Monday, February 24, 2014

In Praise of "Who"

Not my grandma. 
So Grandma is from England, and despite the decision by my grandparents to not impose a strong cultural imprint upon their scions, a fair amount of the English bits have stuck.  I'm well versed in Shakespeare (my whimsical essay entitled "Zounds!: How Four Plays by the Bard Influenced Batman and Robin" being a cheeky college hit), the Beatles, tea (my favorite being Earl Grey, hot), and I've seen a genuine Officer of the Order of the British Empire perform on stage--twice (that's a knight to you common folk, and 'twas Sir Patrick Stewart performing Dickens).

Yet there's always been one area of Britannia that has tended to allude me: its television.  In my mind, most British television that has made its way to our shores was made very inexpensively (cheap sets, poor camera work, and, most naff, shot on videotape).  Yes, many a fine American program was shot on videotape, but never to the benefit of the show.  Indeed, many a late evening BBC-to-PBS program that we watched at Grandma's was basically like this:

(Yes, I've just made a sly LOST reference there.) Sometimes, if there was a laugh track, you'd know it was supposed to be funny.  Other times... perhaps it was silly, perhaps dramatic.  If the costumes were fussy, you could assume it wasn't funny.

Yet, at least the contemporary and historical offerings were earnest, albeit poorly produced by American standards (though admittedly much better acted).  There was a third category that never made sense to me: Doctor Who. I watched parts of a few episodes as a kid, usually with my uncle.  It never, ever made any god damn sense.  Not only was there the standard cultural barrier, but the god-awful effects turned the show into a veritable fever dream.

Atrocious effects, atrocious sets, strange situations, and plots making absolutely zero sens: that's what Doctor Who was to me when I was but a boy.  It worked out rather well: during the 1980s the show petered out and was cancelled... and ended up being some in-the-past cultural footnote.  

Or so I thought.

Roberts in Doctor Who.
I do vaguely remember when Fox tried to semi-reboot the series in the mid 1990s.  I say semi-reboot because series had already established that the Doctor can die and come back in another form, allowing for a new actor and new personality to portray the character in a continued continuity.  I skipped Fox's TV movie (a failed backdoor pilot), sensing that certain Fox stink to it.  I'd only learn later that the network took this quintessentially British show and gave it an American baddie in the form of Eric Roberts and shot it in Canada.  My case of the mehs only continue when the BBC formally rebooted the show in 2005.  After all, state-side, it was wholly ignored; it aired on the Sci Fi Channel 18 months after showing up in Britain.  By the time it was an American cable hit (eventually and logically making its way to BBC America--duh), it was already past me.  Where to start with a series that literally has more episodes than Star Trek, and has been on so long that some episodes have been lost to time?  

It's back! 
Luckily, the answer was, as it is with many things, Netflix.  In addition to a varied mess of older Who tv movies (or serial episodes put together as a TV movie?), it has the modern series.  It's clearly delineated:  it's called Doctor Who and it starts in 2005 and it has a bunch of seasons.  

And you know what?  It's bloody bril!  The first episode, "Rose," is a bit sluggish (as pilots are oft to be), but it does a great job spelling out the basics of the series: the Doctor travels through time and space with his companion (this time, for now, Rose) in a time machine that looks like a police call box on the outside, and a steampunky alien control room on the inside.  

It's that simple.  It's that easy to watch... provided that you just open your mind (though not like Cathica in "The Long Game," certainly!) to such things: as the end of the world in 5 billion AD as witnessed by, among others, tree people; aliens who kill Tony Blair in order to take over the world while wearing human being skins and farting excessively and to their great relief; characters with names like "the Mighty Jagrafress of the Holy Hadrajassic Maxaraddenfoe;" and a boyfriend replacement made of plastic. That last one isn't what you think it is, either; batteries not needed, as it's not a mechanical John Thomas.

The best thing about Doctor Who is that its one giant roller coaster. In one episode, it's ghosts and Charles Dickens; in the next, there's a giant head that talks a bit; after that, there's going back in time for Rose to see her father die, then Rose and the Doctor go back in time to see Rose see her father die.

Hardly being a shite-hawk, Doctor Who is quite appropriate for every cultural toff among us.

Look up!  It's the Mighty Jagrafress of the Holy Hadrajassic Maxaraddenfoe!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Whip Out Your "Spaceballs"

It's a metaphor.
Love, sweet love, is about exuberance!  About excitement!  About the impossible... made possible!  Thus I can only write of but one geekly love, one whose example shines, to paraphrase the Bard, like a star to every wand'ring ship.

The answer is Lonestar.  The film is Spaceballs.  The love is Vespa.  It... is... magic.

