Friday, May 27, 2011

Inspirations: Gerry Anderson

Above are the title sequences to Thunderbirds (1965-66) and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967-68). Both shows were created by Gerry Anderson, working with his then-wife Sylvia Anderson. Most of their programmes involved elements of science-fiction, and were ‘Filmed in Supermarionation’, as the inventive title cards put it. In other words, they featured puppets and miniature models rather than actors on full-scale sets. Puppets were both cheaper and easier to direct than actual human beings. Unfortunately, they were also far less expressive, a limitation that Anderson tried to overcome by creating more and more ‘realistic’ facial features and bodily proportions as his career progressed, with mixed results. Ironically, greater verisimilitude meant less mobility, and so the most detailed puppets also had the clumsiest movements.

Of course, no-one watched Gerry Anderson’s programmes for emotional catharsis. In most cases, the rudimentary and highly repetitive storylines were obviously pretexts for the special effects sequences, which involved intricately-designed futuristic vehicles (rockets, aeroplanes, spacecraft, submarines), and lots of explosions. The most characteristic setpiece in any Anderson series was the sequence in which pilots were delivered (usually via tubes or hydraulic chairs) to their waiting vehicles, followed by a complicated lift-off protocol. Below is the title sequence from Stingray (1964), which is exemplary in this regard. Indeed, the title sequence of an Anderson show is usually the most dramatic and effective statement of the show's themes. It often features flash-cut excerpts of the episode to come (a device borrowed recently by Battlestar Galactica), and it always has an extremely catchy theme tune.

In most cases, the characters in an Anderson show were members of a quasi-military organisation with a ludicrous acronym and an entirely abstract structure, most notably the colour coded SPECTRUM agents in Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, in which the titular protagonist was aided in his struggle with the titular alien antagonists (and their possessed factotum Captain Black) by agents such as Captain Blue, Lieutenant Green and Colonel White.

Less obviously schematic, but along the same lines, was the distribution of the various Tracy brothers (Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John) among the consecutively numbered Thunderbirds in the show of the same name, in which they were in effect extensions of the craft that they piloted, or at least they were only ever distinguished in terms of the different functions assigned to the various Thunderbirds. These latter were all vehicles organised under the umbrella of the secret philanthropic organisation, International Rescue, which operated from a disguised island headquarters, under the direction of the Tracy brothers’ father, Jeff.

The obvious absurdity of these various premises (I have not even mentioned Captain Scarlet’s indestructibility, which severely limited dramatic tension in his adventures) did not affect their popularity, which derived in part from their effectiveness as early examples of what is now sometimes described as '360 degree marketing': meaning, in this case, that the programmes were accompanied by a multiplicity of associated toys, which ultimately derived their justification from the original television narrative(s), but which could also be used to create quite different narratives in the heads of consumers at home.

The most famous example of this kind of cross-platform marketing is the Star Wars universe, but the closest recent equivalent to the spirit of Anderson’s output is something like Pixar’s Toy Story, in which the synergy between the films and the related products is built into the premise on which the fictional world rests, since the characters are all toys, whose appearance can therefore be duplicated exactly by toy manufacturers.

Toy Story is (much) better written than Anderson’s work, but his programmes are better designed, and the worlds they depict are three-dimensional, even if they are miniaturised. Indeed, every aspect of their production – sets, objects, vehicles, costumes – is remarkably coherent. This unity is only emphasised by the literally wooden acting, which adds to the impression of an entirely self-contained fictional environment, but the production design remains striking even in the live-action successors to Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet: UFO (1969-70) and Space 1999 (1975-77). And since all the futuristic vehicles were models, they, like the characters of Toy Story, were relatively easy to duplicate as die-cast metal toys.

Dinky Spectrum Patrol Car

Dinky Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle

Above are the toy versions of the Spectrum Patrol Car and the Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle from Captain Scarlet, made by Dinky, in whose catalogues they joined versions of British Leyland cars and other tediously mundane vehicles. The Captain Scarlet and Thunderbirds toys were more exciting, not only because of their ready-made backstories, but because they incorporated spring-loaded weapons and other detachable gadgetry. Their only obvious competition at the time in this regard was from the Dinky versions of various James Bond cars, such as the Aston Martin with ejector seat and retractable machine guns, originally from Goldfinger. Models that were too delicate or complicated to cast in metal – such as the Angel interceptors from Captain Scarlet – were instead sold as plastic model kits, which were assembled and painted at home. These were produced by Airfix. They were less robust than Dinky toys, but they afforded the additional pleasure of participating in their process of their recreation.

In many of Anderson’s programmes, the original narrative therefore served as a set of instructions for how to play with the toys, but this strategy can only work when the template provided by the programme is as generic as possible. Every episode of Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet is more or less interchangeable with every other episode: the former always features a daring rescue in the face of an imminent disaster (often the result of sabotage), while the latter always involves a race to foil the latest Mysteron conspiracy against Earth (which the Mysterons always announced helpfully at the beginning of the episode), usually culminating in some new test of the limits of Captain Scarlet’s indestructibility.

One might describe this process as quintessentially postmodern, since it invites the reader / viewer to participate directly in the story, or rather to invent new variations upon simple story types, which are, in another sense of the word, ‘modelled’ by individual episodes. It is not, however, a new idea. A similar process is perhaps implied in the various reiterations of story cycles like the Arthurian and Grail legends, which the original listeners were encouraged to internalise and imitate in their own behaviour.

My novel Five Wounds shares a tendency towards highly schematic organisation with Gerry Anderson’s work, notably in its application of colour coding to the five protagonists, who are also puppets, in the metaphorical sense that their fates are overdetermined. They are at the mercy of their allotted role in the story structure: that is, at the mercy of forces external to their own nature. Indeed, the idea of the miniature, along with the related ideas of the doll and the automaton (both closely related to the puppet), all suggest a world that is simultaneously hyperreal, in its use of precise detail (as in the production design of Anderson's shows), and weirdly artificial, in its recourse to caricature (as in Anderson's use of puppets).

I doubt that anyone has ever described Anderson’s work as uncanny before, but that is what this combination of elements suggests.

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