Sunday, April 15, 2018

We all know it's a vast wasteland . . . but I've a lot of time on my hands, so I thought, why not list, not merely my favorite TV programs, but my favorite episodes thereof? In more-or-less chronological order:

The Twilight Zone: "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street" -- They wouldn't let Rod Serling write scripts attacking bigotry, racism, and other issues on "normal" programs, but once he disguised them as fantasy and SF, he slipped them by the network bigwigs. A UFO is seen over Maple Street, USA, and all the power goes out -- except for a few choice people. Are they spies for the invaders? Paranoia mounts, erupting into mob violence -- which the real aliens counted on all the time!

Jonny Quest: "Terror Island" -- Hey! A killer crab the size of an M1 tank! A freaky, squealing giant spider! Roger "Race" Bannon demonstrates that he could have beaten North Vietnam single-handed! An Asian mad scientist who gets wiped out by Godzilla's ugly cousin! And JADE! What else do you need?!

The Avengers: "The Positive-Negative Man" -- The Avengers began as a take-off on the spy-craze of the '60s, but I think TPNM is one of the best science fiction episodes ever made. It took a concept that's been bandied about since the 1930s (projected power -- electricity reaching homes, cars, airplanes, etc. from towers, just like radio waves) and took it in a totally new direction. The Positive-Negative Man himself, silent and shiny-gray, accompanied by ominous generator hums and electric crackling, capable of knocking people through brick walls with a touch of his finger, is one of the small screen's most memorable "monsters". Then there are John Steed and Emma Peel at their best, exchanging witty lines of dialog.

The Prisoner: "Hammer Into Anvil" -- When the newest Number 2 tortures a woman to the point of suicide, Number 6 shifts his campaign from trying to escape to destroying Number 2. He flashes Morse code out to the empty sea, writes gobblety-gook messages in code, and speaks spy-type "messages" into the ears of Village personnel, all in full view of the hidden cameras. The paranoid Number 2 eventually comes to believe Number 6 was sent to spy on him, and that the Village staff are helping 6! It's interesting to think that The Prisoner (so-called) could outsmart the whole Village if he was fighting for someone else (or their memory); had he put this much effort into his escapes, he would been back in London after a week. The only thing missing from "Hammer Into Anvil" is Rover, the living balloon thingy, but, hey, you can't have everything!

Star Trek: "Balance of Terror" -- Sure, it was a WW II submarine movie translated to outer space, but "Balance" is probably the best "battle among the stars" episode ever. After a hundred years of uneasy peace, the Romulans (never before seen by humans) are trying to sneak across the Neutral Zone using their latest invention, the cloaking device. Only the Enterprise is available to stop them before the situation escalates into a galactic war. Rather than just phaser-ing off in all directions, the captains and officers on both sides try to outthink their opponents, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not. And no wonder that one guy is suspicious of Spock -- the Romulan commander looks just like Spock's father!

Monty Python: "Full Frontal Nudity" -- Not what you think, really! This episode features the Colonel, the stuffy military officer who hates all things silly. It contains the infamous "Parrot Sketch," as well as "Hell's Grannies," and the hymn that essentially became the show's theme song ("England's Mountains Green"). The only slow part is some bit with hermits living on a mountainside. Otherwise it is the quintessential Python show. Except that it's too silly.

Kolchak: the Night Stalker: "The Ripper" -- Robert Bloch's most famous short story was "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper," in which we learn that the infamous London killer has become immortal by making blood sacrifices to "the dark gods." In later years Bloch complained that other writers, movies, and TV shows were stealing his concept of an immortal Jack stalking the world. But the Ripper has become "immortal" on his own, a dark apotheosis like Vlad the Impaler forever with us as Dracula, or like all the clones, cryogenically frozen bodies, and saved brains of Hitler. While Bloch's Ripper was a chameleon who hid among us, trying not to draw attention, Kolchak's Saucy Jack is a blatant, over-the-top super-villain who parades around in front of God and the world in Victorian finery and wades through armies of cops sent to stop him. He's as arrogant and in-your-face in his own way as Freddy Krueger, yet he doesn't receive a word of dialogue. "The Ripper" has the most amazing cops vs. monster fights of the series -- outdoing the two TV movies as well, in my opinion, and possibly outdoing any other hand-to-hand battles ever staged for the small screen. At the end there's possibly the oddest hero-confronting-villain bit of all time -- Kolchak hiding in the Ripper's closet, a scene terrifying and hilarious at the same time.

Connections: "The Trigger Effect" -- James Burke's show started off with a bang, using the 1965 New England power blackout to show how dependent we have become on technology. And he piles it on: If the power went out permanently, what would you do? Flee the city? Do you have enough gas? Can you beat the streaming millions? If you reach the country, could you find shelter? Food? If you staked out land, doesn't someone probably own it already? If farmhouses are the only shelter, will you take one by force? Burke goes on and on about what a delicate mechanism our modern society is. Really makes you think.

Sherlock Holmes: "A Scandal in Bohemia" -- The first and best episode of the Grenada series. Jeremy Brett made everyone forget Basil Rathbone. At last Dr. Watson is shown to be fairly intelligent and capable. And in Irene Adler, we are introduced to "the Woman", a "villain" who stalemates Holmes and comes as close to stealing his heart as any female. (And in various Holmes pastiches, she does, but that's another story.)

