Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Anderthon: It Can Journey Anywhere...

episodes 18-22


Our tour of ITC national clichés continues: this week we’re in Ireland. It’s that same Ireland that Simon Templar or John Drake would have visited – a country pub (called the Shamrock Inn naturally enough) with its sign swaying in the wind, a landlord who still believes in the “little people” with a no-nonsense daughter who hasn’t got time for all that, and dodgy goings-on in the countryside. Instead of the Saint though, it’s Doctor Beaker who’s come here on holiday. He’s watching from a booth as two unsavoury characters enter the pub and start to demand food and supplies from the landlord, Mr O’Farrell. It’s pretty clear that this has happened before – and although O’Farrell is reticent to comply, he doesn’t seem to have much choice. These two are working for “The Big Man”, who apparently runs everything criminal between Dublin and Tralee. It should perhaps come as no surprise that the two villains are Harper and Judd – who seem to be the only criminals allowed to operate in the whole of the British Isles. What’s interesting to me is to trace Harper’s descent into the criminal world – from industrial sabotage to theft and now this: they appear to be involved in a smuggling operation on behalf of “The Big Man”. Judd in particular is very uneasy about this, saying it’s not in his usual line at all. Is it just me, or is there a definite subtext here? They’re smuggling for a mysterious “Big Man” who’s only at the end of the telephone, and operating out of a run-down isolated farmhouse in the middle of nowhere – what this says to me is: they’re running guns for the IRA! (Of course, this being a children’s show, they can’t come out and actually say this.) In order to ensure O’Farrell’s compliance, Harper and Judd decide to take his daughter Eileen with them as a hostage. Once they’ve departed, Beaker wastes no time in phoning the lab and calling in Supercar.

Mike has got himself a natty new flying jacket, which is just as well as it’s going to be a long flight – five hours, flying into the dawn. (As Popkiss explains to Jimmy about crossing time zones Eastwards – for once, the kid’s questions elicit some helpful scientific information.) Mike and Beaker decide to use a briefcase with a radio transmitter to track Judd and Harper to their base. They stuff it full of money, so when the villains arrive to collect from O’Farrell, they can’t resist taking that with them as well. Unfortunately, the case is fitted with a two-way transmitter and Mike accidentally knocks the switch over to “transmit”. Which means Harper and Judd hear them discussing their plans. Taking advantage of this, Harper announces a fake rendezvous with a helicopter, luring Mike into a trap. (Despite the crooks reciting this staged conversation in the most obvious over-dramatic way imaginable, Mike still falls for it.) He races out to their farmhouse hideout in Supercar, unaware that Judd has buried a load of dynamite under the landing site. (See, they’ve got plenty of dynamite stashed away in the farmhouse – more evidence for who they’re working for, in my opinion.) Mike gets the last laugh though – not wanting Supercar to fall into their hands, he’s arranged for Popkiss to fly the craft back to the lab by remote control if he’s not back in the cockpit within a certain time. There’s a rather tense scene – with again, some really moody lighting – as Mike has to bluff the villains into not detonating the dynamite until he knows Supercar’s been removed from the scene. The explosion is huge and they believe that Supercar has been destroyed. In reality, Popkiss brings it back to the lab, refuels and then flies back to Ireland – meaning that Mike and Eileen are held prisoner in the farmhouse for over ten hours, while Beaker keeps watch from amidst the bracken outside. When Supercar returns, Judd and Harper go to investigate – and fall into the crater caused by the dynamite! Popkiss has brought back-up: Mitch the monkey, armed with a truncheon, which he uses to keep the villains insensible in a splendid display of cartoon violence!

The Sunken Temple

Beaker is visited by Professor Terman, a tall athletic chap, who’s a classical history scholar. Mike expresses his surprise, saying he assumed Terman to be a football player – which is a nice touch, neatly illustrating that academics can come in all shapes and sizes, and not just the usual “mad professor” stereotypes and caricatures. Terman is also an accomplished diver, and he’s busy excavating underwater sites in the Mediterranean. He believes he’s discovered the location of the lost Temple of Poseidon, but it’s too deep to make careful exploratory dives – his air supply just won’t last long enough. It sounds like a job for Supercar. So the team all bundle into the vehicle, and fly out to Terman’s campsite. They make a big thing of Mitch having to travel the whole journey in the trunk, as there’s only space for four in the cockpit, which seems rather cruel to me – I also don’t recall this being an issue the last time they all went out together. Mitch certainly doesn’t seem happy about the prospect – but he cheers up later on, and gives an impromptu display of dancing to Terman’s harmonica playing. That night, the camp is visited by a local, Antonio the gypsy. Mitch seems suspicious of him – he’s no fool, that monkey! – but the others entertain the gypsy reading their fortunes in the flames of the campfire. Antonio prophesies mortal danger if they should disturb the ancient gods. Mike, trusting only in science and reason of course, thinks it’s a load of baloney.

