Priority One Alert: Marselis Parsons 1944-2015

(Image shamelessly hotlinked from WCAX.com on account of being completely ’80s, and also astonishingly awesome.)

When I discussed Channel 3 earlier this year as part of an incredibly nerdy stretch of this blog, spent some time wondering just what it is that made such a podunk station so good. Part of this was actual honest discussion, but it was mostly facetious for when I tear into the seven Las Vegas area stations for various sins (including the one that has gone out of business and didn’t even start up until I was in college and therefore in Reno for most of the year and outside of the auspices of this blog) as part of my general bitching about the ’90s.

On Wednesday, one of the central pieces in the 60+ year success of Channel 3, Marselis Parsons, died at the age of 70 from cancer. While this is not the horrendous shocker that Richard Gallagher’s death was (as Gallagher died of a heart attack at his home after recording what would be his last episode of You Can Quote Me, hours before he would have anchored the evening news), but it’s still a huge blow to Vermonters everywhere. While Parsons retired in 2009, he still filed stories for the station occasionally, though of a more personal nature (especially upon being diagnosed with cancer). So, he never “left” the public eye, as much as one can when living in a small state like Vermont.

These reports were perfectly in Parsons’ wheelhouse, though, and a big part of his success as lead anchor at Channel 3. Marselis was always out in the field, and is on record multiple times disdaining the practice of anchors who were there because they looked good on TV more than their ability as journalists. (He even blew off an interview at CBS arranged by Mike Wallace at one point in his career.) And with 24 and half years across three fairly big cities to my credit, I can understand the sentiment perfectly. Other than some charity type things, the main anchors on the local stations outside Vermont are really there to read the news and look good (this is particularly true in San Diego, as every female reporter and/or anchor in the city is astoundingly beautiful, even the ones who are clearly middle aged). It’s a total travesty of journalism, and why in so many markets, the ratings of the local news are predicated as much by which network has the best ratings and occasionally by poaching popular personalities from a competing station.

To this day, Channel 3 tries to avoid a lot of this, all while being independently owned and operated. While doing this could be a bit of a challenge in a small market in Richard Gallagher’s time (and Gallagher was certainly up to the challenge-he had an almost insatiable hunger for covering state politics), it’s downright insane in the modern era. But there Channel 3 is, and a great deal of the current station personnel were trained and encouraged by Marselis Parsons. (Stuart Hall and Tony Adams, Channel 3’s weather man and sports anchor, respectively, both retired right around the time my family moved, and reporter Jack LaDuke retired in the ’90s, to name the people most familiar to me for most of the decade.)

I am by no means a journalist, and my memory isn’t anywhere near as perfect as this makes it sound (I was very, very lucky to have this video made by Channel 3 itself for last year’s 60th Anniversary of the station to jog my memory), but I do know when something as important as the news and my trust as a viewer is being respected. Marselis Parsons helped to build that trust and reputation for excellence, and it’s a legacy well worth saluting.

Assignment: 1965: Ali/Liston II

“I believe in Allah and in peace. I don’t try to move into white neighborhoods. I don’t want to marry a white woman. I was baptized when I was twelve, but I didn’t know what I was doing. I’m not a Christian anymore. I know where I’m going and I know the truth, and I don’t have to be what you want me to be…I’m free to be what I want.”-Muhammed Ali, when asked if he was a “card-carrying” member of the Black Muslims

In 2015, the idea of professional athletes celebrating wildly, making swaggering statements, and just plain talking smack are all familiar, and accepted by all but the most calcified fossils as a normal part of sports culture. But in 1965, this idea was completely unheard of. That is, until Muhammed Ali burst onto the boxing scene.

Born Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky on January 17th, 1942, Ali started boxing at the age of 12, embarking upon an impressive amateur career that culminated with a Gold Medal in the Light Heavyweight division in the 1960 Summer Olympics. That October, Clay went pro, and amassed an impressive record of 19-0 with 15 knockouts. But what set Clay apart (and raised the ire of boxing fans and the press) was his trash talk. He called Doug Jones an “ugly little man”. Henry Cooper (who was eventually knighted in his native England) was a “bum”. Madison Square Garden (the third incarnation, not the current version) was “too small” for someone as talented as him. This, however, was nothing compared to what happened when Clay got his title shot with Sonny Liston on February 25th, 1964.

Liston was a large, mean fighter, and an ex-con with ties to the mob. He was also massively unpopular (to the point that the NAACP and even President Kennedy tried to persuade Floyd Patterson not to fight Liston-Patterson ignored the advice and lost his title and two fights to Liston), but the odds on favorite to beat Clay. Clay, however, under the advice of Eddie Machen, a fighter with good mobility (much like Clay) who had managed to take Liston to the distance (losing unanimously after the 12th round), decided to start talking trash in order to anger his opponent. Clay called Liston a “big, ugly bear” and wrote and read long poems ripping into Liston, declaring iconically that he would “float like a butterfly, and sting like a bee”. At the weigh-in, Clay went wild, creating the first such circus-like environment (which is now a cliché) at a weigh-in. The press and Liston were convinced that Clay was scared.

