Monday, December 01, 2014

A Couple of Science Fiction-Related Causes that could Use Your Support this Holiday Season

As we enter the season where a lot is traditionally said about family, about giving, and about hope, we're often called upon to come out in support of one cause or another, generally very worthy, dedicated to helping others through troubled times. Looking out at that vast sea of the charities, fundraisers, and calls for support though, we, as fans, don't usually see any that speak directly to the family of science fiction and fantasy. But this year, I'd like to draw your attention to a couple of sf-related causes that are in need of your support.

The first is a fundraiser for author Spider Robinson and his daughter Terri. As some of you may be aware, Terri's fighting stage 4 cancer, and given the how expensive healthcare is in the US, you can guess how much of a financial toll this has taken on the family. It's been a rough couple of years for old Spider... first losing Jeanne to cancer back in 2010 (a blow which has severely affected his writing), then having to deal with Terri's diagnosis, and then a heart attack this past summer. This poor guy isn't just singing the blues, he is the blues, and yet, seeing him a VCon this past October, he's doing his damnedest to keep going and find a smile here and there, at a time when most of us would just pack it in. It's not often that we, as fans, get to show an author in a meaningful way how grateful we are for all of the hours of entertainment, thought, and perhaps wisdom he or she has given us, but this time we do have that opportunity. Consider following the link above and helping Spider and his family out.

The second is a call for subscription to, and support for, OnSpec Magazine. Back in August, word came down the pipe that after years of support, the Canada Council (Canada's federal government-backed grant organization for the arts), in its infinite wisdom, decided to cut funding to OnSpec in 2015. Flimsy excuses were given by the masters of culture at the Council, but it's pretty clear that the literati can't bear to fund something as low-brow as speculative fiction (despite many of Canada's past and present big-name authors having slummed it in the genre ghetto from time to time, whether they wanted to admit it or not). Stories of this kind of snobbery abound (so many that they would drag this particular post light years off topic), and I guess, with sf being so prevalent in pop culture right now, it was only a matter of time until the guardians of Can-Lit purity struck back. Since then, the magazine has managed to pull together enough support and make a few changes to allow it to keep operating. But it still needs your help. So what to do? Obviously, if you're a Canadian, or a landed immigrant paying taxes here, you can certainly write to the Council registering your displeasure and requesting that they overturn their decision. Fat lot of good that'll do, but you're welcome to try (I directed a tweet at the Council's Twitter account this summer before leaving for LonCon, but, not surprisingly, received no response). You could do one better, and write to the federal Heritage Minister — since the Council is funded by Ottawa — or your local Member of Parliament and say that, as a taxpayer, you'd like them to look into the situation and, acting on the instructions of taxpayers, request that the Council to overturn its decision. Or, since the die has been cast, you can skip the communications campaign that's surely doomed to be ignored, and just go straight to supporting OnSpec directly. Follow the links above and you can make a donation, or, even better, subscribe! It is, after all, a speculative fiction magazine, and magazines are meant to be subscribed to (unless you've got a time machine and you're going back a hundred years or so to the settler era, when magazines and seed catalogues were necessary fixtures in outhouses for more than just reading)! Every quarter, you'll get pages of awesome that'll showcase new talent in the field. I've been a subscriber for years (well, my wife has bought me a subscription for years as an ongoing birthday or Christmas present), and it's always a treat to find out where its stories will take me. The cover art's usually pretty cool too. Best part is, you don't have to be a Canuck to be a subscriber, they'll mail the mag anywhere in the world, and they've got an online subscription option too — all you have to be is someone who loves good speculative fiction — well, and someone with a few extra bucks to buy a subscription. But really, it's quite affordable, and worth every penny. Show your support and subscribe now.

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Shows that Jumped from Saturdays to Weekdays After School

Sometimes, after launching a new cartoon on Saturday mornings, a network would, at some later point, drop it into a weekday after school position. Once in a while, a show would keep running in both slots at the same time, but usually it was a hand-off from one to the other for good.

Why? I don't know. I don't think it had anything to do with the quality of the show, because some that were moved rocked, while others were utterly forgettable. Maybe it had to do with jockeying for ratings, though I don't know how much kid viewership outside of the coveted Saturday morning lineup really mattered. Maybe it had something to do with ideal times to promote shows which acted as marketing vehicles for toys. Or it could have been for some other reason.

In any case, here are a couple of good Saturday morning shows that made the jump to weekday afternoons:

First up, Robotix, the story of a group of humans stranded on an alien planet, who fall-in with giant robots controlled by AIs based on the personalities of that world's original inhabitants, who remain in stasis deep beneath the surface. While the robots were supposed to be rebuilding the infrastructure of their destroyed civilization, they ended up fighting with each other, and the newly-arrived humans split into two factions who take sides, with their help greatly augmenting the abilities of the robots. Aside from being a thoroughly kick-ass show, Robotix was also a marketing vehicle for the toy line of the same name, which was also pretty cool (you could use the large, Lego-esque pieces and electric motors in each set to build robots with a wide range of configurations). I got the Argus set (based on the character who lead the good guys in the series) for Christmas one year, and aside from having to replace it on boxing day due to a faulty part, it was one of my favourites for a while. (full pilot episode)

Released as part of the same mega line-up promotion as Robotix (along with the forgettable Big Foot and the Muscle Machines and Jem and the Holograms) is our next series: Inhumanoids. This show was about a team of scientists in league with various races of secretive monsters (a race of plant people, a race of rock people, and a couple of magnetic dudes at the Earth's core) battling a trio of demonic creatures called, you guessed it, the Inhumanoids. The show was also about marketing toys. In the show, vicious-Muppet-looking Metlar, who likes to hork-up fireballs and throw them at people, is backed by the viney, brainless titan Tendril (imagine the bastard child of Cthulhu and Swamp Thing), and D'Compose — think a hairless yellow gorilla for the body, with an exposed rib cage, and rat's skull for the head — who stashes prisoners in his chest cavity like coats in a wardrobe and turns people into zombies by biting them. After ages trapped in custom magical prisons, the Inhumanoids escape and then try various schemes to alternately conquer and destroy the world — everything from stealing nuclear weapons to unleashing stumpy cyclopses with appetites that would put the starting lineup of an American football team to shame. Episodes would occasionally take a turn for the disturbing (and of questionable appropriateness for a Saturday morning audience) when D'Compose got front and centre, temporarily turning characters into mutant-zombie things, unleashing huge zombie armies, and once raising a mad scientist from the dead in a manner that even the yellow demon himself found unsettling. But the good guys always won and there were toys to be bought. So, you know, there's that to keep in mind when you're a kid and trying to get to sleep later that night staring across the room at D'Compose and his open sternum prison. (opening intro)

And taking things back into space, in an Old West-superhero mashup kinda way, there's BraveStarr. It's the story of Space Martial BraveStarr, a man of First Nations ancestry with super powers (eyes of a hawk, ears of a wolf, strength of a bear, and speed of a puma) who keeps the peace on a mining planet in the future. Assisted by his trigger-happy, cybernetically-enhanced, intelligent, talking horse, Mr Ed, er, no, that wasn't it... uh, Francis? 30-30, yeah, that's it! — along with a couple of other deputies — BraveStarr arrests run-of-the-mill criminals when he's not battling the evil entity known as Stampede. If you take out the super powers and universe-threatening-evil-entity angle, the show's kind of like a kid-friendly precursor to Firefly — as told from the cop's point of view (now wouldn't that be a cool crossover to see?). (full episode)

Monday, November 24, 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Star Wars Spinoffs and Spoofs

I've always been a proud uncle, but this past week, I was even more proud. My brother mentioned that he was walking through his living room a couple of days ago, and passed his 6-year-old daughter, who was quietly humming the Imperial March theme from Star Wars while colouring in a Christmas activity book. How could you not beam with nerdy pride?

