John Kenneth Muir's Reflections on Cult Movies and Classic TV
One of the horror genre's "most widely read critics" (Rue Morgue # 68), "an accomplished film journalist" (Comic Buyer's Guide #1535), and the award-winning author of Horror Films of the 1980s (2007), The Rock and Roll Film Encyclopedia (2007) and Horror Films of the 1970s (2002), John Kenneth Muir, presents his blog on film, television and nostalgia, named one of the Top 100 Film Studies Blog on the Net.
“The Wizard,” the Monster Squad learns the Washington Monument and Mount
Rushmore have completely vanished. Walt (Fred Grandy) worries that America will
become a country “without traditions” and he sends his friends to investigate.
the missing monuments, Drac, Frank, and the Werewolf discover a villain called
the Wizard (Arthur Malet). The Wizard is upset with the United States
government because it sold him a thousand acres of worthless land.
the Wizard plans on miniaturizing and stealing all the nation’s monuments --
including the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building -- using his
“presto changer” device.
once the treasures are in his possession, the Wizard will restore them to their
normal size and offer admission to visitors…on his no-longer worthless real estate
Wizard” is yet another high-camp goof-fest on Monster Squad (1976), a
Saturday morning series that tries hard to be funny but is generally only
this installment, the Wizard -- possessed of his “presto changer”
shrinking/enlarging device -- wreaks havoc in Arizona. The monsters defeat him, but not before
Frankenstein and the Wolf Man end up in shrunken form, and Dracula is hit with
laughing gas. Also in “The Wizard,” Walt
develops a “universal antidote” to al poisons to medical science…and puts it
into cookie form.
not much to note here besides Monster Squad’s slavish, persistent
devotion to repeating Batman’s (1966 -1968) camp
formula. On that ABC show, however, the
performers were better, the production design -- while ridiculous -- was also
far superior, and a lot of the material was genuinely funny. Batman is high art compared to this
point to note here: Dracula’s (Henry Polic II) white pancake make-up is a good
deal lighter and more flesh-toned in “the Wizard,” and future episodes than in
is an indication, perhaps, that either the heavy make-up was harming Mr.
Polic’s skin, or taking too much time to apply.
the change in Drac’s complexion is very noticeable indeed, especially when one
looks back at previous segments.
“The Sky is Falling,” a strange alien probe seems to assault Dr. Smith
(Jonathan Harris), leading him to fear that an alien invasion is imminent.
Robinsons attempt to calm down Smith -- this cosmic Chicken Little -- but very soon humanoid
aliens do beam to the planet on rays of light during a matter-transfer process, and set up a small research
Like the Robinsons, the
visiting aliens are a family: a mother, a father, and a young boy.
Smith advises murdering the aliens before more of their brethren get a foothold
on the planet, Robinson (Guy Williams) argues for saner heads.
But when Will (Bill Mumy) disappears, Smith
is able to ratchet up everybody’s fear and suspicion.
suggests that the aliens have abducted Will, though the truth is that Will is
helping the alien child, who has developed an illness from exposure to the
armed, the Robinsons lead a small assault team, consisting of John, Don (Mark
Goddard) and Smith) to the alien territory, ready to kill to retrieve Will.
the aliens are also suspicious of the humans, and are missing their son too. Worse, they have superior weapons…
Sky is Falling” is another great, classic episode of Lost in Space (1965 –
1968). It rises right to the top of the series catalog
(alongside “My Friend, Mr. Nobody,”) in fact.
idea underlining the episode is that, simply, on the frontier there are no
lurks around every corner, and fear is a constant companion. But if that fear spirals out of control,
violence is inevitable.
Therefore, it is incumbent on all of us to control our fears; to remain
rational in the face of the unknown.
this case, Smith is the provocative agent of fear, playing on the Robinsons’
protective instincts towards Will.Smith
wants to destroy (meaning murder…) the alien family, even though that alien
family has done him no harm, and has shown no signs of aggression.
contrast, Robinson argues nobly and logically against war. “There’s
every chance we can live together in peace,” he suggests.
Smith won’t surrender even though, as he acknowledge, he has no proof that the
aliens are hostile in any way.
“Evidence? What do I care about evidence?”
other words, he has an agenda, and the facts be damned.
also makes a cogent argument about dealing with alien life and alien
morality in general. He thinks the situation
through, even though others demand immediate, violent action.
Specifically, Robinson asks what happens if the
Robinsons do start a war, and they are successful in the campaign. What happens next, when the thousands of aliens that
Smith fearfully anticipates do arrive?
Because the Robinsons have acted violently, they truly will stand no
chance of survival.
-- as Machiavellian thinkers will -- dismisses Robinson’s ideas of “universal brotherhood” as hopelessly
idealistic, misguided. When a person wants a war, we see, he or she will do
anything to get it, against the better angels of our human nature, and against
the simple facts, even.
Sky is Falling” looks at this total irrationality, this tendency to react
fearfully and in a cowardly fashion, in the face of the unknown.
And remember, Lost
in Space acts universally as a space age metaphor for the American West, and the settlement
of that territory in American history. The Robinsons encountering an alien family brings up,
naturally, the idea of American pioneers encountering Native Americans, and the
possibilities that arise from that encounter.
