27 January 2013

Voyager Season 2

Strides Made in Voyager Season 2
By Kristin Battestella

Star Trek: Voyager’s full-length sophomore year falls prey to many of the same old reliances and hindrances of its debut season. Thankfully, quality guest stars and a fine cast make for some quality and improvements with a strong second half spearheading some credibility thru to Year 3.  

70,000 light years from earth and lost deep in the Delta Quadrant, Captain Katherine Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) and her Maquis Commander Chakotay (Robert Beltran) must battle Kazan enemies and forge new alien alliances while subduing Voyager’s old ship bound tensions between Starfleet and the former Maquis. Spies and Cardassian subterfuge put pilot Tom Paris (Robert Duncan MacNeill) and Vulcan lieutenant Tuvok (Tim Russ) in further danger as espionage grows and babies are born during the long journey home.

“The 37’s” opens Season 2 in the already standard Voyager fashion. It’s a nice, lovely little episode and makes for a fun novelty opening. However, it still feels slightly incomplete and would have better served as Season 1’s finale. Many of Voyager’s shows have this same problem – the writing just seems so stale, episodes seem unfinished, technological pieces or effects are missing, and character details and personal touches go to the wayside.  Not only are none of the stories fresh or super new TV, but every plot seems problematic, rewritten, or churned out with gritted teeth – and it shows onscreen. Voyager doesn’t have a lot of return value as a result. If they put in so little effort, why should the audience do more? Were this Trek installment still showing in syndication, it would be very easy to miss an episode one week, happen to not catch another, and then simply tune out altogether. Even the Star Trek guest star card is used too early with a fun but obvious Nog alum Aron Eisenberg in “Initiations” and Dwight Schultz as Barklay in episode 3 “Projections.”  There are fine debates about sex on the ship and the generational aspects to come with Jennifer Lien’s Kes in “Eloguim,” but again, such thoughts are played a little too safe and easy. I’m glad Voyager doesn’t go for all the sexy stunts here, but how can a science fiction series seem so afraid of making the big SF concepts? 

Granted, this off-kilter and incomplete feeling is probably because of Voyager’s act pacing and shorter running time. Alone in syndication, The Next Generation had time for a coda or more reflection. Unfortunately, Voyager could have really used a scene of further debate or space faring costs in most of these network-carrying shows. “Twisted” is a nice ship in a crisis plot. It’s not bad in of itself, but the same old weaknesses and structural problems crack Voyager’s surface.  When Voyager does have fine science fiction materials, too many of the same elements are bunched up together. Reality alterations for Garret Wang’s Harry Kim in “Non Sequitur,” space dwelling life forms meeting paranormal clouds, yadda yadda – where’s the variety and depth? Panache from the cast keeps episodes like “Parturition” together, and yet I can’t help but hate on Voyager for being too easy, generic, and casual. There’s nothing wrong when this show has its quiet character adventures and soft SF set ups. Yes, there isn’t as much time as previous Trek dramas, thus it seems as though not a lot is actually happening on Voyager, and the result is less long lasting or simply unsatisfying.  Producer Brannon Braga was consistently unhappy and disappointed with Voyager, and the show’s faulty system is setting itself up for failure.  All these bottle episodes – ships gone awry, nebula, nebula, phenomenon, rinse, repeat – one after another stifle the stellar character moments in between. Forgive my preposition, but what the heck are they saving the budget for? As with Deep Space Nine, it just seems like Star Trek quality, time, and money can’t be sustained over 26 episode seasons.  Well then why not have 26 episodes?

Thankfully, most of the cast keeps Voyager afloat with fine performances and character explorations.  Although frame within a frame holograms with mental deceptions are nothing new, Robert Picardo holds “Projections” together and “Lifesigns” gives the Doctor a fine romance.  I like Roxann still Biggs-Dawson as B’Elanna Torres in “Prototype” and I’m not sure why there was unhappiness behind the scenes. Today when one does find something he likes on Voyager, it’s depressing to read the production notes available online. Everyone just seems so bitter and displeased already in Season 2. So what if the robots here aren’t super stylized. Was the half-black, half-white painting in The Original Series’ “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” hokey? Of course.  Is there solid science fiction marvels and moral character dilemmas nonetheless? Absolutely, and Voyager should take this cue all the time. Likewise, “Innocence” and “The Thaw” have nice character moments, but that gosh darn iffy production and confusing plot points make no room for follow up.  Both seem to end too soon, with no time for the fine guest stars and hefty examinations left hanging. Amateur dialogue or technical errors create plot holes that ruin the viewer’s suspension of belief for the whole world. “Resistance” is an otherwise touching Janeway episode with guest star Joel Grey (Buffy) that ends up too vague. Ironically, since not a lot of people watched Voyager, many of the same fuzzy storylines are also borrowed for the subsequent Enterprise. I feel like I’m viewing the same weak swept under the carpet over and over, and the halfhearted coasting doesn’t bode well for the first two years of either series.  Am I asking too much of Voyager?

Voyager does have a solid stretch over the second half of the season, fortunately. Tim Russ as Tuvok and guest Brad Dourif (Lord of the Rings) are wonderful in “Meld,” and Torres has more technological finery in “Dreadnought.”  “Death Wish” relies on more big name guests with Jonathan Frakes returning as William Riker and John de Lancie offering some heavy suicide and Q rights debates. Ethan Phillips perfectly blends Neelix’s humor and seriousness with Robert Duncan MacNeill’s Tom Paris in “Investigations,” too. There are a lot of good Trek shows this season on Voyager, yes – morals, guests, an often united but sometimes divided people who happen to be in space experiencing weird things. It’s frustrating when you have to cut through the flak, but when the good episodes are good, it’s what Voyager should be. Why then do we have lizard baby things concluding “Threshold”? I honestly don’t think that this is that bad of an episode until that reptile mating crap got pulled out from where the sun doesn’t shine. Sadly, this treatment is 110% indicative of the great personal and character stories and potential unique SF concepts of Voyager’s lost in space elements being ruined by one personal’s complaints and behind the scenes unwillingness to push the envelope. 

