The Secret Service 1.5 – Last Train to Bufflers Halt

How interesting! This is the only episode of The Secret Service that I had seen prior to obtaining this set, and I completely misremembered the character of the old man who maintains the closed railway station. I recalled him as being a wildly caricatured comedy yokel like Jeremiah from the Thunderbirds episode “The Imposters,” but he’s much more down to earth than that. He has a very broad “old rural man” voice (“Mummerset,” possibly?), and somehow knows how to start and accelerate a train but not how to slow it down, but he’s not ridiculous.

The story by Tony Barwick is so light that it borders on inconsequential. There’s no sense of urgency in the attempted hijacking of a million pounds. The criminals don’t even call for their getaway truck until after they’ve successfully diverted the stolen train to the disused platform. Daniel really enjoyed it, but this is a pretty slight story.

(Note: I can play them, but I’m not presently able to get screencaps from Region 2 DVDs, so many of these entries will just have a photo of the set to illustrate it. Click the link to purchase it from Amazon UK.)

The Secret Service 1.4 – The Feathered Spies

Well, if the title isn’t enough of a giveaway, the big mystery in this episode written by Tony Barwick is how a guy who raises pigeons and doves is able to take top secret photos of prototype military jets. How does he do it, wondered nobody older than six.

Two very odd production notes this time around: this is the first time I’ve ever noticed a Supermarionation character actually breaking the fourth wall, turning to the camera partway through the episode to comment on how wacky another character is. And then there’s the very odd-looking decision to take the Matthew puppet on location and have it chased by a dog.

Regrettably, I can’t make screencaps from Region 2 DVDs, so you’ll have to trust me – for now – when I tell you how utterly bizarre this looks. The Secret Service already looks weird with its mix of live action and puppets, but they never stick the two together in the same shot this way. After three episodes, we’re used to something like a close-up of one of the puppets, followed by a real exterior shot of a garden. But suddenly the suspension of disbelief comes crashing down when the two-foot Matthew puppet becomes the fictional, miniaturized two-foot high Matthew “walking” around in that garden. Ian Spurrier had been part of Century 21’s visual effects team for a couple of years; this was his only directing credit. I can imagine that he had some ideas that he wanted to try, but this absolutely did not work. I hope we don’t see it tried again in future episodes.

The Secret Service 1.3 – To Catch a Spy

I believe that one of the most difficult things to do when making one of the Supermarionation shows must have been orchestrating the gunfights. But there’s a really terrific one that opens this episode, a prison break that the director, Brian Heard, managed with a series of incredibly quick cuts. I swear it looks like there are more cuts in sixty seconds of this gunfight than in an entire episode of Captain Scarlet.

But the gunfight at the end is a huge missed opportunity. Father Unwin has shrunk one of the villains, who then has a disappointingly static shootout with the also-shrunk Matthew in a greenhouse in Kew Gardens. Heard keeps cutting between the puppets and a pair of frogs who are also in the greenhouse. We kept waiting for one of the frogs to jump and knock the shrunken villain on his backside. That was a missed opportunity!

(Note: I can play them, but I’m not presently able to get screencaps from Region 2 DVDs, so many of these entries will just have a photo of the set to illustrate it. Click the link to purchase it from Amazon UK.)

The Secret Service 1.2 – A Question of Miracles

Tonight’s episode is the first of two Secret Service installments written by Donald James, who wrote for quite a few ITC programs of the day, including about half of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). He worked for Gerry Anderson for several years, contributing scripts to five of his programs along with screenplay of the film Doppelganger.

It’s also the first appearance in this series of the Captain Scarlet puppet. It’s used for another BISHOP agent named Paul Blake, who really gets the short end of the undercover assignment. The director of BISHOP gives him a crucifix on a chain and a pill to take at a set time. The pill instantly sickens him to the point that a base doctor sends for a priest, just as Father Unwin happens to be nearby to get called into the base to save the day.

Daniel has pleasantly surprised us by really enjoying this show even more than I thought he might. It will never replace Thunderbirds in his affections – he actually asked to rewatch several episodes of that over the last week – but he told us that he likes this even more than Captain Scarlet, which I wouldn’t have predicted.

(Note: I can play them, but I’m not presently able to get screencaps from Region 2 DVDs, so many of these entries will just have a photo of the set to illustrate it. Click the link to purchase it from Amazon UK.)

