Breakaway Day 2017: "Earthbound"
In “Earthbound,” Commissioner Simmonds (Roy Dotrice) complains in a Command Conference about the Alphans’ direction for the future.
He wants to know why there has been no discussion -- and no concrete plans – for a return to Earth.
Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) counters that a return to Earth is impossible and that the Alphans are, rightly, focusing on two primary goals: survival, and a new place to call home.
Rather than going into orbit, however, it crashes on the lunar surface. Aboard an Eagle, Koenig, Professor Victor Bergman (Barry Morse) and Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain) investigate the vehicle. They force entry, and find several humanoid aliens in suspended animation in transparent sleep cubicles.
Zantor shows no malice regarding the accident, and introduces his people, the Kaldorians. They are the last survivors of a world that has grown sterile, and they are traveling to Earth where they hope to be welcomed as friends.
Their journey, they report, will take seventy five years.
Simmonds wants Koenig to choose him, but Koenig refuses, noting that the choice must be objective. Simmonds refuses to accept that answer. He attacks Alpha’s power station and holds the base captive.
But Simmonds has not allowed Zantor time to prepare a proper physiological matrix for him, meaning that the suspended animation process does not work correctly. Simmonds learns this the hard way very soon into the 75 year journey.
Not always, of course. Some stories deal with wonder or awe, the other side of the equation.
But a good number of stories, especially in Year One, contend with horror-based ideas, like the monster in “Dragon’s Domain,” a man with the Midas Touch (“Force of Life,”) ghosts (“The Troubled Spirit”), and even sadism and torture (“End of Eternity”).
In particular, it pivots off a key element in Edgar Allen Poe’s (1809-1849) short story: The Premature Burial (1844). In Poe’s time, a pervasive cultural fear, in fact, was being buried alive. Poe's tale involved a character obsessed -- wracked with fear, in fact -- regarding this fate. He took many steps to prevent such an outcome, and yet (it appeared, anyway...) that it was all for naught.
Here, Commissioner Simmonds fails to take the necessary precautions before entering a suspended animation chamber, and awakens only a short-time in on a seventy-five year flight. All the other people on the ship -- Zantor and the Kaldorians -- are sound asleep and therefore oblivious to his desperate cries for help.
And because the cubicle is transparent, we are able to watch Simmonds’ panic grow and grow, as he repeatedly throws himself against the unbreakable walls of the sleep cubicle Finally he is left screaming, defeated, with no way to escape his premature burial.
Koenig orders the Computer to pick one name among the Alphans; one person who the base can reasonably spare if it is to continue to function. Since Simmonds is not really a member of the base personnel, he is the natural choice to go.
But Simmonds refuses to let “chance” (or, presumably, a machine) dictate his fate, and takes steps to assure that he goes home.
Alas, the irregular manner of his methods -- blackmail, hostages, gunpoint diplomacy, etc. -- assure that he will not be adequately prepared for the voyage. He does not trust Zantor, and doesn’t give him time to prepare a biological matrix. So he will go home…but he will never, in fact, see home.
Helena asks Koenig who Computer ultimately chose to return to Earth. In one of the series’ greatest, most chill-inducing codas, Alpha's commander answers. With one word.
Outside of the horror trope re-purposed for the near future, and the chilling, Twilight Zone-worthy twist or denouement, we also get examples of the Alphans at their best here. The Kaldorians are treated as friends and allies, not as monsters or enemies.
A common criticism of the series is that the Alphans are always “menaced” by advanced aliens. Clearly, that’s not the case in “Earthbound.” If anything, the Alphans here are menaced by human nature; by Simmond’s selfishness and cut-throat determination. As Paul Morrow (Prentis Hancock) trenchantly notes at one point, the Alphans are better off without Simmonds.
This great actor passed away a few months ago, and left behind a vast catalog of amazing work. “Earthbound” is an intriguing part of that work because Lee plays against type. In the early-to-mid-1970s he was widely typecast as a villain (The Wicker Man , The Satanic Rites of Dracula , The Man with the Golden Gun ).
But Lee remains a fascinating presence right through his last appearance in the episode in part because he keeps the character’s motivations opaque.
Is this murder, or merely an adherence to the logic of the moment?
It is very likely that even if Zantor warned Simmonds about the necessity of a matrix, Simmonds wouldn’t believe him. Hence, the same fate would result.
But I love how ambiguous the moment is, in terms of Zantor's decision-making and feelings.
Here the Alphans accidentally kill a Kaldorian while attempting to open a sleep bay. It is a mistake, of course, but a bad one.
Yet when you put human nature together with the unknown, such things may happen, even if the humans -- Koenig, Bergman and Helena -- have the best of intentions.