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Believe It Or Not…I’m On DVD

February 16th, 2005 No comments

This week saw the DVD release of the first season of The Greatest American Hero. Created by prolific producer Stephen J. Cannell, this early ’80s TV series featured William Katt as gawky schoolteacher Ralph Hinkley (briefly renamed Hanley after President Reagan was shot by John Hinkley), who was abducted by aliens and given a suit which, when worn, granted him super powers. Teamed with FBI agent Bill Maxwell, played by Robert Culp, he defended America from various spies and no-good-niks for three short seasons.

Included in this 3-disc set is the “unaired” pilot for a proposed sequel, The Greatest American Heroine. In it, Ralph’s secret is revealed to the public, and he is obliged to pass on the suit to another. He chooses a hot blonde (well, who wouldn’t?) with a “save the Earth” obsession.

Originally filmed in 1987 as a “presentation” (rather than a full pilot) for NBC, it was later padded out to full length with flashback footage and linking sequences features Robert Culp, and incorporated into the series’ syndication package.

The reason I bring this up is that I was an intern at Cannell Productions during its filming, and even performed as an extra in the crucial “unmasking” of Ralph Hinkley. As an intern at a union shop, I wasn’t allowed to do much on set, except on those occasions when they needed extras beyond the union-demanded quota.

Here’s the scene in question. Ralph has just saved a woman who has fallen from a building, but the rescue is actually a government set-up meant to expose him. Suddenly, a crowd appears…

Follow the arrow; there I am!

Oddly enough, I had pretty much the same beard back then. The suit is one I got from Goodwill for five bucks, and it looks worth every penny. God, those glasses look dorky. But at least I had hair!

And that’s the extent of my appearance. With this, nearly all of my Hollywood oeuvre has been released on DVD. (The last one is an episode of another ’80s Cannell series, Stingray. Hopefully they’ll get to that one soon!)

Freeze Frame

February 14th, 2005 No comments

Ever since I bought a computer with a DVD drive, I’ve wanted to use it to capture still frames from movies and TV shows. (For strictly legitimate reasons having nothing to do with creating wallpapers of Elizabeth Hurley.) However, some arcane quirk known only to tech heads and leprechauns prevents the “print screen” button from grabbing anything other than total blackness. Granted, I could pretend I’m looking at a photo of Elizabeth Hurley at the center of the Earth, but then it really wouldn’t be serving its purpose.

Now, I know that a number of software products work around this restriction, but they share one annoying problem: they all cost money, and I’ve grown very accustomed to freeware. (I’m not at all averse to spending money–my wife can vouch for that–but it’s just that I’d rather put it where it’ll do the most good.)

Yesterday, I finally found a temporary solution: a DVD player called PowerDVD which comes in a fully functional trial version. I happily frittered away the evening grabbing nifty screen shots (none of which, as it happens, featured a certain Ms. Hurley).

I wanted to share a couple I derived from a large stack of Star Trek (the original, accept no substitute) DVDs. While I mostly went after pictures of starships, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to capture one of my favorite Trek characters: Caffeinated Spock.

What casual Trek viewers may not know is that the character of Mr. Spock was not always the stoic, look-at-me-I’m-so-logical dude that Dr. McCoy wanted to bludgeon to death. In the show’s pilot episode, “The Cage,” he was quite excitable, something I attribute to a caffeine addiction. He spent his time on Talos IV shouting, smiling and generally overacting.

Here’s an example: Spock grooves to the weird sound made by an alien plant. Seriously, he’s really into the foliage.

And here’s one of my favorite moments from “The Cage.” Spock is about to beam down with a landing party to search for Captain Pike, who has been kidnapped by the telepathic Talosians in hopes of breeding humans for their mental amusement. However, the Talosians have manipulated things so that only the female members transport to the surface, causing Spock to shout…

“The Women!”

