Sunday, December 15, 2013

Star Trek: The Animated Series Episode 14--"The Slaver Weapon"

One of the strengths of the original Star Trek was its ability to attract established, big name science fiction authors to write episodes for the series. Richard Matheson, Norman Spinrad and Harlan Ellison each turned in one episode apiece, though Ellison, being Ellison, remains notoriously unhappy with his episode as filmed.  Theodore Sturgeon wrote two episodes, as well as, as I mentioned in an earlier post, a proposal for a third, ultimately unproduced, segment.  Psycho author (meaning that he wrote the book Psycho, as opposed to "psycho author," implying that he's nuts) Robert Bloch wrote three episodes, while Jerome Bixby leads the pack with four.  When the series was revived in animated form, this tradition continued, with Larry Niven writing "The Slaver Weapon," adapted from his own short story "The Soft Weapon."  From what I have gathered based on my research on the Internet, this episode is the only filmed adaptation of any of Niven's work.
The episode is also notable for being the first, and only, Star Trek episode since the original pilot "The Cage" not to feature Captain Kirk, nor is the starship Enterprise itself seen outside of the opening and closing credits sequences.  In casting the episode, Niven chose the closest analogs from the Trek crew to the characters in his original story.  Apparently, their  was no brash young starship captain among the dramatis personae of "The Soft Weapon."  Of course, it makes sense that the captain would remain behind on the ship while his officers handled what they probably originally believed to be a simple delivery.  Perhaps if this had been a live action episode, with its accompanying longer running time, there would have been some scenes checking in with Kirk and the Enterprise toward the beginning and end of the episode.
As it is, however, the story, which follows the plot of  "The Soft Weapon" pretty faithfully, focuses on Spock, Sulu and Uhura, manning the shuttle Copernicus, on a mission to transport a rare and valuable Slaver Stasis Box to Starbase 25.  Stasis Boxes are the only remnants of the Slaver Empire, which ruled the entire galaxy a billion years in the past until wiped out in a great war of revolt.  Stasis Boxes protect their contents from the ravages of time, even after a billion years, and the contents vary from box to box.  One such box contained a device that helped the Federation perfect artificial gravity for starships, while another contained an armed bomb that exploded on opening.  Thus, Stasis Boxes are considered extremely dangerous and unpredictable.
As the shuttle passes the Beta Lyrae system, the box begins to glow, indicating the presence nearby of another Stasis Box.  Diverting the shuttle to an ice covered world to investigate,  the three from the Enterprise soon find themselves prisoners of a trio of Kzinti, cat-like members of a warrior race that has fought, and lost, four wars with humanity in the past.  They used an empty Stasis Box to lure the shuttle in order to capture their Stasis Box, hoping to find within a weapon that will allow them to finally defeat the Federation.
Upon opening the box, the Kzinti discover a strange device with multiple settings, none of which are of any apparent use to them as they duplicate technology the Kzinti or the Federation already possess.  However, when they temporarily escape from the Kzinti, taking the Slaver device with them, Spock and Sulu stumble upon a hidden mystery setting that yields exactly the kind of weapon of mass destruction the Kzinti seek.  The pair are quickly recaptured and the Kzinti play around with the gadget and hit upon yet another hidden setting that produces a sort of talking hand-held computer.  The Kzinti ask the device how to get back to the weapon they saw earlier, but the computer, naturally suspicious of these unknown, and possibly enemy, aliens pestering it  with all these questions, directs the Kzinti to still another new setting.  This one causes the device to destroy itself and the Kzinti when they step outside their ship to test  it.
This episode suffers in some viewers eyes from yet another manifestation of director Hal Sutherland's color blindness.  The fierce, carnivorous warriors of the Kzinti are decked out in bright pink uniforms and fly around the galaxy in a pretty pink space ship.  Story editor Dorothy Fontana, in the behind the scenes featurette included on the DVD, says that she called Niven and apologized for this after the episode originally aired.  Personally, it really doesn't bother me.  This may be Star Trek, and the  episode may have been written by a Hugo and Nebula Award winning author of serious SF, but it is also a Saturday morning Filmation cartoon of the early 1970's, and odd,  often garish, color schemes were par for the course.  To me, the pink uniforms are part of the episode's appeal, giving it a sort of quirky, slightly off-kilter charm.
As for the story, Niven manages a nearly seamless  melding of the "Known Space" universe of his short stories and novels into the world of Star Trek.  The  result is one of the highlights of Trek's animated incarnation.   There are a few bumps.  Sulu states that the last war with the Kzinti occurred 200 years earlier.  While this doesn't directly contradict anything established before, or since for that matter, it does crowd the timeline a bit.  This would place the Kzinti wars sometime during the very earliest days of the Federation, at about the same time they also supposedly were fighting a war with the Romulans.  Of course, this really would only have been a problem if the Kzinti had become a lasting addition to Trek lore.  As it is,  other than a comic book story also written by Niven, this would be the last we hear of  these felinoid warriors.  Also, I can't help wondering how we know so much about the Slaver empire and its demise if the only remnants of their civilization are the ocassional  extremely rare Stasis Box.
Notwithstanding my nit-picky quibbles, "The Slaver Weapon" is an episode that manages to be  both good science fiction and good Star Trek, which aren't always necessarily the same thing.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Star Trek: The Animated Series Episode 13--"The Ambergris Element"

A series of devastating quakes have left the planet Argo totally covered in water.  The Enterprise journeys there to gather information that may help another Federation planet facing the same fate.  The landing party, consisting of Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Lieutenant Clayton piloting the Aqua-Shuttle, are attacked by a giant sea monster called a sur-snake.  McCoy and Clayton escape back to the ship, but Kirk and Spock are dragged underwater in the Aqua-Shuttle by the sur-snake.
Days later, the two are found near the wreckage of the Aqua-shuttle.  They are uable to breathe, having been transformed in water breathers.   Kirk and Spock beam back down to the planet to find the people who did this to them.  Eventually, they discover an undersea race of intelligent beings who call themselves the Aquons.  The Aquons are suspicious of the outsiders, thinking them spies from their air breathing enemies, and refuse to help them reverse their mutations.  
Some of the younger Aquons defy the "ordainments" of the older Aquon Tribunes and lead the Enterprise officers to ancient ruins where they find old scrolls containing the cure for their condition.  With another massive quake about to hit the area of the Aquon city, Kirk, Spock and the young Aquons race against time to gather the venom of a sur-snake for the antidote.  
After Kirk and Spock are changed back to normal, Kirk uses the Enterprise's phasers to shift the epicenter of the coming quake away from the Aquon's city, saving their civilization.  In gratitude, the Aquons vow to allow the Federation access to the ancient knowledge in the old ruins. 
"The Ambergris Element," despite a somewhat ridiculous premise that stretches the suspension of disbelief almost to its limits, is actually surprisingly good episode.  Its basically a generation gap fable, a popular theme for the time the episode was produced, with the young Aquons finding the courage to challenge the preconceptions of the older generation and help the outsiders.  Of the five episodes, three for the original series and two for the animated revival, that Margaret Arman wrote for Star Trek, "The Ambergris Element" is, in my opinion, the best of the lot.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Star Trek: The Animated Series Episode 12--"The Time Trap"

