Saturday, 27 August 2011

Anderthon: OK, Venus?

Fireball XL5
episodes 1-4

And so we blast off into outer space! After Supercar’s tentative first tentative steps into science fiction territory, finally we get full blown futuristic adventure of the kind that the Andersons are perhaps most famous for. The only trouble is: Fireball XL5 is not actually very good sci-fi – or at least, it seems horrendously old fashioned – and I don’t just mean from a modern viewpoint. I’ve heard it said that television and film science fiction tends to lag behind the written form by a good ten years or so – whereas Fireball XL5 seems like something from 20 or 30 years earlier. It’s very much in the pulp sci-fi tradition: heroic adventurers patrol the galaxy in a spaceship with wings and rocket exhaust, thwarting the plans of would-be alien conquerors. I think it’s fair to say, at least based on these opening instalments, that the scripts lack the sophistication of Supercar. The whole setting of the show is confusing. Fireball XL5 is based on Earth, and operated by the World Space Patrol, whose very name suggests a parochial Earth-centric interest. Given that the show is set in the late 21st Century, this might seem a realistic attempt to limit the extent of man’s space exploration – no warp drive or other faster-than-light propulsion. And yet, the ship seems able to visit various alien planets after just a few days of rocket travel. It’s as if the entire galaxy has contracted somehow, and various other star systems are now encroached on the edges of our own. It’s probably fair to say that science is not the Andersons’ strong suit, and that they really do underestimate the distances involved in interstellar travel.

The puppets have come along a little way since Supercar. There are less grotesque caricatures now – instead, characters are designed to appear more realistically human (albeit stylized with their big heads and hands). Our hero Steve Zodiac is square-jawed, blond and clean cut. Professor Matthew Matic has thick pebble-lensed spectacles, behind which he appears as an avuncular quirky older character (he’s less a Dr Beaker substitute, and more a sort of spiritual ancestor of Victor Bergman). And we also get an innovation: the first proper female lead character in an Anderson show (Ma Jones aside): Venus, the Doctor of space medicine. Again, she’s stylized and exaggerated, but she looks like a real person. (You only need to think of characters like Zizi or Princess Caroline in Supercar, who basically looked like dolls.) I’ll also note that all three of our leads have got consciously silly sci-fi names, which I suppose reminds me that the series is being aimed at children. Another thing to notice is that the producers are still concerned with the fact that puppets can’t be made to walk convincingly. So in addition to Fireball itself, now we’ve got jetmobiles, basically hovering motorbikes which they can use to get from A to B without having to use their legs! This does lead to the oddity which we see in the opening titles, as Steve and Venus use their jetmobiles to actually board Fireball XL5. They fly up, past the tailplane, along the fuselage, before descending through an open roof hatch. It just seems to me the most insanely convoluted method of entry, when surely an underside hatch and a ladder would be a lot more sensible and economical. (And you’ve got to worry – what would happen if their jetmobiles broke down on some alien surface? Would they be unable to get back into Fireball?)

With the show being set in outer space and in the future, miniature effects work starts to take a more prominent role. Whereas I was impressed with the model work in the later episodes of Supercar, here some of the effects work is a little bit ropey – possibly a result of Derek Meddings having to spread his budget more thinly. The most obvious example of this is the launch sequence of Fireball XL5 itself: despite being the show’s beauty shot, seen in every episode, the model visibly wobbles rather alarmingly on its rocket sled, suggesting that the resource wasn’t there to reshoot it. The scale of the ship is also confusing. Placed next to the control tower of Space City, it appears to be massive – yet it’s operated by a crew of three people and a robot. The large glass cockpit fills the whole of the nose cone, and that gives us a clear indication of the size of the interior, as the ship is pretty much a cylinder of the same diameter for its entire length – so it seems to me that there can only be a few rooms positioned one behind the other inside the fuselage. The interior design is also quite minimalist, with the bare metal girders of the ship’s skeleton visible – all of which suggests a fairly small patrol ship. It’s rather odd then to see the well-appointed and luxurious lounge that the crew often retire to – it’s so out of step with the rest of the design that I didn’t realize at first that it was supposed to be aboard the ship.

Planet 46

Someone is attacking the Earth with planatomic missiles. (Fireball XL5 seems to delight in sticking different words together to create new terminology that hopefully sounds a bit futuristic. I’m assuming this is meant to be an atomic missile that can take out a whole planet.) Space City sends Fireball XL5 to investigate as it’s the ship in the relevant patrol sector – Sector 25. (There only appear to be three sectors on Commander Zero’s map however.) It’s not really clear whether the sectors are parts of Earth’s own space territory or areas beyond the borders – though I suppose the presence of so many hostile alien worlds in these sectors might suggest the latter. Anyway, Fireball tracks down the missile and is able to destroy it before it can become a danger to Earth. Space City determines that the missile came from Planet 46, and Fireball is despatched to check it out. It’s several days’ journey time to get there. On arrival, Steve and Venus travel down to the planet’s surface in the ship’s detachable nose section, nicknamed Fireball Junior. I do like the idea of the ship having its own integrated shuttlecraft – it makes it more than just a static model. I can understand why the toys and models have been very popular over the years – a toy spaceship is pretty cool in itself, but a toy spaceship with moving or detachable parts is just fantastic! Also, from a realistic scientific perspective, it makes more sense to have a large mothership that stays in orbit whilst a smaller vehicle does the difficult and fuel-costly business of landing and taking off. At least that would make sense, if the size and scale of Fireball XL5 wasn’t handled so inconsistently throughout the series. The main craft seems perfectly capable of making planetfall without any difficulty, and presumably launching again – and whereas it needs the elaborate rocket sled on rails arrangement (inspired, I suspect, by something similar in the movie When Worlds Collide) to take off from Earth, it doesn’t seem to have the same requirements to lift off from any alien surface.

Using their jetmobiles, Steve and Venus explore some caves, and discover a mysterious set of doors. Unfortunately, they’re on the far side of a lake of volcanic lava. Steve decides to ride his jetmobile over the lake, and there are a few hairy moments as the heat threatens to make the machine malfunction – but he just manages to make it, whereupon he’s captured by two aliens with odd, angular plastic heads. He tries to tell Venus to hightail it back to Fireball, but she gets captured too on her way out of the caves. Steve wakes up in a secret control room, where the aliens are planning to launch another missile at Earth. The aliens are called Subterrains, yet they don’t get any real introduction – Steve seems familiar with them and immediately regards them as enemies, leading me to wonder if there’s some past animosity between them and the Earthlings. They’ve got Venus tied up inside the missile, to force Steve to order Fireball XL5 down to land on the planet. But they direct the ship to a deep pit filled with volcanic ash – as soon as it touches down it starts to sink. Then they fire the missile off with Venus inside it anyway (and a Subterrain pilot on a kamikaze mission)! Steve manages to use a concealed gun to capture the Subterrain leader, and gets back to Fireball Junior – docking with the mothership, he uses Junior’s engines to pull it free from the ash pit. Then they set off after the missile. Professor Matic (who previously seemed quite a kindly fellow to me!) threatens the Subterrain leader with the destruction of his planet if he doesn’t order the pilot to eject Venus from the missile before they destroy it. Steve then spacewalks to capture the pilot and rescue Venus, and we’re introduced to one of the show’s more unusual ideas: taking oxygen pills that enable you to survive in vacuum without a space suit. It’s scientific nonsense of course, because I can’t see how it would alleviate all the problems of zero pressure and extreme low temperatures: collapsed lungs, burst capillaries, frozen eyeballs and so on – but it’s certainly a distinctive concept and gives us some incongruous imagery. With Venus safe, they blow up the missile in the nick of time – so close to Earth in fact that the explosion can be seen up in the sky over Space City – which by my reckoning ought still to flood the planet with deadly radiation, and almost certainly blind poor Lieutenant Ninety who’s looking out the window at the time!

Hypnotic Sphere

Venus has electrodes wired up to Steve’s head, as regulations dictate she has to give him a medical check every day that Fireball’s on patrol. When Steve suggests that Robert the robot ought to get a daily check-up too, Robert gets so wound up that steam vents from his head. (It doesn’t really make any sense that an electronic robot should produce steam in moments of stress – but it provides an amusing visual image.) Professor Matic then detects something odd on his spacemograph. That’s right, they’ve stuck two words together again to try and suggest a piece of futuristic technology – presumably this is supposed to be a sort of space seismograph, something to detect unusual vibrations or tremors in space – despite the fact that you can’t have vibrations in a vacuum where there’s no transmission medium. Ah well… What Matt’s detected turns out to be a tanker ship from Earth. It appears to be adrift. Steve and Matt take their oxygen pills, and spacewalk across to the tanker. (They use a sort of jetpack to propel themselves – so why do they need to make those swimming motions with their legs? There’s nothing to kick against in a vacuum! It’s like the puppeteers felt they had to be doing something to indicate motion.) As Steve and Matt investigate the tanker, the musical score is insanely inappropriate: a really jazzy score that would be perfect for a film noir thriller (or indeed many episodes of Supercar). They find the pilot cowering inside the ship, having apparently been hypnotized. It turns out that several tankers have vanished recently, so it’s decided that Fireball should escort the next one and find out what’s been happening. What they encounter is a spherical device launched from the planet Sevenna – it pulses with light and broadcasts a voice that hypnotizes those who come near it – under this influence, the tanker pilot alters his course for Sevenna. Steve starts to follow suit, but somehow realizing what’s happening, tells Robert to maintain the present course. The confusion of the conflicting orders causes the robot to let off steam again, and he responds by karate-chopping Steve in the throat! With the crew unconscious, the ship continues on its course – unfortunately, it’s ultimately heading straight for Mirana, the planet of fire. At the last moment, the heat revives Steve and he manages to pull Fireball away from certain destruction. Backtracking to the hypnotic sphere, Fireball follows the course of the tanker. The crew black out their windows and turn off the electronic systems to avoid getting hypnotized again. Arriving at Sevenna, they discover a whole fleet of the hypnotic spheres waiting on the surface. Entering a building, they encounter the alien responsible – basically a pulsating brain in a glass tank, with a creepy magnified eye. (I think it might actually have been quite disturbing for kids.) The alien reveals its plan: the hijacked tankers will provide fuel for the fleet of spheres, which it will send out across the galaxy, spreading its hypnotic will everywhere and making it ruler of everything. Steve’s heard enough, and despite being held in the brain’s hypnotic power, he manages to get off a shot from his gun – destroying the base’s heating system. The extreme cold kills the brain, which is a physically delicate creature. It’s odd to note that both episodes so far have effectively the same story: our heroes discover aliens operating from a hidden base and using weapons to conquer the Earth/galaxy. This suggests that the solar system is surrounded by hostile worlds with vaguely defined grudges against humanity, which in turn might explain the aggressive attitude demonstrated by Steve and his crew – they’ve got a really gung-ho, shoot first and ask no questions thing going on. It’s like a sort of Middle East situation, with lots of rogue states sabre-rattling, and the Western powers sending in a gunboat to make a few threatening gestures.

Planet of Platonia

A friendly planet this week – well, sort of. Platonia has vast deposits of platinum, but is lacking in many essential resources. President Barzan wants to initiate a trade agreement with Earth. However, he’s opposed by Jinerva, the leader of a more militant/fundamentalist faction. Again, it reminds me of countries in the Middle East where a progressive president wants to cosy up to the West, but faces danger from hardliners. Barzan is attended by his aide Volvo – (presumably Skoda and Audi were busy somewhere else) – but he doesn’t realize that Volvo is secretly working for Jinerva, not even when the aide makes several incompetent attempts to poison or assassinate him. Barzan manages to survive or avoid each attempt (by luck rather than judgement) and though Volvo’s suspicious manner gives him the occasional moment of doubt, ultimately he remains convinced of his aide’s loyalty. The trade talks are considered important enough that Fireball XL5 is despatched to collect Barzan and bring him safely to Earth. Steve and Venus arrive in Fireball Junior, and tell Robert to stay on guard – the robot interprets this literally, by standing in the open upper hatch with a gun in his hand! Following a massive multi-course meal, Steve and Venus retire to guest quarters for the night – but some instinct has made Steve suspicious, and he gets up to go and check on Fireball Junior. He finds that Volvo has incapacitated Robert and got aboard the vessel. So Steve shoots him, with some sort of stun gun that puts Volvo in a coma! But don’t worry, Venus is able to bring the traitor round with “anti-coma drugs”. Fireball XL5 departs, carrying President Barzan to his trade talks – with Volvo locked up in a cell on board (which is labelled with the words “Space Jail”). Meanwhile, Jinerva launches a space interceptor from Platonia to pursue Fireball – it’s interesting to note that he buys his spacecraft from the same place as the Subterrains. Maybe there’s a hostile foreign power that supplies aid and equipment to various rogue regimes, like the Russians used to supply the various Communist states. (Or maybe they just used some stock footage from Planet 46!) Volvo is able to overpower Venus when she goes to feed him, and ejects from Fireball planning to be picked up by Jinerva’s ship. His hopes are dashed when Steve fires a missile and destroys the craft – it turns out that Jinerva was actually on board, so all hopes of an uprising die with him. After Steve has spacewalked to recapture Volvo, it soon transpires that the traitor’s plan was to destroy Fireball with a bomb he planted last night. Steve discovers that the bomb is inside Robert’s chest, and there are tense scenes as he has to extract the device from the robot and gingerly carry it to the airlock, managing to eject it into space with just seconds to spare. Venus then dopes Volvo with knockout drops to keep him unconscious for the rest of the journey to Earth.

