The Phantom Empire, Chapter Six: “Disaster From The Skies”

Welcome one and all to The Phantom Empire, now written on time instead of a few hours late! After last week got me tired of this serial due to its long, pointless wheel-spinning and lack of Pete-Oscar first date scenes, let’s see how well this week’s installment, “Disaster From the Skies,” holds up- it’s the halfway mark! 

Before we begin, I would like to officially announce that I have completely forgotten what’s in the original Phantom Empire film and what is not. Therefore, I will have to retire the How Much is in the Condensed Film? section at the end of these reviews, and I am also pretty sure that I will have to watch the condensed film again, for a final comparison. I am willingly doing this to myself, for some reason. This will give The Phantom Empire thirteen great installments, a truly lucky number to have. 

Our episode begins with the crucial recap sequence that is loved by all. 

“Murania, located thousands of feet below the earth, is rich in radio activity. Queen Tika, holding surface people in contempt, jealously guards her country’s secret. Gene Autry, discovered in the underground city, is condemned to the death chamber. Frankie and Betsy, on the earth’s surface, are trying to locate Autry.” 

So far, I like this recap sequence. It only delivers important information, and the information that’s repeated is fun because they changed up the wording slightly. “Radium activity” is now “radio activity,” and we never learned that Queen Tika “held surface people in contempt” before. Thanks for keeping it fresh, recap sequence. 

Unfortunately, the recap sequence quickly goes to shit. 

“Argo, plotting revolution, sees an ally in Autry, and decides to save him.” That didn’t happen last week! I predicted that it was going to, because it was an incredibly obvious resolution to the worst cliffhanger yet. Here’s what I said last week, to remind you all: 

(The following paragraph is quoted from last week.)
“My first thought was ‘Argo clearly let Gene out ahead of time, since we know that he has been letting people out if they join the rebellion. This cliffhanger is terrible.’ However, the last shot is of Gene in the room with the electricity, implying that he is going to be shocked to death. I’m sure that what I just said would happen will happen, but at least they show Gene in the room, and don’t just show the electricity shooting into the room.”

The episode ends on Gene in the death chamber! I knew what was going to happen before it happened, but why did the serial feel the need for us to know what happened before it happened! Out of all the ways this serial could fail me, it chose to do so before it even started. 

As is customary, we watch the last few minutes of the final episode again. Gene is wordlessly and emotionlessly sentenced to death, Argo builds up the voltage and shoots it into the death chamber, etc. However, this time we don’t see Gene in the death chamber, and we smash cut to him sailing down a slide and eating shit on the ground. It’s kind of incredible. Watching it back a couple of times, just for fun, I noticed that when Argo pulls the lever to shoot electricity into the death chamber, he also opens up a trap door that Gene falls down. That’s fun as hell, I am fully back on board with this serial.

The queen instructs Argo to send Autry’s “charred body on a trip to the Cavern of the Dunes.” Back on board, baby! 

Gene is deposited outside the revolutionary room, where he overhears some Muranians expositioning about what time they should revolt. Some of them want to go now, thinking they are prepared, while others want to go later. This battle between moderation and progressivism in the speed of Muranian revolution reflects an important discussion in modern politics today. In this essay, I will

The Muranians decide to wait on the whole revolution thing because their “atom-smashing machine” is still under construction. When it is completed, it will be capable of destroying the universe! The Muranian scientist then unveils his “z-ray lithium gun,” which has the power to blind people who get shot at. Hopefully, the Muranians will soon work to develop things with Vanadium, a Transition Element. The gun emits a powerful blinding burst of lithium which is clearly just a flashlight. Back! On! Board! Baby! 

That giant thing in the back is the “atom-smashing machine.”
This thing is the “z-ray lithium gun.”

The light of the lithium gun exposes Gene through the window! Before you can say “wait, given the rules established twelve seconds ago, wouldn’t Gene be blinded?” the Muranians chase after him! Of course, they all know that he is Gene Autry, and they plan to vivisect him to see how “a surface man’s lungs differ from ours” and to improve their breathing apparatus at the surface level.

Behold, the power of pure lithium!
After this guy delivers his line, the camera stays on his rictus grin as the other guy delivers his. It’s great.

All hell immediately breaks loose, as Gene kicks a guy into another guy, creating a domino effect of falling guys. We are now five minutes into the episode with zero shots of the protagonist’s face. Gene trips over a fallen Muranian and apparently accidentally blinds another one with the lithium gun. Way to go, champ. The Muranian proceeds to scream “I’M BLINDED!” and “I’M BLIND!” ten times in a row as Gene slowly walks out the door. I’m not joking. This might be my favorite episode.

Upon looking at his fallen comrade, one of the Muranians declares this is “unfortunate” because they needed him on the battlefield. The Muranians are now displaying the casual indifference to horrific tragedy that the humans have displayed for the past six episodes. See, both sides aren’t so different after all! 

Oh never mind, he’s only blinded temporarily. This feels like a cheap attempt to make the audience feel better for a main character, but instead of a main character, it’s Muranian Henchman #7. To be fair, he is my favorite Muranian henchman, because he was very clearly not told when the scene was going to cut so he just screamed ten times in a row.

Argo and his cool hat come in and calls them “incompetent fools” for letting Autry escape. Shoutout to Argo. Apparently, Autry’s lithium gun will “soon exhaust itself,” and combined with that and the temporary blindness, the writers really are making it less cool by the minute. 

Autry displays his incredible hiding skills (hides in a window that some Muranians don’t even bother to check in). 

this man knows how to hide; completely open front and back, covered sides. Perfect.

It’s this week’s installment of Viewscreen Corner, as the queen looks in her viewscreen to spy on Beetson. I’m still not sure how the viewscreen can pick up audio, but that’s radium for you. 

She overhears some stilted expository dialogue from the scientists that recaps everything we have heard in the recap sequence (they want the radium, Gene Autry is wanted for murder, if Gene doesn’t make the radio broadcast by 2:00 the ranch will self-destruct, etc). While poorly written, this scene is important to the story, as the queen finally realizes that Beetson and crew want the radium. Gene Autry listens to them from his very exposed hiding place, so I’m certainly glad no one turned their heads slightly to the side. 

Autry sneaks in the room after the queen leaves and orders the one remaining Muranian to pull up Radio Ranch on the view screen. The view screen changes to inside the barn at Gene’s order, and now I need to know how the view screen works. Have the Muranians set up individual cameras where they can view people? How have they set the cameras up inside buildings? Is it like a security camera device? Did The Phantom Empire accidentally invent another invention before it was actually invented? 

Gene views a Junior Thunder Riders Club meeting, where we view a conversation between Frankie and another Thunder Rider. Except they’re in separate rooms, and Gene sees and hears both sides of the conversation! Does the Muranian switch the viewscreen window to cut between the different rooms, even though there’s no way he could know what room Frankie is in? Do the writers even care about how the technology that they set up works? At all? 

Gene tries to yell through the view screen at Frankie, and instead of saying “you can’t speak through the view screen,” the Muranian says that there is a “word scrambler” in place that “scrambles the words” of people trying to speak through the view screen so that they can’t be heard. That just raises further questions! 

The Muranian steals Autry’s lithium gun, but of course it’s out of battery, and Gene fells him in a single punch. 

11 minutes into the episode and we finally have a scene not set underground! I’m not complaining, but I am wondering why last week’s installment was called “Beneath the Earth” if this week, Gene is Beneath the Earth for most of the runtime. This episode is called “Disaster From The Skies,” and as you’ll see later, that only plays a very small part in the actual episode. Last week’s should have been called “Pete and Oscar’s Hay Bale Adventure” or “Radio Contract Jamboree” or something. 

Speaking of radio contracts, the “direction finder” picks up a radio signal that Frankie says is “coming from Murania.” It may be after 1 AM while I am writing this, but I am pretty sure that Frankie doesn’t know that Murania exists or what Murania is. This episode is playing very fast and loose with the continuity, and I appreciate its energy. It’s better than just endless recaps. 

Gene plugs some patch cables in and out, but instead of bursting into a sweet rendition of “Axel F,” he somehow uses that to talk to Betsy and Frankie… who hear them… out of this lamp pyramid? 

