Mirror, Mirror: The Atari 2600

In American video game culture, there is one undeniable line of demarcation: the Video Game Crash of 1983. The major players in the American console market-Atari (who was also the largest American company in arcades, as well), Mattel, and Coleco were all shattered in the shakeout. (Mattel and Coleco outright exited the industry, and if not for Masters of the Universe and Cabbage Patch Kids, respectively, they might have gone out of business then and there.) Atari, which at that point was owned by Warner Communications,

Warner Bros. wants you to forget this logo ever existed.

was split into two companies: one, consisting of the home and computer divisions that was sold to ousted Commodore CEO Jack Tramiel, and the second, consisting of the arcade division, remained with Warner (where its assets, after a few ownership changes, remain). While the computer game market thrived and the arcade market survived (it’s primary issue being a matter of inflation, as America was the only market where the coinage used in games was not equal to one US dollar), the American console industry imploded, ironically right as the Japanese console market began in earnest.

This brings us to the Christmas of 1984. Unless you were a young child, the idea of home video games was that they were a fad past their prime. Of course, I was six and my brother was five, so, yeah, the Crash didn’t exist for us. But for my uncle and his then-wife, it was, so a key component of Christmas 1984 was one used Atari 2600 with a smattering of games, which included Pac-Man, Combat, Asteroids, Star Raiders, Home Run, Football, and Defender from Atari; Chopper Command from Activision; Donkey Kong from Coleco; and Frogger and The Empire Strikes Back from Parker Brothers. (There were some other Atari-published titles, but memory is never a perfect thing.) These were all mainstream games for the system from major publishers, so it’s clear that the more notorious aspects of the Crash didn’t influence our gift (though Pac-Man and Donkey Kong are rather infamous for their lack of quality).

The Atari 2600 was both the best system to have, and the worst. The best because the 2600 was the most popular pre-crash system with some of the best games and certainly the best controller (seriously-the other major pre-Crash systems had some notoriously wretched controllers with questionable build quality and asinine telephone-style keypads), but the worst because the 2600’s lack of a lockout chip meant that the system was a free-for-all once Activision (founded by four of Atari’s best programmers) made a huge splash as the first third-party game developer. And, in addition to the infamous Pac-Man and Donkey Kong ports, we also ended up purchasing the even more notorious E.T. a couple of years down the road. (On the other hand, we also ended up owning Yars’ Revenge, Missile Command, and Berzerk as well as Combat, Asteroids, and Frogger, so we did have some of the best the system had to offer.)

The thing about the 2600 was that it had about the barest minimum power beneath its woodgrained hood to represent games more graphically sophisticated than Pong. This had a twofold effect: the games were detailed enough to accurately represent most arcade games of the era, but there was a huge amount of abstraction and imagination required, and this was (and still is) hammered home by the elaborate box/cartridge/manual art and inordinately detailed stories in the game manuals (Star Raiders even came with a comic book!). However, the concept of renting video games simply did not exist, so unless you owned it, or it was at, say, a babysitter’s house, you were stuck with what you had. This meant that you had to choose wisely, or be forced to make the best of a horrible experience. Luckily, as a consequence of getting the system in 1984, we avoided even the chance of buying games from the worst of publishers (however, we were also unable to buy games from Activision and Imagic, the two best publishers), so the games we did buy were of generally good quality.

And, with the exception of the occasional visit to arcades, a number of brief encounters with the Intellivision, and a certain other system that we’ll eventually get to, the Atari 2600 was the entirety of my video gaming experience in the ’80s. And you know what? Despite missing out on some games, I had a lot of fun with the 2600. But when we get to that other system, the Atari will pale in comparison.

Next week, we say goodbye to 1965 and 2015 with one of the most popular film franchises of the ’60s.

Guardians of Forever: The (Guest) Stars of “Where No Man Has Gone Before”

As with “The Cage”, “Where No Man Has Gone Before” featured a number of performers who would not carry over to the regular series. And as with the previous post for “The Cage”, now is as good a time as any to discuss these actors.

To play the role of the Enterprise‘s helmsman, Gary Mitchell, Gene Roddenberry wanted the former star of The Lieutenant, Gary Lockwood. Joe D’Agosta, having cast Lockwood on that show, and Jame Goldstone, having directed Lockwood before (including on The Lieutenant) heartily agreed. However, there was a problem: Lockwood had been cast in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, with the promise of lead guest star billing (and its guarantee of a cool $5,000) and the guarantee that the shooting of the pilot would not interfere with his role in 2001, Lockwood signed on. (Ultimately, 2001 would not begin shooting until December 29th of that year, some five and a half months after Lockwood appeared on Star Trek.)

The other credited guest star was Sally Kellerman as Dr. Dehner. Now best remembered for originating the role of “Hot Lips” Houlihan in the film version of M*A*S*H, Kellerman was, at the time, a busy guest performer on many shows of the era, which most crucially (at least in terms of being recognized by the Star Trek staff) included two appearances on The Outer Limits. In retrospect, however, signing Kellerman to appear in “Where No Man Has Gone Before” seems like an even bigger “get” for the show than the casting of Gary Lockwood.

A new ship’s doctor was needed, and again, there was a bit of a fight over who would play the part. Once again, Gene Roddenberry wanted DeForest Kelley, and as before, he was convinced otherwise, and Paul Fix was selected to play Dr. Piper. Fix, who served in the Navy in the first World War before getting into acting, was one of the best, and most prolific, character actors of his day, and was famous for being the “third shirt” on The Rifleman as Marshal Micah Torrence. Being billed third was so familiar for Fix that he even wrote a book about his experiences, titled Third Man Through the Door. (This book was what caused Malachi Throne to turn down an offer to play Dr. Boyce in “The Cage”, opting instead to voice The Keeper.)

Playing the navigator, Lieutenant Lee Kelso, was another prolific character, Paul Carr. Over his long career, Carr played on westerns, soap operas, cop shows, and just about every other genre, often appearing in multiple episodes of shows as different characters. However, Star Trek was “the one that got away” for Carr, as he enjoyed his time on the show immensely, and like George Takei, he was convinced that the show was going to be a huge success. In fact, when he performed non-union voice work for Trigun and Cowboy Bebop, Carr was billed as…..Lee Kelso.

Model Andrea Dromm was tapped to play Yeoman Smith in what would be the first of only three full-fledged acting jobs after having become famous for a National Airlines commercial (not the same company as the one operating today, it should be noted). The role was tiny, with no room for even an accomplished actress to succeed (and Dromm was not accomplished, and never took to Hollywood). One of Herb Solow’s more salacious (and, if I’m being honest, downright dubious) accusations was that James Goldstone had been told by Roddenberry that Dromm got the job because he was looking to score with her. (Solow also claimed that Roddenberry was unsuccessful; in the one modern interview she gave, Dromm knew nothing about this story, and considered Roddenberry to have been pleasant to her.)

Rounding out the cast was Lloyd Haynes as Lieutenant Alden, the Enterprise‘s communications officer. At the time, Haynes was just starting out on a successful acting career, having left the Marines, where he served during the Korean War. (Haynes would later serve as a public-affairs officer for the Navy Reserve.) If we’re being honest, Haynes made even less of an impression than Dromm with an equally tiny role, but let’s be clear, I’m a heterosexual male, so there’s a bias in play. 😉 But choosing a black man to serve as the “voice” of the Enterprise sent a message that should not be underestimated.

Next week, it’s almost Christmas, so we’ll be taking yet another trip to the ’80s to discuss one of my more memorable Christmas presents.

Assignment: 1965: A Charlie Brown Christmas

It’s December 9th, 1965, and a lot is going on. On the 3rd, the Beatles released Rubber Soul while future Gold Medal-winning figure skater Katarina Witt was born in Staaken, East Germany while Philadelphia 76ers co-owner Ike Richman died of a heart attack while watching his team play the Boston Celtics at Boston Garden. The next day, Gemini 7 launches while Ken Kesey stages his second Acid Test, featuring the debut of a band called the Grateful Dead. Also, “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is A Season)” by the Byrds hits #1 on the charts for the first of three weeks. The song becomes a symbol of both the growing anti-war movement and the popularity of folk rock. And on CBS, it’s time for one of the most beloved half hours in television history: A Charlie Brown Christmas.

By the start of the ’60s Charles Schulz’s comic strip Peanuts was beginning to become incredibly popular. As a result, producer Lee Mendelson proposed (and produced, on spec) a documentary special on the strip and Schulz himself. The special, which featured a small amount of animation by veteran animation Bill Meléndez (who had previously provided animation of the characters for an advertisement for Ford), was not picked up, but Coca-Cola was interested enough to back a Christmas special. However, upon being picked up by CBS, Meléndez received a paltry $76,000 budget (or a little bit shy of $574,000 when adjusted for inflation) and six months to complete it.

The resulting special has a sparse and decidedly imperfect look to it. Besides being animated “on twos” (with every frame of animation repeated so that only 12 frames per second were needed), there are loads of inconsistencies and errors, as well as multiple bits of repeated animation and even shots where characters stand against blank backgrounds. Moreover, the pace of the production is somber and slow, which is only emphasized by the score by Vince Guaraldi, which is jazzy and somber all at the same time. Lastly, its centerpiece moment, where Linus explains the true meaning of Christmas, was a hard sell at CBS:

Things looked so dire, that when screening the special after it was completed, mere days before airing, Meléndez remarked, “My golly, we’ve killed it.” Mendelson was also convinced that the special was a bust, and the CBS executives he screened the special for were also less than enthused. However, when it did air, something amazing happened:

It was a smashing success.

45% of all households watching TV that night were tuned in, enough to outrank all programs that week except Bonanza. It was also a runaway critical success, and CBS immediately commissioned four more Peanuts specials. It won an Emmy and a Peabody Award, and has since become a national institution. But perhaps most importantly, it not only shattered support for aluminum Christmas trees, it took a brave and important stand against the commercialization of the holiday (which has sadly only gotten worse in the intervening five decades). It is sad, funny, heartwarming, and most of all, wonderfully entertaining, and worthy of the great acclaim it has received.

Next week, much as with “The Cage”, we’re going to look at the people who made their only journey on the Enterprise with “Where No Man Has Gone Before”.

Mirror, Mirror: Ghostbusters

There are two rather strange trends about the ’80s that only added to the wonderfully strange culture of the time: The Adult Franchise Marketed Towards Kids and The Franchise That Shouldn’t Be. The former is an almost natural outgrowth of the Reagan era, where an America seemingly obsessed with traditional values consistently sold them out for a quick buck. The latter is a product of a string of surprising hits that, if they didn’t get a sequel, were the subject of years of rumors about one. Neither trend is particularly rare these days, in part because it actually paid off pretty well in the ’80s (I’ll spare you a full accounting).

The most famous intersection of these two trends is Ghostbusters, which if you haven’t heard, is being revived after years of rumors and discussion. And, as has been the case for much of the franchise’s history, Ghostbusters is changing into something significantly different from what it previously was, and certainly from what it has been perceived to be. The main reason, of course, is because the people involved with the new Ghostbusters are different from previous production crews, and more importantly, they have a much different agenda in mind (besides the all-consuming Search For More Money). But, if we’re being honest, this is the curse of The Franchise That Shouldn’t Be: the franchise was only intended to be one movie, but when it goes beyond that one film, the integrity of the one film’s world runs a very real risk of being compromised.

With Ghostbusters, this process happened before the film was even made. Firstly, Dan Aykroyd’s initial idea included some wild elements like time travel and tons of huge ghosts, which Ivan Reitman suggested was wildly impractical, leading to the working class feel that the movie has. In regards to the casting, Aykroyd envisioned roles for himself, Harold Ramis (with whom he wrote the final script), John Belushi, Eddie Murphy, John Candy, and Paul Reubens. Most of these plans never came to fruition: Belushi died, Murphy had a prior commitment to Beverly Hills Cop, Candy eventually passed for reasons that remain murky, and Reubens was jettisoned in favor of model/actress Slavitza Jovan. Instead, Bill Murray, Ernie Hudson, and Rick Moranis were cast.

These changes didn’t just work, they helped to make the film a smashing success. And with a strong score by Elmer Bernstein, the iconic title song by Ray Parker, Jr., and some absolutely superb special effects, there was plenty of praise to be had. And there was plenty of merchandising that popped up in response to the immense success of Ghostnusters (helped massively by the superb logo). However…..there was a problem.

During production, Columbia’s lawyers discovered (read: were threatened with a lawsuit) that Filmation had produced a live-action TV show named The Ghost Busters in the ’70s. Alternate titles were mooted, but everyone directly involved with the film demanded it after seeing dailies of a large crowd of extras shouting “Ghostbusters” repeatedly. So, a deal was struck (which involved Columbia pretty much completely screwing over Filmation), and the name struck. But when it came time to make Ghostbusters The Adult Franchise Marketed Towards Kids, things got ugly once more.

While Filmation had not secured a guarantee that they would be the studio to make a cartoon based on the movie, they did negotiate with Columbia. But Columbia wanted nothing to do with Filmation, and secured a deal with DiC to produce a cartoon that would air both on ABC and in syndication. So, Filmation decided to produce a sequel series to The Ghost Busters, titling it Ghostbusters. And DiC (which was in the process of being sold to Andy Heyward at the time) retaliated by naming their show The Real Ghostbusters. It was undeniably childish, especially since DiC had the advantage: their show was on network TV a full year before having to brave the wilderness of syndication. With that exposure, DiC was almost assured of victory, even without the saturation of syndicated cartoons by 1986 (which was greatly exacerbated by DiC). It’s a particular shame as Ghostbusters is a fairly entertaining cartoon, albeit a bit more hampered by Filmation’s stock system than the studio’s other shows of the decade. Of course, The Real Ghostbusters was a bit more than “fairly entertaining”…..it was an instant classic.

