Exploring the science fiction, horror, and dystopia of television over the last 60 years

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Trilogy of Terror

Trilogy of Terror
Made for television movie
Teleplay by William F. Nolan and Richard Matheson
Directed by Dan Curtis
Original Air Date: March 4, 1975

Trilogy of Terror was a made for television movie that aired on ABC in March 1975. It featured three stories, each authored by Richard Matheson. Each story bore the name of its female protagonist. William Nolan – known best for his scripts for Logan’s Run and Burnt Offerings adapted two of Matheson’s stories. The final (and best) script was penned by Matheson himself. All three segments star Karen Black.

The first story is entitled, Julie and is based on the short story, The Likeness of Julie. In the Matheson story, the nasty college student falls for a plain-Jane student who sits behind him in literature class. In this screen version, it is the lit professor for whom our evil antagonist falls. Nolan sets the misogynistic tone right away when Chad and his buddy are sitting on the campus, discussing how ugly all of the female students are. When Julie, the lit professor walks by in her brown wool sweater and wool skirt cut far below the knees, Chad just has to know what flesh lies beneath all that wool.

As in the story, he takes her to a drive in theater (where they are watching the Matheson film, The Night Stalker) and drugs her. Being made for television, we are left to our imaginations to recreate what happens in the cheap motel room later.

Chad’s an amateur photographer and takes pictures of Julie. Again, our imaginations are having to do the work here. He demands that Julie meet him. They drive out into the country in Chad’s stunningly beautiful 1972 Mercury Cougar XR7 Convertible where Chad shows her the photos and informs her that she will gratify his every demand.

So it goes for awhile. Chad demands and Julie submits. Her roommate is worried about her hours and her morose disposition. Julie assures her it’s nothing to worry about.

One evening, Julie is at Chad’s and without notice, her mousy countenance changes and her appearance takes on a menacing quality. She informs Chad it’s over. She’s done. She’s done because she’s bored. Chad tells her it’s not over until he says it is, believing he’s still got her by the short hairs. Julie tells him the whole affair was never his idea. None of it was. Chad perishes when the chemicals in his developing studio catch fire.

The next day, a student failing literature arrives at Julie’s house. He needs help. Julie is willing to oblige.

This was well scripted and Black takes the “turn” in magnificent fashion which I’m sure was stunning for television audiences in 1975 who’d not read the story. With Karen Black covered in all that wool, I couldn’t keep my eyes off of Chad’s stunning car. What a beauty she was!

Millicent and Therese are sisters who live together in a luxurious mansion left to them by their father. Millicent, an uptight, prudish woman, pesters the family doctor with complaints about her coquettish sister, Therese. Therese seduces men. She leaves her cigarettes burning in the house, their tips resplendent with her deep red lipstick. Millicent wants the doctor to something about Therese.

One of Therese’s “suitors” arrives at the home and encounters Millicent who is there to rant and rave about her sister’s moral depravity until the poor guy leaves.

The doctor arrives and finds Therese in the home. She tries to seduce him, but he’s not having it. He talks to Therese, trying to draw her out, but Therese has but one thing on her mind. The doctor leaves.

When the doctor does nothing to help her, Millicent decides it’s time to take matters into her own hands. Gathering the necessary materials, she constructs a voodoo doll of Therese and plans to kill her.

When the doctor returns to the house, he finds Therese dead. Millicent has fled the scene, or so it would seem. When the authorities arrive, the doctor explains that the prudish Millicent is actually Therese. Therese slept with her father and killed her mother. She then developed a dual personality disorder, creating the prudish Millicent to cope with the prurient Therese.

This segment was not good at all. I stop short of saying it was awful, because there was nothing in it that made you groan with bemusement. But the story’s twist was obvious about five minutes in and there was nothing particularly horrifying about it. Black’s portrayal of Millicent was over the top and she seemed to be phoning in the part of Therese.

I’ve not read the short story upon which this segment was based. But I have to believe it was more textured and nuanced than the made for television segment.

