Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Classic TV Flashback: Blackstar (1981)


Debut: September 19, 1981
Starring:  George DiCenzo. Linda Gary, Alan Oppenheimer, Patrick Pinney, Frank Welker
Synopsis: An astronaut, swept through a black hole, is stranded on a primitive planet in another universe, and joins the fight against the tyrannical Overlord.

Trey: Blackstar was a Saturday morning, animated, fantasy series produced by Lou Schiemer and Norm Prescott for Filmation. It's original run only lasted from September to December 1981, but it was revived again in 1983. We watched Episode 13, "The Zombie Masters" on YouTube. It was written by Marc Scott Zicree and Michael Reaves (the writers responsible for most of the series) and originally aired on December 5, 1981. It was the final episode. In it, Blackstar and friends are trying to convince the leaders of Gandar to join their fight against the Overlord when the city is attacked by Marakand, the flying city of zombies. Soon Princess Luwena, Mara and Poulo are under the spell of Shaldemar the Zombie Master.

In many ways, Blackstar was a "trial run" for Filmation's He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. They are both science fantasies and both feature magical swords that have been split in half. Blackstar is a bit more "Planetary Romance," however, and not as superheroic as He-Man. You could say it kind of bridges Filmation's adaptations of older characters like Flash Gordon and Tarzan and the later He-Man.

Jason: I'm not all that conversant with He-Man, but Blackstar feels like its aiming for a slightly more sophisticated audience, while still abiding by the rigid standards for children's entertainment in play in those days. This makes for a frustrating mix of relatively complex fantasy concepts and characters amidst kiddie comic relief (in the unfortunate form of Trobbits) and awesome swords that can only be used defensively (deflecting incoming magic blasts for instance) or to inflict property damage.  The problem of Chekhov's Awesome Sword would have plagued my mind as a kid. 

This episode could have sold young me had Blackstar been able to hack and slash his way through the packs of zombies* infesting the flying city rather than all the skulking around. And don't get my inner 11-year-old started on the Trobbits!

If this show had been made in the more relaxed standards of say, the Jonny Quest 1960s, it might have been a more satisfying action adventure that I would have loved in syndication while complaining that cartoons just aren't as cool as they used to be.

Trey: An interesting note on the protagonist. Original Blackstar was conceived of as Black. His ethnicity was made indeterminant (perhaps Native American like the later Bravestarr) before production, however.

Jason: An opportunity wasted while simultaneously sparing the world another Black hero with "Black" in his name. 

Trey: In summary, Blackstar has the flaws of the Filmation cost-conscience method as we discussed with Flash Gordon. Compared to modern cartoons in a similar vein, it is neither as action packed nor does it feature as much story in its run time. What it excels at though is worldbuilding or perhaps implication of worldbuilding. There is so much for the 8 year-old mind (the age I was when this aired) to latch on to. 

Jason: I agree on all points! A couple of years make a lot of difference in that age category, so it wasn't in the cards for me - I was busy with early adolescent rejection of childish things at the same time. I already loved Dungeons & Dragons, so I'm a little surprised I almost completely ignored this show, which based on this episode, might be the most D&D of the Saturday morning age including the D&D cartoon (with the possible exception of Thundarr). This episode features a veritable monster manual of fantasy species, rampant use of magic missiles and the like, soul-harvesting magic items, and an actual dungeon exploration sequence. 

And yes, the animation is weak sauce, but the character designs and background paintings do a lot of heavy lifting in the worldbuilding department and are very nice. 

My verdict, adjusted for the children's entertainment of this vintage: 3 dead Trobbits out of 5, but the unfulfilled potential is painful to contemplate. It could have been great!

*Spoiler! As it turns out, its a damn good think Blackstar didn't slay his way through the city, as each and every enslaved soul would be reunited with it's body at the end, right down to the gargoyles and other monstrous city dwellers that looked so prime for gratuitous sword-fodder earlier on.

Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Classic TV Flashback: Yancy Derringer (1958)

Yancy Derringer

Debut: October 2, 1958
Created by Mary Loos and Richard Sale
Starring: Jock Mahoney; X Brands
Synopsis: An adventurer gambler, and dapper Southern gentleman works as a secret government agent in post-Civil War New Orleans.

Trey: Yancy Derringer ran on CBS from October 2, 1958, to September 24, 1959. According to Wikipedia, Sale and Loos based the series on "The Devil Made a Derringer", a short story by Sale that appeared in All-American Fiction in 1938.  Sale was apparently a very successful pulp writer in the 1930s. The the original short story was about a destitute aristocrat who returns to New Orleans three years after the Civil War. In the story, Derringer is given no first name; "Yancy" was added for the series.

We watched episode 15, "The Fair Freebooter," on Amazon Prime. It originally aired on January 15, 1959. In it, the pretty river pirate Coco LaSalle threatens to cause an international incident after she robs Derringer's riverboat, stealing a jeweled necklace, once belonging to Empress Carlota, that is to be returned to the Mexican government. Yancy just wants to get his new shirts he bought from St. Louis back and sets a plan in motion to get both while escorting LaSalle to the Comus Ball.

Jason: I snapped to attention when Yancy declared his passionate intention to retrieve his damn shirts. He'd been waiting for three months already! If he can help smooth over international relations in so doing, fine, but he's got to look good!

Trey: Clothes maketh the man. Anyway, I'd seen the first episode of this series before, but that was all setup really, I imagine this one is more like most episodes. I think this is sort of similar to Barbary Coast with the same sort of spy-type doings and the touch of humor. I think it works better here than there, though. Maybe it's the 30 minute timeframe?

Jason: It definitely works better here! The 30 minute run length for this kind of material is starting to feel revelatory, despite the obvious limitations. At no point are we allowed to be bored as the story goes through its paces. Unlike M Squad, which felt ruthless in its devotion to delivering the plot with absolutely no fat, this episode's scenes almost feel leisurely in pace, allowing us to infer whatever we can about the characters through their dialogue and behavior. No info dumps here. 

Trey: No indeed! It's interesting to me how none of this historical background is explained. No brief exposition on Emperor Maximilian. No dialogue illuminating why an "administrator" is in charge of New Orleans. Either they expected the average viewer to know more history in 1959, or they expected audiences to just roll with it!

Jason: There's just no time for any of that! Here again, I think it works in the show's favor. The dialogue, always in service of the plot, still feels naturalistic enough that it carries us along, leaving any filling in of context to the audience. Kind of refreshing! 

Trey: Another interesting thing: mutiny appears to be stirring among Coco's men, but this doesn't really come to anything in the episode despite a fair amount of setup.

Jason: That's true, and maybe is vestigial evidence of editing for time. That said, this undercurrent of perhaps imminent revolt does lend some extra peril to the scenes in the pirate camp and communicates the treacherousness of this pack of weasels. 

I was further impressed by the seeming lavishness of the sets and costumes. Production values are strong for the era and the setting. 

My verdict: It was pretty good, leading me to wonder if further investigation of 1959 might reveal it be the peak of some kind of golden age of television. 

Trey: It does seem a particularly fertile era. I liked this one as well. It would be interesting to see where this episode fits in the "scale of quality" of the series.

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Classic TV Flashback: Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All (1982)

Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All

Debut: August 21, 1982
Written by  Samuel A. Peeples, Alex Raymond
Starring: Robert Ridgely, Diane Pershing, Bob Holt, Vic Perrin
Synopsis: Flash Gordon, Dale Arden and Dr. Hans Zarkov travel to the planet Mongo and wind up fighting the tyrannical rule of Emperor Ming the Merciless.

Trey: Flash Gordon: The Greatest Adventure of All is animated television movie that aired on NBC in 1982. The project was begun in 1979 following the success of Star Wars, but lead to a Saturday morning TV series, which actually aired before the movie.

This film has never been released on home video in the U.S., so far as I know, but it's available on YouTube.

Jason: I grew up on Filmation as my primary supplier of action/adventure Saturday morning cartoons. Foremost in my memories are the Tarzan and Batman series from the 70s-80s, but I also have some dim recollection of the Flash Gordon series. My memories are occluded by pre-teen rejection of "greasy kid stuff". As a result, I mostly remember viciously lampooning the reused animation elements that resulted in Batman, Tarzan, and Flash jogging identically down and to the left or down and to the right. These rotoscoped sequences looked cool, and were typically the most fluid and impressive bits of animation in the shows.  But as a kid, I bristled at what could only be regarded as Filmation's repeated and unrepentant insults to my intelligence. Do they think I can't tell that when Tarzan swings on a vine he does so in precisely the same manner as when Batman does a Bat-swing on the Bat-rope?

Though many of those sequences were trotted out for Flash, I was pleasantly surprised by this production, which not only looks very good and includes many novel bits of animation previously unseen, but also embraced an ambitious agenda of visual storytelling.

Trey: I think in this era of overseas outsourcing of animation and heavy use of computers, it's easy to be derisive of the shortcuts and failings of animation with less than a feature film budget in the 80s. Filmation here shows the failings of their economical style, but also brings in some techniques borrowed from Japanese animation and even, I believe, some early computer use in addition to some accomplished rotoscoping.

Jason: I found the battling dinosaurs to be remarkable for American animation of the era. 

The Beast Men's Temple of Ming sequence sold me. I was amazed at the minimal dialogue and long, entirely visual sequences. Danger felt real! Violence felt consequential!

The script by Peebles hummed along at a steady pace and seemed unusually adult, again for American animation of this vintage. And when I say adult, I mean stand by for 1930's norms visited upon impressionable children of the 80's. Eugenics comes into play, retrograde depictions of female characters (Dale Arden, in peril of a horrible marriage to Ming, disappears for a lengthy portion of the movie), and, astonishingly, Hitler! Yes, Hitler! Sorry for the spoiler, folks. Trey, help me understand!

Trey: Yes, Peeple's (who wrote the second pilot for Star Trek as well) provides a script clearly for primetime, not Saturday morning. Note the use of firearms in the fight with the dinosaurs and the flaming sword in the final duel. Overall, not only does it move along pretty well, it's fairly faithful to Raymond's original comic strip, though not as faithful as the more extended Saturday morning cartoon version. The Hitler connection is original to Peeples, so far as I know.

I enjoyed hearing Ted Cassidy as Thun. He doesn't voice him in the series. Several of the other voices are different as well: Vultan, Barin, and Ming. No disrespect to Vic Perrin here, but I miss Alan "Skeletor" Oppenheimer's villainous cackle for Ming.

Jason: My verdict: Overall, this incarnation Flash Gordon delivered constant (adequate) thrills, solid animation, well-imagined vistas, and was, against all odds, pretty entertaining. 

Trey: I love the animated series from my youth, so it's hard for me to judge with objective eyes. This is only the second time I've seen the TV movie, though, so I was pretty fresh on it. I enjoyed it for the reasons you say, but I miss the more expansive storyline of the series.

Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Classic TV Flashback: Space:1999 (1975)

Space: 1999

Debut: September 4, 1975 (UK)
Created by Gerry Anderson, Sylvia Anderson
Starring: Martin Landau, Barbara Bain, Nick Tate, Zienia Merton, Catherine Schell
Synopsis: In the year 1999, the crew of Moonbase Alpha must struggle to survive when a nuclear explosion throws the Moon from orbit into deep space.

Trey: Space: 1999 was a British series that ran for two seasons on ITV from 1975 to 1977. Attempts to sell the series to a U.S. network failed, so it aired in syndication starting in 1975. It was the last production by the partnership of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson and was the most expensive series produced for British television up to that time.

In a series of events that will be familiar to Star Trek fans, the series was almost cancelled at the end of season (or series) one in part due to the fact no American network had picked it up. Fred Freiberger (known from season 3 of Star Trek and part of season 1 of Wild Wild West) was brought on board and the show was remolded into a bit more of a--well, Star Trek direction.

In the end, this didn't save it, and season 2 was to be the last.

