WHEN: May 30, 2014, 5:03 pm. (Week 22, May 25-31.)
WHERE: In my apartment in Portland, ME.
FORMAT: DVD on a 19” AOC LED computer monitor; digital download on an iPhone 3.
PHYSICAL AND MENTAL STATE: Pretty decent. Full of coffee.
I’ve spent a lot of time this year looking at James Cameron’s Avatar, but while that film warrants much attention in its own right, it is important to look at the things that came before. As such, it’s time to look back at the television program that started it all, the original Avatar series of the 1960s.
Every week the show followed the same basic formula. The Na’vi tribe encountered some significant problem which Jake, using his avatar body, would help them solve. Usually this problem would, either covertly or directly, be the work of our villains, Quaritch and Selfridge. Jake was assisted in his mission by Dr. Augustine and his assistant Norma Spellman.
Today, we’re going to look at “To Prepare for the Day of Necessity,” an episode from the second of the show’s three-and-a-half seasons.
AVATAR: THE ORIGINAL SERIES:
Panning through a star field, a blue planet slowly comes into view and the opening monologue is heard:
“In the farthest reaches of space there is a world like no other! Pandora! Its land rich, its people innocent but brave! From their secret base in the floating mountains, Jake Sully, Norma Spellman, and Dr. Gerald Augustine must use their advanced body-switching technology to save the Na’vi from all those who would despoil this Eden in outer space!”
It was never explained why Pandora was pictured as a gas giant in establishing shots. Many fans speculated that perhaps Pandora was actually a moon orbiting the planet. This was made canon in James Cameron’s 2009 reboot.
The episode opens at the base camp in the mountains. Norma Spellman is testing some plants to see if they contain healing properties when Jake rolls in. Norma attempts to flirt with Jake, but her advances are rebuffed.
Jake and Norma’s “will they won’t they” relationship was a staple of the show. Though deeply attracted to her, Jake always declines to act. As he says in season 1, episode 2, “The Hephaestus Dilemma,” “I can’t marry her while I’m trapped in this worthless broken body. It wouldn’t be fair to her!” The series has frequently come under fire for portraying Jake as an object of pity, particularly in his interactions with Norma. It has been speculated that James Cameron swapped Augustine and Spellman’s genders in his reboot specifically to avoid the awkward Jake/Norma dynamic entirely.
The scene is interrupted by Dr. Augustine, who has just received a message from the Na’vi through his advanced plant-based computer. The villagers need their help! Supplies are running low, and the Na’vi might not have enough food to last through the winter!
Does Pandora even have a winter? In season 1, episode 6, “Eywa Helps Him Who Helps Himself,” Tsu’tey refers to the planet as “a land of undying summer.” Furthermore, in the show’s three-and-a-half seasons, we never see anything short of temperate weather. This is one of the many indications that continuity was not a priority to the series’ writers.
Jake, Norma, and Augustine conclude that someone should check the situation out. Jake volunteers to go using his avatar body. As happens every week, Augustine warns Jake that the procedure is dangerous (though he never says how or why). Jake decides to risk it, for the sake of the Na’vi. Jake enters the Link Room and the transfer begins.
Long, corny, and jam-packed with whirring lights and abstract patterns, the transformation sequence was originally shot for the pilot episode in 1963. Due to budget constraints the scene was reused in all subsequent episodes (bafflingly even after Roger Ewing replaced William Shatner in 1966 during the series’ doomed final season).
Jake, now in his blue (but otherwise unchanged) avatar body, investigates the village’s supply situation. He is shocked to find their storage huts empty, and their fields devoid of grain. He is stunned by this oversight.
The blue Na’vi make-up is, without a doubt, the show’s most iconic visual element. Unfortunately, production was frequently rushed, and as the series progressed the application of make-up became increasingly slapdash, with backs of necks, hands, and hard-to-reach spots frequently neglected. (The low-water mark was perhaps when Neytiri’s left arm appeared sans make-up for the entirety of season 4, episode 3, “Peculiarities Parabolous.”)
Back at the lab, Dr. Augustine and Norma discuss ways of boosting the Na’vi’s food stores. Augustine decides that the best way would be to prepare a field and irrigate it by damming the river above the village.
