Saturday, 30 July 2011

Anderthon: Through the Heavens' Mighty Rage...

Supercar series 2
episodes 2-5

Precious Cargo

After playing it fairly safe with last week’s episode, the Andersons now begin to lead the series into new and unexpected directions. What we’ve lost perhaps is the sense of cutting edge technological development that the Woodhouses brought to the format; on the other hand, we’re now getting a more eclectic, freewheeling approach – less emphasis on straightforward well-plotted thrillers, and more on spectacle, wacky humour and sheer mind-bending “we’re making this up as we go along” bravado. I’m not sure which is better, as both have their merits. You can certainly cite other examples of cult shows that go off the deep end in subverting their own formats – not least among them The Prisoner and Gangsters, so you could say that Supercar is blazing quite a trail here. This week’s episode starts with Popkiss and Jimmy visiting Chicago (via film of the real city of course – you know how these things work by now), where they’ve been staying with Aunt Heidi, whom I presume is the Professor’s sister – she certainly speaks with the same mittel-European accent. Popkiss has been particularly enthused with the wine she’s been serving, so before they leave he gets the name of the vineyard, planning to order a case for himself. Meanwhile, back at the lab, humour is derived from Popkiss’s absence, as Beaker tries to cope without the Professor’s culinary skills. Yes, it turns out that Popkiss does all the cooking for the team – I can’t say that I was really cognizant of this fact previously (although I recall him cooking his breakfast in Crash Landing), so I guess it never figured very prominently in the scripts. Here though we see Beaker and Mitch desperately trying to clear up Popkiss’s beloved kitchen before the Prof gets back – a situation made worse when Beaker accidentally blows up the oven.

Anyway, Popkiss sends off his wine order to Monsieur Laval’s vineyard in France. At this point, the episode switches its focus to the vineyard, and picks up the story of Zizi, a young French girl who lives there. We learn that Monsieur Laval took Zizi from an orphanage, but instead of providing her with a loving new home, he works her like a slave. She has to do all the domestic chores about his house, and he expects her to work to a precise timetable and have his dinner ready on the dot. A seering indictment of child exploitation and the abuse of the French adoption system? Well, not exactly, because the story doesn’t really go anywhere with the idea, beyond making Laval a pantomime wicked villain. What’s interesting is that Zizi dreams of being rescued by Supercar. She’s got a comic book that actually has a Supercar adventure in it. (So there we go – Popkiss’s security concerns are right out of the window, and the team have released their own range of tie-in comics. In fact, Zizi might even be reading the Supercar strip in TV Comic. It’s something bizarrely metatextual, the series acknowledging the existence of its own spin-offs.) Reading the comic in bed, Zizi drifts off into a dream sequence, in which she telephones the “Supercar Rescue Service” – manned by Jimmy and Mike in matching uniform caps. Jimmy then pilots Supercar out to rescue her. The pointlessness of dream sequences aside, this is all an interesting departure for the show, letting us see our heroes as others view them. Waking up back to reality, Zizi manages to effect her own escape from the life of drudgery, by hiding herself inside Popkiss’s wine crate and getting delivered to the Black Rock lab. This leaves the team with the problem of what to do about her – she and Jimmy have to sit outside the control room as Mike and scientists are seen arguing inside. (They didn’t seem to have any problem taking in Jimmy and his monkey, but a French girl seems to be a step too far!) But all is neatly resolved at the end, with Zizi being taken in by Aunt Heidi and going to live in Chicago.

Operation Superstork

An episode that places our heroes in some real jeopardy, yet juxtaposes the threat with some frankly bizarre humour. We start with a new innovation, a voice-over introducing us to the lab – quite why this was thought necessary this late into the series is anyone’s guess. (Interestingly, the voice-over refers to “Mike Mercury and his team”. I thought it was Professor Popkiss’s team, and that Mike worked for him. That certainly seems to be the implication in the first series, although the idea that Mike is in charge was probably part of Gerry Anderson’s original conception – after all, it’s Mike who gets the starring credit in the opening titles – before the Woodhouses placed the scientists more to the forefront.) Anyway, the lab is currently a hive of activity, as we see Popkiss at work in the kitchen – so that’s something consistent with what we learnt last week – I do wonder though why the Andersons are depicting Popkiss as a chef rather than an experimental aircraft designer. Meanwhile, Beaker is busy at work on some new engineering project. This keeps him sequestered in his laboratory, leaving the team to wonder what he could be creating in there. The sounds of banging and drilling continue well into the night, keeping the others awake. Popkiss’s increasing frustration is played up to comic effect. Come morning, the noise seems to have stopped, and Popkiss ends up sleeping in. Mike and Jimmy drive into town to buy supplies – a place called Batesville this time. (I couldn’t find it on the map, but one presumes it’s a small town a bit closer to the lab than Carson City is.) In the local supermarket (which is actually a foreground counter in front of a back projected photograph!) we’re subjected to a comedy sequence as the shopkeeper Andy (who appears to have learning difficulties) struggles with a temperamental cash register that seems to shake the building to its foundations every time he uses it.

