Quick Thought: Ultra Q, Episodes 4-7

Seven episodes in and Ultra Q has established itself as a show where just about anything can happen. When you start an episode there’s no telling what kind of story might be coming, other that it will probably involve a giant monster of some sort. Here are a few comments and observations. Assume some Spoilers for each episode.

Ultra Q

Mammoth Flower

The original title of the series was “Unbalance” and this episode is an expression of that theme. Humanity has unbalanced nature and events such as a giant blood-drinking flower blossoming in downtown Tokyo are just going to happen. “It’s a time when you don’t know what will fall from the sky,” a character says.

Some different special effects techniques were used in this episode. Eiji Tsuburaya, whose company produced Ultra Q is known for miniatures, pyrotechnics, and monster suits, but this episode experimented with stop motion, photographic backdrops, and compositing. It’ll be interesting to see if the show continues to try new approaches to depicting this out of balance world.

Peguila is Here!

This is the first episode so far that really doesn’t make much sense. There’s a mishmash of ideas that don’t fit together or are ever adequately explained. In some scenes it’s just unclear what is actually happening or even where characters are and what they are seeing. Some of the blame might go to poor translation, but this could be a script that never had a clear idea of where it was going from the start.

Tarō

Grow Up! Little Turtle

Occasionally Ultra Q will remind you that it is a show from the 60’s. Trippy is how you’d describe this mixture of reality, child’s fantasy, slapstick comedy, and fairytale. Our usual crew of Jun, Yuriko and Ippei make a cameo appearance, suggesting that at least some of what is happening is “real” but since the main character of the episode is named after a well-known figure from Japanese folklore, things get “meta” quickly.

S.O.S. Mount Fuji

This episode seems written around two distinct ideas, but the half-hour format doesn’t have enough room to fully explore either. There’s a monster awoken by volcanic activity at Mt. Fuji and a regional “Tarzan” who has been living in the woods on his own since infancy. It’s mostly plot convenience that two ever cross paths. But I’ll give this episode points for something I thought only occurred in 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars, that is, a human being taking out a kaiju in direct hand-to-hand combat. The episode also features a bungling but well intentioned rural policeman, who I suspect is a stock comedic character that Japanese viewers would be familiar with.

Quick Thought: Ultra Q, Episodes 1-3

The recent Blu-ray release of Ultra Q is my first chance to watch this legendary 1966-67 Japanese sci-fi series. Created by Eiji Tsuburaya, the special effects master behind the original run of Godzilla movies, Ultra Q is often described as cross between Outer Limits and X-Files. It is the adventures of a team of reporters, pilots, and scientists who investigate and deal with weird events, usually involving giant monsters.

Ultra Q team

Which leads us to the 500,000 lbs. kaiju in the room. While in its time this was a very expensive TV show to produce, today the special effects in Ultra Q, with its floppy monsters suits and miniature sets, can look cheap and ridiculous – though I’m not sure if the rubbery CGI common today is really that much better. If your reaction is that this all looks worthy of only a Mystery Science Theater treatment, Ultra Q isn’t a show for you. If you sincerely like Godzilla movies, and can appreciate the craft, ingenuity, and imagination that went into such a show, it’s a lot of fun. In those ways, Ultra Q is rather like the older seasons of Dr. Who, which was airing in England at the same time.

The right way to approach Ultra Q is that it, again like Dr. Who, is fundamentally a children’s program, one with entertainment value for older viewers as well. Besides the monsters smashing buildings, over the first three episodes more and more thoughtful ideas are introduced. Episode one “Defeat Gomess” is the troupe of a nerdy kid who could solve the monster problem if only adults would listen to him. “Goro and Goro,” like most stories with a giant monkey, has King Kong inspired themes, that fear and aggression make monsters out of nature and that for some problems: ”You don’t need weapons, you just need a heart.” By episode three, “Gift from Space,” we are considering whether humans reaching out into space might be breaking cosmic laws and customs we are too ignorant to understand, and that space aliens aren’t contacting us because we are still too violent and destructive for extraterrestrial civilization.

Martian Slug

The third episode also has already taken our monsters from a reused Godzilla suit to a slimy giant slug from Mars. A lot of the fun of this show is from seeing what kind of crazy creature will star in each episode. I’m also wondering where the world view of the show, the portrait of a technological society on the brink of discovering a much greater universe will go. More thoughts to come as I watch further episodes.