Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Anderthon: Satisfactory... Most Satisfactory...

episodes 23-26

The Lost City

It's another script from the pens of Gerry and Sylvia, and this one demonstrates perhaps most clearly how their approach differs to that of the Woodhouses. It's no dream sequence or jungle comedy, this is a straight down the line adventure story - but unlike the Woodhouses' reasonably well thought-out crime and espionage tales, what we get here is tacky pulp sci-fi. I wonder if this is how the Andersons saw their creations – not worth expending any thought on, at least not on the scripting side of things? Far more interested in the visuals and technical innovations, and seeing the story as merely a framework to hang all that wizardry on. (And here, once again, I'm reminded of how writers seem to be very minor cogs in the Anderson machine, and often overlooked by the fandom.) I'm also interested by the fact that, despite working for a civilian outfit, Mike suddenly and without explanation seems to have acquired a uniform. He's now kitted out with a huge peaked cap, complete with a Supercar logo badge fixed to the front. Actually, it makes him look like a milkman, but it does seem to establish the sort of futuristic military look that will typify the Andersons' creations for the next several years.

Anyway, Mike and Beaker are off to the Antarctic on a scientific expedition, with Mitch and Jimmy along for the ride. Flying over South America, Supercar goes out of control and into a dive. Fortunately Mike regains control just before hitting the ground. They find themselves amid the ruins of an ancient city, which fascinates Beaker enough that he doesn't seem to mind missing Antarctica. Mike and Beaker stumble upon a hidden lift, which whisks them down into a secret base beneath the ruins, manned by some rather flimsy-looking robots. At the heart of it all is a man Beaker recognizes – an English scientist called Professor Watkins who disappeared about ten years before. He's a sort of wannabe Bond villain, and true to form, he locks Mike and Beaker up and proceeds to explain his operation to them. Somehow he's built himself this base, an army of robots and a collection of nuclear missiles. His masterplan is to fire one of these at Washington DC. Quite apart from glossing over how he could afford to do all this, the script offers no clue whatsoever about his motivations. He's just a nutcase. (At least Blofeld was out to blackmail the world powers with the threat of nuclear destruction.)

Watkins sends a robot to the surface to capture Jimmy and Mitch – but they're able to destroy it with Popkiss's radioed assistance, by charging Supercar's engines to overload and catching the robot in the blast of the jets. Meanwhile, Mike and Beaker realize that the robots only respond to Watkins's voice, so Beaker reveals another of his myriad talents: mimicry. He impersonates the Professor perfectly, and gets the robots to release them. As they make their escape in Supercar, the writers at least allow Beaker to use science to save the day – realizing that it was the radio guidance beams for the missiles that originally jammed Supercar's controls, he's able to use the vehicle's radio to deflect the nuclear missile from its original course, and send it crashing back on top of the lost city – presumably destroying Watkins, robots, base and all. (And yes, needless to say, there’s stock footage of a mushroom cloud.) Supercar is bathed in a very harsh white light, effectively suggesting the flash of the explosion – I’m rather surprised our heroes aren’t blinded in fact. I'd also be rather worried by the ecological effects of a nuclear detonation in the middle of the Amazon, but where would an Anderson show be without a gratuitious big bang? Hey, at least Washington was saved...

The Magic Carpet

Beaker has come up with two new inventions – a hand-held miniaturized control console, which enables them to operate Supercar by remote control; and an engine noise suppressor which means the jets can fire with little more than a rush of air. I've got the feeling that both of these are going to come in useful in the next 25 minutes. Mike and Beaker are testing these outside the lab when Popkiss comes out waving a newspaper – the news is that Prince Nurid Hassan of Karrakhan is grievously ill. His country is almost cut off from civilization, and only Supercar can reach the Prince with life-saving medicines. Jimmy seems excited by the thought of flying off on a mercy mission to help a distressed foreign noble. If you recall, he wanted to do the exact same thing for the Princess Caroline of Bavania, and Popkiss flatly refused, saying it wasn't their business to interfere in the affairs of other nations – and forcing Jimmy into the dreaded dream sequence. I wonder what's happened to change the Professor's tune on this occasion.

As the episode unfolds, we actually see that this episode bears more than a passing resemblance to Flight of Fancy. Again there's a corrupt official trying to get rid of the rightful ruler and claim the throne for himself. The regent, Alif Bey, is simply waiting for Prince Hassan to die, relying on Karrakhan's remoteness to ensure that no outside help can reach him in time. It seems that there's nothing wrong with Hassan that modern antibiotics can't cure, but Alif claims the medicines simply aren't available. To legitimize his claim to the throne, he's planning to marry Hassan's sister, Princess Medina, the next day. What's interesting here is to note the choices this episode makes differently. Rather than a fairy-tale European kingdom, we get an isolated Middle Eastern sultanate, the sort of realm that would still have existed in 1960 (and familiar to viewers from things like Danger Man) – and the adventure is resolved with the usual mixture of science and ingenuity. It's as if the Woodhouses are subtly winding their employers up, saying this is how to do the story properly, without resorting to dream sequences and wise-cracking monkeys.

Arriving in Karrakhan, Supercar is initially mistaken for a magic carpet by a superstitious guard. Mike and the team are locked up by Alif Bey to prevent them from helping Prince Hassan. Using the remote control and the noise suppressor, they're able to get Supercar to lift off in the courtyard and hover across to the Prince's window. Princess Medina then takes the medical supplies from the cockpit and uses them to treat her brother. (see, I said those gadgets would prove important – the writers taking giving us a real Chekhov’s gun here.) The only witness to all this is the comedy guard: hearing the gentle whoosh of the suppressed engines, he thinks the foreigners have escaped on their magic carpet – but every time Alif looks into the cell, he can clearly see Mike and Beaker sitting down playing chess! With Hassan on the road to recovery, Mike sets about getting them free. Mitch climbs out through the bars and tries to find a file in Supercar's toolkit – cue some comedy business as the monkey repeatedly picks up the wrong tool. (Strangely, he seems to have reverted to being a dumb animal this week.) Mike and Beaker take turns filing through the bars, and then use knotted sheets to make an escape rope. In the morning, there's a tense stand-off between Mike and Alif Bey before the recovering Prince Hassan arrives to have his treacherous regent arrested.

The White Line

Rather a neat little crime thriller, albeit with a few gaping plot holes. Scotland Yard are baffled by some armoured car robberies occurring on a quiet stretch of road, with deliveries of gold bullion being snatched. Now I don’t know about you, but that sentence conjures up in my mind a huge van with reinforced sides, wire mesh over the windows, and a couple of hulking blokes in body armour and crash helmets driving it – and the robbery something like the opening scene in the movie Heat. Well, it seems in 1960s Britain, an armoured car was a normal family saloon being driven at night by a lone guy in an ordinary suit – but at least he’s got a (slightly) strong box on the front seat containing the gold. It’s emblazoned with the logo “Safe T Cars”, presumably the name of the company offering this courier service. Somehow I don’t think they’re going to be driving Securicor out of business. Once we get past the fact that the victims are leaving themselves wide open, the plan here is rather ingenious. The opening shots are of a look-out waiting beside a phone box, watching real film of a car’s headlights going past – with some lovely camerawork and a groovy jazz soundtrack. The look-out sends up a flare, and the villains up ahead go to work. They roll out special carpets that cover the road markings, and another that lays down fake markings leading to the edge of a ravine. Since a man driving on an unlit road at night will follow the white line, they’re leading the bank couriers to their doom. (Well, actually no one dies – after the cars plunge into the ravine, the villains capture the driver and lock him up in their hideout, an abandoned country house.)

Scotland Yard call in the Supercar team. As soon as he’s heard the tale, Mike instantly guesses it must be the work of the Chicago gangsters Joe and Maxie Hoyle. (I’m not quite sure how he came to this conclusion – it turns out he’s right of course – maybe he reads a lot of true crime magazines…) Mike and Beaker agree to help by transferring some bullion across London in Supercar – I’m not sure why, given the original robberies didn’t happen in London. When they arrive at the Bank of Kensington, they take the gold down in the lift to the vault, only to discover the Hoyles waiting for them inside. They take the gold, and leave Mike and friends locked inside the vault. (And there’s the gaping plot hole I mentioned – not only do there appear to be no guards in the bank, apart from a single police inspector, but if the Hoyles could get into the vault so easily, why didn’t they come back later and take the gold when there was no one else about?) Anyway, after this little upset, Mike decides to go back to a more sensible plan – following the routes of the armoured cars and finding out how the villains are doing it. So with Beaker driving the route, Mike, Mitch and Jimmy scout ahead in Supercar. Seeing the lookout’s flare going up, Mike uses the “clear view” system to watch the false road markings being laid out. He’s unable to warn Beaker though as the Hoyles appear and shoot off Supercar’s radio aerial with their tommy-guns. Mitch gets out of Supercar and decoys the gangsters into a chase around the woods, giving Mike time to get airborne again. Then Mitch leaps from a tree onto the back of Supercar, hanging on as Mike races to stop Beaker going over the ravine. Eventually, Mike has to land Supercar in Beaker’s path, and the scientist manages to pull up just in time. Realizing the game is up, the Hoyles try to make a getaway with their bullion – unfortunately, they fall into their own trap, following the fake white lines into the ravine! (And amusingly, it’s not their truck that goes over the cliff in the model shot, it’s a repeat of the car from the opening sequence – it’s a bit like ITC’s infamous white Jag…)

