Random Musings: Paying a visit to the Land of the Giants

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Land of the Giants title card

On June 12, 1983, the suborbital passenger liner Spindrift set out for London from Los Angeles.

It never arrived.

Instead, the passengers and crew found themselves marooned in an alien— yet strangely familiar— world. Familiar, because this brave new world was much like late 1960s Earth.

Alien, because everything and everyone was 12 times as big as Earth normal.

Land of the Giants, which ran for two seasons from 1968-1970, was the last of the four Irwin Allen-produced TV series airing during the 1960s. It was also the closest (for the most part) to straight science fiction.

The Spindrift crashed in a wooded area of what would appear to be a state or county park. This is never stated in any of the episodes I’ve seen, but too many people come through the woods near the castaways’ makeshift campsite for it to be deep in the forest.

Plus, the “Little People” often make excursions into a local town. Given that they’re about six inches tall, comparatively speaking, and given how relatively quickly they’re able to get to town and back, it’s improbable that it could be any great distance.

In this over-sized world, Captain Steve Burton (Gary Conway), co-pilot Dan Erickson (Don Marshall), flight attendant Betty Hamilton (Heather Young), and their passengers, businessman Mark Wilson (Don Matheson), jet-setter Valerie Scott (Deanna Lund), teenager Barry Lockridge (Stefan Arngrim) and con man Alexander Fitzhugh (Kurt Kasznar), are hunted as enemy invaders by the Special Investigation Department (SID), an elite police force. Their primary adversary within the SID is Inspector Dobbs Kobick (Kevin Hagen).

Inspector Kobick

Inspector Kobick (center) confronts Fitzhugh, Valerie and Mark.

What would cause the giants (or at least the government of that particular country) to view the little people as dangerous enemy aliens?

Paranoia, presumably. It was stated outright in several episodes that Earth technology was about 50 years ahead of that of the giants.

Which raises the question: Why didn’t the show establish that the Spindrift made its ill-fated flight in 2018, given that the world of the giants resembled that of then-contemporary 1968? After all, the action takes place on the giants’ planet, not Earth. So it’s not like they had to guess what 2018 would be like.

Or, for that matter, why not just say Earth technology is 15 years ahead, given the 1983 departure date on Earth and the obvious late 1960s setting of the giants planet?

At any rate, in addition to threats from the natural world (they are in the woods, after all) and giants who seek to capture them for the reward Kobick offers, the Spindrift passengers and crew also have to contend with occasional internecine conflicts. The often abrasive Mark challenged Steve’s decisions on more than one occasion; the impetuous Valerie, something of a spoiled brat, would blithely ignore instructions in favor of doing whatever she wanted (which got her and Steve captured in the first episode), and would also sometimes goad Mark into his battles with Steve; while Fitzhugh’s tendency toward cowardice and greed would cause other problems.

Steve and Valerie captured

Steve and Valerie captured.

I should note, for the record, that Fitzhugh was not a retread of Dr. Smith from Lost in Space. In terms of characterization, he was slightly closer to the dangerous, conniving saboteur Smith from the early Lost in Space episodes (he was on the run with stolen money) than to the later avaricious and cowardly, “oh, the pain” incarnation of Smith. Like Smith, Fitzhugh would rather rest than work, but unlike Smith, he’d pitch in with a minimum of fuss.

Dan often served as the mediator when tensions mounted; as did Betty, to some degree. Frankly, she was pretty much a cipher, by comparison to the other characters

Barry, accompanied by his dog, chipper, often hung out with Fitzhugh.

I’d first heard of Land of the Giants as a kid, through a library book about science fiction TV shows (and later found two tie-in novels by Murray Leinster at a used bookstore), but didn’t actually see it until very recently. For whatever reason, it wasn’t rerun in my area when I was growing up.

It’s a show my younger self would liked to have seen. Around the time I was 11, I saw and enjoyed the films Dr. Cyclops and The Incredible Shrinking Man, as well as the Saturday morning TV series Dr. Shrinker. Land of the Giants offered similar fare.

How does it stand up when viewed through adult eyes?

Pretty well. With the caveat that I’ve yet to see all the episodes. I’ve read that later season two episodes eschewed science fiction for the more fantasy-oriented stories often seen on Lost in Space.

