Thursday, February 21, 2019

LOST In 1992? Thoughts on NBC's "Danger Island"/"The Presence"

When I was in elementary school, NBC broadcast a horror TV movie called Danger Island (later released on DVD as The Presence) featuring noted supermodel Kathy Ireland and Gary Graham, who played the human detective from Alien Nation, in prominent roles. The gist of it is that some survivors of a plane crash in either the Caribbean or the Pacific (it's not totally clear) end up on a tropical island where, 10-15 years before, the U.S. military had conducted highly-questionable scientific experiments, and all hell breaks loose. My father taped it for me and I really rather enjoyed it. Ultimately the film podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood did a TV movies month, with this being one of the films. Here's our podcast discussion. I'm not going to review it, but instead I'll discuss what might've been.

You see, per the almighty IMDB, this wasn't just a TV movie, but an intended television pilot. Unfortunately things didn't work out, and so there was no TV series. I posted about this on the alternate history forum several years ago and Canadian author Bruno Lombardi theorized that this could've been an early (and much lower budget) version of Lost. In fact, this reviewer theorized that many ideas Lost ran with could've come from Danger Island originally. Had the movie been more successful, had Kathy Ireland been interested in participating as an actress (or producer, given how she went into business and made a lot of money soon afterward), etc. we could have had something like Lost a decade earlier.

The film leaves us with all sorts of interesting threads to explore. Spoilers abound, so you might want to watch the movie (it's on YouTube, as a whole movie or in multiple parts, if you must) or listen to the podcast first. Here goes...

*The last of Babcock's antigen has cured Rick (Gary Graham) of the deformities the squid-monster's attack had inflicted (the two graves are the dead female scientist's and Frank's, not his), but left him with extrasensory abilities. Due to briefly touching Laura (Kathy Ireland's) hand, he knows that she really is a model but is ashamed to admit it and he drops to obvious CIA agent Ben Fields (Richard Beymer) that he knows he's connected with the island and the projects there. Earlier Ben had said "small world" when nobody else was around upon learning the facility was called "MK Naomi" and Rick quotes that back at him, indicating he might have telepathy-at-range as well as the ability to pick up on the thoughts and memories of people he touches. Rick's new abilities could be useful in exploring the island's mysteries, but they might also unsettle the other crash survivors. After all, he might find out stuff about them they don't want him to know--Matt (Joe Lara) seems to either owe a lot of people money or is involved in criminal activity, while Brian (Christopher Pettiet) is a child of divorce whom neither parent wants. And who knows what secrets the others have? Finally, it's strongly implied the Indian/Polynesian (it's not totally clear) island natives were experimented on by MK Naomi's scientists--they might view Rick as a monster.

*And Ben has a connection of some kind with the island, given the very unsubtle cuts to him and his reactions whenever something weird happens and how the Indian chief seems to recognize him. When I was a kid I always thought Ben was Babcock, the scientist who sabotaged the facility and gave the island's natives the remaining antigen to protect themselves from whatever it was MK Naomi had been working on in the 1970s. That leads to some logistical issues--given how he is clearly still with the CIA, if he showed up back at the office claiming there'd been an accident on the island and he was the only survivor, the CIA would investigate and they'd find the dead scientist's journal and other records implicating him. This was the era of the Church Committee and Congressional attempts to rein in CIA overreach, but there's a difference between whistle-blowing and sabotaging an expensive facility, causing several deaths. He'd be dead meat, probably literally.

If he really was Babcock, revealing that might regain him the trust of the other castaways if Rick reveals he's been hiding stuff from them--biology professor and AIDS researcher Diana (Lisa Banes) views Babcock as being the only scientist at the site who had a conscience. However, he might not want people to know that for fear what he'd done would be exposed to their eventual rescuers or his fellow survivors would learn he'd done something truly horrific before he saw the light and turn on him. This could lead to all sorts of interesting internal conflict with Ben and he might even be tempted to silence Rick, even thought the beginning of the film indicates they're longtime business partners.

*There's at least one monster on the island, the chimera squid/sea-urchin thing that injects Frank (Steve Goldsberry) and Rick with mutagens that transform the former into the Creature from the Black Lagoon and disfigure and derange the latter. The island is fairly large and the scientists might've been there for years before things went down, so who knows what other critters might be about? The female scientist who committed suicide was convinced the people who went looking for Babcock would be "dead by dark," so the castaways might've been very lucky to find the fortified "Habitat" when they did.

