Thursday, July 29, 2021

Random Movie Reviews, Volume 14

More Space Race Documentaries: 

For All Mankind (1989): This documentary still has a lot to offer, despite being a few decades old now. It’s sort of the prototype of Apollo 11; indeed, Todd Douglas Miller’s 2019 film ends with the credit “For Al and Theo.” Theo is Theo Kamecke, director of Moonwalk One, and Al is Al Reinert, who directed this theatrically-released 1989 documentary. Like Apollo 11, For All Mankind presents a concise trip to the moon and back, but with a few differences from that later film: it too features vintage audio from the era, but also includes modern voiceovers from many of the astronauts, and also it presents a sort of composite of every lunar mission (plus a clip from a Gemini-era spacewalk). In that regard it isn’t nearly the historical document that Apollo 11 is, and actually if you are familiar with the Apollo missions and the various astronauts you could get confused by the whirlwind of assembled footage. For example, Charlie Duke appears in this film as both an astronaut on the moon and a Capcom at Mission Control! Now that’s multitasking! 

Another big difference here, and one of the things that still elevates For All Mankind, is that the majority of the footage is from post-Apollo 11 missions. Whereas most other documentaries just rush through Apollos 12-17 and put the most focus on Apollo 11, here the more famous mission actually gets less screen time. But again, it’s all assembled into a composite of “one” trip, so for example you’ll see Buzz “Apollo 11” Aldrin coming down the ladder for his first steps on the moon, after Neil Armstrong has been out there for several minutes, but the voiceover is courtesy Pete “Apollo 12” Conrad, who’s talking about what it was like to be “second” on the moon. But what Conrad really means is that his was the second trip to the moon, Apollo 12, and he was the third man to walk on the moon. Regardless another thing For All Mankind has going for it is humor; here Conrad reveals that he took a bet with someone that he could say whatever he wanted when he first stepped on the moon, and thus he proclaimed with his first step: “Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me!” 

One thing For All Mankind proves is that the Apollo 11 crew (Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins) was indeed a laconic bunch…even when compared to other astronauts. For the others presented here are downright giddy; these guys hoot and holler, joke constantly, occasionally sing and dance, and as seen above even lampoon famous quotes. In fact one wonders how different space history might’ve gone down if the Apollo 12 crew of Pete Conrad and Alan Bean were the first two men to walk on the moon, not Amrstrong and Aldrin; Conrad and Bean are almost a lunar comedy duo. Whereas the Apollo 11 crew approached their mission with a sort of gravitas, Apollo 12 and the rest mostly just seemed to have a good time. I wondered as I watched how it would’ve been if these later guys were really the first ones to get there, the ones that billions would’ve watched on TV…I figured it could’ve gone either way, with the public either getting more invested in the program, what with how approachable and goofy these astronauts were, or they could’ve thought the entire thing was a waste of money, being taken as a joke by the astronauts. 

The footage itself is incredible, and one of the big selling points of For All Mankind when it was released was that it was the first time many viewers got to see actual moon footage outside of the blurry black and white images that had been originally broadcast on TV. It isn’t a feast for the senses like Apollo 11 is, but it’s still in the same ballpark at least, and the Criterion Blu Ray presents it all in remastered high definition. There’s a lot of great material with the lunar rover just barrelling over the moonscape. The majority of the Mission Control footage comes from the Apollo 17 mission (as seen in The Last Steps, below), but as mentioned footage from various missions is cobbled together. This personally bugged me about the film, but honestly the less you know about the Apollo program the more you’ll enjoy For All Mankind. Another thing that added to my personal confusion was that none of the modern voiceovers are credited; you’ll hear an astronaut talking – and most of them have Southern accents, adding to the confusion – but you’re not given any info on who he is. However having seen a few of these space documentaries now, many of the voices were recognizable to me, in particular Mike Collins, Charlie Duke, Alan Bean, and Gene Cernan. 

Speaking of astronaut voices, one you won’t hear is Neil Armstrong’s. It doesn’t look like he appeared in many of these documentaries; the only one I’ve yet seen is the 2008 Discovery Channel doc When We Left Earth, which features Armstrong as one of the onscreen talking heads. Otherwise director Reinert, who apparently gathered all his audio interviews in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, has assembled at least one crew member from each of the lunar missions, ie Apollo 8 through Apollo 17. Speaking of which two more surprising no-shows are Frank “Apollo 8” Borman and Buzz Aldrin. And neither of the Apollo 14 lunar walkers – Ed Mitchell and Alan Shephard – show up. Mitchell I believe was sort of the black sheep of the space program, given his New Age/UFO interests (see below), which might explain his absence, but I’m surprised that Alan Shepard rarely features in any of these documentaries. I find his story compelling, given that he was the only Mercury Program era astronaut who actually made it onto the moon during Apollo. But the Apollo 14 mission, in all the documentaries I’ve yet seen, is usually relegated to a few super-quick clips. Mitchell did show up in In The Shadow Of The Moon (2007), at least, but given that Shepard died in 1998 I’m not sure if he appears in any of these space documentaries. 

Oh and I’ve gone this far and forgotten to mention the one thing most people talk about when it comes to For All Mankind: Brian Eno’s score. This is the most overtly “sci-fi” of all the space documentaries I’ve yet watched, and really it comes down to Eno’s work. Its ambient, synthy vibe gives everything a science fiction spin, yet at at the same time it sort of reminds me of the music I’d hear in Twin Peaks at the time. That said, there’s also a lot of country music in the film, given that so many of these astronauts were fans of it– Southern boys, remember – and they would take along tapes of country music into space. Personally if I was going into space I’d take along Electric Ladyland. Oh and one of the astronauts also plays “Thus Spake Zarathustra” in the command craft, talking about how ironic it is to be playing the theme from 2001 in space. 

But overall this gives a great view into what the lunar astronauts experienced, and the film pairs well with the later In The Shadow Of The Moon (which I meant to review this time, but given how I’ve gone on and on per usual I’ll save it for the next Random Review). Reinert only uses a little footage from Moonwalk One; even the launch prep material, of the astronauts getting suited up and waiting to leave, is from later missions. After the launch we have the aforementioned spacewalk, aka “EVA,” which actually predates any of the Apollo material – it’s Ed White performing the first American EVA in 1965. Reinert even incorporates the Apollo 13 disaster into the storyline, with an alarm flashing abruptly on the soundtrack courtesy some post-production audio. Unlike reality though, the error is quickly fixed and the composite lunar mission continues on. And speaking of multitasking, Jim “Apollo 13” Lovell also appears as both an astronaut and in Mission Control. The lunar material gets a lot of screentime, but Reinert skips over the return material, basically ending the film with a quick clip of the descent parachutes and the mandatory flashback to President Kennedy’s speech at Rice University in 1962. Throughout there is unexpected stuff, likely not seen anywhere else, like the fires of Bedouin desert tribes in the Sahara, glimpsed through the cockpit window as the ship orbits the Earth, or a part on the moon where one of the astronauts loses his footing as he walks and totally wipes out into the lunar dust. 

The “modern” audio from the various astronauts adds an extra layer to the film, giving us their thoughts. Cernan as usual stands out; his gift for gab and making “profound statements” must’ve been a godsend for these documentary directors. Reinert features long clips of Cernan’s voiceover, particularly his “The stars are my home” monologue which closes the film. Cernan’s comments also graced the closing credits of In The Shadow Of The Moon, by the way – and in fact even the title of that film was derived from one of his comments. But not always knowing who is talking does rob For All Mankind of a little emotional connection. That said, Reinert does a great job of showing how lonely the command capsule pilots could become when their two fellow crewman would descend to the moon, leaving the pilots to circle the moon alone for the next few days; Neil Armstrong’s “See ya later” to Mike Collins as Eagle breaks off from Columbia particularly comes off as touching in this regard – and also this is the only documentary where I’ve heard this audio footage. A cool thing about watching all these space docs is that you see and hear different stuff in each. 

The Last Steps (2016) Three years before the incredible Apollo 11, director Todd Douglas Miller released this mini-documentary, again for CNN films. Whereas Apollo 11 documents the first moon landing, this one documents the last, in December of 1972. The Last Steps follows the same format as the later film, using archival film (remastered in high definition) and audio footage to tell the story with no modern intrusions. And once again Matt Morton provides the score, making this come off like a proto-Apollo 11. It isn’t nearly as epic, but then it’s only 25 minutes long. This was the last Apollo launch; budget cuts cancelled any more moon landings, and Apollo 17 would be the last lunar landing: Commander Gene Cernan (who had also commanded Apollo 10), Lunar Module Pilot Harrison Schmitt, and Command Module Pilot Ronald Evans. Cernan was the only one I was familiar with, given that he’s appeared in almost every space documentary I’ve yet watched. He’s quickly become one of my favorite astronauts…he has this super-serious sort of vibe, always making these “profound” statements, but at heart comes off like a fun-loving goofball. He’s like the kind of character Patrick Swayze would play, if that makes any sense. 

Anyway, it’s late ’72 now, and first thing one notices is that things have gotten a bit grungier: the hair is longer, the sideburns are thicker, the collars are more severe. Whereas Mission Control in Apollo 11 still had that natty ‘60s look, it’s replaced here with dudes sporting massive ‘staches, smoking pipes, and just in general looking like hairy freaks. Oh and speaking of Mission Control, there’s a brief clip of Jim “Apollo 8 and Apollo 13” Lovell sitting in there; again, much of this footage, as well as the ensuing lunar footage, is also seen in For All Mankind. Miller opens the documentary with some rare pre-flight PR material from Cernan, talking directly to the camera and explaining that Apollo 17 is not the “end” of space travel, just of the Apollo Program. How little did he know… From there we go to the midnight launch of the Saturn V rocket, which turned night to day – this was the launch Tom Wolfe was hired by Rolling Stone to write about, the ensuing story which became the kernel for The Right Stuff (see below). 

