The Ray Bradbury Theater 2.7 – Punishment Without Crime

When the USA Network ordered 12 episodes for a second season of The Ray Bradbury Theater, the producers looked for some partners in other countries to fill the order. I picked this installment because it was one of the ones made in collaboration with Granada Television and looked like it had the sort of powerhouse cast I enjoy. Unfortunately, the great Iain Cuthbertson and Peggy Mount just have very small parts. That leaves Donald Pleasance, who, in my humble opinion, gave far, far greater performances in so many other things. I started the story by telling the kid what a great actor he was, and honestly, he phoned this one in and looked bored.

I seem to enjoy creepy Bradbury more than speculative Bradbury. This time, he goes back to the well of businesses that build robots. But this one doesn’t build electric grandmothers or replacement spouses, it builds… well, it builds replacement spouses as well, I suppose, but these are meant to be short-lived replacements for angry, jilted husbands to “murder.” Sadly, the writer had to add some mighty convenient plot complications to make the jilted husband’s subsequent arrest for murdering the robot make any sense. It’s dreary and weak, although the design and execution kind of reminded me of the original Max Headroom pilot, when it wasn’t reminding me of a music video from the period, anyway. Nobody liked it, and I should have gone with my notion to replace it with “Gotcha!,” which starred Saul Rubinek, just to see whether the kid would recognize him after seeing him in Stargate the last two nights.

Stargate SG-1 7.17-18 – Heroes (parts one and two)

“Heroes” is astonishing. It’s a masterpiece. It’s the one that was nominated for a Hugo – it lost to a Battlestar Galactica – and I love it for lots of reasons. The main one is that Saul Rubinek is on fire in this story. He plays a documentarian who the lame duck president has commissioned to tell the story of Stargate Command for the day down the line that it becomes public. Nobody at the SGC wants to cooperate with him. They are all bent on keeping secrets.

In part one, Rubinek’s character is used as a foil for the other characters, and a odd-feeling frame story back at the base while another unit, SG-13, has an adventure. This unit is commanded by a colonel played by Adam Baldwin, who we all remember from Firefly the previous season. But in part one, they fall into trouble, and the episode ends with three other units heading out to rescue them. Part one was entertaining, but part two is next-level. It starts with Rubinek, once again kept from filming anything interesting, absolutely tearing into the base personnel for getting in his way. Secret military stuff is the way of Mao and Stalin.

As I’ve mentioned about Stargate previously, they totally had this coming. The only thing I’ll complain about the scene is that Rubinek gets to have a career-high shouting match about the truth and the public right to know against a bunch of extras who can only respond with silence. Would love to have had that scene played out in General Hammond’s office.

But this is still a brilliant episode for Hammond. Don S. Davis gets a fantastic new antagonist when Star Trek‘s Robert Picardo stops by for what was intended as a one-off appearance as another civilian oversight obstacle, but everybody liked Picardo and his character, Woolsey, so much that he’ll be back quite frequently. Picardo and Davis go at it in a blindingly good scene built around the death of one of the base personnel, and the show masterfully makes the audience think that it’s Jack O’Neill who died.

I know this misdirection couldn’t have worked with us as well as it did the audience that night in 2004. It was an open secret that Richard Dean Anderson was ready to retire and move back to Los Angeles, where he was already living part-time again; his absence from every peripheral corridor scene and gag is, despite the best possible efforts of the production crew, incredibly noticeable. Hence O’Neill getting injured, getting alien viruses, getting completely sick of squabbling diplomats and just leaving. At the time this was shown, audiences knew that the spinoff, Stargate Atlantis, was in development and was anticipated to debut in the fall. What they didn’t know was whether SG-1 was coming back, but if it did, it would be reasonable to expect that Anderson wouldn’t be rejoining the show.

Obviously, it wasn’t Anderson’s character who dies. But the show spends twenty minutes making us believe that he was killed in action before giving us the brutal gut-punch that it was Teryl Rotherty’s character of Dr. Fraiser, who’d been a solid and important part of the show for about 120 of the previous 149 episodes, who died in the ambush. Brutal doesn’t cover it; the way it’s revealed to the audience is downright cruel. It’s amazing, amazing television, and there’s nothing left but to rail against the unfairness of it.