Norma asks Augustine why the Na’vi haven’t come up with these technological advances on their own. Augustine replies that the Na’vi are “like children who need to be gently guided, until they can develop into a real civilization.”
This scene is indicative of the series’ treatment of the Na’vi, but is by no means the furthest that its Kiplingesque philosophy is pushed during the show’s run (that unhappy distinction would go to season 2, episode 14, “The Spaceman’s Burden”).
After the dam suggestion has been relayed to Jake, he gets to work communicating the idea to the tribe. Finding Neytiri, Jake explains the idea of a dam.
Neytiri’s role in the series will be a bit of a disappointment to anyone whose only knowledge of Avatar is James Cameron’s reboot. Though in the 2009 film she saves Jake’s life and teaches him the ways of Pandora, here she is more frequently the damsel in distress or merely someone at whom Jake can spout exposition.
Neytiri agrees to bring the idea to her father, the chief. During a tribal council, Tsu’tey, Jake’s rival for Neytiri’s affection, angrily expresses his doubts about Jake’s plan, but the chief hesitantly agrees to the building of a dam nevertheless. The industrious Na’vi get to work, and in no time a dam (shown using an inconsistent combination of stock footage and cheap miniatures) is erected.
After the Na’vi, proud of their accomplishment, retire for the day, Colonel Quaritch in his robotic suit menacingly steps out from behind a boulder. At this tense moment, the show breaks for commercials.
Colonel Quaritch’s robotic suit was apparently a nightmare, requiring an unseen actor to operate the legs and arms while Quaritch perched on his shoulders, piggyback-style. At least four operators have claimed to have sustained lasting back injuries while working this disastrous rig. Also, while filming the famous “field of fire” scene in season 3, episode 2, “To Feel What Wretches Feel,” an actor in the bottom half of the suit had to be rushed to the hospital after collapsing from heat stroke.
When we return, Quaritch wrecks the dam, sneers, and stalks off.
Normally this would have been the point in the show where Quaritch would have made a mean-spirited quip, a character trait for which he was famous (in Cameron’s reboot, almost all of Quaritch’s short stilted lines are directly lifted from episodes of the show). Due to a recent California dam break, however, it was deemed prudent not to make light of recent disasters, and no such line was inserted.
Jake is walking toward the village when Tsu’tey confronts him. Blaming the scientists for the dam break, he attacks and fights Jake.
It was highly unusual for an episode to go by without Jake getting into a fight. In almost all instances, Jake was portrayed by a stunt double for these bouts. A notable exception would be when Jake had to fight his own avatar in season 3, episode 19, “Chief of Sinners, Chief of Sufferers,” in which Shatner played the avatar body and his stunt double played wheelchair-bound Jake.
During the scuffle, Jake is thrown against a tree, revealing a hidden control panel. After calming Tsu’tey, Jake uses the panel to open a trap door in the ground. Climbing down, they discover a room filled with all the village’s supplies, and a somewhat guilty-looking Parker Selfridge.
Steve Franken’s zany, doofy greediness as Parker Selfridge helped make him a fan favorite during the show’s initial run. James Cameron must be applauded for his casting of Giovanni Ribisi in the role. As a vocal fan of the original series, Ribisi really committed to his faithful portrayal of the ridiculous corporate stooge.
After revealing that it was he who stole the Na’vi’s stores in the first place (in hopes of selling them back on Earth) and that it was his accomplice Quaritch who destroyed the dam (motives unspecified), Selfridge makes a hasty escape. The village saved, Jake and Tsu’tey make up, and Jake returns to his own body.
After Jake has told him what happened, Dr. Augustine makes a painfully simplistic speech about ants and grasshoppers, and everyone has a nice laugh. The credits roll.
There are shows from the ’60s that are deep, philosophical, and drenched in long-lasting appeal. But then there are shows like Avatar. I’m no big fan of Cameron’s reboot, but at least it is a fairly faithful update of its terrible source material. James Cameron’s Avatar may be chock-full of painfully offensive Native American stereotypes, but I suppose it can be forgiven, being merely a re-imagination of this embarrassingly outdated show. (Can you imagine a world where Avatar wasn’t an adaptation, but an original film written in the 2000s? There would be no excuse!)
It goes without saying, though, that both the ’60s version and the 2009 reboot are vastly superior to the attempted revival of the series in the early ’90s. Oof. The less said about that mess, the better.