From the fanzine The Missionary, dated July 1990, by Willie Colon (real name and address withheld by request)
My favorite episode of the classic TV series Mission Venus (1) is without a doubt “Major Juan.” That episode was significant not only to science fiction and to Latinos, but especially to moi. The strange thing is, it only aired once (on October 9, 1970).
The low-rated series, which ran only October ’69 to May ’71 on Friday nights on ABC, achieved cult status in syndication in the late ’70s. The series was never a favorite of network executives, one of whom infamously deemed it “not cerebral enough.”
Yet the “Major Juan” episode—while undeniably campy in some respects, which you have to remember was part of the aesthete of the times (2)—demonstrates how clearly wrong that executive was.
As all of you know, the series has not been released on video. But this spring at I-Con IX in Stony Brook, I was fortunate enough to obtain a pirated cassette of the episode. I had not seen the episode since that one time it originally aired, so it was with great anticipation, as well as a giant bowl of popcorn, that I sat down to rewatch it. And rewatch it I did, 17 times in a row.
As with every episode of the series, this one started with a brief cold open.
A Terran rocket ship nears a planet. A navigator announces, “Approaching Jupiter, captain!" (The planet Jupiter is played by a rather good matte painting of Saturn by legendary sci fi artist Emsh.) We see the captain of this ship and his crew are handsome men and women, who seem to spend more time giggling and flirting with each other than attending to their duties. The camera closes in on a short, swarthy man with a thick mustache who is mopping the deck. (Yes, in the future they still use mops!)
His overalls are dark and drab. Two male officers dressed in primary-colored uniforms walk by. One of them, with a nametag that reads “Abbot,” stops and gives the janitor a mock salute. “Aloha, Major Juan,” he says. The other man, with a nametag that reads, “Costell,” takes the mop, spilling the bucket, and says, “I’m sure you could use this to fight evil aliens, Major Juan, huh?” The two officers exit laughing.
The janitor, crestfallen, looks down at the mess they’ve made.
An imposing authority figure then comes by. His nametag reads “Capt. Jackson” and he says, “Don’t just stand there, you lazy git! Get to work! What are we paying you for?”
The camera lingers on the spilled mopwater and at that moment the transparent form of the Dutchman rises up through the riveted floor to his waistline. The janitor continues to swob the deck, sometimes passing the mop through the broadly smiling apparition.
Played, as we all fondly remember, by veteran actor Van Johnson, the Dutchman (3) was the spirit of the dead skipper of the ill-fated Earth ship Dutchman. In exchange for having lost his entire crew, he was cursed to wander through the galaxy and witness the misadventures of humans in space. (4) He would materialize out of thin air or emerge through a bulkhead or hover over an alien world, and, unnoticed by that episode’s characters, would introduce the story and then reappear at the end to wrap up things with a piquant moral.
In this episode, hands across his broad chest and in Johnson’s distinct baritone, the Dutchman intones: “Meet Jose Ortega, a simple, hardworking man with a dream: To own and operate his own space ship. His fellow crewmen on the United Earth vessel Maine laugh at him and his dream, but they won’t be laughing . . . for long.”
As the camera pulls back from the Dutchman and out through a porthole, he adds, “The Maine’s mission: reconnoiter a fleet of UFOs heading directly toward planet Earth. What do these aliens want? What will happen to Earth when they arrive? And can one simple man make a difference?”
The series’ music and credit roll at this point, accompanied by the infectious theme song, with its distinctive mix of theremin and surf music, and the lyrics we all know: We're out of space and we’re out of time, my love Let’s go where no one can see us Out of here before we lose our minds, my love Let’s go . . . let’s go on a mission to Venus!(5)
A commercial break follows, with ads for Goodyear tires (“When there’s no man around…”) and the Frito Bandito.
After the commercial break, we see Jose putting away his mop and bucket. Judy, a scantily dressed blonde communications officer, is sitting nearby, smoking a cigarette.
“Don’t let those bullies get you down,” she says. “There’ll be a time for you. A time for both of us.”
Jose shakes his head. “I don’t know, Miss Judy. All I have ever wanted was to have a ship of my own to go gallivanting around the cosmos.”
“Such a man! Major Juan, why don’t you settle down with a good woman and have a few bambinos?”
She hugs him tightly, and we can see from Jose’s leery reaction and the bawdy musical cue that he thinks she could be that good woman, but she just smiles and turns away.
Suddenly, alarms blare! Red lights blink! Three alien spaceships looking a lot like pie tins dwarf the Maine. (According to The Mission Venus Compendium, these were indeed made of old pie tins.) At her post, Miss Judy (how she got there so quickly is never made clear), the scantily dressed blonde communications officer, tells Capt. Jackson that she can’t get the aliens to respond. Jackson orders nuclear missiles to be armed. The camera cuts to two empty chairs on bridge. Then there’s a smash cut to the crewmembers who are apparently in charge of the missiles frolicking in a radioactively-heated hot tub not noticing the “DANGER OVERHEATING” sign (which we’re led to assume is being caused by their ardor).
At that moment, Ortega is outside in a patch-covered space suit scrubbing the sides of the ship. (How he got there after putting away his gear is never made clear.) No one has bothered to warn him or call him back inside. Suddenly, the ship begins to rock back and forth, we hear explosions, and then see a blinding flash of light. We see Van Johnson’s ghostly image waving as Ortega’s spins away into space, unattached to the ship and out of control.
Suddenly, after a cut to black, we find Ortega unconscious in a circle of light. Next to him is the unconscious Capt. Jackson, for some reason. Dramatic theremin music plays. As he stirs, three tall, silver aliens with big heart-shaped heads emerge from the darkness. (According to The Mission Venus Compendium, these were made of papier-mâché and footballs.) Their expressions are fixed, wide eyes and eyebrows up in big curves. Ortega holds up a scrub brush to protect himself when, suddenly, one of the hyperencephalic alien speaks: “¿Que es su nombre?” The subtitle reads: “What is your name?”
Ortega is dumbfounded. To himself he says, “Madre de Dios!” Which is translated as “Oh my!” Then when he finally makes his reply, it’s fascinating. He says, proudly, “Me llamo Major Juan."
This—this is an important moment! This janitor, thought of as lowly by the rest of the Maine’s crew, has appropriated their derisive nickname for him in order to empower himself.
“We have come to seek friendship,” says the head alien--in English. But we are meant to realize the rest of the conversation is still in Spanish, which is admittedly confusing. Per the Compendium, the producers thought switching to English made it easier for the predominantly English-speaking audience and/or for the people who hated subtitles.
“Tell us of your planet, Earth,” says the leader,
“There is so much to say. I don’t know where to begin,” answers Ortega. “It is blue and green and beautiful. It is rich with resources, enough for everyone to live and live well.”
“Humans such as you are in charge of this world?”
“Well, such as me and not such as me.”
The lead alien looks surprised still, but with the musical cue we are meant to realize he is horrified. “Are all the humans on Earth not treated fairly?”
“Well, some of us could be treated a little better.”
The lead alien remains looking horrified.
Capt. Jackson rouses himself them. He says, “What’s all this Martian gobbledygook?” He grabs Jose by the color and shakes him.
“They’re speaking my language, captain. They are speaking Spanish.”
“What?! That’s impossible!”
“But they are!”
“Listen here, you nitwit: If you collude with these aliens, you’re betraying your country and you’re betraying your planet! But most importantly your country!”
“Mucho gusto,” the aliens say (returning to on-screen Spanish; the subtitle reads “Hello, friend”).
The captain’s eyes almost come out of his skull. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!”
There is a flash of light—and then we cut to commercial! Some of the old ads included Kool-Aid (“Kool-Aid, Kool-Aid, so great, once you try it no can wait!”) and Fresh Stick (“I did everything you said, but my boss still hasn’t asked me to lunch!”).
We come back to what looks like a courtroom situation, with the three aliens behind a tall bench, and Ortega and the captain in two docks. The lead alien asks if the society of Earth is a fair and just society. Capt. Jackson vehemently says it is. “Everyone on Earth, at least in my country, gets a fair share. But they have to work for it. We can’t just give stuff away. That would be Communism.”
The lead alien then turns to “Major Juan” and asks him what he thinks.
Ortega is silent for a long time while the show’s suspenseful theremin music plays. Sweat beads on his swarthy face. (Note: The Greek actor’s ethnic features were amplified with dark makeup). His first words are “The burdens of generations of poverty . . .”—and then suddenly, as if someone somewhere pulled a giant switch, the screen goes blank!
I remember this happening in 1970. I was five years old, and I remember screaming at the television, “Wait! What happened?!” And I remember my father, rarely at home in the evening, pounding the box on the side forcefully, to no avail. The screen went to a test pattern, then commercials until it was time for that week’s episode of Judd, for the Defense.
We know that the decision to cut off the broadcast came from the network, but we do not know who made the decision. Rumors abound that an affiliate or an accountant or a lawyer finally read the script or saw the completed cut and decided that America was not ready for it.
What we do know of the ending comes from Ready to Explode, the biography of the script writer, Corinthian Tody, aka the pen name of the late series co-creator Jack Hoffman Sr., as well as his collection of essays, Under the Electric Udder. Apparently, he had written several endings. Here is a reproduction of his own personal notes:
--Jose allies with aliens to conquer Earth. Speaking only Spanish they swoop down and start invading. (Forget this! Will put me on FBI list. I hate my life!)
--Jose befriends aliens and brings them to Earth to celebrate. Note: Reject inevitable request by Scott to play “La Cucaracha” during this scene. FUCK ME.
