth didn’t succeed as a pilot any more than its predecessor did. In his entire career, the only non-Trek series that Roddenberry ever got on the air was his first, the non-SF series The Lieutenant in 1963, and that only ran for one season. However, in 1975, ABC attempted to rework the post-apocalyptic premise one more time without Roddenberry’s involvement, keeping Saxon as the lead and retaining the name Pax, and using the Trek-inspired title Strange New World, but changing the rest of the premise and the character names. (The leads were astronauts on a sleeper ship who returned to an Earth devastated by asteroid bombardment.) So it doesn’t count as part of the same series and I haven’t bothered to track it down.
Of course, the concept of a hero named Dylan Hunt who slept through the fall of his civilization and fought to rebuild peace and stability in the post-apocalyptic world was resurrected after Roddenberry’s death as the premise of Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda, transposed to far-future outer space and starring Kevin Sorbo as Hunt. A couple of other elements from the original films made their way into Andromeda: Harper-Smythe inspired the Harper character in name if nothing else, and I daresay the genetically superior Tyranians inspired the genetically superior Tyr Anasazi and his Nietzschean race. But otherwise it was a very different show, more the creation of Robert Hewitt Wolfe than Roddenberry, and blending the fragments of the Dylan Hunt universe with concepts from other failed Roddenberry pitches (such as the idea of an intelligent starship as a lead character, from an unused premise called Starship). Not to mention that the show went badly astray once Wolfe was fired after a season and a half. I really don’t want to get into that here; it would be reopening old wounds.
One reason I decided to buy these movies was to test a hypothesis. I’ve long entertained the conceit that maybe the G2/PE universe was an alternate timeline of the Trek universe, maybe one where the Eugenics Wars were more extensive and escalated to a nuclear conflict. That was never more than an idle musing before; but in recent years, since Pocket published its Mirror Universe and Myriad Universes anthologies, I’ve taken to cataloguing alternate Trek timelines more systematically in my personal chronology notes, and I got to wondering about whether I could actually add these movies to my list.
At first I was concerned it might not work, because the state of things in 1979 in G2 already seemed rather different from what we know of the Trek world in that time (not too different from ours, but with a more active space program). But then I thought, what if the divergence was earlier? What if, say, Gary Seven hadn’t intervened in “Assignment: Earth” and after? In that case, Earth would’ve begun an orbital nuclear arms buildup starting in 1968, which would fit neatly with the mid-’70s war fears that led to the creation of the subshuttles in G2. Also, according to the novel continuity, without Gary Seven’s intervention, the eugenics program that produced Khan and the Augments would’ve been more extensive, and the Eugenics Wars would’ve been bigger, potentially escalating to the level of global cataclysm. And the “mutant” Tyranians and Kreeg, claimed in the films to be the products of radiation, make far more sense if they’re descendants of the Augments. The timing works too. The undated cataclysm had to be after 1992, the date given for the construction of a subshuttle station seen in PE. However, the most advanced technology Pax has dates from Dylan’s century according to dialogue, suggesting that the end came no later than roughly the turn of the millennium. Which is no doubt where I originally got the idea that it was a bigger, alternative version of the Eugenics Wars. So I think it works rather neatly. The Dylan Hunt timeline could well be the future that Gary Seven was sent to Earth to prevent. (Which would mean that in the Trek universe, without the war fears driving things underground, Dylan’s hibernation experiment would’ve most likely happened elsewhere and he would never have been trapped in stasis by a cave-in. Indeed, his research could’ve led to the cryogenic technology of the Botany Bay.)
The other question I had was whether the two films could fit in the same timeline as each other, given the changes between them. The recastings are easily waved away, just like any TV or film recastings (e.g. Saavik or Cochrane in Trek). The change in Isiah’s makeup and hair can be just as easily ignored, or rationalized by saying he was in disguise in G2. The character changes can be rationalized; Isiah could’ve learned better English, Harper-Smythe could’ve softened in her unisex views after Dylan deflated some of her cherished myths about his era, and Kimbridge’s change in title could’ve been the result of either a promotion or a retirement from the Primus council. The hardest thing to rationalize is the Pax city suddenly materializing between movies; but maybe Pax had had the city all along, yet had retreated to the Carlsbad bunker due to the threat of Tyranian attack, a threat which was resolved by PE. Alternatively, maybe Pax made an alliance with the city and relocated there between movies — which might better explain the different, non-unisex clothing style. (If the city’s about where Albuquerque was, that would make it a bit under 300 miles NNW of Carlsbad Caverns, explaining why we didn’t see it in G2. The climax of G2 suggests that Tyrania is considerably closer to Carlsbad, though, not far over the horizon. Since they had nuclear weapons, they might’ve been somewhere around Alamogordo or White Sands, perhaps. Lyra-a mentions Phoenix as they ride toward Tyrania, but it can’t possibly be that far away.)
One other minor discrepancy: in G2, Majel Barrett plays Primus Dominic and Titos Vandis plays Primus Yuloff; whereas in PE, Barrett has a tiny role as a character credited as Yuloff. But Barrett’s PE character was never addressed by name onscreen, so the credit could simply be an error. Or maybe Dominic married Yuloff in the interim.
The timing’s also a bit tricky. In PE, Dylan says he was born on February 3, 1944 and is 189 years old, adding up to 2133, the same year as G2. But it’s easier to reconcile the movies if you assume some time passes between them to allow for the changes. But there’s an easy handwave: Dylan was drunk when he calculated his age. He could easily have been off by a year or two.
So I think the two movies can be treated as a single continuity if you squint a little — which is true of a lot of continuity in any TV or movie universe. Sure, if I’m defining them as an alternate Trek-universe timeline to begin with, I could just as easily say they were two slightly variant timelines; but with only two movies, I’d rather treat them as a connected series if possible.
Of course, this all has to remain strictly informal speculation. The copyright on these movies is owned by Warner Bros., not CBS, so I wouldn’t be allowed to incorporate these characters and ideas into a licensed Trek novel. But that’s why it’s fun to think about. It lets me get back to speculating about something Trek-related purely for recreation, rather than for work.
It’s worth noting, however, that Roddenberry himself may have worked some ideas from G2/PE into his ST:TNG pilot, “Encounter at Farpoint.” The chronology precluded them from fitting in the same universe even then, but a lot of concepts in TNG were recycled from earlier, failed Roddenberry projects: Riker and Troi were reworked from Decker and Ilia in TMP and the failed Phase II sequel series, while Data was a blend of Phase II‘s Vulcan character Xon and the android lead of the 1974 pilot film The Questor Tapes. The depiction of “the post-atomic horror” in “Farpoint” bears some similarities to the G2/PE universe, so I wonder if maybe Roddenberry had the idea that Trek history could’ve happened similarly but with different timing, that the Federation could be descended from a group equivalent to Pax which had rebuilt the Earth after a less extensive WWIII. It definitely reflects the same idea that things would have to get much worse for humanity before we finally came to our senses and built a better world. Of course, later Trek installments, primarily First Contact, depicted Earth history in a very different way. But it’s interesting to speculate about what Roddenberry may have intended.
More U.N.C.L.E reviews…
“The Giuoco Piano Affair”: A sequel to “The Quadripartite Affair,” as UNCLE finally tracks down evil mastermind Gervaise Ravel (Anne Francis) and her rich husband/backer Bufferton (John Van Dreelen) and tries to draw them out for capture. The title references a chess gambit that, according to Solo, involves using a lesser piece as bait to draw the queen into a vulnerable position. This involves bringing back Marion Raven (Jill Ireland) for a return appearance. Ireland was David McCallum’s wife at the time, and there was an idea that Marion could be Illya’s recurring love interest, though this would be the character’s final appearance (though not the actress’s). The plan is to use her as bait for Gervaise to kidnap so they can use her as bait to capture Solo when he tries to rescue her, and then track her to Gervaise’s lair using an implanted transmitter. Except the execution doesn’t make sense, because Solo is right there with her in the Andean town where she’s paraded as kidnap bait. He’s already on hand for Gervaise’s goon to try to assassinate before the abduction and Bufferton to make contact with after — so why would Gervaise feel she had to abduct Marion to lure Solo into her reach if Solo was already in her reach? It just doesn’t make sense.
Also, even though this episode is by the same writer who created Marion, Alan Caillou, she doesn’t seem to be as assertive and adventurous a woman as she was before, instead being portrayed as more traditionally timid. Plus the way she’s recruited is weird — Illya comes to her while she’s throwing a party (whose guests are the show’s production staff, including the episode’s director Richard Donner — yes, that Richard Donner – as a drunk), and they have a loud conversation about the secret mission he’s trying to recruit her for right in front of all these party guests he’s never met. As before, UNCLE has an oddly cavalier approach to operational secrecy.
Walter Scharf does the music, and again, it’s sadly less memorable than his Mission: Impossible work. It’s largely source music for the party and the South American village, plus some cues that sound recycled from Scharf’s earlier episodes.
“The Double Affair”: Only eight episodes in and we already get an evil twin! Robert Vaughn gets to flex his acting muscles again by pretending to be someone pretending to be Napoleon Solo, as THRUSH replaces him with an impostor in order to gain access to the super-top-secret August Affair (and yes, UNCLE really does call its missions “The [Something] Affair”). The first act is a much better chess match than the previous episode which was named for a chess gambit; as THRUSH tries to abduct Solo by having the waiter summon him to the telephone, he quickly catches on that it’s an attempted abduction and gets the upper hand on his lovely abductor (Senta Berger, who somehow gets billed above David McCallum here), but THRUSH anticipated his anticipation and has countermoves, and so on. It’s a nice dance between players who see each others’ moves coming, but THRUSH has the advantage of having had more time to prepare. And so they manage to gas him unconscious and spirit him off to their hideout in the Austrian Alps, which looks exactly like the Griffith Park Observatory. Those fiends! On top of everything else, architectural plagiarism!
Unfortunately, the cleverness and perceptiveness drops off on both sides starting in Chapter 2. The Solo impostor, who was so carefully altered and trained to imitate Solo exactly, has one glaring and obvious flaw in his impersonation: He doesn’t flirt with every woman he encounters, and indeed doesn’t even notice them. This includes not recognizing the flight attendant Solo was on a date with before his abduction — even though the impostor was right there in the restaurant and should’ve recognized her! And even though Illya supposedly knows Solo so well that THRUSH tried to assassinate him before starting the mission, he totally fails to notice Solo’s uncharacteristic asexuality or any of the other anomalies that should’ve tipped him off.
(By the way, the attempt on Illya’s life is enacted by a pair of rocket-firing robot/toys right outside Del Floria’s Tailor Shop, the front for UNCLE HQ. If the bad guys know where HQ is, why even hide it? Again this show’s use of spy tropes is hard to reconcile with its portrayal of the UNCLE as a fairly open global-security organization.)
The rest is a bit of a mess too. There’s a sci-fi twist to the secret behind the August Affair, but it serves little story purpose. There’s a big mistake the impostor makes, a clue he accidentally leaves in a damning place, but it serves little purpose other than to give him an excuse to kill off the token black agent in Chapter 3 — again, part of Illya’s total failure to notice anything wrong. And when Solo manages to escape from Griffith East, his escape is made easier by the most poorly-designed evil-lair self-destruct mechanism since… well, actually most evil-lair self-destructs are poorly designed in one way or another, but this one you just have to see to believe.
The music is by Morton Stevens, and I found it much more striking this time, a very interesting, somewhat avant-garde sound. Stevens, I’ve discovered, was a protege of Jerry Goldsmith, and he’s best known for writing the Hawaii Five-O theme. Oh, and this episode also introduces a new, briefer prologue — instead of the instructional-film tour of UNCLE and the leads introducing themselves to the audience, we get a tauter, more stylish opening built around the scene in the pilot that gave us our first look at Napoleon Solo. It’s a much more effective beginning.
