Tag Archives: Television

Scooby Doo, How Could You?

Writer’s note: The following is another blog ripped from my personal blog at dimland.com. It has been updated and rewritten just a little bit…

I’m a skeptic. What that means is I require good, scientific evidence before I accept an extraordinary claim. I’ve learned that, throughout history, ever mystery ever solved has turned out to be not magic. Not ghosts. Not demons. Not monsters. Not any paranormal or supernatural phenomenon at all. Nope. The mysteries all turn out to be something in this world and not out of this world. (Thanks to Tim Minchin and Michael Shermer for much of what I just wrote are their words.)

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The Saturday morning cartoon series Scooby Doo, Where Are You? did a lot to set a skeptical foundation for a generation of kids. Debuting in 1969, the series followed a group of four kids and their dog who traveled the countryside looking for mysteries in need of solving. These intrepid trust-funders (there was never any mention of any of them having a job) would stumble upon a mystery involving apparently supernatural causes. They would then search for clues. Chased by ghosts, witches, werewolves, and other assorted creeps, our heroes would manage to reveal the truth and catch the bad guys.

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The bad guys never turned out anything anywhere near being supernatural. It was never a ghost or a witch or a werewolf. It nearly always turned out to be someone in a costume, except that one time when it was a robot run amok in an amusement park. It’s a wonder the gang, especially Shaggy and Scooby, would continue to be scared of g-g-g-ghosts. After all the times the mystery turned out not to be supernatural, you’d think they would no longer believe in ghosts or anything similar.

I watched Scooby and the various later incarnations up until Scrappy Doo came along and ruined the show. But, even up to that point, the mysteries were always normal and natural phenomena.

In 1999 came the full-length animated special Scooby Doo and the Witch’s Ghost. A few years ago, my son was watching that adventure on DVD when I came home from work. I was shocked and disappointed. Sometime during the 30 years since Scoob and the gang debuted, the ghosts had become actual ghosts! No! Say it ain’t so.

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The show featured a grrl rock band called The Hex Girls. The referred to themselves as “eco-Goths.” From what I could tell that meant they were rockin’ girls that liked to look like the undead and sing about saving the earth. All the Goth look with none of the nihilism.

One of the group was a Wiccan. OK. But the show kept treating Wicca as though it was an ethnic group and not a religion. I may be wrong, but I don’t think Wicca can be considered an ethnicity.

But, I’m just picking nits.

What really bothered me was the fact Hanna-Barbera, the producers of Scooby Doo, thought it would be a good idea to drop the no supernatural policy and have actual an ghost witch in the story. My skeptic’s heart was broken.

The first two thirds of the show followed the original Scooby Doo ethos by having bad guys in costumes using trickery to scare people, but in act three it went supernatural. A character who turned out to be a double-crossing villain found a book of spells and released the witch’s ghost from whatever limbo in which it had been imprisoned. This time it wasn’t smoke bombs and mirrors or any other tricks. This time it was magic. Actual magic.

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That’s not smoke and mirrors, it’s an actual ghost witch. For shame!

It took the Wiccan girl, who was pure of heart, to read the spell that re-imprisoned the witch’s ghost. Mystery solved.

I was appalled. I explained to my son how it was wrong for Scooby to have been promoting the supernatural, after having shown kids that such mysteries always have a real world explanation. Scooby had taught kids that the supernatural, the paranormal, and the unexplained are merely mysteries that can be solved without invoking magic.

I don’t have a problem with other shows and movies, for kids or adults, indulging in supernatural fantasy. I am a a fan of The X-Files, Jonny Quest (the first season), Harry Potter, Dracula, Frankenstein, haunted house stories, etc. Those shows always allowed for the supernatural to be real (despite Scully’s protestations). Scooby Doo didn’t accept the magic when it started and for years after. But when Scooby Doo went supernatural, I felt betrayed.

Scooby Doo, how could you?!

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Some Nitpicks Of ‘To Serve Man’

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Warning! There will be spoilers!