The launch material is thrilling, Morton’s music again providing a great soundtrack. Miller uses still photography at times, and when the ship gets to the moon we also have video – by this time NASA was able to shoot color video on the moon, though I don’t believe any of it was broadcast on television at the time. The public had pretty much grown bored with the whole space race thing, which makes you feel sort of sorry for Cernan and crew. I mean, they were still risking their lives, same as the Apollo 11 crew did, but none of their names would be cemented in history like Neil Armstrong’s was. Oh and speaking of which, it’s funny to see how blasé these moon landings had become; when Cernan and Schmitt land “Challenger” on the moon, Cernan yells, “We is here! Man, is we here!,” and the Capcom says, “Roger, Challenger, that’s super!” So much for momentous occasions. But then, Cernan and Schmitt reveal themselves to be fun-loving goofs of the highest order, gamboling across the lunar landscape like little kids on the playground, cracking jokes, and even breaking into song. 

But there is also a sense of sadness about it, as everyone involved – both the astronauts then and Miller and his crew now – knew that this was to be it for the moon landings. Cernan almost seems desperately insistent that this is not the end in his opening and closing PR interview, that the exploration of space will continue. But it was not to be – and manned space exploration still hasn’t reached the extent of the Apollo Program. As for Morton’s score, you can hear some precursors to his work on Apollo 11, though The Last Steps has a bit more of a tribal feel at times, which is nice. Morton too seems to tap into the elegiac vibe of this final Apollo mission; in the staging sequence where the rockets drop off in the blackness of space, the music is almost mournful: this will be the last time a Saturn rocket heads for the moon. 

Overall The Last Steps is a concise, entertaining mini-doc that really paves the way for what Miller would accomplish on a grander scale in Apollo 11. A lot of the footage here – especially the Mission Conrol sequences – was seen previously in For All Mankind, but here it’s shown in its proper context. Currently The Last Steps can be viewed for free on Vimeo; personally I think it should be released on a special Blu Ray with Apollo 11 and Apollo 11: Quarantine. Actually what I really think is that Smith should do a documentary for every one of the Apollo lunar missions! 


Tom Wolfe, “Post-Orbital Remorse” (1973): Here’s an admission: I’ve never read or seen The Right Stuff. (I’ve never even seen Apollo 13or Jaws!) Several years ago I was on this crazy New Journalism kick and even then I never read Wolfe’s famous book, even though I read many other books by him. The reason was, I knew The Right Stuff focused on the earliest days of the space race, and indeed spent the majority of its opening sequences even before that, with Chuck Yeager in the ‘40s. I wanted to read about stuff from later on, at least the Gemini Program but especially Apollo. I also knew that Wolfe had originally planned to write about all three of these programs, but after spending so long on just Mercury his wife told him that he was finished with the project(!). So The Right Stuff turned out to be Wolfe’s only book on the subject, ostensibly about the Mercury Program but as mentioned taking a long time to even get there, with a lot of ‘40s test pilot stuff. 

Anyway, you often read that The Right Stuff started life as an article Wolfe wrote for Rolling Stone. I was under the impression that The Right Stuff was just a fleshed-out version of that original article, which ran in four issues of the magazine in early 1973. However this was not the case: “Post-Orbital Remorse,” the title of the series of articles, actually encompasses the entire space program up to 1972. Wolfe was hired by Jann Werner to cover Apollo 17 (see above), and while gathering material from the various astronauts at the launch he cottoned to the idea of telling the entire story. Here we can see where a lot of The Right Stuff probably came from; the article is written in this omniscient “collective voice of the astronauts,” telling “Tom” about their test pilot origins and their quest to be at the pinnacle of “the Right Stuff.” 

Even though this long article covers the entire program, you can tell Wolfe’s heart is already with the earliest days; so much of “Post-Orbital Remorse” concerns the test pilot beginnings and the Mercury Program – with of course the usual detours expected of Wolfe’s new journalism. He doesn’t touch on Gemini much, and surprisingly doesn’t even talk much about Apollo 11, but he does get into some of the other lunar flights, among them Apollo 8 (where he details Frank Borman’s bout of stomach flu). As for Apollo 17, all Wolfe really talks about is the launch, then in a later part he lampoons commander Gene Cernan’s moment of “the higher bullshit” when Cernan starts thanking countless people for the success of Apollo at a press conference. Here Wolfe goes into a humorous fantasy sequence in which a janitor pushes Cernan off stage and starts taking credit for the mission’s success. We also get some detail on the “postal flap” that plagued the Apollo 15 mission, and also a focus on Edgar Mitchell, who was forever after maligned for his New Age ESP experiments on Apollo 14; Wolfe, in that “voice of the astronauts,” ponders over Mitchell, as he has “the Rightest Stuff” of them all, what with his incredible fighter pilot and test pilot background, yet he too was humbled by his trip to the moon. 

You can also see why Wolfe titled his later book The Right Stuff, as that’s the phrase most often repeated here. The titular “Post-Orbital Remorse” only factors sporadically, and has to do with the comedown the astronauts experience after achieving the “pinnacle of the Right Stuff,” ie going to the moon or into space and then coming back to…what? As Wolfe details, there’s nowhere left to go, other than into religion (as some of the astronauts did, which Wolfe also details) or mysticism (like Mitchell) or politics (like John Glenn) or “an old-fashioned breakdown” (like Buzz Aldrin). Speaking of which, Wolfe also mentions a Volkswagen TV ad Buzz did at the time, which I’d never heard of before: you can see it on Youtube. Also Wolfe discusses things that were about to happen, like how Deke Slayton, a Mercury astronaut who was grounded due to a minor heart issue: Wolfe tells us that Deke got surgery, the issue fixed, and will soon “go up” in Skylab, which Slayton in fact did. Also Wolfe of course was unaware of stuff further in the future; he tells us that John Glenn’s first voyage into space was so magnificent to the public that New York cops broke into tears at Glenn’s parade, and Glenn was so famous NASA couldn’t let him “go up” anymore…meanwhile, Glenn did return to space, at the age of 77 in 1998. 

I don’t believe “Post-Orbital Remorse” has ever been reprinted. But someone by the name Tom Rednour on the collectSPACE forum scanned the entire series of articles onto a 24-page PDF and uploaded it here, so check it out if you’re interested.

Monday, July 26, 2021

The Emerald Chicks Caper (Renegade Roe #2)

The Emerald Chicks Caper, by L.V. Roper
January, 1976  Popular Library

The second and final volume of Renegade Roe gives a good indication why this series didn’t last: Renegade Roe is a dick. In fact I’d rank him as the most annoying protagonist in any of the series I’ve reviewed here. He’s an obnoxious twit, and once again I wonder if L.V. Roper even realized it, or if the whole thing was just an intentional joke. 

At the very least, Jerry “Renegade” Roe comes off slightly better than he did in the first volume. Sure, he still talks a big game but does little in the way of action to back it up, but at least this time he actually knocks a guy out. And sure, he himself is again knocked out a couple times and constantly has to be saved by his partner, Stuart Worth, same as last time. But at least he doesn’t do stuff like “spy” on people with binoculars while standing in plain sight of his prey or talk out loud to himself while “hiding” in a closet. On the other hand, he’s become even more juvenile than he was in the previous volume, pulling off stuff that could get a guy jailed in our #metoo era, up to and including feeling up the firm’s hapless secretary…and then accusing her of wearing a padded bra! 

Roe does seem to get laid a bit more this time, though as ever Roper leaves everything off page. The novel opens with Roe’s perennially-aggrieved partner, Stuart Worth, showing up at the office one morning to find Roe sacked out in their room with a nude blonde at his side…the very same runaway socialite Roe and Worth had been hired to track down. We’re to understand that this girl, as well as the others who fall in his sway in the novel, are drawn to Roe due to his “exotic” cast: he’s tall, reddish skin, wears flamboyant “Indian” fashions like moccasins and a headband, and of course is a loudmouthed brute. 

This is displayed posthaste, when Roe, mere hours after sleeping with the blonde, sets his sights on yet another attractive female client: Helen Bingham, who slinks into the office and asks to hire Worth and Roe to find out what happened to the gold egg and emerald chicks her husband found in Venezuela. Roe makes his interest known immediately, in his usual fashion – ie making all kinds of inappropriate comments – and the idea one gets is that sophisticate Helen merely decides to entertain him so as to file off “an exotic” from her bucket list. As for her case, it’s involved: her husband, a loser who married Helen for her money, desperately struck out to find money for himself, given that Helen had lost interest in him, but was too lazy to file for divorce. Thus Mr. Bingham found out about the legendary golden egg and emerald chicks of Venezuela, and somehow managed to get them, and mailed them to Helen here in New Orleans. But the shipment is missing. Oh, and he’s dead now, not that Helen seems to give a rat’s ass. 

This caper takes Roe into the upper crust of New Orleans, but Roper doesn’t do much to bring any of it to life. Nor does he do much to heat up any of the erotic stuff; Roe just makes his inappropriate comments – the one thing Roper does excel at – and when Helen gives in to his “charms” it’s an immediate fade to black. Even the exploitative content isn’t up to stuff; when Roe visits Helen late one night to ask some questions on the case, she answers the door in a robe made of “transluscent material” (so, uh…plastic??), and Roe can’t stop staring at her boobs: “That’s a lovely bra you’re not wearing.” But Roper doesn’t even do much to bring those heaving, upthrusting, ample charms to life, other than to tell us how Roe keeps gawking at them. The entire novel is just so listless. 

And given that the case has Roe hanging out with uppercrust of society types, there’s little opportunity for much action, so what Roper does is have endless scenes where Roe shows up at Worth’s house and starts hassling Roe’s wife. Just ridiculous stuff, like being there every time Worth comes home from the office – even at one point rushing over to Mrs. Worth when Stuart comes in and panting, as if Worth just caught them in the act. Just stupid juvenile stuff. What makes it worse is that Roper wastes not only our time but his own by even writing all this shit. It just goes on and on, Roe showing up at the Worth home and bugging them…honestly it’s almost like if Billy from Predator had starred in What About Bob? 

Action does finally show up when some Venezuelan thugs accost Roe; he beats up one of them but is of course caught, and Worth has to save him. This is a repeat of the previous volume and will happen again before novel’s end. This motif is one of the things that makes me wonder if Roper had his tongue in cheek the entire time he wrote, because American Indian “Renegade” Roe is presented as the studly hero of the series…yet he’s always getting captured and it’s up to the white guy to save him. Maybe the whole series is a subtle play on the whole cowboy and his sidekick Indian schtick, who knows. 

Not that Roe’s upset by his near death; soon enough he’s back to harrassing Frances in the office, even unizipping her dress when she’s unawares and grabbing her bra strap. Shortly thereafter Frances herself is abducted; Roe finally makes some headaway in the “action hero” department when he tracks her down and sneaks in to free her, but wouldn’t you guess it he’s knocked out and captured again. And who arrives in the nick of time to save his ass but Worth? Roe’s shot in the shoulder here, and there follows and interminable bit where he’s in the hospital, then storms his way out of the place because he’s figured the villains are going to escape via plane. Roe gets in his Mustang and races onto the tarmac to stop it. 

And mercifully here The Emerald Chicks Caper comes to a close, as does Renegade Roe itself. Whereas The Red Horse Caper had a “future books in the series” page with a slew of projected titles, The Emerald Chicks Caper doesn’t, which leads me to believe that by the time of publication Popular Library had decided the series was finished. I guess maybe they’d also had enough of Renegade Roe’s shit.  Great uncredited covers, though; I wonder if they were done by Hector Garrido of The Baroness and The Destroyer.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Operation Moon Rocket (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #34)

Operation Moon Rocket, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1968  Award Books

I’ve been looking forward to this installment of Nick Carter: Killmaster for a long time; not only because it was written by Lew “Don Miles” Louderback, but also because the plot ties into the space race. As it turns out Operation Moon Rocket is downright streamlined compared to Louderback’s plot-heavy other novels; the big print and somewhat-jumbled narrative leads me to suspect that some behind-the-scenes tinkering went on. 

Whereas Louderback’s other Killmaster novel, Danger Key, was an overly-complicated (but still very entertaining) yarn, with plot upon plot, Operation Moon Rocket keeps things simple: someone is sabotaging the effort to land the first American on the moon, and Nick “Killmaster” Carter must go undercover to find out out who it is. And yes, folks, this one features “astronaut Nick Carter,” however he doesn’t actually go into space. In fact the “space race” stuff almost seems to disappear in the final third, which comes off more like a hardboiled yarn. And also “Killmaster” doesn’t even kill anyone until page 105, and sets a record for the number of times a protagonist can get knocked out and not suffer permanent brain damage. 

The novel opens with what is clearly a reference to the Apollo 1 disaster, as a three-man astronaut crew dies in a cockpit fire while sitting on the launching pad. Even the last names of two of the victims are clearly inspired by their real-life counterparts: “Liscombe” instead of Grissom, and “Green” instead of White. But here the fire is the result of sabotage, courtesy the gantry crew chief. It’s a harrowing scene, again mimicking real life, as the astronauts are trapped in the cockpit as the fire rages. The crew chief, we learn, hasn’t done this for his own evil purposes; he’s been blackmailed or pushed into it. When NASA calls him that night, having determined the fire was sabotage and also that the crew chief caused it, he asks for police protection in exchange for telling everything he knows. 

Louderback must’ve been in a bad moon when he wrote Operation Moon Rocket, as it has a bit more brutality than the average Killmaster novel; some “cops” immediately show up at the man’s door, only they’re imposters, and they go about slaughtering the gantry chief and his entire family, including the little kids. Eventually we’ll learn that NASA has been plagued with other deadly acts of sabotage, and in each case the saboteur has ended up dead, or his family killed, etc. This brings us to Nick, as Louderback refers to him (as do most other series authors, this early in the series), who happens to be lounging by the pool in Miami Beach, a woman at his side – his “first vacation in two years.” 

As usual Louderback works in a Red Chinese angle, same as he did in Danger Key and most of the Don Miles books; Nick is called by boss Hawk to West Palm Beach, where they meet in a nightclub with an “Oriental” theme, a place that will ultimately factor into the plot as a den of Red China spies. Louderback also has a penchant for swingin’ spy chicks, and here it’s Candy Sweet(!), a bombshell blonde who is barely 20 and comes off like a proto-Kardashian in that she’s always in the trade papers for her jet-setting kicks and thrills; it’s mentioned that one of her biggest affairs was a birthday party turned orgy, which I guess is the ‘60s equivalent of a sex tape. 

While Nick frets over being paired with such a junior agent, especially one who appears to view the entire spy biz as just another kick, his reservations are thrown aside when he sees the girl in action. She knocks out a couple guards at the nightclub and shows Nick all the spying and monitoring gear inside. But Louderback throws a definite curveball here in that Nick and Candy don’t get down to the expected shenanigans, and instead Candy disappears for a good bit after her initial appearance. 

Louderback seems to have a lot of fun with Hawk, Nick’s ever-grizzled boss; the scene where Hawk briefs Nick in the nightclub, casually going on about top-secret material, is fun because Nick wonders if the old man’s finally lost his marbles. But of course cagey Hawk has ulterior motives. He does brief Nick on his assignment, though: Nick is to pose as an astronaut, Glenn Eglund, who happens to be in the hospital due to another of those sabotage attempts – only it was prevented in time, and AXE has kept it secret. Since Nick bears a similarity to Eglund, the idea is Poindexter in “Effects and Editing” will do a little makeup work (which involves a “Plastotex” mask like the “Mr. Nobody” disguise featured in the Don Miles books). Then Nick will be given the “basics” on aeronautics over several hours, after which he’ll be sent over to Houston to pose as Eglund. Oh, and Eglund’s part of the crew of “Phoenix One,” a replacement mission NASA plans to launch asap into space so as to get over the public backlash from the recent disaster. 

So of course all this is preposterous; there’s no believable way Nick could handle this assignment without outing himself as an imposter. To think you could just slip onto a spaceship crew and no one would notice is ridiculous. But then, that’s part of the charm of these books; I don’t exactly demand realism from them. Regardless, Nick is able to fake his way through this with the excuse that “Glenn” suffered from oxygen poisoning or something to that effect, hence is a little groggy and forgetful. His biggest test is passing the inspection of the medical chief on site. But this isn’t Dr. Bellows we’re talking about: it’s Dr. Joy Han Sun, a “shapely, full-breasted” beauty of Chinese-English descent. This is another callback to Louderback’s previous novels; he often has hot but evil Chinese women in them, and Nick’s certain straightaway that Joy is evil, and likely the person behind the sabotage. And of course catering to the genre, the very first thing Dr. Joy does is have “Glenn” strip down…and when she checks out his scarred body Nick is sure she knows he’s an imposter. 

Louderback I’m guessing was given the direction “make Killmaster an astronaut” by series producer Lyle Kenyon Engel, and he tries to make it as believable as he can. So while we never actually see Nick in space, we do see him in a full pressure suit as he makes his way around a lunar training ground in Houston. It’s got the same gravity, temperature, and terrain as the moon, and it’s there for astronauts to train on. Nick’s there with the other two members of “Glenn’s” crew for some last-minute training before the Phoenix One launch, which is scheduled to happen at any moment. Nick of course bumbles his way through it, pretending to still be a little groggy to cover the fact that he has no idea where he is or what he’s doing. Curiously Louderback mentions a prototype of the lunar rover here, but one wasn’t taken along on the actual first lunar landing (ie Apollo 11 in July ’69). 

The rover factors into an action scene here were Nick, separated from his fellow crewmen, is attacked by a mysterious figure in another pressure suit who comes after Nick aboard the lunar vehicle, bearing right down on him. This isn’t your typical Killmaster action sequence, as Nick mostly just tries to run away and can’t fight back much, given the bulkiness of the pressure suit, the lack of weapons, and his unfamiliarity with moving around in low gravity. Thus it makes for a somewhat gripping sequence, with of course the knowledge going in that Nick’s not going to die…I mean there was over two hundred more volumes to go! 

Even here Nick suspects Dr. Joy Sun was behind the attack; Hawk has given Nick a photo of Joy having sex with some unidentified man, taken on a spy camera in that nightlub. This leads to one of my favorite goofy lines in the novel; when Nick first sees Joy, he thinks she is “even more beautiful than the pornographic photo had suggested.” As mentioned the mob eventually factors into the plot, and Nick will soon learn of Joy Sun’s involvement with Reno Tree, who per a complicated backstory was a vicious Mafia hitman who has now turned into a famous member of the international jet set(!). And also Joy is aware Nick is an imposter; she says of course she knew as soon as she saw him naked. We’re to understand this is due to all those scars, of course! 

I mentioned the narrative is a bit messy. So there’s a part where the Phoenix One crew has to fly to Florida for a special rocket launch and the airplane explodes in midair, courtesy a planted bomb, and the cabin loses gravity and everyone’s floating around. All this part is weird and very hard to believe, especially when Nick hauls a terrified Joy into a seat and starts interrogating her. But there seems to have been some material cut here; as Joy relates her story – which proves her innocence – and then there’s a sudden narrative cut, with the plane abruptly about to crash land, and Nick thinking “to hell with that,” he’ll face forward and watch it happen instead of cowering in his seat. Well, it’s hard to explain but if you read the book maybe you’ll see what you mean. I know Engel and Award often edited these manuscripts before publication, so it does seem like something happened to Operation Moon Rocket, like chunks were taken out of it and the gaps not properly filled up. 

This midair interrogation does however lead to the expected Nick-Joy conjugational activities (speaking of filling up gaps…sorry, I know that was crude but I couldn’t resist). First Joy demands Nick take off the “Eglund” mask so she can see his real face, then it’s on to the hardcore stuff…which isn’t too hardcore, given the publication date. And in fact goes for more of a pseudo-poetic filth approach: “She felt the sudden quivering of him at the springing of his seed,” and whatnot. Nick at this point by the way is happy to learn that Joy isn’t one of the bad guys, that she was pressured into a bad scene thanks to Reno Tree, the aforementioned Mafia sadist…who happens to also be the guy who butchered the gantry chief and the man’s family at novel’s beginning. And also the guy in that “pornographic photo” with Joy, per belabored backstory.

