Monday, January 30, 2017

THE TIME TRAVELERS (1964)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, sociological*


Quick personal note: THE TIME TRAVELERS was one of the few 1960s SF-films that I saw in a movie theater, though not in its original 1964 release. To the best of my recollection, I saw it bundled together with two others films—probably THE GORGON and THE VALLEY OF GWANGI—in a triple feature that played a neighborhood theater, probably around 1967-68.

Thus my opinion of the film is partly informed by nostalgia. It’s not that it was ever a great favorite in the sense that I sought to see it any time it played on TV, nor did I add to my video collection once I had the chance to do so. Even at a young age I didn't deem it an equal to the classic SF-films of the preceding decade, such as THE WAR OF THEWORLDS and THIS ISLAND EARTH. Yet though I was probably catching whatever TV-broadcasts I could even by 1967, I have the feeling that TIME TRAVELERS was unusual in presenting a large number of “gosh-wow” wonder-elements in one package—a time-space warp, a post-nuclear civilization on future-Earth, radiation-created mutants menacing said civilization, a generations-ship that the surviving civilized Earth-people intend to use to voyage ot Alpha Centauri—and lots and lots of androids. This was a pretty good array of wondrous elements for an independent film with a pretty limited budget.

The film’s opening could have been set in the 1920s as easily as the 1960s. On an unnamed campus, a trio of scientists labor on an experimental time-viewing device. Somehow their device opens a time-space portal. The scientists— young man Steve, older mentor Von Steiner, and young lady scientist Carol—hesitate to explore the portal. However, dimwitted comedy-relief Danny, a technican from the local power plant, steps through the opening, entering a barren post-nuclear landscape. This forces the scientists to follow him. Fierce mutants, deformed by radiation, attack the time-travelers. However, the travelers are rescued by a member of a hidden civilization, who commands a troop of androids who have eyes but no other prominent features.

According to Varno (John Hoyt), the de facto leader of the hidden civilization, he and his people are the last normal human beings, mostly descended from scientists who survived the nuclear devastation. The mutants are the descendants of the military men who went to war, though the mutants blame the scientists for the world’s fate. Beccause food is scarce in the future, their only hope is to escape Earth is a generations-ship that will carry a complement of normal people all the way to Alpha Centauii. However, the rocket can only transport so many people—who will sleep in suspended animation while their androids tend the ship—and so Varno and his people can't take the time-travelers along. The travelers'
only hope is to use the future’s advanced technology to get back to their own time, even though that world is doomed to be destroyed.

Director Ib Melchior provided the script, which, aside from the nuclear references, would not have been out of place in a 1920s SF-magazine: exactly the sort of thing that the film’s cameo guest-star Forrest J. Ackerman would have grown up reading. All of the characters are paper-thin, the comedy-relief is lame, and some of the futuristic gimmicks wouldn’t have looked out of place in a 1950s TV commercial for Westinghouse products. Melchior even drags in a standard stage magician’s trick to stand in for having a person travel through space-time. Yet I don’t think it’s entirely nostalgia that gives me a sense of gravitas regarding humankind’s struggle to escape its own fate. One of the most effective moments in the script—though it passes without much comment—is when Varno explains that his people plan to launch the generations ship from the site of a mammoth atomic crater: new life springing from old death, as it were. More central to the plot is the “bitter necessity” that will force the scientists to leave behind the time-travelers to conserve space on the rocketship.

There are also slight indications that the scientist-cabal is far from the apex of humanity. Carol, the typical empathetic female, questions their choice to keep the mutants at arm’s length. When she’s told that the mutants won’t make nice, she accepts it, but in one of the underground caves she encounters a deformed, helpless fellow whom a scientist calls a “deviant.”  Carol prevents the hotheaded scientist from executing the intruder, but after she succors the fellow, he disappears from the story-- unless he’s somewhere in the big melee that takes place when the mutants stage an invasion. The melee, by the way, is quite impressive for a tight-budgeted film like this one.


Some time-travel stories, such as BEYOND THE TIME BARRIER, allow for the possibility that the past can be changed, but I rather like how TIME TRAVELERS refuses to give the modern world that  “out.”  The scientists’ escape-project is destroyed, but the providential advent of the time-travelers makes possible the survival of humanity, albeit due to a whole lot of dumb luck. As a coda to this happy ending, Melchior repeats a lot of rapid-fire key scenes from the film to depict the strangeness of the temporal loop—and I must admit that he succeeded with the young me, as I felt my mind blown as much here as by anything in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.  

Saturday, January 28, 2017

THE STILL OF THE NIGHT (1982)



PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*


I have the dim recollection that I once read a Robert Benton interview in which he claimed that his psycho-thriller STILL OF THE NIGHT might have been a box-office success in its day. What he should have done was to re-jigger the script he wrote with David Newman -- Benton's previous collaborator on both the 1978 SUPERMAN and the earlier Broadway comedy based on him-- so that co-star Meryl Streep was the killer. This struck me as singularly foolish thinking, to expect that the audience could be swayed by this one change.

STILL doesn't have a very remarkable script, but to the extent that it works at all, it's because Meryl Streep is not the killer, and psychiatrist Sam Rice (Roy Scheider) has to prove she's not a killer in order to satisfy their common romantic arc. The two leads provide serviceable performances, but Benton-- who loads the film with references to famous Alfred Hitchcock tropes-- shows no more understanding of the way Hitchcock's stories worked *as stories* than he understood anything about the Superman mythos. This may be shown by the fact that toward the end Streep's character has a "big reveal" about the nature of her relationship with her quarreling mother and father-- and the supposed "reveal" turns out to be a whole lotta nothing (aside from its reference to VERTIGO).

From the glacial pace of the direction, I think Benton had some idea that he was "above" the crude excitement of the psycho-thriller: the actual "psycho" here isn't even as interesting as the sex-killer from Hitchcock's FRENZY. The only scenes that are slightly compelling take place as Rice "re-imagines" some weird nightmares experienced by a patient. However, though the imagery is creepy-- a weird little girl with a teddy beat, for instance-- the images are clearly straightforward representations of things the dreamer has seen in real life, which marks STILL as being strongly influenced by Sir Alfred's SPELLBOUND. Thus, the dreams in this film, like those in the earlier one, register in the naturalistic mode.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

REAL MEN (1987)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *sociological, psychological*


REAL MEN was the only directorial effort of Dennis Feldman, who is best known for writing such formula action-films as THE GOLDEN CHILD and the 1999 VIRUS. It's one of those comedies that some viewers will swear to be outrageously funny, while it leaves others cold. My reaction was lukewarm at best.

Feldman's script makes no pretensions to making his scenario even mildly believable. An agent of the FBI has just made contact with an alien visitor, but said agent is killed by an assassin. Despite the agent's death, somehow he communicates to his superiors the essence of the alien's needs. In exchange for a very minor item-- a simple glass of water-- the alien is willing to give Earth one of two major gifts: either a "big gun" capable of blowing up a planet, or a "good package" that can help the government eradicate a major pollution menace. The good agents of the FBI want the "good package," but there's a rogue element in the agency that wants the gun, and so do various Russian agents.

Because the rogue element has left the good FBI drastically lacking in resources, the chief assigns one of his loyal agents, Nick Pirandello (James Belushi), to seek out a man who looks exactly like the murdered agent, so that the substitute can finesse the trade without incident. However, the lookalike is wimpy civilian Bob Wilson (John Ritter), so Pirandello must find a way to draft the unwilling citizen to serve the FBI's ends.

REAL MEN is little more than a basic buddy-comedy, in which Pirandello manipulates the confused Wilson into serving his purposes. The only interesting psychological motif in the story is that once Wilson does become committed to the mission, he takes on a macho attitude-- just as Pirandello, not coincidentally, begins to decline in his balls-to-the-wall masculinity. This comes about in part because the agent encounters a sadistic torturess-- apparently not one of the opposing agents-- who forces him to confess his vulnerability and weakness to her. However, like most of the jokes in the film, this one doesn't go anywhere. Feldman's script shoots for broad irony, not least with the basic setup of the aliens-who-just-want-a-glass-of-water. Yet the story fails as an irony, largely because it's too invested in the idea of giving wimpy Wilson a macho upgrade so that he can trounce bullies and such.

