Doctor Who writer Bob Baker: 1939 to 2021

Longtime British television & film scriptwriter Bob Baker passed away on November 3rd. He was 82 years old.

Baker, often paired up with creative partner Dave Martin, wrote for a number British television series throughout the 1970s, including the long-running science fiction series Doctor Who.

Baker & Martin’s first contribution to Doctor Who was the four-part serial “The Claws of Axos,” broadcast in 1971. A memorable story featuring Jon Pertwee as the Doctor, it saw the shape-shifting vampiric entity Axos attempt to drain the Earth dry of its life energy. Their second contribution to the series was the six-part “The Mutants” broadcast in 1972. Containing strong anti-imperialist and anti-apartheid sentiments, it is one of the Doctor Who’s most overtly political stories.

Baker & Martin co-wrote a total of eight serials for Doctor Who between 1971 and 1979, with Baker working solo on a ninth story, “Nightmare of Eden,” which was broadcast in late 1979.

Among Baker & Martin’s contributions to the Doctor Who universe, they created the beloved robot dog K-9, who was introduced in their 1977 serial “The Invisible Enemy” during Tom Baker’s tenure as the Doctor. At the end of the story K-9 joined the Doctor on his travels, and the mechanical dog was a regular presence in the TARDIS for the next several seasons.

Although K-9 was written out of Doctor Who in 1981, the mechanical mutt has periodically returned over the years, and was paired up with fan-favorite companion Sarah Jane Smith, played by actress Elisabeth Sladen. Baker himself contributed to the K-9 spin-off series that ran for 26 episodes between October 2009 and November 2010 on Network Ten in Australia and on Channel 5 in the UK.

Among the other television series Baker contributed to was the police procedural Z-Cars (1974), the police action series Target (1977-8), the crime drama Bergerac (1981, 1983), and the children’s dark fantasy series King of the Castle (1977) and Into the Labyrinth (1981-2).

Beginning in 1993 Baker became associated with another iconic British dog. Created by Nick Park, the stop motion animation series Wallace & Gromit features the absent-minded inventor Wallace and his silent yet intelligent anthropomorphic beagle Gromit. Baker began co-writing the Wallace & Gromit series with the second animated short The Wrong Trousers in 1993. This was followed by A Close Shave in 1995, the feature-length animated film The Curse of the Were-Rabbit in 2005, and the short A Matter of Loaf and Death in 2008. Baker also worked on the six episode television series Wallace and Gromit’s World of Invention broadcast on BBC One in November 2010.

Notably, A Matter of Loaf and Death saw Baker, in a bit of dark humor, write in his own death via the demise of “Baker Bob,” one of the victims of a serial killer who is murdering British bakers.

Baker wrote an autobiography entitled K-9 Stole My Trousers! which was published in 2013. He co-wrote with Paul M. Tam the 2015 anthology The Essential Book of K-9. Another short story collection, K-9: Megabytes, was released in 2020.

Baker’s contributions to Doctor Who and Wallace & Gromit made him a beloved figure of genre fandom. He will certainly be missed.

Stuart Damon: 1937 to 2021

Actor Stuart Damon passed away on June 29th at the age of 84. I was surprised that not much mention had been made of his death as he was well-known by both fans of British telefantasy and American soap operas. So I thought it worth putting together a short remembrance.

The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Stuart Damon was born in Brooklyn NY on February 5, 1937. He attended Brandeis University, from which he graduated in 1958. Damon’s career began in 1962 as a theater actor on Broadway, and this led to him being cast in the 1965 television production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella alongside Lesley Ann Warren. Broadcast on CBS on February 22, 1965, Cinderella was for several decades the highest-rated non-sports special to air on that network, and it provided Damon with a huge career boost.

Damon moved to Britain later that year, and over the next decade he appeared in a number of television and theater productions in the UK. Most notably, Damon co-starred with Alexandra Bastedo and William Gaunt on the spy-fi series The Champions that aired for 30 episodes on ITV between September 1968 and April 1969.

In the pilot episode of The Champions secret agents Craig Stirling (Damon), Sharon Macready (Bastedo) and Richard Barrett (Gaunt) infiltrate a bioweapons laboratory in Communist China. Fleeing by airplane, they crash in the Himalayas, and nearly die, but are rescued by an advanced hidden civilization. The super-science that is used to save the three agents also endows them with a variety of paranormal abilities such as enhanced strength, ultra-fast reflexes and ESP. Returning to Geneva, the three agents use these abilities protect the world from a variety of fascist and terrorist menaces, all the while striving to keep those powers hidden from their superiors.

Although it was filmed on a shoestring budget, The Champions was well-written, and the three leads did a good job carrying the fantastical premise. All these years later it is still well-regarded.

Interviewed in 2011 about his time on the series, Damon stated:

“My character grew because I grew as an actor. I’ve always taken my work very, very seriously. In all the years I’ve been an actor I’ve never worked one day on anything without being excited to be there and determined to do the best job I could. So I was just always trying to improve and to be creative and as imaginative as possible when playing Craig Stirling. Like anything else, the more time you spend acting the better you get at it.”

