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I am an entertainer. I belong to the ages.

Television

The Fantastic Journey
7. Funhouse

 

Funhouse is the first of two episodes of The Fantastic Journey that actively embrace the surreal. It’s likely not coincidental that they are also the best episodes of the series; the chance to tread unfamiliar ground and engage with altered states throws the generally pedestrian plotting into sharp relief.

Willaway: I’ve got a funny feeling… Let’s just leave it alone.

Roddy McDowall is in pole position again, where he’s most comfortable. But this time Varian is back to being the perceptive strength behind the travellers as Willaway finds his body possessed by Marcus Apollonius, the first century AD philosopher-sage. McDowall embraces the opportunity to indulge in some antic acting (as with Eisenmann in Atlantium, the actor’s voice is often augmented; perhaps the producers didn’t trust the audience to know the difference, or they might just have wanted to spook-up the proceedings). Varian, battling for the mind of Willaway, is positioned far closer to original persona, prior to the arrival of the 1960s rebel scientist.

FredEerie? Is that the technical term for it?

Curiously, however, it’s Willaway who is given a spider-sense to tingle. He doesn’t want to detour to the (decidedly twentieth century) carnival they encounter. This is appropriate enough, as he turns out to be the main target of bodysnatching (although Liana’s also on the menu).

ApolloniusI am an entertainer. I belong to the ages.

Apollonius (Mel Ferrer) and his chums, Roxanne (Mary Frann) and Barker (Richard Lawson) are first seen making foreboding pronouncements concerning the travellers (“Which one will you choose?”, “The waiting is over”). In short order, Willaway is identified as the object of the philosopher’s desire; because he is vulnerable. Roxanne’s refrain concerning the beauty of Liana suggests Sapphic undertones, although she has the same thing in mind as Apollonius (later she straps Liana down and waxes lyrical some more over her lusciousness). Ever the classicist, Willaway recognises Apollonius as a “great magician of antiquity”. Marcus initially pronounces himself a descendant only, with the carnival recovered from a shipwreck (an impressive salvage operation!)

BarkerThe secrets lie inside the door.

Scott and Fred are extra-eager to sample the delights of the funhouse, while Varian doesn’t seem much cop on sussing out the dangers (all he can offer is that he senses something). The insides of the house aren’t really all that; a few hanging skeletons, a big slide, a hall of mirrors. But director Art Fisher (best known for his comedy and light entertainment work) goes to town with his use of wide-angle lens and distorting/disorientating camera effects.  He’s complemented by very traditional, but no less effective for it, ethereally spooky music. Fred ends up in the black-and-white-checked Hall of Mysteries, while Scott vanishes into a mirror for a while (he’s just bait to induce the gang to separate). Varian and Liana have fun in a rotating tube.

WillawayWhat do you want?
ApolloniusYou. You’re perfect.
WillawayThat’s nice of you to say so. But what for?

Apollonius’ account of his rebellion is engrossing, and winningly myth-building in a way the series hasn’t allowed since the first two episodes. Apollonius challenged the gods for three days and three nights. He was only defeated when the furies of the underworld rose up and joined the Olympians. Then he was vanquished and damned to wander Evoland for the millennium. But now he has expanded his powers, with his discover of the secret of the land, and plans to go back and once again challenge the gods.

ApolloniusI was cursed to wander the limbo of this zone for all time.
WillawayThen the legends are true? You challenged the gods?

The historical Apollonius had no such airs and graces that we know of; as a Pythagorean, pious and frugal, he opposed animal sacrifice and lived as a vegetarian. He considered God to have no interest in being worshipped, and believed He could be reached through the intellect. He was a contemporary of Jesus, and reputedly performed similar miracles (including raising the dead). One wonders at the decision by Michaelian to present him as a challenger to the ancient gods; perhaps he considers this an appropriate means of expressing the character’s original thinking. But having him punished and made a negative force rather sullies his reputation.

