Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Breakaway Week: "End of Eternity"

“End of Eternity” by Johnny Byrne and directed by Ray Austin is one of the most suspenseful, nightmarish Space: 1999 episodes produced during the series’ forty-eight episode run in the mid-1970s.  

In particular, this installment represents a near-perfect blend of cinematic visual style with a thoughtful science fiction premise involving immortality. 

Featuring strong horror overtones, the episode reveals, almost without flaw, the Space: 1999 creative aesthetic at is best.  

Simply put, “End of Eternity” depicts how visual touches -- in terms of innovative editing techniques and detailed production design-- actually buttress and express characterization, and other critical information.  In other words, the story itself -- with all its nuance and coloring -- is not contained merely in the dialogue, but in the meticulous, beautifully-wrought imagery.

“End of Eternity” commences with a team of Alphan astronauts, including Commander John Koenig (Martin Landau) exploring an asteroid that has been adrift for a thousand years.  Professor Victor Bergman (Barry Morse) discovers a chamber with a breathable atmosphere inside the rock, and the Alphans detonate explosives to reach it.  Deep inside, they find a “one room world,” and its single occupant: the humanoid Balor (Peter Bowles).  He is a citizen of the planet Progron and has been trapped in this prison for a thousand years.

When Balor recovers from the injuries he sustained during the Alphans' opening of his asteroid jail, Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain) realizes that his cells are regenerating at an amazing rate.  He is, practically-speaking, immortal.  

When questioned about this quality, Balor notes that his people “cast him out” after immortality was discovered on their world.  They did so, he states, because they did not appreciate his efforts to make immortality meaningful in the absence of death.

Soon, the Alphans get a taste of Balor’s governing philosophy.  He believes that sadism, torture, pain and terror are the true pathways to wisdom for both the immortal and mortal, and wants to introduce these components to life on Alpha.  And since he’s virtually invincible -- impervious even to lasers -- Koenig and the Alphans have no way to stop him.

I had the pleasure of interviewing teleplay author and 1999 script editor Johnny Byrne (1935 - 2008) about “End of Eternity” after we became friends in the early 2000s. He told me that his goal in crafting this story had been to present a terrifying horror story, right down to the opening scenes on the asteroid.  “It’s always more sinister when you break into a place,” he told me. “There’s the feeling of a secret discovered.  It sets up a kind of resonance. You’re in for grief, and that is the essence of good horror writing.”

He also based the character of Balor on precedents throughout Earth history. “Balor was named after Baal, an old Indo-European God,” Byrne explained.  “Those who worshipped Baal gave their first born to him in these horrible human sacrifices.  That is something echoed in the story, that Balor needs placating, and that his appeasement can only be achieved through the pain and suffering of others.  Basically, he saw the Alphans as 311 laboratory rats that he could do with as he pleased.

Another reference point for author Byrne was Lucifer, particularly in the description of Balor as being “cast out” from his people, and his incarceration in a kind of Hell-like prison. “It’s a Lucifer metaphor taken to an extreme point of view,” Mr. Byrne acknowledged.  “Many people, you know, say Lucifer got a bum deal. He got what’s called “victor’s justice.” He lost the war, therefore he’s demonized. He’s Milosevich or Saddam Hussein. He is all those people who failed in their endeavors and ended up on the losing side.  That’s what Balor was: the loser in a terrible conflict, but he still had that humanity in him.  His fatal flaw was that he could no longer sympathize with the experiences of others because he considered himself immortal.

And immortality, of course, is the beating thematic heart of “End of Eternity,” the issue at the crux of the debate for the curious, technologically-inferior Alphans: “If you think about it, human beings are immortal in many ways,” Johnny explained. “In the continuing of family, we’re immortal.  We’re immortal in the sense of our work living beyond us.  We’re even immortal in terms of memory: when we die those who come after remember us.  But Balor in “End of Eternity” wanted physical longevity, which as I see it, is quite different from true immortality. True immortality should be something beyond the body, not merely the medical extension of life. That was Balor’s mistake. He saw immortality as the instantaneous regeneration of tissue, when in fact he was immortal in a quite different sense. People would forever remember his wickedness.

Balor’s story is depicted in "End of Eternity" striking visual terms. These visualizations accent Balor’s physical strength and his sense of domination over those around him. Specifically, when Balor escapes from Medical Section, he encounters two Alphan security guards, lifts them off their feet, and effortlessly defeats them with his bare (or gloved…) hands.  Throughout this sequence, there are no sound effects and no dialogue featured.  Instead, the scene is scored only with an eerie musical composition. The utter lack of the human, individual sounds we associate with fist-fights or battle thus gives the audience a sense both of Balor’s other-worldliness and his other-worldly power and physical strength.  

The next scenes -- with Balor stalking the corridors of Moonbase Alpha -- are similarly designed and executed to reflect Balor’s incredible physical power.  We see him from a low-angle, and he looks enormous.  He towers over the Alphans, and dominates totally.

Low angle: The Power of Balor

The Power of Balor: His victims don't make a sound.

Balor's Power redux.

What’s so brilliant about this visual approach  and motif -- that no sound even gets close to Balor -- is that the editor cannily reverses the technique at one dramatic point in the tale, and horrifyingly so.  Koenig asks Victor about Balor’s paintings, and what he feels they represent or symbolize. Barry Morse’s Victor turns towards Koenig and the camera, and, stone-faced, says, simply “Terror. Destruction. Torture.”

At this moment, immediately preceding Bergman's stunning conclusion, the episode shock cuts to close-ups of Balor’s disturbing paintings, but the artwork is accompanied by the screaming and wailing of Balor’s victims.  In other words, this is a deliberate inversion of approach.  Now, all of the sudden, we hear amplified (and see amplified as well…) the terror generated by Balor’s philosophy and “wisdom.”  It's a descent into Hell itself.

Between these two opposite approaches, we have depicted both Balor’s incredible strength and ability to stand above others, and the terror of those he dominates. It’s a brilliant visual contrast, and incredibly effective in terms of building suspense.

Victor suddenly understands Balor's philosophy of (endless) life.




Another significant scene in "End of Eternity" also amplifies the episode’s horror underpinnings.  A grounded Eagle pilot, Mike Baxter (Jim Smilie), falls under Balor’s diabolical influence and attacks Koenig. But it is no ordinary attack.  Mike bludgeons Koenig (literally to death...) with a model biplane. Once more, shock  cutting, which fractures continuity (and thus expectations and spatial geography) is deployed.  Making the moment even more alarming, the camera assumes Koenig's subjective POV as he is attacked.  

Often, Space: 1999’s visualizations possess a kind of grand scale and but minimalist formality, a carefully meted sense of order in terms of blocking and staging.  However, this brutal scene breaks down that well-established sense of TV decorum, and the attack is lensed entirely from Koenig’s perspective.  With jump cut ferocity, we watch as the biplane strikes the camera, --and therefore us -- again and again.  It’s absolutely vicious, and the wicked, inventive punch-line is that, at some point, the camera even mimics an angle we might see from a real plane, as the weapon/plane banks and turns to attack Koenig again and again.

Speaking of Mike Baxter, he’s a critical character in “End of Eternity,” and I appreciate how Space: 1999 handles this supporting guest character.  He’s an Eagle  pilot who “takes flight very seriously” as Balor notes.  But instead of giving us a long, predictable, exposition-laden speech about Baxter’s love of flight -- one establishing how disturbing his medical grounding is -- Space: 1999 conveys his story through production design

In Baxter's quarters, we can easily make-out artwork of the lunar lander, for instance, and also a brass or silver model plane.  The decoration of his quarters -- uncommented upon -- tell us what we need to know about the character’s passion…and therefore his weakness.  Balor exploits that weakness, and Koenig is bludgeoned with that weakness.  It's a perfect metaphor for the ways that the Devil "tempts" his victims with the very things they love and covet.

POV Attack.

Shock cutting POV Attack.

Plane banking, Shock Cutting, POV Attack...

“End of Eternity” reaches its crescendo of horror and suspense in the last act, as Balor and Koenig go head-to-head for total control of Moonbase Alpha.  This mano-a-mano contest is, again, expressed through dynamic visualization.  As Balor attacks Main Mission and rips up a computer panel, the camera zooms in to a tight close-up, and that very shot -- the zoom to close-up -- is mimicked and reflected in the very next shot of Koenig. It’s all between these two men now, the photography and editing reveal, and indeed, that’s how the episode resolves.  

"End of Eternity's" final moments fulfill the promise of the mirror-image zooms to close-up when Koenig sends Balor out of Moonbase Alpha’s airlock (foreshadowing Alien’s [1979] finale).  But the lead-up is a nail-biting contest between sadism and power (Balor) and self-sacrifice and experience (Koenig).

In the end, it’s a simple, human thing that renders Koenig victorious. He knows the lay-out of Moonbase Alpha better than Balor does, and is thus able to lead him into a trap.  He also understands that Balor -- a bully at heart -- is incapable of resisting the temptation to physically lord it over him, to hit him.   Thus Koenig knowingly goads Balor into striking him, so that our stalwart commander will fall into a safe ante-chamber, leaving Paul Morrow (Prentis Hancock) in Main Mission to open the airlock and send Balor out into space.  Adios.

All the stylistic editing and revealing production design in “End of Eternity” make the episode a stirring and even breathtaking installment of the series.  And yet, uniquely, considering all the overt horror we register in the episode, the most terrifying moment involves Bowles’ performance as Balor.  Throughout the episode he is calm and composed, and then -- terrifyingly -- he faces Koenig at about the thirty-six minute point and this veil of civilization absolutely drops.  Suddenly, we see his wicked smile, and his insane eyes.  Balor's sinister nature is visibly and irrevocably made apparent.

Balor's veil.

Balor's veil lifted.

Discussing Balor and “End of Eternity” with me, Johnny Byrne once told me this.  “Oh, I always intended to write another story about Balor. It was in my mind at the time.  He was a great character, so beautifully portrayed by Peter Bowles, and the episode was shot so wonderfully.  Even when I see it now, I’m still impressed.  When you see that scene played with the toy airplane, you just know Koenig isn’t going to get out of this one unscathed.”

Alas, Johnny never had the chance to write more about Balor and the world of “End of Eternity,” but author William Latham took up the challenge in the first officially-licensed Powys Space:1999 novel: “Resurrection.”   

So if you ever wanted to know what happens the second time Balor and Commander Koenig, this book provides the (riveting) answers.

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