Monday, July 27, 2009
Of late, I think I have mystified and puzzled some of my mates with my decision not to return to buying The Fantastic Four when the new writer/artist team takes over next issue. But I stand by my decision. As I’ve stated in the past, I have made a promise to myself that I will not support people doing things of which I can’t approve with this book. There are those who don’t understand my disapproval. Frankly, I wonder how many of them are following The FF; indeed, how many of them have ever followed Marvel’s first and finest. (Well, I know a couple of them have, at least.) Why, they wonder, should I so disapprove of the redesign of the cover trade dress and the makeover of the team uniforms? (“Trade dress” is publishing-industry talk for the logo and other indicia on the covers of a magazine or periodical.) Now you understand, we’re talking about comic-book-reading gays here. If it were The Legion of Super-Heroes or Wonder Woman or Supergirl that were being tampered with in a manner that met with someone’s disapproval, there are some people in gay comic-book-reading circles who would scream bloody murder, and others who would join the chorus. But evidently it’s okay to screw around with The Fantastic Four and I shouldn’t care what Marvel does with this book’s visual standards. The FF are not, after all, gay comic-book-fan icons.
But anyway, with variations on image from month to month as the story changes, obviously, what you see here at the top of the cover of Fantastic Four #509, drawn by Mike Wieringo, is what we should see at the top of any new issue of The FF. Observe that at the very top is the bold and very audacious caption, “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” It takes a lot of nerve for any comic book to call itself that. Stan Lee did it with The FF on the THIRD issue. Over time, during Stan’s collaboration with Jack Kirby, it proved a defensible claim. How well it has continued to deserve that caption over the years is open to debate, but for decades it has been part of the “magic” of this book. We also see a particular version of the original FF logo designed, I believe, by Sol Brodsky for the very first issue in August 1961. It is a somewhat more sophisticated, computer-enhanced version of the classic. I think it’s a truly gorgeous graphics job. This logo and that caption, in one form or another, have fronted some of the finest works of visual storytelling in this medium.
Why should The FF’s trade dress not be replaced? It’s been changed and redesigned before; for instance, during the Mark Waid/Mike Wieringo period, which I generally loved, there was a logo that I truly detested, that looked as if it should be on the label of a bottle of Fantastic Four Beer or rotating on the roof of a Planet Fantastic Four Restaurant. God, I hated that! (But Waid had the perfect approach to this book: Don't bother screwing with the way it looks, logo notwithstanding; let's just do some fresh and different stories!) Changing the trade dress was a mistake on those occasions when they did it in the past and it’s a mistake now. I’m going to coin a new term for my thinking on this matter. I’m going to call it a matter of visual and graphic identity. And I’m going to give a couple of other examples of what I mean, from outside of comics. I direct your attention to the covers of two magazines that everyone should know: Time and the National Geographic.
Month after month, year after year, decade after decade, there are two things in the publishing world that you can count on. The cover of Time magazine every week will have a red border around it (when they don’t use it, it’s for an exceptional reason), and the Time logo will be of a certain typeface and a certain design. Similarly, the National Geographic will have a cover with a gold border and a logo of a certain typeface and a certain design. You expect these things. You know these things. These things are part of the visual and graphic identity of those magazines. Now, imagine that you go to the newsstand (or your mailbox, if you subscribe) and waiting for you there is a Time magazine with no red border on the cover and a different logo. Or a National Geographic shorn of its gold cover border and sporting a non-traditional new logo. And further, imagine that you go inside and all the type is of a different font, laid out in a different way. The content hasn’t changed, but the way it is presented to your eyes has been radically altered. Maybe it’s still a good magazine. Maybe it’s still well-written and carries top-quality photographs and illustrations. But does it still feel like Time or the National Geographic? Or do the changes feel arbitrary, random, and gratuitous?
Some of my friends don’t get me not wanting to buy and support a Fantastic Four with different trade dress lacking its “World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” banner, and our heroes sporting “new, cool, 21st-Century” uniforms. There was nothing uncool about the version of the trade dress and the FF uniforms that you saw above on the cover of FF #509. There was nothing wrong with it. It wasn’t broken and didn’t need to be fixed. The only problem with them is that someone decided they didn’t appeal well enough to people who spend their lives Instant Messaging and Twittering. Someone thought it needed to be made over for the No-Attention-Span generation. What I don’t want to spend my money on is a Fantastic Four that has been stripped of its visual and graphic identity. I stopped buying it earlier this year and, from what I’ve seen of the changing of the guard next month (a preview was appended to The Mighty Avengers #27 the other week), I’m not coming back any time soon. Perhaps I’ll never come back. Certain of my friends don’t get that. I can’t explain it any better than I have.
(The Four’s outfit, by the way, really was never meant to be flashy in the way of a super-hero costume. Stan and Jack originally intended the FF to wear regular clothes. For their mission in the first issue they wore plain jumpsuits in the fashion of their DC Comics predecessors, the Challengers of the Unknown. But fans rightly and reasonably wanted their super-heroes to look super, so Stan and Jack compromised and created a uniform of spare, utilitarian design, the original version of which appears in Fantastic Four #3. It is this basic ensemble, a variation on the Challengers suits, which has had some modifications over the years, that has been the standard--and should still be in use, but...)
