Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Anderthon: Fireball XL5 episodes 25-28

The Forbidden Planet

2062 is interplanetary astronomical year, and in preparation all the scientists of the “neutral planets” have been working on a great new project. (And straightaway, it seems, they're still just making this stuff up as they go along, as we've suddenly got a new political grouping to swallow – wonder what happened to the “United Planets”...?) The project is a space observatory, a space station from which they hope to look further into the universe than ever before – which seems like a cool idea, prefiguring things like the Hubble Telescope. But unlike that, this isn't an automated machine in planetary orbit – it's a manned station far out by itself in space. (At least several hours flying time for Fireball XL5, as we'll discover later in the episode.) And yet, despite the contributions of all the neutral planets, the observatory is manned only by Earthmen: Professor Matic and a Dr. Stamp. The interior of the space station is rather spacious for just the two of them, but the control room also doubles as a tv studio, with automated cameras filming their work and beaming a special broadcast back to viewers across the neutral planets. Back on Earth, Venus is tuning in with Steve and Commander Zero. Steve has a very low opinion of television (which is a bit like biting the hand that feeds!) – but Venus seems to approve of the medium, saying that the programmes have a lot of educational worth, and that Steve only ever bothers to watch the interplanetary ball games. (A throwaway line that hints at great social developments in the galaxy – we've got political affiliations and now even sports leagues – a far cry from the parochial patrols of local space and occasional contacts with aliens that we saw in the earlier episodes. In a modern series, this stuff would be part of a great world-building story arc.  Here it just seems like random inconsistency.) Unfortunately, the picture breaks down just as Matt is unveiling their latest scientific breakthrough to the watching audience. Whilst the tv company try to get the picture back, they stick on an episode of Four Feather Falls as a stopgap. Steve though is worried about the loss of contact, and decides to take Fireball XL5 to the space observatory to find out what happened.

What happened is that Matt and Dr Stamp used a new long range device called an ultrascope to observe Nutopia, the so-called “perfect planet” – which they point out has never been seen before by anyone in “all the universes”. (How many do they think there are, then? And how do they know Nutopia is so perfect if no one's ever seen it?) On Nutopia, the observation is detected, and the Nutopians use an ultrascope of their own to look back at them. As with so many worlds before, the entire planet seems to have a population of two – human-looking but with exaggerated characteristics. Perfectos has a monk's tonsure, whereas his superior Privator (the Guardian of Nutopia) has a pointy nose. They are outraged that the Earthmen have been spying on their world, which no one can be allowed to do and live. Their secret weapon is something called the protector ray, which they beam at the observatory and render Matt and Dr Stamp unconscious. Then they use a travel transmitter – what you or I would call a teleporter – to travel to the observatory and bring the scientists back as prisoners. (Interestingly, the ultrascope device allows instantaneous viewing across vast interstellar distances, but the travel transmitter is a bit slower – though still faster than the speed of light, of course – and allows the subject to remain conscious and aware of the sensation of motion through space. They're also rendered invisible, which Privator says is “convenient” as it allows them to travel around space without being seen.) The Nutopians keep Matt and Dr Stamp in a glass case labelled as a specimen jar. Meanwhile, Fireball arrives at the observatory, and Steve and Venus space walk across – which makes me wonder why on Earth you'd build a space station that didn't have the capacity for a spaceship to dock with it! Inside, Steve and Venus are waylaid by the image of Privator on the monitor screen, who explains to them exactly what the great secret of Nutopia is: they possess eternal life.  Why blab it so readily?  Well, it seems that he's just keeping them talking until Perfectos can beam in and take them prisoner as well.

The presence on Nutopia of the “beautiful Earth woman” Venus causes some distraction. Privator and Perfectos discuss the fact that there are no females on Nutopia – it's implied that this was a deliberate choice in the creation of their perfect world. (I'm not sure what that says about the gender politics of the time!) I suppose if they have eternal life, they don't need women around for reproductive purposes. Nevertheless, Perfectos visits Venus and says that he will allow the others to go free if she will stay and be his bride. He has to hastily mumble an excuse when Privator catches them together – but as soon as Perfectos has gone, Privator makes Venus the exact same offer! Perfectos overhears however, and there's nothing for it but for the two of them to fight a duel over Venus. And this is where the absence of other inhabitants on the planet really shows itself up – for they have to get Steve to act as umpire of the duel. He switches the ammunition in their guns for some sort of knockout drug – and while the two Nutopians are unconscious, the prisoners escape. They use the travel transmitter to return to the space observatory – but Matt has to guess how to operate the machine, and manages to leave it on overload. By the time Perfectos and Privator get back to their control room, the transmitter explodes, showering them in debris. (But does this put paid to them? I can't believe they wouldn't have another transmitter or the ability to rebuild it? Will they come seeking revenge against the Earthmen? Isn't their secret now out? There's a lot of loose ends here...)

