Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman

Andy Mangels is quite possibly the world’s biggest Wonder Woman fan.  He is also a prolific author, having written prose fiction, non-fiction articles & books, and comic books for numerous publishers, among them DC, Marvel, Dark Horse and Image.  However, until now Mangels has never actually written any Wonder Woman stories.  At long last he can finally cross that off his bucket list with the publication of Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman, a six issue miniseries co-published by Dynamite Entertainment and DC Comics.

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The second half of the 1970s was a bit of a watershed moment for women in telefantasy, with two high profile series featuring female leads airing.  Wonder Woman starring the amazing Lynda Carter is rightfully regarded as one of the all time best adaptations of a comic book series for television.  The Bionic Woman may have been a spin-off of The Six Million Dollar Man, but Jaime Sommers, portrayed by Lindsay Wagner, immediately established herself to be as brave and competent as her male counterpart.

Over the past two years DC has been publishing Wonder Woman ’77, which is set within the television continuity.  Dynamite, meanwhile, has released several Bionic Woman miniseries since 2012.  In retrospect, it was a natural fit to do a comic book series teaming up these two television heroines.

Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman, initially issued as a six issue miniseries, is now collected in trade paperback.  Joining writer Andy Mangels are interior artist Judit Tondora, colorist Roland Pilcz, letterers Tom Orzechowski, Lois Buhalis & Kathryn S. Renta, and cover artist Cat Staggs.  The collected edition features a painted cover by the ever-amazing Alex Ross.

Set in 1977, Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman opens with the government agencies the Inter-Agency Defense Command and the Office of Scientific Intelligence meeting to discuss a new terrorist threat, a sinister cabal known as Castra.  Of course, with the IADC and OSI working together, their two top agents, Diana Prince and Jaime Sommers, are soon paired up.  Jaime very quickly deduces Diana’s secret identity, and before long Wonder Woman and the Bionic Woman are fighting side-by-side against the forces of Castra.

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It is eventually revealed that Castra is headed up by some of Diana and Jaime’s old enemies, who have pooled their resources to have another go at the world domination thing.  It’s been a few years since I watched the Wonder Woman show on DVD, and even longer since I saw reruns of The Bionic Woman on TV, so at first I was having some trouble recalling most of the rogues gallery making up Castra’s hierarchy.  Fortunately in issue #3 Mangels has the various ne’er-do-wells recounting their past exploits to one another, complete with footnotes referencing the original television episodes, which helped bring me up to speed.

Mangels clearly possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Wonder Woman.  He includes a great many references to the TV show, as well as working in nods to various characters & concepts from the rich mythology of the comic books.  He does the same for the Bionic Woman, somewhat obliquely referencing a number of episodes from the series.  You can pretty much understand the majority of Mangels’ story without needing to know what he’s specifically referencing.  Having said that, while I was reading went back & forth between Google and Wikipedia in an effort to figure out a number of them.  I later found out that Comic Book Resources had compiled a fairly comprehensive list of the miniseries’ Easter Eggs.

Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman is an enjoyable story.  I will admit, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the first two chapters, which felt overly heavy with exposition, and numerous different characters were introduced at a rapid succession.  Beginning with issue #3, though, Mangels seems to have found his groove, and the rest of the miniseries a really fun, exciting romp.

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One of the things to keep in mind about genre television 40 years ago is that the technology really didn’t exist to be able to bring super-powered villains to life with any believability.  Instead both Wonder Woman and the Bionic Woman faced a succession of Nazis, mad scientists, killer robots, spies, terrorists and mobsters, along with the occasional low-rent alien invasion.

Mangels sticks with this relatively grounded ethos for the Castra conspiracy in Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman, albeit with the approach that he’s not bound by a television budget.  Instead of half a dozen thugs or a handful of android assassins, Mangels has Diana and Jaime teaming up with the Amazons of Paradise Island to fight an entire army of bad guys.

I also appreciated the quieter character moments in the miniseries.  Mangels did a nice job establishing the friendship between Diana and Jaime, as well as developing a number of the inhabitants of Paradise Island.  We seldom saw the Amazons on the TV series, so it was nice to have them get fleshed out here.  This is where I felt the callbacks to past episodes were most effective, because they helped to illustrate Diana’s passionate beliefs in both sisterhood and the possibility of redemption.

Additionally, I was happy that Max the Bionic Dog made an appearance.  I loved Max on TV.  He was adorable and funny.  I would always laugh when he would use his bionically-enhanced jaws to bite through chains and other stuff, complete with the iconic “Deeneeneeneenee” sound effect.  I tell ya, with that set of chompers, the OSI must have needed to give Max steel-plated bones to gnaw on!

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The artwork by Judit Tondora is, for the most part, very nicely rendered.  She does a good job laying out the action sequences, as well as depicting the quiet conversational moments.  There is a real beautiful quality to Tondora’s work on this miniseries.

I imagine one of the more difficult aspects of drawing Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman would have been the likenesses.  These can be tricky.  Sometimes when an artist is working on a licensed property, the trick is not to draw a point-on photorealistic rendering of the actors, but to instead capture the personalities of their characters.  Of course, depending upon the owner of the property, the artist may be required to draw as photorealistic a depiction as possible, which isn’t always the best way to go.  Tondora clearly had her work cut out for her, since practically every character in this miniseries previously appeared on television.

The quality of Tondora’s likenesses on this miniseries is of a somewhat variable quality.  The two best depictions she does are of Lynda Carter as Diana and Lindsay Wagner as Jaime, which is very fortunate, since they are the main characters.

I felt that perhaps some of Tondora’s efforts on the supporting characters and villains were a bit less effective.  While she does a fair enough job at capturing the likenesses of Lyle Waggoner, Richard Anderson, Martin E. Brooks, Fritz William Weaver and John Saxon, the amount of detailed required to render them and the others in panel after panel often causes them to stand out a bit awkwardly amidst the action.  I am of the opinion that photorealistic depictions are sometimes more suited to cover artwork than interior sequential illustration.  I suppose it really depends upon the specific artist.

Really, my only major criticism of the artwork is that it was printed from Tondora’s uninked pencils.  This is a regular issue I have with Dynamite, as well as a few other publishers.  Some artists, no matter how detailed & finished their pencils are, really do need to be inked.  Unfortunately publishers who are looking to cut costs have opted to jettison the inking stage, often to the detriment of their published books.  As good as Tondora’s work is on this miniseries, I feel it could have been even better if she or a compatible artist had been allowed to ink it.

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The cover artwork by Cat Staggs was quite good.  My two favorites were issue #1 and #6.  The others were nice, although I the coloring on them was somewhat overwhelming.  Sometimes I feel Staggs’ artwork is more suited to black & white or grey tones than full color.

Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman, like most other Dynamite series, was released with a number of variant covers.  The nice thing about “waiting for the trade” is that you get all of those variants collected together.  In addition to the Alex Ross variant which is used for the TPB cover, there are also some nice alterative cover images by Andrew Pepoy, J Bone, Aaron Lopresti, Bill Sienkiewicz and Phil Jimenez.

While I did have some criticisms concerning Wonder Woman ’77 Meets The Bionic Woman, on the whole I found the miniseries to be an enjoyable read with good artwork.  Mangels does leave a couple of his subplots unresolved at the end, setting the stage for a possible sequel.  Hopefully he and Tondora will have the opportunity to reunite on a follow-up miniseries in the near future.

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Thirty years of Star Trek: The Next Generation

Thirty years ago this month, on September 28, 1987, Star Trek: The Next Generation debuted with the two hour premiere “Encounter at Farpoint” co-written by D.C. Fontana & Gene Roddenberry. Set nearly a century after the original Star Trek, the series featured a brand new crew headed by Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) exploring the galaxy aboard the starship Enterprise-D.

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To be perfectly honest, The Next Generation took a bit of time to find its footing. In the years since the original series aired in the late 1960s, series creator Gene Roddenberry had frequently been lauded by fans for his utopian vision of the future.  It would be fair to say that perhaps Roddenberry bought too much into his press.  When it came time for him to devise the structure of TNG, he approached his role not as a writer or a storyteller but as a philosopher presenting his ideology for humanity’s salvation.

In the first season of TNG, Roddenberry had the Federation presented as a post-scarcity socialist paradise where currency had been eliminated, conflict was all-but-unknown, and human beings had reached mental & emotional maturity. The crew of the new Enterprise was intended to be practically perfect… which seriously hampered the dramatic possibilities of the show.  In those early episodes, each time there was a crisis Picard would calmly convene a meeting of his senior staff to reason out a solution.

Trust me when I say that I very much look forward to the day when humanity matures enough that when an emergency occurs our response will be to form a committee to peacefully resolve the situation. Having said that, it is a fact that dramatic fiction thrives on conflict, and the conflict-free ethos of that first season of TNG often rendered the show cripplingly dull.  As someone who had become a fan of the original show via reruns and the movies, I watched most of the first season on TNG, but I was underwhelmed by it.  When the second season began to air in late 1988 I had pretty much lost interest in the show.

Fast forward to the Summer of 1990… I was 14 years old and going to day camp, where I met two cool teenage girls, Meelise and Renee, both of whom also had an interest in science fiction.  We all spent a lot of time hanging out.  As I recall, Meelise and Renee both mentioned that they were fans of TNG.  Thinking back to that first season, I expressed the opinion that it was a pretty disappointing show.  Meelise insisted that is had become much better.  She lent to me a few VHS tapes on which she had recorded a number of episodes from the recently-completed third season.

I remember taking those tapes home, watching them, and being genuinely surprised at how much I enjoyed those episodes. Not only had the plotting gotten better, but the writing for the main characters had all improved tremendously.  Then I got to “The Best of Both Worlds” written by Michael Piller, the riveting season finale which ended with the shocking cliffhanger of Captain Picard assimilated by the seemingly-unstoppable cybernetic Borg.  I was hooked.  That September I was glued to the TV set when “The Best of Both Worlds, Part 2” aired, and I remained an avid viewer of TNG up until the series finale was broadcast in May 1994.

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With the benefit of both hindsight and a greater knowledge of the behind-the-scenes workings of the show, as well as recently binging on TNG episodes on Netflix over the last few months, I can see that there was a actually a gradual increase in quality even before season three. Most of the first year is still very underwhelming, but late there were several episodes that offered a glimpse of the series’ potential.  Despite some rough edges, “Where No One Has Gone Before,” “Heart of Glory,” “Symbiosis” and “Conspiracy” each offered the promise that TNG had new & interesting things to say.

It was actually in the second season that the first truly great episode of TNG aired. “Measure of a Man” written by Melinda M. Snodgrass was a challenging, thought-provoking piece that all these years later remains eminently watchable, one of the best episodes of any Star Trek series ever made. Obviously inspired by the material presented them in this script, Patrick Stewart as Picard and Brent Spiner as the android Lieutenant Data both turned in extremely strong performances.  Later that year another amazing episode, “Q Who” written by Maurice Hurley, featured the eerie, tension-filled introduction of the Borg.

I mentioned in my look back at the original Star Trek that, outside of Kirk, Spock and McCoy, the characters were underdeveloped. Picard and Data were the characters to receive the most time in the spotlight on TNG.  That makes a certain amount of sense.  Stewart is one of the strongest actors ever to appear in the regular cast of any incarnation of Star Trek.  It was a genuine stroke of genius casting him as Picard, and it made sense that the show would often focus on the intellectual, cultured Captain.  Data, an android struggling to understand what it was like to be human, to try to grasp the intricacies of emotion, was also a compelling character, well portrayed by Spiner.  Again, it was an understandable decision to anchor a number of episodes around Data’s character.

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TNG nevertheless did make an honest attempt to flesh out and develop the other members of the crew of the Enterprise-D, with varied amounts of success. It took the show’s writers longer to find the voices of certain characters.  The female members of the crew were definitely ill-served at times by the plots of certain episodes.

However, in spite of these hiccups, there were some interesting relationships between the characters. One of my favorites was the deep friendship that Data and Geordi LaForge shared.  Certainly any time you put Brent Spiner and LeVar Burton opposite one another you were almost guaranteed to have a really great, funny, warm scene.  All these years later re-watching the show, a smile inevitable breaks across my face when Data and LaForge are paired up.

Besides, when I was a kid I watched Reading Rainbow all the time, so I really enjoyed seeing LeVar Burton on TNG.

Although not as successfully executed, another relationship that had potential was the one between First Officer William Riker, played by Jonathan Frakes, and Counselor Deanna Troi, played by Marina Sirtis. Riker and Troi were ex-lovers, and were now serving together on the Enterprise.  This brought about the inevitable “will they or won’t they” tension, which could have been clichéd, although it seemed to work in this case since Frakes and Sirtis did possess a certain amount of chemistry.

I suppose part of the reason why Riker and Troi never worked as well as they could have was because the writers seemed to struggle with both of those characters. Riker was supposed to be a Kirk-type figure, charismatic and romantic and ambitious, but the dynamics of the show established by Roddenberry required that the First Officer couldn’t be too much of any of that, especially ambitious, because otherwise he could have ended up as a rival to Picard, a challenge to the Captain’s authority.  At times Riker was a study in contradictions, and over the years a lot of fans, using the bits of characterization scattered across seven seasons, have tried to work out their own personal head canon to explain his behavior.

Troi at times fared even worse than Riker. As I said, the writers had trouble giving the female characters strong scripts, and so Troi would get saddled with one implausible romance of the week after another, or get take over by aliens, or other weird stuff.  Troi possessed telepathic powers of empathy, which in theory should have been useful, but again the writers frequently had trouble utilizing this.  Often the Counselor was reduced to telling Picard such near-useless statements as “Captain, I sense hostility and deception coming from the other ship.”

As with certain other elements to TNG, there was potential to both Riker and Troi, but unfortunately the show did not develop either of them as well as it could have. I think that much of the appeal of Riker and Troi is down to Frakes and Sirtis, who both did the best they could with the material they were given.

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There was also an interesting relationship between Picard and Doctor Beverly Crusher, who was played by Gates McFadden. Picard and Crusher also had shared history that predated their assignments on the Enterprise, and even though they had never been romantically involved there was an undeniable mutual attraction.  I do think it was to the benefit of the show that Picard and Crusher were usually written as colleagues who were very close friends, and the writers mostly avoided trying to nudge them into a relationship.  Crusher was typically written as a competent professional, which was good to see, although over the course of the series she really didn’t receive too many quality episodes which spotlighted her character.

While on the subject of Beverly Crusher, I should mention her son Wesley, who was played by Wil Wheaton. Initially written as a teen whiz, the character was apparently a fictionalized version of Roddenberry himself.  Unfortunately in the first couple of seasons the show went out of its way to try to make Wesley the smartest person in the room, and many viewers absolutely hated him.  In later seasons, when Wesley was a semi-recurring presence on the show, the writers definitely gave Wheaton much better material to work with, and the character became more interesting & likable, at least in my estimation.

One cannot discuss TNG without mentioning Worf, played by Michael Dorn. The first Klingon to serve in Starfleet, Worf had been orphaned at a young age and adopted by humans.  Much of what he knew about Klingon culture he learned from books, and his idealized view of his people as proud, honorable warriors often came into conflict with the reality of a once-mighty militaristic society infested with political infighting, corruption and treason.  The solemn, brooding Worf was very much a character who was caught between two worlds, too human to be accepted by most Klingons, and too Klingon to fit in with most humans.  Often alone, Worf struggled to discover his own path, to find a way to live up to his own personal standards of Klingon honor and duty while serving in Starfleet.

Probably the most enigmatic member of the Enterprise crew was Guinan, played by Whoopi Goldberg. Ostensibly the bartender of the ship’s Ten Forward lounge, Guinan was a centuries-old alien with nebulously-defined powers whose home planet had been destroyed by the Borg.  Guinan often imparted sage advice to the crew during various personal crises or ship-wide emergencies.  On paper Guinan sounds like the sort of character who could quickly become annoying. However, Goldberg played the character with just the right combination of gravity and mischievous charm that in her occasional appearances Guinan was usually quite charming.

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TNG introduced a number of key concepts to the Star Trek universe. Probably the most iconic was, of course, the Borg.  Instantly memorable, the cybernetic juggernaut of the Borg Collective was perhaps too effective as an adversary.  They were such a powerful, formidable foe that, as cool as they were, it was immediately apparent that they needed to be used extremely sparingly, lest they suffer from villain decay.  TNG was mostly able to avoid this, as the few appearances of the Borg after “The Best of Both Worlds” saw individuals or rogue, underpowered divisions of the Collective popping up here and there.

It was a smart decision hold back on once again utilizing the full might of the Borg until the 1996 movie Star Trek: First Contact.  It might have been a good idea for the concept of the Borg to have been put to rest after that, to have them go out on a high point.  Unfortunately they became a reoccurring adversary on Star Trek: Voyager, with the inevitable diminishing results.

At least the writers recognized that TNG needed another adversary that could be used regularly. The ultra-capitalist Ferengi had already been introduced in the first season, but they had landed with a dull thud, never once working as serious villains.  They were very quickly reduced to comic relief, although several years later Star Trek: Deep Space Nine would do a decent job at developing them into a semi-believable culture.  The Klingons, with their political in-fighting, could occasionally be brought in as bad guys, with treasonous factions plotting against the Federation.  Likewise, another adversary from the original series, the Romulans, returned.  They were fairly effectively utilized, with a tense state of cold war existing between the Federation and the Romulans.

Finally, in the Season Four episode “The Wounded” scripted by Jeri Taylor, we were introduced to the Cardassians. A fascist, expansionist empire governed by the military, the Cardassians were involved in a lengthy, bloody war with the Federation.  “The Wounded” opens shortly after the signing of a peace treaty between the two sides, although it quickly becomes obvious that the Cardassians are utilizing the lull in conflict to secretly re-arm.  The Cardassians presented the writers of TNG with an opportunity to explore the less-idealistic, more pragmatic side of the Federation.  Over the course of the second half of the series, we see the Federation and Starfleet making certain decisions that, from both a moral and tactical perspective, are ill-advised, all out of a desire to avoid another full-blown conflict with the Cardassians.

TNG also introduced the Bajorans, whose planet had been brutally occupied by the Cardassians. Both the Bajorans and the Cardassians would become central, key elements of the Deep Space Nine spin-off, where each of their societies would be intricately developed by the writers.

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If I had one criticism of TNG that remained consistent throughout its seven year run, it was the writers’ annoying overreliance on techno babble to resolve their plots. It would always drive me up the wall when the Enterprise would solve an emergency by bouncing a particle beam off the deflector dish, or transmitting a phase-shifting tachyon pulse into a planet’s atmosphere, or some such nonsense.  I realize that the show wanted to be more cerebral than the original Star Trek, but if you have to make up a bunch of technical-sounding gobbledygook in order to avoid a fist fight or a shootout then you’re really just cheating.

In certain respects, TNG remains very much a product of its time. The show was produced when one of the primary goals was to re-sell the series over and over in syndication.  This meant cranking out as many episodes a year as possible.  Nearly every season of TNG contained 26 episodes, which required a breakneck production schedule.  Even from the point when the show got noticeably great with season three, there were inevitably a few duds each year.  By the sixth and seventh seasons, with DS9 simultaneously being made, I think the production crew on TNG was beginning to get burned out, and the number of underwhelming episodes began to increase.  The level of quality never dipped too low, but it’s apparent that it was the right call to end the series after seven years, while the good still outweighed the bad.

Looking back on Star Trek: The Next Generation three decades after its debut, it remains a study in contradictions. It was produced at a time when television was approaching a crossroads, when genre shows were slowly beginning to gain popularity in the general public, when serialization and long-form plotting were just beginning to gradually creep into the medium.  At times TNG was clearly looking forward while nevertheless remaining firmly rooted in the established traditions of television production.  Perhaps TNG never quite lived up to its potential, but it was a crucial stepping stone that enabled both the Star Trek franchise, as well as genre television as a whole, to leap into first the 1990s and then the 21th Century.

Miguel Ferrer: 1955 to 2017

I was sorry to hear that actor Miguel Ferrer and passed away on January 19th at the much too young age of 61.

Born on February 7, 1955, Miguel Ferrer was the son of actor / director Jose Ferrer and singer Rosemary Clooney.  Ferrer’s original aspiration was to work as a musician, but in 1975 his friend Bill Mumy offered him a part in an episode of the TV series Sunshine.  Ferrer caught the acting bug, and remained in the profession for the rest of his life.

One of Ferrer’s early roles was a 1981 episode of Magnum P.I.  Ferrer played, in a flashback, a young Navy ensign stationed in Hawaii shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, with his father Jose Ferrer then playing the same character in the present day. I always thought that was such a wonderful casting decision.

The role that really put Ferrer on the map was playing sleazy corporate executive Bob Morton in the dystopian sci-fi movie Robocop (1987).  In interviews, Ferrer always acknowledged that he was grateful to that movie for really getting him noticed, enabling him to subsequently have a successful career as an actor.

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Ferrer was often cast as villainous or quirky characters.  He was seldom seen in starring roles, but he worked regularly, a ubiquitous presence in both movies and television for three decades.  Notably, in the early 1990s Ferrer portrayed cynical FBI agent Albert Rosenfeld in David Lynch’s cult classic TV series Twin Peaks, and he also appeared in the 1994 TV miniseries adapting the Stephen King novel The Stand.

From 2001 to 2007 Ferrer appeared on Crossing Jordan, playing Dr. Garret Macy, the mentor and boss to loose cannon Medical Examiner Jordan Cavanaugh, portrayed by Jill Hennessey.  Crossing Jordan was a series that I watched regularly, and I loved the chemistry between Ferrer and Hennessy.  Macy was something of a brooding, low-key figure who had the unenviable task of reigning in and covering for the headstrong, anti-authoritarian Jordan.   Macy, a divorcee and recovering alcoholic with a teenage daughter, had a lot of baggage, and Ferrer brought the character to life in a very affecting performance.

Interviewed in 2009 by the A.V. Club, Ferrer had positive memories of working on Crossing Jordan:

“It was great. I loved that. Six years on the same show, working on the same lot. Got to go home and see my kids every night. They weren’t always awake, but I saw them. I loved that there were no out-of-control egos on the set. I loved working with the same people for six years. You develop a sure hand, and you learn how one works and likes to work. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. We had a ball.”

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Ferrer, along with longtime friend Bill Mumy, was a science fiction and superhero fan.  The two of them collaborated on a few comic book projects in the late 1980s.  They co-wrote the six issue miniseries Comet Man, published by Marvel Comics in 1987.  A dark, bizarre blending of superheroes, sci-fi, and horror, Comet Man was eerily illustrated by future superstar Batman artist Kelley Jones, inked by Gerry Talaoc, and featured striking covers by Bill Sienkiewicz.  Ferrer, Mumy and Jones re-teamed in 1990 to wrap up the Comet Man storyline in a four part serial that ran in Marvel Comics Presents.  A decade later writer Peter David, who was friends with Ferrer and Mumy, used Comet Man during his acclaimed run on Captain Marvel.

Paired with talented artist Steve Leialoha, Ferrer and Mumy created the very odd superhero parody Trypto the Acid Dog, which debuted in a 1988 comic published by Renegade Press.  Additional Trypto stories by Ferrer, Mumy & Leialoha came out in the 1990s via Atomeka Press and Dark Horse.  Recently commenting on their collaboration, Leialoha revealed that the visual for Trypto was based on Ferrer’s own dog Davey.

Given how wonderfully bizarre Ferrer’s comic book work was, I’ve always thought it was a bit of a shame that he didn’t write more.  Of course, this was around the time when his acting career was really taking off, so I certainly understand why he chose to focus on that.

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Some of Ferrer’s roles were actually comic book related.  He played Vice President Rodriguez in Iron Man 3 (2013).  Miguel also did a great deal of voiceover work, much of it for animated series based on comic books.  Among the shows he voice-acted on were Superman: The Animated Series, The Batman, The Spectacular Spider-Man, and Young Justice, the latter of which had him in the recurring role of immortal conqueror Vandal Savage.  One of Ferrer’s last roles was voicing Deathstroke in the direct-to-DVD animated adaptation of Teen Titans: The Judas Contract.

In addition to being a talented actor and writer, Ferrer had a reputation for being a genuinely nice guy.  In interviews he always came across as down-to-earth and laid back.  In recent days Bill Mumy, Kelly Jones, Steve Leialoha and Peter David have all reflected on his passing; each of them described him as a good friend possessed of a wonderful sense of humor.  It sounds like Ferrer will be very much missed by those who were fortunate enough to know him.

Fifty years of Star Trek

Star Trek made its television debut 50 years ago this week, on September 8, 1966, when the episode “The Man Trap” aired on NBC.

(For the pedantic-minded, yes, “The Man Trap” was number six in production order, and the actual first episode of Star Trek should have been “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” but NBC decided to instead debut the show with a “monster of the week” first episode. And that’s not even getting into the matter of first, unused pilot episode “The Cage” which wasn’t broadcast in its entirety until 1988.  Okay, I’ll stop now!)

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I wasn’t born for another decade, in June 1976, but in the early 1980s when I was a young kid I regularly watched reruns of Star Trek on Saturday evenings on WPIX Channel 11. I was a science fiction fan, and the show was such a thrill for me.  At the time, the concept of an ongoing sci-fi TV series that aired a “new” episode every single week was just so revolutionary.  It’s almost inconceivable these days when there are numerous genre shows on the small screen, but when I was a kid Star Trek was literally one-of-a-kind.

(It’s really no wonder that a couple of years later I also became a huge Doctor Who fan once I discovered repeats airing Monday to Friday on PBS stations.)

I honestly don’t remember my first episode of Star Trek. I have very fuzzy memories of a young me watching Captain Kirk fighting the Gorn (“Arena”) and of Kirk and Spock communicating with the Horta (“Devil in the Dark”), but I certainly couldn’t swear with any certainty that either of those was my absolute first exposure to the show.  The point is that as far back as I can recall, I was watching Star Trek, and enjoying it.

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It is interesting to have re-watched many of those episodes over the past decade and a half, to revisit them with adult eyes. Some of them are still classics, while others have not aged well.  And, no, I am not referring to the low budgets or the dodgy special effects.

When you are six years old “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” probably seems an insightful examination of racism; when you’re in your 30s it comes across as a heavy-handed, clunky allegory. When you’re a kid “A Private Little War” strikes you as a tragic tale of good men forced into conflict; when you’re an adult you realize that it’s actually a  defense of the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War.

In the decade after Star Trek’s original three season run concluded, its creator Gene Roddenberry was a regular of the sci-fi convention circuit, and he worked hard to propagate the myth that the series was extremely progressive and forward-thinking. This was true to a degree, but certainly not as much as Roddenberry would later claim.  As with any series that was crafted by a number of different writers, Star Trek’s politics were all over the place.  Roddenberry himself could be maddeningly inconsistent, at times genuinely liberal, and at others decidedly right-of-center.

The show is, in hindsight, not nearly as diverse as it could have been, with the three lead characters of Kirk, Spock and Doctor McCoy all played by white males. There is a good deal of  sexism & sexual titillation in many episodes.  Yes, Star Trek did show men and women serving alongside each other in a military organization.  But most of the females in Starfleet were relegated to secondary roles.  The women of Star Trek were often characterized as emotional & irrational, and many of them were clad in extremely revealing outfits.

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I doubt it’s any accident that one of the things that everyone remembers about Star Trek are those green-skinned Orion “slave girls” portrayed by Susan Oliver and Yvonne Craig.

(Not that there’s anything wrong with being sexy.  But as they say, everything in moderation.)

It is also unfortunate the most of the crew of the Starship Enterprise was underdeveloped. By today’s standards Scotty, Sulu, Uhura and Chekov are very one-dimensional.  But that was an inevitable reality of the model of American television in the late 1960s.  Watch any prime-time drama from that era and you will see that it is made up of stand-alone episodes that are primarily driven by plot, with extended story arcs and long-term characterization nonexistent.

Nevertheless, for all its flaws, Star Trek was still groundbreaking. It was the unexpected beginning of a decades-long franchise, one that in its various incarnations over the next 50 years would genuinely become more and more progressive.  The original series was the necessary foundation upon which all of the subsequent TV series and movies were built.

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Even today, fifty years later, there aspects of the original Star Trek that still hold up. The lead trio of Kirk, Spock and McCoy works very well, due to the genuine chemistry that existed between actors William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley.  You definitely see these three men as colleagues who, despite their differing world views and their often passionate arguments over ideology & methodology, possess a genuine rapport & friendship.

I’ve sometimes heard it suggested that Kirk, Spock and McCoy are a Freudian Trio.  Kirk is the ego, the leader.  Spock is the superego, reason.  McCoy is the id, emotion.  Whatever the case, it made for compelling drama.

The writing on Star Trek could also be very good. Despite his flaws, Roddenberry certainly devised a wonderful concept, and his plots could be intelligent & imaginative.  Gene L. Coon and D.C. Fontana are the two writers who probably deserve the most credit for taking Roddenberry’s vision and developing it into a compelling, nuanced three-dimensional universe.  Other talented writers who contributed quality plots & scripts to Star Trek are George Clayton Johnson, Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, Harlan Ellison, Theodore Sturgeon, David Gerrold, Norman Spinrad and Jerome Bixby.

The costumes, props, sets and models created for Star Trek were also striking & original. The designs conceived by Matt Jeffries and Wah Chang are now iconic.  The Enterprise itself, the crew’s phasers & communicators, the Klingons’ cruisers, aliens such as the Gorn and the Salt Vampire; all are instantly recognizable.

uss-enterprise

For a television show that lasted a mere three years, constantly teetering on the edge of cancellation, the original Star Trek has had a seismic impact on popular culture. It has simultaneously served as escapist fantasy while providing a lens through which to explore the social & political controversies of the last half century.

Of course there’s also plenty to say about the Star Trek movies, and The Next Generation, and Deep Space Nine, and so on, but I think I’ll save those for another time.

By the way, one of my favorite WordPress blogs is the m0vie blog. Among the numerous reviews, its author Darren has written some incredibly detailed, insightful, thought-provoking analyses of the Star Trek franchise. I encourage everyone who is a fan of the series to check it out.

Star Wars reviews: Rebels season one

As the release of The Force Awakens approaches, I’ve been reviewing various entries in the vast Star Wars Expanded Universe.  Today I’m looking at a recent piece of Star Wars lore, the first season of the animated TV series Rebels, originally broadcast between October 2014 and March 2015.  I picked up the season one DVD last month.

Rebels season one DVD

Set a decade and a half after the events of the prequels, Rebels chronicles the exploits of a small cell of the Rebel Alliance operating out of a freighter starship known as the Ghost in the vicinity of the planet Lothal:

Ezra Bridges – The fifteen year old is the figure through whom the audience is introduced to the crew of the Ghost.  Ezra’s parents conducted underground anti-Imperial broadcasts on Lothal.  They were arrested when Ezra was only eight years old.  Spending the next several years as a homeless thief, Ezra comes to the attention of the Ghost crew when he makes off with a supply shipment which they themselves had only just stolen from the Empire.  At first motivated solely by survival and self-interest, Ezra joins the Rebels after they risk their lives to rescue him from the Empire.

Kanan Jarrus – The leader of the Ghost crew is a former Jedi Padawan who survived the destruction of the Jedi Order during Order 66.  Spending the next 15 years in hiding, he became a smuggler and guerilla fighter, keeping his Jedi abilities hidden.  Kanan finally unsheathes his lightsaber in a battle to liberate Wookies who have been captured by Imperial slavers.  After years of running from his past, Kanan reluctantly re-embraces his Jedi heritage when he realizes that Ezra is a Force sensitive, and he takes on the boy as his apprentice.

Hera Syndulla – The Twi’lek owner of the Ghost and an extremely skilled pilot, Hera is the den mother of the group.  She has a close friendship with Kanan, and it’s implied that there is a mutual attraction between the two.  The level-headed Hera serves as the link between the Rebel cell and the larger Alliance, communicating with a mysterious contact known only as “Fulcrum.”

Sabine Wren – A sarcastic teenage explosive expert and graffiti artist, Sabine is from the planet Mandalore.  She was previously enrolled in the Imperial Academy, until an experience there completely embittered her towards the Empire.  As a result she developed an aversion to blindly following orders.  Kanan has a crush on Sabine, but she has declined to acknowledge it, preferring to remain friends.

Garazeb “Zeb” Orrelios – The large, hairy Zeb is one of the last of the Lasat, an alien race who were brutally invaded by the Empire.  Seeking to avenge his people, Zeb became involved in the Rebellion.  Something of a grumpy hothead, Zeb is less than enthusiastic about Ezra joining the crew, although they eventually develop a grudging mutual respect.

Chopper – A beat-up old astromech droid, C1-10P aka Chopper helps keep the Ghost running.  Possessing an irritable, mischievous personality, the droid expresses himself through grunts and beeps.

Over the course of the first season, the writers do a good job introducing the main characters, spotlighting each of them throughout the 15 episodes.  By the time I was finished watching the DVD set, I really did not have a favorite, having grown to like all of them.

Rebels characters

Probably the best character development was in the deep friendship that grows between Ezra and Kanan.  They become not just student and teacher, but also a surrogate family, with Kanan becoming a father figure and role model for the reckless orphan.  Teaching Ezra to use the Force and become a Jedi is just as much a learning experience for the teenager as it is for Kanan.  Both of them need to discover patience and understanding.  It is a different relationship than that of Luke and Yoda, as can be seen by this amusing exchange from “Rise of the Old Masters”…

Kanan: Enough jokes. Focus!

Ezra: I’m trying!

Kanan: Do, or no not. There is no try.

Ezra: What does that even mean? How can I do something if I don’t try to do it?

Kanan: Well, see… Actually, that one always confused me, too. But Master Yoda sure used to say it a lot.

That was one of my favorite bits from the first season!

Rebels appears to be geared to a slightly younger audience than the Star Wars movies.  There is more of an emphasis on comedy and slapstick, although at times it can also be pretty intense and serious.

Some of the humor derives from the fact that the Empire comes across as pretty damn incompetent.  Yes, there’s that old joke that Imperial Stormtroopers cannot shoot straight.  But if you actually watch the movies, most of the time they are incredibly dangerous adversaries who mow down their enemies left and right.  It’s only when they encounter major characters such as Han, Luke or Leia that they are utterly incapable of hitting the broad side of a Jawa sandcrawler.  And such is the case with Rebels, where the Ghost crew constantly runs circles around the Empire.  You almost get the impression that it’s only sheer force of numbers that’s allowing the Emperor to maintain control of the galaxy!

There are exceptions, such as Agent Kallus of the Imperial Security Bureau, who is dangerously competent, but who is constantly frustrated by the bumbling antics of his troops.  Likewise the utterly ruthless Grand Moff Tarkin arrives on Lothal late in the season to take charge of operations, and he seems to spend half the time uttering exclamations of exasperation at the people serving under him.

The closest thing to a “big bad” for season one is the Imperial Inquisitor, a Force-adept disciple of Darth Vader who utilizes a double bladed lightsaber capable of whirling like a propeller.  The arrogant, mocking Inquisitor spends much of the season in pursuit of Kanan and Ezra.  The design and personality of the Inquisitor is somewhere between Vader and his Sith predecessor Darth Maul.  He is definitely a formidable adversary.

Rebels Inquisitor

Several actors from the movies reprise their roles.  As always, Anthony Daniels is on hand to voice C-3PO.  James Earl Jones returns for his iconic vocalization of Darth Vader, as do Frank Oz as Yoda and Billy Dee Williams as Lando Callrissian.

Lando appears in the episode “Idiot’s Array.”  Zeb loses Chopper to Lando in a game of Sabacc, much to the droid’s indignation.  To get Chopper back, the Ghost crew agrees to help Lando smuggle cargo through the Imperial blockade of Lothal.  And, no, the cargo is not a case of Colt 45 (which was my first guess) but so-called “mining equipment,” namely a very odd animal that is a cross between a pig and a puffer fish.  This is a few years before Lando became the semi-respectable administrator of Cloud City, back when he was still a smooth-talking gambler and con artist.  Williams does a good job recreating the part.

“Idiot’s Array” is one of the most offbeat and comedic installments of the entire season.  Actually, it’s a great episode, genuinely funny and entertaining.  And it actually works out well, coming right before the final four episode arc of the season, a very intense and serious storyline.

Season one draws to a dramatic conclusion with “Fire Across the Galaxy.”  The crew infiltrates Tarkin’s star destroyer to rescue Kanan.  This leads to a final, riveting showdown between Kanan and the Inquisitor.

“Fire Across the Galaxy” also reveals the identity of Fulcrum; she is none other than Ahsoka Tano, former Jedi and fan favorite from The Clone Wars animated series.  It was a pleasant surprise to learn that Ahsoka survived the Jedi Purge and was working alongside Senator Bail Organa to organize the Rebel Alliance.

Rebels Ahsoka Tano

As “Fire Across the Galaxy” came to a close, I found myself very much looking forward to season two.  The first year had done a great job at developing the main characters, and I am interested in seeing Ahsoka becoming a regular.  Also, with the arrival of Darth Vader on Lothal in the final scene, the possibility of Ahsoka encountering her former master and learning of his turn to the Dark Side appears to be in the cards.

By the way, in watching Rebels season one, I came to realize just how crucial the visual designs of Ralph McQuarrie, the music of John Williams and the sound designs of Ben Burtt all are in recapturing the feel, the atmosphere of the Star Wars universe in an animated series.  All of these have been utilized by the makers of Rebels, and it just would not be the same in the absence of any of them.

I cancelled cable TV service a while back, but I can always get Rebels season two through iTunes.  It’s definitely something I’d rather not have to wait for the DVD release.  It’s an entertaining, well-written series that does a great job of exploring the period between the prequels and the original trilogy.

Olaf Pooley: 1914 to 2015

English actor Olaf Pooley, who was born on March 13, 1914, passed away on July 14th at the grand old age of 101.  Pooley’s best-known role was undoubtedly his 1970 appearance in the Doctor Who serial “Inferno” which starred Jon Pertwee as the Third Doctor.  At the time of his death Pooley was the oldest still-living actor to have appeared on Doctor Who.

In the seven-episode “Inferno” Pooley portrayed the monomaniacal Professor Stahlman, a scientist obsessed with drilling through the Earth’s crust in his quest to locate a new source of energy.  As the story unfolds, Stahlman’s project instead unearths a green mutagenic slime that regressed humans into savage animals, and the drilling threatens to wipe out all life on the planet.

Doctor Who: The Book of Lists succinctly describes Stahlman as “arrogant, confrontational and pretty single-minded even before he gets turned into a hairy monster.”  Indeed, Pooley played the Professor as a thoroughly-unpleasant individual, a villain viewers absolutely love to hate.  Pooley was so convincing in this performance that whenever I saw him in other roles or being interviewed I was always a bit taken aback at how affable he actually was!

It has been reported that Pooley was less-than-enamored with his heavy make-up in the later episodes of “Inferno.”  One would think that most guest actors working on Doctor Who would be going in knowing that there was an above-average chance that they would end up playing some sort of grotesque monster.  Having said that, I don’t blame Pooley for being apprehensive about being made up to look like something across between an ape and a werewolf!

With its journey sideways into a parallel universe where Britain is a fascist police state and its ominous end-of-the-world scenario, “Inferno” is a favorite among Doctor Who fans including myself.  It’s been included on several Top Ten and Top Twenty Stories lists over the years.

Olaf Pooley Inferno

Of course, Doctor Who was but one entry on Pooley’s resume. In a lengthy career that spanned from the 1940s to the beginning of the 21st Century, he worked in theater, television and movies on both sides of the Atlantic.  In an interview conducted just last month Pooley related working alongside such noted actors as Michael Gough, Noel Coward and a young Anthony Hopkins.  He also wrote several plays and screenplays.

Moving to the United States in the 1980s, Pooley made a number of appearances on American television.  Notably, he was a scientist in the 1985 pilot episode of MacGuyver, and he made guest appearances on popular series Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law and Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman.

At the age of 86, one of Pooley’s last roles before retirement was in the Star Trek: Voyager episode “Blink of an Eye” which aired in January 2000.  This made him one of only a handful of actors to have appeared in both Doctor Who and the Star Trek franchise.

Pooley had a lifelong love of art.  He studied at the Architectural Academy in Bedford Square.  It was after being convinced that it would be difficult making a living as an artist that Pooley went into acting.  Yes, his second choice for a career was one that had only slightly better prospects for financial security!  Pooley really must have been a creative person with a passion for expressing himself to have gone that route.  Fortunately this worked out quite well for him.

In his last years Pooley was still involved in the art world.  Having retired from acting and living in Los Angeles, he once again immersed himself in painting, spending the final decade and a half of his life creating many pieces in his Santa Monica studio.

On March 13, 2014, his one hundredth birthday, he was briefly interviewed by ABC 7 Los Angeles about both his work as an artist and his acting…

I find it amazing and wonderful that Pooley was active right until the end of his life.  Imagine retiring from a job that you enjoyed and then spending your remaining years actively engaged in a hobby that is a deep passion for you.  On top of that, to live to be over a century old and still be in fairly good health & retain your mental faculties?  We should all be so lucky!

Patrick Macnee: 1922 to 2015

I was sorry to learn that Patrick Macnee passed away on June 25th at the age of 93. Another actor whose work I grew up with is now gone.

Macnee was a prolific actor who made numerous television appearances over the decades.  He appeared on such diverse shows as The Twilight Zone, Columbo, The Love Boat, Nightman, Diagnosis Murder, Frasier and various TV movies & miniseries.

Macnee also had roles in a number of movies, most notably The Howling, This Is Spinal TapLobster Man From Mars, and the James Bond entry A View to a Kill.

Patrick Macnee John Steed

Amongst his various roles, Macnee will undoubtedly, and very deservedly, be remembered for his iconic portrayal of sophisticated secret agent John Steed from the British television series The Avengers, which aired on ITV from 1961 to 1969.  Macnee as Steed was instantly recognizable, clad in fashionable suits & bowler hat and toting a black umbrella.  A rather tongue-in-cheek espionage / adventure series, The Avengers featured Steed and his colleagues thwarting various outlandish (and occasionally sci-fi tinged) plots by Communist agents, mad scientists and eccentric criminal masterminds.

Macnee had several co-stars during the decade-long run of The Avengers, among them Honor Blackman and Linda Thorson.  He was especially effective in the two seasons when he shared the screen with Diana Rigg as Emma Peel (1965-67).  Macnee and Rigg possessed genuine chemistry.  The playful, witty banter between Steed and Peel was one of the highlights of the show.  Most fans of The Avengers consider the period of the series co-starring Macnee and Rigg to be the best.

John Steed and Emma Peel

I also fondly recall Macnee for his association with the original Battlestar Galactica series that was broadcast from 1978 to 1979.  He actually had three roles on that show: voicing the opening narration, voicing the Cylon Imperious Leader, and portraying the mysterious Count Iblis.

Iblis appeared in the two-part episode “War of the Gods.”  Iblis is a charismatic yet sinister figure who promises to lead the human survivors of the Cylon massacre to the long sought-after lost colony of Earth if they pledge their loyalty to him.  In a plotline influenced by both series creator Glen A. Larson’s Mormon faith and the then-popular book Chariots of the Gods, Iblis is eventually revealed to be a highly evolved extraterrestrial entity who fell from grace and was exiled by his people, becoming a force of temptation & corruption, i.e. a Satanic figure.  It is implied that more than a millennia in the past Iblis played a role in the downfall of the original reptilian Cylons, who were supplanted by their mechanical successors, hence their Imperious Leader having the same voice as the Count.

Patrick Macnee Count Iblis

Macnee played Count Iblis with a wonderful combination of charm and menace.  His performance as this enigmatic figure is a major reason why “War of the Gods” is considered one of the best entries in Battlestar Galactica’s uneven run.

Patrick Macnee was certainly a talented actor.  It was always wonderful to see him appear on television.  He will definitely be missed.