It reminded me of how everything was coming up Star Wars back when I was a kid in the late 70s and early 80s, lingering in the realm of Saturday morning cartoons even years after when I was a pre-teen and the afterglow of Return of the Jedi was fading from pop culture consciousness.

The Secret Railroad did a Star Wars spoof episode not too long after Episode IV debuted (I can still remember the awesomeness of Mr Passenger pulling an extension cord out of his carpet bag, running it from his umbrella to a wall socket, then going toe-to-toe with Darth Vader in a light sabre duel with said electrified umbrella), and others followed overtly or somewhat subtly over the years. I wish that TSR episode was available online to share, but I can't find any sign of it — I fear the bulk of the series is lost to time.

However, one of the later spoofs that is still available is the "Gonzo's Video Show" episode from season 1 of Jim Henson's Muppet Babies. The show, in general, teeters precariously on the edge of being insufferably cute and aimed at too young an audience, but then sometimes spins right around and has funny elements that can appeal to older viewers — not as sly and adult as the original Muppet Show itself, but enough to make the cartoon series worth watching if you're in the right mood. And this episode is no exception. Of note is the inclusion of actual footage from Star Wars in the gang's playroom production (used to illustrate what the Muppet kids are seeing in their imaginations — rather than what's actually playing out on their camcorder), which is no surprise, given the Henson group's deep involvement with 'Empire and 'Jedi. Personally, I've always gotten a kick out of Kermit's narration of the opening crawl. The episode also strikes a cord with me because when I was a kid, my friends and I would pretend to be Star Wars characters and act out our own adventures — we called it "Star Wars With Us". We never video-taped these sessions like the Muppet Babies did, but we would have if one of us had had a camcorder. And so, for your amusement, here's Muppet Babies — scroll forward to about the half-way mark to get past the non-Star Wars material. (full episode)

From the potentially insufferably cute to the unquestionably insufferably cute, here's a cartoon spinoff of Return of the Jedi that came out shortly after the two made-for-TV Ewok movies. It's called, not surprisingly, Ewoks, and, like the the afore-menioned live-action TV movies, I don't know if it's considered official franchise canon, but I really hope it isn't. (full episode)

Lastly, I'll try and redeem this post with something cool that (unlike Ewoks) was actually worthy of the Star Wars monicker: Droids. This cartoon detailed the adventures of R2D2 and C3PO, in what were probably the years prior to their service aboard the Tantive IV at the beginning of Episode IV, although the prequel trilogy more-or-less undercuts that possibility. In any event, our favourite mechanical thralls find themselves associated with well-meaning racers/hoodlums, Rebels, and others, as they try to avoid the forces (no, not Forces) of the Empire, and, on one occasion at least, survive crossing paths with the dreaded bounty hunter Boba Fett. I remember the show being pretty cool back in the old days — good enough to warrant a prime-time special at one point, and I still enjoy the theme song. (full episode)

Monday, November 17, 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Toy and Game Marketing Gone Wild

Ah, Saturday morning cartoons. When they weren't trying to get you to buy hyper-sugared cereals during the commercial breaks, they were all about encouraging you to buy the toys and games they were based on. (Mostly. To be fair, there were some shows that weren't based on pre-existing toys or games, and didn't have any merchandising developed after they went to air either, but those were very much in the minority.)

In this instalment, we have two shows that epitomized this:

Dungeons & Dragons (full episode):

...and He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (full episode):

The TARDIS - No Room For Fans

(spoiler alert)

In the week or so since the finale of the recent series of Doctor Who, I've been giving a lot of thought to the Doctor's Companions — and to those who would be Companions, but aren't — and it occurs to me that the TARDIS is a "no fan" zone.

It's something that came to me when Osgood died: that no-one who's a fan (and by "fan" I don't mean a real-world person who loves the show, but rather an in-story person who follows the Doctor's exploits, and, since I'm now thinking of this kind of person as a specific character type, we should probably capitalize them into "Fan" the way we would with Companion) of the Doctor gets to graduate to become a full-fledged Companion aboard the TARDIS. In fact, they don't even get the consolation prize of tag-along status aboard the police call box for a one-off adventure. All they can ever hope for is to receive a pat on the head for their assistance, and to be left behind when it's time for the Doctor to head off on his merry way.

