Thursday, May 29, 2014

Cult-TV Flashback: UFO (1969 - 1970): "Mindbender"

By its very nature, science fiction television is a milieu for diligently exploring other realities.

Those "other" realities could include a starship exploring alien worlds in the 23rd century, or a mysterious island in the Pacific, where plane crash survivors toil.

Yet, over the years, some notable installments of science fiction TV series have also occasionally crossed paths with our kitchen-sink reality, right here. 

In this type of story, the fourth wall gets shattered...and shattered good.  

The imaginary world of the characters suddenly overlaps with the real world of the filmmaker or the writer. These mind-blowing tales thus ask (and demand...) that the regular audience suddenly view the familiar "universe" or canon of a sci-fi series in a different and often challenging way.  In other words, viewers are asked to recognize the artifice of storytelling, or even of movie-making.

One of the earliest examples of this genre trope came in 1960, in the first season of Rod Serling's anthology, The Twilight Zone

In the episode "A World of Difference" a business executive, Arthur Curtis (Howard Duff) discovers he's not really in his office taking business calls...he's on a movie set. He's an actor playing a part. Reality has shifted like sand beneath his feet. His memories of a wife -- of a life itself -- are nothing more than manifestations of a writer's imagination; of a script.

Rod Serling returned to the same theme in Night Gallery, in November of 1971.  In "Midnight Never Ends," a hitchhiking soldier comes to realize he's just a character trapped in a bad, in-progress story; just a cog in the inner workings of a writer's machine.  He can even hear -- from somewhere high up above -- the keys of a typewriter pounding away.

In 1998, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine featured a variation on this tale. Captain Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) in "Far Beyond the Stars" hallucinates that he's a pulp science fiction author in 1950s America.

As a man named Benny, he writes a science fiction saga about a futuristic space station...and an African-American captain. All those people around him think the story is great, but worry that America isn't ready yet to believe in or accept a black star ship captain. 

So the question becomes: is Sisko that future captain, living in the 24th century?  Or is he but a frustrated, delusional writer of the Eisenhower decade...imagining a better tomorrow?

Astronaut Conroy discovers a strange moon rock in "Mindbender"
One of the most stylish examples of this self-reflexive story -- a story which finds characters in the drama becoming active participants not in a narrative, but in the "creation" of the drama -- is "Mindbender," from Gerry Anderson's UFO.  

This segment originally  aired on CBS in 1971, and was written by Tony Barwick. 

As you may recall, UFO is set in the far flung, future year of 1980.  The series depicts the on-going battle between Earth forces under the umbrella S.H.A.D.O. (Supreme Headquarters Alien Defense Organization) and nefarious aliens from a dying world; aliens bent on harvesting human organs as replacement parts. 

The stalwart hero of the series, Commander Ed Straker (Ed Bishop) is a tough-as-nails combatant.  With a punk haircut -- and universally adorning a stylish Nehru jacket --  Straker commands S.H.A.D.O. from the cover of a bustling movie studio.

"Mindbender" arrives near the end of the 26-hour long episode series catalog, during a spell in which the writers, actors, and directors were functioning on all thrusters, consistently delivering dazzling science-fiction concepts in conjunction with cutting edge, expressive film techniques 

Wanda Ventham had joined the cast as Straker's gorgeous number 2 at S.H.A.D.O, Colonel Virginia Lake, and the final shows feature some great, amusing banter between Straker, Lake and Michael Billington's Paul Foster, a pilot working for the organization.  In terms of narratives, late-era UFO episodes deal  persuasively with the drug/hippie culture ("The Long Sleep"), and even bend and freeze time itself ("Timelash").

In the imaginatively-conceived "Mindbender," an attacking UFO explodes over the lunar surface, just four miles from S.H.A.D.O.'s moon base.   Straker and Foster travel to the moon to investigate.

Leone meets Kubrick, Gerry Anderson-style.
Astronaut Andy Conroy, an amateur author of Westerns, recovers a strange translucent rock from the spaceship wreckage, and very soon loses his grip on reality. 

Specifically, Conroy begins to envision his comrades on Moon Base, including Nina Barry (Dolores Mantez) as dangerous, gun-toting Mexican bandits straight out of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western.

Commendably, Conroy's western-style hallucination is visualized by episode director Ken Turner as a deliberate tribute to the famous "Man with No Name" films of Leone and Clint Eastwood. 

The musical score lovingly evokes Ennio Morricone's famous work...almost down to a note.  And stylistically and physically the episode apes efforts such as A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965). For instance, Turner repeatedly cuts to extreme close-ups of Conroy's steely eyes, a staple of these great 1960s westerns. 

Gunfight at the Moon Base Corral
Additional shots feature grungy, grinning  bandits with bad teeth and other highly-unpleasant physical characteristics.  In other words, these phantasm individuals are purposefully exaggerated in the familiar spaghetti western mode too. 

The episode likewise deploys fish-eye lenses at points, and utilizes slow-motion photography for explosive shoot-out moments. 

Over a period of minutes, then, sterile, high-tech Moon base is transformed entirely (at least from Conroy's perspective...) into an outlaw Mexican town, and a gunfight ensues

I might add, this sort of anachronistic visualization is the last thing you would expect in the gadgetry-heavy, artificial future world of UFO.  It's a jarring conjunction of primitive and futuristic, and is appropriately "strange" and hallucinatory, well in keeping with the episode's narrative.

The aliens are here...
...or are they?
After Conroy's death on Moon base, the offending moon rock gets transferred to S.H.A.D.O. headquarters on Earth, located  under the movie studio. 