The Granatoid Tanks

Planet 73 is being checked out for colonization by a small scientific research party consisting of Professor Becker and his assistant Zamson. Everything seems to be fine, and they're going to recommend the planet – when suddenly Zamson notices the instruments are detecting something moving on the other side of the planet, which as the planet is supposed to be uninhabited, is something of a surprise. What's causing the disturbance is a phalanx of heavily-armoured tanks advancing inexorably on the research station – they've got some serious cannon on them and amusingly, two radio aerials on each tank that wave around like deely-boppers! Professor Becker recognizes the tanks at once as belonging to the Granatoids, a race of robots out to conquer everything in their path. For such a terrible threat, the Granatoids are rather silly-looking robots with square heads and moulded caricature human features – and their leader has a head shaped a bit like a crown. (They also speak exactly like Robert!) They are virtually unstoppable – the only thing that has an effect on them is the mineral Plyton, which acts to repel the Granatoids in some unspecified way. Of course, there's none to be found on Planet 73, so the scientists are forced to call Space City for an evacuation. (And again, I have to reflect upon the wisdom of leaving people stuck out in deep space, in potentially hazardous situations, without their own means of escape.)

Back on Earth, Steve and Matt have gone to Space City's shopping arcade. It's Venus's birthday tomorrow, and they're after a present. They visit a music shop run by Ma Doughty, a little middle-aged Irish woman. The shop makes no effort whatsoever to be anything other than a 1960s record emporium. They're not buying downloads for their ipods. No, my suspicions are confirmed: Ma Doughty is selling 12 inch records in card sleeves. There's even a listening booth into which Steve and Matt can listen to the latest disc before deciding to buy. The record in question is a rather cool Dave Brubeck-style jazz piece. Also in the shop is a massive keyboard-based musical instrument, which Matt calls an electrorchestra – it can simulate the sounds of all the instruments of the orchestra, enabling one person to play all the parts of a composition himself. (I suppose we'd just call that a synthesizer these days – as such a thing had hardly been invented in 1962, I'll forgive them for making up a silly name for it – it seems a bit of a shame though that they didn't realize the electronics would make such a thing small and portable, rather than the size of a church organ!) Matt proves to be adept at tinkling the ivories as he sits down to bash out a tune. Steve is impressed, and decides to buy the electrorchestra for Venus. Ma Doughty says she'll have it delivered tomorrow. Ma, it turns out, is always pestering Steve about wanting to take a trip into space – her father was one of the first ever astronauts, it seems, and she's always wanted to honour his memory by following in his footsteps. This is a well-worn argument for Steve, who tells her again that it's simply not possible for her to go for a trip in Fireball XL5. At that moment, Commander Zero's voice booms from a tannoy, announcing that the Granatoids are attacking Planet 73 and calling Fireball's crew to launch stations immediately. There's some nice throwaway bits of sci-fi world-building here, as the characters talk of the Granatoids as a past enemy that they'd hoped they'd seen the last of. It helps to give a sense of depth and history to the story, rather than just making the Granatoids seem like this week's random hostile aliens. Ma Doughty says that her father told her all about the Granatoids – so it would seem that the earliest space travellers came into conflict with them – and that she didn't need to be afraid of them. She also mentions that her father gave her the necklace of rather roughly-hewn stones that she wears. I think I can see where this is going.

Fireball XL5 takes off for Planet 73. Matt works on building a gadget that might be able to simulate the effects of Plyton on the Granatoids. Meanwhile, Venus checks the hold, where she discovers the crate containing the electrorchestra – but when opened, it actually contains Ma Doughty, who's taken the opportunity to smuggle herself on board and finally get her trip into space. Needless to say, Steve is not best pleased. When they arrive on Planet 73, he confines Ma to the lounge. Outside, there are clouds of dust looming on the horizon as the Granatoid tanks approach rapidly. Matt tries to deploy his gadget, which proves to have no effect on the Granatoids whatsoever. By this time, the tanks have surrounded the research station, and they find themselves cut them off from Fireball. But as all seems lost, Ma Doughty emerges from the ship (through a hatch in the side I don't think we've seen before – she has to climb down a rope ladder) – and tells the Granatoids to leave the planet in peace. Her necklace glows with an inner light, and the robots retreat. It's not a surprise when Matt discovers that the necklace is made from Plyton. Back on Earth, the crew take over the Space City control room to throw a birthday party for Venus. Somehow they even bring the electrorchestra for Matt to play, despite the fact it's far too large to get it in the lift...

