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August 28, 2008

TOS Rewind #20: "The Return of the Archons"

The episode: The Return of the Archons (2-9-1967)

The drink: more vodka/lemonade.

We have three reviews for you on this one. Plus, an audio podcast!

I'm going to let Eric start us out:

To pick up where I left off in my last review (“…I want to see science fiction!?), I get what I want with “Return of the Archons.? In fact, this episode kicks off a string of excellent episodes that runs right up to the end of the first season.

“Return of the Archons? scores high in pretty much every category. The “cheese factor? is low, the production (acting, directing, cinematography, etc.) is good (maybe great), and the story kicks ass. It’s not only good science fiction, it addresses a social topic very near and dear to me—religion. John and I chatted a bit about this episode, and I think he’s of the opinion that it’s more of a commentary on communism. I can see that, but to me, the religious overtones are blatant: blind obedience and slathering, beatific devotion to an unseen guru (i.e. Landru); the emphasis on unity and brotherhood; referring to the group as a “body;? and perhaps most of all, the violent reprisals for anything that can be vaguely construed as sacrilege. (I half expected Michael Palin to come jumping out yelling “You never expect the Spanish Inquisition!?) Of course, in this society, the brainwashing is overt and direct. And instead of leaving a set of teachings (of questionable origin), Landru programmed a highly sophisticated computer to perpetuate his faith. It all boils down to the same thing, though—a repressed, stagnant society where there is no freedom of thought or action.

Which leads to the “Red Hour.? In the society in question, everyone under a certain unspecified age periodically goes nuts and has a giant orgy/riot, presumably to vent the emotions that are at all other times suppressed (kind of like the Vulcan pon farr). This is an interesting observation about most of our religions. They demonize some very basic facets of human nature (violence, sexuality, etc.) and try to force their adherents into rejecting or controlling these facets to a ludicrous degree. I’ve often thought that part (maybe a large part) of the high crime rate is that the religions such a large percentage of the population are indoctrinated into don’t teach people how to live with the less genteel aspects of their natures and channel the emotions they generate into healthy outlets. Not that I’m saying Landru’s “Red Hour? is a healthy outlet, but it is an interesting solution to the problem.

So, in any case, the denizens of Beta III had James T. Kirk to rid them of their oppressive guru, which turned out to be a computer. So, once again, we’re dealing with man vs. machine. Or more accurately, Kirk vs. supercomputer. And it won’t be the last time. (Not by a long shot.) But that particular theme is still very well done in this episode. I have to admit that I love watching Kirk out-logic computers until they go nuts and fry themselves. This leads to one small problem, though: despite Kirk’s protests to the contrary, it seems to me that he really did break the Prime Directive. The controlling power in the society may have been passively malignant and repressive, as well as personally repugnant to the good captain, but that really didn’t give him license to destroy it and completely disrupt the life of every person on the planet. And, as Spock alluded, an extensive study of Landru’s computer would’ve been very valuable. But Kirk, as he was wont to do, set the people of Beta III back on a normal, human path. Then again, they weren’t humans. Hmmm…

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And for the first time, Rob takes a crack at TOS:


Thanks to Eric and John for inviting me to co-blog this one.

"Archons" has always been one of my favorite Trek episodes, and it holds up well. The writers tackled big subjects – totalitarianism, communism, religion, colonialism, and mob psychology– without leaning on specific comparisons with current or historical events (as in 'Patterns of Force" or "The Omega Glory"). There are lots of striking and creepy images, such as the (viewing it now, very well-choreographed) crowd scenes, and the sinisterly-gentle holographic Landru. But there's some fun Kirk-Spock banter as well. And I love the way George Takei and DeForest Kelley play their characters after they've been absorbed. Their portrayals are essential for the plot.

