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.

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: The Transformers

In the ’80s, children in America fell in love with giant robots for the first time. Sure, Gigantor, one of the first Japanese cartoons imported to America in the ’60s, was about a giant robot, and the Godzilla movies and the various Ultraman TV shows had giant robots in them, as well, but these guys never captured the public imagination like the robots in VoltronRobotech, and most importantly, The Transformers.

Like so many cartoons of the ’80s, The Transformers was based on a toyline, and as the name suggests, the gimmick of the toys is that they transform, usually from cars and planes and other vehicles into giant robots. However, the Transformer toys have a more complicated history than that. Toymaker Hasbro, partly in response to Tonka licensing a Japanese toyline named Machine Robo to be marketed in the US as GoBots, licensed transforming toys from Japanese toy company Takara, from the Diaclone and Micro Change toylines. (Additional toys were licensed from Takatoku Toys, ToyCo, and ToyBox.) Despite being wildly incompatible in terms of scale, the toys were well-constructed, and with a few notable examples, had human proportions in their robot modes. The gimmick was enough to make the toys a success, but Hasbro didn’t stay pat.

As with G.I. Joe, Hasbro skirted network rules by propping up a terribly-written Transformers comic book (seriously-Transformers comic books make the G.I. Joe ones look almost good) with an animated TV ad, which was incorporated into the inevitable toy commercials and primed the pump for the cartoon. That cartoon was an instant success, despite an insanely short production schedule that resulted in an astonishing number of animation errors and re-takes (the fourth regular episode of the series, “Fire in the Sky”, was delayed until December from an intended October airing because literally half the episode needed to be re-shot) and an extremely limited cast (there were far more of the heroic Autobots than evil Decepticons, resulting in tons of generic place-filler characters to even the odds).

The main reason for this is that The Transformers‘ cast (both the characters and the actors themselves) was nothing short of superb. Of particular note were lead hero Optimus Prime, lead villain Megatron, treacherous second-in-command Starscream, super-sized space ship Skyfire, and the original three special teams: the Dinobots, the Insecticons, and the Constructicons. While it’s essentially a guarantee that the main hero and villain will receive a particular focus on shows like this, the writers of The Transformers almost reveled in not only having the two characters face off, but in making it personal. Prime in particular became a father figure to a lot of kids, in no small part because the Autobots introduced in the second season were a bit more childish than the more mature, jaded characters introduced in the other seasons. Starscream, besides codifying a popular trope in television (link not provided on account of me not being evil), was one of the more prominent examples of, “Hey! It’s….” since Chris Latta’s performance as Starscream was largely the same as his performance as Cobra Commander on G.I. Joe (minus the occasional hissing). Skyfire, while a personal favorite character, is more remembered due to the legal issues surrounding his use. The toy, named Jetfire, was one of the ones licensed from Takatoku Toys, which was acquired by Bandai, making a Japanese release impossible. However, the Jetfire toy was, in Japan, a recreation of the VF-1S Super Valkyrie from iconic Japanese cartoon The Super Dimensional Fortress Macross, and pioneering American dubbing studio Harmony Gold held the international license to the series, and was in the process of localizing it as part of Robotech. So, the character was renamed and redesigned, and writers were ultimately discouraged from using the character.

As for the special teams, the Dinobots, besides having a fruitful career as comedy mules, were robot dinosaurs, which is as awesome as it sounds. The Insecticons were robot bugs, and it was established from the start that they could create a horde of clones (which invited kids to ask for multiples of the three toys). However awesome these groups sound, the Constructicons, besides transforming from green and purple construction vehicles into robots, were able to merge into a much bigger robot, Devastator. While this was, to an extent, the main conceit behind Voltron (the five lions did not transform into robots in addition to combining to form the title character), it was explosively popular in The Transformers, and soon the toyline and series was filled with these gestalts….but none were quite as impressive as Devastator.

However, nothing lasts forever, and The Transformers saw a nastier fall than most. Hasbro, seeing the huge successes of The Transformers and G.I. Joe (and hoping to make one out of their My Little Pony toys for girls), started commissioning Marvel and Sunbow to make movies based on their properties. G.I. Joe: The Movie was planned to be released first, but production issues (namely, the issues surrounding Serpentor’s origin) pushed it to the third release slot. This meant that Transformers: The Movie was released first and, taking inspiration from G.I. Joe: The Movie‘s plot (which was planned to feature the death of lead character Duke as a major plot point), pretty much the entire first season cast was killed off in the first half hour. Not shockingly, children were traumatized (as the audience for The Transformers was younger than G.I. Joe’s), especially since one of the dead was Optimus Prime himself. At the end of the film, the only confirmed first-season Autobots were Bumblebee, Cliffjumper, Jazz, and the Dinobots…..which immediately backfired on Sunbow. Jazz, a popular and regularly appearing character, was essentially retired when his voice actor, Scatman Crothers, was forced into retirement as production of the second season wrapped up when his lung cancer (which he had been hiding) spread to his esophagus. He died in November of 1986. Cliffjumper’s voice actor, Casey Kasem, walked out on the series over a character he considered to be offensive, and he took his friend (and Scooby-Doo co-star) Don Messick with him. And for reasons unknown, most of the second season cast was sidelined, which meant that the cast was almost entirely new, and with the failure of the movie, most kids were out of the loop on all but Prime’s death and Megatron’s reformation into the batshit insane Galvatron. A hastily-produced two-part episode, “The Return of Optimus Prime”, sought to rectify the most notorious character death, but the damage was done, and only three more episodes were produced (and these episodes were extremely poorly distributed and rarely seen until the revival of the show’s popularity in the late ’90s).

However, despite the cancellation of the series and the downturn of popularity of the toys, Transformers never really disappeared. A weak sequel effort (which utilized a re-edited version of the original cartoon) called Transformers: Generation 2 floundered about for a couple of year before Beast Wars revived interest in the brand. And while Beast Wars saw the beginning of Hasbro (and their various media partners) engaging the internet fanbase with half-baked continuity nods to the original cartoon (or, more frequently, the poorly written comics that online fans preferred for reasons that escape logical explanation), love of the original series and the transforming gimmick (which is still insanely awesome, after all) has remained constant (as seen by the constant flow of toy reissues and new toys designed to better mimic the original cartoon).

Next week (and maybe on Thursday this time), it’s time to discuss another animated trend-starter…..whose trend had results as awful as the show was good.