Friday 7 February 2014

Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons

In 1966, with Thunderbirds having been a major success Gerry Anderson was confidently expecting the series to be renewed. To his surprise and consternation his boss at ITC, Lew Grade, dropped a bombshell. Grade had decided that a completely new series would be easier to sell than a new series of Thunderbirds. Anderson was unhappy but since Grade had always supported him he felt he could not in all conscience oppose him on this issue.

While Anderson was undoubtedly correct that with the merchandising already in place a new series of Thunderbirds would have been a better decision Grade’s decision was in some ways understandable. Each of Anderson’s puppet series up to that date had marked a significant advance in technology and production values and it was reasonable to expect that a new series would be another step forward. In fact Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons would be a step forward technologically, although a somewhat controversial one.

The first major change was that the machinery that controlled the lip movement of the puppets had been made small enough to fit into the puppets’ chests, allowing the puppets for the first time to have normal human proportions. With this advance it seemed logical enough to try to make the puppets look as human possible with realistic facial features in place of the slightly caricatured faces of the earlier seasons.

The result was puppets that looked very realistic, but lacked the personality of the earlier versions. In some ways the technology had become too successful.

The second major change was that this new series would have a much darker tone. Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons is, as Gerry Anderson has stated, a war series. And it’s a grim war for survival for Earth.

The cumulative result of these changes was that some of the fun disappeared. Captain Scarlet is in its own way an excellent series and it certainly has its own virtues but it has to be admitted that it doesn’t have the energy or the exuberance of Thunderbirds. To this day fans are divided on the issue of whether Captain Scarlet represents the pinnacle of the Gerry Anderson Supermarionation series or the beginning of the end.

Thunderbirds had been the first Anderson series to switch to hour-length episodes. The decision to revert to the half-hour format for Captain Scarlet was perhaps in retrospect a mistake. The darker tone of the series really required the longer episode length to develop its themes more fully and in particular to explore the emotional consequences for the characters, although it has to be said that had they gone down that road they might well have ended up with a series that would not have been ideally suited to the market they were aiming for which was after basically a children’s audience.

That’s the real problem with Captain Scarlet - it’s just not entirely sure if it’s aimed at children or at adults. Possibly Anderson should have kept the idea on the back burner until the opportunity arose to move into live action series (an ambition he had been nursing  right from the beginning). 

It has to be said that this tension as to the series’ exact objective does make it rather interesting television.

The first episode sets up the complex back story very neatly. The first manned mission to Mars discovers an alien city. They believe they are about to be fired upon, so they fire first. It’s a genuine honest mistake, with catastrophic consequences. The Martian civilisation had developed the technology to regenerate objects that had been destroyed. Objects, and people. This will be the weapon that the Mysterons use in a war of revenge. It will be used to give them control of two key officers in the Earth defence organisation Spectrum - Captains Scarlet and Black. Captain Black will become their permanent agent on Earth. Their control over Captain Scarlet proves to be less permanent, but it does leave him with an ability that will become vital in the fight against the Mysterons - the ability to survive fatal injuries. Captain Scarlet is now virtually indestructible.

Much of the excitement of Thunderbirds was generated by the fact that almost every mission for International Rescue involved a race against time. This same element provides the suspense in Captain Scarlet. The Mysterons’ strategy is to conduct a war of nerves against Earth, always threatening destruction but always issuing a warning first. So Spectrum, like International Rescue, always has time as the enemy. It’s a clever way of using one of the techniques that been so successful in Thunderbirds.

The Mysterons’ method of war also makes for nicely varied plots, or rather for endless series of variations on plots.

Gerry Anderson always liked the idea of things that are not what they seem to be and the format of Captain Scarlet means that nothing can ever be assumed to be what it appears to be.

Anderson also liked to make the headquarters of whichever organisation a particular series was dealing with the subject of clever gimmicks - the apparently innocent island that really houses the headquarters of International Rescue, the film studio that is really SHADO headquarters in UFO, etc. Captain Scarlet boasts one of the cleverest of these ideas - Cloudbase, an aircraft carrier in the sky. 

The gadgets and the equipment are as cool as you would expect and the miniatures work is at least the equal of anything in Thunderbirds.

Trying to achieve realism with puppets presented continual challenges. How do you operate a puppet that is sitting in a model aircraft cockpit with a glass canopy over her? How do you make a Spectrum helicopter appear to fly by the use of wires with rotating rotor blades getting in the way? Gerry Anderson provides the answers to these and other challenges in the commentary track he recorded for the opening episode. He also gives some insights into the extraordinary care with which his programs were made, aided considerably by the very generous budgets provided by Lew Grade. The idea of being able to build a complete set, even a miniature one, for a single scene occupying a few seconds of air time would make a contemporary BBC producer green with envy. 

Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons certainly has a different flavour compared to Anderson’s other puppet series. For some it might be an acquired taste but it’s always been my favourite of all his Supermarionation series. It is darker in tone but underlying that is a certain 1960s optimism - no matter how formidable an enemy the Mysterons might be Spectrum has no intention of giving up the fight.

And of course it has glamorous female fighter pilots. For me no episode of this series is entirely satisfactory unless the Angel Interceptors put in an appearance.

The series has been released on DVD in most regions but the pricing varies to an extraordinary degree. It’s a series that is worth owning on DVD but you’ll find it’s worth shopping around for the best price.


  1. My favorite marionette production!

  2. It is the only children's TV show to have a suicide bomber,
    (in the first episode!) Utterly brilliant, the good guys
    didn't always win throughout the series. Can't imagine it
    would be made now, it was far too bleak.

  3. I remember one episode Captsin Scarlet episode set in an arctic base that had gone silent. The Spectrum team discovered that all the staff in the base had been killed. There were dead bodies lying everywhere! It was such a stark contrast from all the previous Anderson series.

    1. Yes, it really was incredibly dark. It would have made a terrific live-action series. The premise of the series actually had more potential than UFO (much as I love the UFO series).

  4. Having watched this on Blu Ray (which I recommend, although as a Network release, the episodes are not always in order), it's still my favourite Anderson series. Individual episodes of Thunderbirds are better IMO, but this is a more consistent series.

    I actually think this works better as a half-hour show - it really moves along at speed. I think if they'd made it an hour-series, it would have ended up being too melodramatic, with lots of histrionic scenes about how awful the war was. The only episode I wish had been a full hour was "Codename Europa", which was such a brilliant concept.

    There's a really great tie-in novel by David Theydon, just called Captain Scarlet, as it was the first in a short series, where the Mysterons start causing natural disasters. Very clever piece of work!

    1. I actually think this works better as a half-hour show - it really moves along at speed.

      True. Pacing was definitely an area in which the old half-hour format had the advantage. You could say that half-hour TV dramas are like short stories, one-hour dramas are like novellas and feature films are like novels - each format has its strengths. It's interesting that both short stories and half-hour TV dramas have gone out of fashion.