039-40: The Case of the Secret Room (Parts 1 and 2) Review

Episode: 039-040: The Case of the Secret Room (Parts 1 and 2)
Originally Aired: August 13, 1988
From Album: Volume 2: Stormy Weather

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Album 02 Gold Cover In “The Last Great Adventure of Summer,” Odyssey experimented with the spy-fi genre. Here they experiment with another genre that was an old-time radio (OTR) staple: the mystery. Both experiments were resounding successes. Jacob Isom of The Odyssey Scoop called this episode one of his “favorite mystery episodes throughout the years.”

In its short time on the air so far, Odyssey has had only three other two-parters: “A Member of the Family,” “The Family Vacation,” and “Camp What-A-Nut.” In all three of those previous examples, part two was written and directed by the same person as part one. “The Case of the Secret Room” breaks from that. Part one is written and directed by Phil Lollar while part two is written and directed by Paul McCusker.

Two-parters should not be episodes with simply too much plot to stuff into a single episode. If there’s too much plot for a single episode, then it’s the wrong medium for that episode. If this were television, instead of making a sitcom episode, you should make a movie. At the same time, you shouldn’t make a two-parter if you don’t have enough plot for two episodes. Maybe you think making the story a two-parter will lend it gravitas or make it feel epic, but if there’s not enough plot, it will just feel thin. I see no reason this story needed two episodes. Everything easily could have fit into a single episode—and that episode probably would have been a 10.

I know it seems like I’m ragging a lot on an episode I gave a score of just one shy of perfect but one last complaint: The character of Jami was unnecessary. In my review of the very first episode of Odyssey I praised:

It is telling that the main character of Adventures in Odyssey is an elderly man. The main characters of most children’s entertainment are children. And if not children, then young adults. You rarely see the elderly as the main characters in children’s entertainment (a notable exception being Pixar’s Up).

Jami felt shoehorned in just to provide a child character to keep children’s interest. Whit is such a vibrant character that his sleuthing would have been interesting all on its own. The writers should have trusted in this great character’s ability to keep children’s interest.

This episode has it all. A secret room, a forty-year-old mystery, even buried treasure! And it has all the hallmarks of an OTR mystery. A rule of OTR mysteries is that the mystery is never as simple as it appears. The dame who walks into Sam Spade’s office asking him to help locate her long lost father usually turns out to be working for the mafia trying to trick Spade into hunting down an informant for them.

When the fully-dressed skeleton propped up in a chair found in the secret room is identified as Spencer Barfield, who was suspected of a bank robbery forty years ago, it appears he must have had a partner who shot him and made off with the money. But as fans of OTR know, appearances can be deceiving. Whit puts on his metaphorical deerstalker hat and sets out to find out what really happened.

Inspector Howards plays the role of the red herring, another OTR trademark. Like John Campbell’s excellent music in “Great Adventure,” the music does a wonderful job of evoking classic OTR mysteries shows.

My favorite scene in “Secret Room” will probably surprise you. It’s not the discovery of the titular secret room—but instead, right before that. In brief, (a) Whit is working on an invention, (b) he drops a transistor that rolls under a cabinet, and then (c) Whit and Tom move the cabinet revealing a secret room. Obviously, the writers have to get to (c) to get the plot moving. Because of that, (b) appears to be the least important of the three—just a way to get from (a) to (c).

A MacGuffin is a filmmaking term for a plot element that exists solely to drive the plot forward. What the MacGuffin is is unimportant as long as it moves the plot along. A surface analysis of the above scene would probably say the transistor in (b) is the MacGuffin. It exists solely to get the cabinet moved. It could have been a marble. All that matters is that it gets the cabinet moved.

Transistor I propose (b) is not the MacGuffin. Instead, (a) is the MacGuffin. Whit is making a microwave oven freezer or some such device. Fact is it doesn’t matter. It’s a MacGuffin. On the other hand, I submit that the transistor being a transistor is significant. A marble just wouldn’t have done the job. The transistor is more than just a device to get the cabinet moved.

In my review of “Lights Out at Whit’s End,” I described my imaginary layout of Whit’s End. In the inventor’s corner are Arduino microcontrollers, LEDs, electric motors, and, yes, transistors. The important thing about those things is that they’re all easy enough for a twelve year old to get her hands on. More importantly, they’re all within the price range of the average twelve year old’s allownce. I just did a quick search on RadioShack’s website, and you can get a transistor for $1.19. The significance of the runaway transistor is that you, using parts available at the local hobby shop, can be an inventor too. Odyssey does more than encourage its audience to listen; it encourages you to create.

Later at the library with Jami, Whit asks, “Do you have a library card?” She replies she doesn’t. Whit gently admonishes, “You should get one. Everybody should have a library card.” I couldn’t agree more. I love to read. Plus, you aren’t going to know what to do with those transistors and microcontrollers if you don’t crack a book.

Matthew's Rating: 9 (out of 10)
More info about 039-040: The Case of the Secret Room (Parts 1 and 2):


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