Category Archives: TV

A speedster, a trickster and superhero girls! Movies and TV

Wow, this season of the CW’s FLASH was really disappointing. It started off well with Team Flash wrapping up last season’s battle against the female Mirror Master despite Barry losing his speed. Then we launch into the main plot of the season and things tanked.

It turns out that in reviving the Speed Force, Barry also created the Strong, Sage and Still forces, all of which have hostile avatars. A minor flaw is that the names make no sense: the avatar Psych makes people face their worst fear, which hardly fits “sage” and “still” for a Time Force (because he can stop time and make things still, get it?) isn’t much better. A bigger problem is that the arc never really had any juice. Neither did the B-plots. Kramer (Carmen Moore), a hardline anti-meta cop, brings in Killer Frost despite her having reformed. The show makes a big deal about Frost getting a life sentence, but a couple of episodes later she performs some heroics and presto, out of jail.

The final plotline, with an army of Godspeed clones terrorizing the city, might have worked if it had space to breathe (due to the pandemic, this was a truncated season). Then again, Karan Obaroi as Godspeed simply can’t pull off megalomaniacal rants about his absolute power the way Tom Cavanaugh as Thawne can; I honestly don’t care what’s going through Godspeed’s head, as he’s a pale clone of the comics’ Savitar. The final battle with Godspeed, Thawne and Flash using light-sabers made out of Speed Force is just silly. And Cisco’s replacement Chester (Brandon McKnight) so far doesn’t have the same sparkle. “We are here to celebrate the greatest sequel since The Empire Strikes Back!”

TRICKSTER was a 2020 Canadian show about Jared (Joel Oulette), a teenage Native American living on the “Rez,” and struggling to support his shiftless, prone-to-bad-decisions Mom (Crystle Lightning). Weird things start happening, the weirdest being that Jared’s birth father turns up (Kalani Queypo) turns up, claiming they’re both Tricksters and Jared might have inherited his powers. And Dad is far from the only supernatural force moving through Jared’s life … I enjoyed this, though I wasn’t hooked on it. However the reveal the show runner had lied about having Native American ancestry seems to have made the show toxic; it ended after six episodes and nobody’s picking it up. “The purpose of life isn’t to share it with someone — the purpose of life is simply to survive.”

DC SUPERHERO GIRLS is a series of animated web shorts that has also broadened into graphic novels and some movie-length toons. In Intergalactic Games (2017), Superhero High hosts an interplanetary athletic contest against the snotty students of Sinestro’s Korugar Academy (Blackfire, Lobo and Maxima among them) only to have the Female Furies of the Apokalips Magnet School demand a seat at the table. A further complication is high school IT tech Lena Thurol’s desire to go on an anti-meta crusade (“I’ve tried everything to be one of you — radiation, chemical baths, mutation drugs — none of it worked!”). Suffers from having a bland set of voices compared to the Dini/Timm films, but still fun. “We Female Furies called earworms ‘ear snakes’ — because better you be bit by a snake than Granny catch you singing!”

Legends of Atlantis (2018) has dimensional exiles Mera and her sister Siren stealing a Mystical McGuffin from the school that Siren assures Mera will let them make a home in Atlantis — but leaves out that it will also let Siren conquer the world. As a result Wonder Woman has to face her worst fear, Supergirl and Batgirl switch powers and skill sets and Harley tries convincing new student Raven to have faith in herself. “May I be excused from class so that I can draw up a plan for keeping this book from falling into evil hands and contributing to our total destruction?”

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Childhood’s End, the book and the miniseries

Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 novel CHILDHOOD’S END was still a big-name SF novel when I read it in the early 1970s — the kind that stands out for being about big, cosmic ideas. After watching the SyFy miniseries for Alien Visitors, I figured I’d read the book for comparison.

The book opens in the 1970s, as a rocket expert contemplates how close we’re coming to putting a man into space. Clark reminds us in the intro that this was published four years before Sputnik launched and nobody imagined we’d have a man in space by 1961. Then spaceships descend into Earth’s atmosphere and the scientist realizes his dreams are dead: alien first contact makes all our efforts to develop space flight obsolete.

