Both the concept of a coherent 'universe' and the similarity between puppet and voice-artist laid also at the foundation of the next series, Stingray, produced in 1962-63 and situated in 2065. Due to the importance of the American market and the fast rise of colour television over there it was decided to film the series in colour and that earned it the distinction of being the first such British television production. It highlighted the exploits of the dashing Troy Tempest and his inseparable companion Phones, both members of the World Aquanaut Security Patrol (another global institution along the lines of Fireball's World Space Patrol) which, under the benign guidance of Commander Sam Shore and his beautiful daughter Atlanta, set itself to battle the evil undersea Lord Titan. Atlanta's voice was done by Lois Maxwell – who would later go on to become Miss Moneypenny in the James Bond series – and again the resemblance between puppet and voice-artist is unmistakably there.
Hardware stars of this series were wasp's supersubmarines of the Stingray type and the Terror Fish, Titans counterpart to Stingray. The most remarkable thing about Stingray, apart from the employed Supermarionation technique, was undoubtedly the decision to situate the larger part of events above or under water. Special-effects-wise water and fire are two phenomena which are extremely hard to miniaturise convincingly but special effects ace Derek Meddings – who, after the untimely demise of Century 21 (as the company would later be called), moved on to produce effects for such blockbusters as Superman and The Spy who Loved Me – had been employed by the firm since the very early days of Twizzle and proved himself more than capable of producing the elaborate effects needed.
And the effects became ever more elaborate with the advent of AP's new series Thunderbirds. Produced between 1964 and 1966 and set in 2026, every episode involved a disaster of one kind or another so Meddings could show his mastery of pyrotechnic effects while the highly secret International Rescue organisation could show off its truly magnificent machines. Each of the five Thunderbirds, as they were called, were designed by Brains, a young prodigy with a high forehead, a stammer and an enormous pair of glasses, and piloted by Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John, the five sons of one-time astronaut Jeff Tracy. He had named them after historic American colleagues Carpenter, Grissom, Shepard, Cooper and Glenn respectively, reflecting the writers' point of view on the spirit of the times. They turned up mysteriously wherever and whenever they were needed, thanks to a constant monitoring of the airwaves for distress calls from ir's spacestation Thunderbird 5, ceaselessly circling the Earth.
Adding to the allure of the format was the idea of having three of the machines launch from a secret Pacific island base. Thunderbird 1, a reconnoitering rocket, was hidden by a sliding swimming pool, Thunderbird 2, an immense freight plane hauling one of six different equipment pods (one of which housed the Thunderbird 4 submarine), required palmtrees to sway outward before it could be angled upwards on its launching ramp to take to the skies while Thunderbird 3, a spacefaring vehicle in the true sense of the word, rose majestically through a roundhouse that must have been fireproofed to a remarkable degree. In case of an emergency call the pilots could quickly reach their machines following a living room conference through an ingenious system of ramps, revolving walls and descending settees.
The series boasted some colourful figures such as International Rescue's London agent lady Penelope Creighton-Ward and her butler Aloysius 'Nosey' Parker, an ex-safecracker gone straight, who both lived in her South Kent country mansion. Whenever they were called upon through the teapot two-way radio to intervene they would board FAB 1, a custom built Rolls Royce decked out in shocking pink and equipped with smoke screens and machine guns much like James Bond's Aston Martin car from the concurrent Thunderball and Goldfinger movies.
Thunderbirds also brought the Andersons the international fame they had been deserving for such a long time: between roughly 1965 and 1968 every kid around the world was in the thrall of the Tracy family and their exploits: the series was sold in 98 territories, in those days an unusually large number. The studio had, by this time, installed a close-circuit TV system along with the 35mm cameras so the puppeteers no longer needed to use awkwardly placed mirrors to check on the eyeline of their puppets. This enabled Gerry Anderson, like a true tycoon, to check on proceedings on any of the puppet stages at all times from behind his desk. This feature, known as Add-A-Vision, can be considered a forerunner of today's ubiquitous video assist, another example of the technological innovations that were introduced by the studio.
At about the same time the weekly TV21 magazine was started, later to become the ephemeral crown on a dynamic merchandising campaign, which firmly supported, and elaborated on, the 'alternative universe' concept publishing bios machines. The latter are all the more remarkable when one takes into consideration that they were, in fact, retro-engineered: the artist who drew them not only had to fit in the normal mechanical accoutrements such as suspension, gear boxes and motors but he also had to come up with plausible explanations for gadgets that were dreamed up by Meddings who, in his own words, 'just doodled' when designing his futuristic machinery (the Thunderbird launch bays are a case in point). It is also a wellknown fact that Meddings was often scolded for his outrageous designs by art director Bob Bell who had to fit the puppet interiors into the most unusual spaces since, most of the times, the outside shape would be designed first.
