Skip to main content

These are nothing but our own nightmares!


The Fantastic Journey
9. Riddles

This was the episode that stayed with me as a five-year old, as it had me hiding behind the sofa. Curious that the BBC deemed it fine for screening on daytime TV but the also hallucinatory Funhouse was not (both are tinged with fantasy horror, eschewing the typically pedestrian science fiction plots). Needless to say, it’s not quite the terrifying experience it proved to be 35-odd years ago. But sporadically, it remains highly effective, even if the pay-off is rather weak.

I revisited this episode first, for the nostalgic reasons I mention above, so the instant recognisable aspects were the ever-splendid Roddy McDowall and Jared Martin. I didn’t realise that Carl Franklin (now best known for his directing career) played Fred or recall the resemblance of Ike Eisenmann (Scott) to an even more diminutive version of Davy Jones from The Monkees. 

It's quite all right, It's just a dank, spooky cave.

The departure of Lianna is explained away in a couple of bookended lines of dialogue (it seems Saylor left due to illness, married soon after and then retired from acting). So it’s just Varlan, Fred, Scott and Willaway who arrive in a crackle of energy and then have a chat with a riddle-prone horseman. At this point they still seem hopeful she will return (it will take her several days to catch up with them). No more Sil-El! Nooooo!

The Cryptic Cavalier.

Varian: Fred, on the western shore the Arawak Indians told of messengers who ride from zone to zone guiding people like us to the east. And they called them the riders.

They are directed to find one of twelve keys as part of their search for Evoland (a story arc in waiting? Quick, call Damon Lindelof!) The rider tells them the stone has distinctive properties, and part of their quest for it involves an energetic pursuit of Kedryn to a not-so fun house. Kedryn (Dale Robinette) really does run like the clappers. I was expecting him to go arse over tit at any moment.

Kedryn: We’re going to have to give it up.

Adding to the intrigue of an already weird episode is that the motivations are commendably cryptic until the final act. The horseman speaks in riddles (hence the title) and it’s clear from the start that the keepers of the stone (held in the “Hall of Echoes”, an underground lair) don’t want to surrender it. So we assume that it is Kedryn and Krysta (Carole Demas) who are responsible for the demented haunted house happenings. They are welcoming enough to the travellers, but Kedryn isn’t keen on having them stick around for more than one night.

It's not exactly Amityville, is it?


The episode was partly filmed in the old Bewitched house, and director David Moessinger (who would go on to work on Man from Atlantis and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century) does a good job with the contrasting versions of the set. Dust, cobwebs and decay replace pristine order. Underground, Willaway finds himself sealed in a block of ice. Later, he is trapped in a shrinking cupboard while Jared swings on a wire in a darkened sound stage. Poor Scott, caught beneath falling masonry, has a vision of a mother who no longer knows him. All of this is accompanied by suitably sinister sound effects, either choral or throbbing. Less effective is the contrast with the ‘70s California countryside that could come from any given episode of any given show (and has been a stock feature of the series).

They're from another world; you can tell by the outfits. 
Either that, or it's the 1970s.

On the subject of contrasting effects, the old age make-up of the guest stars is a bit shit, and the cadaverous version of Simkin the manservant (an amusingly ingratiating William O’Connell) is unintentionally funny.

Some of the dialogue must have been a hoot to deliver on set, particularly Kedryn’s explanation that the drink he offers Willaway is “a mysterious nectar derived from a process only known to Simkin”. But the writers get some mileage out of the travellers’ failure to realise that the old and young hosts they encounter are one and the same; Kedryn takes an “if at first you don’t succeed” approach. When his decrepit self speaks to them in the underground cavern he tells the travellers that he is imprisoned and the house is occupied by parasites who wish them harm; a different tack in attempt to scare them off this time.

I bet his clothes aren't damp when the thaws out.

Varian: These are nothing but our own nightmares!

The general scenario is reminiscent of the decaying reality in Doctor Who’s The Keys of Marinus (the second episode, The Screaming Web; see alsoAtlantium for another episode with parallels to that story). It also prefigures Blake’s 7’ s Rescue (itself based on The Picture of Dorian Grey, right down to the name of the antagonist), except that the couple aren’t actually feeding off anyone; swinging Varian realises that the stone is responsible It is testing them. This is the episode’s strongest feature, rendering it possibly the most “adult” instalment of the series; there is no threat beyond that of one’s own mind. The background of the refugees (a planet that rejects those who are aging??!!) is a bit hard to swallow, but par for the course for a show that has scant regard for comprehensible backstory.

