Mirror, Mirror: The Challenger Shuttle Disaster

It’s Tuesday, January 28th, 1986. Two days prior, the Chicago Bears demolished the New England Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX, but more or less, the only news that anyone remembers happens today, on live television in front of millions of people. (Including myself.) Namely, the Challenger Shuttle Disaster.

The launch of the Challenger was huge news, because this was the culmination of President Reagan’s Teacher in Space program, which intended to send an American teacher into space in order to teach American children about space and what life on the space shuttle was like. The teacher selected was Christa McAuliffe, a social studies teacher from New Hampshire. So, in addition to the heavy national attention, the Challenger mission was of special interest because McAuliffe was from the next state over (a fact not lost on me since much of my mother’s side of my family-including my mother-is from New Hampshire). Now, I was already pretty enamored with space (the mission was scheduled right as I was first watching Star Trek on weekday afternoons on Channel 22), but this attention only emphasized the excitement of space exploration.

This was before everything went wrong.

The launch was first scheduled for January 22nd, but weather-related delays with a mission involving the Columbia (which finally landed on its fifth attempt on the 18th) caused the launch to be pushed to the 23rd and then the 24th. The launch was then delayed another day because of bad weather at the Transoceanic Abort Landing site in Senegal. This led to the decision to use the TAL site in Casablanca instead. However, that site wasn’t equipped for operations at night, so launch had to be moved to the morning of the 26th, which was pushed back to the 27th due to poor weather at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. And the launch was again pushed to the 28th when there was a technical problem with the shuttle’s exterior access hatch. And even then, there were some serious concerns about the weather, because it was expected to fall below freezing that morning.

The Challenger launched at 11:36 AM Eastern time on the 28th.

73 seconds later, the ship broke apart, and all aboard were killed.

At my school, we were in class watching the launch when it happened. Much of the rest of the day is a blur. Since it was winter (meaning that my father wasn’t working), my brother and I went straight home after school let out (which I’m fairly certain was early), and by that afternoon, we were watching the live reports from CBS. Reagan had intended to hold his State of the Union address that evening (using the launch as a centerpiece of how great he was doing), but delayed that and addressed the nation instead from the Oval Office (I remember seeing that speech, which was held at 5 PM, ironically right when I would have been watching Star Trek). The reasons for the disaster were known fairly quickly: the cold weather, and the o-rings on the shuttle’s rocket boosters. The o-rings were already a concern (since they were made out of rubber and had never been tested below 50˚, in addition to a design flaw that no one had bothered to deal with), and people aware at NASA and the contractor responsible knew pretty much instantly.

The result was that the space program was essentially suspended for years as the space shuttles (which history has correctly identified as a costly boondoggle that contributed to the stagnation in exploration after man reached the moon in 1969) were grounded. Even when revived, the space program was never again quite at the center of attention, what with the decline of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War (to say nothing of the concerns that NASA was another “bloated big government project”). Worse, the idea of having an educator in space was not revisited until the late ’90s, and would not fully flower into what the Teacher in Space program was intended to be until this century. And us kids? Well, we coped…..by being horribly cruel. The jokes were out there, and awful, and I fear that most of us ever really dealt with it in a healthy fashion, choosing instead to bury the trauma with off-color humor and ultimately empty platitudes. And that, in my mind, is the greatest tragedy of all.

Next week, it’s the post I promised for this week before realizing today’s sad anniversary.

These Are The Voyages: “Where No Man Has Gone Before”

Written by: Samuel A. Peeples

Directed by: James Goldstone

Production code: 6149-2

Principal photography: July 19th, 1965-July 29th, 1965 (8 1/2 days)

Score: Alexander Courage (recorded November 29th, 1965)

Final episode cost: $355,000 (approximately $2,674,739 in 2015 when adjusted for inflation)

First Aired: September 22nd, 1966

Initial Nielson Ratings: 20.0 Rating/33.3% share (first half hour-first place), 19.4/31.0% (second half hour-second to Bewitched)

Enterprise log, Captain James Kirk commanding: We are leaving that vast cloud of stars and planets which we call our galaxy. Behind us, Earth, Mars, Venus, even our sun, are specks of dust. A question: What is out there in the black void beyond?

Until now, our mission has been that of space law regulation, contact with Earth colonies, and investigation of alien life. But now, a new task: A probe, out into where no man has gone before.”

“Stardate 1312.4: The impossible has happened: From directly ahead, we’re picking up a recorded distress signal. The call letters of a vessel which has been missing for over two centuries. Did another Earth ship probe outside our galaxy as we intend to do? What happened out there? Is this some warning they’ve left behind?”