Space Magnet

It’s night time in Space City, and Fireball XL5 is preparing for launch the next day. Venus is at home drinking coffee with Professor Matic. She has a sort of weird alien pet called Zoonie, who appears to become quite agitated about something. They can’t tell what. Eventually Matt leaves to go back to Fireball. (He doesn’t have his own home, but lives aboard the ship.) Meanwhile, Steve is in the control room with Lieutenant Ninety when a distress calls comes in from Fireball XL7. It’s out of control, being pulled off course. As contact is lost, Steve decides to bring XL5’s launch forward so he can go and investigate. The take-off is set for moonrise – the only trouble is, the Moon doesn’t rise on schedule! (It was this that got the sensitive Zoonie so worked up.) When the Moon finally appears, it’s too distant – it’s being pulled out of its orbit! (That’s an interesting idea – they should do something with that again…) Matt wakes up to discover the emergency in progress – he’s got a great Heath Robinson apparatus in his cabin involving an alarm clock and a kettle that proceeds to make him a cup of tea. Now, Steve comments here about Matt’s insistence on using a 100 year old alarm clock in preference to the high-tech systems aboard the ship, which is odd because it only serves to point up all the other weird anachronisms in the show. In just this episode, we see Steve reading a newspaper, Venus sewing buttons onto clothes, and even the instrument panels in Fireball are covered in very 1960s dials. For all the spaceships, aliens and robots, there’s very little attempt made at depicting a consistent futuristic world – it’s effectively the Sixties with better technology. Well, Fireball sets off in pursuit of the Moon, and follows it to the planet Magneton – which as its name suggests is pulling lots of metal objects towards it. Steve manages to break Fireball XL5 away just in time to prevent a crash. They go down to the surface and find the wreckage of Fireball XL7 there amongst all the other debris. It’s being fed by conveyor into an alien complex. They go inside, where they are relieved to discover the crew of XL7 are still alive, if prisoners. Then a voice speaks. The aliens here are called the Solars, and they’re invisible. They’re processing all the scrap metal they’ve attracted in order to provide the power to pull the Moon into their orbit. And that’s their whole plan: they want the Moon to illuminate their world so they no longer live in darkness. (Well, I don’t know where to start with the scientific errors here – are the writers really not aware that the Moon merely reflects the light of the sun? Take it away from its orbit, and it wouldn’t have its own illumination…) Steve doesn’t react very well to this news. He whirls around the room, firing his gun indiscriminately until he’s managed to kill all the Solars. Once again, it’s this gung-ho aggressive attitude that’s making it hard for me to like the show. In something like Star Trek or Space Patrol, discovering the aliens’ plight like that would be the cue for our heroes to open up a dialogue and reach some mutually beneficial agreement. For Steve Zodiac, the only response is to shoot the buggers. As I said, very dodgy pulp sci-fi. So far, Fireball XL5 is showing little of the intelligence or wit of Supercar and Four Feather Falls. Our heroes take the Moon back to Earth – though there’s no explanation of how they managed that feat! Then, there’s a little moment of subtle characterization. Looking up at the Moon, Steve comments how it’s easy to take something for granted when it’s there all the time; Venus agrees wistfully, and in that instant, there’s a suggestion of unrequited love, of how Steve is blind to the desires of the woman he serves with. It shows me that the writers are capable of better than the schlock sci-fi they’re churning out. There’s scope for improvement here.

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