Happy Halloween. (Text below the fold)
Happy Halloween. (Text below the fold)
So here’s the deal. After our little investigation into Zardip’s Search for Healthy Wellness, I thought to myself, “Hey, you should maybe look into that show that the other guest child actor from the second season of War of the Worlds.”
I didn’t think much of Illya Woloshyn in the role of Torri. It was a terrible role that no one could have saved, but he’s Carrie Fisher in The Star Wars Holiday Special levels of glazed over. And, I mean, okay. He’s eight. Hardly any eight-year-olds are decent actors, and the fact that he could take direction, say his lines, and keep a straight face puts him way out ahead of the child actors they keep giving small parts to on Power Rangers.
Despite appearances, Illya Woloshyn must have had some skill, as by 1989, he was already a successful stage actor, having played Gavroche in the 1988 Toronto production of Les Misérables and later in the Canadian touring company. All the same, his TV credits are modest, a string of smallish guest roles, with one exception. From 1992 to 1994, he played the lead in the CBC fantasy adventure-series The Odyssey. So I reckoned I’d watch a bit of it and write an essay about it and that would be the end of it, since clearly, I should not be expecting much, given my past experience with the actor and the most ninetiestastic CGI opening sequence I’ve seen in years.
But here’s the thing: it turned out to be really good. Awkward in some places, sure, derivative in a few ways, okay, and with all the attendant problems of having a large, young cast. But still, really good. And kind of trippy. And it is, to a large extent, exactly the sort of thing that is in my wheelhouse. Not technically post-apocalyptic, but definitely eschaton-adjacent.
And so what I’m going to do is not give you a quick rundown on the series as a whole and then be done with it. What I’m going to do is talk about the first episode. And then I’m going to put it on a shelf and come back to it in more depth at some point in the future. Because you, dear reader, deserve it.
Because here is the basic idea that underlies The Odyssey: It’s Life on Mars crossed with The Tribe. In 1992. There’s other stuff mixed in there too, like shades of The Wizard of Oz and The Prisoner (weirdly, the interesting but misguided 2009 miniseries), but those are the big ones. The Odyssey is, of course, a Castaway Story, a theme that’s come up on this blog before. Specifically, it’s a children’s castaway story, which is a genre that seemed really common when I was a kid. They always had the same setup, more or less. A kid falls down a rabbit hole or gets sucked up by a tornado or gets lost on a carnival dark ride, or gets sucked into a mirror, or falls into a wormhole, or gets kidnapped by a weirdo in a police box, or steps into the Quantum Leap accelerator, and ends up in a surreal otherworld under the rule of a mad queen or witch or sorcerer or music company executive or the Borg, who they have to defeat and/or avoid as they look for a way home, a task at which they continually fail in ways which become increasingly contrived as the series progresses.
Seems like you don’t see this kind of castaway story so much these days. Certainly, none of Dylan’s favorite shows revolve around the idea, The Doctor gives his companions free cell phone upgrades, and while Stargate tried it twice, Atlantis only stuck out the whole “We’re stranded and can’t go home” thing for a season, and Universe revealed the communication stones in the first episode. I’m not entirely sure why, but I’ve got some guesses. The most obvious and banal might be that it sounds exactly like the sort of thing that the focus-group-driven 1990s would crush out as being “inappropriate” for children in much the same way that it was decided that it was probably a bad idea to base a running gag about Big Bird trying to tell adults something very important and true about his buddy Mr. Snuffleupagus (Big Bird can call him “Snuffy”; they’re besties. I will call him Mr. Snuffleupagus) and have them constantly dismiss and disbelieve him. As much as I have a knee-jerk negative reaction to 1990s focus groups, I can kinda see that perhaps it is not the best idea in the world to have children’s media constantly normalize parental abandonment, and that maybe the constant nagging fear that you might be whisked off to a weird place where supernaturally powerful status-quo-preservation forces keep you from ever getting home or seeing your family again is not something with which we ought to burden our children.
But even beyond that, I wonder if the whole idea of being whisked off to a new world and never seeing your family again is something that just doesn’t speak to millennials the way it does to older folks. As the world’s become exponentially more connected over the past few decades, the idea of “We’re moving to a new town so you will never see your old friends again,” doesn’t track with their experience the same way as it did with people from a few decades earlier. In an age before cell phones, Skype, and unlimited long distance, a family member who moved across the country may as well have moved to Mars. And a generation of people who moved back in with their parents after college don’t have the same relationship with the classic American narrative of sticking everything you own in a car and heading off to start a new life on your own in a distant city, so the classic fantasy narrative of being zapped away to Oz (The fictional fantasy land, not Australia.) isn’t one they relate to in the same way: it’s not one that serves as a metaphor for the same real-world anxieties.
Or maybe it’s just that it’s played out. After seven years of watching Captain Janeway spuriously sacrifice her crew in order to find new ways each week to sabotage Voyager’s attempts to get home, lest she break the real Prime Directive (Never ever disrupt the status quo), people were just sick and tired of the series of contrivances. Maybe they used up their ability to watch failure be the only option over and over again. The reasons and excuses just weren’t good enough any more. I still get annoyed at an episode of Kidd Video from 1984 where, to save the status quo, Whiz Kid tells a genie, “I wish my friends and I were safe at home,” and the genie insisted that “safe” and “at home” counted as two separate wishes, in order to grant the former without granting the latter. Cheating bastard. The long and short of the premise is that this kid Jay lapses into a coma due to a head injury and is transported to a surreal otherworld (Apparently called “Downworld”, though I haven’t watched far enough to hear anyone use the term yet), drawn from his subconscious and yet apparently with its own independent existence, populated only by children, counterparts of people from Jay’s waking life, who subsist by scavenging and organize themselves into The Warriors-style flamboyantly themed street gangs.
They waste little time getting started. Jay and his friend Donna (Also inexplicable, a pre-teen girl in 1992 being named “Donna”, as the name had gone pretty much extinct among names for newborns in North America by 1980) are, kind of inexplicably, standing by the side of a suburban street with his dog, playing chess. The local middle school bully Keith has offered Jay membership in his tree fort club in exchange for showing the gang the antique brass pocket telescope he inherited from his missing-presumed-dead father, and Donna thinks this is a terrible idea, what with Keith being a jerk and obviously setting him up. Jay won’t be swayed though, because man is that treehouse hella cool. I mean, it’s got trap doors and a climbing rope on a pulley and it’s surrounded on three sides by a stream and the only way to it is over its own private bridge, and it’s just freaking awesome.
