The Victoria Day Matinee, Episode 6: Disaster from the Skies

With best wishes for our Canadian chums. Last we saw, Gene Autry seemed in imminent peril of being placed in a room and let out through another door, but to our surprise, he was actually electrocuted and fell dead to the floor. Now read on…

This episode sets a new standard for dishonesty, worthy of the Trump administration, as this time Gene DOESN’T get electrocuted and is released before the voltage flies. Rewriting history. Did Big Brother get his start editing movie serials, or were the makers of THE PHANTOM EMPIRE (our Shadowplay serial) taking tips from Uncle Joe Stalin?

“Argo,” says Queen Tika, “You may now start Autry’s charred body on its trip to the cavern of the doomed!” An odd thing to say, one would have thought, but after all, she’s the queen, not us, so she can say it if she wants to. I’m just observing that it’s odd. I’m not proposing we invoke the twenty-fifth amendment, or anything. But we might want to keep it at the back of our minds. Maybe all that radium is clouding her judgement.

Autry, from his little atrium off the lightning chamber, watches through a hatch as Argo’s secret revolution foments itself, if “foment” is the word I want. One guy claims to have invented a disintegrating device which can destroy the universe. I’m sure there’s a crying need for that. Then they catch Autry and propose to vivisect him, to find out how a surface man’s lungs work. I’m curious about that too, since the Muranians need special respiratory gear to canter about on the surface, but Autry is happily puffing away at the subterranean oxygen with no ill effects. A vivisection seems just the thing to clear the matter up, and I’m broadly in favour of the move.

Autry, however, disagrees, and after throwing the wimpy scientists around for a bit, seizes a ray gun, essentially resembling a large whisk, and holds them at bay. Somebody tries to jump him, and the disintegrating guy gets blinded by a powerful beam from his own whisk. “I’m blinded! I’m blind!” cries the disintegrator inventor, and then, “I’m blind! I’m blind! I’m blind! I’m blinded!” he continues, before adding, “I’m blind! I’m blind! I’m blinded! I’m blind!” We can tell he’s a man partial to strong statements, and eager to get his point across in the most effective way. Also, he’s blind.

The blinded disintegrator man’s friends crowd round and assess the situation. “This is unfortunate,” one of them concludes. But then they decide the condition is only temporary. (The blindness, that is. The fondness for forceful repetition is probably innate.)

Now it’s time for one of Queen Tika’s tape-slide presentations, a highlight of any episode of THE PHANTOM EMPIRE. An underling activates her circular floor monitor (basically a high-tech version of the pool of visions used by Boris Karloff in THE MUMMY for flashback exposition purposes). This time, however, there’s to be no disquisition on the relative merits of living in the open air versus in a stinking hole in the ground (the latter being far superior, according to Queen T.) We see an image of a five-bar gate. “Take me closer, I want to hear what they have to say!” demands the Queen. Just in time to catch a medium shot and listen in on the evil Professor Beetson plotting to discover Murania’s hidden entrance. “So they think they will discover Murania and become rich, do they?” sneers the Queen. But her eavesdropping is itself eavesdropped, by Gene Autry, standing unobserved in full view in a window right in front of her.

Now Gene takes hostage the television operator, who we will learn is called Gasper or something, and tries to communicate with his buddies at Radio Ranch (Hey, maybe he could perform the next edition of his show live from 20,000 feet below the earth’s surface?). But Gene can’t reach his pals due to something called a Word Scrambler. Gasper tries to explain this, but his own words come out pretty scrambled: “It’s an un-instrument which mixes up the words of our wireless telephone so that nobody outside um-Murania can unnerstand what is said.” Just as this Gasper’s becoming my favourite actor ever, Gene punches him unconscious.

Now Gene reroutes the Word Scrambler, or something (his radio experience coming in handy in dealing with a totally alien technology) and enjoys a quick chat with Frankie and Betsy, telling them the location of the entrance to Murania. But now Queen Tika comes back (her palace seems to contain only three rooms, so she spends a lot of time in the television room). Gene hides behind a console, but the Queen overhears Frank promising to ride to the rescue, so she orders a bomb prepared to blow up the Junior Thunder Riders. Sounds like another cliffhanger is on the way.

Meanwhile poor Gasper, still unconscious, is accused of patching through the call to the surface world, a treasonable offence. I really don’t want to lose this thespian genius to the lightning chamber so soon…

Time for a quick demonstration of the robots’ workings. Two guards set them on alert by pressing buttons on their chests, and activate a photocell which will cause them to chop, with their might scimitars, anyone who crosses the beam. Everything in Murania seems to operate on the principle of the garage door.

Then there’s some confused running about — there seem to be shots missing — and a fight in an elevator (not as good as the one in THE WINTER SOLDIER) and then Autry breaks into the aerial torpedo silo, which he easily locates despite never having been there, and causes the missile to boomerang back (great reaction from the missile operator — the flapping hands of big jessie panic), right in his face, definitely, beyond any question, killing him instantly.

Which seems awkward, as the serial is only half over.

To be continued…


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