The captain and Mr. Spock are playing chess as they wait to reach the source of the distress signal when Lieutenant Kelso reports that they are nearing the object, which is less than a meter in diameter. Kirk orders it beamed aboard, and he and Spock go to the transporter room to see the object, which is an old-style ship recorder that has been ejected from an apparently destroyed ship: the device is visibly burned and damaged. As Mr. Scott feeds the recorder’s data to the ship’s computer, Kirk puts the ship on alert, and he and Spock proceed to the bridge, and are joined by the ship’s navigator, Lieutenant Commander Gary Mitchell. Reaching the edge of the galaxy, the department heads come to the bridge, with a guest: Dr. Dehner, who is studying crew reactions in times of stress. The tapes reveal that the Earth ship, the S.S. Valiant, encountered an unknown force, which killed six crewmembers and nearly did the same to a seventh. However, after a desperate search for information on extra-sensory perception, the captain of the Valiant ordered to ship to be destroyed. Despite the questions, Kirk orders the Enterprise forward, and they encounter the force: a purple barrier which damaged the ship and causes Dehner and Mitchell to collapse. After escaping the barrier, Kirk looks over Dr. Dehner, who is fine, if woozy, and Gary who is similarly dazed. However, when the helmsman opens his eyes…..they are silver.

“Captain’s Log, Stardate 1312.9. Ship’s condition: heading back on impulse power only, main engines burned out. The ship’s space warp ability, gone. Earth bases which were only days away are now years in the distance. Our overriding question now is: what destroyed the Valiant? They lived through the barrier, just as we have, what happened to them after that?”

Dr. Dehner arrives with the autopsy reports on the members of the crew that have died as Kirk and Spock are looking over the ESP reports for both the doctor and Gary, and she informs them that each of the dead crewman have had part of their brains burned out. Everyone affected had high esper ratings, with Mitchell having the highest of all, tying into what Spock found in the Valiant‘s records. Dehner protests, as espers are generally harmless, leading the captain to ask if there isn’t a type of esper that can be dangerous. In sickbay, Gary is reading when Kirk visits. However, the captain is justifiably worried when Gary is able to greet him without even seeing him enter and considers Spinoza (whom Mitchell has never read before) simple. After reminiscing about their days at the Academy together, Kirk receives another shock as Mitchell’s voice echoes across the room when Gary repeats his joking warning about Kirk needing to be good to him. After Kirk leaves, Gary starts reading again at an incredible-and increasing-pace. Kirk and Spock watch this on the bridge and worry that Gary is not the man they knew. As Spock carries out the order to have Mitchell monitored and tested, Kirk watches his friend, who stares right back at him. The tests by Dr. Piper prove that Gary is in absolutely perfect condition, but after he leaves, Mitchell demonstrates for dr. Dehner that he can manipulate the readings, going so far as to “play dead” for nearly half a minute. His mental recall is even greater, as Gary is able to read the text of a book from memory for her. Kelso arrives just as Mitchell is confronting Dehner, and Gary immediately scolds him for having installed faulty impulse packs, simply by reading the navigator’s mind. In the briefing roof, Kelso presents the impulse pack, with its burned points to Kirk and the department heads as they debate on what should be done with Gary. Dr. Dehner arrives late and tells what she has seen, while Scotty repeats that he has observed the controls on the bridge going out of control, which Spock corroborates by noting that Mitchell smiled after every such occurrence. Dehner argues that the mutations are a good thing, while Mr. Sulu points out that Gary’s powers are growing at a geometric rate. The captain convenes the briefing, ordering that everything discussed is to be kept secret, after which Spock suggests they strand Gary on Delta Vega, a nearby mining colony, after they repair the ship. His other recommendation: kill Gary, while he still can. Kirk orders Spock to set course for Delta Vega.

“Stardate 1313.1: We’re now approaching Delta Vega, course set for a standard orbit. This planet, completely uninhabited, is slightly smaller than Earth, desolate, but rich in crystals and minerals. Kelso’s task: transport down with a repair party. Try to regenerate the engines. Save the ship. Our task: transport down a man I’ve known for 15 years, and if we’re successful, maroon him there.”

Gary, now in his normal uniform, summons a cup of water effortlessly with his mind as Kirk, Spock, and Dr. Dehner arrive to collect him. His powers are such that he’s able to attack Kirk and Spock when he realizes what Kirk plans to do. But still, the captain and Spock are able to restrain Mitchell long enough for Dr. Dehner to sedate him and transport him to the surface. Down there, Kirk asks Kelso to rig a destruct mechanism. Gary regains lucidity soon enough, and after a tense confrontation filled with posturing, he is knocked back by his cell’s force field…..but only for a moment. Later, as Scotty reports that their replacement parts work perfectly, he asks about the phaser rifle that the captain sent for, which an upset Kirk discovers was Spock’s doing. He argues that Dr. Dehner’s feelings are getting in the way of her diagnoses, when logic dictates that they’ll be lucky to get away in time. Kelso finishes the destruct mechanism, and Kirk makes it clear: if Gary escapes and he sees no other option, Lt. Kelso is to blow the installation sky high.

“Captain’s Log, Stardate 1313.3: Note commendations on Lt. Kelso and the engineering staff. In orbit above us, the engines of the Enterprise are almost fully regenerated. Balance of the party is being transported back up. Mitchell, whatever he’s become, keeps changing, growing stronger by the minute.”

Kirk checks in on Dehner, who is engaged in a staredown with Mitchell, which she says has been going on for hours. The doctor announces that she, too, will be staying behind, while Gary concentrates on Kelso, and uses his powers to strangle the navigator with some of the cable he and the engineering team have jury-rigged the station with. Kirk protests, but Gary, whose voice now echoes across the room with every word, easily knocks out both the captain and Spock before they can act and disables the force field. Dr. Dehner turns to face him, and he slowly escorts her to the cell’s mirror, where she sees that she, too, has begun to change. Later, Dr. Piper, arrives and gives Kirk a pill as he awakes, and reports on where Gary and Dehner have gone. Taking the phaser rifle, Kirk orders that Piper wait until he is gone to wake up Spock, at which time the two will beam up and, if 12 hours pass without any communication, they head to the nearest base and recommend that Delta Vega be flooded with a lethal concentration of neutron radiation. Mitchell and Dehner stop in a valley, and with a wave of his hand, the former helmsman is able to create vegetation out of thin air. Gary is able to sense Kirk’s approach, and after Dr. Dehner is able to picture him in her mind as well, he tells her to talk to the captain in order to understand just how limited humanity really is. Kirk pleads humanity’s case, and warns that they-and especially Gary-still have their human flaws. Gary arrives, and after scolding Dehner and brushing off a blast from the phaser rifle, he creates a grave for his old friend, complete with headstone, and begins to trigger a landslide. After Gary forces Kirk to pray before him, Dr. Dehner attacks, and while Gary is able to easily render her motionless, Dehner is able to drain his powers. This gives Kirk the opportunity to jump Mitchell, and a fist fight breaks out. However, Gary’s powers return before Kirk can bring himself deliver the killing blow, and the battle turns in Mitchell’s favor until Kirk is able to lure his friend into the grave long enough to retrieve the phaser rifle and fire, causing the landslide and killing Gary. With the conflict ended, Dr. Dehner apologizes for her actions…..and dies. Weary and exhausted, Kirk calls the Enterprise.

“Captain’s Log, Stardate 1313.8: Add to official losses: Dr. Elizabeth Dehner, be it noted she gave her life in performance of her duty. Lt. Cmdr. Gary Mitchell, same notation.”

Spock walks to the captain’s chair as Kirk records his log, and admits that he, too, felt for Gary after the captain explains that he wanted Mitchell’s service record to end on a positive note. With a knowing glance, and in reference to their conversation during their game of chess, Kirk states that he believes there may be hope for the alien science officer after all, as the Enterprise departs.

It’s not being hyperbolic to say that “Where No Man Has Gone Before” is the most important hour of Star Trek ever produced. If it had failed, the entire franchise would have ended right then and there. And with “Mudd’s Women” having too much sex for NBC’s taste and pretty much no one other than Gene Roddenberry liking “The Omega Glory” (something that will be discussed much later), the episode was chosen not because it was the best choice, but because it was the only choice.

Thankfully, having that second chance turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Besides having substantially better luck with casting, the show’s existing sets and costumes were revised, to great effect. Black and red paint has been liberally applied to the sets, which makes things much more interesting than the sterile-looking silver of “The Cage”. (Perhaps by design, this is also the case if you’re watching the show in black-and-white, as the majority of viewers in 1966 would have done.) The bridge and transporter sets look almost identical to their final versions, with a few exceptions: the main viewer is still rounded like a ’60s-style TV screen (though it now has a border and a series of lights above it, and a red piece of decorative whatever below), the helm console (the two positions being reversed from their final configuration) is now obviously just the transporter console, the goose-necked monitors are still present (though there are far fewer of them around), the seats lack their cushioned black backs (and are white), and there are far fewer buttons.

For costuming, the same three color shirts (green, which photographed as gold, blue, and tan, which occasionally looks peach) are used, but the insignia have been greatly revised and refined, with the familiar shape (they’re a bit smaller than the final versions) and departmental symbols (a stylized star for command, a globe for engineering, and a spiral for the yeoman and science personnel). However, zippers are all extremely visible on everyone’s shirts, with one exception: Mr. Spock, whose collar is higher and has snaps (this was done to prevent wear and tear to Leonard Nimoy’s makeup). The landing party jackets have been jettisoned (though the belts and laser pistols remain), and there are no longer glimpses of people in civilian clothing in the corridors (though there is at least one crewman with what looks to be some sort of a radiation suit).

