Monday, April 06, 2015

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Prison

A prison is a facility that houses criminals sentenced by the state for their actions, and operates under the auspices of the state's authority. Prisons are usually minded by wardens (over-seers), patrolled by guards, and feature cells with bars where criminals are housed.

The prison has been a staple of cult-television history, and a frequent setting for one-off stories as well as series. 

An early episode of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone (1959-1961) involves, prison, for example.  In "Escape Clause," Walter Bedeker (David Wayne) makes a deal with the Devil (Thomas Gomez) for immortality (the cost: his soul). He is then arrested for the murder of his wife, and wishes to experience the death the electric chair. But Walter is shocked when his punishment is announced: life in prison.  Eternal life in prison, that is...

A late episode of Lost in Space (1965 - 1968), "Fugitives in Space" involves an ape-like alien named Creech (Michael Conrad) who escapes from a space prison. Enforcers in pursuit of the fugitive end up taking Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) and Don West (Mark Goddard) back to jail for aiding and abetting him.

Star Trek (1966 - 1969) featured many episodes that included jail cells ("Bread and Circuses" and "Patterns of Force," to name two), as well as two episodes that were set at penal colonies -- futuristic prisons.  Those episodes were "Dagger of the Mind" and "Whom Gods Destroy."

In Year Two of Space:1999 (1976 - 1977), Commander John Koenig's (Martin Landau) eagle crash-landed on a lunar penal colony in "Devil's Planet."  There, he encountered political prisoners, and a vicious warden named Elizia (Hildegarde Neil). The only way to be "pardoned" and escape the prison on the moon of Entra, Koenig soon learned, was to survive a "hunt" by the prison guards.  But even that hunt -- and transportation back to the mother planet Ellna -- was a ruse.

In the 1978 version of Battlestar Galactica from producer Glen a. Larson, the episode "The Long Patrol" (Oct 15, 1978), saw Lt Starbuck (Dirk Benedict) incarcerated at the Proteus Prison, a forgotten and ancient facility for humans.  All the inmates there were descendants of the original criminals. 

Starbuck also learns at Proteus Prison the mystery of the "Silent One," an astronaut from the legendary planet Earth who may have once lived in his cell...and left behind a map to the Thirteenth Colony!

The early first season episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 – 1981) titled “Unchained Woman” finds Buck (Gil Gerard)  tasked with breaking a prisoner -- Jen Burton (Jamie Lee Curtis) -- out of an inescapable, subterranean prison on the moon Zeta 3 so she can testify against her boyfriend, Mal Pantera (Michael Delano), who has been ambushing Directorate shipping lanes. 

Complicating the mission, Buck must also contend with a relentless and invincible android prison guard whom he has nicknamed Hugo (Walter Hunt).  After escaping from the prison with Jen, Buck has to escape Hugo’s pursuit (and deal with hungry sand squids...) and meet Wilma (Erin Gray) at a rendezvous point.

On the original Doctor Who (1963 - 1989), a serial called "Vengeance on Varos" during the era of the Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker), involved a former prison colony where the people were entertained by TV programming that involved the suffering and torture of citizens. 

On Star Trek Voyager (1995 - 2001), a third season episode "The Chute" (September 18, 1996), saw Harry Kim (Garrett Wang) and Tom Paris (Robert Duncan McNeill) arrested on a planet called Akritira as terrorists. They were then shipped to a savage prison station in space, and implanted with a device ("the clamp") that could increase prisoner aggression.

Deep Space Nine (1993 - 1999), meanwhile, offered a prison of a different type. Chief O'Brien (Colm Meaney) experiences twenty years of memories after just a few hours in prison, fulfilling a long sentence that wrecks him emotionally, in "Hard Time."

Other series, not sci-fi or horror in nature, have also involved prisons.  

Oz (1997 - 2005) is an HBO series set at the Oswald State Correctional Facility in New York.  

Prison Break (2005 - 2009) is the story of a structural engineer, Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller) who attempts to break his brother, Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell) out of the maximum security Fox River Penitentiary.

And finally, the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black (2013 - ) from Jenji Kohan tells the story of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) who goes to prison for one year for a youthful indiscretion.  Kate Mulgrew -- Star Trek Voyager's Captain Janeway -- plays Red, the Russian inmate who runs the prison's kitchen

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