The 21st Century of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson (Part 3)The Dark Herald
Thunderbirds didn’t do what the Andersons wanted it to do for them, but it did do what it needed to. Its consistently high production quality put them on the map. The right people were willing to return their calls. And by the right people, I mean the money. It was time for them to make shows that were built around filming humans.
The Andersons’ decided they needed to change the name of their company when they finally achieved their dream of moving into live-action production. The AP Films marque was retired, and Century 21 Productions made its debut.
Their first big project was going to be a theatrical release called Doppelganger. Which I thought I could cover in three paragraphs but will now get its own separate post. In the meantime, they needed to keep the lights on, so they started another puppet series.
Thunderbirds was the biggest of the Anderson’s Supermarionation shows. And is widely regarded as the best. But not by everyone. There are quite a few people who make a compelling argument for…
Captain Scarlet and Mysterons. (1967)
The show starts with a scene of a dark alley, the camera slowly makes its way down it. Suddenly there is a cat screech, the point of view whirls and a spotlight illuminates a man in a scarlet uniform. Automatic fire rips into the night peppering him. And he is totally unfazed by being shot repeatedly. He coldly lifts his pistol and returns the favor. The shooter falls dead off camera.
After all the hope, optimism, and, ‘a better future awaits us all’ of Thunderbirds, came the darkest puppet show of all time.
After the intro, we have the usual Anderson opening of puppets getting credited instead of their actors but it’s very menacing and eerie, whereas before it had always been fun and exciting. We hear the unearthly Voice of the Mysterons outlining their objective for the week and the sequence ends with zombie Captain Black in a graveyard.
This was a very grown-up kid’s show. Honestly, I’m not certain that they could have made it as a live-action TV series in 1967. They could only get away with what they got away with because it was a puppet show so the Sixties Karens couldn’t be bothered to pay attention to it.
Again, there were a number of spy show tropes in this series, but all pretense of secrecy had been abandoned. SPECTRUM was an above-board paramilitary organization that worked for a global government called, The World Government (real imaginative Gerry), each of its agents/commandoes/superheroes was assigned the rank of Captain and given a color as their identity. I wasn’t sure what SPECTRUM’s purpose was before the Mars mission, but I know what became after it.
The theme of this show was fundamentally dark, dealing as it did, head-on, with the concept of death. During a disastrous mission to Mars, SPECTRUM Agent Captain Black destroys a city belonging to a race called the Mysterons. Destroying one of their cities in a panic was unquestionably a justified casus belli for the Mysterons. They declared war on Earth and immediately killed Captain Black. Fair enough, if you ask me.
But here is the thing about the Mysterons, after they kill you, they reconstruct your body (called Retrometabolism in the show). These reconstructs are essentially their robots.
Like I said, this show is dark, in the first episode, the title character is killed twice. In the pilot, the Mysterons decide they are going to clip out the World President. To do that they need to get near him. So, they murder Captain Scarlet and Captain Brown. And then resurrect them. Captain Brown is made into a living bomb who explodes on camera. But he misses the President so it’s Scarlet’s turn. However, before the hero of our show can murder the President, he is shot by Captain Blue and falls 800 feet to his second death that day… Screaming every foot of the way in this kid’s show.
When he wakes up a little later, he is no longer under Mysteron control, and more importantly, he woke up in the first place. Captain Scarlet is now capable of self- Retrometabolism, in other words, he is virtually indestructible.
So, this living Theseus’ Boat Paradox of a hero swung into action against a sinister race, who actually had a pretty good reason to be mad at, (as well as frightened of) us.
The creepy factor was off the charts for a puppet show. We can start with the blood. It wasn’t a lot, but it was there, and it was always the result of puppet-on-puppet violence. There was a real tension at the start of every episode. Sure, there was some tension at the start of a Thunderbirds episode too, but it was different because you knew that everything would turn out all right in the end. In Captain Scarlet, you knew perfectly well that things wouldn’t even start out well because the Mysterons had to MURDER someone in order to turn him into a meta-zombie. And you weren’t guaranteed things would turn out all right in the end either because frequently Captain Scarlet lost or at least it wasn’t a clean win (hundreds died in one episode where SPECTRUM “won”). If they did win, then it was guaranteed that SPECTRUM was going to be shooting the hell out of some bad guy puppet and Scarlet himself was usually getting shot himself. Indestructible did not mean invulnerable, it just meant constant regeneration… No matter what happened to him.
Captain Scarlet had it way worse than Kenny.
The budget wasn’t as big as Thunderbirds so Derek Meddings’ model work wasn’t as elaborate. This is not to say that it was bad, just scaled down from what Thunderbirds fans were used to. And he still blew up lots of stuff good. Blow’ed ‘em up real good!
The puppets were more realistically proportioned this time. The faces were better designed and looked more physiologically accurate than a Barbie doll, which is pretty good for a Supermarionation show.
And it was the last of the real Supermarionation shows, there were a couple that followed it, but they lacked the tropes and hallmarks of the Anderson’s previous shows.
As the series went on it became clear that the Mysterons were so powerful that they were in reality just toying with humanity. It felt like they could sweep aside SPECTRUM at any time and the only reason they didn’t was because they wanted us to see the bullet coming down the barrel.
I suspect there was a point where Gerry Anderson had wanted to end the series on a low note. The second to last episode had an “it was all a dream” ending. But before you find that out you have the most dour and downbeat episode of the whole series. SPECTRUM’s impending doom overshadows everything. First, Symphony Angel gets shot down and is slowly dying in the desert. Rhapsody Angel gets killed outright. The SPECTRUM agents start turning on each other in the face of the helpless certainty of their impending defeat. Captain Scarlet finally dies completely, and Cloud base crashes killing all remaining SPECTRUM agents (flying carriers are always a terrible idea, producers have to blow them up eventually). The writer in me says that the death and destruction storyline was what Gerry Anderson wanted to be the series finale, but he also knew Lew Grade would never go for it.
