Wednesday, 23 April 2014

I Was Raised by Spacemen: Eerie, Indiana

“Questions were playing tiddly winks with my grey matter...”

Most times you go back to watch a programme from your youth, it's pretty disappointing. Every now and then, however, they're genuinely as good as you remember. Eerie, Indiana is one of those special few. There are a handful of series that tried to be The Twilight Zone for kids. Round the Twist (which I'll be coming back to in another article) is well-remembered by British and Australian audiences. Are You Afraid of the Dark and Goosebumps scared the kids of the early and late nineties, respectively. None had the wit of Eerie, Indiana. So why this series only lasted for a single season baffles me.

The series was set in the eponymous town of Eerie, Indiana, population 16,661. Marshall 'Mars' Teller moves to Eerie with his family. Only he, and his best friend, Simon, seem to notice just how bizarre life in Eerie really is. Bigfoot eats out of Marshall's trash, Elvis is on his paper round, and each episode, some uncanny occurrence makes becomes the subject of Marshall and Simon's investigations. The situations the duo faced were man and varied. Some were drawn from classic horror and sci-fi, but with a twist, such as “America's Scariest Home Video,” which drew the Mummy straight out of a black-and-white movie and into Marshall's living room, while Simon's younger brother took his place (and proved far scarier). Some drew on science fiction for their inspiration, such as the HAL 9000 riff “The ATM With a Heart of Gold.” Others were barmy in their originality. “No Brain, No Pain,” involved a shambling vagrant, who was in fact a genius, but had accidentally taped over his mind with a copy of The Knack's My Sharona.

While the writing was generally very good for a children's drama, it was the direction and the cast that really set Eerie apart from its rivals. While Jose Rivera and Karl Schaefer were credited as the series' creators, Joe Dante was a major creative force on the show, directing several episodes. This is the man who directed such sci-fi classics as Innerspace, Gremlins and, um, Piranha. Not the sort of person you'd expect to be working on a children's TV series for the Disney Channel. The cast were what really made it, though. The series boasted not only a solid regular and semi-regular cast, but some of the best guest actors in television. Weird old Vincent Schiavelli played the town's terrifying orthodontist, while Rene Auberjonois tried to brainwash the town. Dante's favoured actor, Archie Hann, played Mr Radford, the proprietor of the World O' Stuff, until the series' midpoint turnaround, when he was revealed to be an imposter. The real Radford was revealed, played with twinkling charm by John “Gomez” Astin. In one fan-favourite episode, “The Lost Hour,” putting the clocks forward one hour incorrectly stranded Marshall in an empty parallel version of Eerie, with only a mysterious milkman to turn to for help. That milkman – who, it was hinted, may have been Marshall's own future self – was played by the late, great Eric Christmas, an actor who was born to play the Doctor. These impressive guest spots and many clever references make the series a joy to watch for genre fans.

It would be wrong to overlook the core cast, however. Omri Katz was the star of the show. Fifteen at the time of filming, but playing it a little younger, Omri was perfect as Marshall, representing the many young boys who were just entering puberty and being torn between silly kids' shows and adult life. Omri gave Marshall a wide-eyed wonder at the weirdness of the world, with just enough snark to make the character snappy, but never obnoxious. Stealing the show, though, was Justin Shenkarow, four years younger, as Simon Holmes. Justin dominated every scene he was in, despite being the youngest member of the cast. Simon was an outsider in Eerie, and became close friends with Marshall, only to find himself take a backseat to the teenager's problems. Popularity, school, and above all, his burgeoning interest in girls, threatened to take Marshall away from Simon, but at the end of the day, the two were inseparable. There was a lot for young boys to relate to.

Marshall's family were equally as important to the setup, forever oblivious to the strange goings on around them. Frances Guinan was just the right side of eccentric as his father Edgar. Possibly named in association with Edward Teller, inventor of the hydrogen bomb, Edgar tried to keep afloat with his career as an inventor for Things Incorporated. His inventions were often a main plot point in the series. Marshall's mother, Marilyn, was played Mary-Margaret Humes, who I only now realise was quite impossibly sexy and wasted as Edgar's housewife. As Marshall's older sister, Syndi, Julie Condra provided the boys watching with the twin interests of an irritating sibling to run rings round, and a beautiful young woman to gaze at.

It was something of a boys' show. Marshall had a new crush every other week, and while the girls were often strong, impressive characters, there was less for the female members of the audience. That changed in the thirteenth episode, which began a process of revamping the series by introducing Jason Marsden – that guy who's in everything, these days – as Dash X. A mysterious, amnesiac with grey hair, Dash X didn't know his real name or where he came from. He became the amoral antagonist to Marshall's hero, sometimes helping him, sometimes out for himself. He might possibly have been an alien, and was even seemingly aware that he was part of a television programme. He was also, importantly, the one all the girls watching had a crush on.

