Sunday, January 22, 2012

CULT TV BLOGGING: The Fantastic Journey: "Beyond the Mountain" (February 17, 1977)

The third episode of The Fantastic Journey, "Beyond the Mountain" introduces the final piece of the series' character equation: Roddy McDowall's temperamental scientist, Dr. Jonathan Willaway, a man whose plane disappeared over the Sea of Japan in 1963.  

The character of Willaway would promptly become an important one for The Fantastic Journey, offering the writers another viewpoint to explore, and another way of handling crises. 

Where Varian, Lianna, Scott and Fred tend to agree easily on how to grapple with any given situation, Willaway is a bit more independent...and feisty.  In short, he adds the element of the unpredictable, and that's important for the entertainment value of the series, as well as the emerging character development.

"Beyond the Mountain" also perfects another component of its equation here: social commentary.  Historically, this is a critical facet that all great science-fiction series are wise to develop: the capacity to comment on contemporary culture (safely) by projecting that commentary into an alien or fantasy realm.   We saw a bit of that brand of social commentary emerge in the class warfare dynamic of "Atlantium," but the commentary is at full flower in "Beyond the Mountain."

In "Beyond the Mountain," Varian, Fred, Scott and Lianna are joined by Lianna's loyal cat, Sil-El, and then promptly engulfed in an eerie red-colored storm -- a close relative to the green one that stranded the crew and passengers of the Yonder in the Bermuda Triangle.  Lianna is promptly separated from the others, and Varian laments that the time zones are not as "predictable" as he'd prefer.

Lianna ends up in a paradisaical, luxury villa, where Dr. Jonathan Willaway -- a very "strong willed man" -- is tended to by subservient humanoid androids. He calls the androids his "family" but rules over them like a very strict father.  His pleasant and welcoming demeanor hides a darker streak.

Meanwhile, Fred, Varian and Scott are cast down into a misty swamp of gnarled trees and fog. The swamp (which looks like Dagobah...), is impressively-presented here, having been constructed on a sound-stage and seeming very atmospheric, especially in contrast to Willaway's sun-lit world, where the grass is literally always greener.

Before long, Willaway decides he wants to marry Lianna and attempts to keep her from searching for her friends, even as his android "son," Cyrus (John David Carson) also begins to develop human emotions for the lovely woman.

Lianna rejects Willaway's advances, and he drugs her to keep her prisoner at the villa.  He then attempts to re-program Cyrus to eliminate the android's feelings for her.

Down in the swamp, Scott, Fred and Varian encounter a race of green-skinned humanoids, aliens called "Arujians" (think Indians). Their leader is deathly ill from a "bacterial disease" -- malaria -- and Varian and Fred heal him.

Once recovered, the leader explains that Willaway  -- "the man from beyond the mountain" -- came to their land some time ago, subverted their androids, and banished the green-skinned humanoids to the primitive swamp.

"He does not think of us as beings of any worth," the leader comments about Willaway, and from this remark one can see how the episode's central metaphor is crafted. "Beyond the Mountain" is a comment on, for lack of a better word, "the white man's burden," and here a white westerner has re-located a race of "lesser beings" off their land for his own benefit. Just substitute green skin for red skin, and you understand the historical analogy. 

It isn't just the historical relocation of Native Americans that "Beyond the Mountain" comments on, at least obliquely, but also the very concept of slavery.

Here, Willaway keeps a society of androids serving him and is unable to countenance the idea that they could be sentient creatures deserving of the same rights and freedoms he enjoys.

They are only "an amalgam of simulated flesh and bone," he declares at one point. Willaway even tells his son, "your marrow is transistorized; your heart is a battery; your veins and arteries are wire filament." This might be another way of saying that because their skin is different than his; they are "less" than human, a widely-held belief of slave owners in America a hundred-and-fifty years ago.

Adding to the depth of the commentary, Willaway generally treats his android slaves with what he believes is love and kindness, even though he is still firmly master and they still obedient servants.   You've certainly heard the argument that pre-Civil War South, slaves were treated "well" and cared for affectionately.  Perhaps that was indeed true in some instances; but the slaves were still slaves, susceptible to the whims and wishes of a master who believed them nothing more than property. A cage is a cage, even if the warden isn't overtly cruel.  Because some slaves were treated with kindness does not make the institution of slavery morally acceptable.

