Monday, July 28, 2014

Ask JKM a Question: Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2009 - 2013)?

A regular reader, Jason, writes:

I'm interested in your opinion of Cartoon Network's "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" (2009-2013) series.”

Jason, I’ll be honest about this.

Before I received your e-mail (several weeks ago....) I didn’t have a very clearly formed opinion of The Clone Wars. 

I had watched only a handful episodes with my son, Joel -- out of order too -- and found them likable enough. 

However, after reading your e-mail, I went back and watched several more installments of the program.  The whole series is now available on Netflix and so this seemed like the perfect time to wade in.

So my opinion -- with the caveat that I have still have still viewed less than thirty installments, overall -- is that it is an enjoyable series, and more than that, a dignified, respectable, and worthwhile continuation of the Star Wars saga.

More significantly, I feel that The Clone Wars has mimicked the general creative approach of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) in a way.

By that comparison, I mean only that Star Trek: The Next Generation took a while to find its legs as a successful creative endeavor.

Early on, for example, the Ferengi were an embarrassing disaster in terms of their villainy. But The Next Generation writers and producers didn’t drop the Ferengi, ignore the Ferengi, or mark them as toxic failures. 

Instead, they figured out how to deploy the Ferengi creatively and dramatically, and then brought them back to serve as prime supporting players in both TNG and Deep Space Nine.

Similarly, many long-time Star Wars fans did not like the prequel movies (1999 – 2005) or their universe very much.

There were complaints about Jar-Jar Binks, young Anakin, older Anakin, and so forth. 

But to its credit, The Clone Wars doesn’t shy away from the universe established by the live-action prequels, and brings back races and characters that weren’t happily perceived the first time around.

Yes, even Jar-Jar Binks.

Yet as I believe The Next Generation proved, something intriguing happens when disliked or initially unsuccessful characters (such as the Ferengi or Jar-Jar) return in additional (and often superior…) stories. 

We get to know them better. They become deeper. We know and understand how they "fit" into the universe, and we start to accept them.

And, finally, this new-found success in later ventures sort of retroactively shines back on the earlier stories. You can suddenly go back to the lesser tales and find some value that was harder to see before, when you were distracted by the creative missteps.

There, I said it.

Watching The Clone Wars actually makes re-watching the Star Wars prequels a better, and far more intriguing and engaging experience.  

This principle applies to the development of Anakin (and his eventual journey to the dark side), his relationship with Padme, and many other factors that some fans felt were inadequately handled in three movies.  

By revisiting the Gungans (in stories such as “Gungan Attack”) or Watto’s people, the Toydarians (in stories such as “Ambush,”) the aliens take on new substance, and the universe seems, oddly enough, less like a cartoon designed to sell toys.

Again, my caveat is that I have not seen the entire series at this juncture.  But based on what I have seen, The Clone Wars actually does an extraordinary job deepening a universe that could use some deepening.

There are two important factors that I noted on my survey.

The first is that with Star Wars functioning as a TV series, the creators have far more time to discuss issues of moral complexity.  

The six feature films dramatize an epic story of a galaxy in transition, and so there often simply isn’t time to go into detail regarding some aspects of life in the Empire or Republic. But the episodic nature of The Clone Wars allows writers to linger on those world-building qualities and moral shades that the movies, by necessity, gloss over.  

For instance, we remember young Anakin as a slave in The Phantom Menace (1999).

Here, episodes such as “Slaves of the Republic” in season four of The Clone Wars allow that idea to play out a little more fully, and in a way that adds to our understanding of Anakin’s journey as a character.  For example, Anakin recalls that his mother was sold in a slave market like the one he visits on the planet Zygerria. 

Ahsoka, Anakin’s padewan, must pretend to be a slave herself in the course of the story and questions how a “civilization as advanced” as the Republic permits such atrocities to continue.

Other episodes ask additional questions that the movies simply couldn’t get to. One clone notes in “Rising Malevolence,” an early episode, that “we’re just clones…we’re meant to be expendable.”  

Is that true?

If so, one can tie this comment from a clone to the notion of slaves in the Republic and see that nobody, not even the Jedi, have clean hands. The series thus asks -- at least occasionally -- whether it is right for a society to maintain, essentially, second class citizens.

The episodes of The Clone Wars that I have watched are not overly deep, it is true. But they at least touch tangentially on these issues of importance in the Star Wars universe. They add color and texture to places and people that, in the movies, were afforded no such color or texture.

