Saturday, August 18, 2012

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Ark II: "Orkus" (December 18, 1976)

Our retrospective of Ark II comes to an end with this fifteenth and final episode, “Orkus.” 

Interestingly, “Orkus” is an episode that feels more like an installment of Logan’s Run: The Series (1977) or The Fantastic Journey (1977) than one from the Filmation series’ own catalog. It’s very much in the nature of a 1970s, prime-time “civilization of the week” tale.

Here, the Ark II team stops for repairs and investigates reports of pollution.  Unfortunately, Ruth and Adam fall prey to that pollution, and deadly toxins super-age them in a matter of moments.  Unless an antidote can be developed, Ruth and Adam will die of old age in mere hours.

Then, out of the blue, an imperious man named Orkus (Geoffrey Lewis) utilizes his high-tech powers to hijack the Ark and seize control of it.  Jonah matches wits with this duplicitous leader of a Utopian community ensconced behind a protective force field, and tries to free the Ark and save his friends. 

Orkus is virtually immortal, Jonah learns, and made so by his society’s super-computer, called “The Provider.”  Furthermore, Orkus requires Ark II’s power source to continue protecting his own people and city from the atmospheric pollution.  “We can only save ourselves,” he insists.  Also, as Jonah learns, Orkus and his people are actually responsible for the pollution in the first place.

Now Jonah must not only apply a cure for Ruth and Adam, but destroy the source of pollution, and transform Orkus’s society to one of more human dimensions.  Fortunately, he gets help from some of Orkus’s more independent-minded followers…

“Orkus” is a more hard-edged Ark II segment than some, albeit one with many familiar ingredients from 1960s and 1970s cult television.  There’s the super computer that governs a stagnant society (“Return of the Archons,” “Guardian of Piri,” Logan’s Run, “Turnabout”) and a disease that causes extreme, instantaneous old age (“The Deadly Years.”) 

In the end, order and “normal development” are restored, as immortality is destroyed (“The Apple,” “Guardian of Piri”), and something more “human” replaces it.   It’s not a particularly original episode, but it is fascinating to see the Ark II crew pitted against a dyed-in-the-wool liar and “black hat” like Orkus, for a change; especially with crewmembers imperiled and on the verge of death.

With this episode, our retrospective of Ark II is complete.  The series’ strongest points remain the technology and production design, in my opinion.  The vehicles, sets, props and uniforms are all genuinely impressive, even today. 

Less impressive is the kind of loose-minded, indistinct “background” detail underlying the post-apocalyptic world of Ark II’s future.  In Star Trek, episode wrap-ups would frequently see Captain Kirk noting in a log that Federation advisors, teachers or helpers were on the way to help a planet changed by the Enterprise’s visit.  Ark II could have used some of that specificity, particularly since Jonah and his people are trying to rebuild a world, and that agenda requires more than a cursory one-off visit to troubled villages and towns.

Yet the missions undertaken by Jonah and his crew are generally pretty loosely-structured, and there’s very little sense of follow-up or persistence.  Many episodes involve the idea that bad actors and evil-doers, once confronted with their anti-social behavior, will see the error of their ways and do right.  That is not a strong enough basis upon which to re-build a ruined world in my opinion.  

The series should have featured, at some point, back-up personnel helping to smooth transitions and usher in the positive changes first initiated by Jonah and his team.  Also, I would have found it fascinating to feature a story in which Jonah and the others run across a villain who won’t back down, but only doubles-down, thus forcing them to confront their “non-aggressive” mission strategy and actively fight.  In other words, I would have liked to have seen a stronger test of the protagonists’ values.  I must confess: this is the very thing that bothers me the most about Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s easy to preach noble values when you live in paradise; when you have a full stomach and the time to “enrich” yourself educationally and otherwise.  But what happens when you don’t live in paradise?  Then what?

Because of the series format, the Ark II team often overmatches the bad guys.  The vehicle’s crew has science, technology, knowledge and force fields on their side.  Accordingly, many episodes do not feature an adequate or deep sense of menace.  Thus the episodes that I remember best are those, like “Orkus,” which present a real challenge.  Other examples are episodes such as “Omega” (about a mind-controlling computer), “The Cryogenic Man” (about an entitled 20th century businessman) and “The Lottery,” which features a kind of “phantom zone” pocket universe where a tyrant banishes enemies.

Another highlight of the series is the episode “The Robot,” which features Robby the Robot as a learning machine, and includes an abundance of colorful character interaction.

Every Ark II episode carries a message about morality, and some adults may find this aspect of the series tiresome.  But if you remember the program’s original context – as a Saturday morning show for children – the didacticism is easily understandable.  I don’t have any problem with the moral framework of the series, and feel it’s an excellent program for kids to watch since it meditates on ideas about how best to “build” a better tomorrow.

I know we’ve had a big discussion about remakes here on the blog recently, but I can’t help but feel that an adult-oriented Ark II would be a great subject for remaking today.  This is a “sci fi” world that could certainly stand some deepening and maturity, but which is already interesting and unique enough to merit interest from audiences. 

The problem, of course, is that probably not enough people remember the series in the first place.


  1. Anonymous12:12 PM

    "Orkus" did indeed feel somewhat like an episode of "Logan's Run". The costumes of the eternal society were typical of those seen in the societies encountered in 'Logan's Run". The fragment of the "Planet of the Apes" village also showed up in the pilot episode of Logan's Run (publicity pics feature it prominently).

    My first reaction to "Orkus' in the begining was to expect another replay of Trek's " The Deadly Years". It was interesting to see where the episode would lead. Fortunately, the actress playing the aged Ruth wisely underplayed the role and avoided the hammy overplaying of Shatner in 'The Deadly Years". It was nice to see a rather ambitious old age make-up job, though Ruth seemed to have turned into a 120 year old albino (sort of like the 'space hag' in "Message From Space", but played sympathetically).

    It seems impossible for that small society to have ever been able to have enough power to sustain such a force field. The budget constraints are apparent in the visualization of the Orkus computer; a collection of round lamps (of the type that showed up on almost every 70's sci-fi show as 'futuristic' set decoration) in a garden style trellis in part of the leftovers of the "Planet of The Apes" village. You included a photo of Jonah in front a picture perfect little hill. While watching the ep, I thought "Wow, what a photogenic little hill". If I was the director of photography I would have framed shots similarly.

    Seeing the old age make-up for Ruth, made me think of what the show might have done if a second season would've been made. Probably an ep with some stranded aliens (featuring some interesting low-budget make-up) would have shown up. We'll never know, but we can enjoy the series as a commendable effort by Filmation to make a quality show.

  2. Well, John, I certainly remember Ark II, and when I came across a DVD set that included Ark II, Space Academy, and Jason of Star Command, I snatched it right up. It was fun reliving those Saturday morning TV days (as I also did with my Star Trek:TAS set.) Even back then, I saw that each show was built upon the work of the last, especially the ongoing re-use of the Ark as the Seeker and then as the Starfire. And even the music from the animated Trek got repurposed a few times. Ah, good old Filmation knew how to squeeze a budget!

    As for an "adult" Ark II... it seems to me that would be treading more into Roddenberry's world of Genesis II (hmm, interesting title similarity!) and the spin-offs from that. If someone can come up with a premise that doesn't involve "civilization/evil warlord of the week", it could be quite entertaining-- and yes, please make it "too cerebral", as there's nothing wrong with thinking!

    Also, consider that we already have a post-zombie apocalypse on TV ("The Walking Dead") and there's another, post-industrial world on the horizon this fall (NBC's "Revolution.") Maybe the success of those series will light the way for more stories in the genre.

    Thanks for the retrospective!

  3. Anonymous5:24 PM

    John excellent review of the Ark II “Orkus” final episode and your last insightful thoughts on the overall series. I am sad the reviews are complete. I absolutely agree with your points that Ark II’s production design was and still is impressive today. Also, that the Ark II series is a yet untapped remake waiting to happen, however the brilliant production design must stay intact with no radical changes. You also hit on one of the reasons that I am a diehard fan the Kirk era Star Trek(1966-69)(1973-74 animated series)(2009- movies of J.J.Abrams) not the Next Generation era.