Destruct that ship, General!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Episode Spotlight: "Moonstone" (3/09/1964)



“Moonstone”
Season 1, Episode 24
Originally aired 3/09/1964


In 1966, Frank Sinatra released Moonlight Sinatra, an album in which every song is somehow moon-related (it’s one of my favorite later-Sinatra records, but honestly, it can’t touch his Capitol Records catalog). It’s just one example of the prevalence of the moon in popular culture, particularly in the 1960’s as the US and Soviet Russia raced one another to set foot on its mysterious cratered surface. Moon Fever inevitably struck Daystar Productions and, fifty years ago tonight, the result shone forth.


Lunar Expedition One is an American military research station on the moon, researching the viability of eventual colonization. Colonel Stocker, Lieutenant Travers and Major Anderson are out for their daily constitutional when Anderson is half-swallowed by a slippery sand pit. As the others drag him out, a medicine ball-sized white globe is unearthed (or is that unmooned?). They bring it back to Professor Brice and Dr. Mendl at the base’s lab for further study.



Stocker and Brice are romantically involved, much to Anderson’s chagrin (there’s a faint suggestion that perhaps he wants her for himself, but he never articulates as much). Stocker and Anderson served together in Korea, and Anderson harbors a pretty severe grudge against Stocker for a strategic blunder that resulted in the destruction of an entire village. Tired of Anderson’s needling, Stocker has arranged for his transfer back to Earth. Anderson ties one on the night before his departure and, inside the lab, is angered to hear that Brice and Anderson are engaged. He drunkenly gets himself electrocuted, at which point the white globe --- the titular moonstone --- suddenly comes to life. It emits a beam of light which, after a few moments, heals Anderson’s damage. 


The Sphere of Mystery™ houses five small aquatic aliens, brilliant scientists from the distant planet Grippia. They are fleeing from their totalitarian rulers who plan to use their considerable knowledge to create new weapons of conquest. They indicate that a rescue ship is looking for them, and Stocker agrees to transmit a homing signal to attract it.  However, Grippia has sent a much larger moonstone after the refugees and, thanks to Stocker’s homing signal, learns their exact location.


The Grippian War Globe™ promptly destroys the rescue ship and makes a beeline for the moon base. Anderson suggests they load the moonstone onto their shuttle and take it to Earth, a plan that is quickly abandoned when the Grippian Battle Ball™ disintegrates Dr. Mendl as a show of force. Stocker acquiesces and orders that the Orb of Interplanetary Hope™ be taken outside and handed over before anyone else gets barbecued.


As the humans watch with horror, the scientists self-destruct their moonstone vessel and destroy themselves. The Grippian Death Sphere™ leaves empty-handed and without further incident.


RANDOMONIUM

“Moonstone” originated as a story outline by series producer Joseph Stefano and associate producer/story editor Lou Morheim, which was expanded to teleplay form by William Bast. Bast is probably best known in genre circles as the writer of Ray Harryhausen’s cowboys vs. dinosaurs epic The Valley of Gwanji (1969), and his work here…. well, it’s pretty weak and by the numbers. I’ve bashed Morheim in recent weeks for turning promising scripts into mediocre disappointments with his editorial alchemy; however, it’s hard to assign blame here because I have no idea how detailed his and Stefano’s story outline was, and what Bast brought to the table from there. So I guess I’ll cover all the bases and scowl at all three. “Moonstone” lacks character development and interesting dialogue (imagine what Meyer Dolinsky might’ve done with this), and the plot is too simplistic to adequately fill an hour. Ultimately my methodology for judging a script comes down a single question: at the end of it all, do I care? In the case of “Moonstone,” I do not. There’s nothing here to command my attention or stimulate my brain. 


In the director's chair is Outer Limits one-timer Robert Florey. Florey was a hugely prolific film director in the 30's and 40's (including horror classics like Universal's 1932 Murders in the Rue Morgue and 1942's The Beast with Five Fingers over at Warner Bros.) who, like many of his peers from the early days of Hollywood, found a second life of sorts with the advent of television. On the small screen, he directed episodes of Boris Karloff's Thriller, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and The Twilight Zone (including one of my all-time favorites, "Perchance to Dream"). "Moonstone" is his final directing credit. There's nothing particularly stylish going on here but, since the episode is so reliant on repurposed footage (from TV's Men into Space, which also contributed some key material to "Specimen: Unknown" two weeks ago) and optical effects, I think it was wise to simply stay out of the way of the eye candy, which is nicely lensed by director of photography John Nickolaus (whose biggest task was matching the new footage with the Men into Space stuff, and he does an admirable job of it).