So despite Donna’s reservations, he goes home and retrieves the telescope from a little shrine that includes a framed black-and-white childhood photo of his father in a navy uniform, holding the antique. Okay. Technically there’s nothing weird about someone Jay’s age having a black-and-white photo of his father. All of the childhood photos I’ve seen of my dad are black-and-white. But… Is that the most recent photo they had? That photo is of Jay’s dad at (we will learn by implication) fifteen. And why was his dad in the navy at fifteen?
Jay’s cool spyglass meets with the approval of Keith and the treehouse gang, because World War I-era boy scout gear is all the rage with early ’90s suburban Canadian bullies, and grant him membership in the club. Then Keith pretty much immediately gives the game away by declaring the spyglass their new official lookout device, despite his promise to give it back. Honestly, I don’t know how much to blame Keith here since it didn’t actually seem like he was trying to hide the fact that membership dues consisted of contributing something with which to enrich the fort. He spies Donna approaching via the footbridge — she never gives any specific reason for being there, presumably she’d anticipated the sudden but inevitable betrayal Jay’s about to suffer — and they use the pretense of ordering Jay to send her away to shove him out the (trap) door and shoot water guns at him until he leaves.
Jay has a brief exchange with Donna where neither of them say very much, but it’s communicated pretty clearly that (a) she told him so, but (b) he doesn’t need her rubbing it in right now, however, (3) she’s got his back. Donna gets a lot better as the show goes on, but for right now she kinda bugs me. She’s like every female character in a Dr. Seuss book (Sorry for ruining Dr. Seuss for you, but he’s basically complete shit at writing female characters, and at least once was rude and insulting to “silly women” who called him out on it. There’s some evidence that he did occasionally <em>try</em> to do better at it, but never managed to succeed), existing purely to look disapproving and remind heroic boys that their mother would not approve of him having fun adventures.
All the same, she runs interference for him by… Standing there and looking dour. Realizing that perhaps they should have waited until after Jay completed his assigned task to lock him out, the entire tree fort gang climbs down to get rid of her, taunting her and stealing her glasses and crutch (Donna has some sort of disability and uses a forearm crutch), though Keith seems to realize this crosses a line and gives it back to her a moment later, his indignant bully sneer turning to a look of shame. She just stands there and gives them a resigned, disapproving look.
Jay circles around and slips back into the tree fort, but that treasonous dog gives him away. As the gang forces their way back into the fort to catch him, he tries to escape via the climbing rope, but, what with the whole thing having been designed by twelve-year-olds, the pulley breaks off its mount and drops him down the side of the hill, where he rolls until his head whacks a large rock in a way that does not look at all realistic but nevertheless conveys unambiguously that he’s seriously injured his brain. As he falls, the beloved telescope goes flying into the air, landing in Keith’s hand as though magically drawn to him. He panics and throws it into the stream before hoofing it with the rest of the gang. Donna prods Jay with her crutch and tries to rouse him.
Pshaw. The Doctor as Odin? What idiot would come up with an idea like that?
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Well, why did you think Hasselhoff had that eyepatch?
Oh, I wish I was blowing up Prince Edward Island,
And going on to bomb Ontario!
The destruction of Canada and all of its culture,
Is by far my favorite scenario!
— Tom Servo, The Canada Song
Mystery Science Theater 3000
The Final Sacrifice
It is September 1, 1988, probably. Peter Gabriel tops the charts with “Monkey”. Super Mario Bros. 2 is released in the US. A momentary lull in world events makes this a slow news day. Nothing much is going on in the world, especially Seattle, which is in the second day of a blackout that’s going to last until Sunday. Nothing much is going on on TV, what with the strike.
In Canada, as usual, things are weird. Canada, of course, isn’t quite a real place for most Americans. We have some basic understanding that it exists, and that it’s distinct from the United States, primarily in ways that seem slightly silly to us. But mostly it’s a kind of abstraction: a place that seems like nowhere in particular, but still somehow familiar, and we kinda understand that its cities look like every major US city we see on TV, and its forests look like every alien planet on Stargate SG-1, and its hospitals look like every spooky hospital on The X-Files, and people pronounce “About” funny and are suspiciously polite, and that they didn’t think that being independent of the rule of a tax-raising, gun-grabbing, insane tyrant was a big enough deal to be worth fighting a war over. We know it as the semimythical land of origin for characters who seem like they could not be so mundane as to have come from any real place anyway, like Alanis Morisette, William Shatner, Drake, Pamela Anderson, the Barenaked Ladies, Keanu Reeves, Ryan Reynolds, Avril Lavigne, Mike Myers, Jim Carrey, Justin Bieber, Peter Cullen, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. We know it as a place we can describe someone as being from to excuse them being just a bit peculiar, as in Sliders, where they’d frequently claim to be Canadian to justify their ignorance about the local customs. We know it as a place that produces dimes which treacherously hide themselves in our change, waiting to foil our attempts to use a vending machine. But I kid, of course, which is a thing we know we can do because Canada’s a tremendously polite sort of country with an unbounded capacity to just sit back and listen to people say absolute crazy bullshit and remain polite to them without flying off the handle even if they’re clearly asking for it. They’re sort of the Jon Stewart of countries.
About twenty-five years ago now, my sister had to write a report about Canada for a grade school class, the angle of which was something along the lines of explaining the pros and cons of being forcibly relocated there from the US (I have no idea). In helping her to do her research, my mother was shocked to discover such factoids as that Canadians enjoy freedom of speech, freedom of religion, free assembly, an elected government, [herein was meant to be a reference to freedom from the quartering of troops in peacetime, but none of the Canadians I talked to knew whether or not that was actually legal in Canada], and private property. She was doubly shocked to discover that being transplanted unexpectedly from the US to Canada basically had no downside, at least, not if you already speak a little bit of French.
