Monday, July 27, 2015

The 20 Best Monkees Songs – and the 5 Worst

I love the music of The Monkees. Always have. 

I was too young for the series’ 1966-1968 prime time run, but when that ended The Monkees was moved to syndication on Saturday mornings, an unusual but effective programming strategy. That’s when I discovered them, right alongside Josie and the Pussycats and Kaptain Kool and the Kongs.

The songs were my favorite part of the show, and back then that was the only place where you could hear them. This was the early 1970s, when the original Monkees albums were out of print, and radio (even oldies stations) never played them because they were not a “real band.” Only dopes like Jann Wenner still hold that opinion.

Since my generation of Saturday morning Monkee fans couldn’t buy the records, and iTunes was still about 30 years away, we improvised by holding the microphones from our portable cassette tape players up to our TV speakers, and making our own Monkees tapes.

Given the generally poor state of my short-term and long-term memory, it’s surprising that I still remember being in the record department at Sears in 1972 and seeing something I had never seen before – an actual Monkees album. 

Sometime after that I picked up this import gem from Australia with 40 songs, plus amazing liner notes that told the full story of the band. 

It took MTV to finally reignite Monkee-mania with an episode marathon that aired on February 23, 1986. Its reception prompted a reunion tour (yes, I did get to see them live, and it was awesome even with out Mike Nesmith) and the re-release of all the band’s original albums, as well as the new top 20 hit “That was Then, This is Now.”

Today the reputation of The Monkees has been mostly restored, though they remain a glaring omission from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

These are my 20 favorite Monkees songs, in no particular order – along with 5 I’d rather forget.

I’m a Believer
This is not only one of the band’s most popular and successful songs (seven weeks at #1!), I think it belongs in the select company of the most perfect pop records ever made, alongside The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and “California Girls” by The Beach Boys. 

Last Train to Clarksville
It was about a soldier leaving for Vietnam, as most fans know by now. It’s fascinating to me that the first single from this manufactured band of TV goofballs not only tackled such a serious subject, but was also climbing the charts before the series even debuted. Personally I think “Clarksville” is slightly (just slightly!) overrated, but it was their first #1 hit and deserves to be here.

Mary, Mary
Given the master plan behind The Monkees machine it’s doubtful that Mike Nesmith’s songwriting played any role in his casting, but it became an essential element in the band’s evolution. That’s Glen Campbell playing the distinctive lead guitar riff on “Mary, Mary,” a song also covered by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Run DMC. 

Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)
I think this is their best pure bubblegum track. Those familiar with Monkees history know that original music producer Don Kirshner exerted dictatorial control over the band’s first two albums. Had Davy, Micky, Peter and Mike been the bystanders to their own careers that some critics alleged, all Monkees songs might have sounded like “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow).” Thankfully, sweets like this form only one part of their diverse catalog.  

Shades of Gray
The Monkees’ third album, Headquarters, was the first that gave the quartet control over their musical output. It produced no singles in the U.S., but this plaintive ballad would have been a worthy choice.

Daydream Believer
Another obvious pick, another #1 hit, and featuring Davy’s best vocal on a Monkees track (though if you prefer “She Hangs Out” I won’t argue the point). How many other bands could boast three lead singers as distinctive and as good as Davy, Micky and Mike?  

Randy Scouse Git
This is a Micky Dolenz composition that was a huge hit in England and throughout Europe, but it tanked in America. According to Dolenz, it was written the morning after a London party for The Monkees hosted by another popular quartet called The Beatles. 

Papa Gene’s Blues
“I have no more than I did before…but now I’ve got all that I need…for I love you and I know you love me.” Mike brought a country-folk flavor to the group both as a singer and songwriter. This is one of his first Monkees contributions, and one of his best. 

I’m Not Your Steppin’ Stone
From “More of the Monkees,” this is the only Monkees song covered by the Sex Pistols – assuming there’s not a bootleg somewhere of Johnny Rotten singing “Valleri.” Micky’s delivery is not quite as aggressive, but there’s a lot more snarl in this track than anything else on the album.

Early Morning Blues and Greens
This “Headquarters” track is an acquired taste, as it lacks the irresistible hooks found in the band’s best-known songs. I find it reminiscent of Crosby, Stills and Nash, and it’s become a song I like more every time I hear it.

