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Return to the Planet of the Apes

apePlanet of the Apes was a huge franchise that sort of completely disappeared for a number of decades but, anyone born in the late 50s or early 60s can tell you how big it was at the time. The first film in 1968 was a huge hit. The first draft of the screenplay written by Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling but would ultimately be rewritten by Michael Wilson. The movie spawned four sequels that came out in rapid succession. After the two year gap to the second film, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, the rest would be released only one year apart from one another. Two TV series, one live action and one animated would appear one year apart from the end of the movie run and each other. Movie theaters had special Planet of the Apes marathon events where they showed all five films in one day as a lead into the first of these two sequel series (the live action one). For the time period there was a large amount of merchandising which by today’s standard would not be considered not much. Marvel did two comic book series. More dear to my heart was the Mego action figure series which are probably still up in the attic at my folks house. There were also record/book sets, models and some other stuff. So, why did this franchise all but disappear from the public eye? It could have something to do with the 1977 release of this little film called Star Wars along with the re-invention of SF cinema that followed. That’s honestly just a guess on my part as I have always wondered about this. Maybe, as my wife suggests, the kids who were the main audience for the series just grew out of it or, perhaps the public was just tired of the Planet of the Apes.

With the release of the excellent Dawn of the planet of the Apes my friend Eric Hillis’ requested, much like my article on Godzilla on TV and the accompanying Movie Waffler article on the history of the Godzilla franchise, a couple of articles on the Planet of the Apes franchise two TV series. I started with the latter Return to the Planet of the Apes animated series because it was readily available. I actually watched both series back in the day although I only watched about every other episode of the animated series. At first I didn’t think I would be able to cover the earlier live action series until my friend Richard Chamberlain generously volunteered me the loan of his DVD set for this series. Richard is a scholar and gentleman who runs a blog called Monster Movie Kid where he is going through all of the Planet of the Apes movies. He even discusses the two TV series himself. You should definitely check it out. Also, check out my review of Return to the Planet of the Apes and, after a few more weeks my review of the earlier live action TV series.

Defiance picks up steam

The first WTF? moment for me from season two of Defiance.

The first WTF? moment for me from season two of Defiance.

Just a few quick comments on Defiance that were inspired the most recent episode Painted from Memory. What specifically that got me to write about the episode was the awesome opening. The episode begins with the public return of a character everybody (myself included) had presumed to be dead. The character’s sister and murderess are both in the Need Want (bar/brothel) and as their reactions begin to register the song “What’s Up” by the group 4 Non Blondes (don’t worry, I had to look them up as well) starts playing in the background which features the chorus line “what’s going on?”. This then carries into the title sequence where the song replaces the regular title music. The whole sequence was executed pretty seamlessly and I thought it was pretty slick. I actually found it funny from the perspective that it struck me as flipping around the now common trope, which I’m kind of fed up with, of ending an episode on a song. While I don’t think Stargate: Universe was the first to do it, that show certainly popularized it and, being a SyFy original series as well, I have to wonder if the idea of starting this episode on a song was sort of an inside joke.

Anyway, getting back to Defiance, I have to say that the second season of the show has seen a marked improvement in overall quality. It doesn’t surprise me as the executive producer did Farscape which also built up as it went so, I’m guessing that this is just his style. I had watched the first season without thinking all that highly of it until, towards the end of the first season, my younger son Alex watched an episode with me. Now, Alex is a notoriously tough critic who is far worse than my wife. He liked the episode he saw with me enough to watch the next few during the duration of his visit. So, that definitely made me think that the improvement I thought I saw at the end of the first season was probably more than just my imagination. In any case, the third episode of the second season had the first moment when I realized this show was going places. There was a very brief flashback scene to 3000 years earlier that explained some of the background while at the same time leaving you with even more questions. The increase in quality hasn’t been entirely consistent over the second season but, it is still enough for me to recommend to people who may have initially given this series a pass that they may want to now take a look.

TNT’s new alien invasion series

Anne Glass in her new role as kick-ass resistance leader.

Anne Glass in her new role as kick ass resistance leader.

In adjusting to the new job, I have been getting behind on a bunch of my regular TV viewing and this blog for which I’ll apologize up front. So, we finally decided to catch up with Falling Skies the other night by watching the first episode of season four. I’ll state going into this that while I enjoyed the series, it wasn’t one I really recommended to people as it strikes me as the kind of show that isn’t going to appeal to some genre TV fans due to the more sedate pacing. After watching the first episode of the new season Diane and I looked at each other with “what the hell just happened” expressions on our faces. The show picked up a new show runner for season four and the change is so extreme that, as much as I hate to see a series get cancelled, I kind of wish they had just cancelled the series at the end of the last season, which would have been a reasonably decent series finale, and just started up a new alien invasion series using the same cast. What I basically watched was a new pilot for some completely new alien invasion based genre TV series but, more importantly, something that people for whom the original Falling Skies didn’t work might want to check out. With this thought in mind, I’m going to write a brief review of this new pilot episode of Falling Skies.

Ghost in the Machine is effectively a new pilot for a reboot of TNT’s alien invasion drama Falling Skies. I’m going to review this as it’s own first episode for two reasons. First, I feel that one doesn’t really need to have watched any of the previous three season and second, I don’t want to half the review to be filled with continuity changes. The episode opens with the characters on the way to Charleston where the humans had a hidden camp. If you are starting the series from here, just sort of roll with the dialogue as you really don’t need to know any background character details because within a few minutes they won’t matter anyway. The group is attacked by aliens (they are called the Esphani), separated and rounded up. The action immediately then jumps to four months later and takes place in a number of locations. The first and principle one is a prison camp built on the ruined part of a city. We come to learn that there are many such prison camps across the globe. Some people, presumably the ones the Esphani consider more dangerous, are kept in isolation while the rest are allowed to roam free within the compound. There are occasional food drops by the aliens and a Lord of the Flies style society is the result. Our main character, Tom Mason is one of the individuals held in isolation but, he is able to secretly sneak out and administer some kind of order under the disguise of a character known only as the ghost. He is also, like some of the other prisoners we see, planning an escape from the forcefield enclosed compound. Outside of the camp, we see a group of human resistance fighters lead by the highly capable Anne Glass. They are in the process of trying to intercept a truck that they believe to be carrying ammunition from the Esphani. The truck is driven by ay a human collaborator with no guard whatsoever which makes the theft that much easier but, what they find is a surprise that is not at all what they were looking for. Another location we see is an alien re-education center which is run by human collaborators and is filled with human children being trained in more of a “hive mind” kind of mentality which presumably parallels that of the Esphani. Finally, we see a fourth facility where there are humans who are supposedly living at peace with the alien invaders. They are lead by a young woman named Lexi who is an Esphani/Human hybrid of some ilk and, as a result, seems to wield some unusual powers. There is a lot of moving parts in this pilot with much of it is clearly set-up for the remainder of the season. First time viewers shouldn’t be worried about being confused by anything as regular viewers of the series are largely in the same situation. Ghost in the Machine is definitely much more action oriented than the original Falling Skies was and, from this pilot, I’m guessing will continue to be so throughout the new season.

Falling Skies has become a completely different series and I’m probably not going to pursue it any further myself at this point for a couple of reason but, normally I would give such a new series about five episodes to sort itself out before deciding whether I would continue with it. The reasons I won’t be following it have more to do with me than the episode itself. First, are the constraints on my time caused by acclimating to my new work schedule. Second, and this is even more on me, I have a pretty good memory and am largely unable to forget everything I already know about the Falling Skies universe. As a result, I’ll likely end up getting frustrated with the rewriting of the background and characters from the previous three seasons. In fact, enough of this was done in this episode alone with the total retconning of the Esphani that I have pretty much reached my limit already. I’ll ultimately probably check out on whatever streaming service it lands on if the reviews are positive. In any case, I just wanted to let fans of genre TV know about this seemingly total about face of Falling Skies in case they found the original series to slow for their liking and want to give this new version a try.

My ten favorite genre tv episodes

Standing in the Way from Once More with Feeling is amazing to watch.

“Standing in the Way” from Once More with Feeling. It’s worth watching the entire episode just for this one sequence.

I was walking past the living room the other day when I saw Diane watching the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode Once More with Feeling. That’s the famous musical episode from the sixth season. Diane recently got to see Hinton Battle (they actor who played Sweet in the episode) on Broadway in Wicked so that might have been one of the reasons she was watching it. I stopped to watch a bit of the episode with her and mentioned to her that it was easily on my list of ten best genre TV episodes of all time. It was at this point where she mentioned that she had never thought of making such a list and this made me realize I really hadn’t either which is why you are now reading this article.

I’ll note that the list is really twelve episodes as I include two honorable mentions at the end. They are not in any particular order except for the final entry which I will discuss there. Here is my list of top ten genre TV episodes and, if others want to post their own, I would love to see them.

