In the past few days I’ve seen two recent movies that took an unusually realistic approach to portraying spaceflight: Sebastián Cordero’s Europa Report (which I watched on my computer via Netflix) and Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (which I watched in the theater). It’s very rare to get two movies in such close succession that make an attempt to portray space realistically, and I hope it’s the beginning of a trend. Although both movies did compromise their realism in different ways.
Europa Report is a “found-footage” movie presented as a documentary about the first crewed expedition to Jupiter’s moon Europa to investigate hints of life. It’s rare among such movies in that not only is the found-footage format well-justified and plausibly presented, but it’s actually thematically important to the film. On the surface, the plot follows the beats of a fairly standard horror movie: characters come to an unfamiliar place, start to suspect there’s something out there in the dark, and fall prey to something unseen one by one. But what’s fascinating about it is that it doesn’t feel like horror, because these characters want to be there, are willing to risk or sacrifice their lives for the sake of knowledge, and see the discovery of something unknown in the dark as a triumph rather than a terror. And that elevates it above the formula it superficially follows. It’s really a nifty work of science fiction in that it celebrates the importance of the scientific process itself, and the value of human exploration in space even when it comes at the cost of human lives.
The depiction of the ship, its flight, the onboard procedures, and the behavior of the astronauts is all handled very believably, with a well-designed and realistic spaceship relying on rotation to create artificial gravity. The actors, including Sharlto Copley, Daniel Wu, Anamaria Marinca, Christian Camargo, House‘s Karolina Wydra, and Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol‘s Michael Nyqvist, are effectively naturalistic and nuanced. The film’s low budget means they can only manage a limited number of microgravity or spacewalking shots, but what we get is reasonably believable. I do have some quibbles about procedures, though, like the lack of spacesuit maneuvering units during the spacewalk, and the decision later on Europa to send one crewperson out on the surface alone without backup. Really, a lot of the bad things that happened seemed to be avoidable. But I’m willing to excuse it since this was portrayed as a private space venture and the first of its kind. Now, I’m a big supporter of private enterprise getting into the space business, since history shows that development and settlement of a frontier doesn’t really take off until private enterprise gets involved and starts making a profit from it. And I’m sure that private space ventures in real life take every safety precaution they can. But for the sake of the fiction, it’s plausible that a novice organization might let a few safety procedures slide here and there.
The one thing about the film that really bugged me is one that’s pervasive in film and TV set in space and largely unavoidable: namely, once the crew landed on Europa, they were moving around in what was clearly full Earth gravity. Europa’s gravity is 13.4 percent of Earth’s, a few percent less than the Moon’s gravity, so they should’ve been moving around like the Apollo astronauts. Unfortunately, it seems to be much harder for Hollywood to simulate low gravity than microgravity. I’ve rarely seen it done well, and all too often filmmakers or TV producers are content to assume that all surface gravity is equal. In this case I suppose it’s a forgivable break from reality given the film’s small budget, but it’s the one big disappointment in an otherwise very believable and well-researched portrayal of spaceflight. Still, it’s a minor glitch in a really excellent movie.
Gravity is a very different film, much more about visual spectacle and action. Indeed, I’d read that it definitely needed to be seen in 3D to get the full impact, so I decided to take a chance. See, nearly 30 years ago I had some laser surgery for a melanoma in my left eye, and that left my vision in that eye distorted, on top of my congenitally blurry vision in that eye. So normally my depth perception isn’t all that great, and I tend to be unable to perceive 3D images like those Magic Eye pictures that were a fad not long after my surgery. So I’ve always assumed that I wouldn’t be able to experience 3D movies. But a few years back, I talked to a friend who had similar eye problems, and he said he could occasionally get some sense of depth from a 3D movie. So for this case, I decided to give it a try. And lo and behold, it worked! I could actually perceive depth fairly normally, though mainly just when there was a considerable difference in range, like when something passed really close to the camera, or in the shots of Sandra Bullock receding into the infinite depths of space (which were the key shots where you pretty much need 3D to get the full impact). I’m not sure if someone with normal vision could perceive more than I did, but it worked pretty well, considering that I wasn’t sure if it would work at all. There were occasionally some shots where I got a double image when something bright was against black space, but the double image persisted when I closed one eye, so I think it was a matter of the glasses filtering out the second image imperfectly. Anyway, it’s nice to know I can see 3D movies (and I didn’t get a headache or nausea either), though it costs a few bucks extra, so I’ll probably use this newfound freedom judiciously — for movies where the 3D is really done well and serves a purpose, rather than just capitalizing on a fad or being sloppily tacked on.
Anyway, as for the movie itself, it’s a technical tour de force, one big ongoing special effect that uses remarkably realistic CGI to create the illusion of minutes-long unbroken shots of George Clooney and Sandra Bullock floating in space and interacting seamlessly with each other and their environs. The technical aspects of NASA procedures and equipment and so forth seem to be very realistically handled as well. And best of all, the movie states right up front in the opening text that in space there’s nothing to carry sound, and it sticks by that religiously, never giving into the temptation to use sound effects in vacuum no matter how cataclysmic things get and how many things crash or blow up. The only sounds we hear when the viewpoint astronauts are in vacuum are those that they could hear over their radios or through the fabric of their suits when they touch something. It’s utterly glorious. Every science-fiction sound designer in Hollywood needs to study this film religiously.
The behavior of objects and fluids in microgravity is moderately well-handled too, although I’m not convinced the fire in the ISS would spread as quickly as shown, since fires in space tend to snuff themselves out with no convection to carry away the carbon dioxide buildup. But there were glimpses of what seemed like ruptured gas canisters spewing blue flame, so maybe they were oxygen canisters feeding the fire? I also wasn’t convinced by the scene where Bullock’s character wept and the tears sort of rolled away from her eyes and drifted off. I think surface tension would cause the tears to cling around her eyes unless she brushed them away.
One thing that both films handle quite realistically is the coolness of trained professionals in a crisis. In both Europa Report and Gravity, for the most part the astronauts keep a calm and level tone of voice as they report their crises. In real life, professionals generally don’t get all shouty and dramatic when bad things happen, but they fall back on procedure and training and discipline and rely on those things to see them through. And that’s what we mostly get in both these movies, although Sandra Bullock’s character in Gravity has more panicky moments because she’s not as well-trained as the other astronauts. I’m not sure it’s entirely plausible that they would’ve let her go into space without sufficient training to accustom her to it, but it’s balanced by Clooney’s calm under pressure.
However… all that realism of detail in Gravity masks the fact that the basic premise of the movie requires fudging quite a bit about the physics, dimensions, and probabilities of orbital spaceflight. The crisis begins when an accidental satellite explosion starts a chain reaction that knocks out all the other satellites and creates a huge debris storm that tears apart the space shuttle and later endangers the ISS. Now, yes, true, orbital debris poses a serious risk of impact, but we’re still talking about small bits spread out over a vast volume. In all probability a shuttle or station would be hit by maybe one large piece of debris at most, not this huge oncoming swarm tearing the whole thing to pieces. And the probability of the same thing happening to two structures as a result of the same debris swarm? Much, much tinier. Not to mention that I really, really doubt the fragments as shown could impart enough kinetic energy to these spacecraft to knock them into the kind of spins we see. It’s all very exaggerated for the sake of spectacle. And by the climactic minutes of the film it’s starting to feel a bit repetitive and ridiculous that everything just keeps going so consistently wrong over and over. (The film also simplifies orbital mechanics a great deal, suggesting you can catch up with another orbiting craft just by pointing directly at it and thrusting forward. Since you and it are already moving very fast on curved paths, it’s really not that simple.)
Gravity has a huge edge over Europa Report in its budget and thus its ability to portray microgravity; I wish ER had been able to use this level of technology to simulate Europa’s 0.134g in its surface scenes. But as impressive as Gravity‘s commitment to realism is in some respects, it’s ultimately a far shallower film than ER and cheats the physics in much bigger ways for the sake of contrived action and danger. It’s essentially a big dumb disaster movie disguised with a brilliantly executed veneer of naturalism. Gravity has the style, while Europa Report has the substance.
Now what we need is for someone to put the two together, and we could really be onto something.
“Blame”: Last time, Flash helped distribute the stolen Earth water freely to all the cantons, but let Terek take credit for it in hopes that it would improve the Deviates’ reputation. But Ming has poisoned the water and turned the cantons against the Deviates. Flash rushes to warn Terek while the others seek to apprehend Lenu and find out what she did to Joe. When Flash arrives, Terek is attacked by the Turin, who inexplicably are led not by Thun (the one major comics protagonist who does not appear in this series) but by a new character named Bolgar (Shawn Reis). However, the Turin makeup has evolved; Tyrus in “Pride” was just a hairy guy with wild eyes, but these Turin have leonine makeup appliances on their brows and nasal ridges and tawnier hair/manes, actually looking like Lion Men, and symbolizing how much more the show is now embracing Flash Gordon tropes. (Maybe Tyrus was adopted into the tribe?) Although it makes it odd that such inhuman-looking denzens would hate Deviates for looking abnormal — but then, prejudice is about what you’re used to, not what’s logical. Anyway, Flash wields his usual diplomacy and convinces Bolgar to let him seek an antidote as an alternative to killing Terek. Bolgar forces Flash to drink the poisoned water himself to give him a personal stake. Flash goes to Vestra of the Omadrians for help, only to find that Aura has done the same. All Vestra can do, though, is point them to Esmeline (Samantha Kaine), the outcast Omadrian who created the poison, and who demands much of Flash and Aura in exchange for the antidote. (Oddly, Esmeline is portrayed like a caricature of a Jamaican vodoun priestess, even though all the other Omadrians have generic North American accents.) Meanwhile, Vestra goes to tend to Terek, who realizes that she’s his mother, and therefore Aura’s mother as well — though Vestra swore a blood oath to Ming that would render Aura’s life forfeit if Vestra ever tells her the truth. (It’s never clarified whether the mechanism of death would be something magical or simply an execution.)
This is a good episode for Aura. She really gets to show how she’s grown over the season, and gets in on the action too, proving herself a worthy ally to Flash at last. Plus we get some important revelations about her family. Not to mention about Zarkov and Dale as they interrogate Lenu. Zarkov proves himself cannier than we — or Lenu — would expect, at first seeming to fall for her deceptions but then turning out to be the one tricking her. And the grieving Dale shows a scary side. It’s weird to see Baylin being the voice of restraint.
“A Cold Day in Hell”: Since the rift generator can’t be destroyed without contaminating Mongo all over again, Flash decides it’s time to take out Ming instead. He goes to the Celetroph monks to win their support, willing to step up and accept the prophesied savior role if that’s what it takes, but the Dolan (abbot) of the Celetrophs (Nicholas W. von Zill) says he has one last test to pass, and sends him to the ice kingdom of Frigia, where he must save their frozen Queen Fria to prove he’s the one. He gets help from a woman named Brini (Holly Dignard) of the undersea Triton people (blue-skinned with scalloped ears — probably based on the kingdom of Coralia from the comics), but she turns out to be an ice poacher and he’s arrested with her. He convinces Count Mallow (Daniel Probert) — spelled Malo in the comics — to let him try to save Fria, but with a name like that, and with the way Probert plays him, it’s clear that Mallow’s up to no good. Fortunately, Baylin and Terek confront Rankol, who admits his affiliation with the monks, and is willing to nudge destiny along a bit by telling them where Flash is.
I should note that Terek had previously come to Ming in secret and tried to make a deal with him, offering to stand with him if Ming claimed him as his son. But Ming’s hatred of Deviates is intractable and he has Terek arrested — a condition Baylin is able to reverse, since even some of Ming’s prison guards now feel that any friend of Flash Gordon’s is a friend of theirs. The people are ready to rally around Flash’s name — although Flash ends up having Terek’s help in fulfilling the prophecy, and Terek also fits every other parameter of the monks’ foretellings, so Flash is willing to defer to Terek as the prophesied warrior. Given Terek’s willingness to bargain with Ming, though, that struck me as potentially a bad idea.
Speaking of questionable ideas, we get our first Earthside plotline in several episodes as Dale decides she has to go back home and reveal the truth about the threat Ming poses to Earth — although she’s clearly driven by guilt at what happened to Joe because of the secrets she kept. It turns out that her producer Joely, seen for the first time since “Conspiracy Theory,” has put the pieces together on her own (and there was actually a reaction shot foreshadowing this in that episode), so she and Dale make plans to reveal the truth. But first Dale needs to tell Norah Gordon the whole story. Norah warns about the men in suits who came to silence anyone who knew the truth after Dr. Gordon’s disappearance, creating doubts in Dale’s mind.
This is a decent episode, and all the stuff in Frigia is a nice pulpy Flash-Gordony adventure, further demonstrating the show’s new willingness to embrace its comics origins rather than downplaying them as in the early episodes. But it feels like a digression from the main arc. It helps that we’ve been hearing references to Frigia and their ice since way back in “Pride,” but we never actually saw them before, and it was still a bit much to spring on us all at once, particularly with the Triton also thrown in; and so it felt a little disconnected from the rest. Although maybe it’s better seen as a pause to catch our breaths before the big finale. Or maybe the producers knew that the show’s chances of renewal were uncertain at best and thus wanted to flesh out more of Mongo’s exotic peoples while they had the chance.
“Revolution, Part One/Part Two”: Terek has gathered all the cantons and their leaders — except for the ones introduced in the previous episode, making that one seem even more irrelevant. Although the Frigians are doing their part offscreen, since Ming has sent his army to conquer them (and claim their pre-Sorrow ice) now that they’ve deposed his puppet Malo. Terek sees this as the ideal opportunity to overthrow Ming, but he needs Flash, the one man all the cantons trust and respect, to vouch for him and convince the denzens to stand with him. Flash does his part, but he’s still not eager for war, urging Terek to find another way, and is angered when Vultan kills a captured spy. I love this show’s portrayal of Flash’s fundamental decency. Even though he knows what’s at stake, he still values human life and is hurt and angered when even an enemy is killed. That’s what I like to see in a TV hero — not the ruthless Jack Bauer kind of crap that proliferated when this show was airing and is still all too common. The cool thing about Flash Gordon, and one thing this adaptation has captured very well, is that he’s an ordinary guy whose basic decency, courage, and willingness to fight for what’s right end up changing an entire world. Perhaps in this version, he’s been less of an overt leader and fighter, more a catalyst bringing out the best in others; but though he may not be as much the champion of Mongo in this incarnation, he’s still the conscience of Mongo, a source of inspiration, and I think that’s ultimately more important.
Aura is also actively supporting Terek, and when Ming discovers Rankol’s secret membership in the Celetroph order, the chief scientist ends up in prison — leading to Zarkov choosing to show him compassion and set him free to go to the Deviates. So now both of the characters who started out as Ming’s main supporters and sounding boards now stand with Terek, and Aura steps up impressively to help the rebellion — though she still loves her father in spite of everything and is torn given the likely necessity of his death. Terek certainly doesn’t seem to have a problem with using force; the plan is to place Ming at such a disadvantage that he’ll have no choice but to surrender, yet Ming refuses to be bowed, and he gains allies in Azura and her Zurn tribesmen. So Terek chooses to launch the war even though Flash and their other allies are still in the city.
Back on Earth, Dale goes ahead and airs her story about Mongo, over the protest of her boss, but all it gets her is a visit from the Men in Black, whom she escapes by ducking out her window. She goes to warn Norah Gordon that the MiB are probably after her too, and she’s quickly proved right. Dale and Norah have no choice but to drive Zarkov’s RV through a rift to Mongo. Dale has pretty thoroughly burned her bridges in Kendal.
Rankol also reveals to Zarkov that Dr. Gordon is still alive, and at the end of Part I, Flash finally finds him — and early in part 2 is reunited with Dale and Norah. Flash is kind of marginalized at this point, more concerned with helping his father and shutting down the rift generator (since Dr. Gordon knows a safe way to do so) than participating in the rebellion, but Dr. Gordon tells him that the security key to shut down the generator is the brooch that Ming always wears on his uniform — meaning that Flash will have to confront Ming at last to get his father home. Now, I confess, while I’ve enjoyed the fact that Flash is a hero defined more by wits and compassion than force, it was satisfying to see Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless finally battling outright (and there was a nicely done buildup to that as both men changed into battle armor to prepare — though Ming didn’t know at the time that he’d be facing Flash). But this isn’t the ’30s anymore, so Aura also plays a key role in the final confrontation, as she deserves to do.
Other key stuff happens too, including Aura finding out the truth about her mother and realizing that it’s actually Ming who has Deviate blood. Unsurprisingly, the reason he despises Deviates so much is that he’s one of them, and is vehemently in denial of the fact. Of course; the whole Deviate thing has been a gay-rights allegory since the moment Terek showed up.
Season finales are generally not the finest episodes of their series, I find, because they’re too focused on big action and revelations and tying off all the threads and thus tend to be too noisy and cluttered and plot-driven to get very deep. This finale is like that in a lot of ways — big and eventful and pretty satisfying, but not as brilliant or moving as something like “The Sorrow” or “Ebb and Flow.” Still, there’s some excellent stuff here in the culmination of the Ming-Aura relationship. Aura is in many ways the best character in this show, and I’m glad it eventually brought out the best in Anna Van Hooft. Most of the character resolutions are pretty satisfying, although it’s disappointing that Barin got written out. The action isn’t as big as it could’ve been on a show with a larger budget, but what we get is reasonably effective. And of course it’s good that they didn’t have the money for a big action-driven finale, since that required focusing more on the character interactions, which is so much better. My main problem with Part Two is that the editing is awkwardly tight at some points; it must’ve been difficult to cram so much in.
I’m going to spoil the ending here so I can talk about its ramifications. The final scenes went almost exactly as I expected they would: Ming is overthrown but escapes at the last moment (courtesy of Azura’s magic), and Flash, Dale, and Zarkov are trapped on Mongo. And yet I consider that a good thing, because it’s just what I wanted to happen. Indeed, it’s pretty much the same as the ending of Filmation’s 1979 Flash Gordon TV movie (which didn’t air until 1982) and the first season of the weekly animated series that was reworked and expanded therefrom. (Although there it was Barin who ended up taking over as ruler, which I suspect was the original plan here.) Still, that just drives home my disappointment that we didn’t get a second season. This show had really come into its own, and it deserved to go on longer. It would’ve been nice to see a second season about Flash and the gang having further adventures on Mongo, with Zarkov’s RV their only link to Earth. Well, I am curious about the fate Dr. and Mrs. Gordon would’ve faced on returning to Earth with the MiB after them, particularly since Flash had them take the Imex with them. Maybe a second-season (or third-season) arc could’ve involved Flash & co. having to go back to Earth to stop its leaders from endangering the cosmic fabric with a rift generator this time around. But there would still have been plenty on Mongo to deal with. I suspect we would’ve seen two major villains: Ming himself, building his forces for a return to power with Azura at his side, and Terek, becoming increasingly ruthless like his father. Aura would probably have been in much the same role as before, trying to temper Terek’s cruelties and finding herself increasingly at odds with him. And I suspect Flash would eventually have had to accept — with Rankol’s encouragement — that he was wrong to interpret the prophecies as being about Terek, that Flash was the destined uniter and ruler of Mongo all along.
Still, the end of “Revolution” works reasonably well as a series finale. There’s plenty of room for continuation, but there’s also a satisfactory degree of closure for all the major story and character arcs. So the single season we have doesn’t feel like an incomplete story. It makes me wish we could’ve had more, but I’m satisfied with what we do have, and I’m very glad that I finally own the series on DVD. And now you can too! I hope I’ve managed to convince at least some people that it’s worth the expenditure of less than ten bucks and about sixteen hours to experience this series in its entirety.
“Stand and Deliver” is something long overdue, an episode set entirely on Mongo. After the events of “The Sorrow,” Baylin, Flash, and Dale find the remains of the Verden village, and learn from a survivor that most of the Verden were already in bondage to Ming’s service in Nascent City, except for those who refused to submit to the order, who are outlaws and fair game for killing (as in the Honor Day raid) or capture by slavers. But Ming is getting more uneasy about the Verden, since the Celetroph monks elaborate on their former prophecy of a great warrior who will overthrow Ming, stating that the son will take the place of the father. We know who that probably is, of course (since by this point we know that Dr. Gordon rebelled against Ming), but Ming assumes it’s the still-fugitive Barin (whose father, the former Verden leader, Ming had killed), and he’s determined to punish the Verden for it.
Flash and Baylin try to buy back the slaves, which requires collecting celetrophs, whose venom is reputedly the most valuable trade good on Mongo. There’s a funny scene where Flash has to risk his life to try to harvest the scorpions (it’s Flash’s reactions, and Eric Johnson’s excellent comic delivery, that make it funny), although the whole thing seems kind of unnecessary. After all, we’ve been told many times before that pure water is the most precious commodity on Mongo. Why not use the rift blaster to pop back to Earth and buy some 12-packs of bottled water? Indeed, by now Flash’s gang should have a regular water-bootlegging operation in effect, to undermine Ming’s monopoly as well as to help the general populace.
Anyway, Dale and the Verden they rescued are captured by the slavers, and Dale ends up being sent to Ming’s bedchamber — again. This time she doesn’t manage to get away before he arrives, but she holds her own nicely against Ming, using her wit and a fair amount of flattery to maneuver him into a conversation, keeping herself safe from assault for the time being. But she inadvertently gives him a nasty idea about how to deal with Barin. (I’m a little disappointed, though, that they didn’t have her use her journalistic wiles and talk Ming into an interview. We never really got to see Dale’s professional side come into play during her visits to Mongo, and I think that’s a missed opportunity.)
Flash and Baylin are too late to prevent the slaves from being bought by a Turin (lion man), but when they attack him, it turns out to be Barin in disguise, buying his people’s freedom. (So all that scorpion-hunting was unnecessary. I’m sure Flash was thrilled about that — too bad we didn’t get to see Johnson play his reaction.) Barin helps them to free Dale, but then Ming announces that he will kill twenty Verden a day until Barin turns himself in. Barin has no choice but to surrender, and it seems he’s doomed to die. He bargains with Aura, saying that if she helps keep him alive, he’ll help her discover the identity of her mother, who’s not dead as Ming claimed. But Flash comes up with a plan of his own to issue a new prophecy to keep Barin alive.
This episode has a couple of major conceptual problems. One is the venom thing I mentioned; the other is that Baylin’s injury from last week is forgotten aside from a token arm-clutching in the teaser. I suppose it’s possible they found a healer in between episodes, but the dialogue suggests otherwise. It’s an odd glitch in a show that’s been so strong with continuity even at its weakest. By the same token, given how little time has passed, Aura has rebounded way too quickly from the shock she received in “The Sorrow.” But overall, it’s very effective. Inevitably it’s a letdown after the power of “The Sorrow,” but it’s a solid episode with some major story developments. Aura is impressive in her improving grasp of politics and how to handle Ming. Flash is impressive in his ingenuity. Dale is impressive in her survival skills and gift of gab — although at this point I’m reluctantly forced to admit that Gina Holden takes the title of the most one-note performer in the show now that Anna Van Hooft has raised her game. I still think Holden has a good presence and personality, and does pretty well with the comedy and banter; but she doesn’t show much range, and unlike others, she hasn’t noticeably improved since the early episodes.
“Possession”: Joe is stalking the gang, trying to get proof of Mongo, and ends up stealing one of Zarkov’s rift blasters to go to Mongo, forcing the others to go after him, out of fear of what will happen if Rankol should get his hands on the blaster with the improvements Zarkov has made. And though Joe does get captured and the blaster taken, this is not followed up on within the episode; the characters just seem to forget about it.
Anyway, while they’re looking, they make the mistake of splitting up — something Zarkov actually warns against as a bad idea — so that Dale can be waylaid by a creepy old woman and possessed by the bottled spirit of her dead mistress, a sorceress named Helia. Helia/Dale reconnects with the others and sneaks into the city with them, but it soon becomes clear that she has no interest in helping Joe, and once she and Flash split off from Baylin and Zarkov, Flash discovers who she really is. Helia convinces Flash to help her get her body back from her sister, a rival sorceress, and protect her children. He helps her break into Ming’s archive and take one of the spirit jars used for the soul-swapping. But then she knocks Flash out and goes off to battle her sister (Stargate Universe‘s Elyse Levesque), who turns out to be a good sorceress keeping some evil bog monsters asleep with her constant harp playing. If the good one wins, Dale’s body will die.
Meanwhile, Zarkov drinks something he shouldn’t in the steephouse and ends up high, to Baylin’s annoyance. The producers like to pair these two off, since they have good comic chemistry and contrast. But the important thing that’s going on is that Joe has been arrested and brought to Ming, who has a new scientist on staff, Lenu (Sonya Salomaa) — a much more attractive and obedient scientific advisor than Rankol, and quite ambitious as well, enough to make Rankol worried about the competition. Anyway, Ming has Lenu hook Joe up to an experimental mind machine, and Baylin rescues him — but did she do so in time?
This is the first truly weak episode since “Ascension,” though it’s not quite as poor. On the plus side, it’s set entirely on Mongo aside from the first few minutes, there’s some arc advancement with Lenu’s introduction and the developments with Joe, and it’s nice watching Gina Holden play a seductive bad girl for a change, though the range limitations I mentioned before keep her from really making the most of the opportunity. Oh, and the climax is accompanied by Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel,” which is a beautiful song if a bit overused. But on the down side, the sorceress plot is an odd digression from the strong arc that’s been developing, and conceptually incongruous since it’s the first time we’ve seen any out-and-out magic on Mongo besides the celetroph prophecies (and Azura’s glowy eyes, but that seemed to be just for show), so it’s weird to see all the characters taking it so much in stride. Plus the security on Ming’s archive is ludicrously shoddy, the neglect of the rift-blaster plot point is annoying, and did we really need to see Zarkov “heroically” beat up a frail old woman in the climax?
Fortunately this is also the last truly weak episode, and things really ramp up from here.
“Thicker Than Water”: This episode debuts an updated main title sequence befitting the more Mongo-centric focus; not only are the images mostly from recent or upcoming episodes, but very few of them are from scenes set on Earth.
It turns out the missing rift blaster hasn’t been forgotten after all; Flash, Zarkov, and Baylin head back to Mongo to retrieve it. But they stumble into a crisis: the Patriots are chasing a man trying to escape with a newborn baby that Ming has condemned to death for being 1% Deviate, despite showing no deformities. (Rankol is an exception to Ming’s genocidal policy toward Deviates because he’s “high-function” and useful.) Naturally, the guy gets shot and entrusts the baby to Flash with his dying breath. The steephouse bartender puts them in touch with people who can smuggle the baby to a Deviate sanctuary in the toxic Banelands. (I love the rich vocabulary of Mongo. Everything has its own distinctive name. Denzens, cantons, Banelands, steephouse, bondmate, Third Moon, the currency called dram, etc. It makes up for the contrivance that most of the language is idiomatic American English.) Once there, they meet the Deviates’ charismatic leader Terek (Craig Stanghetta), who orates about how one day they will be free and equal. Flash offers to arrange an audience with Aura so Terek can ply his case, but it ends up with Terek’s people abducting them both. Still, Aura and Terek bond, and ultimately discover (just in time to avoid a Luke-Leia moment) that Terek is Aura’s long-lost brother, whom Ming ordered killed at birth due to his mild Deviation.
