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Posts Tagged ‘Gerry Anderson’

For a film directed by a relatively obscure journeyman, 1969’s Doppelganger (perhaps better known as Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, especially in the US) has a remarkably distinctive creative identity to it: I imagine that many people, of a certain age at least, could be shown a rough cut without credits and still come away with a very firm idea of who exactly the prime mover behind it was. From the very start, the music is instantly recognisable as the work of the composer Barry Gray, and the model work (which is extensive) is equally obviously the work of Derek Meddings and his team. Even if you don’t know these names, you will recognise the style from dozens of episodes of Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, and other TV shows originated by Gerald Alexander Anderson (Gerry to the world).

It has become one of those quite-well-known stories that, at some point in the middle 1960s, Gerry Anderson was taken out to lunch by Stanley Kubrick, who offered him the chance to do the model unit filming for 2001: A Space Odyssey. History does not recall exactly why, but Anderson turned Kubrick down – however, it looks like the eventual success of the film clearly had an impact on Anderson, who always seems to have wanted to be taken seriously as a film-maker, and it sometimes feels as if much of Anderson’s subsequent work was an attempt to make up for this missed opportunity and somehow show the world what the Gerry Anderson version of 2001 would have been like.

Doppelganger was directed by Robert Parrish, completed in 1968, and then sat on the shelf for a year before its eventual release. By this point Anderson had a string of successful puppet shows under his belt, but, as ever, was aching to get into live action, and a meeting with an executive from Universal Pictures gave him his opportunity: this film was the result.

The plot is initiated by surprising results from a deep-space probe sent to the vicinity of the sun: photos indicate the existence of a hitherto-unsuspected planet on the opposite side of the sun from Earth, in the same orbital path and travelling at the same speed, hence the other planet has remained hidden from terrestrial observers. Tough, hard-bitten head of European space research Jason Webb (Patrick Wymark, basically reprising his role as tough, hard-bitten mogul John Wilder in TV’s The Power Game) uses all his wily skills to get the penny-pinching governments of Europe to club together with NASA to pay for a space flight to survey the new planet (this will cost one billion dollars, or apparently three thousand million pounds: what this says about exchange rates in the film’s near-future setting I leave to others to decide).

As part of the funding deal (for the movie as well as the space mission), the chief astronaut is veteran American pilot Glenn Ross (Roy Thinnes, fresh from his stint as architect David Vincent in The Invaders), while there to do the science, provide character support, and turn up drunk on set is British astrophysicist John Kane (Ian Hendry). Soon enough – actually, not nearly soon enough, for we are nearly half-way into the movie already – the ship blasts off for its three-week trip to the new planet (the two astronauts spend it in a primitive form of suspended animation). Finding the new world to have a breathable atmosphere, a landing gets underway – but it goes badly wrong, and the lander is destroyed as it crashes into a bleak and rocky landscape.

But just when things look terminally bleak for Ross and Kane, they are surprised to find themselves saved, by what appears to be an Air-Sea Rescue vehicle. Apparently they have crash-landed back on Earth, in Mongolia. Kane has been grievously injured, but Ross finds himself dragged in front of Webb and his associates, demanding to know why the mission turned back and has returned to Earth rather than surveying the new planet as planned. Ross has no answer to this – but begins to get an inkling of an explanation when he notices that all the writing around him now appears to be reversed, as if appearing in a mirror…

The good news about Doppelganger is that it displays all the technical skill and inventiveness of the operation that Anderson had put together over the preceding decade: the model-work is superb and innovative, resulting in a deserved Oscar nomination for special effects. At this point in time, it’s fair to say that no-one was doing better model effects than Derek Meddings and his technicians. The bad news, on the other hand, is that the script for Doppelganger was largely written by Gerry Anderson himself, with the assistance of his wife Sylvia.

Now, I have a great and enduring fondness for Anderson and his work (I will even watch the odd episode of second-season Space: 1999 if there is nothing else on TV), but only the most devoted fan would deny there were limitations to his talent. Anderson’s genius was as an originator of ideas and as a producer – when it comes to actual story-telling and the scripts he wrote himself, one is likely in for a very bumpy ride, not least because, as the producer of his own scripts, he generally had the power to stop the directors from making any changes (improvements) to them.

The basic premise of Doppelganger (the existence of a mirror- or counter-Earth which is a near-perfect duplicate) was probably approaching the status of SF old chestnut even in 1968, and part of the problem is that Anderson seems to have thought the notion itself was strong enough to carry the movie. It’s not: the film doesn’t seem interested in the philosophical or metaphysical possibilities of the idea, and why the other Earth differs only in that everything seems to have been reflected is never explained. And as the central idea of the story, it doesn’t really go anywhere or lend itself to a compelling plot – the climax they come up with here feels very contrived and abrupt.

Of course, there is also the issue of the sluggish pacing and structure of the film. It’s almost a hallmark of many Anderson productions that he seems to be much more interested in process than in plot – you remember all those elaborate sequences in Thunderbirds of people rotating through walls, going down ramps, etc, all leading up to the launching of one of the Thunderbird vehicles? That’s the kind of thing I mean. There’s another one at the start of the movie Thunderbirds Are Go, where we see the Zero-X spacecraft being assembled prior to launch: this goes on for about five minutes, without any dialogue. No matter how much you love model effects, it is slow and adds nothing essential to the plot. And it’s the same kind of material that hobbles Doppelganger: it turns out there’s a spy in the European space agency (this is Herbert Lom, basically doing a cameo), and there’s a pointlessly long and involved sequence detailing how he develops the photos he takes with his secret bionic-eye-camera. The sequence of the astronauts transferring to their lander before attempting touchdown on the other Earth is a similar offender.

