Friday, September 30, 2011

UFO Ep6: Conflict

Welcome. It's FAB FRIDAY and all of the latest conflict-filled fun from the make-believe world of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson.

The latest science fiction opus is UFO, Episode 6, Conflict. The entry begins with stunning, credible, vintage Gerry Anderson modelling effects in outer space reminiscing of his Anderson's own Doppelganger [1969] dubbed Journey To The Far Side OF The Sun in the USA. Of course, many of the props and even actors [George Sewell, Ed Bishop, Vladek Sheybal] reappeared in UFO [1970-1971] following that film.

A team is sent on a mission to destroy space refuse. A burned out USA space rocket is spotted with a strange alien device attached, but the pilots of the space debris removal mission don't notice.

On Earth, Ed Straker enters S.H.A.D.O. Headquarters. With blond hair, sunglasses and classic Nehru jacket, Straker is the epitome of Sylvia Anderson fashion and looks the complete chic bad ass to boot. Inside, Straker goes toe to toe with a funding chairman, General James L. Henderson, concerning resources for S.H.A.D.O..

Back on Moonbase, Alec Freeman discusses the latest Straker initiative with a colleague - the removal of space junk [be sure to check out a song of the same name, Space Junk, by Wang Chung]. Freeman calls it a "beautification campaign." His friend indicates the International Astrophysical Commission [I.A.C.] handles all hazardous space debris issues. Alec Freeman is concerned about the project because of Henderson.

Back on Earth Straker argues safety over cost for the project with the stubborn Henderson who identifies Straker as a "thorn" in his side. Henderson wants details and statistics indicating his role as a bureaucrat and paper-pusher. Straker hands him his report for consideration before a final decision will be made. Straker is steadfast in his argument demanding protection of his men at any cost exemplifying the fiber of his character. Straker once again proves himself to be a true leader. He is strong, insistent and unflinching in his resolve, but these men clearly dislike one another. Straker is shown the door.

Straker reaches out to Freeman for the Space Clearance report. Thus is the inherent political nature of UFO as it takes us down a road of sometimes dry and unexciting red tape and inaction. It gives us a sense of the political realities that hamper the planet-saving operation that is S.H.A.D.O..

A ship launches back to Earth with the urgent report passing nearby debris where the alien device detaches and pursues the Moonbase vessel. At Moonbase control Paul Foster indicates to Freeman that Straker is expecting Freeman to deliver the report. He won't be happy.

As it turns out, at least Freeman's alive. The decision not to return to Earth winds up a good one as Lunar Module 32 ends up attached to the Alien Limpet UFO. It quietly connects to the hull and begins impacting the flight trajectory of the S.H.A.D.O. vessel. All instruments are useless as a result of the Alien Limpet. Insertion into the Earth atmosphere causes its destruction following a fairly exciting entry sequence. The alien device detaches just moments before the ship's destruction due to the pilot's inability to correct the insertion coordinates and trajectory.

With the report destroyed Straker makes efforts to convince Henderson to give him more time. Henderson grounds all operations pending an investigation of the ship's demise. He calls Straker's operation "an expensive and unworkable luxury."

Back at Harlington-Straker Film Studios, the facade of S.H.A.D.O. Straker informs Miss Ealand of code word "Washington Square." "It means shut down, cancel lunar flights, the virtual isolation of Moonbase," informs Straker disheartened.

Skydiver is notified of Washington Square. Surprisingly through all of this no one mentions what a relief it is Freeman decided not to make that deadly flight. Freeman contacts Straker who believes the crash was a result of "pilot error" on Captain Steve Maddox. This is a little presumptuous for Commander Straker given his faith in his people and in facts, of which he has none.

Foster does not believe Steve Maddox was responsible. He simply cannot believe Maddox would make that error. Further, Maddox reported the unidentified flying object before his death. This information should speak volumes to all involved. At least Foster is paying attention to common sense. Foster requests the electronic log from Maddox' flight.

In a fine human moment, Freeman visits the Leisure Sphere where a game remains unfinished that he and Maddox had begun playing shortly before his death. A short bit later, Freeman finds Foster in a Lunar Module preparing for take off. Foster plans to find out the truth. Foster believes in Maddox and plans to prove the man's exceptionalism as a pilot. He plans on recreating the events leading to the death of his colleague implementing the same variables. Foster is willing to die for the truth. Freeman asks, "what if you don't make it?" Foster matter of factly relays, "Then I don't."

Straker contacts Foster and wants him to turn around. Foster informs him he's gone too far. Straker agrees, "much too far." He's not happy with Foster. With six minutes until entry here comes the Alien Limpet. Freeman gives the entry angle coordinates. Of course as Foster pilots along we get a kind of amusing, pre-requisite, spooky UFO theme music. It's the kind of accompaniment one might have experienced watching Bobby Brady scare his sisters on The Brady Bunch.

The device attaches to the hull once again. Foster plummets into Earth's atmosphere. The g-forces ripple against his skin. It reminisces of Roger Moore's 007 in a scene from Moonraker [1979]. Alot of people suspected Michael Billington would have made a fine James Bond. The Alien Limpet detaches, but Foster manages the craft and stays alive. Straker's tough commander shines in this line. "But don't let my delight at your survival blind you to the fact that we have a few matters to discuss."

Foster docks the Lunar Module in UFO's makeshift red Thunderbird 2-like aircraft. This may be the best looking mechanical design on the series next to the S.H.A.D.O. Mobile tanks.

Foster reports to the I.A.C.. Straker and Foster have it out with Henderson. Here's a great little moment when tempers flare following political niceties.

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Henderson is an ass though and deduces inaccurately that Straker ordered the Foster flight to acquire information and evidence for his space junk removal program. Still, no one is linking the space junk and with the actual "alien interference" as Straker calls it. It would appear funding is required for something. Henderson threatens Straker that he'll be unemployed following the commission meeting. Straker exits with briefcase. He'll be there to make his case. Foster and Straker also depart with their stunning Nehru suits. Foster's maroon look is particularly striking. It's all very Duran Duran long before Duran Duran. I so want one. Foster's outfit was also worn in Episode 4, Exposed. Of course, that's what all the ladies wanted. Since last entry, Survival, one can only assume Commander Mark Bradley has been relegated and designated back to Lt. following the discovery that Foster was alive.

In a rather sobering conversation in the car, a concerned Foster wonders if Straker's position is in genuine jeopardy. These are certainly stark political realities posed inside the world of UFO. As someone who prides himself on principles I do love this simple, brief exchange between friends.

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There is real heart, discipline and a sense of justice that Michael Billington delivers there. Ed Bishop counters beautifully with his grounded response that the facts sometimes aren't enough. How Michael Billington could be so self-critical of his work on UFO really comes as a surprise as each episode appears to counter those claims with evidence of genuinely quality work [See Survival].


Straker and Foster return to S.H.A.D.O. Headquarters where Foster implores they mustn't just sit around. Straker responds, "I've solved quite a few problems by just sitting around as you call it Colonel. I suggest you try it yourself sometime." Isn't that true?

Straker and Foster deduct the Alien Limpet is hiding inside the debris fields. Based on the path Foster took back to Earth they conclude the location to be four possibilities. It hides like Boba Fett's Slave 1 among the refuse of space. Credit goes to Paul Foster for making the connection between the Alien Limpit and the space junk.

Straker contacts Freeman. He wants the three Interceptors [there are only three that protect Moonbase] to destroy all four "pieces of space junk." I'm not sure how this will be accomplished with three Interceptors. Moonbase will be undefended, but these are the tough decisions Straker must make. Meanwhile, Straker has a plan and informs Foster to report to Henderson with the Interceptors plan. Foster says Henderson will go berserk and hopes Straker knows what he's doing. The master tactician is at work once again.

