Category: Lost In Translation

 

Posted on by Scott Delahunt

With superhero movies becoming a mainstay in theatres, the question arises, what is the border between adapting and expanding a franchise? Lost in Translation has already touched on the question, but as comics get adapted for both film and television and movie series get TV series and comics, the line between adaptation and franchise gets blurred.

The difference between a tie-in work and an adaptation is academic. The 007 movie franchise started with one adaptation, Dr. No, but grew from there. Likewise, Marvel’s cinematic universe started with just one film, Iron Man, and expanded when the movie succeeded at the box office. Tie-in works aren’t limited to going from books to movies; Star Trek, Star Wars, and Murder, She Wrote all have long-running series of novels with a goal of continuing the story begun in the original works.

The main difference between an adaptation and a franchise tie-in is perception. Tie-in works are seen as part of the monetization of a work, expanding the influence into other media. However, very few adaptations are made without an eye on turning a profit. Even the notable flops weren’t meant to fail at the box office. Studios and publishers aren’t charities; they exist to be profitable. That distinction between franchise and adaptation isn’t really a distinction.

Even licensing isn’t a factor in the difference. Reboots, a type of adaptation, are often done by the rights holder; Paramount rebooted Star Trek into Star Trek: The Next Generation to great success. Warner, DC Comics’ parent company. has rebooted the Batman movie franchise several times. In DC’s case, being owned by a movie studio does add a level of separation, but that doesn’t hold for Paramount and Star Trek.

Is the perception that adaptations and franchise tie-ins are different correct? Lost in Translation has been looking at how works are adapted, and every franchise has to start somewhere. There would be no Wonder Woman breaking box office records if William Moulton Marston hadn’t created the character for All Star Comics number 8. The difference between Disney getting Marvel to create a line of Star Wars comics and DiC creating The Real Ghostbusters under license from Sony or Saban licensing BattleTech from FASA for an animated series is how far out from the ownership of the adaptation is from the original work. Disney owns both Marvel and Lucasfilm; Sony didn’t own DiC nor did FASA own Saban. But the result, a new work based on an existing one, is still an adaptation.

Ultimately, what all the above means is that the field of available works to review at Lost in Translation has grown. There is still the same process when translating a work from its original medium to a new one, with the same problems to overcome.

 

And a quick reminder that Lost in Translation is on Facebook!

Posted on by Scott Delahunt

With apparent* remake fever, studios are adapting everything. Netflix recently announced a two-season origins story for Catch 22‘s Nurse Ratched. High brow, low brow, nothing seems to be off limits. The question, though, is why not get some of the old low budget titles? Sure, they may not have the draw that /Catch 22/ has, but being unknown will pique some curiosity. Consider it a bonus if the remake is better than the original. In this spirit, let’s look at remaking the one and only Danish kaiju movie, Reptilicus.

It is safe to say that Reptilicus has issues. Movies don’t get featured on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 if they don’t. Reptilicus was the first movie featured on MST3K: The Return. It was ripe for riffing, thanks to a slow start, an odd character that seemed to be there solely for comic relief, and special effects that showed a low budget. Yet, the movie had potential, which is critical when remaking a work.

As a Danish-American production, two versions were made. The American version substituted one actress from the Danish version and removed one of the title monster’s abilities because of how it looked on screen. The movie begins in Lapland with the discovery of the tail of an ancient creature frozen in the ice. The tail is shipped to the Danish Aquarium in Copenhagen, where scientists study the remains. An mishap allows the tail to thaw, leading to the monster, dubbed Reptilicus, regenerating like a starfish. Once fully regenerated, the monster menaces Copenhagen and the North Sea. The military is called in, but is limited in what they can do. Using explosives means that parts of Reptilicus could lie unseen and able to regenerate into a new monster. Only two ways will work to destroy the monster – fire and poison. However, the military finds out these details too late, after having blasted off the creature’s foot. The movie ends on a shot of the foot lying underwater.

Reptilicus start off slow, in the way of far too many B-movies, with serious men being serious scientists explaining the plot before it starts. However, the square-jawed science hero isn’t in this movie; the scientists are older with families. The slow start also helps delay the other big problem of the film, Reptilicus itself. It is very much a rubber monster, shot on different film stock than the rest of the movie. The movie tries to avoid showing the creature too much, knowing that it really isn’t that threatening. Instead, the destruction in the monster’s wake is shown.

However, in trying to not focus on the monster, the movie does get a few good shots in, including the panicking of the crowd. One scene has a drawbridge that starts rising before people could cross it. Several bicyclists drive off the edge into the water below before they could stop. The Danish military gets several good scenes as they try in vain to stop Reptilicus. The movie has potential. It was just the execution where Reptilicus had problems.

In the hypothetical remake, the first thing to work on is Reptilicus itself. Special effects have come a long way since rubber puppets in 1961. The monster can be more threatening and appear in the same frame as its hunters today. However, it may be best to keep its ability to fly out of the remake; the American version in 1961 removed it because it was too silly. Given the location, a sea monster would work well; long, snaky, a threat to shipping and the coast. Its ability to regenerate could be kept, though it’d take some work to make it believable today. Monster movies can get away with some biological weirdnesses, but too weird and the suspension of disbelief snaps.

In terms of plot, the monster has to be on screen sooner. The draw of monster movies is the monster as it wreak havok in a major metropolitan area. The lack of collateral damage was one of the problems with the 1998 Godzilla. With better effects, Reptilicus can appear sooner and with the destruction such a monster is capable of. Ships and buildings can be destroyed on screen. Get Reptilicus right, and the initial investigation won’t have to carry the first half of the film.

The scientists can stay. They provide the explanations the audience needs. The monster’s ability to regenerate can be shown on screen, but having someone in a white lab coat mention the process, especially to military leaders, never hurts. Show and tell instead of just telling. The discovery of the remains of Reptilicus and the mishap that lets it thaw are key moments in the film, so they need to be kept. Since it should be easier today to show more of the monster onscreen, the remains can be a near-complete carcass instead of just the tail.

The end of the film will need work. The monster was finally defeated in the movie when a sedative was fired into its mouth by the general using a bazooka. Combined with the poor effects of the monster, the scene didn’t work. The concept is good, but getting it to look right on screen will be tough. The restriction on method in-story was that Reptilicus was in the city; fire bombing the monster would not look good on the military. The collateral damage would be too high. But a difficult shot with a weapon meant to be used against large targets like tanks and bunkers. Accuracy is difficult, and the bazooka has been superceded by the rocket launcher, a weapon that really doesn’t do sedatives. A grenade launcher may work better – gas grenades can be filled with what’s needed with some handwaving – but the accuracy is still an issue. Grenades aren’t really precision weapons. The end may involve someone running up to Reptilicus to toss the modified gas grenade into the monster’s mouth. It would make for a satisfying bit of action after seeing Reptilicus trash Copenhagen.

One of the problems with remakes lately is the Hollywood-ization factor. Studios, not wanting to risk losses on a film, populate casts with either the latest and greatest or the pretty, with no thought on what the roles need. Reptilicus features high level personnel at both the aquarium and the military. The head of research isn’t going to be a twenty-something; likewise, the general isn’t going to be a model. It’ll take a director willing to push back somewhat to make sure that the actors for these roles fit.

Reptilicus has the potential to be a good remake. All the original movie needed was a bigger budget for the monster, something that a studio can provide today. The core of the original is a monster movie; the draw is the monster rampaging. Keep the focus on Reptilicus and avoid the temptation to add subplots and the remake will draw an audience.

