Friday, September 9, 2011

September 9, 1999....

...and Moonbase Alpha receives its new commander, John Koenig.

Today, September 9, 2011, I get to see my oldest son for the first time this week since Monday when he comes over for the weekend after school. I hope Griffin's had a great first day of school!

Thursday, September 8, 2011

September 8, 1966: Happy 45th Birthday, Star Trek!

Today was Star Trek's 45th anniversary. On this day, Sept. 8, 1966, Star Trek premiered on the NBC television network with the episode "The Man Trap", later adapted by James Blish for Bantam Books under the title "The Unreal McCoy". Happy Birthday, Star Trek!

45...who'da thunk it?!?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Of Golden Guides and Scholastics...

Among my many hobbies and interests, I love juvenile books, especially series. Last weekend, I picked up a couple more additions to the collection. Or is that collections?
The Pop-up Book of the American Revolution is from Scholastic Books. I actively collect books from before ISBN numbers and barcodes became the norm. I had some when I was a kid, and I've greatly expanded my collection over the last few years; I have well over 400 now. Some of them are merely releases of older books, like Tom Sawyer, Treasure Island, or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Others were written for juvenile audiences, like the Miss Pickerell books or Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series; others were written for young teenagers. I got really hooked when I found a copy of Robert Silverberg's very first book, Revolt on Alpha C, which I'd enjoyed back in first or second grade. It's a really good, fun story, and I enjoyed it again. The hero, a young space cadet, goes to the colony of Alpha Centauri, right at the beginning of a revolt against Earth. While there is no sequel to the story, I really enjoyed the Scholastic presentation of the book, and I realized I had acquired a bunch of them already without realizing it---I went for the content, not the publisher--for example, I have had for several years a copy of The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet. It just sort of mushroomed from there, to coin a pun. This new acquisition might very well be the first pop-up book I've ever owned; I don't recall owning any as a child. There are books about science, and history, as well as novels and short stories; books of poetry and myths; books about sports stars and political name it, it's there! There must be 25,000 titles, easily, that Scholastic published during this era and advertised in the little book catalogs that kids got in school (and still do today!)

Look familiar? Western Publishing took over the rights from Simon & Schuster in the late 1940s or early 1950s, copying the Observer's Books series from Britain. These small books had 160 pages chock full of interesting facts and lovely artwork on subjects from Flowers to Stars, Insects to Rocks & Minerals, Dinosaurs to Birds---and not just from the world of nature, either: travel guides to regions of the country, books about Indian Arts and Architecture, Camping and Guns, Antiques and Exploring Space, Photography and Sports Cars...over 80 subjects in all (compared to the Observer's Books, which numbered nearly 100 titles). Lots of foreign variants, too. There were a number of competitors to this format, both in the US and Britain; Bantam Books had two different lines released in the US, some of which were identical to each other, and Hamlyn released a line of its own in the UK, which copied some of the Bantam editions. Western used the Golden Press imprint (most famous for the Little Golden Books of our youth) to publish the Golden Guides up through the early 1990s. Since 2001, St. Martin's Press has been publishing the Golden Guides, under the Golden Guides name. Dorling Kindersley has a nice, similar series called the Pocket Guides published for both the British and American markets. The one major difference in these companies' products is that they are of different sizes---but they apparently all have 160 pages!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Griffin Weasley-Long of Gryffindor....

Griffin and Logan got to go see Harry Potter 8: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 Friday night. Kim and I will probably go next weekend to a matinee showing on Sunday. Griffin dressed as Ron Weasley---"R" sweater and wand to go with his naturally Weasley, I mean red, hair.

Can't wait to go see it, and I'll be sure to post about it. I have enjoyed and loved all of the books and all of the films. Hold on for one more week...and then it's time to petition J.K. Rowling for more Harry Potter stories! Or, at least, more stories set in the Harry Potterverse...

A New Generation of View-Master Fans...

Logan and his best friend/girlfriend/daughter-of-my-neighbor Maddie who comes to visit her dad...and Logan...on the boys' weekend. They used some of my View-Master collection of viewers and reels, including my one light-up viewer, for a few minutes; it was too rainy to go outside. Logan wanted me to get out my View-Master wall projector viewer, but it and some of the reels are boxed up. Of course, once the camera came out, so did the goofy faces... He is 8 and she 9; it is great that another generation has been introduced to the great toy.

Before there were dvds, or videotapes; before there was cable; there was the View-Master viewer and reels! For an ordinary television show, the odds are today that it is out on home video if it was a View-Master subject: Happy Days, Star Trek, Lost in Space....although some haven't been released yet for various reasons---Batman, for example. Lots of movies and cartoons, too---Bugs Bunny in "Big Top Bunny", or Star Trek: The Motion Picture. But a lot of the entertainment ones were special dioramas made for the producers of the reels: I have a few Peanuts stories in diorama, and some with The Flintstones; there's also a version of Disney's Peter Pan in diorama, too--but the characters look like those from the film. Even toys made the leap: there exists at least one story of G.I. Joe in 12-inch size, and numerous Barbie stories, all in diorama format.

