Friday, May 31, 2019


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

"Turnabout Intruder," Roddenberry's last contribution to the series, was probably inspired in part by Thorne Smith's 1931 novel TURNABOUT, in which a man and woman switch bodies. Given that this episode was the final one of the original series, it provides a rather poor "final act" for the show, much the way "Operation Annihilate"proved a bad closing moment for the first season. Still, though "Intruder" is certainly not a good episode, the commendable absurdity of its premise makes it more noteworthy than merely mediocre episodes like "Spectre of the Gun" and "Whom Gods Destroy." And in this case the absurdity has less to do with any far-fetched SF-premise than the psychological quirk of the story's villain: Janice Lester, who seems the very embodiment of Freudian "penis envy."

The Enterprise responds to a distress call from Camus II, whose long-dead alien culture is being investigated by Federation archaeologists. An apparent outbreak of radiation sickness has killed almost the entire expedition, except for two: the expedition's doctor Coleman, and Janice Lester, who seems to be suffering from the disease. Kirk, who is among the landing-party, is visibly affected by her pain, for long ago he and Lester had a very combative romantic relationship. Indeed, they broke up, according to Kirk, because she coveted the position of a starship captain, and "punished" Kirk for the sexism of Starfleet.

However, once Lester is alone in the room with Kirk, she reveals that she was shamming, and activates a device left behind by the dead aliens. Kirk is caught upon the device, which then transfers his soul into Lester's body and hers into the body of the captain. Once Lester is in Kirk's body, she exults that "it's better to be dead than to live alone in the body of a woman," and she comes close to making Kirk-Lester dead by strangulation. However, the other members of the landing party return, so that Lester-Kirk is forced to take Kirk-Lester aboard the ship, ostensibly to give "her"  better medical treatment elsewhere. However, because Lester-Kirk is actually planning to kill Kirk-Lester via neglect or happenstance, "she" and her co-conspirator Coleman give orders to take the ailing doctor to a colony with poor medical facilities. McCoy gets his back up, particularly after Lester-Kirk gives Coleman medical authority over the patient, despite Coleman's history of incompetence. This decision breeds mutiny as the regular members of the crew-- McCoy, Spock, Scott, Sulu and Chekhov-- become aware that their captain is no longer acting rationally.

Just as "evil Kirk" and his savage companions could not act like civilized people in "Mirror, Mirror," a woman just can't "be more like a man," and the more Lester-Kirk feels her authority thwarted, the more she expresses her anxiety in a form McCoy calls "hysteria." (The expression is not chosen lightly, given that the term "hysteria" was coined in response to the archaic Greek idea that women were subject to emotional upsets because of their "wandering wombs.") Furthermore, though none of the crewmen initially know how Kirk's malady has come about, they present a united male front against the intrusion of a woman into their sacrosanct grounds. And that defiance causes Lester-Kirk to lose control of her body-switch, so that things go back to normal, in what may be the series' weakest climaxes (no pun intended).

William Shatner and Sandra Smith, tasked with playing one another's characters and genders, perform tolerably enough, though I certainly disagree with critics who claim the story has anything to do with the current passion for "gender fluidity."  Gene Roddenberry seems to have been something of a masculinist, and it may be that he covertly agreed that women should not be starship captains. though he never has any male character endorse Starfleet's sexism. It should be noted that a few episodes depict women in relative positions of competence, if not high authority, such as the lady lawyer in "Court Martial" or the "Federation Commissioner" of "Metamorphosis," and feminine leaders appear throughout other episodes, albeit in other cultures. Overall, though Roddenberry certainly had his own viewpoint on the relative natures of the two sexes, it seems unlikely that "Intruder" is a direct attack on contemporary feminism, though it could well be the writer's "roman a clef" assault on some former paramour.

It should be noted that Doctor Coleman mirrors, through his failings in medical ability, Lester's failings. During her usurpation of Kirk's body, she shows no sign that she actually possesses the ability to perform her office, despite her conviction that she can do so sans any of the requisite training. Though she does encounter real sexism, she allows this opposition to poison both her early relationship with Kirk and her whole concept of the "indignity" of being female. Certainly Lester is no feminist icon. She wants what she wants for herself alone, and, had she succeeded, it's hard to imagine her doing anything to lift up the position of women in Starfleet.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

In response to a sun very close to going nova, the Usual Gang of Three beam down to the planet Sarpeidon (named, for no reason I can see, after a Greek king best known for his imposture of the god Zeus). Federation records show that the planet should have a booming population, but scanners can only locate one life-form on the planet, in its library. Kirk, Spock and McCoy meet an old man, Mister Atoz (as in "A-to-Z"), who mistakes them for natives. Impervious to the crewmen's questions, Atoz insists that because the sun is going nova, they must quickly make use of a library-device called "the atavachron."

"Yesterdays" is a clever time-travel concept, positing that the entire population of a doomed planet chooses to go back to their earlier historical time-frames, so that they can live out normal lives rather than being killed outright. In addition, the story coheres with a trope occasionally seen in other TREK episodes: the fear of atavism, that the inhabitants of a contemporary society may regress to the customs or attitudes of an earlier era.

Kirk is responsible for mucking things up this time: he hears a woman scream just past a door in the atavachron, and he blunders through it. Transported to a Renaissance-like time-frame, he saves a woman who happens to be a petty thief, but by so doing gets locked up, accused of being a devil-worshiping witch. Spock and McCoy are just as reckless, following the captain but ending up in another world, dominated by unceasing snow and ice.

Kirk does get some aid when he fortuitously encounters one of the modern-day Sarpeidonians, now masquerading as a man of an earlier time. Spock and McCoy are succored by a lone woman, Zarabeth, who was exiled to the ice-time by political opponents, and who exists in lonely exile. Though she helps Spock save McCoy from frostbite, she soon covets the Vulcan romantically. For his part, Spock begins to regress in a physical sense-- unlike Kirk and McCoy-- as he begins to respond the way a savage Vulcan would have in the same time-frame. Though the science doesn't make much sense, the scenes of Spock's near-seduction by Zarabeth speak both to the fear of cultural regression and the threat of the feminine.

Naturally, Kirk's progress back to the real world doesn't have nearly as much dramatic heft as the return of Spock and McCoy, to say nothing of the tragedy of Zarabeth, Spock's final love in the original series-- who is, from the perspective of his own time, "long dead," though obviously alive in his Vulcan heart.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

Though Gene Roddenberry was no longer the showrunner for the series' third season, he made his presence felt through his scripts, particularly this one and the last broadcast episode "Turnabout Intruder." "Savage Curtain" has much of the feel of a second-season episode, in which the "stars" of the Enterprise, Kirk and Spock, must defend the goodness of their civilization against the spectres of evil from both inside and outside that civilization. (I have no idea what the title references, though it's been stated that Roddenberry was loosely satirizing serial TV's propensity for simple good/evil battles, and so the "curtain" of the title may be related to the custom of using a curtain to conceal the workings of actors on a stage.)

For once the Enterprise isn't looking for some medical cure; they're just making a scientific examination of a volcanic planet, Excalbia. (If that's a reference of Arthur's sword Excalibur, it seems a singularly muddled one.) The inhabitants of the planet somehow scan the ship without influencing any of the ship's sensors, and then begin an experiment to test the Federation visitors. In addition to clearing an area on the planet so that it will permit human existence, the aliens send Abraham Lincoln, or a facsimile thereof, to visit the ship. Since Lincoln is a great hero in the mind of Kirk, the captain consents to respond to an invitation to visit the planet's surface, along with Spock and the Lincoln-copy (who apparently believes that he is the real thing). On the planet Spock then meets one of his heroes, the Vulcan philosopher Surak, whose moral reforms overthrew the savage histories of the Vulcan people. Surak also believes that he is the real deal, but moments later one of the Excalbians appears-- a volcanic rock-monster-- who admits outright that the copies are Excalbians who have taken the form of long-dead heroes in order to participate in the "spectacle" of a good vs. evil battle.

Four more Excalbians appear: one a real-life Asian, Genghis Khan, and the other a metaphorical one, Kahless, the culture hero of the nasty Klingons. Filling out the quartet is Colonel Green, a mendacious Hitler-type who may have been related to the series' "eugenics wars," and Zoia, a criminal scientist who may be another of Roddenberry's "Lady Macbeth" figures. Though none of these famous villains are real, they like Lincoln and Surak act as if they were the real thing, and soon the battle of good and evil is drawn. After various contests which show the heroes at their best and the villains at their worst, Lincoln, Surak and Green are slain and the other evildoers flee. The rock-man re-appears and asks for more definition of the distinctions of good and evil. He accepts Kirk's explanation of basic altruism, and the Enterprise is allowed to go its merry way.

Though I'm sure modern viewers would be impatient with Roddenberry's occasional tendency to demonize Asians, it should be remembered that he was surely not advocating racism as such, but taking the then-common view of Asian culture as overly static and thus opposed to the advancement of representative democracy. If the episode was really meant to satirize the simplicity of TV programming, it's spectacularly unsuccessful.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

After due consideration, I've decided that "The Cloud Minders" deserves the honor of "Worst Classic Trek Episode." It's a preachy tale about the conflict of "the haves" and "the have nots," possibly loosely derived from Lang's METROPOLIS, and it treats both Kirk and Spock more moronically than any comparable episodes, such as "Whom Gods Destroy."

For the second and last time in this series, I'll reference remarks of David Gerrold from his book THE WORLD OF STAR TREK. At one point, he comments on the major changes in the story he co-wrote with Oliver Crawford once a third writer, Margaret Armen, produced the final filmed script.

in the telecast version, the whole problem was caused by Zenite gas in the mines, and "if we can just get them troglytes to all wear gas masks, then they'll be happy little darkies and they'll pick all the cotton we need..."
Somehow, I think it lost something in the translation.

The "cloud minders" of the title-- who are also the "haves" of the story-- are implicitly the inhabitants of the aerial city Stratos on the planet Ardana. The planet is rich in a mineral called "zenite" which happens to be of great use for one of the Enterprise's many medical missions. (It may not be coincidence that the name of the mineral resembles the Greek word for "stranger," best known for its contribution to the familiar word "xenophilia.") Kirk and Spock beam down to Ardana to pick up a consignment of xenite, but they don't seem to have any advance intelligence on the planet's political situation. Not only are both crewmen surprised to find out that the surface of the planet is dominated by a subset of Ardanans called "Troglytes," they're also astonished when a dissident group attacks them after hijacking the needed minerals. There doesn't seem to be any real reason for the dissidents to attack soldiers of the Federation, aside to provide a big fight at the episode's opening. Later, the group's female leader Vanna attacks Kirk in his Stratos bedchamber, apparently wishing to kill rather than capture him, for reasons that make no more sense than the earlier assault.

In any case, after Kirk and Spock quell the dissident force, Plasus, leader of Stratos, shows up with his guards and takes Vanna into custody. The newcomers are promised that their zenite will eventually be located, and in the meantime they get a tour of Stratos, a repository of high art and philosophical meditation. Spock is particularly charmed by Droxine, the lovely daughter of Plasus, and though their flirtation is relatively restrained, Spock's willingness to discuss his people's mating-urges flies in the face of his established character. Soon both heroes learn that the Troglytes are kept under the thumb of Plasus's corrupt authority, and so Kirk determines that the best way to assure the Federation's supply of zenite is to overthrow that authority by forcing the "haves" to dicker with the "have nots."

Kirk's methods of so doing are a good deal more high-handed than most of his other empire-building activities, but he's under the influence of an invisible gas from the zenite minerals. As noted in the quote above, this was not one of Gerrold's ideas, and it's admittedly not a particularly good one. However, I dispute Gerrold's conclusion. I believe the zenite is a stand-in for all of the environmental factors that plagued marginalized people in the real world, since it's made clear that once Vanna has been removed from the surface with its debilitating effects, her intellect is the equal of any Stratos citizen. It may be that Armen wanted some such contrivance to explain how the societal bifurcation came about, given that most of the Troglytes and the Stratos-citizens are Caucasians (aside from one Stratos guard, who just happens to be played by Fred Williamson, later famous for a series of B-action films).

But even without my agreeing with Gerrold's "happy darkies" interpretation, "Cloud Minders" is dismally preachy, with tedious action-sequences (particularly Kirk fighting a robed, middle-aged man at the climax) and all those ghastly, grating flirtation-scenes between Spock and Droxine, which don't even serve any real purpose in the plot.

Thursday, May 30, 2019


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*

"The Way to Eden" gets as much of an unjustified bad reputation as does "Spock's Brain," and for comparable reasons: the phrase "space hippies" ineluctably carries the same intimations of absurdity found in "brain thieves from an Amazon planet."

I've always sympathized with "Eden," however, in that its writers made an attempt, however muddled, to confront the sociological issues suggested by the hippie movement in the sixties. Most of STAR TREK's contemporaries, such as IRONSIDE and even THE MOD SQUAD, showed not a scintilla of insight about what the movement might signify in a larger sense. TREK's sci-fi universe allowed its writers to take a more "cosmic" perspective.

"Eden" is another of the "Enterprise gets hijacked" episodes, the hijack-ees being a band of futuristic youngsters who don't dig the rigidity of Federation life. Their one concession to the over-thirty crowd is their leader Doctor Sevrin, a scientist loosely patterned after the real-life guru Timothy Leary. However, Sevrin doesn't want his acolytes to "turn on" or "tune in" to LSD, but rather to "drop out" of Federation culture entirely, by finding a mythical planet called "Eden." There's no attempt to strictly correlate this planet with the sacred garden of the Bible, though it's no coincidence that one of the more prominent hippies is named 'Adam." However, Kirk, having picked up the juvenile delinquents following their theft of a space cruiser, has no interest in their quest. Spock, the eternal outsider, proves somewhat more sympathetic to the ideals of these disaffected youths, and gives them a certain amount of aid and comfort. It's a testament to both the script and Nimoy's acting that this investment doesn't seem to conflict with Spock's vaunted preference for logic over emotion.

Aside from Sevrin-- whom Spock discerns to be insane-- and Adam, the only other prominent member of the hippie-troupe is Irina, a former girlfriend of Ensign Chekhov. In the first version of the script, her character was going to be the estranged daughter of Doctor McCoy. In THE WORLD OF STAR TREK David Gerrold laments the change, but I consider it a horribly derivative concept, the sort of thing MOD SQUAD did to death. I seem to remember that Walter Koenig also expressed dissatisfaction with the change, possibly because it made his character the rule-bound "heavy" who was trying to bring the cheery hippie chick down. However, given Chekhov's status as a Starfleet officer, one might expect him to be less than liberal toward anyone professing anti-Federation sentiments. Indeed, Koenig's tense romantic scenes with actress Mary-Lynn Raypele provide Koening with his best scenes in the series.

Though the space hippies temporarily lull the "straights'" suspicions with music and good cheer, Sevrin eventually launches his plan to take over the ship, fly to the world of Eden (whose location Spock provided), and kill the entire crew in order to cover their tracks. The freaks (all of whom are not aware of Sevrin's fatal plot) descend to Eden. Though none of the Enterprise crew would seem to have any defense against Sevrin's death-device, Kirk manages to destroy the machine just by dint of his being the main hero. When Kirk, Spock and Chekhov give pursuit, the hippies have suffered a rude awakening: their attempt to "go back to nature" shows them that nature is literally "red in tooth and claw." Sevrin and Adam perish for their presumptousness, but contrary to David Gerrold, the message doesn't get dumbed down to "there ain't no free rides." Indeed, in the final scene Spock provides an encomium on the ideals of the hippies as he says farewell to Irina:

Miss Galliulin. It is my sincere wish that you do not give up your search for Eden. I have no doubt but that you will find it, or make it yourselves.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*

Jerome Bixby's script "Requiem for Methuselah" is a strikingly ingenious twist on both its immediate influence, the 1956 film FORBIDDEN PLANET and its influence, Shakespeare's play THE TEMPEST.