Meanwhile, Baylin and Zarkov have been captured trying to retrieve the rift blaster — but Ming, who can’t openly be seen negotiating with terrorists for Aura’s return (she’s playing along as a hostage to help Terek), instead grants Baylin her freedom in exchange for bring Aura back sub rosa. It’s an interesting turnaround — we go from Ming seeming totally callous about Aura’s fate with Rankol to showing what seems like real concern for Aura when he turns to Baylin. No doubt Ming is a horrible man, but sometimes it’s unclear how much of his facade of caring is genuine. I think Ming does love Aura in his own twisted way – although maybe it’s just that he couldn’t tolerate letting anyone take her from his control.
The bad news is, Rankol realizes that Zarkov has modified the rift blaster using Imex-derived knowledge, so he makes a deal with his new rival Lenu to work together. Lenu has an asset on Earth: Joe, who’s got a mind-control chip in his brain. He helps her retrieve the Imex — uh-oh.
This is a strong episode, and it really ramps up the arc. The Deviate storyline that dominates the rest of the series seems to be a little bit out of the blue, and I suspect that Terek was created to take Barin’s intended place in the climactic episodes after Steve Bacic got a series-regular gig on another show. But they made Terek different enough from Barin that it adds new elements to the saga and makes for an effective arc. Stanghetta is reasonably good as Terek; as an orator, he’s reminiscent of Ralston’s Ming, which is appropriate. And Anna Van Hooft is still getting better. Aura has always been one of the most intriguing characters on the show, at least in potential, and now she’s living up to that potential.
“Ebb and Flow”: The Imex lets Rankol perfect the rift generator, allowing Ming to steal the entire contents of Lake Kendal, the city’s main reservoir. (This actually makes sense geographically: Maryland has no natural lakes, but does have numerous artificial ones serving as reservoirs or recreational areas.) This is why he’s been pursuing the rifts all along: to find a new source of water to replace the depleted Source well. Flash and company (now including Joe) determine they have to go to Mongo to destroy the generator once and for all. They need to buy explosives once they get there, and finally they figure out that bottled water can be a valuable trade commodity to bring with them. But Joe is still under Lenu’s control and he arranges to get Flash captured. Rankol wanted to get access to Flash because his interpretation of the Celetroph prophecies had led him to believe that Flash was a saviour from Ming’s cruelty. (True, Rankol works for Ming, but he’s secretly a Celetroph monk and his higher loyalty is to the prophecies, so if they say Ming is doomed to fall, Rankol will obey their will — or maybe he just wants to be on the winning side.) But the latest prophecy is that “the waterbearer is the ruler reborn,” which Rankol and Ming both interpret to mean that Ming’s rule is assured. There’s a nifty confrontation between a disillusioned Rankol and a bitter Flash, after which the ever-resourceful Flash manages to escape. But the gang can’t risk blowing up the rift generator, since it’s powered by the same toxic element that caused the Great Sorrow. Flash decides instead to undermine Ming by blowing open the reservoir and distributing the water freely to the cantons. But the mind-controlled Joe tries to stop him, and matters come to a powerful climax.
Meanwhile, Aura shows off how politically shrewd she’s becoming, talking Ming into appointing her as prefect to the Deviates, on the grounds that politically legitimizing them would give him influence over them that he’s lacked before due to the fact that they don’t need pure water. She arranges a meeting between Ming and Terek, which just brings out more of the depravity and lies beneath Ming’s well-cultivated facade of stern benevolence.
This is an awesome episode, almost as good as “The Sorrow,” and it’s a tour de force for Eric Johnson. He’s shown how good he is with comedy, but here he demonstrates how powerful he can be as a determined, driven dramatic lead. This is the moment where Flash Gordon steps up and commits himself once and for all to the role of freedom-fighter against Ming, and it’s wonderful. The rest of the cast gets to be pretty good too; one of my favorite moments is when Dale comes up with a very clever and counterintuitive way to get the drop on a guard in a gunfight. And yes, there is a lot of action and visual effects in this one, and both are handled a lot better than they were in the early part of the season. Everything works here, aside from Carrie Genzel’s still rather mediocre acting as Vestra. And aside from a Mongovian electronic key being rather obviously a taser. Plus there’s a funny production glitch when we see the corridor leading into Rankol’s rift-generator facility, which is clearly a redressed industrial plant of some sort… and I’m pretty sure it’s part of Zarkov’s lab, just lit and dressed differently! So both lab sets in alternate dimensions were shot in adjoining parts of the same location! That’s so fun to learn that I don’t even mind having the illusion undermined.
Next, the final four episodes.
“Conspiracy Theory”: Unable to get the cooperation of Dr. Gordon (who we see is alive and well, though comatose and only contactable through virtual reality), Rankol sends Baylin’s former bounty-hunting colleague Genessa (Ona Grauer) to bring Zarkov to Mongo, where Rankol appeals to Hans’s ego and persuades him they need to work together to devise a way to halt the growing degradation of the dimensional barrier and prevent the destruction of their universes. Baylin follows to retrieve him, and for information she goes to a Nascent City tavern which will be a standing set from now on, plying the bartender with chocolate eggs from Earth. But will Zarkov be willing to go? And will he spill to Rankol that the Imex — an ancient artifact containing the secrets of the universe, so Rankol explains — still exists and is in his lab?
Meanwhile, Flash helps Dale try to kill the story when a local skateboarder gets phone video of Genessa’s arrival through a rift, and Dale’s more disreputable and fame-hungry counterpart from another TV station (Francoise Yip) plasters it all over the news. Dale’s boss Mitchell (the late Don S. Davis of Stargate SG-1, playing for laughs) pressures her to get the story, journalistic integrity be damned. The publicity brings the attention of Montgomery (Fringe‘s Michael Kopsa), the government agent who covered up Dr. Gordon’s disappearance, and who surveils and captures Flash and Dale to interrogate them about the rifts. Like Rankol, he’s also seeking the Imex, though he calls it the blueprint. But his use of truth serum backfires, since Flash and Dale end up sidetracked by their admissions of how they still feel for each other. It’s a totally unrealistic portrayal of how such drugs work, but nonetheless a fun exercise in romantic-comedy banter. Eric Johnson has really good comic delivery.
Although there’s still a strong slant toward humor and a strong Kendal-centric approach, this is an effective episode; the humor is genuinely entertaining and the story is advanced significantly. And I couldn’t help thinking that Rankol was right: Protecting the universes against destruction is a priority for everyone, and should trump all other factors. If Rankol has the equipment to do something about it, then maybe that’s where Zarkov should be. When the only technology that can potentially prevent universal disaster is in the hands of an amoral manipulator serving a ruthless conqueror, that’s a situation with no simple answers. At least, that’s what I thought at the time.
“Random Access”: The bad news: This is the inevitable money-saving clip show. The good news: As clip shows go, it’s pretty good, and makes a major contribution to the arc. The spontaneous rifts are multiplying out of control, endangering the universe unless Zarkov can find a solution. The nexus where the rifts are converging is a sleazy motel, and reports of strange incidents draw in Joe (evidently the only cop in town), who comes across Flash and Dale examining the scene and assumes the worst. The confrontation is cut short when a rift opens and sucks Flash and Joe to Mongo, where they’re captured by slaver Strake (John DeSantis) and forced to work on excavating an aqueduct to a new water source Ming has supposedly found — an excavation that quickly kills the slave laborers, requiring frequent replacements. (Although it’s made clear that this project is tied into Ming’s plans for the rift generator. We begin to see what Ming’s real interest in Earth is.) Flash fills Joe in on the whole story, which is where the flashbacks come in, but they’re kept brief and don’t intrude much. And it’s a logical context for recapping The Story So Far, so the dialogue that sets up the clips doesn’t feel forced. Anyway, when they meet a Dactyl prisoner, Darem (Woody Jeffreys), Joe learns how much Flash is respected by the denzens of Mongo — and more importantly, Flash opens Joe’s eyes to the fact that Dale is far more heroic and independent than he ever knew. Or at least, he tries to. I’m not sure it actually sinks in.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, Dale and Baylin track down a Deviate who came through the rift. Baylin’s exposition of how some people are willing to drink the gray water and become Deviates because of their desperate, killing thirst is poignant and sad, and gives a better sense of the water shortages on Mongo than anything else to date has done. Things take an unexpected turn when the Deviate turns out to be a pregnant female — and you can probably guess where that leads. But Dale proves herself up to the challenge. Meanwhile, Zarkov manages to cobble together a way to stabilize the dimensional barrier and save the universe, at least temporarily, and he does it without needing to ally with Rankol. It’s disappointing that the moral dilemma of the previous episode is cast aside so effortlessly.
Stilll, this is such an important piece of the arc that it makes up for the clip-show format. You could even say that at this point in the series’ original run, it was worthwhile to refresh the viewers’ memory of what had happened in early episodes — at least, for the seventeen of us who were still watching by this point. The recaps aren’t so necessary for the DVD viewer, but the original content is very worthwhile and important, making some permanent changes in the status quo, and setting up key elements of future episodes. (Also, the decision to do a clip show may have been what freed up the money the show needed to improve the action and effects in the remainder of the season.)
“Secrets and Lies”: When Zarkov devises a way to track natural dimensional weak spots and open rifts from the Earth side (an outgrowth of his rift-repair work), he and Flash inadvertently get stuck on Mongo and caught in the middle of a burgeoning war between the Dactyl and the Zurn, a tribal Blue Man Group ruled by another character from the comics, Queen Azura (Jody Thompson). Here, she’s a glowy-eyed high priestess of the god Rao (so… the Zurn are Kryptonians?), and has a thing for stilted intonation, fingernail-knives, and warmongering — though she claims the Dactyl stole their water supplies, provoking the war. When Flash goes to Vultan, the Dactyl leader denies the charge. Flash decides to stay on Mongo to find the truth and head off the war. Pursuing a lead, he heads to the tavern introduced in “Conspiracy Theory” — here identified as a “steephouse,” where denzens indulge in various forms of tea, some of which are addictive. Meanwhile, Ming has commanded a peace summit between the tribes — but he’s pretty clearly set it up to fail, an intention that Flash manages to subvert by finding a witness who testifies that he sold fake Dactyl costumes to raiders. But that doesn’t stop Azura from starting the war anyway, and Flash must find another clever solution to save the day — as well as Zarkov, who’s fallen into Zurn hands and been slated for the sacrificial altar.
Meanwhile, Flash’s rarely-seen friend Nick finally gets left alone with Baylin and they end up flirting and making a date. Dale is uneasy to learn that Baylin intends “seleneration,” i.e. casual sex (odd that Mongo’s language differs from English only where sexual vocabulary is concerned) and cautions against it, though I have to wonder what business it is of hers. Well, she probably doesn’t want Nick to get hurt, but she comes off as a bit prudish. Anyway, it won’t go anywhere, since this is Nick’s last appearance in the series. The more important Earthside plot is Joe going to his captain (Canadian-TV stalwart Garry Chalk) to spill the whole story about Mongo, which of course the captain disbelieves — and Dale is put in an impossible spot when Joe insists that she corroborate his story, something she can’t do. So much for them getting back together. Joe really is a jerk, and kind of an idiot to think that anyone would take his uncorroborated claims seriously.
This is a strong episode overall. I love it when Flash gets heroic in the classic vein. He isn’t pursuing some personal mission here, isn’t trying to find his father or rescue a captured friend (at first) or protect his home planet. He intervenes to stop two groups of strangers (or passing acquaintances, in the Dactyl’s case) from getting killed, unhesitatingly risking his life to do a good thing even though he has no stake in the matter at all. I mean, sure, complex characterizations and all that are fine, but it’s refreshing to see someone doing the right thing simply because it’s the right thing to do. Say what you like about the setting or the budget or the casting — the writers of this show understood what Flash Gordon is all about. It’s about an ordinary (if highly athletic) man who takes on evil and fights for justice using only his bravery, wits, determination, and decency (and the occasional ray gun).
Meanwhile, Ming’s character is coming more sharply into focus as well. When faced with the threat of a Source water shortage, he almost loses it. No more Source water means no more power base for Ming, and power is all he craves. And he goes to extreme, murderous lengths to try to conceal the shortage. Ming gains a new confidant here, Drav (Dalias Blake), a security chief who looks a bit like a clean-shaven Nick Fury (though the patch is on the other eye), and we get to see how crazed Ming can be — perhaps even more so than when he’s with Rankol, since Rankol is less expendable and needs to be handled with more care. There’s a moment here with Drav where Ming is really chilling. Any opinions I had at the start about John Ralston being bland had completely evaporated by this point in the series.
But as good as the show has gotten by this point, about 60% of the way through, we hadn’t seen anything yet.
“The Sorrow”: You know, I have to say it up front: This is the best episode of the series. Much like the series as a whole, it starts out slow, but the last 2/3 of it are incredibly effective and powerful, and I’m so overwhelmed after watching it again that it’s hard to focus my thoughts as I write this.
While Zarkov, who mentioned a need for funding in a previous episode, is getting ready for a grant interview — hiding all evidence of Mongo and his dimensional research — Baylin starts acting strange, saying she’s been summoned home to Mongo by the spirits of the dead. She explains that it’s Honor Day, when the denzens commemorate the disaster called the Great Sorrow and the many who lost their lives in the event. Flash and Dale decide to go with her and help her pay tribute, which is a lovely gesture. Along the way, she explains that her once-lush planet was devastated by a disaster caused by the mining of a toxic element from the moon for power generation. The second and third moons in the sky are actually space stations built to house the miners, but are long since abandoned.
But the Verden shrine has been desecrated by raiders, who capture our heroes and injure Baylin (an arrow to the arm). They force Flash and Dale to ransack the crypt of the ancestors for them, but Baylin is still determined to carry out her tradition.
At the same time, we see Ming and Aura preparing for the event, and Aura’s eye is caught by a rakish player — actually billed as “Rake” (Battlestar Galactica‘s Dominic Zamprogna) — who flirts with her shamelessly, to Ming’s disapproval. In Ming’s court, everyone dresses in their best pre-Sorrow finery for the ceremony, and the costume designs are absolutely gorgeous, as lush and imaginative as Alex Raymond’s artwork, with Ming’s high-collared ceremonial robes suggesting the comics character’s traditional look. The visual effects of the city square and the huge crowd of denzens Ming addresses are well-done, though brief. All in all, it’s a triumph of production design, although unfortunately the DVD print is rather dim and it’s hard to appreciate the beauty of it.
The Honor Day ceremony is a recitation of the history of the Sorrow — how the release of the toxins devastated the planet, how some escaped to one of the moon-stations while the rest of the population died, and how the survivors eventually repopulated Mongo and had to deal with the gray water and its effects. It’s basically exposition, but it’s handled magnificently, giving us the most intense, dramatic sequence this show has ever done, and a tour de force of editing and direction. Two different tellings of the Sorrow are juxtaposed: Baylin, the true believer, driven to pay honor to the dead even at risk to her own life (and Karen Cliche gives her most poignant performance yet); and Ming, paying lip service to the words even as he betrays their principles, using the ceremony to distract the Verden and launch a brutal raid against them, a further juxtaposition that adds even more power to the montage.
Meanwhile, what started out looking like a frivolous romantic subplot for Aura takes a shocking turn when Aura sneaks down to the steephouse to watch the Rake give a puppet show mocking Ming — only for Ming himself to show up. I don’t want to give it all away, but lately, we’re getting to see Ming’s true evil and insanity, and it’s appropriate that here is where we finally hear the epithet “Ming the Merciless” used at last — and proudly embraced by the man himself. Ralston is at his terrifying best here. Moreover, Anna Van Hooft gives her most satisfying performance to date. I realized at this point that her main limitation was her voice; she’s actually very expressive with her face, and did some terrific nonverbal acting here.
The episode ends with a ceremony that can be interpreted as symbolizing Flash and Dale’s acceptance that they are now connected to Mongo’s fate and future, and a decision to stay there to help Baylin find the fate of the Verden (the first time the leads have chosen to stay on Mongo at the end of an episode). It also symbolizes the show taking the same step: From now on, this is a show about Mongo rather than a show about Earth.
“Alliances”: Picking up right where “Life Source” left off, Flash travels with Baylin through the lingering rift to follow up on Vultan’s lead (“Ascension”) that Dr. Gordon went to live with the Verden. (Why didn’t he do this before? Presumably because he had other priorities by the time he gained access to the first rift created in “Life Source.”) Baylin, an exile from the Verden, is uneasy about returning. Zarkov impulsively follows them through, eager to see Mongo at last. There, they meet one of the most important charcters from the mythos, Barin (Andromeda‘s Steve Bacic), a hereditary leader of the Verden. (In the comics, he’s Prince Barin of Arboria; here, he’s the son of the former leader of the Verden, whom Ming had executed years before.) Barin and Baylin know each other, allowing her to vouch for the Earthmen. But Flash’s inquiries about his father are met with furtive looks and evasions by all the Verden he talks to.
Barin has his own problems; the Verden are suffering from “the Sickness” that results from inadequate pure water supplies, but Ming will only extend their water rations if they agree to fly his new flag, which he insists is a symbol of global unity but which Barin sees (correctly) as a symbol of Ming’s domination. Still, the only alternative is the Lottery, a Verden tradition in which families are cast out when resources run short. It turns out that Baylin’s family was thus cast out, so she’s not happy about the tradition. Nor is Barin, after seeing her again and being reminded of the cost. But the Verden aren’t painted as evil for employing this tradition; Neya (Kerry Sandomirsky), the Verden leader who calls for the Lottery, participates in it herself, and accepts the verdict bravely when she draws the black stone condemning her to exile. With her fate seemingly sealed, she confesses to Flash that she did know his father rather well, and that he lived among them and helped them for some time.
Flash discovers that the Verden have a hidden water-purification machine which his father built, but which is now broken. Barin resents Dr. Gordon for making his people dependent on the machine, enabling their population to grow to a size that can’t survive without the extra clean water it no longer produces. (We’ll see in “The Sorrow” that Mongo’s denzens have good reason to distrust the idea of living beyond what the land can provide.) But Flash offers to repair it and gets Zarkov in on the work, along with the Verden “tender” Quin (Michael Eklund), the one responsible for maintaining their technology. Some worldbuilding hints here as we learn that the Verden (and the denzens in general, I suppose) once had higher technology but now struggle to repair the remains of what their forebears left. Evidently Ming hoards the advanced technology and the scientists in Nascent City and leaves the rest of the denzens to make do with what they can salvage and maintain from the past. But the Verden don’t trust the water machine to work, so the Lottery goes ahead, and Barin swallows his pride and resentment and goes to grovel to Ming. Turns out that Ming has decided to respond to Aura’s desire for greater involvement in politics in a particularly imperious and manipulative way: he gives her to Barin in marriage to forge an alliance with the Verden, without giving Aura a say in the matter.
(At this point in the series’ initial run, it was starting to occur to me that Flash and the gang should just be bringing some of those big water-cooler bottles through with them every time they go to Mongo. Or maybe some water purifiers from a camping store. It wouldn’t be enough to put a serious dent in Ming’s stranglehold, but it’d be great for winning the goodwill of the various cantons.)
Meanwhile, back on Earth, Dale is having problems with her fiance Joe, who’s unhappy with her secrecy. (Although I think he’s being a jerk. As a cop, surely he has to keep secrets, such as the names of his confidential informants. So by all rights, he should understand perfectly why there are sometimes good reasons to keep secrets from a loved one.) She goes to Flash’s house to commiserate, finding him gone, but she and Flash’s mother Norah have a nice bonding scene that fleshes out the latter character considerably (including the revelation that Flash gave up college to help her when she was diagnosed with kidney cancer). The scene doesn’t pass the Bechdel test, since they’re talking about Joe and Flash nearly the whole time, but it’s still a nice character-building scene and a change of pace in the character pairings.
All in all, this is the first really, really good episode of the show, and the point where this series finally finds its true voice and identity. The characters are at their best (except for jerky Joe, but that’s kind of who he’s supposed to be), the dialogue is crisp and sharp and witty, and the worldbuilding on Mongo has never been richer. And it’s just the beginning. Indeed, it’s part 1 of a 3-part arc, so let’s move on:
“Revelations”: We get our first look at Mongo’s religion as Ming receives “testimony” from the order of the Celetroph: monks who paint their faces with skull motifs and use the (fatal) sting of scorpion-like insects called celetrophs (actually just real scorpions) to give them prophetic visions that are always true, but cryptically expressed. The prophecy tells of a great warrior who will unite the cantons and bring Ming’s reign to an end, which rattles the tyrant. (Hmm, I wonder who it could be…?) Meanwhile, Flash, Baylin, and Zarkov sneak into Nascent City to try to get to the rift generator so they can get home, and they’re startled to learn of Barin’s betrothal to Aura. They tell Barin the water machine is repaired, but he intends to go through with the marriage, not willing to trust the machine again and feeling he can help his people best at Ming’s right hand, tempering his judgment. Their debate is interrupted when Zarkov is arrested for tampering (out of scientific curiosity) with a holoprojection of Ming. He’s thrown in a cell opposite a prisoner named Krebb — who’s played by Sam J. Jones, star of the 1980 Dino De Laurentiis Flash Gordon movie, and is no doubt named in honor of Buster Crabbe. Krebb tells Zarkov that he knew Dr. Gordon, and the latter was imprisoned in Zarkov’s current cell until recently — proven by some equations Gordon carved into the wall. When Flash and Baylin rescue Zarkov (after Barin helps them set off an explosion as a diversion, further unsettling Ming, who suspects insurrectionists), the latter tells them of Krebb, and Flash goes back to talk to him, getting arrested himself. Baylin and Zarkov reactivate the rift generator and are forced to go back to Earth without Flash when the Patriots attack. Rankol throws Flash in Krebb’s cell, and Krebb reveals that Gordon built the rift generator for Ming — under duress, but with the goal of using it to return home and blowing it up behind him. But he says Dr. Gordon was executed less than a year before, devastating Flash. Flash is taken away by Patriots who turn out to be Celetroph monks; they knock him out with some mystical mojo, and he wakes up back on Earth. But Rankol had his own agreement with Krebb, and we get the sense that maybe he’s not as loyal to Ming as he’s seemed.
Back home, there’s more bonding between Dale and Norah Gordon, and Jill Teed really shines here. The past two episodes have been fantastic at developing Norah into a fully rounded character, and here we get some great insight into why she’s been so resistant to the idea of her son investigating her husband’s presumed death. Unfortunately, I couldn’t help being distracted by Dale’s new hairstyle — the bangs are less flattering than her previous cut, plus, given the timeframe, it seems she must’ve gone to get a haircut right after her last talk with Norah. (And Norah doesn’t even acknowledge the new do, which seems impolite.) Maybe it was a therapeutic thing, to distract her from worrying about Flash and Joe? Anyway, the bangs are brushed to the side in later episodes, so this is a one-time thing.
Meanwhile, Aura is furious at being given away to Barin, and when she argues with Ming, we get a good look at how imperious and ruthless he is and how little respect he has for his daughter. Ralston and Van Hooft have good chemistry, and Ralston was really growing on me as a performer by this point, showing a lot of nuance, especially in his scenes with Aura. Later, Aura is determined to be hostile and uncooperative toward Barin, and Van Hooft and Steve Bacic have really good chemistry, bringing out some enjoyable acting in two performers that I’d previously found rather bland and vocally monotonous. It’s the first time I’ve heard Van Hooft’s voice vary in pitch by more than a few notes, and the first time that she’s genuinely fun to watch rather than just really, really beautiful to look at.
All in all, this is a strong continuation to the Barin arc, with a lot of big things happening and the cast continuing to improve. And there’s one more episode to go:
“‘Til Death”: The first half goes more for humor again. Aura, whose despise-hate relationship with Barin is still going strong, goes to Vestra of the Omadrians (previously seen in “Infestation”) for a poison to kill Barin. Vestra advises that this would be politically unwise and suggests instead using a love potion (a bit redundant when you look like Aura) to seduce another man into her bed so Barin will break the engagement out of pride. Naturally, she picks Flash as her boy toy, going to Earth to hook him and bringing him back to Mongo over a stunned Dale’s futile objections. Dale and Baylin go to Mongo to try to bring him back, and failing that, to get an antidote from Vestra — who’s resistant until she learns that Flash is the man in trouble.
Flash turns out to be so wholesome that Aura is unable to get him into a suitably compromising position despite his being head over heels for her, but Barin still discovers them technically in bed together, and things get more complicated when Ming shows up. Ming insists the only way to restore Barin’s honor is with a duel to the death. He doesn’t really care about Barin’s or Aura’s honor, but the marriage serves his political agenda and thus it must be salvaged, and Ming assumes that Barin will make short work of the interloping Earthman. At this point, things get a lot more serious. During the duel, Dale manages to get the antidote to Flash with a kiss, and once he recovers, Flash is unwilling to keep fighting. At first, Barin feels honor must be served, but he recognizes that Flash was a dupe rather than his enemy, and he decides instead to use his weapon against Ming, appearing to assassinate the monarch. But Aura swapped the poison on the duelists’ weapons with sleeping potion, so Ming will awaken. She grants Barin and Flash time to escape before Ming recovers. Aura expects Ming’s gratitude for saving his life, but instead he expresses only scorn that his daughter was too weak to seize power for herself whe she had the chance.
Barin’s ultimate decision comes a little abruptly, and it’s acted out somewhat implausibly, in that Ming leaves himself more open to attack than one would expect of a monarch with many enemies, especially when he’s so recently been afraid of insurrection and overthrow. But the payoff is effective in a way that helps improve the relationship between Flash and Aura (the real relationship, not the drug-induced one), while also underlining the asymmetrical relationship between Aura, who cares for her father, and Ming, who gives her no reason to with his constant contempt for her.
Finally the scattered bits of worldbuilding we’ve seen in previous episodes are starting to come together in what feels like a larger world, and feels more like Flash Gordon. We see the great diversity of Mongo represented here, with Verden, Dactyl, Omadrians, and other denzens all appearing in one episode, and we see the emergence of the familiar relationships and roles: Aura’s romantic interest for Flash and burgeoning rebellion against Ming, Barin as occasional rival for Flash and/or ally against Ming, etc. And Anna Van Hooft is still managing to improve her acting.
Coming next, the series’ focus shifts back to Earth for a bit, but Mongo continues to loom larger, and the storyline undergoes some major advances.
“Infestation”: Once again, the Kendal side of the episode is the weak link. Rankol’s generator is creating stray rifts, and a couple of deadly Mongonian* insects slip through, coincidentally near where Flash and Dale are driving Flash’s friend Nick to his brother’s wedding. Nick is bitten by what Baylin identifies as a “joy bug,” whose venom induces euphoria prior to a “pleasant” death hours later. Baylin and Flash travel through the rift to get the cure, and Baylin instructs Dale that she needs to keep Nick as miserable as possible to slow his demise. So basically half the episode is Dale trying to make sure Nick has a lousy time at the wedding. In theory, there’s some appeal to the dilemma of having to make a friend miserable to save his life, although I wonder why Dale couldn’t have just contrived for Nick to miss the whole wedding and depressed him that way. In practice, that would certainly have been better than sitting through Panou’s broad acting as Nick goes from cartoonishly happy to cartoonishly unhappy and back. I actually found this subplot somewhat entertaining back in 2007, but on revisiting it — and knowing in retrospect how much better the show gets — I feel the whole thing could’ve been skipped. It didn’t help that we barely knew Nick at this point and had little reason to care about him.
*”Mongonian” gets the most Google hits, but “Mongoan” and “Mongovian” are also used. I see why this show coined the word “denzens.”
But Flash’s return visit to Mongo is far more effective. The cure lies with the Omadrians, an Amazon-like tribe of medicine-makers who mistrust men (yet are nonetheless partial to wearing plunging necklines). But they mistrust Baylin even more, for she stole their sacred urn on Ming’s orders. Flash convinces their leader Vestra (Carrie Genzel) that he can bring back their urn in exchange for the medicine. He goes to Ming’s capital, Nascent City (everywhere on Mongo seems to be within easy walking distance — unless there’s some high-speed transit system we’re never shown), and convinces Aura to help him get into Ming’s archive — first trying verbal persuasion but ultimately having to wrestle her stun pistol away, which she rather enjoys. But although he delivers the urn, the Omadrians refuse to give him the cure, because he consorts with a thief. Flash eloquently persuades Vestra that he and Baylin are not their enemies.
This is where we begin to see the emergence of the Flash Gordon we know. The show may have reintepreted a great deal, but what makes Flash Gordon, fundamentally, is not rocketships or Lion Men, but pure, classic heroism. Flash gets to be a classic hero here — going on a dangerous quest to help a friend, winning a suspicious tribe over with his decency and eloquence, and in the process getting to flirt with an exotic princess, beat up palace guards, and don a variety of disguises. The story of Flash Gordon is the story of a good man convincing Mongo’s warring tribes to unite through the noble example he sets, and we see the first step in that story here. It’s a thread that will continue, and that’s why this episode is necessary despite the extraneous stuff with Nick: the foundations Flash lays here will pay off down the road. (And it’s not the only thing. Pay attention to the necklace Aura takes from the archive while Flash retrieves the urn.)
I also like it that Aura’s interaction with Flash is still contentious. She’s less of a pushover here than in previous versions — rather than someone who instantly falls in love and betrays her father because of it, she’s a regal, independent woman who’s used to getting what she wants. She wants Flash, but that’s separate from her own inherent doubts about Ming’s actions. Come to think of it, that was a strength of “Pride.” It was good that Aura’s subplot there had no involvement from Flash, that it was Aura herself questioning her father rather than needing a heroic Earthman to melt her heart and teach her the American Way.
“Assassin”: When a new rift appears and Dale retrieves surveillance footage of the event, Flash is stunned to see his presumed-dead father arriving on Earth. But Dr. Gordon doesn’t go home, and Dale’s cop fiance Joe reports that a man matching his description stole a car and took it to Washington, DC. There, the seeming Dr. Gordon meets with a fellow member of the Portage Initiative (which apparently was more actively pursuing rift technology than Zarkov believed in the pilot)… and uses a Mongonian device to drain his brain, killing him. Baylin attempts to get into the late scientist’s lab, but it blows up — and Baylin, quite implausibly, is caught nearly point-blank by the explosion and flung several stories to the ground, yet survives unharmed. It’s never suggested that her people, the Verden (based on the comic’s Arborian forest people), have any kind of superstrength or invulnerability, so this has to be chalked up to a flaw in writing and/or direction. Anyway, they eventually figure out that “Dr. Gordon” is one of Ming’s black-clad “Patriot” stormtroopers using a shapeshifting technology invented by Rankol, and is trying to brain-drain and kill all the Portage members in order to monopolize rift science. The Patriot kills Dr. Gordon’s two colleagues, leaving only Zarkov as a target, Dale takes Zarkov out to the Gordons’ cabin in the woods, but the Patriot arrives disguised as Flash. Can Dale see through the disguise? Of course; the women on this show are smart and resourceful and awesome. Though Flash is a little off his game; usually he’s portrayed as a smart hero who thinks things through, but here he impulsively dives into the fray against the duplicate Flash, leading to the inevitable “which one do I shoot?” trope that’s probably older than Flash Gordon itself — a trope he could’ve avoided if he’d paused to take off his jacket before attacking.
Still, for the first time since the pilot, the Earth-based stuff is reasonably effective, perhaps because it’s played less for humor. Although Flash here is very much in the mode of other Syfy/Sci-FI Channel heroes like Stargate‘s Col. O’Neill or Eureka‘s Sheriff Carter, a cavalier, wisecracking lead managing the efforts of his more capable colleagues. At this point he’s more a sidekick and guide to Baylin than a hero in his own right, which isn’t what you expect of Flash Gordon. True, as I said, he’s only starting to grow into the hero we know; but it’s something of a backslide from “Infestation.”
“Ascension”: This episode introduces one of the major FG characters: Vultan, King of the Hawkmen. Except instead of winged Hawkmen, Vultan leads the Dactyl, a band of bird-worshipping, shirtless nomadic warriors in capes adorned with feathers and talons. A Dactyl spy learns that Aura has secretly kept the rift blaster — more properly called a transit key, as we learn here — that she used in the pilot, and steals it from her to deliver to Vultan (Ty Olssen). Vultan uses it to travel to Earth, where he abducts Tee-Jay (Samuel Patrick Chu), an annoying teenage grafitti artist with a thing for painting hawks. Flash, Baylin, and Dale follow them to Mongo to rescue the boy, only to learn he’s Vultan’s long-lost son, who vanished through a rift 13 years ago, the same time Flash’s father was lost. This lets Flash bond with Vultan after Aura abducts the boy as a hostage for the transit key’s return, and they go together to rescue him (after dressing Flash in Dactyl robes, the look he sports on the cover of the DVD set). In escaping from Nascent City, Vultan must convince Tee-Jay that he has it in him to glide like a Dactyl in order to get away.
This is the first introduction of a major character from the FG mythos other than the leads, but it’s sadly sabotaged by weak writing and shoddy execution. Tee-Jay is a totally unappealing character whose fate we don’t care about. Flash is at his worst, spending most of the episode in clueless Sheriff Carter mode as he tags along behind Baylin. (Although I have to say, when they had a close-up on him as he bonded with Vultan over their shared loss, for a moment he really and truly looked like Flash Gordon, with the intense and earnest look on his face and the camera angle and lighting.) The visual effects of Nascent City fail by zooming in too close and exposing the lack of detail on the CGI model, making the buildings look like crude toys. And the Dactyls totally fail due to inept costume design. There’s no way anyone could glide on those loose, tattered rags. If the capes were bound to the ankles as well as the wrists, and if they had rods that extended them further outward from the hands, then I could buy it. As it was, they just looked silly. They didn’t even look particularly birdlike, with just a few token feathers on the collar. Now, in theory, I like the idea of the Dactyl. It’s more subtle than the original Hawkmen, their avian aspects coming more from their culture and belief system than from their anatomy. Unfortunately, the execution falls disastrously short. (Also, where were all the Dactyl women? And would they favor the same shirtless dress code as the men…?)
Fortunately, “Ascension” is the series’ lowest point (making its title rather ironic). This whole run of episodes since the pilot has been pretty weak aside from the Mongo portions of “Pride” and “Infestation,” and no doubt that’s why the series lost viewers so quickly. But if you make it through this episode, then the worst is over.
“Life Source”: Like “Assassin,” this one is set almost entirely on Earth as Flash and the gang deal with interlopers from Mongo (there are only two scenes on Mongo, totalling under four minutes), but this time it actually works on most every level. The team must find a killer who’s come through a rift from Mongo, while also concealing the corpse of the Patriot soldier who was the killer’s first victim on Earth. The latter leads to some Weekend at Bernie’s-style macabre humor (they even nickname the corpse Bernie), featuring a guest turn by Dead Like Me‘s Christine Willes as a perky realtor showing the house whose garage contains the rift. But there’s also some advancement of the character arcs, for in order to keep Dale’s cop fiance Joe from discovering the body, Flash has to pick a fight with him, bringing out some of the romantic-triangle tensions involving Dale. The killer turns out to be something of a sci-fi cliche, a seductive woman (future Alphas regular Laura Mennell) with the power to drain the life force of the lovers she takes and turn them into old men who soon die (although it doesn’t involve actual sex here, just draining them through a ring). She ends up seducing and draining Joe before the team can capture her and make her return his youth (after which he conveniently remembers nothing). But the story is effectively handled, with good interplay among the cast, and Flash gets to be the clever, shrewd hero he is at his best, while also being an effective comic lead, witty and charismatic without being the butt of the joke as in the previous two episodes. And even Baylin is starting to develop a sense of humor.
And while we get very little of Mongo, the bulk of what we do get is a very effective, creepy twist ending that shows more than anything else so far just what a sick, malevolent bastard Ming is (one might even go so far as to say he’s merciless). So “Life Source” runs the gamut of emotions and tone — and pulls it all off. The show really clicks here.
But although this is the best entry in the Earth-centric stage of the series, it’s also the end of that stage. From here on in, the emphasis shifts to Mongo and the worldbuilding starts ramping up big time.
Here I begin my episode-by-episode reviews of the underrated 2007 Flash Gordon series. Note that I’m using the DVD’s episode numbering, treating the pilot as episodes 1-2; most indexes treat it as a single episode.
“Pilot, Part One/Part Two”: Aside from a brief opening scene on what we’ll later learn is Mongo, the first half of the full-length pilot is set entirely in Kendal, introducing marathon champion and auto restorer Steven “Flash” Gordon (former Smallville regular Eric Johnson) and his high-school sweetheart Dale Arden (Gina Holden), now a TV reporter who’s engaged to a cop (Joe Wylee, played by Giles Panton). This Flash is a bit of a slacker, perhaps, but is committed to being a decent guy. He lives with his mother Norah (Jill Teed) due to her past health problems (a cancer history, we’ll later learn), although her job keeps her traveling pretty often. In the opening marathon sequence, he’s tripped up by his rival for first place but declines to retaliate, winning fair and square. And he’s determined to be okay with Dale’s engagement to another man, even though she expects him to be jealous. There’s a lot of banter and mild bickering between Flash and Dale at this point, but it’s decidedly good-natured, and everyone around them (including Mrs. Gordon and Dale’s news producer Joely, played by Carmen Moore) seems determined to set them up as a One True Pairing.
(By the way, the first name “Steven” for Flash is a new coinage for this series, possibly an homage to Steve Holland, who played the character in the 1954 TV series. Previously the only “real name” given for Flash was in the 1996 animated series, where he was called Alex Gordon in honor of Flash’s creator Alex Raymond. Although there was a 1963-4 set of stories published in Israel, unconnected to the original comics, in which Flash’s first name was given as Jim. I guess once he’d saved the Earth from Mongo, he went on to become police commissioner of Gotham City.)
Flash discovers he’s being tailed by a nervous little man (Jodi Racicot) who, when confronted, says he was the lab assistant to Flash’s late father, physicist Dr. Lawrence Gordon (played by Bruce Dawson, and probably named in honor of Flash’s first screen portrayer Larry “Buster” Crabbe). He hints that Dr. Gordon may still be alive, and mentions a project they worked on called the Portage Initiative. Flash begins probing his father’s work in search of answers, and seeks help from Dale, who’s investigating alleged alien sightings — which she dismisses as pranks until the evidence builds up. Together, they track down the lab assistant, who turns out to be Dr. Zarkov, reinterpreted as a neurotic, dysfunctional conspiracy nut. (It’ll be weeks before we hear his first name Hans uttered — and the one and only mention of his last name in the pilot was cut out of the aired version!) It turns out he and Dr. Gordon accidentally created a dimensional rift that Gordon fell through, and Zarkov has been searching for him ever since, building a rift detector. Now things are coming through from the other side, and Zarkov warns that too much rift travel between dimensions could cause a cosmological phase change that would destroy the universe (which is halfway decent technobabble). So the heroes can’t bring in the government for help because then the technology would get out, get used, and hasten the end of all things, or so Zarkov argues.
A robot from the other side captures Norah and tries to get Flash to reveal the location of the “Imex,” whatever that is. While Flash fights the robot, Dale figures out how to electrocute it, and in the ruins they and Zarkov find a device that leads them to, and opens, the rift. Flash goes through, determined to find his father, and Dale gets pulled in while trying to stop him. They arrive in an unfamiliar world with red-tinged light and three moons in the sky, then get beamed up by an ominous ship, and that’s the end of part 1.
Part 2 gives us our first real look at Mongo. Ming (John Ralston) is reinterpreted in a radical but intriguing way. Instead of being an obvious villain, this Ming is intelligent enough to use a little PR and present himself as a charismatic, kindly ruler, hiding the cruelty within. I always liked this idea. Real ruthless leaders don’t go around cackling and shouting menacingly all the time, but get to be leaders through their charisma, hiding their malevolence in a pleasing facade. Hitler and Idi Amin were very charming fellows socially, to all accounts. Ralston is a relatively bland Ming at first glance, something that early viewers complained about, but that seeming banality is intentional, and as the series goes on, Ralston does an excellent job portraying both the polished, friendly facade and the Machiavellian, ruthless, and frequently brutal dictator underneath.
Moreover, there’s some real ambiguity to this Ming. Mongo, in this incarnation, is a world recovering from a great disaster that poisoned its water. Anyone who has to drink it is deformed into a “Deviate” (think Total Recall mutants) if they survive at all. The only pure water left is from the Source, a single well in Ming’s territory, and it was his control of this water that let him rise to power over the cantons of Mongo — but by so doing, he saved Mongo from total destruction, and many admire him as the “Benevolent Father” to whom they owe their very existence. True, he’s as ruthless a tyrant as they come, but the debt that Mongo owes him is genuine.
Ming initially presents himself to Flash and Dale as a benefactor, but Ming’s chief scientist Rankol (Jonathan Lloyd Walker) gives away the game by asking too eagerly about the Imex, tipping Flash off that Ming sent the robot. Rankol is a Deviate with a deformed leg, so that he normally floats along on a hoverdisk hidden under his robes — so that, ironically, Walker is the one cast member who never does any walking. (I think he must’ve really had a Segway under there.) Ming has Rankol torture Flash for information (which Flash doesn’t have) and sends Dale to be prepared for his bedchamber. Dale arranges her own escape, but Flash needs to be rescued by a lovely woman (Anna Van Hooft) who introduces herself as a servant of Ming’s and helps Flash and Dale get back to Earth in exchange for taking her with them. But her haughty, entitled manner tips Dale off that she’s really Ming’s daughter. Of course, this is Princess Aura, and the character’s traditional attraction to Flash is distinctly present, but at this point her rebellion against Ming is limited merely to trying to prove to her father that she’s more than just a pretty face; she admires Ming and wants to serve his cause, but he lacks respect for her abilities. The complex relationship between Ming and Aura is the most compelling thread of this series, though the casting initially works against it. Though Van Hooft is gorgeous to look at (and delightfully tall), she’s a rather bland performer at this point in the series, though she will improve greatly as Aura gains depth as a character.
Almost an afterthought here is the final regular, Baylin (Karen Cliche), a bounty hunter Ming sends to retrieve Aura and the Imex — which Flash has found and discovered to be some kind of alien data archive. We don’t even learn Baylin’s name here, and basically all we know is that she’s tough and determined and inexplicably able to drive a truck after being on Earth for mere minutes. Flash makes a game effort to outfight her but ultimately has to outsmart her, faking the destruction of the Imex. Aura returns to Mongo, but Baylin is stranded in Kendal. Ms. Cliche (pronounced “kleesh”) will become one of the most effective actors on the show once her character is fleshed out, and she’s well-cast as a tough and sexy action heroine in the Xena mold, but at this point she barely registers.
This is an imperfect pilot, but a promising one. The humor is often forced, but the dramatic core of the characters is there; and where the actors’ talent is lacking, their personability makes up for it. I particularly like Gina Holden as Dale; she’s capable, wry, and impressive. Her acting can be somewhat limited, but she has kind of a tough ’40s film-noir leading lady quality in a 2000s sort of way. And she has huge, magnificent eyes. But Eric Johnson is effective as Flash too, even if Flash isn’t yet all he will become. At this point he’s written more as a comic hero, out of his depth and often needing to be rescued by more capable people (usually women, yay!), but Johnson fills the bill well, demonstrating superb comic timing and delivery. And Flash displays intelligence and creativity and a lot of innate decency. Over the course of the series ahead, we’ll see him grow into a real hero while retaining those virtues, and I love it that he’s an action lead defined more by wits and compassion than by toughness and aggression. Though like much about this series, it’s a slow burn that takes a while to pay off.
I’m not sure whether I prefer the longer DVD version or the shorter broadcast version of the pilot. Taking the whole first episode to get to Mongo was a bit frustrating, but the added character material does help compensate. Not all the characters are particularly worthwhile — Flash’s friend Nick (Panou) and Dale’s producer Joely are fifth wheels who will gradually be phased out (though Joely will return to play a somewhat significant role in the climactic arc), and it’s disappointing that they’re the only nonwhite performers in the main cast. (My biggest criticism of this series is the lack of ethnic diversity in the cast and the tendency to relegate nonwhite actors to cliched roles like best friend, security chief, or exotic sorceress. I like the cast the show had, but I wish it had been as progressive with race as it was with gender.) But it is good to get to know the leads a bit better, and there’s some important exposition in the long version that was missing in the short version. I think the added time is mostly worth it. A lot of the Kendal-based stuff to come feels like padding, but here it mostly works, since it’s laying the foundations.
“Pride”: This episode is divided between a plot on Earth and a mostly independent one on Mongo. In Kendal, Baylin decides to move in with Flash, figuring that since he’s responsible for stranding her, he should put her up. The cold, commanding Baylin doesn’t offer him a choice. But Rankol has sent someone after her: Tyrus (Mark Gibbon), a savage member of the Turin (this show’s equivalent of the comic’s Lion Men), who kills one person and injures another before capturing Baylin, revealing that she’s his bondmate (wife) and property. Baylin gets away, but Tyrus takes Dale hostage to trade for her. Baylin shows a decent streak as she offers to turn herself over for Dale’s freedom, and Flash repays her by helping get rid of Tyrus courtesy of a damaged rift blaster (as Zarkov has dubbed the devices that track and reopen the rifts created by Rankol’s generator). This side of the plot is played mostly for laughs, many of which are lame, but there are some fun bits, including Dale’s immortal utterance, “Alien bondage makes me cranky.” It typifies the problem with the early episodes, the overemphasis on Kendal-based material that’s too insubstantial and feels like padding. Although there’s some important exposition about Baylin and the rifts here, a great deal could’ve easily been cut.
(Also, Zarkov’s credibility is badly undermined by a line suggesting his belief in a link between cell phones and cancer. Any physicist should be aware that the microwave frequencies emitted by cell phones are non-ionizing radiation — it is literally a physical impossibility for them to cause the kind of genetic damage that can lead to cancer.)
The Mongo plot is far more compelling, as well as fleshing out the basics of Mongo far better than the pilot did. Aura is approached by a friend of one of her servants, a woman whose husband was arrested for smuggling pure ice from Frigia (one of the only regions of Mongo whose name wasn’t changed from the comics). But he did it only to treat their sick child, not for profit. Aura appeals to Ming to show compassion, but he’s adamant that the Code must be followed to the letter. The cataclysm, known as the Sorrow, has rendered all of Mongo’s water contaminated except for Ming’s Source well and the ancient “pre-Sorrow” ice of Frigia, and this “gray water” causes mutations and death. Ming insists that his monopoly on distribution is a matter of public health, that his austerity measures are the only way the “denzens” (the show’s term for the people of Mongo, no doubt derived from “denizen”) have survived their hardships. Aura points out that the man risked his life to save his daughter — and wonders, not merely rhetorically, if her own father would do the same for her. We begin to see the complexity and pain that define the Ming-Aura relationship. In the climax, at the execution, Ming seems to show mercy to the family — yet proves his unflinching ruthlessness in enforcing his laws in a very powerful scene that makes a mockery of the goofy stuff going on in Kendal. Aura condemns him as a tyrant, but Ming replies that her compassion would have saved one life while his ruthlessness will save thousands. It’s a fascinating portrayal of a Ming who truly believes that he’s the savior of his people, and that his strict, even tyrannical rule is a necessary defense against death and chaos. He came to power by pulling Mongo out of desperate straits, and the rigid Code he enforced really was necessary in a time of great austerity, but by now he’s let that power go to his head. This is fascinating, inspired stuff, although it’s undermined some by Anna Van Hooft’s limited acting at this stage and by the frequent cutaways to Kendal.
In a way, “Pride” feels like part 3 of the pilot, since so much of it is the establishment of things that were left incomplete or unresolved in the opening 2-parter. It underlines how decompressed the storytelling was at this point. This would change, but not for another few episodes.
The 2007 Flash Gordon series from what was then the SciFi Channel (now Syfy) has a reputation for being a terrible show, one that deserved to be cancelled after its one and only season. And I can totally get why people think that. In its initial conception, it didn’t quite work. The conventional wisdom at the time was that general TV audiences were uncomfortable with space and other worlds and needed a show to be grounded and familiar in order to draw them in, so — perhaps under network instructions — the producers (including Robert Halmi Sr. and Jr. along with developer Peter Hume) tried to turn Flash Gordon into something like Smallville. Rather than rocketing to Mongo and being stranded there, Flash, Dale, and Zarkov lived in the fictional town of Kendal, Maryland (near Washington, DC) and went back and forth to Mongo via dimensional rifts. At first, the show spent more time in Kendal than on Mongo, even though the Mongo stuff was much more interesting. It was seen by viewers as too much of a departure from what Flash Gordon is about. Also, many of the actors started out fairly mediocre, and the budget was tiny so the action and effects were pretty weak. It’s not surprising at all that most viewers quickly bailed on the show.
But here’s the sad thing: After the viewers left due to the show’s early problems, the show fixed its problems and got, in my opinion, really good. About a third of the way through the series, the focus shifted increasingly away from Kendal and toward Mongo, with 12 of the last 15 episodes — and all of the last 9 — being set primarily on Mongo and bringing in more characters and elements from Alex Raymond’s original comics. They moved beyond the cheesy comedy of the early episodes to a deeper, more dramatic approach, but leavened with richer and more effective humor. They realized they couldn’t emphasize action and spectacle with their budget and so they shifted the emphasis to drama, plot intrigue, character development, and worldbuilding, the exploration of ideas and people and relationships. (Although they did later free up enough money to improve the action and effects in the last third or so of the season.) Even the Earth-based episodes got better, with stronger writing and better pacing. The characters worked pretty well from the start: Flash (Eric Johnson) was a smart, creative, compassionate hero; Dale Arden (Gina Holden) was strong, calm, and resourceful; Ming (John Ralston) was a nuanced tyrant who hid his cruelty beneath a facade of benevolence and tough love; and Princess Aura (Anna Van Hooft) was a rich and independent character who underwent extensive growth over the season and had a compellingly contentious and nuanced relationship with her father. (Really, the female leads on this show were so strong and dynamic that they sometimes overshadowed Flash himself.) Original characters Baylin (Karen Cliche) and Rankol (Jonathan Lloyd Walker) started out fairly straightforwardly as, respectively, a tough bounty hunter and Ming’s chief scientist, but both developed greater nuance and depth over time, with Rankol in particular revealing much complexity in his agendas and loyalties. And the acting got better in many cases as the players grew into their roles and were given meatier material. The last 2/3 of the series are mostly good, often excellent, with occasional moments of brilliance.
But by the time it got good, hardly anyone was watching, and so all this quality storytelling went largely unnoticed. The show vanished into obscurity and was remembered as a disaster when it was remembered at all. It was on Hulu for a while, but then it disappeared, and for a time I feared I’d never get to see it again.
Fortunately, the show has now been released on DVD in the United States (as of April 2013, though I only recently found out), and due to the low demand, it’s very inexpensive. I was able to get it on Amazon for under 10 bucks. So I wanted to take this opportunity to review the series on disc and highlight its merits, the reasons why this is a series worth buying and watching through to the end (and it does have effective closure in the finale, feeling like a complete and satisfying story, while still leaving room for a continuation). I’ll acknowledge its flaws as well, but I believe it’s worth sitting through the less interesting stuff in the early episodes if you know there’s better stuff coming later.
And by the way, I’m not the only reviewer who thinks this. I found some interesting quotes on the show’s Wikipedia page. Anthony Brown in TV Zone wrote, “the series continues to improve, and you start to see the meaning in the producers’ madness — they must have hoped they could lull passing viewers into watching Sci-Fi with pedestrian, mainstream plots, before building up a world of Dune-like complexity…which might even have worked if the early episodes hadn’t been so dire that no-one but reviewers are still watching.” In a later issue, the magazine added, “…while the early episodes are dire…this is one series that does eventually — and we mean eventually — reward patience and endurance.”
I think they’re overstating the “eventually”; as far as I’m concerned, all but one of the bad episodes are on Disc One of the 4-DVD set. It can be a bit of a trudge to get through that one (though it has one moment of brilliance in episode 3), but once you get to Disc Two, the show comes together quickly and the intricate worldbuilding and intrigue on Mongo start shifting into high gear.
Although if I’m being frank about the flaws, I have to say that the DVD set itself isn’t very impressive. The 22 episodes are crammed onto only four discs — 6 each on the first two, 5 each on the last two — and the audio and image quality are occasionally somewhat lacking. The packaging is bizarre, with all four discs stacked on a single spindle; I immediately transferred them to empty jewel cases for long-term storage. The front cover image shows Flash in a costume he wore only once, in “Ascension,” by far the least representative episode of the series. Also, the back cover text mistakenly refers to Kendal, MD as “a peaceful Pacific town” — which is not only geographically erroneous but etymologically redundant. There are no bonus features, except for one thing: Sci-Fi edited the 2-part pilot down into a single episode that ran 90 minutes with commercials, but the DVDs feature the full uncut 2-parter (which is why it lists 22 episodes instead of the 21 that were aired), so there’s about 20 minutes of new material here.
