Skip to main content

Society and I do seem to have our problems.


The Fantastic Journey
3. Beyond the Mountain

The main attraction of the third episode is the star-powered entrance of soon-to-be travelling companion Roddy McDowall. McDowall’s an ever-charismatic and humorous performer, blessed with a likeable erudition and etiquette. It’s a shame that the plot that introduces him is at best ho-hum and at worst and embarrassment of clichés.

Nice pins.

With some justification, McDowall’s Dr. Jonathan Willaway, a ”rebel scientist from the 1960s” (1963 to be precise, and don’t you love that he’s a rebel scientist?) has been compared to Dr Smith in Lost in Space (“You dolt!”). Willaway is (at least here) the embodiment of fussy, cultured villainy. His behaviour is born out of egocentricity to the extent that you can just about buy into the idea that the group would welcome him at the end (well, maybe not Fred) but the turn about does seem rather lurching (he threatens murder and forced marriage at one point). Far more compelling is the idea that they realised it might be fun to have Roddy McDowall hang out with them for a bit (because, really, that would be fun wouldn’t it?) His wily intelligence will frequently be the highlight of future episodes, as he butters up the bad guys and approaches problems laterally.

WillawayIf you ever mention the swamp to anyone ever again I will take you a-part.

Willaway’s unrepentant villainy is so appealingly cavalier that you end up rooting for him anyway. Particularly when the two groups he has oppressed are such an insipid lot.  

I just can't see this lot living at Willaway's villa.

Some rubbish green aliens (Farujians or Arujians?), who built the androids that Willaway now presides over, have been relegated to a nearby swamp. I say nearby, but director Irving J Moore has made no attempt to connect the (quite impressive) soundstage mire to the location shoot at the series’ latest appropriation of modern architecture. Scripter Harold Livingston appears to be beating the audience with an allegorical stick; Willaway has stolen the swampies’ (they are like a mephistoclean version of the Swampies in Doctor Who’s The Power of Kroll, aired about sixteen months later) land and property. Willaway’s basically a more effete version of John Wayne in Red River. It’s a very loose analogy, however. The swampies are benign so it’s okay for them to have a robot slave force; it’s only a bad thing when Willaway takes charge. It isn’t clear why the swampies are suddenly rendered incapable once they’re evicted. Surely they don’t suddenly become scientifically backward? But they seem stuck scrubbing about in a bog.

Extreme internal body massage.

WilllawayI find their company a great deal more pleasant than any I previously encountered.

Livingston may have overfilled his narrative pot, but the last thing it results in is thematic or structural complexity. He awards a nascent consciousness to his androids in the form of Cyrus (John David Carson), who develops a full-on robot chubby for Liana (well, who wouldn’t?) But he also muddles Willaway’s role. Is he the slave owner, or the traditional patriarch (to be obeyed unquestioningly)? When his “son” (as he has dubbed Cyrus) rebels, Willaway responds as any unyielding father would; he punishes him (instructs his reprogramming). And the situation with Liana has Oedipal undertones (not in the mother-marrying sense, but the father-usurping). Willaway is at least as threatened by Cyrus for his way with the ladies as for his undermining of the doctor’s authority. Being a family show it’s never clear if Willaway satisfies his needs with android companion Rachel (Marj Dusav), whom Liana initially (as do we) assumes is his wife. This isn’t surprising, as she says very wifey things about Jonathan; he is “a very strong-minded man” (the sort of comment that would lead you to expect bruises).

That shirt has to go.

WillawayThen you shall all die – together!

Livingston went on to receive a co-credit on the screenplay of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, another story of machine life gaining sentience. In that instance he does the very Trek thing of furnishing V’ger with godlike delusions. In this case, Cyrus’ act of self-sacrifice destroys the robot power source just as Willaway has ordered the travellers’ deaths. Either the swampies aren’t aware of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics or Willaway overwrote them. . Cyrus death isn’t especially noble; he does it because Willaway “makes her unhappy” (and because he has the hots for her). The robotic tear he releases as he expires lays the point on so thickly that the scene turns into a fondue party.

He's just like Roy Batty.

The Cyrus/Liana plotline is leaden and predictable, and includes some really ripe dialogue (Liana makes Cyrus feel “good and happy”; being a robot these responses need to be explained to him). Willaway’s crushing dismissiveness of robot emotions is also very obvious, but at least McDowell adds relish to the delivery.

