Thursday, July 27, 2017

Planet of the Apes TV Series Blogging: "Up Above the World So High"

In “Up Above the World So High,” Galen (Roddy McDowall) spies a human flying a high glider.  Unfortunately, the pilot has also been detected by a curious gorilla patrol.

The fugitives make contact with the human pilot, Leuric (Frank Aletter), who has not quite perfected his hang glider.  He is suspicious that they want to steal his invention.

Shortly afterwards, an ape scientist, Carsia (Joanna Barnes), also makes contact with Leuric, and gives him the materials he needs to build a functional glider. 

She has a dastardly plan. She intends to use 20th century fragmentation bombs to destroy the ape council of Central City, a decapitation strike and coup that will create a new ape order.

Now, the fugitives must make sure that flying is seen as an impossibility, an act which requires Galen to be the first ape pilot in history.

“Up Above the World So High” is the second Planet of the Apes (1974) episode in two weeks that features the threat of weapons of mass destruction, and an upturning of the social order. 

In “The Liberator,” a human sought to use toxic gas to kill the ape overlords and free his people. Here, a human pilot’s creation of a glider has dark consequences. A chimpanzee insurgent wants to use the glider as a delivery system to destroy the Ape Council; using fragmentation bombs – another relic of the twentieth century and man’s self-destructive nature.

Perhaps these two stories appear at the end of the run because the earlier stories seem, well, inconsequential. The stakes tend to be “freedom,” or “escape.” In “Up Above the World So High” and “The Liberator,” the stakes are raised. The possibility of social disorder is high. If Galen, Virdon and Burke fail, people -- apes and humans -- will die.

This story is also an unusual inversion of the typical formula. Usually, Virdon and Burke embrace enlightenment and progress. They show the world of the future how to fish more efficiently (“Tomorrow’s Tide”), cure Malaria (“The Cure,”) and undertake blood transfusions successfully (“The Surgeon.”) In all these stories, enlightenment wins out over ignorance.  In this final tale, however, they sabotage flight intentionally, keeping that advance from the Dark Age world, so that it cannot be abused by power hungry people such as Carsia. Perhaps flight is too much, too fast, given the divisions and ignorance of this future world. 

Still, I can’t believe that Carsia won’t try again, with or without the help of Leuric. I find her a fascinating character, both in terms of her intelligence and ambition. I wonder if, at some point, Wanda, the brilliant chimp we met in "The Interrogation" was intended to return in this episode.

One bizarre aspect or theory about the Planet of the Apes series that I find intriguing is this: Burke, and Virdon, essentially, prove the fears of Urko and Zaius. 

Just months after these future astronauts arrive near Central City, ape culture faces threats from nerve gas and fragmentation bombs, both products of man's self-destructive nature. Early on in the series, we heard Zaius and Urko lamenting how the astronauts promise to bring threatening ideas with them. Of course, it’s just a coincidence in terms of timing, but that’s precisely what occurs, it seems.

So far as execution is concerned, “Up Above the World So High” leaves much to be desired, particularly in its final act. 

While still in the sites of the apes, Galen, Leuric and the others are seen paddling away in the ocean.  Are we to believe that the apes didn’t go search for bodies? Or follow up to see if they survived?  OR recover the remains of the aircraft?  Here, our heroes (and the secret of flight, incidentally), make the lamest, most obvious escape imaginable.

And sadly, that’s our very last view of the series’ heroes.

So we come to the end of another cult-TV series retrospective. I enjoyed returning to a future world of talking tapes in 2017, but can’t help but feel that the 1974 series represents a missed opportunity on a colossal scale. Some individual episodes are good, indeed, but there is no urgency or dynamism to the program.  It often feels small potatoes somehow.

Next week is Beach Week, and the week after that we start a new retrospective of a 1970's cult program - Star Maidens (1976).

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Comic-Book of the Week: The Micronauts

It's strange and little disconcerting for me to admit that more than a few of my favorite comic-books of all-time originated; with merchandise. 

This means these epics were born of -- essentially -- marketing "synergy."

Somehow, that makes me feel remarkably shallow. Still, it's useless to deny the truth: the comic-books that I fell in love with as a youth in the late 1970s carry titles such as ROM: The Space Knight, Shogun Warriors and the best of all: The Micronauts.

The Micronauts
comic (from Marvel) premiered in January of 1979 (for just thirty-five cents!). 

This was the era of Star Wars and the original Battlestar Galactica, and I suspect that one of the reasons I adored this comic so much is that this complex book serves as an excellent combination of all the genre elements I appreciated in both those franchises, and in Star Trek as well. 

The stories of the Micronauts are rife with colorful and heroic characters, spectacular space battles, and even a sense of galactic "exploration" in terms of the characters leaving their "Microverse" and ending up on Earth in the twentieth century.

