Thursday, February 04, 2010

Culture Shock 02.04.10: Surviving the '70s with the 'Star Trek' cast

The last of three drive-in movies William Shatner starred in during the 1970s has finally made its way to DVD.

"Kingdom of the Spiders" finds the former "Star Trek" captain trying to save a rural Arizona town from being overrun by angry arachnids.

After farmers eradicate the spiders' natural food supply, the spiders turn to the only food sources left to them — livestock and people. It then falls to veterinarian Robert "Rack" Hansen (Shatner) and entomologist Diane Ashley (Tiffany Bolling) to try to stop the ravenous tarantulas before they cocoon the entire town.

Nature-strikes-back movies were a staple of 1970s creature features, and "Kingdom of the Spiders" is one of the better examples. (It certainly has "Frogs" beat.) Still, "Kingdom" owes its cult status mostly to Shatner, who is in full Shatner mode throughout.

Shout! Factory's "special edition" DVD includes behind-the-scenes footage, an audio commentary and interviews. Now that he has two Emmys on his mantelpiece, Shatner is a good sport when it comes to talking about some of his lesser projects. He gamely reminisces about his experiences on the set, including filming the iconic scene in which he crawls up a staircase while covered in live tarantulas.

Apart from "Kingdom of the Spiders," Shatner also appeared in the cult favorites "The Devil's Rain" and "Big Bad Mama," both previously released on DVD. "The Devil's Rain" (1975) also features John Travolta in one of his earliest roles, while "Big Bad Mama" (1974) is infamous for its sex scene between Shatner and Angie Dickinson.

While I'm sure Shatner would have preferred better roles in the 1970s — not that there is anything wrong with a sex scene with Angie Dickinson — he fared pretty well compared to most of his "Star Trek" co-stars.

Only Leonard Nimoy did as well as Shatner. He starred in two seasons of "Mission: Impossible," taking over the "master of disguise" role from Martin Landau.

Between 1969, when the last episode of "Star Trek" aired, and 1979, when "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" revived the franchise, DeForest Kelley's best-known part was in one of those nature-strikes-back movies, 1972's "Night of the Lepus." But instead of spiders or even frogs, Kelley had to worry about man-eating bunny rabbits the size of Volkswagens.

Nichelle Nichols had a supporting role in the Isaac Hayes action film "Truck Turner" (1974), and Hayes' title song is better known than the movie. Walter Koenig, meanwhile, appeared in two episodes of the Canadian sci-fi series "The Starlost" (1973), which had special effects that make the original "Star Trek" look like "Avatar."

James Doohan appeared in Roger Vadim's 1971 film "Pretty Maids All in a Row," for which "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry wrote the screenplay. Doohan then got a promotion of sorts, playing the commander on the CBS Saturday-morning sci-fi series "Jason of Star Command."

And lastly, George Takei starred in the 1972 hippie exploitation flick "Josie's Castle," which is available on DVD under the title "Teenage Divorcee," even though none of the characters are teens.

Looking back, it's a crime that the "Star Trek" cast had so much trouble landing decent roles during the '70s. But during those fallow years before "Star Trek" became a successful film franchise, the once and future crew of the Enterprise did give fans of B-movies and forgotten TV shows a lot of material for our late-night viewing pleasure.

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