A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You
Neil Diamond, who wrote “I’m a Believer,” also penned this memorable single, which just missed becoming their third consecutive #1 hit. It stalled at #2 for two weeks, behind The Turtles’ “Happy Together.”

The Girl I Knew Somewhere
History tells us this is the first fully self-contained Monkees song. Mike wrote it, and the group played the instruments and performed all the vocals. Peter Tork plays a mean harpsichord on this top-40 classic. 

The Door Into Summer
The “Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn and Jones Ltd.” album (1967) came closest to earning The Monkees some critical praise during their first go-round. Tracks like this one are a reason why.

What Am I Doing Hanging Round?
Mike showing his Texas roots again, on a track that has all the twangy qualities of one of his own compositions. However, this one was actually written by Michael Martin Murphy, later of “Wildfire” fame. As much as fans wanted then and now for the band to be taken seriously, it’s admirable how they rarely took themselves seriously, as evidenced by Micky hamming it up in the video for this song. 

I know “Pleasant Valley Sunday” was a hit, and I do like it, but if I’m being honest I prefer the song on the flip side of the single, which was written by The Monkees’ most prolific go-to songwriters, Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. It’s also a nice reminder that Peter could sing too, when he wasn’t goofing around on novelty tracks like “Your Auntie Grizelda.”

Sometime in the Morning
The brilliant songwriting team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King contributed several songs to the Monkees’ music catalog – this tender ballad is my favorite, perhaps because they sang it to Rose Marie in the episode “Monkee Mother.” 

Ríu Chíu
Ríu Chíu is a Spanish Christmas carol that dates back to the 1500s. The Monkees a cappella version (performed on “The Christmas Show”) is mesmerizing in its beauty.

Aunties Municipal Court
By now you may have sensed that I am partial to Mike Nesmith compositions. Here's another one, but there’s not much Nashville to be found in the psychedelic arrangement and evocative beat poetry lyrics of “Aunties Municipal Court.” If you’re into great bass riffs, this has one worthy of McCartney. 

For Pete’s Sake
This is The Monkees’ “summer of love” song, not surprisingly co-written by the Monkee that most embraced the counterculture and peace and love movements of the era, Peter Tork. It was played over the closing credits of every episode in the series’ second and final season.

Nine Times Blue
There are versions of this Mike Nesmith song with Mike singing lead and Davy singing lead. I prefer the first one, though it’s interesting to compare the interpretations. 

My Five Worst:

Gonna Buy Me a Dog
Three minutes of Micky and Davy ad libbing and telling bad jokes. Fun if you’re in the right mood, but it’s hard to believe this earned a spot on their debut album while better songs like “All the King’s Men” didn’t make the cut.

Mommy and Daddy
It’s a toss-up between this song and “Zor and Zam” for the title of Micky’s most awkward stab at social commentary.

Can You Dig It
The movie Head had some memorable music moments, particularly “Circle Sky” and “The Porpoise Song,” but this was not one of them.

P.O. Box 9847
Proof that even Boyce and Hart could have an off day.

99 Pounds
The last original Monkees album was “Changes,” released in 1970. By then only Micky and Davy remained, but even with half a group the album isn’t all bad – sample “Ticket on a Ferry Ride” and “I Love You Better” if you’re curious. But on “99 Pounds,” Davy Jones tries to be Little Richard, and falls short. But then, Little Richard couldn’t do justice to “Forget That Girl” either.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Is There Still a Place in Comfort TV for Bill Cosby?

This blog has always been a haven to focus on positive subjects. If you want grim headlines and sad stories you have plenty of other places to find them.

But in the wake of the most recent revelations about Bill Cosby, and given his remarkable television career, the subject becomes the proverbial elephant in my room. This is not just another pop culture controversy like the newfound denigration of The Dukes of Hazzard, which is beyond ludicrous. There are much bigger questions here.

Bill Cosby is more than a classic TV star or a famous TV dad. Over a career that spans 50 years he has ascended to a place in the pantheon of the medium’s most important and beloved creative talents. And in less than one year, he has fallen from grace to a point where he is now a pariah. That doesn’t happen every day.

