Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Masters of Science Fiction (2007)

I enjoyed most of the first Masters of Horror series that aired in 2005, and approaching science fiction with a similar concept was a great idea. Indeed, every genre should have a Masters series, from mysteries to comedies, allowing specialists in each area to develop projects of their choosing. MoH really did approach the specialists, including John Carpenter, Dario Argento, Keith Gordon and Takashi Miike, whereas MoSF seems to consider the original stories as the Masters, and not the people behind them. These six episodes were directed by a varied bunch, yet most have little or no experience in science fiction. In fact, most of them seem to have been struggling for work, and might have directed a TV commercial had they been approached. Considering the stories as the Masters was, let's be honest, a cheaper option for a standard network. The series was produced by ABC rather than Showtime, and there is no way ABC (the Disney channel) would allow the freedom of creativity required by established Masters. While MoH was not scaled down in its violence, profanity and nudity, which, truly speaking, helped generate some of its better episodes, from Cigarette Burns to Jenifer, MoSF was limited to prime time PG-rated fare. Though not a terrible series, it feels like television, often lacking depth and proper visual effects (though the sometimes poor CGI did not bother me). Whereas watching MoH felt like I was watching a series of short films, with MoSF I was always aware that I was watching prime time TV; of course because of this I was more willing to forgive its faults, but many of the episodes were missed opportunities, amounting to plain fluff or, in the more painful cases, political propaganda.

The series was hosted by undisputed Master of scientific knowledge Stephen Hawking. Though the narration is limited to a few opening and most often closing words of wisdom, I was pleased that the great man was brought in for this project, if for nothing more than a sign of respect. Thanks to Dr. Hawking's work, and the work of other talented scientists, the genre is able to progress and continuously generate great concepts for both science and art. In the case of MoH the Masters are not the film-makers but the stories, adapted from authors John Kessell, Howard Fast, Robert A. Heinlein, Harlan Ellison, Walter Mosley and Robert Sheckley. The stories selected were an odd bunch, some quite dated and not properly updated (namely those by Howard Fast and Robert Heinlein). Still, the ideas are there, but aside from "The Discarded" this was a pretty average, even under-average series, weaker than the sometimes innovative 1995 rendition of The Outer Limits. In fact, a lot of this felt like The Outer Limits, especially the series pilot, "A Clean Escape." Which segues us to the episodes...

"A Clean Escape." (First aired 4 August 2007) Directed by Mark Rydell. Written by Sam Egan from a short story by John Kessel. Starring Judy Davis, Sam Waterston, Allison Hossack and Robert Moloney. 6/10

Psychiatrist Deanna Evans is working on bringing successful company man Havelman's memory back. Apparently he has successfully blocked out the last twenty-four years of his life due to some kind of trauma. We learn quickly enough that the trauma was something he himself is responsible for, and his actions of two and half decades ago resulted in the death of Dr. Evans's own children. A solidly grim introduction to the series, with good directing, a great set and good performances all around. Moreover, in line with good science fiction, its thematic notions weigh heavily on the darker side of humanity.

The plot is nicely constructed, with little bits of information released in a patient, methodical manner. Yet it is too well constructed, a consequence of prime time television, so you can see exactly where the commercials were originally inserted. As the puzzle begins to take shape, there are still more surprises awaiting us, though none of it feels artificial; while we might feel that we should be privy to the information Dr. Evans is withholding rather than be in the dark alongside Mr. Havelman, Evans and her colleagues naturally talk around the subject since all are very well aware of Havelman's actions, and moreover, this way we are given the opportunity to sympathise with Havelman before we learn all of the facts. Despite being the bad guy, however, I still felt sorry for him at the end.

I can't help but liken this series opener to many episodes of The Outer Limits (1995); the small contained set, dark social themes and familiar television faces. Had I come across this while flipping channels I would have likely assumed it to be an episode of The Outer Limits. Both programs were even filmed in Canada, Vancouver to be precise (which, incidentally, is also where some of the Masters of Horror episodes were filmed). Dr. Evans's office is gorgeous (and the single stage set reduces costs), while the remaining decor and clothing are quite simple. Well directed by Mark Rydell, the man behind such classic films as The Cowboys (1972), The Rose (1980), On Golden Pond (1981), I wonder what the director's link to science fiction might be. Looking at the dates of his greatest achievements, I suspect he was looking for work. The script by veteran TV writer Sam Egan is good, though at times the dialogue is a little self-conscious, but this might also be due to the delivery. Egan has a long list of science fiction to his credit, from twenty episodes of The Outer Limits to Stargate SG-1 and the short-lived Automan. I am unfamiliar with the work of John Kessel, author of the Moby Dick-inspired "Another Orphan" and co-author of Freedom Beach (with James Patrick Kelly), so cannot comment on the spirit of the adaptation. I did not care for the music; it was overdone and used too obviously to heighten certain moments when a piece of the puzzle falls into place, almost as though we were watching the 1950s The Outer Limits rather than the modern version. And now (dum dum da dum) we will move onto (dum da dum dum) the next episode (da-dum!).

"The Awakening." (First aired 11 August 2007) Directed by Michael Petroni. Written by Petroni from "The General Zapped an Angel," by Howard Fast. Starring Terry O'Quinn, Elisabeth Röhm, William B. Davis, Julian Christopher, Malcolm Dingham and Hiro Kanagawa. 3/10

An American military chopper goes down in Iraq, and a US soldier and an Iraqi soldier confront each other with loaded weapons in a tense moment, trembling and screaming until they are suddenly able to understand each other. Baffled, they look over to a foreign object on the ground, and immediately fall into some kind of trance. [Insert overdone synthesized television music.]

It turns out that the chopper collided with something unearthly, and a figure wrapped in some kind of cocoon is discovered in the sand. A retired general is brought in to investigate alongside a young lieutenant, and they soon realise this is no hoax. Military and political leaders must now decide how to face what they believe is a potential alien threat.