Dangerous Cargo

Fireball XL5 calls in at Pharos, the “derelict planet”. It's the site of a Ciluvium mine, now worked out and abandoned. We're told that the mine was built and worked by robot miners in 1998 – which doesn't explain why it looks like an old Western town, with run-down wooden shacks. The planet is so riddled with mine shafts that it's literally falling apart. The ground is continually caving in, and structures collapsing. Steve and Venus land in Fireball Junior, and take a look around on their jetmobiles. It's clear that the planet could break up at any moment, so Steve is going to recommend to Commander Zero that it be destroyed as a hazard to navigation – which is sad for Venus, who discovers some beautiful flowers growing amid the rocks. However, there are a couple of random aliens secretly watching them, who seem to have some sort of grudge against Steve Zodiac. (It's not really explained – though obviously Steve has pissed off any number of aliens during the course of his adventures! The lack of any proper motivation is just lazy writing here – especially coming after last week when a few well-chosen lines filled in a bit of background history to the Granatoids). The aliens plan to wait until Steve returns, and then take their revenge upon him. Back at Space City, Zoonie has been left to wander around unsupervised. (Venus mentions that Commander Zero is supposed to be looking after him, but I guess he's a busy guy...) Zoonie manages to get into the city's power plant. Incredibly, there are no guards (and, it would seem, no locks) on the doors, and no one working inside, so there's nothing to stop the lazoon getting inside and tampering with the controls. When Zoonie overloads the power output, the control tower starts to speed up its revolutions, eventually careening around like some crazy fairground ride and leaving Zero and Ninety pinned down by centrifugal force! As you'd imagine, the Commander is not pleased with the lazoon, and wants him out of his sight.

Steve reports the condition of Pharos to Commander Zero, who agrees that the planet should be destroyed. It's too close to the space freight routes from them to use normal missiles, as it would take years to clear the resultant debris. The only option therefore is to completely vaporize the planet, using an explosive called Visevium 9. This is a ridiculously-volatile substance, which is delivered to the launch site inside a large packing case that's winched aboard Fireball. It's stored in Matt's lab, which causes the poor Professor some consternation, as he's afraid of even the slightest jolt that might set it off. Meanwhile, Venus has the problem of what to do with Zoonie. Since she can't leave him with the Commander again, Steve agrees that she can bring him aboard Fireball, but only if the lazoon is confined to the space jail. (Though once they arrive on Pharos, he relents and lets Zoonie out, although insists he remain confined to Fireball.) Steve and Matt take the Visevium into one of the old mine shafts, where Matt works to assemble a bomb. With an hour to go until detonation, the aliens use a large boulder to seal the entrance to the mine shaft, trapping Steve, Venus and Matt inside. The bomb has already been activated, and there's nothing they can do now to stop it detonating. They'll all be killed. (Honestly, do these people never think about safety measures?) The aliens meanwhile scarper in their own spaceship, and that's the last we see of them in the episode – wonder if we'll see a rematch? Steve suddenly thinks about calling Robert on the radio to come and help them, but even the robot can't shift the boulder. What they don't realize is that Zoonie followed Robert outside, and goes off into the rocks to pick some of the flowers Venus admired earlier. Steve tries one last desperate thing – removing the power pack from his ray gun and overloading it to blast the boulder to fragments – despite the risk that an explosion in such close proximity might set off the Visevium early. Fortunately, it succeeds and they get back to Fireball with just seconds to spare. It's then that Venus discovers Zoonie is not on board. He must have been destroyed on the planet. Hearing the news, even Commander Zero is upset and regrets his earlier harsh treatment of the lazoon. But in Fireball's lounge, as everyone is mourning Zoonie, they suddenly find him asleep behind the couch, with one of the flowers he's picked for Venus. All I can say to that is: Venus couldn't have looked for him very hard before jumping to the worst conclusion!


Matt Matic has sealed himself away in his workshop for days, with only Robert for company, while he works on some new invention. The whole thing is played like a surgical procedure, with Robert handing Matt the tools as he requests them – cue some heavy-handed slapstick moments with hammers dropped on feet, and so on. Security seems to have been stepped up in Space City, maybe as a result of events last week – there’s now a security guard patrolling on a jetmobile, checking on the outlying buildings. (Despite his futuristic uniform, he’s written and played as the stereotypical Irish cop familiar from US police dramas of the period.) Anyway, what’s Matt been working on? That's what Venus would like to know – she's got Steve and Commander Zero round for dinner, but Matt never bothered to turn up – his dinner's still in the “atom oven”. (There they are again, thinking that atomic equates to futuristic – I've no problem with Space City being powered by atomic energy, but what that does is generate electricity, which you'd use to power your oven in the normal way – it's hard to imagine an oven directly powered by its own nuclear reactor, which seems ridiculously wasteful and dangerous.)

