The Past Blasts Back

I revisited my childhood on Saturday. Well, part of it anyway. Its amazing how many old series are being used to fill the schedules now- some channels, that’s all they do. They never advertise them as “some more old shite” but… well, they have to wrap them up in some cosmetic gloss: ‘Saturday Showcase’ seems to be the latest way of making it seem all shiny: two hours of Hart to Hart, two hours of Charlies Angels, two hours of T J Hooker, three hours of Starsky & Hutch. I defy anyone to get through that lot and maintain their sanity. How bored does one have to be in order to sit through all that?

Me, I treated it with the respect that it deserved: an episode of T J Hooker from its first season in 1982, and then two episodes from early in the first season of Starsky & Hutch from 1975 (well, 1976 here in the UK). To be quite honest, it was a taste of Saturdays of old. I suppose local variances may differ regards T J Hooker (it was in a Saturday tea-time slot in my area) but Starsky & Hutch was a network transmission on BBC on Saturday evenings, 9 pm, so both shows are Ghosts of Saturday Past.

TJ1Turns out Nostalgia can be a dangerous thing. Case in point: the episode I watched of T J Hooker, which to my great surprise  featured Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul’s Jonathan Banks as its guest villain Danny Scott, who even manages a curious nod to the The Shining when he hacks through a target’s bedroom door. His partner in crime Cal Jastrow is played by none other than Babylon 5‘s Michael O’Hare. Of course, watching them in a show made from 1982, its not easy to pick them out, the nagging familiarity driving one to distraction until the penny finally drops. The entertainment industry is such a small world, sometimes.

Watching old tv shows like that, its obvious that there was a clearer distinction between television and cinema back then. Its much narrower now, if it even exists at all. That being said, in all fairness, back then network shows had about 22 episodes a year, a huge production workload really (its obvious why HBO etc elect for eight or ten-episode seasons).

Was the world ever safer then than now, were things really so clear, so black and white, so predictable? It felt that way, but of course I was a kid. It does seem watching old shows like this, that they are from a safer age, when television was intended to comfort and reassure and entertain without requiring very much effort from the viewer. The good guys were Good with a capital G, and the bad guys were bad and always got caught. Most of the time, they were CLEARLY bad too, all the various shows casting a veritable Villain’s League of regular shady-looking actors who probably couldn’t catch a break getting any other role. There’s no doubts about the crooks in T J Hooker, nor any doubts about old Hooker himself.: if Shatner’s Kirk could handle Klingons and other Galactic menaces, a bunch of dumb thugs ain’t going to trouble his LA cop. This is all back in the era of old-fashioned episodic television: the close of the episode depicts Hooker going out to romance and bed the latest beautiful distressed citizen that he’s saved this week (Allison, played by TV perennial Lisa Hartman) , but next week the magic reset will ensure she’s gone and forgotten and Hooker available for the next babe. Perhaps its just as well: Lisa Hartman was 25 years younger than Shatner and it clearly shows. I’m not so sure they’d get away with stuff like that now. Or maybe I’m fooling myself. I will just say this though- back then I could never get my head round Captain Kirk wearing a police uniform or even civvies. 

starsky1But the irony is, shows like Starsky & Hutch, as innocent as they seem now, were quite heavily edited here in the UK and some episodes skipped entirely. Were the British public so easily outraged? Starsky & Hutch  was my favourite as a kid. It was hugely successful back in its day, a cultural pop icon which, thanks to the dominance back then of just three network channels, seemed much more a part of public discourse and attention, with the national audience split between just those three (and no distractions like videogames or home video etc), audience numbers could be huge. The show started airing over here in the UK in early 1976, and that summer was all Starsky & Hutch, Adam West Batman re-runs… and those American comic books like Howard the Duck and Captain America celebrating the Bicentennial while we basked in a long summer drought. It was good to be a kid back then. Yeah, there’s that Nostalgia again: just listening to that Lalo Schifrin main title music for season one is enough to give me such a thrill (the music was changed from season two onwards in favour of something more upbeat, and just as successful/and iconic, but there’s something REAL about that first season music). And of course there was that car. That car, oh man, that was the 1976 cop-show equivalent of the Millennium Falcon, right there. I only intended to watch the one Starsky & Hutch episode, but couldn’t resist sticking around for the second Maybe these channels showing all these old tv shows are onto something after all.

The last laugh is maybe on me though, regards Starsky & Hutch, anyway- I had to put up with all those too-frequent commercial breaks- I’ve got seasons one and two on DVD somewhere, if only I had them at hand. Maintaining the 1970s vibe, maybe I should find my UFO and Space:1999 Blu-rays while I’m digging those Starsky discs out. What? T J Hooker boxsets? Get out of here, I was never THAT kind of fool!

Pity the Fanboys

fanb1I so wanted to like this; a comedy about a bunch of Star Wars fans who take a cross-country trip to break into Skywalker Ranch in 1998 so that their dying friend can see a rough cut of The Phantom Menace before he dies. Its a story about friendship and a shared love for Star Wars, a triumph of geekdom in a cold harsh world that shatters childhood dreams, a film about realities of adulthood and lost youth.

Or rather, it should have been. I’m not sure what it actually turned out to be, except that it wasn’t particularly funny, and wasn’t as involving and genuinely heartfelt as it could have been. The irony that the Grail these fanboys are after turns  out to be a pretty lousy movie (and that perhaps in the face of their geeky friendship and shared love of Star Wars, that doesn’t even really matter) is hardly touched upon. Maybe they’ll make a reboot someday about a bunch of fanboys on a road-trip to steal the only pre-release cut/copy of The Last Jedi will land the irony when they destroy it and save fellow fans the horror.

For some reason, the film chooses to degenerate into highlighting a geeky feud between Star Wars fans and Star Trek fans, persistently going back to this old joke as if to add some manic comedy action to the plot, add some pace to it. If anything this risks alienating the geek fanbase you’d think this film was being made for. Certainly the film works best when we laugh with our geek heroes rather than laugh at them, and the humour perhaps really shouldn’t lean towards humour at the expense of them. There is a tendency for the POV to be from an ‘ordinary’ non-fan perspective, ridiculing the fandom, which seems like a lazy joke.

While Fanboys was obviously made with the best of intentions (at least I hope it was) it is largely a misfire. Its enlivened by some nice cameos (William Shatner! Carrie Fisher! Billy See Williams! Kevin Smith! etc!) but they just feel all the more wasted in the end, because none of them are actually asked to do much or really inform the reason for their cameos (I did like the “I know” joke that sweetly highlights the Carrie Fisher cameo, and of course, just seeing her again is both lovely and sad, too). I mean, how do you waste a legendary ego like William Shatner with a one-scene cameo?

There’s a great Fanboys movie to be made someday, but I really think that to do it right, it might be more like Stand By Me in tone and execution, albeit starring middle-aged guys rather than kids or young adults; serious but warmly affectionate, a story about  lost childhood and a shared love for something that thrives utterly apart from Corporate billions, Box Office or critical infamy.  Just call it Class of ’77 and go with it, how can you lose?

Somebody call my agent, lol!

Star Trek: Picard

stpicardAs far as first episodes go, I thought this was a pretty solid effort. Certainly it feels more of a genuine ‘Star Trek’ than anything in Star Trek: Discovery,  which is all good in my book. I suppose a lot of this is due to having as familiar (and iconic) a face as Jean Luc Picard (Sir Patrick Stewart) as the central protagonist.  I must confess to feeling a certain glow when I saw Picard and Data together wearing their old TNG uniforms- I rather think that Stewart and Brent Spiner must have gotten a bit of a kick filming that scene. Whats most surprising though is that this still remains a pretty clear departure from Star Trek of old, particularly from TNG. This Picard is a rather bitter, lonely and frustrated man in his twilight years questioning the institutions that once held such importance to him, and perhaps questioning his life, what he achieved, what was the point of it all.

Maybe I’m reading too much into it (this first episode hints at more than it delivers, but I expect its just teasing answers soon to come in subsequent instalments) but I rather fancied that this series could just have easily been titled Star Trek: Kirk had it been made a decade ago, and perhaps would have made a fascinating epilogue for both Kirk and William Shatner’s role in the franchise, had that been possible.

Bad timing for Shatner, great timing for Stewart then, who seems to be relishing the opportunity this series affords him.

A friend of mine from work who left a few years ago, and was an avid Trekkie who read all the books etc, dropped me a text over the weekend informing me that he’d watched the show. He seemed to enjoy it, but couldn’t help but wryly note that the show credited 18 producers. A sign of the times, I guess, but I did text him an observation that too many cooks can spoil the broth, and that the cohesive vision of, say, a Gene Roddenberry and Gene Coon, the two grand old masters of the original 1960s Trek, seems to be lost to us now. Star Trek: Discovery seemed to spend too much effort trying to be all things to everyone, getting lost in a spiralling mess in the process, and I only hope that this series goes its own path and maintains the promise of this fairly solid beginning.

