Thursday, January 31, 2013

Earth bombarded with gamma rays in the 8th century, widespread Hulkism resulted

Apparently, two black holes collided way back in the 8th century and showered our little planet with gamma rays.  That finally explains the thousands of over-sized and oddly-proportioned human skeletons archaeologists have found over the years after excavating cemeteries of that era.  After careful study, scientists now report these roughly 1200-year-old skeletons appeared to be from individuals suffering from some kind of intermittent gigantism, possibly triggered by rage or other stress factors.

"These findings are incredible," Dr. Jacob Kurtzberg of the Thousand Oaks Institute of Medieval Studies, said at a press conference early Thursday.

His colleage, Dr. Stanley M. Lieber, added, "Frankly, we marvel at this new understanding of a crucial era in the development of European culture.  For example, it was during this period we noted the use of larger stones in architecture.  Previously we assumed this was due to advances in technology, but now we think they might have been the result of good old-fashioned muscle power."

Kurtzberg and Lieber then agreed that such gamma ray-induced gigantism might have rendered the individuals' skin a strange, unearthly coloration, such as gray, red or even green.  The scientists added that further research would be needed, as well as finding more well-preserved bodies with skin and muscle tissue remaining.

"I would also expect that tissue to be denser, much denser, than that of contemporaries who were unaffected by the rays," Kurtzberg said before lighting a large cigar and returning to work.

Lieber remained at the press conference for several hours, regaling reporters with stories of how he, Kurtzberg and several other scientists, each of whom he identified with an inventive, sometimes rhyming nickname, pieced together the stories of these hulking medieval people and their lives before closing the event with an obscure Latin word.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Secrets of Isis Episode 22: "...And Now You Don't"

The miscreants who stole the "trigger mechanism" of Rick Mason's fabulous weather-making contraption are still at large, but that doesn't stop his colleague Andrea Thomas and their four sleuthing student friends (that's Rennie Carol, C.J., Ranji and Feather to you and me, Russ) from celebrating Mason's release from jail.  While the villains fiddle-fart around meteorologically and create thunder and lightning from a clear blue sky, the good people of Larkspur High poke gentle fun at Mason's recent predicament by baking him a chocolate cake full of jail-break accessories like a metal file and a shiv made from a melted Styrofoam cup and a toothbrush handle.  After all, what are friends for if not to help you bust out of the calaboose when you've been falsely accused of theft and espionage?

Just kidding about the shiv, by the way.

And so we come to the grand finale of The Secrets of Isis, "...And Now You Don't" (aired October 23, 1976), part two of a thrilling story which has already seen Mason arrested for a crime he didn't commit, a music-and-magic performance, four students risk life, limb and their own freedom to help, a kick-ass custom van, Isis calling Captain Marvel for help and a trio of crooks make off with a most dangerous device.  You couldn't ask for a more exciting way to bring a series to a close, and yet it also makes you wish they'd gone for a third season.

Which, I suppose, was the whole idea behind this sudden change in direction.  From gentle personal dramas punctuated with jeopardy to gentle crime drama punctuated with jeopardy.

This is an action-packed thirty minutes.  When the kids foolishly try to scam the thieves and capture them, but thanks to some clumsiness clambering around inside a warehouse, Feather and Ranji end up trapped inside some kind of holding pen with everything electrified (some nice animated lightning bolts complete the effect). C.J. kung fu kicks his way into the warehouse, but it takes Isis to effect the rescue; someone at Filmation must have remembered it was her show after all.  All Isis has to do is pass through the warehouse roof's molecules then whip up a rhyming spell that affects electricity and all is well.  Kind of.

Now that the true mastermind has been revealed as Mason's scientific rival, the Professor, helpful federal agents decide the kids' harebrained decoy idea isn't so harebrained after all and adapt it for themselves, using Mason as the bait.  The bad guys quickly kidnap Ranji and Mason at gunpoint, forcing them to their doom in Ranji's sweet ride.  What a way to go!