But Canada is not merely a convenient place for American television makers to send a camera crew to record some footage on the cheap. In fact, Canada produces a great deal of its own media, the Canadian government recognizing the value of maintaining and reinforcing their own cultural identity in the face of being right next door to a gigantic superpower whose only remaining export is massively popular pop culture artifacts.
And a result of that is that Canada produces a lot of TV which is, in Canada, entirely mainstream, entirely respectable, non-marginal programming that could never possibly get made in the US with Hollywood’s cultural imperative to never do anything that might make less than the absolute maximum amount of money by not doing anything too weird or alienating like including fantastical elements in a show that is primarily a straight drama. So you get shows like Being Erica, about a young woman trying to make her way in the publishing industry. Whose therapist has the power of time travel. Or The Listener, about an EMT who consults for the Canadian equivalent of the FBI. Using his power to hear the thoughts of others.
Your standard Canadian shows don’t get a lot of time on US broadcast TV, of course, since that’s time that could be more profitably devoted to Law and Order spin-offs and reality shows. But there’s one big exception. Children’s television, particularly in the 1980s, is infamous for being made and distributed by people who gave zero fucks. As I’ve repeatedly said, quality in children’s shows of the 1980s was largely accidental, the result of writers who happened to be talented allowed to do whatever they wanted because the people in charge didn’t care. And if there happened to be a nearby country that was producing a bunch of children’s television on the cheap that fulfilled network standards for educational programming, heck, they’d take it. And thus did American children of the 1980s and 1990s learn the wonders of such programs as Arthur (A series in which Dudley Moore played a loveably alcoholic anteater), Read All About It! (A rather amazing series about three kids who learn English and Canadian history from ghosts while fighting an intergalactic warlord who plots to take over the Earth through subverting local zoning ordinances), Today’s Special (A long-running series about the cursed existence of a department store mannequin who’s been granted sentience but only during the nighttime hours and so long as he never sets foot outside the store), Inspector Gadget (A fusion of The Pink Panther, Get Smart! and Robocop, featuring hilariously criminal child endangerment), The Magic Schoolbus (A political tract opposing tenure for teachers by chronicling the history of child endangerment by an unfirable grade school teacher with satanic powers), Are You Afraid of the Dark? (In retrospect, the least scary show on this list), and ReBoot (A weaponized form of motion sickness), or as they call it in Canada, “Rebout”.
Today, we’re going to talk about one that did not, as far as I know, ever get any airplay south of the border. You’ll recall that back in our discussion of “Loving the Alien“, we were introduced to Canadian actor/singer/writer/director/producer Keram Malicki-Sánchez, who played the alien boy Ceeto. Already an established child actor since at least 1984, Keram had just recently starred in an educational series for TVOntario that would allegedly garner a cult following over the years as VHS copies became a regular fixture in grade school health classes for years afterward.
I say “allegedly” because for a “cult” show, there’s remarkably little concrete information about it on the internet. No two sources have the same episode list. IMDb lists nine episodes, but a catalog listing from an educational resources company refers to it as a twenty-part series. I haven’t found exact airdates. There’s no fansites I’ve been able to locate or capsule summaries of the episodes. It’s technically possible the whole thing is a complicated hoax.
Except for what does exist. Which is two episodes of the series that were uploaded by Constant Change Media, Keram’s media group. They’re out of context, and seem like they might be part of a continuing storyline, but who can tell? The two episodes seem intended to go back-to-back, but the one episode listing I found that had both of them placed them at opposite ends of the season.
So what exactly is Zardip’s Search for Healthy Wellness? Nothing less than that most obscure of television genres, Single-Topic Science Fiction Made-for-public-TV Educational Miniseries. If you’ve been hanging around long enough to remember my coverage of Tomes and Talismans, you’ll know that this sort of thing is absolutely my bag. And more than that, I sort of love in general things that have an entirely inappropriate level of detail. Like highly detailed scale models, and model railroads, and PSAs with plots, and the stop-motion/tilt-shift/cgi title sequence to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and the overbleed in a pop-up book where there’s some detail under the flaps that is legitimately part of the picture but isn’t meant to be visible.
Zardip is like that, in its way. There’s a curious intersection here: this is a low-budget educational series. No one was making a lot of money for making it, and it was intended for an essentially captive audience. There is basically zero incentive to put any effort into this. But paradoxically, it’s not inherently ephemeral. Almost exactly the opposite. As an educational project, the pittance spent on its production was meant to produce a product that could be used for educational purposes for a very long time: we watched Read All About It! in my fifth grade reading class a full decade after it had originally aired.
And, as I hope I’ve made clear, you don’t get to be the sort of person who succeeds in the media industry by being inclined to halfass it. And Keram Malicki-Sánchez has a resume that makes Disney Triple Threats look like slackers. Let’s be clear here: Zardip’s Search for Healthy Wellness is not what one would call a “good” television show by any of the usual standards. But it is a show that is packed full of little moments which are… Well, “good” is too strong of a word. But certainly far better than this concept actually deserves.
What’s the concept? You’ll probably want to be sitting down for this. Zardip Pacific is an alien robot from a distant planet of robots. Zardip’s people are suffering from chronic mechanical breakdowns. The overmind of this robot planet, known as “The Highship”, has, I gather, discovered that the people of Earth are self-maintaining, and has Zardip transformed into some kind of human simulacrum and sent to Canada in order to learn the, ahem, secret of Healthy Wellness.
And if that does not sound like the most wonderfully bonkers setup for a TV show, I would dearly like some of what you’re drinking. Obviously, you can’t expect the content to live up to the premise, but still. Robot. Comes to Earth. To learn grade-school health and hygiene. To save his planet. Of robots.
The opening sequence is a beautiful piece of eightiestastic Video Toaster cheese. It looks like the title sequence from Blake’s Seven mated with the title sequence from Kids Incorporated. The smooth sounds of ’80s easy listening performed on a Casio SK-1 inform us that, “From a place far, far away / Comes a friend to find the way / To be healthy and be strong / Come with him, come along…” A title screen that is way too metal for this show gives way to a cast of actors who aren’t in either of these episodes (Or, for that matter, anything else. Hardly any of these performers went on to do anything else), using that old-school transition effect where each image sort of flies off into the distance leaving behind a ghostly purple trail.
