Saturday, 30 April 2011

Anderthon: Watch It Flying through the Air...

episodes 9-13

High Tension

Dr Beaker has gone shopping in Carson City, which is basically a bit of back projected film. It’s another jarring example of the clash between real location backgrounds and puppet foregrounds, but taken to extremes in this case: despite being in Nevada, Carson City looks alarmingly like a British high street to me. Behind Beaker, we can see a jewellers’ shop and a branch of Woolworths. (I wonder if he went in for the Pick ’n’ Mix.) Anyway, Beaker is hailed by a passing motorist, who asks him for directions. It’s pretty obviously Masterspy – but as usual, Beaker is completely taken in by his disguise of a deerstalker cap and a fake moustache. Beaker foolishly agrees to get in the car and ride a short way, so that he can point out the directions properly. (And they’re always telling kids not to get into cars with strangers – what sort of an example is this setting? Then again, the fact that the driver turns out to be Masterspy might be seen as a sort of cautionary tale.) Once Beaker’s in the car, Masterspy reveals his plan. He’s kidnapped Beaker to exchange him for Supercar.

Back at the lab, Supercar is in a state of some disrepair. Beaker’s been working on the electrics, and has left loads of wires hanging out of the dashboard. Masterspy phones up with his demand: Mike is to take Supercar to a place called Green Ghost Wells, where he can hand the vehicle over in exchange for Beaker. It doesn’t look like they’ve got any choice – once again, Popkiss is dead set against calling the police. (I’m really starting to believe that Supercar is some sort of black-ops project that no one, not even the authorities, is allowed to know about – but surely the cat’s out of the bag by now?) Mike takes off, being careful of all the unfinished wiring that Beaker’s left behind. It’s at this point that Jimmy Gibson starts to become really irritating, as he constantly asks Popkiss what’s going on and has to have the storyline laboriously explained to him. Now, I’m aware that part of the point of having a character like Jimmy in the show is to provide an audience identification figure who can ask questions to clarify the plot. (Although it has to be said, kids don’t necessarily like watching other children in their tv shows, and are just as likely – if not more – to want to watch shows with older teenagers or adults as the protagonists. The Andersons seem to realize this after Supercar, which is why we don’t get another child lead character for a good few years.) In this particular instance however, Jimmy’s questions seem to be there just to pad out the episode, as everything he asks about has already been explained.

Green Ghost Wells is a series of mysterious holes in the desert. They may be extinct volcanoes or meteor craters – no one knows. Zarin is scared of the place, seemingly for no other reason than its name! But for Masterspy, it’s the ideal location: he has Beaker hidden inside one of the wells, and he can keep watch on Supercar’s arrival, to make sure Mike doesn’t try anything. But Mike foils him by flying over at high altitude and using the “clear view” system to spot which well Beaker is inside. Then he lands some distance away and quickly jumps out. While Mike continues on foot, Popkiss is able to fly Supercar on to the rendezvous by remote control. So, while Masterspy and Zarin are emerging from their hiding place to approach the landed Supercar, Mike is already sneaking into the well to free Beaker. It looks like Masterspy might have successfully captured Supercar however. But then Beaker reveals the reason for all the rewiring: he’s installed a new defence system in Supercar to keep wild animals away when its out in the field. Switching it on produces an electric current through the hull, which leaves Masterspy and Zarin quivering with electric shocks! (Time to hand them over to the police now, perhaps?)

A Little Art

Beaker has bought a painting from the Steindorf Gallery. What he doesn’t know is that Steindorf is a bit of conman, selling bad paintings by lesser artists at inflated prices to pretentious types with more money than artistic judgement. As a gallery owner, naturally Steindorf has a little goatee beard. Before he got into the art game, he used to be a proper crook – as he’s reminded when one of his former acquaintances turns up at the gallery. Jody Maddern has just been released from the state penitentiary, and strangely he’s come looking for one of Steindorf’s paintings. His old cellmate, Bud Hassler, has died in chokey after serving thirty-odd years for counterfeiting bank notes. His printing plates – supposedly the best counterfeit plates ever made – were never discovered. Hassler was also an artist, and before he died, he told Maddern that the location of the plates was hidden in one of his paintings “Mexican Plain”. Unfortunately, Steindorf has just recently sold the work the work in question. Guess who to! They try phoning Beaker, telling him that what he thought was a genuine Hassler has actually turned out to be a fake, and offer to buy the painting back, plus something extra for the inconvenience. Beaker though is not Steindorf’s usual customer – the material value of painting is immaterial to him. He actually appreciates it for its artistic qualities. They try increasing the offer, but he’s quite adamant that he wants to hang onto the painting. His attempts to teach art appreciation to Mitch don’t meet with too much success however. “Mexican Plain” is a sort of pastiche of Salvador Dali’s “Persistence of Memory” showing a desolate desert view with some mountains in the distance, a cactus and a clock face prominently featured in the foreground. Whether Mitch’s lack of interest is the producers’ comment on the value of surrealist art, I couldn’t say.

Steinforf’s interest has made everyone suspicious about the painting. Mike is sure he recognizes the terrain depicted. Popkiss remembers the name of the artist, Bud Hassler, as his arrest for counterfeiting was a big news story back when he first came to America in 1929 (which they say was about thirty years ago – so that confirms for the first time the contemporary early sixties setting for the series). And Beaker begins to wonder whether there might be another painting underneath – a stolen old master that Hassler has painted over to hide it. He sprays on a special solvent which will dissolve the paint overnight. That night, Steindorf and Maddern break into the lab and steal the painting, cutting it right out of its frame. They get in and out with such apparent ease that I have to wonder whether Popkiss has bothered to install any sort of alarm system (or locks come to that!) – especially odd considering his usual concerns for the security of Supercar.

Steindorf and Maddern head out to Mexico, where they locate the scene in the painting. The meaning of the picture becomes clear now. The shadow of the cactus resembles a pointing human finger, and the clock face shows the appropriate time: the counterfeit plates are buried at the tip of the cactus’s shadow. Unfortunately, they can’t find the cactus – it’s obviously died or been uprooted in the intervening three decades. They try to look at the painting to determine where it might have been – but by now, Beaker’s solvent has done its work and there’s nothing left but a messed-up blur of paint on the canvas. The two villains fall out and give up their quest. A few moments later, Supercar arrives. Mike and Beaker have remembered where they’ve seen the location depicted in the painting: they flew over it on their way to the Amazon. (A nice continuity reference back to episode 2.) Fortunately, Beaker has kept a photograph of the painting, and he’s able to ascertain where the cactus originally stood – he has the bemused Mike stand on the spot and imitate the cactus’s pose, so that they can find where the plates are buried. (Don’t worry, they’re going to hand them over to the US Treasury.) Beaker is a little upset to have lost his painting, but Mike reveals that Mitch is painting a new one for him. Mitch appears to be an exponent of the action painting school – either that, or he’s just chucking paint randomly onto the canvas.


The team are getting ready for a day out. It’s a bit of a squeeze for the five of them all in Supercar, especially with the picnic basket and a load of equipment that Beaker wants to bring. (So who’s manning the control console today then? I guess maybe they don’t need it when they’re not actually having an adventure…) What amazes me most about this little jaunt though is that they’re going out for a joyride in a top secret experimental vehicle. What about the security implications? I don’t know, Popkiss seems very lax about it all. (Actually though, it’s only when someone suggests calling in the police that the Professor gets all jittery about the need to maintain secrecy – do you think he’s got some reason for avoiding the cops?) They land on a desert plain, near the entrance to some caves and settle down for a picnic. All except Beaker, who it turns out is a keen potholer – speleology being another of his many disciplines. He wants to investigate the caves straight away, as there’s an interesting feature he wants to see. He says he’ll only be half an hour – just enough to locate the feature – then he’ll be back for lunch. To ensure he doesn’t get lost, he takes a leaf out of Ariadne’s book and ties the end of a ball of string to the cave entrance, unwinding it as he goes.

