Friday, September 30, 2016

The Good Place (TV): Highly Recommended

The Grinder, The Crazy Ones, Almost Human, Bunheads, not to mention Firefly — Katie-Bar-The-Door and I have a gift for falling in love with television shows the rest of the world doesn't. I have this deep abiding fear that NBC's brilliant (brilliantly nuts!) comedy The Good Place is so very, very good it, too, will join the list.

If you love me, don't let that happen.

The gist of the series? Kristen Bell (star of Veronica Mars, that Disney movie and a bunch of ads on television) is dead and, thank heaven, she's gone to the good place. Except, oops, heaven made a mistake and she most certainly doesn't belong there. Got to keep fooling the amiable dunce (Ted Danson) who runs the place.

Helping her pull off the deception is the guy who's supposed to be her soul mate (but, of course, isn't) (a terrific William Jackson Harper).

It sounds like the set-up for a tedious one-note joke, but it isn't. Each episode goes to an unexpected place, creating an ever-deepening mystery, while exploring the concept of what it means to be good and why being bad is often so much more interesting. The writing is sharp and witty, and the acting is pitch-perfect. Genius.

It airs on NBC, Thursday nights at 8:30 (Eastern). Tomorrow evening (Saturday), NBC will be running a Good Place mini-marathon to give you another chance to catch up. I highly (highly!) recommend that you seize the opportunity.

It's been a hard year for Katie and me — don't make us suffer another tragedy. Watch The Good Place. Watch it now!

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Lost In Space (Reprint)

Bill Mumy just tweeted that today is the 51st anniversary of the premiere of Lost in Space. So it is! I wrote a four part essay about the series last year at this time. Here's a short piece of it:

Not really a miniseries, of course, but interconnected chapters of one storyline, these five episodes take us from the initial liftoff through the family's first few months on an uncharted planet. Along the way, you'll discover how the Robinsons got lost in the first place, how they reacted to their first close encounter with an alien species, and how the show's best known characters, the villainous Dr. Smith and his odd-couple sidekick, the Robot, came to be on board. Featuring all the best set pieces from the unaired pilot, if you're new to the series or just looking to skim the cream off the top, this is a good place to start.
The Reluctant Stowaway
The Derelict
Island in the Sky
There Were Giants in the Earth
The Hungry Sea

My Friend, Mr. Nobody — A rare episode that centers on Penny (Angela Cartwright), this is a poignant fairy tale about a lonely little girl and her not-so-imaginary imaginary friend. The sort of thing Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone excelled at.

Wish Upon a Star — Filled with the first season's signature elements, this is a top-notch morality tale about the dangers of getting everything you want, featuring wonderfully weird expressionistic cinematography, unexplained alien artifacts, the harsh reality of frontier living and Dr. Smith's self-absorbed jack-ass-ery.

The Space Croppers — A family of shiftless space hillbillies (led by Oscar-winner Mercedes McCambridge) cultivate a carnivorous crop that threatens to devour the Robinsons. This was the series' first full-blown foray into WTF. It wouldn't be the last.

The Prisoners of Space — In this, the best episode of the worst season, a menagerie of alien creatures put the Robinsons on trial for violating the laws of outer space. Kafka with monsters. (Note: You might also check out "The Wreck of the Robot" — MM.)

Revolt of the Androids — A couple of androids drop in on the Robinsons, Dr. Smith hatches a get-rich-quick scheme, and human sentimentality wins the day. This one did at least spawn the catchphrase "Crush! Kill! Destroy!"

The Questing Beast — So many to choose from, among them "The Space Vikings", "Mutiny in Space", "Curse of Cousin Smith", etc. Here, Penny befriends a papier-mâché dragon that is being hunted by a bumbling knight in King Arthur's armor. How can something so campy be so boring?

The Anti-Matter Man — An experiment gone wrong transports Professor Robinson into a parallel dimension where he meets his own evil self. The scenery is summer stock by way of Dr. Caligari, and Guy Williams, having the most fun as an actor since Zorro, gets to chew on all of it. Great stuff, and for those philistines among you who won't touch black-and-white, the best of the color episodes.

