Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Man from Atlantis: "Melt Down" (September 22, 1977)


In “Melt Down,” the villainous Mr. Schubert (Victor Buono) uses a “phase shifting” microwave device to melt the ice in the Chukchi Sea. He thus causes sea levels to rise dangerously around the world. 

Schubert’s machine causes catastrophic impact on coastal communities, and the Cetacean -- the highly-advanced submarine for the Foundation for Oceanic Research -- is assigned to investigate the crisis.

Water-breather Mark Harris (Patrick Duffy) is able to de-activate one microwave device by using his biological sonar to jam it. The ocean in that region promptly re-freezes, leaving Mark in jeopardy until Schubert rescues him with a helicopter.  

The mad genius has a devilish proposition for Harris: he will cease and desist all activities jeopardizing civilization if an only if Mark agrees to be his willing test subject. Schubert wants to learn the secrets of his DNA so he can create a race of water-breathing super-men.

Although Dr. Merrill (Belinda Montgomery) objects to this devil’s bargain, Mark agrees to go to Schubert of his own free will. 

Mark changes his mind, however, when he realizes Schubert has double-crossed everyone, and continues to operate his microwave devices to threaten the world with rising sea levels.



“Melt Down” is the first episode of Man from Atlantis (1977) as a regular weekly series, rather than as a series of TV movies.  

The episode introduces several new elements to the series, including Sea Base (the HQ for the Foundation of Oceanic Research), replete with "walkway." (seen below.)



There is also the futuristic upgrade for that remarkable submarine, the Cetacean.



The Cetacean, a miniature created by Gene Warren and used for the franchise (as an unnamed sub in the first two TV movies) is a fascinating sci-fi vehicle, and it is part of the tradition of TV subs that also includes the Seaview and the Sea Quest. 

While the exterior is awesome and original-looking -- a series of four spheres connected by a dorsal lattice -- the upgraded control room or bridge seen here looks much like a 20th century version of the starship Enterprise bridge.  


To wit: there’s a central command chair, a helm station, and a communications station that comes complete with a Spock-like hooded scope or viewer in silver. 

Although no “ranks” are ever listed in the series, Harris seems to be the captain of the Cetacean, since he sits in the center seat.  Also -- and again unlike the TV movies -- the crew wears a very specific (and attractive) futuristic blue uniform with green vertical stripes.

The introduction of the Cetacean and settings like a futuristic control room and sickbay (in "Giant") seems to promise that Man From Atlantis could be an underwater Star Trek (1966-1969), exploring the mysteries of the sea and mark's heritage.  

Unfortunately, most of the episodes -- as the series wears on -- play more like very light-hearted The Six Million Dollar Man (1974-1978).  In both of those series, an individual of unusual capabilities (either bionic, or a water breather) becomes part of a government hierarchy (either the OSI or the Foundation for Oceanic Research.) In this capacity, that individual with "super powers" conquers a variety of villains, both criminal and fantastic in nature

The inaugural episode of the regular series, “Melt Down” maintains a degree of seriousness, though campy aspects are already beginning to bleed into the proceedings.  

For instance, Schubert prepares a “house” for Harris aboard his freighter.  What is that house? The floor of a swimming pool, decorated with cheap yard furniture.  At one point Mark is seen relaxing there, in the pool, reading a water-proof edition of Scientific American.


In terms of Mark’s abilities -- which I'll track in these reviews -- he here uses a form of internal or biological sonar to disable a phase shift microwave machine that is sending out tremendous amounts of radiation.  

This development makes sense because Mark is contextualized, in the series as a kind of Spock character, as I’ve written before. He is a physically-superior outsider, but one with unusual biology and capabilities.  His webbed fingers are the equivalent of those Vulcan pointed ears, physically-marking him as separated from those around him.  Spock has mental abilities like mind-meld, and Mark similarly possesses mental abilities, like the biological sonar.

“Melt Down” introduces a weird aspect of the series too. Virtually every installment of Man from Atlantis features Mark, deep underwater, speaking directly to the Cetacean command crew on a viewer or view screen.  




Here, we see that Cetacean boasts several exterior cameras (up to 9 at least), meaning that such visualization is absolutely possible (especially since Cetacean has a large forward spotlight), but there is another issue worth mentioning. 

Mark does not speak into a communicator or speaker, or any other device, and his voice is heard on the Cetacean without distortion or interference from the water. In the mini-series, at least, there was reverb to suggest that he was speaking through water.

In the series, however, he just speaks underwater, on camera, and Merrill and the others hear him perfectly.  This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and it would have been preferable to mention that Mark has a microphone implanted in his throat, or to feature him wearing a head set of some type.


The villain in this episode, Mr. Schubert worked well in the pilot episode as a kind of James Bondian bad guy, and is also effective here, in “Melt Down,” but he will soon grow excessively campy and wear out his welcome on the series.  

Part of the problem is that the first half of the series is front-loaded with Schubert appearances.  The character is the motivating antagonist in “Melt Down,” “The Mudworm,” and “Hawk of Mu,” the first three stories.  Then Schubert doesn’t appear in one tale (“Giant,”) but returns for episode number five, “Man O’War.”  In each of these stories, he conducts clear criminal operations, and yet is never arrested, or caught.

In terms of Mark Harris’s character, “Melt Down” does a fine job of re-establishing his moral barometer or compass.  

For Mark, there is no choice in the matter when he learns that millions will suffer if he doesn’t agree to Schubert’s terms.  Accordingly, he makes a moral decision and surrenders himself.  Still, Mark feels for the first time the emotion of“guilt” when he realizes that he is the reason that so many people could die.

It seems the intent was to have Mark experience and learn about human emotions throughout the series, and that idea gets a good start in "Melt Down."

Fans of science fiction and horror will recognize some of the cast here. Ark II’s (1976) Ruth, Jean Marie Hons, begins her recurring role here as a Cetacean bridge officer, at the communications station.  



And Dee Wallace guest stars as a friendly woman whose restaurant is threatened by the rising sea levels.  Mark meets her, and realizes how his inaction could do harm to her.

Next up: “The Mudworm.”

1 comment:

  1. Definitely Star Trek of the sea. I enjoyed the MFA in the '70s as a boy.

    SGB

    ReplyDelete