Neither the heroes nor the villains utilize any marvelous weapons against one another, though I've decided that the villains' desire to acquire a marvelous weapon lends them a marvelous phenomenality, even though the closest they personally get to the metaphenomenal is a lame joke where some of the bad agents dress up like clowns for no particular reason.



Friday, January 20, 2017

MESSAGE FROM SPACE (1978)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, cosmological*

Sometimes nostalgia mellows my opinion of a given film. I may still be conscious that the film is inadequate, but it may come to seem like a time-capsule of a particular period.

MESSAGE FROM SPACE gets no such break from me. The late 1970s and early 1980s saw an assortment of lame attempts to duplicate the success of Lucas's STAR WARS, and though none of them succeeded, a few of them are worth watching just as curiosities, like the not-entirely-derivative HUMANOID. However, in this 1978 film MESSAGE is not even medium.

Though there are elements of MESSAGE that were clearly patterned on the Lucas work-- particularly the movie's supposedly cute robot-- the film's immediate model was probably the assorted "sci-fi superhero" TV-shows popular in Japan since the 1960s, since such shows are almost inevitably about a young man, or a group of young teens, acquiring super-powers with which to defend the world. In addition, MESSAGE was directly based on a popular Japanese novel, EIGHT DOG CHRONICLES.

While the original concept had some internal consistency-- eight samurai brothers unite to have adventures-- MESSAGE keeps only the basic idea of eight heroes. Probably following Lucas's idea of a "rag-tag band of misfits," all eight characters-- who are drafted to fight evil aliens -- are totally unrelated to one another, and are not even all Japanese (notably American film-actor Vic Morrow). However, the clumsy script renders all eight characters are incredibly flat stereotypes-- the seasoned old hand, the greedy comedy relief-- and none of the actors' lines confer even the most basic likability to any of these losers.

The worst thing about MESSAGE may be that not only is the selection of the eight heroes thoroughly haphazard-- it even includes the winsome robot-- none of them are really impressive fighters, and all that most of them do is run around firing ray-blasters. Sonny Chiba is minimally involved in the story but apparently his expertise in fight-coordination was not called upon.

The only half-decent thing in the film is a nicely designed "sailing-ship for the stars."

DERANGED (1974), PRAYING MANTIS (1993)



PHENOMENALITY: *naturalistic*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*

I hadn't seen DERANGED in many years, so I wasn't sure whether or not it qualified for the uncanny version of the "perilous psycho" trope. As I re-watched the film-- which starts out touting the narrative's status as a real story, complete with knowledgeable narrator-- I found that it was rather in the naturalistic domain, for essentially the same reasons I cited in the 2000 film ED GEIN:

...ED GEIN pursues the approach I called "fictionalized-reality" above, meaning that Gein is rendered with a pathetic, no-larger-than-life treatment... Thus I judge that this version of Gein, unlike Norman Bates and other fictional icons spawned by Gein, to be purely "naturalistic."

DERANGED is much in the same mode, though its estimated budget was no more than $200,000. I can't find a budget for ED GEIN, but I assume that it was considerably higher based on its general look and the greater care taken shooting the scenes. That said, writer-director Alan Ormsby does a fine job with the "thriller" aspects of his imitiation Gein-tale. Additonally, star Roberts Blossom, playing the main character of "Ezra Cobb," may not be as facile an actor as Steve Railsback, but he's a lot more convincing as a dim-seeming, delusional old hermit.

I rate the mythicity of DERANGED as "poor" because I don't think it does very much with the psychological material. A good thrill-ride, but nothing more.




The TV-movie PRAYING MANTIS wasn't based on any real psycho, but was probably strongly influenced by 1987's BLACK WIDOW.  The earlier film dealt with a "black widow" murderess whose main motivation, as I remember, was nothing but money. In contrast, though the script for this telefilm doesn't really dwell on the "mantis metaphor"-- i.e., the popular tale that mantises like black widows slay their mates-- it does make serial killer Linda Crandell (Jane Seymour) a psychotic type.

There aren't, however, any attempts to make Linda especially strange. She starts out by killing the man she's just married with poison, after which she flees town, leaving the cops to pick up the pieces. One witness, remembering the runaway bride, tells the police that he found Linda "eerie," but that's as weird as this psycho gets. The story by one William Delligan-- whose three IMDB-cited scripts all involve violent or ambivalent women-- refuses to reveal exactly what past event traumatized Linda, but the fact that she cuts herself and threatens a woman with an unruly child make it pretty likely that someone, most likely her father, abused Linda as a child. It's surely no coincidence that the only conquests we see are men older than Linda. Even when one scene sets up the lady psycho to dance with her handsome future son-in-law, Linda shows no interest in the younger version of her current beau.

Despite the script's reticence about the psycho's origins-- which is somewhat preferable to the more mechanical Lifetime movies on the same subject-- the only thing to see here is Jane Seymour's good looks and performance.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

HAUNTED HONEYMOON (1986)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *comedy*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*


I started out generally disliking Gene Wilder's HAUNTED HONEYMOON-- his last film with wife Gilda Radner before her 1989 death, the last film Wilder directed, and a notorious box office bomb. However, on repeated TV-viewings, I've conceived a mild liking for the film, if only because it seems (whatever Wilder's intentions) like a love-letter to the bygone days of "old dark house" movies.

Like Wilder's SHERLOCK HOLMES' SMARTER BROTHER, HONEYMOON is nicely staged. Wilder and his crew clearly knew how to evoke the look of the "phony ghost" stories from the Classic Hollywood era, and the script inserts some of the psychological touches characteristic of the later Hitchcock period. But though there are some decent comedy set-pieces, there's never the sense that the whole is anything but the sum of its parts.

The story is set in the era of radio's heyday as a source of mystery-dramas, though there's almost no topical material relevant to the time-period. Larry Abbott (Wilder) and Vickie Pearl (Radner) are voice-actors on one such mystery-drama, as well as being engaged to be married in the near future. However, Larry has been blowing lines and showing signs of psychological stress. His uncle Paul makes the decision that when the couple travel to the Abbott family mansion, he intends to subject Larry to a form of "shock therapy" in order to purge Larry of his demons. Thus, when Larry and Vickie show up at the family manse, they're treated not just to the usual clique of oddballs-- including the corpulent Aunt Kate (Dom deLuise in drag)-- but also things like a guy in a werewolf outfit. However, it soon becomes evident that someone's not seeking to save Larry's sanity, but rather, to take his life.

Then, after the climax of the film, all of the "uncanny tropes" of the film are overruled by that of the "fallacious figment," for the audience is belatedly told that all they've witnessed is just another radio-drama performed by Larry and Vickie before they leave for their wedding. As the happy couple drives away, an ostensible "host" of the program warns the audience that the happy ending may not be real-- but since that host is an articulate werewolf, his credibility is somewhat lacking.

Compared to most of Wilder's other 1980s flicks, this one at least looks good. I just wish that Wilder-- also one of the writers-- had done more than piddle around with Freudian psychological myths.

Monday, January 9, 2017

THE STEPFATHER (1987)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *psychological*


THE STEPFATHER, an enjoyable psycho-thriller that's been much imitated over the years, doesn't go into that much depth in a psychological sense.

The story centers upon a psycho whose true name is never revealed in the film, but who is known through most of the narrative as "Jerry Blake." Whereas some real men have carried on bigamous affairs, sustaining two if not more separate family lives, Jerry seeks to find the ideal family life due to some traumatic event in his past. To this end he worms his way into a family that lacks a father-figure-- from what we see, the families of widows with children. However, when each family fails to live up to his exacting standards of what the ideal family should be, he scouts around for a new family, beginning the process of inveigling himself into the new familial unit, and then kills the previous family.

A year after the audience sees Jerry slay one unsatisfactory adoptive group, he has managed to marry widow Susan Maine, who has one high-school-age daughter, Stephanie. In contrast with some stories dealing with an unwanted step-parent, Stephanie's animus for her new father does not stem from any fixation on her dead dad, who is barely referenced in the storyline. Nor is Jerry, like other evil step-parents, covetous of his stepdaughter's sexuality: he simply wants to control her absolutely, and on some level Stephanie recognizes that his controlling nature goes beyond the bounds of the average step-parent. Unfortunately for Jerry, the brother of a previous murder-victim is trying to track down his sister's killer, and Jerry's efforts to short-circuit Stephanie's suspicions only further his own mental breakdown. In the film's best scene, the killer uses the wrong false name for himself in front of Susan-- precipitating a bloody showdown between the ersatz father and his step-family.

