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Posts Tagged ‘Hollywood’

You Can’t Do That On Television

February 26th, 2009 No comments

As Battlestar Galactica approaches its endgame, I’ve had cause to think back to a simpler time when Cylons were just stuntment in shiny suits and in no way resembled Tricia Helfer.

It may seem absurd now, but back in the day (1978) the original Galactica series was seen as a pretty big deal. Aside from a couple of delightfully dreadful imported sci-fi flicks–Japan’s Message from Space and Italy’s Star Crash–it was the first true response to the genre-busting Star Wars. At a time before VCRs, when the best Star Wars home viewing experience one could hope for was an eight-minute Super 8 film compilation, the thought of a big-budget space combat show being beamed into one’s household every week was pretty damned exciting.

Midway through its first and only season, though, I found myself understating: “This could be a whole lot better.” For me, the problem wasn’t just the obvious stuff like the monkey in the robot dog suit. I was bothered not only by the frequently-recycled special effects but by the plots lifted wholesale from other movies, among them Shane and The Guns of Navarone. And I began to think the thing that so many fanboys before or since have thought about their own particular obsessions: “I could make this better.”

So I began to think of changes both large and small that I would make to Galactica if I had the chance to start it over. Some were admittedly superficial. I wanted the Viper space fighters to have guns that fired backwards; why allow a Cylon raider to sneak into your “six” unchallenged? Some were in the interest of better storytelling. I wanted to go back to the original premise of the Cylons being lizard-like aliens before ABC’s Network Standards and Practices division decreed that such a kid-friendly series should instead use robots for its cannon fodder. Robots, I thought, were much less interesting than thinking, feeling opponents. 

But what really influenced me more than anything was a Japanese animated series that aired briefly on weekday afternoons before being shunted off to the hell of early morning TV: Star Blazers (aka Space Cruiser Yamato). In some ways, Yamato was Galactica, only the Japanese did it first. For that matter, Yamato predates Star Wars itself by several years, which, given George Lucas’ attraction to Japanese culture, should be food for thought.

In its English-dubbed form, Star Blazers told the serialized story of a literal space battleship–the World War II-era Yamato–pulled from the sea bed, outfitted with an interstellar drive, and rechristened the Argo. It was humanity’s last hope of saving planet Earth from constant nuclear bombardment by the alien Gamilons, set off on a long voyage in search of the “Cosmo DNA” device that would remove the radioactivity and restore the environment.

One of the things I liked most about Star Blazers–aside from the numerous space battles–was its even-handed treatment of its villains. An early episode featured the crew of the Argo meeting a wounded Gamilon soldier face to face for the first time and realizing that their enemies had their own hopes and fears. Even their dreaded leader Desslok was an honorable figure who later became one of the Argo’s staunchest allies.

Another thing that pulled me in was the serialized story. Now, Galactica also had a story progression of sorts, but not so obvious as the one seen here, with its one-year timeline and frequently referenced doomsday countdown. (Each episode ended with a subtitle declaring, “The Argo has only X days left!”) Season-long story arcs were unknown on American TV at the time.

What I wanted to see from Galactica was even more ambitious, something akin to what eventually happened with Babylon 5: the multi-year story arc. Knowing full well that Galactica would probably wind up like Gilligan’s Island, with the entire premise negated if they ever reached “home,” I tried to think beyond that. And I came up with my own five-year plan:

  • Year One: The Colonials flee from the pursuing Cylons. (Pretty much what we actually got in that first and only season.)
  • Year Two: The Galactica escapes the Cylon sphere of influence and has various unrelated adventures in space.
  • Year Three: The Galactica reaches Earth, and has to build up its defenses against a presumed Cylon offensive. (Kinda like Galactica: 1980, only not lame.)
  • Year Four: Cylons launch wave after wave of attacks against the Colonials’ new home, and are finally repelled.
  • Year Five: Emboldened, the Galactica makes a perilous voyage back and strikes to eliminate the Cylon threat once and for all.

