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Tuesday, November 17, 2009


There's nothing like a show that's both stupid and cool at the same time to bring out the kid in me. That's the feeling I get watching this boxed set of the entire run of JASON OF STAR COMMAND, a live-action sci-fi series from Filmation that ran for two seasons on Saturday mornings starting in 1978. By that time, I had taken to sleeping in on Saturday mornings instead of jumping out of bed to watch TV. But now, through the magic of DVD, I can catch up on what I missed out on the first time around.

Originally just one segment of a 90-minute show called "Tarzan and the Super 7", JASON began as a throwback to the old cliffhanger serials like "Flash Gordon" that used to get the kids flocking back to the theater week after week (with hefty doses of STAR WARS, "Star Trek", "Battlestar Galactica", and "Lost In Space" thrown into the mix as well). And like these old serialized adventures, each eleven-minute chapter has a sensational title such as "Attack of the Dragonship" or "Marooned in Time" and is open-ended, with Jason and his good-guy companions facing certain death at the hands of the evil Dragos (who has dubbed himself "Master of the Cosmos") to keep kids in the late 70s eagerly tuning in from one Saturday morning to the next.

A spin-off of an earlier Filmation production called "Star Academy", and using many of the same sets, models, and costumes, this series centers around the adventures of a secret branch of the Star Academy, located on a city-sized spaceship built on an asteroid, whose job is to protect the galaxy from evildoers like Dragos. Their number-one guy is the brave, adventurous Jason (Craig Littler, who is currently the Gorton's fisherman), described as a "soldier of fortune" even though he isn't one (if he ever made any profit from any of these exploits, they must've been paying him under the table).

He's really Han Solo Lite, right down to an almost identical set of threads and insoucient (though properly sanitized) attitude, and since Han is a soldier of fortune then, by golly, I guess Jason is, too. But he's also a true-blue, straight-arrow good guy type who feels right at home spouting lines like: "You overestimate yourself, Dragos. Never, on all the planets of the galaxy, has evil won out over decency and honesty--and freedom." Tell 'im, Jason!

The female lead in season one is the button-cute Susan O'Hanlon (PRIVATE PARTS, "All My Children") as Captain Nicole Davidoff, Star Command's leading computer expert. She was replaced in season two by Tamara Dobson (CLEOPATRA JONES) as a super-strong alien named Samantha. Charlie Dell (FIGHT CLUB) plays the brilliant but eccentric science officer, Professor E.J. Parsafoot, who shares comedy-relief duties with a couple of cute droids (of course) named Wiki and Peepo.

Season one's "Commander Canarvin" is none other than the redoubtable James "Scotty" Doohan, who then left to do STAR TREK:THE MOTION PICTURE and was replaced in season two by well-known Western actor John Russell (PALE RIDER, THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES) as the stern, blue-skinned Commander Stone. And along the way we see such familiar faces as Julie Newmar, Angelo Rossito, Francine York, and Rosanne Katon in guest roles.

Dragos, the most rotten guy in the universe and sworn enemy of all that is decent, is portrayed by Sid Haig, best known these days as "Captain Spaulding" from Rob Zombie's HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES and THE DEVIL'S REJECTS. He wears a red and black outfit with black platform boots and a cape, and a silver headpiece that makes him look like he just placed dead last in a Borg costume contest. Haig is the Darth Vader of the series, revelling in his various dastardly schemes with eye-rolling delight and frequently letting loose with his trademark maniacal laugh ("MWAAAH- ha-ha-ha-ha-HAAAAAA!!!")

Dragos has the ugliest spaceship in screen history, the dreaded Dragonship, which resembles a mechanical bulldog with a papier-mache' dragon head stuck on it, and his enslaved minions look like a bunch of diseased Wookies with really bad hair. Most of his schemes are along the lines of trying to disable Star Command's defense shields and sending it plunging into a sun or something. MWAAAH- ha-ha-ha-ha-HAAAAAA!!!

The production values would be laughably bad by theatrical standards, but for a Saturday morning kids' series from the 70s they're impressive--cool, even. Much of it consists of STAR WARS-style visual effects done on the cheap, by some of the same technicians, with ingenuity compensating for lack of budget. The model work is good for the most part, and some of the planet sets rival those that Captain Kirk used to wander around in, as do the Star Command interiors. John Beuchler, who went on to make quite a name for himself as a creature-maker as well as a director, populated the series with a multitude of hastily-made but impressive monsters and aliens.

My favorite aspect of the show, however, is the use of stop-motion animated monsters. I love this stuff, from the Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen classics right down to the jerky dinosaurs from BEAST OF HOLLOW MOUNTAIN or TV's "Land of the Lost", and JASON features four or five stop-motion animated creatures with a lot of personality. Which, for me, raises the show's appeal to an even higher level.

With the second season, the show was plucked from the "Tarzan and the Super 7" line-up and given its own half-hour time slot. While the episodes continue to form a loose overall story arc, individual plotlines are wrapped up in just two or three episodes. Dragos gets a brand new Dragonship, and, thank goodness, it's sorta cool and nowhere near as butt-ugly as the first one. He also gets a whole menagerie of beastly Beuchler-built cronies, and they all maniacally laugh their heads off just like Dragos--I think maybe it's catching.

Tamara Dobson fits smoothly into the cast and seems to genuinely enjoy portraying the mysterious Samantha--she and Littler have a good chemistry together--while the fine actor John Russell's no-nonsense demeanor as Commander Stone, who strongly disapproves of Jason's cavalier attitude toward authority, gives the series a welcome and unexpected touch of gravitas. The only drawback is that as Jason and Stone gradually warm up to each other later on, Russell begins to smile more often, which is one of the scariest sights in television history.

The three-disc set includes both seasons of the show and some nice extras. The highlight is a half-hour documentary called "The Adventures of Jason of Star Command", which features interviews with producer Lou Scheimer (sadly, his partner, Norm Prescott, as well as Tamara Dobson, are no longer with us), stars Craig Littler and Sid Haig, John Beuchler, and others involved with the production. It's packed with interesting anecdotes and information about the show. There's also a six-minute special effects demo reel, a photo gallery, episode scripts in PDF format, an episode guide/trivia booklet, and several trailers for other Filmation DVD sets that bring back a lot of Saturday morning memories.

I accidentally found an Easter egg. Put in disc 2 and wait for the menu to appear. Hit "stop", then "play." Some leftover interview footage of guest star John Berwick that wasn't used in the documentary, lasting two or three minutes, should then appear. I tried this with the other two discs but no luck. If you should happen to find any more, let me know.

And last but not least, three of the episodes contain lively commentary tracks with Scheimer, Littler, and Beuchler, among others. But careful, Mom and Dad--at one point, one of them gets so excited about viewing the old series again that he drops the "F" bomb! OOPS!

Scriptwriters include original "Star Trek" vets Samuel A. Peeples ("Where No Man Has Gone Before") and Margaret Armen ("The Paradise Syndrome"). The stories are fast-moving, simple, and often pretty dumb--in a bad-Roddenberry moment, Captain Kidd even pops up in one episode--but they're also a lot of fun, and not nearly as obnoxious as "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century" (with the despicable "Twiki") or the original "Battlestar Galactica" tended to be.

Basically a live-action version of the kind of cartoons Filmation is known for (but without the crummy limited animation), JASON OF STAR COMMAND is corny, cheesy pulp sci-fi for kids, pure and simple, but it's done with such a goofy, unabashed earnestness and childlike sense of adventure that I couldn't help enjoying just about every minute of it.

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