Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Films of 2017: 47 Meters Down

[Don’t Swim Here if You Don’t Want to Encounter Spoilers Below]

Last summer’s surprise horror hit was 47 Meters Down (2017), a shark film from director Johanne Roberts, apparently in the tradition of The Shallows (2016), and, of course, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975). The trailers and commercials suggested cheesy CGI sharks, and a minimum of nuance in the filmmakers’ approach.

Even the movie’s first scene, with red wine spilled in a tropical swimming pool -- symbolizing the red blood soon to be spilled in the ocean -- intimates a juvenile or superficial approach to the familiar sharp-toothed material.

But as the movie progresses, and the film’s central scenario looms --- two young women trapped in a diving cage at the sea floor, 47 meters down -- a commendably high-degree of tension and suspense suffuses the film.

And surprisingly, the sharks not only (mostly) appear real, but actually represent only one of many threats vexing the trapped duo. Rhe film also contends with shortages of air, trapped divers, abyssal trenches, and other jeopardy.

And, delightfully, the film’s cheesiest moment -- desperate fingers scratching out a great white shark’s eyeball -- is earned by a well-prepared-for third act twist. 

47 Meters Down wants to be both suspenseful (which it is), and gory (which it also is), and so the movie’s most outrageous woman-vs.-great white action is contextualized (without giving away the specifics) in a way that maintains the drama’s reality and sense of danger. Specifically, this twist concerns nitrogen narcosis.

In terms of subtext or social context, 47 Meters Down tangentially concerns the fact that 21st century America -- the home culture of our beleaguered protagonists -- has become, in the words of author John Locke, an “autistic” society; wherein people are at ease with technology, but not with emotions, or each other. 

The film concerns sisters, Lisa and Kate, who never really talk, but who are finally forced to talk…at the bottom of the ocean.

With suspense and shocks, and that nice grace note about how modern people relate in our technopol-istic culture, 47 Meters Down earns its gory stripes, and is worth a watch.

“The faster you breathe, the faster you use up your air.”

American sisters Lisa (Mandy Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt) vacation in Mexico, but Lisa has been keeping a secret. She recently broke up with her long-time boyfriend, Stuart, and is still reeling from the end of the relationship.

Kate and Lisa decide to drown her sorrows by clubbing and drinking, and meet up with two young men who not only have a romantic interest in the young women, but suggest an intriguing activity for the next day: a trip cage diving to see sharks.

Lisa is not at all interested in seeing sharks from a cage, but Kate reminds her that they can take remarkable photos that will make Stuart jealous, and thus cause him to re-assess his decision to leave her; since Lisa is not “boring” as he claimed.

Lisa acquiesces.  The next day, the two couples board Captain Taylor’s (Matthew Modine) rust-bucket of a boat, and prepare for the dive. The men go down first, without incident. 

However, when Lisa and Kate enter the cage, the winch breaks, and the cage and its occupants plunge 150 or so feet -- 47 meters -- down to the ocean floor.

There, Lisa and ate see their air supplies rapidly dwindle, and are unable to communicate with the surface. 

Meanwhile, great white sharks begin to circle the cage…

“I’m super uneasy about this.”

We live in an oddly narcissistic society, at present, and in some small way 47 Meters Down reflects that fact with the specifics of its narrative. A diffident young woman, Lisa, agrees to participate in an event she has no interest in (cage diving) solely because she will then have (social media) pics to make her ex-boyfriend jealous. 

Lisa overlooks her own feelings of “super-uneasiness" about the activity, and goes anyway.  The error of her ways are quickly pointed out, however.

Even before the action starts, the camera recording all these great social media pictures, is dropped from the cage, and lost in the sea.  

It falls into the open mouth of a great-white shark.

So much for the selfies.

I wrote a persuasive speech recently, about, of all things, how people adopt black cats at a low rate compared to other cats. You might think this is because of superstitions about black cats. That’s a piece of it, sure, but researchers have come up with another conclusion. They have determined that black cats don’t photograph as well as other cats, so those who use social media tend not to adopt black cats, or they bring them back to shelters, disappointed.  

