In this episode of the Filmation Saturday morning series Ark II, the crew runs smack into a society that, as a whole, suffers from xenophobia, a fear of outsiders or “foreigners.” Captain Jonah’s (Terry Lester) initial log entry describes people who “refuse to have contact with the outside world.”
But from somewhere deep inside the isolationist village, someone is sending out distress messages tied to floating balloons…written in Greek. After deciphering one message, the Ark II crew comes to understand that the very people who have so calculatingly cut themselves off from the rest of humanity are suffering from a terrible plague, one they can’t cure on their own.
The Ark II team finds the messenger — an old man working a printing press near “the place of the Iron Birds,” a destroyed air-field — and learns that this is indeed the case. The messenger says: “We have a new enemy now…disease.”
While Ruth returns to the Ark II via hot air balloon to work on a cure for the new disease, Jonah attempts to convince the village’s leaders to “open” their hearts and minds to others. Unfortunately, he and a young boy fall prey to the disease, and only reinforce the fear of strangers. Now outsiders are disease carriers.
Meanwhile, Ruth and Samuel must clear a path to get the Ark II inside the village, and deliver inoculations to all the sick people.
Like its predecessors, “The Balloon” is a message-heavy installment of this Saturday morning series. In “The Tank,” we met people who shunned machines because they believe machines caused war. Here, we meet characters who refuse to deal with outsiders, because they fear attack from them. In both cases, people have responded to a terrifying situation irrationally, by a blanket rule about the things they perceive caused them harm.
In real life, of course, America has witnessed periods of intense xenophobia over the last two centuries, not the least of which has been in the decade following the 9/11 terror attacks. Yet the rampant fear associated with xenophobia is ultimately counter-productive, as this episode of a 70s kid show rightly points out. If you close yourself off, you also close yourself down to certain options, to new solutions, and to improvements your life. When you come from a closed place, everything – even learning – comes to a stop. It’s not a healthy response to fear, even if it is, on some level, understandable.
It’s very interesting that Ark II chooses to tell this particular story, about a place that has sealed itself off from the world and in its insularity faces extinction. “By talking instead of fighting,” says Jonah “we can move forward.”
In terms of Ark II continuity and lore, this episode reveals that the Ark II can fire a focused beam from its fore section, but the beam is still defined as “a force field,” keeping in tune with the idea of self-defense and no aggressive weaponry. Intriguingly, the force field is also quite a limited device. In trying to move heavy stones from the vehicle’s path, the force field’s power grid short circuits…
Although “The Balloon” carries a laudable message, it plays, at this point, as fairly routine. The series is in something of a rut, with tiny villages constantly being shown the error of their primitive ways by the Ark II team. The civilizations of the week – battling superstition (“The Slaves”), xenophobia (“The Balloon”), cruelty to the weak (“The Rule”) and technophobia (“The Tank”) – are a bit too predictable and one-note at this point. But the series is about to mix it up with some infusions of more science-fictional elements, from robots and suspended animation to telepathy, and that’s a good thing.
Next Week: “The Mind Group”