Friday 8 May 2015

Joe 90 (1968)

Joe 90 was the last of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s science fiction TV series to be filmed entirely using puppets. His next series, The Secret Service, used a mix of puppets and live action. Joe 90 originally aired in Britain in late 1968 and early 1969 and was syndicated in the US in 1969.

Joe 90 represented something of a departure from the earlier Anderson Supermarionation series, being a blend of science fiction and spy thriller concepts.

The series did not do quite as well as earlier series. There are several possible reasons for this. Ironically the sheer technical sophistication of the series may have counted against it. The previous Anderson series, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, had introduced the new-style puppets with realistic human proportions. The puppets were now extraordinarily life-like but they lacked the character and the charm of the older-style puppets used in series like Thunderbirds. This had not been a huge problem in Captain Scarlet with its very dark and brooding tone but it does take some of the fun away in Joe 90.

Joe 90 also suffers from having one of the worst introductory episodes in history. While it does the job of introducing the characters and explaining the background it makes use of a certain plot technique that is just about certain to have most viewers looking for a housebrick to hurl through the TV screen. It’s also the kind of thing that is likely to make viewers suspect that it might turn up again in later episodes. And, unfortunately, it does turn up again, in the very poor episode Three’s a Crowd.

This is a pity because in fact the series as a whole is not all that bad, although it is very uneven.

The central premise is clever, although it has to be said that it's also slightly disturbing. Professor Ian McClaine has invented a machine called BIGRAT which can record a person’s brain patterns and then implant those brain patterns into someone else’s brain. BIGRAT can give any person all the skills and knowledge of any other person. Not surprisingly the World Intelligence Network (WIN) is very interested in this invention. Professor Ian McClaine demonstrates the technique on his nine-year-old son Joe.

WIN super spymaster Sam Loover then comes up with a daring plan. Young Joe can be turned into a truly formidable secret agent. He can be given the skills and knowledge most suited for any mission and he will have the perfect cover - no-one is going to suspect a nine-year-old boy of being a secret agent!

Of course you’d have to wonder whether anyone would agree to have his nine-year-old son sent on incredibly dangerous undercover spy missions but Professor MacClaine rather surprisingly thinks it’s all a splendid idea. Joe McClaine becomes Joe 90, WIN’s Most Special Agent.

Another problem with this series is Professor MacClaine’s jet car. The futuristic aircraft and vehicles in the earlier Gerry Anderson series had always managed to look not just futuristic but sleek, sexy and at least vaguely plausible. And never silly. The jet car in Joe 90 by contrast does look a bit silly and a bit dorky. Gerry Anderson was very unhappy with the design, and rightly so.

By the time Joe 90 entered production Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s team had become extraordinarily technically proficient. The puppets really do look quite life-like. The models of aircraft and vehicles had always looked good but the production team were now able to make them move in a fairly convincing manner. Aircraft really do look like they’re flying. And of course the explosions, which had always been impressive, were now very impressive indeed.

Being essentially a spy thriller series with some science fiction trappings Joe 90 obviously has a different feel compared to Anderson’s earlier series. That’s a good thing in some ways although I do get the impression the writers were less comfortable in the spy genre. Finding story-lines in which a nine-year-old boy (even with expert knowledge) could plausibly play the leading role was a challenge and some of the stories have an edge of silliness. This silliness had been an occasional feature of the very early Anderson series that had largely disappeared by the time he did Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet (in which the standard of writing was generally quite high). To my way of thinking the Joe 90 episodes penned by Shane Rimmer (such as Splashdown, Relative Danger and Big Fish) are more action-oriented and closer in feel to the great Anderson series of the past.

Tony Barwick contributed the dreadful Three’s a Crowd but he also wrote Hi-Jacked (which  is a fun gangster tale) and International Concerto (which includes a clever use of Joe’s abilities). The Unorthodox Shepherd (another Barwick episode) experiments with the use of actual location shooting mixed with the miniatures work, a feature that would be taken much further in the next Anderson series, The Secret Service.

The idea of doing something a bit lighter after the very dark Captain Scarlet was not altogether bad but on the whole Joe 90 was a backward step. Each previous Gerry Anderson series had been just a touch more grown-up than the previous one, which made sense since the kids who’d started out watching Supercar back in 1961 were now that much older. Having a nine-year-old boy as the central character made Joe 90 seem more kiddie-oriented, perhaps just a little too much so. The idea of doing a spy series rather than a straightforward sci-fi series was also by no means bad but it doesn’t quite come off. 

Joe 90 has its moments but after Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet it’s just a little disappointing. If you’re a Gerry Anderson completist you’ll want it, otherwise rent a few episodes before risking a purchase.

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