Our son really didn’t like it, unsurprisingly. But I was pleasantly surprised that he was not bored; he was just unhappy. This is an hour that puts audiences through the ringer and doesn’t give much light to them. He didn’t want to talk about it, he didn’t want to remember it, he just wanted away from it. “I know you didn’t like it, but did it make you sad?” I asked.

“I really don’t like it when shows make me sad,” he replied, and went to the kitchen for a cookie.

The Ray Bradbury Theater 1.5 – The Screaming Woman

People enjoy Stranger Things for lots of reasons, but I’ll humbly suggest that one of them is that people about my age (nearly 50) remember the era fondly. There’s certainly lots of utter garbage about the eighties worth forgetting, but we all enjoyed being kids and being trusted to have adventures on our own without supervision and without getting into trouble. Eventually the Satanic Panic parents won out or something and convinced everybody that kids were in constant danger of abduction and/or razor blades in apples, and by the second Bush administration, we weren’t allowed to kick our kids out to play like we did anymore.

So for those of you who miss being able to hang out in construction sites while reading Tales from the Crypt, I submit for your approval this absolutely excellent half hour of Drew Barrymore trying to convince Canada’s stupidest grownups that she heard a woman crying and screaming for help in a patch of woods near her house. She sics the police on her neighbors, heads off on her bike to Baskin-Robbins, sits down in strange, chain-smoking men’s houses, and digs up possible graves in the middle of the night while humming half-forgotten tunes. To the eighties, my friends, let us hope the good stuff comes back one day.

Doctor Who 9.6 – The Woman Who Lived

Our son said “It wasn’t good, it wasn’t bad, but it was interesting.” Strong disagree from me this time; I think this one’s extremely good. Madly, it’s Catherine Tregenna’s only Doctor Who writing credit, although she contributed a few episodes of Torchwood. Heck, Chris Chibnall used her six times on Law & Order UK; surely he’s had her in to pitch. This is such a good script and it leaves me wanting to see more work from the writer.

So this is, obviously, a follow-up to “The Girl Who Died”, though sadly our son couldn’t quite connect the dots when I replayed him a scene in that installment’s beginning. This episode ends with the revelation that Ashildr lives until at least 2015 and makes good on her promise to keep an eye on the Doctor. It’s reasonable to assume – not even knowing what’s to come – that she’s been around the sidelines for as many of the Doctor’s adventures on Earth that anyone could run across. And the Doctor, wearing any number of faces himself, probably saw her in some crowd or other from time to time, not registering anything important about her. It’s only when he sees her in the year 800-something that it clicks. Deja vu.

There’s a plot to this story and it’s certainly entertaining. It’s 1651 and there are highwaymen and amulets and a strange lion-faced alien, and it’s all done with wit and charm and I enjoy it a lot. But the meat is the Doctor realizing that Ashildr has gone very far astray. Immortality – and didn’t Rassilon once tell him this? – is a curse, not a blessing. Ashildr goes by the name Me now, but the Doctor, rudely, declines to call her any name but the one with which she was born. Funny to think that an episode made just six years ago has dated so strangely in that regard. There’s so much to chew on here, from fannish references to the Tereleptils, who will burn down London in about fifteen years, to how many memories somebody can expect to hold onto after 800 years and how much someone will change. The Doctor hints that she may need to look up Captain Jack Harkness in the future. Probably Orlando, Dorian Gray, and Hob Gadling as well. I’m sure they have a lot to talk about.

Doctor Who 9.5 – The Girl Who Died

I amuse myself by noting when the Doctor expresses familiarity with our culture. He mentions ZZ Top in this one. I can accept that. This Doctor plays guitar, and Billy Gibbons is one hell of an excellent blues guitarist. It makes sense the Doctor would know his work. But Clara also mentions adding the Benny Hill theme, “Yakety Sax,” to some recorded footage of some alien invaders getting routed by a big puppet, and the Doctor seems to know what she’s talking about. Oh, if we must. It’s a good gag. Our son has no idea who Benny Hill was, and he laughed like a hyena.