When they get back to Black Rock, Mike and Jimmy discover what Beaker’s been up to. His fabulous new invention is… a hot air balloon. It seems he only wants to indulge a passion for ballooning. Mike’s not particularly impressed – for him, nothing can compare to Supercar. I think though that Beaker is being a bit more inventive than he’s given credit for here – I’ve described it as a “hot air balloon”, but there’s no burner in evidence – rather he seems to have created a sealed, self-contained unit filled with a lighter-than-air gas. He’s not yet fitted a valve to allow him to release the pressure inside the balloon, which means there’s no way to check the balloon’s ascent – so obviously the thing isn’t ready for a flight yet. Despite this, he rather foolishly invites Mike and Jimmy into the basket to experience the sensation of floating for themselves. You can probably see where this is leading. Mitch the monkey decides to untether the balloon, and up it goes. Perhaps realizing what he’s done, Mitch tries to alert the recently-risen Popkiss to the situation, but he can’t get his meaning across. Meanwhile, with the balloon still climbing, Beaker explains that when they reach the upper atmosphere, the low air pressure outside will cause the balloon to burst, whereupon the basket will tumble to the ground and they’ll all be killed. He’s brought some emergency equipment with him – an oxygen cylinder and a parachute – not enough for all three of them though. It’s decided that Mike should use the parachute, as he’s the one with the best chance of reaching the ground and being able to fetch help. (Some film of a real man jumping and opening his ‘chute is cut in here.) Landing in the desert, Mike eventually makes it to Batesville, and wanders into another incongruous slapstick sequence involving Andy’s cash register. Using the supermarket’s phone, he manages to alert Popkiss, who flies out there in Supercar. Mike then takes the vehicle up to search for the balloon, while Popkiss co-ordinates search planes with the Air Force. But too late! The balloon bursts, and the basket plummets to Earth. Mike manages to swoop in at the last moment, and snag the basket’s ropes on Supercar’s nose, carrying Beaker and Jimmy to safety.


The voice-over narrator is back, this time introducing us to the episode’s location, the island of Bantonga, which he says only exists in the “realms of fantasy”, which seems a rather post-modern way of acknowledging the show’s fictionality – I wonder what kids watching at the time would have thought. Anyway, Bantonga is a South American banana republic ruled by President Gomez, the usual dictator with an over-elaborate uniform. His main worry at the moment is that his presidential aircraft is not fitting for his station – it’s a clapped-out old triplane he has to pilot himself. He wants to replace it with a Boeing 707, though as Bantonga can’t possibly afford one, his plan is to steal one. To that end, he has an American pilot called Captain Ross kidnapped. He intends one of his men, Lieutenant Swarb, to return to the US impersonating Ross – he’ll then enrol on a 707 pilot’s training course, and steal the plane in the process. Foolproof! Gomez has employed a couple of foreign advisers to help with kidnapping Captain Ross – yes, it’s Masterspy and Zarin! – and now it’s time to pay them off. The President invites them to his yacht that night, where he has his own private casino. He encourages Masterspy to play the roulette wheel, which is crooked. At the touch of a secret button, the agent starts to lose heavily, and before they know it, Masterspy and Zarin have lost all their ill-gotten gains. No honour among thieves, it seems.