Straker informs Miss Ealand to defer any calls from General Henderson, but if he arrives escort him to his office. When Henderson finally barges into the upper level of Harlington-Straker Film Studios Straker is conducting film business with a scriptwriter or director. Henderson attempts to bark at Straker, but Straker quickly flips open a cigar box forcing Henderson to perform a voice identification check. Henderson is livid that Moonbase remains defenseless. Straker had his reasons. Henderson submits he should start packing. The I.A.C. will not be pleased.

Unprotected, Moonbase spots an object incoming on Moonbase's location. Straker indicates the UFO is headed straight for S.H.A.D.O. Headquarters. Straker orders a complete shutdown - total radio silence. Hearing everything come to a grinding halt and utter silence is a nice touch in the entry. The silence gives the moment real power. The silence is deafening.

In Straker's office, Henderson demands Foster relieve Straker of his duty, but the young UFO operative proves both his medal and his loyalty to his colleague and superior. Straker dissects the plans of the aliens and their intentions not to leave Moonbase open to attack, but to ultimately attack S.H.A.D.O. Headquarters and its top secret underground facility. This would be its ultimate target. Henderson prays that Straker is wrong and that the UFO is not headed their way. Straker tells Henderson he has time to leave. But they wait. And we wait and we wonder what Straker has in mind. Completely off my radar and here comes Skydiver and Captain Peter Carlin. Carlin delivers the kill shot. Carlin reports the UFO destroyed and instead of Hollywood-styled elation and joy celebrated across the complex in cliche fashion we simply hear the ticking of computers and electronics. It's business as usual and another steely day of resolve for the men and women of S.H.A.D.O.. The moment really magnifies the life and death struggle on UFO and how their lives actually hang in the balance and their mission is endlessly dangerous. It points to the fact they must keep their eyes on the prize and their nose to the grindstone.

Straker tells Foster to prepare the report for Henderson. Henderson actually apologizes. The final minutes are sobering and offer an unexpected handling of events, which makes the conclusion all the more satisfying. Henderson would remain a recurring character and his confrontational, combative style would be, as the title suggests, a source of conflict for Straker and the UFO team.

This is an episode with a real weight to the roles of Straker, Foster and Freeman. The actors bring some fine, understated performances to their work. Conflict offers real evidence that the actors were anything but substitutes for Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's puppets, an accusation often levied upon the live action series. Such leveled criticisms were wholly unfair and the more you invest in UFO the more you understand the frustration of its leading proponent actor Ed Bishop who felt UFO was something much more.

There was a real chemistry between the triumvirate of UFO channeling a bit of the William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelly magic from Star Trek: The Original Series. Authors Simon Archer and Marcus Hearn discuss an element of that collaboration in What Made Thunderbirds Go! The Official Biography Of Gerry Anderson. Regarding the coupling of George Sewell and Ed Bishop, "Gerry hoped to recapture the on-screen chemistry he had noted when the actors had shared an important scene in Doppelganger." Apart from some fine thespian turns those gents are fairly sharp dressed men to boot. They can do Nehru better than Jawaharlal Nehru did in India.

Conflict: C. Writer: Ruric Powell. Director: Ken Turner.

Actor Footnote: Grant Taylor [1917-1971]. English born. General James L. Henderson. Taylor would enjoy a recurring role on the UFO series he remembered fondly. He first briefly appeared in Identified. His final appearance would be Mindbender. He graced nine episodes of UFO. He passed away of cancer following UFO in 1971.

