Wonder Woman 1.12 – The Bushwhackers

So here’s the episode where Wonder Woman wears a red blouse and long white trousers instead of her usual outfit. According to legend, Roy Rogers agreed to guest star in this episode of Wonder Woman on the condition that Lynda Carter put some clothes on. I’m not 100% sure I believe that producer Greg Berlanti would agree to host any actor on Supergirl who’d make a similar demand about changing Melissa Benoist’s costume.

Was it worth it? Well, the episode is dull and dry – it’s about rustlers stealing cattle for “the mob” and the black market during wartime rationing and targeting a kindly rancher who’s taken in five war orphans – but I distinctly remember my parents being really impressed that Roy Rogers was in this episode. All the kids in the 1940s who could see Rogers’ cowboy movies loved them. Maybe it meant a spike in the ratings that week? I’m actually a little curious now.

Sadly, our son really didn’t enjoy this story. He was squirmy and restless and very disappointed, especially since he told us after last night’s episode of Ultraman that he had really wanted to watch Wonder Woman instead. Maybe the next one will go over better.

Henry Darrow plays the villain in this one. A couple of years previously, when Harry O, in which Darrow co-starred as Lt. Quinlan, moved production from San Diego to LA, they gave David Janssen a new police contact, freeing him up to guest star in practically everything made for TV in the 1970s. In fact, he’d be back on Wonder Woman just ten months later playing a different villain.

Ultraman 1.29 – The Challenge Into Subterra

In keeping with that long and proud tradition in adventure TV of the heroes getting a new gadget immediately before it’s needed, Ito has just finished building a new underground tank with a whacking great drill on the front and what turns out to be a pair of underground gold-eating monsters shows up to devastate a town. The tank is immediately reminiscent of the Mole in Thunderbirds, and our son shocked us by saying that he likes this tank even better than the beloved Mole. I wasn’t expecting that!

While underground, Ito and Mura rescue a miner who’s going a little loopy, and he explains that the Goldon has eaten all of the gold he’s found. “That’s why the monster went outside the mountain,” our son reasoned. “It has eaten all the gold in that gold mine and now it needs to find another gold mine to eat all of its gold.” In the end, with both beasts destroyed, the narrator assures us in the show’s constantly clueless way that the miner received half of the 150 tons of gold extracted from the creatures, and the Science Patrol donated their half to rebuild the town.

Since there’s contradictory evidence as to when Ultraman is set, it’s not strictly possible to put a dollar amount on that quantity of gold, but I’m pretty sure that an immediate new source that large would have a pretty big impact on the Japanese market for precious metals.

Jason of Star Command – Chapters 11 and 12

There’s just a hint that there may not actually be enough plot to fill sixteen chapters of this story. Some guest writers, among them kidvid vet Chuck Menville, come aboard for a two-part detour. Chapter ten had ended with our heroes helplessly about to crash on a planet, and chapter twelve ended with them helplessly about to land on the Death Sta– I mean Dragonship, which is where they were heading in the first place. In other words, you could safely excise these two chapters and lose nothing of the plot. Such was the way of the classic Saturday matinee serials that this program emulates.

The guest villains this time out are the gorgeous Julie Newmar, vamping it up as Dragos’s moll Queen Vanessa, and her associate Bork, played by Angelo Rossitto. We’ve seen Rossitto buried under foam and fur in some of Sid and Marty Krofft’s earlier shows. He was the original Seymour – and Clang, the smaller one – in H.R. Pufnstuf, and Mr. Big, the gangster hat in Lidsville. He’d been working in Hollywood since the late 1920s.

Bork controls a deeply silly monster with the head of a sheepdog and a costume that says “we can’t afford Julie Newmar and a monster costume at the same time.” Nevertheless, our son thought the beast was remarkably mean, with “claws like saws!” We mistakenly thought he was very excited when Jason was trying to activate a heavy switch before Queen Vanessa and Bork returned. He clarified that he was very nervous and worried. As ever, I’m pleased that when I find the shows a little wearying and see-through, he’s having a ball, loving the action completely.

Wonder Woman 1.11 – Formula 407

Several months ago, I read a detailed episode guide to Wonder Woman and was surprised that this episode, in which Steve and Diana fly to Argentina – and boy, does California do a laughable job pretending to be Argentina this week – to obtain a secret formula that will make rubber as strong as steel, didn’t sound at all familiar. Watching it tonight, it kind of rings a bell, but nothing in it stands out at all. It’s a “heroes tied up in the basement while the Nazis threaten to kill the professor’s daughter” story, and it is the most ponderous hour of this series, by leagues.

It is talky and long and basically a half-hour of plot padded out to an hour. I’d say it’s a tedious bore, but with the exception of a long scene at a formal party at the professor’s house, our son really enjoyed this one, somehow. Good, I’m glad that he enjoyed this more than us.

Of note on the production front: the story is by Elroy Schwartz, brother of sixties sitcom superstar Sherwood. Guest stars include John Devlin as the Nazi-of-the-week and Maria Grimm as the professor’s daughter.

Ultraman 1.28 – Human Specimens 5 & 6

Somehow, I’d forgotten just how creepy and odd this episode, which was circulating back in the VHS tape trading days under the title “Dada is Death,” is. It’s actually a really effective story. The inevitable wrestling is always a disappointment, but it’s at least triply so this time, because the space creature who’s conducting weird experiments in a remote scientific base is much more interesting as a human-sized villain. Our son was very, very creeped out. The first half of the story is very strange and eerie.

As is the way of things, little in the English dub is really explained – and I’m increasingly of the opinion that Japanese viewers had to get more backstory and stuff from trading cards or comics or supplements in the TV guide when this show was broadcast to get all the details anyway – but the villain is a creature called a Dada. It’s not three different beings as seems to be the case; it’s a single agent who has three different, albeit similar faces. The Dada is looking for appropriate specimens, which it has shrunk via a “microniser” weapon and stuck in test tubes. Dadas have the power of teleportation, can walk through walls, and can send electrical currents through metal. I’m not entirely clear whether each of the Dada’s three faces has a different power, but of course it can also grow to giant size, which at least makes for an unusual moment when the Dada temporarily zaps Ultraman with the microniser…

Most bizarrely, the creature is called a Dada in tribute to the anti-art movement that started in Switzerland a hundred years ago. I think that Duchamp gets credited/blamed for it; without dadaism, we wouldn’t have had The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. I’d argue, perhaps poorly, that dadaism was critical to the early careers of surrealists like Dali and Man Ray, and that Warhol was especially inspired by Duchamp’s readymades.

I’m not entirely sure what about these weird space scientists particularly screams “dadaism” – as far as I can tell, they could have called the aliens “Neoclassicists” and it wouldn’t have impacted the story any – but the Dadas returned in several of the later Ultra-series and have, in their weird way, served as ambassadors to young students curious about art. Think I’m kidding? Last year, Switzerland celebrated a century of dadaism. Here’s Urs Bucher, Switzerland’s ambassador to Japan, tripping the light fantastic with our old pal Dada in Tokyo last spring.

Photo credit: Japan Times.

Wonder Woman 1.10 – Judgment from Outer Space (part two)

Ah, yes, the corridors episode. Predating Castle Wolfenstein by years, in this episode Wonder Woman and Andros run up and down lots of hallways in the underground fortress of Schloss Markheim with a series of locked doors on either side. The far wall is either blank or has one or two different combinations of swastikas and eagles. Of course, it’s the same set, redressed in slightly different ways, just like the long central hallway of my childhood home was the same hallway no matter how many times my friends and I would barrel up and down the thing, turning around and pretending we were racing down another corridor.

This episode sparked a million games of escaping every conceivable enemy fortress, and it retains its weird, imaginative power. “I loved it when they ran around the Nazi building!” our son exclaimed. Then he looked around and confessed “I have to get some ants out of my pants,” before barreling toward the front door.

This was the last episode for Tim O’Connor’s Andros. Wonder Woman turns down his offer to see the galaxy with him, and he leaves Earth with a promise to return and ask her out again in 1992. As it turned out, Andros would return the next season, when the show moved to the present day, so he waited 35 years, not 50. In his return appearance, Andros would be played by the ever-so-slightly younger and hunkier Dack Rambo. I loved the bit at the end when Steve Trevor confides to Diana that he’s glad that Andros is gone, because he saw how Wonder Woman looked at Andros, and he didn’t want the competition.

Wonder Woman 1.9 – Judgment from Outer Space (part one)

You want a time capsule look at what science fiction right before Star Wars was like, look no further than this story by Stephen Kandel. It was broadcast thirty-two years after World War Two ended, and is forty years old today. It is closer, historically, to the war than it is to us. There was a feeling then that space travel was right around the corner, which is what this story is about.

Tim O’Connor, who was then best known for a few years starring in Peyton Place, plays a scientist named Andros. He’s sent by the Council of Planets to determine whether Earth would become a threat to other civilizations. I’m not sure who came up with that concept first. The Day the Earth Stood Still did it in 1951 and it seemed to be repeated in comics and juvenile-aimed short fiction for decades. What results here is a very slow and very measured story that the director, Alan Crosland, just can’t rescue. It’s talky and remarkably predictable, but it’s full of that seventies feeling that space travel was in our immediate future. Four decades later, we still have nowhere to go.

It succeeded in worrying our son, at least. He didn’t really care for this episode, either, but I think that’s because he’s very concerned that Andros, inevitably captured by Nazis, will not report back in time and his testy colleagues in outer space will blow up our planet. At least he’ll only have one night to worry about what will happen next instead of the week we had to spend in 1977.