Do we not aspire for love to cross betwixt two houses?  Does not Lonestar, the scraggy Solo rogue of the universe, speak to the American image of being a self-made and independent man?  Does not Vespa, a princessly example of the haute femme, speak to the queenly manner that most men see in their ladies?  And does not such a mixture, that of rogue and royal, remind us of the pitfalls of courtship?

All relationships have their trials.  For some, it is moving to follow a job; for others, it is a change of independence; others still have their mountains to climb.  In Spaceballs, the love between our heroes is an interplanetary manner, what with the evil President Skroob trying to suck out all the air breathed by the lovely Druish folks on the planet of Druidia (or, as Vesba says, Dru-id-ee-ah).  In order to find their true love, Lonestar and Vespa cross hot desserts and cold space.  Together, they are strong than before; Lonestar finds his place in the universe (conveniently, he's a prince) and Vespa learns to handle a gun and sing slave spirituals.

Though for all these platitudes... let us be honest.  The emotion of love is the greatest of components for happiness, but... how does one put this delicately... is not Lonestar a man?  Does he not have manly needs?  Luckly, the film addresses this by way of... THE SCHWARTZ!  There are those who have misread the Schwartz to simply be a one-for-one copy of Star Wars' the Force.  Alas, alas! that such simple minds dare tackle great cinema!  Is not its writer/director/producer/co-star Mel Brooks of the Jewish persuasion?  Is not "schwantz" the Yiddish word for penis?  (Wikipedia says yes!)  Thus then, we see how fully Spaceballs treats love not only as an emotional act, but as a physical one as well.
"Look! It's a romantic comedy!"

Valentine's Day might be past us, but every day can be a day of love.  Treat yourself, treat your sweetie... pop out the Spaceballs for a few hours and see what happens.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Two Ships in a Small World

It's all true.
I'm sure I wasn't old enough to appreciate it: at the age of 8 or 9, receiving a first kiss on my cheek on the front steps of Calvary Church.  It meant very little, in the grand scheme of the great wide world, but it left my cheek warm and my heart beating, the way only, perhaps, a first kiss can.

Her name, which I have changed for reasons which will become obvious as this story goes on, wasn't a particularly lyrical one.  To call her Rosie Mae Marks is an improvement.  I suppose we were in the same Sunday school class--that must have been how we knew each other before whatever evening church function facilitated the kiss beneath an enveloping, starry sky.  She was the middle of three sisters--girls that my family knew in the way church families become once-a-week friends.  Rosie had an older sister, lovely with glowing apple cheeks, named Leia.  (It was around this time that my brother and I discovered Star Wars; we got quite a kick out of her name.)  Rosie had a younger sister as well, and the ten-and-twenty plus years that span this story have erased her true name from my memory; we'll call her Molly.  Molly was, as I recall from those church days, one of those plump, cherubic girls of about 5 who could truly and objectively live up to the adjective "cute."

The three Marks girls seemed like a hopefully mirror to my own family, what with two girls the ages of myself and my brother, and the big sister I had always wanted.  Add to that the fact that their father had a very, very impressive job: he owned a fishing boat.  Not a boat from which one casually fished, mind you.  It was a boat from which fish were commercially harvested.  It was named, in fact, "Rosie Mae;" Mr. Marks would captain the trawler out of Point Pleasant inslet every day, on the search for a bounty from the sea.  The job seemed important and romantic--man at one with nature, being part of the circle of life, being amidst nature.  It seemed like wholesome, honest work done.

That the boat was named for his middle daughter struck me as oddly unfair to the other two, particularly when I was 8 or 9.

The name stuck with me.

We weren't at the church for more than 4 or 5 years as I recall, the product of my mother's constant look for "the perfect church" and her strange resistance to the truth of church matters: any congregation of humans will include imperfection.  Yet, as it turned out, we lived in the same down as the Marks family.  And Rosie, having been in my Sunday school class, also logically turned out to be in my grade at school.  In middle school, we must have passed each other in the hall, or perhaps had the same gym class.  If so, I don't remember it--but I did always remember her.

As the classes got harder and we children became young men and women, wewere necessarily and eventually moved into future paths.  I was en route to an academic existence.  In high school, I had honors classes; Rosie took to wearing her hair long and mussed, to wearing strange knit hats and ducking out at lunch to the nearby shop which, being one hundred and one feet from the school, was a legal haven for smokers of all sorts.

Our paths continued to diverge, of course.  Perhaps she would have faded from all memory... if not for the strangest of turns.

My senior year, I rather stepped into a new direction, and with it came some new friends.  One was named Becky, who seemed to have a very lackadaisical home life.  Not without structure, of course, but no real oomph to it all.  Hers was the house where one could easily have 10 people over for moderate-to-heavy drinking, with mom and dad for the night but vaguely supportive of a small, quiet, no-driving get-together.

