Guardians of Forever: Roger C. Carmel and The Westheimer Company

With the breakdown of Darrell Anderson and the delays with the special effects for “The Corbomite Maneuver”, Star Trek had no other choice but to hire additional firms to get the show ready to make its September 8th premiere date. The first of these was The Westheimer Company, named after and run by Joseph Westheimer. Westheimer, who had started working in the film industry at 15 for Warner Bros. (first as a messenger and then later on in the prop department), joined the visual effects department after getting his degree in electrical engineering for Caltech (California Institute of Technology). Working under Byron Haskin, Westheimer worked on various films (including various World War II propaganda films) until striking out on his own in 1955.

As I mentioned very early in this blog series, records of who worked on what are hard to come by in visual effects, but one project in certain in Wesheimer’s CV: The Twilight Zone. That series featured a variety of special effects, many of them utilizing space footage that was certainly shot by The Westheimer Company. So, with that history alone, they were certain to be able to help Star Trek get back on track. But there was something else that Westheimer had: two up-and-coming employees, Joseph M. Wilcots and Richard Edlund. The former had an Emmy nomination and an impressive career as a cinematographer (mostly outside the realm of special effects), and the latter has since become a living legend in the world of visual effects, with multiple Oscars, Emmys, Saturn Awards, and BAFTAs to his credit (among many, many others). And they working on Star Trek, with no time and on a shoestring ’60s TV budget.


For an actor in television, job stability is the whitest of whales for an actor. Instead of auditioning for dozens of roles to get one guest starring role, you’re able to make a steady wage working long, hard hours. Worse, if you aren’t known for something, you need to look, speak, or act uniquely enough so that casting directors will take a chance on you. Luckily for Roger C. Carmel, he possessed all of these qualities. Born in Brooklyn on September 27th, 1932, Carmel broke into acting in Hollywood in 1958, and by the ’60s was a regular face on television. With his distinctive voice and handlebar mustache, Carmel was instantly recognizable, often playing rogues and villains (and, in a sign of how backwards Hollywood was at the time, those characters were frequently “ethnic”). But with Star Trek, Carmel received his first taste of lasting notoriety. Harry Mudd would be the only non-Starfleet character to appear more than once, and Carmel would be one of the few guest actors to return to voice his character on the Filmation series. Furthermore, Harry Mudd has appeared repeatedly in various spin-off media, and was even considered for a return appearance in Star Trek IV. Much of this great success rests squarely on the shoulders of Roger C. Carmel.

But for me, as a child of the ’80s, Harry Mudd is far from the only thing Roger C. Carmel appeared in that I grew up with. He made a memorable appearance during Batman‘s second season as Colonel Gumm, the villain for the crossover episodes with The Green Hornet. (Carmel’s role is perhaps best known now as being one of the few Batman villains whose likeness rights were not acquired in the licensing deal which pre-dated the show’s long-awaited arrival on home video.) Additionally, Carmel scored a contract to voice Smokey Bear in the infamous series of public service commercials, a role he shared with multiple actors into the ’80s, which kept him busy as acting gigs began to dwindle. On top of that, Carmel forged a highly successful voice acting career in 1985, voicing Motormaster, Bruticus, Cyclonus, and the Quintesson Face of Laughter on The Transformers (among many others) and Sir Tuxford on Gummi Bears. However, this promising new avenue, plus the massive success in commercials for Naugles (a chain of Mexican fast-food restaurants on the West Coast) were cut short when Carmel died in 1986 due to heart failure stemming from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. He was only 54 years old.

Next time:

These Are The Voyages: “The Corbomite Maneuver”

Written by: Jerry Sohl

Directed by: Joseph Sargent

Production code: 6149-3

Principal photography: May 24th, 1966-June 2nd, 1966 (6 1/2 days)

Score: Fred Steiner (partial; recorded September 20th, 1966); also uses material composed by Sol Kaplan (from “The Enemy Within”), Steiner (from “Balance of Terror” and “Charlie X”), and Alexander Courage (from “The Man Trap”, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, and “The Naked Time”)

Final episode cost: $190,430 (approximately $1,416,693 in 2016 when adjusted for inflation)

First Aired: November 10th, 1966

Initial Nielson Ratings: 15.9 Rating/25.9% share (first half hour-third place), 16.4/25.9% (second half hour-third place)

The Enterprise is engaged in a routine star-mapping operation (much to the consternation of ship’s navigator Dave Bailey) when it encounters a giant glowing cube, which blocks the ship’s path. As the Enterprise slows to a dead stop, Mr. Spock orders a Condition Alert, and has Mr. Sulu summon Captain Kirk to the bridge.

“Captain’s Log, Stardate 1512.2. On our third day of star-mapping, an unexplained cubical object blocked our vessel’s path. On the bridge, Mr. Spock immediately ordered general alert. My location: sickbay. Quarterly physical check.”

Dr. McCoy continues running Kirk through his paces, even as he notices the Red Alert lights flashing, much to the captain’s annoyance when the physical is completed. After speaking with Spock, Kirk heads to the bridge, but decides to change instead after determining through his first officer that the threat is not immediate. After scolding Mr. Bailey for being inefficient, Spock further confirms with Kirk that the cube has no life forms aboard, and that attempts have been made to contact it. Upon arriving, Kirk receives reports on the size, distance, and shape of the object from Bailey, Sulu, Mr. Scott, and McCoy, but none on how it works and of its purpose. The navigator declares that they should blast it with their phasers, which Kirk soundly rejects.

“Captain’s Log, Stardate 1513.8. Star maps reveal no indication of habitable planets nearby. Origin and purpose of the cube still unknown. We have been held here, motionless, for 18 hours.”

In the briefing room, the staff labors over the cube, coffee cups in hand, as Spock announces that the cube is either a space buoy……or fly paper. Understanding that the time for action has come, Kirk begins to issue an order to Mr. Bailey, who misinterprets it as a sign that his earlier suggestion will be followed. Instead, the captain orders that a spiral course away from the cube be plotted. On the bridge, the cube continues to block their way, and begins emitting radiation. After the Enterprise stops, the cube closes in and the radiation increases, leading Kirk to order the ship to retreat, at increasing speeds. The cube still closes in, at which point Kirk orders Bailey to fire phasers. The navigator freezes momentarily, but he does indeed fire, and the cube explodes in a great cataclysm.

“Captain’s Log, Stardate 1514.0. The cube has been destroyed. Ship’s damage: minor. But my next decision: major. Probe on ahead, or turn back?”

