Category Archives: TV

1950s computers, 1980s papergirls and modern voyeurism: movies and TV

In hindsight it would have been interesting to discuss GOG (1954) in the section of Aliens Are Here dealing with 1971’s The Andromeda Strain.

Like the later movie, Gog is a film about science and scientific research; where the Crichton adaptation makes scientific drudgery fascinating, Gog is plodding, talky and dull. That’s partly because where Andromeda Strain is tense — can we stop a xenobacteria from causing a pandemic? — the research scenes in Gog have nothing to do with the main plot of the movie.The plot centers on a series of mysterious deaths in a lab working on space research, including plans for an orbiting solar mirror that could destroy any target on Earth, so clearly our satellite has to get up before any foreign power tries it (the kind of thinking The Space Children later warned against). The mysterious saboteur could prevent that.

Dull as it is, Gog does have a couple of interesting elements. Gog and Magog are the screen’s first non-humanoid robots; the foreign power’s interference with the base’s central computer amounts to an early example of hacking. That’s not enough to redeem it though. Not a maniac, Dr. Burton — we have on our staff a cold, calculating killer.”

If you read this blog regularly you know I’m a big fan of the Brian K. Vaughn/Cliff Chiang Paper Girls comics series so no surprise I watched the Amazon Prime adaptation. PAPER GIRLS is  fun with its story of four kids suddenly caught up in a time war, though I think the originals are so cinematic the various changes to the original storyline were pointless. The best change is giving us a look at adult KJ, which somehow never happened in the comics. The most understandable is that while Mac handles cigarettes a lot, she doesn’t smoke any.

The changes I like least are number one, the lack of all the neat 1980s period references. Number two, the girls in the comics are acting on their own; here they’re constantly led around by one adult authority figure or another. That feels very unsatisfying, as if someone got cold feet about the kids trying to survive on their own in such a nightmare situation. In any case it’s been canceled, though I’ve no idea if the flaws I found are tied to that. “You just told me I’m adopted and you really think I want to listen to Whitney Houston?”

THE RENTAL (2020) is a clunky horror story in which two couples spend the weekend at an isolated coastal vacation house with suspiciously cheap rates — would you believe this turns out as disastrous as seeking refuge from thunderstorms in isolated castles? However it’s very oddly structured, starting off as personal drama (did the homeowner refuse to rent to a Muslim because he’s a racist? Will two of the quartet hooking up with the wrong person ruin everything?), shifting into Voyeur of Doom territory (the entire house is wired with hidden cameras!) then has the Voyeur turn into a Masked Slasher who kills them all. Thumbs down. “I’m not saying we can’t get away with it — I’m saying I don’t want to get away with it.”

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Czech animation, comic-book based superheroes: movies and TV

JAN SVANKMAJER: THE OSSUARY AND OTHER TALES (1964) collects some of the Czech animator’s bizarre shorts (I’ve seen some of his longer works, such as Alice or Faust), not all of which work — some are just odd and pointless — but most do, including a film about a human fence and one involving a slowly assembling body (I think I caught it back on MTV’s old Liquid Television, which introduced me to Svankmajer). “Plant an engineer between two butchers.”

The 1994 cartoon of THE TICK was my introduction to Ben Edlund’s superhero parody (I found the comic book some years later) as the dumb but mighty hero, his sidekick Arthur and allies such as American Maid—— battle Dick Tracy-esque villain Chairface Chippendale, Bond-style tyrant Pineapple Pokopo, mock adventures in Pretentious Surreal Mindscapes (I hate those) and parody superheroes about as well as it’s ever been done. For some reason this set misses one episode (“The Tick vs. the Mole-Men”) but it holds up well, with the season improving as it goes along. “I’m not Stalin, I’m Stalingrad — a graduate student in Russian history who decided to become a supervillain.”

THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY‘s third season follows up on the ending of the second (though I can’t find a review here for anything but S1), in which Gerard Way’s misfit comic-book heroes return home to discover they’ve been replaced by the Sparrow Academy. It turns out following S2’s changes in the timeline, Hargreaves (Colm Feore) created an entirely different team — more formidable fighters, it turns out, but shallow and selfish, exploiting their heroics to become celebrity. Can the two teams work together when the world once again faces the apocalypse?

I like the set-up and would have loved to see the two team square off, with the Umbrellas ultimately proving their merit. The “kugelblitz” apocalypse didn’t work out as well as I expected. And the ending, leading into the final season, is more frustrating than satisfying — it may all look better once we learn Hargreaves hidden agenda in S4, but that’s really not good enough. “The best way to bring a family together is at a wedding — or a funeral. We’ve tried one, now we’ll try the other.”

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The fighting women of movies and TV

PREY (2022) is the direct-to-streaming Predator prequel set on the Great Plains in the 1700s. The protagonist is a Comanche woman healer who wants to become a hunter; when she discovers something mean and monstrous butchering the local wildlife she tries to warn her tribe, but will they believe her (in a nice touch, some of the butchery turns out to be French trappers at work)? Easily the best film since the first, which raises the question whether they’ll try more historical stories; I notice the Predator has much less armor than later versions, which fits the aesthetic of the setting well. “You see what I miss — you always have.”

EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE (2022) stars Michelle Yeoh as a burned-out laundromat owner facing failure on every level, only to discover that very failure makes her as potentially invincible as Jet Li in The One (because there are so many alt.timelines where she succeeded, and she can draw on her skills in all of them). This makes her the logical Player on the Other Side to an equally formidable multiversal destroyer, provided Yeoh can master her powers in time.

This is as good as I’d heard but several times more bizarre; the Ratatouille parody alone is worth the price of admission. With Jamie Lee Curtis as a stressed out IRS agent. “There’s beauty everywhere, even in that stupid universe where we have hot dogs for fingers.”

Barbara Loden directed and starred in WANDA (1970) as a housewife in a mining town who drifts into a series of one-night stands after her divorce — and wouldn’t you know, one of them’s a criminal who drags her into one of his robbery schemes. This is very well done but it’s very low-key and Wanda is almost completely passive as a character, which makes it hard to get into (there’s apparently much debate whether second wave feminism made the character instantly outdated or it reflects the way so many women in a man’s world just go along with twhat men want). “Maybe you never did anything before — but you’re going to do this.”

BLACK WIDOW (2021) is a textbook example of Hitchcock’s belief the McGuffin doesn’t matter. The McGuffin in this case is an antidote to the mind-control drugs a Russian spymaster has used to create a slave army of Black Widows all over the world but I didn’t give a crap about the drugs or his Big And Evil Plan. The point of the movie to me is the chance to watch Scarlet Johansson’s Natasha kick spectacular butt, escape near death and have a very awkward reunion with her quasi-family of Florence Pugh, Rachel Weisz and David Harbour (the premise being they were a sleeper cell like The Americans but without real blood ties). The movie is a lot of fun, making it a shame Black Widow is one of the few characters who didn’t survive the war with Thanos (which I’m sure doesn’t relate to her being one of the biggest and most expensive stars in the MCU). “We’re just weapons with no face that he can throw away.”

MOTHERLAND: Fort Salem wrapped up with its third season (S2 review here) and happily they stuck the landing. At the end of last season the “Bellweather unit’ of Raelle (Taylor Hickson), Tally (Jessica Sutton) and Abby (Ashley Nicole Williams) went on the run after Vice President Silver framed them for murdering his daughter, the inciting incident to justify a literal witch hunt. Now they have to survive long enough to fight back, despite the schemes by the witch-hating Camarilla to bring back the days when witches were outcast.

To their credit, they resolved everything by going big, not only wrapping up the romantic arcs (and happily avoiding Bury Your Gays tropes) but the clash between the witches and both the Spree and Camarilla extremists. This remains one of my favorite fantasy series of recent years. “I’m not exactly sure what we did, but I’m fairly certain we changed everything.”