During his time in the UK Damon also guest-starred twice on the science fiction series Space 1999. In the November 1975 episode “Matter of Life and Death” Damon brielfly appeared as Eagle pilot Parks. Then, in the two-part story “The Bringers of Wonder” broadcast in April 1977 Damon plays Guido Verdeschi, the brother of Moonbase Alpha’s security chief Tony Verdeschi (Tony Anholt)… although Guido, along with all of the other members of the supposed rescue expedition from Earth, turn out to be blobby one-eyed telepathic radiation-consuming aliens!

After returning to the States in 1977 Damon was cast as Dr. Alan Quartermaine on the soap opera General Hospital. Damon would play the role for 31 years. The morally ambiguous Quatermaine, a kindly, benevolent doctor who in his off-time attempted to murder his wife on several occasions and who did actually succeed in bumping off a couple of other characters, as well as committing sundry other crimes, was very popular with viewers.

Damon finally departed General Hospital in February 2007 when his character was killed off. Damon would later reprise Quartermaine in several episodes, alternately, in a dream sequence, as a ghost, and as a hallucination. (Soap operas are, I think, only slightly less ridiculous than superhero comic books!)

Damon was nominated for a Daytime Emmy on several occasions for his performance as Alan Quartermaine. He finally won the award for Best Supporting Actor in 1999 due to a storyline in which Quartermaine, following surgery, became addicted to painkillers.

I have to confess, offhand I don’t think I’ve ever seen a single episode of General Hospital from start to finish. That said, it strikes me that appearing as a regular on a television series for three decades straight is one heck of an achievement.

Damon himself seemed very fond of the role. In a 2010 interview he explained his approach to playing Quartermaine:

“What I tried to do as an actor is I tried to make the character as complete as possible. I wanted to make sure that this character had an edge, that he wasn’t Mr. Good Guy or Mr. Bad Guy — he wasn’t back or white, he was gray. I wanted to make him someone you didn’t mess with.”

Five (or so) episodes of The Twilight Zone for Halloween

This month is the 60th anniversary of The Twilight Zone, the eerie anthology series created by Rod Serling, which made its debut on October 2, 1959 with the episode “Where Is Everybody?”  With Halloween right around the corner, this felt like a good opportunity to briefly look at some of my favorite horror-themed episodes of the show.

Keep in mind, The Twilight Zone was not a horror series.  Serling was a writer who was very interested in addressing political & social injustice in his works.  He endured a significant amount of pushback and censorship from the conservative television networks of the 1950s.  Serling hit upon the idea of creating a sci-fi / supernatural anthology as a vehicle for addressing social issues through allegory.  It was a remarkably successful experiment.

If there was a regular type of horror present throughout the series’ five seasons, it was an unnerving sense of existential horror, of how sanity & existence & identity were often all-too-fleeting concepts.  Nevertheless, on occasion Serling and the writers working with him did delve into full-throttled horror, producing several episodes that were genuinely terrifying.

Twilight Zone logo

This is not any kind of “best of list” on my part. There are several episodes of The Twilight Zone that I like a lot more than some of these.  This is merely my list of five(ish) episodes of the series that I found spooky.

I am going to try to avoid spoilers.  Yes, I know, a lot of these episodes have been rerun endlessly in syndication.  But I’m sure that at least a few people haven’t seen them, and I want to try to preserve some of the surprises.

1) Perchance to Dream – Adapted by Charles Beaumont from his own short story, and directed by Robert Florey, this episode was broadcast on November 27, 1959.

Richard Conte plays Edward Hall, a man with a weak heart who dreams in sequence.  His latest series of dreams have taken place in an eerie, twisted carnival, where he meets the mysterious, seductive Maya, played by Suzanne Lloyd.  The beautiful Maya lures Edward onto the roller coaster, a ride that in his real, waking life he would never dare board.  Edward is now terrified of falling asleep again, because right before he awoke Maya was attempting to push him off the moving rollercoaster.  Edward believes that if he goes to sleep his dream will resume from that point, and because of his weak heart the shock of falling in the dream will kill him in real life.

I remember watching a rerun of this on television when I was a kid.  It really did scare the hell out of me.  The direction by Florey imbues the dream carnival with a twisted, ominous air, a palpable atmosphere of fear.  Lloyd’s performance of Maya oozes with equal parts sexuality and menace.  The twist ending is genuinely clever.

Twilight Zone Perchance To Dream

2) Mirror Image – Written by Rod Serling and directed by John Brahm, it first aired on February 26, 1960.

Vera Miles portrays Millicent Barnes, a young secretary waiting at a bus depot on a dark rainy night for an overdue bus to Cortland.  Millicent is unsettled when the employees at the depot act as if they have seen her before, when she knows she has never set foot on the premises until a few minutes before.  She spots a suitcase behind luggage check-in that looks just like hers, and is further disturbed when her own suitcase disappears. Retiring to the washroom to try to clear her head, Millicent is shocked to see in the bathroom mirror the image of a woman identical to her sitting out in the bus depot.  Millicent begins to suspect that she is being stalked by a malevolent doppelganger.