The first issue sets up the premise for the epic saga (which begins a "micro-cosmic NEW SERIES in the MIGHTY MARVEL tradition!"). 

Written and drawn by Bill Mantlo and Michael Golden, "Homeworld" lands the reader on a far away world ("once the proudest planet in the subatomic microverse...") that has been torn apart by political and class strife.

In a clever nod to Russian history and the story of the Czars, an insurgency led by the evil scientist Baron Karza wipes out the upper class and royal family. Or, as the comic puts it, "The elite of Homeworld have been overthrown by a small body of insurgents." 

The entire world, it seems, has "turned upon its hereditary rulers!"

In turn for destroying the ruling class, the people have been promised virtual immortality by Karza, who runs the planet's grim "Body Banks," which ensure replacement body parts and eternal life for all those who obey the despot. 

In this world, organs and body parts are a commodity to be traded and used, and one suspects there is a Cold War parable here about Communism and a perceived lack of individuality amongst the Marxists.

The noble ruling family, led by Prince Argon and Princess Mari, can't compete with the promise of never-ending life, and is all but massacred in the rebellion. Argon is captured by Karza (and submitted to experimentation in the body banks...), and Mari is forced to cloak her identity, becoming "Marionette," a kind of pleasure-bot. 

Meanwhile, Karza's Dog Soldiers and his Acroyear minions destroy the so-called elitists with their "hovering strata-stations" and other weapons of mass destruction. These devices are given beautiful life in the comic; essentially the Micronaut toys made to appear hyper-realistic, and extremely cool.

While the peoples' revolution burns hot on Homeworld, an old starship called Endeavor returns from a thousand year voyage of exploration. The ship is "old...pitted and pocked by the ravages of time and space." 

Aboard the ship is Commander Arcturus Rann and his robot servant, Biotron. He expects a hero's welcome on return to Homeworld, but instead is termed a dangerous "X-Factor" by Baron Karza (Rann's former instructor at school...) and greeted with a firing squad.

After being blasted by Dog Soldiers, Rann awakens to find himself an unwilling gladiator in Homeworld's deadly games (bread and circuses for the bored populace.) As a prisoner, Raan meets a noble Acroyear warrior/prince who refused to submit to Karza (and whose Brother, Shaitan, is the primary collaborator with the Baron). 

Rann also encounters an "Insectorvid" named Bug from the planet Kaliklak ("hive world of the Insectivorids")...and teams with them, as well as Princess Mari, to escape the games. An attraction grows between Ran and Mari, and he even learns that his parents -- Dallan and Sepsis -- are revered as symbols of the Resistance because they were the first to defy Karza nearly a millennium ago.

Before long, Rann, Mari and the others flee the planet in the old Endeavor (kind of a cross between the Enterprise and the Millennium Falcon...) and are pursued by Karza's "Thorium Orbiters." In an attempt to escape from the dedicated pursuit, Rann takes his straining ship beyond the very limits of the "space wall" separating the tiny Microverse from another reality all together...and these dynamic characters are soon bound for adventures on Earth.

For a comic-book based on a set of (highly-popular) toys, there's a commendable amount of complexity to The Micronauts; complexity which makes many issues a highly-involving read, even thirty-five years after original publication. 

For instance, Rann spent a thousand years probing microverse space "telepathically" aboard the Endeavor, and in the process, accidentally created a mysterious doppelganger for himself, called "The Time Traveler," (also known as "The Enigma Force." ) This character plays a crucial role in the resolution of the rebellion and the destruction of Karza. There are also the mysterious "Shadow Priests" of Homeworld, pursuing their own strange and hidden agenda.

Some characters certainly appear reminiscent of Star Wars, particularly the big droid/little droid combo of Biotron (a 6000 series of "thinking roboids") and Microtron. And some elements seem familiar from Dune (the priests), and Buck Rogers too (the man returning to a world changed after several hundred years), but overall the comic boasts a deeper grounding in human history. 

I mentioned the story of the Czars, but the Prince of the Acroyears is another example of how our history has been re-cast as cosmic history. This character is often described as "Spartan" in nature, and in essence is a representative of a warrior race dedicated to combat and honor (think Leonidas, I guess...).

To some extent, Star Trek: The Next Generation picked up on this idea in the late 1980s, when the Mongol-like Klingons of the original series were transformed into honor-obsessed Spartan-type warriors in episodes such as "Sins of the Father." 

In issue #12 of The Micronauts, ("Blood Feud"), for instance, Prince Acroyear had to return home and combat Shaitan (a character not unlike Duras), for the ruler-ship of their rough world called "Spartak" (again, the Spartan reference...). I'm not saying that TNG stole anything (any more than Micronauts stole from anything in particular...), only that this comic is a place of intelligent, fascinating ideas; ones that reflect our history in interesting and telling ways.

