Saturday, July 2, 2005

The Filling Station

Today in the United States, if one is going to fill his or her car with gas, it will most likely be at a convenience store where he or she will pump the gas himself or herself. Gas stations, where attendants would wash one's windsheild, check one's oil, and pump the gas, have become relatively rare, at least compared to the number of them in the past.

It is not known precisely where or even when the first gas station opened in the United States. Some believe that it was opened in St. Louis, Missouri by the St. Louis Automobile Gasoline Company (a subsidiary of Shell) in 1905. Others argue that it was opened by SOCAL in Seattle, Washington in 1907. Either way, these were not gas stations as we know them today. At this time the gasoline was stored in a can kept behind the station. When someone needed gas, one of the station's employees would grab the can and go fill the car up. It would not be until 1913 that the Gulf Refining Company would open the first filling station as we know them in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This was the first gas station at which cars would be driven up to gas pumps to be filled. It was also the first station designed by an architect and the first station to give away road maps. On that first day they only sold 30 gallons of gas! It was not long before filling stations with their often distinctive gas pumps dotted the streets and highways of the United States.

It was also not very long before many filling stations expanded their services beyond filling gas, checking oil, and washing windshields. In fact, for much of the 20th century most gas stations would also have garages where oil could be changed and repairs to cars made. Such filling stations were called "service stations." The average service station sold little beyond gasoline and various products and services related to automotive upkeep (changing oil, airing up tyres, and so on). At most they might sell cigarettes, candy bars, and soda. Regardless, competition between filling stations was intense for much of the 20th century. Eventually, they would use various gimmicks to help sell gas. Among the earliest of these was the distinctive architecture of filling stations. A Mobil station would look different from an Esso station, which would look different from a Texaco station. Some service stations would go even further. Most Sinclair stations feature a statue of their mascot, Dino the brontosaurus, in front of their stations. Others adopted somewhat bizarre designs. In Seattle the Hat and Boots gas station is shaped like a cowboy hat; its restrooms are shaped like boots. By the 1950s many stations would offer various promotions. Among the most famous were the Green Stamps which could be redeemed for various merchandise.

One means the various petroleum companies had of promoting their stations were their various logos and mascots. Indeed, here in the United States the tallest signs one would see along the road were often those of gas stations. While some of the more famous logos and mascots have fallen into disuse, many are still around. Mobil still uses its red Pegasus or "flying horse" logo. Among the most famous advertising mascots is still Sinclair's green apatosaurus, Dino. As mentioned above, Sinclair stations sometimes even feature a model of him. Esso (now Exxon) was known for its running tiger. Shell has its famous yellow "shell" logo. Standard Oil of Indiana (later Amoco) used a red, white, and blue oval and torch design. Among the most famous petroluem company logos was the Texaco star. Featured prominently each week on The Milton Berle Show and later The Donald O'Connor Show, it is even mentioned in a song ("Walkaway Joe" by Don Henley).

It was not long after World War II that factors arose which would see an end to the service station as it had been for most of the 20th century. The first self-serve gas station was opened in 1930 by the Hoosier Petroleum Company, but the company's self-serve stations lasted only briefly. The fire marshal shut them down, maintaining they were a fire hazard! In 1947, however, Frank Ulrich opened a self-serve gas station in Los Angeles. Ulrich sold 500,000 gallons during the station's first month of operation. Other self-serve stations would open, first in California, then spreading to the Southwest and Southeast. Self-serve gas stations did not take off for some time. In the early Seventies the majority of filling stations were still full service. Eventually, however, the tables would turn and self-serve stations would outnumber full service stations.

Another factor which would see the decline of the full service filling station was the birth of the convenience store. In May 1927 Southland opened its first convenience store. The idea occurred to Jefferson Green, who ran the Southland Ice Dock in Oak Cliff, Texas, that he could make money by selling such necessities as milk, eggs, and bread after the local grocery stores had closed. From Green's idea and that first convenience store rose the 7-Eleven chain. Those early convenience stores were not open 24 hours--the 7-Eleven chain takes its name from the hours its stores were originally open. It would not be until 1961 that the first 24 hour convenience store would open. They also did not sell gasoline. The growth of the convenience store industry was slow prior to World War II. In fact, the term "convenience store" had not even been coined yet (it would not be until the Sixties). All of this changed following the Second World War. The number of Americans owning automobiles increased. So too did the number of Americans living in the suburbs. The convenience store industry began a period of rapid growth for those reasons. By the Seventies, most towns could boast at least one convenience store. In the interim many convenience stores started selling gasoline. This was more or less an outgrowth of the self-serve gas station. Eventually convenience stores would push out the full service stations.

While self-serve gas stations and convenience stores took their toll on the traditional filling stations, it was the energy crisis of the early Seventies that did the most damage to them. At that time shortages caused gasoline prices to rise significantly for the first time in literally years. As a result people tended to drive less, which meant, of course, that they were buying less gas. Many, many full service stations closed at this time. The self-serve stations managed to survive as they did not have to pay attendants to pump gas. The convenience stores survived as they had many other goods to sell. But the full service filling stations were hit pretty hard. To give one an idea of the impact of the energy crisis of the early Seventies, Huntsville once had three full service gas stations. We now have none (a convenience store and the local supermarket have taken their place). In fact, in the entire county I think there may be only one full service station left, and they don't even have a garage where they can repair cars!