Based on Howard Fast's short story "The General Zapped an Angel," from the bygone idealistic age of 1970, this little play is interesting until the idealism shines through (and I mean literally shines). I won't give the ending away, but will say that the last portion is dated and silly, filled with naive propaganda and bad music. The opening was interesting enough, and for a full half-hour I was willing to forgive its obvious shortcomings. First, there are the stereotypical characters: the tough retired no-nonsense general who lost his loving wife many years ago and reminisces about her last words to him while showing his sympathetic side (I thought for a moment he might even shed a tear); the tough young-yet-sympathetic and attractive lieutenant who is daughter-like to avoid having to confront a potential romantic sub-plot (so poorly acted I thought I was going to shed a tear); the temperamental war-hungry president, and all the other high ranking know-it-all military men and doctors who refuse to listen to the warnings of our two outcasts. There are the other nation leaders, the Russian, Chinese and French officials who speak through the same interpreter, and the Indian in appropriate costume. There is a lot of silly yellow light and terrible made-for-TV music. There is the convenience of leaving the alien figure unguarded (unlikely) so that the female scientist can become comatose as well. I was even willing to overlook Elisabeth Röhm's terrible attempt at acting, that painful struggle you can almost see in her eyes whenever she tries to emote. In contrast I am always pleased to see Hiro Kanagawa who earned my respect many years ago with his wonderful improvised cameo as the pet shop owner in Best in Show. Terry O'Quinn (the bald guy from Lost), William B. Davis (the cancer guy from The X-Files) and the rest are fine in their single-dimension roles. The direction by Michael Petroni is average, while his script is embarrassing, an unabashed, poorly-written bounding mass of idealistic "lay down your weapons so the world can be one nation" speech.

It is interesting, however, that the creature comes in a cocoon and leaves with wings. Not quite the angel the film-makers had hoped, but rather an insect.

"Jerry Was a Man." (First aired 18 August 2007) Directed by Michael Tolkin. Written by Tolkin from a short story by Robert A. Heinlein. Starring Malcolm McDowell, Anne Heche, Russell Porter, Jason Diablo and Bill Dow. 6/10

In the distant future, genetically engineered "Joes" are designed to perform menial tasks, saving companies a fortune since these workers, though costly, require no salary and no benefits. A supremely wealthy woman (the seventh wealthiest in the world) and her dufus husband visit a manufacturer of Joes in search of something quaint, and during this visit the woman is taken by a Joe named Jerry. Unable to purchase him since the old models were bought by a dog food company, she leases Jerry for one year, much to the chagrin of her simple-minded husband who much prefers the shrunken elephant.

"Jerry Was a Man" is a not terribly funny but a strangely enjoyable satire nonetheless, mainly due to its overall design and the fine performances. The decor does well in conveying this decadent society, though we only see the world through the eyes of the financial elite, so the rooms are all large, from the couple's bedroom to the elegant space of the Bradbury Club (no doubt a nod to author Ray Bradbury). Moreover, the unusual hairstyles, costumes and calming colours give the feature a nice, consistent look. The script, unfortunately, is lacking, since despite the solid performances some of the speeches and dialogue come across as silly or uninspired, and structurally we are offered something extremely formulaic.

Nonetheless, in this single episode many themes are touched upon, from class issues to the question of whether artificially generated anthropoids have human qualities or are they merely possessions. Many touched upon, indeed, but none really examined satisfactorily. Depictions of the self-interested social elite and financially interested scientific endeavours are not contrasted in any way; even the lawyer who takes on the case to prove that Jerry is a man is motivated by the challenge and the price, rather by any moral drive. A shortcoming of this episode is its inability to show different aspects of its society, so that we can only speculate as to whether morals in fact do exist, since even the trial judges appear less than morally astute, and less than intelligent. Perhaps the intent is to give the viewer a glimpse of the world through the eyes of Martha Van Vogel rather than a full-scale notion of this future society, but then if she is so isolated from realities outside her own, how is she able to acquire sympathy for Jerry or gain the drive to fight for his freedom? Less focus on the speeches, both from Dr. Tibor Cargrew early on and from lawyer McCoy during the trial, and a little more characterization, either of Martha or society on a larger scale, would have made for a more complete story, but even so the episode does manage to, while not educate or enlighten, at least to entertain.

Director and writer Michael Tolkin is a writer with minimal director experiences, yet as touched upon above, I feel his direction worked better than the writing. Tolkin's writing credits are varied and mostly co-credited, from the disappointing Deep Impact to the ho-hum Changing Lanes, though he also adapted his own novel for Robert Altman's fine film The Player. While Deep Impact was a foray into science fiction, good science fiction is social statement masked as entertainment, usually plot-driven, its commentary built into plot and world vision; Deep Impact was more statement than entertainment, with some poor sentimentalism which also hinders "Jerry Was a Man." Another director looking for work, and surely not hired due to any science fiction prowess. As I mention above the acting helps to make this watchable: the inconsistent Malcolm McDowell is great as the opportunistic scientist, though his part is over-written, and while Anne Heche is acceptable as Martha, Jason Diablo is very watchable as Jerry, and both Russell Porter and Bill Dow give solid performances as Bronson Van Vogel and McCoy, respectively.

As a teenager I read a fair amount of Robert A. Heinlein, though I managed to miss "Jerry Was a Man." First published in Thrilling Wonder Stories, October 1947, it is dated in its simplistic social view, though I suppose its uncomplicated nature makes it easy to adapt for television.

"The Discarded." (First aired 25 August 2007) Directed by Jonathan Frakes. Written by Josh Olson from a short story by Harlan Ellison. Starring Brian Dennehy, John Hurt, James Denton Gina Chiarelli, Jason Diablo, with a cameo by Harlan Ellison himself. 7/10

A group of mutants are exiled into space, clearly not because of any kind of infection, but because they are so horribly disfigured that no one wants to have to look at them. So they float around in space aboard the ship, tolerating one another, going a little crazy, and existing in the minutest sense of the word. Despite the obvious ending and the more obvious message, this is the best episode of the series. The acting is excellent, the make-up fantastic, the set nifty, the music better and the script somewhat above average.

"The gift that keeps on giving. Like another head."

The wonderful John Hurt this time around has a head poking not out of his belly, but out of his shoulder, while broad-bodied Brian Dennehy is broadened even more by an inflated left arm. The make-up is excellent, with a convincing second head on Hurt's shoulder that is enhanced by excellent voice work, and the details of Dennehy's hand and arm are vivid and stare-inducing. Other deformities include Jason Diablo (who played Jerry in "Jerry Was a Man") who wears a grin that nearly takes the expression "ear to ear" literally, and Gina Chiarelli whose somewhat luminous body partially reveals her inner workings. Dennehy as ship's unwilling leader Bedzyk and Hurt as his irritable and small-minded (despite having two heads) friend Samswope work well together, and without the two the episode would lose much of its appeal. Indeed the characters are, aside from Dennehy and partner Chiarelly, juvenile, scampering about like children not knowing what to do with themselves, and needing a tough paternal role model. So out of touch with reality, easily cajoled and manipulated, a ship of fools is what this is, and an effective menagerie at that.