Dash X threatened to steal the series away from Marshall, something that the producers were fully aware of. In what was surely intended as the final episode of the series, but actually aired as the penultimate instalment, Marshall woke up to find that his name was really Omri, and his entire life was, in fact, part of a TV show. “Reality Takes a Holiday” was an ingeniously postmodern episode, and saw Dash X – the only character referred to by his fictional name, and not his actor's name – attempt to oust Marshall as the star. Genuinely clever, it was a high point for the series.

My favourite episode, however, was “Heart on a Chain.” Marshall and a previously unmentioned classmate, Devon (played by another Dante favourite, Cory Danziger), both fall for the new girl, Melissa. When Devon is killed in a road accident, his heart is transplanted into the desperately ill Melissa, who begins to display some of Devon's personality traits. Marshall and Melissa's burgeoning romance is sabotaged by Devon's restless spirit. Apart from the fact that I had a huge crush on Danielle Harris, who played Melissa, this episode really touched me as a kid. Watching it again now, it's still affecting. It's a genuinely sweet, sad, creepy little ghost story, just really fine television.

For all the silliness, references and naff monsters, Eerie, Indiana was quite a dark, subversive series. The strangeness of the town and its supposed ordinariness was a metaphor for the harsh realities that are so often kept behind closed doors. While Marshall had a strong, loving family, Simon was from a broken home. He was able to spend so much time with the Tellers because his mother was rarely home, and his father was often “entertaining.” Other characters' lives were rarely anything to celebrate. “Who's Who” revolved around a young girl whose mother had abandoned her, and who was neglected and exploited by her father and brothers. Even the pilot episode, “Foreverware,” hinted at the dark secrets behind so many supposedly perfect families.

For some reason, Eerie, Indiana never took off on its initial 1991-2 run. It sank without a trace, with certain episodes not even airing. It wasn't until 1997 that Fox bought the series and it was given a new lease of life. It was then that the series made it overseas, onto the Saturday mornings of my thirteen-year-old self. It became successful enough to spawn a spin-off series, Eerie, Indiana: The Other Dimension. The concept was rather clever: in a parellel version of Eerie, life is perfectly normal, until a crazy cable guy opens an interdimensional rift. This lets the weirdness of the “prime” Eerie through to the Other Dimension, and threatens to destroy the Eeries of all realities. Marshall and Simon even appeared in the first episode to help out their younger equivalents, Mitchell and Stanley. However, although the effects had improved over the years, the scripts hadn't, and the weaker sequel series lasted only one season itself.

Eerie, Indiana amassed something of a cult following in its brief renaissance, but has little legacy. Even much of its cast are no longer acting. Omri Katz made the occasional film up until about eight years ago, while Justin Shenkarow now does mainly voice work. Julie Condra no longer seems to be acting. Of course, many of the more legendary guest stars are no longer with us. On the other hand, Jason Marsden is a familiar face on American television, Danielle Harris has become something of a modern day scream queen, and some kid called Tobey Maguire, who played a ghost boy, did quite well for himself. Still, I doubt any of these roles will make me smile quite as much as Eerie, Indiana.

CAPTAIN'S BLOG: TOS 2.9 - 2.10

2.09) Metamorphosis
Captain Kirk vs. Zephram Cochrane

The Mission: Get Federation commissioner Nancy Hedford to Epsilon Canarais 3 to prevent a war.

Planets visited: An iron-nickel planetoid in the Gamma Canaris region, rocky and with a purple sky. It is home to only the Companion and her human lodger, Zefram Cochrane.

Stellar Cartography: The region includes an asteroid field containing more than seven thousand bodies, 30 % of which have atmospheres of classes H to M.

Alien life forms: The Companion – an electrical life form, composed mostly of ionised hydrogen. It's a vague, cloudy blob, and looks a bit like the transporter effect. The Companion is female, although there is no evidence of the existence of any other members of its species. The Companion is inextricably linked to its planetoid, able to travel into space at warp speed but unable to leave permanently. She's been keeping Cochrane alive for decades, and has fallen in love with him. In the end, she merges with the dying Hedford, saving her life and giving Cochrane a human companion.

Captain James T: He's explicitly a soldier, but also a diplomat. He's a good deal more patient with Commissioner Hedford than we've seen him with previous bureaucrats, even though she's even more obnoxious than anyone we've met in her profession on the series. He's troubled by, but perfectly willing, to attack the Companion if it means he can get his people off the planet. He promises to keep Cochrane's location and identity secret.

