Monster Squad 1.1 – Queen Bee

An astonishing true fact: for several weeks in 1976-77 when Monster Squad was on the air, it was my favorite TV show. To say that it has aged badly isn’t really accurate. It was honestly not good in the first place, but wow, they got some fun guest stars.

So, William P. D’Angelo, who was briefly the head of NBC’s children’s programming, had created the hit Run, Joe, Run in 1974. In ’76, he formed a production company with Harvey Bullock and Ray Allen, and they produced a film (The Nativity), a couple of TV specials, and a handful of series. These included the first season of Alice and a whole mess of live-action Saturday morning shows, like The Red Hand Gang, McDuff the Talking Dog, Big John Little John and this adorably dopey show. With a lot of help from Stanley Ralph Ross, with whom D’Angelo worked on Batman, they stole the hearts of all hundred and two people who actually watched this series.

I adored it. I had the coloring book, the magic slate, and the Milton-Bradley board game, which immortalized a couple of the Monster Squad’s baddies long after this show was canceled and forgotten. If it was ever repeated anywhere, it’s news to me. When a company called Fabulous put it out on DVD a few years ago, I thought it was an April Fool’s prank. They pressed enough copies to sell to all hundred and two people who knew what it was, and it’s been out of print ever since.

So it’s a superhero show, starring famous monsters. A young criminology student played by Fred Grandy, later to serve the good people of Iowa in Congress, builds a supercomputer in the basement of a wax museum where he works. The computer’s “oscillations” bring statues of Dracula, the Wolfman, and Frankenstein’s Monster to life, and, feeling guilty about all the naughty things their real incarnations did, they vow to fight crime.

Okay, so that origin is actually a lot sillier than Captain Scarlet’s.

The show was made for no money at all. I’ve said that about shows we’ve watched here before, but I mean it this time. They didn’t even have enough green makeup for Michael Lane’s eyelids. Lane plays Frank N. Stein, and Buck Kartalian – occasionally a gorilla in the Apes movies – is Bruce W. Wolf, and Henry Polic II, best known as the sheriff in When Things Were Rotten, is Count Dracula. A typical Monster Squad installment has two sets: the goodies’ base, and the baddies’ base. Using the budgetary know-how that D’Angelo and Ross got from season three of Batman, the baddies’ base is inevitably a black “limbo” set, with props and dressing in front of black curtains.

So all the money went to the guest stars, and there are some very, very surprising faces turning up here for, what, maybe two days work for a couple hundred bucks? The Monster Squad’s first arch-villain is the Queen Bee, played by the amazing Alice Ghostley, who was in darn near everything back then, from Bewitched to Grease. One of her “henchbees” is Hamilton Camp, who would later play one of the versions of HG Wells in the timey-wimey episodes of Lois & Clark.

The budget is totally ignored by the writing, which assumes the show will be able to pull off anything. Actually, as scripts, they’re not bad. I like how the writers throw out some gags just in case anybody’s paying attention and the actors underplay them. This time, there are acronyms for agencies that spell out the US TV networks. A later episode has a parody of the just-launched Famous Amos cookie brand, which nobody outside Los Angeles had heard of at the time.

From adult eyes, it’s cringe-inducing and dopey, but it’s perfect for children. Ours watched with curiosity and interest until the fight scene at the end – about which, more in a later installment – and then he started hopping up and down and punching the air. He absolutely loved it. I don’t imagine anybody over the age of about nine could embrace this very much, but this seems like one of the neatest things he’s ever seen.

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Swiss Family Robinson (1960)

When I was a kid in the seventies, we took a family trip to Walt Disney World in Florida. It wasn’t the Haunted Mansion that scared me senseless, nor the hideous animatronics in the Hall of Presidents, it was just the idea of the Swiss Family Treehouse. Somehow I got the notion that you had to walk all around the attraction on tightropes, and if you fell, then tough luck, you would plummet to the ground or a raging river below.

Well, somehow I got over it and really enjoyed that part of the trip. I hadn’t seen the movie or read the original novel, but there was a Swiss Family Robinson TV series on the air around that time, which starred Martin Milner as the father, and I liked watching that a lot as a kid. I wanted to add that to our rotation here at the blog, but the darn thing’s never been available on home video. I guess we’ll have to make do with Disney’s version, which I’m reasonably confident is a bigger and better production anyhow.

This is a classic adventure tale in the tradition of many Disney films of the day, with one darn thing after another befalling the attractive cast. The Robinsons decided to flee the Napoleonic wars of Europe for a new life in the colonies of New Guinea, but are shipwrecked. From there, they have to put up with sharks, tigers, snakes, you name it. Oh, and pirates. These are fairly awesome, no-joke, downright mean south Pacific pirates, too. None of that “arrr” nonsense.

The cast is led by John Mills, and by chance I’d just finished watching him in a fun 1974 series called The Zoo Gang, which is kind of a Mission: Impossible cash-in set in the south of France. As for familiar Disney faces of the day, there’s also Dorothy McGuire, from Old Yeller, Janet Munro, from Darby O’Gill and the Little People, and James MacArthur, who had made Kidnapped the previous year and would stay hugely in demand throughout the sixties before co-starring for more than a decade as “Danno” Williams on Hawaii Five-O.

While it is a good film, this was a long, long one, and boy, did we ever feel it. The problem is that once Fritz and Ernst rescue a cabin boy who turns out to be a girl disguised as a boy to avoid a grisly fate at the hands of the pirates, the simmering jealousy between them becomes incredibly tedious. If, perhaps, you’re a girl who wouldn’t mind imagining yourself in the place of Munro, with two good-looking shirtless young men to choose from, the twenty minutes they spend stewing might possibly be a little more bearable.

There’s enough animal action and close escapes in the film to keep our five year-old entertained, and the climactic battle against the pirates completely thrilled him. The whole film is full of surprising stunts and physical business between the animals. I wondered how on earth the stuntmen playing the pirates didn’t escape with serious injury, never mind the poor ostrich that keeps being mounted, and the tiger and two dogs that get into a rumble. It builds to a terrific climax and some surprising decisions taken in the conclusion, and is overall a very well-acted and well-made movie. If it were not for some mushy stuff as Munro comes closer to making her decision which boy she likes better, he’d probably have called it a complete success!

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Ultraman 1.2 – Defeat the Invaders!

It’s one of those oddball little coincidences in fantasy TV: Doctor Who introduced the Daleks in the show’s second serial, the Sleestak first showed up in the second episode of Land of the Lost, and Ultraman‘s most memorable recurring enemy, the Baltans, showed up in the second episode, too. The Baltans – there are more than sixty billion of them, according to this episode, the size of bacteria – continued to plague the various Ultra-heroes over the years, making more than a dozen return engagements as far as I can tell.

I thought these guys would unnerve Daniel just a little bit, and I was right, thanks to the really good direction of the scene where Arashi investigates a science research institute and keeps finding frozen, green-lit security guards. It’s a great example of the way the show really isn’t filmed like a kiddie show, even though it’s frequently written for the youngest members of the audience.

Case in point: we didn’t really meet the characters in episode one, so this installment focuses on Arashi (played by Sandayū Dokumamushi), the “muscle man” of the Science Patrol, and Ide (called “Ito” in the English language dub, and played by Masanari Nihei), who’s the wacky and sometimes cowardly member of the team. Ide sports a black eye in the opening and closing bookends of the story, during which he talks to the camera, to the kids in the audience, with goofy grins and face-pulling, as the tale behind his accident is revealed.

Ultraman has endured for lots of reasons, but an important one is that the scary moments are tamed by silliness like this, and indeed when Arashi stomps on Ide’s foot, and later when we see how Ide got that black eye, our son howled with laughter. But when the program is trying for something unusual, it’s shot like something made for grown-ups, with really interesting camera tricks and cinematography. So we get thunderously odd images like Hayata’s body floating away in episode one, and the green, frozen guards in this one. I appreciate the way the producers kept everybody in the audience in mind.

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Ark II 1.13 – The Cryogenic Man

I’m again impressed by the guest casting on this show, with actors you wouldn’t expect would show up on a kids’ sci-fi series. This time, it’s Jim Backus and John Fielder. Both men played dozens of roles in the seventies. Fielder, apart from everything else he did, was a regular patient on The Bob Newhart Show and had a recurring part as Gordy in Kolchak: The Night Stalker, but he’s probably best known as the voice of Piglet for Disney. Backus had also been in everything, and had worked for Filmation before on an episode of The Ghost Busters the previous season.