Working through the UN, the Overlord Karellen (the most fun character in the book, with a pronounced sense of humor) eliminates hunger, disease and want, stops wars and smoothly takes over administration of all the world’s nations. Nation states fade away; crime dies out, as everyone’s needs are now met. The small resistance movement against the Overlords goes down easily. Earth enters into a golden age of peace and plenty, but with a lotus-eating quality to it. Lots of amateur scientists but nobody doing groundbreaking research (I wonder if Raymond Jones’ “The Unlearned” was a counter-argument to this book); lots of amateur artists but nobody with the drive to create great works. Jan, a black scientist, contrives to visit the Overlord home planet and makes the depressing discovery that space is too overwhelming, too vast for human beings. We have no place there.

Finally we learn the real reason the Overlords came. The next generation of human children are born psionic, developing a hive mind like The Midwich Cuckoos. They ultimately destroy the Earth — Jan, the last normal human, stays to record events for the Overlords — and move on, ultimately to join the Overmind. This is the cosmic intellect that commands the Overlords; it has uplifted countless races this way and brought them into its greater hive mind. Humanity is dead and our offspring have gone far beyond us. It is truly … childhood’s end.

All I remembered of the book from first reading was the fate of humanity and the shock when Karellen reveals himself: Overlords look like Satan so they hold back from the big reveal until their control is secure. I can see why that’s all that stuck with me. This is primarily a setting story, a look at the last years of Earth. There are few standout characters — Karellan, Jan and Stormgren, the UN Secretary General who serves as central character for the first part (most of his scenes are quite engaging). There’s no real plot or conflict; everything’s very sedate. And there’s way too much exposition about how the Overlords run Earth, the nature of the Overmind, Jan’s trip into space (we don’t see it, we get it recapped later).

The exposition also skims over a lot of stuff that’s worth telling. At the time, maybe it was plausible that if something like this happened, nations wouldn’t put up too much of a fight; I’ve read other stories from that era that assumed the UN was just the first step to some sort of United Earth. As Fred Clark points out writing about the Left Behind books (which assume the UN Secretary General has some kind of dictatorial power), people don’t let go of their old ways that easily. Karellen does discuss his methods for dealing with resistance at one point; showing that in action would have helped.

The age of the book shows in some of its politics too. Karellen describes himself as a benevolent colonial administrator, something that probably sounded acceptable back when the British Empire was still a going concern. Not so much today. At one point Clarke mentions that with racial hatred faded (another hand-wave I’m unconvinced by), people casually use the n-word for blacks without any racial intent. I presume Clarke meant this as an unsettling demonstration how different this future is but I’d rather he just didn’t say it.

The 2015 SyFy Channel miniseries makes a variety of changes. Stormgren (Mike Vogel) is now a Midwestern farmer, picked as alien envoy for no discernible reason (I’m guessing it’s because so many right-wingers think the UN is some kind of global tyranny — though I don’t know they’d be watching this anyway). Karellan is much more humorless, and doesn’t look that Satanic to me (in fairness, trying to make him plausible and Satanic is a challenge — it was much easier when my imagination did the work).

There’s a lot of added material, such as a subplot in which Stormgren and his wife learn Karellen sterilized them so their hearts wouldn’t be broken by what’s going to happen to the children. I could have done without it.

Overall, it was a solid adaptation, but it suffers from some of the same flaws as the book — the takeover’s just too easy, presumably the reason for the added drama. A bigger problem is that this just isn’t as fresh as it was in 1953 — 2001 covered some of the same themes, for instance.

Still, I’ll give SyFy credit for bringing a major classic of the genre to the screen.

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“There is nothing wrong with your television …” Outer Limits, Season One

After finishing my rewatch of the original Twilight Zone, I figured I’d rewatch the 1960s Outer Limits eventually. As it has several episodes involving alien visitors on Earth, I thought rewatching while I was working on Alien Visitors would be the perfect time. The show comes off better than the last time I caught any of it, but definitely no match for the Twilight Zone.