I have to say that I miss full service gas stations. I must admit that I don't mind pumping my own gas (on the farm on which I grew up we had our own gas tank, so I often pumped my own gas anyhow). And I must say that I do like being able to pick up a soda or candy bars while getting gasoline at a convenience store. That having been said, there is also something to be said for sitting in one's car while an attendant fills his or her car with gas and washes the windshield. It has also impressed me as being pretty logical for the place where one gets his or her gas to also be the place where he or she can have his oil changed or his car repaired. While convenience stores are very nice, I think when the full service stations started to close en masse in the Seventies, the United States lost something very special.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Les Belles Dames Sans Merci: Elf Maidens and Men

"Why am I standing here,
Missing Her and wishing She were here?"
(Tommy Boyce, Bobby Hart, "She," originally performed by The Monkees)

"Midnight, on the water
I saw the Ocean's daughter...."
(Jeff Lynne, "I Can't Get It Out of My Head," from the Electric Light Orchesta album Eldorado)

Maybe it is because of what happened exactly a month ago (She still hasn't emailed or IMed me) or because of the anthology of poems I checked out from work, but today my mind is on the folklore motif in which a mortal man becomes entangled with an elf maiden or fairy princess. The tales about such encounters tend to vary. Sometimes the tales end happily. The fellow goes away to live with the fairy maiden in Faerie for the rest of his days or only for a specified amount of time (usually seven years). Other times the tales end unhappily. The man violates some taboo that the fairy maiden has set for him and winds up unable to return to Faerie or he winds up dead. Other times the fairy maiden simply destroys the mortal. Regardless, the motif of the fairy mistress or fairy bride is a common one.

Modern day fairy lore developed largely out of both Germanic and Celtic mythology. In Germanic mythology we find the elves, called in Old Norse the Álfar and in Old English the Ylfe. Among the ancient Germanic peoples the elves were hardly mere fairy folk, but for all extents and purposes minor gods. In Old Norse literature they are sometimes named together with the major gods, the phrase "the Æsir and Álfar" appearing in some of the Eddic poems. In the Old English charm "Against a Sudden Stitch" the elves are also mentioned in proximity to the major gods. Indeed, sacrifices were even offered to the elves. In ancient Scandinavia the Álfablót was held once year, at which offerings were given to them. While sacrifices were made to the elves in hopes of receiving their blessings, it seems that they also had their dark side as well. Scandinavian, English, and Continental sources credit them with causing diseases, usually through elfshot (the tiny arrows fired by the elves). Off the top of my head I can recall no sources dating from the time when the ancient Germanic peoples were still heathen or shortly after they were converted to Christianity in which an elf took a mortal as a lover. Regardless, it is possible that such tales existed. The Huldufolk of Icelandic and Scandinavian folk tales would seem to be a degenerated form of the elves of ancient myth, and there are tales in which the Huldufolk do seduce mortals. Similarly, in medieval English folk tales, as will be seen below, the elves do ocassionally take mortals as lovers.

Among the Irish, the fairy folk (known as the Sidhe) are identified with the Túathe dé Danann, the major gods worshipped by the Irish when they were still pagan. Unlike the Germanic peoples, there are some tales which could date back to the days before the Irish were converted in which one of the Sidhe seduced a mortal. One such story concerns Oisin, the bard of the Fianna (the legendary band of warriors led by Finn MacCumhail). One day Oisin saw a woman riding over the western sea on a white horse. She introduced herself as Niamh and told Oisin that she loved him. She wanted him to go with her to Tir na n' Og, the Land of Eternal Youth, where they would spend their days together. Oisin consented and so he went with her to Tir na n' Og. There he was happier than he ever had been. He loved Niamh and in Tir na n' Og he did not age nor suffer from diseases. Many, many years later (perhaps 100, perhaps 1000), however, he wished to visit Ireland again. Niamh begged him not to go, but when he would not relent, she gave him her blessing. She told him, however, that he must never dismount from the white horse (the one she had ridden to Ireland) or he would never see Tir na n' Og again. Oisin journeyed to Ireland on the white horse, all the while careful not to leave the horse's back. There came one day, however, when he did leave the horse's back. Either he thought he saw the stone trough of the Fianna and got off to inspect it, or he tried to help some men lift a stone and slipped off the horse. Regardless, the moment Oisin hit the earth, he aged in a matter of seconds. Oisin became an old man, half blind and infirm. He died not long after.

