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Adventures of Superman
Season 1 Episode 8: The Mind Machine

Titlecard for Adventures of Superman: The Mind Machine


The day has come for the trial of Metropolis' foremost kingpin of crime, Lou Cranek, and there are many witnesses lined up against him. However, just as the first witness, Wagner, is about to say everything he knows, he suddenly enters into a strange state of consciousness and denies that he knows anything. Clark and Lois are attending the trial and decide to tail Wagner, whose bizarre mental alteration has caused him to enter a state of irrationality and paranoia. He steals a car a woman is driving and drives off to a remote place, and Clark and Lois drive after him. Due to a flat tire, Wagner has to abandon the car and hijacks the next vehicle he can find...which just so happens to be a bus with three children in it that was in the middle of repairs, that due to its brake problems will probably go down the hill at a very dangerous speed! Clark pretends he wants to check on the woman in the stolen car so that he can change into Superman, and he saves the children's lives. He then sees that Wagner is dead at the wheel, the bizarre trauma he has received from his mental affliction actually having damaged his brain in a lethal manner.

What is the cause of this mysterious fate? As it turns out, before the trial began, Lou Cranek and his men kidnapped a scientist, Dr. Stanton, and stole his machine. This machine, originally designed to help those with mental health issues, allows a person to suggest a thought to the brain of another from a distance. Cranek is now forcing Stanton to use the machine to hypnotically manipulate the witnesses into not testifying against him...with disastrous side-effects.

Thankfully, Clark knows about the machine. Stanton's assistant, Hadley, was sternly warned to not contact police, but Kent had earlier made Stanton's acquaintance and thus Hadley decided to go to him, not having any other recourses.

However, knowing about a situation doesn't automatically mean it's solved, even if you happen to secretly be Superman. Three witnesses have already died as a result of the machine, and the next to testify is none other than Lois Lane! Kent and Hadley must find Cranek and his gang...and Superman will have to get in on the action too.



The Mind Machine is one of only a handful of black-and-white episodes to have a sci-fi bent, but as per usual with the series, everything is situated in a "small", real world context. No one's trying to take over the world or accomplish other outlandish goals with mind control - rather, it's being used for a small, localized purpose to serve the whims of a crime boss who just wants to stay out of jail and continue making money through his lucrative enterprise. Another element that contributes to the feel of "realism" despite the outlandish nature of the concept: the device isn't "perfect". As Dr. Stanton explains, it wasn't designed to allow a person to force his will on another, and so doing so has damaging consequences on the psyche of its victims that actually causes lethal brain damage. It's not a simple system you can turn on and off and which has no other effect aside from making someone do your will; it also has unintended horrible consequences, which might be expected from experimental technology. And the show pulls no punches - these side-effects are lethal. It's not so much that there's something inherently realistic about mind control causing these specific effects (in fact, it seems bizarre that hypnosis should give someone the symptoms of an actual head injury), but rather the fact that the episode reflects the hard fact of life that oftentimes, when damage has been done, it's not possible to just "make everything better" at the end.

To me, this relatively grounded nature that's still open to the integration of fanciful speculative fiction concepts is very important to the original concept of Superman. In my opinion, you lose something if you have Superman just fighting supervillains or cosmic threats all the time. I believe the appeal of the character is not merely the fact that he's a fantastic superhuman being, but that he's a fantastic superhuman being who's entered into our own existence and is dealing with human problems. That's certainly not to say there's no place for more "out there" opponents in Superman stories, but the Adventures of Superman TV show is not that place, and that's just fine by me. This episode serves as a good example of how you can still have wildly unrealistic phenomena in Superman without sacrificing that grounded feel of Superman dealing with local, human issues.

The episode has more going for it than an interesting premise, though. In execution, the storyline is also very engaging and interesting. Superman gets quite a bit of action, saving kids from a crazed bus-thief, giving the bad guys a good knocking around, and saving an airplane whose pilot he personally knocked out (more on that later!). Now, I'm sure this doesn't sound like anything special in today's superhero-saturated society, but in the context of this show, it's fairly significant. In Season 1, it wasn't unusual for the main character to spend almost all of the episode as Clark Kent and for his appearances as Superman to be significant, but fleeting. Even as a ridiculously huge fan of the mild-mannered side of the hero, it's nice to see a little bit more superpowered action this time. You also have to appreciate the effort they put into the special effects with their limited budget - you really do believe he's flying, though personally I definitely prefer the spirngboard-powered "jumping into action" style of leaping into flight that's used from Season 2 onward. Superman taking off looks slightly more awkward in Season 1, though again, it's still an admirable effort, and I think this episode might provide one of the best examples of it.

This episode gives Superman his fair share of screentime, but it doesn't shortchange Clark in the process. As is often the case in AoS, it's not just the superpowered side of the character who's working to try to help "save the day", but the Daily Planet reporter. It's interesting to see how Clark's efforts to aid Hadley progress. Hadley comes to him first because he feels he has no other options and because Stanton was interviewed by Clark once and was apparently very impressed by him. Considering their relative weakness of this justification, perhaps it's a little transparent that the only reason Hadley turns to him is because he's the main character of the show, but on the other hand, I really like how it demonstrates how Clark can leave an impression on people. I love how in this show, Clark is clearly shown to be a respected and esteemed member of the community on his own merits, apart from being Superman. Apparently Clark agrees with me that Hadley coming to him was a little random, because he doesn't really know what a newspaper reporter such as himself is supposed to do in this situation. The only thing he can think of doing is putting a help ad in the paper, which doesn't actually help at all.

Clark's response becomes more proactive, however, when Lois Lane is about to get on the stand! (If there's one thing that bothers me a bit about this episode, it's that Clark lets three innocent witnesses die without doing anything and only springs into action when it's his own friend on the line!) He confers with Hadley and devises the plan to track the machine's rather large energy signature using radar, and thankfully Hadley happens to own an airplane. This plan is a success, but there's a bump in the road - Clark learns by telephone that Lois is testifying earlier than expected, meaning there's no time to land the plane before she does so! This looks like a job for Superman, but how can Clark change privately in the middle of an airplane ride? His solution: He punches Hadley and knocks him out, then puts the plane on autopilot. Of course, he later has to go back and fix this little problem he created!

I found this absolutely hilarious the first time I watched the episode and I kind of still do. That aside, it also presents the intriguing possibility of Superman being willing to do some...questionable things for the sake of his secret identity. This would be pushed quite a bit further in The Secret of Superman.

Overall, this is a satisfying and enjoyable episode that captures everything that's most important to Superman stories.

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