Visit to a Hostile Planet — Season three was wildly uneven, but at least it was trying, leavening genuine science fiction with campy comedy. Here, the Robinsons finally make it back to Earth only to discover it's 1947 and everyone thinks they're hostile, alien invaders. A cross between Star Trek and Dad's Army. Good stuff.

The Great Vegetable Rebellion — Featuring a giant talking carrot played by Stanley Adams (Cyrano Jones of Star Trek's "The Trouble with Tribbles"), this is, in the words of Bill Mumy, "probably the worst television show in primetime ever made." So bad, it's good, this is gloriously awful must-see tv.

Follow the Leader — The spirit of a dead alien warrior possesses Professor Robinson and turns this warm, rational man into a vicious, unpredictable bastard. Dark, moody, occasionally terrifying, pop-culture critic John Kenneth Muir called this episode a parable of "alcoholism in the nuclear family." One of the series' very best.

One of Our Dogs Is Missing — Although set in 1997, the show usually ignored the fact that Betty Friedan was already a household name by 1965, but here June Lockhart gets to show her chops when Maureen is left in charge of the ship while the men are away. Threats abound and she handles them all with brains, bravery and quiet resolve.

Condemned of Space — I've already mentioned "The Hungry Sea" and "The Anti-Matter Man", so I'll go with this one where the Robinsons are captured by a prison spaceship and Major West winds up hanging by his thumbs on an electronic rack. Admittedly, he had more lines in "The Space Primevals" and "Fugitives in Space", but both of those episodes suck. With Marcel Hillaire as a charming murderer who strangles his victims with a string of pearls.

Attack of the Monster Plants — As daughter Judy, Marta Kristen rarely got a chance to shine but here she showed off a saucy bite as her own evil doppelgänger. Like much of season one, there's a dream-like quality to the mood and cinematography that papers over some of the episode's nuttier flights of fancy.

A Change of Space — As the series' true hero, there are a lot of Will-centered episodes to choose from — "Return from Outer Space", "The Challenge", "Space Creature", among others — but I'll go with this one in which Will takes a ride in an alien space ship and winds up with the most brilliant mind in the galaxy. And still his father doesn't take him seriously! This is one of those episodes that underscores my contention that not all of the trouble Will found himself in was of Dr. Smith's making. (Note: If I were writing this today, I'd probably go with "Return from Outer Space," but this is a valid choice, too — MM)

The Magic Mirror — Well, the second best, and like the previously-mentioned "My Friend, Mr. Nobody", this is a poignant fairy tale about coming of age on the final frontier. Here, Penny falls through a magic mirror into a dimension with a population of one — a boy (Michael J. Pollard) who promises she'll never have to grow up. Beautiful and bittersweet.

Time Merchant — Let's be honest, from best to worst, they were all Dr. Smith episodes. Originally, I planned to pick the episode where Smith isn't a colossal dick, but it turns out there isn't one, so instead I went with this one, an inventive and visually-Daliesque time travel story that poses the question, "What if Smith hadn't been on the show in the first place?"

War of the Robots — The first episode where the Robot crosses over from a mere machine, no matter how clever, into a fully-conscious Turing-Test artificial intelligence. Featuring Forbidden Planet's Robby the Robot. If Will was the show's hero, and Smith its plot-driving irritant, the Robot was its soul. See also "The Ghost Planet", "The Wreck of the Robot", "Trip Through the Robot", "The Mechanical Men", "Flight into the Future", "Deadliest of the Species", "Junkyard in Space".

The Challenge — A lot to choose from — among those I haven't mentioned, Warren Oates, Werner Klemperer, Kym Karath, Strother Martin, Wally Cox, Francine York, John Carradine, Daniel J. Travanty, Lyle Waggoner, Edy Williams, Arte Johnson — but I'm going with Kurt Russell who plays a young prince from a warrior planet trying to prove to his father (Michael Ansara) that he's worthy of his trust, respect and love. A good story about father-son relationships, plus Guy Williams gets to show off the fencing skills that earned him the title role as Disney's Zorro.

