The Glass Teat

In Memoriam: Stan Kirsch

For most of my twenties, I was well-nigh obsessed with a television show called Highlander: The Series, which was a spin-off from the cult-favorite 1986 film about immortal warriors who live secretly among ordinary humans and can die only if their heads get cut off. If you think that sounds kind of ridiculous, well, I suppose I can’t blame you. I mean, the show is what it is: a relatively low-budget 1990s syndicated fantasy-action series that aired in the wee hours of the night, at least in the Salt Lake market. Looking back now, almost 22 years after the final episode, I have to acknowledge that it would probably be a tough sell to a modern viewer who’s not already a fan. Back in the day, though, I dearly loved it. Yes, I did.

As a young man trying to figure out who I was, I saw the kind of person I wanted to be in many of the show’s characters. Duncan MacLeod, the ancient Scottish Highlander of the title, and his immortal friends were confident, sophisticated, worldly. They traveled and read literature and knew about art and wine and whisky and food. They’d been everywhere and had friends and lovers — and enemies, as well, given the premise of the show — all over the place. They were equally at ease in an elegant chateau or a bare-brick industrial-style loft above a grimy martial-arts dojo. They hung out in a blues bar. They were cool.

And then there was Richie.

The character of Richie Ryan, played by a young actor named Stan Kirsch, was initially a sort of foster child for Duncan, a street kid that the immortal took under his wing and tried to teach how to become a better man. I think Richie was also intended to be a surrogate for the audience, an ordinary person who was naive to the existence of immortals until he chose the wrong home to try to rob, and then was drawn deeper and deeper into their world. Like a lot of young sidekick characters in TV of that era, Richie was occasionally hard to stomach. He was written as a smart aleck and could be something of a dork, and baby-faced Stan was never believably as tough as someone from Richie’s hardscrabble background would likely have been. (Maybe that was the point… a kid who acted like a tough guy and so visibly was not.) My own sense is that the showrunners weren’t quite sure what to do with him beyond a certain point. Richie was eventually revealed to be one of the immortals himself, whereupon he changed from Duncan’s child to an apprentice and then to a friend, if maybe not ever quite a peer. He gradually became less and less of a presence on the show, more a recurring character instead of a regular… and then, in a stunning development that was either audacious or boneheaded depending on your perspective, the character was killed off by Duncan MacLeod himself in the cliffhanger ending of the show’s fifth season.

The death of Richie Ryan divided Highlander fandom as thoroughly as anything that JJ Abrams or Rian Johnson ever did to Star Wars. I had just begun to explore the internet in those days, and I watched in amazement and dismay as the once-inviting Highlander message board I’d been hanging out on deteriorated into a vicious brawl between those who were fine with this latest plot twist and those who simply would not — could not! — accept it. The latter took to calling themselves Clan Denial, and somewhere in some distant corner of the World Wide Web, their cries of anguish and fury are probably still echoing. It was my first taste of the infighting that would eventually infect all fandoms in the internet age.

For my part, I thought killing Richie, at least in the manner in which it was done — i.e., at the hands of his friend, mentor, and father figure — was pretty shitty. I had never been a big partisan for the character so I wasn’t angry enough about it to go Clan Denial, but I didn’t like it, and I do think it was a factor in Highlander‘s rapid decline afterward. The show’s producers had made a mistake, and the abbreviated sixth season felt like it had a cloud hanging over it from the start. Richie — and Stan — returned for the final episode, which was a kind of riff on It’s a Wonderful Life, but, to use the modern parlance, the show had jumped the shark in a major way, and when I think back on the series now, I tend to think of it as ending before that tectonic fracture-point episode in which he was killed.

I realize I’m rambling a bit here… forgive me. I haven’t actually thought about a lot of this stuff in many years, and hearing the news last week that Stan Kirsch had died stirred up a lot of memories. Stan was only 51, just a year older than myself, and even though I was not particularly a fan of Richie — I was always drawn to Duncan, or to the mortal-but-very-cool Joe Dawson — I feel like I’ve lost a major piece of my past. I didn’t identify with Richie, but in some weird way, I find myself identifying with Stan. I just keep coming back to the closeness of our ages. He was the same age I am. And the show was such a huge part of my young adulthood, part of the whole mood and texture of that time in my life. In certain respects, it was more important to me at that time, more influential certainly, than my usual media obsessions, Star Trek and Star Wars. I was already a fan of it before I started dating Anne, but she liked the show as well and watching it together became one of our weekly rituals. I used to record the latest episode on VHS and then take the tape to her house. I remember one night when we ventured online together, possibly for the first time, looking to see if we could find anything related to the show in this new digital frontier we’d been hearing about, and the first thing we ran across was a trove of fanfiction… slash fiction, no less. We were equal parts shocked and amused by that stuff. And we even traveled to Los Angeles together to attend a farewell convention when the show wrapped production… our first convention together. We were pretty naive about the whole con scene at that time, and we utterly failed to meet most of the cast members who were there, including Stan, because we just weren’t sure how it was all supposed to work. We’ve since met Adrian Paul, who played Duncan, a number of times, often enough that I get the impression he actually recognizes our faces. But never Stan. And now we’ll never get that chance, and I feel a true, deep sense of regret about it. I just always assumed there would be time, you know? After all, we were both young enough…

