Jonny Quest: The Invisible Monster & Less is More

I’ve been recently re-watching the original Jonny Quest cartoons from the sixties.  I haven’t seen many of them since I was a kid, and some hold up fairly well, while others . . . ehhh.  There are more than a few dated and embarrassing ethnic stereotypes.

Anyway, one of my favorites is “The Invisible Monster”.  A scientist on an isolated tropical island accidentally creates an invisible energy creature.  The monster seeks out all energy around it and consumes it–including the energy in living bodies.  You only know it’s around by a weird, alien cry it makes and the burning footprints in the dirt.

This creepiness, by the way, is in what was intended as a kid’s show.  Adult themes are nothing new to JQ.  The creators (most prominently Doug Wildey, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera) intended it that way.  They succeed rather admirably in several episodes, including this one. 

The episode follows a fairly standard monster movie formula.  The protagonists (Doctor Quest, Race Bannon, Jonny Quest, Hadji and Bandit the dog) are radioed by the luckless scientist.  His creation kills him before he finishes explaining.  They rush to the island and discover the invisible monster.  Dr. Quest (being the prototypical heroic scientist) figures out what happened and comes up with a way to defeat it.

Despite a run time of only 25 minutes, the episode does an excellent job of building tension.  The monster isn’t seen until near the end, with only its destruction to portray it.  When finally seen, it’s not quite as frightening.  The animators did a decent job of creating an inhuman blob of energy, but it comes across more as an angry scoop of ice cream.  Limitations of animation budget.  Plus I assume they didn’t want to scare the crap out of the little nippers.

Even with these limitations, the episode scared me as a kid.  It was my first encounter with the “less is more” approach to horror and tension.  William Friedkin, director of The Exorcist, one said that “Horror is watching something approach”.  A good summation of the concept here.  Something you don’t see is much worse than what you do.  Even when I encountered this in my youth, I realized the power it possessed.  Other ‘golden age’ examples are The Thing From Another World and Forbidden Planet.  Less is more.

A concept so simple that a children’s cartoon can encapsulate it.

Here’s a link to watch it online.  Enjoy.

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Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds Computer Game

The Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds is an oddball offshoot of the RTS genre.  I am a bit of a real-time strategy freak.  I’ve played a lot of RTS games.  The Dune II game from 1993 became my first encounter with the genre and hooked me from the outset.  For a while I played them all.  Good, bad, and mediocre–it didn’t matter.  Must . . . play . . . all!

Along came the Jeff Wayne’s WOTW game in 1998.  Adoring the novel as well as the RTS genre, I jumped on it.

This game came out an an uncomfortable time in the RTS game advances.  It couldn’t be played online during a time when that was the growing rage.  It looked–and sounded!–nifty, but its formula varied from the established formula.

In a nutshell, it is neither fish nor fowl.  It’s a duckbilled platypus.

First, a little background.  The music on this game comes from Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of the War of the Worlds techno-music, art rock album from 1978.  If you have never listened to this album, do yourself a favor and check it out.  Anyway, I don’t need to elaborate since it is a kind of cult classic album.  The music gives a nice sense of eeriness to the proceedings in the game.

In the game, the player can play as either the humans or the Martians.  Unlike in the 1898 novel, the Martians are destroyed in England and divert their landings to Scotland.  (Picture the amusing thought of a Martian in a kilt, with a blue-painted face, screaming “Freedom!”.)  I assume they did this to give the war a definite front, rather than scattered Martian battles. 

Instead of merely a RTS, the game also has turns.  Sort of.  You have a strategic/production map where you look at all your sectors.  Time is halted on this screen until you advance it, usually by days.  The feature allows you to pick your research and production.  Like many RTS, each side has multiple resources they must use.  Humans have steel, coal and oil, while the Martians have copper, heavy elements and human blood! (The most ghoulishly amusing resource I’ve seen in any RTS game.)

British war technology in this is quite a bit more advanced than in the novel, despite being set in the same year of 1898.  A necessary change if you want the humans to have a prayer.  A steampunk vibe appears to be what they were going for and, for the most part, it works.  The game had sufficient entertainment value that I played it through once both as the humans and Martians. 