The biggest visible chance has to be Spock. Besides trading in his science division blue for command green/gold, his makeup has been completely revised. The most noticeable changes are the much more severe eyebrows and the straight bangs. The primary reason for this is that Fred Phillips was unavailable for this episode, and was temporarily replaced by Robert Dawn, the son of pioneering makeup artist Jack Dawn. The younger Dawn was primarily known for his TV work on shows like Laramie and Thriller (and later, Mission: Impossible), but was a frequent collaborator with Alfred Hitchcock, as well. His work here helped immensely to solidify Spock as a cool, logical character, as he just looks serious and alien without muttering a word.

But perhaps the most famous innovation to be introduced in this episode with the “Captain’s Log” entries. Suggested by Herb Solow as a way to cut down on boring exposition scenes (and inspired by Gulliver’s Travels), the logs not only cut down on exposition, but they served as an excellent recap for the episodes, and with modifications, also served as a great way to preview upcoming episodes. The narrations not only play a big part in the episode (each act and the epilogue begins with one), but the version that NBC first saw opened with the one that concluded with what would be one of the show’s fateful phrases: “where no man has gone before”.

Finally, there’s a distinct change in how the show looks beginning with this episode. Since “Where No Man Has Gone Before” was shot in July, there were no union cinematographers available. So James Goldstone called in a favor, and brought in a 69-year old man with no TV experience. That man: legendary Oscar Award Winning cinematographer Ernest Haller. He came in with no resume and, as mentioned, no TV experience, but only needed to mention that he had shot Gone With the Wind to be hired. And it paid off, because this episode looks beautiful, with some interesting angles (one really nice shot involves blocking off the bridge to make it look as if Gary enters the turbolift, then removing the barrier so that we enter the bridge in one continuous take), and lighting that utilizes shadows to increase the depth of color.

The plot of this episode is classic Gene Roddenberry: man encounters God, and finds God lacking. In this instance, it’s in the form of Lt. Cmdr. Gary Mitchell, a likable (if rather blatantly womanizing) officer who gets zapped by an unknown force and is corrupted by godlike powers. And Dr. Dehner, who is tempted by Gary’s power as well, pays for her desire with her life. It’s not a very happy message, and neither is Kirk’s conflict: he has to decide whether to abandon or kill his best friend, who is by proxy endangering the crew of the Enterprise. Spock’s reasoning is, as usual, entirely sensible, but it lacks the element of compassion (and the episode makes clear its support of the human emotion of compassion). This is the central conflict of the episode, and it works because we feel sympathy for Captain Kirk. Gary, while his womanizing plays kind of badly, is inherently likable, and the stories he and Kirk share paint them in distinct tones: Mitchell as the fun-loving, creative-thinking helmsman, and Jim Kirk as the serious, career-minded captain who has risen to his position through hard work.

William Shatner and Gary Lockwood are incredibly effective here, especially as Gary Mitchell approaches godhood. Lockwood is aided by makeup, with his sideburns growing more and more gray as his power increases, and the silver contact lenses. Lockwood, who had never worn contacts, hated the thick lenses intensely, and legend states that Gary’s affected tilt of his head is because that was the only way he could see. However, the tilt was an intentional choice (Lockwood couldn’t see at all and found the lenses quite painful), and one that worked excellently. But Lockwood’s most effective choice is the sympathetic, “Jim,” he whispers when he returns to normal in his cell on Delta Vega. This one moment is the single best thing at generating sympathy for Mitchell. And Shatner, who has an unfortunate reputation for overacting, underplays his part when Lockwood is on screen, but is gravely decisive when he needs to be. Kirk cares about Gary, but he knows full well what his duty is. And Leonard Nimoy, while emotionally cool, is the force that pulls Kirk towards that duty. As the episode proceeds you can practically see Spock pulling Kirk towards his cold, cruel duty.

Sally Kellerman as Elizabeth Dehner, generates sympathy of her own because she is doomed by feeling. She (quite rightfully) shoots down Gary on the bridge, but as she falls not only for Gary Mitchell the man, but the thing he turns into, she writes her own death warrant. Instead of finding a balance between emotion and logic as Kirk does, she dives right in, and dies because she realizes her folly too late. When contrasted with Andrea Dromm, who literally just takes up space and gets in the way (she even looks bored a couple of times), the power of Kellerman’s performance is made clear. Gary Lockwood plays a character who is likable but falls into something awful; Kellerman plays an unlikable character who becomes likable. They both make mistakes driven purely by chance, and we feel sorrow for them both because Lockwood and Kellerman do their jobs well.

Of the rest of the cast, only James Doohan, George Takei, and Paul Carr really distinguish themselves. Doohan and Takei, despite having tiny parts, imbue Scotty and Sulu with the beginnings of the beloved characters they would soon become (Scotty in particular is instantly jovial and friendly). And Paul Carr…..let’s be honest: he’s not the only person who was upset over Lee Kelso getting killed off in this episode. He’s a capable, enjoyable character, and his death is made even more tragic because of it, and the rapport with see with Gary at the start of the episode. On the other hand, it’s easy to see why Lloyd Haynes and Paul Fix were not asked back: Haynes appears as barely more of a glorified extra than Andrea Dromm, and Fix, while pleasant enough as Dr. Piper, is absolutely swallowed up by Sally Kellerman’s performance.

