Thursday, February 21, 2019

LOST In 1992? Thoughts on NBC's "Danger Island"/"The Presence"

When I was in elementary school, NBC broadcast a horror TV movie called Danger Island (later released on DVD as The Presence) featuring noted supermodel Kathy Ireland and Gary Graham, who played the human detective from Alien Nation, in prominent roles. The gist of it is that some survivors of a plane crash in either the Caribbean or the Pacific (it's not totally clear) end up on a tropical island where, 10-15 years before, the U.S. military had conducted highly-questionable scientific experiments, and all hell breaks loose. My father taped it for me and I really rather enjoyed it. Ultimately the film podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood did a TV movies month, with this being one of the films. Here's our podcast discussion. I'm not going to review it, but instead I'll discuss what might've been.

You see, per the almighty IMDB, this wasn't just a TV movie, but an intended television pilot. Unfortunately things didn't work out, and so there was no TV series. I posted about this on the alternate history forum several years ago and Canadian author Bruno Lombardi theorized that this could've been an early (and much lower budget) version of Lost. In fact, this reviewer theorized that many ideas Lost ran with could've come from Danger Island originally. Had the movie been more successful, had Kathy Ireland been interested in participating as an actress (or producer, given how she went into business and made a lot of money soon afterward), etc. we could have had something like Lost a decade earlier.

The film leaves us with all sorts of interesting threads to explore. Spoilers abound, so you might want to watch the movie (it's on YouTube, as a whole movie or in multiple parts, if you must) or listen to the podcast first. Here goes...

*The last of Babcock's antigen has cured Rick (Gary Graham) of the deformities the squid-monster's attack had inflicted (the two graves are the dead female scientist's and Frank's, not his), but left him with extrasensory abilities. Due to briefly touching Laura (Kathy Ireland's) hand, he knows that she really is a model but is ashamed to admit it and he drops to obvious CIA agent Ben Fields (Richard Beymer) that he knows he's connected with the island and the projects there. Earlier Ben had said "small world" when nobody else was around upon learning the facility was called "MK Naomi" and Rick quotes that back at him, indicating he might have telepathy-at-range as well as the ability to pick up on the thoughts and memories of people he touches. Rick's new abilities could be useful in exploring the island's mysteries, but they might also unsettle the other crash survivors. After all, he might find out stuff about them they don't want him to know--Matt (Joe Lara) seems to either owe a lot of people money or is involved in criminal activity, while Brian (Christopher Pettiet) is a child of divorce whom neither parent wants. And who knows what secrets the others have? Finally, it's strongly implied the Indian/Polynesian (it's not totally clear) island natives were experimented on by MK Naomi's scientists--they might view Rick as a monster.

*And Ben has a connection of some kind with the island, given the very unsubtle cuts to him and his reactions whenever something weird happens and how the Indian chief seems to recognize him. When I was a kid I always thought Ben was Babcock, the scientist who sabotaged the facility and gave the island's natives the remaining antigen to protect themselves from whatever it was MK Naomi had been working on in the 1970s. That leads to some logistical issues--given how he is clearly still with the CIA, if he showed up back at the office claiming there'd been an accident on the island and he was the only survivor, the CIA would investigate and they'd find the dead scientist's journal and other records implicating him. This was the era of the Church Committee and Congressional attempts to rein in CIA overreach, but there's a difference between whistle-blowing and sabotaging an expensive facility, causing several deaths. He'd be dead meat, probably literally.

If he really was Babcock, revealing that might regain him the trust of the other castaways if Rick reveals he's been hiding stuff from them--biology professor and AIDS researcher Diana (Lisa Banes) views Babcock as being the only scientist at the site who had a conscience. However, he might not want people to know that for fear what he'd done would be exposed to their eventual rescuers or his fellow survivors would learn he'd done something truly horrific before he saw the light and turn on him. This could lead to all sorts of interesting internal conflict with Ben and he might even be tempted to silence Rick, even thought the beginning of the film indicates they're longtime business partners.