In this episode, they play men from the distant past of the 1980s who had been cryogenically frozen. Backus is, of course, the rich guy and Fielder his subordinate. Backus is unethical, doesn’t understand ecology, and thinks the Ark II crew are a bunch of bureaucrats.

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Far Out Space Nuts 1.13 – Birds of a Feather

“This is really going to try your patience,” I told Marie, and I was right. There’s only one episode of Sid and Marty Krofft’s Far Out Space Nuts available commercially, and I swear it’s the worst of the series. It ran in the fall of 1975 on CBS, alongside Filmation’s Shazam!, Isis, and The Ghost Busters, and six or seven of the episodes are really, really funny.

In 2002, Rhino released a three-disk sampler set containing one installment each from thirteen different Krofft shows. They didn’t pick the one with the space haunted house, and they didn’t pick the one with John Carradine (!!). They picked the one with the chicken-people. The adults suffered in silence. The five year-old loved it to pieces. He laughed and giggled all through the thing somehow.

Far Out Space Nuts starred Chuck McCann and Bob Denver. Many of the episodes were either written by McCann and his writing partner Earle Doud or, like this one, by Ray Parker, who wrote dozens and dozens of Hanna-Barbera cartoons in the 1970s, but I don’t believe he did any other work for the Kroffts beyond this. FOSN is typical mid-period Krofft, with the gigantic and intricate sets of their earliest days abandoned in favor of smaller sets – meant to represent different places on different planets but invariably all looking the same – and guest stars. The fun is watching Denver and McCann do their delightful physical comedy – it’s Gilligan and Hardy, basically – and grumbling wordplay while being threatened by various ridiculous aliens, almost all of whom observe them from the same “monitor” prop. I guess all alien supervillains shop at the same electronics store.

It’s a shame this one hasn’t been properly collected. Most of the show appears to be on YouTube in various quality bootlegs, but I’d really like to teach our son to respect artists and creators by buying official releases where possible. He’d love to laugh at some more of this show, and I’d love to see the space haunted house one again.

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Ultraman 1.1 – Ultra Operation No. 1

What we used to do in the late seventies was wake up bright and early on Saturday mornings, before the network programming started, and begin our days with what WTGC-17 (later TBS) would show. They’d have Speed Racer and Ultraman first thing in the morning and all was right in the world.

In Japan, Ultraman was the latest evolution in a decade-plus tradition of superheroes saving the planet from alien menaces. His black-and-white live-action antecedents, among them Super Giant / Starman, Planet Prince / Prince of Space, and Moonlight Mask, had been thrilling kids on TV and in the movies throughout the late 1950s. They’re all deeply dopey shows, with fight scenes that look like incompetent ballet in fields. Whenever Mystery Science Theater 3000 got hold of one, it was like a mercy killing.

But in the mid-sixties, things took a quantum leap forward when the other TBS – Tokyo Broadcasting System – ordered Ultra Q from Tsubaraya Productions. Eiji Tsubaraya had been the biggest name in miniature special effects in Japan for years, working on monster and war movies for Toho since the early 1950s. I’ve seen only two episodes of Ultra Q, ages ago, but the difference in this sci-fi show and its predecessors is like night and day, or like the difference between Captain Video and The Outer Limits. Since Tsubaraya assembled a team who knew how to light a set and work with the best available special effects, Ultra Q looked like a show that wasn’t exclusively for little kids.

Apparently, the original idea had been to have a Doomwatch-like team investigating all sorts of paranormal and extraterrestrial menace, but this was quickly lost in favor of giant monsters, since those were guaranteed to keep the younger viewers hooked. This did put a huge limit on the sort of stories they could tell, and after about two dozen episodes, produced during 1965, they began thinking about how to have an actual character, rather than the military, actually fight the monsters. Ultra Q debuted in January of 1966 and was an immediate, mammoth hit, but its fate was already sealed, and preproduction at an advanced stage for the follow-up, filmed in color.

The first episode of Ultraman aired on July 17, 1966, just two weeks after the final installment of Ultra Q. As far as made-in-color shows with giant monsters fighting brave superheroes, it was actually beaten to the airwaves by a TV version of Osamu Tezuka’s fun comic Ambassador Magma, but that’s another story and this post is going to run very long, so I’ll write a bit about that some other time. Magma is certainly charming and I’d call it fantastic, but it didn’t change everything quite the way that Ultraman did. Fifty years later, there have been more than two dozen different Ultra-world TV series, another two dozen feature films and direct-to-video movies, and a pile of TV specials and mini-series, not to mention all of the countless imitators and also-rans that have Ultraman in their DNA somewhere.

