Thursday, April 19, 2018
In “The Oasis,” a drought imperils the Robinson settlement.
Even the water conversion units that Don (Mark Goddard) has installed in the desert can’t keep up with the family’s demand for water.
Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) makes the problem exponentially worse by taking a shower, using up all but two gallons of the water reserve.
Desperate and angry, the Robinsons go out in search of water, and find an oasis in the jungle.
There, the water tastes strange and toxic, but several moist, mango-like fruits are growing. John (Guy Williams) insists that they test the fruit before sampling it, but Dr. Smith and Debbie both break the rules and try the fruits
Smith, believing the Robinsons have poisoned him, heads off into the desert alone.
Back at the camp, Debbie grows to colossal size after eating the fruit. The Robinsons realize that the same thing could happen to Smith. He will soon be a giant.
Maureen (June Lockhart) goes to the over-grown Smith and attempts to convince him to return to camp.
“The Oasis” is a not-particularly compelling episode of Lost in Space (1965 – 1968), and one that demonstrates the series’ propensity to veer towards outright fantasy.
Here, Smith eats an alien fruit that transforms him into a giant. Despite the overtly fantastic elements of the episode, the special effects are handled with remarkable aplomb, and several well-staged trick shots sell visually the concept of a giant Zachary Smith.
Additionally, this is a strong episode for Maureen Robinson, who demonstrates her forgiving and sympathetic character. Again and again, she takes the initiative -- though always asking permission from John -- as a go-between for the two camps, the Robinsons and Dr. Smith. Maureen acts as a peace maker and as a friend to both camps, and does so without ego or self-interest.
Less intriguing, and far less believable are the family’s reactions to Smith’s departure. Once more, Smith does something absolutely selfish -- taking a shower and using twenty-two gallons of the family’s water supply -- and when the family responds with irritation, he doesn’t even apologize.
Then, when he believes he has been poisoned, Smith swears to kill the Robinsons. He sabotages and steals the last water conversion unit device. If he is going to die, then they will die too, he swears.
Yet the Robinsons all mope about the camp, and discuss how much they miss Dr. Smith. They ponder the ways they could have been nicer to him, or more accommodating to him. Maureen has a sympathetic speech here about she considers Smith an “injustice collector,” and that basically, he’s harmless.
Only he’s demonstrated time and time again that he isn’t harmless.
One episode back he tried to sell Will to fifth dimension aliens.
Several episodes back, Smith sabotaged John’s rockets (or para jets), so he would crash-land and die on the planet.
And, as mentioned above, in this adventure Smith sabotages the family’s technology so that its members will suffer a “lingering” death.
So why are the Robinsons’ so damn blind regarding Smith? He’s an absolute danger to the family’s survival, especially on the frontier, and it makes no sense to romanticize him, or consider his antics “cute.” They owe him absolutely nothing.
For me, this aspect of the series is the biggest stumbling block Lost in Space features at this point, and going forward too. It’s not like Smith bumbles into trouble, is contrite, and learns from his mistakes.
Contrarily, he seeks out trouble, is a coward, tries to extricate himself by any selfish means possible, and never learns a thing. He just goes out and does the same thing again.
It’s Smith’s fault he eats the berries and his fault the water is almost gone. The Robinsons are not out of line to be irritated, angry with the guy. They could die from thirst.
Still, one artfully-composed shot in the episode explains the Smith vs. Robinsons conceit perfectly. In the foreground of the frame, sits Smith, self-satisfied and facing the camera. Far behind him, in the background, is the family. They are watching him. He is ignoring them. He is not only the paramount figure here in "The Oasis," but the paramount figure in the series.
In terms of questions of believability, there’s another funny aspect of “The Oasis” to consider. When Smith grows to giant size, his clothes and boots grow with him. How did the chemical properties of the alien mango manage that?
Still, it’s far preferable to ask this question than to be confronted with the specter of a giant, naked Dr. Smith.
In “Brother’s Keeper,” Ben Richards (Christopher George) tracks down a man who could be his brother, Jason (Michael Strong). Unfortunately, Jason was in an accident some years earlier, and doesn’t recall if he is Ben’s brother, or not. This fact complicates their reunion.
Although Jason’s wife (Marj Dusay) is suspicious of the newcomer at first, Ben attempts to get the couple to leave their home and flee, before Fletcher (Don Knight) can locate them.
Unfortunately, Fletcher has already tracked Jason down via the orphanage where he and Ben were raised, and he offers Jason and his wife a deal to return to Maitland’s lab. Suffering under crippling debt, Jason agrees to Fletcher’s terms.
Ben rescues Jason and his wife from captivity, but Fletcher is soon in hot pursuit. During a scuffle, Jason is injured, and Ben realizes that Jason does not share the same special blood as his brother.
Ben continues on his lonely journey…
“Brother’s Keeper” -- the final episode of the short-lived 1969-1971 series The Immortal -- is largely a bust.
First of all, the episode was apparently aired out of sequential order by its network, and so not a legitimate “final” episode. The specific details of this narrative suggest that this tale occurs in the series continuity before “The Return.”
In that episode, Fletcher notes that he and Ben have both visited the orphanage where he was raised for a time, and this episode shows those events. This episode also notes that Ben has not yet been “home,” to the family that raised him in his teenage years. Those events are seen in “The Return.”
Even leaving aside the out-of-order airdate, “Brother’s Keeper” is a bit confusing. “The Return” suggests that Jason and Ben were raised by Joe, together, when they were both teenagers. Yet here Ben doesn’t recognize Jason as the brother he was raised with. This personal detail makes absolutely zero sense. At most, it’s been fifteen years since Ben has seen Jason. Jason may have amnesia at this point and not recognize Ben, but Ben would certainly recognize Jason!
Also, the episode brings absolutely no closure to the series’ themes or narrative, much in keeping with TV shows of the age. Jason, we find out, may or may not be Ben’s brother. However, he definitely does not bear the same type of “immortal” blood. So, we get no real answers about the “real” Jason, and this is just another episode (like “The Return” or “Paradise Bay”) where Ben encounters someone named Jason Richards, whom he believes, for a time, to be his sibling. But again, there’s no certainty.
The episode also strains credibility at points. Jason and his wife are taken back to Maitland’s National Research Institute -- the belly of the beast, and Fletcher’s HQ -- and Ben effortlessly breaks in, rescues the couple, and breaks out. Moment like these render the Fletcher character little more than the cliché of the “hapless pursuer.” His prey comes to him, faces incredible odds at his HQ, and gets away. This is the point, obviously, where Maitland should fire Fletcher and get someone more competent to do the job. The series has, overall, avoided having Ben engage in such crazy, suicidal heroic campaigns.
So The Immortal ends with a whimper rather than a bang, and yet I will admit it: it was totally worth it to watch this forty-five year old series. The production values were often outstanding, and some episodes (“The Queen’s Gambit,” “Man on a Punched Card,” “To the Gods Alone”) were great treasures. I often cover series here on the blog, or in my books, that have survived the test of time. They have endured beyond their original context and emerged as multi-generational favorites. Pretty clearly, The Immortal is not in this cherished camp, and remains an obscure, though intriguing series. Apparently the culture has room for one “touchstone” of the man-on-the-run format, and that series is The Fugitive. If I’m wrong, and it isn’t The Fugitive, it may be The Invaders, instead. But it’s not The Immortal.
Despite the good episodes, The Immortal never manages to really overcome its formulaic nature, despite the occasional bright spots. As I wrote above, however, it was a treat to actually see the series for the first time, and to see some fine work on the part of choreographers, composers, writers, and directors, and the (late) Christopher George, and Don Knight.
It would be fascinating, I believe, to go back to James Gunn’s original book, The Immortal, and adapt that dystopian story utilizing modern special effects and sensibilities.
Next week, I move to a retrospective of another one season wonder: Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974).
Wednesday, April 18, 2018
The Robinson family's every move is being scrutinized “from afar by weird alien eyes.”
These inhuman observers, however, can’t remain undetected for long. Judy (Marta Kristen) believes that she has seen something unusual on a scanner, and Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) witnesses a creepy alien ship -- resembling a giant eyeball -- land in secret.
Dr. Smith is abducted by the aliens -- strange, mouth-less beings with big domed foreheads -- and on board their spaceship he learns that they require a human brain to repair their ship’s navigational computer.
Smith convinces them that his mind wouldn’t do the job, and suggests Will Robinson (Bill Mumy) instead.
Smith tricks Will aboard the alien ship, and the boy learns that he is to be permanently separated from his family.
Meanwhile, the Robinsons and Don West (Mark Goddard) attempt to rescue him.
Realizing that humans suffer from “emotional blockages,” the aliens decide to let Will return to his loved ones. What seems to the aliens a “form of madness common to all” humans is just the simple emotion of…love.
“Invaders from the Fifth Dimension” is a significant entry for Lost in Space (1965--1968).
In many ways, it is the template for many future installments. In stories of this type, aliens visit the Robinsons, want to separate the family, and take malicious action to do so. Meanwhile, Smith proves again and again that he is a duplicitous coward...
Many stories of this type repeat on the series, but “Invaders from the Fifth Dimension” -- perhaps because it is the first in a long line -- isn’t bad. In fact, some aspects of it are downright imaginative.
For example, the alien spaceship is, for lack of a better word, dimensionally transcendent. Like a Time Lord TARDIS, it is bigger on the inside than on the outside.
Similarly, the macabre aliens, aided by the black-and-white photography, look authentically creepy at times. They lack mouths, but also bodies, so that they seem like ambulatory heads.
Yet the aliens, for all their strange features, are not exactly evil. They want to return to their home, and wish to repair their spaceship. To them, Earth is but a “minor planetoid,” and they have no understanding of human beings, or human relationships.
This fact doesn’t mitigate their creepiness. In a way, it adds to it. These aliens aren’t out to kill the Robinsons, but they regard the Robinsons as inferior and unimportant, as humans might gaze at an unusual insect.
The aliens don’t understand the emotional horror they suggest: separation from family, and also from individual freedom. They want to enslave humans and use us as spare parts (another idea seen on Doctor Who [“The Girl in the Fireplace,” and “Deep Breath.”) That’s a terrifying notion: to be used, against our will, as slaves to unfeeling entities.
“Invaders from the Fifth Dimension” is also the first episode that reveals, at least to this degree, what a true bastard Dr. Smith truly is. Other episodes have shown him willing to sabotage the mission and kill John Robinson. He has tried to kill the Robinsons as a group in other stories, too. But here he targets Will, and attempts to sell the child into the horrible slavery I noted above. All so he can save his own miserable skin.
Honestly, at this point, Smith should, at the very least, be banished from the Robinson settlement. He manipulates and tricks an innocent (Will), and is a party to his enslavement, separation from his family, and his possible murder, even.
I know Smith is frequently described as a buffoon or comic relief, but in these early episodes, his actions are worse than that. They are truly reprehensible. If he attempted to trick my son, and send him off with these particular aliens, I would have no compunctions about punishing him, and possibly killing him.
Think about it: the Robinsons have precious few resources, and even fewer defenses. An alien ship shows up, and Smith sides with those aliens, and attempts to sell them your child. He puts his well-being ahead of the family, and ahead of the community.
The sad but logical point here is that he is untrustworthy, and worse than that, malicious. He deserves a laser blast to his (non-existent) heart.
Once more, Lost in Space also depicts an alien craft with unique and original touches. I loved the web-encrusted alien vessel of “The Derelict,” but the ship here is even more inventive in appearance.
It literally appears to be an eyeball surrounded by stretchy-muscle tissue. It’s a really great contrast to the very 1960s technology of the Robinsons. And again, the production values of this episode far outstrip those of Star Trek (1966 – 1969).
Once more the story is also on point, focusing on the conceit of family, and family coming together in times of difficulty.