Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Captain's Log: Harry's Trek, 1950s Superman and Science Fiction Theatre

Before the Trek movie news obliterates other subjects in a few days, a couple of notes from the past week...

Harry's Trek

I saw the new Harry Potter movie and got the new Harry Potter book--I even witnessed my first (and the last one there will ever be) midnight bookstore event as the first copies went on sale. (I've got photos here and a description here.) By now it's the fastest selling book in history.

The movie--Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix--is from the longest book, and it's the shortest of the films. Director David Yates did a masterful job of carving out a taut narrative, yet not stinting on wondrous effects and character moments. Without giving anything away, what I've read of the new book (we're about a third through--we read it aloud) is prefigured nicely by the film's story, and (most impressively) by the visual touches, like the loudspeakers that spring up at Hogwarts when it's taken over by a dictatorial regime, visually reminiscent of the 1930s and the Nazis. Yet this takeover still has the flavor of school, under the power of an authoritarian principal or headmaster.

The connections to the soul of Star Trek continues to get stronger in each book and movie. The forces of darkness insist on racial purity while Harry and his side champion diversity-- striking a Star Trek theme. In the new movie Harry learns anew the value of friends in his battles and struggles, just as Trek heroes support each other in combat and in life.

When Harry (who is 15 at the time of this movie) and his young friends can't understand why some important people are denying the reality of the Dark Lord's return and the danger they're in, while demonizing guiltless scapegoats, they're told that fear makes people do strange things. That's Trek psychology, too--fear can lead to denial as well as to panic, to one-sidedness and designating familiar sorts of enemies, and the reversion to torture and violation of rights, to avoid dealing with complexities and overwhelming realities.

Then at one point, the wizard who is Harry's godfather tells him that people are not all good or all bad but a mixture. The difference is in what they choose to be. This is a succinct statement of a principle that Star Trek dramatized many times.

Daniel Radcliffe is maturing as an actor along with Harry (in fact all the kids are), Imelda Staunton does a fine star turn as Delores Umbridge, Helena Bonham Carter goes wickedly over the top as Bellatrix Lestrange, but the new wonder of this cast is Evanna Lynch as Luna Lovegood--she's a 15 year old amateur who insisted she was the only one who could play Luna, and she proved it.

Some reviewers pointed out that parts of the movie didn't advance the plot much, but were more illustrations of the book for people who read it. Since that's a big chunk of the global population, it wasn't much of a hindrance. A couple of reviews I read singled out the scene where the young wizards practice their defensive magic as being dull, just a bunch of kids with colored light shooting out of their wands. But I consider these scenes among the highlights. I guess it depends on your definition of movie magic. It is a bit reminiscent however of the criticism of Star Trek movies being too much for fans, and not enough movies in themselves. This didn't matter when TV Star Trek was popular, and it sure doesn't matter when Harry Potter books blanket the planet.

Look! Up in the Sky!

Apart from Potter (and the latest Doctor Who), I had a couple of other sci-fi experience this week, both from the 1950s. I rented some DVDs of the first season of the original TV Adventures of Superman with George Reeves. These shows were made in 1951 and first aired in 1952, when I saw them as a young child. Today they're a lot of fun for the glimpses of 1950s stuff (like 50s and late 40s' cars on "real" 1950s (backlot) streets) and the differences from later versions, as well as that standard opening that's become fixed in cultural consciousness. The opening didn't originate with the TV show or the comics--it's similar to the earlier Superman animated cartoons, as is the theme music, but it started with the radio show in 1940, though the intro was at times a bit longer. I've bolded some interesting differences in the radio intro but missing from TV:

Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings at a single bound!" "Look! Up in the sky!""It's a bird!""It's a plane!""It's Superman!"

"Yes, it's Superman - strange visitor from another planet who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman - defender of law and order. champion of equal rights, valiant, courageous fighter against the forces of hate and prejudice, who disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way."

Different from subsequent treatments, and even this series later on, each of these first season self-contained episodes was structured as a mystery. Clark Kent uses his intelligence to figure things out, and Superman usually comes in at the end to nab the bad guys, after using his flying speed to get there quickly. Lois and Clark do this to some extent, but the emphasis there is on their relationship. The emphasis in films is Superman's super powers. In this first year, it was solving crimes. It was fist fights and gun shot violent, and towards the end of the season, it got even rougher, with Superman cutting citizen's rights corners to muscle up against crime.