In the play, the magician Prospero has been exiled to a lonely isle, in the company of a savage named Caliban, the spirit Ariel, and his daughter Miranda, who grows to womanhood on the island. As Miranda reaches the crux of maturation, Prospero perceives a ship nearing the isle and uses his magic to strand several passengers on the isle. This action results in the romance of a young man, Ferdinand, with Miranda, and this seems to be Prospero's main project, prompted, perhaps, by an incident wherein Miranda was sexually menaced by Caliban. Thus one interpretation is that the magician wants his daughter to have a strong male protector, though at least one academic critic argued that Prospero really wants to protect Miranda from his own buried lusts-- and around this roughly Freudian idea the film FORBIDDEN PLANET was based.

"Requiem" starts with another medical emergency, though this time it's the actual crew of the Enterprise who have been infected by "Rigellian fever." Kirk, Spock and McCoy (none of whom have the disease, apparently) beam down to an obscure planet known to have deposits of a curative mineral, ryetalin. The trio are surprised to meet a solitary individual named Flint, who claims to own the planet and has a floating robot (the story's "Ariel") to enforce his wishes. Though initially inhospitable, Flint relents when he identifies with the horror of plague, and even offers to use his resources to collect and refine the needed mineral.

Flint is not quite alone on his world, for a young woman, Rayna Kopec. lives with him as his ward. He does not intend her to encounter the crewmen at all, but she pleads to meet the outsiders, who are the first men she's ever seen aside from Flint. For reasons of his own, Flint allows her to interact with the trio. While Spock is more fascinated with the mystery of Flint's art collection, which has a number of uncatalogued ancient masterpieces, Kirk becomes enthralled by Rayna.

SPOILERS, obviously...

Bixby's ingenious twist puts his "Prospero" in the situation of a hunter using a stalking-horse for an ulterior motive. Rayna is not a human being, but an ageless android, whom Flint, also an immortal, has designed to be his companion for eternity. His problem, intimated in Rayna's first scene, is that the android is largely passive and without emotion, except when intrigued by the newcomers. Whereas it seems that Prospero really intends to bind together Ferdinand and Miranda, Flint hopes that Rayna will become emotionally "charged" by falling in love with Kirk, after which he Flint will simply "take over."

In FORBIDDEN PLANET, though Morbius never evinces visible lust for his own daughter, he's patently jealous when he loses his offspring's regard to a youthful paramour. This causes Morbius to unleash a figurative "demon," loosely modeled upon TEMPEST's Caliban. Flint is more of a planner like Prospero, though his game is much longer. That said, some of his moves are short-sighted, in particular by failing to reveal to Rayna her own artificial nature. The end-scene, in which Flint tells Kirk and Co "the facts of unlife," accidentally bestows this knowledge on Rayna, who apparently overhears the entire exchange (though the direction does not emphasize this fact). Kirk and Flint both make impassioned demands upon Rayna's burgeoning feelings. and then fight over her, bringing about a tragic conclusion.  (This outcome also has the bonus effect of leaving Kirk free and clear, though in point of fact Kirk's romance with Rayna is his last one for the Classic series.)

Freudian psychologizing aside, "Requiem" is the equal of any other season's meditations on the significance of human emotions and passions, which, as the episode ends, even allows for a sort of expression of "love" in Vulcan terms.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*

These two TREK episodes are very woman-centric, leading me to wonder if this was a conscious change of course on the part of the third season's showrunner Fred Frieberger. That said, neither of the female characters featured here are any sort of match for either Miranda Jones or Elaan of Troyius.

"That Which Survives" is basically another "white-knuckle" thriller, in which the peril is entirely external in nature. Kirk, McCoy, Sulu and a disposable redshirt beam down to an uncharted planet to explore it. They unknowingly trigger a programmed defense-routine, which begins with a strange woman (Lee Meriwether) appearing aboard the Enterprise, killing the transport-officer just as the quartet beams down. This peculiar action is followed by a more extreme defensive action, as a mysterious force from the planet propels the ship millions of light-years away.

Spock, commanding the Enterprise, attempts to return to their origin-point, but the strange woman, whose name is eventually revealed as Losira, appears once more aboard ship and sabotages the antimatter drive, so that the ship is in danger of blowing up. Yet Losira also appears on the planet with the four castaways, and kills the redshirt (whom she calls by name) with a touch and the enigmatic phrase, "I am for you."

Losira disappears, appears again and almost kills Sulu, at which point Kirk and McCoy discover that she can only kill the person she's programmed to kill. Thus the narrative follows two parallel courses: Spock and the dour Mister Scott laboring to undo the ship's damage, and the three castaways seeking to avoid death long enough to uncover the planet's secret. Turns out that "Losira" is a simulacrum of a woman long dead from plague, who set up the defense system to protect the world, until her people returned to it. The two plots come together when Spock comes to the rescue and foils the computer-system.

Since all of the copies of Losira are artificial, there's not a lot of dramatic potential in them, though she does serve as a conduit for the tragedy of her people's demise. That said, there's not much logic in the computer making the simulacrum attack individual people on the ship, or sabotage the ship either. If the computer has power enough to fling a starship away, why wouldn't it just destroy the Enterprise outright? (I know, because that would've ended the history.) The scenes on the planet, though, redeem the episode, and the actors do a good job coping with the mystery.

"The Lights of Zetar" refers to a coterie of energy-aliens who pursue and continually attack the Enterprise, though the script never clarifies the aliens' reason for so doing. But the story is far more interested in its "A" story, that of Engineer Scott falling in love with a new officer on the ship, Lieutenant Mira Romaine (Jan Shutan). Indeed, a voiceover by Captain Kirk meditates on the profound consequences of the engineer shifting his devotion to the Enterprise to a human-type woman. However, the only real consequence is that when the Zetar-Lights target Romaine for what seems like a sci-fi version of an old-fashioned demonic possession.

Romaine, unfortunately, is such a terribly underwritten character that it's impossible to tell if the actress could've done better with a good character. The first thing the audience learns about her, thanks to an exchange between Chekhov and Sulu, is that she's supposed to be "the brainy type," but sexy enough that Mister Scott probably "hasn't noticed that she has a brain." However, Romaine never says or does anything particularly brainy, and the most she can do, once the Zetar-Lights target her, is to act peevish. Scott, for his part, has only one response: frenetic protectiveness toward Romaine, though nothing he does or says materially advances the plot. (There is one moment when the possessed Romaine zaps him and he survives, which he interprets as the real lieutenant holding back.)

After a lot of dancing around, Kirk and Co somehow deduce that they can kill off the energy-aliens by subjecting their possessee to a pressure chamber-- which sounds quite a bit like exorcist-practices for driving out demons. The Lights die out, Scotty's happy, and Romaine recovers but is never seen again.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*

The back-to-back airing of "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" and "Mark of Gideon" was propitious, for they are both somewhat preachy, overly rhetorical episodes, despite the strength of the actors' performances.

The Enterprise is on its way to perform one of its seemingly endless health-related missions when they encounter a fugitive shuttlecraft stolen from a Federation base. The craft disintegrates, but the transporter rescues its sole occupant: a half-black, half-white humanoid from an unaligned planet named Cheron. This alien's name, "Lokai," may be a reference to the Nordic trickster-god and thus to the alien's trickster-nature. Lokai introduces himself as a political refugee of his planet's tyrannical rulers. Kirk and Co aren't so much interested in his troubles as in completing their mission, after which Lokai will be remanded to the Federation for criminal charges.