Kirk asks Spock to speculate on what they’ll find if they continue on, and the science officer declares that they’ll likely find something not only different from them, but superior, as well. Spock points out that it’s inefficient for the captain to ask his advice when he knows what he’s going to do, but Kirk merely admits that it provides him with comfort. With their course plotted and laid in, Kirk orders a series of simulations to improve the crew’s efficiency right as McCoy arrives. The doctor leaves the bridge with the captain, and proceeds to question his timing, and of the promotion of Bailey, who might be a bit green….but also similar to how Kirk was in his younger days. In Kirk’s quarters, the two share a drink as the simulation is completed. Kirk orders another round to increase the crew’s efficiency (to which Spock agrees) when Yeoman Rand arrives (to the captain’s annoyance) with his dinner…..a dietary salad (to the captain’s even greater annoyance). Shooing away his yeoman as she hovers over him, Kirk complains about having a female yeoman after she leaves, only to be teased by McCoy. However, the ship encounters a bigger object than the cube, and Kirk rushes to the bridge. Once there, Kirk receives a report just before the entire ship is shook by a tractor beam as the object, a huge, glowing sphere. Bailey is too stunned to answer Kirk’s request to see the entire ship, and is covered for hastily by Sulu. Uhura tries to contact the ship, and receives to apparent reply…..until Bailey picks up the answer over his navigation beam. The commander of the vessel, Balok, announces that his vessel, the Fesarius, has come in the name of the First Federation to deal with them for trespassing and destroying a warning buoy (the cube). Kirk tries to answer, but Balok probes the Enterprise with a sensor beam instead, and warns that any action will lead to their destruction. Kirk orders Bailey to launch a recorder/marker, and again the navigator freezes before complying. The device is swiftly destroyed, and Balok announces that he is giving the Enterprise 10 minutes before he destroys them. McCoy and Scotty arrive on the bridge, and the former informs Kirk that the entire crew heard the message. As the captain addresses the entire crew in an effort to ease their fears, Bailey wavers. Kirk then tells Balok that he intends to turn back, and Bailey freezes-again-but it’s of no use: Balok has the ship firmly in his grasp. Spock is able to pull up a visual from inside the Fesarius, revealing Balok’s fearful appearance to the bridge crew. After listening to Balok’s threats and notification that there are 8 minutes left, Bailey has a full-on meltdown and is escorted to his quarters by McCoy. Kirk attempts to reason with Balok, but is told that the ship has 7 minutes remaining. Three minutes pass, when Spock mentions chess, and specifically checkmate moments before McCoy returns to criticize Kirk for how he has handled Bailey, causing the captain to blow his stack and call the doctor on his bluff…..just as Balok announces that there are 3 minutes left. And then it finally hits Kirk: the game is not chess. It’s poker. Emboldened, the captain hails Balok and informs him that the Enterprise is built using a material called corbomite, which will destroy any attacking ship will even greater force than was unleashed upon it in the first place. To further sell the bluff, Kirk taunts Balok, but receives no reply, except for the announcement that there is 1 minute left. Bailey returns, hat in hand, and is welcomed back to his post moments before the countdown ends…..with no action by the Fesarius. After nearly a full minute, Balok replies that the destruction has been delayed pending further information on the corbomite (which Kirk refuses). Then, a smaller ship breaks off from the Fesarius, and Balok informs the Enterprise crew that they shall be taken to a planet and interned and their ship destroyed, before he activates a tractor beam, taking the Enterprise in tow.

“Captain’s Log, Stardate 1514.1. The Enterprise is in tow. To this point, no resistance has been offered. My plan: a show of resignation. Balok’s tractor beam has to be a heavy drain of power on the small ship. Question: will he grow careless?”

Eventually, Balok eases off on both his ship’s power and the tractor beam, and Kirk pounces, ordering the Enterprise to break free. After a tense struggle that pushes the Enterprise to the brink of explosion, the tractor beam has broken. Balok’s ship, however, is in dire straits, as Uhura picks up a faint distress signal. Kirk, still attempting to open diplomatic relations, goes back to aid Balok, bringing along Dr. McCoy and Lt. Bailey. Once aboard, they find Balok…..both the puppet that had threatened him, and a small, smiling humanoid, who offers them a drink of tranya, much to the astonishment of the landing party. The entire affair has been a ruse by Balok, who was testing the Enterprise crew. But Balok is alone on his ship, and suggests that someone from Kirk’s crew stay aboard, as a form of cultural exchange. Bailey leaps at the chance, while freely admitting to his own imperfections, and Captain Kirk slyly notes that he’ll be getting a better officer in return once the exchange has ended. Balok laughs heartily at Kirk’s joke, and then proceeds to give a tour of his vessel.


Despite having two chances to nail down the show’s look and format, “The Corbomite Maneuver” is an incredibly primitive hour of Star Trek in its presentation. There’s a bit more exposition than would become normal for the series, and the plot develops at a far more leisurely pace (which is probably why NBC never wanted it to be the first aired episode of the series). Despite Jerry Finnerman’s camera work being mostly consistent with his later work, the vintage of this episode is glaringly obvious because the uniforms are almost appallingly unrefined: the zippers and seams of the uniforms are very visible (with some of them being retrofitted “Where No Man Has Gone Before” uniforms) and quite ill-fitting (likely because they’re too big, so as to extend their usable lives, as the velour shrunk after being cleaned per union rules). Also, Spock’s uniform has a higher collar for some reason, and Uhura is dressed in command gold (and her outfit is the worst fit of all, owing to Nichelle Nichols’ last-minute casting).

Characters are also quite unrefined, particularly Dr. McCoy, who, as I inferred when I reviewed the first episode of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe over a decade ago, is far more hostile in his demeanor than in any other episode, and for seemingly no reason as there’s not much in the script that’s inconsistent with the McCoy we know and love (with the bit where the good doctor talks to himself eventually resurfacing in Star Trek V to great comedic effect). Spock also suffers from growing pains, which is not helped by his running training drills, interactions with Lt. Bailey (which are more in character for Commander Tuvok’s interactions with Neelix and Tom Paris on Voyager, frankly), and some curious camera angles that Finnerman would never again attempt. Perhaps oddest of all is Spock’s comparison of Balok to his father, which comes along with something of a smirk. Yeoman Rand fares even worse, as she is little more than a waitress, serving Kirk a dietary salad and then, much later, coffee to the entire bridge crew (which she gamely admits she heated using a phaser). A deleted scene was filmed (but has not been discovered) that features Rand laying out a uniform for Kirk (probably to have taken place during the first act) and that’s probably even worse. Granted, yeomans on Star Trek have a rather nebulous function compared to naval yeomans (who do mostly clerical work), but that deleted scene veers a bit too much into Crazy Ex-Girlfriend territory (but minus the songs and fun self-awareness). Oddly, given our shipper-crazy world of television today, it was NBC who demanded the scene be excised, as they were tetchy about the captain flirting with a subordinate in a microskirt.

Also unrefined beyond the characters are some of the camera angles. While part of this involves a sequence that essentially establishes the layout of Stage 9’s corridor set (which includes sickbay and Kirk’s quarters) and the aforementioned strangely composed shots with Spock, we also have a brief overhead shot which on its own possibly accounts for the half day over the episode went. (And if not for Sargent being a highly in-demand director with an Emmy in his future, I’d argue that this was what sunk any future chances of him directing for the series.) Furthermore, in some of the crew shots (which were clearly created with stock footage in mind), there is a crewman wearing what appears to be a mundane 1960s radiation vest. Another features Eddie Paskey in a gold uniform right in the center of the frame (and appears directly after a shot where Paskey, as Lt. Leslie, is seated at his usual bridge station).