That said, as a new kind of venture for the Anderson organisation, Doppelganger introduces some innovative varieties of mis-step to the repertoire. Most of these seem to derive from Anderson’s fierce desire to be seen as more than just a maker of children’s TV programmes. He was apparently desperately keen to establish this as a movie for an adult audience by including a nude scene for one or both of the female stars (Loni von Friedl and Thinnes’ real-life wife Lynn Loring), and ructions ensued on set when the director wanted to go in a more subtle direction. There’s something similarly odd and jarring about scenes concerning tensions in the Rosses’ marriage and their apparent inability to have children, which may or may not be due to radiation he was exposed to in space. You think, aha, when he gets to the mirror-Earth his counterpart will be happily married with kids – but no. This goes nowhere too.

Doppelganger is not great in all kinds of ways, but for the dedicated follower of things Andersonian it is obviously of some interest – not least because of the number of ways it anticipates the way the rest of his live-action career would develop. The interest in slightly laborious metaphysical SF would find its fullest expression in the first season of Space: 1999, while on a more practical level, one is immediately struck by how many members of this film’s supporting cast turn up as regulars or semi-regulars in Anderson’s first fully live-action TV series, UFO: Ed Bishop and George Sewell, most obviously, but also Vladek Sheybal and Keith Alexander, almong with many others.

I do think that the craziness of the scripts of Gerry Anderson productions is as much a part of their charm as their visual appeal and the quality of the special effects. The special effects in Doppelganger are good, as previously noted, but the script is lumpy and frustrating throughout, with no single element being completely satisfying. The actors do their best with the material, but there’s really very little to work with. Only worth watching for Anderson completists, I would say.

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Massed letter-writing campaigns and appeals to basic human decency have all clearly come to nothing, for the schedulers at the Horror Channel have plunged on with the second season of Space: 1999 regardless (you can take this ‘horror’ remit a bit too far). All you really need to know about the second season is that the show only got renewed by the skin of its teeth, and on condition that Gerry Anderson’s soon-to-be-ex-wife Sylvia was replaced as producer by someone more in tune with the demands of the US TV sci-fi audience. Who they got was Fred Freiberger, one of the most notorious figures in the history of the genre. Diligent Horror viewers can get enjoy a double helping of Freiberger every night at the moment – their SF-themed block of programming kicks off with a repeat of an episode of the third season of the original Star Trek (cancelled, and I am tempted to say deservedly, during Freiberger’s producership) and then concludes with Space: 1999 (ditto, except this time it was definitely deserved). Freiberger, later in his life, compared his encounters with science fiction and its fans to falling out of a plane during the Second World War and being held prisoner by the Nazis. He was in no doubt which was the less gruelling experience (hint: it was not the one with the plane).

To get maximum Freiberger (although God knows why you would want to) you should check out one of the episodes he wrote as well as produced. The most notorious of these, probably, is… well, first I should probably say that this was a UK-based production and the UK is doubtless an exotic place to many American visitors. Even the place names sound bizarre and alien (probably). And, we should remember, Freiberger’s remit was to think primarily of the American viewer, unfamiliar with the towns and cities of southern England. So it was that Freiberger decided it was perfectly reasonable to turn in a script entitled The Rules of Luton. (Legend has it he saw the name on a road sign while driving in to the studio one day.)

Now you and I might think that the rules of Luton mainly concern long-term parking at the airport and possibly the punishment for jumping the queue at one of the local curry houses, but Freiberger had a different take on this. The episode opens with a bunch of the characters en route to a mysterious new planet which they are going to survey in the hope it will provide a new home to the long-suffering inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha. (We are already pretty sure it won’t, as this would mean the end of the series.) However, just as they are about to land, their Eagle transporter springs a leak, and (in a somewhat questionable piece of decision-making) Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) opts to be dropped off there for a few hours, along with alien science officer Maya (Catherine Schell), while the pilot (someone from Howard’s Way) goes back for a fresh ship.

The planet seems very nice, helped no end by the fact this is one of the series’ most extensive location shoots, but things go badly wrong when (in another dodgy piece of decision-making) Koenig tucks into one of the local berries while Maya starts picking the flowers. There are wails of outrage from all around them! A booming, apparently disembodied voice (David Jackson, probably best known for playing Gan in Blake’s 7) decries them as criminals and cannibals. (Dude, it’s a berry. This isn’t cannibalism – Landau’s performances may be a bit ripe sometimes, but he ain’t no fruit, nor indeed a vegetable.)

Well, it turns out the planet is called Luton (the British cast-members do their best to salvage the situation by pronouncing it Luh-Tahn) and here the fruit and veg is running the place, and takes a dim view of flower-picking and vegetarianism. (Insert your own joke about vegans here.)  Some trees of great local importance inform Koenig and Maya that they will now be required to fight for their lives against other berry-eating recidivists, if they want to leave in one piece. Three actors in some of the dodgiest alien suits ever to make it onto a film set duly appear and wave bits of rock at them. The slightly mind-boggling thing is that the producers went ahead and hired what I can only describe as proper actors to play the opposition – looking rather like a green version of Lemmy in a costume which is mostly black leather and long hair is Jackson, again, while Roy Marsden (later to become a respectable TV face) is obliged to dress up as a mangy parrot. The third alien is played by Godfrey James – more of a jobbing actor than the other two, but still someone with a very respectable list of credits.

They were (reasonably) young, they needed the money…

Koenig’s laser-stapler doesn’t work on the aliens (a typical example of a brazen Freiberger plot device) and so he and Maya are obliged to leg it from the hostile trio. The boss tree makes a rather ominous announcement: in order to make this a fair fight, they have given the aliens ‘special powers’ which are the equal of those of Koenig and Maya. Even Koenig recognises this as being distinctly iffy, given they are outnumbered and all. Maya, admittedly, has the power to change into easily-trained animals and rubber-suit aliens, but what exactly is Martin Landau’s special power supposed to be? It’s certainly not the ability to lift a duff script.