The second and perhaps more noticeable virtue in The Clone Wars involves the visuals.  

They are often, as far as I can determine from my viewing, simply breath-taking.  

“Gungan Attack” -- which features an underwater war between the Separatists and the people of Admiral (here Captain…) Ackbar, is positively stunning in its imagery. Huge alien and mechanical armies battle beneath the sea with giant machines, robots, and vessels, and light-sabers swinging everywhere.

The whole set-piece resembles some brilliantly imaginative 1930s era pulp cover, and one Separatist ship in the episode even boasts the large “eyeball” windows, it looks like, of Disney’s Nautilus in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954).

Actually, I really admired this story a great deal because the visuals are superb, and the touches of continuity-- Ackbar, Mon Calamari, and Gungans -- suggest a fidelity to all eras of the franchise.

The episode captured the essence of Star Wars, in my opinion. That essence consists of splendidly-realized action-adventure in an unusual setting (wild alien planets or environments) -- combined with a knowing pastiche of earlier science fiction images, re-purposed for maximum excitement.

Are there some aspects of The Clone Wars that give me pause? 

I suppose so. I have a bit of trouble with the Battle Droids, who act crazy and function as overt comic relief, but never really project a genuine menace. I fail to understand why the Separatists make their battle droids talkative blunderers with bad aim.

But the bottom line is this:  I wish I had about fifty hours to kill, right now, to watch the whole series from start to finish. 

Perhaps, after I watch more, I’ll find something to really dislike in Clone Wars, but for right now, I’m hoping that Joel swings back to a fascination with Star Wars so we have the opportunity to watch the whole series together start to finish. 

Don't forget to ask me your questions at

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Filmmaking

Hooray for Hollywood! The world of filmmaking has frequently been seen in cult-television programming of all stripes. 

In The Twilight Zone (1959 – 1964) episode “A World of Difference,” for example, a business-man named Arthur Curtis (Howard Duff) suddenly discovers that his life is not real at all, but a movie.  In particular, he’s an actor working on a film titled “The Private Life of Arthur Curtis,” and his real name is Gerry Raigan.

An episode of Gerry Anderson’s UFO (1969 – 1970) called “Mindbender” finds Commander Straker (Ed Bishop) fall under the influence of an alien device that alters his sense of reality. In the middle of an argument with General Henderson (Grant Taylor), Straker hears a director call “cut” and finds himself not in SHADO Headquarters, but on a set of headquarters.  He looks out to see the crew of a production…filming him. Summoning all his faculties, Straker must will himself back into the real world, and out of the world of filmmaking.

One episode of Ghost Story/Circle of Fear (1973) late during its run, “Graveyard Shift” involved a night watchman (John Astin) who discovers that the Fillmore Studio Lot is haunted by the ghosts of a movie that was never shown.  This episode features a cameo by real life producer William Castle, as the head of Fillmore Studios.

In V: The Series (1984 – 1985), the L.A. Resistance, following the death of Nathan Bates (Lane Smith) briefly hid out in an abandoned movie studio, in the episode “The Rescue.”

In 1985, one episode of Steven Spielberg’s anthology Amazing Stories (1985 – 1987) was called “Mummy, Daddy” and involved a horror movie that was shooting on location when the man playing the Mummy was called away -- while still in costume -- for the delivery of his child.  Unfortunately, the local town people thought he was a real Mummy, and began to pursue him…

On The X-Files (1993 – 2002), one episode -- directed by David Duchovny – saw Mulder and Scully (Gillian Anderson) visit Hollywood for a film version of one of the investigations.  In “Hollywood A.D.,” Garry Shandling played the movie version of Mulder, and Tea Leoni was Scully.

In the third season episode of Millennium (1996 – 1999), titled “Thirteen Years Later,” Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) and his partner Emma Hollis (Klea Scott) investigate a murder on the set of a low-budget horror film.

Recently, Smallville (2001 – 2011) featured an episode titled “Action” about a “Warrior Angel” film being shot on Clark’s farm.

The Cult-TV Faces of: Filmmaking

Identified by SGB: The Twilight Zone: "A World of Difference"

Identified by SGB: UFO: "Mindbender."



Identified by SGB: Automan.

Identified by SGB: Amazing Stories: "Mummy, Daddy."

Identified by Hugh: The Animaniacs.

Identified by Mr. C: The X-Files: "Hollywood A.D."


Identified by SGB: Smallville: "Action."

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

“Let them be helpless like children because weakness is a great thing, and strength is nothing.  When a man is born, he is weak and flexible. When he dies, he is hard and insensitive. When a tree is growing, it is tender and pliant. But when it is dry and hard, it dies. Hardness and strength are death’s companions. Pliancy and weakness are expressions of the freshness of being, because what has hardened will never win.”

Stalker (1979)

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) Trailer

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Outré Intro: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 - 1981)

Airing on NBC-TV as the Star Wars craze went into full swing, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 - 1981) updated the legendary Nowlan character (originally featured in Amazing Stories in 1928, and then in newspaper comic strips) for the disco decade. The series starred Gil Gerard as Buck, Erin Gray as Wilma Deering and Tim O'Connor as Doctor Huer, and ran for two seasons and over thirty episodes.

The introductory montage for the series was altered slightly for its second season to comport with cast changes, but many images remained the same as those featured below (culled from the series' first year).  

The Buck Rogers montage commences with a brand of information age or high-tech overload: a composition featuring three split-screens simultaneously. 

And like the opening montage of The Six Million Dollar Man (1973 -1978), the images chart a technological, space-age mishap, and the ramifications of that mishap on one human being.  In both cases, this human being impacted is a pilot/astronaut.

Specifically, as the narrator (William Conrad in season one) informs us, in the year 1987, America launched Ranger 3, the last of its "deep space probes."  The craft is piloted by William "Buck" Rogers.

The next series of images (still split-screen), showcase Buck's shuttle, Ranger 3, approaching some kind of anomaly or distortion in space which freezes his life support systems, and hurtles him into a wider which does not return him to Earth for 500 years.  The images of the distortion/phenomenon overtake the images of technological accomplishment.

The next images depart completely from the technological sheen of the earlier split screen compositions documenting mission failure.

Now, we see an unconscious Buck Rogers superimposed over a kind of mystical or cosmic vortex -- representing Time Itself -- as he sleeps for five hundred years in a fast-frozen state.  The time meter at the bottom of the screen -- heretofore steady at 1987 -- begins to tick rapidly, as Buck sleeps well into the distant future.

As Buck continues to sleep, we see him passing or descending through concentric "rings" of futuristic imagery, rings that represent images of his journey into a new time period.  I have always thought of these rings as being like those of a tree interior, charting a time-line or life.  Only in this case, the rings show not age, but a journey ahead.

Specifically, the imagery shows us a space ship (Ardala's yacht), a starfighter launch corridor, the post-Holocaust ruins of Chicago (called Anarchia), and finally, the metropolis of New Chicago.

In the next images, we get our title screen, as the time meter stops at the year 2491.

Below the title screen, we meet our cast members inside the concentric rings or circles, images which represent both Buck's journey through time and the shape, incidentally, of his computerized friend, Dr. Theopolis.

Finally a shot of our likable and charming hero, now fully ensconced in his new life in the 25th century.

You can see the montage in living color below, though it is from the second season of the series and features a different narrator.

Below that video, you can see South Park's rendition of this famous opening montage.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: BraveStarr: "The Taking of Thistledown 123"

In “The Taking of Thistledown 123,” a visiting galactic ambassador suggests that New Texas needs no marshal, and that no threat exists from the planet’s bandits such as Tex Hex. In fact, the alien ambassador would very much like to end BraveStarr’s tenure on the planet.

But when Tex Hex captures Thistledown 123, the largest Kerium freighter in the galaxy, and kidnaps the ambassador, the diplomat has cause to reconsider his point-of view.  As the alien’s atmosphere supply runs low, BraveStarr and his friends plot a daring rescue.

As is plain from the episode’s title, “The Taking of Thistledown 123” harks back to the 1974 Joseph Sargent film, The Taking of Pelham 123, which concerned criminals taking over a busy New York City subway and demanding ransom for the passengers.

In this case, the story has been translated to the future and another world all together, but some key aspects of the narrative remain.  We have the commandeered vehicle and hostages in danger, specifically.

BraveStarr also seems to have inherited Star Trek’s (1966 – 1969) intense and frequent dislike of diplomats, and in almost knee-jerk fashion. 