The Secret Service 1.1 – A Case for the Bishop

Off to 1969 and one of the shows that Gerry Anderson made that people just don’t know all that well, The Secret Service is a very cute and very, very odd little spy series for kids. It doesn’t have any of the wild mayhem and crazy technology of the earlier Supermarionation shows. In fact it has a single fantastic element: a shrink ray.

By ’69, the spy craze kickstarted by the James Bond films was mostly calmed down, so this was a weird time to be making a spy adventure, but there you go. It’s set in what appears to be the present day and concerns an agency called B.I.S.H.O.P. which employs Father Stanley Unwin. The priest is played by the real Stanley Unwin, a popular comedian of the day whose shtick was talking in a nonsensical gobbledygook. Father Unwin uses a shrink ray to miniaturize his fellow agent Matthew and carry him into action, while he distracts authorities or guards by appearing as a harmless priest who babbles a lot.

The pilot, unsurprisingly, isn’t too complicated. It’s a basic little adventure about retrieving a stolen computer that takes time setting up the premise. But what no amount of backstory will prepare you for is how downright weird this show looks. See, every Gerry Anderson show has some of what Marie calls “cheat shots,” where they do closeups of human hands instead of trying to get the puppets to do intricate tasks. This takes things in the other direction entirely. It’s a live action show that just happens to have puppets in for the dialogue. All the exteriors and establishing shots and car chases are filmed by a crew with human actors, with the real Stanley Unwin driving his character’s terrific car, a 1917 Ford Model T called Gabriel. Then when anybody needs to talk, the puppets are used. So the team didn’t have to build as many puppet-scale exteriors, and they shot far less material on the small stages, and everybody at Century 21 got the practice making shows with real actors that would serve them well when they started making UFO and The Protectors.

Incidentally, both The Secret Service and its immediate predecessor, Joe 90, used several props and puppet bodies that were built for Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons two years previously – you can spot Captain Ochre in a small role here – and also many of the same voice actors. One of these is David Healy, who was often used for American generals or, here, Iron Curtain-nation diplomats. We’ll have a little bit more to say about David Healy in these pages shortly.

Daniel was honestly not completely taken by this, but he said it was pretty good and seems interested in seeing more. The car chase and gunfight certainly had his attention though, and we’ll see what happens in episode two very soon.

(Note: I can play them, but I’m not presently able to get screencaps from Region 2 DVDs, so many of these entries will just have a photo of the set to illustrate it. Click the link to purchase it from Amazon UK.)

Thunderbirds 3.3 – The Stately Homes Robberies

The team who made these new Thunderbirds episodes were working on them for freaking ever, and even obtained the services of one of the original puppeteers and, with episode three, one of the original series directors, David Elliot. That’s an awful lot of work for ninety minutes of entertainment, but they saved the best for last. “The Stately Homes Robberies” is a visual triumph.

As an original story, it’s a goofball throwaway. I think that “stealing the crown jewels from the Tower of London” must be every bit as much of a hoary chestnut in British children’s entertainment as “stealing the gold from Fort Knox” is in American kidvid, and you really have to put your brain in neutral to accept that the baddies could get away with any part of their plan, much less its climax.

But just look at it! I’m not suggesting that the ice caves in the previous story didn’t take a lot of work to create, but they’re not on the same level as the remarkably detailed rooms full of art treasures in this one. The villains, Mr. Charles and Dawkins, look so absolutely perfect that they surely must have been locked in an airtight vault since 1965, right? I love all the silly tech, it all looks like the original designers made every nut, bolt, and colored light. What a challenge this must have been: in 1965, the designers were imagining the world of a hundred years in the future. Today’s designers had to imagine what designers fifty years ago would have predicted.

As with the previous adventure, this one’s bulked up a little with some extra material involving the Tracy brothers. The original 7-inch record was strictly an adventure for Lady Penelope and Parker, but this adaptation finds a way to include Virgil, Scott, and Gordon for a few minutes. It’s absolutely great, escapist fun, a terrific and silly half hour that we enjoyed very much. Daniel, you may recall, loves Thunderbird 4 most of all the vehicles, and not only does this episode include the submarine briefly, it opens with an absolutely mammoth explosion when one of the stately homes is blown into pieces by the villains. If your own five year-old, real or inner, doesn’t love this, something may be wrong with him.

