By Jessica Ritchey
Beauty and the Beast
Season 1, episodes 13 and 14: “China Moon and “The Alchemist”
Original airdates: Jan. 15 and Jan. 22, 1988
The time-honored tradition of a younger couple serving as a proxy for our protagonists to woo each other through is brought out at last in “China Moon,” an episode that recasts Romeo and Juliet in NYC’s Chinatown. With a sunnier ending of course, and also with a Tong gangster fight staged by people who didn’t quite understand that ninjas are from Japan, not China.
Below obviously can’t run on its own, so their Helpers—trusted city dwellers who provide food and supplies—are an essential lifeline. It’s through them that our story line originates. An elderly herbalist, played by Victor Wong, has promised his grand daughter Lin (Rosalind Chao) in marriage to the ne’er-do-well son of the the equally ne’er-do-well James Hong. Lin expresses her unhappiness to Vincent, revealing that her true affection resides with a young man called Henry (Dennis Dun).
Catherine and Vincent do their best to play Nurse and Friar to the pair, only to have Henry accidentally Tybalt Hong’s son with a gun during a fight. Henry flees Below, and all seems settled until an irate Wong brings up the inconvenient fact that Hong is well aware of the tunnels, as the Tong gang used parts of them decades earlier to smuggle illicit goods. Once again Father’s only plan is to sit on his hands, so Vincent dutifully trots out and rends his way through the would-be assassins.
His rending has the desired effect, and we close on Henry and Lin having a lovely marriage ceremony Below, with Catherine and Vincent exchanging significant glances throughout. Afterwards, Vincent tries to stick to his preferred narrative of cautious trepidation, that it’s a hard world for young lovers. As always Catherine gets the last word: that may be so, but it’s always worth more the effort to try. Would that be advice Vincent try more often?
Every good creation story, no matter how small, needs a nemesis. This can be someone either expelled from the would-be Eden or merely a determined sworn enemy. Below has one man playing both roles in “The Alchemist.” Community founder John Pater, played by the baritone-voiced Tony Jay, was cast out of the rocky haven long ago; now he resurfaces as Paracelsus, a malevolent yet reasonable-rates Doctor Doom.
He’s pushing a dangerous hallucinogenic drug on the city, made from fungi he grows in his underground lair, and too many deaths from his product have finally lead to Catherine’s office closing in on him. Father tries to warn Paracelus off his activities, but only has the effect of inspiring the subterranean drug lord to dose Vincent out of spite. Thrown into mad rage by the drug, Vincent can only be pulled back from the brink by Catherine. You think that after this he’d start to accept the depth of her feelings for him, but no—he stalks off for a final confrontation with Below’s former leader that appears to end with Paracelsus perishing in a fire… “appears” being the operative word.
All in all a very satisfying pair of episodes. “China Moon” finally takes advantage of the show’s New York setting, albeit in a touristy way (has it ever not been Lunar New Year when a TV episode goes to Chinatown?). “The Alchemist” tacks some nifty world-building onto the series, and Jay has great fun as the villain. Again I think the show would have done well to wholeheartedly embrace its urban fantasy trappings, rather than trying to sideline them in favor of Catherine’s investigative D.A. work. For as much as it’s nice to see John Amos pop up in a bit part as a weary detective, it’s not every day you get to see Tony Jay dressed up as a German Expressionist villain working in a lair lit up with colors right out of Mario Bava.
Next week the boss gets a turn and the prodigal returns.
- If you thought an episode with Victor Wong, James Hong, and Dennis Dun in it would not lead me to observe that I dearly wish Vincent would have told Catherine “It’s all the in the reflexes,” then you are very much mistaken, buster.
- Again, the security system Below is pretty much Vincent. In “Shades of Grey” we saw how both the tunnel dwellers were lost without Father and Vincent, and how they could still rally through. I think the revolving door of writers never got a much-needed through-line on the community’s overdependence on Vincent, and how that contributed to his sense of isolation, which would have gone a long way to explain his reluctance to fully embrace Catherine as his romantic partner. Well, that and CBS being allergic to getting letters about bestiality from the professionally offended. (Oh, if those pearl clutchers could’ve only gotten a glimpse of what would happen 18 or so years later on True Blood…)
- It’s always fun seeing what fake designer drugs 1980s TV writers come up with. This one has no ridiculous name, but it makes up for that by taking the form of glitter that users sprinkle willy-nilly over their faces. That, and also causing the ill-fated woman in the episode opener to hallucinate a fire hydrant has turned into a little person.
- Hearing about the early days of the tunnel community was interesting; it was one of the few times I wish there had been a flashback episode in the offering, as I’m a sucker for good world-building.