Tuesday, February 27, 2007


Once upon a time, a wildly successful science fiction movie spawned a cult phenomenon. Not only were several sequels filmed, but cartoon and television shows were produced based on the film, and a slew of merchandising was created including dolls, comic books, models, and bubble gum cards. This might sound like I’m talking about Star Wars, but I am in fact talking about Planet of the Apes. In the late 60s and early 70s, Planet of the Apes (POTA to fans) laid the ground work for how a true multi-media, pop culture blitz should be handled, and the entertainment world has never been quite the same.

I was too young to see the first POTA movie, but I was quite familiar with its iconic imagery through movie trailers, posters, and pictures in the newspaper. I was intrigued by Charlton Heston in his homo-erotic loin cloth and leather restraints, the state-of-the-art ape make-up and quasi-medieval outfits, and the ape city of stucco and wood buildings with the San-Diego-Zoo-Goes-Condo motif. Unfortunately, the first POTA movie I saw was Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which had none of that. Instead, I was treated to Ricardo Montalban dragging Roddy McDowell on a leash through some near-future United States where man has turned apes into slave labor. I knew from pop culture osmosis that McDowell’s ape character in the other movies was Cornelius, but here he was called Caesar. The movie shows how, under Caesar’s leadership, the apes revolt and violently take over the earth (or a least a few acres of LA’s Century City) from the nasty ol’ humans. By the end, I was confused and not a little depressed. It wasn’t long, however, before the earlier movies started popping up on t.v. and I was able to understand what the original fuss was all about.

In all there were five POTA films, the first two being the only ones worth repeated viewings, in my opinion. The first took a fairly decent stab at Pierre Boulle’s novel, although budget restraints prohibited showing the book’s more modern ape world of cars and helicopters and such. The second film, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, had a more adventurous flair, showing a race of intelligent humans who have survived in the remains of New York’s subway system and worshipped a functioning atomic bomb. As a boy, I actually preferred Beneath over the first film because of the action involved. As an adult, I think I’ve shifted my vote to the more cerebral first film. The remaining three films spun off in a completely different, and obviously cheaper, direction.

By 1974, I was completely sucked into the POTA whirlwind. My first pieces of POTA memorabilia were the Cornelius and Dr. Zaius model kits which my dad bought me while we were on vacation in Wildwood, NJ. Since the kits were snap-together, I built them on the way home in the back seat of our ’67 Chrysler Newport. Later, I was thrilled to learn that CBS was premiering a POTA television show that fall. Simultaneously, the Christmas catalogues were filled with Mego’s new POTA action figures and accessories, based on the original film. I immediately put in my begging requests for all the Mego figures and the Ape City playset. The ape figures were pretty close to the look of the actors in the movie, but Charlton Heston had not granted his permission to use his likeness on a Taylor doll, so Mego created a generic Astronaut figure wearing Action Jackson’s old jet pilot outfit. Oh well, it was still kinda cool. And the Ape City used the same cardboard forms as the Mego Batcave playset, but it was covered with vinyl material showing printed images of the Ape world (there’s even a decimated Statue of Liberty on the back). Seems like I received a Mego playset every Christmas back then, and the smell of the vinyl was so pungent, to this day if I catch a whiff of vinyl, my heart leaps from happy yuletide memories.

While I eagerly waited through the fall of ’74 for my POTA figures, I watched the new POTA t.v. show. Wisely ignoring the later feature films, the t.v. show took the basic premise from the original movie (astronauts passing through a time/space warp and landing on a future Earth inhabited by apes), and fashioned a different storyline where two astronauts are forever running away from the apes who want to suppress these thinking humans. Roddy McDowell plays an ape called Galen (still wearing his Cornelius make-up and costume), who befriends the astronauts and helps them on their escape from ape justice. Initially, I enjoyed the show, but after it became clear that this series was simply The Fugitive in fur, I lost interest. By the time Christmas rolled around, I was no longer watching the show and was happy to play out the movie version with my action figures. Mego eventually put out new POTA figures based on the t.v. show, but it may have already been cancelled by then. Once I exhausted all my POTA story lines, I reimagined my gorilla soldier figure as a super hero whom I named Commander Kong. I thought the idea was pretty nifty to have a sentient, M-16 wielding gorilla fighting crime.

After that Christmas, I continued to have a fascination with POTA, as did much of the world, apparently. Marvel Comics, trying to move beyond the bullpen of super heroes they had unleashed, put out POTA comic books, both in the traditional format and in a magazine format with black-and-white artwork. A Saturday morning animated series was also made, which I enjoyed far more than the live-action show. Without the worries of creating sets and costumes, the animated series presented an ape world closer to Boulle’s vision, with gorilla soldiers driving jeeps and flying planes. Also, the show’s look was designed by Jonny Quest creator Doug Wildey, so it had a cool feel despite the limited animation.

My passion for POTA petered out somewhere in 1977. Once Star Wars was released, movie studios put the sci-fi machine in high gear, and there was just so much more out there to take in. Just like so many of the childhood memories I have shared in this blog, POTA had its time and place in my heart before something else turned my head. The full bore passion may have faded a long time ago, but each of these pop culture icons has left a piece of joy in my heart which has never left me.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007


Around the time that Space: 1999 was ending its second season, Star Wars hit theaters. I saw Star Wars on its opening day in Baltimore (it didn’t actually reach the city until mid-June since movies didn’t open on nine million screens at once like they do now). While I enjoyed its Flash Gordon-style blend of sword-and-sorcery with spaceships and ray guns, I had no idea the world would build Star Wars up into the mega-phenomenon it became. To me, it wasn’t real science fiction like Star Trek or Space: 1999, and I laughed at how seriously so many people took all this Jedi, Force, Dark Side hooey. Nevertheless, science fiction nuts like myself did benefit as Hollywood sought out all kinds of sci-fi properties to cash in on. Without Star Wars, there would’ve been no Star Trek movies or Blade Runner, so I was a happy camper in the late 70s and 80s.

It was fun to see the resurgence of Star Trek through the movies and subsequent t.v. shows. Not only was the subject matter taken more seriously, Paramount spent real money on these productions, giving them a polish the old show could have only dreamed of. While Star Trek was reinvented over and over through the 80s and 90s, Space: 1999 was relegated to the kitschy recesses of the television attic, always to be viewed unfairly as a poor Star Trek knockoff. It pained me to watch my hero, Martin Landau, relegated to such embarrassing fare as Without Warning and The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island. Thank God, Francis Ford Coppola resurrected his career by casting him in Tucker: A Man and His Dreams. But I digress…

By the early 90s, Space:1999 popped back into my life by way of some VHS releases and through airings of reruns on the Sci-Fi channel. Unfortunately, most of the ones I caught on t.v. were from the second season, and they only served to reinforce my memory of how bad the show became toward the end of its run.

A true resurgence occurred in the late 90s when a company called Carlton obtained the licensing rights to Space: 1999 and actively promoted use of the property. Soon, A&E released all 48 episodes on DVD, and a company called Powys Media set about creating new novels based on the old show. Two of the books provided explanations as to how Season One characters Paul Morrow and Dr. Bergman mysteriously disappeared. The old model kits were reissued, albeit only briefly, and a company specializing in Mego reproductions put out Space: 1999 action figures.

I mentioned in my previous post that, as a boy, I owned a Commander Koenig action figure made by Mattel. The Mattel figures were the only ones sold in the U.S. when the show was on the air. However, Mego produced a separate line of figures sold in Europe through the Palitoy company. While the Mattel figures were slightly larger than the Mego figures and the headsculpts were quite good, the costumes looked nothing like those worn on the show. The Mego/Palitoy figures had decent head sculpts and the uniforms were closer to the ones on the show, but they didn’t have a Helena Russell figure and no laser guns. Maybe the Europeans were worried about promoting violence. The Mattel figures definitely had laser guns along with the commlocks. Anyway, now in the 21st century, Classic T.V. Toys started putting out reproductions of the old Mego figures as well as creating new figures based on other characters from the show like Maya and Tony Verdeshi. They even came up with an Alan Carter figure in a realistically rendered space suit. The one drawback was that Martin Landau would not give permission to use his likeness on a new Commander Koenig doll. C’mon, Marty, cut the fans a break!

Since Classic T.V. Toys couldn’t make one, I was determined that I would create my own custom Koenig. Fortunately, CTVT offers figure parts and clothes, so I bought a standard Space:1999 body complete with the white boots. They also offer a Commander Koenig uniform, although it lacks the black stripe on the right arm and the black, mock turtleneck. I was able to add those to the uniform with some black fabric and fabric glue. All I needed was a head. As luck would have it, Dr. Mego sells an unpainted head that looks strikingly like the original Mego head that adorned their old figure. I purchased the head along with a belt, commlock, and laser gun that he makes for Space: 1999 figures. The gun is especially cool since it looks like it belongs with the old figures even though no laser was originally produced.

After painting the head and assembling the parts, I had my own custom Commander Koenig action figure. A childhood dream fulfilled.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

SPACE: 1999

While my friend Greg was zealously promoting Star Trek on the playground, my other friend Vince was showing equal fervor over Space: 1999 in the cafeteria. I’d sit across from Vince every lunch break while he went on and on about what a great show Space: 1999 was. I listened politely but skeptically. I had watched the premiere episode in September of 1975 and couldn’t make it through the first 15 minutes. What I could discern from that first episode was that Moonbase Alpha was built to monitor a huge nuclear waste dump on the far side of the moon (incorrectly called the “dark side” of the moon on the show). Increased electromagnetic energy caused by the excessive amounts of radioactive material created an enormous nuclear explosion that propelled the moon, and the inhabitants of Alpha, on a one-way journey into deep space. Sounds cooler than it actually looked to me at the time. It reminded me too much of UFO, another Gerry Anderson production, which seemed too slow, too stiff, and too talky to be interesting television.

After Vince started his crusade to bring me around, I watched another episode called The Guardian of Piri, which involved the personnel of Moonbase Alpha being lured to a planet where they are basically turned into listless dolts who sit around and stare into space. Not exactly exciting stuff for an 11-year-old, and I was convinced this show was a dud. Finally, I figured I’d give it one more try for Vince’s sake, so I picked up one of the Space:1999 books which novelized four episodes of the show into one sort of cohesive story. Written by veteran science fiction writer E.C. Tubb, I was impressed by the story and I finally understood what I couldn’t seem to grasp by merely watching a random episode here and there.

While Star Trek presented a bright future where outer space was a dynamic and exciting place to explore, Space: 1999 presented a darker vision where man’s inability to control his own technology had thrust a sampling of humanity into the dark, cold, inhospitable void long before they were psychologically ready to face it. The Enterprise crew was made up of smart, courageous people who established relations with alien life forms across the galaxy. The inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha were a more realistic representation of ordinary people who bickered amongst themselves, became wildly stressed by the dangers they were confronting, and sometimes made horrible decisions based on fear and the yearning to find a new home. Captain Kirk was friendly, self-assured, and always had the right answer to any problem. Commander Koenig was overwhelmed by the responsibilities forced on him, short-tempered, and often too quick to respond with a short-sighted decision which put the members of Alpha in jeopardy. In a nutshell, Star Trek stood for the Kennedy-style, right stuff, Peace Corps, Great Society optimism of the 60s which was just beginning to erode by the time the show hit the air. Space: 1999 reflected the more cynical 70s, where leaders could be wrong, foreigners might not be so welcoming to visitors, and new experiences may lead to ambiguous conclusions.

During the spring and summer of 1976, I watched both Star Trek and Space: 1999. They were like two sides of a space opera coin. Star Trek stimulated my desire for adventure and exploration; Space: 1999 compelled me with its sense of loneliness and danger. And just like every kid who’s rabid about a t.v. show, I piled up Space: 1999 toys and memorabilia just as quickly as I did for Star Trek. Peter Pan records put out two Space: 1999 book and record sets, along with an LP of audio stories. I also had the Mattel version of the Commander Koenig action figure, and a cardboard representation of Moonbase Alpha with cardboard people and spaceships.

Also, just like Star Trek, I bought up all the model kits available, including the Eagle and Hawk spaceships, and the Moonbase Alpha diorama. AMT even put out a dune buggy looking thing called The Alien and slapped the Space: 1999 logo on it. Although it had nothing to do with the show, I bought it anyway.

I mentioned the novels earlier, but there were also comic books (great early John Byrne artwork), coloring books, and even a color-by-number poster. If the Space: 1999 logo was on it, I was buying it.

For Christmas 1976, I received the laser gun, complete with flashing lights, and the three-foot Eagle spaceship with little Koenig, Russell, and Bergman figures. They were kinda brittle and posed in a strange, ape-like stance to fit in the cockpit, so I soon abandoned the figures and used my MAC men (more on that in a previous post). These items, like virtually all the Space: 1999 stuff, were based on the characters and look of the first season. In the fall of ’76, Space: 1999 was into its second season and it appeared to be almost a completely different show.