*There's at least one monster on the island, the chimera squid/sea-urchin thing that injects Frank (Steve Goldsberry) and Rick with mutagens that transform the former into the Creature from the Black Lagoon and disfigure and derange the latter. The island is fairly large and the scientists might've been there for years before things went down, so who knows what other critters might be about? The female scientist who committed suicide was convinced the people who went looking for Babcock would be "dead by dark," so the castaways might've been very lucky to find the fortified "Habitat" when they did.

*The movie ends with the castaways delivering medical supplies to the Indian villagers, although I'm not sure why exactly. The Indians had a shrine to Babcock complete with his lab coat and other stuff (presumably in honor of him having saved them from MK Naomi's horrors), but none of them seem to be suffering from mutations or other ill effects. Perhaps the survivors are trying to start a trading relationship with them? That would make sense, since the Indians would know what plants and animals are safe to eat (i.e. that won't turn into pulsing spraying nasties after a day or two) and are probably growing their own safe food and certainly know more about the island's geography, critters, etc. Meanwhile, the base might have antibiotics or other things the Indians need. Diana knew how a lot of the medical stuff worked, so until something irreplaceable breaks, she could use the base's facilities for nobler purposes. And embassy Marine Vic (Eddie Velez) and the Indian girl whose name sounded a lot like "Linda" seemed to be getting affectionate (before Vic hallucinated she was a monster and started choking her), so we could see some developments there. Linda might be forgiving if it was all an accident, but her family or other members of the tribe might not be.

*The castaways find a long-buried Jeep and a human skull with a bullet in it, but the dead scientist's journal implies many personnel set out in search of Babcock after he sabotaged the facility and fled with the antigen. The dead scientist theorized they'd all be dead by nightfall, indicating something is out there, but the fact one person had shot and killed another implies something a bit more complicated than "island mutants ate them." Did the base personnel turn on each other? Did something infect one of them like it had Frank and they put him down? Between Ben's prior knowledge and Rick's ability to pick up on past events, we could have flashback episodes. There's also the possibility some original personnel might've survived and they could become enemies like The Others from Lost. Especially if they've been infected by whatever they'd been worked on and mutated into unpleasant creatures like Frank.

*Embassy official Karen (Beth Touissant) considers herself superior in rank to Vic and orders him around, but we see him chafe against her authority already even though they've been on the island for at most a day or two. As Vic is the only trained soldier and, more importantly, the only one who has a gun, that could be a problem.

*Matt has a past he's trying to get away from and the survivors have been transmitting their location via radio. Although the radio is "locked" onto military channels, one never knows if someone else might be able to listen in, especially if the radios are less-secure 1970s vintage. Gilligan's Island had a rather stereotype-filled episode where the castaways were confronted by a Japanese sailor who believes WWII hasn't ended. Perhaps update that plot by having some Southeast Asian drug traffickers pick up on one of MK Naomi's transmissions and recognize Matt's voice? They set off to deal with someone who owes them money or screwed them over in the past, only to find a treasure trove of dangerous biotechnology that they of all people really shouldn't be allowed to have. 

(That could be a really cool season-ending cliffhanger--a bunch of Triads storm the island and Vic has to organize the castaways and Indians into an army using his own gun and whatever guns might be lying around the facility to keep them from selling MK Naomi's bioweapons on the black market. If any actors' contracts are up, some characters can die. And given how the gangsters wouldn't know what horrors the island holds, they wouldn't expect to be attacked by monsters. We could throw in the return of the urchin-squid and add some new abominations. This could be a movie-length mega-episode or a two-parter, one at the end of the first season and the other at the beginning of the second.)

*They castaways have been transmitting for days trying to reach the outside world, but Kate (June Lockhart) worries just who might come to "rescue" them. After all, they've just found something that, if revealed to the wider world, would at best be embarrassing and at worst could lead to a bunch of people getting jailed for illegal experiments, atrocities against the Indians, possible misuse of funds, etc. Ben tells them that as far as the rest of the world is concerned they've just disappeared, so the Deep State guys could ensure they stay that way. However, there's case of Dianna Ortiz, a nun abducted by Guatemalan military officials but released when a man she believed to be an American intelligence officer, realized she was an American. Even sinister government types who'd be inclined to violently conceal their activities might hesitate to straight-up murder their fellow citizens, but at least some people were, back in the 1950s, willing to kill U.S. citizens in false-flag attacks to justify a war with Castro's Cuba. Since Ben is pretty obviously CIA or a spook of another sort, this could be an interesting test of loyalties for him.

This could have gone in a lot of interesting directions. However, Lombardi theorized that a hypothetical Danger Island TV show wouldn't have lasted very long due to viewers getting impatient with all the mysteries. Unless I make J.K. Rowling levels of money with my various projects (something tells me Kathy Ireland isn't feeling nostalgic, so I'm probably the only one who'd care to remake this), the hypothetical TV show is going to stay hypothetical, so there's really no way to know.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

A More Radical Union During The Civil War? Japanese-Hawaiian Dynastic Union?

Although I'm still self-banned from the alternate history forum because it's a time sink, I still visit now and again to see if anything interesting has been posted. Maybe if I ever become successful enough to go full-time perhaps I'll have them un-ban me (and I'll probably drop back in to advertise Little People, Big Guns when it comes out in November), but that's a long ways off.

Here are a couple interesting scenarios for you.

Until Every Drop of Blood Is Paid: A More Radical Civil War-In real history, the American federal government suppressed the Confederacy's attempt to secede from the Union to preserve (and possibly expand into the Caribbean and bordering areas) slavery and freed the slaves, but the war wasn't explicitly fought for abolition at first and the U.S. ultimately prematurely abandoned Reconstruction, condemning the former slaves to two to three generations of Jim Crow suppression. In this scenario, the murder of Lyman Trumbull by a pro-slavery fanatic gets Abraham Lincoln into the Senate in 1854, where his views on slavery and race become more radical much earlier than they did in real history. This has consequences--John Brown, though still ultimately a failure, is more successful than in real history, and the Confederacy still emerges under different leadership (its president is the failed presidential candidate John C. Breckenridge, with real-life Confederate President Jefferson Davis as Secretary of War). The Confederates do better early on, but from the way things are going, the South is going to get an even worse hiding than in real history.

AHC: Make Hawaii a Japanese Colony-An "AHC" is a challenge to come up with a scenario where a particular counterfactual happens--in this case, Japan rather than the United States colonizes Hawaii. In the post I linked to, a brief visit to Hawaii by lost Japanese fishermen triggers diplomacy between the kingdom (this is well before the U.S. annexation) and the Tokugawa Shogunate. You know, the regime that (mostly) cut off Japan from foreign contact. To make a long story short, the two insular powers form an alliance to deter European or American meddling. It's based on a lot of little-known real-life history (including proposed dynastic alliances, treaties of protection against various outsiders, etc) and it's pretty interesting. My main quibble is that I think the author overestimates the isolation of Tokugawa Japan from outside knowledge, although he does acknowledge the existence of Dutch Learning.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Film Theories and Subtext: ROAD HOUSE (1989) and IMMORTALS (2011)

Once upon a time in one of my writing groups I remember my as-yet-unsold novel Battle for the Wastelands getting criticized for its lack of subtext. At the time I didn't think that criticism was particularly valid, although at this point I don't remember the details and the work has undergone many revisions in the years since then. Overall it is a good idea to imply stuff in the text that's not stated explicitly in order to add depth to your work, get your readers discussing it with each other, etc.

Here are some subtext-driven film theories I've come up with, one very recently and a few years ago. Spoilers ahead, so be ye warned...

Road House-The other night, I saw Road House when my friend Nic was doing a comedy performance with the Atlanta comedy troupe Cineprov. Although nobody in the habit of editing the Wikipeda or TVTropes pages seems to have noticed, I got the implication that Doctor Elizabeth "Doc" Clay (Kelly Lynch) is actually the ex-wife of small-town bully and petty gangster Brad Wesley (Ben Gazzara).