In the end, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” succeeds because of some great performances, a strong (and tragic) storyline, excellent pacing, and some incredible action sequences. The footage with the purple barrier still wows to this day, and that sequence is marvelously edited with some wonderfully frantic camerawork. And the final fight between Kirk and Mitchell is dramatic and powerful, with superb choreographing. There’s also an excellent matte painting to represent the Delta Vega mining colony that has an excellent perspective to go along with a wonderful blue-screen insert of the beam-down point. And then there’s Alexander courage’s score which is even more stellar than his work on “The Cage”. While that episode’s score was appropriately moody, this one balances the moody elements with dynamic action cues. Moreover, this score utilizes the talents of Jack Cookerly, who was experimenting with proto-synthesizer technology at the time, including his “magic box”, which was fashioned using the shell of a Hammond organ. Cookerly was employed in the scoring of “The Cage” (and created certain sound effects for both pilots, including the transporter “beaming” sound and the medical scanner sounds), but it’s here where Cookerly shines, with electronic sounds that are at times desolate and attention grabbing. Without this amazing score and sound, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” would be a far lesser effort.

As previously mentioned, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” was re-edited when broadcast. The special prologue was excised (as well as the opening titles which do not use the series’ theme song), as well as the jaunty end credits theme and some material surrounding the unique, Quinn Martin-style act cards. Also, an Enterprise flyby in Act III was removed because the planet was improperly framed (sadly, the shot included a partially dark planet surface tying into a later line of dialogue, and the replacement footage does not). While bootlegs of the original version were traded for years (and Gene Roddenberry showed it as well as a black-and-white workprint of “The Cage” at conventions for years), it wasn’t until the third season was released on Blu-ray in a (mostly) restored form. It’s well worth checking out if you have the means to see it.

Next time, we’ll be going back to the ’80s again, and getting a bit “Super”.

Assignment: 1966/Mirror, Mirror: Batman

It’s January 12th, 1966. Four days ago, the US version of Rubber Soul by the Beatles was released and “We Can Work It Out” reaches the top of the charts (with “Day Tripper” also at #10), displacing “The Sounds of Silence” from Simon & Garfunkel. Making its debut on the charts at #99 (after a full-page ad in Billboard in December) is “California Dreamin'” by a group named The Mamas and the Papas. (Suffice to say, the pop music charts are loaded with classic songs right now.) In grimmer news, Vernon Dahmer, a civil rights activist in Mississippi, was murdered in his home on Monday the 10th as members of the KKK torched his home the day after he announced a voter registration effort for Forrest County. (No one would be held accountable for the crime until 1998.) The big news of the day: President Johnson declares in his first State of the Union address that the Great Society programs and the Vietnam War could be both funded while proposing the formation of a new cabinet level department: the Department of Transportation. But on ABC, we have the debut of the final of our ’60s “B”-themed fads: Batman.

While Batman is now at least as well-known as Superman (a situation that has had some seriously negative effects for how the Man of Steel is portrayed), in the ’60s, Superman was an icon (with the memory of George Reeves’ iconic Adventures of Superman, as well as the lauded Fleischer/Famous Studios theatrical shorts of the early ’40s, being a huge reason why) and Batman, whose only media adaptation was a pair of serials in the ’40s (and had been one of the scapegoats of the notorious Frederic Wertham-ispired witch hunts of the ’50s against comic books), was much more obscure. However, in the early ’60s, Ed Graham Productions (most famous for creating Linus the Lionhearted) optioned the rights with the intent of producing a live-action Saturday morning kids show for CBS. However, two things changed this: one, CBS passed on the show, and two, a repackaging of the first Batman serial as An Evening with Batman and Robin in 1965 was popular enough (especially in an ironic light with college students and adults) to inspire DC Comics to license the property to ABC, who in turn sub-licensed the production to 20th Century Fox, who themselves handed the project off to producer William Dozier and his studio, Greenway Productions.

Dozier, who had never read comic books before, took one look at the then fairly absurd world of Batman (the comics had only recently jettisoned the ’50s-era science fiction elements) and decided that the TV show needed to be a campy pop art spectacle. And since the intended hour-long series was instead spread across two half-hour time slots on consecutive nights, the cliffhanger aspect of the ’40s serials was parodied, as well (and voiced, uncredited, by Dozier himself). The problem is, ABC and Fox were expecting a straightforward, hip version of Batman, and this was anything but that.

