Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Lights of Zetar" (January 31, 1969)

Stardate 5725.3

The Enterprise proceeds to Memory Alpha, the Federation’s new informative archive station in deep space. 

Aboard the Enterprise is Lt. Mira Romaine (Jan Shutan), on her first space mission. Romaine’s job is to transfer information from the ship to Memory Alpha, but has also become involved in a love affair with Scotty (James Doohan).

On the way to Memory Alpha, the Enterprise encounters a strange storm that, when it strikes the ship, seems to impact different aspects of the humanoid brain. Mira takes the worst of the damage, and seems to start experiencing thoughts and ideas that are not her own.

The mysterious storm attacks Memory Alpha in the same way, destroying much of the archive. 

Meanwhile, Mira seems increasingly to be possessed by the so-called storm.

In fact, the storm is a conglomeration of life-forms from the long-destroyed world of Zetar. When the planet was destroyed, some citizens survived, but as non-corporeal energy. They have sought, for generations, to find a new humanoid host where they can live out some semblance of a normal life.

The lights of Zetar believe Mira is the perfect host for such a purpose, but Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Scotty (James Doohan) and the others fight for her life and freedom, attempting to free Mira from her possession by using a pressure chamber in sick bay.

In a very strange way, “The Lights of Zetar” may be one of the most influential episodes of the original Star Trek (1966-1969). 

Basically, this is one likely origin point of the (much-derided) “Mary Sue” fan story.  In fanzine tales of this type, a beautiful and highly-intelligent female (a surrogate for the fan writer) comes aboard the Enterprise, and falls in love with an established crew-member (Kirk, Spock, Bones, Scotty, etc.) 

Those feelings of passion and respect are completely reciprocated, and the entire command staff basically obsesses on this “Mary Sue” (Mira Romaine) as some kind of alien experience occurs involving her.  She holds the key to communication, or resolving the conflict.

This “The Lights of Zetar” premise is a probable foundation for literally hundreds of fanzine stories from the 1970’s. It’s easy to understand why. The focal point, or lead character is a competent, young, attractive Starfleet officer. There is a strong fantasy or wish-fulfillment element (the love affair with an admired series character), both in terms of romance and narcissism.  

Don’t you just know that you would fit right in with Kirk, Bones, Spock, and Scotty if they just met you and got a whiff of your beauty, wisdom, humor and intelligence?

So "The Lights of Zetar" launched a thousand fan fantasies.

In terms of the actual episode itself, “The Lights of Zetar” features a fine premise -- non-corporeal beings possessing humans -- but is less-than-satisfactory for a few key reasons.  First and foremost, Mira Romaine is lovely, but not very likable.

Several times in the episode, she is hostile to others, mainly Dr. McCoy.  I realize that Mira is a rookie getting her "space legs," but she does not seem to possess the temperament of a Starfleet officer holding the rank of lieutenant. She is unnecessarily attacking and harsh. (Okay, McCoy is this way too, temperamentally-speaking so perhaps I am setting a double standard. It’s okay for him to be irascible, but it isn’t okay for her?) 

Perhaps we simply accept McCoy’s crankiness or sharp edges because he’s a regular character, and we get to see other sides of his persona. Mira Romaine, in “The Lights of Zetar” is vaulted to a position of incredible importance in this episode, but I don’t think she is conceived or performed in a way that is three dimensional or particularly appealing.

I don't believe it an exaggeration to write that Scotty and Mira have no chemistry whatsoever. 

Scotty is paternal and doting, Mira is childish and clingy in return. There doesn’t seem to be a legitimate physical or intellectual attraction between the characters.  I deeply dislike Scotty “love stories” because they always seem out-of-character for the engineer. When he falls in love, Scotty stops being Scotty: a brilliant, high-strung, fast-talking technical genius. He becomes instead this adoring, blind puppy-dog person. 

I don’t think the approach serves the character well, or fits well with what we know of Scotty. I see him falling in love with someone more like him: an excitable, mile-a-minute engineer.

I understand lust and sexual desire, but Doohan and Shutan don’t play that angle. 

