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

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

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…

I added sixty on, and now you’re a genius.

The Avengers 4.3: The Master Minds
The Master Minds hitches its wagon to the not uncommon Avengers trope of dark deeds done under the veil of night. We previously encountered it in The Town of No Return, but Robert Banks Stewart (best known for Bergerac, but best known genre-wise for his two Tom Baker Doctor Who stories; likewise, he also penned only two teleplays for The Avengers) makes this episode more distinctive, with its mind control and spycraft, while Peter Graham Scott, in his third contribution to the show on the trot, pulls out all the stops, particularly with a highly creative climactic fight sequence that avoids the usual issue of overly-evident stunt doubles.

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Farewell, dear shithead, farewell.

Highlander II: The Quickening (1991)
(SPOILERS) I saw Highlander II: The Quickening at the cinema. Yes, I actually paid money to see one of the worst mainstream sequels ever on the big screen. I didn’t bother investigating the Director’s Cut until now, since the movie struck me as entirely unsalvageable. I was sufficiently disenchanted with all things Highlander that I skipped the TV series and slipshod sequels, eventually catching Christopher Lambert’s last appearance as Connor MacLeod in Highlander: End Game by accident rather than design. But Highlander II’s on YouTube, and the quality is decent, so maybe the Director’s Cut improve matters and is worth a reappraisal? Not really. It’s still a fundamentally, mystifyingly botched retcon enabling the further adventures of MacLeod, just not quite as transparently shredded in the editing room.

In a way, that’s good, as there can be no real defence that the fault lies elsewhere. What was Russell Mulcahy thinking? What was anyone thinking? Th…

So, you want to go overseas. Kill some Nazis.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
(SPOILERS) I suppose you have to give Kevin Feige credit for turning the least-likely-to-succeed-in-view-of-America’s-standing-with-the-rest-of-the-world superhero into one of Marvel’s biggest success stories, but I tend to regard Steve Rogers and his alter ego as something of a damp squib who got lucky. Lucky in that his first sequel threw him into a conspiracy plotline that effectively played off his unwavering and unpalatable nobility and lucky in that his second had him butting heads with Tony Stark and a supporting selection of superheroes. But coming off the starting block, Captain America: The First Avenger is as below par as pre-transformation Steve himself, and I’m always baffled when it turns up in best of Marvel Cinematic Universe lists. The best I can say for it is that Joe Johnston’s movie offers a mildly engaging opening section and the occasional facility for sharp humour. For the most part, though, it’s as bland and impersonal as…

I once fought for two days with an arrow through my testicle.

Kingdom of Heaven Director’s Cut (2005)
(SPOILERS) There’s an oft-cited view that Kingdom of Heaven, in its unexpurgated as-Ridley-honest-to-goodness-intended director’s cut – in contrast to some of his other, rather superfluous director’s cuts, in which case – is a goddam masterpiece. It isn’t, I’m afraid. First and foremost, Orlando Bloom is not miraculously transformed into a leading man with any presence, substance or conviction. But there are other problems, more than evident, mostly in the form of the revisionist pose William Monahan’s screenplay adopts and the blundering lack of subtlety with which his director translates it.

Definitely the perfect prisoner’s friend.

The Avengers 1.20: Tunnel of Fear
(SPOILERS) As Alan Hayes observes (in the booklet accompanying the DVD release of this recently discovered Season One episode), there’s a more than passing kitchen sink element to Tunnel of Fear. You could almost expect it to form the basis of a Public Eye case, rather than one in which Steed and Dr Keel get involved, if not for the necessary paraphernalia of secrets being circulated via a circus fairground.

I apologise for Oslo's low murder rate.

The Snowman (2017)
(SPOILERS) Maybe Morton Tyldum made Jo Nesbø adaptations look deceptively easy with Headhunters, although Tyldum hasn’t show such facility with material since, so maybe Nesbø simply suits someone with hackier sensibilities than Tomas Alfredson. It’s a long way down from the classy intrigue of John Le Carré to the serial killer clichés of The Snowman, and I’m inclined to think that, even if Alfredson had managed to film that 15% of the screenplay he says went awry, this wouldn’t have been all that great.

An initiative test. How simply marvellous!

You Must Be Joking! (1965)
A time before a Michael Winner film was a de facto cinematic blot on the landscape is now scarcely conceivable. His output, post- (or thereabouts) Death Wish (“a pleasant romp”) is so roundly derided that it’s easy to forget that the once-and-only dining columnist and raconteur was once a bright (well…) young thing of the ‘60s, riding the wave of excitement (most likely highly cynically) and innovation in British cinema. His best-known efforts from this period are a series of movies with Oliver Reed – including the one with the elephant – and tend to represent the director in his pleasant romp period, before he attacked genres with all the precision and artistic integrity of a blunt penknife. You Must Be Joking! comes from that era, its director’s ninth feature, straddling the gap between Ealing and the Swinging ‘60s; coarser, cruder comedies would soon become the order of the day, the mild ribaldry of Carry On pitching into bawdy flesh-fests. You Must Be Joki…