Cult-TV Theme Watch: The Vent Shaft

As I’ve written before, the vent shaft remains perhaps the greatest (and perhaps most irritating) crutch of the cult-TV writer.  There’s always a convenient vent shaft around when a hero needs one, and it is always large enough to house that hero too.  The vent shaft is most often utilized in cult-TV as hero’s spur-of-the-moment escape route, one that villains are too dumb to remember and too forgetful to seal or board up.

Star Trek (1966 – 1969) often made use of the over-sized vent shaft to get the heroic Enterprise crew out of trouble. 

The first season episode “Dagger of the Mind,” set in the subterranean Tantalus Penal Colony — a rehabilitation center for criminals — is a notable and memorable example. 

This colony is described in the episode’s dialogue as a high-security, impenetrable installation.  It takes a long elevator (turbo-lift) ride underground to enter the hermetically-sealed installation in the first place. Additionally, the entire asylum is shielded from the rest of the civilized galaxy by a protective force field which prevents beaming. Finally, the prisoners inside the colony are controlled by a fiendish brainwashing device called a “neural neutralizer.”

Sounds like quite the inescapable trap, doesn’t it?  
Well, after Captain Kirk (William Shatner) is captured and brain-washed by the neural neutralizer, he is held inside a locked ward room. Guess what should be conveniently located on the wall of his prison?
Yep: an absolutely huge vent-shaft, replete with decorative wall-grate. And naturally, this vent leads right to the control room for the installation’s security force field, so that Kirk’s associate, Dr. Helen Noel, can de-activate it.
Logically-speaking, why go to the trouble of building a facility deep underground, of surrounding it with an impenetrable force field, and controlling your wards by mind-control devices if you’re just going to leave high-security areas accessible from ward room vent shafts?

In Space:1999’s final second season episode, “The Dorcons,” the convenient vent shaft comes in handy yet again.  Commander John Koenig (Martin Landau) has become trapped aboard the flagship of the Dorcons, the most terrifying military force in the universe.

Aboard the Dorcon ship, Koenig breaks free from custody, climbs into a comfortable, over-sized vent shaft, and then uses it — undetected — to travel throughout the warship and make mischief.  He bypasses Dorcon security, rescues his friend, Maya (Catherine Schell), and then manages to escape back to Moonbase Alpha with her in tow.
Again, you might think the most fearsome military Empire in the galaxy would boast better security, and do away with those gigantic vent shafts entirely. At least in this case, Koenig pays a physical price for the welcome convenience of the easily accessible, roomy vent shaft: the vent grate cuts open and bloodies his fingers when he shimmies it loose.
And here’s another odd quirk of Space:1999 vent shafts.  The Dorcons represent a super-advanced society and yet are equipped with man-sized vent shafts. Meanwhile, the much-less technologically-advanced Alphans (denizens of our 20th century…) possess what we would consider normal-sized vent shafts. In an earlier second season episode, “The Beta Cloud,” we see that Maya (a metamorphing Psychon) must transform into a tiny cockroach to pass through the small vents of the man-made moon base…

In a similar vein, Glen Larson’s Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979) boasts an episode called “Fire in Space” — an ode to Irwin Allen’s The Towering Inferno — in which a Cylon kamikaze attack starts a raging conflagration aboard the imperiled colonial Battlestar.   A group of off-duty humans, including Boomer (Herb Jefferson Jr), Athena (Maren Jensen) and young Boxey (Noah Hathaway) become trapped inside a rec center as the fire grows hotter, and smoke inhalation becomes a deadly threat.

Fortunately, there is a convenient vent shaft in the back of the rec center, and the robot daggit Muffit is sent inside it (he fits easily, of course…) to travel the length of the rather large battlestar and retrieve a bag of oxygen masks for the threatened Galactica crew. Along the way, Muffit also spots (and later rescues…) an injured fire crew worker.

Just look at that photograph of the battlestar vent shaft for a moment. If Muffit can fit through it comfortably and his robotic fur coat is not badly burned (just a little singed…) in the process, why don’t the trapped Galacticans travel to safety through the vent shaft themselves, using ripped clothing as protection for their hands and knees?
Other cult-tv programs have made use of the vent shaft too.  In The Fantastic Journey’s “Funhouse,” Fred (Carl Franklin) uses a vent shaft to navigate the magical headquarters of a villainous magician.   The vent shaft collapses at just the right point to land him in a position to save his friend, Lianna (Katie Saylor).  

In Buck Rogers in the 25th Century’s “Happy Birthday, Back,” Buck uses the vent shaft as a location from which to spy upon the bad guys, and, again, to leap into view at an opportune time.

More recently, cult-television has featured some welcome subversions of the trope.  In the classic first season X-Files episodes, “Tooms” and “Squeeze,” a mutant named Tooms (Dough Hutchison) was able to elongate and shrink his body so he could utilize modern vent shafts as a passageway, thus co-opting the common TV “escape” avenue for a villain instead of a hero.  

In Alias’s “The Box” (2001) — an ode to Die Hard — Sydney Bristow used the vent shafts to secretly move around while SD6 was under siege (from Quentin Tarantino).  And in one third-season episode of Kiefer Sutherland’s 24, the dedicated terrorist-catcher, Jack Bauer, duct-taped the entrance of a vent shaft so he couldn’t be followed by the bad guys.  Smart move.  

And about time, too… 

As late as 2010, the vent shaft genre convention appeared again in cult television.  In this case, it did so in  the ninth season finale of Smallville, with Green Arrow (Justin Hartley) under attack in a vent from an unknown enemy…


3 responses to “Cult-TV Theme Watch: The Vent Shaft

  1. Who knew one could wax poetic on a vent shaft theme? But seriously you illustrate and attack some very relevant points about the pitfalls of the shaft. It can sometimes seem like the shaft offers a giant hole in logic and your examples bear that out.I loved that daggit!It's always interesting when they bend that trope a bit as you mentioned.How about Aliens when they are on the run in the shaft, but the aliens are inside the shaft chasing them. That's scary as hell. Of course that's a film, but I did enjoy your look at the TV shaft. Great points about Dagger Of The Mind. What the hell were they thinking? : )At least Doctor Who captured a sense of claustrophobia when Elisabeth Sladen had to go into the shoot for The Ark In Space. Cheers.

  2. Surely, one of the most memorable vent-shaft sequences was in the original 'V' Miniseries when Marc Singer (carrying a huge videocamera) witnesses Diana swallowing a rodent. As for the Dorcon vents, they probably weren't well thought out. Some of their other technology was questionable. For instance, the Dorcon communication panels simply consisted of people standing behind holes in the wall.

  3. Hi SFF and Anonymous,SFF: I always loved Muffitt as well. And you're absolutely right about Dr. Who and The Ark in Space. Sarah Jane is tiny, and yet that vent is the smallest, tightest such space in sci-fi tv history. A very effective scene in a great serial.And yeah, the "Dagger in the Mind" vent is horrible. It's as big as a room!Anonymous: Yep, that "V" moment is incredible (and pictured below, in the gallery post for this week's genre trope). I still remember that scene, and seeing it for the first time in middle school.Great joke about the Dorcon communication system…best,John

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