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Monday, March 23, 2009


Between last Christmas and now (time considerations being what they are), I spent some of my dinner hours in the same way that I spent a couple of summers when I was in school: Catching up on (or revisiting, in this case) Rod Serling’s Night Gallery.

Night Gallery was the series that the creator of The Twilight Zone did on NBC at what would be the twilight of his illustrious career. I remember being truly fixated on this show when it was actually on. Rod Serling was one of my boyhood heroes and I seized on anything and everything about his imaginative stories. Back then you could not have convinced me that Rod Serling was not God Almighty. I was in total awe and hero-worship of him. As an aspiring imaginative storyteller myself, I thought there could be nothing cooler in the universe than to be the person who not only created The Twilight Zone, but wrote it and introduced it on the air! Before I wanted to be Gene Roddenberry (and before I settled on wanting to be Stan Lee and Jack Kirby), I wanted to be Rod Serling. And now, with Night Gallery, he was doing it again!

My misfortune back in those days was that Night Gallery ran at 10 PM on Wednesday evenings for its first two seasons, I didn’t yet have a TV of my own, home video was still in the future, and my parents wouldn’t let me stay up to watch the Gallery for those two years. I truly agonized over this. It was a kind of torture. I used to sneak downstairs to my sister’s room to watch the show surreptitiously (until my mother caught me, damnit, and I think it was right in the middle of “Pickman’s Model”). Some nights I used to lie in bed, desperately listening to faint sounds of the show emanating from my father’s room down the hall. (Such as the night when the episodes “The Phantom Farmhouse” and “Silent Snow, Secret Snow,” which got a “Close-Up” in TV Guide as two of the best stories in the series, aired for the first time.) Thus I remember a couple of summers, when there was no school, that I spent glued to the TV every Wednesday evening for the reruns of my show.

What is now a truly obscure fact of TV history is that Night Gallery was created as one element of one of those “rotating series” that TV, and NBC in particular, used to do in the 1970s. Night Gallery was originally part of a rotating series called Four in One, in which one of the other shows that alternated in the time slot was McCloud starring Dennis Weaver. Four in One lasted only one season, but McCloud was imported into The NBC Sunday Mystery Movie where it alternated with Columbo starring Peter Falk and McMillan and Wife starring Rock Hudson and Susan St. James. Night Gallery was (I assume) the most popular part of Four in One (and rightly so), and was promoted to a weekly series the following season.

Night Gallery was different in concept and emphasis from The Twilight Zone. The format was that there was a macabre museum filled with disturbing paintings and sculptures, each one illustrating a different creepy story, many of them written (or adapted from works of horror fiction) by Rod himself. Rod would usher us into the Gallery, acting as our tour guide, show us a given painting, and set up the story to follow. Where T. Zone dealt mostly in fantasy and dabbled in unscientific science fiction, Night Gallery mostly concentrated on horror and the occult. (With some exceptions, and we’ll be discussing those next week.)

However, Night Gallery was also a reiteration of Rod Serling’s love/hate relationship with the medium of television that made him rich and famous. It’s at this point that I wish I had gotten round to buying the Night Gallery book (note to self--DO THAT!), for what I have to offer you by way of background comes from the chapter on the show in the book Fantastic Television by Gary Gerani and Paul Schulman. Their Night Gallery chapter begins with a telling quote from the master storyteller himself:

“The way the studio wants to do it, a character won’t be able to walk by a graveyard. He’ll have to be chased. They’re trying to turn it into Mannix in a shroud”. (In one of the earliest Quantum Blogs I remembered that Mannix is a show for which I cared nothing, except that I loved its jazz-waltz theme music by Mission Impossible composer Lalo Schifrin!)

This kind of thing is, I’m sure, the reason why Rod wrote the Twilight Zone episode “The Bard”. (Look it up if you’re not a Zonie.) That story must have been a kind of therapy--and revenge!--for him. Fantastic Television goes on to illuminate Rod’s conflict over what would be his last weekly series:

In sharp contrast to The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery was panned by critics. Among those not infatuated with the show was Rod Serling himself. No stranger to the interference of sponsor, networks, and censors, Serling once again found himself locked by contract into an untenable situation. Imagine a clothing company started by a tailor whose name is sterling to his customers--Gluckman, let’s call him. Gluckman’s success and popularity are based on his flawless reputation. His main competitor is Schwartz’s Ready-to-Wear, where everything is done by machine. The day comes when Gluckman produces a few designs and finds that they can’t be marketed because his company, too, has hired machines to imitate the stuff being cranked out by Schwartz. And there is nothing Gluckman can do about it.

