Saturday, February 24, 2018

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Monster Squad: "Queen Bee" (September 11, 1976)



Monster Squad (1976 - 1977) -- not to be confused with the late 1980's movie, The Monster Squad (1987) -- is a one-season Saturday morning series developed by Stanley Ralph Ross, one of the key writers of the Adam West Batman (1966 – 1969) series.

Like Batman, Monster Squad’s style is high-camp, meaning that all the heroes face their various crises with melodramatic solemnity, a solemnity that plays to adults as funny but kids as serious. 

Also like Batman, Monster Squad is famous for its rogue’s gallery of celebrity villains.  Some of the actors who wore crazy get-ups and twirled their metaphorical mustaches on the program included Julie Newmar as “Ultra Witch” and Jonathan Harris as “the Astrologer.”

Briefly stated, the premise of Monster Squad is that a young and hopelessly earnest criminologist, Walter (Fred Grandy) has developed a fantastically advanced crime computer at the Chamber of Horrors exhibit in the basement of Fred’s Wax Museum. This large-scale computer can rise out of a sarcophagus platform when in operation, and features a “secret government” channel and radio transmitter.

One day however, the “oscillating vibrations” of Walter’s crime computer awaken three of the museum’s figures, Dracula (Henry Polic II), the Frankenstein Monster (Michael Lane) and The Wolfman (Buck Kartalian). These figures are apparently the real deal, resurrected, and not merely wax representations of them.  However, it is never explained why the wax museum was housing the bodies of such dangerous monsters.




Regardless of their precise nature, these three “monsters” from history wish to atone for their sins by solving crimes with Walter, and thereby making reparations to society.

With Walt operating out of the Chamber of Horrors, Dracula, The Wolfman and The Frankenstein Monster are thus frequently dispatched -- in a black 1970s van -- to combat evil-doers around the city.


The first episode of Monster Squad, “Queen Bee” -- which aired on NBC the morning of September 11, 1976 -- stars Alice Ghostley as the insect matriarch, the aforementioned Queen Bee. As the episode commences, she has ordered her bee minions around the world to attack unsuspecting humans.  This “unexplained rash of bee stings” is noticed by Walt, who captures a bee and attempts to interrogate it with the Crime Computer.

One will notice here that the Crime Computer has a slot designed and labeled for insect analysis. This makes one wonder how often evil bugs show up in town…


After a time, Walt frees the bee, and Dracula tracks it in bat-form to Queen Bee’s headquarters. There, he and his monster must stop the Queen Bee’s plans before the United Nations can surrender the world to her.

The 1970's represents the great era of “killer bee” entertainment, from the movies Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973) and The Swarm (1978) to TV series such as The Starlost (1973-1974) which featured an episode about giant bees called “The Beehive.” 


In terms of “Queen Bee,” the Monster Squad episode reports about the South American killer bee briefly, but otherwise conjures up little in terms of fact.  Instead, the installment features about a hundred bad “bee” puns for Ghostley and her buzzing minions. 

“I bee-seech you,” says one character.  “Bee-ware your fate,” says another.

After a while, we also get “bee-lieve me,” “bee-guiling,” “bee-wildering,” “bee-headed,” “bee-trothal,” “bee-tray” and other variations on the theme.  One non -“bee” joke is Queen Bee’s comment that one of her minions always “bumbles.”

As you can probably guess, this approach grows tiring after a while, though it anticipates the approach to Mr. Freeze in Batman and Robin (1997).  

The episode -- like all Monster Squad episodes -- plays as particularly arched, and not overly amusing. Everyone is in on the joke, but the joke isn’t as amusing as it is on Batman, and this Saturday morning series also lacks the resources, and hence production values of that camp classic.  For instance, here Dracula is put in a vat of honey, and the vat is a tiny little barrel.


Viewers who were kids in the 1970's may be most interested here to see a Mego toy re-painted and used as a prop in “Queen Bee.”  Ghostley’s “bee” communicator is actually a Star Trek walkie-talkie from the age, but painted gold.  The prop -- with a different paint job -- recurs as Walt’s crime computer remote control in the next episode, “Mr. Mephisto.”



Although Monster Squad doesn’t hold up particularly well-today, I remember that I absolutely loved it as a seven year old, and that I wished and hoped for action figures, playsets and other toys featuring these lovable and familiar monsters. There was, as memory services, a board game available at one time.

As bad as some of these episodes are, the opening theme song and introductory montage still provide me a nice kick of nostalgia…



Next week: “Mr. Mephisto.”

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Cult-TV Blogging: The Immortal: "The Queen's Gambit" (November 12, 1970)


A beautiful and duplicitous double agent, Sigrid Bergen (Lee Meriwether), captures Ben Richards (Christopher George) and then stages his death, so that Fletcher (Don Knight) will call off the hunt for the immortal,

Then, Sigrid flies Ben via helicopter to the remote estate of millionaire Simon Brent (Nico Minardos), who wishes to study Ben’s blood, and produce medicine that will cure the world of disease, and perhaps even old age.

As Ben soon discovers, escape seems impossible as the estate is heavily patrolled, and geographically isolated. Ben attempts to get a message out via a visiting doctor, but fails.

Sigrid, however, begins to develop an affection for her former prey, and teams with Richards to help him escape.


“The Queen’s Gambit” is likely my favorite of all The Immortal (1969-1971) episodes produced since the pilot. It features a terrific central performance from Lee Meriwether as a mercenary who, for a considerable time, outsmarts Ben Richards, Fletcher, and even her employer, Brent. 

Meriwether is a beloved cult-TV actress (Time Tunnel [1966]; Batman: The Movie [1966], Star Trek: “That Which Survives”) but I’ll go on record as stating that The Immortal gives the actress an opportunity to deliver her most dynamic (and sexiest) performance in this medium. 



Although Sigrid eventually succumbs to Ben’s charms -- as every single woman on the series must, at some point -- she is otherwise depicted as a brilliant tactician and expert in her field. Sigrid is one of the most imposing antagonists Ben has yet faced, even if that antagonism gives way, eventually to sexual attraction.  

On that front, I will merely note that Meriwether and George boast good romantic chemistry here, and that such chemistry hasn’t always been the case for the romance-of-the-week.

“The Queen’s Gambit” is such a strong episode, no doubt, because it isn’t some random story about Ben Richards arbitrarily walking into a ranching conflict, or randomly encountering a corrupt sheriff. It’s a story actually about Ben, his predicament, and his life choices. There is some excellent dialogue in this episode about the fact that, from a certain perspective, it is selfish of Richards to continue to run rather than making a pro-social use of his unusual blood.

At first Ben says “I’d like to be free to decide what I want to do with my life,” but it’s clear that the arguments for helping the human race have an impact on him.His stubbornness is reinforced, ultimately, by the fact that Brent -- like Maitland -- is more concerned about himself than humanitarian causes.  Brent isn’t so much concerned that everyone “share” Richards’ blood, so much as he is concerned that he reap the rewards.

There's even a discussion of immortality in this episode -- what it means, how it could change things -- and if you have watched The Immortal you know this subject almost never comes up.



“The Queen’s Gambit” succeeds, as well, because of its twisting narrative. The episode starts with Ben encountering Sigrid seemingly at random. Then the audience sees her attempting to cash in, with Fletcher, for the reward.  This too, however, is a carefully set-up ruse to throw Fletcher off Richards’ scent.  Basically, Sigrid is a version of Fletcher, only a competent (and better looking) one.  I should add that, unlike Fletcher, she has a conscience and comes to regret imprisoning a man for what could be an eternity. Then, there's another twist, Sigrid's change of allegiance, and the final whammy: Brent's estate isn't on another continent after all, by outside Los Angeles!

So many The Immortal episodes are just re-heated versions of tales already featured on The Fugitive (1963-1967).  “The Queen’s Gambit” is a high point in the catalog because it feels individual to the series, because Meriwether's performance drives the drama, and because surprises drive each plot twist.

Next week, we’re back to random adventuring in “By Gift of Chance.”

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Comic Book of the Week: Gargoyles (Marvel)



Action Figures of the Week: Gargoyles (Kenner Edition)




Trading Cards of the Week: Gargoyles (SkyBox)


Gargoyles GAF Viewmaster


Board Game of the Week: Gargoyles (Milton Bradley)


Lunch Box of the Week: Gargoyles



Theme Song of the Week: Gargoyles

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Star Trek: The Next Generation 30th Anniversary Blogging: "Datalore" (January 18, 1988)


Stardate 41242.4

The Enterprise visits the planet Omicron Theta, the locale where Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner) was discovered by the starship Tripoli twenty-six years earlier.

The planet is largely sterile, at this point, but for reasons unknown. Now, the Enterprise is hoping to solve many of the mysteries from Data’s background, including the planet’s unusual fate.

Upon exploring the planet, Data and an away team discover the secret laboratory of Dr. Noonien Soong, Data’s “father.” The team also finds the pieces of a disassembled second android. That android is brought to the Enterprise, re-assembled, and activated.

A physical duplicate of Data, Lore is a wily individual, one with ulterior motives. In fact, he plans to seamlessly replace Data, and then summon the alien that destroyed Omicron Theta -- The Silicon Entity -- to kill the Enterprise crew.


Apparently “Datalore” is not a well-regarded series entry by fans today, and so I’ll just go out on a limb to state that I loved it when it first aired, and still enjoy the episode tremendously.

I understand there are reasons to dislike the story, and I’ll cover those first.

To start with, there’s the whole “Data can’t use contractions” problem. This limitation is reiterated in “Datalore,” but then, at the very end of the episode, he uses a contraction effortlessly (“I’m fine.”)

So, either Data was trolling us and his shipmates all along, or he has suddenly learned to use contractions, and is -- again -- trolling his friends.  Either way, his sudden ability to use contractions goes unexplained and unexplored. In truth, this is simply sloppy editing or storytelling.  