Oddly enough, I never had the opportunity to put my plan into action. But in 1986, I spent several months interning at Stephen J. Cannell Productions in Hollywood, fresh out of college with intentions of being a network TV writer. This was back when Cannell was at its peak, producing The A-Team as one of a half-dozen series. (Most of which were cancelled by the time my internship was up, which is one reason I never became established in Hollywood.) I was assigned to hang out with one of their producers, and one day I told him that what I really wanted to do if I had the chance was to remake Galactica and do it right.

I don’t recall the exact response, but it was something akin to “Why would you want to do that? Who would want to see a remake of a failed TV show?”

Hmm. Times change, don’t they? And Universal is apparently talking to original series producer Glen Larson about another Galactica reboot, this time a theatrical film.

Wonder if the Vipers will shoot backwards this time.

Forry’s A Jolly Good Fellow

December 7th, 2008 No comments

One thing that I missed during my recent spell of gastrointestinal distress was the passing of uberfan Forrest J Ackerman last Thursday. Ackerman could’ve laid claim to a significant place in pop culture history for several reasons. He coined the term “sci-fi.” As a literary agent, he represented Ray Bradbury, H.P. Lovecraft and L. Ron Hubbard. (I’ll forgive him that last one.) Most importantly, for some 25 years he edited the preeminent newsstand magazine devoted to sci-fi, fantasy and horror, Famous Monsters of Filmland.

Forry and me, circa 1986.

The cheaply printed black-and-white mag was chock-full of terrible puns and rare photos from unheard-of or forgotten feature films. In the days before VCR, DVD or IMDB, Forry offered tantalizing, sometimes frustrating glimpses of horror flicks a young fan would’ve likely had to stay up until 3:00 am to watch, if they aired on TV at all. Famous Monsters inspired a generation of fantasy filmmakers, including a couple of guys named Lucas and Spielberg.

Forry was always approachable to his followers. Once, when I was in college, I called his home and left a message. (His phone number was an open secret.) It blew my young mind when he called me back and talked for what may have been a half hour. On his dime.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Forry was the fabulous “Ackermansion,” his house in the Hollywood outskirts in which resided a massive collection of novels, photos, movie posters and props. On most every Saturday afternoon for many years, Forry held an open house in which fans from all across the world visited to stumble in slack-jawed awe through the detritus of decades.

Inside the Ackermansion. Items depicted include a satellite from the movie Meteor, the Seven Faces of Dr. Lao, and the tattooed body of The Illustrated Man.

Now, truth to tell, I was a little dismayed at the condition of the some of the items on display when I made my first pilgrimage in 1986. Forry’s wife Wendayne was still alive, and she requested that the collection stay in the basement. As you might image, it was not exactly climate-controlled. Unique items from filmdom’s history, donated by Forry’s many industry friends, were scattered and strewn about the place, fondled by fanboys.

Several miniatures from Ray Harryhausen’s 20 Million Miles to Earth.

Forry would hold court, regaling his people (and I still count myself among them) with stories of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. I’m sure that he loved the attention, but still, one has to appreciate the commitment and willingness to share.

During my year in L.A., I had a couple of significant encounters with Forry. I once had lunch with him, though I’m pretty sure that the reason he invited me had more to do with my roommate at the time, a young woman named Margo who was a big Lugosi fan and had communicated with Forry for years. Forry was hailed as the Hugh Hefner of sci-fi, and I think that wasn’t entirely due to his magazine publishing interests.

Later that year, my friends and I crashed his 70th birthday party. Yes, we were the sort of people who did that sort of thing. Granted, at least one of us (not me) had an actual invitation, and no one questioned the others when we arrived at the hotel bearing his gift: a life-sized, head-and-shoulders bust of Charles Laughton as the Hunchback of Notre Dame. I wound up at a table with Bela Lugosi, Jr.

The stegosaurus up top was an original animation model from the 1933 King Kong.

I talked to him a few more times in the 20 years since I left L.A. I even took Vic on the journey to the Ackermansion once.

The last time I spoke to Forry was perhaps four or five years ago. Medical and legal bills had forced him to sell his house and much of his collection, and he’d moved to a smaller abode. (He still had his regular open house, though.) At the time, I was occasionally filling-in as a host for WILL-AM’s interview shows, and I’d hoped to schedule Forry for an hour of chat. For whatever reason, it never happened. I’m sorry about that. It would’ve been fun to have him share his tales with our Central Illinois audience.

