Sunday, December 4, 2011

Star Trek: The Enemy Within

This article was first posted on August 9, 2010. It is presented in its entirety with some minor changes.

Science fiction tends to reflect the times in which it was written; since science fiction is the exploration of the human condition in the face of advances in science and since the technological bogeyman that is foremost in everyone's minds changes from era to era, this is not surprising.

However, science fiction is still fiction and like all fiction, it will reflect the mores that were current in the era in which it was written.

A case in point is The Enemy Within.

In my discussion of The Naked Time, I mentioned that Kirk, while suffering from an affliction that brought deep-seated emotions and desires to the surface, revealed his frustrated desire for Yeoman Janice Rand. In The Enemy Within, this desire explodes to the surface in the form of Kirk's evil half, which is separated from his good half by a transporter malfunction.

Being evil, Kirk's evil half raids Dr.McCoy's liquor cabinet, swaggers through the Enterprise's corridors while drinking Saurian brandy straight from the bottle and overacting shamelessly and then winds up in Janice Rand's quarters where he attempts to force himself on her.

Kirk's evil half gets liquored up after helping himself to McCoy's booze stash

Later, Yeoman Rand gives a tearful account of the evil Kirk's assault on her virtue to the good Kirk, Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy; as an aside, she mentions she had not wanted to say anything about the attack since she had not wanted to get Kirk into any trouble.

Obviously, society's attitude toward sexual assault have changed considerably since the late 60's.

This point is hammered home by Mr.Spock's rather insensitive comment to Yeoman Rand at the episode's conclusion in which he states that she no doubt found that the evil Kirk had some interesting qualities.

His comment (delivered with a facial expression that can only be described as a leering smirk) almost makes his earlier statement to Kirk, "If I seem insensitive to what you're going through Captain, understand it's the way I am", seem almost prescient.

As in many of the earlier Star Trek: The Original Series episodes, characters not of the Kirk-Spock-McCoy Triumvirate seem to get quite a bit of screen time. Yeoman Rand plays a key role in this episode. Lieutenant Sulu also figures prominently in this episode. As leader of the landing party that is stranded on Alpha 177 by the transporter malfunction, Mr. Sulu manages to maintain his composure and sense of humor despite temperatures (and the landing party's chances of survival) dropping with each passing second.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Castiglione Discusses Immortals

I hadn't planned on watching Immortals. I'd seen the trailer and thought the film looked goofy. But a spur of the moment decision to go to the movies late at night resulted in having to make the decision to see either Jack and Jill or Immortals and I wasn't in the mood to see a film where the humor appeared to revolve around how ridiculous Adam Sandler looks dressed as a woman.

Unfortunately, Immortals was as goofy as presaged by its trailer. Fortunately, much of its goofiness began to surface in the latter half of the film so I was, at least, initially entertained. Unfortunately, the goofiness, when it began to appear, was so goofy that it probably disproportionately affected my opinion of the film.

Immortals recounts the story of Theseus (Henry Cavill), as he attempts to prevent Hyperion (Mickey Rourke), the Heraklion King of Crete, from freeing the Titans, who are imprisoned in Mount Tartarus, and using them to destroy the gods. In order to accomplish his apocalyptic mission, Hyperion needs the Epirius Bow, a magical weapon that allows its wielder to do things which are normally only possible when playing a video game on cheat mode.

Theseus is aided by the beautiful virgin oracle Phaedra (Freida Pinto) who really doesn't do a whole lot in the film except drop some misleading hints as to what will ultimately happen, save Theseus's life by going mother bird on him and regurgitating water into his parched mouth and get naked (courtesy of a body double).

Phaedra before she gets (sort of) naked

Theseus's battle with the Minotaur doesn't really play a prominent role in Immortals, which is strange considering that this battle is what Theseus is famous for. Frankly, I was just glad that it was included at all. However, it was only a fairly abbreviated action sequence and the labyrinth in which it took place wasn't really labyrinthy enough, being easily navigable by Theseus via the simple expedient of cutting himself and leaving a trail of his own blood. To make matters worse, Theseus's discovery of the Epirius Bow, the weapon crucial to Hyperion's plan to unleash the Titans, just before he was ambushed by the Minotaur, overshadowed the following battle and its resolution. I did, however, like that the Minotaur was only referred to as "The Beast" in Immortals although I'm at a loss to articulate why.

Theseus battles the Minotaur in the Labyrinth. In Immortals, the Minotaur is just some dude in a funky hat that a dom might wear

The Greek gods are portrayed as being very young and good looking while the Titans are portrayed as a bunch of hyperactive savages with really bad skin. Hephaestus, blacksmith of the gods, is nowhere to be seen. I suppose the presence of a god who was crippled and considered grotesque would have been inconsistent with Immortals's portrayal of the Greek dieties as a bunch of teenaged Aryans.

Hera, wife of Zeus (Luke Evans), is also notably absent in Immortals. I guess it would have been awkward having to explain that she was not only Zeus's wife, but also his sister. The family connection between the gods and the Titans (Zeus and Hera were the children of the Titans Cronus and Rhea) isn't even mentioned, thus saving the audience from whatever convoluted explanation that the screenwriters would have had to come up with to explain why the gods and the Titans don't seem to share any sort of family resemblance at all.

The Titans, progenitors of the gods. The family resemblance is very well concealed

Frankly, I'm not sure if the portrayal of the gods as a bunch of beautiful young people worked. They just seemed to lack the gravitas that I would associate with gods and this contributed to the film's goofiness whenever they appeared. Their costumes only exacerbated this problem. In her short, gold skirt, Athena (Isabel Lucas) looked more like a cheerleader than the goddess of wisdom and war. Athena is also the virgin patron of Athens. Frankly, in Immortals, she didn't look very virginal at all. If anything, she looked deliciously unvirginal.

