Deceiving the Deceiver

Originally posted to Zero Faith Saint, my Bible teaching blog.

Zero Faith Saint

Because the Bible was such a strong guiding influence on America’s Founding Fathers, elements of Judeo-Christian Scripture have long been woven into the fabric of American culture. A particular good point about this is that many Americans, including many who are neither Jew nor Christian, are familiar with concepts, quotes and even more or less whole stories from the Bible.

Biblical elements are so deeply engrained in our culture that they have become infused into our pop culture. A particular bad point about this is that many Americans – in particular very many Christians – have incomplete or inaccurate ideas about what these various elements actually mean. As these stories and ideas have been passed down over the generations, errors have crept in and built up, to the point that the modern take on these things can be wildly different from their truth and intent.

(I briefly address this, the…

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For Love of Alexander: Reconsidering “Plato’s Stepchildren”

“Do you know who Michael Dunn is?”

One of the more interesting developments of our connected age is the advent of “live tweeting”. That is, one creates an account on Twitter; logs in when a certain program is being broadcast; chooses a relevant hashtag (which filters the stream of tweets to just those containing that particular hashtag); then posts comments about the show while it is airing.

I regularly live-tweet reruns of the old Star Trek series (nowadays colloquially referred to as Star Trek: The Original Series, or Star Trek: TOS) airing on MeTV (a digital subchannel network – another advent of our age) on Saturday nights. Last Saturday, April 26th, MeTV aired the episode Plato’s Stepchildren, and that brings us back to my opening question: “Do you know who Michael Dunn is?”

That is, for better or worse, an “age-reveal” question. Below a certain age, the person you’ve asked will either say “No” or make a reasonable guess of a similarly-named modern actor, such as Michael Dorn. Over that age, the person might actually know, or at least acknowledge that the name is familiar. If you then say, “He was on The Wild Wild West”, you’ll very likely get a strong positive reaction. But if you say, “He played Alexander on Star Trek”, you’ll probably receive a quizzical look. So you continue: “In the episode Plato’s Stepchildren” — a wanting shrug. Now you surrender: “The one where he rode on Kirk’s back like a horse and jockey, while Spock sang Bitter Dregs.” Outside of shock, the response you’re most likely to receive is a deep rolling of the eyes, accompanied by a patently dismissive “Oh… That one.”

Yes. That one. Other than being famous for having “the first interracial on-screen kiss”, Plato’s Stepchildren is generally considered to be one of TOS’ worst episodes. Shatner and Nimoy’s characters frolicking and cavorting in foolish pantomimes (at the telekinetic whims of the super-powered Parmen) is uncomfortable to watch. Their characters’ later mistreatment of Nurse Chapel and Lieutenant Uhura (again, Parmen’s telekinetic whims) can be genuinely unsettling. So it’s fair to say that this episode’s infamy is well-earned. …At first viewing.

And, admittedly on successive viewings as well over the years. But an amazing thing occurred during that Saturday airing which frankly not only surprised me, but which also caused me to spend time reevaluating the episode, and for the better.

If you’re unfamiliar with the episode (beyond the notorious antics mentioned above), here’s a summary of the plot at Memory Alpha. A key element (arguably, the key element) is that Alexander, played by Michael Dunn, learns that the pituitary fault which made him a dwarf also prevented him from developing telekinesis. The context is that Alexander is and has been the slave and plaything of his fellow Platonians.

I was live-tweeting that episode with a regular group of dependably humorous fellow live-tweeters. The comments ranged as usual from light opportunistic comedy to sharp, wry mockery, with semi-contextual pop culture references thrown in. Much of the mocking focused on the Platonians’ cruel treatment of Alexander. While I’m not sure I can truly pin it down to a specific moment, this commenting seemed to change during the third act. McCoy had synthesized a serum which gave Kirk and Spock each twice the telekinetic power of the Platonians; he then offered an injection to Alexander — who recoiled in horror. While most of us in that group had seen the episode numerous times, it seemed for the first time we were seeing what was happening. It became clear to us as never before the revulsion Alexander felt at possibly being like his tormentors, of (to use the cliché) “becoming that which he hated”.

Though we were well-familiar with this episode’s plot, almost collectively we were with new clarity hearing the anguish in Alexander’s dialogue, seeing the richness of Dunn’s performance. And while the comments overall throughout the episode maintained that range of comedy to mockery, those tweets specifically concerning the Platonians and Alexander developed their own sub-pattern:

  • The comments on the Platonians and their treatment of Alexander grew from mockery to genuine disgust.
  • A new realization developed for the writing of Alexander, presenting him as a fully-developed character.
  • New appreciation was felt for the depth and sincerity Dunn gave to his portrayal of the character.

