Tag: good review

Remembering Mathnet

A version of this article appeared in 2012.

Mathnet

“The story you are about to see is a fib, but it’s short. The names are made up, but the problems are real.”

With these words began one of my earliest mystery series, Mathnet. 

Mathnet began as just one sketch on the series, Square One, a PBS educational program designed to teach kids about Math. Other sketches included “Mathman”, the animated adventures of “Dirk Niblick of the Math Bigrade” among others. Infrequent parodies included a couple of Honeymooners parody sketches. Each sketch, song, or story had the goal of teaching about math in an entertaining way.

Mathnet was its Dragnet-style sketch starring Beverly Leech as Kate Monday and Joe Howard as her partner George Frankly. They were crime-solving mathematicians who demonstrated a wide variety of math concepts in solving crimes.

The initial episode of Mathnet, The Case of the Missing Baseball was more parody than anything else with the cameramen playing off of Dragnet’s use of close ups to show a series of rapid close-ups in part one of the Missing Baseball.  The show couldn’t keep that up forever, so it became much of a homage with comic and educational overtones.  The show also changed from its pilot episode in which the two mathematicians weren’t part of the police force, even though they acted like it until they got the criminal.

Leech turned in a solid straight woman performance as Officer Monday, but Howard shined as the goofy, but usually competent partner. Like Ben Alexander (Frank Smith) and Harry Morgan (Bill Gannon), Howard brought comic relief to the cases with dialogue like this when Kate announces they’ve received a call about a missing autographed baseball:

George: I love baseball, Kate. Martha and I, we went to Dodger Stadium last night, Kate.

Kate: The Dodgers played in Cincinnati last night, George

George: Yep. No trouble parking. You ought to go with us. Martha and Me to a Dodger game. No trouble parking.

In another episode, Kate Monday asked an apprehended criminal, “Do you agree that crime doesn’t pay?”

He responded, “Yeah, at least not the way I do it.”

The show’s comedy worked. Then, it was merely funny. Today, I see some of the ways it copies Dragnet’s success.

The show played homage to Dragnet in other ways that a kid under 10 who hadn’t seen Dragnet wouldn’t have caught on. James Earl Jones appeared as Chief of Detectives Thad Green. In the original Dragnet, the Chief of Detectives was Thad Brown.

The program was cleverly educational, working into the plot math tricks such as estimating,  calculating the angle of refraction, basic geometry, probability, depreciation, and the effective use of databases and spreadsheets. While Mathnet didn’t provide a comprehensive math education, it taught some great math principles.

For kids, the program also provided solidly plotted mysteries with some fascinating conclusions. The stories were told as five-part serials that would end each episode of Square One and give kids a reason to tune in tomorrow. Mathnet began as just one sketch of many, with it’s first serial averaging about 6 minutes of air time per show. However, due to its popularity, Mathnet took up an ever-increasing share of Square’s One time.

In the middle of the second season, the show was packed up and moved to New York where other Children’s Television Workshop Shows were based. Their first case in New York, The Case of the Swami Scam aired as a standalone TV movie. In subsequent seasons, Leech was replaced by Toni Di Buono as Pat Tuesday. But by then I was in an area where we didn’t get PBS.

I remember Mathnet fondly for two reasons.  First, the entire show, Square One, was successful at making math fun. I still use today math tricks that I learned from Mathnet and I wasn’t the only one. A reviewer on IMDB notes:

In 6th grade in 1997, on Fridays we would watch Mathnet. It was always fun but plenty educational! As a student math was always the easiest when it was made fun, and that is exactly what this movie did for us. Quite frankly, the Mathnet series actually inspired my class to do our homework, because we weren’t allowed to watch it unless the whole class did their homework. It was always a treat when we got to watch these movies. There aren’t many good math movies (as I know now because I am studying mathematics) so it is amazing that Mathnet is so interesting. When the teacher who used them retired, he took the tapes with him and now Indiana is Mathnetless which is a pity!

If only educational TV was always that effective. It also helped spur a lifelong interest in Dragnet.  When I got older, my love of Mathnet fueled my love of Dragnet and the rest, as they say, is history.

Mathnet’s blend of great comedy, solid math skills, and some great fun with classic mysteries still brings a smile to my face. My only regret is that the show has not been given its due with a DVD release.

Episodes of Mathnet are currently posted on YouTube.

Audio Drama Review: The Red Panda, Season Eight

The Eight Season of the Red Panda Adventures is its third World War II season and sees another shift in the series’ dynamics. The Red Panda (Gregg Taylor) is back in Canada after his wife Kit (played by Clarissa Der Nederlanden Taylor) (aka The Flying Squirrel) held down the fort for a long time believing him to be dead while he was in Europe.

