Category Archives: On DVD

The Flying Nun

Review: THE FLYING NUN (1967 – 1970)

Based on The Fifteenth Pelican by Tere Rios
Created by: Max Wylie, Harry Ackerman
Starring: Sally Field, Madeleine Sherwood, Marge Redmond, Shelley Morrison, Alejandro Rey, Linda Dangcil, Vito Scotti
Number of Episodes: 83 (3 Seasons)
ABC

TV on DVD: Saints

In Short: There’s this nun. She can fly.
Recommended: Yes!

SISTER JACQUELINE: You play cards often, Sister Bertrille?
SISTER BERTRILLE: No, I just learned about three weeks ago. Helped pass the time while I was in jail.
SISTER JACQUELINE: Prison? 
SISTER BERTRILLE: Yeah, I was arrested at a free speech protest rally.
SISTER JACQUELINE: [voice over] It was at this point I had the feeling the Convent San Tanco would never be the same again. That turned out to be the biggest understatement of the year.
– “The Flying Nun” (01.01)

In one of the funnier moments of Family Guy funnyman Seth MacFarlane’s perhaps overlong introduction to the 2013 Academy Awards, he accosted nominee Sally Field in the green room and reminisced about his early attraction to her as Sister Bertrille, the Flying Nun. He pondered whether it had been the forbidden aspect to it that had made her so hot, and hovered above her head on a wire, reenacting her famously ludicrous flight scenes. He then managed to convince her that she wasn’t going to win the Best Supporting Actress award that evening (he would turn out to be right; inside information?) and so enticed her into leaving with him after a steamy embrace, doubtless living out a boyhood fantasy in the process.

It had been years since I had even recalled the existence of The Flying Nun right up until that moment, but when I did, oh the flood of memories! A rerun staple of my formative years, just the sound of those three little words and I was instantly transported back to the Puerto Rican abbey at which the novice Sister Bertrille and her fellows lived, overcoming crisis after crisis with the help of Betrille’s bizarre power of flight.

How could Sister Bertrille fly, you ask? It was a question I wondered then, too. I mean, obviously it had something to do with the very aerodynamic headdress she wore, but for the life of me I couldn’t recall the specific mechanics of the action itself, and why Bertrille could fly but not any of the other, similarly-behatted, nuns. And of course, if I couldn’t remember such an important plot point as that then clearly I needed to watch the show again, from beginning to end, because I hate not knowing stuff like that. (And no—Wikipedia would, in this instance, have been cheating.)

Fortunately, the first two seasons of The Flying Nun are out on DVD (with most of the episodes of the third season to be found on YouTube and similar), and so it was with great ease that I revisited this blast from the dim, dark past, and found it to be everything that I had vaguely remembered it to be. Funny, absurd, sweet, bizarre, wholesome and yet a little risqué, and utterly anchored by the consummate likability of the then-ingenue Sally Field.

Our story centers on the sisters of the Convent San Tanco (which I thought was called the Convent San Taco when I was a kid, and which I then mentally placed in Mexico – apparently I was a bit racist as a youngster) who are joined by a new novice, the aforementioned Sister Bertrille, who has only recently given up her worldly ways to enter into a life of service to God. For all that this is a show about Catholic religious dogma, there is really very little real Catholicism in it, and so with evidence like this sunny locale and the green rolling hills of Maria’s convent home in The Sound of Music, it was a life that seemed quite appealing at the time. (Hey, I just had a thought – what happened to the nuns of that convent after the Nazis invaded Austria? It can’t have been good, right?)

Anyway, Bertrille soon meets her fellow sisters, from the stern Reverend Mother Placido (Madeleine Sherwood) to the dryly humorous Sister Jacqueline (Marge Redmond) to the Puerto Rican Sister Sixto (Shelley Morrison), whosa Inglish isa nota so good. (Maybe this is why I was a bit racist?) But just as Bertrille is settling in to do some real good in the community as a kindergarten teacher, what should happen but she begins to fly!

Oh, you wanted to know how Sister Bertrille can fly, didn’t you? It’s because… wait for it… she is really light. Yes, because she is short and only weighs about 90 pounds or so, and the winds are really strong in San Juan, when the currents are right and her nun’s habit is on, she simply takes off – indeed, most of the time she has no control over it at all. Ludicrous, isn’t it? I mean, in one third season episode the nuns get different habits to wear, which do not include winged bonnets, and all of a sudden she’s the Non-Flying Nun. I have to say, I really expected there to be more here. No wonder I forgot about it.

Her power of flight gets Sister Bertrille into all kinds of adventures over the course of the next 83 episodes, including finding herself on a restricted army base and finding herself at the center of a UFO cult. Some episodes deal with the mundane (Betrille goes fishing; a donkey comes to the convent; an pelican thinks it’s found it’s mate), while others take on a grander scale (Bertrille is trapped in a mine; a tabloid reporter is looking for a scoop; Bertille is stranded on a desert island with her friend, the lovable scoundrel Carlos, played by Alajandro Rey – he’s just a friend, you’ll be happy to hear, though I am sure there were plenty of proto-shippers for the pair at the time, and if this show were on the air today, hooboy. Bertrillos? Cartrille? I have no doubt of it.). Season 2 had a lot of episodes about stealing for some reason, and a lot of the time Bertrille was a suspect… because nuns do that kind of thing, you know.

Revisiting this simple, yet simply insane show, was a lot of fun, and it had me chuckling along constantly in both genuine amusement at some of the writing and the antics as well as in very real bemusement at its very existence. Vaguely-recalled moments would pop up on screen and I would be flooded with fresh nostalgia, while previously unremembered instances of comic brilliance (like Bertrille rocking out on stage to a stately hymn) make me smile just thinking about them now. Quite how this show ever got made I do not know, and how it lasted three seasons is also something of a mystery. With any other leading lady having donned that be-winged headdress I think both would have been unlikely outcomes, but Fields’s fresh-faced sweetness, comic expressiveness and merry twinkle made this show a moderate hit back then, at the end of the decade that gave us fantasy sitcoms the likes of The Addams Family, Bewitched and My Mother the Car, and she is still a big part of the reason it is so watchable, and oftentimes hilarious, today.

