Thursday, June 22, 2017

Planet of the Apes TV Series Blogging: "The Horse Race" (November 8, 1974)



 In “The Horse Race,” General Urko (Mark Lenard) continues to operate an illicit operation under Zaius's nose. 

Specifically, Urko has been terrorizing local ape prefects via a gambling operation. He challenges these apes of means to a horse race, and then takes half-of-their-wealth, legally, when they lose against his fast horse.

Now, Prefect Barlow (John Hoyt) is the next in line to be conned into a losing horse race, at least until Alan Virdon (Ron Harper) proves that he is the one jockey who can defeat Urko’s horse. 

Unfortunately, it is illegal for humans to ride horses on the planet of the apes.

At the same time that this crisis unfolds, Galen is stung by a scorpion, and a local blacksmith’s (Morgan Woodward) son must ride a horse to retrieve the necessary medicine.  

Unfortunately, he is captured, and scheduled for execution for his transgression.

Barlow makes a deal with Urko: if his horse wins, the boy will go free…


After last week’s clever and allegorical story about race hatred ("The Deception"), Planet of the Apes (1974) falls back to Earth with the potboiler, “The Horse Race.”  

Basically, this short-lived TV series has two modes of operation. One mode tells a story, and also -- at the same time -- makes a point or offers commentary about race relations.  

The other type of story is basically a time-waster in which humans outsmart the talking apes with their superiority.  "The Horse Race" is the latter type.


Here, for example, a human being, Alan Virdon, proves that he is the best jockey around, so as to win a horse race, and stick it to Urko. 

The problem, of course, is that Virdon is an astronaut, not a jockey, and he no doubt boasts less experience than Urko’s best jockey…who runs this con for a living, basically.  

But this story demands that the “superior” humans defeat the apes, and that’s precisely what occurs here. It’s not only predictable, it’s insipid.  Are we such insecure beings that we must believe a person of our time and place must be superior to all others, even if they have superior experience and abilities?  The same notion of 20th century “American Exceptionalism” infects Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981), as I frequently point out.

Here, matters are made even worse in terms of the episode's believability. 

Virdon is thrown from his steed just before the race starts, and lands in mud.  The mud successfully obscures his identity so that Urko can’t recognize him as a fugitive astronaut during the race. Uh-huh.  
It might have been preferable for Urko simply not to recognize Virdon since, as he has said before that all humans look alike to him.  At least then, Virdon’s disguise wouldn’t have been random, or a matter of coincidence, and the series would have continued to study bigotry.  This way, it's just dumb luck that Urko fails to recognize the astronaut.


But more to the point, is it at all realistic that the human astronauts should continue to put themselves in such high jeopardy for strangers?  

It’s a regurgitation of The Fugitive’s format here, but in this case, matters are truly life and death.  Why would Virdon risk being discovered?

As usual, the series is well-cast, with John Hoyt and Morgan Woodward both fashioning memorable characters in "The Horse Race." But the script (by Booker Bradshaw and David P. Lewis) is largely undistinguished.  I don’t think the question is ever answered here: why do we need to see this story?  How does it contribute to the overall narrative and character development?


The only answer I come up with involves Urko. This episode proves that he’s corrupt as well as a racist. Yet, alas, this doesn’t jibe well with upcoming stories. 

In “The Tyrant,” the human fugitives and Galen go to General Urko in hopes that he will fairly arbitrate a dispute with a corrupt gorilla named Aboro. Why should they expect, after the events of this episode, that Urko would ever treat them fairly?

Although “The Horse Race” was reportedly Ron Harper’s favorite episode of the series, his sentiment is not shared by this author. In fact, I suspect that it is potboiler episodes like this one -- stories that do nothing to move the overall narrative forward -- that alienated prime time audiences in the mid-1970’s.

Next week, a better show arrives: “The Interrogation.”

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Action Figures of the Week: Stargate (1994 Hasbro)


Who would have guessed that a relatively-unsuccessful genre film released during the Christmas holiday of 1994 would evolve into one of the most popular sci-fi TV franchises of the new millennium? 