In episodes such as “A Taste of Armageddon” and “Mark of Gideon” in original Trek, diplomats proved so irritating that even the calm and cool Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) disliked and verbally upbraided them.  Similarly, the ambassador in “Thistledown” is obviously not thinking straight when he plans to remove BraveStarr from service on this dangerous frontier planet. 

Unfortunately, the ambassador’s plans are not borne out by facts or by reason. A quick review of Fort Kerium’s arrest records would reveal, in detail, just why a lawman is a necessity on this dangerous world.  

But the ambassador is present in this BraveStarr episode to create drama and conflict, and ultimately admit that BraveStarr is “The right man for the job.” It’s all a little facile, even for a kid’s show.  Kids know that the series isn’t going to relocate the Marshall, or get rid of him, since he is the main character.

Perhaps the most unique aspect of this BraveStarr story is the fact that the alien ambassador is endangered by his own life-support requirements.  He breathes an atmosphere different from the humanoid beings on New Texas, and so if BraveStarr can’t rescue him in time, he will run low on atmosphere and die.  This idea adds some nice “countdown”-type tension to the story.

In terms of artist design, "The Taking of Thistledown 123" is a mixed bag, in my estimation.  The Kerium freighter looks great, but the ambassador is a bit too fanciful looking for my taste.

The "lesson" of the week in the episode's post-script is about working together, or "teamwork."

Next week: “No Drums, No Trumpets.”

Saturday Morning Cult-Blogging: Godzilla (1978): The Earth Eater"

In “The Earth Eater,” the second episode of the Hanna-Barbera/Toho Godzilla cartoon collaboration for NBC, San Francisco is falling into the Earth.  Even the Golden Gate Bridge is imperiled.

Before long, the Calico arrives in the city because Dr. Darrien is scheduled to speak at a scientist convention there. 

When the ship arrives, the crew sees that the city is being evacuated, and that people are leaving it en masse. Godzilla arrives to shore up the bridge and save the refugees.

Meanwhile, Quinn and the crew note that some city blocks look normal, while others are now huge sinkholes. Quinn concludes that the city is being devoured one block at a time.

Godzooky and Pete go down into a sink-hole and find out that a light-sensitive goliath -- an “earth eater” -- is the monster responsible for all the destruction.

When the crew loses the Godzilla distress button, it’s up to Godzooky to call to him…and bring the monster to do combat with this new enemy.

“The Earth Eater” is set in San Francisco (not entirely unlike a game-play arena in Godzilla Unleashed, the 2007 video game…) and the most interesting part of the episode, perhaps, is seeing Godzilla stomp around in these particular American environs.  The episode features views not only of the Golden Gate Bridge, but Alcatraz, Fisherman’s Wharf and the Transamerica Pyramid building.  The city's trademark cable cars also make an appearance as a handy escape vehicle.

As seems typical of the series, there’s no explanation offered why the Earth Eater exists, or why he should appear at this juncture of modern history.  A key aspect of Godzilla’ legend, of course, is that he is an avatar for modern atomic warfare or power.

If the monsters in this cartoon series had similar origins, based on modern life, it would have been far more intriguing and worthwhile.  Today, the Earth Eater could be a byproduct of fracking, for instance, though in 1978, perhaps just irresponsible or aggressive mining.  At least such a story would have a point, a context beyond monsters appearing, and Godzilla pinch-hitting for the imperiled human race.

But the cartoon series never strives to offer much contextualization, even though Saturday morning, at that time period in history, often included didactic messages about the environment or appropriate moral/social behavior (see: Land of the Lost).  Here the monsters merely show up, and Godzilla battles them to a stand-still, and then defeat.

The exact nature of the Earth Eater threat is uncertain too.  The creature can shoot beams from his antennae that resemble those telepathic rings that emanate from Aqua Man on The Super Friends.  These beams -- which pulp buildings -- which goes unexplained. 

But weirder still than that touch is the fact that “water” is described as The Earth Eater's “natural enemy.”  When the Earth Eater goes into the bay, it is destroyed…transformed into a big mud-slick.  

So what does the creature drink, if not water? How does it hydrate itself?  The episode doesn’t do that much thinking about its central threat, and that seems a shame since the series heroes are mostly scientists, who show a curiosity for the world around them.

Finally, a weird adult joke, right under the surface: At one point, Godzilla battles the Earth Eater in front of a sign that reads Butz Root Beer.  Butz?