Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Anderthon: I Wish I Was a Spaceman...

Fireball XL5
episodes 13-16

Space Pirates

Venus volunteers to babysit Commander Zero's son, while the Commander and his wife go out to attend an important function. (Or as we soon discover, to go to the staff bingo night! It’s important to maintain morale, he points out.) What’s interesting here is the way the writers are deconstructing the commander’s character – previously viewed only as the hard-nosed and hectoring senior officer, forever bawling out the unfortunate Lieutenant Ninety, now we get to prick some of that pomposity by showing him awkward and embarrassed; and also, it’s implied, somewhat hen-pecked by his wife (who in the best sitcom tradition remains only an offscreen voice). Now, I had assumed that Zero was just a codename or designation, but here it appears on the nameplate outside his apartment, and more importantly, his son is called Jonathan Zero, so it seems it really is the family surname. (I don’t know why I should be so surprised really.) Venus has given young Jonathan a storybook about pirates, but he’s not very keen on it as it seems “old timey”. (He’s clearly not averse to things of the past though, as there’s a Supercar book clearly visible on his shelf – nice to know that there’ll still be fans of archive television in the 2060s…) So Venus starts to tell him a story about pirates operating right here and now in the 21st Century. In her tale, Jock the engineer lands a space freighter on the planet Minera, which is rich in radioactive minerals that are essential on Earth – all the mining is done by robot. The nearest planet to Minera is Aridan, which is a desolate desert world with no water – no one lives there, but it makes the perfect base for pirates to attack the space freighters and steal the precious cargoes. (Where would pulp sci-fi be without staggeringly appropriate and literal planet names? Still, as Venus is narrating this story, there’s at least a suggestion that she’s embroidering it a little.)

On Aridan is the pirate Captain Kat and his henchman Patch – they are full-blown 18th Century pirates right out of Jonathan’s storybook, eye-patches, earrings, frock coats and tricorn hats all present and correct. But that’s the whole point: the story is Jonathan’s imagining of the tale as Venus tells it, so he fills it with the imagery in his head. In this way, the writers effectively undercut the dreaded “it was all a dream” scenario by going all meta-textual on us – we’re now seeing the adventures of Fireball XL5 through the eyes of a small boy. The book Filmed in Supermarionation reveals that there were two concepts floating around for the show that eventually became Fireball XL5. The idea they didn’t go with would have seen a live action framing device, wherein a contemporary schoolboy dreams that he’s a famous space pilot (the sci-fi sequences would have been done with puppets of course). Though they didn’t do that in the end, I wonder whether some of that notion fed into the basic set-up of this episode. (And come to think of it, it makes a certain sense of the closing theme song, I Wish I Was a Spaceman. You know, the various contemporary 1960s ideas and attitudes and technology that creep into this series could all be explained by the notion that “it’s all imagination”…) Anyway, Venus’s story involves Steve flying a Q-Ship, a disguised space freighter, to try and smoke the pirates out – but the pirates have already hijacked Jock’s ship and are planning to use it to raid the Earth itself. They capture Steve along the way, but stupidly manage to dump all the ship’s water overboard. Using Steve as a hostage, they demand that a supply of water is brought to Aridan. Venus and Matt arrive in Fireball, and manage to slip the pirates drugged water courtesy of some conjuring tricks that Matt has been demonstrating throughout the episode (rather than getting on with the serious research into alternative fuel sources he’s supposed to be doing – but I suppose that just demonstrates how either Venus or Jonathan Zero see the Professor…) All that’s left for Jonathan is to ask if the story is true, but Venus tells him he’ll just have to decide that for himself! This is a fun episode, and in its way, quite daring by playing fast and loose with the show’s concepts and characters. More like this, please.

