Space Academy 1.8 – The Phantom Planet

Halfway through its run, Space Academy is revealing itself to be pretty much the quintessential seventies sci-fi show. This episode, again written by Samuel A. Peeples, has been my favorite so far. You’ve got your Diet Star Trek storyline – a strange creature is trying to communicate with our heroes to preserve artifacts from an ancient civilization before its planetoid is destroyed – and your Star Wars sense of design and shots of the undersides of miniature spaceships with big glowing engines and your very, very seventies addition of telepathy and ESP and all that silly Tomorrow People stuff. This episode even does the mind reading one better and adds astral projection to Chris and Laura’s list of psychic powers.

Who gets the blame for all the telepathy and mind-reading and such that pushed its way into shows about spaceships, anyway? I think we can blame Erich von Däniken for all that “there are those who believe that life here began out there” nonsense in Battlestar Galactica. I’d like a scapegoat for the ESP stuff as well, please.

Anyway, understanding that any modern viewer will have to take a deep breath anytime Laura and Chris do any of their seventies psychic stuff, this really was an entertaining episode. The creature – a zero-budget “ghost” that howls and moans like ghosts always did on TV when you were a kid – is unusual and we weren’t sure what it was up to at first. Despite the goofy costume on the creature, they really did a great job with the miniature effects, and the shots of a Seeker flying among some asteroids is truly impressive. So yeah, the show’s dated, but really entertaining for all its limitations.

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Monster Squad 1.10 – The Skull

Geoffrey Lewis, who we saw a couple of months ago in the final episode of Ark II, plays this week’s villain, the Skull. His plan is to revive the corpses of all of history’s greatest villains into an unstoppable, undead army. The only one he succeeds in reviving, however, is the mummy of, err, “King Toot.”

Our son got a little nervous twice tonight. Both Frank and Bruce are put in dangerous traps and things look a little bad for them. But the threat against Bruce is so silly that it was pretty instantly defused. Earlier, I had been a little surprised that the big fight was actually a little more… shall we say “real” than the previous, ridiculous ones with such silly and inoffensive weapons as balloons and invisible swords. The characters were actually throwing each other around. Then Bruce ends up in a grave and the Skull threatens to dispose of him with a silver bullet. That’s how you kill werewolves, remember, by shooting them with a bullet made of silver.

Except this is the antiseptic Saturday morning of 1976. There are no guns here. The Skull intends to gently toss the bullet at him. Defeating werewolves is apparently a whole lot easier than I thought.

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Ultraman 1.11 – The Ruffian from Outer Space

Ultraman always had a silly side, with Arashi and Ito pulling faces and mugging at the camera with goofball slapstick, but this is the first episode that’s made as a pure comedy for kindergartners. I think if you don’t have little ones in the house when you watch this, it may be tough going. But good grief, my five year-old just howled through it. It’s his favorite episode of the show so far.

The story’s about a telepathic stone that falls to Earth – naturally, Hoshino spots it – and ends up in the hands of a criminal. The stone can become anything that anyone wishes of it, and the criminal wants a monster. After some hijinks where the stone turns into a piano, a blushing bride, and a birthday cake (what would happen if somebody ate a slice?), the criminal wishes the stone into a monster which the Ultraman Wiki tells me is called Gango. He doesn’t rob banks with the monster, and he doesn’t overthrow the government. He plays practical jokes on hotel porters and scares girls in bathing suits and, like any five year-olds in the audience, laughs himself so hard that the frame freezes.

I’m not joking. This kid’s sides hurt from laughing.

Eventually, the criminal decides that he could have even more fun with Gango if the monster was a really big monster. He forgot to make that wish outside, and Gango, growing to “fight our hero” size, levels the hotel and puts the dude in a coma. The fight with Ultraman is strictly played for yuks – Gango is ticklish, it turns out – and somebody at the network was left wondering why they needed to spend so much money on miniature cities and explosions when all you need to do to entertain the audience is have a guy in a monster suit jump out at a waiter who’s carrying a pie. To hear some people tell it, Japanese television these days is nothing but that kind of program.

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Space Academy 1.7 – Monkey Business

There wasn’t anything wrong with tonight’s episode – it concerned a solar mirror jammed in the wrong position, pointing down at an artificial planetoid – but I guess I wasn’t in the right mood for it. I just kept questioning things instead of taking this inoffensive story on its own terms. For example, I wanted to know…

It’s 1977. Didn’t we already see a kid and a chimpanzee stowing away on this morning’s repeat of Speed Racer? And…

Why are the hangar bays at Space Academy so incredibly huge? Isn’t that a somewhat inefficient use of space?

Ah, well. My son wasn’t distracted by such boring adult concerns. He liked the story just fine.


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Monster Squad 1.9 – The Wizard

The most notable thing about this episode is that they’re running out of safe and comedic ways to have fights without making NBC’s Saturday morning censors upset, so Dracula and the villainous Wizard, played by Arthur Malet, have a swordfight with invisible swords. I think the actors were having fun.

What else? Weirdly, they set up this character in the previous episode. Ultra Witch was trying to get the Wizard sprung from prison, which is the sort of “big picture” world-building that these kinds of kids’ programs very rarely ever did. But the previous episode isn’t actually referenced at all this week, which makes you wonder why they bothered.

There’s also a Jonathan Livingston Seagull gag, because this was the seventies, as well as a lot of gags about patriotism, because this was 1976, specifically. The enormous Mickey Morton played one of the Wizard’s henchmen. He’d be back on NBC in two weeks as a big monster in Land of the Lost. Our son thought this was “pretty cool” and we’re glad that somebody did.

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Mysterious Island (1961)

One of my friends suggested on Facebook that we be sure to show our son some Ray Harryhausen films. Already planned and shelved and waiting to thrill him! We’ve got a couple more coming before the end of this year, but the first Harryhausen picture for our family was one that didn’t have too many wild beasts from mythology or prehistory. Mysterious Island was made by Columbia in 1961. Unofficially, it’s a sequel to Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but we didn’t tell our son that when we got started.

The story is set across several months in 1865, beginning when three captured Union soldiers and a war correspondent escape from a prison in Richmond with a Confederate sergeant as their prisoner. They steal an observation balloon during a mammoth storm and are blown way, way off course. More than a week later, they crash on the other side of the planet. Moving that far, that fast may be the most fanciful thing in this film.

Our stranded heroes rescue two women from a shipwreck and begin the long and arduous process of building a boat to sail more than a thousand miles from this small volcanic island to New Zealand. Along the way, they battle some giant creatures, including a gargantuan crab, a bizarre bird-thing, and a small nest of very big honeybees. So what’s behind all these freaks of nature? It’s none other than Captain Nemo, who did not go down with the Nautilus in 1857 as the world believed. Instead, he steered his damaged submarine to this remote place to continue his scientific experiments in peace.

Earlier this month, I briefly mentioned an episode of Ultraman where scientists were growing mammoth vegetables, and how this trope still hasn’t happened in the real world yet. But it turns out that this idea – growing great big plants and animals to feed the world’s hungry – was one of Jules Verne’s, and a lot older than I suspected. That’s what Nemo’s up to here, and why he secretly assists the survivors from afar. With the Nautilus too damaged to travel, he seizes an opportunity to take some of his experiments back to civilization. Pirates attack the island – my, that happens a lot in the movies we watch – and Nemo sinks their ship and kills them. If they all work together, they can patch the ship and raise it under his instruction, but time is running out. That volcano will erupt soon.

The film’s a good one, if not great. I think it’s one monster shy of where it needs to be, with a little feeling of drag about fifty minutes into the action. Michael Craig is fairly awesome as the Union captain, with great support from Michael Callan, Gary Merrill, Joan Greenwood, and Beth Rogen. The stop-motion special effects are completely amazing, even if some of the processing to blend the live actors in with the creatures is fairly obvious thanks to some poor color-matching. The last, not-very-surprising, monster to appear is the most effective of all, with a great jump-out-of-your-seat moment when it opens an eye.

Columbia had an interesting problem in casting Nemo and designing the Nautilus. Disney and James Mason had completely defined the appearance of the character. He and the story were in the public domain, but Disney’s design was not. So the submarine looks ever-so-slightly different, and Herbert Lom isn’t quite James Mason, but he’s very close. He’s cold and distant, but not cruel like we could see Mason’s Nemo.

We’ve had some really odd opinions about movies and shows from the mouth of our favorite five year-old critic, but he really took the cake this time. He told us that he really liked the film and that it was awesome, but his favorite part – very frequently either the climax or the gag right before the end credits – was the “war part” at the beginning when they escape from the prison. “So your favorite scene in a movie called Mysterious Island is a scene before they actually get to the island?” Besides, he hid under a blanket when the giant crab showed up, so I know he liked that.

Nemo is killed – for real, this time, we think – when the volcano erupts, spectacularly, and the others set sail to carry on his mission of using the power of science to destroy the motives for war. But you know that you can’t keep a good antihero down, right? I’m pretty sure that we’ll see him again one of these days…


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Ultraman 1.10 – The Mysterious Dinosaur Base

The monster Akilla (called Jirass in the original language) really is a triumph of penny-pinching, but everybody, including the audience, is in on the joke. They used Godzilla’s roar, and his radiation breath, and the same actor who wore that suit in the movies. Ultraman couldn’t actually fight the character of Godzilla, because a different company (Toho) owned the copyright, so a little yellow spray paint and a silly frill on the costume that Tsubaraya’s company built was the best way to amuse all the kids in the audience who had been arguing over the last two months about who would win such a brawl.

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Space Academy 1.6 – The Rocks of Janus

Back in the late sixties, when Marvel Comics was throwing all sorts of wild and bizarre ideas at readers and most of ’em, true believers, stuck, Smilin’ Stan and Jolly Jack introduced Ego, the Living Planet, in the pages of Thor. I would gently suggest that Jack Kirby managed the concept of a living planet with a little bit more magic and wonder than Samuel A. Peeples and the Filmation crew could bring to this story of two living planetoids, named Ergo and Tarr.

On the other hand, our son was really quite impressed. “That was SO COOL when the asteroids were alive!” he said. If you insist, kiddo.

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