Adapting literature has a few issues that don’t appear when adapting other media. The major one is time; writers don’t have many limits on how long a story can be other than those imposed by format. Short stories can run up to 7500 words; novellas 17 500 to under 40 000 words, and novels 40 000 words or more. Getting a story to fit the time available in another medium requires bits to removed. Film is the main culprit. Few films break 120 minutes; longer books will still lose details. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone lost key plot points needed in later movies. Blade Runner dropped two major elements – the loss of real animals and the rise of Mercerism – just to get the main plot into the running time. And even when the full novel gets adapted, the restriction of the running time makes the result feel flat, losing the depth of work, as with Dragons of Autumn Twilight.
Television today provides an alternate approach when it comes to adapting novels. While each individual episode doesn’t provide much time, typically about 42 minutes interrupted by 18 minutes of advertising, a season in the US or a series in the UK can provided up to 22 episodes, enough time to get into the depth of a novel. While television was once a wasteland catering to the lowest common denominator, the three channel lineup has given way to competition between hundreds of cable channels and streaming services. A Game of Thrones is the exemplar, in both how a novel can be adapted well and how a series of novels can be outpaced by its adaptation. The adapted series is subject to the whims of the audience, though.
Let’s look at a specific example, The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. The series of novels tells the story of Harry Dresden, the only practicing wizard detective in Chicago and possibly the entire country. Starting with Storm Front published in 2000, there have been 15 novels and a book of short stories written starring Harry. He has dealt with a number of natural and supernatural threats to Chicago, including “Gentleman Johnny” Marcone and the Mob, werewolves, the Red and Black vampire courts, the Summer and Winter Courts of the Sidhe, and various other paranormal entities. Harry isn’t alone, though. Despite himself, he has a number of allies, including Bob, spirit bound to a skull to assist the wizard who owns it, Karrin Murphy, a member of the Chicago Police Department who initially tossed a few cases Harry’s way; the Knights of the Cross, wielders of magical swords charged with defending humanity; Waldo Butters, the Assistant Medical Examiner who picked up on magical doings because of the bodies passing through the morgue; and Mouse, a temple dog the size of of a Tibetan mastiff. Complicating things is the Wizards Council, who distrust Harry after he killed his uncle in self-defense. In particular, Morgan is waiting for Harry to make one mistake.
The novels find Harry taking on what should be a simple case that get him in over his head against something far more dangerous. Nothing goes easy for Harry, either because he’s so far behind in the plot that he doesn’t realize what he’s up against or because, being human, he makes mistakes. Yet, he still gets the job done with the help of his friends. Cases are solved.
In 2007, the SyFy Channel began airing an adaptation of The Dresden Files. The hook is obvious; a detective show crossed with urban fantasy fits perfectly with the cable channel’s mandate and doesn’t stretch a special effects budget like a science fiction series would. Lasting one season, the series starred Paul Blackstone as Harry, Terrence Mann as Bob, Valerie Cruz as Murphy, and Conrad Coates as Morgan. The show didn’t adapt any of the books, but took the characters and situations and created new cases for Harry to solve. The feel of the show – the only practicing wizard detective in Chicago trying to maintain the masquerade while dealing with supernatural threats – kept close to the books. The details, though, are another matter.
Blackthorne as Harry worked; the actor is tall and lanky. He just didn’t wear the same outfits Harry did on the covers of the books. Harry’s blasting rod became a drumstick and his staff became a hockey stick. His mother’s bracelet, allowing him to defend himself against magical attacks, remained. His car, a vintage Volkswagen Beetle nicknamed “The Blue Beetle” despite having a patchwork of colours thanks to Harry’s tech bane and various damage from his work, became a war surplus Jeep. Continuing with the cast, the Irish-American Murphy was portrayed by a Latina. That aside, Cruz was a convincing Murphy in all other aspects. Bob went from a spirit in a skull to a ghost cursed to be tied to a skull and its owner. Again, Mann did get Bob’s personality correct.
Some of the changes came about because of the switch in medium. Television is very much a visual medium. Bob being stuck in a skull in the books isn’t a problem; Butcher showed the interaction and relationship between Harry and Bob using narrative. On TV, though, the narrative is carried by the actors, not a narrator, and body language becomes key to informing the audience. An inanimate skull won’t have that. An actual actor playing to Harry’s can show the chemistry and relationship far better.
With Murphy, Cruz wasn’t originally meant portray her. Instead, she was supposed to play Susan Rodriguez, Harry’s girlfriend. However, Cruz switched her role with Rebecca McFarland, who was supposed to play Murphy. Cruz brought the essence of Murphy, except for the Irish-American part. Watching Cruz on screen as Murphy, she is the tough, no-nonsense cop from the books.
The Blue Beetle became a casualty of pragmatism. Volkswagen Beetles are now collector items; few owners are going to let a studio turn a valuable car into a banged and battered vehicle with a pathwork of colour and primer. Older Jeeps, though, are easier to get, thanks to Hollywood making war movies, and a battered Jeep is natural for those films. Another issue is that Blackthorne stands 6’4″, making getting in and out of a Beetle interesting, especially when resetting between takes.
The Dresden Files TV series manages to get the tone right, but flubs the details. Renaming the characters doesn’t work; the show is very much like the books. The little details, though, hurt the adaptation and can throw fans out of the narrative.
My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic was originally meant to advertise a new line of My Little Pony toys. Instead, it became a massive hit, not just with the intended audience of pre-tween girls but with people of all ages. Toys and other merchandise sold well, enough that Hasbro showed gains while other toy companies were struggling, but audiences tuned in because of the characters. Within the Mane Six alone – Applejack, Fluttershy, Pinkie Pie, Rainbow Dash, Rarity, and Twilight Sparkle – there is a pony to appeal to everyone. Their core natures meant that any episode featuring two of them would have a conflict that the ponies would have to work out. No one pony is given preference, so resolving the conflict means finding a compromise that works for both. For the target audience, it’s a lesson in how to get along with friends who act differently.
The Mane Six aren’t the only characters in Equestria. Applejack and Rarity have younger siblings, Apple Bloom and Sweetie Belle, who, along with Scootaloo, form the Cutie Mark Crusaders, a trio of young fillies who want to grow up. Parallels to younger siblings and to puberty may be intended with them. Other ponies have made appearances, as regulars, such as DJ Pon-3 and Big Mackintosh, or as visitors to Ponyville, such as Trixie and Cheese Sandwich, the latter based on and voiced by “Weird Al” Yankovic.
With a series that mixes fantasy adventure with slice of life, there is plenty of room for ponies other than the Mane Six to get together and save Equestria. Online roleplaying fora exist for just that. With people wanting to play in Equestria, an official licensed role-playing game should have been expected. In early 2017, River Horse released* Tails of Equestria, the official My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic RPG.
Tails of Equestria comes as a single hardback book. The cover features art by Amy Mebberson with three ponies on an adventure, none of whom are part of the Mane Six. The unicorn on the cover is the sample PC (Pony Character) in character creation. Inside, stills from the show are used to illustrate the rules being explained on the page. There’s even a full spread map of Equestria and surrounding lands. PCs aren’t stuck in Ponyville; they can travel to such places as Manehattan and Vanhoover.
The game’s mechanics are easy enough to learn. There are three attributes – Body, Mind, and Charm – rated at a die type, from the four-sided die to the best die, the twenty-sided die. Most rolls will involve one of the attributes, though talents may modify the die type rolled. The Gamesmaster (GM) sets the difficulty anywhere from 2, very easy, to 20, “has anybody ever done this?” A roll of 1 results in bad luck; something goes wrong and hinders the pony. If the pony’s player wishes, he or she can use one or more Tokens of Friendship, the game’s drama point mechanic, to reroll the die, roll the next larger die and take the better result, or even succeed without rolling, depending on how many Tokens are spent. Other ponies can help, reducing the number of Tokens of Friendship needed to get a result. Teamwork makes tasks easier.
Character creation is quick. There’s ten steps, but each step only requires a simple choice. Players just have to decided on type of pony, whether to be brainy or brawny, what their Cutie Mark talent is, a quirk, and a name. Pony portraits are encouraged, either drawn by hand or through an online pony creator, the latter with parents’ permission and supervision. The unicorn on the cover, Firebrand, has a hand-drawn pencil portrait as an example. River Horse also has character sheets with pony outlines to fill in available for sale. If players prefer, they can use MLP toys as miniatures.
The game is aimed at the younger audience of the TV series. The writing is simple and direct, well illustrated when needed. The game reinforces the main theme from the cartoon, friendship is magic. Even if a player doesn’t give another a Token of Friendship to help in a task, ponies are encouraged to work together and give a helping hoof. The quirks, minor drawbacks that limited what a pony can do, help show how two ponies are different but can still work together. The game gets a little heavy-hoofed with the message, but the target audience won’t notice. There are helpful hints for the GM through out the game, with more in the GM’s section on how to run the game. There’s even an option to run a Cutie Mark Crusader-style game, with players being young colts and fillies trying to discover what their cutie mark talent is.
Tails of Equestria also has an adventure for beginning players. The Mane Six need to find out what’s turning ponies into statuettes but they promised to give their pets a party. The players are recruited to watch over the pets while the Mane Six are gone. Given that Fluttershy’s rabbit, Angel, is the complete opposite of his name, things don’t go smooth for the PCs. And while it seems like the Mane Six are off having an epic adventure while the PCs are rounding up wayward pets, the end of the adventure leads into the first expansion set, The Curse of the Statuettes.
Mechanics alone do not determine the tone of a game, though matching them to the setting helps greatly. MLP:FIM has its own themes, the big one being the power of friendship. Violence doesn’t solve problems; friendship does. Tails of Equestria follows this theme. The combat section takes just two pages and is called “scuffling”. Ponies who lose all their stamina need to rest; they get to see stars around their head when stamina reaches zero. Ponies that help each other see the difficulty of their tasks get reduced. One pony might not be able to lift a heavy table; four ponies can easily move it to where they want it. The focus of the game is on friendship. Even the number of Tokens of Friendship depends on the number of friends, including the GM, who are playing. A new player means a new friend, so everyone else gets an extra Token while the new pony gets a number equal to everyone playing, even the people who couldn’t make it. After all, a friend is still a friend, even if they’re not at the table.
The only real problem with Tails of Equestria is how it handles the Elements of Harmony. Every Pony Character must choose one, but there isn’t much on how the Elements are used. The idea is that if a task fits one of the Elements well, a pony with that Element can succeed without having to roll. Fortunately, the adventure included in the book shows how it works, but there isn’t much else.
Tails also has a small bestiary, just containing the creatures needed for the introductory adventure. The same section also has the Mane Six fully statted out plus generic ponies of all three types. The expansions should have more details; The Bestiary of Equestria has far more if players are interested, including new character types like Griffons and Buffalo. River Horse is supporting the Tails of Equestria line with a wide range, including a sourcebook for the MLP:FIM theatrical movie.
Game designers have a difficult task when adapting a work to a game of any sort. With tabletop RPGs, the goal is to take what has been shown and expand it so that players can have fun in the setting. Tails of Equestria took My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic and presented the setting as a place for players to play in and have fun, much like the cartoon invites audiences to do. With only small problems, Tails of Equestria gets to the heart of MLP:FIM and makes it possible for players to do the same thing the Mane Six do, have adventures with friends helping each other out.
* In North American, the game and its supplements is distributed by Ninja Division.
Nostalgia is powerful, especially when decision makers choose what to remake. It works to get long time fans in, but an original’s target audience may be far younger than the fans have become. Today, a look at once such case, 2000’s The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle from Universal Pictures.
The characters of Rocket J. Squirrel and Bullwinkle J. Moose first appeared in 1959 on Rocky and His Friends, airing in black and white on ABC. In 1961, NBC picked up the series and aired it as The Bullwinkle Show in colour until cancelling the show in 1964. In syndication, the series became known as The Rocky Show, The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, and The Adventures of Bullwinkle and Rocky. While the series had low-quality animation from an outsourced studio and a small cast of voices, the writing featured puns, satire, and self-deprecating humour.
A typical episode of the show would have two parts of an ongoing story featuring Rocky and Bullwinkle acting as bookends. Between the two chapters, other shorts appeared, including “Fractured Fairy Tales”, retelling classic fairy tales with a twist; “Peabody’s Improbably History“; “Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties”, a parody of older melodramas; “Aesop and Son”, fracturing fables instead of fairy tales; “Bullwinkle’s Corner”, where Bullwinkle mangles poetry; and “Mr. Know It All”, where Bullwinkle demonstrates what not to do in different situations. All of this – the two chapters featuring Rocky and Bullwinkle and four other shorts – fit into a half-hour episode, including commercials.
The main draw, the actual adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, featured a small number of voice actors. June Foray portrayed Rocky and every female character that appeared, including Pottsylvanian spy Natasha Fatale. Bill Scott played Bullwinkle and Pottsylvania dictator Fearless Leader. Paul Frees took on the roles of Pottsylvanian spy Boris Badenov and Captain Peter “Wrongway” Peachfuzz. The narrator of the chapters was William Conrad. The writing kept things moving at a brisk pace, allowing for a hurricane of puns. Rocky and Bullwinkle would start off in a misadventure that would lead to a cliffhanger. Along the way, Boris and Natasha would get involved and try to eliminate Moose and Squirrel in ways that would backfire on them.
While the series lasted only five seasons, syndication ensured that the show would last through reruns. Rocky and Bullwinkle appeared on over-the-air broadcast stations and cable-only channels, entertaining several generations. The show’s influence can be seen in series like The Simpsons. Naturally, this level of popularity meant that a studio executive would eventually see the benefit of a Rocky and Bullwinkle film adaptation.
In 2000, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle picks up thirty-five years after the original series’ cancellation. Rocky and Bullwinkle have returned to Frostbite Falls in a forced retirement; the town, though, is suffering from deforestation. The Narrator has returned to his home, where he narrates aspects of his daily life, much to the annoyance of his mother. Pottsylvania has turned into a democracy after the Cold War, leaving Fearless Leader, Boris, and Natasha out of power and out of work. The animated world looked bleak.
Fearless Leader, though, did not take being out of power sitting down. With Boris and Natasha, he convinces Minnie Mogul, played by Janeane Garofalo, to sign a contract to bring back The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. When Minnie pulls the contract out from animated Pottsylvania, she finds that the villains are attached to the project. The three Pottsylvanians go from being animated characters to live-action characters, with Robert De Niro as Fearless Leader, Jason Alexander as Boris, and Rene Russo as Natasha. Despite the unforeseen attachments, Minnie still tries to get the project approved, but studio head P.G. Biggershot (Carl Reiner) hates moose movies shuts the film down.
Six months later, Fearless Leader has RBTV, Really Bad Television, set up over all available cable channels. Using the power of television, he will turn every American viewer into a zombie to command as he wishes. The FBI, though, knows that Fearless Leader is up to something. The chief, Cappy von Trapment (Randy Quaid), assigns Agent Karen Sympathy (Piper Perabo) to get the two people who have had the most success stopping Fearless Leader – Rocky and Bullwinkle. The mission must succeed, at any cost. Karen flies to Hollywood and breaks into Phony Pictures Studios to greenlight The Rocky and Bullwinkle Movie as a fantasy adventure road trip film.
The green light breaks through the dimensional barrier between the real world and the animated and pulls Rocky, Bullwinkle, and the Narrator out of Frostbite Falls and into the lighthouse where films are green lit. Rocky, still voiced by June Foray who also voiced all the animated women, and Bullwinkle, voiced by Kevin Scott, no relation to Bill Scott, who took on all the animated men, are now 3-D computer animation, though still recognizably themselves. The duo and Karen leave the lighthouse to begin their road trip fantasy adventure, with just forty-eight hours to get from Los Angeles, CA to New York City, NY and stop Fearless Leader and RBTV.
However, a mole in the White House warns Fearless Leader that Rocky and Bullwinkle are on their way. He orders Boris and Natasha to stop Moose and Squirrel, giving the spies a new invention created by one of RBTV’s whiz kids, the “Computer Degenerating Imagery” or CDI. In a demonstration on an animated weasel, Fearless Leader degenerates the victim, sending him where other degenerates go, the Internet. Boris, though, prefers the old ways, and loads up a RBTV van with weapons of cartoon mayhem.
Boris and Natasha catch up to our heroes in Oklahoma. They force Karen, Ricky, and Bullwinkle to leap out of their car using cartoonish bundles of TNT. With the heroes still recovering, Boris and Natasha try a more traditional method of stopping Moose and Squirrel, a cannon. Rocky and Bullwinkle use a traditional method of not being blown up – running away. Karen, though, berates Boris on his evil ways, flattering the spy and getting her close enough to put out the lit fuse. With Boris and Natasha waiting for the boom, Karen takes their van and gets Rocky and Bullwinkle in with her. Seeing all their gear on the road, Natasha starts reading the user manual for the CDI.
Temporarily foiled, Boris and Natasha give chase on foot until, through a wild coincidence, they have the opportunity to steal a helicopter. Once airborne, Natasha radios the Oklahoma State Police, telling them that they are pursuing a stolen van driven by a woman claiming to be Agent Karen Sympathy. A patrol car carrying two troopers and a cameraman from a Cops-like TV show pulls over the RBTV van and arrests Karen. She tells Rocky and Bullwinkle to keep going to New York as she’s being put into the cruiser.
The road trip continues, with Boris and Natasha still trying to stop Rocky and Bullwinkle. In prison, Karen befriends Ole (Rod Biermann), a young prison guard from Sweden who may be the only character more oblivious than Bullwinkle. The FBI agent promises to go to a movie with him if he helps her escape. Once out, though, she steals his truck after telling him that she’s just going to park it. Rocky and Bullwinkle get off track and wind up in Chicago, still pursued by Boris and Natasha. The duo also escapes and, in another wild coincidence, they meet up again, almost literally colliding with each other. Unfortunately, the police looking for Karen catch up, and our heroes are taken into custody.
Karen, Rocky, and Bullwinkle are brought before the court of Judge Cameo (Whoopi Goldberg) and are charged with one count of grand theft auto, one count of escaping prison, one count of impugning the character of a guard, four counts of talking to the audience, and eighteen counts of criminally bad puns. That number goes to nineteen thanks to Bullwinkle. The defense attorney, Bullwinkle, calls his first witness, Agent Karen Sympathy. Unfortunately, Bullwinkle forgets his the defense, not the prosecution, and makes the case for the prosecuting attorney. Judge Cameo, though, finally puts on her glasses and recognizes Rocky and Bullwinkle. Since celebrities are above the law, she dismisses the charges.
Time is running short. The fastest way to New York, NY, is by flying. Karen buys an old biplane and the threesome take off, leaving Boris and Natasha behind. The biplane can’t take the weight of everyone and loses altitude. Karen falls out of the plane. Rocky manages to catch her and flies her to New York, NY. Bullwinkle is left to fly the biplane and manages to make a wrong turn, crashing on the lawn of the White House.
In New York, people have been zombified by RBTV’s broadcast. Rocky and Karen infiltrate RBTV to try to shut down the broadcast but are caught and hooked up to the zombifier and turned into vegetables. In Washington, DC, Bullwinkle has had his chat with President Signoff (James Rebhorn). When von Trapment arrives, he sees both Signoff and Bullwinkle staring at the TV and fears the worse. Bullwinkle, though, is too thick to be affected by the broadcast. With just seconds to go before Fearless Leader’s speech, the fastest way to send Bullwinkle to New York is to scan him and email him, letting the moose surf the web to RBTV HQ where he prints himself out.
Fearless Leader starts his speech, instructing viewers to vote for him in the upcoming election. Bullwinkle, though, accidentally disrupts the broadcast then rescues Rocky and Karen. With Fearless Leader, Boris, and Natasha defeated, Bullwinkle tells the viewers to vote for whoever they want, tells whoever wins to reforest Frostbite Falls, and tells everyone to turn off their TVs. RBTV stops being Really Bad Television and becomes Rocky and Bullwinkle Television. Agent Sympathy gets a commendation from von Trapment and goes to a movie with Ole; Frostbite Falls is reforested; and the Narrator returns home to his mother.
Much like the original cartoon, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle has elements in it for both children and adults. The kids can enjoy a road trip featuring goofy cartoon characters with situations that aren’t too much different from what could be seen in reruns. Adults can also enjoy that or get into the self-deprecating humour, the puns, and the satire. Throughout the film, Rocky and Bullwinkle wink at the idea of a fourth wall, talking back to the Narrator and generally have fun with the idea of being characters. Bullwinkle’s last line in the real world compares Really Bad TV with Rocky and Bullwinkle TV, noting that there isn’t much different. In the original, similar humour comes up. For example:
Rocky: “A-bomb! Do you know what that is, Bullwinkle?”
Bullwinkle: “Yeah! That’s what they call our show!”
The film rewards a wide knowledge of movies. At one point, Fearless Leader does an impersonation of Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver; essentially, De Niro parodies himself. Elsewhere, as Karen is arrested by a Oklahoma State Trooper for grand theft auto and impersonating an FBI agent:
Rocky: “But that really is Agent Karen Sympathy.”
Trooper (John Goodman): “Yeah, and I’m really John Goodman.”
The puns come from everywhere. Character names, like Agent Karen Sympathy, Signoff’s military advisors General Admission and General Store, and Minnie Mogul. Place names, like Cow Tip, Okla, and De Bitter, Ind. Even Frostbite Falls had Veronica Lake. At least a third of Bullwinkle’s lines involved a bad pun. Even visual puns were used, like the green lighting of the movie.
The movie is shameless in its satire. Its main target is Hollywood, both film and television, particularly itself. Viewers of RBTV are turned into zombies, a common accusation against all of television. Minnie Mogul rejects scripts for being “too intelligent.” Celebrities are above the law and are never found guilty, though this works for the heroes. Outside the entertainment industry, President Signoff boldly stands in the middle of the road, kissing babies. The same cluster of fast food restaurants and gas stations appear every so often along the highway.
Casting a live-action adaptation of an animated work is difficult. The animated characters have a specific look that audiences are familiar with, but the characters don’t have to obey the laws of physics in their designs. Boris is far smaller than Natasha and is closer to Rocky’s height. Even given that Rocky is large for a flying squirrel, it’d be difficult to find an actor that size. The casting for the movie did well, though. Jason Alexander needed a few extras – fake mustache and eyebrows – to look like Boris. Rene Russo only needed to change her hairstyle and add makeup as Natasha. The costuming department did the rest, matching the actors’ outfits to the animated characters’. De Niro as Fearless Leader needed a bit more work; the character also went from Pottsylvanian dictator to ruthless entertainment executive and his look reflected the change.
The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle made an effort to be a continuation of the original series. The initial problems – the deforestation of Frostbite Falls and the escape of the Pottsylvanian villains to the real world – were just catalysts for the main thrust of the movie, the road trip adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle. Once the duo reached the real world, the usual antics could be shown and played with. It’s not the destination that counts; it’s the journey. The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle may not have been a critical success, or even a box office success, but it did get to the heart of the original series and brought it out on the big screen.
About two years ago, Lost in Translation reviewed the 2015 series, Thunderbirds Are Go, the CGI/miniatures remake of the classic Supermarionation series created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. That wasn’t the first attempt at adapting and updating the series. In 2004, a live action version hit movie screens. Today, Lost in Translation will review the film to see how well the series made the jump to the new format.
The 2004 film, directed by Jonathan Frakes, begins with International Rescue responding to a fire on an oil rig. From Thunderbird 1, Jeff Tracy, played by Bill Paxton, directs his sons in rescuing the trapped workers. Scott Tracy maneuvers Thunderbird 2 as close as possible so that rescue lines can be shot down to the workers. Not all of the Tracy family is there; the youngest, Alan (Brady Corbet), is watching the report from Lise Lowe (Genie Francis) on TV at his boarding school with his friend, Fermat (Soren Fulton), the son of International Rescue’s mechanical genius, Brains (Anthony Edwards). Alan and Fermat mimic using the controls of Thunderbird 2, predicting what Scott needs to do. However, one of the workers is Mullion (Deobia Oparei), a mole working for the Hood (Ben Kingsley). Mullion fires a small rocket at Thunderbird 1, where it leaves a gooey substance.
With his father busy, Alan’s ride back home comes in the form of Lady Penelope (Sophia Myles) and her chauffeur, Parker (Ron Cook). She brings Alan and Fermat back to the island in FAB-1. During the reunion, Alan expresses his desire to be a Thunderbird and follow in his family’s footsteps despite his age. The discussion ends with neither Alan nor his father satisfied with the outcome. During this, Lady Penelope gets a call; the fire on the rig wasn’t an accident.
Still upset with not being allowed to join his brothers on International Rescue, Alan takes Fermat down to Thunderbird 1. They go through the motions of the initial launch, but Alan accidentally starts the vehicle’s engines. He shuts them down, but not fast enough. Jeff calls him up. Leaving Thunderbird 1, Fermat notices the goo, a gallium compound that is electro-reactive. Alan tries to tell his father but gets grounded.
On a submarine, the Hood uses the gallium compound to find the island. His plan, take over International Rescue’s headquarters. To do that, he needs the Tracys to leave and the best way to do that is to have them rescue someone. The Hood has his other minion, Transom (Rose Keegan), launch a missile at Thunderbird 5 in orbit. John Tracy (Lex Shrapnel) is injured in the impact and gets out a mayday. Jeff, Scott, Virgil (Dominic Colenso), and Gordon (Ben Torgersen) leave on Thunderbird 3. Once Thunderbird 3 has launched, the Hood invades.
Alan, Fermat, and Tintin (Vanessa Hudgens, credited as Vanessa Anne Hudgens) notice the Hood’s sub arriving. They try to get to the house first, but the Hood is faster. Inside, the Hood uses psychic mind control to force Brains to turn over command and control to him, then cuts off the the Tracys in orbit, shutting down Thunderbirds 3 and 5. Alan and his friends, though, have snuck inside using the vents and discover the Hood’s plans; to use Thunderbird 2 to rob a number of banks, pinning the crimes on International Rescue. Fermat’s allergies, though, give the kids’ position away.
Alan figures the best way to escape is to use one of the remaining Thunderbirds. The Hood also realizes that and sends Mullion with a number of mooks to retrieve the kids. Alan’s knowledge of IR’s equipment lets the kids escape, only to be trapped by the Hood himself. He does manage to escape, discovering the Hood’s weakness, but falling through one of the vents used by Thunderbird 1 to bleed off the exhaust from the engines. Transom fires up the vehicle’s engines. Afterwards, she checks the monitors and does not find Alan, Tintin, or Fermat.
It’s close, but the three kids did survive, landing in the water just as the flames engulfed them. Alan works out that the best way to get help is to contact his father; they just have to get to the transmitter. Fermat reveals that he has Thunderbird 2’s guidance component, which prevents the Hood from leaving.
In London, Lady Penelope realizes that several disasters haven’t been responded to by the Thunderbirds. Since the only way for IR to not respond is that they’re in trouble, Lady Penelope has Parker take her to Tracy Island, after breaking several prior commitments.
At the transmitter on Tracy Island, Fermat gets a message to the Tracys in orbit and starts trying to restore control to them. Transom, though, tracks the signal and jams it before Thunderbird 5 The Hood sends Mullion out to retrive the kids. Alan knows he’s coming and goes to the junkyard where he rebuilds a hoversled. He gets the vehicle ready just in time, getting it going just as Mullion arrives. The chase ends when Alan pushes the hoversled too far, losing Tintin and Fermat, who are captured by Mullion.
FAB-1 arrives at the island. Lady Penelope and Parker march into the house and confront the Hood. He has Mullion and Transom try to capture the pair, but Parker’s sordid background lets him stand toe-to-toe with the Hood’s heavy with the occasional assist from Lady Penelope. The Hood, though, uses his psychic abilities to stop the pair. When Alan arrives, the Hood demands the guidance component back. Not wanting Lady Penelope or Parker to suffer, he hands over the component. The three heroes are taken to the freezer where the rest of the captives are being held. With the guidance component returned, the Hood and his minions launch in Thunderbird 2 to go rob the Bank of London.
In the freezer, Lady Penelope and Parker untie themselves then the rest of the captives. Parker unlocks the door, letting everyone out. Fermat restores control to Thunderbirds 3 and 5 just in time. With Thunderbird 3 too far to reach London in time, it’s up to Alan, Fermat, Tintin, and Lady Penelope to stop the Hood using Thunderbird 1.
In London, the Hood uses a tunnelling vehicle to get from Thunderbird 2 to the Bank of London’s vault. He takes the direct route, which damages supports for the monorail. When Thunderbird 1 arrives, one of the monorail cars falls into the Thames. Alan, realizing that the only people who can help are he, Tintin, and Fermat, runs to Thunderbird 2 to begin the rescue. Working as a team, the three kids get the monorail car back to the surface as the rest of Alan’s family watches.
Lady Penelope leads the charge into the Bank of London to stop the Hood. She and Jeff are taken prisoner by the Hood. However, Alan knows the Hood’s weakness – the villain gets tired after using his psychic abilities. He forces the Hood to overextend himself and, with Tintin’s help, defeats the villain.
Thunderbirds was aimed at kids. The protagonists are young, the film was rated PG, and there’s a level of humour that comes through even during intense sequences. However, the original Supermarionation series was also aimed at kids. The villains are frightening but not overwhelmingly so. The fight between Mullion and Parker is light-hearted. The main themes are of friendship, family, and responsibility. The movie is a family-friendly action flick.
As an adaptation, there was an effort to stay to the feel of the TV series. While getting actors who look like marionettes is difficult, the casting managed to pull it off. Of note, Lady Penelope, Parker, Brains, and the Hood are close to perfect casting. Ben Kingsley not only looked like the Hood did in the original, he made sure the character came off as competent. The villain didn’t luck out, nor did the villain make a simple mistake; the heroes had to work for their victory. Ron Cook as Parker was also note perfect, with the right accent and attitude. Even the Tracy boys had hairstyles that their characters had as marionettes.
The draw of Thunderbirds is the vehicles. Again, there was an effort to make sure that the Thunderbirds looked like they did in the TV series while still updating the looks to reflect modern sensibilities. Thunderbirds 1 and 2 were sleeker but still recognizable. Only Thunderbird 4, the sub carried by Thunderbird 2, had a major change. The sub also had the least screen time, with most of that time spent showing the interior as Alan piloted it. FAB-1 also changed, more out of necessity. The studio couldn’t get permission to use the Rolls Royce marque without using an actual production model, none of which have six wheels. Ford stepped in, providing a modified Thunderbird for Lady Penelope that harkened to FAB-1 in the TV series.
The story itself would fit with the original TV series. International Rescue remained a rescue service, not a crime fighting unit. Lady Penelope handled the investigation side of the plot, as she did in the series. While the focus was on Alan, Tintin, and Fermat, the latter being a new character, the Tracy family still were in character. The only real issue, if it can be called one, was the focus on Alan. The nature of the film and its target audience required a younger protagonist. Yet, Alan was still a Tracy.
Overall, while there were elements that diverged from the TV series, Thunderbirds worked to be a successor, keeping with the look and feel of the original. The effort pays off; the movie is very much a Thunderbirds story, even if there isn’t any Supermarionation involved.
The origin of the police procedural can be traced to one series, Dragnet. While detective stories had been around for a while, series that showed the nuts and bolts of how the police perform an investigation were non-existent until 1949 when the first Dragnet episode aired on NBC radio. Since then, the distinctive theme tune and the matter-of-fact narration became hallmarks, recognizable in other works.
Dragnet was not just the prototypical police procedural. The series used files from the Los Angeles Police Department; the stories were true, with the name changed to protect the innocent. With the advent of television, Dragnet made the jump, with a TV series running concurrent with the radio show from 1951 to 1957, when the radio series ended. The TV series continued for two more years, ending in 1959. During the run, creator and star Jack Webb worked to ensure a high degree of accuracy to policies and procedures used by the LAPD. The jargon, the room numbers, the call signs, even the number of footsteps between offices were researched and represented accurately. Even Friday’s badge was authentic; the LAPD issued Badge 714 to Webb for the duration of the series and has retired the number in his honour.
Webb played Detective Sergeant Joe Friday of the LAPD. When the radio series started, his partner was Sergeant Ben Romero, played by Barton Yarbourough. The partnership did cross to the TV series, but when Yarborough passed away in 1951, so did Romero, as detailed in the episode “The Big Sorrow” on both the radio and TV. Afterwards, Friday had several partners, including Sergeant Ed Jacobs (played by Barney Phillips), Officer Bill Lockwood (Martin Milner), and, finally, Detective Frank Smith (originally played by Herb Ellis, then by Ben Alexander for the rest of the run on TV and radio).
Dragnet didn’t just focus on murders. While LAPD detectives wouldn’t normally handle a wide range of crimes, Friday and his partners investigated everything from homicide and armed robbery to missing persons and shoplifting. The idea was to show the police in action, no matter the crime. The amount of time each episode covered depended on the case. Some took months in reality. At least one episode, “City Hall Bombing”, took place in real time, as a bomber gave the LAPD thirty minutes to give in to his demands.
In 1967, Webb revived Dragnet. Ben Alexander wasn’t available to reprise his role as Detective Smith. As a result, Webb called in Harry Morgan to play Office Bill Gannon. The revival took advantage of colour technology and ran four seasons, when Webb decided to focus on his production company, Mark VII Limited, and its series, the Dragnet spin-off Adam-12, another police procedural focused on patrol officers Jim Reed and Pete Malloy. Adam-12 had its own spin-off, Emergency!, a paramedic procedural.
The lasting influence of Dragnet still can be seen in the police procedurals of today. While no show duplicates Dragnet exactly, the roots can be seen in shows like the Law & Order franchise*, which added the prosecution to the procedure, NCIS and spin-offs, showing procedures used by military police, and even Police Squad. However, audience expectations have changed. Audiences want to know more about the characters they return to week after week, so the police procedural has become the police drama.
In 1989, Dan Aykroyd co-wrote and starred in a theatrical release based on the series. Aykroyd played Detective Sergeant Joe Friday, the nephew of Webb’s character. With his partner retired from the LAPD, Friday gets a new one, this time from Vice, Pep Streebek, played by Tom Hanks. Harry Morgan returned as Bill Gannon, promoted to Captain and in charge of Robbery-Homicide. Unlike the original, the Dragnet movie was a comedy, not based on an existing case file, with Friday and Streebek becoming an odd couple. Aykroyd’s Friday delivered his lines in the same manner as Webb’s, deadpan.
A crime wave has hit Los Angeles. A new cult, PAGAN, People Against Goodness And Normalcy, is trying to take over the LA gang scene. It has made a few hits, including the entire run of Bait, a porn magazine run by Jerry Caesar (Dabney Coleman), police and other emergency vehicles, the mane of a lion, a wedding dress, and an anaconda. Caesar is also seeing pressure from MAMA – Moral Advanced Movement of America – a civics group run by the Reverend Jonathan Whirley (Christopher Plummer) and is worried about about being shut down. Friday isn’t happy to investigate, unlike Streebek, but will do so because that’s his job.
Friday and Streebek trace PAGAN and discover that a secret ceremony is about to be held. The detectives go undercover as members of the cult, where they find the stolen goods. The wedding dress is on a woman, Connie Swail (Alexandra Paul), who PAGAN will use as a virgin sacrifice. Friday rescues Connie briefly, only for he and Sweebek to be tossed into the snake pit with her. They save themselves and Connie and disperse the crowd. When they return later with Captain Gannon, the area is immaculate; no sign of the ceremony or any of the PAGANs can be seen. Connie did recognize the leader, though – Whirley.
Whirley has pull in the police department through Commissioner Jane Kilpatrick (Elizabeth Ashley) to have Friday not just pulled from the case but have his badge suspended. Streebek takes over the case and finds himself falling into Friday’s mannerisms. Friday, though, is still a cop and doesn’t leave the case alone. Whirley, though, has Friday and Connie taken again. Streebek manages to track the pair down in time. Once the full story is out, Gannon returns Friday’s badge and gun, allowing him to go after Whirley with the force of the law behind him. The Reverend manages to slip away, but Friday has one last method to catch up and make the arrest.
Aykroyd did his research. Any regulation cited is an existing one on the LAPD’s books. He has Jack Webb’s style of speech down pat to the point where, if the movie wasn’t a comedy, it’d be pitch perfect. The rest of the cast is solid, with Hanks and Aykroyd switching around the duties of the straight man. Even the main theme by Art of Noise fits. The main catch is that the movie was a comedy, a parody of the original.
In 1987, the nature of police dramas had changed since Dragnet was last on the air. Miami Vice showed the effects of working undercover. Hill Street Blues showed life at a precinct. Audiences wanted to know more about the characters they watched solve the crimes instead of just the procedures. A straight Dragnet movie wouldn’t have had the attention. At the same time, the movie could have passed as an episode if the more fanciful elements, like PAGAN, were removed. The result is a film that just misses being a superb adaptation, but all the elements to be one are there. Dragnet comes close, missing mainly on tone. Even taking into account the comedy, Aykroyd did well as Detective Sergeant Joe Friday, a role that Jack Webb made his own.
* Dick Wolf, the producer of Law & Order, even had a short run remake of Dragnet first airing in 2003 called L.A. Dragnet, with Ed O’Neill as Friday.
If adaptations ruled the silver screen last year, they dominated this year. The number of popular original movies fell from last year, and there weren’t many to begin with then. Let’s take a look at the top ten from Box Office Mojo’s domestic grosses list for 2017:
1) Star Wars: The Last Jedi – sequel to Star Wars. The Last Jedi has only been out for a little over two weeks.
2) Beauty and the Beast (2017) – live action remake of an animated adaptation of a fairy tale. Disney is having great success with live action remakes of their animated films.
3) Wonder Woman – adaptation of the DC Comics character.
4) Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – sequel of the adaptation of the Marvel comic.
5) Spider-Man: Homecoming – reboot of the film franchise adapted from the Marvel comics.
6) It – adaptation of the Stephen King novel.
7) Thor: Ragnarok – sequel of the adaptation of the Marvel character.
8) Despicable Me 3 – sequel of an original animated feature.
9) Logan – adaptation of the Marvel character and sequel in the X-Men film franchise.
10) Justice League – adaptation of the DC comic.
The first thing that jumps out is that there is no original work in that list. The movies are sequels, adaptations, or sequels of adaptations. The second thing is source of the adaptations; superheroes feature in six of the top ten films. Marvel’s characters are well represented, though spread through three different studios, Marvel, Fox, and Sony. Justice League squeaked into the top ten in the last week of the year, edging out The Fate of the Furious, itself a sequel to 2001’s The Fast and the Furious, an original work sharing its name with a 1955 Roger Corman movie. The first non-sequel, non-adaptation film on Box Office Mojo’s list is number twelve, Dunkirk, which is based on the evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk, France in 1940. To find something completely original, not based on even historical events, one must go to number fourteen, Pixar’s Coco.
Breaking the list down a bit more, there are two sequels, five adaptations, and three sequels of adaptations. One adaptation, Beauty and the Beast, is an adaptation of an adaptation. A second, It, comes from a literary source. The rest of the adaptations and all of the sequels to adaptations ultimately come from comic books. Complaints about adaptations tend to be prompted by what is being adapted. Unlike the Fifties, where the bulk of the popular films were adapted from literary sources, this past year saw more popular forms of entertainment adapted. Even Stephen King gets derided for being popular and, thus, not Literature. Studios, though, won’t adapt something unpopular, though they may take a chance on the unknown.
A quick look at the bottom ten of the films in wide release shows that there were seven original films, one sequel, one biopic, and one adaptation. Of the originals, two, Collide and The Comedian were outright bombs unpopular with critics and audiences; two, Good Time and Free Fire had favourable reactions from critics and audiences but didn’t have the market penetration that the top ten did; one, Spirited Away, was in very limited release for one day; and two, The Resurrection of Gavin Stone and The Stray were aimed at religious audiences, limiting their appeal. The latter is the case for the sequel, Kirk Cameron Revive Us 2, which was also in theatres for two days. The biopic, Professor Moulton and the Wonder Women, was also of limited interest, though with the success of Wonder Woman, should have done better. The adaptation, Casablanca, was a re-release for five days to celebrate the film’s 75th anniversary. Calling /Casablanca/ an adaptation is pushing the definition; it was based on a stage play, Everybody Comes to Rick’s, that was never produced.
People are still going out to see adaptations, despite the complaints about the lack of original works. There are original movies being made. Until one makes the same as The Last Jedi, no one will notice. The time isn’t right yet for such a breakout hit. Risk aversion in Hollywood is still running strong. Studios won’t throw an advertising budget behind an unknown film, not when they can back a sure thing. However, quality is still important. Badly done adaptations aren’t going to break even the top twenty.
With the New Year looming in the distance, it’s time to take a look at what can be expected next year. The box office this year shows that there is one thing for certain that audiences will see in theatres.
Not only are adaptations not going away, they are staples for theatrical releases. A look at Box Office Mojo’s year end tallies shows that the first non-sequel, non-adaptation film is at number 12 on the list – /Dunkirk/, which is based on historical events. The first original film not based on anything is Get Out, Jordan Peele’s horror film, at number 14. The top ten are sequels, adaptations, or sequels of adaptations. Adaptations still pull in an audience, so studios aren’t going to start making original blockbusters just yet. The risk is still too high for them to try something original.
That’s just the silver screen, though. Netflix is having success with both its Marvel series and its own original works like Stranger Things. The more traditional broadcasters are having success with orignal series, though they are also airing remakes, such as Hawaii Five-0 and Macgyver, and adaptations, like Gotham and Lethal Weapon. The nature of television means that it is less expensive to fund original works than to license an existing one, and certain genres are good for formulaic approaches that still work despite decades of being in use. Legal dramas and police procedurals are standards; new series can put their own twist on the formula and still maintain an audience. Thus, NCIS, a military police procedural; Law & Order: SVU, a mix of legal drama and police procedural made popular by the parent show, Law & Order; and even Lethal Weapon, a mix of police procedural, buddy cop comedy, and family drama*. Television hasn’t been the medium to expect innovation from for several decades, but with online streaming becoming the competition, broadcasters will have to look to new ways to tell new stories. The format of TV allows for more depth than a movie while still providing what the audience wants.
Superhero adaptations aren’t going away yet. While Warner stumbled this past year, with Justice League underperforming following similar performances by 2016’s Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, Marvel’s output is still going strong. Warner’s Wonder Woman also did well, so the problem with the rest of the DC movies may be inherent in just those films. Marvel characters all did well, no matter the studio producing the movie. With Disney seeing great returns on their investment, there will be more Marvel characters on the silver screen in the coming year. Warner has several more DC movies lined up, though there may be tweaking. Valiant and Image are looking at getting their share of the superhero box office, adding more adaptations to the mix. It’s hard to tell if superheroes are a bubble or will be the replacement for the Western right now.
There is still a demand for adaptations of popular works. Until audiences are tired of only adaptations, original works will have to find ways of getting into the popular subconscious in new ways. Fortunately, online streaming needs even more content than even broadcast networks can use, and reruns only go so far. Watch for online content to become the next big thing to be adapted.
* Arguably, the Lethal Weapon TV series is about two family men, one of whom has lost his and is suffering as a result.
‘Tis the season for Christmas specials, the time honoured tradition of rerunning classic cartoons and movies for the amusement of the viewing audience. And what is more pleasurable than watching an older adaptation around a toasty warm television?
Many of the beloved specials are, indeed, adaptations, works from other sources adapted for television or film. From the networks’ view, these specials are an easy way to get an audience that is otherwise busy. The older cartoons still draw an audience as parents introduce them to the next generation. Some specials have been around for over fifty years; the main limitation being the advent of colour. Black and white gets relegated to specialty channels and PBS for the most part today. Still, there are a number of adaptations that come out this time every year:
And that’s just scratching the surface. However, the all those adaptations pales next to the one novella, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which may be the most adapted Christmas story in history, possibly even more so than the Nativity itself. A Christmas Carol is the atonement of a rich miser who is shown the error of his ways and given a chance to redeem himself. acting as a moral compass for the time it was written in.
There have been theatrical releases of A Christmas Carol, with the best known being the 1951 version, Scrooge starring Alastair Sims*, but also includes The Muppet Christmas Carol and Scrooged. While the story has a limited time for being in theatres, at most late November until early January, it can draw an audience and get repeated on television and on Internet streaming sites every Christmas season afterwards.
Film hasn’t been the only way A Christmas Carol has been adapted. Besides TV movies, television series have taken the story for their own use. Typically, the Christmas episode adapting the story has the ghosts visit either the miserliest character in the main cast or introduce a new character for just the episode and have the cast take on the roles of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. Sometimes, the story of A Christmas Carol gets played with. Blackadder’s Christmas Carol had the Ghosts show a kind man what would happen to him if he continues his gentle ways, including having the world destroyed. Most shows play the story straight. Sitcoms dipped into the story most often, but even The Six Million Dollar Man used A Christmas Carol for the episode, “A Bionic Christmas Carol”, played mostly straight. The animated series The Real Ghostbusters had the main characters accidentally bust the Ghosts, as would be expected. Scrooge U gets into the nitty-gritty of the various adaptations.
Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy Holidays, whether you watch an adaptation or spend your time doing something else.
* In the US, the film was released as A Christmas Carol.
Details are still coming out about the deal that will see Disney buy up a large portion of 20th Century Fox. CNN has a list of what’s being exchanged, including 20th Century Fox, the studio with the X-Men rights. What will the effect be, especially for the adaptations?
The immediate effect is none. The movies that have been produced will still come out; they’re too far down the pipeline to change at this late date. Deadpool 2 won’t be delayed as a result. Disney is also not going to impose changes right away. Take a look at what happened when Disney bought both Marvel and Lucasfilm. There were immediate hues and cries in both cases, fans assuming the worst. The reality, though, was far from the disasters expected. Following the takeover of Marvel, Marvel Studios came out with The Avengers, blowing away fan expectations. Likewise, when Disney took over Star Wars, the same dire warnings came from fans. The company released Star Wars: Rebels, The Force Awakens, and Rogue One.
Longer term, this may help Marvel Studios. Because Fox had the rights to the X-Men and related characters, it created a situation where Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, who were members of both the X-Men and the Avengers in the comics, had to have their backgrounds hidden in the Avengers: Age of Ultron. The word “mutant” could not be used. With Disney having access to X-Men and The Fantastic Four and the associated characters, the Marvel Cinematic Universe will expand. The crossover potential has increased. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. dealing with a plot masterminded by the Hellfire club. The Avengers take on a proper Doctor Doom. Kingdom Hearts 3 with Mickey, Rey, and Deadpool saving the world from C. Montgomery Burns.
One thing that may change is where the Marvel streaming series, such as Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and The Punisher wind up. Disney is picking up 60% of Hulu, so they may move the Marvel line up there to drive demand for the service. Current contracts won’t be changed; the effort needed and the costs to make the change won’t be worth the end result. New series, though, once the deal with Netflix runs out, may appear on Hulu instead.
The other side of the deal involves Fox’s non-Marvel franchises, including the long running TV series The Simpsons and Modern Family. The nature of Hollywood is that an incoming executive tends to clean house of everything the previous exec did. That sort of move led to the problems John Carter had. However, long running TV series last as long as they do because the audience keeps tuning in. The Simpsons may be long in the tooth, but the big problem the series has is that the only thing it has left to parody is itself. The change in ownership will give writers for the show new material for its bite-the-hand humour, plus allowing for a few last jabs at Fox. Again, nothing will happen immediately. The new owners need to see how their properties are behaving. If anything, expect Disney to capitalize on the merchandising end. The Mouse knows merchandise. Try not finding anything Star Wars right now.
The deal isn’t complete. American regulators still have to examine the deal and make sure that the market is still competitive. Disney will grow if the deal is approved. Given the Mouse’s clout. it is unlikely that copyrights will be allowed to expire. “Steamboat Willie” will never be in the public domain.
Right now, the best approach is to wait and see what happens. There’s no sense in saying the world’s about to end just because Disney has taken over a beloved franchise. The Mouse exists to make money and alienating fans is a sure way to not do that. The current record shows Disney providing to fans what they want. The Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars are showing what will happen.
MST3K ran ten seasons, eleven if the KTMA season is included, jumping first to Comedy Central and then the SciFi Channel before coming to an end. The show grew in popularity as fans circulated tapes to people who didn’t have access to the series. Several traditions came about during the series, including the annual Turkey Day marathon, where several episodes were shown in a row. Thanks to word of mouth and circulating tapes, the series is still popular, leading to a revival on Netflix.
The premise of the show is simple enough that the opening theme tells it; evil mad scientists who want to take over the world kidnap an unsuspecting schlub, sending him to the Satellite of Love where he’ll be subjected to cheesy movies, the worst they can find. The goal, to see how long it takes to break the victim’s mind. However, the victim has help on the SoL, robots who can riff the bad movies with him. The Mads have come close to breaking their victim, most notably with Manos: The Hands of Fate.
The episodes follow a fixed format. While the bulk of an episode is dedicated to movie being riffed, it’s not the sole feature. The host segments, including the opening one to introduce the movie of the week and the episode’s plot and the ones surrounding commercial breaks, give both cast and audience a break from the cheesy film. During the Joel (Joel Hodgson) years, the opening segment was used for the invention exchange. When Mike (Michael J. Nelson) became the experimental subject, the opening segment began to focus more on introducing the episode’s plot, including showing him as Mike Nelson, Destroyer of Worlds. The riffing is the draw, the host segments the reason to keep returning week after week.
In 1996, Best Brains, the production company behind MST3K, decided to try a theatrical release. The movie chosen for riffing on the silver screen was This Island Earth, originally released in 1955 and itself an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Raymond F. Jones. This Island Earth has many problems, the biggest being the main characters, Cal Meacham (Rex Reason) and Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue), are passengers on the railroad plot. Even the engineer of the plot, Exeter (Jeff Morrow), doesn’t do much to steer the onscreen events. The film does have opportunities for riffing, though. This Island Earth does have a 71% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, so it isn’t necessarily bad. The difference between critics and viewer response, though, is telling; viewers found the movie lacking.
If MST3K: The Movie was just riffing on This Island Earth, audiences wouldn’t get the full effect of the TV series. The host segments are as crucial to MST3K as the riffing. The nature of a theatrical release, though, means changing up how the segments appear. There’s no need for a standard opening theme; the audience already knows what film it is seeing. However, not everyone going to see the movie will know what the premise is; as mentioned above, MST3K wasn’t available in all areas. Thus, the movie opens with Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) explaining to the audience what he’s about to do to Mike and, now, them, and why in an over the top sequence in Deep 13, setting up the plot of the movie, which is more involved than the plot of This Island Earth.
On board the Satellite of Love, Mike is exercising on a hamster wheel in a scene taken from 2001: A Space Odyssey, being coached by Gypsy (Jim Mallon). When he takes a break and a drink from a water bottle, Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy) arrives to assure Mike that nothing at all is wrong, absolutely nothing, why do you ask and what is that rhythmic thumping. Turns out, Crow (Beaulieu) has his own plan to escape the SoL, involving a pick axe. Mike tries to stop the attempt, but, as even Crow predicted in his own plans, he breaches the hull. As the air rushes out the hole, Mike and Crow manage to grab on to something. Tom Servo’s spindly hands and arms aren’t enough to save him, though, and he shoots into the hole. The hole isn’t big, though; Tom fits perfectly over it, giving Mike time to find a plate to act as a more permanent fix.
Once Mike and the bots are given the movie sign, they head into the SoL’s theatre. With the budget for a feature film, the sequence through the theatre doors, the transition from host segment to riffing, is given an upgrade, though still looks appropriate. This Island Earth starts, the riffing begins, and everything is familiar to fans. Because of the differences between film and television, there are no commercial breaks. To make up for that, the next host segment comes when the film breaks. Dr. Forrester tries to make up to the audience and adjusts his estimates before he takes over the world.
On the SoL, Tom and Crow dare Mike to fly the SoL after he claims to be one hundred per cent certified on Microsoft Flight Simulator. Mike has no initial problems flying the SoL, then he hits something, the Hubble Space Telescope, now caught on the side of the SoL. To get it off, Mike turns to the manipulator arms, conveniently labelled as “Manos“, complete with musical sting. With some care and a little extra damage, Mike gets the Hubble off the SoL and releases it, where it plummets into the Earth’s atmosphere. Way to go, Mike.
With the movie fixed, Mike, Crow, and Tom return to the theatre and resume riffing. When This Island Earth shows the completed interocitor, a faster-than-light communications device, Tom Servo remarks he has one in his bedroom. The trio escape the theatre and go looking in Servo’s room, which is a total mess. They find the interocitor and call out for help, reaching Benkitnorf (John Brady), a Metalunan like Exeter in This Island Earth. Benkitnorf isn’t too impressed, seeing as he was in the shower when Mike and the bots called. Despite the intrusion, the Metalunan tries to help, but isn’t familiar enough with the interocitor’s settings, much to Tom Servo’s dismay and discomfort. Dr. Forrester breaks into the communications with his own interociter, sending the trio running back to the movie.
Mike and the bots finish their riffing of This Island Earth. Instead of being broken like Dr. Forrester expects, they’re recreating the final scene, having a grand party. Dr. F tries to zap them with his interociter but ends up zapping himself to Benkitnorf’s shower instead. With the movie ending, there’s no traditional stinger, a replay of a scene that caused hilarity. Instead, Mike and the bots riff their own credits. “Puppet wrangler? There weren’t any puppets in this movie.”
The riffing during the movie doesn’t call back to previous episodes. The idea was to make it open to new audiences without the familiarity of long-time fans, with the assumption that people going to the movie are science fiction fans. Thus, there are many Star Trek-related riffs, plus playing up on obvious gags. Helping is the addition of Russell Johnson in This Island Earth as Steve Carlson; Johnson is better known for his role as The Professor on Gilligan’s Island. There’s even a brief riff involving Mork & Mindy in reference to the character Exidor (Robert Donner). That isn’t to say that there isn’t any callbacks. The “Manos” manipulators with Torgo music is but one example.
MST3K: The Movie works as an introduction to the TV series. Meddling by Gramercy Studios caused issues that affected the presentation and availability. The movie opened in only twenty-six theatres, yet did pull in audiences where it did play. Gramercy, though, was backing Barb Wire*. However, the core writers of the movie were the core writers of the TV series; the riffing is top notch, if limited to a common knowledge base. The expansion of the Satellite of Love gives a bit of an insight on the characters.
While the cast and crew feel that Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie isn’t their best work, it does show how even a TV series featuring films has to make changes when moving to the big screen. The nature of the two media necessitated a slightly different approach in presentation. What works for TV doesn’t for film. MST3K: The Movie, though, does make the jump to the silver screen with few problems.