You can either choose courage and peace, or choose fear, conflict, and ultimately genocide. Which path ennobles us? Which path damns us?
"The Sky is Falling" is a moral story worthy of Star Trek, because it concerns mankind choosing to be
better in the future than he was in his past. We do not have to be trapped by our history. We can overcome it.
But, importantly, this exact story could not work on Star Trek as effectively
as it does within the pioneer family paradigm of Lost in Space. Here, we
understand what’s at stake: parents worrying for a missing child, and therefore drawing
the absolutely worst conclusion about what has happened to him.
Where our children are concerned, we want to
take no chances. We must be their
vigilant protectors. And when we fear they are in danger...watch out. I say this as a parent, myself.
does this sense of paternal and maternal protection mean, lacking information, we should go to war…out of ignorance?
That’s the campaign Smith begins in “The Sky
is Falling. Finally, only Will and the alien boy -- representing the
possibilities of tomorrow, or the future -- can get the adults to lay down
their arms and face each other not with fear, but with humanity.
you can’t have Smith starting a war every week, every single episode, but “The
Sky is Falling” finds a worthwhile use for the oft-over-exposed character.
If the Robinsons
represent the best of humanity the rational, caring, “pioneer spirit,” Smith
represents the worst qualities: cowardice, fear, hatred, prejudice.
When push comes to shove on the final
frontier, the question becomes, which “human nature” -- Smith’s or the family’s
-- will prevail?
Sky is Falling” is just about a perfect episode of Lost in Space in this format, reminding us
that when we move on to the next horizon, outer space, we will take with us not just our
angels, but our demons too.
In terms of
historic/canonical importance, this episode also gives Smith his first opportunity for
another memorable catchphrase: “Have no fear, Smith is here.”
important in context. Have no fear? Smith is the one who
brings the fear! It is his presence that nearly leads the Robinsons into a
disastrous and unnecessary war. But, in typically self-deluded fashion, he sees himself as the hero. As Yoda himself might tell him, wars don't make anyone great, or a hero.
“The Oasis,” a drought imperils the Robinson settlement.
the water conversion units that Don (Mark Goddard) has installed in the desert can’t
keep up with the family’s demand for water.
Smith (Jonathan Harris) makes the problem exponentially worse by taking a
shower, using up all but two gallons of the water reserve.
and angry, the Robinsons go out in search of water, and find an oasis in the
the water tastes strange and toxic, but several moist, mango-like fruits are growing. John (Guy Williams) insists that they test
the fruit before sampling it, but Dr. Smith and Debbie both break the rules and
try the fruits
believing the Robinsons have poisoned him, heads off into the desert alone.
at the camp, Debbie grows to colossal size after eating the fruit. The
Robinsons realize that the same thing could happen to Smith. He will soon be a giant.
(June Lockhart) goes to the over-grown Smith and attempts to convince him to
return to camp.
Oasis” is a not-particularly compelling episode of Lost in Space (1965 –
1968), and one that demonstrates the series’ propensity to veer towards outright
Smith eats an alien fruit that transforms him into a giant. Despite the overtly fantastic elements of the
episode, the special effects are handled with remarkable aplomb, and several
well-staged trick shots sell visually the concept of a giant Zachary Smith.
this is a strong episode for Maureen Robinson, who demonstrates her forgiving
and sympathetic character. Again and
again, she takes the initiative -- though always asking permission from John --
as a go-between for the two camps, the Robinsons and Dr. Smith. Maureen acts as a peace maker and as a friend
to both camps, and does so without ego or self-interest.
intriguing, and far less believable are the family’s reactions to Smith’s
departure. Once more, Smith does something absolutely selfish -- taking a
shower and using twenty-two gallons of the family’s water supply -- and when
the family responds with irritation, he doesn’t even apologize.
when he believes he has been poisoned, Smith swears to kill the Robinsons. He sabotages and steals the last water
conversion unit device. If he is going to die, then they will die too, he
the Robinsons all mope about the camp, and discuss how much they miss Dr.
Smith. They ponder the ways they could have been nicer to him, or more
accommodating to him. Maureen has a sympathetic speech here about she considers
Smith an “injustice collector,” and
that basically, he’s harmless.
he’s demonstrated time and time again that he isn’t harmless.
episode back he tried to sell Will to fifth dimension aliens.
episodes back, Smith sabotaged John’s rockets (or para jets), so he would
crash-land and die on the planet.
as mentioned above, in this adventure Smith sabotages the family’s technology
so that its members will suffer a “lingering” death.
why are the Robinsons’ so damn blind regarding Smith? He’s an absolute danger to the family’s
survival, especially on the frontier, and it makes no sense to romanticize him,
or consider his antics “cute.” They owe
him absolutely nothing.
me, this aspect of the series is the biggest stumbling block Lost
in Space features at this point, and going forward too. It’s not like Smith bumbles into trouble, is
contrite, and learns from his mistakes.
he seeks out trouble, is a coward, tries to extricate himself by any selfish
means possible, and never learns a thing.
He just goes out and does the same thing again.
Smith’s fault he eats the berries and his fault the water is almost gone. The
Robinsons are not out of line to be irritated, angry with the guy. They could
die from thirst.
Still, one artfully-composed shot in the episode explains the Smith vs. Robinsons conceit perfectly. In the foreground of the frame, sits Smith, self-satisfied and facing the camera. Far behind him, in the background, is the family. They are watching him. He is ignoring them. He is not only the paramount figure here in "The Oasis," but the paramount figure in the series.
terms of questions of believability, there’s another funny aspect of “The Oasis”
to consider. When Smith grows to giant
size, his clothes and boots grow with him.
How did the chemical properties of the alien mango manage that?
it’s far preferable to ask this question than to be confronted with the specter
of a giant, naked Dr. Smith.
“Brother’s Keeper,” Ben Richards (Christopher George) tracks down a man who
could be his brother, Jason (Michael Strong). Unfortunately, Jason was in an
accident some years earlier, and doesn’t recall if he is Ben’s brother, or not.
This fact complicates their reunion.
Jason’s wife (Marj Dusay) is suspicious of the newcomer at first, Ben attempts
to get the couple to leave their home and flee, before Fletcher (Don Knight)
can locate them.
Fletcher has already tracked Jason down via the orphanage where he and Ben were
raised, and he offers Jason and his wife a deal to return to Maitland’s lab.
Suffering under crippling debt, Jason agrees to Fletcher’s terms.
rescues Jason and his wife from captivity, but Fletcher is soon in hot
pursuit.During a scuffle, Jason is
injured, and Ben realizes that Jason does not share the same special blood as
continues on his lonely journey…
Keeper” -- the final episode of the short-lived 1969-1971 series The
Immortal -- is largely a bust.
of all, the episode was apparently aired out of sequential order by its
network, and so not a legitimate “final” episode. The specific details of this
narrative suggest that this tale occurs in the series continuity before “The
that episode, Fletcher notes that he and Ben have both visited the orphanage
where he was raised for a time, and this episode shows those events. This
episode also notes that Ben has not yet been “home,” to the family that raised
him in his teenage years.Those events
are seen in “The Return.”
leaving aside the out-of-order airdate, “Brother’s Keeper” is a bit confusing.
“The Return” suggests that Jason and Ben were raised by Joe, together, when
they were both teenagers.Yet here Ben
doesn’t recognize Jason as the brother he was raised with.This personal detail makes absolutely zero
sense.At most, it’s been fifteen years
since Ben has seen Jason.Jason may have
amnesia at this point and not recognize Ben, but Ben would certainly recognize
the episode brings absolutely no closure to the series’ themes or narrative, much
in keeping with TV shows of the age.Jason, we find out, may or may not be Ben’s brother.However, he definitely does not bear the same
type of “immortal” blood. So, we get no real answers about the “real” Jason,
and this is just another episode (like “The Return” or “Paradise Bay”) where
Ben encounters someone named Jason Richards, whom he believes, for a time, to
be his sibling.But again, there’s no
episode also strains credibility at points. Jason and his wife are taken back
to Maitland’s National Research Institute -- the belly of the beast, and
Fletcher’s HQ -- and Ben effortlessly breaks in, rescues the couple, and breaks
out.Moment like these render the
Fletcher character little more than the cliché of the “hapless pursuer.” His
prey comes to him, faces incredible odds at his HQ, and gets away.This is the point, obviously, where Maitland
should fire Fletcher and get someone more competent to do the job.The series has, overall, avoided having Ben
engage in such crazy, suicidal heroic campaigns.
Immortal ends with a whimper rather than a bang, and yet I will admit
it: it was totally worth it to watch this forty-five year old series. The
production values were often outstanding, and some episodes (“The Queen’s
Gambit,” “Man on a Punched Card,” “To the Gods Alone”) were great
treasures.I often cover series here on
the blog, or in my books, that have survived the test of time.They have endured beyond their original
context and emerged as multi-generational favorites. Pretty clearly, The
Immortal is not in this cherished camp, and remains an obscure, though
intriguing series.Apparently the
culture has room for one “touchstone” of the man-on-the-run format, and that
series is The Fugitive.If I’m
wrong, and it isn’t The Fugitive, it may be The Invaders, instead. But it’s not The Immortal.
the good episodes, The Immortal never manages to really overcome its formulaic
nature, despite the occasional bright spots. As I wrote above, however, it was
a treat to actually see the series for the first time, and to see some fine
work on the part of choreographers, composers, writers, and directors, and the
(late) Christopher George, and Don Knight.
would be fascinating, I believe, to go back to James Gunn’s original book, The Immortal, and adapt that dystopian
story utilizing modern special effects and sensibilities.
week, I move to a retrospective of another one season wonder: Kolchak:
The Night Stalker (1974).
Robinson family's every move is being scrutinized “from
afar by weird alien eyes.”
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.
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.
convinces them that his mind wouldn’t do the job, and suggests Will Robinson (Bill
tricks Will aboard the alien ship, and the boy learns that he is to be
permanently separated from his family.
the Robinsons and Don West (Mark Goddard) attempt to rescue him.
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.
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...
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.