Friday, November 11, 2011

Games: Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire (N64) Part 13

Well, although I didn't plan it that way, this seems to be my week for things ending.  I had the last of Stanley G. Weinbaum's van Maderpootz stories for Free Fiction last Saturday, and the last chapter of Undersea Kingdom on Tuesday (plus the last re-post of the edited version on Monday).  And now, more than 21 months after posting the first level of Shadows of the Empire, we finally come to the climactic Skyhook Battle, the concluding cutscenes, and the end credits.

I'm not sure where to go from here.  I taped a playthrough of Goldeneye for the N64 back in 2002.  For a while, I discounted the notion of posting it here, on the basis that it's not science fiction.  Then the other day, it occurred to me, Of course it's science fiction, you nincompoop.  It's about a plot to destroy London with a satellite weapon.  But it may be too early to start another long playthrough on the same system as Shadows of the Empire.  So I dunno.  I may do a few features on games for other systems, and then do Goldeneye.  Or not.

At any rate, I need to get going on replacing the few parts of the playthrough that I deleted when I (mistakenly) thought that my problems uploading new videos had to do with the fact that they were banned in some countries.

Thank you, all 22 or so of you out there who have watched this whole thing.

1:23 On this level, you get a free life with every fifteen fighters destroyed.

4:41 So what's the most lives it's possible to get?  Other times, playing this level, I've reached 60 kills.  I don't know if it's even possible to get to 75.

4:55 The control scheme changes for this last part of the level for some reason.  I frequently forget, and up firing a few missiles when I mean to fire blasters, as here.

5:05 Here, I'm just firing the rest to get a full supply again for when I go into the Skyhook.

6:38 I know some people can just fly around the reactor core, pounding it with more missiles when they reload.  For me, it's easier, if more time-consuming, to go out the next arm of the Skyhook, fly out a ways, turn around, and come back in again to fire on a new side of the core.

6:43 Again, shooting the last missile to get a new supply.

9:29 To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure what happened here: neither what sent me out of control, nor how I managed to damage the last side of the core with two wild shots.

10:00 I didn't run out of time; this is supposed to happen when you reach the end of the last arm.  (I'm not sure there even is a time limit.)

10:32 The timeframe of Shadows of the Empire stretches from the beginning of Empire to just before the beginning of Jedi.  Note that Leia is in the bounty hunter suit she wears into Jabba's palace.

10:57 So what does happen when you finish the game in Medium?  I did it back in the day, but it would take quite a while for me to repeat the feat now.  Fortunately, someone else has recorded it.  It's at the end of this post.

12:01 I never watched Freakazoid! so I needed Wikipedia to tell me that this is a gag credit which frequently appeared on that show, although it was most often spelled "Weena Mercator."

12:29 By this point in the credits, I always start thinking about the Atari 2600 days, when individual programmers created games all by themselves: design, music, graphics, everything.  (And sometimes it showed, as with Adventure's ducklike dragons.  But I digress.)

14:48 Then the credits just repeat.  I just put black over it in editing until the next music fade-out.

And here it is, the Medium-and-up ending. It starts at 1:55 of this video.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Radio: The Planet Man, Programs 2 & 3

This is kind of a curious one.  Transcription discs for 76 of the 78 episodes survive, identifying the producer as "Palladium Radio Productions, Inc."  But that's where the hard data pretty much ends.  According to, "Various sources date its syndicated run around 1952-53, but specific air date information remains unknown."  None of the lead actors have even been identified.

But the show interests me for a couple of other reasons.  For one thing, the show marks kind of a transition in science fiction.  On the one hand, we're into the period, after World War II, when the notion of space travel—that it was not just possible, but inevitable and imminent—began to take hold in the culture, and with it, a new interest in astronomy.  So we have Earth's first rocket to the moon treated in a fairly matter-of-fact way, an explanation for the listeners at home of what an orbit is, and fairly realistic worries about the oxygen supply.  On the other hand, this just ends up serving as an introduction to a story told more in the space opera idiom of the '30s, with a superhero-like spaceman, zipping between planets in a more futuristic and less likely spacecraft.

In one way, though, it's very much of its time: like Space Patrol, with its "Smokin' rockets!" The Planet Man had its own rocket-age expression: when the announcer throws to a commercial, he declares, "We'll return to Planet Man in just a moment!  So level off!"  But it doesn't strike me as a very successful one.  Maybe it's just me, or maybe the way the last words are yelled out, but it comes across as a little hostile, the emotional tenor of "So piss off!" or maybe "So deal with it!"

Anyway, the other thing about the show that caught my interest was its universe.  Well beyond this period, whenever science fiction posited a union of different worlds, especially within our own solar system, Earth was almost inevitably the senior partner.  Even in Star Trek, where civilizations like the Vulcans had space travel far earlier, Earth's role in the Federation seemed to be essentially that of the United States in NATO.  But in The Planet Man, not only have many worlds in our solar system banded together without us, but Earth is so backward as to have escaped the attention of almost everyone but the villain... and that only because he wants to enslave us.

I've posted two episodes because they're fifteen minutes each (actually more like twelve, without the commercials that the individual stations supplied).  Radio Archives suggests that it was intended for daily afternoon broadcast.  My guess is that it aired six times a week, because that would make the most sense with a total of 78 episodes—just the right number to air six times a week for a standard block of thirteen weeks.

I wonder what the missing first episode was like.  Program 2 clearly presents the first meeting between Dantro and the Earthlings.  Did he not feature in the premiere of his own program?  Or maybe there was a scene or two of his monitoring the rocket, and deciding to intervene.  Either way, the upside is that we don't miss much by not being able to hear it.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Classic Serials: Undersea Kingdom, Chapter Twelve

I'd call this the "Where Are They Now?" section, except that, given that the serial was made 75 years ago, I think the answer for everyone involved in Undersea Kingdom is "dead."  So let's just call these career capsules.

Lois Wilde (Diana) reportedly won the Miss America pageant in 1923, but lost the title when the judges found out she was a professional model and stage actress.   She also worked as a screenwriter before becoming a movie actress in 1936.  Her career ended abruptly the next year when she broke her neck in a car accident.  Although she eventually recovered, she would only appear on the screen in occasional small, uncredited roles, ending with "Casino Patron" in 1984's Oh, God! You Devil.  She died in 1995.

Monte Blue (Unga Khan) began his film career as a day laborer for director D.W. Griffith at Biograph Studios.  His first role was a bit part in Griffith's classic The Birth of a Nation (1915).  He appeared in dozens of silent films, becoming a leading man.  He continued to work steadily after the advent of sound, although his roles became smaller through the 1930's.  From the mid-'50s, he worked exclusively on television.  He died in 1963.  Also, I can't see his name without wanting to sing, "Ooo-hoo, Monte Blue/Lives his life from inside of a room."

Lee Van Atta (Billy), like many child actors, had only a brief career, from 1936 to 1939.  Billy was his first credited role, but perhaps his highest-profile role was in another serial, Dick Tracy (1937), as Junior.  He died in 2002.

Boothe Howard (Ditmar) also had a fairly brief career, from 1932 until his premature death later the same year as Undersea Kingdom, 1936.

William Farnum (Sharad) had frequent work in films from 1914 until he was seriously injured making a film in 1924.  He was sidelined for four years, and only began to work regularly again in 1930.  His last appearance was in 1952, and he died the next year.