To make the show more “American,” Gerry Anderson brought in t.v. hack Fred Freiberger, who had produced the disastrous third season of Star Trek. To Freiberger’s credit, he did make the show more exciting, hiring writers and directors who could focus on action and pacing. He also allowed the set and costume designers to bring more color and flair to the show’s look. He specifically moved away from the expansive, white sets of the first season in favor of smaller rooms crammed with equipment to enhance tension. Freiberger’s flaw was that he viewed Space: 1999 as another Star Trek, and completely ignored the tone and story lines that made the show unique. Instead of encountering advanced beings and space phenomena that challenged their perception of the universe, Koenig and the gang spent the second season battling the proverbial bug-eyed monsters who were usually bent on stealing Alpha’s “life support core,” whatever the hell that was. He also callously removed characters and replaced them with new ones, never explaining where they went. On Star Trek, you could assume that characters like Yeoman Rand were simply transferred, but characters stranded on a runaway moon had to be explained away. I guess Freiberger assumed we were too stupid to notice.

Which was the essential flaw with the second season: the fans were treated like clods who only wanted spaceships and ray guns. For all its shortcomings, the first season had a point of view. In addition to showing humans at their best and worst under stressful conditions, presenting alternate perceptions of reality, and building suspense through the sheer struggle to survive, there was also an underlying theme that promoted the concept that the Alphans had a destiny. Man had destroyed Earth through wars and pollution and the inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha were flung into the cosmos to provide the human race with a second chance to start over on a new planet. Sometimes they would inexplicably escape certain destruction. The only reason for their survival was that some higher power wanted them to carry on and fulfill their destiny. Pretty heady stuff for 70s t.v.

Of course, as a pre-teen, I only understood these concepts on a subliminal level. Watching the second season, an inexplicable sense of loss grew as each new episode aired. With each new bug-eyed monster, I was certain something special was missing. I couldn’t articulate it, but I yearned to see the first season again. Unlike Star Trek, however, Space: 1999 was in first-run syndication, meaning that the first season shows would not be rerun for some time if at all. The Year Two episodes became steadily worse as the weeks went by and I gave up on the show completely before the run of new episodes was completed. I didn’t even bother to check if there would be a Year Three, the writing on the wall was so clear.

They did syndicate the reruns during the late 70s, but I had moved on. I suppose it was symbolic that I dismantled my Space: 1999 models to make customized spaceships and Vince and I blew up his Moonbase Alpha model with firecrackers. Boys will be boys. It wouldn’t be until the real year 1999 rolled around that my interest in the show would resume.

Thursday, February 08, 2007


I was first sucked into the Star Trek fandom wormhole in the fall of 1975. Although I was aware of the show, I never paid much attention to it until my friend Greg started extolling its virtues to me every day during recess. In those days, Star Trek reruns were shown daily just about everywhere on the planet. I was able to watch them on WDCA Channel 20 in Washington DC. It didn’t take long to cycle through all three seasons of the series and by winter 1976, I was a hard core Trekkie (that was the proper term back then, before some geeks became inexplicably offended by it and decided they must be called Trekkers).

Star Trek filled a necessary void in my life as I transitioned from child to adolescent. Unlike other kids my age who were graduating from action figures and Hot Wheels to guitars and 10-speed bikes, I was having a hard time leaving the escapist fantasies behind. I needed something that would capture my imagination and allow me to live in make-believe, at least for short periods of time. Star Trek was perfect for that, providing a starship populated by charismatic crew members who could transport me to new worlds full of aliens and high adventure. The positive, humanistic sub-text of the show, promoting the good in mankind and our capacity to create a brighter future, was also encouraging to a child dealing with an alcoholic father and bullying classmates on dreary 20th century Earth.

Fortunately for me, this was also the time when Paramount realized that they could cash in big by licensing the hell out of Star Trek to toy makers, publishers, and anyone else who could put out a Star Trek-related trinket. I spent the next year nagging my parents to buy me any number of Star Trek items. I started with the paperbacks novelizing stories from the original series and the later animated one. I moved on to all the model kits and soon filled my room with the Enterprise, the Klingon Battle Cruiser, Romulan Bird of Prey, Galileo Seven, and Space Station K-7. AMT was even ballsy enough to put out a totally made up spaceship under the Star Trek banner, called something like Interplanetary Explorer (my mind’s a little hazy). Although it didn’t look anything like a Star Trek ship, I liked it because it glowed in the dark and it had a hangar with working doors and a little shuttlecraft that lived inside.

Peter Pan Records, the people who put out kiddie records in the 60s and 70s, released a series of Star Trek records with accompanying comic books so you could read the story as you listened to it. The art work was pretty good (a step up from the amateurish Gold Key Comics of the era) and the stories were in the spirit of Star Trek, although clearly aimed at a younger audience.

The part I found strange about the art work was that, while the renderings of the main characters and the interiors of the Enterprise were quite accurate, the depictions of the Enterprise exterior varied from frame to frame and was often wildly inaccurate, like the artist was never given a clear picture of the ship.