*The movie ends with the castaways delivering medical supplies to the Indian villagers, although I'm not sure why exactly. The Indians had a shrine to Babcock complete with his lab coat and other stuff (presumably in honor of him having saved them from MK Naomi's horrors), but none of them seem to be suffering from mutations or other ill effects. Perhaps the survivors are trying to start a trading relationship with them? That would make sense, since the Indians would know what plants and animals are safe to eat (i.e. that won't turn into pulsing spraying nasties after a day or two) and are probably growing their own safe food and certainly know more about the island's geography, critters, etc. Meanwhile, the base might have antibiotics or other things the Indians need. Diana knew how a lot of the medical stuff worked, so until something irreplaceable breaks, she could use the base's facilities for nobler purposes. And embassy Marine Vic (Eddie Velez) and the Indian girl whose name sounded a lot like "Linda" seemed to be getting affectionate (before Vic hallucinated she was a monster and started choking her), so we could see some developments there. Linda might be forgiving if it was all an accident, but her family or other members of the tribe might not be.

*The castaways find a long-buried Jeep and a human skull with a bullet in it, but the dead scientist's journal implies many personnel set out in search of Babcock after he sabotaged the facility and fled with the antigen. The dead scientist theorized they'd all be dead by nightfall, indicating something is out there, but the fact one person had shot and killed another implies something a bit more complicated than "island mutants ate them." Did the base personnel turn on each other? Did something infect one of them like it had Frank and they put him down? Between Ben's prior knowledge and Rick's ability to pick up on past events, we could have flashback episodes. There's also the possibility some original personnel might've survived and they could become enemies like The Others from Lost. Especially if they've been infected by whatever they'd been worked on and mutated into unpleasant creatures like Frank.

*Embassy official Karen (Beth Touissant) considers herself superior in rank to Vic and orders him around, but we see him chafe against her authority already even though they've been on the island for at most a day or two. As Vic is the only trained soldier and, more importantly, the only one who has a gun, that could be a problem.

*Matt has a past he's trying to get away from and the survivors have been transmitting their location via radio. Although the radio is "locked" onto military channels, one never knows if someone else might be able to listen in, especially if the radios are less-secure 1970s vintage. Gilligan's Island had a rather stereotype-filled episode where the castaways were confronted by a Japanese sailor who believes WWII hasn't ended. Perhaps update that plot by having some Southeast Asian drug traffickers pick up on one of MK Naomi's transmissions and recognize Matt's voice? They set off to deal with someone who owes them money or screwed them over in the past, only to find a treasure trove of dangerous biotechnology that they of all people really shouldn't be allowed to have. 

(That could be a really cool season-ending cliffhanger--a bunch of Triads storm the island and Vic has to organize the castaways and Indians into an army using his own gun and whatever guns might be lying around the facility to keep them from selling MK Naomi's bioweapons on the black market. If any actors' contracts are up, some characters can die. And given how the gangsters wouldn't know what horrors the island holds, they wouldn't expect to be attacked by monsters. We could throw in the return of the urchin-squid and add some new abominations. This could be a movie-length mega-episode or a two-parter, one at the end of the first season and the other at the beginning of the second.)

*They castaways have been transmitting for days trying to reach the outside world, but Kate (June Lockhart) worries just who might come to "rescue" them. After all, they've just found something that, if revealed to the wider world, would at best be embarrassing and at worst could lead to a bunch of people getting jailed for illegal experiments, atrocities against the Indians, possible misuse of funds, etc. Ben tells them that as far as the rest of the world is concerned they've just disappeared, so the Deep State guys could ensure they stay that way. However, there's case of Dianna Ortiz, a nun abducted by Guatemalan military officials but released when a man she believed to be an American intelligence officer, realized she was an American. Even sinister government types who'd be inclined to violently conceal their activities might hesitate to straight-up murder their fellow citizens, but at least some people were, back in the 1950s, willing to kill U.S. citizens in false-flag attacks to justify a war with Castro's Cuba. Since Ben is pretty obviously CIA or a spook of another sort, this could be an interesting test of loyalties for him.

This could have gone in a lot of interesting directions. However, Lombardi theorized that a hypothetical Danger Island TV show wouldn't have lasted very long due to viewers getting impatient with all the mysteries. Unless I make J.K. Rowling levels of money with my various projects (something tells me Kathy Ireland isn't feeling nostalgic, so I'm probably the only one who'd care to remake this), the hypothetical TV show is going to stay hypothetical, so there's really no way to know.

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