The Last of the Zanadus

Kudos is the ruler of the planet Zanadu. He looks like a bizarre cross between a glam rocker and a farmer (an effect heightened by the strange, almost West Country accent he seems to slip into on occasion…) We see him addressing his people, promising to wreak vengeance on their foes – things take a surreal turn as we realize that his “people” are a series of abstract paintings, and the chants and cheers that greet his declarations are played in from a tape (reel-to-reel of course!) It’s a weird image, which inverts the usual alien megalomaniac clich├ęs, and presents us with something pathetic and pitiable instead, lending a bit more depth to the proceedings than usual. Anyway, the great enemies that Kudos is plotting against are the lazoons! It seems to the Zanadus they are no more than space rodents, pests to be eradicated. We learn here that lazoons have spread throughout the galaxy, and indeed there are plenty of them living on Earth – whereas previously I’d just assumed that Zoonie was Venus’s one-of-a-kind exotic pet. Meanwhile, Space City is welcoming the arrival of the famous explorer Major Ireland, who’s been away on “space safari”. He comes to dinner with Commander Zero and the crew of Fireball XL5, and afterwards shows his home movies of the worlds he’s visited. What no one realizes is that Major Ireland has been brainwashed by Kudos – he’s brought some sweets which have been infected with a deadly virus that will wipe out the lazoons. The plan goes slightly awry when Zoonie sneaks in during the night and eats all the sweets. In the morning, they find the poor creature suffering from the virus. Steven and Venus take him to Fireball’s medical lab to try and work out what’s wrong with him, and thus they’re on board when Major Ireland steals the ship. He’s still acting under the control of Kudos, and intends to use Fireball to spread the disease to every lazoon across the galaxy. Commander Zero believes that Ireland will destroy the ship and crew in the process, as he’s only used to handling a small one-man explorer ship, not something as big and powerful as XL5. (This incident highlights a basic security concern: namely that Robert will take orders from anyone in the pilot’s seat, regardless of whether they’re authorized to be there or not.) Fortunately, Steve is able to break into the cockpit, and overpowers Ireland. Although Zero orders them back to Earth, Steve decides to continue on to Zanadu, the only place where an antidote for the virus can be located. Major Ireland reveals how he landed on the planet and fell under Kudos’s spell – but he also knows that the antidote can be obtained from the frozen fountain of life. Landing on the planet, Steve and Matt accompany Ireland into some catacombs, where they find the mummified remains of Kudos’s ancestors, and learn that he is the only survivor of his race. They locate the frozen fountain, only to run into Kudos himself. In the ensuing stand-off, Steve shoots at the fountain to break off some chunks of ice – but as the fountain starts to melt, Kudos ages and turns to dust. His very life force is bound up in the fountain, his time frozen – when the fountain is destroyed, the last of the Zanadus dies. It reminds me of horror film imagery, such as Dracula turning to dust – and indeed, some of the spooky imagery we’ll be seeing later on in Space: 1999. The ice from the fountain cures Zoonie, so it all ends well.

Space Pen

A space freighter approaches the Earth. Even though Lieutenant Ninety is suspicious, as the freighter is way ahead of schedule, Commander Zero bawls him out and tells him to grant landing clearance. As the series goes on, the Commander does seem to be quite incompetent really – more interested in throwing his weight around than actually listening to his subordinates’ good advice. In this instance, Ninety is quite right to be suspicious, as the freighter is an imposter, using the call sign of a genuine ship in order to gain access to Space City. The freighter is being flown by two criminals: in their dress, speech and mannerisms, they’re basically presented as a couple of 1940s New York gangsters. There’s no reason for this: at least the pirates were explained as products of Jonathan’s imagination – there’s no such excuse here. The crooks’ plan is to wait until dark and then burgle the living apartments of Space City. What a coincidence then that Professor Matic has just invented a new burglar alarm, which he wants to install in Steve’s apartment. A ridiculously complicated thing, it proves difficult to get working, leading to some Dr Beaker-like business which sees alarms ringing constantly and disturbing the peace of Space City. The pay-off to the gag is that the thing doesn’t actually work when it’s needed – the burglars get in without setting it off. Amongst their boodle, they manage to steal Steve’s astronaut licence and Commander Zero’s uniform – scheming all manner of mischief that they can get up if they’re able to impersonate a member of the World Space Patrol. The next day, Commander Zero turns up at the control tower in mufti, and Steve’s discovered his papers missing. They’re very concerned about the trouble the crooks will cause – but to me, this is another example of the way the writers aren’t realistically projecting the world of the future. The idea that Steve’s astronaut licence is a piece of paper in a wallet that anyone can flash around seems like a nonsense now, a mere fifty years later, when passports have microchips in and can carry biometric data, credit cards can be cancelled with a phone call – they ought to be able to block the use of the licence through a few online commands. It’s a 1960s problem – they’re not thinking through how things will have changed after a hundred years.

They soon work out that the criminals have come from Conva, the penal planet – also known as the “space penitentiary”. Steve decides to infiltrate the place: he gets Commander Zero to put out a fake newsflash that Fireball XL5 has been hijacked, so that when he arrives, the convicts will think he is another criminal. Professor Matic gets into the mood by watching some old crime movies, so much so that he adopts the clothing and mannerisms of a 1940s gangster and takes to calling himself “Muggsy”. (So that’s his excuse – it doesn’t explain why the genuine 21st Century criminals are so anachronistic…) Arriving on Conva, Steve and the crew are met by the two thiefs, who accept their fake identities, and take them to meet “the boss”. Unfortunately, the boss turns out to be Boris and Griselda Space Spy. They’ve got a whole hoard of valuables that the convicts have been stealing and stockpiling here. Really, at this point, I can’t understand how the Space Pen set-up is supposed to work. There’s a throwaway line that there’s been “some trouble there” and the WSP have to wait for General Shand, the officer in charge, to take some action. Now, this might suggest that the inmates have rioted and maybe taken control of the prison. That seems feasible. But to suggest that they have access to spacecraft, and can go out committing robberies – and then bring all the proceeds right back to the prison! It doesn’t make sense. If they had ships, why not just make a run for it? – they’re convicted criminals suddenly granted the chance of freedom. The two burglars shut Steve and the crew inside a sealed chamber which they start flooding with water. Fortunately, they’re saved by the arrival of General Shand, who takes back control of the prison. He’s quite a guy, since he appears to do this single-handedly. (I could be charitable here and assume he has other men under his command, who are working off-screen to round up the other convicts – then again, we don’t actually see any other convicts…) Boris and Griselda have decided to run out on their criminal colleagues, taking all the loot with them. They start trying to load it all into the SS Thor – but realizing that the Fireball crew have got free, they cut their losses and take off. XL5 gives chase, and Steve takes his usual action of firing a missile at the retreating Thor. It crashes back to the surface of Conva with an almighty explosion – but like Masterspy before them, the villains escape with only charred faces (despite falling metal wreckage which actually just bounces off their heads!) They’re left vowing their revenge.

Convict in Space

The notorious alien thief, Grothan Deblis, breaks into a World Space Patrol research lab and steals some top secret plans, which he hopes to sell to the highest bidder. He makes off in his spaceship, heading for sector 25, where fortunately Fireball XL5 is on patrol. Steve intercepts Deblis, destroying his ship with a missile, and taking the thief captive. Unfortunately, the secret plans are nowhere to be found. Deblis has managed to hide them somewhere before Steve caught up with him – and he isn’t going to reveal where they are. We learn via a tv news report that Deblis is tried and found guilty – and sentenced to a term in the Space Pen on Conva (so it seems that General Shand has got everything up and running there once again). The news report is like something from 1950s television, a man in a bowtie sitting behind a desk in a plain studio – again, it’s a failure to imagine what the future will be like. Here in 2011, we expect flashy computer graphics, moving onscreen captions, and so on – who knows what tv be doing by 2063? Steve is given the task of transporting Deblis to Conva. But Boris and Griselda have been watching the news – they sense the chance to get rich quick, by rescuing Deblis and getting a cut of the proceeds from selling the secret plans. They’ve managed to rebuild the SS Thor (which is impressive considering it was blown up last week!) with the addition of some camouflage devices – basically metal panels that close over the ship’s markings. (Which only makes you wonder why space spies would have their ship’s name painted so boldly on it in the first place!) Pretending to be a ship in distress, they lure Steve into stopping to help them. He sends Matt across to see what needs to be done – whereupon Boris and Griselda capture the Professor, and demand Steve hands Deblis over if he wants Matt back safely. Steve has no choice but to comply. Deblis isn’t taking any chances: he traps Steve and Venus in the cockpit by smashing the door mechanism, smashes up Fireball’s navigation equipment so he can’t be tracked – and once he’s aboard the SS Thor, decides to keep hold of Matt as a hostage. He directs Boris and Griselda to fly to the planet Voldanda, which is the volcanic world where he hid the secret plans. Meanwhile, after futilely trying to shift the cockpit door by sheer brute force, Steve realizes that he should have ordered Robert with his far greater mechanical strength to do it! Once free of the cockpit, Steve sets to work trying to repair the navigation equipment to try and find out where the villains have taken Matt. On Voldanda, there is some sort of abandoned mining station, with a control cabin on top of a gantry tower. Deblis retrieves the stolen plans, and then locks Matt up inside the tower – the nearest volcano is about to erupt, so he’s planning on letting that take care of the Professor. He also reveals that he’s going to double cross Boris and Griselda and leave them on the planet too. He steals the SS Thor to make his escape. By this time, Steve has worked out where the villains went, and soon turns up in Fireball. He takes Boris and Griselda prisoner, and then takes Fireball Junior to rescue Matt from the tower. The model work of the erupting volcano is some of the best in the series so far – flows of lava engulfing the foot of the tower, and causing the gantry to start to buckle and eventually collapse are very impressively done. Steve manages to retrieve Matt from the cabin before the tower falls. Then Fireball gives chase to Deblis. The SS Thor is no match for XL5’s speed, and they soon overtake him. This time, Steve only has to threaten the use of missiles to get Deblis to surrender – and the episode ends with the criminal on his way to the Space Pen, with Robert holding him at gunpoint.

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