A TV series from New Zealand was shown in the United States?
And only two years after it ran back home?
I suppose stranger things have happened.
Of course, at the time, Nickleodeon was still in its earliest stages, and desperate for low priced children’s shows to present. One of their offerings was The Third Eye, an “Anthology” of short children’s serials, most of which were British. Now there is no real secret to why they ran them — they got the rights dirt cheap because the big networks didn’t want them because…
The characters talked with foreign accents.
And, I suppose, it helped that their production values were rather low. But anyone who has watched BBC Science Fiction and Fantasy Children’s shows knows that they are often far more intelligent than anything made for children in the U.S. at the time — not to mention far creepier.
And I suppose that is one of the reasons I enjoy them, as they are often strange, moody and unsettling, and surprisingly scary, like the only other series they showed which I’m familiar with, The Children of the Stones.
Even though it was made in New Zealand (and for a channel that isn’t either fully commercial or government funded), Under the Mountain is a lot like the British equivalents, as it is a creepy, multipart science fiction mystery with low production values. Mind you, it makes up for that with a bit of New Zealand scenery, although I’ll warn you Peter Jackson buffs out there that none of it is as dramatic as what you saw in The Lord of the Rings.
The story is also a familiar sort of story: two young twins, Rachel and Theo, visiting their Uncle and Aunt in Auckland, learn that their family’s next door neighbors are actually horrible alien monsters who plan to reduce all planets to muddy wastes and reproduce their kind so they can take over the Universe.
And, yes, I love the fact that they are known as “the Wilberforces.” It’s as solidly British a name as you could hope to find.
Even if it does sound like whatever their name was in their own language.
However, they also encounter Mr. Jones, who saved the two from freezing to death when they got lost in the woods eight years earlier. He explains that the two are unique, and only their innate psychic powers can stop the Wilberforces. Mr. Jones is an alien as well, only he came from a world which the Wilberforces destroyed. The survivors of his race decided that they would stop the Wilberforces and their endless conquests, and started a long war with them.
They thought they’d killed them all, but seven of the Wilberforces escaped to Earth. Mr. Jones tracked them here, bringing with him with him their last ditch weapon. While it will eliminate all of them, Mr. Jones can’t work it himself, but needs the help of two very special children.
And what’s more, they have to be twins. But not just any twins.
There is some mysterious trait they have to have.
And I really doubt it’s red hair.
What will linger with you the longest about this production are the Wilberforces. Bill Johnson, who plays the leader, Mr. Wilberforce, is strikingly ugly and hostile, and somehow all the actors playing the others in the clan look enough like him to be younger versions, with the same outthrust jaw and sullen expression. They all look badly proportioned, somehow or other, and share the same somewhat old-fashioned looking clothes and odd, jerky mannerisms.
Let’s face it, that’s far more impressive than any effect would be.
The Wilberforces in their final form aren’t quite as impressive, as they just look like big heaps with tentacles and one, big, glowing eye. However, the transitional form, while they still have a head, is more impressive, although the transformation scene at the end isn’t as smooth as it could have been.
More impressive (even though it was simpler to achieve) is what happens when they are exposed to strong light for very long and start sweating slime (with, perhaps, some facial distortions if the light stays on them for too long).
They are never, in their human form, able to function well enough as human beings to fool the children, and these scenes are played well enough that a young audience would also realize the truth long before the fact that they are Wilberforces is revealed.
The tunnels they’ve dug are eerie and very organic looking. I’m not sure exactly how the Wilberforces are supposed to have made them — perhaps with the slime they deposited as they burrowed through the earth — but the result is striking and very alien.
The serial was based on a novel by Maurice Gee. A lot of these Children’s serials from that the era were, like The Children of the Stones and most of the other serials shown on The Third Eye. Ironically, the American production Under the Mountain reminds me of the most, Escape to Witch Mountain, was also based on a Childrens’ novel. Somehow, when one thinks of how many excellent books were written in that era for children — like the Tripods series, or A Wrinkle in Time — you have to wonder why no one seems to be writing books with as much imagination and wonder any more.
Although I should warn parents that there is one tragic moment near the end, which young children may find upsetting.
Under the Mountain was enjoyable and did a lot with its minimal resources. It manages to create a lot of mood and atmosphere out of very little, even if its effects are limited and at a low budget TV production level.
It isn’t as good as the best of these serials from the Seventies and Eighties, but it is more entertaining than most of what passes for Children’s entertainment these days.
And, while the only DVD version of the serial is long out of print, you can still find it on Youtube…
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