RETROSPECULATIVE TV: Man From Atlantis: “The Mudworm” (Season 2, Episode 2)

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We now come to the first episode of the regular series that I have strong memories of. Well, “Strong” perhaps too strong a way to describe it. Suffice it to say that I had *some* memories that were definitely of this one, and a whole lot of random memories of the series that turned out to be from this one. I had a bunch of flashbacks while watching it, that allowed me to remember as-yet-unseen scenes from later in the episode, and, most surprisingly, one line/mannerism that I often use, but which I’d long since forgotten the source of.

PLAY BY PLAY

Mister Schubert is back - entirely too soon - on an oil drilling ship. He’s sent a remote controlled minisub down to recover a probe/robot called “Mudworm” from the bottom of the sea. Rather than allow this to happen, the Mudworm blows up the minisub. Annoyed, and unable to recover the Mudworm any other way, he sits back and waits for the Foundation to turn up.

Once the Cetacean arrives, they discover Schubert Enterprises, Ltd markings on the ‘bot. Schubert himself calls them, and tells them to just blow the thing up, it’s of no further use to him, and he can’t control it. It’s gone rogue. He advises them to be careful, but he figures it to be win/win - either the Foundation gets Mudworm back for him, or else the Mudworm kills Mark. Either way, it’s a good day.

“Mudworm,” by the way, stands for Mobile Undersea Device With Oceanographic Research Module. That’s not bad for a bacronym, really.

The Navy decides to destroy it, but they can’t control their torpedoes below a certain level, so they agree to hand over the final leg of guidance to Jomo on the Cetacean. As the Torpedo closes in on Mudworm (Or rather, M.U.D.W.O.R.M., but I’m waaaaaaaay to lazy to type that out a bunch of times), somehow reprograms it with a bad special effect ray gun blast. The enthralled torpedo attacks the sub, but they’re able to back out of the Mudworm’s control radius, and it slams into a seamount.

Mark goes down and manages to deactivate the thing by hand, and they haul it up into the sub. They head back to California to study it, and en rout they come above 12,000 feet. For no explained reason, once above 12,000 feet, Schubert’s controls will work again. “I do so hope no one is hurt by this little maneuver,” Schubert says before pressing the button with flourish (I do this occasionally, when hitting the garage door opener, or turning on the garbage disposal. I had no concious memory of where it came from). A crewman is killed as the Mudworm busts its way out of the sub.

Back at the Foundation, there’s a loooooooooooooooooong scene in which Mark is accosted by a traveling encyclopedia salesman. No, really! Mark inadvertently stiffs the guy for a “Free introductory volume” and then walks off.

Inside, CW, Mark, and Elizabeth discuss the Mudworm being full of 12 ounces of “K-7, a substance which, like the quark, is thought to exist, but has never been actually seen.” We never find out what K-7 does (Aside from attract tribbles), but there’s only about a pound and a half of it in the world, and it’s evidently very bad mojo. Schubert has questionable plans for it which are typically nebulous, but appear to revolve around him wanting to control all communications for some ill-defined reason that will lead to world domination. Given that it was the 1970, this might well have worked: President Carter: “Crap, I can’t get my Lawrence Welk repeats. I think there’s nothing to do, but call Schubert and capitulate. Rosalyn, get me my old navy semaphore flags, will you? The phone’s not working either…”

While discussing this, Schubert actually calls, and requests Mark, Elizabeth, and CW head out to meet him in the sub, so, like chumps, they do. Once on site, it turns out Schubert was just yanking their collective chains, he only really wants to talk to Mark. Mark swims over to his big oil drilling boat, and finds a huge hole in the side above the waterline. He follows the hole and ends up in Schubert’s quarters, which have been trashed to such an extent that Schubert is eating peach slices out of a can, using a pocket knife as a fork (Clearly not a Swiss army knife, however, as those actually have forks in ‘em), rather than using his Ming dynasty china and Louis XIV goldware.

He explains that they got the Mudworm back, but rather than give them the MacGuffin, it went all violent, and tore its way out of the ship, activating its self destruct system in the process.

“Monsters have rebelled against their creators before, Mister Schubert,” Mark observes.

“Do you know what happens when 12 ounces of K7 detonate? I don’t. And I don’t want to find out. You’ve got 38 minutes to stop it,” Schubert counters. Reluctantly Mark goes and reasons with the thing, and asks it to do one last favor. Mudworm attacks the ship as Schubert and Brent are preparing to leave. Back at the Foundation, Mark explains that the Mudworm gave him the K7 to dispose of, in exchange for Mark promising it that humans would never bother it again.

The End.