Oisin was not the only Celtic hero who met his doom after an encounter with an otherworldly maiden. Those familiar with the Arthurian cycle will know that no less than Merlin himself did so. According to the legends, Merlin became infatuated with the otherworldly maiden variously called Niniune, Nyneune, Viviane, or Vivian, often identified with the Lady of the Lake. Eventually she would beguile him in the forrest of Broceliande and imprison him there. Of course, not every character in the Arthurian mythos who encountered an otherwordly maiden met a bitter end. The story of Arthur's steward, Sir Launfal, is told in the 12th century French lay Launval, in Thomas Chestre's Middle English lay Sir Launfal, and other sources. Launfal had the misfortune of being disliked by Queen Guenevere. Because of this, he left King Arthur's court. Unfortunately, things did not improve for him. He was so generous to the poor that eventually he had given away all his money and lived in poverty. Fortunately, he eventually encountered a fairy lady, called in some sources Tryamour. Tryamour had noted his generosity and desired such a knight to serve her. Launfal consented to do so and Tryamour swore him to secrecy. She also restored his wealth. After winning a tournament, King Arthur called for Launfal to once more serve as his steward. It was perhaps a bad decision on Launfal's part that he chose to return to Arthur. At a dance Guenevere insulted Launfal and he forgot his oath to Tryamour. He boasted of being in the service of a fairy princess. Having violated his oath, he lost his wealth. Worse yet, even Arthur was angry with him. Perceval and Gawain swore to help Launfal and went forth to find Tryamour so she could save him. Eventually Tryamour showed up at King Arthur's court, where she put Guenevere to shame. She then took Launfal to Fairyland, where he spent the rest of his days.

The story of Sir Launfal resembles the tale of the Bretonic knight Graelent to a great degree. In both stories, the knights are sworn to secrecy by a fairy princess. In both they violate their oaths and reveal the existence of their fairy princesses. And in both does the fairy princess eventually save them and take them to Faerie. Such happy endings are not unusual. And in not every tale does the hero remain in the realm of the fairies. In the medieval ballad "True Thomas,." Thomas the Rhymer gets to visit Elfland and yet return to Scotland. Thomas the Rhymer, also known as Thomas of Erceldoune, was a legendary, 13th century Scottish figure who was known for his gift of prophecy. He could be found uner the Eildon Tree, from where he would give people his wisdom. In "True Thomas," he encounters the queen of Elfland, who wishes him to serve her there for seven years. Thomas consents and journeys with her to Elfland. There she tries to give him an apple from one of the trees from Elfland; however, Thomas knows that if a mortal eats anything from Elfland, then he or she won't be able to return to the mortal world. Thomas refuses the apple and returns to Scotland after his seven years of service are over.

Such a happy ending was not in store for the Knight of Stauftenberg of German legend. He had the misfortune to encounter a nymph of the Rhine, with whom he fell hopelessly in love. She got from him an oath of eternal loyalty, so that he could never love any other. Through the coming months he remained faithful to her. Finally, he won a tournament in which the winner would receive the hand of the Emperor's daughter in marriage. The Knight told the Emperor of his oath to the nymph, but the Emperor told him such an oath with an "unholy" being could be dissolved by the Archbishop with no consequences. The archbishop dissolved the oath and the knight forgot about his Rhine nymph. At the feast of the wedding between the knight and the Emperor's daughter, however, the knight was overtaken by horror. He rushed from the hall into the woods. Three days later he was found dead there.

Such stories did not end with the Middle Ages. Many of the older stories would be retold by modern poets. John Keats would create his own tale in the poem "La Belle Dame Sans Merci." In the poem a knight tells how he encountered a "faery's child" who seduced him. The two made love and as they slept on the moss, he had a most terrible dream. He dreamt of "pale kings, and princes too...pale warriors, death pale...," who warned him that "La belle Dame sans merci" had him in thrall. He awakened to find his elven maiden gone. Afterward he sojourned on the hill, apparently heart broken and awaiting her return, and as wasted as the "pale kings" of which he dreamt.

The motif of the mortal man who falls in love with an otherworldly maiden is less common in modern literature and song, although it does still appear from time to time. In The Lord of the Rings Aragorn loves the elf maiden Arwen. Eventually, she will forsake her immortality to marry him (sort of a reverse of the legends, an elf going to live with a mortal in his world). In WeaveWorld by Clive Barker Cal Moody falls in love with Suzanna, a woman is part mortal, part Seerkind. Eventually their meeting would lead to Cal experiencing the world of the Seerkind. In the song "The Rain, the Park, and Other Things," by the Cowsills, the hero falls in love with the mysterious "flower girl," who appears with the rain and disappears when it is over. In "I Can't Get It Out of My Head," by the Electric Light Orchestra, the singer finds himself obsessed with the "Ocean's daughter." Even "Hotel California," by The Eagles, can be considered a variant on the theme. Our hero is welcomed to the hotel by a beautiful woman, only the Hotel California proves to be a nightmarish place rather than the paradise that Faerie is usually described as being.

Given the number of these tales in which an otherworldly maiden leads to a man's destruction, some might view these tales as arising out of misogyny. I disagree. First, for every tale in which a fairy maiden sees a man to his doom, there is one in which there is a happy ending. Launfal and Graelent both spend their days with their lady loves in Fairyland. Second, there are also many tales in which a mortal woman is seduced by a supernatural being and comes to a bitter end, or nearly so. The Greek myths are filled with instances in which one of the gods falls in love with a mortal woman, the woman usually suffering for it. In the medieval tale of Sir Orfeo, Orfeo must go to Faerie to rescue his beloved, who fell under the spell of a fairy lord. Indeed, perhaps the best known encounter between a mortal and a supernatural being is "Little Riding Hood (and before some of you protest that the Wolf is not a supernatural being, consider this--how many wolves have you encountered can talk and masquerade as one's grandmother?)." Given that many tales feature a mortal woman seduced by a supernarual male, it would seem that they are more a warning of becoming involved with supernatural entities than an attack on women. Third, in many of the tales in which the hero comes to a bitter end, it is often through his own doing. He violates some taboo or oath. Oisin stepped off the horse. The Knight of Staufenberg broke his troth with the nymph. In such cases, the mortal man is obviously at fault.

Rather than misogyny, I think these myths and tales are actually a metaphor for the process of falling in love. Every man who has fallen in love views his ladylove as something more than she is. Though she might appear a normal woman to others, for the man who loves her she is an elvan maiden, a fairy princess, a goddess, a being from out of the ordinary. These tales portray the consequences of falling in love with such extraordinary beings. Sometimes the ending is happy. The hero spends the rest of his days with the fairy maiden in Fairyland, perhaps a metaphor for when love goes well--men and women marry and live happily ever after. Other times, either through his own doing or that of his lover, the hero is destroyed. This is a metaphor for love gone bad--either the man or the woman is untrue in some way and it leads to dire consequences. With regards to the tales of fairy maidens seducing mortal men, Greek gods seducing mortal women, and so on, I think that they express the hopes and fears people have with regards to love. Love is a force which can make one ecstatically happy or make one terribly unhappy. It can create or destroy one depending upon how his or her situation unfolds. Indeed, I must confess that I know all too well the dangers of elven princesses...

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Ender's Game

Beyond the Dune novels and Snow Crash, it had been quite some time since I had read a science fiction novel. With the exception of a few authors (Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein. Neal Stephenson, William Gibson, and so on), it has long seemed to me that many sci-fi books place too much emphasis on the science and not enough on the character. I have to admit that for a long time I resisted reading Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card for that reason, especially when one of my friends who favours the "science over people" type of hard science fiction recommended it to me. Fortunately, reading an anthology of Card's short stories and a recommendation for the novel from a very pretty lady friend whose tastes are close to mine changed my mind. I must say that I was very pleasantly surprised. Ender's Game is not, in my humble opinion, the typical science fiction novel.

The concept behind Ender's Game is deceptively simple. Twice before an alien species simply referred to as "the buggers (we have no idea what they call themselves)" have attacked Earth and nearly wiped mankind out. To insure human survival, the government then started breeding strategic and tatical geniuses. The most promising of these geniuses is young Andrew "Ender" Wiggin, a prodigy on whom the government has pinned all its hopes for saving us from the next "bugger" invasion. Like many of these young geniuses, Ender is sent to the Battle School, a space station in the asteroid belt where they are trained for battle. There much of the training takes the form of games, whether video games as we know them or mock battles between the cadets (for lack of a better term). As the most promising of the world's prodigies, Ender is expected to save the world from the next bugger invasion.

Ender's Game follows Ender through his training and the changes it brings to his life. Indeed, much of the novel is told through Ender's eyes. It is perhaps the most character driven science fiction novel I have read in a long, long time. The character of Ender is wonderfully realised, as we see him grow from a somewhat pathetic little boy, pushed around by his older brother and even other classmates, to a somewhat stronger, if not yet confident, young cadet. In fact, Orson Scott Card seems to have a gift for creating realistic characters, as there is no character in the book who is not three dimensional. Every one of the characters has his or her own motivations, his or her own agenda, his or her own unique personality. The plot is almost entirely propelled by the demands of the characters and not the other way around.

Orson Scott Card has also created a world that could conceivably exist if aliens did attempt to invade the earth twice over. Through snatches of dialogue here and there, we learn the current political state of the world and what shape the world is in now. He outlines the training that prospective military commanders receive very well and that training is realistically conceived given the circumstances of the world. The technology is very realistic as well and some of it will seem downright familiar. There are games remniscent of our own video role playing games we have today, not to mention the "nets," which would seem to correspond to the World Wide Web. First printed in 1985, Card seems to have taken the existing technology at the time and followed it to its logical conclusion.

If Orson Scott Card has one weakness, at least in Ender's Game, it is that it is sometimes hard to keep track of who is saying what. Often in the novel there will be long sequences of dialogue in which the reader is only given a few indicators as to who is speaking at any given time. This can be annoying at times, although it is a minor quibble on my part. The book's strengths far outweigh its weaknesses.

