Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Lost in Space: "Invaders from the Fifth Dimension" (November 3, 1965)

The Robinson family's every move is being scrutinized “from afar by weird alien eyes.”

These inhuman observers, however, can’t remain undetected for long. Judy (Marta Kristen) believes that she has seen something unusual on a scanner, and Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) witnesses a creepy alien ship -- resembling a giant eyeball -- land in secret.

Dr. Smith is abducted by the aliens -- strange, mouth-less beings with big domed foreheads -- and on board their spaceship he learns that they require a human brain to repair their ship’s navigational computer. 

Smith convinces them that his mind wouldn’t do the job, and suggests Will Robinson (Bill Mumy) instead.

Smith tricks Will aboard the alien ship, and the boy learns that he is to be permanently separated from his family. 

Meanwhile, the Robinsons and Don West (Mark Goddard) attempt to rescue him.

Realizing that humans suffer from “emotional blockages,” the aliens decide to let Will return to his loved ones.  What seems to the aliens a “form of madness common to all” humans is just the simple emotion of…love.

“Invaders from the Fifth Dimension” is a significant entry for Lost in Space (1965--1968). 

In many ways, it is the template for many future installments. In stories of this type, aliens visit the Robinsons, want to separate the family, and take malicious action to do so.  Meanwhile, Smith proves again and again that he is a duplicitous coward...

Many stories of this type repeat on the series, but “Invaders from the Fifth Dimension” -- perhaps because it is the first  in a long line -- isn’t bad. In fact, some aspects of it are downright imaginative.  

For example, the alien spaceship is, for lack of a better word, dimensionally transcendent. Like a Time Lord TARDIS, it is bigger on the inside than on the outside.

Similarly, the macabre aliens, aided by the black-and-white photography, look authentically creepy at times. They lack mouths, but also bodies, so that they seem like ambulatory heads.  

Yet the aliens, for all their strange features, are not exactly evil. They want to return to their home, and wish to repair their spaceship.  To them, Earth is but a “minor planetoid,” and they have no understanding of human beings, or human relationships.  

This fact doesn’t mitigate their creepiness. In a way, it adds to it. These aliens aren’t out to kill the Robinsons, but they regard the Robinsons as inferior and unimportant, as humans might gaze at an unusual insect.  

The aliens don’t understand the emotional horror they suggest: separation from family, and also from individual freedom. They want to enslave humans and use us as spare parts (another idea seen on Doctor Who [“The Girl in the Fireplace,” and “Deep Breath.”)  That’s a terrifying notion: to be used, against our will, as slaves to unfeeling entities.

Invaders from the Fifth Dimension” is also the first episode that reveals, at least to this degree, what a true bastard Dr. Smith truly is. Other episodes have shown him willing to sabotage the mission and kill John Robinson.  He has tried to kill the Robinsons as a group in other stories, too.  But here he targets Will, and attempts to sell the child into the horrible slavery I noted above.  All so he can save his own miserable skin.

Honestly, at this point, Smith should, at the very least, be banished from the Robinson settlement.  He manipulates and tricks an innocent (Will), and is a party to his enslavement, separation from his family, and his possible murder, even. 

I know Smith is frequently described as a buffoon or comic relief, but in these early episodes, his actions are worse than that. They are truly reprehensible.  If he attempted to trick my son, and send him off with these particular aliens, I would have no compunctions about punishing him, and possibly killing him.  

Think about it: the Robinsons have precious few resources, and even fewer defenses. An alien ship shows up, and Smith sides with those aliens, and attempts to sell them your child. He puts his well-being ahead of the family, and ahead of the community.  

The sad but logical point here is that he is untrustworthy, and worse than that, malicious.  He deserves a laser blast to his (non-existent) heart.

Once more, Lost in Space also depicts an alien craft with unique and original touches. I loved the web-encrusted alien vessel of “The Derelict,” but the ship here is even more inventive in appearance.  

It literally appears to be an eyeball surrounded by stretchy-muscle tissue.  It’s a really great contrast to the very 1960s technology of the Robinsons.  And again, the production values of this episode far outstrip those of Star Trek (1966 – 1969).

Once more the story is also on point, focusing on the conceit of family, and family coming together in times of difficulty.

