Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Clonin' the Barbarian: BEASTMASTER: THE LEGEND CONTINUES (1999)

So this is what we’ve come to is it? As much as I love cheesy barbarian flicks, their transitions to the small screen have been either poverty-stricken and braindead or essentially sit-coms with bad CGI monsters. Xena and Hercules (both 1995) are the best of the lot, but even so will never compete with even the lowest of the cinematic swordsmen. This was proved to be scientific fact when someone got the bright idea to transition Kevin Sorbo’s success in Hercules to the big screen with KULL THE CONQUEROR (1997). Granted trying to twist Robert E. Howard’s brutally dark, humorless character to fit Sorbo’s bubbly wisecracking was just a painfully stupid idea to begin with, but a disaster all the same.

The season opener Beastmaster: The Legend Continues sets the stage for the series which lasted an amazing three years before being cancelled. Big screen producer Sylvio Tabet, who has proven repeatedly that he doesn’t have the foggiest notion what made Don Coscarelli’s original film successful in the first place, here is credited as executive producer. I’m guessing this means his involvement was confined to an office and a few checks and documents sent to the studio via courier service. Here we are introduced to Dar (Daniel Goddard), a Tarzan-like character who now lives in a rainforest (what happened to the deserts?) and dives off of giant waterfalls because he can. Dar’s girlfriend Kyra (Natalie Jackson Mendoza) is quickly kidnapped by the evil Teron warriors to be thrown into their primitive Thunderdome in which people are mauled by tigers. Yeah, well, they don’t have any TV, so I guess that’s understandable. You know the Terons are evil, not because they sacrifice innocents, but because all of their furniture and outfits are decorated with human bones and skulls. Like I said, just in case you missed the whole point that feeding pretty girls to starving animals was a bad thing.

Dar, using a form of martial arts that appears to be capoeira, raids the encampment and rescues a guy named Tao (Jackson Raine) who is sort of an annoying cross between Rain Man and the asian guy from REVENGE OF THE NERDS (1984). Even before Dar rescues him, you really wish he wouldn’t. Tao talks some of the most idiotic pseudo-zen gibberish ever to be penned by someone who has just as much respect for eastern philosophy as the BEASTMASTER source material. To Dar: “My name is ‘Tao’, it means ‘The Way’, and I will show it to you.” That was one sentence and already I hate this guy. And yes, he pronounces “tao” with a “T” sound, not a “D” sound. Of course Tao knows everything about Dar, that he is the last of his kind; that his tribe was slaughtered by the evil Terons and that he and his girlfriend were the only survivors. Wait… how can Dar be the last of his kind if there were TWO freakin’ survivors? What was Kyra just there doing some shopping while visiting from another village? If you think I’m nit-picking on this point, it’s not just mentioned once, but THREE times during the pilot. All of that info is actually included in the opening narration as well! Any time anyone so much as claps eyes on Dar, they have to say that he is the last of his kind. Might as well start saying that he is an only child. Never mind that he has a brother. Well, at least in the films he does. Dar’s backstory has changed so much, that there is really not much point in calling him "Dar". His entire character has undergone an overhaul. Gone is the mark on his hand, gone are the ridiculous amount of family members, gone is the mental clumsiness. Yes, Dar is quite a bit sharper in physical and mental reflexes, looking less like a guppy at feeding time and more like a... well, feral warrior dude. In addition to using martial arts, he has ditched his sword in favor of a sectional spear that appears to have been carved out of bone or ivory. Not a very PC weapon for the animal-lovin’ hippy that is Dar.

I know it's hard to tell, but this guy is eeeevil!
While Dar searches for his kidnapped love, a sorceress watches him via a puddle of water in a cistern, like all good sorceresses do, and muses about how she has no understanding of “love” and that the Beastmaster must be the key. Reeeeeaaally… how fascinating. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz… As if we needed more filler, we also are treated to a new backstory for Kodo and Podo about how they were banished from their village for – hey wait! No, seriously, I am not making this up! Maybe it’s because they have so much time to fill (22 episodes per year), but TV shows love their back stories. Even so, they are fucking ferrets, they don't need a backstory! Anyway, another favorite TV show staple is the Talking Head Playhouse. Long scenes of overdramatic, soap-opera-esque dialogue sequences that tend to really be all about nothing. For instance, when King Zad (Steven Grives) is attempting to seduce Kyra in a brutish fashion we have a rather long exchange, of which these are excerpts:
King Zad: “What is it that makes a man’s heart want a woman?”
Kyra: “You have the power to take my body, my heart it has to be won.”
This is nothing short of grueling.

On the way to find Kyra’s comfy prison (a four-poster bed guarded by stone snakes that spit blinding black mist), Dar is attacked by what it probably the lamest CGI monster ever. This confrontation causes a marble mausoleum to burn to the ground (yes, marble burns), and sets him back on the path to finding Kyra, with whom he has a huge, massive, harp-plucking, tear-soaked sequence in which they go on and on about how much the love each other. At this point I was pretty much curled up in a fetal position on my sofa hoping that I might be lucky enough to choke to death on some chicharones rather than endure another second of this garbage. No such luck. Once Dar’s rescue attempt is foiled he meets the sorceress again and she brings back the Staypuft Smoke Man, and if that wasn't stupid enough, Dar defeats it by simply cutting it in half with his spear. A monster made of smoke and fire... killed with a spear. Uh huh. Of course Kyra is taken away by the fleeing King Zad, so that Dar could spend another sixty plus episodes trying to find her. Or at least that is what I am assuming because I'll be damned if I'm going to sit through another one of these. 

Best disguise - EVER!
Here we have the Beastmaster whittled down to something that all typical TV shows love to embrace. Simple characters, overly dramatic dialogue, cheap sets and costumes and a big, obvious socially-conscious message delivered with all of the subtlety of a gold brick wrapped in a slice of lemon.

Surprisingly in recent years, many shows have worked a story arc through all of the season’s episodes and have actually captured some solid depth and complexity. You could attribute this to the monumental success of Lost (2004), but there were many other shows that paved the way for Lost, including Nowhere Man (1995) and most importantly The Prisoner (1967). With the last season of Dr. Who (2010) delivering some of the best science fiction writing to grace the small screen in decades, perhaps there is hope for some decent fantasy programming in the future. Or maybe that is just a science fiction story in itself.

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