Saturday, May 31, 2008

Cosmic Princess (ITV Entertainment, 1976)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Used by permission

My partner Charles brought over a disc he’d just burned of a few more Mystery Science Theatre 3000 programs, including episodes from the early days when it was a strictly local show on Channel 23 in Minneapolis-St. Paul (the time and temperature were occasionally flashed on the program at half-hour intervals and the temperature was around 36-37°, which certainly made it obvious this was not California — it also had a phone number flashed on the screen that didn’t even had an area code atta ched, through which you could call Joel Hodgson and stand a good chance of reaching him!) and not that much better produced than the similar Sal U. Lloyd show here on Channel 6 in the early 1980’s. (The main difference is that rather than speak the snarky comments over the movie’s soundtrack, the Sal U. Lloyd show ran them as subtitles.)

I was curious enough about these to run one last night — there’s an introduction with yet a different set of words to the theme song and Joel with long, curly hair looking even queenlier than he did in the main segments , and the robots a good deal more crudely constructed (especially Crow, who in this version looked like Joel’s kid brother built him with an Erector set). The one we watched was Cosmic Princess, a movie with an odd production history in that it was actually spliced together from two different episodes of the Space: 1999 TV series from the mid-1970’s, an all too obvious knockoff of the original Star Trek whose main purpose seems to have been to allow Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, his co-star on Mission: Impossible and subsequently his wife in real life, to work together after a contract dispute with Paramount cost him and her their berths on the hit spy show. So they moved to England and did a science-fiction series whose premise is that humans had colonized the moon and set up a military base there, Moonbase Alpha, only a space accident hurled the moon away from Earth’s gravitational field and sent it spinning willy-nilly into space, often falling into time warps and ending up literally light-years away from where it started (hey, let’s do the time warp again!).

These episodes deal with a planet which the Moonbasers visit in search of titanium to fuel their “Eagle” reconnaissance and defense ships, only the place is run by a man named Mentor (Brian Blessed, easily the best actor in this show) who’s invented a “psycho-computer,” which is basically a lot of bubbling liquid in glass tubes (like the one in the original Rollerball) that works by harnessing the psychic energy of human beings — so he turns the Moonbase crew members into zombies and has them work as miners while he simultaneously sucks out their psychic energy to feed his computer (an interesting anticipation of the central plot gimmick of The Matrix by about 20 years). The titular cosmic princess is Mentor’s daughter Maya (Catherine Schell), who helps the Earthlings destroy her father (after they turn her against him by pointing out that he’s really an unscrupulous, evil man who’s exploiting them) and his supercomputer (the scene in which Martin Landau clubs the glass tubes until they break is the most legitimately spectacular in the film),

The Moonbase crew takes her back in one of the Eagle spacecraft, and then the second half of this show begins (actually the two were separated by three months or so in the initial run of the series, so any resemblance between plot continuity and this film is strictly coincidental) in which Maya uses her ability to shape-shift to become a lion, a tiger, a dove, a gorilla (actually a human in a very unconvincing gorilla suit) and a couple of newly minted monsters (in costumes of such ineffable tackiness they would have embarrassed Sid and Marty Krofft). They are determined to keep her alive even after she loses the ability to control her shape-shifting and, in her monster personae, is threatening life and limb aboard the moonbase (sort of like the Incredible Hulk), and the second half of the show is far more soporifically paced than the first one (not that the first one was all that fast — especially compared to the 1960’s Star Trek that was its obvious model, the direction on Space: 1999, if these two episodes are representative of the whole show, is so p-o-n-d-e-r-o-u-s and s-l-o-w the piece quickly becomes dull, dull, dull) and far less interesting as a concept.

Still, despite the tackiness of the original material, this is not entirely fair material for a Mystery Science Theatre 3000 presentation — especially since the MST3K writing itself was not as incisive as it was to become: the best lines are one in which the spacecraft from Moonbase Alpha is being chased by a giant, glowing blue ball in space and one of the robots says, “Hey, it’s Mitch Miller looking for a song!,” and later on in which the monster is being chased across the moon’s surface by a couple of spacesuit-clad astronauts (including Barbara Bain, who’s been temporarily separated from her husband by one of those pesky time warps that has moved her and the rest of the moonbase five light years away from him — though they are such an uncharismatic couple one really doesn’t mind: Bogart and Bacall these two weren’t!) in a dune buggy that reminded the MST3K crew of the vehicle from the Banana Splits TV show of the 1960’s and seemed to be moving so slowly across the moon’s surface in lukewarm pursuit of the monster one of the robots said it would be quicker for them just to get out and walk. The Space: 1999 TV show actually seemed to have some potential, and it wasn’t altogether an appropriate target for MST3K mockery (much the way movies like Revenge of the Creature, I Was a Teenage Werewolf — despite its risible rock ’n’ roll scene — and The Space Children really weren’t either); the MST3K formula only worked when the movies were bad enough to deserve mockery but not so bad that they were relentlessly unentertaining even when they were being made fun of (like The Giant Spider Invasion).

For the record, the credited directors were Charles Crichton and Peter Medak — I’m presuming Crichton did the first episode and Medak the second — and the writers were show creators Gerry and Sylvia Anderson and writers Johnny Byrne and Charles Woodgrove — the last a pseudonym for the show’s producer, Fred Freiberger, a man with a reputation for taking great ideas and making them terrible (he produced the film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms — a silly movie based on Ray Bradbury’s great story, “The Foghorn,” and worth seeing only for Ray Harryhausen’s animation of the title character — and the third and last season of the original Star Trek) — and the program was somewhat entertaining though, like the physical production, the MST3K writing got better later on in the show when it became a national program first on Comedy Central and later on the Sci-Fi Channel (which for some reason was actually considered a demotion even though the Sci-Fi Channel was probably a better “fit” — most of the movies MST3K mocked were science-fiction and many of the Sci-Fi Channel’s own productions, including their Alien knockoff in which the alien was obviously a hand puppet with its operator’s fingers all too visible, were as tacky as anything shown on MST3K).