Well, there’s a lot of chasing about, during which Koenig gets dinged, one of the aliens falls in a river and drowns, and so on, and so on. Meanwhile the chap from Howard’s Way is making good on his promise to return for them, even though the entire planet has vanished from his sensors (these trees are remarkably resourceful). What follows is a load more chasing about, with what looks very much like a cameo appearance by the killer vine from the Fluff Freeman segment of Dr Terror’s House of Horrors at one point.

The only non-chasing about element comes when our two heroes pause for what feels like a good ten minutes to share back-story with each other. Maya talks about her long-lost brother and the history of her planet; Koenig talks about his dead wife (killed in the Third World War of 1987 – don’t know about you, but I missed that at the time). It is an entirely unexpected piece of character-building, which leads me to conclude that a) Freiberger didn’t write this scene and b) it was something they had to come up with on location when the episode turned out to be running short. So far as I can recall, neither Mrs Koenig or Maya’s brother are mentioned at any other point in the series.

In the end it’s back to the chasing about. One of the noticeable things about Freiberger’s run on Space: 1999 is the extent to which the plots are thinly-disguised rip-offs of ones from original Star Trek, or at least contain virtually identical elements. So the replica Enterprise from The Mark of Gideon gives us the replica Moonbase Alpha of One Moment of Humanity, while the Space: 1999 episode New Adam, New Eve resembles a cross between Who Mourns for Adonais? and a wife-swapping party. The chief donor where The Rules of Luton is concerned is the iconic episode Arena, with all the usual Freiberger nonsense (super-powered aliens, absurd science, silly plot-devices) added to it. Arena concludes with Captain Kirk building a bamboo cannon to defeat his opponent. Rules of Luton concludes with Commander Koenig turning his jacket’s belt into a bolas with which he entangles Lemmy the alien’s legs: the alien promptly falls over and bumps his head, thus giving Koenig a win. He also gets to make a speech denouncing the cruelty and arrogance of the tree praesidium, stirring up trouble on Luton. Wisely, he and Maya make their departure before the gooseberries start rioting.

If you have travelled at all in the wonderful land we call SF, you do expect the script from Rules of Luton to be awful – what genuinely comes as a blow is how bad the direction is, considering this episode was overseen by Val Guest. Earlier in his career, Guest oversaw two hugely important and very accomplished British SF films – The Quatermass Xperiment and The Day the Earth Caught Fire – but here his work is just clumsy, with endless use of the same bits of footage. One wonders how severe the constraints on this production really were: the whole thing owes its existence to the fact that season 2 was given a very tight schedule, with twenty-four episodes to be made over no more than ten months. (From start to finish, season 1 was in front of the cameras from late 1973 to early 1975.) As a result Freiberger decided to double-bank some of the episodes, which is why Landau and Schell are so prominent here and yet peripheral characters in The Mark of Archanon (which isn’t quite as bad as this), and why this one is largely shot on location (the standing sets were being used by the other unit). Even so, filming a whole episode on location must have meant working at a hell of clip, which is presumably why the tipped-off viewer can apparently spot picnic tables and canoeists in some shots of the planet Luton. (I’ve never been able to bring myself to pay that much attention to it.)

So it’s rubbish, but like much of second season Space: 1999, it’s so extravagantly, uninhibitedly rubbish it’s almost enjoyable. One critic of the series has said ‘it is as bad as TV can get’, and I can see what he means. But would the world really be a better place without The Rules of Luton? I can’t quite bring myself to say so.

(Ho ho – when the Horror Channel first broadcast Rules of Luton, not long after showing the Freiberger-produced subtlety-free racism allegory Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, the transmitters battled on heroically for most of the episode before packing up in shame midway through the closing credits. The Horror Channel was off the air for over an hour. Lord knows what will happen when they show Space Warp.)

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How’s this for reductionist humour – Space: 1999? A ha ha ha ha ha! If you wanted to be a little more decompressed, you might bring up the issue of the show’s entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (‘see also: Scientific Errors’), the episode with the killer plants of Luton, the perpetually baffled chief scientist Victor Bergman (default response to any query: ‘Well, John, I just haven’t a clue’), and so on. The fact that the series has been brought to a whole new generation by the good folk at the Horror Channel is surely enough to give anyone cause to smile, even in times as difficult as our own.

Some context for the uninitiated: Space 1999 was a big-budget SF series made in the 1970s under the auspices of Gerry Anderson (he of Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet fame), although by this point he had moved on from the stilted, wooden performances given by puppets, having discovered you could get a similar result from living actors with the right kind of scripting and direction. By this point Anderson had already turned down Stanley Kubrick’s offer to do the special effects on 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it does seem like that movie was at the back of his mind when he came to make Space: 1999 – apart from the similarity in titles, this was an attempt at the same kind of blend of seriously-imagined ‘realistic’ space fiction and enigmatic cosmic mysticism.

The problem with the show is that the format doesn’t easily fit into either of these categories. The premise is that, in September 1999, nuclear waste dumps on the Moon explode, blasting it out of orbit and sending it zooming across the cosmos, encountering alien life and stellar mysteries on pretty much a weekly basis. It’s one of those formats which is frankly so absurd the show can’t even acknowledge its own implausibility, to say nothing of the fact the series is predicated on the fact that the crew of Moonbase Alpha can never arrive anywhere nice or meet anyone especially helpful, as this would destroy the format.

Even a show as daft as Space: 1999 occasionally throws up a decent episode, however, which brings us to Earthbound, written by Anthony Terpiloff, directed by Charles Crichton, and originally broadcast in December 1975. I must have originally caught it on a Saturday lunchtime repeat in 1981 or 82; this may be a dud series, on the whole, but a couple of episodes have lodged in my memory, and this is one of them.