As a matter of fact the series were so successful that its producer Lew Grade decided to have Century 21 make a feature film based on the Thunderbirds concept. Thunderbirds Are Go! (produced in 1966) was unusual in that it did not really involve the Thunderbirds characters and hardware but instead concentrated on the first manned flight to Mars. The attempt is sabotaged and the Tracy family is called in to protect the next. Once on Mars the crew is being fired upon by Mars' indigenous lifeform and they have to make good a quick escape. A mechanical failure prevents a safe return and, once again, International Rescue is called in to save the day. The film also contained a remarkable intermezzo in the shape of a nightclub appearance in miniature by youth idols Cliff Richard and the Shadows performing the specially written Shooting Star.
In spite of the most intensive merchandising campaign ever – and it would hold that distinction until Star Wars came along – the film nose-dived completely. This did not deter the Andersons however, from embarking on another puppet series, one which was to herald an even more sophisticated approach to string puppetry while at the same time enriching what was by now definitely established as the Anderson Universe.
September 29, 1967, the screen shows a dark alley and some furtive silhouettes. Shots ring out and one of them is suddenly bathed in light. He lifts his gun, returns the shots and his adversary's lifeless body drops to the ground while a stern and ominous voice intones: 'The Mysterons... sworn enemies of Earth, possessing the ability to recreate an exact likeness of an object or person. But first, they must destroy. Leading the fight, one man fate has made indestructible. His name: Captain Scarlet...' Enter Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, Britain's latest Supermarionation series. It was clear from the very start that this time the Andersons meant business: not only the format and the stories were more mature but also the effects and the music were of a definitely more adult level. And of course the puppets.
The opening sequence was filmed entirely with marionettes but still managed to convey an eerie humanlike quality largely due to what is generally referred to as 'the perfectly proportioned puppet'. Thanks to technical improvements, the lip-sync mechanism could be relocated in the puppet's chest cavity allowing the sculptors to steer away from the exaggerated features that had been the norm till then. Analogous to Meddings' fire and water the actors were now also exact miniature replicas since, true to the standard, the puppetfaces were modelled on existing people and a stable of doppelgänger ranging from voice-artists to stage hands, stepped into the limelight making the gap between puppet and human smaller and smaller. Sets were by now so real that, without the puppets to give away their true scale, they could pass for fullscale rooms.
At the same time the 'alternative universe' concept was taken another step further. After doing one-hour episodes about a non-military rescue organisation for Thunderbirds, the Andersons returned to the fold with this new series, producing half-hour episodes that told the story of the Spectrum agents. The Zero X rocketcraft used in Thunderbirds Are Go! made its re-entrance here, assisting in what was presumably another Mars expedition. But instead of the rock-snakes from the film the crew locates, and accidentally destroys, the deserted remains of an old Martian city. This triggers a vast defensive computer network left on the alert by inhabitants long extinct, the Mysterons. Unfortunately the network has the ability to rebuild anything (or anyone) that it previously destroyed, the twist being that the Mysterons (aka the network) are in complete control of the subject in question once it has been recreated.
Two agents of Spectrum, Captain Black and Captain Scarlet, are being taken over by the Mysterons in a plot to kill the world president. In the course of events Scarlet falls off a high rise which causes him to return to his senses while at the same time retaining the Mysteron regenerative powers, rendering him effectively indestructible. Black escapes and for the duration of the series keeps turning up in the role of eternal foe, the inscrutable Mysteron henchman.
According to TV21 and the Annuals, Spectrum was yet another secret para-military organisation founded originally to assist the World Space Patrol and the World Aquanaut Security Patrol established in previous series but at the advent of the Mysteron crisis they were employed singularly to stave off their insidious attacks. More proof of the Anderson's visionary approach to what might tentatively be called 'future history' could be found in the fact that the Spectrum setup was truly multi-racial: Blacks, Asians and a number of colourful variations inbetween were cast in responsible positions and showed up regularly among the Caucasian members of the crew.
Now that the perfectly proportioned puppet had been developed and the string puppet had finally grown up, the next logical step was to shift the emphasis from hardware to characters. 1968 saw the birth of Joe 90, an innocent, freckled lad of prepubescent age who, thanks to a device developed by his adopted father Ian MacLaine, could absorb the knowledge and personality of any given expert. MacLaine almost sold the machine (called the b.i.g. r.a.t. for Brain Impulse Galvanoscope, Record And Transfer) to a commercial company before Sam Loover managed to persuade both him and Joe to devote their loyalties to the World Intelligence Network; a conglomerate, or so can be gathered from the Annuals and sparse on-the-tube information, of all the world's security organisations and devoted to world peace. The assorted criminal types that were left came from diversified racial backgrounds, complete with ominous moustaches and eye-patches.
For the first time the notion of a single adversary, as present in previous Anderson series, was abandoned while at the same time the need for secrecy remained an integral part of the plot: Joe was claimed to be nine years of age (incidentally just as old as the Anderson Supermarionation Imperium was at that time) and it was no easy task for Sam and Joe's father to send him out every time on a mission which might prove fatal for the wide-eyed kid. Besides that, what would happen if anyone got wind of this exceptional win agent? Also, there was the housekeeper, Mrs. Harris, to contend with: the good woman never even suspected what was going on beneath her busy feet while at the same time in the cellar Joe was being briefed in the Rat Trap for another win mission. All in all, the scripts were written in such a way that the characters played off each other rather than off hardware greats and intricate special effects (the only regular hardware left in the series – apart from the big rat – was Mac's jet car) as had been the case in previous series. This trend of toning down hardware display and special effects sequences was continued in the next Supermarionation series which, tragically, would also be the last.
Joe 90 followed on the heels of Thunderbird Six, the second feature film, once again highlighting the adventures of the Tracy family. Although their first attempt at producing cinema fare had been a total disaster due to no fault from them, producer Lew Grade had requested the folks at what was by now called Century 21 to come up with yet another Thunderbirds big screen adventure. The storyline of this second effort was remarkably less adventurous, however, and did in fact differ little from an episode produced for television. Lady Penelope, Brains and Tin Tin are invited to join the maiden flight of Skyship One, a mammoth passenger airplane. The machine is in jeopardy of crashing and Brains urges Tracy Sr. to deploy the new Thunderbird 6 to effect the difficult rescue. Slight disillusion can hardly be averted when the new machine turns out to be nothing but a Tiger Moth biplane which dutifully lands on the prostrate hulk to take off again with the crew and passengers aboard, after which the remains of the airplane come to a fittingly spectacular end. Production of this new feature film necessitated dividing the workforce between feature film production and the current tv series and caused talents to be spread rather thin.
The same fate more or less befell Secret Service (1969) since the Andersons were switching to live action productions as they were gearing up for Doppelgänger (or Journey to the Far Side of the Sun as it would be known in the US) which would lead up to the ufo series in much the same way as Thunderbirds Are Go! had paved the way for Captain Scarlet. Nevertheless, the Anderson team again succeeded in surpassing the already high standards they had set for themselves in previous productions.
For this new show the scriptwriters whittled down the number of protagonists even further. Gone were the days of big organisations that retained virtual armies of employees; the programme concentrated instead on the adventures of one Father Unwin (voiced indeed by famous comedian/entertainer Stanley Unwin) and his gardener Matthew Harding.
The twosome was employed by bishop British Intelligence Service Headquarters – Operation Priest, yet another secret spy club run by a mysterious individual by the name of, you guessed it, Bishop. Whenever this character found the affairs of the country in a nasty spot he would call on his two intrepid assistants. Father Unwin, by the grace of his 'trade', could penetrate into places where a more regular plain-clothes man would immediately have been detected (much as Joe MacClaine cunningly used his age in Joe 90), and once inside the reverend father would open his suitcase and out popped Matthew.
Now in day to day life Matthew was a regular sized, likable, if somewhat dim chap who tended the cottage grounds but in case of emergency he let himself be shrunk in size by Father Unwin's Minimiser, a device so small it could be hidden in a book. How the good father came into possession of the instrument was never fully explained but it was clearly another Anderson touch (the Anderson couple always came up with the format for a new series). Once in his diminutive state, Matthew would surreptitiously slip out of the suitcase he had been transported in and reveal himself to be an athletic and energetic character in possession of considerably more than the average intelligence, set to accomplish even the most dangerous mission.
Technically this was the most advanced Supermarionation production ever. The 'actors' and sets were so lifelike they allowed intercutting of close and medium shots of puppets and miniature sets with long shots of human actors and real locations without the difference being all too noticeable. This mix of flesh and fiberglass had been seen before in earlier series of course but only to the extent of cutting away to human hands or feet (and in one case even an eye) for close-ups of specific manipulations that transcended the puppets' capacities, in spite of puppet sculptor John Blundall having developed a fully articulated miniature hand at one point. Another technique, that was pioneered by Mary Turner on Captain Scarlet and further improved during the production of Joe 90, was the use of puppets that were controlled from underneath, necessitated by the many cockpit shots featured in the series. In a sense, with this new series the Andersons bestowed their creative skills on their own creation: just like them, the reverend created miniature humans, marionettes. Strictly speaking, the Minimiser is the key to the perfect puppet and, remarkably enough, there is even a certain physical likeness between Gerry Anderson and Father Unwin.
By now, however, many felt that the charm that had characterised the earlier series was gone – the puppets had simply become too real and, while this was fine for posed stills, the immobile faces could never quite convey the drama that spoke from the pre-recorded dialogue. The switch to human actors, therefore, was imminent.