Anyway, “The Girl Who Died” was co-written by Jamie Mathieson and Steven Moffat and it’s really, really entertaining. It introduces Maisie Williams as Ashildr, who of course we’re going to run across several more times. The Doctor saves a Viking village after their warriors have been murdered by some alien thugs called the Mire, and gets the remaining farmers and fishermen to defend the small town after Ashildr sparks further fighting. It’s a great introduction to the character, and there are a couple of surprising flashback clips to the episodes “Deep Breath” and “The Fires of Pompeii”. The kid was really pleased as well. He always seems to like it a lot when the Doctor’s last-minute plan is revealed. This one involves ring toss and electric eels.

Princess Mononoke (1997)

Earlier this week, I took our son for his allergy shots, saw that one of the TVs in the waiting room was playing something that looked like Pokemon*, and asked him “Would you like to sit there and watch Pokemon?” He’s ten, and while most of the time he’s still our delightful little boy wanting hugs and cuddles and positive attention while unrolling his world of wild fan theories, he will, occasionally, remind us that the teen years are just seconds away. Suddenly he was fifteen already, embarrassed by his uncool dad, and he rolled his eyes and said “Dah-ah-ahddddd, why do you think all anime is Pokemon?!” Little twerp, I was reading that show was called Pocket Monsters and giving people seizures before I knew what Team Rocket even looked like.

So what happened the very next day? The North American distributor of lots of good things, GKids, made an astonishing announcement. They’ve licensed Future Boy Conan. I’m not kidding. Go read about it. Everybody else I know has a lot more time for Japanese cartoons than I do, but Conan is stop-the-presses huge. It’s a 26-episode TV series directed by Hayao Miyazaki for a weekly early-evening slot for NHK in 1978, based loosely on Alexander Key’s novel The Incredible Tide. Conan made it to several international markets, including Mexico and Italy, but didn’t land in the United States, not even all those years later, once Miyazaki became the de facto face of the medium for people who have even less time for Japanese cartoons than I do.

You can read a huge amount about Conan over at Let’s Anime, where Dave wrote a comprehensive article last year. And the reason I’m so hyped about the forthcoming English-language release of this series, where absolutely no other cartoon release has prompted more than a raised eyebrow, is that about three decades ago, he landed a laserdisc set of the 26 episodes, raw, without subs or dubs, copied them for me on seven VHS tapes, and I watched those bad boys from beginning to end three times in a row, two or three episodes every single day, occasionally baffled but otherwise transfixed. I gave it another spin a couple of years later. They were lost in the VHS purge of 2001, and I am so looking forward to revisiting its weird world, oddball humor, and wild melodrama.

There are so many people in this country whose love of Japanese cartoons and comics have been a springboard for a deeper interest in Japanese language or culture or careers. Maybe our son’s turning into one. This morning, we watched Miyazaki’s 1997 film Princess Mononoke, which some people consider his best. The lead character, Ashitaka, carries around a bowl, as I believe you did back in the 1400s or whenever, to enjoy some rice on the road. That got the kid wanting ramen for lunch. Unfortunately, we live in Chattanooga, where options for a really good bowl of soup are more than a bit limited. We ended up watching him enjoy the heck out of a giant bucket of tonkatsu ramen while we ate expensively and far worse than he did. (I don’t actually like ramen. I don’t like pho either. Soup for me is what you dip a grilled cheese sandwich in.)

As for the movie, he said that he mostly liked it, but he had trouble with what seemed to him like Ashitaka’s shifting alliances. “Like, whose side is he on,” he protested. He was unprepared for the level of violence – it was very surprising when I first saw this in the early 2000s and remains so today – but mostly fascinated by the story. I think I like Lady Eboshi the best. She’s an interestingly sympathetic villain, who’s done so much good that it mostly mitigates the evil. And I like the score: it might be Joe Hisaishi’s finest after Nausicaa.