But even with these lengthy statements of what isn’t refined, there is much that is on point. The effects, which are spectacular (and well they should be, given how late they were), also belie the patchwork nature of Enterprise footage from here on out: the opening shot is from “The Cage”, for instance, and sticks out like a sore thumb with its prominent, moving stars and unlit ship model. The music, which in addition to being a partial score, features multiple cues from later episodes, and this is the first episode to feature Steiner’s revised “cello” version of the opening theme song. (Courage’s rarer, “electric violin” version, while mostly restored to the episodes they aired on these days, was scrubbed from the syndicated prints I grew up on.) And while the performances are rough, there are many touches in the episode (most introduced in Gene Roddenberry’s revisions to Jerry Sohl’s script, but some at the behest of Joseph Sargent) that ring true for these characters: in particular, the discussion of chess and poker are defining moments for Kirk and Spock: naturally, Spock is an expert and enthusiast of chess, a logical game with predictable, proven strategies (and predictable, proven outcomes), while Kirk appreciates poker, which values instinct, skill, and perhaps most importantly for this series, the ability to be a bullshit artist bluffing. Not only does it get him out of danger, we see Kirk doing the same with Bailey: here is a slightly green officer with whom the captain relates (as McCoy astutely surmises) and sees a world of potential in. And while the gamble initially fails miserably, it pays off even greater in the end, just like the corbomite gambit.

The deliberate pace of this episode (which was mandated by Roddenberry, even as Stan Robertson, in the first of many memos that would make more sense coming from a modern network executive, demanded that the episode progress at a greater pace) is key to its success, with a real-time 10-minute countdown (which includes and accounts for a commercial break, predicting 24‘s primary conceit by some 4 decades) as its centerpiece. Credit must go to Anthony Call for his performance as Lt. Bailey, as he looks utterly out of his depth when the cube begins to spew radiation, and even moreso when the Fesarius arrives. Best of all is Bailey’s meltdown, which is as much about Kirk’s mistake in rushing him through the ranks as it is about Bailey not being ready for the pressure of being a bridge officer. And, in classic Roddenberry fashion, this imperfect, green officer is chosen to represent humanity because humanity’s flaws are just as important as their achievements.

However, the truest and most memorable part of this episode is Balok, whom is presented to us as a truly fearsome adversary for most of the episode until the final moments, in a twist worthy of a veteran Twilight Zone writer like Jerry Sohl (who had written three episodes of the series for Charles Beaumont as the legendary writer fell victim to what is now acknowledged as a severe case of bromide poisoning). However, this twist was introduced by Roddenberry, but Sohl introduced the concept of Balok’s initial, sinister appearance being a puppet. Besides providing one of the iconic end credits images (Balok would appear in the end credits of this, and many other episodes, eventually settling as the image seen during Desilu’s and Herb Solow’s credits during the second season), the Balok puppet is on its face one of the more obvious reveals in the entire series. As the show has been restored and remastered over the years, it has become increasingly obvious (even with the superb water-like distortion effect) that the Balok puppet is just that. But luckily, the twist is still out of left field, as Balok really resembles a child. And moreover, the child in this instance is Clint Howard, who is as known for looking odd as he is for being Ron Howard’s brother. But since a little kid’s voice is neither threatening (for the puppet) or authoritative (for the man), voice actors were employed. And Star Trek hit a home run.

For the sinister puppet Balok, Ted Cassidy, infamous as Lurch on The Addams Family, was cast in the wake of his appearance in “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” It was basically kismet in this instance, as Cassidy had just begun a fruitful career in voice acting, starring in Hanna-Barbera’s Frankenstein Jr. and the Impossibles and voicing two of Space Ghost’s nemeses, Metallus and Moltar. Cassidy’s voice acting career was loaded with phenomenal successes, and Balok is no different. For the unmasked Balok, character actor Walker Edmiston was chosen. At the time, Edmiston was best known in the LA area as a children’s TV show host, but just like Ted Cassidy, he was far more familiar to me in the ’80s for his voice work: he voiced some of his most prominent roles right around the time I first started watching Star Trek, namely Inferno on The Transformers, Harvey Gabor on Jem, and briefly assuming the role of Ludwig von Drake for Disney.

I didn’t recognize the connection.

But Edmiston’s take on Balok is everything that Cassidy’s isn’t, and helps greatly to send the episode off on a happy and positive note. (He even covers expertly for Clint Howard, who furiously overacted his reaction to the tranya because he absolutely hated pink grapefruit juice, which was chosen for the occasion.) We quickly believe that Balok is a good man, and much of this is because of Edmiston’s warm, disarming portrayal.

Next time, we’ll introduce one of Star Trek‘s great scoundrels….and one of the studios that helped the show’s special effects get back on track.

What Have We Learned, Tara?: The Ongoing Problem Of LGBT Representation In Media

Yesterday, March 10th, was the 19th anniversary of the premiere of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which was noted in fan circles and by Sarah Michelle Gellar herself in an appreciative message across her social media accounts (alongside an image of her from the Season 1 promo photo shoot in that truly hideous beige dress). I’ll admit that the 19th anniversary isn’t that big of an issue for me: besides the 20th being a nice, round number, next year is also the 15th Anniversary of me first watching the show. But, later that evening, I stumbled upon a trending topic on Twitter that dovetailed with my previous blog post on Willow’s sexuality: LGBT Fans Deserve Better. And after clicking on the link, my heart quickly sank:

It happened again.

“It” being the death of a popular gay character on a show (this time it was The 100, which I don’t watch) in tragic fashion. And worse, fans were so distraught that a fundraiser for The Trevor Project (an absolutely wonderful charity that I wish that we didn’t need) in the name of helping people who might be feeling suicidal.

It hurt to read that, and it hurts even worse to write it.

And then I see that The 100‘s showrunner has been less than responsive to the death of this character, Lexa.

My heart sank again.

Haven’t we as a culture learned anything? Representation on television matters. Heroes matter. If there’s anything-and I mean ANYTHING-we should have learned from Tara’s death all those years ago is that no matter how well plotted or conceived a character death is, there are repercussions, and they are ugly, and they are horrible, and they hurt. One of my favorite quotes from G.I. Joe‘s biting satire of ’80s TV, “The Wrong Stuff”, is when Cobra Commander says, “You lack imagination, Destro. We possess the ultimate weapon of control! People trust television; it’s their friend. They believe what television tells them about the news, the weather, or G.I. Joe! Don’t you see? We control the creation of truth!” It is of course one of the many chillingly accurate points in an episode of television that skewers its own medium with some brilliant black comedy, but there is an incredible positive side to this point: people who are not a part of the cultural majority have long been humanized by television, and Ellen DeGeneres coming out of the closet in such an open and honest way paved the way for the incredible strides that LGBT people have made since 1997. The year before, Congress passed DOMA, The Defense of Marriage Act, one of the most vile pieces of legislation of my lifetime. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was still a relatively new policy for our nation’s military, which forced gays and lesbians serving our country into the closet. Now, DOMA has been ruled Unconstitutional, and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is deader than disco, and we have Ellen DeGeneres and the ensuing flood of fictional LGBT characters to thank for this. But even then, we’re still making the same mistakes and giving voice to the same damaging stereotypes like the Dead Lesbian and the Evil Lesbian.