One thing that really stands out about this episode (and indeed the previous few) are the fantastic desert sets, really open plains with a great sense of depth to them. It’s like a return to the glory days of Four Feather Falls and a welcome respite from all the back projection. The cave set that Beaker explores is also really impressive, complete with real dripping stalactites. What Beaker doesn’t realize is that Mitch has followed him into the caves, untying and then gathering up the string as he goes. Someone really needs to keep an eye on that monkey! (I’m not seeing much evidence of his supposed intelligence in this last couple of episodes, I have to say – unless he knows exactly what he’s doing and is out to wind Beaker up! That said, he does seem to understand Beaker’s warnings that the cave roof is unstable, and therefore he needs to keep quiet.) Beaker has found what he’s seeking: a rare phenomenon, a completely frozen waterfall. Stepping behind it, he finds a paleolithic painting on the cave wall. Excited by his find, he raises his voice and causes the waterfall to collapse, burying him behind a solid wall of ice! Once the others realize what’s happened, Mike decides the only way to help Beaker is to take Supercar into the caves and use the jets to melt the ice. It’s a tricky job to manoeuvre through the narrow passages and turns of the cave system, not to mention the risk that they might bring more of the roof down on top of them. The tension is nicely drawn out, and again seems like a precursor to the “race against time” action of Thunderbirds.

Island Incident

The team are sitting down to breakfast – all except Beaker who’s in his lab making the toast. Being Beaker, he’s incapable of actually using a toaster, and is subjecting each slice individually to 25,000 watts of electricity using a massive machine. (I’ll be generous and assume he’s testing a new piece of equipment and simply killing two birds with one stone. It’s also a very funny sequence.) When Mike calls for more toast, he’s not so happy with the charred piece that Beaker produces. Meanwhile, Mike’s reading the newspaper: there have been several UFO sightings in Wyoming. (At Devil’s Tower, perhaps?) He wonders if they could have been Supercar. So they must have been doing test flights over in Wyoming – which seems odd when they’ve got plenty of empty space right here in Nevada. He also reads about the president of the island nation of Pelota, General Sebastian Laguava, who’s previously seemed a benevolent ruler, but recently has been arresting political opponents and the like. (Time for a UN resolution and some air strikes then? It’s funny how such a tale sounds relevant to my contemporary ears – I guess some things never change.) Just then Beaker receives a phone call, asking Supercar to come to a secret rendezvous in Southern California – the call apparently coming from President Laguava. Mike is immediately suspicious, remembering that the last time they answered an unexpected distress call, it turned out to be Masterspy. (A nice bit of continuity back to episode 4.) Popkiss though doesn’t believe Masterspy would try the same trick twice, and thinks that Mike ought to go.

At the rendezvous, it turns out that Mike’s contact is indeed President Laguava. He reveals that the news stories coming from his country are true in all but one detail – he’s been usurped by his brother, Colonel Humberto Laguava, and it’s he who’s turning the country into a police state. He’s heard of Supercar, and wants their help to get his country back. (So much for Popkiss’s security concerns then.) Mike and the President fly back to Pelota, and attempt to get to the presidential palace. But Colonel Humberto orders his men to open fire on the mysterious flying machine. (Maybe he thinks it’s a UFO – or a UN-sanctioned air strike coming in…) This results in Mike trying to negotiate his way through stock footage of real anti-aircraft guns, complete with real soldiers firing them! It’s another moment when the intrusion of reality shatters the consistency of the puppet realm, and it jars terribly. On Beaker’s advice, Mike pretends that Supercar has been hit and crashes it into the sea. Then they proceed towards the island underwater. Upon landing, they hear the sounds of a big party, and Laguava realizes that his brother has ordered a fiesta to celebrate repelling the attack. The guards will be getting drunk, and this will be the perfect moment to get to the palace. He doesn’t want to kill Humberto however – though he’s proved himself unfit to wear an officer’s uniform, he’s still his brother. At the palace, they encounter Humberto, and a shootout ensues. Mike demonstrates shooting skills of which Tex Tucker would be proud, shooting the gun from the Colonel’s hand, and even shooting the epaulettes from his uniform. As Sebastian Laguava takes control of his country once more, Mike finds himself awarded the Supreme Order of the Golden Star of Pelota.

The Tracking of Masterspy

Mike returns to the lab, and announces that he met a representative of the Greyburn News Agency in town, who are coming to do a feature on Supercar. Popkiss though denies that any such thing is happening – Supercar is top secret after all. Mike just assumed that Popkiss had decided it was time to lift the veil – considering the Professor’s lax and inconsistent attitude to security over the last few episodes, it’s no wonder that Mike’s got confused by it all. (But hang on a minute! Mike took the supposedly top secret Supercar into town? Where did he park it? And presumably Popkiss didn’t have a problem with that.) As it turns out, the Greyburn News Agency is a front for Masterspy. He’s had Zarin following Mike, to find out where his base is. (But Masterspy knows where the lab is – he’s been there, as long ago as episode 3. I’d also quite like to know how Zarin managed to follow Mike when he was piloting an airborne supersonic vehicle!) Masterspy soon turns up at the lab, and again acts as if he’s never been there – and as if he’s never seen Supercar before, completely forgetting that he’s already stolen it once before, and very nearly a second time. It’s just annoying that after the accurate continuity references in the previous few episodes, here it seems as if the writers have forgotten almost everything they’ve previously established. This episode is so inconsistent that I almost find myself hoping that this one will turn out to be a dream episode – and you know how much I hate those!

Fortunately things pick up once Masterspy gets to work. He opens a fuel valve and spills aviation spirit all over the floor, then starts waving a lighter around, threatening to burn the place down and destroy Supercar into the bargain. In this way, he manages to steal all the plans and drawings for Supercar, which is probably more sensible and convenient than trying to steal the vehicle itself. Just then Beaker enters with some new gizmo he’s built – Masterspy demands to know what it is, and the others watch amazed as Beaker explains that it’s a new guidance system for Supercar – so Masterspy steals that too. He causes a small explosion to cover his escape, forcing the team to combat the flames rather than giving pursuit. It soon transpires that Beaker has been smarter than the others have given him credit for. (So, now who’s a fool?) His machine is actually a new tracking device – Mike will be able to follow the signal straight back to Masterspy’s lair. Soon, Supercar is flying over New York (though they just call it “the city” ) – and lands on the roof of Masterspy’s building. Mike bursts into the villains’ office, catching them off guard. He reveals the truth about the tracking device, but then bluffs them into believing it’s also a radio transmitter – he reports his location and calls for the police to be sent. Masterspy would rather give up the stolen plans than fall into the hands of the police. (So, I guess Mike leaves him at liberty once again…!)

Monday, 25 April 2011

Anderthon: Now who's a fool?

episodes 5-8

What Goes Up

I still can’t work out who our heroes work for. This week, the team are collaborating on a research project with Colonel Lewis of the US Air Force, which seems to suggest that they have some sort of government connection. But when, as is the way of these things, the project inevitably goes wrong and Supercar is the only thing that can save the day, they’re almost reticent to show it to the Colonel, as it’s top secret and he doesn’t have security clearance. (But who decides the levels of clearance? It implies there’s some higher authority they answer to…) Colonel Lewis’s people have sent up a high altitude balloon carrying lots of atmospheric measuring equipment. It seems Beaker is an expert in this field as well, and that’s why he’s helping out by studying the instrument readings. Once all the measurements have been taken, the test canister is to be blown up – hence the whole operation is called Project Fourth of July. Jimmy asks the most obvious question: why don’t they bring the canister down again, by parachute? But they can’t do this as it contains a quantity of explosive rocket fuel. The jolt of landing would be enough to cause an explosion. So, despite the cost of losing the expensive instruments, they’ve got to detonate it by remote control. (Which all sounds fine in principle – but what doesn’t make sense is why the volatile fuel is inside the test canister in the first place – its only purpose surely is to cause a bloody big explosion. Without it, why couldn’t they have brought the canister down safely? Have the Air Force thought this through properly – perhaps they just want to see a big bang?) So they count down to a remote detonation. Interestingly, Mitch seems able to follow this, as he cheekily bursts an inflated paper bag when it gets to zero (and earlier he seemed to understand what Jimmy was saying to him). Unfortunately, the actual canister fails to detonate, and Beaker calculates that it’s likely to fall to Earth and explode smack in the middle of a city.