“The Project Strigas Affair”: This is the one episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. that I’ve seen before (not counting the ’80s reunion movie), an episode I’ve been aware of for a long time as a piece of Star Trek trivia — the one time that William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy worked together before ST. But they’re on opposite sides here. The episode has a somewhat Mission: Impossible-ish setup (though it predates M:I by a couple of years): an Eastern European warmonger, Kurasov (Werner Klemperer), is threatening to destabilize international relations, so our heroes are assigned to discredit him so he’ll be removed from power, and they employ an elaborate con game to do so.
Like M:I’s Jim Phelps, Solo and Kuryakin recruit a specialist to help them with the scam, but unlike M:I’s team members, that specialist, Michael Donfield (Shatner), is taken rather by surprise and needs to be talked into it. He’s a chemical engineer who’s given up a lucrative job to open a small exterminating business with his wife Anne (Peggy Ann Garner), which is something that S&K can spin to make it look like a cover for a secret government project. The idea is to get Colonel Klink, err, Kurasov to believe Donfield’s working on a secret weapon called Strigas (rhymes with bypass) and get him to think he’ll score a major career coup by obtaining the formula for his nameless country, thus humiliating and ruining him when it turns out to be nothing. But the plan hits rather more snags along the way than your typical M:I scheme, and there’s a fair degree of improvising. It doesn’t help that Kurasov’s aide Vladeck (Nimoy), an ambitious sort who resents Kurasov’s constant insults, does some digging of his own and disrupts plans on both sides.
It’s a pretty fun episode overall, with nice performances from Shatner, Nimoy (if you can get past his unconvincing accent), Klemperer, and Woodrow Parfrey as one of Kurasov’s agents. I always enjoy seeing Shatner in this early phase of his career, when he tended to give more laid-back and unaffected performances. Donfield, though reluctant at first, gets into the thrill of the spy game much like Pat Crowley’s character in the pilot — and unlike her, he has his spouse right there to wipe the grin off his face when he’s told he has to assume the role of a womanizer. The role is a good fit for Shatner. Mainly, though, I must admit that the principal charm of this episode is watching Napoleon Solo and Captain Kirk take on Colonel Klink and Mr. Spock. It’s a little hard to look past who the actors are to focus on their characters.
Again, Scharf does the music, and again it doesn’t stand out as much as I would’ve expected.
“The Finny Foot Affair”: Ugh, let’s just get through this one quickly. Solo and Illya play Andromeda Strain, investigating a Scottish island where everyone’s died of old age due to a bioweapon that some supposedly Japanese bad guys are also trying to get hold of (it was made by one of their countrymen during WWII and then lost until now). True to ’60s form, the speaking bad guys are white actors with eye prosthetics and phony accents and the only real Asians are in nonspeaking roles. The bad guys wing Illya so he’s stuck at London HQ while Solo pursues a lead to Norway, where the infectious agent originated. Teenage Kurt Russell latches onto Solo as a potential replacement for his dead father, and tags along to Norway, being annoyingly cute and Opie-ish the whole way. Solo keeps trying to ditch him but keeps having to drag him along as the fake-Japanese henchwoman and her muscle pursue him. Illya passes along a screamingly obvious clue (a strange oversized ring with an inscription to “marry the maiden” — I caught on in seconds that it was meant to go on a statue’s finger to reveal a clue) that Solo totally failed to figure out for two acts (though in his defense, he is a confirmed bachelor). Baby Snake Plissken remains mawkishly cute and rather stupid throughout, even as the boy is forced to experience abduction and killings and other stuff that would turn a real kid into… well, into Snake Plissken, maybe. And it all turns out to be for nothing. In-story and out.
Nothing good to say here. Morton Stevens’s music wasn’t enough to impress me this time. And even famously curvaceous ’60s exotic dancer/martial artist/actress Tura Satana was mostly wasted as the henchwoman; she had a token dance scene early on that was kind of interesting, but was too mired in confused Orientalism to be really enjoyable (why is a fake-Japanese woman dancing to belly-dancer music?). Let’s just move on before my headache gets any worse.
“The Neptune Affair”: Illya is mad — not because he’s hardly in this one, but because some rogue faction in America is launching missiles containing a fungus that’s destroying wheat fields in the USSR. Solo has 3 days to stop the next launch or they’ll retaliate and nuclear holocaust begins. Heather McNabb makes her final appearance, alas, and hypnotizes Solo with a hayseed cover identity (just an act for the most part, but he can trigger himself to really believe he’s the guy for a few hours if he’s caught and interrogated). Robert Vaughn’s performance here isn’t as interesting as the fake persona he adopted in the Carroll O’Connor episode. There, he seemed like a totally different person; here, he just seems like Solo putting on a corny accent.
Solo searches for the scientist who developed the fungus, and meets his daughter, played by Lost in Space‘s Marta Kristen, as well as her fiancee Gabe (Jeremy Slate), who’s working for a Mr. Lockridge, who’s played by Henry Jones so you know he must be evil. Solo wheedles his way onto their boat when it goes out for “night fishing,” and they knock him out and interrogate him with help from — hey, it’s Sgt. Schultz! Yup, John Banner’s being his usual jovial self, but more evilly than usual. But true to form, Schultz sees nothing and hears nothing; Solo has activated his cover persona, so their interrogation is unproductive. Their fishing expedition a failure, they cut him loose.
Later, Marta Kristen catches on that he faked his cover, but manages to clue him in that the bad guys must be based on an oil derrick just offshore. She convinces him to take her with him in exchange for the use of her rowboat, since he wants to sneak aboard. But it’s no use, since they’re monitoring everything and catch them, bringing them down to their deep undersea base where Lockridge’s band of scientists plan to wait out the apocalypse they’re about to trigger, after which they’ll ascend and rule the world scientifically and emotionlessly. Solo (who annoyingly keeps up his fake persona well after they’ve figured out he’s a spy) manages to appeal to Gabe’s emotions to get his help in stopping the plan.
Hey, just imagine if UNCLE weren’t around — WWIII happens just on the schedule that Captain Shark from “The Shark Affair” thought it would, because Lockridge triggered it. Civilization is wiped out, and the only survivors are Shark’s group of well-intentioned utopians aboard their ship and Lockridge’s group of conquest-minded technocrats in their undersea base. That could make for an interesting post-apocalyptic struggle between the two factions.
An okay episode, but the past two have sort of a similarly awkward format — a tense, high-stakes setup being largely ignored as it’s just an excuse for the ensuing hijinks of the episode. I suppose plenty of Mission: Impossible episodes, Bond movies, and the like are structured similarly — the evil plot being just a McGuffin to motivate the story — but in these cases I didn’t find the hijinks as interesting as the setup.
The music this time is credited to both Goldsmith and Scharf, though a lot of it sounded like stock. Goldsmith’s work remains my favorite among the composers so far.
A weird dubbing issue here — there’s an explosive gas that’s a plot point here, and every time they say its name, it’s awkwardly dubbed over with “hydro.” I’m guessing it was originally “nitro” and they changed it at the last minute, but why?
“The Dove Affair”: This one’s too convoluted to summarize point-by-point, so I’ll just given an overview. This is the most Illya-free episode since the second; he isn’t even mentioned. It’s Solo truly solo, playing a cat-and-mouse game against Ricardo Montalban as Satine, the charming-but-deadly secret police chief of a fictional Balkan country. Solo was sent to retrieve the premier’s dove medallion containing vital information about THRUSH, but the premier was murdered just before he got there, and he must steal the dove. The cabinet secretary works for THRUSH and wants Solo arrested and accused of the crime to discredit UNCLE. Satine’s boss, the new, weaker premier, doesn’t want that, so he orders Satine to retrieve the dove (which they need for reasons of their own) and keep Solo from being taken alive — by either helping him escape or killing him. So Satine and Solo keep charmingly and deviously going from working together to battling each other, and a school tour group led by teacher June Lockhart gets caught in the middle. It’s fun to watch Vaughn and Montalban banter and play out their gentlemanly rivalry, but there are some plot contrivances like a couple of convenient hangups Satine has that give Solo an edge over him at key moments, and some conveniently accidental interventions by a couple of Lockhart’s schoolkids (the kind of TV “kids” played by actors in their 20s).
I also have to wonder why a spy chief in a Balkan country would have a Mexican accent, but then, I’ve often wondered the same thing about Khan in Star Trek. Montalban was like Sean Connery, I guess: you want him, you get the accent with him.
The music’s credited to Goldsmith, but I think by this point in the season it’s reasonable to assume it’s all stock. I definitely recognized some of it.
Well, I finally got my author copies of the Only Superhuman audiobook adaptation from GraphicAudio. It’s been getting uniformly 5-star reviews at their site, which is nice to see. Here’s what it looks like:
(There are seven discs, in four two-pocket sleeves. No liner notes or anything, just a GraphicAudio catalog and a promotional postcard for a couple of their other products.)
So what does it sound like? Pretty good. Naturally my experience of it is going to be different from most people’s, since I’ve had my own idea about what the major characters sound like for years, and can’t help comparing the voice cast and their performances against the soundtrack in my head. And naturally, a number of the voices and performance choices are different from what I imagined. But considering that I had no input into the production, it’s actually gratifying how close it comes to what I had in mind.
GraphicAudio is apparently based in the DC area, since (as far as I can Google) many of their actors seem to be stage performers from that area. Unfortunately, the end credits only list the five lead performers by role, so I can’t identify who played the rest of the characters.
The director and narrator is Nanette Savard (who also plays Lois Lane for the company’s DC Comics adaptations), who has a voice quality a bit like how I imagine Emerald’s voice — not much, but enough to make her an appropriate choice to narrate a book told mostly from Emry’s POV. (And enough to spark the idle thought that maybe the narrator is an older Emry, or maybe a descendant, telling the story in retrospect.) She does a solid job, striking a good balance between detachment and emotional expressiveness.
Emerald herself is played by Alyssa Wilmoth Keegan (billed here as Alyssa Wilmoth). She’s not exactly what I had in mind (she’s mezzo rather than full soprano), and she’s not the screamer Emry’s described as in the text (which might’ve been too hard on the actress’s voice, granted), but she’s actually quite a good choice for the role vocally, with the right kind of rough edge and attitude, and she does a good job of capturing Emry’s blend of street-hardened toughness and youthful vulnerability. I’m really quite pleased with her performance, especially in some of Emry’s big emotional speeches in the final chapter or two. Wilmoth’s husband Thomas Keegan plays Zephyr, and he’s almost exactly what I was going for — a mellow baritone with a very human, laid-back, amiable delivery, rather than something more robotic as I feared we might get. Having a married couple play Emry and her devoted ship is a good choice chemistry-wise.
Eliot Thorne is played, coincidentally, by Elliot Dash, who’s very effective in the role. Dash’s voice took me a bit of getting used to, since I’ve always imagined Thorne as sounding like Avery Brooks or Keith David’s Goliath from Gargoyles, a smooth, controlled basso, while Dash’s voice reminds me more of Paul Winfield’s, and he imparts the role with more passion and less reserve than I imagined. Still, he gives the role the gravitas, intensity, and oratorical splendor it deserves.
I’m afraid I wasn’t quite as impressed by Colleen Delany (also GraphicAudio’s Wonder Woman) as Psyche. She has broadly the right type of voice and does an okay job, but her performance is a bit too polished and announcer-like to be entirely convincing for me. Perhaps the problem is that the bar in my mind is set so very high. Psyche’s supposed to have an incredibly beautiful, warmly seductive voice, a smooth and mellow alto — my ideal voice-casting choice would be Gina Torres. It would’ve been difficult to find anyone who really lived up to my hopes.