At this point the “syndicate” stuff takes precedence over the “space” stuff. I wasn’t happy about this, as Louderback had clearly done his homework on the Apollo Program and NASA in general, and it was fun to read an action novel set in this milieu. But Nick drops the Glenn Eglund disguise and right after takes up another – now he poses as a notorious mobster. But humorously this guise is immediately uncovered by the goons Nick tries to infiltrate. Here begins an unintentionally humorous sequence of Nick Carter constantly getting caught unawares, tied up, and beaten to a pulp, then managing to escape. At one point guys wearing cleats even go at him. It’s like Louderback gets stuck on repeat; every chapter ends with Nick caught or about to be beaten, and then falling into “the merciful haze of blackness” or whatever, and then waking up next chapter to find himself in a situation he can easily escape from. But it’s downright goofy; at one point he wakes up to find himself trapped in a centrifuge, an unwilling “test subject” for a new design, but once again he blacks out before the increased gravity can pulp him. 

Eventually the main villain of the piece is revealed, and he too is more suiting of a hardboiled novel, an entreprenneur whose plot involves getting a big contract to build new space equipment. To do this though he intends to divert the Phoenix One rocket into Miami. Nick still finds the opportunity to get laid, though; he awakens from one of his many beatings to find none other than Candy Sweet riding him. This part too is goofy as Candy helps Nick escape…and then of course he’s captured right again. You could almost set your clock by his frequent captures. Again this gives the impression that the manuscript was edited, or Louderback was in a hurry; I know all this stuff is there to make it seem tense, but at the same time Nick comes off as one pathetic “Killmaster.” 

There’s more messiness later where Nick, once again caught and managing to escape, rushes to the villain’s Palm Beach villa, where all the bad guys have conveniently assembled. Nick at one point breaks out Pierre, the “gas bomb” he usually keeps near his privates (which isn’t weird at all). He tosses it at the people, but they’re outside, so the gas apparently floats harmlessly away…or Louderback just forgets to tell us who the poison gas actually kills, as all we learn is one of the guys keeps grabbing at his eyes. Even the sendoff of desipicable Reno Tree isn’t as momentous an occasion as I would’ve preferred. It’s all just very rushed and lackluster, which is surprising given that Louderback wrote it. 

But then, the Don Miles series had ended the year before, and Danger Key was published the year before that, so it’s possible that by 1968 Louderback was just burned out on the men’s adventure genre. The fact that Operation Moon Rocket was his last novel in the genre would seem to confirm that. At least, I’ve found no other books by him in this field, pseudonymous or otherwise. The only other books I’ve seen by him are The Bad Ones, a Fawcett book from 1968 on ‘30s gangsters, and another book, published in hardcover, on “fat acceptance,” which clearly would now be seen as a trendsetter in our current world of “accepting all body types.” (Which curiously only seems to matter when it comes to ads for womens lingerie or bikinis…yet the half-nude male models of such clothing are still handsome and muscular…yes, quite curious indeed.)

Monday, July 19, 2021

The Flight Of The Bamboo Saucer

The Flight Of The Bamboo Saucer, by Fritz Gordon
No month stated, 1967  Award Books

This obscure Award PBO turns out to be a light espionage comedy; not an out-and-out satire like the Man From O.R.G.Y. books, but more of a caper in which a trio of agents bumble their way through an assignment. While there is some action, it is not the focus of the novel; suspense is more of the driver, as the characters try to find the blueprints for the titular saucer. But the suspense is mostly played for laughs. 

The most interesting thing about The Flight Of The Bamboo Saucer is the mystery it presents. The year after this novel was published, a film titled The Bamboo Saucer was released, directed by Frank Telford and starring Dan Duryea and John Ericson. I was under the impression the film was based on this novel, but it turns out to be a completely different story (actually, one that’s much better than the novel), and the author of the novel, Fritz Gordon, isn’t credited anywhere in the film. So either the film producers ripped off the title, or it was just a coincidence that two separate stories would have such similar titles…or maybe it’s a Blade Runner sort of thing, where William S. Burroughs came up with the title for that film adaptation of a Philip Dick story. But then, Burroughs was credited. Gordon isn’t credited. 

And that’s another mystery…as it turns out, “Fritz Gordon” is a pseudonym; the copyright page credits Fred G. Jarvis and Robert F. Van Beever as the authors of The Flight Of The Bamboo Saucer. And neither of these guys are mentioned in the film credits, either. This leads me to believe that my first proposition is the correct one; the filmmakers just lifted the title without credit. And truth be told, they do a damned better job of bringing the title to life, because friends believe it or not, a “bamboo saucer” never appears in the novel! We only learn of its aftermath, and the trio of protagonists shuttle around the globe looking for its blueprints. 

Whereas the saucer in the film is of alien origin, the saucer in this novel is wholly terrestial. Indeed, there isn’t any sci-fi content in The Flight Of The Bamboo Saucer, other than the saucer itself, which we learn was designed by Otto Von Arnstead, a Werner Von Braun type. The novel opens with the saucer’s brief appearance, but in each case we only learn of it after it’s passed through. We’re told that Von Arnsted’s barn in Vermont has exploded, a saucer spinning across the sky from the wreckage (at 12,000 miles per hour!), and next we know a passenger airline over the Grand Canyon runs into it with disastrous results. But even here the saucer is never seen; the entire sequence is relayed from the perspective of the pilots, who try to evade this mysterious flying object but are unable to. This will be the last we see of the saucer. 

As mentioned the focus of the novel is the hunt for the blueprints; Von Arnsted as it turns out created the saucer on the side, and kept it from the US government. A la Von Braun he was brought over from Nazi Germany to work on the space program. He also has a son in his 20s or thereabouts who worked on the saucer with him. Not that any of this matters, as both of these characters are dead before the story even begins; they are killed in the barn explosion. Oh and the title turns out to be misdirection: the saucer itself is not made of bamboo. “Bamboo saucer” just happens to be the codename a CIA officer comes up with for the project, given that Red China factors into the plot. 

Our ostensible hero is Schuyler Townsend, a sort of wealthy gaddabout publisher who happens to be a CIA agent on the side. We get our indication of the “light comedy” tone of the novel when we meet Shuyler; he is in one of those long-running chess matches with a female acquaintance, and she falls asleep while mulling over her next move. So as you can see, this isn’t even very funny. But this is the sort of “comedy” we have throughout. Again, I would’ve preferred a straight-up novelization of the pulpy Bamboo Saucer flick. Shuyler is almost asexual, more of a foppish dweeb than the action-prone protagonist you’d expect (but then possibly a more realistic portrayal of an undercover agent). That said he does shoot a guy out of a helicopter early in the book, but this will be his only action moment. 

The authors make it clear that the espionage world is mostly comprised of overgrown boys playing Cowboys and Indians on a global scale. This is most pronounced in the character of Sasha Petrov, a KGB goofball who does the heavy lifting in the sex department, though the entirety of it happens off-page. A blonde bear of a man, Petrov is a rapacious skirt-chaser and plows through sundry women in the course of the novel, to the extent that he’s constantly reprimanded for shirking his duty by his superiors. Heading up the US wing of the undercover KGB operations, Petrov also gets wind of the terrestial saucer and goes about his own scheming to get the blueprints for the USSR. 

The third spy in this group is Major Jasper, a Brit who acts as the chief of undercover intelligence for the Chinese – or Red Chinese, as they’re most often referred to. He actually turns out to be the prime mover of the plot, and perhaps the closest we get to a villain, but the authors don’t present him that way. Jasper has his own share of the narrative, which has him working for the Chinese so as to get revenge on his countrymen, and as the novel proceeds he actually takes up more of the plot. So too does Madame Sun Loo, one of Jasper’s agents; her age is never disclosed, but she has two college-age sons and yet is still beautiful enough to stop a few of the male characters in their tracks. She runs a Chinese restaurant, which is part of a network of similar restaurants around the world that are really fronts for Chinese spies. I’ll remember this the next time I go into a Panda Express! 

Early in the assignment Shuyler is attacked by some Russian goons in a helicopter in Vermont, and he shoots a few of them in spectacularly bloodless fashion. But as mentioned this will be it for the action. Instead the authors just focus on the espionage, with the Commie agents plotting and counterplotting; Jasper and Petrov in particular have a bitter rivalry. The first half of the book really features Sun Loo, whose son suffers for her espionage; working as Von Arnsted’s apprentice, he’s stolen the blueprints, only for Major Jasper to plan the poor kid’s death when he is captured by Shuyler and looks like he’s about to blab everything. This leads to Shuyler thinking that Sun Loo plotted her own son’s death, and he confronts her in her restaurant, calling her a “monster.” This whole scene is very much at odds with anything else I’ve read in spy fiction, especially given that Sun Loo is innocent…and runs back to her room to cry! 

She has another son, though, of the same age, and she just as eagerly involves him in the Commie planning of Major Jasper. But the plotting is overly complicated; the blueprints are mailed to Venice, and the three agents rush off in pursuit. It’s all played as a light comedy, like if Ernst Lubitsch did a spy thriller, only with none of the sex appeal – Madame Loo is the only main female character in the novel, and she has no real interraction with any of the characters. Eventually we also meet Major Jasper’s estranged wife, who factors into the plot in that she’s dedicated to her causes and willing to sacrifice herself for them. 

But to tell the truth, folks, I just wanted to read about that damn saucer. And sad to say, it’s nowhere to be found. The title of this book is misdrection of the lowest order. The “flight” of the bamboo saucer happens on the first few pages, and that’s it! Instead it’s a bumbling affair as these three agents go around the world looking for the blueprints, all the while plotting against one another – even having to ride the same airplane at one point – as they go through Europe, into India, and finally into Bali, chasing after the blueprints. It’s just all so boring and lackluster, honestly, as you care about none of these characters, or the Maguffin of the blueprints. 

