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British Sci-Fi TV Summer Rundown: The Worlds of Gerry Anderson

As you’re all no doubt aware, this is a series about British science fiction television. It began as an unranked, chronological list of ten shows with fewer than 50 episodes that you can try to binge before Doctor Who comes back in August. So far in these more in-depth pieces, we’ve looked at The Prisoner, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and Sapphire & Steel. Feel free to go back and look at those (in fact, please do!) before beginning this one.

This week, I wanted to look at the work of Gerry Anderson, the highly influential writer and producer who is responsible for some of the most innovative science fiction and action programs in the 1960s and 1970s, and a bit later than that as well. Rather than picking just one of these, I’ve decided to do a quick rundown of some of his more impressive/important ones. Why? Because I felt like it. This will NOT be a complete history of Gerry Anderson, just a look at some of my favorites of his work.

Though Gerry Anderson worked in television prior, for our purposes his television impact began with the invention of “Supermarionation,” a sophisticated kind of marionette work in which everything is tiny. All of Anderson’s output from 1960 to 1969 was in this format, and it would get progressively more elaborate and intricate as the various series went on.

Beginning in 1960, Anderson was married to Sylvia, who would be his writing partner, co-producer, and regular voice actor until their divorce in 1981. The first sci-fi series he made, with Sylvia on as writer, was 1961’s Supercar, could definitely not be said to be very sophisticated, despite being “the marvel of the age.” It ran for 39 episodes.

My favorite thing about these shows is that the main character got the coolest names. In Supercar, the main character is Mike Mercury. In Anderson’s follow-up series, Fireball XL5, the hero’s name was Steve Zodiac. Very unlikely moniker; I don’t know if Mr. and Mrs. Zodiac would really like the name “Steve,” but who am I to judge. Fireball XL5 also ran for 39 episodes and was a dramatic step forward in the complicated nature of the puppetry and model work. It also has the distinction of being the only one of Anderson’s Supermarionation shows to be broadcast on network TV in America, on NBC’s Saturday morning program block. It also maybe has the best closing credits theme song of all time. So very 1960s.

In 1964, the Andersons launched what would be a milestone: the first British children’s television show filmed in color. In “Videcolor” if you’re to believe the hype. Marionation and Videcolor at the same time! Surely, no other should could have done this except Stingray, the underwater action series starring the also improbably-named Troy Tempest of WASP (the World Aquanaut Security Patrol).

With Stingray, longtime effects man Derek Meddings was elevated to the position of special effects director, and eventually model designer for the next several programs. Meddings’ model work is some of the best ever designed and conceived and he would eventually go on to work on such big budget Hollywood productions as Superman for which he won an Oscar, and some of the James Bond films, namely Moonraker for which he was nominated for an Oscar. Without Meddings, most of Gerry Anderson’s series wouldn’t be nearly as impressive.

His most impressive, or at least his most popular, was without a doubt the 1965 series, Thunderbirds, which only ran for 32 episodes, down from 39 with the others, but did spawn two feature films, though neither were hits. Thunderbirds was an ambitious series, being the first of the bunch to be an hour long rather than a half-hour. It depicted the exploits of the Tracy family, led by billionaire philanthropist Jeff Tracy, and his five grown sons, Scott, John Virgil, Gordon, and Alan, all named after Mercury Seven astronauts. They are secretly the force behind International Rescue, a private security organization that patrols the Earth looking for evildoers, using a myriad of different vehicles each driven by a different son. Thunderbirds are go, by the way.

If you hadn’t guessed already, Supermarionation, and Thunderbirds in particular, was the inspiration for Team America: World Police. Obvs. Oh, and fun fact: Anderson had a real-life version of Lady Penelope’s pink giant car. Super cool, yes?

The next such program from Anderson is arguably his best, and easily his most grown-up in tone. Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons depicted a brutal war between Earth and a Martian race called the Mysterons, who want revenge on humans for destroying their city. In the pilot, however, Captain Scarlet is accidentally bestowed with the same healing ability as the enemy, meaning he (like a Wolverine or a Capt. Jack Harkness) can survive and repair after what would otherwise be fatal injuries.

