Episode 7 – Leviathan
The first episode of The Series named after a genre in-joke begins with a stereotypical New England sea captain (complete with a little anchor on his hat) nervously checking his watch.
Far, far, far below, Drs. Prolorne, Hoffman, and Sopler explore the mysteriously-pulsating alien starship they’ve found lodged in the Atlantic seabed. “Radio carbon dating confirms my hypothesis,” Prolorne tells us. “This ship is over ten thousand years old.” Unfortunately, the ship’s security systems (which come complete with pink, wriggling tentacles that seize our Scientists and drag them, screaming, into the darkness, as if they were Japanese schoolgirls) remain functional.
On the other side of the credits, we find H.E.A.T. steaming toward what Monique Dupre calls “the Hazard Abyss,” meaning James Cameron’s movie, which destroyed the careers of pretty much everyone involved in it, apart from some CGI animators. Seems Godzilla, and thus Dr. Mendel Craven, has locked on to a suspiciously terrestrial source of tachyon transmissions. “That’s impossible,” team-kid Randy Hernandez declares. “For human science, maybe.” Mendel counters.
“So…what? Little green men?”
The fact that Mendel automatically assumes tachyon transmissions are beyond “human science” shows that he’s a good Star Trek nerd, further endearing him to the audience. Randy’s ability to follow along without missing a beat is one of the first non-annoying things he’s done since…well, since he helped an Evil Capitalist put a Brain Box on Godzilla a couple of episodes back.
No surprise, H.E.A.T. finds Stereotypical Sea Captain, and his boat, floating above the transmission source. Mendel recognizes it as “Dr. Prolorne’s ship,” though last I checked, xenobiologists weren’t exactly running around burning money on research vessels…outside of Michael Crichton novels. But what do I know? Mendel’s a fan of Dr. Prolorne’s work, so he’d obviously be the one to ask. The good doctor isn’t aboard though. Sea Captain informs Our Heroes its been three days since they last heard from Prolorne, or the colleagues he took with him…under the sea…“ ‘Under no circumstances are you to come down after us,’” the unnamed Sea Captain quotes. “Those were Dr. Prolorne’s exact orders.”
So much for discovering where Prolorne gets the money for a boat like this. Sure beats the hell out of what the French taxpayer put up through Monique’s Super Spy expense account. And now that Sea Captain’s opened his mouth, we can all sit slack-jawed at the realization he’s voiced by Ron “Hellboy” Perlman! Christ. To afford that kind of talent, Prolorne must be literally rollin’ in it. Scrooge McDuck Style, baby. Yeah!
Before Dr. Nick can grow any more indignant at Captain Perlman’s obedience to orders, Godzilla arrives to scare the bejesus out of everyone not named Tatopoulos. “Relax people,” Nickles says. “There’s no reason to panic. He only looks dangerous.” A patent lie if I’ve ever heard one. Godzilla (oblivious to Nick’s shouted commands) sniffs at the ship, casts his head about, and dismisses it with a straight-arrow dive, down, down, down…
Following in a secondary submersible (commandeered with a little help from Monique and her concealed weapon…no, really; that’s not a double entendre at all—she actually walks around with a gun under her arm, much to Nick’s further indignation), it’s not long before H.E.A.T. encounters problems.
Mendel does nothing to help Randy’s latent claustrophobia, one of those unfortunately short-lived character traits that’ll appear and disappear throughout the series. Mendel takes the opportunity to remind Randy (and us) that, once you drop past two miles, “the spray from a hairline crack will cut you in half.” It’s a beautiful scene, made all the moreso by Monique’s handling of Randy’s subsequent freakout. What begins as another chapter in the Mendel-Randy Prank War winds up illuminating sides of all three characters we’ve rarely seen. We see Randy vulnerable, which is last thing the Youth of America wants to be. We see Mendel be a dick, when usually he’s the butt of Randy’s jokes. And we find out Monique is a Betazoid. As if she weren’t hot enough already.
Then the dinosaur arrives, identified as a Cryptocleidus by team-paleontologist Elsie Chapman…who finally gets to put her degree to some use in this, her latest and greatest job. The cryptocleidus’ inherent menace is somewhat countered by the fact that human technology will always move faster than natural organisms who’ve spent sixty-five million-years adapting to their environment. Always.
Oh, and Godzilla arrives—convenient, considering his last known direction…which was down…a direction Our human Heroes now go, leaving the Big G to fend for himself. Sure, it’s kind of a dick move, but what are they gonna do? Get out and hold the damn thing’s flippers back?
Below, a massive, spine-ridged hulk of an alien ship lies, half-buried in the silt. Docking with it, Our Heroes board…and it’s not long before equally-spiny, scale-skinned, guard dogs (“bred from ancient dinosaurs”—as opposed to all those new ones cropping up after the above-ground nuclear tests) assault the team. Fleeing through a conveniently-opened portal (which seals shut behind them) H.E.A.T. finds…Dr. Prolorne…who warns them to leave, “immediately.” Now there‘s a dick move. Someone (Elsie, maybe – she hasn’t had crap to do for episodes now) should’ve taken this opening and said something like, “We’re at the bottom of the ocean, genius! Where’s everybody supposed to go? Detroit?”
“This is a very delicate First Contact situation,” Prolorne declares…though he’s willing to spare time for an small Exposition Storm.
“This ship crashed near the end of the Cretaceous Period. They’ve spent most of that time in stasis, of course; broadcasting an automatic distress beacon…human technology had to reach a level advanced enough to detect it.”
Monique questions the intentions of their “hosts.” Dr. Nick requests some face-time. “I’m afraid I can’t allow that,” Prelorane deadpans, sealing H.E.A.T. into their anonymous-looking room with a masterful command of the alien ship’s control panels.
But not for long. With N.I.G.L.E. the Doomed Robot’s tachyon-detector guiding them, H.E.A.T. soon finds the ship’s bridge—and the bulb-headed, Sumo-bodied, six-limbed, dual-tusked, telepathic beings within. “[Y]our race,” one of them declares, floating over for a meet-and-greet, “is ready to be assimilated.”
Oh, for fuck’s sake, Godzilla: The Series. Really, now? Really? Alright, we might as well get it over with, people. Lower your shields and surrender your ships. They will add our biological and technological distinctiveness to their own. Our culture will adapt to service them. Resistance is futile.
“Your cities, machines, infrastructure, will serve my people well….Those who cooperate will find the new order satisfying…even stimulating.” (Ewww…) Those who do not will, apparently, receive telekinetic bitch-slaps and forced brain-drains. Here we have the classic “Aw-shit-alien-invasion” situation. It’s the end of the world as we know it. Will anyone feel “fine” by the time the crew of this Leviathan’s done with them? Will Dr. Craven’s professional respect for Dr. Prelorane turn him into a planetary Benedict Arnold? Will Godzilla show up in time to deliver unto us a climactic, underwater fight sequence? And just where the hell is he, anyway? Isn’t this his show?
Well…really, no. It’s not. And while H.E.A.T.’s moody, atmospheric travels inside the alien ship are all well and good, they beg the question Why the hell is Godzilla here at all? Omit him, and you’re left with a fairly decent, half-hour sci-fi/horror show, complete with action, betrayal, and a creepy, cliff-hanger ending that practically broadcasts itself…while sliding right by Dr. Nick and his little band. They’ve obviously never watched a monster movie, or alien invasion film, in their whole freakin’ lives…not even Randy, Token Urban Youth that he is.
H.E.A.T.’s ignorance and Godzilla’s relative-absence are the only real causes for griping I can find here. Both elements are, in their own ways, necessary—the latter because of budgetary and time constraints; the former because…well, we’ve got to set up future episodes and reoccurring villains somehow. Can’t turn all of Nick’s old college buds into Evil Geniuses. Someone’s got to pick up the slack. And there is no trump card in the whole of Kaiju eiga quite like the Alien Invasion.
Now’s not the time or place to plumb those depths. (Plenty of time for that once we come to this series’ version of Destroy All Monsters.) At the moment, I’ve got the creeping suspicion that episode-writer Michael Reaves (veteran writer of Gargoyles, the under-appreciated Phantom 2040, and the best Batman movie in all creation, Mask of the Phantasm) had no idea what to do with Godzilla for the balance of this episode. Our titular character is, once again, left (literally) floating on the margins. Human stumbling around is all well and good but the best daikaiju creators keep their monsters well integrated into the main action…or, at the very least, well-occupied offscreen.
Japanese speculative fiction would have us believe that aliens are simultaneously Out There…and relentlessly scheming to get In Here, take over our planet, strip its natural resources, and convert us all into chattel slaves…or three-course meals. During the original series (1954-78) Godzilla (and his “friends” among Earth’s terrestrial monsters) beat back no less than five separate incursions. Since the New Millennium, G’s put three more notches in his figurative belt (most recently in his derivative, over-hyped, headache-inducing Fiftieth Anniversary blowout, Final Wars), and that’s just film. Godzilla’s video games and comic books inevitably throw down the Alien Invasion card as a framing device, and with good reason. Simple and direct, it bolsters what might otherwise be a sorry excuse for a plot, allowing Godzilla to play Hero by providing a credible threat much more dangerous to humanity than he is, or ever could be. Unless he’s about to meltdown.
While G’s underwater battles against the Cryptocleidi (once the episode gets around to them) are novel, they suffer from the slow pace and low drama common to cinematic scuba-diving scenes. James Bond and Creature from the Black Lagoon fans know what I’m talking about: it’s terribly hard to make a fight scene riveting when everyone’s moving at half-speed. Episode director Tim Eldred does his best to counter this by keeping the two fights we see short and to the point…robbing them of the visceral impact we get during scenes inside the ship. It’s obvious all the eye candy went into the Leviathan and its pisonic crew of mind (if not body) snatchers. Bully to the design team for going all out on the place and its crew. They’ve obviously seen a few alien invasion pictures, and do a fine job bringing us their own (albeit in miniature, and sanitized for The Children’s protection). The episode title a nod to 1989’s Peter “Robocop” Weller vehicle of the same name, and the darkened corridors of this Leviathan echo that one in tone, if not substance. H.E.A.T. brings a cloying sense of claustrophobia with them, into the ship, while Randy’s freak-out allows us, the audience, permission to share his psychosomatic feelings. Few things put Fear in the stout of heart like the thought of all that water… pressing down…on you…burr, baby. Very burr.
Profiting, not in spite, but largely because of Godzilla’s absence, “Leviathan” stands as a high point of a first season. Much like Godzilla himself, it shouldn’t work. It’s an anatomical nightmare that somehow manages to function as a whole through the same weird alchemy that allows daikaiju to stand up without crushing their own skeletons under all that body weight. It does everything the tell you not to do when you’re running a show about giant monsters: focuses on the human characters, reduces Godzilla to a MacGuffin, and pulls the Alien Invader, one of the oldest and most-obvious cards out of the Daikaiju Stock Character Tarot Deck. Yet it’s one of my favorites. Together with Winter of Our Discontent, Leviathan shows a series stretching its legs, taking up classic daikaiju movie plotlines and making them its own. Not in the smug, self-effacing way Slasher movies made stock characters and plot lines “their own” in the 1990s…but in the straight-faced, no-nonsense sense of, “We’re a group of fans who’ve landed our dream job. Let’s make the best damn the giant monster cartoon show we can make, the one the People have clamored for, lo these many years.” You succeeded, guys. I thank you.
Jesus, into overtime and already I’m longing to be get back to safe, solid ground, where I can take easy potshots at the series obvious flaws. For that, then, join us next week, when the going shall get decidedly Weird…courtesy of comic book legend Len Wein, co-creator of Swamp Thing.