So what's the deal with "the Red Hour"? Probably added as a "fight scene," it gives the story an extra layer of mystery – one that is never explained. My theory: it's the Landru-computer's concession to the id. Humans can't tolerate perfect peace and harmony. Like the underground man says in the Dostoyevsky book -- the crystal palace is lovely, but you wouldn't want to live in it. Deep stuff!

It's been said that Star Trek is all about the Cold War. This episode's a powerful take-down of communism, but it seems to have implications for religion as well. St. Paul referred to the Church as "the Body of Christ." "Archons" is also, less positively, an argument for overthrowing communist governments in Third World countries. Kirk justifies violating the prime directive because it only applies to "living, growing" cultures. Really? He'd make a great CIA lawyer! And the local resistance is led by half-committed wimps who require outsiders (read: Americans) to give them spine.

Some would dismiss as ridiculous Kirk's amazing ability to talk computers into destroying themselves. Well, how else is the Enterprise going to defeat a foe with vast technological superiority? IMHO, that's how "The Squire of Gothos" should have ended. (Sorry, Eric!) That's a classic Trek theme – the triumph of reason and creativity over brute force. I just told my PC: "A question has been put to you. Answer it!"

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Thanks bro!

All three of us really liked this one. I don't remember it being one of my real faves long ago: the shortage of fistfights and space battles makes that tough when you're ten. However, I have much more appreciation for it as an adult. As Eric and Rob both point out, this episode covers a lot of intellectual ground, much more than the usual TOS Trek episode. I can just imagine the NBC censors looking at this one and saying, "well, that's okay, it isn't about religion. Jesus wouldn't build a mind-enslaving computer to run the Earth!" Uh, yeah. However it happened, this one got on the air with some thought-provoking ideas. It'd be interesting to see what the 1967 audience thought of this one.

This episode does a really good job conveying the creepy oppression of the Landru-state. The way the people behave as well as Sulu and McCoy's behavior after being absorbed makes it even more of a menace. But this guy takes the cake:

180px-Bilar.jpg

This guy was just plain weird. He's played by a guy named Lev Mailer who apparently is an acting coach currently living here in MN. He looks like he should be in a Kurt Weil production and talks very strangely.

In the end, I think this episode strikes the right balance of science fiction ideas and social/political commentary. Here are a few odds and ends I liked/noted about this one:

"The Red Hour." It's a really interesting idea, a "pressure valve" as Eric calls it in our podcast, for the forcibly contented people under Landru. I also like the way that the story doesn't really explain the reason for it.

Marplon and Reger, the two who resist Landru, aren't your average underground resistance movement. They are actually wracked with doubt and are unsure of what they're doing on some level. All the better for Kirk to swoop in as the confident American to save them!

Kirk vs. Landru the computer god/commie party dictator. As Eric said, it was the first, but far from the last time he's found himself in a position to talk a computer to death. Sometimes the original is the best.

The mystery of how Landru manages to channel his power through thin air as well as telepathically control an entire population is an interesting sci fi idea. It may not be entirely original, but for TV of the 1960s, it must have been pretty fresh and potent.

I really like the teaser/intro of this episode. There is no Captain's Log or other expository dialogue to tell you what Sulu and O'Neil are doing and why they're being chased by these guys in robes. It sets up the episode very well.


So, there you have it. One of the better episodes and we still have some real classics coming up.

Here's the podcast (for real fans only--30 minutes of Trek geek yacking!

Download the podcast

Next time: "Space Seed"


Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!

August 25, 2008

"The grown-ups have to go to work today."

Over the weekend I had a chance to compare Blu-Ray vs. standard DVD on my home system. I looked at the first Pirates of the Carribean film. The difference wasn't huge, but the Blu-Ray did look better. Color looked a bit cleaner and there was more detail in the picture; a more film-like appearance. I have no doubt that it would be more of a contrast if I was viewing it on a more modern display. My current system includes an eight-year-old CRT-based HD set. The set was very nice in its day, but it looks a bit on the dull side compared to the newer all-digital displays (the fact that it's probably full of dust doesn't help--it's a boxy rear projection set). It still has nice color and very good black levels, but it wasn't going to blow me out of the water with sharpness. The player I was trying, the previous generation Sony, ran fine but was very slow to do pretty much everything. It took 90 seconds just to power up and the Pirates disc took forever to load (all that Java-based interactive crap loading). They say the newer player and the Playstation 3 are much speedier. I really hope so! So, I liked the picture and still want a player sometime soon (I had this one on loan) and know it will kick butt whenever I upgrade my display.

Now, onto this week's new discs.


Cimarron (1960)

Entourage: Season 4

Escape from Fort Bravo (1953)

Everybody Hates Chris Season 3

Heroes Season 2 Also on Blu Ray.

The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Beginning (2008) Shouldn't it be, "Ariel Begins"???

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) A new special edition and Blu-Ray version.

One Tree Hill: Season 5

Postal Also on Blu-Ray.

Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) Have any of you film fans seen this? Check out DVD Savant's review of it here. I am curious about this one, though I'm not sure I'm curious enough to sit through it.

What Happens in Vegas Also on Blu-Ray.

Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden? (2008)

August 20, 2008

"It's all ball bearings nowadays."

I'm finally getting back in the groove after our trip this past weekend to Rapid City for my sister's wedding. Fun was had by all and my family gains another Englishman! While I was there, my brother gave me an autographed copy of William Shatner's latest book. Come on, I *know* you're jealous! I also learned that my older brother Scott scored the new Sony Blu-Ray player. Damned early-adopter siblings! I may just have to get one of these before the year is out...

In the meantime, let's see what came out this week on DVD/Blu:


Camp Rock (2008) And yes, even the Disney/Teen pop stuff is available on Blu-Ray. I tell you, this format has arrived!

Chronicle of an Escape (2006)

The Fletch Collection Both Fletch films on one cheapish DVD.

Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour (2007) See the above comment on Blu-Ray...

House, M.D.: Season 4

The Life Before Her Eyes (2007) Also on Blu-Ray.

Married... with Children: Season 9

Nixon (Election Year Edition Extended Director's Cut) DVD Savant reviews the Blu-Ray version here.

Prom Night (2008) Also on Blu-Ray.

The Proposition (2006) Also on Blu-Ray.

Recount (2008)

The Scorpion King 2: Rise of a Warrior Also on Blu-Ray.

Street Kings (2008) Also on Blu-Ray.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles: Season 1 Also on Blu-Ray.

Twenty-Four Eyes (1954)


August 11, 2008

"Everything's new! New is better!"

It's late Summer and the crappy movies get released. The DVD releases aren't much better....but hey, at least "xXx: State of the Union" is coming on Blu-Ray!


Aftermath: Population Zero (National Geographic)

The American Mall (2008)

The Art of War 2: Betrayal

Bra Boys (2007)

Brand Upon the Brain (2007)

Caroline in the City: Season 1

Eclipse Series 11: Larisa Shepitko

Felon (2008)

The Love Boat: Season 1: Vol. 2

Prison Break: Season 3

Smart People (2008)

South Park: Season 11

The Wire: Season 5

August 7, 2008

TOS Rewind #19: "Court Martial"

Tonight's episode: Court Martial (2/2/1967). The drink: another Moscow Mule (hey, Costco had a deal on limes!).

In "The Menagerie" we got to see Spock put on trial. This time, it's Kirk's turn: accused of negligence causing the death of one of his crew. Unfortunately, this episode isn't nearly as good. I had a brief chat with Eric about this one and we both agreed that this wasn't Trek at its best. Like the last episode we reviewed, this one isn't really sci fi or even adventure. It was a courtroom drama shoehorned into a Trek episode. The beauty of "The Menagerie" is that it managed to blend courtroom drama with a real science fiction plot. This one has a pretty flimsy techno-plot that I find hard to buy. I'll break this one into the tired pros and cons thing.

Pro:

We get to see Kirk in a new, vulnerable position. By being involved with the death of a fellow officer, supposedly due to bad judgment, he even earns the ire of his colleagues on the starbase. Spock and McCoy naturally stand by their captain, but it looks bad for Kirk. It's worth watching this episode just for that small bit of character development. This was also a brief look at the inner workings of Starfleet; both the justice system and Starfleet Academy are discussed.

Elisha Cook Jr.'s performance as Kirk's attorney is another thing that holds our attention in this episode. Cook was a hard-working character actor who turned up in a ton of films and TV shows. He was a good choice to play the eccentric technophobic lawyer.

Con:

The Ion Pod techno-plot device seemed awfully ridiculous, even by old Trek standards. The idea that Finney could somehow be thrown out of this pod and turn up at some random part of the ship just didn't work for me. Also, how could this "records officer" (what, did he work for HR?) sabotage the Enterprise that Scotty or some engineer couldn't detect it or repair it? There are other examples, but it looks like sloppy writing that is distracting within the context of Trek.

Finney's daughter is inconsolable at the beginning of the episode and is bitter about Kirk supposedly causing her father's death. She has completely reversed her stance later in the show, which I found hard to buy. They sort-of explain this but something doesn't work. I read that there was a scene with her that was left out for time. This might have made this more believable.

The ideas here aren't bad; machine vs. man and a former friend seeking revenge. I have to wonder if the whole Finney resentment thing would have been more effective if the show's format had allowed some way to develop Finney as even a minor character with this showdown building in the background. It certainly would have given this idea and climax a lot more heft. Finney is just another new character we'd never heard of, one with a long history with Kirk. But TOS was, like most TV at the time, quite episodic without the extended continuity and mile-long story arcs of today's TV dramas. It worked well most of the time for TOS and it isn't really fair, I suppose, to compare it like that. But hey, at least we had a fistfight in the engine room...with a really big wrench!

OK Eric, what do you have to say?

...

“Court Martial? is much like “The Conscience of the King? in that it isn’t really Star Trek or science fiction, and it isn’t one of my faves. (It also doesn’t have the advantage of a Shakespearean title or plot.) Like “The Conscience of the King,? it’s a story that could’ve been done on any TV drama. And that’s not to say that it’s a bad episode. Samuel T. Cogley (played by the late Elisha Cook) is a lot of fun. I particularly enjoy his impassioned speech about human rights. And the courtroom scenes are good too. Kirk’s testimony is nicely done, and the demonstrations of his crew’s loyalty are touching. I also like the opening scene where Kirk gets into a (verbal) fight with Commodore Stone—I’m not sure whether Kirk is gutsy or foolhardy, but it’s a good scene.

One major problem I have with this episode, other than those I already mentioned, is that it suggests that a non-engineering crew member could sabotage the Enterprise so cleverly and thoroughly that Scotty (the Miracle Worker) couldn’t fix it. Not!

Anyway, as I said before, this isn’t a bad epsiode, but when I watch a science fiction show (especially Star Trek), I want to see science fiction!

Next time: “Return of the Archons?

August 5, 2008

"There are no holidays in the fight against evil."

A pretty slow week, DVD-wise. As usual, clicking here will give you the whole list with prices, even the stuff I don't bother to list...


Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations: Collection 3

The Counterfeiters (2007) DVD Savant has a review of the Blu-Ray version here.

Family Ties: Season 4

Fortress (1993) This one's for you, Rob!

Get Smart: Season 1 This show was previously available as a whole series set, now being released season-by-season.

He-Man and the Masters of the Universe: Vol. 3

The Killing of John Lennon (2006)

Lonesome Dove (1989) Also on Blu-Ray.

Nim's Island Also on Blu-Ray.

Robin Hood: Season 2 (BBC)

Wild China (BBC) Also on Blu-Ray.