RETROSPECULATIVE TV: Man From Atlantis: “Deadly Carnival” (Season 2, Episode 13) Series Finale

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Tuesday, June 6th, 1978: Not a massively infamous day in history. Not much happened. In California - which was part of the United States in those days - they voted in Proposition 13, which slashed property taxes. Nothing else of any great importance seems to have happened anywhere else in the world, and few seem to have noticed the important thing that transpired here. Indeed, there are no monuments to commemorate the day, no one who says “I remember where I was when…”, no flags flying at halfmast, no parades of victory for surviving it, though we certainly deserved them. No one seems to remember that day thirty two years ago as the end of our collective national nightmare, but despite the (typical) historical ignorance of the masses, it was an event of monumental importance:

Man From Atlantis finally ended.

PLAY BY PLAY

Billy Barty and an actor pretending he’s missing an arm are on a tour of the outside of a power plant. I don’t pretend to understand this, I assume it’s just a California thing, and who can figure ‘em? The two of them discuss an Olympic-level swimmer they’ve hired to go through a long underwater pipe for some reason. They realize he’s been down for five minutes or so, and presumably he’s dead. Sure enough, his body floats out of the pipe in front of the gawking out-of-towners mesmerized by the sight of electrical lights and prestressed concrete. Billy Barty and the man with the fake arm over his real arm are annoyed that now they have to find another swimmer, but their nefarious scheme continues apace. Whatever it is.

At the curiously-empty Foundation, CW tells Mark about the diver, explains he was working undercover as part of a government sting operation, and that the feds would like Mark to pinch hit for them. CW is uncomfortable with this, but Mark agrees. CW expresses some real trepidation, as Mark is so awkward in society he’ll stick out like a sore thumb, but as they have 40 minutes left to kill in the episode, they decide to go ahead with it.

They stage a fake rescue when they know Billy Barty and the pretend-fake-arm guy are watching: Mark dives in to free a ‘trapped’ diver, and he’s under for about three minutes, just sitting down there amiably, doing nothing in particular, then pops up with the diver and starts to walk away, like it’s no big deal. Billy Barty chases after Mark, and offers to get him a sideshow gig in the carnival they work at. Mark, pretending to be unemployed, agrees reluctantly.

They get him a big tank and have him lay down in it, then show him off to the somewhat-pretty lady who runs the carnival. She’s eventually impressed, though it’s unclear if it’s his water breathing talents, or simply that he’s attractive. She asks him out. That night, they debut “The Incredible Man From Atlantis.” Mark sits in a tank and answers questions from the spectators. Meanwhile, the guy who pretends to have only one arm ransacks Mark’s trailer and finds a note from the Foundation. He correctly interprets this to mean Mark’s a snitch, and sets off to kill him. The guy’s fake arm is electrical, and generates ludicrous amounts of juice. He simply sticks it in the corner of the tank when Mark is doing his act, and fries him.

The Carnie boss lady is freaked out and cancels the show, but Mark recovers fairly quickly. He realizes The Electrical Man - that’s the pretend-one-armed-man’s stage name - fried him, and stomps off. Billy Barty explains it was because of the Foundation stationary, which made him look like a snitch. “You’ve seen how long I can stay underwater - they just wanted to examine me. They paid me 200 dollars!” It’s a good lie, and Billy Barty buys it. He explains that the Electrical Man and him are planning a bank robbery - they need a man to swim through several hundred feet of storm drains to let himself into a bank to shut off the alarms and let the other two in. Mark agrees. Mark informs CW about it.

The next day at the carnival, the boss lady hits on Mark again, and they smooch around a bit. While briefing CW on the heist, he starts asking about women, and the whole ‘kissing’ thing and why it feels good. “Oh, Lord, he wants to know about the birds and the bees.” “No, CW, I want to know about men and women.”

On the night of the heist, the boss lady walks up to Billy Barty and the Electrical Man with a big goofy smile on her face. They ask her what’s up. “Oh, it’s just nice teaching people things they’ve never done before.” Like virtually all the young men of my generation, Mark has lost his virginity to a carnival worker. Then she walks off with a satiated sigh. Mark shows up shortly afterwards, also with a slightly goofy smile, and the three of them head off to break some laws. In California. Where it doesn’t really matter.