It was though for the very first time (in decades literally, for some of us) we saw Plato’s Stepchildren not as a derision-worthy filler episode known most for the buffoonery of its central scene, but something much greater, which I’ll address in a moment. For now I want to highlight two additional points.

1) As I thought about Plato’s Stepchildren over this past week, something else had occurred to me: Alexander seemed also to have gone on his own “hero’s journey”. When we first meet him, he is very timid; he weakly attempts to explain the danger to the Starship trio, but falters. He has his moment of self-realization when he learns that his pituitary disorder is the very cause for his low situation. He has anguished clarity when offered the same power that his tormentors use on him. He briefly flirts with the temptation for revenge when he realizes his tormentors no longer have power over him; this is swiftly replaced with regretful realization of what this would have made him. He then with firm boldness expresses his contempt for his fellow Platonians. Finally, with the promise of being taken to the Enterprise by the three officers, he has the opportunity to enter a new world of welcoming acceptance.

I have to state flatly: Had I not been part of that online group last Saturday night, I don’t know that I would have seen this pattern on my own.

2) This same reflection on the episode has also made me realize another missed element of the story: McCoy’s realization of and reaction to the cruelness of the Platonians. Even before the plot begins its growth-journey of Alexander, McCoy had expressed disgust at Parmen’s repulsive toying with Kirk and Spock. It’s as though McCoy’s response here is meant as a handhold for the viewer: “Don’t focus on the ‘horseback’ charade; you’re supposed to focus on the wickedness of these self-described academicians.” McCoy expresses similar repugnance in the fourth act regarding the female officers’ potential harm as mere entertainment for the Platonians. Speaking only for myself, I missed all this during the episode simply because it was overshadowed by the clarity with which I was seeing Alexander. However, now that I have this new perspective on McCoy as well as on Alexander, I am genuinely looking forward to seeing this episode again, so I can more thoughtfully drink all this in.

And finally this all brings us to the “something much greater” I alluded to earlier. Again speaking only for myself, I have had a complete turn-around on Plato’s Stepchildren. I no longer see it as a weaker episode of a forlorn season; I now see it as exactly the kind of episode Star Trek is best known for.

Star Trek: TOS can be described many ways; there are many aspects of the show to be discussed. But if one is honest, a particular aspect of TOS one must acknowledge is its readiness to tackle social and cultural issues. Oppression, class division, racism – these and other societal ills have been addressed in many of TOS’ episodes. And now with this fresh perspective, I can see that Plato’s Stepchildren does exactly this as well.

This episode is from TOS’ third season, when NBC had effectively turned its back on the series and cut its budget. It is easy to dismiss the childlike charade Kirk and Spock perform as a result of the network’s action. But consider McCoy’s disgust at seeing his friends so cruelly manipulated — because that is the point: we see for the first time what the Platonians are willing to do to persons they deem beneath themselves. Now consider it in this context: the officers arrive on the planet not as a conquering force but by invitation, indeed by urgent request for medical help. They freely offer this help, but when they seek to return to the Enterprise, Parmen begins using his telekinesis as a weapon to bend the officers to his will. This is prelude to the greater, and more disturbing, revelation: that these Platonian academicians, whose very way of life is ostensibly based on the philosophies of Plato, are happily willing to use their powers for the gross mistreatment of the one member of their society so abjectly incapable of defending himself.

Human history is sadly full of such actions. Media, industrial strength, political office — all can be weaponized to put one group of people under another; but it’s all initiated by thought, the thought that some certain group must be controlled, must be “put in their place”. This episode takes that one step further, by making thought itself the weapon. But that sci-fi conceit should not take away from the fact that Plato’s Stepchildren is something much greater than the reputation which precedes it; it’s as much a deep-reaching morality play as some better-esteemed TOS episodes.

Originally published at my entertainment blog.


The Unreal World of Real Hot Wheels

Mattel’s Hot Wheels celebrates its 50th Anniversary this year, a remarkable achievement for any toy line. In honor of my favorite brand’s longevity, I would like to give you the background on some very interesting models.

Over the last fifty years, Hot Wheels has produced thousands of models and variations. But it can be said that these models can be classified into just two categories: licensed models that are based either on real-word production vehicles (such as Fords or Chevrolets) or on vehicles from entertainment properties (such as the Milano from Guardians of the Galaxy); and wild original models designed by in-house artists such as Ira Gilford, Paul Tam and Larry Wood.

