The Phantom Empire, Part 3: “The Lightning Chamber”

Welcome back to The Phantom Empire, a few hours later than usual! I wish I could say that I was too busy fighting Muranians in their horse parking lot, but I actually forgot all about having to do this and then had the terrifying and sudden realization late last night that I had not started. Without further ado, let’s begin! 

Our episode, titled “The Lightning Chamber,” begins with a recap sequence, except it’s almost the exact same recap sequence as in episode 2, because last week was already mostly padding and filler. 

Just a quick reminder: “Murania, located thousands of feet under the earth, is rich in radium deposits. Prof. Beetson, secretly searching for the radium deposits, is trying to wipe out Radio Ranch to conceal his purpose. Gene Autry, half owner of the ranch, is falsely accused of murder to prevent his broadcasting. Betsy and Frankie Baxter, whose father was murdered by Beetson, are trying to clear Autry. Queen Tika, guarding the secret of her country, orders her army to capture Autry.” 

We then rewatch the climax of the second episode, again, because The Phantom Empire assumes that you can’t remember anything from a week ago. Last episode ended in a dramatic airplane chase, where the scientists and police officers (with the kids trapped in the back) noticed the Muranians while chasing the fugitive Gene and began dropping tear gas on them. In the chaos, the Muranians launched a missile at the plane! We then watch that happen again, with a fun missile launch special effect. (3:09 gif)

The continuity of the last episode is rewritten, as Beetson is able to shoot Gene off of his horse before the missile hits the plane. This serial is typically not very kind to horses. No one has any real emotional connection to them when they die, and they just keep on running. I’m beginning to realize that the American Humane Association probably did not visit this set. 

The missile hits the plane, but the camera cuts away after a tenth of a second so you barely see the effect, even though it looked better last time. The kids use deus ex parachutes to escape the plane as it nosedives to the ground.

These are definitely the kids.

With the plane spiraling down to the ground and the kids’ fates uncertain, we naturally pause this dramatic action to cut to “comic relief” characters Oscar and Pete. Oscar begins playing the harmonica, and Pete smacks it out of his hand. Oscar produces another harmonica from his pocket. The editors surely had a surfeit of Oscar and Pete action just like this that was too good to leave out of the serial, so they’ll just start splicing it into the middle of scenes. 

The plane seems to have made a miraculous landing, even though the last time we saw it, it was spiraling to the ground in a nosedive after an explosion. All scientists and police officers are required to go to pilot school, so it’s fine. 

Episodes 2 and 3 of this serial have the same setup; it takes several minutes to resolve the action scene, but it’s ultimately resolved in a very unsatisfying way that just confirms that everyone is safe and nothing that happened mattered. 

Gene says that he didn’t see the tear gas bombs being dropped on the Muranians because “he was unconscious” and “his eyes were shut” even though he was riding a horse at the time. They then run to “help the sheriff,” even though the sheriff is currently trying to arrest Gene for murder. Frankie objects to helping the sheriff, because of the whole “Gene is wanted for murder” thing, but Gene makes the logically sound point that “because of all the tear gas around, he won’t be able to see enough to arrest anything!” Logic is not The Phantom Empire’s strongest point. 

The kids help the sheriff recover from the tear gas while Gene takes an unconscious guy from the plane (so I guess it did crash?), strips him of his clothes so that he can use them as a disguise, and ties the now underwear-clad man to a tree for the rest of the day. Gene is still not a character at all, and yet the actions he takes do not define him any further.

This is where, for the third episode in a row, I begin to get confused about who is who. The scientists and police in the biplane were clearly tear gassing the Muranians, but now the sheriff and a few of the cops are reacting to the tear gas by the crashed plane when Gene’s cowboy friends come to help them out. I assume that the police tear gassed the Muranians and then crashed their plane in the tear gas, ultimately tear gassing themselves. That doesn’t make sense, but it would be fun, so I’m going with it. 

Pete and Oscar are left to watch over the plane… to assume no one steals a crashed plane?. Pete walks around the plane several times while Oscar plays the harmonica. Aggressively mild slapstick ensues. 

Oscar picks up what looks like a rock on the ground and tries to play it like a harmonica. He then tosses it to Pete, except it’s a tear gas grenade that explodes on impact. Pete starts reacting to the tear gas by crying like a baby having a temper tantrum. Oscar assumes Pete is sad because he “broke” the rock, so he throws Pete another rock, except Pete misses it and now there’s more tear gas. They then throw a third tear gas grenade on the ground while crying and pass out in each other’s arms. I’ve grown to appreciate Pete and Oscar, even though they might be too stupid to live.

Do you think I wasn’t going to show the crank-turning robot?

The crank-turning robot makes a long-overdue reappearance (it’s been eight minutes of the episode without seeing him! a tragedy) as the Muranians go back to the horse parking lot. Queen Tika muses about the failures of the Muranian captain, whom she now calls “the leader of the Thunder Riders,” even though the kids named the Muranians the Thunder Riders. The Muranian captain has failed twice to kill Gene Autry, and the blame is placed on him, even though he tried his best while the humans bungled everything. Her associate, “Argo,” reminds her that “according to the law of Murania, there is no third chance.” I am instantly filled with so many questions about the legal code of Murania. Does the “no third chance” law exclusively applied to the captain, to royal jobs, or to anything? When you play golf in Murania, do you only have two shots to get it into the hole? If you fail your horse riding test twice, can you never ride a horse again? If you go to two Muranian stores to buy a shirt, and you can’t find a good one at either store, are you forced to be shirtless for the rest of your life? Who tailors Muranian clothes? Are the helmets something you buy or something you just have? 

Argo looks great here. I wish I had a helmet that was twice as tall as my head.

Because of the third chance law, Argo is sent to arrest “him”- the Muranian captain, or Gene Autry? They cut all of Argo’s scenes in the condensed film, so I’m excited to see where this surely necessary plotline goes. 

this guy rules

Argo leaves for his mission, underscored by several perfect robots trudging while they carry boulders. The Muranian captain is arrested, solving the confusing puzzle about pronouns from earlier. 

The Queen is introduced to the Muranian public, and the horrible gong from earlier makes a reappearance! We learn from Argo that “the queen’s word is law” and that “no man can transgress it except for her.” This sounds like a bad way to keep records. Tika asks for the sentence and an old Muranian man yells “DEATH.” He is condemned to death in “the lightning chamber,” the 37th soldier to be executed this year.

It’s Muranian history time! Thousands of years ago, the ancestors of Muranians were driven underground by “the glaciers.” That’s all the Muranian history we get. 

TWIST! Argo has been saving the lives of those sent to the lightning chamber, and he will save the still unnamed captain’s (later named… Captain Orr? Captain Orm?) if the captain joins Argo’s Muranian Rebellion. The captain is sent through “the secret passage” to “rebel headquarters” while Argo and the queen fire off the death chamber. Thankfully, the death chamber does not have windows, so the queen can’t see if she’s actually executing anybody or not.

At night, Gene, disguised as the guy he stripped the clothes off of so that no one arrests him, is laying in bed when the kids come in. Before they can discuss their next moves, Professor Beetson comes in, and Gene has to do his brilliant disguise. 

Gene’s brilliant disguise is covering his face with a cloth.

Professor Beetson and his associate openly deliver exposition about their plans to take the Muranian’s radium to Gene and the kids, who are hiding in a closet. It is also implied that Beetson’s gun was the one that killed the kids’ father, and the kids still show no emotion! 

The “sick” Gene distracts the scientists while the kids take Beetson’s gun from under his bed, showing very poor gun safety as they spin it around close to their faces. 

Beetson immediately checks for his missing gun, and yells when he discovers it’s gone! But don’t worry, the tension is cut by another bit of Pete and Oscar messing around with Oscar’s harmonica. 

The kids present the gun to the sheriff, but before they can say where they found it, the guy Gene tied up comes running into town! Everyone thunders up the stairs as they realize that Gene is in disguise, but Gene tries to get away in the sheriff’s car.

Beetson also goes to the sheriff’s car to get his gun back, so there’s a great shot of Gene taking control of the car monkey-style.

The third episode ends yet again in a chase sequence, as the sheriff’s car doesn’t have any brakes. As Gene speeds out of control, the cops chase him in a cop car, while the Thunder Riders (youth) chase after him on horseback, after making sure to put all their helmets on.

It’s not really conveyed well in this picture, but the Thunder Riders (youth) signal to get on their horses is a lightbulb on a stick poking out of a hole in the roof.

In this universe, horses can catch up to an out-of-control car within seconds, but it’s too late, as Gene’s car plunges off a cliff and smashes into the ground! How will Gene recover from hitting the ground nose-first at full speed? Will it involve a clumsy retcon and poor continuity after a long recap sequence? Tune in to find out! 

The abrupt edits to the “next week” card will always make me laugh.

How Much is in the Condensed Film? 
Absolutely nothing! 

Final Observations
This one wasn’t bad either! It had the required confusing action sequence and overexpository dialogue, but I’d rather have too much exposition instead of the movie’s complete lack of exposition. The new subplot involving the Muranian Rebellion is pretty interesting, and the final chase sequence is the most exciting one yet, so points to them. Now that the action is ramping up, it is a shame that there aren’t any more cowboy musical numbers. Grade: B