A second half-black, half-white alien named Commissioner Bele comes aboard the Enterprise. He claims to be a law officer of Cheron, and he demands that the crew turn Lokai over to his authority, claiming that Lokai has a long history of dissidence and hate-mongering. Kirk gives Bele the same reply he gave Lokai: first comes the mission, then arguments to Starfleet re: extradition. Bele then uses his super-mental powers to take over the function of the ship, in order to compel it to go to Cheron. Since Kirk finds that he cannot overcome Bele's mental powers (or those of Lokai for that matter), he triggers a self-destruct sequence that he alone can suspend. Bele gives in and returns control of the ship to Kirk.

However, both Cheronians are merely laying low, and while the Enterprise is performing its health-errand, both Bele and Lokai attempt to instill their political postures with the mildly curious crew of the ship. During this period, Bele and Lokai have their most persuasive scene, as Lokai argues that his people were kept as slaves for centuries, while Bele responds that they received their freedom long ago but never did anything with it. The one-on-one correspondence to American black/white relations is preachy in the extreme, and yet, it still carries a certain punch despite its transparency. It certainly works better than the psuedo-Swiftian touch that the two men hate each other's species because they are respectively black-and-white on the wrong sides.

Bele, for his part, is also waiting for Kirk to drop his guard, during which time he disables the self-destruct device and once more shanghais the ship to provide ferry-service to Cheron. There both Bele and Lokai behold the chaos their planet has suffered because of racial riots, and the Enterprise leaves them both in the midst of their "last battlefield."

"Battlefield" is dominated by the performances of Frank Gorshin and Lou Antonio as Bele and Lokai." "Mark of Gideon" is dominated by the performance of Shatner and his leading lady Sharon Acker, though their chemistry doesn't quite make up for the holes in the script.

The Enterprise is ordered to establish diplomatic relations with Gideon, yet another unaligned planet whose trade the Federation covets. The people of Gideon are extremely private and will allow only one Federation representative to beam down, and Kirk gets the honor of so doing. But Kirk ends up in the Enterprise, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, wherein he seems to be utterly alone. Moments later, he meets a beautiful veiled woman, who knows her name to be Odona but claims to have no memory of how she came here or even if she is a native of Gideon.

Back on the real Enterprise, Spock and the others are alarmed to hear the Gideonites claim that Kirk never appeared on their world. They attempt to blame transporter error, and diplomatic considerations trump Spock's desire to make a direct investigation. Eventually, the Vulcan "goes rogue" in order to find the captain.

It's no great surprise when the episode reveals that the facsimile Enterprise is located on Gideon, which planet suffers from yet another "relevance problem:" that of overpopulation. Eventually Kirk learns that Odona is faking her loss of memory, and that the entire scheme is designed to expose her to Kirk's presence so that she will catch an illness from him, thereby to spread the disease to her people and cut down the population. It's one of the third season's more ridiculous conceits, and aside from the performances, the only thing that makes the episode palatable is a scene showing the milling crowds of Gideon outside the mock-up ship.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

"Whom Gods Destroy" has been rightly castigated for its lapses in story-logic, but one must admit that it is one of the livelier episodes of the third season.

Kirk and Spock beam down to the cunningly named "Elba II," where the Federation maintains a treatment-center for the criminally insane. Their mission is to deliver a new form of medication that may alleviate even the most extreme cases-- but the inmates, as if wanting to hold on to their respective madnesses, have taken over the asylum. Their leader is former starship captain Garth, who now styles himself "Lord Garth" and displays delusions of Napoleonic conquest. He's also a man whom Kirk admired during his own academy-training, though this element doesn't come to much since Garth and Kirk don't actually know one another.

An earlier accident injured Garth, inculcating his madness, and though friendly aliens saved his life, they also taught him techniques by which he can metamorphose into a duplicate of anyone he pleases to emulate. Less explanation is devoted to Garth's main weapon against the Federation: a new explosive capable of annihilating whole planets. But to use this weapon Garth needs to suborn a starship. He plans to take over the Enterprise by posing as Kirk. However, Kirk has taken advance steps to prevent anyone from making illicit use of the transporter: giving Mister Scott (helming the ship in Kirk's absence) the order not to beam up anyone who can't supply the proper answer to a code-word. In another context, this might seem like smart planning, but since Kirk had no reason to use a code in this situation, it comes off as special pleading.

Contrived though the conflict is, it is fun to see Garth and his nuthouse allies trying to coerce Kirk into revealing the code-response, up until the point that Spock manages to get the drop on Garth. However, at the time, Garth has duplicated Kirk, presenting the Vulcan with two Kirks from which to choose. TREK fans will be aware of Leonard Nimoy's official protests of the stupidity of this scene, in which Spock allows the two Kirks to fight in order to suss out the real one. I have nothing to add to these objections, except for the very slight caveat that the "Kirk on Kirk" fight is one of the third season's better punch-ups.

On the whole, the narrative plays around with the idea of a "Napoleon complex" but really has nothing of substance to say about it.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*

"Elaan of Troyius" is an episode made up of many strong parts that somehow don't cohere into a whole greater than the parts.

The primary plot-action resembles that of "Is There in Truth No Beauty?," in that both episodes deal with a female character who is committed to be permanently bonded to an "alien" of sorts. In "Truth," Miranda chooses to become bonded, in what I consider a priestess-like function, to a non-human alien. The title character of "Elaan," however, belongs to a humanoid race, the Elasians, and she has been ordered to marry the king of another humanoid species, the Troyians, with whom the Elasians have warred for untold years. The title, in addition to punning on the name "Helen of Troy," is more prescriptive than descriptive: Elaan is not of Troyius when the episode starts out, any more than Helen is of Troy, but it's important to the narrative that Elaan must become "of Troyius." (Writer-director John Meredith Lucas shows off his Troy-knowledge by patterning the names of the two planets after both Troy and its alternate name, Ilion, which in ancient days were derived from the city's founders Tros and Ilus.)

Putting aside questions of godly manipulation, Helen deserts her people (and her husband) willingly.  Elaan, however, has been ordered to marry the Troyian king to avert the mutual destruction of their peoples, and though she has some ambiguous royal status, she's far from willing to be a pawn in the government's policies. The Enterprise is assigned to ferry Elaan and her entourage of guardians to Troyias in order to promote peace in the relevant solar system, but both Elaan and her guards make clear that they consider the Troyians an inferior, over-civilized species (though one presumes that the two groups can inter-breed, since otherwise a political marriage wouldn't have much staying-power). Elaan and her people are prime examples of "Roddenberry barbarians:" rude, outspoken, undiplomatic, and governed purely by their own culture's rigid hierarchies. Troyian ambassador Petri is assigned to acquaint Elaan with the customs she must learn, and she responds by stabbing him.

Captain Kirk, ordered to expedite the political marriage, reluctantly attempts to educate the Elasian woman in the courtesies of civilized people, at which point the narrative drops any pretense of emulating the events of the Trojan War, becoming instead a conglomeration of "The Taming of the Shrew" and "Tristan and Isolde." Kirk actually doesn't do much "taming" beyond threatening to spank the imperious Elasian. Just at the point when he's ready to give up on her, Elaan does a turnabout and suddenly wants Kirk to teach her how to "make people like me." This badly unmotivated about-face is necessary to bring the "love-potion" elements of "Tristan and Isolde" into play. Though the episode doesn't explicitly say that Elas is a matriarchy, there are numerous references to Elasian women being able to control their men with their teats-- not psychologically, but with a biochemical "love potion" in those excretions. The broad implication is that the barbarian woman recognizes Kirk's strength and hopes to use it against her enemies, and for this reason she traps Kirk into loving her.

Naturally, even a besotted Kirk can't be tempted (as Elaan suggests) to rain down death on Troyius and solve Elaan's marital problems. Thus, throughout the episode the Klingons tail the Enterprise, waiting for the chance to sabotage the marriage contract through both internal duplicity and direct assault. Kirk overcomes both the Klingons and the love-spell, and Elaan is obligated to carry out the dictates of her people in the name of peace. Thus, in this version of "Tristan and Isolde," Tristan is separated from his love not so much by her marriage to another man as by his own dedication to a higher cause.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*

One or two previous TREK episodes dealt with the Federation trying to rescue alien races from their planets in the event of their suns going nova. Here, Kirk and Friends know that the star Minara is due to go nova soon, but there's no mention of rescue operations, perhaps because there are too many inhabited planets to deal with. The Enterprise takes up orbit around a particular, theoretically uninhabited planet where two Federation scientists set up an outpost to study the star's nova processes, and the scientists are the only ones Kirk, Spock and McCoy are sent to rescue.

