Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Tremors: The Series - Project 4-12

The fifth episode of the Tremors TV show enters all new territory with its monster.

There are, to date, four movies in the Tremors film series, and even though the fourth movie wasn't released until several months after the Tremors television series had runs its one season course, Tremors 4 was in production at right around the same time. The first four episodes of the TV show are sort of a reflection of the four movies. In the first film, the threat the characters faced were the subterannean creatures known as Graboids, just as the first episode of the show was centered on the Graboid called El Blanco. The second film featured the Graboids becoming a new two-legged threat called Shriekers, and the second episode was based around Shriekers. In the third film, the Shriekers metamorphosized into the third and final stage of their life cycle, creatures which were able to glide through the air after propelling themselves off the ground with a blast of flammable chemicals their bodies produced. These creatures were called Ass-Blasters, and the third episode featured an Ass-Blaster who had survived the events of Tremors 3. Graboids were again the primary threat in Tremors 4, and the fourth episode of the show was again based around El Blanco. Each episode centered on the same creature the corresponding film did.

A fifth film wasn't yet planned when the series was being made, which leaves the fifth episode of the TV series in completely new territory, there is no movie for it to reflect. And so, with this fifth episode, the series branches away from the Graboid/Shrieker/Ass-Blaster species and brings in a completely new sort of monster.

Written by John Schulian, a veteran of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess, and directed by Chuck Bowman, who had previous monster experience on the Swamp Thing and The Incredible Hulk TV shows and directed a bunch of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman episodes, this episode introduces a creature with the same name as the title - Project 4-12.

4-12 is the co-creation of a scientist, not mad but certainly off balance, named Cletus Poffenbarger, played by Christopher Lloyd, the man who portrayed Doc Brown, one of cinema's greatest scientists ever, in the Back to the Future trilogy. As always, Lloyd brings a great energy to the proceedings. The oddness Poffenbarger exhibits is largely due to the fact that he has spent the last thirty years living alone out in the desert, with no company other than his pet monster 4-12.

Now 4-12 has escaped into the desert, driven wild by a shortage of the blue diamond cholla cactus the creature eats. The melatonin in the cactus's buds regulates 4-12's moods. Although 4-12 has been Poffenbarger's best friend for three decades, he knows the beast is dangerous in the condition it's in, and hurries through the desert to warn the residents of Perfection, Nevada that there's a monster on the loose. The people of Perfection take the news very nonchalantly, they're so used to dealing with monsters. But when people start getting attacked by 4-12 and animals viciously gored to death by it, they begin to take the threat more seriously.

As resident survivalist Burt Gummer and Poffenbarger scour the valley for 4-12, the scope of the series begins to be broadened even further by the revelation that the monster was created while Poffenbarger was working as a biochemist at a laboratory hidden underground in the desert surrounding Perfection, a lab run by a company called the Proudfoot Corporation. Proudfoot went rogue and started selling "devilish inventions" to anyone with the cash to purchase them, so the government was going to crack down on them. Before they could be brought to justice, Proudfoot shut down the hidden lab and Poffenbarger escaped into the desert with the pup called 4-12 in his satchel.

The secrets of the hidden lab and the Proudfoot Corporation would certainly play a large role as the series continued, especially the compound that was used to make 4-12. A compound called Mixmaster.

A hybrid of a rhino, a switchback spider, and a wolverine, with cybernetic components, Project 4-12 was originally designed to fight the Vietcong in the jungles of Vietnam, "a flesh and blood killing machine". It was Mixmaster that enabled the scientists to splice the DNA of multiple species to create an entirely new one.

When he's not blowing Burt's mind with stories of Proudfoot and Mixmaster, Poffenbarger does some bonding with local single mother Nancy Sterngood. Viewers really learn more about Nancy in this episode than they have in any previous, or even in the two Tremors movies the character was featured in. Nancy talks about her ex-husband, Poffenbarger admires the collection of concert tickets and backstage passes she amassed in the 1970s (Led Zeppelin is misspelled on one of these tickets), he seems to be making a move on her...

Project 4-12 is moving around the valley in a grid pattern, which allows Burt to predict his movements and ultimately face off with the creature. However, 4-12 is not the only monster in the area. Perfection is the protected habitat of the Graboid El Blanco, and the monsters cross paths in one very amusing scene. 4-12 is always running around the valley, so it's no surprise that the vibration caused by the creature's movements would attract the attention of El Blanco. The Graboid bursts out of the ground and swallows 4-12 whole, going back under the surface. A few seconds later, El Blanco again comes out of the ground and spits 4-12 out. 4-12 secretes a chemical that's a mixture of skunk entrails, panther urine, and cougar excrement... which means he's not very tasty.

Project 4-12 is a landmark entry in the Tremors franchise, as it's the one that proves that the series can sustain branching away from the Graboids/Shriekers/Ass-Blasters. Burt Gummer and his fellow Perfection residents can take on any sort of monster you throw at them and the adventure is just as fun and entertaining as ever.

The episode also has an emotional element to it. A killing machine though he may have been designed to be, 4-12 evokes a lot of sympathy in the climactic sequences, because he is just an animal after all, and has sort of a "boy and his dog" relationship with Poffenbarger. Poffenbarger refers to him as his "baby boy". For the safety of everyone in Perfection, 4-12 has to be destroyed, but it's very sad to see it happen. The Tremors franchise always has its heart intact.

When it originally aired on the SciFi Channel, the network didn't schedule the episodes in their proper order, and by the time Project 4-12 made it to TV screens, other episodes featuring Cletus Poffenbarger had already been shown. That led to a wrap around segment being filmed that show Burt's sidekick Tyler Reed telling the story of 4-12, making the bulk of the episode a flashback. Tyler is telling the story to a character named Larry, who isn't introduced until a much later episode when you're watching the series in order, in an episode that aired before 4-12. So now that you can watch the series the way it was intended to be watched, this Larry guy comes out of nowhere in the Project 4-12 wrap around. The nonsensical random airing order really made a mess out of things.

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