‘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.
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.
Continuing with the month of remaking films featured on Mystery Science Theatre 3000, Lost in Translation will take a look at the first movie in colour to be riffed on the series, 1986’s Robot Holocaust, with Norris Cuff as Neo, Nadine Hart as Deeja, Joel von Ornsteiner as Klyton, Jennifer Delora as Nyla, Andrew Horwath as Kai, and Angelika Jager as Valaria.
The Great Robot Rebellion of ’33 resulted in the destruction of New Terra and the coming of the Robot Holocaust. Humanity in a nameless destroyed city that looks suspiciously like New York City has been subjugated by robot overlords, resulting in needless gladiatorial duels to the death. During one, Klyton, a free robot, picks the pouches of spectators, but is caught by Neo, an outsider. Neo interrogates Klyton using his robot telepathy, discovering that the Dark One, also known as “the Darkwan”, forces the strongest humans to fight, taking the victor away for an unknown fate.
At the Power Station, Valeria, chief servitor of the Dark One, has a feeling that something is off back in the destroyed city. Deeja, in the city, challenges the authority of the robot overseer. As a result, the Dark One authorizes cutting off of fresh air in the city. Most of the humans fall, but Deeja, her father, and Neo are unaffected. Deeja and Neo are told to fall as if they can’t breathe, and Deeja’s father negotiates with Valeria to get the air restored. The Dark One orders his minions to bring Deeja’s father to the Power Station.
With the quest set – rescue Deeja’s father, who developed a way to offset the poisonous air – Deeja, Neo, and Klyton take a small group of rebels through what were once subway tunnels, starting in mutant-filled Central Park. Along the way, the group runs into a band of Amazons led by Nyla and their prisoner, Kai. Neo challenges Nyla to a duel. Nyla is defeated and the price of defeat is to lead the group to the Power Station.
Quests wouldn’t be quests without a trip through a sewer. The sewer Nyla leads them to is the home of sewer worms, dangerous creatures that feed on the flesh. While the first idea was to send Klyton as bait to lure the sewer worms out where they could be seen, Neo chooses option B – chopping their way through. The brief violence does provide action, and the group gets by the death trap.
The next stage is an abandoned oasis. From there, the band of rebels head back to the city, where they are attacked by mutants. One of the band is killed, but they rest survive, thanks to Klyton’s force field. The rebels do find the Power Station. Posted on the approach are the remains of the winners of previous gladiatorial duels, dead, their bodies left as a warning. Neo finds a ring and takes it. The group looks for an alternate entrance and finds an old subway emergency exit.
The Dark One isn’t unprepared. Even the emergency exit is trapped. Pit traps, angry robots, giant spiders, and the unending anticipation of being attacked dog the group. The rebels penetrate deep into the Power Station and confront the Dark One. However, it is Valeria, forsaken by the Dark One, who is the instrument of the villain’s destruction.
As with Danger!! Death Ray, one main issue is budget. Budget isn’t a cure-all; a large budget is by no means a measure of success. Just look at Battleship, a $US200 million misfire. But too small a budget creates limitations that hamper the production. With Danger!! Death Ray, budget limitations meant using toys and models. With Robot Holocaust, the victims of the budget restriction are sets and costuming. The movie looks cheap, which doesn’t help the suspension of disbelief.
However, the biggest asset Robot Holocaust had going for it was being made in the Eighties. Going back to the History of Adaptations, the Eighties were the first decade to have more popular original movies that adaptations. Anything went; follow the leader wasn’t working as expected. The Terminator, while not in the popular list, caught people’s attention as a science-fiction/horror film, leading to 1991’s Terminator 2, which did get on the popular list in the Nineties. Movie goers are willing to cut films slack in areas provided that they make up for in others. /Robot Holocaust/, though, didn’t do that.
The script as filmed feels very much like someone’s Gamma World. The elements are there for the game – post-apocalyptic world with robots controlling humans in one settlement, another settlement run by Amazons, a third that are no better than barbarians, and a stranger with mental powers that affect even robots. The characters wind up going through several underground structures that would be called dungeons if the scriptwriters had played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons instead. There’s even a mutant plant creature. The problem with adapting a tabletop roleplaying game, among many, is that many games, particularly those published before 1986, don’t have a definite setting, and Gamma World is one of those. There are certain assumptions, such as an apocalypse occurred outside the memory of the elders and that mutants are running around, but Gamemasters were encouraged to destroy their hometown and remake it within the game’s paradigm.