OBSERVATIONS

This is the episode I remember more clearly than any other, save the pilot movie. Exactly how I remember it so well is a little unclear to me. I seem to remember having it on Betamax, and watching it a few times until my mom taped The Sound Of Music over it, or something. Still, October of 1977 - the airdate for this episode - seems way too early for us to have one. I know we had one by the time Battlestar Galactica premiered - September of 1978 - but it was still pretty new to us. I remember it all huge and clunky and fresh-out-of-the-box smelling of ozone and machine oil. Neither here nor there, but I really miss machines smelling of machine oil. Possibly I taped it during the summer reruns, assuming they ever ran this show in reruns. I seem to recall taping a few “Operation: Petticoat” episodes around the same time. None of which means anything to you, kind readers, I’m just illustrating the sad depths of my OCD. This will nag at me until the day I end up with a massive head trauma of some sort. And possibly even then…

This is far and away the best of the early episodes. It’s better, really, than the season premier. Though “Meltdown” had higher production values, and a surprisingly good performance from Dee Wallace Stone (“She makes me sad, daddy,” one of my kids said, "I feel bad for her."), the plot didn’t make much sense. This one is more straightforward and tighter. Everyone - even the submarine crew - have something to do, there’s no long lingering scenes. Even the Encyclopedia Salesman scene - which came out of nowhere, and was really extraneous - was actually kind of engaging and fun. Sure, I was thinking “Why the hell is this here? It totally breaks up the action,” but on the other hand, it *is* a good scene, and it’s sooooo out of place that it, I don’t know, it’s not exactly world building, but it’s kind of charming just the same. Evidently they’d intended to do more Literal Fish-out-of-Water stuff with Mark, as he learned to fit in to the human world. Evidently they got bored with that quickly, and jettisoned the idea, which is a shame. Patrick Duffy is really good in these kinds of scenes.

This is Mister Schubert’s third appearance overall, and his second once since the season began. For those of you keeping score, that’s two appearances in two weeks, which seems a bit too much and a bit too soon to me. Victor Buono plays it a bit more reserved this time out, with no prancing about in Saturday Morning Kroft Show-styled fake fear. He’s not a badass, he’s not quite a Bond villain, he’s more like a bored billionaire who’s too lazy to do stuff for himself, so he suckers Mark into doing it. This is kind of a neat angle - the lazy super villain - but it erodes pretty quickly.

This is Brent’s second appearance.

The Mudworm is pretty pathetic. “Daddy, why did they put claw-arms on a cardboard box?” “I don’t now, sweetie, but hush: Daddy’s trying to watch this.” “Why?” “I don’t know, sweetie, but I am, ok? So hush.” It’s pretty much a blunt-nosed metal box with a small conning tower, a small periscope, and a diver inside. The diver’s arms and legs fit through arms and legs on the box that look like spare parts raided from the rotting corpse of the ‘Bot from Lost In Space. Two extra arms are tacked on so the audience wont get wise to the fact that it’s just a diver in a metal box, but I don’t think they’re fooling anyone. I mean, they don’t even try to hide the bubbles coming out of it. I presume this was probably a pretty dangerous costume as well.

The Mudworm is said to be sentient, though this is accidental. Brent is pretty convinced this happened due to a circuit board shorting out, and two programming tapes - oh how quaint! - getting twisted. We’re told it cost six million dollars. That’s about 21.6 million bucks in today’s money. Though underdeveloped, there’s an obvious element of Plato’s Lion and Mouse fable: The Mudworm has a busted paw/claw, and Mark fixes it. Later on in the episode, the machine trusts him because of this.

There’s a pretty black lady running the airlock in this episode, and this is the only one in the whole series in which the Cetacean has guards.

Jean Marie Hon plays “Jane,” the communications officer. She’s got more to do - and is more assertive - in this episode than any other. She’s quickly relegated to Uhura mode, alas. Geeks of a certain age - like me - will no doubt remember her as “Ruth” from the Saturday morning “Ark II” show. Miss Hon, if you’re out there, man oh man, would we love to interview you about both these shows! Just contact us through the site!

The idea that the Navy would hand over guidance on one of their torpedoes is pretty silly, but the scene is genuinely kind of exciting. There’s some good cinematography on the sub. Once sequence in particular is neat, with the trucking in on one bridge officer, turning slightly to the right, trucking in on the the next bridge officer, turning right again and trucking in on the next person - it’s well done. They’re actually trying at this point. This is the equivalent of a pretty solid first or second season “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” episode. (And in fact, it bears some resemblance to the Voyage episode, “The Indestructable Man” from 1965)

Basically, after watching this episode of this show, pretty much anyone would think it was pretty good - maybe even better than the Logan’s Run series - and that it had a lot of potential. I remember talking with all my little friends at school (This show always aired on Tuesday) the next day, and we all thought it was great, and were eagerly looking forward to more. Alas, not only is this the best of the early episodes, it’s pretty much the last good one until the very final one of the series.

I’ve never seen plot erosion set in so quickly, I’ve seen a lot of basically useless SF shows in my life, but I’ve never seen one plunge into incoherence this quickly. Generally it takes at least a year or two, but as bad TV goes, this show will quickly become an overachiever, as we'll see next week.

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