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The most hated man on the Internet is not Tom Swift: TV viewed

THE MOST HATED MAN ON THE INTERNET (2022) is a three-part documentary series on Netflix about Hunter Moore, a sleazeball whose Is Anybody Up website was apparently the first revenge porn site. Only Moore didn’t stop at posting things vicious ex-boyfriends sent him — it turned out he was hacking accounts where women had posted naked selfies for their own viewing, then posting them along with links to the victims’ social media. Getting photos the victims didn’t want to share was presumably cooler than if it had been consensual but it also led to his downfall, as the hacking got Moore a 30 month prison sentence and a ban from social media.

This is a horrible, if fascinating story: Moore comes off a narcissist like Alex Jones, enjoying his celebrity but also using it to sell merch and line his pockets. He also assembled an army of devoted trolls who delighted in heaping abuse and threats on anyone who dared cost him. Credit goes to the mother of one of his victims who refused to give up on taking Moore and his website down and getting the FBI engaged — though the effort it took shows why so many people doing revenge porn and similar shit never answer for it. “If I wasn’t bullying I don’t know what I’d do .. who would I be?”

The CW has axed a number of series due to their parent company having been bought out by Discovery, but TOM SWIFT (2022) had such low ratings it sounds like it would have been axed anyway.

Boy inventor Tom Swift debuted in print more than a century ago, when the books had titles like Tom Swift and His Motor-Cycle. In the TV series Tom (Tian Richards) is black and gay and has the arrogance that comes with being a billionaire’s son. His genius is real, though — he’s close to Luthor-class in his ability to treat the laws of physics as best practices, but not necessarily mandatory.

In the opening episode, Tom’s father Barton tests out the space ship Tom designed, only to have it explode under him while he’s out near Saturn. Tom discovers he’s still alive and hoping for rescue. However a sinister organization called The Road Back that wants to halt technological advances and restore an older social order (while their agents don’t spell it out, Tom guesses, correctly I’m sure, that their vision includes white supremacy). With the help of his BFF Zenzi (Ashleigh Murray) and his bisexual bodyguard Isaac (Marquise Vilson), Tom sets out to bring his father home, despite a long-simmering resentment at his dad’s homophobia.

I wondered why they’d kick this series off with the spaceflight — billionaires in space is pretty much a punchline these days — but it turns out Tom’s parents see this as the first step in Mountaintop, a plan to found a space colony and give America’s blacks a chance to emigrate away from our toxic history of racism. I love that idea. The stories are usually fun, though sometimes the power struggles in Barton’s absence feel too Dynasty. And while Barton’s right hand Claire (Brittany Ishibashi) is portrayed as a villainous schemer squeezing Tom out so she can become CEO, I notice she’s also the woman who worked her way up only to see a less qualified man get the seat at the top ahead of her (Tom is brilliant but I’m not so sure he can run the company).

I’m not sure why it flopped. The black gay protagonist? The protagonist being a swaggering rich kid? Or is it that Tom Swift doesn’t have the name value that Nancy Drew does, or even the Hardy Boys? Either way, the various reveals in the season ender will never be resolved — too bad. “I’m going to use a technical term — hell no!”

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Japanese time travel, Hitchcock and the Flash: movies and TV

BEYOND THE INFINITE TWO MINUTES (2021) is a Japanese time-travel comedy in which a coffee-shop owner discovers his PC monitor and the TV in the shop are linked so that the monitor shows events occurring downstairs two minutes into the future. His friends are convinced they can make money off this thing but the protagonist worries no good will come of it, especially when knowing the future apparently kills his chance of dating a neighboring business owner. A fun one with a sense of humor reminiscent of the goofy Japanese Summer Time Machine Blues. “What is the capital of Sri Lanka?”

Hitchcock/Truffaut is a famous book on Alfred Hitchcock’s films that I checked out of the library, though I haven’t read it yet. I did, however, watch HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT (2015), a documentary describing how celebrated French filmmaker Francois Truffaut came to interview Alfred Hitchcock about his work, and the impact it had on filmmakers from Wes Anderson to Martin Scorsese. When the book came out in 1966, Hitchcock was still a Mere Entertainer while Truffaut was an Artiste so Truffaut taking Hitch seriously was a very book deal. The documentary was good, but definitely doesn’t substitute for the book. “You have the habit of not necessarily looking for implausibility but of not avoiding it if it’s useful.”