Matt's invention is finished – and it's a time machine. It has a large control panel, with a dial that can select specific years, and a glass booth into which the time traveller is placed. Matt decides to test it by sending Robert back to the year 1875, where he arrives in a Wild West town. (Interesting that there appears to be a movement in space as well as time – since we've previously established that Space City is on an island in the Pacific...) I'm prepared to forgive this, though, since it gives the producers the chance to revisit the milieu of Four Feather Falls – and indeed, this is all a very familiar setting, complete with puppet horses tied up outside the saloon, and harmonica music coming from the town jail. Playing the instrument is Deputy Dodgem. He decides that he wants some coffee, and is rather startled by the appearance of Robert from the back room with a coffee pot. The Deputy thinks the robot must be a ghost, and locks himself in his own jail cell. Around this time, Matt decides to bring Robert back, and the robot fades away to reappear in the time machine's booth. The time machine seems to work by projecting the subject into the past – certainly no part of the machine actually travels there – so the fact that Matt can subsequently retrieve his subject suggests to me that the machine could also be used to snatch people from the past. The fact that Robert returns still carrying a coffee pot from 1875 might seem to support this hypothesis. But I'll return to this theme later. Matt locks up his lab and leaves the key with Lieutenant Ninety, telling him the lab is not to be opened until the assessors from the interplanetary patents committee arrive in the morning – which is an amusing twist. I can't imagine anyone inventing time travel in any other series, and their first concern being to secure the intellectual property and commercial exploitation rights – although it strikes me as what would probably happen in the real world. A neat touch by the writer.

Overcome by curiosity, Commander Zero demands that Ninety hand over the key to the lab. He goes with Steve and Venus to investigate, fearing that Matt has been wasting public money on some useless invention. Unable to work out what the machine is, the three of them enter the glass booth. The only trouble is that Zoonie has followed them into the lab, and starts fiddling with the controls. This isn't going to end well... Sure enough, the three interlopers are dematerialized. The process of time travel is depicted from their point of view as a sensation of travelling through the stars whilst intangible and invisible (which is so similar to the way they were transported by the Nutopians, I found it rather disappointing). But then something strange happens. When he arrives in the Western town, Steve is dressed as a cowboy and doesn't remember anything about being a space pilot from the future. Seeing that the town is in need of a sheriff, he takes the vacant position. Meanwhile, Venus and Zero have arrived at an encampment some way from the town and believe themselves to be a couple of bandits, keen to hit the town while it has no resident sheriff. (So the people going back don't realize they're from the future – it's a very odd take on the time travel concept. I wonder if it's what Matt intended.) Sheriff Zodiac discusses his new responsibilities with the Deputy and Doc, who runs the town bank – unaware that Frenchie Lil and Zero are already breaking in. They use dynamite to blow open the safe, and then capture Steve and his friends when they come to investigate, locking them up in their own jail. Meeting Lil stirs a strange memory in Steve, who suddenly feels that he knows her... But before anything can come of that, Zero knocks Lil out and escapes the town with the loot – which is only fair enough, since Lil had been planning to double cross Zero too!

Back in 2062, Lieutenant Ninety wakes Matt and tells him that the others went to his lab, and have now vanished. Matt rushes to the time machine – but Zoonie has fiddled with the controls and changed the year setting to 1066, so Matt can't be sure where they've ended up. I was expecting a trip to the Battle of Hastings, but Matt decides to gamble that the machine was on its original setting of 1875 when the others left. He manages to retrieve Steve and Commander Zero, who come back to the present in their WSP uniforms, with only the vaguest memories of what's been happening to them. But Matt can't seem to retrieve Venus, and surmises that she must be unconscious. (So perhaps the machine can home in the subject's brain waves.) He tries to turn up the gain to find Venus, running the time machine to overload – and manages to extract Venus just moments before she would be caught in a second dynamite explosion! But the strain is too much for the time machine, which blows itself up. Then the two assessors from the patent office turn up, and appear to be Doc and Deputy Dodgem! They seem to feel that they've met Steve and co before – a very long time ago, Steve tells them. I'm not really sure what this ending is supposed to mean. I suppose, theoretically, they could be descendants of the original Doc and Dodgem, but why would they remember Steve? This, as well as the odd and inconsistent way in which the time travel process seems to work, suggests to me that the writer hasn't really thought it all through. (I suspect they wanted to do a Western, and weren't too bothered about the question of how it was going to work.) I'm also wondering, now that they've invented time travel, whether they'll be using it again in future episodes...

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Anderthon: Welcome Home...

