Saturday, March 21, 2015

Mars on TV (Compilation, 1963-2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

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Gerry Williams’ “Mars Movie Night” last night consisted of four episodes of TV shows, three from the 1960’s and one a recent one. The vintage shows included the premiere episode of My Favorite Martian — starring Ray Walston as “Martin,” visitor from Mars, who gets stranded on Earth when his Jetsons-like spaceship crashes and he needs elements to repair it that haven’t been invented or discovered on Earth yet; and Bill Bixby as reporter Tim O’Hara, who in the opening episode gets summarily jailed by the U.S. Air Force for having written a story reporting the near-crash between the X-15 experimental aircraft (one of those planes that, like the X-1 that first broke the sound barrier, couldn’t take off on its own — it had to be launched from another plane, usually a B-29 or, later, B-52 bomber — but could attain altitutes and speeds greater than those possible with a plane powered by a jet instead of the X-series rockets) and an unidentified flying object that is, of course, Martin’s flying saucer. I liked My Favorite Martian when it was new mainly because of Walston’s dry wit — it was his bad luck to have just missed by about a decade or so the era in which an engaging character actor could make a comfortable living in Hollywood doing essentially the same schtick in many films for various studios, and maybe not taste the dizzying heights of stardom but at least work regularly and not have to deal with the always-threatened collapse of a star career. That’s still the element that is most entertaining about this show; Bill Bixby looks like a callow kid (one of the attendees joked that he’s seen students at San Diego State today who look older and more mature than Bixby does here), and this group of aging geeks couldn’t help but make jokes about Bixby’s most famous role (“Just don’t get him angry,” “It hasn’t been a banner day for him,” and the like). What really dates My Favorite Martian today is the appalling sexism; the only women in the dramatis personae are the mother and two daughters Bixby’s character is living with, one of whom is (sort of) his girlfriend, and the U.S. Air Force in this era is shows as entirely white and male — just one more indication of how badly the second-wave feminist movement was needed in the late 1960’s, even though a good deal of it got pretty silly.

I did not like Gilligan’s Island when it was new — like The Beverly Hillbillies, I loved the theme song but hated the actual show — and I don’t like it any more now; as I saw a close-shot of Jim Backus and Alan Hale I fantasized that they were thinking, “We made movies with Errol Flynn and James Dean, and now we’re reduced to this?” The episode Gerry showed was called “Smile, You’re on Mars Camera,” and it deals with a NASA probe that’s supposed to land on Mars and hits Gilligan’s island by mistake (no, they weren’t Jimmy Page’s and Robert Plant’s process servers!), whereupon they try to use the camera on board the spacecraft to try to signal their fellow Earthlings that they’re alive, well and on an otherwise uninhabited but still terrestrial island from which they’d like to be rescued. Through various complications that were considerably less funny than the writers thought they were, the Gilligan’s Island cast members end up covered with bird feathers, which leads the NASA scientists to conclude that the dominant life form on Mars is half-human, half-chicken. The director, amazingly, was Jack Arnold — “The Jack Arnold?” I couldn’t help but ask. “The Creature from the Black Lagoon Jack Arnold?” It was, indeed — ah, how the mighty had fallen!

The third show — and by far the best for sheer energy and thrills — was an hour-long segment of the short-lived sci-fi drama The Time Tunnel, about an experimental time-travel device that dumps the protagonists, Drs. Tony Newman (James Darren, yet another James Dean wanna-be) and Doug Phillips (Robert Colbert), willy-nilly into either the past or the future. This show was called “One-Way Ticket to the Moon” and our heroes got dumped into NASA’s M.E.M. (for Mars Excursion Module) spacecraft and end up jeopardizing the mission because the extra 375 pounds between them they’ve added to the payload risks the rocket either failing to reach escape velocity on the way up or running out of fuel on the way back. They also run into two saboteurs, one during their own time (1968) and one 10 years later on the mission to Mars (and given that we gave up manned flight past Earth orbit completely once the Apollo program ended in 1973, it’s hard to realize that the prediction of producer Irwin Allen and his writers that we’d be on our way to Mars just nine years after we got to the moon actually made a certain degree of sense); the one who bridges the time continuum is Beard (Jerome T. Callahan), who was there at the Tic-Toc installation in 1968 (just two years after the show had its brief one-year run) and again on the Mars mission, where he just wants to jettison the service module containing Our Heroes and leave them to die in space. The other one is Brandon (Ross Elliot), who gets killed by Beard at the end to preserve the secret identities of both of them. Though there were some pretty obvious scientific mistakes in the Time Tunnel episode — including one scene in which the baddie on the moon (where the astronauts have gone to refuel their spacecraft so it can make it to Mars after all) blows up the fuel dump where the remaining supplies are kept. If he could mix the rocket fuel itself with the liquefied oxygen that allows it to combust in space, he could do this with an electronic detonator — after all, it’s by mixing fuel and oxygen from separate tanks that a liquid-fueled rocket is able to propel itself in space — but once the available oxygen from the tank was consumed the explosion would burn out, not keep the remainder of the building aflame as would happen in earth’s atmosphere, and as we see here. But they didn’t dull the edge of what was a quite well plotted and (mostly) well staged story that made me think The Time Tunnel, which actually bored me when it was new, would be worth re-examining. Though it only lasted one season when it was new, at least judging from this episode it was intelligent, dramatic and thrilling, and it blessedly lacked the heavy camp content of producer Irwin Allen’s other, and far more successful, late-1960’s sci-fi show, Lost in Space. About the only thing I would fault The Time Tunnel for was its use of the old serial “cliffhanger” gimmick, in which the heroes are whirled at the end to the horrible disaster they’re going to have to escape from in the next episode — in this case the Emperor Mine in New York in 1910 (the one the Bee Gees did that weird little song about just before they went disco!), where they’re trapped in a mineshaft with 200 other people.