I'm speaking, of course, about Stargate (1994). The big-budget film, -- which starred Kurt Russell, James Spader and Jaye Davidson (the She Male from The Crying Game ) -- was only a modest success during its original theatrical run...but spawned a TV franchise that ran over a decade, and included at least three titles.

In 1994, Hasbro released a whole line of toys related to the original movie.

The box art work implored would-be buyers to "Travel through the STARGATE and discover a distant galaxy where a doorway to adventure unlocks the mysteries of another world!"


Among the Stargate toys released by Hasbro were an "all terrain cruiser" (replete with "shooting alien blaster!") that Kurt Russell could pilot. 

I get a kick out of the box art work, in which Russell is driving this military dune-buggy with one hand while simultaneously firing an uzi with the other hand (and wearing a beret!) 

This cruiser also came complete with two communication antennas, roll bars (w/missile launcher), an "armor-plated body," and a "video cam recorder." It also had "all-terrain sand dune tires." 

Another interesting Stargate toy was the Mastadge, an alien "beast of burden" (like a cross between a camel and a woolly mammoth.) This happy-go-lucky guy came complete with a "shooting catapult launcher."

Also, this toy was equipped with a "removable shepherd's saddle" and a "customized mastadge transport sled." 

A card on the back of the box provided more mega-Mastadgy-type data, informing us that Mastadges "serve the villagers of Nagada," and that they are "loyal animals capable of withstanding the brutal sandstorms of planet Abydos. They can each reach speeds of up to 35 mph over the planet's desert landscape, making them an excellent form of transportation."

A third toy was the "winged glider" (which I don't own, alas...) but which was sold with "firing missile launchers."



In toto, Hasbro produced eight action figures to go with these toys: Archaeologist Daniel Jackson (Spader), Colonel O'Neil (Russell), Ra (Ruler of Abydos), Palace Guard Horus, Anubis, Attack Pilot Horus, Lt. Kawalsky and Skaara.

Also, on the back of the toy boxes were these funny little questions which could only be answered if you decoded the hieroglyphs. One such question: "In which country are the pyramids located?"

Young buyers were enticed to "collect all 8 figure cards to complete the hieroglyphic alphabet."


Video Game of the Week: Stargate (Sega Genesis; 1994)


Board Game of the Week: Stargate SG-1 (Fleet Games)


Model Kits of the Week: Stargate (1994)



Trading Cards of the Week; Stargate (1994)



Theme Song of the Week: Stargate SG-1 (1997 - 2007)

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Empath" (December 6, 1968)

Stardate: 5121.5

The Enterprise visits Minara II, a planet whose star is nearing a critical stage before nova. The Federation scientists stationed on the inhospitable surface of the planet -- Ozaba (Davis Roberts) and Linke (Jason Wingreen) -- have vanished without a trace.

The Enterprise is forced to break orbit because of solar activity, and the landing party -- consisting of Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelley) -- also vanishes, abducted by inscrutable alien experimenters: the Vians.

The Vians have captured the crew men in a vast laboratory 120 meters below the planet’s surface. There, they hope to see what impact the Enterprise officers can have on their ward, Gem (Kathryn Hays), a mute empath with the incredible ability to heal the wounds of others.

When the Vians physically torture Kirk and McCoy, Gem is encouraged to help them, just as she has seen Kirk, Spock, and McCoy demonstrate friendship, loyalty, and sacrifice for one another during this crisis.

When the Vians plan to bring McCoy to the point of death, Captain Kirk and Spock must not only encourage Gem to reveal her humanity and save him, but they must also ask the Vians to demonstrate that quality as well,


Although at times stagy and operatic, “The Empath” is another "high concept" --- and terrific -- episode of Star Trek’s (1966-1969) third season. 

The episode’s deficits are visual, and therefore plain for all to see: a large black sound-stage doubles as a surreal alien laboratory (shades of Lost in Space!), and Kathryn Hays’ sometimes exaggerated performance seems almost silent-movie style..

Yet, even these deficits might be interpreted as strengths if viewed from the right perspective. 

