Episode 10 – Bird of Paradise
Inside the sweaty jungles of what the title card tells us is the Yucatan, a red-headed backpacker finds himself face to face with an Aztec pyramid, built into the side of a volcano. “There you are,” he says, as if greeting an old friend. Inside the pyramid, our Dollar Store Indiana Jones discovers a secret passage into the volcano’s crater, complete with sacrificial alter and emerald-eyed bird statue. Because Aztec engineers were just that cool, touching said statue makes the emerald eye glow and sets off a small eruption. A screaming, red shape escapes from the resulting blast of lava and noxious fumes. Cue credits.
Meanwhile, back at H.E.A.T. Headquarters, all’s right with the world. Godzilla’s eating fish, Dr. Nick’s making notes, and Randy continues to labor under the delusion that he’s funny. Dr. Elsie Chapman and DGSE Agent Monique Dupre are caught up in that great American pastime: watching television. (Some scientists you all turned to be.) Good thing, too. Otherwise they might never have learned about the, “mysterious wave of destruction sweeping across southern Mexico.”
Enter Dr. Mendel Craven, with a timely phone call for Elsie “from a Lawrence Cohen.” The mere mention of his name is enough to make Elsie put on her constipated face.
“He sounds pretty upset. Something about Mexico.”
That “something” amounts to a ruined small town filled with uncommunicative eyewitnesses. Monique queries Elsie on the status of their contact: “I thought your boyfriend was going to meet us?” “Lawrence was never my boyfriend,” Elsie insists. “Just someone I…knew…a long time ago.” Larry (voiced by Tate Donnovan, who played TV’s Disney’s Hercules for all of one season, the show’s entire run) is also an ornithologist. And by “knew…a long time ago,” she meant “almost married.” The team’s collective reaction to this is priceless. (Much better the show’s Running Gag of the Week, involving Mendel and spicy foot.)
In a neat parallel to Audrey and Nick’s relationship (as seen in Episode 6) “Someone’s work kept getting in the way” of Elsie and Larry’s. But why quibble about the past? It’s not like there are any other, better ways to flesh out Elsie’s character than giving her an idiotic ex. At least lazy writing worked for the cause of gender equality this time. Usually, boys get to have all the fun, pining away for exes they’re still carrying a torch for Even After All These Years. Just look at every single one of Roland Emmerich’s post-Independence Day protagonists.
Off to the pyramid, and its volcanic home. “The resting place of Quetzalcoatl,” Larry informs us, “an ancient symbol of creation. His appearance signaled a bountiful harvest.” Well…that’s kinda right. Like sun gods from Atum to Jesus, the Feathered Serpent represented knowledge, civilizing forces, and the eternal cycle of creation we puny mortals perceive as the phenomenological universe…but who cares about all that crap, right Larry? It’s not like you’re a scientist or anything…oh, wait…
“No one can describe it. Q usually hides itself in the glare of the sun…I think that when I unsealed the temple, I may have released Quetzalcoatl.”
Indeed you did, Larry. Here it comes now. And you didn’t even manage to get a picture of it. With the camera. Around your neck. Instead, you fuck around with the camera while the giant, fire-breathing bird attacks you and the hapless crew you lured into its lair. Frankly, my boy, I’d leave you at the alter, too. And since Randy’s discovery of a Quetzalcoatl feather typifies much of what’s wrong with this episode we’ll only mention it here and make a promise to revisit it.
First we must deal with Elsie’s righteous indignation at her former-fiance…which only lasts as long as the next scene. Turns out Larry’s been slaving away at proving a direct evolutionary link between dinosaurs and modern birds All This Time. Q could be the culmination of that work, in living color and complete with dragon breath. Ironic, then, that this is the “work” responsible for downing their relationship, especially since it was probably what brought them together in the first place, Elsie being a paleontologist and all.
Well, it turns out all is not for naught. Elsie extends Larry a glance down the microscope by way of a peace offering. Seems the feather Randy found is really a scale, covered with enough silicate for the flying lizard to survive a five hundred year nap in the interior of a volcano. Dr. Nick bursts in at their most perfect moment together, to Elsie’s consternation. “We were looking at a…science-thingy,” she stammers. Dr. Nick doesn’t even blink. Is he enjoying this after all the crap Dr. Chapman’s given him over his choice of romantic interests? I know I would be.
In any case, clock’s ticking. Time to saddle up for the third act. Q’s attacking another small town. Its apparent invulnerability to tranquilizers necessitates some on-the-spot chemistry utilizing the venom of some local scorpions—Black Scorpions (har har). Nick warns Monique “We only have enough for one shot.” Because catching any more bugs would just be a chore. “Then,” she says with characteristic, French aplomb, “I will make it count.” Promises, promises. The situation in town prevents Monique from showing off her markswomanship. Panicked civilians (unlike the Mexican army) are everywhere, forcing Elsie and Dr. Nick to once again become action heroes. Elsie even rescues the stereotypical Stranded Baby from the middle of the road (I think the most famous one of these in daikaiju film comes from Mothra…though Gamera: Guardian of the Universe had its own trip-and-fall-during-the-monster-attack bit). As a karmic reward, Elsie gets carried off in Q’s super-sized talons, along with a good chunk of local real estate. Because Elsie’s Karma sucks. Haven’t you noticed?