The Enterprise's assignment this week is to investigate the mysterious area of space known as the Delta Triangle, where hundreds of ships have disappeared since ancient times.   What they find is a Klingon ship that attacks them before vanishing.  Pursuing their enemy, the Enterprise finds itself in pocket of time where all the disappeared ships across time have ended up.  Accepting their exile in this timeless limbo, the crews of these ships have formed a society they called Elysia.  Captain Kirk and the Klingon commander Kor, however, refuse to accept their entrapment and, despite the warnings of the Elysian council that escape is impossible, make plans to return home. Spock devices a plan of escape that involves the Klingons and the crew of the Enterprise working together to combine their two ship into one, giving them the power to escape the time pocket that a single ship lacks.  Of course, the Klingons, being Klingons, conspire to destroy the Enterprise as soon as the two ships have effected their escape.  Naturally,  of course, the two ships succeed in returning to normal space, and the Klingon treachery is detected and the destruction of the Enterprise averted at the last possible second.  
The Bermuda Triangle, the legendary area of the Atlantic Ocean where many ships and planes have supposedly mysteriously disappeared over the years, was, as I remember, a bit of an obsession in pop culture back in the seventies.  Speculation about the mysteries of the Triangle inspired countless fictional explanations in movies, TV episodes and comics.  "The Time Trap" is firmly routed in that  sub-genre of science fiction. The Delta Triangle is clearly an analog of the Bermuda Triangle.   Writer Joyce Perry weds that real world inspiration to an intriguing science fiction premise to create one of the better episodes of Star Trek: The Animated Series.  
My favorite part of the episode are the scenes showing the ruling council of Elysia.   The council consists of a mix of representatives of the various races that we've seen both in past animated episodes and in the original live action series.  In addition to a human and a Klingon, I could recognize an Orion, a Vulcan (or perhaps a Romulan, its not quite which he is), a Gorn, an Andorian and a Tellarite, all races seen in the original show, as well as a Phylosian and a Vendorian, from the earlier animated episodes "The Infinite Vulcan" and "The Survivor" respectively.  The inclusion of what appears to be a Kzinti is a nice bit of foreshadowing, as those felinoid alien warriors wouldn't be formally introduced to viewers until "The Slaver Weapon" aired three weeks later.
The biggest flaw of the episode is that it lacks suspense.  There's really never any doubt that our heroes, and our villains, will escape Elysia and that the Enterprise will avoid being blown up.  It seems to me that this is mostly due to the episode's twenty-two minute run time.  There is a lot of story and a lot of high concepts to fit into those few minutes.  Perhaps if this had been a live action episode, and thus twice as long, these elements could have been developed more fully.  Nonetheless, "The Time Trap" is still a very good and entertaining half hour of Trek.  The allusions to the Bermuda Triangle mark it as very much a product of its time, yet it also has a certain timeless quality, lent to it perhaps by its futuristic setting, that allows it to hold up even forty years later.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

"...Not the One You Were Expecting."

No one expects the Eight Doctor.  His chief weapons are...
As a self-styled writer, I care about words; about what they mean and how they are used.  One thing that has always bothered me is the misuse of the word "prequel" when the writer clearly meant to say "prologue" or "prelude."  This particular folly shows up quite a bit in comic book solicitations, with Valiant Comics back in the 1990's being a particularly egregious perpetrator.
I've got a whole rant on the subject that I could regale you with.  However, my "Grammar Cop" badge is a little rusty and my soapbox has a whole in the bottom.  Besides, this really is neither the time nor place for such a screed. 
My real purpose for composing this post is to present and briefly discuss "The Night of the Doctor," the seven minute mini-episode of Doctor Who that popped up on the Wild, Wild Web a couple of days back.
"The Night of the Doctor" is being touted as a "prequel" to Saturday's fiftieth anniversary special "The Day of the Doctor."  In this case, however, the usage is entirely correct.  Taking place, as it does, amidst the backdrop of the legendary Last Great Time War, and featuring actor Paul McGann in only his second on-screen appearance as the eight incarnation of the Doctor ( a development that has had hard core Whovians wetting their pants with fanboyish excitement for a couple of days now), the short is in a very real sense a prequel; not to the fiftieth anniversary episode so much, but to the entirety of the current incarnation of the Doctor Who franchise. 
It can also be seen as a sequel to the Tom Baker era serial "The Brain of Morbius," as it features a return appearance of the Sisterhood of Karn, about whom I know nothing other than that they first appeared in that earlier story and what is presented here, which really isn't much.  Such foreknowledge, however, really isn't really important to grasping the events of this mini-episode.
"The Night of the Doctor" is also, not incidentally, really good.  I would go so far as to say that this, along with the earlier mini-episode "Time Crash," featuring the meeting of the Tenth and Fifth doctors and the main reason that Peter Davison's version of the character makes my list of Top 5 favorite Doctors, are the finest things that Stephen Moffatt has written for Doctor Who.  Maybe he should stick to writing stories no more than eight minutes in length.
Anyway, we have now come to the bottom of this post, wherein I have embedded the video of "The Night of the Doctor" for your viewing pleasure.

Star Trek: The Animated Series Episode 11--"The Terratin Incident"

In some of my earlier posts on Star Trek: The Animated Series, I've compared my impressions upon re-watching the episode to my memories of it.  However, I can't do that here.  Until viewing it again this morning, I had absolutely no memory of this episode.  That's surprising considering that the writer of "The Terratin Incident," Paul Schneider, also authored two of the finest, and most memorable, episodes of Star Trek's first season, "Balance of Terror" and "The Squire of Gothos."  Its also somewhat surprising given some of the bizarre imagery in this episode.  Honestly, I just don't know how I could have forgotten images like the one of Kirk and the giant communicator that accompanies this post, or that of a cadre of redshirts struggling mightily to pull a relatively huge lever on the transporter console.
Because I'm running behind schedule on this post, I'll take the lazy blogger route and skip trying to summarize the episode in my own words and  simply quote the Wikipedia entry for the episode:
"...(W)hile observing a burnt-out supernova, the Federation starship Enterprise picks up a strange message transmitted in a two-hundred-year-old Earth code.
The signal is traced to a nearby planet. When the Enterprise enters orbit, it is hit by an energy beam that damages its dilithium crystals and makes the crew begin to shrink (and apparently their clothing has also shrunk, because they are organic). The cause is the inhabitants of a miniature city called Terratin. Terratin is a lost Earth colony; its inhabitants have mutated, because of the supernova's radiation and are now all microscopic size. Chief Medical Officer Dr. McCoy determines that the crew will continue to shrink beyond their ability to control the ship unless a cure is found.
Captain Kirk beams down to the surface and finds that the transporter can reverse their size. Kirk returns to the ship, but the crew are now microscopic. Meanwhile, the Terratins have beamed the bridge crew down to their city, where the crew learns the Terratins' fate. The crew are beamed back to the ship and return to normal size. However, the Terratins have been small for generations and cannot be restored to normal size. Their planet is in peril from massive volcanic activity, so the whole Terratin city is beamed aboard the Enterprise, and moved to another planet."
This is another episode that had me laughing out loud at several points, although in this case, I don't think that's quite the effect Schneider was going for. 
In the famous essay "Notes On Camp," Susan Sontag notes that:
"In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve"
Using that standard, I would classify "The Terratin Incident" as pure, glorious High Camp.  The basic premise of the episode is utterly ridiculous.  It almost seems as if it could have been lifted from one of those dreadful Gold Key Star Trek comics, although the execution is better than those comics would have done.  That said, the sight of the shrunken crew members trying to operate the ship's relatively huge controls made me chuckle several times and the deadly earnestness with which the cast deliver their lines only adds to the unintentional hilarity.
Finally, I just want to say that "The Terratin Incident" is a really great looking episode.  The burnt out supernova at the beginning of the episode and the city of Terratin itself are wonderfully rendered, and the erupting volcanos on the planet's surface are quite effectively depicted.  

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Star Trek: The Animated Series Episode 10--"Mudd's Passion"