I guess Sasha Petrov is the character who most comes to life, as he’s a loafer who is more interested in chasing women and constantly shirks his duties. But even his material isn’t very risque; we have sequences of him meeting various women, but it’s all left off page, and the authors don’t even do much to exploit the ample charms of Petrov’s many conquests. It’s all just very tame, and it’s another one of those books where I wonder why it even exists. 

There isn’t even a big climax; the blueprints make their way into a particular coffin in Bali and Shuyler watches as Jasper and Petrov make fools of themselves. It’s easy to see why this paperback original didn’t make much of an impact, and has been forgotten by the ages. Again the only thing really interesting about it is the apparent aspect that it’s title was lifted for a film – a much superior film. But be aware if you ever come across this novel that there is no “bamboo saucer” and the majority of the book is composed of various secret agents flying in airplanes and plotting against one another.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Random Movie Reviews, Volume 13

Space Race Documentaries: 

Apollo 11 (2019): This was my gateway drug into space race documentaries in general and the moon landing in particular. This is one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen, even if it was released by CNN Films! But no fake news here, friends; director Todd Douglas Miller has created a concise, 93-minute event picture that documents the July 1969 Apollo 11 mission to the moon, and there’s never a dull moment. There are no talking heads, either; everything you hear is vintage audio, from Mission Control to the astronauts to various newscasters (Walter Cronkite of course among them). And everything you see is material that was filmed at the time. It is an incredibly realized documentation of a specific moment in history. Matt Seitz at aptly described Apollo 11 as “a trip film like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Woodstock,” and that wasn’t mere hyperbole on his part – from this informative Vanity Fair article we learn that much of the footage in Apollo 11 started life as material for a projected big-budget MGM film. Miller has taken this material, much of it rediscovered in NASA’s vaults, and turned out the movie that should have been released at the time; the vibe is certainly trippy a la Kubrick, and the frequent split-screens are straight out of Woodstock. In other words, Miller has created the MGM NASA movie that never was, and he’s done a damn fine job of it. 

Miller’s goal, as recounted in the above article, was to retain a sense of legitimacy with the past, thus even the soundtrack, by Matt Morton, is composed on vintage instruments like moog and mellotron. While cool, Morton’s pulsing score sounds more ‘80s than ‘60s; for an idea of what an actual “Apollo 11” soundtrack of the day sounded like, check out the bonus record review section below. Regardless, everything works together seamlessly; we open with the “crawler,” ie the massive vehicle that moved the equally-massive Saturn V rocket onto the launch pad, all while various audio snippets inform us what’s going on. There’s emotional content here, too; when the three Apollo 11 astronauts are introduced (Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin), Smith serves up flashback montages for each of them, showing snippets of their military careers, their astronaut training, and their family life. It’s very understated but very moving, particularly Armstrong’s sequence; the look on his face, when Smith cuts back to the “launch prep” footage, is almost identical to the look on his face at the end of his montage, where he’s looking at one of his sons. Cronkite’s voiceover material here is also perfectly matched. 

The launch is treated like the spectactle it must’ve been, but the highlight for me is the footage of all the spectators, many of whom sport some groovy sunglasses. And don’t blink or you’ll miss none other than Johnny Carson among them, looking very uncomfortable in his three-piece suit here in the blazing Florida sun. Moorton’s synthy soundtrack augments the various stages of the launch, but his best work comes up later in the film, when he counterpoints the reunion of Eagle and Columbia (ie the lunar lander and the command capsule) with a very moving piano piece…a sequence that comes off exactly like something out of 2001. Actually the soundtrack work throughout is perfect; in particular we have a bit where the astronauts are homebound and we see Buzz Aldrin’s cassette player floating in zero-g, and Smith brings up on the soundtrack the Johnny Cash-esque song it’s playing (John Stewart’s “Mother Country”). 

As for the moon landing itself, the infamous “1202 alarm” moment makes for tense viewing…if you know what’s going on. Here’s the one part a narrator might’ve helped. But essentially as Armstrong was bringing the lunar lander down, the computer was giving an alarm no one had ever heard of before. The entire mission could’ve been scrapped, but it was soon determined that it was nothing more than a sort of “overload” warning message from the computer. At any rate, the landing is still tense, filmed from a camera on the bottom of the lander, so you can see the legs skimming over the lunar landscape as Armstrong seeks a safe place to land. The moonwalk footage is good – better of course than the ghostly images originally broadcast on TV – and of course we hear the “one small step” announcement in real time. We also have the famous Nixon phonecall, and then it’s back to reunite with Collins in Columbia so that Apollo 11 can return home. At this point you feel that you have been part of the experience, and further you feel so much respect for these three men; the burst of applause when they’re choppered onto an awaiting Navy ship is especially welcomed. 

I could rave on and on about Apollo 11. It’s a mystery why it didn’t win an Oscar, but I’d wager the overt patriotism didn’t do it any favors; unlike the Armstrong biopic that bombed in theaters the other year, Apollo 11 not only shows the planting of the US flag but also has multiple scenes of people proudly waving the flag. It’s everywhere, from the spectactors at the launch to the men in Mission Control who wave their flags when Apollo 11 safely returns. Hollywood can’t hack patriotism on this scale; after all, merely displaying the American flag is now seen as a threatening act by today’s Left. (Curiously though the American flag is being embraced by freedom fighters all over the world…although the US media blocks that story, too!) But man, even I felt the tug of patriotism across all these decades as I watched this documentary; Miller’s skillful cut to President Kennedy’s speech at Rice University in 1962 at movie’s end was especially touching – as was the last pre-credits shot of the film being Kennedy’s confident grin. 

The footage throughout looks so pristine that you could almost think it was filmed last week, let alone over fifty years ago. There is a luminous glow to the pre-launch material, and Miller’s cuts – he also edited the film – are perfect. Supposedly there was a lot of material left in the vault of spectators at the launch, and Miller has assembled this rediscovered material so that it flows together quite artistically; even minor stuff comes across so cool, like a shot of the Saturn V sitting on the pad, and then cutting to a model of the rocket sitting in someone’s camper as they wait for the launch. The end credits sequence is also nice, with a concise look at the astronauts’s two weeks in quarantine upon their return. Speaking of which, last year Miller released a followup, Apollo 11: Quarantine, a 25-minute mini-doc that follows the same format as Apollo 11 but focuses solely on the quarantine. I haven’t seen it yet, but hopefully someday it will be released on a two-fer Blu Ray along with Apollo 11

Chasing The Moon (2019): This 3-part, 6-hour documentary is right up there with Apollo 11, and indeed even surpasses it at times given that there’s just so much more to it, and also due to the emotional content (to quote my man Bruce Lee). I was a bit skittish about watching this one, not due to the length, but because it was a PBS production…and folks sure the hell enough, one of the very first things you hear in Part 1 is someone talking about “racism.” But thankfully this stuff is not nearly dwelt upon as much as you’d expect from a PBS venture, and truth be told the Left comes off so poorly in Part 3 that I’m surrpised some of the material wasn’t cut out! Overall though director Robert Stone has attempted the herculean task of taking us through the space race in 6 hours, focusing mostly on the Apollo Program and the race to the moon. What separates this from Apollo 11 is that, while everything we see is vintage film (and it looks just as spectacular here, remastered in high def), what we often hear is modern comments from the various participants. So while we never actually see them, we’ll hear the comments of astronauts like Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin, Frank Borman, and Bill Anders, as well as newsreporters of the day and engineers and scientists from NASA. This is in addition to the vintage audio we’ll also hear. 

This modern, reflecting-back-on-events motif adds an extra dimension to Chasing The Moon. We even hear a good bit from Nikita Khrushcev’s son, who fills us in on the Russian side of the space race. Apollo 11 was awesome because it came off like this huge, 70MM document of July ’69, but Chasing The Moon is much broader-ranging and much more comprehensive. It isn’t the ultimate space race documentary, though; the Mercury Program is barely mentioned and Gemini is only detailed for a few missions, plus the post-Apollo 11 moon landings are almost humorously relegated to a postcript. But regardless this is such a well-crafted documentary that the 6 hours fly by…save, that is, for some of Part 1, which is the most ponderous of the three parts, mostly due to it being comprised mainly of black-and-white footage detailing the beginnings of the space race. That being said, Part 1 has an opening that surpasses anything in Apollo 11; Stone begins the documentary with the launch of Apollo 11, using the typical footage originally filmed for Moonwalk One (see below), but he pairs it with the song “Wait” by M83. This is Coldplay/Radiohead-type music I typically wouldn’t listen to, but it pairs so perfectly with the Apollo 11 launch that now I “hear” the song when I see the launch in other documentaries. This sequence was the highlight for me of Chasing The Moon (it gave me chills the first time I saw it, if you must know, and you can check it out here in the extended Part 1 preview on Youtube; I have it cued to start right before the launch).  But there are many more highlights. 

While Part 1 details how the space race began, closing with the sad end of JFK, Part 2 dives into the Gemini and Apollo Programs. Stone incorporates vintage footage of the actual space missions discussed – and again it looks incredible in high-def – including Neil Armstrong’s near crash in a Gemini mission, as well as the Apollo 1 disaster. This sequence is very hard to watch as we actually see the Apollo 1 crew get in the command capsule, even sitting in there and happily filming each other as they wait for the countdown sequence, and we know as we watch that these three men will not be leaving the capsule alive. The screen cuts to black and we hear their cries for help over the commlink as a fire rages in the cockpit. Stone well captures the effect of the program on the families of the astronauts.  The most emotionally-gripping sequence in the entirety of Chasing The Moon turns out not to be a launch or a moon landing, but astronaut Frank Borman’s wife Susan sitting in front of her TV set, with friends and family around her, as she watches her husband take off for the moon – the first crew to ever attempt it – on Apollo 8, in Christmas of 1968. This material, filmed originally by Life Magazine as a way to “help” NASA understand the effect of launches on families, is salvaged by Stone, who shows Susan Borman the entire time her husband is launching off into space. In other words Stone makes her – and her incredible anxiety – the focus, not the rocket launch itself. It is one of the most gripping things I’ve watched in a very long time; the misery on Mrs. Borman’s face as she watches the launch on TV is not faked or contrived for the media…and made all the more profound because the widow of one of the Apollo 1 astronauts is standing behind her. 

Speaking of Frank Borman, the poor guy did have a hard time of it; via voiceover, he and his fellow crewmen reveal that Borman was hit by stomach flu shortly after launch, and he spent the first few hours spewing out of “both ends!” That said, the Apollo 8 mission went on to great success; the three crewmembers were the first to actually leave Earth’s orbit, and took the famous “Blue Marble” photo of the Earthrise. Their initial trip around the dark side of the moon could’ve been a little more dramatized, but then I might just be spoiled by the way the group Public Service Broadcasting dramatized it in their song “The Other Side,” off their 2015 The Race For Space album. Apollo 8 is the centerpiece of Part 2, but curiously Stone ends the episode a little off-toned with a brief sequence on Poppy Northcutt, the first female NASA engineer who tells us that the sexism of the era made her become a feminist. Honestly though her story on sexism is a little undermined because they show various photos and film clips of her, and of course she’s a total babe (if you’ll pardon my male gaze – but then hardly any of us would be here if it wasn’t for the male gaze, now would we??), posing in various mini-skirts. I suspect Ms. Northcutt would’ve been hit on no matter what industry she worked in. That said, her comments are great to hear, as she was one of the techinicians who determined how to bring the spacecrafts back to Earth. 

Part 3 concerns the July 1969 moon landing of Apollo 11, and this entire sequence is also gripping, and also at times a little more emotionally-connecting than Apollo 11 because Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins share their thoughts with us. Since Stone already showed the launch at the beginning of Part 1, he doesn’t replay it here; instead he takes the interesting angle of cutting from the launch to CBS news’s coverage of the event. I found all this fascinating; Watler Cronkite, who features throughout the documentary given that he was the journalist who was most connected with the space pgrogram, ran special coverage of the launch, with a production that cost the then-unheard of amount of 2 million dollars. Running for 36 hours, the special featured live-in-the-studio actors playing out the things the Apollo 11 crew were doing in space, and also Cronkite had his very own “HAL” computer to converse with; we’re told that Douglas Trumbull, special effects man for 2001, was hired for the production. I wouldn’t be caught dead watching a modern-day CBS news production, but good grief I’d eagerly sit through this entire “Man On The Moon” broadcast! 

Given that Chasing The Moon has narration from modern-day experts and astronauts, the “1202” alarm is more fully explained here than in Apollo 11, and also it’s made very clear how close to the wire Armstrong was to running out of fuel on landing. That being said, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins actually had more compelling things to say in the 2007 documentary In The Shadow Of The Moon (to be reviewed next time); here Stone not only includes their comments but from various Mission Control people and newscasters as well. The moon landing is, rightly, the centerpiece of Part 3, but we do get back to that “racism” material that we saw in the beginning minutes of Part 1. Basically a delegation led by Ralph Abernathy, a reverend who picked up where Martin Luther King left off, arrived at the Apollo 11 launch and decried the situation, in which billions were spent on space but racism prevailed on earth. What’s great here is that a NASA exec comes out to talk to them and basically says, “Look, we’d love to press a button and solve your problems, but our mission here is a different one.” The exec then goes on to offer them some VIP tickets to watch the launch (the cynic in me suspects that’s what they were after all along), and everyone’s happy and the delegation applauds and all is well. 

This part was for me the most depressing sequence in Chasing The Moon. I didn’t exactly need a reminder, but it was just more of an indication of how far we have fallen as a society and as a country. Civil discourse as shown here no longer exists. Now the mob rules in America; the louder you scream and shout, the quicker your demands are met. Could you imagine if Apollo 11 was happening now and a delegation of BLM and antifa rolled up to protest? Do you think they would engage in rational, civil discourse with NASA like Abernathy’s delegation did? Of course they wouldn’t. They’re incapable of it. Which brings me to another sad element of Part 3: Frank Borman relates that he was hired by President Nixon to go around college campuses in 1969 to talk about the space effort. Borman says that he met irrational anger everywhere, that he was spat upon as a representative of “the Establishment;” at one point he had to be helicoptered onto a campus because it was blocked off by rioters. Stone shows clips from this – including a great bit where Borman takes on a radical hippie chick – and it gave me flashbacks to our recent “summer of love” with its “mostly-peaceful protests.” Just another reminder of the irratonal hate and anger that has always consumed the Left. And of course those college kids went on to get into politics and education and God knows what else…which honestly goes a long way in explaining the chaos and increasing totalitarianism of the modern day. (But hey, at least we don’t have to deal with mean Tweets anymore, right??) 

So if you can’t tell, Chasing The Moon not only entertained me, but it involved me emotionally. And not just in how I was swept up in the spectacle of it all, with the sacrifices of the various people involved, but also in how it made me angry – angry that America was once capable of this type of exceptionalism. I was born five years after the first moon landing…actually, two years after the last moon landing, in ’72. So at no point in my life has there ever been anyone on the moon. The argument put forth by the various protesters in Chasing The Moon is that the billions could’ve been used to stop poverty, and racism, and injustices, and etc. Well, NASA was basically gutted in the early ‘70s…and yet all those problems are still here. Maybe the country should have kept putting money into the space effort; who knows where we’d be by now. Neil Armstrong was certainly upset with how it turned out (per an interview he gave before he died, which I’ll mention next time). Speaking of which an interesting nugget I learned in the final half of Part 3 was that Vice President Spiro Agnew, immediately after Apollo 11 landed on the moon, challenged the country to get to Mars before the end of the 20th Century…! 

Indeed, Part 3 ends with a lot of “could have beens.” Most interestingly we see that Werner Von Braun, in the weeks after Apollo 11, proposed to Congress an extensive plan to get to Mars by 1986 – using nuclear reactors as an additional stage on new Saturn rockets – but he was met with disinterest. (We get to see a lot of the NASA art for this material, and it’s very cool.) We also see current plans in the reborn space era, of SpaceX and whatnot, with CGI of future landings…CGI which honestly looks pretty clunky when compared to the cool vintage animation elsewhere in the doc. The “Man on the Moon” CBS special in particular boasts some cool ’60-style animation. But the feeling in the last minutes of Part 3 is one of sadness, and Stone makes his own feelings clear – humanity achived greatness in the ‘60s, but totally turned its back on it in the following decades. There’s no telling what could have been, but there’s also no denying the greatness that was achieved. 

I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed watching Chasing The Moon. I plan to watch it again someday. It’s available to view for free on the PBS website. I heartily encourage you to watch it. 

Moonwalk One (1972): I wasn’t even aware of this documentary until I read the Vanity Fair article article I mentioned above, in the Apollo 11 review. The story as recounted there goes like this: MGM had a deal with NASA in the ‘60s to make a big-budget film about the Apollo program. But for reasons unknown MGM backed out shortly before Apollo 11. NASA took the film that was going to be used for the project – big 70MM stuff that was used for “event” roadshow movies of the day – and hired a documentary filmmaker named Theo Kamecke to make a documentary about the launch, just a few weeks before it was scheduled to occur. Further, NASA requested a sort of “time capsule” of the era itself. Kamecke filmed the astronauts preparing for the launch, and the launch itself – with the novel idea of turning the cameras around on the spectactors – and then spent the next two years finalizing the documentary, complete with material on how the spacesuits were made and how the astronauts were trained. In ’72 the movie was released, but on a very limited scale; indeed, it never even got outside a few select showings, ultimately relegated to a forgotten (aka “cult”) status. The official explanation is that by 1972 no one was much interested in the moon landings anymore, and that may be, but viewed now Moonwalk One comes off as a wonderfully unique and “vaguely trippy” (as the article above so aptly describes it) document of its era. Later filmmakers, in particular Apollo 11’s Todd Douglas Miller, have taken Kamecke’s footage – including material he left in the vaults – and included it in their own documentaries. 

NASA’s official Youtube channel has put up a 4k print of the theatrical release, and friends Moonwalk One is such an awesome document of the late ‘60s that I can’t believe I’ve never heard of it before. Kamecke was so insipred by Kubrick’s 2001 that it hurts – I mean the flick even opens with shots of Stonehenge and, a la the twirling bone cross-fading into an orbiting spaceship in 2001, we fade from the ancient monument to the massive “crawler” that moved the Saturn V rocket. Everything, from the way the movie’s directed to the pretentious, New Agey narration, just screams “1969,” and it couldn’t be cooler as a result. What’s fascinating is that so many later directors took their footage from Kamecke’s shots of the spectators at the Apollo 11 launch, as well as the launch itself, but whereas Apollo 11 treated it with gravitas and Chasing The Moon treated it with a sort of elegiac sadness, Kamecke just shows it as-is, with worbly “sci-fi” music on the soundtrack. 

More importantly, Moonwalk One is more of a documentary than any of the other movies reviewed here; Kamecke tells us how Apollo will fly to the moon, how the astronauts have trained for space, and even how their spacesuits were sewn. This bit in particular is fascinating; we see the old sewing machine these ladies used to create the suits, all while we hear them talking in voiceover – including the great detail that each of them wonder if it’s “their” glove that Neil Armstrong will be wearing when he gets to the moon. Also cool is the footage on astronaut training, complete with guys being thrown around on catapult-like chairs, biking in extreme heat, and being put through other obstacles. And through it all we have this late ‘60s aesthetic of off-skew camera angles, oscilating sci-fi synth blips, random avante-garde montages of people on earth (including even people dancing in a psychedelic discotheque), clips from the Flash Gordon serial, and other randomness. And the narration is so worthy of vintage Shatner that you wonder why Kamacke didn’t just hire him…I’m talking stuff like, “It is good to see the whole Earth. It is good to see the Earth…whole.” 

I went into Moonwalk One thinking it might be the worst of the lot, but damned if I didn’t find it the most entertaining, just for its trippy vibe. And I love how it is absolutely without sentiment. But Kamecke was not privy to a lot of the footage that so many of these later documentaries rely on; moon footage is scant, and mostly relegated to the ghostly images seen originally on TV. Also the docking of Eagle and Columbia isn’t as fleshed out as it is in other documentaries, particularly Apollo 11. As a snapshot of the era, of what people were thinking and feeling at the time, it can’t be beat, though. There is none of the wistfulness of Chasing The Moon; this is future stuff, and one gets the impression that “Moonwalk One” will just be the first of many, many more moonwalks. But all those later documentaries have taken so much from this one, so Moonwalk One is essential viewing for anyone interested in the Apollo program…and it’s a mystery to me why it’s so little known. 

In 2007 Moonwalk One was remastered and released on DVD in a “Director’s Cut,” running a few minutes longer than the original release. Supposedly this was also released on Blu Ray (in the UK only), but damned if I can find a copy anywhere. In fact it’s baffling that this movie hasn’t been re-released on a greater scale. Anyway the Director’s Cut certainly looks better, with a much wider screen image, than the 4:3 upload on Youtube – but then I’ve read that Moonwalk One was released theatrically in 4:3, the widescreen picture cut down in the process. Thus the Director’s Cut rectifies this, but at the same time the picture is cropped when compared to the 4:3 original release; a small portion at the top and bottom is cut off of the Director’s Cut. 

As for the new footage, I compared the original cut and the Director’s Cut and found that the Director’s Cut contains the following “new” footage: More shots of random people during the opening song montage, including some employes flipping burgers in a Burger King(!), a kissing couple, and more shots of people dancing in that awesome psychedelic discotheque; more footage of the crowd waiting for the rocket to launch, including a somewhat patronizing bit where the narrator asks “Why did they come here?” of the crowd, stating that they could see everything much better on TV (I mean duh, they’re here to witness history…you know, the very history you are documenting with this movie!!); and finally the most extensive cut material: an avante-garde montage of news snippets from around the world, including butchered Nixon speeches, which plays right after we see Buzz Aldrin fixing himself a sandwich in zero-g. This part alone is incredibly “late ‘60s,” with rapid-fire cuts of newscasts – Kamecke skillfully playing off how Mission Control is reading Buzz the news over the commlink – but it’s also clear why it was cut from the original release. Other than that, there is no additional “new” footage I could detect in the Director’s Cut. 

I’ve watched more space race documentaries, but I’ve ran on so much here that I’ll have to write about them in a later Random Movie Review. In the meantime… 


Sound Of Genesis – Journey To The Moon (Buddah Records, 1969): I mentioned this one before. To this day this is the best “blind purchase” I’ve ever made in the clearance rack of a vinyl store. Journey To The Moon could be seen as a cash-in on the moon landing (or “moonsploitation” as I like to call it), but I’ve played this LP many times since I got it. What we have here are actual NASA recordings, from the astronauts to Mission Control, taking us from launch to return…with super-groovy psychedelic mod easy listening music throughout. Fuzzy guitars, electronic SFX, a muted horn and orchestra section straight out of the Barbarella soundtrack, the works. I mean nowhere else will you hear Nixon’s call to Neil and Buzz while an electric sitar plays in the background. It’s both corny and cool. The LP alternates between instrumentals and “vocal” sections in which we hear narration as well as actual recordings of the launch and landing – and even these sequences have music in the background. 

I loved this LP so much that I actually digitized it to MP3, though admittedly I did it on my old setup: Audio-Technica AT-LP60 turntable with an ATN3600DLX conical stylus. (I’ve become such an audio geek that I wouldn’t even think about playing a record on that turntable these days!!) Anyway, I’d love to share Journey To The Moon with you all; it clearly didn’t do well, as it only received this initial Buddah pressing. No CD or digital releases as of yet. So, please follow this Mega link to download it – and let me know what you think!

Monday, July 12, 2021

Pulsar #1: The London Switch

Pulsar #1: The London Switch, by Robin Moore and Al Dempsey
July, 1974  Pinnacle Books

Pulsar was a short-lived series courtesy Robin “I wrote The Green Berets and The Happy Hooker” Moore and a collaborator named Al Dempsey, with whom I’m unfamiliar. When I say “short-lived” I mean it; Pulsar only ran for a whopping two volumes. This first volume leaves absolutely no mystery why that was. 

I am in full agreement with the proprietor of Spy Guys And Gals that the authors were likely inspired by the obscure TV series Search, which ran a few years before these books came out. That TV series concerned a security agency that sent agents across the globe, keeping in contact via high-tech gear; some years ago the complete series was released on DVD and I got it, only to lose interest midway through given the static pacing. At any rate, Pulsar is also similar to two other men’s adventure series: The Big Brain, in that protagonist Tim Kyle is super-duper smart and stuff, and The Mind Masters, in that Tim is so smart that there’s this weird implication that his brain is actually a separate entity from his body. 

The only difference is that, judging from The London Switch, Pulsar is a helluva lot less entertaining than either of those series – and to tell the truth, The Big Brain really isn’t even entertaining to begin with. This isn’t just because The London Switch is leisurely paced, lacking much action or violence; it’s also because, when the action does occur, it’s hamstrung by some of the most grueling prose ever, as the authors focus so much on Tim’s thoughts and impressions that he almost comes off like a robot. Take for example this opening action sequence: 

And sadly it doesn’t get much better from there. As you can see, Tim’s brain is almost a separate entity, a la The Mind Masters. The ensuing action scenes – what few of them there are – will be similarly hamstrung by this sort of bicameral breakdown of man and brain. Not only that, but throughout the novel we’ll have these parts where Tim studies the case “item” by “item,” to the point that he seems more machine than man. And like a machine he even happens to possess an “instant replay technique” in which he can “rewind the tape” (in his mind, natch). So we’ll read stuff like, “Tim’s analyzer began to function again, urgently.” It would be okay if the dude was like part cyborg, but he’s not. He just separates his mind between the “action part” and the “casual part,” and it comes off as ultra-annoying…not to mention it kills the forward thrust of any action. 

Another big difference about the series is that Tim’s not only slightly older than the genre average, but also married with children. He’s got a wife and three kids back home, and has been the VP of Pulsar Security since 1954, when he co-founded the company with buddy Glenn Luther. So all the hanky-panky is handled by one-off characters, though we do get a random digression flashback on the first time Tim had sex with his wife (a super bizarre bit where he peers into her nether region and exclaims, “Hey, it’s dark inside!”). Otherwise the wife and kids don’t even appear in The London Switch; the novel opens with Tim sneaking into Ireland, called away from a family camping trip by Glenn Luther to look into possible poaching by a rival outfit. 

But man the novel is hard going. The back cover has it that a “sadistic rape-murder” gets pinned on Tim, and while that happens it takes a while to do so, and besides it’s all off-page anyway. You see, Tim is being hounded by a pair of assassins, young Germans named Kurt and Karen, and while they escape early on Kurt keeps coming back to try to kill Tim…and also people he knows, so as to frame him. One of his victims happens to be Tim’s sister-in-law, a nun; we learn she has been “indecently attacked” before being murdered. But the authors often cut over to Kurt and Karen – mostly so they can provide a middling sex scene between the two – nullifying any potential for suspense or drama. It’s all very rote and by the numbers, and plus with all the “Item:” stuff you feel more like you’re just reading a very slow-going cozy mystery. 

The action stuff you’d expect from Pinnacle is absent. Tim doesn’t carry a gun, but late in the game briefly gets his hand on Kurt’s; the would-be assassin carries something called a Boremite 4.5, and the authors must be in friggin’ love with this gun because they go on and on about it. It’s like a small pistol that fires caseless ammo or somesuch, and is an experimental job only given to select CIA agents and whatnot. I looked it up but couldn’t find anything about it. But man this Boremite (not to be confused with Dolemite, of course) thing is the star of the show. Kurt’s got one, not that he’s able to kill his prey with it. You can forget about the cover image, of Tim wielding a gun. He kills one guy in the novel, very late in the novel – with a screwdriver to the heart! And we learn this is Tim’s first-ever kill! 

The authors do find the opportunity to provide some random sleaze when Von Kirkman, Kurt’s boss, picks up some hot-to-trot vacationer in London and takes her back to his hotel. Here we learn of the man’s “huge organ,” which the girl takes to calling “dicky-boy,” to her “puss.” Just super-weird stuff and having nothing to do with anything, other than to pad out the too-long 209 pages. I thought there might be some action on the way for Tim when he stumbled across Karen, but instead he just hits her (so hard that she pukes!) and then makes her take him to their safe house. But here Tim proves again he doesn’t have the right stuff for Pinnacle, as within seconds Karen and Kurt turn the tables on him. He’s knocked out and strung up, grilled by Von Kirkman, and consigned to death…but the story’s so lame that Tim discovers he’s merely being kept in a house, and thus sneaks around until he finds a window to break out of! 

Eventually the action moves to Luxembourg, where Tim discovers why he’s being hounded and who has betrayed him. None of this comes off as shocking as the authors intend, as we don’t know any of these characters and thus have no investment in them or the series. But as mentioned Tim does manage to kill someone with a screwdriver. The majority of the killing is handled by a friend turned enemy turned friend again; Tim literally just stands there in shock. With all the loose ends tied up, The London Switch comes to a close with Tim Kyle now determined to take Pulsar into new realms of security…but man I’m gonna need a breather before I get to the next one.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

The Secret Of Bigfoot Pass (The Six Million Dollar Man)

The Secret Of Bigfoot Pass, by Mike Jahn
October, 1976  Berkley Books

Mike Jahn, who wrote the earlier Six Million Dollar Man tie-in Wine, Women And War, returns with another tie-in paperback, this one novelizing the famous Bigfoot episodes of the series. Actually I should make that the first Bigfoot episodes, as the creature returned in a later two parter. Anyway at 154 pages of big print, The Secret Of Bigfoot Pass comes off more like a novella, and Jahn does not go for the same sort of crafted approach as he did with that earlier tie-in. This one reads like what it is: a quick novelization of a goofy story. 

