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.

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Twenty-Five Years of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

It’s a bit difficult to believe that this month is the 25th anniversary of the Star Trek series Deep Space Nine, which premiered on January 3, 1993. Time really does fly.

Unlike other Star Trek shows, DS9 was set on a space station, not a starship. Spinning off from events in The Next Generation, the premiere of DS9 saw the planet Bajor achieving independence after four decades of brutal occupation by the militant Cardassian Union.  The space station Deep Space Nine was originally Terok Nor, a former Cardassian outpost orbiting the planet Bajor.  Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks), a Starfleet Commander mourning the recent death of his wife, is assigned to the newly rechristened Deep Space Nine, to help oversee the restoration of the devastated Bajor in the hopes that it can join the Federation.  In this unpredictable environment Sisko also sought to build a new life for himself and his young son Jake (Cirroc Lofton).

Star Trek DS9 cast

Sisko’s assignment appears to be very much a dead end for his career, until a stable wormhole opens nearby, a shortcut to the far distant Gamma Quadrant. The alien beings who occupy the wormhole are worshiped by the Bajorans as their gods, the Prophets.  For seemingly-inexplicable reasons the Prophets have now manifested for the first time in centuries, and have anointed Sisko their Emissary.  Instantly Sisko becomes one of the most important figures in the Alpha Quadrant, in charge of the station guarding a strategic wormhole, the sole individual with whom the entities occupying it will communicate.  Sisko is, to say the least, ambivalent about his position of Emissary, especially as many Bajorans now see him as the representative to their gods.

Star Trek: DS9 had a dual focus. It examined the efforts of Sisko and his crew to aid Bajor in recovering from 40 years of foreign occupation, a task complicated by both the ineffectual, corrupt provisional government and by the continuing machinations of the Cardassians, who were still stinging from the humiliation of being driven from the planet.  The show also concerned itself with the Federation’s explorations of the mysterious Gamma Quadrant, which until the discovery of the wormhole was a region of the galaxy that would have taken decades to reach via normal warp drive.

Due to the fact that it was set in a fixed point in space, DS9 was able to examine how various cultures grew and developed over time. The Bajorans, after spending 40 years fighting a desperate guerilla war to liberate their planet, now had to figure out how to work together to restore a stable system of government.  The return of their Prophets also brought about conflicts between science and faith, further threatening to fragment Bajor’s people.

Meanwhile the Cardassians, after centuries of militaristic expansion, were beginning to enter a period of steep decline, with various factions within the corrupt government attempting to exploit the chaos for their own personal benefit. The proudly nationalistic Cardassian people also struggled to deal with guilt over the crimes their military had perpetrated against the Bajorans, and with the inconvenient truth that if their society did not change then it would eventually perish.

Beginning with the season two finale “The Jem’Hadar” and continuing until the conclusion of DS9’s seven year run, the Federation was faced with an existential threat in the form of the Dominion, a vast alliance of powers based in the Gamma Quadrant that was obsessed with bringing “order” to the galaxy. The Dominion was, in a way, a dark mirror of the Federation.  Whereas the Federation relied upon diplomacy, the gift of technological advancement, and the promise of a “better” way of life to attract new member worlds, the Dominion utilized brute force and terror to expand its reach.  DS9 was a show that was skeptical of institutions & authority, and it would make the case that though their methods differed dramatically, the Federation and the Dominion were alike in each arrogantly believing that their system of government was the ideal one.

Star Trek DS9 Dominion War

The conflict with the Dominion enabled the show to take a close look at the United Federation of Planets. In both the original Star Trek and The Next Generation, the Federation was typically characterized as something quite close to utopia, a near-perfect society seemingly without any significant injustice or inequality.  In spite of its occasional excesses and various blind spots, the Federation was, at least in theory, fundamentally based upon the principle of the rights of the individual.  The Dominion, in contrast, was a fascist structure that demanded absolute obedience from its subjects.  Not only was the Dominion diametrically opposed to the ideals of the Federation, it was also a vastly superior military power.

DS9 addressed the question of what happens when a utopia like the Federation encounters an adversary inimical to its very ideals, a foe that can neither be negotiated with nor outfought. Faced with the very real possibility of its destruction, the question repeatedly arises as to how far the Federation will go to achieve victory, how much it will compromise its principles to ensure its survival.

These ideas were, of course, examined via the regular characters of DS9, how they acted and reacted to the events of galactic importance taking place around them, how their lives were affected over the show’s seven years.