Directed by science fiction figure Jonathan Frakes (Commander William T. Riker of Star Trek: The Next Generation) and written by Josh Olson, who adapted the graphic novel for David Cronenberg's A History of Violence, "The Discards" is based upon a short story by admired/hated genre author Harlan Ellison, first published in the April 1959 issue of Fantastic. Personally, I'm mixed about Ellison's work, but the idea here is among his better, cynical ones. The story unfolds well, and works because it allows for character interaction and uses the episode's additional time well (and there is quite a bit, since the essential plot points can be related in ten minutes of video), in allowing the actors to play off of one another. Some nice, wider shots also enable us to see more of the interesting, moss-ridden set, and there are neat touches, like the shelf of cheap, tattered paperbacks appropriately stored behind Bedzyk's chair; he is likely the only one on the ship who bothers to read. This time around the music is a jazz light, appropriately replacing the usual over-dramatic scores of the previous episodes. It's a nice change.

"Little Brother." (not aired in the US; first aired in Canada 2 December 2007) Directed by Darnell Martin. Written by Walter Mosley from his story. Starring Clifton Collins, Jr., Kimberly Elise, Garwin Sanford and Daryl Shuttleworth. 6/10

Inmate Frendon Blythe finds himself tried for a murder he did not commit by a court that is made up of computers running on fragments taken from the memories of previous humans (I plea dead people). A great idea with much promise, focusing on individuality and intelligence rather than brawn or idealistic socialism. The title "Little Brother" is taken from a term derived from George Orwell's totalitarian Big Brother, referring to individuals snooping on one another, rather than the state doing the snooping. Unfortunately, the episode isn't given the opportunity to be fully realised. It could easily have been longer so that we do not need to rush through so many of the events and details. What was the business of Frendon wanting to flee the compound so he can find his mother? It had nothing to do with anything. Are we supposed to sympathise with him because he misses his mommy? And what of the societies behind and beyond the wall? Fine ideas are introduced but they go nowhere and seem not to have anything to do with the courts. Rather than rushing through details, perhaps we could have stayed underground, had Frendon save someone's life there and be set up, and that way explore the sub-level society and the inhuman courts (literally). Or make an hour-and-a-half episode.

The sets are great as are the props, the acting is average, and the script by popular crime fiction writer Walter Mosley is average as it suffers from so many TV constraints. One thing we do learn is that the expression "Whatever" will survive beyond society as we know it today. That alone should have gotten Frendon convicted.

"Watchbird." (not aired in the US; first aired in Canada 2 December 2007) Directed by Harold Becker. Written by Sam Egan from the short story by Robert Sheckley. Starring James Cromwell, Sean Astin, Stacy Grant, Vincent Gale and the voice of Sally Kellerman. 4/10

A young software expert finds himself in moral turmoil. He is responsible for the development of the Watchbird, a small droid involved in overseas battles that has the ability to recognize deadly intent from human individuals. American soldiers are rendered safe through specially designed chips, so these watchbirds are able to destroy enemy targets before they can actually strike. Well, dedicated developer Charlie Kramer is troubled when asked to alter the droid so it can be used for homeland security. Chuck has his reservations, for the human psyche is complex and these machines seem to be evolving; how certain can we be that the innocent will be spared? But the evil, capitalist CEO and government officials see potential in these birds, and are pushing our poor morally bound genius to go against his sense of responsibility, even by committing horrible, immoral acts! How distressing! How predictable! Yet we don't care because of the poor acting and that awful music that would be likely more effective in stopping crime than any advanced piece of military technology. ("I surrender! Just stop playing that crap!")

A great idea by the talented Robert Sheckley, though the episode is lacking his satirical humour. Like many things on TV, this could have been a decent little play. Unfortunately it is bogged down by a bad script, overt propaganda, a needless scene with Arab terrorists, and a terrible performance from our lead, Sean Astin. The scenes between him and his bride-to-be Sarah Moser (Stacy Grant) are painful to watch, the dialog between them stiff and unnatural while the performances are so forced I feel the two have just met; there is no chemistry between our actors. Sarah seems to be arguing against Charlie's moral stance, as though she too were a company CEO, and I just wonder how someone so committed to humanity could fall for a woman not only as cold as she, but as unsympathetic toward his dilemma. Perhaps she is upset about his weight and those blank stares he keeps giving her. James Cromwell, however, gives a good performance as boss Randolph Ludwin, and Sally Kellerman (Hot-Lips from the original MASH) is fine as the voice of the Watchbird, but aside from these two the cast is weak, and even the bit actors fail to be convincing.

Director Harold Becker is known for third-rate Hollywood fare since offering a strong debut in 1979 with The Onion Field. This is Sam Egan's second script for the series, following the better "A Clean Escape."

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Briefly: Isaac Asimov, The Caves of Steel (1953)

Asimov, Isaac, The Caves of Steel, Galaxy Science Fiction, October to December, 1953
The Caves of Steel, New York: Doubleday, June 1954 (first book edition)
The Caves of Steel, New York: Signet, October 1955 (edition below)
The Caves of Steel, New York: Bantam Spectra, November 1991, (my edition, at right)

Rating: 7/10

A review of The Caves of Steel contradicts the Casual Debris Three Laws of Reviewing:

  1. Reviews will not be posted of popular books, journals or TV programmes, in that the act contradicts the philosophy of Casual Debris;
  2. Reviews will not be posted of books which already have a vast array of criticism available;
  3. Reviews of books will not include subjects I am not well versed in (i.e. science fiction) in order to avoid embarrassment.
Yet there is one additional Law that over-rides all other Laws: This is my site & I will review whatever I wish to review.

Having made that clear, I will add that my approach here will not be generic: I don't plan on discussing whether The Caves of Steel is a better science fiction novel or mystery novel (I vote sci-fi), nor will I speculate on the science or sociology since Mr. Asimov is a better scientist than I, and I just don't feel like discussing the sociology. The work was first published in 1953 and set some millennia in the future, so if we wish to discuss the (in)accuracies of either, we can place the novel through contemporary filters and criticize it for not including any descendants of cell phones, or for the silliness in the boy's speech ("Gosh golly gee!"). It was that dark age of 1953, after all, and we can therefore forgive details such as ALL the cops are men, while women appear best suited for dietetics and gossip, and everyone in New York City seems to be white. But I digress.

What I would like to do is simple enough: liken The Caves of Steel with another popular work of fiction: William Shakespeare's Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

"He was living in an unreal world, a cruel, topsy-turvy world."

Just like the great Dane himself. Like Prince Hamlet, Asimov's protagonist Elijah Baley unexpectedly finds himself in a world turned upside down. In Shakespeare, Hamlet awakens to a kingdom that is ruled by his once-uncle-now-father, as his father's ambitious brother Claudius ascends to the throne and becomes kings, and ascends Hamlet's mother Queen Gertrude to become Hamlet's new father. A horrible existential crisis ensues.

