CULT TV BLOGGING: The Fantastic Journey: "Riddles" (April 21, 1977)

The Fantastic Journey’snext-to-last episode, “Riddles,” represents a big step up in quality from the previous “episode, Turnabout,” for two reasons.  In the first case, the episode abandons the “civilization of the week” template which, even after just nine weeks, feels very tired.  In the second instance, the episode begins – finally – to craft some coherent mythology regarding Evoland and the series’ strange island in the Devil’s Triangle.

In terms of mythology, “Riddles” introduces the wayward travelers to characters called “Riders,” horseback sentries who patrol the various time zones helping lost wanderers and guiding them to Evoland.  

Unfortunately, these Riders speak only in riddles, and their words must be deciphered by any travelers. 

“Riddles” also introduces the idea that to reach and gain access to Evoland, a traveler must possess at least one of the “twelve keys” to that mysterious destination. 

This key to Evoland represents a helpful story tool because now Varian, Scott, Willaway and Fred must actually accomplish something important each adventure: they must find a crystalline key.  Otherwise, the question remains: why interfere in local politics and not just high-tail it out of each province as soon as possible?  At least now there’s a reason to stick around, and solve mysteries, and deal with the locals.  Of course, no more keys were found on The Fantastic Journey since the series was canceled after one more episode.

Meanwhile, the above mentioned locals in “Riddles” are represented by three mysterious individuals: Kedrin, Krista and their manservant, Simkin.  Throughout the episode, these characters take on different physical guises, so that who and what they are represents an important mystery.  Rather unconventionally, they also lie about their nature and planet of origin.  Twice.  

At first they claim to be from an overpopulated world, and simply seeking privacy and isolation.  

Later, Kedrin claims they are actually parasites and vampires, seeking to “suck the life force” out of unsuspecting visitors.  

Only in the last moments of the episode is the true nature of the “curse” imperiling Kedrin and Kendra revealed.  And it’s actually a good one: they come from a world where old age is shunned, and have been holding onto the illusion of “youth” here in the Bermuda Triangle, with the help of the Evoland Key, which can create hallucinations.  Rather surprisingly, this revelation permits the episode to end on a tender rather than harsh note.

Eagle-eyed cult-tv fans will also note that Kedrin wears the PAX uniform from the Roddenberry pilot, Planet Earth!

“Riddles” is also an intriguing episode of The Fantastic Journey because it so clearly highlights a sense of the Gothic.  In particular Krista, Kedrin and Simkin share a secret with a character from Picture of Dorian Gray.   Specifically, these aliens boast two faces: one beautiful, young and welcoming, one repulsive, aged and horrifying.  The setting is a rotting, haunted house, one which also boasts two visages.   The gloomy, horrific atmosphere and the idea of an edifice filled with secrets both seem authentically of this literary movement.  Along with “Funhouse,” “Riddles” is a Fantastic Journey episode that tends towards the horror genre.

Even the character touches in this late episode are stronger than in many previous segments.  For instance, Scott encounters a vision of his mother….who rejects him.  He weeps at her feet, and she continues to maintain that she has no son.

Each character in the tale is similarly asked to face a deep fear.  Willaway faces claustrophobia (in a shrinking closet), the doctor, Fred, faces the loss of his hands, and Varian falls into an endless abyss…alone.  They  each manage to escape these mental traps, but Scott’s terror is the most powerful, and Ike Eisenmann does a terrific job expressing Scott’s pain.   Although The Fantastic Journey certainly boasts its share of problems, one perpetual strength, perhaps, is the characterization of Scott, a teenage boy.  Rather than presenting him as a know-it-all, a genius or a savior, the series writers present him as an absolutely likable, regular kid.  Scott is smart, resourceful and clever, but he’s not a superman, and is rarely used as a deus ex machina in the manner of an Adric or a Wesley Crusher.  

Future cult tv programs would be wise to remember Scott’s example.

“Riddles” even ends on a great literary note, as Willaway quotes from a poem by Robert Browning and Abraham ibn Ezra.  The poem is called Rabbi ben Ezra and it was published in 1864. 

The work begins, in part “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be.”  So, once more, Roddy McDowall gets the smartest and best line in the show.  Looking back, it’s clear that in many ways, the addition of the Willaway character as a regular saved the series.

Along with “Beyond the Mountain” and “Funhouse,” “Riddles” is arguably one of the most satisfying episodes in the Fantastic Journey canon.  The biggest disappointment is that Lianna is gone, never to be seen again on the series.  She is mentioned in the episode as having remained behind (with Sil-El) in the previous province, of “Turnabout,” to help establish the new government there.  But Katie Saylor and Lianna are sorely missed here, and we would never see them again on The Fantastic Journey.

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