So how is a Fan different from a Companion, or, for that matter, a tag-along?

First, there's the educational and emotional difference: unlike the Companions, the fans already know all about the Doctor (or, at least as much as any human with adequate historical records and government security access can know) and his adventures, and, based on this, have developed a fannish love for, and loyalty to, him. Companions always start off as ignorant of the Doctor until they meet him in person and are dragged into one of his adventures (or, while they're playing a separate role in the same incident, meet him and combine efforts in a shared adventure). The Companions have to learn about his past in bits and pieces as the Doctor chooses to reveal it, and as such are on much more emotionally unstable ground when they're forming opinions about him. The Fans (like Osgood, or Malcolm from Planet of the Dead), on the other hand, having researched as much as they can about the Doctor, have had plenty of time to evaluate his words and actions, and have already formed an opinion of him by the time they actually get to meet him. A Companion like Rose or Captain Jack may eventually develop a fannish devotion to the Doctor over the course of their adventures, but with the Fans, it's already there. The same applies with tag-alongs: they may grow to respect and love the Doctor, like Wilf, or begrudgingly put up with him, like Jackie, but that's only after they meet him; the Fans already know who they're dealing with, and how they feel.

Second, there's the obvious, crucial difference: that a Fan ultimately gets left behind, where Companions (like Martha, Donna, Sarah Jane, Clara, Amy, Rose [eeesh!], or any of the others) take up residence — or at least frequent flyer status — aboard the TARDIS and become regular sidekicks of the Doctor on his adventures, providing support or entertainment to the Time Lord, and sometimes acting as his conscience or even saving his immortal behind from potential discomfort or extinction.

Then there are the tag-alongs, like Wilf, Jackie, Mickey Smith, or Captain Jack Harkness, who the Doctor encounters in the course of an adventure (or just day-to-day life when dealing with regular folks), and who come along in the TARDIS (voluntarily or accidentally) for the remainder of the adventure, and then, at the end, go back to their normal lives. Actually, there are two types of tag-along: a tag-along who might come back and join the Doctor for another adventure, and may — like Captain Jack — get promoted to Companion status and take a long-term berth aboard the TARDIS; or the type who may just go back to his or her regular life (like Wilf or Jackie) and avoid further stumblings through time and space. (And yes, I know, you're going to tell me that Jackie came back aboard the TARDIS a couple of times, but I don't think you can really count her as a bona fide Companion since she ultimately had no interest in bouncing around the universe unless Rose was in danger.)

The Fans, on the other hand, like Osgood and Malcolm, get left behind.

Malcolm busts his ass for the 10th Doctor (or is Tennant now the 11th, because of John Hurt's insertion into the roster?) crunching the numbers to help bring the double-decker bus full of Londoners home, and you just know he'd ditch UNIT like a stained pair of old underwear if the Doctor would just so much as nod in his direction. But the invite never comes. No, too bad for poor Malcolm, the Doctor's in his mopey, self-pitying, I-just-wanna-roam-the-universe-alone sulk — or maybe it's because Malcolm just isn't cool enough, or female enough — and the scientist is stuck working for an organization that uses his talents but doesn't really respect him. Exit Time Lord.

As for Osgood, the 11th Doctor (or do we call Matt Smith #12?) blows past her — and her super-awesome 4th Doctor scarf — in his usual whirlwind during the Zygon crisis of Day of the Doctor, makes some demands, leaves a compliment or two, then heads off about his business. The most she gets comes later, this past series, when the 12th Doctor (or is Capaldi lucky number 13?) offers to bring her along, but fate tragically (and conveniently, for the Fan denial pattern) intervenes and she's killed by the Master before she can take him up on it.