Harlington-Straker Film Studios Set Footnote: "From the start Gerry realized that UFO would present a serious financial problem. 'Science fiction sets are notoriously expensive to produce,' he says, 'and I knew that to make high-quality sets for 26 episodes would be financially prohibitive. Rather than compromise on the quality of the sets, I decided to put the organization's headquarters beneath a film studio. This was the first major science fiction set - the only other one was the moonbase. These were used for the entire series. Most of the other sets, such as people's homes or offices, would be no more expensive than conventional sets. We were careful to shoot the exterior scenes in the countryside, where there's nothing to give away the date, and in and around the MGM studio and, later, Pinewood. This way, I hope I was able to maintain a high standard while keeping within the constraints of the budget.'" Authors Simon Archer and Marcus Hearn added, "Gerry spent a day or two filming the exterior and lobby of ATV Elstree at Eldon Avenue in Borehamwood. The building doubled as Harlington-Straker Studios, and the footage was reused in many subsequent episodes." This of course continued even after UFO moved its shooting schedule exclusively to Pinewood Studios following its departure from Borehamwood with Episode 22, The Psychobombs.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Joys Of Being A Sci-Fi Fanatic

Somehow, I can relate to this kind of thing and the lengths fans will go. It knows no bounds. I may not quite take it to these heights to meet the guests, because I rarely have the time or opportunity, but I've been known to pick up a Rittenhouse or Fleer auto card or two on episode guests from Stargate, Star Trek: The Original Series, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Farscape. I loved the humor in this one from yet another of the Starlog Magazine comic classics.

By the way, terrific news to learn Star Trek: The Next Generation will arrive on Blu-Ray in 2012. Make it so.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Cujo

"The challenge was to make a St. Bernard scary." - Lewis Teague-

Stephen King's Cujo [1981] made my suitcase to Florida when I was a child. I remember reading it in that humid-soaked tropical climate. It was the classic book with the black cover and fangs. I remember it vividly. It was a frighteningly dark read really. I read it months after its release. Ironically, it was the dog days of summer to say the least.

A few short years later, the novel was quickly turned around and adapted for film by director Lewis Teague. The modest 5 million dollar film arrived amidst a flurry of Stephen King adaptations that took place back when the popular writer was more prolific than two rabbits in heat.

Cujo [1983] was released the same year as The Dead Zone
[1983] starring Christopher Walken and directed by David Cronenberg for double the cost at 10 million. The Dead Zone doubled its gross revenue while Cujo tripled. Christine [1983], Creepshow [1982], Children Of The Corn [1984] and Firestarter [1984] also arrived within that orbit.

Most notable is the fact that both Cujo and The Dead Zone made strikingly impressive and memorable pictures with very little backing. Both films are quiet, powerful pictures, the latter arguably more so in the steady hand of its auteur. There are no big special effects, goofy gimmicks or even big stars. They are just great stories taken from great source material and while they may have ventured away from the written pages of King's original works to a degree as films do, they were entirely successful and still stand the test of time nearly thirty years later as I rediscovered.

Into The Mist. Cronenberg's The Dead Zone is indeed the work of a master and it's easy to argue for it as the superior of the two films having seen it recently, but Cujo, for me, still holds up well. It's surprising just how impressive the quality of the work is in its own right from the inferior Teague. Given the obstacles involved, namely a St. Bernard, the creators pulled off quite a feat with traditional effects. In fact, if the film had been made with CGI, like so many forgettable pictures today, it most assuredly would not have had the lasting power it retains today. Think of any early CGI disaster.

Now, I'm probably going against the accepted conventional wisdom here. I'm going against the grain on Cujo as an advocate for this minor horror classic. I have a twelve year old to vouch for the film along with Fire In The Sky [1993]. What greater evidence do we need right?

Rotten Tomatoes levied a tomato splat at roughly 59%. One writer professed the film to be one of King's better adaptations to which I concur. It may not be the world's most terrifying picture, but it more than successfully builds effective tension and drama. The fine performances by Dee Wallace and Danny Pintauro carry the day and are largely responsible for selling the film's credibility, but then there's the dog. You really cannot discount the casting of that damn dog or dogs.

Blu-Ray.com, which is a site I have a good degree of respect for generally because I often concur with some of their fine writing assessments, did not speak kindly enough of the film. Casey Broadwater calls it a "mid-tier" film. Well, if the budget and director speak to that fact so be it, but it doesn't reduce the film's merits. It's one of Teague's biggest successes because the simplicity of the material and the selection of principals works. Broadwater calls it "pedestrian" and points to the poor casting of a St. Bernard rather than a German Shephard inspiring "more pity than terror."