The trio, however, find that the planet has another outpost deep within the bowels of the earth: that of two aliens called Vians. The Vians take the three crewmen prisoner and place them in a minimalistic prison, along with one alien female, a mute woman whom McCoy nicknames "Gem" (probably because she has gems studding her gownlike attire). The crewmen endure a number of torments-- not least being the discovery that the two scientists have been killed and preserved in experimental canisters. Meanwhile, Commander Scott, in charge of the ship, can't locate the landing party, and worries about whether he'll be forced to leave them behind when the sun goes nova.

The crewman make the discovery that Gem, though unable to communicate with them, is an empath who can cure others of their wounds, apparently by projecting energy that heals her patient but causes her own body to duplicate those wounds, which she must then heal-- though severe wounds require so much expenditure that she may risk killing herself. Kirk speculates that the Vians are conducting experiments to see how Gem responds to human injuries, and that the first experiments with the scientists didn't go well. One Vian claiming, rather obliquely, that the men were killed by their own fears, and this remark isn't adequately explained. However, the broad implication seems to be that the scientists failed to inspire Gem to want to heal them of their Vian-inflicted wounds, in contrast to the way that Gem reacts to the courage and mutual respect she sees in Kirk, Spock, and McCoy.

The Vians wound Kirk, and Gem assimilates and cures his wounds. Then the Vians make clear that the next experiment involves bringing a subject close to death. McCoy arranges things so that his comrades will be spared these rigors, after which Kirk and Spock are prevented from intervening while Gem silently agonizes about whether to try to heal the nearly-dead doctor. The Vians finally reveal their purpose: that they have the technological prowess to save one of the races in the Minara system, and that they will choose Gem's people if she can demonstrate the will to self-sacrifice-- that is, of losing her life to save McCoy's.

"Empath" is far from the first TREK episode to meditate on the role of altruism in the advancement of human (and human-like) species, but the visceral nature of the self-sacrifice herein makes the
intellectual problem far more immediate. The interpersonal dynamic of Kirk, Spock and McCoy is at its best here, with Spock getting a standout moment in which he illustrates the utility of being able to control one's emotions. Without discoursing on the conclusion, suffice to say that Gem's people are vindicated and therefore saved, though one has to wonder whether any of the other species in the Minara system got the benefit of these integrity-tests.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*

If it weren't for the "first interracial kiss on TV" business, no one would remember "Plato's Stepchildren" for much of anything. It's not even close to be among the series' best episodes, nor does it have anything that would drop it into the category of the worst. It's one of many episodes where the Enterprise answers a distress call and gets stuck sorting out the problems of a planet's corrupt hierarchy.

The basic concept owes something to "Who Mourns for Adonais?," as is evident from the first person the Trekkers meet on the planet: the dwarf Alexander, when he's asked about the planet's denizens:

Oh, Platonians. I'm sure you've never heard of us. Our native star is Sahndara. Millennia ago, just before it went nova, we managed to escape. Our leader liked Plato's ideas Plato, Platonius. See? In fact, our present philosopher-king, Parmen, sometimes calls us Plato's children, although we sometimes think of ourselves more as Plato's stepchildren. Excuse me. Someone's waiting for you. 

Since all of the Platonians except Alexander have fantastic telekinetic powers that make them virtual gods, it's not entirely logical why anyone save Alexander would choose the potentially derogatory term "stepchildren" for themselves. It would make sense for Alexander, the slave of the privileged if very small (38 people worldwide) coterie, would make such a remark, though. Later in the story Mister Spock disputes Parmen's claim to be a follower of the Greek philosopher. A tighter script might have made clear just what aspects of Plato the aliens were getting wrong, but the script as produced makes it sound like the whole idea of "philosopher-kings" is at fault for not being more democratic, for devolving into simple tyranny. Further, it strains the credulity even of a SF-fan to imagine some aliens journeying to Earth, getting some exposure to Greek philosopher, and then zooming back into the cosmos to construct a new culture on a separate planet. The basic setup also implies that all 37 of the inhabitants, except for Alexander, enjoy lives of leisure, with the implication that Alexander does all of their work. I'm sure this setup made things simpler for the writers, but the scenario doesn't track in a practical sense, and thus it undermines any real critique of Platonic elitism, given that the Platonians have only one slave to kick around, rather than a whole class. Similarly, it makes no sense that these Platonians have existed on their planet for centuries-- apparently without propagation-- but that none of them have any slaves to take care of their medical needs. This inspires them to decide that they want to induct Doctor McCoy as their resident physician, even though one presumes that he'll expire in about fifty more years, which would leave them with the same problem.

The simplicity, though, is necessary on another level. In order for Kirk and Co. to challenge the formidable powers of the Platonians, the heroes have to be able to figure out how those powers work and how to assimilate them. Before that happens, the aliens put the crewmen through an assortment of tortures, one of which involves forcing Spock and Kirk to make love, respectively, to Nurse Chapel and Lieutenant Uhura. Given that Kirk and Uhura don't have any established feelings for one another, this is potentially less dramatic than the encounter of Nurse Chapel, whose teary devotion to Spock has been well documented. Yet the Kirk-Uhura moments work better, because it's all about an officer and his subordinate being forced to emulate lovemaking for an audience, an erasure of professional rather than racial boundaries. For the last torture, the Platonians threaten to make the two men whip their paramours, but this goes no further than titillation as Kirk manifests powers equal to Parmen's and kicks the leader's psychic butt.

Parenthetically, I assume that Parmen's name is derived from the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides, though it doesn't seem to connote much of anything. There's much more pertinence in the writers' naming the dwarf character after the famed Greek empire-builder, for though the character Alexander builds no empires, he is the only one of his people who escapes his stultified society for the outside world.

"Wink of an Eye," by comparison, is a highly entertaining minor episode. Kirk and Co investigate another distress call from Scalos, one of the many planets of which the Federation is vaguely aware without knowing anything about it. It seems that Scalos is a lot like the ODYSSEY-monster Scylla, lying in wait for unwary sailors. Long ago the Scalosians suffered a major physical mutation-- strangely, not as the result of nuclear or biological warfare, but from volcanic eruption. (Maybe some writer got tired of always having to blame mutation on human hubris.) Because of the mutation, the Scalosians now exist in a hyper-advanced state that makes them invisible to ordinary mortals, and in addition, they're no longer able to breed with one another. However, they can breed to some extent with other humanoids, and some critics have had problems with this concept, though it can be explained by the previously established seeding of human-like beings throughout the TREK-cosmos by the Kindred of Sargon. 

The real problem of the setup is more that if the Scalosians had been doing this for centuries, one would think that the Federation would've picked up on the planet as a "here there be monsters" site, and so Kirk and his crew would've stayed away. Further, the success-rate of these liaisons must not be too great, since it's stated that there only about five Scalosians on the planet. Kirk gets selected to be the mate of the Scalosian queen Deela (a winsomely cheery Kathie Browne), and so gets "accelerated" to the same speed-rate as the Scalosians. Deela is an atypical TREK villainess, in that she's entirely committed to her people's survival despite being able to appreciate the unfairness of what she has to do to accomplish this, and she's never less than self-possessed, unlike a lot of the show's more frenetic female evildoers. Once Kirk knows what's going on, he does use his customary charm on Deela, with "Wink" scoring points as the only episode to strongly imply that Kirk actually may have sex with an alien beauty before vanquishing her forces. Curiously, only one other Enterprise crewman gets hyper-accelerated, and though he's quickly brainwashed by the process, he loses his life defending his captain. As for other mates, the Scalosians don't seem to be in any great hurry-- thus, we don't get to see which female crewpersons get selected. The aliens seem content to put the rest of the crew into cold storage until they need them. There's no explicit plan as to how the Scalosians will make the ship's destruction look like an accident, but it becomes academic once Kirk and Spock manage to outmaneuver the Scalosian speed demons.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *cosmological, sociological*

"Tholian" may be the third season's best attempt at doing one of the series' signature "white-knuckle thriller" narratives. Though the script uses plot-devices reminiscent of "The Galileo Seven" (ship searching for castaways) and of "The Naked Time" (ship's discipline begins to break down), "Tholian" manages to forge a strong story on the classic interaction of Kirk, Spock and McCoy.

The Enterprise, searching for the lost starship Defiant, finds its quarry, but in a region where the normal rules of time and space are starting to break down. While Kirk's ship orbits the derelict ship, the captain takes Spock, McCoy, and Chekhov with him as he beams aboard the Defiant. The crewmen confirm what their sensors indicated: everyone on the Defiant is dead, apparently as the result of everyone killing everyone else. The berserkergang of the Defiant seems to be the result of exposure to the fragmented space, and for good measure, the ship is beginning to phase out of its native universe. Kirk orders Scott to beam everyone back over, but the stress of the foreign space limits what the transporter can handle. Ever the captain who identifies with a ship-- even one not his own-- Kirk stays behind while the other three return to the ship. Before the transporter can whisk Kirk back as well, the Defiant plunges into another dimension and is lost to the Enterprise's scanners.

This sparks the central conflict between McCoy and Spock. The doctor, rather quick to believe Kirk irretrievably gone, argues that the ship ought to leave the fracture-space while it can, since the local stresses are impinging both on the ship's function and the mental stability of the crew. Spock, both because of his friendship with Kirk and his belief that a captain cannot desert a castaway without total proof of demise, elects to stay, searching for the lost Kirk.

As if the fracture-space generates its own protectors, a ship bearing a little-encountered alien race, the Tholians, shows up and demands that the Federation ship must leave the area. Spock considers the area "free space" and when the Tholians get tough, Spock orders an engagement. Both ships take damage, but another Tholian ship shows up, and the two ships began weaving the titular energy-web, designed to entrap and presumably destroy the Enterprise.

Meanwhile, everyone aboard ship is feeling strain not just from external forces, but from mourning over Kirk's demise, made more certain by the effects of the space-battle. McCoy reacts by hectoring Spock, who retorts with icy discipline, but their quarrel is mitigated by a tape made by Kirk against his possible death. Uhura, interestingly, then gets to manifest an apparent new mania: seeing the ghostly spectre of Kirk. Soon Spock and everyone else sees the apparition, and the Vulcan figures out how to rescue the captain and escape the web for good measure.

A strong episode, in terms of both dramatic and physical tension.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

"Hollow" is one of TREK's many ventures into cultures that have become badly stratified by their own perceived priorities. Usually these cultures take place on new worlds, whether inhabited by humanoid aliens or descendants of Earth-people. "Hollow" has the distinction of being the Enterprise's only encounter with a generation ship that has been disguised as an asteroid, and whose denizens believe that they live not on a ship, but on their home planet Yonada. The ship is operated by a computer that also serves as a tyrannical overlord, programmed to discourage Yonadans from questioning their status.

Because the ship is on a collision course with an inhabited Federation world, the usual Gang of Three beams aboard the foreign vessel. However, this time Doctor McCoy is set up to be the focal point of the story, for he's contracted a fatal disease for which there's no cure. The interlopers are received politely enough by Natira, high priestess of the computer-oracle, but no Yonadan believes the strangers' story that they're really on board a big ship (aside from one old man who knows the truth, and dies as a result of the computer's dictates). To further complicate matters, right at the moment when McCoy thinks his life is over, he promptly falls in love with Natira, and she with him. Though McCoy wants to help avert the collision, he also wants to marry Natira and live with her despite her ignorance. Naturally, this is not possible, though to the episode's credit, Natira isn't just casually knocked off to get her out of the way. By episode's end the crisis is avoided and McCoy, whose disease is banished by Yonadan science, goes back to the service.

It's a fairly workmanlike episode, not bad but never inspired, except for an excellent perf by Kate Woodville, who keeps Natira from being just another pagan princess.


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*

If I hadn't been informed that the primary reason for the existence of this DTV franchise was to sell Mattel toys, I would've thought that its true goal was to mash-up as many Batman-TV shows as possible. BATMAN BEYOND put forth a future-Gotham Batman wearing high-tech armor, and so does this film, in addition to placing all of the Crusader's fellow heroes in the future as well, In addition, there's a lot of the jokey feeling of BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD, though the jokes are not nearly as funny and the Big Bat only slightly changes up his ensemble of fellow heroes in the next two DTV entries. Green Arrow, Nightwing, and Red Robin are said to be in all of them, with Flash making two appearances and Cyborg just one.

Though the animation and voice work is competent-- indeed, the voice of "Young Batman" from BATMAN BEYOND shows up here incarnating Nightwing-- the producers behind the scenes didn't spend a lot of time cogitating on future-Gotham. Someone who didn't know anything about the history of the original Dick Grayson-Robin and his various successors would have no idea what's going on with Nightwing and Red Robin, beyond a smattering of references to Nightwing's former status as the first Bat-sidekick.

The same thing applies to the universe of super-villains on which the film trades. In this world, though Catwoman is mentioned as an ongoing crook (though she's not seen), the Penguin is not yet a criminal, only a flamboyant rich guy. Fut for reasons that are never very clear, he decides that his first foray into crime requires a team called the "Animilitia," made up of career super-crooks on an animal theme: Killer Croc (also from the Bat-franchise), the Cheetah (Wonder Woman), Silverback (Blue Beetle), and Man-Bat (Batman again). This goofy premise resembles nothing any previous version of the Penguin would've undertaken, and I suspect that its only justification was to help sell assorted toys of DC characters.

I assign this video-jaunt the cosmological function simply because, in the course of the heroes contending with the beastly bad guys, a few factoids about animals are thrown in, but it's pretty thin gruel. Certainly the producers have no comprehension of the main hero's psychology, nor that of the main villain, even though the DVD throws in an appreciation of the Penguin that's more enjoyable than the principal feature.

Monday, May 20, 2019


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

When I chose to check out 2009's STAN HELSING on a streaming service, I wasn't doing much more than indulging in a completist urge to see more "monster-mash" films. I didn't expect much from this obscure Canadian-American horror-spoof, and I didn't get much-- though I did get a little more than I've ever got from the American SCARY MOVIE franchise. (Parenthetically, HELSING was released as SCARY MOVIE 5 in some foreign markets.)

The nub of the film's conceit is that the title character is the descendant of the classic vampire-hunter Van Helsing, though he doesn't know it. Stan's a self-absorbed video-store clerk at "Schockbuster," back in the day when there was a Blockbuster to mock. He doesn't even plan to attend the same Halloween party as his three friends Teddy, Nadine, and Mia, but he does impose on them to help him complete an errand before he goes home for the night.

Almost immediately, Stan and his buds get pulled into a world where MAD-denned versions of horror-movie monsters really exist, starting with a version of Chucky and some weirdos loosely borrowed from both THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and THE HILLS HAVE EYES. (Oddly, HILLS is the only horror-film explicitly named in the film.) When the four youths try to complete their errand, they end up in a small town plagued by faux-movie monsters, though none of these Gen-Y types seem to realize that "Fweddy" and "Pleatherface" seem to have stepped off the movie screen. In the end, the indifferent Stan has to get his act together and become a monster-slayer, though the final conflict is so desultory that there's not much different from his earlier self.

At best, HELSING may be funny in places if you like raunch in your humor, and Bo Zenga's direction is certainly livelier than a lot of straight-to-video offerings. But HELSING's primary strength is one that the bigger-budgeted SCARY MOVIE franchise never had, to the extent that it's a strength if a filmmaker chooses to "dance with the one what brought you."

