January 12, 2005

How odd

I started watching the new Battlestar Galactica on Sci Fi. I remember the old series as being the most dreary, depressing, disappointing thing imaginable -- you'd sort of hope that football on CBS would push 60 Minutes back an hour to give you a good excuse not to watch the only science ficition series on prime time television at the time. Boy, was it terrible, lifeless, dull -- if any series could you make you sentimental for Space 1999, this was it.

Speaking of Space 1999 -- I remember my brother had this toy, which was pretty cool, but, when it came to Gerry Anderson's work, I was always more of a Captain Scarlet fan (warning: Incredibly cool web site); Space 1999 didn't really do it for me -- I had one of these. And here's something else odd -- in the days immediately after Sept. 11, I remember thinking about those old Captain Scarlet programs (they involved puppets), and my fear then was that the world would resemble that dark fantasy, ably described on the Amazon page for the Captian Scarlet DVDs:

First broadcast in the United Kingdom in 1967, Captain Scarlet was the most grownup of all Gerry Anderson's SuperMarionation adventures. Of course there are gadgets and toy-friendly machines galore--like the Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle, the Angel Aircraft, and Cloudbase itself--but, unlike the colorful fantasies of Stingray and Thunderbirds, this series' concern with an implacable, vengeful enemy, conspiracies, and double agents drew its inspiration from James Bond and the cold war spy dramas of the 1960s. Special effects whiz Derek Meddings instills the action sequences with a truly Bondian grandeur and, like the sinister SPECTRE of the Bond films, the Martian Mysterons seem all the more hostile for their unseen presence, their agents infiltrating every organization dedicated to their destruction, just as it seemed the Soviets were doing at the time. The indestructible Captain Scarlet is killed then resurrected every week (though not like South Park's Kenny), and more often than not the Mysterons emerge triumphant, and always undefeated.

That was the most disturbing thing about Captain Scarlet -- even though, at the end of each episode, some major 9/11-like event was averted -- see the plot summaries here or read this sample:

Big Ben Strikes Again
Teleplay by Tony Barwick Directed by Brian Burgess
It is almost midnight and a high destruction-ratio atomic device is being transported through London; its destination, an underground construction site ten miles outside of the city. At the wheel of the huge transporter, the driver, Macey, can only watch helplessly as his vehicle seems to take on a life of its own, careering madly through the streets, before coming to a sudden stop in an underground car park. Finding himself sealed in, Macey switches on his radio and is baffled to hear Big Ben strike thirteen times! Suddenly aware that he is no longer alone, Macey is struck from behind and knocked unconscious, but not before he has seen the atomic device become fully armed - turning it into a bomb of devastating power. Naturally, Captain Scarlet is the only hope to deal with the deadly situation.

While it always seemed that Captain Scarlet could, at the last minute, avert disaster, Spectrum (his organization -- sort of an ultra 60s chic U.N.) never seemed interested in taking the battle to the Mysterons -- even though these aliens were bent on the destruction of earth through terror. This is a particularly troubling episode:

Spectrum Strikes Back
Teleplay by Tony Barwick Directed by Ken Turner

YES! YES! KICK THEIR ASSES!! I would have screamed as a kid, but alas, it was not to be. Spectrum didn't have the heart to strike back.

Colonel White, Captain Scarlet and Captain Blue travel to the secret headquarters of the Spectrum Intelligence Agency, where Dr Giardello demonstrates two new advances in the fight against the Mysterons: the portable Mysteron Detector and the Anti-Mysteron Electron Gun. As the assembled delegates watch the demonstration, Captain Black arrives and kills Captain Indigo and it's not long before the new devices are put to the test. Intended as a sequel to 'Operation Time', Spectrum's newly developed Anti-Mysteron devices make their first (and in the case of the Electron Gun), only appearance.

Uh, so wait -- we have this Electron Gun to kill Mysterons, and we're not going to use it in subsequent episodes? Does the General Secretary of Spectrum know about this? Is he waiting for his son to be cut in on the profits for the contract to manufacture them? And I'm Captain SCARLET, so what's with this pale blue helmet?


The above photo gets to part of the problem -- too many staff meetings (I think a relatively high percentage of each episode was devoted to staff meetings, but I may be wrong...) Despite that, Scarlet and the boys did the best they could, but you couldn't help but think that they were usually doing it with two hands tied behind their backs. Take "The Heart of New York," for example:

When three crooks break into the Spectrum Security Vault, they come away with nothing but microfilm and classified documents. Their haul seems useless, until their leader discovers that it contains detailed information about the Mysterons and their powers of reconstruction. The Mysterons, meanwhile, announce that they are to attack New York - the city is evacuated and Spectrum personnel sent in to patrol the deserted streets. Using their newly-acquired information, the crooks convince Spectrum that the Mysterons' target is the Second National Bank. Colonel White is unwilling to risk Spectrum lives to protect a bank and so orders his agents to withdraw. With nothing to stand in their way, the crooks enter the unguarded bank and prepare to make off with a fortune in gold... The Spectrum personal radio receiver makes its one and only appearance in this episode. Manning a road block on the outskirts of New York, Captain Magenta dons a pair of sporty sunglasses, the arms of which contain tiny speakers which allow him to hear the voice of Captain Ochre, who is concealed nearby.

Uuuhhh...okay, so we're going to leave classified documents around where petty crooks can get them, and we're going to evacuate the City of New York because of a terrorist threat but we're not going to protect the bank that the crooks want to rob because we think that's where the Mysterons will attack but we look totally cool in our sporty sunglasses...check. Note that Captain Scarlet (who was modelled on a young Cary Grant but, for a puppet, conveys remarkably well a sort ot Brian Ferry-esque world worriness) doesn't seem to appear in this episode -- rather than retreat, he'd rather be fighting and killing Mysterons.

Which brings me back to Battlestar Galactica. In the show, war comes at a moment when most people have persuaded themselves that they live in an era of peace. I couldn't help but think of, say, the moment that the Brits woke up to find that the continent was lost, and they stood alone against a savage tide bent on world conquest and genocide. Zbigniew Herbert, the brilliant Polish poet, once wrote of his inability to take optimistic predictions of the future -- of Jetsons-like household appliances and labor saving devices -- seriously. "As though the dull march of barbarism had never before destroyed, never before extinguished our bright visions of the future." I had that feeling while watching the show and, as much as I wanted to turn away, or wished that something inconsequential and vapid was on -- say, like a dreary fiction from 60 Minutes -- I couldn't change the channel.

Posted by Ideofact at January 12, 2005 12:14 AM

"Captain Scarlet" was my very favourite programme when I was a young kid, until some busybodies banned it over here because it was allegedly too violent for children (before that, if I remember right, ATV simply covered themselves by announcing: "Captain Scarlet may be indestructible, but remember, you are not!"). After they stopped screening it, I had to make do with memorizing an old annual, so I still know an awful lot of trivia about the show.

The Mysterons were indeed the ultimate terrorists. I've often wondered whether it was merely a coincidence that at the same time the show was being made (the late 1960s), international terrorism was taking off in a big way (the Palestinians, the Provisional IRA, Baader-Meinhof, Red Brigades etc. all started their campaigns around 1967-69).

There were two features I particularly liked about the programme (apart from the violence, of course):

(1) Its take on the future seemed convincing because it wasn't that much different from now, simply more hi-tech. Nobody walked around in bacofoil suits saying "Affirmative" and "Negative" instead of "Yes" and "No". Big Ben, Scottish castles and houses made of brick and concrete still existed alongside the futuristic stuff. People still relaxed with a drink, went to casinos and read fashion magazines. The oddest thing about the 2050s when you look at the programme now is that they seem to be undergoing a massive Sixties revival.

(2) The good guys didn't always win. I think this is possibly the only TV show where I've seen this happen on a regular basis (even the most hard-bitten detective shows have an extraordinary, almost 100% clear-up rate). The Mysterons succeed in blowing up South America's water supply station and they manage to assassinate the president of the United Asian Republic in spite of Spectrum's best efforts. So the tension was even tenser than usual.

"Battlestar Galactica" was always third-rate, "Star Wars"-imitating dross and I've never managed to get through a complete episode. "Space 1999" was repeated here in 1999 (of all years) and in many ways I wish I hadn't refreshed my memories of it. Its vision of the future has not worn well, particularly the hippy drivel they try to pass off as profound philosophy in all too many episodes. Some of it's still weird and scary (often unintentionally so: in one episode Ian MacShane, now famous as the dodgy antique dealer in BBC's "Lovejoy", turns into a radioactive monster), but I think the bits that have stood up best are the incredibly funky music and Catherine Schell (as Maya). The less said about "UFO" the better, I'm afraid.

Posted by: J.Cassian at January 12, 2005 09:32 AM

I loved Captain Scarlet too -- it was on in syndication in the states weekdays after school. At that time I think Bugs Bunny and Tom & Jerry and the like were drawing all ire of the anti-violence crusaders -- Captain Scarlet was too obscure here to draw their attention.

