Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Starlost, Episode 4, "The Children of Methuselah" (1973)

The Starlost, Episode 4, "The Children of Methuselah" (1973)

Looking for the backup bridge, our trio breaks into an area designated "off limits." To their bad luck, it's inhabited by a group of overly serious, eternally young psychic children who are running the ship. Given the explanation that the Ark is off course, they believe that our protagonists are lying. Yet even as the boy Captain strives to deal with the intruders, the human culture that they bring with them infects the children, bringing a breakdown in order. In the end, Devon shows that the children aren't running the ship at all, they are merely in an advanced training simulator. The episode ends with the children sealing themselves back in their complex, potential helpers if the trio should ever find the backup bridge.

This script actually works. The writer of this episode did a bang-up job. The script relies on the time tested structure of television drama, often called the 45-and-5. You have three acts of build up and tension raising, one act of conflict, and a final act of wrap-up. At 40 minutes in, the conflict/breakdown between the trio and the children comes to a head, and at 45 minutes, the showdown happens. The last five minutes is cleanup and consequences.

The writer makes good use of all the characters in a way that demonstrates their basic strengths and their basic approaches as a character. Devon is the communicator and the explainer, the one likely to notice the details. Garth is the hothead, the pusher, the one with mechanical sense. He's the one with insight into the strange machinery. Rachel is the human touch, the one able to bridge the human gap where force or logic won't work. She's also the smallest among them, but no less able. Each expresses their role well through the episode, so much so that you can't switch their actions around.

The director did some nice things in this episode bringing out the humanity of our lead actors and the children. Rachel is particularly important in this arena, as its their humanity that the children have lost, and their humanity that will save them. Because she's a woman, she is seen as less of a threat, but her interactions prove far more disruptive than Garth's or Devon's. The children all have numbers, not names. Its she who gives them names. The children don't play. It's she who teaches them games. It's she who subverts the social order.

Time and again, the physicality of the staging brings a depth to the episode that the lines don't necessarily dictate. There no single example that makes or breaks this, but continuous small choices that build up to a coherent whole. There's one scene where the children as still talking as the meeting comes to order, just like kids in a schoolroom. The staging feels mildly chaotic at times, adding to the atmosphere rather than taking away from the story. These kids are machines, but they are not perfect machines. Even the way that the boy Captain slouches in his chair shows this humanity coming through despite the numbers.

This episode, more than any other so far, shows what this show could have been, an echo of what was imagined for the series. This episode shows that the parts are good, the concepts sound, and its ambitions reachable.

In terms of fashion, the Boy Captain had a zipper with a ring as the pull. I remember those kinds of zippers. I had one myself. Indeed, all the hairstyles of the children are early 70's children hairstyles. Nobody got a haircut for this show. What you see is the real deal. I know. I was was there. Those were my peers.