But Isis and Captain Marvel are flying in hot pursuit.  When the Professor tries to make his escape in a convenient helicopter, Mason bravely leaps into the passenger's seat.  Captain Marvel uses his fabulous strength to ground the whirlybird as C.J. engages the villains in combat.  Finally, Isis duplicates herself multiple times to trap them and it's back to the amphitheater where Ranji and Rennie admonish us to believe in magic.  A stunned Mason can't get over Isis's last trick, but Thomas pretends he must have imagined the whole thing.  Finally, she turns to us, the viewers, winks and offers her last piece of teacherly advice, "You gotta believe."

And with that, The Secrets of Isis becomes part of television history.  You couldn't ask for a better way for Isis to end, unless said way featured Cindy Lee riding to the rescue on the back of a couple of crocodiles while blowing a trumpet.

NOTES:  Wow!  A helicopter!  The fine people at Filmation went all out for the last episode of Isis, didn't they?  It's not some futuristic prototype or anything sexy like that, but I doubt rental fees, insurance and fuel didn't come cheap for this baby even in relative Isis terms.  This is the Isis equivalent of hiring Marlon Brando to play Superman's dad or Jack Nicholson as the Joker.  Only the helicopter weighs approximately 600 pounds less than mid-70s Brando.

We've touched on Joanna Cameron's acting skills just a bit during this marathon blog event but we haven't really done her justice.  In each episode, Cameron provides poise, grace, a child-friendly gravitas and just a touch of self-awareness to keep from appearing silly.  The acting in Isis varies from summer stock quality at times up all the way up to confident, slick professionalism, and Cameron holds her own at the center of Isis and contributes the most to its believability, at least to its intended audience.  Plus, she looks fantastic in the Isis costume.

It's fun to deconstruct things in an absurdist way, but Cameron consistently pulls Isis out of the realm of slick camp like the Sid and Marty Krofft oeuvre.  Probably renders it slightly boring in a way to people who love to snark and snipe, but I can appreciate the show's sincerity, and Cameron's.  Instead of psemi-psychedelic weirdness, Isis gifts viewers with some mild excitement that calls to mind the best of ABC's Afternoon Specials rather than splashier fare like Electra Woman and Dyna Girl-- except for this episode, which plays out like an extremely low budget Bionic Woman series entry.  While she's overshadowed a little in this two-parter by the Rick Mason-centric plot, the introduction of the sleuthing teen team and a guest appearance by Captain Marvel, Cameron gets to sign off on Isis knowing she never phoned it in, put her tongue too far in her cheek or sacrificed her dignity while entertaining impressionable young kids (and possibly their older siblings).  A job well done!

That's not to belittle the supporting work by Brian Cutler and Ronalda Douglas.  Cutler grounds each episode with his low-key, minimalistic approach and geniality, while Douglas adds perkiness.  We learn quite a lot about Cutler's Mason, but we're only just getting to know Douglas's Rennie Carol so the abrupt series end registers as even more disappointing.  While I had a lot more fun with Cindy Lee, she became more a Greek chorus over the course of the first season and less a participant, her job to introduce Thomas to the student of the week then bow out until required for a reaction shot or some exposition.  Rennie seems to get her hands dirtier, and offers a lot more personal info along the way in her shorter stint.  Mason remains the ideal Steve Trevor-esque sidekick to Isis.

The show really missed an opportunity by not having Joanna Pang reprise her role as Cindy Lee sometime during this season.  It would have been a lot of fun to see both her and Rennie Carol on the case together, or eating sandwiches on the lawn at Larkspur High while talking about how great Ms. Thomas is and comparing notes on Isis sightings.

Evan C. Kim busts out his Bruce Lee impression here, using the Dragon's patented high-pitched growls and yowls as he super-kicks his way into the warehouse where Feather and Ranji are about to be fried by lightning bolts.  I'm not sure what good Shao-lin kung fu is against electricity, but when your friends are in trouble, you'll try anything.  Kim would later put his Lee sounds-n-moves to work in the longest, most elaborate segment of 1977's Kentucky Fried Movie.  I'm generally in favor of any call-back-- comedic or otherwise-- to Bruce Lee, one of my personal heroes.

Ranji pulls out the stops for the show's musical climax, a reprise of the "You Gotta Believe" song we saw him rehearsing with Rennie Carol in the previous episode.  Not a microphone in sight, but he and Rennie fill that amphitheater with sound.  It reminds me of some of one of those chorus performances you'd see at amusements parks like Six Flags Over Georgia when your poor, exhausted parents wanted to get out of the sun.  You know, at the Crystal Pistol Palace.  Yeah, I hated those, too.