With Asimov we find a New York City cop awakening to the reality that his new partner is a dreaded robot, his job is close to being jeopardized, and his wife is part of a revolutionary group. While robots are as clearly discernible from humans as any visual interpretation made in the early 1950s, Baley's new partner, R. Daneel Olivaw, is an accurate replica of the human form, essentially confronting Baley with a notion not easily conceivable to humans at the time. Like Hamlet, Baley spends the first part of the story being completely ineffective, trying to grasp the idea that the world has transformed almost overnight, that the relationship between the hated Spacers (humans who have long since colonized nearby planets) and the desperate Earth dwellers has moved to a whole new plateau, and in order for civilization to survive, there must be collaboration between two parties that have done their best to exist independently from each other. Elsinore, the Danish royal castle, is its own isolated community, similar to the cave of steel that is NYC, and while Spacers and Earthmen are heading toward a kind of union between separate states, with Prince Fortibras ascending the throne at the play's end, Norway and Denmark unite.

There are other obvious similarities. Like Hamlet, Baley must also organize theatrics as part of the murder investigation, and while Baley's partner is an android, Hamlet's partner is a ghost. R. Daneel Olivaw was built as the spitting image of his creator, Dr. Sarton, and helps lead Baley on his investigation. The ghost of King Hamlet is the spitting image of the former king, and helps launch young Prince Hamlet's own investigation.

Asimov was well read and familiar with the works of Shakespeare; so familiar he devoted some fine research on the playwright in the form of Asimov's Guide to Shakespeare, volumes one and two, offering over eight hundred hardcover pages of synopses and interpretations. The work, originally published by Doubleday in 1970, went largely unnoticed (what serious academic would read a work on the greatest literary figure written by, of all things, a science fiction writer?), and while Asimov was never considered the greatest authority on the Bard, many have since admitted that there is value in this tome. Now, I'm not suggesting that Asimov intentionally wanted to write a futuristic version of Hamlet, but being familiar with the story and its details surely helped form The Caves of Steel.

And finally there is the writing. Compare these two statements on the state of the world: "There is something rotten in the state of Denmark" (Hamlet, Act 1, Scene IV), and "He was living in an unreal world, a cruel, topsy-turvy world" (The Caves of Steel, Chapter 13). These are shockingly interchangeable: "There is something rotten in the cave of New York;" "Hamlet was living in an unreal kingdom, a cruel, topsy-turvy kingdom." In fact, I would not be surprised to learn that the Bard coined that topsy-turvy term.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Tales from the Darkside Season 3: Episodes 17 through 22

Season One begins here
Season Two begins here
Season three episodes 1 through 7 appear here
Season three episodes 8 through 16 appear here

"Everybody Needs a Little Love." (First aired 22 February 1987) Directed by John Harrison. Screenplay by Harrison from a short story by Robert Bloch. Starring Jarry Orbach, Richard Portnow and Teresa L. Jones. 7/10

"Should've been just another Thursday."

Divorced man Roberts spends his evenings at the local watering hole. One night he goes home with drinking buddy Curtis who has hijacked a display mannequin from work. An evening of hilarity between two drunk and lonely men brings out some odd emotions, and at the end of the night, while Curtis dances with the mannequin, Roberts feels oddly jealous and a bit of a third wheel. Yet what was supposed to be a silly night of fun turns truly weird when Curtis ends up moving in with the dame, and confides to Roberts that she does not let him do anything. Based on a more recent short story by the great Robert Bloch; it is the second of three stories adapted for Darkside. Interestingly, the three adapted stories are from varying points of his career: "Beetles" (Weird Tales, December 1938), "A Case of the Stubborns" (Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, October 1976), and "Everybody Needs a Little Love," which was still fresh at the time, originally published in the first installment of Jerry Williamson's successful anthology series Masques in 1984.

Using elements of film noir, from the interrogation framing, liberal use of smoke (mostly from cigarettes), delivery of lines, jazzy music and shadows, "Everybody" is an excellent episode with strong performances by busy character actors Jerry Orbach as narrator Roberts, and Richard Portnow as Curtis, as well as good use of the mannequin, with some nice shading and good editing that help give it the semblance of life. Indeed, with his thirteen years as Detective Lennie Briscoe on Law & Order, we easily forget what a talented actor Orbach was. Director & writer John Harrison, the man behind the terrible "The Satanic Piano," including its awful music, does a great job with the script, and does well in keeping many of Robert Bloch's own words which translate well onto screen and into Orbach's mouth.

"Auld Acquaintances." (First aired 1 March 1987) Directed by Richard Friedman. Written by Edithe Swensen. Starring Sally Gracie and Linda Thorson. 4/10

Two witches from Salem, Massachusetts, meet every year or so to exchange the precious amulet that gives the wearer great success. Not much happens here, just some dialogue that paints a portrait of eighteenth century Salem as though Arthur Miller's The Crucible were the most reliable historical document for the period. Even character names are appropriated, and I couldn't tell if it were for fun, an attempt at cleverness, or if this appropriation was an honest form of research. All in all a poor episode, with some lukewarm attempts at humour, though the pair of unfamiliar actresses do well in their respective roles.

"The Social Climber." (First aired 8 March 1987) Directed by Armand Mastroianni. Written by Ellen Sandhaus. Starring Albert Hague, Robert Romanus, Talia Balsam and Leslie Chain. 3/10

Apprentice shoemaker Rob dreams about making a fortune and living the life of the social elite. He stumbles upon a pair of shoes that, thanks to the (unexplained) magical touch of his employer, offers him a route to this dream. Meanwhile his doting fiancée Gail is saving up for their life together, while his employer reassures him that he is living the life he is destined for. We must live the lives we are destined to live, this little story is saying, as though life and destiny were simple matters. Thematically obvious as well as thematically flawed: it negates the idea that we should make the best of our lives and attempt to achieve something of importance, but we should instead squander our time within the meagre boundaries we were born into. The magic is too broad, in the sense that the writers feel they can get away with anything they want simply because it is magical, while viewers like me groan and quickly lose interest.

The magic involves some special little nails hammered into the appropriate shoes, which give its wearer the ability to achieve fortune. When Rob puts the shoes on his entire dress is suddenly transformed, and even his hair is different, so that the shoe is not destined for a specific individual, but works its magical wonders on whoever happens to be wearing them. Yet [spoiler] when Rob wears the shoes that are destined for a specific individual, and we learn that the specific shoe-owning individual has died, Rob too dies. This twist makes no sense; it has nothing to do with anything. Essentially it indicates that the wearer affects the shoes, yet what does the nail pounded into the shoe have anything to do with the person who has ordered those shoes? If you ask me to review your story and I do so with my magical keyboard, but a third party sneaks in and changes the review to his story, so that when you die he also ends up dying... How idiotic; this nonsense is truly headache-inducing.

"The Swap." (First aired 3 May 1987) Directed by John Drury. Written by Richard Benner. 6/10

"You don't want to be an ugly old frog all your life, do you?"

The first of two Darkside collaborations between John Drury (the only thing he seems to have directed) and writer Richard Benner is a good effort; a common though neat idea that has many problems in its rendering. In the Louisiana bayou, be-warted son of a witch Bubba (successful stage actor Charles Ludlam, who passed away three weeks after the episode first aired) is searching for the missing ingredient to a potion that would transfer his soul to a more attractive, and younger, body. His beautiful wife Annabelle (Maria Manuche) has married him for his money (his departed mother had "found" oil in the bayou swamp), but in accordance to their marriage contract must suffer her ugly husband's lustful desires night after night or forfeit the inheritance. And of course she would rather be bedding studly handyman Claude Altoose (James Wlcek). Meanwhile, the Louisiana sanctity of marriage, as well their own contract with its many clauses, are overseen by Judge Jean Baptiste (Timothy Jenkins). All of these details are clearly rendered, and it appears to be a good, methodical script that manages to maintain a smoothly flowing plot as it divulges the complexities of this triangle (or square, if you include the judge). However, the episode suffers from being painfully slow, with the final denouement running for too many minutes, that despite some suspense at the half-way point, we end up figuring out far too early what is really going on, leaving the latter part plainly uninteresting.

The set and direction are good, though Claude's own room is just silly and a little too colourful; clearly not a room his character would have lived in. The play opens up with a shot of Bubba's mother, nicely framed, and soon reveals glassed-in bullfrog, and the camera pans over to a pretty little caged cockatoo. We listen to Bubba's voice-over, and when we see his warty hand we immediately link him to the bullfrog wishing to be a cockatoo. Nicely done indeed. There are a number of good visuals and other allusions to this effect, such as Annabelle calling Bubba a "bull" and the thin and blonde Annabelle's own likeness to a cockatoo (her name, in essence, is "the beautiful Anna"). The Louisiana accents are too much and at times uneven, while the sound is of poor quality, with Bubba's voice drowned out during the opening scenes. Too bad since this could have been a really good one.

"Let the Games Begin." (First aired 10 May 1987) Directed by John Lewis. Written by Peter O'Keefe. Starring David Groh, Jane Summerhays, Earl Hindman and Willie Reale. 2/10

Drunk in the honeymoon suite following the reunion of his high school class of 1958, Harry Carson suffers a heart attack and dies. It seems a straightforward act, yet there is some confusion between the minions of heaven and of hell as to which realm he must now ascend, or descend. Hilarity ensues. Well, not really, but that's probably what the directions in the sad little teleplay called for. Director John Lewis tries his best, with a few nice mirror shots (notice early on the warped figures of Carson and the bellboy to the right of the screen), but there is so little to work with that the episode is an embarrassing mess. While David Groh as the angel and Earl Hindman as Carson (Mr. Wilson from Home Improvement) are fine in their roles, successful broadway star Jane Summerhays is at times painful to watch. Overall among the worst of the Darksides.

"The Enormous Radio." (First aired 17 May 1987) Directed by Bill Travis. Written by Guy Gallo from the short story by John Cheever. Starring Christine Estabrook, John Rothman and an enormous radio. 7/10

With their brand new, top of the line, enormous radio, Jim and Irene can listen in on their neighbours' apartments. What begins as a little fun becomes for Irene an obsession, as she begins to see that people all over do little else than suffer. Based on the often anthologised short story by popular American writer John Cheever, this teleplay once again proves that Darkside produces better episodes when adapting short stories. There is nothing shocking plot-wise, yet this is among the most horrific episodes in that it's philosophy reveals that humans are destined to treat one another poorly; we are prone to gossip, to cheating and stealing, and becoming aware of the vices of others is an act of becoming aware of our own. People are alike all over, and our similarities are seen through our selfishness, lack of self-control, and our base treatment of those around us. The final shot is terrific, with the arguing voices of Irene and Jim playing ironically alongside the lovely music of the "Ode to Joy."

The set is well constructed. The home is tastefully decorated with every detail eliciting the 1950s, from the rotary telephone to the issue of Life Magazine that sits on the coffee table. There are also some fine establishing shots that open the play, from the smiling faces of contented Irene and Jim as they listen to Schubert, to the mixing of drinks, neat little radio and everything else that points to a comfortable home. Actress Christine Estabrook is excellent (and attractive) as Irene, while character actor John Rothman is a little uneven as Jim (Rothman had a small part in season one's "The Tear Collector"). There is also a brief cameo by successful Irish stage actress Kate O'Toole.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Tales from the Darkside Season 3: Episodes 8 through 16

Season One begins here
Season Two begins here
Season three episodes 1 through 7 appear here
Season three episodes 16 through 22 appear here

A fairly strong first third of Darkside's third season is followed by some truly weak episodes. What is striking in season three is the throw-away attitude toward magic. Several episodes use magic in an utterly sloppy way: it is merely a device to not only trigger the story or progress plot, but often to manipulate plot, allowing for the magic to do whatever the writer wishes in a kind of deus ex machina. This sort of practice is unfair to the viewer, manipulating expectations and such.

"A Serpent's Tooth." (First aired 16 November 1986) Directed by Frank De Palma. Written by Edithe Swensen. Starring Renée Taylor, Louis Quinn, JoAnn Willette and some other unknowns.

Following the poor "Heretic" we have yet another weak entry penned by Edithe Swensen. In this, yet another attempt at laughs, an overbearing stereotypical Jewish mother receives help from the magic of a serpent's tooth. With this tooth she is able to direct her son away from his intended career, and pretty much enslave her daughter with notions of housewifery. There is no sense, no real point, and certainly no laughs to be had in this poor episode. The characters are not terribly interesting and the situation is pure fluff. It is not among the truly horrible episodes, since Renée Taylor is somewhat decent as the mother while JoAnn Willette's hair is pretty neat. 4/10

"Baker's Dozen." (First aired 23 November 1986) Directed by John Harrison. Written by George A. Romero from a story by Scott Edelman. Starring Mabel King, Larry Manetti, Vernon Washington and Therese Pare.

Advertising guru Henry Hogan believes he can transform Ruby Cuzzins's wonderful bakery Cuzzins' Dozens into an empire. Yet he is warned by Ruby's slaving husband Aloysius Cuzzins to beware, while being handed a dozen special cookies. These special cookies, in the shape of little people, allow the owner to harm others, which Hogan apparently has no qualms doing. This episode makes no sense, and is a fine example of how magic is used to simply to allow the writer all the freedom possible to fiction.

