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?)

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