No one complained, though, because the show was a smash success, revitalizing interest in the characters, and attracting cameos and guest-starring roles from all sorts of famed actors. So many, in fact, that the trademark building-climbing sequences would inevitably feature Batman and Robin running into someone famous. The result is that the cast is one of the show’s greatest assets. Adam West plays Batman totally straight as the heroic champion of justice, Burt Ward is perfectly excitable as Robin, the villains (which included a rotating roster of such actors as Cesar Romero as the Joker, Burgess Meredith as the Penguin, and Frank Gorshin as the Riddler) ham it up delightfully, and everyone else helps out by reacting wonderfully to the ensuing insanity. That’s not the only secret to the show’s success, as the iconic theme song, Batcave set (which cost an astronomical $800,000 to build), and Batmobile (built by famed car customizer George Barris from a 1955 Lincoln Futura concept car) can attest.

However, Batman suffered from its instant success, and ratings slowly tapered off, and a feature film (intended to sell the show internationally) released between the first and second seasons was unsuccessful. With the third season, the show was cut to one day a week, and Yvonne Craig was cast as Batgirl to add sex appeal and to appeal to young girls. (On a sadder note, Madge Blake’s role as Aunt Harriet was drastically reduced as she was ill.) It wasn’t enough to save the show, as ABC cancelled the series at the end of the season. (Sadly, an attempt by NBC to pick up the show failed because the Batcave set hard already been destroyed when the network inquired about the show.) However, with 120 episodes produced, Batman was immediately sent off into syndication, and thrived.

And that’s where I come in. Batman was, for much of the ’80s, was the show that opened up Channel 3’s broadcast day on Saturday and Sunday mornings. At 6 AM. So that’s when me and my brother would get up. Every. Single. Weekend. I can literally remember only two weekends when we didn’t watch the show, both during the winter of 1984: one, as a result of a Nor’easter that knocked out power on a Saturday, and two, on a weekend where the family went….somewhere. (My memory is good, but not that good.) Sure, we mostly took the show straight (this was the era of Superfriends, after all), but it was so damn fun that we can hardly be blamed. And Batgirl, with her special revised entrance in the opening credits, individual theme song, motorcycle, and bright, sequiny outfit, was pretty much what started me on the road to believing that girls were awesome, desirable badasses. For people that grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, this show was Batman, but that’s another story for another day.

Next week:

Assignment: 1966/Mirror, Mirror: Ronald Reagan

It’s January 4th, 1966. On New Year’s Day, there was one of the wildest days in the history of college football’s pre-playoff era as #2 ranked Arkansas lost to unranked LSU in the Cotton Bowl, followed by top-ranked Michigan State losing to #5 UCLA (a 13 point underdog) in the Rose Bowl, leading to #4 Alabama being named the national champion after they beat #3 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. And the next day, the Green Bay Packers beat the Cleveland Browns 23-12 in the NFL Championship Game to join the AFL Champion Buffalo Bills as pro football’s champions for the 1965 season. However, the big news is that actor Ronald Reagan, who was currently serving as the host of the syndicated Western series Death Valley Days, announced that he was quitting acting to run in the Republican primary for Governor of California, effectively ending his acting career.

It would be stupid to try and create some level of suspense, since Reagan won the ensuing election and used the notoriety of the position to propel himself to the Presidency. And since his two terms came in the ’80s, I thankfully don’t have to, since this is also a blog about my childhood. The simple response is to say that Reagan looms larger than any other President that served during my lifetime, and rattle on and on about he was a pop culture icon, and make some jokes and be done with the essay. Of course, despite the seat-of-my-pants nature of how the blog is written (surely you notice how much the intended Thursday at 6PM Eastern posting time has slid into Friday whenever or even later), I’m not particularly interested in the “easy” way out.

Besides, Reagan’s term as President has screwed up this country in the worst way.

Now, I love the ’80s in a big way. Yes, despite being a social misfit in the worst way pretty much since birth, and despite having missed out on a lot of things I like about the decade while it was happening. But, let’s be honest: some of it is because that’s when I was a child, and you always kind of romanticize your childhood unless it was beyond terrible (and mine, while not perfect, was far from painfully horrid). A lot of the rest of it is because the ’80s was an explosion of pop culture, which was a product of things like cable, syndication, home video, and video games expanding the media options. But for a distressing amount of people that actually had responsibilities? The ’80s sucked, and Reagan was one of the two people that embodied that suckage. (The other, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was, well, British, and therefore not the fixture for Americans that she was for a lot of the rest of the English-speaking world.)

The worst part about it was that even though Reagan was a pretty crappy actor, he still managed to sell his brand of bullshit in a way that deflected a lot of the criticism that should have stuck to him like toxic  sludge. (And we were all happily aware of it, too, because Reagan was known as the “Teflon President”, after the non-stick coating used in pots and pans.) From the moment he gave his “states rights” speech at the Neshoba County Fair in 1980, mere miles away from where the notorious Freedom Summer Murders occurred in 1964, Reagan’s Presidency had no problems courting racists and undermining America’s still tetchy race relations. He was ultimately against the Equal Rights Amendment once ascending to the national stage (though he avoided doing so openly in deference to his daughter Maureen, who supported the ERA). His disastrous economic policies, which still poison this nation like a plague, ballooned the national debt as he cut taxes on the rich and corporations to obscene proportions while also cutting social aid programs (many of which he had railed against since they were enacted, which coincided with his entry into Republican politics) and kickstarting the growth of the income gap between the richest Americans and everyone else.

With his military policy, Reagan ensured that defense spending spiraled completely out of control as he escalated the Cold War in the worst way, with the infamous Strategic Defense System (known as “Star Wars”, much to the consternation of George Lucas) being the biggest boondoggle. His bungling in the Middle East (a key battleground in the Cold War during the ’80s) helped to give rise to the Taliban, the Mujahideen, and most catastrophically of all, Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda in response to the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan. He also backed Saddam Hussein in his war again Iran, giving the Iraqi dictator most of the weapons that he later used to invade Kuwait (and which figured into the reasons behind the post-9/11 invasion of Iraq). And then there was the Iran-Contra affair, wherein the Reagan Administration illegally funneled profits from selling weapons to Iran into supporting Contras who were fighting to overthrow the revolutionary government of Nicaragua. While Reagan himself was never directly linked to the scandal (again, he was the Teflon President), many officials in his Administration were convicted (though some were later pardoned by Reagan’s Vice President, George H.W. Bush, who was more closely linked to the scandal without being guilty, during his term in the Oval Office).

Also, Reagan escalated the War on Drugs, which has been an unmitigated disaster, and cut funding to mental institutions, which effectively resulted in the mentally ill becoming a great percentage of the homeless population (which exploded during Reagan’s two terms in office). Reagan also railed against unions (a major point of hypocrisy since he once headed a major union, the Screen Actor’s Guild), opposed abortion, and completely avoided tackling the growing AIDS crisis (in no small part because because, despite being friends with actor Rock Hudson, one of the first prominent victims of the disease, he was a virulent homophobe).

So, yeah, I pretty much think that Reagan was a piece of shit President.

Of course, since we’re discussing Reagan as Governor of California, we must take a moment to note that this the introduction of one of the greater villains of the social movements of the ’60s, as Reagan defeated Pat Brown (widely considered to be the architect of modern California) because Brown’s popularity was shaken in the then-conservative state of California following the Watts Riots and the first round of anti-war protests at UC Berkeley (or Cal, for you sports fans). As a result of this mandate, I’ll be mentioning Reagan’s name a couple of times in the future (at least), so I’ll avoid getting into specifics, but let’s be clear: most of the things that I hate about Ronald Reagan flowered during his time as Governor.

Next week, we’ll still be one foot in 1966 and the other in my childhood, but this time, we’re going to POW! have BANG! fun. ZAP! (Honest!)

Assignment: 1965: Thunderball

It’s December 29th, 1965. It’s another slow post-Christmas week, but CBS signed a two-year contract (with an option for a third) with the NFL for $18.1 million a season……just for regular season games. (That’s over $136 million a year adjusted for inflation.) But in the UK, it’s their turn to premiere the fourth James Bond movie, Thunderball.

The ’60s are famous for three hyper-popular phenomenons starting with the letter “B”, and James Bond is the second of those to be discussed here (the Beatles being the first). However, the story of James Bond (and especially that of Thunderball) is not so simple: the character was first introduced in 1953 by author (and former member of the British Royal Navy’s Naval Intelligence Division) Ian Fleming in Casino Royale. The next year, he sold rights to that first novel to CBS for a paltry $1,000, who heavily Americanized and condensed the book for their live series, Climax! Then, in 1958, Fleming partnered with filmmaker Kevin McClory with the intent of bringing an accurate version of the character to theatres, with McClory deciding that none of the existing novels would serve well as an introduction. As such, McClory and Fleming (and eventually writer Jack Whittingham) crafted a screenplay eventually titled Thunderball, which Fleming adapted into a novel of the same title in 1961 after the film deal broke down. McClory and Whittingham sued as a result.

Around this time, Eon Productions, headed by Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli, signed a deal with Fleming to bring Bond to the screen. While Satlzman and Broccoli wanted to adapt Thunderball, the ongoing legal battle over the book and screenplay prevented that, and Dr. No was selected instead, and Sean Connery (most known at the time for starring in the BBC’s adaptation of Rod Serling’s seminal episode of Playhouse 90Requiem For a Heavyweight and the criminally underrated Disney film Darby O’Gill and the Little People) was cast as Bond, over Fleming’s initial objections (he preferred David Niven in the part). Dr. No was released in the UK in October 1962, where it was a smash success; the later US release in May of the following year was far more modest, but still encouraging given the more limited notoriety of the character. The sequel, From Russia With Love (which was specifically selected after President Kennedy told Life magazine that it was one of his favorite novels; the film was subsequently the last movie he saw before his assassination), was an even bigger success, and the third film, Goldfinger, was a worldwide sensation (despite broadcast restrictions preventing Bond Girl Pussy Galore’s full name from being mentioned in American press materials).

