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These are nothing but our own nightmares!

Television

The Fantastic Journey
9. Riddles

 

This was the episode that stayed with me as a five-year old, as it had me hiding behind the sofa. Curious that the BBC deemed it fine for screening on daytime TV but the also-hallucinatory Funhouse was not (both are tinged with fantasy horror, eschewing the typically pedestrian science fiction plots). Needless to say, it’s not quite the terrifying experience it proved to be 35-odd years ago. But sporadically, it remains highly effective, even if the pay-off is rather weak.

I revisited this episode first, for the nostalgic reasons I mention above, so the instant recognisable aspects were the ever-splendid Roddy McDowall and Jared Martin. I didn’t realise that Carl Franklin (now best known for his directing career) played Fred or recall the resemblance of Ike Eisenmann (Scott) to an even more diminutive version of Davy Jones from The Monkees.

The departure of Lianna is explained away in a couple of bookended lines of dialogue (it seems Saylor left due to illness, married soon after and then retired from acting). So it’s just Varlan, Fred, Scott and Willaway who arrive in a crackle of energy and then have a chat with a riddle-prone horseman. At this point they still seem hopeful she will return (it will take her several days to catch up with them). No more Sil-El! Nooooo!

VarianFred, on the western shore the Arawak Indians told of messengers who ride from zone to zone guiding people like us to the east. And they called them the riders.

They are directed to find one of twelve keys as part of their search for Evoland (a story arc in waiting? Quick, call Damon Lindelof!) The rider tells them the stone has distinctive properties, and part of their quest for it involves an energetic pursuit of Kedryn to a not-so fun house. Kedryn (Dale Robinette) really does run like the clappers. I was expecting him to go arse over tit at any moment.

KedrynWe’re going to have to give it up. 

Adding to the intrigue of an already weird episode is that the motivations are commendably cryptic until the final act. The horseman speaks in riddles (hence the title) and it’s clear from the start that the keepers of the stone (held in the “Hall of Echoes”, an underground lair) don’t want to surrender it. So we assume that it is Kedryn and Krysta (Carole Demas) who are responsible for the demented haunted house happenings. They are welcoming enough to the travellers, but Kedryn isn’t keen on having them stick around for more than one night.

The episode was partly filmed in the old Bewitched house, and director David Moessinger (who would go on to work on Man from Atlantis and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century) does a good job with the contrasting versions of the set. Dust, cobwebs and decay replace pristine order. Underground, Willaway finds himself sealed in a block of ice. Later, he is trapped in a shrinking cupboard while Jared swings on a wire in a darkened sound stage. Poor Scott, caught beneath falling masonry, has a vision of a mother who no longer knows him. All of this is accompanied by suitably sinister sound effects, either choral or throbbing. Less effective is the contrast with the ‘70s California countryside that could come from any given episode of any given show (and has been a stock feature of the series).

On the subject of contrasting effects, the old age make-up of the guest stars is a bit shit, and the cadaverous version of Simkin the manservant (an amusingly ingratiating William O’Connell) is unintentionally funny.

Some of the dialogue must have been a hoot to deliver on set, particularly Kedryn’s explanation that the drink he offers Willaway is “a mysterious nectar derived from a process only known to Simkin”. But the writers get some mileage out of the travellers’ failure to realise that the old and young hosts they encounter are one and the same; Kedryn takes an “if at first you don’t succeed” approach. When his decrepit self speaks to them in the underground cavern he tells the travellers that he is imprisoned and the house is occupied by parasites who wish them harm; a different tack in attempt to scare them off this time.

VarianThese are nothing but our own nightmares!

The general scenario is reminiscent of the decaying reality in Doctor Who’s The Keys of Marinus (the second episode, The Screaming Web; see also Atlantium for another episode with parallels to that story). It also prefigures Blake’s 7’ s Rescue (itself based on The Picture of Dorian Grey, right down to the name of the antagonist), except that the couple aren’t actually feeding off anyone; swinging Varian realises that the stone is responsible It is testing them. This is the episode’s strongest feature, rendering it possibly the most “adult” instalment of the series; there is no threat beyond that of one’s own mind. The background of the refugees (a planet that rejects those who are aging??!!) is a bit hard to swallow, but par for the course for a show that has scant regard for comprehensible backstory.

VarianThis is the key, and the doorway’s out there somewhere waiting.

There’s some unity with the opening two episodes through having Katharyn Powers as the writer; in particular the continuity of Scott’s mum. Apart from that, this is very much episodic ’70s TV at its best. The ongoing quest is little different from The Invaders or The Fugitive, or The Incredible Hulk (which began in the same year). But there’s an intriguing suggestion in Riddles that there might have been more focus on the nature of this vast island if the Journey had not been cancelled.  The series might have pulled itself from the mire of journeyman plotting if the travellers had been instructed to collect all twelve keys (Doctor Who would require only six, over the course of its sixteenth year that began about sixteen months later). But that would probably have been too much of a departure for the TV format of the time, which operated with a weekly reset button.

WillawayA brilliant writer once wrote, “Grow old with me. The best is yet to be”.

The weekly moral is a limp and facile as ever (they’re just going to have to accept getting old). But, once again, literate Willaway makes it more palatable (although he slightly misquotes Robert Browning). And, yet again, the resolution is bloodless and appeasing. An understanding is reached and violent change is unnecessary. Willaway’s final reference to Sil-El, “Atlantean cats dream of electric mice”, is both an amusing nod to the novel that would become Blade Runner and author Philip K Dick’s obsession with the illusory potential of reality (the subject matter of Riddles).

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