The brainchild of Joseph Stefano, Outer Limits was conceived as SF where TZ skewed more to fantasy. Like so much that shows up on TV, it was compromised child: ABC was dubious a serious SF anthology would fly so Stefano committed to providing a monster in every show. That worked fine when there was an alien but in The Human Factor it’s one character’s hallucination about a frozen corpse (he’s cracking in the belief he was responsible for the man’s death). Well, it worked sort of fine when there was an alien: in giving them nonhuman faces the show routinely wound up with what looked like grotesque masks, with no ability to move or show expressions other than eyes and lips. Vulcans looked a lot more convincing.

What does leap out at me rewatching is that they managed a wide variety of stories within the given range. We have political thriller (The Hundred Days of the Dragon), a grim story of POW torture (Nightmare, the source of the above photo — if anything it feels more believable these days), the paranoid of O.B.I.T. (even more relevant as surveillance has almost caught up with the show), comedy (Controlled Experiment), human drama (The Bellero Shield and the excellent Feasibility Study), and the weirdly poetical, arty tales of Don’t Open Till Doomsday, The Guests and The Form of Things Unknown (an unsuccessful backdoor pilot).

Outer Limits also suffers from a sense of how serious they are — not kid stuff like Tom Corbett Space Cadet, they’re doing high drama in an SF format! Despite which the best episodes are really good. Fun and Games has a bored alien race kidnap two humans — a runaway wife and a weaselly gambler — to compete against a couple from a barbarian planet (this looks like an unacknowledged swipe of Fredric Brown’s Arena). The reason? The aliens will have fun. The incentive: if the humans lose, or refuse to play, Earth dies within five years. It works as both an adventure and a character story. A Feasibility Study has aliens abduct a small town as a test case to see how easily we can be enslaved; if the humans resist, they’ll be infected by a monstrous, deforming disease. In the end, the town chooses infection to show the aliens we can’t be broken. It’s intensely moving.

Some episodes that aren’t great still have great performances. In The Mice, convict Henry Silva is part of an experimental exchange with an alien planet, via teleporter. Silva’s turn as a guy constantly figuring the angles makes the whole episode worthwhile.

The season has a number of clunkers though. The pop-eyed evil mutant of The Mutant, the easily defeated flowers of Specimen: Unknown, the hamfisted throw-lots-of-stuff-in-the-blender plot of Tourist Attraction. Some episodes have an interesting concept that isn’t developed enough: In Zanti Misfits, the Zanti ship their convicts to Earth, confident we’ll be intolerant enough to do their dirty work and kill the prisoners; too much gets handwaved to really work.

That’s one of several episodes I may reference in Alien Visitors. As I mentioned in my post on ET Pied Pipers, The Special One has an alien scheming to use human children against humanity, but it’s uninspired. Fun and Games is an example of an abduction by aliens that doesn’t fit what we now think of as a “UFO abduction.”

I’ll tackle the second season, which is conveniently only half the length of S1, soon enough.

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British TV watched recently (and one American series)

THE CORRIDOR PEOPLE  (I think the title is meant in the sense of the corridors of power, but I wouldn’t bet money on it) lasted four episodes in 1966, but they’re certainly memorable episodes. The players include Kronk (John Sharp), a ruthless British security official; international criminal Syrie van Epp (Elizabeth Shepherd); Scrotty (Gary Cockrell), a PI who plays for both sides; and Kronk’s aides Blood and Hound (Alan Curtis, William Maxwell).

The four stories involve Syrie seeking control of a new drug; an elaborate scheme to cover up financial fraud; an amnesiac caught up in a communist scheme; and a European prince obsessed with marrying a black woman he saw dancing at a disco. The plots are less important than the show’s strange style and peculiar characters; in “Victim as Whitebait,” one man defends equipping a female assassin with blanks on the grounds “The gun is a phallic symbol — the phallic symbol!” and women shouldn’t be allowed to wield it (today the dude would be making the case on some incel website). In the same episode, Syrie has a Swedish filmmaker tagging along to make an art movie about her crimes. It’s all entertaining, though the racial elements of “Victim as Black” have not aged well. “Seven accountants tried analyzing the finances — four had nervous breakdowns, two quit, one became a Trappist monk.”

THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT (1953) was the first in the series of BBC miniseries that culminated in Quatermass and the Pit. Reginald Tate is Quatermass, a literal rocket scientist overseeing the first manned flight into space (you can hear the incredulity when he realizes the ship has reached halfway to the moon, an astonishing feat in the pre-Sputnik days). When the capsule crashes down in a London residential street, only one astronaut is inside … with memories of the two missing astronauts and traces of their fingerprints mixed with his own. Before long it’s clear he’s been infested with Something out in space and it’s about to spread and give off spores…  This was very well done, but unfortunately four of the episodes are lost and had to be recreated by a screen crawl mixed with still photos. “Thirty years ago I almost dedicated myself to land surveying in the tropics.”

The BBC attempted a live remake in 2005, trimmed down to a 90 minute QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT TV-movie with Jason Flemyng as Quatermass and David Tennant among his team. Despite chopping the running time in half, this one actually felt much talkier; little changes like having the satellite crash in the woods instead of in town didn’t help. “I have brought upon this Earth what is possibly the most terrible thing ever known.”

I found INVINCIBLE (2021) marginally better than the comic book, but not by much. While it speeds up the Big Reveal (which I won’t mention here) the story of Omni-Man’s (a Superman analog) son Mark discovering he’s inherited dad’s powers and ecoming a superhero still bores me: it’s stock teen angst (oh no, he has to break a date because he has a mission) with little to freshen it up. As I was only watching this for Alien Visitors I skipped a couple of episodes and didn’t miss anything important for my purposes. “We wanted to find out what Omni-Man is after and how to stop him getting it. We failed on both counts.”

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My imaginary friend is completely real!

It’s shouldn’t surprise anyone that there are a number of films focusing on kids and ETs. Some of them are geared for a kid audience, such as Explorers, The Space Children or (at the same link) Invaders From Mars.

Some are teen-centric such as Pajama Party (same link again). Others, such as E.T., work well for all ages. Super 8 is a nostalgia fest I suspect works much better if you’re old enough to remember the 1980s.

As I noted in my post on The Space Children, family conflict is a running element in a lot of these films. The kids and Mom in the core family are stressed out at relocating to an isolated rocket base for Dad’s job; another kid suffers from an abusive, drunken stepfather. By end of movie, the problems have been resolved. E.T., according to Spielberg, was meant to show a suburban family that was disintegrating in the wake of the parents’ divorce; E.T. again heals them.

Another theme I’m noticing is the idea of children having a secret friend nobody else knows about, or even believes. Which is a concept that can range from innocent and adorable to ominous, depending what the friend really is and what they want. It overlaps with a theme my friend Ross has mentioned, that an alien can serve as a Pied Piper type leading a child in their wake … but where?

The example that sparked Ross’s thought was the Outer Limits episode The Special One. Dignified Mr. Zeno informs a father played by MacDonald Carey (best known for his soap opera career) that his son is a super-intelligent mutant selected for special tutoring by the federal government. In reality Zeno is an alien hoping to recruit the boy’s genius (other aliens are working with other kids) for his plans of conquest, building weapons to attack Earth from within. In the end, Zeno fails: the kid’s a nice, decent Earth boy who wants a nice normal life, not to be feted as a conqueror’s lackey. It’s an uninspired episode (I’ll be discussing Outer Limits‘ mixed record when I finish the first season), partly because the kid’s stiff and wooden.