Premiering in 1967, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons also boasted a new, more realistic take on the marionette characters. New technology allowed the mouths of the characters to lip sync almost perfectly with pre-recorded dialogue, and the puppets’ features themselves were more realistic and in proportion with actual people. The result is a bit off-putting but pretty impressive nonetheless.

While Anderson did make two more Supermarionation programs, Joe 90 and The Secret Service, I’m going to skip ahead to his first attempt at a live-action series for grown ups: 1969’s UFO which ran for 26 episodes. Exploring similar themes to some of his other shows, UFO was about a secret and somewhat clandestine organization called SHADO (Supreme Headquarters, Alien Defence Organisation) operating in the far-flung future of 1980 (can you even believe it?!?!?) and their attempts to stave off alien invasion before people know about it. Even though it mostly ran in the 1970s and was meant to be the 1980s, I can think of no single 1960s-er show than this. What a theme song.

UFO is perhaps the most perfect translation of Anderson’s puppet-show work into live action, with Meddings’ model work again being employed for the special effects. It’s a really, really fun show that is about as dated as they come.

The final series I’m going to talk about is the 1975 series, Space: 1999 which boasted an impressive cast including stars Martin Landau and Barbara Bain (both of American TV’s Mission: Impossible fame). The series was to be the last in the partnership of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson and would go on to be the most expensive television series ever produced in the United Kingdom.

The first and second seasons are drastically different from one another, as to almost make them completely different shows. The first season shows a horrible mishap that causes the moon, and Moonbase Alpha on it, to go careening off into space, not knowing where they’ll end up. The Earth, presumably, is completely destroyed because of the whole “tide” and “Wicca” situations. It also had very strange, almost mystical storytelling dealing with how the crew of the base are affected by the moon. The series felt particularly British and had feature-film quality effects and ambiance.

While reception to the first season varied, it was fairly popular, though not popular enough to stop it from getting cancelled. However, it was spared at the 11th hour by ITV president Lew Grade and was brought back on the condition that it be changed almost entirely to make it more “sci-fi-y” (I’m assuming was the exact words). The second season tried to be more like Star Wars with aliens and laser guns and whatnot, but couldn’t quite pull it off.

Anderson kept producing all the way up until his death in 2012 at the age of 83. He is survived by his huge body of work (lots of which I didn’t cover here) and especially his innovation in the field of model effects work and science fiction on popular television.

Next week, we’ll skip well ahead and talk about a series that is at once a police procedural, a period drama, and a weird sci-fi allegory. From 2006, we’re talking Life on Mars.

Talk about some of your favorite Gerry Anderson programs below!

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4 comments

  • One show I liked in the 90’s was Space Precinct, which was also live-action and had some (possibly through rose-tinted specs, though) pretty damn good special effects work. Gerry Anderson shows always had great effects – even when they could have CGI, they knew models being blown up with gunpowder would always look cooler (something Doctor Who could learn from, compare the Titanic blowing up London, with the “slow motion puff of smoke over a cardboard cut-out cityscape” nuclear blast from 1985’s Threads. I bet that’s what a distant nuclear blast really looks like – eerily, matter-of-factly THERE).
    It’s worth mentioning that in the 1960’s “Century 21 Productions” was also involved in publishing, producing a comic called TV21, which featured some great work that linked in with the TV shows (and showed they were all in the same universe, something only barely hinted-at on TV). The ‘main’ strips, tied in with the shows that were on at the time, are second only to Frank Hampson’s Dan Dare in great British comics lore. Unfortunately most “British” “Comics” of today are crap puzzle magazines based on foreign shows, which parents only buy because the toy stuck to the front will shut their kid up for 5 minutes. Oh and they have no comic strips in them… or if they do it’s no more than 4 pages long and is just an extended joke with a crap pun as the punchline, even if the show it’s based on is deadly serious. Where did it all go wrong, eh?Oh, also, look up the Japanese Captain Scarlet intro (or “OP”, as they call it). It’s like a primary school opera production haha.

  • You left out that Lady Penelope had her own show for a bit, and that Joe-90 had the weirdest car this side of that moon buggy in Diamonds Are Forever. That might be excusable, since neither were broadcast in the States. Also Captain Scarlet was recently rebooted as a CGI series. I hope you have the chance to showcase Star Cops, a sadly neglected series that was too good for television and canceled too soon.