Of course, the best-known alumnus of Undersea Kingdom was Lon Chaney, Jr. (Hakur).  Appearing under his birth name, "Creighton Chaney," for the first few years of his career, he renamed himself after his famous father not long before Undersea Kingdom.  He had mostly bit parts, often uncredited, until 1938, but broke through as Lennie in Of Mice and Men the next year, and become a star in his own right with The Wolf Man in 1941.  His alcoholism sometimes interfered with his work, most notably in his role as Frankenstein's Monster on the anthology series Tales of Tomorrow.  Confusing the live broadcast for a camera rehearsal, he hefted furniture, only to set it back down for the "real" performance.  Although he suffered from throat cancer and heart disease in his later years, he continued to appear in films until 1969, and was cut from the final version of Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, But Were Afraid to Ask (1972).  He died in 1973.

Sources: IMDb, Wikipedia

2:11 Is this the first time Unga Khan has called our hero just "Crash"?  I think up to now (or rather, last episode, where this line first appeared), he's just called him "Corrigan," or sometimes "Crash Corrigan."

3:28 That belly-flop to the ground just kills me every time.  You wouldn't think Crash would recover from it quite as quickly as he does.

5:46 You know, they take the death of everyone in Atlantis awfully casually, don't they?  Surely there were some people left, even after that last battle.

6:49 I give up as to whether it's "the reflector plate" or "the reflecto-plate."  Here, Crash clearly says it as the former.

7:15 A boom mike shadow makes a guest appearance.

7:39 What, does Unga Khan have a setting for the naval base, or is the Professor just a whiz at tuning the thing his first time out?

9:55 Say, this reminds me... what was the point of the whole earthquake thing, anyway?  I mean, as I recall, when this serial began, Unga Khan had no expectation of being able to leave Atlantis.  Was he just screwing with the Upperworld for kicks?

13:55 Yow!  Judging from the high-angle shots, that pit has got to be at least twenty feet deep from the mouth.  I'll allow Crash jumping into it, because he's our all-powerful hero and everything, but imagine being the Professor, landing flat on your back from that height.

14:46 I think Khan gets his replacement Volplanes from the same place the Starship Voyager got its endless supply of shuttles.

16:42 Hey, Billy's joined the Hitler Youth.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Classic Serials: Undersea Kingdom (Faster-Paced Version), Chapter Twelve

(originally posted January 31, 2009)

Well... in spirit... I guess. Which is just as well, because it looks like that's the plane on which they now need to be defended. Seems like a certain caption card writer hasn't been keeping up with the plot.

Welcome to the rousing... and oddly nihilistic... conclusion of Republic's classic 1936 serial, Undersea Kingdom!

Someone who knows more physics than I do will have to tell you how much thrust those rocket motors would have to have to break through the roof of Atlantis—which, as we know, can resist the pressure of more than 10,000 feet of water. And, of course, how tough the tower must be to punch through totally intact. Seems to me like the Navy would have a lot more trouble than we see here, force field or no force field.

This episode was about 16:30 after removing the caption cards, and the editing was mostly removing shots from sequences to move them along faster.

You might think there was originally a scene in which Crash shows at least some feeling about his faithful buddy Moloch getting turned into a self-heating MRE in a can, but no, there wasn't one. He's just that callous.

You'd also think there was a scene, here or in Chapter Eleven, in which our heroes rescued Briny and Salty. No luck there, either. They're just magically in the sub. I don't think they were even in the chariot that brought Billy and Diana to the sub last week.

Incidentally, that means they served absolutely no purpose in the plot. I thought they did, from my dim memories from seeing this serial a couple of years ago. Had I watched this chapter again before I started, I would have removed them from the serial entirely. I briefly considered cutting them out of this chapter, but I didn't have the heart to. Having gotten them captured by Unga Khan's forces, I just had to get them out, even though I have no idea how they managed it.

Thanks to all of you who stuck this out, and I hope you enjoyed it. I certainly had fun editing it. Early on, I thought that when I was done, I might buy a higher-quality copy from a public domain video dealer, and make a new feature version (with the title I mentioned last week, Mad Tyrant of Atlantis) to release on DVD. However, since I have about six viewers a week at this point, I can't imagine it being economically viable. Oh, well.

Oh, and one last thing... Crash and Moloch emptied out the two Volkites from the sub. Moloch got crispy-fried in his, and Crash ditched his. So where did Prof. Norton get the one he's working on in the last scene?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Watching You Tube: Playing "Burn: Cycle" on the Philips CD-i

What is the CD-i, you may ask?  You could call it the earliest disc-based game console, but that's only part of what Philips promised with CD-i.  In addition to playing games, you could listen to CD's, watch Video-CD movies, sing along to Karaoke CD's, or use multimedia data.  To put it uncharitably, it was the CD-ROM drive you could use with your TV set.  And like the similar 3DO, it was a big commercial flop.

One of the groundbreaking specialties of the CD-i was its capacity to add full-motion video (FMV) to games. Most such games used FMV pretty uncreatively. There would be live-action interludes between game levels. Or you'd have to shoot live-action people with your light gun.  Burn: Cycle used its FMV to come far closer to the ideal of an immersive experience, an interactive movie.  That's not to say it got to that ideal, of course.  Quite a lot of the gameplay, as you'll see, is puzzle-solving that just gets you from one sequence to the next.  But the creators of the game built an interesting world from cyberpunk elements, with a dash of Hong Kong cinema.

Anyway, it's widely considered one of the best games produced for the CD-i.  And not just because so many of the others reportedly stank on ice.  (It got an A- from the Video Game Critic, one of only three CD-i games so far he's given better than a B.)

Maybe it's just me, but I find that the game's theme of the interaction between humans and computers makes it easier to excuse the somewhat low-fi graphics.  Like the saying about something being a feature instead of a bug, the fairly primitive CGI transcends unreality to become stylized atmosphere.

They did a surprisingly good job of integrating the actors into the environment. Even today, there's a tendency for live-action figures to look "floaty" when put in an entirely digital set (as with the mothership interiors in the recent V series). But these actors are generally well-anchored to the virtual floor. I don't know what was up, though, with that hotel scene, where the actors seem about 30 degrees off from the plane of the set.

Some of the green-screen compositing isn't so hot (there's noticeable fringing in some scenes), and I suppose they could have done a better job with the lighting, so that the live action wasn't so flat and video-like.  But it reminds me a little of the original Doctor Who series.  I can't help thinking that if it had lasted into the 1990's, instead of dying at more or less the "Video Toaster" stage of CG technology, there would have been episodes that looked like this.

(click on the post title to see all nine chapters of this playthrough)

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Free Fiction: The Point of View

click image to download story (2.05 MB pdf file)

Now it's time to put on our subjuctivisor and explore alternative time, like Dixon Wells in "The Worlds of If."  And it's doubly appropriate to do so, because the history we're visiting is the one in which we're able to read a preview of Thrilling Wonder Stories, Volume 4—or whatever volume in which I would finally have published "The Point of View," the third and final story of Stanley G. Weinbaum's van Manderpootz series, which began with "The Worlds of If."