The alien in Alien Lover, a 1975 episode of Wide World of Mystery, a late-night ABC series. Kate Mulgrew is a teenager who who had a mental collapse after the death of her parents; recently released from a mental hospital, she’s staying with uncle Pernell Roberts and his family. When the TV in her MIT-genius cousin’s lab starts talking to her, Mulgrew assumes she’s delusional. Or maybe her cousin’s playing a trick? The delusion introduces himself as Mark, resident of a parallel world where parents are banished as soon as they give birth — no oppressor parental figures harshing their freedom, man! The cousin eventually reveals Mark talked to him too, trying to gain access to Earth so his people can invade. Mulgrew, however, is in love and she doesn’t really care what Mark wants if he’ll be her friend. Suffice to say, Mark ends up with more success than Mr. Zeno found.

In 1984, British TV adapted CHOCKY, one of John Wyndham’s novels (yes, the same guy who gave us Day of the Triffids and Midwich Cuckoos). A young middleclass couple are bemused when their son Matthew suddenly acquires an imaginary friend, just like his younger sister. Then they notice Chocky inspires Matt to ask really strange questions — why aren’t cows more intelligent? Why are their two sexes? And what sort of kid in that era would imagine a nonbinary friend (though they settle for calling Chocky a “she” after the son says she’s bossy, just like girls are)? A psychiatrist friend talks to Matthew and gives the parents a startling conclusion: Chocky, whoever or whatever she is, is real.

It turns out Chocky is an alien consciousness, seeking to help us through Matthew. Unlike Klaatu, it’s pure selflessness: intelligent life is rare and they want to help ours flourish. By steering Matthew into science, Chocky would have eventually inspired him to discover a new source of cheap, clean energy, transforming the world. Unfortunately she told him too much too soon and the powers that be are now interested. Fearful they’ll kill him to preserve the status quo, Chocky decides she needs to go; Matthew’s life can return to normal and he’ll be out of danger.

It’s an excellent story and unlike Second Chance the kid playing Matthew is up for the role. British TV made a couple of sequel series, which I’ll watch soon.

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Martial artists and extraterrestrials: TV and movies viewed

The CW’s new KUNG FU has nothing to do with the David Carradine series (of which I’ve seen S1, S2 and S3) besides the name) which made me worry the name would turn people off rather than draw them in. It’s been renewed for a second season, though, so I guess they knew what they were doing.

Olivia Liang plays Nicky Shen, who fled her overbearing mother and wound up spending three years in a Shaolin monastery. After the mysterious martial artist Zhilan (Gwendoline Yeo) murders Nicky’s mentor Pei-Ling (Vanessa Kai) and steals an ancient sword, Nicky returns home. Reuniting with a family she blew off isn’t easy; then she learns from history student Henry (Eddie Liu) that the sword is part of a set of mystical weapons that will make Zhilan seriously bad news if she collected all of them. In between trying to recover some of the McGuffins, Nicky winds up helping out family members and others with her combat skills.

While the mystical backstory doesn’t grab me, the characters and actors are good, the action’s fun and the Chinese-American elements are interesting (Nerds of Color gives them a thumbs up). I look forward to the second season. “If you want to judge my teaching, do not look to my skill — look to yourself.”

After watching Beyond Skyline I Netflixed the previous film, SKYLINE (2010) but it’s neither informative about the alien agenda nor particularly good: a group of unremarkable twentysomething friends have to put their personal dramas on hold to evade the aliens who’ve attacked Los Angeles. Even though this ends on a cliffhanger, I don’t think Beyond Skyline followed up on any of the characters here; I wouldn’t bother with the third film, Skylines, but it has elements I think will be of interest for Alien Visitors. “They aren’t dead — they’re just really pissed off.”

I rewatched THE VAST OF NIGHT (2020) to see if I gleaned more from it now that I’m further into the alien abductions chapter. What I mostly gleaned was that I must have been in a bad headspace when I first watched it as I liked it so much better this time (though the gimmick of making it an episode of a Twilight Zone type anthology still doesn’t add anything). A telephone operator picks up a strange sound coming over some of the wires, which leads to her and the local DJ investigating and discovering a story of UFOs, abductions and mysterious government cover-ups.