But mentioning Nausicaa just brings up the problem: this movie just feels like Nausicaa redux, with a male lead. As Miyazaki explores the wheel turning and civilizations rising and falling and nature taking over and man beating it back, this was perhaps inevitable, but there isn’t anything here that Nausicaa didn’t do better, especially the climax. The great anecdote everybody loves to share about this one is that Miyazaki and/or his PR team sent the North American distributors a firm and slightly hilarious warning against making any cuts, but this climax goes on for freaking ever and could seriously stand to have a good fifteen minutes pruned from it. There’s a lot to like in the end, especially how all the people who live in Lady Eboshi’s town are ready and willing to rebuild and keep her in charge, despite everything, but it takes an agonizing time to get there.

Agonizing. Once we can preorder Conan, that’s precisely what it’s going to feel like. Mononoke is a pretty good movie, but it’s not Future Boy Conan.

*It was Beyblade.

Stargate SG-1 7.16 – Death Knell

I really admire the way this show is willing to do the opposite of tie up loose ends. It unravels them completely. As ever, there’s a lot going on offstage in SG-1. Over at the new Alpha Site, where the humans work with their two allied groups, they’ve been working on new weapons to deal with the indestructible Kull Warriors, who were introduced in the big midseason cliffhanger adventure. But as they established in a story in the previous season, the alliance is really tenuous because the two alien groups can’t trust each other. And then one of them reveals their location to Anubis, who sics two or more of the Kulls on them.

I like how they don’t tell us who’s to blame. Maybe some of the Jaffa who went on a recruiting drive were captured and talked, or maybe it was a Tok’ra spy who has a high-level position within the ranks of Anubis’s latest enemy. Whichever, nobody can get to the bottom of it and in the end, it doesn’t matter. Nobody wants to listen anymore, and the episode ends with the three forces going their separate ways. Carmen Argenziano’s character of Jacob has been around what feels like every three or four episodes for the last two seasons, but this is the last we’ll see of him for a year.

The kid was really not impressed with this one. I thought they did a good job balancing the negotiations on Earth with Sam trying to get away from the last Kull – it knows she has some of the Kull-killin’ prototype tech with her – as Jack and Teal’c try to find them. There’s great location filming, some tense situations, a few shootouts and a mammoth explosion, but it wasn’t enough. The unresolvable debates back at the base really weighed this story down for him and he tuned out. “I just don’t like everyone arguing and everybody unhappy,” he said. “Why can’t they all just get along?” You’d think that after all this time they’d agree.

The Ray Bradbury Theater 1.4 – The Town Where No One Got Off

Well, the debut episode of this show was a little unpromising, but we soldiered on and I enjoyed the fourth installment very much. The kid thought it was very strange and creepy, and he was absolutely right. In “The Town Where No One Got Off,” Jeff Goldblum’s character gets argued off a train by a loudmouth played by Cec Linder, who says that if bleeding heart small town apologists like him think that rural life is so bucolic, why not get off the train and see what happens. Goldblum has nothing better to do for a couple of days, conveniently, so he does just that, and steps off into the least friendly town in Canada.

I just thought this was really interesting. There might have been a Little Town With a Big Secret trope at play here, but we never learn what that Big Secret is; everybody is just an unbelievably hostile jerk. The installment was filmed on location in the small village of Alton. About eight years earlier, the producers of The New Avengers had semi-successfully turned the town of Vaughn into looking like a mountain range full of stereotypes separated it from Toronto. Alton is admittedly a good deal further out than Vaughn, and I’m sure that thirty-five years ago it was even more isolated, but this feels so far out that I’m reminded of those counties in Oregon so far east of Portlandia that they want to secede and join Idaho because they’re sick of them big city lib’ruls.

This town – and remembering that it’s not meant to really be Alton, but rather a place called – wait for it – Erewhon – is almost totally abandoned, and the producers did a good job shooing the actual residents out of sight so that six actors could take turns snarling at Goldblum. One old guy finally starts talking to Goldblum, who’s grown a mighty eighties mullet since we last saw him in Buckaroo Banzai, made the year before. Then things really ratchet up, and honestly only an actor as unpredictable as Goldblum could make the resolution work. I won’t pretend it’s entirely satisfying, but it certainly was fun to watch.