O.K., technically, Land of the Giants is fantasy, given that there’s no scientific explanation how the giants and the Earth people can communicate in normal tones of voice (among other physics challenges), but the characters lived in a recognizable, if over-sized world. Unlike Lost in Space’s many improbabilities, Land of the Giants required viewers to accept only one: That humans and giants could interact without any particular difficulty. If you accept that premise, everything else falls into place.

Land of the Giants can currently be seen on METV and on Hulu. There’s also an overpriced DVD box set, released a decade ago. It’s a fun show, worth checking out.

Copyright 2017 Patrick Keating.

Random Musings: “The Power of the Daleks”, a key part of Doctor Who history

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Power of the Daleks

In November 1966, during the fourth season of the original run of Doctor Who, the BBC aired “The Power of the Daleks.” This episode did more than bring back those popular villainous antagonists, last seen in late 1965/early 1966; it gave us Daleks who were cunning and devious, rather than direct about their intentions. In this story, a Dalek proclaims, “I am your servant” rather than the usual “hello” of “Exterminate.”

Discovered in an ancient space capsule that had crashed on the Earth colony planet of Vulcan (no, not that Vulcan), the Daleks are revived by an ambitious scientist named Lesterson (Robert James), who convinces the governor (Peter Bathurst) that these self-proclaimed servants can be useful in the colony’s mining operations. All these “servants” need to fulfill their duties are access to power supplies and some technology.

What could possibly go wrong?

Everything, argues a new arrival to Vulcan, a man carrying the credentials of the Earth examiner and calling himself the Doctor. He offers no proof to substantiate his warnings about these “Daleks”, and his own companions, Polly and Ben (Anneke Wills and Michael Craze), seem uneasy around him.

Encountering the Daleks

The Doctor introduces Polly and Ben to the Daleks.

Amid all this, a group of rebels is active within the colony and a killer— the murderer of the real examiner— lurks somewhere about. The killer also knows that should the real examiner’s body be found, the Doctor would be the prime suspect.

In addition to presenting viewers with “friendly” Daleks, a murder mystery and political intrigue, “The Power of the Daleks” also gave them another twist— a new Doctor. “The Power of the Daleks” was Doctor Who’s first post-regeneration story (though the term “regeneration” wouldn’t be used for several more years). It marked the debut of Patrick Troughton as the Doctor, taking over for the ailing William Hartnell.

In later years regeneration would become an established part of the program, but in 1966 replacing the popular Hartnell was a risk. Keep in mind, also, that viewers still knew almost nothing about the Doctor at this point. The terms “Time Lords” and “Gallifrey” wouldn’t even be coined until 1969 and 1974, respectively, and there had been no on screen evidence that the Doctor wasn’t a human being. There was nothing to suggest the Doctor could change his appearance, but the production team decided to make that risky move.

“What a reckless and brilliant piece of television inventiveness that was,” current producer Steven Moffat said about the Doctor’s first regeneration in the 2013 documentary The Doctors revisited: The Second Doctor. “It would have been so easy, if you think about it, for them [the producers] to say ‘his face will change slightly. We’ll put another bloke in a white wig and we’ll have explained his slightly different features and he’ll carry on playing it roughly the same way.’ They didn’t do that at all. And I still don’t know how they came to this conclusion and how they knew it would work to say ‘we’ll make him completely different.’”

Moffat is right. It would have been more “sensible” to replace Hartnell with an actor who looked somewhat like him and keep on going (and maybe future generations would have made comparisons with Darrin Stevens), but the producers avoided the “safe” choice.

In interviews, Troughton said he was initially reluctant to accept the part, believing Doctor Who wouldn’t last more than six weeks with him. He was wrong, of course, but it might only have lasted that long with a Hartnell look-alike.

It certainly wouldn’t have lasted as long as it has. “The Power of the Daleks” didn’t just introduce Patrick Troughton as the Doctor; it introduced Doctor Who as the series is presently understood.

“I think Patrick Troughton created the Doctor as he is now,” David Tennant (the 10th Doctor) said in that same documentary. “William Hartnell created something that was unique and brilliant, but actually, the Doctor we recognize today is much more Patrick Troughton’s Doctor… If Patrick Troughton hadn’t done what he did so confidently and with such charm and so brilliantly, then I wouldn’t be sitting here today.”

