Visitors to the Junkyard may recall September of 2020 when we reviewed Star Trek’s Arena where I mentioned that it was based on an idea from The Outer Limits. “You will meet in the Arena!” Yep, this is that episode. Like any good artistic endeavor, it’s great to create, but it’s important to look over your creation and then tweak it, then test again, and improve again. Fun and Games is an early version of the idea that Trek tweaked and improved upon. It’s not that Trek was a vast improvement with it’s Metron fairy godparent appearing out of the blue and whisking Kirk back to safety but at least it’s a far more entertaining episode in terms of action. That’s not to say this is a bad episode though, it just needed some work!
Mike is a tough guy at a card game where a man is shot (card games are dangerous affairs!). He bumps into Laura. Together they are whisked off to a planet where they are told they can fight George and Gracie Apeman or “the planet earth will be exterminated!” (Very Dalek of these guys huh?) Mike is a cruel, cowardly sort and says he wants no part in it, even if it means that over the next five years, Earth will be destroyed. This is where it starts to go wrong. Instead of getting to the battle, we spend more time on Earth where Laura and Mike are given a day to think about their options. We don’t get to the planet until about halfway through the episode. Then, we go an additional ten minutes with Mike and Laura talking about why Mike is the way he is. Eventually the story starts and our protagonists learn that George Apeman killed Gracie to extend its food supplies, which gives the humans a fighting chance of two against one, but limits their own food. But who was expecting a battle to the death to go on for three days anyway? Put a human in a ring with an angry gorilla and you’d be lucky to make it three minutes! Then it goes more wrong: even as Mike is on the brink of falling off the Bridge of Death, Laura stares. And stares. Debates. Plays a game of backgammon with a frog. Maybe writes her memoirs. All the while, she has a boomerang in her hand and probably thinks to herself: “If I throw it now, we will have four minutes until the end credits! Better wait a few more minutes!” It was interminable. Eventually she throws it and George gets scared and falls off the Bridge – because it sure as hell didn’t hit him. Mike survives only a few seconds longer than his opponent, but that’s all he had to survive to win. Game, set, match – humans: 1, Apemen; 0. Humanity is saved. They get to go home with a copy of the home game… woohoo!
Yeah, that’s it. No slow motion fight between the two fighters. No boulder throwing contests. Trek definitely improved on this tale! And the cast! Laura is a woman who is estranged from her husband and sits around at night eating cottage cheese debating what to do with herself. Mike is a petulant, selfish child. Both are hard to like. Laura at least is willing to fight for her humanity, but even as she sees her ally die, she’s very calm and matter of fact about it. “I knew you’d fall, Mike!” The emcee in the Ebon mask – yeah, pretty positive that’s what he was wearing – tells us early on that she is the embodiment of good while he is the result of evil even if he himself is not evil. Maybe the same was true for George and Gracie since George killed Gracie because he was the embodiment of evil. (Oh, I just made those names up by the way! They are never called that in the episode!) And that would mesh with what happens. George has the opportunity to kill Mike as he’s crossing the Bridge of Death but decides instead to cause pain and instill terror first, stepping on his hand and grinding it so Mike will fall. I guess that’s what we were exploring this week: the nature of good and evil? George isn’t just trying to win to save his species; he wants to hurt his adversary. That’s evil. Maybe the message was also about redemption, as Mike never resorts to selfishness, contrary to what he says of himself. He doesn’t give up and his actions save Laura. Maybe it’s just this: a winner needs only win for a moment more than the loser! And in the end, that’s what makes good science fiction: you can watch the story for the sake of the story, or you can find a message built in. Totally up to the viewer!
Meanwhile, this episode had a lot of small things that jumped out at me. There’s the guy with the gun who shoots his way into Laura’s house who seems to think jerking his arm while shooting is going to help the bullets achieve their target. Or the door that has a 6” gap at the bottom. Did Mike live in a restaurant bathroom stall, or did the builder just buy their doors from one? How about the fire escape whose window is sealed shut? God forbid they needed to escape during a fire! And how about the fact that the Control Voice says that on earth our battles are “civilized” and we get an image of Boxing!? Like I said, it’s not a bad episode but we needed some tweaks to really get it right. And maybe a Gorn or two. Well, I guess if we put both episodes in an arena, Trek would win! That’s OK though; you need the prototype to get the refined product later, and the prototype might not win awards, but it certainly gave us an improved product just a few years later. ML
The view from across the pond:
“There is nothing wrong with your television set.”
Well, the screen is awfully dark. It’s a job to see anything, but something looks familiar. No, surely that couldn’t be… the Ebonite! He is always kept in the shadows but that head shape is pretty distinctive. It looks like he hasn’t been paying attention to his personal grooming since we last saw him though. I’ve never seen anyone so much in need of a good manicurist.
So the Not-Ebonite/Senator is kept hidden, and that’s probably a good idea, because it was an excellent monster mask and would put this week’s other effort to shame. So far the series has generally managed to avoid obvious man-in-a-mask costumes, but this week we have a couple of those kinds of monster heads the actor just pulls on over his own head, so none of the features ever move. They’re awful, although I did think their serrated boomerang was a clever piece of design and really nasty looking.
The premise of this episode was very straightforward: two humans and two aliens being made to fight for their lives, for the entertainment of a third party. Lots of other sci-fi series have done something like this, looking to the Roman arenas for inspiration. They even show the Colosseum at the start of this one, to drive the point home. The stakes are raised by the threat of the loser having their home world destroyed, but the Senator seems to be all talk in that respect. He keeps changing to rules, first threatening Mike and Laura to secure their co-operation, and then giving Mike 24 hours to change his mind when he calls the Senator’s bluff. In fact, the whole thing has a air of somebody making things up as he goes along, the worst example being this:
“Oh, I can’t let you kill her just yet.”
What kind of a contest is it if the commentator steps in and changes things? It’s not entertainment if somebody is cheating, but maybe it’s supposed to reflect the cheating in the card game, with the laughably obvious twitching men hanging around at the back of the room.
This was such a frustrating episode. It took a full 50% of the running time before we got to the planet Arena, and all that running around to delay the inevitable was tedious to say the least. Then when they finally got there they spent most of their time talking. I think the idea was to make us care about Mike, with much of the episode focusing on his character and motivations, but look, I don’t care. He was a criminal who was prepared to sacrifice the lives of everyone on the planet to give himself a few more years of life. I didn’t like him, I didn’t care what happened to him, and I didn’t want to know about what makes him tick. And in the end that was a major flaw with the episode, because when he was hanging off that bridge and the Calco was stepping on his hand, there was no tension or excitement. I couldn’t care less what happened to him, and instead amused myself by trying to puzzle out exactly why Laura was standing and watching, shaking her head, instead of getting on and throwing the boomerang.
“I’m sorry Mike. I knew you’d fall.”
… but you took your sweet old time, just to make absolutely sure. At least the writers didn’t try to build up some kind of a romance between the two of them. We’ve had enough unrealistic love affairs over the last few episodes, so it was actually refreshing to see some restraint from the writers in avoiding that very obvious and very dull approach for once.
Mike’s resurrection felt like a cheat at the end, and did little other than remind us that Laura lives in a block of flats with the wobbliest ever bannister on the stairs. The success rate seems to have been decreasing across the series, with signs of the money running out, particularly the reused or poor quality costumes. More importantly, the ideas seem to be running out as well. As we approach the end of the series, let’s hope the writers had a few final aces up their sleeves.
“That ace came off the bottom!” BANG!
OK, I should probably have steered clear of that metaphor this week.
We now return control of your computer, until the next time we visit the outer limits of the Junkyard… RP
Read next in the Junkyard… The Outer Limits: The Special One