We are technically still in the “innocent until proven guilty” phase of the story. Several of his accusers are represented by publicity-obsessed ambulance chaser Gloria Allred, which damages their credibility by association, and model Janice Dickinson’s story seems to change every time she tells it. But there are valid reasons why Cosby has already been tried and convicted in the court of public opinion. This was not one incident or one lapse in judgment. If the allegations of any of his 40 accusers are to be believed, this once-beloved comedian orchestrated cruel and calculated acts of abuse that cannot be defended.

So how are we to square that persona with the man who costarred with Robert Culp in I Spy (1965-1968) and won three consecutive Best Actor Emmy Awards for his portrayal of Alexander Scott? Cosby was already a rising standup comic who had written and performed such brilliant routines as the ark-building conversation between the Lord and Noah (“What’s a cubit?”). With I Spy he became the first black man to play a lead role in a prime time network television series. 

This was just one year after the passage of the Civil Rights Act that banned discrimination. It was a significant moment in the evolution of television, and had it been tried with another actor it might not have worked; Cosby had a charisma, charm and approachability that made it easier for audiences to accept him as a full equal in his on-screen partnership with Culp. He made that happen, and we can’t take it away now.

The Electric Company (1971-1977) is a show I watch more often than any adult should. I love the still-funny sketches and catchy songs and wonderful cast, which for a time included Bill Cosby. In the 1970s he was a passionate advocate for the role that television could and should be playing in educating children and teaching them to be tolerant, and kind, and better citizens of the world. 

These objectives were also incorporated into Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, the animated series he co-created and hosted, while also voicing several characters. It was not only another success (in 2013 TV Guide selected it as the best cartoon series of the 1970s) it earned Cosby a Doctorate in Education.

And yet it’s possible that throughout this entire time, he was also drugging and molesting women. Does that mean everything he did on behalf of kids was a lie? And if he was sincere does it even matter?

The Cosby Show (1984-1992) was as groundbreaking in its own way as I Spy, and once again Cosby was not just a hired actor but also the creative force behind the series’ concept and development.

For the first time, a series was built around an affluent African-American family, without the caricature overtones of The Jeffersons. It was a harbinger of the post-racial culture we all hoped we were headed toward, but that recent news stories suggest is still a distant dream. The result was #1 Neilsen ratings, more Emmys and as celebrated a comedy series as television has ever produced. 

So what do we do with all of this?

First, we need to identify the extent to which Cosby’s behavior has tarnished the legacy of his work. We’ve faced this type of decision before, from Danny Bonaduce and Todd Bridges to Woody Allen and Robert Blake. Blake's reputation fared the worst – but if you think murder is where we draw the line, tell that to Vince Neil, or Snoop Dogg, or Teddy Kennedy.

The other factor in the Cobsy case is that we still don’t have any closure, in the form of a conviction or an unambiguous confession. This makes it easier for fans to stand by him, as they did with Lance Armstrong through a decade of doping denials. At this point, however, it’s hard to imagine Cosby’s reputation getting any worse no matter what happens next.

Thus, there are only two choices: we could expunge his shows, films and comedy routines from public broadcast, because his flaws as a human being were more significant than his talent and philanthropy.

Or, we put Cosby’s abuse in context by keeping the work accessible to those who wish to see it, while reminding present and future generations that this man who could be so funny and insightful was also capable of awful things.

I understand the sentiments of those who never want to watch his shows again. However, I also understand those who can separate the artist from the art and still appreciate the exceptional entertainment he provided for half a century. Besides, a lot of other people worked on those shows too. Why should their hard work be punished? 

None of us are the sum of all of our virtues or the sum of all of our sins, no matter how exceptional the virtue or how despicable the sin. For that reason, my tendency is to concur with the latter option. But if and when I watch Bill Cosby’s television work in the years to come, I will never fully watch it in the same way again.

Next week we’ll get back to more pleasant subjects.

Monday, July 6, 2015

The Museum of Comfort TV Salutes: Freddy the Flute

Imagine a place where all of the instantly recognizable objects associated with classic television are on display. It doesn’t exist, so we’ll create it here, and pay tribute to many of our favorite Comfort TV things.

As with any museum, some exhibits are more popular with visitors than others. At the moment we’re seeing a lot of people coming in to check out the General Lee – not sure why.