Worse, the character of Lexa was killed off because her actress, Alycia Debnam-Carey, is fully committed to Fear the Walking Dead, which is expanding past its initial six-episode season (Season 2 will be 15 episodes). The thing is, on Fear the Walking Dead, like its parent show, characters are never safe. It’s highly conceivable that Debnam-Carey’s character dies within a year or so, freeing her up to return on The 100. (this naturally ignores the reality that it’s possible to write off a character without killing them off.) This is just painfully sloppy, especially in comparison to Tara’s death, which was the culmination of a storyline that pre-dated Amber Benson’s incredibly fortuitous casting in the wake of Seth Green’s abrupt departure in Season 4.

In this way, I fear we may have regressed in how LGBT characters are represented.

I had made my comment on Twitter, and was beginning to move on with a heavy heart until Emma Caulfield (who played Anya on Buffy and is all kinds of awesome besides) posted a link to a post on The Mary Sue about the entire situation (it’s here, and the writer, Teresa Jusino, did a far better job breaking down the issue than I’m doing), which did nothing to make me feel better. In fact, with one paragraph, she made me feel literally sick to my stomach:

“Fans often cited a similarity between Lexa’s death and Tara’s death on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In that case, too, the ‘real’ lesbian was mourned while the queer girl who’d previously had a long-term relationship with a guy didn’t get as much attention – that is, until she kept asserting on the show over and over that she was indeed a lesbian, and that her relationship with Oz was a fluke.”

Why?

WHY?!

It sounded like something from my rant on Willow’s sexuality, and it made me realize that no one is right here. It’s all just a giant disaster, and it breaks my heart for everyone making The 100, for the fans distraught over the death of their favorite character, for the bi fans who are being subtly thrown under the bus again, and for everyone else, because this makes us all smaller and pushes us further apart. The worst part is knowing that I don’t know how to help at all, and I desperately want to be able to wave a wand and make it so that everything and everyone understands that love is love is love, and that things like the death of Tara, or Lexa, or whoever on a show doesn’t leave viewers feeling like they don’t matter.

I wish it was that easy.

Mirror, Mirror: Spider-Man And His Amazing Friends And The Incredible Hulk

In true internet fashion, the separate intros are in awful shape or time-compressed.

Despite having a longer and more extensive history with the characters of DC Comics, I consider myself to be more of a Marvel Comics fan. A lot of this is because famed Marvel writers like Steve Gerber, Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas, and Marv Wolfman wrote extensively for animation in the ’80s. But an even bigger reason is because Marvel Productions, the animation studio owned by Marvel Comics, was responsible for a lot of the most popular cartoons of the time. And I’ve written about most every single one. But now we’re going to talk about the oldest cartoons of the lot: Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends and The Incredible Hulk.

Granted, I’m being a bit historically facetious here: Marvel’s ’80s animation efforts were prefaced by a number of shows, most by DePatie-Freleng Enterprises in the ’70s. DePatie-Freleng, which was founded by Friz Freleng and the final producer of Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, David H. DePatie. The studio became famous for the opening animated titles to The Pink Panther, which successfully launched a series of theatrical shorts (which were partially bankrolled by NBC, who aired them on Saturday mornings), as well as a notoriously low budget (and limited character lineup) revival of the Looney Tunes in the late ’60s. However, DePatie-Freleng had minimal success breaking into Saturday morning television (which was dominated by Hanna-Barbera, Filmation, and live-action producers Sid and Marty Krofft), but in the late ’70s, they produced a pair of shows for Marvel Comics: The Fantastic Four, and intended sequel of Hanna-Barbera’s ’60s cartoon version of the comics (which is now infamous for the robot HERBIE, introduced because of a rights snafu with The Human Torch), and Spider-Woman, which was part of a hasty character roll-out initiated when Filmation developed a character named Spider-Woman (though she was eventually christened Web Woman). These two series were successful enough that Marvel purchased DePatie-Freleng lock, stock, and barrel when Friz Freleng retired in 1980, and the result was Marvel Productions.

Naturally, the new Marvel Productions wanted to move into making further cartoons based on their characters, but there was a problem: the staff, consisting primarily of veterans from the classic days of Warner Bros. (and even then, it was depleted since Freleng’s “retirement” involved making compilation films and specials for Warner) had little experience with action-adventure shows. Luckily, Filmation was experiencing a major exodus, as producer Don Christensen, once a major asset, was becoming a serious problem (which would eventually result in him being fired in 1981 when Lou Scheimer realized what was going on). So, Marvel scooped up a great deal of experienced, highly skilled talent (and would continue to poach from Filmation throughout the ’80s)……but not enough to animate a series in America. The solution was twofold.

First, Marvel went to upstart Korean animation studio MiHahn, formed by Steve Hahn. MiHahn had just animated Plastic Man for Ruby-Spears, which was a massive success. Hahn was a hard-nosed producer, and along with his assistant Nelson Shin, MiHahn was ready and willing to take on more work. Secondly, Marvel went to their friends at Toei. Toei was (and still is) one of the biggest and most successful movie and TV studios in Japan, responsible for an endless stream of animated shows and feature films as well as the live-action Super Sentai franchise. The latter franchise, interestingly enough, began life as an offshoot from a live-action adaptation of Spider-Man in which Marvel gave Toei free reign to adapt the character to Japanese sensibilities. Toei Animation also adapted the Tomb of Dracula comics into a TV movie. And with Toei being one of the top outsourcing studios at the time (and renowned for the quality of their work), it was a no-brainer that Marvel would continue their partnership.

NBC was interested, but there was some doubt that Marvel could actually make a series. As a result, they produced a 26-episode Spider-Man series as a proof of concept. The show, while possessing solid animation and stories faithful to the comics (with designs directly inspired by those of famed Spider-Man artist John Romita), suffered from a lackluster cast, specifically Ted Schwartz as the title character. However, it (and presentation art by Romita himself) sold NBC on Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends.

However, this was during the era of Superfriends, so a solo Spider-Man cartoon was the last thing NBC was looking for. And that’s how the Spider-Friends were born. The original plan was to pair Spidey with his old friend The Human Torch and Iceman of the X-Men, but the same rights issues that kept the character out of the 1978 series. The result was that Iceman was suddenly a sarcastic joker, and a new character was created: Firestar. Conceived as a female mutant with essentially the same powers as The Human Torch (NBC was extremely specific on the point of what exactly could be done with fire-based powers), but as a former member of the X-Men (as was the case with Iceman). And, thanks to some superb casting and good writing, it worked.

For the second season, The Incredible Hulk was given his own show (after a guest appearance in the first season). Despite some rather silly network restrictions, the show was a success, and quite faithful to the original comics (including mimicking the art style of then-current Hulk artist Sal Buscema), though NBC ordered no more episodes (and only one more season of Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends before sending it into reruns). However, the second season brought a major innovation: narrations by Stan Lee himself, in the same breathless style of the narration in the ’60s Marvel Comics that Lee had scripted and co-plotted.