To Stephen La Rivière, Justin T. Lee, and all the rest of the Pod 4 crew, thanks enormously for all the work you put into this project. Very best of luck to you all in your future film and television work!

There’s more Supermarionation in the future for our blog! Stay tuned for more action later this summer!

Thunderbirds 3.2 – The Abominable Snowman

Yes, this episode has a good deal more meat to it than the previous one. It’s a really zippy half hour in which the Hood has another convoluted scheme to blow up a bunch of uranium processing plants while simultaneously abducting slave labor in the Himalayas to work in his own mine, while also leaving some “abominable snowman” footprints to frighten the locals into calling for International Rescue so that he can kidnap whomever they send.

On the one hand, yeah, that’s about as convoluted and ridiculous a scheme as some of his other sixties tomfoolery – “Martian Invasion” certainly comes to mind. On the other hand, this is actually the only time that the Hood actually confronts our heroes in person in this continuity. He gets away and they never learn his name, but he straps Lady Penelope to a beam to menace her with a Goldfinger-style industrial laser, and then trades gunfire with Scott, who comes to the rescue.

Stephen La Rivière directed this episode, and he and his team deserve credit for alarming our son for the first time in quite a while. The scenes of Lady Penelope threatened by the laser really did freak him out a little. I can’t remember the last time that Thunderbirds had him worried. “Attack of the Alligators,” maybe?

I thought the story was certainly slight and dated, but there’s not a lot that could be done about that. It’s probably a little more impressive than the original audio adventure, though. Bulked up with six or seven minutes of additional material, it actually starts with a big explosion-filled rescue at a uranium plant – named for Derek Meddings, which is awesome – using some dropped-in vocal lines for Scott and Virgil from TV episodes, and it looks fantastic. The Himalayas material also looks really good. There’s one medium shot of the puppets fleeing from the soon-to-explode mine – what happened to the prisoners? – where I think they’re moving a little faster than the marionettes ever did in the sixties, but otherwise it’s another very solid recreation of the original style, so seamless that you can easily pretend this was an original half-hour episode that Gerry Anderson and his team elected to shelve rather than bulk up to an hour when Lew Grade decided the show should be hour-long episodes.

Thunderbirds 3.1 – Introducing Thunderbirds

I don’t pay much attention to Kickstarter, nor use the service much, but when word got around last year that a team in England was making three new episodes of Thunderbirds with ITV’s blessing, I jumped up and got the checkbook. It was perfectly timed; not only was it the fiftieth anniversary of the series, but my then four year-old was falling in love with it.

I’ve not seen Stephen La Rivière’s documentary about Gerry Anderson and the puppet shows that he and his team made in the sixties. It’s called simply Filmed in Supermarionation and features newly-shot footage in the original style. It served as a kind of pilot for this production, which is based on some old audio adventures. See, among the merchandise available in those days before home video, there were some 7-inch records, about ten minutes a side, which were full-cast recordings. There were several of these, and most were edited versions of TV episodes. But there were three that were specially made for the format, with the original voice actors. All that they needed were some visuals, and fifty years.

To be fair, the first of these episodes is incredibly slight and unsurprising. The Thunderbirds launch sequences remain, after all these years, and after rewatching them again and again with my son over the last twelve months, dazzling, complicated, and ridiculous. With the film cleaned up and the color brought into vivid life like never before, however, they look brand new. Unfortunately, there’s really not a lot that strings them (heh, I said strings) together, which sort of emphasizes that launching each of the machines just to show Lady Penelope and Parker what they look like sure was an indulgent use of fuel. But it was the sixties. They thought gasoline would always be cheap and plentiful, no matter how many oil refineries got bombed into oblivion by the Hood or the Mysterons or the Aquaphibians or Joe 90’s enemies.

No, this first episode is mostly an opportunity to see just how well La Rivière and his incredibly talented team have recreated the look and the feel of a fifty year-old show. It’s not unlike the eye-popping thrill of watching Vic Mignona and his team recreating the sixties in the Star Trek Continues web series and marveling at the seamless job, but I’m even more impressed by what La Rivière and the Pod 4 team have done. For all their talents, Mignona and company are not William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and the gang, but these are three brand freaking new Thunderbirds episodes. They look like they were made fifty years ago, locked in a time capsule, and remastered yesterday. If the first story’s just a bit of nothing, the look is nevertheless perfect, and I’m assured the next two episodes, which we’ll watch very, very soon, have a tiny bit more meat to them.

