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.

Like the Complete Adventures on Facebook

I'm conscious of the fact that the nature of this blog is changing, and certainly that the Anderthon has taken things over in recent months, so I've decided to create a new Facebook page for my website "Doctor Who - The Complete Adventures". It's here:
Complete Adventures on Facebook

It'll be a one-stop place for me to post all the latest updates, revisions and changes to the site. Get over there and "like" it!