Fireball XL5
episodes 21-24

Flight to Danger

The episode opens with Fireball XL5 executing a series of erratic manoeuvres. But it’s alright, nothing’s gone wrong this time: the ship is being piloted by Lieutenant Ninety (under Steve’s tutelage) – it’s part of his training towards earning his astronaut’s wings. We learn that this is Commander Zero’s idea – but interestingly, he’s not really seeking to sponsor his assistant’s advancement in the organization; rather, he believes that Ninety will be better able to function as a flight controller if he understands the spaceships from the astronauts’ point of view. Zero in fact has less confidence in Ninety than Steve has: there are three main tests that the trainee astronaut has to complete, the first of which is to successfully land the ship. Zero doesn’t believe the Lieutenant is ready yet, but Steve decides to let him go for it. Despite a few hairy moments and some wobbly steering, Ninety manages to bring Fireball in to land on the apron amid the usual clouds of exhaust smoke. The next test is to successfully launch the ship (which it seems to me ought to be easier than the landing – you’ve just got to sit back and let the rocket sled shoot you along the track – although remembering the time Lieutenant Ross failed to get XL1 Alpha into the air, perhaps there’s a bit more to it than that…) Anyway, Lieutenant Ninety successfully gets XL5 off the ground, and Commander Zero agrees that they can press on with the final test. This is the true challenge: a solo flight around the Moon in a one-man capsule. On the night before the launch, the Fireball crew hold a party for Lieutenant Ninety at Venus’s beach house – juxtaposed with scenes of Commander Zero sitting alone in the darkened control tower, stoked up on coffee and fags like a late night radio talk show host. It’s a lovely character moment, once again stripping away some the aura of the commanding officer to show him as a human being, worried about his subordinate in a way he could never admit to in public. When Ninety’s rocket launches the next day, Fireball XL5 takes off to track the capsule on its journey. Unfortunately during the flight, a component breaks away from its mounting inside Ninety’s capsule – thanks to a label on its side, we know this is a nuclear reactor. (In the real world, nuclear reactors probably don’t come so handily labelled, but overly precise and demonstrative signage is one of the endearing charms of the Andersons’ world.) I also doubt that a real nuclear reactor would be the size of the small canister depicted here – and given that the nuclear industry is subject to the most rigorous safety regulations in the world, it’s unlikely it would be attached to the wall of a spaceship by a couple of clips, nor that it would be positioned precisely so that it could fall into a reservoir of highly volatile fuel – nor that this potential disaster area would be separated from Lieutenant Ninety’s cabin by a thin wall. They’re just looking for a tragedy to happen!

As the capsule passes behind the Moon, radio contact with Lieutenant Ninety is temporarily cut off. (Hey look, a bit of accurate science. You see, they can do it…) When he comes back into contact, Ninety reports that the capsule is overheating. The heat from the fallen reactor has ignited the fuel – before long, flames are lapping around the cabin. Steve asks Matt what could have happened, Matt can only conclude that the nuclear reactor must have broken loose. (The fact that Matt can instantly think of it suggests to me that the reactor’s dodgy connections have already been identified as a potential design flaw – which only makes me ask why they haven’t already done something about it. There’s something prophetic about this though – I’m unfortunately reminded of the way NASA ignored the potential problem with the o-ring seals in the space shuttle’s booster rockets.) Fireball XL5 rushes to the rescue, but it’s a real race against time – and incredibly, actually ends in disaster: the capsule blows up before XL5 can reach it. Since you expect a nick of time rescue in this kind of show, it’s actually quite shocking. The Fireball crew are stunned by the tragedy – but no one is as badly affected as Commander Zero, left alone in the control tower to mourn “the best assistant I ever had”. You have to wonder also whether he’s feeling guilt since he was the one who put Ninety forward for the astronaut training. What none of our heroes realizes is that Lieutenant Ninety is still alive, having managed to eject from his capsule at the last moment. It’s only a temporary respite however, as he’s got no way of contacting the others and only has one oxygen pill left. (Though I would probably imagine that a slow slide into oblivion due to oxygen starvation is preferable to being burnt alive or blown up.) In his final moments of consciousness, Ninety reflects fatalistically on his situation in a sequence that’s surprisingly mature for this kids’ series. Meanwhile, Matt detects an unusual reading on the “spacemograph” and, despite their dejection, Steve determines that they still have their duty to do and sets off to investigate. Just as well, for the mysterious blip is none other than Ninety’s unconscious body. As Steve rushes to recover him, we rather neatly fade into the Lieutenant recovering in hospital. As everyone gathers around him, excited by his miraculous escape, all Ninety can focus on is the set of astronaut’s wings that Commander Zero presents him. This is almost a “bottle episode”, featuring only the regular cast and mostly the existing sets and effects. It’s also brilliantly effective – probably the single best episode so far – exploring facets of our characters (particularly Zero and Ninety) that we don’t normally see amid the usual gung-ho alien encounters. Terrific stuff!

