Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Battle Of The Planets Ep3: The Space Mummy

"What are we doing saving our missiles for July 4th?"
-An impatient, anxious Jason with his always itchy trigger finger hungry for the classic Bird Missile attack against the rampaging Space Mummy-

One more minor adjustment to the opening credits as Sandy Frank Presents Battle Of The Planets now literally scrolls across the screen like the Star Wars screen crawl.  It's no longer a simple, static shot and the science fiction-inspired craze of the 1970s is officially complete.

You have to get beyond the fact Battle Of The Planets was geared toward kids to connect with the components of the series that still excite the kid at heart.  From that glorious opening theme track by Hoyt Curtain to the artistic detail in most of its artwork, Battle Of The Planets is a gorgeous anime canvas whereby artists were able to bring their painterly creations and concepts to life through a simple tale of good versus evil.  Get beyond the fact the enemy was constantly mimicking Earth-based life forms from turtles to crabs to, well, Earth mummies, and you will immerse yourself in the early era concepts that would influence anime for generations.

As evidenced in the latest episode, Battle Of The Planets, Episode 3, The Space Mummy, there was a lot to be pleased with regarding what was achieved very early on from Tatsunoko. Gatchaman was taking fairly mighty risks in its presentation which is why it has held up so well through the years.  The simple stories, too, delivered no shortage of heroic magic for young and old alike.  I continue my look back at an anime classic.

7-Zark-7 discovers a planet that takes G-Force into outer space for those alleged battles on other planets.  It's dubbed Zarcadia.  Of course in Gatchaman the battles took place on Earth. Earth was under assault. Battle Of The Planets saw things a little differently.  Battle Of The Planets has always had a bit of a bum rap for pretending to have battles on other planets where there is an oxygen-based environment with humanoid lifeforms.  How positively ridiculous right?  How could a cartoon get away with such an inane idea?  Well, let's see, it's pretty clear adult-oriented science fiction has been doing it for decades.  Lost In Space, Star Trek: The Original Series, Stargate SG-1 and even Farscape are all quick examples of that preposterous notion. So when you consider that fact, it's not really all that silly now is it?  If people had a problem with the English translation of a Japanese source with completely different intentions that's certainly another story. I get that.

Reminsicent of the mummy from Johnny Quest (1964-1965)

The episode begins with one of those delightful human moments between Mark and a man, Dr. Sweet, taking care of his very young nephew, Buddy, in his father's absence.  In a situation reminiscent of the film Hachi's central theme whereby a dog awaits his master, this young boy awaits his father's return at the airport. The boy visits the airport each and every day. His father is a missing pilot and the boy keeps hoping for a return that never comes.  Mark ponders what would be best for the boy, facing the cold hard truth of reality or allowing him to keep his hope alive that his father might one day return.  It was these special, deeper moments that really hooked us as kids on an emotional level. As kids there was a powerful emotional subtext not often enjoyed in animation.

Of course, there was always the action. Mark discovers a plutonium-powered Mummy robot the size of an edifice.  It's plutonium is radioactive. Real environmental concerns were one of the ongoing themes on Battle Of The Planets. It's also a cultural theme in much of the Japanese animation from Gatchaman to Hayao Miyazaki. It was also a theme in Toho's Godzilla series.  It was part of who the people of Japan were.  They lived through the atomic response to the attack on Pearl Harbor of 1945 and it remained part of their identity going forward.

It turns out there is a neutralizing agent dubbed anti-pluton, a synthetic mineral, invented by one Dr. Sweet.

The human-centric portion of the tale continues when Buddy's father returns unexpectedly out of the blue and to the stunned surprise of many.  But something is fishy about his father's tale of being rescued by fishermen and finally returning home.  Dr. Sweet suspects Spectra and sure enough Zoltar arrives.

Zoltar, the master of disguise and trickery, even uses the love of a child as he disguises himself as a loved one. Gatchaman was never above such twisted notions elevating this children's cartoon into something unexpected. Mark leaps into action protecting the boy and Dr. Sweet from the evil Spectran agent.  Unfortunately, when the boy awakens Mark appears to be harming his father so the boy attacks Mark out of love and concern for his Dad.

Battle Of The Planets deals with some terrific emotional complexity and twists in this dramatic entry spending well over half of the installment on character drama over the G-Force based action of the science ninja team found in the first two episodes, Attack Of The Turtle King and Rescue Of The Astronauts.

Despite Mark's efforts to explain something inexplicable to a young impressionable child Mark is forced to leave, TRANSMUTE! and join G-Force to battle the Space Mummy and Zoltar in the final thrilling minutes of riveting action.

As a fleet of "robot" ships attack the Space Mummy, its bandages burn and a frighteningly monstrous creation is revealed.  The monster is indeed one of Tatsunoko's finest kaiju moments in the series.  The freakish mummy appears a formidable opponent as Mark ponders the machine's weak spot.

Just as Mark determines the back side to be the Space Mummy's Achilles' heal, little Buddy adds a another layer of dramatic complexity to the episode as he enters the battle fray like a lost child in Pacific Rim (2013) or Godzilla.  Crying for his father, the demented Zoltar heartlessly uses the boy as a pawn.

Determined to save Buddy and destroy the Mummy, Mark loads the tip of his Sonic Boomerang with the anti-Pluton mineral leaping into action on foot and sending his weapon straight into the creature's back.

The Space Mummy loses its outer Plutonium-based skin as it crumbles to reveal its robotic frame.  Zoltar escapes and somehow even the boy believes it was his father who saved him.  How is that for 70s ambiguity in cartoons?

Battle Of The Planets often ended in stalemates.  The good guys always fought hard and yet Zoltar, who likewise may not have triumphed would always live to fight another day.  For both G-Force and Zoltar their chief adversary was never more formidable. The Space Mummy was a case in point.

The Space Mummy ends in a poignant and understanding moment by an empathetic Mark who absorbs the young boy's rage. The essentially orphaned Mark understands the pain of a child once again pointing to a thoughtfully executed, well-paced and well-articulated tale.

The Space Mummy may leave most of G-Force on the sidelines for the entry sitting this one out as Mark tackles Zoltar single-handed, but so much more is demonstrated with regard to the potential of Battle Of The Planets as a sometimes affecting human drama with terrific life lessons.  The best lessons as evidenced here aren't taught by the often preachy 7-Zark-7, but rather the interaction of G-Force with characters that exemplify real human pain, problems and suffering.  As kids we may have connected with the action, but episodes like this one were made of the stuff that remained with us beyond the flashy and beautiful action sequences.  It was the strength and power of these human interactions that made their impression on us for years to come.  The very best of the animation and television from any childhood with that kind of power leaves their mark and are often reflected back upon as classics.  They are rare.  I spent many days in my childhood surrounded with an abundance of the best from Tom Baker's Doctor Who to Starblazers and of course this one, Battle Of The Planets.

The Space Mummy. Writer: Jameson Brewer. Director: David E. Hanson.
Science Ninja Team Gatchaman title: The Giant Mummy That Summons Storms.
Next episode: The Space Serpent.


Roman J. Martel said...

Another great and detailed review. I remember being impressed by this episode when I revisited it back in the day. I was surprised by how they really were dealing with some dark themes in that episode, especially with such a silly name "The Space Mummy".

Loving the screen captures. Really makes me miss this older style of character design. The AIC look really took over and dominated so completely in the 1990s that we really don't get more realistic character designs any more. Gotta go to the 1970s and 1980s for those.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Great points Roman.

Character designs are indeed something special here. Rare to see this kind of work today to be sure. Well said.