His name is Mudd...Harry Mudd
Given third season producer Fred Freiberger's stated objections to comedy in Star Trek, its no surprise that Harcourt Fenton "Harry" Mudd, essentially a comedic character, did not return during the show's third season.   On the other hand, according to Trek wiki Memory Alpha, there were plans for a third appearance by Mudd in an episode to be entitled "Deep Mudd" which were scrapped when Mudd's portrayer, actor Roger C. Carmel, was unavailable.  Nonetheless, had Trek continued beyond its third season, it is probably inevitable that the show's only recurring "villain" (although perhaps "pain in the tuchus" would be accurate) would return to plague Captain Kirk and his crew.  Mudd, after all, was part of Trek from almost the very beginning.   As revealed in The Star Trek Compendium, when NBC ordered a second pilot produced, Gene Roddenberry submitted three story proposals.  While the network rightly decided to greenlight "Where No Man Has Gone Before," the other outlines were for "The Omega Glory," which was ultimately produced for the second season, and "Mudd's Women," Harry Mudd's debut, which became the fourth episode, counting the two pilots, produced and the sixth to air. Thus, when the advent of the animated series granted the series, as Dorothy Fontana phrased it in the DVD's special features, the "fourth season" that they had once been denied, it almost went without saying that Harry Mudd's long delayed return would follow.
Returning along with Harry Mudd were Roger C. Carmel to provide the character's voice and Stephen Kandel, writer of Mudd's previous two appearances as well as the aborted "Deep Mudd."
As "Mudd's  Passion" begins, the Enterprise is on its way to the remote mining planet Motherlode, where their "old friend" Harry Mudd is attempting to sell a love potion to the miners there.  Kirk and Spock take Mudd into custody and throw him in the ship's brig until they can turn him over to Federation authorities for trial.  Along the way, the ship is diverted to investigate an enigmatic Class M planet orbiting a binary star. 
Meanwhile, Mudd cons nurse Christine Chapel using the love potion to help him steal the nurse's Starfleet I.D. which he uses to escape the brig and steal a shuttle.  Taking Christine hostage, Mudd descends to the seemingly uninhabited planet, which turns out to be inhabited by giant carnivorous rock-like creatures which attack Mudd and Christine.
Back on board ship, it turns out that, to the surprise of everyone, most especially Mudd, the darned love potion actually works.   Spock falls madly in love with Christine, while the rest of the crew begins acting oddly after the potion gets into the ship's air supply through a ventilation shaft.
Kirk and the love struck Vulcan beam down to the planet to recapture Mudd and rescue Christine.  Kirk distracts the giant rock creatures by feeding them the last of Mudd's love potion, allowing the foursome to escape back to the Enterprise. 
Once back on the ship, Mudd goes back to the brig, while the effects of the love potion prove only temporary, leaving those affected with symptoms resembling a hangover and the side effect of temporary hatred for the former object of their drug induced affections.   Oddly, Spock seems immune to this side effect, or at least able to do a better job of containing his anger than he did of hiding his amorous feelings for Chapel.
Once again, this episode proved better on rewatching than I'd originally remembered it.  There are actually a couple of lines in the script that made me laugh out loud.  Fred Freiberger would have hated it. 
One thing in the script that surprised me was Scotty's reference to feeling like he had a hangover even though he hadn't drank any Scotch.  Its certainly not the type of line you'd expect to hear in a typical Saturday morning cartoon.
Overall, "Mudd's Passion" is one of the better installments of the animated Star Trek and a fine vehicle for the return of everyone's favorite interstellar con man, Harcourt Fenton Mudd.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Star Trek: The Animated Series Episode 9--"Once Upon A Planet"

After half a season of contending with such menaces as sentient space clouds, fat pink tribbles, a Klingon super weapon, a shape shifting Romulan spy, a giant clone of Mr. Spock, and Satan himself, among others, the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise is ready for some R&R.  Thus, the ship heads back to the amusement planet first visited in the first season live action episode "Shore Leave." 
The planet, as you may remember from "Shore Leave," was constructed by an unnamed advanced alien race.  Overseen by the Keeper, a representative of that race, its underground super computer reads the thoughts of visitors to the planet and turns them into reality.
Things have changed, however, since the Enterprise last visited the planet.  The Keeper has died and the planet's computer has decided it is no longer content merely to serve others.  It begins attacking the Enterprise crew and kidnaps Uhura as a hostage.  The computer then begins to take control of the Enterprise so that the ship can carry it off the planet and out into the galaxy at large. Captain Kirk and Spock trick the computer into taking them into its subterranean inner sanctum.  Once there, Kirk, who's never met a computer that he couldn't talk into destroying itself, convinces the computer to abandon its wild scheme and go back to business as usual.  The computer releases the Enterprise and invites the crew to beam down for shore leave on the sole condition that someone stay and keep talking to it, a job for which Spock volunteers.
Of the Star Trek animated episodes that are direct sequels to earlier live action installments, "Once Upon A Planet" is the only one not to be written by the script writer of the original story.   (By the way, the episodes to which I refer are, in addition to "Once Upon A Planet," "More Tribbles, More Troubles" and "Mudd's Passion," which will be the subject of next week's post.  I do not include "Yesteryear," written by Dorothy Fontana, even though it prominently features the Guardian of Forever, as I do not consider th presence of that element enough to qualify the episode as a direct sequel to Harlan Ellison's "The City on the Edge of Forever." In both episodes, the Guardian is little more than a plot device and Fontana could just as easily have come up with an  entirely new method of time travel to get Spock where the story needed him to be.) According to the Trek wiki Memory Alpha, Theodore Sturgeon, the legendary science fiction author who wrote "Shore Leave," as well as the second season opener "Amok Time," actually did write a proposal for an episode with the working title "Shore Leave II" which was never produced.  However, Memory Alpha also seems to indicate that, while some unused ideas for live action episodes, notably David Gerrold's "More Tribbles, More Troubles" and "Bem," were eventually produced as animated segments, there is apparently no relationship between this episode's script, written by Chuck Menville and Len Jansen, and Sturgeon's unused treatment.  I've not been able to find any reason as to why Sturgeon's plot wasn't used or why he was not involved with this sequel to an episode he had written.
"Once Upon A Planet" is also notable for being the first segment of the Saturday morning cartoon version of Star Trek to be written by writers primarily known for writing Saturday morning cartoons.  From the late 1960's until Menville's death in 1992, Menville and Jansen would work together on a wide variety of properties for the two major producers of Saturday morning fare of the period, Filmation, producers of Star Trek, and Hanna-Barbera.  Their collaborative output includes, in addition to Trek, episodes of Speed Buggy, Hong Kong Phooey, and The Smurfs for Hanna-Barbera, as well as segments of Filmation's Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, The New Adventures of Batman, and Tarzan-Lord of the Jungle.  They also worked on some of Filmation's live action children's series, including Shazam!, Isis, and Ark II.  "Once Upon A Planet" is the first of two episodes of Star Trek: The Animated Series that the pair would write.  Their other episode, the second season's "The Practical Joker," is most famous for its inclusion of scenes set in a holographic rec room on board the Enterprise which is considered to be the prototype for Star Trek: The Next Generation's holodeck.  To me, however, what sticks in my mind about that episode is the somewhat ridiculous sight of the Enterprise expelling a full sized inflatable replica of itself in order to confound the Romulans.  I shall have more to say on both of those points when I eventually get around to reviewing "The Practical Joker."
With the reappearance of the White Rabbit and Alice from "Shore Leave," it at first appears as if "Once Upon A Planet" is simply going to be yet another rehash of a classic original Trek episode, much like the earlier "More Tribbles, More Troubles."  However, the episode quickly heads off in a new direction as the amusement planet begins to pose a real threat to the Enterprise and its crew.  Unfortunately, the episode is marred by a rather weak ending.  Kirk's argument here is not as flawlessly logical as in his earlier verbal confrontations with rogue computers in "Return of the Archons," "The Ultimate Computer," and "The Changeling," and the computer's decision to suddenly just give up feels too abrupt and rather anti-climactic.
Once again, this episode demonstrates the advantages afforded by the animated format.  Whereas in "Shore Leave," all we saw of the supposedly advanced technology behind the shore leave planet was a little scope like device that seemed to be targeting the crew before their thoughts materialized, here we see flying robotic "nannies" that kidnap Ubura and take Spock into the computer's presence, as well as the vast computer complex itself.  Both of these would have been much more difficult, not to mention expensive, to realize in live action.
Overall, I'd place this episode somewhere around the middle of the pack among the episodes so far in regards to quality.  It's not bad, but it definitely could have been better.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Star Trek: The Animated Series Episode 8--"The Magicks of Megas-Tu"

The eighth episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series, "The Magicks of Megas-Tu", begins as the starship Enterprise, on a scientific mission to the very center of the galaxy, is drawn into a vortex to another universe where the the physical laws of our dimension do not apply and what we would call magic rules.  There, on the planet called Megas-Tu, the crew encounter a race of beings with magical powers who had once visited Earth and walked among humanity as wizards and magicians.  The Megans greet the arrival of the humans with fear and suspicion, with the exception of the demonic looking Lucien, who was apparently known to humans during his time on Earth as Lucifer.  
Perhaps the Megans have reason to fear and hate humanity, as after settling in Salem, Massachussetts in the late 1600's they found themselves tried and executed as witches.  The survivors fled back to Megas-Tu and have lived in isolation ever since.
Despite Lucien's efforts to hide the Enterprise's presence from his fellow Megans, they are soon discovered after they begin attempting to harness the magical powers of this dimension in order to protect themselves.  The bridge crew soon finds themselves imprisoned in stockades in a recreation of 17th century Salem and forced to stand trial for the crimes of humanity against the Megans all those centuries ago.  
Speaking in defense of his human shipmates, Spock argues that the human race has advanced since the Megans last encountered them.  The Megan prosecutor, Asmodeus, agrees to release the Enterprise crew but sentences Lucien to exile in isolation forever for daring to aid the humans.  Kirk, realizing that this would be tantamount to a death sentence for Lucien, argues for compassion for Lucien.  Kirk's attempt to save Lucien leads to him using the magic power of this alternate dimension to battle Asmodeus.
The battle ends abruptly, and Asmodeus reveals that the Megans had been testing Kirk and his compassion for Lucien proved to them that the human had, as Kirk claimed, changed.  The Megans return the Enterprise to its own universe, and the ship proceeds on its mission.
In the DVD's special features, writer Larry Brody reveals that his initial concept involved the Enterprise meeting God.  Apparently Gene Roddenberry loved the concept, but Brody was eventually told that he couldn't use God, but that having the crew meet Satan was just fine. 
This was Brody's first work for Star Trek.  He would return to the Trek universe in the 1990's to write an episode of Voyager.  Its kind of too bad that he didn't do more Trek, for, as he demonstrates here, he has a good grasp of the show's concept and its characters.  
Upon rewatching this episode, I was surprised to find it much better than I'd remembered it.  In fact, I'd been prepared to begin this review by comparing it to Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, which I realize now is a totally unfair comparison. While both stories do concern the Enterprise passing through a cosmic barrier at the center of the galaxy to encounter beings of god like power, and who, in fact, have been mistaken for gods or other mythical beings, "The Magicks of Megas-Tu" differs from that later film in not being really, really bad.  "Magicks" is, actually, a very good Star Trek episode that embodies the hope for humanity and idealistic values that endeared the series to science fiction fans from its very first airing.   Furthermore, it manages to combine this philosophy with an intriguing mystery and an exciting story.  In fact, in my rewatching of the series, I'd have to say that this is my second favorite episode so far, after "Yesteryear."