The third and final segment is entitled, Amelia and is universally regarded as the best of the three. Black plays a woman stalked in her New York apartment by a Zuni Fetish doll. It is based on the Matheson story, Prey.

Amelia buys her boyfriend a Zuni Fetish doll for his birthday. In the story, it was because he loved to hunt. In the movie, it’s because he’s an anthropology professor. The chain that keeps the doll’s wild hunting spirit at bay comes off and the doll, with his tiny spear and Amelia’s kitchen knives, pursues Amelia through the apartment and proceeds to cut her up just a little bit at a time.

I won’t choreograph the entire chase here. Black stands alone in a one woman performance paired with a doll and at least one puppet.

We think Amelia has won the contest when we hear her call her domineering mother and invite her over in the sweetest voice possible. We know differently when we see Amelia put down the phone, pick up the knife, and crouch in a stalking position inside the front door, rhythmically pounding the knife into the floor and swaying back and forth to drums only she can hear. And the smile! The haunting, disturbing smile on Black’s face in the end is spine tingling!

Amelia reminds me very much of the episode of the The Twilight Zone, The Invaders where Agnes Moorehead delivers a stellar, one woman performance as she fights off tiny invaders from another planet. She does it without a single line of dialogue. Black’s performance doesn’t quite rise to that level, and there is dialogue to drive the story, but it is in the same ballpark and that is high praise.

For 1970s television, Trilogy of Terror was creative and provocative. Karen Black shows that she’s a versatile talent and her performance in Julie and Amelia outshines her performance in the better known, Burnt Offerings.

Apparently, the movie of the week was supposed to be a vehicle through which Matheson and Nolan hoped to launch a television series. Matheson had worked on concept development (although he did not contribute scripts) to a horror anthology show originally entitled Ghost Story and renamed Circle of Fear in its second and final season. The show, which featured some great scripts and acting did not survive. I remember it terrified me as a child and its scripts were hard core horror (at least for television audiences of the 1970s). It terrified me as a child. Alas, it did not survive and, along with Night Gallery, was canceled in 1973, leaving a void that perhaps Matheson and Nolan hoped to fill with slightly tamer, more ponderous fare.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Outer Limits: Specimen: Unknown

The Outer Limits
Specimen: Unknown

Original Air Date: February 24, 1964
Teleplay by Stephen Lord
Directed by Gerd Oswald
Rating: **1/2

Scientists aboard a spaceship bring aboard a plant that grows on the hull of their ship. They call them space barnacles, but they are much more than that.
One of the scientists grows several specimens in the lab and the growths soon sprout flowers that shoot spores. They also release a deadly gas that kills the scientist. Unaware that the plants have caused his death, the crew packs them in the passenger compartment of the ship as they prepare to return to earth.

On the way back to Earth, the plants do their act again and more of the crew are infected and near death. The mission commander on earth decides to go ahead and let the spaceship land, risking contamination of the planet's biosphere.

The ship arrives and the plants find earth very much to their liking. As soon as the spaceship is opened and the surviving crewman evacuated, the plants begin to grow quickly and multiply. The mission commander and the wife of one of the astronauts are seemingly trapped. The plants are growing like crazy, surrounding them. Rain is on the way, certain to make their growth even more rapid.

However, salvation comes just in time from an unlikely source.

This episode combined hard science fiction with dripping sentimentality. The science fiction was solid. The premise was original (and stolen for an episode of Star Trek called This Side of Paradise)and the dialogue well written.

The wife of the astronaut pleading with her husband to return to her was just over the top. The drama between her, her husband out in space, and the mission commander who holds his fate in his hands distracted from an otherwise good episode of science fiction television. But it was the 1960s. . .

It's also hard to believe that the mission commander would have allowed the ship to return to earth. The men aboard were against it, willing to sacrifice their lives. That would have been the smart thing to do. Instead, the mission commander succumbs to the wife's pleading.