Here the darkest side of the historical slavery equation is made plain when Willaway, challenged by a female android (Marj Dusay), warns her that if she misbehaves, he will "take her apart." When the enslaved androids finally do rebel against him, Willaway is baffled by their revolt. "I gave you a beautiful place to live. I even made you my son..." he says, feeling betrayed, unaware that his "children" are ready to chart their own destinies. 

Again, it's not difficult to read this analogy as one akin to slavery in America. Many slaves did live on beautiful estates, and many masters did give their slaves their family name  But once more these are not qualities equal to freedom, self-determination, and liberty.

So, in the course of one episode, Willaway displaces one ethnic group (the green-skinned swamp dwellers), and enslaves another (the androids).

Or as he puts it at the denouement, society and he "do have problems."

I'll say. 

You'd think, given his actions, that Willaway would be played as an out-and-out villain, and left defeated and vanquished by episode's end.  But The Fantastic Journey, to its credit, offers a bit more dimensionality in its treatment of Willaway.

In the end, with the help of the series regulars, both subjugated races are freed.  But surprisingly, Varian shows mercy to Willaway and allows him to travel with the group.

Again, this was the final piece of the character dynamics: Varian, Fred, Lianna and Scott are all likable, heroic characters, whereas Willaway (as this episode reveals) is more flawed; and more willing to strike off with his own agenda. He isn't a constant foil (like, say Lost in Space's Dr. Smith), merely a fly in the ointment and wild card. The ending solution, Willaway joining the team, works well story-wise and is even believable because Varian is a man from a peaceful future; one where men don't hold grudges or act in petty fashion. He is the series' version of the peaceful and enlightened Spock, and a great character because he calls to the better angels of our nature. 

In the spirit of Star Trek's "Requiem for Methuselah," Space: 1999's "One Moment of Humanity," Star Trek: The Next Generation's "The Offspring," and the new Battlestar Galactica's "Downloaded" this Fantastic Journey episode also involves the idea of an android (or androids, plural) attaining humanity or understanding humanity. Willaway's son, Cyrus, in this episode dies (in love with Lianna), a "tear" falling from his cheek.  This image seems akin to the one of Zarl attaining "one moment of humanity" in the 1999 story, and the image of Lol dying after learning to feel love towards her father, Data,  in the absolutely heart-wrenching and brilliant "The Offspring," surely one of the most affecting Next Generation episodes produced.    Practically speaking, however, it's hard to imagine an android crying...unless tear ducts were installed.

Kidding aside, the idea of androids grappling with sentience and emotional awareness is handled well enough here; though the depiction of the androids (lanky men and women in gold lame jumpsuits with circuit panels on their backs...) dates the series somewhat dramatically.   Still, "Beyond the Mountain" is likely the best The Fantastic Journey episode of the first three aired, and probably a serious contender for best episode of the short-lived series.

Next episode: "Children of the Gods."

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous1:56 PM

    What I really liked was the intelligent writing and the grown-up themes. In Atlantium, peaceful Varian is the first to caution against action on behalf of the Unders because he points out that they don't know anything about this society, and therefore, don't know who is trustworthy and honestly reporting. This is such a welcome and rare deviation from the usual formula of "hero learns of oppression and takes action because the bad guys are evil and the good guys are blameless."

    Likewise, in this episode, Varian holds another little speech at the end about Willoway. It's not only that the people in his future are better and more generous and so he's ready to forgive Willoway, letting him go his own ways. No, he activly talks Willoway around joining their group despite the problems, and cheers him up by crediting him with founding ethical principles for science with such a strong effect that an award was named after him.

    This despite seeing with his own eyes how horrible Willoway acted personally. In other series, this alone would have been an object in "meeting a hero and discovering he is not a saint but a person with faults". Here, Varian never shows any surprise or disappointment that the real Willoway as person doesn't live up to his ideals and is spiteful, mean and has problems getting along with people.

    Apparently in his century, people have done away with hero worship, realizing that people are faulty humans instead, and selecting those parts to emulate while acknowledging the faults of historical greats.