Big Bad Mama (1974)

bbm6Wow, I really enjoyed this, but feel guilty for doing so. A bawdy sex-comedy/crime drama set during the American Depression, its a trashy Roger Corman b-movie from 1974 full of geeky pleasures, not least being Star Trek‘s Captain Kirk, William Shatner, and Alien‘s Captain Dallas, Tom Skerritt, featured in a film together. Its just so bizarre seeing them sharing scenes, Shatner with Star Trek a few years behind him and Skerritt with Alien a few years in his future. My inner geek screaming out ‘its Kirk and Dallas- together!’ as if its some majorly important cinematic event.

But there are plenty of other things going for it. For one thing, it stars Angie Dickinson in a genuinely great ‘I’m better than this movie’ performance from just before her role in the seminal ’70s tv show Police Woman– but I’ve never seen her in anything quite like this before. Although in her early forties at this point, she features in several nude scenes in this film which get progressively more graphic as the film progresses- it’d be a brave career move for any woman today, never mind one back in 1974, which seems an unusual decision as she was already a well-known actress, but it probably makes this one her more famous/infamous movies. The film also features genre stalwart Dick Miller, who is always a pleasure to see on film, as an increasingly frustrated FBI chases our heroine throughout the movie.

bbmSo anyway, we’re in Texas in 1932, and Wilma McClatchie (Dickinson) is so frustrated by her life of poverty and wanting more for her two daughters, that she stops her youngest daughter’s wedding during the wedding service.  They race away from the Church with her bootlegger lover but during an encounter with two FBI agents, Wilma’s lover is killed. Wilma and her daughters carry on her dead lover’s bootlegging business and progress onto an ever-daring crime spree. They get caught up with a bank robber, Fred Diller (Skerritt) and they commit several robberies together, and Wilma and Diller become lovers. During a later robbery, Wilma meets a charming but disreputable gambler William Baxter (Shatner) who falls into the gang and replaces Diller as Wilma’s lover. Diller is annoyed but turns his attentions to Wilma’s daughters, eventually bedding them both and getting the youngest pregnant. Wilma decides she has to make one last con to set her daughters up for life which involves kidnapping a wealthy heiress, but the FBI are closing in.

bbm1So there’s lots of sex, and lots of violent gun-play and chases. Its tawdry stuff filmed with a very low budget but it somehow has a lot of charm too, particularly from its ‘seventies feel with lots of actors familiar to anyone who saw much ‘seventies American television shows. Indeed, its a surprisingly strong cast all round, but I have to wonder what Shatner was doing in this. He is very good though, and cast rather against type, as a no-good scoundrel who’s a coward and a liar, albeit hindered by a not very good wig. I suppose Star Trek was years behind him and was just an old sixties tv show at that point; back then the show was clearly in the past and never going to have any future and Shatner had to get acting gigs wherever he could. There is good fun to be had here though- considering Kirk’s weekly amorous encounters in Trek, its a bit of a chuckle here to see him in bed with Dickinson and she declining his advances in favour of a book.

bbm5Skerritt by then had a few minor movies behind him but was still very much trying to work his way up the ladder to stardom by whatever role he could get, and while there’s little here to suggest what awaited him, there is indeed some fun seeing him being such a lothario bank-robber, bedding first the mother and then her two children. Career-wise the best was yet to come for both of the male leads, and of course Dickinson herself was soon to land a major acting part in her television show Police Woman. So this exploitation b-movie is almost a time-capsule, a moment in time in all three careers that stands out almost like some kind of reality check- actors have to eat, as they say.

Big Bad Mama is currently available ‘free’ to Amazon Prime members, and I stumbled onto it completely by accident, having never even heard of it before- maybe this is the biggest plus for streaming services such as this. There’s lots of old rubbish on Amazon but a few little gems like this one that I would miss completely if not for them sitting hidden away for me to stumble on. After a long day at work it made for a perfect Friday night viewing, its not a great movie by any means -its pretty lousy, really, but the amazing cast and the unique style of those old ‘seventies movies makes it an enjoyable 90 minutes (the cinematography alone is lovely). I see there’s even a sequel on Amazon Prime, that was released in 1987, but considering how the first film ends I cannot figure out how Dickinson manages to star in it too- something tells me I’m going to have to find out by pressing that ‘watch now’ button some night soon…