Sunday, 4 September 2011

Anderthon: Professor, Put the Kettle On!

Fireball XL5
episodes 5-8

The Doomed Planet

Professor Matic suddenly warns Steve of approaching danger – a rogue planet that’s broken away from its own solar system is bearing down on Fireball XL5! Steve is able to get out of its way just in time. (Once again, the effects sequence here is completely out of scale – as Fireball dives to avoid the collision, the ship is quite clearly not much smaller than the planet – and indeed, the very idea that you can swerve out of the path of a planet that’s literally on top of you is absurd. As the ship “dives”, Venus and Matt slide towards the nose, as if they’re descending a steep incline, completely ignoring the fact that there’s no downward gravity in space…) Well, after that dramatic if implausible opening, Matt determines that the rogue planet is heading straight for the planet Membrono. They fly there to check out the planet – it’s apparently uninhabited, but Steve wants to make sure. Fireball Junior lands in a very impressive bubbling swamp set, and Steve explores on his jetmobile. The sense of otherworldliness is really sold by Barry Gray’s background atmosphere, all weird juddery electronic noises. As Steve explores, he gets the feeling he’s being watched – but he sees nobody and dismisses the sensation. But once he’s gone by, we see a mysterious shadow and a trail of weird alien footprints. After Steve returns to Fireball, a flying saucer lifts off from the surface of Membrono. Steve glimpses it from the cockpit, but the others think he must have imagined it. Back on Earth, Commander Zero is equally dismissive about the existence of flying saucers. Again, it’s something which highlights that the show is being made in the 1960s, when such scepticism might have seemed warranted – but it’s supposedly set in a world where the existence of alien civilizations (and spacecraft of every shape and size) is an accepted fact. They’re just not really constructing a consistent worldview.

Steve drives Venus home in his hovercar, because she wants to play him a new disc she’s picked up. (Another anachronism? Well, we don’t see it, so conceivably it could be some future HD format, a couple of generations beyond bluray… Oh, who am I kidding? You know it’s going to be a record on a turntable!) She’s also been teaching her lazoon to talk. He greets them with a raucous cry of “Welcome Home!” Strangely though, he keeps saying it throughout the evening. What the ever-sensitive Zoonie knows is that the flying saucer has followed them to Earth, and has even now landed under the water near Venus’s house. Steve and Venus see it taking off, and call Commander Zero on the telephone – and yes, there’s no attempt to create any kind of futuristic communications system, it’s just a telephone. This time, the control tower are tracking the flying saucer. Fireball XL5 is launched, and follows it back to Membrono. Steve and Matt go down to the planet, guns drawn, and demand that the mysterious alien show himself. It turns out that, oddly-shaped feet aside, the alien is a kindly-looking, bearded old man. He cannot speak to them directly, but uses some sort of telepathy to speak through Robert’s loudspeaker. He tells them to put away their guns – he’s led them here because he knows they are good men, and he needs their help. His civilization is the oldest in the universe, and has been observing Earth for centuries. (This is a lovely change of pace after some of the indiscriminately hostile aliens we’ve met so far – all this talk of ancient races communing with younger species has a sort of mythic grandeur, reminding me a bit of the work of Olaf Stapledon, and perhaps prefigures some of what we’ll see in Space: 1999. I’ll also be interested to see whether this encounter might lead to our heroes losing some of their belligerent attitude…) The alien explains that his race live on Membrono’s moon. They forsook all weapons centuries ago, so they have no means of destroying the rogue planet – if it destroys Membrono, then their moon will drift off into space. Steve agrees to use Fireball’s missiles to try and destroy the rogue planet. But the first impact does only minimal damage. Steve and Matt calculate that three missiles fired together will start a nuclear chain reaction, which might be their only hope of destroying the planet. It works, and the planet starts to go up in flames. (Again, there’s a problem with scale in the effects sequence, the size of the flames indicating quite clearly that this is a small model ball on fire.) The alien speaks through Robert one more time, as his saucer returns home, suggesting that one day he may be able to repay the debt he owes the Earthmen.

Plant Man from Space

We discover a planet covered in rich vegetation, and then a row of greenhouses in the middle of it. Inside is a man-sized, walking, talking plant creature (evidently the titular character) – as well as lots of smaller plants growing under glass. (I wonder, are they his children?) The plant man announces his intention to destroy Space City – he’s even gone to the extent of building a very detailed scale model of the complex, seemingly so that he can dramatically knock it over at the peak of his rant. There’s some unsettling juddering musical effects backing these scenes which really add to the strangeness of it. Meanwhile at Space City, the team are preparing for the test of a new ejector seat system. Professor Matic is entertaining a visitor, Dr Howard Roots, a botanist whom he used to know at Universe University. (I’ve got to assume that’s just an Earthbound educational institution with a self-aggrandizing name, rather than actually an interplanetary seat of learning – I can’t imagine that the state of human-alien relations is quite at an co-educational level yet…) They’re looking around Space City’s nuclear power station, which is maintained by Jock, the Scottish engineer. Just as the control room detect a missile heading for Earth, we see a mysterious hand place something inside the nuclear pile – whereupon the power goes out across Space City, leaving the Earth completely defenceless. Carrying a candle, Jock investigates. (A candle? What, they don’t even have torches?) He discovers that a pellet of radioactive retardant has been placed inside the reactor – it’s deliberate sabotage! Realizing the culprit must still be in Space City, Commander Zero orders a security lockdown – no one is allowed in or out. (Considering that Matt and Dr Roots were the only people in the power station with Jock, I wouldn’t have thought it was that difficult to work it out!)

When Jock finally gets the power back on, the missile has come a lot closer. They need to get a ship up to intercept it. Unfortunately, Fireball XL5 is in for repairs, and the only other ship available is Fireball XL1 Alpha. From the designation, I’m assuming this is the prototype vessel of the Fireball class – the way everyone talks about it implies that it’s old and obsolete, though it looks just like XL5. A laborious sequence follows in which the ship is winched up out of an underground hangar, then carried slowly by the crane over to the launching track and lowered onto the rocket sled. (I’m not really sure what the plant man’s plan was, but the sabotage achieved very little, considering the missile is still hours away and they’ve got all this time to get the ship ready.) I was surprised that Steve didn’t take command of XL1 Alpha – but instead Lieutenant Ross, the commander of XL7, is given the task (so presumably he’s not been held responsible for the loss of his old ship on Magneton). We see the familiar Fireball launch sequence, exactly as when XL5 takes off (let’s face it, it’s the same bit of film) – so it’s actually quite a shock when XL1 Alpha fails to get airborne, following the rocket sled off the end of the track to crash on the other side of the hill. Fortunately, Ross survives thanks to the new ejector seat system.

But now there’s only fifteen seconds until the missile hits – it impacts on the beach outside Venus’s house, but doesn’t go off. Matt and Steve inspect it, and decide it looks harmless enough. (They don’t seem to notice the whacking great door in the side.) During the night, it opens and a virulent strain of ivy starts growing out of it. By morning, it’s covered most of Space City, including clogging the launch track and Fireball XL5. It’s deduced that they need to obtain a hormone to destroy the creeper before it infests the whole planet. Luckily, Dr Roots is on hand to identify the ivy as coming from the jungle planet Hedera – they would need to go there to get the hormone. They clear the ivy away from XL5, and take off on this mission. On the way, Roots releases more of the ivy, which starts to infest the interior of the ship – if you hadn’t guessed, he turns out to be the brains behind the whole thing. He seems to have an unhealthy admiration for plant life – Matt decides he’s been working away in space for too long! Roots’ plan is to force XL5 to turn back to Earth – but Steve decides to press on to Hedera. The planet is so richly covered with vegetation that they can’t land – instead, they leave the ship in “free float” mode, hovering above the jungle. (There’s no explanation of how a ship that heavy could be left floating in the air.) Entering the greenhouses, they meet the plant man, whom Roots identifies as the “Chloro-Form”! It would appear that he created the creature by injecting a poor luckless human victim with plant hormone. He intends to now do the same to the others, and create a race of the plant beings, who will conquer the universe and turn it into a huge wild garden. Steve has Robert smash up the Chloro-Form, and they return to Earth with the hormone to destroy the ivy. Howard Roots is admitted to psychiatric hospital, but appears to show some remorse for his actions – he sends Venus some giant flowers!

