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…