The character driving this episode is Commissioner Simmonds (Roy Dotrice), a desk-orbiting political operator with an extraordinary choice of hairstyle and beard. Simmonds has been stuck on the Moon since the opening episode, which (as this is the fourteenth episode in the run as originally transmitted) kind of leads one to wonder where he’s been in the intervening time, given he’s such an obtrusively obnoxious individual (the episode would maybe make more sense located earlier in the chronology of the show). Simmonds is fixated on trying to get back to Earth, despite the fact this is obviously impossible, which doesn’t half tick off actual commander John Koenig (imported American star Martin Landau).

Still, it soon turns out that Simmonds isn’t the only one thinking along those lines, as an alien ship makes a forced landing on the Moon (it is an interesting shade of blue and looks like a sort of novelty vase or ornament). The Alphans go aboard and discover what seems to be a glam rock band lying in state, inside sealed glass cabinets. Not having their own copy of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and thus being unaware that it is always, always a bad idea to interfere with apparently dead aliens, chief medical officer Dr Russell (Landau’s real-life wife Barbara Bain) tries to open one of the boxes but only succeeds in incinerating the occupant. Oops.

Looking on the bright side, this at least perks all the other aliens up a bit, particularly their leader, Captain Zantor, who gets all the dialogue. This is no bad thing as under the wig and the make-up is Christopher Lee, fresh off the set of The Man with the Golden Gun and well on his way to well-deserved living legend status already. It seems the ship is from the dying planet of Kaldor, and the six (now five) crew members are heading for Earth, intending to settle there (if the people of the planet permit them). Their ship was programmed to go into orbit around the Moon, which has still happened even though the Moon is not where it was supposed to be. The Kaldorians accept the various cock-ups which have beset them with good grace, and announce they’re going to continue on to Earth, seventy-five years’ voyage away, and, as they now have a free stasis box, they offer to take one of the Alphans with them.

The future’s bright – the future’s… various shades of beige, apparently.

Koenig decides to get the base computer to select the best person to receive this free ticket back to Earth, but Simmonds isn’t standing for any of that sort of nonsense (he has already suggested Koenig kill all the Kaldorians and seize their ship). Proving unexpectedly trigger-happy for a politician, he zaps his way into the power unit and basically takes the reactor hostage, insisting on being the one to take the spare berth on the alien ship. Zantor agrees, amidst much grumbling from the rest of the crew who quite rightly think that it’s not right that Simmonds should get away with this.

But will he? No-one has bothered to tell him the aliens need to create a special hibernation matrix keyed to whoever is using the stasis cabinet for it to function, with the result that Simmonds wakes up in his cabinet only three hours into the seventy-five year flight. Already the ship has departed and is beyond the range of Alpha’s support craft to reach; he is sealed in, unable to affect the ship. He screams and thrashes around helplessly in his box as the alien craft glides on through space…

It’s a memorably nasty conclusion, and of course the double whammy that sets it off so well is yet to come: when asked who the computer selected to send on the flight, Koenig reveals the inevitable answer – Simmonds. The Commissioner would have got his own way regardless.

Watching Earthbound again now, it is not quite as impressive as my memory suggested, but then neither is Space: 1999 in general quite as useless as it is popularly held to be. It remains, on a fundamental level, an awkward mash-up of the space opera stylings of Star Trek and the more philosophical approach copied, clumsily, from 2001, but the special effects are quite as good as you’d expect from an Anderson series and the production values are generally pretty good too. Barry Gray’s scores are also always a highlight of an Anderson show.

This is still a superior episode, the thing that lets it down being the way that Simmonds is presented. Leaving aside the fact that such a prominent figure seems to have materialised out of thin air in the gap between episodes, he’s just not plausible as a character. There’s potential for him to have been borderline-sympathetic – he ended up stranded on the Moon by accident, he’s not a trained specialist or astronaut like the rest of the crew, after all – but he’s written as a ruthless, self-interested villain, almost bordering on the psychotic. It’s not quite a panto turn from Roy Dotrice (usually a dependable actor) but the script kind of requires him to turn it up a bit too far to be credible.

The same is not the case when it comes to the episode’s genuine special guest star, Christopher Lee. Lee is really up against it, given the costume and make-up he is required to perform in (originally, heavier prosthetics were planned for the Kaldorians, but Lee refused to wear them), but as you would expect he rises to the occasion magnificently. You quite rarely get actors of Lee’s distinction playing guest aliens in space opera TV shows, and too often the resulting performances are just, well, not very impressive – for whatever reason, they don’t seem to be particularly trying to portray a genuinely alien being and just treat the make-up or whatever as a special kind of hat beneath which they just give a standard performance. Exceptions to this are few and far between; honourable mention must go to Martin Sheen’s appearance in Babylon 5, but also to Lee here – there is something genuinely unearthly and detached about his demeanour and line-readings here. The big question left open at the end of the episode is one of whether Zantor has deliberately arranged things so Simmonds meets his awful fate at the end; Lee’s performance is carefully pitched to give no indication, which just adds to the creepiness of the conclusion.

I expect that the discerning modern viewer would look at Earthbound nowadays and just say ‘This is rubbish’, and not without a smidgeon of justification – in addition to all its other faults, Space: 1999 simply hasn’t aged at all well. But in the context of the series this is still a superior instalment, and that ending does stay with you. And while the rest of the series may be even more rubbish, at least it is interesting, often unintentionally funny rubbish, and you have to take your pleasures where you can these days.

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It goes without saying that the new Thunderbirds (aka Thunderbirds Are Go) has been made for a fresh, young audience, unencumbered by nostalgia for the original series – but should it, though? (Go without saying, I mean.) After all, when I went to a revival of the classic Gerry Anderson puppet shows last year, I was one of the younger people there, and who exactly was it who funded a new attempt at the ‘lost’ Anderson show Firestorm on Kickstarter in record time? I doubt it was the very young audience ITV appears to be gunning for.

Nevertheless, the kids are whom ITV clearly have in their sights as far as the new show is concerned, this even extending to putting first-run episodes on at 8am rather than at a more family-friendly time. Well, we’ll see: fan outcry wasn’t enough to make them give New Captain Scarlet a proper timeslot ten years ago, and I doubt it will here, either. I see they have ordered another run of episodes already (and did so well before the series even debuted). Can’t argue with confident people.

Anyway, what are we to make of the new show? Having been a fan of the original series for nigh-on 35 years it is obviously difficult for me to be properly objective about it (especially when Gerry Anderson himself gets only a very cursory credit in the end titles). I suppose the best thing to do is to look at the changes which have been made and see what they in turn tell us about how the world has moved on in the last 50 years.

jeff

The most obvious difference, perhaps, is simply in the medium of the thing: original Thunderbirds was a mixture of (super)marionettes and physical modelwork, while new Thunderbirds has dumped the puppets in favour of CGI animation. The least one can say is that this results in a show with a very distinct (less charitable people might say ‘odd’) aesthetic, especially when CGI elements are inserted into scenes with physical models.

One might wonder why they didn’t just switch to full CGI (as New Captain Scarlet did), but I suppose the half-and-half decision is justified by the modelwork of the Thunderbirds themselves, which is frequently stunningly beautiful (and, to be honest, the thing which really kept me watching the first episode). The subtly-modified industrial aesthetic of the machines is, I suppose, the best compromise possible between the original designs and what’s credible nowadays. Set against this, I feel moved to comment on just how dreadful some of the special effects were, particularly any scene featuring FAB1 and the ‘English countryside’, which strongly brought to mind episodes of Postman Pat.

Of course, the main reason why the classic Anderson shows were so hardware-intensive was because of the limitations inherent in the use of puppets as characters: the response was to stick the puppets in rockets or subs or tanks and let the machinery carry the plot. New Thunderbirds‘ CGI characters are more flexible, and as a result it seemed to me that the Tracy boys were taking a more athletic approach to rescuing in the opening installment.

The big deal about Thunderbirds, not to mention the other shows from the same stable, was that it was the result of steely determination on the part of a film-maker forced to work in a medium he despised, but doing his damnedest to compromise as little as possible. As a result, old Thunderbirds looked like nothing else on TV in terms of its production values, and some of the scripts were not without elements aimed squarely over the kids’ heads. I didn’t see much sign of that in the new show – then again, kids TV is more sophisticated now anyway – and that garish, cartoony aesthetic didn’t really win me over, either.

I’m afraid the same goes for Ring of Fire‘s plot. It obviously remains to be seen how representative this episode is of the series as a whole, but it was a bit frantic. Will they feel obliged to use all five (sorry, six) Thunderbirds in every episode? That could result in some fairly tortuous plotting. And – this will sound strange – I was sort of disappointed that the plot actually hung together and made sense, more or less, being completely bereft of the more lunatic elements that were such an integral part of the products of the Anderson script system.

To be honest, I got an ominous whiff of JJ Abrams’ Star Trek from the series opener: permit me to explain why. This isn’t a completely from-scratch relaunch of the series, as the script takes it for granted that the audience already knows who everybody was, not to mention the nature of International Rescue and its mission statement. (The glorious pre-credits hero shot of Thunderbird 2 would probably have a lot less impact on a complete newby.) The outfit has clearly been operating for some time before the series begins, and the characters have already acquired a bit of new backstory, which is not the same as that in the original show (that was set in 2065, five years after the date given here). In short, the series is trading heavily on audience knowledge of and affection for Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds, but using this to tell its own rather different set of stories. The makers eat their cake – but, as if by magic, they still seem to have it.

One of the incidental pleasures of hanging around certain SF-themed websites with a particular kind of militant agenda is the comments you often see. Someone actually grumbled that the Tracy brothers (that’s ‘brothers’ as in ‘male relatives sharing the same parents’) were not more diverse when it came to their gender or ethnicity. I hope the decision to give Tin Tin – sorry, Kayo – a more engaged, (sigh) kick-ass role, not to mention her own Thunderbird, will keep the Diversity Police happy. I don’t really have a problem with it. Making Brains Asian, on the other hand troubles me a little: not because I have a problem with a non-white character being a technical genius, but because I think it almost turns him into the dubious stereotype of the effete, wobble-headed Asian wimp. Naturally – I say ‘naturally’ – one of the original show’s more prominently non-white characters, the Hood, has become rather more ethnically anonymous in the new series. Diversity is a good thing, of course, but not to the point that you can have non-white villains any more. Hmmm.

All of this is fairly small potatoes compared to my biggest grumble with the series, namely: where the hell is Jeff? Without the Tracy patriarch, International Rescue just feels like a ship without a captain. Who’s in charge, anyway? It doesn’t seem to be Scott. Is it actually John? (Gerry Anderson will be spinning in his grave like a lathe.) Is the organisation some kind of free-form collective nowadays? Hmmph. Clearly, parental authority is not where the kids are at these days, and if that doesn’t tell you a lot about cultural differences between 1965 and 2015, nothing will.

Despite all this, the new show was clearing working quite hard to keep the long-term fanbase on board, with little references like Dr Meddings’ name, a casual mention of Thunderbird 1’s MIDAS system, the use of actual footage from Stingray, and – perhaps a bit tenuous, this – one model design seemingly being influenced by the iconic Eagle transporter from Space: 1999. The quality of some of the modelwork, along with the pleasure of spotting these little references, is just about enough to make me tune in again for the second episode, but I strongly doubt this is a series anyone will have very strong memories of even in ten years time, let alone fifty.

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Where there is a celebratory Gerry Anderson documentary, so must there also – while sanity has lease – be some sort of retrospective of the puppet-master’s work. And so it came to pass, twenty-four hours after the screening of Filmed in Supermarionation, that most of the same faces reconvened in the same cinema, and in many cases in exactly the same seats, for a four-and-a-half hour trip back to the days when puppets ruled children’s TV (on the independent network anyway).

Yes, I was there too, having provisioned myself for the afternoon with a family-sized bag of a popular chocolate-coated honeycombed spheroid confection (no, I was by myself). The atmosphere was certainly convivial, and I found myself dragged into a discussion with a near-total stranger as to which was the worst episode of Thunderbirds before I realised it. Clearly I was in the presence of genuine Fandersons, and it was not entirely unpleasant to feel like one of the more mainstream people in the theatre for a change.

The afternoon’s programme consisted of one episode of everything Gerry Anderson and his companies produced between 1958 and 1969. These were rather mixed up, presumably to space out the three black-and-white episodes involved, and possibly to spread out the quality a little bit. The downside of this was that it made it much harder to follow the development of Anderson’s technique across his career – not just in terms of puppetry and special effects, but also in terms of narrative and format. Anderson’s most famous shows are the embodiment of a kind of white-heat-of-technology 1960s belief in the potential of a benign technocracy, and the early series are all about the machinery and the toys. But, overall, the move towards increasingly realistic puppets is mirrored by a shift away from vehicular adventure towards a kind of spy-fi: perhaps this is why the final couple of series, which focus almost entirely on people rather than their machines, are the subject of much less affection.

As with the documentary, the programmes were linked by new sequences featuring Parker and Lady Penelope, along with behind-the-scenes material and some contemporary adverts that revealed just what a long and (presumably) profitable relationship Anderson had with the likes of Kelloggs, Lyons Maid, and Walls. One can only be grateful Sugar Smacks are no longer on the market, while a series of commercials for Fab – ‘the first ice lolly made especially for girls!’ – caused much amusement in the theatre, but would probably make the head of the average io9 writer explode.

It was back to the first days of colour for the start of the programme, with the first episode of Stingray from 1963. This was perhaps most notable for Barry Gray’s extraordinary musical score, with its frenzied drumming: played through a proper cinema sound system, Gray’s music can quite easily give that of Hans Zimmer or Basil Poledoris a run for its money. The episode itself, depicting Troy Tempest’s first encounter with the malevolent Titan of Titanica, was not very memorable, however – although there is an unintentionally hilarious trial-by-fish sequence in the second half.

Following this was a somewhat jarring skip forward to 1968 and the Hi-jacked episode of Joe 90, a series I hadn’t seen in about thirty years (and never really liked anyway). The most striking thing about it these days is just how wildly dubious the premise is – a nine-year-old boy is electronically programmed to become a child spy for ‘Uncle Sam’, and then proceeds to shoot at various people and blow them up with grenades. (His adoptive father seems fairly sanguine about all of this.) It did not do much to make me change my opinion of this show, to be honest.

After Joe 90 was a genuine rarity that hardly anyone present seemed to have seen before: an episode of Four Feather Falls from 1960, not SF but a fairy-tale western, with Nicholas Parsons as the sheriff of the titular town. Even the linking material for the afternoon’s programme couldn’t find much to say about this except that it was ‘charming’, which seems to be an irregular synonym for ‘primitive’, specifically when referring to vintage film and TV. (If only the same was true in social situations.)

Everyone was well and truly plunged into their comfort zone by the next offering, which was an episode of Thunderbirds, Anderson’s most iconic and legendary series, about a secret organisation dedicated to the preservation of all human life (excepting that of people who take photos of the Thunderbirds themselves, who are ruthlessly hunted down and disposed of with explosive cannon shells). Normally I would suggest that no Thunderbirds episode not featuring Lady Penelope and Parker can really be considered first rate, but then again they did turn up a lot all afternoon elsewhere, and what we got was a memorable episode by any standards: Terror in New York City. On the way home from a mission, Thunderbird 2 is mistaken for a hostile craft and shot down by the US Navy, crashing in flames on Tracy Island. Inevitably, another disaster occurs before repairs are completed – are International Rescue going to be able to help with their main transport aircraft out of action?

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The only real problem with this episode is that it’s front-loaded with the really exciting bit (the Navy attack on Thunderbird 2), the actual rescue itself not being tremendously thrilling. It still has all the Thunderbirds strengths, though – the story is a bit simplistic, but still holds together, the characterisation is surprisingly varied, and the whole thing has a lovely, upbeat positivity about it which the later Anderson shows somehow lacked. The model work and special effects are obviously brilliant too.

The same can’t quite be said of Supercar, the first SF series made by Anderson and his team. The episode of this which we got, False Alarm, was relatively primitive without being particularly charming – and while some people criticise the mid-period Anderson puppets for not being as realistic as the later ones, at least they’re not the boggle-eyed grotesques on display here. Things felt overly dragged out even with a running time of only 25 minutes or so.

Back into colour for another relative rarity, an episode of The Secret Service from 1969. This series has barely been shown on British TV and it’s not difficult to see why – the adventures of a secret agent vicar (played by gobbledygook-spouting comedian Stanley Unwin) equipped with a shrinking ray don’t exactly scream child-appeal, nor indeed merchandising potential. The nature of the show, combining live-action performers with puppets, is madly eccentric, and the whole enterprise seems to be attempting to hit a sort of Avengers-esque note of swinging English whimsy. To be fair, it is not entirely unsuccessful, but it’s also much more of an out-and-out comedy than either The Avengers or anything else Gerry Anderson made.

By this point, supermarionation fatigue was threatening to set in, plus I was down to my last few Maltesers, and the prospect of an episode of Fireball XL5 from 1963 was not a promising one. However, this turned out to be an unexpected highlight of the afternoon, thanks to a superbly off-the-wall script incorporating a Manchurian Candidate-ish assassination plot to kill the World President, and an almighty kerfuffle at Space Control Centre as the personnel attempt to mount a musical performance on TV. This was a genuinely funny and entertaining episode, and it was no surprise when the writer turned out to be Dennis Spooner, one of the unsung heroes of British telefantasy in the 1960s and 70s. Admittedly, the climactic performance of I wish I was a Spaceman brought back alarming memories of my own wedding, when I dimly recall performing the same number a cappella to several dozen baffled Kazakhs (no, video is not available), but you can’t have everything.