[Spoilers] First of all, the cookies have no designation in the sense that they do not individually represent specific people, yet when a particular cookie is used, even accidentally, if harms the person required for plot purposes; when Hogan's wife Helen crumbles the cookie left in the bag, who is to say that that particular was designed to represent Hogan himself, especially since Hogan no doubt would have used it against someone completely different. Is it that Hogan was on his wife's mind at the time? Moreover, if Aloysius had the thirteenth cookie all along (the baker's dozen extra), why does he wait until the very end to dispose of Ruby? He's been wanting since the beginning to be free from her, and waiting as he does simply allowed for much blood to be unnecessarily spilled. Realistically, he would have used the cookie against Ruby much sooner, especially since he had easy access to these special baked goods all along. Not only would he have been free long ago, but more importantly he would spared Darkside viewers from watching this painful drivel. Poor acting, a lame script and a load of nonsense does not a good program make. Hogan is played by Magnum P.I.'s Larry Manetti, his second appearance on Darkside (he was the lead in season two's ho-hum "Printer's Devil") Ruby is (over)played by Mabel King, though the script calls for exaggerration in stereotypical form. 4/10

"Deliver Us from Goodness." (First aired 30 November 1986) Directed by Warner Shook. Written by Jule Selbo from a short story by Suzette Haden Elgin. Starring Kaiulani Lee, Steve Vinivich, Mary Louise Wilson and Jane Adams.

Among the worst episodes ever produced for Darkside. During her husband's mayoral campaign, Mrs. Valerie Cantrell discovers she is a saint, and does her best to lose her saintliness in order to be a normal wife and mother. Not only is the play painfully unfunny, it is simply uninteresting and the acting requires no effort, just those silly expressions of shock when something supernatural occurs. The glowing and heavenly music is overused and dull. The only thing worth watching is Jane Adams as daughter Charlotte Rose Cantrell, who manages to take this awful business seriously and nonetheless give a good performance. 2/10

"Seasons of Belief." (First aired 29 December 1986) Directed by Michael McDowell. Written by McDowell from a story by Michael Bishop. Starring E.G. Marshall, Margaret Klenck, Mark Capri and a couple of annoying kids, including sitcom actress Jenna von Oÿ.

Ahhhh, the Christmas episode. There was a month hiatus since the last Darkside episode, though likely due to special programming. The nuclear family is sitting around the family room on Christmas Eve, with spoiled children Jimbo and Stefa growing quickly bored and wanting to watch TV. Well, clever and creative mom and dad decide instead to collaborate on a scary story about the Grither, a creature that lives in a cave at the North Pole. Now, don't say his name aloud, because he will hear you and make his way toward you.

The talented E.G. Marshall looks more like grandad than dad, and some of mom's knowing glances are a little irritating. The episode does manage to deliver something rare, which is to produce a Christmas episode that was actually Christmassy. Sure there's some Christmas music, a few presents, but really it is the portrayal of family togetherness and the cozy setting with the relentless winter outside. Also, there's a great last line. Of course this Christmas ends up being memorable for reasons other than family togetherness, but since it is Christmas we should allow for a few surprises. 6/10

"Miss May Dusa." (First aired 18 January 1987) Directed and written by Richard Blackburn. Starring Sofia Landon Geier and Gary Majchrazak.

A store mannequin suddenly awakens and, running scared, meets a subway saxophone player. The two outcasts and soon become attracted to each other, while the young musician tries to help the strange woman overcome her amnesia. The first (and perhaps only) episode that is solely written and directed by the same person. Richard Blackburn does not have much credited to his career in video, most notably as co-writer of the popular film Eating Raoul, but does a good job with this quiet Darkside episode. Most of the play focuses on dialogue between the two characters, centred around musician Jimmy James trying his best to uncover the secret of mannequin May Dusa. While this sounds dull focus for an entire episode, it works well, with actors Sofia Landon Geier and Gary Majchrazak doing a good job acting while looking their parts. (Interestingly, Montrealer Geier was a long-time writer for long-running soap Days of Our Lives.) Moreover, thanks to the jazzy saxophone we are spared the 80s TV music. 6/10

"The Milkman Cometh." (First aired on 25 January 1987) Directed by John Strysik. Written by Donald Wollner from a story by Charles Grant Craig. Starring Robert Forster, Seymour Cassel, Shannon Wilcox, Chad Allen and Barbara Sloane.

"Maybe you shouldn't get things from the milkman anymore."

Advertising artist Garry Cooley is struggling to make ends meet, and his wife Ruth is pressuring him to ask for a raise. Yet things suddenly start getting better when Garry puts into action some advice that was being passed around the rumour mill: when in need of something, anything, just request it from the milkman. Garry soon becomes a little too needy though, and begins to ask for more than just money. Unfortunately, the milkman tends to interpret less than straightforward requests in his own peculiar way. A great episode, suspenseful and well written, with a nice pleading moment from Garry to the milkman, and several scenes of tension between Garry and others. Robert Forster is well cast in the lead, with good support from Shannon Wilcox as wife Ruth, and Seymour Cassel as friend and fellow milkman "client."

The opening sequence of Cooley working on a campaign for breaded fishsticks is a nice touch, watching as the subtle little dots and lines he is adding help the cartoon come alive. I'm not sure what, if anything, this has to do with the rest of the episode, but it's a good way to nab the viewer's attention. 7/10

"My Ghostwriter - The Vampire." (First aired 1 February 1987) Directed by Frank De Palma. Written by Peter O'Keefe from yet another story by Scott Edelman. Starring Jeff Conaway, Roy Dotrice and Jillie Mack.

Struggling hack writer Peter Prentice receives a unique opportunity from a vampire: In exchange for room and board, Count Jeffrey Draco will recount (pun intended) his various life experiences so that Prentice could use them for what is sure to be a massive best seller. While the idea could have been well rendered, you can count on some bad comedy and haphazard notions of magic to once again get in the way.

For bad comedy we have a script by Peter O'Keefe, who will later in the season be privileged to offer up one of the worst Darkside episodes yet ("Let the Games Begin"). The script is from a story by Scott Edelman, whose previous story idea in "Baker's Dozen" was also poorly scripted. As for magic, the idea of blood mixing with the ashes of a vampire to revive the creature to its previous fleshy form is poorly used. The idea itself is idiotic (though I know only the basics of vampire lore and perhaps this is part of some legend outside Bram Stoker's Dracula, which I am familiar with), yet the set-up is so poorly contrived that not only do we know how this silly play will wrap up, the blood dripping wound is, all in all, quite a pathetic moment. Jeff Conaway is passable as Prentice. Roy Dotrice makes a fine vampire, but Jillie Mack is a little annoying. 4/10

"My Own Place." (First aired 8 February 1987) Directed by Theodore Gershuny. Written by Gershuny and Perry Lang. Starring Perry Lang, Harsh Nayyar, Nancy Travis and Bina Sharif.

