The Secret Service 1.13 – More Haste Less Speed

The Secret Service may have been uneven, but it ended on a high note with this fun romp written by Tony Barwick. In it, Father Unwin and Matthew match wits with four scheming, barely competent, double-crossing criminals who are trying to get hold of a pair of counterfeiting plates. The shrunken, quarter-sized Model T ends up in a race against a motorcycle, an ambulance, and a beat-up old biplane that the pilot can’t actually fly, and our son absolutely adored it. He laughed all through the story.

So why’d it end so soon? All of the ITC series of the 1960s and 1970s, including Anderson’s puppet adventures, were bankrolled by Sir Lew Grade, and his battle plan was always to produce large batches of episodes, more than the six or thirteen a season that was typical for British television, to sell to as many territories as possible. Even if a US network didn’t bite – and they often didn’t – he could try to sell the program to the many independent stations across the country, along with the networks of many other nations.

Preproduction of The Secret Service began in the spring of 1968, and filming started in August of that year. Grade saw a test screening of episode one in December and pulled the plug, believing that the spy fad had passed and American audiences would not understand Stanley Unwin’s gobbledygook. That nobody understood his gobbledygook, that’s the whole point, seems to have missed him. So production ended in January 1969 with the conclusion of this episode. They really went to town on the location work for this one, going out on a high note, and then the shows just sat in the vault until September.

The Secret Service was finally broadcast nine months after they finished production, in only three of the (then) thirteen commercial television regions of the UK. It was only rarely repeated, very little merchandise was released, and it wasn’t shown in many other countries. More than a year after the last episode aired, the comic Countdown carried a short-lived Secret Service strip, which probably confused a whole lot of kids who thought this might be a forthcoming program instead of one that had been axed before they knew it was around.

It was the final puppet series for Anderson for many years, and, at this point, the last of his programs we plan to watch at this blog. I wouldn’t say no to a gift of Stingray or the movie Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, but Daniel’s far too young for UFO or The Protectors, and I’ve got no interest in any of the other shows. But Anderson’s influence extends far beyond the shows that he personally worked on…

(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 1.8 – Errand of Mercy

And so, very early in the show’s run, we get the obligatory “it was all a dream” episode. Tony Barwick wrote an awful lot of these for Gerry Anderson. This one started out quite whimsical, with Father Unwin’s car, Gabriel, flying to Africa to deliver medical supplies, but then they land in darkest Africa and everything goes to pieces. Yes, the natives are restless, they wear colorful masks and they have shields and spears.

It’s not just the unhappy and unfortunate old stereotype of the tribe that’s awful. When you’re watching something from this era, you grudgingly have to bite your lip because it’s old and insensitive. But this actually compounds it: Unwin’s able to communicate with the tribesmen by way of his Unwinese gobbledygook language.

The story goes that one of the reasons Lew Grade canceled the production of The Secret Service is that the potential American audience wouldn’t understand Unwinese. The counter-argument is that nobody’s supposed to understand his fast-talking palare; that’s the point. But the real problem with the way that Unwinese is presented in the show is this: it takes half the scene to realize he’s talking his gafflebam. It just sounds like mumbling, which is amplified by the other character saying “I’m sorry? I don’t understand…” If it was a little more clear, then everybody watching wouldn’t just be in on the joke, they’d realize that a joke was being told.

But having the ooga-booga natives being so primitive that the only English that they can understand is that fractured balderdash… that’s pretty offensive. I’m certainly going to have a talk with Daniel about these outdated depictions.

(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 1.5 – 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.

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.

Captain Scarlet 1.29 – Treble Cross

This episode is one of the few that actually addresses the odd powers of the Mysterons in a neat way. This time, Captain Black kills an air force major and duplicates him, but the major’s body is found by a pair of doctors with an experimental resuscitator and bring him back to life. Unfortunately, Tony Barwick’s story doesn’t get into what that might mean for the duplicate – he doesn’t short-circuit or melt or anything – and it instead concludes that they can both be alive for a short time, and Spectrum can try to use the real major to get a line on Black.

At least three of the characters in this story are played by puppets that were used in earlier episodes. I swear, some of these puppets got more screen time than the minor members of Spectrum. I had wondered aloud whether Anderson might have actually shelled out for some new “faces” on his later productions, but apparently not. I’ve enjoyed looking over a Captain Scarlet fan site called Spectrum Headquarters for background to this blog, and noticed that some of the lesser-used Spectrum characters, like Captain Ochre and Doctor Fawn, had their puppets reused in Anderson’s next two series, Joe 90 and The Secret Service, as the sort of one-off characters like one of the doctors and his nurse in this one. Even the puppet of Lt. Green, who appeared in every episode of Scarlet, was reused as a background character in those other shows.