The Fantastic Four is a classic creation, like Superman, like Captain America, like Spider-Man. (And of these, the second owes his revival to the FF and the third owes them his existence.) As I have asserted before, a classic is "something timeless and immune to style." It’s not just any comic book, but people insist on treating it as if it were, and as if you can do just anything with it. I find it a bit insulting to think that a comic book that has always been about science needs to be “brought into the 21st Century”. This was “a 21st-Century comic book” before there was a 21st Century. I want to read “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine”. They’re not giving me that book, so not a dime of my money goes in that direction. Sorry.
Now, for someone who did understand that The Fantastic Four is not just any comic book, I give you British-born Canadian artist and writer John Byrne.
Above you see the Fantastic Four battling the Fantastic Four, as depicted by Byrne. The images you’ll see for the remainder of this post are taken from the Byrne Robotics Website. One FF in the above image is the FF as they became during the wondrous period of the 1980s when Byrne was writing and drawing the book. The FF they’re battling are the Four as they appeared in their very first issue. This is a wonderfully clever drawing that someone commissioned, and hang on for the others that await you below!
These are some truly magnificent pieces of work by a man who understood the FF in a way that very few other people working in comics do. (Stan Lee himself, Mark Waid, possibly J. Michael Straczynski.) I only wish I had the time just to sit down with my markers and color all these puppies. This next one, which I’m presently using as the desktop image on Black Beauty, my MacBook, is one that I’m definitely going to have to color. In it we see Earth’s greatest heroes battling their nemesis, Earth’s greatest villain, Dr. Doom. The sight of it almost makes me want to weep. Check this out. This is the FF and Doom in their full and best glory.
And here are the FF and Dr. Doom again, this time in a tableau in which the deadly Doc has abducted the Thing’s erstwhile girlfriend, Alicia Masters. (Doom actually did grab Alicia in FF #17, but the story didn’t unfold quite like this.) It’s another stunner.
And here’s the man himself seated on his throne, the villain who gets fan mail from other bad guys. (“...and I loved how you used your Molecular Intensifier to bombard the Thing with dust particles grown to the size of boulders! Mind if I borrow that sometime to try out on Superman? Keep up the bad work! Love, Luthor.”)
This shot of our foursome battling their very first adversary, the melancholy Mole Man, was used as the cover of Modern Masters: John Byrne, a tribute book from Two Morrows Publications.
One of the most dramatic Marvel battles unfolded in Fantastic Four #25 and 26, in which the many-splendored Thing slugged it out with the ever-incredible Hulk in the streets of New York, and the Avengers, who were chasing the Hulk, pursued him from their own book into The FF! This clash of the monsters and historic first meeting of Marvel’s most important teams is portrayed in this amazing piece that shows us the cover of FF #26 from a different angle.
One of the greatest of all classic Marvel stories took up the back end of FF #48, all of #49, and the first half of #50, the equivalent of two issues, but is colloquially called “The Galactus Trilogy.” It’s a story we discussed when we talked about people mucking around with the work of Jack Kirby; the tale that introduced us to the planet-consuming Galactus and his angelic herald, the scintillating Silver Surfer. It is easily one of my top three favorite comic stories, and one that I go back to again and again for inspiration. It doesn’t get any more awesome or wondrous than this. Here’s Byrne’s rendition of the unforgettable first coming of Galactus. (See that nasty little cyborg battling the Thing in the foreground? That’s Galactus’s watchdog, the Punisher. The original Punisher!)
Directly after the intro of Galactus and the Surfer, Reed Richards, Mr. Fantastic, initiated an exploration of sub-space that led to the discovery of the dread antimatter universe, the Negative Zone. And waiting for our Fantastic Four in the Zone were two of their most nightmarish foes, the insectile, bat-winged Annihilus, “He Who Annihilates,” with his all-powerful Cosmic Control Rod; and the bestial Blastaar, the Living Bomb-Burst. These two creatures have always hated each other, but in this piece they’ve found common cause against our heroes.
Cosmic, science-fiction-type adversaries of world-shattering power are part of the FF’s stock in trade. They’re not simply crime fighters; they’re more what the comic-book writer Alan Moore called “science heroes”. This spectacular drawing has them facing Galactus, Blastaar, Annihilus, and Byrne’s own creation, Terrax the Tamer, with the Silver Surfer flying in like the cavalry. Spectacular!
At various times, members of the Fantastic Four have stepped down or left the team, and other characters have stepped up to replace them. Sue Richards, the Invisible Girl/Woman, appears here with Crystal of the Inhumans (the Human Torch’s first great love), who replaced Sue during her maternity leave with son Franklin; Medusa, Crystal’s sister, who filled out the Four while Reed and Sue were estranged; and She-Hulk, who was a long-term substitute for the Thing. It’s a great shot of the women of the FF.
Another of my favorite stories is one that I call “Galactus Trilogy II,” from FF #242-244 by Byrne himself. In it, the rebellious and evil Galactian Herald, Terrax, tries to blackmail the Fantastic Four into murdering his master! Before all is said and done, the Avengers and Dr. Strange have entered the battle (with Spider-Man and Daredevil as spectators!) and Frankie Raye, the sensational She-Torch--lover of Johnny Storm, the Human Torch--has made a decision that will break Johnny’s heart. The drama of that story is captured in this shot.
Now, remember when I told you that Byrne demonstrated one of the best understandings of what to do with the FF? This is a drawing that reminds me of how true that is. In FF #256, Byrne did something that should have been considered sacrilegious (I was a little put out by it myself at first) by changing the colors of the Fantastic Four uniform from blue and black to black (or Navy blue) and white! He didn’t actually change the design of the outfit, the way people have done lately; he just swapped the colors. The reason this worked is that it wasn’t a random, arbitrary change for the sake of difference alone, coming out of left field. It was a well thought-out, purposeful change growing organically out of the story. (The FF had been stuck in the Negative Zone and couldn’t get back the usual route through the Distortion Area that serves as a buffer between that universe and ours; they had to rig a way to make the jump directly. The “unstable molecules” of their costumes reacted to the jump by changing colors!) I grew to accept the FF uniforms in “Byrne colors” because, as I said, it wasn’t a left-field change; it was a story-driven change. My only problem was that most other artists wouldn’t go to the time and effort to make the new suits as dark or black as they were supposed to be, and over time, depending on who the artist was (or the animator, as in the dreadful first season on The FF on The Marvel Action Hour), the Byrne colors were often watered down into a medium-blue and white scheme, which totally lacked the “punch” of what Byrne did. It only goes to show that change can be good, but sometimes you just have to stick with the classic. Here’s a gorgeous shot of the FF in Byrne colors with the Fantasticar, Franklin, and one of the HERBIE robots. It evokes the same feeling as the cover of FF #3 and is another one that I should color.
(The uniform color-change was not the only “radical” thing John Byrne did with the FF. He also replaced the Thing with She-Hulk, had the original Baxter Building destroyed, and put Sue through some emotional crises that led her to change her call sign from the Invisible Girl to the Invisible Woman. But again, these were things that grew out of and worked naturally with the stories. I accepted all of these changes because they weren’t just foisted on us from left field and weren’t random and arbitrary. Is there actually a storytelling reason for the present and recent FF uniforms except that someone thought kids with no sense of history would find it “cool”?)
This story never actually took place, but you’ve got to love this shot of the guys and the Silver Surfer squaring off against Galactus and Terrax.
This drawing is a variation on a story that actually did happen and is another one of my favorites. In FF # 258-260, Byrne had Dr. Doom give Tyros the Terrible (who was Terrax until Galactus took back his powers and let him fall from the top of the World Trade Center!) a charge of artificial Power Cosmic and try to use him as a weapon against the Fantastic Four. Here, the Four have their hands full with both Doom and the fully powered Terrax!
For many years it was believed that the Avengers’ arch-foe, Kang the Conqueror, was some descendant or relative of Dr. Doom. One of Byrne’s FF sagas revealed that Kang in all his identities (FF villain Rama Tut, the Scarlet Centurion, Immortus) is actually a descendant of Mr. Fantastic himself! Kang is not a Von Doom; he’s a Richards! Had he been able to stay with The Fantastic Four long enough, Byrne might actually have given us an epic clash such as we see here, in which the First Family of Adventure must battle their very own “black sheep!” The Fantastic Four vs. Kang, with Reed confronting the “bad seed” of his own bloodline--just imagine...
And finally, a shot of Galactus and his Heralds. Clockwise from top left: Gabriel the Air Walker, the Silver Surfer, Firelord (who first appeared in The Mighty Thor), Terrax, and Nova (who was the flame-powered Frankie Raye until she pulled a “Silver Surfer” and became Galactus’s Herald to save Earth, much to the Torch’s sorrow).
All of the above are just such inspiring pieces. They remind me of what made me love comics. I would still get that feeling from The Fantastic Four if people would just remember that it isn’t just any comic book. It almost causes me physical pain to look at The FF in its present state. The whole thing reminds me of a line from another comic book. In The Avengers Vol. 3 #1, Moondragon says to the Sub-Mariner (who was revived in FF #4):
“Standards fall, Namor. It’s the way of the universe.”
NEXT POST: Back to Hollywood for more of my voyage with Star Trek!
Monday, July 20, 2009
For instance, there was the meeting in which we were in the midst of going over the details of some episode, I forget which one, and a makeup artist came in with an actor wearing preliminary facial prosthetics for the alien Voths of the episode “Distant Origin”. This is the episode that was being shot as I arrived, and as fate would have it, also the episode that would become my favorite of the Voyager series. (I wrote about this in a post quite a while back.) I find it particularly pleasing that they were producing my favorite episode just as I was starting my tenure, and that I may have been the first fan to see the “aliens” from that show (who turned out to be actually from Earth, but look it up and see for yourself.)
