(1973, Drama-Television/SciFi, color)
What is Ward E?
In a nutshell:
An astronaut crashes on a parallel earth ruled by the totalitarian Perfect Order.
Three astronauts sit in a space capsule, sleepily discussing the failure of their navigation system. Some fake turbulence hits them, causing space pratfalls that would make Shatner proud. One of them, a guy named Stryker, awakes in a hospital where a friendly doctor fills him full of drugs and films him while he sleeps.
The less-than-friendly Benedict and his cohorts (all dressed in gray tweed and black turtlenecks) sit behind a one-way mirror. Stryker becomes suspicious when the doctor assumes that Paul Revere played Major League baseball, so he breaks out and hides in a telephone booth. Imagine his surprise when the operator professes ignorance of the entire state of Florida.
Some exposition and a utility van later, Stryker discovers that he has crashed on a parallel world called Terra, orbiting the sun on the exact opposite side from the earth. Everything on this planet has evolved exactly the same way as it has on the earth, including the English language and the Plymouth Grand Fury, with the only main differences being the absence of Florida, the presence of three Chinese lantern-like moons, and the fact that everyone is left-handed.
Wandering into a bookstore, Stryker discovers that an organization called The Perfect Order rules Terra in a mellow, Orwellian style. Everyone must think alike, meditate on peace and harmony, and wear gray tweed, or risk getting sent to a brainwashing facility called Ward E. The bookstore clerk notices that Stryker has been hurt in the escape and calls a doctor.
The doctor (the lovely Bettina) recognizes him as a fugitive and tries to take him back to Benedict. Stryker talks her into betraying the Perfect Order with some yelling and a few smooches, so she takes him to a subversive astronaut friend of hers to help him get home.
The subversive astronaut friend (the garrulous Dylan) conspires with him to hijack a spacecraft and escape back to earth. After a few more smooches, Bettina wishes them well and goes home. Benedict and his tweedy minions catch and lobotomize her, sending her back to help them track down Stryker. She finds them, interrupting their hijacking on the pretense of declaring her undying love.
Benedict arrives and guns down Dylan. Stryker escapes into a giant basement for an extended shootout scene, complete with nameless goons falling over railings to their deaths. Finally, Stryker shoots a convenient liquid oxygen tank, destroying the facility and blowing him out to sea. He swims back to shore and accepts a ride from a random camper.
Joel turns Tom and Crow into a carnival shooting gallery. He explains the premise of the show.
Host Segment One:
Joel and the Mads compete with their various extrapolations of the Bang! gun. Joel shows off the Bang! Uzi and a stick of Bang! Dynamite. The Mads show off Bang! nunchucks and the Bang! plunger explosive. Frank breaks the plunger when he presses down on it.
Host Segment Two:
Tom and Crow fight over their Seventies television character trading cards. Joel buys them off with his collection of his felon former child star trading cards. It turns out that he got them from Gypsy for a Richard Basehart trading card.
Host Segment Three:
Tom and Crow bake cookies and speculate about the nature of Ward E. Quoth Crow, “[Ward E is] like being in a public bathroom when someone turns the light out.”
Host Segment Four:
Joel and the ‘Bots dress in black turtlenecks and gray tweed, and order the deaths of various television cops with odd seventies gangster jargon.
Host Segment Five:
Tom plays a TV executive while Joel and Crow pitch Stranded in Space to him as a new show idea. Down in Deep 13, Dr. Forrester and TV’s Frank dress in black turtlenecks and gray tweed. Dr. Forrester hints that if anything ever happened to him, someone would need to carry on the experiment. Frank doesn’t get it.
Bettina slaps Stryker.
This film evoked nothing from me. Not disgust, not anger, not revulsion, not interest, not enjoyment—nothing. About an hour afterwards, I watched Ang Lee’s Hulk, an imperfect but vastly superior film. I had heard that some critics found the Hulk’s CGI animation to be implausible, but given the story’s origins, I don’t know why plausibility was even one of their criteria. The computer animation is fluid and adequate; it serves its purpose. I’ve heard other complaints, but they mostly have to do with the problem that the film does not exactly cater to its target audience. Ang Lee films use character studies to build quiet emotional power. Granted, most films are made better by the presence of emotional power, but superhero films are essentially action movies with oddly dressed protagonists. The primary element is supposed to be action. When the action is secondary to the emotional power (and not, say, the other way around) what you get is slowly paced art film that occasionally flips into overdrive for no plausible reason...
Umm … where was I? Oh yes, Stranded in Space. It’s a pilot to a television show that, rather understandably, didn’t get picked up. I don’t remember much about it beyond the basic plot, as Hulk immediately blocked it from my memory. I suspect that the problem lies in that there wasn’t really anything to remember.
The host segments are simple and serviceable. This is the first time that I’ve heard Joel fully explain why the mad scientists have shot him into space. Apparently the Mads monitor his mind and sell the results to cable television. The bang gun derivatives, the pitch meeting, and the tweed-wearing gangster sketches are okay, but the trading card sketch seems kind of scattered. I thoroughly enjoyed the various Ward E similes offered by Tom and Crow in segment three.
Joel and the ‘Bots put up a good effort, hurling verbal darts at the film during the movie segments. Too bad there wasn’t much of a dartboard. My favorite riff comes during the final shootout when Stryker shoots at Benedict and Joel cries, “This one’s for Florida!” Unfortunately, the line isn’t really quotable, since it depends on Stryker’s earlier stunned silence when the operator informs him that she’s never heard of Florida. The episode’s not painful to watch, but it’s not much fun either. I can say one thing about it: it sure takes up about ninety minutes of time.
(1973, Drama-Television/SciFi, color)