Steven Spielberg’s 2002 cinematic adaption of the Phillip K. Dick story “Minority Report” is arguably one of the great science fiction films of the past twenty years—and also one of the most prophetic. But transitioning such a complex and effects heavy concept to television would seem to be a Herculean task. But the producers at FOX and Amblin Entertainment, (including Spielberg himself) have found a way to mold the science fiction noir into a sleek, entertaining show. The producers wisely chose to make this series a true sequel to the 2002 film. So rather than having the thankless task of replacing a megastar like Tom Cruise, the series begins ten years later and focuses on the precogs themselves—the three gifted psychic mutants who were held against their will and exploited by the Metro PD and the government to “solve” murders before they happened.
The series opens up ten years after the events in the movie and someone in the Federal government finally figured out maybe it was not such a great idea to arrest and convict people,(and sentence them to lifelong mental torture prisons), for crimes they did not actually commit. So with the pre-crime program closed, the precogs consisting of two twin brothers, and an older (and far more powerful) sister, were free to live normal lives outside of prying eyes of this futuristic quasi-police state.
Although they stay in touch, the three precog siblings have all chosen very different post Pre-crime lifestyles. The handsome Arthur (played by studly Nick Zano) whose gifts allow him to see names and numbers, is cashing in on his talents as a high stakes financier (a.k.a con man). The enigmatic and ethereal true leader of the three siblings, Agatha (played by the beautiful Laura Regan) still lives on the undisclosed pastoral island where they were originally set up at the end of the film. The series focuses on the third precog, Dash, (played by Stark Sands) a tortured soul who suffers from unannounced convulsions where he is forced to live through the disturbing imagery of a murder that has yet to happen—but will—unless he finds a way to prevent it. Dash decides he cannot stand by and just let these murders happen and joins forces with a renegade police detective who is equally frustrated by her inability to stop murder before they happen. In order to extract the imagery from Dash’s brain—in a painful procedure—they seek the help of the precog technician from the Precrime days—Daniel London as Wally the Caretaker—a great supporting character played by the same actor from the film. Dash’s partner Detective Lara Vega is played with a no nonsense, the end justifies the means, bad ass vibe by Meagan Good. I love the fact that producers have done a twist on the old film noir formula. Here, a female plays the hard-boiled cynical lead character, and the gorgeous, charismatic Meagan Good is more than up to the task.
Much has been made by mainstream critics about her body hugging, cleavage-revealing uniform. But I love it—and not just because of THAT reason. Because it fits the character. Why should she be dressed in a potato sack? She has a voluptuous body and to hide it would be weak for the character—not to mention the writers and costume designer. Lara is anything but meek! Think of Starbuck from BSG (the 2000s SyFy remake).
To add to the tension, Lara has to keep Dash’s true identity and the nature of their partnership a secret from her prying ex-boyfriend control freak boss. Not only is what they are doing illegal—there are dark forces at work both in and out of the government who would capture and exploit Dash and his siblings if given the chance. In episode three, “Hawk-Eye”, Agatha has that very vision, a disturbing future where she and her siblings are once again held captive by the government in a milk pool and exploited for political gain. Technically, “Minority Report” gets top marks across the board. The producers have opted for a more color saturated look than the stark, expressionistic tones of the movie—and it works great. As mentioned above, the costumes are awesome. The sets are detailed and convincing, and the parade of super cool visual effects is beyond impressive—all of it very creatively done. “Minority Report” also has an outstanding musical score courtesy of Sean Callery of “24" and “Homeland” fame. John William’s fans such as myself really appreciates his homage to “Spiders” in the pilot. Bottom line: ***1/2 (out of four) Visually stunning, with a great concept, a strong lead, and solid supporting cast—“Minority Report” has the potential to become a great science fiction series. Let us hope FOX starts promoting it more and gives it a chance to succeed and develop.
“Alamo Jobe”Original airdate October 20, 1985Teleplay by Joshua Brand and John FalseyStory by Steven Spielberg
Directed by Michael D. Moore A teen-age soldier fighting in the Battle of the Alamo ends up in modern day (1985) San Antonio. The confused time traveler stays focused on fulfilling the final order of his dying commanding officer—to deliver a message to his General on Shuttlecock Road. This type of scenario turned up frequently on the original “Twilight Zone”, and it is an interesting premise for a story. While the most of the “Twilight Zone” episodes of this type focused on the surreal nature of such a bizarre time placement, “Alamo Jobe” is an action oriented story featuring a fairly exciting and well-staged horseback chase and ride through downtown San Antonio. The location shooting is terrific and there is a hilarious (and obligatory) break dance scene that was inserted into just about every movie or TV show made in 1985. “Alamo Jobe” also has a terrific, rousing score by the late, great James Horner. Bottom line **1/2 out of four “Alamo Jobe” is an interesting premise that is well-executed. But still, given the hype and the title of this series, I wanted more.
Next up: “Amazing Stories” finally delivers with the clever “Mummy Daddy” and one of the show’s great masterpieces, the Spielberg directed “The Mission”.
Chapter 33 – The Battle for Paradise Caitlin felt sick inside hearing the screams and the cries from below as the creatures of the jungle fled in terror from the raging firebombs. Homes were being destroyed. Life was being extinguished. Entire cultures and maybe even wholesale species could be lost forever; all because a former U.S. Senator fancied himself the conduit of an invisible man in the sky. Cross was not hard to figure out. He wanted subjects to impose his will on. Subjects to worship his perverted version of God, and by default Cross himself, since only he could speak for God. His philosophy was clear and defined; get greedy, take from anyone and everyone and especially from the earth itself, and leave an endless trail of dead bodies, burned lives, charred souls, and toxic waste by the truckload. The former cruise ship turned death ship continued to launch a barrage of fireballs into the jungle as it chugged up the Congo. It had to be stopped now. If that ship crossed through the next channel and continued bombing, they would be on the other side of the rift. With no more natural barriers to contain the raging flames—the entire Triangle could burn into a wasteland and the fires would burn for months from coast to coast. Paradise would be lost. With the rain forest gone and one of the few remaining habitable zones turned into a wasteland. With nothing left to oxygenate the already depleted atmosphere, life itself in post-apocalyptic earth could be over. The planet would become nothing but a barren, inhospitable rock. Earth would become another Mars. Caitlin could not let that happen. This death ship had to be stopped and stopped right now. They had a plan—a long shot that Caitlin had to turn into a sure shot. It was a plan Lori and Lithgow had dubbed, “Operation Deathstar.” She tapped the radio earpiece and microphone Lori had made for her. “I am at the target spot. On the plateau trail, across from the river island, just above the cliff overlooking the rocks where the underground river from the Lost City merges into the Congo,” Caitlin said. “Are you reading me?” “Roger that,” Lori said. “Okay sister,” Caitlin said. “You’re on. This is your moment. Your turn to be the hero. Just tell me what to do?” “What is the exact location of the ship?” Lori asked. Caitlin looked into her binoculars and focused in on the ship of doom. “Coming around the island split via the eastern channel side. The one further away from me,” Caitlin said. “Give me one minute,” Lori said. “The Guardian coming back to life has created an energy bubble. The surge in transmission power if off the charts. I may be able to use this to tap into an old satellite network, bounce a tracking signal off of you and the ship and give you the precise time to go for it.” There was a beat of silence as Caitlin heard her furiously tapping a keyboard. Before she locked into the mission Caitlin had to ask her the nagging anxiety bothering her. “Any sign of Gunner yet?” Caitlin asked. “Not so far,” Lori said. “But no worries. Lithgow says we still have some time. The gateway is stable and has yet to show any power slippage. And you know Gunner. He’ll get here in time. He finds a way. He always does.” “I know,” Caitlin said, more out of an auto response than actually believing it. Caitlin knew—as Gunner himself had taught her—she had to focus only on what she could control. Her mentor’s fate and the idiosyncrasies of temporal quantum mechanics were out of her hands. But what was in her hands was the fate of this death ship driving up the Congo and spewing out destruction. And what would soon be in her hands—was Cross’s scrawny neck when she snapped it. She really hoped that he was not on board. Going down with that wicked ship was far too easy of a death for such an agent of evil. “Okay, I have a fix on you and the ship,” Lori said. “Inputting schematics and making calculations….now.” Another beat of silence passed. “Come on sister,” Caitlin said. “Don’t leave me hanging. Talk to me.” “Shit,” Lori said. “This will still be doable. But you are going to have to really sprint fast to get enough momentum for the jump. I mean like really, really fast.” “Hey, it’s me,” Caitlin quipped. “How fast?” “Like superhero fast,” Lori said. “Faster than you ever did in the one-hundred meter at Steel Valley or Pitt. Faster than…well…any human has even ran before. Husain Bolt was once clocked at twenty-eight MPH. I need you to do thirty.” “I got it,” Caitlin said. “Just be my eyes in the sky. You call the plays. I execute them. Just like the old days. “Oracle and the Black Canary,” Lori said. “There you go,” Caitlin said. “How long till the starting gun?” “In about four minutes and twenty-two seconds,” Lori said. “Let me know when we hit thirty seconds,” Caitlin said. “Roger that,” Lori said. Caitlin took the next four minutes to empty her mind, stretch out muscles, focus every fiber of her being, and engage in the transformative visualization technique she had been mastering since she turned thirteen years-old and was rescued by a vigilante anti-hero named Gunner Star. “Thirty second countdown begins right…now,” Lori announced in her earpiece. It was now time for operation Deathstar. Caitlin secured her very best javelin-style throwing spear, doused the tip in the concentrated explosive goo Lori and Lithgow had conjured up for her. Then she crouched down into a sprinter’s stance, and waited for Lori’s start command. “Ready…Set…Go!”
“The Main Attraction”Original airdate October 6, 1985Teleplay by Brad Bird and Mick GarrisStory by Steven Spielberg
Directed by Matthew Robbins Set in a John Hughes type mid 80s white suburbia high school, “The Main Attraction” is the story of an over-the-top, obnoxious, narcissistic, popular, all-state everything jock who literally becomes a walking human magnet when a meteorite strikes his house. The producers of “Amazing Stories” decided to put in a comedy episode as its second show. Given the hype, impossible expectations, and the intense backlash the show was already receiving, I’m not so sure this was good idea. It is not that I am opposed to flat out comedic episodes in SF/Fantasy/Horror anthologies. The original “Twilight Zone” did it often and very well, and two of the all-time best “Amazing Stories” episodes, (“Mummy, Daddy” and “The Family Dog”), are comedies. But the show really needed a strong, dramatic story in this key number two slot—something intense. That would eventually come three weeks later with the Spielberg directed “The Mission”. But by then, the show was a lost cause in the ratings, its reputation (a false one) as a bomb already cast in stone. Okay, “The Main Attraction” was the wrong story at the wrong time, but is it any good? Or more to the point—and the most important question to ask of any comedy—is it funny? Well, yes…a little bit…here and there. The caricatures are so over the top—which can be fine if it is done with some specificity and wit. The problem here it is played so super broad. It all comes across as lightweight. This kind of comedy needs a bit of an edge that is lacking here. This episode needed more story—it needed more bite. Still, a lot of things do work in this episode. The lead actor, John Scott Clough, who plays Brad Bender (a great name!) looks like a cross between Ted Danson and a young Jim Carrey, and he appears to be very talented slapstick comedy performer. Likewise, Lisa Jane Persky is good as the nerdy girl who has a crush on him. Director Matthew Robbins , (“Dragonslayer”, “Batteries Not Included”), is no stranger to special effects, and the physical effects of the magnets flying around are quite elaborate and inventive—very well staged. And this is “Amazing Stories”, so of course the musical score is fantastic—this time courtesy of “The Last Starfighter” composer Craig Safan. Bottom line: ** out of four Mildly amusing with some cool physical effects, “The Main Attraction” is a lightweight entry in “Amazing Stories”.
“Ghost Train”Original airdate September 29, 1985Teleplay by Frank Dees Story by Steven Spielberg Directed by Steven Spielberg
Shrouded in the trademark Spielberg secrecy of the time, “Ghost Train” was the lead off hitter in the “Amazing Stories” lineup. The hype throughout the summer of ’85 had been omnipresent and the soaring expectations for the series were beyond ridiculous. To add to the already tense atmosphere, Spielberg did not provide any advanced tapes or review screenings for critics. For Spielberg, this was a way to avoid spoilers and was similar to the way he handled his movies. But for television this was unheard of at the time. TV critics took this as a slap in the face. They were already pissed about Spielberg’s two year guaranteed contract with NBC. They were pissed off about the secrecy surrounding the show. They were pissed off “E.T.” made so much money. And now they were really pissed this guy had the gall to shake up the system. “Who does he think he is?” was the prevailing attitude. Finally, “Ghost Train” premiered and the next day critics went berserk. The show was savaged with some of the most over the top vitriolic reviews imaginable. Viewers and genre fans were not much kinder. The next month’s Starlog Magazine letters section was packed with reader’s expressing their disappointment in the series and “Ghost Train” in particular. Even my favorite genre analyst of all time, the astute John Kenneth Muir wrote in Terror Television that “Amazing Stories” was one of the greatest disasters in the history of television (I’m paraphrasing). “Ghost Train” is the story about an old-timer named Opa Globe (played by Roberts Blossom) who is waiting for a train called the Highball Express to return and take him to his destiny—a train that he thinks he caused to crash seventy-five years earlier. The episode focuses on the special bond Opa has with his grandson Brian (played by Lukas Haas, one of the best child actors at the time and fresh off of co-starring with Harrison Ford in “Witness”). Unlike Brian’s parents, he gets his grandfather. He listens intently when Opa tells the story about the Highball Express and what is about to happen—and he believes. In a Spielberg story only children or—people with a childlike sense of wonder such as Opa—have a true sense of the transcendent—the world beyond—the fantastic. Regular adults (such as Brian’s parents) going about their mundane lives of stressful banality are far too distracted and cynical to see what is going on around them, until it (in this case literally) comes crashing down into their lives. Spielberg is a true visual storyteller. He tells his story in a series of artfully composed images that seamlessly take us from point A to point B. There is usually not a whole lot of intricate or complex plot or a great deal of verb-age. Back in 1985, this was highly unusual for television which at that time was e very static medium visually. TV in 1985 was dialogue heavy, plot driven and full of talking heads—very un-cinematic. And her comes this visually oriented director telling a this little thirty minute story with a series of sweeping pans, push-ins, and tracking shots, cut to the soaring themes of John Williams. It was something audiences had never seen in a television series and were not very receptive to it. Much of the problem here is the length as well as the format. In a two hour film in a darkened theater the director has time and space to tell his story through the visuals and allow the audience to immerse themselves into the movie as Spielberg skillfully leads them on a physical and emotional journey. “Ghost Train” does not and cannot work the same way as a Spielberg film because he simply does not have enough time to work his magic and bring us come to the emotional catharsis we so desperately require. The director’s segment in “The Twilight Zone