Back at the Supercar lab, Bill Gibson is visiting. He announces that he’s about to start as an instructor on a Boeing 707 training course. There’s a surprise. (But is Bill qualified to do this? All we’ve ever seen him operating before is a light aircraft and a pick-up truck. When did he become an expert airline pilot?) Beaker meanwhile is back developing spy gadgets – this time a secret transmitter in his bowtie. Jimmy and Beaker decide to accompany Bill as passengers on his 707 training flight – Bill’s first pupil being none other than “Captain Ross”. (It just writes itself…) We’re treated to film of a real airport, and a real 707 taxiing and taking off; but once airborne, it becomes a model shot. In flight, Lieutenant Swarb pulls a gun and demands that Bill changes course for Bantonga. With his brother and Beaker as potential hostages, Bill doesn’t have much choice. He tries to warn Mike and Popkiss what’s going on when they radio in, by getting the Prof’s name wrong, and rather pointedly saying “Hi, Jack!” Despite this most obvious of clues, neither Mike nor Popkiss pick up on it. It’s left to Beaker to use his bowtie radio to alert them that something’s wrong. Mike launches Supercar to try and investigate, but even though he catches up with the 707, he can’t do anything to stop Swarb while he holds the others at gunpoint. But help comes from an unexpected quarter. To get back at Gomez for ripping him off, Masterspy phones the lab and explains what’s happening. The 707 is too heavy to land on Bantonga’s muddy airstrip, so Swarb is taking it to another island – meanwhile, Gomez is piloting his presidential triplane there to rendezvous. Armed with this knowledge, Mike intercepts Gomez’s plane, and “buzzes” it with Supercar. The slipstream from the jets causes Gomez to go into an uncontrollable tail spin – fortunately, the President is able to pull out just before he crashes into the sea. (Mike doesn’t seem to have considered what they’ll do if Gomez is killed…) Under this threat, Gomez is forced to order Swarb to turn the plane back to the US. He’s not prepared though for Mike “hijacking” him; and Supercar escorts the triplane back to America, where presumably Gomez will face justice.

Calling Charlie Queen

The team are all out in Supercar, leaving Mitch alone in the lab. He’s enjoying a quiet cigar (yes, really!) when a radio message comes in: “Calling Charlie Queen!” A desperate voice is asking for help, and saying: “He’s coming back!” When the others return, Mitch is unable to tell them what he’s heard – but fortunately, the message is repeated. We cut away to see the fellow transmitting – he appears to be standing in a giant-sized room, perhaps a workbench in a laboratory, surrounded by giant-sized apparatus. But then we realize perhaps it’s not the room that’s big, perhaps it’s him who’s small – for a man who appears to be a giant enters the room, picks up the desperate man in his hand, and tells him he’s going to be put back in his cage. (It’s quite an impressive shot featuring a puppet and a full-sized actor together in a full sized set.) Overhearing all this, the team can’t decide whether it’s a hoax or not, but think they have to investigate. (“Calling Charlie Queen” being a generic distress call to all stations listening.) Beaker manages to trace the signal’s source, so he and Mike fly out there in Supercar. They land near an isolated house, which has a radio mast on the roof – it must be the place they’re looking for. They ring the bell, and the door is answered by the sinister-looking Professor Karloff. Beaker tries to bluff his way in by saying they’re conducting a survey of amateur radio stations in the area – but Karloff cuts through all this by saying he knows why they’re really here. If they come in, he’ll explain the mysterious radio message over a cup of coffee. It all seems reasonable enough. Mike and Beaker are startled by a shape behind a curtain, but it turns out to be Mitch, who’s must have snuck into Supercar’s trunk to accompany them. Karloff comes back with coffee, but it’s a trap. The coffee is drugged, and pretty soon Mike, Beaker and Mitch are unconscious.

They wake up in Professor Karloff’s lab, and discover that they’ve been miniaturized! They also meet the man who sent the distress call: Karloff’s assistant, Hopkins, who’s been similarly shrunk and is locked in a cage on the workbench. He explains that Karloff has invented a formula that will reduce people to one third of their normal size. He plans to introduce it into the water supply of every city, and turn America into a nation of miniature people, over which he will rule. I can’t even begin to address the scientific impossibility of all this. (Actually Beaker does all that for me!) But you can’t reduce people – where does all their mass go? Why does their metabolism stay at the same rate? And how does ingesting this chemical formula cause their clothes to shrink with them? It just won’t do! They might just as well have said it was magic. At least then they’d have some plausible self-consistency. And once again, the Andersons give us a villain whose only motivation is that he’s crazy – at least Mike acknowledges this fact. They find the radio on the bench, but Karloff has put it out of action. Beaker climbs inside to repair it, and Mike manages to radio back to the lab. But too late! Having not hear from then, Popkiss and Jimmy have already left in the truck, driving all through the night to try and find their friends. Arriving at Karloff’s house, Popkiss tries to bluff his way in by saying they’re conducting a survey of amateur radio stations in the area! Inevitably, they’re invited in for a cup of coffee. In the laboratory, Beaker has discovered Karloff’s notebook containing the formula for an antidote – but he can’t understand all of Karloff’s notations, and therefore can’t find all the right ingredients for the mix. Good job they’ve got Mitch then: he serendipitously knocks a bottle over into the mixing bowl, and there’s a flash! Beaker’s finger, which was in the bowl, is restored to normal size. (A miniature Beaker with one normal-sized finger is certainly an amusing image.) The formula found, our heroes are able to restore themselves to proper size, and save Popkiss and Jimmy from drinking the coffee. They leave Karloff in Hopkins’s care until the police can arrive – that’s to say, the miniaturized Karloff now locked in the cage on the workbench. Hopkins does seem to rather relish taunting him, but I guess that’s understandable given what he’s been through.

One of the things to notice about this episode is how the ideas, and indeed some of the visual imagery – such as the puppets representing miniaturized people inserted into a real-sized environment – prefigure those we’ll see in The Secret Service in a few years’ time. In fact, given the way that Supercar often uses real film of locations, vehicles and backgrounds, integrated with the puppet characters in the close-ups, The Secret Service doesn’t seem quite as much of the far-out departure/innovation (delete according to your point of view) as is often claimed. They’ve done most of it already…

Monday, 25 July 2011

Anderthon: Lean Forward, Masterspy!

Supercar series 2
episode 1

When a programme is renewed for a second series, what’s the worst thing they can do to it? Sack the head writers? Lose or replace characters without explanation? Completely alter the style? No, it’s changing the theme music! OK, so I’m not being entirely serious – the other things mentioned are probably far worse crimes. It’s a tricky business revamping a show between seasons – producers are just concerned to make the show appeal to the biggest audience possible, but whatever changes they make risk alienating the existing fanbase. Compared to what's going to happen in the mid-seventies, the changes to Supercar might seem quite minor, yet there is a distinct change in the style of the show which I’ll be examining as we go on.

But that theme music! I’m going to make a shocking confession here: I don’t really like the music for Supercar. Now I’m normally a huge fan of Barry Gray’s work, but I hardly ever put the Supercar CD on for enjoyment. I don’t feel he’s quite hit his stride yet – giving us a rather simplistic march for Supercar in action, and “comedy” children’s music for Beaker and Mitch – though there are the first hints of weird electronic “outer space” music, and some of the lush orchestrations that will later be used to depict tropical islands and exotic alien worlds. As for the theme song itself, with its overly literal lyrics describing Supercar’s abilities, it’s very kids tv, isn’t it? Can you imagine if the Thunderbirds theme had similar words?

Thunderbird 2
It’s big and fat and green
Thunderbird 2
Got a pod with cool stuff in

OK, maybe not… Despite the lyrics, what the Supercar theme has going for it is that it’s big, bold and dramatic, with the vocalist giving it his all! And that impact is completely lost in the second series version – the instrumentation is weak and insipid, and the performance of the vocal group completely lacking in power (and the words are less clear too.) I wonder why they felt the need to change it…?

The Runaway Train

Interestingly, it’s not immediately apparent that there’s been a change in the writing staff. This episode starts out much like a first series tale. Beaker is working with the army, trying to devise a new method for transporting tanks over difficult terrain. He goes into his lab, and gets to work. Eventually, after some false starts, he comes up with a powerful electromagnet, which he demonstrates to Mike and Popkiss. Beaker has done his work too well, and the magnet is so powerful that it attracts every metal object in the building, including things like belt buckles. Much hilarity ensues… I have to say, Mike is somewhat brusque in his reactions to Beaker’s invention, and maintains a rather offhand attitude towards the good Doc throughout the rest of the episode. Maybe a flying metal object did him some rather sensitive damage that he doesn’t tell us about? Beaker fits the new magnet to the underside of Supercar, and demonstrates to the army its use to pick up tanks and deliver them across rivers and other tricky terrain. He also says that he’s going to leave this new device on Supercar, which leads me to suspect that it’s going to become important later on.

