Some years ago, a trio of colorful, contemplative, and sometimes a little bit absurd science fiction films from East German studio DEFA found their way onto home video in the United States. Of them, The Silent Star was the most beloved thanks to its combination of serious speculation and pop-art design, as well as the fact that it was familiar to many in its old dubbed and re-edited version, First Spaceship on Venus. In the Dust of the Stars was the most visually outrageous, combining the futurist aesthetic of the 1970s with the flared pleather jumpsuits and feathered mullets of the disco era. And Eolomea (which I reviewed as a guest writer for Die Danger Die Die Kill) was the most often ignored, with its more somber production design cribbed from Solaris and the message being less about the wonder and dangers of space travel and more about how boring and frustrating it can be. But even more ignored than Eolomea — so much so that it wasn’t even included in the set — was DEFA’s forgotten science fiction film, Signale — Ein Weltraumabenteuer.
I was strolling across Prague’s Karluv Most, as is the way of a jetsetting international gentleman such as myself, admiring the irreverent and disrespectful birds who insist on perching atop the heads of historical and religious figures of considerable import, when out of the corner of my eye I spied something somewhat more appealing to my temperaments than a procession of earnest and tortured looking popes, saints, and saviors. Nestled into a cozy looking cobblestone cul de sac at the western end of the bridge was a wooly mammoth. “My word!” I exclaimed at this unexpected but not unwelcome sight, “this looks just the sort of thing in needs of a more detailed degree of exploration.” On a stone arch above the gate that opened into the mammoth’s courtyard was a sign: Film Special Effects Museum. And below it the sub-head: Muzeum Karla Zemana.
To the very limited extent that the German science fiction series Raumpatrouille Orion (full English title: Space Patrol – The Fantastic Adventures of the Starship Orion) is known in my own United States, it tends to be the victim of a certain unfair association. On those pitifully rare occasions when it’s mentioned, it’s seldom without being compared unfavorably to Star Trek – and sometimes even referred to as “The German Star Trek“, usually in the dismissive tone reserved for inferior foreign copies of iconic American brands. That Raumpatrouille is an imitation of Star Trek is unlikely, given that the series made its debut on German television within just two weeks of Trek’s initial bow in America (and quite a few years before Captain Kirk and company would make it to the German airwaves). And while the series does share some striking similarities with Trek, those ultimately just serve to highlight some even more striking differences.
In addition to flying sports cars and a machine that mixes the perfect martini, one of the accoutrements of worldly masculine adulthood that impressionable young boys weaned on sixties pop culture grew up to expect is the ready availability of pliant female robots. What surprises me about this particular trope is not just how much it turned up in movies, TV shows and dime fiction throughout the decade, but how much it showed up in stories that were ostensibly set in the then present day. It’s as if the people who cooked up these ideas were somehow convinced that the technology already existed to create fembots, but that some self-appointed guardians of knowledge were conspiring to keep the discovery away from the general public–perhaps out of some misguided fear that people might use such an invention irresponsibly.
My latest Frolic Afield over at The Cultural Gutter, and my last there for 2013. What better way to close out my first (half) year with The Cultural Gutter than with one of the worst things around. From Bea Arthur torch songs to wookie porn, Death to Life Day spoils the holidays by reminding you of the Star Wars Holiday Special.
Sandwiched in between the final episode of Star Trek and the 1977 release of Star Wars, Space: 1999 occupies an odd bit of historical real estate and has an even odder tone of voice, though it’s easier to make sense of if you understand where science fiction was when Space: 1999 debuted. It might help explain why a group of rambunctious young sprouts, such as my friends and I were at the time, were so tolerant of what was a rather morose, talky, slow-moving show. But that’s how science fiction was at the time. The original Trek was colorful and had it’s fair share of action, but much like football, if you timed the actual action against the scenes of people sitting around saying stuff, there was far less jumping around and exploding than people recall. And post 2001: A Space Odyssey, science fiction really shed its pulp trappings and entered a period of pretty trippy, contemplative mood. This was science fiction as I knew it: sort of melancholy, a lot to do with environmental catastrophe, and not really centered on “action.” It’s why we could watch Silent Running at a birthday party and love it. and It’s why we could become obsessed with a show that seemed to feature a lot of Martin Landau frowning and speaking in a hushed monotone.
When British television production company ITC commissioned then changed their mind about a second season of producer Gerry Anderson’s science fiction adventure series UFO, Anderson wasn’t one to let all the hard work that went into pre-production design go to waste. He tweaked the scenario a little and gave the proposed series a new name: Menace in Space. This new take on the concept would feature the inhabitants of a moon base being hurtled out into space after a cataclysmic accident on Earth blows the moon out of orbit. Unfortunately, Anderson’s sleight of hand with his idea for UFO 2 didn’t fool ITC president Lew Grade, who remained unconvinced after the mediocre performance of UFO that a new Anderson science fiction series would be any more successful.
As a kid in the 1970s, I watched Space: 1999 fairly religiously. And perhaps not entirely unpredictably, I didn’t remember a thing about it other than the uniforms and the Eagle spaceships, the giant toy of which a friend owned and would pit in battle against my Micronauts Hornetroid. As to the actual content of any one episode, however, I drew a persistent blank despite the hours I’d logged watching it during one of its many syndicated Saturday afternoon broadcasts. I had a vague sense of it being sort of heavy, and maybe a little profound, or what passed for profound before the eyes of an eight year old. Despite being a member of the so-branded Star Wars generation, I had as a child and still have as a grown man a deep appreciation for science fiction at its most ponderous, heavy-handed, self-important, earnest, and weird. So when I had a chance, through the magic of an affordable DVD release of the series, to go back and revisit the series — or more accurately, visit it again for the first time, such as the case may be — I was quite excited.
Italian science fiction is an acquired taste, even more so than most other Italian genre films. They generally have a meandering quality to them, and the low budgets mean that a large portion of any film’s run time is composed of shots of guys sitting in front of decks of blinking lights. However, the Italians can only restrain themselves for so long, and eventually those scenes of people in control rooms will be replaced by wonderful space battles and miniatures of orbiting stations and rockets with upward drifting smoke wafting out of the backs. Antonio Margheriti, better known among the jet set who know Antonio Margheriti at all as the director of a bunch of “just entertaining enough” war and action films during the 1970s, was one of Italy’s first science fiction directors. His 1960s space “adventure,” Assignment: Outer Space proved that despite my interest in old science fiction and my profession as a journalist, combining the two into one talky film is not a recipe for maintaining my attention.
Compared to the appellations given to the protagonists of other 1980s action films — the Exterminator, the Punisher, the Executioner — the Stabilizer sounds pretty benign. You’d almost think that he was given that name only because all of those others had already been taken. But then you learn that what the Stabilizer is in charge of stabilizing is the very balance between good and evil itself. And that, it turns out, is a job that involves an awful lot of exterminating, punishing, and executing. But if that name was the result of The Stabilizer being late to the game, that might be explained by the fact that The Stabilizer is an Indonesian film, and that Indonesian exploitation filmmakers of its day were generally loathe to jump on any bandwagon until its moneymaking potential had been well proven. There is no word for “art” in Indonesia, after all (I totally just made that up), and if there was one thing that those filmmakers were interested in above all it was a return on investment, especially on the international market. This last caveat explains another trend in Indonesian genre films of the day; the practice of using Caucasian lead actors, which tended to make it easier to sell the movies to distributors outside of Asia.