I doff my skull-cap to you, Forry. Whatever I am today I owe in at least some small part to you.

Categories: Sci-Fi Tags: , ,

Belated Blogging

May 27th, 2008 No comments

If you thought that I’d think the long Memorial Day weekend was a perfect time to catch up on my blog, you are clearly not me, because I instead thought it was a perfect time to play with my Wii, early and often. My games of choice were “Pinball Hall of Fame: The Williams Collection,” a retro simulation of classic arcade tables, and “Thrillville: Off the Rails,” a theme park management title. The latter was aggressively teeny-bopper in style and complexity, but that was okay with me, because it also downplayed the three parts of theme park games that I hate most: economic micromanagement, incessantly pissed-off guests and copious amounts of vomit. The coaster editor was intuitive and fun, with all manner of wild rides to build.

So it was that I was otherwise engaged in building the perfect suspended roller coaster rather than writing about my recent California trip.

This was an unusual vacation for us in that it began with Vic and I in different places: me coming from the PBS conference in Palm Springs via rental car, and Vic flying directly into LAX. I was a bit concerned about that, but everything worked out okay. The drive from Palm Springs was scenic, what with the massive, massive wind farm on its outskirts amid the craggy desert terrain.

This creepy sculpture guards the entrance of a PS bar appropriately called “Hole in the Wall.”

Once I caught up with Vic, who’d already checked into the hotel, we drove out to Santa Monica to the area around the pier. A midway has been built up along it, and there’s a lengthy outdoor shopping corridor nearby with lots of trendy shops and nifty topiary dinosaurs.

Fortunately, we did not attempt to go down to my old stomping grounds in West Hollywood that evening, because it turned out that very day the California Supreme Court paved the way for gay marriage, and the streets were clogged with celebrations. We did make it the following day, by which time the furor had moved on, presumably to the local office of the justice of the peace. (Oh, and without getting on a soapbox, good for them.)

On Friday the 16th we ate breakfast crepes at the Farmer’s Market and then went shopping along Melrose Avenue. Melrose has a lot of hip clothing stores which Vic and I are much too old to even gaze upon, much less enter. It also has the display manikin pictured below, which Vic realized was not only lacking panties but sporting (and thankfully, the camera didn’t pick this up well) a thicket of pubes.

Stay classy, Melrose.

It was then off to Hollywood Boulevard for another leg of my L.A. reunion tour. As New York did with Times Square, so Hollywood has attempted with its famed walk of…er, fame. Unfortunately, they haven’t quite succeeded. The clean-up surrounds the immediate vicinity of Grauman’s Chinese and the impressive Kodak Theater (recent home of the Oscars), but once you get a block or so past Disney’s refurbished showplace, the El Capitan, it’s back to shuttered storefronts and sex shops. It’s depressing to see which celebrated personages of Hollywood long gone are unlucky enough to have their star on the Walk of Fame in front of a seedy electronics store.

Vicky gets the vapors on the Hollywood casting couch.

Oh, and then there are the street “performers.” You may have heard about them: enterprising bums who dress up as various characters and hang out in front of the Chinese Theater hoping to pose for photos with tourists in exchange for tips. It wouldn’t have been so bad if they weren’t so repellent and poorly costumed.

You know he’s Elmo because he has an Elmo bag and backpack.

I mean, I am not the PBS Police, but damned if I didn’t want to turn that guy in for trademark infringement. And he wasn’t as bad as the Spidey in a sweat-soaked, dark maroon suit, or the woman who couldn’t decide if she was Batgirl or Catwoman and so split the difference. At least the two Jack Sparrows were pretty good, because Captain Jack is supposed to look mangy.

In addition to them were the religious hucksters, the Scientologists and the incessant peddlers of Hollywood tours, the latter of which must have accosted us every ten feet. Hollywood can build all the fancy, schmancy monuments to itself that it wants, but what it really needs is a high-pressure hose.

Saturday the 17th I got together with my old California roommate Guy, who still lives in the very same apartment building that he did 22 years ago (rent control is, I’m told, a wonderful thing). I was blown away by his sizable collection of memorabilia from Disneyland’s “Haunted Mansion.” He keeps his home (as the ride’s spiel says) “delightfully unlivable.”