Thunderbirds are Go 1.4 – Fireflash

It’s one of the iconic images from the original series, probably right behind the launch sequences: using “elevator cars” to catch an airplane whose landing gear has a major problem. It opened that series with something jawdropping, not just in the novelty of thinking up something so amazing, but putting it into nail-biting action.

They did right not to lead with this loose remake of “Trapped in the Sky,” starting their series instead with more original ideas that blew kisses toward the program’s history. Andrew Robinson’s script, which gives a “based on” credit to Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, changes more than just the tempo of the original teleplay. Since Kayo, the revised version of Tintin, is not about to sit still while the plane has a problem, she’s right in the thick of things, and so is the Hood, who has not placed a bomb on board in this version: he plans to hijack the plane entirely.

But despite the fast-paced action on board Fireflash, including an awesome fight between Kayo and the Hood, the story still has to get to the point of the crippled plane attempting a landing on top of the pods. The closer attention paid to how many of these things can actually be stored in Thunderbird 2’s pod means that Fireflash has one wheel down, and two cars are used. Unlike the original, these aren’t remote-controlled by Virgil; Alan and Gordon are driving them while Kayo attempts the landing. Brilliantly, they use the same triumphant musical score as the original, with the plane coming down to the cars.

Robinson does not adhere absolutely to the events of “Trapped in the Sky,” subverting expectations from start to finish. This was very, very fun, and had Daniel, who knows the original like the back of his hand, jumping up and down in excitement.


This series will be available for streaming to Amazon Prime members from April 22.

Captain Scarlet 1.32 – Inferno

We finished up Captain Scarlet & the Mysterons today with another episode that Daniel really enjoyed because it’s just packed with explosions and destruction as the bad guys get a decisive victory in their war of nerves. This time, the Spectrum Angels blow an Aztec temple to rubble in a desperate attempt to destroy a hidden transmitter that’s bringing an inbound rocket to Earth at top speed; in the valley beneath the old temple, there’s some gigantic factory that the baddies want destroyed. They blast the temple all right, but too late to alter the rocket from its doomed course; everything gets blown to smithereens this week.

I wasn’t counting, but it seemed like the Mysterons succeeded about a quarter of the time, which is really an astonishingly high percentage of the time for a kids’ show, with a fierce amount of collateral damage and civilian deaths even when they did lose. Plus, the villains killed off two of the Spectrum captains, Brown and Indigo. Compared to most kidvid antagonists, that’s pretty amazingly successful. Cobra Commander and the Decepticons just wish they were as good at being bad as the Mysterons.

I’m not incredibly clear on the chronology, but I think that the team at Century 21 did not get a very long break at all after the 32nd episode was filmed, and were soon back at work designing and getting ready for their next Supermarionation series, which was called Joe 90. Many of the writers from Scarlet, including this episode’s scriptwriters Tony Barwick and Shane Rimmer, worked on Joe 90, which also used many of this show’s puppets.

Joe 90 is available on Region 1 DVD, but I have never cared for the show at all and so we won’t be watching it. (You’re welcome to give it a try yourself if you like, though!) The program that Anderson made after Joe 90 was called The Secret Service, and I really like that one. It’s not available in Region 1 yet, so it’s just as well I bought a new player this month. Fingers crossed that we’ll come back to The Secret Service in a few months, but next up in our rotation is something a little more recent…

One final note: the voice of Captain Scarlet, Francis Matthews, went on to star in the BBC’s really successful detective series Paul Temple, which ran for four series in the early 1970s and which sounds like a must-see for people who enjoy British TV from that era. It was produced by Peter Bryant and Derrick Sherwin, who had just finished up the black-and-white years of Doctor Who and featured all sorts of recognizable talent behind and in front of the cameras. I would love to enjoy that show, just as I’m presently enjoying Jason King, made in the same era, after Daniel goes to bed. Unfortunately, of the 52 episodes they made, only sixteen still exist, because of the BBC’s old policy of junking and deleting old tapes. More on that subject down the road as well.