Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Big Video Wednesday - Verdict From Space

Okay, for this episode (the first), "Verdict From Space," they don't use the above title card. In fact, the entire title sequence with the gloved hand throwing the Switch of Doom had apparently not been conceived yet. There's just a bare title card, followed by an immediate pitch for Kreisler watch bands.

Wait, let me back up. I said last week that the Science Fiction League of America seemed to have something to do with noted science-fiction author Theodore Sturgeon. Well, I figured if that was true, they'd lead off with the big name, and sure enough...

There are no credits on the show. With the exception of the "star," Lon McCallister, no one is credited at all. It makes you realize just how much you take the conventions for granted when they're gone.

So yeah, no cool opening, no credits. However, imdb does credit Theodore Sturgeon as writing this episode, so I guess I'll believe it.

The story itself is not great, but better than some later episodes I saw. Lon McCallister plays a basement inventor who has built a special supercharged blowtorch. He is on trial for the murder of a noted professor of archaeology. As McCallister flashes back on the story, the scientist comes to him asking for help. He needs the super-blowtorch to open a metal door to a certain cave, which contains a machine that is over a million years old. McCallister agrees to go, and they head off for Painted Rock National Park.

I'm not making fun of the show's production values. It was low budget and performed live on a soundstage. At this point in TV's history, it was half radio and half live theater, so why not use painted flats for rocks if the audience would accept it?

So McCallister and the scientist find the cave, break in, and find the machine. The scientist has somehow figured out that the machine's function is to record seismic events on a wire somehow, and he can read the markings with a magnifying glass. He then demonstrates by showing McCallister the marks for the destruction of Pompeii, the San Francisco earthquake, and the detonation of the first atomic bomb, as well as Hiroshima and Nagasaki. God, I know this is the crucial scene to understanding the entire story, but it doesn't work on so many levels that it makes my head spin.

McCallister notices a second machine in the cave that he thinks is a transmitter of some kind, but the "brilliant" scientist tells him it doesn't matter, only the recording machine matters. Dope. Suddenly, the machine records a new event, like an atomic explosion but bigger. The transmitter suddenly comes to life, then both machines self-destruct. McCallister manages to make it out with the professor, but unfortunately, the professor has come down with a severe case of shoe polish on his face and dies.

Back in the courtroom, McCallister is found guilty, then gives an impassioned speech where he finally reveals that the machine must have been put here by aliens to signal them when a particular event happens, that event being the detonation of a hydrogen bomb, a "super-atomic" explosion. Since having the H-bomb means that fusion-powered spaceships are just around the corner, the aliens put their version of a smoke detector on Earth to let them know when they needed to destroy us. "They're coming! I don't know when they're coming, but they're coming!" McCallister says in a rambling monologue that seems half-improv, half-scripted on cue cards as the judge and lawyers look up at a strange noise. McCallister runs to the window and shouts, "Look! Up there in the sky!"

Alas, it's neither bird nor plane nor even frog. It's thousands of spaceships, conveniently arriving at the end of McCallister's monologue.

And now comes a moment of unscripted brilliance. As everyone in the courtroom runs to the window to see the aliens coming to blow them up real good, McCallister walks back into the courtroom. And maybe it's just me, but as the camera is pulling in for a close-up, I could swear a devious little smile flickers across his face for a couple of moments.

Because he set this all up. How do you get away with murder? By concocting a cock-and-bull story about some self-destructing alien machine killing your victim, and you make it convincing by arranging the invasion of Earth by thousands of flying saucers. Oh my God, the man is Keyser Soze crossed with Captain Sternn. I can just see him telling his lawyer, "Take it easy, Charlie. I've got an angle."

But all he says is "The sky is full of ships" and then we fade out. After a final pitch for Kreisler, we get another classic example of early TV half-improv:

Next week, our Tales of Tomorrow show is called "Blunder." A great blunder, where there is a scientist who is working on a blunder which may bring death to us all.

And the really bad thing about this one, he's the announcer. He's off camera. He should be working from a script. It's not as if this was new; they'd been working from scripts in radio for years. Srsly.

If you want to watch the full episode, here it is.

Oh, and one more thing before I forget: in the Kreisler ads, we're told that the price includes federal tax.

Was there a federal sales tax back then, or is this something else?

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