Thursday, 26 May 2011

Martin Woodhouse RIP

Sadly, Martin Woodhouse, one of the creative forces behind Supercar, died last week. With his brother Hugh, he wrote the majority of the scripts for the first season - and if you've been following the blog, you'll have seen how much enjoyment I've been getting from them. And really I think that's the best legacy that any writer can leave.

I can't think of any better tribute than to continue celebrating the man's work, so be assured that "Anderthon" will be back very soon.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Normal service will be restored soon

For those of you wondering where the next part of Supercar has got to, don't worry. I'm just off on holiday at the moment, and largely out of contact. Expect something in about a week's time.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Anderthon: Full Boost Vertical

episodes 14-17

Phantom Piper

Moorlands, heather, a creeky old castle, a cantankerous laird, a dour retainer who doesn't hold with new-fangled technology, and the legend of a ghostly piper: yes, we're in Scotland this week. Or rather, that version of Scotland that tends to pop up in sixties adventure television, where everyone still wears kilts and not much has changed since the Battle of Culloden - never mind that Scotland is a modern, industrialized nation with major shipbuilding and oil industries. It's another clear example of how this series (like most from the ITC stable) is being made primarily for export, and showing the American audience the Britain they only think exists. The characters depicted here are entertainingly silly, and normally I wouldn't mind the clichés - but I suppose here they're just a bit too familiar and grating. (Still that's a criticism of ITC adventure shows as a whole, rather than Supercar itself. I suppose the writers have to work within that world.) Anyway, why are we in Scotland? Beaker's cousin Felicity Farnsworth has come back from Malaya, and is currently staying at the castle of her great uncle Angus, who's the McCrail of McCrail, the local laird. He's got wild hair and mad eyebrows and looks alarmingly like Private Frazer from Dad's Army (which hadn't been made then, of course, although John Laurie was already well known as a Scottish actor - he used to do readings of Burns poetry - so it seems possible the puppet was deliberately based on him). He's also got a bandaged foot because of the gout afflicting him - caused, says Felicity by his habit of adding a "wee dram" to everything he drinks!

The castle is being haunted by the phantom piper of Inverlachen - as is the way of these things, he walks the battlements at midnight playing the pipes and foretelling doom upon the McCrails. Felicity phones Beaker and gets him to come and investigate. So the whole team bundle into Supercar and fly to Scotland. They land some way from the castle, and disguise the vehicle with bracken and heather. (Despite a photographic backdrop of rolling hills, the moorland itself is another impressively deep and spacious set.) The idea is that Mike and Beaker will hide out there at midnight and keep watch on the battlements. If the ghostly piper appears, they'll turn on the "clear view" system. If the piper shows up on the tv screen, then he can't be a real ghost. It's a nice example of how this series champions scientific rationalism as the answer to problems. When the phantom appears on the screen, it's clear that he's no ghost. The team decide that the piping is a cover for some illicit activities in the castle. A quick investigation reveals that the target is the Great Cairngorm of McCrail, a piece of quartz crystal that's the symbol of the clan. It's been coveted by their arch rivals the McBlaines since the time of the clan wars centuries ago. The Cairngorm has been set into a barred alcove in the foundations of the castle - but it's clear that the bars have been partially filed through. The sound of the piper is to cover the noise of this work. That night, they intend to catch the villains in the act. So when the piper appears on the battlements, Mike flies Supercar low over his head. They quickly capture the villain, who turns out to be our old friend Harper. (Yes, the disgruntled electronics engineer who tried to steal Beaker's circuits.) Meanwhile his accomplice Judd is down below sawing through the bars. With the villains apprehended, the only mystery is how Harper learnt to play the bagpipes - Mike reveals that he's been miming to tape recordings of Great Uncle Angus's own piping! The episode ends with Mitch playing the instrument.

It's interesting to see the returning characters in this instalment. Felicity's presence serves to give some plausibility to the Supercar team's involvement. I was a little bit surprised to see Harper again, branching out from his original opportunistic crime into full-blown villainy. (Judd on the other hand we can suppose is an habitual criminal.) It's as if the writers, having established one set of UK-based villains don't want to complicate things by adding any more.