This story's Attitudinizor reminds me a little of the Point of View Gun, my favorite new bit in the movie of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  You use it to short-circuit arguments by forcing the other person to see where you're coming from.  If van Manderpootz lived in our actual early 21st century, he would most certainly find a way to make his Attitudinizor work over the Internet.  And it would be the greatest thing that ever happened to that medium.  Sometimes I think the force that runs the World Wide Web is transference.  At least three-quarters of Internet comments wouldn't exist, or would at least be far less bitter and hostile, if the writer weren't subconsciously projecting everything he hates onto the person he's responding to, irrespective of what that person actually posted.

Speaking of the early 21st century, Weinbaum makes a little continuity error in this story.  He sets it in 2015, and says it's the year after the two previous stories.  Evidently, he remembered he'd mentioned 2014 in "The Worlds of If," but forgot that it was in reference to Dixon's college days... which Weinbaum said in that story were eight years past.  I suppose I could just correct it in the text to 2023, but while I'll correct punctuation, like adding the second comma setting off a clause, I draw the line at correcting factual errors in old stories.  (I made a similar decision in proofing the book of In Caverns Below, when Stanton Coblentz's timescale didn't add up.)

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Television: Kip's Private War (Rocky Jones, Space Ranger)

Rocky Jones, Space Ranger has a bit of irony to it.  Not in the writing—in the fact that it wasn't terribly successful, but it's probably better known now than its contemporaries in the early-'50s TV science fiction boom.  And what makes it doubly ironic is that its survival and lack of success are tied together.

Captain Video, Space Patrol, and most other science fiction shows of the era were enacted live, and preserved, if at all, as kinescopes: a film taken of the live video image.  As a result, surviving episodes are of fairly poor visual quality.  They're often zoomed in a bit, so as not to catch the edges of the somewhat rounded video tube, so they don't even have the benefit of all 480 video scan lines, much less the full resolution of the film.  The contrast is frequently blown out, thanks in part to the low dynamic range of '50s video, and partly to the limitations of the kinescope process, in which a film camera was pointed at a tiny, bright video monitor.  The brightness of the monitor (necessary to make a filmable image) and the primitive tube video cameras both contributed to ghosting of the image.  Finally, the kinescope had motion smearing, since the film ran at the normal 24 frames per second, and video ran at 60 fields per second—with each two fields interlaced into one frame.

All of which is to say that the shows looked as good as any other '50s television when they were originally broadcast, but reruns were of substantially poorer quality.  They didn't look as good as videotaped shows (once that was an option) or filmed shows, and so they didn't tend to have that robust of an afterlife in syndication.  (I have the feeling the same thing is going to happen to the shows of the mid-'80s through the early 2000's, which had post-production on standard-definition video... and, worse, analog standard definition video for most of the period.  Something shot and posted on film, you can re-scan and broadcast in high definition, and it'll look better than it ever did.  But standard-definition videotape, you're pretty much stuck with.  Which, no doubt, is part of the reason CBS is currently shelling out the dough to rebuild Star Trek: The Next Generation in high definition with new special effects: they can give it new syndication life that fuzzy 1-inch analog video tapes won't have.)

Rocky Jones, Space Ranger was uncommon for the time, in that it was produced entirely on film.  Which helped to make it more expensive than the other shows, even though the production quality, really, wasn't that much higher than Space Patrol's.  And that in turn contributed to the producers discontinuing it after less than one year.

But, having done that, they still had 39 filmed episodes which would look just as good on repeat airings.  What's more, 36 of the episodes were in twelve three-part serials, allowing them to have an alternative afterlife as 90-minute compilation TV movies.  Then, in the 1990's, two of the TV movies appeared on Mystery Science Theater 3000.  And so the show that wasn't nearly as popular as its contemporaries when originally aired lasted much longer and was ultimately seen by more people.  Both MST3K episodes are now available on DVD, and the unadorned episodes and films are available from multiple commercial sources (due in part to their falling into the public domain).  Meanwhile, you can only find Space Patrol on DVD-R's from individual sellers.

This episode, by the way, was one of the exceptions to the three-parter rule.  The series was produced in two blocks, one of 26 episodes and one of 13, leaving extra episodes that were produced as standalone stories.  "Kip's Private War" aired a little over halfway into the show's run, on July 27, 1954.

The "cold light" mentioned in this episode was a previously-introduced method of invisibility.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Games: Desert Moon

Day 1
[Excerpt from Post-Incident Report]
"There were no firearms.  We're salvagers... engineers.  Not soldiers.  You couldn't even see anything out of that escape suit.  But something was killing us, eating us.  We had to fight back.  The wreckage was full of components, components [that] we put together... and we fought back."

So begins one of my favorite new Flash games of this last year: Desert Moon.  It's well-designed, fast-moving, and has well-chosen music and sound effects.  This is sort of a science fiction combination of shooter and tower defense.  Place defenders with different weapons types in front of half of your crashed spaceship, facing increasing hordes of aliens of different types... and the re-animated corpses of your friends from the separated other half of your ship.

I enjoy games that, once you've picked up the mechanics of it, aren't too hard to master.  It seems I'm not the only one, because I've found a lot of Flash games are that way.  As I've said before, I hardly possess mad skillz, but I've finished all five "days" at all three skill levels with top marks.  For some people, mastering it takes all the fun out of the game.  For me, it makes it something relaxing to come back to now and again.  If you can call being besieged by aliens and zombies relaxing.

(click here to get to the game)

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Forrest J Ackerman on Early Science Fiction Authors He Knew

Remember when I said there was more yet of my interview with Forrest J Ackerman to be turned into micro-documentaries?  Well, I didn't have to do much work at all to produce this one.  When I was moving files from my dying hard drives to my new one, I found to my surprise that I'd had one ready to go all this time, but had forgotten about it in the wake of Forry's death.

So I just added a picture of Francis Flagg that I saw recently in the November 1931 issue of Wonder Stories (and used it for cover to cut out a mid-sentence pause), and there we are.


At the time I had 127 correspondents around the world, I was also in correspondence with a number of the early authors, like Jack Williamson and Edgar Rice Burroughs.  And finally, in 1939, at the first World Science Fiction Convention, I met in person authors I had been corresponding with, called Ray Cummings, and, 'course, the fabulous artist Frank R. Paul.

David H. Keller?  He was one of my favorite early authors, and at one time I visited him in his home in Pennsylvania, and I stayed overnight.  And I noticed, at each meal, he was including a handful of different vitamins.  And he said he was attempting to lengthen his life with these.  He did indeed live to a ripe old age.

My wife didn't believe in vitamins.  She said, you eat a healthy diet, and that's sufficient.

Well, Francis Flagg was a well-established name author, but he began to run out of ideas.  And I was overflowing with ideas, but I did not have any stature yet as an author.  So I began supplying plots to Francis Flagg, and he wrote up—the first one was called "Earth's Lucky Day."

Well, I remember at one time, when I was temporarily living in San Francisco, I found that an author of a series of stories called "Tani of Ekkis"—he had the name of Aladra Septama.  And I found that actually, he was a lawyer, Judson W. Reeves, living in—having his office in downtown San Francisco.

