Star Trek at 50

Star Trek characters

The first episode of Star Trek aired on NBC fifty years ago today, Sept. 8, 1966, kicking off a three-year run on network TV.  I missed the whole thing.

In my defense, I started that run as a baby and ended it as a preschooler, but when the show aired in syndication in the early to mid-70s, I made up for lost time.  I’m reasonably certain I was introduced to Trek by my grandfather, who was a big fan.  My earliest impression was that it was scary, but in a cool way.  Every new planet posed a new set of threats: deadly viruses, hissing lizard men, sparkly clouds that sucked out your red blood cells, the still-living spirit of Jack the Ripper…heck, even the landscapes could kill you, with acidic soil, flowers that exploded in your face and rocks that stood up and started fighting you.  Just the everyday routine of “beaming down” unnerved me, as it involved disintegrating living bodies to their component atoms and reconstructing them somewhere else (Dr McCoy shared my unease, and with good reason, as the technology frequently failed, with all kinds of nasty results).

pikeThe creepy Spock character, thought young me, was kind of like Barnabas Collins but with pointy ears instead of pointy teeth.  And I must not have seen Part 2 of “The Menagerie,” because I was convinced the scarred, disabled Captain Pike was forever lurking in a room somewhere deep in the bowels of the Enterprise.

Add to that an endless list of space-borne threats including enemy ships, ion storms, radiation surges, meteor strikes, giant ghostly hands, you name it, and space travel was basically one big, 24-7 danger fest. Like most kids, though, I was attracted to scary things, at least scary things that could be decisively conquered in an hour’s time, so this was right up my alley.  After all, that constant undercurrent of danger was also a part of the real-life Apollo missions I watched with fascination during the same period.

The official line now is that Star Trek has endured because of its “positive view of the future” and progressive messages.  I’m not sure how radical optimism was in its day, though: a “gee whiz” outlook towards invention and technology goes way back to Buck Rogers, and considering the 50 years prior to Trek had seen us progress from the Wright Flyer to lunar orbital missions, I’d imagine lots of people had an “anything’s possible” outlook towards tech.  Or maybe the point is that in an era of race riots, assassinations and a nasty war in Southeast Asia, the mere declaration that we would survive into the 23rd Century constituted audacious optimism.  If so, the strength of the show was that this was never dwelt on at length, just presented as fact; “Oh look, we’re still alive in the future.  Cool.  Now what’s the story this week?”  As for Trek’s stories “meaning something” and conveying social commentary, well that’s nice when it works, but I guarantee you nobody tuned in then or now to be preached to.  What made the show compelling was the drama, the humor, the excitement, the relationships between the characters, the cool (for their day) special effects, the great sets and gadgets, the generally excellent production values (especially for TV) and music.  It was just a quality show, period.

trek-tracerAnyway it certainly loomed large in my childhood.  I remember running around the back yard, battling imaginary Klingons with a plastic “phaser” that shot spinning helicopter-like wheels; it was one of those cheap toys you bought off a peg at the drug store.  I even talked my grandma into buying me a toy gun that shot discs just because the packaging said, “Star Trek,” though it didn’t look like anything ever seen on the show. As soon as you pulled it off the cardboard, it ceased to have any connection to Trek whatever.  Pretty sure I also had the “Parachuting Mr. Spock” figure, which made no sense at all. (Check out the Plaid Stallions site for a list of the coolest Trek toys of the 70s, too many of which I owned)

Between us, my brother and I collected every member of the Enterprise crew available as a Mego action figure (well, except for Uhura.  Girl “action figures” were dolls!).  There was even a bridge playset with a “transporter” that spun around and — voila! — the figure disappeared.  It’s still in my garage.

