Monday, 31 October 2011

Anderthon: Everything's Real Boss, Steve...

Fireball XL5
episodes 17-20

Wings of Danger

There’s some nice continuity on display here, as this episode forms a direct sequel to the opening instalment. We start with a slow pan across the surface of Planet 46, then into the caves and across the lake of lava to the doors of the Subterrains’ base. Inside, a Subterrain helpfully breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience to explain that they’re seeking their revenge against the Earthmen for the capture of their leader. The vengeance takes the form of what they call a “robot bird”, although it looks to me like a model aircraft (or perhaps the sort of “spaceplane” design beloved of pulp sci-fi illustrators, shiny metallic finish and swept back delta wings). Effectively, it’s what we’d nowadays call a pilotless aircraft, and thus seems quite a modern concept. The bird is launched as the nose of a missile, before taking independent flight – whereupon it’s programmed to hunt down a specific living target, and fire a tiny radium capsule at it, which infects and eventually kills it. The Subterrains test it out on a tree, which duly withers and dies. It’s a success, so they determine to put the bird into operation. Their plan: to use it to hunt down and kill Steve Zodiac. Now, it seems a bit petty and vindictive to me to exact personal vengeance against a single officer, rather than to wage war against the government in whose name he’s acted. I’m not sure how it really furthers the ends of the Subterrains, other than giving them a few moments of smug satisfaction. (And it’s not much of a plan for attacking the Earth either – what do they hope to do? Use the robot bird against every inhabitant one at a time? That’s going to take them a while…)

Anyway, the robot bird follows Fireball XL5 back to Earth – once in the planet’s atmosphere, it at least justifies its name by starting to flap its metal wings. It tracks down Steve as he’s driving Venus home in his hovercar – after he’s shot with the radium capsule, Steve passes out at the wheel, but Venus is able to prevent the car from crashing by engaging the emergency brake. She has Steve admitted to hospital, and manages to treat him for the infection. As Steve makes a slow recovery, the robot bird remains hovering outside his window, looking for a chance to fire at him again – it’s programmed to keep trying until its target is eliminated. After a few days, Steve is impatient to get back on duty, and disobeys Venus’s instruction to stay in bed. Standing by the window, he presents another chance to the robot bird. Fortunately, there’s a vase of flowers in the window between Steve and the bird – struck by the radium capsule, the flowers quickly wilt and die. Realizing that the bird is not natural, Steve grabs a gun and shoots it down. Determining that the bird originated on Planet 46, Matt and Steve reprogram it, and then take it back to its world of origin – where they get their own back by leaving it hovering over the planet, ready to fire its capsules at any Subterrain who dares to come out onto the surface. I don’t know, I personally find our heroes’ behaviour here just a little callous and indeed childish. The Subterrains might have been exceedingly petty, but answering that with such tit-for-tat behaviour is hardly the response of a mature government. So I can only hope that they use this deterrent weapon as the starting point for some serious negotiations with the eventual aim of détente. Certainly, I’d wish for the future to be one of sensible diplomacy and eventual understanding. Perhaps I'm taking it all a bit too seriously? I'll admit there's a certain poetic justice to the Subterrains' fate – hoist by their own petard. But there's a lack of depth in the characterization which sees everyone (heroes and villains alike) portrayed as little more than squabbling children or playground bullies. In episodes like this, it's very hard to actually like or care about them.