Movie” suffered in a similar way and “Ghost Train” has the added burden of playing on a (at the time) tiny screen amid a household full of distractions, not to mention having to break for toilet paper commercials every ten minutes. And make no mistake, “Ghost Train” plays more like big budget experimental short film than it does a television drama. Technically, it is beyond reproach. As noted above, the John Williams music is superb, very much in line with the emotionally potent material he was creating at the time. And if you do seek this show out, see it on DVD or at least streaming at Netflix (and not the illegal grainy pixelated copies uploaded at YouTube) because “Ghost Train” looks fantastic. It was shot by my favorite Spielberg cinematographer Allen Daviau, who also lensed “E.T.”, “The Color Purple”, and “Empire of the Sun”. So the plot is somewhat bare-bones, the visuals and music and direction superb, but what is “Ghost Train” really about. Much like “Poltergeist”, it is about the sins of the past. It is about the falsehood of “American Exceptional-ism”, this notion that United States has always been this virtuous beacon of justice and our past a romanticized utopia where everyone was happy and prosperous and spiritually fulfilled. The “Ghost Train” in this episode is not so much about Opa, who merely seems to be hitching a ride into the afterlife. It is really about those other passengers on the Highball Express, who were heading out west to take over the lands of the Native Americans. Native Americans who were either herded into concentration camps, or outright slaughtered, by the United States Army. The people on that train are prisoners—destined to roam forever over the blood-soaked lands they sought to grow fat and rich off of after the United States government had taken care of the only thing that stood in their way—that pesky “Indian Problem”. The above reading is not such a reach when you consider that Spielberg would go on to make film about another genocide called “Schindler’s List”. Bottom line: *** out of four. Beautifully shot, staged, and scored, “Ghost Train” is interesting, but is just not Spielberg at full steam.
Warning: Minor Spoilers Ahead Many reviewers and “Walking Dead” fans, (including me) feared that “Fear the Walking Dead” would be at best an inferior version of its parent series, or at worst, a cynical cash grab. Both of those expectations could not have been further off the mark. Instead, as the moody “Fear” heads into its sixth and final episode of the season, it stands as flat out the scariest piece of television drama since the early seasons of X-Files (as well as Chris Carter’s other 90s horror series, “Millennium”). The writers and producers have given us insight into something most “Walking Dead” fans have always wondered. How did everything go down? What was happening in those early days when Rick was in a coma? How exactly did the world end? Well, as one character says in the pilot episode (and was again re-iterated last night by the great Ruben Blades in episode 5): “When the world ends, it ends fast.”
The show runners behind “Fear of the Walking Dead” astutely took a very different approach than the parent show. “The Walking Dead”, despite it horror trappings, is essentially an action adventure show. The walkers are part of the landscape, and to be sure, despite their familiarity by now, hordes of flesh eating zombies can still be terrifying. But the true horror in “Walking Dead” comes from the evil humans in the form of governors, gangs, child rapists, wife beaters, and even flesh-eating (literally) cannibalistic humans. But while “The Walking Dead” hit the ground running in one spectacular staged action sequence after another—“Fear the Walking Dead” has been unleashed in a simmering, slow burn of orange-hued cinematography amid the urban angst landscape of a drought plagued L.A. Setting the series deep in the heart of Los Angeles and telling the story via a “modern” family of very real (and very relate-able) people is another wise move. A tense sense of dread permeates everything in the early on in the pilot episode, and the atmosphere of suspense continues to build slowly throughout each show. This is a drama that understands the art of patience and payoff. Ground your story. Create realism and draw the audience into the world of the characters. Then when the horror does it—it will be all that much more effective.
This is also a show that understands the art of the payoff—how to effectively build the suspense. We first only hear about the “infected” who have the “flu”. Then we get glimpses of them on social media video footage. Then, when have our first true encounters with the undead, it is absolutely terrifying. There are three sequences in this series, (Nick’s drug dealer, Maddie and her student facing down the Principal in the eerie, desolate school, and the neighbor zombie in the house scene), that are riveting, talk-back-to-screen, clench your jaw, cover your eyes, super scary. Of course, strong writing, brilliant on-location cinematography, and great atmosphere mean nothing without the right cast, and this cast is outstanding! Kim Dickens as Maddie anchors this series with the same impressive gravitas and charisma that lead to her stealing “Gone Girl”. She is this show’s Rick, and just like Andrew Lincoln, this role will cement her reputation as a major star who can carry anything. The entire supporting cast is equally up to the challenge, but the true standout here that must be mentioned is Rubin Blades as Daniel Salazar—what a great character! What is terrifying about “Fear” is how closely the on-screen horror mirrors our own brooding real-life reality. When there were a couple of isolated Ebola cases in the U.S. last year, fear-mongering madness ensued. An American nurse returning from East Africa, with no symptoms of the disease, was detained and locked into a cage by blow-hard loud mouth New Jersey Governor Chris Christi. The rhetoric on all sides was apocalyptic as paranoia ran rampant. Now imagine what would happen if anything even remotely close to any widespread epidemic were to strike—not to mention an actual zombie virus. Chilling stuff. There is a scene in “Fear of the Walking Dead” where I actually felt the need to begin stockpiling weapons for the day when that epidemic hits. This is a show that will get under your skin.
