RETROSPECULATIVE TV: Man From Atlantis: “Shootout At Land’s End” (Season 2, Episode 6)

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I guess if I had to pick one thing about the ocean as my favorite - wow, it’d be hard to choose, wouldn’t it? - I guess, probably the thing I like most about it is the preponderance of time-portals that litter the sea floor, allowing passage to the 1880s, although gateways to alternate dimensions populated only by NBA stars is probably a close second. How about you? What’s your favorite thing about the ocean.

Yeah, that’s right, kids, Man From Atlantis’ crazy rollercoaster ride from interesting idea to utter incoherence is definitely coming to a middle. Check this crap out:

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In the old west, a farmer is talking to a gunslinger, who turns out to be…Mark Harris! The farmer says he’s gonna’ testify against the local cattle barron’s son, and Mark tells him not to. Violence is about to erupt when the farmer’s daughter (hot-cha!) comes out with a rifle, and chases Mark off. Mark gets on a horse - actually, Patrick Duffy looks really comfortable on a horse, like he’s been riding for years - and rides off, then doubles back, grabbs the farmer’s daughter, scoops her up on the horse, and kisses her. She pulls a knife out of her belt, and stabs him in the shoulder. He lets her go, all smiles despite the gaping wound in his flesh. She kind of half-smiles as he leaves because evidently she’s into that sort of thing. Or would like to be.

Meanwhile, in the present, Mark Harris feels as though he’s been stabbed in the shoulder, and it gets worse the closer they go to wherever it is they’re going in the sub. (CW, in his weekly phone-in say something about an exploding volcano, but it’s never quite clear). Mark decides to swim out to find out what was hurting him, and comes ashore…in the 1880s!

No, really!

He eventually finds the farmhouse from before, and the farmer’s daughter attempts to kill him with an axe, but then realizes he doesn’t have a gaping wound in his shoulder, so it can’t be the same guy. She instantly trusts him, and exposits the family while loaning him her dead brother’s clothes: The local cattle baron has an evil son who killed her brother. Evil son was arrested, and about to be tried, they’re going for the death penalty (Which is pretty easy to get in the 1880, as trees are commonplace and ropes are available in amazing abundance). Cattle Baron is using a hired gun named Billy Jones - who looks just like Mark, it was him we saw in the opening - to scare people out of testifying.

Despite such grave proceedings, the Farmer and his friend still take time out of their busy schedule of not doing anything to put Mark on an insanely violent horse just for yucks. Mark gets thrown off, but goes back to the Horse, whispers in it’s ear, and it’s instantly tame. “I figured what works for dolphin would not be too far wrong for a horse” he says in front of the amazed hayseeds as he rides off to town in a dead man’s clothes.

Meanwhile, in town, Billy has recently made time with the local hooker, and is taking a bath. He takes a lot of baths, get it? He mentions that he’s tired of his life and his line of work. The Cattle Baron comes by, and Billy sneaks off. The Baron has more or less staked a claim on the hooker, and she’s his and his alone. Mark rides into town, and is immediately mistaken for Billy, which is understandable as they’re both played by the same actor. The Baron gives a surprisingly introspective speech about not wanting his son to die, then tells Mark to burn down the newspaper building, as it ran a “Kill the Baron’s Evil Son” front-page story.

Billy comes up to Mark - split screen - and they get to talking. They head to a Barn. Mark quickly gets Billy to admit they’re not human, or at least not normal humans, but they’re both connected in some way - random pains in odd places, like the stabbing, and presumably every time Shubert’s had Mark clubbed on the head, Billy felt it. Billy knows no more of their past than Mark does, though. He clubs Mark over the head (curiously not feeling it himself), takes Mark’s swimsuit, puts it on (ewwww!) and swims to the Cetacean. The crew think he’s Mark, but don’t notice the lack of webbing on his hands. (Billy cut ‘em off: “Now what use are webbed hands to a gunfighter?”, and they’re all scarred up as a result.) Billy quickly gets spooked by the high tech geegaws on the sub, and decides to head back to the past.

Meanwhile, Mark has freed himself from the barn Billy tied him up in, and is walking back to the farmer’s house. The local hooker picks him up and smooches him hard on the lips. “I take it we are well acquainted?” Mark asks. The Baron sees this, however. The hooker takes Mark back to the farmers.

The Baron’s goons see Billy coming out of the water, catch him and bullwhip him. Mark feels the pain, and goes to help. Billy’s being strung up to be hung, but the farmer’s daughter manages to shoot the rope and free him. The bad guys get away, to go kill the sheriff and free Evil Son. They quickly douse Billy with water from a tower, which makes him feel all better, then head into town for the big gunfight, already in progress.

They fight their way into the back door of the sheriff’s office and have themselves deputized, then manage to take down the bad guys one by one, and capture the Baron.

Mark leaves, Billy hooks up with the farmer’s daughter, and presumably the hooker is once again free to sleep with anyone who’ll pay her. It’s win/win/win.

Back on the sub, Mark once again refuses to tell Elizabeth what the hell was going on, or give her any useful information whatsoever.

The End.

OBSERVATIONS

This is only the second episode of the season without Mister Schubert, thus far.

I remember seeing this one when it first aired in 1977, and hating it. It was a stupid old western, after all, and I wanted water breathing and cool sub stuff. I remember several scenes in great detail, however, mostly the farmer’s daughter saying “You can’t go into town naked as a jaybird like that.”

The 1970s were the dying days of TV westerns. In the fifties there were scores of them (My favorite being “Maverick,” particularly the James Garner episodes), in the sixties there were less, but they were generally of higher quality. By the early seventies, these were keeling over fast, owing primarily to network decisions to feature less “Rural” programming, and also to changing tastes in the public. Such westerns as managed to be successful in the ‘seventies were barely westerns at all - Little House on the Prairie, for instance, but it was still a popular trope to pull out every now and again because they provided a nice change of pace, they were instantly understandable, they’re fun to do, and seriously: who the hell can screw up a western? They write themselves, practically.

Of course there’s a whole lot of stupid going on in this episode - absolutely no effort is made to explain how Mark and Billy were able to swim back and forth through time. Their “Corsican Syndrome” is really one of the sillier clichés ever used. The whole “Cattle Baron is evil” thing was old fifty years before this episode was made, we’ve got some half-assed “Prince and the Pauper” going on here, and it’s never made clear if Mark is really in the past, or if it’s some kind of parallel universe which happens to be coincidentally *exactly* like the old west, or perhaps on some modern-day island country that just happens to be exactly like the old west. A kind of “Amish gone horribly, horribly wrong” kind of thing.

“Ah,” I hear you saying, “But if it’s just like America in the 1880s, then couldn’t it be Canada?” I thought that, too, but I did a little research, and discovered that Canada had cars by the late 1970s, electricity was available in much of the country, and, as we all know, Canadians have never managed to domesticate the horse, so clearly, that can’t be it.

All that said, however, as inherently stupid and derivative as it is, this is *easily* the best episode of the series I’ve seen. It’s tightly plotted, it’s fun, Duffy’s twin role is well acted, and “Billy” is actually every bit as charming as “Mark” is stolid, there’s some excitement to it, and it revisits the more-or-less-forgotten-by-this-point mystery about who or what Mark is. We don’t learn much we didn’t already know, of course, but there’s two of him, and for all we know the “Corsican Syndrome” might be normal for their species, whatever they are. It’s intriguing, also, to see how Mark and his “Brother” developed differently. Mark is stoical, inquisitive, formal, thoughtful, and reserved. Billy is outgoing, colloquial, smart, intuitive, and violent. Both are basically moral, however. Presumably, Mark’s nature is because he was discovered by scientists, whereas Billy’s nature is because he found himself in the rough-and-tumble frontier days.

The split screens they use to show Billy and Mark onscreen at the same time are all pretty sloppy, and the matte lines are really super-visible, since they mostly used practical lighting, and of course the sun changes position over the course of a day. Thus the light falls on the two of him differently and the shadows are all off. That said, the camaraderie between them is instantly compelling, and drifts into buddy-adventure stuff in the gunfight (In which neither of them fire any guns).

There’s a nice, subtle moment when they’re stringing Billy up, and Mark’s hand instantly goes to his own kneck, feeling it. He can feel the rope, even though it’s not touching him.

Interestingly Billy doesn’t seem to know quite what he is. He sleeps in a tub at night, and can swim, but may or may not know he can breathe water until this ep, and he clearly doesn’t know that water temporarily gives him superpowers.

Patrick Duffy’s got a pretty good tuck-and-roll into the dirt that clearly isn’t a stuntman since he turns his face to the camera with no cuts.

The communications woman has a name now - it’s “Jane.”

Curiously, the hooker character isn’t listed in the credits.

Man, the music in this episode is way, way better than normal. We get a synth version that’s kind of annoying, but the rest of it is a western version of the Man From Atlantis theme, and it works really, really well. As near as I can tell, this was done by Harry Lojewski, but again, the credits aren’t clear.

Playing “Spot the minor celebrity” is always fun in this show. Last week it was Gary Owens, this week it was Parnell Roberts as the cattle baron. The scene where he’s discussing his son’s fate is completely out of nowhere, and oddly moving: “I wonder if that editor has kids. I wonder if he knows what it’s like to put ‘em up on your shoulders, and set their broken bones, and tell ‘em what to say to their first girl?” He knows his kid’s a monster, but it’s still *his* kid, and he’ll do anything to protect him.

Not only is Elizabeth completely incidental to this episode, she’s actually portrayed as kind of a know-it-all hindrance. Fortunately for her, it’ll soon be cancelled, and Belinda Montgomery can get on with her life. In the meantime,

So we’re keeping track of Mark’s powers, and we’ve got more

- Horse Whisperer
- Dolphin Whisperer
- Can call unseen sea beasties to his rescue (Which was in the previous episode, but I forgot to mention it there)

Bottom line: there’s more stupid for sale in this episode than you can find at a Wallmart on Black Friday, but it’s a much more entertaining brand of stupid than they’re generally proffering. Namebrand stupid, rather than the generic crap.

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