Even if the film wasn’t based on a Gamma World campaign, its setting has a lot of backstory, leading to the use of a narrator. Film has a limited amount of time; few people are going to sit in a theatre for six hours to watch one movie. Even today’s television binge watchers take breaks every couple of hours for food and hygiene. Film is not a good medium when a setting needs explanation. Star Wars managed to use an opening crawl to good effect, but George Lucas was deliberately invoking the serial movies of old. Robot Holocaust doesn’t have that luxury. Worse, even with the opening narration, Neo’s robot telepathy is still out of the blue and doesn’t get much screen time after the first use. The movie’s setting may have been better served in a longer format, one that allows for a proper exploration of what is possible, such as television or a book. As it is, the audience is being expected to accept a lot with no real support from the movie.
Can Robot Holocaust be remade? The elements for a decent movie are lurking within the MST3K fodder of the original film. The format, though, will need to be changed. Robot Holocaust puts a lot on the audience in a short time, barely acceptable when the film was made. A low budget movie to begin with, Robot Holocaust, as presented on MST3K comes across as a student film, along the lines of Dead Gentlemen Productions’ Gamers and Demon Hunters, both of which were done while the group was in university. Today, though, the power of what major studios had in the Eighties can be had by amateur filmmakers off the shelf at little cost, thanks to open source software and improvements on technology. The Four Players is another good example that shows the ability of amateur film making today. It should be possible to remake Robot Holocaust.
The big question on remaking Robot Holocaust is the format. The big problem the movie had is focus. There is a lot happening in the background that gets the short shrift because of the lack of time available in a film. The movie moves slowly, but it may be better served as a TV series. The characters would get more screen time, allowing the audience to get to know them better and building on the relationships between them in a more believable manner. The opening credits of the potential series could show the apocalypse, leaving more time for plot and character development in the episodes. The events of the movie can be covered in the first season, but the focus becomes the quest and the building of trust between the rebels.
Like Danger!! Death Ray, budget did play a role in the quality of Robot Holocaust, but the budget wasn’t the cause of the movie’s problems. Remaking /Robot Holocaust/ needs to take into account the needs of a post-apocalyptic plot, and that does require time that most films don’t have the luxury of investing in background. If Robot Holocaust is made, it will need a new format.
Comic adaptations of works have grown over time. From the time of Classics Illustrated, comics were used to adapt a work to a format readers would be more familiar with. Adaptations of popular movies allowed readers to re-live the thrills at a time when home video was non-existent. Today, though, the comic format allows creators to continue a work from another medium. It’s not a new phenomenon; DC Comics published a four-part series of graphic novels continuing the story of Village in The Prisoner: Shattered Visage in 1988. Today, though, getting the information out on adaptations is far easier thanks to the Internet and cross-medium works are far more common.
The benefit is that a work can find a format that works best to gather and keep an audience. Movies are expensive to make and market, and even if profitable, they may not have enough of a following to justify a follow up work. Television, while not as expensive as film and able to spread costs over a number of episodes, are still subject to whims of ratings; a niche series may not have the critical mass to survive a season. Comic books don’t have the expense burdens a film would and can be sustained with a far lower number of readers than a TV series can with low audience numbers.
Even series that have had a good run can take advantage of the switch to comics. Fans will want more, especially just after a series has ended, and the series’ creator can explore areas that the show couldn’t, either because of expense or network limitations. Such is the focus of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer continuation comic series. The Buffy TV series, itself an adaptation, ran for seven years, a good run. The series had a definite end, with Sunnydale sinking into a Hellmouth to seal it and an army of Slayers defeating demons trying to overrun the Earth. But Buffy’s story wasn’t done.
Buffy and her friends still had the army of Slayers, and that issue was worth exploring. Creator Joss Whedon continued the story in the comic series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight, published by Dark Horse Comics. A new threat hangs over the world, and Buffy and her army need to discover what it is before the Apocalypse happens. Or, the same old same old for the Scoobies. And the series wouldn’t be Buffy if personal issues came up. Not only does Buffy have an army of young girls with supernatural abilities to try corral, her sister Dawn has run into some problems, and her own personal life is falling apart. Again, nothing new for Buffy. The fans, though, expect Buffy and her friends to have to deal with personal issues while saving the world. Skipping that skips the essence of the TV series.
The comic series does deliver. The characters’ behaviour reflects their growth over the run of the TV series, from teenagers in high school to young adults trying to figure out what their place is in the world while dealing with weirdnesses most people never have to worry about. The graphic format allows for effects that would be difficult to achieve on television, either because of time needed, the expense, or because of the laws of physics. Dawn, as part of a curse, grew to be several stories tall; showing this on screen would require green-screening and filming her scenes twice, once with her and once with the regular sized cast. When TV episodes need to be completed within a week, that’s extra time that could be better used, especially if the curse is season long. In another scene, Buffy and Angel wind up changing settings page to page; if filmed, that would mean setting up in multiple locations for only several minutes of film. It’s doable for an episode, but would mean making extensive use of sets instead of location shots to minimize travel time. In a comic, both are easily done. Dawn can be drawn far larger than the rest of the cast without any camera effects or multiple takes and the new settings that Buffy and Angel use are needed in each panel anyway, whether they stay in one location or jump every panel to somewhere new.
Buffy Season Eight picks up after the destruction of Sunnyvale. Buffy and her Slayer army have found a home in Scotland with room for the young women to train. Dawn gets cursed while studying at university. A new threat and old adversaries return. Worse, the threat is one that Buffy herself creates. However, the draw isn’t the situation, it’s the characters. How the Scoobies react to the new threat and old problems is the key, and the comic shines there. The TV series was always more than just being about a student staking vampires, and the comic continues with the idea that the heroes are people, too, even the vampires.
Comic continuations come with their own shortfalls. Page limits mean a comic can be read in five to ten minutes, unlike a forty-two minute television episode. Comics are released monthly, unlike television’s weekly schedule. Artwork may not resemble the characters*, though that was not an issue with the Buffy comics. Sometimes, the limitations of one medium that will force a creator to come up with a work around that results in a better product will be avoided. While the limits of the medium can’t be helped, Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight avoids most of the shortfalls, though does get self-indulgent at times. Some subplots linger too long, while others get ignored. However, what one reader finds dragging, another will find enthralling.
Overall, Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight works as a continuation. The situation that develops in the comic builds from what was shown in the TV series. The characters grew from their experiences; the Xander of the comic is not the Xander of season one, but the Xander of the end of season seven after everything he went through. The hints of what Buffy was doing as seen on Angel were expanded. Like gravity, continuity is a harsh mistress, but fans have expectations. The continuation comic meets these expectations.
* When creating a comic based on a live-action property, the actors still have control over their likenesses unless there’s a clause in their contracts allowing for comic tie-ins. Marvel Comics ran into the problem in the Eighties with both their Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica comics, where they didn’t have the rights.to the likenesses.
Continuing from two weeks ago, franchises lead to two other forms of adaptation. The first is the cinematic universe, where the work is adapted to a new medium with its own continuity based on the original but allowed to go in its own direction. The main advantage is that there is no continuity lockout for the general audience, at least at first, and catching up means watching the previous installments instead of trying to find forty to eighty years of stories.
The second form is the expanded universe. Unlike the cinematic universe, the expanded universe allows for works beyond the original medium to build up the setting. Different aspects can be explored that couldn’t be delved into in the original, either because of where the focus was or time limitations. Continuity lockout can become a problem, but there are ways to avoid it. Expanded universes are typically associated with franchises; popularity and demand allow for the original to expand. While Star Wars has the enduring popularity to support a universe far beyond the original movie, Manos, The Hands of Fate does not.
Franchises have a number of ways to manage expanded universes. Going back to Star Wars, Lucasfilm managed levels of canon, from the core movies to the books and games to the older animated series. If a work in the expanded universe contradicts a movie that came out later, then the older work is either considered wrong or considered true, from a certain point of view. The only exception may be the work done by West End Games; WEG worked with Lucasfilm to fill out the Galaxy Far Far Away for use in the RPG. Paramount, though, treats the Star Trek expanded universe differently. The only canon sources are the TV series and the movies; all other works have no influence, at least officially. Even the animated series is generally non-canon, except when it is canon, like “Yesteryear”. At one point, Paramount forbade different licensees from collaborating, probably after FASA worked with John M. Ford, author of The Final Reflection*, on the Klingons and their history and culture.
The advantage expanded universes have is that they can provide information that otherwise doesn’t appear in the original work. Going back to Star Wars, the names of the aliens in the Mos Eisley cantina didn’t come from the movie; they came from the action figures from Kenner. The credits don’t list the names, and the only alien who rates a name was Greedo, who didn’t get to see another scene afterwards. The rest, including Hammerhead and Walrus Man, had their names on Kenner’s packaging. Even R5-D4, the astromech that blew a gasket after being bought by Luke and Lars, was just “this R2 unit” in the movie and only got a name in other media.
Whether ideas from the expanded universe make their way into the main works depends on the franchise. As mentioned, Paramount places restrictions when it comes to Star Trek; FASA’s explanation of the differences between Klingons from the Original Series and Star Trek: The Motion Picture never appeared in any Trek series since, not even when the difference was pointed out in Deep Space Nine‘s “Trials and Tribble-ations”. Lucasfilm, though, maintains control on what gets placed into the expanded works, so it is possible to see an items from a comic to make an appearance in a TV series. In fact, Lucasfilm provided the WEG sourcebooks to Timothy Zahn when he began his Heir to the Empire series, and Brian Daley’s Han Solo books introduced the Z-95 Headhunter, which has appeared since Han Solo at Star’s End was published in video games and in Star Wars: The Clone Wars.
Continuity, especially when the different expanded works can share information, becomes an issue if not managed well. Fortunately, there are ways around the problem. If it’s equipment, like the above mentioned Z-95, then just have it appear without explanation. This works best with gear that isn’t too specialized. Audiences are familiar with the idea of new technologies appearing in real life, from cars to phones, so something like that happening in the expanded universe adds a layer of verisimilitude. Characters, though, do come with extra baggage. Their previous appearances will have shaped them, How the character is handled may depend on the medium. Comics have a history of footnotes referring to past issues, but other media may either have to either ignore the background and just present the character as is or take time for a flashback. With novels, an author can spend a page filling in readers without losing the flow. Movies and even television can’t spend that much time unless the information is plot-relevant. But if information isn’t plot-relevant, does it need to be brought up? Introduce the character properly and the personality will let the audience in the know feel comfortable with the portrayal and the rest of the audience isn’t left scratching their heads.
The benefit of an expanded universe comes down to income. If a work is popular, fans will pay for more about it. However, fans will also recognize when the expanded work is sub-par and will avoid it. Creative types who are engaged to work on the expanded universe, though, are likely to be fans of the original, so will put in an honest effort. The catch, though, is that as the original’s universe expands, new fans may come in through one of the expanded works and may not be aware of the origins.
Expanded universes aren’t for every franchise. The setting of the original has to allow for the expansion. With Star Wars and Star Trek, there is a vast setting beyond what was seen in the original works. The 007 expanded universe – video games, comics, and novels by authors other than Ian Fleming – keeps the focus on James Bond; adding a new 00 agent wouldn’t have the impact and the new character may be better served in his or her own original work instead. Likewise, not every franchise creator wants to expand. The Harry Potter universe is popular, but, outside the movie and video game adaptations, there isn’t much beyond the original books except for the stage play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. JK Rowling isn’t interested in expanding to the degree Lucasfilm has, and she maintains control of the Potter-verse.
The line between adaptation and expanded universe is much like the line between adaptation and franchise, very fine and mostly exists from perception. The main differences is that the expanded universe can influence future works even in the original medium and that fans are aware that there is more than what is presented in the original. This pushes the expanded universe from adaptation to continuation, and will be noted in future reviews.
* However, Ford’s creation of the Klingon “Black Fleet” in the afterlife appeared in the pilot episode of Star Trek: Discovery. As an expanded universe grows and matures, new writers will incorporate ideas from even areas that aren’t canon if the ideas are good.
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.
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.
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.
With students now done with the school year, why not look at an adaptation set in a school? Like fingerprints, no two fictional schools are the same. Some are prestigious, accepting only the best and the brightest. At the other end, there is St. Trinian’s, a school for girls that takes in juvenile delinquents known for terrorizing rival schools and even the locals.
St. Trinian’s started as a panel cartoon gag strip by Ronald Searle. The first St. Trinian’s appeared in 1941, but, with the Second World War looming, Searle enlisted and was stationed in Singapore, where he was taken prisoner by the Japanese. After the war, he resumed the St. Trinian’s strip, though his time as prisoner meant that the cartoon took a darker turn. Searle wrote the strip between 1946 and 1952, compiling the collections in five books. The girls of St. Trinian’s were delinquents, as the various cartoons showed. Field hockey matches against the school were bloody, closer to guerilla warfare than actual sport. The older girls dressed provocatively, modifying their uniforms for effect. However, the teaching staff wasn’t much better, and shared their young charges’ interests is smoking, drinking, and gambling.
Two years after the last of the St. Trinian’s strips, a film adaptation was made. Directed by Frank Laudner and written by Laudner, Sidney Gilliat, and Val Valentine, The Belles of St. Trinian’s brought the wretched hive of scum and villainy to the British silver screen. With the St. Trinian’s strip consisting of gag-a-day cartoon panels, a plot had to be created for the movie. However, given the nature of the school, even a wild plot would fit.
The movie opens with the Sultan of Makyad looking for a boarding school for his young, impressionable daughter, Fatima. Fatima’s governess suggests St. Trinian’s as she knows the headmistress there. The Sultan agrees as his race horse, Arab Boy, is in Barchester County, the same location as the school, and would be able to visit both his horse and his daughter at the same time.
In Britain, the back-to-school trains are busy as students head off to their boarding schools. The screaming from the girls never ends, terrifying everyone in between them and St. Trinian’s. Streets clear out as everyone, from storekeepers and shoppers to hens and the police constable, hide from the returning menace. The girls of St. Trinian’s are well known in the county and are avoided. The police superintendent wants something solid to pin against the school to shut it down, but the Ministry of Education hasn’t sent inspectors after losing two assigned to the school.
However, St. Trinian’s is facing a problem that would see the school closed – a lack of funds. Headmistress Millicent Fritton, played by played by Alastair Sims in drag, returns from her much needed summer vacation only to be told by her accountant that the school has too many outstanding bills to pay and nowhere near enough money to pay them. To add to Millicent’s headaches, her twin brother bookie Clarence, also played by Alastair Sims, returns with his daughter Arabella, played by Vivienne Martin. Bella is upset about being expelled unfairly; after all, her class mate destroyed the library and was allowed to stay. Millicent explains that the library was insured. Clarence, though, isn’t so much interested in Arabella’s education as he is in getting information about Arab Boy.
The school’s sixth form, led by Arabella, and fourth form, including Fatima, take the time to find out more about Arab Boy. In a trial run, the horse wins with a large margin, impressing both sets of girls. Arabella is concerned, though; her father could wind up paying out too much money if Arab Boy wins. The fourth form, though, sees a chance at winning big, and call in Flash Harry, played by George Cole. With their limited funds, even at ten-to-one odds, the fourth form girls wouldn’t get much, unless they can get some of the £100 cash that Fatima’s father gave her.
Millicent, while appearing somewhat doddering, knows exactly the type of people – students and staff – she has at the school, and had put away Fatima’s money for safekeeping. The fourth form girls explain the situation but get nowhere. Millicent, though gets an idea. St. Trinian’s needs £4000, but only has £400. Ten-to-one odds would pay the bills and keep the school open another year. She calls on Flash Harry and lays down the bet.
The sixth form, though, wants Arab Boy to lose. Their plan is to steal the horse until after the race is over. However, Florrie, another girl of St. Trinian’s overhears, and taunts the fourth form with the news. Florrie eventually does tell the younger girls the details after being subjected to a makeshift rack. When Arabella and her form go to steal the horse, they find Arab Boy already gone.
Arab Boy’s whereabouts are discovered the next morning by the sixth form; the horse was enjoying the morning sun through the window of the fourth form’s dorm. This triggers a war between the fourth form, the sixth form, and the teaching staff, who just want to be paid. The fourth form smuggle the horse out the window while the teachers distract the sixth form with a frontal assault.
The film takes pains to keep authenticity with the comic strip. The uniforms worn in the film are modelled after the ones drawn Searle. Several scenes come directly from the strip, including Florrie’s torture and the field hockey match, where the referee, the opposing team’s coach, and the opposing team are taken off the field one by one on stretchers. The opening and closing credits include a a parade of St. Trinian’s drawings by Searle. The result is a movie that incorporates the essence of the cartoon strip while fleshing it out for the needs of a longer work.
The Belles of St. Trinian’s was popular, enough so to have three direct sequels and a continuation of sorts in 1980 with The Wildcats of St. Trinian’s. In 2007, the film franchise was given a reboot with St. Trinian’s, with an eye to updating the setting while still keeping to the roots. The new movie was based on both Searle’s work and The Belles of St. Trinian’s, with Rupert Everett taking on the Alastair Sims roles as both Headmistress Camilla Fritton and her art dealer brother, Carnaby.
The movie begins with Carnaby driving his daughter, Annabelle, played by Talulah Riley, to her new school, St. Trinian’s. Annabelle is horrified at what she sees on the way on to the grounds – burnt out car, a shrunken head, and other dire warnings. The school itself has seen better days. Carnaby is transferring Annabelle from her old school, the Cheltenham Ladies’ College, because he thinks he can get a good discount on his daughter’s tuition. He does manage to haggle Camilla down to £2300, which really doesn’t help her out. Annabelle has no choice but to start school at St. Trinian’s.
Head Girl Kelly, played by Gemma Arterton, gives Annabelle a quick tour of the school and introduces the new girl to the different cliques — the chavs, the geeks, the emos, the posh totties, and the first years. Annabelle doesn’t fit in right away with any of the cliques. Later in the evening, she is the victim of a prank pulled by the entire school. She tries to get her father to come pick her up, but he blows her off. Frustrated, Annabelle slaps her cell phone hard enough with her field hockey stick to shatter a bust down the hall. The act of destruction is seen by Miss Cleaver, played by Fenella Woolgar, who, instead of punishing Annabelle, recruits her for the field hockey team.
In London, the new Minister of Education, Geoffrey Thwaites, played by Colin Firth, wants to make his mark on the position. Formerly in charge of prisons, Geoffrey wants to bring the same approach he used there on schools, by taking the worst school in the nation and forcing it to reform. One of his aides has flashbacks to when he was undercover at St. Trinian’s, showing the PTSD he picked up from the time in country. But, since St. Trinian’s is the worst school, both in academics and in behaviour, that is where Geoffrey will start his reforms.
The banks, though, have other ideas. St. Trinian’s is £500 000 in debt, and after having had six final notices ignored, a representative hand delivers the final final notice, giving Camilla four weeks to raise the money, or else have the school turned over to the bank. Making matters worse, Carnaby tries to convince Camilla to just let the school shut down so it could be sold. The girls of St. Trinian’s, though, have mastered the art of electronic surveillance and learn about the looming debt. Kelly comes to the conclusion that, since the adults look to be useless, the girls will have to save the school. If they don’t, they’ll have to go to normal schools.
The Minister arrives in the morning, hoping to find the excesses at St. Trinian’s during the field hockey match between the school and Cheltenham, where his daughter, Verity (Lucy Punch), is the star player and terror. He is surprised to see his former flame, Camilla, as headmistress, though. The match is viscious, with casualties on both teams. Geoffrey takes advantage of the chaos to sneak around. He discovers the various unauthorized extracurriculars the St. Trinian’s girls have, including the religious education teacher crucified, the distillery for knock-off vodka and the pay-per-minute chat line run by the posh totties. However, he’s caught and is shown the way out, though a third story window.
The different cliques have to work together to keep the school open. They enlist the help of Flash Harry, played by Russell Brand, who is their main contact with other criminal elements. He gives the girls a crash course in crime, but Kelly comes up with the master plan – the theft of Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” from the National Gallery. A field trip to the Gallery lets the girls find the security systems and map out how to get in and out. The biggest challenge, though, is getting into the museum. That problem is solved by the new teacher, Miss Dickinson (Lena Headey), who has been trying to get a School Challenge team together. The finals would be held at the Gallery. All the girls need to do is get a team to the finals to get in with security distracted.
However, Geoffrey is still a threat. He returns to St. Trinian’s with the press in tow. His goal is to expose the school’s nefarious activities on camera. The girls are ready for him and go to Code Red, even with ten-year-old twins Tara and Tania (Cloe and Holly Mackie) testing their homebrewed explosives. There is no sign of the problems he found earlier, with a nun teaching the religion class. Worse, Geoffrey flings Camilla’s dog out of the school and into a mulcher in front of cameras, leading him to be the headline, not the St. Trinian’s.
The posh totties become the School Challenge team. While they aren’t necessarily the brightest girls, though they do get the occasional flashes of brilliance, they are the most photogenic. Through means mostly foul, they defeat their opponents, impressing the show host, Stephen Fry. In the finals, they will face Cheltenham. But this does let them get the break-and-enter team a way in.
With The Belles of St. Trinian’s, the memory of Searle’s strip was still fresh, only having ended two years prior to the film’s release and the fifth complilation, Souls in Torment having been released in 1953. The reboot, though, came out fifty-five years after the last published St. Trinian’s cartoon. Times had changed. What was once shocking for movie audiences became quaint. Technology offered more opportunities for mischief. However, St. Trinian’s made efforts to keep to the essence of both Searle’s work and the 1954 film.
First, the uniforms, while updated to take advantage of modern fabrics and sensibilities, were still recognizably St. Trinian’s. The older girls modified the outfits, but even in Searle’s work, they did the same. The definition of scandalous has changed over time, so the uniforms reflected the modern meaning.
The 2007 St. Trinian’s also showed more dead girls than the 1954 film, keeping in line with the strip. Movie ratings systems grew more granular over time, allowing for a difference between a younger teen audience and an older teen audience. A St. Trinian’s girl floating in a fish tank isn’t as unsettling to the older audience. The school itself is far more chaotic in the reboot, reflecting Searle’s work a little closer. The school grounds also showed the dangers more, from the burning car to the various warnings with graffiti.
/St. Trinian’s/ also carries on the tradition set by The Belles of St. Trinian’s, having a male actor play the headmistress and her brother. Alastair Sims’ version of Headmistress Fritton was more dowdy and just getting into the sorts of activities her girls were familiar with. Everett’s Headmistress Fritton encouraged her girls to explore themselves and become the threat the merciless world needs. Both versions cared about the school and the students.
Finally, to show the plan to both the girls and the audience, Polly (Lily Cole) created an animation. The animation is in Searle’s style, though with charicatures of the cast. It’s a nice nod to the original, with some Easter eggs to be found, without confusing new audiences. The animation also furthers the plot, showing the obstacles during the heist.
St. Trinian’s took on the challenges of being both a reboot and an adaptation with two sources, one of those being an adaptation as well, with the added difficulty factor of updating a setting that, while not tied to its time, was shocking for its era. The smoking may have gone, but the attitude remained. In the reboot’s favour, it returned the focus to the students. St. Trinian’s updated the source while remaining true to both the cartoon strip and The Belles of St. Trinian’s.
With the recent death of Adam West, it’s past due to take a look at his most endearing role, the 1966 Batman TV series and feature film.
Lost in Translation covered the origin of Batman back while analysing Batman Fluxx. Created in 1939 in the pages of Detective Comics, Batman represents the crossover from mystery men to costumed crimefighters, with a dash of Zorro. Since then, the character has evolved, going from grim hunter of criminals who used pistols to master detective who refuses to kill. Batman’s rogues gallery includes some of the most colourful villains in comics, including the Joker, the Riddler, and Catwoman, all of whom emphasize different aspects of the hero in their clashes.
Superhero adaptations have tended to lag about a decade behind the events in the comics themselves. The general audience isn’t as familiar with current events in titles, either having read the books when younger or just picking up on the better known storylines after the fact. Studios want a wide net when adapting, so minutiae in continuity, always a pain with comics, is often the first to be trimmed. Thus, during a time when DC Comics was turning Batman into the dark detective he’s best known as now, Fox and producer William Dozier were going a different direction, one more in tune with the Batman of the Fifties.
Today, the 1966 Batman TV series is seen as pure camp. Adam West starred as the Caped Crusader, with Burt Ward as Robin, the Boy Wonder. Together, they fought crime that the Gotham City Police Department was unable and incapable of handling. Deep underneath Stately Wayne Manor, the Batcave contained crime fighting equipment that predated many techniques now in use, including DNA analysis.