*She references having been married before, but it didn't work out.

*Another character refers to Wesley's wife having left him and him not taking it very well.

*Wesley's new wife or mistress (it's not clear which) looks a lot like Doc. They're both tall and blonde, although the new girl comes off as a lot ditzier and raunchier than, well, a medical doctor.

*Wesley gets REALLY twitchy when he sees Doc over at the room that James Dalton (Patrick Swayze) has rented from a local farmer, especially when she and Dalton start getting busy on the roof outside. He's watching from across the lake for an awkwardly long time and rather than deriving voyeuristic glee out of the situation, he's clearly not a happy camper.

*When Wesley and his crew show up at the Double Deuce club to make trouble, the way he and Doc talk implies they have some sort of history, or at least know each other.

*When Dalton goes to Wesley's house for the final confrontation, Doc arrives just when Dalton is going to finish Wesley after having killed or otherwise incapacitated his goons. That doesn't necessarily mean she's been there before, that she has access to the property, etc. but she would probably be familiar enough with the house and how to get there quickly if she'd lived there before. Someone online theorized that she'd been taken hostage, but Wesley's whole plan was to kill Dalton's friend/mentor Wade Garrett (Sam Elliot) and then have his goon squad waiting in the driveway with guns for Dalton to show up. Not only are all the goons there waiting for Dalton (i.e. nobody is kidnapping Doc separately), but there's no need for Doc to be present at all, since Garrett would have been provocation enough. Also, in their previous conversation, Wesley threatens Dalton, not Doc herself.

Immortals-I saw this a few years ago and although nobody seems to think this besides me, I got the distinct impression that the villainous King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) is actually the father of the film's hero Theseus (Henry Cavill).

*Theseus is the town outcast, the product of his mother getting raped by a bunch of "peasants."

*When the slimy Lysander (Joseph Morgan) brings this up in front of Hyperion, Hyperion takes offense at his mockery of peasants, claiming that he had been a peasant himself.

*One of the seers has a Bad Future vision of Hyperion and Theseus standing together as allies, which might happen if Theseus learns Hyperion is his father and Hyperion plays his cards right--claims he didn't know Theseus's mother was pregnant, that the gang-rape story isn't actually true, etc. As a young man who grew up without a father, Theseus might be particularly susceptible to Hyperion much like how Luke was tempted by Vader's We Can Rule Together routine in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

(In the old Expanded Universe novel The Truce at Bakura that takes place immediately after ROTJ Luke momentarily fantasizes about how he could have ruled the Empire--only to realize that even if he had fallen to temptation, him, Vader, and Palpatine would have died with the Death Star.)

Of course, the fact Hyperion killed Theseus's mother in front of him would realistically put a damper on that...

Yes, fan theories are often ridiculous and silly, but I think these have some legs.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Merlin (1998)

The film podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood that I'm on is doing a dedicated television movies month. Thomas's contribution to the list was the 1998 television miniseries Merlin, which features none other than Jurassic Park alumnus Sam Neill as the legendary wizard. I watched it when it was on TV and could remember a lot of the general beats, so I figured I'd give it a spin.

Here's the podcast, which among other things features me rasping a lot and swearing. And now for the review...

The Plot

It's the 6th Century AD or so and Britain is a mess. Various Christian and pagan factions are at war with each other, while the Saxons invade from Europe. The goddess Queen Mab (Miranda Richardson) and her henchman Frick (Martin Short) attempt to stem the decline of "the old ways"--since if gods aren't worshiped, they cease to exist--in the face of the growing power of Christianity. To do that Mab creates Merlin (Sam Neill) as a sort of anti-Jesus (complete with what seems to be a virgin birth), but Merlin refuses to serve Mab after he discovers just how cruel and unpleasant she is. The supernatural cold war between the two drives the events of the story of King Arthur (Paul Curran) over what seems to be a generation or so.

The Good

*Most Arthurian stories don't take the Saxons into account even though the earliest historical accounts of Arthur are about fighting the invading Saxons. I suspect this has to do with Le Morte D'Arthur and The Once and Future King, which don't feature the pagan continental invaders and focus instead on conflicts among the Celtic Britons. The prologue to the film depicts the Saxons, who respect neither Christian churches nor Celtic pagan shrines, as one of the various problems assailing Britain, which was nice. I'd have liked more of them, but more on that later.

*The acting is for the most part good. After all, they do have Sam Neill, Martin Short, and other talented actors to work with. There are a couple moments of apocalyptic badness (that believe me I make sure to mock in the podcast), but I'll get to those later. Miranda Richardson is raspy and annoying, but she has one really good moment that I discuss in the podcast, since it's spoiler-iffic.

*Paganism is referred to as "the old ways," which however annoying the way they keep saying it is, does make sense. One reason animistic and polytheistic "old religions" tend to fall before proselytizing religions like Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam is that they lack strong organizational structures and in many cases even literature and writing. They're just things people have always done, and that's a pretty weak reed when facing societal collapse (the fall of Rome, the Saxon invasion) or the arrival of a much more organized new faith bearing with it various advancements like literacy (and thus more coherent governmental administration), new crops and farming techniques, etc.

(Yes, I am aware of persecutions of polytheists by ascendant monotheists, but the new faith has to get into a strong enough position to do that in the first place. It took 300-odd years for Christians to persecute Roman pagans; before it was the other way around. And St. Patrick in Ireland was a straight-up slave.)

*When Mordred makes his move, he goes into battle wearing the sun-god image on his armor that's associated with the film The Wicker Man. Considering he's paganism's last champion against oncoming Christianity, that's a nice bit of detail.

The Bad

*For a being of such great power, Merlin comes off as extremely weak and passive. He takes no action (other than to berate Arthur about it) when he learns that Morgan has slept with Arthur even though he's sure a child will result due to Mab's scheming. Even though he knows Morgan is laired up in Castle Tintagel with the young Mordred and Mab getting up to who knows what, all he really does is beg her not to raise Mordred in the "old ways." He doesn't attempt to kidnap or kill Mordred or Morgan despite knowing the threat they represent (and the Vortigern plot shows Merlin is capable of physical violence if he wishes), nor does he have Arthur attempt to take control of his son or attack Tintagel with his armies if Morgan objects. One could argue that this could provoke the wrath of Mab, but Mab is not omniscient or omnipresent. Merlin could pull a fast one and Mab wouldn't be able to prevent it.

*Per the above, so many bad decisions made by so many other people. We're talking Matrix Revolutions levels of stupidity (listen to the podcast in which I discuss that) among people who should know better. It's a lot harder to enjoy the movie when people who are supposed to be such great heroes are all a bunch of morons.

*Per my earlier comment about Mordred, when he enters the picture as an adult, nobody seems able to deal with him. He just walks into Camelot, claiming to be Arthur's son, and starts stirring up trouble. Even in The Once and Future King, it takes years for him to build the support base to challenge Arthur and he's more conflicted about doing it. And once he makes his violent intentions clear, all Arthur does is slap him and he knocks around some soldiers who try to arrest him. That would've been a very good time for a Zerg Rush, since however skilled he is he's just one man.

*Mab's voice is weird and annoying. She's supposed to be an otherworldly being and I know what they're going for, but they could have done something else than have her rasp and screech. Mab also has got too much eyeliner and looks like she's BoToxed to hell. Is this supposed to be a metaphor for her refusal to accept her own obsolescence? She's not super-duper impressive as a villain.

*There are two scenes where Merlin and Mab face off and Neill, for all his acting chops, just comes off as really goofy and ridiculous. "I WILL BEAT YOU MAB! I WILL FIND A WAY!" or something to that effect. If Mab were more genre-savvy, she should have just slagged him right there before he gets powerful enough. Someone really needs to read the Evil Overlord List. And in another scene, Merlin is all like, "ARTHUR WILL HEAL THE LAND!" Excessive drama aside, heal the land from what? The previous king Uther Pendragon is shown to have...issues...but the situation hasn't reached Vortigern-level issues of tyranny or (large-scale) civil war.

*Although Frick is one of the film's more amusing characters, there's a scene later on where he comes off as really passive and foolish. Life lesson: If someone you know is extremely powerful and capable of doing really bad things to you with magic does something bad to someone else, use your own powers (and he has them) immediately rather than just yell at them and give them a chance to hammer you down. This person is someone he knows very well, so he should know just what they're capable of. Idiot.

*The passage of time in the film is really wobbly. Nimue seems to be a trainee nun (or just hanging around an abbey) for one or two decades and however much the Church emphasizes hospitality, at some point they're going to tell her to shit or get off the pot. Arthur is gone hunting for the Holy Grail long enough for problems to result, but the Holy Grail is supposed to be in Britain itself. He'd basically be riding around his own kingdom and could probably check in at Camelot fairly regularly.

*Speaking of the Holy Grail, there's very little foreshadowing about it. Apparently there's a deleted scene explaining that when Frick had the young Morgan put a stone in Arthur's crib (that scene stayed in), it was supposed to curse him with impulsiveness, but that scene really should have stayed there. Knowing Arthur's impulsive behavior is of supernatural origin would explain both some of the good and bad decisions he makes.

*The Saxons aren't mentioned at all after the prologue--the story is super-focused on the "Summer Kingdom" and how it ended, but it was Arthur's unification of the various post-Roman Celtic factions to defeat the Saxons that made the SK possible. There should've been at least one battle against the Saxons--who BTW look like a bunch of central casting Vikings complete with horned helmets--in addition to the various British warlord-types.

*This ties in with my last major problem--the movie is way too long for what happens in it. Yes, it's a TV miniseries, but they should have had a lot more stuff in the allotted time to make it entertaining and less draggy. Per my earlier remarks, making Saxons a larger presence would have been one way--Merlin and Mab could be forced to temporarily work together to help Arthur's Celtic coalition fight off a Saxon invasion, since the Saxons don't respect the Celtic pagans any more than they respect the Celtic Christians, and their victory would be Mab's undoing just as much as the triumph of Christianity. A Nazi-Soviet pact between Merlin and Mab, if you will.

(Incidentally this would deal with my beef with Merlin being so passive and Mab not crushing an obvious threat while he's still weak--he can't move against Mab, nor can Mab move against him, because of the oncoming Saxon invasion. They can snip at each other and impede each other in minor ways, but the apocalyptic showdown simply cannot happen or both Celtic pagan and Celtic Christian civilizations are doomed. Once the Saxons are beaten back, then we move into the endgame.)

During this period of the story, Mab could try to seduce Merlin back into her service (perhaps by offering to heal Nimue's injuries), while Merlin could try to find ways to undermine and destroy her in the process of working with her against the invaders. For example, he could at least try to undermine young Mordred's faith in "the old ways" by explaining that for all her power Mab is ultimately dependent on her worshipers (i.e. she's a parasite and needs them more than they need her) and that she's not even a goddess, but a being from "the land of magic" (i.e. an alien or, as they might understand it, a Fae). Although this doesn't work, the Saxons could still be beaten and Arthur could celebrate the defeat of the Saxons and what appears to peaceable relations with his half-sister with the building of Camelot and the quest for the Grail, only for Mab, Morgan, Mordred, etc. to backstab him before Merlin can backstab them by inciting a coup in Camelot while he's away. If Mordred is old enough to participate in said battle with the Saxons, it could earn him allies among Arthur's supporters that barging into Camelot and griping about Guinevere's affair with Lancelot really wouldn't.

*Finally, is Merlin's guardian Ambrosia a Christian or some kind of non-theist who follows her own conscience? Mab assumes she's become a Christian when Ambrosia tells her to her face she no longer believes in "the old ways," but Ambrosia claims she "follows her own heart." However, she also invokes angels with a dying patient, something neither an atheist nor a Celtic pagan would believe in.

The Verdict

It's not enjoyable enough for the time it takes to watch, especially due to the nonsensical behavior of much of the cast. 6.0 out of 10. Don't bother.