Likewise, he’s a good guy and sticks by his principles, but man, Chakotay is once again the brunt of the joke. Robert Beltran’s second in command is made almost with too much heart on his sleeve, and by necessity, this creates some sort of forced point and purpose when Chakotay does get something to do in “Tattoo.” “Maneuvers” is also so dry and dismissible despite what should be heavy Kazan arc staples. Those Kazan factions and the back and forth with Martha Hackett as Seska goes on much longer than it should have and gets run into the ground with repeat subterfuge that isn’t needed. Shouldn’t Voyager just be driving by these people already? Frankly, I probably would have killed off Chakotay by now, just to get the danger of the Delta Quadrant across. Janeway doesn’t need his soft-spoken, well, burden. “Resolutions” is the one and only finest Janeway and Chatokay bam hot damn, and nothing ever frickin comes of it!  Fortunately, Kate Mulgrew has a chance to show all sides of Janeway to close out Season 2. “Deadlock” may be a little gimmicky thanks to the double Janeway ploy. However, there are wonderful dilemmas and action here and with “Tuvix.” These are spot on quality conflicts and Trek with a spin wonders upon which Voyager can build. “Basics, Part 1” makes for a solid season ending cliffhanger as well – the kind of enticement that has an audience return for Year 3.

I feel like I’m repeating myself and beating a dead horse on saying all that is wrong with Voyager. There are numerous behind the scenes flaws hurting Season 2 onscreen, and this un-remediated rocky foundation makes it very difficult to enjoy when the cast, crew, and fantastical do arrive.  21st century viewers accustomed to shorter, swift, no nonsense television won’t be able to wait around for Voyager’s goods. However, fans of the Trek universe and science fiction audiences can have a part and parcel Voyager viewing thanks to streaming and rental options and marked down video sets. If you accept it’s built in substandard designs, the positive strides made this season keep Star Trek: Voyager watchable.

26 January 2013

Dark Shadows: Collection 13

Dark Shadows Collection 13 Dynamite!
By Kristin Battestella

Once again, I am neck deep and in the spirit of the spooky season year round thanks to the scary paranormal suspense and 1897 time travel tribulations of Dark Shadows and the macabre soap’s DVD Collection 13.

When the Ghost of Quentin Collins (David Selby) drives the entire Collins family from Collingwood, governess Maggie Evans (Kathryn Leigh Scott) and her two possessed charges (David Henesy and Denise Nickerson) flee to the Old House as Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) and Dr. Julia Hoffman (Grayson Hall) search for answers to rid them of the poltergeist and stop Chris Jennings’ (Don Briscoe) werewolf transformations. When Barnabas and Professor Stokes (Thayer David) discover Quentin’s I Ching wands, Barnabas uses them to will himself to the year 1897. Once in the past, he introduces himself to Judith Collins (Joan Bennett) and investigates Quentin’s secrets. Unfortunately, Barnabas harbors a secret of his own – he has been unchained from his coffin and is once again a vampire.  

 Despite having watched Dark Shadows’ original 1795 time travel and period piece changeover, the first time I saw the Quentin haunting storyline, I never expected the ghostly hints, Quentin’s Room, Victorian appearances, and possession infiltrations would lead to the complete 19th century domination of Dark Shadows’  next 183 episodes. Today, it takes a series a decade to get that kind of screen time! Not only does this longest and highest rated flashback storyline mean our company stock becomes all new characters, but eventually several players will end up with multiple roles thanks to the nine month duration of the 1897 plot. Collection 13 begins with Episode 696 from February 1969, just before the 19th century switch, and concludes with a wallop for Number 735. Although I never thought to write upon them before, I must say the opening narrations on Dark Shadows are great. The viewer is quickly up to speed in complete gothic keeping, and I wish more shows still did this. Of course, the reading is total hyperbole and yet there is a cryptic poetry that draws you in – be it past scandals or present wolfy.

Collection 13 does spend its first five episodes dawdling with multiple 1969 storylines and unfortunately leaves the Chris Jennings werewolf drama slightly unwrapped and easily forgotten. Don Briscoe and stunt wolf Alex Stevens are fine in their brief scenes, but good riddance to Ned Stuart and Sabrina’s blue hair! Roger Davis and Lisa Blake Richards are so over the top and the result falls flat against the cruel Quentin charisma and budding 1897 mysteries. Ned is so rough and touchy feely with his sister – it’s awkward, and Davis’ Dirk Wilkins role is also quite the jerk. When he and Jonathan Frid – perhaps the two worst dialogue flubbers – are together, look out!  The eventual 1897 curse origins and future werewolf connections between these storylines are awesome, but these side players make it tough to watch.  Strange as it may seem, the expanding historical plots make it easy to forget the 1969 stakes. In the first few episodes after the Episode 701 transition the narrations and some refresher dialogue repeat the same who, what, when, and where to help the audience remember how and why the 1897 switch happened. However, the more then-risqué themes and dialogue suggestion allow us to forget the time travel technicalities and simply enjoy the treats herein. The changeover will perhaps seem slow to some – Dark Shadows is in effect doing what we today would call a reboot after all.  New late Victorian looks are jazzing up the same paranormal tricks and connections for Barnabas’ twists. A lookalike portrait, the cousin from England, thieves opening a chained coffin in the mausoleum. Dun dun dun!

And how about these new gothic 1897 scandals, eh? The new characters and ancestral players are introduced well amid the solid pace and soap opera trickle of the turn of the century mysteries. The viewer is like the newly arrived vampire Barnabas indeed, trapped and at the mercy of the hour as events unknown unfold. Isabelle Hoopes is a great and sassy guest as Edith Collins, suffering amid mysticism, scheming gypsies, heirs at each other’s throats, and missing wills. Edith is a sharp lady who almost can’t be fooled. Almost. Who is receiving the extra dinner upstairs if not the ailing matriarch? Why is the maid Beth still on at Collingwood if her mistress has left? Where is Edward’s wife Laura and what does she have to do with Quentin’s banishment? Why does governess Rachel Drummond see lights in the empty Tower room? These juicy questions are what makes Dark Shadows so good. The show wouldn’t have lasted in the cultural lexicon as long as it has if it had been intentionally campy or so in the moment of itself and reaching for some kind of It audience coughtimburtonsremakestinkscough.

