Sunday, February 12, 2012

CULT TV BLOGGING: The Fantastic Journey: "An Act of Love" (March 24, 1977)

"An Act of Love" is either one of The Fantastic Journey's finest episodes, or one of the series' worst, depending on your point of view.  Specifically, the emotional content and heartfelt handling of the dramatis personae is deeply affecting. 

But, contrarily, the gimmick by which this character development arises is actually pretty ham handed and ridiculous. 

So appreciating "An Act of Love" is all about loving the sinner, perhaps, but not the sin.  I don't know...

In "An Act of Love" by Richard Fielder and directed by Virgil Vogler, the wayward travelers in the Bermuda Triangle enter a new time zone roiled by violent, active volcanoes.  Varian is unknowingly shot by some kind of dart containing a psychotropic drug, and the drug in his system makes him fall in love with a woman he has never met before, the lovely Gwyneth (Christina Hart).  When something drives Varian to awake from a troubled sleep and go exploring, he actually finds Gwyneth in the flesh.  Miraculously, she is just as in love with him as he is with her.  

Despite the fact that they have just met.

Although Varian doesn't realize it, he was shot with the dart because in this strange time zone, the ruling class believes in an angry Volcano God called "Vetticus."  Vetticus can only be quieted (and thus the village saved...) by continual human sacrifice.  When women are married in a ritual of "eternal unification" (following a night of hot, lusty passion), the man are thrown into a fire pit to appease Vetticus. 

Now in love with the high priestess's daughter, Varian is next in line for this treatment.

In short order, Varian convinces his friends that he is happy and content, and wants to remain behind, while they continue the search for Evoland. 

Scott is deeply upset to be losing Varian, a friend who has become a father to him, but -- trying to be a grown-up -- he accepts Varian's decision.

Soon, however, Scott learns the truth about Vetticus and human sacrifice, and must save Varian from the consuming fire. 

As the ritual of eternal unification nears,  Gwyneth makes the ultimate sacrifice to save her would-be husband's life, and an angry Varian rains destruction upon the worshippers of Vetticus...

The reasons to enjoy "An Act of Love" are plain.  By separating Varian from his friends and showcasing a heartfelt goodbye between the likable travelers, the audience gets to see how deeply these characters have grown to care for and love one another.  Ike Eisenmann is particularly strong in these sequences, as his character Scott has already lost one father, and now must lose another.  We feel and understand Scott's pain, and these moments are perhaps the best in the episode, and some of the most human interactions in the entire series.   Saying goodbye to someone you love is never easy.

Also commendable is the fact that, once more, The Fantastic Journey treads deeply and boldly into social commentary, here indicting the essential irrationality of religion, and in particular, religious rule.  After Gwyneth dies, her Mother (Ellen Weston) sputters around vainly, trying to justify the human sacrifice ritual...and murder.  She claims that she accurately interpreted the signs of Vetticus.   In one of the series' finest and most blunt moments, Willaway responds to her assertions with pity:  "There are no signs.  You are trying to make deals with volcanoes."  Then he tells her, very directly, to take her people from the time zone and "leave superstition behind."

In other words, grow the hell up.

In the same fashion that Star Trek's "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" exposed racial strife at its most clear-cut and plain by featuring half-white/half-black opponents, so does The Fantastic Journey indict theocratic rule on the most concise and straight-forward grounds imaginable. 

When we believe God is  actually speaking to us, what we're really doing is interpreting our own desires and biases...and often with disastrous results. 

Believing that God speaks to us and shares his/her desires with us and us alone, is the ultimate in vanity (Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, j'accuse),  and a wholly feeble excuse to validate a belief system that doesn't bear up to close scrutiny, logic, rationality or science.  I love that in 1977 The Fantastic Journey had the brass balls to make this point about this religious fallacy, and to do so in a manner that is absolutely unmistakable.

Also, it's interesting, at the very least, to see the pacifist Varian devolve into a rageful basketcase over the death of his wife, giving up his cherished beliefs for all-out vengeance.  I don't know that such behavior serves the character well in the long run, but works.  In some ways, "An Act of Love" is The Fantastic Journey's "City on the Edge of Forever," the doomed love-affair that changes a character's destiny forever.

Or maybe it's "Spock's Brain...."

One could reasonably conclude the latter because the episode's gateway to all of this emotional upheaval and social commentary is a convenient cupid's arrow dart that makes Varian fall in love in an instant, and with one particular woman too.  It's a very specific dart, in other words. 

More to the point, the episode never really deals with the fact that Varian is manipulated into feeling so strongly for Gwyneth.  His free will (and thus real love) is not involved.

The writer of this episode wanted Varian to engage deeply with a woman, fall in love, and then feel rage and vengeance at her unnecessary death.  Fine.  I buy that.  But by using the gimmick of the dart, the whole enterprise feels a little...hollow. 

And there are deeper questions.  How come Gwyneth falls so deeply in love with Varian at first sight?  Was she darted too?  And did she get a dart directing her to fall for Varian, specifically?  If so, how did the servants of Vetticus know he was coming, and the nature of his body chemistry?

There's another problem here too.  All the young men of this time zone, after copulating with and marrying their would-be wives, are tossed into the flames, right?  Wouldn't it rather difficult to keep this secret from the general population?  Every time a friend gets married, you have to ask: hey, what happened to Steve?  I haven't seen him since you two went down to the fire pit...

Basically, every woman of marrying age would know what marriage portends for her spouse.  The episode doesn't deal with this problem, and so the society feels like a bit of a straw man culture.  I don't see how it could possible exist for any length of time under these circumstances.

In terms of series continuity, I might also add that "An Act of Love" misremembers the details of Paul's letter to Scott.  It notes that Paul worried that Scott would have to be away from him until he reached Evoland.  But, as "Atlantium" points out, Paul believed Scott would be right behind him, returned to 1977 America by the power of the "Source," the self-same power that sent Paul home. Oopsy.

Finally, one minor aspect of the episode I enjoyed: Sil-El -- the cat -- plays a more significant part in this episode than usual.  Sil-El is aware of Varian's situation and follows him around.  The cat also finds a path out of a collapsed cave when the group is trapped in it during an avalanche.  Basically, the cat gets a lot of action here (and a lot of reaction shots), and I find that amusing, and kind of rewarding.  In an earlier episode, "Beyond the Mountain," it was noted that Sil-El was "one of the group," and "An Act of Love" fulfills that promise.

Speaking of getting a lot of action, Varian gets to have (off-screen) sex in this episode, and right beforehand, Gwyneth informs him that she's a virgin.  She has "never known another man."  This whole aspect of the episode is kind of kinky, especially as mother and daughter dance around the whole intercourse issue.  "The pain is brief.  The memory is eternal,"  one character, says, speaking of death in the fire pit, not sex.  "Have this moment to remember Varian for all time..." and so forth.   All the erupting volcanoes also play as perverse visual subtext for this, ahem, "act of love."

Heck, it was the seventies...

So, how can I put this?  I love the emotional content of "An Act of Love," as well as the pointed social commentary.  But I absolutely hate some of the poorly thought-out details of the narrative.  I'll say this: despite its problems with structure and internal consistency, "An Act of Love" is an episode of The Fantastic Journey that you won't soon forget.  Whenever I think of the series, this episode leaps instantly to mind.

As does next week's effort, the scarifying horror story "Funhouse."


  1. George E10:36 PM

    Another spot on review, John. "An Act of Love" is generally a mess, but still interesting for the emotions shown by the characters. The god that Varian is to be sacrificed to is actually, Betticus, not Vetticus. In a small touch to continuity, Gwenith gets a mention in the next episode. Really do love this series. Talk about needing a proper DVD release and, possibly, a reboot.

  2. Hi George:

    I agree with you that "An Act of Love" is a mess, and so interesting because of the character interactions.

    Thanks for the correction on Vetticus/Betticus. I took my best guess there, and chose wrong! :)

    I was watching Funhouse for review next week, and I saw that Gwenith returns, albeit briefly, in Varian's torment by Apollonius. What a really great continuity touch. Every now and then, The Fantastic Journey just nails a moment like that (and like Willaway's rejoinder to the priestess here, about making deals with volcanoes).

    I love this series -- warts and all -- and think a reboot would be appropriate, and quite wonderful.

    Thank you for another excellent, comment, George. It's always terrific to read your thoughts about this series (and other topics too...)



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