Also, Uhura was a white woman and Sulu was African-American! As far as the recordings went, the voice actors asked to imitate the real stars of the show did an admirable job of invoking the spirit of the characters without resorting to full-on impersonations.

In the spring of 76, someone put out a line of Star Trek shirts for kids. I was still small enough to fit into one, so I got a red shirt like Scotty’s. Most of the kids I knew got the gold Kirk shirts, but I was always more partial to Lt. Commander Scott. To me, Scotty was the true soul of the ship and he alone pulled their bacon out of the fire far more frequently than Kirk or Spock ever did. With my red shirt, and my model kit of the phaser, communicator, and tricorder, I could go off on my own adventures (although I usually did this in my room or in the basement since walking around the neighborhood dressed like Scotty could elicit some unwanted laughs).

Of course, the big Star Trek collectible of that time for any kid was the Mego action figures. I had the Kirk, Spock, and McCoy figures, then I acquired a Klingon. The likenesses were spot on, but I was always frustrated by Mego’s cheapness when it came to accessories. Spock and McCoy had a communicator, phaser, and tricorder. Kirk only had a phaser and communicator, and the Klingon had the exact same phaser and communicator rather than his own alien weaponry.

Since I was losing interest in action figures around this time anyway, I ended up using my figures in a school project where I created a diorama of the Time Portal from City on the Edge of Forever. I think I got a passing grade on it.

I was really thrilled to find such a treasure trove of fantasy fun as Star Trek, but after watching the same episodes over and over every day, the stories were beginning to lose their luster. I needed to find another diversion. As luck would have it, a new science fiction show was on the air at the same time…

Friday, February 02, 2007


I don’t know what the occasion is, but they seem to be showing an awful lot of John Wayne movies on AMC lately (or is that a lot of awful John Wayne movies?). As I caught snippets of these films, I was reminded of my lifelong ambivalence toward The Duke. In the 70s, it was fashionable to sneer at the old-fashioned, conservative hawk who, although he played war heroes from every branch of the armed services on the silver screen, actively avoided real-life military service during WW II. Later on, I took sadistic joy in finding a VHS copy of The Conqueror where John Wayne portrays Genghis Khan (!) in bad makeup and the same drawling delivery he used in every other movie. His films from the 60s were particularly bad, looking hastily assembled and existing only to cash in on Wayne’s box-office power. Still, you can’t deny that he had a certain appeal, and I’ve probably had repeat viewings of more of his movies than any other star besides Elvis.

I would have to count his non-western films as my favorites, among them Back to Bataan, Sands of Iwo Jima, The Longest Day, and McQ. The latter film was especially fun with Wayne trying to be an older, stockier version of Dirty Harry. The anti-hero with questionable ethics was a departure for Wayne, and the sight of him mowing down bad guys with an Ingram MAC-10 was pretty cool. I even liked The Hellfighters despite its bad script and awkward directing simply because it exposed me to a world I had never known before. The Green Berets was a missed opportunity, in my opinion. I agreed with its intention to pay tribute to an elite fighting force operating in
a difficult and unpopular war, but the silly story and glaring technical errors only emboldened anti-war protestors who saw it as wildly inaccurate propaganda.

Among his westerns, I loved Rio Bravo, partly because it featured two other favorites of mine, Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson. I also enjoyed Hondo, The Sons of Katie Elder (Dino again!), and The Shootist. I know film critics praise him for other, more accomplished films like Stagecoach and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, but I’m going purely by my gut reactions which don’t always match with film school criteria.

When I discovered that headsculpt master Dale Van Slyke offered a John Wayne head for 1/6th scale action figures, I decided to create a John Wayne figure. I wanted him to look much like the way he appeared in several of his westerns, so I went with tan pants, tan boots, a faded red shirt, vest with lapels, and a soiled white cowboy hat. The boots were the trickiest find. I ultimately settled on a pair of Ken boots and, since Ken has such tiny feet, I was forced to cut the toes off my action figure to make them fit. Not only did he lose his head to a John Wayne resin head, but his toes were lopped off as well! The pants, holster, and vest I ordered from Cotswold Collectibles and Old Joe Infirmary. The shirt came off a Planet of the Apes Dr. Zaius doll with buttons that I drew on. The hat I bought from a crafts store. It was black, so I painted it white with acrylic paint. The black bleeds through, creating the proper soiled look. The neckerchief I made from a piece of cloth.

Overall, I think it’s a pretty nice tribute to The Duke. Saddle up, pilgrim!