Also, obviously, the premise of “the evil twin” is incredibly hackneyed. We have seen it so many times, on series from Knight Rider to Alias, to the original Star Trek. I would argue, however, that the trope is more plausible in this case, given that Lore and Data are in essence, the same model of android (with some interesting differences).  Basically, it doesn’t stretch credibility that they look identical.

And, of course, this episode once more has Wesley saving the day, while the adults -- all Starfleet graduates -- are too dense to notice that Lore has replaced Data.

But hear me out, please.

Sometimes, a work of art can, via expert execution, escape the particular failings of a narrative.  Sometimes, visual style carries the day.

I therefore submit that “Datalore” is one of the most stylish and well-directed of the early TNG episodes, thanks to Rob Bowman.  The entire episode feels cinematic, from Brent Spiner’s tour-de-force double performance, to the creepy and atmospheric discovery of the laboratory on a dead world.  The action in the finale is well-choreographed, and all the characters -- even the Crystalline Entity -- are underscored by the expressive, even pulse-pounding music of Ron Jones. 



As montage, as film art, “Datalore” works brilliantly.

The final scene in the transporter room is an example of this effective style. It showcases the kind of brutal, fast-paced action that the series has, heretofore, shied away from. Lore threatens to “torch” Wesley with a phaser! He then shoots Dr. Crusher in the arm, and her lab coat actually catches fire as she flees. Finally, Data and Lore engage in hand-to-hand combat, and -- at the last minute -- Data literally pitches Lore onto the transporter platform.

Why do I love this sequence, and this episode so much?

Up until now, the Enterprise-D crew has not faced a powerful, truly malicious enemy. “Q” is playful, and not really out to destroy the crew. The Ferengi are humorous, but largely inept. The Jarada -- never seen -- are easily appeased. The aliens of “Code of Honor” are played as primitives. The virus of “The Naked Now” is played for laughs. The dueling supplicants headed to Parliament in “Lonely Among Us” are seen as both primitive and funny.

So for all intents and purposes, Lore is the first villain in the series who feels like a genuine challenge for the crew.  

He is an operatic nemesis who nearly carries the day, and relishes his own evil. He is Loki to Data’s Thor, and his sadism, at points, is actually terrifying.  There is one moment in the episode when he viciously kicks an unconscious Data, and another in which he threatens Wesley, “the troublesome little man-child” with a fate worse than death.  “Are you prepared for the kind of death of you’ve earned?” he asks.

After so many episodes in which aliens are impressed by humanity’s nobility, this episode showcases a villain who doesn’t care for humans at all, let alone children.

I have read some reviews complaining about the photo/stunt double for Brent Spiner, but I’ll just make an opposite point. At the time that it aired, “Datalore” featured the best, most complex split screen shots ever filmed for television. These scenes are beautifully-composed and acted. Brent Spiner’s performance “against” himself is riveting. This is likely the first episode of the series that reveals fully how Spiner is a brilliant technical actor.  Lore comes across as a wholly separate and unique individual in this story.


I understand that “Datalore” has its problems. For one thing, Worf -- the great warrior -- gets beat-up in hand-to-hand combat once more (he is also defeated in “Hide and Q” and “Conspiracy.”)  But by the same token, “Datalore” is one of the few early first season episodes, beyond “The Big Goodbye” that is confident enough to have fun with its premise and just really go for broke.


“Datalore” features that big, bold score, fun action scenes, and introduces Lore to the same series, at the same time that it provides much-needed information about Data’s history. Even the Silicon Entity proves to be a great addition to canon (and an addition that returns in “Silicon Avatar.”) 

Yes, so many of the dramatic flaws that we see abundantly in the series’ first season are present here, and yet “Datalore” glides effortlessly from moment to moment, audaciously making the most of each opportunity to wow.

In a way, the episode is even intriguing as an homage to “The Enemy Within,” the Star Trek episode that concerned an evil duplicate of Captain Kirk. There, the “impostor” of the captain had to hide the scratches on his face. Here, Lore uses a device to wipe out a facial tic.  The moment is derivative, and yet fascinating in another way. In the 23rd century, Kirk had to contend with an expression of his Id; his dark side. The Next Generation suggests that androids can have an Id too; as “Lore” represent the dark side of artificial intelligence.



This duality is even spelled out in the character names. “Data” means “things assumed as fact based on reason and calculations.”  “Lore” means “mythology,” a story of possibly hyperbolic origin.  You can trust a person of reason, like Data. You can’t trust “Lore,” because his stories are only half-true interpretations of historical events.

This episode is pretty hyperbolic itself. It’s over-the-top and energetic. 

“Datalore” is also, frankly, one of the few first season episodes that is at all entertaining on multiple re-watches. At this point, I would put it second or third in the roster, behind “The Big Goodbye,” but ahead of just about every other episode aired thus far.


Next week: “Angel One.”