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My Favorite Martians: The Daleks (Last In A Series)

September 4th, 2009 No comments

A friend of mine once told me that the scariest thing about the Daleks is that you can never be certain when they will kill you. It might be the precise instant that you are deemed no longer useful. Or it might be the moment that you piss them off. Or it might be any time, for any reason, or no reason at all. They may will kill you for not being a Dalek. However, if you are a Dalek, they may will kill you for not being Dalek-y enough.

You can be absolutely assured that no matter what you do, you eventually will hear the following two sounds: the high-pitched shriek “EX-TER-MIN-ATE!” followed immediately by the electronic sizzle of a death ray.

The Daleks–introduced in 1963 during the second story arc of the first season of Doctor Who–were a phenomenon created almost entirely by accident. Terry Nation’s script was pushed forward in the production schedule when another planned story was delayed. Nation’s description of the creatures was sketchy, and it was BBC designer Raymond Cusick who gave them their familiar pepper pot shape, their eyestalk and–infamously–their toilet plunger arm.

They were an instant sensation in the U.K. What had been intended as a one-off opponent for the time-travelling Doctor became his nemesis, featuring in numerous sequels and even a couple of spin-off films starring Peter Cushing. There were toys aplenty, and why not? Any kid could imitate a Dalek: just stiffly stick out your arms, shuffle about and scream “EX-TER-MIN-ATE!”

What Daleks Are:

  1. The mutated remains of the Kaleds, a humanoid race from the planet Skaro.
  2. Green, tentacled blobs permanently encased in tank-like “travel machines.”
  3. The creations of the brilliant and therefore mad scientist Davros, himself a mutant confined to a motorized wheelchair.
  4. Fanatical believers in racial purity.

What Daleks Aren’t:

  1. Robots. There’s a living creature in there, crippled and in constant pain.
  2. Emotionless. Even the TV show makes that mistake at times. It’s just that all they feel is anger, fear and hatred. And they hate themselves most of all.
  3. Afraid of stairs. Their presumed inability to navigate a set of steps was a joke frequently repeated by British cartoonists and comedians, long since debunked.

Perhaps in response to public perception of the Daleks as being a bit silly, the revitalized Doctor Who series beefed up their capabilities to insane levels. In the episode “Doomsday,” the Daleks get into a pissing match with fellow galactic conquerers the Cybermen. When the Cybermen taunt that there are millions of them, but only four Daleks, their enemies retort that it will only take one Dalek to wipe out the Cyber army. And the truly scary thing is that they’re probably right.

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I hope that you’ve enjoyed this look back at some of my favorite movie and TV aliens. It was originally meant to be a series of brief posts that I could queue up in advance, but brevity and I are not close friends.

My Favorite Martians: Hammerhead

August 28th, 2009 No comments

Sci-fi fans born in the past 32 years (Great Gazoo, I’m old) have no idea just how massive was the impact of the original Star Wars. There had quite literally been nothing like it before in the history of cinema. It wasn’t just groundbreaking in its technical elements, but in its building of a fictional world. Part of the joy of seeing it again (and again and again) was that there always seemed to be something new lurking in the corner of the screen, some vehicle, droid or alien that you hadn’t previously noticed.

A big part of that was the Cantina sequence. Again, if you’re a youngun’, you just don’t get how much of a showstopper it was in ’77. There’s a good reason that for a time pretty much every space-based TV show/movie had to have a “Star Wars bar scene.”

Prior to Star Wars, the number of big-budget science-fiction films ever produced could be counted without even reaching for your toes. And if a flick had a “real” alien, and not just some dude in a leotard scolding us about our warlike ways, you can bet that they only sprung for one rubber suit.

That’s what made the Cantina such a favorite part of the film: there were dozens of aliens. There were giant preying mantises, humanoid flies and belligerent worms. There were wolf men, lizard men, mouse men and even a few men men for variety’s sake. Some had four eyes, some had only one. And with a couple of exceptions, none of them had names or were important to the plot in any way. Someone had gone to the trouble of designing and building all these things just to provide a backdrop to the main characters.

Without doubt, my favorite one was Hammerhead. Mind you, that was just the nickname that the production team used for him, later adopted by Kenner Toys when they made their action figure.

Hammerhead appears on-screen for all of five seconds, and all he does is sit at a table listening to another patron. But he made quite an impression on me, with his curiously inhuman noggin and his strange vocalizations.

While Kenner released a Cantina playset, they never made the bartender. Wouldn’t want to encourage kiddies to drink, I suppose. And so, in my world, Hammerhead ran the bar. That’s because Hammerhead was the coolest, and besides, who else are you gonna have run the bar? Snaggletooth? I don’t think so. He can’t even see over the counter. Walrus Man? After challenging Ben Kenobi, he’s down to one arm. And Greedo? Shot down in his prime by a mangy nerf herder.

Now, the time came when we could no longer allow all these wonderful creatures to remain anonymous. They had to have fully-fleshed out backstories so that we could use them in role-playing games and write novels about them. Every patron in the Cantina was there for a secret, special mission for either the Rebellion or the Empire. Not a single one could be simply popping down to the pub after work to knock a few down before returning to the hovel with Mrs. Belligerent Worm and the grubs.

And so, Hammerhead is no longer simply Hammerhead. He is Momaw Nadon of the peaceful, agrarian Ithorian race, a priest from the floating city of Tafanda Bay exiled to the desert world Tatooine after revealing his people’s technology to Imperial forces in hopes of saving the Mother Forest. One day, the Imperials demanded his help in locating an astromech droid. Arriving at the cantina…

Oh, fuck that. It’s Hammerhead. That’s all you need to know. And Hammerhead is awesome.

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Bonus content: the 1979 Cantina drunk driving PSA.

My Favorite Martians: Diva Plavalaguna

August 27th, 2009 No comments

I know I’m likely to get a “really, Dave?” from certain quarters for admitting this, but I thoroughly enjoyed The Fifth Element. Luc Besson’s 1997 film starring Bruce Willis as a futuristic taxicab driver and Milla Jovovich as the perfect woman is pure comic-book fun. Specifically, it’s the French comics magazine Métal Hurlant (renamed Heavy Metal for U.S. distribution), whose frequent contributor Jean “Moebius” Girard was hired by Besson to help design his future world.

My previous entries in this series have been rather long-winded, so this time I’ll avoid a lengthy recap of the movie and skip right to the scene that inspired today’s post.

Midway through the film, Korben Dallas (Willis) has “won” a cruise to the planet Fhloston, actually a ruse to get him near the Diva Plavalaguna (whose name literally translates to “blue lagoon”). The singer is said to have a set of four stones that serve as the elements of a weapon that can destroy the ancient ball of evil (aka Dick Cheney) headed toward Earth.

In the orbiting cruise ship’s theater (actually London’s Royal Opera House), the curtain parts to reveal a tall, bright blue alien. She shambles slowly forward, trailing a set of long tendrils from her bulbous head. And then she breaks out into an aria from the opera Lucia Di Lammermoor. It’s a strange, serene moment: the weirdly beautiful creature performing in front of a row of enormous windows, through which can be seen the ocean-covered globe of Fhloston Paradise.

Below decks, Korben’s companion Leeloo (Jovovich) is facing down several brutish Mangalore mercenaries. As the fight begins, Plavalaguna launches into a bizarre, rockin’ song and dance. Her cascade of notes punctuates Leeloo’s martial arts moves, and just as Jovovich puts down the last of her attackers, the Diva’s show concludes to thunderous applause.

You can say what you want about the plot of The Fifth Element, but for my money this scene transcends its surroundings and reminds me of what I love about science-fiction: sights and sounds that couldn’t occur anywhere else.

My Favorite Martians: The Krell

August 26th, 2009 No comments

The Krell can’t even be bothered to show up for their role in the classic 1956 film Forbidden Planet. However, as they destroyed themselves in a single night of madness more than 200,000 years ago, I suppose they can be excused. Lacking point-and-shoot technology, the Krell left no depictions of themselves, though their general shape is suggested by their characteristic doorways: wide, upside-down diamonds. While the Krell have vanished from the galactic scene, something of them remains…

Forbidden Planet was a remarkable movie for its time. It was a big-budget, “A” picture from MGM during a period when nearly all science-fiction flicks were cheap potboilers. It boasted state-of-the-art special effects and was scored with unique “electronic tonalities” by Louis and Bebe Barron. (In some cases, the score doubled as otherworldly sound effects.) It had a thoughtful script that was allegedly inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, though honestly the resemblence is superficial at best.