The next day, Mike and Beaker take Supercar under the sea to seek out the lost temple. (They seem to have sorted out the problems with the leaking hull now – and they’ve obviously done something to alter the way the ballast tanks are filled, since they’re now able to dive straight into the sea from the air.) They’ve also installed a jack socket in the hull enabling Terman to plug in a telephone cable so he can talk to them from inside his diving helmet. Once they locate the temple, they’re able to carry Terman there, riding on Supercar’s wing – thus preserving his air supply for the examination of the site. Oddly, beneath a semi-collapsed statue of Poseidon, Terman finds what seems to be a strongbox. Back on the surface they discuss this find, unaware that Antonio the gypsy is eavesdropping – except it turns out, he’s not a gypsy – he’s really Spiros the bandit and the strongbox is hiding some diamonds he’s stolen. To try and prevent the team discovering this, he empties one of the air tanks on Terman’s suit – Mitch actually sees him doing this, but his urgent attempts to warn the others are just seen as so much monkey-screeching and ignored. So Terman soon finds himself out of air, and has to quickly surface – lucky he doesn’t get the bends. Later, he goes back down on his own. Spiros escalates his threat by unleashing some home-made depth charges – basically, sticks of dynamite fired from a catapult. The huge stock footage explosions dislodge the statue of Poseidon, which falls trapping Terman beneath it. Mike and Beaker set off to search for the source of the explosions, whilst Popkiss takes Supercar down to rescue Terman, using the jets to move the statue clear of him. Meanwhile, Mike tracks down Spiros amongst the rocks – by shooting at his crate of dynamite, he catches the bandit in a comedy explosion that blows him through the air to land dazed on top of an outcrop. Meanwhile, Mitch has been left to take care of bandaging Terman’s broken leg. The only problem now is: who’s going to go down on the next dive? The episode ends with Mitch suiting up! They should just let that monkey run the whole show. If they’d listened to him in the first place, most of this trouble could have been avoided.

Trapped in the Depths

A bit of a change of pace – this is a mostly serious episode. The US Navy are conducting tests with a new bathysphere, diving down into a deep ocean trench off the coast of New Zealand. It’s a big news story – cue stock footage of printing presses! Jimmy and Popkiss are listening to the story on the car radio, and Jimmy asks some of his usual questions – but as this gives Popkiss the chance to explain how bathyspheres and ASDIC transmitters work for the benefit of the young audience, it’s again acceptable here. The bathysphere is lowered from the USS Mistral, part of a naval flotilla represented by stock footage of real ships again. Something inevitably goes wrong, and it ends up stuck on the ocean floor with two men trapped inside, and the Navy unable to get down deep enough to retrieve them. Oddly, all this seems to happen whilst Popkiss and Jimmy are driving along, as we next see them listening to news of the disaster on the car radio – it’s like only a few minutes have passed. Meanwhile, Beaker has invented an ultrasonic gun which he’s fitted to Supercar’s nose. He and Mike are testing it in the lab – amusingly, Beaker sets up a coconut shy as a target. But this attracts the attention of Mitch, who gets into the line of fire just as the gun is building up to fire. There’s no time to stop it! Luckily, Mitch leaps out of the way in time, and is found swinging from the roof beams. (The ultrasonic gun is a bit of a step into more far-fetched sci-fi, since it seems to be some sort of disintegrator weapon.) Just then Popkiss and Jimmy return, and Popkiss suggests that Supercar be used to rescue the trapped bathysphere. (He’s changed his tune a bit – usually he wants to keep everything under wraps.) Mike and Beaker race off to New Zealand.

Inside the bathysphere, Fraser and Commander Keefe are running out of options. They’ve dropped the ballast, but they still can’t surface. They’re not sure if the float is holed, or if it’s just that they’re jammed between some rocks. They resort to desperate measures, such as trying to lighten the sphere by dropping all but one of their power batteries. This causes further problems though, as the strain on the remaining battery causes it to overheat, and acid fumes fill the cabin. Keefe tries to clear it out by releasing some of the air supply – not realizing that it’s the reserve supply, all they’ve got left. This is a terrific depiction of two men under immense pressure – pretty stark stuff for a kids show – showing them losing track of time, making irrational decisions, trying to lighten the mood with gallows humour. As the air starts to run out, they also think they’re suffering from delusions. When Supercar arrives outside, they initially refuse to believe it can be real. But as the truth dawns, there’s a fantastic and uplifting moment of hope. Amazingly, despite the immense depth, Supercar manages to withstand the pressure just fine – obviously, those extensive deep sea trials really paid off. At one point they’re attacked by a large and aggressive fish, and destroy it with the ultrasonic gun – which seems a bit harsh and violent. (Previously, you may recall, Beaker was able to scare off a big fish by broadcasting white noise from the radio.) Mike discovers that one of the floats is holed, but the others seem to be alright – the damage probably being caused by that same fish. The bathysphere is still trapped, but Mike thinks he can use Supercar’s nose to nudge it free. He asks Beaker if it will work, and is faced with the scientist’s usual prevarication as he tries to calculate the odds. “Just guess!” Mike snaps. Fortunately, Beaker guesses right, and the bathysphere is safely floated to the surface.

