Monday, September 26, 2011

ULTRAMAN MONDAYS: Ultra Operation #1

Episode 01: "Ultra Operation" (catch up on past episodes)
Original Airdate: July 17, 1966

Featured Monster: Bemular


The origin of Ultraman is revealed when the evil space monster Bemular escapes to Earth. The extraterrestrial space-cop pursuing Bemular must pause in his pursuit to save the life of an earthling, Science Patrol member Shin Hayata, by merging with him to create the superhero Ultraman.


From the start, Ultraman doesn't waste any time getting to the action. The first episode begins with two strange spheres hurtling through space, chasing one another as they are pursued by Shin Hayata, member of the Science Patrol. The Science Patrol is an elite group of sharply-dressed astronauts, pilots, and researchers who stand on guard to defend Earth from supernatural and extraterrestrial threats. When they're not hanging out wearing blue blazers and fiddling with buttons in their futuristic headquarters (well, futuristic by 1960's standards), they slip into orange jumpsuits with shoulder flaps, grab motorcycle helmets, and strap on their laser guns to fight some aliens. And they always wear ties because, hey, you dress for the job you want, right?

Looking sharp, boys.
On this day, Hayata's pursuit of the traveling spheres will change his life forever. As the blue sphere enters earth's orbit, it descends into a nearby lake. Hayata's touch down isn't so lucky. His ship crashes with the red sphere, turning Hayata's futuristic VTOL jet into a flaming pile of scrap on the forest floor.

Are you looking at it?
To the astonishment of the locals, Hayata's lifeless body is engulfed by the red sphere and taken high into the sky. Within the sphere, where everything looks like a trippy acid flashback, Hayata meets a benevolent being from the "Land of Light" in nebula M78. The being is a kind of space-cop and was transporting a creature known as Bemular to the "grave of space" when it escaped (in the blue sphere). Chasing it, he accidentally crashed into Hayata's ship. In order to make ammends and save Hayata, the being vows to give Hayata his life. They will merge and become one. Hayata will remain in his human form with all his personality and memories until he uses a device known as the Beta capsule. Triggering the Beta capsule will allow Hayata to become the hero Ultraman and fight for Earth. Objectively, this is a very selfless act on Ultraman's part -- saving the life of one small human by giving up his own. On the other hand, Hayata doesn't get much choice. In neither the Japanese nor English dub does Ultraman ever get Hayata's permission to merge. In the Japanese dub, Ultraman doesn't even answer all of Hayata's questions; he just laughs creepily. Hey Ultraman, silence does not mean "Yes."

Ultraman: Origin Story or Date Rape Parable?
Anyways, the red sphere explodes and Hayata's teammates believe him to be dead, but they don't have much time to mourn. Soon, strange lights begin emanating from the lake and a giant figure begins to rear its ugly head. Bemular, you horrible cosmic monster, I wonder what you look like.

Here he comes. This is going to be awesome!
 I see something! Is it some horrific tentacled monstrosity?
It's's's a...........
Oh. It's a google-eyed dinosaur sea urchin with floppy arms
At this point, the endearing quality of Ultraman should be clear. Cheap rubber-suited monsters. Miniature space ships and model buildings. Outlandish costumes and out-dated optical effects. Ultraman's not a serious sci-fi show, but it's not an intentional farce like the 1960's Adam West Batman series either. It's an unintentionally funny yet intentionally fun extravaganza of low-budget television effects. It's monsters and lasers and home-made spaceships. It's goofy kaiju entertainment!

The Science Patrol go on the offensive, but they're no match for Bemular's laser breath. Thankfully, they get help when Hayata reveals that he's still alive and has a plan to use the S16 submarine to drive Bemular out of the lake.

Splish splash, I was taking a bath
While in the submarine and blasting at Bemular's legs to drive him to the surface as the Science Patrol blast Bemular from the air, Hayata's plan only really succeeds in pissing off Bemular.  Bemular takes the submarine in his mouth, rises out of the lake, and tosses Hayata and the sub to the ground before blasting it at point-blank range with his powerful laser breath. Okay Hayata, what's Plan B?

Plan B(eta capsule)
Clearly out matched by the giant alien monster, Hayata emerges from the sub and triggers the Beta capsule to become.........

Sure, Hayata knew he'd turn into an alien, but do you think he was prepared to turn into a 130 feet tall alien? If his sudden jump in size surprised him, he wasn't phased. Ultraman gets right down to work pummelling and beating Bemular up and down the shoreline.

Monster Mating Season
Ultraman and Bemular continue to tussle in the mud until a small orb on Ultraman's chest beings to blink. The Science Patrol reason, rightly so, that Ultraman only has a limited amount of energy. He has to finish Bemular quickly or risk running out of juice.

To get the upper hand on Bemular, Ultraman exhibits one of his first powers: flight. Launching himself into the air and circling around behind Bemular, Ultraman is able to beat Bemular into submission using some tried-and-true wrestling moves.

It's complete pandemonium here at monster stadium. The crowd's going wild
As Bemular attempts to make his escape in the form of a sphere, Ultraman finishes him off with his second signature power: the powerful Specium Ray

Talk to the hand
And with that, Bemular explodes in a shower of sparks and Ultraman saves the day. Ultraman flies out of sight to revert back to Hayata, who returns to give some bullshit story about being saved by Ultraman and finding out that Ultraman will stay on Earth to protect all humanity. I guess that's a more believable alibi than Clark Kent's poorly disguised alter ego, but you'd think something called the Science Patrol would be a little more suspicious of this 130 foot tall silver man with the power to reduce monsters to dust.

This first episode of Ultraman is light on character but heavy on action. With rarely a dull moment, it establishes each character's broad personality and introduces us to the types of monsters we can expect from the series. "Ultra Operation #1" is hardly my favorite episode, but it's a fun mingling of sci-fi/fantasy and rubber suit wrestling.

 Come back next week as I look at the second episode: "Shoot the Invader"

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