Case Study 45: Fireball XL5, Episode 6–“The Sun Temple”

Original Airdate: December 2nd, 1962 on ATV

If you’re familiar with any creation of the husband and wife duo Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, it would have to be 1965’s Thunderbirds, the James Bond-esque marionette adventure series. It spawned a terrible 2004 film reboot as well as a salty parody in the form of Team America: World Police, but other than that, Thunderbirds has faded into nostalgic obscurity. But in the 1960s, the Andersons made a cottage industry out of what they called “Supermarionation,” producing a whopping eight series. Fireball XL5 was third in the lineup, giving us a choice example of early science fiction for kids on TV.

Strengths

  • High level of craftsmanship. Okay, so the marionettes and the elementary-school-diorama-style sets don’t exactly look sharp. In fact, the production values are jarringly bad—a devastating explosion bears a striking resemblance to a handful of firecrackers detonating, the limited range of motion inherent in a marionette leads to risible action sequences and when Doctor Venus (Sylvia Anderson) is tied to a sacrificial altar, her permanently cheerful rictus undercuts some of the tension. But there’s genuine love on display here. This is as good as marionettes can possibly get, and the starship vessels and sets are at least as immersive as what you might find on Fireball’s  low-budget sixties sci-fi cousin Star Trek. I think a good comparison here is Max Steel. The people behind Steel had 38 years of added wisdom and experience when it came time to create a visually appealing science-fiction show for kids, and it came out looking like Max Headroom had a back-alley abortion. It probably cost a hell of a lot more than Fireball, too. The moral here is that even if you’re working with antiquated technology on a shoestring budget, you can still create a (mostly) captivating aesthetic.

Weaknesses

  • Sludgy pacing attempting to compensate for an underwritten story. Do we really need to see the entire countdown for the rocket’s launch sequence all the way from 30 on down? How about the endless interstitial shot of everyone on board the Fireball sleeping? And of course it takes a goddamned eternity for Col. Steve Zodiac (Paul Maxwell, Aliens) to find his way into the titular Sun Temple. How hard is it to fill 25 minutes with actual content? Of course, once you hear what the actual story is, you may find yourself wishing that they had spent more time dicking around…
  • Colonialist racism. Okay, any story about alien contact where there’s a vast disparity in technological aptitude risks flirting with colonialist themes. You can be conscious of that and try and address those themes intelligently, you can do your best to elide the issue or you can stupidly blunder right into the heart of the matter due to lousy writing, and that’s almost certainly what happened here. Now, I’m not sure that’s better or worse than deliberately writing an artful tome about The White Man’s Burden but with aliens like Arthur C. Clarke did in the landmark 1953 novel Childhood’s End. It’s certainly just as annoying. You see, this episode tells the story of Zodiac’s team launching missiles carefully calibrated to break up asteroids that imperil Earth’s space program. These missiles come close to the planet of Rajusca without actually harming anyone there. Rajusca is unexplored but known to be inhabited, and the missile attracts the attention of a pair of bumbling, dark-skinned sun-worshipping cultists. In a hastily appended coda, we learn that these two were exiled from Rajuscan society “because of their evil hocus-pocus.” Needless to say, much is unclear about Rajusca and how technologically developed they are in general, but the cultists know that the missile came from Earth and retaliate by destroying the World Space Patrol’s launching pad using some sort of giant mirror apparatus. The Fireball is dispatched so that the WSP can see what’s the big idea, pally, and the cultists promptly grab the first white lady they see so they can sacrifice her to their god. Look, you have the entirety of space to work with and any number of outlandish aliens to create. Do we really have to recreate this particular flavor of tedious Earth bullshit on our distant sci-fi planets?

Motivation: Welp, once you’re strapped to the good old sacrificial altar, it’s hard to think much past survival.

Final Judgment: 3/10. Excellent if you like puppets. Terrible if you like anything else.

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Case Study 45: Fireball XL5, Episode 6–“The Sun Temple”