bridge

I had jigsaw puzzles featuring the “animated series” versions of the characters (Spock’s skin was bright green!), and a Corgi die-cast model of the Enterprise that got just about everything wrong, from a saucer section that fired discs to a shuttle bay on the bottom (!) of the secondary hull that housed a shuttle five times too large.  Probably the coolest Trek merchandise we had was a set of walkie-talkies that looked — sort of — like communicators, complete with little doors that flipped up.  In the TV commercial, one of the kids using the “communicator” called his playmate and said, “Scott, this is Kevin, my bike is broken!” Every now and then I managed to talk my brother into playing Star Trek, which wasn’t easy because he could never be Captain Kirk (one of the pitfalls of being a little brother; he was always Robin to my Batman, Tonto to my Lone Ranger, etc).  Invariably, after I’d gone to some lengths to set up a Trek-worthy plotline to enact in our yard, he’d summon me via communicator with a breathless, “Captain!  Do you read me?  Come in, Captain!”  In my most earnest, ramrod-straight Shatner impression I would respond, “Kirk here, what is it?”  And he would answer, “My bike is broken!  HAHAHAHAHA!”

41se0y83chlThose were the “dry” years for Trek, with the show long out of production and the later movies little more than a pipe dream.  We got by on novelizations by British author James Blish, with plots and characterizations that always fell somewhere between “slightly off” and “wildly inaccurate.”  The library in my small town school had a copy of volume 8 of this series and I kept it out on near-permanent loan. Then there were the Gold Key comics, featuring an Enterprise crew that might have been named the same as they were on the show, but looked, dressed, talked and acted nothing like the real deal.

At last the drought ended with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which I managed to stay awake through in December of 1979 on my first visit to a “multi-plex” theater in Richmond.  My folks agreed to bring along a couple of my friends on the roughly hour and a half trip to the city, which they may have regretted when we had to take them all home again in a mini-blizzard.  A couple years later came Wrath of Khan, which blew my socks off despite the guy in the back of the theater who, when the USS Defiant flew across the screen, yelled out, “De Plane!  De Plane!” in his best Herve Villechaize impression (because Ricardo Montalban was also on…oh, never mind).  And then the rest of the sequels were cranked out more or less bi-annually in a seeming effort to illustrate the Law of Diminishing Returns.  Finally, the old cast moved aside to make way for the next generation of characters, and now Kirk and crew have been re-imagined in the form of pretty youngsters who look more suited to a remake of Saved By the Bell, with scripts to match.

It’s cool that Trek has become something of an institution I guess, but in a way, four spin-off series (with a new one on the way), 13 movies and countless books, comics and video games have built up a thick crust of barnacles on the Enterprise hull and blurred somewhat the magic of those original 79 episodes.  It doesn’t help that every detail of the show has been researched, documented and analyzed ad nauseum, so now we know how those effects were achieved, who was in that rubber suit, why that cast member stopped showing up.  Worse, we’ve seen the crumbling away of the carefully-constructed image of a cast who loved working together, leaving us with the reality of embittered 70- and 80-something ex-actors sniping at each other in the press like pouty teenagers.

BUT…at the end of the day, it’s those original 79 episodes that matter; everything else is apocrypha, mere distraction.  When I view them on DVD (or more likely, Netflix), the years fall away and I’m back on the original Enterprise, where everyone is young and vital again, wearing colorful uniforms and pointed sideburns and tackling the threat of the week with courage and teamwork.  Even at its worst (and it could get pretty bad) Star Trek was always interesting to watch, but at its best it was some of the greatest television to hit the airwaves.  More, it’s something that still connects me with my grandfather, though he’s gone, and something I can pass on to my kids, to maybe enjoy when I’m gone, too.  It’s the past and the future all at once.

Happy Anniversary, Star Trek.  Here’s to the next 50.

enterprise-tos

 

 

Batman 66 @ 50

Fifty years ago today on January 12, 1966, Batman premiered on ABC television.  I was nine months old.  The show ended its network run in March of 1968, just before I turned 3, so it’s safe to say I probably missed the whole thing.