So one day, I went to his office and met him, and he took me to lunch afterwards, and out to his home.  And there I was staggered to see the first six issues of Amazing Stories on display.  I had not been aware of it in April 1926 when it began, and I only began collecting it in October.  And to my undying gratitude, Aladra Septama—boy, I—always fascinated by that pseudonym.  I never—I regret I didn't ask him how he created such a name.  But Aladra Septama took the six copies of Amazing Stories that I had missed, and gained by undying gratitude by making me a gift of them.

Winston: I'll bet you still have them, too.

Liz (louder): Do you still have them?

Ackerman: Of course I still have them!  I never threw away a science fiction magazine in my life!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Radio: The Hole in Empty Space (Space Patrol)

It occurred to me that every radio episode I've ever posted here has been an adaptation of a published story.  But there was a lot more to radio science fiction than that.  So this time, I bring you the earliest surviving radio episode of Space Patrol, aired about 13 months after last week's Dimension X finale.

Although largely forgotten today, Space Patrol was something of a multimedia blockbuster in its time.  It started on March 9, 1950, as a 15-minute show, broadcast every weekday on a local Los Angeles television station.  The ABC radio network picked it up as a twice-weekly radio program in the summer of that year.  Then the ABC television network began a half-hour weekly show that December 30.  Since the local show continued for some time, and the radio show continued twice a week for the first few weeks the network television version was on, that means stars Ed Kemmer (Commander Buzz Corry) and Lyn Osborn (Cadet Happy) were briefly doing eight shows a week.  And they did frequent publicity appearances as well.  It's a wonder they didn't go space happy.  (As it was, Kemmer referred to Osborn as "Hap" to the end of his life, in 2005.)

The radio show returned in a once-weekly timeslot on August 18, 1951, continuing until March 19, 1955—three weeks after the TV show was discontinued.

0:30 Did they actually have to say, back then, if a show was "transcribed" (i.e., pre-recorded)? Reminds me of when sitcoms began with, for instance "All in the Family was recorded before a live audience." (Did they have to say that? Was the FCC looking out to protect the public against shows that they might otherwise mistakenly think were live?)

Incidentally, the television show was broadcast live through almost all of its life (1950-5), so it's kind of funny to think cast and crew had more latitude for error in making their audio-only adventures than they did with their far more complex audiovisual ones.

0:35 That should be "phenomenon." "Phenomena" is the plural. I mention that for the 95% of the Internet that's also unaware of this.

0:42 It seemed to be up to the individual actor whether Terra V was pronounced "Terra Five" (as Buzz Corry does at 6:59) or, as here, "Terra the Fifth." It amazes me that, more than two and a half years since the TV show premiered, someone hadn't definitively decided it one way or the other. Judging from the TV episodes I've seen, they seem to have agreed on the former sometime in 1953.

1:30 "Sounds just like a walkie-talkie" was pressing the truth more than a little. According to "Cadet Hanzo's Guide to Space Patrol Merchandising" in Jean-Noel Bassoir's Space Patrol book, the Space-o-Phones were "a futuristic version of the tin can telephone that worked about as well."

5:17 "D.U.'s" is short for "Distance Units," Space Patrol's measure of distance. I don't think they ever pinned down what, exactly, one amounted to. Confusingly, they also used it as a unit of speed (as at 7:16).

8:49 Again, trust your editor. "Phenomenon": singular. "Phenomena": plural.

14:31 "Spun out of shredded wheat." As you can see on the television show, Rice Chex looked substantially the same in the early '50s as they do today, but Wheat Chex were tiny shredded wheat biscuits. Beats me what Instant Ralston was like, but the fact it isn't around today probably says something.

20:10 The mention of superconductors inspired me to look them up on Wikipedia and in my Langenscheidt's New College Merriam-Webster. Turns out the word was coined all the way back in 1913. Writer Lou Houston, who read science magazines for ideas and background, may have read about the then-recent Ginsburg-Landau Theory, the first mathematical modeling of superconductivity. "Black hole," incidentally, wasn't coined until 1968, hence this episode's "cycloplex." (Granted, the cycloplex isn't a black hole—its effects are electromagnetic rather than gravitational—but you just know that after 1968, they'd have called it one anyway.)

26:06 If you're wondering about the distinction between "Terra" and "Earth," Space Patrol's Terra was an artificial planet, assembled between the orbits of Earth and Mars, which served as the capital of the United Planets.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Classic Serials: Undersea Kingdom, Chapter Eleven

Undersea Kingdom made a name for "Crash" Corrigan.  As it happens, the name it made for him was "Crash" Corrigan.  Before this serial, he was credited—when he was credited at all—as Ray Benard.  (And even that wasn't his real name.  It was Raymond Benitz according to IMDb, and the closer Raymond Bernard according to Wikipedia.)  But it was under his character's name from this serial, with his own "Ray" appended up front, that he was known for the rest of his career.

And while it wasn't one of Hollywood's great careers, it was, at least, a career, stretching from an uncredited role as an ape in 1932's Tarzan the Ape Man to the title character of 1958's It! The Terror from Beyond Space.

There are several different stories as to how Benitz/Benard came to be called "Crash."  IMDb claims it "derived from his powerful physique and willingness to undertake dangerous stunts."  Wikipedia notes that when he appeared on Groucho Marx's game show You Bet Your Life, he ascribed it to "the way he tackled other players in football and the way he fought."  But they also point out a far more likely, though prosaic, possibility: since Undersea Kingdom came out in the wake (no pun intended) of Universal's hit Flash Gordon, "Crash" may well have been invented at Republic for its similarity, and the actor simply adopted the character's name as his own.  (It happens now and again.  Doctor Who's Sylvester McCoy—né Patrick Kent Smith—also adapted the name of an early character he played for his stage name.)

After getting his first lead role in Undersea Kingdom, Corrigan co-starred as Tucson Smith in 24 features in the "Three Mesquiteers" series before leaving Republic in a pay dispute.  He then starred in a long western B-picture series of his own.  Really his own: again, "Crash" Corrigan was his character name as well as his stage name.

But at beginning and end of his career, what made ends meet was costume work.  He owned his own gorilla suits, and got a lot of work out of them.  He appeared as apes in two of Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan films, in Murder in the Private Car (1934), and in Darkest Africa (1936).  And he even appeared as an "Orangopoid" in the original Flash Gordon serial.  After his westerns petered out, he played the title roles of The White Gorilla and White Pongo (1945), and other apes in numerous other movies.  Even while in the height of his career, he played the occasional gorilla—including a second role in one of his Three Mesquiteers pictures.  As Bugs Bunny would have it, "Eh, it's a livin'."

In 1948, Wikipedia says, he sold his gorilla suits to another actor, Steve Calvert.  I guess, at 46, he was getting too old for these monkeyshines.  Which would mean IMDb was wrong in assigning Corrigan the role of the gorilla in the infamous would-be comedy Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla.  Which is too bad, in a way; it would be kind of neat if two former serial stars were abasing themselves in that disaster.

Besides gorilla suits, Corrigan made another film-related investment, buying his own ranch, Corriganville, which he converted into a combination full-service film location and Western-themed tourist attraction.  He sold it to Bob Hope in 1966, at which point it became Hopetown.  It's a shame he didn't sell it to Zazu Pitts.  She could have named it Pittsburgh.

7:14 "Gah!  The submarine again?!  Are you sure there isn't anything else you're going to need from there?  Heart attack pills?  Your iPod?  Change of underwear?  I swear to you, we're not going back one more time."