And when I was growing up, it was my absolute favorite film, bar none. At least until ’77, when Star Wars changed everything.

In the early 23rd century, the Earth saucer C-57D arrives at planet Altair IV to check on the progress of the colonists who set up shop two decades earlier. All they find is a lone scientist and his beautiful, virginal, miniskirted daughter, who want nothing more from these spacemen than for them to fire retrorockets.

Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon, who’s terrific in this) has himself a sweet set-up. Both his home and his robotic manservant Robby (yes, that Robby) sport technology far in advance of human science. His immediate surroundings are a paradise inhabited by flora and fauna from Earth, brought to Altair IV not by the colonists, but by the original inhabitants. And with the rest of the colonists mysteriously ripped limb from limb by an unseen force, he’s got all the time in the world to continue his language studies.

Commander J.J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen; yes, that Leslie Nielsen) isn’t going anywhere. In part, that’s because he wants to find out what happened to the other settlers, but mostly it’s because he’s fascinated by young Altaira (Anne Francis; boom-chick-a-wa-wa), who has never known a man other than her father–make of that what you will–and, well, did I mention the miniskirts?

Meanwhile, the invisible beast returns to menace the saucer men, leaving clawed footprints unlike any creature known to science.

The reason that a simple professor of languages could build a machine like Robby soon becomes clear. Morbius discovered the last remaining works of the Krell, including a vast, underground complex, 20 miles on each side, still humming away with power after 2,000 centuries. The doctor deciphered their writings and used their lab tech to boost his intelligence to genius levels. But even Morbius doesn’t know what the great machine is for.

Late that evening, the invisible monster strikes again, this time illuminated by the laser fence set up around the C-57D. And soon, the truth about it is revealed.

You see, the Krell had completed their greatest achievement, a machine meant to do away with all other machines. It allowed them to create and manipulate matter in any form, for any purpose. They had, as one might say, Fucked With God’s Domain. And God wasn’t having any of it, no sir. For the Krell had forgotten about their own baser natures, locked deep within their subconscious minds. Once they went to sleep, their Monsters from the Id went on a genocidal rampage.

And now, 200,000 years later, Morbius’ dreams of selfishness and jealousy have activated the alien device and manifested themselves as a giant, angry gumdrop. Desperate to hold onto his daughter–again, you’re not reading too much into that–his unstoppable creation burns its way through several feet of nigh-indestructible Krell metal to kill Commander Adams and Altaira herself.

In the end, Morbius attempts to renounce his murderous monster, but the effort (somehow) kills him. As he heads toward his final peace, he pushes a conveniently-located self-destruct mechanism that will annihilate Altair IV in a matter of hours, giving the saucer crew enough time to clear the blast area.

Leslie Nielsen gets the final word: “Alta, about a million years from now the human race will have crawled up to where the Krell stood in their great moment of triumph and tragedy. And your father’s name will shine again like a beacon in the galaxy. It’s true, it will remind us that we are, after all, not God.”

My Favorite Martians: The Gorn

August 25th, 2009 No comments

If there’s one thing that the original Star Trek series teaches us, it’s that aliens are people too. Several notable episodes involve Captain Kirk and his extraterrestrial foes overcoming their natural antagonism and realizing that they don’t have to kill…today.

The 1967 episode “Arena” is credited as an adaptation of Fredric Brown’s short story of the same name, but it’s more likely that the production team recognized the similarity between their script and Brown’s earlier work and chose to cover their asses. All the two have in common is the basic premise: a human and an alien forced by a higher power to settle their interspecies war through one-on-one combat.

The action begins on the planet Cestus III, where the Federation unknowingly has built a fort within territory claimed by another interstellar power. Investigating the destruction of the human colony, Captain Kirk’s landing party is shelled by an unseen foe, while the starship Enterprise is attacked by an unidentified vessel. Returning to his ship, Kirk sets off to destroy the fleeing enemy before it can report back to its home base.

The two craft are abruptly stopped dead in flight by the Metrons, textbook examples of Snotty, Nigh-Omnipotent Beings (or S.N.O.B.s). They resent having their space invaded for the purpose of conflict, so they intend to resolve the dispute through, er, conflict. Specifically, they teleport Kirk and his counterpart to a planetary arena for a fight to the death, with the loser’s starship and crew to be destroyed.

Only then do we get a look at the Gorn. For mid ’60s TV, it’s a pretty spectacular creation: a six-foot lizard man with iridescent eyes, rockin’ a sporty tunic. It’s one of only a handful of full-blown, rubber suit monsters to appear in the original Trek. With a hissing voice, the Gorn promises Kirk a “swift and merciful death” if he will only surrender.

Kirk, being Kirk, ultimately prevails, using naturally-occurring mineral deposits to create gunpowder and wound the creature. But he refuses to land the killing blow, reasoning that the Gorn may simpy have been trying to protect its people when it attacked the fort. The Metrons are impressed by this demonstration of “the advanced trait of mercy,” never mind that they themselves intended to annihilate several hundred bystanders just to make a point about the savagery of less enlightened species. Instead, they allow both combatants to return unharmed to their ships.

It wasn’t the first time that Star Trek would preach understanding of Those Not Like Us, and it wouldn’t be the last. A couple of months later, Kirk would be cozying up to an even more inhuman creature, the Horta: a silicon-based glob that kills miners on Janus VI after they destroy some of its rock-like eggs. The message: if we can make friends with a deep-dish pizza, then perhaps there’s hope for our mutual understanding of other human cultures.

The Gorn themselves wouldn’t make another live-action appearance until 2005, during the final season of Star Trek: Enterprise. Too bad, really, because I’d take a lizard in a tunic over a bumpy-headed, Shakespeare-quoting Klingon any stardate.

My Favorite Martians: The Kilaaks (First In A Series)

August 24th, 2009 No comments

Okay, let’s get it out of the way. The aliens in this series of blog posts will, more often than not, hail from somewhere other than Mars. “My Favorite Aliens” doesn’t have the same ring, does it?

For an indeterminate yet finite number of days to come, I will be profiling the otherworldly denizens of movies and TV that have beamed themselves into my heart. Will you join me on this journey of cultural diversity?

Let’s meet our first interplanetary ambassadors!

The Kilaaks are the bewitching brains behind the events of Toho Studios’ 1968 film Destroy All Monsters (known as Kaijū Sōshingeki in Japan). While they’re not from Mars, they’re not so very far from the Red Planet. The Kilaaks hail from a small planetoid somewhere in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Now, you might think that living on an airless lump of rock so far from the sun would make the Kilaaks resistant to cold, but then you have not walked a mile in their tinfoil pajamas. As it turns out, the Kilaaks thrive in intense temperatures. Anything less causes them to revert to their original form: weird, metallic worms. (What they want with our temperate planet is anyone’s guess.)

Despite that severe disadvantage, the Kilaaks have several things going for them. First, they’re all women. Second, they’re all brilliant scientists. Third, they’ve perfected mind-control devices which allow them to puppet humans and monsters alike.

Issuing forth from a flying saucer hanger hidden amidst the craters of our moon, they invade Ogasawara Island, aka “Monsterland.” You see, in the far-flung future of 1999, all of the world’s giant monsters–including Godzilla, Rodan and Mothra–have been herded onto an island prison. Pretty soon, alien-controlled beasts are rampaging throughout the cities of the world, distracting the human military and allowing the Kilaaks to set up an advance base near Mt. Fuji.

Eventually some heroic astronauts penetrate the Kilaaks’ secret moon crater, exposing the space women to the cold and forcing them back into hibernation. With the mind-controller in human hands, Godzilla and crew are marched toward the Mt. Fuji complex.

And that’s when the Kilaaks play their trump card: the mighty interstellar dragon King Ghidorah.

ghidorah

You see, Ghidorah (first introduced in 1964’s Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster, aka San Daikaijū: Chikyū Saidai no Kessen) is also an alien. Born of a fallen meteorite, King Ghidorah is the bad-ass of the Godzilla franchise. During his early appearances, no single monster was capable of defeating him.