That is the kind of situation Rod Serling found himself in. He owned Night Gallery, created it, and it was sold to network and audience on his reputation. The competition on CBS was Mannix, a formula private-eye shoot-and-rough-’em-up. Serling felt that NBC and Universal were doing their best to imitate Mannix, with an emphasis on monsters, chases, and fights. They turned down many of his scripts as “too thoughtful”. Serling lamented, “They don’t want to compete against Mannix in terms of contrast, but similarity.” Not only was Serling unable to sell them scripts, he was also barred from casting sessions, and couldn’t make decisions about his show--he had signed away creative control. As a result, he tried to have his name removed from the title, but NBC had him contract-bound to play host and cordially introduce the parasite to the TV audience.

Being “too thoughtful” was what got Star Trek passed over on its initial pitch, as we’ll remember. Object lesson: Avoid at all costs relinquishing control over something that you have created! If television values your work enough to want to buy it and put it on the air with your name on it, make sure what they’re going to put on the air is your true vision! I can only imagine the grief that my hero Rod Serling suffered over this show.

It is testament to the strength of Rod’s vision and the talent that he put into it that Night Gallery frequently rose above the banality to which NBC and Universal would have consigned it, and produced some stories that more than justified my furtive boyhood efforts to watch it. Most of the best work on the show was in the second season, which I just finished watching on DVD. This is because the second season was a full season with hour-long, multiple-story episodes. The first season, Night Gallery had its hour-long, multiple-story format, but was part of Four in One. The third season (when NBC dumped it on Sunday nights at 10 PM Eastern) was half an hour with only one story a week. In next week’s Quantum Blog, we’re going to take a tour of the Gallery and look at the best of Rod’s ghoulish treats. See you then.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Well, a couple of nights ago I watched the farewell episode of Kyle XY, an outstanding series whose fate I bemoaned last week. I don’t know if you saw it, but the ending of the episode leaves me gasping to see executive producer Julie Plec’s idea for a direct-to-DVD movie get the green light! The way ABC Family sent Kyle to the Nielsen gallows at its most startling turning point now ranks with the premature cancellations of Generations, Dark Shadows, and Now and Again as one of the greatest crimes against the viewing public. It is a cancellation most foul!

Last week I was mentioning that a viewer once wrote in to TV Guide that CBS should stand for Cancelled Before Seen, NBC for Now Being Cancelled, and ABC for Already Been Cancelled. Well, ABC, as of this season, has the highest body count of slaughtered, high-quality TV series. Not only has its cable network sacrificed the ingenious Kyle XY, but its broadcast network has no fewer than three shows that have been sent to oblivion before their time. And the sad fact is that these shows are not just victims of network short-sightedness. At least two of these works of inspired creativity are also the ironic casualties of creative people standing up for their rights.

Two of these shows started out as part of ABC’s fall lineup, but had their debut seasons cut short by the recent Writers Guild of America strike against the TV networks. In principle, I sympathized with and supported the TV writers in their action against producers and networks. As a writer myself, I understood their cause and cheered them on in their withholding of their talents in the face of unfair practices. Production companies and networks make colossal amounts of money from the use of these people’s work, and the reuse of it in DVD sales and Internet streams. It would be an exercise of the purest and most callous greed to cut the writers out of their share of those profits, and the writers did the right thing by calling them on it, even if it meant truncating an entire TV season to get their fair share. So I went along with it and didn’t complain; if I were in their position (as I once tried to be), I would have walked out too. But the strike cost two of TV’s most creative shows their audience share, while a third, which debuted as a midseason replacement, simply needed continued support from ABC and didn’t get it. TV Guide recently reported on what would have happened on these shows had they been kept on.

On Dirty Sexy Money starring Peter Krause, Nick would have wed Karen Darling (who had desperately wanted him and abused every other relationship in her life after he deflowered her) at the end of the season. Reverend Brian would have abused his rise in the ranks of the church to line his pockets. Young Jeremy would have lived his dream of going to space (if you have enough money, as the Darlings did, you can do that), but mechanical problems might have made it a one-way trip. Juliet would have been rescued from a kidnapper, married a football coach, and moved to Connecticut to become a drama teacher at a private girls’ school. Letitia would have been unfaithful to Tripp again, which may have precipitated her death. And in a bid for the Presidency, Patrick would have been assassinated.

