Mostly writing this to coherently sum up my thoughts.
For better or for worse, I was born in the Soviet Union. It’s an unfortunate reality that people don’t get to choose where they’re born. Maybe someone out there is working on fixing that. :)
In particular, Soviet fiction has influenced my own writing. My pet project in progress, a time travel thingy called Insight (it sucks, so I wouldn’t dare call it a novel), has throwbacks to Soviet science fiction of all timeframes, from We to Alice, Girl from the Future. Soviet SF from about the 1960s onwards, especially aimed at children, has an air of optimism about it; it has this spirit of benevolent exploration, broadening the horizons of knowledge, eternal moral values.
One of the unconscious influences — ones I didn’t realize until I rewatched a bit of it — was an old children’s movie dilogy that rubbed into my own childhood: Moscow — Cassiopeia. Of course, back then I was too young to realize its main fault: that it was a work of socialist realism, which was less about showing reality as it was and more about how it “should be”, from the perspective of Soviet ideology. Everyone, both child and adult, acts “too perfect”. The positive characters are ideological embodiments of qualities, not reading like real people, and the negative are likewise symbolic embodiments of flaws. The end result is that it ends up feeling wooden, unrealistic (and I don’t mean unrealistic in the sense that it has an FTL starship and an alien planet).
And the plot itself? Well, it’s nothing surprising to anyone who has seen any Star Trek series ever. Again, I only know that now. You don’t particularly expect a 1973 movie to be original by modern standards, so it follows the usual route: robot creations blah blah turned against their masters blah blah emotional suppression blah blah mind control rays blah blah blah. The resolution was narmy even by STTOS standards: the deus ex machina came in the form of an iron nail stuck in a power socket! Ah well, it’s for kids, you don’t expect them to appreciate clever writing, right?
Still, it has the kind of innocent charm in it that I like in Soviet movies in general, so it would be watchable for me now if not for one factor that utterly kills my enjoyment.
It’s this guy.
I hate him so much. He’s basically the antithesis of everything emphasized in Soviet SF.
He has no name, he is referred to by the unwieldy acronym “IOO” (in Russian, “one assigned to special responsibilities”) and he never directly interacts with any of the adults, only with the children. And with the audience, who are, again, assumed to be children.
The movie starts with him directly addressing the audience and claiming that the events of the movie really happened “next spring”. He speaks in a somewhat playful, pointedly polite, almost patronizing manner. And he fulfills the role of a deus ex machina, nudging the events to get the story going. He’s apparently omnipotent — he can teleport, even across planets, contact an FTL starship from an ordinary rotary phone, etc.
Who is he? An interdimensional bureaucrat?
Nah, that would be too generous an interpretation. (Incidentally, although I don’t exclude the possibility that Valve was influenced by the IOO, the chances of this are slim.) Although he drops hints that he works for some kind of superiors, he is human and benevolent in his emotions, very much unlike the G-Man, despite fulfilling a similar handy deus ex machina role. The IOO is Gandalf assembling the company together on an adventure — in this case, the space expedition.
Ahem! This movie is otherwise very serious. Imagine the most straight-faced moments in Star Trek without all the character-based humor, where every character is Picard and can do no wrong. Perhaps the IOO was an attempt at injecting humor? But I’m sorry, it’s supposed to be SF as in “science fiction”, not “space fantasy”. It’s not about space princesses, space emperors and space dashing swordsmen. A Gandalf figure, or even an Obi-Wan figure, is utterly out of place in a movie that spends about a fourth of its run spitting out relatively realistic scientific jargon.
Another version is that he’s an author stand-in. Based, of course, on the assumption that children are such morons that they can’t tell reality from fiction unless they’re constantly pointed out that it’s fiction (in this case by drawing attention to the IOO’s outlandish antics). Is it the same kind of logic that has prompted Soviet writers to constantly put fantastic elements in framing stories, for example, by making Ivan Vasilievich revealed to be a dream in the end? (Just in case, you know, the audience thinks time machines are actually possible?)
There is, however, a certain point at which the character appears too often, turning from a “necessary plot device” into an “author’s pet character”. The IOO not just gets the plot going, but he also appears several times later, randomly teleporting around, acting as a mysterious advisor living outside time, showing knowledge of the future, switching between acting playful and patronizing…
Why, hello, sweetie.
Like River Song, the IOO ultimately suffers from overexposure, to the point that he stops being that interesting quirky enigma and simply steals too much of the spotlight for himself. But the absolute nadir is the finale, in which, after the kids resolve the conflict on an alien planet, he simply teleports them back home. Just like that. Leaving the expensive starship behind.
Even if it’s not an “all just a dream” cop-out, it has the effect of saying: “Hah! You thought you were watching a space exploration story! But what you were actually watching was an imaginary fairy tale about space exploration! None of this was real!” And it cheapens the moral and emotional impact of the story.
In an interview to a Soviet newspaper back in those days, director Richard Viktorov had this to say about the concept of the IOO: “To make it easier for kids to understand the film, we have added a familiar archetype of the kind wizard.”
In other words, the director’s stance was that kids are morons and won’t understand a plot without an archetype that is completely inappropriate for the genre.
Goshdang it to heck.