As we’ve still got twenty minutes to kill, however, the carnies double-cross Mark: They’re not actually robbing a bank, they’re robbing a museum. Of course CW’s people were staking out the target bank, but Mark’s got no way to inform them about the museum heist. He refuses to go along with it, but they threaten to kill the boss lady, so he reluctantly swims through the pipe, and shuts off the alarms inside the museum.

Electrical Man tasers the guards, and then they crack the case. Mark “Accidentally” sets off a remaining alarm, and all higgledy piggaldy breaks loose, with Billy Barty running with the loot. Mark catches him, but then the Electrical Man catches Mark. Mark jumps in the fountain, and the Electrical Man stupidly follows him in. Mark gets superpowers because of the water, of course, and manages to knock out the Electrical Man just as the cops arrive. Billy Barty gets away.

The next day, the carnival is leaving town, and Mark is talking to the boss lady, and asks if a goodbye kiss is allowed. “It’s required,” she says, and leaves. We get a little double entendre between Mark and CW about what exactly the boss lady meant when she told Mark he “Was a good performer.”

Mark walks away with a dirty little smile, and we roll credits one last time.

The End.

OBSERVATIONS

There was a very long break - a month - between the penultimate episode of the series and this one. In that time there’ve been a number of changes, and this final outing actually feels almost like a pilot for a new show. This is the only episode of the entire series not to feature the Cetacean at all, nor is it even referred to. Mark’s mission is the sort of thing that was fairly common for the Six Million Dollar Man, Wonder Woman, or occasionally, “David” Banner: Infiltrate the bad guys, observe them for half an hour or so, and then hero up and whomp on ‘em in the final act.

Elizabeth is gone. She’s missed two episodes in a row. The previous one made a reference to her being in Washington on some kind of assignment, and awkwardly introduced an Elizabeth stand-in. It had all the hallmarks of a cast change that took place so close to the start of production that they had no time to really write a new script, so they simply assigned her lines to someone else. This final episode, however, has *clearly* been written from scratch without her in mind. Not only is she not in it, nor even referenced in it, there’s actually nowhere she could have fit, had she been available. Belinda Montgomery is still in the opening credits, but it’s pretty clear that she’s off the show permanently by this point, and if I ever get the chance to talk to her, I’d really really like to know about the behind-the-scenes shenanigans that must have been going on there.

It’s a shame, really. She started out as such a great character, and a rarity on 70s and 80s television: a female character who asserts herself by being smart and confident, and not by being shrill or preachy. She came across in the early episodes as a believable independent woman, and not a “dude in a dress,” as was so common in female characters written by men in those days. The character erosion started in during “The Disappearances” in which she’s depicted as basically a weak-minded fool who needs rescuing (As opposed to being the woman who rescued Mark, which was her original role), and once they made it to series…wow. I’d say by the fourth or fifth episode she’d been completely Wilma Deeringed.

She left after “Imp,” the absolute worst episode of a terrible, terrible series. I’m assuming she quit. I certainly can’t blame her. The show was so awful by that point that it was destroying her career by association. I’d love to know what happened, though. Wouldn’t you?

Billy Barty is actually really good in this. It’s the best I’ve ever seen him, really. How good is he? I remembered this episode, more or less, but I *didn’t* remember that Barty’s character was a midget. That’s not a flaw in my memory, it’s just that his performance is good enough that I stopped seeing the pituitary problem and started seeing the man. There’s only one reference made to his diminutive stature, and I really wish they hadn’t done even that one. It’s interesting - he’s small, but he completely ignores it, and everyone else more-or-less does too. And he’s a crusty old bird. He’s not taking anyone’s sympathy, and he’s not about to give any, either. He’s got no concern for human life whatsoever, and his “Well, now we’ve got to get another diver” scene was nicely annoyed. The scene where he first spies Mark diving in the water, and reflexively yanks out his stopwatch was also very nice. Best of all, though, was right after Electrical Man tries to kill Mark. He’s chasing after a clearly very angry Mark, and manages to calm him down by both shouting at him and blowing off Electrical Man’s actions as a case of mild mental illness. It’s really well done. It’s a shame such a good performance is trapped in such an awful show.

