Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Secrets of Isis Episode 21: "Now You See It..."

Rick Mason moonlights as some kind of super high-tech inventor and he's darned good at it.  So good, in fact, he's created a device that can actually control the weather over an entire state-wide area.  Of course something as powerful as a weather manipulating gadget could attract interest from all the wrong people-- and that's just what happens when someone frames Mason himself for stealing it.  Yes, it's the opening gambit of the exciting two-part Secrets of Isis series conclusion.

"Now You See It..." (October 23, 1976) takes The Secrets of Isis into overtly superheroic action, with an outlandish macguffin more appropriate for Wonder Woman or The Six Million Dollar Man.  A weather control device is completely ridiculous, but you know what?  This episode is a whole lot of truly silly Saturday morning fun, full of action featuring some engaging guest stars.

It starts like a low budget spy flick with the theft-- featuring an evil Rick Mason-- and then cuts to Ranji, a multi-talented young entertainer, practicing his music and magic act with Rennie Carol at an empty ampitheater.  The Feds come in, arrest Mr. Mason, which leads Rennie and Ranji to round up a little gang and do some sleuthing of their own.  That means we get to meet C.J., a cool young dude with martial arts skills and Feather, who appears to be some kind of reformed juvenile delinquent in a knit cap.  The four of them make quite a quartet, trouble-prone and energetic, almost as if Filmation decided to introduce some Hanna-Barbara into the show, a little Scooby Doo, complete with a happening Ford E150 customized van belonging to Ranji and featuring some appropriately mid-70s side-panel deco.

You have to like the conceit Mason is such a well-loved teacher even Sweat Hogs refugees like Feather are willing to put down their basketballs to help him, but Ms. Thomas has a point.  It's never a good idea to go outside the law.  It's a lesson she has to transform into Isis to teach the gang, and they're so determined (and hard-headed) it even requires the assistance of none other than Captain Marvel himself to get it across.  But not before the two villains get away with part of the weather control machine, nearly kill Ranji, C.J. and Feather with an out-of-control car (which is on fire to boot).  Isis calls in reinforcements in the form of her good friend Captain Marvel (who apparently spends part of each day hefting random boulders out in the desert).  Marvel swoops in and realizes, "I've got to lift that van!" and proceeds to do just that, saving the boys.  The final scene sounds an ominous note as the completely exonerated Mason warns of the damage even part of the device can do-- and not just locally, but statewide.  It's definitely an alarming situation and calls into question the wisdom of using scientific knowledge to tamper with and try to control the natural world rather than adapt to it.  Dark clouds and thunder add a Shakespearian atmosphere to the finale.

The legendary Evan C. Kim plays C.J.  You may remember Kim as Loo in the "Fistful of Yen" Bruce Lee parody from the 1977 classic Kentucky Fried Movie.  And if you don't, you're either very young or you've come to the wrong blog.  Kim was a staple of my childhood.  My brothers exposed me to Kentucky Fried Movie early on, forever warping my mind into something sick and wrong, but I also encountered Kim in a dramatic role in 1978's Vietnam War flick Go Tell the Spartans (starring Burt Lancaster); as the only caveperson able to speak modern English in Ringo Starr's under-valued (but still pretty lousy) Caveman; and then as a fiesty yet doomed cameraman in NBC's sci-fi allegory V.  His largest role to date was as Clint Eastwood's partner in the last of the Dirty Harry movies, The Dead Pool, which, oddly enough, is the only Kim theatrical release I haven't watched.

Feather, Kim's partner in crime-busting here, is played by Craig Wasson, who also appeared in Spartans.  They probably smoked a doob or two and laughed about Isis, but you get the feeling their association might have gone on for a bit longer if Filmation had its way.  This episode of Isis has spin-off written all over it, sort of how C.J. cracks the case of the Mason doppelganger by drawing all over a surveillance photo of random men taken by Rennie.  Wasson worked with Brian DePalma and fought Freddy Kreuger in the third Nightmare on Elm Street flick and does prolific audio book narration to this day.

Ranji, who shows a lot of charisma during his musical numbers and wears the flashiest costume-- and has magical powers to rival Isis's-- apparently dropped out of show biz following his appearance here.  I have no idea what happened to him.

I feel certain this episode was either Filmation's last-ditch effort to generate interest in the show and keep it on the air by establishing a dynamic new direction or else their attempt to set up a spin-off with Ranji, C.J., Feather and possibly (one would hope) Rennie Carol.  The emphasis on the rather large cast has the unintended effect of rendering poor Mason something of an after-thought, even with all the energy expended on his behalf.  And while we do get as much Isis as usual, Ms. Thomas ends up largely sidelined, which is always a mistake.  Joanna Cameron provides regally self-aware advice as Isis, but Thomas is the show's heart.

NOTES:  Who the heck is this Ranji guy anyway?  I mean, he gets a huge showcase here.  Was Filmation grooming him for Saturday morning super-stardom?  He's a multi-talented threat. Pleasant singing voice, winning smile, awesome turban, because an Indian American guy named Ranji is required to run around in one and a matching tunic as well.  Uncomfortable ethnic stereotyping aside-- remember Jonny Quest's equally magical be-turbaned pal Hadji-- Ranji has a lot of charisma and would have made a great team leader if Filmation had taken this concept to production.

Ronalda Douglas is no slouch herself.  She has a strong singing voice, even if it is a little quavery.  Each member of the team appears to have some sort of expertise.  Feather is a schemer with a questionable background (always helpful when battling crime), Ranji drives, does magic and sings, C.J. is the group's muscle and hippest dresser.  What does Rennie bring to the table?  She's an ace photographer, which makes her the group's surveillance expert.  They simply could not have cracked the case without her skills.

Gosh, how I wish Cindy Lee were part of this crime-busting team.  What might she have contributed?  Well, every team needs a factotum, right?  And who can argue with perpetual positivity and cheerfulness?  She would have given the gang a sunny outlook even when things turned grim, such as on this case when an entire state faces environmental disaster.

Amazingly, the actor who plays the fake Mason actually looks a lot like Brian Cutler after C.J. scribbles all over Rennie's photo of him.  But not as much as he does when Cutler is playing the same character in disguise.  I've always enjoyed scenes where an actor pulls off prosthetics to reveal a completely different actor.  Of course make up technology was nowhere near advanced enough in 1976 (or even today) to produce a Rick Mason clone that would stand up to even the slightest scrutiny.  Suspension of disbelief.  You will believe a woman can fly, after all, and a convincing Rick Mason disguise isn't as outrageous a concept as a weather control machine you can drive around in the trunk of your car.

First Ms. Thomas and her "circle guard" and now Mr. Mason and his weather control device.  Jesus, Larkspur High has a brilliant science faculty.  Albert Einstein himself would probably feel overwhelmed by the level of genius these two teachers display!  They seem to do little teaching.  We have seen Thomas in the classroom but either Larkspur is a city of perpetual sunlight or else the high school administration has completely lost control.  Call Dr. Barnes!

The guards at Operation Weathermaker (that's the name of Mason's project... or the facility where he works on it...) are a pretty slack bunch.  First they let a fake Mason slip by them, then fall for Ranji's voice throwing trick.  Yeah, that's another of Ranji's powers.  He's able to not only speak with a convincingly female voice, but also project it so that it sounds as though someone is calling for assistance from a distant parking lot.  Guard Gunderson (probably from Minnesota) falls for it.  What a dope!

Being Captain Marvel must be a lonely occupation.  Every time we see him on this show he's by himself in some wilderness area, either lifting trees or rocks.  Doesn't this guy ever relax and play skee-ball with his friends?  Does he have any friends besides Isis?  Second Captain Marvel John Davey reprises his guest spot here.  He sort of botches his "lift the van" line, but the director (Arthur H. Nadel) leaves it in.  Makes you wonder how bad the other takes were, or if there were any other takes.  Isis wasn't exactly a high-budgeted affair and in this episode finances were already strained with all the guest stars and process work.  Nadel probably figured Davey at least said all the words in the correct order so to hell with it.

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