Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Star Trek: The Next Generation 30th Anniversary Blogging: "Justice" (November 9, 1987)

Stardate: 41255.6

After settling a Federation colony in a nearby solar system, the Enterprise visits Rubicun III, a planet populated by the friendly, and sexually-liberated Edo.

Shore leave privileges are approved on the planet, after a review of local customs by Lt. Yar (Denise Crosby), but the Enterprise must also reckon with a sensor ghost in orbit: a giant phantom-like presence that resembles a space station.

Meanwhile, the legal customs of the Edo prove not to be quite as liberated as the citizenry’s sexual behavior. Capital punishment -- for every crime -- is widely used as a deterrent.

Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton) accidentally breaks a law while playing ball with some Rubicun youth, and is sentenced to die for the transgression.

Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) wants to adhere to the Prime Directive, and not interfere in the planet’s customs, but he also knows he can’t let the boy die over a minor infraction (destroying young plants, accidentally).

Picard must weigh his choice carefully, however, because the phantom in space is worshiped by the Edo as a God.

And that “God” takes care of them, and warns the Enterprise not to interfere with its “children.”

I readily confess that I like “Justice” a good bit more than I do many early first season offerings of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

This episode gets away from the oft-seen sound-stage interiors and fake rocks found there to shoot on location, for one thing.  It also follows to the hilt Gene Roddenberry’s “kinky” proclivities, and, finally, tests Captain Picard most profoundly. 

On that last front, our good captain is very much in the middle. While he is judging the customs of the Edo, he is, simultaneously, being judged by the Edo’s God. Captain Picard may think the Edo primitive and misguided for their legal system, but for every move he makes, he must weigh how his behavior reflects on him, his crew, and even the Federation.

He is battling his responsibility to the letter of the law, but also responsibility for his people, namely Wesley.

Today, the sexuality of the Edo -- “playing at love,” scantily clad, and oiled up -- probably seems like nothing scandalous, or even a bit cheesy.  To which I would say; remember context.

We have had thirty years since “Justice” aired to grow accustomed to more provocative TV on premium cable (HBO), regular cable, and even network television. In 1987, however, this was all cutting-edge stuff. Star Trek was a “family franchise” pushing the envelope on content and visuals. 

Too often, I think, people forget that fact, now. It’s easy to laugh at this show, and call it “Planet of the Joggers” (because all the super physically-fit Edo run everywhere, in what looks like a public resort), but the fact of the matter is that the episode is very frank about sexuality. Although we don’t see it, it’s pretty clear that the Enterprise crew who are visiting the planet are engaging sex with these people. There’s a sexual charge in some of the sequences, such as Worf and Rivan’s (Brenda Bakke) introduction, or Tasha’s look of contentment and arousal when she notes that the locals make love at the drop of “any” hat.

Remember: 1987.

On Star Trek.

Thematically, “Justice” is a much like the series premiere, “Encounter at Farpoint” in that it concerns a superior alien being judging the crew of the Enterprise. This is a common Star Trek theme, but here the emphasis is a bit different.

In “Encounter at Farpoint,” Q had no real interest in the Bandi, or what happened to them, let alone the jellyfish aliens. He just wanted to see if the humans could solve what he viewed as a complex mystery.

In “Justice,” Picard must make a choice -- based on his values -- which he knows the God Alien won’t like.  And the God Alien is invested in the Edo the very way that Beverly and Picard are invested in Wesley.  This is an elegant dramatic structure, one often overlooked in the negative reviews of the installment. Picard has to act as judge, even as he is judged. 

Even surrounded by the half-naked Edo, Patrick Stewart displays a kind of intellectual dignity in this episode, showing us how Picard grapples with his choices, and does his best to be consistent.  For me, this is the first “real” Picard episode since the pilot. Since then, we’ve seen him silly and drunk (“The Naked Now”), hamstrung and frustrated (“Code of Honor”), relegated to the ship while philosophical leadership is delegated to Riker (“The Last Outpost”), and even cranky and surly (“Lonely Among Us.”)  Here, he assumes leadership, and we see how he lives by his ideals, and makes decisions by his ideals.