Sharon Farrell is really good as the boss lady. Her performance isn’t nearly as good as Billy Barty’s - in fact she flubs a line at one point - but she’s exceedingly well cast, just the same. She was about 38 when they filmed this, and she’s got just the right look and feel for the part: a formerly drop-dead gorgeous Farrah Fawcett type who’s getting a bit long in the tooth, and seems to realize she’s nearly at the end of her abilities to use her looks to get what she wants. She’s got a nice combination of worldweariness and never-say-die businesswoman. I found myself instantly liking her.

I also thought it was interesting that she was so assertive. She has little time for things that strike her as a dead end, she sees Mark and likes him both because he’s a potential cash cow for the carnival, but also because he’s attractive and shirtless most of the time, and she wants sex. And she gets sex. There’s never any hokey mention of it being anything more than a one-night-stand between a sideshow attraction and a carnie, though she does genuinely seem to like him by the end. Despite the ‘70s being the age of sexual liberation, the fact is that you never see this kind of thing depicted like this on TV shows from the period. Again, it’s a shame it’s wasted in a show like this.

Anthony James is good enough as The Electrical Man. In any other episode, he’d be well above par, but here - strange to say - he’s actually out-performed by everyone else in the cast. James is instantly recognizable to any geek worth his weight in cellulite as a character actor with scads and scads of genre credits: Return from Witch Mountain, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Blue Thunder, Night Rider, V, The A-Team, Sledge Hammer!, Star Trek:TNG, The Howling IV: Citizens On Patrol, and Beauty And The Beast.

It’s interesting to see how the cast changed during it’s run: It started out with Duffy, Montgomery, and that Admiral guy, who was clearly supposed to be a main character, and Victor Buono, who was clearly intended to be a recurring villain. By the second episode, this had changed to Duffy, Montgomery, Fudge, Kenneth Tigar, and that terrible receptionist woman, and Captain Bracey.

In the series, they dropped Tigar, Bracey, and the receptionist, added some disposable submarine crew, and used Buono and Brent waaaaaay too much. Then they dumped Brent, then they dumped Buono, then they dumped Montgomery. The only person to make it through the entire series was the title character. Alan Fudge went from being a stereotypical nervous wreck bureaucrat with comic relief overtones to being a boss to being the right hand man and best friend of the hero. While these kinds of things are interesting as character arcs played out over 110 episodes, coming in the course of 20-and-a-half hours of screen time can only mean that the people in charge never had a clue of what they wanted to do.

There’s a bit of confusion as to whether the organization the boss lady runs is a carnival or a circus. (It’s a carnival, clearly, but the writer doesn’t appear to know the difference.)

It’s not uncommon for an imperiled show on the brink of cancellation to attempt to use it’s final episode as a showcase for ‘how things will be different in the second season‘, to kind of show producers how they‘ll come in under budget and on time, and tell different stories in the future.. Battlestar Galactica (The original) did this. Other shows have done it. I can’t think of any case in which it’s worked, and there’s an air of desperation about it, but at the same time, this is a much more confident, relaxed, entertaining hour than any other the show produced. This is, bar none, the best episode of the entire series, and it came entirely too late to do any good. Nor was it the first time: This show had already re-invented itself once, between the pilot and the second TV movie.

Do I regret the cancellation of the show? No. I’ve made no secret of how this project was wearing me down, how the series was grueling and nearly unwatchable, and just getting worse by the week. While it is intriguing to see how the producers intended to retool it as a more-or-less typical Kenneth Johnson-styled superhero series, I don’t have much confidence that it would have been able to maintain the level of this entirely-adequate episode (And remember: my raves are only in relation to the rest of the series. Taken objectively, this is no better than an off episode of CHiPS or TJ Hooker), certainly it wouldn’t have gotten any better. And even if it had, it would have needed to run three or four seasons of brilliant episodes in ever to undo the stench of awfulness it worked up in these last thirteen weeks.

And yet I am a little sad to see it go, not so much because of what it was, but because it’s always kind of heartrending to see people who just aren’t very good at something repeatedly bang their heads against the wall and fail, again and again and again.

One minor parting quandary: I know for a fact that I abandoned this show *during* “The Naked Montague” episode, which IMDb informs me ran in early December of ‘77. This episode ran in June of ‘78. How could I possibly have seen it? And yet I know I did. I remember more scenes from this episode than any other. I have no idea how this came to be.

Mark’s new ability: He’s shock resistant.

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