Clay, in fact, was not, and other than the fourth and fifth rounds (when Ali was blinded by a substance on Liston’s gloves; there is still debate over whether or not it was intentional), Clay dominated the fight, and won when Liston refused to rise for the seventh round. Almost immediately, there were accusations of a fix, owing to Liston’s mob ties. However, no one has ever definitively proved it, but it is now known that Liston trained poorly, and may even have had shoulder bursitis while training.

A rematch was part of the contract between Liston and Clay (which resulted in Clay being stripped of the WBA title), and controversies involving Liston and Clay began to spiral out of control. Clay, who had been accused of being a Black Muslim leading up to the first fight (Malcolm X, still in good standing with the Nation of Islam, departed Miami Beach until the night of the fight as a compromise), publicly declared that he was a member of the Nation of Islam, and started going by the name of Cassius X before settling on Muhammed Ali. After struggling to find a venue, the rematch was scheduled for November 16th, 1964 at the Boston Garden in Massachusetts. Liston trained hard while Ali continued mocking him, but then the fight was delayed when Ali was forced to have surgery to repair a strangulated hernia. To make matters worse, during the delay, Massachusetts officials started having second thoughts (in no small part because it was rumored that loyalists to Malcolm X were planning to shoot Ali in retaliation for Malcolm X’s assassination, for which three members of the Nation of Islam were convicted), leading to the fight being moved to Lewiston, Maine in order to preserve the closed circuit TV contract.

This, of course, is all prologue. It’s May 25th, 1965. The Beatles have the #1 song in the country with “Ticket to Ride”, with “Help Me, Rhonda” by The Beach Boys hot on its tail at #4. Three days ago, hundreds of Vietnam War protestors marched to the Draft Board in Berkeley, California, burning 19 draft cards and President’s Johnson’s image in effigy, a day after a teach-in 30,000 strong is held there. The Jack Benny Program, having made the leap from radio to TV in the ’50s, ended its incredible 33-year run. On the 23rd, actress Melissa McBride is born in Lexington, Kentucky. And in comic books, Sue Storm and Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four are married.

As for the fight, well, you can watch the whole thing, because it’s so short that I don’t even feel guilty about posting a YouTube video of it. The ending of the fight was a farce of epic proportions, overshadowing even the buildup to the fight. As you can see on the above video, not even the commentators saw the knockout punch until the slow motion replay, and referee (and former Heavyweight Champion) Jersey Joe Walcott failed to pick up timekeeper Francis McDonough’s count after restraining Ali to his corner. However, under Maine rules, Walcott could have stopped the count until Ali finally went to his corner, but he never did, instead rushing to stop the fight after being told furiously that Liston had been counted out by both McDonough and Nat Fleischer, co-founder, publisher, and editor of The Ring (the most famous boxing magazine), which also maintained a lineal championship (movie fans will instantly recognize their belt, as it’s the one seen in the Rocky movies).

Reactions were swift and harsh. The knockout punch is forever known as the “phantom punch”, though Ali called it the “anchor punch” and declared that he had been taught it by notorious comedian/actor Stepin Fetchit (who by 1965 was the poster image of black stereotypes on film, even though he was ironically the first African-American millionaire), who himself claimed to have learned it from legendary boxer Jack Johnson. Walcott never refereed another fight. Liston’s reputation was shattered, and he died in 1970 (and depending on which stories you believe, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Dept., at the time in the pockets of the mob like most everything in Vegas, let Liston rot until his wife returned from a vacation on January 5th, 1971). Muhammed Ali, however, was propelled into incredible fame, and we most certainly will revisit him later on.

Next week: a return to the ’80s, and another controversy (albeit a far more ridiculous one).

Mirror, Mirror: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero

If you came to the Star Trek Debriefed project here from the main site, you knew this one was coming. There are few shows that have stuck with me as long as Star Trek, and G.I. Joe is right at the top of the list. As with Star Trek, its fast action, engaging characters, and wonderful humor drew me in. (That it was the only other show on the air for the bulk of the decade was another huge factor, as familiarity breeds not only contempt, but great devotion.)

G.I. Joe was the first of the wave of syndicated ’80s cartoon shows (a great majority of which were based on toys, or imported from Japan, or both) to air, though not the first to be developed. However, there was only a five-episode miniseries in 1983 and another the following year before going to a full series in 1985, so it avoided most the initial controversy over the syndicated cartoons.

Part of the reason for this is because Hasbro never had the faith in the series at the start that they did with later series, or that Mattel had with He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Hasbro’s initial ambitions were only to skirt network rules by having their ad agency, Griffin-Bacal, produce animated ads for the G.I. Joe comic book, and then to use that footage to spice up the toy ads (which could only have a few seconds of animation to be accepted for air on Saturday mornings). However, with the response being enormous (the comic became an instant best-seller for Marvel Comics), Joe Bacal and Tom Griffin saw an opportunity for a hit TV series-to be coincidentally produced by their fledgling studio, Sunbow Productions, which was responsible for the Sesame Street-like syndicated show The Great Space Coaster and, under the previous identity of Sunwagon, had backed and produced the US dub for the first two years of Star Blazers.

