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.

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