Now their focus is on winning the war as the series marches on towards D-Day. Also with our heroes newly parents, there’s a focus on laying the groundwork for their retirement… if they survive the war. As a noted loner, the Red Panda is forced a new role as leader of a patriotic superteam of young heroes known as the Danger Federation.  At the same time, he and the Flying Squirrel battle a mix of foreign and domestic threats.

I enjoyed this series quite a bit. It may be my favorite war series so far. It managed to have a great balance of different types of stories, while still having ongoing threads. I enjoyed them all. Three were the best. “The Honored Dead” finds the World War II-era Red Panda and Flying Squirrel travelling back in time to the 1930s and meeting their old comrades. It’s a nicely done piece with a lot of emotion. In “The Lab Rats” the Red Panda has to use his scientific skills to thwart a Nazi weapon in a team up with the former Supervillain the Genie, and his old ally Doctor Chronopolis. The season finale, “The End of the Beginning” features the Red Panda teaming up with another hero and leaving the Flying Squirrel behind as he travels to Occupied Europe just before D-Day to stop a Nazi super man.

The writing and acting remain strong throughout. Probably my biggest issue with the season is some interesting ideas didn’t get the exploration they could have.  The Danger Federation could have been the focus of more stories. I also thought exploring our heroes as parents would be interesting. Instead, the baby is a plot point that sets up their desire for retirement.

The sound design does continue to be primitive, which is usually not a big deal. But in, “The End of the Beginning,” the climatic fight scene is great, but it suffers from weak sound design. If they ever decide to remaster the series with better sound effects, this is the first episode that should be done.

Overall, this was one a strong season of wartime action that moves our heroes closer to the end of the war.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

The Red Panda Adventures Season 8 can be listened to for free here.

Radio Review: Voyage of the Scarlet Queen

A version of this review appeared in 2012.

I’ve written before about the rarity of having a half-hour show with multiple-part episodes in the Golden Age of radio. However, one show is a notable exception to this rule, Voyage of the Scarlet Queen. The 1947-48 Mutual Radio Series was unusual in many respects. It was a sea drama, but its story-telling style bore a striking resemblance to the hard-boiled detective stories dominating the airwaves at the time. In addition to this, the first 20 episodes were interlinked.

The program follows Philip Karney (Elliot Lewis), Captain of the ketch (sailboat) the Scarlet Queen as he tries to deliver a cargo for Kang and Sons. He’s opposed at every turn by henchmen for a competing exporter, determined to steal the cargo and willing to stop at nothing, even multiple murders. He’s aided by his first mate Gallagher (played by Ed Max) who began working for the bad guys but switched to become Karney’s first mate.

The show features a recurring sophisticated and polite villain named Ah Sin as well as a returning love interest (played by Lewis’s then-wife Cathy) from one episode to the next. While some stories happen at sea, most often Karney and/or Gallagher get in trouble when the Scarlet Queen comes to port. Each episode ended with a ship’s log and the first twenty concluded with Karney announcing how many miles the Scarlet Queen had traveled from its San Francisco port of call.

The show’s exciting situations, colorful characters, and dangers around every corner make Voyage of the Scarlet Queen  one of the more unique radio programs I’ve found.  The relationship between Karney and Gallagher is also a fascinating aspect of the show. They grow from unease at distrust at the beginning to a loyal camaraderie. With one exception, each episode ends with Karney and Gallagher talking on the deck of the Scarlet Queen and Gallagher offering Karney a drink. Karney smiles and responds, “After you, Mate, after you.”

The show lost a little bit of focus after episode 20, but remained one of radio’s greatest adventures throughout its run.

One myth that has made it on to Wikipedia is that Voyage of the Scarlet Queen provided some inspiration to Star Trek based on the fact, “Each episode opens with an entry from the ship’s log.” Given Sam Spade had been giving reports to Effie for more than a year and that in another year Johnny Dollar would start handing in expense accounts, the log was just another in a long line of devices for characters to provide narration for their stories. George Raft’s Mr. Ace paid a visit to a psychologist to fill that purpose. It’s possible Gene Roddenberry heard the show, but it’s a stretch to say that played a role. The Star Trek theory also cites the fact they became embroiled in trouble with “local authorities, agents of rival merchants, or desperate women in need of rescue.” If they didn’t run into trouble, it wouldn’t be much of an adventure story. While its possible, I wouldn’t consider this a probable inspiration for anything other than audience amazement.

The series finished in 1948, but Lewis wasn’t finished with the concept. In 1950, he recorded a pilot for Log of the Black Parrot which brought Ed Max back as Gallagher and renamed his role to Matthew Kinkaid. The audition recording was far more moody and less action filled than the original series and was not picked up for a run.