Ranji and Rennie Carol team up for a cute scene where he uses her in a levitation trick.  You know Rennie isn't really afraid, but she whimpers to comic effect.

Two signs this show was shot in the mid-1970s-- Mason drives a VW Thing he's equipped with a CB radio.  Thomas marvels at his high-tech device, and it comes in handy, too, when the kids pull their first boneheaded stunt.

The Professor eats an apple while discussing schemes with his minions.  Well, minions is glamorizing them a bit.  They're more like hirelings.  Is the apple symbolic of the Professor's knowledge of evil?  I'm probably reading too much into it.  He's just a guy who digs apples.  Paul Hampton, the guy who plays him, wrote songs for the likes of Elvis Presley, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Bette Midler.  Nobody major, but maybe you've heard of them.

And once again Captain Marvel puts his lonely life on display, this time just hanging out in the desert without even boulders or fallen trees as an excuse.  Maybe the guy just likes to get out there, breathe some fresh desert air and think.  Think about the poor life choices that turned him into the kind of guy who likes to wander the deserts alone while wearing a superhero costume.  The helicopter capture at the end is pretty spectacular a stunt not only by Isis standards but even by Steve "The Six Million Dollar Man" Austin standards.  Let's see Lee Majors fly and drag a helicopter out of the sky.  It's accomplished partially with a process shot with Marvel slightly out of scale and then with an altogether believable physical performance by John Davey as he mimes straining against the heavy aircraft while Brian Cutler watches from the passenger's seat.

For the second episode in a row, someone throws his or her voice.  This time it's Isis, calling to her superheroic colleague.

Isis's final trick is pretty neat, too.  Mason regales a doubting Thomas (I'm clever!) with a story of twelve Isises (Ises?), but count them for yourself.  He's off by seven, giving Mason a tendency towards exaggeration or at least over-excitement.  There's a sweet moment when Isis turns and smartly declares, "And that, Ranji, is how I do it."  Nice way of taking back some of the spotlight that's rightly hers.

You gotta believe!

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Secrets of Isis Episode 21: "Now You See It..."

Rick Mason moonlights as some kind of super high-tech inventor and he's darned good at it.  So good, in fact, he's created a device that can actually control the weather over an entire state-wide area.  Of course something as powerful as a weather manipulating gadget could attract interest from all the wrong people-- and that's just what happens when someone frames Mason himself for stealing it.  Yes, it's the opening gambit of the exciting two-part Secrets of Isis series conclusion.

"Now You See It..." (October 23, 1976) takes The Secrets of Isis into overtly superheroic action, with an outlandish macguffin more appropriate for Wonder Woman or The Six Million Dollar Man.  A weather control device is completely ridiculous, but you know what?  This episode is a whole lot of truly silly Saturday morning fun, full of action featuring some engaging guest stars.

It starts like a low budget spy flick with the theft-- featuring an evil Rick Mason-- and then cuts to Ranji, a multi-talented young entertainer, practicing his music and magic act with Rennie Carol at an empty ampitheater.  The Feds come in, arrest Mr. Mason, which leads Rennie and Ranji to round up a little gang and do some sleuthing of their own.  That means we get to meet C.J., a cool young dude with martial arts skills and Feather, who appears to be some kind of reformed juvenile delinquent in a knit cap.  The four of them make quite a quartet, trouble-prone and energetic, almost as if Filmation decided to introduce some Hanna-Barbara into the show, a little Scooby Doo, complete with a happening Ford E150 customized van belonging to Ranji and featuring some appropriately mid-70s side-panel deco.

You have to like the conceit Mason is such a well-loved teacher even Sweat Hogs refugees like Feather are willing to put down their basketballs to help him, but Ms. Thomas has a point.  It's never a good idea to go outside the law.  It's a lesson she has to transform into Isis to teach the gang, and they're so determined (and hard-headed) it even requires the assistance of none other than Captain Marvel himself to get it across.  But not before the two villains get away with part of the weather control machine, nearly kill Ranji, C.J. and Feather with an out-of-control car (which is on fire to boot).  Isis calls in reinforcements in the form of her good friend Captain Marvel (who apparently spends part of each day hefting random boulders out in the desert).  Marvel swoops in and realizes, "I've got to lift that van!" and proceeds to do just that, saving the boys.  The final scene sounds an ominous note as the completely exonerated Mason warns of the damage even part of the device can do-- and not just locally, but statewide.  It's definitely an alarming situation and calls into question the wisdom of using scientific knowledge to tamper with and try to control the natural world rather than adapt to it.  Dark clouds and thunder add a Shakespearian atmosphere to the finale.

The legendary Evan C. Kim plays C.J.  You may remember Kim as Loo in the "Fistful of Yen" Bruce Lee parody from the 1977 classic Kentucky Fried Movie.  And if you don't, you're either very young or you've come to the wrong blog.  Kim was a staple of my childhood.  My brothers exposed me to Kentucky Fried Movie early on, forever warping my mind into something sick and wrong, but I also encountered Kim in a dramatic role in 1978's Vietnam War flick Go Tell the Spartans (starring Burt Lancaster); as the only caveperson able to speak modern English in Ringo Starr's under-valued (but still pretty lousy) Caveman; and then as a fiesty yet doomed cameraman in NBC's sci-fi allegory V.  His largest role to date was as Clint Eastwood's partner in the last of the Dirty Harry movies, The Dead Pool, which, oddly enough, is the only Kim theatrical release I haven't watched.

Feather, Kim's partner in crime-busting here, is played by Craig Wasson, who also appeared in Spartans.  They probably smoked a doob or two and laughed about Isis, but you get the feeling their association might have gone on for a bit longer if Filmation had its way.  This episode of Isis has spin-off written all over it, sort of how C.J. cracks the case of the Mason doppelganger by drawing all over a surveillance photo of random men taken by Rennie.  Wasson worked with Brian DePalma and fought Freddy Kreuger in the third Nightmare on Elm Street flick and does prolific audio book narration to this day.

Ranji, who shows a lot of charisma during his musical numbers and wears the flashiest costume-- and has magical powers to rival Isis's-- apparently dropped out of show biz following his appearance here.  I have no idea what happened to him.

I feel certain this episode was either Filmation's last-ditch effort to generate interest in the show and keep it on the air by establishing a dynamic new direction or else their attempt to set up a spin-off with Ranji, C.J., Feather and possibly (one would hope) Rennie Carol.  The emphasis on the rather large cast has the unintended effect of rendering poor Mason something of an after-thought, even with all the energy expended on his behalf.  And while we do get as much Isis as usual, Ms. Thomas ends up largely sidelined, which is always a mistake.  Joanna Cameron provides regally self-aware advice as Isis, but Thomas is the show's heart.

NOTES:  Who the heck is this Ranji guy anyway?  I mean, he gets a huge showcase here.  Was Filmation grooming him for Saturday morning super-stardom?  He's a multi-talented threat. Pleasant singing voice, winning smile, awesome turban, because an Indian American guy named Ranji is required to run around in one and a matching tunic as well.  Uncomfortable ethnic stereotyping aside-- remember Jonny Quest's equally magical be-turbaned pal Hadji-- Ranji has a lot of charisma and would have made a great team leader if Filmation had taken this concept to production.

Ronalda Douglas is no slouch herself.  She has a strong singing voice, even if it is a little quavery.  Each member of the team appears to have some sort of expertise.  Feather is a schemer with a questionable background (always helpful when battling crime), Ranji drives, does magic and sings, C.J. is the group's muscle and hippest dresser.  What does Rennie bring to the table?  She's an ace photographer, which makes her the group's surveillance expert.  They simply could not have cracked the case without her skills.

Gosh, how I wish Cindy Lee were part of this crime-busting team.  What might she have contributed?  Well, every team needs a factotum, right?  And who can argue with perpetual positivity and cheerfulness?  She would have given the gang a sunny outlook even when things turned grim, such as on this case when an entire state faces environmental disaster.