1) Star Trek – Where No Man has Gone Before. Yeah, I know, why not City on the Edge of Forever? Well, to be honest, it really boils down to how often I have revisited the various episodes of the original series and this one wins hands down. I think the appeal for me could be best be summed up by an old work colleague in that I am somewhat obsessed with the definition of humanity and what it is that we collectively agree makes us human. This episode really kind of goes at the heart of the issue in that uniquely Star Trek way. I have also seen it a lot as it is my first “go to” episode to introduce new people to Star Trek which I think is yet another statement about my perspective of the quality of the story.

2) Battlestar Galactica – Downloaded. This is of course from the new series. I was really blown away by this episode which gives us our first glimpse into the Cylon culture, specifically from their point of view. This is one of the few episodes on the list I have not seen a bunch of times. I know I watched it a second time back when it first aired because I was so impressed and writing about it here makes me want to do so again. I was honestly surprised when I first heard that this lost the Hugo award for that year to a Doctor Who episode. That was until I realized the disparity in the relative size of the two series’ fan bases. While I love Doctor Who, I still really think that Downloaded should easily have won.

3) Doctor Who – The Parting of the Ways. Speaking of Doctor Who… One of the principle selection methods I used for my list was what had a clearly memorable emotional impact on me as a viewer. I tend to be somewhat disconnected from what I watch as I always have the “it’s just a story” filter going pretty strongly in the back of my head. I could tell you stories about eating dinner while watching the Walking Dead and not realizing how odd this behavior was until my friend Vince Rotolo at the B-moviecast brought it up. Anyway, the impact of this episode was as much contextual as theatrical. The return of Doctor Who pretty much made 2005 for me (yeah, pathetic, I know) but, here was probably my all-time favorite genre series back from the dead with a vengeance. Not only The Doctor but, his arch nemesis the Daleks were back as well. I’ll never forget the preview for this episode where the Emporer Dalek describes himself as the god of the Daleks to be hailed by a chorus of them screaming “Worship him! Worship him!” It sent a little chill up my spine in that here I thought it would be impossible to make the Daleks any more evil than they already were but, making them religious fanatics really did the trick. Plus, we get the whole resolution to the Bad Wolf story line with a regeneration that I didn’t see coming to top it all off.

4) The Twilight Zone – Eye of the Beholder. Most people will remember this episode for the shock ending where the ugly people are the norm. However, what I really like about the episode and that I think makes it hold up so well is the background dictatorial society that is gradually hinted at as the story unfolds. The state only gives three chances at plastic surgery to “normalize” deformed individuals. If unsuccessful, the “ugly” misfits are sent off to “camps” to be removed from the otherwise perfectly uniform society. The episode even ends with a speech by the “great leader” droning on about how the superiority of their culture is only maintained by their “glorious uniformity”. Scary stuff that tragically still resonates today.

5) The Outer Limits – O.B.I.T. In this classic Outer Limits episode we see a new surveillance machine being tested on a military base. The bases morale has collapse and a senator has come to investigate why. Mini spoiler alert here so stop reading if you haven’t seen it yet but, the idea of an alien invasion facilitated by our inability to avoid spying on one another struck me at the time and still does today as creepily way too plausible.

6) The Prisoner – Fall Out. Easily the most controversial entry on the list as The Prisoner is sort of an edge series as far as genre content goes. Also, this series finale episode is very much a love/hate affair based upon how much one is into surrealism as translated to the television medium. This was David Lynch style television 23 years before Twin Peaks so, it was way ahead of its time. The entire series is only 18 episodes to begin with so, it’s a short journey to this trippy piece of television. I remember the first time I saw this episode feeling like I had just come out of my first viewing of Eraserhead. Ever since I have never been able to listen to the song All You Need is Love without being reminded of this episode which tragically continues to plague my viewings of Yellow Submarine to this day.

7) Babylon 5 – Severed Dreams. Babylon 5 is a great series that a surprisingly large number of genre TV fans seem to be unaware of. It was the first serious genre attempt at telling one large story over the course of five seasons. Over the first couple of seasons things start to come apart for the Earth Alliance and this episode was the tipping point in which we would learn where the Babylon station loyalties would ultimately lie. Today the episode would best be described with the statement “shit just got real”. On top of this, we are lead into the maelstrom with an amazing monologue made by station Commander John Sheridan basically calling out the EA on becoming a tyranny.

8) Farscape – The Peacekeeper Wars. As readers of this blog know I only recently went through the entire Farscape series so, I have only seen this one once. This three hour made for TV movie might be considered a bit of a cheat here but it did act as the series finale so I’m sticking with it. Besides any television that makes me shed a few tears (when Aeryn and John announce the name of their son) more than deserves to be on this list. I know with absolute certainty that I’ll be revisiting this episode again in the future.