8:11 It kind of ruins the illusion that the submarine is fairly wide below the waterline when it's so close to shore.

12:15 Hey, they're got a big locker full of dander in the sub!  I wonder why they'd... oh.  It says "Danger."  My mistake.

13:41 "Oh, boy, oh, boy!  Field trip!"

14:00 That's an unusually short Volkite.  Did Republic run out of tall extras?

17:57 "Control disc"?  Sounds like there was a miscommunication between the script and prop departments.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Classic Serials: Undersea Kingdom (Faster-Paced Version), Chapter Eleven

(originally posted January 24, 2009)

After two weeks off for finishing up Thrilling Wonder Stories, Volume 2 (that's the requisite Google spider-bait out of the way), we're back with the penultimate chapter of Republic's classic 1936 serial Undersea Kingdom, edited for YouTube's ten-minute video limit and the limited patience of the modern viewer. (I include myself in that category, by the way. I watch something like this, and I'm firing up Final Cut Pro in my head.)

Incidentally, "penultimate" means "second to last." That's one of those things I'd like to electronically insert into the brains of everyone on the Internet, along with the difference between "its" and "it's."

For some unfathomable (no pun intended) reason, the feature version of this serial was titled Sharad of Atlantis. Viewers were no doubt perplexed at how little the title character appears. And after the events of this episode, they might well have thrown up their hands and quit.

The compilers of the feature could have found a much better title in the text introducing the characters every week. (That would be the text you haven't seen, because I edit it out every week to save a whole minute.) Mad Tyrant of Atlantis! Grabs you, doesn't it? And when you read it aloud, you don't have to guess how to pronounce it.

And how about Diana's radiant compassion, huh? The Sacred City has just been destroyed around her, Lord knows how many casualties there are, and her first thought? The recapture of Professor Norton jeopardizes her escape! Fortunately for her, she doesn't make this observation in front of any natives of the Sacred City.

We're really racing to the end, here. This chapter started out at 19 minutes, 25 seconds, and is now 9 minutes, 53 seconds. I could have just cut out a couple of minutes, and split it into two parts, but you know me, I'm not a quitter. (People reading this who actually know me laugh heartily.)

Yet another cheat cliffhanger hit the virtual cutting room floor this week. Since we've now reached the final cliffhanger of this serial, maybe I'll produce a compilation of all the cheats. Later.

Oh, and there never was a scene to explain that Moloch is in the other empty Volkite. As you probably did, I wondered for a while how Billy became the same height as Crash.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Games: Star Wars: Shadows of the Empire (N64) Part 12

You'd think, having just come up from the sewers, I wouldn't be able to sneak up on guards so well.  At any rate, now it's time for Xizor's drastically under-furnished palace!  This is a level you really need a guide for— or, ahem, a video walkthrough —what with all the fiendishly hidden challenge points.  Enjoy them while you can: in the next (final) level, challenge points are awarded automatically.

0:54 Here's yet another place where the auto-targeting just will not lock onto flying droids to save its life, hence some cheap hits.

1:39 See, that switch not only opens the door on ground level across the room, it also opens the small alcove I'm now backing into.

1:53 As you can see, this door doesn't stay open for long, which is why I concentrated on jumping and running, and left shooting the droid for once I was past the door.

3:06 If it's not obvious here what I'm doing: the switch sends the lift back to the first level.  Then, by hovering here until it goes red, I can click it again, and send the lift down to a secret level.

3:49 I'm just moving over here so you can see the drawbridge coming down.

5:18 Nothing happened when I ran through the pulse pack (purple) because I'm already full up.  The same deal with the extra 5-health pack.

5:55 Yes, another alcove where you wouldn't expect it.

6:41 This is my favorite devious hidden challenge point of the level: a hidden passageway behind an alcove.  That window I fly past, by the way, is the control room I was in a minute ago.

7:13 I'm sure there's some way to time this so you don't get pummeled by the giant gear, but I haven't managed to figure it out.

7:24 Oh, nice jump, me.

8:06 I'm going back this way instead, just to make sure I don't get pummeled by those gears I dropped between.

8:44 Again, auto-targeting and those damned flying droids.

9:36 I fired that stunner a little high, and it wasn't effective.

10:22 I can never remember which corner of this shaft is which, so I end up checking them all until I find the right one.  It's the same story with the exit hatch shortly.

11:45 I've switched to seekers because I only have so many disruptors.  It's fairly easy to hit the first stage of the Gladiator with seekers... not so much the next two.

12:46 If I had better aim, and hit the Gladiator itself more often instead of the wall behind it, this would probably go a lot quicker.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Watching You Tube: Crash Corben: Last of the Rocketmen

(originally posted November 4, 2008)

While we're having fun with Undersea Kingdom, here's a new retro-styled production emulating the serials of the 1940's—Crash Corben: Last of the Rocketmen.

Man alive, I seriously covet that rocketship set.  Part 3, by the way, is, as the YouTube description has it,  an "[a]ctual newsreel from 1944 which acts as an intermission between chapters."  I've excluded it here.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Custom Wars

Frankly, there's a fair amount of stuff that's appeared here that I learned about via the Nerd Approved site.  In one case, I got the picture of a Star Trek cat tree from there.  Soon, I found pictures of a TARDIS cat fort in my jealous trolling of the TARDIS Builders forum.  And I thought, hey, here's something Nerd Approved hasn't done.  So, for some unfathomable reason, I waited a little while before doing a post that featured both cat trees.  And then it turned out they did the TARDIS cat fort the same day.  As Charlie Brown would say, *sigh*.

But this time, I feel pretty safe.  Back in August, Nerd Approved did a post featuring some gorgeous custom action figures of characters from the original Star Wars, re-imagined with the sensibility of the '30s and '40s science fiction serials which inspired George Lucas in the first place.

But they really only scratched the surface.  Sillof, who created those figures, is multitalented, and didn't stop (or start) with the idiom of classic serials.  Behold, with his kind permission, not just Cecil-3000 from Serial Wars...

If this were a Republic serial, of course, they'd just have painted a Volkite gold.

...but Rust-bucket from Steam Wars...

I'm imagining a 16mm projector noise when he shows the Princess's message.

...Detective Dante Victor from Noir Wars...

"I find yer lack'a fait' distoibing."

...Boran Fayne of Long Ago and Far Away...


...Hank Solomon from West Wars...

"Damn those beans.  I've got the Kessel Runs."

...Princess Layu Oganata from Samurai Wars...

"Take one more step, and this goes right in my stomach."

...and 1st Lt. Chuck Backer of World Wars!

"I ain't gettin' in no plane, Murdock!"

Hell, and this is just one from each set.  He even has a set where he doesn't restrict himself to one idiom, but mixes and matches to create his own new take on the classic designs.

And besides all this, he has custom dioramas of classic scenes from the original trilogy, beautiful yet frugal re-creations of props from Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Star Trek.  And much, much more, as the commercials say.  If you want to ooh and ahh, and feel really, really jealous (although that may just be me), you owe it to yourself to check out this site.

All images above copyright © 2011 Sillof.  Used by permission.  All characters and related materials are trademark, copyright, and/or registered trademarks of their respective license holders and/or owners.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Classic Serials: Undersea Kingdom, Chapter Ten

If anyone's getting into this serial like I am, and has at least $57.95 to blow (as I don't), there's currently an original 11x14" lobby card for this very episode available on eBay, pictured here.  (You can also get a wood resin model of a Juggernaut for $96.00.  Ah, to be rich.  And not care what people think of your interior decorating.)

No kidding, I really am getting to enjoy "Crash" Corrigan in this serial.  Perhaps it's the Stockholm Syndrome from going through this serial in exhaustive detail twice in the last three years.  But for all of Corrigan's... modest talents as an actor, there's a sort of unassuming matter-of-factness about him that I find appealing in an action hero, especially in such outlandish surroundings.

He doesn't quite succeed in getting the audience's identification the way Buster Crabbe did as Flash Gordon.  As I've mentioned before, Crabbe's Flash frequently projected a sense that even he wasn't sure his luck would hold out much longer.  His courage was the sort that's defined as being frightened to death, but proceeding anyway.

By contrast, Crash is more of an old-school pulp hero who's courageous and possessed of many physical skills almost as a matter of course, who doesn't seem really to consider the possibility of failure.  He approaches his adventure in Atlantis with the same straight-ahead determination we saw him apply to football and wrestling in Chapter One.  He'd be insufferable if he weren't so darn nice, so utterly lacking in self-congratulation.  But maybe you get that way when, by the looks of him, you've been a cadet at Annapolis for about fifteen years.

I find it kind of funny how Diana is the sort of character who's thrown in as a romantic interest for the hero, and yet there's no sense that adversity is heightening any sexual tension between them.  Crash seems to have noticed she's a woman, and he may be attracted to her (maybe most noticeable in his smiling reaction to her brashness in inviting herself onto the expedition in Chapter One), but I guess he just figures this isn't the time or place to be making moves on her.  When this is all over, maybe he'll invite her to a dance, and they can get properly acquainted.

And no, I won't stand for any jokes that he's more interested in Billy.

2:00 I suppose "himself" in "in spite of himself" must refer to Professor Norton, although it's amusing to read it as referring to Crash.  "Damn!  I was hoping not to rescue the Professor, but..."

3:26 That's funny, I could have sworn the Volplane was blown to pieces last week.  But Republic wouldn't lie to us, would they?

4:03 I love how abashed Ditmar is.

9:10 Watch the one Black Robe almost lose his balance as he swings around.

14:02 You know, I keep seeing those guys roll that rock, but I never see them use it.  Maybe, as MST3K suggested, they're dung beetles.  Or maybe they're Sisyphus' cousins who didn't piss the gods off as much.

15:20 I don't think I've mentioned this before, but damn, these are the woodenest-sounding swords in all creation.  What's especially silly is that Republic almost had to have Foleyed them in that way.  Surely they didn't pick up the actual sound at that distance?

16:41 Say, what happened to not being able to bomb the Sacred City for fear of rupturing the dome?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Classic Serials: Undersea Kingdom (Faster-Paced Version), Chapter Ten

(originally posted January 3, 2009)

Let me just interrupt my usual spiel about how this is a quicker-paced edit of the classic 1936 Republic serial to say, Gaaaahh! The Great Projector?!?

Everyone after me: Why didn't Unga Khan use it against the Sacred City until now?!!?!

Incidentally, is it me, or does it sound like that line (at 8:12) was dubbed by someone else?

Frankly, this chapter has the least plot of any so far. So really, it was less a matter of what to cut out than what to keep in. Apart from the usual cutting of the mini-bios of the characters, and trimming the recap so that we're into new stuff before the two-minute mark, this week I made exactly four cuts:

1) Hakur* goes down to the stables and repeats Unga Khan's orders.

2) Khan's men (again) fruitlessly pursue Crash as he hightails it for the Sacred City. They report their failure to Hakur. Khan and Ditmar walk across the damn room (again) to answer Hakur's call on the Reflecto** Plate.

3) Khan's men (again) assemble their forces and set out for the Sacred City.

(Then there's the scene I left in where Crash tries (again) to reason with Prof. Norton, and Sharad says the effects of the transforming machine will wear off. I put it before Hakur's call because the story flows around the edits better that way. The beats become: Crash et al go off in the chariot, Crash et al think they're safe in the Sacred City, Unga Khan calls for an all-out attack on the Sacred City, and the attack commences.)

4) The Black Robes arrive. Crash and the White Robes marshall their forces. Hakur decides (again) to wait for nightfall, just as he did at what I called "the Battle of Helm's Really Deep" six weeks ago (and which I also cut out on that occasion).

All in all, this chapter makes me wish, for your sake, that I'd watched the whole serial before starting to edit it. I realized that Prof. Norton's escape from the Sacred City pretty much defeated the point of everything that had happened since about the 2:30 point of Chapter Eight. I could have saved two whole chapters, like so:

(I could have put back three and a half minutes of marshaling forces, etc., to bring it closer to ten minutes, but I think I've made my point.)

*- According to IMDb, this is how it's spelled. I'd think "Hakur" would have the stress on the second syllable, or at least be "HAH-ker" but hey, I didn't make this thing. As to how I've managed to call him "Hacker" all this time when I've actually consulted IMDb about other names, check out my all-purpose explanation from last week. 

**- It sure sounded like "Reflector Plate" earlier, but this week, Unga Khan clearly calls it "the Reflecto." See explanation cited above.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Radio: Nightfall (Dimension X)

Although the announcement at the close of the episode shows they were hoping to come back at some point, I wonder if there wasn't some consciousness, in the choice of "Nightfall" as the last story of the season, that this might, in fact, be the end.  But then, I suppose "Requiem" would have worked for that, too.

"Nightfall" is one of the all-time classic science fiction stories.  Sometimes, though, I wonder if a story's classic status isn't perpetuated and amplified simply by the fact that everyone always calls it a classic.  Not that I don't like "Nightfall"; it just strikes me as a very good story rather than One of the Greatest Science Fiction Stories Ever Written.  For what it's worth, Asimov agreed.  In 1979, he wrote that he considered "Nightfall" only the fourth best of his own stories, never mind of all time.

For one thing, it's mostly concept and not enough story.  This story was famously inspired by Astounding editor John W. Campbell reading Asimov the quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson which opens both story and episode.  Campbell felt Emerson was wrong: "I think men would go mad," he said.  And the resulting story is more a dramatized explanation of why Campbell was right than it is about characters actually doing things.

Also, the world-building is pretty feeble.  There are several references to "days"-- surely a meaningless concept on Lagash, which almost always has at least two suns in the sky.  And what function does an observatory serve on such a world?  I suppose it could be a solar observatory, but I don't think it occurred to Asimov that photographic plates designed on a planet where it's always daytime would almost certainly be far too weak to capture images of stars.

It beats me how the solar system in this story works.  It seems to me that all the population of Lagash must be on the same hemisphere for there to be universal darkness-- unless the suns could perfectly line up, one behind the other, with an eclipsing object in front.  And that's not the case here, where Asimov writes of suns setting, and only the last sun being eclipsed.  Further, the cities would probably have to be fairly close together for the eclipse to be total in all of them.  Humans on Lagash may have evolved on an Australia-sized continent, so far separated from the others (if any) that they all still live there.  It would be nice if Asimov had dropped some clues in this respect.

