You'll see many strange things in science fiction and fantasy television: space aliens, interstellar travel, super powers, and more. Yet even within the fantastic realm of genre entertainment, you sometimes encounter episodes that are just...bizarre. This month, let's look at some of the strangest episodes of popular sci-fi series. They may have their detractors, but I guarantee each is worth watching at least once.
The Adventures of Superman, 'The Stolen Costume': The 1950s George Reeves series becomes increasingly geared to kids as it progresses. The black-and-white first season is realistic, grittier, and often noirish. Did you ever see the one in which Superman kills someone?
Well, he kind of kills two people in 'The Stolen Costume.' You be the judge. The fact that this is by far the roughest-looking episode on the season one DVD set only adds to the offbeat darkness of the story.
A 'rope burglar,' fleeing the authorities, breaks into Clark Kent's apartment and opens a secret closet containing the Superman costume. (He really just touches a wall. Couldn't Supes have added a little extra security?) The dying crook brings the outfit to criminal Ace and his moll Connie (a slimy Dan Seymour and sassy Veda Ann Borg). After a few rudimentary tests, they decide it's the genuine Superman costume and not just some Halloween outfit some schlub keeps for kicks.
Meanwhile, Clark frets over the stolen uniform, showing a stress he never exhibits when Lois or Jimmy is missing. Clark hires private detective Candy (a superb Frank Jenks) to find out who broke in and took--uh, Kent's not saying what they took. Imagine what Candy thinks. A guy shows him a secret closet, says someone stole something and he needs it back, but he gets irritable when asked what it is? I guarantee Candy doesn't think Clark lost his stamp collection.
After detective work of their own, Ace and Connie jimmy the lock of Kent's apartment (seriously, this Superman is in dire need of a Fortress of Solitude) and plant a bomb to prove the apartment owner is the Man of Steel. After surviving the explosion, Clark talks on the phone with the duo, who start a blackmail scheme.
Clark, who doesn't bother to keep a backup costume, reveals himself to Ace and Connie, who threaten to reveal his identity. His ominous response: 'You aren't going to tell anybody.' Ace sneers, saying everyone knows Superman doesn't kill people. Well...
Superman flies them to the top of a remote snowy mountain, saying there's no way to get down, the cabin (which we don't actually see) is very comfortable, and they have plenty of firewood and food. Wait, is THIS his Fortress of Solitude? Does Superman have a stocked bachelor pad in the middle of nowhere for such an occasion?
Terrified, Ace and Connie beg Superman not to abandon them, but he insists they remain until he 'thinks of something' and says he'll return soon. Ace tries to descend the dangerous mountainside, claiming Superman left them there to die. 'Come on, it's a cinch!' Ace shouts after a few steps down. A reluctant Connie slips, falling on her boyfriend and making both plummet to their doom. Ace's pathetic yell punctuates one of the most horrifying moments ever on The Adventures of Superman, and this is a series that once featured a criminal named Rollo the Clown.
Back in his apartment, Clark tells Candy the two blackmailers fell off a cliff, and as Candy walks out, saying he doesn't believe it, Clark gives an odd smile. What a convenient resolution! I don't see any extra locks on the apartment door or windows, but, hey, should this ever happen again; Superman knows just what to do!
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, 'Terrible Leprechaun': Why single out this episode? The Irwin Allen undersea adventure series has numerous outlandish plots. Consider the other episode titles on the season four disc: 'The Return of Blackbeard,' 'The Lobster Man,' 'The Abominable Snowman,' and 'Secret of the Deep.' If you think that last one sounds tame, it features a bunch of sea monsters attacking Seaview.
Indeed, the crew meet all kinds of amazing foes, and later this season, the gang experiences time travel. But a leprechaun? Heck, TWO leprechauns? That seems excessive. It occurs when guest star Walter Burke plays the devious Mickey and the friendly Patrick. Seaview attempts to prevent the detonation of a nuclear warhead, but Mickey wants the blast to occur to free his gold, even if it blows up half the world.
The most bizarre element of this one is the 'good' twin is the one with the facial hair and the clean-shaven one is the 'evil' twin, contrary to the Television Laws of Evil Twins I discussed in an earlier column. Burke entertains in all of his scenes as both leprechauns, cackling, clutching a pipe, and throwing up force fields -- conveniently invisible so as not to inflate the budget.
Before Mickey appears, Chief Sharkey (Terry Becker) complains about sending non-countrymen to dive off Ireland's coast. So, naturally, the ethnically aware officer is the one Patrick seeks out to thwart his brother. Throughout this adventure, only those of Irish descent can see the leprechauns. I'm tempted to wish that only those of non-Irish descent could see this episode, but I have just enough of the Emerald Isle in me to make it a futile effort.
I also have just enough 'TV lover' in me to appreciate this on some level. If you can tolerate leprechauns running amok on Seaview, this episode has its virtues. Becker and Burke share funny exchanges, and if you ever wanted to see Richard Basehart match wits with a leprechaun, this is your show. Perhaps I should have saved this episode St. Patrick's Day, but believe it or not, there aren't a lot of other classic TV series stories with twin leprechauns battling over a nuclear weapon.
Star Trek, 'Spock's Brain': I love when TV and movie characters actually say the title of the work in which they appear. I can't explain why; it just cracks me up. A lot of times producers have a theme song do the job, but how much better would, say, My Mother the Car have been if each week Jerry Van Dyke turned to the camera, grinned, and exclaimed, 'That's my mother...the car?'
I mention this because this is arguably the most infamous episode of all in The Original Series, frequently cited by fans as the single most not good installment. It's no wonder it remains a fixture in Trek lore. The very name is memorable: 'Spock's brain' has a kind of ring to it. And to make sure it lingers in fans' collective consciousness for light years to come, the characters repeat the phrase over and over again. 'What have you done with Spock's brain?' 'Where are you going to look for Spock's brain?' 'Ward, don't you think you're being a little hard on Spock's brain?' OK, that last one is a fabrication.
It begins when a mysterious woman incapacitates the crew of the Enterprise and shows up on the main deck. Later, Captain Kirk sees his science officer on life support and finds out Spock's brain is missing. McCoy says he can keep Spock alive for 24 hours, which somehow becomes a hard deadline. Next, Kirk assumes, despite McCoy's protests (sadly, he does NOT say, 'I'm a doctor, not a brain surgeon!') that they can just re-install the brain like a watch battery. 'It was taken out. It can be put back in.' All right, then! The captain announces they are going to find the brain and McCoy will just have to bring Spock along. He'll figure something out.
To his credit, he does! Bones uses a Nintendo-like controller to guide Spock like a zombie as a crew beams down to a 'primitive glaciated planet.' (Ever the diplomat, Kirk avoids the un-PC term 'icy dump.') Not a whole lot happens after this. There are crude cavemen on the surface of the frigid planet, and all the females live below, their lives organized by a mysterious 'Controller' that is now somehow powered by -- you guessed it -- Spock's brain.
You know how many Star Treks use alien environments to make relevant social commentary or raise philosophical issues? This is not one of them. Kirk, McCoy, Scotty, and Zombie Spock have to maneuver through the underground city of 'The Others' to find...Spock's brain (I'm doing it now, aren't I?).
The woman who took the brain doesn't know how to put it back, having used a helmet contraption to gain temporary knowledge. There follows a sophisticated argument: Kirk argues, 'You must put it back!' She replies, 'I will not!' 'Will, too!' 'Will not!'
Risking his own brain frying, McCoy dons the helmet. His eyes bulge and he grimaces -- almost as if he were listening to Leonard Nimoy's version of 'Proud Mary' -- but he absorbs the vital surgical techniques. He performs the operation at warp speed because the knowledge is only temporary. Sure enough, Bones forgets mid-procedure and panics. There are a million nerves, and he doesn't know what to do! Faking it to get through, McCoy shows a wide-eyed stare while lit like a mad scientist.
Kirk tells him to restore the vocal cords first, and after a few pithy remarks ('Unh...Ahh...Mmm. That's better'), Spock regains speech and steers McCoy through the rest of the procedure. Unlike his medically trained colleague, apparently Spock IS a brain surgeon. 'Try the sonic separator,' he urges. Of course! Then he recommends the tri-laser connector. What a dope McCoy is for not thinking of that himself.
After McCoy makes a wisecrack regretting the restoration of chatty Spock's voice, the show ends with a laugh.
Lost in Space, 'The Great Vegetable Rebellion': Word has it several cast members were punished by producers for laughing too much during filming of this episode. Unprofessional? Perhaps. Understandable? You bet. I think it's a riot, but in the interest of full disclosure I must point out that the vegetable activity is neither great nor a rebellion. Even the 'vegetable' quotient is suspect.
Seeking to curry favor before a birthday party for Robot, Dr. Smith heads to a planet to gather flowers as a present. Remember that sentence when you think the rest of the episode sounds wacky.
Smith is used to offending people everywhere he goes, but not to irritating vegetables. Yet he is captured by Tybo (Stanley Adams), a guy in a carrot suit, who transforms the doc into talking celery. When I say 'guy in a carrot suit,' I'm only pointing out how unrealistic Stanley Adams' costume is. I have a hard time believing anyone would point at him and say, 'Hey, it's a carrot,' instead of, 'Why is that dude's face sticking out of some kind of goofy carrot get-up?'
Nevertheless, Tybo captures half of the crew of the Jupiter 2 and plans to vegetize them as well. Does that sound like a rebellion? I don't think it counts as 'insurrection.' In fact, the Robinsons and company are the intruders, landing on this world of sentient plants and carelessly hacking through much of the vegetation. The frequent cries and groans we hear each time a plant is injured kind of makes you think the vegetable has a legit beef, if you'll pardon the expression. At least Robot has the manners to say, 'Excuse me' and 'Pardon me' in response to the screams of pain.
This being an Irwin Allen production and not a Gene Rodenberry one (you know, the guy who brought us provocative narratives like 'Spock's Brain'), we don't get a thoughtful meditation on the notion of plants having feelings. You'll have to dig up Leonard Nimoy's 1970s In Search Of... for that. What we do get is Dr, Smith, in celery form, spouting pretentious eco-poetry of sorts; an odd underling named Willoughby; and a solemn Robot declaring, 'We are at war with the plant world.'
These four bizarre stories may not top fans' lists of favorites (though TV Guide ranked 'The Great Vegetable Rebellion' the 76th best TV episode ever), but they are entertaining for various reasons. If nothing else, you have to admire them for standing out among so many other incredible episodes.
Rick Brooks is the proprietor of Cultureshark, a blog in which he uses an often irreverent approach to express his reverence for the classics and the un-classics.