Supermarionation

The Rise and Fall

The Fall

J. Lester Novros II

The Fall

Secret Service was not destined for a long and healthy life. Only 13 episodes were made and even these were seldom seen anywhere. Century 21, meanwhile, entered the 70s with production of the UFO and The Protectors live-action TV series, the latter one completely abandoning the realms of science-fiction and instead concentrating on a private investigation firm (run by Robert Vaughn of Man From U.N.C.L.E. fame) and cast in a mould that reminds one of a spate of other detective series seen on TV at that time.

Gone were the brilliant special effects and beautiful models — Meddings' technique of dirtying down his models and using off-the-shelf plastic model kits to detail them found its way to the US when his erstwhile assistant Brian Johnson went to work on Kubrick's visually and intellectually dazzling 2001, A Space Odyssey, and, to this day, the Americans think they invented the process.

JIF commercial cast
The braves having a bite after surviving the Alien Attack

The Andersons returned once more to Supermarionation in 1973 to make the never commercially screened pilot for a new series, The Investigator. The pilot set the marionettes against fullscale backgrounds (the whole thing was shot on location on Malta) and was made for the Starkits production company, a subsidiary of the NBC Network, but they did not seem to be all too satisfied with it and nothing more was heard of the project.

The years 1973-1976 saw the conception and subsequent demise of Space 1999. It was a combination of live action and the much lauded special effects, and ran for two seasons, both critically acclaimed in the us but panned by press and public in its country of origin and, indeed, much of the rest of Europe. It cannot be denied that the acting is certainly below average as are the storylines and it may be suspected that a second season was made due to the money and effort that were put in the initial 13 episodes. In 1977 the Andersons would, for the last time, utilise Supermarionation for Alien Attack, a dessert topping commercial featuring the boy and girl left over from the Investigator pilot.

The switch from puppets to actors had, apparently, not been a wise one after all; Gerry Anderson expressed his regret about the move on several occasions. Moreover, personal circumstances had, by this time, alienated the couple and, consequently, they split up: Sylvia started a production company doing commercials and went to work for the American based HBO network while Gerry and his company returned to puppetry for the ill-fated Terrahawks series. Produced and screened in the early Eighties, it was shot in Supermacromation, a technique that did away with marionettes altogether, singularly employing puppets controlled from underneath. This almost invariably reduced an episode to a near-endless succession of awkward close-ups and medium shots since, naturally, the puppets were legless.

And even when disregarding the overt allusion to the heyday of puppet TV, the hotch-potch similarities between Terrahawks and previous Anderson series remain obvious: the format was again built around a supersecret quasi-military organisation that operated from a lavish mansion cum secret base and battled adversaries from a vague interplanetary background. The protagonists again rode around in a Rolls Royce, a talking one this time, answering to the name of Hudson, or flew around in some snazzy aircraft (there even was a counterpart to the Thunderbird 5 spacestation) but the success and, more importantly, the magic of Thunderbirds would not be equalled. Somewhere along the way, in the transition from Tex Tucker's caricatured features to the almost insipid blandness of Matthew Harding's face, something had been lost.

It is often stipulated that it was the very imperfection, the distinct 'puppet' quality, that gave the series their charm. A feeling similar to playing with model trains or walking through a miniature city. A feeling that, however bad the situation, the world fitted in the palm of one's hand and events could be controlled at the pull of a string. Yet, when the 60s drew to a close, the Andersons had definitely let their hold on the strings slip.

Epilogue

Nevertheless, Supermarionation had touched a nerve: in the early Eighties a fanclub sprang up and a quarterly magazine began to be published, the Japanese did a Thunderbirds cartoon series, scandalously unfaithful to the original, a mimeshow highlighting the exploits of the Tracy family was produced, and clips from the series even appeared in pop videos.

And now, in the wake of the omnipresent Sixties Revival, the Andersons (or more precisely Thunderbirds) suddenly seem to be everywhere. The BBC has broadcast all 32 Thunderbirds episodes and intends to make a six-part documentary about its creators, a live-action(!) Thunderbirds feature film is reputed to be in the works, and director Steve Barron, who gained notoriety with the Ninja Turtle movie, asked Gerry to revive Jeff and a few of the boys, not to mention Dire Straits (as a nifty Nineties counterpart to Thunderbirds Are Go!'s Cliff Richard and The Shadows) for their Calling Elvis video. According to Anderson 'the whole technique had to be reinvented' and indeed Scott, Alan, Gordon and Tracy Senior are indubitably newly created puppets cleverly intercut with clips from the series.

The video itself is a wonderfully ironic look on the thinly veiled ambiguities of Supermarionation: one of the unseen puppeteers drops the control-cross and the puppet walks away under its own steam dragging the cross behind it, only to get stuck in the too narrow doorway of the Tracy living room so it cannot reach the vital button. Combined with literally all the famous moments and symbols from the series, and some very confusing switches from puppet to human and vice versa, the video is a genuine tribute to the past achievements of the Anderson team. Moreover, it is in eminent contrast to the scornful epithet that was given them by their peers in the industry: 'those puppet people'.

The opinions expressed in this page are solely the author's
and do not necessarily reflect those held by other involved parties.
text ©1993 J. Lester Novros II