He has an issue to grapple with too, and so “Justice” is smart. Where, we all must wonder, is the consistency in having a law (like the Prime Directive) and breaking it when one judges it wrong?  How can we, or the God Alien, respect Picard if he breaks the rules he supposedly reveres?

That consistency emerges in the adult acknowledgement that even though law is necessary to maintain a civilization, it won’t serve the needs of that civilization in every situation. There must be exceptions to the law, or there is law, but not justice.  And those are two different things. It is not just to kill someone for falling into a bed of plants, even if it is the law.

We live in a country that sometimes tries 13-year old minors as adults in court, even though they are not adults. We live in a country that administers the death penalty on a regular basis to the poorest of the community; people who can't afford proper legal representation in some cases.  Therefore, this talk of justice is not irrelevant to the program’s audience. And so in the best tradition of Star Trek, “Justice” is not really about some alien planet and its customs. It is about us and how we view it.  Are our laws always fair? Are they applied equally to all?  Do they foster justice, or do they foster inequality?

Back in 2006, I had the chance to discuss “Justice” a little with its director, James Conway, and he told me about the experience: “I did "Justice," which was the ninth show…That was a lot of fun. That was a classic old-style Star Trek episode. I remember that one of the first things I shot on the show was the scene where we beamed in like nine people at once. It was unwieldy to try to photograph nine people on one side, and then all the people seeing them on the other side."

"It was fun," he also observed of the episode’s production. "They spent a lot of time designing the costumes. If you look at the old, early Season One of TNG, and you see where it went in seasons three and four when it became such a huge hit...it's a totally different TV show."  It ["Justice"] was very much a Gene Roddenberry-style show. He was a great guy, by the way. I loved Gene. When he left the show...originally there was no interfering with other cultures, so there were no fights, there was no action to speak of. And frankly I think the show got much better when the Borg showed up and everyone started shooting at each other. It [“Justice”] was like an updated version of the original series, down to the wardrobe," he concludes.

I think he’s right. “Justice,” warts and all, feels a bit more like Original Trek, than many chapters of The Next Generation do.  For me, that’s not a bad thing at all.  “Justice” is provocative in design, costume, and ideas, and that, in my book, is what makes for good science fiction television. 

Next Week: “The Battle.”

Monday, January 15, 2018

The X-Files: "My Struggle III" (January 3, 2018)

The X-Files (1993 – 2002; 2016, 2018) has returned for Season 11, and I’m behind the eight-ball here reviewing the new season of ten episodes. 

Hopefully, I will catch-up quickly. (Right now I’m two episodes back!)

We must begin our look at the new season with “My Struggle III,” the shocking resolution (of sorts) to the Season 10 cliffhanger. The third part of the “My Struggle” saga, written and directed by Chris Carter, aired in the U.S. on January 3rd, 2018, and has fiercely divided critics and audiences for two reasons.

First, the episode ret-cons the Season Ten finale completely.

Secondly, this episode offers a revelation -- utilizing footage from a Season Seven episode called “En Ami” -- that has apparently enraged some fans.

In other words, The X-Files is right back exactly where it belongs: ambitiously taking chances, and refusing to rest on old victories. Instead of rehashing old successes, the series pushes forward right into the madness of the Trump Era, challenging us with new ideas and new perceptions.

The Carter series enters its eleventh season with an action-packed inaugural installment that, more than anything, tells us a truth about Scully that we need to hear and acknowledge. She is not immune from the toxic white masculinity that we have seen on display in the news in recent months, but has been a part of life for women in the workplace going back decades. Instead, Scully is part of the “Me Too” Movement (and hopefully “Time’s Up” Movement) in a way that is shocking, sickening, and heart-breaking.

What does this mean?

Broadly, it means, once more, that The X-Files has charted a path that is one part fantasy or science fiction, and one part social commentary.  The series was never really about aliens, or monsters or even conspiracies, but rather about what aliens, monsters, and conspiracies say about us, and the times we live in.

Consider that The X-Files has always concerned the elite few (The Syndicate, for instance) who wield inordinate power over the rest of us, shaping events to their liking; consolidating power and wealth.  “My Struggle III” is perfectly in line with that historic arc or through-line, inscribing another line of infamy to the Cigarette Smoking Man’s ledger of evil. He not only made decisions that affected the lives of millions; he made a choice involving Scully’s body that he had no right to make.

Before we delve further into exactly why this story is so powerful, and so perfectly aligned with our times, a brief summary of the narrative is necessary.

“My Struggle III” opens with images of apocalypse. The world is dying from the Spartan Virus, which has been unleashed by the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis). Mulder (David Duchovny) is dying from the virus as well. Scully (Gillian Anderson) needs William to save both the human race and the man she loves, knowing that only her son’s unusual (and part alien?) DNA can save humanity. On the way to help Mulder, an alien ship, apparently, shines on a light on Scully.

She looks up, and we push into her face…only to find that this is all a premonition. Scully has had a seizure and witnessed the future, not the present. Mulder is not dying, and the Spartan Virus exists, but has not yet been unleashed.

Scully has seen a glimpse of the end, but the important thing is that the storyline we saw in Season 10 is not abandoned. Despite what some critics have suggested, this is not a “Patrick Duffy in the Shower” moment. Instead, it is a preview of what is yet to come, a message sent to Scully from, of all sources, her son: William. He is out there somewhere, and has telepathically transmitted this message to her. It has manifested, physiologically, as a seizure.

Now, Mulder and Scully are prepared to stop the Cigarette Smoking Man’s plans.

That’s not the end, however.

We also learn in “My Struggle 3” that there is a second conspiracy working against the Cigarette Smoking Man.  Barbara Hershey’s Erika Price leads this cabal. As much as the Smoking Man wants to save Scully -- because he is in love with her -- this conspiracy desires her dead, because it knows that she, Mulder and William have the power to stop them.

Mulder and Scully resolve to go back to their jobs, knowing that William is trying to find them, but there is a final twist.

The Cigarette Smoking Man reveals to Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) that years earlier, in 2000, he “impregnated” Scully with “science” (particularly “alien science.”) 

Hence, in some fashion, he is William’s father.

Let’s consider the retcon first.

As I said before, this is not a Patrick Duffy moment in the shower. That reference alludes to the soap opera series Dallas, in which Duffy’s character, Bobby Ewing, was killed. A whole season worth of shows were created in which his character was, actually, dead. Then, as a season cliffhanger, he was shown to be alive, in the shower, the whole season (and his death) explained as his wife’s dream.  The whole season, basically, was “undone” by this twist.

Carter does not treat Season 10 with any such level of disrespect or dismissal in the premiere of Season 11. Again, all the plot lines we saw laid out in “My Struggle II” are still in the offing. Mulder is going to get sick and die. The Cigarette Smoking Man is going to release the Spartan Virus. Humanity is moving towards extinction. 

Only the timeline of these events has changed.

Why is this a smart and valid dramatic choice?

For a few reasons.

First, thematically, The X-Files has often dramatized stories involving people with telekinetic and telepathic abilities (“Oubliette,” “Mind’s Eye”). Superhuman mental powers are therefore, valid terrain for the show to explore. In this case, we’re in the terrain of precognition, or premonitions, another realm of the paranormal worthy of investigation. And the source of this “message” is similarly, a character we know possess paranormal abilities, William. His abilities were seen at the start of Season 9.

Secondly, by positioning William as the source of Scully’s premonition (the sender, as it were), “My Struggle III” grants Season 11 an emotionally-powerful purpose. I loved Season 10 and did not find it purposeless or meandering in the slightest. But some critics seemed to quibble with it, and the way it featured Mytharc book-ends, with seemingly unrelated monster-of-the-week stories in the middle. Now, Season 11 boasts a twin purpose, right out the gate: to locate William, and to prevent the end of human life, in the process saving Mulder’s life. Even the standalone stories will, apparently, be seen through this lens.

The second controversial aspect of “My Struggle III” is the one that I find more valuable, and more relevant than clever approach to the story. The audience learns that The Cigarette Smoking Man assaulted Scully. He drugged her, and took away her right to consent. This is very much a struggle of the moment, as we have seen, one that has brought down men in power such as Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and others. It is one that has effected women including Eliza Dushku, Rose McGowan, and many, many others. Above, I called it the culture of toxic white masculinity, and this is clearly also the culture of the Cigarette Smoking Man. Clearly, he feels there is nothing he can’t do, no one he can’t hurt or control, to get what he wants.  (This facts makes his co-opting of Monica Reyes all the more tragic).