There really was a feeling of dread the episodes produced -- I think part of the problem was that Spectrum was never overly concerned with going on the offensive.

I haven't seen Space 1999 since the 1970s, but I'd sort of like to see an episode again. The music was excellent -- I think my brother even had an album of it.

And I agree with you about the old Battlestar Galactica. That's why the new version was such a revelation -- it was really good, and instilled that same sense of dread.

Posted by: Bill at January 12, 2005 11:16 AM

It's certainly worth renting a few episodes of "Space 1999", as some of it's pretty good if you can avoid the "Good morning, starshine" bits. The Ian MacShane episode, the one with a berserk seven-foot tall Richard Chamberlain, and "Dragon's Domain" - which gave me nightmares as a kid and is still pretty grisly - are particularly recommended. It's also fun if you want a glimpse of a vanished age (I think at least two of Rod Stewart's girlfriends appear in the show).

I thought Spectrum was reluctant to go on the offensive because Gerry Anderson wanted to string the series out. After all, the "earthmen" only have to work out how to destroy a single base on Mars and it's all over for the Mysterons.

Posted by: J.Cassian at January 12, 2005 04:04 PM

I haven't seen Captain Scarlet since I was a kid, so maybe I'm not remembering correctly, but wasn't there sort of a half-heartedness to Spectrum? Sure, the Mysterons were wrong to want to indiscriminately kill and terrorize humans, but we did screw things up for them on Mars, so maybe we better just learn to live with assassination attempts and cities being destroyed and what not...

Posted by: Bill at January 12, 2005 05:14 PM

Well, it didn't really seem too much that way to me when it was repeated here recently (and I'm not ashamed to say I taped most of it, because it's still highly enjoyable, even though you can spot one or two plot holes as an adult). The Mysterons aren't like human terrorists and Spectrum can't just blow up their base because that's what they did to start with and the base simply reconstructed itself. I think they learn the Mysterons' weaknesses gradually, e.g. their vulnerability to high-voltages. They develop a detector for their "undead" agents too, and stop the Mysterons establishing a base on the moon. Actually I say the "Mysterons", but the terrorists are in fact their defence computers, left running after the Mysterons long ago abandoned Mars, and activated when they are attacked by Captain Black's expedition.

Yes, I realise I'm very sad talking like this, but somehow "Captain Scarlet" makes more sense than Sayyid Qutb ever did. By the way, there is a rumour that Gerry Anderson is making a new series of the show, so maybe Spectrum will finally finish the Martian baddies off. Now you've given me an excuse to dig my tapes out and watch it again.

Posted by: J.Cassian at January 13, 2005 11:40 AM

I'm envious. I can't help wondering if I should order the collected Captain Scarlet on DVD ...

As to your fresh recollection vs. my old memories, of course, I defer to you.

Posted by: Bill at January 13, 2005 01:09 PM

I was inordinately fond of Captain Scarlett, far more so than for the other Gerry Anderson series, undoubtedly because I was at the right age (whether that was 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, or which, I couldn't say without checking), and also because I was intrigued by the empowerment fantasy (he/I can't be destroyed!).

"...the moment that the Brits woke up to find that the continent was lost, and they stood alone against a savage tide bent on world conquest and genocide."

I feel a need to note that that was an awfully long moment (or even night and morning they "woke up to"), given the stretch from, say, the September 1st, 1939 invasion of Poland by Germany -- which hardly dropped out of the sky without prior warning towards renewed European war -- until June 22, 1940, when France signed the armistice, following the surrender of Belgium, Luxembourg, Norway, and the Netherlands, and following Dunkirk. Despite the Phony War early days, it's not as if the shock came to Britain overnight, is all I'm saying. (Still to come were such events such as the signing of the Axis Pact, Italy's declarations of war, the Soviet invasion of the Baltic States, Italy's invasion of Greece, Germany's invasion of Romania, the trading of air raids, the Blitz, the Battle of Britain, Hungary joining the Axis, Japan attacking ABDA rather than just China, and so on; but by Oct 12, 1940, Hitler had already postponed Sea Lion, by December Britain was attacking in North Africa, Somaliland, and Greece. By June 22, 1941, when Hitler madly attacked Russia, Britain could no longer be said to be "alone." So the "moment" wasn't extremely long-lasted, either, uncertain, to be sure, as the situation throughout the period was. I'm just quibbling against the time-shortening aspects of hindsight, is all.

Posted by: Gary Farber at January 14, 2005 12:15 PM