The Triads

Though the title might suggest a thriller about Chinese gangsters, what we actually get is a charmingly daft fantasy adventure. The episode opens with a rocket being launched – one of the best effects sequences so far seen in the series. Amongst his many great achievements, Derek Meddings can really do a convincing rocket launch; the suggestion of thrust, of power overcoming gravity to force a mass of metal into the sky – I’m really sold. When the rocket gets beyond the planet’s atmosphere however, it blows up. The explosion is monitored in Space City, despite being on a planet far beyond Sector 25 – further out than any human has ever been before. It’s one of several explosions that they’ve detected in recent days, so Zero decides to send Fireball XL5 to investigate. The location is a planet to which the WSP have recently given the name Triad – because it’s three times the size of the Earth. Professor Matic plots a course, which will take Fireball three weeks to complete. Our heroes discuss how thrilling it is to be pushing out into the unknown, beyond the boundaries of human knowledge – even given how compact the universe seems to be in this series, I’m left thinking: it’s only three weeks away! How adventurous can these people be if they can’t even manage to voyage out for a mere three weeks to reach a whole new planet? What a lack of ambition… When they finally get to Triad, they leave Robert and Zoonie aboard the mothership and descend in Fireball Junior. Because of the greater gravity of the large planet, Junior is pulled down faster than normal, and Steve fears they’ll burn up or crash. He’s forced to fire the retrorockets to brake the craft, and uses up all the fuel. They won’t be able to take off again unless they can find some means to refuel Junior. Investigating the planet, they discover a world of scientific implausibility. On the one hand, the writers acknowledge the effects of high gravity – the greater fuel requirements, for instance, and Steve mentions that he’s feeling the strain on his muscles a lot more, just from walking and standing upright; but on the other hand, they’ve made the basic error of deciding that if the planet is three times bigger than Earth, then so must be everything on it. The plants and trees are normal Earth species, but three times bigger. Matt runs into a lion – courtesy of some stock footage and back projection – and it’s a normal lion, just three times bigger. Of course, on a high gravity world, the lifeforms would be squat and stunted. The lion such as depicted here would be unable to support its own weight.

Our heroes escape the lion by hiding in a tree, from which they are eventually rescued by two local inhabitants. Again, these are normal humanoid beings (in puppet form) – just three times the size. (Interestingly, they also call their world Triad – so either they’re just being polite to their visitors, or the WSP somehow managed to correctly guess what an unknown planet was called…) The two are Gruff and Snuff, who are two middle-aged, eccentric and rather camp scientists. It turns out they are the engineers responsible for the rocket launches – they don’t know why their rockets are exploding once they clear the atmosphere, and ask for help. It seems they’re likely to be fired by their government if they can’t get it right. Matt estimates that the Triads are about 100 years behind Earth in space technology. He deduces that the rocket fuel they are using needs to be altered, and sets to work to develop an alternative. (Our heroes don’t seem to have any qualms about speeding up the development of another species – although they do have the ulterior motive that without an effective rocket fuel, they won’t be able to get back to Fireball. There’s an added layer of jeopardy that Venus didn’t leave any food out for Zoonie, so they need to get back before he starves.) The episode repeats many of the ideas and images seen in the Supercar story Calling Charlie Queen, with our puppet characters working in a full size laboratory, with real human actors or back projection representing the Triads. Despite the eccentric charm of it all, there’s just a hint of menace – I wasn’t quite sure if Gruff and Snuff were as amiable as they seemed, or whether they were in fact stringing our heroes along. Even when Matt perfects the necessary fuel, they suggest that they hope the Earthmen might stay with them – with just enough of a sinister edge to it to keep me guessing about their true motives. My fears were groundless though – the Triads are harmless. They proceed to test their next rocket with Matt’s fuel – following a very amusing countdown sequence, which sees Snuff interjecting camp little comments after each number Gruff reads out. It all goes very well, and our heroes refuel Junior and return to Fireball in time to feed Zoonie and recharge Robert, whose batteries have run down. Gruff and Snuff meanwhile look forward to future visits from the Earthmen. That’s the way to conduct interplanetary relations.


Fireball XL5 is just completing a quiet, routine patrol and heading for home, when there’s an explosion onboard. The ship is badly damaged – the explosion seems centred on the Space Gyro, which as its name suggests is a large spinning mechanism. It’s not really explained what this does, but as the ship loses all motive power as a result, it must presumably be an essential part of the power plant or the engines. Steve moves quickly to extinguish the flames, before they can spread to the fuel tanks. Matt meanwhile has become trapped in a comedy sequence which sees him spinning round helplessly in the centre of his navigation console – even though Robert is trying to help him, for the purposes of slapstick, Matt is unable to give sensible instructions like “turn it off”. Steve discovers that the explosion was caused by a neutroni bomb planted in the Space Gyro. (I was a bit perturbed at first, as I thought Steve was calling the device a neutron bomb, which I’d have thought would do a lot more damage than what we see here – but then I remembered that “neutroni” is the name the series gives to its communications system – effectively, they just replace every instance of the word “radio” with “neutroni”, so a neutroni bomb is one detonated by a radio signal. Simple… It’s not the only instance of confusingly-named technology in this episode, as we shall see.) With the Gyro destroyed, Fireball ignores the laws of physics which dictate that it should continue at its present velocity until any new force acts upon, and instead comes to a complete halt and ends up floating in space. The neutroni transmitter has also been damaged in the explosion, so they can’t tell Space City what’s happened. Seeing the ship floating there on the sector map, Commander Zero thinks it’s a sitting duck, and diverts a ship from a neighbouring sector to investigate: Light Patrol 22, a one-man vessel piloted by Master Astronaut Kelly. Meanwhile, Fireball is approached by a Gamma ship from the planet Electra – the model looks suspiciously like a toy submarine, with various futuristic accoutrements stuck onto it. Piloting it is an Archon Commander – it was he who detonated the bomb aboard XL5; now he uses a gamma ray against the crew. This has the result of mesmerizing them – even Robert! – and drawing them towards its light as moths to a flame. (The hypnotic effect I can just about buy into, but then the crew find themselves floating up towards the hatch, as if Fireball’s internal gravity no longer affects them. Then they drift through space towards the enemy vessel – I can only presume that they’d all taken their oxygen pills before falling under the influence, just on the off chance that something like this might happen…) Waking up aboard the Gamma ship, Steve finds that his eyesight is a bit blurred. Frankly, if he’s been exposed to gamma rays of that intensity, I think his hair should be falling out, his gums bleeding, and leukaemia starting to affect his bone marrow. Since none of this happens, I’ll have to assume that the “gamma ray” deployed here is not the same high-frequency EM radiation given off by radio isotopes, but instead an inappropriately scary trade name for the Archons’ hypnosis beam.

Steve seems familiar with both the ray and the Gamma ship, suggesting that Earthmen have encountered the Archons before. He’s also aware that Gamma ships have a relatively short range, as they need to return to Electra to be recharged fairly often – this is the reason the Archons have never been able to reach Earth. The Archon commander reveals that bombs have been planted aboard all WSP vessels – their plan is to immobilize them all, remove the crews with the gamma ray, and then use the WSP’s own ships to attack the Earth. I’m missing something here. If their ships are so short range, how did they ever manage to travel far enough to be able to locate and sabotage every WSP ship? (It’s later revealed that they’ve planted bombs in Space City itself – again, how did they get there…?) Meanwhile, LP22 arrives at the abandoned XL5. Kelly goes aboard, but he falls foul of the gamma ray, and ends up unconscious in the cockpit. (But didn’t the gamma ray go back to Electra aboard the Gamma ship – there so much about this episode that doesn’t make sense…) With no word from Steve or Kelly, Commander Zero decides his only course of action is to head there himself, in Space Rescue Ship 1. SR1 is another Fireball type ship (presumably so they can use the same model shot of the launch sequence) – although by its designation, I presume it’s fitted with specialist rescue equipment. On Electra, Steve and the crew meet the Ultra Archon – he has little time for “pink people” as he calls them, but he seems fascinated with Robert for some reason. He has Steve, Venus and Matt locked up in a storeroom full of junk, while he proceeds to make Robert carry out simple instructions (“sit down”, “stand up” and so on) and even starts to disassemble his head. In the storeroom, Steve luckily finds a box containing a pair of protective goggles that counter the effects of the gamma ray. So, our heroes are able to escape, overpower the Archon, rescue Robert, and steal the Gamma ship. They head back to Fireball XL5, only to run into Commander Zero in SR1 – thinking they’re an enemy, Zero prepares to attack the Gamma ship. Steve can’t contact him, in case the neutroni transmission sets off the bomb planted aboard SR1. The only chance is to switch on the gamma ray, and mesmerize the Commander. Once everything’s been explained and they’re heading back to Earth, it doesn’t take Zero long to revert to his old self! (No one mentions the bombs that are planted in Space City or the WSP’s ships, but I suppose they’re going to be busy for the next few months clearing all that up. And I wonder if we’ve seen the last of the Archons. The way this show works, there really ought to be a rematch coming up later in the series.)