The Hartnell era gave us the Doctor, the TARDIS and travels through time and space with companions. Every other significant aspect of Doctor Who can be traced— directly or indirectly— to Troughton.

A few years ago, Doctor Who Magazine featured a debate regarding whether Patrick Troughton or Tom Baker was more influential. When you think about it, the obvious answer is Troughton. Yes, Baker, who played the part for seven years (the longest on-screen tenure), brought Doctor Who into the U.S. market (through PBS), but if Troughton hadn’t succeeded in making the part his own, Doctor Who might have been a little-remembered television curiosity.

Despite its historic significance, “The Power of the Daleks” was once only available for viewing by those who happened to have access to a time machine. It only aired once and was one of the many programs the BBC wiped from its videotape archives in the early 1970s.

Fortunately, the audio survives. That, along with images from the broadcast, allowed a team of animators to revive this 50-year-old classic on DVD.

“The Power of the Daleks” is a worthwhile addition to your video library; not just because of its historic significance, but also because it’s an engaging story of mystery and suspense.

Copyright 2017 Patrick Keating.

Random Musings: A look back at I, Claudius

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i-claudius-title-card

Every few years, I re-watch the 1976 BBC production of I, Claudius. In light of the recent death of John Hurt, who played the emperor Caligula in that production, now seemed an appropriate time to revisit that series.

I, Claudius also stars Derek Jacobi as Claudius, Brian Blessed as Augustus, Siân Phillips as Livia, George Baker as Tiberius and Patrick Stewart as Sejanus, to name just a few of the key players. It aired in 12 parts in Britain, including a 90-minute first episode. On PBS, that first episode was divided in two, so it was broadcast as 13 parts in the U.S. Video and DVD releases prior to the 35th anniversary DVD reflected the 13-part version.

With scripts by Jack Pulman, I, Claudius is based on the novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves and concerns the machinations of the members of the Julio-Claudian dynasty in the early decades of the Roman Empire.

The series, told in flashback by the elderly Claudius, opens in 24 B.C. seven years after the battle of Actium, in which Augustus defeated Marc Antony.

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Augustus and Livia.

Over the course of the first four episodes (going by the British episode count), Livia orchestrates the deaths of everyone with a prior claim to the purple before her son, Tiberius. She’s determined that Tiberius will succeed Augustus, regardless of what Tiberius himself wants.

Livia even goes so far as to tricks the chief vestal into letting her see Augustus’ will, which she then alters in favor of Tiberius.

As for Augustus’ intended successor, Postumus (John Castle), Livia has Sejanus kill him. Then she poisons Augustus’ favorite figs on the branches, since he refuses to eat anything he hasn’t picked himself.

Before his death, Augustus comes to recognize that Claudius— considered half-witted because of his stammer, an uncontrollable twitching, a limp and other infirmities— is not such a fool as he appears. It’s an observation shared by the historian Pollio (Donald Eccles), who advises Claudius to exaggerate his stutter and his limp, and to play the fool. Claudius does.

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Augustus and Claudius.

Once Tiberius is emperor, Sejanus maneuvers to make himself indispensable, becoming the true power behind the throne. With Tiberius living on Capri, removed from the heart of the empire, Sejanus is able to keep him isolated, controlling who he sees and what communiqués he reads.

Sejanus wants to be the next emperor. To that end, he attempts to strengthen his ties to Tiberius’ family. He conspires with Claudius’ sister, Livilla (Patricia Quinn) to murder her husband, Castor (Kevin McNally), Tiberius’ son. Some time later, when he seeks permission to marry Livilla, Tiberius refuses, thwarting that family alliance.

On the other hand, Sejanus persuades Claudius to marry into his family.

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Claudius and Sejanus.

In a scene that showcases some of the amusing dialogue that peppers the series, Claudius, who has come to visit the ill Castor, is intercepted by Sejanus. He asks if Claudius knows that his wife is pregnant. Claudius says he doesn’t; he and his wife have lived apart for some time.

Sejanus points out that Claudius will have to divorce his wife.