Life for Becky's father was, as it turned out, not easy.  That spring he revealed he had been cheating on his wife (and by emotional extension, his daughters) with another woman.  Pain, anger, grief welled up in the family, as can be expected in a time like that.  What happened next was not expected: a month later, he went over his mistress' home, took out a revolver, and blew his brains out all over her kitchen table.  Words, doubtless, do not suffice to describe the exponential growth of pain, anger, and grief experienced by Becky, her sister, and their mother.  Yet, as time went on, the remaining family grew closer, as can be expected.

One August evening, a few months after my high school graduation and many weeks after her father's suicide, Becky and I found ourselves parked (platonically, thank you very much) at the Point Pleasant inslet.  We were there for lack of anything better to do, and having a fine time talking about nothing.  Becky, doubtless, was smoking; I, doubtless, was trying to avoid it.  Boats, large and small, were in the inslet.  Pleasure craft were coming back from a day of sun-baked frivolity. Party boats, filled with paying customers out to fish in the ocean, were on their way out.

So too were the trawlers.  She pointed one out in particular: the Rosie May.

"You graduated with Rosie May Marks, didn't you?" she asked.

I said I did.

"Her father is a fisherman.  That's his boat.  He's got a wife and other daughters..."  This much I knew of course.  I wondered if she was reflecting on her own father, who had himself a wife and daughters.

Yet at that particular moment, the strange turn was taken.  Becky continued in a hazy sort of voice. "My mom and I have been talking a lot since... you know, my dad.  She said that when she was 18, she dated Mr. Marks.  This was before he met his wife.  She got pregnant.  You know, from him.  They decided to give it up for adoption."

Becky took a drag on her cigarette.  "So I guess I have some half sister out there, somewhere.  My mom's first kid.  Mr. Marks' first kid.  A kid no one knows about."

I suppose Becky could have met her half-sister a dozen times over.  Perhaps I have.  Perhaps Rosie Mae has as well.  None of us would have known it.  Perhaps that speaks to us living in a cold, distant world.  One daughter has a fine, upstanding father... until his sexual indiscretions catch up and it ends with a funeral. One daughter has a fine, upstanding father... until his sexual indiscretions get retold on a black August night and it ends with no consequences.

Perhaps I have a grim sense of connectivity, though, for I don't see it as an example of a callous existence.  There is something reassuring about knowing Rosie May as a child, and vaguely as a teen... and seeing her father's boat heading out into the ocean this very day.  Thinking of his secret child.  His family, incomplete.

It is, after all, a small world.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Spin Off It, Happy Days! Eyyy!

"These days are ouuuuuuurs!"
I hated Spider-Man 3 and, between you and me, will only see The New Adventures of Old Spider-Man (or whatever the new one staring Friend From Social Network is called) if the PhGeek crew goes along.  It is, you see, podcast fodder, and a chance to hang out.  Furthermore, it seems that Sony has decided to follow Paramount's Star Trek model: keep squeezing blood from the stone.  But is it too soon?  Perhaps--though it isn't my hundreds of millions of dollars, and the fact that I'm vaguely open to seeing it (at the movies, on iTunes, or as a freebee Redbox rental) suggests that it isn't too soon.

What would have been too soon is the spinoff--and worse, a concurrent spinoff.  The greatest offender of this?  None other than... HAPPY DAYS.

That's right: the cheery show upon which I grew up watching the syndicated reruns; the show that painted its smiling picture of midwest, mid-century Americana.  It was, during its time, a hit-making machine, whereby any possible show was connected to it for spinoff glory and gold.  Consider, if you will, that Happy Days was on for eleven seasons.  How many spinoffs could come from that?  The shocking answer: a whopping seven series, though, as you'll see below, the number might rightly be called eight.  Blood from the stone?  How about separating the stone into little pieces, then getting blood from the stone?

Ice pop this time, next time....
The first spinoff was Laverne and Shirley, and it certainly didn't spin very far: whereas Happy Days took place in late 50s/early 60s Milwaukee, both Laverne and Shirley live in... early 60s Milwaukee.  Indeed, the connection between the two shows was organic, as the gals were friends with Fonzie, and easily introduced on the mothership show.  Further, appearances by Fonzie et al were made exceedingly easy, given that they were in the same local (and indeed, next door neighbors on their sound stages).  The show lasted 8 seasons (albeit without Shirley, but still called Laverne and Shirley, for most of the last season).  Ironically series finale was a backdoor pilot for an unproduced spinoff... of a spinoff.
The second spinoff started to stretch things.  It starts with a freshening premise: Happy Days season 5, needing a new idea, takes a twist on My Favorite Martian with "My Favorite Orkan," in which Mork from Ork visits chaos upon Richie... albeit under the "and you were there, and you were there" hook of it being all a dream.  The character was so popular that the spinoff Mork and Mindy was created... this time setting the show in the contemporary 1970s, thereby closing the door to cross-series interaction--or so you'd think.  With the creation of the show, a new scene was shot to be added to reruns of "My Favorite Orkan," explaining that Mork would be going to 1978 to continue his research.  In essence, more Mork was retconned into Happy Days.  Further, Mork went back to the past in a later Happy Days episode... to facilitate a clip show.   Mork and Mindy lasted four seasons; interestingly, it was the #3 show on television in its first year.

The third live action spinoff (why live action?  Just wait, dear reader....) was the ill-fated Joanie Loves Chachi, of which neither she nor we did.  It seemed well stocked, for not only did Joanie Cunningham and the proto-Fonzie and cousin-of-the-same Chachi make the leap from the mothership to a new show, but so did Chachi's mother Louisa and stepfather and owner of Arnold's drive-in, Al.  Yet lest Scott Baio be nailing a decade's worth (or two) of Playmates or playing Charles, ever in charge, he's not much of a draw.  The show lasted two seasons--which is to say, a scant 17 episodes en toto.  The mothership-to-spinoff characters were returned to Happy Days the following and final season.

Fourth, we come to Out of the Blue, whose existence as a spinoff seems debatable--if one cares to debate it. First, a description from its Wikipedia page: "The series stars Jimmy Brogan as Random, an angel-in-training who is assigned to live with (and act as guardian angel for) a family and work as a high school teacher." Yes, I'm sure it's as awful as it sounds.  Further, it seems that somewhere along the way, its spinoff launch went sour.  The second episode of Happy Days' seventh season is called "Chachi Sells His Soul," wherein he interacts with sed angelic Random.  The only problem is that Out of the Blue, as a series, started over a week earlier.  The show lasted one season of 13 episodes... of which 9 were aired.

Least, but certainly not last (why not last? Just wait, dear reader...) is Blansky's Beauties, which has quite the sloppy little start.  First, a bit about the show.  The show's premise was the Blansky was a den mother of sorts to a bevy of Las Vegas showgirl beauties.  Yes, I'm sure it was thrilling.  A week before the show aired, title character Nancy Blanksy appeared on Happy Days.  Not so difficult, is it?  The only problem is that her own show took place in the late 1970s--thus without the virtue of Mork-esque time travel, the show spun off without aging 20 years.  This sloppy time warp continued: the motorcyclist and ladyfriend of Fonzie named Pinky appeared in Blansky's Beauties, albeit with 70s hair but no aging; further, Arnold of Arnold's drive-in, became a series regular here--again, having not aged at all.  Lastly, while not strictly sloppy time travel, two actors from the show would move to Happy Days, albeit as different characters... including Scott Baio, who turned into the afore-metioned Chachi.

And now we have completed the live action spinoffs.  But wait, there's more: the wonderful, strange world of Happy Days ANIMATION.  There were three shows... which sound like less, but were not.  First is the innocuous-sounding The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang, featuring the voices of the Fonz, Richie, and Ralph.  And more.  As per the Wikipedia article, "The cartoon added an anthropomorphic dog, Mr. Cool, and a girl from the future, Cupcake, to the cast as they travel through history in a time machine, trying, as narrator Wolfman Jack put it, ' get back to 1957 Milwaukee.' Let's just repeat that, shall we?  They take the gang from Happy Days and add... Mr. Cool, a dog, and Cupcake, a future girl.  It's an embarrassing notion.  It lasted two seasons and 24 episodes--not a bad run for animation before syndication and cable. 

But that wasn't the end for animated Fonz, nor for Mr. Cool.  But first, we must turn our attention to the animated Laverne and Shirley, in which they joined the army.  Anthropomorphicism ruled, for the ladies served under the command of Sgt. Squeel, a talking pig.  That series lasted one season and 13 episodes... but still, spinoffs did not end!

Finally, truly, we come to an odd creation, an hour-long creation called Mork & Mindy/Laverne & Shirley/Fonz Hour, made up of two parts: Mork and Mindy's animated adventures (called simply Mork and Mindy), and a second half called Laverne and Shirley with the Fonz).  In the latter portion, Fonz and Mr. Cool are part of the army motor pool.  At long last, talking pigs and dogs were serving in the army.  Sadly, and oddly, the latter portion didn't last too long, as the actress playing Shirley left both her animated and live action realm, shuttered the animated series after 8 episodes.  However, the animated Mork & Mindy lasted 24 episodes... leading the whole entire hour to recycle its second half for a total of three cycles.

And that seems like the best way to end the topic of excessive spinoffs: with an animated hour, itself a spinoff of... how many spinoffs? The animated hour came from two other animated shows, each, as wells at the Mork animation, sourced from three main shows, two of which were spinoffs themselves from Happy Days....

But did I mention that, strictly speaking, Happy Days was a spinoff?  The unsold pilot for New Family in Town aired on Love, American Style under the title Love and the Happy Days... which was spun-off to become... Happy Days.