On Pushing Daisies starring Lee Pace, had it gone to a third season, Chuck’s faked death would have been exposed and she would have “taken off with her parents--separating her from Ned”. But they would have remained in love, and in a flash-forward to the future (shades of Lost), a youthful Chuck would have come to see an aged, dying Ned in the hospital. To restore his life, Chuck would have sacrificed her own by kissing him--without a Saran Wrap barrier. (You’ll remember Ned had resurrected Chuck with his life-restoring touch, and the two could never consummate their love because another touch would have struck her dead permanently.) George Hamilton, as Ned’s long-lost father, would have become part of the ongoing mystery of the stolen pocket watches and the money that Chuck and Ned’s fathers looted during their time in the UN. Emerson and Lila, the mother of his baby, would have been reunited. Some unfinished stories from Pushing Daisies will be told in a comic book to be published by DC Comics. There is also a proposed movie about Ned battling “1000 corpses”. It’s described as “a comedic zombie movie”. I don’t like zombie movies; I find them gross and sickening. I’d rather have Pushing Daisies as Bryan Fuller created it still on TV.

On Eli Stone starring Jonny Lee Miller (which started at midseason), Maggie would finally have bedded the beauteous Eli at the end of a road trip. (Lucky gal--Jonny Lee Miller and co-star Sam Jaeger as Eli’s rival Matt Dowd were two of the most delicious pieces of eye candy on TV. They are rapturously beautiful guys. Even if the show itself weren’t so inventive and watchable, it would almost be worth tuning in just to see them--especially the bedroom scenes.) Eli and Maggie’s marriage would not have been a “happily ever after”. In another flash-forward (see what Lost has started?), Eli, who would be revealed to the world as a prophet at the end of the season, would have been the target of an assassination attempt that would claim Maggie’s life instead. We would have seen the return of Sigourney Weaver as God, this time in a musical number. (I loved the musical numbers in Eli's visions on this show.) Eli, no doubt in one of his visions, would also have somehow met his deceased father. And Eli’s soulmate, Grace, would have returned, though no longer played by Katie Holmes.

I am assuming that the episodes left unaired for all of these series at cancellation time will be on their DVD collections, which I am of course going to have to rent from Netflix just because I am a completist. (I had to do the same thing with another ABC series, The Masters of Science Fiction. Add another fine show to the ABC casualty list.) The loss of Kyle XY, Pushing Daisies, and Eli Stone is especially painful, in light of what that means for the content of television. These two shows were great not just for their ideas, writing, and acting, but because they bucked the trend of current TV. In recent years there has been a lot of pushing of the envelope in terms of what you can do and say and show on television. TV has increasingly given itself permission to be provocative and take risks. They’ve been more frank and honest about sex. At least on cable, they’ve been a little less afraid of the human body (see Nip/Tuck and its unabashed butt shots of Julian McMahon and Dylan Walsh and some of the guest stars like Mario Lopez and Thad Luckinbill, and its unflinching R-rated portrayals of sexual activity. See the aforementioned butt shots here, here, here, and here--but not at the office!) They’ve grown a little more honest about language. TV has evolved, but that evolution has come at a price. The price is an erosion of charm.

The wonderful thing about Kyle, Daisies, and Eli is that these shows were also as honest as they could be about sex and language, but they were more charming. They were kind, gentle shows. They weren’t coarse in the way they did things. They weren’t “dark” (a popular buzz word these days); they weren’t twisted and cynical and perverse. Their characters were multi-faceted, but they were endearing. Their stories showed that while there is a twisted and perverse side to human nature, there are also still such things as love and decency and compassion and beauty. They even had a sense of whimsy about them (especially Daisies and Eli). They were frank and honest, but they were balanced. And they came at a time when I thought you couldn’t do charm on TV any more. I thought the prevailing wisdom was that charm would no longer sell; that no one wanted to do television that way on the assumption that the audience wanted to see only the perversity and cynicism. “You can’t do endearing; you’ve got to make it twisted.” Look at Nip/Tuck and Mad Men--both great shows, but would you want any of those people in your house except on a TV screen? Many of the shows I’ve loved best over the years have traded on charm. (For a comedy, think Mary Tyler Moore; for a drama or dramedy, think Northern Exposure.) The existence of Kyle, Daisies, and Eli proved me wrong about the sacrifice of charm--for a brief moment. Their cancellation, even though in the case of Pushing Daisies it was a case of a show that lost its momentum in the justified strike of part of Hollywood’s creative talent and couldn’t recover its audience, means that for the immediate future, TV will probably be less willing to take a chance on charm.

