Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Johnny Sokko And His Flying Robot

"That giant robot is under your control Johnny. The unicorn organization works for world peace. Will you join us Johnny Sokko?" -Head of Unicorn-

"The world needs your help now Johnny. The Gargoyle Gang wants to conquer the Earth. They will strike again with strange and terrible weapons."

"I will join you. I want to help save the world."
-Johnny Sokko-





The arrival of the mighty Johnny Sokko And His Flying Robot (1967-1968; Giant Robo in Japan; 26 episodes) was something akin to a Christmas miracle.

To say that I loved Johnny Sokko as a kid would be an understatement. It ranked high alongside classics like Starblazers (1979-1984) and Battle Of The Planets (1978-1980) (both of the aforementioned series completely ignored from proper DVD treatments here in North America never mind Blu-Ray). The transfer for this series, released by Shout!, sadly leaves a lot to be desired but it's something and likely the only chance to see it. Faint praise I know.



For those of you familiar with Johnny Sokko you likely grew up in a world populated by Gamera and the glorious fantasy and kaiju works that hailed from Japan. In fact, you'll love just saying Johnny Sokko even today. Jerry Seinfeld once said he loved saying the word Salsa. But Sokko is pretty fun too. Sokko - Sokko - Sokko! It must be an 'S' thing. You see, it's a blast! And so is this little known kaiju classic series, once deemed to be fairly risqué with its level of television violence here in the states, Johnny Sokko And His Flying Robot kicked much childhood ass! You can see the glorious fun of the series in the images (not extraordinary quality I know) here taken from its first two episodes, Dracolon The Great Sea Monster and Nucleon The Magic Globe.



Johnny Sokko and Unicorn battle the evil Guillotine and his Gargoyle Gang and henchmen Spider in this exciting fantasy adventure that unabashedly takes a page from all kinds of sources for its own gonzo good fun.

There is the giant robot of course which is piloted by a child, but not in the cockpit sense anime fans have come accustomed to and know and love, but rather by a wrist watch communicator.



Any number of robot anime can see an influence from Johnny Sokko (or Giant Robo), but Johnny Sokko And His Flying Robot (a Toei production) take a page from the likes of any number of kaiju pictures in Japan and owes a debt of gratitude to the likes of Ultra Q (1966; on DVD and being released on Blu-Ray in 2019).

There's even similarities to Science Ninja Team Gatchaman in formula. Unicorn is a kind of G Force and Guillotine is like the Luminous One while Spider plays Zoltar and the Gargoyle Gang the Spectran Goons. You can see the endless, clear influence of one Japanese fantasy production on another. Look no further than Tetsujin 28-go (known in the USA as Gigantor), a manga from 1956-1966, for inspiration here.



But this pastiche of all sorts of Japanese pop culture aside, Johnny Sokko And His Flying Robot still manages to be a fairly wild, good time.

With protagonist Johnny Sokko as the hero representative of children everywhere it's easy to root for him along with Giant Robot. We cheer for them in much the same way children bonded with guardian Gamera and later with Godzilla. The adults in the series are second fiddle to the seemingly more clever Johnny SOKKO!



Toei Company's Johnny Sokko And His Flying Robot was sheer gonzo fantasy within the kaiju eiga genre, the progenitor to the company's own Kamen Rider (1971-1973) and Power Rangers (1993-). It also drew very clear lines between good and evil something often absent in today's programming. But for a brief moment in history this was a short, shining spectacle that stood as a beacon of the best in children's entertainment.

Director: Manuel San Fernando. Writer: Reuben Guberman.


Friday, July 12, 2019

Gerry Anderson: On Making Science Fiction

"I always tried to avoid the enemy being any particular nationality.
And also, equally, I tried to avoid the heroes being any particular nationality.
I always had organizations rather than nationalities.
… 'What do I hope I've achieved?'....
I would like to think that, because hundreds of millions of children over the years have seen my shows, that I've given them enjoyment without doing any damage."

-Gerry Anderson, Starlog Magazine #307 (p.87)-



It's FAB FRIDAY.
Thank God!

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea S1 E7: Turn Back The Clock

"You should be as careful as I am about using the word 'impossible'."
-Admiral Nelson-





Surely nothing was impossible on Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea (1964-1968). Science fiction fans are well aware of the arguably rapid transformation of Lost In Space (1965-1968). The series slid from reliably credible, black and white sci-fi adventure series steeped in fairly sound science fiction concepts into more outlandish, less respectable even wacky sci-fi fantasy comedy. The series gave way to overly colorful stories for the full color Season Two and Three with little concern for sober science fiction ideas. And that slide into the absurd seem to intensify with each passing episode (with exceptions).