Thursday, October 24, 2013

What's In A Name?

In January, Marvel Comics will release Miracleman #'s 1 and 2, beginning a semi-monthly series reprinting the seminal early 80's stories by Alan Moore that are credited by many comics historians with giving birth to the so-called Modern Age of super-hero comics. At least I think these are the Alan Moore stories.  The solicitation credits "The Original Writer" and Mick Anglo, the man who created the character as a substitute for the original Captain Marvel back in the late 50's.  Apparently the plan is that once the reprints of the stories by TOW and his successor Neil Gaiman ("The Un-Original Writer"?) are exhausted, Gaiman will at last be given the chance to continue and conclude the story begun over two decades ago and interrupted by the demise of publisher Eclipse Comics and the long legal battle over the rights to the character.
There are a couple of interesting things about the solicitation for these books.  The first is that, as noted above, the name of Alan Moore, who is well known to have written these stories despite the solicit's coyness, does not appear in it.  By the way,  I am unable, nor do I actually feel the need, to  restrain myself from observing at this juncture that I find the reference to Alan Moore as "The Original Writer" somewhat ironic in light of the longstanding  suspicions/allegations/rumors concerning the actual originality, or lack thereof, of these comics and a couple of other of Moore's best known and well regarded works from the mid-1980's.
The omission of Moore's name in the solicitation is apparently in accordance with Moore's request that Marvel and DC no longer use his name in publicizing reprints of work he did for them back when he didn't think they were the source of all evil in the universe. Marvel, I would assume, was only to happy too comply with Mr. Moore's wishes if only to avoid the backlash of negative publicity that greeted DC's flagrant flaunting of the writer's preferences in publishing its series of prequels to Watchmen.  
This development is, as I said, interesting, although, given Moore's highly publicized contempt for the mainstream of the American comics industry and the reverence with which his every mood swing is regarded by comics fans, hardly surprising.
What I find somewhat more interesting, and slightly curious, is that Marvel Comics has chosen to re-present these stories under the title Miracleman.   That was, you may remember, the name under which the comic, originally presented in Britain as "Marvelman", appeared upon its first publication within the United States in order to head off any threat of legal action by the very same Marvel Comics in whose hands the rights to the character now reside.  One of the supposed advantages of Marvel's aquisition of those rights posited at the time of said aquisition was that the deal would at last allow the early stories to be presented in America under their original title.  I can, and shall proceed to, only speculate as to Marvel's reason for this decision.
It might be that since the comics were  originally published here under the Miracleman title Marvel may believe that most people know them by that name and might not recognize them if they were presented as Marvelman.  However, I find that unlikely, as the real world story behind these comics, including the name change and the years of litigation over the rights, are today perhaps more well known than the comics themselves, which have been out of print for over two decades.  This is certainly true in my case.  All I know about these stories comes from what I've read about them, not from reading the actual comics.
More likely to me is that Marvel chose to keep the Miracleman designation in order to avoid confusion with other similarly named characters appearing in the mainstream Marvel Universe, namely Captain Marvel and, in particular, Marvel Boy.
On the other hand, I find the most likely reason to be that, as Timothy Callahan observed in the third and final installment of his 2009 series of "When Words Collide" columns at Comic Book Resources tracing the origins and history of the Marvelman/Miracleman comics, by the time that Neil Gaiman took over as writer from Alan Moore, the series had been known as Miracleman for some time and Gaiman was very clearly writing about a character named Miracleman.  Callahan wonders whether "...the name "Marvelman" would even make sense for the character Gaiman writes..." and notes that "The word 'miracle' appears repeatedly, and the god-like status of the character makes him more than just a marvel." It is very likely then, that Gaiman will continue in this vein when the narrative resumes.
Regardless of what they are called or why they are called that, the return of Miracleman/Marvelman to print after so long a hiatus is to be celebrated.  As I said before, I have never read these comics, although I just might now, I recognize that, both for their value as stories and for their importance to the development and maturation of the comics art form, in particular the super-hero genre, these comics most definitely deserve to be in print and available to all.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Star Trek the Animated Series: Episode 7 "The Infinite Vulcan"

Using the original stars of Star Trek to voice their animated doppelgangers was quite an expensive proposition for the shows producers at Filmation Studios, thus they could not afford to bring everyone back.  Therefore, in a classic case of "last hired, first fired," Walter Koenig, who joined the show as Ensign Pavel Chekov in the second season, was not asked to return for the animated series.  However, even though they couldn't afford to hire him on as a member of the cast, it appears that Filmation could afford to engage Mr. Koenig to write an absolutely awful episode for the new series. 
Actually, the episode doesn't start off all that bad.  An Enterprise landing party beams down to the newly discovered planet Phylos and discover several intriguing mysteries.   They are soon confronted by the remains of the planet's population, a species of intelligent plants decimated by a disease brought to their planet by a human.  The Phylosians save Sulu's life after he is poisoned by one of the planet's less intelligent species of plant life, then take the landing party to meet their "master."
This is when things start to get ridiculous.  The landing party is attacked by shrieking purple dragon creatures which carry Spock away.  Then the "master",  a giant human who identifies himself as Dr. Stavos Keniclius 5, orders the landing party to return to the Enterprise.  Reluctantly, they reply, but only to prepare to return to the planet and rescue Spock.
A search of historical records reveals that  the "master"  is a clone of Dr. Stavos Keniclius, a renegade scientist who escaped Earth in the wake of the Eugenics Wars.   Since then, he and his giant clones have been searching for a "perfect specimen" to use in his plan to bring peace to the galaxy.
Now  things get really silly.  Returning to Phylos,  the Kirk, McCoy and Sulu find Spock near death, with his mind nearly gone.  Keniclius returns accompanied by a giant clone of Spock into which the original's mind has been transferred.   Keniclius' plan is to create an army of giant Spock clones to impose peace on the galaxy.  Fortunately, Kirk is able to convince the Spock clone that the galaxy has found peace in the time since Keniclius came to Phylos, and the clone uses a mind meld to return the original Spock's mind.  The landing party goes back to the Enterprise, leaving the giant clones to work on the problem of rebuilding the Phylosians society. 
If you think too much about this episode, which I wouldn't really advise, a couple of questions/problems present themselves.  Why, for example, are the clones of Keniclius and Spock apparently over 100 feet tall?  The episode never addresses this. Furthermore, how exactly does Keniclius plan to spread his giant Spock clones through the galaxy using the Phylosians space ships, which seem to be built for much smaller beings?  
One good thing about the episode is the design of the plant-like Phylosians and their ancient city.  These are prime examples of the advantages of the animated format in allowing the producers to create more exotic looking non-humanoid aliens than could be achieved in the original live action series. 
Other than that, however, "The Infinite Vulcan" fails on pretty much every level.  The episode starts with an utterly ridiculous premise, and executes  it poorly.
On the other hand, if the real purpose of this episode was to make people look back on "Spock's Brain," and think that, in retrospect, maybe that episode wasn't so bad after all, then it succeeds admirably.