Now, normally in these review series I do the season overview after the episode reviews, but since my goal here is to convince people that the series is worth watching, I’ll start out here with a spoiler-light look at the series as a whole, giving brief summaries and assessments to provide a sense of how the series evolved in focus and quality over time. I’ll be giving episode ratings on a scale of 5, something I don’t usually bother with but which is useful in this case. Here goes:
1-2. “Pilot” ***
Flash Gordon, his ex-girlfriend Dale Arden, and eccentric scientist Hans Zarkov discover that Ming, ruler of Mongo, is sending probes and operatives to Earth through dimensional rifts, and that Flash’s scientist father, long thought dead, may be alive on Mongo. Princess Aura follows Flash to Earth in pursuit of a secret his father held, and Ming’s top bounty hunter Baylin is sent to retrieve her.
A mediocre beginning, but with potential. Too Earthbound to feel like Flash Gordon yet, but an adequate alien-infiltration story. The cast doesn’t shine in terms of acting, but they’re an appealing bunch.
3. “Pride” ***1/2
Flash helps Baylin win her freedom from the cruel Turin (Lion Man) who owned her on Mongo, and Aura pleads with Ming to show mercy to a water smuggler.
A weak but necessary setup for the Baylin character on Earth is balanced by an excellent Mongo-side story that fleshes out the world (a post-apocalyptic society where Ming controls the only safe water supply) and the characters much better than the pilot did and culminates with the series’s first moment of brilliance (and, sadly, the last one for a while). A terrific episode for establishing Princess Aura and her complex relationship with Ming.
4. “Infestation” ***
When Flash’s best friend Nick is bitten by a deadly insect from Mongo, Flash must travel there to win a cure before it’s too late, while Dale must keep Nick miserable to save his life.
The comic-relief plot on Earth is weak and unnecessary, but the Mongo side feels like a real Flash Gordon adventure, as Flash begins to live up to his traditional heroic role and win the trust and respect of Mongo’s peoples.
5. “Assassin” **1/2
When Flash believes his father has returned from Mongo, it turns out to be part of a plan to kill everyone involved with Dr. Gordon’s rift research.
An almost fully Earthbound story, but the most adequate Earthside plot since the pilot. Important to the arc, but not a good showing for Flash, who’s reduced to a comic-relief second banana to Baylin.
6. “Ascension” *
Flash and Baylin return to Mongo to free a boy abducted by the Dactyl (Hawkmen), only to learn he’s the long-lost son of their leader Vultan.
The one irredeemably bad episode, failing on almost every level, but also the end of the series’ initial run of mediocrity.
7. “Life Source” ***1/2
The gang must stop a seductive “black widow” killer from Mongo, and tensions heat up between Flash and Dale’s cop fiance Joe.
The most effective Earthbound story yet, and also the last one to spend so little time on Mongo. A cliched premise, but with effective character work and humor, and Flash gets to be more heroic again.
8. “Alliances” ****
Flash, Baylin, and Zarkov try to help Baylin’s people, the Verden, solve a water shortage. But their leader Barin (Steve Bacic) feels he must negotiate with Ming for water rations, and Aura, who’s been pushing to get involved in politics, finds herself unwillingly betrothed to Barin.
This, the start of a 3-part arc, is where the series finds its voice and becomes the show it will be for the rest of its run. The worldbuilding and political intrigue on Mongo kick into high gear and become far more central from here on, while on Earth we get some very worthwhile character-building between Dale and Flash’s mother Norah. The writing and characterization are much stronger than before.
9. “Revelations” ****
When the gang sneaks into Ming’s capital Nascent City in search of a way home, Zarkov is arrested, and he and Flash meet a prisoner with disheartening news about Flash’s father. Meanwhile, Aura chafes against her arranged marriage, and Norah cautions Dale against letting Flash dig too deeply into his father’s fate.
Another really solid one that nicely fleshes out the characters, particularly Flash, Aura, Ming, and Norah Gordon. Anna Van Hooft (Aura) begins to show a marked improvement in her acting. Guest-starring Sam J. Jones, lead of the 1980 Flash Gordon feature film.
10. “‘Til Death” ***1/2
Aura uses a love potion on Flash in hopes of getting out of her marriage, leading Ming to order a battle to the death between Flash and Barin.
Starts out with reasonably effective comedy, then takes a more dramatic turn toward the end, doing more nifty stuff with the Aura-Ming relationship. Has a couple of plot holes, but it’s the culmination of the Mongo worldbuilding to date and makes it finally feel like a rich, fleshed-out, multicultural society.
11. “Conspiracy Theory” ***1/2
Rankol abducts Zarkov and tries to persuade him they must work together to halt the dimensional degradation caused by the rifts. Meanwhile, Dale must try to kill the story when someone gets video of a rift opening, but a disreputable rival reporter has already gotten wind of it — putting Flash and Dale in jeopardy when a government spook comes after them.
The last primarily Earthbound/comedic episode, but more effective than most previous ones and important to the overall arc. And there’s interesting and important stuff happening on Mongo as well, as Zarkov finds his loyalties tested.
12. “Random Access” ***1/2
While Zarkov tries to stabilize the increasingly erratic rifts, Dale’s fiance Joe is sucked to Mongo with Flash and discovers the whole truth. Meanwhile, Dale and Baylin must cope with an unexpected crisis.
This is a clip show, but a surprisingly effective one. The story is genuinely important to the arc, the clips are logically set up and fairly brief and unobtrusive, and the original material is solid.
13. “Secrets and Lies” ****
Flash tries to prevent a war between two tribes on Mongo, and is surprised to learn that Ming has called a peace summit to do the same. Meanwhile, Joe tries to get his captain to believe him about Mongo, and he forces Dale into an impossible spot.
A solid episode, further fleshing out Mongo’s intricate politics and Ming’s ruthlessness. And Flash has never been more heroic, intervening in a situation where he has no personal stake simply because he wants to save lives. Also features the last appearance of Flash’s Earthside friend Nick, fittingly, for the show becomes overwhelmingly Mongo-centric from here on out.
14. “The Sorrow” *****
Flash and Dale accompany Baylin to Mongo for their most important holy day, only to find her people’s shrine desecrated by grave robbers who take them prisoner. Meanwhile, as Ming commemorates the day, Aura is attracted to a lowly performer, drawing Ming’s disapproval and leading to shocking consequences.
The description sounds underwhelming, but this is the most brilliant episode of the series, doing a magnificent job of fleshing out Mongo’s history and culture. The costume design is lavish and gorgeous, and the direction and editing on the key montage sequence are intensely powerful. And Ming’s cruelty toward his people and his daughter has never been so chillingly displayed.
15. “Stand and Deliver” ****
Flash & co. try to free Verden slaves taken by Ming and find Barin trying to do the same. Ming becomes concerned that a prophecy spells his downfall unless he destroys Barin. Meanwhile, Dale has a meeting of minds with Ming.
While it has some conceptual problems, this is a good continuation of the arc, and notable as the first episode set entirely on Mongo. All the characters are impressive, notably Flash for his ingenuity and Aura for her growing political cunning.
16. “Possession” **
The gang follows Joe to Mongo, where he’s gone to find proof but ends up getting in deep trouble. While searching, Dale is possessed by the spirit of a witch who intends to claim her body forever.
The only real dud in the final 2/3 of the series. While it has some important developments with Joe’s storyline, the rest is an odd digression and doesn’t really work.
17. “Thicker Than Water” ****
Flash meets Terek, leader of the mutated Deviates, who are struggling for the right to exist and be accepted. Flash arranges a meeting between Terek and Aura, only to be betrayed. But Aura discovers an unexpected connection with Terek.
An effective beginning to a new storyline that will continue through the remainder of the season. It seems a bit out of the blue, and may have been a replacement for the originally planned arc, but still works pretty well and effectively escalates the stakes of the series. Ming’s reaction to Aura’s abduction is nicely ambiguous.
18. “Ebb and Flow” *****
Ming steals the water from Lake Kendal, and Flash’s attempts to retrieve it lead to intense confrontations and a shocking loss. Meanwhile, Aura convinces Ming to give her greater responsibility and uses the opportunity to press for Deviate rights.
The second-best episode of the series, with great character work and a powerful climax. Flash is at his most heroic and impressive here, and the action and effects are greatly improved from earlier in the season.
19. “Blame” ****
When Terek is blamed for spreading a lethal poison, Flash tries to find the antidote and clear his name, but he will need Aura’s help to succeed. Meanwhile, Baylin, Dale, and Zarkov confront the scientist responsible for the previous episode’s tragic events.
A solid continuation of the arc, undermined a bit by the appearance of an overacted and incongruously Jamaican-accented sorceress. Aura is at her best here, outgrowing the pampered princess once and for all.
20. “A Cold Day in Hell” ***1/2
Flash is sent to the Frigian wastes to perform a task he must fulfill to be accepted as Mongo’s prophesied savior — but when his friends come to his aid, the prophecy becomes less clear. Meanwhile, Dale makes a fateful decision that takes her back to Earth.
A decent, mostly standalone adventure that feels like a classic Flash Gordon sort of tale, but comes off as a digression from the main arc. Still, it’s a nice palate cleanser before the big finish.
21/22. “Revolution” ****
The cantons of Mongo are united and ready to revolt openly against Ming, and Flash and his friends plan to take out the rift generator once and for all. Backed into a corner, betrayed by the people closest to him, Ming only becomes more dangerous and enraged. When the war erupts, Flash and his friends and family are caught in the middle.
A satisfying conclusion to the arc, bringing every major plot and character thread to a resolution. While it leaves room for a continuation that never came, it doesn’t lack for closure. The action is limited by the budget, but that just puts the focus more on character and story where it belongs. Flash is unfortunately somewhat marginalized for much of the story, but he gets his climactic confrontation with Ming.
Starting tomorrow, I’ll begin more detailed episode-by-episode reviews (3-4 episodes per post), which will have a fair number of spoilers.
“The Adriatic Express Affair”: A bottle show aboard a train is a nice way to save money on sets while having some international intrigue and bringing an eclectic group of characters together. Here, Solo and Kuryakin are after, they think, a THRUSH scientist who’s developed a sample of a substance that would “interfere with the reproductive process,” as Waverly puts it — though he doesn’t clarify whether this means sterility or some sort of anti-Viagra, but I assume the former since they talk about it ending all life on Earth within a few generations. The McGuffin is somewhere aboard the Adriatic Express, a nonstop train from Vienna to Venice. The episode opens with our boys at the station looking for the THRUSH doctor, and does that Judgment at Nuremburg thing (or, as it’s better known now, that Hunt for Red October thing, or maybe that Star Trek VI thing) where we’re shown the characters at the train station speaking German, then we pull in on Solo’s face to establish his POV (with a train whistle to bridge the audio transition), then cut back to the same characters speaking English (i.e. we accept that they’re “really” speaking German and the TV is magically translating for our benefit). It’s a nice stylistic touch, and there’s another one where the person our boys think they’re following magically disappears behind a group of passersby while our boys close in on him from either side. Realistically there’s no way David McCallum didn’t see exactly where the actor went, but I watched the shot frame by frame more than once and I don’t have a clue where the actor went, so yeah, that was clever.
Anyway, several other characters are established as passengers, primarily Mme. Olga Nemirovitch (Jessie Royce Landis), an aging glamour diva and cosmetics mogul, and 19-year-old Eva (Juliet Mills, actually 24 at the time), the innocent of the week, who’s desperately trying to deliver Olga’s chocolates to her after the man she assisted, who in turn was Olga’s assistant, was struck by a taxi en route to the station. Eva ends up getting stuck on the nonstop train thanks in part to Solo and Illya forcing their way aboard, so they aren’t off to a great start. There’s also a rather striking blond model (Jennifer Billingsley) who’s in a party mood and has a thing for Illya, as well as being totally carefree and oblivious about all the dangerous stuff that ensues later on. Oh, and an American tourist who keeps stumbling upon the dead bodies that Illya tries to hide in the ladies’ room for some reason.
Anyway, it turns out the guy they were chasing onto the train — who had an unconvincing fake beard — wasn’t the doctor who invented the deadly virus, but some minor THRUSH functionary who had a crisis of conscience and was trying to get the virus away from his boss — who turns out to be Mme. Olga. When Solo makes amends with Eva and then meets Olga through her, he tries to convince Olga to side with UNCLE rather than THRUSH (though speaking implicitly, for innocent Eva is dining with them), but she tells him that not only has she been loyal to THRUSH for over 42 years, the whole organization was her idea in the first place. This bombshell is never followed up on. Anyway, once alone with Eva, Olga convinces the girl that Solo is the evil THRUSH agent and tries to turn her into a seductress, giving her a gun which she assures Eva will only fire knockout gas, but which is rigged to fire bullets in both directions and kill Eva and Solo alike. Solo is surprisingly unaffected by the teenager’s clumsy seduction — I guess he has some limits after all — and saves them both from the gun. Then he and Illya attempt to find the virus capsule, and it’s quite easy to guess where it is (I’ve given you all the clues, Gentle Reader), but of course our guys don’t figure it out until the end.
Not a great episode, clunky in some respects, but not bad either. It’s interesting to see the innocent being used by both sides, as it were, although you never get the sense that Olga’s plan to use her poses any real danger to Solo. And the “intrigue among a diverse group of travelers” idea never really comes together, since most of them are just background players who have a couple of gags to embellish the main plot. Still, the way this season is going, I’m glad to see an episode that’s devoid of any major failings.
“The Yukon Affair”: The show must have been running out of ethnic groups to stereotype offensively, because this week it’s Inuit, aka “Eskimos.” G. Emory Partridge (George Sanders), the wannabe old-fashioned British feudal lord from last season’s “The Gazebo in the Maze Affair,” has established a new petty fiefdom (without Jeanette Nolan as his wife this time) in the Yukon, where he’s uncovered a superdense, highly magnetic mineral — called “Quadrillennium X,” because most TV writers are not geologists — that could somehow allow THRUSH to control the seas and airways, I guess by disrupting navigation. He plans to sell it to THRUSH, but rather unwisely tips UNCLE off by having his men try to assassinate Solo with a chunk of the stuff, using his trademark pear tree (as in “A Partridge in…”) as a calling card. Luckily UNCLE has a geology computer that can instantly identify the exact coordinates where an otherwise completely unfamiliar mineral sample originated, because this is the 1960s and computers are magic oracles. But no sooner do Solo and Illya surface from the submarine that brings them that they’re captured by Eskimos. Luckily, their headman’s daughter, Murphy, is half-Caucasian and educated at McGill, so she’s properly Westernized and therefore the only good member of a tribe which she herself calls primitive. The only thing that keeps this from being totally offensive is that the actress they cast, Tianne Gabrielle, is not a white actress in brownface but genuinely looks the part — though I can find no other screen credits or information about her online, so I can’t be sure of her actual ethnicity.
Anyway, the episode is mostly a bunch of back-and-forth captures,escapes, and mutual outwittings, with Partridge abetted by the headman and locals along with his icily lovely blonde niece Victoria (Marian Thompson), who may not be as loyal to the family as she appears, and with Murphy siding with the UNCLE boys as they try to destroy the Chemical X before THRUSH arrives to collect it. It’s not an improvement on the previous Partridge episode, which was pretty mediocre to begin with. Its main virtue is that both female guests are quite attractive in nicely contrasting ways. And there’s some mild metatextual amusement in seeing George Sanders hanging around in the Yukon in an episode aired just six weeks before his appearance as the original Mr. Freeze on Batman. (The comics character was previously named Mr. Zero, which was changed to follow the TV show’s lead, so yes, he was the original Mr. Freeze.) Oh, and speaking of dates, there’s a bit of an anomaly with the dating here, since a couple of lines indicate that Partridge last clashed with the UNCLE boys years earlier and disappeared more than a year before the episode, even though his first episode aired less than nine months earlier. Well, that’s ’60s TV (non)continuity for you.
“The Very Important Zombie Affair”: I was wrong, they haven’t run out of cultures to insult. This week it’s Caribbean vodoun society, or “voodoo,” with all the voodoo-doll and zombie stereotypes, with the dictator who rules through the power of voodoo curses, El Supremo, being implausibly played by Claude Akins. Yup, Sheriff Lobo as a Caribbean dictator. Solo and Illya are trying to deliver Sheriff Voodoo’s leading (and badly acted) political rival, Delgado (Ken Renard), to a conference to denounce him when a voodoo-doll package is delivered and traps him in a trance. His wife then takes him back to Unnamed Caribbean Country to try to get him cured by a voodoo priestess, and the men from UNCLE go to retrieve him. They run afoul of Sheriff Voodoo’s enforcer Ramirez (Rodolfo Acosta), and recruit the help of the innocent, a vacuous blonde named Suzy (Linda Gaye Scott), a manicurist who’s terrified of El Supremo but forced to stay because he likes her work. She’s played with a ridiculously overdone Southern accent — she uses “y’all” as a singular pronoun, which is not unheard of but rare, so in this case I’d call it just one more lazy stereotype to add to the list.
I’m hard pressed to remember anything in particular about the plot, except that it’s another bunch of captures and escapes and evasions as they try to get to Delgado and evade Ramirez’s attempts to expel, arrest, or murder them in that order, plus an annoying scene of Akins pretending he had mixed ethnicity despite his blue eyes and talking about how the jungle drums ran through his veins and he had no patience for “your civilization,” since of course civilization is something white people invented, right? This show is really starting to get on my nerves.
Aside from a moderately enjoyable scene of Suzy wrapped in a towel that isn’t very well secured, the only real point of interest in this episode is a new, but mediocre, Gerald Fried score.
“The Dippy Blonde Affair”: Uh-oh. A sexist stereotype in the title and a script by Peter Allan Fields. Should I be worried? Well, it’s not too misogynistic, I guess. The titular blonde is Jojo (Joyce Jameson), who’s dating THRUSH engineer Pendleton (Fabrizio Mioni) and attracts the interest of his boss, Baldonado (Robert Strauss), who checks up on Pendleton as he’s completing a pair of devices that will enhance an “ion projector” weapon to lethal intensity. Or rather, a scientist working for Pendleton perfects the spherical devices and then gets shot for his trouble, an act witnessed by Jojo. Meanwhile, Solo has infiltrated the house and gets himself captured (in an awkward bit of editing, the teaser ends mid-fight and then Act I opens with the revelation that Solo lost the fight). As a test of Jojo’s loyalty, Pendleton insists that either she kill Solo for him or he’ll kill her. While she’s led a dissolute life of petty crime, she’s never killed before, and is relieved when Illya’s stunt double barges in and beats up Pendleton’s stunt double. She fills the UNCLE agents in on the location of the spheres, to Pendleton’s disgust.
On later interrogation, Pendleton sneaks a suicide pill, and with his dying breath, asks to be shipped home to his family in Riverside. Needing to find the ion projector, Solo and Waverly recruit Jojo to infiltrate the THRUSH cell. She approaches two of Baldonado’s men, Max (actor/director James Frawley) and Eddie (Rex Holman), and wins their trust by “killing” Illya when he confronts them. This gets her in with Baldonado, whose attraction she’s happy to cultivate, since it entails lavishing her with gifts and money. But Max grows impatient with his boss’s romantic preoccupation. It turns out that the Riverside cemetery is actually the THRUSH base, and the plan was to revive Pendleton with an antidote to his death-feigning pill. (I was amused to see Frawley’s character “directing” the fake mourners before the funeral. It was shortly after this that Frawley would make his TV-directing debut with The Monkees, the beginning of a directorial career that would span over 40 years and would include directing The Muppet Movie.) But the aging, lonely Baldonado is falling in love with Jojo and wants Pendleton to stay dead, an order that sits poorly with Max, and that he and Eddie decide to override, more afraid of Baldonado’s THRUSH masters than of the man himself.
But when Illya gets himself trapped by the bad guys (and Max recognizes him as the agent Jojo “killed,” proving that she’s working for UNCLE), Solo confronts Baldonado and threatens to kill Jojo if he doesn’t order Illya freed. This leads to a final confrontation in which Baldonado’s own blind devotion to Jojo causes him to sabotage his own side’s plan and shoot his own men, and in which Solo is pretty much useless since he’s making out in the car with Jojo, leaving Illya to mop up Baldonado on his own — in the rain, no less. Sometimes Solo is a real jerk.
There’s some good dialogue in this episode, and some moments that work well, but there are also some awkward bits of scripting, directing, and editing, and the guest cast aside from Frawley is fairly unimpressive. There’s a decent, jazzy new score by Robert Drasnin, though.
“The Deadly Goddess Affair”: In North Africa, Solo eavesdrops on an awkwardly expository discussion involving the implausibly named Col. Hubris (Victor Buono), revealing THRUSH’s plan to send him a courier pouch containing money and McGuffin files via robot plane, which he will trigger to release the cargo using a remote control that he thinks is unique, except UNCLE has intercepted the plans and built their own. Solo and Illya arrange to bring the cargo down on the Mediterranean “Island of Circe,” some sort of generic pan-Mediterranean land where everyone has Italian names and accents despite the implied Grecian heritage. (Never mind that Circe’s island was actually called Aeaea, and was mythical.) The boys from UNCLE get caught up in a rather silly intrigue involving local marital customs: local girl Mia (Brioni Farrell) wants to marry local cop Luca (a very young Daniel J. Travanti giving a very bad performance), but custom demands that her older sister Angela (Marya Stevens) marry first — but even though Angela’s knock-down gorgeous, no local man will marry her without a dowry her father can’t afford. But Solo mentioned that Americans don’t need dowries, so that gives Mia an idea. (And yes, they refer to Illya Nickovetch Kuryakin as an “American.”) She and Luca literally force our heroes at gunpoint to play suitors to Angela, preventing them from intercepting the courier pouch they’ve just brought down. Then Col. Hubris comes looking for the pouch and it’s all kind of a mess from there, but it ends up with Solo and Illya wearing fezzes now, because fezzes are cool.
This is a really ineptly written and ineptly made episode. I couldn’t even watch it in one sitting, it was so boring. There’s a scene where our heroes are operating their robot-plane-intercepting equipment at what’s supposed to be an ancient lovers’ lane that has “X loves Y” grafitti dating back from modern times to Roman times — yet all the inscriptions that are supposedly from different centuries, in different languages, are all painted on the face of a single boulder in the same handwriting, and so large that there’s only room for the three inscriptions that our characters read out loud. It’s incredibly sloppy and thoughtless work, and exemplifies the problems with this episode and, really, with the season as a whole. They just don’t seem to be trying very hard.
The score is credited to Fried, and at least some of it seems to be new. He’s starting to sound more like his familiar self now.
“The Birds and the Bees Affair”: Solo and Illya find that UNCLE HQ in Geneva (behind a Swiss watch shop rather than the usual tailor shop) has had all its personnel wiped out by some kind of lethal insect attack, which turns out to be a special strain of killer bees engineered by THRUSH — bees which, conveniently for the special-effects department, are so small as to be effectively invisible.They’re the work of Dr. Swan (John Abbott), an entomologist whose compulsive gambling enables THRUSH operative Mozart (John McGiver) to co-opt his services in exchange for money. But they need a special variety of honey only sold at a few health-food stores, including one where Illya meets Tavia (Ahna Capri), a lovely clerk whom Mozart tries to recruit as a dance instructor at the dance studio that THRUSH operates because of course it does. Illya somehow convinces her to infiltrate the studio, then comes in as a client to arrange a lesson with her and stupidly gives exposition about her mission in the bugged studio, leading to their capture and torture until Illya agrees to help Mozart get the bees into UNCLE’s New York HQ’s ventilation system. Illya knocks out a guard to get one of the triangular badges that are necessary to wear inside HQ to keep an alarm from sounding, yet Mozart is inexplicably able to get in without having a badge — and then just as inexplicably is wearing a badge later in the scene. UNCLE has been watching the whole time, but Mozart gets away by threatening to release the killer bees into the city; Illya’s plan is a failure. But Solo has managed to get Swan’s help to track the bees in exchange for promising to return them to him. Eventually Illya manages to redeem himself by finding a way to contain the invisible bees when Mozart releases them in the climactic fight.
This wasn’t as bad as the last one, but it wasn’t very good. Capri is lovely to look at, but her character serves little purpose beyond random damsel in distress, and she isn’t much of an actress. In the scene where she’s held captive and being threatened with torture, she shows about as much facial expression as a Vulcan. John McGiver’s urbane Mr. Mozart is fairly entertaining, although urbane, well-spoken THRUSH operatives are a well-worn cliche by this point. The score is stock from Drasnin’s library, and at one point the Oliver Nelson-esque action music I mentioned liking in “The Tigers Are Coming Affair” is oddly enough used as a bossa nova record that Illya and Tavia dance to. It’s nice to hear that cue again, but that’s an odd way to use it.
The main appeal of this episode, though, is in its opening minutes, as director Alvin Ganzer uses effectively unusual camera angles — looking down from the rafters or up from knee level — to make the scenes of the corpse-filled Geneva HQ feel unnerving and off-kilter, and also to differentiate it from the New York HQ, which of course is the exact same set.
Turner Classic Movies recently showed the 1990 Total Recall, which I haven’t seen in many years. I came to find the violence distasteful for a while, but it’s been long enough that I decided to take a fresh look. It actually holds up better than I remembered; gratuitous violence aside, it’s an effective Hitchcockian thriller that gives you some things to think about, and its visual effects were really cutting-edge stuff for the day, just before CGI started taking over everything. They had extensive computer assistance with the motion-control cameras and animatronics, but what we saw onscreen was all real physical models and puppets and conventional animation, except for the CGI “x-ray” skeletons at the subway checkpoint. And the FX really hold up extremely well; they did things with miniatures and animatronics that were on a par with a lot of modern CG. Plus it has a strong Jerry Goldsmith score and a number of notable ’90s actors in the cast.
Although I can’t say the designs hold up as well. It’s hilarious to me how people in the ’90s assumed that telephones would get bigger in the future. In this movie, Back to the Future Part II, and “Lisa’s Wedding” on The Simpsons, futuristic phones were these massive wall- or table-mounted units with screens and elaborate controls. And the playback unit for Hauser’s message to Quaid was this big briefcase. And this is supposed to be 71 years from now, IIRC.
Of course, the big question in this film is, are Quaid’s experiences real or hallucinated? Here are my thoughts (beware full spoilers):
I prefer to think it’s all a delusion. For one thing, the depiction of Mars is completely absurd, as is much of the storyline. The whole ice-core/instant-atmosphere thing is totally insane. A rocky planet with an icy core is like a boulder floating on a lake. It just couldn’t happen. Also, everything is foreshadowed. Not only does everything in the film happen exactly as the Rekall personnel predict, but we see Melina’s face and the alien reactor on Rekall’s screens as they’re programming the simulation.
The main argument against this position is that we see scenes that aren’t from Quaid’s POV, and thus couldn’t be part of a memory-implant illusion. But to me, the key is what Roy Brocksmith’s character tells Quaid in the hotel room: that what he’s experiencing isn’t the programmed vacation package, but a free-form delusion his mind is manufacturing based on that implant. So if he’s suffering a paranoid delusion, then the scenes that take place in Quaid’s absence could represent what his paranoid mind believes is going on behind his back — his wife betraying him, a murderous enemy pursuing him and being given marching orders by the dictator of Mars, etc.