Ender's Game is definitely not your father's sci-fi novel. Through the tale of a young boy being trained to be the saviour of the world, Card makes some very acute observations about the nature of military thinking, the necessity of hardships in learning, and various other aspects of the human condition. Although its basic premise is simple (young boy training to be military commnder), Ender's Game is a novel with a fully realised and realistic world where characters have their own agendas and where they are the focus, not the science or technology. Anyone who enjoys sci-fi where characters are the primary concern should enjoy Ender's Game.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Space: 1999

Last week I watched a few episodes from the first season of Space: 1999 on DVD. I'm guessing it may have been the first time in over twenty years that I had seen any episode of the series. I watched the show loyally when I was a teenager. KRCG aired it on Saturday nights, right before Star Trek, for many years. For those of you who don't know, Space: 1999 was a British series created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, famous for such Supermarionation series as Fireball XL-5, Thunderbirds Are Go, and Stingray (for those of you wondering what Supermarionation is, I can only point you to the recent movie Team America: World Police). Space: 1999 was a live action series in which the moon had been ripped out of its orbit by nuclear explosions. The moon, and with it Moonbase Alpha, was sent hurling through space, where the people of Moonbase Alpha would encounter both strange civilisations and strange phenomena. It debuted in September 1975.

Space: 1999 grew out of the Andersons' first live action series, an alien invasion show called UFO. Ratings dropped off for that series in America during its first and only season, leading to its cancellation. Despite the failure of UFO to win the hearts of viewers, Lord Lew Grade believed that another sci-fi series could be a hit. He then contacted Gerry and Sylvia Anderson about creating another science fiction show. Financing was provided by ITC (Incorporated Television Company) and the Italian network RAI. The Andersons already had a script for a pilot called Zero-G. Their first script consultant, George Bellak, reworked this script into The Void Ahead--this would eventually become the pilot episode "Breakaway." In the process, however, Gerry Anderson and Bellak found themselves constantly at odds. Eventually, Bellak was fired. Christopher Penfold took over as script consultant. He appointed American writer Johnny Byrne as story editor.

From the outset it was decided that Space: 1999 would be designed to appeal to Americans. American actors Martin Landau and Barbara Bain (both from the popular series Mission: Impossible) were cast in the lead roles of Commander John Koenig and Dr. Helena Russell respectively. American writers, such as Johnny Byrne and Art Wallace, were brought onboard the project. Even many of the series' directors were American, such as Lee H. Katzin. The goal was for the Americans to provide an American viewpoint, thus insuring that the show would be poplular in the United States.

As to the show's budget, Space: 1999 would be the most expensive series of its sort ever produced up to that time. Its average episode cost $300,000. Indeed, the episode "War Games" was for a time the most expensive single episode ever produced for a TV series. In terms of producton, Space: 1999 got only the very best. Brian Johnson provided the show's special effects. Johnson had provided FX for many of the Hammer films, inlcuding Phanton of the Opera, Taste the Blood of Dracula, and Moon Zero Two. He was also an effects assistant on 2001: a Space Odyssey and did FX for The Dirty Dozen and A Clockwork Orange. With regards to television, he had worked on several of the Andersons' series (Fireball XL5 and Thunderbirds are Go among them). Eventually he would do the special effects for Alien, Aliens, Legend, and other big budget sci-fi/fantasy movies of the Eighties. The sets looked functonal and realistic in a way that those on Star Trek and even Star Trek: the Next Generation never did.

Unfortunately, for a time it appeared that all of this could have been for naught. American sales were necessary to the survival of Space: 1999 and none of the American networks (at the time, NBC, CBS, and ABC) had expressed interest in the series. Fortunately, ITC arrived at the novel approach of selling Space: 1999 directly to American TV stations through syndication. ITC then launched what could have been the most extensive advertising campaign to sell a series to local television stations in the United States. ITC salesmen went forth armed with a print of the pilot episode "Breakaway" and an extensive brochure on the series. The campaign worked. Space: 1999 was sold to 155 markets in the United States. Some of these stations even aired it in primetime pre-empting network shows. Ultimately, Space: 1999 would reach 96% of all American homes with television.

The campaign to sell Space: 1999 to stations was followed by a campaign to sell it to the American viewing public. Special screenings were shown across the United States in September 1975. Martin Landau and Barbara Bain made a tour of various American cities, where they screened the series for the press and answered questions. TV stations were provided with some of the slickest commercials ever made to promote a TV show. The commercials were shown fairly often, at least on KRCG and the other Missouri stations that aired the show. With the amount of promotion given the series, it should be no surprise that it was initially a hit. Space: 1990 did very well in many markets across the United States. Its ratings were fairly high for a syndicated series at the beginning.

Unfortunately, the show did produce many critics, particularly in the science fiction community. Perhaps the most obvious criticism was that its concept was preposterous. Even someone with the tiniest bit of knowledge of science would know that the moon could not be blasted out of its orbit around the earth to go hurling through space at speeds faster than light. Various pundits in the sci-fi community also levelled charges that the shaky science of Space: 1999 did not end with the unbelievable basis for the show. They pointed out that in the series sound travelled in a vacuum (in reality it doesn't) and parsec was being used as a measurement of velocity rather than a measurement of distance. More serious criticisms of the series emerged from both those within and without the sci-fi community. Perhaps the most common was that its lead characters were wooden, little more than the stock characters found in any poorly done sci-fi movie. Another criticism was that the scripts were poorly written. Many derided the scripts for lacking humour or even good pacing.

Whether because of the show's various crtics or because the novelty of the series simply wore off, Space: 1999 faltered in the ratings as its first season wore on. For that reason it was decided that changes would be made with the second season. American producer Fred Freiberger was brought in to retool the series. Among the changes Freiberger made was the introduction of two new characters. One was Security Chief Tony Verdeschi. The other was Maya, an alien from the planet Psychon who was capable of changing her shape. Freiberger dismissed some of the original cast. Barry Morse (who played local science expert Professor Bergman) would leave due to a salary dispute. Main Mission, which had served as the nerve centre for Moonbase Alpha, was replaced by the new Command Centre. New uniforms were also provided to the crew. Perhaps the biggest change was in the emphasis of the episodes. Where the show once explored metaphysics and the human equation, it was now a straight forward adventure series. Indeed, it became much lighter in tone. Whereas once the Alphans were constantly seeking a way home, now they seemed content to battle the latest aliens to menace them.

The changes won over none of the show's original critics, who simply charged that the new episodes were simply mediocre adventure stories. What was worse, even the show's original, most ardent supporters were not pleased. Nearly everyone pointed out the obvious lapses in continuity. Tony Verdeschi had never appeared in the first season and had never even been referred to. No explanation was given for Professor Bergman no longer being on Alpha. How did they get the material for new uniforms in the middle of deep space? And how did they get the material to build the new Command Centre? With the second season even some of the show's biggest fans stopped watching it. It should be no surprise that it fell drastically in the ratings. As a result, syndication sales in America for a proposed third season were much lower than hand been hoped for. For that reason, Space: 1999 ended with its third season.

Since that time very little has been seen of Space: 1999. The show's reruns continued for a time in syndication. I think KRCG here in mid-Missouri may have shown it until 1980. Unfortunately, ITC decided to cull various episodes for release as telefilms, some of which were shown in theatres overseas. Destination: Moonbase Alpha was essentially a re-editing of the two part episode from the second season "Bringers of Wonder." Alien Attack combined "Breakaway" with "War Games." Journey Through the Black Sun blended "Collision Course" with "Black Sun."Finally, Cosmic Princess combined "The Metamorph (the episode that introduced Maya)" with "Space Warp." These episodes were pulled from the syndication package, reducing the series' to a 40 episode run and making it less attractive to TV stations. This could largely explain why it hasn't been seen much in the United States since the Eighties.

Although largely off the air here in the United States, Space: 1999 has maintained a base of loyal fans. In many countries it has even developed a cult following. Eventually episodes would be released on VHS and still later on DVD. This might seem strange for a show that had come heavily under fire from critics in its initial run. As I see it, however, while the series was not well received on its debut, Space: 1999 was not at all a bad show. I think much of the criticism emerged from the fact that the critics were looking at Space: 1999 as a science fiction series. From that point of view, the idea of the moon careening out of orbit at hyperlight speeds is totally unbelievable. It is my thought, however, that the series was not a science fiction series at all, but instead a fantasy series with the trappings of a sci-fi show. It must be pointed out that in its first season the show concentrated heavily on metaphysics and even questions about human existence--science simply wasn't a focus of the show. Keeping this in mind, many of the series' episodes become quite enjoyable. In fact, many of the episodes of Space: 1999 can even be considered good from this viewpoint. At least in its first season, there were episodes that made observations on human psychology, religious issues, social issues, and moral issues. In many ways, Space: 1999 could be considered a metaphor for human existence--being adrift in the cosmos with only ourselves to insure that we survive. As to the other common criticism levelled at Space: 1999, that its characters were dull and wooden, I have to disagree. Barry Morse gives a delightful performance as Professor Bergman, a man with a dry sense of humour who sometimes seems like he would be more at home in a Victorian laboratory. I also believe that Nick Tate did a very fine job as chief pilot Alan Carter, a strong willed man who always seemed on the edge of insubordination. As to Martin Landau, I think he was quite acceptable as Commander Koenig, a man on whose shoulders rest the survival of Alpha. Of the leads, I think only Barbara Bain gave less than stellar performances. Dr. Carter is either too stoic or too emotional depending on the circumstances.

I do have my own criticisms to level at Space: 1999, even though after seeing it again I must confess that I still like the show. With regards to the scripts, it seems to me that many of them would begin quite well only to descend into incomprehensible metaphysics at the end. Sometimes I think that they were trying too hard to be 2001: a Space Odyssey. Many of the secondary characters were also never allowed to develop. We never really learn much about data coordinator Sandra Benes or Main Mission Controller Paul Morrow. Of course, when it comes to the second season, I have to be more critical of Space: 1999. Even as a teenager I found it hard to forgive the lapses in continuity (Tony Verdeschi appears out of nowhere, new uniforms, Bergman disappears and no one notices). It seems to me that the scripts also declined drastically in quality--I think the accusation that many of the second season episodes were simply mediocre adventure stories is legitimate. In fact, it seems to me that most of the second season episodes can be summed up as "some monster or alien wants to kill the Alphans...." I suspect that the reason many of the second season scripts are not as good as those of the first season is the fact that Christopher Penfold and Johnny Byrne wrote a plurality of the first season scripts. It was these two writers who gave the show its flavour. They wrote far less for the second season, which could explain why many of its episodes were not up to par.

Many have blamed second season producer Fred Freiberger for the series' decline in quality in its second season, but I think one must be careful not to hold him too much to blame. Despite what many Star Trek fans believe, Freiberger was not a hack. In the case of Star Trek, it must be kept in mind that he was brought in at the last minute and never really had a chance to get a grasp of a series that, in truth, had been in decline since producer Gene Coon left. In truth, Freiberger was an experienced writer who had sold scripts to such series as Have Gun Will Travel and Bonanza He produced the best run of The Wild Wild West (it was on his watch that archvillain Dr. Miguelito Loveless was introduced). I rather suspect the reason he did not do well on Space: 1999 is simply that he was not compatible with the series. It seems to me his strongpoint was adventure (like The Wild Wild West) and Space: 1999 simply was not an adventure series.

Today I rather suspect that the general public has forgotten Space: 1999. In fact, I dare say most young people in the United States have probably never seen an episode of the series. Regardless, I do believe it has its place in television history. First, it was the first large scale genre series launched since Star Trek ended its original run. After a fashion, then, it can be considered a forerunner to other large scale genre shows, such as Star Trek: the Next Generation and Babylon 5. Second, it was the first major, original series with continuing characters to be widely syndicated since the Sixties. Space: 1999 can then be considered to have paved the way for other original series in syndication that prospered in the Eighties and Nineties (Star Trek: the Next Generation, Hercules: the Legendary Journeys, and so on).

Regardless of whether it is remembered and regardless of its shortcomings, Space: 1999 is still a show that I do enjoy very much. And it seems that I am not alone in this, as the show still has a following around the world. I am not sure that it could ever be termed a "classic." I am not sure that given its occasional flaws it can be considered necessarily a good show at times. But I must say that I have always found it entertaining.

Monday, June 27, 2005

The Bad Ol' Summertime

With the possible exception of the Yuletide, I think summertime is extolled in more poems, songs, movies, and TV shows than any other season. Chaucer welcomed summer with its "sun soft." Shakespeare compared a woman to a summer's day. In the song "Summertime" Gershwin says that "the livin' is easy." And there are a host of other songs that praise summer: "In the Good Ol' Summertime," "Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer," and so on. I don't know that movies praising summer are nearly as common as the poems and songs, but there are a few. Those AIP beach movies with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello were a virtual paen to the season. Grease, with the song "Summer Nights," portrays the season as being filled with fun and romance. Indeed, there have been many, many movies set in the summer: Summer Rental, Summer School, Summer Stock, Summer Catch, ad infinitum. In only a few of those movies is summer portrayed as anything less than fun, romantic, and downright pleasant.

Going by the poems, the songs, and the movies, one would think that summer is best season of them all. One would think that it was a time when the sun is shining and yet the weather is mild and the temperatures not too cool or not too hot. At least here in Missouri (and I would assume much of the Midwest, South, and Southwest as well), nothing could be further from the truth. Summer is hot, muggy, sweaty, and generally uncomfortable. If anything, it is the most unpleasant season of them all. I would rather deal with ten feet of snow and freezing temperatures in the winter than the heat and humidity of summer any day.

Of course, all of this begs to reason why summer is praised so often in poems, songs, and other media. It is hard to say, but I have to wonder if on the part of Americans it isn't something that was carried over from Great Britain and Europe. In Great Britain and Europe, for the most part summer is pleasant. Given that it almost never reaches 90 degrees in London, I can see how Chaucer and Shakespeare would have praised the season. Indeed, I rather suspect that memories of Yuletide in Britain and Europe could explain the snow and ice imagery used to celebrate the Yuletide here in the United States, used even in places like Missouri where snow in December is very, very rare. Quite simply, summer is nice in Britain and Europe, so that imagery was carried over to North America where summer isn't always so nice.

My other theory is that perhaps the poetry, songs, and so on that praise summer written here in America are simply being written by Yankees living where the season isn't quite so severe. The other day I saw where much of New England was experiencing temperatures in the fifties. Here it never drops into the fifties in late June. Indeed, in Missouri there are times (like now) that we are lucky if the low temperature is in the sixties! I dare say no Missourian has ever described summer livin' as easy or compared a beautiful woman to a summer's day... Not any sane Missourian anyhow...

At any rate, I am ready for September, that glorious month when the temperatures drop and the humidity is not so fierce, that beautiful month of soft sun and light breezes. It is that month when one can finally go outside without worrying about heat stroke, but at the same time one doesn't have to wear a coat or a jacket. Honestly, that is the time of year people should write songs about....