Well, blame King. The fact of the matter is that's precisely what works so well about the King book and its adaptation here. If it's a German Shepherd it ain't Cujo. It's K-9 with rabies. Mind you a killer Jack Russell Terrier might not be the most intimidating. It might even be more Monty Python. I mean Cujo is big. The idea that such a beloved family dog could turn unspeakably evil speaks to the illogical motivations of evil as a random force.

Fortunately, Teague and his canine star capture both the horror of an event like the rabid bat attack and the effect of evil on an unsuspecting, beloved household pet and the sympathy we have for it spiralling to its inevitable doom. As a child we were instilled with such fear of rabies the film worked particularly well for me. My mother would torment me with images of stomach shots if I tried to feed a passing squirrel. I was essentially built for this book and film.

The St. Bernard here actually has us rooting for him along with our victims and throughout the film we're entirely uncomfortable for it. Teague and company really put us in a strange place. While it may not be straight horror, the events that unfold are entirely grounded giving it a troubling reality.

What is most inspired is the use of make-up and other production materials that transform Cujo from a warm and friendly oaf to a large, involuntarily troubled, physically-affected, easy-to-anger beast of unpredictability. Apart from the occasional mis-edit of the St. Bernard wagging his tail when allegedly in attack mode, Cujo is an effective small town thriller like Fire In The Sky. It's easy for people to cast aspersions on the film and label Cujo as merely a St. Bernard splashed with blood-red jelly, but the transformation is far more gradual and startling. From the painful, cringe-inducing bat bite to the slow process of Cujo sliding away into an abyss of madness, Cujo is an unsettling torment of that which we hold dear. Modest films like Fire In The Sky and Cujo take us into those places that plumb great depths of emotion concentrating on small locations and finite characters. So Cujo may be modest, but Teague generates a surprisingly effective tale whereby the villain, evil embodied in the form of a family pet, creates an astonishing amount of unease and sympathy.

A great portion of the film takes place on Cujo's property while Dee Wallace and her son are trapped in their broken down vehicle. How effective is that? It's tremendously so as it remains the most unforgettable portion of the film.

Apart from the physical transformation of Cujo, there is indeed a smart, believable psychological component as well. At one point, Cujo emerges from the classic Stephen King mists prepared to maul the son of his owner. The boy speaks to Cujo. His voice somehow registers with Cujo who is clearly changing. With faculties still intact Cujo manages to break from the stranglehold of evil long enough to remember. He's changing and it is in this moment we last recognize Cujo before being lost forever. Not quite the monster Cujo walks away into the murky distance. It is a surprisingly affecting moment.

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The dog's eye view camera approach generally builds a connection between Cujo and the audience that compounds the sympathetic connection.

An analog phone rings and rings and continues ringing and Cujo is enraged and filled with anxiety and so is the audience. Remember, no voicemail or cell phones. Even the Boy Wonder couldn't believe it.

It wasn't long ago I wrote a brief homage to my favorite cartoon of the 1970s, Battle Of The Planets and an episode called Orion Wonderdog Of Space about a heroic St. Bernard named Orion who aids the fearless G-Force or Science Ninja Team Gatchaman in Japan. Here, our St. Bernard friend takes a decidedly different path through no fault of its own, but rather the unmerciful natural selection of evil to its host. Cujo genuinely captures the mood of malevolence and the supernatural, psychological connection King feeds through his unintended victim.

The sound effects and the score by Charles Bernstein coupled with the intimate camera work bring this unnerving tale to life. It may be more overtly sad than terrifying, but Cujo has bite decades after it was infected not because of the blood and gore popular with today's horror, but because of the dramatic tension and the situational terror delivered by its inhuman and human cast of the film and the effective siege story by man's best friend. And of course, like Spielberg, King does for dogs with the fiction of Cujo what the former did for sharks and the ocean with Jaws. Cujo is a name instantly recognizable with dog violence and canine terror just as Jaws is instantly recalled whenever we wade into water. If that isn't effective material I don't know what is.

Documentary data: Dog Days: The Making Of Cujo. The producer, Daniel Blatt, and Stephen King both had Lewis Teague in mind to direct, but he was not chosen first due to studio pressures. Teague, with the re-writes, made every effort to make an abridged version of the novel. Of course, the ending of the book is far darker. King has said he would have preferred an ending like the one found in the film here. He said that about Frank Darabont's The Mist too. King's biographer points out, with the book and the film, that he is able to "have it both ways." King conveyed his feeling about the ending in the book to Teague before filming.

The number of Cujos utilized for the film seems to differ depending on who answers too. It ranged anywhere from five to seven dogs [Moe was the most popular]. Fortunately, again, there was no CGI, but there was a man with a St. Bernard suit and a mechanical St. Bernard head. Of course, I love Godzilla too. It all makes complete sense.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

John Carpenter's Escape From Wonderland

John Carpenter's Escape From New York is undeniably a certified classic.

I know John Carpenter's Escape From L.A. has its advocates, but seriously, Escape From New York it was not.

The sequel, not the fabled John Carpenter's Escape From Earth, but rather John Carpenter's Escape From Wonderland is expected to take the craziness to new heights.

Honestly though, after Kurt Russell, as Snake Plissken, surfed that wave in L.A. why not Wonderland? Can you imagine Lewis Carroll meets John Carpenter?

This comic selected from Starlog Magazine #293 was the perfect wrap up for an Escape trilogy!

Friday, September 16, 2011

Star Wars Vs Taxi Driver

Star Wars arrives on Blu-Ray today. Once again, George Lucas has tinkered and modified scenes from the classics. I believe this particular scene was left on the cutting room floor.

Friday, September 9, 2011

SciFiNow: Best & Worst Episodes Of Star Trek: The Original Series

In honor of the 45th Anniversary of Star Trek: The Original Series I bring you the latest installment of the SciFiNow Best and Worst lists.

SciFiNow #50 presents yet another look at the best in science fiction and perhaps the worst. But as I've said before, even the worst of ST:TOS is far superior than some of its best sci-fi competition, well, most of the time. I'll have my own list to present one day, but for now the best and worst of ST:TOS.

The Best:

1. Arena [Season One] 2. The City On The Edge Of Forever [Season One] 3. Balance Of Terror [Season One] 4. The Doomsday Machine [Season Two] 5. Mirror, Mirror [Season Two] 6. The Menagerie [Season One] 7. Let That Be Your Last Battlefield [Season Three] 8. The Corbomite Maneuver [Season One]

Tough to refine a best of list with eight entries. There are some notable omissions. The Enterprise Incident comes to mind for starters. I have my personal favorites too like Shore Leave and The Galileo Seven, which aired back to back ringing in the new year between 1966 and 1967. For genre fans what about the classic Spectre Of The Gun? Clearly Season Three wasn't all bad. What's missing for you?

The Worst:


1. Spock's Brain [Season Three] 2. The Way To Eden [Season Three] 3. And The Children Shall Lead [Season Three] 4. Turnabout Intruder [Season Three] 5. I, Mudd [Season Two] 6. Catspaw [Season Two] 7. The Squire Of Gothos [Season One] 8. The Empath [Season Three]

Anyone care to disagree or add some additional lemons? Happy 45th Anniversary Star Trek: The Original Series. You were not only one of the finest science fiction series ever made, but one of the finest television programs ever created. Your influence on me was profound despite my ignorance of the bigger picture. It was simply vibrant, childhood bliss.

I spent many nights watching Star Trek in syndication with my grandmother who loved the show, simply because it was outstanding television. She's now 93. Live long and prosper indeed.