Friday, August 11, 2017

0044: Plectrum Is Green?

The end of September will be the 50th Anniversary of Captain Scarlet, one of Gerry Anderson's Supermarionation television series. Anderson, in post-war England, had intended to start a movie production company but needed to film television commercials to pay the bills and one with a marionette caught on and created a demand for more. Anderson himself was not a puppeteer and, frankly, never had an interest in them but he wasn't stupid. Anderson and DP Arthur Provis formed AP Films and created three series of fantasy short films (10-15 minutes each) for small children that were broadcast within larger blocks of programming from 1957 to 1960. They hired puppeteers willing to work on a budget consisting of whatever lint they had in their pockets, and that meant people who experimented with their materials, willing to rework and repurpose puppets, sets and everything else. To meet deadlines, a willingness to innovate wasn't enough, they needed a taste for it. By 1960 they were ready for something more ambitious and closer to Anderson's taste in stories: a  half-hour science fiction series about the crew of an advanced vehicle, the first of three successful series, all running 39 episodes. They were SUPERCAR (a high-speed car in the present day), FIREBALL XL-5 (a spaceship 1000 years in the future) and STINGRAY (a submarine 100 years in the future). The next series, the hour-long THUNDERBIRDS, guaranteed their place in pop culture history. With every series, the puppeteers, engineers and cameramen all worked towards the same goal: to make the marionettes look like they were moving as closely to human behavior as practically possible, to create the illusion that the viewer was watching living things act out the story.

The series that followed THUNDERBIRDS was CAPTAIN SCARLET, which took several unusual departures from the formula. Going back to half-hours and, like STINGRAY and THUNDERBIRDS, set 100 years in the future in the 2060's, CAPTAIN SCARLET was their first feature-length science fiction show in which the fantastic vehicles were an afterthought instead of the focus of the plot. The premise is that an organisation called Spectrum (with color-coded top agents) is a peace-keeping authority recognized and supported by countries participating in a World Government. Unbeknownst to them, an alien species had colonized Mars thousands of years earlier, built self-repairing automated cities and at some point disappeared without having contacted Earth. When humans create technology capable of receiving signals from the city on Mars, Spectrum is tasked with investigating to determine if the activity is evidence of a security risk. When the expedition, led by Captain Black, accidentally reacts the the city's automation as an attack and inflicts damage, the city responds with a 'retrometabolism' ray. The ray reconstructs matter to its most immediately previous shape. Thus, if a centuries old building collapses, as long as no one moves the pieces the ray will restore the building. However, when used on living things recently killed it reanimates their corpse, placing it under the control of the city's computers, who identify themselves as the Mysterons (commonly assumed to be the name of the species who built them). Returning to Earth, the now Mysteron-controlled Captain Black arranges a car crash to kill Captains Brown and Scarlet, the Spectrum agents assigned to protect the World Government President, so that they can be reconstructed under Mysteron control and assassinate the President instead. Brown is later blown up in a failed assassination attempt but Scarlet falls hundreds of feet and apparently dies intact. Instead, his synthetic body restores itself to the point before the car crash, with no memory since then and free of the Mysterons' control.
(The "S.I.G." under the band's name is the phrase often heard during the TV show, an abbreviation for "Spectrum Is Green". It was a phrase Spectrum agents would use to signify to each other that their assignment was understood and that everything was going forward. On the THUNDERBIRDS, characters would similarly use the phrase "F.A.B.", presumably because the slang word "fab"-- short for "fabulous"-- was popular at the time. Anderson admitted years later that, unlike "S.I.G.", "F.A.B." didn't stand for anything. They just needed something that sounded like jargon unique to the show.)
The first, most obvious difference between the show and its predecessors was the complete design of the puppet heads. Since 1961, the Anderson shows had been using marionettes with radio controlled devices built into the heads that enabled the puppeteers to move move the mouths, eyes and brows by remote control, which minimized the number of strings used and therefore minimized the chances of strings being visible on camera. However, the heads were proportionately too large for the bodies to be convincing as adult humans. Beginning with CAPTAIN SCARLET, the entire bodies, heads included, could be scaled closer to average adult human proportions thanks to transistors and other tools of miniaturization. Of course, this welcome innovation came with the need (and expense) of making all new sets, vehicles, clothes and other accessories.

The other obvious difference was the switch from nearly camp melodrama to a more sober, dark tone and a title character isn't a vehicle and dies during each episode more often than not. The fear of children putting themselves into lethal danger while "playing Captain Scarlet" was not an unreasonable one, leading to the stern message added to opening sequences, "Captain Scarlet is indestructible. You are not. Do NOT try to imitate him." That explains the parody of the phrase that appears on the back of the sleeve for the single in today's post.

I think is the only Hellbillys recording I have. The photo of Captain Black on the sleeve front caught my eye but finding out that they sing the closing theme song sealed the deal for me. That's another departure the series took. Instead of a catchy theme song or the THUNDERBIRDS' adrenaline-pumping march over the opening credits, almost every episode opened with some scene of carnage that enables the Mysterons to create new agents on Earth, represented by two green circles of light gliding over the surface of the affected objects or people. (Note the circles on the sleeve back above.)  The credits consisted of someone unsuccessfully trying to shoot Captain Scarlet followed by the super creepy voice of the Mysterons issuing a new threat over the same footage of the light circles gliding menacingly over various members of Spectrum. It was during the closing credits that the theme song played, a rock pop number played by an anonymous ensemble identified only as "The Spectrum", the same name as a British band releasing singles on RCA Victor in England. According to Discogs, they were the same band and there is a version of the song included on a 2CD compilation of their complete recordings released earlier this year. The Hellbillys would be a little more difficult to compile, having used about a dozen different labels over 25 years and more members than Spinal Tap or Uriah Heep. Bright note? They still have a MySpace page.

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Previously on "Sieve Eye Care"...