So this week it's all about the moon. Act one opens with a lovely, atmospheric shot of the old girl, playing peek-a-boo behind some clouds in a night sky, framed by gently swaying foliage in the foreground. This one shot succinctly evokes man's dreamy longing to solve her glowing, gossamer mysteries. Reinforcing the ethereal quality of the visual is Dominic Frontiere's "Galaxies" cue from "Nightmare." We then dissolve to the ugliest, most stupid-looking fake moon I’ve ever seen. It's so ineptly rendered that I can only assume a small child made it. Seriously, what is that giant gash in it? Oh wait, I think I've figured the whole thing out. Ladies and gentlemen, meet MOONGINA!


Honestly, all the stock footage out there, and they picked that eyesore? They could've filmed a ping pong ball and it would've looked better. Hell, why didn’t they just repurpose the very nice moon featured EVERY SINGLE WEEK in the opening credits?







“Moonstone” is at best a mediocre episode, but it contains one of the series’ most brilliantly conceived aliens. The Grippians are eerie and surreal, their physiology a fascinating cross between a sea anemone and a jellyfish, with a single large eyeball at the center. There’s an elegance and, yes, even a charm to them as they swim around slowly inside their globe, their movements almost hypnotic. The bizarre sounds that emanate from them, a kind of tortured, high-pitched whale song, reinforces their apparent aquatic nature.


In fact, the entire episode is a visual feast for the eyes. On top of the usual blinking computer panels and consoles (of which there are several), there’s a beautiful domed lunar base, complete with a detached life-sized scanner array (which we also see destroyed after the Grippian tyrants show up), and an extravagant lunar exterior environment (which includes a functioning “quicksand” trap!). This particular set utilizes the cyclorama background from MGM’s Forbidden Planet, which also appeared in several Twilight Zone episodes.*


In fact, I’m so dazzled by the visuals this week that I want to give a special shout out to the effects gang behind the scenes. Project Unlimited, take a bow!



It saddens me to report that, for all its beauty, the Grippian/moonstone effect does possess a flaw. The globe itself is pristine and seamless; however, almost every time the Grippian optical is superimposed onto it, there’s a wart of unknown origin in plain sight. I’m assuming it’s a flaw in the glass of the tank that the Grippian puppets were filmed in, but I dunno. It’s like a pimple on the Mona Lisa: it’s still beautiful and awe-inspiring, but you wish like hell the zit wasn’t there.

The Korean War took place from 1950-1953. Alex Nicol (General Stocker) was 48 when “Moonstone” was shot, and Tim O’Connor (Major Anderson) was 37; this has little bearing on their respective characters’ ages, of course, but I think it’s safe to speculate that they’re relative close. I also think it’s safe to extrapolate from their presumed ages that the episode takes place in the present (well, 1964); however, I think we’re all aware that there were no moon bases then (or now, fifty years later, which is a fucking travesty if you ask me). So is this an alternate universe, in which mankind’s technological development is several decades (or perhaps centuries, dammit) ahead? Or is it sloppy conception? I mean sloppy story conception, you perverts.


If Lunar Expedition One does exist an alternate universe, then they’re sharing it with the Adonis Space Station from “Specimen: Unknown” and the arctic military installation from “The Human Factor.” How do I know? Because the various military personnel in all three episodes wear the same name badges!





The Grippian Five™ claim to possess "the combined secrets of the universe" between them… yet they can’t come up with a solution (diplomatic or otherwise) to end their government’s tyranny? Personally, I think these self-absorbed oysters are full of shit. They spew out condescending platitudes more or less constantly, which makes me suspect that they’re Grippia’s fortune cookie writers and not the super-geniuses they purport to be.


When the Grippian Tyrant Ball™ arrives and hovers over the base, we get a nifty reverse shot looking up at it through the dome. The implication here is that the Tyrants can see down into the lab, and are presumably watching the humans mulling over their options. The thing is --- the humans never once look up at them, which would've made for a great HOLY SHIT! moment (talk about a missed opportunity). A moment later, the Refugee Spheroid™ is whisked out of the lab, which the Tyrants undoubtedly witness (again, they’re right above the lab), but instead they decide to fry poor Doc Mendl for no apparent reason.



As Stocker tries to make up his mind what course of action to take, Professor Brice passionately votes that they do “anything, everything!” to protect the Grippian Pacifist Globule™. Moments later, after Dr. Mendl has been disintegrated, she quickly revises her stance to giving them up to the tyrants because “we have no other choice!” Uh-huh. So much for “anything” and “everything,” you freakin’ turncoat. Note to General Stocker: don’t book that church just yet.


Here’s a question for you noble and brilliant Grippian scientists: why couldn’t y’all wait till you got safely away from the moon before you nuked yourselves? You know, to maybe protect your human benefactors and whatnot? And hell, you might’ve been able to take out the Ball o’ Tyrants™ at the same time, which would have freed your home planet from their oppressive rule. But nah, you just kill yourselves instead. You have zero reason to think that the Tyrants won’t immediately destroy the moon base and its occupants out of retaliation (which they don’t; which is a real puzzler).


Come to think of it, it’s never 100% clear whether the refugees destroyed themselves, or if the tyrants simply blasted them out of existence. Who knows, maybe the refugees were lying the whole time: maybe they were actually criminals on the run, and the humans ultimately helped delay them long enough for the authorities to catch up to them and Judge Dredd their crooked asses (which would explain why they departed in silence instead of raining further destruction upon the moon base). Maybe this whole thing was a variation on "The Zanti Misfits."

AURAL PLEASURE


“Moonstone” is (moon) dusted with familiar music cues from earlier TOL scores by Dominic Frontiere, the notables of which are as follows:

Building Terror, Phone Call, It’s Here (The Human Factor)
Galaxies (Nightmare)
Andro Revealed; The Outer Limits Signature Loop (The Man Who Was Never Born)
Double Vision (The Architects of Fear)
To the Rescue (Tourist Attraction; composed by Robert Van Eps)

I didn’t recognize most of the cues in act three, so I can only presume that they came from Frontiere’s earlier Stoney Burke scores. There’s also a brief bass-only riff in act four, heard as the Grippian Mercy Globe™ is hauled out of the base in a mine cart, which must be from Stoney Burke as well.


DRAMATIS PERSONAE

This week’s cast has varying levels of genre experience, but they all have something in common: virtually all of them are Hitchcock veterans.

First up we have Ruth Roman, here playing Prof. Diana Brice in her only Outer Limits appearance. She crossed paths with Hitch twice: in 1951’s Strangers on a Train, and then in the “What Really Happened” episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in 1963. Of more interest to us, however, is her 1967 stint on TV’s I Spy, which starred TOL leading man Robert Culp (the episode “Let’s Kill Karlovassi”).

Ruth Roman (right) with Robert Culp.

As the bland and indecisive General Lee Stocker, Alex Nicol makes his one and only TOL appearance. He played a similarly bland and indecisive character in “Young Man’s Fancy” on The Twilight Zone, and also showed up on Alfred Hitchcock Presents (“The Percentage”), where he may or may not have also been bland and indecisive (I haven’t seen it).


Tim O’Connor should be much more familiar to genre fans. Here he’s sufficiently bitter and unfriendly as Major Clint Anderson, but he’ll be much more congenial in season two’s “Soldier.” He also appeared on The Twilight Zone (“On Thursday We Leave For Home”) and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (“What Really Happened” which also guest-starred Ruth Roman). 80’s kids like me will forever know him as Dr. Huer on TV’s Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1980).


The ill-fated Dr. Philip Mendl is played by Curt Conway in the first of two TOL turns (he’ll be back for “Keeper of the Purple Twilight”); however, his Daystar association began in 1962, when he appeared in “The Mob Riders” on their pre-TOL series Stoney Burke (an episode which also guest-starred TOL alum Bill Gunn). He also crossed over into The Twilight Zone once (1963’s “He’s Alive,” in which he played none Adolf Hitler) and, on the Hitch front, he did two Alfred Hitchcock Hours (“Beast in View” and “Terror at Northfield”).




Finally, Hari Rhodes (here playing Lieutenant Ernie Travers; note that the Control Voice incorrectly identifies him as “Lieutenant Travis” at the start of act one) popped up on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in 1963 (“Death of a Cop”); for our purposes, however, we’re much more interested in his 1966 appearance on I Spy, in which he played an enemy agent impersonating Bill Cosby’s Alexander Scott character, in “Will the Good Guys Please Stand Up?” (of additional interest is the fact that TOL alum Lee Philips played the enemy agent impersonating Robert Culp’s Kelly Robinson!). If you’re a Planet of the Apes fan (which I am, proudly), you might recognize Rhodes from his role as MacDonald in 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.

Hari Rhodes (left) with Lee Philips.

HOME VIDEO RELEASES


“Moonstone” is second-rate Outer Limits, and as such it’s received the bare minimum exposure on home video: the standard retail release (which, in keeping with the episode’s staggering eye candy quotient, looks gorgeous) and the mail-order exclusive Columbia House edition, the latter of which found it sharing tape space with next week’s “The Mutant.” If LaserDisc was/is your bag, you won’t find the episode on any of the four LD collections released between 1990 and 1995, which is too bad, since the superior format would've made the most of the episode’s visuals, its sole selling point.


Both VHS and LaserDisc were quickly rendered inferior by the arrival of the DVD format in 1997, but The Outer Limits wouldn't see a DVD release until 2002, when the entirety of season one, including “Moonstone,” was released (season two would follow in 2003). For some unfathomable reason, MGM opted to re-release the same discs, with no restoration or remastering, in 2007. This time around the series was split into three separate chunks (which means season one was split in half). In 2008, MGM released an omnibus set of all three 2007 volumes. Got all that?


But the hell with the DVDs. Yeah, you heard me right. Why encourage MGM’s triple-dip bullshit when you can stream all 49 Outer Limits episodes, including “Moonstone,” for free thanks to Hulu? “But Craig!” you cry, shaking your head in disbelief, “How can internet video ever hope to match the quality of the DVDs?” I dunno, but it does. I streamed Hulu’s “Moonstone” alongside an uncompressed MKV rip of the DVD, and they were more or less identical in both image and sound quality. Take a gander:


So if you don’t already own the DVDs, I cannot in good conscience recommend that you seek them out. Save your money in the hopes that MGM might eventually give the series the high-def treatment. Do you hear that, MGM? I’m actively undermining your bottom line now! Give us The Outer Limits on Blu-ray or the terrorism will continue.


TRADING CARD CORNER

It’s a bit of a shock that a cool and original alien species like the Grippians never got the Topps treatment, but they evidently deemed it more important to allocate six cards each to Andro and the Ichthyosaurus Mercurius. Rittenhouse also passed ‘em up, which means we’re stuck with a single DuoCard from 1997. But wait, what the hell? The Grippians --- one of the most intriguing aliens the series ever presented --- isn’t even shown, not even on the back.


MERCHANDISE SPOTLIGHT

According to the Dimensional Designs website, they offer the Grippians in a 1/8-scale resin model kit, sculpted by Chris Choin (DD/OL/GP-42); however, there’s no picture, no price listed, and no way to order. DD’s customer service is severely lacking (they don’t answer their phones, they don’t reply to emails, etc.), so I wouldn't be surprised if their website maintenance is similarly challenged. In any case, I have no way of verifying if this model kit actually exists or not.

Sometimes you've gotta step up and fill the gap, ya know what I mean? It’s time to take matters into my own clumsy and unskilled hands… that’s right, kids, it’s time for another installment of PROJECT LIMITED, LTD!


The thinking behind these DIY projects is.... um... okay, there's really not a lot of thinking behind them. It's just me being stupid and goofy. And yeah, a bit drunk.










So what we have here are both Grippian Moonstones, in their natural and pristine form. They're ready to transform into their other state, in which their occupants can be seen, with a simple twist of the hand.

The Grippian Refugee Moonstone.



The Grippian Tyrant Mega-Moonstone.

video


THE WRAP-UP

Despite looking like a million bucks, “Moonstone” short-changes the viewer in both the story and character departments. This makes four disappointing episodes in a row... will next week’s “The Mutant” make it five? Tune in seven days hence for the answer….





This week’s entry is dedicated to Luna B., the younger of our two boxers. The poor girl’s in heat for the third or fourth time in her young life, and she’s not quite her usual sweetheart self. Hang in there, li’l moose.


















* That cycloramic backdrop is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Forbidden Planet and Twilight Zone crossovers. In my TZ blog, I have a running “Forbidden Planet alert” for every time I spot something, and let’s just say it's a frequent occurrence.



4 comments:

  1. The look of "Moonstone" is what makes it a good episode but falls flatter than it should because of the corny love story between Professor Brice and General Stocker. I don't think the conflict between Stocker and Major Anderson is particularly useful, either. What does work is the fantastic lunar landscapes and moon base design. The lunar set is an absolute delight thanks to set designer Jack Poplin. The Grippians are yet another totally original alien race brought to life by the effects designers at Project Unlimited. The large Grippian craft is effectively creepy when the aliens become visible and you can see them squirming around inside. "Moonstone" was the 13th episode produced and they probably still had a little money in the wallet at this time for the effects.

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  2. Moonstone is so SPace:1999 down to the music, aggro crew member, and the strangely whifflepoof aliens that I feel sure that Gerry Anderson saw this one.

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  3. Using Ben Wright's voice as the Grippian spokeman was a bad choice. I would rather have had something closer to the Ebonite Interrogator but that's just me. His voice was better used as the head Luminoid in A Feasibility Study.

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  4. Just an all around bad script, which makes for a really weak episode. Probably in the bottom 25% of first season shows. I re-watched it out of guilt. There's so many episodes I love binge watching over and over again, but this ain't one of them. Dumb!

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