Saturday, 27 August 2011

Anderthon: OK, Venus?

Fireball XL5
episodes 1-4

And so we blast off into outer space! After Supercar’s tentative first tentative steps into science fiction territory, finally we get full blown futuristic adventure of the kind that the Andersons are perhaps most famous for. The only trouble is: Fireball XL5 is not actually very good sci-fi – or at least, it seems horrendously old fashioned – and I don’t just mean from a modern viewpoint. I’ve heard it said that television and film science fiction tends to lag behind the written form by a good ten years or so – whereas Fireball XL5 seems like something from 20 or 30 years earlier. It’s very much in the pulp sci-fi tradition: heroic adventurers patrol the galaxy in a spaceship with wings and rocket exhaust, thwarting the plans of would-be alien conquerors. I think it’s fair to say, at least based on these opening instalments, that the scripts lack the sophistication of Supercar. The whole setting of the show is confusing. Fireball XL5 is based on Earth, and operated by the World Space Patrol, whose very name suggests a parochial Earth-centric interest. Given that the show is set in the late 21st Century, this might seem a realistic attempt to limit the extent of man’s space exploration – no warp drive or other faster-than-light propulsion. And yet, the ship seems able to visit various alien planets after just a few days of rocket travel. It’s as if the entire galaxy has contracted somehow, and various other star systems are now encroached on the edges of our own. It’s probably fair to say that science is not the Andersons’ strong suit, and that they really do underestimate the distances involved in interstellar travel.

The puppets have come along a little way since Supercar. There are less grotesque caricatures now – instead, characters are designed to appear more realistically human (albeit stylized with their big heads and hands). Our hero Steve Zodiac is square-jawed, blond and clean cut. Professor Matthew Matic has thick pebble-lensed spectacles, behind which he appears as an avuncular quirky older character (he’s less a Dr Beaker substitute, and more a sort of spiritual ancestor of Victor Bergman). And we also get an innovation: the first proper female lead character in an Anderson show (Ma Jones aside): Venus, the Doctor of space medicine. Again, she’s stylized and exaggerated, but she looks like a real person. (You only need to think of characters like Zizi or Princess Caroline in Supercar, who basically looked like dolls.) I’ll also note that all three of our leads have got consciously silly sci-fi names, which I suppose reminds me that the series is being aimed at children. Another thing to notice is that the producers are still concerned with the fact that puppets can’t be made to walk convincingly. So in addition to Fireball itself, now we’ve got jetmobiles, basically hovering motorbikes which they can use to get from A to B without having to use their legs! This does lead to the oddity which we see in the opening titles, as Steve and Venus use their jetmobiles to actually board Fireball XL5. They fly up, past the tailplane, along the fuselage, before descending through an open roof hatch. It just seems to me the most insanely convoluted method of entry, when surely an underside hatch and a ladder would be a lot more sensible and economical. (And you’ve got to worry – what would happen if their jetmobiles broke down on some alien surface? Would they be unable to get back into Fireball?)

With the show being set in outer space and in the future, miniature effects work starts to take a more prominent role. Whereas I was impressed with the model work in the later episodes of Supercar, here some of the effects work is a little bit ropey – possibly a result of Derek Meddings having to spread his budget more thinly. The most obvious example of this is the launch sequence of Fireball XL5 itself: despite being the show’s beauty shot, seen in every episode, the model visibly wobbles rather alarmingly on its rocket sled, suggesting that the resource wasn’t there to reshoot it. The scale of the ship is also confusing. Placed next to the control tower of Space City, it appears to be massive – yet it’s operated by a crew of three people and a robot. The large glass cockpit fills the whole of the nose cone, and that gives us a clear indication of the size of the interior, as the ship is pretty much a cylinder of the same diameter for its entire length – so it seems to me that there can only be a few rooms positioned one behind the other inside the fuselage. The interior design is also quite minimalist, with the bare metal girders of the ship’s skeleton visible – all of which suggests a fairly small patrol ship. It’s rather odd then to see the well-appointed and luxurious lounge that the crew often retire to – it’s so out of step with the rest of the design that I didn’t realize at first that it was supposed to be aboard the ship.

Planet 46

Someone is attacking the Earth with planatomic missiles. (Fireball XL5 seems to delight in sticking different words together to create new terminology that hopefully sounds a bit futuristic. I’m assuming this is meant to be an atomic missile that can take out a whole planet.) Space City sends Fireball XL5 to investigate as it’s the ship in the relevant patrol sector – Sector 25. (There only appear to be three sectors on Commander Zero’s map however.) It’s not really clear whether the sectors are parts of Earth’s own space territory or areas beyond the borders – though I suppose the presence of so many hostile alien worlds in these sectors might suggest the latter. Anyway, Fireball tracks down the missile and is able to destroy it before it can become a danger to Earth. Space City determines that the missile came from Planet 46, and Fireball is despatched to check it out. It’s several days’ journey time to get there. On arrival, Steve and Venus travel down to the planet’s surface in the ship’s detachable nose section, nicknamed Fireball Junior. I do like the idea of the ship having its own integrated shuttlecraft – it makes it more than just a static model. I can understand why the toys and models have been very popular over the years – a toy spaceship is pretty cool in itself, but a toy spaceship with moving or detachable parts is just fantastic! Also, from a realistic scientific perspective, it makes more sense to have a large mothership that stays in orbit whilst a smaller vehicle does the difficult and fuel-costly business of landing and taking off. At least that would make sense, if the size and scale of Fireball XL5 wasn’t handled so inconsistently throughout the series. The main craft seems perfectly capable of making planetfall without any difficulty, and presumably launching again – and whereas it needs the elaborate rocket sled on rails arrangement (inspired, I suspect, by something similar in the movie When Worlds Collide) to take off from Earth, it doesn’t seem to have the same requirements to lift off from any alien surface.