Deep Seven

Mike and Beaker are on the Californian coast, testing Supercar's performance underwater. (It's been submerged before, in Island Incident - but that was at shallow periscope depth - this time Mike's going down to the ocean floor.) Bill Gibson has also come along, seemingly because they used his truck to carry Beaker's equipment to the coast. As the test proceeds, we learn that Supercar has ballast tanks just like a submarine, which need to be flooded so it can submerge - which seems like a believable process and indicates that the writers have thought about the scientific principles concerned. (It does seem at odds with the sudden and dramatic dive into the water that Supercar executes in the opening titles - but I suspect those were designed foremost to be spectacular, and probably filmed long before the Woodhouses started to work the details out.) There are a few problems as the test proceeds: the engines won't charge and fire at full capacity underwater; and the cockpit canopy can't stand up to the increased pressure and starts to spring a leak. I rather like the fact that Supercar doesn't function perfectly, but has a number of teething problems for our heroes to sort out - it makes it seem more like a real experimental test-bed prototype (and probably not the wonder machine that Gerry Anderson originally envisaged). Again this is the Woodhouses treating scientific advances in a realistic fashion. Disaster strikes when Supercar becomes snagged on the tether cable of an old sea mine.

Fortunately, Bill Gibson has brought an old-fashioned diving suit with him, and volunteers to go down and have a look. In a nice realistic character moment, he says categorically that he's no hero and won't put himself at risk tangling with a mine - but if he can do so safely, he'll try to get Mike free. Meanwhile down below, Mike's having trouble with a huge scary-looking fish that takes an instant dislike to Supercar: lots of teeth and what appears to be a light bulb suspended from its head - from which detail, Beaker deduces it's a deep ocean fish. He recommends that Mike retunes his radio frequencies to send out an ultrasonic signal that ultimately deters the fish's attacks. Bill turns up and manages to cut through the cable - and the mine floats to the surface. By now, Mike is worried that the water in the cockpit will short out the electrics, so he's shut down Supercar's systems. He plans to blow the ballast tanks and let the vehicle float to the surface. But Beaker is worried that he'll still collide with the now free-floating mine. Fortunately, it turns out that marksmanship is another of Beaker's myriad skills, and he uses Bill's rifle to shoot at and explode the mine on the surface. (Courtesy of some stock footage of a real mine and explosion - again, it's like a clash of reality with the puppet world, but not as bad as the anti-aircraft gunners in Island Incident.) Mike risks restarting Supercar and gets back safely to the surface - but asks if he can borrow Bill's diving suit for the next sea trial!

Pirate Plunder

Mike finds the notion of piracy in the modern age extremely unlikely, which suggests that he’s never taken Supercar anywhere near Somalia. (Seriously though, it does sound odd to the modern ear to hear a character sceptical of the existence of pirates, considering how much it’s been in the news in recent years.) Nevertheless, the newspapers are full of tales of Black Morgan, a pirate using a modern fast vessel to pray on millionaires’ yachts in the Pacific. Beaker is intrigued by the pirate’s name, wondering whether he could be a descendant of the original Henry (“Bloody”) Morgan. He also comes over all Daily Mail reader by suggesting that anyone who takes their jewels and valuables with them yachting is looking for trouble. (“It’s a point of view,” says Mike.) On the other hand, Mike decides that they need to do something about Black Morgan, and Supercar is the vehicle to do it. So the whole team set off for the Pacific. Mike has contacted the millionaire V. Jason Monroe and asked for his assistance – basically, Monroe will let it be known around the Pacific harbours that he’s got a huge priceless diamond aboard his yacht, the Argosy. Then he’ll put out to sea and wait for Black Morgan to be lured by the bait. Meanwhile, Supercar is waiting submerged beneath the Argosy, ready to pursue Morgan’s ship back to its base. From studying charts, Beaker postulates that Morgan is operating from one of several uninhabited Pacific islands. He keeps in touch with Supercar using communications equipment installed aboard the Argosy. Under the water, Mike encounters the light bulb fish again, though he doesn’t seem to recognize it. Nor does the fish attack Supercar again – obviously it learnt its lesson last week.

All goes according to plan, and before too long Morgan turns up in his ship, the Cuttlefish. With guns turned upon the Argosy, there’s nothing to stop him coming aboard, leaving Beaker with just enough time to hide the communications equipment. However, due to Beaker’s spectacular inability to act innocent, Morgan begins to suspect that they’ve covering something up and begins searching the cabin. It’s down to Mitch to stop himdemonstrating his intelligence and understanding once again – by throwing a cup at Morgan’s head. The pirate is distracted and gets on with the business of stealing the diamond. As he takes his leave, he tells his victims not to try following him, as the Cuttlefish is equipped with homing torpedoes. But Mike has already started his pursuit. Spotting Supercar through his telescope, Morgan thinks that the Argosy has somehow managed to launch a plane to follow him. (It’s interesting to note that this idea of an aircraft hiding beneath the waves, and then launching into the sky at a 45 degree angle to engage the enemy is like a dry run for the concept of Skydiver ten years later.) Morgan lets off his torpedoes against the Argosy, but luckily Beaker manages to turn the communications equipment into a radio jammer to block their guidance systems – just in the nick of time. Meanwhile Mike dives towards the Cuttlefish as Morgan unleashes a hail of cannon-fire against him. (It seems that Mike has given up his plan of finding the pirate’s base and now just wants to take out his ship.) He’s had a bazooka fitted to Supercar’s nose just for this mission, and fires off a shell. The resulting explosion is spectacular, as you might expect from an Anderson show, but ridiculously over the top. You can quite clearly see that the upper cabins of the ship are blown clean off. In the next shot however, there’s just some smoke and Mike reports the Cuttlefish holed below the waterline. Morgan is taken into custody, where he laments the fact that Mike and he should be on opposing sides – what a team they’d make!

Flight of Fancy

Oh God, it's the dream episode... You probably know me well enough by now to realize that I’m not going to find much to enjoy here. Basically, Jimmy is reading a magazine in bed which has a picture of the Princess Caroline of Bavania. (That’s one of those mittel-European states that pop up in ITC shows that’s no one’s ever actually heard of…) She’s apparently disappeared, and there are rumours that her father King Rudolf is about to be deposed. Jimmy wonders if Supercar can go and look for her, but Mike and Popkiss tell him they can’t just go rushing around interfering with other country’s affairs. Good for them! So, Jimmy falls asleep and starts to dream. (The picture starts to spin round – so I’ll at least give credit to the producers that they signpost this is all a dream right at the beginning of the story, rather than wait to pull the rug out from under an interesting storyline in the usual unsatisfying way.) In the dream, Jimmy wakes up and decides to use Supercar to search for Princess Caroline. He needs someone to operate the ground control console, so it’s fortunate that Mitch can now speak – he has the accent and speech patterns of a New York beatnik, amusingly enough. They fly to Bavania, and find Princess Caroline locked up in a castle. Inside the castle are Marjak, the Prime Minister of Bavania, and his aide Hertz. They’re dressed in Napoleonic style uniforms, and look suspiciously like Masterspy and Zarin. Jimmy and Mitch overhear their plan: they’ve stolen the one document that proves King Rudolf’s hereditary right to the throne, and plan to declare Bavania a republic with Marjak as president – and they’ve got Caroline captive to ensure that Rudolf doesn’t try to oppose them.

Searching the castle, Jimmy and Mitch find the missing genealogy scroll, and the key to Caroline’s cell. Meanwhile, Marjak and Hertz have left for the capital. The declaration of their coup d’état has to be made at precisely 12 noon to be legal and binding. Freeing Caroline, Jimmy and Mitch set off for the capital in Supercar – the only vehicle that can get there in time. At the palace, Marjak tells King Rudolf (who strangely looks just like Professor Popkiss) about Caroline being held hostage, and prepares to make his declaration. Arriving just in the nick of time, Jimmy is able to switch the declaration scroll (which Hertz has conveniently left lying on a table) for the genealogy scroll – so that when Marjak starts to read it out, he inadvertently declares Rudolf’s right to the throne before he realizes what he’s doing. Marjak and Hertz are locked up (the guard on their cell looks oddly like Mike Mercury) and Jimmy is made a prince. Mitch though is unable to accept an honour from the King, as he suddenly loses the ability to talk! And so Jimmy wakes up, to find that it was all a dream – but never mind, because today’s papers say that Princess Caroline has been found.

It’s sporadically amusing, but ultimately this episode is a complete load of nonsense. Even allowing how much I hate the “it was all a dream” episodes, the point is that usually what they do is stretch the status quo of the series format, placing the characters in unusual situations and showing how they would react. So, an episode in which, say, Mike has been incapacitated and Jimmy dreams that he has to take control of Supercar to fly some vital and desperate mission would have been acceptable within the usual limitations – not some rubbish with fairy tale Princesses trapped in Ruritanian castles. Despite the end credits, the behind the scenes documentary on the DVD reveals that Hugh and Martin Woodhouse didn’t write a word of this claptrap – they were bitterly opposed to it in fact – and the script instead comes from Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. I think this fact (as well as the way the Woodhouses have given Anderson’s super vehicle various technical limitations in recent episodes) might demonstrate one of the differences between producers and writers: the former concerned with spectacle, style over substance, and the latter thinking more of the characters and the internal logic of the series. I also note that Dr Beaker doesn’t appear in this episode at all, either in reality or in Jimmy’s dream. I like to think that he has more integrity.