Asimov violates his point of view at the end.  Up until then, the story had Theremon 762 as its point-of-view character, and kept itself to what people on Lagash would know.  But in order to explain that Lagash is in a cluster, Asimov has to step back suddenly to an omniscient viewpoint, explicitly contrasting Lagash and Earth.

Finally, I find it tough to believe that any civilization that can build enclosed spaces could go so long without developing artificial light, eternal day or no.  How did they build the Tunnel of Mystery, for instance, without it?  And presumably they have darkrooms to develop their photographic plates.

It's so easy to pick holes in this story that I find it far more difficult to determine why it is that the story works, regardless.  Asimov does a good job gradually building a pervasive sense of doom, to the point that there's almost pathos in how under-prepared the scientists turn out to be.  He brings in the pieces of the puzzle one at a time-- the collapse of past civilizations, the story of the Tunnel of Mystery.  He presents the conflict between science and religion, making both sides prideful and dismissive of the other.  (Similarly to Heinlein in "Universe," Asimov presents religion and tradition as having some answers, however garbled, that science would do well to pay heed to.)  In short, he makes us worry that we're watching a society circling the drain, not quite aware how much danger they're in.  Which makes the whole story a little tragic.

So what about the "Best Science Fiction Story Ever" thing?  Remember that this story was written in 1941.  It's been fashionable since at least the 1960's to ride Asimov down for having a flat, utilitarian writing style.  But all you have to do is read some science fiction from the 1930's, as I've been doing lately, and you'll gain a whole new appreciation for style that's clear, simple, and straightforward.

And for similar reasons, the readers of 1941 may have appreciated exactly what I dunned the story for above-- being all concept.  At least Asimov took a concept and saw it through to its logical bitter end.  I've been reading eighty-year-old back issues of Wonder Stories (for a blog feature that I've never gotten around to writing), and I can't tell you how many times the stories have frustrated me by taking a halfway interesting idea, and just using it as background for some mind-numbingly rote action-adventure-romance involving giant bugs, or gangsters, or fleets of eighty grazillion spaceships blasting away at each other.

Before we get to the episode, sorry about the audio quality on this one.  It's pretty rough.  Moreover, that sort of glassy persistent background noise shows that it was over-compressed at some point in its digital history.

Ernest Kinoy took a different tack in adapting "Nightfall" than he did with "Requiem" the previous week.  As you may remember, he stuck pretty close to Heinlein's story, scene by scene, exchange by exchange, mostly just rephrasing the story's dialogue into something more natural to hear actors say.  By contrast, Kinoy retains very little of Asimov's text, and freely juggles events to improved dramatic effect.  As I said, the story is something of a dramatized thesis; it frequently errs on the side of over-explaining.

Kinoy rearranges this information to make it a bit snappier, and to add some drama to the story.  The story is essentially one continuous scene.  Kinoy breaks it up a bit.  He has Theremon's interview with Aton turn out to be abortive.  Then he has Theremon go to Sor, the leader of the Cult, to get his point of view.  Similarly, Kinoy later has Theremon interview an engineer from the power station, and an old cultist.  This improves the story dramatically in several ways.  It increases the pace, it opens up the story, it puts more of a face on a group that, in the story, we hear about mostly second-hand from the scientists, and it also makes Theremon a better reporter.

Later in the story, Sheerin, the psychologist, tells Theremon about the unfortunate people driven mad in the Tunnel of Mystery.  Kinoy dramatizes it a little by introducing us briefly to Latimer, one of the victims.  (In the story, Latimer was a completely different character: the cultist who destroyed the photographic plates.  Kinoy assigns that action to Sor himself, and so he was able to recycle the name here.)

In a couple of places, though, Kinoy loses a little in the process.  He fails to explain the significance of the photographic plates: they're to be used to photograph the stars for later study.  And he condenses the dialogue about the scientists belatedly inventing the candle.  Whereas Asimov had Sheerin talk of "the pithy core of coarse water reeds," Kinoy has the animal grease "packed around a wick."  If they haven't had candles or lamps up to now, would they even have a word for "wick" in this sense?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Games: Bloons Tower Defense

(originally posted January 26, 2009)

And now for a bonus science-fiction-themed Monday Game: Bloons Tower Defense!


Oh, like monkeys throw darts to destroy an onslaught of balloons in real life?! Besides: monkeys? Throwing darts? To pop balloons? Entertainment gold, I tell you, solid freakin' gold!

(click here to get to game)

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Watching You Tube: Space Adventure, Episodes 13 & 14 and Jim Troesh

And now it's time for two more episodes of one of my all-time favorite web series, Space Adventure!

Episode 13: Double Cliff Hanger!

It looks like "lukku cairi AKA Alice AKA leucocephala" has the same laptop I do.  Of course, since this was four years ago, she probably has a different one now, whereas I don't.

Episode 14: RCK Chain of Command

The "robot clown kid" footage comes from the (ostensibly) educational film The Self Image Film (If Mirrors Could Speak), which Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett covered for RiffTrax.

* * *

I'm going to leave it there this week and share another video with you.  I don't keep up that much with Hollywood news, so it's kind of odd that I should happen to check out The Hollywood Reporter's news site yesterday and catch out of the corner of my eye a Breaking News sidebar item that put a cold shiver through me.  Actor/writer Jim Troesh has died.

That name might not mean much to you; his highest-profile role was a recurring one as a lawyer on Highway to Heaven.  But I knew him from an entertainment industry networking group, the Hampton's Table, that I was a member of when I lived in Los Angeles.

He was cheerful, irrepressible, and always working on something, which is more than I can say for myself.  And this was despite spending more than forty years of his life from age 14 as a quadriplegic.  There's a line from one of my favorite bands, Optiginally Yours, that always puts me in mind of him.  In "Beebo," they give you this advice on how to shake it to their boogie: "If you can move one limb, that's all you need to begin.  And if you can't, relax and just be groovy."  Jim was a relaxed and groovy kind of guy.

I mention all of this in a "Watching YouTube" post because the best way I can think of to remember him is with the first episode of his web series from a few years ago, called The Hollywood Quad, in which he addressed his own personal elephant in the room with his usual grace and good humor.  I remember seeing it the first time when he unveiled it to laughter and applause at the Table.  It even has a science fiction connection, of sorts, as we see him start on a science fiction script.  (In real life, he wrote a comedy pilot script with the wonderfully bent premise of Earth's first alien visitor having to make his way in the world once his novelty-based fifteen minutes of fame are up.)

Friday, October 7, 2011

Classic Serials: Undersea Kingdom, Chapter Nine

One of the great things about the old studios is that they never threw anything away.  Old costumes, props, sets, music, decoration... all of it was apt to reappear in some future production.  It gets so that, plopped down in the middle of a movie you've never seen, you can identify which studio it comes from just from what it re-uses from other films you have seen.  If you watch Mystery Science Theater 3000, for instance, you quickly come to see how much mileage Universal-International got out of its score from This Island Earth, its office set, and a bizarre painting that (as Tom Servo observed) looks like a burger.

Considering that Republic, producer of Undersea Kingdom, was one of the "poverty row" studios, you can bet they took as much advantage of their inventory as they possibly could.  Sound effects introduced here recur all through their serials (for instance, the sound of the Juggernaut in motion was used for the atomic gun sixteen years later in Radar Men from the Moon).  The Juggernaut itself was refurbished slightly in that same serial to become the Moon men's vehicle.

