Archive for January, 2014

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

January 30, 2014 1 comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Star Trek projects: DTI: The Collectors and two more Rise of the Federation novels!

January 27, 2014 7 comments

Now that the contracts have gone through (after some delay), I’m finally able to announce my next three Star Trek projects.

DTItentativeFirst, probably sometime later in 2014, is my return to the Department of Temporal Investigations series, in an e-novella exclusive entitled The Collectors. That’s right, it’s not a full-length novel and it won’t be on paper, but at 35,000 words it’s a pretty hefty novella. And it’s a story I had a great deal of fun writing, delving deeper into two elements from Watching the Clock that I’ve been eager to explore in more depth: The Eridian Vault, where the DTI stores dangerous temporal artifacts (sort of a Warehouse 13 for time travel), and the mysterious Agent Jena Noi of the 31st-century Federation Temporal Agency. Unlike WTC or Forgotten HistoryThe Collectors isn’t about weaving together time-travel episodes from the TV shows, although it does feature one significant onscreen guest star in addition to established DTI characters like Lucsly and Dulmur. Instead, this was my chance to tell an original story driven by the DTI characters and concepts themselves, to just cut loose with them and play with the potentials of a time-travel narrative unfettered by the need to fill in the blanks of this episode or that movie. It was enormously fun to write, and I hope it’s as much fun to read.

Tower of Babel coverMy other, probably less surprising, announcement is that I’ve been signed for two more Enterprise — Rise of the Federation novels to follow this April’s second installment in the series, Tower of Babel. Book 3, tentatively titled Uncertain Logic, will be out in early 2015, and Book 4 will probably arrive in early 2016 (there’s a 10-month gap between the due dates for the two manuscripts, so the interval between publication dates may be about the same). The two books will each stand on their own but have a common story arc connecting them, with the latter story arising from the consequences of the former. (That’s why I got contracted for the two books together. I thought I’d have to talk my editor into that, but she was just, “Sure, I’ll start the paperwork.”) And both books will continue to flesh out ideas from Enterprise, reveal the origins of elements from The Original Series and beyond, and feature original worldbuilding and exploration as well.

In this case, I haven’t started the manuscript yet; indeed, I turned in the outline for Book 3 just last night, and the outline for Book 4 is in more skeletal form, to be fleshed out more once Book 3 is written. But I feel pretty confident about where I’m going with the storyline, which will continue to challenge, deepen, and evolve the characters and hopefully bring some surprises. Oh, and the good news is that I’ll have more room for it. The first two RotF books were in the 80 to 85,000-word range, but these will be heftier tomes; I’m free to go up to 100,000 words. (Which means I should be able to include a subplot I had to cut out of Book 2 for length. Technically I’ve already got 4000 words of Book 3 written!)

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

January 25, 2014 2 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ve found water on Ceres!

This just in from

Water Found on Dwarf Planet Ceres

Astronomers have discovered direct evidence of water on the dwarf planet Ceres in the form of vapor plumes erupting into space, possibly from volcano-like ice geysers on its surface.

Using European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory, scientists detected water vapor escaping from two regions on Ceres, a dwarf planet that is also the largest asteroid in the solar system. The water is likely erupting from icy volcanoes or sublimation of ice into clouds of vapor.

This is big news. It’s a major scientific breakthrough, proof of something that’s only been suspected about Ceres up to now, and it comes a year earlier than I expected, since the Dawn probe won’t reach Ceres until early 2015. It also has important ramifications for our future in space. In Only Superhuman, I established Ceres as the primary source of water and organic molecules for space habitats throughout the Main Asteroid Belt and inner system. This was based on astronomers’ estimates that Ceres might potentially have more fresh water on it than Earth does (since most of ours is salt water). Now we have verification for that, and it confirms (or at least makes it far more likely) that future space colonists and asteroid miners will have access to abundant sources of water without needing to lug it up out of Earth’s gravity well or go clear out to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

It’s also nice to get confirmation that what I put in my novel wasn’t wrong. Although it never occurred to me to mention a water-vapor atmosphere or cryovolcanoes in my descriptions of Ceres. Just as well, I suppose, since the volcanoes are unconfirmed. If and when I get to do a sequel, hopefully the timing will be right to work in Dawn’s findings. Hmm, the article says it’s more likely just sublimation, but I’m hoping for icecanoes (to use the Doctor Who term). Those would be cooler to write about. (Literally…)

Categories: My Fiction, Science

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

January 22, 2014 1 comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Site update — TOWER OF BABEL discussion

Tower of Babel coverI’ve now updated my website with the Rise of the Federation: Tower of Babel cover and preliminary/non-spoiler discussion about the genesis and writing process of this book (much of which is already known to readers of this blog, but there’s some new stuff):

The page also includes ordering links, hint, hint.

Hey, I just realized how much this cover resembles the cover of the latest Analog I was in:

Analog November 2013

Asking a favor of my readers

January 19, 2014 2 comments

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

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

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

RISE OF THE FEDERATION: TOWER OF BABEL cover and blurb released!

January 19, 2014 1 comment has just released the cover for Star Trek: Enterprise — Rise of the Federation: Tower of Babel .

Tower of Babel cover

This is a distinct improvement over the rather, err, understated cover to Book 1. That cover wasn’t what I’d been hoping for, so I asked my editor, Ed Schlesinger, if there was a chance we could get Doug Drexler to do a portrait of Endeavour for Book 2, maybe with Pioneer too. Ed said they could do that and the wheels were already in motion. I guess we were thinking along the same lines. And now Book 2 has a Doug Drexler cover of Endeavour and Pioneer together.