Where to watch: Currently free on Tubi, and Amazon Prime Video (with commercials). It’s available on YouTube to some degree, it’s policed but not heavily. DVD boxed sets are easy to find for those that prefer hard media.
Continuing the spy show themes of the previous Anderson’s series is the sweet little oddity that is Joe90. The Swinging Sixties were a special time in the world, back then no one would think of criticizing a little boy for killing a grown man if he had a good enough reason.
Premise: Minimally engaged father Professor McClain used his nine-year-old son Joe as a human guanine pig for his new instant learning machine, the B.I.G. R.A.T. He demonstrates his general disinterest in his son’s wellbeing by showing off what the B.I.G. R.A.T. does to Joe for a friend, who luckily, turns out to be a secret agent and not a UC Officer for Child Protective Services. But it was all okay. Joe was adopted.
The BIG RAT can record the experiences of anyone and download it into Joe. However, Joe has to keep the electrodes attached to his head to retain the knowledge, once they come off, he forgets everything.
Once a week the intellect and experiences of an expert would be harvested without their permission and downloaded into secret agent Joe 90. Who would then go on the kind of imminent danger mission, that James Bond would turn down flat. The violence and mayhem from Captain Scarlet was NOT dialed down. I don’t think this show ever got a distribution deal in the US. There were only 32 episodes.
Where to watch: Currently free on Tubi, and Amazon Prime video (with commercials). It’s available on YouTube to some degree, it’s policed but not heavily. DVD boxed sets are easy to find for those that prefer hard media.
The Secret Service (1969)
I would love to say that the original run of Supermarionation shows ended on a high note, but I would be lying. The last and least of Anderson’s Sixties puppet shows was the Secret Service.
To be honest, I never saw this one until YouTube entered my life, and I’m not alone there. It only had limited distribution in the UK and no foreign sales to speak of.
After six one season wonders, Gerry Anderson finally said, screw the American market, this one is just for us Brits. And it is a rather English show, featuring as it does, a countryside village with thatched roof cottages. And foregoing Anderson’s chisel-jawed Americans, the leading man for this show was a middle-aged Anglican vicar. It also didn’t have much in the way of gadgets as the Vicar’s ride was a 1917 Model T. There were no toy sales coming out of this one, Derek Meddings was too busy on UFO.
The plot was that the Vicar had inherited a shrinkinator from a friend of his. A super mega secret spy organization with a convenient acronym, B.I.S.H.O.P. Recruits Vicar Unwin and assigns a younger man to do the running, and punching stuff. He was also the guy that got shrunk every week. Lew Grade killed the whole thing after thirteen episodes.
The show had several problems that didn’t have anything to do with its bad premise. The series almost seems to have been a kind of hobby project for Gerry Anderson. He hired comedian Stanley Unwin to be his lead, primarily because Anderson liked the man’s incomprehensible speech routine.
It was cute but it was nothing to build a show around. However, there was a much bigger issue, Supermarionation had always used human hands for scenes that required buttons to be pressed or stuff that needed to be picked up. Given the limits of 1960s technology, there was no other way to do it. It was a small enough ask that it, didn’t take anyone out of the story. Unfortunately, it made Century 21 overconfident with what they thought they could get away with. In Secret Service, they made the puppets look like their live actors and frequently shot scenes with them instead of puppets for walking shots. Gerry Anderson had never been happy with the way that the puppets walked. It was the main reason Commander Shore was confined to a wheelchair in Stingray. But the live actors were too much of an ask for the audience. It took them out of the story every time.
However, Secret Service’s biggest problem was the year. 1969. The fifties as a cultural epoch lasted from 1947 to 1967. The spy show genre was a product of that twenty-year period. It was a time of both confidence in unbelievable growth, prosperity, and stability but simultaneously of a secret terror of ruin, poverty, and chaos. The Greatest Generation was born in the Roaring Twenties when it looked like the good times would never end. And suddenly it did. Everything fell apart in the Depression when they were growing up. And when they reached early adulthood the world went to war. After dwelling in a state of chaos for twenty years, the realm of Chaos was the enemy.
The spy hero was a heroic archetype that championed Law and was battling agents of Chaos who were trying to spread the realm of Chaos into that of Law. Their enemies never wanted to conquer the world, they wanted to blow it up. The spy hero was a natural for this epoch.
But in 1969, that world had ended. The most powerful country in the West couldn’t break the will of a tiny backwater nation in Asia. Public figures had been frequently assassinated. Cities burned in riots. And the next generation had been all too happy to throw away all that hard-won stability just so it could have more drugs and sex.
The spy heroes had failed, and the world was in anarchy again. This is why the genre of the spy show largely died. Its world was gone.
This new world felt like it had been created by unearthly forces that had corrupted everything in secret.* It felt like there was a vast conspiracy being controlled by ‘intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic and had slowly and surely drawn their plans against us.’ ** And that only a counter-conspiracy could prevail against it.
Next time, UFO.
Where to watch: Currently free on Tubi, and Amazon Prime Video (with commercials). It’s available on YouTube to some degree, it’s policed but not heavily. DVD boxed sets are easy to find for those that prefer hard media although I’m not sure why you would.
(End of Part 3)
*Which wasn’t far from the truth.
** Cribbed with love from War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells.