Sunday, February 05, 2012

CULT TV BLOGGING: The Fantastic Journey: "A Dream of Conquest" (March 10, 1977)


The Fantastic Journey's fifth episode, "A Dream of Conquest," is the first installment to open with a voice-over narration accompanying the opening credits.  Mike Road (the voice of "The Source" in "Atlantium") now recounts the series premise.  He also names and describes the main characters, and notes that our heroes --  now together -- "face the unknown."

I point out this narration, mainly, to remind one of how much The Fantastic Journey changes from episode to episode, searching for some sense of identity or some certainty in its format.  Five episodes in (out of ten...), and the elements are still coming together.

In terms of the actual episode, I'd say that "A Dream of Conquest" is actually pretty strong, most notably because it is buttressed by a good, villainous performance from guest star John Saxon.  Here, he plays Consul Tarrant, a "Materran" warlord who hopes to march East across the island and conquer all the time zones between his own, and land's end.  In one splendid bit of series continuity, Tarrant asks Willaway about what he will find in the other time zones, and Willaway very pointedly and very specifically discusses the societies featured in "Atlantium," "Beyond the Mountain" and "Children of the Gods."  For a series always shifting ideas, it's nice that The Fantastic Journey remembers its history.

Those with only a casual memory of The Fantastic Journey may also recall this particular episode because it features a kind of dog/man/alien creature called "the Nephring." 

Much of The Fantastic Journey's promotional material in the 1970s featured images of this kindly, shaggy alien.  The creature suit looks pretty good, even today, except for the one horrid moment near the conclusion in which you can plainly make out the monster's socks...

In "A Dream of Conquest," our travelers come across Materra, a "colony" of aliens from another solar system (and "another dimension," as Lianna asserts).  The peaceful ruler of the Materrans, Luthor, is deathly ill and his power-hungry subordinate, Tarrant (Saxon) has assumed complete authority.  Varian and Fred attempt to cure Luthor, while Willaway -- conducting a Mission: Impossible-style sting -- ventures out on his own to bring down Tarrant the tyrant.  Willaway assumes his dangerous assignment this because he can't stand the idea of brute force winning the day, "storming" through the zones and territorializing them, each in turn.  He tells a lovely Materran rebel that "it takes a thief to catch a thief," and begins hatching his plans.

Meanwhile, Lianna and Varian watch in horror as Tarrant serially mistreats the Nephring, a being that Lianna and Sil-el have determined is both sentient and highly intelligent. 

In one horrifying sequence, Tarrant's soldiers use the Nephring in a military exercise, and Varian jumps into danger (and into the line of fire...) to save the creature's life. 

Of course, the subtext here involves the human (and inhumane) treatment and abuse of animals.  You shouldn't use them for target practice, and you shouldn't put them on the top of your family car either, when you go on vacation. 

Okay, I made up the last part.
Most trenchantly, however, "A Dream of Conquest" studies the twisted mentality of a despot.  Saxon's Tarrant rather pointedly utilizes language we today associate with Nazi Germany, discussing the "Birth of a New Order" and ordering "purges" of his enemies. 

But of course, he doesn't really have any enemies.  The other zones, as we have seen with our own eyes, are unaware of the Materrans, and either in ruins ("Atlantium," after the destruction of "The Source"), peaceful ("Beyond the Mountain") or woefully disorganized ("Children of the Gods.")  In realizing this fact, we see just how petty and ridiculous Tarrant really is.  He just wants to flex his muscles; to look like a "big man."  He imagines enemies to conquer because of his own ego and desires, not because such enemies actually exist.

In the end, Willaway and the others restore order and sanity to the Materran Zone, and the commentary is explicitly about what happens when madmen ascend to control of their countries, a control that usually extends to the armed forces. 

As Willaway says: "Ah, the generals.  They are numerous, but not good for much.

This is abundantly true in "A Dream of Conquest" because none of Tarrant's subordinates stand up to the madman when he proposes and plans  blatant aggression.  A hierarchical structure is a good thing for maintaining order, no doubt, but a very bad thing when a madman rests at the top of the pyramid, perpetually unquestioned.

There is one very weird moment in "A Dream of Conquest:" A young Materran shows Scott a model of his colony ship, and it's clearly  a U.S. space shuttle and rocket boosters! 

Although it's nice to see this now-retired ship again, the space shuttle is relatively small, and more than that, incapable of traveling from one solar system to the other.   How did Materrans and humans develop the same ship (but with such different capabilities?)  I can only guess that the prop master on The Fantastic Journey had access to a space shuttle model, and figured (since the craft was not yet in official use...) that no one would notice.

Next week on cult tv blogging, one of The Fantastic Journey's more dynamic and emotional episodes: "An Act of Love."

3 comments:

  1. G Eichler11:37 PM

    Nice touch in the episode when Scott and Nikki discuss missing home. Yeah, the space shuttle model is just awful. And here we go with Varian no longer being able to heal anyone. Supposedly NBC was worried it would offend those in the 'bible belt'....like they would be watching this show. Good focus on animal rights long before the idea was topical. Really enjoying the reviews, John.

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  2. Hi George,

    That scene is a nice one, a quiet one that TV shows don't always make time for. But having the space shuttle there just ruins it. So bizarre...

    Varian's healing powers do seem varia-ble (varianble?), do they, depending on the whim of the writer. I wonder if you're right, if there was something too Jesus-like about Varian (a healer, peacemaker-type). He's my favorite character on the show, though.

    I'm glad you're enjoying the reviews, George. I always look forward to your comments here!

    best,
    John

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  3. Anonymous2:16 AM

    Yes, I read somewhere, too, that the Networks had problems with Varian doing the healing, so Fred was the only doctor. Although it's better to have a normal doctor try it first instead of "alternative" medicine given the charlatans in real life, it often goes against sense when the group is dealing with aliens who should have very different biochemistry - including green skin! previously - and Fred can only guess that his medicine hopefully will help not harm, where the non-invasive methods of Varian might be better.

    The fridge problem with the solution in this ep., however, is that the very structure - which you rightly noted is problematical - is left intact. Luthor is still frail and will die soon; so another leader will succeed him, and it's only a matter of time before another power-hungry despot rises to the top. (Restructuring society would take too long for an episodic format, but it should at least be hinted at).

    Moreover, during his infiltration attempt, Willoway has given accurate information that the children in the very next zone are unarmed and basically defenseless, but can provide very deadly, high-tech laser rifles worth taking. We don't hear him waving it off as a lie, so if (when?) the next despot rises, the children will be invaded because Willoway didn't lie.

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