Of course, Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone was groundbreaking television. And, of course, it is universally loved and respected. As it should be! The show cleverly addressed sensitive social issues without much of the audience even realizing it. Science fiction is sneaky and very useful that way. And it was also pretty darned entertaining. Most of the shows still hold up today.

There were plenty of memorable episodes that commonly get rated among the best of the series. There was the one with William Shatner being the sole passenger to see the creature damaging the wing of the plane. There was that episode in which a misanthrope and book-lover, played by Burgess Meredith, survived a nuclear attack and was left alone with all those books. Finally, able to read as much as he wanted and not be disturbed by the nuisance of people, he stumbled and broke his glasses, rendering him unable to read with no one around to fix them. And the show with the beautiful Donna Douglas playing a woman who didn’t match society’s view of physical attractiveness. Oh! And who can forget that nasty kid (Billy Mumy) who wished people into the cornfield?

Classics all.

I think what is probably the most memorable show, however, is To Serve Man, written by Serling, originally airing March 2, 1962. It is the story of the arrival of a super-intelligent and seemingly benevolent extraterrestrial race. These rather large aliens, played by the rather large Richard Kiel and voiced by Joseph Ruskin, have come to Earth to end disease and famine. And to save us from ourselves by making it possible to end war. They bring us peace, safety, and prosperity. They also offer the wonderful opportunity to visit their home world.

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When their representative addressed the United Nations, the alien was told that delegates from “most of the important countries” were present. Really? I wonder how that made the “unimportant countries” feel. And just which ones are unimportant? Canada? Belize? France?

Well, yeah, France. But still!

(Incidentally, the UN Secretary General, in his address to the assembly, mentions that the first alien spacecraft to land on Earth landed outside of Newark, New Jersey. I’m certain that was Serling’s nod to Orson Wells’ infamous 1938 radio broadcast, War of the Worlds. In that show, the first spaceship landed in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. A small, rural town near Princeton University, not far from Newark. Eh? See what he did there?)

At that meeting with the UN, the alien left behind a book. A book written in their language, which was turned over to code-breaker named Michael Chambers (Lloyd Bochner), and his team to see if it could be translated to English. Midway through the episode, after the world had become peaceful and relaxed, we learn that the title of the book had been translated as “To Serve Man.”

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Um. Hang on. How did they translate it? As was pointed out in the book The Twilight Zone Companion, they weren’t breaking a code. This was a completely alien language. Without any kind of a guide, a Rosetta Stone, there would be no way anyone could translate that book, let alone its title. It simply would be impossible.

Well, never mind. Translate the title they did. And the title just reinforced the good feelings everyone had about these nice, accommodating beings from another planet. Still the challenge of finishing the translation was too hard to resist for the code-breaker’s assistant, played by Susan Cummings. Just as Chambers was to board the alien spacecraft for his trip to another world, she came to warn him not to go.

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She desperately called out to him that the book was… a cookbook! Dun dun duuuhhhh!

Classic Rod Serling twist!

Here’s where I scratch my head, though. Why would these super-intelligent beings come here with the intention of surreptitiously wrangling people to take back to their planet as food, give us a book detailing how they would cook (or serve) us? That don’t make no sense.

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“Daddy’s Gonna Kill Ralphie!”

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Christmas is coming again, so I thought I’d reminisce a little about one of my favorite holiday movies: A Christmas Story (1983).

I didn’t see this movie until many, many years after it was released. It was in the mid to late 90s, when I was listening to a couple of talk radio show hosts praising this now holiday classic, that it first time it came to my attention. My curiosity peaked, I sought it out. Finding it wasn’t too difficult, because by that time television had turned it into a holiday programming staple.

“Oh, did you miss it? Change the channel. Someone else will be playing it.”

Television was great at taking modestly successfully theatrical releases and turning them into required viewing classics. It’s A Wonderful Life and The Wizard of Oz are two fine examples of television’s influence. A Christmas Story may be the most recent film to have television help it along in that way.

The story is set in pre-World War II Indiana and is viewed from young Ralphie Parker’s perspective as he attempts to influence his parents, terrifically portrayed by Melinda Dillon and Darren McGavin, into giving him a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. But Mrs. Parker insists they are dangerous and that he’ll shoot his eye out. That’s a recurring phrase in the film. Adults were so worried about kids losing their eyes.