Anyway, whenever I stop by I always pause to admire Joe Friday’s badge (best-looking shield in the country) and Emma Peel’s leather catsuits. But I won’t even waste a sideways glance on Freddy the Flute.

There, I said it. I hate Freddy the Flute, that little gold buzzkill on H.R. Pufnstuf

I grew up with the Sid & Marty Krofft shows and I love their remarkable puppetry and subversive sense of humor. But Pufnstuf, arguably their most successful creation, is the one I revisit the least – mostly because Freddy is so annoying.  

As a flute he was tolerable. He had a pleasant tone, and could play without someone blowing him, which I guess means he was able to finger himself. How's that for a sentence that doesn’t belong in a G-rated blog?

The trouble was that Freddy, like everything else on Living Island, could also talk. His voice was provided by Joan Gerber, but his squealing, high-pitched voice will remind most viewers of Mr. Bill, the oft-abused clay figure who appeared in several filmed shorts during the early days of Saturday Night Live.  

And just like Mr. Bill, Freddy was vulnerable to all manner of trouble. That resulted in non-stop whining every time he was captured by Witchiepoo, and constant cries of “Help! Help!” “Jimmy! Save Me!” and “Please let me go!” It should surprise no one that my favorite Pufnstuf episode is “Flute, Book and Candle,” in which Freddy fell into an evil mushroom patch and was turned into a mushroom. Because it finally forced him to shut up.

The crux of the problem is that I know I am supposed to be cheering for Jimmy and Freddy to escape the evil clutches of the witch. But I can’t. I root for Witchiepoo. Because Witchiepoo was a riot.

Let’s also remember that, as we learned from the show’s theme song, Freddy is the one responsible for Jimmy getting stuck on Living Island in the first place (“But the boat belonged to a kooky old witch, who had in mind the flute to snitch”). I recognize that can be interpreted as blaming the victim, but I can’t help it. H.R. Pufnstuf inverts my perception of right and wrong. Even Jimmy gets on my nerves sometimes. His best friend is a flute? Freud would have a ball with that one. 

Am I alone in my Freddy hate? Kellogg’s Cereal thought enough of him to offer a home version in 1970, complete with a movable mouth. These plastic Freddys were made in my hometown of Skokie, Illinois by the Toy Development Co. and came with a long sheet of assembly instructions that probably resulted in a lot of frustration-induced breakage. That may be why they go for so much money today. 

As for the original, it remained in the Krofft warehouse for decades. It was stolen in 1995, but after Marty Krofft offered a $10,000 reward for Freddy's safe return, the flute was dropped off anonymously at a Los Angeles television station. The reward was never claimed.

Now he’s here at the Museum. Sometimes we leave the display case open, in case Witchiepoo wants to make another attempt at flute-napping. Don’t tell Marty. 

Monday, June 29, 2015

From Hooterville: A Classic TV Dog Story

Sometimes you hear a story that makes you smile, and it continues to do so every time you think about it. This story does that for me. My guess is that many of my fellow classic TV lovers have heard it, but since it’s always nice to share happy remembrances, I hope they will indulge my telling it again.

In the second season of Petticoat Junction (a series long overdue for praise in this blog) a new character was introduced – a stray dog adopted into the Shady Rest Hotel by the youngest of Kate Bradley’s three daughters, Betty Jo. He was never given a name on the show but trainer Frank Inn, who discovered the dog at the Burbank Animal Shelter, called him Higgins. 

The dog was loved by everyone in the family except for gruff old Uncle Joe, played so memorably by gruff old Edgar Buchanan: “One thing we don’t need around this hotel is some flea-bitten hound eating us out of house and home.” Between takes, Buchanan was as fond of Higgins as the rest of the cast. 

Higgins remained a prominent presence for the remainder of the show’s seven seasons, and he astonished audiences with the remarkable and complex tasks he was trained to do. Whether running and jumping on cue, picking up objects and carrying them to a specific place, turning off lights or picking up phones, Higgins became known as “the one-take dog,” because he always got the scene right the first time.

When Petticoat Junction ended its run in 1970, Frank Inn had planned to let Higgins, then 10 years old, enjoy his retirement. But in 1974, the dog was cast as the star of a hugely successful family film that (according to IMDB) was made for $500,000 and grossed more than $39 million. From then on Higgins had a new name – Benji.