Athena, goddess of war and wisdom and virgin patron of Athens

And whoever thought Ares (DanielSharman), the god of war, would look totally bad ass in what can only be described as a sword hat or Stegosaurus helmet was, to put it mildly, sadly mistaken.

Ares, god of war, sporting the sword hat

The mighty Stegosaurus, possible inspiration of Ares's choice of headwear

In addition to the goofiness of Immortals's portrayal of the Greek gods, what began to grate on me was just the fact that the film required you to turn your brain off in order to take it seriously.

Zeus's explanation for why the gods must not take an active role in the battle between Hyperion and Theseus (Man has faith in us so we must have faith in man) is one of those phrases that sounds pithy and erudite at first but upon deeper reflection is revealed to have as much depth as something you'd find in a fortune cookie.

Zeus's insistence on the gods following a sort of Olympian Prime Directive in regards to the affairs of man seems all the more strange given that one of these men (Hyperion) is trying to kill the gods. It's also a little bit ironic that had the gods answered Hyperion's prayers to save his family, he wouldn't have developed a total hard-on for them, and the whole crisis depicted in Immortals would've been averted.

There's also the question of why Zeus didn't immediately use the anti-Titan self-destruct device in Mount Tartarus to kill the Titans after they were freed. I had assumed that triggering the device would've killed the gods who were present in the mountain but when Zeus finally activated it, he was able to ascend to Mount Olympus, leaving the Titans to die and leaving me wondering why he couldn't have activated it immediately after the Titans were freed and, thus, prevent the bloody slaughter of half the gods of the Greek pantheon. Of course, that would've meant that we, the audience, wouldn't have gotten to see the kick-ass slow-motion battle scene depicting said bloody slaughter.

Speaking of battle scenes, one of the biggest head-scratchers in the movie was just what Hyperion was trying to accomplish having his numerically superior Cretan army attack the numerically inferior Athenian army through a little hole that he had blown in the wall separating them using the Epirius Bow. Why not make more holes or make a really big hole instead of having your forces attack through a narrow passageway that could be blocked and defended by a few dozen men?

Way to use your numerical superiority to maximum advantage, Hyperion!

Just how did this guy get to be king, anyway?

Frankly, watching the seemingly endless hordes of the CGI animated Cretan army go pouring into this tiny hole and realizing that this was probably intended to be epic made me titter.

And the scene where Theseus exhorts the Athenian army to find its courage in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds (the Athenians would have probably not needed the pep talk had they known that Hyperion would've been so sporting as to attack them through a narrow bottleneck of his own making), which looked painfully goofy in the trailer, was even more goofy in the film, since only an abbreviated version of Theseus channeling Henry V was shown in the previews.

To top it all off, in addition to being a goofy, albeit good-looking, movie, Immortals has the dubious distinction of being possibly the most sadistic, non-torture porn movie to have been released in quite some time. There's enough torture in Immortals to give a neo-con a boner (and possibly some ideas on what to add to the list of allowable enhanced interrogationtechniques) and a lot of people seem to get speared through the head in the film's battle scenes.

This seems to happen a lot in Immortals

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Star Trek: The Naked Time

This article was first posted on August 7, 2010. It is presented in its entirety with some minor changes.

The Naked Time is basically a disaster movie (or, in this case, a disaster TV show) set in space: The Enterprise crew gets infected by an affliction that makes them obsessively rub their hands like Lady MacBeth on a bender and brings their innermost desires and emotions to the surface, resulting in things going very pear-shaped when Lt. Kevin Riley gets it in his head to turn off the ship's engines while the Enterprise is in close orbit over a planet in the midst of its death throes; according to Scotty, it will take 30 minutes to bring the engines back on line but the Enterprise doesn't have 30 minutes before it hits the dying planet's atmosphere and burns to a cinder.

Oh, what to do?!?!

The most entertaining part of this episode is seeing the effects of the affliction on the various Enterprise crewmen: Nurse Chapel throws herself at Mr. Spock, Lt.Riley turns into a bizarre caricature of an Irishman, Captain Kirk, in a monologue that almost qualifies as being creepy, bemoans the fact that the two women in his life, the Enterprise and Yeoman Rand, are out of his reach (the Enterprise because it's an inanimate object and not a "flesh woman" and Yeoman Rand because of the impropriety of such a relationship; as an aside, I find it interesting that Captain Kirk, who has a reputation amongst Star Trek fans as being something of a walking hormone, knew that pursuing a relationship with a subordinate just wasn't done; however, Spock in the 2009 reboot film, seems to have had no compunctions about being in a relationship with his student, Uhura; shame on you, Mr. Spock! Shame shame shame!), Spock weeps over having had to hide his emotions his entire life and how his mother must have suffered living in a society where showing emotions was considered to be in bad taste and Mr. Sulu decides to take off his shirt, grease up his torso and run through the corridors of the Enterprise with a sword and terrorize its crew, apparently in the belief that they're the Cardinal's guards from The Three Musketeers.

Clearly, Mr. Sulu has issues.

Yeoman Rand takes the helm at one point in this episode, showing that she is capable of much more than the secretarial duties she usually fulfills in the show. She is also highlighted as one of the objects of Captain Kirk's desires, tantalizingly close but, in the end, separated from the Captain by what is effectively an insurmountable gulf.

Parts of this episode that made me chuckle were Mr. Spock doing some calculations, apparently with the aid of a 23rd century slide rule of all things, Riley and Sulu attempting to prevent another crewman's suicide while half a dozen able-bodied Starfleet officers just sort of sit there and stare dumbly instead of doing anything to help, Kirk literally slapping the afflicted Spock into sobriety, Lt. Riley rewarding the Enterprise crew with a double helping of ice-cream after he has gained control of the ship and then admonishing Lt. Uhura (by depriving her of her ice-cream ration) for attempting to prevent him from singing "I'll Take You Home Again Kathleen" just "one more time" over the ship's intercom and Kirk getting his shirt ripped, not in a fight, but by Dr. McCoy administering the antidote for the affliction.

Mr. Spock gets an honorable mention for the bit of wry humor he displays in this episode; after Vulcan nervepinching the berserk Mr. Sulu into unconsciousness, he orders two crewmen to "take d'Artagnan to sick-bay."

Monday, October 31, 2011

Where I Discuss The Dead

You can't seem to escape from The Dead. Not only are zombies currently in vogue, in movies and other media, but almost every zombie movie I can think of off the top of my head uses the words “The” and “Dead” in its title. Hmmm...let's see, Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, Shaun of the Dead, Land of the Dead, The Walking Dead (this one is a television series, not a movie), and, of course, The Dead.

The list goes on.

The only movies that appear to escape this naming convention are the 28 Days Later films.
When I was a kid, we lived in fear of a nuclear holocaust. It appears that even though the zombie movie lurched its way into the mainstream back in the 60's with the release of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, the fear of a zombie apocalypse appears to have struck a chord with this generation. Maybe it's because we're currently in danger of becoming metaphorical zombies due to the plethora of ADHD inducing media and devices to which we are constantly subjected these days. Maybe I'm reading too much into this current spike in the public's interest in zombies.
But I was discussing the Ford Brothers's The Dead.
The Dead is a fairly conventional zombie movie. Two protagonists, US Navy lieutenant Brian Murphy (Rob Freeman) and Sergeant Daniel Dembele (Prince David Osei), a soldier in some unspecified West African country, are both trying to reconnect with their families. A movie with such a storyline may have been fodder for the Lifetime TV network were it not for the fact that what lies between both men and their loved ones is a horde of flesh eating zombies that can only be stopped by shooting them in the head, crushing their heads, chopping off their heads or bifurcating their heads.
I'd rate The Dead as being somewhere between meh and good. Its problem is that, with the exception of its African setting, it doesn't really bring anything new to the zombie movie genre. We've seen all this before. We have zombies and people who are trying to avoid being eaten by the zombies. We have the customary bits of social commentary that always seem to find their way into a zombie movie script; in The Dead, Daniel berates Murphy about the insanity of American foreign policy (you send soldiers to kill us and doctors to heal us, Daniel says incredulously) and waxes philosophic with another African soldier about how the zombie plague came to be (perhaps it's Mother Nature trying to restore the balance that the human race has upset on the planet). The final scene in the film could have been cribbed from the “true ending” of 28 Days Later (that is, before test audiences saw it, couldn't handle it, and forced Danny Boyle to do a reshoot).
What's frustrating is that there were a number of opportunities throughout The Dead for it to differentiate itself from its predecessors or at least crank up the tension, which tended to wax and wane to an almost frustrating degree, resulting in a movie-going experience in which some genuinely tense moments were separated by scenes which were so pedestrian as to invoke a sentiment almost akin to clinical detachment.
To list some of these squandered opportunities off the top of my head:
  1. The zombies in The Dead were of the slow-moving, shuffling variety. Such zombies are a threat under two circumstances: When they approach their intended victims under cover, either of darkness or of the local terrain, or when their victims begin to succumb to fatigue, since human beings need to rest, while zombies do not. While there were plenty of scenes in The Dead when zombies came lurching out of the darkness or the bush, the inexorable fatigue that the protagonists would have felt in their sleep-deprived states, and to which they would have been in terror of succumbing, was, for the most part, glossed over.
  2. There is a scene in The Dead which involves a baby being left in the care of one of the protagonists. This scene was pretty pointless since the protagonist's dilemma is conveniently solved when a truck full of refugees arrives to take charge of the infant immediately after the scene in which he is left with the baby. Frankly, I was expecting the film to take a big detour from the conventional path it had been following and turn into some exciting new hybrid of a zombie movie and the Lone Wolf and Cub films. But no, the protagonist gets the baby in one scene and in the next, is absolved of his responsibility for caring for the baby. Deus ex machina sucks in the 23rd century and it sucks in zombie movies.
In addition to the detours missed on The Dead's meandering way down the path blazed by the zombie movies that came before it, there was a moment in the film that invoked some genuine head scratching on my part and another which not only precipitated some more head scratching but some serious thought as to whether the scene was intended to be one of those scenes in movies intended to bludgeon you over the head with some sort of “heavy” message.
The purely head-scratching moment came about when, in one scene, Murphy insists against turning on the headlights of the truck in which he and Dembele are traveling for fear of attracting zombies but then, in the scene immediately following it, argues that they should make a campfire, citing their need to cook and eat something. Given this sudden reversal on Murphy's part and that they could have easily delayed making a cooking fire for the few hours it would have taken for the sun to rise after which the fire would have had less of a chance of attracting any zombies, I was left wondering if there was meant to be a scene (or scenes) between these two which had wound up on the cutting room floor.
The head-scratcher which may or may not have been meant to deliver a message was when Murphy took to the trees in order to safely get some sleep since the zombies in The Dead are not able to climb. This begs the question why the people in the unnamed African country in which the film is set didn't just seek sanctuary in the rocky crags that Murphy crossed rather than seeking it in the open desert beyond the crags where the zombies could get to them. While watching Murphy climb a tree and set up a nest in which to sleep, in light of the scene in which it is postulated that the zombie plague is a correction that Mother Earth is unleashing upon mankind, I was left wondering whether we, the audience, were meant to interpret Murphy's ascent into the arboreal home of man's simian ancestors as a devolution of sorts, something akin to the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where the apes discover the monolith (and tools/weapons), only in reverse.
If this wasn't the intent of this scene, I suppose you could just add it to the list of missed opportunities.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Star Trek: Charlie X

This article was first posted on August 7, 2010. It is presented in its entirety with some minor changes.

The Kirk-Spock-McCoy triumvirate begins to take shape in Charlie X, the second episode of Star Trek: The Original Series, and we see the seed of the bickering that will characterize the relationship between the coldly logical Spock and the emotional humanist McCoy. We see more of Uhura and Yeoman Rand, who also had quite a bit of screen time in The Man Trap. I get the impression that in these early episodes, the writers were experimenting with what to do with the characters so a lot of the people who were relegated to the background in later episodes seem to get quite a bit of screen time while others, who later became emblematic of Star Trek: The Original Series, are scarcely to be seen; for example, Lieutenant Commander Montgomery "Scotty"Scott is noticeably absent in both Charlie X and The Man Trap.

Once again, I get the impression that Uhura is flirting with Mr. Spock, or at least teasing him flirtatiously, in this episode, as she accompanies him in song as he plays his harp. Speaking of Mr. Spock, again he shows emotion in this episode, smiling rather pleasantly as he strums along to Uhura's vocals.

Mr. Spock with a very noticeable smile on his face as he jams with Uhura – and no, he isn't possessed by anything in this episode, except maybe by a muse

There are some aspects of this episode that made me chuckle: When Charlie Evans is handed off to the Enterprise's crew, he is informed by the Antares's captain that the Enterprise is like a city in space, with a crew of almost 400. Apparently, cities in the 23rd century are a lot smaller than the ones we have now. And when teaching Charlie Judo, Kirk, for some odd reason (well, maybe not so odd, given Kirk's predilection for showing off his pecs at the least provocation), decides to go shirtless, while Charlie wears a gi jacket; anyone who's done Judo will tell you that there's a world of difference between throwing a person who's wearing a gi jacket and someone who's not; the latter task is significantly harder! Captain Kirk cheats at Judo!

Kirk teaches Charlie Evans Judo...and feels compelled to show a lot of skin while doing so

Unfortunately, the story of Charlie X is rather uninspired; it's almost the same story as Where No Man Has Gone Before but instead of a fully grown man gaining god-like powers and getting drunk on his new-found abilities, we have a teenager, insecure and bewildered in his new environment on board the Enterprise after ostensibly spending the first 17 years of his life alone, running amuck with god-like powers that were gifted to him by the race of beings native to the planet on which he had been marooned. His only kryptonite seems to be someone (like, say, Kirk) giving him a stern talking to in a command voice but eventually, he learns to shrug off the effects of this devastating weapon. How will the Enterprise's crew deal with this diabolical adversary (for what could be more dangerous than a desperately horny teenager with god-like powers)? Kirk ended Gary Mitchell's rampage (with a little bit of Dr. Dehner's help in the form of lightning bolts) in Where No Man Has Gone Before by blasting a rock with a phaser rifle, causing the rock to fall and crush his deranged friend. How will he deal with Charlie X?

The episode's conclusion is unsatisfying; the race of beings who had given Charlie his powers come to the rescue of the Enterprise's crew and take him off their hands and reverse the effects of his rampage save for the destruction of the Antares and its crew.

Even in the 23rd century, deus ex machina is a cop out.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Apollo 18 (or in Space No One Can Hear You Snore)

Apollo 18 isn't quite as bad as the title of this article makes it out to be and that's part of its problem; it's not good enough to be good and it's not bad enough to be unintentionally good so it ends up being somewhat meh.

Before I go on, I feel obligated to warn readers that my discussion of Apollo 18 will contain spoilers.

So consider yourself warned.

Apollo 18 is a film in the mockumentary found footage style made famous by The Blair Witch Project and this results in a major inconsistency given that the premise of the film is that it purportedly documents the last manned mission to the moon and that no one survived this last mission; this begs the question as to how the footage being shown in Apollo 18 was exactly found since at the film's conclusion said footage is either in the abandoned Apollo lunar module on the moon's surface or mixed up somewhere in the tangled wreckage of the Apollo command/service module and the Soviet LK lander in orbit around the moon.

The Apollo command/service module in lunar orbit

Aside from the contradiction borne of its premise, Director Gonzalo L√≥pez-Gallego's Apollo 18 suffers from the fact that screen-writer Brian Miller shows his hand wayyy too early, revealing to the audience almost immediately after the crew of the lunar module (“Nate” Walker and “Ben” Anderson, played by Lloyd Owen and Warren Christie, respectively) lands on the moon that the cause of all the mysterious happenings in the film are due to spider-like aliens disguised as moon rocks. In doing so, he missed a great opportunity to throw a couple of red herrings at the audience in the form of the cold war paranoia that was ostensibly the raison d'etre behind the mission of the Apollo 18. After all, shortly after their arrival on the moon and during the course of their top secret Department of Defense mission to deploy detectors designed to provide early warning of Soviet ICBM launches, Walker and Anderson stumble upon tracks which lead them to a Soviet lunar module.

The Soviet LK (Lunny Korabl - “lunar ship”) lander

The strange goings-on which follow, which include the US flag planted at their own landing site being tampered with and their lunar module being sabotaged, could have been attributed to a Soviet cosmonaut acting either on his own initiative or with official sanction, especially considering that the Soviet LK lander portrayed in the film, instead of being the cramped one-man spacecraft that it was in reality, looks big enough to accommodate at least two cosmonauts, something which Walker and Anderson fret about briefly after they discover the body of one cosmonaut before being assured by Houston that the Soviets sent only one man.

Schematic of the Soviet LK lander – you don't have to know how to read Cyrillic to see that this was strictly a spacecraft meant for one and noticeably less roomy than the Soviet lander portrayed in Apollo 18

Instead, we're shown “found footage” fairly early in the film which shows a moon rock moving around in the background and the only mystery in the film is what these moon rock spiders have against national flags since, during the course of the film, they not only mess with the US flag but there's evidence to suggest that they did some violence to the Soviet flag that was planted by the crewman of the LK lander. In addition to abusing flags regardless of the political systems they represent, these moon rock spiders also have the endearing habit of burrowing into human beings and turning them into batshit crazy pod people before ultimately killing them.

As you can probably tell, I was pretty disappointed by Apollo 18, especially since I really wanted to like this film. When I was a kid, I was very much into the US space program, and I'm probably dating myself by mentioning this, but when I was in this phase, the Space Shuttle had not yet made it into orbit, so for me, the US space program meant the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft and Skylab, so when I found out about Apollo 18, I was pretty psyched.

The Apollo lunar module – one of the spacecraft that epitomized the US space program for me when I was growing up

My disappointment was rendered more acute because the film's shortcomings could have easily been remedied with some minor script doctoring. Given the credible performances of Lloyd Owen and Warren Christie (Ryan Robbins doesn't get to do much as command module pilot John Grey but he certainly acquits himself well given what he had to work with) and its great special effects, Apollo 18 could have been a good movie if only more attention had been paid to the script.

But I guess you could say that about every film cursed with mediocrity.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Where I Discuss Star Trek: The Man Trap

This article was first posted on August 6, 2010. It is presented in its entirety with some minor changes.

The Man Trap is a typical "space monster" episode with a twist; the "monster" in question can assume any form it wishes, usually conforming to the semblance of someone from its intended victim's past, and along with the salt it requires for its nourishment, it also needs love.

Space monsters need love, too

I have mixed feelings about this episode. The creature's need for love and the fact that it's the last of its kind makes it something more than just a two-dimensional threat to the crew and also gives its death some poignancy. Professor Crater's pathetic love for the creature even though it killed his beloved wife and then took on her form (with his knowledge) also gives this episode a touch of pathos. However, the way this episode was structured felt "wrong" to me; the fact that there is something odd about "Nancy Crater" is immediately revealed to the audience and Professor Crater's clumsy and brusque attempts to get the Enterprise crew to leave posthaste (albeit after leaving behind a sizable ration of salt tablets) and leave him to his own private fantasy clues the viewer in on the fact that:
  1. "Nancy Crater" is not who she seems to be, and
  2. Professor Crater is in on "her" subterfuge.
This, in my opinion, robs the episode of much potential suspense and mystery. What's the point of having a homicidal shape-shifting creature on the loose if you don't, at least, make an attempt to pull one over on the viewing audience? Isn't that the obvious thing to do? Or am I speaking with the benefit of more than forty years of evolution in the art of story-telling via the media of television and film behind me?

The Man Trap marks the first appearances of Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy and Lieutenant Nyota Uhura. Dr. McCoy, as played by DeForest Kelley, certainly has more screen presence that Dr. Piper from Where No Man Has Gone Before but in The Man Trap his role as an emotional foil to the coldly logical Mr. Spock is yet to be established.

This episode's portrayal of Lieutenant Uhura is particularly interesting in light of Nichelle Nichols's reported dissatisfaction with her role in the original series due to its lack of "significance" and Uhura's (as played by Zoe Saldana) romantic relationship with Mr. Spock in the 2009 reboot of the Star Trek franchise. For one thing, in the first scene in which Uhura is present, she's not at her usual post at the Enterprise's communications console; she's actually at the navigator's station! In this one episode, Uhura demonstrates more breadth in her abilities as a Starfleet officer than she did in the first six Star Trek movies! Uhura then jokes to Mr. Spock about being bored with her duties as the Enterprise's communications officer, and then, if I'm not mistaken, proceeds to shamelessly flirt with the dispassionate Vulcan! Speaking of dispassionate Vulcans, although much less emotional than he was in Where No Man Has Gone Before, Mr. Spock barely seems to be able to control his emotions when he is notified of a crewman's death and then is subsequently confronted by Uhura for what she believes to be (if only she knew!) his cold-blooded reaction (or non-reaction) to the tragic news. The Kirk-Spock-McCoy triumvirate is obviously to take a while to gel into the form that Star Trek: The Original Series fans are familiar with.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Remembering 9/11/2001

I still remember where I was on September 11, 2001 when I found out about the attacks. Before going to work, I had checked in on a gaming related discussion forum that I used to frequent and saw some thread titles referring to the attacks in the off-topic section but I assumed the discussion was about some new game. Something, however, made me check Yahoo! News before finally heading out the door and I saw that whatever was being discussed in the forum wasn't a game at all.

Most of my day at work was spent glued to a television set in one of the company conference rooms feeling sick to my stomach as the death toll mounted while my mind reeled as I tried to make sense of something which really made no sense at all. After all, what sane human being decides to just go murder a whole bunch of innocent people just to make a point?

How do you wrap your head around that?

The sick feeling I experienced when I thought about how many people had perished in the attacks slowly developed into something akin to depression when I realized that the course of history down which the USA and the rest of the world had been meandering had basically taken a big detour down crazy street and there was going to be a shitstorm the likes of which people of my generation had never seen and a lot more innocent people were probably going to die or at least have their lives turned completely upside down as a consequence of these attacks.

Those innocents are as much victims of the 9/11 attacks as those who died on that day, the course of their lives, like ours, forever changed by that detour taken by history.

There will certainly be more anniversaries of the 9/11 attacks in the future but they probably won't carry as much weight as this one.

More time will have passed so memories of that day won't be as vivid.

And other events claiming priority in our memories will probably come to pass.

Those of us who are young enough to have been shaped by the attacks and their aftershocks will eventually grow old and die.

But history will go on in the way it does.

That is, until another such event makes it take yet another detour down crazy street.

I guess what ultimately matters is that we don't crash during these detours and that we get back on track as soon as possible.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Star Trek: Where No Man Has Gone Before

On August 5, 2010, I got the crazy idea of viewing all the episodes from my Star Trek: The Original Series (Remastered Edition) DVD's in sequential order and then sharing my thoughts on them on-line. The first episode that I discussed was the second Star Trek pilot: Where No Man Has Gone Before. With the exception of some minor changes, I present my discussion as it was originally posted.

The story of the second Star Trek pilot, Where No Man Has Gone Before, is a familiar one: Man acquires god-like powers, man goes bat-shit crazy, man does nasty things with previously mentioned god-like powers, absolute power corrupts absolutely, blah, blah, blah. In this particular retelling of this story, the Enterprise attempts to leave the galaxy and runs into an energy barrier which kills nine crew members and knocks unconscious Enterprise helmsman and Kirk's best friend, Gary Mitchell, and ship's psychiatrist, Dr. Elizabeth Dehner. Mitchell begins to manifest incredible powers and it becomes apparent that these powers are going to his head. Science officer Spock advises Kirk to kill Mitchell before he gets too powerful. If things weren't bad enough, it's obvious from the beginning that Mitchell's grasp of reality before he got his god-like powers was shaky to begin with as he refers to Dr.Dehner as a "walking freezer unit" shortly after his character is introduced; as played by Sally Kellerman, Dr. Dehner oozes an almost indecent amount of sex appeal in every scene in which she appears. Clearly there was something seriously wrong with Mitchell before he acquired his powers. Or else he was socializing with some pretty interesting women before the Enterprise tried to leave the galaxy.

Dr. Elizabeth Dehner aka the “walking freezer unit”

Being a pilot, there are some aspects of Where No Man Has Gone Before which are different from the rest of the series. There is no Dr. McCoy, although there is a Dr. Piper, who is an old codger of a ship's surgeon. There is no LieutenantUhura. Sulu is not the swashbuckling helmsman he was in the rest of the series but is the ship's rather earnest physicist. Spock is almost emotional in the pilot, smirking rather smugly at Kirk when he feels he's got him boxed in while they're playing chess and looking downright irritated when Kirk not only escapes from his predicament but wins the game. Kirk isn't the decisive starship captain he was in the series but displays almost Hamlet-esque indecisiveness in Where No Man Has Gone Before; when Spock initially advises him to kill Mitchell, Kirk doesn't react quite as strongly as you'd think someone would react after being told that the logical thing to do is to kill his best friend, probably because he agrees with Spock but just can't bring himself to translate thought into action; this is supported by his insistence on going after Mitchell alone at the climax of Where No Man Has Gone Before and his stated belief that it's his own fault that things have deteriorated as far as they have. However, perhaps this is nitpicking; even the most decisive person in the world is going to hesitate when faced with the realization that he has to kill his best friend. At least I hope that would be the case.

There are other differences besides those in characters and characterization. The color scheme of the uniforms is not yellow, red, blue but yellow, tan, blue and the material used is different, thicker, making the cast look like they're wearing sweaters. And there is no Vulcan nerve pinch. Or at least that's the impression I got since Kirk and Spock, when faced with the problem of how to subdue a drunk-with-power Gary Mitchell, settle for the rather unsophisticated method of beating him senseless with good old-fashioned punches after which they tackle him and pin him down so that Dr. Dehner can sedate him. After the Vulcan nervepinch was introduced in the series, a scene like this would've played out with Kirk somehow distracting Mitchell, allowing Spock to pinch him into oblivion.

Despite these differences, Where No ManHas Gone Before is recognizably Star Trek with its somewhat thoughtful story of the corrupting influence of power but it doesn't quite work without the now well established dynamic of McCoy and Spock debating the emotional and logical sides of the problem at hand with Kirk mediating between the two. One could argue that Dr. Dehner takes the role that was eventually McCoy's in the series as she passionately advocates for Mitchell as the rest of the crew, even his best friend Kirk who owes him his life, grows more and more wary of him. But it doesn't quite click. I think it has something to do with Spock's characterization in the second pilot. As I mentioned before, he's almost emotional in Where No Man Has Gone Before, thus blurring the lines between established roles in the Kirk-Spock-Dehner interaction. But as I said, it's still Star Trek, if only because Kirk manages to get his shirt ripped in the climactic fistfight, thus establishing the tradition of the viewing audience being treated with titillating glimpses of William Shatner's physique in every other episode.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Castiglione Celebrates the 30th Anniversary of the Release of His Favorite Movie of All Time by Playing Games Inspired either Directly or Indirectly by Raiders of the Lost Ark

Raiders of the Lost Ark hit the big screen in 1981, making 2011 the 30th anniversary of its release. Given my recent discussion of Captain America: The First Avenger, in which I noted references made therein to the Indiana Jones movies, and my fondness for retro video games, it seemed only fitting to spend some time playing and discussing the video games inspired by Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The first game on my list is an obvious one: Raiders of the Lost Ark for the Atari 2600 designed by Howard Scott Warshaw.

But I can't.

For me, playing Raiders of the Lost Ark was a frustrating experience because I really wanted to like this game. Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of my all-time favorite movies and I could remember seeing the TV commercial for the game back when I was a kid and experiencing a sentiment that I, as an Apple II+ owner, had not felt before:

Envy of Atari 2600 owners.

Because here was a chance for Atari 2600 owners, and only Atari 2600 owners, to be Indiana Jones.

To say I was green with envy would be an understatement.

Flash-forward almost thirty years and I finally got to play Raiders of the Lost Ark and I was more than a little bit underwhelmed. There were many factors that contributed to my feeling of disappointment but the first one that comes to mind is that the game features an “arbitrary puzzle”, or a puzzle which can not be solved using only clues provided within the game. The second was how the game would change from a top-down to a horizontal perspective when you entered the mesas, as you will fall when this happens, presaging, perhaps, the frustration experienced by many who played another Howard Scott Warshaw game for the Atari 2600: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

E.T. after he's fallen in a hole – something which happened a lot in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and something which happened to Indiana Jones a lot (the falling part, at least) when I played Raiders of the Lost Ark

To make matters worse, the graphics in Raiders of the Lost Ark are, to put it politely, quite interesting, requiring either a great deal of visual interpretation in order to decipher the function of the sundry objects that populate the game world, or a thorough reading of the manual (and even then, you would probably want to keep the manual on hand as a Rosetta Stone).

My lamenting the deplorable graphics in Raiders of the Lost Ark is somewhat damning since I don't usually pay much attention to graphics at all; to give you an idea of how unimportant graphics are to me, let me say that some of my favorite games are roguelikes and text adventures. However, I do require that, at the very minimum, the graphics in a game serve their intended purpose of helping the player identify the various objects in the game world with which they are supposed to interact.

People may mock the graphics in Warren Robinett's Adventure, but the representations used in that game were either easily identified or quickly learned and remembered.

Such is not the case in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Compounding the problem of its “interesting” graphics is the fact that Raiders of the Lost Ark is a more complex game than Adventure, containing many more objects for the player, as Indiana Jones (who, by the way, is charmingly rendered, complete with signature fedora), to interact with, which makes the identification of said objects of paramount importance. With the exception of Indy, it's pretty difficult to make out what the various game objects are supposed to be and some of them resemble each other enough to making learning and remembering their hieroglyphics somewhat time-consuming.

Indiana Jones in the Marketplace – unless you're willing to constantly refer to the game manual, you'd be hard-pressed to identify the objects on the screen

Given how I longed to play Raiders of the Lost Ark when I was a kid, imagine how I felt when I discovered that I had waited over twenty years to play a game that sucked!

Now, I wouldn't say that my childhood got raped when I played Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time; if I had to categorize the experience, I would have to say that my childhood got flashed, which, while bad, wasn't like the mind-searing experience of the time my childhood did get raped.

Frankly, I think a better Raiders of the Lost Ark game could have been designed by simply taking Adventure and modifying the graphics; just change the Enchanted Chalice to the Ark of the Covenant and Yorgle, Grundle and Rhindle to, say, a snake (gotta have snakes in an Indiana Jones game), Major Arnold Ernst Toht and the big guy with the scimitar that Indy shot to the delight of audiences everywhere; the magic sword could be changed into either a bullwhip or a pistol, the Golden Castle to Katanga's ship and the kleptomaniacal bat to the monkey that narced on Marion to the Nazis. Just put a fedora on the square representing your character and you're set. I know, this is somewhat lame but even after factoring in the lameness inherent in re-skinning a pre-existing game and releasing it as an ostensibly new game, such a game would have been more fun and less frustrating than Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Fortunately, if you want an Indiana Jones themed game to play on the Atari 2600, you need look no further than David Crane's Pitfall! Pitfall! is basically an Indiana Jones game in spirit; all that it's missing are the Nazi thugs and some means of punching their lights out. However, it has booby traps (if you can consider rolling logs and natural hazards like quicksand to be booby traps) as well as snakes and other fauna intent on inflicting bodily harm upon Indiana Jones, er, I mean, Pitfall Harry.

There isn't a whole lot of difference between a giant boulder...

...and a rolling log

When I gaze upon the awesomeness that is Pitfall! and then turn my gaze on the convoluted mess that is Raiders of the Lost Ark, I can't help but wonder at what might have been had Activision, not Atari, been approached to bring Raiders of the Lost Ark to the Atari 2600. After all, all Pitfall! is missing to truly be worthy of the Indiana Jones label are some Nazis, or at least some enemies that don't belong in a zoo (although, I guess one could argue that Nazis do belong in a zoo).

Well, such a game exists, although not on the Atari 2600. This game of which I speak is Em Busca dos Tesouros, or Treasure Hunter in English, which was released for the ZX81 back in 1986. Treasure Hunter was designed by Tadeu Curinga da Silva, who was a teenager at the time, and it's basically Pitfall! ported to the ZX81 except the game features these strange enemies (who, alas, can not be punched, only evaded) which resemble the eponymous Sneakers in Mark Turmell's classic horizontal shooter for the Apple II, Sneakers, and the same Sneakers in Mark Turmell's Fast Eddie for the Atari 2600.

I'm not sure what this guy is supposed to be...
...but he looks a lot like these guys...

Sneakers menacing the player in Mark Turmell's Sneakers

Sneakers menacing the player in Mark Turmell's Fast Eddie

So close, yet so far!

If only that villain looked less like a Sneaker and more like a Nazi!

Oh, well, you can't always get what you want.

While we're on the topic of ZX81 games inspired directly or indirectly by Raiders of the Lost Ark, we might as well discuss Timeworks's Robbers of the Lost Tomb.

If the title alone weren't enough to tell you where Robbers of the Lost Tomb got its inspiration, one need only read the game's overview: You're a special archeological consultant to the CIA (in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones was an archeologist working at the behest of US Army Intelligence) on a mission to recover four sacred tablets from a tomb in Eygpt (in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones was in Egypt attempting to recover the Ark of the Covenant, which contained the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were inscribed).

So far, so good.

Your obstacles are snakes, bottomless pits...


...and ghosts and mummies.

Errr...okay...this is beginning to sound less like Raiders of the Lost Ark and more like The Mummy's Hand.

Well, maybe I shouldn't complain. After all, the inclusion of ghosts and mummies is certainly consistent with the film serials of the 30's and 40's which inspired Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Unfortunately, Robbers of the Lost Tomb doesn't live up to its promise.

It's basically Gregory Yob's Hunt the Wumpus except with five times more rooms.

Frankly, I think that one can plot a sort of Laffer curve with the amount of “fun” one can have playing a variant of Hunt the Wumpus plotted as a function of the number of rooms in such a variant.

Laffer curve showing government revenue as a function of tax rate - it could just as easily be a plot of "fun" versus the number of rooms in a Hunt the Wumpus variant

I don't know where the plot of fun versus rooms maxes out in this hypothetical Laffer curve but judging from the dreary time I had playing this game, I'm pretty sure 100 rooms lies far to the right of this maximum. Whereas mapping out a cave network of twenty rooms was fun, doing the same thing with a 100-room network was just tedious.

In addition to the problem of having too many rooms, there are also gameplay issues resulting from moving mummies similar to what I ran into when I initially set about designing Wumpus Plus; in Robbers of the Lost Tomb, you can increase the difficulty of the game by permitting the mummies to move; unfortunately, since you can detect mummies from only one room away, it's possible to end up in a room with a mummy (a usually fatal experience) without having received any clues to help you avoid this outcome, which results in your fate being entirely in the hands of Lady Fortune, something which makes for a very unsatisfying gaming experience.

At this point, you're probably tiring of my griping and wondering how one can play these games, your impatience fueled, no doubt, by the desire for some old-school gaming goodness (in the case of Pitfall! and Treasure Hunter) and, perhaps, morbid curiosity (in the case of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Robbers of the Lost Tomb).

Well, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Pitfall! can be had for reasonable prices on eBay if you happen to have an Atari 2600 and this is certainly the best way to play Atari 2600 games. However, if you desire an option that's a little bit more “portable”, I would recommend the z26 and Stella emulators for Windows and Linux users, respectively. ROMS of the Raiders of the Lost Ark and Pitfall! cartridges will be needed to play these games.

To play Treasure Hunter and Robbers of the Lost Tomb, you will need the cassette tapes for the games as well as a ZX81. You can also play Robbers of the Lost Tomb on-line. To play these games on a ZX81 emulator, you will need the .p files for Treasure Hunter and Robbers of the Lost Tomb. The instructions for Treasure Hunter are in Portuguese but they're fairly self-explanatory.

Robbers of the Lost Tomb, despite being a Hunt the Wumpus variant, is different enough from its inspiration to warrant some discussion of its instructions for those masochists out there who want to give this game a try.

The game is set in a tomb of five levels, each of which contains 20 rooms. You will be notified when you are one room away from pits, snakes, ghosts and mummies.

You're armed with a certain number of knives that you can throw at snakes and mummies if they're occupying the same room as you; you can also throw a knife at a mummy that's in an adjacent room.

Pits send you down to the level below but if you're on the 5th level, they'll kill you instead. Snakes will kill you if you don't kill them first with a thrown knife; however, more than one snake can occupy a room so it's probably best to try to avoid them altogether since entering a room containing more than one snake spells certain death. Ghosts will carry you off to a random room like the super bats in Hunt the Wumpus. Mummies will almost always kill you when you run into them but sometimes, you'll survive ending up in the same room with them, which will give you a chance to kill them with a thrown knife.

In addition to the hazards mentioned above, rooms can also contain ladders, which can be used to climb up or down one level, a magical blue ruby, which will instantly kill all mummies that are in the same room as you, and the sacred tablets for which you are searching.

Once you find all four tablets, you will need to return to the room where you started the game in order to win.

“M” and “T” are used to move from one room to another and to throw knives, respectively. To climb up or down a ladder, press “M” and then when asked for your destination room, enter “LU”, to go up the ladder, or “LD” to go down.

That's the bare minimum of information you'll need to play Robbers of the Lost Tomb.
Have “fun”.

But don't say I didn't warn you.

During the course of playing Treasure Hunter on my Linux machine, I discovered that vb81, the ZX81 emulator that I had mentioned in my discussion of 3D Monster Maze, wasn't up to the task because it could not seem to handle more than one keyboard input at a time and in order to jump horizontally (as opposed to straight up), something which is crucial for leaping heroically a la Indiana Jones over deadly chasms, the computer (or in this case, the emulated computer) will need to be able to process two keyboard inputs (corresponding to a direction, i.e. left or right, and jump) simultaneously. Fortunately, I had stumbled upon XTender128 which can be run in Linux using DOSBox; however, you may need to play around with your DOSBox speed settings as I found that Treasure Hunter ran a little bit too fast on my netbook.

Truth be told, I had stopped using vb81 as my emulator of choice on my Linux system since it introduced some graphical glitches in the excellent Virus from Bob's Stuff, a game which I hope to discuss in the near future. Until then, have fun sampling these games of bygone years and, heck, while you're at it, you might as well sample some movie magic from those same bygone years and fire up Raiders of the Lost Ark (the movie) and celebrate its 30th anniversary!