The lack of meaningful background technology -- or even decoration -- suggests both the alien-ness of the Vian habitat, and forces audiences to focus on the story’s theme, which concerns above all, the friendship of the series’ heroic triumvirate: Kirk-Spock-McCoy.  There's very little background "noise" to detract from the actual storytelling here.


Secondly, Hays performance may strike some cynical viewers as overly florid or purple, yet she also creates moments of extreme tenderness and sensitivity in "The Empath." Her expressive, porcelain visage proves quite unforgettable and haunting, and it is upsetting to see it marred by the “wounds” the Vians create. There's a quality of vulnerability about the character that makes her suffering difficult to bear.


I suspect that if one can accept the nature of Hays’ physical performance, and the lack of good production values in the laboratory set, the viewer will find much of interest in this particular tale. Again, it is incumbent on us to be engaged with the material, and the episode's mise en scene.

In fact, “The Empath” is -- to coin a phrase -- pure “triumvirate porn.”  In a very real sense, the story explicitly concerns the suffering that Kirk, Spock and McCoy will endure to spare their friends physical and mental pain. 

The episode -- banned in some countries for years, if not decades -- revels in the sadistic treatment of these beloved characters (a commonality with the less successful installment, “Plato’s Stepchildren,”) and showcases their ability to persevere against the odds, and in the face of pain.

Afterwards, the characters are hailed in the episode for their special bond, and credited with imbuing Gem with the qualities that will make her species worth saving. “Your will to survive. Your love of life. Your passion to know,” the Vians enumerate.  

What they don’t say, but should, is that Kirk, Spock, and McCoy risk death and grievous pain to help the others. They never give up on one another, and they never surrender to their own weaknesses.

McCoy’s importance to the character triumvirate or triangle is given special attention in “The Empath.” 

First, McCoy outmaneuvers Spock, so that the doctor can be the one to endure the painful trials, and die. In doing this, he spares Spock unbelievable pain and suffering. Also, Bones simultaneously spares Kirk the agony of choosing which of his two officers should suffer and be killed. 

Later, McCoy also refuses Gem’s help, aware that if he accepts her empath's touch, she will, in all likelihood, die from the injuries he has sustained.  “I can’t destroy life, even if it’s to save my own,” he says, pushing Gem away.

In both instances, we see clearly McCoy’s empathy. One might even formulate an argument that he is the "empath" of the episode title. Consider that McCoy puts himself in Spock’s shoes, in Kirk’s shoes, and ultimately in Gem’s too. He can see how his actions -- and his alone -- could save all of them, and he doesn’t just talk the talk. He sticks to his ideals (though Gem ultimately saves him).

Kirk is also handled well in the episode too, and in a fashion that excavates the captain’s particular brand of bravery. He is more than willing to die (bare chested, of course…) to save his friends, but he does have one final request: he wishes for his death to carry a purpose.  “If my death is to have any meaning, at least tell me what I’m dying for,” he implores. Kirk accepts his death as inevitable, in other words, but still acts, in his final moments, as an explorer of sorts. He must know what is on the other side of the mountain (death), and in this case, that means understanding the reason for his final journey.

In toto, “The Empath,” written by Joyce Muskat and directed by John Erman, is elegantly constructed as a narrative. 

The triumvirate (Kirk-Spock-McCoy) ignites the spark of compassion and love in Gem, who shall spread that spark to her people.  In the same story, the triangle re-awakens those same, atavistic feelings in the Vians, who have become so cold, brittle, and remote that they no longer are affected by the emotional trials they force others to endure.  


The triumvirate, in other words, impacts everyone it encounters, and in a positive way. The dynamics of the trio both give birth to feelings of empathy and self-sacrifice, and rekindle those feelings for those in whom they have withered and died.

There may be no better exploration of the triumvirate (although another third season show, “The Tholian Web," is a likely contender…) than the one found in this tale. In “The Empath,” we see Kirk, without thought for himself, order McCoy and Spock to safety, while he negotiates to remain behind, and experimented on by the Vians. 

We see Spock, without missing a beat, “request permission” to be the one to remain, as if his sacrifice would simply be a matter of logic.  

And we see McCoy, as enumerated above, tending to the mental and physical well-being of his friends.

In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), Sybok states that the “bond” between Kirk, Spock and McCoy is “strong…difficult to penetrate,” and “The Empath" reveals to audience just how powerful that bond truly is.

I made a joke above about this episode being triumvirate porn, because it concerns each point in the triumvirate offering himself up for the others, and facing physical sensations of agony for that choice. In our culture, we don’t have a good name for the kind of love we see demonstrated in the heroic triangle, so it is natural, if not necessarily correct, to relate it to physical, romantic or sexual love. Indeed, there is much “slash” fiction about these three characters engaging in a sexual relationship (and sometimes a sadomasochistic sexual relationship, to boot). The plain fact of the matter is that Kirk, Spock and McCoy love each other in a way that goes beyond brotherhood and family, but that isn’t romantic, either.  

These three men -- in combination the id, ego, and superego  -- create a kind of perfect “corporate” human, and “The Empath” showcases the lengths to which each point in the triangle will go to save his friends. It is a beautiful episode for its recognition and development of this love, and also for the idea that such a bond can be modeled, and taught to those who are without love, or who do not understand its nature.

This message is so much more powerful than the occasional visual distractions in performance or production value. 


I know...there are plenty of viewers out there who complain that "The Empath" is depressing, or boring, or sadistic. They will write that Shatner overacts his scenes (particularly the slow-motion collapse on the surface). And yet all this criticism, I believe, stems from the episode’s uncomfortable nature and exploration of love. “The Empath” demands recognition that the Kirk-Spock-McCoy bond is a form of love, and for some that is just a bridge too far.

The aliens in this episode put the crew through Hell (but are not “light” and "jokey" about their sadism in the way that the Platonians are), and go unpunished for their actions, and I suppose that also disappoints some viewers, who are looking for some form of “justice” here. 

What they fail to detect is that the Vians do get  a comeuppance. In the final scenes, they are forced to reckon with all the emotions they had discarded and considered primitive. These intellectuals realize they are not above the emotional ebb and flow of lower beings in the universe, but still a part of it.

Finally, we must always remember that some science fiction and some Star Trek fans possess a special brand of of self-loathing. It is this impulse that is at the heart of the rejection of the Wesley Crusher character; fans couldn't stand to see a kid or teenager -- themselves, in some cases -- reflected in-universe. Instead of seeing the character as a point of identification, they saw him as someone to destroy. They were, in essence, destroying the "self" they saw in the mirror, and hated.

So I am certain that there are those out there who will claim that since "The Empath" is written by a Star Trek fan, it is somehow a Mary Sue story, or some such thing.  Hopefully this review addresses, instead, the depth and clarity of "The Empath's" narratives and themes, and its exploration of the triumvirate's unique dynamic.

All these touches make “The Empath” a “pearl of great price,” and a highly unusual addition to Star Trek canon.


Next week: “Elaan of Troyius.”

Monday, June 19, 2017

Ask JKM a Question: Re-cast General Leia?


Last week, a friend on Facebook, Brad, posted an article about General Leia’s future in Star Wars, and asked me to respond with my thoughts about it, about what should be done.

I decided to write those thoughts here on the blog.

Basically, the issue is this: Princess Leia is a crucial character in the Star Wars mythos, and yet Carrie Fisher has, tragically, passed away. She was not able to complete any scenes for the final film of the third trilogy: Episode 9.


The filmmakers have already ruled out the creation a CGI version of the character, for which I am grateful. The technology for digital recreations of humans is not quite where it needs to be, as Rogue One (2016) demonstrated. I don’t know that a simulacrum, at this point, would remind audiences of anything except what has been lost.

So what are the remaining options?

By my estimation, they are as follows:

Rewriting to either kill off the character, or to position Leia elsewhere (“off-screen”) during the central action.

Or

Re-casting the character, and having Leia continue to be a fully-fledged, legitimate participant in the movie’s narrative.