Here’s the cover blurb:

The United Federation of Planets has weathered its first major crisis, but its growing pains are just beginning. Admiral Jonathan Archer hopes to bring the diverse inhabitants of the powerful and prosperous Rigel system into the Federation, jumpstarting the young nation’s growth and stabilizing a key sector of space. Archer and the Federation’s top diplomats journey to the planetoid Babel to debate Rigel’s admission… but a looming presidential race heats up the ideological divide within the young nation, jeopardizing the talks and threatening to undo the fragile unity Archer has worked so hard to preserve.

Meanwhile, the sinister Orion Syndicate recruits new allies of its own, seeking to beat the Federation at its own game. Determined to keep Rigel out of the union, they help a hostile Rigelian faction capture sensitive state secrets along with Starfleet hostages, including a young officer with a vital destiny. Captain Malcolm Reed, Captain T’Pol, and their courageous crews must now brave the wonders and dangers of Rigel’s many worlds to track down the captives before the system is plunged into all-out war.

Tower of Babel goes on sale in late March, and can be preordered from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or wherever you buy books.

Aloha, Professor: RIP Russell Johnson

January 16, 2014 1 comment

I just read the news that veteran character actor Russell Johnson, known best as the Professor (Roy Hinkley) from Gilligan’s Island, passed away. The news was broken on Twitter by his co-star Dawn Wells, now one of the last two survivors of the original cast along with Tina Louise.

This is very sad news. Johnson was something special as the Professor, bringing an air of great intelligence and dignity to the role. He was the straight man, but with the charm of a leading man. And he was, much like his contemporary TV star Mr. Spock, a science nerd who made science nerds look cool and sexy. In a lot of ways, I think he and Spock were two of my most influential role models as a child. I was kind of nerdy and socially inept myself, but I was good at science and knowing stuff, and it was heartening to see that the Professor and Spock were people whose strengths were mainly intellectual but who were valued and appreciated for it. Although my attempts to emulate them didn’t work out too well, since real schoolchildren don’t respect the nerdy science guy as much as island castaways or starship crewpeople do. Still, I don’t blame the Professor and Spock for that. Judging from the other men in my family, I was probably going to turn out much the same way anyway, which is probably why I had such affinity for characters like the Professor.

But Johnson deserves enormous credit for making the Professor as heroic and engaging as he was. He actually made this silly sitcom seem educational at times. I once heard of a study where one group of students was shown an episode clip of the Professor explaining how to make a battery with lemon juice and metal strips, and another was shown a more conventional educational film explaining the same thing — and the group that saw the Gilligan’s Island clip learned it better! I think public television passed up a great opportunity — they should’ve hired Johnson to be the star of an educational show teaching about science. He could’ve anticipated Beakman and Bill Nye by a decade or two.

It’s also a shame that the special-effects technology of the ’60s and ’70s wasn’t up to a live-action Fantastic Four, since Johnson would’ve been absolutely perfect for Reed Richards. Anyone who’s seen Alex Ross’s renderings of Reed in Marvels knows that he feels the same way.

One can fairly say that Johnson deserved a better career than he had, that typecasting as a result of his Gilligan role may have kept him from the leading-man roles he was easily qualified for. But the Professor was a great, iconic role in its own right, and a great legacy for Johnson to leave. He will be remembered.

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

January 14, 2014 2 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thanks to Ian for the recognition!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


January 10, 2014 1 comment

…And I haven’t yet had my language confounded or been scattered abroad, which is a good sign.

No, that’s something else. What I mean to say is, I’m currently working on the final proofreading pass of Star Trek: Enterprise — Rise of the Federation: Tower of Babel, and for efficiency’s sake and to keep it interesting, I’m combining it with writing the first draft of my annotations for the novel, to be posted once the book is released in April. This is actually useful for the revision process, since it encourages me to examine the text critically and double-check references, so I’ve caught a few things I overlooked before.

Meanwhile, I’ve been shown the novel’s cover, which will probably be released pretty soon. It’s a definite improvement over the Book 1 cover, I feel. But I can’t say more about it yet.

I’ve also been making some good progress on my outline for my next Trek novel, which I should be clear to announce very soon, since the contract is signed and executed. Two of the main plotlines are in place and I now have a good idea of what the remaining one will be; I just need to work out the specifics. Indeed, it was just this morning that I had an idea that really helped the plot come into focus. And I’ve got another two and a half weeks to finalize the outline. Last time, I had trouble figuring out the outline and struggled to get it done by my deadline, but this time it’s going much more smoothly.

One thing that may be helping is that I’ve increasingly gotten into the habit of keeping my cell phone on my bedside table and using its voice recorder to dictate story notes. All too often in the past, I’ve had a good idea before I got out of bed or while I was going for a walk, but by the time I got around to writing it down, I’d forgotten much of it. I think dictating notes has helped me work more efficiently. Although I’m getting a little tired of listening to my own recorded voice, especially since I’m often sleepy and mumbling when I record these notes. I’ve been trying to put more animation into my voice, like I do when I give interviews, just so I don’t bore myself so much. Also, today I finally got around to copying my accumulated notes onto my computer, and was pleased to find that the format for the audio files (.amr) is playable with my existing media software. So I don’t have to worry about losing my notes if something happens to my phone. I’ve been thinking of getting a new cell phone anyway — I’ll have to make sure I get one with a similar recording function.

I’ve got some other irons in the fire writing-wise as well, but nothing I’m ready to talk about. Hopefully there will be some progress on those fairly soon. But expect another Trek update very soon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On to the bests and worsts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 5, 2014 1 comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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