The resulting miniseries, titled G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (but popularly known as The MASS Device to avoid confusion with the series as a whole), was a success because of some extremely wise decisions. The actual animation production was handled by Marvel Productions, which until 1981 was DePatie-Freleng Enterprises, the studio most known for the theatrical Pink Panther shorts of the ’60s and ’70s. The decision was made to have the actual animation done in Japan, by Toei Animation Co., Ltd. (the largest and oldest animation studio in Japan), and to eschew most of the limited animation techniques that studios on both sides of the Pacific were using to keep costs low. The end result is a miniseries that looks surprisingly close to theatrical quality.

The best decision of all, though, was in regards to the writing. Correctly sensing that the majority of writing for Saturday mornings was subpar, Griffin and Bacal went looking for someone who had written for prime time television. They settled on Ron Friedman, who had been writing for TV in 1965, primarily for sitcoms like Gilligan’s IslandAll in the Family, and The Odd Couple before transitioning to hour-long dramas and action adventure shows (most prolifically for Fantasy Island). While Friedman was given some material from the toys and comic books to work with, he threw almost all of it out and started from scratch. (Friedman has repeatedly mentioned that he was given information about what guns the characters used, so it seems likely that he was merely given the filecards from the toy packages, which in 1982 had minimal biographical information.)

The MASS Device, while a bit lacking in terms of accurate military protocols and tactics and featuring some rather dodgy science in places, was a sprawling action/adventure tale with liberal doses of science fiction and a large cast of well-developed, believable characters. Between weekly presentations on the weeks of September and December 12th and a condensed, time-compressed “movie” presentation on Thanksgiving Day, the series was a big enough hit to persuade Hasbro to produce a sequel miniseries, titled The Revenge of Cobra, and begin plans for a full season of episodes.

Revenge, while tasked with introducing even more characters (the villainous forces of Cobra in particular swelled enough that the line “It’s G.I. Joe against Cobra and Destro” in the original theme song was revised to mention “Cobra the Enemy” instead) and faced with a noticeably smaller budget, was an even bigger success, in no small part because the miniseries had more pronounced comedic beats and a lighter tone (Cobra Commander in particular is softened considerably, as voice actor Chris Latta’s performance was completely reworked to present a broader, slightly more inept, lead villain). Also, the new additions to the cast (with wisecracking sailor Shipwreck, jive-talking machine gunner Roadblock, and master of disguise/mercenary Zartan making the greatest impact) greatly enriched the series and were in many cases even more popular than the existing characters.

However, Friedman, now finding himself busy with a variety of tasks for Sunbow (he was tasked with revising scripts for sister series The Transformers, as well as writing a third G.I. Joe miniseries for the fall of 1985 and developing ideas for a feature film version of the two cartoons), was not retained to assemble a writing staff for the 50 episodes that would be needed to air G.I. Joe in weekday syndication. Instead, veteran comic book writer Steve Gerber was hired.

Gerber, most famous for creating Howard the Duck (and for suing publisher Marvel Comics in a creator’s right dispute that was still on going in 1984), was a respected and popular writer. More importantly, he had moved into animation once his lawsuit with Marvel was initiated, and had created Thundarr the Barbarian at Ruby-Spears (in addition to working on a number of lesser series) before story editing the first season of Dungeons & Dragons for Marvel. Gerber’s experience on Dungeons & Dragons was so awful that he had personally decided to swear off animation…..until Sunbow called, and said the magic word: “syndication”. Gerber jumped at the chance to write without the interference of network Broadcasting Standards & Practices departments (who were guilty of, in Gerber’s mind of “protecting children…..with lies”). To help him edit 55 scripts (and get the 50 episodes not assigned to Friedman written), Gerber looked to two of his closest friends: Buzz Dixon and Flint Dille.

Buzz Dixon was a military veteran who had broken into writing for TV cartoons at Filmation before meeting Steve Gerber at Ruby-Spears. The military experience was why Dixon was hired to edit; his first draft script for Thundarr‘s second season opener (which was so objectionable to ABC that they used it to test candidates for BS&P positions well into the ’90s) was why he was chosen to write for the show (and eventually to succeed Gerber as Supervising Story Editor). Flint Dille, the grandson of Buck Rogers publisher John F. Dille, had worked at Ruby-Spears under a variety of jobs, and was gifted with a great sense of humor. The other writers read like a who’s who of the ’70s comic book industry: Mary Skrenes (co-creator with Gerber of Omega the Unknown and the inspiration for Beverly Switzler, Howard the Duck’s best friend), Roy Thomas (who wrote the famed Kree-Skrull War storyline in The Avengers and adapted Conan the Barbarian for comics), Gerry Conway (infamous for having ended the Silver Age of comics by killing Gwen Stacy), Marv Wolfman (responsible for The Tomb of Dracula), Roger Slifer (who created Lobo for DC around the time he started working for Sunbow), and Denny O’Neil (who, with Neal Adams, revitalized Batman in the ’70s). Also contributing scripts were a then unknown Paul Dini, Stanley Ralph Ross (best known for his work on the Adam West Batman and Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman), Christy Marx, Martin Pasko (who was responsible for the name of Thundarr‘s Wookiee-like character, Ookla the Mok), and Donald F. Glut (most known for the novelization of The Empire Strikes Back).

G.I. Joe comic writer Larry Hama, already smarting that he had been passed up for writing the cartoon by Sunbow, was even less thrilled by the writing staff of comic book veterans, all of whom (save for O’Neil) having had bitter feuds with Marvel Editor-in-chief Jim Shooter at the time. Also, certain characters being developed by Sunbow writers (and all issues supported by TV ads were essentially driven by the animated segments), and the end result was a rather nasty relationship between the two camps (whom Hasbro intentionally kept from working together)-especially by Hama, who by all accounts still holds a grudge.

The Sunbow series, however, was an even bigger hit than the toys: it was the top-rated syndicated cartoon for the 1985-1986 season even though the toys were the third best seller (behind The Transformers and Thundercats). This, of course, led to a second, 30-episode season and what was intended to be a theatrical movie. G.I. Joe: The Movie was sunk as a theatrical feature (to this day, it has been screened theatrically only twice) because Hasbro’s 1986 line included a character dubbed the “Cobra Emperor”. While this might have worked in the comics, in the cartoon, Cobra Commander’s place as the undisputed leader of Cobra had been confirmed multiple times. Buzz Dixon was therefore forced to lobby for an origin story for the character, who was ultimately named Serpentor (after lawyers noted that the original choice, King Cobra, was a brand of malt liquor).

That origin story, the five-part “Arise, Serpentor, Arise!”, written by Dixon (though credited to Ron Friedman for contractual reasons), is typically science fiction-oriented: Cobra’s name personnel get completely fed up with Cobra Commander and (at the prodding of new character Dr. Mindbender) decide to literally build one from the DNA of various world leaders (focusing on notorious despots and conquerors). However, it was far from the story Dixon had wanted to tell: he had wanted to tell “The Most Dangerous Man in the World”, which involved Cobra dropping everything to recapture the “Karl Marx of Cobra” (whose philosophies were co-opted and warped by Cobra Commander) when he is suddenly freed. While Serpentor did not scuttle those plans entirely, Hasbro also approved approved Buzz Dixon’s “alternate” story approach: that Cobra Commander really did have someone pulling his strings, a Lost Horizon-esque community of snake people (which, in a further nod to the novel and film, was given the temporary name Cobra-La, but Hasbro loved that too, to Dixon’s eternal consternation). So, “The Most Dangerous Man in the World” was jettisoned (though Dixon reused the title for an episode where existing comedic character Shipwreck and two newer ones, pacifist medic Lifeline and mishap-prone communications specialist Dial-Tone, are “promoted” to Colonel via Cobra interference and proceed to run the team into the ground until General Hawk returns).

In the meantime, Transformers: The Movie and My Little Pony: The Movie died at the box office, and the former caused a massive backlash over the death of lead character Optimus Prime. As a result, the planned theatrical release of G.I. Joe: The Movie was scrapped, the death of Duke (which had inspired the robotic bloodbath in Transformers: The Movie) reversed, and the film released directly to video after a TV premiere in April of 1987 (in Vermont, it was on a dreary Sunday afternoon). The following fall, the movie was split into five parts and served as the anchor for a heavily reduced rotation of G.I. Joe rerun episodes hosted by wrestler Sgt. Slaughter (who had been written into the series at the start of the second season). In Vermont at least, this was the status quo for G.I. Joe for the 1987-88 and 1988-89 TV seasons…..and then it was gone.

I did not know (and would not know until discovering USA’s reruns of the series a few years later), but the reason why new episodes never came was that DiC, a competing studio founded in France by Jean Chalopin and by then owned by Andy Heyward in America, had convinced Hasbro that Sunbow didn’t know what they were doing (in part by capitalizing on the health of CEO Stephen Hassenfeld, who was secretly dying of AIDS and trying to wrap up his affairs). This generally meant that DiC (who was in the process of poisoning the syndicated cartoon market by flooding it with poorly, written and animated series) created new shows for Hasbro, but G.I. Joe, the one Sunbow series that had ended on an inconclusive note (and was still on toy aisles), was revived.

This deal had a lot of problems. The big one being that the Sunbow series had been heavily backed by Hasbro themselves, and had a pretty lavish budget with a huge voice cast and generally high quality animation (all of which was done by Toei in Japan), whereas the DiC G.I. Joe was funded entirely by DiC (which, with 161 half hours of animation in production to air in 1989-5 of which were G.I. Joe-was spread desperately thin). The result? Most of the voice cast was jettisoned, mostly for then-unknown (and mostly Canadian) talent. (The only holdovers were Chris Latta, Morgan Lofting, Ed Gilbert, Jerry Houser, and Sgt. Slaughter-and all except for Latta, who was reduced to voicing only Cobra Commander, were gone after the first season of episodes in 1990-91.)

The new head writer, instead of Michael Charles Hill (writer of fan-favorite episode “Cold Slither”), as had been planned at Sunbow, was Doug Booth, a producer (and writer of “My Favorite Things” from the second season). Booth, for whatever reason, jettisoned a lot of existing characters and relationships (including having Destro dump the Baroness for Zartan’s sister, Zarana, who herself had previously had feelings for G.I. Joe computer expert Mainframe, who never appears in the DiC series), and generally “dumbed down” the writing to appeal to a younger audience. A number of Sunbow veterans (including Christy Marx) were roped into writing for this show, but there is some evidence that scripts were adapted or re-written from discarded Sunbow ideas: Flint Dille is co-credited as writer of a DiC episode, and denies having anything to do with the show (and holds Booth in contempt whenever the DiC series is mentioned in his presence). Additionally, a stand-in for sleazy reporter Hector Ramirez appears in an episode, further belying Sunbow roots. And, perhaps most shamefully of all, Sunbow-era G.I. Joe episodes (with DiC’s opening and the new show’s theme song playing over the existing Sunbow end credits) reran alongside their DiC cousins in order to fully pad out the rotation for syndication.

It was when I saw the DiC G.I. Joe package on USA in the ’90s (which oddly lacked any of the five-part miniseries, even DiC’s “Operation Dragonfire”) that I fully understood why the Sunbow show was such a favorite, and why of all of they toy collections I gave in and allowed to be sold before moving to Las Vegas (more on that story much later), seeing the G.I. Joes go was the hardest. This show was good. No, this show was excellent. It was very well animated for its era (well, mostly), and the writing and acting were sublime. The characters (of which there were many) were incredibly nuanced and well-developed. You had ultimate boy-scout (and series star) Duke, sarcastic counterintelligence agent Scarlett (who doubled as Duke’s love interest, even if they almost never acted on that affection), straight-arrow (and slightly overprotective) stick-in-the-mud Flint, friendly girl-next-door (and Flint’s far more openly acknowledged girlfriend) Lady Jaye, dim but loyal Bazooka, movie-quoting ex-stunt man Quick Kick, wisecracking Alpine, card shark flyboy Ace, megalomaniacal tyrant Cobra Commander, rational tactician Destro, duplicitous mistress of disguise Baroness, and on and on and on.

However, besides Zartan (and his dumb but occasionally useful lackeys, the Dreadnoks), the consensus favorite amongst the staff (and many of the fans) was Shipwreck, the aforementioned wiseass sailor introduced in The Revenge of Cobra. With his parrot, Polly (who was introduced partway into the production of the first season), Shipwreck was an unending source of fun. He hit on all three female Joes (getting slapped by two of them), went to dive bars, ignored orders (and got away with it!), made Snake Eyes wear a dress (you’ll never see that in the comics!), shirked responsibility…..and was almost as great of a hero as Duke, Scarlett, Flint, Lady Jaye, and probably the stars of a few other shows, too. He was as close to an animated version of Howard the Duck as Steve Gerber ever got to make, and no more did it show than in three of the show’s best episodes: “Once Upon A Joe” and “There’s No Place Like Springfield” Parts 1 and 2.

“Once Upon A Joe” dealt with Cobra stealing the McGuffin Device, and G.I. Joe destroying an orphanage in the ensuing chase. While the rest of the Joes rebuild the orphanage, Shipwreck (whose marksmanship led to its destruction) manages to avoid working (through the strategic application of slapstick comedy) and ends up telling the orphans one of the most cracked fairy tales ever committed to film-with himself (as the even more Popeye-like “Shipshape”) as the hero and Wet-Suit and Leatherneck (who ripped Shipwreck, an orphan himself, for destroying the orphanage) as rock-stupid disappointments “Frog Face” and “Leatherhead”. And naturally, it is Shipwreck who finds the McGuffin Device (which projects the true nature of its user and can alter reality) and uses it to defeat Cobra and Zartan.

“There’s No Place Like Springfield”, written by Gerber himself, takes the opposite approach to Shipwreck, as it’s mostly serious with only brief bits of comedy. In it, Shipwreck and Lady Jaye are on a covert mission to rescue Dr. Mullaney, who is on the run from Cobra and is the only one who knows how to complete a formula that breaks the molecular bonds between hydrogen and oxygen, turning water into a deadly explosive. He also knows the location of Cobra Temple Alpha, the home base for all Cobra operations. That is, until he zaps the last ingredient into Shipwreck’s subconscious mind, to only be released by a specific code word. Cobra finds the three, and Mullaney disappears in the chaos, making it imperative that Shipwreck gets back to the U.S.S. Flagg. He almost does, but is trapped in the SHARC he and Lady Jaye were using, and it sinks to the bottom of the sea….only for Shipwreck to wake up five years in the future, after Cobra has been defeated. He is married with a child, as Doc managed to reverse Cobra’s genetic engineering to Mara (an ex-Cobra soldier whom Shipwreck fell for in a previous episode), and he, like most of the Joe team, lives in Springfield, which is just like any other town.

Shipwreck, who never imagined he was the “Daddy” type, is thrown for a loop. And then the dreams start. He’s harassed by visions of the Cobra brass, all demanding the ingredient which he does not know. And following an incident where he sees Roadblock melt after going through a car wash. Shipwreck ends up arrested, and then begs to be put back in the hospital….and then the bottom drops on the episode. The town is a fake front for Cobra Temple Alpha, and everyone (including Polly) is a Synthoid (Synthetic Humanoid, seen in yet another earlier episode). Shipwreck is submitted to a trippy interrogation session before he spills that he needs to hear the code word and is put under and as a voice runs through the dictionary. With the aid of the real Polly (who proves his standing as the genuine article by mentioning a night of apparent debauchery the two shared), Shipwreck escapes, completes the formula, and successfully goads the Dreadnoks into triggering an explosion that alerts the Joes on the Flagg (which Shipwreck had been told was destroyed, and Lady Jaye killed with it) to his location. The final twist of the knife, however, involves Shipwreck going to his “home” to save his “family”…who are of course Synthoids, too. Polly saves Shipwreck’s life, and devastated, he leaves with Flint and Lady Jaye.