A young urban professional rents a snazzy apartment in a rent-controlled building in New York City. Having wanted all his life to have his own place, he is soon driven to incredible bouts of anger and frustration by the strange Indian man named Ram who appears when no one else is around.

This episode is undecided. It can't figure out whether it is trying to be funny, mysterious or creepy, and thereby fails on all three counts. Whereas it appears light there is no humour; while the presence of the man is strange we've seen this kind of thing so often that it is tiring; and even though we are tossed a few images of dusty India, these seem so random that we are too confused to feel any creepiness whatsoever. The story is a muddled mess, with two lives interchanging... but no they don't, since one of them disappears. It's about finding your own path, as the Indian says to the American... no, the American is clearly on no path of his own but is being strangely manipulated. It's really about... no, I just don't care to even speculate. The episode is poorly written, with some needless and annoying repetition ("You are afraid") that seems to hint at a purpose but goes nowhere (we never discover what this dear might be).

It is written (or haphazardly scrawled) by the lead actor, a certain Perry Lang who is best known for... oh look, he directed himself in a Dolph Lundgren movie from the mid-1990s (that dark period that was hard on all action stars from the 1980s). Harsh Nayyar (Ram) was the annoying vampire in the episode "Strange Love." Nancy Travis, however, has a solid career, is the only thing worth looking at here, and oddly enough re-united shortly hereafter with Lang in the fine John Sayles film Eight Men Out. What is interesting about this episode is that it not only begins with an outdoor shot, but with a character in the great outdoors riding his bicycle, and another brief outdoor shot is included following the first act. 4/10

"Red Leader." (First aired 15 February 1987) Directed by John Harrison. Written by Edithe Swensen. Starring Joe E. Tata, Brioni Farrell, Carmine Caridi and Peter Bromilow.

After the death of his partner, corrupt businessman Alex Hayes sets out to control the company. Yet things get complicated when his dead former partner jackhammers his way up through the floor, and "Red Leader" is close behind, wanting to recruit Hayes among the ranks of hell's minions. Another lacklustre episode penned by Edithe Swensen. The situation is uninteresting and the plot tiresome, unfunny and predictable. Performances are also weak, in particular Athenian Brioni Farrell as widow Amanda Caine, and Brit Peter Bromilow who is a strange, almost effeminate "Red Leader." 2/10

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Tales from the Darkside Season 3: Episodes 1 through 7

[Edited on 1 August 2011: formatting, minor text changes, new screenshots.]

Season One begins here
Season Two begins here
Season three episodes 8 through 16 appear here
Season three episodes 16 through 22 appear here

Season three of Tales from the Darkside is a bit of an oddity. Despite boasting the strongest season opening, as well as in perhaps the greatest Darkside episode of all seasons with "The Geezenstacks," it is by lengths and miles the weakest of the show's seasons. Yes, there were some gems, as with "Everybody Needs a Little Love" and "The Milkman Cometh," but there was also a large emphasis on humour that is painfully unfunny, on angels and devils and dull predictability, bad writing and unfortunate attempts at acting. Some episodes were so dull, in fact, that I wasn't even motivated to capture any screen shots. (But the good ones get two.)

"Circus." (First aired 28 September 1986) Directed by Michael Gornick. Written by George A. Romero from a short story by Sydney J. Bounds. Starring William Hickey, Kevin O'Connor and Ed French. 8/10

"There is always the unexpected, isn't there, Mr. Bragg?" Cynical newspaperman Bragg visits a mysterious side-show circus that boasts as its attractions such legendary terror figures as a vampire, a wolf-man and a re-animated corpse. For the first time in three seasons Darkside gets it right by leading in with a great episode. This is a fine example of a serious episode whose inherent black humour is effective. Especially in its third season, Darkside unfortunately wasted plenty of original or unusual ideas by emphasizing on humour rather than on simply accepting the unusual and focusing on its serious undertones, whether they be grand or simple, straightforward themes.

"Circus" is base upon a short story by English author Sydney J. Bounds, prolific yet mostly forgotten, who was long kept in print through those great Fontana Books of Great Horror Stories and even a few of the New Writings in SF. I haven't read "Circus" but will try to seek out a copy (please let me know if you have one).

"Circus" is an adaptable story with great visual potential, and Darkside seemingly invested more money in this episode than in most others. There is a sparse though well designed set, a good deal of make-up, a pair of dogs, a dead rat, and despite only two speaking parts, there are several onscreen actors/extras. The story is well adapted by Romero, the dialogue dripping in thematic notions of imagination, youth and moral corruption ("Think of the children!"), all tied in with the importance of that sense of wonder that no fact-based paper can provide. The make-up is excellent, from the over-rippled vampire to the dirty lycanthrope and darkly-comical re-animated corpse (essentially Dr. Frankenstein's monster). All of these elements are well supported by strong performances by Kevin O'Connor as Bragg, who is best known for his role as Woody in the indie Let's Scare Jessica to Death, and William Hickey as Dr. Nis, and a great bit-part by David Thornton as the werewolf.

"Perhaps my circus does provide some useful service. And as for the children... what better time to develop a sense of wonder than one's youth, before it's too late."

"I Can't Help Saying Goodbye." (First aired 5 October 1986) Directed by John Strysik. Written by Jule Selbo from a story by Ann MacKenzie. Starring Brian Benben, Loren Cedar, Alison Sweeney and Helen Duffy. 3/10

Little Karen seems to know when someone is about to die, and can't help but say goodbye. Needless to say creeping everyone out in the process. This episode may have worked but the pacing is completely off; it takes too long to get to the premise, with several minutes of filler chatter in an attempt to make us care for the characters. Moreover, the poor acting, terrible music and terribly used music (the girl has her own theme) make "Goodbye" an incredible disappointment as a follow-up to the excellent "Circus." The ending could work, and could work well in illustrating that the girl is merely a victim not only of her "gift" but of the creeped-out people around her. Unfortunately, by the time we arrive to the last frame, we just don't care how it'll end. Goodbye... Goodbye...

"The Bitterest Pill." (First aired 12 October 1986) Directed by Bryan Michael Stoller. Written by Jule Selbo (yet again, to my dismay) from a story by science fiction veteran Frederik Pohl. Starring some average people. 2/10

A family wins a lottery prize of ten million dollars and are hounded by people wanting them to finance their projects; so intensely hounded that they need to hire their own private security guard who remains stationed at the front door. Now, with ten million you think the family could move into a place a little more secure than your average middle-class suburban house. Or get a security guard with some muscle. Well, I suppose less intimidating security is required, since good security would have kept Uncle Tinker out, and we wouldn't have had an episode and we would've been better off.