Using their jetmobiles, Steve and Venus explore some caves, and discover a mysterious set of doors. Unfortunately, they’re on the far side of a lake of volcanic lava. Steve decides to ride his jetmobile over the lake, and there are a few hairy moments as the heat threatens to make the machine malfunction – but he just manages to make it, whereupon he’s captured by two aliens with odd, angular plastic heads. He tries to tell Venus to hightail it back to Fireball, but she gets captured too on her way out of the caves. Steve wakes up in a secret control room, where the aliens are planning to launch another missile at Earth. The aliens are called Subterrains, yet they don’t get any real introduction – Steve seems familiar with them and immediately regards them as enemies, leading me to wonder if there’s some past animosity between them and the Earthlings. They’ve got Venus tied up inside the missile, to force Steve to order Fireball XL5 down to land on the planet. But they direct the ship to a deep pit filled with volcanic ash – as soon as it touches down it starts to sink. Then they fire the missile off with Venus inside it anyway (and a Subterrain pilot on a kamikaze mission)! Steve manages to use a concealed gun to capture the Subterrain leader, and gets back to Fireball Junior – docking with the mothership, he uses Junior’s engines to pull it free from the ash pit. Then they set off after the missile. Professor Matic (who previously seemed quite a kindly fellow to me!) threatens the Subterrain leader with the destruction of his planet if he doesn’t order the pilot to eject Venus from the missile before they destroy it. Steve then spacewalks to capture the pilot and rescue Venus, and we’re introduced to one of the show’s more unusual ideas: taking oxygen pills that enable you to survive in vacuum without a space suit. It’s scientific nonsense of course, because I can’t see how it would alleviate all the problems of zero pressure and extreme low temperatures: collapsed lungs, burst capillaries, frozen eyeballs and so on – but it’s certainly a distinctive concept and gives us some incongruous imagery. With Venus safe, they blow up the missile in the nick of time – so close to Earth in fact that the explosion can be seen up in the sky over Space City – which by my reckoning ought still to flood the planet with deadly radiation, and almost certainly blind poor Lieutenant Ninety who’s looking out the window at the time!

Hypnotic Sphere

Venus has electrodes wired up to Steve’s head, as regulations dictate she has to give him a medical check every day that Fireball’s on patrol. When Steve suggests that Robert the robot ought to get a daily check-up too, Robert gets so wound up that steam vents from his head. (It doesn’t really make any sense that an electronic robot should produce steam in moments of stress – but it provides an amusing visual image.) Professor Matic then detects something odd on his spacemograph. That’s right, they’ve stuck two words together again to try and suggest a piece of futuristic technology – presumably this is supposed to be a sort of space seismograph, something to detect unusual vibrations or tremors in space – despite the fact that you can’t have vibrations in a vacuum where there’s no transmission medium. Ah well… What Matt’s detected turns out to be a tanker ship from Earth. It appears to be adrift. Steve and Matt take their oxygen pills, and spacewalk across to the tanker. (They use a sort of jetpack to propel themselves – so why do they need to make those swimming motions with their legs? There’s nothing to kick against in a vacuum! It’s like the puppeteers felt they had to be doing something to indicate motion.) As Steve and Matt investigate the tanker, the musical score is insanely inappropriate: a really jazzy score that would be perfect for a film noir thriller (or indeed many episodes of Supercar). They find the pilot cowering inside the ship, having apparently been hypnotized. It turns out that several tankers have vanished recently, so it’s decided that Fireball should escort the next one and find out what’s been happening. What they encounter is a spherical device launched from the planet Sevenna – it pulses with light and broadcasts a voice that hypnotizes those who come near it – under this influence, the tanker pilot alters his course for Sevenna. Steve starts to follow suit, but somehow realizing what’s happening, tells Robert to maintain the present course. The confusion of the conflicting orders causes the robot to let off steam again, and he responds by karate-chopping Steve in the throat! With the crew unconscious, the ship continues on its course – unfortunately, it’s ultimately heading straight for Mirana, the planet of fire. At the last moment, the heat revives Steve and he manages to pull Fireball away from certain destruction. Backtracking to the hypnotic sphere, Fireball follows the course of the tanker. The crew black out their windows and turn off the electronic systems to avoid getting hypnotized again. Arriving at Sevenna, they discover a whole fleet of the hypnotic spheres waiting on the surface. Entering a building, they encounter the alien responsible – basically a pulsating brain in a glass tank, with a creepy magnified eye. (I think it might actually have been quite disturbing for kids.) The alien reveals its plan: the hijacked tankers will provide fuel for the fleet of spheres, which it will send out across the galaxy, spreading its hypnotic will everywhere and making it ruler of everything. Steve’s heard enough, and despite being held in the brain’s hypnotic power, he manages to get off a shot from his gun – destroying the base’s heating system. The extreme cold kills the brain, which is a physically delicate creature. It’s odd to note that both episodes so far have effectively the same story: our heroes discover aliens operating from a hidden base and using weapons to conquer the Earth/galaxy. This suggests that the solar system is surrounded by hostile worlds with vaguely defined grudges against humanity, which in turn might explain the aggressive attitude demonstrated by Steve and his crew – they’ve got a really gung-ho, shoot first and ask no questions thing going on. It’s like a sort of Middle East situation, with lots of rogue states sabre-rattling, and the Western powers sending in a gunboat to make a few threatening gestures.