The Sun Temple

Space City’s latest project is to send a missile into space carrying a meteorite dispersal bomb – they want to destroy a region of meteorites that pose a danger to astronauts. (Given the show’s usual shaky grasp of science, I’m not sure if they actually mean asteroids here – i.e. chunks of rock floating in space – rather than meteorites, which are caused when the dust residue from a comet burns up in a planet’s atmosphere.) Near the target zone is the planet Rajusca – they know it’s inhabited, but otherwise know very little about it, as the meteorites have prevented them exploring. Matt assures Venus that the planet is well outside the radioactive blast area. (In which case, where’s the hazard to navigation? The show always seems to forget that space is big – if there’s such a safe distance between the meteorites and Rajusca, then you ought to be able to get a spaceship safely through that gap.) On Rajusca, we discover a strange domed building in the middle of a desert. It’s some sort of temple (or maybe, given the desert setting, a mosque – an effect rather heightened by the middle eastern flavour of the music) – it also has what appears to be a telescope sticking out of it, suggesting that it’s an observatory as well. The building is inhabited by a high priest called Karzak, and his acolyte Zodan. They worship their sun, Miras (a fact which explains the dual temple/observatory nature of the building). When the meteorite dispersal bombs goes off, Karzak is outraged – he believes the Earthmen have created a new sun in the sky to try and rival Miras. He prays for a sign from his god – the light from the sun shines down the telescope, and starts a fire on the altar, from which Karzak concludes that Miras wants them to burn the Earth. The temple is able to concentrate the light of the sun into an energy beam, which they transmit towards the Earth. It shines down on the region of Space City (which we thus discover for the first time is on an island in the Pacific, off the coast of South America) and destroys the missile launch site. The origin of the beam is pinpointed to Rajusca, and Matt surmises that the inhabitants must have misinterpreted the meteorite dispersal as a hostile act. Steve decides they need to go and set them straight! Venus takes her lazoon on the journey – she’s been teaching him new phrases, such as “Follow me” and “Howdy folks”. Arriving at Rajusca, Steve and Venus head for the temple building on their jetmobiles. They’re knocked out by a blast from the sun ray – when Steve recovers, Venus has gone. He guesses she’s inside the temple, but is unable to find a way inside. Zoonie becomes agitated and keeps saying, “Follow me.” Steve and Matt realize that lazoons are naturally telepathic, and that Zoonie has a psychic connection to Venus that enables him to sense how to find her. He takes Steve to a secret trap door located in the desert, which leads into a tunnel. Meanwhile, Karzak and Zodan have got Venus tied up on their altar as a sacrifice to their god – she’ll be burnt up as the sunlight through the telescope moves across the altar. Realizing Steve is coming along their tunnel, they activate a collapsing roof section. Steve is almost crushed, but manages to get himself clear just in time. Finally arriving in the temple, he shoots out their control console, which causes a chain reaction of explosions. He frees Venus, and they escape along the tunnel. Karzak and Zodan are trapped when the door to their escape chamber jams, and are inside as the entire temple blows up. This seems a harsh fate considering that the whole thing was a misunderstanding – Steve seems to be reverting to his gung-ho ways. Perhaps the writer realized this, as there’s a little coda where Matt reveals that he’s made contact with the people who live on the other, fertile, side of Rajusca – and learnt that the two sun worshippers were renegades who’d been banished to the desert for their evil and superstitious ways.

Space Immigrants

Poor Lieutenant Ross is the unluckiest pilot in the World Space Patrol. Not only has he lost Fireball XL7, and crashed XL1 Alpha, now he’s been taken prisoner by a couple of Lillispacians. As the name suggests, they’re basically a spin on the Lilliputians of Gulliver’s Travels, and the episode riffs on the visual imagery of that tale with the aliens keeping Ross tied up on the floor (represented by a full-size pair of boots in the foreground of the shot). Ross had been sent ahead to survey this planet, which has been named New Earth, and is intended to become the home of the first human colony in space. It seems to be perfect, but for two small issues: the gravity is very slight, and the atmosphere is poisonous, necessitating the wearing of lead boots and the constant use of oxygen pills. Ross is to wait for the colonists’ ship to arrive. What he hasn’t bargained for are the Lillispacians. They are about two foot tall, with high domed heads, spatula-like hands and flippers for feet, which they use like propellers to let themselves hover up and down in the low gravity. They’re supposedly the biggest and most powerful brains in the universe, but are portrayed here as inept, camp and bickering, and for some reason speak in exaggerated Southern US accents. They are basically a lazy and indolent people. Their plan is to wait for the colonists to arrive, and then ensnare them into becoming a slave labour force. They ration Ross’s access to oxygen pills to maintain control over their prisoner, and intend to do the same with the newcomers. Back on Earth, the colony ship Mayflower 3 is being readied for departure. It’s a much more down to Earth design than Fireball, basically various cylindrical pods and modules bolted together with some engines. It's also carrying an atmosphere converter, so that the air of New Earth can eventually be made breathable. The expedition is going to be under the command of Venus, with Matt, Robert, Zoonie and Jock the engineer going along for the ride. Perhaps indicative of the time the series was made, Matt and Jock both display misogynist attitudes by expressing their doubts that a woman could lead such an important mission, so it’s nice to see that macho man Steve is the one who comes over all progressive – well, he points out she’s not just a pretty face!

The Lillispacians have various technological means to carry out their plan: a voice imitator that enables them to make positive reports to Space City with Ross’s voice – and a beam that enables them to take control of Robert. They send the robot to the sick bay, where he destroys the Mayflower’s entire supply of medicines – including the crucial oxygen pills. (I notice that the Lillispacians explicitly state that Earth is 632 light years away. I wonder if the writer has any real idea of how vast that is, since they’re able to manage instantaneous transmission over that distance – not to mention that an Earth ship will be able to reach it in a comparatively short time. The astronomy on display in the show is very woolly, I know, and in that respect, I think I’d prefer it if they left things a little vague and let the viewer roll with it – stating a precise distance like that only highlights how impossible it all is.) The Mayflower 3 gets under way, but it’s not long before trouble strikes: Jock goes down with appendicitis. Venus decides that she must operate at once. Discovering that the medicines have gone, they try to call Space City for advice – but the Lillispacians jam their transmissions to Earth. They use their voice imitator to impersonate Steve, telling the Mayflower to proceed on to New Earth while he catches them up in Fireball XL5 with new medical supplies. When the Mayflower arrives on New Earth, they find only the Lillispacians waiting for them. They demand that the Earthmen become their slaves – with Ross as a hostage, and control of the only supply of oxygen pills on the planet. However, worried by the lack of contact with Mayflower 3, Steve has decided to fly out in Fireball – and overhears the Lillispacians’ broadcast. The aliens allow Venus to operate on Jock – oddly, whenever Venus lets go of a scalpel, the instrument floats up to the ceiling, which makes no sense at all. (The producers seem to have mistaken low gravity for reverse gravity, if there were such a thing…) That night, Steve lands on the planet – since he has his own supply of oxygen pills, he’s able to move around. He sneaks into the Mayflower, and takes Zoonie with him. He’s remembered that the one thing the Lillispacians fear is a lazoon, and the sight of the beast looming in front of them reduces the two aliens to cowering terror.

These episodes have been an improvement on the previous four, and I'm starting to appreciate the show more. There's been less reliance on aliens being evil for the sake of it; instead, we get wise and ancient civilizations, or misguided human villains. The daft ideas and camp comedy aliens of Space Immigrants really make it the best episode so far, as the humour allows us to gloss over the implausibilities of the series and just enjoy the fun of it. It's starting to look more like it was made by the same people who produced Supercar and Four Feather Falls.

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