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.