Saturday, October 17, 2015
Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Space Academy: "Countdown" (October 1, 1977)
“Countdown” is an action-packed installment of the 1977 "space adventure" kid's show, Space Academy.
"Countdown" begins in silly fashion with each of the main characters showing off their super-human abilities while attempting to move a storage crate. Laura (Pamelyn Ferdin) and Chris Gentry (Ric Carrott) demonstrate their PK abilities; Loki (Eric Greene) flaunts his teleportation skills, and Tee Gar Soom ( Brian Tochi) reveals his super strength. Poor Paul and Adrian...they don't have any superpowers, which must be tough for them.
After this demonstration, Commander Gampu (Jonathan Harris) contacts the gang from the control room to tell them it's their job to clean up floating space debris left over from the Vegan Wars, three hundred years ago.
Today, the debris poses a "potential danger" to space navigation; but Paul isn't too happy about it. "The Academy isn't here to teach garbage collecting," he whines.
Gampu's response? "The Academy is all things to all people."
The team sets out in a Seeker to blow up the offending debris, but stumbles across a chunk of Vegan dreadnought from the "Third Star War" which occurred 200 years ago, near "Proxima Centauri."
The Seeker docks with the spinning debris (in a splendidly-realized miniature sequence...) and Laura, Chris and Loki discover a "Frozen Vegan" in a suspended animation chamber. His name is Roarg.
Meanwhile, a small space mine attaches to the Seeker's hull and begins a countdown to destruction.
The debris field is a mine trap!
Now Chris must convince Roarg that the war is indeed over, and he should help them defuse the space mine. Eventually Roarg, a fleet communications officer, agrees, and aids Chris. .
There’s a pretty solid case to be made that “Countdown” is Space Academy’s finest episode. The special effects are stunning, and include the impressive visual of a Seeker docking with drifting space debris. We see the debris from many angles, as well as the Seeker’s maneuvering.
Again, I find it shocking that this Saturday morning series -- shot on a shoe string -- rivals the special effect visuals you see in prime-time (expensive) contemporaries like Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979) and Buck Rogers (1979-1981).
Leaving aside the visuals and imagery, the narrative is strong. The story is filled with danger, while at the same time allowing the cadets to put their “peaceful” learning into action. To wit, the cadets must face off against a strange alien, just awoken from cryo-sleep, as well as stop a mine counting down to destruction in the debris field. There’s some tension and suspense, as well as a believable confrontation with Roarg.
“Countdown” has some unique antecedents too. The plot reminded me of that old TV nugget about a Japanese soldier living on a jungle island into the 1960s, not believing the war is over, even when he encounters friendly Americans. “Countdown” updates that story to space, works in suspended animation, and even has a plea for peace and friendship. It all works in surprisingly economical and creative ways.
If “Countdown” seems familiar to you, it may be because Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) told a very similar story in its third season. In the story “Booby Trap,” Picard’s Enterprise blunders into a debris field from a centuries-old war, and runs into an ancient trap, power-sucking mines, as opposed to the destructive one here. It’s essentially the same story seen in “Countdown,” but “Countdown” adds the Roarg factor, an alien from the past forced to contend with the present.
The only disappointing aspect of “Countdown” involves some of the on-the-nose writing of the finale. Tee Gar actually says “I learned something today,” making sure that kids get the lesson of the week -- cooperating among former enemies -- hammered home.
Next week, another decent show: “The Rocks of Janus.”