The early years were dominated by travel reels: trips to US cities, National Parks and Monuments, major tourist attractions like zoos, and places in Europe and scattered around the rest of the world. In fact, the first reels were exclusively these kinds of subject--Carlsbad Caverns and the Grand Canyon were prominent when the product was first introduced as an alternative to the scenic postcard sold in gift shops, stationery stores, and photographic shops.  The first ones were sold at the New York World's Fair of 1939. Later, in 1951, Sawyer's (the original maker, based here in Portland) acquired Tru-Vue, who had a filmstrip style of viewer---and more importantly, the Disney license. Soon, Disney cartoons, movies, and television shows, as well as their theme parks, propelled the View-Master line into the national conscience. More entertainment products joined the lineup.

In 1966, GAF (General Aniline & Film) Corporation bought out Sawyer's, and they shifted the product line to more toys and cartoons. Henry Fonda appeared in television commercials for them. In 1971, they introduced the Talking View-Master and talking reels.

After a few ownership changes, in 1987, they bought out Ideal Toys. Two years later, Tyco Toys bought them out. Things stayed this way until 1997, when Mattel bought out Tyco and shifted the View-Master line over to its Fisher-Price subsidiary. A sad day came in 1989 when Fisher-Price announced they weren't going to make any more of the scenic reels, only entertainment ones. Another company was supposed to have signed a contract to make scenic reels, Alpha-Cine, but I don't know if they ever did. I'd love to find out, though.

Many specialized reels were created over the years: airplane- and ship-identification-spotting reels for the US military during World War II; a 25-volume atlas of human anatomy; Discovery Channel animals and dinosaurs; movie previews of some Westerns and some 3D films, since the current trailers wouldn't really show 3D to any advantage; many reels for companies to use as promotional tools; personal reels; reels for the Rose Court, accompanying Portland's annual Rose Festival; and even personal reels that people shot with the 3D cameras that they sold. These rarer ones, along with variant reels and scarcely produced ones and older reels in general, tend to be more valuable.

I had a good-sized collection when I was a kid, and acquired my sister's when she grew out of them. As an adult, I eventually started collecting more, and picked up several different reels, canister sets, and even a projector at estate sales; and I got a couple of packets off eBay as well. In the last few years, I've introduced them to my sons Griffin, who is now 12,  and Logan (and Logan's friend Maddie). They don't have a long enough attention span for it in this era of video games and fast-paced films, but at least they have looked at them. I love sharing these classics with them!

Heck, I love View-Master products!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Space: 1999 Episode One--Breakaway

Breakaway The pilot episode of Space: 1999 paid direct homage to Stanley Kubrick's then-already classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Early in the episode, Commander John Koenig (Martin Landau) is going to the Moon in a passenger Eagle, complete with a stewardess/flight attendant. He has a visual communication with his superior, Commissioner Simmonds (guest Roy Dotrice) of the World Space Commission. He wants Koenig to get the Meta mission launched ASAP, and that is why he is going to Alpha and replacing Commander Gorski. Why the urgency? Delays could mean problems with the International Lunar Finance Committee meeting soon. The flight towards the Moon with the stewardess, scenes of the Space Dock (a space station orbiting the Moon), and the communications with Simmonds are reminiscent of 2001's classic sequence of Dr. Heywood Floyd going to a space station before going on to the Moon; Floyd has a video communication with his young daughter while he is on the station, and after he gets to the Moon, he has a meeting with an important group.

Before we met Koenig, we'd already met Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain), the equivalent of Trek's Dr. McCoy and the important forerunner to Star Trek: The Next Generation's Dr. Beverly Crusher, as two of the Meta Probe astronauts were dying in Moonbase Alpha's Medical Center. Conferring with the head scientist on Alpha, Prof. Victor Bergman (Barry Morse), she is frustrated by a lack of answers. In addition to the Meta astronauts, workers at one of the Nuclear Waste Disposal sites have also gotten sick and died.

Arriving at the base, Koenig discovers Simmonds had lied to him about what was going on and was keeping the situation quiet. This rings bad today, but in the immediate post-Watergate era, I can imagine it would have been one heckuva shock. Today, of course, we've had so many scandals in the post-Watergate era (and space disasters, with the losses of Skylab and Mir, Challenger and Columbia), it is a much milder shock, met with a sense of 'oh, not again'. As it turns out, the previous Commander actually was covering up the severity of the sicknesses and deaths.