I’ll bet that the other Vulcans kidded him about that for years. “Hey, Spock-O, remember that time when you were hopped up on cappuccino, and you got all freaky because the aliens grabbed your ladies?”

Spock would say “Fascinating,” but under his breath, he’d be muttering Vulcan obscenities regarding a sehlat and someone’s mother. That Spock, he just can’t take a joke.

Categories: General Tags: , ,

Lost In The Twilight Zone

January 5th, 2005 No comments

One of the reasons I’m most grateful for the TV-on-DVD format hit retail last week: the 1985 version of The Twilight Zone.

Viewers of a certain age may recall that for a brief time, there were three drama anthologies on network TV in 1985. The one with the highest profile was Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories, which NBC contracted for an unprecedented two-year run before the first episode ever aired. Second was a remake of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, featuring colorized versions of the old Hitchcock intro segments. Third was The Twilight Zone, which for me turned out to be the most interesting and well-produced of the lot.

Producer Philip DeGuere (who was also behind another of my favorite series, Max Headroom) took a very different approach to updating the classic Rod Serling fantasy. Rather than a single, half-hour episode, he used a flexible hour format with two or three tales of varying lengths. In that manner, some stories could be developed fully, while others (particularly those entirely dependent on a twist ending) could get on and off the stage without unnecessarily stretching the gag.

The results were mixed, but the same could be said of the original Zone. Even a brilliant writer like Serling was entirely capable of penning a lousy episode or three. However, there were a number of stories that were entirely worthy of the Twilight Zone name, and others which arguably improved upon the formula, notably the love story Her Pilgrim Soul.

One appealing aspect of the ’85 series (as had been the case with the original) was its frequent use of sci-fi and fantasy short stories by known authors. Harlan Ellison (who also served as a creative consultant before an inevitable tiff over one of his shows caused him to leave) contributed several scripts, and Ray Bradbury wrote an episode (The Elevator) as well. Stories by Henry Slesar (Examination Day), Joe Haldeman (I of Newton), Arthur C. Clarke (The Star) and Roger Zelazny (The Last Defender of Camelot) were among those seen during its brief, two-season CBS run.

Struggling ratings killed it in its second year on the network, but it was revived in syndication for one year with the sole purpose of creating enough additional episodes to be sold as a package. Unfortunately, the syndicated half-hour version required many stories to be reedited (in some cases, expanded) to fit into the allotted time. The original hours have been unseen for nearly two decades, until now…

It’s great to finally be able to ditch my ancient off-air recordings and enjoy the ’85 Zone as it was meant to be seen. Here are some of my favorite episodes:

A Little Peace and Quiet. Melinda Dillon plays a harried housewife who is grateful for the peace offered by an amulet that can stop time.

A Message from Charity. A young boy inexplicably finds himself in telepathic contact with a girl in Puritan New England, and must save her from being branded a witch.

Her Pilgrim Soul. A scientist falls in love with a living hologram who matures from fetushood to old age in a matter of days.

I of Newton. Sherman Hemsley is a mathematician who accidentally sells his soul to a devil, and engages in a battle of wits.

The Misfortune Cookie. A critic gets his just desserts after unfairly maligning a Chinese restaurant.

A Small Talent for War. An alien arrives to tell humanity that he is disappointed with their warlike ways, and gives them 24 hours to change or face destruction.

A Matter of Minutes. A married couple find themselves outside of time, and encounter the construction crew responsible for building each individual second.

To See the Invisible Man. For the crime of being emotionally cold, a man is sentenced to “invisibility”: everyone he meets is required to ignore him.

Dead Run. A truck driver is hired to carry souls to Hell. I am amazed that this episode ever got to air on network TV, given its suggestion that God has contracted the Religious Right to determine whom is allowed into Heaven.

Button, Button. A couple will be given $200,000 for the simple act of pushing a mysterious button, which they are told will kill a person they do not know.

Second season favorites (not yet on DVD) include:

The Once and Future King. An Elvis impersonator travels in time and meets the King at the start of his career.