The eighth season of FLASH started very poorly as everything seems to be going wrong for Barry with the various other Arrowverse superheroes stepping in to stop him. Then it turns out it’s an elaborate plot by Reverse Flash to change history, take over Barry’s life and cast him as the villain of the series. It doesn’t work but it was great watching him try.

Then we move on into a somewhat rambling season including a mercifully watered down version of the Blackest Night event in comics, the appearance of the Negative Speed Force and a new super-speedster, Fast Track, joining Team Flash. If not their best, overall it was satisfying, particularly Thawne’s final fall. “I told you before, Flash, finding ways to kill you was my life’s work.”

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A Doctor who loves cricket? Peter Davison’s first season

At the end of Tom Baker’s last Doctor Who season, he regenerated into Peter Davison, an actor best known for a supporting role on All Creatures Great and Small. Watching Davison’s run has been a very different experience from watching Baker’s. PBS — America’s main source for Doctor Who back in the day — reran the Baker episodes repeatedly so I’ve watched them multiple times. I’m not sure I’ve watched anything by Davison more than once.

The first arc, Castrovalva, has the fifth Doctor completely addled by his regeneration. To help him recover, the companions (Adric, Tegan, Nyssa) place him in the TARDIS’ Zero Room, then take him to the eponymous city of Castrovalva. Little do they realize this is all an elaborate plot by the Master to destroy his old nemesis.

Castrovalva, of course, is one of MC Escher’s paintings, and the serial runs with that, culminating in a final episode where reality and perspective become completely unmoored.

It’s a good kickoff, showing the companions, while constantly squabbling, are also competent — even Tegan, a present-day Earthwoman, is more capable than, say Harry Sullivan. Davison comes off more like Baker in this and the followup, Four to Doomsday, than I remembered before shifting into his own interpretation; IIRC, he did the later episodes first to establish his character, then Castrovalva so he could play someone caught in transition. “‘If’ is only a word Tegan — you’ve got to make it a reality.”

The Doctor attempts to take Tegan back to Heathrow Airport in Four to Doomsday but instead they land on a ship captained by the alien Monarch, accompanied by three billion of his people and an assortment of Earth humans Monarch has captured over the centuries. He’s heading back to Earth again, but this time he has a plan … This is competent, but not great, and Adric is once again annoyingly willing to side with the bad guys, plus the Doctor forgives him too easily. However the Tegan/Doctor sparring is fun; while she’s far from the only companion to get PO’d at him, she’s much more likely to say so. Plus her knowledge of Australian Aborigine language shows, again, she’s no dummy. “It’s a fact, Tegan — but not a fact of life.”Kinda is a very strange one. The Doctor lands on an Earth imperial outpost where the occupiers are dismissive of the eponymous aliens and their absurd mysticism — even if some of the outpost staff are disappearing mysteriously. However the Kinda (I doubt this will shock you) know far more than the Terrans think and while there is a threat on this planet, it’s not what anyone is anticipating. This battle against the sinister Mara is eerie and effective, with a great role for Tegan, but the BBC really cut the budget on this one. The set dressing looks cheap from the get-go and the climactic manifestation of the Mara is a very obviously fake big rubber snake (though someone quipped that possibly their physical form is a rubber snake). “Telepathy is a very boring way to communicate.”

Tegan is really ready to get back to Earth after that adventure but instead they land in 1600s England when bubonic plague was sweeping the country. The locals are terrified they might be plague carriers but there’s also an alien Visitation to deal with. Among the pluses in this one are Michael Robbins’ turn as the dignified but conniving actor Richard Mace, Tegan’s tart tongue (“At least a stopped clock is right twice a day — that’s more than you’ve ever been!”) and a solid story. “It wasn’t an argument — it was a statement!”

Black Orchid was a rare anomaly, the first straight historical story — unlike The Visitation it has no SF element beyond the time travelers — since The Highlanders (I’m not sure they’ve had one since).  The TARDIS crew arrive at a country-house costume party in the 1920s, get mistaken for some of the guests and the Doctor gets to play cricket. Nyssa turns out to be an exact double for one of the locals. But inevitably there’s a murderer lurking in the wings …As a mystery it’s familiar stuff and there are some Cinema of Isolation disability cliches, but overall it’s tremendous fun. “He’s from Brazil — you know, where the nuts come from.”