There’s only one thing for it. Someone has to go up and blow the thing up while it’s still high enough not to cause any damage. Conventional aircraft can’t climb high enough, so there’s no option but for Mike to take Supercar up. (Though they haven’t tested it at high altitude yet, so they’re taking a bit of a risk – it seems the theme song’s promise that it can travel in space is a little bit premature.) Colonel Lewis provides a rocket launcher which is quickly fitted to Supercar’s nose – but there’s only one rocket, so Mike has to get it right first time. As Mike will be ascending to the edge of space, he needs an oxygen mask and a foil suit to protect him against cosmic radiation. Beaker is worried that the seals on Supercar’s pressurized cockpit won’t hold up, and insists that Mike does a manual check. Just as well – there’s a small hole in the canopy that’s letting out air. Fortunately, Beaker’s had the foresight to pack a puncture repair kit (yes, just like the sort you’d use to mend your bicycle tyre – as he sticks a rubber patch over the hole, even Mike comments it’s like repairing a tyre from inside the tube.) Because of the thin atmosphere at this height, Mike can’t trim Supercar properly using the wings, which means he can’t aim the rocket accurately. To be sure of hitting his mark, he has to fly in closer than the recommended safe distance, and risk being caught in the explosion himself. It’s a moment of selfless courage (exactly the sort of thing we’ll be seeing from the Tracy boys in a few years – once again it seems like Supercar is a dry run for Thunderbirds). Of course, Mike succeeds and manages to get Supercar away from the explosion – that’s why he’s our hero – but not without charring the bodywork. They’ll send Colonel Lewis the bill for a new paint job.

Keep It Cool

It seems that Beaker’s been inspired by the antics of the Air Force last week, because now he’s developed a ridiculously powerful and volatile new rocket fuel. It’s so dangerous that Popkiss won’t let him make it in the lab, so he has to have it brought in by truck. Keeping it all in the family, Beaker employs Jimmy’s brother Bill to drive it for him. It seems Bill runs a company called Gibson’s Transport – on the evidence presented here, it could just be a “one man and a van” outfit. The dangerous nature of the fuel means it has to be kept at a temperature below zero, so transporting it at night is the best option – even so, they have a refrigeration unit rigged up on the back of the truck. Despite Beaker’s best efforts at navigation, the truck gets lost in the desert. As it turns out, this is because the signposts have been altered and moved by none other than Masterspy and Zarin. Their next trick is to leave a large rock in the road that wrecks Bill’s suspension and leaves the truck stranded. Bill has to turn off the refrigerator to save the battery, as he’ll need all the power left to keep the radio going. Beaker doesn’t seem too worried by this, as the freezing night-time temperatures in the desert will keep the fuel safe until morning, by which time Supercar will have found them – Mike being able to home in on the signal from the truck’s radio. But then Masterspy and Zarin reveal themselves, and tie Bill and Beaker up. They want to steal Beaker’s new fuel – presumably to sell to an oil company or foreign power. Zarin fetches a can of the fuel from the refrigeration unit, and smashes the truck’s radio. Bill and Beaker manage to flatter Masterspy’s ego, and so delay the villains’ departure until after dawn – by which time the increase in heat starts to have an effect on the can of fuel, which starts bubbling angrily even as Zarin holds it on his lap. Supercar is already airborne by this time, but without the radio signal from the truck, Mike can only make a very general wide area search. Then the fuel can explodes, sending up a massive plume of smoke that serves to guide Mike to the area. Masterspy and Zarin are unharmed of course – despite finding themselves sitting amid the devastated wreckage of their van, they themselves only end up with blackened faces. (Realism goes completely out of the window here – but then these are cartoon villains, it seems quite appropriate that they should come out of these mishaps no worse off than Wile E Coyote. We shouldn’t forget that this is still very much a children’s programme, full of daft humour and its own surreal internal logic.)


Beaker has invented a new guidance system, and they’ve brought Supercar to an electronics firm in England to have it built and installed. (This is apparently to help maintain secrecy, because Supercar is becoming too well known back in America. Are they worried about industrial espionage, some other manufacturer stealing a march on them? That’s if Supercar is the prototype for a new kind of vehicle eventually to be marketed. Or is it a secret research project with ultimately military applications? All this concern for security, and yet they think nothing of taking Supercar out on joyrides and rescue missions. It’s yet another instance of the rather nebulous and unexplained backstory.) This trip to England gives the excuse for lots of jokes and stereotyping – Mike grumbles about the weather and says he’d rather be back in the desert. Still, at least Beaker seems happy to be back in his native land for a while, and it’s intimated that this may be the real reason for choosing JFP Ltd for this work. The managing director, J Farleigh Prothero, is a completely over-the-top depiction of a public school chinless wonder, with a little moustache and ridiculously high-pitched cut glass accent. (“Rather bad form, what?”) Similarly exaggerated are the villains of the piece: Judd is an expert safecracker with flat cap, a fag stuck in the side of his mouth, and “Blimey Guvnor” dialogue – his partner is Harper, a weasely disgruntled employee of JFP, who thinks he’s been passed over for promotion. It's just the sort of Americanized vision of what the British are like common to Hollywood films, that it’s odd to think this was shot by Englishmen in Slough!

Harper’s plan for revenge is to steal Beaker’s new circuit boards and sell them to an unspecified foreign buyer. (An enemy agent perhaps? Hey, maybe it’s Masterspy!) The episode opens with a rather lovely night-time tracking shot through model scale sets, past a warehouse to a van parked outside the offices of JFP Ltd. (Is it just me, or does the firm’s logo look just like the APF symbol with the letters slightly changed?) Inside, Judd and Harper crack the safe – but before they make their getaway, Harper enters the warehouse where Supercar is being stored and sabotages the vehicle. The theft is discovered the next day – Mr Prothero wants to call the police, but the team are dead set against this because of the secrecy of their project. Then Beaker gets a phone call from Harper, calling from a phone box. (Of course he’s in a phone box – they have to stick a red phone box in just in case American viewers have forgotten we’re in England!) He tells Beaker that they’ve stolen the circuits and even the location of the airfield they’re heading for. Beaker believes that Harper has a psychological desire to brag about his crime, but really he just wants to goad them into using Supercar to give chase – that’s why he sabotaged the vehicle earlier. It takes some time before Mike can take off however, as Professor Popkiss needs to rig up a temporary ground control console. (Now this implies that Supercar can only be operated properly when Mike’s in communication with the console. Obviously the controls are too complex for one man to handle alone.)

Because he’s not launching through the laboratory roof for once, Mike is able to extend the stabilizing wings while Supercar is still on the ground – this is fortunate since it’s one of the wings that Harper has sabotaged. Supercar loses lift and crashes back to the ground. If this had happened at normal cruising height, Mike could have been a goner. The broken wing amusingly looks just like someone’s snapped a balsa wood model (which is in fact the case!) With flight denied to Supercar, it looks like the villains are going to get away with it – but Mike decides that he can drive along the motorway to catch them. It will of course mean breaking the speed limit – but no one will be able to catch them to give them a speeding ticket, and they’ll be out of the country before the law can catch up with them. (I don’t know – is this a responsible attitude for our upright heroes to be demonstrating?) So Mike races along a back projected motorway – film of a real motorway with real cars – this is another really glaring example of the way that back projection clashes with the puppets/models in the foreground, and takes the characters out of their own self-contained world. Interestingly, Supercar isn’t actually driving (still no wheels!) but is in fact flying at a very low altitude – so it’s functioning as a ground effect vehicle. It’s also made clear that this is the first time they’ve tried to do this (so again the theme song’s assertion that “it travels on land” is a little over-optimistic). Mike is able to beat Judd and Harper to the airfield – especially since the villains manage to miss their motorway exit!

Jungle Hazard

Masterspy is trying on a new jungle hat, because he and Zarin are off to Malaya. They’ve just heard that an estate there has recently passed to a English spinster, Miss Felicity Farnsworth. The estate is a bit run down, so Masterspy is hoping to con her into selling it to him for a low asking price – because really it’s a prime rubber plantation and with a bit of work could be really profitable. (I don’t know – as villainous schemes go, it’s not exactly big league stuff – why does he call himself Masterspy again?) Out in Mayala, and calling himself Mr Smith, Masterspy tries to convince Miss Farnsworth that the estate needs too much work to be profitable. She agrees, and so offers him a job working for her on the estate! Despite this setback, Masterspy decides to stick around and try to talk her into selling.

Meanwhile at the lab, Beaker is working on some dangerous-looking concoction – more of his rocket fuel perhaps? Mike is alarmed when Beaker emerges from the test chamber with a great steaming pot of the stuff, but it turns out to be a curry made to an old family recipe – Curry Farnsworth. Yes, Felicity Farnsworth is none other than Beaker’s cousin – that would explain why she basically looks like Beaker in a dress, and speaks in the same drawn-out way as well. Beaker has a letter from his cousin where she tells him about her visitors who are looking to buy the plantation – Mr Smith and Mr Zarin. (Damn, they didn’t think of a pseudonym for Zarin! Poor planning there, Masterspy!) The name alerts Beaker to what’s going on, and he and Mike plan to set out for Malaya in Supercar right away. Mitch the monkey demonstrates yet again that he can understand English and knows what’s going on, as he brings Beaker his pith helmet unbidden.

When Mike and Beaker get to Malaya, they find Miss Farnsworth gone. The houseboy tells them that she set out overland to the nearest town to buy some supplies, and her two visitors accompanied her. As Supercar won’t be able to follow them through the jungle, Beaker elects to track them on foot, while Mike follows overhead, guided by radio. Masterspy’s plan is to murder Miss Farnsworth en route. He seizes the chance when she uses a native rope-bridge to cross a swamp. Masterspy saws through the ropes with a machete, and Felicity falls into the swamp where she gets sucked down into quicksand. But Beaker arrives just in time, knocking Masterspy and Zarin out with his umbrella – and Mike is able to lower a harness with which to pull Miss Farnsworth out of the swamp. Felicity thanks her cousin for saving the honour of the family – just as the elastic snaps in her bloomers and they fall down round her ankles. Good job she’s wearing a long skirt. Beaker has to hide his eyes behind his umbrella. (But do they hand Masterspy and Zarin over to the authorities? What do you think?)

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Anderthon: Engines Charging, Interlock On...

episodes 1-4

For years, I believed that Supercar was the first Anderson/supermarionation series. Not that I’d ever seen it, but I remember reading features in Look-In about the Andersons’ work, and they always seemed to start with Supercar. Poor old Four Feather Falls always seemed to get missed out, quite undeservedly as I’ve recently discovered. But I can see why Supercar is seen by some as the start of a trend: just like the next few shows the Andersons will produce, it is centred around (and indeed even named after) a fantastic vehicle. Now, I know that for a lot of people, the vehicles and the technology are what the Anderson shows are all about – that’s why for instance there are a lot of scratch model builders involved in the fandom. I have to say, it’s never really been my primary focus. I prefer stories and characters. Supercar is of course a children’s puppet show, so I don’t expect gritty adult drama, but as my appreciation of Four Feather Falls demonstrated, there can be can still be an appeal to the adult viewer, through inventive plotting and especially knowing humour.

One thing that’s struck me from watching these initial episodes: I’m finding it very hard to get a handle on the setting of the series. Now, it’s often said that Supercar is the start of the run of science fiction shows the Andersons produced. (That’s probably another reason why Four Feather Falls sometimes gets overlooked.) There are very few clues in this first batch of episodes, but it seems as if Supercar is set in the present day (the early 1960s) – as aside from Supercar itself, all the vehicles shown appear to be contemporary, as do the character’s costumes. There have also been few science fiction elements in the storylines so far – they’re mostly adventure and espionage tales, like a junior version of Danger Man. If the high-tech car is our only futuristic element, I guess that makes the series about as much of a science fiction piece as Knight Rider.

In terms of visual look, very little has changed since Four Feather Falls. The puppets are still mainly grotesques and caricatures – interestingly, this time even the hero Mike Mercury has rather an exaggerated appearance with his long nose, Dennis Healey eyebrows and amazingly prominent chin. Perhaps they didn’t want the haunted look of another Tex Tucker type. Suffice it to say, I’m not reading much emotional baggage into Mike. He’s also got a silly adventurous-sounding surname, as will several of his successors!

One thing I have noticed – and I had been warned about this – is the use of back projection. Nearly all the scenes of Supercar in flight (and also, for instance, the backdrop of an airfield seen from the control tower windows) are done with back projected film of real sky or locations. It was a common technique in sixties television, so one imagines that at the time, it would have seemed perfectly normal. It’s a little jarring to the modern eye though, and never really looks real. That said, I watch a lot of sixties tv shows, so I’m used to it and usually I can dial it out. Why it doesn’t really work here is that we’re seeing real backdrops behind artificial characters and settings. In Four Feather Falls, the prairie locations were all done for real (in puppet scale of course) which gave the whole thing a real depth – but also it meant that it was a self-contained, consistent world. Here, there’s a real clash of visual inputs, reality and the puppet realm competing with each other.


Bill Gibson is flying a light plane, with his little brother Jimmy and Mitch the monkey as passengers, when the engine packs up and he’s forced to ditch in the sea. There’s a thick sea mist, and air sea rescue helicopters are unable to locate the survivors in their life-raft. Things get really bad when Mitch accidentally throws the survival rations into the sea! Meanwhile, Professor Popkiss is putting the finishing touches to his invention, Supercar. It’s an odd machine really. Why do they call it Supercar? It’s not really a car – it hasn’t got wheels for a start – and (at least in these episodes) it doesn’t travel on land either. It’s got a bubble canopy like an aircraft’s cockpit, and they call Mike the pilot rather than the driver. It seems more like an advanced amphibious aircraft than a car. The episode doesn’t make clear just what Supercar was built for, nor who funded it. Is it a government project? Is it funded by industry? One imagines that the developmental costs of such a vehicle would be quite prohibitive – did it all come from Popkiss’s own pocket? But if so, why? Is he hoping to market the technology? (It’s not good enough – I want some proper background!)

Professor Popkiss is a kindly-looking scientist type with a pronounced Eastern European accent and round glasses. Also on the team is Doctor Beaker, whose role is undefined. Sometimes, he seems to be a medical man, sometimes a scientist, sometimes an engineer – so, a real multi-disciplinarian. He has a spectacular Bobby Charlton style comb-over, and a peculiar drawn-out way of speaking, with long pauses for thought – and never uses one-syllable words when he can use twenty words instead. (He does seem to be a spiritual ancestor of Brains from Thunderbirds.) I like him, and I suspect he’s going to be one of the real stars of the show.

Hearing about the Gibsons’ plight, Mike persuades Popkiss to bring Supercar’s test flight forward, so he can go and rescue them. Fortunately, Beaker has invented a system called “Clear View”, a tv monitor system that can look through fog and smoke, so Mike will be able to locate the life-raft where the search helicopters have failed. They bring the Gibsons and Mitch back to their laboratory to recover. (Wouldn’t it have made more sense to take them to a hospital? Especially since Bill has a broken leg? Well, I guess Beaker can handle it.) Having a monkey running around the research base may not be such a good idea though, especially as Mitch gets into Supercar and starts fiddling with the controls. “I think we’ve found a co-pilot,” says Beaker. I presume he’s taking the piss.

Amazonian Adventure

Mitch the monkey falls ill, and Beaker ascertains that he’s suffering from a disease known to be peculiar to his particular species. Beaker reads up on the subject and learns that in their native Amazon, the monkeys are sometimes seen to cure themselves after eating the leaves of the clogai plant that grows there. As Mitch falls into a catatonic state, Mike determines that they need to take Supercar to the Amazon to collect some of the plant. Popkiss seems reluctant to allow this use of the vehicle, until Mike reminds him forcefully that Mitch is one of the outfit. (Hang on! When did that happen? Last week, Jimmy was just a kid they’d rescued and Mitch was wrecking the place. Now suddenly, they’ve joined the Supercar team. But what happened to Jimmy’s brother? They don’t mention him. And should they be taking a kid away to work on a research project like that? What about his schooling? Is he going to be home-tutored by Popkiss and Beaker? They also don’t mention what Jimmy’s parents think about the arrangement – in fact, I don’t know if there are any parents. Maybe they’re dead and Bill is Jimmy’s legal guardian – in which case, you can understand why a young go-getting chap like that wouldn’t want to be saddled with a kid brother to bring up, and would happily accept the first people to want to take Jimmy off his hands. I’m just speculating wildly here. Did the writers even think about any of this? Just like with the lack of background given in the first episode, it’s like some of the exposition has been missed out.)

Well anyway, Mike and Beaker take off for the Amazon. This seems to be Beaker’s first trip in Supercar, as he’s initially quite nervous about the prospect – but he soon calms down and decides that Mike is a fairly competent pilot. Landing in a clearing in the rainforest, Beaker dons a pith helmet, and they set out to look for the clogai plant. Before very long, they’re captured by some natives and imprisoned in a hut. In addition to botany, Beaker displays his knowledge of anthropology when he concludes that their captors are members of the Twarka tribe, long thought to be extinct. Unfortunately, they’re known to be a tribe of headhunters – rather amusingly, there are some mummified puppet heads displayed at the back of the hut. Mike manages to escape by working a hole in the back of the hut, and gets back to Supercar. He then flies low over the native village, while down below Beaker calls out incantations to make the tribesmen think he’s some kind of god calling down a sky chariot. This reduces them to abject fear, and they give Beaker the required clogai plant as a tribute. (Presumably for budgetary reasons, the Twarka tribe seems to consist of only a witch doctor and a tribal chief. And was that chief actually Red Scalp from Four Feather Falls? It certainly looked a lot like him…) Presenting the tribe as silly superstitious savages is a little galling after the magic realism and sympathetic portrayal of the Indians in Four Feather Falls.

The Talisman of Sargon

The series format is being developed as they go along. So far, it looks like Supercar is just going to be employed to run the occasional errand of mercy. But here we get a bit more complexity added with the introduction of some proper villains. I say introduction, but actually Masterspy and Zarin are just thrown at us as if we’re expected to know who they are. Again, it’s like the writers forgot to give us the necessary exposition. (Which is possibly the case. Hugh and Martin Woodhouse were writing these things ridiculously fast – at a rate of about one a week!) Without a proper introduction, it’s hard to work out exactly who they are. They operate from an office possibly somewhere in New York state (there's a view over some water to what appears to be Manhattan Island) and would appear to be freelance villains out for their own gain rather than espionage agents employed by an unsympathetic foreign power. So the name Masterspy is a bit of a misnomer, given that he’s not actually spying for anyone – though his services could be for hire, I suppose. But wait a minute! He’s actually called Masterspy – it’s not exactly the most undercover of names, is it? And Beaker recognizes him – since we’ve never had any indication that they’ve met before, this implies that Masterspy is famous enough that his face has been in the newspapers. So internationally famous and using a name that’s a dead giveaway – when it comes to his chosen profession, he hasn’t really thought it through. Still, I’m prepared to overlook some of these anomalies as the two characters are amusing. Masterspy is fat and bossy, Zarin is stupid and cowardly, and both are clearly incompetent comedy villains – let’s face it, they’re basically Pedro and Fernando updated to the James Bond era – so I hope they’re going to provide as much entertainment as the Mexican bandits did.

Masterspy has come into possession of an ancient tablet that apparently reveals the location of the fabled Talisman of Sargon, which he believes will grant him great power. He can’t translate the cuneiform inscription however – so he heads off to the Supercar lab to consult Dr Beaker. It seems palaeography is another of the Doc’s skills. Needless to say, Masterspy has to adopt one of his amazing disguises. Here’s an example of the show having a bit of fun with the adult viewer, since Masterspy’s false moustache and eyepatch is not in the least convincing. (Indeed, it’s not too long after he leaves that Beaker realizes who his visitor was!) Armed with the translation – “in my mouth lies the door to power” – Masterspy and Zarin rush off to the desert kingdom of Mustapha Bey. (He’s just the sort of sunglasses-wearing, hookah-smoking sheikh that appeared in Danger Man and similar shows.) They persuade him that they’re archaeologists interested in the tomb of the ancient ruler Sargon, and he grants them access. Masterspy works out the meaning of the inscription – there’s a hidden catch inside the mouth of Sargon’s effigy that opens the sarcophagus to reveal a hidden chamber beneath, where the talisman is located.

By this time, Mike and co have arrived in Supercar - but Masterspy seals them inside the tomb. Beaker though works out that there’s a second meaning to the inscription – a secret speaking tube built into the sarcophagus that would have enabled a priest to hide in the chamber and issue proclamations apparently through the mouth of Sargon. They use this to call to Mitch, who’s been left up top, and the curious monkey reaches inside the effigy and triggers the release catch. It’s another example of how we’ve substituted science and deduction for the magic of Four Feather Falls. Our heroes are delayed clearing sand out of Supercar’s air intakes, but eventually they catch up with Masterspy, who’s trying to use his possession of the talisman to take control of Mustapha Bey’s realm – he believes that Mustapha’s superstitious subjects will obey whoever wields the power of Sargon. (At least, Masterspy has some practical objective in all this: he's really after the oil wealth to be found under the desert sands.)

False Alarm

Masterspy says that the Supercar team have thwarted him numerous times now (so they must have had plenty of off-screen encounters). He’s got a scheme though: he and Zarin are going to steal Supercar. The lighting in this scene is incredibly well done, very film-noirish with lots of shadows – it really makes our incompetent villains seem quite sinister for a moment. Masterspy relies on the fact that Supercar is always answering distress calls. (So that seems at least to give some foundation to what the team actually do – they’re like a prototype version of International Rescue.) Here, Masterspy phones the laboratory pretending to be a policeman, and reports that two geologists out in the desert have had an accident and that it’s proving difficult to get aid to them – Supercar could be their only hope. (Yes, that’s right – you can just phone Supercar up and ask for help. Why didn’t International rescue have their own phone line? – they wouldn’t have needed to muck around with a space station. I might consider this question again when I get to Thunderbirds.) Anyway, Mike and Beaker fly out to the desert. From their landing site, they haven’t got time to reach the geologists’ purported location before it gets dark, so they make camp for the night. Masterspy and Zarin drug them and tie them up, and then proceed to steal Supercar. Zarin is terrified of both the machine, and Masterspy’s inexpert attempts to work out the controls. But worse is to come. Back at base, Mitch the monkey hears Masterspy’s voice over the radio, and starts to muck around with the remote control for Supercar. (Now, it’s not clear if Mitch is deliberately doing this to thwart Masterspy, or if he’s just fiddling indiscriminately with the controls – they do tell us he’s a very intelligent monkey, and I suppose it would follow in the tradition of Rocky and Dusty to have clever animals saving the day. I’ll keep an eye on Mitch’s antics and see if I can determine just how smart he actually is.) Soon, Masterspy has had enough of the erratic flying he’s being subjected to and gives up. Popkiss steers Supercar back to where Mitch and Beaker are (they’ve managed to get themselves free in the meantime) – and they depart, leaving Masterspy and Zarin to have to walk back to civilization! (So didn’t they think of… I don’t know… handing them over to the police or anything sensible like that?)

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Anderthon: Sacramento California!

Four Feather Falls
episodes 34-39

Teething Troubles

Rocky’s off his feed, and Tex can’t understand why – but eventually, he gets the horse to explain that he’s suffering from toothache. When Doc Haggerty comes to have a look, Rocky refuses to open his mouth. It seems he’s very attached to his teeth, and doesn’t want to have one extracted, no matter how painful it is. No amount of promises, bribes or cajolery (not even unlimited free candy) can get Rocky to open his mouth. Meanwhile, Mr Jackson is coming back from doing business in Silver City, and is bringing the travelling dentist with him – but Rocky runs away to seek the attention of the Indian medicine man. This doesn’t achieve anything, as he’s unable to get the medicine man to understand him. (It might be Indian magic, but as we were quite specifically told, only Tex can actually speak to Rocky.) Back in town, Rocky agrees to have his tooth extracted, as long as Tex does the same. Fortunately, the sheriff has an old wisdom tooth that Doc says should come out. But when Rocky follows him into the dentist’s wagon, his toothache miraculously goes away and he doesn’t need an extraction after all – leaving poor Tex in pain, minus a tooth and with a bandage wrapped around his jaw. This was quite a disappointing episode, as nothing much happened. Obviously it was intended as a jokey episode, but the punchline was predictable and disappointing – and without any bandits or other villainy for Tex to combat, it’s like there’s something missing.

Fancy Shooting

The most exciting thing to happen in town since Ma Jones had a sale: the saloon is playing host to Buck Reevers, a gunslinger renowned for his fancy shooting – “the fastest and bestest in the Westest” as the advertising banner has it! Tex is concerned that such a reputation will attract maverick gunslingers to the town, eager to prove themselves against Buck. He’s also convinced that Buck is nothing more than a showman, and wouldn’t be much use in a confrontation with a real gunfighter. Big Ben has already been slagging him off. But as ever, the bandit proves himself to be all mouth – when he encounters Buck Reevers outside town, he’s all deferential to him. Later that day, Ben gets an unexpected visitor at his shack – the gunfighter called Lightning Lew, who’s come to challenge Buck Reevers. Looks like Tex’s prediction is going to prove right. While Buck Reevers is giving his demonstration that night (shooting clay pipes out of racks, holes through playing cards, that sort of thing) Big Ben lifts one of his bullets for Lightning Lew to examine. It turns out to have only one quarter of the charge of a real bullet – so the gun has almost no kick, enabling Buck to keep his aim steady – but he’d be nothing in a real gunfight. As soon as the challenge is issued, Buck goes to pieces and begs Tex for help. Tex has already agreed to take part in Buck’s show (volunteering to have a cigarette shot out of his mouth) and tells Buck that he’s going to have to go through with the show as if he isn’t afraid. When Lightning Lew bursts into the saloon, the magic guns come to the rescue, shooting the gun from Lew’s hand and the fag from Tex’s mouth – which feat Tex then attributes to Buck, who was so fast on the draw no one even saw his guns move. (What’s strange is not that people buy this, so much as they don’t wonder that Tex had something to do with it – after all, the entire town knows about the magic guns by now.) It seems odd that Tex seeks to preserve Buck’s reputation, when he’d earlier expressed such disapproval – but as he explains to Rocky, he wouldn’t want to deprive a man of his living. And more importantly, he’d rather that guns were used for entertainment than for violence. It’s interesting to hear such sentiments from a man who uses guns as part of his everyday work, but it does seem to be Tex’s belief. He’s aware that the nature of frontier life means it’s necessary for him to use his guns to enforce the law, but he looks forward to the day when they’ll no longer be necessary. It’s a lesson that perhaps the pro-gun lobby in America today ought to take to heart.

Ride ‘em Cowboy

There’s a terrific shot at the beginning of this episode, with Pedro and Fernando framed in extreme close-up with the jailhouse in the background. They proceed to spy on Tex as he’s presented with a new pair of boots by the townsfolk. Tex is going to be riding in the forthcoming rodeo against Bart Stevens of Silver City. Pedro and Fernando are currently in the employ of Stevens, who needs their help to knobble the opposition. So while Tex is distracted, Pedro steals Tex’s new boots and throws them down a well. Unfortunately for Tex, he’s already given his old boots away to a passing drifter. He can’t possibly ride without boots! The rodeo gets under way with a shooting competition. Grandpa Twink is representing Four Feather Falls – but Fernando has fixed his gun, so it blows up in his face (harmlessly!). Bart Stevens lends Twink his own gun, but that just fires a flag saying BANG! Luckily, Tex turns up and lends Twink his own rifle – and grandpa goes on to prove that his old reputation as a sharpshooter is still deserved. Next up is the rodeo riding, which Tex has to do without his boots. Needless to say, he can’t keep his balance on Rocky’s back and comes a cropper. Help is at hand though: Chief Kalamakooya has magicked the boots out of the well, and Tex is able to complete the rodeo events. Bart Stevens now believes that Pedro has double crossed him, and decides to take care of things himself. He dopes Rocky before the final buggy race. This doesn’t have quite the effect intended however – although Rocky becomes sluggish and looks like dropping out of the race, once he realizes what Stevens has done to him, he seems to find new reserves of strength and determination, overcoming the doping to pull ahead and win. Tex then catches Stevens arguing with Pedro and Fernando (villains falling out as ever!) – Stevens pulls his gun and a stand-off follows, but once again the magic guns settle the day. The villains are arrested, with the sheriff of Silver City taking custody of the disgraced Stevens.


A nice bit of continuity following the building of the railroad a few weeks ago – now, money shipments no longer have to be brought in by buggy, at risk from thieves and bandits. The latest delivery is coming in from Dallas by train, accompanied by one William J Hatton, a senior clerk from the bank there. Mr Jackson gives Tex a letter of authority to meet the train and take charge of the money. As it turns out, almost the entire population of Four Feather Falls are riding back on the train with Mr Hatton, having been attending a fair in Dallas. The train is ambushed by Indians led by Red Scalp. (I expressed my surprise a few episodes back when Tex was able to catch a locomotive up on horseback, but here the Indians have no difficulty keeping pace with the train – maybe I’ve over-estimated the speed of steam trains in this period…) Everyone draws their guns, and starts trying to fight the Indians off – yes, even Ma Jones, who seems quite bloodthirsty about it! But the Indians stop the train, and demand that Hatton and the money are handed over – after which, the others can go free. Hatton agrees to give himself up for the sake of the others. But it’s all a put-up job. Hatton has done a deal with Red Scalp to split the money with him. When the train finally gets in to Four Feather Falls and the passengers tell Tex what’s occurred, he sets off in pursuit immediately. Red Scalp has been cunning though, and left multiple confusing trails which Tex is unable to follow. Needless to say, Red Scalp double crosses Hatton. However, he allows him one chance to escape: as the Indians bed down for the night, they leave Hatton barefoot inside a ring of fire. If Hatton can walk across the flames, then he can go free. Tex soon turns up, Dusty having caught the scent of the smoke from the fire. He ties strips of blanket round his boots to enable him to cross the flames to Hatton, who comes clean about his conspiracy with Red Scalp. Rocky, proudly mentioning his descent from prime showjumping stock, then leaps over the flames to carry Tex, Hatton and the money to safety. With the money safe in the bank, Tex takes Hatton back to Dallas under arrest – by train.

Horse Thieves

Pedro and Fernando are once again bemoaning their lack of money, but unable to come up with a plan to make any – when Big Ben turns up at their shack with a proposition. He wants them to steal horses, as he’s got a buyer lined up who’ll pay for as many as they can get. In Four Feather Falls, Tex is in the saloon, where he’s once again been enticed into singing for his friends. This time, Twink asks to hear Tex’s own song – in other words the end title theme, “Two Gun Tex of Texas”. It’s a somewhat strange idea to have Tex singing the theme music, especially as it’s about himself! Meanwhile, Pedro and Fernando sneak into town, and steal all the horses in the stables – including Rocky. Dusty comes to raise the alarm, but it’s too late. The bandits are already riding out of town. It turns out that everyone’s horse was in the stables that night, so there are no horses left in the whole of Four Feather Falls! Tex is unable to mount a pursuit. Dusty sets off on his own initiative, and manages to track the stolen horses to where Pedro and Fernando have made camp. They corral the horses and await the arrival of Big Ben with their money. Dusty encourages Rocky to jump over the corral fence. (He didn’t need any encouragement to leap over fire last week, but here he seems uncertain that he can do it…) On the way back to find Tex, they spot Big Ben heading for his rendezvous. Dusty tracks the bandit, while Rocky fetches Tex to catch Ben up. When Pedro and Fernando see Big Ben approaching, they drop their guard – which is foolish of them, since it’s really Tex on Ben’s horse and wearing Ben’s hat. Holding them at gunpoint, he takes them in for being “no-good horse thieves”. Pedro objects – they’ve very good horse thieves. They just stole the wrong horse this time! This is the last appearance of our three regular villains, so it’s nice that they get to team up one final time.

Happy Birthday

It’s Tex’s birthday, and the whole episode revolves around the preparations for his party. As a finale, this is something of a damp squib: no danger, no jeopardy. You want Tex Tucker to go out on a high, upholding the law and sorting out the bandits once and for all. In that regard, the previous instalment would have made a better conclusion. I suppose I’m thinking in modern terms here, where you expect a series finale to be a grand adventure that sums up the ethos of the show in glorious style. Where are Pedro, Fernando and Ben coming into town for a final showdown with their arch-enemy? Instead, what we get here is Martha baking a cake. Chief Kalamakooya uses his magic to help Makooya grow some flowers on the prairie, then conjures up a pair of riding gauntlets for the townsfolk to give Tex as a present. There’s a slight moment of jeopardy when an eagle snatches the gauntlets from the back of Twink’s cart, but Makooya spots it and fires an arrow to frighten the eagle into dropping them. Finally, everyone gets together for Tex’s party. He blows out all the candles on his cake – save the last two which he manages to pick off with his magic guns. (I’m just amazed that he fires his guns at a cake on the table, around which all his friends are sitting. How he doesn’t actually hit anyone, I’ll never know. Still, I suppose they are magic guns…) Tex has a great birthday, and the episode ends as Dusty tries to get some cake off the table - he pulls the tablecloth and ends up with the cake falling on top of him!


I’ve been a bit disparaging about some of the final episodes, I know, but overall I really enjoyed Four Feather Falls. As I’ve pointed out previously, there’s a lot to praise about the show: the sets are extraordinary for a children’s puppet show of the period – especially the Main Street and the prairies. The cinematography and lighting has been excellent. Generally speaking, the puppetry has been to a high standard too – occasionally wires are visible, but realistically no one would expect puppets not to have wires operating them. Compared to other programmes, such as Bill and Ben, the wires are quite unobtrusive. Walking is always a problem for puppets though – they seem basically to just hop along the ground. On the other hand, travelling shots of characters on horseback have been well achieved. Perhaps that’s the answer: they need to have some sort of vehicle for the puppets to travel around in…

One thing I’ve noticed about Anderson fans is that they’re often very aware of the names on the credits – people like Reg Hill, Bob Bell, John Read, Derek Meddings and Barry Gray are very familiar – and yet there never seems to be much discussion of the writers. I think the unsung hero of Four Feather Falls is the entertainingly-named Phil Wrestler, who wrote two thirds of the episodes, and really understood what made the series work. The balance between surreal humour and realistic drama really comes across in his work – those episodes I’ve especially singled out (such as A Sheriff Rides Alone, Gun Play, Gun Fight on Main Street) are his. Yet Wrestler seems to have left the series before the end – and his name never crops up in the Anderson fold again, which is a shame. Later episodes are written by Jill Allgood, and frankly they’re not as good – most of those I’ve really had bones to pick with (Bandits Abroad, Teething Troubles, Happy Birthday) have been hers. I think the difference is Allgood was writing children’s television, whereas Wrestler was writing for a general audience – child-friendly but with appeal to adults. (There are also a couple of decent scripts by Hugh and Martin Woodhouse towards the end of the run, a fact which will become important very soon…)

Friday, 15 April 2011

Anderthon: Far Away in the Mountains in Good Old Western Times...

Four Feather Falls
episodes 27-33

Bandits Abroad

Pedro and Fernando are looking at a new wanted poster, for a bandit called Pancho Gomez. For once, Pedro isn’t too upset about another bandit having a higher price on his head – because he can see a way to make money out of the situation. He realizes that, give or take a bit of facial hair, Pancho Gomez is a dead ringer for Fernando. This leads to a splendidly silly moment when Pedro looks at Fernando, and sees him turn into a large sack of gold. The plan is simple: Fernando dresses up as Gomez, Pedro takes him in and claims the reward, then later he breaks Fernando out of jail. (It’s more or less the same plan he used in the episode Jail Break – it didn’t work then… Will these men never learn?) This time, things go well. Pedro hands “Gomez” over to Tex, gets the reward – then bursts in while Tex is cleaning his guns – even magic guns are no use whilst they’re unloaded. Pedro has a bandana covering his face, and speaks with a squeaky voice, so Tex will never know it was him! The bandits tie Tex up and then split up to make their escape. Unfortunately for Pedro, he meets the real Pancho Gomez on the road, and naturally thinks it’s Fernando. He ends up tied up himself, and Gomez makes off with the reward money (which seems fair really, since it was on his head…) By now, Tex has got free. He captures Gomez, and subsequently catches up with Pedro and Fernando. So the jail contains one Pedro and two Panchos – both of whom are now claiming to be Fernando.

Just when you think it can’t get any dafter, Fernando wakes up – the whole thing was a dream he was having. Now, I’ve already expressed my dislike of the “it was all a dream” episodes that litter the Anderson series. I think probably this is because I prefer drama to feature characters and situations that develop and grow, to acknowledge changes and deal with the consequences of them. And of course, most tv shows have a continuing narrative which allows this to happen. The sort of film series the Andersons were making were the opposite, designed to have no “story arcs” as we now call them, for episodes to be self-contained and largely interchangeable – which meant you had to return to the status quo at the end of each instalment. By implication, anything really game-changing (such as major characters dying) would have to turn out to be a dream. I can almost accept that argument – but what niggles me is that often the dream ending just seems to be unnecessary, and therefore disappointing for the viewer – sometimes it’s just a lazy conclusion when a little bit of inventiveness of the part of the writer might have produced something more satisfactory. This episode is a real case in point. Four Feather Falls is a crazy enough series that this particular narrative could have easily been played as real. Nothing that happens here seems far-fetched or silly compared to many of Pedro’s previous plans – so having it all being a dream seems completely superfluous. (Unlike for instance the episode where Jake becomes sheriff.)

Safe As Houses

A trader called Missouri Mike turns up in town. For some reason, Tex doesn’t like the look of him, but he seems friendly enough. After ingratiating himself with the folks in the saloon, Mike goes to his room to freshen up. A few moments later, a masked man starts to shoot up the windows of the bank – but makes off when Tex turns up on the street. The masked man is so clearly Missouri Mike wearing a bandana over his face, that even a child could spot it. It’s quite refreshing then that they don’t try to drag any mystery out of this – instead, Tex tells Mike he knows it was him at the first opportunity. What Mike’s trying to do is make the bank appear vulnerable, because what he’s selling are small household safes. Despite Mr Jackson’s assurances that Tex has recovered all money ever stolen from the bank (eventually!) the townsfolk are swayed by the argument. Everyone buys a safe and takes their money out of the bank to keep it at home. Even Tex buys a safe for the jailhouse. In a twist I saw coming miles off, Missouri Mike has a duplicate key to all the safes he’s sold, and that night he goes around robbing the townsfolk of their money and valuables. (I wonder if any kids watching at the time would have worked it out. I’d like to think so. It’s nicely signposted without being too obvious.) What Mike hasn’t bargained on is that Tex has wired for information on him, and knows that Mike has pulled this scam in several towns. So Tex pretends to be asleep when Mike tries to open the jailhouse safe - inside he finds not money but the magic guns. They keep him covered as the mock-sleepy Tex orders Mike to lock himself in the cell!

Gold is Where You Find It

The camera is tracking down Main Street (supposedly representing the viewer’s point of view) when Martha stops it. “I know Twink usually tells you the story,” she says, which seems odd since Grandpa hasn’t done that for weeks now. Anyway, Martha’s going to relate this week’s tale, as Twink is involved in it and is probably embarrassed by it! The tale starts with Pedro and Fernando worrying what they’re going to do with their land at Yellow Gulch. (Which unusually for a film series is a neat bit of continuity going all the way back to episode 2.) Pedro’s got a new plan for disposing of the land at a vast profit. He coats a large rock with gold, and then takes it in to the saloon, where he fools many of the townsfolk into believing it is a huge lump of gold ore he dug up at Yellow Gulch. With this incentive, he offers strips of the land for sale – Twink is one of the first to buy, and soon everyone is following suit. The next day, Ma Jones has sold out of picks and shovels as everyone is setting off for Yellow Gulch – there’s a gold rush on! Tex is suspicious, but he can’t actually arrest Pedro for selling his own land to folks gullible enough to buy it. So he has Martha “accidentally” let slip to Pedro that a telegraph message has come in from the assay office, confirming that there really is a rich seam of gold in Yellow Gulch. Falling for the trick, Pedro asks Tex to help him get his land back, on some spurious pretext that his grandmother has died, and his family tradition insists she needs to be buried in his land. Tex is happy enough to go along and give Pedro a taste of his own medicine – he organizes an auction of the various strips of land, forcing Pedro to buy it all back at grossly inflated prices.

Gold Diggers

Pedro and Fernando are repairing the roof of their shack, which was damaged back when Pedro set fire to it. (Which is another nice piece of continuity, going back to episode 13. It’s nice to see the writers actually remember these things – mind you, I’ve got to wonder why the bandits have put up with this state of disrepair for so long.) The beams collapse, and Fernando falls through the roof – but in the wreckage he finds a treasure map. (Wonder who left it there?) It shows where some gold is buried in the land where Four Feather Falls now stands. With a real sense of inevitability, the gold is now underneath the jailhouse! (I say inevitability, because the buried loot that’s had a police station built on top of it is an idea I’ve seen more than once before: the Sid James movie The Big Job is the most obvious, but then the same thing happened in an episode of Hustle this year. Of course, this episode of Four Feather Falls predates both those examples.) Dusty overhears the bandits plotting and warns Tex, but the sheriff is prepared to let them get on with it – the jailhouse needs a new floor, and he’s happy for Pedro to do the excavation work for him! So Pedro gets himself arrested, Fernando passes him tools through the bars of the cell window, and Pedro gets to work. This all coincides with Mr Jackson breaking the key to the bank vault, meaning he can’t get out the gold which needs to be taken to one of the big ranches to pay the cowboys – the sort of men who are likely to cause trouble if they don’t get paid on time. A locksmith has been sent for, but he won’t arrive in time. So when Pedro starts pulling sacks of gold out of the hole in the cell floor, Tex realizes that the bandit has somehow managed to tunnel under the street and into the bank vault without realizing it. He passes the sacks out through the window bars, unaware that Fernando has fallen asleep and that Tex is the one collecting the gold from him. Mr Jackson is able to load it up on his buggy to take to the ranchers. So thanks to Pedro, problem solved!

First Train Through

It’s a big day – the Canyon Railroad company has built a line to Four Feather Falls. Tex predictably sings the Rick-Rackety Train song, and we’re treated to something significant: probably the first proper miniature effects in an Anderson series, as a rather fine model train puffs its way through a model landscape. That night there’s a huge storm and a landslide buries the track. Tex finds some frayed rope at the top of the hill, and begins to suspect that the rocks were shifted by human agency. It turns out that the track foreman and his men are secretly in the employ of the rival Overland Railroad company, their mission to drive the Canyon Railroad out of business. When the day comes for the first train to arrive at Four Feather Falls, Tex discovers that the track has been damaged where it goes over a ravine and the train is headed for disaster. And just to make it personal, Twink is on board. The whole runaway train motif is a familiar one from Westerns, and is excitingly played out here. Tex has to ride Rocky hard to catch up with the train, then keep pace alongside as he shouts warnings across to Twink. (Yes, a horse that can outpace a train – well, I suppose early steam trains were slower than what we’re used to today…) Once the alarm is raised, it’s a tense and nerve-racking sequence as the brakes are applied and the train agonizingly slows as the gap comes nearer and nearer. (It is, I suppose, a precursor of the jeopardy that will become the stock in trade of Thunderbirds.) With the train safe, Tex exposes the crooked foreman and his men, and the future of rail travel is assured.

A Bad Name

Big Ben is being pursued into town by a rancher called Joe “Lucky” Chance, and his ranch foreman Matt Aimes. They’re accusing him of rustling their cattle. Ben begs help from Tex, swearing that he didn’t do it. Lucky Chance has a reputation for taking the law into his own hands, and wants to string Ben up. He tells Tex that Matt Aimes saw Ben and Red Scalp stealing the cattle with his own eyes (although Red Scalp was able to escape.) Tex warns Lucky off, telling him the law can deal with any alleged rustlers. With Ben locked up, he decides to find Red Scalp and find out what’s really going on. But he’s aware that Lucky might try to come back and have another go at Ben, so he sends Dusty to fetch Twink and Doc Haggerty. (It’s all very well sending Dusty off on an errand when you can talk to him, but I’d like to see how exactly the dog was able to pass Tex’s massage along – he can only talk to Tex, remember…) Tex asks Doc and Twink to stay in the jail and guard Ben until he gets back. On the prairie, Tex finds Red Scalp in possession of some branding irons, such as might be used to change the identification on stolen cattle – and he demands that the Indian tell him what’s been going on. Meanwhile, Lucky and Matt Aimes have returned to town and demand that Big Ben be given up. When Twink and Doc refuse, a gunfight ensues. It’s a great sequence that neatly uses many of the traditional Western shoot-out tropes: Doc and Twink firing from the windows, mirrors and pictures breaking or being shot off the walls, and so on. Tex gets back with Red Scalp, and the truth comes out. The Indian had been hired by Matt Aimes to help with the disposition of the stolen cattle – the foreman was ripping off his employer. As for Big Ben, he really is an innocent scapegoat – Aimes trading on Ben’s bad name to make his involvement seem plausible. Tex once again demonstrates that he gives a fair chance to everyone, regardless of their reputation, if they haven’t actually done wrong.


Strangely, Twink is back to telling the story this week. Even more strangely, he starts by recapping the tale of how Tex got his magic feathers, complete with brief flashbacks to episode 1. (I wasn’t really sure why this was felt necessary. 33 episodes in, if the audience haven’t grasped the backstory yet, there really is no hope.) However, this week’s story is all about the time that Chief Kalamakooya needed white man’s medicine. Which kinds of flies in the face of the Chief’s assertion a few weeks ago that medicine men served Indians whilst doctors served the needs of the white man. But this week, Makooya is sick, so perhaps in his desperation, the chief will try anything and his belief in his own cultural traditions is wavering a bit. Even though he’s still got very real magical powers and can teleport himself into Tex’s jailhouse to ask for help. Unfortunately, Tex is unable to locate Doc Haggerty because he’s just been kidnapped by Pedro and Fernando. It’s their latest money-making scheme. Instead of robbing the bank, they plan to take someone the town needs and demand a ransom. Luckily, Dusty saw Doc leaving with Fernando, so Tex is able to go and rescue him, then take him to Makooya. (Who’s still a little boy, despite it being said that Tex encountered him in the wilderness “all those years ago” – you know, that really has irritated me, because it seems to have ignored something really obvious. I wonder if the child audience of the day noticed.) Anyway, Doc is able to cure Makooya of whatever’s wrong, and then Kalamakooya, his grandson and even their tent fade away, leaving Tex and Doc alone in the wilderness.