Thursday, February 23, 2012

Review - Flight 714 by Hergé


Short review: While traveling to Australia, Tintin, Haddock, and Calculus run into Skut, hitch a ride on a billionaire's plane, get hijacked, and are saved by aliens.

Haiku
Chance meeting with Skut
A billionaire kidnapped
Alien rescue

Full review: After experimenting with a plotless story in The Castafiore Emerald (read review), Hergé seems to have decided that was a bad idea. Well, half a bad idea anyway, as Flight 714 more or less has half a story and then takes a massive left turn when it meets a deus ex machina that appears out of left field. This is easily the most outlandish of Tintin's adventures, and the one that fits most firmly into the science fiction genre. As typical for Tintin stories late in the series, it is also full of inside references and recycled characters, although it does bring the character arc of a handful of long-running characters to a fairly definitive ending.

The book opens with Tintin, Haddock, and Calculus changing planes in Djakarta on their way to Sydney, Australia for the International Astronautical Congress where they are to be honored for being the first men on the moon. Oddly omitted are Thompson and Thomson, who also made the journey to the moon despite the fact that their trip was accidental. Due to the structure of the story, their absence at the opening means that they play no role in this book. Although the bumbling detectives are missing from Flight 714, the Estonian pilot Skut, last seen in The Red Sea Sharks (read review), shows up now employed by the eccentric millionaire Lazlo Carreidas, who also happens to be on his way to the International Astronautical Congress. Carreidas is "the millionaire who never laughs", and is so gloomy and unassuming that Haddock initially mistakes him for a vagrant down on his luck, which sets up a sequence in which Calculus accomplishes the impossible by making Carreidas laugh. Carreidas finds Calculus' hearing impaired cluelessness hilarious, and immediately offers to take our heroes to Sydney in his private plane. In a strange twist, this means that no one actually flies on Flight 714, as this is the plane that Tintin, Haddock, and Calculus were going to catch in Djakarta, but forewent in order to hitch a ride with Carreidas.

This turns out to be a fortuitous turn of evens for the millionaire, because Carreidas' private secretary Spalding, along with most of the plane crew, has become embroiled in a plot to try to steal the millionaire's fortune. The plot doesn't materialize until after Carreidas proves himself to be a petty crook by cheating at a game of Battleships against Captain Haddock. However, he also proves himself to be an aviation pioneer as his aircraft is a shifting wing design that allows the plane to function better at supersonic speeds. This technological tidbit is a reminder of how long-running the Tintin series was: the series started with pre-World War II propeller driven fighter planes and now features supersonic passenger planes. After some in-air action, including an attempted rescue by Tintin that Carreidas manages to mess up, everyone reaches the secret island the hijackers have prepared for them and we learn the identity of the mastermind behind the plot: the recurring villain Rastapopoulos and his sidekick Captain Allan both last seen in The Red Sea Sharks, adding to the list of characters recycled from that book alongside Skut. Clad in a bright pink shirt, cowboy hat and cowboy boots, Rastapopoulos strikes a fairly silly looking figure now, a development that starts to make sense once one realizes that without characters like Thompson and Thomson or Bianca Castafiore, the evil mastermind and his sidekick Allan serve double duty in the book as both the villains and the comic relief, which Rastapopoulos starts off by messing up an attempt to stamp on a spider. This character element gives the adventure portion of the book something of a slapstick feel, and reduces Rastapopoulos and Allen from being serious threats to being nothing more than cheap cartoon villains.

The book then lurches back and forth between action sequences as Tintin, Haddock and Skut try to figure out a way to escape from the clutches of Rastapopoulos and rescue Carreidas and silly comic interludes as Rastapopoulos and Allen prove to be remarkably incompetent at being criminals: Rastapopoulos gets stuck with Doctor Krollspell's truth serum he is attempting to use to get Carreidas to reveal his Swiss bank account number and reveals that he is planning on double crossing almost all of those who are in his own employ. But this is not before Carreidas, under the influence of the truth serum, reveals every moral failing on his part, large and small, to comic effect. In a classic Bond-villain form, Rastapopoulos is planning on killing off Doctor Krollspell and the Sondonesian rebels he had recruited to aid him by destroying their ships with mines so he doesn't have to pay them off. One has to wonder who Rastapopoulos is planning on having mine the Sondonesian ships, since the Sondonesians appear to be the bulk of the manpower he would have available to mine the ships, and it seems implausible that they would mine their own ships for him. The only other alternative would be for Allan or the conspirators from Carreidas' flight crew to do the job, and a shady merchant captain, a pilot, a navigator, and a private secretary don't seem very likely to have the appropriate skill set in their repertoire.

These details aside, the book meanders back and forth with Tintin and Haddock evading Allen and the Sondonesians while rescuing Calculus, Skut, and Carredias. As has become de rigeur for the series, there is a joke involving sticking plaster and Captain Haddock, but the sticking plaster humor expands to also include Carreidas, Rastapopoulos, and Krollspell. Interspersed with the dramatic gun play and fisticuffs is a running gag involving heaping inadvertent abuse upon Rastapopoulos as he is hit on the head by a broken rifle butt, runs headlong into a tree, has most of his facial hair pulled off with sticking plaster, gets blasted by a stray grenade, hit in the face with an elbow, and knocked on the head by a falling chunk of stalactite. Through his travails, Rastapopolous' appearance becomes more and more haggard as the abuse takes its toll. But this highlights one of the problems with making your primary villain into your comic relief: it transforms them from a menacing figure into a subject of mockery and pity. This point becomes very clear late in the book when Allen, having been dispatched to obtain dynamite to blow up an obstacles, returns to Rastapopoulos having had all his teeth knocked out and his skipper cap knocked off (revealing a bald spot on his head), morphs from  a cruel villain into a pathetic toothless old man. One might suggest that this sort of treatment is poetic justice for characters that have been a thorn in Tintin's side for several books, but at a certain point poetic justice becomes overkill, and the reader begins to have sympathy for the villains. And although Rastapopoulos and Allen are greedy unrepentant criminals, Hergé  manages to cross that line, making the two of them, and especially Allen, seem sympathetic rather than loathsome.

After seeming to have written himself into a corner with his plot, Hergé has the book take a giant and unexpected left turn into science fiction when Tintin begins hearing a voice in his head that guides him and the rest of our heroes to safety. After winding through several underground caverns worked filled with strange looking stone statues, the characters meet up with Mik Kanrokitoff, who we are told is from Space Week magazine, and who informs the travelers that he has been guiding them with telepathy. And, it turns out, that he is on the island for his twice yearly meeting with extra-terrestrials. This rescue comes entirely out of the blue, with no groundwork laid in this book or any earlier Tintin books for the character of Kanrokitoff or alien activity on Earth. The Tintin series is full of plots driven by coincidence and serendipity, but the development that leads to the last portion of Flight 714 is nothing more than a deus ex machina in which the aliens literally come down from the sky, rescue the heroes from impending doom, sweep up the villains, and transport the protagonists to safety, and carry the evildoers away to parts unknown. This set of plot twists turns Tintin, Captain Haddock and the rest of the central characters into passive bystanders. Instead of acting to save themselves and foil the villians, the heroes and their foes are literally reduced to hypnotized zombies carried along by events to the resolution of the story. As a result, while this installment of the series does give closure to the story of Rastapopoulos and Allan, it is an unsatisfying end, because Tintin really didn't have anything to do with bringing it about.

Overall, Flight 714 is a strange and ultimately frustrating book. It starts off with a complex villainous plot involving two recurring villains, escape attempts, and action, and then it devolves into everyone standing around while godlike aliens fix all the resulting problems. With villains reduced to buffoons as a result of doing double duty as comic relief and a plot that resolves without any real effort on the part of the heroes, the book seems like Hergé was more or less out of story ideas and was more or less just mailing in his efforts. Although the book does have some interesting visuals, and half of a good story, this is simply not enough to raise it to the standards one would expect out of the Tintin series. In many ways, the book is so disappointing that even a late appearance by the annoying insurance salesman Jolyon Wagg passes by almost unnoticed. Possibly the most disappointing element of the book is that at the end, Hergé effectively pushes the reset button by having everyone forget most of the events that transpire in the book, leaving only a strange piece of metal in Calculus' possession and Snowy's intact memory as evidence of the kidnapping or the subsequent strange happenings on the island. With no real foundation for the plot twist, and a complete lack of follow up in subsequent adventures, Flight 714 is a moderately fun story with an ending that is likely to leave most readers feeling unsatisfied.

Previous book in the series: The Castafiore Emerald
Subsequent book in the series: Tintin and the Picaros

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