There was also the afternoon when Kate Mulgrew--Captain Kathryn Janeway herself--came in to pitch a story idea. I was informed in advance that Kate would be joining us that day, so I had the chance to admonish myself, Put on the poker face NOW! And don’t you DARE act like a fan when she comes in! I said before we were going to talk about what to do when you meet a star, and consider that a little preview.
So, in walked Kate Mulgrew, just as poised and lovely and professional as you please, and sat down on the couch not six feet away from me. Had anyone ever told me that this lady who used to be Mary Ryan on the soap opera Ryan’s Hope (which I used to sit through while waiting for All My Children) and was later a most unlikely Mrs. Columbo would one day be the Captain of a Federation Starship in the Gene Roddenberry universe, I would have called such a person daft. But there she was, and she was charming. Remember last week’s story of Executive Producer Jeri Taylor and how she came to Star Trek out of left field, as a crime show producer in her 50s, after cramming every bit of Star Trek that had been produced to that point? A similar story is that of Kate Mulgrew, who also had no science or science fiction background and no knowledge of Star Trek, but came in at the eleventh hour, during the shooting of the pilot episode, to replace Genevieve Bujold as the Captain of the Voyager. She had to hit the ground running, learning not only the basic dialogue of the show but also the Star Trek terminology (including the dreaded “technobabble,” which had become thicker than wet cement by the time they were doing this series) and the inner workings and history of Star Trek and science fiction itself. And she had to do it all on the fly, as the lead in an hour-long dramatic series! And more, she had to do it under the scrutiny of Paramount executives who’d had to be sold on the idea of a Trek with a woman Captain in the first place! (I wonder what they thought of having a black Captain on Deep Space Nine.) A woman of brains and bravery to match her talent is Ms. Kate Mulgrew.
I should also mention that it was an eminently wise decision to replace Genevieve Bujold. She reportedly had no rapport with the rest of the cast, and as for her performance... Well, when I got Netflix one of the first things I did was to rent the Voyager DVD with the “Extras” of the first season on it, just to see Bujold as the proto-Janeway. She may be a great actress otherwise, but I swear she did her scenes for Star Trek as if she were mentally making out her grocery list at the same time. She had no presence at all. Kate Mulgrew really saved the day.
But back to our meeting. What Kate Mulgrew was doing there that day was to pitch her idea for something interesting for Captain Janeway to do outside of her command duties. Trekkers may remember that at the end of the third season of Voyager they introduced a Holodeck tableau in which Janeway whiled away her free time in the studio of Leonardo DaVinci (John Rhys Davies) and befriended the great Renaissance Master, which continued into the following season. This thread on the show evidently was Kate’s idea. She came prepared with a story proposal and read it to us, and there was some discussion of what they’d do with it, and the writing/production staff, to please their star, took it on board. This was not the last I’d see of our Kathryn Janeway, but Kate Mulgrew, as I think of it, was the only Voyager star that I saw out of character and uniform. When I visited the set--and we’ll get to those stories in due time--all the others were always in uniform and makeup, in the midst of shooting the show.
Brannon Braga cracked that my meeting with Kate Mulgrew was the first time he’d seen me smile since I’d gotten there. (Well, I was being professional and taking all this seriously!) Brannon Braga liked to crack on everything, especially about interns (of which he’d originally been one). In this endeavor, his peers, Ken Biller and Joe Menosky, liked to help him. Interns were typically the butt of jokes and the object of mockery and derision and heckling during meetings, as if it were a fraternity hazing. I’m calm about this as I tell you about it now, but I must say that at the time I found it a little maddening--a word that I actually used in remarking about it after Kate left, in a break with the professional sangfroid that I carefully maintained most of the rest of the time. It was a true test of my powers of forbearance, as there was more than one time I wanted to take Braga in particular into Jeri Taylor’s office bathroom and give him a swirlie. (You should have heard the mental chewing out I would give him when I was away from the studio! My dear friend Nancy L. would later disclose to me that she had a major infatuation with Braga, whose pictures she had seen in studying Star Trek for her own writing interests, so there’s no accounting for taste.) In a later, private conversation, Joe Menosky--who actually was a good friend for the brief time I knew him--confirmed my observations about the “frat boy” mentality and said it was just their way of getting to know people. Frankly, taking me out for a drink would have been ample.
Now, everyone’s least favorite meeting--and the one for which I had unwittingly prepared myself in a small way before I got there--was what was called “the Break Session”. This was when the writer/producers and the intern would get together in Jeri’s office with the initial story document for a given episode, and they would “break” the story into its component acts, working out the details as they went along. The intern’s part in all this was to write what they were saying on the white board in a different color for each act (opening Teaser and Acts 1-5), and later dictate it to Jeri’s secretary to be disseminated to the staff. The reason the Break Sessions were the least popular meetings was that they were the ones that dragged on the longest. (And the reason they were my least favorite meetings was that they were the time I most wanted to bean Braga with an eraser.)