They don’t seem hot for each other in that way. It’s more like they’ve contracted an emotional disease called “love” which makes Scotty act out of character.

Also, too much of the episode sees the top crew obsessing paternally (and condescendingly) on Mira and her well being. Mira -- whatever her flaws, temperamentally -- is an independent woman, and not “the girl” everyone speaks of so condescendingly.

I also find it disturbing that the Memory Alpha situation is handed in such an off-handed manner.  

Memory Alpha, like Mira Romaine herself, is never seen of or heard of again in the original series after this episode.  

So, is the archive’s information recovered?  

Is the devastating loss to the galaxy permanent? 

The survival of the Federation’s greatest historical tool should be a primary focus of the episode.  But again, “The Lights of Zetar” is really the archetypal Mary Sue story. Everything comes down to our guest character, Mira, and her (unlikely but total) importance to the main crew.

Before she is shuffled off, and totally forgotten. By next week.

I dislike the focus here, but I can also see how this episode clearly resonated with fans, who went on to write a generation of variations on “The Lights of Zetar.”

In terms of the alien threat, I find the corporate life form of Zetar fascinating. 

Often in the series, Kirk argues passionately for the rights of the individual. The individual must choose for him or herself how to live, and not be impeded in that choice by overbearing religion (“Return of the Archons”), inhuman technology (“The Apple”) or even a misguided State (“A Taste of Armageddon,” “The Mark of Gideon.”)  

Here, Kirk argues for Mira’s inalienable right to control her own body and mind. The Zetarians want to use her, possess her, and control her, but Mira must be free to choose how she wants to live. I wonder if the idea of a group of entities forcibly living as one inside an unwilling host is actually Cold War commentary on Communism, the idea of the state forcing its collective will upon individuals.

Kirk is absolutely right to send the Zetar survivors packing, given the forceful and unrepentant way they hijack Mira, but it is nonetheless a shame that some accord couldn’t be reached, wherein the knowledge, memories and consciousness of the Zetar people could survive in an artificial body (“Return to Tomorrow.”)

I don’t have any hate in my heart for “The Lights of Zetar,” and there are solid concepts at work in the episode. Yet overall, the episode feels less compelling than it should be, perhaps because the Scotty-Mira relationship is so lacking in energy and passion. It just seems wrong, and not true to the Scotty we know and love.

Next week: “Requiem for Methuselah.” 

Monday, August 21, 2017

Ask JKM a Question: Where are the aliens in modern sci-fi TV?

A reader named Don writes:

“Hi, John:

The more I read your blog, the more I enjoy it! (And I think your views on casting for Princess Leia are spot-on.)

A question for consideration as part of your "Ask JKM" segment:

What happened to the aliens? 

My wife and I are fans of Killjoys and Dark Matter, but aside from the latter's android, the galaxy seems filled entirely with humans. The Battlestar Galactica reboot, too, had Cylons becoming human-like. It seems like the more advanced film-making gets in terms of technological advances, the less exotic these worlds are becoming. 

Star Trek--in all its previous series--was limited in how it could render its aliens (a lot of ridges in foreheads!), but at least there was variety of species. Farscape, too, was great about that. Why are current series losing this?

Thank you for your question, Don, and I know you asked a second question too, which I will get to separately.

But first, I have to compliment you on the question. I liked some qualities of the Battlestar Galactica reboot but the thing I disliked most about it was the series’ overall lack of curiosity about the universe; the idea that there could be other life-forms out there, beyond Cylon (human-created, in the re-imagination) and human.  

Firefly (2002), which I liked better, also featured a universe without aliens.

I am happy that Discovery (2017) is coming soon, and looks to be honoring Star Trek’s legacy of creating incredible alien characters, but it has been disheartening, since 2001, to see so many TV series turning away from the possibility of alien life.

It is disappointing for two reasons.

First, this choice demonstrates a lack of imagination and curiosity, as I noted above. 

There’s almost no world exploration in the rebooted BSG, and that just seems -- to quote Contact (1997) -- a terrible waste of space. By contrast, the original Battlestar Galactica had no shortage of aliens beyond the Cylons (Ovions, Borellian Nomen, Boray, Eastern Alliance, etc.), so the new series didn't love up to the legacy of the original in at least one very significant way.

Secondly, what were the aliens replaced with on some of these new series?  

Well, I think in a misguided attempt to see more “real” to modern viewers, aliens were shunted into the background or forgotten, and the focus became soap opera foibles

You know, this character is a recovering alcoholic. This other character is sleeping with this person’s wife. This character isn’t talking to his father because he blames him for the death of his brother.

I think the writers and producers thought they were being dark and gritty, and realistic. Perhaps they thought they were freeing themselves from Star Trek’s limits on how characters could interact. 

They were actually porting As the World Turns into sci-fi TV, and the impact is still felt today.

What we have seen replace the aliens in these newer series is pure soap opera plotting. Again, more realistic, perhaps, but far less imaginative in terms of science fiction.  I understand that believable aliens are difficult to come up with, and expensive to create. But I would argue that it is worth the effort.

 Imagine if Star Trek had gone this route, and we had never gotten Mr. Spock.

One of the key functions of science fiction TV is to comment on the human condition. It is so much easier to do that, I think, from an outside or alien perspective. I see a lot of modern science fiction TV abandoning this approach, either because of budgetary constraints, concern about realism, or due to the aforementioned lack of curiosity about what life might look like on another planet.

I certainly hope Discovery brings about a new era of aliens on TV.

Thank you for the question! 

Don’t forget to ask me your questions at Muirzone@aol.com.  And while I’m at it, don’t forget to send me your top twenty Star Trek episode lists at the same e-mail address.

Cult-TV Theme Watch: The Piano

A piano is an acoustic musical instrument in which strings are struck by a hammer, and sound is produced. 

A piano, and instruments much like it (organs, harpsichords, etc.), have appeared frequently in cult-TV history. 

Often times, the presence of a piano in a scene suggests a degree of refinement among a TV character. A character who plays the piano is intellectual, composed, and talented. But he or she may also possess a dark side.

One of the most famous examples of a piano in sci-fi TV comes from Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone (1959-1964). In the episode “A Piano in the House,” a music critic played by the late, great Barry Morse acquires a piano that, when played, reveals hidden facets of people. Morse’s character, Fitzgerald, uses the piano to abuse his wife, and eventually his guests at a party.  Soon, however, the piano also exposes him as a bitter, envious, unloved man.

In Star Trek (1966-1969), Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) played a piano-like instrument (actually a harpsichord) in the third season story, “Requiem for Methuselah.”  There, the half-Vulcan found the instrument, and an original composition by Johannes Brahms in the home of an enigmatic stranger, Flint.

In 1985, the low-budget horror anthology Tales from the Darkside (1983-1988) featured a tale called “The Satanic Piano” about a haunted instrument that could read minds…and steal souls.

In 1995, an episode of Goosebumps (1995-1998) called “Piano Lessons Can Be Murder” featured an old piano, a ghost, and a dark secret.

Another piano playing character in cult-TV history is Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), who has a taste for…classical music (as well as human flesh) in the NBC series named after him.

One of the best episodes of The Walking Dead (2010 - ) is “Alone,” which airs in the fourth season, and finds Daryl (Norman Reedus) and Beth (Emily Kinney) taking shelter in a funeral home. Beth plays the piano for Daryl, and a bond is forged between them as she plays.

A recent episode of Doctor Who (2005 - ), called “Lie of the Land” revealed that the Master -- Missy -- plays the piano.

The Cult-TV Faces of: The Piano

Identified by Will Perez: The Twilight Zone: "A Piano in the House"

Identified by Will Perez: "The Addams Family."

Identified by Will Perez: Batman

Identified by Will: Star Trek: "Requiem for Methuselah."

Identified by Will Perez: Dark Shadows.

Not Identified: Tales from the Darkside: "The Satanic Piano."

Identified by Hugh: Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Identified by Will Perez: South Park.

Identified by Will Perez: Smallville.

Identified by Will Perez: The Walking Dead: "Alone."