Serling’s script and the direction by Brahm combine to create an atmosphere of tense fear & suspense.  The scene with the double in the mirror is expertly executed by Brahm.

Miles does a fine job of portraying Millicent, an unnerved woman who at first begins to doubt her sanity, and who once she seemingly confirms the existence of her double is nearly overwhelmed by the horror of her situation.  Of course everyone else believes Millicent is off her rocker… at least until the episode’s final striking sequence.

Twilight Zone Mirror Image

3) Twenty-Two – Adapted by Rod Serling from a short story from the 1944 anthology Famous Ghost Stories, this was directed by Jack Smight, and broadcast on February 10, 1961.

Liz Powell, a young dancer played by Barbara Nichols with a Noo Yawk accent that would make Harley Quinn proud, has been hospitalized for exhaustion & nervous fatigue.  Each night Liz has the same nightmare, wherein she is compelled to leave her bed and take the elevator down to the hospital basement, to walk to Room 22, the hospital morgue. And each night the doors of the morgue swing open, and a coldly beautiful nurse emerges to menacingly tell her “Room for one more, honey.”  A pre-Lost In Space Jonathan Harris plays a doctor who very much needs to brush up on his bedside manner, as he condescendingly writes off Liz’s dreams as simple hysteria.  Of course, we then get to the twist ending, and everything shockingly, horrifyingly falls into place.

“Twenty-Two” was one of a handful of episodes from the second season that were recorded on videotape in an attempt by CBS to curb costs.  Unfortunately the episodes shot on video ended up looking cheap, and the actual savings were negligible, so CBS quickly ended the practice and went back to film.  Regrettably all these decades later “Twenty-Two” and the five other videotaped shows have a very poor visual quality.  That’s a shame, because Smight does a superb job at directing this episode.  Even on videotape there is a mood of fear & tension.  The sinister morgue nurse is effectively portrayed by Arlene Martel, who with just one short line of dialogue and a sinister expression creates a palpable presence of menace.

Yes, it’s another episode involving dreams.  And, yes, on subsequent viewings it does seem that Serling had to pad out the story to reach the required runtime.  But, honestly, the first time I saw this one it really creeped me out, and the ending felt like a genuine gut punch.

Twilight Zone Twenty-Two

4) Death Ship – Adapted by Richard Matheson from his own short story, this was directed by Don Medford. It was broadcast on February 7, 1963.

During the fourth season, the network mandated hour-long episodes, much to Serling’s chagrin as he believed, probably quite rightly, that the half hour format was the ideal length.  Indeed, most of the season four episodes contain a significant amount of padding.  Watching several of them, you get the feeling that these could have been really good, strong 25 minute episodes, but at 50 minutes there’s nowhere enough material to carry the stories.

“Death Ship” is probably the most notable exception.  Matheson utilized the longer runtime to expand upon his short story, effectively fleshing out both the characters and themes.

In the far-off future year of, ahem, 1997 the Earth spaceship E-89 is searching for inhabitable planets for humanity to colonize.  Orbiting an unexplored world, the three man crew glimpses something metallic on the surface.  Landing, they are horrified to discover the wreck of their own spaceship, their dead bodies within.  The bullheaded Captain Ross, played by Jack Klugman, insists there must be a perfectly logical explanation.  Perhaps they have somehow slipped forward in time and glimpsed a possible future in which they crash & die?  Or perhaps this is an elaborate hallucination created by aliens to drive them off?  Or perhaps…

This is another episode that really unnerved me as a kid.  There are some eerie scenes in this one.  The ending, as we realize exactly what is going on, is genuinely horrifying.

Twilight Zone Death Ship

5) Nightmare at 20,000 Feet – Richard Matheson adapted his short story of the same name.  The episode was directed by Richard Donner, then only 33 years old. It was broadcast on October 11, 1963.

Now this is the one everybody remembers.  Even if you’ve never seen it, you’ve undoubtedly heard of it.  It’s been remade twice, and has been referenced and parodied numerous times in popular culture.  Someone once opined that most of the really great episodes of The Twilight Zone are the ones that you can describe in a single short sentence.  Well, this is “the one with the monster on the airplane wing.”  And, setting aside all the hype, it really is a good, solid, scary episode.

A young William Shatner plays Robert Wilson, a man with a severe fear of flying who is recovering from a nervous breakdown.  While flying home from the sanitarium with his wife aboard a commercial airliner, Robert sees a creature on the wing of the airplane.  As a horrified Robert watches, the creature, a gremlin (a pre-Joe Dante incarnation, of course), pulls up the panels on the wing and begins mucking about with the wiring.  Robert, realizing that if the gremlin isn’t stopped the plane will crash, desperately tries to get both his wife and the flight crew to believe him, but because of his recent mental illness they all think he is hallucinating.  And the gremlin, grasping what is going on, begins to taunt Robert, each time gliding out of sight before anyone else can spot it.

