Monday, 19 September 2011

Anderthon: I'm a Real Tootie

Fireball XL5
episodes 9-12

Space Monster

Fireball XL2 has crashed on the planet Monotone. One of the crew, who goes by the fantastic name of Al Stomper, has been injured and his colleague Ken Johnson has managed to drag him into a cave where they take shelter from an alarmingly unconvincing monster – a huge dinosaur-like creature, with a horned head, long neck and big goggly eyes. It seems it was a flick of the creature’s tail that brought XL2 down, and now it’s out to eat the astronauts. Fortunately, its bulk means it can’t get more than its head through the entrance to the cave so it can’t reach them – but it’s got them pinned down with little hope of survival. I do find it difficult to take the monster seriously – I think it’s because in my mind (fed by things like Jurassic Park), I’d regard the depiction of an alien creature as being under the aegis of special effects, and so I’d expect it to have the same verisimilitude as the model work. Yes, I know I’ve previously said that the models are a bit ropey, but there’s still a solidness and reality to them that’s missing from this goofy dinosaur. It is, of course, a puppet, operated in exactly the same way as the human characters – a combination of scaled sets and back projection creating the illusion of its immense size – and in retrospect, it seems obvious that the producers would use a puppet to represent a living creature. I’ll just have to adjust my preconceptions.

Back on Earth, Venus is playing Steve another of her discs, and dancing the Twist to it. Though Venus and the lazoon get very into it, Steve seems far from enthused, and comments how it was all the rage 100 years ago. (Which is interesting – perhaps I was too quick to condemn the use of contemporary 1960s music, as that comment basically acknowledges the anachronism. Maybe we should assume that Venus is a vintage record buff – after all, people today still listen to fifty year old Beatles recordings…) Steve is rescued by a phone call from Commander Zero – they’ve picked up the emergency beacon from Fireball XL2, and need to send out a rescue mission. Fireball XL5 is soon on its way to Monotone. As Steve, Venus and Matt discuss the situation in the lounge, Robert is left flying the ship with Zoonie as his “co-pilot”. The creature incessantly parrots every course correction instruction that Robert gives, driving the poor robot into letting off plenty of steam. Yet amidst this slapstick comic relief, there’s a moment of moody introspection, as Steve contemplates the depths of space outside and reflects how lonely and forbidding it can be. It really seems to conjure up an image of astronauts as pioneers stretching out into a vast uncharted wilderness, which seems much better than the usual gung-ho militarism that Steve usually exhibits.

Arriving at Monotone, Steve and Venus take Fireball Junior down to the surface. After finding the wreckage of XL2, they explore on their jetmobiles, and soon find Ken and Al in the cave. While Venus attends to Al’s wounds, Ken explains to Steve about the monster. Sure enough, it soon turns up again and traps them all in the cave. When he doesn’t hear from Steve, Matt makes the decision to bring the main ship down to the surface as well. He comes out to explore, and finds himself in a comedy sequence as the monster looms up behind him without Matt noticing. He turns his head and does a double take, and then flees from the monster, with comedy chase music undercutting any sort of tension that the scene might be expected to have. (This wouldn’t be so bad if the show was being played for laughs – but they’ve gone to great lengths to emphasize the jeopardy our heroes are in. It’s the unevenness of the whole thing that’s still spoiling it for me.) Eventually, Matt ends up trapped in the cave with the others! Our heroes attempt a desperate plan, Ken Johnson firing his gun to distract the monster while Steve tries to make a run for Fireball Junior to use the transmitter there. But Steve falls and breaks his leg, and it looks as if all is lost – until the lazoon comes to the rescue. It’s innate desire to imitate sounds leads it to make the same bellowing noise as the monster. This causes the terrifying creature to turn and wander off in search of a potential mate – allowing our heroes to make good their escape.

Flying Zodiac

Steve and Matt are round Venus’s house, and Steve is reminiscing about his ancestors, who were circus performers: the Flying Zodiacs, a famous troupe of trapeze artists. (And I think that’s fantastic – it would be so obvious in a show like this for Steve to be descended from a famous explorer or military commander – but here the writers are giving us something unexpected. And pleasingly, it also explains why Steve’s got such a silly surname – if at some point in the past, the family name was changed for professional purposes.) He’s also got a crystal ball, which used to belong to his grandmother Clara Zodiac, a world-famous clairvoyant. When Steve and Matt go into the kitchen to make coffee, Venus finds herself staring into the crystal ball, and suddenly the picture starts to go wobbly. Oh no, it’s a dreaded dream episode! In Venus’s dream, Commander Zero has given permission for a charity circus to be performed on the Space City launching ground. Most of our main characters seem to be taking part. Venus has trained the lazoon to play a musical instrument – it appears to be a collection of different bicycle horns, but makes an electronic noise! Jock the engineer is a human cannonball. Robert the robot is a sword swallower – despite the fact that the puppet’s body can’t bend enough to realistically get a sword down his “throat” – it all goes wrong in any case, as Robert manages to short himself out in process. And Steve is rigging up a trapeze from beneath a hovering spaceship so he can recreate his ancestors’ act. There are also a couple of visiting performers: Cosmo the clown and Madame Mivea, the “Martian clairvoyant”. They turn out to be a couple of villains. Cosmo breaks into the stores and sabotages jet thruster backpacks. He also saws through the cables that will support Steve’s trapeze rig. This all coincides with the arrival at Earth of a caravan of gypsy spaceships. The rather literal interpretation of this concept sees the interior of their spaceships decked out liked traditional gypsy caravans, and their leader depicted as a stereotypical gypsy with hooped earrings and headscarf. (It’s hard to decide whether this is a good thing or not – on the one hand, I think of the designers basically being lazy and using the visual imagery of gypsies to depict these itinerant space people – on the other, it could be seen as an ancient people holding onto their traditional ways even when they go out into space.) Commander Zero sends Steve up to give the gypsies their marching orders. They can stay for a couple of days, and then move on. It’s very hard not to see this as a present day man from the local council moving gypsy caravans on from a patch of common ground, and I’m not sure what this says about the prejudices of the writers – or given that this is all happening in Venus’s dream, what it says about her!

Anyway, Cosmo and Mivea are working for the gypsies. Their efforts to disrupt the circus are part of a wider plan to put Space City out of action so there’ll be nothing to prevent the gypsies from invading the Earth. Ken Johnson from XL2 is helping to rig up Steve’s flying harness when his sabotaged thruster pack gives out and he plummets to the ground. Fortunately, he falls into the safety net, and sustains only minor injuries. (Though oddly, he seems to have acquired a completely different voice from last week – also at one point, Jock calls him Ross, even though it’s clearly the Johnson puppet and everyone else calls him Ken. I wonder if the part was originally written for Lieutenant Ross, and that part of the script didn’t get changed. Then again, it’s a dream, so weird things are allowed to happen, I suppose.) Steve goes to perform his high wire act, even as the gypsies have landed and attempt to take over the control tower – Cosmo and Mivea having overpowered Lieutenant Ninety, the officer on duty. Fortunately, Venus and Zoonie find Ninety in time, and manage to take the control tower back without much difficulty. (It was a pretty flimsy takeover plan, all things considered.) Steve’s wire gives way, and he starts to fall – but he’s saved by Commander Zero launching Jock the human cannonball. Jock catches Steve and carries him into a safety net. Meantime, Matt is working on some new invention in his workshop which blows up in his face – the noise wakes Venus up, and she returns to the present to find Matt has indeed blown something up – the coffee machine! Ah well... Like some of the previous dream episodes, part of the problem with this one is that it’s so unnecessary. There’s nothing really “way out” in this episode that can only be explained by it being a dream, so again I’m just not sure why the writers felt that need. It makes for an ultimately unsatisfying experience.

Spy in Space

Fireball XL9 is suddenly attacked by a spaceship called S.S. Thor – it’s marked with a skull and crossbones, so I suspect it’s up to no good. (More scale problems are evident with the effects sequences here, as XL9 is shown on fire, the flames being far too large in comparison with the ship – I’m also not sure if flames can burn like that in the vacuum of space…) The upshot of all this is that XL9 has to make a run for Earth, and Commander Zero assigns Fireball XL5 to take over its patrol. This is bad news for Steve and the crew, who have just completed a three month tour of duty and were expecting to go home on leave. They will need to refuel if they are to stay out in space for another three months, so they head for a space station called Companion 12. When they arrive, Steve has to turn off the ship’s artificial gravity to stop Fireball crashing into the station. (This is an interesting idea. It doesn’t really explain how artificial gravity works – most sci-fi tends to avoid going into the specifics! – but this suggests that they perhaps generate a field to make the ship super-massive and thus give it an Earth-normal gravitational pull. The notion that they therefore can’t use it close to other vessels is certainly unusual and novel – it’ll be interesting to see whether they maintain this in future episodes.) To compensate for the lack of gravity, they strap magnetic plates to the soles of their boots. Steve, Venus and Matt spacewalk across to the station – unfortunately represented by some out-of-scale back projection – and find the S.S. Thor parked outside. However, they can find no sign of anyone inside the vessel. (This sequence highlights another oddity involving the oxygen pills – even allowing that they can oxygenate the blood or whatever, how do the characters communicate with each other? There they are, in vacuum and therefore no transmission medium for sound, carrying on perfectly normal conversations with each other!) They enter the space station to find the crew completely missing.