Things finished on a high with the first episode of Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons from 1967. I suspect that, when it comes to all things Gerry Anderson, most people are either in the Thunderbirds camp or the Captain Scarlet camp, and much as I love the adventures of the Tracy boys, for me it’s the latter series which is in many ways the zenith of Anderson’s work – not simply in terms of the production values, which are awesome, but in the way the effects and model-work are put to work servicing plots and a format which, putting it bluntly, frequently make No Sense Whatsoever.

Why exactly are the enigmatic Mysterons quite so mercurial and touchy? Why do they bother radioing ahead every week to tell Spectrum exactly what their plan is going to be? How does Captain Scarlet shake off their baleful influence? How does his much-vaunted ‘indestructibility’ work, exactly? All this, coupled to stories which are often surprisingly bleak with a very high bodycount for a kids show, means that Captain Scarlet is often ultimately dark, humourless, and somewhat baffling, but intensely watchable nevertheless.

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The first episode is a great introduction to the series. A manned mission to Mars inadvertantly provokes the disembodied Mysterons to declare war on Earth, with the assassination of the World President their first objective. So far, so good, until the President is captured by a Mysteronised Captain Scarlet, who is told by his masters ‘we need him alive’. If nothing else, this indicates that the Mysterons haven’t quite grasped the fundamentals of assassinating someone yet, but this is par for the course in the world of Captain Scarlet. Set against all of this is a jaw-droppingly ambitious climax involving a battle with jet-packs, armoured cars, attack helicopters and jet fighters in and around a three-mile-high multi-story car park: the plots may be morbid gibberish, but it’s still terrific entertainment.

The same could be said of most of Gerry Anderson’s output, of course: a monumental legacy, and one which may not be quite done and dusted even now. Rumours of a new, live-action Captain Scarlet were circulating at the screening, while a new CGI version of Thunderbirds is due next year. Jamie Anderson himself is intent on mounting a new production of the ‘lost’ Anderson series, Firestorm – the Kickstarter campaign for which smashed its initial goals in a matter of days. But then you might have expected nothing less. Gerry Anderson inspires devotion, but it’s by no means undeserved. Anyway, you must excuse me now: I think I can hear the voice of the Mysterons, so a call to International Rescue may be in order…

 

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If you want to talk about figures with serious pop-cultural clout, you can’t do much better than Gerry Anderson. Literally generations of British children grew up watching the various TV series he made between the 1950s and the 2000s: a hugely distinguished career, and a seriously impressive legacy. So there is something entirely appropriate about Anderson’s glory days being the subject of a feature-length documentary, in the form of Stephen la Riviere’s Filmed in Supermarionation.

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This is, shall we say, a somewhat niche production to receive even a limited cinema release, and I don’t think I will come as a surprise to many if I reveal that the screening I attended was made up almost entirely of men of a certain age (and girth). ‘Made by enthusiasts, for enthusiasts!’ proclaimed the guy in the seat next to me, who went on to sing along with the theme tune to Fireball XL5 and initiate a round of applause when the film finished. But this isn’t really surprising: Gerry Anderson’s shows inspire this kind of devotion – adoration, even. I wouldn’t even call myself one of the hard core, but I still recall coming across an unscheduled repeat of Thunderbirds at the age of about six and being instantly, almost painfully, hooked.

Anderson’s career is unique, and very British – that of a driven, hugely ambitious film-maker forced to work in a medium he despised, but who through sheer determination succeeded in lifting it to an unprecedented level of sophistication and success, in the process giving the first opportunities to a group of model-makers and special effects technicians who would come to define their industry. As the title suggests, Filmed in Supermarionation concentrates exclusively on the puppet series made by Anderson and his companies between 1957 and 1969, so there’s no UFO or Space: 1999, and certainly no sign of Terrahawks, but even so the film has to move fairly briskly to meet its remit.

Gerry Anderson died in 2012, but archive interviews mean he is a central presence in the film. Actual narrating duties, however, are handled by Lady Penelope and Parker, with technical exposition handled by Brains, all the characters appearing in newly-filmed (and rather charming) sequences. Elsewhere, a bevy of former APF/Century 21 puppeteers are taken on a tour of their former production facilities by the maestro’s son (and de facto keeper of the flame of all things Anderson), Jamie, and various special effects men and other luminaries pop up to either detonate the scenery or deliver an anecdote.

As I mentioned, the film has to hustle along to cover all the necessary ground, and there is perhaps a little more on the origins of Anderson’s operation and his very early series – The Adventures of Twizzle, Torchy the Battery Boy, and Four Feather Falls – than one might have expected. This seems to have come at the expense of a more in-depth look at his most famous, most celebrated series – there’s perhaps a bit less on Thunderbirds than you might expect, although the astonishing climactic sequence from Trapped in the Sky obviously makes an appearance, and to my mind a definite dearth of coverage of the engrossingly weird Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. Your mileage may differ, of course.

Then again, you could certainly argue that the film plays to the Anderson series’ strengths by focusing on the technical craftsmanship and behind-the-scenes wizardry involved, as opposed to examining the actual scripts and storytelling too closely. However, I don’t want to run the risk of sounding too negative about Gerry Anderson or his programmes, and I’m sure an opportunity to write about the series themselves will present itself before too long, so I will just say that the writing on these shows was perfectly pitched for the type of programmes they were.

Filmed in Supermarionation isn’t entirely hagiographical – the commercial failure of the two Thunderbirds feature films is acknowledged, while the acrimonious resolution to the relationship between Anderson and his long-time professional collaborator and wife Sylvia is delicately alluded to – but on the whole this is a celebratory endeavour, and why not? The family atmosphere amongst those working on the Anderson shows is evident throughout, and Gerry Anderson’s own kind of tongue-in-cheek humour also permeates the movie – ‘I nearly vomited on the floor,’ the great man says, fondly recalling the moment he discovered he would be starting a career in puppet film-making, while the rather idiosyncratic working practices of long-time financial backer Lew Grade are the subject of a number of anecdotes. Due respect is also paid to the other resident genii of the Anderson operation, particularly special-effects guru Derek Meddings and composer Barry Gray.

I think in the end how you respond to this film is going to be entirely personal: if you know and love Gerry Anderson’s work, and there are a lot of people who do, then Filmed in Supermarionation is a bit of a treat, clearly a labour of love. If puppet SF shows from fifty years ago are not your thing, you are probably going to be better off staying away. But personally I had a really good time, and learned a few things too.

 

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published July 22nd 2004:

Whether you consider Gerry Anderson to be a scandalously-overlooked national treasure, a ‘vicious enemy of proper science fiction who should be burnt in effigy by fans of the genre’ (the considered opinion of the academic periodical Foundation), or just a grumpy old sod, you can’t deny the place in public affections his puppet SF shows have held in the four decades since their original broadcast. Yet another revival looms, but this time taking the form of more than just another re-run: Anderson himself is working on a CGI remake of Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, while zooming soon into a cinema near you is, finally, a live-action Thunderbirds movie, directed by Jonathan Frakes (probably best known as the beardy bloke from Star Trek: The Next Generation).

Scandalously, Anderson’s name doesn’t appear once during the stylishly animated credits of the new movie, for all that it’s superficially very faithful to the original show. The premise is the same: in the near future, billionaire ex-astronaut Jeff Tracy (Bill Paxton) has set up a secret organisation named International Rescue, based on his private Pacific island. Most of the time he and his sons live the life of Riley, but when peril threatens they hop into the high-powered Thunderbird machines designed by their scientist Brains (Anthony Edwards, who apparently used to be in Holby City, or something) and go off to save the day.

However the youngest Tracy brother, Alan (Brady Corbet), is not allowed to go off on missions, basically because he’s about thirteen. So he spends all his time moping about with his friend Fermat Hackenbacker (Soren Fulton) – yup, he’s Brains’ son, although the identity of Mrs Brains is not elaborated upon. But all this moping must stop when psychic supercriminal the Hood (Ben Kingsley) invades Tracy Island, traps Jeff and the other boys in a crippled Thunderbird 5, and plans to go ram-raiding in Thunderbird 2. It’s up to Alan, Fermat, and Tin-Tin (Vanessa Anne Hudgens) – also about thirteen in this version – to save the day, but not without the help of posh totty secret agent Lady Penelope and her chauffeur Parker (Sophia Myles and Ron Cook).

Now Thunderbirds is a movie that’s had quite toxic pre-release word-of-mouth, and I can sort of understand why. This is a movie based on a TV show which nearly every male in the UK under the age of fifty has enormously fond memories of, and the decision to radically re-imagine it along the lines of a Spy Kids movie was always going to be controversial. Personally, I’ve been waiting for this film for over twenty years, and ironically it seems to be aimed at an audience over twenty years younger than me. Do I have the right to feel aggrieved? Hmmm, well, I don’t know: but the fact is that, as kid’s movies go, this doesn’t seem too bad at all.

Because this is a kid’s film, not family entertainment. Fanderson purists will be appalled at the slapstick comedy (villains getting gunged a la Noel’s House Party, cartoony ‘BONG!’ and ‘KA-DUNG!’ sound effects punctuating the fight scenes), the juvenile leads, and the frankly crass and unpleasant barrage of gags about anyone with bad teeth, poor eyesight or a speech impediment. Frakes’ direction, while occasionally inventive, mostly has a lot in common with his acting. And anyone who liked the show will be dismayed about how nondescript and interchangeable the Tracy brothers are: Scott and Virgil (the main characters first time around) get virtually nothing to do, and I couldn’t tell which was which anyway.

Along similar lines, but slightly more serious, is the way the film discards the main reason everyone watched the Anderson shows in the first place: to see lovingly detailed and intricate model vehicles hovering in front of a lovingly detailed and intricate model backdrop, which then explodes. There’s a tiny bit of this sort of thing right at the start, but the next hour of the movie is basically a runaround on Tracy Island. There isn’t much Thunderbird action until quite near the end, and even then the actual rescuing seems a bit shoehorned in.

But having said that, the special effects are excellent, striking just the right balance between old and new. The Thunderbird designs are mostly quite faithful, and even where they’re not this is usually an improvement (Thunderbird 4 no longer resembles Del Boy’s van quite so much). I’ve always thought that the Anderson shows were built around a weird combination of peerless model and effects work, and absurd scripts and terrible acting, and so you could argue that the movie is in its own way quite faithful to this formula.

Having said that, I should mention that Ben Kingsley gives a splendid performance as the Hood, doing his considerable best with the part and lending the movie a genuine touch of class. Of the rest of the cast, Paxton, who’s normally a reliable and charismatic performer, just doesn’t get the material he needs to make a real impression. Anthony Edwards seems to spend the entire film wondering what the hell he’s signed up to. Sophia Myles and Ron Cook bring just about the right note of camp unflappability to Lady Penelope and Parker, no doubt due to a much-publicised script-polish by Richard Curtis (‘Put me down! This outfit is couture!’ snaps Lady P as an evil henchman carries her off).

I’m a notoriously poor judge of this sort of thing, but I think Thunderbirds should do quite well with the tweeny audience it’s obviously aimed at. And there’s just about enough there to satisfy the legions of fans who should be old enough to know better by now. It’s not F.A.B., but neither is it a total disaster.

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