Monday, October 14, 2013

TV News

First off, I'd like to thank Bronze Age Babies for posting about this.  If they hadn't, I'd have never known about it, at least not in time to write about it in advance. 
Tomorrow night at 8 p.m., the three part documentary Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle airs, as they say, on most PBS stations.   The film traces the history of the superhero genre from 1938 until the present.
You know, being a cynical sort, when I first learned of this show, my first thought was, "Oh, is it pledge drive time again?"  NPR just wrapped up their fall membership drive, and its obviously PBS' turn.   Superheroes seems like the kind of show you only see during pledge drives, and one obviously aimed at attracting new viewers, and thus new members.  All cynicism aside, let's hope the effort is a success, as I just couldn't live without Washington Week.
Actually, the subject matter of Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle isn't all that far afield for PBS.  Public broadcasting has always been geek friendly.  It was, after all, local public television stations who first aired Doctor Who and Monty Python's Flying Circus here in the States back in the 1970's.
Speaking of Dr. Who, I suppose you've heard by now about the nine missing episodes recently discovered at a TV relay station in Nigeria.   All are from the reign of Patrick Troughton as the Second Doctor, which makes sense as that's where most of the missing episodes occur.  I've just recently discovered Doctor Who, but Troughton has quickly become one of my favorite Doctors (I think I'd rank him third, behind David Tennant and Christopher Eccleston, with Jon Pertwee and Peter Davison rounding out a top five list) and its a pity that only seven (six, until this discovery) of his twenty-one serials exist complete with no missing episodes, and many are missing in their entirety.
Of the two serials recovered or partially recovered ("The Enemy of the World" is now complete, while "The Web of Fear" is missing but one episode) the one that I most want to see is "The Enemy of the World."  This one sounds utterly awesome!  It features Patrick Troughton in a dual role, portraying not only, obviously, the Doctor, but the villain, Salamander (and isn't that a great name for a villain?) as well.
Check out this trailer to see for yourself what I'm talking about:

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Star Trek the Animated Series: Episode 6 "The Survivor"

While patrolling the Neutral Zone separating Federation space from the Romulan Empire, the Enterprise rescues the sole occupant of a small space ship damaged by a meteor swarm.  To everyone's surprise, the rescued space traveler appears to be wealthy philanthropist Carter Winston, missing and presumed dead for the past five years.  
It just so happens that Winston's fiancee, Ann Nored, is a security officer aboard the Enterprise. Upon their reunion, Winston tells her that he has changed since crash landing on the planet Vendor five years ago, and that he can't marry her.  Just how much he's changed is soon revealed to the audience when he knocks out Captain Kirk and takes the captain's form.  Winston, as Kirk, then goes to the bridge and orders helmsman Sulu to plot a new course that will take the Enterprise through the Neutral Zone.
It turns out that the being the Enterprise has taken aboard isn't Carter Winston at all, but a Vendorian, a member of a race of deceitful, shape-shifting aliens shunned by all decent races of the Federation, who had cared for the real Winston after he crashed on Vendor.  An outcast among his own people, the Vendorian joined forces with the Romulans to lure the Enterprise into the Zone in violation of treaty so that the Romulans could capture her.   
After a confrontation with Winston's fiancee, Ann, the Vendorian realizes that he has assumed not only Winston's shape, but his feelings for her as well.  Having a change of heart, he saves the ship from Romulan attack by assuming the form of one of the ship's deflector shields.  After the Romulan ships depart, he turns himself in to Captain Kirk.  Although he will have to stand trial for his crimes, Kirk promises to put in a good word for him for ultimately saving the Enterprise.
This is the first episode of the animated Star Trek that was not written by someone previously associated with the live action series.  James Schmerer is a prolific and adaptable television writer and producer whose credits include westerns (High Chaparral), crime dramas (Mannix, The Rookies, The Streets of San Francisco), and medical dramas (Medical Center).  His science fiction/fantasy credentials include segments of Logan's Run, The Six Million Dollar Man, Isis, and Fantasy Island.   "The Survivor" is his only work for the Star Trek franchise, although he would get the opportunity to again write for William Shatner when he authored an episode of T.J. Hooker in 1985.
Carter Winston is given voice by Ted Knight, who is best remembered as pompous jackass Ted Baxter of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  He had previously worked for Filmation as narrator of their early cartoons based on DC super-heroes and continued in that role for Hanna-Barbera on Super Friends.  Despite the absence of Lt. Uhura from this episode, Nichele Nichols still has more than her share of lines as the voice of Winston's fiancee, Ann Nored.
The advantages of animation are on display in this episode in "Carter Winston's" native form.  The Vendorian is a truly alien looking alien that, in the pre-CGI era of the early 1970's, would have been impossible to create in any other visual medium except perhaps comics.
The story is hardly startingly original, with elements of it bearing strong resemblances to original series episodes "The Man Trap," in which a shape shifting alien resembles McCoy's former lover, and "What Are Little Girls Made Of?," where Nurse Christine Chapel's long lost fiancee turns out to be an android duplicate. Nonetheless, Schmerer takes these elements and weaves an entertaining story that honors the spirit of the original series. The only thing that bothers me a bit is the Vendorian becoming a deflector shield, as I thought the shields were some form of energy or forcefield, not matter.  Still, its a small quibble, and the script doesn't dwell on it too much, so it doesn't spoil an otherwise fine episode.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Star Trek The Animated Series: Episode 5 "More Tribbles, More Troubles"

In the DVD audio commentary for this episode, writer David Gerrold reveals that his proposal for a sequel to "The Trouble With The Tribbles" from the original Star Trek's second season was nixed by third season producer Fred Frieberger, who flatly declared that "Star Trek is not a comedy."  That statement is at once both true and utter bullshit.  While Trek overall is not a comedy series, some of its best and best loved episodes, including not only "The Trouble With Tribbles," but "A Piece of the Action" and "I, Mudd" as well, were essentially comedies, and even many of the most serious episodes had their humorous moments.  On the other hand, if "More Tribbles, More Troubles" was the "Tribbles" follow up that Gerrold was trying to interest Freiberger in, then the producer was right, if for the wrong reason, in rejecting it.
The episode opens as the Enterprise is headed back to Sherman's Planet, this time escorting two robot ships carrying the grain quintotriticale, obviously a new form of the original episode's quatrotriticale, to the colony's famine stricken population.  Along the way, they encounter a Klingon ship firing on a small Federation cargo vessel.  The Enterprise manages to rescue the cargo ship's pilot, who turns out to be troublemaking trader Cyrano Jones, but not before getting hit with a new Klingon superweapon, a stasis field ray that temporarily knocks out the ships engines and weapons.
Jones arrives on board the Enterprise carrying what he says are "safe" tribbles.  These ones do not reproduce at an accelerated rate like the ones seen in the original "The Trouble With Tribbles".  Instead, when fed, they grow to enormous proportions.  However, inside each giant tribble are hundreds of smaller tribbles, so the ship is shortly once again overrun with the furry nuisances.
The Klingons are after Jones for stealing the only prototype of their genetically engineered tribble predator, known as a glommer, and demand that Kirk turn the trader over to them.  Kirk refuses, but does give them the glommer. However, the creature ultimately proves ineffective against the giant tribbles after Kirk once again dumps all the tribbles on the Klingon ship..  Equally ineffective is the Klingons' stasis ray weapon, which uses up too much energy to be of much use in battle.
There are many problems with this episode.  The first is that there are two parallel stories being told and neither is given time to fully develop.  The plot concerning the new Klingon weapon ultimately goes nowhere while the Cyrano Jones/tribbles story line adds nothing new to the original episode.  In fact, from the tribbles overrunning the ship, to thousands of them once again falling on Kirk's head, to cleaning up the Enterprise by beaming the tribbles over to the Klingon ship, to ending with a bad tribble pun, its pretty much a beat for beat remake of the first "Tribbles."
The worse problem is that, for a supposed comedy, the episode just isn't funny.  This isn't entirely the fault of the script, as bad as that may be.  Even though Gerrold says in his commentary that at the recording the cast seemed happy to be back doing Star Trek again, it doesn't quite come across in the vocal performance.  The line readings throughout the series tend to be a bit flat, as if the cast had attended the Jack Webb School of Acting during the series' hiatus.  (On Dragnet, Webb discouraged his actors from learning their lines, preferring that they sound as if they were reading from cue cards, which, in fact, they were.) This certainly doesn't help to sell the humor, and these "jokes" need all the help they can get.
The tribble predator, the glommer, is just plain silly.  It looks more like something you'd see in a more typical Saturday morning cartoon than in Star Trek.  It even does that Scooby-Doo running in place thing at one point.
Stanley Adams returns to the role of Cyrano Jones for this episode.  Unfortunately, William Campbell did not return to the role of the Klingon captain, Koloth.  James Doohan takes over the role here, but he fails to capture the smarmy charm of Campbell's performance.
One other thing worth noting about this episode is that the tribbles are colored pink, not brown as they originally were.  This is apparently due to the fact that director Hal Sutherland was color blind.  This kind of works for the cute little tribbles, but when the Klingons end up wearing pink vests and a fierce race of warriors known as the Kzinti are flying around in pink ships, then it gets a little ridiculous. 
"More Tribbles, More Troubles" is a well intentioned effort to produce a follow-up to one of Trek's best and most beloved episodes, but nonetheless an effort that ultimately fails.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Star Trek The Animated Series: Episode 4: "The Lorelei Signal"