The series was a comedy, one without a laughtrack. For the first two seasons, Batman aired twice a week, with the first episode ending on a cliffhanger, typically a death trap where Batman and Robin faced certain doom, a doom that would be resolved at the beginning of the second episode. The villains, guest stars all, threatened the safety of the citizens of Gotham City and only Batman and Robin could stop them, usually in a climactic fight in the villain’s hideout filmed with a dutch angle.
Despite, or possibly because of, the series being a comedy, West played Batman serious, which heightened the comedic aspects but also gave the series and the character gravitas. The TV series didn’t shy away from why Bruce Wayne became Batman. Likewise, Ward, Stafford Repp (Chief O’Hara), Neil Hamilton (Commissioner Gordon), and Alan Napier (Alfred) all approached their roles as if the series was a drama. The odd situations and brightly coloured villains stood out in the contrast.
Batman attracted guest stars. Regular villains included Caeser Romero’s Joker, Burgess Meredith’s Penguin, Frank Gorshin’s Riddler, and Julie Newmar’s Catwoman, all playing against type. Romero kept his signature mustache, not quite hiding it under the Joker’s white make up. Other actors who appeared on the series include Victor Buono as King Tut and Vincent Price as Egghead. Even if they couldn’t get a role as a villain, other actors appeared during the weekly wall-climbing sequence, commenting on the oddness of two costumed crimefighters walking on their walls.
After the first season, the studio wanted to sell the series to foreign markets. To help with the sales, the studio made the Batman the Movie. The goal of the film was to introduce the series and its stars. To further intrigue audiences, the movie included four villains – the Joker, the Penguin, the Riddler, and Catwoman. With one exception, all were played by their regular actors. Julie Newmar wasn’t available for filming, so Lee Meriweather filled in. With four key villains, it wasn’t just Gotham City in danger, but the entire world, as they scemed to kidnap the delegates to the United World Headquarters.
The movie kept to the tone of the TV series. Helping there was being filmed between seasons, with the same cast and crew. Lorenzo Semple Jr*, who had also written several of the episodes, wrote the script for the movie, keeping the tone consistent. With the added time allowed by a film, 105 minutes instead of two 24-minute episodes, the story could be given time to unfold and the Bruce Wayne side of Batman could be explored. Just like the TV series, Commissioner Gordon and Chief O’Hara were stymied by the villains and had to turn to Batman and Robin to save the day. The film includes some now-classic lines, including, “Some days, you just can’t get rid of a bomb.”
The third season of the series saw several changes. The first was going to a more episodic approach, with each episode self-contained. No more cliffhangers to be resolved at the beginning of the next episode. The other major change was the introduction of Batgirl, played by Yvonne Craig. Barbara Gordon, the Commisioner’s daughter, joined the Dynamic Duo in their crusade against crime to keep Gotham City safe. Eartha Kitt stepped into the role of Catwoman when Julie Newmar was again unavailable. The episodes felt a little more rushed as the plot needed to be wrapped up at the end instead of allowing for the usual two parts. However, the change in approach gave the actors a bit of a break; the episodes were still meant for a half-hour time slot, which now aired once a week. There were some two- and three-part episodes, but they were still aired one part a week.
The TV series reflected an older version of Batman, one that was more camp than the current version. Yet, the actors treated the characters seriously. The commentary with the movie by Adam West and Burt Ward showed that, even with the problems they faced – Ward especially – they still realized that they were playing Batman and Robin. The series was a comedy; the roles were still important to them and to the actors playing the villains. This approach is why the series is still beloved even today.
The movie of the series is a perfect example of adapting properly. In its favour, the goal the studio had was to give international audiences a taste of what the TV series offered. Changing that focus would have created problems for keeping the new audience. The movie’s budget also allowed to film on location instead of in studio and for the use of new bat-gadgets, including the Bat-copter and the Bat-boat. Footage of both would appear in the following seasons as needed.
Combined, the Adam West TV series and movie are an important part of Batman lore. Later adaptations would still pay homage to the work. Batman: The Animated Series introduced one of Bruce Wayne’s childhood heroes, the Grey Ghost, voiced by West himself. Elements of the TV series can be seen even in Tim Burton’s Batman of 1989. DC Comics even released a continuation comic for the series, Batman ’66. Adam West has left a legacy that will be remembered fondly.