In the symbolic sense Jerry Blake is a "heavy father," but rather than simply imposing his will as most such figures do, he's actually trying to impose a false ideal upon lived reality: an ideal close to the heart of American pop culture. While there's no question in my mind that Jerry is a "perilous psycho" in the uncanny mode, I had to think whether or not STEPFATHER also made use of the uncanny version of the "bizarre crime." Certainly Jerry's not an artful psycho: he clubs one victim to death with a board. But I finally decided that his motif of moving from family to family in pursuit of his twisted ideal qualified as a bizarre crime in itself-- though of course, like any uncanny facet of a narrative, it can be reconfigured to take on a purely naturalistic phenomenality, as one indeed sees in some of STEPFATHER's imitators.

HANNIBAL (2001)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*


I hate having to give a "fair" mythicity rating to a Hannibal Lecter film directed by Ridley Scott, in contadistinction to giving a "good" rating to the one directed by the vastly inferior talent Jonathan Demme.

One factor in this state of affairs might be that the Thomas Harris novel SILENCE OF THE LAMBS was a very linear novel. Hannibal's contributions to the narrative provide only a side attraction, while the main plot focuses on the pursuit of serial killer "Buffalo Bob" by FBI agent Clarice Starling. The structure of Harris' HANNIBAL is more circular than linear. Hannibal, ten years after his escape from the United States, has taken up residence in Italy, while the agents of a less reputable organization-- rich Mason Verger, one of Lecter's previous victims-- circle about him like predacious hawks, trying to capture him before he can escape. If anything, the novel's structure is closer to that of Scott's own BLADE RUNNER.

However, Scott and his chosen scripters-- one of whom contributed to the film of SILENCE-- chose a much more straightforward course. I can't fault the movie for excising a lot of the novel's subplots and characters to make a more cohesive storyline, given that Scott enjoyed great success when he did the same thing with Philip Dick's novel DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? But though Scott gets across most of the essential plot-points of the novel, his understanding of both the Lecter character and the world he lives in proves mediocre at best.

Scott sacrifices a number of themes that would not have been hard to capture even in a linear mainstream film. For instance, a major theme of the novel deals with the mediocrity of law enforcement. particularly that of Clarice Starling's superiors. Presumably Scott wanted to avoid a lot of the book's talking-head scenes in which various FBI characters admit to one another how they're screwing over Clarice to save their own necks from public scrutiny. But the consequence of these omissions is that only one FBI figure looks particularly corrupt: Clarice's former commander Krendler. Thus, even though Scott goes through the same motions of discussing how Clarice has been victimized by her own people-- a point Lecter often uses to taunt her-- it becomes a matter of "telling" rather than "showing."

Scott does passably well with the scenes in Italy, managing to get across at least some of Harris' learned references to Dante, Christian tradition, et al. And in this case, I approved of his having excised some of the more involved material detailing how a corrupt Italian cop seeks to help Verger trap Lecter rather than delivering him to the FBI. The scene in which Lecter executes the officer-- who is compared to Judas because he's betrayed not Lecter but rather his own profession-- is the strongest sequence in HANNIBAL.

However, the sections with Mason Verger suffer greatly from the excision of his sister Margot, who in the novel proves essential in Verger's downfall. In Margot's place the Scott script builds up one of the novel's characters, a functionary named Cordell, so that he can perform some of the same actions. But Cordell is a flat and uninteresting character, with the result that Verger's vengeance-crusade lacks a sense of epic evil.

Hannibal escapes Verger's men in Italy and returns to America, apparently less interested in taking out Verger than in rekindling his old fascination with Clarice. The novel is much clearer about Lecter's motivations, which appear muddy here, particularly in a scene constructed for the movie purely to build on the Lecter-Clarice relationship. In this scene Lecter taunts Clarice on a cellphone in Union Station and tells her that he's aware Verger's men are around. Then, despite Lecter's uncanny elusiveness, he's captured for no good reason I could see, and taken to Verger's estate to be eaten by killer pigs. Whereas the novel gave good reasons as to why only Clarice can rescue him, the film actually dilutes the sequence by injecting the FBI into it, again, to no good end.

The ending of the Harris novel is and was highly controversial, but I believe that it made sense in the highly ironic world Harris created. The most I can say of Scott's ending is that it's an OK melodramatic flourish, but it lacks the philosophical depth of Harris.

Hopkins is good but hardly brilliant, Julianne Moore makes an excellent replacement for the earlier Jodie Foster, and Gary Oldman delivers a strong vocal performance despite being handicapped by the visual nature of the role and the compromising of his evil nature. I may be somewhat harder than usual on Scott's film because prior to seeing it I found that the novel received a superior treatment in Season 2 of the HANNIBAL teleseries, even though that series substituted the MANHUNTER character of Will Graham in place of Clarice Starling.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

STAR TREK: "BREAD AND CIRCUSES," "ASSIGNMENT EARTH" (1968)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *poor,* (2) *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*

At the top of this section I put a photo of the "slave girl" from "Bread and Circuses,"because this was the last season that sported Gene Roddenberry's direct involvement as producer. Thus it seemed appropriate to pay homage to Roddenberry's most politically incorrect trope: that of the "sexy female slave" who, in this episode at least, gives Captain Kirk a little friendly "torture." There might have been some inappropriate feminine characters in Season 3, but hardly any sexy slaves.

I was reluctant to give a "poor" rating to "Omega Glory," since it recapitulated some vivid myth-motifs in spite of its absurdities. But "Bread and Circuses" gets no such break. There's a half-baked attempt to justify, through some made-up "law" of parallel evolution, why this time the Enterprise comes across a world where Rome rose to glory yet somehow continued into a rough 20th-century milieu. The heroes are first made aware of this when they receive television broadcasts featuring gladiators fighting and dying in an arena-- which, Kirk later smirks, isn't that much different from the television on Old Earth.

Much like "Omega Glory," the spacemen are constrained to investigate the world of Magna Roma because they suspect that one or more survivors from a wrecked statship may have taken refuge on the planet. The heroes learn that the only survivor is Captain Merik, who became an aide to the Magna Roman emperor. He was the only surviving crewmember to throw in with the Romans, for all the others remained loyal to the Prime Directive of non-interference and so died in the arena. In contrast to Captain Tracey or even John Gill, Merik's motives for his actions are hazy and ill-defined, and his sacrificial death at the end fails to evoke much emotion.

Kirk, Spock and McCoy are initially captured by a resistance-group fighting Roman hegemony. They are much puzzled by the members' claim to be worshipers of the Sun, and McCoy even states, with amazing falsity, that the Romans of Earth had no sun-worship. By the end of the episode, though, it's revealed that the renegades are actually the Christians of this pseudo-Earth; they just took an extra 2000 years to show up. Despite an early claim in the story that the Federation embraces many religions, the story ends on an egregiously proselytizing note. Safe back on the ship, the crew-members content themselves with the ideal-- derived from many a Cecil B. de Mille movie, no doubt-- that in due time the evil of the Romans will be conquered by the goodness of the Christians. One may safely assume that Magna Roma's destined religion will also eventually lead to liberal democracy.

Refreshingly, at the opening, McCoy briefly fantasizes what it would be like to come down to a primitive planet and claim to be "the archangel Gabriel" rather being restrained by the Directive (though it never seem to hold Kirk back that much). There's a lot of running around and escapes, and one nice character-moment between McCoy and Spock.



Happily, though "Assignment Earth" isn't overly deep, it doesn't suffer from the major intellectual gaffes of "Circuses." "Earth's" myth is also sociological, in that it presents a character out to save Earth-society from itself. This is Gary Seven, whose purpose is to guide 1960s Earth through a critical stage of its development. In this endeavor he's aided by an intelligent black cat, who possesses the power to morph into another species of feline, and a young Earth-woman, Roberta Lincoln.

"Earth" is indubitably a "back-door pilot," in which Roddenberry sought to set up a new set of series-characters by introducing them within an established series. The Enterprise time-travels back to 1960s Earth for purposes of "historical research," and the ship accidentally intercepts a transporter beam from another galaxy. A man holding a cat materializes aboard ship, and identifies himself as Gary Seven, an Earth-human raised among alien benefactors. The same aliens have sent him to 1960s Earth to shepherd the planet to the destined future from which the Enterprise hails. Kirk doesn't know whether Seven and his cat are really sent to save Earth, or to destroy it.

Seven escapes the ship and inserts himself into an office apparently arranged for him by at least two other agents, meant to help him implement his first mission. However, those agents have perished in a traffic accident. Secretary Roberta shows up at the office, having been engaged for secretarial duties by the deceased agents. Seven deceives Roberta into thinking he's a government operative and uses her as a front while he plans to interfere with a U.S. missile program.

Kirk and Spock pursue Seven, determined to find out his motives. Again, much of the plot relies on captures and escapes, but the story does terminate in Kirk being forced to evaluate Seven's claims not on sure knowledge, but on "intuition." Obviously, no series developed from this concept. I tend to doubt that the situation of Seven continually correcting history would have proved all that winsome, but it couldn't have been worse than some of the TV shows that were made. I also doubt that dour Robert Lansing would have been that much of an attraction, but Teri Garr (billed as 'Terri") is a delight as the sincere but scatterbrained Roberta, and would have been a great incentive to watch even a mediocre series.

STAR TREK: "THE ULTIMATE COMPUTER" (1968)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, psychological*


Though earlier episodes preached against the hegemony of machines in other cultures, "Ultimate Computer" brings the moral closer to home.

Kirk is astonished to receive orders that the Enterprise will be outfitted with a new, more sophisticated computer, the M-5,that's so powerful that it will make the presence of men aboard starships obsolete-- thus putting Kirk, among others, out of a job. The acid test for the computer is to see how it handles under simulated combat conditions, in a sham battle with four other starships.

Fontana's script does a fine job of personalizing Kirk's dilemma, allowing him to call his own prejudices about "progress" into question. It doesn't help Kirk that the system's creator, Richard Daystrom, is a bit of an arrogant prick, a former "boy genius" intent of proving himself with yet another amazing breakthrough. He prates about saving men's lives from the dangers of space, but he seems more concerned with his personal repute.

Under the control of M-5, with only Daystrom, Kirk, and a skeleton crew aboard, the Enterprise performs a few minor maneuvers efficiently. Then, for no clear reason, the computer directs the ship to destroy an unmanned freighter, and when the crew try to turn the machine off, it shields itself from their efforts. The computer then proceeds to the site of the war games, but only the humans aboard know that M-5 is playing for keeps.

A taut script and a strong (sometimes overly strong) performance by William Marshall as Daystrom make this a superior episode. It shows a symbolic similarity to various "Mister Hyde" scenarios in the series, given that the ship seems bent on destruction despite all human attempts to appeal to it. The script does not explain this unremitting hostility. One possible explanation might be that since Daystrom patterned the computer's cognitive faculties upon his own brain engrams, he may have "downloaded" much of the resentment he felt toward the Federation for failing to constantly recognize his greatness. Thus M-5 is much like an arrogant child, lashing out in the awareness of its power, much like Charlie X. This hypothesis accords with the script's statement that M-5 is able to absorb its creator's remorse for having killed-- the "Doctor Jekyll" in the equation-- and so gives itself up to be killed in the end. The computer gets turned off but the Enterprise and her crew are spared, thanks to certain human beings who have mastered both the good and bad sides of consciousness.

STAR TREK: "THE OMEGA GLORY" (1968)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, sociological*

I had such negative memories of "Omega Glory" that I anticipated giving it one of the few"poor" mythicity ratings for Season 2. While it's by no means a good episode overall-- not least because of its cringe-worthy premise-- it does rate a "fair" rating by virtue of having provided some variations on Gene Roddenberry's most cherished myth-themes. In that respect, it's a good deal better than "Patterns of Force."

Once again, a Starfleet official has broached his trust and interfered with a primitive society. However, the script-- one of Roddenberry's oldest, dating back to the first season-- doesn't make the Federation intruder responsible for the society's incredible resemblance to the mid-1960s opposition of Americans (called "Yangs" for Yankees) and Communist Chinese (called "Kohms"). The idea that whole cultures could accidentally parallel those of Earth was total eyewash, though Roddenberry does use it to elicit some interesting cultural reversals.

The landing-party encounters in space the remains of the Exeter, and of its crew, all of whom have been turned into empty uniforms full of dust. Kirk and his usual aides (plus a disposable redshirt) descend to Omega 4. They're captured by the Asian-looking inhabitants of the city, the Kohms, and find that the Kohms' commander is the ship's only survivor, Captain Ron Tracey. Tracey informs the party that his crew contracted a disease on the planet that slew them once they left the planet, and that he alone remains alive because he never left the planet's quixotic environment. This means, according to Tracey, that the members of the landing-party will both perish and spread the disease to the other Enterprise crew-members if they return.

Kirk, though glad to see Tracey alive, suspects that he has violated the Prime Directive by making common cause with the Kohms against their enemies, the vicious Yangs-- all of whom appear to be Caucasians, though they dress in savage attire and never speak. Tracey takes the crewmen prisoner, trying to make a Faustian bargain with them. The inhabitants of Omega IV are all incredibly long-lived, apparently as the result of some ancient conflict which devastated both their cultures (the script leaves it up in the air as to whether the cataclysm was by nuclear or by biological warfare). Tracey wants McCoy to dope out a cure for the disease, so that Tracey can not only leave the planet, but use the environment's weird properties to deliver a "Fountain of Youth" to the Federation. Kirk refuses, so Tracey imprisons the captain and Spock. In addition, Kirk is forced to share a cell with two captive Yangs, who repeatedly attack him without justification. Finally Kirk is able to break through to the Yangs-- who fortunately speak English, just like the Kohms, and they learn that a horde of Yangs are preparing to attack the city.

Kirk and Spock escape Tracey's cell, and reunite with McCoy, who informs them that the mysterious elements in the atmosphere-- both the disease and a mysterious "immunizing factor"-- are no Fountain of Youth. Further, none of the Enterprise crewmen are now carriers of the disease, for they've been on the planet long enough to be immunized. But Tracey still tries to thwart their return to the Enterprise. Then the invading Yangs show up, interrupting a fight between Kirk and Tracey. Building on clues from his earlier Yang-conversation, Kirk realizes that the savage Caucasians have recapitulated the essentials of the American Revolution, as well as some aspects of European Christianity. Kirk is able to instill both the Yangs and their enemies with a sense of the importance of liberal democracy, and Tracey is taken into custody.

There are some nice mythic gems herein. It's amusing that the Caucasian Yangs take the role of the "savage horde" against the relatively civilized Asians, and that the Yangs, despite being white, are now living out a fantasy of savage life that the script explicitly compares to that of the American Indian-- not unlike a social transformation seen in a much later film, RED DAWN. Some religious elements come in only toward the end, when the Yangs wonder if the alien strangers are gods, and Tracey, drawing on local superstitions, tries to convince the savages that Spock is a devil. It's interesting that the Omegans also seem to have a story of a "war in heaven," as one Yang wonders if the spacemen were "cast out," after which KIrk sagely tells them that "You've confused the stars with heaven."

I was curious as to why Roddenberry named the planet "Omega,"since this means in Greek an "end," rather than the beginning of a new civilization for the inhabitants. One idea is that the climax provides an end in the same sense that Christ said he was "the Alpha and the Omega." Alternately, Roddenberry may have been thinking along lines comparable to those of Frank Fukuyama, who argued that the system of liberal democracy spelled the Hegelian "end of history."


STAR TREK: "BY ANY OTHER NAME" (1968)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, sociological*

The Enterprises answers a distress call from an uninhabited planet, and as they near the world they find evidence of a destroyed ship. Kirk beams down with a landing-party and meets the former inhabitants of the ship, the Kelvans. These aliens, natives from the Andromeda Galaxy, have assumed humanoid forms-- their original natures are never disclosed-- because they've decided, rather quickly IMO, that they must do so in order to take over the Enterprise. Rojan, leader of the small party of aliens, informs Kirk that a cataclysm caused them to leave their galaxy, though it was a generation-ship-- meaning that Rojan and all of his male and female aides were born on the ship. It's their duty and perceived destiny to scout out new homes for the Kelvans, and to do so, they'll use the Enterprise for the same purpose, Rojan admits that he himself will never see whatever home they colonize; it will only be one of his descendants. Nothing is said about whether the Federation citizens will be allowed to breed during the trip, but either way, Kirk and his crew seem fated to die on the ship.

