Yes This Really Happened

Yes, This Really Happened: Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer Were Held At Gunpoint by Neo-Nazis

Even the better and more generally liked sitcoms tend not to age well, especially since many social situations that would have provided fodder for an entire episode in the ’70s, ’80s, or ’90s can nowadays be resolved with a smartphone. On the flipside, there are many scenarios made possible by social media and other relatively recent new developments that would have been incomprehensible even just a decade ago. This is exactly why Seinfeld Today was such a hit on Twitter. Technology has created as much a gap of lived experience between now and then as there was between people living in the ’90s and old movies and shows depicting people having to talk to phone operators and share a single phone line with multiple people in the same apartment building.

But history moves in strange currents and sometimes social trends and political developments can make a piece of art from many years ago more uncannily relevant than it was even at the time it was first seen. So it is with the “Seinfeld” episode “The Limo”, which is also, incidentally, one of my favorite comedic pieces of all time.

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It’s one of those “Seinfeld” episodes that take place mostly or entirely within a mundane setting, in this case, a (spoilers) limo. But it’s also written by Larry Charles, a writer famous (or notorious) for penning or co-writing some of the show’s darkest turns, including Kramer being suspected of being a serial killer (and being pursued by a cop taken right out of a police procedural of the era and hilariously misplaced in an otherwise typical “Seinfeld” episode), Elaine being threatened by a mentally ill stalker whom she has to ward off with pepper spray, and Elaine’s hunky boyfriend nearly dying in a mountain climbing accident accidentally caused by George. Plus, Charles wrote the show’s only known episode that made it far enough in the production process it was partially filmed and was table read, “The Bet”, yet was never close to fully filmed, much less broadcast. In fact, the episode’s director and half the main cast more or less revolted against doing it, something even Charles himself admitted in an interview was “understandable”. How controversial would it have been? Well, it had a b-plot about Elaine buying a handgun and, at one point, threatening Jerry by asking him if he wanted a bullet “in the Kennedy” while pointing the gun to her head or “in the McKinley” while moving it toward her stomach.

Needless to say, given my own dark sense of humor…yes, I wish that episode was made, and, yes, I spent about 20 minutes trying to find if there was a script online (alas, no dice).

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Anyway, true to form, Larry Charles made “The Limo” a horrific series of upping antes with a plot that could fairly easily be repurposed for a drama series. George arrives at the airport to pick up Jerry…barely, that is, because his car just broke down. Stressed out even by his usual standards, George is susceptible to his own crazy idea: to go up to a limo driver waiting for an airplane passenger named “O’Brien” and pretend that he is the would-be limo passenger, whom Jerry knows is stranded in an airport in Chicago. Things seem to go without a hitch, especially when they find out the limo is embarking for Madison Square Garden, which leads Jerry to assume they’re also getting tickets to a big basketball game in the bargain.

Unfortunately, before too long they find out their driver is picking up two passengers, a woman oddly enthusiastic about O’Brien and a slightly paranoid man. From them, George and Jerry learn that O’Brien is a well-known author and speaker, one scheduled to give a speech at a gathering at Madison Square Garden. Next Jerry and George find out O’Brien is well-known yet his face is unknown even to his fans because he’s a prominent Neo-Nazi making his public debut after a career so far spent in seclusion (the moment of this revelation remains a favorite of mine — the woman shows “O’Brien” a copy of his speech. George, reading: “And the Jews steal our money through the Zionist-occupied government and use the black man to bring drugs into our oppressed white-minority communities.” And Jerry’s nonchalant reaction: “You’re not going to open with that, are you?”) Oh, and the Neo-Nazis are packing serious heat.

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Needless to say, the jig is up once Elaine and Kramer, who were invited along back when George and Jerry still thought O’Brien was just some rich guy going to a Nicks game, finally tip the Neo-Nazis’ suspicions over and lead to them all having to plead for their lives at gunpoint. Forced out into a swarm of angry protesters, though, everyone seems to ultimately get out unscathed – except, of course, poor, helpless George, who winds up on an “interview” on  TV and identified before all of New York City as the leader of the Aryan Union.

I’m a bit biased, because not only am I a long-time fan of the show, but a fan of this one episode. It’s got that perfect mixture of real-world darkness and pure farce that I can’t help but personally be a mark for. If I had to lodge any negative criticism, it’s that more isn’t done with Kramer and especially Elaine (especially considering that, if I had to have a fictional avatar, it would be an amalgam of Elaine and George, if such a thing is imaginable). Nonetheless, even Elaine gets her moments. An easily missed one is when the quartet are all simultaneously trying to convince the Neo-Nazis not to kill them and Elaine blurts out, “I would never do anything to upset a Nazi!” Or when Elaine excitedly waves to her social justice-conscious (and very confused) boyfriend Dan from the limo, even as he’s part of the mob attacking the limo. Is it a believable reaction? No. Is it nonetheless something I would probably do in real life in a similar situation? Oh, God, yes.