Unsolved Mysteries: "Dennis DePew" -- which begins with the curious adventure of Mr. and Mrs. Thornton on their Sunday drive. They see a mysterious van seemingly wherever they go -- and its driver, who dumps a blood-covered sheet behind an abandoned school.  (The beginning of this episode rather obviously inspired the opening scenes of the movie Jeeper Creepers.)  We find out the driver is one Dennis DePew, who had just killed his wife, and the update shows him with his new wife, watching his own segment on Unsolved Mysteries! He flees, gets chased by the cops, runs a roadblock, and, after a pitched gun battle, he shoots himself. A Hitchcockian beginning, a nasty villain, a sequel that folds the show itself into the plot, a police chase and gunfight as good as any fictional cop show, and eye-for-an-eye closure to what had been a -- well -- an unsolved mystery!

Batman: the Animated Series: "Heart of Ice" -- This, the third episode of B:TAS to be aired, introduced Victor Fries, aka Mr. Freeze, formerly a very minor villain, and made of him an epic, tragic figure. Freeze, who looks like something out of an old issue of AMAZING STORIES, is cold, calculating, and terrifying when out for revenge on the man who put his wife in a coma. However, he is driven by his love for his wife, and in future appearances he goes to any length to cure her. One might make parallels between Bruce Wayne and the Joker, but I think Fries, with his tragic origin story, is an even closer "shadow" of Batman.

The X-Files: "Jose Chung's 'From Outer Space'" -- Just the teaser to this one made me think I was in for one of the great audio/visual experiences of my life, and I was right: A young couple driving down a country road is abducted by Grays -- who are themselves attacked by a monstrous Cyclopean creature from a second spaceship! This episode was like the whole series rolled into 46 minutes -- conspiracies, hoaxes, abductions, Men-in-Black, a shaggy monster, an alien autopsy, all seen from the point of view of a writer, Jose Chung (Charles Nelson Riley), who has the uneviable job of trying to make sense of it all. It's also the most "Keelian" episode of any show I've ever seen; you'd have to know a bit about John Keel's UFO books to understand what I mean. It's too bad Fox Mulder seems to be unfamiliar with Operation Trojan Horse; he comes off looking like a raving lunatic by the end. There's even a cameo by The Amazing Yappi (from "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose"). And, like the UFO buff in "Jose Chung . . .", I often find myself shouting, "You can't hide the truth forever! Roswell! Roswell!"

The Wonderful World of Disney: “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” First aired October 26, 1955, Uncle Walt’s Halloween episode consisted of an animated life of Washington Irving, followed by “Sleepy Hollow,” excerpted from 1949’s The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. I now own nearly all the works of Washington Irving, an interest sparked by this annual showing. “Sleepy Hollow” itself, narrated by ol’ crooner Bing Crosby, is delightfully creepy (yet quite funny), and that unsettling ending (did the Headless Horseman get Ichabod Crane or not?) followed me into slumber on those distant October nights. The episode ends with the Headless Horseman rearing maniacally on his black horse, as Bing Crosby announces, “Ooooh – I’m getting out of here!” That’s where the original movie ends, but on TV, there follows a flash of Walt himself saying, “Uh-oh! I’m getting outta here, too!” and dodging out of the frame.

The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau: “Sharks” was the first episode of “Undersea” and possibly the most memorable. I don’t know how it was packaged in Europe, but in the USA the documentary was narrated by Rod Serling, with a framing sequence showing Serling walking through a museum, talking about those ancient carnivorous proto-fish. He passes along a fiberglass model of a Great White seemingly the size of a city bus as he touches upon the subject of the prehistoric monster shark Megalodon, and the framing bit ends with Serling hauling up a fossil Meg tooth and setting it up against the dummy shark’s smile. The black, obsidian-shiny tooth looks like Mt. Everest behind a row of white hills . . .

The episode itself is great; I never tired of seeing Capt. Cousteau and the Calypso sailing the seas, exploring, charting, and measuring. Cousteau and company made science fun and interesting, and who can forget those eerie, beautiful underwater shots? Education with an environmental message for the masses. Then there were the subjects of this episode: enough views of massing, frenzy-feeding sharks to give Peter Benchley nightmares!

All Creatures Great and Small: “Nothing Like Experience”: This is one of those episodes that contain the whole series in a nutshell. Siegfried gives a soliloquy on the unbreakable spirit of the Yorkshire farmers, represented in this show by the Dalbys, who survive tragedy after tragedy as the series progresses. And we see their opposite, Mr. Cranford, a miserable old man who tries out an insurance scam on James Herriot.

James takes his future wife Helen Alderson on another disastrous date, yet Helen always seems to have a good time. Siegfried pulls his usual ploy of accusing James of bad habits of which he (Siegfried) is guiltier, and for once James gets to rub the elder Farnon’s nose in his own good-natured but annoying hypocrisy. And of course, for the fortean viewer, there is that notorious Hooded Entity, the Ghost of Raynes Abbey, aka Tristan Farnon! The only thing missing is Tricky Woo.