Doctor Who 9.4 – Before the Flood

After an hour of brilliantly claustrophobic material in an underwater base, the Doctor travels back to 1980, and the village that was flooded. It was abandoned several years previously, and had been dressed as a typical street in the Soviet Union for Cold War-era military intelligence training. It reminded me a little of “Target” in The New Avengers. There and then, we meet the sniveling alien undertaker whose ghost was setting the events of 2119 in motion, and a great big alien menace called the Fisher King.

I absolutely love “Before the Flood,” and told our son that this two-parter is among my very favorite Doctor Who adventures. He not only agreed that the second half was better than the first – 45 minutes of creepiness and scares locked in a base with no way out? no, he wasn’t completely happy, no – but said “the second part more than made up for the first part, it made up for some bad parts in some other Doctor Who stories I didn’t like.”

I think this is an incredibly intelligent and very surprising story that uses time travel really well, introduces a character who’s familiar with the Doctor and has read about some of his 21st century adventures, introduces another character who’s even more familiar with the Doctor and the Time Lords and how bloodthirsty they got in the Time War, and it does them effortlessly, without sounding like it’s bogging down with fannish references. The resolution turns out to be a really clever example of the “bootstrap paradox,” which is delightful, and the acting and the direction are simply full of clever surprises. I love it to pieces and want Toby Whithouse to come back and write more for this show.

Doctor Who 9.3 – Under the Lake

Well, here’s a strange little bit of casting. We saw Colin McFarlane once before at our blog, and he was playing a ghost in that performance as well! He got to join Marty Hopkirk in the afterlife as a living-large PI named Snellgrove who doesn’t end up living for very long. I must get around to catching him in something where he’s alive one day.

Anyway, “Under the Lake” was written by Toby Whithouse, who really should come back and write some more Who episodes one day because he’s extremely good. Among his previous adventures was “The God Complex”, which introduced a race of aliens called Tivolians as supporting characters. The Doctor recognizes that one of the ghosts is a Tivolian, and I love how understated this is. The whole adventure is excellent, I really love it to bits, but I especially like how this is quietly placed to the side, because there’s so much going on, and nobody has time to ask how this alien got here, or how long he’s been here. In fact, it’s an interesting inversion of the typical set-up of a modern Who two-parter. Usually they spend part one setting everything up and part two running around madly. This time we have to wait to get the full picture, and I love that they did it this way.

Stargate SG-1 7.15 – Chimera

This is the episode that introduces David DeLuise as Pete, Sam’s boyfriend. You get so used to the fellows in this show having space girlfriends that Pete being a cop from Denver seems so bizarre. Sam took all the hallucinations of the fellows from a couple of episodes ago to heart and had her brother fix her up with somebody. She’s so in like with him when this one starts that she starts humming the program’s theme tune. We asked the kid, who really didn’t enjoy this story much at all, whether he thinks the relationship will last. “He’ll probably get taken over by a Goa’uld,” he said.

Speaking of whom, here’s Anna-Louise Plowman back as Osiris. She hasn’t been seen since the end of season five, probably because there wasn’t a really good reason to bring Osiris/Sarah back during the season where Daniel wasn’t around. She’s trying to poke and prod at Daniel’s subconscious to find some Ancient Secrets, and the two plots come crashing together when Pete decides to stake out Sam while she and the team are staking out Daniel’s house to catch Osiris in the middle of the night. Osiris gets extracted and, presumably, killed, and Daniel’s old girlfriend isn’t seen again.

But Pete’s going to stick around for a little while. I paused the episode to comment, with a growl, that Pete’s pillow talk is absolutely appalling. I don’t know what it is about teevee boyfriends, but I’m willing to wager that if I’d been wining and dining Major Carter and she shared that she does classified government work on deep space telemetry that occasionally requires her going out of the country with no notice, I’d respect the “classified” bit and wouldn’t poke or prod and certainly not use the trust guilt card on the first freaking morning together. How soon until this fling ends, again?