 

* I say “apparent” because the past few decades have been teeming with popular original work. As seen in the History of Adaptations, that wasn’t always the case.

Posted on by Scott Delahunt

Last week, Lost in Translation looked at adaptation that weren’t really adaptations. This week, a look at the flip side of that, an non-adaptation that is an adaptation. With works that are trying not to look like an adaptation, the main reason for the changes boils down to one thing – lawyers.

Sometimes, a license just isn’t available for one reason or another, but a studio has an idea that comes from, in one way or another, the unavailable original. To get the work produced, the studio has to scrub the identifying elements out of the final product. Sometimes enough gets removed. Other times, lawyers get rich arguing over how much of the remains is too much. Let’s take a look at a series that had a dispute over how much got filed off, Mutant X.

Marvel Studios in the late Nineties wasn’t in the prime position it is in now. Marvel Comics had licensed out several of their top selling titles for movie rights, including X-Men and Spider-Man, leaving the company with very few A-listers. Previous attempts at using these A-listers had mixed results – The Incredible Hulk ran for several seasons, but the Captain America TV movies had problems. Meanwhile, the X-Men had a good run as an animated series, leading to improved sales of the X-titles. But Fox had the movie rights for the X-Men and related characters, with a movie due for 2000.

Thus, Mutant X, a non-X-Men series. While Fox had the rights to the X-Men name, Marvel’s mutant line included other titles, including Mutant X and The New Mutants. Characters did drift between the titles and guests from one title appeared in the others, mainly to establish that the new titles were in the same continuity. Fox got wind of the attempted end run around the licensing agreement and sued. The result – the logo for the Mutant X TV series had to be changed and the show could not mention the X-Men or related characters nor use costumes or code names. This, though, triggered a second lawsuit, this time between Marvel and Tribune Entertainment, the distributor, over the allegation that the comic company encouraged the distributor to treat Mutant X as an X-Men spin-off. Even Fireworks, the Canadian production company that worked with Marvel Studios to film Mutant X was sued. The real winners in all this were the lawyers.

The tumbleweed of lawsuits aside, the end result is that the /Mutant X/ TV series could not even have a hint of being an X-Men clone in it. The goal for Marvel Studios, Fireworks, and Tribune Entertainment was to not adapt the comic while still drawing in people who read the comic. The licensing agreement and the settlement meant that the name X-Men could not be used, nor could the characters or likenesses. That still gave Marvel wiggle room. The comic titles The New Mutants and Mutant X weren’t mentioned in the agreement or the settlement, and that is a large loophole to push a TV series through. Never mind that both were spin-offs from the X-Men comic; the names were available, and that was enough to try to lure in an audience familiar with the X-titles.

The core cast of the TV series featured five characters. Leading the Mutant X team and movement is Adam Kane, played by John Shea. Adam, who didn’t get a surname until season 2, was a genetic wunderkind, having graduated from university in his teens. He was hired on at Genomex right after graduation, where he worked on trying to correct problems in the DNA of patients. His research led to the creation of “new mutants” – people with superhuman powers and abilities. However, when Genomex became an arm of the GSA, he left, forming Mutant X. One of Adam’s first recruits is Shalimar Fox, played by Victoria Pratt. Shalimar’s genetic code has been spliced with that of a cat, giving her quick reflexes and enhanced senses. Along with Shalimar is Jesse Kilmartin (Forbes March) who can manipulate his body’s density. During the pilot episodes, Adam recruits the telempathic Emma deLauro (Laurent Lee Smith) and the lightning projector Brenna Mulwray (Victor Webster). Heading the opposition, Mason Eckhart (Tom McCamus) ran the secretive GSA, using Adam’s genetic research to both build his own private army of new mutants and to cure his own condition. Eckhart was briefly replaced as the major villain by Gabriel Ashlocke (Michael Easton), who was Adam’s first patient, the first and the most powerful of the new mutants.

With that cast, how does Mutant X differ from X-Men? Let’s start with Adam, who is in the Professor X role. However, Adam differs from Xavier in three critical ways: Adam is not a mutant himself, instead having high intelligence; he does not need a wheelchair; and he is not bald*. Adam does not run a school; he has Sanctuary, a high-tech hideout from where he organizes an underground railroad for new mutants to escape the clutches of the GSA. The powers of the new mutants express in four different general streams. Ferals, like Shalimar, have animal genetics spliced into their own DNA, giving them enhanced reflexes, strength, and senses. Elementals, like Brennan, are capable of producing and projecting various forms of energy, including lightning, fire, and light. Telempaths, including Emma, are psionic, capable of reading and manipulating minds; the name given to this type of new mutant is to avoid problems with telepaths like Jean Gray and Professor X. Moleculars, like Jesse, can change their body at the atomic level. Every new mutant, save one, falls into one of these categories. The exception, Ashlocke, Patient Zero, had all the abilities.

Thus Shalimar wasn’t Wolverine nor Wolvesbane. She healed faster, but no “healing factor” was ever mentioned. She didn’t grow claws nor change form. Shalimar was good at mixing it up hand-to-hand with her wire-fu. Likewise Brennan wasn’t Storm; he didn’t control the weather, just shot lightning. Jesse wasn’t Shadowcat; he could both phase through objects and become so dense bullets bounced off him. Emma, well, she wasn’t Jean Gray, despite the red hair and telempathic abilities; she didn’t have telekinesis, and her mental contact was more based on emotion than thought, at least in the first season. And the Double Helix, Mutant X’s plane, was definitely not the Blackbird.

So, if Mutant X is not X-Men, what is it? At its core, the show is a syndicated action series featuring superpowers and wire-fu fight scenes. As the seasons progressed, the show explored each character’s past and the nature of being a new mutant. Several episodes showed the Mutant X team working to protect new mutants from the GSA while others showed the team protecting the general populace from new mutants. There were even episodes where the main characters’ own powers threatened to hurt or even kill them. Sure. some of these themes appeared in X-Men, but themes are universal. X-Men used them but didn’t corner the market on them. It’s how Mutant X explored the themes that matters.

Mutant X did deliver on being an action series. Budget and effects limitations restricted how often powers could be used. Flashier powers, including Brennan’s lightning and Jesse’s body manipulation, required more work and money than the more physical wire work that Shalimar needed. Part of the problem is that Fireworks, the production company, is based in Toronto. As mentioned last week, Toronto is better known for being a double for American cities for police procedurals and mysteries, not for science fiction. Things had improved since Captain Power, though, in part because the city was in competition with Vancouver for film and television projects. Mutant X had the advantage of being set in the near future, so no major effects were needed.

Despite being a syndicated series filmed in Canada, the show did pick up a following. In Canada, Mutant X aired on Global, owned by CanWest, the same company that owned Fireworks’. In the US, the show was syndicated in an era predating the cable and Internet streaming onslaught. People tuned in, at first because of the potential of being related to the recently released X-Men movie, then because of the characters and situations of the show itself. The following may not have been able to sustain a traditional network show, but fans were shocked when the show did not continue after the third season. Fireworks and its library of TV series was sold to new owners who weren’t as interested as making shows as they were in getting the series already made. Marvel, though, hasn’t disowned the series; Mutant X is now an alternate universe from the main continuity.