As coincidence would have it, Benji also featured Edgar Buchanan in a supporting role. Buchanan had not seen Higgins since Petticoat Junction was canceled three years earlier. On his first day of filming, as he stood on a porch that was part of a set, he wondered whether the dog would remember him. But as soon as Higgins spotted his friend, he ran toward him and took a flying leap into his arms. And even gruff old Edgar Buchanan couldn’t hold back the tears. 

As I said, just a nice story to make you smile. And perhaps to wonder what we ever did to deserve the pure and unconditional love we receive from dogs. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Terrible Shows I Like: The Girl from UNCLE

To be clear, as “like” is a relative term, justifying any recommendation for The Girl From UNCLE requires some effort, even with the ‘terrible shows’ disclaimer. 

This series will not appeal to most casual TV fans. If you enjoyed The Man From UNCLE you’ll want to check it out; if you are a fan of Stefanie Powers from Hart to Hart, you may be curious about her first series. If you have an affinity for the “swinging ‘60s” era, or that decade’s tongue-in-cheek spy craze that launched with James Bond, you may want to explore all of its artifacts. 

But even with an open mind and/or a predisposition for the genre, many of you will not make it through all 29 episodes. I did, but it took awhile, and I don’t have a return visit planned anytime soon.

What eases the series ever so slightly into a ‘like’ category, beyond a mere 6-7 agreeable episodes, was the potential for fun that was clearly present but never fully realized. This, despite the best efforts of two actors with enough chemistry and charisma to invigorate less than adequate stories.

The Girl From UNCLE (I know technically it’s U.N.C.L.E. but that’s too much work to keep typing) was a 1966 spin-off of The Man From UNCLE (1964-1968), a clever and well-cast series that caught the zeitgeist of the times…and generated 60,000 fan letters every month addressed to Robert Vaughn (as the suave Napoleon Solo) and David McCallum (who became an international teen idol as Russian good guy Illya Kuryakin).

Like Batman, another ‘60s TV phenomenon, the show featured eccentric villains played by distinguished guest stars, and found a sweet spot between stylish action and self-aware camp: “We could make one of our daringly resourceful and nauseatingly punctual escapes – if only the door weren’t locked” laments Illya in a typical episode.

The 1966 episode “The Moonglow Affair” introduced Mary Ann Mobley as UNCLE agent April Dancer and Norman Fell as her partner, Mark Slate. The Girl From UNCLE was recast with Stefanie Powers as April, and Noel Harrison (the son of Rex Harrison) as Slate. Leo G. Carroll played UNCLE boss Alexander Waverly in both series.

April had Emma Peel’s fashion sense and gift for understatement, but none of her intelligence or fighting skills. For a trained secret agent she was, for the most part, incompetent. That’s not how Mobley played her in “The Moonglow Affair,” and one can only wonder why the character was not allowed to retain her aptitude and resourcefulness. Powers – stylish, sly, sexy – tried to give viewers a reason to care even as the show undermined her at every turn.

Noel Harrison is the series’ real find, even if like Stefanie he rarely received anything interesting to do. But whether an episode was trending as silly as Get Smart, or required a moment of playing it straight, as in the opening scenes of “The Double-O Nothing Affair,” Harrison adapted effortlessly to the inconsistent tone with Carnaby Street charm unscathed.

Fortunately, the show didn’t kill his career any more than it did his co-star’s – though he may be better remembered now as a singer.

If The Girl from UNCLE had given its agents something – anything – to build from, the result may have been more successful. But it didn’t, and I really cannot stress enough how badly this show was written. Episodes like “The Drublegratz Affair” seem virtually plot-less, meandering from scene to scene with no sense of direction or purpose.

One assumes they were trying to find the same quirky tone of its UNCLE predecessor, but I can’t be sure because many episodes are so inept it’s hard to figure out what they were trying to do. Any show that can make a writer as gifted as Jackson Gillis look overmatched should never have emerged when it did from the development stage.

Sometimes, they lucked into the right formula. The first show, “The Dog Gone Affair,” raises false hopes in a wonderful scene where April escapes an elaborate deathtrap without any help. “The Faustus Affair” ends with a Benny Hill-like chase through a mad scientist’s lab, that is so ridiculous I couldn’t help smiling. “The Mother Muffin Affair” is indisputably the best segment, thanks to a Napoleon Solo crossover and a nemesis played by Boris Karloff in drag. 

There’s also an interesting array of guest stars, including some that rarely appeared on shows like this. You expect Dom DeLuise (who appears in one of the better outings, “The Danish Blue Affair”); but when Stan Freberg pops up as a henpecked husband in the otherwise dreadful “The Carpathian Killer Affair,” or Peggy Lee plays a western saloon owner in “The Furnace Flats Affair,” it helps pass the time.

When I finished The Girl From UNCLE, I felt the same way I did after watching the 1984 film Supergirl, which squandered the perfect casting of Helen Slater. What good does it do to get the most difficult and important part of the project right, and just about everything else wrong? I’ve watched Supergirl at least three more times hoping it will somehow get better, and it never does. Kara Zor-El, meet April Dancer. She’s in another terrible show I like. 

Sunday, June 7, 2015

A Default Setting of Kindness

“What separates classic (or Comfort) TV as a whole from current TV?”

I’ve discussed that topic many times with fellow classic TV fans. Certainly some differences are obvious –maturity of content, cultural inclusion, assertion of more traditional values. But I have always felt it runs deeper than that.

There is something primal in the DNA of these shows that is no longer found in much of today’s television. Exactly what it is, however, can be difficult to put into words.

But I think I’ve finally figured it out.

One night a phrase came into my head that encapsulates what I love about vintage shows, and how they diverge from the current television landscape. No single description will fit hundreds of series from the 1950s through the early 1970s. But as a general summation of philosophy I think this one is pretty close.

Classic TV shows, and more specifically the characters in these shows, originate from a default setting of kindness. 

The outlook that emanates from these shows, particularly the situation comedies, is a positive one that is embodied in the demeanor of their characters, who start each new day in a place of contentment with their lives, their families and their careers.

This being television, many episodes introduce complications into these sanguine environments, prompting experiences of sadness, frustration or disappointment. But these too are managed in a civilized manner, and by the next episode the characters have reverted back to their default setting, eager to face the possibilities of another day.

Work was not an ordeal. Most classic TV breadwinners approached the trip to the office not with dread but with appreciation for their jobs. Joe Friday (Dragnet) loved being a cop. Rob Petrie (The Dick Van Dyke Show) reveled in the camaraderie and shared creativity he enjoyed while writing for The Alan Brady Show. Pete Dixon (Room 222) cared about the educations and the futures of his high school students. Pediatrician Alex Stone (The Donna Reed Show) gamely smiled through the screams and tears of his patients.  Jim Anderson (Father Knows Best) sold insurance, an occupation associated only with tedium – and carried out his tasks with integrity and professionalism.

Homes were happy places where functional families lived. Children were blessings, not burdens. Doorbells and phone calls were answered with a smile. Communities were closer and neighbors knew each other.

I could cite countless shows and episodes that would support these positions, but this isn’t about specific moments; it’s about the overall impression expressed throughout this entire era. Audiences enjoyed spending time each week with these characters because they were admirable people. Many of us still do.

Of course there are exceptions: Sgt. Bilko, as brilliantly played by Phil Silvers – inveterate gambler, con man and sycophant; grocery store owner Herbert T. Gillis (The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis), perennially frustrated by rude customers and a deadbeat son; bus driver Ralph Kramden (The Honeymooners) had a short fuse that was exacerbated by the repeated failure of his get-rich-quick schemes. But the exceptions only reinforce the argument that most TV Land denizens in this era were basically contented people.

Now, look at any list of this year’s most popular or critically-acclaimed series. What’s the most common default setting for the characters?

I see a lot of people that are self-centered and cynical. I see characters that believe the world owed them a better life than the one they have, who wake up every day into a deck that is stacked against them. I see people that resort to snark because they are uncomfortable with sincerity.

Is that more realistic? Perhaps. But that wasn’t the question and that, for me, is not the top priority of a television show.

I try to have a default setting of kindness. Sometimes it doesn’t last until breakfast, but it’s important to have aspirations. When I need a refresher course in how it’s done, I always know where to look. 