A key issue with The Adult Franchise Marketed Towards Kids is that it gets massively dumbed down as a result of its newfound popularity with children. And with Ghostbusters the movie, this was an acute issue: our heroes smoke, drink, and swear casually, Peter Venkman is a blatant womanizer, some of the ghost designs are rather graphic, and a key plot point hinges on a pretty blatant metaphor for sex. And while The Real Ghostbusters smoothes away most of these rough edges, the series is anything but dumbed down, especially in the syndicated episodes. Venkman is still a bit of a lech at times and the ghosts (especially in the syndicated episodes) are pretty horrific, and Shuki Levy’s score largely ignores the playful elements of Elmer Bernstein’s movie score for something much darker and moodier, even when taking into account the occasional songs from a Haim Saban-backed group named Tahiti. (Levy scoring for The Real Ghostbusters ended his and Saban’s relationship with Filmation, which was strained pretty much from the start since Saban had Levy scoring for every studio that would accept his terms.)

The problem is, once the first season for ABC and the one-and-only syndicated season was completed, ABC decided to hire consultants to take a look at all of their Saturday morning shows, and The Real Ghostbusters never recovered. Besides declaring that the horror elements be curbed, these consultants decided that Slimer, the first ghost busted in the movie (who became a sort of pet in the cartoon), needed to be brought into the spotlight, as well as fostering the creation of the “Junior Ghostbusters”, or children that help the cast bust ghosts. All six lead characters were fit into more strictly defined roles, but Winston, the black man, was, in a patently racist move, became the driver and mechanic of Ecto-1 (roles that had previously been assigned to Ray). And Janine…..poor Janine. While none of the character designs were particularly consistent with the appearances of their actors from the movie, Janine was one of the biggest deviations visually, as she was now a redhead with a wild hairstyle, pointy glasses, and typically seen wearing a tank top, miniskirt, and heels. But her voice, as provided by Laura Summer, was a dead ringer for that of Annie Potts, and the characterization was consistent with the film, right down to her unrequited interest in bookish brainiac Egon. The consultants completely nerfed the character, forcing a total redesign and recasting to make her more motherly.

J. Michael Straczynski (yes, that one), having written for the show’s first 78 episodes (including serving as story editor for the syndicated run) left in protest of the onerous changes, and was eventually proven right, as ratings were never again the same. Coupled with the recasting of Peter Venkman from Lorenzo Music (famous as the voice of Carlton the doorman on Rhoda as well as Garfield) to Dave Coulier in an attempt to placate Bill Murray (who was the main obstacle towards making a live-action sequel), the show had its heart ripped out, and even a brief return by Straczynski to right the ship (which was swiftly reversed) couldn’t help the show. Worse, Ghostbusters II was made during this period, and was far from successful. Taking its cues from the later seasons of the cartoon (while also taking care to negate the Egon/Janine romance, which Harold Ramis was not a fan of), the movie was safe, unfunny, and disappointing. (It also suffered from Murray being visibly disinterested.) And after these disappointments, the franchise faded away.

That is, until Extreme Ghostbusters. Serving as a sequel to The Real Ghostbusters, the show was a bit of a tough pill to swallow at the time, as it explicitly ages the original cast (though Egon’s stated age is ironically the same as Harold Ramis’ when the first movie was released). The thing is….it’s actually a pretty decent show. It’s painfully late ’90s in its naming, cast makeup (the new Ghostbusters consist of a goth girl, a wheelchair guy with a decidedly awesome first name, a skeezy Latino, and a straight-edged black guy), animation (it’s done by the same people responsible for the late ’90s GodzillaMen in Black, and Jackie Chan Adventures cartoons, and has the same oddly bland color palette and character design), use of CGI, and darker tone. But it understands where The Real Ghostbusters went wrong, and cares about its legacy. The problem was that it was a syndicated show right as the market for syndicated cartoons was dying its final death, and it didn’t have the entire original cast-just Egon, Janine, and Slimer.

As unsuccessful as Extreme Ghostbusters was, it did prove that there was some life in the concept, but with that it needed the original cast. But Bill Murray, who was and is the biggest star of the core Ghostbusters cast (as the cartoons proved, Sigourney Weaver and the character of Dana Barrett were not an integral part of the franchise’s success), still held out, and it wasn’t until Harold Ramis died that hopes of a true sequel were finally laid to rest. Now we have the well-intentioned if dubious in application all-female reboot (which seems to operate on the principle that the franchise lacks strong female characters when Janine and Kylie prove this to be a false statement) and a much more dubiously-intentioned “traditional” male Ghostbusters movie. Without getting into the SJW/Gamer Gate debate (which I’m not only completely over, but I know for a fact would end badly, even if my rant on Willow’s sexuality has actually been well received when I was certain that it’d end badly), it seems like The Franchise That Shouldn’t Be is taking a turn towards a desperate ploy for attention (especially in light of Extreme Ghostbusters‘ rather understated and natural move towards equality). And considering all that it has survived with a staggering amount of its integrity intact, it would be a shame if Ghostbusters got derailed trying to play both sides of a messy, misguided political debate.

Next week, it’s back to 1965, and one of the most popular TV specials of all time.