However, the reason I note the Break Sessions as the part of the experience for which I had an unknowing foreknowledge is that I did a Break Session in miniature as part of the process of creating the Outer Limits script, “Ice,” that got me there in the first place! It’s true. Before I wrote “Ice” and after I had carefully studied the way The Outer Limits was written, I took a little piece of paper--it couldn’t have been more than half of an 8.5 x 11 sheet--and “broke” my intended story into a Teaser and five Acts. I wrote it in pencil, in little sentence fragments, just a little mini-Break Session. I still have that little piece of paper somewhere. The next time I find it, I should probably scan it for posterity.
Anyway, there was a break session for every episode during my tenure. They usually took large parts of two consecutive days. And I got through all of them, and never once did we have to send Brannon Braga to the Emergency Room. (I’m especially proud of that.) Those weren’t the only meetings. For every episode there was also a lengthy conference with the member of the staff who wrote it, to work out the specifics more minutely. These meetings resulted in an accumulation of drafts of the script. And there were what was called “the Tone Meetings,” in which the writers and producers would meet with the director who was working on a given episode, and again they’d go over it with a fine-toothed comb. The purpose of the Tone Meetings was to direct the director on how the episode was supposed to be shot, how the actors were to be directed, how the pacing of the scenes was to go, how the overall attitude and “tone” of the show should come across. Once a show was actually in front of the cameras, the director was in charge, so the Tone Meeting was meant to make sure he and the writer/producers were, so to speak, on the same page. More drafts of the script came from this.
Scripts were revised in sections, and the revisions would frequently be in progress while the episode was actually being produced. New sections of the script would come in different colored pages, which had to be carefully combined into whatever draft of the script you happened to have, the result being a script that looked like a Gay Pride flag by the time the episode was in the can. (Thankfully, I wasn’t responsible for all that script-splicing; I could never keep track of what color pages they were shooting on a given day and I was glad I didn’t have to! I don’t know how they did it!)
From the shooting in progress came what are called “the Dailies”--that is, the videotaped (I’m sure they do it on disk now) record of all the work that was shot in a day. The writing/production staff dutifully went over the Dailies, watching sections of the episode in their rough form and signing off on them before they went into post-production. Interns got to sit on on the Dailies, and it was intriguing to see parts of the show as they were with just the actors on camera, without any of the editing and special effects and music. It’s like watching “raw television”. When there was a pitch session going on with outside writers, interns had the option of skipping Dailies to sit in on the pitch session. This was encouraged, as interns were expected to start pitching anyway and attending and observing pitches was required.
Television series are produced in a kind of assembly-line process, and this includes the Star Treks. Every series essentially has three episodes in different stages of completion at all times. One episode is in pre-production, which is everything that has to be done before the cameras start rolling. That includes writing, costume and makeup design (which, for Star Trek, included creating the aliens and any alien accoutrements including spaceships), set design and construction, selection of locations (if any), and casting (the only meetings in which interns were not included were the casting sessions), plus all the meetings I mentioned above. Some of those meetings took place across the lot in a large room in the Gary Cooper Building, where writer/producers and interns met with other sections of the production staff, including the makeup people and alien designers. In one such big meeting I got to meet Michael Westmore, the great makeup master whose shop created all the show’s extraterrestrials and a lot of Hollywood’s other non-human beings. Part of one of those meetings was the discussion of the initial design of Species 8472, the creatures who were kicking the nuts and bolts out of the Borg at the end of Season 3. So I was probably the first fan to see them as a work in progress too!
While one episode was in pre-production, another would be in production, which was the actual physical process of filming the performances of the cast. And while pre-production of one episode was under way and another episode was in production, still another episode would be in post-production. That was where they did all the cutting and editing and putting the scenes into their proper order, and inserting the music and the special effects and opening and closing titles and credits and finishing the episode to get it ready to go on the air. So in television, it’s never just one episode at a time; you’re always working on three at once. And it is an intensely collaborative process. It has to be that way because the job is so huge and requires so many people with so many different skills that you’d never get a show on the air any other way. Seeing a TV series from the inside makes you marvel that TV, much as we may complain about it, is as good as it is!
Next time: More about what went on in some of those meetings and in the Interns’ Office--and more celebrity encounters, as we go to the other side of the Paramount lot and visit the set and meet the stars of Star Trek Voyager!
TO BE CONTINUED.
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
When we left off in our Star Trek saga, I had just driven my gold Chrysler Sebring Convertible with the black ragtop through the front gates of Paramount Pictures in Hollywood, there to enter the world of network television for the first time. And now we begin the tale of what awaited me there.
That experience of driving through the front gates of Paramount like Norma Desmond with Max in Sunset Boulevard (which you’ll remember I had seen on Broadway just a couple of days earlier) and parking in the main studio parking lot proved to be a one-time thing. For the rest of my stay, I had a parking permit at the facility on, I believe, Gower Street across from the studio, and I entered through the Lucille Ball Building. As a matter of history, all Trekkers and Zonies (Twilight Zone devotees) owe a debt to Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. It’s true. The de facto original pilot for The Twilight Zone was a Rod Serling play called “The Time Element” starring William Bendix (The Life of Riley) which was produced for The Desilu Playhouse. This was what interested CBS in Rod’s pitch for a fantasy anthology program. And anyone who’s watched the closing titles of the 1960s Star Trek knows that Desilu Studios was the original owner of the Star Trek franchise. Lucy herself was known to have been very proud of Trek, and it was she who sold the franchise and all of Desilu’s other holdings to Paramount.
But I digress. Just a few steps inside the studio lot from the Lucy Building was the Hart Building, where the writing and production staff for the Star Trek TV series was housed. That was where I would be spending most of my time. Immediately across the lot was the Gary Cooper Building, where other producers including one who was of particular interest to me worked, and where some of the larger production meetings were held. We’ll get to that in due time. Down the way was the studio commissary, and on the opposite end of the lot were other offices including payroll and Human Resources, and I assume other exectutive-type offices. Also on the far end was the Star Trek Art Department, where I had a very nice visit with the Okudas, Michael and Denise (we’ll talk about them and that visit in due time) and illustrator John Eaves (him too). The far end was also where the Star Trek sets were located, as well as the trailers in which the stars of the shows relaxed when they weren’t shooting.
A perusal of the studio lot would also take you to places like the back lot where they shoot a lot of exterior city scenes, an office building that is sometimes used as the exterior facade for various places of interest (such as, I believe, the high school in Grease--or was it Happy Days?), and a theatre/cinema where previews of new films are sometimes screened. Basically, on any given day at any given time at Paramount Pictures one is liable to run across someone or something of interest. While I was there, the airplane that the Hackett brothers flew in the sitcom Wings was being kept right out in the open in a little alcove next to the Hart Building. (And we’re going to have a story about my encounter with one of those Hackett brothers shortly.) I walked by it and touched it every day. A couple of times I was out on the grounds when Moose, the little dog who played Eddie on Frasier, was being walked by his handler. Every time I watch an episode of Frasier now I remember the times I got to pet little Eddie! (Moose passed away a couple of years ago.)
However, on to the experience of being inside Star Trek itself. I occupied the Interns’ Office on the top floor of the building, where I had the place to myself for about half of the six weeks I was there. They didn’t have a Deep Space Nine intern when I arrived and it took them a little while to get one. Eventually I was joined by a woman named Jennifer, who had been working as a grip and as the person who tapes the microphones to performers on soundstages. (One of the people she had miked was Whoopi Goldberg, as I recall.) Jennifer and I got on fine; one day I brought in one of my sketchbooks, full of character designs and studies of hot-looking guys, to entertain her. I would give her little mini-lessons in Star Trek lore and we would compare story ideas and she’d tell me about some of her Hollywood experiences and some of the people with whom she’d worked. She had a crush on TV star Peter Onorati, who had starred in the drama series Civil Wars by Steven Bochco, among other things. (On The Outer Limits he was Fred Savage’s father in the episode “Last Supper.” Desperate Housewives fans know him as Warren Schilling, the wife-beating nightclub owner from this past season’s episodes.) So one fine day as I’m on Gower Street on my way to the parking facility, who should drive by in his SUV but...yep, Peter Onorati. I called out to him and we exchanged waves. (We’re going to talk about what to do when you meet a movie or TV star shortly. I encountered a number of them, as you can surmise.)
So what does a Screenwriting Intern at a TV series do? The position is essentially that of a paid observer. They’re hoping to recruit writing talent, and the idea is that the intern will observe everything pertinent about how a TV series is written and produced, listen and learn, and prepare to pitch his own story ideas. If all goes well, the producers will at least buy an idea to be developed into a story, and that will give the intern a foot in the door to pitch more ideas and perhaps even work on a script. Star Trek was keenly interested in developing talent for its writing staff; the Holy Grail for an intern was to be invited to join the staff full time. One of the Voyager Executive Producers, Brannon Braga, had started out as an intern on Star Trek: The Next Generation, so it was not impossible. A TV producer, you should be intrigued to know, is basically a writer with power. TV producers start out as writers. Something else you should know: The next time you’re watching a scripted TV series, look at the credits. You see all those Story Editors and Executive Story Editors and Story Consultants and Executive Consultants and so forth? You know who all those people really are? They’re writers. All those fancy job titles that TV series and TV production companies dream up are actually ways to get more writers onto the payroll. All those people, and the people who are actually credited as producers, are responsible for writing the show! It’s true. They do other things too; they actually do have executive decision making powers, and they do supervise people who perform other functions for the show. But trust me: They’re writers, every man and woman Jack of them. TV is run by writers.
So, as an intern, one sits in on a lot of meetings where writers with power make decisions about the show and supervise other people who work on the show. I spent lots of time in the office of one Ms. Jeri Taylor, the Executive Producer who had the most hands-on responsibility for producing Voyager. (It was originally the office of Gene Roddenberry himself, a fact I was to learn from Jeri my last day there. I’m sort of glad I didn’t know where I was sitting until the end. I think I would have been awestruck if I’d known that going in.) Jeri Taylor was the wife of the man who produced the whodunit series Murder, She Wrote starring Angela Lansbury--a fact that properly amused my mother, who has read every word that Agatha Christie ever wrote and was a great fan of that show. I should take this opportunity to tell you a story about Jeri and how she got to be where she was. Jeri Taylor is a woman who came into Star Trek when she was in her 50s, with no background whatsoever in science or in science fiction. She had worked in television since her 30s, writing, producing, and directing crime and murder shows including Quincy starring Jack Klugman and Jake and the Fatman starring William Conrad. (This latter also starred Alan Campbell; remember him from the performance of Sunset Boulevard that I attended?) Somehow she had gotten herself invited to pitch and write for Star Trek: The Next Generation--with no knowledge whatsoever of Trek and with the belief that Trek was in fact a children’s show! What she did to prepare is something that I must warn you never, ever to attempt.
This woman in her 50s got herself videos of the entire 1960s TV series, all of the films that had been produced up to that point, and probably half of Next Generation, as well as the books The Making of Star Trek and The World of Star Trek--and she crammed them like a college student who’d postponed studying for an exam! She crammed the history, universe, characters, and stories of Star Trek. I don’t know in how short a time she learned the entire series, but it was a crash course with an emphasis on the “crashing”. You know how inadvisable I consider this? It’s something I would never attempt; that’s how inadvisable it is! It’s the ultimate in “Don’t Try This At Home!” EVER! By rights, Jeri Taylor should not have been producing Star Trek Voyager. She should have been off in a corner somewhere, in a condition like that in which Phoenix left Mastermind in The X-Men #134. (Look it up.) I’m telling you, if you’re new to Star Trek, regardless of your age, don’t ever do this!
But Jeri Taylor, bless her heart, did it, and she survived, and she became an Executive Producer on Next Generation and an Executive Producer and co-creator of Voyager, and after Rick Berman, the producer to whom Gene himself gave the reins of the Trek universe, Jeri was the person in charge. Her producing posse also included the aforementioned Brannon Braga, another Executive Producer; producers Joe Menosky and Kenneth Biller; and Story Editor Lisa Klink, the person who had invited me aboard. So there I was, in the office of the Great Bird of the Galaxy himself, attending meetings with the people responsible for the odyssey of the Starship Voyager through the unknown Delta Quadrant of the galaxy. And what adventures lay in store for me there, and in Hollywood at large? That will be the subject of the next chapter of our Star Trek odyssey.
TO BE CONTINUED.
Fifty years ago tonight (September 12, 2008) on movie screens across the country, a meteor fell in the forest outside a small Pennsylvania town. A teenage boy named Steve and his girlfriend Jane--not “Janey Girl,” just Jane--went to investigate and found an old man writhing in pain by the side of the road, with a strange gelatinous mass attached to his hand. A recluse living in a small house in the forest, the old man had found the meteor first and unwisely poked at it with a stick, releasing the shapeless organism inside, which slithered down the stick and turned from transparent to blood red as it began to assimilate his hand. Steve and Jane took the old timer to the town doctor, where the red mass completely consumed not only the recluse, but the nurse and the doctor himself--this latter being witnessed by a horrified Steve. Now it was up to Steve and Jane to warn their unsuspecting friends and neighbors of what was loose in their town, and growing bigger with every new victim it claimed. Only their little town stood between mankind and the menace of the Blob.
Yes, tonight is the fiftieth anniversary, if you can believe it, of the debut of one of the great Hollywood movie monsters. Released in 1958, The Blob starred 35-year-old Steve McQueen as teenaged Steve Andrews and Aneta Corseaut (who went on to play Andy’s girlfriend and eventual wife, Helen, on The Andy Griffith Show) as Jane. It was the first starring role for McQueen, who had been in several films already by this point. He would grow to regret taking only a flat fee for his part in the picture instead of a percentage of a film that grossed $10,000,000 in 1958 money and become a cult classic that would never go away. (Not that McQueen did all that badly after The Blob, of course.)
The Blob is not, by any standard, a masterpiece of filmmaking. Its dialogue ranges from excruciating to laughable, and to say that it was produced on a shoestring budget is generous at the least. But that doesn’t matter; the power of this film has kept it alive and kept it being rediscovered for five decades. The Blob is one of the few movies with an annual festival devoted to it. Shot in Downingtown and Phoenixville, PA, the film is honored every July in Phoenixville with a “Blobfest” that includes screenings at the actual cinema that the creature attacked at the climax of the film. The height of the festival is the annual reenactment of the scene in which the filmgoers come running, screaming, from the cinema to escape the monstrous Blob that has flooded the auditorium (and devoured the projectionist). This being the fiftieth anniversary, I only wish I could have been there for this year’s Blobfest. One of these years I have got to go to this thing.
Why does a film that many people don’t take seriously rate such longevity and such a following? There can be only one reason, and it is a very obvious one that people completely overlook exactly because of the laughable script and the cheesy production. The Blob is simply a deeply, viscerally terrifying idea. Look past the way the picture was made and think of what this thing is and what it does. Think about a nearly liquid life form that can go anywhere that water can flow, and even crawl up and down walls as water can’t do. Moreover, it does not announce its presence; it is completely silent. It can be practically on top of you, or have you surrounded or cornered, before you even realize it’s there. And once it has you, you’re gone, melted into the growing, pulsating mass without a trace. You may not take the Blob seriously, but the American Film Institute does. The Blob is included on AFI’s list of the all-time greatest movie villains. Granted, it ranks only in the 300s, but that is because the Blob is not so much a proper antagonist with a personality as it is a shapeless expression of limitless hunger. It is more a force than a character. But people who look past the production and get the concept, especially if they were introduced to it when they were children, understand what an utter nightmare the Blob truly is.
One such person is a gentleman named Wes Shank, who actually bought the Blob from the director of the film. Somewhere in Pennsylvania there is a man who keeps a mass of killer protoplasm from outer space (actually a barrel full of red-dyed silicone, but still...) in his basement. I’m glad Mr. Shank bought it and has preserved this classic piece of film memorabilia, much like the gentleman in California who bought the actual stop-motion animation maquette of King Kong. I’d like to visit him sometime and see it. But I couldn’t have that thing in my house. Intellectually, I’d know it wasn’t real, but the dreams... I’d never get any sleep.
My own introduction to The Blob was via the theme song. Oh yes, we need to talk about that theme song. It is an early work of Burt Bacharach. Yes, that Burt Bacharach. The Blob opens with a theme song that is, to say the least, unique: a 1950’s finger-popping doo-wop number that is another of the reasons that people think the picture is a lark. But that frivolous-sounding ditty is actually very sinister, in the way that things in Stephen King stories are sinister. You know how King is always turning mundane, innocent things into evil, macabre things. The theme from The Blob is like that, a 50s doo-wop song that is in fact a warning to beware of something both lethal and inescapable. “It creeps and leaps/And slides and glides across the floor/Right through the door and all around the walls/A splotch, a blotch, be careful of the Blob/Beware of the Blob...” When I was little, I heard my brother Jack singing this song one day and asked him where it came from, and he described to me this movie about a shapeless thing from space that consumed people and grew as it went along, and I thought at the time that it was the most horrifying thing I’d ever heard of. I also thought I had to see this picture. Sure enough, it came round on television, and in my little boy way I saw that I was right. It scared me more than Dracula, the Frankenstein Monster, the Wolf Man, and the Creature from the Black Lagoon put together. To this day, in concept alone, I’m with the American Film Institute. Very few things to come out of Hollywood are as purely frightening in concept as the Blob.
The Blob has a sequel, released in 1972 and directed by Larry Hagman. Yes, that Larry Hagman. Son of Blob (or Beware the Blob) stars Robert Walker (Charlie X from Star Trek) as Steve McQueen’s Blob-battling successor. It has all the scares of the original, but was unfortunately written and played too much for laughs. (When Dallas caught on, Son of Blob was re-released as “The Movie J.R. Shot!”) It even has an excerpt from the original film in it. In an early, pivotal scene, Godfrey Cambridge gets up from his recliner chair to adjust the rabbit ears on his TV while The Blob is playing; it’s right at the scene outside the supermarket where Steve is trying to rally the town before it’s too late. A moment later, Godfrey sits himself back down--right in the Blob, which has oozed over the chair. Robert Walker’s girlfriend walks in just in time to see luckless Godfrey disappearing into the creature. The picture also has a remake, released in 1988 (the thirtieth anniversary of the original). In this one, Steve McQueen is a girl--Shawnee Smith, who sees her boyfriend (Donovan Leitch, whom we’ve been set up to think is going to be Steve McQueen) melting into the Blob, and sets out to stop her town from being devoured. The remake is truly disappointing. It turns the Blob from a living mass of Dunkin’ Donuts strawberry filling into an ugly wad of pink mucus, and is full of gruesome scenes of partially consumed victims. It also plays into a post-Watergate, Reagan-era sort of paranoia by changing the concept from an alien life form to a government germ warfare experiment. It’s a shame. A classic monster deserves better treatment.
And who knows, The Blob may get it. Yet another remake has been mentioned, though Paramount Pictures, which owns the property, has missed a sensational marketing opportunity by not having the new version ready in time for the fiftieth anniversary. Still, if they just restore the original concept and give us an update of the original mass of red killer slime (with state-of-the-art CGI, the classic Blob would be more terrifying than ever), and get a screenplay that does justice to the idea, we could get a film that shows the Blob for the right and proper horror that it is. This most original and frightening of Hollywood monsters, in whatever form, should be around for generations to come. The 1958 version will certainly continue to stand the test of time. This month is the fiftieth anniversary of The Blob. Sleep with a CO2 fire extinguisher by your bed; you never know...