Corgi Space Shuttle

Blake's 7 Corgi Liberator

Pop Art: Blake's 7 Annual (1980)

Blake's 7 Neutron Space Rifle

Pop Art: Blake's 7 Magazine

Model Kit of the Week: Blake's 7 Liberator (Masterpiece)

Theme Song of the Week: Blake's 7 (1978-1981)

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Lost in Space: "My Friend, Mr. Nobody" (October 27, 1965)

In “My Friend, Mr. Nobody,” Penny (Angela Cartwright) unexpectedly makes an alien friend in a cave. This cave manifests, at first, as just as a voice, but soon is able to demonstrate strange and fearsome powers.

Penny attempts to convince her family that Mr. Nobody is real, and a million-year-old life-form, as he claims but she is ignored and disbelieved by the other Robinsons, who are busy improving their settlement.

When Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) learns that there are diamonds in Mr. Nobody’s cave, he becomes determined to drill there, with no worry whatsoever about the well-being of Penny’s friend…

“My Friend, Mr. Nobody” is a magical episode of Lost in Space (1965 – 1968), a story of both great empathy (for Penny) and remarkable imagination.  

"My Friend, Mr. Nobody" takes the familiar “imaginary friend” trope (later featured, less imaginatively, on Star Trek: The Next Generation as “Imaginary Friend,”) and transforms it into a story about loneliness, friendship, and purpose.

In particular, the story’s main character, Penny, is at loose ends.  Her mother is busy working at the Jupiter 2. Her father and Don are busy with the laser drill.  Even Will is too busy to play with her.  

So Penny must spend her days alone, without attention, feeling unloved and unimportant. But before long, she encounters this “friend” in the dark cave, a friend who values her, and talks to her about things that matter.  They speak of “death” and what it means (‘when someone can’t speak anymore, or move anymore”) and become fast-friends, dedicated to each other’s well-being.  Penny realizes, through her conversations with Mr. Nobody that her thoughts and words matter; that they make a difference.

There are moments in “My Friend, Mr. Nobody” that ring very true in terms of earthbound childhood too. For example, Penny feels hurt when the person she trusts the most, her mother, fails to believe her story of Mr. Nobody.  

Of all the people who should believe her, it is Mom. When Penny catches her mother humoring her, treating her as just a "kid," the moment represents an unwelcome entrance into the grown up world of awareness.  

Dr. Smith -- who says “oh, the pain; the pain” for the first time in this episode -- is pretty despicable here too.  He attempts to trick Penny by pretending to be the voice of Mr. Nobody. And then, later, his attempt to acquire diamonds means, essentially, the murder of this imaginary friend.  Penny's lesson here is that many adults treat friendship as secondary, and wealth as primary.  Penny's friendship means nothing to Dr. Smith if he has a chance to get rich.

The episode ends, finally, with Mr. Nobody facing off against the robot, evolving, heading off to the stars to his next stage of existence, but no doubt carrying his friendship with Penny with him to that destination.  

It’s a nice note to go out on, and one that suggests that a child's friendship is not an unimportant, or insignificant thing.  Everyone treats Penny like she is a dumb kid, but she proves a crucial part of Mr. Nobody’s maturation process.  She alone helps him grow.  She alone can understand that he is not a monster.  The adults, in this case, are dead wrong.  

“My Friend, Mr. Nobody” is one of the very best episodes of Lost in Space episodes because it serves well an under-utilized character, Penny, and does a remarkably thoughtful job of imagining what her life must be like, always playing second fiddle to Will.

But more than that, the episode finds that there is inherent value in the friendship of a child. Spending time with your children is not a waste of time, not a lark.  It is something, instead, that matters.  This episode plays like a space age fairy tale, replete with darkness and fear, but also with a happy ending that validates a child’s sense of wonder, and his or her sense of self, as well.

Star Trek: The Next Generation 30th Anniversary Blogging: "Heart of Glory" (March 21, 1988)

Stardate: 41503.7

The U.S.S. Enterprise patrols near the Neutral Zone with the Klingon border when it receives a distress call from a battered Talarian freighter, the Batris.

The damaged ship’s reactor is near overload status, and an away-team led by Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) beams over to search for survivors.  Geordi LaForge (Levar Burton) uses this opportunity to test his Visual Acuity Transmitter, a device which transmits back to the ship what he sees through his visor.

There are survivors aboard the Batris: three Klingon warriors.

Korris (Vaughn Armstrong) Konmel (Charles Hyman) and K’Neva (David Froman) claim that they helped to defend the Batris when it came under attack by Ferengi, but their story has holes in it, and Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) is suspicious.

Lt. Worf (Michael Dorn) befriends the Klingons, in part to learn the truth about what happened on the Batris. His close connection to his own people, however, does not hide the fact that, since his adoption by humans, he has never been fully at peace with his Klingon heritage.