The graphics and gameplay are adequate, if uninspired.  Fighting as the humans is rough at the beginning, with no vehicles capable of defeating anything.  Your only chance is to build artillery–a lot of it.  You must simply endure Martian attacks until your technology is advanced enough to go on the offensive.  Try an early offensive will see your vehicles evaporate like a fart in the wind.  Playing as the Martians is more active, as you have an advantage right off the bat.  If you wade into a bunch of gun emplacements, you definitely can lose, though.

What I suspect truly doomed this game to obscurity was its lack of online options.  Honestly, I’m not sure it could have worked with the turn options.

JWWOTW isn’t great, nor is it terrible.  The highlight is (unsurprisingly) the soundtrack.  Production turns are an interesting idea, but clunky.  Multiple scenarios would have greatly expanded the playability as well.

Any fan of either H.G. Wells War of the Worlds or Jeff Wayne’s musical album ought to check it out.  There are multiple sites online where one can download it for free.

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The Black Hole: (1979) A Very Weird Disney Movie

the-black-hole-01Okay, let’s roll the clock back to 1979 to take a look at Disney’s first PG rated film: The Black Hole.

Star Wars had come out two years earlier and every studio was scrambling to find their niche in the science fiction boom.  Science fiction adventure films were, for the first time ever, considered an ‘A-list’ commodity.  Every studio wanted their ‘own’ Star Wars. The results of this boom were rather a mixed bag, much like The Black Hole.

First, let’s talk about Disney’s state in the 70s.  They were not in terrific shape.  They’d had a string of mediocre animated and kids’ movies and were struggling to stay afloat and/or relevant since Walt kicked the bucket in 1966.  Their bread and butter consisted of re-releasing old Disney classic animation every few years.  Their main claim to fame at this point was the consistent G rating of their movies.

Then comes The Black Hole.  May seem pretty tame by today’s standards, but the idea of a PG Disney movie was radical at the time.

the-black-hole-03Critics ripped the movie and Neil DeGrasse Tyson gave it infamy by saying it has the worst science in a movie of all time (although one wonders whether Neil has seen The Core.)  To be honest, it’s not a terrible movie.  The visual designs are pretty damn good.  Costumes are decent and sets solid.  The robot designs are interesting (although a bit too cutesy with VINCENT and BOB.)  The antagonist robot Maximilian is especially sinister.  The characters are mostly forgettable, the dialogue is soap-opera-cringeworthy and yes, the science is terrible.

The gist of the plot is that the exploratory space ship USS Palomino finds the long-lost ship USS Cygnus in orbit around a black hole. ( I assume it’s named Cygnus as a nod to the black hole of Cygnus X-1, although this is mere speculation on my part.)  On board is the-black-hole-04the scenery-chewing Maximilian Schell as the kooky commander of the Cygnus–Dr. Hans Reinhardt.  He’s got a crew of robot soldiers and android workers but apparently no other human survived.  He manages to hit every mad scientist note, including having a monstrous flunky robot named Maximilian (as a nod to Schell?)  Dr. Kate McCrae (played by Yvette Mimieux) has a personal stake in the fate of the Cygnus, as her father was one of the crew. Dr. Alex Durant (played by a luckless Anthony Perkins) is the cliched naive scientist who falls under Reinhardt’s sway.  Captain Dan Holland (Robert Forster) is the square-jawed captain hero.  Lieutenant Charlie Pizer (Joseph Bottoms) is the impulsive young hero.  Harry Booth (a criminally-underutilized Ernest Borgnine) is the craven, weaselly crewmember.  Those highlights are literally all I remember about these characters.  They have as much depth as a puddle.

The other ‘actors’ are the robots VINCENT (voiced by Roddy McDowell) and BOB (voiced by Slim Pickens.)  Like Maximilian, they are hovering robots instead of walking ones.  I assume Disney did this because it looked interesting and allowed them to mimic the-black-hole-02the ‘cuteness’ of R2-D2 to some extent.  Their eyes, though, are more like anime or cartoon eyes, giving them a bit more goofiness than I think they were going for.  Maybe they were trying to balance the kind of melodrama depressing tone of the movie?  Dunno.