Currently in circulation are 33 of the 35 broadcast episodes, with Episodes 7 and 10 being missing. In addition, the audition for Voyage of the Scarlet Queen recorded in February 1947 with Lewis as Gallagher and Howard Duff as Karney and the audition for Log of the Black Parrot are available.

Fans of great radio adventure owes it to themselves to check this series out.

Rating: 4.25 out of 5.0 stars.

Audio Drama Review: Twilight Zone Radio Dramas, Volume 11

This set collects six more Twilight Zone radio dramas recreating classic Twilight Zone stories.

“Five Characters in Search of An Exit” finds a man (Jason Alexander) in a major’s uniform dropping into a cylindrical room where four other people are located. They’re dressed as a clown, a hobo, a bagpiper, and a dancer. None has any memories or knows why they’re there. The newly arrived Major tries to engineer an exit. This is a solid tale that delivers a classic Twilight Zone twist and also ties in nicely to the Christmas season.

“The Arrival” is set at a small aiport where a flight comes in on time, but it’s the wrong plane and no one’s aboard. This leads to an experienced FAA investigator being called in. This one has some pretty good twists. I’m not sure its story logic holds up well. But it’s still a decent listen.

“Queen of the Nile” is about a reporter who goes for an interview with a beautiful Hollywood actress who looks far younger than her age or career should indicate. While I do think the solution (or something like it) was a kind of obvious answer, the way its delivered and some of the details make this a pretty engaging outing.

“I Dream of Genie” is about a born loser who finds a magic lamp with a genie who will provide one and only one wish. He begins to mull over the most popular wish options and imagines how good they could be, before also imagining how it would all end horribly. It’s an interesting concept and his solution to the wish dilemma, while simple, is kind of intriguing.

“It’s a Good Life” is one of the most nightmarish tales The Twilight Zone came up with. A small town in Ohio is cut off from the rest of existence and held in thrall to a six-year-old boy with amazing mental powers but zero emotional maturity. The adults in town spend the entire episode cowering. Those who say the wrong thing or think the wrong thing about him risk his wrath. With a thought, the boy could strike you blind, turn you into a monster, or strike you dead. The town, in order to keep him calm and happy, affirms everything he does as good. The transition to radio is very well-executed and this makes for an entertaining if unsettling half hour.

“Masks” finds an elderly man (Stan Freberg) dying on the last day of Mardi Gras in New Orleans and his family (his hypochondriac daughter, his greedy son-in-law, their vain daughter, and their cruel and stupid son) are coming to visit before they start dividing the spoils of his estate. Lest you think my description is unfair, this is the entirety of their characterization and we’re given an introduction telling us explicitly who these people are…because some of us might not figure out after three minutes. It’s made obvious bad things are going to happen to them and that they deserve it. That does tend to make this a bit predictable and on the nose. However, the way the change is realized and the sound design does make it unnerving. It’s not a bad release, but it is one of the weaker stories in this set.

Overall, this was another solid release with a combination of skilled acting, solid sound design, and scripts that mostly tended to be among the stronger ones from the original series.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Streaming Review: The Inner Circle


The Inner Circle is a 1946 film inspired by the 1944 radio series Results Incorporated. Private Investigator Johnny Strange (Warren Doughlas) is on the phone placing an ad for a new secretary when a young woman named Gerry (Adele Mera) who seems perfect for the job walks in and practically hires herself. Johnny agrees as she seems to be perfect for the job. The scene is almost verbatim what happened in the first radio episode. But that’s where the plot diverges.

Before she can properly settle in, Gerri takes a call and tells Johnny it was from a woman wanting to hire him. Johnny goes to meet the woman who turns out to be a mysterious woman in a dark veil, speaking with an exotic accent. Johnny and the woman stumble on a dead body. The woman knocks Johnny out and then we learn she’s actually Gerry. Gerry than pretends to have followed Johnny and tells the police a false story that exonerates Johnny, but Johnny is determined to find the truth before the police figure out the self-defense story Gerri told was false.

There was a lot like about this film. The B-movie detecitve stories could follow into the trap of being formulaic. The twist on this story makes it a nice break for that. Throughout I was really intrigued by what Gerri’s role in the murder, and there’s some great tension as she is trying to throw Johnny off her trail. The lead actors and supporting players all performed well, even though there was only one actor that is recognizable to a significant number of viewers-William Frawley (aka Fred Mertz from I Love Lucy who played Johnny’s police foil. Although big fans of 1930s films might appreciate the appearance of Ricardo Cortez.

The one thing I didn’t like was the denoument scene where Johnny arranges with a police Lieutenant to expose the murderer on the air. While I appreciate the nod to the age of radio drama. The scene was convulted, awkward, and lacked logic, even by B-movie detective standards. Still, that scene doesn’t spoil a really intriguing film that moves at a nice pace and tells a good story.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5

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