So thank you, Seth MacFarlane, for the reminder about this fun, fun show. For this reason alone, I’m glad you hosted the Oscars this year. Well, this and “We Saw Your Boobs.”

– Rachel Hyland

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Astro Boy

Review: ASTRO BOY (1980 – 1981)

AKA: Tetsuwan Atomu
Created by: Osamu Tezuka.
Developed by: Tezuka Productions
Starring: (English dub)
Number of Episodes: 52
NTV/In Syndication

TV on DVD: Artificial Intelligence

In Short: And once again the day was saved, thanks to… Astro Boy!
Recommended: Yes!

DR. BOYNTON: Say you’re sorry!
ASTRO BOY: You’re sorry.
– “The Birth of Astro Boy” (01.01)

For some, their introduction to anime may have been Sailor Moon. Or Neon Genesis Evangalion. Or, hell, Pokemon. But for me, it was very early morning childhood viewings of Japan’s number one son, Astro Boy, flying to many a rescue with his rocket-propelled feet, long before the equally diminutive and delightful Powerpuff Girls streaked their colorful way across the City of Townsville’s troubled skyline. I later learned there was a 1960s era version of the show, and that it was based on a manga from way back in the 50s – and there would go on to be a 2003 TV series and, of course, an abomination of a live action movie in 2009 – but it was in his early 1980s incarnation that Astro Boy dazzled and delighted me with his futuristic ways.

To this day, the theme song will come into my head at the oddest moments:

Soaring high in the skies,
He may be small but only in size.
Astro Boy, Astro Boy,
He is brave and gentle and wise.

Stronger than all the rest,
This mighty robot will pass the test,
All villains fear him, so we cheer him,
The amazing Astro Boy!

Then there was more stuff about him righting wrongs and defending us “no matter who, what, where, when or why,” and oh! Could a superhero have been any cuter?

His backstory is as follows. It is the year 2030. Robots and humans exist side by side, but the former have not yet been given the capacity to feel.

One day, the scapegrace son of one Dr. Tenma/Boynton (depending on which language you happen to be experiencing) dies horribly. Already infused with the desire to make himself a real boy, Boynton (I’m sticking with Boynton here; I didn’t watch it in Japanese) makes a robot in deceased Toby’s image, one filled with the very milk of human kindness but with a few design modifications: things like lasers and the power of flight. But elsewhere nefarious warmongers want to use Boynton’s research for evil, so he decides to take the faux-Toby away on a cruise. It does not go well. Soon, robot Toby finds himself abandoned by his maker, pressed into service in a Robot Circus (yes, it’s all a bit Pinocchio) but is rescued by the direfully named Dr. Packidermus J. Elefun (awful, isn’t it?) who soon builds the newly rechristened Astro Boy a robot family with whom he lives in robot harmony, interspersed with the odd saving of downtown Tokyo (er… Metro City) from assorted menaces, both human and AI.

Coming in at #9 on our Top 13… Robots, Male Division, we had this to say about Astro:

Possessed of… a ceaseless sincerity and an endearing simple-mindedness, the eternally childlike Astro spent his days selflessly saving sundry citizens from the depredations of evil grown-ups and much bigger constructs in his inimitable, adorable style.

And he’s been inducted into Carnegie Mellon’s Robot Hall of Fame, alongside such luminaries as R2-D2, Data and Maria from Metropolis. (Plus, like, real actual robots.) Pretty rarefied company for a kid who routinely forgets to wear pants.

So, as the closing theme sounds in our heads, let us all give a cheer for the one, the only Astro Boy, a futuristic hero out of a simpler past, and hopefully one that might actually be a real possibility…

Come and join us in a melody,
A song of happiness for you and me.
Sing of joy, sing about a boy,
Little hero, Astro Boy!

– Rachel Hyland

TV on DVD: Artificial Intelligence

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KnightRiderSeason1

Review: KNIGHT RIDER (1982 – 1986)

Created by: Glen A. Larson
Starring: David Hasselhoff, Willian Daniels, Edward Mulhare, Patricia McPherson, Rebecca Holden, Peter Parros, Richard Basehart
Number of Episodes: 90 (4 Seasons)
NBC

TV on DVD: Artificial Intelligence

In Short: Michael Knight and his futuristic car KITT solve crimes, plus defeat baddies of the human and motorized kind. Oh, did I mention the car can talk? IT CAN TALK!!!!
Recommended: Yes!

MICHAEL: Keep your scanners peeled, buddy!
– Almost every episode

Who wouldn’t want to drive around in a car that can talk? (Even one that does sound a little on the soft side.) I would! Plus, there’s the sound it makes as the red light under the hood goes from left to right and then back again, which I can’t accurately convey but if you’ve ever seen the show, right now you’ll be hearing it in your head.

Knight Rider made living in the 80s cool.

Every week we’d get to watch one of the coolest guys ever to be on the screen, David Hasselhoff (don’t hassle The Hoff), play Michael Long, a police officer rescued by doomed billionaire Wilton Knight (Richard Basehart) after a near fatal gunshot to the face. Michael gets some amazing plastic surgery and a name change – to, of course, Knight, just like the man who saved him, so special. And then he gets a car. A talking car, the Knight Industries Two Thousand, KITT for short (voiced by William Daniels), and while KITT may have looked like a regular, if badass, Trans Am, he was so much more.

In the first season, Michael and his car/computer sidekick head out to solve crimes and be noble and generally help people in trouble, or in troubled situations. The best part of that season was definitely the introduction of possibly the only car I would choose in preference to KITT, and that is KARR, the Knight Automated Roving Robot. KARR, of course, is the evil (more fun) version of goody-goody KITT; he is stolen from Knight Industries by a couple of thieves and used to commit robberies, which sounds like a good plan to me, considering he’s an advanced car with equally advanced armor. Too bad Michael and KITT took him down.

He wasn’t the last of them; obviously other fun bad guys cropped up to try their luck against Michael and KITT as the show went on. Season 2 gave us Milton Knight’s naughty naughty son Garthe (also David Hasselhoff), who was actually the blueprint for Michael’s new face and who was supposedly in jail in Africa serving three life sentences. Then came the best villain of the whole Knight Rider series, including in any of the spinoffs or remakes: Goliath, the truck to whom I always wished the best each time he came on screen. You just knew when he was brought in that the lovely people at Knight Industries were going to have to step up their game. It was only after an upgrade and the installation of a laser weapon that KITT headed back into battle against Goliath; wonderfully, there came a rematch later on in the series but predictably the good guys won and I cried many manly tears over the loss of Goliath the awesome.

Other than those wonderful moments there was a lot of the usual self-righteous and honorable stuff where the boys helped those in need. Season 3 saw much of the same as Michael and KITT took to the mean streets, putting down the unjust and righting the wrongs of evildoers in a generally entertaining way, all while dealing with ever-more advanced adversaries. KARR made an appearance once again after being discovered buried at a beach; he then launched into a (sadly ill-fated) scheme to destroy KITT and Michael. Adventures aplenty carried on through Seasons 3 and 4, with rebuilds, new friends and even more new enemies.

Still, looking back on watching Knight Rider, what really sticks out is the fact that there was a talking car, and I have to admit that I will forever get excited when the sound of KITT comes into my head. The theme music is another memorable thing about Knight Rider and it is still one of my favorite ringtones, especially for a good friend of mine who’s nearly as cool as David Hasselhoff himself.

Seriously: Don’t hassle The Hoff.

– Brendan McDonald

TV on DVD: Artificial Intelligence

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Northern Exposure

Review: NORTHERN EXPOSURE (1990 – 1995)

Created by: Joshua Brand, John Falsey
Starring: Rob Morrow, Janine Turner, Barry Corbin, John Corbett, Cynthia Geary, Darren E. Burrows, John Cullum, Peg Phillips
Number of Episodes: 110 (6 Seasons)
CBS

TV on DVD: Love

In Short: A Jewish doctor from New York is forced to move to small town Alaska. Hilarity ensues.
Recommended: HELL YES! (Mostly.)

JOEL: Of course, the one thing we all should have learned as children is that if there’s something that you want with all of your heart, with every fiber of your being, you’re certain not to get it.
– “Northern Lights” (04.18)

I concede that it might be a stretch to count this quirky 90s small town dramedy as falling under our purview: it’s not solidly Science Fiction, it’s not Fantasy, it’s not Covert Ops or Martial Arts, and there are certainly no vampires. But to defend its presence here in our pages (since you didn’t ask), there is at least one ghost who shows up every now and then, plus the more than occasional foray into the mystical, plus the outlandish character of Adam is a conspiracy nut to make Frohike, Langley and Byers seem reasonable and the Devil may or may not have shown up one time. Add to this fact that it is most assuredly a cult show, and therefore it – just barely – qualifies.

Our tale is that of Dr. Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow), an ambitious doctor from New York whose medical school bills were covered by the State of Alaska in return for four years of his services after he qualifies. He arrives in Juneau, Alaska’s capital, prepared to rough it in what he considers a rustic backwater – little does he know that his contract has been purchased by Maurice Minnifield (Barry Crobin), a former US astronaut turned entrepreneur, thereby bringing medical care to his small, practically-Arctic Circle town of Cicely, with a population in the hundreds instead of in the thousands he was expecting, or the millions he was used to.

Thus the aggressively Jewish (rarely does an episode go by in which he doesn’t refer to it), would-be sophisticate Joel is forced into what he considers indentured servitude among the rustics and the misfits and the Inuits of the frontier. Before long he is deep into a backbiting will-they-won-they relationship with the strident but beautiful bush pilot Maggie O’Connell (Janine Turner), and even as his resentment of his predicament mounts exponentially with every degree the mercury drops, he still manages to find some solace in new friendships with his quirky town’s even quirkier residents.

There’s Marilyn (Elaine Miles), his clinic’s office manager, a young Klinkit woman of few words and an enigmatic disposition; with a knowing half-smile usually adorning her beatific face, she is a fountain of Native American folklore apropos of almost any situation, as well being a keenly intuitive observer of human nature—and of Joel in particular. There’s Ed (Darren E. Burrows), a teenage film buff of uncertain parentage whose earnest, simple demeanor and friendly helpfulness are belied by a formidable understanding of obscure art house-inspired metaphor. There’s Holling (John Cullum), the sixty-something local publican with a checkered past, and his twenty-year old, former beauty queen “squeeze”, Shelly (Cynthia Geary), whose sprightly homespun wisdom and Valley Girl speak inject a sense of fun into his otherwise world-weary existence. There is Ruth-Anne (Peg Phillips), the forthright elderly store owner who keeps Joel supplied with lox from Zabars, and there is Chris (John Corbett), the deeply philosophical DJ of the local radio station who can – and does – quote Donne and Nietzsche as readily as he can Kerouac and Johnny Cash. (And is one crazy hot lit geek.)

Though the premise of the show is largely Fish Out of Water, and we therefore spend a lot of time watching the uptight, neurotic Joel try to comprehend the truly spectacular chasm between his solipsistic experience and the Cicely brand of community spirit, he shares a lot of his screen time with the supporting characters, and we come to care about them all equally. (Yes, even Maurice. Pompous, self-important, egomaniacal Maurice.) There are no secrets in this small town, and what with the prevalence of hallucinations, spiritual visitations, bizarre scientific phenomena and truly challenging weather that besets them all, it is no wonder that they are such a close knit, and therefore heartwarming, bunch.

There is a romance to the pioneering spirit of this town and its people that cannot be denied, and even as you know that you’d probably be just like Joel, complaining endlessly about the lack of decent restaurants and general rarefied culture, there is a part of you that hopes you’d be more like Maggie, or Shelly, or Ruth Anne, and would thrive in the isolation and yet intimacy of a place where everybody knows your name. Everywhere love blooms, even as the snow lies covering the ground, and for close to five seasons I loved this show with all my heart and city slicker soul.

But things started to go awry at the end there, as all such things must surely do. The sixth season sees Joel leave half-way through (apparently through some kind of magical portal – upon reflection, this show is more and more genre), after having gone native and spent some episodes out in the wilderness, which necessitated the arrival of a new doctor, LA internist (Paul Provenza) and his lovely wife (Teri Polo). Things had come to such a pass by this stage in Cicely that when Phil, in his second episode, says comfortingly to a shell-shocked Michelle: “Transitions are always hard. It’s gonna get better, I know it,” all I could think was: “No, it’s not.” CBS apparently agreed, because Northern Exposure was not renewed for a seventh season. It’s a rare show that can long survive the departure of its central character – would Stargate SG-1 have made it to an eleventh season had Richard Dean Anderson remained on board? Would The X-Files have lasted longer with more Mulder? – and Northern Exposure was already on shaky ground before the final death blow of Dr. Fleischman’s departure even fell.

Still, Northern Exposure can only be considered one of the greatest and most unique TV shows of all time, not to mention one of the most groundbreaking. It was a dramedy before dramedies existed. It was the first show to feature Native American culture as an integral, positive force, and it addressed issues like imperialism, climate change and marriage equality very early, and with great good humor as well as serious consideration. Watching it now, it all still feels as fresh as it did then – though some allowances must be made for the fashions; why did we wear clothes three sizes too big for us in the early 90s? Why? – and to the true NX fan, the very thought of it, like of an eccentric old friend you find yourself remembering fondly at the oddest moments, will always raise a smile.

– Rachel Hyland

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No Ordinary Family

Review: NO ORDINARY FAMILY (2010 – 2011)

Created by: Greg Berlanti, Jon Harmon Feldman
Starring: Michael Chiklis, Julie Benz, Kay Panabaker, Jimmy Bennett, Autumn Reeser, Romany Malco, Stephen Collins
Number of Episodes: 20 (1 Season)
ABC

TV on DVD: Family

In Short: A family of accidental superheroes. See, accidental. So it’s not like The Incredibles at all!
Recommended: Kind of…

GEORGE: I need you to be cool. Can you be cool?
KATIE: Historically speaking, it’s not my strong suit.
– “No Ordinary Beginning” (01.20)

If there is a more unlikely couple ever on TV than Michael Chiklis and Julie Benz, I don’t think I have seen it. He, all gruff and burly, she all squeaky-voiced and dainty, seeing them as married and parents of two surly teenagers was at first quite disconcerting. Darla and The Thing, all shacked up? An actor of Chiklis’s caliber sharing scenes with Agent Topolsky from Roswell? Weird.

But by the end of the pilot of this show, they just worked, especially when during a family vacation in the Amazon the Powell’s light plane crashes into a mysterious lake and days later they all end up with superpowers.

Watching the family come to terms with their new abilities is the most fun part of this show, from Chicklis’s Jim, a police sketch artist who has always wanted to solve crimes, discovering that he has super-strength to Benz’s Stephanie, a scientist who is clearly very brilliant (she wears a lab coat!) developing super-speed to precocious teen daughter Daphne (Kay Panabaker) becoming telepathic to slacker son JJ (Jimmy Bennett) gaining super-intelligence. But it can’t be all fun and games and testing abilities and invulnerabilities for long, because of course there must be an Evil Corporation that seeks to control the family’s powers and also an Evil Conspiracy that led to their getting those powers in the first place.

That’s how these things work.

Is No Ordinary Family all joy? By no means. The overarching plot is often threadbare and the villains are comic book over-the-top, like Stephen Collins’ Dr. Dayton King, Stephanie’s boss who is not only creepily in love with her and spies on her through hidden cameras but also knows much more about how superpowers come to be than anyone at first realizes. Also, an evil Math teacher? Come on, show! The crimes of the week, when there are some? Largely forgettable. And, man, teenagers, huh? Can’t live with ‘em, can’t control their freakish extra-sensory gifts.

Still, there is a lot to like about the show. The recurring and guest cast is a Who’s Who of geekery, from Lucy Lawless (Xena) as the villainous Mrs. X to Amy Acker (Angel, Dollhouse), Anthony Michael Hall (The Dead Zone), Tricia Helfer (BSG), Robert Picardo (Star Trek: Voyager, Stargate Atlantis) and Jackson Rathbone (Twilight). The dialogue is pleasingly sharp – if often cliché, in that “you won’t get away with this” kind of way – and Stephanie and Jim both have awesome sidekicks in lab assistant Katie (Autumn Reeser) and ADA George (Romany Malco), particularly the latter who, in addition to presumably prosecuting crimes for Los Angeles County at some point, also set up a kickass superhero support center, “The Lair”, full of high-tech wizardry to help out Jim in his vigilante crime-fighting efforts. I love Katie and George. Oh, and they’re both comic book nerds who happen to know people who develop superpowers, comic book-style. What are the odds? (Also, Katie’s romance with conflicted anti-hero Joshua [Josh Stewart]? Didn’t suck.)

Only running for one season, the show left things on a bit of a cliffhanger; yes, the immediate threat had been resolved but now the family was on the government’s radar and still there were questions to be asked about their superpowers, and whether or not others might be able to also gain such permanent enhancements. (There were others with superpowers in the show, but they needed regular injections of a costly serum called Madeupium – sorry, Trilsetum – to keep the active.) Season 2 doubtless would have seen the Powell’s impressed into service for the country, and yet more villains would have emerged and more conspiracies that would ultimately be unraveled. Was it a tragedy that this wasn’t allowed to play out? No; I don’t think there were many people putting together Save Our Show websites and petitions for this one. But had a Season 2 happened, I would have been along for the ride, because as mindless ordinary-people-as-superheroes TV goes, this one was particularly inoffensive, and even had its share of moments that actually made one think, or cry, or laugh out loud.

Still, Michael Chiklis was way too good for this show, and we can only assume that after his stint with The Fantastic Four he just desperately felt the need for some simulated super-strength again, and so signed on for this gig. And hey, we’ve all been there, right?

– Rachel Hyland

TV on DVD – Family

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The Pretender

Review: THE PRETENDER (1996 – 2000)

Created by: Steven Long Mitchell & Craig W. Van Sickle
Starring: Michael T. Weiss, Andrea Parker, Patrick Bauchau, Jon Gries, Jamie Denton and Harve Presnell
Number of Episodes: 86 (4 Seasons) plus 2 TV movies
NBC/TNT

TV on DVD: Family

In Short: A compelling but ultimate unresolved mystery involving attractive people, often in black leather.
Recommended: Yes…

There are Pretenders among us. Geniuses with the ability to become anyone they want to be. In 1963 a corporation known as The Centre isolated a young Pretender named arod and exploited his genius for their research. Then one day their Pretender ran away…
– Opening narration

I have spoken about The Pretender before in these pages, way back in Issue 3 as part of a short-lived, ill-fated regular feature we called “After the Fall.” I began thusly:

The Pretender premiered on NBC in 1996, a season heady with genre television–for which The X-Files should probably take most of the credit. Slotted in between fellow newcomers Dark Skies and Profiler (the latter going on to provide more than one crossover episode), it was a Saturday night stalwart of the late 90’s.

I then went on to examine in detail the post-Pretender career of the show’s main cast, because that was the concept and that is why the feature only ran for five issues. But now, since this time out our TV on DVD topic is “Family,” it seems only right to visit with the show itself rather than its stars, because rarely has any TV show been more focused on that subject than this one.

How to describe The Pretender? Think The Fugitive meets The Prisoner meets Quantum Leap meets Alias. It’s the story of Michael T. Weiss’s Jarod (last name unknown), a mastermind of unparalleled skill who has the ability to assume any role, to become expert in anything, to be anything. Abducted as a child and held in captivity by nefarious institute The Center, he is forced to participate in “simulations” — which somehow enrich this shadowy organization — until Jarod employs his native genius and escapes their clutches… a mere 33 years later.

As unfamiliar with human interaction as Data, as ignorant of pop culture as Temperance Brennan (and with far greater reason — seriously, Bones, turn on a TV), as earnest as Sam Winchester and as lacking in cynicism as anyone on Playhouse Disney, Jarod finds himself cast into a world full of horror and tragedy and decides to employ his considerable intellect and chameleon-like abilities (plus very good looks, if only he knew it) to right a multitude of wrongs. He Pretends to be everything from firefighter to stuntman to pool shark to various kinds of law enforcement professional to doctor and lawyer (he never attempts Indian Chief, but there’s no doubt he would have rocked it), and he always brings the guilty to book – often involving an elaborate revenge-filled scheme that would not be out of place in a Bond film – all the while searching for the elusive family from which he was taken, and attempting to cause as much grief for the hateful Center as possible.

Hot on his trail (and just plain hot) is childhood friend Miss Parker (Andrea Parker), daughter of The Center’s diabolical head villain (Harve Presnell), half-sister to another series villain (Jamie Denton), and daughter of a long-ago slain champion of the young Jarod (also played by Andrea Parker). See, family! Miss Parker was promised her freedom from their malevolent clutches upon Jarod’s successful capture — you don’t just quit The Center, which is one way you know they’re up to no good — and so is highly motivated to bring him in. Also, she’s really bitchy, and she and Jarod may or may not have A Thing. On her team are Sydney (Patrick Bauchau) — the psychiatrist who held Jarod in thrall for his time at The Center, more than three decades, and is the closest thing to family he has ever known; as well as the much put upon computer whiz Broots (Jon Gries), and sundry be-suited goons called Sweepers.

It’s a pretty fun ride.

Following The Pretender’s contentious but ultimately unsurprising cancelation after four frustrating seasons it went into syndication on TNT; decent ratings and fan support led to a commitment for three TV movies, only two of which were made, and neither of which provided many answers to four years of unrelenting questions. (Although the first, The Pretender 2001, did at least reveal what happened to Jarod, Miss Parker and their mutual half-brother Ethan [Tyler Christopher] after they were caught in an exploding train at the end of Season 4.)

Despite frequent demands from all over the world (The Pretender was very big in Europe), a few still-circulating petitions for a third movie, and the 2007 suggestion from series creators Steven Long Mitchell and Craig Van Sickle that there was potential for an internet-based conclusion to the storyline, there has been no new movement on that in recent years, and now, a decade after the series ended, anything new in The Pretender universe seems unlikely.

But come on, maybe just answer one question for us: what is Miss Parker’s first name? Seriously. This has been bugging me for over a decade.

– Rachel Hyland

TV on DVD – Family

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Defying Gravity

Review: DEFYING GRAVITY (2009)

Created by James Parriott
Starring: Ron Livingston, Christina Cox, Laura Harris, Andrew Airlie, Malik Yoba, Eyal Podell, Peter Howitt, Paula Garces, Zahf Paroo, Maxim Roy, Florentine Lahme
Number of Episodes: 13 (1 Season)
ABC/CTV/BBC2

In Short: Astronauts in love, lust, longing… and outer space.
Recommended: Kind of.

JEN: … relationships lead to things
ZOE: Yeah, like feelings.
JEN: Yeah, and compromise.
ZOE: And babies.
JEN: And pain, Relationships also lead to pain.
ZOE: Yes. Yes, they do.
– “Kiss” (01.13)

The year is 2052. The first manned mission to Mars was ten years previous, and it ended in disaster when two astronauts were abandoned on the surface, leaving their surviving crewmates, Maddux Donner (Ron Livingston) and Ted Shaw (Malik Yoba), traumatized. In a series of sometimes confusing flashbacks, we meet Donner, Ted and a whole bunch of newer recruits to the ISO (the oh-so-cleverly-named International Space Organization) as they begin training, five years after that Mars mission, for humanity’s next exciting adventure: a six-year tour of the solar system, first stop, Venus.

Also, we are with them as that adventure is in progress, five years later. Like I said: sometimes confusing.

When this show premiered in 2009, it was billed as “Grey’s Anatomy in space” and said to be based loosely on the premise of the 2004 BBC mockumentary series Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets, aka Voyage to the Planets and Beyond. (Which, if you haven’t seen it; track it down at once!) And this is all very well and good, but surely at least some of the inspiration for the show must have come from the highly publicized 2007 NASA scandal in which a female astronaut stalked and plotted the death of another for having dared to Steal Her Man—also an astronaut. Because boy, astronauts are a highly-sexed, incestuous, and incredibly competitive group, if this show is anything to go by.

There is much in Defying Gravity about man’s place in the universe, about the truths exploration of the unknown can reveal, and a lot of deep introspection regarding manifest destiny and free will – most of which we receive through the offices of somber voice-overs by Livingston’s Donner – and there is also a fairly compelling mystery offered up to us with the secret presence of “Beta”, an alien rock that can apparently communicate with both people and yet other alien rocks. But more than anything, this show is about tempestuous relationships, which might explain a lot of why it folded so abruptly at the end of its first season – and, in fact, even had its last few episodes withheld from US broadcast.

Going into the many specifics of the sexual politics among our particular cadre of ISO personnel – those either on or involved with the good ship Antares – would take up, and I am not kidding, thousands of words here, or would need at least a good-sized flow chart, so just take it as read that there is a LOT of angsty lovey-dovey stuff going down. Specifically, amid the eight astronauts on the ship and the five main support staff with whom we treat on the ground, we have three married couples – none of whom, of course, are together on the Antares, because where would be the fun in that? – two ex-couples, one friends-with-benefits situation, one nascent romance and at least one major crush. Oh, and also, a secret abortion. (In fact, if there was ever a show that was a better argument for keeping a strict non-fraternization policy active in the workplace, this is it.)

And the alien rock? Giving everyone hallucinations. While the public on the ground, who have as a whole unwittingly given $10 trillion to this mission, know nothing about its true purpose.

The frustrating thing about going into a show like this after its precipitous cancellation is, of course, that you know it’s never going to be completed, and so in that way it is hard to recommend Defying Gravity, even to those who love themselves a complicated love story. On the other hand, the enigmatic purpose of Beta gives proceedings a nicely puzzling edge, the nefarious backroom dealings of the ISO and its apparent corporate overlords always intrigue, the future status quo is cleverly sprinkled throughout, but never dwelt upon – abortion is illegal; ocean levels have risen; there’s a female president, etc. – and after a while the staccato method of story-telling, back and forth between training and the current mission, takes on an almost hypnotic quality, no longer disconcerting but suddenly absolutely essential. (Though how everyone manages to look exactly the same age after five, if not ten, years of in-show time is a mystery I hope future moisturizer technology with help explain.)

Also, the cast is uniformly excellent – particular praise going to Livingston as the cocky, yet somehow vulnerable “Tragic American Hero” Donner, as well as to: the incandescently beautiful Laura Harris (Dead Like Me) as his One True Love, geologist Zoe Barnes; the always-appealing Christina Cox (Blood Ties) as biologist Jen Crane; the handsome Eyal Podell as tortured ship’s doctor and shrink Mintz; and Zahf Paroo as the mellifluously-voiced engineer Ajay, who would have made Zoe such a wonderful boyfriend, if only her heart didn’t lie elsewhere.

Of course, if I didn’t have a couple I was totally cheering for here, especially with so very many to choose from, then I probably wouldn’t have gotten past the show’s first, somewhat befuddling, episode. Certainly, Defying Gravity’s ratings were already in freefall by its second week (and they hadn’t been that strong to begin with), and one has to assume that much of this was due to the fact that the Soap Opera Factor just did not appeal to the male demographic that still makes up much of the SFF fanbase. Me, I was shipping Zoe and Donner right from almost the very first moment they appeared together on screen, and so I stuck with the show through every bizarre plot “twist” and easily anticipated conflict, and did find myself disappointed – though hardly surprised – by the announcement that there would be no Season 2.

But hey, at least no Season 2 meant no more irritating Nadia (Florentine Lahme), and therefore no need to delve into what her peculiar hallucinations of what appeared to be herself in drag actually meant. So, always a silver lining, isn’t there?

Special Features Report: Interestingly, the DVD box set includes an extra entitled “Mission Accomplished: A Look at Defying Gravity“. Mission accomplished, huh? Is that irony?

– Rachel Hyland 

Further Reading

TV on DVD – Explorers 

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Star Trek

Review: STAR TREK: THE ORIGINAL SERIES (1966 – 1969)

Created by Gene Roddenberry
Starring: William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, DeForrest Kelley, James Doohan, Nichelle Nichols, Walter Koenig, George Takei, Majel Barrett
Number of Episodes: 79 (3 Seasons)
NBC

In Short: Yay, us!
Recommended: Hell, yes!

KIRK: Mr. Spock?
SPOCK: My legs. They’re broken.
KIRK: Let him go too, Charlie.
CHARLIE: Why?
KIRK: Because I’m telling you to. You need me to run this ship and I need him.
– “Charlie X” (01.02), providing early fodder for slash fanfic writers

It is a question that has vexed scholars, critics, and various cooler-than-thou types for decades: what is the deal with Star Trek? What in the world — any world — is so eternally captivating about this mere television show, so that otherwise perfectly respectable people feel compelled to don outlandish outfits, spend ridiculous amounts of cash, and dedicate their lives to the ever greater appreciation of all things Starfleet?

The consternation of the uninitiated is quite valid. The whole concept of Star Trek is nonsensical. All of humanity living in harmony — no war, no poverty, no money? Is it at all likely that we denizens of this rock called Earth will one day not only be civilized enough to join an inter-stellar organisation like the united Federation of Planets, but also to lead it? Hardly. And that is, really, the explanation for Star Trek‘s success.

Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) began the adventure, way back in the ’60s, when the writers’ imagining of a “Eugenics War,” set to take place in 1996, probably seemed a pretty safe bet. Kirk and his intrepid crew sought out new life and new civilizations. They went boldly where no man had gone before, only to discover, when they arrived, that most of the life and civilizations were far older than theirs and that there were plenty of “men” there already, thank you very much. Kirk picked fights and seduced alien women, and his able second-in-command, the Vulcan Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), would pronounce such human activities “illogical” or “fascinating.” The lovely Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) would open hailing frequencies while engineering wizard Scotty (James Doohan) beamed people up and the irascible Dr. McCoy (De Forest Kelly) pronounced them dead, Jim. Kirk and Spock had a friendship that some fans decided meant so much more – making them the original topic of “slash fanfic”, eg. Kirk/Spock – and the rest of the crew all had their significant relationships and moments to shine, with the exception, perhaps, of the mini-skirted, marginalized Uhura. Still, their escapades were legion – and became legend. But the viewing public wasn’t quite ready for a TV show so far ahead of its time, and befuddled NBC executives cancelled Star Trek only three years into the mission of that first U.S.S. Enterprise.

That should have been the end of it. But something extraordinary was about to happen. Devotees of the show, having successfully campaigned for its run to be extended to a third season when first it faced cancellation, had enabled it to be eligible for syndication, and in the glorious playground of re-runs, a cult was born. The people of the world began to discover the wonders of Klingons, perplexing time-travel stories, and scantily-clad green-skinned chicks. A passionate, committed, possibly certifiable fanbase developed, and when the first Star Trek movie — aptly titled Star Trek: The Motion Picture — was finally released in 1976, it gladdened hearts and souls throughout Sector 001. More movies inevitably followed (eleven in total so far, with a twelfth, the sequel to J. J. Abrams’s acclaimed 2009 “reboot” Star Trek, reportedly entitled Star Trek into Darkness, set for release in May, 2013), as did Star Treks: The Animated Series, The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager, and at the last, the prequel series Enterprise—all with decreasing amounts of success.

Of course, there are those who think Enterprise was the best Trek ever. Indeed, every Trek fan has their favorites. Die-hards swear by the swashbuckling Kirk, while a whole new generation venerate The Next Generation‘s Picard (Patrick Stewart). Starfleet officer-cum-religious icon Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) of DS9 has his adherents, the morass of contradiction that is Voyager‘s Captain Kathryn Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) is sometimes accounted worthy, and even the spectacularly insane Jonathan Archer of Enterprise (Scott Bakula) is favored by some. Not many, but some.

But it all goes back to Kirk, Spock and their intrepid crew of interstellar explorers, charting the cosmos and meeting new people and killing, or being killed by, them. Watching the original series of Star Trek (or TOS, as it is geekily, and correctly, shortened) now, it is a slice of our past, with their 60s ideas of “future” technology (TOS is set in the 22nd century, and yet they have computers larger than a midsize car) and their focus on major social issues of the time. (Plus, the space hippies!) But it is also a look at a desirable, if improbable, future; a future of promise, of wonder and of ever greater glory for the humans who inhabit the third planet of Sol.

Because glory, it seems, there will be. Even while Star Trek holds a mirror to humanity’s failings and faults (and there are many), it also panders to our amazing capacity for racial vanity. It compliments us on our creativity, our curiosity, our compassion. All the other races want to be like us. They dress like us. They act like us. They speak our language — it’s even the Federation Standard! They use our sayings, our metaphors and our similes.

Racism, sexism, fascism — many isms — have all been explored repeatedly in Star Trek using the fantastical and futuristic as context. But perhaps the most telling of Trek‘s metaphors is that the manifold races on Star Trek (and its sequel series) clearly represent facets of ourselves. The Klingons are bloodthirsty and battle-hungry, delighting in death and duty and honor. The Bajorans are religious, the Vulcans are logical, the Romulans sneaky. The Ferengi venerate wealth, the Cardassians enslave whole populations of planets, and Voyager‘s menacing Hirogen hunt living beings for sport and get off on the pain of their captured prey.

And then there’s the Borg. The warning that a reliance on technology can lead to such a dehumanized society is always a timely one. Plus, they’re really creepy, super-strong and unstoppable, but we can beat them! Humanity — in the persons of Captains Picard and Janeway and their crews — continues to outwit even the fearsome Borg, and that is the essence of what makes all things Star Trek so endlessly popular, all of it stemming from the very first voyage of the Starship Enterprise. It explains why fans keep rewatching, and new fans are born, courtesy of reruns and Netflix, every day.

The overwhelming theme of Star Trek is “Yay, us!” It is a theme that endures like no other, and is at the heart of Trek‘s longevity. Nothing is more attractive than the idea that even if we of Earth aren’t alone, even if we start the cosmic race at a distinct disadvantage and possibly with our shoelaces untied, that we will be able catch up and beat the Others to the finish line because we’re human, dammit! And as long as we are, Star Trek will always be with us, watched, rewatched, and debated. Trekkers and -ies and those who eschew such labels will attach the Vulcan ears, and buy the Franklin Mint collector plates, and commit reams of information to memory so that they can win an argument about warp propulsion or where the Jeffries tubes are located on Kirk’s beloved ship – yes, even to this day, with the show off the air for over forty years. It’s okay if there are those that just don’t get it. After all, they’re only human.

– Rachel Hyland

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Further Reading

TV on DVD – Explorers 

Awake

Review: AWAKE (2012)

Created by: Kyle Killen
Starring: Jason Isaacs, Laura Allen, Steve Harris, Dylan Minnette, BD Wong, Michaela McManus, Wilmer Valderrama, Cherry Jones, Laura Innes
Number of Episodes: 13 (1 Season)
NBC

TV on DVD: Crime Fighters

In Short: One man. Two realities. Not nearly enough episodes.
Recommended: Yes!

DR. LEE: You can’t tell whether you’re awake or asleep at this very moment.
DR. EVANS: Oh, I can assure you Detective Britten, this is not a dream
MICHAEL: That’s exactly what the other shrink said.
– “Pilot” (01.01)

To the pantheon of One Season Wonders, those fabled, magnificent shows that were unjustly killed off long before their time by short-sighted network overlords – think Firefly, Space: Above and Beyond, Wonderfalls, what have you – I would emphatically like to add Awake. Cancelled too soon, NBC! Cancelled too soon.

Awake is the perplexing, but thoroughly engaging, tale of the LAPD’s Detective Michael Britten (Jason Isaacs), a good cop recovering from two separate and yet equally terrible tragedies—or, at least, so he thinks. Pre-show, there had been a car accident in which at least one member of his immediate family died; the thing is, Jim isn’t sure which one.

He is a man caught in two separate realities, one in which his teenage son Rex (Dylan Minnette) died that fateful day, another in which his loving wife Hannah (Laura Allen) did. More than separate, they are the true definition of alternate realities, as he alternates between them, going to bed saying goodnight to Rex and then waking up beside Hannah. So he lives each day twice: once with Rex, where he and his estranged son deal with the loss of their wife/mother and try to bridge the gulf between them; and then again with Hannah, where they are grieving parents trying to move on without their beautiful boy. In each world he has different partners on the job, and different crimes to investigate, it’s same-same-but-different; to help keep it all straight, he wears a green wristband in Rex World and a red one in Hannah Land, but even then it all gets very confusing, for him and for us.

In each reality he has been assigned a psychologist, both offering conflicting opinions and advice, both utterly convinced – and often very convincing – that theirs is Michael’s real reality, and the other one a dream, a delusion, mere wish-fulfillment. And that the other reality’s shrink is a moron.

This is all made even more complicated by the fact that in both worlds Michael has the same Captain (Laura Innes), who is shifty and knows more than she is saying about these dual realities – there is a broader, endlessly mysterious conspiracy at work, as well as a profound examination of What is Reality?

All this, and we get not one but two intriguing cases in each episode, both separate and yet having a definite bleed-through effect, to the point where Michael’s seemingly inexplicable intuition regarding his current investigation – he’s usually following up clues he picked up in his other reality – often place him on precarious ground with his colleagues.

This show was a critical darling earlier this year, with particular praise – and it is praise well-deserved – going to Jason Isaacs as our lead, conflicted hero. Isaacs’s Detective Britten is one of the most effective cops to ever grace the screen, not only in his investigative doggedness nor his action man chases, but in the interrogation room, he is so persuasive you almost feel like you should confess to the crime. In his personal life, Michael is a good man trapped in an outlandish situation, but one he doesn’t want to see end, because then he would have to say goodbye to one of his loved ones.

The acting throughout the show is excellent, actually – Wilma Valderama (Fez of That 70’s Show fame) as Michael’s partner in Hannah Land, is a particular surprise. Also great are the scripts and the production values; plus, the overarching mystery is played nicely, with teasing hints dropped like breadcrumbs, and then completely ignored for a few episodes as we delve back into Michael’s fractured realities/psyche. (Episode 11, “Say Hello to my Little Friend”, is one of the finest, gripping-est, trippy-est, most heart-breaking hours of procedural TV I’ve ever seen.)

Not yet out on DVD, Awake Season 1 is nevertheless available for download from most On Demand services (the way of the future…?), and is a really worthwhile experience. And at least going in, you’ll know that once you reach episode 13, that’s it; there is no more; there are questions still hanging, even though the season arc is definitely complete; and yet you’re done.

Until maybe one day we awake in a reality in which this show got a much deserved Season 2.

– Rachel Hyland

Further Reading

TV on DVD: Crime Fighters

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Dark Angel

Review: DARK ANGEL (2000-2002)

Created by: James Cameron and Charles H. Eglee
Starring: Jessica Alba, Michael Weatherly, Valarie Rae Miller, Jensen Ackles
Number of Episodes: 43 (2 Seasons)
FOX

TV on DVD: Crime Fighters

In Short: A genetically engineered super-soldier must hide her abilities while living in Seattle during the next great depression.
Recommended: Hell yes!

LOGAN: If I just had my ass handed to me by a size three, I’d be inclined to mind my own business.
– “Pilot” (01.01)

Dark Angel is cheesy, tries too hard to be hip, ended on a massive cliffhanger and uses some ridiculous plot twists… and I cannot even tell you how much I love this show. The show starts with a group of super-powered children in the midst of an epic escape before jumping several years into the future. Now, escapee Max (Jessica Alba) is living in a rundown version of Seattle after “The Pulse” destroyed a lot of America’s technology and made things a lot harder for everyone. Life is not all good for America anymore and corruption is everywhere, so inevitably Max gets involved in trying to right all the wrongs while keeping up her secret identity. Given the elements, the setup is somewhat predictable but it is what it is, and so the adventure begins.

Say what you will about James Cameron, but the man thinks big. Dark Angel comes with a well-developed setting, all kinds of hardcore technology and a complicated mythology. I love the technology that comes along with sci-fi and the gloomy mood of post-apocalyptic societies, and somehow this show manages to give viewers a bit of both.

While it’s not something I usually bother to comment on, it has to be said: there is some wonderful eye candy in this show, no matter what it is that floats your boat. Jessica Alba and Jensen Ackles (he’s only really in season 2, it’s a crime) are the epitome of beautiful people, and then they start in with the kung-fu action and your mind just overloads on all the awesome. The rest of the cast is generally pretty solid (albeit way less sexy) with a few characters who end up getting lost in the shuffle. Max’s man crush Logan (Michael Weatherly) is a bored millionaire just trying to make things better for everyone before tragedy strikes. The two of them have an interesting storyline that goes a little too far out of the way to be unpredictable but the chemistry is genuine (at the time, they were actually dating/engaged) and fun to watch.

To be fair, and despite all of this, the show did get cancelled after just two seasons. So where did things go wrong? Season 2 had such a drastically different tone than the first, which I’m sure lost more than a few viewers in the transition. The dialogue had a tendency to lean towards the cheesy side of things (and that isn’t even counting the non-stop future slang that will work its way into your psyche within a few episodes) and Joshua (), the talking dog man was a bit much to take for more casual viewers. Add all that to the dreaded Friday night timeslot and everything came crumbling down. Dark Angel is another solid argument towards why we should never let the Fox network get anywhere near Sci-Fi TV that has genuine potential. [See: Space: Above and Beyond, Firefly, The Sarah Connor Chronicles and Dollhouse, not to mention Wonderfalls and Tru Calling. Though they did very sensibly cancel Sliders after it's first season. - Ed.]

All that being said, Dark Angel is still absolutely worth a watch (and a few re-watches). This show is badass in all the right ways while still never taking itself too seriously. Fair warning, though: it ends on a horrible, horrible cliffhanger. If there had been a Season 3 it would have been an entirely different kind of show once again, as events were shaping up to give us the all-out war between “freaks” and “normals” that we’d all been waiting for—but didn’t get to see. Still, there are three companion novels to the series, written by media tie-in king Max Allan Collins, two of which help round out the story after the cameras stopped rolling, so we weren’t completely abandoned to the mercy of our own imaginations.

So, watch this show, watch it now!

– Kellie Sheridan

Further Reading

TV on DVD: Crime Fighters

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