Oddly, this is where things ended for Marvel adapting their own characters. They tried a backdoor pilot for The X-Men a couple of times (the last including a character named Videoman, who appeared in multiple forms during the series in a blatant and poor attempt to cash in on the popularity of video games), and even produced a pilot in 1988 (which was oddly adapted into Konami’s famed X-Men arcade game in the early ’90s), but no one was interested. Worse, Marvel Productions spent most of the decade producing shows for Sunbow, Henson, King Features and others while not retaining any rights to them or benefitting from the profits. The result was that Marvel Productions was shut down and reorganized at the end of the ’80s, a victim sadly of being both behind the times of the ’70s superhero boom, and ahead of the ’90s superhero resurgence.

Next week, the first of the posts about the new cast members of Star Trek, and in this case, a post about the most notorious wardrobe element of the entire series.

Assignment: 1966: Ralph Nader

It’s February 13th, 1966, and there’s really not that much going on. Except for a story in the Washington Post titled, “Car Safety Critic Nader Reports Being ‘Tailed'”, which detailed how carmaker General Motors had been harassing activist-turned-author Ralph Nader because of his book Unsafe at Any Speed. This humble story picked up speed (pun not intended), and soon GM and the entire auto industry had a public relations disaster on its hands. The book, a well-researched screen against the excesses of auto design and lack of proper safety and engineering, had been utterly ignored, but swiftly became a bestseller in the wake of this controversy, and it made Nader a very famous man.

The first-and longest lasting-effect of GM’s total stupidity (both in the design flaws in the Chevy Corvair, which was singled out in the first chapter of Unsafe at Any Speed, and its treatment of Nader) was the formation of the Department of Transportation, whose first and foremost responsibility has been regulating America’s cars and roadways. The second effect, however, is a big reason why I’m talking about Ralph Nader: the rise of consumer advocates.

Now, obviously, Nader and other consumer advocates have done a world of good. The regulations and laws passed because of their efforts in the ’60s and ’70s made America a safer, better place. But this is an ’80s blog as much as it’s a ’60s blog. And by the ’80s, consumer advocates, and their close relatives, the advocates for children, were quite frankly making asses of themselves while the Reagan Administration was tearing apart the country with deregulation after deregulation. While the children’s advocates were bitching about toy-based cartoons (the best-and for the most part, most popular-of which had little to no interference from the toy companies), American animators were losing their jobs left and right because of outsourcing (which ultimately cost these groups their greatest and most steadfast ally, Filmation, to be sold to L’Oreal and put out of business). And both groups advocated for the banning of toy guns, in part because of the stories of cops shooting kids with them, which basically punted on the issues of poor police training (one of the secondary issues of the current Black Lives Matter movement), police militarization (again, part of the problems that fed into Black Lives Matter), and America’s rampant love affair with actual guns. The result is that it’s harder for me to import a Megatron toy from Japan than it is to purchase an actual Walther P-38 (the gun Megatron transformed into on The Transformers)-and in certain instances, cheaper, too!

So, for way too many people of my generation, consumer advocates are bad jokes, in part because instead of combatting actual unjust business practices, they started trying to combat secondary (if that) symptoms of greater problems that were ignored. For every movement like the No Nukes movement (which was Nader’s next big movement after the automobile industry was sufficiently shamed into better practices) it seemed like there were dozens of silly movements that made it easy for a smiling, telegenic personality like Ronald Reagan to paint these passionate (and not necessarily professional) people as kooks who wanted to mollycoddle the entire country. But if this was the entirety of Ralph Nader’s legacy, I wouldn’t be writing this.

But I am, because Ralph Nader bungled his way into Presidential politics in the worst way. While he is certainly right in being critical of America’s two-party electoral system, the problem is that the laws of the land are designed to support the existence of two political parties, period. Sure, there was that messy time in the 19th Century when the Federalist party collapsed and the Democratic-Republicans split in two, but for the most part, this country has operated under a two-party system for its entire existence, and it would take massive changes to the political infrastructure to change it to a more parliamentary process like that seen in Canada or the UK. So, Nader’s opinions have really only been good for fostering distrust and disenchantment with the system, which not only benefits monied interests, but has helped to drag the country ever rightward, even though all evidence suggests that Americans are really democratic socialists at heart.

Oh, and it has invited a never-ending spiral of apathy and petty bickering into our nation’s political discourse.

And I know you must think this is because I believe that Ralph Nader is the reason why George W. Bush got elected in 2000, but no, that isn’t it. While preaching that the two parties were the same did Al Gore no favors (as history has proven repeatedly in this century so far that there are very real and striking differences between the two political parties), the reality is that Gore ran a shitty campaign because he was an ungodly bore whose wife was a villain to many young people and minorities (thanks to her involvement with the PMRC, but that’s another story for another day) and whose running mate was an arrogant, Democrat-in-name-only douchebag who also pissed off a lot of young people and minorities due to his involvement in trying to censor video games in the ’90s (again, another story for another day). Oh, and there was the issue of Florida’s voter rolls being illegally purged of left-leaning voters in numbers that would have made the Florida recount debacle irrelevant had anyone prevented it. So, yes, Nader got a bit of a raw deal, even though he refused to follow the advice of some of his supporters (including Thom Hartmann) to abandon campaigning in battleground states (like Florida) and focus on states where the Presidential election was effectively decided in order to get 5% of the vote and qualify the Green Party for federal matching funds (and provide that party with some semblance of a national foothold).

But he didn’t, and ran again in 2004 and 2008, by which time enmity for him was so high that he was accused of being funded by the Republican Party. And this, ultimately, will be a substantial part of Ralph Nader’s legacy: by behaving rigidly in a system he considered to be rigid and corrupt, he negated years of hard work to stroke his own ego and find himself labeled as an agent provocateur and a hypocrite.

Next week, we’ll be staying in 1966 to talk about the future of Star Trek……and how it nearly ended before it even began.

Mirror, Mirror: Superfriends, Wonder Woman, and Superman

Super heroes are big business right now, but here’s a little secret: they’ve always been huge with my generation. Besides Batman, which I previously discussed on the occasion of its 50th Anniversary, comic book adventures were always a part of the culture. And this week, it’s time to discuss the other ways the heroes of DC Comics were a part of my childhood.

First, there’s the one of the longest-running and most remembered cartoons of the era: Superfriends.

As we’ll eventually discuss, the late ’60s saw a huge boom for super heroes in Saturday morning cartoons after Filmation established itself with The New Adventures of Superman. However, by the end of the ’60s, saturation combined with strict new content restrictions on violence on television swept away all of the super hero shows, resulting in Filmation surrendering the rights to the DC Comics characters. Things were so bad that Hanna-Barbera acquired the rights for a song, and instead of re-introducing the characters directly, Batman and Robin returned to TV in two episodes of The New Scooby-Doo Movies, using Filmation’s cast (Olan Soule as Batman, Casey Kasem as Robin, Larry Storch as The Joker, and Ted Knight as The Penguin) in the process before proceeding with Super Friends for the 1973-74 TV season (by which time all of Filmation’s rights had lapsed).