Gerd Oswald directed many Outer Limits and seemed to get the most out of his cast and his script. Like most Outer Limits episodes, the cast is rather undistinguished. The only well known member in this episode is Russell Johnson of Gilligan's Island fame. Johnson was a veteran of many sci-fi movies and television shows, having appeared in This Island Earth, It Came from Outer Space, Thriller, The Twilight Zone, and The Outer Limits.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Star Trek: The Next Generation: Tapestry

Star Trek: The Next Generation
Original Air Date: February 13, 1993
Teleplay by Ronald Moore
Directed by Les Landau
Rating: *1/2

Captain Picard is gravely injured in a fight and apparently dies for a brief time. Q is on the other side to greet him and ridicule him for his weak, mechanical heart that was destroyed in the fight.
Picard recounts for Q how he got that artificial heart. Picard ridicules his arrogant and misspent youth. Seeing a "teaching" opportunity, Q transports Picard back in time to his youth, just out of the academy. Picard is a lady's man and a party animal. We find out that he was stabbed in the back and through the chest over a game of pool.

This time, Picard, knowing what's coming, avoids the fight and it costs him the respect of his friends. Q flashes him forward many years and he's aboard the Enterprise -- as a low level scientist. He's not respected, but considered adequate at his job.

Then Picard awakens in sick bay. He is alive with Dr. Crusher having pulled him through -- again. He reflects on his youth and decides that even though he may have been reckless and brash, those experiences had value.

Let's call this, It's a Wonderful Life, Star Trek style. Riffs on and spoofs of the Capra Christmas classic were all the rage in the 1990s for Christmas specials. Although this episode aired in February, it was all the worst cliches of flashback episodes rolled into one.

There was no original take on the flashback. Like every television character who is allowed to go back in time to change some misdeed or misadventure, Picard finds it to his detriment.

I'm not fond of episodes involving Q. The overt smugness is tiresome after a while. Although Q's appearance in this episode was limited, it was the worst of a bad lot.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Star Trek: The Original Series: Man Trap

Star Trek: The Original Series
Man Trap
Original Air Date: September 8, 1966
Director: Marc Daniels
Teleplay by George Clayton Johnson and Gene Roddenberry
Rating: **

On September 8, 1966, as the Vietnam War raged and the generation gap widened, a cultural phenomena was born. Star Trek aired its premiere episode, Man Trap.

Kirk and his crew travel to planet M-113 to conduct a physical examination of Dr. Robert Crater and his wife, Nancy. Nancy Crater is Dr. McCoy’s long lost love. The crew arrives and Nancy greets Kirk, McCoy, and Crewman Green. McCoy sees Nancy as she was 15 years before. Kirk sees a middle-aged woman, and Green sees a woman he once knew from a “pleasure planet.”
Green ends up dead (Star Trek’s first fatality was a blue shirt – not a red shirt). When he’s found, he has skin mottling on his face. Meanwhile, Dr. Crater is quite hostile, telling Kirk to leave them a supply of salt and to leave them alone. But with a dead crewman on his hands, Kirk is determined to investigate.

After yet another crewman death (this one in a tan shirt), Nancy assumes the identity of yet another crewman she has killed and beams aboard the Enterprise with the rest of the crew. Once there, she assumes Dr. McCoy’s identity while McCoy slumbers. He has determined that the dead men have had all the salt removed from their bodies. Spock and Kirk return to M-113 and subdue Dr. Crater and bring him back to the ship.

A meeting is held in the briefing room to discuss the situation. Nancy is still playing the part of McCoy. When McCoy seems sympathetic to the creature, Spock suspects something. Nancy flees to Dr. McCoy’s quarters and begs him for protection. Kirk and Spock confront them there. Nancy attacks Kirk and begins to draw the salt from his body while McCoy looks on with a phaser. Spock demands that McCoy shoot, but he can’t, still believing the being to be Nancy.

Spock proceeds to batter the small woman about the head to show McCoy that the creature is not really Nancy Crater. The creature knocks Spock out of the way and resumes her attack on Kirk. McCoy summons his courage and shoots her, killing the creature. Upon death, it assumes its true form.

In the end, Dr. Crater tells the crew that this creature was the last of its race that once dominated the planet. He preserved it for that reason. In turn, it fulfilled his wifely needs as Nancy once did before the creature killed her.

This was the third episode filmed, but the first to air. The second pilot, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” was not aired first because it didn’t conform to the standards Roddenberry set for the show after it was picked up. The second episode, “The Corbomite Maneuver” was set entirely aboard the Enterprise and Roddenberry wanted to lead off with something more action packed.

As Star Trek episodes go, “Man Trap” is okay. We’re introduced to Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Yeoman Rand, and most of the regular cast. It had most of what networks executives wanted out its hour long shows. It had a shootout, an ugly alien, and comradery. But unlike most shows of its time (but very much in tune with television science fiction of that time) it had no clearly defined good and evil. The “monster” was a starving creature fighting to survive – not an evil alien.

The bond between Kirk and McCoy was established in this episode. Kirk chews out McCoy whilst he waxes romantic while a dead crewman lies dead on the table. Later, he tells McCoy he’s not counting his mistakes. McCoy eventually saves Kirk’s life.

The teleplay was penned by George Clayton Johnson whom sci-fi fans will recognize as one of the stable of excellent screenwriters Rod Serling had on staff for The Twilight Zone. He didn’t write any of the great and memorable episodes of that fine show, but he didn’t write any of the ridiculously bad either. This was his only entry in the Star Trek series, but he did some fine sci-fi writing with such entries as the screenplay for the movie, Logan’s Run as well as revising his Twilight Zone script, “Kick the Can” for Twilight Zone: The Movie.

“Man Trap” is probably not on a lot of Trekkers list of favorite episodes. But, considering the episodes in the can at the time, it was probably the best lead off option Roddenberry had.

Total Red Shirt fatalities: 0
Total blue shirt fatalities: 2
Total tan shirt fatalities: 1
Total "other crewman fatalites: 1
Total crew fatalities this episode: 4
Total crew fatalities to date: 4

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Outer Limits: The Children of Spider County

The Outer Limits (The Original Series)
The Children of Spider County
Original Air Date: February 17, 1964
Director: Leonard Horn
Screenplay by Lee Kinsolving, Kent Smith & John Milford

Brian's Rating: *1/2

Four of America’s greatest scientists have disappeared and the government’s intelligence agencies are deeply troubled. One agent points out that these four men each had many things in common. They were born and raised without a father, they each had the middle name, Eros, and they each were born in Spider County (the state is not specified, but it appears to be in New York, Connecticut, or Pennsylvania. There is a fifth man who matches all these traits and he still lives in Spider County. It is imperative that this man be located and taken.

That fifth man is Ethan Wechsler and he is being held for murder of a fellow farm hand in Spider County. Wechsler is being interrogated by the local authorities when they are contacted by the government to hold the young man. Whilst being transported to a remote location, an alien appears and causes the car to wreck. He assumes human form and tells Wechsler he is his father. He was bred to come back to the planet Eros and help it repopulate with young men who can “dream.”

Ethan escapes. He’s on the run from the sheriff, the feds, and his girlfriend’s father who is none too happy his daughter has taken up with a murderer.

Finally, everybody catches up with Ethan. He tells the alien that he will not leave Earth because it has its own set of problems that need to be solved. The alien decides to let him stay, asking the men of Earth, “Can you destroy the better part of yourselves.” Ethan and his girlfriend walk off with the feds, presumably to apply his talents to solving the world’s problems.

Many Outer Limits episodes relied on action and intrigue to move plots. Most episodes resembled pulp fiction stories brought to the small screen. This episode was much more ponderous. It did not contain a lot of action and moved rather slowly. The plot was thin and the acting underwhelming.

Neither Kinvolving, Smith, nor Milford were professional screenwriters. All were actors and each had a leading role in the episode. Perhaps producer Joseph Stefano owed them a favor. While The Outer Limits employed very few high profile writers, (unlike The Twilight Zone), the writing was usually better than this. The episode has a well conceived idea, but a lackadaisically developed plot. Professional writing could have taken this good idea and made it a better episode.

I gave it two stars. Fans of the show on IMDB did not think highly of it and it is one of the lower ranked episodes of the show’s original run.