As I previously wrote when discussing the work of Richard Matheson, I read the short story “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” a few years before I saw the episode.  Visualizing the gremlin in my mind, I imagined something horrifically twisted & evil.  The imagination is unbound by any budgetary considerations.  The Twilight Zone, however, was a television series made in the early 1960s, so between a small budget and primitive special effects there was only so much that could be done.  Nevertheless, even though the gremlin has a more-than-passing resemblance to a panda bear, it was still rather effective.  The moment where Shatner yanks back the curtains to find the gremlin’s face pressed against the window leering at him is genuinely chilling.  Shatner’s frantic performance, Donner’s solid direction, a very realistic airplane set, and very believable rain & wind effects all come together to create one of the most frightening television episodes ever created.

Twilight Zone Nightmare At 20000 Feet

Honorable Mention: The Arrival – Written by Rod Serling and directed by Boris Sagal, this episode was broadcast on September 22, 1961.

During its five season run, The Twilight Zone recycled more than a few concepts, plots and themes.  The show had only a small pool of regular writers, with Serling himself writing or co-writing 92 of the show’s 152 episodes.  Given such an insane workload, it’s not surprising that from time to time Serling revisited old material.

“The Arrival” was the second episode of the third season, and some people regard it as the point where the show first began to blatantly recycle itself.  Serling’s script contains elements from a few episodes from the first two seasons.  It also has at least one significant plot hole.  Nevertheless, “The Arrival” is in my estimation an eerie, atmospheric episode.

As the episode opens, a Douglas DC-3 passenger plane, Flight 107 from Buffalo, touches down in New York.  The landing is perfect.  However once the plane taxis down the runway and comes to a stop, the ground crew is shocked to discover that the plane is empty: no pilot or co-pilot, no crew, no passengers, no luggage.  How could a plane that departed normally from Buffalo a few hours before arrive completely empty?  How could everyone aboard have vanished into thin air?

FAA Inspector Grant Sheckly, played by Harold J. Stone, is determined to get to the bottom of this mystery.  Touting his flawless 22 year record of closing cases, Sheckly is certain there must be an answer.  At last he hits on a wild, incredible theory, one he is convinced must be the answer.  Indeed, it appears that he is correct… until a moment later when the episode completely pulls the rug out from underneath him.

In spite of its flaws, I really like “The Arrival.”  It is legitimately unsettling, and I totally did not see the twist ending coming.  What really sells it is Stone’s devastating performance.  During the episode’s 25 minute runtime we witness Sheckly believably, and tragically, go from a supremely confident figure of authority to a broken shell of a human being.  Serling once again taps into that existential terror, the horror that at any moment all that we know & believe in might collapse around us.

Twilight Zone Rod Serling

There are many examples of television from the mid 20th Century that have aged very poorly, that have not stood the test of time.  The Twilight Zone is not one of these.  There are a number of episodes that are just as relevant in 2019 as they were in the early 1960s, if not more so.

Serling was one of those writers who tapped into the nature of the human condition, who wanted to understand what made us who we are, what drives us to do what we do, good and bad.  His plots often held a universal appeal, one that transcended culture and decade.  He also possessed a genuine talent for dialogue, for the use of words, for the crafting of intelligent & insightful scripts.  And finally, as these episodes demonstrate, he had a gift for tapping into human fears, and scarring the hell out of his audience.

David Hedison: 1927 to 2019

Prolific actor David Hedison passed away on July 18th at the age of 92. I always enjoyed seeing him appear on numerous television shows and movies throughout the years. He acted in several memorable productions.

David Hedison

Albert David Hedison Jr. was born on May 20, 1927 in Providence, RI.  Hedison first became involved in acting when he appeared in a school play in Junior High School.  He attended Brown University in Providence, where he majored in English.  Hedison subsequently studied at the Neighborhood Playhouse and the Actors Studio in New York City.

Under the name “Al Hedison” he appeared in various stage productions throughout the 1950s, including the 1956 Broadway production of A Month in the Country directed by Michael Redgrave.  This brought him to the attention of 20th Century Fox, who signed him to a contract.  His first job for the studio was a supporting role in the 1957 movie The War Below starring Robert Mitchum.

Hedison’s next role was in The Fly (1958).  Directed by Kurt Neumann, The Fly was adapted from the short story by George Langelaan.  Several actors passed on the role of scientist André Delambre, since the character would spend much of the movie with his face hidden beneath a mask.  Hendison, however, was very taken with the screenplay by James Clavell and enthusiastically signed up.  The Fly was an incredibly well produced movie, one of the classic sci-fi / horror films, and it featured a very moving & tragic performance by Hedison.  It would become one of the most memorable entries in his lengthy career.

In 1960 Hedison was cast in the Cold War adventure series Five Fingers on NBC.  Probably the most noteworthy aspect of this short-lived show was that NBC insisted Hedison change his name, as they apparently felt “Al” was not distinctive enough.  Hedison decided to go with his middle name, and for the rest of his career he was billed as “David Hedison.”

From 1964 to 1968 Hedison starred as Captain Lee Crane in the sci-fi / adventure TV show Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.  Despite repeated entreaties by series creator Irwin Allen, Hedison was initially uninterested, but he was finally won over when he learned Richard Basehart would be his co-star, portraying Admiral Harriman Nelson.  As Hedison recounted in a 2013 interview with Classic Film & TV Café:

“I had never met him, but I admired Richard’s work very much. I got his number from the studio. I called him up, and we agreed to meet at his house. He liked my enthusiasm, we hit it off and we worked really well together. We made the show work. Richard and I had real chemistry. He taught me so much about being camera ready when I needed to be. Television filming is so very fast, we always had to keep moving on. Voyage shot in six days–we filmed at a very fast pace.”