It may be some time before we see shows with such endearing characters and stories again. Evolution progresses, but it also recedes. I’ll miss these shows, their stories, and their stars. I’ll miss Matt Dallas and Jonny Lee Miller and Lee Pace and the characters they played. And I’ll miss what they brought to TV, and what those shows so briefly represented.

Friday, March 13, 2009


Here’s something I’ll bet a lot of people have imagined. Have you ever wanted a cable TV or satellite service that let you select and pay for only the specific channels that you want?

I would love to have something like that. Like most people, I pay for a lot of cable TV that I never watch. My staples are SciFi, SoapNet, Turner Classic Movies, Animal Planet, Discovery, History, The Weather Channel, and National Geographic. There are a number of others that I use as well: AMC (the former American Movie Classics), FX, the Lifetime channels, WE, USA, Spike. Wouldn’t you love it if your cable service, or your satellite service like Direct TV, offered you a custom package that included just all the stuff you know you’re going to use? For me, that would be goodbye to the sports channels, goodbye to the music video channels (although I have been uncharacteristically watching The Tool Academy on VH1, a show that I stumbled onto that hit my curiosity about human psychology in just the right way), goodbye to the Country Music Channel. And, I should hope, hello to some stuff that I don’t get that I actually would like to have, like BET on Jazz, Science Channel, and BBC America.

If you had a satellite service, say, you’d get a subscription to something that might be called Direct TV Options that would let you pick out your personal smorgasbord of TV channels. You might even be able to edit and revise your selections online, at the service’s Website, perhaps under a “DirectTV Options” or “DirecTV Options” tab. It would be all the TV you enjoy and none of the TV you don’t want or never use. And it would probably be worth the price.

Cable and satellite companies would probably scoff at this notion, saying it would be too difficult to implement or saying they’d have to charge customers too much to make it cost effective. I think it’s an idea whose time is coming--one of these days. Meanwhile, here I am, wanting to keep VH1 only because there’s going to be another season of The Tool Academy and I can’t resist seeing what kind of insufferable, revolting boyfriends are going to be submitted for making over into “Prince Charmings” for their ladies in the next session...

Monday, March 9, 2009


It’s a show about a beautiful, innocent young boy with strange powers and no belly button. It’s the best series on the ABC Family cable network. And it has been cancelled.

Right now, ABC Family is touting “The Final Episodes” of Kyle XY, apparently to encourage you to tune in for the last weeks of one of TV’s most original and fascinating programs, for which they have decided they have no further use. In other words, first slaughter the lamb, then drain every drop of blood from it that you can get. Kyle XY has dropped off to a “mere” 1.5 million viewers this season. There are shows on cable TV that would love to be watched by an audience of “merely” 1.5 million. For instance, we have Mad Men over on AMC (the former American Movie Classics). Recently, in accepting an award for this series, its star, Jon Hamm, thanked the “dozens of viewers” who have tuned in for it. He wasn’t exaggerating by much; the audience for Mad Men isn’t even as large as the reduced numbers for this season of Kyle. But Mad Men will be back next season and Kyle won’t. (This is nothing against Mad Men, by the way; it is a fascinating and involving, albeit disturbing and perverse, show.)

Really, I have loved Kyle XY from the first week. And there has been everything to love about it, starting with its star, Matt Dallas. I mean, look at the kid. He’s a “teen idol” with substance. Young Matt plays Kyle, an artificially gestated boy with superhuman intelligence and advanced powers over mind, body, and energy. (The series title literally means “Kyle, a Boy”.) Kyle is sweet and pure-hearted, a total innocent, wanting nothing more than the bonds of a family, good friends, the chance to help others, and someone to love. Oh yes, and not to be exploited or turned into a weapon by the sinister scientific think tank that created him. In the weeks that this show has left, if you haven’t seen it yet, I defy you to look into the sweet, soulful eyes of Kyle and not be on his side. He is one of TV’s most appealing characters. But soon you’ll be able to see him only on DVD. (Actually, if series executive producer Julie Plec has her way, one of those DVDs will be an original story tying up all the loose threads of the show. This is something to root for.)

