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?)


Roose said...

I don't know whether you've noticed, but Masterspy does look an awful lot like Lew Grade - a large imposing man, with big nose and always smoking a cigar!

Andrew Kearley said...

Yes, it's weird that, isn't it? Almost like biting the hand that feeds them. Do you think Lew noticed?