Scary shadows, fake cobwebs, spotlights, darkness, candle effects, those candelabras – you just don’t see this kind of careful lighting and set design anymore and yet Dark Shadows is notorious for its fly by night production cheapness. There’s lovely sixties swanky, Victorian touches, and period clutter but seriously, did they use those infamous blue and green sheets to make Rachel’s dresses? From Judith’s pink bows to Angelique’s magical power to pop out of the fire in full Victorian regalia, there’s a bemusingly dated and gaudy costume mix in 1897, and it takes awhile to see the complete 19th century transition. However, recognizing reused pieces and rooms along with the early electric and gas lamps is a lot of fun. That time traveling music box! Quentin’s room has its past reveal in Episode 709, with his theme being played to great effect in Episode 719. Despite the low budget mistakes, there’s an extra sweetness to the productions designs – remember, 1897 was just over 70 years ago for the original production but now it’s over a hundred plus for us. It makes for a real Old World charm, and all the mike shadows and set bloopers just set off Collection 13.

All the players both in front and behind the camera showed up to play here. Sure, the classic literature shading is apparent with symbolism from Jane Eyre for most of Collection 13, but there’s something refreshingly familiar about these spooky tales and that iconic Dark Shadows music accentuating all the shockers. Robert Cobert’s motifs and specific music cues help to build character suspense – and there’s a repertoire of graphics to match.  We know something is going to happen, but the quality storytelling keeps us just unsure enough and on the edge of our seats.  As this past goes on, 1796 changes are made to match, and Edith’s timeline will eventually end up iffy for the Dark Shadows’ second to last 1840 flashback, but who cares? Lines are flubbed quite often to start 1897, but rather than distraction, the mistakes add a charming nuance to the scares and secrets twists. Episode 705 has a sweet climax, and plenty of red herrings and tower mysteries complete Disc 2. Perhaps the zombie Quentin subplot on Disc 3 is a bit of a tangent, but it makes for some great kickers and frights – especially Episode 723. Besides, these old school Martinique undead spins might surprise zombie fans who think theirs is a new genre.

Of course, resident vampire Barnabas Collins is ever perfect as our paranormal hero on the case when no one else in the family could possibly understand. Jonathan Frid brings such a noble soul to Barnabas as he risks his life to save his family.  Naturally, that heart is made all the more zany when Barnabas’ return to the past rekindles those hard lost vampire hang ups and conflicts. It’s so fun to see him on the prowl again, but there’s also an agonizing desperation to the juicy dispensing of a pretty victim! Barnabas has a great, reinvigorating chess game and ongoing battle of wits with Quentin, too, and the romantic Rachel/Josette reincarnation is always pleasant. Kathryn Leigh Scott’s main character Maggie Evans, by contrast, is at the breaking point to begin Collection 13. She’s no longer just naïve – the hysterically broken governess is loosing control against the almost rapacious and certainly volatile Quentin. It makes her strong for her charges, but the defeatist battle is delightfully twisted. Scott’s incarnation as Rachel Drummond also seems one of a martyred, used, and dismissed young woman – she makes it easy to be a conquest by being so easily fascinated by the tower secrets. Not only is this governess too curious and stupid for her own good, but we hardly see her with the kids because she’s too busy asking everyone questions and telling everyone everything. Get some sense girl!

  That phone, that music – at last we meet Quentin Collins, the man behind the ghost. No more a fleeting or silent ghostly specter, this violent, philandering, occult enthusiast is critical to almost every episode on Collection 13. From his wonderful past introduction and first spoken words onscreen in Episode 701 to Edith’s chastising the meddling imp as “A very naughty boy,” it’s great to see Selby’s cheeky vigor and zest. His vocal performance and playboy style are as delightful as his looming ghostly mime was foreboding.  There’s still an underlying sinister to the character with genuine fears and scary moments, but there’s something humorous in seeing Quentin in the flesh as it were. When given a tarot card, Selby proclaims, “I don’t need cards!” whilst clearly looking at the teleprompter!  Fun loaded dialogue such as “People expect me to be bad” also adds to the suave delivery, bemusing flubs, and prophetic talk on death, curses, and being “the big bad wolf.”  Kharma-wise it’s also nice to see Quentin scared by a spirit or two with haunting heartbeats, and he has some great confrontations with the ladies at Collingswood. Although Beth’s dresses are iffy and Terry Crawford gives her an attitude that seems beyond her maid station, she’s a tall, strong presence and has great onscreen chemistry with Selby. Beth has the wit to match and gives as much as she takes even if there is an unhealthy level of danger and roughness. Quentin enters Beth’s room whenever he feels like it and doesn’t always take no for an answer. It’s not an easy role, but Crawford keeps Beth likeable and has the viewer interested in where this relationship will go next. Marie Wallace, however, can be a little over the top and even irritating once we meet crazy Jenny in Episode 716. Thankfully, it’s all in good fun with some serious twists for those who haven’t seen this segment of Dark Shadows previously, and the audience is quickly hooked into seeing this storyline’s follow thru. When Jenny and Quentin go head to head for the big reveal in Episode 720, yowza! My only trouble here is waiting for Selby’s real sideburns to grown in.

Unlike her serious counterpart Queen of the Sedative Dr. Julia Hoffman, Grayson Hall has such sarcasm and a frank attitude as Magda. Thayer David’s new incarnation as her sassy husband Sandor is also bawdy good fun. Yes, their gypsy portrayal is stereotypical and now somewhat inappropriate, and yet their send up is part of the charm. I mean, Sandor is Barnabas’ bitch! Notice how the camera cuts away on the vampire bite approach, then comes back to a bloody bite on Sandor’s neck and just a trickle upon Barnabas’ lips.  Speaking of innuendo, Humbert Allen Astredo is playing the similar but different slick and diabolical Evan Handley. He’s a warlock and the Collins family lawyer! Likewise good old Lara Parker returns to her vintage Angelique complete with woeful voodoo rituals, bad supernatural effects, great costumes, jealous shade on Rachel, and superb dynamics with Quentin and Barnabas.  What trouble this group will cause!