The tricky part there is the scene in Rekall where McClane is alerted to the crisis and is told by his assistant that she hasn’t begun the spy implant yet. If Quaid doesn’t remember this afterward, how can it be part of his implant? It’s possible that it only mostly happened, that what we saw was partly filtered through his psychosis, so the assistant didn’t really say she hadn’t implanted the spy program. Or maybe it was all part of his delusion. Dreams often contradict themselves, so experiencing something and then not remembering it, or acting as though one doesn’t remember it, is something that could happen in a dream or delusion.
The remaining paradox is how he could’ve seen Melina’s face in his dreams before selecting it at Rekall, if she wasn’t real. But our memories of our dreams are imperfect, and we can edit them in retrospect. Maybe the face he saw in his dreams was just similar to the one he selected at Rekall and he convinced himself it was the same. Or maybe she was a live model whose face he’d seen in ads and who’d also licensed her likeness to Rekall.
Now, does the alternative interpretation work? Setting aside the inanity of the science and the absurdity of the action and plotting, is there any way this could all be real? The hangup there is what we saw at Rekall before the implant. How could they have an image of Melina and classified imagery of the Martian reactor? I wondered if maybe that was part of the plan to trigger Hauser’s memories so he’d go after Kuato, but then I remembered Cohaagen saying that Quaid had screwed up the plan by going to Rekall and triggering his memories prematurely. So that doesn’t work. As for the imagery, maybe someone smuggled out images of the reactor but they were discredited and publicly interpreted as a hoax, and Rekall just copied them off the internet. And maybe Melina did some modeling once upon a time?
Either way, it’s a bit of a stretch, but I think it’s less of a stretch all around to assume it was imaginary — that this wasn’t a story of a hero saving Mars, but just a tragedy of an ordinary(ish) construction worker suffering a Rekall-induced psychotic break from which he probably never recovered. Which is pretty dark, but it seems more likely to be the truth. Although it does leave the lingering question of why Quaid got so obsessed with Mars and this dream woman. But I guess he could’ve just been tired of his life and experiencing the seven-year itch a year late.
Granted, the whole point is that there is no obvious right answer to whether it’s real or imagined, and either interpretation has its problems. But I have my preference, so there it is.
Now, yesterday I came across the DVD of the 2012 remake of the film (directed by Len Wiseman, starring Colin Farrell and Kate Beckinsale) at the library, so I decided, what the heck, it’s free, so I’ll watch and compare. I tried to assess the film on its own merits, but it’s hard to avoid comparing it to the original. There are some things about it that were good. There was some nice dialogue writing here and there, mainly in the first act. They did make a respectable effort to create their own distinct world rather than just copying the original. There were some good performances; Farrell was better than in other films of his I’d seen, Beckinsale was pretty effective with what she was given, and John Cho was great and almost unrecognizable as a reimagined McClane. And there was some nifty technological futurism, like the hand-implant phones and the display glass they interfaced with.
But a lot about the film falls short, both as a self-contained film and in comparison to the original. The ’90 film had plenty of action, but it always felt like it was advancing the story. Here, it often felt like the story was just connective tissue between action set pieces. They were impressive at first, but after a while all the chasing and fighting and fighting and chasing got a bit tiresome. The point where the film lost me was the sequence running through the elevator shafts with elevator cars zooming by in all directions at ridiculous speeds, in this bizarrely overcomplicated network of tunnels and huge open spaces. What building were they in? Why did they need all these elevators zooming around? The scene reminded me of nothing so much as the scene in Galaxy Quest where they had to go through the corridor with all the gratuitous deathtraps and Gwen screamed, “This episode was badly written!”
I’d like to say more about the film’s merits or flaws in its own right, but it’s hard to do that without comparing it to its predecessor and talking about where the remake falls short. A major difference is that, in contrast to the pervasive ambiguity of the original, here there’s very little doubt that what Quaid is experiencing is entirely real. Quaid’s initial dream is too detailed and much less surreal than the opening scene of the original; if you came into the story without having seen the original, I think it would be clear right off the bat that it was a memory this man had somehow lost. Also, Beckinsale’s Lori kind of gives herself away when she asks unprompted if Quaid was alone in his “dream.” Many of the key plot points and characters, notably Hauser himself, are set up in news reports before Quaid goes to Rekall, so it’s less plausible that they could be parts of an implant (although I guess they could be integrated into a paranoid delusion). Most significantly, there’s no break between Quaid going to Rekall and Quaid turning into superspy. There’s no scene break and no loss of consciousness, no moment that could be seen as a transition between reality and fantasy, so there’s no reason to doubt that it’s real.
Later on, they do a version of the scene where someone tries to convince Quaid he’s dreaming, and in principle I like the idea of putting Quaid’s friend Harry into this role. But it doesn’t quite work, and the reasons it doesn’t work expose the problems with how the remake was done. The film pays homage to the iconic moments of the original, but changes them around in a way that doesn’t make much sense. In the original scene, what tipped Quaid off that the doctor was lying was the fact that he was sweating. The logic there is self-evident to the viewer: if none of this were real, he’d have no reason to be frightened about being at gunpoint. Here, though, what makes Quaid’s decision is a single tear running down Melina’s cheek. Why does this clarify the situation for him? Why would it prove she’s real and not a delusion? If she’s a delusion, she’d do whatever he imagined and there’d be no self-contradiction. (It doesn’t help that Jessica Biel’s Melina is a complete cipher. We never get a sense of who she is or what she and Quaid shared; she’s just a plot device and a token romantic interest. I don’t think her name is even spoken more than once, and it’s mumbled then. If I hadn’t seen the original and hadn’t read the credits online, I think I would’ve come out of this movie with no idea what her character was called.) Moreover, even if he concluded this were real, would that lead him to shoot his best friend in the head? How would he have known his friend was really a spy, rather than a dupe who’d been convinced or coerced to play along? It seems like an overreaction.
Not to mention that there’s one part where Harry moves in an impossibly fast blur to take Melina’s gun. How can that be reconciled with the conclusion that this was real? It’s the one and only thing in this version of the story that ever calls the reality of events into question, but it’s isolated and at odds with the very scene it’s in, so it doesn’t work. It’s just a random bit of weirdness.
Basically, things happen in this scene not because they make sense within the scene, but because they’re the way things played out in the original. The changes make those outcomes less coherent, but the outcomes remain. When you remake a story, you should make changes that bring out something new in it, but these changes were too superficial, and there was too much slavish adherence to the beats of the original at times when there shouldn’t be.
I like the idea of combining Lori with Richter, basically combining Sharon Stone and Michael Ironside’s characters into Beckinsale’s. It makes Lori a stronger presence in the film. But the downside is that her motivation for issuing the shoot-on-sight order in defiance of Cohaagen’s command that he be taken alive is unclear. Again, they’re keeping the original’s beats but changing things in a way that diminishes their story and character logic.
Now, let’s talk about The Fall. This tunnel through the Earth is the main thing that’s been criticized for its absurdity, but in theory it’s not that implausible an idea. The engineering problems are insurmountable — no way to keep a tunnel open through molten magma under such pressures — but the physics are pretty straightforward. Martin Gardner did a nice analysis of the idea in an essay called “Tube Through the Earth” that appeared in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in Dec. ’80 and was reprinted in the 1981 book Science Fiction Puzzle Tales (reprinted in 2001 as Mathematical Puzzle Tales). Essentially it’s got the physics of a pendulum — it gains momentum as it falls under the influence of gravity, and that momentum lets it rise against gravity by an equal distance, minus any loss due to friction. The travel time from one end to the other will always be 42 minutes (ignoring friction, air resistance, Coriolis effect, etc.), regardless of whether the elevator connects antipodes through the center of the Earth or simply cuts a chord between two random locations — in the same way that the period of a given pendulum is the same regardless of the width of its swing. (Interestingly, the orbital period of a satellite orbiting just above the surface of a perfectly spherical, airless Earth would be 84 minutes. Again, basically the same physics — orbiting is driven by gravity just as the Fall or a pendulum would be.)
Unfortunately, the movie’s portrayal of this idea is totally ridiculous. The Fall takes only 17 minutes to get through the Earth, and the behavior of thrust and gravity within it is total nonsense. Even though they’d have to be accelerating far faster than free fall to make it in that time, they’re right-side-up during the descent rather than pressed against the ceiling. They’re in full gravity until they cross into “the core,” when they’re suddenly in zero gravity like a switch was flipped. And inexplicably, the chambers within the capsule seem to be facing the same way up after the freefall passage as they did before. If we’re talking a tube going straight through a tunnel piercing the Earth, then the bottom end when it was dropped from the UK would be the top end when it emerged in Australia. So the capsule would have to rotate a full 180 degrees within the tunnel, but
this is never depicted as happening. (EDIT: Actually we do see the passenger compartment rotate midway through the journey, so that’s explained. But other parts of the capsule, the interior corridors and the big open space where the heroes fight the robots, don’t seem to rotate or to be symmetrical top-to-bottom, so it’s unclear whether they invert.) So this was just gotten totally wrong in every possible way.
Now, sure, as I said, the “icy core of Mars” and instant atmosphere of the original were just as scientifically ridiculous, but at least you could believe it was a dream — and it was epic enough that you wanted to buy into it at least for the duration of the story. Fantasy or no, the original Quaid’s adventure ended with him transforming an entire world for the better, turning a barely habitable wasteland into an unspoiled paradise. Not to mention that we got to know the people whose lives were in danger in the climax, so we had an emotional investment in the outcome. Here, Quaid only manages to keep things from getting worse — perhaps only temporarily at that. The Colony is spared from conquest, but it’s still an impoverished mega-favela in the middle of a toxic wasteland, and there’s no guarantee the UFB is going to respond very well to the fact that its agents killed their leader. And none of the Colony characters we get acquainted with in the first act is present to react to events in the third, so that emotional investment is missing. So the ending just doesn’t have as much of an impact. The emotion is “Whew, our life still sucks but at least we’re not dead.” Not very triumphant.
So yeah, it’s good to bring something new to a story when you remake it, but ideally the new stuff should work as well in its own way as the old stuff. Here it just seems underwhelming in comparison. They were trying to tell basically the same plot as the original but with a lot cut out and moved around and replaced, but what they were left with was somewhat incomplete and skeletal. Maybe what they should’ve done instead was make a cleaner break from the previous film — gone back to the original Philip K. Dick story, “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” and just spun an entirely new narrative from that without referencing the Schwarzenegger film at all. You could say — if you felt obligated to finish with a pithy quip, which apparently I do — that the problem with the new Total Recall is that it recalls too much.
“The Arabian Affair”: Two parallel plots here that converge at the end. Solo’s plot is kind of interesting; he’s found out that THRUSH “retires” all its 65-year-old agents quite permanently, with exploding gold watches, to make sure they don’t reveal what they know. And so, in order to gain intel on a THRUSH operation in Arabia, he tracks down a THRUSH man who’s a day from retirement, proves to him that he’s marked for death, and convinces him he’s better off taking the UNCLE retirement plan, in exchange for his help getting the info. Oddly, though, the retiring agent, Lewin, is played by a 42-year-old Robert Ellenstein in very unconvincing age makeup. Also, the head of the THRUSH satrap of the week, Mr. Norman (Jerome Thor), is more loud and unpleasant than an interesting adversary.
Meanwhile, Illya is playing Lawrence of Arabia, almost literally. He’s spying on the aforementioned THRUSH operation, which involves a “vaporizer” machine that spews deadly dish-soap foam that disintegrates anyone it engulfs. He’s attacked and captured by a band of Arab stereotypes led by the late, great Michael Ansara, and it all gets rather embarrassing. Seriously, they threw in every Arab stereotype that existed as of 1965 — violent, greedy, gullible tribesmen who needed a white man to show them a better way and unite them behind his rule. (The “Arab terrorist” stereotype was still in the future.) Illya actually claims to be T.E. Lawrence’s son in order to convince the tribe to follow him, although he has to defeat Ansara in an obligatory fight. Oh, and Ansara’s daughter (Phyllis Newman in brownface) has claimed Illya as her “property” and intends to trade him for a camel at Aqaba, except his constant condescension and insults somehow make her fall for him (I think they call it “negging” in some circles). Did I mention this is another Peter Allan Fields script? It’s amazing that someone who wrote such virulently misogynistic stuff on this show could go on to write so many great scripts for Lwaxana Troi and Kira Nerys in Star Trek.
This one has another decent Gerald Fried score, but not much else going for it. Even Michael Ansara can’t save it, though he has a moment or two where his innate dignity shows through the pile of negative stereotypes. Seeing this episode so soon after Ansara’s passing wasn’t the tribute I’d hoped it would be.
“The Tigers Are Coming Affair”: Shouldn’t that be “The The Tigers Are Coming Affair”? Oh, well. It’s another episode set in India, but the stereotypes aren’t quite as awful as last time. Jill Ireland is back playing Suzanne, a French missionary teaching modern farming techniques and pesticide use to the backward natives, but the main villains are Prince Panat (Lee Bergere in brownface) and his compatriot, a cashiered British colonel named Quillon (episode writer Alan Caillou), who are generally very condescending and exploitative toward the natives. So while there are mentions of dacoits (murderous bandits) and a degree of White Man’s Burden condescension, for once it’s the Western or at least Westernized elites who come off as more villainous than the indigenes. Specifically, the prince has stolen Suzanne’s pesticides to defoliate the jungle and drive the peasants from their homes so they’ll have to work in the prince’s dangerous ruby mines to survive — which, as a fringe benefit for him, has driven a bunch of tigers down from the upcountry so he can mount an ongoing safari and shoot a bunch of pretty kitty-cats. Although the episode doesn’t paint this as evil, since Illya himself fells the only tiger killed onscreen (well, the only stock-footage tiger supposedly shot offscreen and then replaced with a fake dead tiger lying on the ground).
This time, Ireland is playing Robert Vaughn’s love interest rather than her husband David McCallum’s, but there were apparently limits to how far she’d take it, since they never kiss on camera (the final freeze-frame just prevents it). She comes off fairly well; her French accent is certainly a lot better than whatever they were trying to pass off as Indian accents here (only one guest character’s accent sounded even slightly Indian), and in the climax, Suzanne gets to save Solo and Kuryakin and hold the bad guys at bay rather effectively — literally with her hands tied behind her back and her mouth gagged.
A highlight of the episode is a really strong score by Robert Drasnin. Parts of it remind me more of Gerald Fried’s future work than Fried’s own scores on this show have done so far, making me wonder if Drasnin was an influence on Fried. But in the last half, Drasnin gives our heroes a really neat, jazzy leitmotif that reminds me of Oliver Nelson’s work on The Six Million Dollar Man, and gives the episode a ’70s sound ahead of its time.
“The Deadly Toys Affair”: I don’t even know how to recap this one. It’s an incoherent jumble of parts. The core story is about Solo & Illya trying to win over a boy supergenius (former Dennis the Menace star Jay North) that THRUSH has in its clutches in a Swiss private school run by THRUSH agents Arnold Moss and John Hoyt. They want to take him to THRUSH central in the Near East and seduce him with a state-of-the-art lab facility including “his own Van Allen Belt” — seriously, they said that. But Dennis has rigged up a means to spy on the headmasters, knows they killed his father, and plans to go with them to mount an extended campaign of revenge from within. Now, that sounds like a plot with potential, but we only get a few slapdash glimpses of it in between a lot of other, mostly irrelevant stuff. The extended teaser involves a mission to blow up a THRUSH nerve gas silo — contradictorily described as a hypnotic poison gas which would put all of Southern California to sleep forever, a massive euphemism fail — which has no evident connection to the rest of the story beyond the fact that the boy’s father tipped UNCLE off to it. And most of the rest of the episode revolves around two innocents who are mainly a distraction from the core plot — Angela Lansbury basically playing a Gabor sister as the boy’s aunt, and Diane McBain as a spoiled heiress who’s a friend of Lansbury’s character and has no reason to be in the story at all except as a flirtation interest for both Solo and Illya. All these various bits are flung together without any real coherence, and I often found myself confused at the randomness of it all, Or the occasional contradiction — in one scene Moss reflects on the lucky accident that they hired the boy’s father and then discovered the boy’s incredible brilliance, but in a later scene it’s stated that THRUSH hired the father specifically to get to the son.
Also, the boy’s brilliance is more discussed than shown. In the few scenes North actually gets, he’s given little opportunity to convey any particular intelligence — and UNCLE’s plan bizarrely involves sending Solo in as a maker of novelty gags like chattering teeth and sneezing powder, as though these would somehow excite the intellect of the greatest boy genius of the age. (There’s a scene where Waverly plays Q and tells Solo about all the spy tricks built into the novelty items — yet Solo never uses any of those tricks!!)
The episode’s only asset is a lively Gerald Fried score, but I think it’s mostly stock.
“The Cherry Blossom Affair”: A defecting scientist from THRUSH Eastern in Japan brings UNCLE a film proving that his employers have invented a “volcano activator” with which they can blackmail the world. THRUSH assassinates him at the airport in New York before Solo can meet him, but in an unlikely coincidence, his film gets mixed up with one belonging to Cricket Okasada (France Nuyen), who dubs English films into Japanese. UNCLE gets the real film and THRUSH’s Japan branch, led by Harada (Jerry Fujikawa), gets Cricket’s film, embarrassing him in front of visiting THRUSH representative Kutuzov (Woodrow Parfrey), who comes from that well-known ’60s-TV nation known as “My/Your Country.” Solo and Illya must track down THRUSH’s HQ and protect the determined Cricket as she tries to get her film back at all costs — although they keep ending up in worse danger than she does, and Solo even needs her to rescue him at one point.
The prospect of another TMFU episode set in Asia filled me with dread, but this one was a pleasant surprise. Oh, by today’s standards it wallows in Orientalism, with lots of thick accents and “Oh, look how Japanese we are” moments — THRUSH’s front is a karate dojo, Harada is obsessed with baseball and life-size kabuki marionettes (which are obviously stuntmen in costumes), and a policeman mentions to Illya that they could make his UNCLE radio for half the price — but by the standards of the series to date, its portrayal of Japan is surprisingly authentic and respectful, with genuine Asian actors, real Japanese being spoken, and characters like Cricket and Harada coming off as rather respectable and non-stereotyped. There’s a bit of business where Kutuzov makes some condescending remarks about how the Japanese can’t get the air conditioning to work, only to be smugly informed by Harada that the broken A/C unit was built in Kutuzov’s own anonymous country — a nice subversion of Western condescension.
In addition to being refreshingly non-awful in its portrayal of Asia, “Cherry Blossom” is a pretty solidly written episode overall, with a fairly strong story and some effective wit, and Joseph Sargent does a good job directing it. There are a number of very clever scene transitions in the episode, and I’m not sure how much of that is due to Sargent and the editor and how much is from scripter Mark Weingart (from a story by Sherman Yellen). Fried gets to do Japanese music this week, and again, it’s a somewhat interesting score but not up to his later standards. Nuyen (who’s actually French-Vietnamese, but speaks decent Japanese in the episode) is excellent as Cricket and has a good rapport with the leads. (By the way, about two years after this episode, Nuyen would marry I Spy star Robert Culp, who was so memorable in the first season’s “The Shark Affair.”)
“The Virtue Affair”: A namesake descendant of the Reign of Terror’s Robespierre (Ronald Long), trying to follow in his ancestor’s footsteps in the pursuit of “virtue” by whatever violent means are necessary, has abducted prominent scientists to build him a nuclear missile with which he’ll contaminate the French vineyards, basically his own aggressive form of Prohibition. One scientist he goes after is female physicist Albert Dubois (Mala Powers), named for Einstein, and Solo tries to protect her (futilely — seriously, he should just give up trying to go undercover, since the bad guys always know who he is the moment he shows up). Illya, meanwhile, goes after Robespierre’s main assistant Volger (Frank Marth), an avid bow hunter, challenging him to a target-shooting contest where Illya upstages him with a fancy kind of “bow” that’s more a high-tech slingshot that shoots arrows. I think there’s supposed to be some kind of electronic trickery with the arrows homing in on a ring or something, but that isn’t explained, just implied, and wouldn’t explain most of Illya’s trick shots. But Volger catches him out as an UNCLE agent (he asks Illya if he got the bow from “Uncle,” and Illya makes the mistake of asking “What’s that” instead of “Who’s that”), and makes him the target in The Most Dangerous Game (literally, with a target painted on the back of his shirt). It seems the show has abandoned the early idea that the general public had heard of “the U.N.C.L.E.” — in the past couple of episodes it’s been treated as a secret that only spies know about. Anyway, Illya eventually ends up slated for the guillotine, and Solo finds a rather clever way to trick his guard (Lawrence Montaigne) and escape his cell. (Montaigne strongly reminded me of Leonard Nimoy here, a resemblance I never noticed before even though I’ve seen him in Star Trek‘s “Balance of Terror” and “Amok Time” countless times. I suppose it explains why they cast him as a Romulan and a Vulcan.)
The episode is by accomplished mystery/thriller/SF writer Henry Slesar, but I can’t say I found it very impressive. It’s decent, which is above average for the episodes in this post, but unremarkable. We’ve seen the conceit of the villain trying to replicate a historical ancestor’s gimmicks before, and it’s all pretty much by the numbers. The episode makes a point of establishing that Robespierre is as fanatical about not harming women as he is about everything else, so it’s obvious that his unwillingness to hurt Albert will be his downfall. So really, not a lot of surprises — except early on, when Albert’s father (Marcel Hillaire) escapes from Robespierre by taking Solo and Illya hostage at gunpoint, and later when Robey’s henchmen assassinate Dubois père in a rather brazen and startling way. The rest of the episode is something of an anticlimax. It isn’t helped by the inconsistent French accents of the actors. Robert Drasnin scores again, but it’s mostly stuff we’ve heard before.
“The Children’s Day Affair”: Doing security for an upcoming conference of UNCLE heads, Solo and Illya are ambushed while driving along a back road in Geneva (which looks exactly like the back road in France where they were ambushed last week). The attackers turn out to be a bunch of teenage boys in the uniforms of a local boys’ school with the THRUSH logo in its insignia. (Seriously, why does a super-secret organization even have a distinctive logo?) They and Waverly are surprised and wonder what THRUSH would want with a boys’ school in Switzerland — even though they just broke up a THRUSH-run boys’ school in Switzerland three episodes earlier! The school is run by Mother Fear (Jeanne Cooper), who’s got this weird Mommie-Dearest dominatrix thing going on and has headmaster Jenks (Warren Stevens) and her other adult henchmen acting in a perpetually childlike and obedient state around her. They’re planning to assassinate the UNCLE heads, but the boys’ impetuous attack on our heroes has led UNCLE to move the conference, and now they have to try to find the new site, first by capturing and torturing Illya, then by capturing Solo, letting him escape with Illya, and following them to the conference site. For some reason, even though our heroes figure out they’re being trailed, they still let the villains find out where the conference is, when they could’ve easily led them astray and thus avoided the climactic danger altogether. And for a secret conference of UNCLE’s top men, they have absolutely awful security, letting the student assassins smuggle in a bunch of high-powered rifles under their choir-boy robes. So there are at least two reasons why the climax shouldn’t have happened at all.
Oh, the innocent is Anna, an Italian woman who claims to hate children but has ended up in social services anyway and likes kids more than she lets on. She’s escorting a brat who turns out to be one of the THRUSH recruits, and she gets involved with our boys when trying to track him down. She’s played by Susan Silo, who’s been a prominent animation voice artist for decades, but at the time was doing mainly live-action work and looked and sounded a bit like a real live Betty Boop. She’s fun to watch and listen to, one of the few highlights of the episode, though she’s underutilized and rather tacked on.
All in all, a pretty mediocre episode by Dean Hargrove, completely falling apart in the last act. The music is stock, credited to Fried and Drasnin.
This is going back quite a ways, but I just came across this really detailed and thoughtful review of Ex Machina on “The m0vie blog”:
It’s hard to pick just one pull quote, so I’ll go with the wrap-up paragraph:
Ex Machina is a worthy and joyful celebration of an esoteric and oft-overlooked period of Star Trek history, at once an ode to a by-gone age and yet a clever modernisation of some of the franchise’s core qualities. It’s a clever and fun debut from Christopher L. Bennett, and one well worth checking out for anybody who likes a bit of social commentary in their Star Trek or even just occasionally wonders what an expanded version of The Motion Picture might look like.
I’m really impressed — the blogger, “Darren,” makes a lot of extrapolations about the motives and reasoning behind my creative choices, which can be a risky thing to do and runs the risk of projecting the reviewer’s own interpretations onto the writer; but in this case the reviewer is largely on the mark (although maybe that’s because I’ve written so much about my thinking in my annotations and such). Although he perceives a stronger connection to The Wrath of Khan than I’d intended.
Season 2 brings color to The Man from U.N.C.L.E., as well as a new title-theme arrangement by an uncredited Lalo Schifrin. Sad to say, the new arrangement is nowhere near as good as Jerry Goldsmith’s original version (or Morton Stevens’s slight variation thereon), losing the interesting Latin-flavored syncopation in favor of a more bluesy though fast-paced guitar ostinato and playing the main melody in a very different rhythm on a rather anemic solo flute. The format’s changed a little too; now we get a brief UNCLE-logo title card and then a teaser before the main titles, and the episode title is no longer shown during the main titles. Meanwhile, the first-season spy radios disguised as cigarette cases have now been replaced with radios disguised as pens, though the cig-cases do make a few more appearances.
“Alexander the Greater Affair: Part One” and “Part Two”: Not a typo — this is the only story title in the series to lack the opening “The.” Which isn’t the only thing that feels off. An unrecognizably young and thin Rip Torn gives an unrecognizably flat, phoned-in performance as Mr. Alexander (ne Baxter), a multi-corporate magnate with an Alexander the Great fixation and a bizarre plan for world domination that goes kind of like: 1) Systematically violate nine of the Ten Commandments, 2) Violate “Thou shalt not kill” by assassinating a Southeast Asian president and backing his enemies in a coup, 3) Manipulate said enemies to make their country his power base, 4) dominate all Asia, 5) Rule the World! What exactly the Ten Commandments have to do with an Alexander fetish, or how their self-conscious breaching will help him Rule the World, is inadequately explained; nor do we get any insight into how he violated any commandments besides #5-8. In order, he dishonored his mother and father by enslaving them in a quarry; he attempted several murders; he committed adultery with his neighbor’s wife (which is called number 7 but is actually 7 and 10 simultaneously), and he opened the episode by stealing a docility-inducing gas weapon to assist the coup. As for the rest, I suppose it’s easy enough to take the Lord’s name in vain, to labor on the Sabbath, and to bear false witness against one’s neighbor, and I suppose his coveting of the whole world pretty thoroughly covers #10; but did he actually worship another god before Yahweh or make for himself a graven image which he thereupon bowed down to or served? This is left unclear. If they were going to give their villain a Ten Commandments theme, they should’ve been more systematic about it.
Anyway, Alex has a plucky soon-to-be-ex-wife, Tracey (Dorothy Provine) who’s going after him to finalize their divorce and get her property (amounting to a million bucks) back, and Solo & Kuryakin try to deal with her bulldog insistence on a teamup while also dodging Alex’s henchman Parviz (David Sheiner) and various other henching professionals. Part 1 ends with them trapped in a Greek tomb with an implausible array of traps, several of the death- variety, including a Pit-and-the-Pendulum-type cliffhanger deathtrap for Solo (and it’s not very well-done; the blade is just hanging from a couple of wires and is free to wobble in a couple of dimensions). I’d be tempted to call it a Batman-style cliffhanger, but this was still a year before that show premiered. This is the show’s first 2-parter, and instead of having a recap montage, there’s a brief scene with an UNCLE accountant summarizing S & K’s expenses so far, followed by a full replay of the last few minutes of Part 1. (So that we twice hear Parviz deliver a line about the ancient blade’s new steel technology that lets him get more use out of it, which I assume was a jokey allusion to a contemporary razor-blade commercial, but doesn’t work in context.)
All in all, this is an awkward opening to the season. Dean Hargrove’s script is an odd mix of serious and comic elements, while Joseph Sargent’s direction tends to work against both; most of the actors seem distracted and their timing is odd. Maybe it’s because the show was shifting toward a more comic tone and they were trying to play against the serious material in the script, or maybe it’s partly because the story was spread out across two parts and rather padded, so there wasn’t any sense of urgency. I suppose the principal high point is the score, the TMFU debut of the prolific Gerald Fried, who would be the series’ primary composer from this point on (including the ’80s reunion movie). It’s a jazzier score than I’m used to hearing from him, and a bit more toward his sitcom style (e.g. Gilligan’s Island) than his more dramatic stuff, but it includes a fair amount of the kind of ethnic/regional sounds that are a highlight of his work, and some pretty decent action music — including a variation of Schifrin’s theme arrangement that sounds significantly better than Schifrin’s version. Another point in the episode’s favor, and an improvement over the ethnically tone-deaf first season, is that all the Asian characters in the episode are played by actual Asians, notably James Hong as the neighbor whose wife gets coveted.
“The Ultimate Computer Affair”: Napoleon and Illya must prevent Richard Daystrom’s M5 computer from taking over the Enterprise and… uh, no, that’s the other “Ultimate Computer.” In this one, Illya gets himself thrown into a Latin American prison which, as Solo explains to an UNCLE secretary while sexually harrassing, err, “romancing” her, is really a front for a THRUSH fortress wherein they’re building the Ultimate Computer (it’s actually called that onscreen) to give them all the world’s knowledge and calculate perfect master plans for them, removing human error from the equation (which is what people in the ’60s thought the future of computers would be). The island’s Governor Callahan (Charles Ruggles), an aging THRUSH satrap with two Amazonian “nurses” who are actually his bodyguards and implicitly body-something-elses, resents the modern era’s worship of computers. More sanguine about the high-tech future is his second-in-command, the prison commandant Captain Cervantes, played by Roger C. Carmel in his second TMFU appearance. That’s right, Richard Daystrom isn’t involved with this Ultimate Computer, but Harry Mudd is. Cervantes is a canny adversary who makes Illya as an UNCLE agent as soon as he arrives in the prison, and he and the governor scheme to confound UNCLE’s plans (or plan to confound their schemes, as the case may be).
Meanwhile, Napoleon recruits the innocent of the week, a prim and schoolmarmishly pretty prisoner-rights watchdog with the incongruous name of Salty Oliver (Judy Carne), as his entree into the prison, by impersonating her new husband. He gets caught pretty quickly by the shrewd Cervantes, but the captain has a thing for Salty and agrees to help Solo and Illya destroy the computer and escape if Salty agrees to submit to his advances. Although it’s not hard to guess this clever adversary has a deeper plan than just forcing his attentions on a woman.
Not that there isn’t a lot of that going around. Between Solo’s aggressive flirtations with the secretary, Callahan’s game of strip poker with his nurses, UNCLE tricking Salty into Del Floria’s tailor shop and opening the door to HQ while she’s undressing in the changing room, and Cervantes’s and Solo’s respective attempts to seduce Salty, the degree of sexual objectification and imposition that female characters face in this episode is uncomfortably excessive even by ’60s standards. Other than that, though, it’s an improvement over the 2-part premiere, with a stronger script by Peter Allan Fields and more engaging antagonists. Sargent is still directing, but his work seems more competent this time. The score is by Lalo Schifrin this week, and it’s not as impressive as Fried’s work, though it includes a reprise of Goldsmith’s (?) main romantic theme from the first season — presumably a new performance thereof, though, since union rules at the time said that stock music from one season had to be newly recorded if it was to be used in another.
“The Foxes and Hounds Affair”: We open with the implausible premise that a stage magician with the wildly original sobriquet “Merlin” has somehow invented a real mind-reading machine, the electronic thought translator, which Illya and guest agent Cantrell (Solo’s on vacation) have been sent to acquire, and that THRUSH is also hunting in the person of, ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Vincent Price! The great Price is playing the hell out of a Frenchman named Marton, though his accent veers a bit Transylvania-ward in a couple of scenes. His men kill Merlin and terrify his fill-in assistant, our weekly innocent, the shy and sheltered Mimi (the striking Julie Sommars). But Cantrell gets away with the ETT (I’m calling it that, they didn’t) when Illya leads Vincent Price’s men away. Vincent Price books a flight to New York, where Mimi coincidentally lives. Although Mimi reportedly hops the first flight home yet somehow gets back hours later.
Anyway, Waverly hatches a rather ruthless plan to divert THRUSH from Cantrell by making them think the hapless Mimi was their courier. They select Solo as their decoy for THRUSH to follow — but for some reason Waverly thinks it’s a good idea not to tell Solo what’s going on, but instead to play a series of dirty tricks on him to maneuver him to the airport. (This includes siccing a stereotyped Irish cop on him, but it’s supposedly a real cop, not a plant. Meanwhile Mimi has the Irish surname Doolittle but her mother is a Jewish stereotype.) Meanwhile, the local THRUSH agent, Lucia Belmont (Patricia Medina), is vying for a promotion and doesn’t want Vincent Price showing her up, so the two of them are at odds throughout, Belmont viciously and Vincent Price with the debonair contempt that only he could do so well. Belmont actually manages to capture Solo and then grabs Illya and Mimi, but Vincent Price has already caught onto the decoy plan that she’s too driven to figure out, so he enacts his own plan B, blithely strolling into UNCLE HQ to have a collegial tete-a-tete with his old rival Alexander Waverly, offering the captives’ freedom in exchange for the ETT. But Belmont has plans of her own that don’t involve Vincent Price having a long career.
Things get a bit distasteful when Mimi and the UNCLE boys are captive and the men try to persuade this shy and inexperienced girl to become a seductress to confound the guard, on the premise that every woman has a Jezebel inside just waiting to be unleashed. (When she protests that she doesn’t know how to be flirtatious, Illya asks, “You’re a woman. Haven’t you had your basic training?”) And naturally all it takes is one uninvited kiss from Solo (stolen from Illya, who was about to do the same to the poor cornered girl) to make her an expert vamp. Ugh. I’m actually more sympathetic toward Belmont, who’s determined not to let institutionalized sexism prevent her from advancing at, err, doing evil. Let’s have enlightened comic-book villainy from now on, I say!
Anyway, it all comes to a rather implausible conclusion that relies on UNCLE giving Vincent Price back a lethal weapon when they let him go, though the payoff is rather cleverly set up. It’s a given going in that the game-changing mind-reader machine won’t survive the episode and it’ll all be rather pointless. But it’s also a given that the real point of the exercise was to let Vincent Price be Vincent Price, and he does so superbly, rivalling Cesar Romero for the title of most charming THRUSH operative ever. Fields does the script again, and it benefits from his flair for humor, though it’s his second episode in a row with disturbingly aggressive objectification of women. And Robert Drasnin makes his series debut with a fairly noteworthy, jazzy score, though once again the final scene recycles the standard romantic motif that’s closed so many episodes.
“The Discotheque Affair”: After UNCLE exposes a THRUSH front and Solo’s arm is broken in an explosion (which probably should’ve killed him since he was in an enclosed room at the time), THRUSH plans to move its security records and UNCLE wants to intercept them. The THRUSH operation du jour is conducted out of the titular discotheque run by Carver (Ray Danton) with the improbable assistance of then-popular comedy actor Harvey Lembeck. A THRUSH technician, Oakes (Hans Gudegast, later known as Eric Braeden), has devised a new type of bug to install in the wall of the brownstone next to Waverly’s office, which is occupied by the week’s innocent, aspiring actress Sandy (Judi West). By coincidence, the injured Solo has been assigned to the easy mission of supervising the inspection of the brownstone, which UNCLE owns and landlords for security purposes, and he finds the bug in her apartment and recruits her to get inside Carver’s organization. (He also finds the corpse of the agent that Carver shot and left inside the wall where the bug was installed. Implausibly, the dead body in the wall is discovered not by the smell or the bloodstains, but by a stray shoelace.) Turns out the security “records” are actual records, i.e. 45RPM vinyl phonograph records, fitting for a discotheque (1965 is too early to call it a disco, I think).
There’s also a random subplot in the last half where Carver is trying to get rid of his moll Farina (Evelyn Ward), I guess because she’s last year’s model and he’s taken with Sandy, so he has Harvey Lembeck take her to a sawmill to be Perils-of-Paulined. This would make more sense if their relationship had been set up by more than a single sentence in the first two acts; as it is, it comes out of nowhere and is very confusing. The whole episode’s kind of unfocused and seems to be largely an excuse to show a bunch of go-go girls and young people and Harvey Lembeck dancing to popular music, because that’s what the young folk today want to see, or some such thing. Gerald Fried does the music again, but while the style is unmistakably his, it’s still nowhere near the level of his later, acclaimed work.
The big bit of trivia here is that we get to see blueprints of UNCLE HQ as the villains plan their bugging. And they’re rather inconsistent. For one thing, they show that the brownstones HQ occupies are only four stories tall, with the ground floor being about half a story below street level. Now, that’s not completely unbelievable, since HQ is shown to take up the full interiors of four adjacent brownstones, a reasonable amount of space. The problem is that the backdrop seen outside Waverly’s office window presents a skyline view that seems to be from much higher than three and a half stories. The other problem is that the exterior drawing shows Del Floria’s Tailor Shop at the base of the rightmost of the four brownstones occupied entirely by HQ — but in the next scene, we see that the building where Sandy and other unsuspecting tenants live is the one directly to the left of Del Floria’s! I suppose UNCLE HQ could actually be behind the brownstones — but then, how could Sandy’s bedroom have a window along the wall perpendicular to the one abutting Waverly’s office? And how, for that matter, could said office itself have a window? They must be adjacent windows facing the same way, but since none of the brownstones has side windows (the block of attached brownstones is flanked by a garage on the right and a slightly higher “whitestone” building on the left), so the only possibility is if they both face front (or back) and Sandy’s building is beside HQ. So maybe HQ is L-shaped, or rather Γ-shaped, taking up all of the rightmost brownstone and then wrapping around the others from the rear. In which case Oakes’s plan of HQ’s interior as a rectangular prism is incorrect — but if they didn’t know the correct shape of the buildings, they couldn’t know where to put the bug! It just doesn’t add up, like a lot about this episode.
“The Re-Collectors Affair”: The episode is named for a group who are supposedly hunting down and killing Nazi war criminals to recover their stolen art treasures and sell them back to the original owners or their heirs. It’s a mystery, supposedly, why the Re-Collectors are so successful at tracking down and killing Nazis that UNCLE and the governments of Europe have been seeking unsuccessfully for 20 years, but the answer would be easy to guess even if Waverly hadn’t telegraphed the answer in his initial exposition. The innocent is the very lovely Lisa Donato (Jocelyn Lane), one of the heirs, who was unable to afford the fee demanded by the Re-Collectors’ agent and assassin Valetti (Theo Marcuse), and who ends up playing Illya’s fiancee to give him a bona fides as he and Solo try separate routes to get to the RCs in Rome. There’s some convoluted stuff about Solo being captured by the RCs’s head Demos (George Macready) and then supposedly rescued by police sergeant Vic Tayback, who takes him to the head of a Nazi-hunting department, Fiamma (Richard Angarola), except that department was shut down and they’re all just working with Demos, and Fiamma’s apparent wife (Jacqueline Beer) is actually Demos’s wife, and after Fiamma’s killed for letting Solo go, Mrs. Fiamma tricks Solo by thinking she wants revenge, and it’s all kind of a mess, redeemed mainly by another fairly interesting Robert Drasnin score. The most frustrating part is how many times Demos expresses an immediate intention to kill Solo but then just stands there continuing to threaten, or letting Solo babble, without actually pulling the trigger.
The other annoying thing about this Alan Caillou-scripted episode is the way it treats the Nazis. Yes, it acknowledges that they’re war criminals who’ve been hunted for two decades and kill without remorse, but otherwise the episode gives the impression that the Nazis were basically just a bunch of art thieves and culture snobs, and that the only reason anyone would have for hunting them down is to retrieve stolen property. It’s a rather trivializing take on the idea of Nazi-hunting.
It turns out the Paris-born Jacqueline Beer was the wife of Thor Heyerdahl of Kon-Tiki fame. Watching her perform here, I wondered if she didn’t know English and was having her lines fed to her phonetically through an earpiece or something, given the way she paused between them and delivered most of them without much expressiveness. But apparently her American filmography extended back a decade before this episode, so I guess she just wasn’t very good.
The other interesting bit of casting trivia is that Waverly’s assistant Evangeline, who provides a lot of the expository narration about the Re-Collectors, is played by Shannon Farnon, best known to my generation as the voice of Wonder Woman for most of the run of Super Friends.
Solo — “The Vulcan Affair”: This is the original color version of the pilot, included on the bonus disc. The show was originally going to be called Solo or even Ian Fleming’s Solo, but this was changed after a bit of a legal kerfuffle over a similarly named character in Goldfinger. The credits, accompanied by the same Jerry Goldsmith theme we know from the regular series, begin with the familiar world-map shot underneath the SOLO title, but is then followed by zooming insets of various world locations, with the guest-cast credits shown over the exotic vistas.
The biggest difference in the pilot becomes evident right after the credits, when instead of Mr. Waverly, we meet Will Kuluva as UNCLE director Allison. There’s more material with the THRUSH agents who broke into HQ in the teaser, as we see how ruthlessly THRUSH disposes of its own men once they’ve served their purpose. (This helps illustrate Solo’s memorable line later in the episode: “They kill people the way people kill flies: a careless flick of the wrist, a reflex action.”) In the next scene between Allison and Solo, we get some useful exposition about the workings of the characteristic triangular badges worn in UNCLE HQ, exposition which was late in coming in the series proper. Illya’s first scene is longer, and he has a second one which was removed entirely from the aired version — but I don’t miss it much, since it undermines the plausibility of the premise. Solo recruits housewife Elaine to get to THRUSH agent Vulcan because of their past relationship, but the extra Solo-Illya scene reveals that their sole evidence for that relationship’s existence was a single high-school photo where Vulcan had his arm around her, which is quite a leap. Still, the scene demonstrates effective chemistry between Vaughn and McCallum and gives more of a clue than the aired episode did as to why the producers decided to upgrade McCallum to co-star status.
The rest of the episode has a few more extra scenes, notably some more character-building for the visiting African dignitaries who are targets of the THRUSH plot. Other additions are more extraneous and entirely expendable. But the end title sequence also plays longer, letting us hear a few more bars of the closing theme than in the series version. The color doesn’t add too much to the episode, and in one scene it detracts, for it makes it easier to see that Solo has a bloody cut on his forehead in one scene and then no trace of injury there once he’s cleaned up in the next.
It wasn’t a bad choice to put this at the end of the season set, since it’s interesting to watch the pilot again now that I’ve seen the whole season. For one thing, I recognize the majority of the music cues now and it’s interesting to see what scenes they were written to accompany. (For instance, the cue that regularly accompanied the establishing shot of Manhattan and the pull-in to Del Floria’s in various episodes was not the same cue accompanying same in the pilot, but was instead used for the opening of the scene on the airplane taking Solo and Elaine to Washington.) It’s also interesting to compare the writing in the pilot to that of the first season. The pilot is more serious — not particularly dark or deep, but less broad and quirky than the season became. Also, this is the only episode written by Sam Rolfe, so his sharp and clever dialogue style was unfortunately not heard again.
It turns out that the sequences with Luciana Paluzzi as THRUSH agent Angela in episode 21, “The Four-Steps Affair,” were actually shot (in color) for a third version of the pilot, an expanded overseas feature-film version called To Trap a Spy. Angela’s scenes would’ve evidently come at the start of the film and sometime before its climactic visit to Vulcan’s chemical plant. Now I understand why Agent Dancer’s name in that episode sounded overdubbed — as originally filmed, he was the same Agent Lancer who was mentioned in the pilot as having warned UNCLE of the assassination plot before being murdered. “Four-Steps” just took that material and wrote a different “assassination plot against foreign dignitary” story to accompany it.
When I did my first-season overview of Mission: Impossible, it was after having seen a fair amount of the later seasons, so I could speak of that season in the context of the whole. In this case I don’t have that option; the only things I’ve ever seen before were the ’80s reunion movie, which I haven’t seen in ages, and “The Project Strigas Affair,” which is part of this season. So I’ll just have to assess the season on its own terms, informed by what little I know of what followed.
Reportedly this season was the most serious and dramatic one; as with Lost in Space, the show took a campier, more comical turn later on in order to compete with Batman. But the fact is, TMFU took a light and playful tone from the beginning, with a number of broad, often comic adventures that didn’t take the spy game very seriously. Robert Vaughn consistently played Napoleon Solo in an impish, bantering manner, with a slightly arch, smug attitude as if he’s in on the joke and just playing along. It actually fits the character and the genre rather well, since the audience is expected to be in on the joke too and not take the fantasy violence and death too seriously. But it did have one annoying side effect that bothered me more and more once I started noticing it — namely, Vaughn handled his prop weapons as though they were props rather than weapons. He’d casually wave cocked pistols around and point them at his friends, and his technique for shooting at bad guys seemed similarly haphazard. In “The Gazebo in the Maze Affair,” at one point he was holding a sword and firmly grasped its exposed blade in his hand in such a way that he would’ve lost his fingers if it had been real. His cavalier treatment of prop weapons spoiled the illusion, and even in the context of a show that didn’t take itself too seriously, that feels like sloppy technique.
David McCallum’s stoicism as Illya Kuryakin makes a strong counterpoint to Solo’s fecklessness, and they make a good pair. However, in the majority of the season, Illya is very much in a secondary role, often appearing for only part of the episode and then being sidelined. But there are a few episodes where he and Solo are equally featured, and one where Illya takes the lead and Solo is mostly sidelined.
As was often the case with ’60s TV, the featured weekly guest stars were usually the highlight, allowing each episode to do something different even as the regulars remained constant and unchanging. Many of the featured “innocents” were there for comedy, while a few provided a more dramatic turn. Unfortunately, the innocents were often inserted through awkward coincidence or contrivance, and too many of them fell into the same formula, such as the ordinary Joe or Jane enticed by the glamour and adventure of the spy game. It led to a certain repetitiveness, although that was par for the course in the era, and less noticeable in weekly airings than on DVD.
I can’t be sure which episodes did or didn’t have original music, since every episode credited composers even when their scores seemed to be stock. But the composers for the season included Jerry Goldsmith, his protege Morton Stevens, Walter Scharf, and Lalo Schifrin. Goldsmith’s scoring, including the main title, stands out the most, featuring elements of his famous style from later decades but with a ’60s-TV sound and a jazzy and sometimes Latin flavor. It uses a lot of repeating motifs, but uses them well. Stevens’s work is occasionally impressive but rarely outstanding; what I noticed most about him was a tendency to use the same generic, vaguely Eastern sound for anything Asian, regardless of whether it was the Mideast, India, or Hong Kong — typical of the show’s hamfisted Orientalism. Scharf was mainly notable for the broader range of ethnic/regional source music he provided, rarely doing any non-diegetic music as interesting as his later Mission: Impossible scores, though he did notable work in “The Deadly Decoy Affair” and “The Love Affair.” Schifrin only did one episode — “The Fiddlesticks Affair,” fittingly a very M:I-style heist episode — and gave it a somewhat M:I-esque sound. Apparently the producers liked his work enough to have him redo the main title theme for season 2.
So let’s see, this show doesn’t lend itself to the kind of statistical breakdowns I did in my M:I overviews. So let’s try some bests and worsts.
Best “innocent”: Barbara Feldon as Mandy, “The Never-Never Affair”: Utterly luminous. Feldon was a remarkable performer, able to be simultaneously Amazonian and adorable, at once smolderingly sexy and girl-next-door sweet. She was utterly miscast as a frumpy translator fantasizing about becoming a glamorous spy, given how intrinsically glamorous she was, but she made the part her own and totally killed, just as she always did. Honorable mention: Kathryn Hays as Mary in “The See-Paris-And-Die Affair,” William Shatner as Michael in “The Project Strigas Affair.”
Worst “innocent”: Kurt Russell as Chris, “Finny Foot” (I think we can treat “The… Affair” as read by this point): A plucky, dense 13-year-old who thinks Napoleon Solo is a good father figure? No thank you. As I said in the episode review, “mawkishly cute and stupid throughout.” Runner-up: Glenn Corbett as Bernie in “Hong Kong Shilling,” who was just annoying and unlikeable.
Best villain: I’d have to say it’s a tie between Robert Culp as Captain Shark in “Shark” and Cesar Romero as Gervais in “Never-Never”. Culp does what’s probably the most powerful dramatic turn in the season, playing a modern Captain Nemo and bringing great intelligence, depth, and gravitas to the role; he’s a cinch for most sympathetic villain, to the point that I’m reluctant to place him in the villain category. Romero’s Gervais was by far the most charming THRUSH agent, getting around most villain cliches by being understanding and patient with his underlings’ screwups, as well as being unfailingly polite and debonair — which only makes the undercurrent of menace all the more effective. Honorable mention to Ricardo Montalban as the part-villain, part-ally Satine in “Dove.”
Worst villain: Pretty much any whiteface actor pretending to be Asian, such as Leonard Strong in “Finny Foot” or Murray Matheson in “Yellow Scarf.” Dr. Egret and her army of blondes in “Girls of Nazarone” were pretty dumb too.
Best episodes (chronological order): “Vulcan,” “Shark,” “Project Strigas,” “Dove,” “See-Paris-And-Die,” “Never-Never.”
Worst episodes: “Finny Foot,” “Yellow Scarf,” “Secret Sceptre,” “Brain-Killer,” “Hong Kong Shilling,” “Girls of Nazarone.”
As you can see, I’ve picked an equal number of bests and worsts. Overall I can’t say there are more of the former. So far, to be honest, I’m finding this a mediocre series with occasional moments of excellence. It’s often rather fun, and Vaughn, McCallum, and Carroll are good, but often the appeal comes more from seeing familiar guest stars than from the stories per se. It’s not one of the greats, even in what’s generally considered its best season. Which doesn’t leave me too optimistic about what lies ahead.
I just got back from seeing Man of Steel, and I can’t recall the last time I had such intensely mixed feelings about a movie. There were some things about it that were simply wonderful, ways in which it captured or interpreted aspects of the Superman story better than I’ve ever seen a live-action adaptation manage to pull off. But there were other aspects that were horribly, offensively wrong, and I’m astonished anyone who knew the first thing about the character could think they were acceptable in a Superman movie.
On the plus side: Henry Cavill, as an actor, is just about the perfect Superman. Nobody since Christopher Reeve, at least, has been so effective at convincing me that I’m looking at Superman, that this is a guy who has both incredible power and the fundamental clean-cut decency to be trusted with it. He’s a bit blander as a performer than Reeve or most other screen Supermen, but I could absolutely buy him in the role, which is more than I could ever really say for Dean Cain, Tom Welling, or Brandon Routh. This is someone I want to see donning the cape for years to come.
The rest of the cast is mostly good, my favorite being Diane Lane as Martha Kent; I’ve always found her a very effective, engaging, and beautiful actress, and she was no different here. Russell Crowe and Ayelet Zurer were a good Jor-El and Lara. Michael Shannon was an effectively menacing and nuanced Zod. Laurence Fishburne was given a one-note authority-figure role but it was right in his wheelhouse and he Fishburned the heck out of it. Harry Lennix and Christopher Meloni were good as the military characters, and Richard Schiff was fun if underutilized as Emil Hamilton. Amy Adams was not the ideal Lois — she didn’t really have the edge or the attitude — but she was competent and reasonably engaging in the role, and was definitely not as profoundly miscast as Kate Bosworth was the last time around. As for Kevin Costner… well, I’ve always felt he was a negative void of charisma, sucking all the interest out of any scene he was in, but here he actually managed to be neutral and maybe slightly engaging, which is about the best I could’ve hoped for. And it was also nice seeing cameos by a number of familiar Canadian TV stars such as Flashpoint‘s David Paetkau and Battlestar Galactica‘s Tahmoh Penikett and Alessandro Juliani (who was also Smallville‘s Emil Hamilton, so it was amusing to see him sharing a scene with Schiff’s Hamilton).
There are some bits that range from good to marvelous. The sequence where Kal-El (I guess he wasn’t called Superman yet) turned himself in to the military and talked with Lois and Gen. Swanwick was just perfect, the one part of the film where he was most effective at being Superman. The Kryptonian nanotechnology was cool — I absolutely loved the retro, Art Deco-meets-Melies styling of the ultra-high-tech visual display that showed Kal-El the story of Krypton’s history. I liked the worldbuilding and backstory for Krypton, which was better thought out than most live-action screen versions I’ve seen. I liked the film’s fresh take on certain things, like the way it pretty much casts aside the whole secret-identity thing from the start. Lois working alongside Superman every day and never suspecting it has never been flattering to her intelligence, and she’s known his identity in the comics long enough to prove that the secrecy isn’t really needed. I liked the thread about Kryptonians needing to adjust to Earth’s environment — and I absolutely loved how Zod and Faora were crippled by their inability to cope with their supersenses kicking in. That was a superb payoff for the setup scene with young Clark earlier.
*sigh*… I’ve been trying to think of more things I liked, but I guess I can’t put off talking about the bad stuff any longer. To sum up, this is a movie where they cast an ideal Superman, set up a great and clever backstory for him to become Superman… and then didn’t let him be Superman. Because what defines Superman is that he’s the guy who saves people, and this guy hardly saved anyone. It’s like the screenwriters went out of their way to make him as ineffectual at doing his job as they possibly could.