Planet of Platonia

A friendly planet this week – well, sort of. Platonia has vast deposits of platinum, but is lacking in many essential resources. President Barzan wants to initiate a trade agreement with Earth. However, he’s opposed by Jinerva, the leader of a more militant/fundamentalist faction. Again, it reminds me of countries in the Middle East where a progressive president wants to cosy up to the West, but faces danger from hardliners. Barzan is attended by his aide Volvo – (presumably Skoda and Audi were busy somewhere else) – but he doesn’t realize that Volvo is secretly working for Jinerva, not even when the aide makes several incompetent attempts to poison or assassinate him. Barzan manages to survive or avoid each attempt (by luck rather than judgement) and though Volvo’s suspicious manner gives him the occasional moment of doubt, ultimately he remains convinced of his aide’s loyalty. The trade talks are considered important enough that Fireball XL5 is despatched to collect Barzan and bring him safely to Earth. Steve and Venus arrive in Fireball Junior, and tell Robert to stay on guard – the robot interprets this literally, by standing in the open upper hatch with a gun in his hand! Following a massive multi-course meal, Steve and Venus retire to guest quarters for the night – but some instinct has made Steve suspicious, and he gets up to go and check on Fireball Junior. He finds that Volvo has incapacitated Robert and got aboard the vessel. So Steve shoots him, with some sort of stun gun that puts Volvo in a coma! But don’t worry, Venus is able to bring the traitor round with “anti-coma drugs”. Fireball XL5 departs, carrying President Barzan to his trade talks – with Volvo locked up in a cell on board (which is labelled with the words “Space Jail”). Meanwhile, Jinerva launches a space interceptor from Platonia to pursue Fireball – it’s interesting to note that he buys his spacecraft from the same place as the Subterrains. Maybe there’s a hostile foreign power that supplies aid and equipment to various rogue regimes, like the Russians used to supply the various Communist states. (Or maybe they just used some stock footage from Planet 46!) Volvo is able to overpower Venus when she goes to feed him, and ejects from Fireball planning to be picked up by Jinerva’s ship. His hopes are dashed when Steve fires a missile and destroys the craft – it turns out that Jinerva was actually on board, so all hopes of an uprising die with him. After Steve has spacewalked to recapture Volvo, it soon transpires that the traitor’s plan was to destroy Fireball with a bomb he planted last night. Steve discovers that the bomb is inside Robert’s chest, and there are tense scenes as he has to extract the device from the robot and gingerly carry it to the airlock, managing to eject it into space with just seconds to spare. Venus then dopes Volvo with knockout drops to keep him unconscious for the rest of the journey to Earth.

Space Magnet

It’s night time in Space City, and Fireball XL5 is preparing for launch the next day. Venus is at home drinking coffee with Professor Matic. She has a sort of weird alien pet called Zoonie, who appears to become quite agitated about something. They can’t tell what. Eventually Matt leaves to go back to Fireball. (He doesn’t have his own home, but lives aboard the ship.) Meanwhile, Steve is in the control room with Lieutenant Ninety when a distress calls comes in from Fireball XL7. It’s out of control, being pulled off course. As contact is lost, Steve decides to bring XL5’s launch forward so he can go and investigate. The take-off is set for moonrise – the only trouble is, the Moon doesn’t rise on schedule! (It was this that got the sensitive Zoonie so worked up.) When the Moon finally appears, it’s too distant – it’s being pulled out of its orbit! (That’s an interesting idea – they should do something with that again…) Matt wakes up to discover the emergency in progress – he’s got a great Heath Robinson apparatus in his cabin involving an alarm clock and a kettle that proceeds to make him a cup of tea. Now, Steve comments here about Matt’s insistence on using a 100 year old alarm clock in preference to the high-tech systems aboard the ship, which is odd because it only serves to point up all the other weird anachronisms in the show. In just this episode, we see Steve reading a newspaper, Venus sewing buttons onto clothes, and even the instrument panels in Fireball are covered in very 1960s dials. For all the spaceships, aliens and robots, there’s very little attempt made at depicting a consistent futuristic world – it’s effectively the Sixties with better technology. Well, Fireball sets off in pursuit of the Moon, and follows it to the planet Magneton – which as its name suggests is pulling lots of metal objects towards it. Steve manages to break Fireball XL5 away just in time to prevent a crash. They go down to the surface and find the wreckage of Fireball XL7 there amongst all the other debris. It’s being fed by conveyor into an alien complex. They go inside, where they are relieved to discover the crew of XL7 are still alive, if prisoners. Then a voice speaks. The aliens here are called the Solars, and they’re invisible. They’re processing all the scrap metal they’ve attracted in order to provide the power to pull the Moon into their orbit. And that’s their whole plan: they want the Moon to illuminate their world so they no longer live in darkness. (Well, I don’t know where to start with the scientific errors here – are the writers really not aware that the Moon merely reflects the light of the sun? Take it away from its orbit, and it wouldn’t have its own illumination…) Steve doesn’t react very well to this news. He whirls around the room, firing his gun indiscriminately until he’s managed to kill all the Solars. Once again, it’s this gung-ho aggressive attitude that’s making it hard for me to like the show. In something like Star Trek or Space Patrol, discovering the aliens’ plight like that would be the cue for our heroes to open up a dialogue and reach some mutually beneficial agreement. For Steve Zodiac, the only response is to shoot the buggers. As I said, very dodgy pulp sci-fi. So far, Fireball XL5 is showing little of the intelligence or wit of Supercar and Four Feather Falls. Our heroes take the Moon back to Earth – though there’s no explanation of how they managed that feat! Then, there’s a little moment of subtle characterization. Looking up at the Moon, Steve comments how it’s easy to take something for granted when it’s there all the time; Venus agrees wistfully, and in that instant, there’s a suggestion of unrequited love, of how Steve is blind to the desires of the woman he serves with. It shows me that the writers are capable of better than the schlock sci-fi they’re churning out. There’s scope for improvement here.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Anderthon: It's the Marvel of the Age...