Koenig begins an investigation, and that finally starts giving them clues. While the illnesses acted like radiation, they are revealed to be caused by some kind of magnetic radiation. Critics such as noted science fiction writer (and professional scientist) Isaac Asimov jumped on this and other examples of bad science, although it clearly is an early example of technobabble (compared to original Trek, 1999 abounded it in it, although not to the extent that it dominates post 1980s Trek). Whatever this stuff was, it created lightning in space (again not very scientific) and extreme heat, exploding disposal area #1. Area #2 is much, much bigger, because the Earth of the 1999 universe depends on a worldwide network of nuclear reactors, which have obviously not had a disaster along the lines of Three Mile Island in the US, Chernobyl in the USSR, or Fukushima in Japan.

Eventually, area #2 goes up and acts like some kind of rocket engine, throwing the moon out of orbit and towards interstellar space. Disasters on Earth seem to have been limited to earthquakes in Yugoslavia, in the south of France, and along Earth's San Andreas fault. Again, completely out of touch with known laws of science. Tsunamis would probably have been a bigger issue, as well as the likelihood of more earthquakes worldwide. But it did set up the series premise: The Moon is blasted out of orbit, into interstellar space (and eventually, other galaxies and perhaps other universes as well), careening in and out of various star systems (without being gravitationally captured) as a rogue world. Well, at least the idea of a rogue world isn't theoretical or merely a science fiction concept, as rogue worlds have been discovered in real life. In the process, the Space Dock and the Meta Probe are both destroyed.

In the second season episode "Space Warp", that phenomenon is shown to exist in the 1999 universe, giving a possible explanation.

One very good explanation for what happened was introduced in the fanfiction "A Space Odyssey: 1999", by David Welle (webmaster of the Metaforms website devoted to 1999), which combines 2001 and 1999 (as you could probably guess by the title). In that story, it was the monolith TMA-1 which caused the moon to go a-wandering. Another one is "The Void Ahead", by William R. Swanson.

Series regulars appearing in this episode are Paul Morrow, Controller of Main Mission, the department head for the communications control center which acted as the 'bridge' of Moonbase Alpha and apparent second-in-command during the first year (played by Prentis Hancock); Data Analyst Sandra Benes, who monitors equipment and seems to be roughly equivalent to Trek's Uhura (played by Zienia Merton); Dr. (Bob) Mathias, who appeared to be the top doctor under Russell (played by Anton Phillips); and Alan Carter, Chief Pilot, department head of Reconaissance, and apparent third-in-command to Koenig (played by Nick Tate).

Written by George Bellak (uncredited assistance by Christopher Penfold).
Directed by Lee Katzin.

Pilot episode grade: Five stars out of five. Does a really good job of introducing the leads (Koenig, Russell, Bergman) and has appearances by the major supporting characters of year one (Paul, Morrow, Mathias, Alan); an excellent job of introducing Alpha, including the major sets (Main Mission, Medical, the transport tubes, and even the Main Hangar); shows the suits, Moonbuggy, Eagles, and the stun gun in action. I grade pilot episodes as a separate category on how well the pilot introduces leading and supporting characters as well as the technology.

Episode grade: Four stars out of five. I highly recommend this episode. It moves along very fast and does a good job of introducing Commissioner Simmonds. The mystery of the illness is well-handled, the concerns about launching the Meta Probe are well-integrated into the illness story, and the effects work is top-notch (no surprise, because members of the effects team from 2001 worked on 1999 as well). The only real hole is the science, and everything else nearly makes up perfectly for it from a dramatic perspective. The show really held up well when I viewed it recently.

Space: 1999

Space: 1999 Within science fiction fandom, it was a much-talked-about series. Derided by critics as Star Trek meets Lost in Space, a criticism later applied to Trek's Voyager spinoff, the series boasted excellent miniatures, visuals, sets, and a top-notch cast: stars Martin Landau and Barbara Bain were major reasons for the success of Mission: Impossible during its first few seasons, and Barry Morse's dogged role as the police officer chasing The Fugitive were intended to be big draws for this huge-budget series. Created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, famous for The Thunderbirds Supermarionation series and UFO, and funded by Sir Lew Grade's ITC in Britain, the plan was for it to become an import to America on one of the three broadcast networks, along the lines of the success of The Avengers (as well as worldwide). Sadly, it didn't succeed. The episodes received mixed reviews, and while the series was renewed for a second season, budgets had to be slashed. Morse and others were let go, new cast members joined, and Fred Freiberger, veteran of many American series including Trek's third season, was brought in to handle the show. Ratings weren't strong enough for a third season, and after Star Wars exploded on the big screen, the show was largely forgotten except by its dedicated fans. Sadly and interestingly, the show was ahead of its time, and would probably do well today, both in terms of ratings and critical success. Many episodes compare favorably with episodes of the various Trek franchises, and 1999's near-contemporaries (though separated by the huge gulf of Star Wars) Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.