So, in comes Uncle Tinker (Mark Blankfield) with his latest invention: a pill that opens up the subconscious so that a person has instant recall. I'm not terribly familiar with the works of prolific science fiction and fantasy author Frederik Pohl, so I can't imagine what his original take on the idea was, but the situation it is worked into here is not the most effective in illustrating its various possibilities. The episode is painfully unfunny, poorly acted and is one of the truly darker blemishes of Darkside's entire run.

The short story was first published in Galaxy Magazine, April 1959.

"Florence Bravo." (First aired on 19 October 1986) Directed by John Lewis. Written by Edithe Swensen. Starring Lori Cardille, David Hayward, Carol Levy and Lauren Klein. 6/10

"It's a very colourful story."

The episode credits open to a room with covered furniture, the white dust sheets immediately implying the presence of a ghost. As the credits end and the camera settles on some grimy French doors, a young agent appears to show the unoccupied house to Dr. David McCall (David Hayward) and his wife Emily (Lori Cardille, Sarah from Romero's Day of the Dead), and as they exit Act I, the boom mike is clearly visible on the top left corner. We soon learn (thanks partly to the mike) that Emily had a recent breakdown, and so the couple is here to recover, wishing to start their lives afresh. Yet how can they, as the couple soon becomes a trio when the expected ghost appears, one Florence Bravo, a feminist of the days of yore. A good episode despite its predictability, the fact that Dr. McCall is a dead ringer for Geraldo Rivera, and I doubt that old rusted gun would have worked.

"The Geezenstacks." (First aired on 26 October 1986) Directed by Bill Travis. Written by Nancy Doyne from a short story by Frederic Brown. Starring Craig Wasson, Tandy Cronin, Larry Pine, Lana Hirsch and Stephanie Cassel. 9/10

"Sometimes people get confused about dolls."

Uncle Richard gives little Audrey a gorgeous doll house that was left abandoned in a deserted people house. Audrey is immediately taken by the neat little dolls and their nice home, and right off the bat refers to the family as the Geezenstacks. Learned it directly from them, she insists. "Here's Mr. Geezenstack, here's Mrs. Geezenstack, here's little Audrey Geezenstack and here's Uncle Richard." Mother Edith believes Audrey is just imagining as children do, but father Sam feels there is something truly odd about the little house and its creepy inhabitants.

If only other Darkside episodes were half as good as "The Geezenstacks." This fine little play stands out on so many levels, and it's great that this was aired as the Halloween episode for 1986. First off, the dolls and their house are just gorgeous; even I would own a set. The plot progression, script adaptation by Nancy Doyne from a superb short story by Frederic Brown combine for solid story-telling. (Indeed, many of Brown's original stories made it to television, including four episodes of the original Alfred Hitchcock Presents and two for Tales of Tomorrow, as well as a story credit for the popular Star Trek episode "Arena.") Moreover, there is some fine cinematography and good camera work, but what truly brings this above the mold is the excellent music, that wonderfully creepy semi-tonal string music (to replace the awful synthesized music of most other Darkside episodes). The strings begin in simple repetitive form, but soon increases in complexity and intensity, and moreover is even enhanced in contrast to Audrey's screechy violin practice.

As far as story is concerned, there are so many interesting elements that keep the suspense mounting and the ending unpredictable. We follow Sam Hummell as he suspects something odd about the dolls and about little Audrey's relationship to them. It's their eyes, certainly, nearly human and staring right at you, but it's also Audrey's intense playing, her wanting to punish them for misbehaving, her insistence that she just knows things about them. Craig Wasson is well cast as Sam Hummell. He plays the part with an almost comic air, the businessman father who is naive of home matters, who dotes on his daughter as a sitcom dad would dote on the baby girl of the family. But when his baby girl becomes a little creepy, and he tries poorly, as an unpracticed dad would, to communicate with her, his comedic smile and eyeball stare are replaced by utter terror, frazzled hair and pleading, fear-infused eyes.

There is a stunning scene when Sam rises in the middle of the night and heads downstairs to see the dollhouse. Perhaps the minute is filler but it is incredibly well done, nicely dark and methodical, allowing that great music to shine through the mounting suspense. And that ending is just fabulous. Perhaps the best Darkside episode of any season.

"Sam's gotten all wound up about those dolls."

"Black Widows." (First aired on 2 November 1986) Directed by Karl Epstein. Written by Michael McDowell. Starring Margaret O'Brien, Audrey Webster, Paul Eiding and Joe D'Angerio. 6/10

The humour almost works in this one, though the concept is far greater than the execution. Audrey Webster lives with her shut-in mother Mildred in a mobile home. While Ashley heads off to work, excited about her upcoming wedding, Mildred sits at home watching TV and chatting with the Reverend Joy and whatever unlucky salesman happens to come by. Unlucky because, unbeknown to her daughter, Mildred is an arachnid.

This episode features some interesting (yet unimportant) events. It is one of the few episodes to open with an outdoor establishing shot, though many remaining season three episodes use the same set-up. Second week in a row the daughter's name is Audrey, who in this case is played by an actress named Audrey. As for the cast, Mildred is played by legendary Margaret O'Brien, the memorable Tootie from Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Beth from the great Little Women (1949) and many other films and television appearances. Moreover, frequent voice actor Paul Eiding as Reverend Joy is a pleasure to watch.

"Heretic." (First aired on 9 November 1986) Directed by Gerald Cotts. Written by Edithe Swensen. Starring Roberts Blossom, Bruce MacVittie, Michael O'Hare and Alan Scarfe. 3/10

Sleazy medieval art dealer Harte receives his latest (stolen) prize: a sixteenth century tempera painting with a lovely scene re-enacting a moment of the inquisition. Since this is an episode of Darkside, we immediately expect our protagonist to get trapped in the painting. Lo and behold there is lots of smoke and a figure appears to take Harte to the inquisition, where the kindly Inquisitor gives him a chance to redeem himself. This is where the episode moves from being bland to being plain idiotic: Harte believes the magic and the warning, is absolutely terrified of the punishment should he fail to change, and yet despite being pursued by magic, he tries to pack a suitcase and flee. Yes, an actual earthly suitcase, as though it can ward off both magic and the evils of the Inquisition. Of course, as we have learned over the course of the series, people cannot change. And as we have come to expect, the characters suffer their horrible fates regardless of logic or sense.

Another weak, paint-by-numbers episode. The idea is not too original, yet in a medium lacking in originality, the problem here is that it is not originally done. Camera work and directing are tired, and the acting (excepting Roberts Blossom as the Inquisitor) is quite poor, with Bruce MacVittie giving us a generic rising bad guy in Harte.

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