Earthshock is considerably wilder. It starts with the TARDIS arriving on 26th century Earth where someone has planted a devastating doomsday bomb. The Doctor helps defuse it and then traces it back to a space freighter. What we learn before he does is that the Cybermen are out to destroy Earth — and when they recognize their old foe, the Doctor too.

I didn’t like the Cyberman designs here (more like armor than cyborg parts) but the story is a solid, grim one, ending with Adric’s death followed by a complete silence as the credits roll. “Even in captivity, the Doctor has the arrogance of a Time Lord.”

Finally the Doctor brings Tegan back to Heathrow Airport in the present — but almost immediately they’re involved in the mysterious disappearance of a Concorde passenger flight (the Concorde was a supersonic jet and very cool bck in the day). With a quick call to UNIT, the Doctor gets himself and his companions involved and before long they’re following the plane’s Timeflight back to the prehistoric past to battle the mystery figure behind it all (it wasn’t hard to guess who, but I won’t spoil it). A good story that ends with Tegan apparently left behind when the TARDIS travels away and realizing she’s not ready to quit. But don’t worry, she’ll be back next season. “Behind every illusion is a conjurer. I shouldn’t think he went to all this trouble just for our entertainment.”

Overall, a good season and Davison effectively stakes out his own place in Who history.



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Women’s liberation, missiles in Cuba and Superman in peril: movies and TV

I saw ads for STAND UP AND BE COUNTED (1972) as a teen but knew nothing about the film until I decided to catch it online early this month. Jacqueline Bissette plays a reporter assigned to cover the women’s liberation movement and the effect on her American hometown (her British accent is explained as something she picked up working in the UK). Initially skeptical, she begins to appreciate the movement’s principles, but can boyfriend Gary Lockwood embrace ideas such as doing half the housework and not putting his career first?

I assumed this would be as sexist as The Feminist and the Fuzz so it was a pleasant surprise that it takes its principles seriously, as do the characters — and while message-heavy, the film does focus on the personal impact of sexism in couples Hector Elizondo/Stella Stevens and Steve Lawrence/Loretta Switt. Madilyn Rhue, Nancy Walker, Joyce Brothers, Billie Byrd, Isabel Sanford and Michael Ansara have supporting roles. “Inside, all I was becoming was a walking Ladies Home Journal.”

Set in 1962, Alfred Hitchcock’s TOPAZ (1969) has American spy John Forsythe recruit French spy Frederick Stafford to find out what the Russians are doing in Cuba, much to the displeasure of Stafford’s wife — particularly when the investigation requires Stafford visit his lover, Cuban resistance leader Karin Dor (SPECTRE’s Number Eleven in You Only Live Twice).

This is a much smoother, more watchable production than Torn Curtain but I can see why I found it boring when I first caught it — for a Hitchcock film, let alone one about the Cuban Missile Crisis, there’s a real lack of tension and suspense. The film focuses too much on the nuts and bolts of espionage, feeling as if Hitch or Leon Uris (who wrote the source book) were telling an anti-Bond this-is-real-espionage story, bu I rather doubt it. It doesn’t hep that thel ast third of the film, in which Stafford hunts down a Soviet mole, feels tacked on rather than tied to the main plot.

The audience reaction in test viewings was way negative, particularly to the ending in which the mole — Stafford’s wife’s lover — and Stafford fight a duel, only to have the Red agent shot by one of his own. Instead, Hitchcock cobbled together footage to make the mole commit suicide off-camera, which didn’t win many fans either. He also trimmed several minutes of footage out. The version I saw has the added footage in, and uses a third ending, in which the mole escapes to Moscow while Stafford and his wife take a vacation. Their mutual adultery is left uresolved, which makes the romantic resolution almost as unsatisfying as Suspicion. “Those papers we photographed the other day scared the hell out of me.”

PASSING (2021) adapts Nella Larsen’s 1920s novel, with Tessa Thompson as a black woman in Harlem who discovers her former friend has crossed the color line and now married to a racist (“I hate Negroes.”), despite which the option to revisit Thompson and her old life in Harlem proves irresistible. Very well executed, but the tragic ending, though logical, doesn’t work for me — given all the character dynamics, there were many more interesting directions to go. “Careful — you’re the only white man here.”

The second season of SUPERMAN AND LOIS looks suspiciously like a meta-commentary on Smallville co-star Alison Mack having joined a cult some years later; the big bad is Ally Alston (Rya Kihstedt), a cult leader who’s plotting with her parallel-Earth counterpart to bring the two worlds together, with a corresponding boost in her own powers. Meanwhile the Kent family has to deal with their sons’ teenage growing pains, Lana running for mayor and Lois’ sister Lucy being part of the cult. Well cast but like the first season this feels a little too dark to work for a Superman show (more Arrow than Flash, if you like). “It’s our job to warn people that our world is about to be merged with another Earth by some all-powerful psycho leading a death cult!”

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It’s okay to consume entertainment just to entertain yourself

Last week blogger Abigail Nussbaum posted about the HBO adaptation of The Time Traveler’s Wife, including that  it makes the relationship in the Audrey Niffenegger novel squickier. There was discussion in the comments about how many people weren’t bothered by the relationship in the book (which starts when the adult time traveler meets the wife in her childhood); this led in turn to discussion that people consume information “on the surface level” and don’t see deeper problems. One commenter said the problem is most people aren’t active online so Internet discussions of problematic performers and stories haven’t reached them yet.

I found the discussion annoying. I don’t think it’s necessarily bad that people don’t want to think deeply about their entertainment and simply treat it as, well, entertainment. Despite putting a lot of thought into some entertainment — if you read this blog or my movie books you already know that — I’m perfectly happy looking at something and thinking “that was fun” and not going deeper. In the case of Time Traveler’s Wife, the relationship didn’t squick me out. When I watched the film version for Now and Then We Time Travel, actually seeing the naked guy with the little girl was creepy, even though he wasn’t doing anything.

That’s not to say anyone who’s creeped out by the book is wrong, just that I don’t feel bad for well, not feeling bad reading it.

Fiction can be creepy or have ugly messages it’s bad to consume uncritically. For instance, the umpty-zillion stories that show women cry rape at the drop of a hat. Or the sexism of Piers Anthony. I think it’s important to have the fiction-verse grow more diverse, offer better roles for women characters (and other groups) and not recycle old tropes reflexively or because that’s what sells.

At the same time, I don’t think sitting back and watching or reading something without dissecting gender roles or power structures will turn us into monsters. You are not what you read.

As for not being aware of online discussion of these issues, big whoop. There was a lot of online discussion after Black Panther about whether Killmonger’s vision for Wakanda wasn’t better than T’Challa’s. That’s a perfectly valid point but I honestly can’t see that going to the film and coming out thinking Wow, That Was Awesome! and nothing beyond that is something to worry or tut-tut about.

It’s not an issue unique to the Internet. Thirty years ago someone could make the same argument about not reading critics or feminist/black critics or good books analyzing film (or TV or whatever). Or, you know, reading a brilliant film book by someone (I’m too modest to say who I’d recommend).

And of course, not all online discussion is good — I’ve seen plenty of takes about why X Is The Real Villain or The Message Of This Book Is Messed Up that I didn’t agree with (case in point, the firestorm over Blood Heir). Plus there’s plain old disagreement. A recent post on The Mary Sue ripped into Stranger Things‘ handling of trauma in S4 and got a lot of pushback in the comments.

I don’t know a couple of tossed-off comments in  a long thread were worth this much response, but it’s my blog so you’re stuck with it.

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Better than I expected: the original Star Trek’s third season

When I first started watching Star Trek the show’s three seasons meant nothing to me.