Sisko often saw his principles tested. He was stationed far from the peaceful center of the Federation, commanding a space station occupied by a diverse population of alien species.  Helping the devastated, divided Bajor to rebuild, fighting the dissident Maquis who had dropped out of the Federation, and serving on the front lines of the brutal war with the Dominion, Sisko regularly struggled to live up to both his personal ethics and the ideals of Starfleet.

The season six episode “In the Pale Moonlight” pondered just how far Sisko would go in compromising his morality in his quest to prevent the Dominion from conquering the Alpha Quadrant. All these years later the episode remains one of the most riveting, thought-provoking, unsettling installments of the entire franchise.

Star Trek DS9 In The Pale Moonlight

Another character who was repeatedly challenged throughout the run of the show was Major Kira Nerys (Nana Visitor), the station’s First Officer. As a member of the Bajoran militia Kira was often pulled between her loyalty to her homeworld and her responsibilities serving under Sisko.  Additionally, Kira had been born during the Occupation, and has spent most of her life fighting against the Cardassians.  To be blunt, Kira and her compatriots in the Resistance could be regarded as terrorists.  She had a great deal of blood on her hands, having been required to commit numerous violent acts in the struggle to liberate Bajor.  Kira was unapologetic for her actions but at times was nevertheless haunted by her past.  She also struggled with having to shift from being someone who had fought tooth & nail against an unjust status quo to being a member of the establishment.

One of the most fascinating characters on DS9 was Odo (René Auberjonois) a mysterious shapeshifting entity who had been discovered by the Bajorans during the Occupation. Odo had no knowledge of his past.  Surly and brooding, he had fallen into the role of Terok Nor’s chief of security while it was still under Cardassian control, but was trusted enough by the Bajorans to remain in that position once the Federation moved in.  Odo was the ultimate outsider; he was literally one of a kind.  There were times when it seemed the only reasons why he stayed on DS9 were that he literally had nowhere else to go, and because he carried an unrequited love for Kira Nerys.

Odo’s sad story took an even more tragic turn once the Dominion entered the picture. Early in season three Odo was reunited with his shapeshifting people, only to quickly learn that they were the Founders, the ruthless rulers of the Dominion.  Having spent centuries subjected to mistrust, the shapeshifting Founders had established the brutal Dominion, believing that the only way to escape being persecuted was to seize control of the galaxy.  Odo, in spite of his sympathies for the Founders’ cause and his longing to rejoin his people, was nevertheless revolted by the Dominion’s horrific tyranny.  He reluctantly returned with Kira and the other “solids” to DS9.  Despite having found his people, he was in a way now more alone than ever.

DS9 seemed to be a port of call for people who had no roots, no place to call home. Worf (Michael Dorn), the only Klingon to serve in Starfleet, was one of the most popular characters on The Next Generation.  Beginning in season four Worf joined the crew of DS9.  He once again found himself expelled from his own society after he objected to the Klingon Empire’s war against the Cardassian Union.  Worf correctly perceived that the Klingon Chancellor, by making spurious claims that Cardassia had been infiltrated by the shapeshifting Founders, was using the threat of the Dominion as a pretext to invade Cardassia.  Unable to abide by the Empire’s dishonorable actions, he again pledged his loyalty to Starfleet.  Worf was in for a shock, though, as he quickly found the colorful mayhem of DS9 to be very different from the orderly routine of the Starship Enterprise.

Star Trek DS9 Miles OBrien

Another former member of the Enterprise crew who found himself stationed on DS9 was Miles O’Brien (Colm Meany). O’Brien was very much a working-class everyman who had a grounded, stoic perspective on the strange events that frequently beset the station.  The station’s Chief of Operations, O’Brien had transferred from the Enterprise at the start of season one.  He had hoped to give his wife Keiko and their young daughter Molly a more stable life than on a starship, although he quickly discovered that the station had its own particular brand of chaos.  O’Brien seemed to be a magnet for trouble, often becoming mixed up in all manner of bizarre and horrifying events.  He was undoubtedly the hard-luck hero of DS9.

Deep Space Nine found its feet much quicker than The Next Generation had, generally offering up some pretty good episodes during its first season. Nevertheless the writers did take a while to figure out what to do with the characters of Jadziya Dax (Terry Farrell) and Doctor Julian Bashir (Alexander Siddig).  Eventually the show settled down into having Dax as a purveyor of dry wit and confidant to Sisko.

Jadziya Dax was actually a composite of the Trill woman named Jadziya, the very long-lived symbiont slug-like entity Dax, and the memories of Dax’s previous Trill hosts. Dax’s prior incarnation, a charismatic diplomat named Curzon, had been a mentor to the young Sisko.  Now that relationship evolved into a close friendship between the vivacious Jadziya and Sisko.  Eventually, at the end of season six, Jadziya was killed, but the symbiont Dax survived.  In season seven Dax was joined with another Trill, a young woman named Ezri (Nicole de Boer).  This led to an interesting reversal of roles, with the now-seasoned Captain Sisko serving as a mentor to the inexperienced Ezri Dax.

Star Trek DS9 Ezri Dax

The arrogant, ambitious Bashir, who probably would have been much more suited to service on the Enterprise, was often the odd man out on the dysfunctional DS9. However, as the series became more and more morally ambiguous, Bashir was often used to demonstrate how the ideals of Starfleet were being challenged, and how he refused to let his own ethics to be compromised.  Bashir and O’Brien, in spite of their very different personalities & backgrounds, also developed an odd but endearing friendship over the course of the show’s seven years.

A discussion of DS9 would not be complete without mentioning the Ferengi. Originally conceived as uber-capitalist baddies in the first season of The Next Generation, the Ferengi were an immediate flop, and that series very quickly reduced them to comic relief.  DS9 set out to rehabilitate the Ferengi, to make them into a three-dimensional, believable species.  To a degree the show was successful.  While the Ferengi were still rather implausible, and often silly, they nevertheless came across much better on DS9 than they had on TNG.

One of DS9’s regular characters was Quark (Armin Shimerman) a Ferengi bartender & club-owner operating out of the station’s promenade. Quark was always looking to make a quick buck, and often fell afoul of Odo, who was determined to halt the Ferengi’s extra-legal activities.  As we got to know Quark, however, it became apparent that he did operate according to his own particular code of ethics.  He wasn’t evil; rather his pursuit of wealth caused him to have a number of rather glaring moral blind spots.  Quark’s main failing was that he was often unable, or unwilling, to foresee the negative consequences of his actions on both himself and others, at least until some particular scheme happened to blow up in his face, sometimes literally.  To his credit, Quark would usually attempt to make things right with those he had harmed, albeit somewhat reluctantly, while also trying to recoup as much of his investment as possible.

Star Trek DS9 Quark

I could also discuss such fascinating recurring characters as Gul Dukat, Garek, Nog, Winn Adami, Weyoun and Martok, but we would be here all day. Suffice it to say that DS9 had a rich, fascinating, colorful ensemble.

Deep Space Nine had been described as the most multicultural of the various Star Trek series. It was the first Star Trek show to feature a black man, the superb Avery Brooks, in the lead.  Miles O’Brien was played by Irish-born Colm Meany, and Julian Bashir was played by English-Sudanese actor Alexander Siddig.  Nearly all of the other characters on DS9, both regular and recurring, were members of different alien species, with their own cultures and mores, their different perspectives on the events that unfolded.

The show is also noteworthy for being one of the first American genre series to experiment with serialization. Various storylines played out across multiple episodes, and the final season concluded with an ambitious, epic nine-episode serial that worked to resolve as many of the plotlines and character arcs as possible.

Star Trek DS9 station

Deep Space Nine was produced at a time when American television was at a crossroads. It definitely was a forerunner of the now-standard model of serialization, yet at the same time it was still being made when 26 episode seasons were the norm, to crank out as many hours of television as possible to sell to syndication.  Inevitably each season had at least a few subpar installments.  As the show progressed, and became more involved in long-form storytelling, those surplus episodes inevitably became somewhat more glaring, especially in the final two seasons.

While DS9 has for the most part aged exceptionally well, its treatment of women and sexual relations does feel rather dated. Dax and Kira were the only two significant female characters among the very large ensemble.  Bashir’s almost stalker-ish pursuit of Jadziya Dax in the first couple seasons, Ezri Dax in the final season, and a few other women over the course of the show, sticks out as an especially poor choice in today’s climate.  The relationship between Odo and Kira also has problematic aspects.

Nevertheless, despite certain missteps, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine remains a quality show. For the most part it was well-acted, well-written, and well-produced.  It was actually quite ahead of its time in its examination of the challenges presented by multiculturalism, and its debate concerning liberty vs security during times of war.  It is definitely a favorite of mine.

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.

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.”

comet-man-1-cover

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.

trypto-the-acid-dog

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!)

star-trek-crew-and-enterprise

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.

kirk-vs-gorn

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.

star-trek-orion-slave-girl

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.

spock-kirk-and-mccoy

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.