I've been wracking my brain to think of any other character in the Whoniverse who fits the description of a Fan, but no-one in the series' of the 9th through 12th Doctors comes to mind. In terms of the older series, the 4th Doctor was my first Doctor as a little kid, but I don't remember any characters who fit the bill back then, and didn't have a chance to watch the show in the years afterward until the 8th Doctor's appearance in the Fox special.

Can any of you remember someone from the various old series who was a passed-over Fan rather than a Companion, tag-along, or background character?

Ultimately, the in-show Fans are a lot luck us — the fans in the real world: we all watch the Doctor's exploits from afar as he goes from adventure to adventure, series to series, companion to companion, and face to face, usually enjoying, but occasionally condemning him, waiting impatiently to see more of him, and wishing we could join him, if only once, but never getting that chance.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Dubious Spinoffs

I've been floored by some kind of bug for the past week, so, lacking the energy to do anything better, I've decided to post another quick instalment of the Saturday morning cartoon rewatch.

This week: dubious spinoffs.

In their desperate attempts to put out new Saturday morning content every season, back in the 70s and 80s, the networks and cartoon production houses would sometimes repurpose pop-culture icons in ways that probably seemed like a good idea at the time (and, admittedly, were kinda fun for kids back then), but in hindsight are probably best forgotten.

Except I can't forget them. Oh no, of all the things I could be allocating brain storage space to, quite against my will, I find myself dwelling on the utterly pointless. Case in point: this post's three selections.

For starters: The Robonic Stooges. Because what the venerable trio of knuckleheads needed was to be transformed into cybernetic superheroes. (excerpt)

And speaking of unlikely superheroes, how about The Super Globetrotters? The basketball entertainers from Harlem had a previous run-of-the-mill cartoon and made enough appearances in other media that I think it's fair to call this show a spinoff (of sorts). (intro)

And if those two offerings weren't weird enough, we'll finish with a little tale about the beleaguered castaways of Gilligan's Island, who apparently decided that life on their private Polynesian island was so intolerable that, in a desperate attempt to get back to civilization, they built a spaceship. Not a boat. Not a plane. Not even an inflatable pool chair with a little cup holder on the side. No, it had to be a spaceship. With artificial gravity, an FTL drive, and hard radiation shielding. To make a hop over a couple of hundred kilometres of water. But okay. Whatever. Unfortunately, despite having the genius to develop this impressive suite of technologies on their own, the castaways are unable to make a simple sub-orbital flight or bounce, and instead find themselves on a strange planet on the ass-end of the galaxy. Ladies and gentlemen, hold on to your aloha shirts, it's time for Gilligan's Planet! (intro)

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Superheroes edition

Sorry this weekend's instalment of the Saturday morning cartoon rewatch is late, everyone; yesterday turned out to be more hectic than usual.

Anyway, I hope your Hallowe'en was enjoyable this year; that you went to a good party, or had a fun time taking your kids out trick-or-treating, or answering the door and handing out candy. As a kid, one of the best times was when the calendar lined-up just right — like this year — with Hallowe'en on a Friday night, so I could stay up a little later because there'd be no school the next day, and then wake up on Saturday morning to watch new episodes of my favourite cartoons, with my sack of plunder beside me on the living room carpet so I could breakfast on chocolate bars and gum and bask in the afterglow of trick-or-treating.

While it's a little too late for that, I've lined-up a couple of cartoons that might re-awaken a little of that old feeling. This weekend, I'm going with a superhero theme, so grab a couple of left over chocolate bars, and get ready for some 80s-style Saturday morning fun!