The initial version of Super Friends, which featured no super villains at all and introducing the horrendously awful sidekicks Marvin, Wendy, and Wonder Dog, was a complete dud. While it continued to retain Soule, Kasem, and Ted Knight (who was on the verge of having to abandon his robust animation career because of the huge success of The Mary Tyler Moore Show) and had more than a few animators poached from Filmation, the bloated, hour-long stories and weak action landed with a thud. The season wasn’t an entire loss, as there were many elements that actually worked. Hoyt Curtin’s score, often one of Hanna-Barbera’s greatest assets, soars here (especially with the iconic theme song, of which I’ve posted a remixed version above). The character designs and animation, while nowhere near as detailed as the comics, are still pretty excellent for the era (and especially from Hanna-Barbera, who was starting to move a lot of its animation to Australia at the time), with the Hall of Justice (which was based on Union Hall in Cincinnati, home of H-B’s then-corporate parent, Taft Broadcasting) being the best and most fondly-remembered. But the greatest asset is the cast and voice direction. Super Friends (along with The Addams Family) was one of the first two cartoons voice directed by Wally Burr, who literally dragged the art kicking and screaming into the modern era, with large casts, superb performances, and legendarily long recording sessions. With Batman, Robin, and the narrator all legacy cast members from the Filmation cartoons, Burr’s biggest impact was in casting Danny Dark as Superman, Shannon Farnon as Wonder Woman, and Norman Alden as Aquaman, and frankly, they all elevated the material to an outstanding degree. But after a second season comprised entirely of reruns, it seemed as if Super Friends was doomed to be forgotten.

However, a two years later, with super heroes all over prime time and Saturday morning television in live action form, ABC ordered reruns of the series in a half-hour format, and the show was a huge success. This led to a total reboot of the series, with Marvin, Wendy, and Wonder Dog jettisoned in favor of the Wonder Twins, Zan (played by Michael Bell) and Jayna (Louise Williams), whose pet was the Space Monkey Gleek. The All-New Super Friends Hour, while saddled with morals, health tips and other half-hearted filler, was a major step forward, with actual villains (including established comic book foes Gentleman Ghost and Black Manta), but it would be the next season of the franchise that because the most popular.

Challenge of the Superfriends, besides being the first incarnation of the franchise to combine “Super Friends” into one word (something that is completely ignored in modern licensing), pitted an expanded Superfriends roster against the Legion of Doom, a collection of the most prominent of the DC Universe villains (the big exception being all of Batman’s foes except The Riddler, who were off limits to Hanna-Barbera because of Filmation’s competing The New Adventures of Batman, which aired on CBS and was denied use of The Riddler except for an incorrectly colored cameo in the opening credits). Backing this were half-hour adventures in the mold of The All-New Super Friends Hour, which would would be the general template for future seasons (albeit with increased appearances from Legion of Doom members). All was not perfect, however: Hanna-Barbera created Black Vulcan, a token minority character along the lines of the existing Samurai and Apache Chief characters, specifically to avoid paying royalties to Tony Isabella over the character of Black Lightning.

Things continued with minimal changes (the biggest being the addition of another original hero, El Dorado, who was by far and away the most successful of the ethnic heroes-though Samurai was also a pretty good character in his own right) until the 1983-84 season, when Hanna-Barbera took the series into syndication (it became one of the few syndicated cartoons aired on weekdays on Channel 5 in Vermont). ABC, despite funding 8 new episodes, cancelled the show outright (rendering those episodes unseen in America for years). This is where I come in, as those reruns on Channel 5 were my first exposure to Superfriends. ABC, however, brought the show back again for 1984-85, as Superfriends: The Legendary Super Powers Show. Suddenly, Superfriends was under a huge transition, as Adam West returned as Batman, and Firestorm was added to the cast (Olan Soule stayed on board, however, as Professor Martin Stein, half of Firestorm’s alter ego). Moreover, the show was now tied into Kenner’s excellent Super Powers toyline, and there was a new main villain: Darkseid, from Jack Kirby’s Third Earth stories. Along with Darkseid (voiced to great effect by Frank Welker) were Kalibak (again, voiced by Welker) and Desaad (voiced by Hanna-Barbera regular René Auberjonois, who was experiencing his second wave of live-action fame as Clayton Endicott III on Benson). Braniac, who had been retired following the tragic death of Ted Cassidy (along with Black Manta), was completely redesigned in line with the comics and voiced to great effect by Stanley Ralph Ross, and B.J. Ward (in the lone exception to what seems to be an unwritten rule that she be paired with Michael Bell’s characters romantically) assumed the role of Jayna because Louise Williams was no longer living in the LA area. Sadly, however, Wonder Woman was also controversially recast, with Constance Cawlfield assuming the role. Put simply, she was awful. (And, as insinuated by Shannon Farnon, she got the job because she was dating voice director Gordon Hunt. This claim is dubious, however, since Hunt, the father of actress Helen Hunt, eventually married B.J. Ward, one of the best and most prominent voice actresses of the ’80s.)

The next season brought even more changes, as the animation style was totally revised to match the artwork of artist José Luis García-López and Cyborg, from the popular comic The New Teen Titans, was brought aboard. Stories were much more serious, too, and The Joker finally appeared. Furthermore, “The Fear”, written as the pilot for a Batman solo series, told the origin of the Caped Crusader outside of the comics for the first time, and “The Death of Superman” featured just that. Best of all, Wonder Woman was again recast, with B.J. Ward assuming the role. (While not Shannon Farnon, she still excelled in the role.) But the changes were all for naught, as The Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians was demolished in the ratings against the last half hour of The Smurfs and the first half hour of the heavily hyped Hulk Hogan’s Rock ‘n Wrestling (which even more thoroughly trashed that season’s edition of Scooby-DooThe 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo, in its second half hour), leading to ABC pulling the plug on Superfriends for the last time.

As I mentioned in the post on Batman, Channel 3 made that show a staple of early Saturday and Sunday mornings. But before Channel 22 filled weekday afternoons with cartoons, there was another super hero show on Channel 3, at 4PM on weekdays: Wonder Woman. Originally airing from 1975-1979, the show was actually the second attempt to bring Wonder Woman to live-action television (the first, starring Cathy Lee Crosby, bore so little resemblance to the character that the pilot to the series was titled The New, Original Wonder Woman). By the ’70s, Wonder Woman had emerged as a feminist icon despite some of the kinkier aspects of the character as conceived by William Moulton Marston. Regardless of those aspects (and the polyamorous relationship that Marston was involved in until the day he died), Wonder Woman was by far and away the best-and strongest-female super hero at the time, so it’s not terribly shocking she has always enjoyed a stronger popularity than the sales of her comic books have implied.

Wonder Woman the TV series succeeded because it openly leveraged the character’s status within the feminist movement, while (until CBS forced changes in the second season) staying faithful and proud of its roots in comic books. The first season in particular is incredibly accurate to the early Wonder Woman comic books (albeit with the bondage themes excised), right down to the period setting. Later seasons are close to the era’s comics, though the lack of super villains (common with the super hero TV shows of the ’70s) are a bit more glaring without the Nazis around to bash. But even with this attention and care (given to the series by Stanley Ralph Ross-yes, the same one who wrote for Batman and acted on Superfriends-and Douglas S. Cramer-who we’ll be talking about a lot in the future), Wonder Woman was great because of Lynda Carter.

