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…!)

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