People who notice these things will spot a new name on the end credits: Derek Meddings, now permanently installed as special effects wizard. And one thing I noticed straight away is an improvement in the modelwork, with helicopters, tanks, cars and buildings. Even the laboratory, previously represented by a painting, is now a complete model building. There are some problems of scale however. When Supercar picks up the tanks, it just looks wrong to my eye: Supercar is too big in comparison to the tank. Previously, we’ve seen that the cockpit of Supercar is no bigger than the interior of a small car like a Mini (which is really obvious when all the team have to cram into it) – so even with its elongated nose and tail, the vehicle really shouldn’t be any bigger than the average saloon car. And yet here it dwarfs a tank! Later in the episode, Supercar actually picks up a car – which should obviously be about the same size – but again, Supercar is much larger than it should be. And since we can see the figure of Mike sitting in the cockpit, this makes him look like a giant! (And in fact, if you compare the two sequences, you’d get the impression that the car is as big as a tank as well!)

Anyway, what’s all this got to do with the episode title? Well, a new atomic-powered train has been built in England. Those very words tell us that, despite the early sixties setting, the Andersons are starting to lead us into their vision of the future, the whizz-bang labour-saving nuclear-powered utopia that we’ll see more of over the coming decade. (It seems hopelessly na├»ve and optimistic now – like the hover cars and personal jet packs we were all supposed to have by the year 2000 – but the Andersons really buy into that Look and Learn vision that must have seemed so exciting to young boys then.) It turns out that Dr Beaker has become so famous that he’s been asked to drive the train on its inaugural journey. (So he’s a qualified engine driver too? There’s no end to his talents.) This highlights another subtle change to the series format – after all Popkiss’s efforts to keep the Supercar project top secret in the first series, the team are now globally renowned. Indeed, Mike is referred to by a hotel receptionist as “the famous test pilot”.

The team decamp to London, represented naturally enough by real live action film of people walking past Big Ben. What they don’t realize is that staying in the same hotel as them are none other than Masterspy and Zarin. You’ll remember how much I was missing them by the end of the first series, so it’s good to see them back. To avoid detection, Masterspy books in under a cunningly fiendish alias: “Mr Masterspoon”! That night, he and Zarin break into the engine shed where the atomic train is being kept – there’s film of a real railway marshalling yard, real tracks and real engines, and yet bizarrely enough an unconvincing model shot of the Moon to indicate night-time. (What, there wasn’t any stock footage available of the Moon in the sky? Crazy!) On behalf of the hostile foreign power which employs them, they sabotage the atomic motor. So, the train sets off the next day with Beaker and Popkiss aboard, and pretty soon the engine runs out of control. I can’t be sure, but the back projection in the cab may well be the famous BBC interlude film London to Brighton in Four Minutes. As the train hurtles towards Brighton, Masterspy and Zarin drive there hoping to see the big explosion it will cause. (As with The Lost City, the Andersons really seem ignorant of all the health dangers associated with proximity to a nuclear detonation – even allowing that Masterspy wouldn’t be foolish enough to actually be standing at ground zero. If I knew that a nuclear bomb was about to go off in Brighton, I’d be making all haste to somewhere like Edinburgh…)

Beaker is unable to stop the train, so calls Mike on the radio. The time scale of the episode seems to stretch out here somewhat. Despite there being only minutes to impact, Mike has time to question the receptionist about “Mr Masterspoon” – then to track Masterspy’s car. And here, Beaker’s electromagnet finally comes into its own, as Mike uses it to pick up the car and deposit it on the top of a tv transmitter mast, where he leaves the villains to cool off. Thus precariously balanced, Masterspy and Zarin are left having to lean backwards and forwards to try and keep the car from toppling. Supercar then races after the train, and Mike again uses the electromagnet to grab hold of the engine. Then he fires reverse thrust, and manages to draw the train to a halt just as it pulls up to the buffers in Brighton station.

So overall, a good start to series 2. Despite some slight changes in style and outlook, we’re not really feeling the absence of the Woodhouses yet. Masterspy and Zarin come back in an espionage plot, and get a suitably comical comeuppance; and the carefully demonstrated application of science saves the day. Let’s see where we go from here...