Carter, who in addition to being an actress is a singer and the 1972 Miss World USA, not only looked the part, but has practically embodied Wonder Woman, both in character and out of character. Wonder Woman could have become simply a sex symbol (and boy did the networks and studio try to sell it that way), but with Lynda Carter as the star, she became a role model for everyone. The ambitious and timely lyrics like “Make a hawk a dove/Stop a war with love/Make a liar tell the truth” and “Change their minds/Save the world” work because there’s no question that Carter believes in the ideal of Wonder Woman (she campaigns vigorously for women’s rights, LGBT equality, breast cancer research, Pro Choice rights, and other causes), and it shines through in the episodes. More importantly, Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman was quite possibly the finest of the many great female heroes of my youth because she took the potentially suffocating roles of feminist icon, super heroine, sex symbol, and role model and epitomized the best of all of those qualities.

As influential as Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman was, though, in the ’80s, one super hero set the gold standard: Superman.

Promoted with the tagline, “You’ll Believe A Man Can Fly”, Superman: The Movie reached for and achieved heights that most films-super hero-related or not-desperately wish they could reach. Director Richard Donner preached verisimilitude as the key to the feature’s success, and given the extremely difficult development process, he was right. Originally starting pre-production in 1974, Superman: The Movie wasn’t released until December of 1978. Part of this is attributable to the difficulties Alexander and Ilya Salkind had in assembling a crew and then a cast, but the actual production dragged on from 1976 until the middle of 1978, in part because the sequel was shot concurrently (in part because of the busy schedules of Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman, the top-billed stars for the feature). There were also extreme technical challenges surrounding the flight of Superman and the Phantom Zone criminals who feature primarily in the second film, and tensions between Donner and the Salkinds and especially producer Pierre Spengler, so much that director Richard Lester was brought in as a go-between/backup director. In the end, filming was temporarily abandoned on the sequel with 75% of it shot in order to concentrate on the first film. (In addition, the ending was revised to remove the intended cliffhanger where the aforementioned Phantom Zone criminals are freed at the closing of the film.)

In the end, Superman: The Movie was a massive success critically and financially. The special effects were revolutionary, the story inspiring, and John Williams’ score was yet another massive triumph for the composer. The cast was equally superb: Marlon Brando brings enormous gravitas to Jor-El, Gene Hackman is definitive as Lex Luthor, Jackie Cooper and Marc McClure nail their parts as Perry White and Jimmy Olsen, Glenn Ford is inspiring as Pa Kent, and Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine are superb comic foils to Hackman as Otis and Miss Teschmacher. But it is Margot Kidder as Lois Lane and Christopher Reeve as Superman who make the film work. Kidder’s Lane is tenacious, witty, smart, and marvelously human, while Reeve is the first performer to effectively emphasize the “man” over the “Super”. The effects make you believe that a man can fly; Reeve makes you believe that the man is real.

However, the series almost immediately fell apart. When filming on Superman II resumed, Richard Donner was no longer the director. Richard Lester was, and in order to take away Donner’s directing credit, the film was heavily rewritten and reshot at a quick pace and cheaply (as the cost overruns on the first feature had caused the Salkinds to renegotiate their negative pickup deal with Warner Bros. multiple times, costing them parts of the lucrative international and TV rights to both movies). Worse, since Marlon Brando sued for his portion of the gross profits (and won), his scenes were excised. Gene Hackman, who had filmed the overwhelming bulk of his part for the sequel, refused to participate further, and was replaced with not only a stand-in, but had many lines re-dubbed by an uncredited Stanley Ralph Ross (using the voice he would later give to Brainiac on Superfriends). Tom Mankiewicz and Stuart Baird refused to take part in solidarity, and John Williams, busy with commitments to The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark, didn’t score the film and Ken Thorne was hired instead at his recommendation (and while Thorne did an admirable job, his orchestra was far smaller than the London Symphony Orchestra used in the original, and it suffers in comparison).

Superman II was a critical and financial success despite the controversy, but watching in retrospect, it feels wrong. The comedic bits (especially during the fight in Metropolis, which already suffers because it was filmed on a soundstage and not in New York City) are far too slapsticky, and the reshoots are fairly obvious (Margot Kidder, who was particularly upset about the firing of Donner, is noticeably gaunt in the reshot footage). However, at the time (and even with the extended TV cut, which restored a great deal of Donner’s footage) no one was particularly wiser (and the sentiment against the theatrical version would not reach any real consensus until it was easy to share video on the internet), but with Superman III, which was conceived entirely without Donner and features a ton of slapstick comedy (to say nothing of having Richard Pryor as the second-billed star and Pamela Stephenson in the busty blonde bimbo role that she played incessantly during the ’80s) and just loses its way, while shoving aside Margot Kidder as revenge for having spoken out against the Salkinds. Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, which was spearheaded by Christopher Reeve outside of the influence of the Salkinds, was even more embarrassing, since it was produced by Canon, who siphoned the budget to keep their house of cards standing for a while longer while also cutting a substantial (and important) part of the picture before release.

Amazingly, there was still a ton of goodwill for Superman and Christopher Reeve after the series petered out. And while Reeve would never again put on the red and blue tights (in part because of a horse-riding accident that left him paralyzed), there was one more Superman series during the ’80s.

Superman, produced by Ruby-Spears for CBS in order to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the character, is a bit odd. Bill Woodson narrates the intro in a holdover from Superfriends, the narration being the same as the one from The Adventures of Superman (which was itself adapted from the narration to the classic radio show). Lex Luthor has a girlfriend, Jessica Morganberry, who is clearly patterned after Miss Teschmacher, as well, and the opening theme is a re-orchestrated version of the Superman March from the movies. But despite this, Superman is clearly based on the newly-revised mythos for the character that sprang from DC’s company-wide reboot following Crisis on Infinite Earths. Character designs were done by famed Superman artist Gil Kane, and the story editor was Marv Wolfman, who was one of the architects of the revised Superman mythos (ironically, CBS executives were not aware of this when they hired him). Also, each episode features a “Superman Family Album” segment which, in a lightly serialized fashion, shows us Clark Kent’s childhood from his crash on Earth until his departure from Smallville. Despite being successful, CBS passed on backing more seasons simply because the show cost too much to produce. This doomed the show to a sad level of obscurity until it was finally released on DVD, but even then, the show represents a great missed opportunity in the Superman franchise.

Next time, it’s the 50th Anniversary of one of the biggest expansions in the history of sports.

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: 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.

Mirror, Mirror: The A-Team and Mister T

There are certain “you had to be there” aspects of any decade, but the ’80s seemed to be particularly rife with them. Today, it’s time for one one the biggest, the meanest, and gold-encrusted such icons of the decade: Mr. T. Originally a bouncer, and then a bodyguard, Mr. T hit the big time after Sylvester Stallone saw him absolutely demolish a man during a series of “toughest bouncer” fights on NBC. The “big time” in this case meant scoring the role of Rocky III‘s main villain, Clubber Lang. Following the success of the movie, Brandon Tartikoff, who was early in his amazingly successful run as the president of NBC’s Entertainment Division, tasked writer-producer Stephen J. Cannell with creating a show that was a combination of The Dirty Dozen, Mission: Impossible, The Magnificent Seven, Mad Max and Hill Street Blues. Also required: “Mr. T driving a car”.

The result was The A-Team, one of the most intentionally ridiculous action-adventure programs of all time. The opening narration summed up the backstory succinctly:

“In 1972, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire….the A-Team.”

As promised, Mr. T was indeed driving a car, in this case an iconic black/grey GMC van with red trim, and he was the muscle/mechanic, Sergeant First Class Bosco Albert “B.A.” (Bad Attitude) Baracus, in the series’ titular group of mercenaries, along with George Peppard as master of disguise/team leader Lieutenant Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith, Dirk Benedict as conman Lieutenant Templeton Peck (“Face”), and Dwight Schultz as insane pilot Captain H.M. “Howling Mad” Murdock. Premiering on January 23rd, 1983 as a movie-length pilot (with Tim Dunigan as Face instead of Benedict), the series was formally launched the following week after Super Bowl XVII, and became a massive hit.

A lot of its success lies in the entertaining and well-defined characters, and in the gleefully cartoonish violence. And, in the context of the Reagan-era ’80s, its strong anti-authoritarian bent played right into the “government is the problem” garbage that people believed (and, in a lot of cases, still believe) in droves. However, The A-Team was far from a perfect show: besides the complaints about the intentionally excessive violence, the show was rigidly “formula”: you could practically set your watch based on the structure of episodes, as certain events (including, but not limited to: B.A. complaining about, and being sedated for, flight, Hannibal declaring “I love it when a plan comes together!”, and the montage where the team jury rigs home-made countermeasures against a stronger enemy force) tended to happen at precise times in every episode. Worse, the show had a rather casual sexism, as after Season 2, there was no regular female cast member, and even then, the cast, with Peppard and Benedict in particular voicing aversion to the idea of a female ally to the all-male A-Team. Behind the scenes, George Peppard and Mr. T mixed liked oil and water, largely because Peppard, an already difficult actor to deal with, became convinced that he was the star, not Mr. T. Things got so bad that Peppard’s friend Robert Vaughn was cast in the final season in an effort to ease tensions.

Ultimately, The A-Team flamed out after five seasons, but not before Mr. T got his own Saturday morning cartoon (which also aired on NBC), Mister T. And if The A-Team was a strange animal, then Mister T was absolutely insane. Designed as even more of a vehicle for Mr. T than The A-TeamMister T stars a fictionalized version of Mr. T as the coach of a traveling gymnastics team that also solves mysteries (indicated quite helpfully by the word “mystery” in most episode titles). If that isn’t cracked enough, Mr. T has a dog with a mohawk (seriously) named Bulldozer, and one of the gymnasts has a brother (played by Ted Field III, who was also playing Bobby on Dungeons & Dragons at the same time) who so blatantly hero worships Mr. T that he wears the exact same outfit, right down to the gold chains and jewelry.

Ignoring the usual network stupidity of the time, the show has a logic that isn’t. Part of this lies with the morals (which, while NBC had minimal desire for them in 1983, Mr. T, who takes his image as a role model very seriously, likely demanded their presence), which are rather ham-fistedly inserted into the stories. Part of this lies with the lack of faith that the show’s creator (Steve Gerber, when he was still alive and his website’s bibliography was still accessible, only admitted to his role on the show because of an upswing in Mr. T’s popularity) and writers (the majority being Gerber’s friends). But a huge part of the problem lies with the studio that made Mister T, Ruby-Spears.

Ruby-Spears Enterprises was formed in 1977 by Joe Ruby and Ken Spears, primarily because they felt that Hanna-Barbera (where the two had worked at from 1959 until the early ’70s) needed more competition. Ignoring the continued existence at the time of Filmation and DePatie-Freleng (as well as live-action producers Sid and Marty Krofft, whose studio was at its zenith at the time), the idea had some amount of merit, as the two were veteran writers (their most famous creation being Scooby-Doo), and had spent most of the decade in charge of Saturday morning program development under Fred Silverman and CBS and later ABC. So, they knew the industry, to be certain, and were able to sell shows and assemble a staff. However, there’s one big problem with their studio.

They were the K-Mart Hanna-Barbera.

There’s no denying that H-B declined as a studio quality-wise in the ’70s, and as creators of Scooby-Doo (which was endlessly copied by Hanna-Barbera to decreasing results throughout the ’70s), they had a rather sizable hand in that decline. Moreover, they were not as good at their job as Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, who for all their faults, richly deserved a great deal of the Oscars and Emmys they won over the years. With the exception of Thundarr the Barbarian and the 1988 Superman, most of Ruby-Spears’ output was awful, forgetable, or both. Worst of all, this largely poor output wasted the humongous talents of Jack Kirby, who was hired at the behest of Steve Gerber to help design characters for Thundarr, and stayed with the studio until 1986. But, most damning of all, Ruby-Spears was sold by its original parent company, Filmways, in 1981 as that studio started dumping assets in an (ultimately futile) attempt to stave off its death. The buyer? Taft Broadcasting, the then-parent company of Hanna-Barbera.

Once the two studios became corporate siblings, what little distinction between the two outfits existed began to evaporate. The company’s logo was reformatted in a style similar to Hanna-Barbera’s famous swirling star logo, and all credits started to use H-B formatting and fonts (save for the little box with the main cast’s character models that was one of H-B’s trademarks). It’s so bad that DVDs of Ruby-Spears shows are usually identified as part of the “Hanna-Barbera Collection” and stripped of their Ruby-Spears logo (and even given a H-B logo in some cases). Let me emphasize this one point: the world did not need another Hanna-Barbera in the ’80s.

However, all things Mr. T saw a surprising resurgence in popularity in the late ’90s thanks to the internet. Mr. T found himself at the center of the internet’s original meme: the “Mr. T vs.” series. Since virtually all of the various sites (and most of the actual “Mr. T vs.” stories) are no longer online, let me summarize the format: Mr. T, always with the A-Team van at his disposal (and occasionally with the aid of a variety of characters from across pop culture), encounters some character or figure from pop culture (often, but not always, some figure from the ’90s that the early internet hated) who antagonizes Mr. T (almost always by terrorizing or insulting children), only to lose in a fashion pretty much in line with modern memes. These stories always included repeated reminders that Mr. T is “helluva tough”, that he cares about children, and his feud with George Peppard. The van is also able to totally ignore the laws of physics, though it’s often trashed in order to give Mr. T that extra bit of motivation to kick some ass. And, of course, there’s the best part: all of these stories were constructed using a primitive version of Photoshop, using a very limited set of images (because image capturing was more difficult than using Photoshop). And they were glorious. But, just like Mr. T’s original fame, you really had to be there.

Next week, we visit another “you had to be there” moment in US television, which was also aired on NBC.