First up, Spiderman and his Amazing Friends. This show featured the web-head teaming-up with college buddies and future (or was it former?) X-Men, Firestar and Iceman. They all lived with Peter Parker's Aunt May and her dog, and, somehow, without old May knowing it, they'd converted one of the rooms in her house into their high-tech superhero headquarters. Each week they'd battle another Marvel foe: from a scientist-turned-out-of-control-giant-spider-thing, to rogue Asguardian Loki, to Spiderman's old foe, the Green Goblin. Lots of fun action, and it helped cement my affection for comics. (full episode)

Next, it's time to SMASH!!!! with The Incredible Hulk. If I recall correctly, the big green guy was usually scheduled back-to-back with Spiderman and his Amazing Friends, with the whole thing billed as The Spiderman and his Amazing Friends and Incredible Hulk Adventure Hour or something like that. Marvel owned some prime real estate on our TV, in any case. Just like Spidey, the Hulk was another can't-miss show for my brother and I. (part of 1 of 3 of full episode)

Lastly, there was Hero High. I seem to remember a live-action stage show opening to the cartoon at some point, which is distinctly odd (although, didn't they do that with The Archies once upon a time too?), but I also remember wishing they'd just get on with the animation. Though this Filmation offering was nowhere near as cool as Spiderman, or the Hulk, or Superfriends, it was none-the-less reasonably entertaining when I was a kid. (intro)

One last thought about superheroes... I'd like to dedicate this post to a bunch of unsung superheroes I've met over the years: the caring siblings of kids with developmental disabilities. As some of you know, my wife is a volunteer coach with Special Olympics. Sometimes, when she hasn't had enough assistant coaches on hand, I've come in to help her with her two programs that teach younger kids about the value of playing well together, and the basics of different kinds of sports. On those occasions, I've seen something that's blown me away: siblings of some of the athletes — often younger siblings — coming in with their parents to help their brothers and sisters participate. I've seen a six-year-old girl — a pint-sized supernova — take her big brother under her wing like a mother hen, supporting him when he wasn't sure about what to do, and not only that, but going around the room and offering encouragement and help to other athletes, and then asking the coaches what more she could do to lend a hand. I've seen a seven-year-old steadfastly guiding his big brother towards a soccer net so that he could show off his ability to kick. And there have been others over the years, supporting their special siblings with a care and a maturity far beyond that of other kids their age. This at a time when they could be insisting on doing their own thing — playing with their own friends, competing in their own sports, reading, playing video games, or whatever. But rather than focussing on themselves, they've come in to be with their brothers and sisters. Some of these supportive siblings go on to join organizations as coaches or other volunteers, fundraisers, staff, or health and/or education professionals. Others may quietly support their special-needs siblings behind the scenes, because that's what families do for one-another — that's what you do when you care for your sibling. And so I think we ought to give a shout-out to the siblings who are always there for their special-needs brothers and sisters when they need them: you're the real superheroes among us.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Happy Hallowe'en 2014!

Happy Hallowe'en, everyone!

I hope the spooky season has been good to all of you, and that you've either netted a huge haul of candy from trick-or-treating, or that you've got a ton of candy left over that the kids who came to your door didn't get to (because one of the best parts of being an adult at Hallowe'en is eating the leftover candy).

This year's holiday was pretty fun in our neck of the woods. I put the lights and other decorations up last week (have to keep up with the neighbours — around here, Hallowe'en decorations go up right after Thanksgiving!), so we've had a while to enjoy them. Meanwhile, for the past week or so, we've started re-watching favourite seasonal films, like Ghostbusters, Bram Stoker's Dracula, The Sixth Sense, Monster House, and Monsters vs. Aliens.

We hit the pumpkin patch last weekend, coming back covered in sticky mud, but with some suitable jack'o'lantern fodder. I started working on mine yesterday, so that my wife would be able to do hers today, and that seemed to help get things done in time without us getting in each other's way. From top to bottom, here are: the Frankenpumpkin, done by my wife; the TARDIS/Police Call Pumpkin, also done by the wife; a generic happy/dopey pumpkin I threw together to keep the little kids happy; a Hallowe'en cat that I carved; and my masterpiece this year, the Awful Head-Chewing Monster Punkin. I have to admit, I was a little concerned that AHCMP might have been a little too over-the-top, especially for the really little kids, but all of the families who came around tonight — especially the ones with the tiny tots — loved it, so, I guess it was just on the right side of the line of fun scary versus sick and unsettlingly creepy.

With the jack'o'lanterns ready and a couple of hours until the trick-or-treating would start, I checked-off the next part of our holiday tradition by jumping in the car and jogging up the highway to the neighbouring city of Richmond to hit up our favourite fried-chicken joint and bring supper home (this goes way back to when I was a kid, and my folks would frequently pick up KFC for supper on Hallowe'en because it was quick and easy and they wouldn't have to do any cooking themselves while getting us ready to go out and answering the door for early trick-or-treaters; for me, it just became a part of the holiday, so my wife and I keep doing it, though we now get the food from a little mom-and-pop joint, rather than the Colonel). The hour-round-trip drive (very light traffic, all things considered) was perfect because that gave me time to re-listen to the old 1939 recording of Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre radio production of War of the Worlds, which is a hell of an entertaining show and an example of radio at its finest.

By the time I came home, my brother had come over to spend the evening with us, so we dug into the fried feast with some tasty beverages, watched some old Hallowe'en TV favourites (It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown, Disney's Lonesome Ghosts, Trick or Treat, and Ichabod Crane, and Bradbury's masterpiece The Hallowe'en Tree), watched the fireworks coming up over the treeline from a nearby neighbourhood, nerded-out on talk of upcoming superhero movies, comics, and Babylon 5 versus Star Trek Deep Space Nine, and relayed back and forth to the front door to deal with the onslaught of trick-or-treaters. And we didn't have to wait long for the kids — we had pretty solid waves of them coming in from about 6:15 through 9:15, mostly families with younger kids (no mooching uncostumed teens, which was good). By the end of the night, we had probably been visited by 157 trick-or-treaters, which was pretty good. Not as good as last year, when we were up around 220, but still a very good turnout. Always interesting to see what the costume fads are from year to year; this time around, ninjas seemed to be popular with the boys, while girls tended towards princesses, though there were a few superheroes, and one kid steadfastly rocked what must have been his parents' Ghost Face costume from Scream.

Of course, the two best parts of Hallowe'en these days, are when we get to see the kids' faces light up when they realize we've just given them full-sized chocolate bars (we don't mess around with those weeny little snack sized ripoffs in our household), and, almost as good, when the trick-or-treating's over at the end of the night, and we tally-up how many chocolate bars we have left over for ourselves. To quote Garfield: "Candy, candycandycandy!"

And now, to bed and a little Edgar Allan Poe before sleep.

Ray Bradbury was right: "... the greatest night of the year. Better than Easter. Better than Christmas. Hallowe'en."

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Hallowe'en Edition!

With Hallowe'en less than a week away, I thought it would be appropriate for this instalment of the Saturday morning cartoon review to include some really scarifying shows!

Well, okay, maybe silly rather than scary, but they do feature ghosts and monsters.

We'll start with The Drak Pack, a series about the adventures of three teens who can turn into monsters (Frankie, who becomes Frankenstein's monster; Howler, a werewolf; and Drac Junior, who's pretty obvious) to battle the forces of evil in an attempt to redeem the good names of their night-crawling ancestors. I don't remember this one lasting more than a season or two, but my friends and I used to love it, pretending to be the characters and making up our own stories — except, without the weird, transformable coffin-hotrod. (intro)

Next up, we've got yet another incarnation of everybody's favourite mystery-solving mutt, Scooby Doo: The 13 Ghosts of Scooby Doo. This addition to the franchise sees a pared-down version of the Scooby Doo Gang, consisting of Scoob, Shaggy, and Daphne — joined by some kid (basically a human stand-in for Scrappy Doo) — travelling the world trying to snag 13 ghosts they accidentally released from a pandora-esque box.