Supercar series 2
episodes 10-13

Jail Break

A contemporary crime thriller that harks back to the style of the first series, this episode begins with a terrific jazz score as we encounter the criminal Joe Anna, who’s rotting away in prison. Nevertheless, plans are afoot in the outside world to effect his escape. In the big city, we meet the gangster Red James, who receives his instructions from a mysterious “Mr Big” figure at the end of the telephone. Tasked with getting Joe out of jail, Red contacts a company called Helicopter Services Inc, and proceeds to hire the use of a helicopter. His cover story is that he wants to take aerial photographs to aid with land surveying work. But when he arrives to make his flight the following day, he pulls a gun on Mr Weston, the pilot, and tells him that they’re going to fly low over the prison (aerial footage of a real prison, of course). Red lets out a cable from the helicopter, which Joe ties around the bars of his cell window. The helicopter then strains away at the end of the cable, until it pulls the bars clear from the crumbling brickwork of the prison wall. The entire grille comes away in one piece, which is lucky as Joe’s only means of escape is to hang on to it as the helicopter lifts him away. (It does strike me as a bit of a slapdash plan, relying on a lot of lucky chances – that the helicopter can take the strain, that the stonework is weak enough, that the bars stay together in one piece, that Joe can manage to hold on as he’s winched high into the air – still maybe that’s the best that Red could come up with at short notice. What’s amusing about it is that it’s exactly like the jailbreaks we see in Westerns – including Four Feather Falls! – but translated into the modern age, with the helicopter substituting for a horse trying to pull the bars out.)

Meanwhile at the lab, Beaker has developed a new rocket-powered ejector seat for Supercar. Again recalling the first series, we see the team going through a series of meticulous tests to perfect the mechanism – laced with humour as Mike is shot out through the roof doors, only for his seat to come to rest out in the desert stuck on top of a large cactus. But the ejector system seems to be working fine, and Beaker elects to work through the night to make the final tweaks and adjustments (despite some interruptions from Mitch). Demonstrating a post-modern awareness of the show’s tropes, Beaker’s got a feeling that the ejector seat is going to come in handy very soon – as he says, all his new inventions soon prove useful! Sure enough, next day the villains’ helicopter is hovering overhead. What’s that building down there? asks Red. Learning that it’s the “famous Supercar lab”, he hatches a new plan. Entering the lab, Red holds Jimmy and the scientists hostage, to force Mike to fly Joe Anna to safety across the border – reasoning that no one would suspect Supercar of ferrying an escaped con. Once airborne, Mike uses the ejector seat – and amusingly enough ends up stuck on top of a cactus again! Stuck in the cockpit and unable to operate the controls, Joe is scared he’s going to crash – he agrees to throw out his gun if Beaker and Popkiss will bring Supercar back to the ground by remote control. Mitch meanwhile has already taken care of Red James by throwing a horseshoe at his head! Jimmy then keeps him covered while the scientists deal with Joe. (Yes, they let the ten year old kid use a gun…!) As Supercar lands, they learn that Joe Anna has double crossed them – he’s got a second gun. Fortunately, Mike turns up (having extricated himself from his prickly situation) and takes care of the convict. Joe and Red are tied to chairs while they wait for the police to arrive, with Mitch holding a gun on them. (They’re just letting anyone handle firearms now, it seems – at least they tell us that Mitch’s gun is empty.)

The Day That Time Stood Still

The voiceover man is back this week, introducing us to the stars and planets of our galaxy, before taking us to an alien world. For a series that’s essentially grounded (bar a few odd flights of fancy) in the real world of 1960, this all seems just a bit out of step. As I said right back at the beginning, the science fiction content of Supercar has always been pretty minimal – now even given that the Andersons have been driving the show in weird and unexpected directions, suddenly throwing aliens into the mix seems like it’s taking us into another series entirely. (Just imagine if aliens had suddenly popped up in Danger Man for instance.) This planet is Mercurius, which is known as the “planet of dreams”. Maybe they’re planning a dream right now, says voiceover man. (Am I getting that sinking feeling…?) So here we have two aliens, Planetimus their leader, and one of his people called Kalmus – they wear the sort of silly classical robes that tv and films liked to use to suggest an advanced society – and they’re discussing something important. Unfortunately, they talk a “flob-a-dob” language, and without subtitles, we haven’t a clue what they’re on about. Meanwhile at the Supercar lab, Mike is listening to the radio as he prepares to go to bed. (The news is reporting recent sightings of a flying saucer – I wonder if that’s going to be significant…) Anyway, Mike goes to sleep – he’s looking forward to tomorrow, which is his birthday. Yet when he wakes up, he has a funny moment, and seems to think he might still be asleep. Oh no, what do you think that might mean? Anyway, everyone seems to have forgotten his birthday. There are no good wishes, no cards, no presents, and no one picks up on his not-so-subtle hints to them about what day it is. Feeling a bit pissed off, Mike has to take Supercar to Chicago, to collect Aunt Heidi and Zizi, who are coming to visit. He doesn’t anticipate it being a particularly long trip… But it’s all a ruse. Popkiss phones Heidi and tells her to keep Mike tied up as long as possible. Of course, no one’s forgotten his birthday really – they just want him out of the way while they prepare a surprise party.

In Chicago, Heidi and Zizi employ various delaying tactics, taking ages to get ready, insisting on giving Mike cups of coffee, and so on. In fact, Mike ends up asleep in the armchair, which is surprising – with the amount of coffee they’ve forced down him, he really ought to be hyper! While all this is going on, Popkiss is busy baking a cake; Jimmy is making Mike a model of Supercar; and Beaker is doing something mysterious in his workshop – all the while, Mitch interferes and makes a nuisance of himself, eating the cake and bursting balloons. When Mike arrives back with Heidi and Zizi, he discovers the lab in darkness and no one answering the radio. Fearing something is wrong, he operates the roof doors by remote control. Of course, everyone is waiting in the dark to surprise Mike. The party is a great success. After the food and presents, Beaker unveils what he’s been working on: a sort of weird electronic organ he calls the Beakette. It comes sliding out of his workshop like some demented Wurlitzer, and he proceeds to play The Blue Danube with loud electronic chords and crazy puffs of smoke coming out of the thing! Then he accompanies Zizi, who sings a song about her new-found life in the USA. While this is going on, time seems to freeze. Popkiss, Heidi, Jimmy and Zizi are rendered as statues, but oddly Mike and Beaker still retain the power of movement. A flying saucer then lands outside the lab, and Kalmus emerges. He announces that he’s frozen time for the whole world, and is only allowing Mike and Beaker to learn of his existence (and actually, Mitch as well, though Kalmus doesn’t make any comment about that). He tells Mike that they’ve been watching him on Mercurius, and wish to reward him for being a hero: Kalmus gives Mike a magic belt. Once the alien has departed, time returns to normal. Mike then demonstrates his new belt, which gives him the power to fly. He opens the roof doors and proceeds to take off – as he says, he doesn’t need Supercar any more. But executing various manoeuvres, Mike loses control and crashes back into the lab… Whereupon, he wakes up and finds it was all a dream. Then Popkiss, Beaker and Jimmy come in and wish him a happy birthday.