“What for?”

“Well, you can’t be married to a woman who’s going to have someone else’s child. What an eccentric fellow you are.”

He adds that Tiberius would expect him to get divorced.

“Of course,“ Claudius says. “I’ll divorce her.”

“Whom will you marry?”

“Marry? I’m just getting divorced?”

Sejanus then suggests that his sister would make an ideal wife for Claudius. Ever the survivor, Claudius agrees.

But when his mother, Antonia (Margaret Tyzack) learns what Livilla has done, she arranges for Claudius to smuggle proof of Sejanus’ treachery to Tiberius. The emperor discusses how to deal with Sejanus with Claudius and Caligula. The latter offers a solution and Tiberius responds by naming him his heir.

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Claudius, Caligula and Tiberius.

Caligula descends into madness, declaring himself a god, forcing Claudius to tread very carefully when dealing with him. When Caligula summons him in the middle of the night, Claudius can only fear the worst. But it turns out to be a performance by the emperor— in drag— about the dawn. When Caligula asks what Claudius thought of it, Claudius gives the only safe (and politically correct) answer he can:

“It was indescribable.”

After Caligula’s assassination, the praetorian guard find Claudius cowering behind a curtain and proclaim him emperor. It’s the last thing Claudius wants. All his life he’s yearned for a return to the Republic.

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Claudius declared emperor.

Claudius, who views himself as a mere historian, finds himself in a position he never wanted. His lifelong friend Herod Agrippa (James Faulkner) advises him to “trust no one.” It’s advice Claudius will soon have good reason to heed.

I, Claudius was made more than 40 years ago, but it remains timeless. If you haven’t seen it before, you should. If it’s been a while since you last saw it, you should revisit it some time.

Copyright 2017 Patrick Keating.

Random Musings: The Wave: A cautionary tale worth revisiting

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Recently, Jerry Chandler mentioned the book and movie, The Wave when commenting on Peter David’s blog entry “Repeating history and the Muslim ban.”

I remember The Wave from having seen it in high school and was planning on writing a blog entry about it. But then I found that Jerry already has, so go read his. Go to his site, scroll down a bit and click on the link entitled “beware the Wave.”

I’ve been contributing to Needless Things for a while now, but I’ve recently become a contributor out the horror themed e-mag Gruesome Magazine as well. My Needless Things pieces drop every Thursday while my Gruesome Magazine work drops whenever it’s ready. Today both sites had work go live.

via A Thursday 2 for 1 — Chandler’s Bar & Grill

Random Musings: A look at The Rocketeer and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.

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rocketeer

In 1938, pilot Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell) and his mechanic, Peevy (Alan Arkin), come into possession of a remarkable device: a rocket pack that allows a man to fly. The crook who stole it had hidden it in their hanger while being pursued by the FBI.

The chase resulted in the destruction of both Cliff’s plane and the airstrip owner’s fuel truck (for which he wants reimbursement from Cliff and Peevy). After seeing what the rocket pack can do, Cliff realizes it’s a way for them to make real dough, since people would pay good money to see a man fly.

Peevy doesn’t want anything to do with it, given that A) it’s like strapping nitroglycerin to a person’ back and B) the feds are mixed up in it.

Cliff promises to return it in a few weeks, as soon as they can afford a new plane, but a pilot in trouble during the air show the next day forces him to strap on the pack and take to the skies. He becomes the Rocketeer.

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“Looking like a hood ornament”, the Rocketeer prepares to take flight.

He soon becomes caught between the government, which wants to use the rocket pack (know as the X-3), invented by Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn); mobster Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino) and actor Neville Sinclair, (Timothy Dalton), a secret Nazi agent. Sinclair also has Cliff’s unsuspecting girlfriend, Jenny (Jennifer Connelly), in his sights.

Adding to their troubles, the feds believe Cliff and Peevy shot at them when agents came to their home.

Saturday 7th September 2002, 6pm.

Strapping on the jet pack.

With rocket in hand, er, on his back, Cliff takes to the skies to stop the bad guys and rescue Jenny.

The Rocketeer (1991) is based on the graphic novel of the same name by Dave Stevens (who co produced), which first appeared in 1981 and is a homage to the Republic serials. The film gives special thanks to Republic Pictures and the Rocketman and Commando Cody characters.