Supercar “Take One”

Professor Popkiss is away on holiday, but Beaker feels he can operate the console perfectly well on his own. Unfortunately, as Mike launches on one of his test flights, Beaker forgets to open the roof doors, resulting in a lot of wreckage falling into the lab, and amusingly a Supercar shaped hole in the roof. Supercar itself is made of sterner stuff, and only requires a bit of repainting. Later, Beaker takes delivery of a movie camera, which he’s planning to use to make film records of his experiments. But Jimmy persuades him to make a sort of home movie about Supercar. Beaker turns out to be a bit of a Stanley Kubrick-style perfectionist, making Mike go through 104 takes of charging up Supercar’s engines. Jimmy is the clapper-loader and Mitch acts as sound man. Beaker really gets into it, filming action sequences of Supercar in flight, and even underwater. (He’s wearing a full diving suit to operate the camera of course.) Beaker sends the film away to be developed, but when it comes back, the team are shocked to find it contains film of naval manoeuvres and secret plans for a nuclear power source. They’ve been sent the wrong film by the developers! The film has come from Satellite Film Productions in New York, which Beaker realizes must be a front for an foreign spy ring. They decide to fly to New York to investigate – but first Beaker insists on changing into a bowler hat and grabbing an umbrella. I’d say he was trying to emulate John Steed, but The Avengers had barely started by this time. As they prepare for take-off, Mitch reminds Beaker to open the roof doors this time. Worth his weight in gold, that monkey.

Arriving in New York, they land on top of the skyscraper that contains the film company’s offices. Beaker goes down to pay a visit, with Mike preparing to follow if he doesn’t return within half an hour. I was slightly disappointed, given the similarity of the setting, to discover that the villains of the piece weren’t Masterspy and Zarin – it might have been fun to see them again for the last episode of the series – and indeed, I realized then that (aside from the dream episode) they haven’t been seen for a whole thirteen episodes now. Instead, we meet Herman Gredenski and his glamorous assistant Miss Devenish, who are running the spy ring. Miss Devenish tricks Beaker into sitting in a certain chair, which is on top of a trap door – which deposits him via a chute into a strong room below. Inside, he finds the secret files of the spy ring. When Mike comes looking for Beaker, he’s also tricked into sitting in the booby-trapped chair. (Miss Devenish is so ridiculously insistent that it has to be that particular chair, you wonder why neither of them was the slightest bit suspicious of her motives.) Nevertheless, as Mike is deposited down the chute, he comes face to face with Beaker’s coolest moment in the entire series: leaning nonchalantly on a filing cabinet, he tells Mike he’s late. (“I expected you seven minutes ago.”) Now we discover that Beaker’s costume is not merely for decoration. The crown of his bowler hat conceals a radio (as indeed did John Steed’s some years later – I wonder if the writers of The Avengers took any pointers from this episode?) He calls Jimmy – who says Beaker sounds like he talking through his hat! – and tells him to call the police. Then Gredenski tries to kill his visitors by pumping deadly gas into the strong room. Fortunately, Beaker’s umbrella conceals a drill which he uses to drill out the lock. The two rush back up to the office, where Miss Devenish is being menaced by Mitch, whom she believes is an escaped gorilla. Beaker tells her that he’s in fact a very intelligent chimpanzee. So there we are – one thing Beaker’s not good at is primatology, if he can’t recognize the difference between a chimp and a monkey. (Come on, Mitch has got a tail!) With the police on their way, Gredenski and Miss Devenish announce they have a secret way out of the building – but Mitch activates the trap door and deposits them down into the strong room! (Except, wait a minute, Beaker drilled the lock out – so they’ll be able to escape and make use of their secret exit…)

This final episode is another script by the Andersons. It’s probably the best of their episodes so far. Aside from the incongruity of the secret agent version of Beaker, it’s certainly entertaining and amusing, although it does rely on convenient use of gadgets rather than the well-reasoned application of science and technology that the Woodhouses tended to employ. So it’ll be interesting to see how the second series develops, as sadly we’ve seen the last of the Woodhouses. Having discovered they can write their own scripts, Gerry and Sylvia don’t bother to invite them back. (I’m not sure if there’s any pattern in these things, but it’s odd how the chief writers seem to drop out of these shows – remember how Phil Wrestler disappeared before the end of Four Feather Falls?) If it weren’t for the DVD documentary, I doubt I’d even be aware of the major contribution that Hugh and Martin made to the series. (They get precisely one mention in Gerry Anderson’s authorized biography for example.) But it’s more than that: as I said before, by demonstrating what these fabulous machines could be used for in a civilian context (impossible rescue missions and the like) – rather than just employing them for military use as the Andersons will do in many of their subsequent shows – the Woodhouses have practically set up the premise of Thunderbirds.

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