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NBC Experiment in Television: The Cube (1969)

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Director: Jim Henson
Writers: Jim Henson, Jerry Juhl
Producer: Jim Henson
Composer: Walter Sear
Production Companies: Henson Associates Inc
Principal Cast: Richard Schaal, Hugh Webster, Rex Sevenoaks, Jack Van Evera, Jon Granic, Guy Sanvido, Eliza Creighton, Don Crawford, Jerry Nelson

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Long thought to be lost (in fact many refused to believe that it had ever existed at all), this episode in the NBC Experiment in Television strand resurfaced early in the 21st century and proved to be a remarkable addition to the Jim Henson canon, one without a cute furry puppet in sight.

Very much a product of its time, it's a strange experiment, one replicated to stunning effect many years later by Vincenzo Natali who developed the basic idea of Henson's film and made the excellent Cube (1997). This version is a nightmarish, Kafkaesque oddity that wouldn't have been out of place in The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) or The Prisoner (1967-1968). It begins in the most surreal manner and just gets odder as it progresses - nothing is ever explained, questions go unanswered and preconceptions about television narratives are constantly being challenged.

Although it's essentially a stage play with a single set, lots of talk and no action and a rotating cast of very peculiar characters, The Cube is utterly compelling throughout. Whether or not it means anything is a moot point perhaps - one gets the feeling that Henson and co-writer Jerry Juhl, a regular collaborator on Henson's later Muppet shows, may have been striving for some sort of meaning though it's never entirely clear what that meaning might be. They throw so many ideas into the stew that, while it eventually becomes quite comically absurd (the Nazi-like secret police that enter the empty, almost featureless cube with a warrant to search it, for example), there's enough here meat for anyone hungry for multiple meanings. It's all here if you want to look for it; race relations, sex, religion, the search for identity, death - all the biggies are alluded to or openly discussed and it's left to the viewer to make of it all what they will. It makes most sense as a window on the times in which it was made, with the USA still embroiled in its seemingly never-ending conflict in Vietnam, race riots and student unrest breaking out all over and the younger generation manning the barricades in the social revolution - which makes its disappearance and subsequent rediscovery in a 21st century world undergoing major political, social and religious upheavals all the more appropriate.

Alternately hilarious, irritating, thought-provoking and maddening, The Cube is quite unlike anything else in the Jim Henson filmography and the sort of thing that a mainstream American TV station like NBC wouldn't even dream of entertaining today. It's not easy viewing, nor even really essential, but its is fascinating and will reward an hour of anyone's time. You'll certainly never look at strawberry jam quite the same way again.