Tales From SYL Ranch – 2017-05-28

Tales From SYL Ranch
Sunday, May 28, 20:00-22:00 UTC

The Old Fan’s Commentary On

Forbidden Planet

Forbidden Planet is a somewhat different film in terms of a commentary.  It’s arguably the best science fiction film of the 1950s.

Sturgeon's Law: 90% of Science Fiction is crap.
Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of Science Fiction is crap.

The 1950s was in some ways similar to the 1980s.  Following Star Wars, science fiction exploded in films.  However, Sturgeon’s Law held, and 90% of it was crap.  Most were consigned to the ashbins of VHS.  Some have been re-released on DVD and Bluray for a niche market that likes terrible movies.

The 1950s were similar.  The Atomic Age brought with it the idea there would soon be a massive breakthrough in power.  They assumed that some day soon, your home or even your car would be nuclear-powered.  This triggered an avalanche of science fiction films.

Sturgeon's Law: 90% of Science Fiction is crap.
Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of Science Fiction is crap.

Sturgeon’s Law was as true then as today.  90% of it was crap.  A lot of them haven’t survived at all.  The ones that did seem incredibly primitive by today’s standards.

Forbidden Planet was one of only two or three stand-out films of the 1950s.  This was in no small measure because it was produced by MGM.

At the time, MGM was among the premiere film companies in the world.  It didn’t lend its name to half-baked projects.  If MGM made a musical, it was a brilliant musical.  If MGM made a western, it was a brilliant western.

Leo, the MGM Lion
Leo, the MGM Lion

MGM would never produce Plan 9 From Outer Space, nor giant insects, nor 50-foot-tall women.  If MGM was going to lend its name to science fiction, it was going to be brilliant science fiction.

The result is Forbidden Planet.  It was glorious.  Cultural conceits and technical limitations aside, its ideas and plot still hold up today.

Monsters from the Id.
Monsters from the Id.

The special effects, while somewhat dated today, were landmark at the time.  Even today, some hold up.

The science behind the technology of the film was extremely well thought-out.  It looks somewhat dated today but even now it’s very well thought-out.   Where it needed technobabble and Hand-Wavium, it was reasoned technobabble and Hand-Wavium.

As always, to set the stage:

This time you have to back farther than me.  I first saw Forbidden Planet at the Rigel IV convention in Lincoln, Nebraska.  The convention marked my entrance into Star Trek fandom.  Until that time, I’d been an individual fan with a bare understanding that fandom existed somewhere.  After Rigel V, I was in it for life.

However, I was born in 1965.  Forbidden Planet was released in 1956, nine years before.

It was a different world, and one I can only imagine.  My only exposure to American culture of the time were my parents’ occasional stories, fictional movies and TV shows, and my own observations on the changes in culture since my birth.

As near as I can determine, this was the world in 1956:

There was nothing that we think of as entertainment.  There was television, radio, phonograph records, and personal pastimes (reading, involvement in local sports or organizations, etc).

The commercialization of television was just getting into full swing.  Imagine the Internet in the late 1990s.  No one but the fabulously wealthy could afford more than one TV.  The picture was grainy, low-definition, analog broadcast.  The vacuum cleaner could obliterate the picture, not to mention storms.

We actually had to do this. I'm not kidding.
We actually had to do this. I’m not kidding.

To receive TV signals, you needed an antenna (think of it as a low-tech satellite dish).  By the time I was born, these antennas dotted the roof of every home and apartment complex.  In 1956, one often used a much smaller, less effective interior portable antenna.

The picture still sucked.

There were only three networks (four if you were charitable and counted PBS — which no one did).  They didn’t run 24-hour programming.  It was typically only 6am – midnight.

TV was black-and-white.  Commercialization of color wouldn’t come for another ten years.

There was one phone, a land-line to the house. Sound quality anywhere but in your local town or city was terrible.  International calls were spotty at best — not to mention fantastically expensive.

Nothing we take for granted existed.  Not even air conditioning had reached the average home.  Indeed, air conditioning was a major selling points of movie theaters of the day.

(Ask my kids about the time we went to Blonde Ambition just to get away from the oppressive heat of July in the Upper Great Plains.)

From the Sears Catalog, Spring/Summer 1958
From the Sears Catalog, Spring/Summer 1958

Fashions were radically different for both men and women.  Men wore suits and hats.  Women wore dresses and rather complicated undergarments.  Jeans were becoming acceptable on pre-adult males, but no one over the age of 18 would be found at a job without his suit and tie.

It was certainly a more prudish culture than we think of in 2017.  Sex outside of marriage was actively discouraged even by other women.  A skirt with a hemline above the knees marked a woman as a slut.

Men were expected to be bread-winners.  If one relied on one’s wife for any source of income, a man was shamed by other men.  Taking hand-outs from the government, or charity of any kind, was seen as a character flaw.  Such a man was a bum, pure and simple.

Religion played a much larger role in American life.  Where some 30% of Americans now identify as atheists, the number in 1956 was so low as to be statistically insignificant.