Content Warning: The following article includes discussions of sexual and emotional abuse and coercion.
It is March 23, 1782, September 9, 1959, September 24, 1985, December 21, 1988, November 17, 1989, and March 5, 1999. Yep. It’s going to be another of those weird ones.
In Ohio, 96 Christian Lenape are massacred by Pennsylvania militiamen at the missionary village of Gnadenhutten. The Netherlands officially recognizes the United States of America. Charles Watson-Wentworth becomes the Prime Minister of England. Atlas Missile 10-D carries an unmanned Mercury capsule into space, testing its heat shield. Soviet spacecraft Luna 2 is the first man-made object to smack into the moon. A week later, Nikita Kruschev would present President Eisenhower with a reproduction of the pennant it carried. The wreck of the Titanic is located by Dr. Robert Ballard and Jean-Louis Michel. Steve Jobs leaves Apple to found NeXT. An 8.1 earthquake hits Mexico city, killing ten thousand and injuring another thirty thousand. Pan Am flight 103 is blown up over Lockerbie. Roy Orbison dies. Benazier Bhutto becomes the Prime Minister of Pakistan. The Berlin Wall falls in Germany, and the Velvet Revolution begins in Czechoslovakia. The Dow closes for the first time at over 10,000. NATO launches air strikes against Yugoslavia.
Topping the charts are Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with String Quartet in G and Symphony No. 35 in D, Joseph Haydn with Symphony No. 73 in D, The Browns with “The Three Bells”, Dire Straits with “Money for Nothing”, Poison with “Every Rose Has its Thorn”, Bad English with “When I See You Smile”, and Monica with “Angel of Mine”. On the stage, you can watch Richard Cumberland’s comic play “The Walloons”, or stay home and enjoy radio host Robert Q. Lewis guesting on on I’ve Got a Secret, the pilot for Growing Pains, Christmas specials of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and Night Court, the second part of that Perfect Strangers episode with James Noble, an episode of Just the Ten of Us coincidentally titled “Dangerous Liaisons”, the pilot episode of short-lived FOX demon-hunting series Brimstone, the Stargate SG-1 episode “1969”, or Olympic Gold Medalist Michelle Kwan skating to Disney’s greatest hits.
I mentioned recently that the very first thing I bought on amazon.com was a hardcover copy of the eighteenth century epistolary novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Ambroise François Choderlos de Laclos on March 14, 1999. What prompted me to pull the trigger was, and I don’t recall the exact circumstances leading up to it, I ended up going to see this movie Cruel Intentions which had just come out in theaters, and about five to ten minutes into it, I suddenly realized that this hip and sexy teen movie was a straight-up adaptation of a play I’d seen about a year prior when either the Charles Street Players or the Evergreen Players (Can’t remember which) put on a performance of Christopher Hampton’s 1985 play Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which I’d rather liked. And besides, I’d also recently read Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, another 1780s epistolary novel which I’d… I won’t say “liked”, but it was very meaningful to me (I was going through some stuff).
In a lot of ways, Liaisons is kind of the anti-Werther. Where Goethe (and most epistolary novels, really, and, for that matter, found footage movies) use the device to increase intimacy, giving the impression that we are privy to the characters’ most private thoughts, the letters in Liaisons are full of contradictions and deceptions. They lie to each other. They concoct complex deceptions. Even characters who are conspiring together will misdirect each other. Rather than “legitimizing” the narrative, it instead keeps us constantly aware of the artifice: we are seeing exactly what each character wishes to present.
Pierre Ambroise François Choderlos de Laclos was a career military man. He’d wanted to go to America to help in the revolution, as many prominent French generals had done, but couldn’t afford it. Instead he got stuck on a boring assignment fortifying a little island I’ve never heard of whose most notable feature seems to be that it kinda looks like a penis and scrotum. To pass the time, and, I assume, inspired by the local geography, he decided to take a stab at literary immortality by writing a novel about the decadent hedonism of the minor aristocracy. Nailed it on the first try, really. The novel was fantastically successful, and spurred on by that success, he never wrote another novel again, but did go on to several lesser accomplishments such as inventing the artillery shell and numbering the streets of Paris. He was a staunch believer in Republican Revolutionary-era French sense: someone who wanted a constitutional republic rather than an insane, inbred, terminally daft monarch who reckoned the peasants were essentially a funny sort of farm animal ideals, and supported the revolution aligning himself with the Jacobins, but eventually got himself (fairly or not, I don’t know) branded an Orleaniste (That is, someone who wanted modern UK-style constitutional monarchy with a representative government and a king as a largely ceremonial head of state) and thrown in jail. He was narrowly spared from the guillotine by virtue mostly of just running out the clock on the Reign of Terror. He tried and failed to get into banking and diplomacy before returning to the army under Napoleon until his death in 1803.So when it turned out that our little trip through the nexus with War of the Worlds brought us, at the same point in the overarching narrative, in two different years, to the point where a film adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses was released in the US, well, that was just too weird of a coincidence not to take a closer look.
The story had already been adapted to the screen once before. Roger Vadim had made an adaptation set in a contemporary French ski resort back in 1959 with a jazz soundtrack by Thelonious Monk (Downside to being a child of the ’80s, the cool Jazz soundtrack for the seduction scenes makes me think of nothing so much as Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood), which had been the most successful French-made film in years, but was barred from export by the French government as it was, “unrepresentative of French film art.” When it finally made it to the states several years later, its frank sexuality prompted censorship and protests.
Both 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons and 1989’s Valmont return the story to its original setting in the last years of the Ancien Régime, but the former is based on the Hampton play, while the latter is adapted more directly from the book. Cruel Intentions rewrites the story to revolve around socialites at a modern New York prep school.
There’s been a handful of further adaptations: 2003 gave us Untold Scandal, retelling the story in Joseon Dynasty Korea and a French TV miniseries which, like the first movie, moved events to the 1960s Parisienne social scene. In 2005, Michael Lucas’s sexually explicit adaptation shifted the setting to the New York fashion industry, and the 2012 Chinese Dangerous Liaisons moved the setting to 1930s Shanghai. But I haven’t seen any of those, and don’t have the time to work past the language barrier, since my French isn’t passable, and I don’t speak a word of Korean, Mandarin, or Gay Porn, so I’m going to be focusing on the pre-century versions.
So, the plot. Okay. Deep breath.
I think it’s a bit interesting that there seems to be a bit of a tradition of casting a nontraditional romantic lead in the role of Valmont. I mean, I know that Alan Rickman and John Malkovitch and Colin Firth have all inspired their share of happy-pantsfeels, but I tend to think of them as the sorts of actors who you’re always meant to be surprised by in romantic roles. And one of my roommates may have had a crush on Ryan Philippe, but even he spends most of the movie playing down his looks. When I saw it back in ’97 or ’98, Valmont was played by Ian Oldaker, who, college theater being what it is (that is, a place where you’ll get a talented and versatile young actor from time to time, but getting more than one at the same time probably requires collusion), got a lot of the leading roles during that part of the ’90s. I remember noting at the time that he seemed maybe just a bit sinister for a role that involved many easy seductions. But a bit later, he also played the lead in Richard III, and that really drove home something about the character of Valmont for me: he isn’t meant to be straightforwardly handsome: Valmont is possibly the literary antecedent of the Sexy Bad Boy. In direct contrast to Merteuil, who, as she admits, is forced due to her societal role to trade on her looks, Valmont’s primary weapon is not his appearance but his charm. And ever since, I’ve implicitly imagined a kind of kinship between Richard of Gloucester and the Vicomte de Valmont, most particularly in Richard’s easy seduction of Lady Anne at the end of the second scene:
Was ever woman in this manner wooed?
Was ever woman in this manner won?
Upon my life, she finds, although I cannot,
Myself to be a marvellous proper man.
I’ll be at charges for a looking-glass,
And entertain some score or two of tailors,
To study fashions to adorn my body:
Since I am crept in favour with myself,
Will maintain it with some little cost.
But first I’ll turn yon fellow in his grave;
And then return lamenting to my love.
Shine out, fair sun, till I have bought a glass,
That I may see my shadow as I pass… In 1780s France, or 1950s France, or 1990s New York, The Vicomte de Valmont (Gérard Philipe as “Valmont de Merteuil”, Alan Rickman, John Malkovitch, Colin Firth, Ryan Philippe as “Sebastian Valmont”) and the Marquise de Merteuil (Jeanne Moreau as “Juliette de Merteuil”, Lindsay Duncan, Glenn Close, Annette Benning, Sarah Michelle Gellar as “Kathryn Merteuil”) are former lovers and present, let’s say, “frenemies” (Or a married couple in an open relationship, or stepsiblings), whose hobbies include dueling, the theater, and seducing, abusing, humiliating, and eventually discarding the young gentry. Merteuil wants Valmont to seduce fifteen-year-old Cécile Volanges (Jeanne Valérie, Leslie Manville, Uma Thurman, Faruzka Balk, Selma Blair as “Cecile Caldwell”) to get revenge against her former lover, Le Comte de Gercourt (Or “Court”), to who Cecile is engaged. Valmont isn’t initially interested, as he considers bedding underage girls too easy, and prefers the challenge of pursuing the married and notoriously prudish Présidente de Tourvel (Annette Vadim as “Marianne Tourvel”, Juliette Stevenson, Michelle Pfeifer as “Marie de Tourvel”, Meg Tilly, Reese Witherspoon as “Annette Hargrove”). He comes around when he finds out that Cécile’s mother, Madame de Volanges (Simone Renant, Fiona Shaw, Swoosie Kurtz, Siân Philips, Christine Baranski as “Bunny Caldwell”) has been badmouthing him to Tourvel. Also, Valmont is still lusting after Mertuil, and they make a side-bet that if he can provide written evidence of having successfully bedded Tourvel, she’ll sleep with him.
Cécile has meanwhile fallen in love with her music teacher, Monsieur le Chevalier Danceny (Jean-Louis Trintignant, Sean Baker, Keanu Reeves as “Le Chevalier Raphael Danceny”, Henry Thomas, Sean Patrick Thomas as “Ronald Clifford”), a thoroughly unsuitable match as he’s poor (or in one case black) or something. Mertuil and Valmont use the pretext of helping the two lovers to take advantage of them while simultaneously outing them to Madame de Volanges, and encouraging her not to let the two be together (Though she’s never thrilled about it, in some versions, Mme. Volanges is willing to allow a match between her daughter and Danceny, but what Merteuil wants is a disgraced Cécile married to Gercourt). Valmont seduces and/or rapes Cécile, and Merteuil persuades her to accept Valmont as an, ahem, private anatomy tutor. This may or may not lead to Cécile getting pregnant, after which she may or may not miscarry. Merteuil seduces Danceny, and possibly Cécile as well, but not at the same time (There’s a passage where it kinda sounds like Valmont bangs Danceny too at one point, but I’m not sure).
While this is going on, Valmont is also sleeping with Émilie (Mary Jo Randle, Laura Benson), a courtesan. After bedding her in scene four, he flips her over, slaps a piece of paper on her back, and composes a love-letter to Tourvel (Which, naturally, begins, “I have just come… To my desk.”). Later in scene thirteen, after he’s won her over, Tourvel sees them together and accuses him of making time with a socially unacceptable person. Valmont insists that their relationship is entirely innocent, and that Émilie is trying to rehabilitate her image. Now, in the script (and in Dangerous Liaisons), what he says is, “She’s done a little secretarial work for me on occasion.” But when I saw the play, what Valmont actually said was, “I’ve been employing her as a secretary.” It is just about the funniest callback joke I have ever seen on stage, even if I was the only one in the audience who got it. If there’s time, Valmont’s manservant and/or buddy Azolan (Christopher Wright, Oh, hey, hi there Peter Capaldi, Ian McNiece, Joshua Jackson as “Blaine Tuttle”) seduces Tourvel’s maid and/or closeted ex-boyfriend in order to get insider information, possibly by blackmailing her after he contrives to walk in on them. Through an uneasy combination of subterfuge, genuinely trying to be a good guy, and guilt tripping, Valmont eventually wins the heart (and other bits) of Tourvel, but falls in love with her in the process. Merteuil either becomes jealous or just wants to mess with Valmont and manipulates him into breaking Tourvel’s heart, whereupon she either retires to a convent and dies of one of those broken-heart-related illnesses that was always striking down women from books written prior to World War I, or goes insane, or goes back to her forgiving husband, or somehow ends up inheriting Valmont’s Jaguar.