I think what’s really bothering me is the fact that Stan died by suicide. I’ve seen speculation on social media that he may have been ill — some people who saw him at a convention last year say he was very thin — and of course there’s always talk about depression when someone takes their own life. But who really knows? Stan wasn’t in the public eye very much and I honestly don’t know much about him. I know that after Highlander, he guest-starred on several episodes of Friends, as well as NCIS and a couple other TV series. I know that he and his wife started an acting school a few years back and that it was evidently pretty successful. But that’s it, really. I’m sorry I don’t know more, and I’m sorry I never got around to meeting him in person. And when it comes down to it, I’m sorry that something had evidently gone wrong enough in his life or in his head that he ended up in that place.

When Highlander was first on the air, I was young enough that I really did feel immortal. There was plenty of time ahead to figure it all out and to do everything I wanted to do. I imagine Stan Kirsch felt the same way back then. So what the hell happened?

I’m feeling very mortal right now…

spacer

Blue Squadron Honors Its Captain

I ran across a really beautiful piece of fan art the other day that I wanted to include with my previous entry, but I couldn’t figure out how to fit it in. So I’m going to present it here instead, on its own. Ladies and gentleman, in tribute to the late Richard Hatch:

Vipers flying the "missing man" formation, by Richard Dyke(If you don’t know what you’re looking at, those are Vipers, the fighter craft flown by Hatch’s character Apollo, assuming the “missing man” formation that’s often seen at memorials for fallen pilots. I can so easily imagine how this would’ve looked in motion, with one of the ships pulling up and away, trailing the characteristic blue vapor trail from its turbos…)

This image is by a talented gentleman named Richard Dyke, from the “Original Battlestar Galactica Models” Facebook group.

 

Save

spacer

In Memoriam: Richard Hatch

bsg_apollo

“So what do you do?”

It was a simple question, but nevertheless, I was taken aback by it. Like I said a couple weeks ago, I’ve met quite a few celebrities, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have had good experiences with the majority of them. But only two of them have ever asked me what I do for a living. And one of those was Richard Hatch, who died last week at the age of 71.

Hatch is best known to we children of the ’70s for playing Captain Apollo in the 1978 television series Battlestar Galactica. He also had a significant role as Tom Zarek in the Galactica remake, but personally, I never could get into that one, for reasons that don’t really matter right now. Suffice it to say that, for me, he was Apollo, the son of the noble Commander Adama, the adoptive father of an orphaned boy named Boxey, and the levelheaded best friend to everybody’s favorite cigar-chomping scoundrel, Lieutenant Starbuck. From the time I was about Boxey’s age until well into my twenties, I wanted to be like Starbuck: impetuous, devil-may-care, cool. But I always knew in my heart that I more closely resembled sensitive and responsible Apollo. Also, as silly as this may sound, I identified with Apollo because he — or rather, Hatch — was a southpaw. You see, I went through this phase as a kid when I was very self-conscious about being left-handed, the result of a misguided school administrator’s efforts to make me conform to societal norms. (The short version is that I started school showing signs of being ambidextrous, or at least I was trying to be, and The Man found that… unacceptable. Eventually, I settled into using just one hand, but the whole experience left me with a bit of a complex.) The day I realized that Apollo wore his laser pistol on the left side and still managed to be bad-ass — a quick draw and a dead-eye shot, as we saw when he easily bested the Cylon duelist Red-Eye in “The Lost Warrior” — well, that was incredibly validating and reassuring to a certain young boy who struggled with the fear that something must be wrong with him because of which hand he held his pencil in.

When I met Richard Hatch at the first Salt Lake Comic Con in 2013, I told him about the left-handed thing. Now, I’m fully aware that actors at conventions hear all kinds of stories about how much their work means to the supplicants on the other side of the autograph table, and that at a certain level all these stories must sound pretty much the same. I’m also not naive about how convention appearances are just another type of performance, or that the celebrity guests are essentially paid to be kind to gushy fans. But Richard had a way of making it difficult to feel cynical about these things. He seemed to be genuinely interested in the thoughts and experiences of the people he spoke with, and he gave me the impression that my story was one he hadn’t heard before. He certainly appeared to light up when I finally got to the point. He seemed both humbled and proud that he’d once helped a kid feel better about himself, and he thanked me for sharing something so personal.

On the second day of the convention, I decided I wanted to get a photo of myself with him to go with the previous day’s autograph, so I went back to his table. I have no idea whether he recognized me or remembered the story about the left-handed kid, but he was friendly and graciously came out from behind his table for a quick snapshot. Then he shook my hand and I figured we were done. But before I could walk away, he surprised me with his question: “So what do you do?”

“I’m a proofreader for an advertising agency,” I answered, hoping I wasn’t stammering too much.

“Oh, so you’re really a writer, then?” he said, with a mischievous gleam in his eye.

I smiled. “I take it you’ve met a few of us?”

He laughed in return. “A few. What do you write?”

And from there we proceeded to have a conversation, a real conversation in which he offered me his perspective on living a creative life, and how not to get discouraged when the necessity of paying the bills gets in the way of your art. He also gave some practical tips about self-publishing and his thoughts about where that area was headed in the future. There wasn’t anything condescending or conceited in his advice. We were just a couple guys with similar interests talking about our experiences and ideas. Significantly, he listened as much as he spoke. And after a few minutes I walked away feeling like I’d made a real friend. Not one I was likely to ever see again, and certainly not one who would remember me if I ever did, but for the short duration of our conversation, Richard Hatch had been something more than a boyhood hero. He wasn’t “Apollo” or an idol on a pedestal, throwing his shadow over this little person who stood in awe of him because he’d once been on TV. He was just another human being, a guy named Richard… a guy I really liked. And who I like to think liked me, at least for a moment.

Rest well, my friend. And thanks. For everything.

The author with Richard Hatch at Salt Lake Comic Con, September 2013

 

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

spacer

In Memoriam: Jerry Doyle

Babylon-5_Garibaldi

Back in the mid-90s, just after I finished with college and was still struggling with the question of what I was supposed to do with my life, I spent a lot more time watching syndicated TV than I probably should have. Most of it was disposable junk that’s thankfully faded into the mists of my increasingly fuzzy memories. But there was, amidst all the low-budget, filmed-in-Vancouver cop shows, a couple series that stood out for me. Highlander was one. Another was a science-fiction epic set on a space station, a sort of intergalactic crossroads, a freeport where species of all descriptions could mingle, trade, and intrigue in relative peace, even as ancient cosmic powers manipulated events toward a war that would engulf them all.

No, I’m not talking about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, although you’re forgiven for thinking so, considering the similarities between the two. I refer instead to Babylon 5, a show that always stood in the shadows of its higher-profile rival, much to the frustration of B5’s hardcore fans.

For the record, I wasn’t one of those people. Oh, I liked the show, as I already mentioned, and I remember thinking the parallels with DS9 were mighty fishy. (A full recounting of that is beyond the scope of this post, but briefly, there’s pretty good circumstantial evidence that the suits at Paramount ripped off B5’s creator, J. Michael Straczynski, who was shopping his concept around well before DS9 was ever thought of.) But I was, at best, a casual fan of B5. I didn’t watch faithfully every week. I watched it pretty often, though, often enough that when I recently sat down to view the series’ entire run, I found I remembered the overall story arc a lot better than I thought I would.

And I watched often enough that this morning’s news about the death of one of the show’s stars, Jerry Doyle, has hit me like a punch in the gut.

Doyle played Security Chief Michael Garibaldi, probably my favorite character among the large ensemble cast. Depicted as a blue-collar, salt-of-the-earth kind of guy, Garibaldi loved Daffy Duck cartoons, formed unlikely friendships with alien diplomats, and once rebuilt an antique motorcycle and rode it up and down the corridors of the station (a 23rd century O’Neill cylinder). In a show populated by flawed human beings (and aliens with a lot of human flaws), Garibaldi was perhaps the most flawed of them all; he struggled with a failed marriage, booze, conflicted loyalties, and PTSD. And that was before an evil telepath messed around with his mind. And yet, he was a hero in the same quiet, stolid way that so many ordinary people are heroes: because he just kept getting up and going to work in the morning. A lot of viewers related to that; I know I did, during those aimless years when I was working the wrong jobs and trying to figure out where exactly everything had gone wrong for me.

In the years after Babylon 5, Jerry Doyle became the host of a talk-radio program that bore his name. His politics were… not mine. And yet every account of personal encounters with the man that I’ve seen today suggests it would’ve been a bigger problem for me than for him. On social media, his B5 castmates are expressing shock, grief, and far deeper pain than you might expect someone to feel for a man they briefly worked with 20 years ago. That says a lot, I think. And it suggests that an awful lot of Garibaldi’s character was in fact Doyle’s character too.

I never had the chance to meet Jerry Doyle at a convention, and I regret that. He was only 60 years old.

One final thought: I don’t know what it is about Babylon 5, but the show seems to be suffering from an unusually high rate of attrition. Doyle is the fifth member of the principal cast to pass away in recent years, following Richard Biggs (Dr. Franklin), Andreas Katsulas (G’Kar), Michael O’Hare (Commander Sinclair), and Jeff Conaway (Zack Allan). Granted, the show is 20 years old, but that’s not really all that long…

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

spacer

TV Title Sequences: High Tide

My childhood guitar hero Rick Springfield (a.k.a. “my main man”) has been a busy guy lately. His memoir Late, Late at Night and his debut novel Magnificent Vibrations were both well reviewed and commercially successful; his collection of acoustic recordings, Stripped Down, was released in February and was pretty awesome; he’s also got an album of new material due later this year; and he’s currently on tour with two other classic acts of the 1980s, Loverboy and The Romantics, which I imagine would be an absolute blast of a concert. (Sadly, they’re not coming anywhere near Salt Lake City; well, they’re playing Vegas, which isn’t that far away, but the stars aren’t going to line up for me to go to this one.) And, oh yeah, if you haven’t heard, he’s co-starring alongside somebody named Meryl Streep in a new movie that opened last weekend. I saw it Saturday night and thought it was great; hopefully, I’ll find some time in the next couple days to write a review.

Ricki and the Flash is Rick’s first feature-film appearance since his somewhat, ahem, notorious 1984 big-screen debut, Hard to Hold, a movie I personally maintain doesn’t suck nearly as much as you’ve probably heard, but certainly isn’t anybody’s idea of a career highlight. (If nothing else, the film had a great soundtrack, which gave Rick two more hit singles for his discography. And of course there was that brief nude scene that’s provided him with years of between-song banter for his live concert appearances…) But while three decades have passed since we last saw him in a cinema, you can’t accuse him of being camera-shy during that time. During the ’90s, he starred in a string of TV movies, including the pilot for what became (with a different actor in the lead) the cult favorite vampire-cop series Forever Knight; he’s reprised his signature role of Dr. Noah Drake on General Hospital several times; he’s taken a cue from William Shatner and appeared as a warped version of himself in the David Duchovny vehicle Californication; he did a funny and nicely self-deprecating episode of the sitcom Hot in Cleveland; and just recently he earned good reviews for his work on season two of True Detective (evidently, Rick’s work was the best thing about this season).

And then there was the series High Tide

What’s that? You’ve never heard of High Tide? Well, to be honest, neither had I until I ran across a mention of it a few days ago in a pre-Ricki and the Flash interview focusing on Rick’s acting work. I haven’t been able to find out too much about it, either, only that it ran for three seasons between 1994 and 1997; it was filmed on location in New Zealand; and it was about two surf-bum brothers who pay the bills with occasional private-investigator gigs. I’m assuming the series was syndicated, since this opening credit sequence from the first season looks like a blend of Baywatch and Lorenzo Lamas’ Renegade, with all the bikini babes, bright colors, awkward fight choreography, and eyepoppingly tacky clothes that entails:

Looks pretty awful, I know… but I have to confess, I kind of miss this sort of thing. The mid-90s syndicated actioners were crap, but they were reliably entertaining crap, and I used to watch a lot of them. Looking back at them now, they have a simplicity and, yes, even a sort of naive innocence that is sorely lacking in today’s grim-n-gritty pop cultural landscape. And they also prove a theory of mine, which is that decades aren’t as strictly compartmentalized as we tend to want to imagine them. The early ’80s looked a heckuva lot like the ’70s, for instance. And while this series may have been made in the ’90s, “two surf-bum brothers who work as PIs” is about as 1980s a premise as I’ve ever heard!

Needless to say, this series does not exist on officially sanctioned DVDs, but I think I’m going to do some poking around and see if I can find it somewhere. Because, awful or not, I really want to watch this… I have a feeling it’ll make me feel either young again or really damn old.

God help me.

spacer

Groovy!

My introduction to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films was Army of Darkness, the third entry in the series and the one that’s the least “Evil Dead-ish” of them all. (It’s more “Ray Harryhausen meets The Three Stooges” than “the ultimate experience in grueling terror,” which was the tagline for the original Evil Dead.) It’s also my favorite of the series, which I’m sure would disgust the hard-core fans of the franchise and means I’m probably not the target audience for the upcoming cable-TV continuation, Ash vs. Evil Dead. Nevertheless, the teaser that hit the ‘nets today makes me a little giddy:

I really like the ideas behind this series, i.e., it’s set in current time and takes the age of star Bruce Campbell into account; that Ash (Campbell’s character) has, ahem, problems based on his earlier experiences; that the Deadites (the evil of the title) have been quiet for 20 years (the real-world time since Army of Darkness) but are now roaring back to life; that Ash is some kind of whacked-out Obi-Wan Kenobi figure for a couple of younger sidekicks; and that there’s a mysterious woman (played by Lucy Lawless of Xena fame) hunting Ash, because she blames him for the Evil loose in the world (and she’s right!). Basically it sounds like Raimi and Campbell, along with producer Rob Tapert, have really worked out how to logically continue this franchise decades after the last entry, rather than just rebooting it or recasting a younger actor or pretending no time has passed.

You can read up on the details here, if you’re so inclined; Ash vs. Evil Dead will premiere on the Starz network this fall…

spacer

TV Title Sequences: The Renegades

While reading an interview with Kurtwood Smith (a.k.a. Red Foreman, the greatest TV dad ever) the other day, I ran across a bit of pop-cultural flotsam that is so drenched in the atmospherics of the early 1980s, I can smell the Drakkar Noir through my monitor:

Let’s count the MTV-inflected cliches — er, tropes, rather, let’s call them tropes — of low-rent ’80s action shows, shall we? You’ve got throbbing synth music, ground-level camera angles, rain-slicked asphalt reflecting light and color, and a generic urban-alley setting. You’ve got the “hero walk” coming out of a completely unexplained back-light as the electric guitars crash in. There’s a cast that’s downright painful in its self-conscious diversity-by-design (i.e., token black guy, token Asian guy — who’s a martial artist, naturally — token Latino, token woman), all of them with cool(ish) names like “Bandit,” “Eagle,” “Dragon,” “T.J.,” “Dancer,” and “Gaucho.” All except for the woman, who shares the same name as the actress who plays her — “Tracy” — because, well, I guess because chicks don’t get cool street names. And of course we’ve got the cops who have to ride herd over this bad bunch: the hard-as-nails captain who thinks this whole deal is a bad idea, and the slightly more forgiving lieutenant who’s kind of amused by his captain’s discomfort and will no doubt become a father figure to these misunderstood street kids, these… renegades. You stir all of those elements together and you’ve got a show that put the awesome in the Awesome ’80s.

Except I don’t remember a second of it. And neither do you. Don’t tell me you do, either, because we both know you really don’t.

The Renegades — not to be confused with the Lorenzo Lamas vehicle Renegade, which aired in syndication a decade later — lasted all of six episodes during the 1983 television season. According to a scant Wikipedia entry, the show was inspired, in part, by the 1979 cult classic The Warriors. and also perhaps by a 1981 TV-movie starring Patrick Swayze called Return of the Rebels. The premise of The Renegades must’ve seemed pretty shopworn even in ’83: a street gang becomes undercover agents for the cops to avoid jail time. Precisely the sort of hackneyed stuff that The Simpsons and Married… with Children would be making fun of by the end of the decade. But honestly what I find really fascinating about The Renegades isn’t this show itself, but rather all the talent that survived it and went to bigger and better things.

Most prominent, of course, is Swayze, who had already appeared in Coppola’s adaptation of The Outsiders at this point, but was still a couple years away from his breakout roles in the jingoistic Cold War wankfest Red Dawn (1984) and the TV miniseries North and South (1985). Following those successes, he’d achieve matinee-idol immortality with Dirty Dancing (1987), Ghost (1990), and that basic cable favorite Road House (1989).

Tracy Scoggins  has worked regularly in both television and feature films for decades, appearing on TV series ranging from The Fall Guy, Manimal, and TJ Hooker in the ’80s to Doogie Howser, MD,  and Highlander (among others) in the ’90s, right up to a role last year in Castle. She’s well-known to sci-fi fans as Captain Elizabeth Lochley in the final season of Babylon 5 and its various spin-off properties, as well as for a regular part on Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.

Brian Tochi was a busy child actor during the ’70s (he was a regular on the Saturday-morning live-action series Space Academy, one of my favorites back in the day). Following The Renegades, he appeared in Revenge of the Nerds and a couple of Police Academy sequels, as well as various episodic TV gigs, but he increasingly shifted into voice work, acting in a slew of animated series and, most notably, providing the voice of Leonardo in the original live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movies.

Randy Brooks has likewise done a lot of episodic TV, and was a regular on The West Wing from 2000-05. He was also in Reservoir Dogs.

And Kurtwood Smith, the man who started me down this rabbit hole in the first place, was four years away from playing the most despicable street thug ever, Clarence Boddicker, in the original RoboCop. For a long time, he was Clarence to me, no matter what he played. Then came That 70s Show, one of the funniest sitcoms ever, in my opinion. And now he’s Red to me. Forever. He’s currently part of the ensemble on ABC’s Resurrection, a series I have never seen. But he’s still Red.

There was a lot of behind-the-scenes talent on The Renegades, too. The show’s executive producers, brothers Lawrence and Charles Gordon, along with director Roger Spottiswoode and screenwriter Steven de Souza, would collaborate together again when they created the movie that made Eddie Murphy a superstar, 48 Hrs., and then a few years later the Gordons and de Souza really hit one out of the ballpark by launching the Die Hard franchise.

Oh, and it also looks to me like The Renegades might have been an influence on 21 Jump Street, which had a similar look and premise to this and helped get the fledgling Fox network off the ground, not to mention bringing a young actor named Johnny Depp into the spotlight.

Not bad for a cheesy misfire that nobody remembers, eh? It makes me wonder how many other bad and forgotten shows were an unlikely nexus of future success?

spacer

My Feelings on “Remasterings”

About a month ago, there was a video clip making its way around that generated a lot of chatter among, shall we say, my people. The clip was a demo reel created by a visual-effects master named Adam “Mojo” Leibowitz to show how the 1978 Battlestar Galactica could be freshened up by integrating modern computer-generated imagery into the old episodes, much like what was done with the original Star Trek series a few years ago.  The emergence of the clip just ahead of the announcement that Battlestar is coming to BluRay in 2015 fueled speculation that the series had, in fact, been “remastered” — or more accurately, revised — with new effects as Star Trek was. That turned out to be untrue. But the demo offers a tantalizing glimpse of what such a revision might have looked like:

Now, I’ll stipulate right up front that this is very well done, and a lot of fun to watch for people like myself who remember how that scene originally looked. Mojo is publicly known to be a fan of the original Battlestar, and he took great care to make his new footage seem organic to a 35-year-old production, unlike, say, many of changes made to the Star Wars Special Editions, which stand out like sore thumbs, in my opinion. I’ll even concede that this revised version actually makes more sense than the original, in which Commander Cain’s actions were far less clearly illustrated through spliced-together bits of stock footage (that was a real problem for Battlestar ’78, especially as the series ground on and the effects department ran out of money). So, from that standpoint, I must grudgingly admit that this kind of revision does, in fact, improve on the original. It helps to tell the story, which is what good special effects are supposed to do; more importantly, Mojo’s new effects do not alter the story, or even the tone of the story as we’ve always known it. (The biggest lightning rod in the Star Wars Special Eds is, of course, Han vs. Greedo, with some people arguing that the revision changes Han’s character arc substantially, and others saying that it does not. Personally, I’m equally as troubled by the more cosmopolitan Mos Eisley, as it alters our understanding of what that place was. In the Special Editions, it suddenly doesn’t seem all that “hind end of the universe” after all… of course, given that five of the six Star Wars movies have included scenes there, maybe that’s the point…)

Anyhow, this demo is well done and a revised Battlestar could actually be a better series… but I’m still glad it didn’t happen. Because deep down, on some fundamental level, this sort of tinkering simply rubs me the wrong way. I feel that things ought to be allowed to remain what they are. Or were. Whatever the proper tense is. And I have exactly zero patience for the (mostly younger) viewers who refuse to watch something simply because it’s old.

My fellow traveler in these matters, Christopher Mills, recently wrote something similar on his Space: 1970 blog:

One of the charms of these shows and movies for me are the handcrafted practical effects, and Galactica‘s were groundbreaking at the time, and worthy of preservation. I genuinely pity people who can’t abide by classic (or “cheesy,” as they call them) special effects and want everything to be slick and shiny and soulless. In my opinion, it’s an insult to the talented and hardworking craftsmen who created them.

My feelings exactly.

***

Incidentally, the old Galactica series may have escaped having its special effects swapped out on these new BluRays, but if you read the press release closely, you’ll see this: “Newly remastered in 16:9 widescreen presentation for the very first time…” Widescreen? For a series made decades before widescreen TVs were even thought of? That’s as wrong as adding digital dinosaurs to Mos Eisley, in my opinion. Look, to make a 4:3 (square) television image widescreen, you’ve got to do one of two things: you either “matte” the square image, i.e., putting black bars over it to fake a rectangular image, which will of course cover up part of the scene, or you digitally “stretch” the image horizontally to fill the modern 16×9 television display, which makes everybody in the scene look really weird. Neither option is appealing. Again I ask, why can’t things just be left as they were originally made?! And didn’t we already fight the “original aspect ratio” battle 20 years ago, near the end of the VHS era? I guess enough time has passed that people need to be re-educated on something I foolishly assumed was settled.

There’s a similar controversy going on over Fox’s “remastering” of the series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is much more recent than Battlestar ’78, but still came along just before widescreen TVs became commonplace. Fox is tinkering with a lot of things besides just the aspect ratio — the square vs. rectangular shape of the image — but the “widescreenization” is creating some truly ridiculous errors, like suddenly introducing random crew members into shots that originally were matted in a way that concealed them. It’s utterly asinine…

At least in the case of the Battlestar BluRays, there will be a “definitive” edition that includes both versions. But really it shouldn’t be necessary. Just leave movies and TV shows the way they were made. Clean up the dirt and scratches, obviously, repair damaged elements and such, but stop second-guessing artistic choices or issues that were done a certain way because of the technology of the time. Why is that so hard?

 

spacer

In Memoriam: Glen A. Larson

BSG_glen-larson-titlecardI’ve was saddened last weekend to learn of the passing of Glen A. Larson, the writer and producer behind many of the television series that occupied real estate in my imagination as I was growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, shows such as The Six Million Dollar Man, Quincy, M.E. (the original forensic police procedural!), The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Knight Rider, The Fall Guy, and of course Magnum, P.I. I even have a soft spot for several of his lesser efforts: B.J. and the Bear, Manimal, Automan, and Cover Up, which I remember as a pretty terrific series that was derailed by the heartbreaking and utterly pointless death of its costar, a hunky young actor with a bright future named Jon-Erik Hexum. (Incidentally, why isn’t that show on DVD? Surely I’m not the only one who remembers it with some fondness? Or for that matter, how about the TV movie-of-the-week Hexum made with Joan Collins, The Making of a Male Model? Surely that’s got a big enough cult following to warrant a manufacture-on-demand disc?)

Without question, though, the Glen Larson production that made the biggest impression on me was his epic space-opera  Battlestar Galactica. Premiering in September 1978, a little over a year after Star Wars took the world by storm, Galactica was widely dismissed by critics as a rip-off of a hit movie. In fact, 20th Century Fox actually sued Larson and Universal Studios for plagiarism, because they apparently believed George Lucas had a monopoly on space-based stories featuring robots, dogfighting fighter craft launched from gigantic warships, ray-gun shootouts with armor-clad villains, and planetary-scale holocausts. Never mind that these were all common genre tropes stretching back to the pulp magazines of the 1920s, or that Lucas himself had borrowed heavily from Frank Herbert’s Dune. And never mind as well that Larson had been shopping around the core concept that became Galactica — originally titled Adam’s Ark — since the late 1960s. The suit was eventually settled, but Larson never overcame his reputation as a hack (the notoriously testy science-fiction author Harlan Ellison once called him “Glen Larceny”). Several of his later shows didn’t help matters: Automan was very obviously inspired by Tron, and Manimal tried to cash in on the “bubbling face” transformation effects seen in An American Werewolf in London and The Howling. But I’ve always thought the term “rip-off” was overly harsh, and especially unfair in the case of Galactica. Even to a nine-year-old boy, it was pretty obvious that Galactica was inspired less by Star Wars than by various far-out ideas that were swirling around in the cultural consciousness of the ’70s — pseudoscientific woo-woo stuff like Atlantis and the “ancient astronauts” described in von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods, and the craze for all things Egyptian in the wake of the touring King Tut exhibitions — as well as by Larson’s own Mormon beliefs.

Yes, what you’ve heard all these years is true: Glen A. Larson was a Mormon, and many of the underpinnings of Battlestar Galactica can be traced to LDS folklore, if not actual scripture. The Tribes of Man, the Lost 13th Tribe, the planet Kobol as the birthplace of humanity (actually Kolob, in Mormon cosmology), referring to a wedding ceremony as a “sealing” and the civilian leadership as the Quorum (or, in some episodes, the Council) of the Twelve… that’s all straight out of Mormonism. And if those elements aren’t big enough clues to Larson’s inspiration, consider the mysterious Beings of Light seen in some of the show’s later episodes. These ethereal creatures take a benevolent interest in the Galactica and her fleet of refugees, and memorably tell our heroes “As you are now, we once were; as we are now, you may become,” suggesting they evolved from flesh-and-blood humanlike bodies into some kind of higher form. That’s the Mormon conception of angels in a nutshell.