While I caught one episode — the first half of The Menagerie — on British TV, I didn’t start watching regularly until my family moved to America. Star Trekwas running in syndication right about when I got home — intentional timing to hook a teenage audience, I imagine — and I was hooked. I’d never seen anything like it before and I loved it. It almost shocked me when I’d read books or reviews that criticized episodes — it was Star Trek, how dare they!Watching Monday through Friday gave me no clue how the episodes originally broke down by season; I don’t have any idea if they even aired them in original order. I think the first episode guide I ever saw was in the book Fantastic Television and that came out in 1977. In those days, having a source for that information was priceless.

Decades later, I can look at the original show and see the flaws that developed in the second season. Fan support saved it from cancellation but I’m honestly not sure it was worth it. Not that all the episodes are horrible, let alone as bad as S2’s Omega Glory. But the season as a whole skews heavily to mediocrity.

Part of that, as David Gerrold once observed, is sloppiness in the characters. Spock, Kirk and McCoy all have some great bits this season, but Spock had a huge fan base, particularly women, and that led to him playing way out of character to get some romantic scenes in The Cloud Minders, as well as The Enterprise Incident earlier in the season and the next-to-last episode, All Our Yesterdays.

More generally the writers can’t think of anything but love to raise the stakes. Scotty falls in love in the tedious Light of Zetar (as Gerrold says, you’d think he’d go for a female engineer, not just a pretty face); McCoy falls in love in For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky; Chekhov falls in love in both Way to Eden and Spectre of the Gun. Kirk falls in love in The Paradise Syndrome.

There are some dreadful episodes such as Spock’s Brain (TYG insists it’s worse than Omega Glory but she’s wrong) but far more that are just bland. Zetar and Touched the Sky. All Our Yesterdays. The Savage Curtain.  There’s an increasingly tight budget: All Our Yesterdays has no scenes on the ship, no cast but Scott, McCoy and Kirk (we get Scott’s voice over the communicator) and some time-travel adventures that I suspect let them scavenge the studio’s costume closet to save costs. Cheap worked in The Empath, in which aliens torture the three leads to see if an empath is willing to give up her life to heal them. The dark underground chambers where everything happens come off like an episode of Outer Limits. Having them on a Wild West set for Spectre of the Gun? Not so effective.

But it’s not as unwatchable as I’d anticipated. Despite the many tedious episodes, many poor ones have some redeeming feature, such as the performances in Plato’s Stepchildren. Kathie Browne, who plays Deela in Wink of an Eye, is a delight, a fun-loving tragic villain (using the Enterprise as breeding stock to save her dying race) who happily puts moves on Kirk. Mariette Hartley is incredibly charming as Zarabeth in All Our Yesterdays. While the final episode, Turnabout Intruder, is appallingly sexist, William Shatner gives an amazing performance as a Kirk possessed by an unstable woman’s mind.

I’d debated skipping this season — why watch that many bad episodes? — but as it turns out, I’m glad I didn’t.

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Gonna crack my knuckles and jump for joy!

Following on last week’s Star Trek post, here’s a look at a couple more (in)famous S3 episodes, “The Way to Eden” and “The Cloud Minders.” Both tackle then-contemporary issues, both fall short, neither is good. They are however interesting.

“The Way to Eden” opens with the Enterprise pursuing a stolen spaceship. When they teleport the thieves aboard, they’re stunned to discover they’ve captured five space-hippies and their leader, Dr. Sevrin. They’re seeking a possibly mythical world called Eden which is still unspoiled and untamed. Spock, who identifies with their sense of not fitting in anywhere, agrees to help locate Eden. However he also concludes Sevrin is barking-dog insane. Sevrin is also infected with synthococcus novae, a disease spawned by the sterile, high-tech society humanity now lives in (this is not explained). The law requires he stay in that same society because on a primitive world they won’t have the tech to cure the disease if it spreads. Sevrin cannot, therefore, reach Eden.

The good doctor is not down with that. One of his people, Irina, is a former lover of Chekhov’s, so she worms out of him how to take over the Enterprise from the auxiliary control room. Distracting the crew with a concert, the hippies seize the ship and steer it to Spock’s location for Eden. They take a shuttlecraft down but oops, the world has its own serpent: the plant life is lethally acidic, the fruits toxic to humans. Sevrin and his chief disciple, Adam, die. Spock tells Irina to keep hunting for Eden.