As for the rest of the cast, there are more hits than misses, and I wish I could match the actors to the roles. The performers playing Greg Tai and Sally Knox are ideal. The portrayers of Emry’s parents splendidly capture their personalities; Lyra’s pitch is lower than what I had in mind, but that was probably a better choice in terms of casting a maternal voice. Arkady Nazarbayev turned out very well; I didn’t have a clear voice for him in my head, but they cast an actor who sounds uncannily like Clancy Brown, which is just the sort of voice-casting choice I might’ve made myself had it occurred to me. Javon Moremba is very close to what I wanted, and in fact the way their actor delivered the line “But I loved this car!” was almost exactly what I hear in my head. And while there was no hope of getting Hanuman Kwan to sound like he does in my head (because I wrote him with Roddy McDowall’s inimitably wonderful voice in mind, despite claiming he was Australian), their actor, while more of a Tony Randall-ish baritone, captured the delivery and personality I had in mind quite well. Plus, though it’s a tiny role, Blitz is handled better than I ever imagined, sounding almost like a Mark Hamill villain voice. Other supporting characters like Rachel, Lodestar, and Hijab are solidly handled.
There are a few choices that don’t work as well for me. I feel their Koyama Hikari was miscast; the actress’s voice and delivery would’ve worked well for Ruki Shimoda but just aren’t right for Kari. I’m not crazy about their Cowboy, whose accent is too goofy; granted, it’s supposed to be a corny affectation that Emry finds ludicrous, but they took it too far and I feel it undermines the character’s menace. And their Sensei Villareal is just completely wrong. Sensei is supposed to be a wise, charming mentor figure, a respected hero renowned for his integrity, an aging swashbuckler and Latin lover. (My mental model for the character was Henry Darrow, who played Zorro in two early ’80s shows and Zorro’s father in a ’90s show.) The actor here doesn’t come close to conveying any of that, and has a stilted and unconvincing delivery. It’s the one performance that works against, not only my own intentions and expectations, but what’s actually there in the spoken text.
Still, given how many voices they had to cast, and given my total lack of input beyond what’s on the page, it’s impressive that there were so few misses.
(Other “voices in my head” that guided me as I wrote: For Emry, Lenore Zann, the voice of Rogue from the ’90s X-Men animated series — though I often thought Bernadette Peters would be a good alternative, and lately I’ve felt that Amy Jo Johnson’s voice would be a great fit. For Tai, Daniel Dae Kim. For Javon, Khary Payton. For Bast, Julie Newmar or Eartha Kitt. For Zephyr, I’ve always tended to imagine Kevin Conroy doing a deeper version of his Bruce Wayne voice, but I’ve never been sure that was the best choice; Zephyr’s supposed to have a voice women find really sexy, and that’s not something I’m particularly qualified to assess. Thomas Keegan actually sounds a lot like Conroy, though with a bit of David Hyde-Pierce mixed in.)
I do wish they’d consulted me on a couple of pronunciations, though, as well as some of the casting choices. They use Americanized pronunciations for “Villareal” and “Lydie Clement” (they rhyme “Lydie” with “Heidi”) when I intended them to have, respectively, Spanish and French pronunciations. On the other hand, I realize that I’ve been Americanizing the pronunciation of “Arkady” all these years, saying it like “arcade-y” when the Russian A is pretty much always pronounced “ah.” So the audiobook has set me straight on that one.
So what about the adaptation of the text? At nearly 8 hours, it’s fairly thorough, but not comprehensive; a significant amount of stuff is trimmed out. In particular, Kari’s scenes are heavily cut down, making her a considerably more minor character here than in the original. (Ironic, since I’ve grown very fond of Kari and intend to feature her heavily if there are sequels.) In general, supporting characters’ backstories are glossed over, so a lot of the personal detail — as well as some of the technical detail and exposition — is absent. Action scenes are streamlined, which makes sense from a pacing standpoint; and most of the sex is trimmed down or omitted, though a lot of the nudity remains (and there’s even one point where the streamlining of the text results in more nudity than there was originally). A few of the cuts are a bit awkward, though, deleting a scene but leaving in a later reference to something from that scene. (In particular, Kari’s battle peace and personal guilt are mentioned even though the explanations for both are deleted.) There are a couple of points where lines are assigned to the wrong character, but they’re ambiguous enough that they kind of still work that way. Also, it’s not based on the final copyedited draft of the manuscript; there are some details and word choices that I remember altering in the final version, and my last-minute addition of Kari using high-tech tessen fans as weapons is missing.
There are a couple of sound-editing choices that surprised me, but I realize it’s because of the lack of stage directions I gave. One is the scene in chapter 3 where someone notifies Lyra Blair of an incident young Emerald was involved in, which I wrote as dialogue-only for effect; I always assumed it was someone coming to Lyra’s front door, but here it was interpreted as a phone call. That probably makes more sense, come to think of it. And the brunch scene with Emry and Grandma Rachel (here called lunch instead) was supposed to be a very private, personal conversation in Rachel’s home, but they did it with restaurant ambience in the background. I guess I needed to make the setting clearer than I did. It’s a common failing of mine, writing a scene with too little description of the setting. Or maybe they chose to change it for acoustical variety. I suppose their interpretation could work if the characters were in a private booth or balcony of some sort, isolated enough that they wouldn’t be overheard by other diners.
But while there are some details that could’ve been improved if I’d been consulted (something I should try to negotiate for in future contracts), overall it’s an impressive work. The majority of the actors are appropriately cast and give good, convincing performances, and the sound effects and Foley work are good (although I’m not crazy about the use of sound effects for things happening in vacuum, particularly when they were being described in narration anyway). The music seems to be drawn from a stock library spanning a variety of styles, but it mostly fits fairly well and is used in appropriate places. All told, this is certainly the most lavish audiobook production I’ve ever heard.
In sum, this is a good supplement to the novel, but not an exact, unabridged equivalent to the prose version. Rather, it’s an adaptation, an alternative take on the story. To those who’ve only bought the audiobook, I’d recommend getting the novel for the complete, canonical story; if you don’t want to spring for the hardcover or e-book, the paperback’s only 6 months away, or at least you could look for it at the library. As for those who’ve bought the novel, I’d say the audiobook is still worth getting, a good interpretation of the novel, capturing the essentials of what I created (mostly) but putting a different spin on it, thus adding another dimension to the experience. Besides, I don’t know if there will ever be a movie adaptation (Hollywood doesn’t seem interested in female-led superhero films these days), so this may be the only dramatization the story ever gets.
And heck, it’s just impressive that a bunch of actors and other folks got together to put on a performance of something I wrote, to bring it to life. And that most of them really seemed to get it, just from what was on the page. Both of those are quite heartening, and I’m grateful for the hard work and care the creators and performers put into this adaptation.
I’ve recently begun renting season one of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. from Netflix, and I wanted to post some thoughts about it. This won’t be as detailed as my Mission: Impossible reviews; I think I got a little too in-depth with those, and I’m not sure I have the time to go to such length. But I wanted to post my thoughts about it anyway.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. premiered in 1964, and was developed by Sam Rolfe from concepts by Norman Felton and an uncredited Ian Fleming, so it has some James Bond-like elements. It was originally meant to focus on a single lead character, as the title suggests; indeed, Robert Vaughn’s character is actually named Napoleon Solo. But David McCallum made such a strong impression in his brief appearance as Illya Kuryakin in the pilot that they made him a regular — though we didn’t actually see him partnered with Solo until episode 3.
U.N.C.L.E. is the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement — something the show’s producers made a point of specifying in the introductory sequence and the closing gag credit where they thank the organization for its help in the production. The original plan was for it to be a United Nations organ, but the real UN objected to having its name used in a fictional context, so the “Network” name was coined and repeatedly stressed to appease the UN. In the episodes I’ve seen so far, Solo usually gives the acronym as “the U-N-C…L-E,” to further drive home the distinction. (Which makes me wonder if the title of the show is meant to be pronounced “The Man from You-en-see-ell-ee” rather than “The Man from Uncle.” I doubt it ever has been, though.)
Anyway, despite the careful separation from the UN, UNCLE is very much an international organization, with even hostile nations like the US and the USSR cooperating against enemies that threaten the whole world — primarily the Fleming-created organization THRUSH, itself an international organization of aspiring world conquerors, ruthless assassins, evil scientists, and other assorted villains. Their acronym was never explained in the show, though the tie-in novels claimed it stood for “Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity.” In addition to Vaughn and McCallum, the show starred Leo G. Carroll in a charmingly stodgy performance as UNCLE’s New York branch chief, Alexander Waverly. (UNCLE HQ is hidden behind a secret wall in Del Floria’s Tailor Shop in Manhattan.)
Moving on to the episodes, all of which are called “The [Something] Affair”:
“The Vulcan Affair”: This is a black-and-white, cut-down version of the original color pilot, which also had a theatrical release with some expanded footage. The color pilot will be on the last disc of the season 1 set. Anyway, the episode is written by Sam Rolfe and is very strong. I quickly became fond of the clever dialogue and character writing, and it establishes the season’s wry but relatively serious attitude. Vaughn establishes Solo’s persona clearly right away — unflappably professional, cool under pressure, and with a Bond-like eye for the ladies (and vice-versa), but with more of a sense of whimsy and occasionally almost childlike playfulness, as if the whole thing is a game to him. The word “impish” comes to mind.
In the pilot, Solo tries to foil an assassination plot masterminded by THRUSH agent Andrew Vulcan (Fritz Weaver), and recruits Vulcan’s old flame Elaine (Pat Crowley) to get close to him. Housewife Elaine is drawn to the excitement of the spy life and the glamorous identity she assumes, and torn by her reawakened feelings for Vulcan, while Solo has to cope with the consequences of drawing this innocent into his spy games. The pilot establishes the pattern of the series, with most every episode involving an “innocent” getting caught up in the story. The way Solo (and Kuryakin in later episodes) interacts with civilians is surprising after all the off-book secrecy of Mission: Impossible; the U.N.C.L.E. (as they themselves call it, or “Uncle” as everyone else calls it) is a well-known organization, and Solo & Kuryakin openly introduce themselves to civilians as its agents, rather than using cover identities and deception. It’s a little confusing; is (the) U.N.C.L.E. a spy agency or more of an international police force? The show seems to want to play it both ways.
The music is by Jerry Goldsmith, and thus is excellent. I really like Goldsmith’s theme for the series, which has a syncopated Latin rhythm that reminds me of West Side Story while also having elements of orchestration and melody that remind me of John Williams’s themes for Irwin Allen shows. But it has some very Goldsmithian touches too, like a driving and rhythmically complex ostinato that makes a very welcome earworm.
The conventions of the show’s title sequences are established here as well. Like many ’60s shows, it followed the shots of the regular cast with shots introducing the featured guest stars of the episode, and each act opened with a chapter title shown onscreen, usually a quirky reference to something in the scenes to come or a quote of a line of dialogue from the act. I love that. I’m fond of titles, and I love it that not only every episode, but every act (or “chapter”) gets its own title.
“The Iowa-Scuba Affair”: The title tells the tale. Solo (truly solo, since Illya isn’t in the episode at all) investigates murder and sabotage in a farming town next to an underground Air Force base, and explores the mystery of why the saboteurs are using SCUBA gear in the middle of Iowa, and what Slim Pickens has to do with it. (Spoiler: he does not end up riding on the back of a nuclear bomb and going “Yee-haw!” Though there’s a moment or two when it seemed he might be headed in that direction.) The “innocent” is a farm girl (Katherine Crawford) who was dating an Air Force man who turned out to be a saboteur (and was killed by Solo, something the farm girl is rather blase about).