Mutant X was not X-Men. Similar themes appeared, but shadowy government departments hunting underdog protagonists and protagonists rail against bigotry against minorities are universal. The shows writers worked to give Mutant X its own mythology, one that wasn’t based on anything seen in Marvel’s main continuity. The result is a TV series that can stand on its own and compete with other shows. Mutant X reached beyond its limitations, both budgetary and legal.

* For added fun here, John Shea played Lex Luthor on Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman, starting with a head of hair and becoming bald during the series run.

Posted on by Scott Delahunt

Last week’s look at Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future led to a questions – “When is an adaptation not an adaptation?” On investigation, Captain Power wound up being a parallel development. Gary Goddard had an idea for a TV series and Mattel had a technology they wanted to market. With Mattel’s backing, Goddard could produce Captain Power, at least for one season.

Captain Power isn’t the only work that looks like an adaptation but isn’t. In some franchises based on a series of books, a new entry starts in a different medium, but because of production time, the book gets released first. The 007 film, Thunderball, is such a movie. Fleming worked on the story for the film first, then wrote it as a novel while the movie was delayed. And this doesn’t happen to just franchises. Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey began as a film treatment; he then wrote the novel while the movie went through production.

Figuring out what is and isn’t an adaptation does take research. Parallel developments aren’t apparent, even when checking the credits. It’s only after digging a bit that details come out. Some of that digging involves commentary tracks, so streaming isn’t always a good option for Lost in Translation. Fortunately, most creative types are happy to talk about the process with their works. It is easier to tell when a work is an adaptation, though. The credits state it outright, using phrases such as “Based on” or “Inspired by”. However, “Based on a story idea by” isn’t always a good indication. Many movies, including classics, begin from a story treatment submitted where there isn’t already an existing work.

Today, it’s easier to find out what is being adapted. Entertainment news and blogs will have this information out as soon as an announcement is made. Studios want and need fans of the original works to come out to the movie adaptation. Creators get excited about seeing their works in a new format. Finding announcements made in the last ten years is a quick web search away. Older works, though, may have had the announcements, but not with the same hype and not as easily found. Not everything is on the Internet. There are people who do the research, though, which does help.

Why mention these non-adaptations? They affect Lost in Translation in a two ways. First, there’s the discover of works that are suspected to be adaptations that aren’t. Captain Power last week is a good example. Likewise, Thunderball, which will be part of the 007 project, isn’t an adaptation. The film isn’t even an adaptation of the character to film. Ian Fleming wrote the screen treatment of the film before he wrote the novel; Thunderball is an original work in the 007 series with the novel being the adaptation. This issue is likely to show up in other franchises where the original work has grown beyond its original medium.

The second is the discovery that an adaptation isn’t. Reviewing a work does take time; both the original and adaptation must be seen. A longer work, either original or adaptation, takes more time. If it becomes apparant early that a work isn’t an adaptation, something else can be swapped in. However, reviewing longer works means that if the discovery is found on checking a secondary source, such as the commentary track or a website, then it gets too late to change gears. Sometimes, the non-adaptation can provide a look into the process of adapting, either by being an example of the problems faced or by showing how a creator works across multiple media.

Still, even these non-adaptations can provide an insight into how a work is adapted. Creators today can use the various media far more readily for far less cost than in the decades prior. Video cameras are now consumer goods. The Open Source movement means that video editing tools are easily found for low or no cost. Web sites are easily created and can allow creators to display their works, in full or in part, to entice potential audiences. Hollywood is the big producer, but it isn’t the only one.

Posted on by Scott Delahunt

Toy manufacturers know that a successful TV series based on one their products leads to better sales. Deregulation in the 80s allowed toy makers to fund what were essentially half-hour toy ads masquerading as cartoons and live-action shows. The key issue is getting the target audience to watch, which means making the shows enjoyable to watch. Hasbro has had the most success with their spin-off series, from the various Transformers efforts to My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. The latter series has helped Hasbro gain in sales while other toy makers saw sales falling. From the creative point of view, the success of a series based on a toy hinges on two elements – the popularity of the show and the popularity of the toy. If either drops, the show is no longer supported. There have been times when the show’s popularity far outstripped the sales of the toy it was based on. One of the exemplars of the phenomenon is Captain Power & The Soldiers of the Future.

Mattel‘s major line has been Barbie. The doll has sustained the company for almost 60 years. However, few companies want to rely on just one product to sustain them. Mattel expanded its toy lines to include items of interest to boys, with Hot Wheels the best known line. In a competitive market, companies are always searching for the next big thing to cash in on. Mattel thought they had found that next big thing with interactive TV.

In the 80s, interactive TV was in its embryonic stage. The idea of viewers participating with what they watched became possible as electronics took advantage of the potential of the silicon chip. While the first patent in the US for interactive TV was issued in 1994, the concept predates the patent. NABU Networks was an ambitious attempt to combine cable television with an Internet-like connection with the ability to play games appeared in 1983, though it folded in 1986. By 1987, Mattel developed a version of the technology for their own use, but didn’t have yet have a toy developed.

In steps Gary Goddard, who had an idea for a live-action children’s series. Mattel saw a way to use their new technology, The result is Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. Mattel had requirements, mainly at least three minutes of interactivity per episode, but allowed Goddard to develop the series the way he wanted. Technically, this means that Captain Power isn’t an adaptation but a joint effort. However, the development of the series was separate from the interactive technology and the toys released. The fate of Captain Power is still instructive.

The toys and the show were parallel developments. Goddard, who also acted as the producer, decided to film in Toronto, Ontario. To qualify for tax breaks*, he had to make a decision about which parts of the show would use Canadian talent and which parts wouldn’t. He went with using American writers, including J. Michael Straczynski, Larry DiTillio, Marc Scott Zircee, Michael Reaves, and Christy Marx. Goddard reasoned that if the writing was strong, the directors, all pulled from Toronto’s television industry, would be able to work with the scripts despite being unfamiliar with science fiction**. The writing staff was able to work with the requirements. The big one was the three minutes of interactivity . The closing credits provided one minute, and the writing staff started most episodes with an action sequence that led into the main plot, eating up another minute there. A climactic action sequence would use the last required minute, if not more.

Mattel developed the toy line, including the PowerJet and action figures. The PowerJet and similiar, like the PowerBase and the MagnaCycle, were deisgned to interact with the TV series and with three video tapes released. The toys reacted to signals in the shows, scoring both hits made on targets and hits made on the toy. Get hit too often, the pilot ejects. The toys could be played with as stand-alone, not needing the show or the video cassettes, but the main focus was the interactivity.

Captain Power, for being a live-action kids show designed for a thirty minute time-slot, was ambitious. It was the first series to feature a regular CGI character with Soaron, voiced by Deryck Hazel, followed later by Blastarr, voiced by John Davies. The sets were built at an unused bus repair facility. Effects, barring the lasers, the flashing targets, and Soaron and Blastarr, were all practical. Even the back story showed work. When the series starts, the Metal Wars, the last battle between man and machine, are over, with the machines under Lord Dread, played by David Hemblen, winning. The Earth is a desolate, blasted landscape, with pockets of humanity trying to survive against the Bio-Dread Empire. However, a light stands against the darkness. Captain Jonathan Power, played by Tim Dunigan, has assembled a small team. Equipped with Power Suits, the Soldiers of the Future stand against Dread and his army of robots.