In the comics, Cliff’s girlfriend is Bettie, not Jenny, and she’s drawn to resemble pin-up queen Bettie Page.

cliff-and-jenny

Cliff and Jenny.

The Rocketeer is a fun movie that captures some of the optimism of the late 1930s.

There are also a few in-jokes. The movie scene Neville Sinclair is filming is an obvious reference to the 1938 film The Adventures of Robin Hood, while another scene explains why the famous “Hollywood” sign no longer says “Hollywoodland.”

sky-captain

In Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), when giant robots attack New York, the authorities call in Sky Captain, AKA Joe Sullivan (Jude Law), to deal with the problem, since military resources are stretched thin across the globe.

Joe soon finds himself crossing paths with his old flame, Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow), a reporter for the Daily Chronicle investigating the disappearance of elderly scientists. They soon discover there’s a connection.

They also learn that similar armies of robots have made occasional “smash and grab” attacks over the past five years and that a mysterious man named Totenkopf (a digitally resurrected Sir Laurence Olivier) is apparently behind them.

His robots have also abducted Joe’s assistant, Dex (Giovanni Ribisi), prompting Joe and Polly set off on a round-the-world adventure to rescue Dex and stop Totenkopf— with some assistance from Francesca “Franky” Cook (Angelina Jolie), commander of a mobile reconnaissance outpost for the Royal Navy.

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Joe and Polly.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, which was filmed (primarily in sepia tones) entirely on sound stages in front of blue screens, is an enjoyable film that, like The Rocketeer (but in a different way; it was originally meant to have chapter titles), evokes the old serials.

Sky Captain takes place in an alternate timeline in which the May 6, 1937 Hindenburg disaster either never occurred or didn’t spell the end of airship travel (the Hindenburg III docks at the Empire State Building), but what year does it take place?

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The Hindenburg III.

It would appear at first glance to be set in 1939, given that The Wizard of Oz is playing at Radio City Music Hall, where Polly meets Dr. Jennings (Trevor Baxter) (and another theater advertises Wuthering Heights, also released that year), but The Wizard of Oz was released in August and Polly and Joe depart from Shangri-La on March 2.

(Wuthering Heights, which starred Olivier, was released in April).

On top of that, another theater marquee advertises King’s Row (released in April 1942). Also, Dex says “Shazam” in one scene, but Billy Batson and Captain Marvel debuted in Whiz Comics #2, cover dated Feb. 1940.

What’s more, Polly reveals that Totenkopf worked on something before World War I and was last heard from more than 30 years ago. At the latest, that would set the movie in 1943 or early 1944.

Unless these anachronisms are mistakes, I think the film either takes place, at the earliest, in March 1941, with King’s Row rushed into production in this alternate timeline, or March 1943. The second part of the movie’s title is The World of Tomorrow, which was the theme of the 1939 World’s Fair. Joe, Polly, et al are living in the (near future) tomorrow predicted by the fair. Dex has a working ray gun, for one thing. For another, Joe’s plane has some great features, including really impressive gas mileage.

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Dex with his ray gun.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow also has a number of Easter eggs. When Polly phones her editor (Michael Gambon) and reports that the robots have crossed Sixth Ave., Fifth Ave. and are 100 yards away, she’s quoting from the Oct. 30, 1938 Mercury Theatre broadcast of “The War of The Worlds.”

Also, the newspaper montage scene references Citizen Kane; the scene where Polly recovers her camera from a storm sewer echoes a similar scene in Strangers on a Train and we see King Kong’s silhouette on the Empire State Building in another scene.

One of the commentary tracks suggests there are many (mostly film-related) Easter eggs. The Wuthering Heights marquee probably counts as one.

In addition to exciting adventures, Sky Captain also entertains in the bantering relationship between Joe and Polly. One amusing subplot involves her camera. After her camera bag is destroyed, it’s all she has left— and she only has two shots remaining. A running gag has her encountering so many remarkable things (like Shangri-La), she’s constantly unsure what to shoot.

If they’re not already part of your home movie collection, both The Rocketeer and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow would be welcome additions.

Copyright 2017 Patrick Keating.

Random Musings: A review of The Mystery of Cabin Island

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Frank and Joe Hardy, along with their friends, Chet Morton and Biff Hooper, spend their Christmas vacation in the eponymous cabin on Cabin Island, a small, private island in a cove near their hometown of Bayport and find themselves embroiled in mystery.

There are two versions of The Mystery of Cabin Island, the original, ghost written by Leslie McFarlane (considered the best of the Hardy Boys ghost writers) and published in 1929; and the revised version, ghost written by Andrew Svenson. I read both versions and both were enjoyable, but I liked the original slightly better, despite some purple prose and unnecessary narrative flourishes.

The mysteries were much the same in both versions, but in the original, Frank and Joe never returned home during the course of the story, unlike the revised version. All the action took place on the island, on the ice of the bay or in and around a small village.

In both versions, the owner of Cabin Island, Elroy Jefferson, offers the boys the use of his cabin and tells them a man named George Hanleigh, who’s eager to buy, has no right to be on the property.

The revised Mystery of Cabin Island gets into the story much faster than the original. Frank and Joe learn on page 1 that Jefferson has granted them permission to stay on Cabin Island. A few pages later, while checking out the island, they have a confrontation with Hanleigh, one which combines their first and second confrontations in the original.

Also, in the revised version, a confrontation with another ice boat takes place after the boys’ run-in with Hanleigh, which makes more sense given that the boys in the other ice boat are relatively minor characters.

In the original version, Frank, Joe and Chet decide to check out Cabin Island while ice boating, are chased away by Hanleigh, whom they assume is a caretaker and later, by in one of those amazing coincidences that seem to follow Frank and Joe Hardy everywhere they go, Mr. Jefferson contacts the youthful sleuths because he wants to give them a belated reward for having recovered his stolen car.

The original version involves a stolen set of valuable stamps, which aren’t even mentioned until chapter 11 (and not by Jefferson, but by a minor character with no direct connection to either him or the Hardy brothers); in the revised version, Jefferson tells the boys (in chapter three) that his grandson, Johnny, has disappeared and mentions that the boy loves Cabin Island. He doesn’t tell Frank and Joe to look for him, but does say he has a feeling it’ll take a boy to find a boy.

He also happens to mention a set of stolen medals, though only because he’d brought up the subject of other detectives, whom Frank and Joe had asked about. Later, he tells Frank and Joe not to bother with searching for the medals and admits that Johnny is probably chasing after clues.

Ironically, the boys would never have learned about the stolen stamps in the original version if Hanleigh hadn’t broken into the cabin and hidden their food while they were out, causing them to stop in the little village for supplies. In the course of their conversation, the storekeeper brought the subject up.

Why the missing items were changed from stamps to medals, I’ve no idea, but the latter are brought to the boys’ attention in more realistic circumstances.

The stakes are higher in the revised version of the story, because not only do Frank and Joe know early on about the missing valuables (though they have no reason to believe there’s any direct connection to Cabin Island), but they also discover that Mr. Jefferson’s home has been burglarized.

The next day, they discovered that someone had broken into their boathouse and scattered the supplies they’d put in their ice boat in preparation for their trip.

In both versions, the boys find and solve a cipher, which leads them to the missing valuables. However, the code messages were different in each version of the book, as was the means of decoding. The second version of the code was actually a bit more clever.

One of the weaknesses of the Hardy Boys books is that their father, Fenton Hardy, usually has some connection with their current case. While that held true in the revised version of this book, it wasn’t true in the original. He simply made a brief appearance. I liked the fact that he wasn’t connected to the case in the original story.

Why two versions? Starting in 1959, Harriet Adams, daughter of Stratemeyer Syndicate founder Edward Stratemeyer, began revising the then-38 Hardy Boys books, bringing them up to date. Unfortunately, many of the revised books were watered down, some all but eviscerated, compared to their original versions.

The revised Mystery of Cabin Island is one of the better updates. It reads at a faster pace and offers several mysteries to challenge Frank, Joe and their friends. Still, it could have retained some of the ancillary adventures of the original.

In any event, The Mystery of Cabin Island is the sort of book to read on a late December day.

Copyright 2016 Patrick Keating.