Amazingly, the actor who plays the fake Mason actually looks a lot like Brian Cutler after C.J. scribbles all over Rennie's photo of him.  But not as much as he does when Cutler is playing the same character in disguise.  I've always enjoyed scenes where an actor pulls off prosthetics to reveal a completely different actor.  Of course make up technology was nowhere near advanced enough in 1976 (or even today) to produce a Rick Mason clone that would stand up to even the slightest scrutiny.  Suspension of disbelief.  You will believe a woman can fly, after all, and a convincing Rick Mason disguise isn't as outrageous a concept as a weather control machine you can drive around in the trunk of your car.

First Ms. Thomas and her "circle guard" and now Mr. Mason and his weather control device.  Jesus, Larkspur High has a brilliant science faculty.  Albert Einstein himself would probably feel overwhelmed by the level of genius these two teachers display!  They seem to do little teaching.  We have seen Thomas in the classroom but either Larkspur is a city of perpetual sunlight or else the high school administration has completely lost control.  Call Dr. Barnes!

The guards at Operation Weathermaker (that's the name of Mason's project... or the facility where he works on it...) are a pretty slack bunch.  First they let a fake Mason slip by them, then fall for Ranji's voice throwing trick.  Yeah, that's another of Ranji's powers.  He's able to not only speak with a convincingly female voice, but also project it so that it sounds as though someone is calling for assistance from a distant parking lot.  Guard Gunderson (probably from Minnesota) falls for it.  What a dope!

Being Captain Marvel must be a lonely occupation.  Every time we see him on this show he's by himself in some wilderness area, either lifting trees or rocks.  Doesn't this guy ever relax and play skee-ball with his friends?  Does he have any friends besides Isis?  Second Captain Marvel John Davey reprises his guest spot here.  He sort of botches his "lift the van" line, but the director (Arthur H. Nadel) leaves it in.  Makes you wonder how bad the other takes were, or if there were any other takes.  Isis wasn't exactly a high-budgeted affair and in this episode finances were already strained with all the guest stars and process work.  Nadel probably figured Davey at least said all the words in the correct order so to hell with it.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Secrets of Isis Episode 20: "Year of the Dragon"

Julie Chen wins a science award but when it threatens to expose her father's old school Chinese ways to the students and faculty of Larkspur High she begins acting out, leading to a couple of very nearly fatal accidents.  The first one happens because she's decided to flee a fellow student and unwisely chooses to hide from him in a wrecked car awaiting compaction in a junkyard.  The second comes when she retreats to a meadow for some quiet contemplation over her personal dilemma.  This time she falls into an abandoned well.

Being Julie Chen must be difficult!

On one hand, Julie's sick of everyone patronizing her over Chinese culture and callously assuming she's an expert on all things Asian, but on the other, she feels a deep conflict about her cultural identity.  As a result, she magnifies well-meaning but clueless comments into insults and tries to plot with Rennie Carol to trick her father into skipping the school assembly where she's due to receive her award.  And she constantly has to cheat death.

"Year of the Dragon" (aired October 16, 1976) explores Joy Luck Club territory about as well as you'd expect from a 1970s kids show about a magical super-heroic goddess.  I have to give Isis credit for trying to broach these issues, even if it's in a broad, obvious way.  And once again, all problems are resolved by one person trying to save another person's life.  While I'm sure most parents actually would sacrifice themselves for their children-- as in this case, nearly literally-- the idea that you have to go to such extremes to earn some simple respect probably isn't very realistic or even fair.

When you think about it, Julie's problems could probably have been better handled by that compassionate and clever-unto-herself teacher Andrea Thomas with a few frank discussions and genuine dialogue rather than through physical jeopardy.  But that's not why kids tuned into this show.  Isis has to do her thing twice in every show.  By California statute.  I've read the state codes.  It's in there.  Kind of in the middle, just after the stuff about building standards in an earthquake zone.

Still, let's not be too harsh with Isis.  The 1970s were a time when television-- especially children's television-- had just begun to explore sensitive issues.  With a new story possibilities and responsibility came a lot of inadvertent mixed messages along with the shoehorned-in heroics, the heavy-handed moralizing and forced happy endings.  At least in this case the Chens are genuinely likable-- especially Julie's long-suffering dad-- so I'm not going to begrudge them a jeopardy plot resolution to their issues, especially when it leads to the wonderful spectacle of Mr. Chen clinging to a levitating ladder while his daughter and Isis look on.

Victor Sen Yung, who plays Mr. Chen, had a career spanning decades, from the 1930s into the late 1970s before he tragically died of accidental asphyxiation.  As a young post-grad student at UCLA and USC, he started acting and played "Number Two Son" in several of the Charlie Chan films but was probably best known for his portrayal of Hop Sing on Bonanza.  If his IMDB bio is to be believed, around the time he took the role on Isis, he was actively seeking work outside the acting business.  His portrayal Mr. Chen is sincere and yearning, with a real touch of sadness, which makes me wonder if he was finally sick of typecasting and playing comedic relief and guest spots.

In a rather bizarre incident that took place in 1972, he was a passenger on a hijacked airliner and was wounded when the FBI stormed the plane.  That, along with his WWII service and long acting career mark him as an interesting guy in his own right.

Jeanne "Julie Chen" Joe has had a spottier acting career, with sporadic roles on TV and in films between Isis and just recently.  That's because she's been doing other things like teaching.  Plus, she has a number credits as a production coordinator and assistant to executive producers, working on films as diverse as Angel Heart, First Blood, Rambo: First Blood Part II.  Okay, okay, those last two aren't so diverse, but she did write a book called Ying-Ying: Pieces of a Childhood (San Francisco East/West Publishing Company, 1982) and its sequel, Ying-Ying 2:  Jasmine By the Bay (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012).  Her portrayal of Julie Chen is spirited and intense, angry yet sympathetic.

There are a few cringe-inducing moments that find some of our regulars inadvertantly expressing white privilege, but overall this particular Isis attempts to instill some racial and cultural sensitivity as part of its more overt theme of being proud of who you are and where you're from, so that's something in its favor.  Don't make assumptions about another person's life based on their appearance or family name.  You don't know what journey they're on, but it's probably different from yours.  Accept what they have to teach you about themselves without imposing your viewpoint on the lesson.

Notes:  There's a short stop-motion action sequence when Isis uses her powers to repair a wooden ladder that"s conveniently lying near the well where Julie's father is trapped.  Doubly convenient is how the rungs just happen to still be lying next to the ladder in the grass, and none have rotted over the years.

Finally, we get to see Rick Mason doing what he does best-- eating.  After hinting at some gourmand leanings in previous episodes, "Year of the Dragon" lets Mason loose on a sumptuous Chinese meal.  You know the Chens had to close early that night after Mason cleaned them out.  I can just picture him after the meal, kicking back on his boat, toothpick between his teeth, opening his fortune cookie and reading the note inside, "There are but two Isis episodes more, and they will consist of a two-parter centered around you, my friend!"

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Secrets of Isis Episode 19: "The Cheerleader"

Laurette Spang, who would go on to place "socialator" (original series Battlestar Galactica-speak for "sex worker") Cassiopeia, stars as the titular cheerleader in "The Cheerleader" (October 2, 1976) and she's up to no good.

What is it that makes Spang's character, the blandly-named Ann, so awful?  How about cheating on a test, for starters?  You know neither Cindy Lee nor Rennie Carol would dream of doing such a thing.  And not only does she cheat, she nearly murders Tut in order to do so.  Ann brings hell to Larkspur High when she finds out good grades aren't enough to win the coveted "first girl" spot on the cheerleading squad, a position currently held by her friend Gwen.  Furthering her villainy, Ann then frames Gwen as the cheater and spreads rumors about her academic dishonesty.  Ann does all this because, as Gwen wisely explains, she wants everything but isn't willing to work for it.  But work she does, and hard!  It takes effort to come up with these nefarious schemes and carry them out.

For thousands of years, throughout recorded history, society has viewed cheerleaders as emissaries of dark forces, of evil.  Ann epitomizes this outlook and if one hopes Isis might avoid trading in such benighted stereotypes-- well, the problem there is Spang is just too good at playing bad.  She's my favorite of the Larkspur High jerk students and whether she's luring Tut to his doom in order to trick Rennie Carol or buttering up cheer captain Tom (Danil Torppe, whose television career seems to have ended abruptly in 1998 after a role on Saved by the Bell: The New Class) for Gwen's position, Spang is a joy to watch as Ann.  Perhaps I've been programmed by the patriarchy, but there's just something deliciously alluring about a wicked cheerleader, especially one played to the hilt by Spang.  It's as if she materialized out of an early script draft of Brian DePalma's Stephen King adaptation Carrie.  Spang plays her turnaround sincerely and convincingly, too.  A darker Isis might have ended with a hint Ann is only faking.  After all, you could build a pretty good case for this kid being completely sociopathic.  But since we're allowed to dwell at length on how Ann faces up to the consequences, it comes across as an unambiguously happy ending.

Yeah, Spang is a delight, but "The Cheerleader" also gifts us with none other than Colleen Camp as Gwen.  While Camp didn't appear in Battlestar Galactica as a sex worker like Spang, she did play a Playboy playmate in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979), with extended scenes in the "Redux" version.  They probably should have been left out a second time because they're ham-handed in their comedic intent, involving her character and Frederick Forrest's high-strung Chief having bird-inspired sex inside a helicopter while none other than Lawrence Fishburne pounds on the window and demands his turn.

Camp's career continues to this day, with parts in the ever-popular Wayne's World, plus dreck like a couple of the Police Academy sequels (where she at least got to play Tackleberry's wife, which is something) and Alexander Payne's instant classic Election (as Tracy Flick's mom, a role that must have given her flashbacks to this episode of Isis).  Camp also made her movie debut in an uncredited role as "Julie, Lisa's Servant" in Battle for the Planet of the Apes.  Quite a spread there, huh?  No one can ever accuse The Secrets of Isis of depriving you of young actors with diverse resumes.

Enough movie trivia digressions.  Isis makes her requisite two appearances in this episode, including the standard student rescue at the end.  But it's the first that features one of the most effective visual effects so far on the show.  Ann uses a snack to draw Tut out of the science lab so she can send Rennie Carol on a wild crow chase.  Tut injures his wing and ends up in a field where what appears to be a German Shepherd dyed gray to resemble a wolf tries to eat him.  Isis shows up just in time to magically make the wolf or dog disappear, then scoops up Tut and makes the wolf-dog re-appear.  It's done with one of the oldest special effects there is-- stopping the camera, removing the dog, starting the camera again.  Only the Isis team mattes the goddess into the foreground almost seamlessly, allowing her to move and interact with Tut and masking the simple camera trick.  There's a little bit of fuzz on the Isis element because she's probably a video element and the background is chromakeyed, but not enough to detract from the magic.

The second Isis appearance involves Ann being chased by her own car.  The how and why is pretty stupid.  When Ann doesn't get her cherished first girl position despite all her efforts, she speeds off in her convertible.   Concerned she's going to injure herself, everyone gives chase.  For reasons known but to Ann she decides to jump out of her still-running car and run into a field.  The car follows and it's up to Isis to levitate Ann out of its path.  Director Hollingswood Morse (he helmed all the best episodes, by the way) frames this as a panoramic wide shot, giving the climax an epic look.  We just never learn what Ann's trying to accomplish with this stunt.

Notes:  Andrea Thomas is certainly no fool.  She's onto Ann almost from the beginning.  Unlike, say, this particular viewer, Ms. Thomas doesn't see Ann as bad, just misguided.  Even Gwen and Tom, the subjects of Ann's malice, are sympathetic.  No one thinks to consult Tut for his feelings.

This episode features a jaunty little synth score, perhaps influenced by the video games like Space Invaders and Pong that were becoming popular at the time.  It sounds kind of like someone playing a Casio keyboard with one finger, but it's super catchy and even now it's still stuck in my head.  Quite the ear worm.

Larkspur High's cheerleading team is more of a tumbling team than anything else.  There are only five members and their routine seems to consist solely of somersaulting off a springboard onto a mat while Tom shouts encouragement.  How is this supposed to spur the team onto victory?  I'm not going to take up the "cheerleading is a sport/not a sport" debate here, but it seems Larkspur High could benefit from hiring a dedicated cheer coach.  Or at least someone who can teach the kids some chants.  They can work their way up to pyramids and hand stands later.

Rennie Carol's position at the school comes into doubt again.  Student or teaching assistant?  Here she spends the first part of the episode carefully typing up test answers for Ms. Thomas.  We see her in another episode studying with a classmate, so she must be one trustworthy person.  I'm guessing she's in a higher level science class than the one Ann and Gwen take, especially when the answers to the test seem to be so basic.

And also scattershot.  What kind of test features Marie Curie as one answer, then CO2 as another?  If they're studying carbon dioxide, it stands to reason the rest of the test would be about drawing molecules or the periodic table.  But if they're studying Marie Curie, they should have a concentration on radiation.  Right?  I'm no science teacher (I'm barely an English teacher), but Ms. Thomas's test just seems random to me.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Secrets of Isis Episode 18: "The Class Clown"

We never learn why his former high school gave Rudy the boot, but somehow he's landed at Larkspur High where he immediately begins a reign of terror.  In the course of a single day, he shakes up another student's soda, embarrasses the class brain with chewing gum and a roll of paper, nearly kills Rennie Carol by rigging up an inflatable life raft to expand in the chemistry lab (spilling volatile chemicals and unleashing a toxic cloud) and then almost costs himself his own life after sabotaging a school bus on field trip from which he's been punitively prohibited.  Doesn't stop him from chasing the outing halfway around the state.  Is he a would-be comedian, or is he an incipient psychopath stalking his classmates for revenge?  Whatever he is, Rudy is a flake!

They call him "The Class Clown" (aired September 25, 1976), but as played by Alvin Kupperman, despite a slight resemblance to comedian supreme Albert Brooks, Rudy comes across as a destructive, impulsive weirdo and the least pleasant troubled guest student showcased thus far on Isis.  It also doesn't help matters Kupperman was 30 or 31 when this episode aired and looks every bit his age.  His isn't a bad performance by any means; it's just tonally at odds with what we're supposed to be feeling here.  In my experience, class clowns are disruptive but amusing; Rudy is certainly the former but he's only the latter if you think random destructive acts are hilarious.  Well, they can be.  Just not in this episode.  Even Rudy doesn't do a lot of laughing afterwards.  He just kind of blames others for shunning him or whatever the hell his motivation is supposed to be.  Frankly, I stopped caring about the time he started setting up his potentially deadly raft trick.  Andrea Thomas does her best to convince Rudy he doesn't have to pull outrageously dangerous stunts to make friends, but it takes a near-death experience for the guy to find his redemption.

Which takes place off-screen, with Thomas merely telling Rennie and Rick Mason about it, as if the episode itself had grown so sick of Rudy's frantic antics it no longer wants any part of him.  Shot with some menacing low angles and with some more ominous music cues this episode could have been chilling.  Instead, it's just kind of bizarre and haphazard, like Rudy himself.

Joanna Cameron continues to play Andrea Thomas as the most understanding, compassionate teacher since Pete Dixon held forth on Room 222.  She's not as hilarious as her contemporary Gabe Kotter, but Thomas doles out life lessons and gentle yet tough guidance as appropriate.  I haven't spent a whole lot of time praising Cameron's performance as the titular "dual person," but in either incarnation the woman simply rocks.  When dope Rudy sneers, "No one will miss me" when told he can't go on the field trip, Thomas quickly adds, "I'll miss you."  If the guy had an conscience at all that would have been the moment he gave up his murderous ways (I seriously believe the Larkspur authorities need to check his house's crawlspace for bodies).  This episode also sees the welcome return of Albert Reed as Dr. Barnes.  He gives Rudy a quick campus tour and promises him a clean slate.  Dr. Barnes is always a welcome presence.

But the true class clown of Larkspur High is none other than Rick Mason, who cheerfully dons a chaffeur's cap for his role as busdriver.  Brian Cutler has a gift for putting across Mason's corny sense of humor as well as his man-of-action turn when he commandeer's poor Rennie Carol's car for the high speed climax.

"Class Clown" even features some ambitious process shots-- ambitious in Isis terms-- as they show Isis actually flying into the smoking chem lab from outside the school and Mason and Rudy walking up an incline magically conjured from smoke by Isis.  Both effect scenes show their seams, but it's impressive enough the producers decided to spend a little more money this season and not rely on the over-used stock footage from the first year.  The smoke stairway is pretty bizarre, a blurry diagonally-split screen effect that goes on a bit too long for its own good but provides the episode's best visual.  Other than Mason in his cap.