Crash Landing

Mike and Beaker have taken Supercar out for another test flight, with Jimmy and Mitch as passengers. Everything seems to have gone well – when suddenly the starboard engine blows out and it goes into a dive. Completely out of control, they’re going to crash into the jungle below. At the last moment, Beaker recommends firing the air brakes at ground level, which cushions the impact enough for them to make it down in one piece. This is an odd script, once more from the pen of Gerry and Sylvia – but this time, they seem to have taken a leaf out of the Woodhouses’ book by making Supercar an unpredictable and dangerous experimental vehicle that throws our heroes into danger. Yet what follows is all fairly light-hearted – with a running gag of Popkiss back in the lab being woken up or interrupted at his breakfast by the team radioing in – and comedy squabbling between Mike, Beaker and Jimmy as they try to sleep together in a tent. As Beaker works to repair Supercar, they face random dangers such as a really neat puppet snake. Mitch volunteers to stay on guard for the night, but he’s grabbed from behind by a mysterious figure and disappears. The next day, Jimmy thinks they should look for Mitch, but Mike and Beaker don’t seem bothered, suggesting that Mitch has probably just decided to return to his natural habitat. (So I guess this is their chance to get rid of the monkey at last!) Beaker has lost his hat, and improvises by tying a hanky round his head. He repairs Supercar’s engines, but inadvisedly tests them in the confined jungle clearing and burns down a tree. They decide to have Popkiss test fly Supercar on remote, all the way up to supersonic speed. Everything seems to be fine now – but the sonic boom startles a herd of stock footage elephants which stampedes towards our heroes. (It’s quite amusing to see puppet characters reacting to film of real elephants – never in shot at the same time of course – rather like used to happen in old Tarzan movies.) They resolve the problem by having Supercar fly low over the elephants so a second sonic boom drives them in the opposite direction. With still no sign of Mitch, Jimmy resorts to faking an illness so that they don’t have to leave – which backfires somewhat when Beaker diagnoses him as suffering from an unusual tropical disease. Then they hear a rare sound, a monkey mating call, which ultimately leads them to find out what happened to Mitch. He’s found himself a mate – although we dip into fantasy somewhat as we find her rocking him in a hammock – and you can tell she’s a lady monkey because she has pouty lips and long eyelashes! Mike says they’re leaving and gives Mitch the chance to come or stay behind with his girlfriend. And just for a moment, it looks like Mitch might remain – but eventually he leaves a lovelorn female monkey behind… Or does he? Back at the lab, the team find that the lady monkey has stowed away (presumably in Supercar’s trunk) and now they’ve got two primates on their hands!

The Dragon of Ho Meng

Mike, Jimmy and Mitch are out in Supercar, when it’s caught in a typhoon, and Mike decides to seek a safe landing until the storm has passed. They’re somewhere round the Chinese border. What are they doing out there? They never say. Still, there’s a great potential for adventure here – a secret, experimental American aircraft forced down inside a Communist country – might they be arrested as spies? – how would they stop the Chinese getting their hands on Supercar? No, I’m kidding. It’s a load of cultural stereotypes again. They land on an island in the middle of a lake, where they find an ancient Buddhist temple. Investigating, they discover that the temple is the home of Ho Meng, who appears to be an ancient-style Chinese mandarin. (Did any of those still exist by the 1960s? I wouldn’t have thought they’d be tolerated under Chairman Mao…) He lives here with his daughter Lotus Blossom, and initially thinks that Supercar is a dragon, which is a bad omen. Mike takes him up for a flight (Ho Meng is at least aware of the concept of aircraft or “mechanical kites” as he calls them) – but he still believes that the presence of a dragon in the temple is prophesied to spell disaster. And sure enough, a villainous type called Mr Fang turns up at that moment. It seems that Mr Fang wants to destroy the temple, because he believes that a treasure is buried beneath it. Taking Ho Meng prisoner, he locks the others inside the temple with Supercar, and proceeds to place dynamite around the building. Armed with a last message from Ho Meng: “Look for the fish”, Mike and the others find a fish motif in the temple decorations, pressing which triggers a secret trapdoor. They get into Supercar and descend into a series of tunnels beneath the temple. Eventually getting back to the surface, Mike is able to confront Mr Fang, while Mitch sneaks around unplugging the detonators from the explosives. (I’m finally convinced that the monkey is the real brains of this outfit.) I don’t know, it’s all a bit inconsequential really – proof that even the Woodhouses could write nonsense on occasion. Aside from the “ah so” stereotyping, there’s also the question of Mr Fang’s villainy, seeking to destroy the temple on the vague and unsubstantiated belief that it conceals a treasure. It just seems like a real filler of an episode, and was a bit of a disappointment for me.

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