Nevertheless, fans like this writer himself are often forgiving and willingly find the positives and layered variations in each new episode of each respective series. Space:1999 (1975-1977) Year Two is another perceived downgrade that took its fair share of criticism. The beloved Star Trek (1966-1969) even saw chinks in its Enterprise-armored hull during its own Season Three. Ironically both Year Two of Space:1999 and Season Three of Star Trek were in the hands of producer Freddie Freiberger, putting that man very much on the hook for any perceived failings, fair or not. But alas, fans of these series find the strengths in both their changing, respective creative landscapes.



Irwin Allen's Voyage Of The Bottom Of The Sea was Allen's inaugural television launch and followed his own motion picture of the same name in 1961. Many of the props and some of the footage were often recycled for the series to maintain costs.

Lost In Space, The Time Tunnel (1966-1967) and Land Of The Giants (1968-1970) would all follow suit.

Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea, like Lost In Space, began in earnest. The series would change course and move from a relatively suspenseful military-styled action adventure series jumping into a full-on science fiction-fantasy show faster than a torpedo launch.



Truth be told, like Lost In Space, where Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea would ultimately surface for its final three seasons is quickly foreshadowed here in Season One.

The Price Of Doom (S1, E5), written by Cord Wainer Bird (a.k.a. Harlan Ellison), sees the crew of the Seaview under attack from a plankton mutation that seems to borrow from a mixture of The Blob and The Thing From Another World. It does so to good effect. This episode seemed to chart the series course toward the monsters, which inevitably invaded Lost In Space too.



Flying saucers become central to The Sky Is Falling (S1, E6) and one begins to see where this Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea is quickly headed. Saucers---isn't this an underwater series? The question is does it sink or swim despite its transformation. Fans of the original template tend to get sucked into the fantasy ride even when it defies logic. Irwin Allen was all about escapism. He couldn't resist creating that kind of entertainment and he knew how to tap into the intrigue of viewers.

This writer takes a look at a sampling of Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea episodes.

Our first pick is Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea, Season One, Episode 7, Turn Back The Clock but why?

 

It's certainly not because of the alleged prehistoric dinosaur footage (not really dinosaurs) liberally borrowed (talk about heavy recycling) from Allen's own The Lost World (1960; the Allen production also starred David Hedison of VTTBOTS and Michael Rennie). Dinosaurs is likely the next sign of declining things to come for VTTBOTS behind mutating plankton and flying saucers. One can really start to see what a gonzo TV production Irwin Allen was getting behind here very quickly.

Honestly, what caught this writer geek's eye was the fact that first the late Yvonne Craig (Batman, Star Trek) makes a guest appearance as well as the gorgeous, truly sexy Vitina Marcus (Lost In Space). And second, my man crush, alongside Doug McClure, Nick Adams guests on the episode.



As a young man I couldn't get enough of Craig as Bat Girl or as green Orion slave girl Marta in Whom Gods Destroy (ST: TOS S3 E14). More importantly, Toho introduced me to Nick Adams as Astronaut Glenn in Invasion Of Astro Monster (1965; a.k.a. Godzilla Vs. Monster Zero) as well as his role in Frankenstein Conquers The World (1965). He also starred in Die Monster Die! (also 1965; a very busy year). He made those aforementioned Toho films opposite the beautiful Kumi Mizuno with whom it's alleged he had an affair. There was indeed chemistry and who could blame him? Mizuno was a true Japanese beauty that I hard crushed on. I was a young boy in crush heaven in the syndicated 1970s. Trust me. Pure bliss.



Sadly, Adams passed this mortal coil in 1968, but for some reason his work resonated with me. When I saw a Toho film with Mizuno and Adams showing up on Creature Double Feature on a Saturday it was time to fake sick, roll out the pop tarts, fruity pebbles and coffee milk and this little boy was locked and sugar loaded for a glorious Saturday.

Adams' story (1931-1968) is not the happiest one either but there was a kind James Dean (with whom he was friends) likeability about the actor and I still enjoy his work today. Adams was likely the biggest reason I needed to see Turn Back The Clock so I could I could do just that for myself.



In honor of the enjoyment Craig, Adams and Marcus provided me in my youth, Turn Back The Clock seemed a necessary starting point to write about here for Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea. Adams' appearance here would arrive four years before his untimely death at the young age of 36 and one year before his work in those classic Toho productions many of us adore.

Never quite reaching the heights of a tall, conventionally handsome leading man, Adams persisted and landed his own series, The Rebel (1959-1961; 76 episodes), which he created and starred opposite guests like Leonard Nimoy and Johnny Cash. And before arriving on Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea, landed an episode of The Outer Limits (1963-1965). The episode was Fun And Games in 1964 a few months shy of his work on this episode.



Adams was such a character in real life. He was wild, mischievous and seemingly seeking attention and the limelight to the detriment of his reputation throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Oddly, Adams actually wrote a manuscript called The Rebel And The King about his friendship with Elvis Presley in 1956. It was discovered by his daughter and published in 2012.

There was indeed a kind of self-destructive volatility to the troubled man, a desperation and desire by Adams to be loved (like a lot of Hollywood actors) and for whatever reason that element of damage comes across in his performances. This writer has always been drawn to them. I'm not sure what that says about me.



So ironically, we turned back the clock a bit to look at the actor who appears here in the growingly outlandish adventures of Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea in his slightly hammy performance as Jason.

Add to his feature role the enchanting Vitina Marcus and you have an episode worth investigating on faces alone. Marcus had already appeared in Allen's The Lost World (1960) as a native girl. So her appearance here is a mix of stock footage and new footage by the actress. Marcus would become truly iconic as guest stars go after appearing in two popular Lost In Space episodes as The Girl From The Green Dimension (Wild Adventure S2 E2, The Girl From The Green Dimension S2 E16), a stunningly sexy, playful thing that charged the imagination of young boys everywhere wearing a sparkling green cat suit.



Take all of these faces and you have a classic, cult entry of television science fiction history.

Turn Back The Clock about a group from the Seaview discovering a tropical pocket universe via diving bell in the Arctic serves up a decent bit of sci-fi television for its time riffing liberally on Allen's own The Lost World (1960). Audience reaction to its liberal use of the stock footage was extremely negative. One viewer called it a "voyage to the bottom of the ratings." Writer Sheldon Stark noted in Starlog Magazine #181, "that was Irwin. Anything to save a buck!" (p.65). Turn Back The Clock was actually an episode intended to test the market for a potential The Lost World series.

In fact, VTTBOTS star David Hedison had featured in The Lost World film along with Vitina Marcus and this episode utilizes footage of the two from that film.



Hedison has no love for that picture. "There are pictures you never want to see again---like The Lost World. There's a whole slew of shit I avoid like the plague. I didn't want to do Lost World, but I was under contract to the studio, it was something I had to do" (Starlog Magazine #145, p.58). He added, "I was stupid. I should have gone on suspension. But I did it. And I was very unhappy making the film" (Starlog Magazine #303 (p.84).

Hedison, in many interviews, made it clear he really never wanted the part of Captain Lee Crane in VTTBOTS particularly after working for Irwin Allen on The Lost World. It was the hiring of Richard Basehart and the recommendation to take the series by friend Roger Moore (James Bond) upon working on The Saint that Hedison finally relented.



In Starlog Magazine #303 he suggested Allen pursued the actor for one reason. "I know why he wanted me so badly. Because he had all this stock footage of me from The Lost World. He had all these things, 'pieces of David Hedison, all over the place! It wasn't because he loved me so much!" (p.89). Hedison indeed exhibits his frustration in retrospectives of essentially being held back as an actor. With Turn Back The Clock Hedison must have felt he had to relive the indignity of it all twice.



Other films that have taken on the lost world or pocket universe concept, and you likely can name some as well, include King Kong (1933; and all things Kong thereafter), Lost Continent (1951), The Land Unknown (1957), The Valley Of Gwangi (1969), At The Earth's Core (1976), The Last Dinosaur (1977), The Land That Time Forgot (1975), The People That Time Forgot (1977) and the fantastical Warlords Of Atlantis (1978) which even includes the diving bell. All three of the aforementioned films were directed by Kevin Connor. The first two films were based on books by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Other man crush Doug McClure starred in all three. You see how it all comes full circle? Shane Rimmer (Thunderbirds) featured in the last two films.



And on television the wonderful Land Of The Lost handled the pocket universe storyline with real aplomb for a kid's entertainment thanks to great writing.

Turn Back The Clock was written by Sheldon Stark, his only contribution to VTTBOTS, but would write for Allen's Land Of The Giants and later an Emmy nominated episode (The Roots S2 E5) for The Waltons (1972-1981).



As much as Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea is by and large premiere, gonzo, escapist Irwin Allen fare, it's easy to see the series continue to come together. The cast grows more at ease and the pacing improves in selling all of the fantastical concepts faced by the Seaview above and below sea level. Turn Back The Clock may not be the best of television's past but there's enough there to understand why we always look back to the classics for entertainment. They just don't make them like this on Hollywood's watch anymore as they say.



My initial interest in the story was Nick Adams but the theme of the pocket universe or lost world is always a good one. Now if only this writer could turn back the clock himself we'd be getting somewhere.

Writer: Sheldon Stark (Land Of The Giants)
Director: Alan Crosland, Jr. (Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Outer Limits including The Mutant with Warren Oates)

The beloved Nick Adams meets his fate via stock footage.
Comparing The Lost World to Turn Back The Clock from VTTBOTS. Image from the book Irwin Allen's Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea Volume 1 (Marc Cushman/ Mark Alfred)