So, the time is the far-flung future of the 1990s, and Earth is defended by the Science Patrol, a team of five agents led by Captain Toshio Mura (played by Akiji Kobayashi). Mura’s best agent is Shin Hayata (Susumu Kurobe), who has the biggest secret on the planet. He was accidentally killed by Ultraman, a policeman from space who was pursuing a monster called Bemular. Ultraman restores Hayata’s life in a convenient shared arrangement. Ultraman’s life force lives within Hayata’s body, and then, using a “beta capsule,” Hayata can become Ultraman for a few short minutes at a time. Earth’s atmosphere is so polluted that Ultraman can only receive a little of the solar energy that he requires before collapsing. A warning light in his chest reminds him that he needs to quit monkeying around and get the job done; if the light goes out completely, it’ll mean that he will never rise again.

Okay, so that’s a bit tortuous, but it’s not that much sillier than Captain Scarlet’s origin.

So how’d our son Daniel do? Well, mercifully, Ultraman showed up, because this was weird, tense, and just a little bit alarming to him. The bit where Hayata’s body floats away and is surrounded by the strange red sphere really is odd, and the initial shots of Bemular’s head popping out over the surface of the lake had him intrigued. When Hayata takes a submarine underwater to attack the beast, he hid behind the sofa for much of it. Then Bemular climbs out of the lake and Daniel saw through it. “I think that monster is rubber,” he said, and the fear passed.

Unfortunately, the arrival of Ultraman is, to adult eyes, the least interesting thing about any of these shows. It just looks like wrestling after that point, but try telling him that. He was grinning ear-to-ear and shaking fists in happiness at the mayhem on the screen. Just wait until he fights a monster in a city instead of a forest.

I believe there are many better episodes of this show than its debut, but give Tsubaraya’s team credit: they had a heck of a lot to introduce and a lot of special effects to throw at the screen in a hurry, and the first episode of Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons was, similarly, a fast-paced blur of ideas thrown at the wall. There are flops in this show, but there are also some episodes that everybody remembers. I reckon one’s coming up in just a few days, actually.

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Ark II 1.12 – Robin Hood

For a group of highly trained young people, the Ark II crew don’t know much about folklore. Little clue, guys: when somebody adopts the identity of Robin Hood to steal grain from people in uniform, with rare exception, he’s the good guy. The story’s by Len Janson and Chuck Menville, who did a lot of work for the company this year.

Now that he’s a little old enough to understand who Robin Hood was, Daniel enjoyed this episode and I’m pretty sure we can find him some other examples of the character in film and TV. As is typical in productions like this, Robin’s merry men include people named Big John and Alan, in this case played by Johnny Doran, who did an episode of Isis for Filmation the previous season.

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Isis 2.7 – …and Now You Don’t!

As the show wrapped up with its big climactic action scene (chuckle), our son shouted “Hey! That’s the first time they’ve ever shown Isis and Captain Marvel flying together!” And it would be the last. That’s probably a good thing; I swear all of Filmation’s special effects budget and know-how must have gone to Ark II in ’76, because I had just about enough of the crummy processing effects this season.

As I said last time, Filmation deserves a thumbs-up for being ahead of their time with the idea of a big season finale against a larger-than-usual threat. But of course, it’s 1976 and children’s TV advocates won’t let anybody do anything violent, so you’ve got the Supersleuths yelling and jumping at the bad guys but not actually threatening anybody. Rick Mason jumps in the villain’s getaway helicopter, and they… go up, and Captain Marvel pulls the copter back down. Excitement abounds!

Also, I missed it in part one of this story, but one of the baddies is played by Michael Blodgett, who had previously appeared on TV that season as King Alex in two episodes of Electra Woman and Dyna Girl a couple of weeks earlier.

But that’s that for Captain Marvel and Isis. If you’ve got a five year-old in your house, then you might enjoy watching these programs with your kid. Ours was so endlessly fascinated by Isis’s ever-changing powers – “I never saw her make twelve versions of herself before!” – that it often out-charmed the tame production. But next on the block, in a couple of days, we’ll look at a very, very different type of superhero.

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