There's a B-movie feel to it all, with the same actors playing different villains and many repeated shots, especially of Superman taking off and flying (I noticed this as a kid but it didn't bother me--somehow it just added to the ritualistic quality of the show. Kids find repetitions comforting.) This was the only year that Phyllis Coates played Lois Lane--she got equal billing with George Reeves. A former chorus girl, she had an impressive body even in that 50s suit, but she played the role as a no-nonsense "career girl." She wasn't particularly nice to Clark, who was sometimes positioned as a kind of coward, in these times when a popular ad on the back of comic books showed a muscled he-man kick sand in the face of a skinny kid, as an ad for a muscle-building course. For his part, Clark does treat her like a little girl at times, also characteristic of the times. Still, what I learned from this series as a kid was that the hero rescues the girl, as well as the weaker and the oppressed.

Contrary to rumor, however, the proto-feminism of Coates' portrayal (which was part of the comic book as well) probably was not the reason she didn't return for the second season, when the show got a new producer and went in a lighter direction. Though I watched Superman for at least its first several seasons, and as a kid I did prefer Noel Neill as Lois, this first season made a deep impression on me. It's been fun to revisit it.

The DVDs come with some commentaries by author Gary Grossman--the first one was reasonably informative, but a later one was just bad--why don't people watch and listen to what they're commenting on before they start talking about it? He complained about a couple of plot points that were in fact dealt with in the episode. Disappointing since I admire his published work, particularly Saturday Morning TV.

Time is Just A Place

Science Fiction Theatre was another 1950s show--it ran from 1955 to 1957--and I remember watching it with great interest and a degree of awe. It was an anthology show, introduced by Truman Bradley, an authoritative presence, and it had a great, dramatic opening theme. Bradley talked real science related to the science fiction story.

I remember the mood of it all, but only one story has stayed with me--and it turns out to have been the second episode broadcast, called "Time is Just a Place," which I just saw on a DVD I got on Ebay. It was about a typical suburbanite (played by Don DeFoe, who turned up as a typical suburbanite as a regular on Ozzie and Harriet and other 50s sitcoms) who gets a new but reclusive neighbor (played by Warren Stevens, who would costar in Forbidden Planet a year later). He becomes curious about him when he sees a "sonic vacuum cleaner" scurrying along his floor by itself. ( I suppose you'd fix it with a sonic screwdriver? ) It turns out that Stevens and his wife are refugees from the future, who want to live in the "simpler" times of 1950 suburbia. But time travel is now illegal and they fear being found and brought back, which, during a thunderstorm, they are. Nothing is left of them but the burnt husk of the sonic vacuum.

I think this made such an impression on me as a child because the world of it was like so much of 50s TV--the California suburbia of sitcoms and contemporary dramas, which in its turn was like "real life," or at least what adults around me wanted it to be. But into this mundane context came something strange, advanced and mysterious. Something suggesting the future I longed for, from the Saturday morning science fiction serials. But it was something as familar, mundane and a jolt to the imagination about future possibilities, as a sonic vacuum cleaner.

It turns out, on this viewing, that this episode has quite a pedigree. It was directed by Jack Arnold, famed visionary director of the 1950s and a real precursor to Star Trek in many ways, with films like It Came from Outer Space, the first two Creature from the Black Lagoon movies, This Island Earth, and his most obscure gem, The Space Children. Though he had a long career, it was pretty undistinguished after this brief period.

Not only that, but the story was written by Jack Finney, author of the story that became Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the famous 1956 film, remade in an excellent version with Leonard Nimoy in 1978, and remade again in the 90s and in a film that's just finished production , with the current title of The Invasion.) But this S/F Theatre episode is much more characteristic of his work, which has the theme of people returning to simpler times, as in his most famous novel, Time and Again ( also in From Time to Time and his collection, About Time. And although the 1980 movie, Somewhere in Time starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour at her most radiant, was based directly on a novel by Trek writer Richard Matheson, the time travel method and much of the premise of the story is very similar to Finney's.)

Finney also wrote about old times erupting into the contemporary, as in the short story, "I Love Galesburg in the Springtime," a favorite of mine, since I went to college in Galesburg, where Finney did, too. Once again, there was the mood of the mysterious outside mundane normality in that memorable story, just as in the apparently memorable episode of an early science fiction TV show.


Andrew J Robertson said...

I take it Science Fiction Theater isn't available on DVD, but only bootleg? I can't find it on Amazon. A shame. I did see a page somehwere earlier that looked to be selling bootlegs though.

Captain Future said...

This Vintage TV & Movies site advertises complete sets of Science Fiction Theatre, and there are some other collections that include episodes. I can't vouch for any personally.

Thanks for stoppping by.