Each member of Power’s team has a specialty. Major Matthew “Hawk” Matheson, played by Peter MacNeill is the aerial expert; his suit includes wings and jets to let him fly. Lieutenant Michael “Tank” Ellis, played by Sven Thorsen, is the heavy assault expert. Sergeant Robert “Scout” Baker, played by Maurice Dean Wint, is the infiltration and espionage expert, with a suit that can project a camouflage to let him blend in with the Bio-Dread troopers, and Corporal Jennifer “Pilot” Chase, played by Jessica Steen, is the technical expert and pilot of the team’s Jump Ship. The characters had history, as well. Tank is the product of a cloning experiment. Hawk lost his son during the Metal Wars. Pilot was a member of the Dread Youth, an organization meant to install blind loyalty to Lord Dread into young adults.

That brings up another point. The series was dark. The villain already won by the start of the series. Dread’s forces were robots commanded by humans whose uniforms were modelled after after the Nazi’s. Even the Dread Youth were a reference, this time to the Hitler Youth. Topics covered by various episodes included the loss of a child and how people treated victims of AIDS in the late 80s. The final episode ended with the death of one of the main characters. Soaron digitized victims, sending them into Dread’s Overmind computer. Captain Power also had a story arc; each episode built up towards the season’s climax. The writing staff did not dumb their scripts down, and were inspired by science fiction series of the past, including Star Trek and The Twilight Zone.

Scripts were written for a second season but were never filmed. The series was not renewed. The sales of the toys weren’t strong enough for Mattel to consider funding a second season. On top of that, Captain Power came under fire for its violence. That combination led to the series ending on a downer with the death of Pilot. However, the series transcended what Mattel wanted from it. It was a well-written science fiction series, first and foremost, and it picked up an adult audience through word of mouth and on USEnet.

A reboot of the series has been announced. Phoenix Rising has signed on Judith and Garfield Reeves-Stevens to develop the new series as a weekly hour-long show. The new series is still in development, though, and no air date has been set.

Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future shows the limitation of being tied to a toy line. If it had been separate, the success of associated toys wouldn’t have been a factor in the decision to end the series. However, since it was, Mattel had to make the choice in continuing to produce an unsuccessful toy line to support a popular show, and went with its own bottom line. Such is the nature of the corporate world. However, when the creative staff, from writers to directors to actors, all pitch in, a work can go beyond its origins and be remembered.

 

* Canadian content regulations uses a points system. To qualify as a Canadian production, over half the production must include Canadians. The writing staff could be all American, provided the production made up the difference elsewhere. Goddard used Canadian directors, as mentioned, and kept all the post-production companies in Toronto busy during Captain Power‘s only season. The other benefit of qualifying as CanCon is that it made the show easier to sell to Canadian stations. Canadian television has CanCon broadcast requirements, a minimum about of time that has to be Canadian-made. Captain Power, being CanCon, helped fill that requirement.

** Toronto was and is often used as a stunt double for American cities. The directors of the time were more used to shows like mysteries and police procedurals. The last major science fiction series attempted in Toronto prior was The Starlost, which had many problems.

Posted on by Scott Delahunt

For television, the Nineties were the age of syndication. Streaming and the thousand-channel universe were still just beyond the horizon, but cable channels and local stations had time to fill. First run syndicated series filled in the hours, including Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and its spin-off, Xena: Warrior Princess.

Hercules started as a series of TV movies with Kevin Sorbo as Hercules and Anthony Quinn as Zeus. After the TV movies were successful, the series was greenlit. During the first season, Lucy Lawless made several appearances, including as Xena in several episodes. The popularity of the character led to a spin-off series. While Hercules and Xena had their own sidekicks – Iolaus, played by Michael Hurst, and Gabrielle, played by Renee O’Connor, respectively – the two shows shared common supporting characters. Salmoneus, played by Robert Trebor, and Autolycus, played by Bruce Campbell, among them.

Neither series felt restricted by history; for fans, this was a feature, not a bug. Myths were used as inspiration for episodes. The Greek gods were given new personalities, though ones that fit with known mythology. Zeus was an old man, regretting his wilder youth. Aphrodite, played by Alexandra Tydings, was a Valley Girl, at times oblivious of her effect on mortals. Ares, especially as played by Kevin Smith on Xena, was charming, but that was a veneer over seething destructive rage. Hercules and Xena both lasted six seasons. Later seasons included the occasional episode in modern times, with Hercules taking on the name Kevin Sorbo and acting on a TV series about his legendary journeys, while Xena, Gabrielle, and Joxer (Ted Raimi) were reincarnated. With Sam Raimi in charge of the production, even the car, the one that has been in every movie he’s made since The Evil Dead, made appearances.

The setting seemed ideal for tabletop roleplaying. Thus, West End Games, publisher of Star Wars The Roleplaying Game, picked up the license and published the Hercules & Xena Roleplaying Game in 1998. At that point, WEG had been successful with the Star Wars license, using a mechanic known as the D6 system. The system first appeared in the licensed Ghostbusters RPG, then was refined for Star Wars. WEG’s success is such that Lucasfilm is still using the company’s sourcebooks*.

So, when WEG released Hercules & Xena, the game was available in two forms. The first was a single book in full colour including photo stills from the series. The second was a boxed set that included the book and added a second book for game masters plus adventures to get players going and a set of the special dice used. These dice were six-sided, but instead of pips or numbers, they had appropriate markings. Five of the dice had two hydra heads and four chakrams while the sixth, meant to be the wild die, had one hydra head, three chakrams, one Eye of Hera, and one Thunderbolt of Zeus.

WEG modified the D6 system, using the d6 Legends mechanic. Instead of adding up the numbers that showed up on the dice, players just had to count successes. With the included dice, successes were chakrams, after Xena’s preferred weapon. Hydrae were failures. With the wild die, the Thunderbolt of Zeus was counted as a success and then allowed the player to roll the die again. The Eye of Hera cancelled a success and allowed the GM to introduce a complication if so wanted. The system provided for cinematic action, just like the shows the game is emulating. The RPG provided for specialties based on what was seen in the shows, including Xena’s pinch, Hercules swinging Iolaus around to hit opponents, and Hercules’ chest stomp. If a move wasn’t included, there was enough information to create it.

Mechanics, though, aren’t the only way to provide the tone, though they help. The game doesn’t require much bookkeeping; the GM sets a target difficulty and the players attempt to beat it with their skill dice roll. Character creation is quick – spend twenty-four dice among the eight attributes, then spend ten dice among skills and specialties, purchase equipment, and that’s it. The main book even helps with describing a number of different types of characters, from warrior to priestess to chronicler to entrepreneur and the suggested attributes and skills for them. Players are also not limited to creating human characters. Centaurs, nymphs, and satyrs are all possibilities for characters.

The game itself is written as if it was a set of scrolls written by Salmoneus and found only recently. The writing is such that it is possible to hear Robert Trebor’s voice while reading, and includes a few wink-nudge moments, just like the two TV series. The example of play in the main book, despite not featuring any of the characters from either shows, could easily have been in an episode. The overall presentation does bring out the setting of Hercules and Xena. The GM’s book, Scroll of the Ancient World, includes tips on how to role play the gods, from Aphrodite’s Valley Speak to Hades’ dark brooding.

The game did have some problems. The main book wasn’t enough alone to run the game; it was missing key sections, especially on how combat worked, though the base mechanic was detailed enough to let players figure it out. Starting characters were nowhere near the competency of the characters from the show, including Joxer. The GM’s book had suggestions on how to start players with experienced characters, but even then, they wouldn’t come close to Gabrielle or Salmoneus. The main book, though, did include stats for the main characters in both series. This was also a complaint with the Star Wars RPG. The game does include the stats for the main and recurring characters, though, allowing players to take on their roles.

The core rules also hinted at a number of planned supplements that would expand the game, allowing for greater flexibility. However, WEG’s parent company, a shoe importer, ran into financial problems. The importer pulled funds from WEG to remain afloat before filing for bankruptcy. WEG could not sustain itself with the loss of cash and wound up closing, losing all of its licenses. Hercules & Xena was the last RPG published under the WEG name, with later game releases done in partnership with other companies.

Licensed role playing games need to balance playability with accuracy to the source. A good core mechanic is a start, but the presentation needs to maintain the tone of the original. The Hercules & Xena RPG has both. The system is solid, having been refined with other games, and the writing brings out the details that drew fans into watching both Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess.

 

* Dave Filoni has mentioned in commentaries for Star Wars: The Clone Wars that several designs for equipment have come from The Star Wars Source Book published by WEG.

Posted on by Scott Delahunt

There are many movies that could have been done better. Not just in the realm of B-movies, where budget is often the limit, but also in movies from the major studios. The more interesting films are the near-misses, the ones that just missed the mark. The effort is there, but misapplied, resulting in a disappointment instead of an outright flop. Disney’s The Black Hole is such a movie. Released in 1979, The Black Hole was part of a science fiction renaissance born from the tremendous success of Star Wars. Everyone wanted a science fiction movie. However, Star Wars was also a game changer. While inspired by, among other soruces, the pulp serials of old, the hero wasn’t the square-jawed scientist as parodied by the character Brad in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Instead, Star Wars featured a farm boy, a character type more likely to be found in a fantasy.

Changing approaches takes time. Scripts need to be written to accommodate the new paradigm. But to get something, anything out to take advantage of the sudden interest, time isn’t a luxury. Star Trek: The Motion Picture used a script meant for the pilot of a rebooted TV series, and it showed. The Black Hole, released the same month, had a script that would have felt more at home with the science fiction of the Forties and Fifties, featuring square-jawed science heroes. The problem there was that The Black Hole wasn’t solely a science fiction movie.

The Black Hole was gothic horror tucked in a science fiction shell.

Science fiction and horror do go and have gone together. Alien was a classic monster in the dark plot on board a spaceship. The Terminator featured an unrelenting robot out to kill one woman and was born from a nightmare. Having The Black Hole be horror isn’t a stretch; the elements are there. The big problem, though, was timing. The Black Hole was a first in many ways for Disney – the first Disney-branded movie to get a PG rating, the first with even mild swearing, the first with on-screen human deaths. It’d be understandable that the studio would be nervous. Disney created both Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures to be able to release films for adults, but neither existed at the time The Black Hole came out.

That was the core issue with The Black Hole – it was a horror movie from a studio that shied away from being too horrific. Disney was known for children’s entertainment. The studio could present frightening situations, like an evil woman becoming a terrifying dragon, but there was always someone brave to stand up to fight the evil. The Black Hole had the evil, but bravery didn’t help save the day. In horror, the hero doesn’t necessarily defeat the evil, just survive it, and that concept doesn’t always translate well to other genres.

The Black Hole looked like a mish-mash of genres. The crew of the Palomino were the square-jawed science types, using intelligence and research and talking to tackle the problem of the day. The Cygnus, despite being a spaceship, wouldn’t be out of place in gothic horror or a Hammer film, hanging in space orbiting a black hole. The end sequence may have been inspired by the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey with a side trip to Dante’s Inferno. And V.I.N.CENT and B.O.B. owed more to the animal sidekicks of past Disney films than they did to R2-D2 and C-3P0.

This isn’t to say that The Black Hole was a bad movie. The film had a strong cast, with Antony Perkins, Joseph Bottoms, Yvette Mimieux, Ernest Borgnine, and Maximillian Schell, and the vocal talents of Roddy McDowell and Slim Pickins. The special effects were cutting edge for the time, with the black hole a presence on screen. Even with their almost cartoon-quality appearance, V.I.N.CENT and B.O.B. were as capable as any droid from Star Wars, possibly more so with their ability to hover long before CGI made it easy.

Remaking The Black Hole isn’t just hypothetical. One attempt at a remake fell to the wayside after scripts were written. The main issue comes from figuring out just what approach to take with the film. However, for Lost in Translation, the idea is to figure out the core of the original and how to coax it out properly while still keeping the original plot more-or-less intact.

The first step is to get the science as close to correct as possible while still being able to tell a good story. In the original, the Cygnus was poised near the accretion disc of the black hole, using anti-gravity to maintain position. Adding a star in a dying orbit around the black hole allows for a Lagrange point where the acceleration of gravity of both are balanced and will enhance the visuals. The balance of forces also means that the Cygnus can be knocked out of position into danger.

While on the topic of the ships, the Cygnus and the Palomino should look like they’re from the same world. The original Palomino looks more like a lunar landing module of old. The interior of the Palomino is enough room for its five crew and robot. The Cygnus is far larger, and even with its original larger crew, still has far more space than the Palomino. Both were deep space explorers, so why the difference? The Cygnus may have a hydroponics section for longer endurance, but the Palomino doesn’t look right beside it. And it’s the Palomino that needs the change. The Cygnus needs to look like it belongs in gothic horror, brooding in the terrible sky. The Palomino, while smaller, should be a reflection of the Cygnus and what it once was. Get the mood going early.

The last technical design change is V.I.NCENT’s. The core design is good; V.I.N.CENT looks like he should be functional in zero-gravity. The change here is to make the robot more part of the crew, less like an animated character. Keep the basic design, but make V.I.N.CENT less like a commercial product and more a contracted design, where functionality takes precedent over appearance. However, Reinhardt’s robots should keep their appearance, if only updated for modern camera techniques. Provide more articulation to Maximillian, but otherwise keep his appearance. Likewise, the rest of Reinhardt’s robots should only receive minor updates, with some subtle foreshadowing of their true nature before the reveal.

The general plot can be kept, but change the focus from pure science fiction to horror. Once on the Cygnus, the audience should have a feeling that something is off. The scene outside should help; a star losing part of itself to a black hole is not normal. Reinhardt should seem reasonable on first meeting, but as time passes, again, something is off. Only when his plan is revealed should he begin to monologue. For the end, the trip through Hell needs to be kept; Reinhardt’s goal and his fall are key to the plot.

Getting the right feel is the critical. The original was trying to be both science fiction at a time when science fiction in film was going through a paradigm change and horror when the combination of the two was more likely to be a monster movie. The Black Hole won’t work as an action film, and the studio will have to resist the temptation to turn it into one. The goal is to keep the horror aspects front and centre. The Black Hole has potential, but will need work to bring it out properly.

Posted on by Scott Delahunt

Some time back, Lost in Translation reviewed the A-Team movie. However, the years since then has broadened the definition of adaptations and what it means for one to be successful, so it’s time to take a second look.

In 1982, television was going through a renaissance. Many of the staples of the Seventies were on their last legs and ending, either through decisions by showrunners to end the run or through low ratings. One victim of the latter was Happy Days, which had begun its dominance in ratings in 1974. By 1983, it was a shell of what it was, having replaced most of its core cast, ultimately bringing in Ted McGinley. The show was ripe for counter-programming, something that wouldn’t have been thought of in its heyday, when it was just too popular to risk an unknown show against.

NBC had a new series it had piloted with a two-hour movie. The A-Team wasn’t a sitcom; instead, it was a light action-comedy featuring four Vietnam veterans. The general mood in the US about the Vietnam War was beginning be open to the idea of characters having served during the conflict. When The A-Team debuted as a regular series, it pulled in over a quarter of the viewing audience. The show was a change of pace from a tired sitcom.

The narration during the opening credits provided the show’s backstory. A US Army Special Forces unit, the A-Team was ordered to hit the Bank of Hanoi. They returned several days after the armistice and were arrested. The man who gave them the orders, General Morrison, had been killed in the final days of the war, so it became the Army’s word against the A-Team’s. The team broke out of the stockade before their trial and disappeared into the Los Angeles underground, where they became soldiers of fortune.

The pilot picks up with a reporter being held by bandits in Mexico near San Rio Blanco. His protege in LA, Amy Allen, played by Melinda Culea, needs help getting him freed and searches for the mythical A-Team. She’s sent to several locations and meets several odd characters, including Mr. Lee, before meeting the team. The wild goose chase has a purpose. The leader of the A-Team, Colonel John “Hannabal” Smith (George Peppard), wants to make sure she’s not working for the Military Police. However, he’s convinced that Amy is who she says she is and takes the job. However, Amy wants to go along, in part to cover the story of the rescue.

The team gathers. Getting Lieutenant Templeton “Faceman” Peck (Tim Dunigan) and Sergeant Bosco “B.A.” Baracus (Mr. T) is easy enough. Code phrases used on a radio call-in show gets the meeting place and mission needs sent out to them. Getting the last member of the team, though, is a problem. H.M. “Howling Mad” Murdock (Dwight Schultz) is in a VA mental institution and may very well be insane*. Face is the one chosen to break Murdock out.

Getting to Mexico is an issue. B.A. hates flying, especially if Murdock is the pilot. Driving will take time, though, which the team doesn’t really have to pull off the plan Hannibal has in mind. Hannibal tries to distract B.A. long enough so he doesn’t realize that they’re going to the airport. It almost works, though B.A. does get a punch in before the sedative takes effect. He’s out for the duration of the trip, giving the team time enough to reset his watch to reflect the how long a road trip would have been.

In Mexico, Face convinces the local film liaison that the movie allegedly being made needs some equipment, including armour plating and a heavy vehicle. The script isn’t the greatest, and Face complains about the quality of both the story and the director, but what can he do? The liaison gets the gear requested. In San Rio Blanco, Hannibal engages the townsfolk in getting their help to drive out the bandits. The initial plan succeeds, but runs into an unexpected hitch – the bandits are associated with a guerilla band who are better armed than the A-Team. What the guerillas aren’t, though, is a highly trained team with a knack for defying the odds led by a man who can come up with contingencies as the battlefield changes. The A-Team gets the reporter home and the town freed of bandit and guerilla influence.

Back in L.A., Amy convinces Hannibal that she is useful to the team, being the legitimate contact with access to news records. As such, she’s not wanted by the Military Police and isn’t on Colonel Lynch’s (William Lucking) radar as part of the team. The series is thus set up.

When The A-Team gets greenlit, some cast changes are made. Dunigan is replaced by Dirk Benedtic, who was the actor creators Frank Lupo and Stephen J. Cannell had in mind for the role. NBC, though, wanted Dunigan, even though he looked too young for the part. The series followed a similar format as the pilot – the A-Team would be hired to help people who were desperate and outmatched, typically against criminal elements. There would be a montage of the team preparing for the climactic fight, putting together makeshift armoured vehicles and booby traps. Because of its time slot, there were very few deaths. Most of the damage went to vehicles, which crashed in spectacular ways.

Each member of the team has a specialty. Hannibal is the leader and a master of disguise. When he wasn’t leading a mission for the A-Team, he earned a pay cheque as an actor, usually as the monster in a Hollywood B-movie. B.A. is not just the muscle but also the team’s mechanical and electronics expert. Face is the con man, the grifter, the one who interacts with officials to smooth the way for the rest of the team. He’s also the accountant, keeping track of expenditures. Murdock is the team’s pilot and the foil to B.A. Amy is their contact to the legitimate world, allowing for more extensive intelligence on targets.

Over the five season run of the show, there were more cast changes. Colonel Lynch was replaced by Colonel Decker (Lance LeGault), who was more relentless in pursuing the team. Amy was replaced by Tawnia (Marla Heasley), a fellow reporter, who was then replaced by Frankie “Dishpan Man” Santana (Eddie Velez). In the final season, Robert Vaughn joined the cast as General Hunt Stockwell.

The series started having problems near the end. The episodic nature of the show meant that it began to feel stale later in the run. An attempt to shake things up by having General Stockwell fake the A-Team’s death and become their commander didn’t help ratings; the change was too jarring for the remaining viewers. Massive shake ups tend not to work and are seen as a desparation move by audiences, usually coming too late to be of help. The fifth season change also took the show away from the original concept of a Special Forces unit accused and on the run for a crime they didn’t commit.

However, with three strong seasons and a decent fourth, the series still has fans and name recognition. Hollywood, not one to ignore the lure of an easy draw, spent time trying to build a remake, with the earliest work done in the mid-90s. However, it wasn’t until 2010 that the movie was released. The new cast included Liam Neeson as Hannibal, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson as B.A., Bradley Cooper as Face, and Sharlto Copley as Murdock. With the time difference, the conflict that the A-Team was in changed from the Vietnam War to the second Gulf War.

However, the movie begins eight years before the end of Gulf War II, with a scene similar to the pilot movie. Renegade General Tuco (Yul Vasquez) is interrogating a man hidden by shadows. Since the man won’t talk, Tuco orders the man’s death, using his own pistol. However, said pistol doesn’t work, not having a firing pin. Tuco decides to let his dogs have him instead. The seated man uses the firing pin to unlock his handcuffs just as the dogs arrive. When he steps into the light, we see Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith.

Elsewhere, B.A. Baracus has returned to his former gang to recover his beloved. The gang isn’t willing to just let him leave, which they soon regret. With the gang down, B.A. gets into his beloved GMC Vandura, painted in the classic colours from the original series, and leaves. However, as he heads to a new life, he gets stopped at gunpoint by Hannibal, who notices the Ranger tattoo on B.A.’s arm. With some convincing, B.A. agrees to help Hannibal rescue his teammate.

Face is in deep trouble. He was caught with Tuco’s wife and the General is not happy about it. Tuco wants to set fire to the tires Face is trapped in, but the Lieutenant is buying time, mostly by aggravating the General. Face does get enough time for Hannibal and B.A. to arrive, but they leave with Tuco in hot pursuit. They need a way out and Hannibal has a man in mind. However, this man is in a hospital, but B.A.’s arm needs patching up. At the hospital, Hannibal looks for his man while a doctor sews up B.A.’s wound. Turns out, the “doctor” was Hannibal’s pilot, H.M. “Howling Mad” Murdock, who is in the hospital as a psychiatric patient.

The four take the hospital’s helicopter. Tuco follows in one that is more heavily armed. Murdock takes his chopper through moves that no one sane would try, resulting in B.A. gaining a phobia about flying. Hannibal goads Tuco while keeping an eye on an electronic readout. His plan succeeds; Tuco is lured across the border while engaging in an act of hostility against US military personnel, and a fighter jet is just waiting for the battle to cross the border.

Hannibal pulls the team together as a unit, bringing B.A. back into the Rangers and getting Murdock out of the psych ward, to the point where they are a crack unit in Iraq. Near the end of the conflict, Hannibal is brought into General Morrison’s (Gerald McRainey) for one last mission. Iraqi insurgents have a set of US Treasury plates that would allow for perfect forgeries of American currency, and CIA Agent Lynch (Patrick Wilson) wants them back. Meanwhile, DCIS investigator Captain Charissa Sosa (Jessica Biel) approaches her ex, Face, to warn him against going after the plates.

Since Hannibal outranks Face, the team takes the mission. Hannibal’s plan goes off without a hitch, every contingency taken into account, even B.A.’s fear of flying. Preparation involves scrounging a number of parts, mostly from the private military contractor Black Forest without their knowledge. The team steals the stolen plates and delivers both them and the money already printed to the base. However, at the base, General Morrison’s HMMVV explodes, followed by a strike by Black Forest personnel led by Brock Pike (Brian Bloom). The shipping container holding the printed money and the plates explode and the plates disappear.

Hannibal and his team are arrested and tried for the theft of the plates and the money and are sentenced to dishonourable discharges and prison time in separate facilities. Sosa is also court-martialed, leading to her demotion. After six months, Lynch approaches Hannibal with an offer – accept the agent’s help in escaping in return for finding the missing plates. Lynch provides photos of Pike and an unknown Arab in Frankfurt at the Konigsbank. Hannibal already has plans to escape and just needed a reason. He fakes his own death to escape his prison, kidnaps Face, who has managed to turn his sentence into a spa retreat, then the two free B.A. during a prisoner transfer. Murdock turns out to be the more difficult break out; Sosa, who is still searching for the plates and now Hannibal, has tracked down Murdock to a VA hospital in Germany. With the help of a 3-D film, the team break out Murdock and go on to steal a C-130 Hercules.

The escape isn’t smooth. Stealing any American military aircraft gets immediate attention and two drones are dispatched to shoot down the Hercules. Sosa tries to countermand the orders to shoot down the plane, but the drones destroy the C-130. One of the drones picks up parachutes from an air-droppable tank. The team managed to get inside the tank before the plane exploded. The drones continue their attack. Face shoots one down, but the wreckage takes out two of the three parachutes used by the tank to slow its fall. Hannibal manages to control the plummet using the main gun’s recoil to redirect the tank to land in a lake and then to slow the fall.

In Frankfurt, Hannibal has a plan to get the Arab man, involving pinpoint timing. The plan almost gets derailed, though. Pike recovers quickly from the assault and tries to catch up with the plates. B.A. has him, but during his time in prison, he decided to take a path of non-violence; killing Pike is out of the question. But the team does escape with the Arab and the plates. Sosa catches up to Pike and takes him into custody.

Lynch, though, is still working on getting the plates for himself. Hannibal deduces the Arab’s identity and, before he can make his next move, a gunship obliterates the hideout, killing the Arab. Lynch then takes custody of Pike, working to close off loose ends. Hannibal calls Sosa, wanting to make a deal, the plates for full clemency. Lynch has Sosa’s phones tapped and hears the conversation. What he doesn’t have tapped is the burner phone Face slipped to her earlier, where he explains the plan to her.

The plan to deal with Lynch is a shell game – distract, disrupt, and reveal. Lynch falls for the game, but has Pike standing by as a wild card. But the plan, Face’s, not Hannibal’s, is flexible enough to handle the unexpected addition. Lynch is exposed. But the director of DCIS, Sosa’s boss, has the team arrested for unlawful escape. He wants that case off his books, even if the team did the heavy lifting in stopping Lynch and recovering the Treasury plates. The team, though, promptly escape and disappear into the Los Angeles underground.

The first thing of note for the movie is that it is an origins story. These men aren’t yet the A-Team of the TV series, but end the movie becoming them. As such, the movie expands on the original opening narration, using it to end the film. However, the elements of the original are there. The characters are recognizable. Casting helped here. Neeson channels George Peppard as Hannibal, using similar body language and vocal tones. Cooper has the charm of Face. Jackson brings a new interpretation to B.A. that still fits with what’s seen in the original series. Copley’s Murdock might be crazier than the original.

The tone of the movie varies, from drama to action to comedy, at points causing a mood whiplash. That’s more a factor of what’s expected in today’s entertainment, which does include deeper looks into motives than action-comedies in the Eighties. The movie does delve into the backstory presented in the TV series, pulling names from the team’s past and giving faces to names. The plot is more involved, with two agencies and a mercenary corporation all after the same MacGuffin. The world isn’t as black and white as in the TV series, but the core, that the A-Team are the heroes, remains.

The movie adds a few extras for the long-time fan. First is a post-credits sequence that features Benedict as Face’s fellow prisoner and Schultz as a doctor called in to consult on Murdock. A more subtle Easter egg comes up when the team breaks Murdock out of the German psychiatric facility. The movie sent, The Greater Escape uses the classic theme tune as the credits roll. Among the stars of the movie are Reginald Barclay, Schultz’s character on Star Trek: The Next Generation and G.F. Starbuck, a reference to Benedict’s character on the original Battlestar Galactica. Several scenes would fit without a problem in the original series, as well.

With a PG-13 rating, the movie avoids some of the problems of the original series. Since the show aired at 8:00pm for most of its run, very few people died on screen and none to the full auto fire that the A-Team used. In the movie, there is a body count, though the A-Team is far more judicious on where they shoot, unlike, say, Pike. The language is a little more salty, what one would expect for soldiers on deployment. Again, it’s the difference between prime time television and the PG-13 rating.

There were some problems with the film. The take on The A-Team went darker than the series did through most of its run, barring the final season. With the CIA and DCIS working against each other putting the A-Team in the middle of the fight and betrayals by trusted sources, the stakes were higher than helping someone deal with a criminal element. There was no Amy Allen; Sosa took on the Colonel Lynch role from the TV series, leaving the team on their own. If there was a sequel, an Amy could be introduced, but the movie didn’t make enough at the box office to justify a follow-up. The big problem was the focus. The movie covered the A-Team’s backstory instead of their exploits as soldiers of fortune in the Los Angeles underground. As such, the movie set up a series that never happened.

The movie did get some elements right. The cast, as mentioned above, had the chemistry and were recognizable as their characters, not just in looks but also in personalities. It’s not just a matter of using catch phrases, but knowing when to use them and why. Several scenes would have fit in with the TV series, just through the banter and camaraderie. The film definitely lived up to the action standard set by the TV series.

The movie remake of The A-Team is a hit-and-miss affair. Some problems could have been shored up, but there was an effort to have the team feel like the original, a difficult task.

 

* Through the series, Murdock displays different neuroses, so it could be an act. However, some of the act continues even when no one is around. He may have an untreated condition that he hides by acting crazier.

Posted on by Scott Delahunt

Very few TV series manage to reach seven seasons. The history of television is littered with series that couldn’t finish even one full season, shows that could get three before being cast adrift, and even a show that didn’t finish it’s own first episode. Series that reach seven seasons have a strong following. The even rarer series that can go for ten seasons tend to be staples of second-run syndication, even when the series is still running. However, there is one series that made it through ten seasons but never became a network darling.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 was created by Joel Hodgson and first aired on KTMA in November of 1988. The premise was simple, as the opening theme says.  A poor schmuck gets sent to a satellite in Earth’s orbit and is subjected to bad movies by his employers/kidnappers to find out just how much pain the human brain can take. However, the poor schmuck knows how to build robots, who help him get through the cheesy movies by riffing with him.