David Hedison and Richard Basehart

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea was very much a product of its time, and of Allen’s production style.  It was totally story-driven, with stand-alone episodes and no real character development.  The first season, shot in black & white, was fairly serious, with a lot of gritty Cold War-type plotlines and a fair amount of location work. Once the show transitioned to color with season two, it started to become over-the-top and silly, with most of the episodes featuring a monster of the week, and pretty much everything being shot in the studio. The show also started reusing a lot of props from Lost in Space and other Allen productions.

Despite these drawbacks, Voyage is a fondly remembered series.  Hedison and Basehart’s performances definitely played a large part in that, and they often helped to carry some of the more far-out episodes.

Among Hedison’s other memorable roles were his two appearances in the James Bond movie franchise.  He played CIA agent Felix Leiter in Live and Let Die (1973) with Roger Moore as Bond.  Hedison becoming the first actor to play Leiter twice when he reprised the role 16 years later in License to Kill (1989), this time with Timothy Dalton as Bond.

I’ve always felt that having Hedison return as Leiter in License to Kill was a smart move.  In the original Ian Fleming novels Leiter was a close ally of Bond, but this never really carried across to the movies, because each time Leiter showed up he was played by a different actor.  The plot of License to Kill involves Bond going rogue and seeking vengeance against the South American drug lord who nearly kills Leiter.  This becomes much more believable if you have Leiter played by someone who has previously appeared in the role, someone who the audience has an existing connection to.  Even though Bond was now played by Dalton, having Hedison return as Leiter really helped sell the idea that these two men were longtime friends, and that Bond would go to hell & back to avenge him.

Hedison also found work in television soap operas.  Throughout the 1990s he was a regular on Another World, and in 2004 had a recurring role on the soap opera The Young and the Restless.

Although Hedison seldom received starring roles later in his career, he nevertheless worked regularly through the decades.  According to the New York Times, Hedison appeared in more than 100 movie and television roles during his lengthy career.

David Hedison Suzanne Lloyd and Roger Moore

Among Hedison’s noteworthy television guest roles, he appeared in a January 1964 episode of The Saint.  Also guest starring the lovely Suzanne Lloyd, “Luella” has Hedison playing a newly-married friend of Simon Templar’s whose wandering eye & overactive libido gets him ensnared in a blackmail scheme.  This was definitely one of the most humorous episodes of The Saint, and Hedison really threw himself into it with an energetic performance.  This was Hedison’s first time working with Roger Moore, and the two became good friends.

Another memorable turn for Hedison was “The Queen and the Thief,” an October 1977 episode of the Wonder Woman series starring Lynda Carter.  Hedison portrayed suave international jewel thief Evan Robley.  The episode guest starred Juliet Mills and John Colicos.  It’s certainly one of the more low-key episodes of Wonder Woman, but Hedison definitely sells it with his portrayal of the smooth, charismatic master criminal.

Interviewed in 1992, Hedison stated:

“I think I do comedy best. I think I’m very good at comedy. I’ve done a few comedy things in stock and whatever, and I’m very good at that. You wouldn’t know that from Another World because I’m so grim and serious, as I was as well in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, but I do like comedy. I would love to do a comedy, and I’m sure I will someday.”

David Hedison WW

Given his fondness for comedy, I’m sure Hedison appreciated his guest roles on The Saint and Wonder Woman, as they enabled him show a much more humorous side than usual.

Hedison also possessed a great love for theater.  He appeared in numerous stage productions throughout his career.  In the 1990s and early 2000s he was a regular presence in regional theater throughout the New England area.

Hedison was married Bridget Mori.  They met in Positano, Italy in 1967, and were married in London a year later.  They had two daughters, Alexandra and Serena Hedison.  David and Bridget were together until her death from breast cancer in 2016.  I’ve always thought that was very romantic & sweet, that they were married for nearly five decades.

I was fortunate enough to meet David Hedison once, at a comic book convention in New York City in September 2009.  I got an autographed photo of him as Felix Leiter from License to Kill.  He appeared to me to be a very warm, friendly individual.  At the time I also thought he looked much younger than 82 years old.

David Hedison LTK signed

Due to his appearances in so many popular movies & series, Hedison was a frequent interview subject.  In October 2007 he penned a humorous foreword to the informative non-fiction book The Fly at Fifty: The Creation and Legacy of a Classic Science Fiction Film by Diane Kachmar & David Goudsward.  Hedison always came across as lively and enthusiastic, possessing a wry sense of humor.  Even when he was in his 80s he still brought a lot of energy to his interviews & appearances.

David Hedison will certainly be missed by his many fans.  He had a good, long life, working in a career he loved.  We should all be so fortunate.

Ten thoughts about Stranger Things 3

Last year Michele started watching the first season of the horror series Stranger Things on Netflix.  I was on my own laptop, doing something else, but from time to time I would turn to her and ask “What are you watching?” and “What’s it about?” and “What’s happening in it?” and “What’s happening now?”

Michele finally got fed up with this and shouted “Just come over here and watch the damn thing with me!!!”  Not wanting to argue, I did, jumping in as she was watching episode six.  I quickly caught up on what has taking place, and I really enjoyed the rest of it.  I nicknamed it “John Carpenter’s The Goonies,” and was not at all surprised to learn that both that director and that movie had been influences on the Duffer Brothers.

Immediately after that we watched Stranger Things 2, which we both liked.  So when season three came out on Netflix this month, we also watched it.

ST3 logo

Here are some thoughts on the latest installment of the Duffer Brothers weird magnum opus…

1) The 1980s Sucked

Nostalgia can be a very dangerous thing. I grew up in the 1980s. I was nine years old in 1985, which is when Stranger Things 3 is set, so I would have been a few years younger than most of the characters in the show.  Honestly, I hated the eighties.  I’m certainly not the only one.  All of the faux machismo of the Reagan years and the worship of unbridled greed was anathema to me.  I was a geek who read a lot of books and comics, and I had very few friends.  I guess I probably would have fit in with Mike and Dustin and the rest of those guys, except…

2) Puberty Strikes!

The younger characters are now in their early teens, and it shows.  Actors Finn Wolfhard and Noah Schnapp both experienced serious growth spurts between seasons!  Millie Bobby Brown also looks older.  Character-wise, all of the boys have discovered girls, except for Will, and he’s understandably frustrated that his pals are now off hanging out with their girlfriends instead of playing Dungeons & Dragons with him.

I can certainly relate.  I was definitely a late bloomer emotionally.  When most of my classmates in high school were dating and hanging out and socializing, I was usually at home with my nose buried in a comic book.  Now that I’m older, I understand why Mike and Lucas are busy trying to mend things with Eleven and Max, and why Dustin is trying to get in touch with Suzie, but I also totally relate to Will’s frustrations at feeling left out.

ST3 Mike and Eleven
This is our “Attempting to look perfectly innocent and failing utterly at it” expression. How are we doing?

3) Slow the Plot Down

Strangers Things 3 had a lot of characters and plotlines.  I think it was a bit overloaded.  The plot concerning the Mind Flayer returning and turning the inhabitants of Hawkins, Indiana into a giant monster to kill Eleven never really intersected with the plot of the Russians building a secret base under the Starcourt Mall to re-open the gate to the Upside Down, other than the fact that the Russians’ experiments are what enabled the Mind Flayer to return in the first place.

There were also new characters being introduced, primarily Maya Hawke as Robin, adding to an already-large ensemble. All of the characters had their own subplots, especially the volatile romantic tension between Joyce and Hopper that lasted the entire season.

All of this resulted in the first three episodes of Stranger Things 3 moving at a glacial place as the Duffer Brothers had to take the time to introduce and position every element of the season.  I was getting bored, wondering when something was going to actually happen.  Each time something did occur, and it looked like things were finally picking up, there would then be a switch to another group of characters, accompanied by an almost-audible sound of someone slamming on the brakes.

Once episode four began events almost immediately rocketed into high gear, and didn’t let up for the rest of the series.  But those first three episodes were a drag.  I really think that all of that could have been condensed into two episodes.  There was so much padding that I started singing the song “Slow the Plot Down” from Mystery Science Theater 3000 to myself.

4) Assholes R Us

There are a lot of assholes in Hawkins.  The mayor, the entire staff of the town newspaper, the lifeguards at the town pool, random yuppie assholes who are passing through… so many assholes!  Even the stoic, curmudgeonly Sherriff Jim Hopper, portrayed so wonderfully by David Harbour in the first two seasons, descended into full asshole-dom.  The AV Club announced “Stranger Things season 3 ruined Hopper” although there is a lot of insightful back & forth in the comments section that does shed light on why Hopper’s actions are actually all-too-realistic.

Looking back from the perspective of 2019, if one re-examines the mindset of the Baby Boomer generation, it is definitely possible to perceive the deeply pervasive presence of toxic masculinity.  That was unfortunately the norm back then, the idea that men had to be tough and ambitious and in-charge and stoic, not showing any feelings except anger.  Even a basically decent person like Hopper falls into that trap, because that’s how he was raised.

Of course, there are two characters who illustrate this even more clearly…

ST3 Billy
Hide your kids, hide your wife…

5) Helloooo, Ladies!

Steve and Billy are opposite sides of the same coin.

Back in season one Steve was the arrogant school jock, the alpha male you loved to hate.  But along the way Steve actually began to grow up.  He helped Nancy and Jonathan fight the Mind Flayer at the end of season one.

In the second year of the show, Steve became like a big brother to the socially awkward Dustin.  When Nancy broke up with him, Steve was able to recognize that he hadn’t been a very good boyfriend to her.  Now in season three he tells Robin that he wishes he hadn’t spent so much time in high school worrying about unimportant things, with impressing other people, and that his priorities were messed up.  Steve is able to recognize his past mistakes, and is working to try to be a better, more mature person.

In contrast we have Billy, the current town asshole.  He is a bully and a womanizer.  In season two he was shown to be abusive to his stepsister Max, as well as racist.  He spends his summer days as a lifeguard at the town pool, strutting about, seducing bored, horny housewives.

We previously learned that the apple did not fall far from the tree.  In season two we briefly met Billy’s father, who was emotionally and physically abusive towards his son.  This is further explored in season three. When Eleven uses her psychic powers to delve into Billy’s mind in order to search for the Mind Flayer’s location, she sees from Billy’s memories that he used to be a really sweet kid, but that his father’s abuse, his attempts to “toughen up” Billy, drove away his loving mother and warped him into a monster.  It’s only at the end, when Eleven reminds Billy of his happier childhood days before his mother left, that he tries to be a better person, and he sacrifices himself to save Eleven from the Mind Flayer.

Joe Keery does good work playing Steve. As for Dacre Montgomery as Billy… wow, I was genuinely surprised to find out that in real life he’s an Australian who writes poetry. He does such a convincing job playing an American white trash douchebag. Now that is acting!

6) Russian Dressing

Michele and I both wondered if the plotline with the Russians was a commentary on contemporary American politics.  In Stranger Things 3 the Russians are able to infiltrate America, build a secret underground headquarters, and cause a catastrophic crisis in large part due to their collaborating with a greedy, arrogant, loud-mouthed politician with weird hair who sells them a bunch or real estate.   Yeah, that does sound more than a bit familiar.

7) Wait A Minute… That Was Who?!?

I don’t think I even noticed until at least a couple of episodes into the second season that Joyce Byers was played by Winona Ryder.  Yes, she’s quite a bit older than she used to be.  But Joyce is also the most un-Winona Ryder-ish part I have ever seen her play.  She does really good work portraying a working class single mother who has to cope with all sorts of tragedy and weirdness over the course of three seasons.  Ryder also has good chemistry with David Harbour, making the scenes between Joyce and Hopper both poignant and entertaining… well usually.  Occasionally the “will they or won’t they” antics do get a bit tiresome.

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No, Jim, I am NOT going to start singing the theme song from Moonlighting!

8) Turn Around, Look At What You See

I’ve always liked the movie The NeverEnding Story, and I think the theme song by Limahl is cute and catchy.  So it was sort of fun to have Dustin and Suzie sing it… except the timing was oh so horribly wrong!

You see, Hopper wouldn’t have died if they hadn’t been singing that damn song! If Suzie had just given Dustin the number for Planck’s constant right away, Hopper and Joyce would have gotten the keys out of the safe two minutes sooner and been able to shut down the gate to the Upside Down before Grigori the Russian Terminator arrived.  Others also came to the same conclusion.  Thanks for nothing, Suzie!

9) R.I.P. Hopper???

A lot of people, Michele and myself included, are wondering if Hopper is really dead, and if David Harbour is going to return for Stranger Things 4.  We never actually see Hopper die on-screen.  No body usually means no actual death.

And then there is the mid-credits epilogue, where we find out that the Russians have an American prisoner looked up in a Siberian base.  That could be Hopper… but I’ve also heard it suggested that it might be Brenner.  Yes, he was attacked by the Demogorgon in the final episode of Season One, but again we never saw a body, and it was hinted in the second year that he might still be alive.

Even if that is not Hopper in the Russian prison, it’s been suggested that he might have jumped through the portal into the Upside Down before the gate exploded, hoping to find another way out.  That’s what happened to Eleven after the first season.  I guess we will have to wait and see.  When is Stranger Things 4 coming out, anyway?!?

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What do you mean, my character dies? Oh, well, at least I still have the Hellboy movie franchise to fall back on. Right?

10) To Be Continued

There is definitely going to be at least one more season of Stranger Things.  I am looking forward to it.  In addition to Hopper’s fate, I also what to see if Eleven and Mike stay together, and if Eleven ever regains her powers.  Plus it would be nice to see Sam Owens return.  At least Paul Reiser got a cameo in the final episode of this season.

Nevertheless, I really do hope the Duffer Brothers and Netflix will wrap up Stranger Things after the fourth installment.  While I definitely enjoyed the third season, it was not without its problems: too many characters, too many plotlines, three really slow opening episodes.  Also, each season the Duffer Brothers keep upping the threat levels.  They keep going too much longer and they are going to end up with some sort of giant monster trying to eat the entire planet.

Oh, well, we’re still at the point where the show’s strengths still outweigh its weaknesses.  Fingers crossed!

Peter Wyngarde: 1927 to 2018

Well-regarded British actor Peter Wyngarde, whose career spanned half a century, passed away on January 15th. He was 90 years old.

Peter Wyngarde 1993

There is some dispute regarding early details of Wyngarde’s life. It is known that his father was a British diplomat stationed in Asia before World War II.  When Shanghai was invaded by the Japanese in 1941, the fourteen year old Wyngarde was sent to an internment camp along with hundreds of other British citizens.  The next four years were brutal ones.  Wyngarde suffered from malnutrition, and at one point his feet were broken by his Japanese captors.  One of the few concessions the Japanese accorded their prisoners was allowing them to stage plays in the canteen.  This was the beginning of Wyngarde’s lifelong love of acting.