Space Vacation

The planets Kemble and Olympus are ridiculously close together – to the extent that Kemble fills half the sky of Olympus and surface features can be made out in precise detail. If they’re really that close, then they have to be a twin planet system sharing the same orbit, and revolving around a common centre of gravity – as indeed the Earth and the Moon do – and yet the Moon is so small in the sky that you can cover it with your extended thumb. Despite that, the Moon exerts enough gravitational pull on the Earth to cause our ocean tides – so at the distances we see here, I’d expect Kemble and Olympus to be literally pulling each other apart… It’s also interesting that two worlds in the same orbit are so different: Olympus being a verdant paradise, while Kemble is a barren, rocky hellhole racked by lightning storms and earthquakes. This dichotomy works well for the sake of the script though, which sets up the two worlds to be polar opposites of each other. This even extends to the inhabitants: both species have the same sculpted faces with prominent cheekbones, but the inhabitants of Kemble are dark haired and sinister, whilst those of Olympus are white haired and saintly-looking. The people of Kemble live in underground shelters since their world is so awful – their leader Canarik is due to go to Olympus soon for peace talks – but he announces to his (unseen) people that his real plan is to take control of Olympus and migrate his people there. On Olympus meanwhile, the leader Jankel is planning to assassinate Canarik with a bomb fixed to his chair at the official banquet. The voice of reason here is his son, Ergon, who points out that there’s plenty of room on the planet for both peoples to be able to live in harmony – but Jankel doesn’t trust Canarik and doesn’t want to take any chances. Into this fraught situation come the crew of Fireball XL5, who’ve selected Olympus as a holiday destination, after Steve flew past it once and thought it looked nice. (Astonishingly, Commander Zero allows them to use Fireball – an expensive piece of military hardware, after all – for their vacation.) As our heroes pack for the trip, we get predictably sexist jokes about the number of suitcases Venus wants to bring. Then they set off, dressed up like stereotyped American tourists in Hawaiian shirts.

On Olympus, they’re invited to the banquet, where Canarik presents Ergon with a gift (it’s his birthday apparently) – a bottle containing an “Elixir of Life”. (Amusingly, it comes with a nice printed label on it, as if it’s something mass-produced that you can just buy from the chemists on Kemble…) The Elixir is really the deadly “glansta” poison, and Ergon collapses into a coma. Thinking that he’s suffered an allergic reaction, Venus goes back to Fireball Junior to fetch some medicine – but she’s waylaid by Canarik, who kidnaps her and spirits her back to Kemble aboard his ship. He doesn’t want her being able to cure Ergon. So it appears his big plan to secure an invasion of Olympus is to murder the leader’s son – I’m not really sure how this is going to help him, especially seeing that Jankel is the hostile one, and Ergon would have been the more likely to have welcomed the people of Kemble. Jankel tries to make political capital out of the incident, saying how it proves Canarik cannot be trusted – at which point the chair he’d earlier directed Canarik to sit in blows up! Jankel pulls a ray gun and demands that Steve fly to Kemble to retrieve Venus and/or find an antidote – and just to make sure, he keeps Matt as a hostage. Initially, he starts out with the usual “if my son dies, the Professor dies” threat – but he eventually has Matt tied up to a chair facing a crossbow on a timer mechanism: three hours to go until he’s shot dead… Steve arrives on Kemble and explores the underground chambers – where he finds Venus chained to a wall. He sneaks up behind Canarik and drops a rock on his head – not a small rock either! (Luckily, he seems to have a thick skull. Equally luckily, none of Canarik’s people come out of their shelters to hinder Steve…) Quickly, Steve races back to Olympus with Venus, the captive Canarik and the antidote – just in time to save Matt from the crossbow. Once Ergon has recovered, Steve’s solution to the problems is basically to bang Jankel and Canarik’s heads together and tell them to sort it out between themselves. So negotiations proceed with the two leaders like squabbling kids, constantly inflicting practical jokes on each other (of the exploding cigar variety) – with Ergon threatening to call Fireball XL5 back whenever it looks like they can’t get along! This is an interesting episode, with a clever reversal of expectations as the apparently saintly Jankel turns out to be just as bad as Canarik. It suggests that some terrible past animosity between the two peoples has led to deep-seated hostilities, while Ergon represents a new generation moving beyond ethnic hatred and looking for a peaceful future. I also liked that Steve left them to find their own solution rather than imposing one by force – I hope it’s a sign of a new maturity for the characters and the show.