However, there is a third category which blurs that distinction: visually stunning customs which might seem to be incapable of existing anywhere but in an artist’s fertile imagination, yet are in fact miniatures of actual vehicles even more visually stunning than their toy counterparts. So please let me introduce to you eight wild Hot Wheels models which you may not know are based on real hot rods.

8: Red Baron

Certainly one of the best-known Hot Wheels models, Red Baron virtually defines the term “iconic”. So famous is this model that it even had a starring role (“roll”?) in 1995’s Toy Story. You may reasonably be aware that the car was conceived by model designer Tom Daniel. However, most people do not know that fabricator Chuck Williams (commissioned by car show guru Bob Larivee) built a full-size working vehicle before Hot Wheels introduced the toy version.

Now, at this point I’ll admit the connection between the real and toy cars is a bit loose. When you look at photos of Miller’s Baron, you see that its pipes swoop off to the left, while in Daniel’s artwork they’re on the right. This is because Miller used a Pontiac engine rather than the Mercedes engine Daniel used in his design. The Hot Wheels miniature also has right-side pipes.

So, even setting aside the timeline from initial design to production, it’s probably more accurate to say that the Hot Wheels version is based on Daniel’s design rather than on Miller’s build. Nonetheless, the fact remains that Miller completed his build in 1969, and the Mattel miniature didn’t appear until 1970. So, with your indulgence I’m taking a mulligan on this one.

7: Hot Heap

I can’t blame you if you think I’m getting ready to ask for a second mulligan. After all, Hot Heap is obviously a T-bucket, and “T-bucket” is not a specific vehicle but rather a design concept, well-defined but with some flexibility. In fact, Hot Wheels introduced its own eponymous T-Bucket model in 1989.

However, Hot Heap is not simply artist Harry Bradley’s take on the concept. It’s his rendition of Don Tognotti’s famous build. Known variously as “King T” and “Tognotti’s T”, the custom has won multiple awards including America’s Most Beautiful Roadster in 1964. It was sold for about $86,000 at Barrett-Jackson in 2010. Hot Wheels introduced Hot Heap in 1968 as part of the Original 16.

6: Beatnik Bandit

Among collectors and enthusiasts above a certain age, Beatnik Bandit is probably as famous as Red Baron, so it’s very likely that many already know this model is based on Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s custom build. Roth completed the Bandit in 1961; that same year, it was featured in both Car Craft magazine and Rod & Custom magazine. The Bandit has been on permanent display at the National Automobile Museum since 1985. Hot Wheels introduced the Beatnik Bandit miniature (also by Harry Bradley) in 1968 as part of the Original 16.

5: Silhouette

After Red Baron and Beatnik Bandit, Silhouette might be the best-known of the wild ‘60s-era style of custom hot rods reproduced by Hot Wheels. Like the Bandit, it also features a bubble top, the seeming go-to design element of forward-thinking designers of that time. Because of its fame and its design, Silhouette is easy to credit as another Ed Roth creation. However, the ‘Ette was actually designed and built by Bill Cushenberry. He entered the custom in the 1963 Oakland Roadster Show, winning first place.

Hot Wheels’ Silhouette, also introduced in the Original 16, is another design by prolific artist Harry Bradley. Finding one of these is fairly easy; not so with Cushenberry’s original build. It was stolen from his lot (sources put it between the late ‘60s and early ‘70s), and has yet to be recovered.

4: Demon

Even with its massive mill and “barely enough room for your haircut” super-chopped roofline, the Demon’s long, flowing lines reveal its classic 1930s body styling. Many first-generation hot rods of the ‘50s were built on models from the ‘30s. So too with Dave Stuckey’s build. Starting with a 1932 Ford sedan (which he purchased in 1954), the biggest of Stuckey’s initial changes was to channel the body nine inches. He kept making changes, eventually arriving at the car’s most-famous iteration, the “Li’l Coffin”.

And at this point, model kit enthusiasts have just perked up: “Hey, that was the one with the skeleton!” According to Stuckey, at a car show the mod’s white upholstery caused a young woman to remark to her boyfriend, “It looks like a little coffin.” Stuckey played around with that name, finally settling on “Li’l Coffin”. The car caught the eye of various people from Monogram, which eventually produced the popular model kit.

The Hot Wheels version was designed by Howard Rees, and introduced in the 1970 collection.

3: Python

With its bizarre off-center prow, and “split-level” rear deck – not to mention that it looks like it’s made entirely of aggressive angles – Dean Jeffries’ Python seems like nothing that could possibly be a real, running vehicle.

But considering that customizer Bill Cushenberry powered the build with a Ford 289 small block, one has to presume it ran rather well. Designed by Bob Hubbach and Chuck Pelly, its story was presented in Car Craft magazine. In fact, the vehicle was known simply as the “Car Craft Dream Rod”; the name Python originated with Mattel. Along with various custom machined and fabricated parts, Cushenberry also used parts from such vehicles as a 1960 Pontiac, a 1960 Corvair, a 1953 Studebaker, and a 1952 Jowett Jupiter. (I’m hearing a Johnny Cash song right now; is that wrong?)

The Dream Rod was eventually slightly remodeled, and re-christened “Tiger Shark”; however this version was not as popular as the original. Curiously, the Hot Wheels miniature is slightly closer to the Tiger Shark design. In 2009 Mark Moriarity restored the build to its original Dream Rod configuration, debuting it at the Detroit Autorama.

The miniature by Jeffries was released in 1968 as part of the Original 16.

2: Stagefright

I know what you’re thinking: “I get it: a hot rod stage coach. Cute.” As you look over the photo, you might also find yourself thinking: “Dern fool thing doesn’t even have an engine.” Well, of course it does; it’s inside the coach body, just like in Jack Keef’s custom rod, which was built from an 1849 Concord Stagecoach.

Unlike the other vehicles in this list, there is a surprising dearth of information on Keef’s design. In fact, the few web pages which say anything about it simply quote nearly verbatim the text beneath scanned magazine photos of the build. So, I’ll just do the same:

“Jack Keef, who’s from Downey, California, spent more than 7 years on this custom-build. With help from J&J Chassis, Western Wheel and Theodore Robins Ford, he combined an independent rear end, hand-built chassis, 289 Ford engine and a C-4 automatic transmission to produce the wildest Wild West machine… the Stagefright.”

One source claims Keef’s build was completed in 1976; another puts it at 1978. The Hot Wheels version, a collaborative design by Larry Wood and Bob Rosas, was itself released in 1978. This model is unique in that it remained unchanged — that is, had no variations — throughout its production run from ’78 to ’83.

1: Deora

Lo, the humble Dodge A100 pick’em-up truck, and what it would become in the hands of those with unfettered imaginations. The Alexander Brothers – already well-established as customizers – approached artist Harry Bradley to create a custom design based on the Dodge-branded truck. Chrysler supplied the Brothers with a stripped-down A100, and between ’64 and ’66 they chopped, channeled, and sectioned the staid pick-up into the fleet, futuristic custom rod which in 1967 won nine awards, including the Ridler, at the Detroit Autorama.

In making such a transformation, much fabrication must be done. Parts have to be machined. Sheet metal has to be hammered into shape. Of course, this is not true for every step. Some of the parts which give the Deora its unique look are stock.

…Sort of. According to a brief cartoonish history of the Deora, penned by Bradley himself, the cab’s rear and front windows come from a 1960 Ford sedan and a 1960 Ford wagon, respectively.

Let me retype that for you again slowly: The distinctive, panoramic front windshield of the Deora is actually the rear window from a vehicle nearly half a decade older, from a competing manufacturer. That the Alexanders could repurpose an “old part” into such a key design element of a custom show rod is simply astounding to me.

In March of 1967, Harry Bradley – by then working for Mattel – designed the Deora again, this time as a miniature which was released in 1968 as part of the Original 16. To quote Bradley from his illustrated history, “This is the second time in two and a half years I’ve designed a Deora!”

Through collecting, model-building and related hobbies, I learned almost inevitably that Beatnik Bandit is an Ed Roth creation. But as I learned that amazing Hot Wheels miniatures such as Python, Stagefright and Deora are in fact based on real custom rods, it was frankly thrilling for me.

Whether you’re a fellow collector, an automotive enthusiast or simply someone who appreciates learning new things, I hope you’ve enjoyed this excursion into the history of some of Mattel’s best and wildest designs.

Hot Heap photo © 2018 Original Ken; text and all other photos © 2018 Designs by Gus


Hot Wheels Wiki (1, 2)
Street Muscle Magazine
Ultimate Hot Wheels (1, 2)
Jalopy Journal (1, 2)
Wikipedia (1, 2)
Car Tech (1, 2)
Show Rods
Car Nut
Kustomrama (1, 2)
Rod Authority
Coffin Corner
Hot Wheels Online

Project Update / Hours Cutback

Yes, it’s true: Sadly, I’ve had a cutback in hours. Now my top priority is finding a good replacement job. I’ll continue with my next design project (which I’ve begun) as I can, but it’s obviously farther down on my To-Do list.

I am interested in full- or part-time employment, or additional freelance projects, so please contact me. You’re also welcome to follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn.