9) In the Flesh – Episode 1.3. Again, another one I have seen only once due to the recent nature of the show. I really can’t thank my friend Roger Domian enough for turning me on to this series. It’s about British society recovering from a five years earlier zombie apocalypse as told through the eyes of a small rural town. It came as no surprise to me when the series one finale came with a warning about adult content but, what was surprising was the nature of that content. It wasn’t violence or gore but, ideas instead. This show covered some pretty daring material in a very in your face sort of manner and didn’t really bother to pull any punches along the way either. This is great stuff that was reminiscent to me of the older series Alien Nation in that it was able to take on these issues because of the fantastic nature of the environment.

10) Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Once More with Feeling. This is the one that I mentioned earlier would easily be at the top of my list. I’m not a huge Buffy fan but there is a lot to like about this musical episode of the series. First , it was just a good musical and I still have one of the tunes on my Ipod to this day. The music actually helped advance the plot and, furthermore, actually makes some major advances in a couple of story arcs. The music wasn’t forced in that it was the result of a demon being summoned who made people perform until they burned. The singing also had the side effect of forcing people to reveal major secrets that they otherwise would have kept to themselves so, a number of character arcs got hammered as well. Once More is really television showing you what it is capable of in the hands of a talented producer, director and cast. This really is TV at its finest.

Also, like I promised above, I’ll throw in two honorable mentions that didn’t quite make the cut. The first is another Twilight Zone episode called It’s a Good Life based upon the short story of the same name that is a fixture in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame volume one. The adaptation is actually quite faithful to the story, too. It’s about a child who is born with insanely superhuman powers. The story runs with the far more plausible thesis that instead of being a superhero, young Anthony is instead a self-centered monster with precious little regard for the inferior humans who surround him. The story is a positively chilling one as we watch what the local townsfolk have degenerated into in order to survive. Second is the classic Doctor Who story Genesis of the Daleks. While it is to some extent a retelling of the Frankenstein story, it is a very good one that actually puts the Doctor into one of those rare moments where he doesn’t necessarily know the right course of action. Given that, like most Americans, my first exposure to the series started with the first Tom Baker season this episode really drove home what the show could do when it dove head first into political territory.  Enemy of the World might be an equally good or better political Doctor Who story but, this was my first which is why it still stands out for me to this day.

The Almighty Johnsons

The brothers; Olaf (Baldur), Anders (Bragi), Mike (Ullr), Ty (Hod) and Axl (Odin).

The brothers; Olaf (Baldur), Anders (Bragi), Mike (Ullr), Ty (Hod) and Axl (Odin).

While watching the season three finale of Continuum today, I noticed that the SyFy channel has finally announced the premier of The Almighty Johnsons on July 11th. I watched the show when my friend Terry Frost at the Martian Drive-In Podcast recommended it to me. The short version is that the show is about the Norse gods who now reside in New Zealand (they’ve fallen on hard times ever since those uppity Christians showed up). They are now reincarnated, in large part, in the Johnson brothers who are not what one would call the most functional family in the world. The series is a subdued urban fantasy one with a good deal of humor mixed in and is definitely worth a look. Thanks to my multi-region player I was able to conveniently watch seasons one and two on DVD. Inconveniently, season three has not been made available yet so, I’m kind of hoping that seasons one and two which SyFy will be successful enough to allow me to ultimately catch season three. If you want to read a little more than the short version I have reviews of seasons one and two here.

Blake’s 7 series 3

B7_Cast_CIn my continuing effort to catch up on one of the twp remaining big British SF TV dramas that I have to see (the other being Survivors) I finished series three of Blake’s 7. For those late to the game like me, this series started in 1978 with the third season starting in 1980. It was written by Terry Nation and produced by the BBC. This is a space based series that follows a group of escaped criminals fighting to overthrow the tyrannical Federation government. Spoilers abound so, continue reading at your own risk.

At the end of series two we saw an extra-galactic invasion force from the Andromeda galaxy on the verge of entering the Milky Way. Terry Nations’ original concept was for these invaders to be the Daleks from Doctor Who but this never ended up on screen. What also never shows up on screen was the invasion itself due to the series extremely tight budget. While this season opens with the conflict largely resolved (our galaxy won) we do get one battle scene in the opening episode. The Liberator ends up being abandoned by the crew as a result. This leads to a series of episodes focusing on their attempt to reunite with one another and the ship. Blake and Jenna are nowhere to be found (the actors left the series) and in their place we get two new characters in the form of Dayna and Del Tarrant. Dayna is the daughter of a secluded scientist who rebelled against the Federation prior to the invasion. Del is a rogue Federation space captain who becomes an obvious stand in for Blake to the point of being dressed in the same outfits.

We also learn that as a side effect of the conflict the Federation has been considerably weakened. Servalan, ruthless as ever, is trying desperately to restore some semblance of order under the condition that she is in charge. While this sounds like a continuing story arc, the third series really does return to a much more episodic format which I personally found to be less enjoyable than the previous season’s more story arc oriented writing. One of the things I did enjoy was that with the departure of Blake and Jenna we got more development on Villa and Cally. I was especially happy with the work on Villa as I felt it successfully took him from the role of comedic stereotype to a very real character that I found myself actually caring about.

There were two stand out episodes for me this season. Children of Auron takes us to Cally’s home planet that is threatened by some sort of plague. The society of Auron is really quite different and I found that part of the episode as interesting, if not more so, than the actual plot hatched by Servalan. The other episode was Death-Watch which gives us a good deal of background on Del as well as some of the more interesting political arrangements within the Federation and, again, the change of the standard pace and scenery was a welcome one.

The series finale introduces a number of interesting developments as well. We learn the final fate of Blake, assuming Servalan wasn’t lying, We also see the Liberator get infected by some sort of space fungus that ultimately destroys the ship. I really wanted to applaud the performance here of Peter Tuddenham who played the voice of the Liberator’s computer Zen. I found the death of Zen to be exceptionally painful to watch which is pretty amazing given that Peter did this with a purely vocal character.

This season of Blake’s 7 did not hold up as well for me as series two. I will certainly be finishing the series but, while I can easily see myself revisiting the second one at some point in the future, I’m not sure that the same applies for this season.

Late to summer

doctorwho

I’m expecting some Venusian aikido.

Sorry for the delay in getting this out and in the blog in general. I recently changed jobs so, that has consumed a good amount of my time lately. Now that things seem to be heading back to normal I hope to be less of an absentee blogger. But, no one is here to read about my personal life so let’s get into what I’ll be watching in the coming summer months. I’ll be going back to chronological for the genre stuff and cover the two non-genre shows at the end.

First up is Defiance. This is the second season of this SyFy original with an MMO tie in game. While I found the show entertaining enough it had a kind of slow build that would probably not grab most people right away. I’ll be honest that it’s not in my top ten genre shows at the moment but, I was surprised to find that by the end of the first season my younger son Alex was actually getting into it so, there must be something there as he is an incredibly tough critic. I’ll be sticking with it because it is the same producer who gave us Farscape which also started slow for me but quickly grew into one of my favorite genre shows of all time. The first season of Defiance ended with one hell of a cliff hanger so, it will be interesting to see what direction it takes for season two. Defiance starts on SyFy on June 19th.

Starting on June 22nd we have two returning series. The first is the fourth season of Falling Skies. I’m really not sure what to make of this show. As I think I’ve said here before, alien invasion story lines don’t make a great deal of sense to me given that any race that could build a power source big enough to push a multi-ton vehicle between stars is probably technologically advanced enough to come up with a more energy efficient way to get what they’re after locally. Fortunately, Falling Skies has kind of hinted (granted only once) at a Childhood’s End kind of element that would go a long way to explaining the alien’s motivations for hitting other planets so I’ll keep watching. True Blood also starts on the 22nd with its seventh and final season. This is one series that I watch largely because Diane does and while its had its moments of interest for me I can’t say I’m all that sad to see it go and I almost certainly don’t see a need to own it on DVD.

The summer series that I am most looking forward to is the return of Doctor Who in August. This is the eight series for those keeping track. I have been watching the show for decades now, so those sorts of things are minor details to me. I’m especially looking forward to Peter Capaldi as the Doctor as he is sporting a sort of Jon Pertwee look and Pertwee is pretty much my all time favorite Doctor with Tennant running him a close second. Of course, picking favorite Doctors for me is like arguing over which type of chocolate I prefer because I’ll take them all anyway. The new series starts in August with, as far as I can tell, no specific date given by the BBC yet.

The final two shows I’m going to talk about are non-genre ones so most of you can leave now. They are both entering their second season and Orange is the New Black has already started. This is actually a bad description because, being a Netflix original series, the entire second season arrived yesterday (June 6th). This show follows an individual named Piper Chapman who is serving 15 months in prison after surrendering herself on an old drug related charge. Along with Doctor Who in August, on the 13th, we get the second season of Masters of Sex. I was pleasantly surprised by this as last year it was a fall series. This series is set in the late 50s and follows the careers of sex researchers Dr. William Masters and Virginia Johnson. I started this series on a lark but stuck with it as the series got consistently better with each passing episode.  If you have any interest in either of these series you can check out The Movie Waffler website for my season one reviews of both Orange is the New Black and Masters of Sex.

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