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Batman Begins

Batman's history on the silver screen has been very uneven. His motion picture debut was Columbia serial, made on a shoestring budget in 1943, that was glaringly racist against the Japanese. His first feature film, a spinoff from the classic 1966 TV series, was played for laughs. While well done and funny, as a comedy it was then hardly loyal to the spirit of the original Dark Knight of the comic books. Batman from 1989 and Batman Returns from 1992 were both fairly loyal in spirt to the comic books, although the first movie played fast and loose with the hero's origin. Batman Forever was acceptable, although the portrayal of Two-Face was poorly executed and The Riddler's plot would have been more fitting of the Mad Hatter. As to Batman and Robin, only the first serial was worse....

At long last there is a movie that captures the Dark Knight as he originally appeared in the comic books and as he has appeared ever since the Seventies. That movie is Batman Begins. Batman Begins is the first movie to tell the origin of the Caped Crusader. While it does depart in some details from the origin as told in the comic books (which has never been excactly consistent over the years anyhow), the movie remains loyal to the spirit of that origin. Indeed, the scene in which Bruce Wayne's parents are murdered before his eyes is one of the most powerful in the movie, much more so than the portrayal of the same scene in 1989's Batman. As a result of his parent's murder, Bruce Wayne becomes a crusader obsessed with fighting crime, The Batman. Much of Batman Begins tells the story of how Wayne went from billionaire orphan to Caped Crusader.

It tells that story remarkably well. Like the two Spider-Man movies, in some ways Batman Begins is less about action than it is a character study. The script, by director Christopher Nolan and David Goyer, permits Bruce Wayne to develop as a character well before he even puts on the Batsuit. We see the murder of his parents and the effect it had on him. We see his early training under Ra's al Ghul. Indeed, Batman Begins is simply about a guy who dresses up as a bat and fights crime. It is an exploration of how one fictional character deals with the murder of his parents and the fact that his hometown has become a cesspool of crime.

Nolan and Goyer's strong script is assisted by some of the strongest performances to ever appear in a superhero movie. Christian Bale (probably best known for American Psycho) is perfectly cast as Bruce Wayne and Batman. He captures what so other many actors who have donned the cowl and cape have missed--the guilt, the anger, the lonliness, the desperation, and obsession that resulted from the murder of Wayne's parents. Bale's Wayne is eseentially a loner who must put on the masquerade of a billionaire playboy while dressing up in a costume to fight crime at night. For the most part the other perfromances match the high quality set by Christian Bale. Michale Caine is delightful as Alfred, a combination valet and father figure who permits Bruce his crusade on crime, all the while worrying about the boy he raised. Gary Oldman proves that he can play something beyond villains as he plays the only honest cop in Gotham City, Sgt. James Gordon (who will eventually become Police Commisioner, but not in this movie). As The Scarecrow, Cillian Murphy is perfectly cast. He is suitably creepy as the mad psychologist Jonathan Crane who had developed a fear toxin. Beyond Bale and Caine, Liam Neeson perhaps gives the best performance, that of the character who gives Wayne much of his early training. His is a complex character and he realises that character perfectly.

Of course, the well written script and great performances benefit greatly from Christopher Nolan's direction. Best known for Memento, Nolan is the first director to truly capture the feel of Batman comic books. Nearly every shot could well have been a panel from one of those comic books. Indeed, both the movie's direction and editing give it a very deliberate pace. Batman Begins does not drag, but at the same time it does not linger far too long on any given scene.

Even in the film's look, it evokes the comic books. Batman's costume has never looked better. Not only does it look more realistic than the costumes from previous movies, but it also looks more like the one from the comic books. As to Gotham City itself, it looks like New York City (which Gotham pretty much is, no matter what current DC Comics continuity might have to say...) after a long bout of economic hardship. This is an old city that has aged poorly, its glistening skyscrapers standing not too far away from drab slums. It is a city where one can realistically expect crime to be rampant. It is also a city where one could expect a crimefighter dressed in cowl and cape to take it upon himself to fight that crime.

I must admit that Batman Begins is now my favourite superhero movie, although that is not to say that I don't have two problems with the film. The first is that left what I have always thought to be one of the pivotal scenes in Batman's origin as told in the comic books, the scene in which Bruce Wayne decides to take on the guise of a bat to fight crime. The famous speech that begins "Criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot..." are among the most powerful to ever appear in a comic book panel. The second is that The Scarecrow does not appear nearly enough. He has always been one of my favourite villains to battle Batman. He is certainly one of the most interesting. That, in my humble opinion, that he does not get nearly enough screen time is made all the more lamentable due to Murphy's excellent portrayal of the mad psychiatrist. I can only hope that he appears in one of the sequels.

And I do hope that there are sequels, particularly if Christopher Nolan can return as director and David Goyer as his partner in screenwriting. An accurate portrayal of the Dark Knight has long been overdue on the big screen. For that matter, a superhero movie with this kind of depth (beyond the Spider-Man films) has been long overdue as well. Batman Begins is a unique film which allows a superhero and the characters in his life to actually develop in the way that real people do. Anyone who loves Batman, superheroes, or simpy well done movies should definitely go see Batman Begins.