I want to call it seduction, for David and Amy are indeed willingly manipulated and enraptured by the Quentin’s ghost to begin Collection 13. These possessed kids are both scared and powerless, but nothing can be done. The result is absolute sympathy of course, and yet David Henesy and Denise Nickerson are dang creepy when under Quentin’s spell.  Nickerson is particularly good as the terrifyingly misled Amy Jennings on Disc 1 before the 1897 transition adds some uncanny cherub curls, wild expressions, and motherly obsessions for her Nora Collins in Episode 716.  We don’t see much of Henesy in 1969 as David lies on the brink of death, but it’s nice to see the lighthearted Jamison from 702 onward. It is eerie, however, to see Jamison’s adoring relationship with Quentin, considering we know the haunting trying to be prevented has something to do with them.  Jamison is also wrongfully used in the tug and pull between Quentin and the boy’s father Edward Collins- the always stern and smashing Louis Edmunds. Quentin makes the scared boy reach inside a coffin for a hidden message, has him steal from the Old House – and worse, uses him for black magic rituals and secret games. No wonder Edward is shipping these kids off to boarding school!  These risqué children’s plots can be tough to watch sometimes but the youthful manipulation is part of what makes Dark Shadows so good.

Do you need more reasons to love Collection 13? Rumblings of that feisty, fiery phoenix Laura Collins begin in Episode 729, and her presence tosses yet another wrench into the askew clockworks at Collingwood. Some of Diane Millay’s makeup seems caked on iffy, but this is again a nice reset for fans who missed Dark Shadows’ earlier phoenix events. How many shows have a phoenix as a recurring character anyway?  It’s great to see Laura for each storyline, however, if she is Jamison’s mother and then the same Laura also marries Roger – who is Jamison’s grandson – then that means….ew.  Star Joan Bennett doesn’t appear as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard this set, but her Judith Collins is perfectly prudish and mousy. She grows strong as fortunes change for and against her, but that doesn’t prevent her from getting roughed up by Quentin or getting the wool pulled over her eyes by Reverend Trask. Jerry Lacy is again maliciously slick and spot on to conclude Disc 3; his scenes just reek of cringe-worthy clerical corruption, and it is so dandy to watch!  Trask reminds Rachel, “When I thought badly of you as I was often tempted to do…” What?!  Nancy Barrett’s debut as Charity Trask late in Episode 727 is a surprisingly twisted little image of her daddy – and she gets in on the vampy action, too. 

 As you can probably tell, these Victorian magics are my favorite plots on Dark Shadows, and new fans interested in more than the Barnabas flavor and sixties camp vampires can begin the series fresh here. Yes, the 1796 re-route and Leviathan resolution of the 1897 storyline peeves me. Thankfully, there’s plenty of meaty to be had with the 19th century Collins family thru Collection 17. For those soured on that recent Dark Shadows movie abomination, I urge you to give the Victorian lycanthropes of Dark Shadows DVD Collection 13 a gander.  New reissues of the DVD sets, complete series video editions, and Netflix possibilities mean there is no excuse for a macabre fan to not see Dark Shadows deliver. 

15 January 2013

Voyager Season 1

Voyager Season 1 Rocky, but Shows Promise
By Kristin Battestella

Captain Katherine Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) and her state of the art Intrepid class vessel Voyager enter the Badlands region of space in pursuit of former Starfleet office Chakotay (Robert Beltran) and his missing Maquis renegades- whom Janeway’s tactical officer, the Vulcan Lieutenant Tuvok (Tim Russ) has infiltrated. The mysterious Caretaker pulls the Maquis ship into the far-flung and unexplored Delta Quadrant, and the pursuing Voyager suffers the same fate. Stranded 75,000 light years from Earth, Starfleet Command, and The United Federation of Planets, Captain Janeway and her small skeleton crew – including ex-con pilot Tom Paris (Robert Duncan MacNeil), a holographic Doctor (Robert Picardo), alien refugees Neelix (Ethan Phillips) and Kes (Jennifer Lien), and the angry half-Klingon B’Elanna Torres (Roxanne Biggs-Dawson) – must adhere to Prime Directive protocols as Voyager encounters friends and foes on the long journey home.

I was a bit apprehensive as our recent Star Trek re-watch omnibus segued from Deep Space Nine to the next live action spinoff Star Trek: Voyager.  Honestly, my memories of Voyager will filled with a whole lot of meh and Next Generation backward déjà vu. However, I actually positively recalled more episodes of this debut season then I expected, including “State of Flux,” “Heroes and Demons,” and “Jetrel.” The full-length season opener “Caretaker” is a good little adventure and shows Voyager’s potential for unique concepts and additions to the Trek canon. Yes, the TNG kinship is often too apparent, and this brand spanking new show waits two whole episodes before invoking clichéd time travel cause and effect paradoxes in “Parallax” back to back with “Time and Again” – which also finishes with a seriously premature reset button.  Though well acted with interesting SF adventures and space faring spins, it is just too early in Voyager’s journey to unnecessarily resort to stock material.  Repeat techno babble, same old same old visual effects, and other Trek conveniences are also obvious in exposing the well-worn wizard behind the curtain. “Phage” uses the same fun house mirror reflection devices as in “Parallax” – an otherwise fine Maquis versus Starfleet integration episode – and “The Cloud” is another “let’s break out of this anomaly!” hour.  Didn’t they just do this last week? We might get to know players in a crisis, sure, but we hardly know them daily – and that special ship bound tension is where Voyager’s strengths lie. The cast and quest are here, so stop interfering with this busy busy rehashing out the gate and let these new stories be told.

These behind the scenes hesitancies hamper Voyager indeed. Though set 75,000 light years from earth, Janeway and company encounter not just humanoid aliens, but peoples indistinguishable from humans. For “Time and Again,” the captain just changes her clothes to fit in – and that must be one heck of a Universal Translator to so expertly speak these never heard before languages!  Promising Prime Directive debates, crew stress, and political tensions are swept under the deck for a lot of unbelievable filler. The show runners want re-wrangle TNG viewers who left Deep Space Nine behind, that’s understandable. However, the core fan base is grossly under estimated at the same time. Today a show with this generic formula probably wouldn’t get a full 15-episode chance. And yes, the only reason the powers that be got away with having an entire network riding on Voyager’s nacelles was because of the Trek brand.  I feel I’ve been negative but make no mistake- the premise of Voyager is sound. The concept actually makes me wonder why there weren’t more one off movie length or three part limited Star Trek series- perhaps based on sanctioned novels or Excelsior adventures. 