The Rescuers (1977)

Did my son wake you this morning? Today, we watched what he pronounced as his all-time favorite movie. He went all Spinal Tap on it. I asked him how much he enjoyed Disney’s The Rescuers on a scale of one to ten, and he replied, “If ten is my absolute favorite movie ever, then this is a ten! No! It’s an ELEVEN!” This was after the longest, loudest fit of laughter I can remember. From the bit where the albatross, Orville, gets his tailfeathers singed by a firework to the destruction of the old organ on the rotting riverboat a quarter of an hour later, he was in stitches.

He’s seen a few Disney cartoon films before, most recently Robin Hood, but he’s never loved one quite as much as this. I agree completely. You, dear reader, almost certainly enjoy Disney cartoons more than I do – I just scrolled down the list and maybe find about five tolerable – but there are two that I adore: this and 1970’s The Aristocats.

But actually, looking over Disney’s animation work, I see that The Rescuers was made at a really curious time for the company. For some weird reason, they were only releasing a new cartoon feature about once every four years. I think that they all at least looked splendid – The Rescuers in particular is blessed with some amazing painted backgrounds – but, in the sixties and seventies, these were all taking a back seat to their far superior live-action films.

And I think that this corporate malaise and disinterest in cartoons is what cost Disney their best asset at the time: Don Bluth. He was apparently the lead of four credited “animating directors,” working under three other credited as “directed by,” and, sick of the bureaucracy and wasted time, set up a rival studio with about 20% of Disney’s staff, and then spent a decade kicking the mouse’s rear at the box office. I’m also deeply disinterested in almost all of Bluth’s output, with only Secret of NIMH and Anastasia of any note, but I find the history fascinating. And I think it’s really neat that The Rescuers and Pete’s Dragon, on which Bluth also worked, both came out in 1977. Good year for for a talent like Bluth to flex his muscles. I can believe that had Disney not turned things around in ’89 with the successful Little Mermaid, they probably would have retired their feature animation unit entirely, and our popular culture would be radically different today.

The Rescuers features Eva Gabor and Bob Newhart as two employees of the International Rescue Aid Society, whose office is in a mousehole in the UN building. Gabor plays Miss Bianca, an agent from Hungary, and Newhart is Bernard, a brave-but-shy janitor who is assigned as her co-agent. Other voice work is provided by people who had some more history with Disney, like Bernard Fox and John Fiedler. Jeanette Nolan and John McIntire would come back to do voice work for Disney’s next cartoon, The Fox and the Hound.

The movie is paced brilliantly. It’s a lean 77 minutes, with songs at the appropriate moments, and the action is really funny. Madame Medusa admittedly may not be in the upper tier of Disney villains, but she’s amusingly vulgar and violent. I love the scene where she’s threatening Penny while removing her false eyelashes before bed. She’s so garish and hideous.

Sure, there’s a lot about The Rescuers that falls into standard tropes, like all the heroic animals being capable of speech and the big mean henchbeasts (here a pair of alligators called Nero and Brutus) mute and stupid, but it’s a movie which is funny when it needs to be and nail-bitingly dramatic when it’s called for. The scene where Penny and the mice find the missing diamond and only have moments to extract it before the tide comes in is just remarkably tense, a downright perfect little scene.

I think that The Rescuers came at an interesting time in animation. I don’t believe this film was shown on HBO, but I still group it, emotionally, with some other favorites that were shown on that channel in 1979-81 or so, movies like The Mouse and His Child (which I’d love to see again), The Water Babies, Dot and the Kangaroo, that Raggedy Ann movie with the blue camel, and, of course, Watership Down. I wasn’t aware of them at the time, but Galaxy Express 999 and the Lupin III film everybody knows, Castle of Cagliostro, which are both excellent, also came out during that period. It was a good time for good cartoons, I think. Maybe we’ll watch some for the blog down the line, and see whether any of them get rated as high as eleven.

Jason of Star Command – Chapters 9 and 10

The story gets a little stranger, for me, in these two chapters. For some reason, the Filmation people chose to wait quite late in the day to introduce some more solid elements from Space Academy. So in chapter 9, the cute robot Peepo joins the proceedings, and chapter 10 is given over to rescuing Lt. Matt Prentiss, from the Academy’s Red Team, from Dragos’s “time dimension” trap. We met Prentiss, played by John Berwick, in episode eleven of Academy.

This is such an odd choice. If you wanted to strengthen the ties between the two programs, why not bring back any of the six young lead characters from the earlier show, and not a one-off guest star? I suppose they couldn’t have asked Jonathan Harris back to play Gampu for a week, because James Doohan is wearing Harris’s costume. (grin)

Our son was very pleased with chapter nine, less so with the strange science of ten. Chapter nine has Peepo and W1K1 arguing with each other. This is extra-cute because Peepo was designed as the R2-D2 cash-in, but now this robot takes the C-3PO role to get all prissy and worried while the small companion babbles in beeps and bloops.