I’m curious what someone my niece’s age (mid-twenties) would make of this. The visuals for someone my age scream futuristic hippies but would someone much younger pick up on that? Or would they simply look like weird alien outfits? But there’s no question it was a take on the hippy movement: they’re into movement, spout their own slang (“Herbert” for stuffy official types such as Kirk) and reject modern high-tech civilization. And they sing — the title comes from a couple of lines one Adam sings at one point (“Gonna crack my knuckles and jump for joy/Got a clean bill of health from Dr. McCoy.”).

This is the first episode to suggest the Federation has serious flaws. Spock explains the hippies are rejecting the carefully constructed societies on so many worlds, and the way even the atmosphere has to be scientifically layered and managed. They want Eden because they can live a free, natural lifestyle there. This is a reasonable motivation even without the novae disease, but it has no resemblance to anything we’ve seen of the Federation in the past three seasons. Nor does it seem like the galaxy has run out of planets so what’s so special about Eden?

And of course the real hippies were motivated by distaste for racism, capitalism and war; shifting to a more environmentalist stance avoids any pointed critique of society (but since the Federation’s supposed to have beaten those things, how could the show critique them?).

What the show is doing isn’t really condemning hippies as much as suggesting this group is misguided. It’s similar to the way old swashbucklers would give us evil monarchs and tyrants yet come out as supporting monarchy: all that’s really needed is for the right person to take the throne or to replace the evil vizier with a good one. Likewise the hippies’ quest is presented as good, it’s just that they were led astray by an evil leader.

A lot of reviews find Spock’s sympathy for Sevrin’s group implausible: how does a guy who values logic find merit in such an emotional group? But I can see him appreciating their critique of Federation society, though it’s unlikely he’d sympathize with their approach.

All that said, the episode is not good. However it is lively and memorable in a way much of S3 isn’t. For example, “The Cloud Minders.”Kirk and Spock arrive on Ardana, a supposedly utopian planet where the sky-city of Stratos is home to artists and philosophers. What the tourism brochures leave out is that they have a lower class, the Troglites, who labor in the zenite mines. Vanna (Charlene Polite), who was elevated to serve the ruling family in Stratos, has gone back to the mines to lead the Troglites in revolution. Kirk needs zenite to treat a devastating pandemic; due to the revolutionaries, none is forthcoming.

The Stratos dwellers refuse to negotiate: the Troglites are mental inferiors and violent brutes, so there’s no point in making concessions to subhumans. In David Gerrold’s original script, the Enterprise forces both sides to negotiate after a shuttlecraft crashes on the planet; in the finished version, which Gerrold hated, McCoy discovers byproducts of zenite mining really do make the Troglites stupid and violent. Kirk transports the governor of Stratos down to a mine to prove the effects only to wind up with the men going for each other’s throats as the gas takes hold. Fortunately Vanna, who seems more resistant, uses Kirk’s communicator to drag everyone to the Enterprise. Kirk agrees to provide the Troglites with protective equipment so they can regain normal intelligence. Vanna vows to pursue the goal of equality even more fervently, possibly with Federation negotiation.

As Gerrold complains, the zenite gas undercuts the episode’s themes: the underclass really is mentally inferior so the cloud city treating them as inferiors seems justified. He’s right, though that doesn’t absolve Stratos completely: their servants, free of the mines, show excellent intelligence but they apparently write Troglites such as Vanna off as outliers.

Another problem, typical of the third season, is that the stories get increasingly lax about characterization. “Amok Time” established that pon farr is something Vulcans can barely bring themselves to speak of, yet here Spock brings it up to Droxine (Diana Ewing, above) quite casually. He’s also close to flirting with her, which isn’t very Spockish either — and while pretty it’s not like she has much else to recommend her.

Vanna, however, is one of the series better female characters: she’s strong-minded, intelligent, dedicated to her cause, and neither falls for Kirk nor does he try to seduce her. It’s a pleasant novelty.

I’ll probably have a full S3 review next week.

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