STAN HELSING might not be anything but a dumb horror-spoof, but it doesn't advertise itself as anything else.

This, in contrast to the SCARY MOVIE franchise, which in addition to being more contemptuous of its own audience, vitiates its subject matter by throwing in random spoofs having nothing to do with horror.

Thursday, May 16, 2019


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

I've frequently criticized films like THE BLACKKKLANSMAN for overemphasizing ideology at the expense of good plotting and characterization. However, little as I like that type of film, at least Spike Lee has a straightforward message-- "never trust white people"-- and he remains true to that theme throughout the film.

DARK RELIC. a TV-film that seems to have shown up first on the SYFY Channel, doesn't have even that. The script, by one Andy Biggs, seems to have some very fuzzy ideological potential, but it can't even make its own politically correct agenda clear.

It's 1099, at the end of the First Crusade. An English military commander, Sir Gregory (James Frain), is about to journey back to his homeland with his men. Though he's dispirited by the failure of European efforts to reclaim Jerusalem for Christianity, he stumbles across a relic that appears to be a fragment of the True Cross. Wishing to find some way to win at least a minor victory, Gregory and his men elect to journey from the Holy Land to the Holy See in Rome, to present the Pope with their prize.

As soon as the knights go to sea, foul luck dogs them, and their ship in beached. The weary warriors determine to hike to Rome overland, and as more bad things happen, they suspect that the relic may be cursed. They encounter a band of Muslim warriors who have just finished proving their nobility by rescuing some Christian wayfarers from bandits. Though the Christian knights are not sanguine about joining their ranks with non-believers, they elect to do so when the Muslims offer a possible easy route to Rome. So the two groups agree to travel together, along with the one Christian survivor of the bandits. As it happens, this sole survivor is also a challenge to medieval Christian sentiments, for she's a spunky young woman who doesn't believe in anyone's God.

However, even the atheist finds a sort of awareness of contending supernatural forces when her "foxhole" is barraged by more curse-phenomena, like a rain of dead crows falling on the party. The young woman gets even more proof of a devil, if not a god, when the travelers come across a monastery. The head monk affirms that the relic is a piece of the True Cross, but that it has demonic writing on it that will unleash horrible powers when taken out of its proper place in the Holy Land. Of course, all the monks turn out to be possessed by demons, whom the knights are forced to slay, so the head monk's pronouncements are to say the least dubious.

So at last the knights are convinced that the relic is tainted in some way, and that it will only bring evil if taken to Rome. Then, for no reason whatever, a huge gargoyle-like demon attacks the travelers, and after killing more knights is driven away temporarily. Still Gregory will not simply dump the relic in the nearest relic, and the script gives no reason for him to do so. However, this apparent stubbornness works out for the scripter. In the climactic scene, the demon attacks again, and Gregory stabs it with the relic so that both the demon and the relic are destroyed. Typically enough, Gregory and his potential girlfriend alone survive.

The cursed relic is never explained and barely makes any sense. It's possible that the wooden shard has nothing to do with Christ's cross, and that it's simply infected with a curse that blindly sows havoc on anyone near it (unless it's in the Holy Land, where it belongs-- maybe). But even assuming that-- why does some demon from Hell decide to steal the relic? Since the knights have no resources capable of combating the curse, the denizens of Hell ought to be ecstatic that Gregory's going to take it to Rome. Why then does a particular demon-- and just one, probably because that's all the movie can afford-- want to liberate the relic? Andy Biggs has no answer, and it seems unlikely that he didn't even bother to think out the logic of his own scenario.

In addition, though there's a fair amount of fighting in the film, the film, like a lot of other SYFY product, is extremely dull and dismal looking, and the dialogue is often atrocious. Possibly Biggs meant to take the side of the medieval Muslims by portraying even semi-noble Christian knights as wrong-headed for trying to take a sort of "loot" out of the Holy Land. But even that interpretation isn't firmly supported by the confusing script.

Saturday, May 11, 2019


PHENOMENALITY: *marvelous*

Just to get one nagging item out of the way: there's no good reason for the title to sport a question mark. It's true that there's no major party-scenes as such, but early in the film Doctor Frankenstein (Boris Karloff) does assert that he's calling together all of the famous monsters for a "convention," and that's enough justification for calling it a "party" of sorts. Not sure why anyone in production thought that ambiguity was a good idea.

I remember that the last time I watched PARTY straight through, I found it a charming homage to all of the classic movie-monsters, perhaps the most inclusive one since it included characters not usually invited to monster-mashes, like Mister Hyde and the Notre Dame Hunchback. This time, though, I was much more aware of the wonkiness of the puppet-animation and the bad, Borscht-belt humor, to say nothing of the annoyingly mediocre songs.

This awareness didn't cause me to totally dislike PARTY. I'll put aside the possibility that I just wasn't in the mood to view the flick, since I was looking forward to a re-screen based my earlier response. I conclude that for me PARTY is just one of those films that exhausts all of its secrets/surprises in one showing, and that, once one knows what to expect, the problems become more glaring.

There are some interesting touches, to be sure. In contrast to some monster mashes, these monsters live in a world that's largely unaware of their existence, though, as noted earlier, they've apparently made lives for themselves that allow them to take time out from dastardly deeds in order to attend conventions. Doctor Frankenstein's "Isle of Evil" in the Caribbean is apparently always the venue for the celebrations, but as the film opens, Frankenstein is planning to retire from his position as the head of the monster's organization. This is because, although he's already created two human-sized creations, the Monster and the Monster's Mate (Phyllis Diller), he's reached the apogee of his scientific career by concocting a chemical capable of destroying anything. Having nowhere to go but down, Frankenstein explains to his lovely lab assistant Francesca that he will turn over his position to his only living relative, his nephew Felix Flanken. This steams Francesca, who believes that she ought to have this exalted role.

So out go the invitations, and all of the famous monsters journey to the Isle of Evil, some of them even taking passage on the same ship as Felix. The nephew is a bumbling but well-meaning sort, given a Jimmy Stewart-esque voice, but he doesn't even know monsters exist, much less his uncle's association with them. He meets a few of them on the ship, such as Mister Hyde, and doesn't even realize their nature.

Once on the Isle, Frankenstein drops the bombshell on Felix. For a really smart mad scientist, one might've thought he would find some way to make the job appealing to the naive youth, or at least take provisions to keep the other monsters from contending for the position. Francesca doesn't help matters, for she lets the other monsters know about the destructive chemical, so that they all want to have control of it-- though the question of who's going to be the Big Boss isn't really addressed. It's not clear what the monsters want to do with the disintegrating chemical, but, being monsters, it's not long before they fight amongst themselves, even before they try to get rid of the incredibly lucky Felix. Indeed, the fact that the monsters turn on Francesca leads to a hookup between the two "young people"-- though by film's end it's clear that they, too, are not precisely what they seem.

As stated already, the jokes are pretty moldy, and I wouldn't think they'd be funny, then or now, to anyone but small kids. Aside from Francesca, I'm not fond of most of the character-designs, credited to veteran EC artist Jack Davis. Harvey Kurtzman, best known for EC's MAD, teamed with another writer on the script, but there's no life in this party: both writers turn out little beyond schtick. There is an early reference to another monster known only as "It"-- presumably because It's real name was still trademarked-- and this leads to a pretty good payoff at the end, as well as a judicious use of the fatal liquid to get rid of all the obnoxious critters.

Thursday, May 9, 2019


CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *psychological, sociological*

In response to my recent viewing of Dario Argento's first directorial effort, I wrote this ARCHIVE essay, RATIONAL AND IRRATIONAL PROBLEMS, in which I argued that Edgar Allan Poe gave birth to two complementary attitudes toward the mystery genre-- one being an attitude which feels that the rational capacity can pretty much solve all problems, while the other projects the sense that even if some problems are solved, the world remains essentially enigmatic.

According to the DVD extras for THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, Argento didn't admit until late in his career that he based his script for BIRD on Fredric Brown's 1949 novel SCREAMING MIMI. I have never read the Brown novel, but I have seen the 1958 Gerd Oswald film adaptation, which is said to be reasonably close to its source. Based on my memories of the movie, I would say that Brown's story falls into the category I call "the riddle," in which the mystery is totally cleared up by some detective's ratiocinative activities.

BIRD, in contrast, falls into the category I call the "enigma," for even though the story's main character does solve one mystery, Argento's world seems even more enigmatic than ever before, rather than being more rationale. I don't know all of the Italian gialli that preceded BIRD, so I can't say whether or not Argento was substantially different from them in his aesthetic approach.

The titles of the Brown book and the Argento film might be seen as one signal of their different approaches. In the former, the meaning of the phrase "screaming mimi" is central to the revelation of a serial killer's identity. In the latter, the meaning of "the bird with the crystal plumage" is only indirectly related to the killer's identity. In fact, even though protagonist Sam Dalmas starts off the film talking about he, a blocked writer, put out a hack nonfiction book about rare birds, it's one of Dalmas friends who reveals to Dalmas the relevance of the titular bird with the weird plumage. I'll note that before the success of Argento's film, there were a handful of gialli with enigmatic titles, not least Mario Bava's influential 1964 BLOOD AND BLACK LACE. However, after BIRD's success weird, hard-to-fathom titles became a regular thing in 1970s gialli, such as LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN and THE HOUSE WITH LAUGHING WINDOWS.

Like the protagonist of the Brown novel, Sam (Tony Musante) becomes a detective by accident. He's passing an art-gallery when he sees two figures, a woman and a man, struggling inside the building. He sees the woman fall wounded, while the man, his identity obscured by a black raincoat and black gloves (a visual trope swiped from Bava), escapes. Sam, already suffering from writer's block, is literally blocked during this scene, since someone sees him coming and seals Sam between two automatically-operated glass doors in the museum's front. However, thanks to his calling out to passersby, the police arrive and the woman, gallery-owner Monica Ranieri, survives the wound she took from her assailant. Neither she nor Sam can tell the police anything about her attacker, who may be guilty of three previous killings (shown in gory detail via flashbacks). Perhaps because there was no obvious connection between any of the women, the cops don't grill Monica about the attacker, but the chief inspector does try to make Sam plumb his memory as to what he saw. In part because Sam himself feels like he missed something, he starts his own investigation of the serial killer, which results in both Sam and his girlfriend (Suzy Kendall) being targeted by the killer.

Though I often don't have any problem with issuing spoilers for these type of films, in this review I'll forego discussing the revelation of the serial killer's ID, except to mention that Argento's been complimented for the way BIRD plays against gender stereotypes. But this is less interesting to me than the way Argento's vision transforms 1970s Italy into a place of weird, brooding presences. Both the natural world, as represented by the scenes with various rare birds, and the world of human art are equally weird and perverse, and remain weird (and occasionally funny) despite the amateur detective's attempt to make sense of his experiences. Unlike most such amateurs in film, Musante endows Sam Dalmas with a strong sense of empathy for the victims, even while Argento starts off his long career of transforming female bodies into canvases of destruction.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019


PHENOMENALITY: (1) *marvelous,* (2) *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: (1) *fair,* (2) *poor*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, psychological*

Though the classic Universal monsters were still going strong in the early forties, arguably the studio's horror-mystery programmers became somewhat erratic in quality.

NIGHT MONSTER is one of the good ones. Though director Ford Beebe was best known for B-westerns and serials, he does a fine job imparting a sense of Gothic fatalism to the weird family on the Ingston Estate. Ingston is the crabbed, crippled paterfamilias of the house, and he reigns over a heritage of hate that includes his possibly insane sister, his devoted housekeeper and butler (the latter played by a top-billed Bela Lugosi), his randy strongman-chauffeur, a Hindu mystic, and a maid who begins the story by fleeing the mansion in tried-and-true Gothic-heroine style.

Ingston's sister Margaret is first seen scrubbing at mysterious bloodstains on the floor as she were a latter-day Lady Macbeth. However, she's not totally bonkers, for she defies her tyrannical brother by sending for a psychiatrist. Miss Harper, to ascertain Margaret's own sanity. Margaret becomes the replacement Gothic heroine for the story, while Dick Baldwin, one of Ingston's neighbors, falls in with her and becomes the de facto Gothic leading-man. Ingston's wealth makes it possible for him to stoke the fuels of his hatred against the doctors who crippled him, and he doesn't want visitors. However, a mysterious killer murders the vagrant maid, and so the local sheriff locks down the mansion, refusing to let the occupants lead during the legal investigation.

Three doctors, despite being aware that Ingston nurtures ill feelings toward them, also occupy the house, but not for long, as the killer goes after them as well. Not surprisingly, this causes the sheriff and Baldwin (who's apparently a consultant because he writes murder-mysteries) to suspect Ingston. But he's not just crippled, he's a quadriplegic, so he's a poor candidate for a killer. However, the aforementioned Hindu mystic demonstrates some bizarre talents that may reveal the identity of the serial murderer.

The standout feature of this B-film is the marvelous nature of the Hindu's powers, since this is one of the few times such supernatural abilities were used to explain what seems like a serial-killer mystery. The script's idea of said powers is actually pretty well-researched for 1942, though the mystic (Nils Asther) doesn't get much to do, any more than top-billed Lugosi (who might've been better served with the Hindu role). The other members of the ensemble, though, are given relatively rounded characterizations for a B-mystery, particularly Leif Erickson's smarmy chauffeur and Fay Helm's nervous but righteous Margaret, who has a great end-scene against the officious housekeeper. But Ralph Morgan's nasty Ingston gets the best lines, and, as in Gothic fiction, the hero and heroine (Baldwin and Harper) pale by comparison.

On the flip side, we have HORROR ISLAND, which has nothing going for it but the familiarity of some of its better actors, particularly Leo Carrillo in one of his many heavily-accented types. The "horror" of the title is The Phantom, a cloaked murderer in a fright-mask who's trying to get hold of the treasure of pirate captain Morgan, but the Phantom is certainly not the star of the show, as was the "Smiling Ghost" of a similar horror-comedy of the same year (albeit from Warner's). The star is Bill Martin (Dick Foran), a young guy who's constantly trying to find some career that puts money in his pocket without his having to work too hard. Not much is revealed about Bill's past, though apparently at some point his family had enough money that he received, as a bequest, a small island off the coast of Florida. One might speculate that because Bill got saddled with this useless white elephant, he's spent his life thinking that the world owes him a living: hence his attempt to further his fortunes with trivial enterprises like dance studios and escort services. When the Phantom comes into his life, pursuing half of a treasure map held by Carillo's character Tobias, Bill barely takes the Phantom seriously, nor Tobias's claim that the treasure of Captain Henry Morgan is hidden somewhere on Bill's crummy little island (which, despite being supposedly valueless, has an old mansion on it that ought to be worth something).

Bill's main response to all this folderol is a new get-rich-quick scheme, as he decides to host a "haunted house ride" on the island for all the suckers he can pull together. This group includes the usual Universal collection of oddballs: a married couple who turn out to be a gangster and his moll, a sleepwalking professor, and the usual pretty girl with whom Bill exchanges flirtations. However, the tour is interrupted by the usual murder attempts, and not only by the mysterious Phantom, who ends up being the film's number-two menace.

In addition to the Phantom's peculiar outfit, the old pirate mansion also sports one "outre device" slightly in line with the tomb-traps of the much later Indiana Jones flicks. I found all of the characters as thoroughly uninteresting as the ones in NIGHT MONSTER were semi-interesting. I'd call the story's motifs psychological since the base idea is that once gadabout Bill Martin falls in love with the standard pretty chick, he'll straighten up and fly right. But in this role at least, Dick Foran's charm fails to impress.