After spending the afternoon knocking around the area’s horror-themed stores (there are more than you might think), we left Guy and drove down to Anaheim to visit one of my first loves, Disneyland. While I’ve been to Disney World in Florida a couple of times in the past few years, it’s probably been at least a decade since I’ve been to the original. And boy, has it changed. Happily, for the better.

I was amazed at just how built up the area has become. Disneyland had once been hemmed in on all sides by sprawl, but they’ve apparently managed to buy up enough of the surrounding area to do some proper landscaping and further separate their fantasy land from the outside world. (Something that had bugged me in previous visits was just how depressingly visible reality was from some of the taller rides.)

We stayed at a place called the Candy Cane Inn, a nice, non-Disney hotel that was literally walking distance from the main gate. It took me a while to get my bearings despite my old familiarity with Disneyland, as there’s now a second park (“California Adventure”) on the site of the old parking lot, as well as a smaller version of Florida’s “Downtown Disney.”

On the midway at California Adventure.

Now, I’m in many ways a Disneyland purist, but part of that is embracing Walt’s philosophy that the park will never be finished. And so I not only wasn’t bothered by the changes large and small that I discovered, but was generally pleased with them.

Among the enhancements was the addition of animatronic Johnny Depps to “Pirates of the Caribbean.” They were well-integrated into the storyline and, given that the films had so many visual nods to the ride, they fit right in. Also welcome were the now-floating head of Madame Leota in the “Haunted Mansion”‘s seance room, as well as the spruced up attic scene with its murderous bride. And while it’s been a long time since I’ve been aboard the Disneyland version of “Space Mountain,” the ride seemed much smoother and faster and kicked a tremendous amount of ass. Finally, the long-dormant “Submarine Voyage” was back, ridding itself of its absurdly outdated mechanical fish-on-sticks technology in favor of underwater projection systems featuring the cast of Finding Nemo. It was cute, if not necessarily worth the insane crowds lined up for it.

One of my favorite spots on Earth: the path leading up to Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion.

I’ve always preferred the original Disneyland to its Florida cousins, and this trip reminded me why. It’s smaller, and thus easier to get around. It’s the only park with the “Indiana Jones” ride. It still has charming and unique Fantasyland attractions such as “Alice in Wonderland,” “Storybook Land,” and “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.” Its version of “Pirates of the Caribbean” is considerably longer. And it has the Blue Bayou restaurant, which overlooks the “Pirates” swamp and simulates a nighttime sky in broad daylight. We got a waterside table and watched the boats drift by on their way to Davy Jones’ Locker.

We also got stuck on “Alice in Wonderland” and had to be evacuated, the first time that’s ever happened to me. Not sure what happened, but all the lights came on and we were trapped amidst the giant flowers until a “cast member” escorted us out through a side door. Hey, at least we got to go straight to the front of the line once the ride was fixed.

The view from our “Alice” car.

“California Adventure,” which I saw for the first time, seemed to echo comments I’d previously read which suggested it was a theme park in search of an identity. As Vic put it, you’re already having a California adventure. My impression was that most of the attractions were things that you’d find at a non-Disney park, including the ubiquitous river raft ride. Still, I had to admit that the “California Screamin'” roller coaster was a hell of a lot of fun. I also enjoyed their version of the “Tower of Terror,” though in this case the Florida version is more extensive. And while the giant Ferris wheel–which has cars which slide back and forth as well as revolving–had me ready to hurl, both of us really enjoyed the Monsters, Inc., which ends with an animatronic Roz (the slug-like dispatcher with the gravelly voice) taunting riders in real-time via a hidden cast member. Honestly, I think you could take Screamin’, Tower and Monsters (plus the popular “Soarin’ Over California”) and ditch the rest of the park.

Most of the time we were in California it was 90-plus in the shade, with Palm Springs baking in the upper 90s as we flew out on Tuesday the 20th. Imagine our surprise when we got home and it was in the 50s, in late May no less. And today, as I look out the window at the rainy, 55-degree day, I find myself wishing I was back in California, eating a frozen Minute Maid lemonade and waiting to go back on “Space Mountain.”