One thing to note here is that, straight after the false religion of a fake god in An Act of LoveFunhouse presents us with a universe where the Greek gods are real. It’s an appealingly unrestrictive approach, particularly if –as here – it results in the telling of a good story.

In my pieces on Vortex and Atlantium, I noted parallels with Doctor Who’s The Keys of Marinus. Another William Hartnell story, The Celestial Toymaker, bears a passing resemblance to Funhouse. Both feature an uncanny setting where dangerous versions of childhood games are the order of the day. Both are presided by an individual of great longevity, one who has difficulty in leaving his domain (the Toymaker can only depart if the Doctor remains to oversee it). Most likely this is just coincidence; funfairs and carnivals are rich sources for the sinister (see also Something Wicked This Way Comes) in the same way as clowns are; the appeal of the dark side of childhood imagination.

ApolloniusWhere could I travel like this?

So far so good. But logic falls down somewhat with regard to Marcus’ reason for taking possession of visitors. Beneath the visage of prolific US screen actor Ferrer lies a frightening furry pig face (furry pig creatures appear to be a favourite of the series’ designers). This is both a disturbing and an amusing sight, aesthetically repulsive but tempered by the make-up department’s decision to liberally glue tufts of hair wherever they see fit. The result is akin to a werewolf on a twelve-step recovery programme. Later we see that Roxanne is similarly afflicted, as she was Marcus’ aid (presumably Barker is too?). Couldn’t they invest in razors? Self-grooming sometimes works wonders. The main objection is this; since they have perfectly good facemasks, surely any impediment to Marcus’ plan for a rematch is purely psychological? Or maybe they just get very, very itchy.

The centrepiece is Varian’s battle for Willaway’s mind. As Apollonius throws disorientating visions at him, Christina Hart makes a brief return as Varian’s dead wifey (“Come to me… Come… Please, help me”) By this point D. C. Fontana is credited as story editor and, with Michael Michaelian returning as writer for the third time, perhaps the production staff were consciously paying more attention to continuity. Possibly they were just trying anything in the hope of securing a future for the show; the writing must have been on the wall by this point. The battle occurs amid epic amounts of dry ice. Apollonius’ promise of Evoland if he is allowed to stay in Willaway’s body falls on deaf ears.

Possession plots are usually a dramatic winner. The effect of Roddy boggling out isn’t as chilling as when Eisenmann does it in Atlantium, but it’s still arresting. Varian is the one who sees through Apollonius deception. He realises that something is wrong when Willaway suggests the others leave him and go on to the next zone, claiming that Marcus has promised to tell only the rebel scientist the secrets of Evoland (“He’s a funny duck”).

FredI told you this place was eerie. Why didn’t you listen to me?

The banter between Fred and Willaway at the conclusion of the episode is a cut above (Fred gives him a hug!), as is the framing of the moral of the story. In place of the usual smug platitudes, there’s an appealing line in philosophical speculation. Scott is used to ask the questions the audience may be thinking.

ScottWhat’s going to happen to them? Apollonius and the girl?
VarianThey’ll just stay here, wait for others.
ScottBut I still don’t get it. If Apollonius has the power to take over the body of another person, why hasn’t he done it already? And gotten out of here?
VarianMaybe that’s part of the curse. That he’ll go on trying, and trying, and he’ll never succeed. 
FredSo he repeats that same ritual, over and over again throughout eternity? Wow, over and over again. Only to have his hopes crushed every time.

If their theory is correct, it’s a very Sisyphean punishment (appropriate to one who challenged the gods). It’s additionally curious that the apparently powerful magician has no awareness of this circular trap.

FredComplaints, complaints. I’m beginning to wonder if Apollonius wouldn’t have been easier to travel with.
WillawayHe might have been better company, but I’m prettier. Ha-ha-ha.

Funhouse is the best episode of the series so far; a fine villainous turn from Ferrer, am effective setting, and strong roles for Varian and Willaway. The only downer is that Sil-El makes his presence known right at the end; he’s been hanging out with their baggage.

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