Our dear team, G-Force, faces off against serpent-like mecha, which is actually more like a centipede-like mech in Battle Of The Planets, Episode 4, The Space Serpent.
Earth is in jeopardy as Spectra zeroes in on the oil refineries of our resource-rich planet. The mech steals valuable crude everywhere with two long metallic tentacles.
Zoltar rejoices as Spectra wreaks havoc across the globe creating seismic disturbances. Chief Anderson knows something is amiss and requests Mark meet with Dr. Harlan, a seismologist, to confirm the culprit as Spectra.
Old friend Dr. Harlan congratulates Mark as the leader of G-Force. Mark is humble in his response. "Officially yes, but we're a team really. United, but each with his own special skills."
Upon visiting Harlan an earthquake strikes. Mark and Harlan tumble down a crevasse. Mark transmutes and makes every effort to hang onto to Harlan but his grip slips and he loses his old friend forever but survives himself.
The scene cuts to Mark visiting Harlan's grave as a civilian. How rare it is to see a figure die in a children's cartoon and then follow up with a scene at an actual cemetery where Mark expresses genuine remorse over the loss of a friend.
In most programs of the period, even The A-Team, cartoon violence in the 1970s and 1980s often resulted in men walking away.
Here, Mark finds himself in a world very much under the microscope of a potential alien apocalypse. Losing those around him he loves is a reality. Harlan was like a father figure to him and now he is gone.
At the grave site Mark is attacked by Harlan's daughter, Debbie, and must convince her he tried to save her father. He feels guilt but knows, despite possessing extraordinary powers, he's still human. He also feels pain attacked by a loved one of someone he cared for too. Mark is sympathetic and Debbie crumbles in an emotional heap on Mark's shoulder and he carriers her away.
Later, Mark seeks to find the space serpent and while flying his Cessna utilizes one of its in-built gadgets, an infrared scanner.
The mech fires missiles at Mark forcing him to transmute into the G-1 Summit Jet.
Battle Of The Planets demonstrates great psychological depth, unusual for a kid's cartoon, as Mark is tortured by the voice of his friend Harlan pleading for help followed by the voice of his daughter blaming him. Mark bears the weight of other's pain on his shoulders and still feels responsible for an event that was beyond his control or at least sealed by the hand of a fate beyond his powers. He is haunted by the ghost of his friend here.
Like the classic Toho films centered on Godzilla and other famous Toho kaiju pictures, the military is unable to halt the metallic monstrosity. Ground and air forces are annihilated. The hapless military is essentially useless. Only G-Force bears any chance against such a treacherous menace.
Zoltar demands his henchman attack. In this particular entry even his henchman is a robot.
Mark rejoins the rest of his team. Surprisingly, even civilian Debbie is along for the ride on The Phoenix. Really? I never could understand that one. With such dangerous missions it always seemed a little odd to see an innocent civilian on board with the G-Force team as they prepared to wage war against Spectra.
This is a job for the TBX nuclear missile. Jason is ready to hit the button. Keyop warns they are too close. Mark and Keyop literally struggle to pull Jason away from the firing button.
In an interesting turn, and in an effort to offer Debbie closure, Mark tells Debbie that if she pushes the red button she will destroy the very creation that took the life of her father. He literally offers her a sense of revenge or relief. Marks goads her, "your last chance for revenge." But Debbie can't pull the trigger. Mark retorts, "Good, revenge never solves anything." Lesson learned. We get that tidy little morality play for the young ones.
That serves Jason just fine as he's more than happy to handle the revenge chores for the team destroying the mech.
Mark comforts Debbie and tells her, "Your father would be proud of you today."
In the kind of sweet moment that was not uncommon on Battle Of The Planets, Mark and the team return grave side with Debbie to pay their respects and conclude the episode with a touching and dramatic denouement.
The finale feels a little sudden given the short run time. Apparently, the viewer is led to believe that Mark handled the mission a little too personally. We never actually see or feel that given the lack of character development. So we're a little stunned when the moment comes whereby Mark offers to tender his resignation. Chief Anderson assures him that we all make mistakes and admittedly is too harsh on himself. We see a tear in Mark's eye grateful for the second chance. Besides the fact The Space Serpent never quite sells that moment, Battle Of The Planets was certainly filled with good faith efforts at generating real emotional depth. It was indeed surprising for any cartoon to do so particularly in the 1970s. But Tatsunoko and Sandy Frank, stateside, never failed to deliver those kinds of qualities.
Mark retains his G-Force wrist bracelet. Mark forgives himself. His burden is also eased by Debbie's forgiveness. "That eases my mind," Mark submits to Debbie. The team is pleased to embrace their team leader, including the sometimes combative Jason, proving this is indeed something of a family affair for G-Force. All is well that end's well for now. Valuable lessons are learned all around.
7-Zark-7 enjoys an oil shower followed by a delightful call from Susan.
The Space Serpent acts primarily as a Mark vehicle. The spotlight is undeniably on his character. The rest of G-Force makes an essentially brief appearance. It's also one of the least interesting episodes without the team's interplay. Further, it lacks some of Tatsunoko's jaw-dropping finest when it comes to animation, but it has its moments. Given deadlines and other factors, this isn't the company's sharpest art work, yet even still a bad day for Tatsunoko is nevertheless an impressively good one.
For me, the dramatic high points surround Mark at the cemetery toward the mid-point of the episode and in the final minutes. It strikes a somber, elegiac and emotional tone for the character. These are always the best moments in Battle Of The Planets.
Further enhancing this view is commentary by Sarah Lindholm, ADV lead translator for the English dub of Science Ninja Team Gatchaman in 2005. Lindholm points to this very episode, The Space Serpent, or rather its Gatchaman counterpart. "The show has much more moral complexity than we normally give titles like that credit for. Ken and Joe [Mark and Jason in Battle Of The Planets] are making decisions all the time about who's going to live or die, and they're just kids!" (Newtype USA, May 2005, p.21).
Though sadly, writer Kevin Gifford of Newtype USA stated this aforementioned subtext and emotional depth was "largely ignored" (p.21) for Battle Of The Planets. This entry is proof that simply isn't true or at least not in this particular example of which Lindholm was specifically referring in the article. Despite edits, this is a long held belief is something of a myth that just doesn't always stack up.
For the time being, the team has fought off the alien apocalypse and the group literally runs off into the sunset like the kids they are.
The Space Serpent. Writer: Jameson Brewer. Director: David E. Hanson.
Science Ninja Team Gatchaman title: Revenge On The Iron Beast Mechadegon.
Up next: Ghost Ship Of The Planet Mir.