Thursday, April 4, 2013

March 3, 1967--Part 1

Gary Shapiro--host of the excellent interview show From the Bookshelf--did me a great kindness recently. Knowing that it might make an interesting post for this blog, he sent me a set of DVDs on which he included seven network television shows that aired on the night of March 3, 1967.

Well, he was right. It will indeed make an interesting post. In fact, there's enough to talk about that it's going to be a two- or three-parter.

Anyway, that Friday night in 1967 included the ABC shows The Time Tunnel and The Avengers; NBC's Tarzan, Man from UNCLE and Laredo; and Hogan's Heroes & The Wild Wild West on CBS.

We'll start with The Time Tunnel, a show I've talked about before. This was about two scientists who are lost in the time stream, dropping down into different times and places each episode while the scientists back in the Time Tunnel complex try to bring them home. It was without question a premise rich in potential for great stories.

The March 3 episode is "The Death Merchant," written by the husband & wife team of Bob and Wanda Duncan. It is, I think, one of the strongest episodes in The Time Tunnel's short run, though it also highlights some of the show's problems.

The two scientists (Doug Phillips and Tony Newman) drop in to Gettysburg during the height of the battle in July 1863. The plot starts off with several awkward contrivances in order to set up the story--Tony is given amnesia by an exploding artillery shell, then mistaken by a Confederate patrol to be the courier they've been waiting for. With no memory of anything else, Tony assumes this must be the case and goes along with it. In the meantime, Doug falls in with a Union officer who's tracking the Confederates. This sets the two men--normally the best of friends--against each other.

It really is painfully contrived, but once the story gets going, it also gets interesting. The Confederates are trying to retrieve a large supply of gunpowder from an arms dealer. The arms dealer turns out to be Machiavelli, who was accidentally caught up by the Time Tunnel and dropped into what is his future. He's getting involved in the Civil War pretty much just because he appreciates observing a war in which the armies are more evenly matched and so wants to help the South close its supply deficit.

The episode is directed by Nathan Juran, a talented veteran of B-movies and Ray Harryhausen films--and it benefits enormously from his skill. The story is laid out in a very straightforward manner, allowing us to follow the plot through its various twists and turns. The action scenes are handled very well, with fun and enthusiastic fight choreography.

I have always wondered, though, when and where two career scientists (presumably physicists) learned to fight so well in both hand-to-hand combat and with a variety of weapons from different eras. Heck, in this episode alone, they use their fists, swords and pistols with skill. It's not as if they were planning on getting lost in the time stream and so got some training first. They must have attended one heck of a grad school.

Perhaps the strongest aspect of the episode is the great job it does in humanizing the supporting characters, something helped along by talented character actors. Most notably, John Crawford as a Union officer and Kevin Hagen as a Southern sergeant both do superb jobs of bringing their characters to life. The end result of this is a real sense of the tragedy of war--a reminder that the people getting killed on both sides in the Civil War were often good people. This plays off nicely against Machiavelli (effectively played with a serving of Large Ham by Malachi Throne), who just wants to watch and enjoy a bloody battle.

By the way, there's no historical accuracy at all to the way Machiavelli is portrayed here--but he's a great villain nonetheless.

Also, props should be given to James Darren as Tony. Because of the amnesia plot line, he's effectively playing another character through most of this episode and does a terrific job of mixing confusion, exhaustion and anger into the part.

There's also an effective character moment back in the Time Tunnel complex, where the general in charge and the top scientist butt heads over whether they should concentrate on retrieving Doug and Tony or first work on returning Machiavelli to his proper time, even if that means losing track of their time-lost friends.

But, as I said, the episode also highlights one of the show's consistent weaknesses in that it never clearly establishes the rules of time travel that exist within the Time Tunnel universe. At one point, a character says that Machiavelli can't change history at Gettysburg, but Doug is working frantically to stop the gunpowder from getting to the Confederates. If history can't be changed, what difference does this make? Besides, there's at least one episode in the series in which Doug and Tony are working frantically to prevent history from being changed. And at least one where they are trying to change history. Oh, and there's the one in which Doug and Tony are in the 19th Century Old West trying to stop aliens from sucking away all of Earth's oxygen. But if history can't be changed, then the Earth can't die in the 19th Century, can it?

This is all complicated by the fact that Machiavelli--while he's out of his proper time--can't be killed. At one point, he's shot several times at close range, but the bullets apparently vanish or pass harmlessly through him. So does that mean Doug and Tony can't be killed? Or is it because Machiavelli is historically important? Machiavelli thinks its because he's in (from his perspective) the future and therefore is technically already dead, but he's a 15th Century philosopher, so what the heck does he know about time travel?

I enjoy The Time Tunnel for what it is, but it could have been so much better if the writers and producers had thought all this through. Good science fiction needs rules--things that the characters can or cannot do on a consistent basis--in order to build a believable universe. As fun as it could be, The Time Tunnel never quite succeeded in this area.

Tarzan starred Ron Ely as the Lord of the Jungle. His depiction of Tarzan is an interesting one, setting aside the monosyllabic ape man that Johnny Weissmuller had popularized in movie adaptations and playing the part as an educated and articulate man. So to an extent, he was much closer to Edgar Rice Burroughs' original character. Ely's Tarzan had been raised by apes, then returned to civilization to be educated. Afterwards, he decided he preferred the jungle and moved back there. There's no Jane in this version of the Tarzan universe, but he did care for an orphan named Jai (played by Manual Padilla, Jr.)

The March 3, 1967 episode was "Jungle Dragnet," which manages to rack up a pretty impressive body count before the end credits role. The villains are an African revolutionary named Kasembi and an American soldier-of-fortune named Thompson, who are using mercenaries dressed as government soldiers to terrorize villages and get them to sign over their mineral rights. This is because they've learned that there are rich oil deposits in the area.

When a geologist in one village also learns of the oil, the bad guys shut him up by massacring the entire village. Only the geologists young daughter survives. She has to be tracked down and killed also, because she might also know about the oil. Tarzan gets to the girl first and the bulk of the episode is Tarzan avoiding or outwitting the villains while he gets the girl to safety.

There are several things that make this a pretty strong episode. First, as in The Time Tunnel, several fine actors give the various characters real personality. In this case, Kasembi is played by William Marshall, who a few years later would play Blacula in the infamous 1972 blaxploitation film. But in my mind, his real geek cred comes from playing the no-longer-quite-sane Dr. Daystrom  in the Star Trek episode "The Ultimate Computer." Marshall had a great voice and could exude intelligence and authority. But he could also give an aura of vulnerability to his characters. Kasembi is a perfect role for him--an educated man who had once dreamed of leading his nation to freedom, but had allowed tragedy and bitterness to drive him into a scheme involving mass murder for profit while still giving lip service to political ideology.

Thompson is played by Simon Oakland, a fine character actor who seems to have guest-starred in pretty much every television show every made, often playing short-tempered authority figures. Here, he portrays an absolutely reprehensible character--a man willing to kill anyone to achieve his goal. What makes him interesting is that you at first assume he's in it just for the money, but he does get a few lines of dialogue that imply he actually does at least partially believe the revolutionary politics he spouts.

Putting these two great actors together and allowing them to play off each other is part of what makes this a strong episode. It's also a good, solid story with an unusual conclusion.

This was a prime time show when it first aired, but I'm virtually certain I remember watching it on Saturday mornings when I was a kid--I assume it was rerun or syndicated later on and marketed towards kids. So--not having seen an episode in years--I was a little surprised at the amount of violence it contained. The poor little girl watches as her father takes an arrow in the back; an entire village is massacred, with the bodies lying around like cockroaches; and the village chieftain deliberately sacrifices his life in a ploy to hide the girl. But the violence isn't visually graphic, its a legitimate part of the plot and it gives the story a lot of honest emotional impact. I really should have been outside playing on Saturday mornings, but I don't think watching Tarzan left any psychological scars.

By the way, here's an interview with Ron Ely about Tarzan, recorded a year or so ago when the series was released on DVD. I got to contribute a question to the interview via Facebook because--well, because I'm awesome.

Hogan's Heroes ran from 1965 until 1971, running a little longer than World War II did in real life. It's premise, of course, involved Allied POWs in a German Stalag who were running spy and sabotage missions. Led by Colonel Hogan (played as a sort of cocky con man by Bob Crane), the supposed prisoners would pull off an absurdly elaborate mission each week and once again pull the wool over the eyes of those darn Nazis.

In the 3/3/67 episode, for instance, they need to convince a recently captured Free French pilot that his girl has not double-crossed him--a story the Nazis are using to try to make him talk and give away the location of his airbase. So they smuggle the girl into the camp, stage a play that involves a wedding, con a Gestapo officer into allowing the French guy to appear in it, and sneak the girl into the wedding scene. The camp commander, Colonel Klink, is playing the minister, which apparently makes the wedding legal. Or something like that.

With his faith in the girl restored, the French pilot now refuses to talk.

The show has often been criticized for making light of the Nazis--in real life the proponents of one of the most purely evil ideologies that has ever existed. In Hogan's Heroes, they are mocked as incompetent clowns.

But others have argued that's the point. Mel Brooks (who mocked Hitler in the movie The Producers) was once asked if it was possible to get revenge on Hitler through comedy. Brooks answered "Yes, absolutely. Of course it is impossible to take revenge for 6 million murdered Jews. But by using the medium of comedy, we can try to rob Hitler of his posthumous power and myths." (I've added the italics.)

Mocking the Nazis holds them up to ridicule in a way that really can rob them of the ability to gain power over others. I think this is a legitimate point-of-view and, while I respect those who have a problem with the concept of Hogan's Heroes, I myself am okay with the show.

Besides, John Banner (Sgt. Schultz) was an Austrian Jew who lost most of his family to the Nazis. Robert Clary (Corporal LeBeau) spent time in Buchenwald and lost a lot of his family as well. So if those guys were okay with Hogan's Heroes, then so am I. Banner, in fact, once responded to criticisms of Sgt. Schultz by saying "Schultz is not a Nazi. I see Schultz as the representative of some kind of goodness in any generation."

In fact, I would argue that Schultz is the heart of the show. First, John Banner was a great comedic actor. Also, Schultz is shown to be disdainful of the Nazis and to be a decent human being. The running gag for his character, of course, is that he often sees a lot of what Hogan and his men are doing, but refuses to acknowledge it. He doesn't want to rock the boat, get into trouble and end up getting sent to the Russian Front.

But there's an alternate interpretation of Schultz's character that--even though I doubt the show's writers intended it--I like enough to consider "true." This interpretation is that Schultz isn't as dumb as he acts. He realizes Hogan is running a full-scale espionage operation, even if he doesn't always know the details. He doesn't say anything not just out of self-preservation, but because he hates the Nazis and this is his way of helping knock them out of power. In his own way, Sgt. Schultz is working to save Germany from the evil men who have taken it over.

Yes, that's right. In the universe of Hogan's Heroes, the greatest hero and bravest man is Sgt. "I know nothing!" Schultz.

That's it for this week. If I can do so without once again rambling on far too long, I'll cover the remaining four shows in next week's post. Otherwise, I'll make this series a three-parter.


  1. You might have mentioned that Werner Klemperer; who played Col. Klink, was also a Jew who's family fled Germany in 1935 and only agreed to play Klink if it was guaranteed that he would always be a bumbling loser.

  2. That's true about Klemperer. I had read that before and confirmed it when I did some research for this post, but I was already rambling on far too long and simply couldn't include everything.


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