One thing you need to understand about my love for this film is that I grew up during an era without VCRs or DVDs. If you wanted to see a movie, you had to go where it was playing or hope that some TV station would choose to air it. As a young Godzilla fan, I only knew about Destroy All Monsters courtesy some black-and-white photos printed in Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine.

And so it was that I had to talk my dad into driving me to Greater Chicagoland to catch a kiddie matinee of this, the ultimate Japanese monster flick. We arrived near the end of the first screening, which meant that I walked into the theater just as King Ghidorah squared off against ten (!) of my favorite monsters. (“My Favorite Monsters,” coming soon to a blog near you.) It was geek kid heaven.

Now, Ghidorah might’ve been able to hold his own against Godilla, Mothra and Rodan, but against those three plus Anguirus, Gorosaurus, Kumonga and Minya (the “son of Godzilla”), the poor guy doesn’t have a chance. Killed once and for all for the time being, the path is clear for Godzilla to crush the Kilaaks’ dome.

The Kilaaks may resemble Japanese actresses costumed as baked potatoes, but as a kid I found them way creepy. Effectively immortal–cold only causes them to hibernate–they’re still out there on their unknown asteroid, wriggling their wormy bodies and plotting our destruction.

District 9 From Outer Space

August 23rd, 2009 No comments

District 9 is an amazing film for several reasons. Its reported $30 million production budget looks like $100 million on the big screen. It seamlessly mixes documentary-style footage with fully-realized digital characters. And it manages to be surprisingly likeable despite being populated almost exclusively by horrible, horrible people.

At first glance, District 9 appears to be an update of Alien Nation, the late ’80s film/TV series about an entire population of displaced extraterrestrials being plopped into the midst of a major metropolis. However, when it came to cultural assimilation, the Tenctonese had it easy compared to the “Prawns” of District 9.

For reasons unexplained, their massive starship parks itself directly above Johannesburg, South Africa. (As V and Independence Day have taught us, nothing gets humans’ attention quite like hovering a mile-wide saucer over a populated area.) Unable to return to space, the insectoid aliens are moved into a shantytown. Tensions flare between the native South Africans and the new arrivals. Fed up after two decades of not-so-peaceful coexistence, the humans decide to forcibly relocate the creatures to a new tent community far from the city.

An office drone named Wikus (played by Sharlto Copley) is put in charge of the move by the head of the Blackwater-like organization for which he works. Wikus seems amiable enough at first, but soon he’s going door to door, forcing aliens to sign eviction notices at gunpoint. The allusion to apartheid is not at all subtle, but so what? It’s still something that needs to be said.

For the initial half hour or so, District 9 plays out in a faux-documentary style, with a mixture of interviews and surveillance camera footage. Once the main plot kicks in, it becomes a more conventional thriller before reverting back to docu-mode for its final minutes.

Wikus has the bad luck to become infected with a mysterious liquid which begins to mutate him into one of the aliens, Brundlefly-style. That makes him a valuable commodity, as the powerful weapons recovered from the spaceship are keyed to alien DNA and therefore useless to humans. Soon, Wikus is the target not only of his superiors–who have been performing some nasty experiments on the unfortunate residents of District 9–but also the Nigerian gangsters who have taken over the slum.

Copley’s performance as the in-over-his-head office worker managed to bring me back to his side, never mind that a half-hour before I’d seen him cheerfully torching a shack full of alien pods, describing the popping sound made as the unborn creatures burst into flame. It didn’t hurt that he allied himself with “Christopher Johnson,” an alien with his own agenda. A digital character speaking entirely in clicks, Christopher somehow winds up a soulful, thoroughly sympathetic character.

District 9 is not for the faint-of-stomach. There are copious amounts of vomit and other fluids on display. And when the alien weaponry comes into play, soldiers explode in sprays of blood.

First-person shooter videogamers will love the insanely lethal devices, from the lightning rifle that instantly blasts its targets to mist, to the gravity gun (straight out of Half-Life 2) that turns found objects into projectiles. At one point, someone is shot with a pig. No, not by a pig. And I haven’t even mentioned the alien power suit that turns Wikus into the deadliest office manager ever.

Like the best pop sci-fi, District 9 uses the future to comment on the present. It shows how even those who were recently forced to live apart are all too willing to visit the same on those who are not like themselves.