All in all, not as impressive an episode as the pilot. Although it has a great bit establishing Waverly’s dry British wit: After Solo survives an assassination attempt (poison gas in the shower head) and reports it to HQ, Waverly says: “Report further such attempts immediately.” (Thoughtful pause) “Unless they’re successful.”
The music is by Morton Stevens this time, and it’s not bad, but doesn’t stand out in my memory. The episode is most notable as the debut of May Heatherly as recurring UNCLE HQ staffer Heather McNabb, who’s basically Miss Moneypenny only in more of a researcher/tech support capacity, and who’s really, really hot (replacing a different actress/character in an identical role in the pilot). Unfortunately her run on the series will be brief.
This episode introduces the standard opening, a very stilted introduction to the premise and characters that feels like an old instructional film or documentary. The lead characters actually speak directly to the audience to introduce themselves and tell us their jobs within UNCLE. It plays very oddly to the modern eye and takes way too long.
“The Quadripartite Affair”: UNCLE vs. the Scarecrow! The bad guys this time are a scientist who’s invented a fear-inducing gas and the unspecified evil organization planning to use it for nefarious purposes. The innocent is Marion Raven (no, not Karen Allen, but Jill Ireland), plucky daughter of the first fear-gas victim, whom Illya is assigned to protect and who later insists on accompanying the duo on their mission to the villains’ mountain stronghold. This is Illya’s first big episode, and he’s established as a dour and driven Russian in contrast to Solo’s droll and playful persona. He keeps advising Marion to treat him as not even there, just part of the scenery, but she’s not inclined to play along. It seems they were already playing on the fact that David McCallum was anything but unnoticeable, having made such an impression in one brief scene that they made him a regular two episodes later. McCallum became a major sex symbol with female viewers, and my personal suspicion is that the real reason Gene Roddenberry created the Russian Mr. Chekov for Star Trek was in hopes of emulating Kuryakin’s audience appeal (since the Pravda article that Roddenberry claimed to be his inspiration apparently never existed).
The weirdest thing about this episode for me is that it features a heroic Harry Mudd against an evil Oscar Goldman. Roger C. Carmel plays a local mountain man who helps the team infiltrate the enemy base, and Richard Anderson plays the surly, bitter military man who heads the enemy force. (I was surprised to see that Anderson was balding here. All that time, Oscar was wearing a rug! Although now that I think about it, that was kind of obvious, wasn’t it?) The bad guys are working with, or for, a wealthy woman named Gervaise Ravel, played by Anne Francis, who makes a stunning brunette. She gets away at the end and will fortunately be back in episode 7.
The music here is by Walter Scharf, whose work I praised in my M:I reviews (and whose best-known work is probably the National Geographic theme). It’s nice to hear his work again, but unfortunately the music doesn’t carry the action and storytelling to the same extent here as it did on M:I, so he doesn’t get to be as impressive here (or in the next episode, which he also scores).
And I’m amused to learn that the episode’s writer, Alan Caillou, was also an actor who played The Head, Conrad Janis’s boss, in the brief but memorable sci-fi sitcom Quark from the late ’70s.
“The Shark Affair”: UNCLE vs. Captain Nemo! Investigating a series of odd pirate raids, abductions, and disappearances — of supplies as odd as shoelaces and building supplies and professions as odd as thatchers, glaziers, and piano tuners — leads Napoleon and Illya to a ship commanded by Captain Shark, a modern-day Nemo played brilliantly by Robert Culp (just a year before starring in his own spy show, I Spy). And I’m not kidding — aside from having a ship rather than a submarine, this character is a virtually exact pastiche of Captain Nemo, a good man grown disillusioned with the warfare of the world and using advanced technology, cunning, and surprisingly debonair piracy to build his own utopian community aboard his vessel, with Solo and Kuryakin somewhat filling the roles of Aronnax and Ned Land. Shark is convinced that nuclear holocaust is only months away and is building an ark of survivors with the range of skills and knowledge necessary to rebuild. He’s an admirable character in a lot of ways and Culp makes him deeply sympathetic, but Solo still has to stop him, arguing that good men need to participate in solving the world’s problems rather than retreating from them.
The downside of the episode is the innocent, a caricatured Brooklyn housewife played for laughs by Sue Ane Langdon. There’s kind of a cute running gag where she keeps accidentally hitting Illya in the face with doors, but the comic broadness of her character and her interactions with her husband (one of the disappeared, with whom she’s reunited aboardship) get a little annoying and clash unfortunately with Culp’s marvelous dramatic performance.
“The Deadly Games Affair”: UNCLE vs. THRUSH vs. Nazis! Solo & Ilya are pitted against a THRUSH agent in the chase for valuable secrets left by a Nazi scientist who’s not as dead as was believed. The THRUSH agent, Angelique (Janine Gray, who’s a somewhat Julie Newmar-esque type only not quite as attractive), is a past — and current — romantic interest for Solo. Illya doesn’t understand how his partner can be so amorous with someone who’d kill him without a qualm, but it’s just part of the way Solo sees his business as a game, with Angelique seeing it much the same way. They’re kind of like Ralph Wolf and Sam Sheepdog in the Chuck Jones cartoons — trying to defeat and/or kill each other is their job, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be friendly off the clock (though Ralph and Sam were never this friendly). In their efforts to track down or flush out the Nazi (Alexander Scourby) with the help of the innocent, a student he recruited by mail to sell his valuable stamp collection for funding, they go from cooperating to battling; Angelique naturally betrays Solo the moment their truce is no longer useful to her, but ultimately needs him to rescue her from the real menace. I don’t think I’ll spoil the big secret the Nazi scientist is keeping (though IMDb and Wikipedia both spoil it, and you can probably guess it), but let’s just say it’s something that horrifies Angelique as much as it does Solo. And it’s the most science-fictional, implausible premise to show up in the series so far. I’m afraid I found it to be a bit too much to really buy into.
On the plus side, Goldsmith is scoring again, and is still doing great work, here and in the next episode, which is…
“The Green Opal Affair”: UNCLE vs. Archie Bunker! Okay, that gag is wearing thin. Solo goes undercover to infiltrate the organization of eccentric rich guy and THRUSH supporter Walter Brach (Carroll O’Connor) in order to uncover and dismantle his brainwashing operation, but it turns out to be a trap to capture and brainwash Solo. The innocent is another housewife, Chris (Joan O’Brien), whom Brach is going to brainwash so she’ll push her genius husband to be more ambitious and rise to a high position that THRUSH can exploit. Why they don’t just brainwash hubby instead is unclear and seems to be just a plot contrivance so Chris can learn a lesson about ambition not being all it’s cracked up to be.
The most impressive thing about this episode is Robert Vaughn’s acting. Solo goes undercover as a foppish, effeminate personal secretary in order to infiltrate Brach’s organization, and Vaughn does a fantastic job of Clark Kenting, totally transforming his body language and appearance and coming off as a completely different, if somewhat broad and theatrical, character. It’s really impressive work, and I hope there are more undercover-Solo episodes to come so I can see more of what Vaughn is capable of as a character actor. (By the way, Illya is hardly in this one, appearing just in the early expository scenes. I wonder if this was an early episode that got delayed and reshot/rewritten to add Illya to a scene or two.)
Otherwise, the episode is mainly notable for giving Heather McNabb her biggest role yet. It gives the impression they were setting her up as a major recurring character, so it’s odd that this is her second-last appearance.
…and this time around I definitely noticed a lot of the flaws that have been pointed out in the film by various reviewers. The stock market and chase sequence going from broad daylight to pitch darkness in under 8 minutes of story time is one of the most glaring. And while, sure, the cops still being clean-shaven after months in the sewers is a problem, I’m more troubled by a) why they sent virtually the entire police force on the manhunt in the first place instead of keeping a reasonable number of cops in reserve aboveground and b) why all the cops were still trapped by the explosions even though we saw Matthew Modine order the cops out of the sewers a whole minute before the bombs went off.
As for Commissioner Gordon still having the speech in his jacket pocket at least a day after the scene introducing it, I can buy that. I’ve been known to leave things in my coat pockets by accident. So that part didn’t bother me. Although I did wonder if maybe the scenes with Selina getting her payoff and the police raid afterward, leading to Gordon’s capture in the sewers, were perhaps scripted to take place on the same night as the opening scenes but then shuffled later in editing to improve the pacing.
But there was a problem that occurred to me about the film’s plot that I haven’t heard anyone else point out. Namely, the idea that Bruce developed this revolutionary fusion reactor technology, the key to clean energy and saving the world from environmental disaster, and he just sat on it and refused to put it to use because… because he was afraid someone would use the technology to make nuclear bombs.
Now, never mind the physical absurdity of turning a fusion reactor into a fusion bomb. In real life, fusion bombs need fission bombs as triggers, so the only way to make a fusion reactor explode is to drop an atom bomb on it, in which case it’s pretty much going to explode anyway. But this is fiction, and it’s supposed to be a whole new kind of fusion power, and only one guy in the world has ever figured out how to turn it into a bomb so clearly it’s not easy to do. That’s enough of a fudge that I can suspend disbelief for the sake of the story.
No, my problem is with Bruce’s moral reasoning. I can understand someone not wanting people to build nuclear bombs. I think just about everyone not of the supervillain persuasion can agree that those are bad things. But, see, here’s the thing… we’ve already got nuclear bombs. There are already more than enough of them in existence to destroy all life on Earth multiple times over. So, really, how would things have gotten any worse if Bruce had distributed the reactor technology? He deprived the world of something very beneficial and positive in order to avoid the creation of a threat that was already created nearly 70 years ago! I’m sorry, but that seems like an indefensible moral calculus. Okay, maybe the danger was of the reactors falling into the hands of terrorists or rogue nations, but there’s already that same danger with nuclear arsenals and weapons-grade materials. Bruce was desperately holding the barn door closed, but the cattle were long gone. He should have released the reactor tech — and made the world’s governments fully aware of the potential dangers of its abuse so they could be safeguarded against. There was no good reason for him not to do that.
Also, if Bruce and Lucius Fox were so concerned about preventing dangerous technologies like the reactor and the various weapons and military vehicles in Fox’s secret warehouse, then why did they keep them? Why not dismantle them or not build them at all? Didn’t it occur to them that if you don’t want the bad guys to get their hands on this stuff, then maybe it’s not wise to stockpile it all in one handy location?
On the plus side, Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman is still awesome. It’s totally unfair that they aren’t making a spinoff movie about her.
For a while now, I’ve noticed that my local library branch had all four volumes of the Diana Prince: Wonder Woman trade paperbacks. These are a comprehensive collection of the 25-issue (bimonthly) run from 1968 to 1972 when Wonder Woman gave up her superpowers and star-spangled costume and became a civilian crimefighter modeled on The Avengers‘s Emma Peel, a fashionable martial artist who was easily the equal of any man. (This was initially billed as The New Wonder Woman, then Diana Prince as The New Wonder Woman, and finally Diana Prince as Wonder Woman.) The change was masterminded by writer Dennis O’Neil, who did a lot in the early ’70s to bring new maturity and relevance to DC Comics. O’Neil is known for bringing Batman back to his serious, gritty roots (at least compared to the former goofiness of ’50s/’60s Batman comics which the Adam West sitcom quite accurately captured, contrary to popular belief) and for bringing Green Lantern down to Earth and sending him on an extended road trip with liberal activist Green Arrow to find America and explore the conflict between the letter of the law and true justice. The New Wonder Woman reboot was an earlier attempt to make one of DC’s iconic figures more grounded and relatable — and more to the point, an attempt to revive flagging sales of a series which had been under creative decline under former writer/editor Robert Kanigher and was verging on cancellation. The reboot succeeded in that respect, creating new interest and saving the title from the axe, but critical reactions to it in retrospect have been mixed, making me hesitant to read the issues. But recently I read this column on Comic Book Resources which examined the beginning and end of the era, and the excerpts made me curious enough to want to read the whole thing. And yeah, it’s a bit of a mess, but an interesting one.