Unfortunately, it just doesn’t seem like the staff had any inkling or forethought on how to proceed beyond their initial premise. Spec scripts were bought, but entire treatments were changed to the simplistic standard.  It almost feels like none of Voyager was planned ahead of time. The Star Trek team struck while television was ripe for it, but expansion is supposed to happen when your franchise is at its best, not when it is facing mediocrity on all fronts.   In reading the series’ background information, producer Brannon Braga sounds like an ass, complaining about buying scripts, rewriting, and generally being unhappy with this or that in the production process or televised outcome. If he was so unhappy from start to finish, why did he bother?  Why weren’t Voyager’s reins given to someone more interested in taking its angles on Trek to the next level beyond network interference? UPN scheduling made the charming lower decks conflict story “Learning Curve” the season finale, but the change feels like the safe familiar standard and a culmination of this misfire of possibility.  

Thankfully, Kate Mulgrew (Ryan’s Hope) has some lovely cinematic struggles as Captain Janeway. There’s no overt statements made about her having any difficultly captaining a starship because she is a woman, and that in itself is refreshing. Today everything is about chicks being chicks and feminism and careers versus family. Janeway had to leave her home life when Voyager was stranded, but so did everyone else. One could swap a male leader in almost all of her situations, as Janeway’s womanhood is not the fulcrum show in and show out. Her difficulties with adhering to the Prime Directive in “Prime Factors” are heavy and well done.  Although we do get to see hints of home dilemmas and her Bronte-ish holoprogram in “Eye of the Needle,” without superiors Janeway is allowed to go on away missions and get into the action. Unfortunately, this makes her second in command Chakotay a bit too dry. By necessity Janeway’s push ‘em thru feisty attitude is developed over Chakotay’s being a true masculine force. We should know a lot about him – Chakotay’s an ex- Starfleet loyalist who wears his heart on his sleeve – and there’s no lacking of him going to bat for others. However, this overly sensitive style takes a backseat to all the big Delta Quadrant decisions.  One is left wondering how this teddy bear with the wool pulled over his eyes could have been a ruthless Maquis leader. He’s unconscious and out of body in “Cathexis,” wow.

Robert Picardo (China Beach), by contrast, has quite the dynamic concept on Voyager. His holographic Doctor is bemusingly stuck between being an emergency system that is ignored by the rest of the crew and a vital person upon which they must all rely.  The Doctor’s deadpan bedside manner makes for some fun moments and personal touches with each of the cast, and yet episodes like “Phage” offer serious dilemmas for a character that technically isn’t even there. “Heroes and Demons” is also a charming Beowulf exploration for the Doctor, with a nice mix of heroism and humor amid good alien science fiction and storytelling. This type of individual holodeck adventure is a fine way to get to know the players, and more of this should have been done before some of the knock off plots that retread tired ideas. Likewise, the crew initially treats Ethan Phillips’ Neelix as somewhat quaint or annoying. However, his knowledge of the quadrant and his ideas on cooking and native customs shouldn’t be mocked. His tactics are quirky and fun, but new alien friends and Neelix’s serious SF issues and parallels in “Jetrel” are critical to both the ship and show. Jennifer Lien as Kes is also honest and heartwarming, even if her convenient budding psychic elements are too Betazoid headache. Though their friendship feels genuine, I do find her romance with Neelix a bit too awkward.  A pretty girl and a hedgehog?

He’s a louse with a chip on his shoulder to start, but Tom Paris isn’t as important to Voyager’s first season as perhaps he was supposed to be. There’s a bit of an angry Riker wannabe feeling, and the wronged man with the second chance to whom we must relate feels too forced. Young ensign Harry Kim is also too bland to be interesting, and “Emanations” doesn’t endear him at all. It’s a touch offensive in its empty views of the afterlife, actually. Harry’s devoid “I don’t know” answers on the subject don’t advance him or the plot, and yet this kind of heavy is the radical, deeper science fiction that Voyager should have built upon. Instead, the show feels hollow when it fixes death with a hypospray before moving on to another lightweight adventure. There is quality conflict and potential with the half Klingon Maquis engineer B’Elanna Torres, although her decent split halves dilemma in “Faces” is a bit typical and perhaps the episode comes too soon into Voyager’s journey. We don’t get to know B’Elanna as a whole before the bizarre is mucking her up. Tim Russ’ Tuvok is also given some disservice, as his rank isn’t even official because of a costume glitch!  “Ex Post Facto” is too much like Next Gen’s “A Matter of Perspective” and it should be about an unjustly treated but jerky Tom Paris. However, Tuvok’s investigations in “Ex Post Facto,” his bemusing Vulcan quips, and the crisscrossing over love to hate guest Martha Hackett as Seska in “Prime Factors” and “State of Flux” are more interesting.

Voyager’s then state of the art effects and ship design still look magical compared to today’s bells and whistles, yes. One unfamiliar with 24th century Star Trek designs can be impressed indeed. However, the borrowing of sets and props give Voyager some more nagging déjà vu.  I admire the ingenuity of doing a show on a tight budget, using what you have, and making it look good. Sadly, some of the cracks in Voyager’s imaginative armor are caused by its internal, Trek incestuous cheapness with too familiar looking ships, uniforms, and aliens. Those lookalike people in “Time and Again” are distinguished by their old-fashioned guns and corsets! There are realistic examinations of what is out there in the big, bad Delta Quadrant, how alone Voyager really is in toeing delicate lines, and how her presence is destabilizing far flung aliens civilizations. Crew desperation over food, supplies, survival, and the impossibility of getting home are felt. Voyager should remain in this vein, not rely on old standbys and crackpot filmmaking.

Star Trek was big in the 90s – again, you can’t blame them for striking while the iron was hot – but perhaps the franchise fatigue was already setting in behind the scenes. I’ve long thought the fandom’s turn against Enterprise and the subsequent Trek burnout was actually caused by Voyager’s faulty execution. Despite the promise of Trekdom yet to be had, the stock feelings can be more apparent than Voyager’s promise. The show has numerous half-decent and even very decent science fiction concepts and aspirations in this abbreviated debut. Yet there is very little follow thru and an incomplete, even amateur aftertaste for longtime fans who will spot all the TNG reminders. At its best Voyager feels inferior to some of Deep Space Nine’s multi part specialty – though one might argue such comparisons are premature, granted.  Viewers can’t expect a first season full of growing pains to exceed its predecessors. However, if you can’t at least equal the best of the previous, then what was the point of another spinoff? Voyager has big shoes to fill and it isn’t totally off on the right foot. Are there enough likeable players and infinite possibilities goodnesses to follow thru for Year 2? Yes.  The potential for good shows and characters is there if given the room to grow. Science fiction fans of all ages can certainly enjoy Voyager, and those who tuned out of other Star Trek spinoffs can begin anew with this Lost in Space Trek style. 

08 January 2013

More Hammer, Lee, and Cushing Huzzahs!

More Hammer, Lee, and Cushing!
By Kristin Battestella

There’s no better time than the cold weather months to snuggle in with classic horror heavyweights like Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and that scary studio, Hammer Films.  Grab the popcorn and coco and get your pulse racing with these assorted Lee films, Cushing collaborations, and Hammer treats.

The Brides of Fu Manchu – Christopher Lee returns for this 1966 second installment in the oft-adapted series, and yet after 3 additional Fu Manchu films and all these subsequent years, it is still a bit strange to see him in such Asian designs. Today’s audiences may indeed find it difficult to accept that past producers found putting white actors in this, for lack of a better term, Asianface acceptable. Though not as demeaning as Karloff’s The Mask of Fu Manchu, the iffy is still worse than the likes of You Only Live Twice. The villainous stereotypes and dated racism can make the presentation difficult, but dang nab it, Sir Christopher is still delightful here. He is completely transformed, yet his booming stature and vocal command raises the plot above the erroneous portrayals. The action, suspense, and adventure are well done, too, and again, if it weren’t for the cringe-inducing Chinese perceptions, this is actually an enjoyable, well done film with a bit of sixties kinky if you’re looking for it. Lee fans, sociology students, and film historians should take a look.

Corridors of Blood – Obsessed doctor Boris Karloff battles Our Man Christopher in this solid black and white tale of macabre medicine in 1840s London.  Karloff’s Dr. Bolton means well in his research of early gaseous painkillers, but the barbaric surgeries, primitive laboratory gadgets, and ghoulish amputation montages add to the debauchery. As his medical compatriots warn, “The pain and the knife are inseparable.” We don’t see one dang cut or ounce of blood, and yet when a little girl is put on the table... Perhaps this isn’t true horror, but there are some cringe-worthy delights here. Karloff provides great desperation and obsession in the search for anesthetics, leading to criminal manipulation and intriguing addiction angles. Lee, of course, is the young, imposing, and dirty henchman Resurrection Joe. He’s seedy and salacious with no scruples, and the standoff between Karloff and Lee makes for a dynamite finale. Adrienne Corri (A Clockwork Orange) and oft-Hammer gal Yvonne Romain (The Curse of the Werewolf) have some saucy fun as well, and the mid 19th looks both high and low are lovely. The music is great, too, although I fear this 1958 treat may suffer a touch from its lack of some expected Hammer color flash and scandal. With so many connections to the studio, viewers today might take this for a Hammer film and be disappointed. Thankfully, the Criterion DVD adds to the entertaining 90 minutes with gasp! subtitles, commentary, archival interviews with director Robert Day (also The Haunted Strangler with Karloff), a half hour audio session with Yvonne Romain, censorship cuts, and more.

Flesh and Blood: Hammer Heritage of Horror – It took forever for this elusive 1994 documentary to arrive from Netflix! Nonetheless, this hour and forty minutes narrated by Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing is chock full of great photos, retro posters, archive footage, and film trailers illustrating the behind the scenes stories and production highs and lows of the famed Hammer Film Studios. Lovely reflections by Michael Carreras and Anthony Hinds help recount the earliest Hammer films- from struggles in the thirties and World War II to The Quatermass Xperiment and budding science fiction success. Interviewees such as Hazel Court, Freddie Francis, Ingrid Pitt, Caroline Munroe, Joe Dante, Rachel Welch, and our dear narrators seemingly touch upon nearly every Hammer picture- the Frankenstein series, assorted gothic monsters, the Dracula disagreements, blood, bosoms, and the studio’s eventual seventies downfall. Understandably, some of the footage is lower in quality, the sound remixing is tough, and there’s an obviously dry, British style to the presentation. This documentary also shouldn’t be confused with The Horror of Hammer trailer compilation companion or several other similarly themed documentaries. However, this treat is essential for die-hard Hammer fans, horror enthusiasts, and film historians.

The Hound of Baskervilles – A solid and demented colonial prologue opens this 1959 Sherlock Holmes treat in the expected Hammer Horror style, and oft director Terrence Fisher keeps the suspense and thrilling moments going. Our dynamite duo has some sweet indoor and outdoor photography and lush Victorian looks to play with, too.  Peter Cushing is speedy and witty as Holmes, with an extra suave pose and flair to his actions, and boy Christopher Lee looks so young and smashing!  He fits perfectly as the snotty heir presumptive and should have been a traditional romantic lead far more often. Andre Morell (Ben-Hur) is also quite the fun, capable sidekick as Watson, and likewise Francis de Wolff (Scrooge) as Mortimer keeps the plot chewed and juicy. This is a fast-paced hour and a half with a smartly timed and unraveling puzzle. I definitely wish Hammer would have continued a Sherlock series as planned. If the Doyle arena weren’t so crowded today, I’d love nuHammer to try its hand. I suppose each generation wants to put its stamp on the detective, and perhaps not all fans of the newfangled Holmes approaches will enjoy the dry wit, British humor (should I say humour?) or possibly stuffy style here. Cinematic tricks, visual cues, and action twists are added to the tale, sure. However, all the traditional magic here exceeds an old-fashioned audience’s expectations.  Longtime fans of the cast, Holmes, and Hammer designs will certainly delight.