Not Identified: Hannibal.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Saturday Morning Cult TV Blogging: Ark II: "Robin Hood" (November 6, 1976)

This week, Ark II takes a step down in interest and excitement from “The Robot” and “Omega,” the two previous series entries.  Here, the titular vehicle and its crew enter Sector 25 to investigate reports of “hunger and widespread unrest.”

The team soon discovers that a group of outlaws have modeled themselves on the mythical Robin Hood and are fighting in Sector 25 an evil tyrant named Lord Leslie.  At first, Jonah is amused by the strange conflict and personalities the Ark II encounters.  He puts up a force field barrier between opposing armies during one battle.  But then, Lord Leslie captures the Ark II and Jonah’s crew is taken hostage.

While hoping to convince Robin and his merry men that “robbery isn’t the answer and neither is violence,” Jonah nonetheless requires their assistance if he is to retrieve the ark and its personnel.  

Fortunately, Jonah also has help – of a sort, anyway – from inside the Ark II.  The intelligent chimpanzee Adam has been taking driving lessons and, in a slapstick comedy scene, takes the craft on a wild joy ride, all the while firing lasers and even doing an embarrassed face palm.

Soon Jonah reclaims the Ark and the local villagers reject Lord Lesley.  Now Robin and his men will have to build a better society together, and Jonah marvels at how difficult it is to “keep the Lord Leslies of the world at bay.”

“Robin Hood” is a weird and borderline amusing episode of Ark II.  The idea of post-apocalyptic people taking on the characteristics of a hero from literature doesn’t seem that farfetched given other examples of this genre, like Star Trek’s “A Piece of the Action,” which saw an alien culture model itself on a book about the Chicago Mobs of the 1920s. 

But one of the more interesting and bizarre images to come out of Ark II is certainly “Robin Hood’s” visual of Lord Leslie’s flamboyantly-dressed minions riding trikes in the desert. It’s like The Road Warrior meets the Crusades…in the Planet of the Apes Forbidden Zone.

Also, this is also the only episode (at least thus far) to devolve into out and out slapstick humor, as Adam drives the Ark II into danger.  It’s a unique experience to watch the huge Ark moving erratically, knocking things over, and otherwise proving a real road hazard.  By the same token, these scenes reveal just how difficult it is to maneuver this unwieldy (but gorgeous…) cult-tv vehicle.  The Ark II is huge, and doesn’t look like it corners very well…

Next week: “The Cryogenic Man."

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: The Bugaloos: "Lady, You Don't Look Eighty" (October 24, 1970)

In “Lady, You Don’t Look Eighty,” Joy (Caroline Ellis) is upset because it is October 12, and her friends have apparently forgotten that it is her birthday.

In truth, they are planning a surprise party.  The boys also trick Sparky (Billy Barty) into believing that Joy is actually an old woman who is eighty years old.  They also claim they are seventy years old!

Benita Bizarre (Martha Raye) overhears this practical joke, and believes that the Bugaloos have discovered a fountain of youth. She wants it for herself, and captures Sparky. She will make a trade: the firefly for the elixir of youth.

The Bugaloos make a fake elixir of honey and water, and then, to demonstrate that it works, pretend to be old, themselves.

It’s pretty much business as usual on The Bugaloos (1970-1971) for this installment. The Bugaloos have something that Benita Bizarre thinks she wants -- this time the Fountain of Youth -- and captures one of the gang (Sparky) to get it.  To rescue their friend, the Bugaloos must get in disguise, and outsmart their nemesis.

One intriguing element about “Lady, You Don’t Look Eighty” is that it is established, as it was in the series’ second episode, that Joy is responsible for household chores in the forest.  Here, she is understandably grumpy about the division of labor. The boys don’t have to chip in?

Even in 1970, in an enchanted forest, the patriarchy was in firm control, apparently.

But this episode shows Joy acting crankily about having to clean up after everyone and the boys respond by calling her “granny,” and saying that she sounds old. Nice.  Yet not one of them lifts a finger to help her.