In the Gerberian tradition, the episode draws from elements of Gerber’s life (Shipwreck’s “daughter” is based both on Gerber’s own daughter and the daughter of Cat Yronwode, an independent comics journalist and publisher), pop culture (the address to Shipwreck’s home is Number 6 Village Drive, a reference to The Prisoner; and the second part features an extensive recap largely because Steve Gerber was a huge Superman fan, and G.I. Joe‘s narrator, Jackson Beck, was also the announcer for the Superman radio show), and existing continuity. It’s every bit as tragic as “Once Upon A Joe” is funny, and stands up with the best TV has to offer, animated or otherwise.

On Thursday (hopefully!), we’ll finally return to 1965, and a fight that made the Pacquiao/Mayweather controversy look like amateur hour.

Mirror, Mirror: CBS’s Friday Night Lineup

(February, 1982 CBS promo for their Friday night lineup. All three shows were in the top 20 that season.)

As I’ll be discussing at great length later on with Star Trek Debriefed, TV on Friday nights can be a dumping ground for shows because people (especially in the 18-34 age group that advertisers lust over) usually aren’t watching. However, for much of the ’80s, CBS’ entire lineup for the night was enormously popular. And since the YouTube video above makes teasing things impossible, I’m speaking of The Dukes of HazzardDallas, and Falcon Crest.

To the modern viewer, The Dukes of Hazzard was wildly out of place being paired with two nighttime soap operas. However, two reasons exist for its placement on the schedule. First and foremost, in the ’80s, the networks still tended to enforce the concept of the “family hour”, wherein shows airing before 9PM were to be acceptable for all audiences. (This was particularly enforced on nights when children could be expected to comprise a higher percentage of the audience, like Fridays and Sundays.) Secondly, The Dukes of Hazzard was not conceived as a family show.

The Dukes of Hazzard is, at its core, a remake of series creator Gy Waldron’s largely forgotten film, Moonrunners. Both pit two cousins and their uncle Jesse (an old, grizzled moonshiner) against the corrupt county commissioner (a rival moonshiner to Uncle Jesse) and his lackey, Sheriff Rosco Coltrane. Also directly carrying over between the two productions are Waylon Jennings (part of the “outlaw” movement of country music) as the Balladeer, and the Boar’s Nest bar. Moonrunners, being a B-movie, was a bit more raunchy in its demeanor than is typical for a 8PM TV show. However, upon premiering on CBS, The Dukes of Hazzard aired at 9PM, and made jokes about Bo Duke having fathered numerous children out of wedlock and the acknowledgement of incest as part of the Duke family history. Additionally, Boss Hogg was overtly trying to make business deals with the New York mafia, and Daisy Duke (whose preference for short shorts that barely cover her rear has led to such attire being named in her honor) was more overtly sexualized. However, no one could have predicted what happened: The Dukes of Hazzard became a massive success with children.

There are many reasons why this happened: the likable, comedically gifted cast; the wry commentary from Waylon Jennings; and the folksy, small-town setting. But the biggest reason is the car. The General Lee, an orange 1969 Dodge Charger with a large Confederate flag painted on its roof, became the face of the show, with its bright design and incredible, gravity-defying jumps. Further cementing the identity of the General Lee was the car horn, which played the first dozen notes of “Dixie”, which was added when the producers encountered a hot rodder with the horn installed in his car while filming in Georgia (where the series was shot for the first five episodes before shifting to Southern California), leading to the decision to add the horn to the General Lee. With such a distinctive car (and a number of equally distinctive cars for the supporting cast) and colorful cast, The Dukes of Hazzard quickly became the type of hit that the studio and network should have predicted, only to squander it in the worst way possible.

The first signs of trouble came in the second season when Ben Jones (who played eccentric mechanic “Crazy” Cooter Davenport) and James Best (Rosco) missed episodes with separate disputes-Jones over the appearance of Cooter, and Best over inadequate changing facilities for after getting drenched as a result of Rosco’s perpetually failed attempts at “hot pursuit”. These blips would prove to be minor bumps in the road compared to the walkout by series stars John Schneider (Bo) and Tom Wopat (Luke).

The Dukes of Hazzard was heavily merchandised. Lunch boxes, toys, video games, coloring books, Underoos, a short-lived series starring Deputy Enos Strate, and going into the fifth season, and a cartoon spinoff produced by Hanna-Barbera. So, it stands to reason that the stars of the show should have been raking in huge sums of money on the royalties from these products. However, this was far from the case, as Warner Bros. believed that the General Lee was not only the lead attraction, but the only attraction, and failed to pay the cast, and Schneider and Wopat in particular, as fully as they should have. So, the two stars walked, and Warner Bros. replaced them with the “other” Duke boys, Coy and Vance.

Coy and Vance were carbon copies, to the point of the scripts having Bo and Luke’s crossed out in favor of Coy and Vance’s. Suddenly, the issues with the series (namely, the formulaic nature of the scripts and the growing reliance on stock footage due to increasing problems finding working Dodge Chargers for the stunts that typically totaled the vehicles) were exposed, and ratings began to tumble. Even after Wopat and Schneider had returned near the end of the season, faith in the series was shattered, compounded by the success of NBC’s Knight Rider, which gave its car an actual personality, and featured more intense stunt work. The end result is that The Dukes of Hazzard went off the air after seven seasons in the fall of 1985, and boy was that a shock for me at the age on eight. (I distinctly remember going to watch the show with my brother-we were at our aunt and uncle’s house in Greensboro, and our parents and the other adults present were playing cards, and when we went to watch The Dukes of Hazzard, it was definitely not on!)

In its wake, Dukes left a legacy that is both incredibly well-remembered, and a bit controversial. At its heart, the show was a bit of a live-action cartoon with well-defined characters and engaging (if somewhat circular) car chases and broad, character-based comedy (which often veered towards slapstick). It also tapped into the lingering distrust of authority in a surprisingly nuanced way (while the Dukes openly rebelled against Boss Hogg and Rosco and harbored a healthy distrust of the city folk Hogg entered into business with, they were generally supportive of federal authority, including offering up Uncle Jesse’s moonshine recipe as a potential alternative energy source to then-President Carter via a contest in one early episode), even though the Southern iconography of the General Lee has found itself caught in the crossfire of the very serious and very racially charged arguments against the Confederate flag. The show used these images for two practical reasons: one, it was set in the South, and two, the images painted the Duke boys as, to quote the theme song, “fightin’ the system like two modern day Robin Hoods”. Would it happen now? Probably not, but there has never been any indication that racism was intended.

One thing that The Dukes of Hazzard was ahead of the curve on was in its gender politics. While there is no doubt that Daisy Duke was sexualized to a degree (though so were the Dukes-Bo in particular found himself getting into trouble on account of chasing women, and both leads also became desired by women), she also kicked no end of ass (quite literally-Catherine Bach was credited in the opening through the entire run to the image of her kicking Rosco to the ground while stealing his squad car). While Daisy getting captured was definitely a recurring plot development, she was more often than not involved directly in the action, frequently by making men look like idiots for ogling her (especially poor, hopelessly smitten Enos). While this certainly calls back to Charlie’s Angels and its “hot chicks doing stuff for some guy while looking hot” aesthetic, Daisy has a lot more agency than that, and this even translates to Lulu Hogg, who was conceived as a bit of a punchline (Rosco’s fat sister, who Boss Hogg married for her money and connections to power). Beginning with the third season, Lulu becomes a major check on her husband, and even becomes the face of a small scale equal rights movement in Hazzard County. (I should point out again that this was largely a goofy kid’s show, and Lulu intended to be a one-joke character.)

Of course, with The Dukes of Hazzard cancelled, there was little chance for acceptance of the replacement by eight year-old me. And, as such, I didn’t appreciate the “new” Twilight Zone until well after its troubled run on CBS, and the next year, Scarecrow and Mrs. King, a generally enjoyable light action show, was buried on Fridays as series star Kate Jackson missed much of the year due to breast cancer (and, in a move that would never happen today without severe protests, CBS cancelled the show at season’s end). Then, in the final act of caring for the 8PM hour on Fridays, Beauty and the Beast arrived.

On its face, Beauty and the Beast seemed like a pretty good fit with Dallas and Falcon Crest, what with its emphasis on romance and soap opera-like storytelling. However, almost instantly, the contrast between Beauty and the Beast and the rest of the lineup became clear and great. Beauty and the Beast was pretty clearly a genre show, with very light hints towards steampunk in the “Tunnel People”, who lived below the streets of New York. Furthermore, the eponymous “Beast” of the series, Vincent, was just that: a man/lion hybrid (whose full origins are never revealed), and it is the life of the “Beauty”, Catherine, who is altered when her life is saved by Vincent. The show was an instant critical and cult hit, winning awards and inspiring one of the more devoted and organized pre-internet fanbases. The wheels fell off the rails, however, when Linda Hamilton left at the start of the third season when she became pregnant and her husband left her. Without the central romance, the series was done for, and that ended any pretense of watching CBS at 8PM.

9PM, however, was more consistently programmed, because as long as Falcon Crest was around, the hour belonged to Dallas. Now, there have been soap operas, and even prime time soap operas, but none dominated the public imagination quite like Dallas. The show was initially conceived as a sort of Romeo and Juliet with warring oil baron families, with Bobby Ewing eloping with new bride Pamela Barnes at the start of what was supposed to be a five-episode miniseries. However, two elements propelled the show into a full run: the villainous J.R. Ewing, and the miniseries-ending confrontation between J.R. and Pam which results in Pam having a miscarriage, and J.R. expressing no remorse over the accident.