Now we’ve got our third act’s Ticking Clock all wound and ready. Any real shows might’ve cut right to Elsie waking up call and spared us the painful Call to Arms/Expository speech H.E.A.T. stands around and delivers to itself amid the wreckage. About how all of Q’s previous attacks were little more than materials-gathering expeditions. About how those materials have gone to form a nest for God-knows-how-many “baby Qs.” And about how Elsie’s to become their first breakfast if the rest of the team doesn’t move, move, move (as Dr. Nick says—interminably). Hey, I know: let’s stand around yakking about it some more. Then Elsie’s sure to get eaten alive.
Back to the volcano, where Elsie is indeed being menaced by creepy, big-headed, plucked-chicken versions of Q. Big Mama Q, meanwhile, circles the volcano, making H.E.A.T.’s ascent hell. Desperation forces Nick to call in the team’s not-so-secret weapon. Props to Larry for not even blinking when Nick gives the order to, “Signal Godzilla.” That’s focus. After all, there’s a redhead to save. Who has time to notice that Elsie’s boss appears to have a thirty-story, atomic-powered engine of destruction at his beck and call?
Not Larry. While Godzilla and Q duke it out downslope, he rigs up a cable from the shattered bits of N.I.G.E.L. the Doomed Robot. Repelling into Q’s nest, he joins Elsie in a frantic but not-too-tense chase scene before being rescued himself by the rest of H.E.A.T. Drawn by the desperate squeeks of her progeny, Q returns to the nest, no doubt eager to roast up the human morsels skittering around its edge. Godzilla, thankfully, has other ideas. Once again displaying the kind of higher-order thinking that would give me pause, were I a Scientist, he not only shoulder-checks Q back into the volcano’s crater but proceeds to seal it, and Q, and her featherless babes (who we can assume die in the resulting avalance), up with a blast of his atomic breath. A collective cheer goes up from our human heroes and its time for the coda, wherein Elsie decides, even after all his heroics, that Larry is “still for the birds.”
This episode is a giant in-joke, designed specifically for fools like me, who spent our childhoods so desperate for a giant monster movie fix we watch anything even vaguely resembling a Godzilla movie. The concept, execution, and even the design of Q is a self-conscious throwback to 1982’s Q: The Winged Serpent, a largely forgettable piece of fluff written and directed by (drumroll, please)…Lawrence Cohen. Larry Cohen (whom my colleague, Dr. Freex, characterized as “a Great White Hope” of the 70s and 80s) is a seminal Bad Movie maker, most famous for his Mutant Baby trilogy of It’s Alive flicks. He also made the cinematic let-down God Told Me To (though any movie that features Andy Kaufman as a crazed cop can’t be all bad), and the much-better, anti-consumer-culture horror flick The Stuff. But it’s Q that concerns us here because, for all its low budget weirdness (mimes with guns, anyone?), Cohen’s second attempt to discuss religion with the grammar of horror movies sticks in my head much more effectively than his first.
Unfortunately, only those who know all of the above will get any kind of kick from this episode. Unlike it, the movie Q had enough time on its hands for actual character development. The character of Larry Cohen presented here has no real role to play in the proceedings, apart from generating some false hope that the Love Triangles in our Main Cast might be resolved at some point. (Spoiler alert: they really won’t.) We know Dr. Nick can play Action Hero when he has to, so all Larry does is reduce Nick’s opportunities to do so. Larry’s presence necessitates that he contribute something to redeem himself for letting Q out in the first place. Too bad Larry never does anything unexpected. The final coda (wherein Larry breaks off a conversation with Elsie to photograph a Peruvian finch) proves that Larry’s learned absolutely zilch from the whole experience. I hope the Mexican government gets wind of all this somehow and sues his Wrangler-clad ass for all the collateral damage.
The entire episode suffers from the lack of a punchline. Had Larry proved willing to sacrifice Elsie to the very imminent god-monster he’d just woken up (out of some benighted hope of controlling Q, say, and getting revenge on all those stuffy academics who ridiculed his research)…had the link between gods and monsters, and the frequent trouble humans have telling the difference, actually come under discussion…had Godzilla not been consigned to clean-up detail…I might have more good things to say about Bird of Paradise.
As it is, this episode remains another low point for Godzilla‘s first season. Poorly written by Neil Ruttenberg (writer of such classics as Deathstalker II and Prehysteria III), it made the crucial mistake of thinking it’s in-jokes could support a twenty-two minute TV episode. They cannot. Twenty-two minutes isn’t enough time to tell the joke well.
Randy’s discovery of the feather is a perfect example. No sooner does he say, “Hey, check this out,” then it’s time for the first Q attack. Blink, and you’ll be mighty confused about just where that feather came from. I’m not surprised to see character development thrown overboard (par for the show) but I am shocked at how much the plot is truncated to make room for more plot. There are too many things going on here: Elsie’s relationship with Larry; Elsie’s relationship with the rest of the team; Dr. Craven’s adventures with real-by-God Mexican food; Larry’s relationship to H.E.A.T. (which never gets past “cordial”)…the list could go on, but I’ll spare you.
The point being, this is a treatment, not a script. And there’s enough stuff here for half again as much screen time. If only this had been a two-parter. If only Larry had something real to do, besides dredge up old memories Elsie will never revisit again. Anybody can rescue a Damsel in Distress. With Monique being French and three other male leads available (all of whom appear in the weekly credit sequence), Larry starts in fifth place and never moves up the pack.
The episode suffers for it. As well as the usual lack of its title character…But I’ve bitched about that often enough. And I’ll have occasion to do so again next week, when we all Freeze.