Mystery of the TA 2

Matt detects an unusual reading, so Steve decides to investigate: they find a piece of floating space junk which they deduce is part of an old WSP ship. Plotting its trajectory, Matt is able to work out where it must have come from – so they follow that course, and eventually find the wreckage of the TA 2, an old one-man patrol ship that vanished nearly fifty years ago. Although it’s battered and broken, it’s possible to see that the TA 2 is like a primitive version of the Fireball ship – a long cylindrical ship with the same large glass cockpit – so it’s nice to see that the modelmakers have bothered to extrapolate the design lineage back logically. Exploring the ship, Venus and Steve enter through a hatch, while Matt floats through one of the broken windows of the cockpit. Unfortunately, he didn’t warn the others of this, so he’s standing behind a door when Steve and Venus open it, sending the Professor shooting off into space! Matt’s taken his thruster pack off to explore, so he’s got no way to arrest his flight. Steve has to fly off after him – oddly, the way the scene is filmed, it looks like Matt comes to a halt and ends up floating some distance away, allowing Steve the chance to catch him up. (I’m not sure that was the intention though, so I won’t mark the show down for another science failure for this one.) There’s no trace of the TA 2’s pilot, Colonel Harry Denton, so Steve begins to wonder if he might have escaped the wreck and still be alive somewhere – even after all this time. Matt plots some more vectors, and deduces that the wreckage has come from the planet Arctan. They decide to follow the trail. Steve, Matt and Venus proceed down to the surface of Arctan in Fireball Junior. It’s a frozen planet, so they wrap up in furs, and split up to explore. Some kind of seismic activity opens up a crack in the ground, into which Venus falls. Later when Steve and Matt come back to meet up, they find Venus’s jetmobile abandoned and her footprints leading up to the edge of the crevasse, and figure that she must have fallen inside. They descend into the crack on their jetmobiles – but when they try to explore the cavern, gas pours out of a vent in the wall and renders them unconscious. Meanwhile, Commander Zero tries to contact Fireball XL5 to find out what’s keeping them, but only manages to get through to Zoonie who’s been left aboard the ship. The creature merely repeats his stock phrases – needless to say, the Commander isn’t too happy about it. (I’m not sure why Robert wasn’t able to answer the radio – he was sitting right next to the lazoon – mind you, his conversation doesn’t consist of much more than repeating the odd catchphrase either…)

Steve wakes up to find that he, Matt and Venus have been tied to stone slabs under a cave ceiling from which jagged icicles are hanging. Two aliens appear and proclaim that they know the Earthmen have come to take their king away, which seems an odd assumption to make. (As this point, I guessed where this story was going…) Steve denies the charge, but the aliens subject them to a trial – as their body heat melts the icicles, they will fall from the ceiling – should the icicles strike them, then their guilt will be revealed. (Which is a somewhat vague and crude concept on which to base a judicial system – especially as Matt has a particularly sharp-looking icicle right above his face! As he says, he’s going to be guilty!) The icicles start to fall, but the trial is interrupted by the arrival of the king, who demands the Earth people are released. The king is not one of the aliens’ own race – he’s clearly an elderly human, with a straggly beard down to his knees. The crew are freed just in time, Matt sitting up just as the icicle falls where his face would have been moments before. As you may have guessed, the king is the aged Colonel Denton. He’s pleased to talk to Steve and co about what life is like now on Earth, but he doesn’t want to leave with them. His life is now here on Arctan. As Junior departs though, Denton remarks wistfully how much he would have liked to return to Earth aboard XL5 – but he feels under a moral obligation to the Arctan people. They are like children, and he cannot leave them. (I’m not sure if he means he thinks of them like his own children, or if they’re so simple he feels he needs to stay and take care of them – their justice system might suggest the latter, but you have to wonder how the race managed to survive before Denton turned up. There’s an untold story here – of how Denton first came amongst the people of Arctan, and how he became their king, what he’s done for them in the last 50 years… What I like about this is the complexity, the hints of things that happened off the page – there’s a pleasing depth to the writing, something for the adult viewer to contemplate beneath the surface adventure.) Back on Earth, Zero chews the crew out for leaving Zoonie in charge of the main ship – and bans them from taking pets on future spaceflights – but seems to mellow a little as Zoonie bids him “Welcome home.”

Robert to the Rescue

The episode opens with a strange expanse of riveted metal sheets, which we eventually realize is part of an artificial planet – years before the Death Star! A spaceship approaches, piloted by two aliens with tall dome-shaped heads – and flies through a hatch into the metal world. Meanwhile in Space City, Professor Matic has built a new telescope, which he’s using to make astronomical observations. In a rather laboured comedy sequence, he initially thinks a giant lazoon is in orbit – but it turns out to be Zoonie looking into the aperture. Matt makes a real discovery however: a new planet that’s appeared in the solar system. He wonders if it might be named after him – but the control tower cannot detect the new world at all, and Commander Zero dismisses Matt’s claims. But when an unexpected solar eclipse occurs, it becomes clear that there really is something up there. Zero finds Matt breaking all the safety rules of solar observation by looking at the eclipse directly through his telescope – to make matters worse, the Commander’s soon peering through the eyepiece himself. (What a ridiculously irresponsible thing to show in a kids' programme…) Whatever the new planet is, it can’t be detected with Space City’s radar. Zero despatches Fireball XL5 to check it out. On the way, Steve and Venus take time out to discuss how Robert is single-mindedly obedient: give him an instruction, and he’ll keep going until he’s carried it out. (I suspect this observation may turn out to be important later on.) Arriving at the metal planet, they land Fireball Junior on the surface – but after a quick reconnaissance on their jetmobiles, Steve and Matt can’t find any way in. They take off again – but before Junior can rejoin the main ship, it’s pulled back down to the metal planet by some unexplained force. Retrorockets have no effect – but just when it seems they’re going to crash, a hatch opens in the side of the planet, and Junior disappears within – and vanishes from the radar screens in Space City. Inside the planet, Junior is floating within an eerie pitch black void, devoid of gravity. Steve, Matt and Venus explore with their thruster packs, and eventually locate a set of double doors in the void. This leads to a corridor with normal gravity – but once they’ve passed through that, they go through more doors into another void. After crossing another chamber, they eventually meet the two aliens, who announce that they hadn’t intended to encounter any humans, but now they’ve no choice but to take them prisoner. Steve reacts hostilely to the word prisoner, but finds his ray gun has been neutralized. (It’s not explained what the aliens are doing in our solar system – it seems an odd place to have brought their artificial planet if they wanted to avoid detection – but at the same time, they don’t seem to have any hostile or war-like intent. It’s all very strange…)

Matt calls the aliens “domeheads”, which seems rather personal – if not borderline racist! The aliens fetch Robert from Junior, and then declare that they’re going to make the crew part of their race. They take Venus and Matt away and strap them to a machine which erases their memory and will. (Again, there doesn’t seem to be any real malice in their actions – they’ve decided that, since they can’t let the Earthmen go, they’re going to absorb and integrate them into their society. There is something unsettling about seeing our heroes losing their own identities however.) Realizing he’s next, Steve quickly gives Robert an order: to take Junior and crew back home. The domeheads have no use for Robert, and have him tossed over a balcony onto a conveyor belt, which is feeding ore into a furnace. Robert – unable to do anything but obey Steve’s last order – tries desperately to escape, but his arm has been trapped under a huge chunk of ore. Meanwhile, Steve has been put in the aliens’ machine, and his mind wiped. Literally at the entrance to the furnace, Robert manages to pull himself free and climbs back up to find the crew. Steve, Matt and Venus no longer know each other, let alone what they’re doing there. When Robert re-appears, and tells them to follow him, they have to obey him, as they have no will of their own. (Rather neatly, they take on the same blind obedience that drives the robot.) Robert leads them back to Junior, telling them when to put their thruster packs back on. Eventually, Robert fires a missile to blow a hole in the side of the metal planet, and flies Junior out of there. With their minds empty, the crew are reduced to sitting on the floor, unaware of what’s going on. When the domeheads realize that their prisoners have gone, they also know that their memories will soon return once free of the metal planet – and decide they have no choice but to leave the solar system. So they take their artificial world off once again. We never do find out what they wanted. In a way, I find that more interesting than the usual plans for invasion or conquest – it makes the aliens seem strange, remote and incomprehensible – the sort of trick that Space: 1999 will pull off one day. The crew of Fireball recover their minds – but finding no trace of the new planet, Venus decides that they must all have been suffering from space hallucinations. It’s a clever reversal of the usual “all a bad dream” story. Even more subtle is the final shot, which closes in on Robert’s crushed and damaged arm – proof that it really did happen after all…

So, four cracking episodes – character studies, depth and layers of complexity. Has this series found its feet at last? I don’t know if it’s significant, but I note that three of these instalments were written by Dennis Spooner, one of the true greats of British television: he’ll soon become one of the most important writers on the early Doctor Who, and go on to create and write many of the ITC adventure series. (Although in the interests of fairness, I should point out that he also wrote the incoherent Space Pen episode.) But I’m certainly hopeful that this is a sign of things to come…

Monday, 31 October 2011

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

Fireball XL5
episodes 17-20

Wings of Danger

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

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

The Triads

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

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


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

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

Prisoner on the Lost Planet

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

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

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Anderthon: I Wish I Was a Spaceman...

Fireball XL5
episodes 13-16

Space Pirates

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

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

The Last of the Zanadus

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

Space Pen

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

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

Convict in Space

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

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Monday, 19 September 2011

Anderthon: I'm a Real Tootie

Fireball XL5
episodes 9-12

Space Monster

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

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

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

Flying Zodiac

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

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

Spy in Space

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

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

XL5 to H20

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