Category Archives: cult tv flashback

Cult-TV Flashback: The Burning Zone (1996 – 1997)

The Clinton Era (1992 – 2000) represents the golden age of conspiracy and horror genre television.  This development was due in large part to the unexpected and transcendent success of Chris Carter’s The X-Files, which became a ratings hit in the early 1990s and ran for an incredible nine seasons.


In The X-Files’ wake came Nowhere Man (1995 – 1996), Strange Luck (1995 – 1996), American Gothic (1995 – 1996), Dark Skies (1996 – 1997), Millennium (1996 – 1999), Sleepwalkers(1997), Prey (1998), Strange World (1999), and other efforts, including UPN’s The Burning Zone (1996 – 1997).

Created by Coleman Luck, The Burning Zone boasted important antecedents outside The X-Files as well.  The mid-1990s also happened to be the great era of “virus”-centric pop-culture entertainment, from the book The Hot Zone a true-life account of an Ebola outbreak in Virginia — to Outbreak (1995), a horror film which pitted scientists Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo and Kevin Spacey against hemorrhagic fever in California. 

The Burning Zonebrought a similar premise to TV on a weekly basis: “Today’s battle to save humanity is fought in sterile labs with petri dishes and test tubes for weapons.  Virologists and geneticists are the new warriors,” described Coleman Luck in SFX  #18, November 1996 (page 10).

Accordingly, The Burning Zone, which ran for nineteen hour-long episodes, followed the dangerous missions of a small bio-crisis team dedicated to eradicating new and deadly diseases in what the series described as “The Plague Wars.” 

The team leader was Daniel Cassian (Michael Harris), a no-nonsense doctor with “Level 92” clearance and a firm grip over his emotions.  He was assisted by Dr. Edward Marcase (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a virologist who survived a childhood case of Ebola but lost both parents to the disease.  Edward’s controversial approach to medicine considered the curing of disease a “mystical” experience, a supernatural quest.

Other team members were Kimberly Shiroma (Tamlyn Tomita), a molecular-geneticist-pathologist recruited from the World Health Organization, and Michael Hailey (James Black), the man responsible for the team’s overall security.

After eleven episodes, The Burning Zone endured a dramatic format shift and cast change.  Shiroma and Marcase left the team, replaced by Dr. Brian Taft (Bradford Tatum), a motorcycle-riding, rebellious James Dean-like physician.  The re-boot of the series largely abandoned the (much-criticized) supernatural angle and featured more action-oriented stories.  Only Harris and Black appeared throughout both formats.  Cassian became the primary hero, after playing a kind of Dr. Smith-like thorn in the side for the first run of shows.

As you might well expect, critics were not particularly kind evaluating this genre series.  Writing for The Skeptical Inquirer in May-June of 1998, Peter Huston observed that the series made him “want to throw shoes at the television” and noted that it featured “Snarly fashion-model scientists chasing intelligent hive-mind vampire zombie viruses with flame throwers.” 

And yes, that may be the best line ever written in a TV review.

Meanwhile, The New York Times’ Caryn James opined that the UPN series mostly served to remind viewers just how good The X-Files really was, and noted that The Burning Zone offered “the loopy delights of a cut-rate, over-the-top horror movie.” 

Only Roger Fulton’s and John Betancourt’s The Sci-Fi Channel Encyclopedia of TV Science-Fiction (Warner Books; 1997, page 106) reserved such harsh judgment, calling The Burning Zone a series that “went thought so many transformations in its brief 19-episode run that no viewer who saw the first show would recognize the last.”

I watched The Burning Zone when it aired, and although I wholeheartedly concur with the largely-negative sentiments, I wouldn’t mind seeing the program (along with Sleepwalkers and Prey…) released on DVD. Ever since I first saw it, I’ve always considered The Burning Zone a kind of “disease-of-the-week” show.  But what made it so memorable were indeed the goofy plot-lines and various diseases that had to be cured. 

Among these were ones that caused fear (“The Silent Tower”), rage (“St. Michael’s Nightmare”) spontaneous combustion (“Arms of Fire,”) insanity (“Critical Mass”), skeletal collapse (“Death Song”), hypothyroidism (“The Last Five Pounds are the Hardest”), and hemorrhagic fever (“Night Fever”). 


Other stories dealt with a dimension of death (“Lethal Injection”), the disease that destroyed the Mayan civilization (“Touch of the Dead”), psychic surgery (“Hall of the Serpent”), an occult Nazi weapon called “The Eyes of Odin” (“Midnight of the Carrier”) and a flesh-eating virus (“Elegy for a Dream.”)

The quality that distinguished and perhaps harmed The Burning Zone the most was its insistence on blending hard science with spiritual or religious sub-plots. Most of the protagonists in the series are highly-trained physicians who had gone through years if not decades of training.  Yet in story after story, these men and women of science found themselves exploring the “spirit” in ways they certainly couldn’t have anticipated back at med school. 

Now, if this idea had been applied consistently, intelligently and believably, it could have proved an interesting subtext for the program: medicine vs. spiritualism.   But The Burning Zone never seemed to understand that science had to come first for these doctors working the front lines of the plague war.  One episode involved a cure that was made from the “venomous fruit” of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden.  It was just…wacky.

“Touch of the Dead” followed a similarly bizarre trajectory.  In this tale, Cassian was infected by a terrible disease with no scientific cure.  He survived because he found a “reason to live:” a healthy soul! 

Next time I’m sick, remind me to save my fifteen dollar co-pay and see if this technique works.

Meanwhile, “Arms of Fire” pushed the same anti-science notion when a boy in danger of spontaneously combusting (!) survived the horrible ordeal by expressing his willingness to pray.

Now, I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with faith or belief. Only that for a science-oriented series to continually fall back on religion as a basis for its cures is ridiculous.  If this were the direction the show wanted to go in, it should have featured clergy, not scientists, as main characters.

Perhaps the most memorable expression of The Burning Zone’s spiritual philosophy occurred in the installment called “Lethal Injection.”  There, Marcase visited a hellish “after life” dimension after taking an experimental drug.  In the after-life, he encountered whispering, black-shrouded ghosts who could remove a man’s spirit by touch.  But he was protected from the loss of his soul by beings he termed “angels.”  At the end of the episode, Marcase – again, a well-educated scientist, remember– theorized that this alternate dimension was actually an entrance to Hell for angels who had fallen from grace. 

Quite a significant discovery for someone working on a bio-crisis team, huh? I wonder why he never shared his confirmation of a spiritual plane with the rest of the world, however.  Seems like an important thing for the human race to be aware of…

If science and religion didn’t fit together well in the stories, then the science component by itself was a frequent stumbling block on The Burning Zone.  The series relied on the straight-faced belief that a disease could be isolated, diagnosed, cured, and its effect totally reversed in every single episode.  


Though this is drama we’re talking about and some rule bending is necessary and expected, this series simply asked viewers to suspend disbelief too much.  The Burning Zone wanted the audience to believe that this elite medical team could stop outbreaks faster than a speeding bullet.  

On the series, there was never once a disease the doctors couldn’t overcome, and most of the horrible plagues and viruses didn’t even leave behind scars or pock-marks on their victims.  Had some of these horrible diseases left at least a residual indication of their presence, The Burning Zone might have felt a little more real.  Or, maybe it could have taken a three-or-four episode arc to cure a particular disease, showing the process over a period of several weeks or months.  That kind of approach would have been much more true to life as we know it..

