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…

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Anderthon: Professor, Put the Kettle On!

Fireball XL5
episodes 5-8

The Doomed Planet

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

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

Plant Man from Space

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

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

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

The Sun Temple

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

Space Immigrants

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

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

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