See? Dry as a bone.

Varian: This is the key, and the doorway's out there somewhere waiting.

There’s some unity with the opening two episodes through having Katharyn Powers as the writer; in particular the continuity of Scott’s mum. Apart from that, this is very much episodic ‘70s TV at its best. The ongoing quest is little different from The Invaders or The Fugitive, or The Incredible Hulk (which began in the same year). But there’s an intriguing suggestion in Riddles that there might have been more focus on the nature of this vast island if the Journey had not been cancelled.  The series might have pulled itself from the mire of journeyman plotting if the travellers had been instructed to collect all twelve keys (Doctor Who would require only six, over the course of its sixteenth year that began about sixteen months later). But that would probably have been too much of a departure for the TV format of the time, which operated with a weekly reset button.

Willaway: A brilliant writer once wrote, “Grow old with me. The best is yet to be”.

The weekly moral is a limp and facile as ever (they’re just going to have to accept getting old). But, once again, literate Willaway makes it more palatable (although he slightly misquotes Robert Browning). And, yet again, the resolution is bloodless and appeasing. An understanding is reached and violent change is unnecessary. Willaway’s final reference to Sil-El, “Atlantean cats dream of electric mice”, is both an amusing nod to the novel that would become Blade Runner and author Philip K Dick’s obsession with the illusory potential of reality (the subject matter of Riddles).


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

To survive a war, you gotta become war.

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) (SPOILERS?) I’d like to say it’s mystifying that a film so bereft of merit as Rambo: First Blood Part II could have finished up the second biggest hit of 1985. It wouldn’t be as bad if it was, at minimum, a solid action movie, rather than an interminable bore. But the movie struck a chord somewhere, somehow. As much as the most successful picture of that year, Back to the Future , could be seen to suggest moviegoers do actually have really good taste, Rambo rather sends a message about how extensively regressive themes were embedding themselves in Reaganite, conservative ‘80s cinema (to be fair, this is something one can also read into Back to the Future ), be those ones of ill-conceived nostalgia or simple-minded jingoism, notional superiority and might. The difference between Stallone and Arnie movies starts right here; self-awareness. Audiences may have watched R ambo in the same way they would a Schwarzenegger picture, but I’m

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

He is a brigand and a lout. Pay him no serious mention.

The Wind and the Lion (1975) (SPOILERS) John Milius called his second feature a boy’s-own adventure, on the basis of the not-so-terrified responses of one of those kidnapped by Sean Connery’s Arab Raisuli. Really, he could have been referring to himself, in all his cigar-chomping, gun-toting reactionary glory, dreaming of the days of real heroes. The Wind and the Lion rather had its thunder stolen by Jaws on release, and it’s easy to see why. As polished as the picture is, and simultaneously broad-stroke and self-aware in its politics, it’s very definitely a throwback to the pictures of yesteryear. Only without the finger-on-the-pulse contemporaneity of execution that would make Spielberg and Lucas’ genre dives so memorable in a few short years’ time.

Another case of the screaming oopizootics.

Doctor Who Season 14 – Worst to Best The best Doctor Who season? In terms of general recognition and unadulterated celebration, there’s certainly a strong case to be made for Fourteen. The zenith of Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe’s plans for the series finds it relinquishing the cosy rapport of the Doctor and Sarah in favour of the less-trodden terrain of a solo adventure and underlying conflict with new companion Leela. More especially, it finds the production team finally stretching themselves conceptually after thoroughly exploring their “gothic horror” template over the course of the previous two seasons (well, mostly the previous one).

One final thing I have to do, and then I’ll be free of the past.

Vertigo (1958) (SPOILERS) I’ll readily admit my Hitchcock tastes broadly tend to reflect the “consensus”, but Vertigo is one where I break ranks. To a degree. Not that I think it’s in any way a bad film, but I respect it rather than truly rate it. Certainly, I can’t get on board with Sight & Sound enthroning it as the best film ever made (in its 2012’s critics poll). That said, from a technical point of view, it is probably Hitch’s peak moment. And in that regard, certainly counts as one of his few colour pictures that can be placed alongside his black and white ones. It’s also clearly a personal undertaking, a medley of his voyeuristic obsessions (based on D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac).