Indestructible TV…

Reviews :

(Image credit : Ron Embleton / Anderson TV)

Throughout lockdown I’ve been reviewing films that I was aware of but had not actually seen – some, almost required viewing for art and film students – at my other film focussed blog , and thanks to the many streaming on-demand services available out there, there is a huge choice available.

Directors of whom I was aware but had very little idea of the breadth of their work have gradually become go-to choices and a kind of safe place away from the “Sturm und Drang” of contemporary”tent-pole” feature films, popular episodic series on Netflix and news broadcasts.

I’ve pretty much avoided films that I’ve seen before and possibly several times over the years but a few days ago in a rare moment of indecision – to be fair, my choices are predicated on whatever random choice captures my attention as I scan what is on offer – I decided to revisit the very first episode of a popular TV series that aired in the U.K in the early 1970’s – Gerry Anderson’s sci-fi puppet show “Captain Scarlet”, the series being currently available on Amazon Prime.

A small library could be filled with thick volumes of analysis’ of Anderson’s work that have been already been written by fan and critic alike discussing in minute detail every aspect of this and the previous Anderson shows that kept kids entertained throughout the 60’s and 70’s before Gerry Anderson abandoned puppetry, or “Supermarionation”, for live action, whilst retaining the science fiction and futuristic themes that characterize his work, so this review will be from the perspective of a first-time viewing, even though I’ve watched the series several times before.

The most remarkable thing about Anderson’s episodic TV series, each running to between 25 and 30 minutes, is how you are drawn into the carefully crafted puppet worlds. By the time “Captain Scarlet” appeared, the puppets had become gradually more life-like, replacing the “large head and small body” proportions of the earlier shows with more human-scaled proportions and more subtle movement, aided by highly detailed miniature settings lit and filmed in such a way that at times you question whether what you are seeing is real or not, all of which combines to make the shows compulsive viewing, despite being aware of the absurdity of the concepts.

Children are different of course and will buy into these manufactured worlds more easily than adults and Anderson was building on a following established by his earlier groundbreaking TV series like “Stingray” and “Thunderbirds” that were aimed squarely at a younger audience.

Children are also less critical of plot absurdities and logic, and if you take the view that cinema is analogous to dreaming then logic is the least of your concerns – plots and scenarios simply form without any particular logical syntax or reason and it could be argued that many films will circumvent logic for effect – look at any action sequence in a Bond film, for example.

In much the same way, there are many curious “logic holes” in Captain Scarlet that would have passed me by when I initially watched the episodes that don’t exactly detract from your enjoyment since they manage to conform to the show’s internal logic and you don’t really question them at the time, a result of intelligent “staging” and editing of shots, something where Anderson’s early training as film editor was brought to bear, in combination with Sylvia Anderson’s (his then wife and with whom he formed a fruitful creative partnership) intelligent scripting and character development.

The opening episode introduces the viewer to the scenario of “Captain Scarlet” and sets the scene – an Earth Mars mission (established in the feature-length “Supermarionation” film “Thunderbirds are Go” and which illustrates the then novel concept of world-building across several different TV series to create an interconnected puppet universe) destroys the city of a pre-existing Martian civilization of the “Mysterons” in self defense but it is interpreted as an act of aggression, causing the technologically advanced non-corporeal Mysterons (a nod perhaps to the “Krell” from “Forbidden Planet”) to retaliate by turning Earth people into remote-controlled zombies with the aim of using them as their “puppets” to destroy Earth civilization.

Within this rather dark and quite adult scenario, Earth’s first line of defense is the shadowy “Spectrum” organisation operating from a floating aerial headquarters called “Cloudbase”. From here and under the leadership of “Colonel White”, air and ground forces operate using highly advanced vehicles and each human operative is assigned a colour code, of whom Captain Scarlet is one – hence “Spectrum”.

The episode also introduces Scarlet’s nemesis, the aptly named “Col. Black”, who besides being leader of the Mars mission is now a zombie under the control of the Mysterons, who, incidentally are never actually depicted in the series though their mysterious presence is made known through two luminous green circles suggestive of eyes that sweep across their unfortunate victims.

While investigating the kidnap of the “World President”, Scarlet is killed in a car accident caused by the Mysterons and replaced by a facsimile under their control, who then takes the president hostage at the top of a futuristic multi-story car park high above London. Colonel Blue, who later evolves into Scarlet’s sidekick in subsequent episodes, comes to the rescue and is commanded to rescue the president and, if necessary, kill Scarlet in the process, which he does by shooting him after a dramatic stand-off at the episode climax.

Scarlet plunges several hundred feet to his death as the car park crashes to the ground while a Spectrum helicopter – supported by the “Angels”, an all-female team piloting a squadron of high tech’ “Angel Interceptors” – whisks the president and Colonel Blue to safety.

Later, it appears that Scarlet has somehow survived the fatal fall and the episode ends with Col’ White announcing that Captain Scarlet is now indestructible and no longer under the influence of the Mysterons – ascribed to “retro metabolism” in later episodes – and is now Earth’s secret weapon in the war against the Mysterons.

Overall it’s a neat twist on the conventional superhero concept but I couldn’t fail to notice some inconsistencies which are mostly the result of limitations enforced by the Supermarionation technique. The most glaring thing is that Spectrum is supposedly a covert organisation operating in secret but all of its’ vehicles proudly display Spectrum logo’s and often operate in broad daylight, besides which in reality you wouldn’t fail to notice the brightly coloured uniforms of the Spectrum operatives 🙂

Colonel Blue uses a high-tech’ “Spectrum Patrol Vehicle” (“SPV”) to pursue Scarlet to the top of multi-story carpark but it is curiously absent in a shot where the car park crashes to the ground – again, a detail that would never have bothered a younger viewer but now seems like an oversight.

The futurist cityscapes in Anderson shows are depicted as devoid of people since this would have been next to impossible using string puppets, however, this limitation means that the focus is always on the main action in any scene and careful framing and staging divert your attention away from questioning the absence of such peripheral detail without ever undermining the sense of realism.

There is also wanton destruction of, for example, a motorway flyover, the headquarters of the World Government, vehicles and, at the climax, the multi-story carpark, without any concern for the consequences and in a spectacularly explosive way in each case. To be fair this was all par for the course in the action films of the era in which the series was made and persists in every blockbuster fantasy film since the James Bond films created a template for such action films and is a key aspect of the enduring appeal of the Anderson shows.

Additionally, an advantage of working at a miniature scale meant that the effects could appear more spectacular and ambitious than if the same scenes were being shot in live action and featuring real people, not to mention the vast difference in cost. This resulted in a situation where the Anderson TV series frequently went further than anything seen in live action cinema up to that point.

Lastly, in a shot where we see the boots of the dead Scarlet alongside the boots – standing – of his Mysteron facsimile, there is a suggestion that the resurrected Captain Scarlet might even be a robot and not flesh and blood at all, which would explain his indestructibility, or perhaps he is flesh and blood and some sort of clone created by Mysteron science and the indestructiblity is something that his creators could not foresee – we never really find the answers to these questions in the series and in fact they are questions that certainly never occurred to my teenaged self when I first watched the series 🙂

The most striking aspect of the Anderson shows is the level of craft at every level which elevates them beyond the limitations of string puppetry into something as close as possible to live action while at the same time taking cues from drawn animation series and comics in terms of imaginative plots and scenarios that overall result in an interesting and fascinating hybrid.

Ravi Swami 2021