But, of course, such claustrophobic stories as this rely on strong character moments. It’s delightful to watch George show himself as a great liar while his neuroticism shines through (his being terrified about whether or not this was a good idea back when everything seemed okay if uncertain giving way to his absolute insistence that the plan was “a good jig” even when everything is definitely going very, very downhill is classic George) as is Jerry’s compulsion to make little wisecracks and gags even when it threatens to expose himself as an impostor to two violent bigots. Also the bedrock of the episode is Jerry and George just bickering back and forth, bouncing around bad ideas for escape. (George: “They can’t shoot us in the city!” Jerry: “No, no one’s ever been shot in the city.”) It’s yet another reason I wish all of Larry David (“Seinfeld”‘s co-creator who inspired George’s character more than anyone else) and Jerry Seinfeld’s pre-fame conversations were recorded for posterity.

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But to return to my original point before I just mindlessly share every joke from the episode, it’s kind of obvious for reasons I don’t spell out about why “The Limo”, which aired in 1992, might seem more relevant 26 years later. Of course, “The Limo” doesn’t explore the issue of Neo-Nazism with any depth, humorous or otherwise, nor is Jerry and George’s Jewishness really called attention to except at the edges. To be honest, though, I have a hard time believing any network sitcom today would even have such a premise for an episode. In any case, like many of Larry Charles’ other darker plots, both the humor and the discomfort spring from the same place: the idea that, just beneath the surface of our everyday social dilemmas and interactions, something threatening could lie. That’s an observation that was true then, but in some ways is even more true today. At least, I think the other lesson that can be gleamed from “The Limo” is also important for today’s world – that sometimes the best way to counter fascists, even when they’re pointing guns with you, is with humor and a well-developed sense of the absurd.

 

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Yes This Really Happened

Yes, This Really Happened: Steve Urkel Had a Demonic Ventriloquist Dummy Doppleganger that Massacred The Entire Winslow Family

Well, okay, that was a bit of a shameless clickbait-y headline. Of course, with the TGIF line-up long-runner and militantly G-rated show Family Matters, which was in many ways the Designing Women to Full House‘s Golden Girls, nothing really terrible happens to the Winslows. Still, they come weirdly close to being legit slasher movie kills, but…well, we’ll get to that.

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Maybe the episode itself acknowledges how much it’s not quite removed from a typical ’80s teenage massacre flick by giving the audience a content warning of sorts from Steve Urkel, who has by this point, the eighth season, long replaced the Winslows themselves as the star of the show. The following 20 minutes might be a little spooky, especially for those of you tuning in after Full House! In the show’s defense, though, if this seems quite lame, the much edgier (well, okay, at the time) Simpsons did the same thing for their Halloween episodes.

Despite Steve breaking the fourth wall to give a little warning to viewers, the Halloween special kicks off like many a Family Matters episode, with Steve using a new interest as a vehicle to irritate the Winslows. In this case, it’s a ventriloquist dummy that’s made to be a replica of him. Steve’s dreams of becoming a ventriloquist are dashed by the lukewarm response of the Winslows, who are probably wondering why a super-genius who can clone humans, cracked the secret of time travel, and developed exploding vegetables for the US military is bothering with an archaic type of showbiz.

Despite his genius, Steve just quickly wishes that his dummy could talk. His wish gets granted, but in the problematic form of apparent demonic possession.

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Okay, we don’t really know what happens to create “Stevil”, the sociopathic Steve ventriloquist doll, but that’s not important: it’s time for the Winslows to fall prey to the diabolical faux-Urkel! Laura is split into three parts and scattered across the Winslows’ kitchen cabinets, Harriet Winslow’s head ends up being the centerpiece of a giant jack-in-the-box, the two young Winslow kids are chased down by Stevil in a car while they’re trick-or-treating, and Eddie Winslow is dragged into a chimney, and, in a moment that probably did actually freak out some of the show’s kiddie audience, an unresponsive Carl is used as a human dummy by Stevil.

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I mean, don’t expect a genuine Child’s Play à la dead Winslows. Most are still talking and seem only mildly disturbed by their “deaths” (even if Carl never moves on his own and Eddie’s ultimate doom is never revealed). But honestly, Stevil is pretty explicit about wanting to rub out the Winslows because he despises them for being, essentially, a TGIF sitcom family (hey, Stevil, if that’s really your beef, want to stop by the Tanner household before you call it a night?) Also it doesn’t take much of an imaginative leap to suppose that, say, poor Harriet really has been decapitated, had her head hollowed out, and was turned into a novelty toy. Whoever wrote this episode wasn’t a stranger to horror movie death scenes, is all I’m saying.
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But don’t let me fool you into thinking this episode is more bizarre than even by the standards of the adventures of Steve Urkel. The events of the episode all turn out to be a dream, albeit with a “false awakening” during which Eddie tries to lobotomize Steve with an egg-beater. Also, as per TGIF policy, most of the jokes were probably ancient when they were first written down in papyrus (although I was legitimately impressed we did get this less than family-friendly remark from Eddie: “The only doll I want sitting on my lap can talk on her own!”), although as always it still managed to be a cut above the diabetes-causing sugar pap that was Full House. I will admit, though, the bit where Steve tries earnestly to seal his bedroom door with Scotch tape did get a real laugh out of me.