I am completely baffled. I have so many questions. Where did this box come from? Is it their radio? Did Autry know how to send radio signals from the Muranian base to their secret radio? How does this work? How does the concept of radio work? Am I deeply misunderstanding radio and this has actually been possible the whole time? 

I hate criticizing works of art for “plot holes,” especially for scientific reasons, because they’re works of art. No one should give a shit about whether there actually is sound in space when they’re watching a Star Wars movie, for example. That’s because the Star Wars movies are overall well-written, at least technically. Even the worst of them, and the worst of most sci-fi/fantasy works, have the basic sense of place required to justify things like sound in space. The Phantom Empire does have a sense of place- a place where a bunch of cowboys sing songs and broadcast on the radio. I try not to be down on this serial, and I’m not criticizing it- I’m having a good time watching it! But introducing so much completely nonsense science like this shatters any sort of suspension of disbelief at all. I think this episode may have broken science. And with that, it’s 1:12 and I’m going to bed. 

Good morning, everyone. It’s 10:15 AM, I have finished my first class, and it’s time to talk again about The Phantom Empire. Visions of radio danced through my head as I slept. 

Gene explains that there is a secret entrance to Murania by Thunder Canyon, but has to hide when the Muranians and the queen enter. Gene displays his excellent hiding skills for the second time in the episode. 

it’s hard to tell because the screenshot is blurry, but he’s just hiding under the table behind Argo. There is no way the queen wouldn’t be able to see him right now.

Argo convinces the queen that he knocked out “Gaspar” for speaking on the radio with surface people. The Queen prepares a radium bomb to blow up the Junior Thunder Riders, who are coming to rescue Gene. 

We watch the same reused footage of the Junior Thunder Riders getting on their horses, accompanied by Pete and Oscar. Oscar plays his harmonica some more and sings an off-key chorus of “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine” to his horse, Vivian. Eventually Vivian runs off without him.

This smash cut is one of the very few times I have laughed out loud at The Phantom Empire.

As Gene tries to escape Murania, we see some guard robots! The Muranians push the aluminum robots around and program them to guard the door. 

During the hiding montage, the radium bomb is launched with very little fanfare. I think they reused the footage from when they launched the missile at the scientists’ airplane in episode 2. These episodes are strangely paradoxical, because there is a lot of narrative momentum, but there also is not that much. New things happen every episode to advance the story, but in doing so they follow the exact same structure: Gene gets captured/falls into a jam, the Junior Thunder Riders Club come to rescue him, people broadcast on the radio. Shots can be constantly reused in different contexts, because the same thing is essentially happening, and I think it’s interesting. 

come on! swivel your heads! swivel them!

Gene runs in, inexplicably chased by Muranians, and even though the narrative doesn’t connect (I guess they found him, there was no announcement that they did so), there’s a very cool scene where they run into the elevator and fight. There’s even an overhead shot! When they want to do a good action sequence, Otto Brower and Breezy Eason are quietly very good at staging one. 

After Gene makes it out of the elevator, there’s another solid fight scene where Gene ragdolls around with a Muranian; as he knocks the Muranian back, he plays with the computer system to try to divert the radium bomb. It’s clear, clever, and the silliness totally works for it.

The Muranian grabs a club off the wall and knocks out Gene! (The computer system also falls off the table, which looks like a blooper. Did they not nail it down?) Luckily, Gene averted the bomb in time, and it’s coming right for them! The bomb sails straight through an open window in the Muranians’ mountain and explodes, and that’s the end of the episode. It’s not a very great cliffhanger, since the exploding room was clearly empty, but explosions are always an exciting note to end an episode on. See you next week! 

Final Observations
This one was fun! The narrative was propulsive, there was a great action scene, and there are a billion new sci-fi ideas. Gene is slightly more humanized since he’s by himself for so much (but only slightly). Unfortunately, the drama of Gene’s radio contract being cancelled if he doesn’t make it to the studio by 2:00 PM is not very prevalent, but I don’t care because I’m having a good time. I am fully back on board with The Phantom Empire, and at our halfway mark I will be giving this episode a Grade: A-