In the control room, they encounter an odd couple: a tall thin man and a dumpy woman, whom Steve identifies as Mr and Mrs Space Spy – Boris and Griselda. It’s pretty clear that these are supposed to be major villains for the series but, like Masterspy and Zarin before them, they don’t get a proper introduction. We’re just expected to accept their villainous status, and it would seem that our heroes have had run-ins with them before. (And then I suddenly realized – they were Cosmo and Mivea in Venus’s dream sequence last week. It makes sense, I suppose, that she didn’t just dream up two random bad guys, but imagined them as avatars of her recurring enemies – except it had no impact considering we’d never met the characters before… I’m suspecting that the episodes are not on the DVD in the correct order.) Anyway, it’s clear that the writers are sticking to a tried and tested pattern with their villains here: camp and ineffectual, the fat bossy one and the tall weasely put-upon one. They are effectively Pedro and Fernando or Masterspy and Zarin reimagined in a new setting. It’s interesting that one of them is now a woman – I wonder if they’re trying to draw a line under some of the inherently gay connotations of their previous pairings. The spies’ plan is simple: they want to take control of Fireball XL5. Steve goes to refuel the ship with Boris guarding him, while Griselda holds Venus and Matt hostage. (The refuelling is amusingly low-tech, Steve carrying effectively a fuel hose across with him and using it to top up Fireball’s tank!) On the way back, he surreptitiously loosens the straps holding on Boris’s magnetic sole plates. Back in the control room, the plates work loose and Boris finds himself rising into the air and ends up stuck on the ceiling. (So once again, the writers demonstrate that they don’t understand the concept of zero gravity – all Boris should have to do is push off the ceiling and he’ll float back to the floor.) Griselda demands that Matt and Steve rescue Boris and fix his sole plates. While she holds Venus at gunpoint, she allows them to go off into a workshop, where they set about rigging Boris’s boots with rocket jets that they can operate by remote control. It takes ages, but Griselda doesn’t suspect anything. With Boris back on the ground, they make their way out of the station, intending to leave our heroes to die there. Steve operates the boot jets, and Boris is shot right through the wall of the space station and out into space. (What was it made of, cardboard?) Boris goes into a wide elliptical orbit around Companion 12, leaving Griselda struggling to get S.S. Thor going so she can rescue him. In the confusion, our heroes make it back to Fireball and escape. It’s fun to see our camp villains getting their comic comeuppance – though it’s a pity that Griselda’s incompetence gives Steve an excuse to crack some sexist gags.

XL5 to H20

This week we visit the planet Zolfite, where the entire civilization has been wiped out by invading Aquaphibians. (Well, despite a bit of dialogue suggesting that there are loads of invaders, we only actually see one Aquaphibian, a tall lizard man carrying a big gun. Until the others were mentioned in passing, I was rather enjoying the idea that this lone invader was so hard he could destroy the entire population single-handed.) Now there are only two survivors left – Rald and Jenek – and the Aquaphibian is stalking them. He advances on their building, and uses his gun to shine a bright beam of light at it. This shatters their windows. The gun then produces a poisonous smoke which starts to fill the building up. Rald and Jenek try desperately to send a distress signal to Earth, before they manage to get into an escape lift just before the smoke overcomes them – and go down into the bowels of the planet. Receiving the distress call, Commander Zero sends Fireball XL5 to investigate. This is an interesting development, showing the World Space Patrol acting more as a sort of police force, assisting other worlds in trouble. It’s a bit more like the later Star Trek perhaps, but it’s the sort of depiction of the future I'd want to see – a sense of responsibility and community, rather than the petty militarism we’ve seen previously in the show. Hopefully, we’ll continue in this direction. Arriving at Zolfite, Fireball Junior comes under attack from the Aquaphibian, and his light beam punches a hole in the glass of the cockpit. (To me, this only serves to highlight a weakness of the design – all that glass in a spaceship cockpit is asking for trouble. That’s a hostile environment out there – do you ever wonder why submarines don’t have windows?) Steve manages to return to Fireball before the poison can get at them, and sets Matt to work making the glass beam-proof. (Which gives us some amusing Dr Beaker-like scenes of scientific experimentation.) Finally, with the glass replaced, Steve and Venus go back down. The Aquaphibian opens fire again, but this time is unable to puncture Fireball Junior. Steve retaliates by firing a missile at the creature, causing it to… duck back behind some rocks. Steve goes in to land, only to find that what appears to be some surface vegetation is in fact weed on top of water, and Junior starts to sink into a sort of subterranean ocean. Fortunately, Junior is rigged for undersea operation. The Aquaphibian reappears down here, and Steve tries to elude it by sailing into a cave – whereupon some large doors close behind them, sealing the cave and shutting the enemy out. Fireball Junior surfaces inside a cavern – and there's some really good modelwork in this sequenceand Steve and Venus set out to explore. They find an underground survival chamber where Rald and Jenek are hiding out. (It was they who closed the doors.) Unfortunately, the Aquaphibian has gained access to the cavern, and starts trying to pump his poison smoke in there. The two Zolfites pass out, and Steve and Venus have to carry them back on their jetmobiles. Steve manages to fight off the Aquaphibian long enough for them to get Fireball Junior under way. They get back to the surface, and join up with Fireball to take the two survivors safely back to Earth. I do wonder though what happened about the planet. Was it just abandoned to the Aquaphibians? Did aggression win out in the end? Did the Aquaphibians get away with genocide? Presumably in a later episode, we’ll see full scale military intervention, followed by war crimes tribunals…

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