This works despite explaining very little of what’s going on, or why. It does show how much UFO abduction stories track with horror; with a little tweaking, this could be about the protagonists stumbling onto some Lovecraftian secret, just as one woman’s strange child could be a changeling. “Free will is an illusion with them up there.”

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Concentration camps, Black Lightning and Nancy Drew: a book and some TV

I’ve read for years that the British introduced concentration camps in the Boer War, but ONE LONG NIGHT: A Global History of Concentration Camps by Andrea Pitzer shows it started several years earlier, in Cuba. With the population supporting the guerillas fighting Spanish colonial control, one General Weyler “concentrated” thousands of civilians in camps under Spanish control to break the back of the revolution. Targeting civilians outraged a lot of the world, but when the United States took over the Philippines from Spain, the military adopted the same tactic to put down the ungrateful Filipino resistance. Then the British used the tactic in the Boer War. When WW I began, Britain and other combatants began using camps to hold foreign nationals, which in Russia eventually mutated into the Communist gulag. And from the same ugly root we got the Nazi death camps, colonial concentration camps in Kenya and Algeria, the Japanese-American internment camps and eventually Guantanamo Bay. Pitzer does an excellent job showing how it all fits together, and how quickly efforts to treat prisoners well fall apart. Grimly informative.

BLACK LIGHTNING wrapped up its fourth and final season last month, and went out on a win. Freed from prison, Tobias (Marvin ‘Krondon’ Jones III) schemes to take over Freedland, develop a weapon that neutralizes metas and destroy the Pierce family. It’s his revenge plan that elevates the season: rather than tackle them as superheroes he destroys their civilian reputations, for example framing Jeff (Cress Williams) for embezzling from the high school he ran for so many years. Oh, and buying Jeff’s father’s house just so he can destroy it for one of his building projects.

It’s a solid season but I think the short length (three episodes less than usual, and one episode devoted to an unsuccessful back-door plot) made some elements a little rushed. The mysterious Shadow Board Tobias wants to join never gets enough of an explanation; the meta-hating police chief gets a rushed arc in which she turns herself into a meta to destroy Lightning but it doesn’t have enough time to work (plus the idea just outing the chief as a bigot will discredit her as a cop — this show doesn’t usually go for such simplistic solutions). Overall, though, a pleasure. Tobias can’t feel shame — that’s why you’ll never become the kind of man he is.”

The second season of NANCY DREW wraps up the Covid-shortened first season, then moves in new directions. Nancy (Kennedy McMann) wants to take down corrupt local bigwig Everett Hudson, despite discovering that he’s her grandfather. As Everett’s quite willing to kill in self-interest, the threat level is even higher than S1. Meanwhile George (Leah Lewis) becomes host to the spirit of a 19th century Frenchwoman, Nancy starts dating one of the Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift (gay and black) puts in an appearance (a back-door pilot — I imagine if the Hardy Boys hadn’t had a recent series on Hulu, we’d have seen them here too). The ending of the season is the discovery Nancy’s possessed and doomed if they can’t reverse things — but doing so only unleashes a worst menace to threaten Horseshoe Bay in S3.

I really enjoyed the first season and this one works just as well. The characterization is good and there are some great lines, like Nancy referring to “a creepy nature cult I exposed when I was 11.” One delightful episode has them repeatedly having to erase their memories because of an unspeakable name they’ve learned — a Groundhog Day set-up without an actual time loop. I’m looking forward to S3. “Everett didn’t ask about the numbers, only who knew about them.”

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Now and Then, We All Watch Aliens; movies and TV

(Apologies to Atlanta Rhythm Section for twisting a line from this song).

DEBRIS was a new NBC series set in a world where fragments of an alien space craft have been raining down on Earth for three years, all of them capable of fantastic powers and transformations. Jones and Beneventi (Riann Steele, Jonathan Tucker) are the agents attempting to gather Debris and avert whatever weirdness they unleash, such as turning people younger, or making the atmosphere toxic (in many ways, the magical effects remind me of the cursed antiques in the Friday the 13th TV series). Opposing them: the mysterious organization called Influx, the government’s hidden agenda and the Debris’s own mysterious intentions. If not for Alien Visitors I doubt I’d have watched this season all the way through. “I’m going to tell you something, but you’re going to wish I hadn’t.”