Investigating a series of mysterious disappearances of starships in an uncharted sector of space over the previous one hundred and fifty years, the Enterprise intercepts an odd sub-space radio signal that has a disturbing effect on the male members of the crew, who respond to it as a summons.   Following the signal to the second planet of the Taurean system, Kirk, Spock, McCoy and a redshirt named Carver (don't worry about him too much, this is Saturday morning kids' TV, after all, so he actually makes it through the episode alive) soon find themselves captured by the all female inhabitants of the planet.  Meanwhile, under the influence of a probe originating on the planet below, the men remaining on board the ship grow increasingly weak and lethargic.  Lt. Uhura steps away from the communications panel to assume command of the ship and lead an all female landing party to the planets surface to rescue Kirk and the others.
According to The Star Trek Compendium, NBC's advance publicity for the second season of the original Star Trek promised fans episodes focusing on secondary characters Sulu, Scotty, and Uhura.  I have no idea if such spotlights were ever considered, but the fact is that they never made it to air.  Uhura remains to this day the least developed of the core Trek cast.  She wasn't even granted a first name until J.J. Abrams' 2009 Star Trek film.  Notwithstanding the three episodes where she got to sing, "The Lorelei Signal" is the  closest thing to the promised spotlight on Uhura that Star Trek ever gave us.
In the Wikipedia entry on this episode, it is stated that Nichelle Nichols considers "The Lorelei Signal" her favorite Star Trek episode.  That's certainly understandable, for while its not quite the Uhura spotlight she or fans of her character may have hoped for, it is one of the few episodes in which she got to do more than just sit at her station on the bridge repeating her signature line, "Hailing frequencies open, Captain."
In addition to this episode, writer Margaret Armen worked on three installments of the original series, "The Gamesters of Triskelion", "The Paradise Syndrome," and "The Cloud Minders," none of which are likely to appear on anybody's list of Trek's best episodes.  Its not that they're bad, per se, but that in a series capable of such excellence as "City on the Edge of Forever," "Journey to Babel," and "The Menagerie," and others, they're just a little bit disappointing.  "The Lorelei Signal" is actually rather mediocre, coming off more like a 1950's B-movie rather than an episode of Star Trek, and would ultimately be utterly forgettable without the Uhura sub-plot.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Don't Yield, Back Marvel's Agents of SHIELD

While thinking about the show after watching the premiere episode of Marvel's Agents of SHIELD on Tuesday night, I found an unusual question coming to mind:  Would my dad have liked this show?
While it is definitely a product of the twenty-first century, there's somewhat of a 1960's vibe to the show.  It evokes not only the old Jim Steranko Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD comics, but the original TV version of Mission: Impossible as well.  Mission: Impossible is a show that I remember my dad liking, thus inspiring the question in the previous paragraph.
Like Mission: Impossible, Marvel's Agents of SHIELD focuses on an elite, autonomous squad of agents, each with their own specialty, who take on the most dangerous and difficult assignments.  So far, with only one episode aired, these agents are more stereotypes or archetypes than fully rounded characters.  I expect they'll be developed further as the series progresses.  However, it does seem as if Agents of SHIELD is going to be primarily a plot driven series, with the emphasis on action and high tech gadgetry over characterization.  This is something else it has in common with Mission: Impossible, not to mention those old Steranko comics.
That's not necessarily a bad thing.  If the action is fast paced and exciting and the gadgetry impressive enough, a certain lack of attention to characterization can be forgiven up to a point.  The initial installment suffers a bit from being a pilot episode and having to set up the premise of the series and introduce the characters while also trying to squeeze in a story, the potential is indeed there for Agents of SHIELD to develop into one of TV's best action/adventure series.
One thing that Agents of SHIELD has that Mission: Impossible lacked, but that is a trademark of series creator Joss Whedon, is a sense of humor.  The most oft quoted one-liner of the pilot is Skye's twist on Spider-Man's famous catchphrase when she tells nascent super-hero Mike Peterson that "With great power comes...a whole bunch of weird crap that you are not prepared to deal with."  My favorite line, however, comes from Agent Ward.  While being debriefed by Director Maria Hill, he is asked what SHIELD stands for.  After he gives the correct answer, which, by the way is Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division, Hill asks him what that means to him.  He replies that "...someone really wanted our name to spell out SHIELD."
So, to answer my own question from the beginning of this post, I think the answer is yes, my dad might just enjoy Marvel's Agents of SHIELD.   True, being set in the same universe as many of the Marvel super-hero films gives Agents of SHIELD  more of a fantasy/science fiction feel than a lot of spy dramas, such as Mission: Impossible.   However, I also remember my dad liking Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, which was flat out science fiction, so I don't think those elements would bother him so much.
Oh, and just in case you care, I happen to like the show, too. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

A New Villain is Born "When Heroes Clash!!" in Avengers #158

I occasionally like to tie my ramblings about musty old comics to current events in the comic book world in order to give this site some illusion of relevance.  Thus it is that I have decided to write about Avengers #158 at this time.  To tell the truth, I really wasn't planning to write about this issue at all.  I have nothing good to say about it.  Nor, for that matter, do I have anything bad to say about it.  It is a wholly unremarkable, absolutely average comic book.  However, recent events have made this issue somewhat relevant as a character introduced in it will soon be playing a recurring role on the ABC TV series Marvel's Agents of SHIELD.  
I came across the issue in a quarter comics box at Half-Price Books a couple of months ago and picked it up because:
  1. It's The Avengers.  Who doesn't love The Avengers?
  2. It has a cover by Jack Kirby.
  3. Said cover promises a throwdown between the Vision and his "brother" Wonder Man.
  4. It was only a quarter.
  5. It's written by Jim I mention it was only a quarter?
Obviously, I'm no fan of Shooter's writing, but this is no Secret Wars II.  It is, as I said above, a competently written and drawn (by Sal Buscema and Pablo Marcos) if somewhat unimpressive super-hero comic.
You've probably heard it said that it sometimes seems as if the Avengers spend more timing fighting amongst themselves than they do fighting super-villains.  Well, this issue is about evenly divided between the two, with six pages devoted to intra-team squabbling and seven to battling their newest foe, with four pages in between to introduce the villain. The story opens in the wake of another battle in Avengers mansion during which the team fought a magically animated statue of the Black Knight.  The Vision then proceeds to work himself into a jealous rage over the way Wonder Man and Scarlet Witch are talking to each other and proceeds to slap Simon around.  Their battle further damages the already wrecked mansion until Iron Man steps in an puts a stop to it.  At this point, the team's butler, Jarvis, walks and tells them that he just received a call for the team's help, but he told the caller that the Avengers were too busy beating each other up.
The call came from a scientific research community nestled in the Canadian Rockies, where a man named Frank Hall, who gained the power of control over gravity in an accident that occurred while he was trying to develop a teleportation beam, has taken over and cut the city off from the outside world.  Just as he dons for the first time his garish costume and rechristens himself Graviton, the Avengers finally arrive.  However, Graviton dispatches the heroes fairly quickly, then declares that nothing can now stop him from ruling the world.  Thus ends "When Heroes Clash!!", with the story to be continued in Avengers #159.
Now it has been reported that a character by the name of Dr. Franklin Hall will appear on a regular basis in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. beginning with the third episode.  It is apparently not known at this time whether the TV version of Hall will be calling himself Graviton or even have any super-powers.
If he doesn't at least have the gravity powers, I don't see the point of including the character in the show at all.  If Hall isn't going to resemble his comic book counterpart at least partially, then the producers might as well go ahead and create an original character with a different name.
I'll guess I'll just wait and see how they handle the character.  I'll most likely be watching the show which debuts tomorrow night on ABC.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Star Trek The Animated Series: Episode 3 "One Of Our Planets Is Missing"