But the rampant re-use of Undersea Kingdom's Volkites so dramatically identified Republic serials that they came to be known as the "Republic Robots."  They appeared in Mysterious Doctor Satan (1940) and Zombies of the Stratosphere (1952), to name two.  Here's a still from the latter, lifted from's review:

Cash machines: You're doing it wrong

Much, much later, the Republic Robot also had an affectionate and closely-observed parody in Tom Paris's serial-based holodeck fantasy in Star Trek: Voyager.  I wish I knew enough to give you a complete (or even just longer) list.  Actually, what I really wish I knew is why, in Undersea Kingdom, they appear to have torsos decorated with handlebar mustaches.


1:57 Sentenced?  I don't think the threat to kill him would work too well if he were already as good as dead.  Granted, it didn't work anyway, but...

2:53 I wonder if the kids in the audience stood up and booed these cheat cliffhangers.  I might have.

4:08 Uh, Hakur?  Not to tell you your job or anything, but this is a situation that normally calls for "drop your weapons, then get on the ground and put your hands behind your head" or something.

4:37 Advice for filmmakers: if you want to have your hero look heroic, don't have him squinting into the sun.  Well, unless he's Clint Eastwood.

5:35 "[M]y undersea kingdom of Atlantis."  It's funny, that's exactly how Unga Khan described it back in Chapter Two.  The recurrence gives me reason to ponder what, exactly, distinguishes Holy Sharad as a good guy.  I mean, yes, he doesn't want to conquer or destroy the upper world, and maybe that's the important thing to Crash et al, but his rule seems as arbitrary as Khan's.

7:43 You know, when you think of it, this plan depends for its success on Unga Khan's not having followed the battle with his magic television.

9:12 How does he know what priming powder is supposed to smell like?

10:05 "And why the hell are you dressed like that?"

15:23 Love the Volplane.  This serial has great production design.  I'd love to see more science fiction that shows what modern technology would look like if it had been invented in the '30s, with that great art deco/Frank R. Paul look.  Radiumpunk, anyone?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Radio: Requiem (Dimension X)

Well, thanks to my hard drive troubles, I missed the actual sixtieth anniversary of the last two episodes of Dimension X, but I'll go ahead and finish out the series before we move on to other things.

* * *

A few weeks ago, I pointed out the similarities between "Vital Factor," the 1950 story by Nelson S. Bond, and the 1950 novella "The Man Who Sold the Moon," by Robert A. Heinlein.  Dimension X adapted the former.  Then, ironically, they went on to adapt the story to which "Sold" was a prequel, "Requiem," which hit the newsstands near the end of 1939.

(Yes, Internet, "prequel" means "a story created later which takes place earlier," not merely "a story created earlier."  The Phantom Menace (1999), for instance, is a prequel to Star Wars (1977), but it is not a prequel to Attack of the Clones (2002).)

Now, I'm not an expert on Heinlein, but it seems to me that he (like the huge majority of his contemporaries in the field) wasn't all that strong on characterization.  The heroes of his juveniles, for instance, always struck me as being distinguished by their hyper-competence, self-interest, and willingness to take a lot of crap on the way up-- not for any real quirks of personality.  And this is one of Heinlein's earliest stories, so it's not as though the characterization here were something he learned from experience.  Perhaps it's that Heinlein employed perhaps the best way to make a reader care about a character, which is to give him a motivating need that the reader can sympathize with.  No doubt many of the readers of this story-- or listeners on the radio --also had dreams of going to the Moon.  And that Heinlein no doubt put some of his own background and dreams into Harriman, as we'll see later.

The focus on character isn't the only reason I find it somewhat surprising this story was written in 1939.  It's remarkably matter-of-fact about rocket travel to the Moon.  And it fits in so well with its prequel that they almost seem of a piece.  There's no feeling in "The Man Who Sold the Moon" of straining to fit the circumstances of "Requiem."  You could almost believe "Sold" was written first.

But perhaps they should be read in the order they were written.  Knowing the more sympathetic Harriman at the end of his life goes a long way, I think, to making the brash, impatient, self-interested S.O.B. of the prequel easier to take.

By the way, probably the best sign that "Requiem" was written in 1939 is that the pilots, flying their run-down rocket at carnivals, were so obviously based on the post-World War I barnstormers who were still active at the time.  Heinlein even uses the word.  (The radio version, nearly twelve years later, does not.)

I don't have a lot of fancy stuff to say about the episode this week.  The story, it appears, was just the right length for Dimension X, because Ernest Kinoy was able to write a pretty straightforward adaptation with only a few short additional scenes.

He expands a bit on Harriman's past.  We're there as he's served with a subpoena.  Harriman is shocked to realize that the judge may rule against him.  We witness their approach to the Moon.  But most of these come naturally out of the story, and don't feel like padding.

Oddly, although he had to expand elsewhere, Kinoy deletes one of my favorite bits.  Charlie asks Harriman how he got so rich, and Harriman says he didn't try.  "I just wanted to live a long time and see it all happen. I wasn't unusual; there were lots of boys like me-- radio hams, they were, and telescope builders, and airplane amateurs. We had science clubs, and basement laboratories, and science-fiction leagues--the kind of boys who thought there was more romance in one issue of the Electrical Experimenter than in all the books Dumas ever wrote. We didn't want to be one of Horatio Alger's Get-Rich heroes, either, we wanted to build space ships. Well, some of us did."

To me, that line gets right to the essence of Harriman as a character.  It also describes many of the readers of science fiction in the generation leading up to 1939. Like, say, Robert A. Heinlein.  It was a shame to lose it.

(Also, as someone who picked up the tradition of Thrilling Wonder Stories, I enjoyed the two references to Hugo Gernsback. He published science fiction in Electrical Experimenter years before creating the first specialty science fiction magazine with Amazing Stories. And his later magazine, Wonder Stories, established the Science Fiction League, which helped fandom organize.)

He also deletes a cute bit where Harriman, realizing their ship has no name, suggests the Lunatic.

By and large, Kinoy uses Heinlein's dialogue as the basis of his own, but renders it a little more naturally.  For instance, in the story, Mac says, "Well, what if I did take a couple o' drinks? Anyhow, I could have squared that--it was the darn persnickety regulations that got me fed up." On radio, it's "All right, all right, so I took a few drinks. I-- I could have squared that. Too many regulations, red tape."

There's a little added emphasis on Harriman's infirmity, in the added bit of the driver helping him out of the limousine.  And what Harriman is able to pass off in the story as a "heart flutter," the doctor correctly identifies on radio as a "cardiac condition."

Kinoy later adds a little tension by changing "We've got enough fuel, I think" to a more uncertain "If we've got enough fuel."

And now, a nitpick.  In the story, the rocket is "the ACTUAL TYPE used by the First Man to Reach the Moon!!!" In the episode, it's "The actual type used by the first men to fly it," which is not only less impressive-sounding, it's a tautology. (How could it not be the same type as used by the first men to fly that type?)

However, the price for the ride in the story was 50 cents. Here, it's $25, which is, at least, fifty times less absurdly cheap. Now, for 50 cents, you just get to go inside and look.