I bring this up because 47 Meters Down offers oblique commentary on this notion of a narcissistic/selfie culture, both in Lisa’s ridiculous motive for participating in what is clearly a sketchy activity (given the rusted state of Taylor’s boat), and the final disposition of the camera.

But also, importantly, Lisa and Kate have -- previous to this trip -- grown apart. Lisa thinks Kate is the perfect person: attractive, confident, and successful. She feels like she can’t compete with her. All she had, she believes, is her stable relationship with Stuart. Now that too is gone.  When one gazes at research involving social media, reports suggest that frequent use tends to make people more competitive with their friends and family, and also, generally, less happy.

In "real" life, Lisa has never confronted Kate about these emotions. These feelings did not come up . They did not come up over drinks, at a bar, or pool-side, but rather 47 meters down, while the sisters are trapped. The same “autistic” society is to blame. Up above sea level, there are too many distractions, and the sisters are not able to communicate except in cheesy post-card ways (a hug on the beach at sunset!)  Under the surface, all the technology is gone, and the sisters actually begin listening to one another, and also fighting for one another.

This idea isn’t heavy-handed, but horror movies universally reflect the way that we live "now." They tell us something about ourselves, and the things that we are scared of, as a people.  Maybe we are scared, at this point, of connecting only to the “black mirror” of technology, and not our loved ones.  I note this commentary because I think it adds to the value of the film, and makes 47 Meters Down more than the “shark attack of the week” movie.

Impressively, the director of the film creates suspense here mostly from the air supply issue, not the sharks.  There are a couple of (good) jump scares involving the great whites, but from the first point that Taylor instructs Lisa in how to breathe to the very last scene of the movie, 47 Meters Down is really about trying to catch your breath.

The women must acquire back-up tanks, and replace them, all underwater, while sharks swoop into view, lunging out from the opaque depths.  Between Taylor’s instructions, and the constant checking of the air supplies (which get down to a reading of “01” at one point), the movie wrings the maximum amount of tension from the limited availability of resources.

And just when the film threatens to go superficial -- wandering into Hollywood happy ending crap -- the makers of 47 Meters Down pull the carpet out from under viewers, and give their film a climax with all that more punch.

Without spoiling it, you’ll be tempted to groan as one of the women is found miraculously alive (after a close encounter with a shark), and together with her sister, swims to the surface, decompresses in the water for five minutes, and successfully combats a shark.

If played for real, this scene would pretty much ruin any sense of verisimilitude the movie constructs.  

Fortunately, the movie provides an explanation for this pie-in-the-sky “happy ending,” and proceeds to a coda that is dark and disturbing.

The sharks are kept hidden, or off-screen, for a good portion of the film’s running time, and yet the director makes the most of small moments in 47 Meters Down. There’s an absolutely unnerving sequence early on in which Kate must remove her mask so she can squeeze between the bars of the cage.  Then, once out -- while she is exposed -- she must put it back on. By this point, we are all too 
conscious of what’s waiting for her outer there, in the dark water.

Another scene of surprising power finds Lisa swimming towards a dropped flash-light when the ocean floor literally falls out from under her.  She must swim out over an abyss, and again, the hungry sharks could be anywhere.  The moment will give you a queasy stomach if you openly engage with the material and the characters.

47 Meters Down starts out superficial and dopey, but like its characters, gets “deeper” and “deeper.” 

One might even choose to view the Nitrogen Narcosis sequence as another example of technology separating people from reality; from the connections around them.  Lisa's cries, at the end of the movie “we made it!” are haunting for two reasons.

One, they are fake news.

And two: she completely believes them.

Movie Trailer: 47 Meters Down (2017)

Monday, September 25, 2017

The Muir Cave

So, on top of everything else that has been taking my attention since summer 2017, my entire family has been working on a rec-room for the past several months. 

In short, we have converted our garage into a gaming and play "cave" for the entire family.

Today, I wanted to share a look at the room with you.  