Whereas Wine, Women, And War almost had the vibe of a paperback produced by Lyle Kenyon Engel, with an adult or at least mature vibe, this one’ a lot more juvenile. But then I wonder if this is due to the edition I have; only after reading the book did I notice that it has “Special Scholastic Edition” on the cover. It’s possible that Jahn’s original edition was rewritten (ie “dumbed down”) for younger readers…but then no notice of this is given in the copyright, so I’m assuming this is just how he wrote it. Perhaps it just became increasingly evident to Jahn that The Six Million Dollar Man was more of a hit with kids than it was with adults, hence the mature vibe of that earlier tie-in being almost wholly removed from this one. 

Of course, this is true of the series itself, so Jahn is not at fault here. And in fact he does try to inject a little naughtiness; in the book Steve Austin meets a hot alien chick (seriously!) and Jahn goes out of his way to document the “meaningful” looks the babe gives Steve. However as expected absolutely nothing comes of it, and also there’s zero in the way of exploitation of the alien babe’s ample charms, other than that she’s pretty and wears a “comfortable jump suit.” Jahn clearly knows that kids would be his prime readers, thus he focuses more on Bigfoot and the various action scenes (all of which are bloodless). But again this could just be some Scholastic editorial tinkering; I haven’t been able to find anything online that would confirm whether this edition was edited. 

First of all, I love that this is titled “The Secret Of Bigfoot Pass.” How much of a secret are we really talking about here? Anyway the title is about as juvenile as the story: in this one, friends, Steve Austin meets up with Bigfoot, or “Sasquatch” as Jahn refers to him, not to mention a couple aliens who live underground. Speaking of which, Steve himself is referred to as “Austin,” one of the few holdovers from Jahn’s previous tie-in. And also again Jahn harkens back to the source novels of Martin Caidin, with Austin having a couple different bionic configurations than his on-screen counterpart. This actually factors into the finale, in which Jahn detours from the actual episode. But otherwise Steve here is the same as he was in the shows, and not the Caidin books…more of an affable but laconic country boy type. 

The part of the novel I found most interesting was the rundown Jahn gives of Steve’s background, likely taken from Caidin’s initial novel Cyborg. Here we learn that Steve got into the Apollo Program late, but still managed to command the final lunar mission, Apollo 17 – replacing the real world’s Gene Cernan (who isn’t mentioned). After that, Steve, trying to stay in the space program, test flew a shuttle design and crashed spectacularly. Here we get into the “we can rebuild him” stuff, with Jahn’s version of Oscar Goldman coming off like Steve’s original icy boss, as played by Darren McGavin in the first Six Million Dollar Man telefilm. Jahn makes concessions to the tone of the series with the note that, as time went on, Oscar became less icy, with he and Steve almost becoming friends. This is different than the show, in which Steve and Oscar call each other “pal” or “buddy” so often that you could make a drinking game of it. 

But wait, we were talking about Bigfoot. Let me briefly diverge on that. The Six Million Dollar Man was slightly before my time. I was born in late ’74 and was aware of the show, mostly due to my brother, who at 7 years older than me was the prime audience for the series. He had the Steve Austin doll with the plastic eye you could look through and the weird fake plastic skin on the leg and all that stuff, and I was fascinated with it. In fact I was obsessed with all of my brother’s toys, including his GI Joe doll with the beard that collected dust. My cousins also had the Maskatron, which I thought was even cooler than the Steve Austin doll. Also my brother had the space capsule, or whatever it was, complete with a space suit for Steve and this sort of operating table you could put him on. Well anyway I thought all this was great but I heard there was also a Bigfoot toy, but no one I knew had it. 

We’re talking here about the time right after the show had gone off the air, so I knew from my brother that finding a Bigfoot toy might be difficult – only many years later would I learn that the Bigfoot doll was hard to find to begin with. I also really wanted my own Steve Ausin doll and somehow my parents found one for me; I still remember the thrill I had when they came back with a new-in-the-box Six Million Dollar Man doll. Actually now that I think of it, this must’ve been around 1980, so the show had been off the air for a year or two. I’m assuming this doll must’ve been on clearance, or they just found one somewhere. Well anyway, I still wanted Bigfoot. Now there was this kid in my class (we’re talking first grade) named Steve Middleton who swore up and down that there was a Bigfoot doll at some store somewhere nearby. I pleaded with my mom and dad to look for it for me (no idea why I didn’t just go shopping with them), but they said there was no Bigfoot toy there – they’d looked and looked. 

I bring this up because this was the first time I learned that people could lie. When I told Steve that my parents couldn’t find the toy, he not only insisted the Bigfoot doll was there, but that there were dozens of them. And his tales would only become even taller. I was only six years old at the time, but I vividly recall that Steve Middleton was the first person who had so actively lied to me. And to this day whenever I think of the Bigfoot from Six Million Dollar Man (which is damn often!), I think of Steve Middleton. Actually I have another humorous story about Steve: later on, when we were in middle school (aka “junior high” if you’re in Canada or whatever), I always got amusement out of how he tried to get by in class. He never did very well academically, so he somehow came up with the idea of feigning interest in whatever the teacher was talking about. But I mean major interest: if the teacher said, for example, that the pyramids were a few thousand years old, Steve would bug out his eyes, gape in amazement, and wag his head back and forth. Of course he’d still fail the tests, but this feigned look of amazement only became more and more outrageous…sort of like his tall tales about the mythical Bigfoot toy he claimed to have seen.* 

Okay, we’re back; sorry for the divergence. I don’t belive I’ve ever even watched the episodes Jahn novelizes here, though I have the complete series on DVD – I stalled out at Season One. One can tell though that Jahn seems to have stayed pretty close to his source material; everything’s kind of threadbare, sort of like the low production values of the series itself. As usual it opens in the cheap showiness of nature (that way you don’t have to pay for sets), with Steve hanging out in a mobile command center in Northern California while a married pair of scientists set up some earthquake monitoring devices. Also here we have Oscar Goldman and a local scientist named Joe Raintree. When the scientist couple is mysteriously abducted, Raintree claims that Bigfoot took them – hence the big footprint left at the scene. 

However there’s no mystery for us readers. Jahn often cuts over to Bigfoot’s point of view, referring to him as “Sasquatch.” The opening is a bit slow-going as Sasquatch creeps around and Steve uses his bionics to run through the forest and look for the missing couple. This of course leads to the expected confrontation with Bigfoot, which goes on for a while and doesn’t have much bite to it; there’s absoltely no vibe here that Steve’s life is in danger. Everything’s very safe and cozy and by the numbers, with Steve even making quips as he battles the seven-foot beast. The fight ends with Steve accidentally ripping off Sasquatch’s arm – and discovering that it’s bionic like his own. 

From here things open up a bit, with Steve being captured and put in “electrosleep” so he can be monitored by a trio of jumpsuited aliens. Aliens who apparently look just like humans, with one of them, a babe named Shalon, apparently pretty hotstuff. As mentioned we get a lot of stuff about her making insinuating comments about Steve as she watches him on a giant monitor. Oh and meanwhile there’s an entire colony down here, and Sasquatch is a robot the aliens created to keep people away from their hidden base. There’s some hokey “science!” stuff with some sort of time scrambler device the aliens have created that lets thousands of years slip by in seconds, or somesuch, which makes your head hurt if you think about it too much. 

The gist of it comes down to the fact that the quake detectors have picked up a new earthquake that’s about to happen right here in the colony, but the aliens plan to divert it so that nearby cities take the damage. Steve screams at them that thousands will die, but the aliens don’t care. This leads to more running and fighting as Steve tries to prevent the massive quake and then also save the aliens from catastrophe. It’s a very bloodless and G-rated affair, and also the Steve-Shalon relationship is so scuttled that you wonder why Jahn spent the time building it up. In fact reading these novelizations you realize that the writers could likely turn in something better than the source material – given the time and inclination, I bet Jahn could’ve written a novelization of The Secret Of Bigfoot Pass that would’ve been entertaining even for adults to read. 

I mentioned the unique finale; one of Caidin’s creations that didn’t make it into the series was that Steve Austin had a metal plate in his head. At novel’s end, the aliens insist that Steve must be given amnesia so he’ll forget about them and their colony. Steve allows them to do this. It’s my understanding that Jahn’s conclusion is unique to the novel. After leaving, Steve turns around in the woods and speaks to the air – confident that the aliens are watching him (and we know they are) – and informs them that the metal plate in his head blocked their amnesia rays! Thus he remembers everything, and eagerly blabs about it to Oscar later that day. But man when one of the closing lines of the novel is Oscar’s “So Bigfoot is a robot,” you know we aren’t talking about a weighty piece of work here. Steve’s time with the aliens is basically brushed aside so that he can get back to his camping trip or whatever. 

Actually Jahn does include what seems to be a bit of mockery; when Steve first meets the aliens, he is so blasé about them that they almost take affront. Steve informs them they “ain’t the first” and that he’s met other aliens, casually going on about his various adventures. Not sure if this is in the actual episode, but the humor was nice here as it came off as Jahn spoofing the entire thing. And indeed Jahn’s own prose is so quick, the settings and characters barely described, that you suspect he just wanted to be over and done with it as quick as possible. That being said, The Secret Of Bigfoot Pass is at least a swift-moving read. 

*Steve Middleton’s feigned look of amazement made such an impact on me that I recorded a “song” about it many years later, in 1997. This was with my buddy Ken Zerby, who handles “lead vocals;” I provide backup on the chorus and play very rudimentary guitar. The “you’re a Commie!” bit midway through was our impromptu tribute to the ‘60s Fantastic Four cartoon.  You can hear it here if you’re bored.