The Toys of Caliban. Parents are faced with the impossible task of raising a retarded child with the ability to “bring” any object he sees pictured.

Shelter Skelter. A survivalist is entombed in his shelter when a nuclear blast obliterates the town above him.

The ’85 Zone may not be as well-remembered or regarded as the original, but there are gems within for those who take the journey.

Categories: Sci-Fi Tags: , ,

The Return of the Return of the King

December 20th, 2004 No comments

Last week saw the DVD release of the “extended cut” of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. As with the previous two films in Peter Jackson’s award-winning trilogy, King had been previously issued on home video in its theatrical release form, with a longer version arriving approximately half a year later.

While this is yet another example of the practice of “double-dipping”–releasing multiple versions of the same title, with each subsequent one ostensibly improved to encourage repeat buying by rapid collectors–at least Jackson and New Line Cinema have been upfront about their intentions since the beginning.

Watching the new DVD with its 50 minutes of additional footage was a vastly different experience than seeing King on opening night. In some places, it was practically a new film.

Although I felt that Jackson’s previous Lord of the Rings flicks were greatly improved by their extended edits, this one seems like a bit of a wash. Neither version is quite right.

The theatrical release was lacking some key scenes, notably the final confrontation with the wizard Saruman. Jackson apparently believed that this scene was merely a leftover from The Two Towers that delayed entry into the new plot. Yet, Saruman was such a major villain in the earlier chapters that it was absurd to dismiss him with a single line of dialogue. The reinstatement of this showdown provides much needed closure.

Similarly, added scenes with Faramir and Eowyn in the Houses of Healing give those characters more satisfying storylines. Both disappeared about halfway through the original version, only to reappear in the closing coronation sequence with only a hint of their off-screen romantic bond.

Other welcome restorations include a face off between Gandalf and the Witch King; and another between Aragorn and the Mouth of Sauron. They aren’t strictly needed, but the former is an iconic moment from the book and the latter features an effective depiction of a memorable character.

On the other hand, the extended edit includes material which seems not only unnecessary, but redundant. The surprise attack of the Army of the Dead at Minas Tirith is spoiled by an earlier, almost identical scene. And was there any call for a Gimli/Legolas drinking game?

Finally, neither version includes a sequence I’d hoped to see: Sam overcoming the stone watchers at the gates of Cirith Ungol. It was shot but, according to Jackson’s DVD commentary, left out for pacing reasons. Pacing reasons? In a four-hour-plus movie? I’d thought that these extended films were meant to be the ultimate “fan service” videos. (Jackson hinted that the missing scene could show up in a future video release. Does that mean that years down the line we’ll get yet another version?)

Of course, none of these comments are meant to detract from the outstanding, monumental work of Jackson and Company. They made so many correct decisions that it’s silly to fault them very much for their handful of blunders. It’s just that, as one of those rabid fans for whom these films were intended, it’s also hard not to wish that they could be just a bit better…

I wonder, ultimately, which versions will be accepted as the “real” deal. I would not want to go back to the truncated edits, but on the other hand, the theatrical cuts were the ones that won all those Oscars.

Multiple versions of movies are nothing new. Many films have been cut down from their original release, either to “improve” them (I once saw a rerelease of Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks from which nearly all of the songs had been removed) or to fit them into a TV time slot. Others have been extended with additional/alternate scenes, and in this digital day and age, some have been completely reedited (notably Touch of Evil and Star Trek: The Motion Picture) in order to fulfill their makers’ intentions.

Heck, we’ve reached the point at which it’s not at all impossible for viewers to reedit a film to their own liking. Perhaps in the future there will be no definitive version of a film; each will exist in thousands of possibilities to suit individual tastes.

In mine, Eowyn is naked and Frodo rides a dinosaur.

Future Cheese

December 13th, 2004 No comments

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been watching the new DVD boxed set of the 1979 TV series Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. I have a great deal of fondness for Buck, even though I’ll be the first to admit it’s a colossal brick of disco-era, space cheese.

The late ’70s were, of course, the Era of Star Wars. All forms of mass media were trying to capitalize on the teeming masses of Force-happy kids looking for their next interstellar fix. In the days before CGI, however, it wasn’t cheap or easy to mount a half-decent, special-effects fest. Eager, young space cadets had to take what they could get.

Buck Rogers was in many ways the perfect TV show for a teenage boy. It was less “serious” than the previous season’s disappointment Battlestar Galactica, and emphasized the core cliches of pulp sci-fi: ray guns, dogfighting spaceships, robots, supervillains and (perhaps most importantly to my 15-year-old self) scantily-clad women.

In this version of the 1928 novel by Philip Francis Nowlan, Buck is an American astronaut from the far-flung year of 1987 who is flash-frozen aboard his deep space probe, only to be thawed out 500 years later by a passing Draconian battle cruiser on its way to invade the Earth. Buck’s piloting expertise is of great value in the 25th Century, as Earth’s defense forces have allowed their combat reflexes to atrophy from overreliance on computer assistance. Plus, apparently he’s a steaming hunk of beefcake.

Now, I am not a good judge of these things, but it’s hard for me to accept actor Gil Gerard circa 1979 as “the most genetically perfect human male,” as he was promoted by the luscious, devilish Draconian Princess Ardala. He’s beefy and hairy enough, but nothing one wouldn’t have seen on any number of TV shows at the time. Yet the ladies all have their sights firmly set on him, even though he inexplicably has little time not only for the sexually predatory Ardala, but for her equally gorgeous, good girl counterpart, Colonel Wilma Deering. (Deering was played by Erin Gray, whose ability to fill a skin-tight flightsuit is legendary amongst geeks of a certain age.)

Over the course of a season, Buck saved the Earth from peril on numerous occasions, and met up with an amazing number of guest stars familiar to genre fans. I’m going to list them here because it’s really quite impressive casting: Henry Silva (The Manchurian Candidate), Roddy McDowell (Planet of the Apes), Buster Crabbe (the original Buck Rogers serial), Jack Palance (countless sci-fi bad guys), Richard Lynch (various Galactica villains), Cesar Romero (Batman), Markie Post (Night Court), Frank Gorshin (Batman again), Joseph Wiseman (Dr. No), Peter Graves (Mission: Impossible), Robert Quarry (Count Yorga, Vampire), Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween), Jay Robinson (Dr. Shrinker), Ray Walston (My Favorite Martian), Michael Ansara (Kang the Klingon from Star Trek), Dorothy Stratten (Galaxina, not to mention Playboy Playmate of the Year), Tamara Dobson (Jason of Star Command), Anne Lockhart (Sheba from Battlestar Galactica), Mary Woronov (Death Race 2000), Judy Landers (B.J. and the Bear), Richard Moll (Night Court), Vera Miles (Psycho), Sam Jaffe (The Day the Earth Stood Still), Sam Haig (Jason of Star Command) and Julie Newmar (Batman yet again). (Mark Lenard, Spock’s dad from Star Trek, was the only notable guest star of the second season.) I almost forgot to mention Gary Coleman (Diff’rent Strokes), if only because I would love to forget Gary Coleman. Even back in 1979 I thought the network was pandering by including the popular child star.

That first season involved numerous behind-the-scenes fights between Gerard, who wanted a more serious science-fiction show centered squarely around him, and the writers, who’d been instructed to create a light-hearted adventure romp. The result was that a lot of the jokes were tossed out by Gerard (only to be reassigned to the wise-ass robot Twiki), and that Colonel Deering spent an awful lot of time standing around, looking pensive.

An abbreviated second season gave Gerard more of what he wanted, and less of what the audience wanted. It was a Star Trek retread set aboard the Searcher, an implausibly defenseless exploratory vessel in search of the lost tribes of Earth. Despite the desire to produce a more believable show, the second season featured a race that aged backwards and a man who could remove his own head.

Ultimately, everybody lost when the series was cancelled midway through that second year. Gerard made a variety of TV appearances during the next couple of decades, and now plies the sci-fi convention circuit, looking corpulent and not at all unlike my dad. Gray went on to the comedy Silver Spoons, but now works just a few booths down from Gerard in the autograph-selling area. (She is, however, still quite gorgeous after all these years.)

Watching the show again after all these years has been a blast, though there are certainly times when I have to quietly roll my eyes (such as Twiki’s line “I gave him a tweak-y he’ll never forget”). It’s most fun when it embraces its silliness, though there are several mildly poignant moments featuring the man 500 years out of his time, and the lonely princess who consoles herself by gazing upon her mirror image superimposed amongst the stars. (It’s notable that those scenes were scripted by the self-same writers that Gerard drove from the show.)

I’m about two-thirds of the way through the first season, which means that I’m only a few episodes from “Space Rockers”. You see, it’s about a plot to plant a subliminal signal inside the next concert at Musicworld and cause a galaxy-wide youth riot… Really. Look, it was 1979. And I was fifteen.

Sigh…one does have to overlook a lot when one tries to go home again.

Curse Of The Phantom DVDs

November 30th, 2004 No comments

Appropros of nothing, here is a list of science-fiction/fantasy films that ought to be available on DVD in the U.S., but aren’t.

(Note: The original King Kong would fill every slot if I wasn’t convinced that it was virtually certain to be released in 2005 in order to capitalize on Peter Jackson’s remake.)

The Incredible Shrinking Man – Arguably the last truly great, pre-Star Wars science-fiction film still AFDVDWOL (Absent From DVD WithOut Leave). Directed by Jack Arnold from a novel by Richard Matheson, it’s the story of a man exposed to radiation (remember when we were afraid of that?) who grows ever smaller, initially dealing with issues of impotence and media exploitation, but eventually falling prey to more lethal menaces such as household cats and spiders. Why isn’t this out already?!?

The Monolith Monsters – The aforementioned Jack Arnold, master of the desert monster movie subgenre, wrote but did not direct this tale, featuring perhaps the most unique screen creature ever: a space rock which, when exposed to water, absorbs silica from its surroundings (including people) and grows into a colossal tower, eventually toppling under its own weight and shattering into bits…which begin the process over again. A tidy, unusual late ’50s thriller.

Attack of the Crab Monsters – One of Roger Corman’s earlier efforts, I recall this being a moody, albeit very cheap, popcorn flick about island castaways stalked by oversized, telepathic crustaceans. Another Corman candidate is It Conquered the World, starring the infamous Venusian “cucumber” creature.

Night of the Lepus – Hmm, I seem to have an unintended monster theme going here, but here’s one that’s truly hilarious. Yes, “Lepus” refers to bunnies; as one of the film’s policemen warns, “There is a herd of killer rabbits headed this way and we desperately need your help!” I don’t care if they’re 15 feet high, bunnies are cute, not scary. DeForest Kelley is one of the actors who should’ve known better. And while we’re talking about ridiculous monsters, how about From Hell It Came, starring Tobanga, the walking, killer tree?

Tales from the Crypt – This is the 1972 British film, not the later TV series. I’ve always had a soft spot for horror anthologies. Many horror concepts don’t really merit a full-length film (for instance, any variety of killer doll), but are ample shock fodder in short bites. Plus, if one segment is stupid, another will be along shortly. This is the first of two films based on the EC horror comics of the ’50s, and most of the stories are quite effective: Joan Collins menaced by a maniac in a Santa suit; a “Monkey’s Paw” variant with a particularly grisly conclusion; Peter Cushing as a reanimated corpse with a special Valentine’s poem; and a vicious caretaker of a home for the blind who received a fiendish vengeance. Good stuff.