The best part, though, is that this episode got a sequel in the show’s ninth and final season, where Stevil returns alongside an evil ventriloquist dummy doppleganger of Carl, Carlsbad. Maybe we’ll get to that one next Halloween (which, at the rate I’ve been posting this year, will be two or there posts later).

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Yes This Really Happened

Yes, This Really Happened: X-Men/Star Trek

The point of Yes, This Really Happened is to highlight quirky, off-kilter episodes and installments of series that are likely to be obscure. That said, this is probably the most well-known, at least among people who (like me) grew up with the X-Men franchise in its glory days. Still, what better way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Star Trek than to explore the Star Trek crossover that was totally inspired by storytelling, and not at all by cynical, opportunistic marketing?

(That was sarcasm, of course).

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Okay, okay, to be fair, every single franchise crossover is a marketing gimmick and none are easy to justify as honest explorations of fictional worlds. But even then there’s usually some kind of thematic connection or at least they share not only a genre but a nice little neighborhood in it (Aliens vs. Predator, Batman/Judge Dredd, Vampirella vs. Lady Death) or the jarring juxtaposition makes a great starting point for the whole affair (Archie Meets The Punisher, Archie Vs. The Predator, Archie…well, you get the idea). 1996’s Star Trek/X-Men, though? It’s neither natural enough to really scratch any kind of itch for fans, nor is it quite bizarre enough to even work as a novelty. It’s just…well, let me get the obvious joke out of my system; it’s just highly illogical. 

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I suppose you could say that there is a connection in that the X-Men had a lot of space adventures in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and that the X-Men’s dream of harmony between humans and mutants is like the Federation promoting peace and inclusion…no, still illogical.

Illogical from a storytelling perspective, that is. From the marketing POV, it all makes perfect sense. See, in 1996 X-Men was still Marvel’s #1 cash cow. Plus the company was still recklessly riding its speculator boom highs and was spending money like Scrooge McDuck. In the course of throwing its cash around, it had acquired the license to the entire Star Trek property (rather accidentally, since the rights to Deep Space Nine and Voyager were held by Malibu Comics, a company that Marvel bought just for their new technology in digital coloring). Once they had worked out with Paramount a deal to handle comics for all Star Trek series (again, this being a time when Deep Space Nine and Voyager were still on television, and the second Next Generation movie, First Contact, had just hit the theaters to critical and popular acclaim), Marvel decided to base an entire line around the various incarnations of Star Trek. What better way to kick things off by using the old cash cow to introduce the new one? (After all, it’s not like there’s any kind of overlap between superhero comic fans and Trekkies).

Well, at least with in-universe logic it’s easier to get the denizens of a superhero universe to meet Captain Kirk and his crew than, say, Frasier Crane and his family. The Enterprise is investigating an anomaly above the uninhabited planet Delta Vega, the very same planet where Kirk was forced to kill his crew member and personal friend Gary Mitchell after an encounter with an energy field increased Mitchell’s innate and weak psychic powers to a godlike level (in the original series’ very first aired episode, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”). Suddenly an unidentifiable ship appears through the anomaly and the crew of the Enterprise is only able to detect seven beings that are human but not quite before the ship is suddenly destroyed.

Unknown to Kirk and his crew, the seven humanoids on the ship, the X-Men (here Beast, Storm, Wolverine, Bishop, Jean Grey, Cyclops, and Gambit) managed to teleport off the ship and onto the Enterprise just in time. Of course, like most superheroes who aren’t Batman or trained by him, the X-Men just aren’t that good at subterfuge. Gambit’s need for medical attention as a result of being wounded in the ship explosion leads them to soliciting help from the Enterprise’s Dr. Leonard McCoy while Spock senses Jean using her telepathy and, looking for the source, has a violent run-in with Wolverine (Vulcan nerve pinch, meet healing factor!). Hostilities do not last long, and the X-Men explain that they come from an alternate reality, sent into the anomaly by Empress Lilandra of the interplanetary Shi’ar Empire. Ostensibly it was a routine mission to track Lilandra’s sister and one-time rival for the throne turned lackey, Deathbird, who defied orders to go into the anomaly with the superpowered Shi’ar Imperial Guard to hunt down a mysterious energy source. However, Captain Kirk and  X-Men discover the whole reason Lilandra involved the X-Men in the first place; an old enemy of the X-Men’s, Proteus, a body-jumping, reality-warping mutant, created the anomaly while searching the multiverse for an equal, and he found such an equal in the remains of Gary Mitchell…

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The one good thing I can say about this story is that the script by Scott Lobdell (who was the main X-Men scribe through much of the early and mid-’90s) does make reasonably good use of both franchise’s histories. There’s a few kinks here and there (even if Deathbird is supposed to be working for the Shi’ar Empire as she was after the events of the Avengers saga Operation: Galactic Storm [in case you’re wondering, nope, I didn’t have to look that up!], why is the Imperial Guard working for her, even when it’s clear that she’s not following Lilandra’s orders?). Still, the idea of Kirk having to face one of his biggest regrets when Proteus resurrects and merges with Gary Mitchell is a strong connection to the original series of Star Trek and gives the conclusion where Kirk and Jean telepathically face what’s left of Gary Mitchell inside Mitchell/Proteus’ mind a punch. The ties to X-Men are actually less strongdespite what you might expect, this is honestly much more of a Star Trek tale than an X-Men adventurebut Jean Grey’s comparison between Gary Mitchell and Dark Phoenix, another case of “going mad just from having the powers of a god”-itis, doesn’t at all feel forced or fall flat.

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Also it helps that the series doesn’t indulge in blatant fanservice as much as you might expect, beyond the Spock-Wolverine brawl which reads like a scene ripped from fan fiction or a really forced moment where Dr. McCoy says, “He’s dead, Jim.” Instead the character beats ring true if a little hollow for the most part, even concluding with the Enterprise crew cooking up their standard elaborate techno-babble-fueled engineering ploy with the help of the X-Men’s powers to close the anomaly. There’s not too much slouching in characterization either. The conventional wisdom on Scott Lobdell’s X-Men stories is that his strong point was in writing little character moments, and that somewhat holds true here, if for not much more than a delightful scene where Kirk hits on Jean Grey in a perfectly Kirkean way only to get politely shot down.

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Even so, this is still a story with fourteen characters (not counting the villains!) in only a 38-page saga (technically the issue is 67 pages, but the rest of it is taken up with pin-ups and promotions for Marvel’s new Star Trek series). Even a major franchise villain like Deathbird is introduced only to barely even serve as a plot device and yet another fountain of exposition. So there’s a lot of potential character material that’s left in the cargo bay. It’s probably understandable that Uhara, Chekov, and Sulu lose panel space to the Big Trio of Spock, Kirk, and McCoy, but there just isn’t enough time for both franchise’s stars to mesh together organically. Earlier I joked about one scene looking like something out of fan fiction, but honestly this is why crossover fan fiction can and, depending on the writer, does sometimes work better than the official thing. There’s infinite room for all those little character interaction gems that make such stories worthwhile for fans. What you instead get more of with X-Men/Star Trek is the most clunky exposition you can find anywhere in the Alpha Quadrant.

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Oh, and nerdy overthinking time, but…even if this is just an alternate universe to them, shouldn’t the X-Men be more curious about the fate of mutants, homo sapiens superior? Clearly mutants existed in this version of the Star Trek universe since Spock instantly recognizes both terms—and, to be fair, the episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before” does make it canon that a few humans are born with and can inherit low-level psychic abilities, although nothing nearly as awesome as being able to turn your skin to steel or grow deadly razor-sharp bones from your body. But at the same time the Enterprise’s scans don’t recognize mutants…so maybe Jean Grey’s initial concern that Gary Mitchell was killed just for being a mutant was valid in a way. Maybe, just maybe, because the Eugenics Wars in Star Trek Earth’s history showed the dangers of letting superpowered beings run loose, mutants were culled during or just after the wars except for harmless psychics…okay, sorry, we’re officially at the “Overthinking something Scott Lobdell probably threw together in a few hours” point. (Still, if you read the story my way, it does make Cyclops’ comments to Kirk about how the Federation’s future is like the one X-Men aspire toward cruelly—or beautifully—ironic!). 

Speaking of mutants being shoehorned into the Star Trek universe, it’s tough not to notice how out of place the X-Men look with their Olympian bodies next to the very average physiques of the Enterprise crew. Despite that, the art is decent, encompassing both the X-Men and Star Trek reasonably well. And at least it didn’t go the more awkward route of trying to have the Enterprise crew keep up with the X-Men by giving Scotty and Uhara the bodies of professional bodybuilders.

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To sum it all up, X-Men/Star Trek doesn’t at all transcend the usual issues with such official crossovers. Aside from the bits that look like they were chiseled out of a genuinely good follow-up to “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” X-Men/Star Trek is the comic book equivalent to fast food. You might find it tasty, but you probably won’t get any lasting impression. Unless seeing Spock give Wolverine the Vulcan nerve pinch in an official comic really is something you’ve been waiting your whole life for. In that case, have at it!

startrekxmenpinupEdit: And yes, I know there were two sequels, a comic Second Contact (the X-Men with the Next Generation crew) and a novel Planet X. Honestly a lot of what I said here could apply to Second Contact. As for Planet X, maybe I’ll cover it one of these days!

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Yes This Really Happened

Yes, This Really Happened: The Enterprise Became Sentient But Only Played Practical Jokes

The Internet is all excited about the trailer for a new Star Wars movie, so of course we have to talk about…Star Trek!

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First, some words about Star Trek: The Animated Series.  The animation does have that cheap look you’d expect from, well, pretty much anything by Filmationexpect to see that stock image of communications officer M’Ress over and over and over againbut the series is actually considered by even many diehard Trekkies to be a worthy successor to the original series. It’s even gotten the honor of being deemed canon by no one less than the god of the Trekkies, Gene Roddenberry. [Note: Friend of the blog Zaki Hasan has pointed out that Roddenberry revoked its canon status, and according to Wikipedia Roddenberry made the issue of canon…complicated.  But apparently Paramount officially considers the animated series canon, so there you go!]  But it’s not surprising considering that Roddenberry managed the neat trick of getting the entire original cast on board with it. Although perhaps that’s not too surprising, since they never did their lines together in a studio, but on tapes that they’d mail in. Anyway, the animated series certainly did have its goofy moments that wouldn’t be out of place for a cartoon of the ’70s, although really nothing egregious compared to live-action episode “Spock’s Brain.”

Case in point: today’s specimen…

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The Enterprise is flying near the Neutral Zone and, as you might expect, they get attacked by Romulans. (A big nit to pick is that apparently it ain’t no thing for the Romulans to just up and blatantly pursue and try to destroy a Federation starship with more or less no provocation. Were the Romulans that aggressive in the original series despite the whole Neutral Zone thing? Wait, please don’t answer that). Kirk has the Enterprise steered into an unidentifiable energy fieldcome on, Kirk, have you actually ever seen an episode of Star Trek?

Of absolutely course, the energy field screws up the Enterprise, but the symptoms don’t manifest until later as the entire crew are subjected to an escalating series of petty pranks; replicators shoot out piles of food and pies to the face; in a forest generated by the holodeck…sorry, it isn’t called that yet (and, yes, this episode is technically the first canonical appearance of a holodeck!)…Sulu, Bones, and Uhara get trapped in a forest pit trap; and, best of all, Kirk’s uniform comes out of the space-laundry like this.

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The best part of that? Spock responds with a cocked eyebrow and protests, “Vulcans do not laugh.”

Spock eventually deduces that the problem isn’t a crewmember with space madness, but that the energy cloud gave the Enterprise sentience, just somehow a sentience that’s only interested in playing practical jokes. Sadly the newly sentient Enterprise doesn’t really get to have much of a personality. The most dialogue it speaks (with the voice of Majel Barrett, natch) is when Kirk tries to give the computer a command and it exhorts him to say “please with sugar on.” Nor does the computer really go all HAL. It really just seems like the Enterprise is kind of a jerk with a sense of humor more juvenile than Adam Sandler’s most devout fan.

Luckily, its quirks come in handy when the Enterprise is attacked by the same Romulan ships again and it sends out a decoy Enterprise in the form of a…giant balloon replica that’s even bigger than the Enterprise itself. (Yes, I still stand by my statement that this is really no goofier than “Spock’s Brain”.)  This just pisses off the Romulans even more, but it gives Kirk enough time to trick the Enterprise into flying back into the same energy cloud, which…somehow returns the Enterprise to normal? (The Enterprise actually gives a rather poignant protest of “…not…fair”, which, like HAL’s rendition of “Bicycle Built For Two”, does call perhaps unintended attention to the brute fact that Kirk just lobotomized a newly emergent form of consciousness.) And the Romulan ships, which follow the Enterprise, get the exact same effect? Wait, how did the ship’s computer do stuff like put soot around Spock’s eye visor-dashboard…thing? And what the hell was up with that gigantic Enterprise balloon anyway?

It’s so obvious, but I have to say it.  Most illogical.

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At least I do wish this was a “Next Generation” episode where Picard would have dramatically philosophized and anguished over having to lobotomize the Enterprise. And Riker would have had heavily implied sex with M’Ress.

Well, be that as it may, this was fun, and like all animated series episodes it does feel pretty authentic, which was all the more impressive given that the cast did their voice work between gigs. As dated as the animation looks, it’s still proof that the caretakers of the Star Trek franchise really should look into doing an animated series again, if only so they can depict aliens without too many budget constraints. Okay, this one episode may not be the best that the two-year run of the animated series has to offer, but it did give us “KIRK IS A JERK.”

And, don’t forget, it’s all canon!

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Yes This Really Happened

Yes, This Really Happened: MacGyver Teamed Up with Merlin

Let’s face it, MacGyver is the Batman of network TV. After all, Batman may be a charter member of the Justice League, but MacGyver was in the 1988 incarnation of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

I’m not kidding.  Like Batman, MacGyver doesn’t use guns (except very early on…just like Batman!), relies on his wits and brawn, and has almost superhuman ingenuity.  What you might not know, however, is that, also like Batman, MacGyver had jaunts through time. He had been in the Old West not once, but twice, in “Serenity” and “MacGyver’s Women.” For our case study today, MacGyver goes back a tad further, to Camelot! mcgyver1 Pete, MaGyver’s boss, has arranged for him to meet a high-profile genealogist for research into his own family background.  The genealogist is only able to trace the MacGyver name back to the eighteenth century, but suspects that the MacGyvers might be an offshoot of an older family, the similarly named MacIvers, who can be traced all the way back to the seventh century to a man named “Ian MacIver.” MacGyver learns that Ian MacIver died in prison, wrongfully accused. If you”re familiar with early medieval history and this seems like an amazing amount of detail gleamed from the records typical of the time, well, you might as well conserve your “History Nitpicker” points now! MacGyver’s trip back to the past is very uncomfortable.

Outside the genealogist’s office, he saves a soon-to-be-married groom from a falling window box, but takes the “bullet” himself. Knocked unconscious, MacGyver somehow wakes up in Camelot.  I know what you’re thinking;  dammit, MacGyver writers, the Middle Ages does not equal King Arthur! But at least they did establish that this would be the seventh century, and most theories about a historical King Arthur do put him somewhen in the fifth and sixth centuries, so…close enough!