There, Captain James, another veteran astronaut, is exposed and also quickly goes insane.  He "sees" all of his co-workers as uniformed aliens and, like Conroy before him, goes on a paranoid shooting spree.  He abducts Colonel Lake, attempts to kill Straker, and is eventually subdued.

But the mystery deepens.  What is going on?

Soon, Straker learns the answer for himself.   In his office, he comes in contact with the offending alien rock.

During an intense argument with bureaucratic, dollar-pinching General Henderson (Grant Taylor) Straker begins to lose his steely composure and grip on sanity.  "Let's get back to realities," Henderson argues, yelling at Straker.

And then -- just as his temper boils over --  Straker hears a voice (from somewhere off-screen...) yell "Cut" and "Print." 

Suddenly, a film crew descends upon him and begins calling him Howard Byrne...the name of an actor on the movie studio where Straker works.

Straker wanders out of his office...only to see that it is a TV show set surrounded by lights, cameras and other filmmaking paraphernalia. 

Confused, he heads out to the studio grounds and actually runs smack into his stand-in (Stuart Damon), who is even wearing a white wig, mimicking his distinctive hair-style. Soon, the confused Straker is ordered to report to Theater 7, where the rushes of his "show" are about to begin.

Straker obediently sits down in an auditorium and the footage commences.  He watches as footage from the pilot episode of the series, "Identified," plays on the screen before him.  After this sequence, Straker watches in torturous paralysis the death of his young son, Johnny...all material from another previous episode, "A Question of Priorities."

Face to face with a stand-in.
Paul Foster then sits down next to Straker, calling himself "Mike" (Michael Billington), and notes that this traumatic material will "make a great episode." 

An emotionally-affected Straker,  forced again to countenance his myriad personal failures (a recurring theme of the series in episodes such as "Confetti Check A-OK" and "A Question of Priorities"), objects. 

"That's my life!  That's my son!"

After seeing his son struck by a car, and his wife, Mary, tell him that she never wants to see him, Straker begins to really lose it (an outburst which "Mike" compliments as "method acting." )

But soon, the ever-rational, ever-resilient Straker realizes that he has been adversely affected by an alien "booby trap," one "aimed at the mind."  He understands that to get back to his world, his reality,  he must focus.  General Henderson has already informed him that he has a "monkey on his back," called "dedication."  Now he must tap into that dedication.

Isolation and alienation in the auditorium.
Straker returns to HQ to "play" the scene with General Henderson over again.  After a rapid, highly cinematic pull-back away from Straker depicting our protagonist as but one of many working actors on the studio lot, we get back to "realities," as Henderson puts it. 

With dedication and concentration, Straker recites his "dialogue."  He gets back in "the moment."

The longer he goes on, the more that Straker's reality reasserts itself.  The film crew transforms before our eyes -- in almost iconic composition -- into the courageous  men and women of S.H.A.D.O.  The walls re-form -- the fourth wall re-established -- and Straker is home, at last.

I admire how "Mindbender" works so well on two levels.  

On one level is the literal narrative: the story of an alien "booby trap" confusing the minds of S.H.A.D.O.'s best and brightest.  

On another, more metaphorical level, the subject here is film itself; how sometimes we replay events in our lives as if they're old movies.  We see this in Conroy's subplot, as he imagines himself a cowboy.  And we see it -- tragically -- with Straker, as he is forced to relive all his personal pain on the silver screen.

Straker strenuously objects to the idea that movie makers would steal his life and his memories and "put them up on the screen" for the entertainment of others...but that's what the art-form always does.  It takes from real life...and not always in a pleasant way 

Tragedy, regret, pathos...they all make a "great episode," don't they?

"This will make a great episode..."
"Mindbender" also gets at the fragility of the whole process of filmmaking, of the whole illusion, in some clever way.  Every week, we tune into a show like Star Trek or UFO and willfully suspend our disbelief. 

We know we are watching actors and special effects, a filmed entertainment with a pre-determined outcome and an emotion-provoking musical track. 

And yet with our whole minds (and our whole hearts...) we dupe ourselves into believing, after a fashion, that what we are seeing is "real;" that these characters truly "exist." 

UFO playfully blows the lid off that carefully constructed folie-en-famille, revealing to the audience not pilot Paul Foster, but actor Mike Billington; pulling back on high-angle shots of Moon base, Skydiver, and Straker's office and deliberately showing us that these environs are all carefully-constructed sets...merely artifice.

This is a high-wire act, be certain. The curtain is pulled back and the truth revealed, but in a science fiction series like UFO, there's no guarantee that once revealed, the magic can be restored.  Yet it is, most definitively, restored, by "Mindbender's" conclusion.  

As viewers, we greet Straker's escape from our reality back to his world as a huge relief.  We breathe easy again.   He escapes into fantasy, in one sense, as perhaps we might like to do.  The walls of suspension of disbelief are, again, erected...and we sneak back in, along with Straker.  We're back in the drama, back in the shared delusion or dream.

"Mindbender" plays beautifully with form and anticipates our every reaction.  The magician reveals -- at least briefly -- his hand, and then it's back to fashioning the magic again. And in shows like "A World of Difference," "Midnight Never Ends," "Far Beyond the Stars" and "Mindbender," the artist not only tells us a story; he invites us inside the process to take a nuts-and-bolts look at how that story gets delivered to us; at the ways the artistic mind conjures up the illusions of another world, another reality.

This kind of story can be done and has been done many times as a self-referential joke...a lark.  But sometimes -- when it is vetted so brilliantly (as is the case on UFO) -- this long-standing genre convention makes us ask important questions about what is real life and what is fantasy. 

More than that, it asks us to consider, perhaps, the reasons that we flock so readily and easily to the fantasy.

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