This brings us to the fourth film, Thunderball. With Kevin McClory being awarded the film rights to the book at the conclusion of the bitter legal dispute (which was ultimately a major contributing factor in the death of Ian Fleming), Eon had no choice but to deal with him. And while working with McClory turned out to be something of a disaster for Saltzman and Broccoli (and it helped to fuel legal disputes that only finally died out in 2013, 7 years after McClory’s death), the resulting film was arguably the apex of the series’ initial wave of popularity. The entire production team, mostly comprised of veterans from the preceding three films, was like a well-oiled machine by this point, and Sean Connery was fully engaged for what would turn out to be the last time (as he had long since tired of the role and the increasing perception that he and Bond were one and the same). Most importantly, the production values increased noticeably from their already high level. First and foremost, it was the first film in the series to be shot in anamorphic widescreen. Secondly, the final action set piece, culminating in the massive explosion of the Disco Volante, was far above that of any previous Bond film (and, arguably, any previously produced film). Lastly, the editing job was so involved that the film’s release was delayed for three months until December.

But with the facts of how Thunderball became such a huge success detailed, we need to speak of why. The novels were classic Cold War fiction bolstered by the imagination and personal experiences of a man (Ian Fleming) who had actual experience in the field of espionage. But the films, which followed the lead of the novel version of Thunderball and shifted the focus from the real-life Soviet counter-intelligence agency SMERSH to the fantastical SPECTRE, managed to avoid miring itself in the mundane reality of the Cold War (later films would even feature the fictional head of the KGB, General Gogol, as a recurring ally of sorts), to the point that the series has survived nearly as long after the Cold War ended as it did before. Additionally, the movies emphasized gadgets, cars (the Aston Martin DB5 featured in Thunderball and first appearing in Goldfinger being the most iconic and recurring of the lot), exciting (and often implausible) stylized actions sequences, and beautiful women.

Oh, yes, the Bond Girls.

Despite being the single most dated aspect of the movies, the Bond Girls still get most of the attention in the press, and a lot of the credit for the series’ continued success. James Bond invariably beds multiple women per film, and they are all impossibly beautiful. Good, bad, it doesn’t matter. And many of the Bond Girls have been played by very successful actresses, from Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore in Goldfinger to Diana Rigg as Tracy in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service to Jane Seymour as Solitaire in Live and Let Die and Halle Berry as Jinx in Die Another Day, even though playing one of James Bond’s many conquests isn’t exactly a progressive role for an actress to take. (In an interview in the ’90s, Honor Blackman even admitted as much while saying that it was still incredibly fun to do at the time regardless.) But, ironically (and I speak as a guy here in the most blatant fashion possible), that’s why the Bond films are so successful: no man can reasonably expect to have sex with that many stultifyingly beautiful women in their lifetimes, or drive such fine automobiles, or go on such adventures, but it’s OK to dream about it every once in a while.

Of course, with Bond being so big in the ’60s, “once in a while” became a lot more frequent. Tons of imitators popped up on the big screen (and much more successfully) on the small screen: I’ve already taken a look at one such show, I Spy, and more will follow (but far from all of them). Even as a child of the ’80s, the Bond movies loomed large in popular culture: Steve Gerber’s instructions to writers on G.I. Joe was to treat that cartoon as something akin to a James Bond film, with the Roger Moore Bonds of the era being an obvious inspiration (with the episode “The Spy Who Rooked Me” being an outright parody of the genre). Dangermouse, being one of the great pillars of Nickelodeon in the ’80s, was another series directly influenced by spy shows, and British ones in particular (no surprise, since it was produced in the UK by Cosgrove Hall), and played up the absurdity of the format for laughs. Even now, spy shows persist because of the success of James Bond and the ’60s spy craze: Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which is absolutely brilliant, by the way, thanks in part to the super-adorkable FitzSimmons pairing) is a direct descendant of the Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. comics published at the height of the spy craze.

But Bond still leads the way, in part because even with its ridiculous plots and dated initial premise, the series changes with the times like a chameleon. Besides multiple efforts to recast the character (it’s pretty clear that current Bond Daniel Craig is done playing the part, in fact), the series has long shifted with the times. The Roger Moore era featured more overt humor as well as repeated references to his dead wife Tracy (it was a guaranteed way to piss off Moore’s Bond, in fact) while the Dalton era was grittier and more realistic (though, with one film supporting the Mujahideen and the other delving into the Latin American drug trade, they’ve aged pretty badly), and the Brosnan era started with new the new M (played by Judi Dench) ripping Bond to shreds for each and every one of his vices. In a world loaded with big (and increasingly stupid) action films, James Bond movies are typically bigger, louder-and better-than the vast majority, and as long as the character keeps changing for the better, the franchise will keep going strong.

Next week, the ’60s meet the ’80s with the one post that has been brewing the longest, and will certainly upset the most people. Yes, that’s right: it’s time to talk about Rappin’ Ronnie Ray Gun.