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 naïve 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...

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