Green-Blooded Hobgoblin: Supposedly doesn't understand love, but has observed it in other life forms. He's the one who works out the Companion's nature, and also devises ways to both attack it and communicate with it.

The Real McCoy: His bedside manner is the best we've ever seen it, perhaps because he knwos that, without getting back to the Enterprise, he has no way of curing Hedford of her terminal case of Sakura's disease. He's the first to realise that the Companion is in love with Cochrane.

Warp Pioneer: Zefram Cochrane, described as Cochrane of Alpha Centauri, invented warp drive around two hundred years ago. 150 years ago, aged eighty-seven, he decided he wanted to die in space. He flew towards the unexplored regions, where he was rescued by the Companion, who rejuvenated him. He's now bored out of his brain, and the Companion brings Kirk's shuttlecraft down so he has someone to play with. He knows what Vulcans are, but isn't all that comfortable with aliens, freaking out when he learns the Companion is in love with him.

Future Treknology: The universal translator works by analysing brainwave patterns. Certain concepts are universal to all intelligent life, and the UT compares the frequencies of the brainwaves associated with these to facilitate communication. Spock is able to adapt the shuttle's UT in order to communicate with the Companion. It gives her a female voice; supposedly, the concepts of male and female are also universal concepts, which is heteronormative crap.

The Verdict: Terribly dull. Glenn Corbett gives an incredibly wooden performance as Cochrane, a character who would be totally forgettable if it wasn't for his place in Star Trek's fictional history. Hedford is the most disagreeable of the series' many disagreeable officials. It's all incredibly heteronormative. This isn't suprising – it's a sixties US programme, we were never going to get much in the way of gender exploration – but it makes the whole thing really very trite and irrelevant.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Nine villains who should appear in new Doctor Who

The Toymaker:

A lot of fans love The Celestial Toymaker, for some reason. I'm not really sure why. It's dull, ill thought out, and horribly racist. Still, the Toymaker himself is a good concept, one that is ripe for an update and a rethink. You'd need to scratch out all that racist orientalist stuff - just the Toymaker, no 'Celestial' appenditure. 'Celestial' is a lovely word, meaning 'cosmic' or 'of the stars,' but it is also an old-fashioned term for the Chinese. Given that the original Toymaker was played by Michael Gough dressed as a Mandarin in an archaic Chinese parlour, making an 'inscrutable Asian' sort of face, I don't think we can give the producers of this story the benefit of the doubt. And that's before they started throwing the N-word around, which wasn't acceptable for children's television even in 1966.

Take the character back to basics: a powerful alien being that creates living toys and sets monstrous games for its victims. Strip away all the questionable 'Celestial' stuff, and you've a villain for a fun, creepy episode with a hint of sixties Batman to it.

The Meddling Monk:

The first adversary we ever met from the Doctor's own people, the Monk was fabulous fun, a mischievous time traveller who tinkered with history for the joy of it. Played by Carry On... star Peter Butterworth, he went up against the first Doctor twice, and had a run-in with the Daleks. A rather more dangerous version of the Monk since went up against the eighth Doctor, now played by former Goodie Graeme Garden. Cheeky and capricious, the Monk has set his sights on perfecting history, ironing out the errors and remaking it.

I'd not be at all surprised to see certain Time Lords escape from the Gallifreyan exile and return to the universe at large, now that the Doctor is on a quest to rediscover his homeworld. While we're bound to see the Master again at some point, a new incarnation of the Monk would fit in nicely with the more mutable version of history that we see in the series now. I could see someone like Stephen Fry playing him (after all, he's in everything else).

The Draconians:

Now that the Zygons have finally reappeared, the Draconians are the fans' favourite one-off monster. Even in 1973 it was a brilliant make-up job, so imagine how good they could look now. A civilisation of noble reptilian warriors, they're rather like the reinvented Klingons, but better, and fifteen years before The Next Generation. The series has taken a fairer hand with alien cultures lately, with the Silurians and Ice Warriors reintroduced as complex peoples with as much variation as mankind. We even have a nice Sontaran. The Draconians could take their place as a broad civilisation out in the stars.

The Rutans:

The Sontarans were the fourth big baddie to come back, following on predictably after the Daleks, the Cybermen and the Master. Since then, they've become part of the background of the series, called on whenever some extra alien heavies are needed. We're well overdue a proper Sontaran story, and one thing we haven't seen on TV, in the whole history of the series, is the conflict between the Sontarans and their mortal enemies, the Rutan Host. The two species have been at war for ten thousand years, and we've never seen them on screen together, unless you count the Adventure Games. It's about time.

The Krynoid:

We love us a bit of body horror. The original series got away with some shocking stuff, at least until Mary Whitehouse got her way. The Krynoid could work fantastically again today; horrific plant life that infects a human host, slowly transforming him into a shambling mound of vegetable matter. In the 1976 serial The Seeds of Doom, Tom Baker put in an intense performance that totally sold the threat to the Earth when the Krynoid landed. Imagine Capaldi in the same role? Alternative extraterrestrial infections such as the Wirrn would do just as well.

The Eight Legs:

The giant spiders of Metebelis III ended the third Doctor, and returned to face the eighth on radio, thirty-odd years later. Russell the Davies made several plans with his co-writers to bring back the Eight Legs in an invasion of Earth in The Sarah Jane Adventures. However, this never came to pass, the writers unable to square the spiders' defeat at the hands of Sarah Jane with their besting of the Doctor back in 1974. The Eight Legs were not the best realised of props, although they were more effective than many fans suggest, but imagine how brilliant they could look today. The twelfth Doctor facing Shelob, two eyes staring down eight, would be a sight to see.

The Chelonians:

Gareth Roberts created these beasties for his novel The Highest Science, and they became recurring foes for the seventh Doctor in the New Adventures. At once stage, Roberts and Davies were going to use them in Planet of the Dead, a story very vaguely based on the aforementioned novel. It's about time we saw them on screen. Giant, green, hermaphroditic, cyborg tortoises – what's not to love?

The Eminence:

The Eminence is a being created by Matt Fitton for the Big Finish audio plays, and is perhaps the perfect audio villain. Nothing more than a voice – the voice of David Sibley, in fact – the Eminence is a powerful intelligence from the edge of the universe, determined to conquer all of space and time. The sixth and eighth Doctors have already faced it, with the Doctor's first encounter, in his fourth incarnation, upcoming. The Eminence sends itself out in gaseous form, inhabiting the bodies of human slaves and turning them into his Infinite Warriors. It's rather like a more effective version of the Great Intelligence, and could make a formidable threat. And it wouldn't cost much, saving money after all the spending on giant spiders and Rutan shapeshifters.

Cardinal Richelieu:

Doctor Who has a long tradition of having the Doctor meet individuals who have a surprising resemblance to himself. William Hartnell played the Abbot of Amboise, Patrick Troughton faced himself as both the Doctor and the dictator Salamander, and Colin Baker got to shoot his predecessor Peter Davison, as the Gallifreyan guard Maxil. Twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi has already appeared twice in the franchise, as the Pompeiian Caecilius and Frobisher in Torchwood. Supposedly, some kind of explanation for this repetition of forms is coming once Capaldi takes over as the Doctor.

With this in mind, and given the success of the BBC's new series The Musketeers, howsabout a crossover? Capaldi is unable to reprise his role as the Cardinal Richelieu due to his commitments to Doctor Who, but given a crossover production, what's to stop the twelfth Doctor meet his lookalike in 16th century France?

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Iris Wildthyme of Mars - coming soon!

Author and editor Philip Purser-Hallard has now posted the full line-up for Obverse Books' next anthology, Iris Wildthyme of Mars, at his blog, Peculiar Times.

The stories, collected in pseudo-chronological order (from classical philosophical heavens to postmodern soft science fiction) are:

'Wandering Stars' - Ian Potter
'Lieut. Gullivar Jones: His Bad Weekend' - Daniel Tessier
'Iris: Chess-Mistress of Mars' - Simon Bucher-Jones
'Death on the Euphrates' - Selina Lock
'And a Dog to Walk' - Dale Smith
'Talking with Spores' - Juliet Kemp
'Doomed' - Richard Wright
'The Last Martian' - Rachel Churcher
'Lilac Mars' - Mark Clapham and Lance Parkin (sequel to the New Adventure 'Beige Planet Mars')
'City of Dust' - Aditya Bidikar
'The Calamari-Men of Mare Cimmerium' - Blair Bidmead
'Green Mars Blues' - Philip Purser-Hallard

Yes, that's my name right there. My story, being a sequel to an early planetary romance, comes second in the evolving scheme of Martian fiction. I'm in incredibly esteemed company here, alongside some of my favourite and most respected authors. Nerve-wracking, but exciting, in equal measure.

Iris Wildthyme of Mars should be available in print and e-book formats from Obverse Books in the summer. Pre-orders should be available soon.

Friday, 18 April 2014


Just reblogging some links to articles. Required reading, I feel, for the male geek contingent. Time to buck our ideas up.

Fake Geek Guys

Doctor Who and the Women