Merteuil refuses to hold up her end of the deal with Valmont (It’s not in the rehearsal script, but if I’m remembering correctly, in the production I saw, she does offer him a half-hearted pity-fuck to add insult to injury, which also kinda happens in Valmont), leading the two to declare war on each other. Valmont breaks up her and Danceny by telling him how he was being used, but Merteuil counters by telling Danceny what Valmont had been up to with Cécile. Danceny challenges Valmont to a duel, or sucker-punches him when he’s falling down drunk, or chases him down in the street and throws down with him, and Valmont is either bested because Danceny is a better duelist, or because he gets cocky and isn’t taking the duel seriously, or because he’s heartbroken and no longer caresThe script to the play says he gets careless after Danceny gets in a lucky hit, but in the performance I saw, Valmont easily dominates the fight, then just sort of gets tired of it, throws up his arms, and literally walks into Danceny’s sword. Dangerous Liaisons is similar, but more ambiguous: Valmont drops his sword and turns around, possibly intending to concede, and gets run through by a charging Danceny who can’t stop in time. We don’t even see the climax of the fight in Valmont, instead opting for a comical reaction shot from Ian McNeice. , or he falls onto the hearth and breaks his skull, or because Annette got knocked into the street trying to break up the fight and he got hit by cab saving her. Before he dies, he professes his love for Tourvel and gives either her or Danceny his collected letters and/or memoirs of the whole sordid affair.
Cécile goes back to the convent to become a nun, or she marries Gercourt while pregnant with Valmont’s kid, or maybe her and Danceny get together if he manages to avoid jail time. Merteuil is publicly shamed by the release of her letters, or privately shamed and tacitly blackmailed by the non-release of her letters, or expelled for carrying around a cocaine-filled rosary, and may or may not end up physically disfigured either because she set herself on fire trying to burn Valmont’s letters or because she caught smallpox while fleeing to the countryside. And then you put the fox in the boat and bring the chicken back.
I mean, lots of stories have love triangles. Les Liaisons Dangereuses has love parallelepipeds. Well, for a certain value of “love”.
A salient question at this point might be, “Why do I like it?” Fair enough. It doesn’t really sound like the sort of thing I should like. It is, basically, a story about terrible people doing terrible things to each other. We’re encouraged by the way the narrative is structured to view Valmont as the nominal hero despite the fact that he is, I do not intend to let this slide, a rapist the style of the novel is sufficiently coy, and its narrators sufficiently unreliable that it’s not entirely clear just how predatory his actions really were — it’s not even entirely clear, since we only have Cécile’s vague and emotional accounting of the incident, whether he forces anything more than a kiss on her — but the Hampton play is explicit on this point. Other adaptations vary considerably on this point, generally making Valmont manipulative but not necessarily coercive— in fact, he seems to inhabit a subculture that makes meaningful consent impossible. And Merteuil’s treatment of Cécile afterward sounds no different from the sort of rape apologia you still hear today, accusing her of having enjoyed it and attributing her lamentations purely to puritanical regret after-the-fact. Most of the female characters end up dead, deformed, or removed from society, and Valmont wins Tourvel largely through Urkeling: he begs and nags and publicly laments and ignores her refusals until she finally wears out and gives in. And I fucking hate Urkeling.
Would it surprise you tremendously to learn that Laclos was a feminist? I mean, it was the eighteenth century so it’s unlikely his feminism would be something hugely recognizable as such to a modern feminist. But he did write a book advocating for women’s education and women’s rights, and he did get caught up in all that French Revolution stuff about being a hard-liner for Capital-É Égalité.
And remarkably, this comes through in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Many of the Marquise de Merteuil’s letters — practically all of the sincere ones — make reference to the fraught position women held with respect to the sexual double-standard (ideas that would be echoed, say, by Wollstonecraft): Valmont is happy to be reputed a cad, while Merteuil must exercise the utmost care in her dalliances to ensure that she never leaves her lovers in a position to discredit her — indeed, there’s a parallel plot thread in the novel rarely included in adaptations (Though it somehow makes its way into the plot of Cruel Intentions 3) that not much prior to Valmont’s assault of Cécile, Merteuil had allowed herself to be seduced by another infamous philanderer, and disposed of him by falsely accusing him of rape. When she advises Cécile to take Valmont as a lover, she explains that their culture grants few enough advantages to women, and that she ought to enjoy them. It reminds me a bit of Iago warning Othello about, “the green-eyed monster”: yes, she’s deliberately misleading and abusing Cécile to her own ends, but what she’s actually saying is still a hard truth she’s learned from experience.
And how about that Urkeling? Remember the cliché of the Urkel: the character pursues relentlessly, ignores rejection, and eventually wins the girl largely because he’s “paid his dues”, as though a woman were like a twelfth-level spell that you’re due once you’ve grinded enough XP. And we are meant to accept and approve of this because he’s a “nice guy” who loves her way more than those handsome but immature jocks and bad boys she keeps dating, and she would totally see that if she weren’t such a shallow bitch.
But does Valmont measure up on that scale? It starts out well enough, only halfway through, it all kind of falls apart. Valmont is not a “nice guy”. Valmont is a cad. His love is not pure; it’s a pretense. He isn’t way better for her, and she isn’t more interested in shallow, attractive jocks (Her husband never appears in person, but he’s apparently much older and seems for all the world
like a stand-up guy). The Urkel Plot is about a woman who needs to be made better by learning to accept the love of a suitor deemed unworthy. That is just about the furthest thing in the world from what happens in Les Liaisons Dangereuses: lowering herself to love Valmont is Tourvel’s undoing. Becoming a better man (Valmont commits himself to charitable acts to help rehabilitate his image) and legitimately falling in love is Valmont’s salvation, insofar as anyone in this story can be “saved”. This is practically a parody of an Urkel plot.
And that, in large part, is what I like about it. Les Liaisons Dangereuses is not a love story. It is not even a story about sex. It is not a story that cares about loveIn fact, there’s a charming little footnote in the novel to Letter 39, where Cécile declares to a friend from school her intention from this point on to write to Danceny to, “only talk to him of my love,” and cut out all the intriguey bullshit. To this, a footnote explains, “We shall hereafter suppress Cécile Volanges and Chevalier Danceny’s letters, being uninteresting.” It is a story about power and control. In fact, this odd little eighteenth century French novel does more to indict rape culture than you see in most modern works. Valmont pulls out every trick from the Nice Guy handbook, but unlike Xander Harris or Ross Gellar or Steve Urkel, the narrative doesn’t demand that we go along with it: it tells us from the start that he’s a jerk and an asshole who’s manipulating and abusing people. It completely dismisses the popular rape-apologetic myth of the “boner werewolf”: all Valmont’s protests about being unable to control his passions are transparent lies, and even his rape of Cécile is very explicitly about power rather than passion. Liaisons does what most depictions of sexual predation drop the ball on, and remains clear that Valmont’s treatment of women is not based around an uncontrollable sexual desire, but rather around a rapacious ideology. It’s not about getting his end away, or even about something as banal as collecting a list of conquests, but about what he can compel out of people. In Dangerous Liaisons, for instance, Tourvel’s maid Julie offers herself to him when he threatens to expose her affair with Azolan, but he’s utterly uninterested: what he wants out of that conquest isn’t sex but inside information. In a minor side-plot of the novel (Which hasn’t been included in any of the adaptations I’ve seen), he manages, just to prove he can, to shag a Vicountess while her husband and her boyfriend are downstairs, then convinces her to fake a robbery attempt to help him cover his presence, and then gets her boyfriend to shag him in gratitude for his “heroism”.
They may be framed as libertines, but the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont are practically Ayn Rand characters, ruled not by their passions but by their philosophies. And apparently (per French author and statesman André Malraux), they’re the first characters in European literature to be like that. But unlike actual Ayn Rand characters, we’re supposed to despise them for it. Like a pair of Sith Lords, they pull strings and arrange events such that forwarding their goals becomes the best interest of their victims. Only flirt with those you intend to refuse; then you acquire a reputation for invincibility, whilst slipping safely away with the lover of your choice. A poor choice is less dangerous than an obvious choice. Never write letters. Get them to write letters. Always be sure they think they’re the only one. Win or die. —Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1985), Act I, Sc. 4 Victory for Valmont is for the target of his game to willingly give him what he wants. For Merteuil, it’s to convince her victim that he’s taken what he wanted, only to find that claiming his prize will be his own destruction.
And yet… Valmont is capable of true love, even if it undoes him. And it’s difficult to argue with Merteuil’s logic about her own position and pursuits. If there is a moral lesson to be found in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and I’m not entirely sure there is, perhaps it’s this: that Valmont and Merteuil are not evil simply because of some flaw in their characters or some stain in their souls or because their hearts are two sizes too small. Rather, they are evil because they are part of a society which shapes their particular inclinations and tendencies into something evil. Merteuil must play the manipulative seductress because for an aristocratic woman in France in 1782, the only publicly acknowledged relationship between a man and a woman must be one of subjugation. Valmont must play the cad because for an aristocratic man in France in 1782, masculinity can not be separated from conquest.
At least they didn’t call them homo reptilia. That would be obviously wrong. Text below the fold.
No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water... Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.
— The bit of The War of the Worlds you’re
contractually obligated to quote at the beginning of this sort of thing.
No one would have believed in the last years of the twentieth century that our wallets were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences less than man’s and yet as venial as his own; that as fanboys busied themselves about their various concerns, they were scrutinized and studied, perhaps as narrowly as a marketer with a focus group might scrutinize the transient memes that swarm and multiply in a subreddit… Yet in the television production studios of Hollywood, intellectual property lawyers and brand strategists that are to our brand consciousness as ours is to discount grocery story generics regarded our disposable income with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the 1990s came the great disillusionment.
From where I am sitting as I write this, I can see three starships Enterprise (The inflatable one I mentioned before, a large die cast Franklin Mint model, and an Art Asylum model with cutaway view. The rest are consigned to the room we refer to as an office, but really it’s just where we keep the printer and the toys Dylan isn’t allowed to play with either because they were confiscated for bad behavior or because they’re mine), a woodcut Joker, a vinyl statue of Batman, a set of Mickey Mouse characters dressed up as Star Wars characters, a black Megaforce Power Ranger, a 24-inch-tall Voltron, six sonic screwdrivers (including this one), a hat in the shape of Pikachu’s head, the soundtrack CD to Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, a ten gallon tote filled to the brim with Transformers Rescue Bots, an 18-inch tall Optimus Prime, and a T-shirt bearing the image of Optimus Prime in the style of the poster for the 1982 film TRON (being worn).
Back in the mythical land of the 1980s, the market for merchandising television shows wasn’t quite like it is today. You could get Disney-owned properties stamped onto pretty much any sort of child-sized object you liked, of course. I had a set of Weebles, tin plates and an area rug emblazoned with Winnie-the-Pooh. Kid’s shows, or shows with broad child appeal, had toys — the first licensed toy I remember owning was a Knight Rider dashboard. My fondest youthful memories of television are linked intimately with a number of shows which, if we are being honest, existed only to serve as advertisements for toy lines — The Transformers, of course, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, and the complicated case of Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future. As usual, I will reiterate that these toyetic franchises of the 1980s were by no means devoid of awesomeness, but their best qualities tended to come about not by design, but by the happy accident of promising young writers still honing their skills being told by the producer, “We literally give zero fucks what you write as long as you sell the toys.” Another sort of Great Disillusionment would come in the early 90s when the industry would be invaded by cool and unsympathetic child psychologists, all convinced they’d worked out the secret to appealing to children despite having never apparently met any. They were without fail done on the cheap. They tended to be show-accurate only in a sort of Pablo Picasso kind of way (The Knight Rider dashboard was really quite shockingly lacking in a “Turbo Boost” button). What you didn’t have back then was the notion of an “adult collector” market. I mean, if a grown-up wanted to buy up cheaply made toys at inflated prices and then keep them in their boxes for thirty years, that was cool and all, but no one was going to make highly-detailed show-accurate Cagney and Lacey action figures, and no one was clamoring for a 1:128 scale replica of The Love Boat. And once you got outside the realm of toys, things dropped off pretty quickly. You weren’t going to find a Che Guevarra-style art print of Charlotte Rae as Edna Garrett (A thing which I now command to exist. Get on it, The Internet) or a T-shirt bearing the slogan, “What’chu Talkin ‘Bout, Willis?” in adult sizes. Hardly anything had a home video release, only a handful of things had associated books, and literally nothing at all had a website.
This would all change, eventually. I suspect Japan was an influence, with its Otaku subculture normalizing the idea that it was plausible to market high-end media tie-in products to unmarried men in their mid-twenties who had nothing better to do with their money than to take a little respite from what an unrelenting slog life as a grown-up can be. It became, if not entirely mainstream, at least, no longer a “check his basement for dismembered bodies”-red flag if a grown man owned a 3/4 scale bust of Spider-Man.
All of this is a very long-winded way of saying that there isn’t much in the way of official merch associated with War of the Worlds the series. There are, to my knowledge, three things. J.M. Dillard’s novelization of the pilot we have already discussed in detail. Knifesmith Jack Crain designed Ironhorse’s distinctive tomahawk and the unusual knife (Which I have since learned is called a “battle baton”) I pointed out back in “The Second Seal”. He’s been selling replicas since 1989, and they’re available from his website even today. I have a small collection of interesting-looking knives and swords (Part of me wants to get a Klingon Bat’leth, but if I got one, I know how I’d die: freak pizza-cutting accident), but the going rate for the Battle Baton is far beyond what I’d be interested in paying, and I don’t think I could quite cope with owning something that would change my “small collection of interesting-looking knives” into the kind of thing you’re supposed to declare on your insurance policy.
If you wanted something else, something tangible, to do with War of the Worlds, then, you were pretty much going to have to step outside the bounds of properties officially sanctioned and licensed by Paramount. Oh yes, I am talking about fan-works. Fan produced works enjoy a legally ambiguous state due to the inherent vagueness of concepts such as “derived work” and “substantially original” and “transformative” and “fair use”, and anyone who tells you that the legal situation is clear-cut one way or the other is either an idiot or being paid, and that disclaimer you put at the beginning saying that you don’t own the characters has the legal force of just putting a tiny crucifix at the top and asking Jesus to keep you from getting sued. The realpolitik is that what’s legal and what’s “fair use” is largely a function of who’s making the claim and how much money they’re willing to pay a lawyer, and I really don’t want to talk about it more than that because a family friend once had his life ruined due to spurious intellectual property claims by a certain organization which has a blue roof and once served my family raw chicken tenders. Anyway, Paramount has not always been very nice about this sort of thing, but in recent years they’ve been pretty laid back about letting people make all the homebrew Star Trek they want so long as they don’t make money off of it, which is tremendously decent of them.
If, as it seems we are, we’re talking about fanworks in the 1980s, then we’re not talking about Kindle Worlds or fanfiction.net, or probably even USENET. We’re talking about fanzines. And here, I’d make a joke about you not knowing what that word even means, but given that my readership is like five people, and one of them stopped reading when they realized this article wasn’t about forestry, I’ll let it slide. Amateur press publications date back at least to the 19th century, farther if
you count stuff like Benjamin Franklin self-publishing on the side in his spare time between doing actual publishing, inventing electricity, inventing stoves, inventing democracy, coining aphorisms, and banging French prostitutes. By the 1920s, readers of pulp genre fiction magazines had started collecting, collating and reproducing their letters of praise, constructive criticism, and/or angry incoherent rants on ditto machines to distribute to like-minded fellow readers. They increased in sophistication and professionalism as the technology available grew, though the availability of affordable desktop publishing software wouldn’t end up happening until the rise of the internet began to marginalize such publications. At the height of fanzines, you were still talking about typewritten articles and hand-drawn illustration literally pasted to a literal pasteboard, and if an article said it was “reproduced with permission”, they literally meant that they physically cut it out of the original and photocopied it. Over time, they became clearinghouses for editorials, essays and discussions, basically internet discussion boards in slow motion. In a world where communication was slow and the world less connected, fanzines provided the social glue that made it possible for people with a common niche interest to form communities in spite of geography. Only very, very slowly.
Then in 1967, the Lunarians, organizers of one of the oldest and most prestigious annual science fiction conventions, published Spockanalia, a fanzine dedicated specifically to Star Trek, and, unlike traditional “fan”zines, but more like non-fan-oriented amateur publications, primary consisted of reader-submitted fiction. Also unlike the preponderance of science fiction fanzines, this kind of franchise-specific fanzine wasn’t nearly so much of a sausage party.
The history of women in science fiction fandoms is a long and fascinating subject about which I don’t know nearly enough to go into any sort of detail. I do know enough to say that for all of my childhood and adolescence, there was an unchallenged assumption that something approximating 100% of science fiction fans were white, socially awkward, maladjusted, unkempt man-children who technically came in all shapes and sizes, but mostly “round” and “large”, and that while this stereotype has lost ground, it’s still got enough of a hold on the public consciousness that The Big Bang Theory stays on the air. And this stereotype does a tremendous disservice to the many, many devoted female fans who, just for an example, were largely responsible for Star Trek being a thing that exists today rather than an obscure NBC show that got canceled after its second season. I’m more than a little uncomfortable with the implication that fanfiction-dominated fanzines are a thing which exist because the creation and consumption of fan-art is an inherently female activity, but I’m hardly in a position to talk as a white, socially awkward, unkempt, round, large man whose personal magnum opus consists of a hundred thousand words of literary analysis and criticism about TV shows from the ’80s while I’ve been utterly unable to write that novel my parents have been on my case to crank out for twenty years now.
The thought occurred that someone might, theoretically, want one of those logos from Tales from /lost+found 21 as a wallpaper. Though I can’t imagine why.