That’s the most I can tell you about the era.  I wasn’t there.  All I can rely on is history.  To my knowledge, that’s what things were like in 1956.

If you’d like to follow along with the commentary, a DVD-quality stream will be available during the live show.  After that, you’re on your own.

The URL for the stream is:

Tales From SYL Ranch – 2017-05-21

Episode III:
The Old Fan’s Commentary On
The Star Wars Holiday Special
The Star Wars Holiday Special
Bill hopes that the Holiday Special is like the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal.

My brain hurts.  Just watching this was a chore.  I’ve now seen it five times in my life, which was five too many.  I can’t even introduce it properly because it’s terrible in ways that are beyond description.

Carrie Fisher was out of her mind on blow.
Carrie Fisher was out of her mind on blow.

I wouldn’t watch it in advance, despite the fact that I’ll be streaming it from a YouTube version that’s been available for years.  In this case, I strongly advise that you pay attention to my commentary rather than the Holiday Special.

It’s really bad.  It’s not so bad it’s good, it’s just bad.

Mark Hamill was recovering from a car accident that severely injured his face.
Mark Hamill was recovering from a car accident that severely injured his face.

Vogon poetry may be the third worst in the universe, but The Star Wars Holiday Special is the worst thing in all of time and space.

It was bad when I first saw it in 1978.  It only aired once and never again.  It has never been released on any form of home video or official streaming.  It survives because by 1978, people were starting to buy VCRs.

The Holiday Special is so bad that George Lucas has disowned it, saying:

“If I had the time and a sledgehammer, I would track down every copy of that show and smash it.”

I have no idea.
I have no idea.

Fortunately (or not) for posterity, the Internet means that it will never die.

This commentary is about my feelings when seeing this bizarre monstrosity for the first time.  It’s the only kind of commentary I can make.

I’ll not be playing The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy this week.  The Holiday Special is about 1:40.  I was faced with the choice of either leaving in H2G2 and stretching this madness into two weeks; or save your sanity by bumping H2G2.

I chose to save your sanity.  H2G2 will be back next week.

Next Week: The Old Fan's Commentary On Forbidden Planet
Next Week: The Old Fan’s Commentary On Forbidden Planet

Also next week:  the Old Fan’s Commentary On Forbidden Planet.

To set the stage:

It’s 1978.  Everything we’ve come to take for granted didn’t exist.  There was no streaming, no Blurays, no DVDs, no CDs, no personal computers of note, no Internet, and even the telephone was only a land-line to your house.  VCRs were beginning to hit the market.  Cassette tapes had become the medium of choice for personal music.

Star Wars had hit a year before and changed everything.  There were no summer blockbusters before Star Wars.  There were no gigantic merchandising enterprises before Star Wars.  There was no science fiction of note except very, very infrequently before Star Wars.

Star Wars changed everything.

Art Carney gives Chewbacca's father, Itchy, some porn. Really.
Art Carney gives Chewbacca’s father, Itchy, some porn.  Really.

When the Special aired around US Thanksgiving, Lucas was at work on the sequel to Star Wars.  I don’t recall if he’d named it at that time.  I’d been actively in fandom for at least a year, having joined Star Base Andromeda by then.

While we thought it odd that there would be a holiday-themed special in Star Wars, it could work.  The notion of a Wookiee Life Day — if fleshed-out — could be a parallel to Christmas.

What we got was incomprehensible.  There were really only two good things about it:

  • The entire main cast was in it.  According to Harrison Ford, it was stipulated in their contracts and they had no legal way out.
  • The cartoon introducing Boba Fett.

Beyond that, it’s a bizarre attempt to fit a variety show into Star Wars.  To call this an epic fail would do a disservice to all other fails.  It has, among other things:

  • Carrie Fisher is obviously out of her mind on blow.
  • Mark Hamill is recovering from a car accident that severely injured his face.  They put a ton of makeup and a wig on him to (unsuccessfully) hide it.  He looks like a cardboard cutout.
  • Chewie’s wife is named Mala — but his son is named Lumpy and his father Itchie.
  • More than half an hour of un-subtitled Wookiee noises.
  • Harvey Korman in multiple roles.  The worst is some guy in the Mos Eisley Cantina who pours booze into a hole at the top of his head.
  • Art Carney as some kind of rebel sympathizer who’s around primarily to translate the Wookiees.  That, and to give Itchy some VR porn.
  • Bea Arthur as a singing bartender at the Mos Eisley Cantina.
  • Jefferson Starship
  • The Wazzan Troupe
Harvey Corman knows.
Harvey Korman knows.

Really.  It’s all in there — and more.  It’s rather indescribable, hence the commentary.

We’ll be streaming the video via YouTube, so feel free to follow along.  Again, I advise not watching in advance, nor listening to anything other than my commentary.  It’s quite possible to go mad attempting to figure this out.

If you want to follow along, the video is right here; or you can see it at: