Monday, 28 March 2011

Anderthon: There's always magic in the air...

Four Feather Falls
episodes 7-13

A Close Shave

Once again, they do the joke of Twink being interrupted whilst trying to tell this week’s story, but with a further twist. Initially, Twink is saying goodbye to Jake who’s going off for a ride with Tex – only then does he notice and acknowledge the viewer. Though he has to admit at the end that he couldn’t think of a story this week anyway, so Pedro’s arrival means there was something for the viewer to watch after all! This week, Pedro is conspiring with an Indian called Red Scalp. The plan is simple: Red Scalp will ride into town and tell Tex that the Indian camp at Yellow Gulch has been attacked by bandits – then when Tex goes to investigate, Pedro will enter town the back way and rob the bank. (So, this must mean the rockfall at Yellow Gulch has been cleared away, leaving two routes into town once more. See, I worry about these details – no one mentions it in the episode however.) Although I was a little disappointed to see an Indian turn up as a villain, Red Scalp does appear to be a lone figure, implying at least that he’s some sort of renegade. It’s also clear that his alliance with Pedro is pretty uneasy, with plenty of mutual distrust. Indeed, Red Scalp is not keen to take on Tex due to his magic guns, but Pedro assures him they won’t work on Indians, being Indian magic themselves. What Pedro hasn’t reckoned on is Dusty the Dog overhearing the plan and tipping Tex off, so the whole plan falls flat. When Red Scalp finds that the magic guns will work on him after all, he takes his revenge on Pedro by scalping him. Tex tells Pedro he can’t intervene because his guns won’t work on Indians! Poetic justice – though it is slightly uncomfortable to think that Tex would allow a scalping to take place in the main street. Just as well he realizes that Red Scalp is only going to teach Pedro a lesson by shaving his hair and moustache off, not actually scalping him! (Though I’m not sure how Tex knows this. I’m also not quite sure what to make of Red Scalp yet – his name and some of his actions mark him out as a pretty vicious character, but that conclusion paints him as more of a comedy villain like Pedro.)

Pedro’s Pardon

Tex is putting up a new wanted poster for Pedro, using his gun to fire the nails into the wall while Jake holds the poster up for him. I’m not even sure that’s technically possible – and the health and safety implications are horrendous! Anyway, Pedro turns up and says he’s turned over a new leaf and wants to live as a citizen of Four Feather Falls. Tex responds by locking him in jail, and proceeding to sing a new song to him. As a cruel and unusual punishment, that’s like something out of Guantanamo Bay. But eventually Tex decides to give Pedro a chance to prove he means what he says. It doesn’t take Pedro long to show his true colours, short-changing Ma Jones when he buys a new hat; and then Red Scalp turns up to complain that Pedro has been caught stealing Indian horses – the real reason he’s sought sanctuary in the town. Red Scalp also knows that Pedro keeps his money in his hat, and shoots an arrow through it, spilling money everywhere. Tex allows him to take the price of the horses, which seems consistent with his actions last week of allowing the villains to sort out their own differences as long as it doesn't affect the rest of the townsfolk.

The Toughest Guy in the West

Tex must be really pleased with his song from last week, because here he’s singing it again for the other townsfolk. This leads into some mickey-taking of Grandpa Twink when he says he used to be known for his singing voice – it also seems that he was a gunslinger once who single-handedly fought off a tribe of Comanches, but no one will believe his stories. Twink and Ma Jones set off for Silver City, only to be set upon by Comanches. They take refuge in a barn, where they discover Indian Jack hiding. He’s a white man who dresses like an Indian, and supplies guns to the Comanches. He’s obviously double crossed them though, because it’s him they’re really hunting. Indian Jack is a really nasty piece of work, a real contrast to the camp comedy villains we’ve met so far. He’s quite clearly going to shoot Twink and Martha to make his getaway. Luckily, Twink manages to get the better of him in a moment of confusion. By the time Tex turns up to help, the Comanches are on the run, thanks to the intervention of Chief Kalamakooya and his braves. (This at least restored a bit of my faith in the show – although the Comanches were acting as standard Indian bad guys, Kalamakooya’s desire to live in peace with the white men is still refreshing – it also demonstrates that there are different Indian nations with their own customs and agendas, not just a generic mass.) Tex can’t quite believe that Twink has managed to hold off the Indians and capture Jack – so perhaps his old reputation was deserved after all.

Gun Runners

Again, Kalamakooya appears to Tex, and warns him that someone is supplying guns to the Indians. He’s worried that some of the young braves may turn on the white settlers if they get their hands on guns, which suggests that Kalamakooya’s control of his tribe might be a little uncertain and precarious. Anyway, the guns are being supplied by Big Ben, and his potential buyer is Red Scalp, who therefore appears to be veering back to being a villain again. They plan a meeting to exchange gold for guns, but in what’s becoming a bit of a trope for the series, it’s overheard by Dusty who tips Tex off, and he’s able to catch them in the act. Kalamakooya appears, and says Red Scalp will face the justice of his people, and the two Indians just fade away. Even more mystical, the bag of gold fades away too before Ben can get his hands on it. Indian gold isn’t for the white man, it seems.

Jail Break

An episode that’s mostly about Pedro and Fernando. Pedro is annoyed to find his wanted poster has been replaced by one for Zack Morrill, who’s got an even bigger reward on his head. He wants to be the most wanted man in Four Feather Falls, so he decides to capture Morrill himself and hand him in for the reward. (There’s also the fact that he once worked with Morrill and thinks he never got his cut of the loot.) Unfortunately, the scheme is blown open by Fernando, who meets Morrill on the road, and despite having seen his wanted poster, fails to recognize him and proceeds to tell him what Pedro’s up to. But despite being thus prepared, Zack falls foul of some comedy violence and ends up being captured anyway. He tells Pedro about the loot he’s got stashed away which he’ll share with him. So Pedro decides to hedge his bets. He hands Morrill in for the reward, then plans to break him out of jail so they can share the loot. Needless to say, the jail break goes hilariously wrong, and Pedro and Fernando end up as caught as Morrill. The closing moment sees Pedro’s face superimposed on his wanted poster, pleading with Tex to be left up as the most wanted man in his home town. It’s a sort of self-aware, almost post-modern technique – demonstrating a show that’s aware of its own fictionality – that makes this series seem sophisticated and ahead of its time, and again gives it an appeal to the adult viewer.


And here again, the show demonstrates that it’s not only broken the fourth wall, but demolished it. They’ve developed from using Twink as a simple storyteller, to having him address the viewer in the midst of the action – but here, it’s Jake who talks to the audience, saying how he’s sneaking out while his grandpa’s asleep, as he’s promised to go fishing with Makooya. (Now, wait a minute here. Makooya was a boy when Tex found him in the wilderness, and that was before the founding of Four Feather Falls, so presumably a good few years ago. Yet here he is again, and he doesn’t look any older. Does the Indian magic extend to freezing the ageing process – or time travel?) Well, Makooya seems to have acquired some of his grandfather’s magic, such as the ability to teleport himself, though he says he’s not yet very good at it. Jake and Makooya explore some caves, where they discover Big Ben and Red Scalp making counterfeit coins. Red Scalp seals them in the caves - and lo and behold, Makooya's magic isn't enough to get him out again. Nevertheless, Tex finds them after arresting Red Scalp for passing the counterfeit coins – but not before Big Ben has taken the boys hostage. Jake thinks he'll be in trouble with his grandpa, but an appearance by Kalamakooya to sing the boy's praises seems to put paid to that.

Dusty Becomes Deputy

OK, so Tex finally takes leave of his senses and appoints his dog as his deputy. I know he can speak, Tex, but only to you. To anyone else, this is going to look like a Caligula-style excess. Still, at least he doesn't leave Dusty any guns to use! This week, there's a prairie fire on the edge of town - Tex has to rush off to deal with it, before it spreads to Four Feather Falls itself. The twist is the fire has been caused by Pedro and Fernando setting fire to their shack – another of their schemes to get Tex out of town, so they can rob the bank in his absence. You'd think he'd have worked it out by now. When Dusty spots the bandits, he does his usual trick of hiding nearby and overhearing their plans. Then he rushes to find Tex and bring him back - but disaster! Tex has accidentally dropped the feather that enables Dusty's voice. They have to go back and look for it. But any drama is undercut as they find it quite easily, and Tex is able to rush back to town and stop the bandits. Having seen a few episodes now, I've realized another running gag is that most Pedro episodes end with his hat being shot off – he's really rather inordinately fond of his hats, so this seems to be the worst thing you can do to him. Here, Tex manages to shoot the crown clean off, but otherwise leaves the hat on his head – and Pedro, not realizing the damage, thanks him for sparing his hat for once!

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Anderthon: Kya Kalamakooya kalakya!

Four Feather Falls
episodes 1-6

For anyone who thinks of Gerry Anderson as a purveyor of tech-heavy science fiction, Four Feather Falls can come as a bit of a surprise. The show can best be described as a comedy fantasy musical western. So that's a lot of genres covered in one go! And obviously, what it has in common with most of the Andersons' sixties output, is that it's also a children's puppet show. What's interesting, compared to the shows later on, is that there's very little attempt here to make the puppets appear to be anything other than puppets. In terms of the sculpting, all the characters are misshapen, almost grotesque caricatures: Grandpa Twink, for instance, looks more like a monkey than a human being! They look like toys or illustrations from children’s books. The only exception to this is our hero, Tex Tucker, who has more or less normal human features, correctly shaped if a little exaggerated. (His head is too large for his body of course, but at least it looks like a human head.) And yet, Tex is some way from being the square-jawed action hero character we’re used to seeing in the later shows. His face has an almost haunted, sunken look about it, as if he’s a man carrying a lot of emotional baggage.

I rather like the moody opening title sequence, a point of view shot as if of a character walking down a darkened western street, with ambient noise such as the tinkling of the saloon piano, puppet horses tethered to the hitching point (they even flick their tails – nice attention to detail) until we meet Tex partly in shadow. Cornered, he raises his hands, apparently at the mercy of his adversary – only for his magic guns to raise themselves in their holsters and open fire. Don’t worry, I’m not going to make the well-worn jokes about the self-firing guns – what’s really striking is how much darker this seems than the rest of the programme, and how much it reminds me of the Captain Scarlet titles 7 years later.

How it Began

The plot of the opening instalment is very simple – Tex Tucker runs Pedro the bandit out of town. That’s it! The bulk of the story is told in flashback, when young Jake asks his grandpa to recount how Tex acquired his magic feathers. Tex was crossing the wilderness with his horse and his dog – the food’s running out, they’ve got hardly any water left, and they’re never going to make it back to civilization. Where he’s going? Where’s he come from? Why’s he making this perilous trek all by himself? It’s all left very vague. Remember what I said about a lot of emotional baggage? Combined with that haunted look the puppet has, I do get the sense that Tex is drifting aimlessly, trying to get away from something. Am I just an adult reading too much into it? Yes, probably, but there’s a fascination in these things that holds the attention in the way that the simplistic plots aren’t going to.

Anyway, Tex finds an Indian boy, Makooya, lost in the wilderness, shares what little food is left with him and tries to take him back to his tribe. Makooya knows the way to a waterfall, where they hope to get some more water – but it’s dry when they get there. There’s a terrific visual joke in their trek across the desert. First Tex is on the horse with Makooya riding in front of him; in the subsequent shot, Tex is on foot leading the horse, with Makooya sitting in the saddle; in the third shot, Tex and Makooya are both on foot, and Dusty the dog is riding on the horse.

Things are looking pretty bleak when they bed down for the night, but Makooya wakes up in the night screaming his grandfather’s name – and lo and behold, a bush seems to catch fire, there’s a load of smoke, and Chief Kalamakooya appears out of nowhere. Tex doesn’t want any reward for saving Makooya, but he gets one anyway: the four magic feathers. The first two give Rocky the horse and Dusty the dog the ability to talk – but only to Tex (and it seems, to each other) – it doesn’t work with anyone else, so I presume there’s some sort of telepathy involved rather than the animals actually acquiring the power of speech. Dusty gains the creaky voice of an old-timer Western pioneer, which seems appropriate, but Rocky ends up with a stereotyped English upper-class accent, all “toodlepip old bean”, because as he says he’s a thoroughbred descended from original English bloodstock. It’s this slightly daft and surreal level of humour that gives the show more appeal to the modern adult viewer.

The chief also rewards them with water – by making the waterfall flow again, and an oasis to appear around it. And after this, he and Makooya both dematerialize. It’s pretty clear that Kalamakooya’s magic powers are absolutely real. He can even turn the night into day, which suggests some ability to speed up time. Now, at a time when most Westerns (or at least those kids would have been familiar with) were depicting Indians as the villains, all warcries and attacking the settlers, it’s quite refreshing to find Indians portrayed here not just as friendly, but as an ancient spiritual people with real mystical abilities.

What Tex Tucker really gains from all this is not his magical gimmicks, it’s a place to live and a sense of purpose. The restored waterfall becomes the watercourse around which the town of Four Feather Falls is built, and Tex remains here and becomes the sheriff. And as he declares in song, it’s “the only place on Earth to be” and “heaven on the range”. So that, I think, is Kalamakooya’s real reward to him.

I can’t let Ma Jones’s lax policy on selling tobacco to minors pass without comment. Yes, I know Jake wants the baccy for his grandpa, but it's still setting a bad example – you couldn’t imagine it being allowed in a children’s programme made today.

Trouble in Yellow Gulch

It’s Pedro the bandit again, and this time he’s got a sidekick, Fernando. Watching this, I’m beginning to get a sense that these two are going to be the real stars of the show. They’re stereotyped Mexican bandits of course, but their bickering and bitchy putdowns provide a lot of humour. Their plan here is to buy Yellow Gulch, one of the two passes that lead into Four Feather Falls, and charge a toll from anyone using it. People are too frightened to use the other approach, through Black Boulder Canyon – because as the name might suggest, there’s a bloody great black boulder perched precariously on top of it and threatening to come down on you at any moment. So, the town is perhaps not so pleasantly located as we’ve been led to believe. Thanks, Big Chief Kalamakooya!

Not content with a legal moneymaking scheme, Pedro and Fernando decide to go one further and topple the black boulder to block the canyon – then everyone will have to use Yellow Gulch. So they steal some dynamite from behind Ma Jones’s store. (She’s storing it for the mining company in the most unsecure yard imaginable – Tex really needs to do a premises inspection there!) Tex outwits the bandits by switching the dynamite to the other side of the boulder, so Yellow Gulch is buried and Black Boulder Canyon gets permanently opened as a safe route.


They must have liked Grandpa Twink narrating Tex’s story in the first episode, because in this and the subsequent episodes, Twink is actually talking directly to the viewer, and recounting this week’s story: Tex is summoned to Silver City to assist the new Sheriff Jamieson with some unspecified task. In an increasingly complex plot, Rocky gets stolen, forcing Tex and Dusty to continue on foot; they meet a man who’ll sell them a horse, but wants fifty bucks for it. It turns out some stolen loot is hidden in the saddle bag, so Tex ends up getting arrested by Sheriff Jamieson, who locks him up and tells him the judge is likely to hang him. But it’s all a big con. Jamieson is really a crook, and wants Tex out of the way so he can take control of Four Feather Falls himself. Fortunately, he leaves the bandit Big Ben to look after Tex, and he doesn’t know about the magic guns – so Tex easily disarms him and gets himself released. He races back to Four Feather Falls to have it out with Jamieson. Of course, for Tex, there’s nothing worse than a crooked lawman.

Pedro Has a Plan

How’s that for a title? Does exactly what it say on the tin! Pedro and Fernando are back, camper than ever. Pedro’s plan is really simple: to steal Tex’s magic feathers and replace them with duds. At first I wondered why no one’s thought of this before – but a more pertinent question is: how do they know about the feathers? (Unless they’ve been listening to the voiceover at the start of each episode.) It’s the one thing you’d think Tex would keep secret from his enemies – and Big Ben didn’t know about it last week – but now suddenly it’s common knowledge in the bandit community. Oh well… Just as Tex is cornered without magic guns, Rocky and Dusty save the day by riding in with the real feathers – in an amusingly anachronistic moment, Dusty regains his voice and says, “We’re back on the air!”

Sheriff for a Day

Tex has to go out and help the stagecoach or something, and rather foolishly leaves Jake behind as deputy – even more foolishly, he leaves him his guns and the magic feathers to control them. Has this man no sense of responsibility, leaving a kid in charge of deadly weapons? With a curious inevitability, Tex’s mission is a phoney and he’s captured by Big Ben, and left sitting on Rocky with a noose round his neck – which is pretty tough stuff for a kid’s show. But Big Ben’s attempts to take control of Four Feather Falls are thwarted by Jake and the magic guns; Jake then rushes to save Tex. There’s a lovely tense moment as a rattlesnake approaches Tex and Rocky – Tex urges Rocky to run for it, but Rocky won’t move, knowing that it’ll leave Tex swinging from the rope. Unfortunately, this character drama is completely undercut by the revelation that the whole episode is a dream Jake is having. Yes, five episodes in, and we’ve already had one of those “it was all just a dream” stories that really blight the Anderson series. I’m not a fan of them – can you tell? (Still, at least it means Tex wouldn’t be such a plank as to leave Jake in charge in real life.)

Indian Attack

Twink’s just starting to tell this week’s story when he’s interrupted by Fernando, and suddenly the present takes precedence over the past. I love the way this series keeps subtly subverting itself – just when you’ve got a handle on the formula, they do something different. Even cleverer here is the moment when Fernando, held at gunpoint by Tex, tries to convince the sheriff that there’s something going on behind him – in this case, smoke signals indicating that Indians are massing for an attack. Tex isn’t about to fall for the oldest trick in the book – until Fernando throws down his own gun to convince him. Fernando then volunteers to stay and help Tex fight to protect the town. As complex as this characterization is, I was a little disappointed to find that the noble and mystical Indians were now being presented as more stereotypical Western villains. It’s a relief then to discover there aren’t any Indians – it’s Pedro hiding behind the rocks sending up smoke and banging tom-toms. It’s all part of a complicated plan to steal Tex’s feathers and replace them with duds. Come on, think of something else, guys! (Once again, Dusty saves the day by recovering the real feathers in time.)

I have to say, I'm rather surprised to have found so much to say about six 13 minute episodes of a kids puppet show. I've found it charming and a lot more intriguing than I thought I was going to. It certainly bodes well for the rest of the Anderthon…

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Stand By For Action!

Something a bit new for this blog. I've decided to start a marathon viewing of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's classic productions - all the way from Four Feather Falls to Space: 1999. Why? Because I'm mad probably. Some of this will be new to me: (I've never seen Four Feather Falls or Supercar before, and only a handful of episodes of Fireball XL5); some will be like revisiting old friends. But I want to do it in order, and in context, and see if I can follow the development of the Anderson production.

It's often baffled me over the years the way that the "Gerry Anderson production" has come to be seen almost as a genre in itself, that one tv producer can have fans of his own who embrace all his productions as if they're part of a single huge series. Rather than a career in tv production spawning a variety of shows, highs and lows, successes and failures. But maybe I'm wrong - I want to find out...

So, I'll be watching:

Four Feather Falls
Fireball XL5
Thunderbirds (including the movies)
Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons
Joe 90
Journey to the Far Side of the Sun
The Secret Service
Space: 1999
The Day After Tomorrow

and writing about my thoughts and feelings here on this blog. It'll be interesting to see if I can get to the end, or whether I'll go mad in the process. If it's really successful, I may even go on to Terrahawks and some of the more recent shows - nothing in the world would induce me to watch Space Precinct again though - besides, I don't own a copy.

So, look out for this marathon, or "Anderthon" as I've decided to call it, which will be starting here very soon.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Suspended in time

Isn't it funny how fandom as a collective entity knows things that simply aren't actually true?

I was following a thread on Gallifreybase the other day, where people were discussing all the terrible "mistakes" the BBC had made over the years with Doctor Who. You know the sort of thing: sacking Colin Baker, not replacing JNT, junking the sixties episodes, etc, etc. Of course, many of those were perfectly normal business decisions made for entirely understandable commercial, practical or logistical reasons at the time. Not that I'd necessarily agree with them. Well, I'm not here to debate the rights and wrongs of why these things happened. And it's obvious that as fans with a vested interest in the programme, we can't always see these things from the point of view of the BBC management.

What interested me here was that one of the many listed "mistakes" was the BBC's decision to suspend the series for 18 months in 1985. That's something that every fan knows. "18 months is too long to wait" as Ian Levine and Hans Zimmer pointed out through the medium of high energy pop. The thing is: it's not true, is it? Just with my pedantic hat on, you can do the maths and see that season 22 finished at the end of March 85, and season 23 resumed in the first week of September 86 - so the show was only off air for 17 months. Still, 18 months is a nice round figure, so I'm prepared to forgive that. No, the real point is that fans seem to forget that in the eighties, the show was off-air for nine months of the year anyway, so half of that mythical suspension period would have been barren in any case. Once you've taken that on board, it doesn't seem quite so bad, does it? A season which in the normal course of events would have started in January 1986, gets deferred for a few months to allow for a bit of re-tooling. These are the sort of scheduling decisions that tv companies make every day - and, one presumes, not for any sort of sinister reasons. Indeed, it had the result of pushing Who back to an autumn broadcast, which many fans will tell you is its natural home in any case. So they ought to be happy about it.

It was also not an unusual thing to happen to a tv series at that time. Let's look at a contemporary example. Bergerac series 3 ended on 4th February 1984, and series 4 didn't start until 11th October 1985. 20 whole months off the air! Bloody hell, they got it worse than we did. Were the Bergerac fans up in arms as well? Doctor Who fans just love being melodramatic, and an "18 month suspension" is something more to complain about than an "8 month deferment". But you know, that's all it was.