The Comedy Channel, one of the companies that became Comedy Central, picked up the show the following year. With the bigger budget compared to the KTMA days, the show became how it’s best known, with Joel Robinson (played by Hodgson) not only riffing with the bots Tom Servo (first played by Josh Weinstein*, later by Kevin Murphy) and Crow T. Robot (first played by Trace Beaulieu, later by Bill Corbett), but also participating in invention exchanges with the Mads, Dr. Clayton Forrester (Beaulieu) and Dr. Lawrence Erhardt (Weinstein), and doing skits as a break from the movie.

The riffing was the show’s main draw. The production crew looked for cheesy movies, ones that were bad not not necessarily boring, from the films available through syndication. While science fiction and fantasy films make up the bulk of the series, the show wasn’t restricted to just those genres until it moved to the Sci-Fi Channel in 1997. Thus, movies like The Girl in Lover’s Lane and Mitchell appeared along with The Magic Sword and Space Mutiny. If a movie wouldn’t fill the show’s running time, film shorts were added, from old serials to educational films. As long as the writers could find the funny for riffing, the films were added to the line up.

The cast changed during the run of the series. When Weinstein moved on, Dr. Erhardt was replaced by TV’s Frank (Frank Conniff). Joel was replaced by Mike Nelson (Michael J. Nelson) in season 5 during Mitchell, resulting in a new opening theme. When the show moved to the Sci-Fi Channel, Dr. Forrester and TV’s Frank were replaced by Forrester’s more evil and more capable mother, Pearl (Mary Jo Pehl), who then brought on the Observer, aka “Brain Guy” (Corbett) and had Professor Bobo (Murphy) stowaway on her rocket ship after the apes accidentally destroy the Earth in the future.

While continuity was flexible, there were call backs to previous episodes, including Nelson playing Torgo from Manos: The Hands of Fate in several episodes. However, when the Sci-Fi Channel picked up the series, execs insisted on an on-going plot arc, despite the draw being the riffing. The crew did what they could, creating a chase where Pearl tried to catch up to the Satellite of Love. The final episode aired in August 1999 after increasing conflict between Best Brains, owner of MST3K, and the Sci-Fi Channel led to the show being cancelled after ten season, eleven if the KTMA year is included.

The show became a cult classic through word of mouth and the budding public-use Internet. The show had a wide reference base, everything from Gilligan’s Island and SCTV to Shakespeare and Proust. Tapes of the show were circulated, letting fans bring in more people into the joy of MST3K, even if the show wasn’t otherwise available in an area, like Canada**. Thanks to the magic of Internet streaming, Shout! has made the library available online through subscription, in addition to releasing the series slowly on DVD.

The cast members of MST3K continued with riffing with their own projects. Hodgson created Cinematic Titanic, working with Beaulieu, Weinstein, Conniff, and Pehl. Rifftrax was started by Nelson and included Corbett and Murphy. The demand for quality riffing was there. Several people answered the call, but, ultimately, the fans wanted one thing – more MST3K.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return was a Kickstarter project started by Hodgson and Shout!, looking for $2 million to produce three episodes. The Kickstarter ending with over $5.75 million, enough for fourteen episodes and surpassing the Veronica Mars movie efforts. Backers received several benefits, including early access and their names listed in the credtis. With the eighteen years since the end of the series and almost thirty since the beginning, Hodgson, now the executive producer of the series, went with a new cast. Taking the place of Joel and Mike is Jonah Heston, (Jonah Ray). Like Joel and Mike before him, Jonah is also subjected to cheesy movies as Clayton’s daugher and Pearl’s granddaughter, Kinga Forrester (Felicia Day) and Max, TV’s Son of TV’s Frank (Patton Oswalt) not only try to find the breaking point of a human but also try to commercialize the experiments to pay for the new base, Moon 13.

For this analysis, I’m only taking into consideration the first three episodes. Once more are reviewed, there may be an update. Fourteen 90+ minute episodes take time to watch and digest properly. However, all the episodes are available on Netflix. The decision to work with Netflix instead of a more traditional broadcaster or cable station gave the production crew more control over how the series was made. No fights with a station executive who never watched MST3K on what the show should do.

The first episode of a rebooted/remade series is critical in getting viewers to keep watching. Miss the tone, flub the casting, make one big misstep, and the audience leaves. It’s possible to take a show in a new direction; the rebooted Battlestar Galactica demonstrates how it can be done. But MST3K, at its heart, is a comedy. Fortunately, Hodgson is well aware of that, being the creator. The first episode of a show also has to set up the series for new viewers. It’s possible that someone watching The Return has only heard the word of mouth about the original and has never been able to watch an episode.

Thus, we get a longer than usual introductory segment in the first episode of The Return, including a pre-credits scene featuring cameos by Wil Wheaton and Erin Gray talking up the new host, Jonah, before Kinga lures him to the dark side of the moon. The opening credits again tells the full story.

Keeping to Kinga’s desire to make the experiments commercially successful, the show not only keeps to the established format of the original but also brings in elements of late night talk shows, including a band, the Skeleton Crew, and ad bumpers, which also serve as a break point for the audience. The first episode features the Danish monster movie, Reptilicus, which doesn’t have the production values that early Japanese kaiju films had. The riffing comes fast and furious and pulls from a wide reference base but doesn’t overwhelm the action on screen. The host segments include the invention exchange at the beginning and features a rap about the monster legends throughout the world. But the first episode is meant to wow viewers both old and new. The following episodes would be the real tell for the series. Fortunately, the cast and crew are up to the task. The level and quality of riffs remain strong, and the host segments are entertaining.

Naturally, some changes were made from the original, including those noted above. There are new voices for Tom Servo (Baron Vaughan), Crow (Hampton Yount), and Gypsy (previously played by Jim Mallon and untility infielder Patrick Brantseg, now played by Rebecca Hanson). Gypsy also received a modifiction that lets her travel on the ceilings of the Satellite of Love, allowing her to drop in on host segments and in the theatre. Jonah’s host segments include laser-cut wood carvings to illustrate scenes, giving him his own twist. The main puppets now have a team of puppeteers instead of just the one actor doing both voice and manipulation. Thanks to the expanded budget from the Kickstarter, the door sequence is more involved, yet still retains its charm.

Overall, The Return is a return home to the Satellite of Love. Even with the changes in cast, the new series is still MST3K. Joel Hodgson took efforts to find out what fans enjoyed, choosing movies that reflect the fan-favourite episodes. The result is a series that welcomes back the fans of the original series while bringing in new viewers.

 

* Better known today as J. Elvis Weinstein.
** Rights issues were the main problem. MST3K had limited rights licensed to them for the movies, and thus couldn’t pass that along to foreign broadcasters. The only way for anyone outside the US to see the show was through the passing of the tapes, which was encouraged in the end credits of each episode. The other option was to see the movie without the riffing, a dire state of affairs for some features.

Correction: I originally had Michael J. Nelson credited as Professor Bobo, when I should have have Kevin Murphy.  Apologies to all involved.

Posted on by Scott Delahunt

Apologies, but the past week became hectic and odd.  Lost in Translation will return next week.

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