Jason: In an interview Gerry Anderson made explicit mention of the tensions between the UK and American members of the production partnership, and was (unsurprisingly) put out by Freiberger's attempts to make the show more palatable for US audiences. The differences between season 1 and 2 of the series are stark. Right from the jump, the killer theme music from season one credits sequence is jettisoned in favor of an anemic re-imagining. 

Trey: Well, we watched season 2 episode 1, "The Metamorph" on Freevee. The Moonbase Alpha crew comes upon a planet that has the titanium they need to make repairs to their systems. The apparently lone inhabitant of the planet Psychon, Mentor, offers to make an exchange with them, but secretly plans to trap them and use their mental energy to restore the matter-transforming computer that can repair his world.

 So, I'll come clean: I chose this episode for us to watch due to the presence of Brian Blessed as Mentor.

Jason: I'm glad you did! It's a restrained performance for Blessed in this instance. He could've gone way bigger, given the outrageous events at play. He looks great, with his spray-painted faux hawk and dashing take on the traditional wizard's robes and high collar cape. Like a lot of other elements in this episode (and perhaps the series in general), the considerable visual appeal is the best thing going here. 

Trey: Is it just me or is this episode (like Forbidden Planet and the Star Trek episode "Requiem for Methuselah") another loose riff on The Tempest?

Jason: I'd say that was a bullseye. Who's Caliban? Koenig?

Trey: Mentor's goons that dress like MOTU's Zodac by way of the iPod aesthetic!

But speaking of Koenig, how did you find Landau as the intrepid commander? He's a great actor, of course, but I thought he was a bit miscast here. At the very least, I feel like it would have been better to have a "Riker" to his "Picard."

Jason: Yeah, I feel the same way. It's a bummer because Landau is great as you say, but it just doesn't seem to work. His Koenig seems like a leader prone to sudden rages who would be quite a polarizing figure among his crew, by which I mean I could see a mutiny down the road.

Trey: The show definitely looks expensive. I found myself wishing Star Trek had included extensive use of models. It definitely is a "transitional form" between Lost in Space and Star Trek in the 60s and Star Wars.

Jason: It sure does look great. As a visual feast of model-making, set design, and planet-scapes, Space: 1999 delivers. Again, the disparity between seasons is notable here. While the first season is very much inspired by the austere and realistic aesthetic of Kubrick's 2001, this second season is more colorful and outlandish in design.   

Trey: Other than the model-based sets and ships, though, I have to say the show seems inferior to Star Trek in just about every other way.

Jason: I think that's true, but I also think Space: 1999 is a very different animal. It is more impressionistic, less naturalistic, and despite attempts to make the characters a greater part of the show's appeal, not that interested in the characters. To me it feels pulpy in a particularly British way but with a non-rational, liminal quality perhaps only available in the post-psychedelia 1970s. It's clearly not Science Fiction in any real sense, but more an attempt at psychological fantasy with SF trappings, at least in the first season. By the second season, it's a bit more action-oriented but, if this first episode is any indication, also more bananas.  

I've always admired Gerry Anderson's contributions to fantastic media, but from afar. His shows, all featuring marionettes until UFO, Space: 1999's immediate predecessor, impress with their toyetic designs and devotion of screen time to effects sequences, but I haven't yet been able to get into the Uncanny Valleys they occupy. The addition of actual human actors to the equation, unfortunately, takes this show into a weirdly Unpleasant Valley. 

Trey: I believe those are super-marionettes with powers and abilities far beyond those of regular marionettes. 

Jason: Yes, well, they still reside in the same Uncanny Valley. A side note: I'm curious to have a look at writer Johnny Byrne's short story contributions to the UK SF magazine Science Fantasy.  

Trey: That could prove interesting. We should hunt it up!

Jason: Alright. Verdict time: I enjoyed watching this episode and am curious to dip my toe further into the series' two very distinct seasons. Will I? I don't know when!

Trey: I thought it was interesting, but I feel like it would take a lot to make me love it. Even perhaps the mild affection for the eccentric relative as I feel for Lost in Space.


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