"One Of Our Planets Is Missing" begins as a fairly standard giant space monster story, then takes a left turn about half-way through and becomes a somewhat unusual first contact  tale.
A vast cosmic cloud from outside the Milky Way galaxy has been sighted on the outer fringes of Federation space.  The Enterprise, which always seems to have the rotten luck of being the only starship in the vicinity when giant space clouds appear, is dispatched to investigate.  As the ship approaches the cloud, the crew witness it engulf and consume the outermost planet of the Pallas 14 system, then change course for Mantilles, a Federation colony with over 80 million inhabitants.
Intercepting the cloud, the Enterprise is drawn inside.  Spock deduces that the cloud is a living organism and that the ship is, essentially, inside its digestive system.  The science officer locates what he believes is the creature's brain, speculating that it may be intelligent.
With time running out, Kirk decides that the only way to save Mantilles is to destroy the cloud creature's brain.  As it turns out, however, the only way to have enough power to destroy the brain is by self-destructing the Enterprise.  Though hesitant to destroy an intelligent life form, he concludes that "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one," and that the lives of the millions on the planet must take precedence.  Spock convinces the captain to allow him to make a last ditch effort to attempt to communicate with the creature.  Reaching out with his mind to touch the creature's thoughts, Spock shows the creature that the planet it is about to consume contains intelligent beings like itself.  The creature, not wanting to kill, stops its advance toward Mantilles at the last possible second.   Furthermore, Spock convinces the creature that since there are many such inhabited planets in this galaxy, if it truly does not wish to consume intelligent life it should head out of the galaxy and back to where it came from.
Marc Daniels, the writer of this episode, was another Trek veteran, though this was his first time writing an episode.  His previous service to Starfleet had been as director of fourteen episodes of the original series beginning with the first one aired, "The Man Trap," and including some of the series' finest episodes, such as "The Naked Time" and "Mirror, Mirror," as well as the generally acknowledged worst episode of the series, "Spock's Brain."  Bill Norton, in his article on the animated Star Trek for the fan magazine Trek (reprinted in The Best of Trek), chided this episode for its similarity to "The Doomsday Machine," which Daniels directed and which featured a giant planet eating thing, as well as "The Immunity Syndrome," where the Enterprise encounters a giant space amoeba.  For my part, I noticed more of a similarity to Star Trek The Motion Picture, in which Spock similarly attempts to mentally communicate with an alien intelligence at the heart of a vast space cloud that the Enterprise is within and which menaces an inhabited world.  Norton, of course, could not have noticed this, as his article was written prior to STTMP's release.
I like this episode, but it has some flaws.  The dialogue, especially early on, is a little too heavy on technobabble.  Its almost enough to confuse even a hard core Trekkie like myself and was certain to have baffled the young kids watching this on Saturday mornings back in the 70's.   Also, I find the rather tongue in cheek title of the episode to be somewhat inappropriate, leading the viewer to expect a more light hearted outing than that which follows.
One thing I really like about the episode, though, is the characterization of Captain Kirk.  He is faced with a difficult moral choice, and makes it decisively, acting like a true Starfleet captain.  While he has some qualms about destroying a possibly intelligent life form, he doesn't unnecessarily agonize over it, and quite rightly decides that the lives of the millions on the planet must take precedence. 
Overall, "One Of Our Planets Is Missing" is a pretty decent and entertaining episode of Star Trek that emphasizes the Enterprises primary mission to " out new life..." and " boldly go where no man has gone before."

From Caracas to Pittsburgh: The Week In Spider-Man Related News

It has been a couple of years since I've looked at a new Spider-Man comic, so I have no idea what the web-slinger is getting up to these days in the Marvel Universe.  However, as I learned from reading the Robot 6 blog at Comic Book Resources, in what we sometimes ironically refer to as the "real world," your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man has been wreaking all sorts of havoc.
In Venezuela, new President Fredric, excuse me...Nicolas Maduro has apparently concluded, after watching Spider-Man 3, that violent American super-hero films are responsible for making Venezuela one of Latin America's most crime ridden countries, with over 16,000 murders committed last year and 3,400 in the first three months of the current year.  According to Maduro, "That’s the trouble, from the beginning until the end there are more and more dead. And that’s one of the series small children love most … because it’s attractive, it’s from comics that are attractive, the figure, the colors and movements … so much so that we finished watching it at four in the morning.”  To me, this is eerily reminiscent of the periodic attacks on Hollywood that come from American politicians seeking to divert attention from the real problems in this country and focus public anger on an easy target.
Meanwhile, somewhat closer to home, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on Friday, a 21 year old local college student attempted to rob a convenience store while dressed in a Spider-Man costume.  Jonathan N. Hewson, the would be hold-up man, fled the scene empty handed after the store clerk pulled out a Taser.  At least he had the class not to say "Don't Tase me, bro."   However, he apparently didn't have the common sense to go home and change his clothes, as he was picked up by Pittsburgh police officers not too long after the incident only about a block away from the scene of the crime and still wearing the Spider-Man suit.  It kind of makes you wonder what kids are learning in college these days.  Back when I was in school, they taught you how not to get arrested after a failed robbery attempt.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Star Trek The Animated Series: Episode 2 "Yesteryear"

I've seen a couple of printed sources, including The Star Trek Compendium, that mistakenly list "Yesteryear" as the first episode of Star Trek The Animated Series to air.  (Judging from this passage in the Wikipedia entry for this episode, it would seem that the compilers of these sources may have been residents of Los Angeles in the fall of 1973.) A strong case  could certainly be made that it ought to have been.  It is, after all, not only far and away the best episode of the animated series, but one of the finest examples of Star Trek in any incarnation.  
It is no accident that "Yesteryear" was written by Dorothy (D.C.) Fontana, who was likewise responsible for what I personally consider to be the best episode of the original live action Trek, "Journey To Babel."  Like "Journey", "Yesteryear" focuses on Trek's most popular character, Mr. Spock.
In addition to bringing back most of the original Star Trek cast to reprise their roles, The Animated Series utilized, whenever possible, the original actors to play returning guest stars from the original series.  Thus, Mark Lenard makes his second appearance as Spock's father Sarek.  This is third overall Trek appearance, as he first appeared as the Romulan commander in the first season original series episode "Balance of Terror."  He would next be seen briefly as the Klingon captain in Star Trek: The Motion Picture and later would show up again as Sarek in three Star Trek movies and a couple of episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.   On the other hand, Jane Wyatt, who originated the role of Spock's mother in "Journey to Babel," is replaced by Majel Barrett, who regularly voiced nurse Christine Chapel.  She also provided the voice of an unnamed female crewperson in the early scenes of the episode.  Most of the other guest characters, except for the children, were done by James Doohan, in addition to his regular role as Scotty.
The story begins on the planet of the Guardian of Forever, the sentient time portal last seen in the first season live action episode "The City on the Edge of Forever."  Kirk, Spock  and an unnamed crewman return from a historical survey mission to find that no one seems to know the Vulcan and the Enterprise's first officer is an Andorian called Thelin.
Obviously, the timeline has been altered by Kirk and Spock's trip into the past, but in such a subtle way that the only thing that has changed is that Spock doesn't exist.  A search of recent historical records, reported by another unnamed crewman who bears a remarkable if entirely coincidental resemblance to current Secretary of State John Kerry, reveals that Spock died while undergoing a traditional Vulcan rite of passage known as the Kahs-Wan ritual, which involves the participant attempting to survive on his own in the desert area called Vulcan's Forge for ten days.  Spock remembers being saved by a mysterious visiting cousin when he was attacked by a wild animal during the Kahs-Wan ritual.  It becomes obvious to Kirk and Spock that this "cousin" was in fact Spock himself.
Now, while Kirk and Spock were in the past, other Enterprise crewmen were using the Guardian to review the events of the past thirty years on Vulcan.  Because Spock was somewhere else in the past, he wasn't there to go through the Guardian and save himself, resulting in his being killed as a child.   The solution is simple, of course.  Spock must go back through the Guardian to the 20th day of the month of Tasmeen thirty years past in order to set his timeline right.
Arriving at the appointed time and place, Spock meets his father, Sarek, and learns from his mother, Amanda, that her son is due to undergo the Kahs-Wan the next month.  Confused, Spock ponders what he could have done to alter the timeline further.
It turns out that the problem lies not in the timeline, but in Spock's memory.  He had forgotten that it was not the actual Kahs-Wan ritual during which he met himself.  The young Spock, under pressure from his father not to fail the test and worried that he may, sets out alone across the Vulcan desert to prove himself.  He is followed, despite his commands to the contrary, by I-Chaya, his pet Sehlat, a Vulcan animal described by Amanda in "Journey to Babel" as a giant teddy bear with six inch fangs.
Spock catches up with his younger self just as the child is being menaced by a Vulcan beastie call a la matya.  I-Chaya fights the monster off, but is scratched by the creatures poisonous claws.  As adult Spock comforts the wounded sehlat, the young Spock sets out across the desert back to the city of Shi'Kahr to bring a healer to save his pet.  However, he is too late, and allows the healer to put I-Chaya out of his misery.   After helping the boy deal with his grief over the loss of his pet, and teaching to do the Vulcan nerve pinch, adult Spock returns to his own time where the original timeline has been restored.
The question of whether the events of Star Trek The Animated Series can be considered "canon" has been the subject of ongoing debate among Trek fans and the show's producers ever since the series first aired, however some elements introduced in the animated version, including many from this episode, have found their way into live action TV episodes or movies, and thus into official Trek continuity.  This episode offered the first extensive look at the planet Vulcan, and the city of Shi'Kahr, the design of the sehlat, the Kahs-Wan ritual, and the desert area of Vulcan's Forge would all figure in future episodes of the final Star Trek TV series, Enterprise.   Furthermore, the scenes in this episode of young Spock being taunted by other Vulcan children most likely influenced similar scenes in J.J. Abrams' 2009 reboot of the franchise.
When I watched this episode a few years back after not having seen it for a couple of decades, I was astonished that this was a Saturday morning cartoon from the early 70's.   "Yesteryear" deals with themes of loss and acceptance in a manner that is surprisingly mature and sophisticated for a time and a medium that produced such "classics" as Super Friends, Inch High Private Eye, and Help! It's The Hair Bear Bunch.  In fact, on reflection, the episode seems to be ahead of its time for television in general of that era.   Unlike those and other Saturday morning fare of the era, it did not condescend to its young audience.  Of course, the producers were aware that some part of their audience was going to be adult fans of the original series.
Apparently, NBC executives did, in fact, have some qualms about the episode, worrying that it might be upsetting to young children.  According to the text commentary on the DVD, Gene Roddenberry's response to them was simply, "Trust Dorothy." 
Based on the evidence of this and other Trek episodes written by Ms. Fontana, including "Journey to Babel" and "Charlie X", that certainly seems like sound advice to me, and all Star Trek fans can be glad that the suits at NBC decided to heed it and allow this excellent episode to be seen.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Preview: Green Lantern Sector 2814 Volume 3

It always amused me, during the period in which Hal Jordan, the second DC character to bear the name Green Lantern, was spending a decade dead for tax purposes, to hear or read self professed fans of the character decry how badly DC had treated Hal and demand his resurrection and reinstatement as Green Lantern.  Where, I could not help but wonder, were these supposedly die-hard fans during the twenty five years between 1970 and 1994 when Hal Jordan seemed incapable of supporting a solo series for more than a handful of months?  During that period, lagging sales inevitably would lead the writers and editors of the book to desperate measures to revive interest in the book and lure in new readers.  That quarter century saw Hal saddled with a co-star, replaced as Green Lantern, made part of an Earth bound team of Green Lanterns, forced to share his title with the rotating adventures of  Earth's two other Green Lanterns, replaced again and ultimately killed off.  These ploys met with varying degrees of success.  Let's not forget that during this time, his magazine was canceled twice.
Cover of GL 200 by Walt Simonson, which will serve as the TPB's cover
I mention this because, besides just wanting to get that off my chest, I recently learned that this coming December DC will be releasing Green Lantern: Sector 2814 Volume 3, the third (obviously) in a series of trade paperbacks collecting issues of Green Lantern from the mid-1980's tenures of writers Len Wein and Steve Englehart, including the first time Hal was replaced, that time by his designated back-up, John Stewart.  The issues to be reprinted in this third volume (#194 through #200) include those that crossed over with DC's universe changing Crisis On Infinite Earths limited series, which Englehart used to set up yet another major change in the title's, and Hal's, status quo.  Effectively, these also constitute the final seven issues of the Silver Age Green Lantern title, as the new direction brought with it a new name for the comic as of #201, with the book's second cancellation to follow within two years.
These issues are also significant for re-introducing Guy Gardner and beginning his evolution into the arrogant jerk soon to be a mainstay of Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis' Justice League, and for containing, in what Englehart contends was merely a throwaway line of dialogue in #200, the seeds of DC's third major crossover event (after Crisis and Legends), Millennium.
Green Lantern, I believe, tied in more closely to the events of Crisis On Infinite Earths than any other book not set on Earth 2.  This only makes sense, since the backstory of the Crisis, as related by Harbinger in Crisis #7, is deeply rooted in the Green Lantern mythology.  However, these stories are not so closely tied to Crisis that they cannot be enjoyed on their own.  A comprehensive knowledge of the history of the Guardians and the Green Lantern Corps wouldn't hurt, though Englehart does a pretty good job of fairly unobtrusively filling in the reader on what he needs to know to understand the current proceedings.
The stories in this volume begin with the then current Green Lantern of Earth, John Stewart, being recruited by Harbinger to go off and fight the forces of the Anti-Monitor.  On Oa, home of John's bosses, the Guardians of the Universe, a rift has developed among the immortals as to how to deal with the Crisis.  The main body of little blue guys has decided to stand back and do nothing.  If the Multiverse is meant to end, they reason, then so be it.  On the other hand, a more proactive rogue faction of Guardians decide to take the fight to the Anti-Monitor.  To this end, they bring Guy Gardner, now somewhat brain damaged, out of the coma that he had been in since the latter days of Denny O'Neil's run on the title and bring him to Oa.  As they bestow a ring and power battery upon Gardner, a wave of anti-matter sent by the Anti-Monitor kills all but one of them. (This actually occurs in Crisis #9) The surviving rogue Guardian dispatches Guy to gather up a team of villains including the Shark, Goldface, Sonar and Hector Hammond to destroy the white spot on the black moon of the planet Qward in the Anti-Matter Universe from which the Anti-Monitor arose in hopes of destroying the villain. 
Meanwhile, what with the woman he quit the Green Lantern Corps for, Carol Ferris, having turned into Star Sapphire permanently and gone off to live with Zamorans, the alien Amazons who transformed her, as their queen, Hal Jordan is beginning to regret giving up his power ring.  He is soon recruited by the last surviving rogue Guardian and given a new ring so that he may accompany Guy and his team on their mission.
Then Sinestro shows up. He convinces John that Gardner and Hal have to be stopped, as their mission would cause more harm than good.  John flies off to Oa to get help from the Guardians and the rest of the Green Lantern Corps.  It turns out that Sinestro's offer of an alliance was merely a ruse to get John to take him to Oa so that he could get his revenge on the Guardians. However, after Sinestro is defeated, the Central Power Battery, which powers all the Green Lantern power rings, speaks to the assembled Guardians and Green Lanterns through the person of Tomar Re, Green Lantern of the planet Xudar and the first alien GL that Hal, and thus Green Lantern readers, ever encountered.  The battery reveals that Sinestro was right, and Gardner and company must indeed be prevented from succeeding in their quest.  Thus, the entire Corps heads off to the Anti-Matter Universe to confront Guy, Hal and their team of villains.
After the ensuing battle has ended and the Crisis is over, Hal Jordan is reinstated as a Green Lantern, and the Corps gathers on Oa to hear an announcement from the Guardians that will change the Corps forever...or at least until subsequent writer Gerard Jones reversed the change in the next volume of Green Lantern a few years down the line.
I have read Green Lantern #'s 194 to 200 several dozen times since I first bought them back in 1985.  They are some of my favorite Green Lantern stories, featuring some of Englehart's best writing and the usual beautiful art job from Joe Staton. Many great artists have worked on the various volumes of Green Lantern over the last half century, from Gil Kane to Neal Adams, Mike Grell, Dave Gibbons, Pat Broderick, Mark Bright, Darryl Banks, Doug Manke, and many more, but to my mind, Staton remains THE definitive GL artist. Sector 2814 Volume 3 is definitely something that any Green Lantern fan should want to read, and makes a nice companion volume to Crisis On Infinite Earths.