The film is simply overloaded with disaster porn, with populated areas being devastated by the battles and attacks going on. It’s taken to ridiculous excess, and Superman is at best unable to do anything about it, at worst complicit in it by not choosing to take the fight away from populated areas. The most he does to save anyone in the Smallville sequence is to say “Get inside, it’s not safe” — which proves to be useless and hypocritical advice as half the battle involves Superman, Faora, and the other guy smashing each other into occupied buildings. But that’s just the appetizer for the pointless orgy of destruction in Metropolis — with Superman literally on the exact opposite side of the planet, useless to save thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, from certain death.
And then they defeated the world engine and things calmed down and I thought it was finally over — but then Zod showed up and we got a whole new wave of disaster porn. I’m usually not a guy who talks in the theater (I’m not going to the special hell), but when the interminable wave of building collapses started all over again, I all but shouted “Really?” at the screen. I did not need any more of it. By this point I had lost patience with this movie and just wanted the destruction to for Rao’s sake stop.
Look, if I want to see a movie with cities being destroyed and everyone helpless to prevent it, I’ll watch a Godzilla movie. The whole essence of Superman, the thing that makes the fantasy of him so compelling, is that he’s the guy who can prevent it. It’s that when Superman is among us, nobody has to feel helpless anymore. In a Superman story, the action should be driven by Superman saving lives — giving us the same positive thrill we feel when we see firefighters saving people from burning buildings or people in disaster areas selflessly coming to one another’s aid. My favorite portion of the disappointing Superman Returns is the sequence where Superman is saving various Metropolitans from the disasters befalling the city. And it’s significant that Superman’s big debut sequence in the 1978 movie doesn’t end after he saves Lois and the helicopter pilot, but goes on to show him foiling crimes and saving lives all through the night. Superman is here to help. He saves people. That’s what makes him Superman. A Superman movie should not be a straight-up disaster movie, since he’s the guy who can stop disasters in their tracks.
But here, he hardly saves anyone, at least not on purpose. There’s a bit where Perry, Steve Lombard, and Jenny (Olsen?) are watching Superman with Lois in the lull between huge battles and Jenny says “He saved us.” Now, I’m usually a very easy audience when I see a movie in the theater; I let myself go with the visceral feel of the film and reserve my more critical reactions for later. But as soon as she said this line, I found it totally unbelievable. Why would she say that? As far as she was aware, the only person Superman had saved was Lois when she fell out of the exploding plane. And that’s not far from the truth. Sure, he did accidentally save the Planet staffers from getting crushed when he coincidentally destroyed the world engine at that moment. But that’s pretty much all he did. Superman didn’t save the world. Jor-El saved the world, by formulating the plan that was then enacted by Lois, Col. Hardy, and Hamilton as well as Superman. Sure, he had a key role to play, but he was just following instructions. He seemed like the least proactive participant in the plan, just a weapon to be pointed in the right direction while everyone else did the clever stuff. Now, I generally love it in superhero stories when the ordinary characters get to be heroic too. Heck, I even wrote a Spider-Man novel where J. Jonah Jameson got to be a hero. So it’s cool that all these other characters get their chances to be heroic. The problem is that it comes at the expense of Superman’s heroism. He comes off as a secondary character in a story about Jor-El and Lois saving the day.
Worse, he doesn’t even manage to save most of his own allies. Hardy and Hamilton and the rest of the flight crew all sacrifice themselves, and Superman only flies in at the last second to save Lois. Pro tip: if there are many people in danger and your superhero only belatedly arrives to save one person after many others have died, he’s not doing it right. The Green Lantern film had the same problem.
(For another thing… why did Zod choose Metropolis as one of the anchor points for the world engine? Superman hadn’t yet made it his home — as far as I could tell, he’d never even been to Metropolis at that point. Did Zod choose it to spite Lois? We didn’t get any sense that he felt any particular animosity toward her. There was no indication that Zod had any specific reason for the choice. So that made all the destruction even more monumentally gratuitous.)
And I have to join in the chorus of voices complaining about how Superman finally defeats Zod, by snapping his neck to stop him from killing innocent bystanders. I’m actually glad that I was spoiled on this, because it didn’t shock me and I was able to focus on how it was handled. I did like it that Superman reacted to having to kill Zod as a tragedy, that he mourned it rather than celebrating it. That ameliorates it somewhat. But it should never have been necessary in the first place. Again, it’s missing the point of Superman, which is that he’s the one who makes it possible to find a better way. By doing what he did here, he just sank to Zod’s level and, essentially, proved him right. Again, he’s a passive figure letting others dictate his choices. How can he live up to Jor-El’s exhortations to lead and inspire if he’s just reactive, if he doesn’t stand up and find his own, nobler path? He talked to Swanwick about how he had to help on his own terms, but then he let others, even Zod, define those terms for him.
But maybe that’s because this version of Jonathan Kent was such a dreadful role model. Usually, Jonathan is portrayed as Clark’s moral anchor, the one who inspires him to become the hero he grows into by instilling him with the good, wholesome values he lives by. But this time, Clark becomes Superman in spite of Jonathan, not because of him. Jonathan is basically wrong at every turn, leading Clark astray and teaching him to hide and mistrust and do nothing to help others. He even quite stupidly gives his own life out of fear of Clark’s discovery. Now, in a way I kind of liked this, because it gives Clark a motivation much like Peter Parker’s — he lost his father figure because he chose not to act when it was in his power, and that gives him an incentive not to let it happen again. But it really came at the expense of Jonathan Kent as a character. Just as Jor-El is effectively the real hero of this movie, Jonathan is essentially the villain, someone whose influence Clark has to reject before he can become a hero.
(Plus Jonathan was an idiot to tell people to get beneath the overpass to escape the tornado. The enclosed space would actually intensify the winds and increase the danger — that’s basic physics. Overpasses are one of the worst places to shelter from a tornado. It’s one thing for a movie to mishandle its character or to callously play on 9/11 imagery for gratuitous shock value, but the filmmakers may have actually endangered lives by recklessly perpetuating this myth. Which is pretty much anathema to what a Superman movie should do.)
Now, I might be able to forgive Superman’s killing of Zod and his failure to save lives in general… if he never lets it happen again. I’d like to see a scene very early in the sequel (if there is one) which establishes that he’s deeply unsatisfied with his failures and that they’ve motivated him to become much more careful and dedicated about saving lives and finding nonlethal ways of dealing with his enemies. Then I can chalk up the grotesque shortcomings of this movie to Superman’s learning curve. I can forgive a mistake more easily if the culpable party admits the mistake and strives to do better as a result. The same goes for the filmmakers, of course — this would also show that they’d recognized their own monumental mistakes here and resolved to correct them. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s likely. We seem to live in an era where the cinematic superhero is not required to care about saving lives. True, one thing that worked about The Avengers is that the heroes remained focused on protecting civilian lives throughout the climactic battle — a lesson Snyder and Goyer really, really need to learn from — but they were still utterly callous about killing the invaders, and in other Marvel movies the heroes don’t seem to be bothered by killing human beings. (And it’s very hypocritical for Tony Stark, who’s supposed to be on a journey of repentance for his complicity in building weapons, to be so cavalier about using Iron Man’s superweapons to kill bad guys left and right.) Filmmakers just don’t seem to remember that superheroes should be rescuers first, not warriors or vengeance-seekers.
There is so much in this movie that I like, yet so much that not only displeases me but actually makes me angry and bitter. I rarely react that way to any movie, but… come on, this is Superman. And that carries certain expectations with it. True, earlier Superman movies haven’t really surmounted these problems either. Reeve’s Superman also apparently killed his Zod, and did other pretty bad things like using his superpowers to get revenge on a bully and forcibly robbing Lois of her memories. But here it was just so over-the-top, so tiring having all this gratuitous, pointless destruction rammed down my throat (with a tediously blaring Hans Zimmer score only intensifying the sensory assault), and knowing that Superman should have been there to make a difference but wasn’t being allowed to because the filmmakers had no idea what to do with him. And it’s just so frustrating because this could have been a great movie. There are things about it that are wonderful, but there’s too much that totally ruins it.
Maybe the reason filmmakers have so much trouble getting Superman right is that they keep feeling they have to apologize for him, that they have to distance their takes from the perceived cheesiness or unrelatability of the basic premise. This film shied away from even using the name Superman, as if they were embarrassed by it. They didn’t use it in the title, they barely used it in the script, and they even credited the lead character as “Clark Kent/Kal-El.” How can you make Superman work if you’re embarrassed even to admit that he is Superman?
Well, trying to look on the bright side: I didn’t think Batman Begins was very successful either. It also fell apart in the third act due to excessive, implausible action and a hero who was uncharacteristically callous about letting people die. But then we got The Dark Knight, which hugely surpassed its predecessor (though also, sadly, its successor) in quality — which built on the parts that worked and improved on the parts that didn’t. I’m hopeful there’s a chance that will happen again — though at this point I really don’t feel like I ever want to see another Zack Snyder movie. I do want to see more of Henry Cavill as Superman, and I do want to see an interconnected DC movie universe. But, as with this movie’s Clark and Jonathan, that would have to happen in spite of this movie, as a rejection of its approach, rather than because of it.
When I did my overview of the Heisei era of the Godzilla franchise, I was only able to cover the last five films, since the first two were not yet out on DVD in America. In the interim, the second, Godzilla vs. Biollante, has come out, and though Netflix still hasn’t gotten it, my library has. So I’ve finally been able to see it.
This is a tough film to summarize, since it has a convoluted plot. But it has interesting and ambitious ideas that unfortunately suffer in the execution. In the wake of Godzilla’s 1984 attack on Tokyo in The Return of Godzilla (after which he ended up buried in a volcano), we see that a number of factions are battling to obtain a sample of Godzilla’s cells to study their remarkable regenerative properties: the Japan Self-Defense Force, an American terrorist group called Bio-Major, and an Arab country called Saradia, whose lead agent/assassin ends up with the prize. A Saradian biotech firm is working with Dr. Shiragami (Koji Takahashi) and his daughter Erika to develop hybrid crops to make the desert bloom, and Shiragami wants Godzilla cells to make them indestructible. Although it’s hard to figure that out from the original Japanese audio track, since the actors are speaking in awkwardly translated and badly pronounced English, with Japanese subtitles. (The first dialogue spoken in the movie is all in English, so at first I thought I’d selected the wrong audio track on the DVD.) Anyway, a Bio-Major bombing kills Erika, leading Shiragami to swear off further research with Godzilla cells, due to what I’m going to assume is a grief so profound that it permanently robs him of the ability to form facial expressions. Seriously, even the rubber Godzilla mask is less deadpan than this guy.
Five years later, Shiragami is working with the roses Erika was with when she died, and he’s working with the 17-year-old psychic Miki Saegusa (Megumi Odaka) because he thinks Erika’s soul is in the roses somehow. Miki, of course, will be a regular character for the rest of the series, but here her role is secondary, basically just a walking exposition engine. The female lead is Asuka (Yoshiko Tanaka), who apparently works for the “Japan Psyonics Center” [sic] that studies Miki and other psychic children. There’s a nice chilling moment where all the psychic kids draw pictures of what they dreamed, and they all hold up drawings of Godzilla. It seems he’s awake and moving under the volcano. This lets the government convince Shiragami to work on using Godzilla cells to develop anti-nuclear energy bacteria (ANEB) that can be used as a weapon against Godzilla. There’s an interesting attempt to touch on the kind of ethical questions the original film raised, because bacteria that could neutralize nuclear materials, while potentially beneficial for cleaning up disasters or fighting kaiju, could also be turned into weapons and disrupt the global balance of power. As with the Oxygen Destroyer, the threat of Godzilla compels the weapon’s development despite the risks. But the terrorist groups want the ANEB too, and Bio-Major plants bombs to release Godzilla from the mountain to blackmail the government into giving up the ANEB. But the Saradian assassin fouls up the exchange, the bombs go off, and Godzilla’s free.
I almost forgot — meanwhile, Shiragami has crossed G-cells with rose cells and some of Erika’s surviving cells because… I don’t know, he’s basically insane, I guess. And this has somehow created the plant monster Biollante, with killer vines and stuff. Biollante ends up planted in a lake, a giant fat stem with arms and tendrils and a rose-head with teeth in the middle — one of the least intimidating kaiju ever. Godzilla is drawn to it, sensing his cloned cells within it, and they have a fight that’s rather dull because Biollante is stationary throughout. Godzilla eventually sets it on fire and it seems to burn up, but sparkly spores or something rise into the sky and Shiragami says something about Biollante being immortal that everybody (including him) subsequently ignores. After this detour, we get back to the plot as the military tries to deter G from reaching a nuclear power plant to recharge, since the Heisei Godzilla feeds on nuclear energy. The main military characters are Lt. Gondo (Toru Minegishi), a snarky/tough comic hero type I rather liked, and Major Kuroki (Masanobu Takashima), who’s more ultraserious and is in charge of remote-piloting the Super X 2, a high-tech flying machine whose main weapon is the Fire Mirror, an array of synthetic diamonds for reflecting Godzilla’s atomic ray back against him, and which works about as well as human weapons ever do against Godzilla (i.e. it works at first but he then rallies and overwhelms it).
Miki’s most striking moment in the film is when she faces down Godzilla alone to try to telepathically or telekinetically nudge him to divert or delay his march on Osaka. But it’s unclear what, if anything, she accomplishes, since Osaka is soon being trampled underfoot (but maybe she gave them more time to evacuate it). Gondo retrieves the ANEB from the Saradians and puts it in shells to fire at Godzilla. Gondo gets in a nice heroic jab at Godzilla, with both weapon and wisecrack, before Godzilla gets his own back. But the ANEB doesn’t seem to work, and the brain trust deduces that it’s because this giant, intensely energetic, nuclear-powered monster has a very low body temperature because he’s cold-blooded. Uhh, yeah, right. So they use an experimental “Thunder Controller” technology to heat him up so the bacteria can grow and kill him from the inside. Oh, and Biollante’s spores rain down and it regrows into a final form whose head now looks like a cross between Audrey II and a crocodile, and she (?) holds Godzilla at bay for a while… but it’s the bacteria that finally do G in (at least enough that he has to retreat into the cooling ocean to hold them at bay, ending the threat for now). Then the various human-level plots are resolved somewhat anticlimactically.
Wow, that was a longer summary than I intended, but it’s hard to encapsulate this story briefly because there are so many entangled threads. But they don’t really come together into a very coherent story. Most frustratingly, the thread about Biollante, one of the title characters of the movie, is the most expendable plotline of the lot. Biollante doesn’t even defeat Godzilla, just has a random fight with him in the middle of a sequence of human technology defeating Godzilla. There’s some half-baked moralizing about the dangers of genetic engineering, with Biollante as the poster child for the monsters it could create, but Biollante doesn’t really cause any harm except to a couple of Bio-Major terrorists. Mostly it’s just there for Miki to stare at and talk about how Erika’s soul is inside it, or not, or whatever.
There are some good ingredients here. Gondo is a good character, well-played. The attempt to use kaiju to address ethical questions about the development of dangerous technologies is a nice callback to the original, even if it lacks payoff and is weakened by Takahashi’s totally wooden performance. And there’s merit to the idea of adding Miki, a character who can sense Godzilla’s thoughts and give him a “voice” of sorts, which is a useful storytelling device; but there’s essentially zero attempt to give her any personality yet, unless you count her one impressive moment, her fearlessness in standing up to Godzilla and making him flinch (though I’m still not clear on what the heck she was supposed to be doing and whether she succeeded). But ultimately it ends up as kind of a jumble, and the parts that don’t work overwhelm those that do. All in all I’d call it a weak film with some very good touches here and there. (Like a scene set in a Godzilla Memorial Restaurant in Tokyo, in a building that still has an unrepaired Godzilla claw mark in its wall with windows built within it. That’s a nice bit of worldbuilding.)
The music is a mixed bag too — literally a mix of reused Akira Ifukube cues (including the lively Godzilla main theme, the more ponderous Godzilla horror theme, and the oddly cheerful military march from the original film) and new music by Koichi Sugiyama, which is a mix of styles. Some of Sugiyama’s music is nice, but his Super X 2 leitmotif has a kind of cliched heroic-music sound, a very “Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder” quality. The wackiest bit is his motif for the terrorists, which is a ’70s-funk remix of the Godzilla main theme. (It’s Charlie’s Angels vs. Godzilla!) All in all, it’s pretty inconsistent, like the film itself.
By the way, I came across another series of Heisei-era reviews in this thread on the Ex Isle BBS. I raised the question I had about The Return of Godzilla, namely whether it treated its title monster as the regenerated original or a second member of the same species. As far as anyone who’d seen that film could tell me, it treated Godzilla as the original with no explanation for his return. But I’ve seen other sources say it was a “new” Godzilla, and Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, the final Heisei film, treated it as such, though the third Heisei film Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah treated it as the same one.
So in that thread I formulated a hypothesis that may or may not work, which I now repost here:
TRoG is like GMK in that it’s set in a world where there have been no Godzilla attacks for several decades since the events of the original film. So maybe it’s also like GMK in that a lot of the details of the ’54 attack have been forgotten or suppressed. Perhaps the Oxygen Destroyer was classified here as well. So maybe the Heisei Godzilla is a second member of the species, but the characters believe it’s the original Godzilla returned because they don’t know that Godzilla was killed. And the folks from the future in GvKG are confused about it too, since it’s from centuries in their past. So the Godzillasaurus they relocate in the past was actually the progenitor of the second Godzilla — and maybe there was another one left behind on that or a neighboring island that mutated into the original G and attacked in ’54. And then, sometime between GvKG and the final film, the truth about the Oxygen Destroyer and the original Godzilla’s death was declassified. So it wouldn’t be a continuity error, just a change in what the inhabitants of the Heisei universe believed about their past.
Of course, this doesn’t help resolve the huge time-travel logic holes in GvKG, like how come everybody remembered the recent Godzilla attacks if that Godzilla’s history had been changed. But what I’m kind of suggesting here is that we ignore that bit of nonsense and retcon it away — pretend that the reference to people remembering recent Godzilla attacks is actually a reference to remembering the original ’54 attack.
I just caught the classic 1953 monster movie The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms on Turner Classic Movies. This is a seminal entry in the genre in many ways. It was the first feature film on which the late Ray Harryhausen worked as lead special-effects creator, and the debut of his trademark “Dynamation” technique for incorporating stop-motion creatures into background film footage through the creative use of split-screen effects. It was the first movie about a giant monster unleashed or created by the power of the atom, launching a whole genre of monster movies. Or perhaps two whole genres, since it was a direct inspiration for the following year’s Godzilla, whose legacy I’ve covered in an earlier series of posts.
But it’s a film I haven’t seen in far too long, since I barely remembered any of it, aside from the iconic sequence of the title creature (the Rhedosaurus, reputedly named in honor of Ray Harryhausen’s initials and/or the sound of his first name) eating an overconfident policeman. Thus I was able to come at it pretty fresh.
So how well does it work as a monster movie? Reasonably so. It opens with the kind of faux-documentary narration that was common in sci-fi films of the decade, with a young Bill Woodson’s voice intoning about an upcoming military experiment in the Arctic with characteristic Woodsonian gravitas. The experiment, of course, is an atom bomb detonation, which breaks up the ice and releases something that a pair of radar operators (one of whom is a young James Best, the future Rosco P. Coltrane from The Dukes of Hazzard) briefly detect and dismiss. A pair of scientists examining the aftermath of the blast run afoul of the rhedosaur, which I think was revealed way too openly too early; there should’ve been more mystery about its appearance at this stage. Anyway, only one of the scientists survives, and he’s our hero, Tom Nesbitt (Swiss actor Paul Hubschmid under the name Paul Christian — it’s odd for a ’50s US film to cast a lead actor whose accent is so distinctly not American, and there’s even a line about Nesbitt being an immigrant). The rest of the first half of the film gets a bit plodding, since it’s mainly about Tom and others being told they’re crazy for seeing a monster, interspersed with brief glimpses of the hungry rhedosaur trashing ships and stuff (including a lighthouse sequence which reminded Harryhausen’s friend Ray Bradbury of a story he’d published, leading the studio to buy the story rights from Bradbury so they could use its title; Bradbury subsequently retitled his own story “The Fog Horn”). Things get more interesting when Tom meets eminent paleontologist Dr. Elson (the charming Cecil Kellaway) and his assistant Lee (the lovely Paula Raymond), who’s the first to believe Tom and becomes his obligatory love interest.
The film picks up when Tom finds another witness to convince Elson, who then leads a diving-bell expedition to find the creature, only to be eaten by it. What’s appealing here is how dedicated Elson is to the cause of science; even though he sees the beast coming after the diving bell, he devotes his final moments to reporting his observations to Lee for posterity. I suppose one possible reading is that he was so blinded by his ivory-tower mentality that he didn’t have the sense to realize he was in danger, but I felt it came off more positively. Maybe it depends on the viewer’s attitudes toward science.
Soon thereafter, the beast attacks Manhattan, with no particular motivation beyond that it’s just what giant monsters do — an arbitrariness that might be more excusable if this weren’t the first entry in the genre. Well, I suppose maybe it’s justified by the earlier dialogue about the creature’s extended hibernation in the Arctic ice giving it a ravenous appetite; New York City would be the densest population center on land near its native territory in the undersea canyons off the New York shore. (Godzilla will be said in the following year’s film to have been displaced from his natural feeding grounds by the atomic tests, so that might have been his motivation as well vis-a-vis Tokyo — although the sequel claimed he was angered by the city’s bright lights.) Interestingly, there’s a fair amount of police effort to battle the creature before the military (led by Kenneth Tobey) gets called in — I’m not sure how often that happened in later monster movies. Another nice twist is that the filmmakers remembered that less visible organisms could survive from prehistory; the creature’s blood is discovered to contain a virulent disease that humans have no immunity to, so the military can’t risk blowing it up or burning it. Tom has the idea to use a radioisotope grenade to burn/sterilize it from the inside — although that leads to a climactic showdown at Coney Island where the roller coaster catches fire and burns down around or behind the creature, making me wonder if the heroes really just made things worse instead of better, since if the fire did engulf the creature’s body, then the smoke would spread not only the disease contamination but the radioactive contamination as well. They sort of sacrificed story coherence for spectacle here.
As with many Harryhausen films, it’s the effects that are the real standout. It doesn’t have the greatest lead actor, but Kellaway does a good job and Raymond is a striking leading lady. The story is a pretty much by-the-numbers template for the genre to follow, without a fraction of the philosophical and character depth of the original Godzilla, but a decent beginning. (I hadn’t realized that the movie was co-written by Fred Freiberger, who would later produce the third season of Star Trek and the second of Space: 1999.)
One interesting thing: I don’t think the rhedosaurus is ever actually called a dinosaur in the film, just a prehistoric creature from 100 million years ago. Which is good, because it doesn’t have the anatomy of a dinosaur, instead having splayed-out legs and a dragging tail. Wikipedia calls it a diapsid, a member of the larger class that included dinosaurs as well as lizards, snakes, and crocodiles.
I’ve caught a few other monster movies on TCM in the past month or so, and though it’s been a few weeks, I thought I’d offer some thoughts on them as well.
It Came From Outer Space (1953) is one of the classic SF films directed by Jack Arnold, whose work I covered in my earlier review of the Creature from the Black Lagoon trilogy. It also has producer William Alland and star Richard Carlson in common with Creature, as well as composers Herman Stein and Henry Mancini. It’s one of the best “alien invasion” films of the genre, because it’s one of the few (along with The Day the Earth Stood Still) in which the aliens are benevolent and the paranoia of humanity is the real threat. If anything, the film suffers a bit from the aliens’ benevolent intentions being made clear too early on. There are a lot of “cheat” scare moments in the film, characters (particularly leading lady Barbara Rush) screaming at things that turn out to be harmless, and it felt like a cheap attempt to shoehorn obligatory scare beats into a film where they didn’t really belong. But maybe the effect was deliberate, to underline the message that our fears are often nothing but our own imagination — to make viewers embarrassed by their own fear of the unknown and thus drive home the message about paranoia. In which case it’s a nice subversion of genre formula.
Of course, a key factor in the film’s quality is that it’s mostly the work of Ray Bradbury. Bradbury was hired to do a treatment for a monster movie and offered the studio the choice of a more conventional evil-alien movie or a more thoughtful piece with benevolent visitors, and was surprised when they asked for the latter. He then did a very long and detailed “treatment” for the movie telling pretty much the entire story and dialogue, and credited screenwriter Harry Essex basically just adapted that treatment into script format, leaving most of it intact. Well, there are conflicting reports on how much Essex contributed, but the dialogue has Bradbury’s unmistakeable poetry to it, so I think it must be mostly his words.
The Magnetic Monster is another film Richard Carlson did in 1953, produced and co-written by Ivan Tors and directed by Curt Siodmak. Apparently it’s the first of a loose trilogy involving the Office of Scientific Investigation (OSI), not to be confused with the Office of Scientific Intelligence from the ’70s bionic shows. This is a weird film with kind of a faux-documentary flavor, in which Carlson and his team of scientific investigators tackle the theft of a powerfully magnetic radioisotope which turns out to be a magnetic “unipole” (I guess they meant monopole) that somehow has the ability to generate mass, threatening to enlarge exponentially and tilt the world off its axis unless they find a way to neutralize it. (Actually Carlson claims it would throw Earth out of orbit altogether, but that’s not how physics works.) There’s some halfway decent portrayal of the scientific process and of a real-life early computer called MANIAC to crunch numbers, alongside a rather bland subplot about Carlson and his wife hoping to move into a bigger house because they’re expecting a child, even though they had to be circumspect about it because you couldn’t say “pregnant” onscreen back then.
But what’s totally bizarre about the film is exemplified in the title. Even though the menace is a radioactive substance, the film persists in treating it as a living monster, even a consciously malevolent force. The characters talk about it in those terms even though it’s clearly ridiculous. Early on, when they first begin to realize that the isotope has vanished from where it was initially being studied, they talk about the threat of it running loose, rather than about hunting down the person who took it, even though the latter is what actually happens. It’s a deeply awkward and unconvincing attempt to trick audiences into thinking they’re watching a monster movie. I only cover it here because it’s too freaky not to mention.
Tarantula (1955) is another Jack Arnold-William Alland collaboration, again scored by Stein and Mancini, and starring Revenge of the Creature‘s John Agar as well as Nestor Paiva, who was in the first two Gill-Man films. It also stars the delightfully named Mara Corday and The Man from UNCLE‘s Leo G. Carroll. This is Arnold’s first stab at the giant-monster genre, in a similar vein to the classic giant-ant movie Them!, but with the innovation of using travelling-matte techniques to incorporate footage of a live tarantula into background plates. The FX are pretty good for the day, though there are some shots where the mattes don’t line up with the scenery and the giant spider’s leg vanishes in midair.
Carroll plays a scientist who, as we see early on, is experimenting with creating giant animals. There’s a marvelously convincing use of rear projection in the set to make it look like there are giant rabbits and such in the cages behind Carroll, as well as the titular tarantula, which escapes when Carroll is attacked by an assistant suffering from acromegaly as a result of the experiments (the assistant dies in the resulting fire and Carroll buries him in secret). Agar is a doctor trying to explain another case of acromegaly (or “acromegalia” as they called it) in the scientist’s assistant, who had normal proportions not long before. Corday plays Carroll’s new assistant, who’s supposed to be a smart career-woman scientist, but is actually pretty dumb — even when she discovers that Carroll is working on accelerating animal growth, it doesn’t occur to her to make a connection with the earlier assistant’s acromegaly death (or the disappearance of the other one), even though he’s standing right next to her while he mutters about taking more care with human trials “next time.”
Anyway, this is kind of like Beast in that it takes a while before the characters figure out there’s a giant monster out there; this time even our hero Agar is slow to catch on to the threat. It also has kind of an anticlimactic ending; after the main characters are unable to defeat the tarantula themselves, they call in a military napalm strike that takes it down handily, pretty much leaving the protagonists irrelevant to the resolution of the film. True, it was rather common in ’50s monster movies for the heroes to take a back seat to the military in the closing action, but it seems particularly egregious here.
The main point of interest to Tarantula is the portrayal of Carroll’s Dr. Deemer. At first he comes off as a mad scientist, but ultimately it turns out that he’s got the entirely noble motivation of ending world hunger by developing a super-nutrient (and there’s a passing reference to the power of the atom being the key to its creation, just to work in the obligatory radiation/monster connection), and that he was more the victim of his assistant’s rampage after the experiment went wrong.
The Monster That Challenged the World (1957) is kind of an interesting little film, though not a great one. It’s certainly a misnamed one, since there are multiple monsters — giant mollusks a bit bigger than human-sized — and they only challenge the Salton Sea in Southern California and the canals surrounding it (although there’s an implied risk to the world if they should spread beyond the region). This time there are no nuclear tests involved, just a sea-floor earthquake exposing and rehydrating a desiccated nest of ancient creature eggs. The main characters are the staff of the military base that discovers and must fight the creatures, mainly Col. Twillinger (Tim Holt), who initially comes off as stern and rigorous but softens for secretary Gail (Audrey Dalton) and her young daughter. He’s an odd choice for a leading man, in sort of a Jack Webb vein, I guess. The most notable star here is Hans Conreid as the main scientist. The monsters are fairly nasty-looking, but they don’t look much like the mollusks in the nature film Conreid shows. Yes, one apparently common monster-movie trope that this film and Tarantula both share (along with Them!, IIRC) is the lengthy sequence of the scientist narrating documentary footage of the normal-sized versions of the giant animal in the film. I suppose these scenes are useful at inserting a bit of scientific justification for what we see, but even by ’50s standards they seem to go on awfully long, and they can undermine the plausibility of the fake monster by contrast with the real footage. (Beast from 20,000 Fathoms has something similar — during Elson’s dive, there’s a big chunk of stock footage of a shark-octopus fight, though it’s passed off as something Elson is watching live.)
I’ve seen this movie twice now, but the main thing that stands out for me is a scene at the end where the secretary and her daughter are trapped by a creature that hatched in the lab because the daughter was playing where she wasn’t supposed to and turned up the thermostat. Twillinger is facing down the creature, trying to get past it and save the girls, and there’s a large fire ax clearly visible on the wall behind him. He looks around for a weapon, turns to look at the wall so that the ax is right in his line of sight… and then he picks up a fire extinguisher and sprays the beast with it instead! I’ve never seen such a blatant Chekhov’s Gun be so completely ignored.
“The Never-Never Affair”: The parade of great ’60s-TV guest stars continues, with this episode featuring Cesar Romero and the magnificent Barbara Feldon, about half a year before her debut as Agent 99 on the spy comedy Get Smart. Feldon plays Mandy, an UNCLE translator who (like many of the show’s “innocents”) craves the adventure and excitement of the spy game, and is constantly trying to convince Solo to let her go on missions. (She wears heavy glasses that were probably meant to make her look plain but completely fail to do so, because she’s Barbara Feldon!) Romero plays Gervais, the head of THRUSH’s French agency who’s working with its American branch to intercept courier Illya and the list of French THRUSH agents he’s carrying. (The American THRUSH agent, Varner, is played by John Stephenson, the original voice of Dr. Benton Quest from Jonny Quest.) Unlike your usual villain type, he reacts to Varner’s failure to capture Illya with patience and gentle encouragement to do better next time, although one can sense the underlying threat in his words. He’s my favorite THRUSH character so far.
Anyway, while Waverly is arranging a second courier for the list (now on a microdot), Solo decides to do a favor for Mandy; he sends her out on an errand to refill Waverly’s tobacco humidor, but makes her think it’s a secret mission and gives her a complicated “evasion pattern” to the tobacconist which he promptly forgets. Predictably, she ends up telling the microdot guy that she’s the special courier, so he gives it to her, and now Napoleon has to fix his mistake and track her down before THRUSH does. It leads to a convoluted game of cat and mouse through the New York streets (of the MGM backlot), leading to an accidental encounter between Mandy and Gervais, who initially doesn’t know she’s the “courier” and, being a gentleman, inadvertently ends up almost helping her escape before he catches on. Eventually both Mandy and Solo end up in Gervais’s clutches, but Mandy proves more resourceful than expected.
This is one of the very best episodes yet, a delightfully clever tale by Dean Hargrove, who in later decades would become a fixture of TV mysteries, developing The Father Dowling Mysteries and creating Jake and the Fatman and Matlock as well as producing the Perry Mason revival movies. It’s very well-written and fun with excellent characterization, and you can’t go wrong with the Joker vs. Agent 99. (Indeed, I’m tempted to believe that this was 99′s origin story, and that soon after this she got a job for CONTROL. After all, we never learned 99′s real name…)
“The Love Affair”: Cute — finally a title that’s a pun on the title format itself. And all the act titles are mock love-song lyrics or sayings that fit the action: “Love is a Bump on the Head,” “Love is a Hand Grenade,” etc. But “Love” in this case is revivalist preacher Brother Love (Eddie Albert), actually a THRUSH agent (or “satrap” as Waverly calls it here) who’s using his cult as cover for recruiting/blackmailing/abducting scientists to build a nuclear rocket to blackmail the world. A scientist Illya was sent to track has a heart attack on her way to the revival meeting, so the recurring background UNCLE character Sarah (Leigh Chapman) is sent to take her place, with Solo chaperoning. But when they find a young lady has taken the scientist’s seat, they swap tickets and Solo chats up the girl to find out who she is. Turns out she’s the innocent, a college student named Pearl (Maggie Pearce) who’s doing a paper on the cult. But the cult’s “acolytes” mistake her for the scientist and abduct her afterward.
The next day, Solo goes to find her at a society party Love is holding, and for the first time we get a sense of Illya’s proletarian politics, as he expresses disdain at the wealthy partygoers and their conceit that they’re better than anyone else. Solo finds Pearl but ends up getting abducted himself, and Illya is thrown off pursuit by a grenade in the road. (Love calls it a “magnetic” grenade, but he drops it right next to his own car and it doesn’t stick to that, nor does it seem to behave any differently than an ordinary grenade when it blows in front of Illya’s car.) UNCLE gets a surveillance report that Love’s cult has flown to a compound in LA (and the voice of the decoding computer may be Dick Tufeld, but I’m not sure). Said compound is made of several familiar sets and backlot locations. Solo passes himself off as the late doctor’s assistant willing to sell out her secrets, but the cult keeps him under observation anyway. Solo has to find a way to rescue Pearl and sabotage the cult’s plans.
A decent episode, but a little unfocused. It might’ve worked better to use an evil revivalist cult if their plan had actually tied into that cover in some way, like some kind of mind-control scheme. And I’ve previously expressed my distaste for the episodes that contrive to involve an innocent by random chance. The main point of interest here is an entirely original score by Walter Scharf, the first full score we’ve had in quite a while and a reasonably good one, dominated by a hymnlike leitmotif for the cult.
“The Gazebo in the Maze Affair”: Illya is kidnapped by Partridge (George Sanders), a British gentleman and wannabe feudal lord who was displaced from his rule of a South American country by Solo and UNCLE seven years ago and is now seeking revenge. He takes Illya to his estate in Eastsnout, England, where he’s pretty much taken over the whole region as his petty fiefdom and rules over the people, keeping everything as old-school as possible, since he idealizes the past. His rather nebulous plan is to use Illya as bait to lure in Solo, then use Solo to lure in Waverly, and apparently he somehow hopes to lure in the entire worldwide UNCLE organization one person at a time, which doesn’t make a bit of sense, but it’s all recited in a very classy and mannerly tone so at least it’s pleasant to listen to. Partridge shares his estate (which is the same castle exterior and mansion interior that we’ve seen in countless other episodes this season) with his wife Edith (Jeanette Nolan), who seems quite ditzy and senile at first but turns out to be cannier than she appears. Solo is assisted in infiltrating the estate by the innocent of the week, a servant girl named Peggy (Bonnie Franklin doing an unconvincing English accent), but naturally he ends up being captured anyway and taken to the dungeon. Oh, and the dungeon’s beneath a gazebo in the center of a hedge maze laden with deathtraps plus a hungry wolf.
This one’s not bad, but kind of goofy. The main appeal is in the Partridges’ character quirks and their performances by Sanders and Nolan. Scharf gets music credit again, but it sounds like a stock score.
“The Girls of Nazarone Affair”: THRUSH scientist/master of disguise Dr. Egret, briefly played by Lee Meriwether in “The Mad, Mad Tea Party Affair,” is back in a new disguise (Marian McCargo, who’s significantly shorter than Meriwether), and for no clear reason is leading a gang of pretty blondes this time. She’s in Cannes at Grand Prix time, and has stolen a rapid-healing formula that Napoleon and Illya were also sent to retrieve. Their hunt for the missing inventor of the formula causes them to barge into his former hotel room, now occupied by schoolteacher Lavinia (Kipp Hamilton), who doesn’t appreciate the intrusion. Upon further investigation, they see “female race car driver” Ms. Nazarone (Danica d’Hondt, who’s sort of like a more Amazonian Mariette Hartley) get gunned down by Egret yet then turn up alive and well the next day, and sufficiently strong to overpower Solo. THRUSH already has the formula! So Napoleon has the idea to keep them in town by convincing them that Lavinia has a copy of the formula that UNCLE is paying her handsomely to hand over. Lavinia’s not interested, still reeling from the bad first impression they made, but changes her tune when Solo gives her 25 grand to throw around conspicuously. Somehow Illya lets Lavinia lead him into an obvious trap, but fortunately the villains obligingly toss him down a well rather than just shooting him, and he escapes in time to save Napoleon and Lavinia from a similarly inefficient (though better-justified) deathtrap. It climaxes in a car chase through the French Riviera, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the mountain roads of the Los Angeles area. (When they got into race cars and said they were heading for the race course, I was expecting the climax to be built around a bunch of stock footage of the Grand Prix. I think this is one case where I actually would’ve preferred stock footage.) Oh, and the resolution of the magic healing formula subplot is telegraphed a mile away.
All in all, a rather unfocused, not very coherent episode, a disappointment coming from scripter Peter Allan Fields. Basically this episode was made for people who like looking at blondes and fast cars — that’s about where its intellectual level resides.
“The Odd Man Affair”: Illya is on a plane, tailing a radical terrorist and master of disguise named Raimonde (I’m guessing on the spelling), when the latter is exposed by a tip sent to the pilots. Raimonde locks himself in the bathroom and there’s an explosion which sends the plane temporarily out of control, yet even though it’s obvious what happened, Illya still insists on breaking down the door and almost getting sucked out of the hole in the side. Fortunately, the rest of the story makes more sense. Raimonde was on his way to a meeting with his fellow right-wing radicals to discuss an alliance with the radical left to work together at overthrowing the world’s governments. The proponent of this, Mr. Zed (Ronald Long), sent the tip to get Raimonde killed, because Raimonde opposes the alliance. UNCLE found that opposition useful since it kept the radicals from uniting. But since nobody knows what he looked like, the UNCLE boys have the idea to impersonate him in order to scuttle the alliance. Waverly consults an UNCLE file clerk named Albert Sully (Martin Balsam), who’d been an OSS agent in the war and encountered Raimonde then. Sully leaps at the chance to get back into action and insists that he’s the only one who knows enough about Raimonde (and is the right age) to pull off the impersonation. Napoleon and Illya fly him to London, intending to shepherd him closely, but he eludes them to meet with an old wartime friend, Bryn (Barbara Shelley), since he actually doesn’t know a thing about Raimonde and needs her to fill him in. Once the men from UNCLE track him down and find the truth, they have to bring Bryn along and hope that Sully’s improvised impersonation doesn’t blow up in their faces. Meanwhile, Zed’s men discover that “Raimonde” is still alive and try to kill him more decisively this time.
This episode feels like a different show from most of its predecessors. It’s less focused on Napoleon and Illya’s antics or humorous and fanciful spy games, and more a character drama about Sully and Bryn. It’s in the vein of the kind of show that was common in ’60s TV, when episodic series tended toward a semi-anthology approach with each episode focusing on a guest star of the week and their personal drama. Sure, TMFU has given us the innocent-of-the-week all along, but never really overshadowing the leads to this extent — indeed, Solo is wounded in the third act and isn’t seen again until the tag. But it’s kind of a refreshing change of pace, especially after the borderline-campy mess of the previous episode. And it’s kind of an appropriate coda to the first season of TMFU, because reportedly it gets far campier from here on out. “The Odd Man Affair” is the last hurrah of the original, at least somewhat dramatic format.
Empire Magazine‘s site has posted a feature on Pocket’s Star Trek novel line, focusing mainly on the series that expand the universe beyond the aired shows:
This includes some series that I’ve been a part of; Department of Temporal Investigations gets a whole page, and their “if you read only one” recommendation for Titan is my Over a Torrent Sea. Plus there’s an oblique reference to The Buried Age on their page for The Lost Era, though they don’t mention it by name. I do wish they’d spelled my last name correctly, but otherwise I appreciate the attention, both on my behalf and that of my colleagues.
“The Secret Sceptre Affair”: Napoleon and Illya parachute into a nameless Mideastern country to help Solo’s old colonel from Korea, Col. Morgan (Gene Raymond), who’s accused the nation’s Premier Karim (Jack Donner) of planning a coup which he intends to thwart. UNCLE has found no proof of his allegations, but allowed Solo to come on a personal mission. Morgan convinces him to join him in stealing the royal sceptre that the nation’s “primitive tribesmen” hold sacred, following whoever holds it “as if he were Allah himself” — which isn’t remotely how Islam works — so that Karim will lose his claim to power. Although it’s rather blatantly telegraphed that Morgan is up to something and Solo hasn’t been told the whole truth — and that Karim is clueless about the treachery of his own imperious, Celia Lovsky-esque mother (Lili Darvas). The innocent of the week is Zia (Ziva Rodann), a female soldier in Morgan’s outfit who’s unaware of Morgan’s secrets and who helps Solo try to escape after the theft — though Illya gets captured and Solo takes a detour to free him. It’s refreshing for the innocent to be someone who has a legitimate reason to be involved in events rather than a civilian who gets caught up in them somehow.
I didn’t find this one very well-written; the secrets are too obvious, and the attempts to make Illya sound profound just come off as meaningless. And the whole thing about Solo’s trusted mentor being unworthy of his trust makes Solo seem more gullible than sympathetic. There’s also a gratuitous deathtrap involving a bear pit, of all things, though at least they mostly keep the guy in the bear suit behind a cage door so that the fakery isn’t too obvious. Still, it’s a guy in a bear suit for no good reason. The score, credited to Jerry Goldsmith and Morton Stevens, is evidently stock, which seems to hold true for the next few episodes as well.
“The Bow-Wow Affair”: It’s our first episode that sidelines Napoleon in favor of Illya, as Solo, who’s emerged unscathed from battles with spies and mobsters, has been brought low by tripping over the office cat and spraining his knee. (Unfortunately the cat is never seen.) But he’s not the only one with animal problems. Waverly asks him to look into a threat received by a distant cousin — actually Leo G. Carroll in a dual role, though his performance isn’t greatly different. The threat involved a “Gypsy” dagger, and that’s been established before as a culture Illya knows well. And apparently someone is after some valuable stock that the cousin owns. Illya fails to save the lookalike cousin from being mauled to death by his own guard dog, and the investigation reveals that all the stockholders in the company are being attacked by their own dogs either to get them out of the way or scare them into selling their stock (and why do they all own dogs?). Yet the cousin’s slightly ditzy daughter Alice (Susan Oliver) is too busy flirting with Illya — successfully, for a change — to be bothered with grieving for her horribly murdered father. The episode overall is played for humor, and there’s a fun sequence where Illya and Alice consult with a dog expert (Pat Harrington, Jr.) for advice on how to deal with the attack dogs, and the number of (friendly) dogs in the scene keeps multiplying to a nearly tribble-like degree.
Remember how I said that the last “Gypsy”-focused episode was relatively respectful and light on negative stereotypes for a ’60s show? Well, this one’s the opposite. Here, the “Gypsies” are not only villains and charlatans, but possess eldritch power over animals, according to the dog expert. The nominal main villain, Delgrovia (Paul Lambert), initially shows up in a Dracula cape and seems quite menacing, but he’s almost passive in the climactic scenes, with more attention paid overall to Delilah (Antoinette Bower), one of the scammers, who initially shows up as a fortune-teller to try to frighten Waverly’s cousin, and ends up in a catfight with Oliver in the final act.
Despite the conceptual/cultural problems, though, this is actually a rather charming and witty episode by Alan Caillou, with a number of good gags and moments. And it’s nice to see Illya get the spotlight for once. Plus there’s a startling number of Star Trek guests here — not only Oliver and Bower, but bit players Tom Troupe, Reggie Nalder, and George Sawaya. Another notable guest is Leigh Chapman, who takes over from May Heatherly as UNCLE’s resident office babe/tech advisor; she appeared as “Receptionist” two episodes before, but here gets a promotion and a name, Sarah. She’ll be in four more episodes.
“The Four-Steps Affair”: We open with sexy THRUSH agent Angela (Luciana Paluzzi) tricking an UNCLE operative to his death. The operative’s name is Dancer — perhaps a relative of future Girl from UNCLE April Dancer? (Though the name is awkwardly overdubbed in some shots, suggesting it was changed after they were shot.) Anyway, he manages to get a partial message to Waverly before he’s cut off, and Waverly and Illya deduce its meaning with very little assistance from the somewhat vacuous agent Kitt Kittredge (overplayed by Donald Harron with a fake English accent). Infuriatingly, the show’s tendency to treat all Asia as one big jumble is worse than ever here: Dancer uses a line from the Rubaiyat, a Persian poem, as a code for Miki (Michel Petit), the 10-year-old reincarnated lama of a Himalayan country, and somehow Illya is able to deduce the meaning of this huge geographical non sequitur. Illya and Kittridge retrieve the boy, his nurse, and his regent or “potentate” Kaza (Malachi Throne) from a safehouse, but Illya, the boy, and the nurse are captured by THRUSH. Meanwhile, Solo has the more pleasant job of playing cat-and-mouse with Angela, who tries to seduce him into the same trap, though he’s more suspicious than Dancer was. Of course, he manages to keep up the flirty banter while keeping his guard up otherwise.
This is the second episode scripted by Peter Allan Fields, so I was expecting something good. I suppose if you can look past the geographical and cultural ignorance on display, it’s a decent episode, with some fun banter here and there, but overall it doesn’t hold together very well. The main appeal is Paluzzi’s Angela, who’s very nice to watch.
“The See-Paris-And-Die Affair”: The Van Schreeten brothers, Max (Lloyd Bochner) and Josef (Gerald Mohr), are petty criminals who’ve stolen enough diamonds to flood the market and crash prices, and are blackmailing the mob to pay them off regularly lest they release the diamonds. UNCLE wants to retrieve the diamonds and prevent the economic catastrophe or something. So Napoleon recruits the weekly innocent, Mary Pilgrim, a woman that both brothers desire and that Max has arranged to bring over to his Paris nightclub. It’s basically the same premise as the pilot, using the villain’s old girlfriend as a mole. Mary is played by Kathryn Hays, whom I’ve always known as the mute Gem in Star Trek‘s “The Empath,” and I think this is the first time I’ve ever heard her speak. I’d always kind of thought she was solely a dancer/mime and was hired for that purpose, but here she not only acts, she sings as well. Her voice is nothing like I would’ve expected, a salty, brassy alto, and her manner here is totally unlike the sad and poignant Gem, bright and lively with a big, adorable grin that she deploys at the slightest provocation.
Anyway, our UNCLE boys are competing with a THRUSH agent played by Alfred Ryder, another Trek guest (“The Man Trap”), and his boss, Kevin Hagen of Land of the Giants. No doubt THRUSH wants the diamonds for more nefarious reasons. So it’s a jolly chase between the two with lots of schemes and counterschemes, with Solo being unusually forceful about getting what he wants, but at his most impish while doing so. (At one point Mary’s overprotective voice teacher sics the police on Solo for supposedly kidnapping Mary, so he steals the police car at gunpoint, but before leaving he delivers the disclaimer, “In no way do I represent America’s foreign policy.”) I recently read a suggestion that David Tennant would be a better choice than Tom Cruise to play Solo in the recently-announced movie remake, and I could totally see that as I watched Robert Vaughn here.
Anyway, the whole thing leads to Max scarpering with both the diamonds and Mary (without consulting her about the sudden elopement), ultimately leading to a well-done action sequence with a helicopter chasing a van. And Mary acquits herself very nicely in dealing with Max and the cops while Solo and Illya are otherwise occupied. All in all, it’s quite a fun and madcap adventure, with lively dialogue courtesy of Peter Allan Fields once again. The music is credited to Scharf and Stevens, and there seem to be some new bits that are recognizably Scharf-like, as well as a fair amount of nightclub source music performed by a guest group called The Gallants. They’re credited with doing an arrangement of the main theme, but it must’ve been hidden in the background of a nightclub scene somewhere. Hays herself sings a song from the MGM library, “It’s a Most Unusual Day” by Jimmy McHugh and Harold Adamson.
“The Brain-Killer Affair”: When Director Waverly gets too close to identifying a pattern of important smart people suddenly losing competence, THRUSH poisons him so he’ll be taken to a clinic they control, where they plan to perform the same endumbening operation on him so he’ll undermine UNCLE from the inside. The mastermind of this subtle “assassination” method is Dr. Agnes Dabree, played by Elsa Lanchester wearing a frizzy, skunk-striped hairstyle that’s a clear homage to her defining role as the Bride of Frankenstein (though more backswept). She’s set up as a recurring villain, but is never seen again in the series. The innocent is Cecille (Batgirl herself, Yvonne Craig!), whose mentally crippled, mute brother was named by Waverly before he passed out, leading Solo to investigate. There’s a rather uninteresting thread where she’s resistant to cooperation and Solo keeps paying her off with bigger and bigger sums, leading her to become more and more enamored with money — not leading to any sort of lesson, even. It’s rather a waste of Craig’s talents — though I had no idea what a prodigious screamer she was (as we discover when she’s captured by Dabree).
This isn’t a very good episode, and I found myself particularly annoyed by how casually Solo waved a loaded gun around in various scenes — even pointing the barrel directly at Waverly’s head while checking his pulse after he’s poisoned. Vaughn and the director are treating his gun as a prop rather than a deadly weapon, and it undermines the illusion. But the episode surpasses even “Bow-Wow” for the number of Star Trek guests it features. In addition to Craig, we’ve got David Hurst, Nancy Kovack, and Mickey Morton as Dabree’s assistants, Abraham Sofaer as the substitute UNCLE director flown in from Calcutta when Waverly’s compromised (a nice bit of organizational exposition), Liam Sullivan as one of the “brain-assassination” victims, and even Bill Quinn (McCoy’s father from ST V) as a waiter. The only credited guests who weren’t in Trek were Lanchester, Henry Beckman as an UNCLE doctor, and Rosey Grier as an UNCLE bodyguard. Plus Trek’s second-pilot director James Goldstone directs, and Jerry Goldsmith contributes a few minutes of what sounds to me like new music and a lot of stock cues.
“The Hong Kong Shilling Affair”: Uh-oh. This show doesn’t do well with anything Asian. Anyway, this time, Napoleon and Illya are following a courier, Max, who’s with the Bondishly named Heavenly Cortelle (Karen Sharpe) while delivering a stolen item to a criminal organization that auctions state secrets to the highest bidder. For reasons I’m still not clear on, Max is attacked by the organization’s henchman (future Bond uber-henchman Richard Kiel). A passing student, Bernie (Glenn Corbett), sees the fight and runs in to be a good samaritan, but gets so distracted by ogling Heavenly that he lets Max get stabbed to death before he finally intervenes. This gets him mistaken for Max’s partner by everyone involved, including UNCLE at first. He tells them Max’s dying words that he was killed for a pine tree shilling, and why a single coin is so valuable is the mystery of the episode, along with its whereabouts and the identity of the villains’ unseen leader Apricot — though the latter two mysteries share a very obvious solution.
Solo recruits Bernie to spy on Heavenly and find out more, with strict instructions that Bernie blithely ignores, getting himself into bigger trouble and requiring his rescue. He continues to make matters worse through his bullheadedness and his growing (and reciprocal) crush on Heavenly, whose own loyalties and agendas are themselves a mystery. But he and a captured Solo manage to learn the identity of an incoming bidder, and Solo and Illya intercept him at the airport.
Here’s where it gets problematical. The bidder is a Mongolian warlord, and Illya impersonates him through heavy makeup and an accent — plus his voice is processed to sound a bit echoey and staticky, perhaps in an attempt to disguise McCallum’s voice, though it just makes it all the more obviously faked to the audience. The weird voice treatment is almost as annoying and unpleasant as the yellowface acting, though not as offensive. I mean, seriously — we’re shown that Hong Kong has its own UNCLE branch office, so shouldn’t they have agents of the right ethnicity to pull off a more believable impersonation, rather than sticking a Russian in unconvincing makeup?
All in all, it’s kind of a mess, and Bernie is the most unsympathetic “innocent” in the series so far (though Cecille was kind of unsympathetic too, with only Yvonne Craig’s innate charm redeeming the character). They did a decent job making part of the MGM backlot look like a Hong Kong harbor, with some help from stock footage, but really, I wish this show would just avoid portraying Asia altogether, because they’re terrible at it. The music is credited to Stevens, and it’s mostly in his generic-Oriental vein that we’ve heard before — if not the same cues, then at least the same style that’s hard to pin down to a particular culture. (Oh, and Solo is still casually pointing his gun at his friends and waving it around carelessly with his finger on the trigger. Now that I’ve noticed it, I can’t stop seeing it.)