--The aliens capture Judy and Jose rescues her, and they fall in love. Would have to be careful about casting. She couldn’t be too pretty or viewers would balk.
--Jose leaves solar system with the aliens to find himself. Very Ram Dass. Very Razor’s Edge. Could be backdoor pilot to series, like Route 66 or Then Came Bronson, but in space! (Fat chance getting this greenlit!!!)
--Aliens cook and eat Jose like livestock. Serling did already, no? He did everything already!
--Jose somehow at ship’s helm. In the background, Capt. Jackson and ensigns are swobbing the deck. Cut to an exterior shot that shows Jose leading the alien ships toward Earth. To what end? Who knows! Jose asks the comely communications officer to hail Earth: "This is Major Juan to ground control. I’m coming home." (6) Then, floating into the control room from stage left, the Dutchman turns to the audience and concludes: “What happens next? At the very least, we can say that, to the people of our small blue marble of a planet, the stars are going to be looking very different from now on. Buenas noches all, and to all a good night." Note: Network will never let me do this!
So which one was actually filmed? With Hoffman dead, every one of his four wives silent on the matter, and no existing original finished prints of the episode, we may never know!
But I will tell you it is Hoffman’s final idea here that I would have killed to see. Here we have Jose finally fulfilling his dream of owning a space ship. It would have said to me at that age, a four-eyed, little Hispanic boy who barely spoke anything at all, let alone English, that I could be a space hero one day! (7)
Maybe one day, someone will find the finished shooting script. Maybe one day the truth will be uncovered. (8) — Willie Colon.
FULL CAST Jose Ortega Michael Constantine Captain Jackson Robert Culp Ensign Abbot Frank Sutton Ensign Costell Ron Masak Communications Officer Judy Lynne Marta Ensign in Hot Tub Dick Gauthier Girl Ensign in Hot Tub Judy Carne
1 As we all know, Mission Venus was the brainchild of writer Jack Hoffman Sr. and producer Scott Forbin. Hoffman wanted to do a serious anthology show, but it was Forbin who retooled the pitch and sold the show as “a sexy romp to the stars.” Why Venus is in the title is also never explained—though a star chart of Hoffman revealed he was “Pisces, venus rising.” Each week the ship encountered different humans and alien species in crisis—like the mad scientist who searches for his lost android in “Robby Come Home”; the superintelligent insect man who starts a rebellion at a research facility in “Ant Misbehaving”; or the meek bookworm who gets stranded on a planet with a beautiful woman but no Dickens in “Almost Paradise.”
2 Many fans have noted the series could be characterized as Twilight Zone meets Star Trek meets Love, American Style.
3 Obviously a play on the Flying Dutchman legend.
4 As you know none of this was stated in the actual series. But we know the Dutchman’s origin story from the pilot script, written by series creator Jack Hoffman, which was never filmed and never aired. Forbin attempted to rewrite but gave it up because he said, “It gave me the blues, man.”
5 Every schoolboy knows the dirty version of these lyrics, so there’s no need to reprint them here.
6 David Bowie was a close friend of Scott Forbin’s and a frequent visitor to the set of Mission Venus. Whether this episode inspired his song “Space Oddity” in any way is the subject of another column. But we have to note: He was listed as co-owner of the famous Mission Venus disco in Manhattan.
7 However, I ended up becoming a pornographer. 8 The truth was never uncovered.
* * *
Felisa flipped off the translator and raised her head from the brittle manuscript she had been examining. “¿Qué estupidez es esto?” she said to her lover.
Zita turned from the console, where she had been struggling to map planets that no longer existed, that had been swallowed by a swollen star, whose hydrogen was slowly depleting. Meanwhile, their ship’s computer steered them through a field of space dust and debris. “Cualquier tonto que fuera tenía una gran imaginación.”
“Todas hablan español en el universo.”
“Lo sé, mi amor, ciertamente cualquier persona con inteligencia.”
Felisa wrapped her arms around Zita and kissed her. “No puedo creer que perdí tanto tiempo leyéndolo.”
“Es nuestro trabajo examinar lo que encontramos en este sistema muerto. ¿Eso estaba en la caja de metal?”
“Sí, pero la mayor parte se desintegró cuando abrí la caja. Lo que sobrevivió fueron figuras anatómicas de las criaturas que deben haber escrito esta tonta historia.”
“¡Basta de estas criaturas muertas! Guarda eso y ven al hidromasaje y muéstrame tu figura anatómico.”
“Pero tenemos trabajo.”
“Olvídate de trabajo ya. Hueles a polvo. Ven aquí.”
“Estas tan fresca, mi amor!”
“Déjame mostrarte cuánto.”
Born and raised in Brooklyn, of parents from Puerto Rico, Richie Narvaez is award-winning author of Roachkiller & Other Stories, Hipster Death Rattle, Holly Hernandez and the Death of Disco, and Noiryorican. He lives in the Bronx.