Now, you know I’m not going to be keen on a dream episode, but in this case, I just can’t see what the writers are trying to achieve. The Andersons seem to deploy this device at random whether they need to or not – Supercar is already a bonkers enough series. Consider that it’s already discovered the secrets of miniaturization and invisibility, and felt no need to explain those as dreams. A farce about keeping Mike away from the preparations for his surprise party certainly wouldn’t need to be a dream – so ultimately, the only outrĂ© thing here is the presence of the aliens and their technology. And yet… the aliens are real! They were there at the start of the episode before Mike went to sleep – and indeed, there’s that implication that they generated the dream in the first place. So I’m confused. It just doesn’t make any sense. And I think this is what happens when you try to make a show without proper writers, or at least a script editor who could have looked at the script with an objective eye.

Transatlantic Cable

The voiceover man gives his final introduction this week, explaining the existence and importance of the transatlantic telephone cable – a blatant bit of exposition that could probably have been conveyed in dialogue during the course of the episode. But at least it ensures that we’re clued into the danger posed by the two frogmen who swim into shot and start tampering with the cable. In New York, Masterspy and Zarin are running a new operation: the subtly-named Mastermind Information Service. Yes, they have managed to tap the telephone cable. Zarin listens in to transatlantic phone calls through a set of headphones, from which he gleans sensitive business information. Masterspy then passes this on to various clients, enabling them to steal a march on their competitors by undercutting prices and sabotaging deals. Meanwhile, Mike has been called to the city by Mr Bell, the head of the Telecable Corporation. They’re aware that the cable has been tapped, but they’ve been unable to establish where or how – and now they’re requesting the assistance of Supercar. Back at the lab, Mike discusses it with the team. Popkiss feels that anyone tapping the cable must be operating from a surface vessel in the vicinity, so the obvious plan is to fly Supercar over the ocean following the course of the cable, and see if they can spot any out of place ships. But when they don’t find anything, they decide instead to dive under the waves, and follow the cable along the ocean floor to look for any signs of tampering. At one point, the cable passes quite close to an old shipwreck, and Jimmy thinks he sees a light shining through one of its portholes – a light that’s quickly extinguished before the others see it. Needless to say, no one believes Jimmy, thinking he must have seen a reflection of Supercar’s lamp. Well, they should have listened, because inside the shipwreck is a chamber that’s been made watertight, wherein two villains called Forman and Johnson are ensconced. Through their dialogue we learn that they’re working for Masterspy (clever of him to have them stuck here under the sea, while he reaps all the profits and doesn’t even get his feet wet!) They used an ocean-going tug to dive down to the cable originally – once their wiretap was in place and they’d created this underwater base, the tug went back to port, and they could remain here undetected. They use echo sounding equipment to detect the approach of any submarine vessels, so they can put out their lights in time. (They were just a fraction too late when Supercar turned up before.) Back at the lab, Beaker is slowly coming round to the idea that Jimmy might have been on to something. He thinks that Mike needs to take Supercar back to investigate the wreck – and he’s come up with another useful invention which he fits to the vehicle. Mike and Popkiss return to the shipwreck – to fool the echo-sounding gear, they make a show of rising back up to the surface, then cut their engines to silently drift down to the ocean floor – then they lie in wait. Eventually, Forman and Johnson turn their light back on, giving away their position. Mike deploys Beaker’s new gadget – a drill fitted to Supercar’s nose. He drills a hole through the side of the shipwreck, and the secret chamber starts flooding with water. The villains have no choice but to put on their diving gear and evacuate. Supercar follows them back to the surface, and they’re taken prisoner. Later, Mike phones the Mastermind Information Service, and offers Masterspy some information free of charge: the fact that the police are even now on their way to his penthouse to arrest him and Zarin. With sirens wailing ever closer, our two criminals are reducing to arguing amongst themselves as to whose fault it all was!

King Cool

Jimmy and Mitch are watching a tv show, in which jazz pianist Bud Hamburger introduces his sensational co-star – King Cool, a gorilla who can play the drums. And I don’t just mean bashing them, he’s a really talented jazz drummer, playing sensitively with brushes and everything. Jimmy decides that he could probably teach Mitch to play the drums just as well, and asks Dr Beaker if he’ll build Mitch a drumkit. Despite claiming to be far too busy for such frivolities, Beaker ends up making a drumkit anyway. He works through the night, and so we get a nice repeat of the running gag about Beaker keeping everyone awake as he hammers and bangs – capped off nicely here as Beaker ends up trying out the drumkit, playing a spectacular drum solo through the night! (It’s an impressive piece of puppetry, but the sequence is made especially memorable by being shot through the open laboratory door – all we see is Beaker’s shadow cast onto the wall inside.) Anyway, Jimmy – who can play a mean jazz piano himself – soon teaches Mitch to play the drums. Christening him “Musical Mitch”, he presents a performance for the rest of the team. However, tensions over Beaker’s late night working finally come to a head, and he and Popkiss end up having a row about it. Beaker seems amazed that anyone could think he was noisy – he storms out slamming the door, causing pictures to fall off the wall! Beaker drives into Batesville to visit his old friend Professor Harlow. He doesn’t realize that Mitch has stowed away in the back of the truck, hoping to visit the home of Bud Hamburger and maybe further his musical career. But round the back of Hamburger’s house, Mitch discovers that when he’s not performing, King Cool is kept locked up in a cage. In a very silly scene, Mitch and King Cool talk to each other through the bars – they talk in ape noises of course, but fortunately we get subtitles! The two converse in jazz slang, all “man” and “daddio” – and they come up with a plan to get King Cool free of his cage.

Meanwhile, Beaker is spending the evening at Professor Harlow’s observatory. Weirdly though, Harlow is described as an astrologer – so I don’t know what he needs an observatory for: it should be birth charts and mumbo jumbo. Now, I know that accurate science isn’t really the Andersons’ strong suit, but I find it incredible that they don’t seem to know the difference between an astronomer and an astrologer. And it’s not just a confusion of semantics – despite the observatory and the professorial title, Harlow is most definitely an astrologer, making predictions that Beaker is soon to be visited by a tall stranger. (Beaker himself is pretty sceptical of the whole thing. But come on, how many serious observational astronomers give any credence to astrology?) Well, as it turns out, the prediction is accurate – for Mitch and King Cool have swapped places, and the gorilla travels back to the Supercar lab in Beaker’s truck. When Jimmy finds King Cool asleep in Mitch’s bed the next morning, he jumps to the understandable conclusion that Mitch has somehow mutated in the night! Smart thinking there… (Slightly more disconcerting for me is the fact that Popkiss and Beaker take the suggestion entirely seriously, and begin to wonder what could have caused it.) King Cool becomes disorientated in his new surroundings, and starts to smash the place up. He seems dangerous and out of control, until Jimmy comes up with the idea of playing jazz piano. This calms the gorilla down, and he starts to join in on drums. Meanwhile, the reverse situation is happening to Bud Hamburger: finding Mitch in King Cool’s cage, he thinks that his star attraction has somehow shrunk! By now, Jimmy has worked out the switcheroo, so the team take King Cool back to Hamburger. He agrees that it’s probably unnecessary to keep the gorilla in a cage, and promises not to do so from now on. That night, he introduces special guests on the King Cool show: “Musical Mitch” and the members of the “world famous Supercar team”. And so rather bizarrely, the series bows out with our heroes playing in a jazz band – Mike it seems is a great double bass player, and Beaker can blow a killer saxophone!

It’s an odd choice for the final episode – from a modern perspective, you’d expect a big adventure, a daring rescue mission, a final showdown with Masterspy. Instead you get comical shenanigans with simian mistaken identity (and just a vague message about the mistreatment of animals). It’s also very funny, and utterly bonkers. What interests me most is the way that the series can go out on a limb like this, and yet not come out and say it was all a dream. It doesn’t need to – this show can take surrealism in its stride. And that, I think, shows up the failing of The Day That Time Stood Still.


And so this schizophrenic series draws to a close. These last four episodes really highlight the different directions that it’s trying to pull in. We get two decent crime thrillers, much more in keeping with the first series, in which the application of science saves the day; and we get two slices of pure whimsy. I’m still not sure which is better, as there’s much to enjoy in both approaches. In some ways, it’s a shame that the show ends here, as I’d have been interested to see where the Andersons might have taken it next. Would they continue in the comedy direction? Would they take it further into sci-fi and fantasy? (Possibly so, considering what they’re going to be making next…)

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Anderthon: Roof Doors Opening...

Supercar series 2
episodes 6-9

Space For Mitch

Beaker’s back to working for the government. This time, he’s designed a small, cheap space rocket that can be operated by a minimal ground crew without all the usual gantries and paraphernalia of Cape Canaveral. The episode opens with our heroes inside a concrete rocket test bunker, looking out through the slit window at the rocket outside. It’s a scene that recalls many tense cold war images of scientists and generals waiting for the latest bomb or rocket test. Then we learn that, despite the fact we’ve never seen this area before, it’s actually built onto the side of the Black Rock lab: Mike simply goes next door to get into Supercar. Beaker successfully launches the rocket on an unmanned test flight, separates the capsule from the launch vehicle, and then fires the retro rockets by remote control. Everything goes according to plan: the capsule re-enters safely and parachutes into the sea. Mike arrives in Supercar, fitted once again with Beaker’s electromagnetic grab, and successfully recovers the capsule. With the team to observe the test is Professor Harvey from the Space Administration. He’s very enthused by the project, and commits NASA to funding a further test – this time to be a manned flight. What I find interesting about this is how prescient it all is. At the time it was written, space exploration was in its infancy and almost exclusively the preserve of huge government-funded organizations. Nowadays, with funding cut to the bone, the notion of NASA turning to private contractors to provide launch vehicles doesn’t seem nearly so far-fetched. With everything lined up for the second launch, all that remains is to find someone to fly the rocket. Jimmy suggests his brother Bill for the job, since he is an astronaut! Did I miss some important character development here? The way that Bill has gone from a man in a pick-up truck, to airline flight instructor, and now to a fully-qualified astronaut in the space of a year is nothing short of miraculous. It’s almost as if the Andersons bring in Bill whenever they need an extra character to fulfil some story-specific function. (I don’t know, maybe they’ve run out of puppets or something…) But it’s jarring that we’re expected to just accept whatever occupation and skills he’s supposed to have this week, and really it’s lazy writing.

Meanwhile, Mitch has been reading one of Jimmy’s magazines, and finds a photo of a chimpanzee in a space suit – one of the apes used by NASA to test their early rockets. This obviously puts ideas in his head, as that night Mitch emerges from the lab wearing a space suit (lucky that he’s managed to locate a monkey-sized one…) – he climbs into the rocket and manages to launch it. The noise wakes everyone up. There’s a great piece of characterization as Mike jerks awake shouting out the Supercar launch procedure – it seems he even dreams about flying it. With Mitch now in orbit and his air supply rapidly depleting, they’re unable to fire the retro rockets remotely, as Beaker has rewired the rocket to be operated solely by the onboard pilot. (Which seems incredibly short-sighted – I’d have thought dual control would have been essential. What if the pilot’s injured or blacks out? I also don’t see why they can’t try and talk Mitch through operating the controls – we’ve seen time and again that he’s more intelligent than the average monkey.) While Jimmy talks to Mitch to try and keep him calm and preserve his air, Mike takes Supercar up into orbit. (Yes, finally they’ve sorted out the problems with the cockpit canopy so Supercar is able to fulfil the promise of theme song that it can travel in space.) Mike overtakes the capsule and uses Supercar’s jets to tip it onto its re-entry trajectory. Then he follows it down and recovers it from the sea, saving Mitch in the nick of time. Which just leaves Bill to wake up in the morning, unaware of what’s been going on – astronauts are so calm, they can sleep through the most extreme of disasters.

The Sky’s the Limit

Masterspy and Zarin are literally rolling in money. They’ve bought skyscrapers and cars and yachts. They live in a massive house with a huge long banqueting table – sitting at opposite ends, they’re so far apart that Masterspy has installed a two way radio so that they can talk to each other without the need to shout. We soon discover how they’ve made their new fortune – they’re running a counterfeiting operation. There is however one thing that money (real or fake) cannot buy: Supercar! Masterspy even tries writing a letter to Popkiss, posing as an eccentric millionaire prepared to pay a huge sum for the chance to own Supercar, but he gets a polite letter back turning the offer down. So there’s only one thing for it – they’ll have to steal Supercar. They recruit a couple of New York gangsters, Bud and Jaz, to help with the heist. Meanwhile at the lab, Beaker has developed a new kind of paint that will confer adamantine strength onto any object coated with it. However, he’s made some error with his formula, as instead it turns objects invisible. (And once again, the writers are deploying magic and pretending it’s science. I’m sorry, but I can’t buy it. It would be perfectly possible to devise some pseudoscience technobabble explanation for making something invisible – but just saying it’s invisibility paint doesn’t cut it. It’s only coating the exterior surfaces after all, it could perhaps reflect light back, but it couldn’t allow light to pass through the solidity of the object.) While all this is going on, the team have been informed that some census officials will be arriving soon to carry out a population check. This leads to a fantastic sequence in which Jimmy walks past the lab window, while the light aeroplane carrying the officials lands on the desert outside – it’s an amazing combination of the puppet and set in the foreground with the model desert and aircraft in the background, all done in the one shot.

The census officials are bogus of course – they turn out to be Masterspy and Zarin and their new henchmen. The first our heroes realize is when the villains open fire on the lab – the windows shatter, and everyone dives for cover. The gangsters cut the phone lines and even shoot down the radio mast, so the lab is completely cut off. Realizing that they’re under siege, Mike tells Beaker to fetch the guns. Now, I realize that America has a different attitude to firearms ownership than this country, but when I heard that, I expected to see a hunting rifle and maybe a couple of hand guns – not the two tommy guns that Mike and Beaker start brandishing to shoot back at the villains! Mike attempts to launch Supercar to go and fetch help, but Masterspy has thought of this, and rigged a bomb to the roof doors. So the team are definitely trapped and isolated in the lab. They’re also almost entirely out of food, as Popkiss had been due to go shopping just before the siege started. So it becomes a question of how long they can hold out. Eventually, Mike comes up with a plan. They wave a white flag, and tell Masterspy that they’re surrendering. But when they open the doors, Masterspy enters to discover that Supercar is not in the building. It’s been sent over to England for repairs to its electronic systems. Masterspy doesn’t believe it, as he heard the engines powering up earlier. But Mike bluffs him by playing a tape recording of the engine noise, and explaining that they were trying to deceive him earlier. Eventually, Masterspy buys the story, as there’s clearly nowhere in the building when they could be hiding Supercar. He demands to know where in England he will find the vehicle. (Amusingly, Mike gives the name of the outside contractors as A.P. Electronics of Slough!) Like me, you’ve probably guessed by now that Supercar is still in the building, but has been coated with Beaker’s invisibility paint. As Masterspy and his cohorts leave in their plane, Mike and Beaker take off in the now invisible Supercar to give chase. This basically means the two of them are apparently suspended in mid air. Mike comments that it’s like they’re really flying, empty space around them and no visible means of suspension – apart from all the dirty great strings holding them up, that is! (And yes, I realize it’s a cheap shot to point out the strings in a puppet show, but honestly if they’re going to draw such attention to them with comments like that, I think it’s fair game…) Diving the invisible Supercar into Masterspy’s plane, Mike slices off the wing; the plane spirals out of control and crashes into the ground with an almighty explosion. Nevertheless, as before, Masterspy and Zarin escape with hardly a scratch – and at last! the team tie them up and are going to hand them over to the police. Why didn’t they think of that sooner? Another oddity is the fact that they turn Supercar invisible here, and don’t use this ability again in the subsequent episodes. There must be plenty of situations where it would be pretty useful…


Popkiss wakes up with stabbing pains in his side, and Beaker diagnoses appendicitis. They call an ambulance to take the Professor into Batesville hospital. (Mike wants to take him in Supercar – any excuse to fly it! – but Beaker thinks the Prof needs to stay lying flat.) At the hospital, Dr Maslin concurs with Beaker’s diagnosis, whilst noting that Beaker is not actually a medical doctor. (Weirdly, I thought he was in the first series – didn’t he treat Bill and Jimmy after their plane crash ordeal?) There’s no cause for worry, as a simple operation should see Popkiss alright. Beaker admires an x-ray machine in Dr Maslin’s office, and asks if he can borrow it to x-ray some electronic components. Maslin is happy to lend it – anything to help the Supercar team (so there are some advantages to becoming globally famous, it seems). Back in Black Rock, Beaker demonstrates the x-ray machine to Jimmy, and is slightly perturbed to discover that he appears to have an additional rib bone – fortunately, it’s only his pipe which he’s left in his breast pocket. Beaker reacts to this with such excessive hilarity that I had to wonder whether he’d taken rather more than an x-ray machine from the hospital – he does seem to have been at the “happy pills”. Unfortunately, there’s bad news about Popkiss: there have been complications to his operation, and he desperately needs a blood transfusion. The problem is: Popkiss has a very rare blood type, and there aren’t supplies available. In fact, the only possible donor that Maslin knows about is a Professor Karzinski, and he’s currently out of contact on a scientific expedition to the Arctic. (Surely it’s a bit risky having to rely simply on one doctor’s personal knowledge of available blood donors – shouldn’t they have a central database of such things? Then they could probably find a donor a bit closer to home. I don’t think there’s any blood type that’s so rare, there’s only one other donor in the world… Of course, that would mean Mike wouldn’t have to set out on a perilous mission to the North Pole.) So Mike and Dr Maslin put on arctic gear and set off in Supercar. In an amusing sequence, Mike lifts off through the roof, then immediately brings Supercar back down into the lab – and kicks out Mitch, who’s trying to stow himself aboard again (and dressed in a fur coat and astrakhan hat!)

Meanwhile, at the North Pole, Professor Karzinski and his assistant Jason have discovered uranium deposits beneath the ice cap. Watching with a modern eye, I’m struck by the fact that Karzinski is a dead ringer for the late former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook. Jason, on the other hand, is played by the most sinister-looking puppet they could find, so it’s really no surprise when he turns out to be a bad guy. He plans to kill/abandon the Professor, and return to civilization with the news of the uranium deposits. Karzinski assumes that Jason is a foreign agent, but actually he’s just in it for self-interest, intending to sell the information to whichever government pays best – it could even be the USA if they meet his price. Supercar’s arrival advances Jason’s plans, and he sees it as a chance to get back three months earlier than he planned. Holding the others at gunpoint, he plans to force them to take him to Switzerland. Mike advises him to strap on his safety belt, but he refuses, thinking that it’s an attempt to restrain him so they can overpower him. So Mike flies low, skimming Supercar across the snow field, and eventually crashing the nose into a drift. Jason is catapulted over the seats, and ends up stuck headfirst beneath the dashboard – it’s a stark warning of the need for passengers to use rear seatbelts. Back in Batesville, Popkiss makes a full recovery – Professor Karzinksi is happy to help out the famous Supercar team. As everyone gathers around Popkiss’s bed, Beaker has the x-ray machine right there in the hospital room, for no other reason than to provide the punchline to a weak joke – he claims to have lost his pen, which Jimmy finds by switching on the machine to show it’s been in Beaker’s pocket all along. Beaker dissolves into paroxysms of forced laughter again, and it’s all rather paniful – it wasn’t that funny the first time round.

Atomic Witch Hunt

An interesting idea behind this episode: small nuclear devices are being hidden in American cities, tucked away in warehouses and office buildings. So far, the devices have been located through geiger counter readings, but there must be a fear that some could remain undetected. It’s fascinating as it’s another moment when Supercar predicts something that seems more real and relevant in the modern age. We’ve all heard of the fear of terrorist groups being able to utilize so-called “suitcase bombs”. For Mike and Beaker, it seems more likely that the culprits are a hostile nation, which I suppose reflects the thinking of the cold war era – they suspect it is a smaller country trying to attack the US by stealth, rather than one of the big communist nations that could simply deploy its nuclear arsenal. Nevertheless, Beaker takes it upon himself to commit the team to dealing with the problem. They take themselves off to Batesville library, to read through back issue newspapers. In this way, they discover that at the times the previous bombs were located, there had been mysterious and unexplained sightings of a submarine near the coastal town of Temport – Beaker thinks this is how the bombs are being smuggled into the country. (I love the way that the team are able to find this evidence and make these deductions. You have to wonder what the US is paying CIA analysts for – the State Department should just get on the phone to Black Rock whenever anything untoward happens.) So they all pile into Supercar, and head to Temport to investigate. I don’t know… It’s impressive they’ve been able to put all this together, but you’d think now would be the time to call the proper authorities, rather than the five of them trying to sort it out themselves – it’s like they’re starting to believe their own legend. There’s some interesting camerawork here, as we see Supercar lifting off from a different angle than usual. Unfortunately, it then leads to a visual continuity error: we cut to a model shot showing Supercar from above, lifting up towards the camera with the laboratory in the background. It’s a very impressive miniature effect, but sadly it doesn’t match up with the previous interior shot. Instead of emerging through the open roof doors, Supercar appears to be lifting off from the desert sand in front of the building.

Nevertheless, the modelwork in this episode is some of the most impressive in the series so far, with terrific shots of Supercar landing on the sea; exploring an underwater tunnel after they spot the enemy submarine entering it; and finally surfacing in a subterranean cavern. (There’s also a brief semi-educational interlude as the team admire the aquatic life around them whilst lying in wait for the submarine to reappear – allowing Jimmy to marvel at film of a real octopus and the like.) When Mike and Beaker explore the cavern, they find a stash of the nuclear bombs, and the transmitter that will send the detonation signal. But they step onto a concealed pressure pad in the floor, and manage to get themselves caught in the crossfire of three machine guns that will fire if they try to step off the pad. Worried that Mike and Beaker have been gone too long, Popkiss sends Jimmy to fetch the local sheriff, unaware that he’s really the ringleader of the whole operation. There’s a trap door in his office that leads down into the cavern. The sheriff sends his two cohorts down to capture Mike and Beaker – but fortunately, they’ve got themselves out of the machine gun trap thanks to Mitch pushing a packing crate over to them, which they use to maintain the weight on the pressure pad as they jump off. Then they pull their guns and succeed in capturing the two villains and for poetic justice, leave them standing on the pressure pad, caught in their own trap. So it’s Mike and Beaker who emerge back up into the sheriff’s office and bring the errant lawman to justice.