Wednesday, March 24, 2010

In the Domain of the Dragon, Nothing but Terror Awaits

Style. Speculative fiction. Elements of horror. A study of character. Honor. Duty. These are things I learned in a single hour. Permanently. We’re talking a lesson in storytelling that I will never, and I mean never, forget.

It sometimes haunts my dreams.

And I share this lesson with thousands of people. Thousands.

Intrigued? You should be. What I and these other poor souls experienced was something so unique, so mind-boggling perfect, I became addicted to terror. Addicted to science fiction. Addicted to style. Addicted to storytelling.

But a small digression, my friends. Some of you have forgotten. So I’m going to bring up a buried memory. For that, please forgive me.

What I am talking about is a TV show. A single episode of Space 1999, a fantastic show that went downhill after its first season, but even at its worse it was so damn good.

Mom was a Trekie, Dad loved to watch TV at the end of the day. We ate Space 1999 like no tomorrow. I loved that show, even if I didn’t understand half of it. I even had the lunch box, a pair of walkie-talkies that looked just like the communicators, and of course the fist guns. I even had a white bike that I could pretend was an Eagle Shuttle.

We had started our Space 1999 addiction in the middle of season two, so we had no idea when we started to watch Dragon’s Domain as a rerun what we were in for. We had just gotten a large color TV to replace the black-and-white version. It was the 70’s, and we were riding the wave of home entertainment.

It was the last episode I was allowed to watch. My parents never let me watch Space 1999 again.

The story is thus:

A man wakes up to a bad dream and attempts to hijack a shuttle. He is stopped by his friend. Eventually, the story shifts to the past (1996), and we learn our hero’s back-story is Basically Filled with Really Bad Things.

In the past, a team of scientists, lead by the man with a bad dream, a Russian astronaut, are on an exploration mission. They are flitting through space visiting a newly discovered planet in our solar system, one that has derelict spaceships in orbit.

They dock with the ship, and encounter a strange swirling light display at the airlock, so they quickly close the airlock.

Too late.

At the stern of the ship appears the Dragon, as if materializing from somewhere else. The Dragon is some tentacle monster with a big glowing eye. And it screams and unearthly sound, followed by billowing gusts of air as a tentacle lashes out at a crewmen, who struggles until he is mind-blasted in submission. While the rest of the crew watches in utter terror, the Dragon pulls the crewman under it. He disappears in the howling wind and mass of tentacles back-lit by a terrible glow.

Then he is regurgitated out. He comes back to the crew, stopping at their feet, as an acid-burnt husk. His brain has been sucked out of his eyes-sockets. His eternal organs were removed from holes where his limbs used to be attached to his torso.

He looked like this:

Then the monster selects another victim, but this time the hapless soul realizes exactly what’s going to happen to her. The Dragon does this to the entire crew, one acid-eaten crew member at a time.

And. It. Never. Stops. Screaming.

Our Russian friend tries vainly to save the last beautiful crewman, but she succumbs, and is spit back out just like the rest. The pilot escapes by decoupling the pilot module from the rest of the ship and makes it back to Earth. But nobody believes his tale. The rest of the episode deals with him slaying his Dragon, figuratively and literally. He must master his fear.

He does, but dies in the attempt. The same way his crew died. He did not die in vain, for the Commander, his friend, learns how to fight the Dragon, and kills it.

How many children and adults has Dragon’s Domain fucked up? It must be thousands. I could not go to sleep that night, and the next day, my parents banned me from watching the show. In fact, they stopped watching it. I recall my mother having nightmares.

As science fiction goes, Dragon’s Domain was perfect. The use of music (Tommaso Albinoni's Adagio for Strings and Organ in G Minor) was excellent. The visual effects were memorable (for 1975). It was a character-driven horror story, a delicious bit of terror, which, at its core, played on our subconscious need to embrace fear to overcome it. It was so fundamentally awesome; elements of it would appear in the ground-breaking film Alien.

And it scared the crap out of me. It still does. It was only a TV show but it was so well done I can close my eyes and hear the scream, see the crew disappear into a swirling mass of evil. And it was so very dark, this tale of the Dragon. The hero did everything right and still died. He died badly.

Here’s a clip from Dragon’s Domain. Watch it and snicker at the cheesy special effects. But there is a small slice of my generation that is, basically, fucked up because of that one episode. I’ve talked to other people about Space 1999. The first thing out of their mouths is “that oven monster episode fucked me up!”

Now that’s storytelling!

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