Also quite a good-looking one. The pencil art for most of the run was by Mike Sekowsky (who also wrote most of it) with inks by Dick Giordano, and their version of “Diana (Wonder Woman) Prince,” as she was referred to in captions, was rather striking and glamorous. The character was not generally sexualized in the way modern comic-book heroines tend to be (although there are a couple of covers of Diana in bondage), but she was definitely nice to look at. Rather than wearing a costume, she went through a variety of “mod” fashions, initially in a range of colors, but by about a quarter of the way through the run, the colorists had settled on dressing her in pure white all the time — perhaps a sort of compromise between the original fashion-plate idea and the comic-book convention of having the main hero in a recognizable “costume.”
The story begins by dismantling the series’s old tropes. First, in issue 178, WW’s love interest Steve Trevor is framed for murder, and WW’s honesty forces her to give damning testimony that Steve had hated the victim, leading to his conviction. Feeling she’s failed him as Wonder Woman, she decides to investigate as Diana Prince — and to blend in with the “hippie crowd” she needs to investigate, she gets a “mod” makeover, ditching Prince’s former frumpy-Army-secretary look for a much more glamorous and contemporary one. She frees Steve, who gains a new appreciation for Diana (unaware that Diana is WW), leading WW to think she has to change to hold Steve’s interest. But clearly the ideas were in flux, because this isn’t followed up on at all. The big changes that happen next issue arise from entirely unrelated factors.
And they happen quite quickly, within a few pages. Steve is convinced by a superior to go undercover as a traitor to infiltrate the organization of the evil Doctor Cyber. WW intends to help prove his innocence, but she’s summoned home to Paradise Island. In just two pages, she learns that the Amazons are leaving for another dimension to recharge their fading magic, chooses to stay behind to help Steve, renounces her costume and powers, and sees her home vanish forever. Now she’s just an ordinary, broke mortal looking for a job and a home. Within another page, she encounters an elderly, blind Chinese man who turns out to be a martial-arts whiz and has unexplained mystical knowledge of her identity and past. He’s named I Ching, improbably enough, and he initially speaks in a stereotyped broken English that fortunately gets toned down later. He’s also an enemy of Dr. Cyber, and spends weeks (but only two montage panels) training Diana into a martial-arts expert. Steve shows up injured and beaten by Cyber’s agents and is hospitalized. But in the next issue, Diana, Ching, and a hardboiled detective named Trench pursue Cyber, and as they enter her lair, Steve randomly shows up with no explanation and gets randomly shot dead. Which is far from the most cursory and ill-justified major change we’ll see in these pages. For one thing, we’re subsequently shown that Diana has opened a clothing boutique sometime during all this training and tragedy. She was thinking about opening a shop of some sort just before she met I Ching, but the details were skipped over and the shop is later presented as a fait accompli.
Dr. Cyber turns out to be a beautiful woman in a high-collared cloak, a Bond-style evil scientist out to conquer the world with various convoluted schemes involving high technology and sexy henchwomen. Diana, having added to her repertoire with spy gadgets disguised as jewelry, works with Ching and Trench to pursue Cyber over the next few issues, though Trench bails on them at the same time that O’Neil turns over the writing reins to Sekowsky with issue 182. From here on, there will be a different romantic interest for Diana turning up every few issues, and she’ll kind of chastely fall for all of them within a few pages even though many of them are kind of jerks. As Sekowsky writes her, Diana is less in control of her emotions now that she’s mortal, and has to learn to cope with this thing we humans call love.
Sekowsky wastes no time reversing one of the key ideas of O’Neil’s reboot. He uses his first issue to wrap up the Dr. Cyber arc, then right after that, Diana is summoned back to Paradise Island to help them fend off an invasion by Ares — just four issues after Diana supposedly cut ties with the Amazons forever. The island is still in an alternate dimension, but now easily accessible — though Sekowsky doesn’t bother to explain why Diana still has to go without her superpowers and equipment if this is the case. Here we also get our first demonstration of the fact that, as written by Sekowsky, Diana is a warrior with no qualms about using deadly force — something that’s often part of how she’s written in modern times, but apparently made its debut here. (Also, weirdly, Diana summons help for the Amazons from other dimensional planes where mythic heroes like Arthur and Siegfried dwell, but it never occurs to her to ask her old Justice League teammates for help.)
The weirdness continues when Diana returns home. She liberates a young girl named Cathy from a trio of weirdly dressed women called “THEM” who keep her as a slave, then gives Cathy a job in her boutique — whereupon in subsequent issues the ex-slave repeatedly jokes quite cheerfully about Diana being a slave-driver of a boss. Either it’s a serious failure of character consistency, or it’s implying that Cathy actually liked being a sub and had something kinky going on with Diana.
The trades include Diana’s crossover appearances in other comics during the era, starting with a completely insane Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane issue by Robert Kanigher, WW’s former writer. The way Lois was portrayed at this time is hard to reconcile with the strong, independent Lois we know today — in her own book, she’s completely, pathologically obsessed with getting Superman to marry her and seeking to destroy any real or imagined rivals for his affections, in this case a Diana who suddenly seems to have her powers back and then some, though all is not as it appears. The cover sums up the whole mentality behind this issue, with Superman cheerfully watching the catfight as Wonder Woman tosses Lois, his own official, titular girlfriend, over her head. Superman really was a jerk back then. This issue is followed by a somewhat less insane crossover, a Sekowsky-Giordano issue of The Brave and the Bold teaming Diana with Batman as they take on an evil race-car driver who kills all his opponents and is somehow still allowed to drive race cars professionally. In this story, Bruce Wayne recognizes Diana as the former Wonder Woman, but she doesn’t know he’s Batman (even after Bruce is injured and “calls in a favor” to arrange for Batman to race in his stead).
Next comes a multiparter set mostly in Hong Kong and bringing back Dr. Cyber, as well as I Ching’s daughter Lu Shan, who turns out to be working for Cyber and accuses Ching of murdering her mother. It’s never explained why she thinks this or whether it’s true. Cyber has her face scarred by hot coals in one issue, and in the next is rather definitively killed off. We next get another rather violent issue where Diana follows I Ching across the Chinese border to help some villagers escape the Communist government.
But the book continues to veer from topical to fanciful, since the next storyline has Diana swept into a parallel dimension where she helps some noble “barbarians” defeat an evil queen who rules from Castle Greyskull (okay, just Castle Skull) by violating the Prime Directive big time and inventing gunpowder and cannons for them. Sekowsky sure didn’t stint on the violence. This story was published across three issues, but the middle issue is actually a reprint of issue 179 with a few framing pages setting up the flashback. The TPB collection doesn’t include the reprint part.
After another more down-to-earth issue where Diana helps catch a murderer, we get an ill-conceived retelling of The Prisoner of Zenda (the credits actually read “Adapted from a story by Anthony Hope Hawkins.”). Diana’s traveling in Europe and turns out to be an exact double for the local princess, and ends up impersonating her to protect her from an abduction plot. Sekowsky seems to forget that our mod mortal heroine spent most of her life as an Amazon princess, since Diana seems clueless about the whole royal lifestyle. I could buy it if she were putting on an act to conceal her past secret identity, but it extends to her private thoughts as well. And this is just two issues after a storyline that depended on her Amazon ties. The inconsistencies in this run are very weird.
After a ghost-story one-shot, we get World’s Finest 204, crossing Superman with Diana in an O’Neil-scripted story touching on the student riots that were topical at the time, though mainly dealing with time travel to a desolate future resulting from the death of a key person in the riots. The story has an interestingly, though awkwardly, ambiguous ending.
Issue 196 combined three stories: a new Sekowsky-Giordano story about Diana protecting an ambassador from assassination, and a couple of Golden Age reprints, one previously unpublished. The trade includes only the original story. This is Sekowsky’s final issue, and I wonder if his departure was abrupt, because the next two issues are double-length reprints of issues 181-184, with only the covers included in the trade.
O’Neil returns as writer for the next few issues, with Don Heck pencils and Giordano inks in #199 and Giordano solo art for the rest of the run. The first 2-parter brings back Lu Shan and the supposedly dead Dr. Cyber, who wants to put her brain in Diana’s body to restore the beauty she lost (an all too typical motivation for female villains in the era). Oddly, in these later issues, O’Neil assumes that Diana Prince is publicly known as “the Wonder Woman,” even though there was no prior indication that the secret of Diana’s former identity had ever been exposed. It’s just another bit of sloppy continuity. However, there’s no specific reference to Wonder Woman ever having been a costumed Amazon superhero; it’s treated as just a nickname that Diana’s picked up through her exploits.
After this is a 2-parter in which Diana gets dragged into the pursuit of a sacred jewel that Catwoman (in one of her less flattering costumes) is also hunting — and in part 2, with SF writer Samuel R. Delany taking over as scripter, the cast gets dragged by the magic jewel into the world of Newhon, home of Fritz Lieber’s prose characters Fahfrd and the Gray Mouser! Apparently this was a backdoor pilot for a short-lived, O’Neil-scripted comic series starring the duo. There’s another random continuity change here, since O’Neil has Diana sell off her boutique to fund her trip in pursuit of the jewel. I don’t know why this is, since it was O’Neil who gave her the boutique in the first place. Lu Shan is also in this storyline, but is rather cavalierly written out, and her accusation that I Ching murdered her mother is never resolved or explained.
Next comes another Brave and the Bold Batman team-up by Bob Haney and Jim Aparo, and in this story, Diana knows that Bruce is Batman, though she didn’t discover that in their previous meeting. It’s also the first story in quite a while where we’ve seen Diana wearing anything that wasn’t pure white, presumably due to a different colorist at work (though it’s still mostly white). Diana is randomly assisted by an “Amazon guardian angel” who shows up in all of three panels and is never explained.
The final mod-era issue, scripted by Delany, is something of an embarrassment. It’s billed as a “special women’s lib issue,” and involves Cathy (remember her?) trying to persuade Diana to support a women’s-lib group fighting for equal pay at what turns out to be a crooked department store. Bizarrely, Diana resists supporting women’s liberation and says she doesn’t even like women much.
Yeah. The former Amazon princess… who spent her formative years and perhaps centuries of immortal adulthood on an island completely devoid of men… and who was sent to the outside world to teach patriarchal society the superior ways of her Amazon sisters… and who’s spent much of the past two dozen issues giving her enemies backtalk about how they shouldn’t assume women are helpless… and she doesn’t like women and needs to be talked into standing up for women’s equality. Excuse me?!
Apparently this was meant to be the first in a 6-issue arc by Delany in which Diana confronted women’s issues, culminating with Diana protecting an abortion clinic. But if this was how it began, maybe it’s just as well that we didn’t see the rest of it play out. And perhaps this rather screwed-up take on women’s lib was a somewhat fitting wrap-up for this era, because it was around this time that Gloria Steinem complained about feminist icon Wonder Woman having her superpowers and costume stripped away. Because of the public protest she raised, DC hastily abandoned the mod era and brought back Kanigher as writer/editor to restore the former status quo.
This happened in a painfully cursory way in issue 204, the final issue in the trade collection, written by Kanigher and illustrated by Heck and Giordano. I Ching is unceremoniously killed by a random sniper, and the police inexplicably allow Diana, a civilian, to ride on their helicopter as they go after him. She’s injured defeating the sniper and wakes up with total amnesia, but feels a salmon-like compulsion to go home, so she steals a jet. She’s conveniently shot down just off the coast of Paradise Island, which is back in our dimension without explanation. The Amazons restore her memory and her old costume; there’s no mention of restoring her superpowers, but she’s implicitly back to her old self, apparently with no memory of the entire mod era. She’s hired as a UN translator by some old guy who thinks she’s a “plain Jane” just because she’s in glasses and a sweater but otherwise looks exactly like she did before. Thus she is somehow “reborn” and the comic is restored to status quo in the most slapdash and creatively bankrupt way possible.
Was Steinem right? I don’t think so. It’s not as if Wonder Woman had been portrayed in a remotely feminist way over the decade that Kanigher had been writing the comic prior to the “mod” reboot. And for all the inconsistency and wackiness of the mod era, I think that removing Diana’s powers made her more effective as a feminist symbol rather than less. It showed that even a typical mortal woman could be a hero on the same level as Batman, achieving great things just with training, intelligence, courage, and compassion. And her wardrobe in this era was rather more practical and less objectifying than the star-spangled bathing suit. For its time, I think it did a good job at portraying Diana in a feminist way, and more understatedly than Delany attempted to do — just matter-of-factly treating her as ultracapable and independent. True, I Ching was an unfortunate stereotype, but less so than he could’ve been, given the era. I think there were definite merits to this version of Wonder Woman, and it didn’t deserve to be retconned and abandoned as completely as it was. At the very least it deserved a better wrapup than that dreadful Kanigher story.
(Some may remember the 1974 Wonder Woman TV pilot starring Cathy Lee Crosby as a non-superpowered Diana who wore a star-spangled track suit rather than the classic costume. That came about because the project began development during the time when the comics’ Wonder Woman was powerless and costumeless. Since the book returned to its original format during development or production of the movie, it ended up being sort of a hybrid of the two different versions of the character.)
Here’s an interesting essay I found covering Wonder Woman’s history in the comics from the beginning through 1986. It reveals (on p. 7) that as soon as issue 212, new editor Julius Schwartz and writer Len Wein did acknowledge that the mod era had happened, and that Diana had lost all her memory of it. Kanigher’s return as writer and editor of the series didn’t work out and lasted only seven issues. Which is no surprise, considering that he’d presided over its decline to the verge of cancellation. The mod era saved the comic and was the first attempt to make Wonder Woman a strong, serious hero since her creator William Moulton Marston had stopped writing her. I’m definitely glad I read it, and I wish it had lasted longer, or at least been allowed to have more of a lasting influence on later storylines. Although in its way, I think it did pioneer some important aspects of the modern version of the character.
Recently I rewatched the 2002 TV series Birds of Prey, a loose adaptation of the DC comic of the same name, which was produced for The WB (one of the two networks that later combined into what’s now The CW) by the executive producers of Smallville, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, and developed for television by Laeta Kalogridis. The series ran for only 13 episodes, all of which are on DVD along with the unaired initial version of the pilot.
The BoP comic is a spinoff of DC’s Batman titles, and in the version of the DC Universe that existed at the time, it was about Barbara Gordon, the former Batgirl who had been paralyzed by the Joker and gone on to become Oracle, information broker for the superhero community and leader of a team of female crimefighters including Huntress (Helena Bertinelli) and Black Canary (Dinah Lance). The TV series took some liberties with the backstory. Its version of Oracle, played by Dina Meyer, was quite faithful to the comics, but Huntress was a blend of the modern version and the original Earth Two version who was the daughter of the retired Batman and Catwoman. In this version, Batman (played briefly in flashbacks by Bruce Thomas, who had played Batman in a series of OnStar commercials) and Catwoman had been involved fairly early in his career, and Catwoman/Selina Kyle had borne his daughter, Helena Kyle (Ashley Scott), without informing either of them of their relationship. Seven years before the series begins, Batman and Batgirl had broken the Joker’s criminal empire once and for all, but the Joker (whose brief dialogue in the flashbacks is dubbed by Mark Hamill, voice of the Joker in the DC Animated Universe) had eluded capture long enough to murder the retired Selina in front of Helena’s eyes and to shoot Barbara, paralyzing her. A few months later, a mentally broken Batman left Gotham, leaving it in the care of Oracle, who eventually recruited Huntress. The series is set in the city of “New Gotham,” rebuilt at some point after a massive earthquake much like the “No Man’s Land” storyline in the comics, although the chronology of when these events happened in the series’ past is quite nebulous.
Oh, and in this version, apparently Catwoman was a metahuman with catlike superpowers that Helena inherited — a weird twist that was probably something the network insisted on so the series would be more like Smallville. Dinah Lance (Rachel Skarsten) is also changed considerably — she’s a 16-year-old runaway telepath/telekinetic who turns out to be the daughter of Black Canary, who in this universe was named Carolyn Lance. She’s drawn to New Gotham by a psychic vision of Oracle and Huntress and becomes their apprentice. The cast is fleshed out by the late Ian Abercrombie as Alfred Pennyworth, now serving the BoP as he served Batman; Shemar Moore as Jesse Reese, a cop who starts out unaware of metahumans (in this world, Batman and his foes waged their war in secret) but becomes Huntress’s colleague and eventual romantic interest; and Mia Sara as Dr. Harleen Quinzel, a prominent psychiatrist who’s secretly the Joker’s moll Harley Quinn and his successor as leader of the New Gotham underworld.
Conceptually, BoP is a bit of a mess. That’s not entirely its fault, since it was adapting a series that was an offshoot of a larger comics continuity and built on a lot of complicated backstory. But some of the choices made in the adaptation complicated things still further and made it harder to swallow. The writing is inconsistent, often bordering on the campy in its deadpan utterances of corny superhero cliches, while simultaneously trying to deconstruct superhero tropes, keep costumes to a minimum, and approach the characters in a more grounded way — or at least a more WB-melodrama sort of way in the vein of Charmed, say.
Also, the whole thing feels far too insular — both in the sense that it looks very stagey and confined to studio sets and backlots, and in the sense that everything seems to happen to the same small cast of characters. Harley isn’t just the evil mastermind, she’s also Helena’s therapist and the police’s go-to psychiatric consultant. Reese is not just seemingly the only detective in the entire city, but he also turns out to be the estranged son of the city’s leading mobster. And Dinah just happens to be the daughter of Black Canary, who was the archnemesis of that same mobster. It’s all pretty contrived.
The artificiality of the show’s look and dialogue, and its somewhat broad approach to superhero tropes, was most likely due to influence from the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher Batman films (since Batman Begins and its more grounded version of Batman was still three years in the future). The show does recycle costumes from those films; Barbara’s Batgirl costume, seen mainly in flashbacks, is a repainted version of the one Alicia Silverstone wore in Batman and Robin.
The main thing that makes this series worth watching is the cast, though that might only be true on a rather shallow level: to wit, all the women in the show are quite beautiful. I suppose Shemar Moore is rather good-looking too if your tastes run toward men. As for the acting, it’s a little more uneven. Dina Meyer is the standout; she’s a fantastic Barbara/Oracle, the best thing about the series by far. Mia Sara, playing very much against her usual type, does an excellent job as a version of Harley Quinn who’s more mature, menacing, and high-functioning than the Harley of Batman: The Animated Series and later the comics, but still has recognizable traces of Harley’s accent and her zany style of psychopathy. Ian Abercrombie makes a fantastic Alfred. Skarsten and Moore are just okay; Skarsten has improved greatly as an actress, and become significantly hotter, in the decade since she did this show (she was 17 at the time), and it’s been interesting to contrast her work on BoP with her current appearances in the third season of Lost Girl.
The greatest casting failure of this show, and perhaps part of the reason for its quick cancellation, is Ashley Scott as Helena/Huntress. She’s certainly nice to look at, but not a very strong actress (at least not at the time she did this series) and a rather poor choice for the part. Helena is supposed to be the daughter of Batman and Catwoman, and should be as impressive as they are. She’s intended to be feral, aggressive, driven, morally ambiguous, and embittered by tragedy — basically a distaff Wolverine. But as played by Scott, she comes off more as snarky, playful, kittenish, and pouty. I don’t know, maybe that was largely what the network wanted — again, I get the feeling they were looking for another Charmed and thus pushed for a similar tone. But it just didn’t fit what the character was supposed to be. And Scott simply didn’t have enough substance to carry the show as its nominal lead (yes, she got first billing), or to be convincing as Batman’s heir.
Also, the show seemed to lose track of the Dinah Lance character in the last few episodes. She had an arc that was developing in a promising direction, but in the last couple of episodes she was barely there, and was either ignored or depicted as useless in situations where her powers could’ve been instrumental in solving a problem. Although, granted, the writing in the final episode or two was forced and accelerated because (I think) the producers knew they’d been cancelled and wanted to bring the show to a resolution.
As for the unaired pilot, there are several things about it that didn’t work well and were correctly changed in the aired version. Mainly, in the original version, Sherilyn Fenn played Harley, and she gave a much more mediocre, much less distinctive performance than Sara’s (she wasn’t even blonde). Also, the Barbara-Helena relationship was played with more hostility (the dialogue was much the same but the performances were harsher), making both characters less sympathetic. It did make the emotional climax of the pilot more significant, but the trade-off wasn’t worth it. And Barbara’s romance with schoolteacher Wade (recurring cast member Shawn Christian) is portrayed as ending uncomfortably due to her secret crimefighting life, rather than just beginning as in the aired pilot. However, one thing about the unaired pilot is much better. In the aired version, the extended backstory sequence at the beginning is narrated by Alfred, but in the unaired version, it’s shown without narration, with exposition coming via newsreaders on TV. It’s actually a lot clearer that way. I think the execs must’ve thought the narration was needed to clarify things, but it just clutters the sequence and makes it feel more complicated and forbidding, because it comes off as a massive infodump, a lecture of stuff we need to know before the story starts, rather than just the first phase of the story we’re watching. “Show, don’t tell” is very true here. Every episode of the series had a trimmed-down but still rather lengthy version of this opening exposition at the start, and I think it may have been off-putting for viewers. Maybe a concept dependent on so much backstory just wasn’t a good choice to adapt for TV. And having Abercrombie deliver it as if he were telling a fairy tale didn’t make it easier to take the show seriously.
So basically, this was a show that had a few really worthwhile aspects, a few promising but mishandled elements, and a lot of mediocre and disappointing ones. It has one of the best ever screen portrayals of Barbara Gordon (even allowing for the rather dull romantic subplot with Wade that she’s saddled with) and of Alfred, and it deserves note for an interesting alternate interpretation of Harley Quinn (also the first live-action Harley, and still the only one outside of fan films). It also deserves credit for what, at the time, was a rather impressive digital cityscape of New Gotham. (Although its version of the BoP’s clock tower headquarters didn’t make sense; the clock was far too small to be visible from street level. Ironically, I think a different skyscraper from this virtual city ended up recycled as the exterior of Chloe’s clock tower in Smallville.) And it was kind of nice to have, for once, a live-action series set in a world where superheroes were abundant and had a whole pre-existing community and history like in the comics, even if it was handled somewhat awkwardly. But there was so much else about it, from concept to casting to writing to production values, that just didn’t work. It’s an interesting novelty but ultimately not a success.
Lately I’ve been revisiting two more animated shows from my youth, Filmation’s The New Adventures of the Lone Ranger from 1980 andThe New Adventures of Zorro from 1981, which aired as part of The Tarzan/Lone Ranger/Zorro Adventure Hour. Both are available on a combined DVD set (on alternate discs); however, Netflix only has the second Lone Ranger disc in stock at this time, so I’m having to settle for only seeing half the series. These shows date from the two years just after Filmation’s classic Flash Gordon, when their production values became more sophisticated. They, along with Blackstar, were the final adventure series produced by Filmation under producers Lou Scheimer and Norm Prescott together; after 1981, Prescott left and Scheimer continued alone.
As you can see from the titles mentioned above, Filmation at this point was heavily into adaptations of classic adventure heroes, and both Lone Ranger and Zorro were fairly faithful interpretations. The New Adventures of the Lone Ranger starred actor/announcer William Conrad (star of the TV series Cannon) as the voice of the Lone Ranger and the announcer of the opening titles, which faithfully recreated the narration from the original radio and TV shows, and used the standard William Tell Overture as the theme music. According to the special features, Conrad did the role out of love for the Lone Ranger but didn’t want to be credited by name (perhaps because he was a big star by then and didn’t want to be associated with kidvid, or perhaps as a more benevolent gesture so Filmation didn’t have to pay him as much as his name was worth), so he was billed pseudonymously as J. Darnoc — just his surname in reverse, with the “J.” probably an homage to Jay Ward, producer of shows such as The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Dudley Do-Right, which Conrad narrated. (At least that’s what I’ve always assumed; one of the people interviewed in the bonus features said it was Conrad’s middle initial. In fact his real name was John William Cann, Jr., so it would’ve been his first initial.) Tonto was played by Native American actor Ivan Naranjo; Filmation was generally pretty good at inclusive casting, making sure that “ethnic” characters were played by actors of the same ethnicity. The rest of the cast was… variable. Again, I’ve only gotten the second half of the series, but in the first few episodes on the disc, all the male voices other than the Ranger and Tonto are by Scheimer himself, and the female voices are by his wife Lane and his daughter Erika. All the Scheimers often did supporting voices in Filmation shows, but Scheimer was no Mel Blanc; he had a relatively wide repertoire of character voices, but they weren’t different enough that he could really carry an entire cast all by himself, so it quickly grew tiresome. And the female Scheimers simply weren’t very good actresses, especially the shrill-voiced Erika. Fortunately, the great Frank Welker took over as the main male “guest” voice after a while — a bit surprising, really, since the prolific Welker didn’t do much work with Filmation over the course of his career, except for a brief period from about 1979-81. Another few uncredited voices showed up here and there, including Alan Oppenheimer (Ming on Flash Gordon, Skeletor and Man-at-Arms on He-Man). Some of the Native American characters had a voice I recognize from the ’70s show Lassie’s Rescue Rangers, an actor who played a regular Native American character on that show; IMDb credits Hal Harvey in that role, but I’m not sure how much I trust that attribution. And there’s one guest role whose voice I’m almost certain belonged to Mission: Impossible star Greg Morris!
Anyway, Ranger followed a formula that probably wasn’t too different from the original television series, with the Ranger and Tonto travelling the West and nonviolently helping people in danger. The Ranger carried his gun and used his silver bullets, but only for precision shooting of ropes, branches, playing cards, and other inanimate objects. (In fact, silver bullets would be terrible for precision shots; the soft metal deforms easily and the bullets tend to spin or fragment.) He’d usually catch bad guys with his lasso. And the bad guys were often exceptionally bad for Filmation; usually Filmation antagonists tended to be misunderstood and readily reformed when shown a little kindness, but these were unrepentant scoundrels. In one episode, a pair of cattle rustlers/land thieves get their lives saved by the homesteader they were trying to rip off, and I expected them to apologize and repent their sins, but instead they remained the same lily-livered varmints they’d always been.
So maybe Filmation was a little less determined to be wholesome at this point, but they still strove to make the show educational, by having the Ranger and Tonto constantly get involved with real events and people from the Old West, including Mark Twain, Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley, Belle Starr, the James brothers, Matthew Brady, Nellie Bly, etc. I actually learned a lot about history from watching this show back in the day. The problem is that these events range from the brief run of the Pony Express in 1860-61 to the Oklahoma Land Rush in 1889, and yet the Ranger, Tonto, and their horses remain ageless and unchanging over this span of nearly three decades (which is not presented in any kind of chronological order). So in the course of teaching history, the show played a bit fast and loose with it.
Filmation’s limited animation at this point had reached the stage where they created some fluidly animated movement sequences — in this case, mainly involving riders mounting, dismounting, and riding horses, horses rearing up, etc. — and kept using them over and over and over again, often several times an episode. The highlight here is a rather nice shot of the heroes riding away from the camera, with Silver’s and Scout’s tails sweeping in to fill the frame with white and then rather gracefully swishing away while the riders recede into the distance. It’s a lovely bit of animation, but it does get a bit tired when you see it five times in eleven minutes. As usual for Filmation, though, the background art is superb — lush vistas of Western landscapes and towns, rendered in a painted-line-art style that’s unusual for Filmation but is quite elegant and beautiful. Some of the background art looks like it may have been traced from vintage photos or illustrations.
Zorro was a moderately faithful adaptation of Johnston McCulley’s creation, featuring characters from the original book — not just Don Diego/Zorro (one of the models for Batman, a masked hero who hides behind a foppish, dissolute facade), but his corrupt rival Capitan Ramon, the bumbling Sergeant Gonzalez, and his father Don Alejandro. Although they replaced Diego’s deaf/mute servant with Miguel, who’s basically the equivalent of the Green Hornet’s Kato — a servant who fights alongside the hero and has no nickname of his own (Zorro just calls him “amigo,” leading me to wonder how many non-Spanish-speaking kids thought that Amigo was his hero name). Most of the episodes were written by Arthur Browne Jr., a veteran writer of TV Westerns for decades, including The Rifleman, Gunsmoke, The Virginian, and The Big Valley. They did a good job capturing a classic adventure flavor, and Zorro’s personality as a dashing gentleman thief and Errol Flynn type, though the stories could be fairly simple, and quite repetitive if watched back to back on DVD. The remaining episodes were by Robbie London, who would go on to work on many later Filmation shows (notably He-Man) but who was just starting out here. His first episode, “Fort Ramon,” is an incoherent mess: Ramon takes over a mission and somehow manages to turn it into a fort with high stone walls in a matter of hours; then Zorro and Miguel plant explosives to blow it up but are discovered and driven off, yet it never occurs to Ramon to search the fort and find the explosives in plain sight; etc. Fortunately they weren’t all that bad.
What makes this show unique in Filmation’s canon is that it wasn’t animated in the US. This was the only time that Filmation gave into the trend of outsourcing the animation work to Asia, since the abundance of other work they had in 1981 required sharing the load. But they had the good sense to go with the best animation studio in Japan, Tokyo Movie Shinsha (who made Akira and did fine work on plenty of other US animated shows including The Real Ghostbusters, Batman: TAS, Superman: TAS, the ’90s Spider-Man, etc.). The storyboard and layout work was still done in-house at Filmation, though, as is usually the case. The show thus looks very different from Filmation’s usual work. On the one hand, the animation is much more fluid and less repetitive, though it still depends heavily on stock rotoscoped animation of swordfighting moves, with different characters traced over the same set of movements in different episodes/scenes. And it has some of those nifty little touches that make TMS work so expressive, like what I’ve come to think of as “the TMS run.” Most animation houses give running characters a pretty basic, regular motion cycle, but when TMS characters run, they often move irregularly, flailing and off-balance, their pace syncopated and uneven, and it just gives it such a sense of character and energy and naturalism. So overall, the animation is a great improvement on Filmation’s usual work. (It was rather amusing to hear Scheimer in the special features complaining that TMS’s work was below Filmation’s usual standard.) Yet on the other hand, TMS’s drawing and painting style at the time was rougher and messier than Filmation’s — the lines less clean, the background paintings more impressionistic. It doesn’t work as well for me, and it just doesn’t feel like a Filmation show.
Indeed, despite the fact that Zorro was the only collaboration between two of my favorite animation studios, Filmation and TMS, I’m surprised at how lukewarm I am about it. The production values are cool, but the stories don’t grab me. It’s a very straightforward historical series where the threats are things like pirates and floods and the oppressive policies of the greedy governor-general, and I guess that just doesn’t captivate me. And it has the usual problem of kids’ shows built around swordfighting, in that the fights always have to be inconclusive (see also Mystic Knights of Tir Na Nog). In the show, the fights always end with Zorro or Miguel disarming their opponents — which just makes me wonder why the opponents never just pick their swords back up. Although there are a few times when they do.
And one thing strikes me as odd about Zorro, watching it so soon after the 2012 presidential election. I’ve always thought of Filmation’s shows as socially liberal in orientation — promoting racial tolerance and diversity, peace over fighting, things like that. Yet Zorro‘s narrative of the corrupt government using taxation as a tool of oppression and theft, with the heroic outlaw returning the people’s money to them, feels like kind of a right-wing propaganda message, particularly considering that the show came out right after Ronald Reagan’s massive tax cuts were signed into law. I’m not saying that was the intent, and it probably wasn’t. Scheimer just picked up the rights to Zorro because it was an established property and an easier sell to the networks than an unknown concept, as he explained in the bonus interviews. And it certainly never occurred to me as a kid watching in ’81 to think of it in those terms. Still, watching it in a 2012 political context, it comes off a little oddly for Filmation.
Still, as with Lone Ranger, Filmation deserves credit for ethnically inclusive casting. The principal cast here was mostly Latino, headlined by Henry Darrow as Zorro/Don Diego. Darrow was actually the first Latino to play Zorro, and this was the first of three consecutive Zorro TV series that Darrow starred in, interestingly enough. Two years later, in the short-lived sitcom Zorro and Son, he played an aging Don Diego trying to train his bumbling son to take his place (yes, nearly the same premise as Anthony Hopkins’s The Mask of Zorro); and in the ’90s, Darrow played Don Alejandro opposite Duncan Regehr’s Zorro in the Disney Channel Zorro. The rest of the cast consists of people whose names I’m unfamiliar with, though Sgt. Gonzales was played by Don Diamond, who had a recurring role in the 1957 Guy Williams Zorro series as the assistant to Sgt. Garcia, the Gonzales-equivalent character in that show. So aside from Darrow, the only voice I recognize is Scheimer, who inevitably shows up doing various bit roles.
Both these shows are also from a new era musically; from about ’79 onward, Filmation stopped reusing musical cues from its earlier ’70s shows and its composers Ray Ellis and Norm Prescott (under the pseudonyms Yvette Blais and Jeff Michael) produced lusher, richer scores. Both LR and Z still used score libraries rather than scoring each episode individually, but each show’s library cues were written specifically for it rather than recycled from earlier shows, though a couple of Lone Ranger cues were recycled in Zorro and both shows cribbed the occasional Flash Gordon cue. Both scores are in a classy, rich orchestral style evocative of old adventure movies and serials, and are probably the best things about both shows. Although each show just recycles the same cues over and over (and whoever was editing Filmation’s music around 1980 liked to jump between brief fragments of different cues, which can be quite jarring), the cues themselves are really good, among my favorites of Ellis and Prescott’s work. Both shows’ scores are very reminiscent of the gorgeous Flash Gordon score, with the flavor of ’30s or ’40s movie and adventure-serial scores, but more tailored to their genres — more Western-sounding and Copland-influenced for LR, more Latin-tinged and Errol Flynn-esque for Zorro. Repetitive though it is, it’s gorgeous music, and I deeply wish somebody would unearth the original master tapes for all of Filmation’s music, restore and remaster it, and put it all on CD. Sadly, it’s unclear whether those masters even still exist. And there’s no telling what kind of clearance complications there would be, with so many of the scores written for licensed productions.
