January 19th, 2011

Puzzle time

Another brain-teaser from Larry Gore's THiNG.

This would be good to pass out to kindergarten children and tell them anyone who isn't stupid should be able to solve it right away.

Will Lois get her cerebrum fried?


A violent and suspenseful episode, with hardly a single misstep and plenty of great lines (like Perry White hopelessly growling, "Lois, for the last time, are you going to listen to reason?" Good luck, Chief). A heartless criminal gets hold of a mind-control device which kills its victims by destroying their brains. Whoa, not a plot you would likely see in the later seasons with their gentle little kiddie-oriented tales about talking mules and absent-minded inventors.

We start with two scientists in their wonderful cheesy 1950s sci-fi lab (rows of test tubes and flasks of bubbling liquid with rubber tubing all over) being interrupted by three thugs wearing handkerchiefs over their faces. These intruders make off with the elderly Dr Edward Stanton and his invention, while assistant John Hadley gets rewarded for his resistance with a hard smack in the kisser. Hadley is warned not to go to the police or Stanton will be killed, so in desperation, he goes to a newspaper reporter he once met and trusted... THE DAILY PLANET's Clark Kent. I don't know what good he thinks a reporter can do, there's no hint he knows this journalist is on good terms with Superman.

Over in Perry White's office, everyone is giddy with delight at the upcoming State Crime Committee hearings which intend to expose the kingpin of organized crime, a mug named Lou Cranek. (Dan Seymour, the same actor who was in "The Stolen Costume" and who would have made a decent stand-in for Nero Wolfe.) Among the witnesses testifying against Cranek are our own Lois Lane; she has been working hard on the story and has gathered a ton of information on "slot machines, gambling houses, organized vice." (Really? Tell us more about that organized vice, Lois; how deep undercover did you research the story?)

Hadley shows up in Kent's office to unload his worries about what has happened. It seems that for five years, he helped Stanton work on a "hypno-therapy transmitter" which treats nervous disorders by beaming instructions directly into the subject's mind. Used by a trained specialist, the mind machine could be an immense benefit to humanity but in the hands of an unscrupulous man... well, tinfoil hats might not be such a bad idea.

And of course, it is indeed Lou Cranek who has absconded with both the doctor and the machine. In a mountain lodge twenty miles away from Metropolis, he and his two goons force Stanton to use the machine for Evil. As a witness is testifying before the investigating committee, Stanton fiddles with dials as the man's image appears on a screen. When the image is in focus, Cranek speaks into a microphone and the witnesses does as he's told, forced against his will to deny everything.

Everyone is shocked, of course, and star reporters Kent and Lane trail the distraught man as he steals a car (punching out the lady behind the wheel) and roars off. On a mountain road, a tire blows on the stolen car and the hysterical witness then jumps into a parked school bus and takes off in it... but the driver had been under the bus, working on the brakes! There's a steep hill ahead and the bus with children aboard will go off the side of the mountain. Then Billy Batson shouts, "Shazam!" No, wait...

It develops that the witness is dead, his brain burned out in his skull like a TV left plugged in during a thunderstorm. The same thing happens to the next two men who try to testify against Boss Cranek, and then it's time for Lois to take the stand. Despite Perry and Clark pleading with her, Lois is determined to go ahead. Phyllis Coates is absolutely convincing as a tough-as-nails hardheaded reporter who won't back down from doing her duty. (I would have liked to see her return in the role for the following seasons but she had taken on other commitments in the hiatus before Season Two started production).

Soon, our favorite gal reporter is yakking into the microphone all she knows about orgainzed crime. In that cabin twenty miles away, Lou Cranek himself brings her image into focus on the mind-control screen and laughs wickedly as he lifts his own microphone. Meanwhile, Clark Kent is frantically trying to find a clue as to locate the stolen machine before Lois gets her cerebrum fried.

"The Mind Machine" is pretty intense stuff, what with people being hypnotized from a distance and dying from brain overload, and a schoolbus with children in it hurtling out of control down a road. If the hero had been a detective or fellow scientist investigating the crimes rather than Superman, this could easily be expanded into a decent little 1950s drive-in flick (like THE CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN). It's definitely not a fluffy safe bedtime story for kids like the final seasons of the show would highlight.

There are a few points worth mentioning. George Reeves plays Clark Kent as a manly, hardboiled reporter and not a weak sissy; he's imposing enough anyway in those wide-shouldered suits that such an interepretation would seem forced. So Kent's famous lame excuses intended to give him a chance to slip away and get into costume seem particularly hard to take. As Lois and the driver run to the car to chase the stolen bus, Clark says he should stay behind to take care of the poor woman who was slugged. It falls flat, and the fact that Clark is normally a tough-talking upright sort of guy makes the excuse even less believable. This would work if Clark were played as the cowardly ninny he was in the early comics but not here.

Also, the TV version of Superman has definite limits on his powers. I believe his super-speed is only shown once or twice, and not that far beyond human limits at that. In this episode, he flies up under a plane which has run out of gas and lowers it safely to the ground. In close-up, Reeves has a tight-lipped grimace as if this is quite an effort for him. Considering this verson most often dealt with merely human opponents, his having only moderate super-powers helps gives the stories some conflict. It reminds of the classic Fleischer cartoons, where Superman would go to lift something, brace himself and visibly make an effort before flipping a car or whatever away.

It's odd that several times in the first season people don't recognize Superman. Even if he had just begun his career a short time before, certainly his appearance would be such a huge sensation that everyone would know who this guy in the odd suit was, especially after he just crashed through a wall and shrugged off half a dozen bullets. Yet Dr Stanton's first words to his rescuer are "Whoever you are..."

Finally, there are the take-offs. This was before the springboard was introduced, which I frankly much prefer. Reeves would race forward, hit a diving board just below camera and vault up out of sight. (He then would do a somersault over the camera onto some mats or grab a vertical bar and swing back down.) This gave his take-offs a certain dynamic quality and just seems right. In "The Mind Machine", there are three instances where the Peter Pan technique is used. Reeves or his stand-in were lifted off on wires, and the effect is only convincing once. The guy just doesn't appear to be launching himself up with any force, but just being dangled and swung horizontally, with his legs hanging down. For the most part, I didn't take to the wire lift-offs. (Of course, by 1978, the technique had been refined and Christopher Reeve had some fine moments.)