The Kelvans' methods of conquering the ship are impressively simple: they can paralyze human beings with the devices on their belts, and, to get the majority of the crew out of the way, they can also reduce individuals down into dodecahedron cubes. Soon the ship is on its way to its new destination, and only four crewpersons-- Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Scott-- are allowed to remain in their normal forms, to monitor the ship's performance.

After a failed attempt to foil the aliens by destroying the ships, the crewmen hit upon a way to use the Kelvans' mimicry of humans against the, The Fontana-Bixby script picks up on a common SF-idea, tossed off in "Catspaw" but used to much greater effect here-- that aliens who mimic humans may be seduced into acting like humans. Hence, the Shakespeare-derived title: the Kelvans are "roses" who go by another name, but by taking on the semblance of humanity, they will learn how "sweet" it is to experience the gamut of human emotions. (This is, if one were keeping score, another story in which the multifaceted nature of the emotions takes precedence over the logical faculties.)

The most interesting sociological facet of the narrative is that in many ways the Kelvans are a mirror-image of Starfleet in its more unbending moments, though the Kelvans are also devoted to conquest and are initially indifferent to the sentiments of the conquered. They're also pure incarnations of the Protestant ethic of "deferred gratification," and Kirk defeats them in part by pointing out that they will be aliens and enemies to normal Kelvans by virtue of having "gone native." Thus, Kirk argues, they might as well forget about scouting new worlds of conquest for their people and settle down to enjoying their new existence-- which is pretty the obverse of the moral of "The Man Trap."

Friday, January 6, 2017

JAWS OF SATAN (1981)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical*


As others have observed, the major plot-threads of this flick-- originally called KING COBRA-- come from the similarly named shark-movie and another 1970s hit, THE EXORCIST. It's directed by Bob Claver, whose directorial credits are mostly for episodic TV, and it's filmed pretty much like any TV-movie. In addition, its biggest name-actors, Fritz Weaver and Gretchen Corbett, are actors best known for their TV-work, and the only other "name" in the film, Christina Applegate, had not yet become Al Bundy's offspring.

It's usually a pretty dull film, particularly when the film rips off JAWS (various killer snakes, commanded by a mysterious cobra, besiege a country town, and the mayor doesn't want to warn people for the usual reasons). The EXORCIST plot is a little better thanks to Fritz Weaver's conviction in playing Catholic priest Father Tom Farrow, who seems to have lost his faith. Then, when he attends a party, a modern witch reads his tea-leaves (or was it his coffee-grounds?) and reveals that Satan himself is coming to call.

Farrow certainly doesn't believe he's worthy of s visit from the Dark Lord himself, but in time, he finds out that he shares a special heritage. Back in the days when St. Patrick allegedly cast all serpents out of Ireland, one of Patrick's followers-- not the saint himself-- attracted the ire of the local druids. They cursed him and all his progeny to be slain by snakes, which were to be commanded by Satan himself in the form of a cobra-- or something like that.

Though it's a ridiculous premise, I have to give the filmmakers props for the audacity of invoking ancient Irish curses to explain a bunch of hostile snakes. In the end, Farrow gets his Catholic moxie together, confronts the King Cobra with his cross, and exorcises it in a flash of flame. It's a poverty-row version of the EXORCIST exorcism, but I found that it does imply a greater conflict of supernatural forces, so that this cheapjack horror-film does become a combative drama. It helps that Farrow also isn't just any old priest, but someone with a special destiny and ancestors to avenge.



TERROR IN THE HAUNTED HOUSE (1958)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological*


SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS

TERROR IN THE HAUNTED HOUSE features no hauntings whatever-- neither real ghosts nor Uncle Ezra putting on an old sheet to scare away the house's new inhabitants. The only thing haunting the house are memories, the memories of viewpoint character Sheila.

Born and orphaned at a young age in America, Sheila is adopted and raised in Europe. The film opens by showing her on a typical psychiatrist's couch in Switzerland, former stomping-ground of Carl Jung. Shelia has dreamed of a house strange to her, but which seems eerily familiar as well, so that its appearance has become a source of terror to her, even though there's nothing overtly scary about the house of her dreams. She tells the doctor that she anticipates returning to America with her husband Philip Tierney, also an American, and she has no ambivalence toward him at all-- until he takes her to their first place of residence, and it's the very house of her dreams.

HOUSE is a talky but reasonably effective potboiler, given a certain charm by leads Gerald Mohr and Cathy O'Donnell, neither of whom are typical Hollywood "faces." Though the scripter has clearly read a little Freud and Jung, the memories that Shelia must recover don't evince any great psychological depth. They serve one purpose: to elucidate the mystery of her background and the question of where Philip-- and a few other strange people-- fit in a purely rational manner.

My system doesn't include any tropes that easily cover the "old dark house" subgenre-- partly because I tend to believe that the dark houses aren't spooky in and of themselves, but because they're (a) sites of bizarre crimes, (b) homes of perilous psychos, or (c) gimmicked up with "outre devices." There is a "bizarre crime" that was committed at this house long ago, and it's part of Sheila's journey for her to find out about it, but it doesn't become a major part of the diegesis,as it would in a William Castle film. Shelia isn't really insane, nor is she a "peril" to anyone, including herself. However, there's enough emphasis on her fragile mental state that she does seem more allied with "passive psychos" like those of SECRET CEREMONY and BLACK SWAN. In addition, the nature of her potential breakdown is so intimately tied to a "bizarre crime" that she doesn't seem anyone's textbook case of ordinary psychosis, such as one sees in the 1949 WHIRLPOOL.

STAR TREK: "RETURN TO TOMORROW," "PATTERNS OF FORCE" (1968)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, psychological*


As I come toward the end of Season 2, there seems to have been an attempt to dump most of the weaker episodes together-- thus quite unintentionally providing a lead-in to many of the lesser episodes of Season 3.

In "Return to Tomorrow," a godlike voice summons the Enterprise to a dead planet. There Kirk and crew discover that three disembodied intelligences, preserved in crystal spheres, are the planet's only inhabitants. The three of them belonged to an archaic race of beings who once had humanoid bodies, but who advanced to godlike beings. A great war broke out between different factions among the beings, whose main sin, the leader tells the humans, was that "they thought that they had become gods." In the last stages the leader Sargon-- who just happens to have the same name as an Akkadian king-- managed to preserve the energy-bodies of himself and others from both sides of the conflict, though the only ones who have survived the centuries are Sargon, his wife Thalassa (Greek for "sea"), and Henoch (= the Biblical Enoch, who "walked with God.")

Sargon has waited the centuries until he was able to contact a spacefaring race like that of the Federation, so that he could ask them to give them a new lease on life. Sargon explains all this after possessing Kirk's body, much to the consternation of McCoy, Spock, and Dr. Ann Mulhall. Sargon wants the humans to give the three of them permission to leave their crystal receptacles, and exist for a while in the bodies of Kirk, Spock, and Mulhall while the entities construct robot bodies for their new lives. After that, they promise to use their advanced knowledge to benefit the Federation.

After some debate, Kirk and the others allow themselves to be taken over-- but it seems no one bothered to vet Henoch, who winds up in the body of Spock, Henoch doesn't want to transfer to a robot body, and in devilish fashion-- enhanced by Spock's devilish looks-- he tempts Thalassa to rebel against Sargon's beneficent will and keep her human body as well. Since Thalassa and Henoch possess hyper-mental powers, the crew must find a way to outwit the aliens. Fortunately, while Sargon isn't that foresighted, he does help the humans overcome the threat he spawned. All three aliens give up the ghost, with Thalassa and Sargon departing somewhat after the fashion of Apollo.

Sargon's narrative is obviously meant to echo the Biblical "war in heaven," and I found myself wondering if the scripter(s) were aware of the symbolism of the sea in the Old Testament, where the ocean-waters are generally viewed as inimical to God's way. That said, the script doesn't get as much out of the mythic material as have other episodes, though the opening scenes have some of the high-flown resonance of FORBIDDEN PLANET. Nurse Chapel has a bigger role than usual, but it doesn't benefit her limited character by much; an end-joke, in which she muses on how she and Spock briefly merged in spirit-form, is virtually laugh-free.




One could've wished that "A Piece of the Action" had been the only time the series used the "one-culture template" schtick, because the others are all pretty blah. In "Patterns," Kirk and crew find out that a Federation observer, John Gill, had recreated the regime of Nazi Germany on the once-primitive world of Ekos. In addition, though Ekos' planetary neighbor Zeon was somewhat more advanced prior to Gill's advent, the Zeons pay a heavy price for having emigrated to Ekos, for they become the "New Jews," the scapegoats that Ekosians persecute to keep their state united. Kirk and Spock try to go undercover in order to find a way to corner Gill and find out why he did what he did. However, the duo have remarkably little success blending in, so that most of the episode revolves around assorted escapes and counter-strategies. In the end the heroes learn that Gill meant to do good, hoping to employ Nazi Germany's model of efficient organization to improve the Ekosians. Instead, Gill himself was used as a mouthpiece by a scheming subordinate, and though the movement is defeated, it's left to the imagination as to how the society is purged of its contamination.

"Patterns" doesn't manage to make much intellectual sense of its idea of reliving the horrors of fascism. There are a few scattered comments at the conclusion about how the Nazi regime was inherently corrupt by nature of its quest for "absolute power," but Spock pricks this overly pat moral by viewing the entirety of human history as a panoply of tyrants seeking the same sort of power. Many TREK episodes prior were able to make interesting comments on the nature of power, but this one ironically has no clue about the nature of the "patterns of force" in human culture.



Wednesday, January 4, 2017

STAR TREK: "GAMESTERS OF TRISKELION," "PIECE OF THE ACTION," "A PRIVATE LITTLE WAR" (1968)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *superior*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, sociological*

Usually I've tried to review the TREK episodes in order of their air-dates, but in this case I've lumped together three stories that did not run concurrently. By luck or chance, they form something of a triptych that illustrates the sociological myth that most characterizes the original Roddenberry TREK: the myth of an American-led union of "the best and the brightest" forging a new and greater civilization out of the chaos of both primitive societies and superannuated, decadent cultures.

As much as anyone who critiques TREK, I've resorted to David Gerrold's catch-phrase, "Johnson's Great Society," to describe Roddenberry's conception of the Federation and its Manifest Destiny. I do so purely because this was the sociological myth with which Roddenberry lives at the time he worked on TREK, but the myth-- defined here as any ordering principle of culture/society-- preceded both Johnson and Roddenberry. Hypothetically it extends back to America's sense of its destiny back in the 19th century. It's a chauvinistic myth, as are most if not all culture-myths, but it provoked an immense fund of creative energy among the writers who sold to Roddenberry-- far more, I would argue, than one ever sees in the more tolerant, rather spiritless stories produced for later iterations of the TREK franchise.

In terms of air-dates, these three episodes ran in the order I'm listing them, except that "Immunity Syndrome" ran between "Piece" and "War." However, they had a very different production order: where the order was "War," "Gamesters," and "Piece." Their re-arrangement for airing-purposes probably depended on many practical contingencies, but said arrangement also had some intriguing aesthetic results.

"Gamesters" hearkens back to the original myth of "The Cage," before it was incorporated into the two-part sequence of "The Menagerie." Christopher Pike's dilemma in "The Cage" is that he finds the allure of a sybartic life superior to the responsibilities of military duty:

...Pike begins his story by confessing to ship's doctor Boyce that he's considering resigning from the service. Pike seems to desire a life free from his onerous responsibilities. One moment he envisions returning to the bucolic country life of his youth, and the next he fantasizes about setting up shop in the Orion system. For some reason this confession prompts the doctor to mention the infamous "Orion slave girls," though Pike does not expressly claim that he dreams about dealing in slaves.

"Gamesters" is even more thoroughly drenched in the delirium of space-opera tropes than "The Cage." The episode is very much in tune in which the Trek-crew must reform some alien society in order to save not the natives but their own lives. Yet "Gamesters" doesn't even have the Federation encroach on some decadent society's territory, as was seen in "Miri," "Return of the Archons," or "The Apple." This time, a coterie of godlike aliens choose to pluck Kirk, Chekhov and Uhura away from their customary duties, leaving Spock and the rest of the crew behind to figure out who and what abducted their crewmates.

One never knows why the alien gods, "the Providers," chose this particular threesome. It seems like a bit of a whim, for the Providers of Triskelion have but one passion: abducting assorted aliens to serve in their gladiatorial games. According to Wikipedia an earlier script had the aliens select Uhura and Sulu, but given the structure of the script-- in which Kirk gets all the action and all the romance-- I tend to think that any companions would have been given equally short shrift. The effect is that I found myself wondering why the Providers had bothered with Chekhov and Uhura at all, since only Kirk has enough moxie to make a good gladiator.

The episode is as rich in weird alien visuals as "Journey to Babel," with the crowning glory being blond gladiatrix "Shana" (Angelique Pettyjohn). Shana scores as one of the few women in the Rodden-verse shown to be at least moderately skillful in dealing out violence. But she may have more relevance as yet another of Don James Kirk's romantic conquests. As in "Mirror, Mirror," Kirk must romance a hot babe For Crew and Quadrant, and again his seduction is intimately tied to the program of edifying a primitive woman who doesn't question her invisible masters as she ought to. The fact that Kirk manages to restructure her society for her eventual betterment, but leaves her down on her planet, can't help but carry a certain "Madame Butterfly" imperialist vibe. Still, space opera tropes are the main focus. Uhura, as the resident female from the "normal world." is nearly raped by one of the gladiators chosen to cohabit with her, and the script doesn't bother to show how she manages to fend the guy off. (Nichelle Nichols claimed that such a scene was filmed but dropped for time considerations.) Kirk wins independence for the motley crew of transplanted aliens by fighting three foes at once, which puts him right in the bailiwick of Flash Gordon. There's no doubt in this narrative that the way of the Federation is the way of the future.



"A Piece of the Action" puts a comic twist on such certainties. The Trek-crew learns that the once backward planet of Iotia suffered contamination from a visiting starship many generations ago, with the result that the highly imitative natives have modeled their entire culture on Chicago's gang-wars of the 1930s. I'm sure this episode helped the producers conserve on costumes, since they only had to raid costume departments for the appropriate garb. Additionally, the silly concept is played for laughs, as Kirk and his buddies fruitlessly try to convince the Iotians that they've chosen a bad model for their culture, and that the Federation has a better way. Despite all the jokes, James Komack's script may be rather more realistic than "Gamesters." "Piece" suggests that, in contrast to the ease with which Kirk converts Triskelion, it can be damn hard to change a given culture's collective mind about the right way to do things. In the end, Kirk is forced to talk to the Iotians in the only language they respect: brute force-- although the advanced technology of a starship allows Kirk to replace "gunboat diplomacy" with "stun-gun diplomacy." In a brilliant capper, Komack exposes the chink in the Federation (and American) myth: that any time you use advanced weapons to reform a society, the members of that society may turn the tables and demand their own "piece of the action."



"A Private Little War" has often misinterpreted as an anti-Vietnam screed. According to this Wiki article, the original author Don Ingalls had intended such a screed, but the script was heavily rewritten by Roddenberry, who was the only credited writer after Ingalls refused to have his name on it.

Kirk, Spock and McCoy descend to a world with the odd name of "Neural." Kirk has visited the planet before: on that occasion, he befriended a native named Tyree, who learned of Kirk's alien status but swore to keep Kirk's true nature secret if he ever visited again. Kirk tells his companions that all of the natives exist in a pre-technological tribal state.

The trio then observe one band of natives laying in ambush for another group, and the spacemen are astonished to see that the ambushers are armed with flintlock rifles, which ought to be beyond their current technology, Further, one of the prospective victims of the ambush is Kirk's friend Tyree. Spock warns Kirk not to use his phaser to stop the ambush and so violate the Prime Directive, but though Kirk agrees, he invokes a quasi-loophole and chucks a rock at one of the ambushers. The ambush is thwarted but the attackers then come after the threesome. Spock is shot before the three of them can beam up to the ship.

In sickbay Spock goes into a Vulcan healing trance. At the same time the Enterprise detects the presence of a Klingon ship in orbit. Kirk decides that he and McCoy, clothed as natives, must descend to Neural again in order to find out if the Klingons have provided the natives with weapons beyond their normal development-cycles.

Back on Neural, the duo are on their way to the domain of the Hill People, where Tyree lives, when they are attacked by an ape-like beast, the Mugato. The beast bites Kirk, poisoning him, and then runs away. McCoy manages to get the wounded captain to the Hill People, and Tyree takes both of them into his home. McCoy lacks any resources to heal Kirk's wound, but Tyree's wife Nona is a herbal healer. However, she's also an unscrupulous woman who suspects the otherworldly nature of Kirk and McCoy. She does heal Kirk with a special herb, but it's a quasi-sexual rite designed to bond Kirk to her (foreshadowing a similar devious feminine scheme in "Elaan of Troyas"). Nona opposes Tyree's pacifistic attitude toward the villagers, counseling him, without success, to acquire "fire-sticks" and conquer the enemy.

Kirk won't directly accede to Nona's wishes, but in the course of his investigation, he does learn that Klingon agents have supplied the guns to the villagers. Kirk even steals one of the flintlocks and tries to encourage the Hill People to imitate it in self-defense. McCoy is horrified by Kirk's advocacy of an "arms race," but Kirk maintains that once the Klingons have intervened, the Federation must keep pace:

Bones, do you remember the twentieth century brush wars on the Asian continent? Two giant powers involved, much like the Klingons and ourselves. Neither side felt that they could pull out?

And:

But what would you have suggested? That one side arm its friends with an overpowering weapon? Mankind would never have lived to travel space if they had. No, the only solution is what happened back then: balance of power.


This outlook is a tacit defense of the official U.S. position on its involvement in Vietnam. Roddenberry's script attempts to take the long view, to claim that all of these internecine sufferings are necessary to maintain the balance of power, though there is at the conclusion an attempt to invoke a collective guilt. Though Kirk's justification of the arms race is basically validated, this time his metaphorical identification with the Serpent who spoiled Eden is not nearly as sanguine as it is at the end of "The Apple."

I don't know if Ingalls' script included a character like Nona, but she seems to me part and parcel of Gene Roddenberry's view of women. She's a sensual, immoral animal who represents the worst aspects of primitive society. She's not a real witch, but her use of herbs has implicitly helped her sexually enslave Tyree to marry her, even if she can't control him in all things. Thus Nona carries more of the genuine witch's resonance than a phony sorceress like Sylvia from "Catspaw." (Interestingly, "Nona" also a more resonant name, since the most famous use of the name is the Roman name for the spinner of the cloth of fate.)

Nona is also apparently Roddenberry's version of Lady Macbeth. But in this story her "Macbeth" has no real desire for power, and so she seeks to seduce Kirk to serve as her pawn. This gives Kirk some minor romance-action, even though he forswears the temptress. On top of that even gentle Tyree, witnessing the seduction from a distance, almost breaks with his pacifism and shoots Nona dead. Instead, Nona brings about her own doom. Kirk, attacked by a Mugato, disintegrates it with his phaser. Nona clubs Kirk, steals the phaser and runs to the villagers, hoping that she can use the weapon to become a Big Cheese in another tribe. Her second betrayal works even worse than the first one; she comes across some villagers who recognize her as an enemy and want to ravage her. She can't work the phaser, either to impress the natives or to defend herself, and she dies at an ignominious death at their hands. However, her death galvanizes Tyree-- who still loves her, despite her drug-sorcery-- to make full war upon the villagers, so that Kirk can finally facilitate his "balance of power" program.

One wonders on what level Roddenberry thought that the conflict of warring tribes, be they in archaic Scotland or modern Vietnam, could be fairly laid at the door of a manipulative witch-woman. Even Shakespeare doesn't blame Macbeth's ambition entirely upon his wife. The only solution seems to be that Roddenberry sought to avoid laying the blame could be displaced from the avatars of progress to one representing primitive power-seeking-- which, in his world, was apparently best symbolized by a woman who didn't know her place.

On a humorous note, there's also a moment in the Spock-subplot when a physician tells Nurse Chapel that if Spock comes out of his trance, she should do whatever he demands. Wonder what she thought when she heard that...

STAR TREK" "THE IMMUNITY SYNDROME" (1968)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, sociological*


"Immunity Syndrome" is another well-made "white-knuckle" thriller, without many deeper resonances, aside from the fact that the "syndrome" of the title applies to humankind itself, as explained by Doctor McCoy:

Now, isn't that a thought? Here we are, antibodies of our own galaxy, attacking an invading germ. Be ironic indeed if that were our sole destiny, wouldn't it?

The cosmological theme of the story involves the Enterprise combating a gargantuan amoeba-like organism that has annihilated billions of lives in a nearby star-system and which is drawing the ship toward it like Charybdis trying to engulf the ship of Odysseus. Refreshingly, Robert Sabaroff's script doesn't try to make the danger relatable to audiences by stressing what will happen when the organism reaches Earth: it's implied that the giant cell is a danger to the entire universe, not just the HQ of the Federation. Indeed, within the scope of the episode the creature's first victims are Vulcans.

The episode makes an interesting contrast to "Obsession." In that episode, Kirk wants to destroy the gas-creature because it killed someone important to him and made Kirk feel impotent to strike back. Spock doesn't know any of the Vulcans killed, though in a near-mystical sense he empathizes with them far more than with the humans he lives with. Philosophically Mister Spock abjures revenge for its own sake. However, he argues with fierce logic, as the Enterprise is being drawn into the creature's midst, that he alone must be the one to pilot a shuttlecraft ahead of the main ship, plunging past the cell's membrane to gather intelligence on its nature so that they can destroy it. It's a little vague as to how much Spock's intelligence contributes, for the solution simply pops into Kirk's head at one point: to destroy the monster with anti-matter taken from the ship;s engines (another idea possibly cadged from "Obsession.")

Since the giant cell in itself doesn't generate any interpersonal conflict, the Sabaroff script picks up on the quarrelsome relationship of Spock and McCoy and ratchets it up into intellectual competitiveness: McCoy, never a big research-guy, suddenly wants to pilot the shuttle so that he can get up close and study the big cell even as they're trying to find a way to destroy it. Happily future episodes ignored McCoy's uncharacteristic portrait, and despite its problematic nature actors Nimoy and Kelley sell the dramatics for *more* than they're worth-- particularly with the telling line, "Tell Doctor McCoy-- he should have wished me luck."

An interesting side-note that at one point in Sabaroff's script, the creature's malign tendency to suck the energy out of organisms is termed "anti-life" by one of the characters. A few years later, comics-artist Jack Kirby used the same term in his "New Gods" saga, applying it to a somewhat different, though still inimical, quasi-mystical power, a "One Ring" being sought by the evildoers of the narrative.

STAR TREK: "THE TROUBLE WITH TRIBBLES" (1967)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, sociological*

"Trouble with Tribbles" remains, even after repeated viewings, an immensely likable episode. Though TREK was normally a dramatic show with strong adventure elements, the actors and producers had expanded upon the characters to a degree that it did not seem incongruous for them to show a dominantly comic side.

As almost everyone knows, the comedy in "Trouble with Tribbles" stems from the efficient star-sailors of the Enterprise being forced to tolerate an inundation of cute little creatures who never seem to stop propagating. They're so cute that they don't even have tribble-on-tribble sex, and though they have no limbs and are never seen moving around, they possess a Tinkerbell-like ability to show up wherever they're not wanted. I suspect that if by some miracle the budget had allowed any of the fuzzy things to be seen in motion, the tribbles might have lost some of their endearing qualities. Imagine how unappetizing it would have been for the audience, watching Kirk gaze at a tribble squirming about in his commissary food, or even to see a bunch of them squirming in Uhura's arms. The mere fact that they're so apparently helpless obliges the kind-hearted Enterprise-crew to handle them with kid gloves.

To be sure, there are flaws amid the fun. Why doesn't Cyrano Jones tell his customers, not to mention the vendor at the space station, not to feed the tribbles? If he's in the business of selling them, he ought to want to keep the critters from turning out more versions of themselves, given that this vitiates his market. Various dialogue exchanges establish that he's sold them before, but no one, not even the vendor, seems aware of the troubles associated with the tribbles' reproductive proclivities. Spock's metaphor of the genie released from the bottle is apt for the way the parthenogenetic puffballs are generally treated in the script: as if it's the first time any Federation personnel have been exposed to these particular beasties. Further, if Jones knows, as the dialogue suggests, what's going to happen, why doesn't he leave the space-station tout suite? Why hang around and wait for the weight of Starfleet to kick his ass? Given that this is exactly what happens to him because he sticks around-- why does he?

The whimsical conception of the tribbles is, happily, set against a more serious affair: another Klingon-Federation quarrel over territory, a world dubbed "Sherman's Planet." The terms of the Organian treaty force both parties to compete, in order to prove who can best develop the environment for its never-seen natives. It's broadly implied that the Klingons have no chance in this competition, for Sherman's Planet needs agratian development, and the Klingons are not exactly farmer-folk. It will turn out that the only way these spacefaring Mongols can win is to cheat, blackening the Federation's name by poisoning the grain they bring to the natives. The tribbles accidentally expose the plot by eating said grain, which made me wonder if the creatures were not symbolic stand-ins for the unseen Sherman-natives, since the tribbles suffer the fate that would have befallen those natives. Thanks to the tribbles' voracity, the Federation avoids political embarrassment and serves that same embarrassment up on a platter for their old enemies.

Another minor pleasure is seeing the age-old conflict between field-officers and desk-jockey types. I praised "The Deadly Years" for not painting Kirk's opponent Stocker as a "simplistic martinet." But the comedy in "Tribbles" profits from just such a self-important official, and it's an enduring joy to see Kirk bait and flout the authority of Under-Secretary Barrows. Spock and McCoy, of course, produce a few of their best funny interactions over the question of the tribbles' "usefulness."

Only in my most recent re-viewing did I notice one of the biggest gaffes in any TREK episode. Long after the Enterprise had been overrun with the fuzzy pests, long after Kirk knows full well how easily they insert themselves into air-ducts and vending machines, he demands of his listeners, "I want to know who put the tribbles in the quadrotriticale"-- when he should be more than aware that they put themselves there. (Even if the Enterprise hadn't been part of the equation, the impending fate of the space-station alone should have motivated Cyrano to head for deep space-- meaning that the only reason he really sticks around is to serve the script's convenience.)

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

STAR TREK: "WOLF IN THE FOLD" (1967)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, psychological*

Though TREK was fairly even-handed about portraying both males and females as possible sources of evil, the show followed conventional tendencies to represent female evil in the form of *froda,* "persuasion," and male evil in the form of *forza,* "force." I tend to think that scripters of the period were aware on some level that Gene Roddenberry proved susceptible to pitches about stories with strong men who might have the shadow of rape in their hearts, which was perhaps thought of as covalent with male nature. The act wasn't sanctioned as such, but in Roddenberry's world females are often seen dwelling on the fantasy of rape or rape-like submisson a bit excessively, as evinced in "Shore Leave," "Space Seed," and, most significantly, "The Enemy Within," which depicts the series' central hero as capable of getting down and dirty without his yeoman's free consent.

'Wolf in the Fold," though, is not called forth by any woman's fantasy, though the knife-wielding opponent of the story acts a bit like the rough-trade "Don Juan" summoned up by Yeoman Barrows in "Shore Leave." Only male crewmen, including McCoy, Kirk, and Scott, are seen in the opening scene, which takes place on Argelius II, a planet devoted to hedonism. Whether or not there are places on this planet where men gratify the fantasies of women is not attested: all we see is a belly-dancer displaying her wares for the male audience. As a pluralist critic I don't condemn such sexually-oriented fantasies out of hand, but there's not much question that this is indeed a male-oriented fantasy, in which women are put in peril by a male entity and rescued by men.

Scott walks out of the establishment with the belly-dancer, and moments later, he's found with her dead, knifed body, and with no memory of what transpired. Despite being a peaceful civilization, the prefect of Argelius seeks justice, invoking the help of Hengist, a non-Argelian imported to the planet as an administrator (it's baldly stated that the Argelians, being hedonists, are not very organized and need outsiders to administer their business affairs). Hengist insists that Mister Scott is the only suspect and thus must be guilty of the murder, while the prefect invokes ancient Argelian law to divine the guilty party. However, under mysterious circumstances Scott apparently murders two more women, both the prefect's wife and a yeoman from the Enterprise.

Finally, Kirk-- who never for a moment doubts that his engineer is blameless of the weird crimes-- persuades Hengist and the prefect to go aboard the Enterprise and investigate Scott's reactions with the use of the ship's computer. The Enterprise computer, a distant ancestor of the Internet, eventually provides the crewmen with enough information that they realize that there's an inhuman creature that has not just committed these murders, but which has been killing females on various planets since its earliest days on Earth-- when it was the mad killer Jack the Ripper.

Kirk and Co. also realize that the creature can inhabit the bodies of human beings, and that like a medieval demon it's somehow lodged in the body of Hengist. The creature flees the administrator's body, possesses other bodies, threatens other women, and eventually possessed the Enterprise itself, until Spock exorcises it with a scientific stratagem. The crewmen also minimize the creature's attempts to generate fear in them-- such emotions provide it with food, they belatedly deduce-- by dosing themselves with "happy juice." But they aren't too jovial to take care of the Ripper-monster when it jumps back into Hengist. The heroes disperse Hengist's atoms with the transporter, and then everything's back to normal, even though three women have been brutally murdered.

Robert Bloch's script is so full of arresting incidents that one doesn't immediately catch many of its flaws. Why was it necessary for Bloch to claim that the creature had pursued a linear path through space leading from Earth to Argelius, given that this idea was a silly one back when it appeared in "Operation Annihilate?" Why is there no thought given to the possibility that Hengist-- who is presumably another possessed mortal-- may need rescuing, rather than simply killing him and the entity within him via transporter-execution? (Maybe it's unconscious tit-for-tat, since he was so mean about condemning the innocent Scotty.) And why, without any debate on the creature's nature or powers, are the heroes instantly sure that the creature will be dispersed just because the atoms of its host are? When I first viewed the episode, I assumed that Hengist was the corporeal form of the creature, but since the creature leaves the body behind while jumping around to other entities, this doesn't seem to track. Perhaps such was Bloch's intention, but he was too busy with the script's horror-tropes-- among which is the idea that women are more easily terrified than men. It's an entertaining episode overall, but "Wolf" lacks the intricate construction of the better TREK scripts.

STAR TREK: "OBSESSION" (1967)



PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: *fair*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *drama*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *cosmological, psychological*

This is another well-paced "thriller" episode. It's only the Enterprise's second encounter, following "The Man Trap," with a monster whose intelligence is only implicit, and it features a much better "obsessed officer" performance by William Shatner than was seen in "Conscience of the King." Perhaps the model of Captain Ahab simply fit Kirk better than that of Hamlet.

A landing-party descends to an uncharted planet in search of resources. Some of the members are attacked by a gaseous cloud that drains them of their blood and kills all but one, who later perishes in sickbay. Kirk is more than a little consumed with finding this mysterious predator, puzzling his subordinates Spock and McCoy. Eventually they learn that eleven years ago a similar-- or perhaps identical-- creature attacked a Federation ship, the Farragut, slaying 200 crewmen and the ship's captain. One of the survivors was Ensign Kirk, who had idolized Captain Garrovick. By sheer chance, the son of the slain captain, Ensign David Garrovick, happens to be on the ship, and Kirk meets him for the first time during his hunt for the monster. Kirk is sure that it's not only the same creature, but that it's intelligent, and he hounds his men to find the elusive beast. On top of all that, in order to call Kirk's judgment into question, there's a ticking clock in the form of perishable medical supplies aboard ship, very reminiscent of the conflict in "The Galileo Seven."

The troila of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are the main stars here, and the guest-star character of the ensign gets short shrift, possibly because his desire to avenge his dead father duplicates Kirk's similar vengeance-quest. Upon Garrovick's first planetary encounter with the creature, he freezes and fails to fire his phaser at it, unintentionally duplicating Ensign Kirk's failure to fire upon the gas-monster eleven years ago. Rather than being sympathetic to the young man's self-torment, Kirk rather problematically adds fuel to the guilt-fire. In the Enterprise's climactic battle with the beast, Kirk learns that it's invulnerable to phaser-fire, thus exonerating both Garrovick and Kirk from responsibility for the creature's killings. The sole debit of Art Wallace's skillful script is that it doesn't really question the military mind's tendency to penalize soldiers for a momentary failure of nerve-- though at least Spock puts things in perspective, attributing such hesitations to biological factors rather than to flaws in one's character.