The movie is based on semi-autobiographical stories written by Jean Shepherd. Shepherd is the film’s narrator as the adult version of Ralphie relating this story of his youth. And he is wonderful. There’s a twinkle in the man’s eye, which you can clearly hear in his voice. The man can tell a story!

Although I grew up in a different era than what is shown in the film, the universality of the story – anticipating Christmas, coveted gift items, loving (if somewhat scary) parents, school, teachers, weird gifts from relatives, bullies, friends, and flagpoles –  appeals to my nostalgic feelings for my days as a kid. The way Ralphie feels about Christmas reflects the way I felt. And Ralphie’s fantasies, although silly and over-the-top, are good fun.

By far, my favorite character is Old Man Parker. He makes the film. McGavin is just so good as Ralphie’s furnace-fighting, foul-mouthed, major award-winning, gruff, but loving and lovable dad. Old Man Parker is the key to this movie, if he’s wrong the movie just doesn’t make it. And McGavin nails it.

His gruffness is all just bluster. He loves his wife and his boys. We see it in his reaction to the wife and kids bellowing out Jingle Bells on the drive home from getting their Christmas tree. Sure, he rolls his eyes, but there is love in there. We see it in Old Man Parker’s subtle smirk as he sends his oldest son back into the car after an unsuccessful attempt to help change a tire. An attempt that had young Ralphie accidentally drop an F bomb in front of his father for the first time. Hence the smirk. We also see it as the old man is almost as excited as Ralphie when… Oh, but that would be a spoiler.

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“Oh, wow!”

And, of course, there is the leg lamp!

I just love this movie. I watch it every year and remember all those wonderful Christmases from my youth.

Hard to believe the director of this classic, Bob Clark, also directed Porky’s.

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Best & worst of Columbo

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I’ve been watching Columbo on the Netflix almost every night for the last few weeks. I’ve seen all those original episodes from the 70s several times; so I pretty much put them on, get comfy on the couch, and fall asleep to Peter Falk’s most beloved character. Most of the episodes are entertaining and very much of the 1970s. Lots of bad fashion, weird interior design, and smoking. Everybody smoked back then. At least, that’s how it seems.

Well, you might imagine that I’ve gotten to know those shows pretty well, and I have. You might also imagine I have favorites and not favorites, and I have. So, I thought I’d list the top three and the bottom three. This is, of course, just my opinion. Your results may vary.

My top three episode picks:

3) The Bye-Bye Sky High IQ Murder Case – Original air date May 22, 1977

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In this episode, Lt. Columbo investigates a murder at a Mensa-type meeting house, where people with very high IQs gather to talk smart stuff. One of the members, Oliver Brandt, played by Theodore Bikel, knows his accounting partner and fellow club member, Bertie (Sorrell Booke), has discovered his embezzling of their clients’ funds. Brandt has concocted a brilliant plan to murder Bertie, using a gun with a silencer, then join the meeting of the minds, and make it sound as though the murder is taking place while he is with the group.

Bikel is excellent as the genius troubled by his spendthrift, but gorgeous, wife (Samantha Eggar) and bored by the idiot geniuses he is surrounded by at the club. Columbo, ever the polite, rumpled, non-threatening detective, demonstrates that he might be eligible to join the group as he masterfully gets the murderer to show us how he did it. And Bikel’s momentary joy as he shows the detective his ingenious scheme is terrific.

2) Short Fuse – Original air date January 19, 1972

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Roddy McDowell plays a none-too-serious, spoiled rich kid who is being blackmailed by his uncle into allowing the uncle to sell the family business to a huge conglomerate. “Junior”, as McDowell’s character is called, is a brilliant chemist and he rigs a cigar box to explode, killing his uncle. Junior then takes control of the company.

As always, Columbo politely investigates, appearing to be clueless, all the while innocently maneuvering the murderer into admitting his crime. In fact, the reveal that takes place on a mountain sky car has McDowell very convincingly losing his cool believing something awful is about to happen.

1) Murder By The Book – Original air date September 15, 1971

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This is the premiere episode of the Columbo series and it stars Jack Cassidy as the bad guy. Cassidy, who rivals Robert Culp as the best murderer of the series, (both actors have played the murderer three times) plays the less productive half of the writing team of the very successful Mrs. Melville mystery novels. He decides to murder his writing partner (Martin Milner) instead of letting him go off and write on his own. Later, he kills a woman (Barbara Colby) who was blackmailing him, because she knew what he did.

Right from the beginning of the series, Cassidy set the template on how the suspects would treat Columbo. He would pretend to help, but would soon become dismissive of our disheveled detective, even annoyed. In fact, he would become angry that Columbo just kept popping up to ask one more question.

This episode was directed by Steven Spielberg and you can see some Spielberg touches throughout the show, especially in the final scene as Cassidy angrily walks off the elevator and heads to his office. There are a few police officers around and, as Cassidy passes them and goes off camera, a cop steps into frame to keep a watchful eye. Pure Spielberg.

My bottom three picks:

3) Fade In To Murder – Original air date October 10, 1976

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William Shatner plays the murderer this time. His character an actor who plays Detective Lucerne on a wildly popular television series. Columbo acts a bit starstruck as he allows Shatner to pretend he is the TV detective helping a real detective solve a murder. The murder was of the producer (Lola Albright) of the Detective Lucerne program. She was blackmailing the actor by threatening to expose the fact that he had deserted the Korean War.

The idea is that Shatner plays a sympathetic murderer. And he kind of is, but it’s Shatner and his acting is a bit Shatner-y. The show does acknowledge that it is silly for Columbo to play into the fantasy that the actor is actually the character he plays, which helps. A little.

But what gets under my skin is how often Columbo calls the murderer “sir”. It’s a lot! I counted and I got, at least, 150 uses of the pronoun. It drove my wife crazy when we watched this episode together once. “Stop saying sir!” she shouted at the TV.

It seems the over-abundant “sirs” were intentional. Columbo always called men “sir” through the series, but this show ramped it up so that Shatner could, once he had been busted, tell Columbo to stop calling him “sir”.

Even if it was intentional, it was very annoying.

2) Dagger Of The Mind – Original air date November 26, 1972

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Columbo takes his show on the road. He heads to London to check out investigation techniques at Scotland Yard and ends up solving a murder. Two aging actors of the theat-AR (husband and wife characters played by Richard Basehart and Honor Blackman) have tricked a wealthy aristocrat (John Williams) into financing a production of Macbeth. He had wised up to the scheme and confronted the couple and was accidentally murdered by them. They attempt to cover it up, but that pesky American police detective figures it out.

The problem with this episode is Basehart and Blackman and their chewing of the scenery. If you ever wanted an example of overacting, watch these two. From what I know, they are generally decent actors in other productions; but, for some reason, they needed to act for the back row of a theater a thousand miles away from their stage.

It is so over the top!

1) Last Salute To The Commodore – Original air date May 2, 1976

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And then there was this disaster. It’s horrible. I think it’s meant to be played for laughs, but it just fails so miserably.

This complete misfire was directed by Patrick McGoohan, who had himself acted in the series, playing the murderer on two episodes. McGoohan was largely responsible for the very bizarre, but very intriguing The Prisoner series in which he played the title role. I’m not sure if he brought that bizarreness to this episode, so I won’t placed the blame on him. Not entirely.

I don’t know why, but for this show it was decided to make it an actual mystery. The audience does not know whodunit, which is not the way the series goes. All the other Columbo episodes let us know who the killer is at the beginning and then we are entertained by watching how Columbo catches them. We don’t get that with this show.

The characters are all silly, Columbo is not quite right (there are no “uh, just one more thing” or “oh, I almost forgot” moments), and there are ham-handed attempts at slapstick comedy throughout. What the hell were the producers thinking?!

I recommend you watch it once to see how bad it is and then never, ever watch it again.

Believe me, it’s awful.

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