Prisoner on the Lost Planet

Professor Matic builds a new “ultra neutroni” receiver, something that can pick up signals from further away than ever before. Trying it out in the control tower, they soon receive a transmission. It’s a series of beeping signals like Morse code – Steve recognizes it as the old Space Distress Call, that hasn’t been in use for years now. It’s coming from uncharted space, out beyond the furthest edge of Sector 25. Though Commander Zero is initially cautious, Steve and Venus are keen to answer the distress call, pointing out that the Space Patrol is pledged to assist those in distress. (When they’re not blowing them up presumably! I do admire the lofty ambitions of the WSP, and I’d like to see a bit more of mankind striving to meet the unknown with peace and diplomacy – Steve is rather too keen to fire off an interceptor missile at times…) Fireball XL5 soon gets under way. One thing I don’t get is any sense of consistency concerning the speed of the ship or the scale of the galaxy. If we consider that a couple of episodes ago, it took three weeks to get from their patrol sector to Triad – here they get all the way across Sector 25 and out in uncharted territory in what seems no time at all, while Commander Zero watches their progress from the control tower. Suddenly, they come across a belt of meteorites in their path – there’s no chance of going round them, so the only option is to plough straight through and hope for the best. The writers fail their astronomy exams again here. I assumed at first that they meant to say asteroids, but no! – what we see here are small chunks of flaming rock trailing fiery tails and raining down around the ship. Real meteors are dust and rock debris left behind in the wake of a comet – they only become “shooting stars” when a planet passes through them and causes them to burn up in its atmosphere – so with no atmosphere out in deep space, what’s causing them to burn up here? Steve manages to avoid any serious damage, and eventually we discover the planet that’s the source of the distress call. It’s a forbidding, volcanic world. The crew descend in Fireball Junior, and discover that the distress call is coming from a cave at the foot of the volcano.

Leaving Venus and Matt waiting in Junior, Steve proceeds on his jetmobile. He discovers a luxurious secret chamber, in which Afros, the Queen of the Space Amazons, is reclining seductively on a chaise longue. As you might expect, she’s dressed in a faux Ancient Greek style costume, and also has the longest and thinnest neck you’ve ever seen. She tells Steve that she has been exiled here for five years by her own people. However, she was able to build a super-powerful transmitter with which to summon help, and now he’s here, she tries to entice Steve into rescuing her. He refuses however, pointing out that she was legally sentenced by her people, and that Earth and Amazonia are both members of the United Planets Organization, and therefore honour bound to respect each other’s laws and justice. (Where did this come from? Halfway through the series, and they suddenly introduce a system of inter-governmental co-operation and diplomacy? As I’ve pointed out many times already, there’s not been much evidence of this in the Earth’s rather fractious relations with its neighbours. Are they just making this stuff up as they go along?) Afros drugs Steve, and quickly switches from seductive siren into full-on vindictive psycho-bitch mode. She reveals that she’s also built a machine that can control the volcano. (I’m just staggered that she was left here with these technological means at her disposal. I can understand her people leaving her with various creature comforts, but to have given her the electronic components and tools to achieve all this is incredible. Did they not think she might try to escape?) The volcano erupts, and molten lava starts to engulf Fireball Junior. Venus is unable to fire the rockets to take off, so it looks like Afros’s machine has somehow disabled the ship. As they face certain doom, Matt decides to fire a missile into the cave, in the hope it will disable the volcano controls – despite the risk that Steve might get caught in the blast. (It’s rather a dramatic moment as Matt has to make this brave choice.) Fortunately, Steve is unharmed, and the machine is crippled. Steve is able to return on his jetmobile, carrying the unconscious Afros with him. He’s able to fire the rockets to lift Junior free of the lava – there was nothing wrong with the motors, Venus had forgotten to engage the correct circuits. (And unfortunately, they descend to trite sexism again, especially in contrasting the technical prowess of Afros – “brains as well as beauty” – with Venus’s “hilarious” lapse.) XL5 departs with Afros in the Space Jail, presumably to be handed back to the authorities on Amazonia.

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