I remember talking with my friends in elementary school about this stuff while Battlestar was originally airing. At the time, and for many years after, I really didn’t want to accept the connection between the church and one of my favorite TV shows. I don’t know if it still goes on much, but there was a time when Mormons were constantly claiming (often incorrectly) that one celebrity or another was a member of the church, as a way of demonstrating that Mormons were cool, too, I suppose, and pointing out elements of Battlestar borrowed from Mormonism always struck me as an extension of that. But of course I was wrong, and in later years as I became a more educated and sophisticated viewer, I could no longer deny the obvious. And honestly, I’ve now decided as an adult that the show’s Mormon roots might actually be part of its appeal for me. I never officially became a member of the LDS faith myself, but I grew up immersed in it — believe it or not, I did occasionally attend services as a child, and I’ve always been surrounded by family and friends who are members — so all of those elements are familiar to me, and even comforting, in a way. Battlestar Galactica, on some fundamental level, simply feels like home to me. That’s why I can overlook its many flaws, and I suspect that’s also is a big part of why I just couldn’t get on board with Ron Moore’s remake a few years ago. Well, that plus the fact that I tend to dislike remakes on general principle. But the Battlestar “reimagining” or whatever Moore called it really rubbed me wrong right from the get-go, and the best explanation I can offer for that is that the old series felt like home, and the new one… just didn’t.

The other big reason I didn’t care for the remake was because I feel that Moore missed (or deliberately abandoned) the core concept that really lay at the heart of the original. Beneath all the special effects and the space-opera explosions and pyramid-power nonsense, Battlestar Galactica was about family. The three main characters — Commander Adama, played by Lorne Greene, his son Captain Apollo, and Apollo’s best friend, the maverick Lt. Starbuck — comprised a solid and loving family unit. (Adama also had a daughter, Athena, played by the lovely Maren Jensen, but she faded from prominence during the show’s run and had entirely disappeared by time it ended; I’ve never heard an explanation for why.) You always knew that no matter how bad things got for the fleet, no matter what disasters befell our heroes, they had that relationship — a metaphorical pyramid, to continue the Egyptian motif — to rely upon. In Ron Moore’s Galactica, by contrast, every single relationship was completely dysfunctional. Not only could the reimagined Adama, Apollo, and Starbuck not rely on each other, they didn’t even like each other, at least in the early episodes of the show I saw. And that really bothered me. I got the point Moore was making — his thematic preoccupation was less about ancient astronauts than the paranoia engendered by 9/11, the notion that you literally can’t trust anybody — but I didn’t like it. That’s not how I view the world, or at least not how I want to to view it.

But getting back to Larson’s original, there’s a funny thing about that comforting sense of family the show generated: I’ve found it extends into the real world as well. When I attended the first Salt Lake Comic Con a year ago, the celebrity guests I was most pleased to meet turned out not to be the star attractions — William Shatner and the legendary comic-book creator Stan Lee — but rather three cast members from Glen Larson’s Battlestar Galactica: Richard Hatch (Apollo), Dirk Benedict (Starbuck), and Noah Hathaway (Boxey). I’ve found that I’m relatively composed in meeting celebs, but these three, in particular, were easy for me to talk to. I won’t say it was like I’ve known them my whole life, because that sounds a little too creepy-stalkerish, but that’s not an entirely inaccurate way of describing it. Meeting these guys was like… being introduced to far-flung cousins. You don’t actually know them, but you nevertheless feel a sense of connection with them. They were like family, in other words. And I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that I cherished the few moments I spent chatting with them. I owe Glen Larson for that experience, and for the hours and hours of enjoyment, escape, inspiration, and yes, comfort that his work has brought me over the last 35 years.

And so, Glen, wherever you may be tonight, I raise a goblet of thousand-yahren-old ambrosia to you. I hope those Beings of Light were waiting for you in the end…

spacer

My Dad on The Walking Dead

On most mornings these days, my dad wanders up to my place from the other side of the Bennion Compound, a steaming cup of coffee in his hand, and spends a few minutes chatting with me in the driveway before I leave for work. Today’s conversation was all about the TV show he’s recently discovered, The Walking Dead. Here’s his take on it:

“Yeah, so there’s these dead guys that come after you and the only way to stop ’em is to shoot ’em in the head… which doesn’t make any damn sense to me, because they’re already dead, right? How do you kill something that’s already dead? For that matter, why are they walking around if they’re dead, anyhow?”

He took a sip of his coffee, then chuckled.

“It’s pretty stupid, really.”

Good thing he’s not paid by the word for his reviews…

spacer