Pert of me wonders if I’m writing of an experience unique to those who grew up in the British Isles. I’m not sure if the fad ever really caught in the United States during the sixties when the shows were originally produced or if they enjoy the same sort of nostalgia that they do over here. Of course, the production and success of Team America: World Police would suggest that American audiences are familiar with work of Gerry Anderson, but I somehow doubt that the shows he produced (most notably Thunderbirds, Stingray and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterions) made as strong an impact to kids who weren’t exposed to them every morning before school.
For a good three or four years, some time towards the end of primary school and the start of secondary school, I remember that one of the stations over here (possibly Sky or possible ITV) used to broadcast Stingray in a 7am slot. I remember this, because it was on before Batman: The Animated Series at about 8am, and I’d always get up a little bit early to watch both – while still showering and brushing my teeth and doing all the other essential “getting ready for school” stuff.
For those who don’t know me, that’s a major commitment. I like my sleep. I could sleep through an earthquake, and I shower at night so I can get a few extra minutes in bed in the morning. I don’t just get out of bed early for anyone. You have to be someone special for me to sacrifice a few precious minutes of sleep. Now, Stingray, that was something special. I owned all the little models and used to play with all the little figures. I loved the fish-shaped ship with flapping mouth.
Of course, the animated Batman series was such a key part of my childhood that I now own the entire series on DVD boxset and – truth be told – the series still holds up to my older, cynical eye. Gerry Anderson’s puppets, however, have never really benefited from the same sort of nostalgia. I don’t seek out the DVDs, although I would kill for an actual “supermarion” puppet. If anyone reading this is looking for something to get me for Christmas, there’s a hint. Still, I don’t feel the need to grab the DVD boxset and sit down of a Saturday afternoon.
Perhaps it’s a fear that the shows might not necessarily hold up to the scrutiny of an adult eye. Hell, as I write this, I wonder to myself if kids these days would be interested in the shows. The puppets produced by Anderson for his shows are nothing short of spectacular – they are among the best special effects I have ever seen – but they don’t really attempt to approximate reality. Even as a ten-year-old child, I could tell that the show used human hands for close-up shots where any movement was required. And yet I took a deep breath and I suspended my disbelief because… well, it was magical. I had never seen anything like those puppets. With the obvious exception of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s affectionate homage, I haven’t seen anything like it since.
However, as distinctive as the visuals were, they weren’t the most important part. The shows allowed Anderson to play with fascinating pulp fiction concepts, like underwater races or evil aliens from Mars, while never shying away from the darker elements. I remember, when I was younger, certain aspects of Captain Scarlet gave me nightmares. Some of it was the Invasion of the Bodysnatchers elements to the concept – the Mysterions kill you and then use your body for their acts of violence – while some of it was as mundane as Captain Black (his voice and his slightly shoddy appearance). Even Thunderbirds didn’t shy away from death or destruction – there was no safety net and, while the regular cast was safe, you were never entirely certain that all the guest stars would be okay.
While many of Anderson’s shows ran the typical half-hour slot, Thunderbirds had episodes that could fill an entire hour. Imagine pitching that today. Network executives are convinced that adults have an attention span of a few seconds that you’d never get an hour-long puppet television show produced for a younger audience. Especially one which handled its ideas remarkably well. Sure, I’ll concede that there was padding, but the show never felt like it was pandering to me. It was just good television that happened to be appropriate for me as a ten-year-old kid.
And yet, I wonder what my little sister would make of it. In this age of Hanna Montana and all that, I wonder whether children would engage with a show that tackled concepts like Thunderbirds does – I mean, you could have filmed the show with real people and aimed it at adults as a sort of Mission: Impossible type production. Could kids these days get past the simple fact that Anderson used puppets? Hell, the recent attempt to remake Captain Scarlet and the Mysterions resorted to CGI, seemingly thinking that was the way to grab children’s attention. Maybe it was.
Still, as much as I remember the visuals, they never locked me out of the show. That was the magic of Anderson’s superb production. Even though I knew they were fake in a way that real life performers (and maybe even animation) weren’t, I still felt the stories. My pulse still raced when the Stingray leapt out of the water to try to escape a pursuing craft, or the fire approached a trapped puppet as the Thunderbirds counted down their familiar launch. Sure, the casts were populated with archetypes, but the stories were well told and – despite the obvious distinctive visual style – they still felt real to me.
Still, it’s a shame that there’s not a show produced today that does anything like this. I caught Thunderbirds Are Go! over the weekend and, while the movie has quite a few flaws, it hangs together better than a lot of children’s entertainment from the sixties. It’s a hell of a lot more visually distinctive than anything we’ll find on television today, and it’s sad that we’ve lost that unique charm. I’d like to believe that there is room in the world for these delightful puppets, even in the age of CGI and digital animation. Maybe Tim Burton could work with them (like he did with CGI).
Maybe I’ll order myself a boxset after all…
Filed under: Television Tagged: | 1960s, British Isles, Captain Scarlet, captain scarlet and the mysterions, Gerry Anderson, Joe 90, Matt Stone, puppets, Royal Mail, stingray, Supermarionation, Thunderbird, thunderbirds, United States