As I resign myself to saying farewell to Kyle, I also find myself looking back to the beginning of the previous decade, and the time when I very nearly gave up on innovative, creative, quality television.

At the beginning of the 1990s, I decided that I had really had it with TV’s treatment of the shows that make the best use of the medium of television: shows that are literate, artistic, and imaginative; shows that take creative risks and try to do things that are intelligent and different, and think “outside of the box”. A few years ago, a reader wrote in to TV Guide suggesting that CBS ought to stand for Cancelled Before Seen, NBC for Now Being Cancelled, and ABC for Already Been Cancelled. At the same time that I wanted to see the programmers of NBC tarred and feathered for the premature cancellation of their African-American-themed daytime soap, Generations, I would have welcomed the same fate for the fools in their prime time division who sacrificed the superb revival of another soap, Dark Shadows. If you never got to see the second coming of Dark Shadows, you really ought to get the DVD set of it. This was an excellent production from top to bottom, produced once again by the late Dan Curtis, who created the original series, and with music by original series composer Robert Cobert. The outstanding cast included Jean Simmons as Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, Ben Cross as romantic vampire Barnabas, brunette beauty Joanna Going as nanny Victoria Winters, Roy Thinnes (David Vincent on the 1960s UFO show, The Invaders) as Roger Collins, and mega-hunk Michael T. Weiss (later The Pretender) as Joe Haskell. The all-new Dark Shadows effectively recaptured and updated the eerie, macabre romanticism of the old one, and should have run five seasons. NBC put the stake in it after thirteen weeks.

At the same time, CBS had launched one of the finest adaptations of a comic book ever produced, The Flash. This TV treatment of the red-suited speedster of DC Comics starred another superhumanly beautiful leading man, John Wesley Shipp, in the title role. It skillfully melded a quasi-noir sensibility with the colorful adventures of the super-fast hero, and even used actual villains from the comic books: Mark Hamill as the Trickster, David Cassidy as Mirror Master! Too bad the only thing the Flash couldn’t outrun was the folly of the network that broadcast his show; CBS did the same thing it did with the second Twilight Zone, burying The Flash in inopportune time slots and giving itself an excuse to send a premature cancellation notice.

This was the same season that Beauty and the Beast came to an end, but that was as much from an internal problem with the show as it was short-sightedness on CBS’s part. Linda Hamilton had quit the series, leaving the Beast without his original Beauty (Catherine was killed off), and CBS had altered the show’s format to stress action over romance. It just wasn’t the same thing, and I found it hard to watch. The cancellation of Beauty and the Beast in its third season actually felt like a mercy killing.

But by this time, I had decided that after losing Generations, Dark Shadows, and The Flash all in one season, I’d had enough. I wasn’t going to take this any more. I was tired of falling in love with truly creative and innovative shows that put the medium of TV to its best possible use, and watching them die an unjust, premature death. It just wasn’t worth the grief. After that season, I swore, I wasn’t going to start watching any more high-quality series. (And as someone who doesn’t just passively watch TV, I know them when I see them.) If they were to die, as I knew they must, they’d die without me.

The following season I picked out two series from the Fall Preview TV Guide that I could tell reeked of excellence and literacy. They were both period dramas. I knew they were goners and I wasn’t about to tune in and see them be abused. So it was that I did not watch NBC’s I’ll Fly Away, a thoughtful and engrossing drama about a black maid and the white family that she worked for in the South, in the days before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat. Nor did I bother tuning in to ABC’s even more fascinating Homefront, the story of an Ohio town at the end of World War II, when the soldiers came home and everyone either had to resume their pre-war roles (which was especially tough on some of the women, who’d grown accustomed to working and being independent, and the blacks, who found it was back to business as usual) or try to invent new lives for themselves. (Homefront, by the way, was the show that introduced the world to Kyle Chandler, another thing for which it is to be commended.) No, I thought, I can tell these shows are too good and I know what’s going to happen to them.

It was a piece of music that ultimately forced me to relent.

Homefront, you see, had an exceptional opening title. I would rank it easily among the five all-time best TV series openings, right up there with Mary Tyler Moore and The Outer Limits. The theme for Homefront was a rousing, finger-snapping, dance-inducing jazz number, a rendition of “Accentuate the Positive” by Jack Sheldon. (You may not know Jack Sheldon’s name, but I’ll bet you know his most famous work. On the Saturday morning Schoolhouse Rock cartoons, Jack Sheldon was one of the composer/performers. You hear him in “I’m Just a Bill” and the all-time favorite, “Conjunction Junction, What’s Your Function?” Trekkers, you’ve seen Mr. Sheldon also, in the Next Generation episode “11001001”. He’s the piano player in the Holodeck jazz club with Will Riker and Minuet.) Well, one fine week I just happened to catch the opening of Homefront and it completely charmed my socks off. I couldn’t help but think, Any show that has the class to open up like that deserves to be seen. I’m watching this puppy!

Watch the opening title for Homefront here:

Anyway, I’ll Fly Away and Homefront were both promoted to second seasons (and I had to watch most of their first seasons in reruns) before the thing I knew was going to happen, happened. Homefront was last seen on Lifetime Cable, from which the reruns of its two seasons eventually disappeared. I’ll Fly Away flew away completely, except for a special on PBS that tied up its loose threads. (Two things are noteworthy about that special: the teenage son, originally played by Jeremy London, was played here by his twin brother Jason. And the younger of the two sons, who was always quiet, thoughtful, and sensitive, was mentioned to have died of “an illness” when he grew up. That was all that needed to be said, in a discreet Southern way. If you remembered the character, you knew at once what it was alluding to.)

So, yes, eventually I did break down and start risking attachment to quality TV series again. To an extent, TV has become friendlier to innovative shows since then. But only to an extent. There have still been outstanding shows that should have run for five seasons at least, that were cut down before their time. I’m still smarting over Remember WENN, the utterly charming period sitcom about a 1940s radio station that ran on AMC when it still was American Movie Classics. Remember WENN was yanked from the network just at its most interesting point. There was the second animated season of The Fantastic Four on Marvel Action Universe, which stands as the single best adaptation of “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine” ever produced. Too bad this show couldn’t recover the audience that fled from the absolutely wretched first season; there are a lot of great FF adventures that I would have loved to see done to the standard of the second year.

Now and Again, on CBS, was one of the best adventure shows of the 90s, a kind of science fiction take on the premise of Damn Yankees in which John Goodman gets hit by a train and finds that a secret government agency has placed his brain in a superhuman body played by Eric Close. The Adonis-like superman just wants to return to being a pitifully ordinary guy with his wife and daughter, but now he’s Federal property to be deployed as government scientist Dennis Haysbert sees fit. This show had it all: a fascinating premise, an intriguing dilemma with the formerly fat, common Everyman whose makeover into enhanced perfection is more of a prison than a blessing, and truly clever scripts. But CBS didn’t care, and after one season Now and Again became “Never Again”. And before the sensation of Heroes, there was USA’s The 4400 starring Joel Gretsch. In this series, 4400 people from time periods dating back to the 1940s are abducted to the future, given super-powers, and sent back to present-day Seattle, where they must deal with their powers and the world must deal with them. The 4400 had storylines and characters that kept you coming back for more and was one of USA’s biggest hits. It should have had one more season in it beyond its fourth. The cancellation, which has left plots and cliffhangers forever unresolved (much like the eternal cliffhangers at the end of the fourth season of Soap), was truly maddening.

And now the latest casualty of network short-sightedness is Kyle XY. Each week I tune in, knowing it’s one week closer to an ending that’s coming too soon. (Over on the ABC broadcast network, three more of the best shows on the air have already been sacrificed in the same manner; we’ll talk about them in our next post.) And each week I think of the piece that recently ran in TV Guide, saying that the last episode of Kyle will sum up and shed important light on all the relationships on the show. But I wish someone could shed a light on some of the myopic thinking at TV networks to which excellence doesn’t count, quality is too often not valued, and viewer loyalty goes unrewarded unless it comes in certain numbers.

Monday, March 2, 2009


So there she was: Monica Rambeau, an African-American woman, late of the Coast Guard in New Orleans. She had acquired the power to become energy of any wavelength and taken on one of the most venerable names in super-herodom, Captain Marvel. Directly she stepped off the bus in Manhattan, she was recruited into the ranks of the Avengers themselves. She rose quickly to the very leadership of the team. Captain Marvel had arrived. She stood at the top of the super-hero heap. She was one of the shining lights of the Marvel Universe.

And in a flash, she was torn down and discarded.

Marrina, formerly of Alpha Flight, betrothed of the Sub-Mariner (who had recently joined the Avengers), had gone insane and morphed into a colossal sea serpent. When the Avengers set out to corral her and contain her rampage, Captain Marvel struck with the full force of her power and became a mighty bolt of lightning...and disappeared! The Avengers feared the worst for their new leader, but a short time later, Captain Marvel rematerialized at the mansion as a shriveled, nearly dead, powerless husk of a woman. Having accidentally discharged herself over the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, she could barely pull together even this much of her mass. She was no longer in any condition to lead Earth’s mightiest heroes, and in a story centered on the dismantling of the Avengers as they were at that time, she stepped down and returned to New Orleans to recover. I was heartbroken. What had happened?

As I understand it, part of what happened was that Roger Stern, Captain Marvel’s creator and an old acquaintance of mine, was replaced as writer of The Avengers. The new writer was Walter Simonson, another former acquaintance. (In fact, Walter is an alumnus of Rhode Island School of Design, where I spent my first couple of years of college, which is a story for another time. A very, very long and unhappy story...) Part of Walter’s mandate for the book was to replace the Avengers lineup. And part of Marvel’s agenda was that the company wanted Captain Marvel gone. Since Roger was leaving, he couldn’t take his brilliant creation with him (all Marvel characters are Marvel’s property, to be done with as the company wishes), so he was forced to leave her fate in other hands. Hands that didn’t love her as much as Roger (and I) did. So, this most wondrous of super-heroines was doomed to be nearly killed, rendered powerless, and written out of the book that had been her home, never to be a regular, full-time Avenger, let alone their leader, again. To say the least, I was displeased.

At a comic convention a short time later, I approached a Marvel editor--and I only wish I could remember this person’s name--and asked him why Captain Marvel was treated so shabbily. The answer I got was exactly this: “She was too f***ing powerful.”

At that same convention, or perhaps another about that time, I approached my old acquaintance Walter himself about the Captain Marvel question. Do you know what he told me? “She was too f***ing powerful.”

Listen to how that sounds. Captain Marvel was an African-American woman. She was the single most powerful mortal, human character ever to serve in the Avengers. (Remember what I said about Thor last week.) She had risen to the leadership of Marvel’s most powerful hero team. She was one of the most prominent members of the Marvel cast. And... “She was too f***ing powerful.”

Mind you, Thor is not too f***ing powerful. But Captain Marvel was. And I have always been of the opinion that if this Captain Marvel had been male and white like the one before her (extraterrestrial that he was), she would not have been considered so f***ing powerful that she had to be torn down and discarded from Marvel’s most important team after the Fantastic Four.

Since the story in which she was nearly destroyed and written out of the Avengers, Captain Marvel has had to endure a series of indignities to her standing in the Marvel cast. They did a couple of one-issue specials about her. In the first one, she spontaneously manifested a different set of powers related to the dimensional field across which she initially exchanged her mass for energy. She seemed to have a personal static warp field that enabled her to move at supersonic speeds and simulate super-strength and invulnerability. Those were nice powers to have, I guess, but they were nothing compared to the powers that Roger gave her. But she remained only a reserve member of the Avengers.

In a subsequent special, CM manifested powers a bit closer to what she originally had. She could now emit electromagnetic energy of any wavelength. Not become it, just emit it. Well, that was a step in the right direction, of course. But she was still only an Avengers reservist, not a regular, full-time member.

In a miniseries called Starblast, CM was among the characters participating in some cosmic conflict. At the height of that battle, the cosmic entity called The Stranger decided that he needed all of the heroes that he had brought into the battle at their full strength. So he restored Captain Marvel to her original powers. She was back in full form--but not back on the team where she belonged.

So they had put her back the way Roger Stern had her, and what did they do next? They decided that the prior Captain Marvel, who was originally a warrior of the alien Kree Empire, had sired a hitherto-unknown son, and that this character was now going to be the official Captain Marvel with his own book. (Apparently the first Captain Marvel of Marvel Comics was a bit of an interstellar tomcat like Star Trek’s Captain Kirk. He has at least two other children from different affairs. One of them is his son with the Skrull Princess Annelle; we know him as the Hulkling, a gay character, in The Young Avengers.) With a different Captain Marvel headlining a new series, Monica could not keep the name with which Roger created her, so they had her rechristened as “Photon”. This was yet another comedown. Any super-hero with energy powers could be called “Photon”. This name was nowhere near special enough for this character. And yet...Photon she was. And even as Photon, she was still not restored to her standing in the Avengers.

At least Photon still got to take part in some Avengers missions, even if it was only as a reservist. She got some play in the stories of Kurt Busiek, George Perez, and company. In the opening story of the “Heroes Return” Avengers, she was among the characters with enough of a strong sense of having been an Avenger that she could shake off the effects of Morgana Le Fey’s spell on the world and join Captain America in fighting back. She stood with the Avengers against the menace of Pagan and Templar. She was part of the resistance against Kang the Conqueror’s overthrow of Earth. Roger Stern got to write his creation again in the miniseries Avengers Infinity, in which Photon, Thor, Starfox, Moondragon, Tigra, and the Jack of Hearts faced the threat of the Infinites. That was another of Monica’s shining moments, reunited with the writer who brought her into the world and loved her best. The Avengers Infinity team also took the spotlight in The Avengers Vol. 3 #35, the only story except for her origin in which the former (and still rightful) Captain Marvel was drawn by her originating artist, John Romita Jr.

Perhaps Photon’s greatest moment at this point in her career was her participation in Avengers/JLA, the George Perez-drawn miniseries in which the Avengers met and battled DC’s Justice League of America. This was where Photon actually defeated the Green Lantern! In the epic clash between the two teams, she matched the energy output of the Green Lantern’s ring and sucked all the power out of it, leaving him helpless, and used his power to put a righteous zapping on Firestorm and Captain Atom to boot! That was one of the few stories after her ignominious takedown in which Monica really demonstrated what she’s capable of doing. Talk about “justice”!

And even so, not only has Monica remained on the sidelines, they’ve even gone so far as to take away her name--again! When the first Captain Marvel’s son thoughtlessly assumed the name of Photon, Monica was furious with him at first (as well she should have been), but relented and decided to call herself “Pulsar”. Can you believe it--from Captain Marvel to Photon to Pulsar? Why not just call her Generic Energy Power Woman and have done with it? And even this didn’t stick. Next, they decided to make her the leader of something called Nextwave: Agents of HATE, a group of third-string and lower Marvel heroes in which she called herself “The Captain” and nattered on about having once been the leader of the Avengers. And even more recently, in Ms. Marvel, the robotic hero Machine Man had himself a Life Model Decoy made of the former Captain Marvel who whined about having once been the leader of the Avengers, and onto whose body Machine Man put his own head! So there we have it: Monica Rambeau has gone from Captain Marvel, most powerful (mortal, human) Avenger and leader of the team, to a throwaway character on reserve status, to “Photon” to “Pulsar” to the leader of a lot of third-stringers, and finally to being a JOKE!

But what else could Marvel do with her, right? I mean, after all, she was black, she was female, and she was “too f***ing powerful”.

After Roger Stern was removed as writer of The Avengers, the entire history of the great and awesome super-heroine that he created has been about people taking something away from her. Take away her powers (and almost her life), take away her place in the team, take away her name. And oh yes, she doesn’t even use the costume that John Romita Jr. designed for her any more; let’s rob her of that as well!

I told you last week that this was not going to be a pretty story. As I write this, I have given up on Marvel Comics ever doing right by this magnificent character. She is an unloved, devalued creation, seen as being nothing but fodder for jokes. Here we have this heroine who could have battled the entire Justice League of America single-handedly and probably defeated most of them, this leader who once took the Avengers through a battle with the Greek gods themselves and hurled a bolt of lightning that actually hurt Zeus--and this is all they can do with her.

It’s another one of those situations that make me wash my hands and just say, “They’re not my characters. I have no responsibility for them and no one has ever wanted me to have any responsibility for them, so just let them do whatever they see fit with their property.” No one at Marvel seems to care about this character or have any kind of positive regard for her, and it’s a shame and a disgrace and a waste.

It’s been argued that Monica Rambeau was created as “a placeholder,” a means of retaining Marvel’s rights to the Captain Marvel name and keeping that name “in play” until the company decided what it really wanted to do with the property. The trouble is that the character my old acquaintance Roger Stern created had far greater possibilities. Even at the pinnacle to which Roger took her, she was a character on her way up. Roger had given her a history and a family and the potential for a relationship (there was this Denzel Washington-like government agent character who had his eye on her), and could have made her something truly unique in the super-hero genre: a fully developed, fully realized black, female lead character. This, however, was not to be.

But you know what? No matter what they call her and no matter what indignities they heap on her, she’ll always be Captain Marvel to me.