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

You're waterboarding me.

The Upside (2017)
(SPOILERS) The list of US remakes of foreign-language films really ought to be considered a hiding to nothing, given the ratio of flops to unqualified successes. There’s always that chance, though, of a proven property (elsewhere) hitting the jackpot, and every exec hopes, in the case of French originals, for another The Birdcage, Three Men and a Baby, True Lies or Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Even a Nine Months, Sommersby or Unfaithful will do. Rather than EdTV. Or Sorcerer. Or Eye of the Beholder. Or Brick Mansions. Or Chloe. Or Intersection (Richard Gere is clearly a Francophile). Or Just Visiting. Or The Man with One Red Shoe. Or Mixed Nuts. Or Original Sin. Or Oscar. Or Point of No Return. Or Quick Change. Or Return to Paradise. Or Under Suspicion. Or Wicker Park. Or Father’s Day.

What about the meaningless line of indifference?

The Lion King (2019)
(SPOILERS) And so the Disney “live-action” remake train thunders on regardless (I wonder how long the live-action claim would last if there was a slim hope of a Best Animated Feature Oscar nod?) I know I keep repeating myself, but the early ‘90s Disney animation renaissance didn’t mean very much to me; I found their pictures during that period fine, but none of them blew me away as they did critics and audiences generally. As such, I have scant nostalgia to bring to bear on the prospect of a remake, which I’m sure can work both ways. Aladdin proved to be a lot of fun. Beauty and the Beast entirely tepid. The Lion King, well, it isn’t a badfilm, but it’s wearying its slavish respectfulness towards the original and so diligent in doing it justice, you’d think it was some kind of religious artefact. As a result, it is, ironically, for the most part, dramatically dead in the water.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

You know what I think? I think he just wants to see one cook up close.

The Green Mile (1999)
(SPOILERS) There’s something very satisfying about the unhurried confidence of the storytelling in Frank Darabont’s two prison-set Stephen King adaptations (I’m less beholden to supermarket sweep The Mist); it’s sure, measured and precise, certain that the journey you’re being take on justifies the (indulgent) time spent, without the need for flashy visuals or ornate twists (the twists there are feel entirely germane – with a notable exception – as if they could only be that way). But. The Green Mile has rightly come under scrutiny for its reliance on – or to be more precise, building its foundation on – the “Magical Negro” trope, served with a mild sprinkling of idiot savant (so in respect of the latter, a Best Supporting Actor nomination was virtually guaranteed). One might argue that Stephen King’s magical realist narrative flourishes well-worn narrative ploys and characterisations at every stage – such that John Coffey’s initials are announcement enough of his …

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Kindly behove me no ill behoves!

The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
(SPOILERS) It’s often the case that industry-shaking flops aren’t nearly the travesties they appeared to be before the dust had settled, and so it is with The Bonfire of the Vanities. The adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s ultra-cynical bestseller is still the largely toothless, apologetically broad-brush comedy – I’d hesitate to call it a satire in its reconfigured form – it was when first savaged by critics nearly thirty years ago, but taken for what it is, that is, removed from the long shadow of Wolfe’s novel, it’s actually fairly serviceable star-stuffed affair that doesn’t seem so woefully different to any number of rather blunt-edged comedies of the era.

What you do is very baller. You're very anarchist.

Lady Bird (2017)
(SPOILERS) You can see the Noah Baumbach influence on Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, with whom she collaborated on Frances Ha; an intimate, lo-fi, post-Woody Allen (as in, post-feted, respected Woody Allen) dramedy canvas that has traditionally been the New Yorker’s milieu. But as an adopted, spiritual New Yorker, I suspect Gerwig honourably qualifies, even as Lady Bird is a love letter/ nostalgia trip to her home city of Sacramento.

You’re a staring Stanley!

The Sixth Sense (1999)
(SPOILERS) It has usually been a shrewd move for the Academy to ensure there’s at least one big hit among its Best Picture Oscar nominees. At least, until the era of ever-plummeting ratings; not only do the studios get to congratulate themselves for their own profligacy (often, but not always, the big hits are also the costliest productions), but the audience also has something to identify with and possibly root for. Plus, it evidences that the ceremony isn’t just about populism-shunning snobbery. The Sixth Sense provided Oscar’s supernatural bookend to a decade – albeit, The Green Mile also has a stake in this – that opened with Ghost while representing the kind of deliberate, skilfully-honed genre fare there was no shame in recognising. Plus, it had a twist. Everyone loves a twist.

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).