When the war ended Wyngarde was able to return to Britain. It took him some time to recuperate from his harsh ordeal, but afterwards he was determined to make a living as an actor.  He began appearing in theatrical roles in 1946, starting with bit parts and as an understudy, gradually working his way up to more significant roles over the next decade.  Beginning in the mid-1950s he also worked in television.  His breakthrough role was playing Sidney Carton in the BBC’s 1957 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

Continuing his theater work, and occasionally acting in movies, Wyngarde also made several noteworthy guest appearances on British television. He twice played villains on The Avengers starring Patrick Macnee & Diana Rigg.  In the memorable 1966 episode entitled “A Touch of Brimstone,” Wyngarde portrayed the sadistic Sir John Cartney, the head of the kinky, hedonistic Hellfire Club, who were plotting an overthrow of the British government.  A year later he returned to the series in the episode “Epic.” This time he played Stewart Kirby, a washed-up Hollywood star involved in an audacious plot to film the murder of Emma Peel.  The role involved numerous costume & make-up changes for Wyngarde, and he approached it with over-the-top gusto.

In 1967 Wyngarde guest starred on The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan’s cult classic psychological spy drama. He assumed the role of the Village’s sinister Number Two in the episode “Checkmate.”

Peter Wyngarde The Prisoner

Wyngarde best-known role was the suave, womanizing Interpol investigator turned novelist Jason King. He originated the part in the ITV series Department S, which ran for 28 episodes between 1969 and 1970.  The character of Jason King proved very popular with viewers, and was spun off into his own series, which aired from 1971 to 1972.

Wyngarde was gifted with a deep, smooth voice and a striking presence. Portraying the sophisticated, charismatic Jason King, he was often clad in fashionable, impeccably-tailored suits.  All together this resulted in Wyngarde becoming both a sex symbol and a style icon in the early 1970s.

In a 1993 interview Wyngarde explained that he put a great deal of himself into the character…

“I decided Jason King was going to be an extension of me. I was not going to have a superimposed personality. I was inclined to be a bit of a dandy, used to go to the tailor with my designs. And my hair was long because I had been in this Chekhov play, The Duel, at the Duke of York’s.

“Jason King had champagne and strawberries for breakfast, just as I did myself. I drank myself to a standstill. When I think about it now, I am amazed I’m still here.”

Although Department S and Jason King had made Wyngarde famous, he subsequently chose to return to his first love, the theater. In 1973 he co-starred with Sally Ann Howes in a production of The King and I that ran for 260 performances.  This was followed by a number of other stage roles.

In 1980, in the campy Dino De Laurentiis-produced Flash Gordon movie, Wyngarde played Klytus, the gold-masked henchman to Ming the Merciless. Wyngarde also appeared in the Doctor Who serial “Planet of Fire” in 1984, turning in a subtle, memorable performance.  The late 1980s and the 90s saw further work on the stage, as well as occasional television guest roles.

Peter Wyngarde Flash Gordon

It is a testament to how iconic a figure Wyngarde was that his likeness was immortalized in print in the early 1980s in the pages of the X-Men comic book series by the creative team of Chris Claremont, John Byrne & Terry Austin.  The Avengers television episode “A Touch of Brimstone” inspired Claremont & Byrne to introduce their own version of the Hellfire Club, a cabal of ruthless mutant industrialists manipulating politics and the economy to their benefit, in the now-classic X-Men storyline “The Dark Phoenix Saga.”  One of the members of this Hellfire Club was the X-Men’s old adversary Mastermind, now in the guise of the evil, seductive “Jason Wyngarde,” modeled, off course, on Peter Wyngarde’s performance as Jason King.

As a younger viewer I was passing familiar with Wyngarde from Flash Gordon and Doctor Who. However, it was in the 1990s via the internet that I first learned of how Claremont & Byrne had paid homage to the actor in their X-Men run.  The full Jason King series was finally released on DVD in 2007 here in the States, and I enjoyed it tremendously.  I subsequently viewed episodes of Department S, which was also an enjoyable show.

I was definitely a fan of Wyngarde’s work; he had such a wonderful presence on screen, and a rich, memorable voice.

Peter Wyngarde Mastermind
Peter Wyngarde as the suave sleuth Jason King, side-by-side with X-Men villain Mastermind in his guise as “Jason Wyngarde” as rendered by John Byrne & Terry Austin in “The Dark Phoenix Saga”

Following Wyngarde’s passing last week his agent and manager Thomas Bowington declared:

“He was one of the most unique, original and creative actors that I have ever seen. As a man, there were few things in life he didn’t know.”

Wyngarde was a private man, and wary of the press. He seldom gave interviews.  Last year he spoke at length to Tina Hopkins for The Official Peter Wyngarde Appreciation Society blog.  It is an informative and insightful piece that goes into the details of Wyngarde’s life & career.

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.

Miguel Ferrer: 1955 to 2017

I was sorry to hear that actor Miguel Ferrer 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.

miguel-ferrer

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  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 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.

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.  Ezra 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.

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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.

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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!