I know which path I favor.


I believe that the most respectful -- and most appropriate -- thing to do here is recast the role. General Leia, formerly Princess Leia, is a pop-culture icon, and the character’s importance is bigger than any one person at this point.  I don’t deny that Carrie Fisher left big shoes to fill, or that she is darn near irreplaceable. 

Or that we will miss her terribly.

But Leia is a fictional character of cultural import, and one who deserves to see her remarkable story completed, after forty years.  I believe this path is what Carrie Fisher would want, as well: to see Leia continue to live, so that her mythic story arc can be completed. 

I firmly believe that the respectful thing to do is, indeed, to treat the character with that dignity, and feature here in a substantive role.

Killing Leia off-screen is insulting, and will feel contrived.  Because no scenes can be shot to make it different, the death will be seen as a useless death (and ask Star Trek fans how that felt. See: Tasha Yar).

And having Leia elsewhere as the rebellion carries on (and the battle for her son’s soul is waged…), isn’t believable in the slightest. Where else would she be?

Those two paths are the least respectful, and the least logical, in my opinion. They don’t serve the overall narrative, or the artistry of the franchise.

The answer is to recast the role of Leia with an excellent actor, one capable of giving the character the end point or closure that Leia Organa abundantly deserves.

I don’t have anyone specific in mind at this point, but Sigourney Weaver, Sally Field, Stockard Channing, Mary Steenburgen, or Andie McDowell all leap to mind as possibilities. They could step in, and give Leia life in dramatic, competent fashion.

We know that Dumbledore had to be re-cast in the Harry Potter films because the character was simply too important to the narrative to dispense with. I would submit the same thing is true here.

Leia was created, and made unforgettable by Carrie Fisher, yes. 

Ms. Fisher was caretaker of the role for forty years, yes. 

But the character deserves to see her story arc completed, and re-casting is the only pathway that permits the filmmakers to dramatize the story that they intended, and keep Leia at the center of the action.

I know it isn’t easy. 

But I believe it would be a double tragedy if the actor’s death caused the character’s death, and pop culture -- and the genre -- is thus robbed of one of its most memorable and unique female characters.

People will understand, even if begrudgingly.

Dedicate Episode 8 to Carrie Fisher’s memory.

And re-cast Princess Leia for Episode 9.


Don’t forget to ask me your questions at Muirbusiness@yahoo.com

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Picnics



A picnic is an excursion or occasion in which a meal is prepared for outdoor consumption, usually in a pastoral or scenic location.  The word picnic is a 17th century French word, and one still in use today.

Today, we have family picnics, which can be raucous affairs, and romantic picnics, which boast other aims.

In cult-TV history, both sorts of picnics have been featured.


For instance, in Irwin Allen's Lost in Space (1965-1968), Maureen Robinson (June Lockhart) technically prepares a "picnic" at virtually every meal, setting up a table, chairs and meal outside the landed Jupiter 2, for every occasion. In some cases, the picnics occur on chariot trips.


In Star Trek (1966-1969), by contrast, Captain Pike (Jeffrey Hunter) imagines a romantic picnic with Vina (Susan Oliver) in the pilot episode, "The Cage."  The episode is an exploration, actually, of Pike's sexual fantasies, exploring whether he would want to breed with a damsel in distress, a girl next door, or a wild, Orion slave girl.  The picnic scene involves the girl next door, and an Earth setting.


In Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis) share a romantic picnic on Betazed, until the event turns into a family affair, with the arrival of Troi's mother, Lwaxana (Majel Barrett Roddenberry).


A family picnic turns murderous in Buffy the Vampire Slayer's (1997-2003) episode, "This Year's Girl."  Here, Faith (Eliza Dushku) experiences a dream in which she is sharing a picnic with her father-figure, the Mayor (Harry Groener). The picnic is rudely interrupted by Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar), who then kills Mayor Wilkins in cold blood.

Picnics have also appeared in Space:1999 ("The Last Sunset"), American Horror Story, and The Vampire Diaries.