Sunday, May 24, 2015

In Defense of “Spock’s Brain”

Note: This review is part of the 2015 Summer of MeTV Classic TV Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. Click here to check out this blogathon's complete schedule.

Writing about the original Star Trek in 2015 is like writing about The Beatles or The Wizard of Oz or sunlight. Everybody knows what it is, thousands of other people have already written about it, and at this point there doesn’t seem much left to add.

So rather than offer yet another tribute to the vision of Gene Roddenberry, or more praise for the show’s forward-thinking philosophy on race and class and technological achievement, and its optimistic view of mankind’s future, I thought it would be a more interesting challenge to find something praiseworthy in what is regarded by fans as the series’ worst episode. 

That would be “Spock’s Brain,” the show that kicked off Star Trek’s third and final season. "Frankly during the entire shooting of that episode, I was embarrassed," was Leonard Nimoy’s recollection. And if you’ve heard his singing on “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins,” you know he doesn’t embarrass easily. Was it justified? Let’s find out.

Our story begins with the Enterprise approaching a mysterious alien craft. Before Captain Kirk can inquire if there might be any attractive young women aboard, one actually beams over, incapacitates the crew and then walks over to Spock and begins stroking his forehead. 

Sometime later the crew wakes up. Spock has been moved to sickbay where a solemn Dr. McCoy informs the captain, “His brain is gone.”

“If it was taken out, it can be put back in.” Kirk responds, showing the quick thinking that made him a Captain.  But McCoy warns that the procedure must be performed within 24 hours. Because, apparently, a body can’t survive without a brain for more than a day, unless it belongs to a Kardashian.

Thus begins the quest to reunite Spock’s brain with the rest of him, which requires the crew to beam down to a planet populated by cavemen wearing fuzzy blue skirts.

Sound ridiculous? Absolutely. But the next time this episode airs on MeTV and you’re tempted to change the channel, here are five reasons why “Spock’s Brain” is worth your time.

1. Marj Dusay
Before spending two decades on various daytime dramas, Marj Dusay was a frequent and always welcome guest star on many 1960s series like Get Smart, Hogan’s Heroes and The Wild, Wild West. She specialized in seductive brunettes who try to lead good men astray. Removing someone’s brain is going to rather extreme lengths, but it does fit the pattern. As Kara, the woman who makes Spock an involuntary organ donor, Dusay also gets to deliver the episode’s most memorable and inscrutable line: “Brain and brain – what is brain!”

2. William Shatner Gives 110%
Every Trekker has his (or her) William Shatner-as-Kirk impression, complete with convulsive body movements, random pauses between words and other assorted histrionics. The thing is, you don’t see that Shatner in “The Space Seed” or “City on the Edge of Forever,” when the story could stand on its own merits. It was only when the script was lacking that he would try to forcibly inject some drama into substandard material. So when Uhura asks Kirk why someone would steal a brain, Kirk responds, “Yes…why…would…they…want it?” “Spock’s Brain” needs all the help it can get, and Shatner is happy to oblige. 

3. It Makes a Perfect Drinking Game
As classic TV drinking games go, it’s hard to top the one for The Bob Newhart Show, in which participants drink every time a character utters the phrase “Hi Bob!” “Spock’s Brain” offers a variation on that theme: Count the number of times “Spock’s brain” is said by Kirk, McCoy and Uhura. If you’re drinking anything alcoholic, you’ll certainly start enjoying the show at some point.

4. The Sitcom Fadeout
Rarely does a Star Trek moment seem appropriate for a laugh track, but one certainly seems to be missing from the denouement of “Spock’s Brain.” After Dr. McCoy’s brain replacement surgery is successful, Spock immediately starts spouting dry scientific observations about the planet’s natives. “I knew it,” McCoy sighs. “I knew I shouldn’t have reconnected his mouth.” 

5. It’s Still Better than “Threshold”
The reign of “Spock’s Brain” as the worst moment in Star Trek history ended in 1995. That’s when Voyager released “Threshold,” in which Captain Janeway and Tom Paris were turned into salamanders and had reptile babies. After that, this episode seems almost quaint in its silliness.

And here is one bonus reason to stay tuned: even substandard Star Trek is better than any episode of Dating Naked, Honey Boo Boo, The Real Housewives of Lompoc and much of today’s television, for which brains are also optional.