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…)

No comments: