Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Case of the Angry Astronaut

(Hey, what's the deal with Blogger's complete overhaul? I'm not sure I like this. I didn't think they would change everything. I wanted Blogger in the first place because I found it less confusing than WordPress. And I'm a bit confused by Blogger now. The actual blog page is the only thing left the same; all the editing pages are vastly different.)

I had occasion to watch my (sadly syndication-edited) copy of The Angry Astronaut in the past week. I found I’d made two errors. First, it can’t really be considered a straight-up military episode, as the only characters who served in a branch of the military don’t any longer during the time of the episode. Second, it is actually another occasion in the latter half of season 5 when Hamilton is fairly congenial towards Perry. Well, needless to say, I was thrilled.

The main plot concerns a short-tempered fellow working as a test astronaut in the Human Factors department of a civilian-run space project called Moonstone. They see how he handles simulated conditions in a spaceship and the like. He’s already apparently stressed and upset about something, and when word comes that the retired general whom he served under in the Air Force is going to run the project, things only go downhill from there.

I have mixed feelings about General Brand myself. Yes, he’s quite harsh and says some cruel things. On the other hand, Mitch Heller, the astronaut, really does have a problem with his temper and it’s no surprise that Brand would think him unfit for his position. It doesn’t help when Brand sees some horrible test results on a simulated flight. It turns out later that the results came out that way because of the machine being tampered with to deliberately make Heller look terrible, but Brand doesn’t know that. And the results are truly appalling. He fires Heller over those. If I was Brand and saw those results, I would have done the same thing. They certainly made it look like Heller was either a complete incompetent or too emotionally disturbed for such a job.

James Coburn plays Brand. Previously he got up my ire playing the rotten creep and eventual murder victim in The Envious Editor. He’s the victim again here, but I wasn’t breathing a sigh of relief over the character’s departure this time. I felt kind of sorry for Brand. If I recall, he wasn’t a bad guy really; like the unfortunate Captain Caldwell, he just knew too much.

Heller gets a call from Brand that evening, offering him a different position. He is asked to come to Brand’s lodge to discuss it. When he arrives he’s told by Brand calling downstairs that he remembered another appointment and maybe they can meet at a restaurant down the road. Heller goes off to find the place. He’s stopped by the police on the way and is told that Brand is dead. In fact, Brand was supposed to be dead at the time Heller claims he spoke with him. A photographer who had an appointment with him fifteen minutes earlier than Heller found the body then.

You know, it might have been a more interesting switch-up if the bad-tempered Heller had been killed and Brand had been blamed, instead of the other way around. But it’s still a very good episode.

One thing quite unique is the discovering of the body scene. There’s some loud classical music playing, which I believe is coming from a stereo and hence, is being heard by the characters and not just the audience as incidental music. It’s used to great effect, coming in on the dramatic climax as the body is found and the camera zeroes in on it.

Also, both Tragg and Andy are here. They’re the ones who stop Heller on the road and bring him back to the lodge to find the body. Tragg and Andy each have separate scenes later on, as well as appearing together at least one other time.

Paul, who was hired by Heller to locate a missing folder, thinks Heller is off his rocker when he claims to have spoken to Brand after Brand had already been killed. He also thinks Heller is guilty. But Heller is a decorated veteran and Paul feels he should have the best possible representation. He asks Perry if he’ll at least consider the case. Perry is willing.

When Perry talks with Heller at the jail, Tragg shows up with Hamilton, who has a fairly friendly exchange with Perry before they discuss a bit of the case. Hamilton wants permission to have Heller examined by a psychologist. Perry is agreeable.

Along the way, Paul tries out the simulation that gave Heller the faulty results. When he gets a better score than the professionally trained Heller, Perry starts suspecting the deliberate tampering.

The hearing has some very interesting scenes. Perry sets up a situation during the lunch break to prove that someone could think they heard his voice when he was somewhere else and the voice was an impostor. The situation is an argument with Paul over an unknown thing. Paul yells he’ll have no part of it and throws some papers. Reporters rush to take pictures. The clock gets in the picture, showing the time. Perry is then somewhere else for thirty minutes and Tragg, who was supposed to meet him at 12:30, had to have heard someone else. Perry points out the voice actor in the gallery.

Perry also has an elaborate set-up in the courtroom of the lodge’s living room, where the body was found. He suggests that the murderer himself set up both appointments and killed Brand. Then he arranged the living room to look like there had been a fight and waited for the photographer. After he had left, the murderer dragged the body off and fixed the living room to look normal, then went upstairs and pretended to be Brand calling down to Heller. Following Heller’s departure, the murderer came back down and messed up the living room again and brought the body back.

That ends up all being true. The murderer killed Brand because Brand had found out about his crooked activities and knew about an invention of Heller’s that the murderer wanted to get. So when Brand was killed, it seemed too perfect to blame it on Heller.

In the epilogue Heller is working as the head of the Human Factors sector. He likes that better than being the test astronaut. They’re doing a test with a monkey. Perry and Della suggest Paul try the thing again, since he did so well before, but Paul makes a hasty retreat.

All in all, it’s a very interesting venture. I like the Space Age episodes, as I mentioned before. Sure, they’re a little different from Perry defending more average Joes and Jills, but there’s nothing wrong with that. And they're still basically the same as far as format and main characters are concerned. It’s further proof that the series and the characters can easily move along with the changing times. Perry Mason is not static. It’s adaptable to every modern era.

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