MONSTER OF THE WEEK: The Demon Child Lily
(This one feels seasonally appropriate.)
“The Devil Child” is the odd one out for this show, so far the only episode that does not feature a giant monster – but it still retains the thriller/sci-fi bent, so it is very much an episode of ULTRA Q (it definitely feels like one where the Twilight Zone/Outer Limits inspiration is the most apparent.) The plot hovers between the standard ghost and ESP fare, but never commits to either, making it very much its own thing – you have a pseudo-scientific explanation for an out-of-body experience (I love how devoted our recurring scientist character is to replicating a magic trick he saw, like a real killjoy) that slowly becomes a tale of id vs ego (with the id eventually attempting to literally kill the ego.) Interestingly, it does this using a very small child, who usually don’t have their own morality figured out, but seems to propose that they still have a mediating capacity, which this week’s “unbalancing” messes with – I think the innocence factor is meant to make the audience more forgiving of the accidental weirdness that leads to injury and death, but also makes it more unsettling; after all, it’s about a child who doesn’t understand what’s going on, even when she finally meets her sociopathic id doppelganger. Although I’d never call it especially unnerving, it definitely tries – the special effects are never particularly consistent, but the actual shots fit the atmosphere (the fact that the special effects aren’t convincing might help this as well – I’ve always found that things that look completely unreal can often be incredibly creepy in the right contexts.)
The dynamic between the girl and her father, too, I found quite compelling and strangely sweet. The weird events only take place because the magician father has found a trick involving hypnotism to really spice up their act, but accidentally taps into something he doesn’t properly understand when he begins going to the hypnotism well a little too much – but he’s never really acting selfishly, as he honestly thinks he’s helping his child, and is absolutely devastated when he learns that things may go catastrophically wrong. Like some of the other episodes I’ve watched, it’s not so much a morality play (unless the moral is “hypnotism can’t solve all your problems, dingus”) as it is one of man brushing up against some unknown force entirely by accident – and in this episode, while there is a scientific basis for the phenomenon presented, it’s not an accident of science, but some other activity. Nature, whether internal or external, plays a part in everyone’s life – and can go haywire.
MONSTER OF THE WEEK: The Space Stingray Bostang
The ocean just provides an endless bounty of creatures to base monsters on, right? Such a wide variety of shapes and behaviours, all of them bizarre and disturbing affronts to everything human believes to be “normal” – you can cycle through the whole lot of them and never run out of ideas. This time we get a ray, whose strange movements may be more a sign of a puppet with limited capabilities, but sure looks unique and interesting. The way it dives and rises in a rhythmic pattern gives it pizzazz (and emphasizes how strange a ray’s body actually is), at least somewhat overcoming the obvious limitations of the special effects here.
This episode seems to be exchanging “a plot” for a series of unusual and effective scenes – the strange methods the aliens use to contact the human characters (who would enter a diner that appears in the middle of nowhere?), two ships immobile and silent in the middle of the sea, and the ending, which is the quintessential TV sci-fi meta-zinger (making up for the fact that the solution to their monster problem is simply “blow it up”.) This is definitely an episode where the monster stuff seems tacked on to justify all those alien encounter moments – it even has some backstory that is only told to the characters and never seems particularly relevant. But those essentially abstract scenes are effective, making the whole episode feel more unnerving than it actually is.
MONSTER OF THE WEEK: The Ancient Mysterious Bird Larugeus
We haven’t had a “child-and-their-monster” story for a while (though now that I think about it, maybe the last one was an “adult-and-their-monster” story), and this one is a bit of an odd duck (good one, me.) While the rest of the episode seems to be presenting a more atypical Ultra Q episode, you have the stuff with the boy off to the side, a fairly whimsical fantasy of a kid going off to be on his own in nature and befriending a wild animal – which is the one-two punch of pretty much all children’s wilderness adventures – only to be tragically separated when it turns out that the animal is literally from another era; I wouldn’t exactly call it “subtle”, but its much smaller-scale and quaint given the weirdness of the other scenes. Both the child-like wonder and the weirdness are helped by the decision to not have the actual monster show up until the last five minutes, a very unusual bit of restraint for this show – it adds mysterious and anticipation for when you actually see how this monster works, but also helps keep the relationship between the boy and the bird more reasonable and grounded, right up until you get to scenes of a bird fighting off whole groups of adult men.
That latter part is also why I think they left the actual special effects stuff until the end (not necessarily because the monster prop isn’t technically very good) – it allowed them to film a number of ridiculous scenes. Not only the scenes of the bird taking people on, but the next scene where the bird in a cage is locked behind the bars of a prison cell – we don’t see the monster until the very end (until then we’ve only ever seen the monster’s handiwork), but everyone else knows what it is, so we have the military and police treating this tiny bird like its a huge threat. But knowing it will grow to the size of an airplane at any moment doesn’t lessen the absurdity of it all – it’s comedy that doesn’t call attention to itself.
MONSTER OF THE WEEK: The Huge Plant Juran
This is the first episode I’ve seen with an opening narration, and this one in particular seems to explain one of the underlying ideas of the series, of nature becoming “unbalanced”. Most of the episodes after this hew to that concept, some aspect of our natural world becoming askew and dangerous, demonstrating the fragility of society and the systems of life on earth – sometimes caused by humanity, and sometimes completely randomly (as much as this show warns of the problems caused by modern technology and civilization, it’s just as likely to say “stuff happens!”) The concept here is not that anything specific unbalances nature, but that an unbalanced nature produces very dramatic changes.
Having that basic concept probably helped drive the ideas behind episodes like these – I can imagine that just the image of a massive flower blooming out of a skyscraper was striking enough to get scripted. That image remains the main focus of the episode, as there really isn’t much in the way of plot: the monster appears, causes some damage, and then is dealt with. Even the explanation of the monster itself is just sort of there, although the basic conceit that “prehistoric animals were bigger, so why wouldn’t prehistoric plants be as well?” is kind of adorable when it’s put forward.
The only “real” conflict in the story is between two scientists, and that ends up being resolved rather quickly – but there is something interesting going on there, still. One scientist wants to deal with the titular mammoth flower immediately, the other hopes to study it – and in this case, it is the one who calls for hasty destruction who ends up being morally in the right, which is an odd reversal of the norm for these sorts of things. I guess the rationale there is that furthering human knowledge is not worth putting lives at risk (not considering consequences seems to be the true failure here), but even the way it’s framed in the episode it still seems like the more rash/violent decision-making wins out. Is it possible to subvert expectations by doing the least subversive thing possible?