Bottom line: Creepy, chilling, brilliantly photographed and scored, with strong performances from Kim Dickens and Ruben Blades—“Fear the Walking Dead” is scary stuff.
I have been searching for a new television series to blog about. It had be something retro—something without a lot of current coverage on the internet. It had to be something with a manageable running time–i.e. something short-lived so I can watch and review each episode without taking years. It also had to be something I liked enough to be motivated to do it. But perhaps most important of all, I wanted to pick a series that is long overdue for a re-examination—one that perhaps did not get a fair shake the first time around from either critics or fans. Two recent examples of shows like this are the underrated “Revolution”, mishandled and abandoned by NBC because it was produced by another production company, and “Caprica”, rejected by fans for not being a clone of “Battlestar Galactica.” Maybe I will take on those two shows some time in the future, but for now I wanted to go back a bit further in time, and given the recent “Fantasy Island” and “Outer Limits” binge I have been on, I was leaning toward an anthology. The show I have chosen to blog about and do a weekly episode by episode review of is “Amazing Stories”. For those of you too young to remember parachute pants or The Human League—or perhaps preoccupied with actually living life back in 1985—here is the backstory on “Amazing Stories”.
One of the most hyped pop culture television events of the 1980’s, "Amazing Stories" was created by Steven Spielberg and premiered on NBC in September 1985 with the 30 minute episode "Ghost Train", directed by the man himself. Critics were absolutely savage. I still recall Rona Barret on Entertainment Tonight raging angrily—railing against the director, accusing him of "showing off" his technical skills with a tracking shot (masterfully executed by the way) and other flashy cinematic flair. What really seemed to piss off the media (and the television industry in general) was the fact that Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment was given a two year 44 episode guaranteed contract. Which is exactly what I would do if I was the most successful filmmaker of all time. History, and recent history—especially when it comes to genre shows—proves time and time again a broadcast network will fuck you over any chance they get. So it was the smart move creatively to protect the show. But this guaranteed contract also guaranteed a relentless drubbing from resentful, bitter critics throughout the series’ two year run, especially when the show was getting its ass kicked in the rating by that infallible television juggernaut, CBS’s “Murder She Wrote”.
At this point history, the beginnings of a serious Spielberg backlash were emerging. Remember, “E.T.” had taken the world by storm in 1982, played in first run theaters for over a year, and had just been re-released in the summer of 1985. “Back to the Future” was the number one box office smash of the year and “The Goonies” was already developing a serious cult following among children and young teens. Although neither “Back to the Future” or “The Goonies” was actually directed by Spielberg, his name was still above the title, and nobody outside of hardcore film buffs knew who Robert Zemickis or Richard Donner were. Add to that the uproar over the previous year’s controversial “Gremlins” and “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”, and the absolute outrage among film and literature snobs over the fact Spielberg was directing an adaption of “The Color Purple”, and you have the perfect storm brewing for a vicious Spielberg backlash that lasted until 1993 when the director once and for all (mostly) silenced his critics with the one-two punch of “Jurassic Park” and ‘Schindler’s List”. So the stage was set in the fall of 1985 for something to bear the initial brunt of all of this venomous resentment that in some Hollywood circles had been building from a decade earlier when the then 27 year-old wunderkind created the modern blockbuster with “Jaws”. Unfortunately, that something became “Amazing Stories”. As a result of all of this history, a false narrative about “Amazing Stories” developed—a narrative that continues until this day. So let us set the record straight. Perhaps the greatest falsehood perpetuated about the series was that the writing was atrocious and all of the stories terrible, and the show was just excruciatingly awful. To put it bluntly, this is simply bullshit.
While “Amazing Stories” falls short of the 1960s classic anthologies of the original “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits, it is far superior to the any of “The Twilight Zone” reboots or glut of late 80s early 90s syndicated anthologies (“Tales From The Dark Side”, “The Hitchhiker” etc.). Overall, I would put “Amazing Stories” on par with late 90s/early 2000s “The Outer Limits” reboot or Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery”; uneven, but brilliant on occasion, and always interesting and entertaining. “Amazing Stories” featured writers such as “Back to the Future” co-scribe Bob Gale (one of the best screenwriters of all time IMO), Mick Garris (whose episode “The Amazing Falsworth” won an Emmy for God’s sake!), Menno Meyjes (an Oscar nominated screenwriter), Michael McDowell, Anne Spielberg, and one of the three greatest television genre writers of all time, (along with Rod Serling and Harlan Ellison), Richard Matheson. Matheson also served as the show’s second season story editor. The talent behind the camera in the director’s chair reads like an all-star team. Each episode was literally a piece of innovative short filmmaking. The series brought cinematic techniques to the small screen with young talents like Phil Joanua and Lesli Linka Glatter, as well as A-list directors such as Robert Zemeckis, Joe Dante, Martin Scorsese, and Clint Eastwood, Kevin Reynolds, Tobe Hooper, Danny DeVito, Peter Hyams, Bob Balaban, Brad Bird, and many more.
Among the stellar cast of outstanding talent in front on the camera were Gregory Hines, Harvey Keitel, Kevin Costner, Kiefer Sutherland, Eve Arden, David Carradine, James Cromwell, Jon Cryer, Mark Hamill, Polly Holliday, Jeffrey Jones, Mabel King, John Lithgow, Hayley Mills, Andrew McCarthy, Christopher Lloyd, Joe Seneca, Rhea Perlman, Charlie Sheen, Patrick Swayze, M. Emmet Walsh, Sam Waterston, Kathy Baker, Cindy Morgan, Kyra Sedgwick, Helen Shaver, and many, many more. “Amazing Stories” also features hands down the best collection of musical scores of all time of any television series ever! Seriously. “Amazing Stories” features music by John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, Bruce Broughton, David Shire, Billy Goldenberg, Danny Elfman, Georges Delerue, Pat Metheny, Leonard Rosenman, Alan Silvestri, and Michael Kamen, just to name a few.
Outside of a few episodes I owned on Laser Disc, I have not seen most of “Amazing Stories” since its initial run in the mid-80s. So I am really looking forward to this blog series, and hope you will join me over the next 45 weeks or so as I take a look back at this often overlooked and underrated anthology series from the 1980s.
Fathom Volume 3 The comic book “Fathom” debuted in 1998 amid a wave (no pun intended) of acclaim and popularity. “Fathom” creator Michael Turner’s gorgeous renderings of “Witchblade” had earned him a sizable and enthusiastic fan base and this new creator-owned book was the ultimate vehicle to showcase his unique talents, as well as that of inkers Joe Weems and Sal Regla, and colorists Jonathan Smith and Peter Steigerwald. The talented young artist’s new creation was embraced by the comic book world and even the main stream. At one point there was even talk of a major motion picture event involving none other than James Cameron! It is easy to understand why Cameron was attracted to “Fathom” because it shares many elements with “The Abyss” (1989) as well as “Avatar” (2009). Actually, considering that Hollywood pretty much adapts everything comic book or graphic novel related, I am shocked nobody has yet made “Fathom” into a movie. Because in the right hands, it would be amazing. Yes, “Fathom” features absolutely stunning artwork, images that will bath over you and entice you to look at then over and over and keep staring in wonderment. But here is the thing, “Fathom” is a lot more than pretty pictures. It also features a strong, emotionally involving storyline written by Michael Turner and Bill O’Neil, starring a terrific main character.
“Fathom” is the story of Aspen Matthews, a young girl who is raised by a surrogate father. Her mysterious past eventually catches up with her and she must come to terms with who she really is and her true heritage—an underwater species of intelligent humanoid creatures known as “the Blue”. Of course, when the Blue and Humans encounter each other, it does not go well. It is the “Abyss” meets “Avatar” meets “Aquaman” with a dash of “Princess of Mars”. Sadly, Michael Turner passed away in 2008 at the young age of 37. His legacy and his company (Aspen MLT) live on, as do his characters, including the wonderful Aspen. But I shied away from reading volume 2 of the “Fathom” series (circa 2004) since Turner was not drawing it himself. To me it was like reading a “Conan” book not written by Robert E. Howard or a “Tarzan” not penned by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Turns out to be my mistake. Copies of the trade paperback collection of “Fathom” volume 2 are impossible to find, unless you want to pay several hundred dollars! But, having just read The New 52 “Aquaman”, I was in the mood to revisit the character of Aspen, so I took a chance and picked up a copy of the widely available Volume 3. And I am glad I did. I fully expected the book to look beautiful and it does. No, Alé Garza is not as good as the late, great Michael Turner, but he is an outstanding artist in his own right and really captures the essence of Aspen and the other characters. The colors are mind-blowingly amazing and the layouts beautiful. The book is gorgeous and I fully expected that. But what I did not expect, what really blew me away, was the strong story written by Michael Turner and J.T Krull. Fathom Volume 3 focuses on an ideological civil war between two different factions of the underwater humanoids—the Blue and the Black. The Blue, realizing staying hidden beneath the seas is no longer an option now, seek to negotiate a peaceful co-existence with the humans. While the Black are the purists, who see the humans as a dangerous advancing threat that must be destroyed. The Black are led by Kiani, another great character who is the dark side of Aspen.
The humans also have ideological divisions and the way the political subtexts are set up is quite complex and utterly fascinating, particularly given so many of the recent temporary political debates where any attempts to negotiate is often derided as “appeasement”, a loaded term referring to Neville Chamberlain cowering to Hitler before WWII. In the middle of all this saber rattling and war mongering there is Aspen, who is part Blue, part Black, and raised by humans. She is literally a part of all three worlds. In some ways, the story here reminded me of the brilliant 2014 film, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” where Caesar, had emotional ties to both the human and ape world.
Bottom line: If you love beautiful artwork, mermaid stories, DC Comics Aquaman, or the 1989 movie “The Abyss”, then “Fathom” Volume 3 is something you will enjoy.
A regular reader of these pages and self-described “Caitlin Star” fan Gene Atkins wrote, “I have been digging your top ten series so far, but was wondering if you could do a list of your top writers of all time?” Gene has a good point. I have done top ten lists of movies, TV shows, soundtracks, actors, actresses, books, even songs, and have yet to make an official top ten list of writers. And since I am a writer, it is time to correct this oversight. So here it is, a list of my top ten favorite writers of all time. All genres, media, and formats are included. Robert Silverberg There is a wonderful article written by Silverberg in the outstanding pulp retrospective book “Sin-O-Rama” where he talks about cranking out a new 50,000 word erotic pulp novel—every two weeks! And you know what? I have read many of them and they are damn good reads. How good is Silverberg? One of my favorite books ever was this scanner-type science fiction romantic thriller I picked up in the ‘70s. It was a reprint and when he was asked to write a new forward Silverberg confessed it was something he had cranked out just to pay the bills and had forgotten about it. This novel would have been anyone else’s masterpiece, but for him it was just something spit out to pay the heating bill and forgotten about. Of course, nobody but me even remembers any of these old pulps and today Robert Silverberg is best known for his artful, poetic prose and award-winning, intelligent science fiction and fantasy novels. "The World Inside" is highly recommended for fans of the recent best-seller "Divergent". What to check out:“Lord Valentine’s Castle” and “The World Inside”
Joan Ellis I am a huge fan of vintage pulp fiction from the early and mid ‘60s known as “the sleazy pulps”, especially those published by a company called Midwood. Most stories were set in Manhattan and have a very “Mad Men” quality to them. Often the characters even worked in advertising.
Joan Ellis was the all-time best at this sub-genre of fiction. Do not let the term sleazy pulps fool you. Her books are rich, expertly crafted, romantic, noir-ish works of wonder. Ellis has a real knack for creating vivid, young female characters dealing with teen angst and blossoming sexuality. Today these books would be called racy “Young Adult”. What to check out:Just about anything she wrote at Midwood Publishing. Personal favorites include “In The Shadows” (actually available on Kindle!), “Sooner or Later”, “Gang Girl”, and "Reluctant Nympho".
John Jakes John Jakes may be the best writer of epic historical fiction ever—certainly of American history. There are many writers—and many of them quite successful—where you can feel the strain of the work the author put into it. As a result these books often do not make for a smooth read. In a John Jakes novel this is never an issue. He is just a gifted storyteller and a natural writer who delivers impeccable craftsmanship and flowing narratives you will get lost in. Most of his historical fiction is truly epic in scope and length—I am talking telephone book thick door stopper novels. Yet, they read fast and smooth.
Like Robert Silverberg, Jakes started out in pulp fiction doing everything from sleazy romance to science fiction to a “Conan” inspired Sword & Sorcery series, “Brak the Barbarian”. All of it is great! What to check out:“The Bastard”, “North and South”, and his novelization to “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes”.
Robert E. Howard I recall Harlan Ellison once saying something like, “Howard was better than any of us because he was crazier than a bedbug.” There is a raw physicality to Howard’s writing style and colorful action sequences that was ingeniously captured by the legendary cover paintings of Frank Frazetta. Although his “Conan” stories are classified as Sword & Sorcery (Howard practically created the genre), Howard creates real, naturalistic worlds and writes stories that feel like they may have actually happened sometime during the mythical lost history “between the years the ocean drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities…”
What to check out:Almost any “Conan” book (or comic book) but the best collection (because it is contains the fully restored and unedited text of Howard) is “The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian” (Conan the Cimmerian #1), as well as part 2 and 3 of this collection.
Harlan Ellison Speaking of Harlan Ellison… Harlan Ellison is a writer. And I mean that term in the most profound, artistic sense of the word. Very few authors are writers, nor can they ever hope to be. I know I am not. I am a storyteller, a confident (and hopefully competent) who strives to get better and deeper and more effective with every piece of work. But Harlan Ellison is a writer. His words sing and soar and shake you to the core and along the way he will tell you one hell of a story.
What to check out: This list would take forever because Ellison is as prolific as he is brilliant, and has written everything imaginable including scores of television scripts, comics, and sleazy sex pulps and hundreds upon hundreds of short stories. A good place to start world be his short story collection, “Trouble Makers”, which includes two of the greatest, “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” and “Deeper Than the Darkness.” “Honorable Whoredom at a Penny a Word” is a glorious collection of his early crime/pulp/noir stuff. And his two classic “Outer Limits” episodes “Demon with a Glass Hand” and “Soldier” are a must see and are available streaming at Hulu and Amazon.
Richard Matheson Like Harlan Ellison, this guy is the real deal. Richard Matheson is a writer! And one hell of a storyteller too. Also like Ellison, he was wildly prolific, but on an even bigger scale in a sense since his focus was primarily novels (as well as countless feature film screenplays and television scripts). His influence and imprint are perhaps unequaled among the grand masters of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. He literally created both the modern zombie and vampire apocalypse genres with his 1954 classic novel “I am Legend”. His 1975 time travel fantasy masterpiece “Bid Time Return” was adapted into the beloved 1980 cult film “Somewhere in Time”, one of the most heartfelt and romantic movies of all time.
He penned multiple classic “Twilight Zone” episodes, many classic 70s horror telefilms including “Kolchak the Night Stalker” and “Trilogy of Terror”, and wrote “Duel”, the 1971 television movie that propelled a very young Steven Spielberg onto big screen stardom. Among his many masterpieces are the action-packed nightmare adventure “The Shrinking Man”, the creepy “Stir of Echoes” (made into a 1999 film starring Kevin Bacon), and the deep and moving “What Dreams May Come” (made into a gorgeous looking 1998 movie starring Robin Williams).
Where to start: “The Shrinking Man” and “Bid Time Return” showcase the action suspense, and the romantic imagination of this master writer.
D.C. Fontana Okay, I know this one will be unfamiliar to most people. D.C. Fontana (a.k.a Dorothy Fontana) is a television writer who started out as Gene Roddenberry’s secretary then went on to write several of the greatest episodes of classic “Star Trek”. She served as story editor for “Star Trek” and several other shows including the Emmy Award winning animated “Star Trek”, “The Sixth Sense”, “The Fantastic Journey” and “Logan’s Run”. The list of outstanding episodes she penned over the last five decades are too numerous to list here but include scripts for “Circle of Fear”, “Land of the Lost”, “The Six Million Dollar Man”, “Kung Fu”, “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century”, “Star Trek: The Nest Generation”, “Babylon 5”, “Deep Space Nine”, and “Earth: The Final Conflict”.
What to check out:“This Side of Paradise” and “The Enterprise Incident” from classic “Star Trek”.“Eslewhen” from “Land of the Lost”.
Glen Morgan and James Wong It is staggering how many outstanding television scripts this writing team delivered in the ‘90s, including the majority of the best stuff from Chis Carter’s brooding tandem of “The X-Files” and “Millennium”. Everything these guys write is exciting, witty, imaginative, and more often than not, groundbreaking. In addition to their work for Carter, the duo created, produced, and wrote their own series—a barely seen gem of a show “Space Above and Beyond”. “Space Above and Beyond” was an addictive, beautifully produced, intelligently written and acted show that should have become the “Battlestar Galactica” of the ‘90’s, but was poorly handled by FOX who kept pre-empting it and barely bothered with any promotion.
What to checkout:“Space Above and Beyond” and the “X-Files” episodes “Home”, “Ice”, “E.B.E.”, “Squeeze”, “Little Green Men”, “The Field Where I Died” and “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man”. Also just about the entire second season of “Millenium”.
James CameronHe is primarily known as a visionary director who creates revolutionary new technology to bring his vision to the screen. But all of those movies begin with a blank page. James Cameron writes all his own material and he is one hell of writer. When I was studying screenwriting I read his scripts for “Rambo: First Blood part II”, “Aliens”, and “The Abyss” non-stop. His story-telling instincts are razor sharp, his expertly paced screenplays rich with vivid writing and memorable characters.
What to check out:Anything with his name on it of course, but from a reading the screenplay point of view, “Aliens” and “The Abyss” read like great science fiction action-adventure novels.
Edgar Rice Burroughs When your work is still being read, adapted, and inspiring other artists over a century later, that about says it all. The works of ERB had a profound influence on so many, from anthropologist Jane Goodall to filmmaker James Cameron (the director has said “Avatar” was inspired by “Princess of Mars”). When read today, sometimes the language can be problematic, as can the “God’s eye” omniscient writing style in vogue at the time. But still, Burrough’s rich, imaginative storytelling skills are unparalleled in the world of pulp fiction and his works are full of bold action, riveting action set pieces, and wondrous lost cities.
Where to start: Book 3 in the Tarzan series “The Beasts of Tarzan” is the best in the entire series and one my all-time favorite books. “Princess of Mars” is an outstanding entry into ERB universe and the sub-genre of “planetary romance”.