I remember in 1980 and 1981 -- when I was in fifth grade -- I would stay home sick from school some days and spend the entire time reading Micronaut comics. This was before VCRs were common-place, and so the Micronauts -- in a very important way -- represented the only space epic at my fingertips. 

Through my entire adult life, I've kept those Micronaut comics and in going back and re-reading the adventures, I can't help but suspect that the time has come for a (faithful) movie adaptation. The saga features a distinctive look and style (based on the toys); colorful characters, some great metaphysical mysteries, and an epic, historical sweep.

The Micronauts: Andromeda

This is Baron Karza's "Star Stallion," with "magno-power action firing missiles."  The great thing about this horse is that he could be combined with Baron Karza to become an "Evil Centaur."  Also, you could remove Andromeda's legs and give the animal...wheels.

On the side of goodness was Baron Karza's opposite, Force Commander.  Force Commander rode a white steed named Oberon, and could also combine with his rider to become a centaur.

The Micronauts: Biotron

When I turned seven, one of the toys I wanted most for my birthday was "Biotron" a huge interchangeable robot from the Mego Micronauts collection.

My granny -- Tippie from Texas -- came through, and I was thrilled.  And incidentally, she came through for me again for Christmas that year with the glorious Micronauts Battle Cruiser.  But that's another story.

Biotron is a "motorized robot" who "holds up to three Micronauts" and "adapts to other Micronaut accessories," according to the box legend.  The same legend instructs kids to "use him four ways."

Fully assembled, Biotron is a huge robot, standing approximately a foot tall.  He runs on two "C" batteries, and when activated can kind of shuffle around on his jet-like, blue-plastic feet.  He's the perfect companion to another Micronauts robot, Microtron, and in the Marvel Comics, indeed, they were matched up together often.

One of the Micronauts (Space Glider, Galactic Warrior or Time Traveler) can ride inside Biotron's transparent chest panel, and I always loved Biotron's gripping, snapping hands, which could catch the enemy, the Acroyear.  

I don't know if I'm remembering it exactly right, but I think that Biotron was my first big Micronauts toy.  I had a few action figures (Galactic Warrior and Time Traveler) at that point, but none of the "big" items.  That soon changed, but I always had a love for this chrome-faced, goliath of a robot.

Today, Biotron has a good home in my office, though his box is showing a great deal of wear, and so are his hands.  The chrome has worn off his grippers in some spots, revealing a kind yucky green under-color.  (I hope it's not mold...).

The Micronauts: Hornetroid

It would be a tough call to select my favorite Mego Micronauts toy from the 1970s, but leading the pack would be 1979’s Hornetroid, “the fearsome Myriapod from the far-off galaxy of Thoraxia.”  The baddest MF in the Microverse, the Hornetroid is an interchangeable aerial attack ship that resembles a giant, malevolent insect.

The Hornetroid features a front cockpit which opens to house Micronaut action figures, gripping mandibles, four translucent purple wings, a cockpit canopy that resembles compound eyes, laser cannons and more.  The Hornetroid’s wings, for instance, could flap up-and-down by pressing a tab on the ship’s dorsal spine. 

Released at the same time as the “Terraphant” (a terrestrial vehicle resembling a monster elephant…) and personalities such as Membros (with the glow-in-the-dark brain), Hornetroid also shared an awesome quality with toys such as Milton Bradley’s Star Bird and Mattel’s Space: 1999 Eagle One.  In particular, the Hornetroid could come apart, and re-form into a scout mode by joining the aft and fore compartments and discarding the middle module. 

Mego’s Hornetroid was perhaps my most desired toy of 1979 because it looked so damn scary and cool.  I still own the one my Granny bought for me that year, but it is in really, really bad shape after three-and-a-half decades.  The back dorsal wing/spine is snapped off, along with one of the front compartment’s antennae.  

I’ve also managed to lose the weird transparent purple “bomb” to the ship.  I had it just a few years ago, but now it is gone.

The Hornetroid, though not the right scale, also appeared in the popular Micronauts comic-book series from Marvel.

The Micronauts: Micropolis

This is the Micronauts “building set that never stops growing” from Mego  

As the box art suggests: “Make this and dozens of fantastic space age structures for your micronauts.” 

These space-age construction sets “enable your child to build any number of different toys that can be taken apart and put together over and over again.  Using a simple five millimeter plug and receptacle system, Micropolis building sets will adapt to all Micropolis figures and accessories."

I have two Micropolis sets in my collection, the Interplanetary Headquarters and Mega City (which consists of 579 parts).  

Joel and I have a lot of fun building new configurations together, but the "plug and receptacle system" can really, really hurt your fingers...

Jigsaw Puzzle of the Week: The Micronauts (Baron Karza)

World of the Micronauts Colorforms

Halloween Costume of the Week: The Micronauts (Ben Cooper):

Board Game of the Week: the World of the Micronauts