The worst aspect of the series tends to be the spelt out and simplistic moralising of the farewell scenes. The swampies end up in much the same place as the Atlanteans in the previous episode, rebuilding their society. They thank the travellers for the courage to become again what they once were (because the oppressed need a leg up from wiser folk?). Amusingly, they tell Willaway he is free to leave and add that he “may have the swamp if you desire it”.

WillawaySociety and I do seem to have our problems.

McDowall being McDowall, he turns audience sympathy round in an instant when the swampies banish him. It’s his turn to emit a tear, and it’s ironic that you care more for his predicament than the death of his “son”.

VarianAs you said, “I heard that”.

Oh dear, Varian’s attempt to “get down” with Fred by using hip-speak is rather unfortunate. Martin seems almost apologetic.

Nice pins.

The travellers are separated almost immediately on arriving in this zone by a red cloud, with Liana ending up at Willaway’s villa and the others in the swamp. But not before reuniting with Sil-El. Yay! He’s one cute kitty. He proves impossible to keep a track of, so you have to assume he will show up again by the end of the any given episode. Which he doggedly does. With new recruit moggy on board, Varian comments “One more and we’ll be back to our original number”, conveniently forgetting the casualties in the first episode (and what is this, Blake’s 7? Why is he keeping count?)

VarianYou’ve decided against the swamp.
WillawayIt’s not my style.

The swamp-bound trio have little interesting to do. Fred and Varian set about curing the swampie leader, afflicted with a bacterial disease, bearing all the hallmarks of malaria. Calling on their medicinal skills becomes something of a series trope; what else are they going to do with Fred (actually, the arrival of Willaway enables the writers to mine a rich stream of mistrusting dialogue aimed at the rebel doctor). Eventually they visit Willaway, who fobs them off that Liana has departed. But they return, demanding her return (Varian can sense Willaway is lying).

Make Roddy a Regular or don't Make Roddy a regular? A no-brainer.

WillawayWhy would you possibly want me to travel with you?
VarianYou’re alone. And you never would have killed us.

The news of the Jonathan Willaway Award perks up the rebel scientist. Varian tells him that it is given annually in his time to scientists whose work is “distinguished most for its contribution to life, not death”. It’s scarcely credible of the Willaway we see here, that this posthumous memorial credited him with “creating a scientific ethic which became universal. One of the building blocks in achieving the kind of world that I knew”.

WillawayLiana, I hope you can forgive me. All I really wanted was some human companionship.
Liana: (impassive, then smiling) Oh, well I think we can give you that.

These half human/half aliens will forgive anything, I guess. Drugging, forced betrothals and death threats. Actually, scratch that; McDowall can get away with anything.

Beyond the Mountain is a run-of-the-mill oppressed culture episode, but it gets a considerable lift from Roddy McDowall. The references to Evoland will be commonplace from hereon in, and it has to be one of the hackiest science fiction names ever. I presume someone went with the first syllable of evo-lution after an unfruitful brainstorming session. It conjures images of Elmoland (or worse, Emoland).


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

They'll think I've lost control again and put it all down to evolution.

Time Bandits (1981) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam had co-directed previously, and his solo debut had visual flourish on its side, but it was with Time Bandits that Gilliam the auteur was born. The first part of his Trilogy of Imagination, it remains a dazzling work – as well as being one of his most successful – rich in theme and overflowing with ideas while resolutely aimed at a wide (family, if you like) audience. Indeed, most impressive about Time Bandits is that there’s no evidence of self-censoring here, of attempting to make it fit a certain formula, format or palatable template.

Oh, you got me right in the pantaloons, partner.

The Party (1968) (SPOILERS) Blake Edwards’ semi-improvisational reunion with Peter Sellers is now probably best known for – I was going to use an elephant-in-the-room gag, but at least one person already went there – Sellers’ “brown face”. And it isn’t a decision one can really defend, even by citing The Party ’s influence on Bollywood. Satyajit Ray had also reportedly been considering working with Sellers… and then he saw the film. One can only assume he’d missed similar performances in The Millionairess and The Road to Hong Kong ; in the latter case, entirely understandable, if not advisable. Nevertheless, for all the flagrant stereotyping, Sellers’ bungling Hrundi V Bakshi is a very likeable character, and indeed, it’s the piece’s good-natured, soft centre – his fledgling romance with Claudine Longet’s Michele – that sees The Party through in spite of its patchy, hit-and-miss quality.

I never strangled a chicken in my life!

Rope (1948) (SPOILERS) Rope doesn’t initially appear to have been one of the most venerated of Hitchcocks, but it has gone through something of a rehabilitation over the years, certainly since it came back into circulation during the 80s. I’ve always rated it highly; yes, the seams of it being, essentially, a formal experiment on the director’s part, are evident, but it’s also an expert piece of writing that uses our immediate knowledge of the crime to create tension throughout; what we/the killers know is juxtaposed with the polite dinner party they’ve thrown in order to wallow in their superiority.

You must have hopes, wishes, dreams.

Brazil (1985) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam didn’t consider Brazil the embodiment of a totalitarian nightmare it is often labelled as. His 1984½ (one of the film’s Fellini-riffing working titles) was “ the Nineteen Eighty-Four for 1984 ”, in contrast to Michael Anderson’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from 1948. This despite Gilliam famously boasting never to have read the Orwell’s novel: “ The thing that intrigues me about certain books is that you know them even though you’ve never read them. I guess the images are archetypal ”. Or as Pauline Kael observed, Brazil is to Nineteen Eighty-Four as “ if you’d just heard about it over the years and it had seeped into your visual imagination ”. Gilliam’s suffocating system isn’t unflinchingly cruel and malevolently intolerant of individuality; it is, in his vision of a nightmare “future”, one of evils spawned by the mechanisms of an out-of-control behemoth: a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. And yet, that is not really, despite how indulgently and glee

Miss Livingstone, I presume.

Stage Fright (1950) (SPOILERS) This one has traditionally taken a bit of a bruising, for committing a cardinal crime – lying to the audience. More specifically, lying via a flashback, through which it is implicitly assumed the truth is always relayed. As Richard Schickel commented, though, the egregiousness of the action depends largely on whether you see it as a flaw or a brilliant act of daring: an innovation. I don’t think it’s quite that – not in Stage Fright ’s case anyway; the plot is too ordinary – but I do think it’s a picture that rewards revisiting knowing the twist, since there’s much else to enjoy it for besides.

I'm an old ruin, but she certainly brings my pulse up a beat or two.

The Paradine Case (1947) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock wasn’t very positive about The Paradine Case , his second collaboration with Gregory Peck, but I think he’s a little harsh on a picture that, if it doesn’t quite come together dramatically, nevertheless maintains interest on the basis of its skewed take on the courtroom drama. Peck’s defence counsel falls for his client, Alida Valli’s accused (of murder), while wife Ann Todd wilts dependably and masochistically on the side-lines.

Never lose any sleep over accusations. Unless they can be proved, of course.

Strangers on a Train (1951) (SPOILERS) Watching a run of lesser Hitchcock films is apt to mislead one into thinking he was merely a highly competent, supremely professional stylist. It takes a picture where, to use a not inappropriate gourmand analogy, his juices were really flowing to remind oneself just how peerless he was when inspired. Strangers on a Train is one of his very, very best works, one he may have a few issues with but really deserves nary a word said against it, even in “compromised” form.

A herbal enema should fix you up.

Never Say Never Again (1983) (SPOILERS) There are plenty of sub-par Bond s in the official (Eon) franchise, several of them even weaker than this opportunistic remake of Thunderball , but they do still feel like Bond movies. Never Say Never Again , despite – or possibly because he’s part of it – featuring the much-vaunted, title-referencing return of the Sean Connery to the lead role, only ever feels like a cheap imitation. And yet, reputedly, it cost more than the same year’s Rog outing Octopussy .

I don’t like fighting at all. I try not to do too much of it.

Cuba (1979) (SPOILERS) Cuba -based movies don’t have a great track record at the box office, unless Bad Boys II counts. I guess The Godfather Part II does qualify. Steven Soderbergh , who could later speak to box office bombs revolving around Castro’s revolution, called Richard Lester’s Cuba fascinating but flawed. Which is generous of him.

You’re easily the best policeman in Moscow.

Gorky Park (1983) (SPOILERS) Michael Apted and workmanlike go hand in hand when it comes to thriller fare (his Bond outing barely registered a pulse). This adaptation of Martin Cruz Smith’s 1981 novel – by Dennis Potter, no less – is duly serviceable but resolutely unremarkable. William Hurt’s militsiya officer Renko investigates three faceless bodies found in the titular park. It was that grisly element that gave Gorky Park a certain cachet when I first saw it as an impressionable youngster. Which was actually not unfair, as it’s by far its most memorable aspect.