PT Bruiser

Chrysler’s PT Cruiser was designed to reflect 1930s-era automobile styling. I can’t speak on the vehicle’s performance or reliability; but I do like its retro look. And of course, my easily-excited imagination had me wondering if I could make it even more retro by further hot-rodding it out.

PT Bruiser: A chopped and hot-rodded PT Cruiser.

PT Bruiser: A chopped and hot-rodded PT Cruiser.

Larger image: 1000w x 384h

After drafting the base model over a high-resolution photo, the first step was to angle the body to give the Bruiser a more aggressive stance. It would have been easy — far too easy — to rotate the entire body. Instead, I left the engine compartment alone, and used the top end of the front door line as a pivot point about which to rotate the rest of the car. I initially tried a 5° rotation, but that was stunningly excessive. I then tried a more subtle 2° rotation; this gave me the “hot rod” rake I was looking for, without it appearing too cartoonish.

Comparison: Original (red) and raked (black) body stances.

Comparison: Original (red) and raked (black) body stances.

Larger image: 1000w x 408h

As I said, I chopped the roof; however in this comparison image the rotated body retains the original roof geometry because it more clearly shows the effect of the rotation. (I had considered drawing the Bruiser’s running boards (yes, real running boards) horizontally, but that would “hide” the rake, so those too are rotated.)

I easily dismissed the notion of an exposed engine because I wanted to retain the distinctive look of the PT’s engine compartment. A more traditional closer-fitting fender, a bumper to replace the molded skirt, classic side vents and a few other details gave me the look I wanted.

Comparison: Original and modified front ends.

Comparison: Original and modified front ends.

Since I kept the closed engine compartment, I decided a scoop would give me additional “hot rod flair”. But I also wanted to avoid the typical squarish design; rather, I wanted something that would seem more “organic” to the Bruiser’s retro look. So I copied the Bruiser’s hoodline, scaled it down and built the rest of the scoop around it.

Custom scoop using hoodline geometry.

Custom scoop using hoodline geometry.

Larger image: 1000w x 320h

Not being an automotive engineer, I have no idea whether a scoop designed this way would actually work (or if the front support/mounting flange is necessary, for that matter). But that’s one of the fun things about having a wild imagination: I only have to make something that looks good; it’s up to the Howard Wolowitzeses of the world to actually make the thing function.

(Full disclosure: As I was putting this post together, I realised that the opening in the hood is far too small to be able to raise the hood with the scoop attached. Oops.)

Modification to the rear of the vehicle was simple, with replacement of the bumper and redrawing of the fender being fairly straightforward. However, while the simple round headlight was sufficient for the front fender, I wanted something more stylish for the taillight array. After doing an online image search for 1950s-style taillights for inspiration, I came up with a design which gives the nostalgic feel I was looking for.

Comparison: Original and modified rear ends.

Comparison: Original and modified rear ends.

Note that the minor body rotation also gave me more than enough room to add a larger, more “hot rod appropriate” rear tire.

I used the top end of the middle line of the B-pillar as a basepoint (or perhaps “target” is more accurate) to place a copy of the combined roof and windows, to determine if this gave a satisfactory look. It did, giving me about 3.6″ of chop to the roofline.

However, as the profile of the roof structure is roughly trapezoidal, the dropped copy was several inches too short front-to-back. I was initially going to stretch it along the horizontal axis, but I was hesitant. If you use CAD software, you too have probably had the experience of trying to stretch a group of selected objects which includes one or more curved objects, and getting quite useless results.

To stretch, or not to stretch, that is the question.

To stretch, or not to stretch, that is the question.

The Holy Spirit advised me to cut the drop into three sections, and then slide the front and rear sections separately along a line paralleling the new, rotated window baseline. This worked remarkably well, and allowed the rebuilding of the roof and window geometries to be relatively simple.


Why stretch, when you can simply move stuff?

To the modified roof I added a fixed softtop, a design element often seen on 1930s vehicles which I find very attractive. It’s also reminiscent of childhood favorites such as Hot Wheels’32 Ford Vicky.

Comparison: Original and modified roof geometries.

Comparison: Original and modified roof geometries.

Larger image: 1000w x 585h

Finally, I added a visor to further draw out the new roofline, and to add that one more extra touch of “classic hot rod” vibe.

I look forward to your comments and questions about the PT Bruiser.

(Teaser: My next customization project will have you seeing stars. Or at least, it will have your head in the clouds.)

I am interested in full- or part-time employment, or additional freelance projects, so please contact me. You’re also welcome to follow me on Twitter and LinkedIn.