Anyway, turns out Dr. Reinhardt is nuttier than a fruitcake (who could have known?) and wants to go into the black hole.  Also turns out his ‘android workers’ are the lobotomized human crew of the Cygnus.  When this is discovered, Maximilian kills Durant as he tries to the-black-hole-05escape with Kate.  The rest of the crew comes to her rescue except Harry, who does the craven move and tries to escape on the Palomino and instead crashes into the Cygnus. 

The rest of the movie is the crew escaping from the haunted castle spaceship by getting on the probe ship used by Reinhardt to examine the black hole.  They try to fly off, only to discover the probe ship is locked onto the black hole.

What follows is a weird, surreal, eschatological series of scenes with Maximilian and Reinhardt merging into a Satan-like figure and the crew flying through a heavenly the-black-hole-06cathedral.

Or something like that.  It’s not as weird as the end of 2001, but it’s pretty damn weird.  The ship ends by coming out the ‘other side’ in some unknown solar system.

Again, this isn’t a terrible movie.  Mostly it’s just a lot of misfires.  There were decent ideas in it and moments of interest.  I suppose the annoying part is that there was a great deal of unused potential.

Still, it’s worth checking out at least once.

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Piers Anthony: Apprentice Adept

Piers Anthony is a best-selling fantasy author who most people associate with the apprentice-adept-01pun-filled Xanth books (of which there are 39!)  However, he’s been prolific for several other science fiction and fantasy series, such as the sci-fi/fantasy series called Apprentice Adept.

Piers is an oddball writer.  I’ve read a lot of his books and his tone ricochets all across the emotional and intellectual spectrum.  The Of Man and Manta series is a quasi-nihilistic and psychedelic experiment, while the Xanth series is a pun-filled goof.  As strange as Piers gets, he is typically entertaining.

The Apprentice Adept series takes place in two parallel worlds.  The science fiction world is a barren mining world called Proton.  The fantasy world is called Phaze.  The two can be crossed over at certain spots and there are parallel social systems on apprentice-adept-02each world.  Both are essentially a kind of feudal system.  On Proton, the worlds are controlled by the Citizens, who rule over the serfs.  Wealth is measured in the rare mineral called Protonite.  The serfs are in a form of indentured servitude but can win a kind of Olympic game called the Tourney and become citizens.  Serfs are unable to own anything on Proton, including clothing.

On Phaze, there are super-powerful Adepts (wizards) who rule over all the lower classes.  The Adepts each have a unique form of magic and a color they’re identified with (which seems to have little connection apprentice-adept-03with their unique magic.)  The magic of Phaze is powered by a rare mineral called Phazite (which reminds me of Larry Niven’s The Magic Goes Away.)  The two worlds are (for the most part) unaware of one another.

The main character, Stile, is a serf who discovers a plot against his life in Proton.  With the help of a female robot named Sheen, he escapes through a portal to Phaze.  There, he discovers that the other ‘him’ on Phaze is the Blue Adept.  He inherits Blue’s magic on Phaze, which allows him to cast spells by rhyming (which isn’t actually as goofy as it sounds.)  He discovers that the plot against him extends to Phaze as well.

The plot jumps back and forth from Proton to Phaze as Stile unravels the scheme against apprentice-adept-04him with the Adepts on Phaze and the Citizens on Proton.  There’s a meta-plot involving Stile entering the Tourney so that he might become a Citizen.  The individual competitions in the Tourney are actually pretty enjoyable and eventually becomes an integral part of bringing down the Red Adept (who is his primary nemesis.)

The series is an enjoyable middle ground between Piers’ experimental nihilism and his silly puns.  The story never flags and the characters are quite likable.  The science of the science fiction setting is somewhat soft but not too silly.  The magic of Phaze has a decent level of continuity and the fantasy elements aren’t played for laughs like in Xanth.  I recommend the trilogy apprentice-adept-05without reservation.

* – For disclosure, I’d like to mention that I only read the first three of this series and wasn’t even aware there were more books.  I do know the first three are a tight, well-written trilogy and am, frankly, afraid to read the rest.  I know what happened after the first three (pretty apprentice-adept-06solid) Xanth books.  (Hint: they became awful.)