Destruct that ship, General!

Friday, October 31, 2014

Episode Spotlight: "The Invisible Enemy" (10/31/1964)



“The Invisible Enemy”
Season 2, Episode 7 (39 overall)
Originally aired 10/31/1964


Fifty Halloweens ago, Saturday Night Live’s legendary Land Shark made its first appearance on network TV when it was featured on ABC’s The Outer Limits… wait, what? It’s a Sand Shark? You mean this has nothing to do with SNL? Hold on, are you sure? Aw, dammit.






M1 is an expedition to the planet Mars, the two-man crew of which is brutally killed under unknown circumstances immediately upon landing. Back on Earth, the Space Program’s powerful TL3 computer (nicknamed “Tilly”) reviews the M1’s transmissions and determines that a ghost is the most likely culprit (man, early computers were stoooopid).


Three years later, M2 arrives on Mars to investigate. Captain Lazzari ventures out to analyze the M1 wreckage, which is strewn about near what appears to be an ocean of sand. He ventures out of sight behind a large piece of twisted fuselage and screams. Back on Earth, Tilly revises its opinion: the Martian menace must surely be invisible.


Captain Buckley and Captain Johnson head out next, this time maintaining eyes on one another at all times. An elated Buckley finds what appear to be gigantic diamonds and, when he breaks eye contact to fill his eager pockets, Johnson is quickly dispatched.




Back on Earth, General Winston orders the surviving crew to abandon the mission and return to Earth at the nearest launch opportunity. Major Merritt sacks out and, while he sleeps, Buckley sojourns out to score some more diamonds. He discovers the identity of the so-called invisible enemy: a gigantic dragon living beneath the sand “like a bloodthirsty shark in the ocean.”



Merritt wakes up and violates a direct order from General Winston by leaving the ship to retrieve Buckley.  The two make it back to the ship and dispatch the Sand Shark with a nuclear-tipped missile… which arouses the ire of several more of the critters, who surface and roar with displeasure.  As the survivors blast off for home, Buckley voices his hope that the diamonds they bring back will be given to the families of their lost comrades.

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RANDOMONIUM

“The Invisible Enemy” is written by Jerry Sohl, based on his 1955 short story; he’ll also contribute “Counterweight” in December. Sohl is probably best known to genre fans as having ghost-written several Charles Beaumont teleplays for The Twilight Zone, in addition to supplying original scripts for Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Invaders, and Star Trek (including the semi-classic “The Corbomite Maneuver”). “The Invisible Enemy” is essentially a space adventure as opposed to sci-fi or horror (though it dips its tentative toes into both of those genres), and it successfully hits all the expected marks: square-jawed Astro-heroes? Check. Compelling alien setting? Check. Big hungry monster? Check. This is a pulp comic brought to shimmering, monochromatic life and, approached as such, provides a fun 52-minute diversion (I’m a huge fan of the legendary E.C. sci-fi and fantasy comics from the 50’s, so there’s a lot for me to enjoy here). However---- well, read on.







As directed by Bryon Haskin and lensed by Kenneth Peach, “The Invisible Enemy” looks and feels like your typical 50’s outer space romp, featuring dialogue bordering on camp (particularly the exchanges between Merritt and Buckley, not to mention the overwrought philosophizing by General Winston back on Earth) and neat-o cosmological visuals (like last season’s “Moonstone”; in fact, the Martian landscape here is very similar to that episode’s lunar environment). Pushed just a bit further, the episode could easily serve as a parody of that particular film genre, like 1987’s Amazon Women on the Moon, which spoofed several well-remembered-but-goofy sci-fi films, including 1964’s Robinson Crusoe on Mars--- a film which was directed by none other than Haskin (and co-stars this week’s lead Adam West!).



There are glimmers of suspense when Lazzari and Johnson are out of sight and in imminent danger, but overall the episode doesn’t do nearly enough to exploit the potential for tension. The rocket interior is a bright, flat affair; some dark shadows and interesting angles would’ve gone a lot way toward creating a claustrophobic atmosphere to contrast the expansive Martian terrain outside. But again, since it’s a space adventure, mood isn’t paramount.

"The Invisible Enemy" is your typical garden-variety USA-conquering-space deals (I’m frankly surprised that the M1 crew didn’t plant a big phallic flag into the virginal Martian soil immediately upon touchdown); however, the M2’s mission objectives are disturbing beyond the usual pro-military patriotica: 1. find and destroy the enemy, and 2. gather data for the future colonization of Mars. Now... is it just me, or does this sound uncomfortably like the blueprint for the white man’s “colonization” of America? Apparently this particular Space Program has learned nothing from history.

Equally disturbing is the high-five-fuck-yeah! exuberance displayed by Merritt and Buckley after they blow away the Sand Shark and take off for home. What exactly are they so goddamned happy about? The M2 mission has been an abject failure: half the crew is dead, and the hoped-for colonization site is infested with deadly monsters. This should be a bittersweet, if not downright somber, ending. But no, because it’s a space adventure versus a serious story, it’s gotta end on a triumphant vibe, however forced and artificial it may be.


"Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars."
(RIP Casey Kasem, 1932-2014)

The “ocean of sand” that those cranky critters swim around in seems to be an actual body of water with a thick layer of sand on top: in shots where the beastie extends its long crab claws toward its next victim, we can plainly see water dripping from them (of course, this may be an unintended byproduct of how these shots were achieved, which involved a puppet inside a water tank, but let’s presume for the sake of argument that it is in fact a hidden lake). Our intrepid astronauts don’t seem to notice or care about the monumental scientific discovery of water on Mars, but that’s not what bothers me. We see several folks stumble around awkwardly in the water’s sand layer, which should have a quicksand effect…. but doesn’t. They sink a bit, and they experience minor difficulties walking… and that’s it. I realize the production budget was limited, but I would’ve loved to see somebody waist deep, or better yet, neck deep… with that hungry Sand Shark closing in… (cue Jaws theme).


The Sand Shark has long crustaceous arms and lobster-like pincers, features that don’t jibe well with its saurian head (calling to mind the Chromoite, that wacky genetic mishmash from season one’s “The Mice”). Wah Chang’s conceptual sketch endowed the creature with taloned fingers, infinitely superior to what ended up on screen. Outer Limits historian and eminently cool guy David J. Schow happens to own said sketch, and he was kind enough to provide us with proof:

DJS and the Dragon from Mars.


This is the one and only time in the entire film we see the creature's entire body at once. I would've preferred a shot of something less, well, dead, but what can I do?

Unfortunately we never see the entire creature, so it could be almost anything below the neck. I envision a long tubular form, something like the formidable tunneling beasties in 1990’s Tremors (a film which very well may have been at least partly inspired by "The Invisible Enemy"). I’d provide a sketch, but I’m no Wah Chang (I’m also no Wang Chung, but that’s a different story for a different blog)…. so kids, I guess you’ll have to use your imaginations to envision what I’m, um, envisioning. Yeah, that’s it.



I do appreciate the attention to detail that resulted in two completely different rocket designs for the M1 and the M2; however, something that should not have changed between the two missions is the planet: the Mars that the M1 approaches in the prologue looks nothing like the Mars that the M2 approaches in act one.




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“The Invisible Enemy” is anomalous in that it features the longer opening sequence from the beginning of the season (which was superseded by a shorter opening, starting with “Expanding Human” a few weeks back). The episode fell very early in the production schedule, so presumably it was in the can before ABC mandated that the opening be shortened. The rest of the season will feature the truncated opening.




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AURAL PLEASURE

The ear-tickling music offered up this week by Harry Lubin includes the cue “Hostile Space,” which we heard a few weeks back in “Expanding Human” (there it accompanied Clinton’s transformation into his chemical-fueled alter ego). It’s one of my favorites from season two, and it quite effectively conveys the mysteriousness of the Martian sea of sand while punctuating the action with rising tension. Other Lubin cues heard this week include:

Hostile Galaxy
Dark and Scary
Dramatic Tragedy 1
Mission of Discovery
Drama Chord 2
Certain Doom

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DRAMATIS PERSONAE

Leading the charge as Major Charles “Chuck” Merritt is Adam West. It’s next to impossible for me to watch him in anything without thinking of Mayor West, his goofball Family Guy character. What, you thought I was gonna say Batman? Look, kids, do not underestimate my ability to be entertained by profane, juvenile humor.



Adam West never appeared on TV’s The Fugitive; however, everyone else in this week’s cast did. Read on:

Rudy Solari (Captain Jack Buckley) is a Daystar familiar face: he appeared in last season’s “Production and Decay of Strange Particles” as well as the “Point of Entry” episode of Stoney Burke. Other notable credits include appearances on The Fugitive (“Flight from the Final Demon," in which he co-starred with TOL alums Ed Nelson and Carroll O'Connor), Star Trek (“The Paradise Syndrome”) and The Incredible Hulk (“Killer Instinct”).



Captain Paul Lazzari is Peter Marko’s first screen role. He only worked in Hollywood for six years, but in that brief window of time he managed to land gigs on Star Trek (“The Galileo Seven”) and The Fugitive (“The White Knight” and “The Breaking of the Habit”). He also appeared on Mission: Impossible, a series which starred TOL alum Martin Landau (in the episode “The System,” in which he played a character named Markos!)


Robert DoQui also enjoys his first screen role as Captain Frank Johnson; he also appeared in “The White Knight” on The Fugitive alongside Peter Marko. Other genre gigs include Mission: Impossible (“Kitara”), Kolchak: The Night Stalker (“the Devil’s Platform”) and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (“Sons of Mogh,” in which he played the Klingon Noggra). Oh, and he also played Sergeant Warren Reed in the Robocop trilogy (1987-1993; thanks to Mark Lungo for reminding me).




General Winston is played by Joe Maross, two-time Stoney Burke veteran (“Gold-Plated Maverick” and “Kelly’s Place”). He also appeared in the “Moon Landing” episode of TV’s Men into Space, a series that Daystar mined heavily for stock footage for season one’s “Moonstone.” Maross is a familiar face to classic genre TV fans, appearing on The Twilight Zone (“Third from the Sun” and “The Little People”), Alfred Hitchcock Presents (“A Personal Matter” and “You Can’t Trust a Man”), The Fugitive (“Coralee” and “Ten Thousand Pieces of Silver”) and The Invaders (“Valley of the Shadow”).



If Mike T. Mikler (M1 Captain Fred Thomas) looks vaguely familiar, it’s because we also saw him in season one’s “The Zanti Misfits” (he was the nervous guy running the Zanti-to-English translator) and, a year earlier, on the “Tigress by the Tail” episode of Stoney Burke (which also guest-starred TOL alum Edward Asner). Eagle-eyed viewers may have also spotted him on The Fugitive (“Passage to Helena”) and Mission: Impossible (“Time Bomb”).



And finally, the irrepressible Ted Knight is on hand as Mr. Jerome. Now, we all know him as the “scene-stealing imbecile” (IMDB’s words, not mine) Ted Baxter on the long-running Mary Tyler Moore Show, but he also logged a fairly impressive body of genre work over the years. He appeared on The Twilight Zone (“The Lonely”), Alfred Hitchcock Presents (“Party Line”; Knight also had an uncredited cameo in Hitchcock's Psycho in 1960; thanks to Bill Huelbig for reminding me), Alcoa Presents One Step Beyond (“Tidalwave”), The Fugitive (“Second Sight” and “The White Knight,” the latter of which co-starred the aforementioned Robert DoQui and Peter Marko), and The Invaders (Summit Meeting: Part 2” and “Valley of the Shadow,” the latter of which co-starred the aforementioned Joe Maross). It probably doesn’t count as genre work, but he also played Cosmic Cow cartoonist Henry Rush on TV’s (surprisingly) long-running Too Close for Comfort in the 80’s.

Ted Knight, from the sublime… to the ridiculous.