The song of the week? “Older Woman!”  That’s adding insult to injury, I would say.

Next week: "Benita the Beautiful."

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Cult-TV Blogging: Star Maidens (1976): "Nemesis"

The second episode of the 1970s war-of-the-sexes space opera Star Maidens opens with the thought: "space holds no fury like a female planet scorned."

The question regarding such a comment, of course, is intent. Is this series poking fun at such anti-woman proverbs? Or does Star Maidens take such commentary seriously, and reflect it in its space-age premise of a female dominated planet?

Given the other humorous aspects of the episode, I would suggest the former interpretation. At some, hopefully intentional level, Star Maidens seems to recognize the humor in applying broad, sexist language to a “futuristic” science fiction epic.  The premise finds a rigidly, unthinking patriarchy (Earth) confronting a rigidly, unthinking matriarchy (Medusa).

Our silly conceits about sex are, ultimately, reflected by Medusa’s silly conceits about them. Can’t we all just get along?

This second episode of the 1976 series involves the Medusan pursuit ship Nemesis following Adam and Shem to Earth.

The two escaped "domestics" have fled their space-age parachute (a giant bubble of sorts) and head across the English countryside looking for food. The men are happy to be "free at last," (they actually speak those famous words) and walking around on a world where no woman can "command them." 

They soon encounter a cow pasture and see cows grazing...so decide to eat the grass too. This doesn't speak well of their intelligence, but further enhances the idea that Star Maidens is something of a comedy, with a strong fish-out-of-water component.

Later, Adam and Shem happen across a farm and find apples to eat, but not before a little Earth girl chases them off the grounds. They flee the property by jumping over a tall brick wall in a single bound, pointing to the fact that Medusa and Earth have different gravity, and idea later repeated on Galactica: 1980. This scene is actually quite funny, as it involves, again, Shem’s ingrained fear regarding women. He is terrified when the young human threatens to tell her mother that the stranger has stolen an apple. Shem veritable cowers in fear at the thought, and one can’t help but laugh at his terror.

The women from Medusa -- Fulvia (Judy Geeson) and Octavia (Christiane Kruger) -- land on Earth and meet with Liz (Lisa Harrow) and Professor Evans (Derek Farr). The Medusan women demand the return of Adam and Shem, and bark orders at the local police chief. When he tries to explain what is happening, Octavia curtly tells him to "be quiet."

In the same sequence, Octavia utilizes superior Medusan weaponry to immobilize another police officer. Their weaponry is a kind of "paralysis" or "freeze ray," which is the equivalent of turning a person to stone and thus the perfect weapon for a citizen of a world called Medusa (after the character in Greek myth).

More genuinely humorous is the device that Fulvia uses to track down Adam. It's called a "man finder,” and it hunts down a man by his "scent." The theory being that each man possesses his own specific scent. Apparently, men wander off quite a bit on Medusa, and their overlords need to wrangle them…

The episode culminates with Adam and Shem riding around dirt roads in a computer-controlled police car, and sending the earthbound police on a merry chase. It all happens to the tune of a groovy seventies musical score. It's like Doctor Who meets Smokey and the Bandit.

It's pretty clear from this second installment of the series that Star Maidens has descended fully into tongue-in-cheek humor in record time. I could mention again the moment wherein the none-too-bright man-folk from Medusa sample grass along with generous cows. Or the moment wherein the Nemesis ship lands in a wide-open field, two gorgeous alien women disembark and none of the gathered earth people bat an eye, gasp, or react with surprise or shock. 

Nope. A conversation immediately begins about the Medusans wanting their men back. It's like a conversation officials from two countries might have over the subject of extradition. But officials from two planets?

And the scene in which the caped, futuristic women from Medusa enter a police station and start issuing orders...it's more of the same. It plays as comedy.

Still, since (according to Fulvia in this episode...) "most of outer space is very boring," I guess I can be grateful that Star Maidens is as entertaining as it is. However, “Nemesis” does not set one foot on advanced Medusa, and that means the earthbound action is, almost by default, less interesting than it might be otherwise.

Next week: "Nightmare Cannon."