Lust for a Vampire – I’ve finally been able to see this 1971 middle Karnstein companion piece to The Vampire Lovers and Twins of Evil, and it’s replete with fine gothic music, lovely outdoor locations, and lots of great Hammer Red- costumes, blood, and décor.  Although there are no subtitles, time was taken for a DVD commentary, extras, and a fun menu interface, and Mike Raven (I, Monster) is dubbed over for a bemusing Christopher Lee imitation. The film does lose some luster without Ingrid Pitt, Peter Cushing, and the regular Hammer cult names, but Yutte Stensgaard (Scream and Scream Again) is pretty and ethereal enough to carry the picture.  Sure, the blonde girls look the same, and they all look more seventies than 1830s with wispy nipple shots and ballet routines, dorm school topless back rubs, and vampire skinny-dippings. A few scary zooms and screams are nice, as are the foggy nights and period atmosphere. Although I’m not sure about this ‘Strange Love’ over the top vampire sex scene music montage. It really takes the audience out of the film, ruins the spooky tone, and makes this one perfect for a juicy drinking game. This isn’t all bad by any means-especially, if you like this type of film- but it’s not as scandalous or polished as its predecessor was.

07 January 2013

Mid Century Mayhem Anyone?

Mid Century Scares and Macabre!
By Kristin Battestella

Sigh, the fifties and sixties. Those supposedly so glorious decades and Leave It to Beaver archetypes are rampant with creepers, horrors, scares, and suspense and oh yes, I can’t get enough of ‘em! If nothing else, the treats here give us a chance to celebrate mod goth gal and recent birthday girl Barbara Steele!

Chamber of Horrors – Disclaimers warning of the “Fear Flasher” and “Horror Horn” and a very creepy period wedding with, er, well, necrophilia open this 1966 conundrum. Though originally envisaged as a television production or pilot project, the top quality designs, costumes, and late Victorian style are indeed cinema worthy. Wilfrid Hyde-White (My Fair Lady) is proper English fun, and this actually might have been nice as a series of creepy crimes and wax whodunits. Granted, the House of Wax museum and revenge themes are a bit too familiar; possibly even deliberately Vincent Price knockoff-ish. The original spin of having the proprietors of said museum also being amateur sleuths feels like its reaching, and yet these elements are enjoyable enough to forgive all that. Despite a slow start and more mystery than the promised scary, the over the top support is a treat, too. Unfortunately, the pace and scope can’t quite make up their mind. Considering the aforementioned marital naughty and brothel shenanigans, the juicy is fairly tame. It takes 45 minutes to get to the heavies deserving of that opening warning, and there’s a nagging small mindedness trapping all the fun. The intelligence for a twisted, involved series is there, but the big horror movie crazies are not. If the viewer accepts the behind the scenes struggle and let’s this remain a stylized but campy TV delight, one can really have a good time with the romp here.


Nightmare Castle – Spooky piano music, lookalike motifs, gothic décor, black and white mood, and lovely costumes make this 1965 Italian horror film sweet. Not to mention Barbara Steele (Black Sunday) is a real treat, too- along with raunchy greenhouse affairs, juicy whippings, naughty dialogue, and vengeful torture. Paul Muller (Count Dracula) is a bit of a Poor Man’s Cushing, but he has some nice inheritance twists and mad scientist diabolicals. Are there ghosts? Who’s going mad? Will deviant science receive its just rewards? Creepy heartbeats, camera tricks, scary sounds, screams, and haunting dream sequence effects are superb against the crisscrossing vengeance, innocence, corruption, and scares. Some may dislike the dubbing and/or subtitles, granted. The hunt and chase for the various video editions or quality prints is made more difficult thanks to numerous international titles and assorted running times. Is the pursuit worth the effort? Yes.  

Terror Creatures from the Grave – Why not have another 1965 Italian delectable with horror queen Barbara Steele?  The very loose “inspired by” Poe ties are reaching here, but perhaps there is an intentional coffin-esque pattern in the black and white, small-scale Victorian design and frantic, claustrophobic camerawork. Visually, this is actually quite nice looking, with unique camera frames and carefully staged snapshots from scene to scene. The plague back-story is spooky and foreboding to start, but some scenes are stilted thanks to an awkward narration, lack of action, and slow, uneven pacing.  Until now, I also didn’t realize so many horror movies begin with driving and highway montages – even period ones! The ladies’ costumes are somewhat hoochie before historical, too. Thankfully, the early roadsters are sweet and crazy thunderstorms, creepy gals, and fearful servants add heaps of atmosphere. A few good scares jump out as well, and the music and early gadgets are perfectly macabre. Thanks to some of the plodding pace and poor print quality, this probably won’t be fun for today’s CGI obsessed. However, fans of the cast and moody noir horror audiences will enjoy the intriguing hint of gothic romance, undead murder mystery, and vengeful ghost story found here.

I’m Torn

The Crawling Eye – The true The Trollenberg Terror title actually seems like a better name for this 1958 SF gone awry tale, as highlighting the eponymous monster effect isn’t really a very good idea. Thankfully, climbing terrors, ropes fraying, men falling and natural fears of snow, cold, and mountains keep the pace interesting. Toss in a weird psychic chick (Janet Munro, the boy who’s a girl in Swiss Family Robinson), past radiation iffy, missing mountaineers, and local superstitions and you get plenty of peril.  Great pulsing, heavy music and nice scares and violence increase as the suspicions and conspiracies get crazy. Unfortunately, the familiar premise would have been more interesting if not for the seriously hokey science equipment and faulty logic. The tone is too stuffy and British dry, and the mountain photography and poor backdrop designs are kind of, well, strange. All that might be a cult horror fan’s low budget or dated charm, granted. However, it is dang tough to tell who is who, and the deadly moving mists and that titular eye are too laughable for most viewers to take seriously, which hampers a lot of the campy fun. 

The Plague!

Bride of the Gorilla – Animals talking to Perry Mason in some sort of Tarzan gone bad? This black and white 65 minutes from 1951 co-starring Lon Chaney Jr. (The Wolf Man) and Barbara Payton (Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye) should be more scandalous and saucy than it is. There’s fun wildlife photography to match the hot temperatures and steamy, scorned woman subtext, and the décor is an eclectic mix of Old World fifties and South American motifs. Unfortunately, the over the top fifties narration, typical music, and slow, dry rhythm are only part of the problem here. After all these years as the aforementioned television detective, it is simply too tough to believe Raymond Burr as an angry, hard up, villainous Latino. The entire cast is wasted thanks to the bland pace, and poor Lon Chaney has some really dumb stuff to deliver! Complete with a corny spell casting old lady cliché firmly in place, what starts out as a normal fifties drama somehow ends up with an unseen pseudo gorilla instead of a dry love triangle. As if it weren’t already going downhill, the veiled monster elements are too tacked on to care. If one likes watching the campy, tumultuous fun of train wrecks, perhaps one could find something here. Sadly, I think this one may even be painful for fans of the cast to watch. 