At least MacGyver seems to care about messing up history, sort of. His presence interrupts a joust between Galahad and another Knight of the Round Table, the legendary Duncan. MacGyver intervenes and volunteers to fight not just because he’s a nice guy, but also because, as he shouts, “You can’t kill Galahad!  It will screw up history!”  This is, MacGyver says, since Galahad is supposed to go search for the Holy Grail. And MacGyver should know, since, yes, he tried to find the Holy Grail himself!

Anyway, while everyone of course scoffs as MacGyver for refusing to use a real weapon, he still manages to dismount Duncan using a lasso. This kind of misses the whole point of the joust since it’s supposed to be a way to train knights for mounted combat, but jousts aren’t supposed to be happening this early in history anyway, and…wait, why are we worried about historical accuracy in an episode of “MacGyver” involving Arthurian myths again? What’s wrong with you people? macgyver2 To be honest, laughing about the bizarre and obvious historical inaccuracies is one of the few things interesting about the first part of this two-parter. The plot tries to set up a mystery when Merlin sees MacGyver as a rival and King Arthur, who happens to look like Pete, is poisoned, but Duncan is so assholish that it’s pretty clear he’s hiding…well, everything. But it is funny seeing Merlin being dickish to MacGyer. And you can’t blame Merlin, since MacGyver shows him up with a Swiss army knife and a lit match. Yes, this Merlin is no Sam Neill;  he’s not even the Merlin from Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders.

Things do pick up when Duncan dies (falling into a pit of lava, no less!) and Arthur sends Merlin and MacGyver to fight Morgan Le Fay (called Mograna here), who happens to have allegedly taken Ian MacGyver as her accomplice. Morgana Le Fay happens to have taken over Scotland (here called Caledonia), which is from Camelot just a short trek through a cave (although  to be fair one of the theories about the historical King Arthur is that he was a king or at least a warlord in Strathclyde, which is now part of southern Scotland, so…okay, I’ll stop putting way too much thought into this). Besides having enough lava for a Super Mario Bros. castle, the cave is also guarded by this fearsome hellhound. macgyver4 Funnily enough, everyone acknowledges it’s just a dog in a goofy mask, with even Morgana taking it off at one point and MacGyver being able to dispatch it with just a makeshift dog whistle. This leads me into the saving grace of this saga.  It’s strongly but still subtly implied that the tale’s sorcerers aren’t really magic-users as we might think, but just people with a basic understanding of engineering and science and a lot of ingenuity – like MacGyver himself. I might be off-base – the lack of magic just might have been caused by a lack of a special effects budget – but if I’m right that’s actually pretty clever.  But it doesn’t stop Merlin from bemoaning that he’s lost much of his magical ability, although he might not strictly be talking about magic when he complains,  “Things don’t work like they used to.  Sometimes not at all.” As much fun as the Merlin-MacGyver “rivalry” is, though, the real star is Morgana Le Fay, played by Robin Strasser, who made trash culture glory with her portrayal of Dr. Dorian Lord, one of the great alpha women of American daytime television. macgyver3 In true villain fashion, Morgana has two bungling henchmen (which I guess is explained by the fact that seventh century Scotland appears as sparsely populated as western Kansas) , and of course she punishes one of them for his failure by killing him using her dreaded new weapon:  gunpowder! Morgana hopes to conquer all of Britain and then all of western Europe (and maybe…the world!) using the new technology.  Basically, she wants to keep western Europe unified and prevent the so-called “Dark Ages.”  Who exactly are we supposed to be rooting for here?

Meanwhile MacGyver rescues Cecilia, Galahad’s fiancee who was being held prisoner by Morgana because…I don’t know, the plot said so.  Also he finds the dying Ian MacGyver, who directs him toward a hidden message etched on the cell wall that MacGyver uncovers using his own brand of sorcery that clears Ian’s name from ever being a willing accomplice of Morgana.  Morgana imprisons them, but they’re able to escape and blow up Morgana’s lab using the ol’ Ben Franklin kite trick and two extremely conveniently timed lightning bolts. But for me this is all just a set-up for what is, to me, a moment that became a classic the microsecond it was broadcast:  Morgana Le Fay dramatically screams “MACGYVER!!!!!” before blowing him away with a makeshift gun.

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Aah, that’s the kind of thing that makes it all worthwhile. As you might expect, MacGyver wakes up in the present and has a “You were there! And you were there! And you were there!” moment when he sees that the groom he rescued looks like Galahad, the bride-to-be looks like Cecilia, and the EMT tending to MacGyver’s head injury is Merlin, armed with the Swiss army knife MacGyver gave him.  I half-expected Morgana to show up as a bitter soon-to-be mother-in-law, but alas. As more proof, though, MacGyvver finds that he still has an amulet that King Arthur gave him. So there you go…concussions just make MacGyver travel through time.  Top that, Batman!

It’s the sort of saga that just wouldn’t get done today unless it was written with an insufferably self-aware postmodern, deconstructive, hyper-ironic sensibility (well, thanks in part to assholes like me). That’s a shame, because as goofy as it is, it is pretty fun, at least when they dispense with the predictable who-dunnit and get straight to a bickering MacGyver and Merlin stopping Morgan Le Fay from conquering Europe with gunpowder. You really have to be a snob with a heart of stone not to see the pure joy in a story that has King Arthur declare, “The magic of Merlin combined with the magic of MacGyver may be the force that is required to bring Morgana to her knees!”  It’s a thing of beauty.

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Yes This Really Happened

Yes, This Really Happened: The Ghostbusters vs. Cthulhu

It seems like something you’d skim off fanfiction.net on a lazy evening but, no, this was actually professionally produced as an episode of The Real Ghostbusters in 1987.

ghostbustersnecronomiconAnd, believe it or not, it’s pretty faithful to Lovecraft – more so than a Cthulhu plushie, in fact.

Okay, so the title of the episode is “The Collect Call of Cathulhu,” which I guess was spelled that way apparently because Lovecraftian orthography was too much for the show’s middle-school-aged target audience.  Otherwise, the Necronomicon makes its usual appearance as the plot McGuffin, Egon and Vankman make a trip to Miskatonic University, the Ghostbusters are threatened at one point by Shoggoths, and a cult appears chanting “Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn” (although they incorrectly throw in a ” Iä!  Iä!”, which as everyone knows is properly reserved for Shub-Niggurath).

The episode begins when Miskatonic University, whose administrators have clearly learned nothing from the Wilbur Whateley incident, loans a copy of the Necronomicon to the New York Public Library.  The book is promptly stolen and the Ghostbusters get involved, especially because Egon and Ray are concerned that the book will be used in a ritual to summon Cthulhu on the night the “stars are right” for the first time in decades.  Of course, the always genre savvy Venkman stuns Ray by correctly guessing that the special, rare night will be very soon.

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(And, yes, this is one of the episodes where Venkman was voiced by Lorenzo Music, which naturally only gives rise to thoughts of a Garfield and Friends/Cthulhu Mythos crossover…).

Egon and Venkman team up with Alice Derelith, who is probably the smartest Lovecraft reference out of the whole episode.  This isn’t so much because she was named after Lovecraft’s “successor” August Derelith, but because she really does come across as the perfect Lovecraftian heroine – if Lovecraft was ever interested in writing women, which he wasn’t.  Still, she basically is a Lovecraftian hero in female form.  She wears gloves all the time as a result of an unspoken neurosis, is fairly uptight, and is completely oblivious to Venkman’s less than subtle flirtations as if the very concept of sexuality has never crossed her mind.  That’s Lovecraft all right.  The only thing missing is that she doesn’t go insane or think she might go insane or resigns herself to one day being murdered by cultists at the end.

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Like with so many Lovecraft homages, this story puts H.P. Lovecraft himself into the same reality as his creations.  It turns out that in the Real Ghostbusters universe Lovecraft “and other writers” made their careers out of creating stories based on what they knew about the Necronomicon.  I’m a sucker for that kind of thing, although my inner nitpicking nerd can’t help but wonder what the hell they would be thinking popularizing knowledge about a book that has the potential to destroy humanity ten times over. Anyway, this all leads to a cute scene where Ray leads the other Ghostbusters into a fact-finding expedition into the paperback and magazine collection of an old neighbor of his, and the method for stopping Cthulhu is found in an issue of Weird Tales.

It’s in the final act that the episode, which I actually enjoyed for being a pretty faithful G-rated intro into the Cthulhu Mythos, lost me.  Of course, the cultists successfully summon Cthulhu in Coney Island of all places, where he…starts wrecking up the place kaiju-style?  I know that they couldn’t show Cthulhu immediately driving the denizens of New York City insane in an orgy of bloodshed and despair, but he should have had more dignity than just trying to flatten an amusement park.

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He does shrug off the Ghostbusters’ proton beams like shots from water pistols.  However, inspired by the story “The Horror from the Depths” from Weird Tales, they defeat Cthulhu by electrifying a roller coaster he’s attacking to get at Venkman.  It’s implied that Cthulhu has just been banished, not destroyed, but nonetheless there’s no way this would have been an ending Lovecraft would have signed off on.  Then again, he’d probably be far more disgusted by the Hello Kitty/Cthulhu hybrid tote bags for sale.

Weirdly enough, there actually is an August Derelith and Mark Schorer story titled “The Horror from the Depths” which, according to John Harms’ and John Wisdom Gonce’s The Necronomicon Filesthis episode’s screenwriter Michael Reaves had not even known existed before writing “The Collect Call of Cathulhu.”  He simply made up a title that he thought sounded Lovecraftian.  Although the actual story does not have Cthulhu thwarted by an electrified roller coaster, or making an appearance at all, it still does have some coincidental similarities.  The story does like the episode have an appearance by the Spawn of Cthulhu and a climactic scene at the Chicago World’s Fair in lieu of Coney Island.  Perhaps writers are tapping into some dark arcane knowledge when they channel the Cthulhu Mythos.

If that’s the case, it’s a shame I long ago lost that paperback copy of the Necronomicon that I got in ninth grade!

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Comics, Yes This Really Happened

Yes, This Really Happened: Chaos! Comics Did A 9/11 Tribute Comic

My dear readers, I have failed you.

When I first (literally) stumbled across the fact that Chaos! Comics did a 9/11 tribute comic, I was thrilled, like a conquistador who accidentally discovered El Dorado.  But my initial excitement did not account for the fact that, well, riffing on a 9/11 tribute comic would be…difficult.  And that’s despite the fact that the cover itself pushes the laws of female human anatomy to the limits.

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Don’t get me wrong; it is amazing that this exists, although maybe not for the reasons you might assume.  Perhaps the first thing that will strike comics fans is that it’s actually written by Brian Augustyn of The Flash fame, who did a lot of work for Chaos! Comics in its last years.  The second thing is that this isn’t Chaos! in its wild, gory glory.  This is well after the flagship characters of Lady Death and Chastity have been toned down and made less…well, sociopath-y.  Lady Death isn’t even at this moment in continuity her normal white-skinned, ruling-Hell self, but was at the time a sword-wielding vigilante on the streets of New York (it’s…a long story, naturally).

Still, it’s not enough to riff on, despite my initial excitement.  Really, no matter who publishes it, 9/11 tributes – or tributes to any recent tragedy – are snark-proof.

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Its snark-immunity does not just derive from the fact that I’m an American and this is about the 9/11 attacks, although I have to admit that’s part of it.  No, it’s also that there really isn’t much to say, because frankly it takes conscious effort to botch these things.  Things like this are propaganda in the not-that-bad, pre-Goebbels sense, and as such there’s a definite, fairly simple way of doing them.  That’s not to say that they’re easy to write, per se, just that there’s a formula that’s carved in stone, and even more so than what you might expect in some genre fiction.  Start with some everyday characters right at the center of the tragedy, stir in some moral observations but do not under any circumstances make any references to politics, and show the main protagonists pitching in to help survivors without bringing in the baggage of their own personal stories, and voila, you have a tribute to a contemporary tragedy.

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Just as it’s very hard to screw up such a tribute, it’s also extremely difficult to make these types of stories great.  This is mostly for the same basic reason.  Genuinely the only way to make a 9/11 tribute really memorable for good or bad reasons is to break with the formula and bring in something that has the potential to offend a lot of people.  That’s not what Chaos! Comics’ Unity does, in spite of its publisher’s reputation.

I guess if you just automatically object to having characters like Bad Kitty running around the site of a national tragedy, you might find it offensive, but honestly is it really worse than having Spider-Man or Green Lantern at the site of 9/11?  Especially because here Bad Kitty, as well as Lady Death and Chastity, are portrayed as heroically as they are?  We exist in a pop culture-saturated world, and if you think there’s something wrong about having comic book superheroes meditate on the collapse of the twin towers, well, the argument was made and lost decades ago the second Donald Duck showed Americans what working for the Nazis was like.

Honestly, if you can get past the fact that both Chastity and Lady Death show up to 9/11 in respectable catsuits, the whole affair is (perhaps disappointingly) tasteful and even fairly well done in some respects.  Sure, like with most straightforward propaganda there’s plenty of cheese to be had, like Lady Death assuring the reader that the terrorists are in Hell while the victims are all in paradise, as well as this…

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…but there are a couple of nice touches as well.  The “ordinary person” character, an eastern European immigrant who wants to try to find her husband who was in one of the Towers for a job interview, isn’t overshadowed by the chestier heroines.  Also there’s a scene where a Sikh taxi driver tries to offer his help and ends up being attacked (and rescued by Lady Death, of course). Yes, it’s pretty – to quote TV Tropes – “anvilicious”, but it is an important point to make, especially considering the real life attacks on Sikhs and Muslims following the attacks. All in all, the comic really isn’t that bad for what it is, and on the whole isn’t much worse (or really better) than the Marvel and DC tributes.

For me at least, to get at the whole reason this comic is so noteworthy and strange is you’d have to know a little about Chaos!’s history.  See, in 1999 Chaos! rebooted its own continuity through a story called “Armageddon”, although essentially most of the characters retained their own personal histories and memories.  The reboot coincided with Lady Death becoming more of a traditional (if still hard-edged) heroine, so we get a Lady Death who empathizes with the lives lost and even holds up an American flag while giving an inspirational monologue.

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Although the world has been rebooted, she is for all intents and purposes the same character who turned a child abuse victim into an undead serial killer, Evil Ernie, and sent him on a mission to wipe out the entire human race.  In one Evil Ernie story, back way before the “gentler and softer” Chaos! Comics, this is what happens to New York:

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That’s just before we learn that for half a year Evil Ernie has been single-handedly killing everyone in Manhattan who survived the satellite he sent crashing into the city.  Oh, and he’s the protagonist of his series.  Old school Chaos! did not screw around.  And, of course, Lady Death is all but directly responsible.  That’s why I was more than a little amused to see this comic, although I guess it would have been much worse if we’d seen Ernie and his zombie friends rescue 9/11 survivors.

Still, if you’re a scholar of Chaos! Comics like I am, it’s the weirdness of Doctor Doom and Magneto rescuing 9/11 survivors in Marvel’s own 9/11 tribute, but times at least 7,500.

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