Suddenly, Larry Hagman, who was known as the perpetually henpecked Major Tony Nelson on I Dream of Jeannie (to the point that he appeared in Superman in a cameo role inspired by the character), achieved even greater (and international) fame as J.R. Ewing. Dallas became the top-rated show on television, and J.R.’s womanizing, backstabbing, and general jerkitude became appointment television. And then, with the third season finale, the show’s popularity exploded with the infamous “Who Shot J.R.?” cliffhanger. The episode concluded with J.R. getting shot, and no word on the identity of the shooter or if J.R. would survive. And with a Writer’s Guild strike that summer and Larry Hagman holding out briefly for a raise (which ended up being worth $75,000 an episode plus a piece of the profits from J.R.-themed merchandise), the resolution to the cliffhanger had to wait for a whopping eight months.

That resolution episode, titled “Who Done It”, became the most watched TV show in history, with more people watching it than having voted in the 1980 Presidential election. (It has since been surpassed by the series finale of M*A*S*H and some 20 Super Bowls.) Dallas was at the forefront of American culture, and it kept viewers coming with the infighting and backstabbing, along with a series of season-ending cliffhangers that, while never again as successful as “Who Shot J.R.?”, kept viewers interested.

That is, until Bobby Ewing was killed off.

With Patrick Duffy wanting to leave after seven full seasons, the decision was made to kill off Bobby following a surprise reunion with Pam. Without the angel to J.R.’s devil, ratings dropped, and the production staff (and CBS, who were already having enough issues with The Twilight Zone that season) panicked and brought back Bobby at the end of the season. As explained the following fall, the everything from the point of the car crash that killed Bobby was a dream. (And, as a consequence, so was spin-off Knots Landing, which refuse to jettison an entire year of storylines.) Ratings continued to dip, and then things started to really spiral out of control when Victoria Principal decided to leave, resulting in an awkward storyline where Pam is heavily burned in an explosive car crash with an oil truck. The final, and ultimately fatal, departure was Linda Gray in the 12th season, costing the series (and J.R.) the presence of Sue Ellen, whose difficult marriages to J.R. (and multiple retaliatory affairs, most famously with J.R.’s bitter rival Cliff Barnes) had been a key storyline for the series.

However, Dallas had one last cliffhanger: at the conclusion of a two hour finale straight out of It’s A Wonderful Life, a suicidal and dangerously drunk J.R. (in a reflection of Hagman’s struggles with alcoholism, J.R.’s liver was on its last legs by this point) is goaded by an “angel” (or the hallucination of one) to kill himself. After hearing a gunshot, Bobby rushes to J.R.’s room, and all we see is Bobby saying, “Oh, my God!”

This leaves us to discuss Falcon Crest, and, well, there’s nothing for me to say. Ignoring for a moment that there was no way my parents were going to let me and my brother stay up until 11PM for most of the show’s run, it seriously did not make an impression besides the overdramatic theme song, Jane Wyman, and Lorenzo Lamas (and the latter because his character had the same first name as my brother). So, really, all I can offer is that Falcon Crest was a fairly substantial hit.

On Thursday, we’ll talk about a show that everyone who visits the main website should be used to me discussing.

Priority One Alert: Grace Lee Whitney 1930-2015

“No beach to walk on….”-Captain Kirk, in reference to Yeoman Rand

Not every story about Star Trek is a simple or happy one. Perhaps the poster child for this is Grace Lee Whitney, who it was announced on Sunday had died at the age of 85. After being fired from the series under circumstances that frankly should be one of the most notorious scandals in Hollywood history, Whitney’s life went into a tailspin of alcohol, sex, and drug addiction. That Whitney survived the ordeal probably qualifies as a miracle. That she thrived afterwards is a triumph of one woman’s will.

For Thursday’s post, I’m introducing the idea that media in the ’80s were loaded with tons of kickass women. I’m going to be hammering on this point pretty heavily (in no small part because the ’60s and ’80s are the accepted borders for the second-wave era of feminism), and Grace Lee Whitney was one of the most shamefully underrated names in this litany of strong women. After all, she was the one who suggested that female Starfleet officers wear microskirts, arguing that it was the fashion in the UK at the time. More importantly, however, was that Whitney was in only 8 episodes of Star Trek, and made an enormous impact. Until she started hitting the convention circuit, fans simply did not understand where Yeoman Rand had gone (and the feeble “official” excuse that the character had transferred to another ship was wildly unsatisfactory), strengthened by the scores of not-Rands that appeared in the wake of her departure (and, in a couple of instances, before), well into the second season (and despite the ignorance on Fred Freiberger’s part of matters such as Janice Rand, a number of roles in the third season also seemed like they could have fit the Yeoman perfectly). Put simply, Rand was the road not taken with Star Trek, and could have easily enhanced many of the character conflicts on the series (certainly those within Captain Kirk, at least).

Despite personal struggles that make the very phrase seem trite and having mostly missed out on the type of enormous fame and fortune that all of the other main Star Trek cast members (spinoffs included) have enjoyed, Whitney was never anything but pleasant and appreciative in her public appearances. She also spoke frankly and openly about her past to fans and various at-risk individuals, and focused her autobiography on the matter, as well. And, most positively of all, Whitney returned for four of the original cast Star Trek movies, an episode of Star Trek: Voyager (which created fan demand for a USS Excelsior spin-off starring her and George Takei), and a number of unofficial productions. Through perseverance and faith, Grace Lee Whitney regained her self worth and has become an even greater inspiration than her most famous role.