The Green Slime – A truly outrageous Japanese-American co-production, set aboard a swingin’ ’60s space station. Some green slime (naturally) gets aboard, and soon the place is filled with tentacled, cyclopean, rubber-suited midgets. Plus, it has one of the best theme songs of all time.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark – Growing up, some of the creepiest movies I encountered were made for TV. Despite the small screen and the commercial breaks, some of them really delivered the chills. One of the best, this stars Kim Darby as a woman haunted by whispering voices who turn out to be tiny creatures living within the walls of her house. Little monsters, such as the Zuni fetish doll in another TV classic, Trilogy of Terror (which is on DVD), are sometimes the piss-your-pants scariest, especially the way they can get under your bed… Go ahead, be afraid of the dark. (Other TV horror films I enjoyed as a kid were Killdozer and Horror at 37,000 Feet, neither of which are on DVD, darn it.)

DVD distributors, get on with it!

Exhuming The Television Graveyard

November 9th, 2004 No comments

The FOX television network made its mark by offering offbeat and often edgy takes on traditional fare. Although you wouldn’t know it from this year’s schedule–which dredges the murkiest passages of the “reality show” river–FOX has a superb track record of developing interesting, unusual, quality shows…which it then egregiously mishandles and quickly cancels.

For FOX, it appears that their scheduling strategy is as follows:

  • 1) Create a promising new series.
  • 2) Premiere it well after the other networks begin their own fall lineups. (After all, they spent a lot for that baseball post-season contract.)
  • 3) Ideally, schedule it on Friday, which is second only to Saturday in terms of low viewership.
  • 4) Run the episodes in a randomly selected order, destroying any attempt at continuity. (If possible, run the pilot last.)
  • 5) Pre-empt it every third week.
  • 6) Move it to a different night, paired with an incompatible lead-in.
  • 7) If all else fails, move it to Sundays opposite 60 Minutes.

The television graveyard has a special plot for FOX series that never had a chance: Firefly, The Tick, Andy Richter Controls the Universe, Harsh Realm, The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. and Futurama among them. (Yes, I know that the latter ran for several years, but it’s clear that FOX never liked or supported it. Initially scheduled in the highly logical position between The Simpsons and The X-Files, it was quickly dumped into the first hour of Sunday, where it was frequently upstaged for football.)

Another show on that list is Greg the Bunny, which was recently released on DVD. I picked up the two-disc set last weekend, and have watched about half of its 13 episodes.

Greg is set in a world somewhat reminiscent of the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, with puppets (aka “Fabricated Americans”) instead of “toons.” No explanation is given for the existence of living puppets, which on one hand appear to be made of fleece and stuffing, yet also exhibit many biological bodily functions.

The show is a behind-the-scenes look at the production of “Sweetknuckle Junction,” an oddly-retro kiddie show which has a PBS sensibility, yet apparently airs on a fictional commercial network. The puppets (including Warren the Ape and Count Blah) may look like Sesame Street characters, yet they drink, gamble, swear, pee and boast about shtupping their buxom human costar. Although that sounds like it might be fodder for a raunchy, South Park-style exercise, the series actually has many sweet moments, most of them provided by the title character, a small, cute and largely innocent rabbit.

There’s also a strong cast of human actors, including Seth Green, Eugene Levy and Sarah Silverman, who I think is pretty hot, though that may be due to her short-skirted business attire.

It’s a funny satire on the TV industry and on race relations, as when Greg attempts to get in touch with his “Puppish” nature. If you never saw it, and chances are good that you didn’t, it’s worth a spin.

One of the wonderful things about the recent flood of TV-on-DVD releases is that a lot of shows which didn’t last long enough for syndication have gained a second life. Furthermore, one can catch up with episodes which were pre-empted for sports or never aired at all.

One could fill an entire shelf with DVDs from cancelled-too-soon FOX shows alone…and I very nearly have!