Captain Scarlet 1.26 – Noose of Ice

From the dull to the sublime, this is one of the most entertaining episodes of the show. Frequently in this series, we find overly-complicated power stations and secret bases, which the Mysterons use against humanity. This is a great one: a mining station at the North Pole at the bottom of a lake which is being artificially heated. When the booster station at the edge of the lake is sabotaged, the lake starts to refreeze, threatening to crush the tower and mining platform underneath many thousands of tons of ice.

This was huge fun to watch together, and the effects team did their usual amazing job, especially as the freezing lake destroys the bridge leading out to the tower. Some of Tony Barwick’s stories are a little rote, but this one really plays to the production team’s strengths, and it’s just remarkable to me how they put so much work into such incredibly complex sets that would only be used one time.

The other thing was this: did you ever play GoldenEye or its sister game Perfect Dark for the N64? I simply couldn’t watch this episode without thinking how incredible it would be to have a multiplayer fight on levels based on this facility; it is that well designed. You probably wouldn’t want to visit Eskimo Booster Station playing against me. I would have left proximity mines in the place before going out with a sniper rifle to wait for you above that roadway.

Captain Scarlet 1.24 – Traitor

There’s a pretty good whodunnit within this episode, but sadly running time that could have been spent developing the mystery is instead spent on a very long flashback to the climax of episode one. It’s all right, but I think it should have been a lot better. But Daniel really enjoyed it, telling us that all the action was awesome. He loved the Spectrum hovercraft, a couple of which get blown up real good as the story goes on.

We’re going to take a short break from Captain Scarlet to finish up the episodes of Thunderbirds that we haven’t seen yet. Hopefully when we resume this show in a month or so, we’ll get to see more from the Spectrum captains who never get to go out on missions anymore. (sadface for poor Ochre, Gray, and Magenta.)

Captain Scarlet 1.16 – Lunarville 7

Unless I’m mistaken and there’s an episode of Fireball XL-5 set there, this may be Gerry Anderson’s first crack at setting a story around a base on the moon. When he finally got to make a live action series in 1970, UFO, he incorporated a moonbase, and that later led to the proposals which became Space: 1999.

This is almost a terrific episode, and certainly among the best from the series’ first half. The writer, Tony Barwick, seems to have run out of ideas how to end it, and the production team’s desire to blow everything up real good left him fumbling for a way to make the moonbase blow up, but getting there was very fun.

It’s just a really creepy installment, with the moonbase characters acting obviously suspicious, but no really good way for Captains Scarlet and Blue and Lt. Green to know what they’re up to. It’s the same sort of story that would be done better in an hour drama, with more time to develop it, because the slow, creepy, and deliberate pace doesn’t allow for a fast-moving plot. That’s probably why the foolish climax – the Mysteron duplicate of the lunar controller throws a tantrum and starts shooting his computer because it won’t listen to him – is such a disappointment. This was an episode that didn’t need to end with a big explosion for once.

Of course, having said that, I don’t know that anybody in the television business in the 1960s could make things blow up nearly as well as Anderson’s team. If we must end with fireworks, it’s nice to see them done so well!

Daniel was restless and initially not interested in watching, but he was captivated pretty quickly. Even though it is not a thrill ride episode, it’s so strange and mysterious that it caught his attention. For the most part, he sat still, curled up with Mommy, occasionally fibbing “I’m scared” when we could tell that he wasn’t. It’s always nice when he plays along and gets into the spirit of things.

Captain Scarlet 1.13 – The Heart of New York

First things first: I want to give a shout-out to a fun blog called The Issue at Hand, which also appreciates classic pop culture and adventure. Blogger Joe Torcivia’s main focus is on the IDW comic book adventures of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, but he visits a few other subjects, including classic Batman, and I expect that many of you reading this would also enjoy his site, so please check it out!

But onto the latest Captain Scarlet, and it’s really odd. I don’t believe that Tony Barwick, who was the program’s script editor and wrote this episode, had any idea of the size of New York City. It’s not just that it’s surrounded by gentle, bucolic, woodland, that absolutely nobody lives within five miles of the city limits, or that there seems to be only one road into town. It’s that Spectrum undertakes a complete evacuation of the city almost immediately. Perhaps by the time this show was set, that big metropolis where the Yankees play has been renamed New New York. This is the “New York” about a hundred miles north of Helena, Montana, with a population of 272. That makes more sense than this.

While I was mainly pleased that Captain Magenta and Captain Ochre got some action, Daniel was pleased by a short car chase, as Captain Scarlet and Captain Blue try to catch Captain Black. In another example of the Mysterons’ bizarre powers, he turns a corner and his car fades away into nothingness, vanished “just like a ghost.” The series badly needs more direct confrontation between Black and the Spectrum agents, and I hope that another is coming (there has only been one so far, in episode six), but the story’s oddball charm elevates it above the humdrum plot.