Joel, Kathryn and I decided on the decor together  -- we went with movies (and primarily Godzilla movies) -- and my incredible and handy parents put down a new floor, and built a gorgeous bar, where we can eat our meals and watch TV.

Behind the wall-sized curtain is a garage-door length green screen, for occasions when Joel and his friends want to shoot gaming videos.

My main contribution to the room, honestly, was figuring out how to get everything hooked up to the wall-mounted TV for easy viewing and gaming.  

Our gaming "system" is currently outfitted to play XBox 360, WiiU, Playstation 4, Retropie, Playstation 2, GameCube, and Blu Rays without unplugging anything.

We still have a few posters on the way (Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and another Godzilla one), but let me just say that since we finished this room a week or so ago, our whole viewing experience has been revolutionized.

Welcome to the Muir Cave!  And as you can see our cats have already started moving in...

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Dungeons

A dungeon is a subterranean jail cell, and is sometimes referred to as a keep or stronghold. Often times, one will find this underground prison in a medieval castle.

In science fiction or cult-TV history, however, dungeons might be found all over the universe, and across all different time periods as well.

One of the most unforgettable TV dungeons appears in a Twilight Zone (1959-1964) episode titled "The Howling Man."  

In this haunting tale, a traveler in Europe happens upon an old monastery, and stays the night there when he falls ill. During the dark, lonely hours of night, the visitor hears a strange howling emanating from the dungeon. There, a stranger is locked up...begging to be released.  The stranger, however, is a sinister sort, and his continued presence in this dungeon is a necessity if the human race is to prosper and know peace.

Although set in the 23rd century, Star Trek (1966-1969) features many dungeons out there, on the final frontier. In the first season story, "The Return of the Archons," for instance, hooded Lawgivers (the servants of a "God" known as Landru) throw Kirk's landing party in a dungeon to wait until they become assimilated into "The Body."

In a second season story, "Catspaw," Kirk, Spock and McCoy end up chained in a dungeon, in a witch's castle, on a distant world. It is guarded, of course, by a giant black cat (in keeping with the Halloween-styled imagery).

The Space:1999 (1975-1977) story "Journey to Where" ends in a dungeon. A time travel mistake sends Commander Koenig, Dr. Russell and Captain Alan Carter back to Earth, but during the battle of Bannockburn in the 1310's. The Alphans are captured, held in a dungeon, and nearly burned alive before Maya discerns a method of returning them to the errant moon.

A dungeon of sorts is featured in The X-Files (1993-2002) episode "Alone," which sees Doggett (Robert Patrick) in pursuit of a murderous lizard-man. He discovers that the lizard man's victims end up in a subterranean tunnel -- or dungeon -- to be eaten alive.

Of course, Game of Thrones (2011 - ) features dungeons on a semi-regular basis, whether to house dragons, or the bones of Stark kin, and ancestors.

The Cult-TV Faces of: Dungeons











Saturday, September 23, 2017

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Run Joe Run (1974): "Six Seals, Two Whales, and a Dog"

This week, I’m looking at the second of two Run Joe Run (1974-1976) episodes available on YouTube. 

To briefly recap what I wrote last week, the Saturday morning variation on The Fugitive (1963-1967) -- featuring a dog as the protagonist -- has never had a proper DVD, VHS, or streaming release. I fear such a release is unlikely, as the series is over forty years old at this point.

The episode featured this week is “Six Seals, Two Whales, and a Dog.” It is the eighth half-hour long episode of the NBC series.  In it, our runaway, hunted dog, Joe, ends up an amusement park and befriends a boy named Todd. Todd’s father works at the amusement park, training dolphins for a Sea World-type aquatic show.

Todd renames Joe “Runner,” and wants to keep him. Unfortunately, a security guard encounters Joe, and fears that the dog may be dangerous. He asks a local shelter about Joe, and learns that the dog is wanted by the authorities, with a price on his head.  

Sgt. Corey (Arch Whiting) arrives, just as Joe is performing in the dolphin show (jumping through fire hoops).  Joe flees the show, and continues on his journey, while Todd plans to get a new dog to feature in the dolphin show.

Like last week’s episode, “Homecoming,” this episode of Run Joe Run is told largely through images and music, but with very little dialogue. And, again, Joe experiences three flashbacks of his time in the military, thereby suggesting that the dog suffers from PTSD.  

In this case, we see the dog being trained to jump, and then trained to jump through a fiery window.  At one point, we see him being trained to walk across a collapsed ladder laying horizontally.

The tone is very different this week from the one we saw in “Homecoming.” This episode is more like a travelogue, as Joe moves from one amusement park attraction to the next, observing. He spends sometime watching tigers being trained, for instance, before moving on to the dolphin show.  This episode is, literally, a dog’s eye view of the world.

As far as familiar elements go, we once more have Joe on the run, befriending a child, and authorities warning a nice family about him. 

This warning facilitates the fugitive’s departure. Intriguingly, Corey and Joe lay eyes on each other in this episode, sharing the same (dolphin show) stage, before Joe runs off.

Although the tone this week is not as dark as we saw previously, the final narration of the episode again hammers home Joe’s isolation and sadness. “For a moment, Joe thought he might have found a new life…

Man, that’s sad.  

Someone needs to give this German shepherd some love. Preferably with an official DVD release, so those of us who were kids in the 1970’s can see Joe run once again.

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: The Bugaloos: "Today I am a Firefly"

In “Today I am a Firefly,” Sparky (Billy Barty) attempts his first solo flight, and fails. The Bugaloos attempt to cheer him up, but he decides to run away from home.

While the Bugaloos deal with this crisis, Benita Bizarre’s (Martha Raye) minions accidentally break her favorite music box.  They also manage to set their zapper to a “shrink” setting.  Suddenly, they have the perfect way to rectify their crisis.

They shrink the Bugaloos and force them to play music for Benita inside the music box.

Fortunately, Nutty Bird is able to inform Sparky about Benita’s capture of the Bugaloos, and he’s off to the rescue

Alas, there’s no new song in this week’s episode of The Bugaloos to enliven the proceedings.

Instead, audiences get the high-concept of the week: a shrink device. This shrink ray -- the zapper gone haywire -- is essentially an early version of the device we see in the Kroffts’ Dr. Shrinker (1976).

Indeed, the shrinking effects are achieved through the same technique in both series: chroma key.

The plot of the week involves Sparky, once more, making trouble. He fails badly on his first flight, and runs away. Fortunately, he saves the day because when he returns to the forest he learns what has happened to the Bugaloos.

And what has happened?

Benita’s minions have captured and shrunken the group to perform inside Benita’s favorite music box, which the minions accidentally broke.

The episode also ends with a familiar twist. The weapon of the villain (in this case the shrink ray), is turned don that villain. So we end, here with a “bitsy Benita.”

Next week “The Bugaloo Bugaboo.”

Friday, September 22, 2017

Buck Rogers Week: "The Dorian Secret" (April 16, 1981)

After rescuing a group of colonists from a deadly environmental disaster, the Searcher proceeds to take these settlers to a home on a new, more hospitable planet. 

As the colonists board the craft, a female fugitive, Eleefa (Devon Ericson) joins their numbers.  Buck (Gil Gerard) sees that she is pursued by a squad of masked Dorians, and helps her escape to Searcher.

En route to the new world, however, the Dorians intercept the Searcher in a massive and imposing dreadnought. 

Their leader, Koldar, claims that the Searcher is harboring a murderer, a treacherous woman, and demands that she be handed over. Buck and the crew of the Searcher understand that the woman would receive no justice from the harsh Dorians, a mysterious, secretive alien race.They refuse to give the woman up.

In response, Koldar utilizes a sadistic weapon -- “thermal intervention” -- against the Searcher and her people, rotating heat beams and freezing beams to discomfort and agitate the non-compliant humans.

Soon, the colonists grew desperate, and vote to hand-over Eleefa to the Dorians.  An angry Buck boards their ship, to argue for her release, following this decision.

In doing so, Buck learns much more about the origin behind the old saying, “dark as a Dorian secret.” 

After negotiating with Koldar, Buck returns to the Searcher and admonishes the human colonists for the darkness in their souls, which permitted them to turn an innocent woman over to the harsh aliens  If they are to start a new life on a new world, Buck tells them, they will need to reflect on their irrational behavior.

“The Dorian Secret” is the very last episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981), though -- in keeping with cult-TV formats of the day -- it does not provide closure for the series’ premise.  

Instead, this is a standalone adventure that boasts some qualities in common with The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) episode “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street.”  That famous tale from Rod Serling concerned prejudice, the mob mentality, and the ways that humans can, in a crisis, succumb to irrational fear.  Similar forces are clearly at work in “The Dorian Secret.”

This is one of the better installments of the second season, for a few reasons. First, as I indicated above, “The Dorian Secret” serves as a social commentary about human nature. The colonists featured in the tale are so concerned with their own survival that they are willing to sentence an innocent woman to torture and death. 

They are selfish, short-sighted, and accordingly, very realistic.  

In short order, they are able to convince themselves that the fugitive isn’t really their problem, and that it is okay to return her to her people, the harsh Dorians. They rationalize their fear, and their behavior, and are not accountable for their actions.  We thus see them, and ourselves, clearly.  We get a little uncomfortable, the episode tells us, and we’re willing to do anything, even throw a living being under the proverbial bus, to become comfortable again.

The second aspect of “The Dorian Secret’s” social commentary returns to a theme we saw in the best episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: “The Plot to Kill a City.”  

In that excellent first season entry, a masked alien named Varek gave his life to stop a nuclear disaster near New Chicago, so that Earth would not suffer the aftermath (again) that deformed, demoralized, and mostly destroyed his own people, on his planet.

“The Dorian Secret” similarly features masked aliens -- a whole race of them, in fact.  In this case, it is Dorian Law that no mirrors or reflecting surfaces should be allowed on their home world. Similarly, Dorian citizens must never be allowed in public without their face masks on. The Dorians rigorously adhere to this custom, and don’t accept meddling from strangers, or aliens.

At story’s end, we learn the reason why: after a nuclear holocaust, all surviving Dorians came to look…identical. 

In the bizarre finale, the Dorian bridge crew unmasks before Buck, and the same actor plays all of the crew, including Koldar (who is voiced by Walker Edmiston). Koldar discusses the terror and agony of the knowledge that “every face” encountered is a “mirror image of your own.”  

The Dorians have no real visual identity. Inside, they are different people. But on the outside, they may as well be clones.

This revelation is quite a surprise, and somewhat effective. The unmasking scene loses some impact because, let’s face it, a face can look different for a few reasons: facial hair, haircut, and even age.  Every Darian we see on the bridge, including Koldar, is exactly the same age. Koldar should look twenty to thirty years older than at least some of his crew members. At least he wears a different, slicked-back hair-style.

Still, the final moments of “The Dorian Secret” pack a decent punch. Buck sternly lectures the colonists about their behavior, and it’s is clear he is angry. He has just had a lesson not only in Dorian nature, but in human nature, and this is a somber and sobering note to end the episode -- and the series -- on.  

I love that Buck is a character who doesn’t have to obey an enforced system of rules (like Starfleet protocols) and can, without fear of reprisal, show his distaste for people he finds, well, distasteful.

I readily admit my bias in cult-television programming: I would rather watch a show that is about something -- even if it fails to hit on all thrusters -- than watch an empty show that doesn’t really mean anything, but “entertains.” Some fans have considered “The Dorian Secret” heavy-handed, preachy, or obvious, and at moments, the installment is indeed all of those things. 

And I’ll still take it, warts and all, over empty-headed escapism like “Vegas in Space” or “Twiki is Missing.”

“The Dorian Secret” is an attempt, at least, for Buck Rogers in the 25th Century to live up to the grand tradition of series such as The Twilight Zone or Star Trek. In its exploration of the alien, the episode works to excavate some quality of life here on Earth. 

I would have loved to see how the series’ makers learned lessons from this episode, and grew better and stronger in delivering this kind of tale.

Unfortunately, “The Dorian Secret” was an end, not a new beginning.

Buck Rogers Week 2017: "The Hand of the Goral" (March 26, 1981)

In “The Hand of the Goral,” a shuttle carrying Buck (Gil Gerard) and Hawk (Thom Christopher), and a Starfighter piloted by Colonel Deering (Erin Gray) explores a habitable planet.

On the surface of that mysterious planet, the crew finds the wreckage of a ship, and an injured survivor, named Reardon (Peter Kastner).

Meanwhile, Dr. Goodfellow (Wilfrid Hyde-White) has discovered that the planet is called “Vordeeth,” meaning “The Planet of Death.”  

Ten thousand years ago, the world was inhabited by a race called the Goral, but they undertook a mass exodus, and the planet was abandoned.

Following some strange and inexplicable events on the planet surface, Hawk and Buck follow Wilma back to the Searcher.

There, they find the crew-members strangely altered.  Admiral Asimov (Jay Garner) has become a raging tyrant, Crichton has become friendly and appreciative of humans, and Twiki is a grumbly, resentful sort.

With Asimov threatening to kill and torture crew members, Buck, Hawk and Wilma resolve to return to the planet and figure out what has happened, but their escape won’t be easy. 

Buck realizes that all the crew members are duplicates meant to trick them, and proceeds to the planet below, only to be confronted with a being (John Fujioka) who promises him great riches if he cans solve the riddle of the Goral.

I suppose that I tend to go easier on the second season of Buck Rogers than many fans did in the early 1980s.  The season is not as much fun as the first, but I like the addition of Hawk -- a solid “resident” alien character -- and feel that some of the stories were compelling.  I like “The Guardians,” in particular.

“The Hand of the Goral” is not without its problems, but it too would get ranked in the upper tier of second season installments. The idea of a duplicate Searcher, where characters possess altered personalities immediately puts one in mind of Star Trek episodes such as “Mirror, Mirror,” it’s true, but in this case, an alternate universe is not at work.

Rather, an alien games-player, or “tester,” the titular hand of the Goral, is responsible. He was left behind by his people to protect the planet from intruders, and determine their worthiness to receive the wisdom and riches of the Goral.  He refers to the strange duplicates as “simulacra,” and certainly his powers are fierce.

There have been many attempts in science fiction stories to tell stories in which protagonists encounter duplicate versions of the habitat, and must determine if it is real or not. On Star Trek, Kirk was confronted with a complete mock-up of the Enterprise in “The Mark of Gideon.”  The Alphans encountered a duplicate of their moon base in Space:1999’s “One Moment of Humanity,” and here Buck, Hawk and Wilma visit a duplicate Searcher, replete with a crew of simulacra. At least in this case, it is made clear that the hand of Goral possesses incredible powers and energy stores by which to create these settings and characters.

It’s intriguing to meet the Searcher crew recreated as “imperfect fakes.” Asimov is a dictator, Crichton is nice, and Wilma suddenly is all clingy and frightened.  It’s not they are “evil” parallel versions, just versions that are off, and require deciphering on Buck’s part. 

Overall “The Hand of the Goral” is tense, keeps one guessing, and doesn’t rely on a ridiculous premise (see: “The Golden Man”) to sell its story.  I love stories about mysterious planets, or planets “of death,” with their ancient, inscrutable mysteries.

“The Hand of the Goral” may not be terribly original, but it possesses a creepy vibe, and a sense that an unseen force is manipulating reality itself.  In a not always successful second season, those qualities are enough to make the episode stand out from the pack.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Buck Rogers Week 2017: "The Satyr" (March 12, 1981)

"There are strange viruses here on this planet."

- Cyra (Anne E. Curry) warns Buck about the dangers of Arcanus in "The Satyr."

One of the real bright spots of Buck Rogers' abbreviated second season in 1981 remains the episode titled "The Satyr" written by Paul and Margaret Schneider and directed by Victor French.

On first glance, however, this development seems unexpected since the episode's storyline stems from a long-standing and ubiquitous sci-fi TV trope: "the single mother in jeopardy."

In this all-too-familiar genre TV chestnut, a series protagonist encounters a lovely single mother and her child (usually a son) who are being menaced by some malevolent outside force.  The series hero then becomes a stand-in husband/father to the duo, defeats the menace, and -- in a heartbreaking moment -- must say farewell to his new family so that he may continue his episodic adventures romantically unimpeded.

Examples of the "single mother in jeopardy" convention can be found on the original Battlestar Galactica (1978 - 1979) in "The Lost Warrior," where the convention is played well as a variation on Shane (1953) and as a commentary on gun control, in V: The Series as "The Wildcats" (wherein Marc Singer's Mike Donovan steps in to save a Mom and her daughter from the Visitors), and on MacGyver, "To Be a Man," which featured the late Persis Khambatta as Zia, the single mother in jeopardy from Russian military forces.

In Buck Rogers': "The Satyr," Captain Buck Rogers (Gil Gerard) explores the planet Arcanus, the site of a failed Earth colony while the star ship Searcher is away for ten days on a mission to "sweep" an asteroid belt.

On the planet surface, Buck soon meets Cyra (Anne E. Curry) and her son, Delph (Bobby Lane), the only two settlers who have remained behind on the planet.  Buck soon discovers that the duo is regularly harassed by Pangor (Dave Cass), a half-man/half-goat or "satyr" who seems obsessed with them.  Buck steps in to battle the violent Pangor, but is bitten by the satyr.

Over a period of days, Buck begins to transform into a satyr himself, a creature obsessed with women and wine...and little else.

After being bitten, Buck learns that Pangor is actually Jason Samos, the founder of the Arcanus colony and Cyra's much-mourned husband.  She has been unable to leave the planet behind because she still feels attached to him, despite Jason's transformation into a rampaging monster.

As I've noted above, the "single mother in jeopardy" cliche has been depicted on television many times, but "The Satyr" illustrates nicely how a science fiction program can explore contemporary issues that "regular" dramatic programs either cannot, or if they do seems too on the nose, like an Afterschool Special.

 Clearly, this episode of the series sub textually concerns alcoholism; and the effect of alcoholism upon the entire family unit.  This subtext and social commentary actually elevates "The Satyr" above its familiar and cliched premise and makes it one of Buck Rogers' finest hours.

In "The Satyr," Cyra and Delph live a relatively happy life, until Dad -- Pangor -- shows up at their home, demanding wine and violently threatening Mom. 

In one well-staged scene, we watch with Delph through an exterior window as, inside the home, Pangor pushes Cyra onto her back (behind the kitchen table), and threatens physical violence.  He wants more wine, you see, even though, as Cyra tells him, "he drank it all the last time."  The subtext here isn't just violence, but sexual violence, at least in terms of the staging/blocking.

What we get in "The Satyr," particularly in this camera view from the outside-in, is the notion of a child dwelling in a terrifying household of alcoholism and domestic violence, and seeing/experiencing things that no child should.  Worse, the P.O.V. suggests isolation and helplessness.

At several points during the episode, Delph is also policed by his mother not to be too conspicuous, so as not to gain the attention of the alcoholic/Satyr.  At one point, Delph plays "flute grass" and at another point he calls out innocently for his Mom.  In both instances he is quickly "hushed" -- "Don't shout!" --  lest the angry man of the household focus his violent attention upon him.  Half the battle is staying off Pangor's radar as he pursues his vices.

Additionally, the boy, Delph, soon sees himself as his mother's defender, eventually fighting the angry Pangor and telling the beast to "leave my mother alone."   In the homes of many alcoholics, it is indeed the child who eventually becomes the protector of the Mom,or other siblings, and who stands-up to the offending drinker.

As for Cyra, she's dramatized in this episode as the traumatized, exhausted victim of sustained domestic abuse.  She hides bruises on her neck from Buck, and, quite understandably, doesn't like "to be touched."  

She also has much trouble letting go of the "good man" who was once her husband, clinging to old photo albums which reveal happier, more romantic days.  Much of the blocking depicts Cyra cowering or retreating.  She is someone who is used to being terrorized and fears being struck.

Cyra also maintains the family home on Arcanus -- despite the danger to herself and her son -- in the misguided belief that somehow Pangor can change.  In fact, Cyra spends her life appeasing the violent satyr.  "If he's supplied with enough [wine]," she informs Buck, "he's content" and leaves the family alone.

At the same time that she must handle Pangor, Cyra worries that the "virus" that affected her husband -- a metaphor for alcoholism -- could affect her son too "when he's a man."  In other words, the cycle of abuse and violence could continue to the next generation.  Yet by keeping Delph on Arcanus, in a terrorized home, Cyra makes it more likely that this will happen to Delph.

This social commentary in "The Satyr" is intriguing by itself, but the episode gains some real unexpected juice and power when Buck actually grows sick with "the virus "and quickly loses his status as the white knight.

Buck sets up house with Cyra and Delph (even teaching the boy to fly his shuttle craft) and then -- just when things are good -- succumbs to the same "virus' and begins to show signs of physical violence like Cyra's previous husband.   In one sequence, Buck tries to hide evidence of his transformation from Delph, ashamed to show his true nature as a "monster" to the boy he clearly cherishes.

Here, the subtext isn't about alcoholism so much as the nature of (some) men in general, and how some women seem to attract these monsters, one after the other. It's something in their individual nature and lack of self-esteem perhaps, and part of a deadly symbiosis involving abuser and victim. '

"The Satyr" tries to make viewers understand why Cyra stays on Arcanus, imperiled by one satyr after the other, and gives us some insight into the mentality of a perpetual victim.  In this case, Cyra just can't let go of the past and the (vain) dream that Pangor could again become the husband she once loved.

Of course, Buck -- as our stalwart series hero -- is able to kick the virus and save the day. Still,  it was pretty daring in terms of 1981-era television to create a metaphor for alcoholism and then see the likable series protagonist succumb to that  "disease."  In visual terms, Buck's horns literally start to come out, as he transforms from man to beast.

I am old enough to remember the promotional materials and interviews for the second season of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.  The overall promise by the producers was that Buck would become more recognizably and fallibly human, and less the quipping, boogeying, Burt Reynolds-in-space figure of the first season.

Whether or not that promise was fulfilled entirely is up for debate, but certainly "The Satyr" showcases Buck at his most human and interesting.  He exhibits real remorse when he believes he is responsible for the death of Cyra's husband, Jason, and then must battle his growing "dark side" as the satyr virus takes hold.

This episode is also intriguing for the way it ties the myth of the Satyr (a wine loving man/goat) to the alcoholism/domestic violence symbolism, and for the implicit "reason" behind alcoholism provided by the show.

Jason had the "pioneer spirit," you see, and had hoped to turn Arcanus into a "garden of Eden."  When that dream failed, he couldn't handle it...and that's when he first acquired "the virus."  Again, this idea fits our contemporary world well.

What leads people to drink?  Failure?  Tragedy?  Loss?  Desperation? 

All of my commentary on this episode no doubt suggests that "The Satyr" is some labored "message" show about an "important" life lesson (see: Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Symbiosis.")  But that's not actually the case at all.

Like the best social commentary in science fiction television (from The Twilight Zone to Star Trek to The X-Files to Buffy), this is an episode that plays ably on two levels.  You can watch it just as a gripping, good adventure, or as a story with a bit more relevance and meaning in our own world.

In other words, the metaphor for alcoholism holds powerfully (right down to the blocking of the actors), but you aren't hit over the head with a "lesson."

At the very least, "The Satyr" adds some much-needed depth to an old TV trope. In this Buck Rogers episode, the single mother was again in dire jeopardy, but it's the nature of  that jeopardy and the source of the jeopardy that make this installment meaningful and unique, even after three decades.