Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Blast Off: Circa 1966!

Cue announcer Dick Tufeld’s disembodied voice:

Last post, as you recall, we discussed the unique ‘tradition’ of kicking-off the fall season with a viewing of the LOST IN SPACE episode ‘Blast Off into Space’”.
Thanks, Mr. Tufeld. And, while on that subject, why not discuss the episode in more detail. But in more of an unusual way…

Some time ago, before Blogging, I had great fun working on a series of my own writings called The 1966 Chronicles.

It was thusly named because 1966 was – and will likely always be – my favorite year for general pop culture.

Thanks to various DVD collections, I was able to recreate a large portion of what the Fall 1966 Prime Time TV schedule was for me.

Unlike in 1966, I was now able to write about it and share those thoughts with others. But with a twist…

I wrote this series of commentaries AS IF I WERE IN 1966, seeing these shows for the FIRST TIME, with the only the knowledge of prior seasons – and with ever so much the hint of an anomalous “glimpse of the future to come”.

So, return with us to those days of yester-decade… when Black and White broadcasts turned to color, and when Adam West’s version of BATMAN was a nationwide craze. The “WAYBAC Machine” is set for Wednesday September 14, 1966. This is as close to “what it was really like for me” as possible. Hope you survive the experience.

LOST IN SPACE: “Blast Off into Space” (09/14/66)
It was a terrible choice that no eleven year old should have to make! Watch the unfolding of the eagerly anticipated second season of BATMAN, or the unexpectedly spectacular second season, color premiere of LOST IN SPACE. Faced with just such a choice this evening in 1966, I opted for BATMAN.

So, while the Caped Crusader battled his way into what would be a repetitive and less distinguished sophomore season on ABC, the real action, this night, would occur on the distant planetary home of the Space Family Robinson on CBS.

LOST IN SPACE looks like a completely different show in color! The varied hues of the Robinsons’ quasi-uniforms, the scrub and brush adorning the planet, and even the blue-green sky are all vivid and alive – or as “alive” as a soundstage can be. It would have been a nice touch to have an unusually colored sky, as I just saw on the new series STAR TREK last week, but this looks good.

Even the animated opening title and credits sequence looks rejuvenated, opening with a burst of colored lights that dissolve into stars and planets, and some changes in the animation, especially for the “Special Guest Star – Jonathan Harris” segment. (Imagine if I could actually see the colors on my Black & White TV!)

To the story: Space colonists John and Maureen Robinson, their children Judy, Penny, and Will, their pilot Major Don West, the ever-faithful Robot, and nefarious stowaway Doctor Zachary Smith still inhabit the unknown planet that has been their home since the third episode of the previous season. Fortunately for them, their spaceship, the Jupiter II, has been repaired and made ready for flight during the first season finale “Follow the Leader”. Unfortunately for them, they will have to suddenly depart, sans direction and flight plan, as the events of this season opener unfold.

A grizzled old prospector-type named “Nerim” (…an anagram of “miner”), played by actor Strother Martin (He of the famous cinematic line “What we have here is a failure to communicate!”) is blasting beneath the surface of the Robinson’s planet for a life-giving liquid substance he calls “Cosmonium”. The blasting causes severe planet quakes and has destabilized the planet to the extent that an obliterating explosion is imminent.

Despite Doctor Smith’s unsuccessful attempt to secure some of Nerim’s Cosmonium (“Take one drop at bedtime, and live forever!” thinks he), the Robinsons lift the Jupiter II off the doomed world just as it goes-up in a spectacular explosion.

Digression: Despite the promise of immortality, I’d be somewhat hesitant to down a swig of Cosmonium. As described in the episode, the liquid is constituted of “Little bits of Sun” and, therefore, is depicted as yellow, with a very slight “frothy head”… a flask of which looking for all the world – and universe, for that matter – like the freshly-deposited contents of a doctor’s specimen jar! End of Digression… and aren’t we glad of that!

Blast Off into Space” is the finest episode of the series to date, no mean feat considering the high quality of many of the first season episodes. It is livened by an exciting new music score by composer Leith Stevens (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Twilight Zone, The Odd Couple) which, anachronistically looking into the future, is only used sparingly for the remainder of this season, but is rolled out for a number of the better third season shows.

Writer Peter Packer’s dialogue is particularly sharp and entertaining. Examples include:

Doctor Smith’s realization of the value of Nerim’s Cosmonium.

Smith: (Incredulous) “…The quintessence of the living force? Why, that’s beyond price!”

Nerim: (Snaps) “Beyond any price you could come up with, Mister!”

John Robinson informs the others of his findings that the planet will soon disintegrate into “cosmic dust”.
Smith: (Pompous, Dismissive) “Cosmic dust, Professor? Cosmic dust, indeed.”

John: (Annoyed, Sarcastic) “Doctor Smith, would you prefer Gamma Rays?”

Young Will and Smith, as the ship is in trouble due to Smith’s admitted trading of a valuable piece of equipment to Nerim in an attempt to secure a flask of Cosmonium:
Smith: “Try to explain to them that it was only a vagrant impulse.”

Will: (Annoyed, Coldly) “You’ll have to explain it YOURSELF… I don’t know what a vagrant impulse MEANS!”

But, the most amazing aspect of “Blast Off into Space” is its special effects. I cannot say enough about the utter MIRACLES that special effects wizards L.B. Abbott and Howard Lydecker performed on a television budget, using 1966 technology!

The earthquake scenes merit praise enough, with their “pitching and rolling”, sparks flying, rocks falling, equipment being crushed, and actors being tossed about. And then there were bits with both the Chariot (all terrain vehicle) and the flying jet pack. But, such things, though almost unseen anywhere else in TV, were common for series producer Irwin Allen.

However, the Jupiter II liftoff and planetary destruction scene is simply the BEST special effects sequence EVER made for television during the pre-CGI era! (…Um, what’s CGI?)

The ship slowly rises, fighting the dying world’s gravity pull, as massive plumes of fire and smoke shoot high into the air! Explosions are everywhere! Boulders are hurled. Flames abound. The Jupiter II takes a direct hit from a towering fireball! Chaos reigns aboard ship until, in one final, ultimate blast, the planet explodes, leaving vast amounts of (presumably cosmic) dust and debris in its wake.

At last, the Jupiter II and the Robinson party are free to again wander the heavens in search of their intended destination, Alpha Centauri, or another, friendlier planet to call a temporary home.

The words above do not do justice to this incredible effort. To truly appreciate the SFX spectacle described here, you must see the sequence for yourself… and see it through “1966 Eyes” to marvel over what a few very talented individuals could do, when asked to deliver a memorable season (and color) premiere episode.

If I had the ability to “look into the future” from my vantage point here in 1966, I would safely say that there would be NO EQUAL to this work of sheer special effects genius until future generations of technology would make such things more commonplace… and, frankly, much less exciting.

If “Blast Off into Space” is any indication, the second season of LOST IN SPACE will offer unparalleled thrills and might very well be the best of what 1966 television has to offer. (“Naive Irony Alert” anachronistically placed here…)

Back in 2010. Should we make “The 1966 Chronicles” an occasional feature of this Blog? I completed 22 entries in all, before moving on to Blogging. The Comments Section is open.

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