Still, as noted in an earlier post, the pop-culture tsunami that was 60s Batmania left in its wake scads of colorful bat-merchandise that filled the toyboxes of my friends’ older siblings.  So it was that through items like the Remco Batmobile Dashboard toy and Topps’ trading cards painted by Norm Saunders (specifically one showing a rescue via Batplane) I was introduced to the Batman character, which in turn led to the comics and eventually back to Adam West.

bat-merch

It wasn’t until the early 70s that I finally got to see the “live action” Batman, thanks to a television broadcast of the 1966 motion picture featuring the same cast, sets and vehicles used on the show.  I think it’s fair to say it blew me away. Up until then, the only live action superheroics I’d seen were The Adventures of Superman, which I loved, but as awesome as George Reeves was, in the end he was always stuck rounding up two-bit gangsters, con men and bank robbers on a shoestring budget, compared to the comics, where he battled fantastic super-villains and alien invasions and moved whole planets with his bare hands. I had learned to set my expectations pretty low, so when Batman showed up I was awestruck.

Here, suddenly, was a flesh-and-blood Caped Crusader and Boy Wonder, duking it out with honest-to-gosh comic book villains The Joker, The Riddler, The Penguin and Catwoman, tooling around in an actual Batmobile, Batcycle, Batboat and Batcopter and hanging out in a huge and wonderful Batcave. Where George Reeve’s Superman was the only really remarkable element/character in a typical 50s adventure show,  Batman was a comic book brought to life, with characters, settings and situations that had only existed on gaudily-colored pulp paper before. For an eight-year-old, it was pure awesome.  If we’d had a color TV set, I’d probably have had heart failure.

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Flash forward a couple more years and the show itself aired in syndication on a local TV station.  If anything, it was more amazing than I remembered the movie being, and certainly the whole enterprise was more effective in half-hour installments.  These days Batman always seems to air in two back-to-back episodes; the first ending in a nail-biting cliffhanger and the next resolving the crisis.  I preferred it the way I got to see it, spending the 24 hours between chapters in total suspense until another school day ended and I could run from the bus stop to have my fears allayed.  How were the Dynamic Duo going to escape that huge cake made of quicksand (and how does one make a cake out of quicksand)?  Can Bruce Wayne save himself from going over the cliff on that runaway stretcher? Did that giant clam really swallow Robin? Half the fun was arguing with your classmates about just how the latest peril would be resolved (and knowing no matter how crazy the kids’ solutions would be, the show’s writers would deliver something even crazier).  On the other hand, in those pre-VCR days, you always ran the risk of never seeing the end of the story if you were held after school, or the bus ran late, or your folks wanted to take you somewhere.  And then there was that occasional super-long wait when “part one” aired on a Friday.

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I was just anal enough to be bothered by the details they got “wrong.”  Batman and Robin’s utility belts looked different from the comic-book versions, Bruce Wayne’s hair wasn’t dark enough and, hey, was that a mustache on the Joker? But compared to what Hollywood had in store for Batman further down the road, the TV show was a model of fidelity.  In the first, best season, that’s where the comedy came from; situations and dialog that passed for acceptable on the comic page became outrageous and hilarious when acted out by flesh-and-blood actors, transferred as opposed to translated from the original medium.

For years after it left the air, Batman was despised by comic book fans who saw it as an insult to the character and the comics medium in general.  Certainly it was frustrating that every comic-related news article typed by every lazy journalist for decades started with “Zap! Bam! Pow!”  Personally, I never lost my affection for the show, even though the comic book Batman of my era was the darker, spookier version drawn by guys like Neal Adams and Jim Aparo.  Hey, I grew up with the original Star Trek and the Roger Moore version of James Bond, so I developed a taste for cheese early on.  Plus you had to love deathless dialog like this:

“I’ve heard that song before, Catwoman.  The last few bars are always the same.  The criminal is always behind them.”

Eventually, enough other versions of Batman came along, many of them dark and brooding and humorless, that the Adam West version seemed less threatening to fanboys.  Today the show is widely loved for what it is — harmless entertainment and a time-capsule of another era — while Mr West himself, type-cast and employment-challenged for years after Batman, has evolved into something of a pop-culture icon.

baddies

I confess the show doesn’t have nearly the same hold on me now that it did in childhood.  Once you’re out of grade school, you can see it’s basically a one-joke concept dragged out for 120 episodes.  Plus, after you’ve seen them all a few times, the law of diminishing returns factors in.  What’s fascinating is that my kids are totally indifferent to the whole thing; they can take it or leave it.  But I suppose here in the 21st century, where scores of celluloid superheroes fly around with magic hammers and hi-tech armor in films with budgets larger than the gross national product of some countries, the TV-scale adventures of a non-powered guy in a leotard and satin trunks aren’t as impressive as they once were.  In my day, though, it was slim pickings; almost no one considered comic books worthy of adaptation to the screen, let alone sure-fire money-makers, so discovering a show like Batman, replete with with otherwise respectable (even famous) grown-up actors dressed in spandex and capes, trading punches on outrageous sets that even a kid could tell cost a lot of money, was like getting an extra Christmas.  At the time, I was convinced it was the whole reason they’d invented TV in the first place.

If nothing else, Batman taught me life lessons that have stood me in good stead all these years: never operate a vehicle without fastening your safety bat-belt, be sure to drink your milk, mind the rules of proper grammar and don’t go anywhere without a full can of shark repellent.

shark

See you again in another 50, Caped Crusader.  Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel.

RIP Patrick Macnee

steed1

I couldn’t let the recent passing of actor Patrick Macnee go by without at least a tip of the bowler.

My memories of Macnee go way back.  It’s likely I heard him before I saw him, thanks to his ominous narration at the beginning of every episode of the original Battlestar Galactica. Later, he was the voice of the Cylon’s “Imperious Leader” in the same series, before finally showing up in (sort of) human form as the evil Count Iblis.  By then, I’d probably seen him as British agent John Steed on The New Avengers, running at 11:30 EST on the CBS Late Night Movie.

Naturally it was the Steed role that made the biggest impression, as James Bond had already predisposed me in favor of secret agents and all things British.  Though paired in The New Avengers with two more contemporary, youthful and “hip” agents, it was the comparatively anachronistic (if not fantasy-based) Steed who most interested me.  With his Edwardian outfits and ever-present umbrella, his impeccable manners and cultured ways, he was exaggeratedly “British,” which I suppose satisfied me in the same way that foreigners want all Americans to wear cowboy hats and talk with a twang.

Post-Avengers, Macnee went on to memorable roles in the horror film The Howling and the cult-favorite comedy, This is Spinal Tap, and practically innumerable guest appearances on TV shows.  He starred as Dr Watson opposite two Sherlock Holmeses, Roger Moore (!) in Sherlock Holmes in New York and his old school chum Christoper Lee in two other films.  Macneee also played Holmes himself in The Hound of London, making him one of very few actors to play both roles.  In the wake of his passing, I sought out the Magnum, PI episode titled “Holmes Is Where the Heart Is,” in which Macnee guest stars as a former British agent who thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes in a sort of “two for one” package of Macnee specialties.

Indeed, the Steed role was the gift that kept on giving for Macnee, keeping him steadily employed from 1961 to 1969 opposite various screen partners on the original series, then again in 1976 in the aforementioned New Avengers revival, plus in-character cameos on talk shows, variety shows, music videos and commercials.  Even when he was “done” with Steed, he pretty much turned “ex-British agent”  into a second career; you could just imagine producers saying, “We need a former spy in this episode.  Get me Macnee!”  In 1983, he replaced the late Leo G. Carroll as Napoleon Solo’s boss for the Return of the Man from UNCLE TV movie, and if his precise status was somewhat unclear in the 1985 Bond film, A View To A Kill, his casting opposite Roger Moore was obviously meant to capitalize on the nostalgia appeal of pairing two former icons of 60s British adventure TV.

In the 90s, I finally got to see the original Avengers series on AMC, and it became a bit of an obsession for me.  Almost every episode had at least one moment for Steed to shine, but near the top of the list, for me, was a scene in “A Touch of Brimstone.”  Chiefly famous for a skimpy and suggestive outfit Mrs Peel wears as “the Queen of Sin,” (contributing mightily to the decision by American networks not to air the episode at the time), the episode also features the immortal scene where Steed applies for membership in the mysterious Hellfire Club, and is put through a tension-filled initiation by the wonderfully evil Lord Cartney, as played by Peter Wyngarde.

brimstone1

Steed is first challenged to drink a ridiculously huge mug full of some sort of alcoholic spirit, which he does with aplomb (asking for a bit more as “the drive down seems to have given me quite a thirst.”) Then, with his wits and reflexes thus (presumably) impaired, he’s challenged to remove a dried pea from a chopping block before a club member can cut it in two with an axe.  Another member, and a veteran of this particular test in the past, holds up his two prosthetic fingers as a warning of what could happen.  Steed agrees gamely, with the air of a fatuous aristocrat out of his depth and blind to his peril.  Lord Cartney looks on with a cruel leer, al but licking his lips at the prospect of witnessing a gruesome maiming.  The signal is given, the axe swings down and Steed — puff! — blows the pea off the chopping block, thus meeting the challenge of removing it, and without ever risking his digits.

brimstone2

 

Wyngarde, still a couple of years away from iconic superspy status himself as Jason King in Department S, is perfect here, projecting first an oily sadism, then a fuming disappointment at Steed’s clever dodge.  Macnee handles the scene perfectly as well, playing up his “clueless fop” act while underneath he’s acutely aware of his danger, and Cartney’s treachery, and determined to outwit him.  By literally “blowing off” Cartney’s “ultimate test,” he makes a mockery of the whole exercise, and gives Cartney a figurative poke in the eye without ever dropping the pretense of fun and games.   Here we have Steed in a nutshell, the eccentric, flighty facade concealing a center of hard, English steel.  It’s no coincidence that the bowler secretly has a steel brim and the umbrella conceals a finely honed sword.

At the height of my infatuation with The Avengers, I bought a full-size umbrella to replace my collapsible version.  I wanted to practice all the “stage business” Macnee was so great at when he used his as a cane, a pointer or a hook (rarely did Steed’s brolly actually get opened).  In my defense, I never carried it unless their were rainclouds out, and ultimately I abandoned it as too hard to wrestle in and out of my car.  Plus I could never roll it even a fraction as tightly as Steed did.  Even at my most intense stage of fandom, I didn’t buy a bowler, but I definitely sympathized with Niles and Frasier Crane when they defended their love of Steed to their dad Martin in an episode of the sitcom, “Frasier:”

Martin: My point is, you guys could never resist putting on airs.  Even when you were in junior high, you used to love that TV program, “The Avengers.” You used to run all over the neighborhood pretending you were that guy with the umbrella…Steve.
Frasier: Steed!
Niles: (rolls his eyes) Dad!
Frasier: There were worse role models. Steed was dapper and witty.  When anyone tried to give him grief, he gave them a sound thrashing with the umbrella.
Martin: Well, that’s great, admire him if you want. But did you have to run through the neighborhood in bowler hats? I mean, you were just begging to get beat up.
Frasier: Come to think of it, it was rather a rough summer that year, wasn’t it?
Niles: I remember getting a chin strap so the bowler wouldn’t fall off when I ran.

It’s worth noting that much of what we associate with Steed are traits native to Macnee himself; the cheery good humor, the charm and pleasant manner and gentlemanly conduct.  In his book, “The Avengers And Me,” Macnee noted that it was largely up to him what form his character would take (not least because, at first anyway, it had been meant as just a supporting role):

“Nobody told me how I should play steed, or relate to other people.  I never, ever, got a brief. It was never written down.  The script for ‘Hot Snow,’ the first episode in December 1960 said; ‘Keel is about to push the bell button when the door is flung open.  Steed stands there.’  Just that, nothing else.  No description, nothing.  So I just made him up….[Steed] was never a character in literature, like Bulldog Drummond, Simon Templar or James Bond, or a persona somebody else had first created in another medium.  Steed was never written down — “Steed stands there.”– and I was the man.  I’m awfully proud of that.  As time went on, Steed and myself just grew together.”

Even in his heyday, Steed was an anachronism, and more’s the pity.  Macnee, likewise, seemed one of the last exemplars of a more civilized and decent era, a time either long past or maybe just imagined in the first place.  We’re a bit the poorer to have lost them both.

 

Hitting 50: Emma Peel

emma-knife2It’s hard to believe I share a birth year with Emma Peel, but that’s probably because I made my 1965 debut as an infant, while Emma showed up fully grown.  And rather nicely so, at that.

For the uninitiated, Mrs Emma Peel was the female half of The Avengers, the British dynamic duo that debuted on American airwaves in 1965 (even though the show had been around, with a different female lead, for a couple seasons already in the U.K.). Legend has it Emma’s name derived from the writers’ shorthand description of what the still-in-development character was to bring to the show: “Man Appeal” or “M. Appeal.”  This she delivered in spades, as legions of male admirers could attest.

I was a late joiner to those legions, having had to wait until the early 90s before I could finally see the show on cable’s A&E Network.  Until then, my exposure to the The Avengers concept was limited to The New Avengers, a short-lived, Emma-less revival in the late 70s that aired on the CBS Late Movie on Friday nights.  Suffice to say it wasn’t the same.

If ever a show was tailored to my oddball sensibilities, The Avengers was it.  At its center was the cool and quirky superspy John Steed (Patrick Macnee), who worked for a mysterious arm of British intelligence and came equipped with a sword-umbrella and a bowler hat with a steel crown good for konking foes on the noggin.  Like James Bond and other 60’s favorites Jonny Quest and The Wild Wild West, this was “spy” fare only in the 60’s pop culture sense; not political intrigue or anything remotely close to real-life espionage, but fantastic and fanciful battles with diabolical masterminds and their nefarious (if preposterous) schemes against mother England and the world. Episodes from the 1965 season involved robotic assassins, telepaths, weather-controlling devices, enemy submarines parked in Scottish lochs and man-eating plants from outer space.  Things would get even crazier the next year, with the addition of color.

duo4Also, for a confirmed Anglophile like myself, the show offered an idealized, fairy tale version of England, from a travel brochure-worthy London to gorgeous country estates, and populated with all manner of delightful eccentrics daft enough to make Steed, with all his affectations, seem positively normal in comparison.

Well, perhaps not normal, as Steed is held up repeatedly within the context of the show as the very exemplar of all that is British, what with his impeccable manners, his mastery of all things sartorial and culinary and his ability to handle any danger with imperturbable calm and wit.

And then there was Mrs Peel, in the (pleasing) form of Diana Rigg. Smart and capable, fearless and intrepid…and far from incidentally, quite lovely.  Where Steed represented the best of English tradition, Emma represented the future, with her trendy outfits and progressive attitudes.  And of course the “Mrs” signaled she was a widow, with all the “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” connotations that would have carried back in the day.   No mere “damsel in distress,” she was Steed’s equal in most respects, and his superior in others: accomplished artist, karate expert, crack shot, CEO of a major corporation; there was nothing she couldn’t do.  For every baddie Steed clobbered, Emma probably took out three.  When, in “The Masterminds,” the pair needs to infiltrate an exclusive club of geniuses, Emma passes the entry test with ease, while Steed only squeaks by because he cheats, with her help.

But lest the show be interpreted as outright propaganda for the Women’s Lib movement, it should be noted that few opportunities were missed to exploit Emma’s sex appeal, as she ended up clad in the flimsiest of outfits on the flimsiest of excuses, from leather catsuits to mini-skirts to bikinis to harem girl costumes and the like.  In later episodes, she would favor tight-fitting body suits known as “Emmapeelers,” often with holes artfully cut out to display flesh.  In the infamous “Touch of Brimstone” episode, she’s put in a black teddy with high-heel boots and a spiked dog collar, and attacked by a whip-wielding villain.  Apoplectic American network executives pulled that one from broadcast (but, it was rumored, enjoyed it privately at their Christmas parties).

emmapeeler

Steed’s previous partner had been Mrs. Cathy Gale, in the person of actress Honor Blackman.  Partial to leather outfits and adept at tossing bad guys across the room with her judo prowess, she made a huge impact on pop culture in the U.K. before leaving the show to take a step up (or down, depending on your point of view) to the role of “Pussy Galore” opposite Sean Connery’s James Bond in Goldfinger.  Unfortunately for her, this move came at the same time production of The Avengers transitioned from videotape to film, enabling its export to America, where a new, larger audience would assume Emma Peel was the first to knock down a lot of gender barriers that Cathy Gale had in fact already shattered.

merryquipsThat said, Emma brought something new to the mix in the form of warmth and humor and a genuine affection for Steed.  Where Mrs Gale’s relationship to Steed was often adversarial and prickly, Mrs Peel’s was cozier and more openly flirty.  For instance, there was the scene in “Death At Bargain Prices” where Emma goes undercover as a department store salesperson and Steed shows up as a “customer:”

STEED: “I asked the chief predator where to find you.  He said, ‘our Mrs Peel is in Ladies’ Underwear.’ I rattled up the stairs three at a time!”

EMMA: “Merry quips department on the fifth floor, sir.”

There’s certainly an attraction between these two, but they handle it the same way they handle all those insidious death traps, or the alarmingly frequent discovery of corpses in unexpected places: with breezy wit.  Fans watch closely for hints of what might have gone on between scenes (“Did they or didn’t they?”) and a certain current of romantic tension does add to the show’s charm (YouTube is rife with fan films accentuating their “special moments” to the accompaniment of various schmaltzy tunes).  But unlike, say, Moonlighting, Remington Steele or other shows that mix romance and crime-solving, with The Avengers it was never more than a subtext, very much secondary (at best) to whatever evil plot was unfolding, and never more than friendly flirting.  Thus, happily, we never reached the dead end we did with those other shows when the relationships eventually, inevitably passed the point of no return.  We never had to endure a scene where Mrs Peel said, “We need to talk about us…”

That said, it’s no less heartbreaking when, out of the blue, the presumed-dead Mr Peter Peel shows up very much alive and (understandably) wants his wife back.   Steed gets a last, chaste kiss (on the cheek!) and then Emma’s out of his flat, and his life, crossing paths on the stairway with the next girl in line, Tara King (Linda Thorson).

goodbye

But while on screen Emma was rejoining her husband, in real life Diana Rigg, like Honor Blackman before her, was leaving Steed for James Bond (that bounder!).  As the Countess Teresa deVincenzo alias Tracy Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, she would present us with arguably the most important woman in 007’s life, and the only one who could get him to walk the aisle.  Alas, Bond isn’t the domestic type, so she also ends up dead in the end (Oops! Spoilers!).  Often, the “Bond girl” roles went to freshly discovered ingenues whose primary “qualifications” involved certain body measurements, but with a new and untried actor (George Lazenby) as Bond, and given the comparative gravitas inherent in the Tracy role, casting a known draw and proven talent like Ms Rigg made sense.

It might have worked too well. In his 1973 book, “James Bond Diary,” Roger Moore recalled attending a private screening of OHMSS hosted by Bond producer Harry Saltzman:  “When the lights came up, Harry said, ‘Well, what do you think of my new monster?’ Bob Goldstein, a Hollywood producer present, said ‘You made a mistake, Harry. You should have killed him and saved her.'”

Tracy would cast a long shadow, her marriage to Bond being one of the very few “canon” events in the series’ history, alluded to in the films of two (arguably 3) subsequent lead actors.  Meanwhile, Diana Rigg (now Dame Diana Rigg) would go on to more triumphs and remains in the spotlight at age 76 thanks to her award-winning performances on Game of Thrones.

Our Emma, though, would remain untouched by age or mortality.  She’s preserved forever as we last saw her, on the stairs of Steed’s flat, in her trendy outfit and with that ever-present air of casual confidence and good humor.  On her way out, she leaves Steed (and us) with the reminder to “Always keep your bowler on in times of stress, and watch out for diabolical masterminds.”

Words to live by.

RIP Leonard Nimoy

spock

Long ago, before the geeks inherited the Earth, before “Big Bang Theory” ruled the airwaves and superhero movies ruled at the box office, before everyone and his brother had a Dr Who t-shirt, “nerd” was not a label we wore with comfort, let alone bragged about.  Being a nerd meant being ostracized, teased and bullied.  Back then, your love for science fiction or comic books was something you kept to yourself, until, through some secret signal or other, you connected with a fellow traveler, thereafter to spend your lunches in the school cafeteria together, gleefully — if quietly — comparing notes on favorite Bradbury or Asimov stories, debating whether the Flash could outrun Quicksilver, or trying to figure out the science (if any) behind warp speed and photon torpedoes.

If there was an icon for us in those days, it was undeniably Mr. Spock, the ultimate outsider, the only one of his kind on a crowded ship where everyone else fit in.  Like us, he was defined by his otherness. His brain worked differently from his peers, which gave him satisfaction and a sense of identity but also loneliness and pain.   Where we stuck out as different with our thick glasses or braces or bad skin or never-quite stylish clothes, for him it was those pointed ears; at once cool and unsettling, weird and mesmerizing, they set him apart from everyone else, which could be a good and bad thing, often at once.  And that’s why we “grokked” Spock.  We may not have come from the planet Vulcan, but we knew what it was to be alien.  In the end we were vindicated as Spock’s logical mind often saved the ship, or whole worlds, and intelligence was revealed not as a liability but in fact a superpower.  (And just for good measure, he was the strongest guy on the ship, even if his pacifism kept all that power in check.)

Under the makeup and ears was Leonard Nimoy, an actor of considerable intellect and ability who worked hard to preserve his character’s dignity and saw it pay off as he and Spock grew into cultural icons.  Fifty years later, with Star Trek such an integral part of popular culture, it’s easy to forget what a hugely courageous act it was to put on those ears for the first time.  Like any actor, Mr. Nimoy must have wanted to be respected for his work, and to get more work, but both respect and future employment were on the line if the gamble failed, if no one would see beyond that odd makeup to the soul of the character.  Today even Academy Award winners line up to shave their heads, paint their faces and apply fake noses, brows, ears and hair for superhero and science fiction films, but Nimoy took up the challenge in an age where most celluloid science fiction involved zippered, rubber monster suits, giant insects and wobbly flying saucers. There were no guarantees he’d come out on the other end of Star Trek with any kind of career at all.  It was to his great credit that he saw the potential in the character and was willing to put so much on the line to bring it to life.  Everyone making millions today off of nerd-friendly movies and TV owes him a Vulcan salute.

Of course, there was a lot more to Nimoy than Spock. He was a talented poet and photographer and directed non-Trek films like Three Men and A Baby and The Good Mother, for starters.  But it’s a testament to the talent and sincerity he poured into Star Trek that, for once, it doesn’t seem disrespectful to link a real person to a fictional character.  For many, thanks to Nimoy, Spock was as real as anyone they knew.  Which, on the downside, kind of makes this a double loss.

The last reel of Wrath of Khan, still and probably always the best of the Trek films, is filled with three-hanky moments as  Spock sacrifices himself for the ship, says goodbye to his best friend and is given a “burial in space,” but the moment that always hits me hardest is when McCoy calls up to Kirk, still on the bridge, and tells him he’d better come running.  Until now, Kirk has been so wrapped up in his battle with Khan that he hasn’t even noticed Spock’s left the bridge, but as soon as he hears that cryptic plea from McCoy, he knows what’s happened.  He looks over to the science station to see Spock’s empty chair and the truth hits him like a punch to the gut. That image of the empty chair is more powerful in its understatement than all the gory makeup or teary dialog that follows.  Today the chair is empty again, but unlike in the movies, and with due respect to Mr. Nimoy’s nominal successor in the role, that’s the way it’s going to stay.

Rest in peace, Mr Nimoy, and godspeed on your new voyage.

spocks chair