As far as the format changes go, The Burning Zone only went from bad to worse.   Visually, the show developed a new visual sheen in its last dozen or so programs, with sudden and largely purposeless zooms, distorted angles, fast-motion photography, hand-held camerawork and so forth.  These stylistic bells and whistles, however, could not hide the basic banality of the new stories.

One episode (“Death Song”) actually re-hashed The Bodyguard (1991) with Hailey protecting and romancing a beautiful rock star.  Another episode was a variation on Duchovny’s Playing God (1997), with Taft forced to administer medical care to a sick gangster. 

At least the original approach — the juxtaposition of the medical with the miraculous – offered something to think about, even if you dismissed it as ridiculous.  The later approach was The Burning Zone…lobotomized.

And believe me, that is really saying something.

The Fungus Among Us: Cult TV’s Most Memorable Eukaryotes.

Mushrooms, yeasts, and molds…oh my. 

Eukaryotic life forms – fungi – are non-vascular organisms that reproduce by means of spores.  Unlike bacteria, fungi always possess a nucleus and are made of thin threads known as “hyphae,” or all together, in networks, “mycelium.”

Typically fungi are not motile (meaning capable of motion), but in cult-television history that’s not always the case.   Additionally, many fungi are saprophytic, meaning that they release digestive enzymes and then absorb the digested food.  Many fungi in the real world are also mutualists (lichens, for example), but some (especially in genre television) are decidedly parasitic in nature.

Over the decades, monstrous (and sometimes helpful…) fungi have appeared in many popular science fiction programs.  Thus today, I offer a list of some of the most memorable TV fungi, both friendly and hostile.

7.         Blake’s 7: “The Web” (January 30, 1978). In this early episode of Blake’s 7 by creator Terry Nation, the Liberator is ensnared in space in an organic, fungal web.  The web is a tool of an immortal creature called Saymon (Richard Beale), a corporate life form.  On the planet below the web, Saymon has genetically engineered creatures called Decimas that Roj Blake (Gareth Thomas) attempts to free from enslavement.  Meanwhile, Saymon – one of the legendary Auron “Lost” — desires the Liberator’s power cells.  Unless he gets them, the Liberator will be permanently ensnared in the gossamer filaments of the space fungus.


6.         Lost in Space: “Welcome Stranger” (October 20, 1965.) In this sixth episode of Irwin Allen’s Lost in Space written by Peter Packer, an astronaut from Earth named Jimmy Hapgood (Warren Oates) lands near the Robinson encampment, unaware that the tiny fungal life-forms on his capsule are evolving in the friendly atmosphere and rapidly becoming giant, tentacled monsters..  When he offers to take Penny and Will back with him on his shape, he has no idea that the area is overrun these frightening monsters.





5.         Space: 1999: “The Last Sunset” and “Journey to Where.”  In “The Last Sunset” by Christopher Penfold, aliens from the planet Ariel gift Moonbase Alpha with a breathable lunar atmosphere.  Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain) leads a team to judge the possibility of reclaiming the surface of the moon, but her Eagle crashes in a wind storm.  


While attempting to get word to Alpha, a member of her exploratory team, controller Paul Morrow (Prentis Hancock) discovers mushrooms growing in the new atmosphere.  He samples one, and soon turns psychotic, imagining the moon’s surface as a future Garden of Eden, made into a paradise by the mushrooms, by so-called “manna from heaven.”  Eventually, Helena and her team are rescued, and it is learned that the mushrooms actually possessed dangerous hallucinogenic elements…
           

In the second season episode “Journey to Where,” Helena falls ill from “viral pneumonia” after a time travel trip to Earth in the year 1339.  Captured by people of that era, Helena, Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) and pilot Alan Carter (Nick Tate) are imprisoned in a cave, where Helen sees fungus growing on the cave walls.  She notes that “fungoids” are the basis for the only drugs known to cure viral pneumonia.  She asks Koenig to pick some off the wall to treat her, and creates herself a remedy.


Incidentally, this particular scene between Koenig and Helena is repeated, almost note for note in the first season Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Arsenal of Freedom.”  Only there it took place in another cave, and between another commanding officer and CMO: Captain Picard and Dr. Crusher.

4.         SGU: “Cloverdale.” (October 26, 2010). In this second season episode of Stargate Universe, the crew of Destiny is menaced on a lush alien planet by a dangerous fungus creature.  Matthew Scott (Brian J. Smith) is infected by it, and the fungus begins to grow, out-of-control, on his arm.  As the fungus rapidly spreads towards Scott’s trunk, Dr. Rush (Robert Carlyle) suggests amputation (with bone saw, no less…), but reverses course when he learns the fungus is already in Scott’s blood stream.  While unconscious and infected by the alien fungus, Matthew imagines an elaborate fantasy in which he returns to the picturesque home-town called “Cloverdale” and awaits his wedding day with Chloe (Elyse Levesque).  Meanwhile, walking plant creatures that resemble triffids could hold the key to reversing Matthew’s rapidly-spreading infection.



3.         The X-Files: “Field Trip” (May 19, 1999).  In this sixth-season episode of The X-Files by John Shiban and Vince Gilligan, F.B.I. agents Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Mulder (David Duchovny) visit my neck of the woods, North Carolina, to investigate the death of two hikers in the woods.  They soon run afoul of a hungry, giant, subterranean mushroom that begins to slowly absorb and digest them.  During this lengthy process, Mulder and Scully both hallucinate that they have returned home to their lives.  In Scully’s case, she imagines Mulder’s death and wake.  In his case, Mulder tracks a story of alien abduction.  The duo awake just in time, and with Skinner’s (Mitch Pileggi) help escape from the cave of the giant ravenous mushrooms…



2.         Primeval: Season 3. Episode 5 (April 25, 2009).  In this episode of the BBC time incursion series, an anomaly opens up in a millionaire’s apartment.  It leads to Earth’s distant future, where an assistant soon inhales the spores of a giant fungus.  He returns to the presents and spreads the spores to his heartless boss, Richard Bentley (William Scott-Mason), who begins to transform into a terrifying fungus-man.  


Meanwhile, at the ARC (Anomaly Research Center) one of Christine Johnson’s (Belinda Stewart-Wilson) men is also exposed to the fast-growing fungus, and evolves into one of the mushroom monsters as well. Trapped in a lab with the rapidly-growing fungi, Connor Temple (Andrew-Lee Potts) realizes that extreme cold holds the key to halting the spread of the avaricious fungus from the future.
           
Connor’s discovery comes not a moment too soon, as team leader Jenny Lewis (Lucy Brown) is imperiled by the Fungus Man, and exposed to the toxic material…


1.         One Step Beyond: “The Sacred Mushroom” (January 24, 1961).  This is perhaps the strangest episode of the paranormal anthology One Step Beyond, and, in fact, one of the strangest of all episodes in cult TV history.  Whereas most episodes are fictionalized accounts of paranormal events, this episode is a documentary and travelogue.  


Series director and narrator John Newland hosts a trip to a remote village in Mexico to determine along with experts Dr. Puharich, Dr. Barbara Brown, spiritual guru David Grey and Stanford professor Jeffrey Smith, if a special mushroom with hallucinogenic properties (called “X”) is capable of enhancing extra sensory perception in humans.  In one scene, we watch as the members of the team sample peyote before our eyes.

Then, upon returning to America, Newland himself also consumes the special mushroom in Dr. Puharich’s Palo Alto laboratory and is tested for an increase in psychic power and ESP.   Although the late John Newland reported to me that he experienced flashbacks for months after sampling the mushroom, he never did feel any kind of psychic awareness.  

Still, this episode has become legend because it is likely the only time in prime time history that a series host – and Golden Age Hollywood star – tripped before our eyes on American network television.  

Thus John Newland went where Boris Karloff, Rod Serling, Alfred Hitchock and Truman Bradley never did (at least publicly)…straight into America’s burgeoning drug culture.

The Best and Worst Moms in Cult-TV History

Cult-television has a thing or two to say about moms, and as Mother’s Day approaches this weekend, it seems a good time to recall the best and the worst of the pantheon. 

In terms of figuring out which is which, we can define a good mother as one who brings up her children with care and attention, who loves unconditionally, and who places highly in her life the needs and desires of her sons or daughters. She does so with a careful eye that the child grow up neither selfish nor indulged, but rather healthy, and a productive, a contributing member of society.

The Worst:

6. Lwaxana Troi (Star Trek: The Next Generation[1987 – 1994]).  The late Majel Barrett Roddenberry often called the ebullient Lwaxana “Auntie Mame” in space, and unlike many other moms on this list, the Betazoid Ambassador to the Federation isn’t actually evil.  But man, she sure is difficult to deal with. 

Every time Lwaxana boards the Enterprise, she flirts openly, aggressively, and embarrassingly with Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart)…her daughter Deanna’s boss, essentially.  Worse, Mrs. Troi is personally hurtful to Deanna (Marina Sirtis), diminishing her adult daughter as “Little One” and constantly blaming her for not having a husband, or for ruining things with Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes).   

Lwaxana Troi is also egotistical and elitist, constantly referring to her noble heritage as “Holder of the Scared Chalice of Rixx,” and “heir to the Holy Rings of Betazed”   In Star Trek’s enlightened future, she is also cavalierly thoughtless to her put-upon servant, Mr. Homm.  Troi even thinks that speaking (rather than communicating telepathically…) is for lower life forms, including humans.

Sure, Lwaxana isn’t evil, but she absolutely makes her daughter’s life miserable every time she sets foot aboard ship, either arranging an unwanted marriage (“Haven”) for Troi or demanding adherence to (annoying…) Betazoid customs.   Lwaxana is a domineering and annoying mother.   You may love her, but being around her is hell.  Certainly, Counselor Troi turned out well, but seeing her mother, you wonder how, precisely, that happened…

5. Endora (Bewitched [1964 – 1972]). Endora (Agnes Moorehead) is a mother-in-law who is, literally, a witch.  Furious that her beloved daughter Samantha (Elizabeth Montgomery) has married a mere mortal, Darrin (Dick  York/Dick Sergeant), Endora constantly second-guesses and criticizes her adult daughter’s choices.  Like Lwaxana Troi, she can’t quite see her child as an adult.

Endora always refuses to acknowledge Darrin by name, and mocks him with cruel nick-names all the time, such as “Durwood.”  Endora also casts cruel spells on her son-and-law, and hates all mortals, reveling in their humiliation at her hands.  

Again, the mighty witch Endora might not, technically, be evil, but she clearly doesn’t respect or support her daughter’s ability to make her own choices, or find her own way to happiness.  For Endora, it’s her way or the highway.

4. Henrietta Walker (The Twilight Zone [1959 – 1964). In the memorable episode “Young Man’s Fancy,” a mama’s boy named Alex Walker (Alex Nicol) has just married a beautiful long-suffering woman, Virginia (Phyllis Thaxter) after twelve years of making her wait for him. On their honeymoon, he takes her to…his dead mother’s house to reminiscence about the good old days with dear old mum, Henriettea (Helen Brown).  Virginia wants to sell the house and get started on a new life…not to mention get busy with her new husband, but Alex just can’t stop thinking about how great his Mother was.  


In no time, Henrietta – from beyond the grave – stakes a claim on her adult son’s life.  Instead of allowing him to move on and have a life and family of his own, Henrietta tightens her maniacal grip and actively competes with Virginia for the man’s affections.  By episode’s end, Alex has physically reverted to his twelve year-old self, and his new wife abandons the house at a run, never to return.  Momma Henrietta is victorious, and her son is now permanently infantilized.  As a mother, she cares more about control and dominating her child then ensuring that he is happy.  How selfish.

3. Eleanor Dupres (V [1983]).  Mike Donovan’s (Marc Singer) mom, Eleanor (Neva Patterson) is a real barracuda.  In both V and V: The Final Battle (1984), she proves her infinite flexibility by always switching to the top dog at the right moment, whether that top dog is wealthy industrial Arthur Dupres, or Steven, a fascist lizard from outer space.  


A happy collaborator, Eleanor is concerned primarily with her status among the 1 percent.  She is rich and powerful and wishes to stay rich and powerful.  To achieve that goal, Eleanor would turn in her grandson, Sean, to the Visitors and even attempt to shoot her own son, Mike. 


Eleanor gets her comeuppance when her shift in loyalties comes too fast, and the Visitor Steven witnesses her selling him out to the resistance.  He kills this evil, collaborating, lizard-loving Mom, and it’s a fair bet that her son won’t miss her one bit.

2. Xhalax Sun (Farscape [1999 – 2004]).  Aeryn Sun’s (Claudia Black) mother, Xhalax Sun (Linda Cropper) once showed her young daughter an inkling of kindness by going to the child by night and confessing to her that she was conceived out of love, not by Peacekeeper edict.  But when Xhalax’s act of decency was discovered, the officer was given an unenviable choice: kill her lover, or kill her child. Xhalax killed her lover and soon became an expert assassin.  From that day forward, she grew cruel, bitter and devoid of warmth.

In Farscape, Xhalax tracks her fugitive daughter across the Uncharted Territories as part of a retrieval squad sent to capture Talyn, Moya’s child.  When Xhalax learns that Aeryn named the baby leviathan after her dead father, the officer chides her daughter for displaying sentimentality and weakness.

Throughout her appearances on Farscape, Xhalax shows a complete disregard for Aeryn’s well-being or happiness.  Xhalax views Aeryn as a “traitor” and tells her that she has not “wasted one microt” thinking of her.  A mother who has gotten used to doing what expedient, not what is right, it is clear that Xhalax would kill her own child to perform her given tasks.  Although Xhalax and Aeryn have a sort of final reckoning that clears the air, it happens right as Xhalax is about to die, and therefore she has nothing to lose in showing warmth to her only child.

1. Irina Derevko (Alias [2001 – 2005]). Lena Olin portrayed the deliciously and horribly evil Irina Derevko, mother of spy Sydney Bristow (Jennifer Garner) throughout Alias’s run, starting in the second season.   Irina faked her own death while Sydney was six, so she could return home to the Soviet Union.  Years later, she pretended to be Sydney’s ally, playing on the young woman’s need to emotional “know” something about her mother, formerly known as Laura Bristow.  In truth, however, Irina was manipulating her daughter, and secretly working with Arvin Sloane and Sark to retrieve Rambaldi artifacts around the globe. 

Late in Alias’srun, Irina actually hired a hit man to killer her daughter, and in “Maternal Instinct” told Sydney that she only had a child with Jack Bristow because the KGB ordered her to do so.  In the series finale, Sydney and Irina engaged in brutal fisticuffs over the last Rambaldi artifact.  Irina chose the artifact over her own daughter, and died for that choice when a glass roof collapsed and she fell to her doom.   And yes, any mother who would choose a material thing over her own child is a pretty terrible one indeed.
The Best:

5. Amanda Grayson (Star Trek [1966 – 1969]).  Mr. Spock’s mother, Amanda (Jane Wyatt), was a school teacher on Earth, and faced the unenviable task of raising her half-human son on cold, logical Vulcan.  There, Spock was teased relentlessly for his human heritage, but Amanda, despite Vulcan edict, was able to show her son love, and in the process reveal what it means to be human.  

To be a good mother (or father), in part, is to sacrifice, and Amanda knowingly permitted her son to grow up as a Vulcan, even though he could never tell her he loved her, or otherwise outwardly return her emotional devotion.  Imagine raising a child and never hearing those words, “I love you.”  And then remember that it is for your son’s own good as he attempts to determine and cement his own identity in a world that does not accept him.  Amanda puts her son’s well-being first, and at considerable cost to herself.

4. Devon Adair (Earth 2 [1994 – 1995]  Devon Adair’s  (Deborah Farentino) son Ulysses (Joey Zimmerman) is dying of a fatal disease called “The Syndrome” as Earth 2 commences.  He is eight years old, and those who suffer from the rare disease don’t live, generally, past nine.  Accordingly, Devon leaves behind her life, Earth itself, and the comforts of civilization and technology to get her son to a planet, G889, some 22 light years away.  There, in a natural environment, Ulysses can thrive and beat the “Syndrome,” but it means living a pioneer life-style on an entirely alien and often inhospitable world.

Again, an important quality evidenced by a good mother is sacrifice.  Devon changes her entire life to assure that her son has a shot to live his.  Devon Adair is a strong leader, a brilliant woman, and a great mother to boot. 

3. Joyce Summers (Buffy the Vampire Slayer[1997 – 2003]).   Perhaps the hardest thing to do as a mother (or father) is to love your child unconditionally, even if they don’t turn out how you had hoped.  But a good parent can put aside personal hopes and expectations, and accept a child, unconditionally, for who he or she is.  

That is the battle that Joyce Summers (Kristine Sutherland) fights and eventually wins in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  She learns that her daughter is “The Chosen One,” a slayer, and doomed, essentially, to a short life, and one of constant mortal danger.  Joyce is good-intentioned but in denial about her daughter throughout the first two seasons of the program.  She doesn’t want to “see” what Buffy really is, at least until, in “Becoming,” when Buffy tells her to open her eyes.

After that — and to her everlasting credit — Joyce adapts and attempts to accept Buffy for who she is and what she does.  Joyce doesn’t always succeed, as is the case wherein she creates M.O.O. (Mothers Opposed to the Occult), but she nonetheless boasts a critical capacity of any parent: the ability to adapt as per “conditions on the ground,” so-to-speak.  In short order, Joyce becomes a force of stability in Buffy’s life, until her untimely passing.  She supports Buffy and attempts to give Buffy as normal a life as possible, and that’s night easy since the family lives on the Hellmouth.

2.Martha Kent (Smallville [2001 – 2011]). Martha (Annette O’Toole) is the kind, warm and loving mother of Clark Kent (Tom Welling), her adopted son from Krypton.  Early in Smallville Martha bites the bullet keeps the Kent family afloat financially — when the farm can no longer support it – by working extra jobs.  Later, after Jonathan’s death, Martha continues to protect her son by running for and being elected the junior senator from Kansas.  In the halls of the Senate, Martha helps to quash the fascist VRA (Vigilante Registration Act) and even adopts her own alias, as the mysterious “Red Queen,” to further protect her imperiled son from the powerful forces allied against him.

Martha is the perfect example of a mother who changes her approach as her child’s needs change.  She is a warm and loving care-giver when he is a child, but as he grows into an adult, she assumes different roles in his life to help see that he achieve his destiny as Superman. 
1.Sarah Connor (The Sarah Connor Chronicles[2008 – 2009]). Imagine that, as a mother, you have just a few years – not even two decades – to train and prepare your son for his destined role as the savior of the human race.  This job makes you not only the mother of a child, but the mother of the future human race in a way.

And then, on top of your role as mentor to your son, imagine you must protect his existence every day in the face of time-traveling, indestructible, relentless cyborgs.  Now you, yourself, must become a warrior, to see that your son achieves his fate.  As a single mom, there’s no father to share the burden.

If all that’s not enough, consider what it would be like to undertake these critical tasks while grappling with the possibility that you may be dying of cancer, and that you might not live long enough to impart to your child all the knowledge and wisdom he needs to become that savior.

Welcome to Sarah Connor’s (Lena Headey) world.  Sometimes Sarah is as harsh, and as relentless as the terminators she faces so frequently, but there is no better fighter to have at your side than this committed (and heavily-armed…) mom.

The (Cult-TV) War on Men: Seven Female-Dominated Societies that Have it in for Males



In the national discourse there’s been a lot of talk about the War on Women lately.  

For instance, not long ago, Congress held a committee meeting about birth control and no women were present. Then, a Republican candidate for President, Rick Santorum, made the claim that women are “too emotional” for combat assignments in the military.  Then Virginia considered passing a law that would – literally — force non-medically-necessary “trans-vaginal” penetration upon women seeking to have an abortion.  
Finally, when asked if he supported equal pay for women in the form of the Lily Ledbetter Act, Presidential nominee-to-be Mitt Romney whiffed because he needed more time to interface with the vast, remote computer bank storing all of his previously-held positions on the issue.  Accessing…Accessing…

While this war on women continues, no end in sight, into Election 2012, cult television history reminds us precisely where this kind of talk could be headed.  Unless we’re very, very careful, women will strike back and wage a War on Men.

And men will lose that war…badly.
In the sincere hope of preventing such an unfortunate eventuality and brokering a truce in this ongoing battle between the sexes, I thus offer up a tour of the “War on Men:” seven of the most memorable Matriarchies in cult-television history. 
You’ll note that many of these female-dominated cultures — oddly — play rather distinctly as kinky male fantasies rather than as legitimate, consistent visions of female rule. 
Or didn’t you realize that the first order of the day when women rule the planet is the imposition of a new dress code?
Cat-suits and whips for all!
1. “The Confederacy of Ruth” (Planet Earth [1974]). In this post-apocalyptic pilot/TV-movie from Star Trekcreator Gene Roddenberry, Dylan Hunt (John Saxon) attempts to rescue a PAX doctor from “The Confederacy of Ruth,” a female dominated society. 
The culture is ruled by the dictatorial Marg (Diana Muldaur), and all men are considered property, and called “Dinks.”  The men are also routinely drugged by their women to make them compliant and untroubled by their status as slaves.  Once Dylan kicks off the effects of the drug, he turns on his manly charm and teaches Marg a thing or two about…dinks.
Planet Earth asked the memorable question: “women’s lib? Or women’s lib gone mad?!”

2. “Medusa” (Star Maidens [1975]).  In this short-lived German/British series created by Eric Paice, the planet Medusa drifts in space, and its inhabitants dwell in an underground metropolis.  There, women rule, and men serve as domestic servants.  Two slaves, Shem (Gareth Thomas) and Adam (Pierre Brice) decide they are tired of being taken for granted (“who takes care of the kids?!”) and make a beeline for nearby Earth. 

Their female masters pursue, but are troubled by the fact that Earth is ruled by men (!).  Indeed, the Medusan mistresses claim such a set-up is in “violation of all common sense.”  Considering the Earth a “great disappointment,” the Medusan Matriarchy sets out to retrieve Shem and Adam.  If they fail, a new, illegal “men’s liberation movement” could take hold on Medusa, overturning the apple cart.

3. Entra” (Space: 1999: “Devil’s Planet” [1976]).  In this second season episode of Gerry Anderson’s Space: 1999, Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) is captured by Elizia (Hildegard Neil), the warden, governor and absolute ruler of the prison colony of Entra.  The prisoners incarcerated there are all men — political dissidents who spoke against female rule, apparently — and are now guarded by cat-suited Amazon women who viciously wield whips.  

The prisoners’ only opportunity to escape this hellish life is to survive sadistic Elizia’s vicious game, “The Hunt.”  If a prisoner does survive being hunted by Elizia and her women on the inhospitable moon’s forest surface — being both outnumbered and out-equipped — he can be transported back to the home world, his sentence is commuted.  
The only problem: a plague has decimated the home world, Ellna, killing all living beings.  So when Elizia beams the victorious political dissidents back home, she’s actually issuing the troublesome men a death sentence.  

4.”Turnabout” (The Fantastic Journey [1977]).  In this episode of the short-lived TV series set in the Bermuda Triangle, Queen Hayalana (Joan Collins) finally tires of her brutish husband and his stupid men, and with the help of a powerful computer called “The Complex,” zaps all the males of the province away to a null zone, or pocket universe.  

Promising “an end to male domination,” Hayalana then captures the series’ heroes, Varian (Jared Martin), Dr. Willaway (Roddy McDowall), Scott Jordan (Ike Eisenmann) and Dr. Fred Walters (Carl Franklin), and plans to keep them as “breeding stock.”  To convince these visiting men to remain docile and cooperative, this cold-hearted queen then poisons their food, and tells the men they will only receive the antidote only if they comply with her wishes. 
Hayalana’s plans come crashing down however, when none of the women in the province are capable of controlling “The Complex,” a computer built by…you guessed it, a man.

5. “Xantia” (Buck Rogers in the 25th Century [1979]: “Planet of the Amazon Women.”) Buck (Gil Gerard) is captured by gorgeous slave traders and auctioned off to the highest bidder in this first season episode of Buck Rogers in the 25thCentury.  You see, all the men of Xantia have either been killed in one of their incessant wars, or are being held prisoner by the planet’s enemy: the Ruathans.  Thus the women of Xantia need some *ahem* company, not to mention some men to do all the physical labor. 

Watch as Buck is stripped down to his chest, and the women “bidders” at his auction coo and gasp over his manly physique!

6. “Adore” (Otherworld[1985]: “I am Woman, Hear Me Roar.”)  In this episode of the 1985 cult series, Otherworld, a militantly female society rules the roost in the province of “Adore,” founded by a female Zone Trooper commandment, Livia.  

The men in “Adore” do not even know how to read, and the “gender stratification” laws discourage marriage.  A “gender patrol” walks the streets, maintaining order, and girls ogle slave men in the popular magazine, “Available Hunk.” 
And, of course, there’s the Gender Arcade, the marketplace where men are greased up, stripped down, and sold to the highest bidder. 
When the patriarch of the Sterling family, Hal (Sam Groom), objects to the status of males as second-class citizens, a woman in power reminds him to: “keep in mind that this is a conservative part of town and will resist compromise.”  When Hal’s wife, June (Gretchen Corbett) sticks up for him, the same women sneers: “Oh…I understand…you’re progressives.” 
7. “Angel One.” (Star Trek: The Next Generation [1987]:”Angel One.”) In this first season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Enterprise D visits the Matriarchy of “Angel One” in hopes of finding out if survivors of a freighter, the Odin, landed there.  They find out that a group of men did survive, and are making trouble for the female leadership. 
Mistress Baeta (Karen Montgomery) – or “the elected one” – pronounces the death sentence for the survivors of the Odin and any women unwise enough to attempt to alter the peace of Angel One’s female-dominated society.   Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) steps in to argue against the death penalty.  Ultimately, he is persuasive…perhaps because Mistress Baeta still remembers the space stud in his colorful, open-chest blouse and earrings…

Finally, besides Star Maidens, another series also featured female-dominated world as its setting: Norman Lear’s All that Glitters (1977), starring Linda Gray and Greg Evigan.  I’ve never seen it, but would love to get my hands on a few episodes.

The Eight Most Disgusting Cult-TV Parasites

A parasite is defined as the dominant partner in an unwelcome relationship of different organisms.  In other words, the parasite is a life form that benefits from an involuntary partnership, while the other creature in the relationship…does not.

Throughout cult-tv history, we’ve encountered many memorable and monstrous parasites, a fact which probably arises from the popularity of the 1951 alien invasion novel The Puppet Masters by Robert Heinlein.  By some definitions, Star Trek’s the Borg might themselves be considered parasites, since, with their assimilation nanites, they transform and co-opt organic beings into Borg.  But for this post, I’m going to concentrate on some memorable and gruesome biological parasites, rather than mechanical ones.

What’s the fear of parasites?  In short, it’s the idea that our bodies can be used and abused by an intelligence not our own; that our bodies could be viewed as a resource or even food by some other creature.  Many of the creatures on this list assume control of our physical selves, and replace our intelligence with theirs.  Others see us, alarmingly, as just meat.

So here are eight truly horrific, incredibly disgusting cult-tv parasites.  These are the monkeys you most definitely don’t want on your back…or anywhere else inside you for that matter.

8. Prehistoric tape worm.  This revolting creature appeared in the fourth episode of Primeval, which aired in March of 2007 in the UK.  


Here, a flock of adorable dodos  waddle through one of the series’ colorful time anomalies into modern England, but a few of these extinct, flightless birds are carrying a parasite that can temporarily seize control of the host and act aggressively to assure reproduction.  One of Connor’s (Andrew-Lee Potts) friends, Tom (Jake Curran), is infected with the organism after a dodo bite on his arm.  He soon suffers debilitating headaches, massive pain and increased paranoia as the worm inside him…grows.  At one point in the episode, we see a high-resolution scan of Tom’s skull, and this large, lively worm wriggling about inside it.  

7. The Hellgramite.  This parasite appeared in the third season of the first Twilight Zone remake (1985 – 1989) called “The Hellgramite Method.”  In this tale by William Selby, an alcoholic named Miley Judson (Timothy Bottoms) realizes he risks losing his family if he doesn’t get off the booze permanently. Accordingly, he answers an ad for a cure for alcoholism and meets with Dr. Murrich (Leslie Yeo).  The doctor, — who lost his own family to a drunk driver — gives Judson a red pill to swallow.  Inside that pill, the drinker later learns, is a parasite called a Hellgramite: an unusual brand of tape worm that survives and thrives on alcohol. The more Judson drinks, the more the worm feeds and the bigger it grows.  Now, Judson doesn’t even get the buzz of feeling drunk, no matter how much liquor he consumes!  Eventually, if he keeps drinking, the Hellgramite will kill Miley, so the traumatized alcoholic must either starve the tapeworm and stop drinking for good, or let the thing kill him…


In this case, the cult-tv parasite, while quite horrible, is actually put to good use: curing alcoholism.  At episode’s end, the Hellgramite Method works, and Miley Judson is a new man.  As the voice-over reminds us, what this drinker needed “was something a little extra,” something that could only be found…in The Twilight Zone.

6. The Selminth.  This parasitic creature appeared in the fifth and last season of Angel (1999 – 2005), in an episode entitled “Soul Purpose,” written by Brent Fletcher and directed by David Boreanaz.  


In this entry, Angel becomes trapped in a vegetative state while under the influence of a slimy worm-like creature called a Selminth Parasite.  This creature causes hallucinations in its host, and in the episode, Angel dreams that Spike has replaced him as the champion of the Shansu Prophecy.  Here, the worm is used as a weapon by a sinister agent (Eve), and alters the very mind-state of the host.  Angel must wake up and remove the parasite from his chest, or live in a a nightmare for the remainder of his days…

5. “Conspiracy.”  In “Conspiracy,” a late first season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) is warned by a friend, Captain Walker (Jonathan Farwell) that some kind of sinister agenda is afoot in Starfleet Command.  


After Walker’s ship, The Horatio explodes in an apparent accident, Picard fears there might be some truth behind his friend’s paranoia.  He orders the Enterprise back to Earth, and there discovers that the Admiralty itself has been infiltrated by parasitic aliens bent on conquering the Federation from within.  These small, crab-like aliens enter human beings through the mouth, and then completely control all higher mental functions.  The small parasites also report to a much-larger, dinosaur-like “mother” being that has found a home inside Commander Remmick (Robert Schenkkan).  The parasites die without this mother being in close proximity.


These creepy alien parasites (revealed in Star Trek novels to be related to the Trill…) can be detected by a sort of breathing gill that extends from the back of the host’s neck.  In the episode, Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden) rigs one for Riker (Jonathan Frakes) so that he will appear compromised, but can actually rescue Captain Picard from danger.

I must admit, I absolutely love this episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  It has a more sinister, diabolical vibe than most episodes.  In fact, it’s downright scary at times, especially the unresolved ending, which suggests the parasites could return one day, and have sent a message to their brethren out in space.   I also love the visual of Picard and Riker frying the alien mother organism with their phasers.  So much for respect and tolerance for all alien life forms!   I’ve always found it ironic that Gene Roddenberry so vociferously complained about Admiral Kirk’s treatment of another parasite, the Ceti Eel in The Wrath of Khan (1982) — how dare he shoot it! it’s a life-form — but then Picard and Riker reacted exactly the same way in this TNG episode, with revulsion and phasers firing.

4. The Ganglions.  These skittering, slimy, multi-tentacled parasites appeared in the short-lived alien invasion series Dark Skies (1996 – 1997).  The ganglions were first seen in the pilot episode, “The Awakening,” written by Brent Friedman and Bryce Zabel and directed by horror legend Tobe Hooper. 


The Ganglions enter the human head through either the nose, ear or mouth, and the assimilation process is slow and incredibly painful.  First, possession by the parasite causes a nervous breakdown, but eventually the host mind is erased completely, and the Ganglion is in total control of his human steed.  We learn in the course of the series that the Ganglions took over the Greys’ planet, much in the same way that they intend to take over the human race.

In “Awakening,” cult-television gets one of its most gruesome and effectively shot scenes as the scientists of Majestic attempt to remove a ganglion from its human host, a farmer.  The results aren’t pretty.   The ganglion escapes, attempts to attach to another unlucky soul, and then is deposited in a jar by John Loengard, using very long tongs.  This scene remains harrowing, even today, and is splendidly shot by Hooper.

3. “Roadrunners.”  An eighth season X-Files episode, Roadrunners,” by Vince Gilligan, introduces a parasitic creature that may or may not be of this Earth.


Here, Agent Scully (Gillian Anderson), sans partner, visits Utah to investigate a strange death.  She soon runs afoul, instead, of a weird cult that believes a worm parasite represents the second coming of Jesus Christ on Earth. 


These committed cult members attempt to get the worm inside Scully – who is pregnant at this point – by allowing it to burrow underneath her flesh, inside her back.  This episode successfully gets under your skin too, by forging an atmosphere of extreme isolation and vulnerability.  In The X-Files, we are used to Mulder always having Scully’s back during a crisis.  But here, Mulder is gone, abducted by aliens, and we don’t quite trust Agent Doggett (Robert Patrick) yet.  Here, Scully is the most alone we’ve ever seen her, in real physical danger, contending with villains who can’t be reasoned with.  And she faces, clearly, a fate worse than death with that wriggling, monstrous worm in her back. In a truly upsetting scene, Scully is tied to a bed on her stomach, as the creature makes its subcutaneous approach.

A group of vocal folks like to complain about the last two, largely Mulder-less years of The X-Files, but episodes such as “Roadrunners” certainly  prove the series was effective as ever in generating authentic, deep-down scares.  I also appreciate the conceit that this particular parasite is never explained.  We don’t know what it is, where it came from, or why it is here.  Creepy.

2. The Invisibles. In a classic first season Outer Limits episode written by Joseph Stefano and directed by Conrad Hall, an undercover GIA agent, Spain (Don Gordon) attempts to infiltrate a secret and subversive society called the Invisibles.  


Once inside the secret community, Spain learns that the strange group is led by hideous alien invaders: horrible crab-like creatures that attach themselves to the human spine and totally control minds.  If the joining process goes wrong, humans are rendered deformed and nearly lobotomized.


Gordon attempts to warn government officials about the alien invasion in the offing, but the Invisibles are already onto him, and just waiting to absorb him into their ranks.  In an absolutely tense and suspenseful scene near the episode’s climax, a wounded, prone, Spain is unable to escape as a skittering, multi-legged Invisible dashes towards him, attempting to join with him.   He pulls himself along, screaming for help, as the thing, in the background, looms ever nearer.  The feeling of vulnerability, entrapment and terror generated in that image, and throughout “The Invisibles,” remains incredibly potent almost fifty years later.  Being joined with these huge, inhuman things is indeed a fate worse than death… 
1. Earwig.  We never actually see the parasite in the classic episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery entitled “The Caterpillar,” but we certainly learn all about it.

Here, a nasty civil servant, Stephen Macy (Laurence Harvey) covets a co-worker’s wife (Joanna Pettet) and attempts to off her husband with a parasite called an earwig.  The murder scheme goes horribly wrong, however, when Stephen himself is exposed to the wee bug.

The earwig, you see, possesses a “decided liking” for the human ear. Once inside the ear canal, the odds of an earwig evacuating it are a thousand-to-one. They can’t turn around, and so instead keep plowing endlessly forward...burrowing into the brain and feeding on grey matter as they seek an escape route. The pain caused by these “stealthy chaps” is agonizing and horrible, and death is nearly always the result. Here, Macy undergoes agonizing pain as the earwig digs in. In fact, his hands must be bound to his bed-posts so he doesn’t claw his face apart in an attempt to get rid of the bug chewing a path through his brain.

By some miracle, Macy survives the ordeal, which he describes as an “agonizing, driving, itching pain,” and the earwig exits his ear.  Unfortunately, those two weeks are only the beginning of Hell for Mr. Macy.  He learns that the earwig was female and laid eggs inside his brain.  The larvae will hatch soon, and find a ready source of food: his brain,  Despite its lack of overt horrific visuals, “The Caterpillar” proves utterly disgusting and macabre in its suggestion of a fate worse than death: a perpetual itch you just can’t scratch.  

The Six Cult-TV Diseases You Don’t Want to Contract…

Disease has often been termed the greatest enemy mankind has ever faced.  If you go by cult-television history, that idea certainly seems true.  A wide swath of genre programs have memorably showcased the (often-gory) impact of disease on the fragile human life form.
Of course, some of these fictional diseases are much more hideous and horrible than others.  Below is a tally of six truly dreadful, nightmare-inducing cult-TV diseases you really, REALLY don’t want to contract.

6. “Venusian Plague.”  (From the Space: 1999 episode “The Lambda Factor.”)  In this Year Two episode of the 1970s Gerry Anderson outer space series, Commander John Koenig (Martin Landau) relates a horrifying story from his days as an astronaut cadet.  On a routine re-supply mission to a Venus space station, two of Koenig’s friends and ship-mates, Sam and Tessa, became infected with the plague there.  Rather than risk bringing the incurable disease back to Earth, Koenig had to leave his friends behind to die.  In the episode, Koenig relates this harrowing story to Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain), and we also see the “ghosts” of his guilt, namely Sam and Tessa…but as plague-infected ghouls.  Their faces are scarred and marred by blisters, and well, it isn’t a pleasant sight.  I recounted the full, gory details of the Venusian plague in one of my contributions to the officially-licensed Space: 1999 short story anthology, Shepherd Moon (2010).  But the scary notion underlining this disease is its origin.  The Venusian Plague originates on another world, but affects us.  Was it engineered?  Created to keep us away? I’ve always wondered…
5. “Gamma Hydra IV Disease.”  (From the Star Trek episode “The Deadly Years.”).  In this tale, Kirk, Spock, Scotty, Bones and Lt. Galway are infected with a strange form of radiation while on a planet called Gamma Hydra IV.  Because of their exposure, the landing party begins to age rapidly.  Kirk loses command of the Enterprise, and Spock loses something worse: Kirk’s friendship.  It’s terrible to witness these vibrant, intelligent, young heroes succumb to the frailties of the flesh, and “The Deadly Years” is an affecting installment because of this. Here, the infected crew members develop arthritis, senility and other maladies associated with extreme old age, and as audience members we get to reflect that there’s nothing worse than growing old before your time.  In 1988, Star Trek: The Next Generation re-visited the idea of an “aging” disease in the episode “Unnatural Selection.”
4. “The Angel of Death” (From The Burning Zone pilot)  In the premiere episode of this short-lived 1996-1997 UPN series, archaeologists in Costa Rica excavate a cave that has been sealed for 15,000 years and inadvertently let loose a sentient disease.   The infected can be detected from hemorrhagic-appearing (bloody) eyes.  This disease is also sentient, part of an intelligent “hive” (shades of Doctor Who: “The Invisible Enemy.”) It can even control and direct subordinate “warrior viruses” to further infect and distract humanity.  The fear at work here is one regarding our enemy’s “intent,” and perhaps even one involving…scale.  Can something as microscopic as a virus think, plan, and conquer the human race?  Being struck with a disease is terrible enough, but to imagine that there is insidious purpose or malevolence behind that disease ups the ante considerably.  I have often described The Burning Zone as “disease of the week,” and other shows involved an outbreak of spontaneous combustion (!) and an epidemic of malaria.
3. “F. Emasculata.” (from The X-Files episode of the same name.)  This second season segment of the Chris Carter  series also begins with the discovery of something terrible in the rain forest of Costa Rica, namely an insect parasite that burrows inside living human hosts and creates grotesque, white, pulsating pustules on the skin.  These boils throb and grow, and ultimately explode, spreading the disease all around in a sickly, moist burst.  It’s absolutely the most nauseating thing you’ve ever seen. My wife still refuses to watch this episode of The X-Files, in part because of a final, tense stand-off set on a bus.  A badly infected man — with pustules growing and threatening to burst on his cheek — uses a young, innocent child as a hostage.  Mulder (David Duchovny) must free the boy, and do it before that damned zit bursts.  
2. “The Marburg Virus” (From Millennium’s two-part “The Fourth Horseman/The Time is Now.”)  I covered this episode in some detail last week in my post about savage TV programs, but the disease featured in this episode of Millennium remains absolutely horrifying. One scene — set at a middle-class family’s Mother’s Day dinner — depicts an American family bleeding out before our eyes.  The disease (originating from contaminated chicken, of all things…) quickly sets in, and dark brown pustules begin to form on the infected family members.  The Mom dies first as her white blouse becomes awash in crimson.  Then, all at once, these poor folks sweat out their whole blood supply in a matter of seconds.  This is also the disease that costs Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) dearly in terms of his family…
1. “The Phage” (From Star Trek: Voyager’s “The Phage.”)  The Vidiians remain one of the most creepy and disturbing alien races ever featured on Star Trek.  Residents of the Delta Quadrant, the Vidiians suffer from a necrotizing — flesh eating — virus.  Infected souls must undergo skin transplants and skin grafts regularly to combat the effects of the deadly disease, but even after such “healing” operations still appear absolutely hideous, like rotting corpses.  Perhaps the creepiest thing about the Phage is that the disease has also, essentially, devoured the Vidiian Sodality’s culture.  These advanced, once-peaceful aliens have forsaken art, commerce and other noble pursuits in order to save themselves from extinction.  The Vidiians are thus terrifying because they embody two fears about our mortality.  First, that we could succumb to a deadly, disfiguring disease ourselves.  And second, that it could sweep away all of our loved ones, and even destroy our very civilization.  Imagine not only being disfigured and ill yourself, but watching your children and spouse suffering and dying from the Phage every single day.  It would be Hell on Earth…

The Five Most Savage Episodes in Cult-TV History

As I wrote in my book, Horror Films of the 1970s (2002), I’m a committed proponent of the early-to-mid 1970s “Savage Cinema,” a span which gave the world such films as Straw Dogs (1971), Deliverance (1972), The Last House on the Left (1972), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and later The Hills Have Eyes (1977).  I connect with these movies so deeply and thoroughly, I suspect, because the filmmakers took the so-called “New Freedom” of the epoch (in terms of screen standards) and then systematically disconnected the horror genre from its exotic roots.  The films I name-checked above don’t take place in Transylvanian castles, upon the misty moors, or in the pyramids of Egypt.  They don’t take occur on the Amazon River, in the Arctic, or in other foreign locales.  Instead, the savage horror films of the 1970s dramatically re-positioned horror as something that could happen in the here and now, in our time, in our place.  It was terror…brought home.

The Savage Cinema of the 1970s also showcased for audiences absolutely horrible human behavior.  Gone were the familiar but supernatural monsters like Dracula, the Werewolf, the Mummy or Frankenstein’s creation.  Instead, “mad” men — all mortals — were presented as brutal, violent, uncontrollable dangers in the efforts of Craven, Hooper, Peckinpah and Boorman, among others.  It was an entirely new paradigm, and one that changed the trajectory of horror cinema. The Savage Cinema eschewed romance, tragedy and other artificial or theatrical qualities too.  It shattered existing Hollywood conventions and decorum.  In short, the Savage Cinema showcased the full ugliness of man at point-blank range, with not only cut-throat bluntness, but with a total understanding of how film grammar could be manipulated to impact audiences on an almost subconscious level.

As unlikely as it seems given that TV is widely “homogenized” to appeal to all people all the time, some genre TV programs have really gone all out — guns blazing — to create the barbarous, fierce atmosphere we might commonly associate with The Savage Cinema.   The following five episode titles represent my list for the most “savage episodes” in cult-TV history, although I readily admit that these selections are personal ones, and that people of good conscience can disagree, or provide alternate titles of comparable value.  

But the first time I watched each of the following programs, I was rocked back on my heels at the violence portrayed, and more than that, by the brutal vision of humanity showcased by the various programs.  These are the five titles guaranteed to trouble your peaceful slumber.
The programs are listed in ascending order, from #5 to #1.
5. The Evil Touch: “The Trial.”

Airing on local stations in 1973 and 1974, The Evil Touch was an Australian-made anthology of limited means, namely an extremely low-budget.  Accordingly, each week the series, hosted by Anthony Quayle, felt like a jewel-in-the-rough and a “discovered” horror movie.  Many episodes generate fear an a nearly primal level, but none more so than “The Trial,” first aired in New York City on February 3, 1974.  Written by Michael Fisher and directed by Mende Brown, the episode involved a nasty millionaire, Lon Zachary (Ray Walston) who had for twenty years scorned the friends — carnies — who took him in and had raised him from childhood.

Now, Lon intends to destroy the carnival fairgrounds (to make room for condominiums), but his carnie peers put him on trial for his misdeeds, and concoct a punishment that will bring Lon — formerly Elmo the Geek — back into the fold.  The group’s tattoo artist, you see, was once a brain surgeon…
I don’t want to reveal more than necessary here, especially because the series is not yet available on DVD, but the episode’s final moments generate a throat-tightening sense of panic as Ray Walston’s character realizes that there is no escape, and that he is bound for a grisly, life-altering fate.  A hard-hitting, just desserts story, “The Trial” is one savage humdinger of a half-hour.
4. Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: “The Other Way Out.”

This remarkably effective third season entry from Rod Serling’s second TV anthology is similar, in some fashion to “The Trial.”  Written and directed by Gene Kearney, this tale originally aired on November 19, 1972.  “The Other Way Out involves Bradley Meredith (Ross Martin), a man who believes he can get away scot-free with the murder of a go-go girl.   However, a blackmailer soon contacts Meredith and gives him instructions for a drop off of 10,000 dollars at an isolated location.  In a twist worthy of The Virgin Spring (the basis for Last House on the Left), Meredith ends up at the rural home of his blackmailer, a creepy, cold-blooded Burl Ives.

The Ives character goes on and on recounting to Meredith about how he’ll receive his comeuppance for murder from his grandson, “Sonny.”  These stories provoke such fear in Meredith that he attempts to escape the house and is attacked by murderous dogs.  He returns to the house, and learns from Ives that there is one “other way” out of the house.  Meredith believes he finds it too: a passageway behind a fireplace in the living room, and then a hatchway down deep into the Earth…
Frenetic and frantic, “The Other Way Out” culminates with a surprise revelation about “Sonny,” and then another twist about Meredith’s “other way out.”   Again, I don’t want to reveal the episode’s startling finale, but it’s bleak as hell, and a statement about man’s cruelty to his fellow man.  It all comes down to how you define a way “out,” I suppose. 
The element most recognizable from the Savage Cinema in “The Other Way Out” is the culture clash.  Here a slick businessman — a creature of the city — encounters a country, redneck family.  Meredith believes he can buy his way out of trouble, perhaps because money has always solved his problems in the past.  But the Burl Ives character is having none of it, and decides to hold Meredith accountable to HIS version of God’s law.
3. Torchwood: “Countrycide”

I reviewed this startling, grotesque 2006 episode of the British sci-fi series last week.   But in “Countrycide” by Chris Chibnall and directed by Andy Goddard,  a top-secret British agency investigating aliens learns that all existentialist threats don’t come from the heavens above.  In fact, man himself is, perhaps, the ultimate “monster.”  This idea would become a common theme as the series wore on, especially in season three’s “Children of Earth.”  In “Countrycide,” however Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) and the other team members run afoul of vicious cannibals in the English countryside.  One team member realizes — after gazing into a refrigerator filled with body parts — that they are to be “food.”

Harrowing, bloody and gory as hell, “Countrycide” works as Savage Cinema in part because of its philosophically provocative ending, which finds Gwen interrogating the leader of the cannibals.  She demands answers.  Why has he done this?  Why has he treated people like this, as…food?  She needs answers, so she can preserve her view of the world and carry on as moral crusader.  But the cannibal’s answer to her interrogative was and remains chilling.  To hurt other human beings — to treat them as nothing but ingredients — makes the killer “happy.”  It’s a chilling response, and one that sends Gwen into a moral tailspin. 
This ties in to the reckoning seen quite often in Craven films: that man can be roused to bloody violence (Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes) but that after the veneer of civilization is  ripped off, it’s difficult to put the pieces back together.
2. Millennium: “The Fourth Horseman”

The episodes featured on this list thus far have involved vengeance/punishment (“The Trial” and “The Other Way Out”) and the sometimes inexplicable depths of human hatred and inhumanity (“Countrycide”).  Millennium’s (1996 – 1999) “The Fourth Horseman” is a somewhat different animal.   Written by Glen Morgan and James Wong and directed by Dwight Little, this second season episode of Millennium saw Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) contending with a new, man-made disease that was to be intentionally unleashed upon America.

That doesn’t sound like Savage Cinema in terms of premise, but certainly the presentation fits the bill.  In one of the most horrifying scenes I’ve ever witnessed on American broadcast television, an average, WASP-y American family is utterly and grotesquely destroyed before our eyes.  The occasion is middle-class family’s Sunday dinner (Mother’s Day, if memory serves.)  The family members don’t realize it, but they are actually eating chicken contaminated with the fatal disease.
After first showcasing trademark images of “Americana” (a backyard grill and the ubiquitous football game on the TV), the scene turns sour rather dramatically.  The mother grows ill first, and blood starts to pour from her neck.  Then, blood-filled lesions begin to form on the other family members, and they cough and bleed out — they literally sweat out blood — in a matter of seconds.  In one especially horrific shot, a family member reaches for the telephone to dial 911, but as a finger hits the dial blood explodes from the digit and splatters the device.
What should be sacrosanct — the safe, secure, American middle-class hearth — is instead corrupted and destroyed in “The Fourth Horseman.”  If that isn’t indicative of a savage, tradition-shattering modus operandi, I don’t know what is.  And once more, horror is brought home to us in a palpable, graphic way, and nobody is spared.  Not even the kids.
and finally…
1. The X-Files: “Home.”

This notorious X-Files episode, also written by Glen Morgan and James Wong, was directed by Kim Manners and aired only once in prime time  — on October 11, 1996 — before Fox banned it.   Here, Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Mulder (David Duchovny investigate the quiet town of Home, PA, where a dead baby has been unearthed in a baseball field near the Peacock home.

The Peacocks are no ordinary American family, however.  The three adults brothers are horribly deformed, and their crazy old mother — a quadruple amputee — lives under her bed on a little, make-shift scooter.  The boys pull her out occasionally, chew her food for her, and even — yikes — impregnate her to add numbers to the disfigured brood.
After the Peacocks murder Home’s Sheriff Andy Taylor and his wife with baseball bats, Mulder and Scully lay siege to the homestead, only to be faced with a vile interior lined with deadly booby traps…
Okay, I love “Home.”  I absolutely love it.  Along with “Bad Blood”  and “The Host,” I consider it one of the best episodes of the long-lived Chris Carter series.  In  terms of setting, the Peacock’s wrecked farmhouse recalls Leatherface’s house in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the savage family’s finely-honed survival instincts plays like something from The Hills Have Eyes (1977).  What makes the episode so remarkable, and the quality that lands the episode into the heralded savage cinematic territory of social critique (like Last House on the Left), however,  is the manner in which the story sets up the main conflict, a dueling views of “civilization.”  The police and “normal” people of Home live by one code, and the Peacocks — as we learn in bloody fashion — live by another code.    Yet the Peacocks clearly cherish family, right?  And they “stand their ground” when attacked by the government on their own land.  How different from us are they, really?  
One of the most terrifying sequences I’ve ever seen on television arrives in this episode of The X-Files.  The Taylors realize they have left their front door unlocked, and the Peacocks pull up to their house...for bloody vengeance.  Sheriff Taylor’s wife cowers under the bed as her husband is bludgeoned to death nearby, and then — boom — she is up for the same treatment next.  It’s a blood bath that plays on the universal fear of home invasion.
I’d wager that anybody who saw “Home” in 1996 — in prime time, no less — never forgot this particular episode, a grotesque exercise in sheer horror, and in my estimation the most savage episode in cult-TV history.