06 January 2013

More 70s and 80s Camp Horror

Have a Dose of 70s Horrors and 80s Scares!
By Kristin Battestella

The calendar changes from 1979 to 1980 and the countries of origin may vary, but there’s still a plethora of campy vampires, juicy werewolves, and freaky witches to be had from the decades of yore. Here’s a helping of something for everyone, even the kids!

The Horrible Sexy Vampire – Some very bad music interrupts the smooth European dressings of this 1972 Spanish release, indeed. I’m also not really sure how they got the misrepresenting English title out of El vampiro de la autopista, which makes much more sense with the plot. Fortunately, the quick pace gets right to the scares, sheer lingerie, and ridiculously perky bathing boobies. The story is composed of some of the same old vampire hunting family tales, law and order skepticism, and undead history rehashing, and some of the talkative scenes are slow. However, there’s also a bit more thought to the plot in comparison to other T-n-A low budget horrors of the decade.  The killings by an invisible perpetrator are somewhat goofy, sure, but also unique. I’m more concerned with this string of victims who all shower for 30 seconds sans soap or shampoo!  Although a few of the players look like they might be speaking English but are overdubbed anyway, the voiceovers match and the dialogue is loud and clear.  I could do without this lingering background humming sound, and more fast paced viewers might find the overall presentation dry compared to bigger gory and bloody treatments. However, this is a pleasant little mystery with some saucy treats and a bevy of perils and suspense.  

Prime Evil – There isn’t a lot of information about this 1989 rarity from director Roberta Findlay (Shauna: Every Man’s Fantasy). The opening narration is stilted in its ominous sounding attempts, and the bad eighties chicks are replete with used nuns clichés, bad shoulder pad fashions, belted leotards, and fake offices one step away from the X-rated videos of the day. The sex scenes are laughable, too. The plot is fairly pointless as well- meandering towards a sacrificial hour as it collects boobs, babes, and inept cops with iffy mustaches calling evil priests “fart breath.” Yeah, the music is over the top, too.  All that, and yet there’s some good blood and sexual symbolism here. Where’s the line between just naughty, depravity, and evil? It’s a bizarre mix of ecclesiastics and Satanism, abuse tales, some rituals, sacrifices, and perky virgin bosoms. You know, the usual dedicating a blood relative to Satan in order to remain young for 13 years- rinse, wash, repeat. The medieval opening and plague possibilities are solid, along with snowy locales and creepy church architecture. It’s nice to see the eighties Christmas in New York as well, for it’s subdued in comparison to today!  Yes, this looks dated and really late night low budget and today’s viewer must take it all with tongue firmly in cheek. The Winter Solstice is also seriously painted in a bad light, but horror audiences looking for something to watch during the holidays can find some saucy fun in the campy good screams, make up effects, and juicy scares here.

The Werewolf vs the Vampire Woman – Never ever do an autopsy on a supposed werewolf on a moonlit night!  Just one of the many warnings from this 1971 Spanish treat, the fifth in the loose Waldemar Daninsky series from writer and star Paul Naschy.  Director Leon Klimovsky (The Vampire’s Night Orgy) tackles then-contemporary disbelieving science versus superstition with good screams, fun growls and fangs, zoom attacks, and slow motion eerie.  There’s a good quality of blood, too, and a twisted medieval flashback establishes the satanic ritual roots. Of course, the nighttime photography is almost impossible to see, and the handheld forest camera action is poor. The werewolf makeup and effects may be a bit hokey but considering the low budget foreign production, they suffice. The flowing fashions and happy vamps running thru the glen can seem more like Frodo Lives hippie, I know. However, it is nonetheless very unnerving and effective. Actually, the pop references in the dialogue – such as man walking on the moon, James Bond, and the obligatory “Dracula! Ha ha.” – feels more dated amid the fine gothic history and Euro style. A touch of lingerie, bloody shackles, and crazy girl on girl suggestion keep the run of the mill acting and yell at the TV moments bemusing.  Cap this eighty plus minutes with unusual monster relationships and cool mod clothes and you have a picture that’s a cut above the standard dollar bin foreign horror. Naturally, multiple video releases, unavailable uncut editions, international reissues, and title changes can make pursuing Naschy’s horror repertoire extremely frustrating.  For fans of retro Euro-horror, however, this is worth the hunt. 

I’m Conflicted

The Witches Mountain – This 1972 Spanish wicked opens with a dead cat and a serious brat and proceeds with severe mustaches, woeful music, and terrible dubbing. The road trip mystery is very slow to get going, and the initial plotting is more repetitive and confusing than foreboding.  Likewise, it’s tough to see the dark nighttime photography and some of the bonfire-esque sequences. At times, I wasn’t even sure who was who and there are only a handful of people here. The fashion designs and window dressings are also poor and dominated by the hideous patterns and icky fabrics we so often negatively associate with the decade. The Pyrenees location scenery is sweet, however, and the creepy increases as our bizarre couple travels from one weird hotel to the next and encounters a freaky old witch or two. Unfortunately, the whole setup is fairly obvious from start to finish and feels overlong and tough in getting to the fun ending.  For sure, this one can be enjoyed half-asleep or with further indisposition at 3 a.m. with your kooky besties – but it isn’t really that good in production, performance, or plot.

And Here’s a little something Spooky for the Kids:

Mystery Mansion – This 1984 family friendly creepy seems rather obscure, and iffy kid acting and bad eighties feel good country music will make this one totally dry for contemporary adults. Wise audiences today will not find this scary- despite the presence of some crusty, bumbling redneck Unabomber looking escaped convicts.  The flashbacks and dreams look low budget in your face, as do the treasure chase scenes, and the titular house is actually barely there. Having said all that, the outdoor scenery and river rafting looks like fun- this isn’t bad, just too juvenile and dated. Spooky kids growing beyond Goosebumps or youth interested in something a little more period or retro eerie can have some safe fun here.