The last show was a recent episode of Castle, an intriguingly premised detective series in which the male lead is a crime-fiction writer who’s dating a female N.Y.P.D. detective and getting him to take her along on his cases. This episode, “The Wrong Stuff,” aired quite recently (February 23, 2015) and deals with two rival entrepreneurs, Viggo Jansen [read: Elon Musk] (David Clayton Rogers) and Sir Ian Rasher [read: Richard Branson] (Maxwell Caulfield), who are both bankrolling privately financed trips to Mars on the ground (which I’ve also heard seriously at science-fiction conventions) that, now that the public funding for human-piloted space travel between the planets has dried up, private money from the 0.001 percent is the only way we’ll ever get to Mars. Jansen recruited thousands of people from all over the world to apply for his Mars expedition — lead Richard Castle (Nathan Fillion, who quite frankly has aged very badly since this show went on the air seven years ago) shame-facedly admits that he applied for Jansen’s expedition, and later on his girlfriend, N.Y.P.D. detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic), admits that she applied for Rasher’s. From the applicants Jansen picked a crew of five, headed by hot-shot pilot Tom Richwood (Yves Bright), only one day Richwood is found dead inside the elaborate Mars simulator Jansen had built up to train the crew for the mission. It’s an intriguing variant on the locked-room mystery since the simulator is locked from the inside and pumped full of noxious gases, unbreathable by humans, to mimic the Martian atmosphere — which means that when Beckett and Castle go inside to question the crew members, they have to wear spacesuits. They uncover a few red herrings, including Clint Granger (Matthew Marsden) — a pilot who was passed over for the mission while his wife was hired, and who responded by stealing Jansen’s secret plans for the Mars spaceship and selling them to Rasher. This plot required two go-betweens, Mikhail Dankov (Konstantin Lavysh) and George Reyes (David DeSantos), whose girlfriend was also hired for the mission and told him from inside the Mars simulator that she wanted a divorce because she’d fallen in love … with the crew’s other female member. Castle is one of those annoying crime shows peppered with campy asides, and the episode contains gag references to 2001 (particularly involving the talking super-computer Jansen has built into the simulator, though he describes it as “more SIRI than HAL”), Alien, Star Trek (surprisingly not Star Wars!), I, Robot (the super-computer does seem to have been programmed to observe Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics and has a hissy-fit when it can’t reconcile the various commands it’s been programmed with both by Jansen and the hacker who rewrote its code to gain access to the simulator), but at the end writer Terri Miller reaches for her (at least with that spelling of the first name I’m presuming it’s “her,” and her page reveals she is indeed female) denouement from outside the sci-fi genre and rips off the central plot gimmick from Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express: Richwood was killed by three of the four other crew members because they were already tired of his martinet attitude towards the mission after six months in the simulator and weren’t about to tolerate him for the rest of their lives on a strange and hostile planet. It was an O.K. episode, fun in a dorky way — like most of the Castle shows I’ve seen (mainly on TNT Network reruns rather than on ABC) it’s a decent crime thriller but suffers from the camp insertions modern-day audiences seem to like in crime shows but which drive me up the freaking wall.

At the request of the youngest member of the audience, between the Time Tunnel and Castle episodes Gerry showed one of the most intriguing items in his collection, a 1910 Thomas A. Edison four-minute short called A Trip to Mars in which a top-hatted professor invents a “reverse gravity” powder and floats up — without either spaceship or spacesuit to protect him against the vacuum of space — to the planet Mars, inhabited by a race of giants, one of which is so huge the explorer does a mountain climb up the guy’s nose and is later turned into a snowball by him, then hurled off the planet’s surface and back to Earth. It’s not much as a movie — obviously Edison and his filmmakers were going for the insouciant charm of Georges Méliès’ films in general and his A Trip to the Moon in particular, but they fell well short of their model — and it seems odd that seven years after the head of Edison’s filmmaking department, W. L. Dickson (who more than anyone else invented the job of the movie director), had made the cutting-edge (literally: its biggest innovation was its use of cross-cut editing to depict two actions taking place at the same time in different locations, a major part of what became standard cinematic grammar) The Great Train Robbery, Edison’s studio would turn out something as lame and cinematically primitive as this. A Trip to Mars survived not as a film but as a series of still photographs printed in three columns on a long spool of photographic paper, designed to be run in a player that automatically shifted to column two once column one was done, and to three once two was done. Gerry said the film was actually released this way, but quite a lot of movies made before 1912 (when the U.S. Congress finally amended the copyright law to allow films to be copyrighted) survive only as “paper prints,” since under pre-1912 law a film could not be copyrighted but the individual frames that made it up could be copyrighted if they were submitted as photographs printed sequentially on paper. The irony was that in 1912 photographic paper was far more durable than film, so many movies (including this one) that didn’t survive as actual films nonetheless were preserved on paper — though restoring them so they can be seen now involves a long, tedious and very elaborate process of rephotographing each frame and adjusting them to make sure they match so the final reconstructed film moves smoothly instead of flickering. But, as A Trip to Mars proves, just because a film is fascinating from an historical perspective doesn’t mean it’s still going to work as entertainment!