I have read comments online from some fans of the series who are very angry about this revelation regarding William’s parentage, though we actually see footage from “En Ami” to back-it-up.  Again, the information doesn’t come from nowhere, but rather from accepted and long-known X-Files lore.

But some fans have actually accused The X-Files of being sexist and toxic for putting Scully through this storyline.  By telling this particular story, however, the series does not endorse the Cigarette Smoking Man’s behavior. Quite the contrary. He is, after all, the villain. Instead, the series is acknowledging the reality that we have always known: Scully has succeeded in a male-dominated profession, but has never held “the power” in that profession.  The power was held, instead, by men like CGB Spender.

I never thought I would see the day when fans are no longer smart enough to distinguish between the behavior of the villain in the drama, and creative purpose of said drama. The last year, however, I have seen attacks on Star Trek: Discovery, Star Wars: The Last Jedi and now The X-Files that suggest there are some toxic behaviors and people in geek culture too

No work of art carries any meaning, if it does not relate to the context from which it arose. Rather than appealing to nostalgia for the 1990’s, The X-Files Season 11 has aggressively pushed into 2018 by revealing that Scully has had a “me too” moment, like so many women that we have recently learned about. She is not immune to the pervasive behavior of an entire culture. We may not like this revelation, and of course we wish differently for her (because we love Scully), but The X-Files has always kept a foot in reality.

Remember, Scully has battled cancer. She has fought infertility. She has fought sexism in her job (see: “2Shy”). And now we know she is part of the “Me Too” or “Time’s Up” moment as well.

I am really, really looking forward to Scully and Mulder telling the Cigarette Smoking Man that his time is up. I hope we see that, especially after this revelation. But to suggest that The X-Files is abusive, or pro-abuse because of this narrative is absurd. Instead, we must reckon with the fact that the abuse we see in the real world has a corollary in the world of The X-Files. I am curious to see Scully’s response when she learns what the Cigarette Smoking Man did to her.

The X-Files also takes on the Trump Era in other ways, with references not merely to “Me Too,” but “Fake News” and “Alternative Facts.” We live in an era when an authoritarian President dismisses any news that he doesn’t like as “fake.”

Let’s face it, that’s his criteria. If news paints him in a bad light, it is fake. If he gets caught in a lie, it’s not a lie at all, just an “alternative fact.”

It’s a dangerous time, and when we, as a nation, can no longer detect the truth, we are all in danger, from enemies inside and outside the country. And indeed, that is also what “My Struggle 3” concerns quite directly: our inability to distinguish between purposeful distraction, lies, and truth. The Cigarette Smoking Man can execute his plan for genocide in part because we can’t even agree on a set of facts anymore.

When we are turned inward like this, our enemies grow in strength.  Even climate change, and our rejection of the Paris Agreement is tangentially connected here, to X-Files lore. Apparently the alien invasion of 2012 did not occur because the aliens, who long sought to reclaim this world, no longer desire to own a world that we are so rapidly destroying.

It’s a caustic throwaway detail, but one that perfectly captures the essence of Trump Age, the looting of America by the 1%.

While watching “My Struggle 3,” my wife and both felt that it packed about two hours-worth of action and details into 40 minutes. It seems like virtually every scene is overloaded with two tracks: physical action and voice-over narration. There’s an inevitability to the way the story unfolds here that is both nerve-wracking and, at times, oddly dream-like. The story is both highly intellectual, in the musings of its main characters (including the Cigarette Smoking Man) and at the same time, action packed. This episode is dominated by car chases and fight scenes. One harrowing sequence sees Scully nearly murdered in a hospital bed, and Mulder slitting the assailant’s throat.  In addition to being a philosopher of sorts, Carter has become an expert choreographer of action sequences.

The undeniable impression from “My Struggle 3” is that The X-Files is going for broke, pushing harder and faster than ever before.  The series is headed in new directions, challenging us to keep up, and re-evaluate what we think the series “is.”

I’m good with that.

Next up: “This.”

The Cult-TV Faces of: Addicts











Saturday, January 13, 2018

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Far Out Space Nuts: "Secrets of the Hexagon" (November 6, 1975)

In “Secrets of the Hexagon,” the space nuts’ lander is broken once more, and Junior (Bob Denver) feels useless because he can’t do anything to help. The lander is out of fuel.

A strange alien named Flam, however, soon appears near Junior, and makes a trade: a useless hexagon device for the lander. Junior accidentally agrees, and must explain to Barney (Chuck McCann) how he has traded away their only ticket back home, to Earth.

Soon, however, the space nuts learn how to operate the Hexagon. It is actually a talking key that leads them to a mysterious lost city, and the strange duplication device housed there.  If Barney and Junior can just reclaim their lander, they can duplicate all the fuel they need to return home.

Unfortunately, Flam stole the hexagon device from two hostile aliens, who wish to reacquire it.

Another week, another ridiculous episode of Sid and Marty Krofft’s 1975 live-action romp, Far Out Space Nuts. “Secrets of the Hexagon” features alien beings who look like humanoid moles, a lost city, and a blooper that reveals just how low-budget the production must have been.

In that blooper, we see Barney and Junior driving their rover vehicle in a circle over the landscape. The camera moves just a little to one side, and the capsule, or lunar lander, is visible behind them. At this point in the story, however, Flam has taken the lander -- it has de-materialized -- and they are going off to the lost city in an effort to recover it. The lunar lander mock-up is moved from its normal position…by about three feet, and just by moving the camera a tiny bit, it is still visible. The sound-stage where the episode was shot must have been tiny!

As usual, the strangeness of the series is evident in this episode. In the lost city, Barney and Junior happen across a cosmic barbershop and pretend to be barbers, so they can put on patches of hair, and masquerade as the space mole people. Miraculously, the gambit works.  But a barbershop on an alien planet? Why do the mole people even stop to get their hair cut in the first place, in a city they know to be abandoned? When they are looking for their missing technology!  ("Oh let's stop here, I need a trim.")

The alien villain of the week is named “Flam” (as in the word “flim flam,), but forget that term, which means confidence game, or swindle.

These old episodes aren’t “flim flam,” but they sure seem to have been made on a wing and a prayer.  

Next week: “Captain Torque, Space Pirate.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Challenge of the Super Friends: "Fairy Tale of Doom" (December 2, 1978)

In “Fairy Tale of Doom,” Toyman unveils his “newest and most awesome” invention, a weapon which can zap any living being into the pages of a book.  If someone becomes trapped in said book for more than twelve hours, they are stuck there “forever.

The Legion of Doom traps Hawkman in Jack and the Bean Stalk, which pits him against a giant. And the Man of Steel is tricked into the world of Gulliver’s Travels, and captured in Lilliput.

Meanwhile, Batman, Robin, Green Lantern and Black Vulcan are trapped in a pit in the Hall of Justice, unable to save their friends.  Meanwhile, the clock ticks down...

Another episode of Challenge of the Super Friends (1978), another ridiculous (but enjoyable) plot-line. This week, the Legion of Doom traps our favorite DC heroes in the fictional world of books.  

It’s a dopey idea -- “Holy Science Fiction!” as Robin exclaims -- and yet an installment filled with fun little Easter eggs.

For instance, the Nautilus, Captain Nemo’s submarine from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, makes a guest appearance in “Fairy Tale of Doom,” and in design it looks almost exactly like the beloved Disney Nautilus from the 1954 film.

Later, while the superheroes fight in Japan, we see a sign for “Toho,” the studio that produces the Godzilla films (and which had licensed Godzilla to Hanna-Barbera for a 1978 Saturday morning series of his own…).

Otherwise, this is your standard episode of the series. Everyone announces what they are going to do, as they do it, and a character inevitably states “That’s what you think!” This time, Toyman gets the honor. 

And, of course, the situations are ridiculous. I noted above that Batman, Robin, Green Lantern and Black Vulcan become trapped in a pit in the Hall of Justice. It has an open-ended top, but the series writers apparently forget that both Black Vulcan and Green Lantern can fly. A hole in the floor shouldn’t impede them;

Next week: “Doomsday.”

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Cult-TV Blogging: The Immortal: "White Elephants Don't Grow on Trees" (October 1, 1970)

In “White Elephants Don’t Grow on Trees,” the third episode of the short-lived series The Immortal (1970-1971), Ben Richards (Christopher George) is on the run.

During his travels, Ben encounters a man named Eddie (Ross Martin), who is struggling to keep custody of his son, Judd (Mitch Vogel), in part because he doesn’t hold down a stable job.

Instead, Eddie travels the southwest and participates in blind auctions, hoping for a “white elephant,” a windfall that will set him up for life.

As Ben first meets Eddie, the fly-by-night gent is transporting in his rickety truck a shipment of leaky World War I explosives. Ben helps save Eddie and Judd’s lives with his driving skills on the mountain roads, thereby preventing the unstable canisters from igniting. A few canisters are ditched off a mountain ledge, just before they explode.

A nearby plant -- owned by Maitland, and visited by Fletcher (Don Knight) -- offers Eddie nearly six thousand dollars if he gives up Richards, plus another four thousand for the remaining canisters.

But Eddie can’t bring himself to surrender the man who has saved his life…

“White Elephants Don’t Grow on Trees” takes The Immortal into full-on The Fugitive (1963-1967) territory, with the (alpha) man-on-the-run protagonist, in this case Richards, helping out strangers in need; strangers with no connection to his particular plight or overall narrative.

The hapless pursuer -- Fletcher -- is nearby, of course, and the story is a standalone, meaning that it ends with Richards bound for his next (unrelated) destination. In other words, this story doesn't really contribute anything in terms of a story arc.

Because there is no story arc.

Although the man-on-the-run formula is strongly intact, and familiar, I should be clear: this is nonetheless an extremely entertaining episode of the series, and one brought to life by a great, heartfelt performance from Ross Martin.  

His Eddie is a dreamer with a choice to make. Should he go on dreaming, or take a real job and thus be able to support Judd?

Which is more important to him, pursuing those white elephants, or providing stability for his son?

Even today, this subplot carries an emotional resonance. The story, although obviously a one-off (and a formulaic one) is involving, and not irrelevant. Many men and women who become parents have to ask themselves a similar question at some juncture. When do they stop pursuing their own dreams and begin laying down the groundwork for their children’s dreams, instead? As a writer, I am not at all immune to this conflict.

What makes Eddie's situation worse is that there is a "responsible" adult (the boy's aunt) nearby, looking at him and his career choices with constant disapproval. She thinks she would do a better job raising Judd than Eddie can do. At one point, Eddie decides she's right, and gives up custody of Judd. Ben sees the whole pitiful hand-over, and finds it as troubling as we -- the viewers -- do. Ben's compassion for the situation makes him seem a more likable lead. We can see that he cares about Eddie and Judd.

The story, of a truck transporting explosives over dangerous terrain, is a well-tread movie and TV trope. Film fans will recognize it from The Wages of Fear (1953,  and its William Friedkin remake, Sorcerer (1977).  Long-time TV fans will recognize “White Elephants Don’t Grow on Trees” as forecasting a similar story on Gemini Man (1976); one that finds hero Ben Casey transporting the volatile substance “tripolodine” over difficult roads, all while under pursuit by bad guys.

What may be most fascinating about “White Elephants Don’t Grow on Trees” is the opening act. After a brief burst of dialogue, the episode goes nearly seven minutes without any speaking at all. Instead, it features an incredible, knock-down, drag-out chase between Ben Richards and pursuing cars. 

He’s on foot, attempting to evade his pursuers, and the cars are on Ben's heels the whole time. The action is sustained, and incredibly impressive. 

If one looks at The Immortal as an action series, it doesn’t disappoint at all. Indeed,  the program often features great stunt work and strong fight choreography.  

From a science fiction standpoint, however, the series largely disappoints. The concepts underlying Richards’ condition are rarely explored in anything approaching an intriguing fashion.  The series is so well-made, from performances to musical score, but The Immortal can't marshal all its elements to jump over the restrictions of its rigid, old-fashioned format.

Next week: “Reflections on a Lost Tomorrow.”