The Dreamworks movie How to Train Your Dragon just had its network TV premiere on FX, which is the first time I’ve seen it. I have caught the sequel TV series, which has the awkward although possibly AnneMcCaffrey-inspired title Dragons: Riders of Berk, and been underwhelmed by it; I found it okay but not very engaging. So I was curious to see how similar or different the movie was, but my expectations weren’t very high.
But it turned out to be pretty amazing. Well, it has a weak start — a big exposition dump with the hero narrating the backstory to the audience is kind of awkward. But the more I watched, the better it got. The story was pretty rich, with some good character dynamics and dilemmas, mainly between lead character Hiccup and his father the chief. There was some very good, subtle character animation, good music, a lot of quality stuff — and Jay Baruchel’s vocal performance as Hiccup was less annoying than it is on the TV series, because he had more subtle and multidimensional material to work with. And I really like the theme of the film — not only that there’s a better way to solve problems than violence and hate, but that intelligence, curiosity, and imagination are more powerful than brute force. But especially, the movie did an amazing job capturing the joy of flight. There were some moments of real visual grandeur and awe in the flying sequences, and I’m still a little stunned and breathless, even a bit misty-eyed as I think back on them. Really, really well done.
I think I’ll probably give the show another chance now. Maybe having a better sense of the characters and background will help. I still don’t think it will come anywhere close to living up to the movie, though.
I just discovered that Library Journal has named Only Superhuman its SF/Fantasy Debut of the Month. The money quote from the review by Jackie Cassada:
The sf debut and first original novel by the author of Star Trek: The Original Series: Ex Machina and other TV and comics tie-ins has created a world of believable supermen and women set against a complex world of rival factions not unlike those of Renaissance city-states. VERDICT: Bennett brings believability to the larger-than-life world of superheroes in a story that should appeal to sf and comics fans alike.
That last sentence is just about exactly what I hoped people would say about my book. Really great to hear. I admit, there are a couple of less flattering reviews out there, and I was starting to worry. I’ve long believed that anything with enough substance to evoke strong positive reactions in some people would inevitably evoke strong negative reactions in others, so I’d be okay with a mix of both. (I’ve gotten a similar reaction to the T’Ryssa Chen character I created for my Star Trek: TNG novels, a character who has a lot in common with Emerald Blair; some people strongly dislike her, while others are very fond of her.) But until now, the positive reactions have been a little sparse, and I’ve been getting a little neurotic about it. So this review is very reassuring. (Actually it’s dated 9 days ago, but somehow I’ve missed it until now.)
The comparison to Renaissance city-states is interesting. Insofar as I had a historical model in mind, I was probably thinking more in terms of ancient Greek city-states — and to a large extent of modern ethnic and religious nationalism and the ways it divides us and causes more problems than it solves.
(Edited to add the review link)
Recently Turner Classic movies aired both the 1931 and 1941 film versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on consecutive days, giving me a good chance to compare the two. The ’31 version was directed by Rouben Mamoulian and starred Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins, and Rose Hobart. It was a remarkable piece of filmmaking for its day, very technically innovative, with an impressive use of POV shots, including a brilliant opening sequence that’s shot almost entirely from Jekyll’s own point of view, which must’ve taken some very creative camera work. Our first view of Jekyll himself (here pronounced “Jee-kle,” a more correct pronunciation than the “Jeckle” version we use today) is from his own POV as he looks in a mirror, foreshadowing the later shot where we see Hyde for the first time also from his own POV — both no doubt achieved by building a duplicate set behind a clear piece of glass so that the “reflection” was actually March himself. There are also lots of clever scene transitions, particularly the recurring use of diagonal split screens to juxtapose characters and events and convey the theme of duality. I’d love to see a “making-of” featurette or article about the movie. Plus there were all the transformation effects, of course, and though the dissolves and jump cuts are familiar techniques today, there was one technique used that’s still impressive, and that only works in black-and-white. I read about it in The Twilight Zone Companion — they’d paint the first stage of the transformation makeup on the actor in red (say), then light him through a red filter so it was invisible, and then they’d switch to a green filter so it would fade into view, and he would visibly begin to transform right before our eyes, purely in camera. It was done quite effectively here.
I found Hyde’s makeup (by Wally Westmore) and his behavior more comical than frightening at first, but when it got into his ongoing abuse of Ivy (Hopkins), it became quite chilling and dark, and surprisingly modern in its frank portrayal of a sexually abusive relationship. The sexual content was pretty blatant for the era, even with a partial nude scene (plus some nude paintings/sculptures clearly visible at some points), though I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised since it came out before the Hays Code was enforced.
I also feel Hyde’s appearance was given away too soon. There should’ve been more mystery about what was going on in that first transformation, some suspense about what the results of Jekyll’s experiments were. Heck, in the original Robert Louis Stevenson story, we didn’t find out that Hyde and Jekyll were the same man until after he/they died! True, most of it was told in flashback, which was a very clumsy format for the story, but the movie could’ve tried to capture some of that sense of mystery.
Unfortunately, the 1941 version is a greatly inferior film. Despite being from a rather accomplished director, Victor Fleming, who’d done Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, it was a much less innovative, much more ordinary production than the previous film, with nothing really intriguing done with the direction, cinematography, or special effects. The casting was also pretty bad. Spencer Tracy was just too nice a guy to be effectively menacing, and as much as I like Ingrid Bergman, it was kind of painful to listen to her trying to pretend to be a Cockney. Though on the other hand, I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen a Lana Turner movie, and she was really lovely.
The movie also suffered greatly from the Hays Code. The hand of censorship was so heavy that the movie couldn’t really explore or depict what made Hyde so evil. It implied that he was sexually violating and abusing Ivy off-camera, but it was executed so sedately that what we saw onscreen made Hyde seem more just uncouth and annoying than cruel and terrifying, so it never really sold the sense of menace. Given the radical difference in censorship, I’m surprised the ’41 movie hewed so closely to the ’31 film’s storyline. I mean, that’s a movie that’s heavily dependent on the sexual nature of Hyde’s relationship with Ivy to demonstrate how brutal and abusive he is. Try to tell the same story with the sexuality swept under the rug and it’s rendered hollow. Maybe they should’ve told a different version of the story altogether, one where Hyde’s evil was demonstrated through crime and violence and stuff they could actually show, instead of nebulously implied sexual cruelty. After all, the original Stevenson work doesn’t include the Ivy character or Jekyll’s more wholesome fiancee, and avoids specific description of Hyde’s debaucheries aside from a murder or two.
Jack Dawn’s makeup for Hyde was also way too subtle, basically just a wig, a small appliance on the brows and nose, some wrinkles around the eyes, and bushy eyebrows, with the rest being just Tracy bugging his eyes and grinning. Fredric March’s Jekyll turned into an apelike brute, but Tracy essentially turned into Burgess Meredith as the Penguin. No, strike that; at least the Penguin was interesting to watch. Plus it was completely ridiculous that nobody could tell that Jekyll and Hyde were the same man. At least Clark Kent had glasses. The whole thing was kind of embarrassing, and greatly disappointing.
Although I guess it’s kind of appropriate that of two consecutive versions of DJ&MH, one would be good and the other would be bad.
My last day of Comic-Con was… largely unnecessary. I went in so I could give that Chronic Rift interview I promised, but other than that I didn’t need to be there at all; I was just waiting for David Mack to finish because we had plans to go to dinner and a movie with a group that was celebrating fellow author Aaron Rosenberg’s birthday. In retrospect, I wish I’d managed to give the interview Friday, then just stayed in Saturday, maybe gotten some writing done, until the time came to go out to dinner. NYCC on Saturday is insanely crowded and noisy, and with no reason to be there I was just wandering, inundated with noise and, err, crowdiness for hours, until I could barely take it anymore. I eventually retreated to the Rift booth and Keith DeCandido was kind enough to let me collapse in his chair. Then we walked through the equally noisy and crowded streets of Midtown Manhattan on a Saturday night, had dinner at an equally noisy restaurant in a group of over a dozen people, then watched Looper (a movie that has its share of noisy bits), then more crowded streets… I finally gave up and made my apologies to the group when they went to get dessert at a tavern where we were seated right next to the band, which for some reason had its performance amplified even though it was a small space. I was just too overwhelmed from over 10 hours of sensory overload, and it was past my bedtime anyway. The dinner and the movie were good, but cumulatively the whole day was too much for me and I would’ve been a drag on the group if I’d stayed any longer. If I’d skipped the con, I would’ve had a better day all around.
Anyway, one upside of being so exhausted was that I finally got a good night’s sleep. And my flight was in the early afternoon, so I had plenty of time to get ready and even pick up a sandwich at a neighborhood deli. I had a bit of a problem at the airport, though, since I foolishly packed my sunblock in my backpack instead of my suitcase. The TSA person had talked me into checking my backpack, but the bag clerk reminded me that would cost me another 25 bucks and it’d be cheaper just to let her toss out the sunblock and buy another bottle. I wish the TSA person had thought to suggest that, because it would’ve saved me a second trip through security. Also, because I made my flight reservations through the NYCC’s affiliated service rather than the one I’ve used before, I didn’t get to reserve my seats ahead of time, so I got stuck with a middle seat in a row of three and didn’t get a decent view.
Otherwise, my flight went smoothly, but there was a delay in baggage delivery, and then I had to wait nearly an hour for the shuttle bus to Cincinnati. And then, once I’d taken the local bus back to my neighborhood, climb the steep street between there and my building. Not easy when you’re totally exhausted. But I’m finally home now, and I’ve had a decent dinner, and my DVR actually recorded everything I told it to (not counting the DC Nation block that Cartoon Network inexplicably cancelled at the last minute).
Oh, and on the plane I read a trade paperback collection I bought of a Stargate miniseries focusing on Claudia Black’s character Vala Mal Doran, who’s one of my favorite cast members. But I found it very disappointing. Vala was handled pretty well, in character and looking reasonably like Black, but its portrayal of the Stargate universe as a whole was astonishingly inaccurate. It has flashbacks set a number of years before Vala joined SG-1, which would be during the Goa’uld’s reign, yet the Lucian Alliance already exists in them, and there’s no evidence of Goa’uld presence anywhere in the galaxy. There are too few human “aliens” depicted, and those that are shown include a man with a modern Western name and wardrobe, something which shouldn’t have existed on another world in that timeframe. Also, the creators confuse Goa’uld transport rings for Asgard technology and misunderstand how they work. When we get to the present, General O’Neill is still going on missions with SG-1, and looks not only nothing like Richard Dean Anderson, but about 20 years and 50 pounds short of how he looked by the time he made general. Oh, and Teal’c is still bald, uses contractions, and doesn’t address people by their full names. And the story as a whole just doesn’t feel like it belongs in the Stargate universe. It has too many discrepancies and too few connections to the mythology and continuity of the series. It’s like some random sci-fi story that got hastily rewritten for SG-1. I’m very disappointed, but unfortunately I can’t very well go back to the store in Manhattan for a refund. At least the other comics I got were worthwhile: a couple of IDW’s Star Trek miniseries and the long-awaited conclusion to the Avatar: The Last Airbender comics miniseries The Promise, which I’ve held off reading until I can reread parts 1 & 2, but which is bound to be good if it’s anywhere near on a par with the others.
So, a mixed trip overall. Some wonderful memories and some very frustrating ones. The balance comes out on the positive side, since some of the positives were among the best experiences of my life, but all in all it’s been the most intense few days I’ve experienced in a long time. I’m glad I can rest now.