There's a couple of reasons I like this version more than some of the other franchise instalments (including the original): first, the story is a lot more focussed — the gang isn't just wandering around (presumably in a daze from hot-boxing the Mystery Machine) randomly blundering into mysteries involving alleged monsters, where they end up foiling the same old type of under-the-table land deal. Instead, they've got a clear directive and a different bad guy to bag in each episode. Second, Daphne's smarter and more actively involved in decision-making in this version than in the others, where she's essentially limited to being a pretty sidekick to Fred's bossiness and Thelma's analytical intelligence and occasional pushiness. Third, it's pretty clear that Daphne and Shaggy have hooked-up (at least for the time being — later spinoffs would remove her and focus entirely on Scoob, Shag, and Scrappy), thereby redeeming Shag from loser status (although I always thought he and Scoob were the smartest ones in the gang, with their desire to avoid dangerous situations and their good sense of knowing when to run). And fourth, this show was cool because it had schlock horror meister Vincent Price as a character, acting in a Charlie/Bosley role dispatching the gang on their missions and providing a little advice. The writers/producers are saying to the audience: "See how ghostly this show is? We've got Vincent Price! Vincent Price, people! That must mean it's scary in a fun way! Ha ha!" That was enough for me, back then. (intro)

Lastly, I give you the awesomeness that is The Hilarious House of Frightenstein! Yes, I know, this is a live action show, not a cartoon, but coming up on Hallowe'en as we are, it would be a crime not to include this monster-themed production. Beyond that, THHOF is perhaps the greatest kids' show ever made, and therefore deserves its due.

Not only was this 1971 Canadian production (made at CHCH in Hamilton, just down the road from where I grew up, in Cambridge) immensely entertaining with its weird sketches — the witch who hosted a cooking show, the vampire constantly screwing-up attempts to animate his version of Frankenstein's monster, the castle mail room, or the old librarian who would read nursery rhymes as if they were gripping tales of horror — full of cheesy jokes, and the wonderfully detailed haunted castle sets, it was also educational, featuring segments with Doctor Petvet (about different kinds of animals and how to care for them) and The Professor (physicist Julius Sumner Miller). Most importantly, the educational components of the show weren't patronizing: the teacher characters never talked down to the kids out there in the TVland audience, which made it more likely that kids would pay attention, and much easier to absorb the lessons.

There was another massively important educational component to the show: the Wolfman and his call-in style radio program (on the castle's in-house station EECH). Somehow, CHCH and THHOF were able to use dozens of then-current major rock'n'roll songs — such as the Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash" — to play in the Wolfman's segments. The songs were played in their full length while the Wolfman and Igor (a huge, lumbering, good-natured green guy who acted as both character in many of the skits, as well as a kind of onscreen metaphorical stand-in for the kids in the audience) would rock-out (occasionally with a mannequin dressed as a mummy) in front of the camera, with an early type of blue screen behind them flashing psychedelic visuals created by camera-monitor feedback. What was important about all this was that for me (and probably some other kids watching at the time), this was my first exposure to real rock'n'roll — to good popular music. As a little kid in the mid-late 70s, I was, strangely, not exposed to a lot of good rock music, despite the fact that there was so much great stuff being created and played at the time. My dad kept the car radio generally tuned to unquestionably forgettable easy listening, and only actively sought out the Beach Boys when he wanted something specific to play. Around the house, my mom would either play records by The Carpenters in the afternoon (to this day, I find myself reluctantly sympathizing with Nicholas Cage's version of Ghost Rider, and his weakness for Karen Carpenter, because of that early programming), or classical music (and no, I'm not complaining about early exposure to Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, and Brahms — that was all good, but not at the expense of missing out on the cool things going on in rock at the time). The teenagers I knew — those who would bother to talk to a little squirt like me — were all focussed on disco, so they weren't any help either. Instead, it fell to the reruns of THHOF and its segments with the Wolfman to teach me what real rock'n'roll was really about. "Jumpin' Jack Flash" is still one of my favourites because of that show.

And then there was Vincent Price, blasting the show open with all the camp he could muster, doing the odd sketch, and closing every episode with the same rhyme that was delivered with such quiet deliberation as to leave kids really rather unsettled after the previous hour's silliness. Forget all of the films, the world should remember Vincent for his work on THHOF.

And so, let us take a tentative step back into The Hilarious House of Frightenstein! (full episode)