Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Spock Search Recollection

Thirty years and a few weeks ago, I saw the most important movie of my life. You see, I’ve been a huge Star Trek fan pretty much since birth. But during my early-1980s childhood, the world was much different. There were no Internet streaming services or Blu-Ray players to allow you to watch the show whenever you wanted in glorious high definition. And although selected episodes were available on VHS as early as 1980, my family didn’t have access to a VCR. Heck, I didn’t even know what a VCR was until 1985 or so. All we had, in fact, was a 15-inch black-and-white TV set with a pair of rabbit-ear antennae perched atop it. When we watched the show weeknights at 6PM on WAWS Channel 30 out of Jacksonville, Florida, it looked something like this:

TrekBW1

And let me remind you that until 1987, there was only one show called “Star Trek”. There was only one Captain and crew of a single USS Enterprise. During my early childhood, of course, I had no idea how long ago the show had been on the air, how many episodes there were, or even the fact that there were movies. My only inkling that additional Star Trek stories existed beyond the confines of television were occasional glimpses of odd-looking early novels in the Waldenbooks at our local mall:

IshmaelThis book was a crossover with the early-1960s comedy-Western series Here Come The Brides. I am not making this up.

So you can imagine how surprised and excited I was 30 years ago, in early June 1984, when my parents said that we were going to the mall see a Star Trek movie (in those days, movie theaters were commonly located in malls). While we were waiting to get in, I gazed up in wonder at the first movie poster I can clearly remember:

tsfs_onesheet

Now, since I’d had no idea that Star Trek movies even existed before that day, I had some questions. Why were they searching for Spock? How did he get lost? I recognized the Enterprise in the upper-left corner of the poster, and I imagined that the unfamiliar-looking spaceship at the lower-right was a shuttlecraft the crew was using to look for Spock. I was going into this movie totally blind, with no idea what to expect. Once it started, I didn’t know what the heck was going on. Spock was dead? Kirk had a son? And who was this Saavik person? Probably 90% of the plot sailed right over my 6-year-old-head.

And it was the most awesome filmgoing experience of my life. I mean it; Star Trek III: The Search For Spock completely blew me away.

A large part of that was the visuals. Remember, the vast majority of my Star Trek viewing experience had been on a little black-and-white TV. It was a huge treat just to see the show in color when I visited my grandparents. I was used to the Enterprise looking like this:

EnterpriseBW1

And now it looked like this:

TSFS_Enterprise1

I was used to a starship bridge that looked like this:

BridgeBW

But now it looked like this:

TSFS_bridge

Even the Excelsior bridge set—which by today’s standards looks like something a low-budget fan film would be embarrassed to have—was just about the most hi-tech looking thing I’d ever seen.

TSFS_excelsiorFor some reason, Starfleet’s newest flagship was controlled from inside a 23rd-century Radio Shack

On the TV show, the rare glimpse of a space station looked like this:

K7BW

But Star Trek III showed me a space station that looked like this:

TSFS_Spacedock

I was used to Klingons that looked like this:

KlingonBW

But now they looked like this:

TSFS_Klingons

Even though I only saw the movie a couple times, Star Trek III’s late 70s/early 80s futurist aesthetic was burned onto my brain. The huge impression it made on me was only reinforced when I visited EPCOT Center for the first time a few months later. As I’ve written before, EPCOT’s Future World shared that same late 70s/early 80s futurist aesthetic, and to see it fully realized in three dimensions was an amazing experience and was a huge reason why I became so obsessed with the place. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that The Search For Spock is the reason this blog exists. That may or may not be a good thing, depending on how you look at it.

But it wasn’t only the visuals. The Search For Spock was the biggest, most unique Star Trek story I’d ever seen. The TV episodes followed a predictable pattern: Kirk, Spock, and McCoy would beam down to a planet, the natives would capture them and take away their phasers and communicators, and eventually they’d escape captivity and get their stuff back, while solving whatever societal ill affected the planet. Kirk would give the aliens a speech about freedom, then the landing party would beam up and the Enterprise would fly off into the end credits.

But movie started in the middle of a story already in progress. Some bad stuff had gone down, and Spock was dead. In order to set things right, Kirk and the remaining crew zoomed from Earth to the Genesis Planet, and then to Vulcan. Compared to the television episodes I was used to, The Search For Spock was a sprawling epic! It really expanded my idea of what Star Trek could be. It also turned me on to the existence of the film series. After all, if there was a Star Trek III, then there must’ve been a Star Trek II and a Star Trek I, right? Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see those earlier films until many years later (my parents maintained that The Wrath of Khan was too violent for children and that The Motion Picture was too boring) but the movie left me eagerly anticipating Star Trek IV, and I was not disappointed when The Voyage Home premiered two years later.

I didn’t become aware of the “odd-numbered curse” (the idea that all the even-numbered films are all good and the odd-numbered ones are all bad) until I got onto the Internet in the mid-‘90s. And even though it’s obvious today that Star Trek III was a medium-budget film trying to pass as a blockbuster, it remains one of my favorites. It’s not as groundbreaking as The Wrath of Khan or a rollicking caper like The Voyage Home, but its heart and the way it remains true to the characters will always make it one of my favorite Star Trek stories of all time.

By the way, you should really check out Vonda McIntyre’s novelization. (Available used on Amazon or electronically in the iBooks store) It fleshes out characters like Captain Esteban of the Grissom that came across as rather cartoonish and one-dimensional onscreen and has a touching subplot for Carol Marcus, who was completely absent from this and all future films.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Disneyland-Superman Replication

The grand opening of Disneyland in the summer 1955 was a huge event that sent ripples through the pop culture of the day. For example, the story that appeared in Action Comics #210 from late 1955.

These days comics are mostly aimed at an adult male audience, but in the 1950s they were strictly kid stuff. In fact, thanks to the Fredrick Wertham-inspired moral panic in the early 50s, comic publishers went out of their way to make their publications as square, nonthreatening, and kid-friendly as possible. (They still managed to make them totally psychotic and weird, but we’ll get to that later) And since kids were excited about Walt Disney’s new theme park, it was perhaps inevitable that DC’s writers would come up with a story about their flagship character getting a theme park of his own: Superman Land!

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The plot of the story is pretty simple: Clark, Lois, and Jimmy are assigned to cover the grand opening of Superman Land, and Clark keeps slipping away to change into Superman and help out with the park’s various opening-day problems. All the while, a disguised Lex Luthor is lurking about thinking menacing thoughts like “Everyone thinks Superman is invincible, but I’ll change their minds soon enough!” and “I’ll stop Superman permanently! And I’m going to do it tonight, with what I’ve got in this box!”

Superman Land has a lot of similarities to Disneyland. It’s like the writers glanced at a map of Disneyland and adapted some of its attractions to fit the Superman theme. For example, Disneyland had Rocket To The Moon, and Superman Land had the Rocket to Krypton:

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This one is actually amazingly prescient. It’s basically an Eisenhower-era Star Tours 2. By the way, you may notice that the Kryptonians in that last panel are flying around like Superman. That’s because the writers hadn’t established that Superman’s powers came from Earth’s yellow sun. Supposedly everyone on Krypton had super powers. This idea was abandoned a short time later because the writers realized that it was hard to explained why they all died if they could have just flown away when Krypton exploded.

From here, though, Superman Land veers from the eerily prescient into the deeply weird and criminally negligent. For example, you know how Disneyland has the Frontierland shooting gallery? Well, Superman Land has a shooting gallery, too! Why, you ask? So park visitors can experience Superman’s invulnerablity for themselves by shooting at a steel Superman dummy. With real guns. Loaded with live ammo. Obviously, we’re in an NRA fever dream. And what’s even more funny/disturbing is that, in one of Superman Land’s many opening-day mishaps, the steel Superman dummy’s delivery is late. So guess how Superman handles it?

6a

Yes! He stands in for the the dummy, and the people firing live ammo at him never even notice! It’s one thing to have a theme park attraction where guests can pick up a loaded firearm and go to town, it’s something else when those guests can’t even tell the difference between a steel dummy and a real person.

But the ability to distinguish between a live human and an inanimate object is a common failing in this world. Later on, Clark needs to sneak away from Lois and Jimmy to deal with a problem at the post office as Superman. (Yes, the park has a Superman-themed post office. Don’t ask why.) How does he manage it? By plopping a Clark Kent dummy onto the most awkward-looking merry-go-round ever, helping at the post office, then replacing the dummy with himself before the ride is over:

8a

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that investigative reporter Lois Lane couldn’t tell the difference between Clark and a wax statue. After all, this is a universe where a pair of glasses is an impenetrable disguise. But the weirdest thing is the merry-go-round itself. Whose idea was it to have a ride that requires people—mostly children—to mount a replica of a large spandex-clad man like they were one half of the Ambiguously Gay Duo? That’s pretty edgy for 1955. Then again, the Batman comics of the same era had Bruce Wayne and young Dick Grayson sleeping in the same bed and showering together, so what do I know?

batman-robin-whaaaThis is not Photoshopped. It actually appeared in a comic marketed to children.

But the Disney theme park experience is about more than just rides. Disneyland had the Main Street Cinema, and Superman Land has its own cinema that plays (what else?) Superman cartoons.

6b

And what’s a theme park without gift shops selling themed merchandise?

6cWhy do I get the feeling that Superman’s Health-Food-In-A-Can is not a big seller?

And finally, just like Disneyland has a nighttime fireworks show, Superman Land would have its own pyrotechnic spectacular. But where Disney fireworks are charming, whimsical shows about wishes, dreams, and licensed characters, Superman Land’s fireworks are psychotically insane:

10a

Remember, in the universe where these stories take place, Krypton was a real planet, and its explosion extinguished billions of lives and wiped out an entire civilization. And every night, Superman Land is going to re-create this tragic cataclysm for cheering crowds! It’s like reenacting the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at a theme park called Japan Land, or reenacting the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents at Batman Land. And don’t get me started on how they plan on using pre-Sputnik technology to launch a rocket into space as part of the show every night. How did they get the FAA to sign off on this? It’s like this comic was written by alien creatures playacting as humans with no understanding of actual human behavior or emotions.

Tommy-WiseauIn other words, this guy.

Compared to Superman Land, the Disneyland of 1955 may seem like a pretty dull place. There’s no nightly rocket launches, no 3-D space simulator, no real guns in the Frontierland Shooting Gallery, no place to pick up a can of Superman Health Food, and the carousel only gives you the opportunity to mount plain old boring horses and not tights-wearing flying muscle-men.

But—and you can call me old-fashioned—I still think I prefer Disneyland.