Invaders from the Fifth Dimension — The cyclops ("There Were Giants in the Earth") is the most iconic, the "bubble creatures" ("The Derelict") the most outré, but I'm going with the mouthless, disembodied heads from this one. Stranded while visiting from another dimension, they need a brain to replace a burned-out computer component and notice Will has a pretty good head on his shoulders. So they task Dr. Smith with bringing it to them on a metaphorical plate. The show would recycle this plotline over and over but the first time out of the box, it feels fresh. Plus their spaceship is cooler than anything Star Trek ever served up.

The Keeper, Parts One and Two — The only two-parter during the show's run, this one stars Michael Rennie (The Day the Earth Stood Still) as an intergalactic zookeeper looking for two new specimens for his exhibit — Will and Penny! Coming at the midpoint of season one, this was the high watermark of the show's original (serious) concept of a family struggling to survive in a hostile environment. After this, the camp crept in with mixed results.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Star Trek: The Fiftieth Anniversary

It was fifty years ago this evening that Star Trek premiered on NBC. Let's pause for a moment to genuflect.

I'm a big fan of the franchise but I'll bet I'm the only one here whose introduction to it was via the printed page.

Back in 1971, at the age of ten, I was tagging along with my father while he stood in a long, long line at some local government office — I want to say his driver's licence had expired while he'd been overseas, but maybe it was his voter registration — and to keep me occupied, he bought me a book by the award-winning science fiction writer, James Blish, a collection of stories based on episodes of a show I'd never heard of, something called Star Trek.

To that point I had always been a devoted Lost in Space man, but I was hooked and when a year or so later Star Trek showed up in syndication on local television, I took the deep dive and never looked back.

In celebration, here are my ten favorite episodes of Star Trek. Not the ten best, just my ten favorite.

10. "The Naked Time" — an alien something or the other infects the crew and forces hidden personality traits to the surface. It's an old story-telling trope but it's handled extremely well here. Also known as "Sulu with a sword."

9. "Journey to Babel" — spies, murder, a sneak attack and a ship full of cranky diplomats, some with antennae. Also known as "the one with Spock's parents."

8. "The Doomsday Machine" — a Captain Ahab story, with William Windom as a half-crazed captain who risks everything to chase his great white whale, a mile-long planet-killing machine that destroyed his ship and killed his crew.

7. "Errand of Mercy" — Kirk and Spock try to save a planet from a Klingon occupation only to discover that the primitive, peaceful inhabitants don't need saving. Like all good science fiction, this one sets your preconceptions on their ear. Introduced the Klingons, Star Trek's greatest villains.

6. "The Corbomite Maneuver" — in an early episode, a giant ship threatens to destroy the Enterprise. Kirk responds not with phasers but with quick wit and fearless compassion, setting the tone for the entire series. Features perhaps the greatest story-telling twist in franchise history.

5. "Mirror, Mirror" — known to one and all as "Spock with a beard," here Kirk and his away crew wind up in an alternate universe where the Federation is an empire and assassination and genocide are just good business practices.

4. "The City on the Edge of Forever" — number one on a lot of lists, Kirk and Spock are thrown back in time and have to make a great sacrifice to save the future of humanity. Had a famously troubled production history: science fiction great Harlan Ellison penned an award-winning script (available here) that Gene Roddenberry heavily rewrote. The best version of this episode, in my humble opinion, was written by the aforementioned James Blish, who combined the best elements of the Ellison and Roddenberry versions (here).

3. "The Devil in the Dark" — a murderous monster has killed fifty men deep in the mines of Janus VI. Featuring another of the series' greatest twists, Kirk proves compromise and compassion can be pretty ballsy choices. Television science fiction at its finest.

2. "Balance of Terror" — a thinly-disguised retelling of The Enemy Below, Kirk matches wits with a Romulan captain threatening interstellar war. One of the best episodes at depicting a crew beyond the bridge, it's exciting, tense and poignant. Introduced the Romulans.

1. "The Trouble with Tribbles" — utterly goofy, utterly brilliant, the delicate peace between the Federation and the Klingon Empire is almost brought to an end by a furry ball of fluff with a prolific sex life. The funniest episode of what was often a very funny show.

Did I leave out your favorite? Tell us about it in the comments section below.