When the truth is known about the Klingons, Korris and the others launch a surprise attack on the Enterprise.

This violent act requires Worf to step in and defend his friends, against his people.

For my money, “Heart of Glory” is one of the best episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s (1987-1994) first season. The episode embraces a beloved race from the original series (the Klingons), explores Lt. Worf’s history and back-story, and, finally, features some real, honest-to-goodness action.

At one point in TNG’s development, an edict apparently existed that the series would not revisit races seen in the Original Series. Thank goodness, this policy was re-thought, or abandoned. Today, The Next Generation is probably best remembered for two story arcs.

One is the introduction of -- and invasion by -- the Borg (“The Neutral Zone,” “Q-Who,” “Best of Both Worlds,” etc.).

The other involves Klingon politics and culture, and Worf’s difficult interaction with his own people. Had the original creative edict stayed in place, we would not have witnessed great episodes such as “Sins of the Father,” or “Reunion,” or “Redemption,” which are all part of a multi-season mini-arc of sorts.

“Heart of Glory” is undeniably the first chapter of this tale; one that explores Worf’s uneasy relationship with his own people.  This is the episode in which we first see Klingons eat, for example, and thirst for combat, adventure, and most importantly, honor.

“Heart of Glory” is terrific, however, because it makes the Klingons dangerous and unpredictable, while also revealing their now-notorious “death scream” custom/ritual. Korris and the others are formidable foes. Their values are very different than those we see explored in the UFP, or aboard the Enterprise.  Given this, it makes sense that Picard, Riker and others seem to be “on alert” in the presence of the galaxy’s greatest warriors.

More than that, however the story explains to audiences the details of Worf’s past that were heretofore unknown. We learn in “Heart of Glory” that Worf was adopted by humans after Romulans attacked his home on Khitomer, and killed his Klingon family.  Young Worf then lived on Earth (with a human step-brother), but always felt as though it wasn’t truly home. Like Spock in many important ways, Worf has “repressed” his Klingon feelings and longings so he can fit in with humans in Starfleet.

But he is always an outsider. “Heart of Glory” explains that outsider status for the first time.

It’s actually strange to think that the series has gone through so many episodes, already, and that this is the first tale that begins to paint in the details of Worf’s background.

I’ll confess, this episode really hit the mark with me in 1988, when I first watched it. As much as I loved The Next Generation and was hoping for its success, the vast majority of the first season catalog, while interesting and even intellectually stimulating seemed to lack not merely the color of the original series, but the adventure; the danger.

Watching these episodes, it often seems as if the 24th century has evolved past the idea of “danger,” even. One weird thing about all nineties Trek? No matter the crisis, you almost never see any crew people running, or even moving quickly.  Seriously, watch TNG, or even DS9, and this is the case.

Well, “Heart of Glory,” at least, feels dangerous.

From the looming Klingon battle-cruiser on the view-screen, to the mystery surrounding Korris and his team, to Riker’s worried exclamation about “Klingons,” this episode suggests that there are some things in the universe that even Starfleet’s finest people countenance with concern or worry.

And then, the episode goes the extra mile by revealing the cleverness of the Klingons, as they use (hidden) elements of their body armor to create weapons and escape from the Enterprise’s brig.  Following this (beautifully-scored) sequence of battle preparations, there’s a chase through the corridors, and a battle between the Klingons and Tasha’s security forces. 

For once, it feels like Star Trek: The Next Generation considers action important, and something that it should focus on, if the franchise is to continue. Not every problem, even in the future, can be resolved through conferences.

Not every note here is perfect, of course.

As is the norm in the first season, the writers fail to consider how their choices make Picard seem like a poor captain. To wit: in the opening act, Picard sends his away team to a ship on the verge of blowing up. That’s part of the job, of course.

But once Picard’s team is in danger (and the clock is ticking), Picard seems to spend endless minutes satisfying his curiosity about how LaForge’s VISOR works. He seemingly forgets -- until tersely reminded by Riker -- that this is a life-and-death mission. The Absent Minded Professorial Captain.

A good captain should be able to put aside his curiosity at a time like this.

This (poor) moment in an otherwise superb episode characterizes the variable quality of The Next Generation in its first season. The writes craft a tense, compelling character-based story for Worf. 

But then they ham-handedly shoe-horn in some character development for LaForge, so the audience can see what he sees. 

Of course, in seven seasons, the Visual Acuity Transmitter is never seen or mentioned again. 

Next week: Another action story! “The Arsenal of Freedom.”