Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Anderthon: Fireball XL5 episodes 25-28

The Forbidden Planet

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

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

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

The Granatoid Tanks

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

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

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

Dangerous Cargo

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

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


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

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

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

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