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HOME VIDEO RELEASES



“The Invisible Enemy” was one of the first season two episodes to bow on home video: it arrived in August 1988, in the fourth wave of VHS releases, alongside formidable season one offerings “The Man Who Was Never Born” and “Nightmare.” I kinda wish the Sand Shark was depicted on the cover instead of Adam West’s big head, but whatever. I sure as hell didn’t care when I forked over $12.95 for my copy back then, which would’ve been during the summer after I graduated high school, which found me perpetually blunted by wine coolers (ah, the 80’s). Ahem. For its inclusion in Columbia House’s Collector’s Edition series, the episode was paired with season one’s “The Zanti Misfits,” which makes that particular volume a Michael T. Mikler double feature.





It’s surprising that a (relatively) iconic episode like “The Invisible Enemy” was not among the 28 episodes that were released on LaserDisc, but the episode has been readily available on DVD for the past 12 years. MGM has released the entire series three different times: in separate season sets (in 2002 and 2003, respectively), three volumes (2007) and an omnibus collection (2008). I’ll bitch about this until my dying day (or at least until we finally get a Blu-ray release), but MGM only changed the packaging with those three different releases: the prone-to-failure double-sided DVDs (DVD-18s, if you wanna get technical) were the same all the way down the line.



So let’s stop encouraging this bullshit by refusing to give MGM our hard-earned money. It’s too late for those of us who already own the DVDs, but for any new fans reading this who are considering buying them…. don’t, kids. Just don’t. MGM is not your friend. Your friend is Hulu, which will let you stream all 49 episodes absolutely free. It sounds illegal, but it’s not. Do check it out.

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TRADING CARD CORNER





“The Invisible Enemy” is one of four second season episodes highlighted by Rittenhouse in their 2002 trading card series. The nine cards allocated comprise a pretty good overview of the episode, and their choice of pictures is mostly good (I would’ve focused more on the Sand Shark, but that’s just me). Adam West's mug appeared on the outer packaging for every single pack of cards; apparently Rittenhouse felt he was much more emblematic of the series than, say, ROBERT FUCKING CULP. Sheesh.









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The base 72-card set is easily acquired for pretty cheap these days, but the assorted chase and autograph cards will set you back some serious coin (as I’m typing this, I’m looking at an autographed Adam West card that’s going for $89.95 on eBay!).











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MERCHANDISE SPOTLIGHT


You can own your very own Sand Shark, but you’ll have to assemble and paint it yourself. Dimensional Designs offers a 1/8-scale resin and metal model kit (DD/OL/SS-10), sculpted with panache by John Garcia & Danny Soracco (just look at that eager, hungry face!). Here’s a completed specimen (blurrily photographed, sadly) courtesy of our friend Mr. Enamel:



“Chinxy,” who regaled us with his impressive Venusian a few weeks back, has his own Sand Shark proudly displayed in his collection:



Want your own? Heck, who wouldn’t? Be prepared to plunk down $49.95 plus shipping.




I mentioned my affection for classic sci-fi/fantasy comic books above, so I’m delighted to report that The Outer Limits spawned a short-lived comic book series of its own in 1964, which ran for 18 issues (well, 16 plus two reprints). I’m mentioning this here because the stories therein were very much of the “Invisible Enemy” ilk (versus the brooding and surreal psychodramas of the first season offerings), so they fit right in here (story titles like “The Menace that Came from Outer Space” and “Journey into the Earth” are pretty easy to categorize even without reading them).







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THE WRAP-UP

It’s funny, I derided “Behold Eck!” a few weeks back for its requirement that the viewer turn off his or her higher brain functions to enjoy it, but for some reason I don’t mind it here. “The Invisible Enemy” is most certainly dumb, but it’s really enjoyable in a comic-book sense (and it’s pretty to look at it too, with plenty of Martian landscapes and a delightfully pulpy alien threat). It’s by no means great, but it’s probably the most fun we’ll have all season.





This week’s entry is brought to you by none other than Land Shark Lager. Of course it is. C'mon, you had to have seen that coming.




....wow, our official blog mascot Martin ScorZanti can really put 'em away. I'm still on my first bottle as I type this. Honestly (hic!).