Space 1999 #13: The Troubled Spirit

Alpha's psychic botanist is haunted by his own ghost.
WHEN: The episode first aired on Feb.5 1976., 22nd in broadcast order, but was 19th in production order.

The French title was "En désarroi", which translates as "In Disarray". Huh.

REVIEW: The Troubled Spirit starts with an amazing teaser. Just amazing. Jim Sullivan, who did the groovy Eastern score for the episode, actually gets to play it on screen to an attentive (if only intellectually stimulated) crowd. As it's become clear by now, I love these sorts of moments, where we see how the Alphans are getting on with their daily lives, and the fact they still have art is edifying. But that's a bit of a mislead. The camera tracks out of the concert hall and into Alpha's empty halls and rooms, giving the base a haunted quality. Still in the same shot, we go through the hydroponics lab where food is grown, and stop on a strange seance, crewmen concentrating around a potted plant. Score and diagetic music merge and an argument between scientists explodes without sound, and then a blast of wind makes the trees rustle and startles people in the concert hall and Main Mission. As a set piece, it's strange and suspenseful, mystical.

What you think of the episode may depend on whether or not you think sci-fi should be doing ESP stories. In the mid-70s, with Uri Geller in the news, psychic phenomena would have seemed a pretty current scientific pursuit. Some of the characters still call it "supernatural", which belies its relevance in a science show, but the more scientifically-minded Helena and Victor believe in it and have hard data to support its existence. (Of course, Victor still seems drunk from his encounter with the Guardian of Piri, so I'm not sure I trust him anymore.) But while this is, on the surface a "ghost story", the fact that Mateo - who has always had a high ESP rating - is haunted by his OWN ghost, speaks to a temporal manifestation, perhaps due to the Moon going through a time warp or something. As usual, hard answers are hard to come by, and in this case, the initial feeling that plants are involved somehow proves a red herring... or maple, whichever. It all leads to a paradox, as the crew kill Mateo in trying to exorcise the ghost this deadly accident will create.

The mystery evolves well enough, from a rash of killings, to a spooky seance, and the gory appearance of the ghost (Space 1999 loves its body horror). The unique musical cues from the teaser return each time the ghost does, and give the episode a spooky feel. It's all pretty effective, give or take some longueurs when Mateo walks around the base in real time. But does this kind of thing, as crazy as it is, happen too often? How many humans must be transformed into strange monsters - often with a unique relationship to time - before we can only conclude that there's either something wrong with this part of space, or with the black hole the Moon went through. Are they even still in "our" universe, or are the laws of nature different here? What is making all these people appear to evolve towards a new paradigm, one that by all accounts is toxic to norma, humans?

Giancarlo Prete is Dan Mateo; one of Space 1999's Italian guest-stars, you might have seen him in Ladyhawk. Hilary Heath is Laura Adams; this was her last acting credit, but genre fans will find her in The Prisoner's Anvil Into Hammer. Anthony Nicholls is Dr. James Warren; he was Tremayne in The Champions; after his onscreen death here, he would go on to appear in The Omen; he passed away for real only about a year after this episode aired.

- Not always tightly focused, but features a lot of atmosphere, and that teaser is to die for.


MichaelT said...

As I mentioned some time back, I give this show a lot of leeway. But I found this unwatchable past the teaser second time through. All the factors you mention are there, but for some reason they did not gel for me. You do raise the intriguing possibility that it's the flirting and/or acceptance of the pseudo-science aspects that I can't stand.

Morgan said...

In response to the original post and also to MichaelT's comment, it's just a poorly written episode. It tries to be profound, but there's not sufficient explanation to make it intelligible enough to be profound. I suspected early in the episode that the creature was Mateo in some form. Once it was revealed that the creature was a future Mateo coming back to avenge his death, I anticipated that Koenig and crew's attempts to exorcise Matteo's demon would result in Mateo being killed and mangled in the exact same way that his ghost was. It sets up the paradox that in trying to prevent Mateo's injury and death, they actually caused it. I guess it's one of those time travel paradoxes; however, it wasn't executed skillfully enough to be cool or enjoyable, it's just hollow and annoyingly predictable. It seems clear that the writers were drawing very much on the idea of the occult and psychic phenomena, which are mentioned several times in the episode. In the end Star Trek would have given the events a natural and scientific explanation. The fact that this is not provided in this episode is part of what makes it unsatisfying. The conversation at the end between Russell and Koenig could have provided some satisfying explanation, but it was totally wasted on superficial moralizing.


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