I liked ARRIVAL (2016) more on rewatching than I did first time (although I have some of the same reservations, like how fast they move from very basic concepts to reasonably sophisticated discussions in ET-speak). From the perspective of working on the book, I’m not sure I gained anything other to notice that like Independence Day the spaceships are humongous compared to say, Klaatu’s ship in Day the Earth Stood Still. “It’s not true, but it proved my point.”

Based on Walter Tevis’ novel, THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976) is every bit the arty mess that I heard critics describe it as when it hit the big screen. David Bowie plays an ET seeking Earth’s water for his drought-stricken world (it’s unclear whether he’s planning to just take it or has something else in mind) but gets distracted by gin, TV and lover Candy Clark. Director Nicolas Roeg seems equally distracted, bouncing from Bowie’s business to his love life to CIA schemes, or with years passing between scenes kind of randomly. Interesting to see, but not terribly fun to see. With Buck Henry as Bowie’s legal aide, Rip Torn as a disillusioned scientist and Bernie Casey as a CIA agent. This reminds me at some point in the book I should cover the idea of aliens succumbing to hedonism on Earth, though that’s usually sex (e.g., Brain from Planet Arous). “If I owned the copyright on the Bible, I wouldn’t sell it to Random House.”

Getting away from ETs, we have WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR (2018), an excellent documentary on how Presbyterian minister Fred Rogers wound up becoming a TV icon despite not liking most TV, and how he managed to tackle divorce, death and the RFK assassination on a show for small children. A curious look at a man who was exactly what he appeared to be but also more than he seemed; the closest they can find to a scandal is pundits claiming Mr. Rogers is what messed up the younger generations (“He told them they didn’t have to achieve anything to be special!”). “I’m sure you’ve heard a bunch of rumors about him being a Navy seal.”

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Na-nu, Na-nu!

In 1978, Robin Williams was a wildly anarchic improv comic. Then came Mork and Mindy. The show made Williams a star, and having just finished rewatching the first season, it’s easy to see why.

The concept — alien visitor tries to make sense of life on Earth with the help of Mindy (Pam Dawber) sounded like a rehash of My Favorite Martian, which had Ray Walston as the ET moving in with reporter Bill Bixby. Williams made Mork much much more. His manic, hyper-energetic delivery (I’m not surprised to read he was a heavy cocaine user around this time) makes even mildly weird lines sound bizarre. And many of his antics are several times weirder: falling in love with a mannequin or going around the bend when Mindy’s frenemy Susan (Morgan Fairchild) tries to seduce him. The episode where he lets go of his repressed emotions and becomes an impulsive whirlwind has to be seen to be believed. Not that all the episodes were that crazy: one where Mork and Bickley (Tom Poston) go to a singles bar could have been done on almost any show with two single male characters.

Dawber is competent as Mindy, but suffers from being straight man to Williams’ scene stealing. They do work well together, though, giving Mork a warmth he might not otherwise have. The supporting cast includes Mindy’s long-suffering father (Conrad Janis) and Exidor (Robert Donner), a street-corner prophet who makes Mork look almost normal. In one episode, Mork adopts a caterpillar as a pet; Exidor declares it’s the reincarnation of Abraham Lincoln (“Does that look like a face that would tolerate slavery?”).

It may be significant that where Walston’s Martin seems like a nice, avuncular guy to hang with, Mork would be a lot harder to endure for long. Alf, the 1980s’ contribution to this kind of sitcom, was even more annoying and the My Favorite Martian movie made Martin as irritating as Mork, without any of the warmth.

The show ended the first season as a solid hit, but the producers then tampered with success, changing the supporting cast and (I’m going by critical reviews here, as I missed most of that season) making Mork increasingly mundane. Third season attempted to fix this, first by acknowledging the problem: by the first episode of S3, Mork has completely assimilated and become mundane. It takes an “eggorcism” (eggs play a big role on Mork’s home planet, Ork) to restore him to his goofy self. Fourth season, they tried to keep things going with that old reliable, a wedding: Mork and Mindy finally marry, then they have a baby. But as Orkans start out physically adult and age backwards (that way kids get some respect and everyone thinks seniors are cute) the baby — Mork gets pregnant and delivers Jonathan Winters as the baby. This produced some fun episodes, but it didn’t save the series. Though obviously Williams’ career didn’t suffer any.

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The murderous alien clowns were the pick of the week

KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE (1988) is a one-joke film but the joke works. A necking couple spots a shooting star landing nearby (while I haven’t kept track, this and having something weird briefly appear on radar are staple opening setups). Next thing you know, ET clowns are cocooning the locals with candy-cotton guns, tracking them with balloon-animal bloodhounds, feeding people to shadow puppets, or jumping out of a clown car that you wouldn’t think they could all fit inside. Can the town survive? I got particular pleasure out of one conversation where the characters try to make sense of this (“Maybe they were ancient astronauts and that’s why we have the idea of clowns in our culture.”). Doesn’t give me any deep inside for Alien Visitors but still enjoyable low-budget fun.“I don’t believe in UFOs, but if they exist, we’re inside one.”

K-PAX (2002) aims higher and falls very far short. Kevin Spacey is Prot, the self-proclaimed ET visitor locked up in an asylum where Jeff Bridges tries to restore him to sanity. But Bridges can’t help noticing his patient is rehabilitating the other patients much better than conventional therapy — and while it’s impossible, you don’t suppose he could really be telling the truth, do you? This mix of psychological drama and SF doesn’t work as either, and feels cobbled together from bits of better movies (Fisher King and Equus come to mind). Spacey, as usual, delivers his lines with a Smartest Guy In The Room air, and it doesn’t work here (if he were more frustrated or more — well, anything — there’d be a more interesting conflict). “I have arrived, so my travels are over for the time being.”

COLOSSAL (2016) has an interesting concept (though not one that qualifies for Alien Visitors) but unsatisfying execution. After drunken party girl Anne Hathaway’s boyfriend breaks up with her, she returns to her home town and meets up with her old boyfriend. When a monster goes rampaging through Seoul, Hathaway realizes it’s acting out her inner frustrations; worse, her ex discovers how to do the same trick and threatens to go on a rampage if Hathaway crosses him (“I will crush an entire suburb!”). There’s definitely a good movie buried in this, but it doesn’t come to the surface. It’s also disturbing that the movie seems to care less about the hundreds of dead Koreans than about Hathaway’s personal growth arc. “Who gets a tattoo that says ‘I’m sorry, this won’t happen again.’”

Guillermo del Toro’s THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017) is another one that doesn’t fit the book, though it’s a much superior film. A mute cleaning woman at an early 1960s government lab discovers they’ve captured the Gill Man from Creature from the Black Lagoon and are subjecting him to cruel experiments, plus outright cruelty. Slowly she bonds with the creature, then sets out to help him escape. Despite some jarring brutality in spots, this is very good, particularly in its evocation of 1962. “That’s the password — ‘And the eagle takes the prey.’”

The 2002 SyFy miniseries TAKEN evokes quite a few eras, starting in WW II when a fighter squadron is harassed by foo lights (though they don’t use the term), then following various families across the decades as they’re abducted by ETs and spied on by the government (though one of the families is part of the goverment UFO Watch program). I was initially unimpressed by this but found it picked up near the end; in fairness, that may reflect I wasn’t a little more relaxed for the ending episodes.

The secret behind it all turns out to be that aliens are experimenting in hopes of understanding emotions (“You have so much that we’ve lost.”). The culmination of their work is the human/ET hybrid Allie (Dakota Fanning) who has powers far beyond the aliens. This made me realize how often this happens, for example with super-powered Elizabeth in V. So stuff was learned, even if it was a slog to get there. “Right son — there were no monsters in my generation.”

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