Straker obediently sits down in an auditorium and the footage commences. He watches as footage from the pilot episode of the series, “Identified,” unspools on the screen before him. After that sequence, Straker watches in torturous paralysis the death of his young son, Johnny…all material from the episode “A Question of Priorities.”
|Face to face with a stand-in.
Paul Foster then sits down next to Straker, calling himself “Mike” (Michael Billington), and notes that this traumatic material will “make a great episode.”
An emotionally-affected Straker, forced again to countenance his myriad personal failures (a recurring theme of the series in episodes such as “Confetti Check A-OK” and “A Question of Priorities”), objects.
“That’s my life! That’s my son!”
After seeing his son struck by a car, and his wife, Mary, tell him that she never wants to see him, Straker begins to really lose it (an outburst which “Mike” compliments as “method acting.” )
But soon, the ever-rational Straker realizes that he has been adversely affected by an alien “booby trap,” one “aimed at the mind.” He understands that to get back to his world, his reality, he must focus. General Henderson has already informed him that he has a “monkey on his back,” called “dedication.” Now he must tap into that dedication.
|Isolation and alienation in the auditorium.
Straker returns to HQ to “play” the scene with General Henderson over again. After a rapid, highly cinematic pull-back away from Straker, depicting our protagonist as but one of many working actors on the studio lot, we get back to “realities,” as Henderson puts it.
With dedication and concentration, Straker recites his “dialogue.” He gets back in “the moment.”
The longer he goes on, the more that Straker’s reality reasserts itself. The film crew transforms before our eyes — in almost iconic composition — into the courageous men and women of S.H.A.D.O. The walls re-form — the fourth wall re-established — and Straker is home.
I admire how “Mindbender” works so well on two levels. On one level is the literal narrative: the story of an alien “booby trap” confusing the minds of S.H.A.D.O.’s best and brightest. On another, more metaphorical level, the subject here is film itself; how sometimes we replay events in our lives as if they’re old movies. We see this in Conroy’s subplot, as he imagines himself a cowboy. And we see it — tragically — with Straker, as he is forced to relive all his personal pain on the silver screen.
Straker strenuously objects to the idea that movie makers would steal his life and his memories and “put them up on the screen” for the entertainment of others…but that’s what the art-form always does. It takes from real life…and not always in a pleasant way. Tragedy, regret, pathos…they all make a “great episode,” don’t they?
|“This will make a great episode…”
“Mindbender” also gets at the fragility of the whole process of filmmaking, of the whole illusion, in some clever way. Every week, we tune into a show like Star Trek, or Alias or UFO and willfully suspend our disbelief.
We know we are watching actors and special effects, a filmed entertainment with a pre-determined outcome and an emotion-provoking musical track.
And yet with our whole minds (and our whole hearts…) we dupe ourselves into believing, after a fashion, that what we are seeing is “real;” that these characters truly “exist.”
UFO playfully blows the lid off that carefully constructed folie-en-famille, revealing to the audience not pilot Paul Foster, but actor Mike Billington; pulling back on high-angle shots of Moon base, Skydiver, and Straker’s office and deliberately showing us that these environs are all carefully-constructed sets…artifice.
This is a high-wire act, be certain. The curtain is pulled back and the truth revealed, but in a science fiction series like UFO, there’s no guarantee that once revealed, the magic can be restored. Yet it is, most definitively, restored. As viewers, we greet Straker’s escape from our reality back to his world as a huge relief. We breathe easy again. He escapes into fantasy, as perhaps we might like to do. The walls of suspension of disbelief are, again, erected…and we sneak back in, along with Straker. We’re back in the drama, back in the shared delusion or dream.
“Mindbender” plays beautifully with form and anticipates our every reaction. The magician reveals — at least briefly — his hand, and then it’s back to the magic again. And in shows like “A World of Difference,” “Midnight Never Ends,” “Far Beyond the Stars” and “Mindbender,” the artist not only tells us a story; he invites us inside the process to take a nuts-and-bolts look at how that story gets delivered to us; at how the artistic mind conjures up the illusions of another world, another reality.
This kind of story can be done and has been done many times as a self-referential joke…a lark. But sometimes — when it is vetted so brilliantly (as is the case on UFO) — this long-standing genre convention makes us ask important questions about what is real life and what is fantasy.
More than that, it asks us to consider the reasons that we flock so readily and easily to the fantasy.