Thursday, December 27, 2012

Gerry Anderson Always Knew the Value of Blowing Up Stuff!

It happens in threes…
First we lose two great character actors, Jack Klugman and Charles Durning,
then visionary TV producer Gerry Anderson (1929-2012).

As influential as Roddenberry, Serling or Lucas, Anderson captured the imaginations of children of all ages—but mainly boys with tech-fetishes and space madness, including me.

As a kid, how many reams of paper did I fill up with my ballpoint pen illustrations of his Eagles, Thunderbirds and spinning-top UFOs? How many hours a week did I play with all the toys I had from his shows?*

RIP, Mr. Anderson, you were F.A.B.

[This essay originally began as a comment over at John Kenneth Muir’s essential "Reflections on Film and Television."
Muir has written extensively about Anderson’s works before, and leaves a thoughtful tribute to the recently-deceased innovator
Rather than clog JKM’s mailbox, I thought I’d provide my own comments here.]

If you didn’t know,
Gerry Anderson made stylish, special-effects-heavy sci-fi action-adventure shows where big spaceships routinely exploded spectacularly.

Watched by millions during the 1960s and ’70s, his TV programs were considered “kid’s stuff,” scoffed at and never taken seriously by the intelligentsia, but who cares?

Space: 1999, Thunderbirds and UFO—Anderson’s Big Three, as far as I’m concerned.
I’ve seen his shows Joe 90 (dubbed into Spanish in Puerto Rico!) and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, but I’m unfamiliar with his earlier work, like Stingray or Fireball XL-5
which because they were “puppet shows” specifically aimed at kids, wound up tainting his subsequent career (yet perhaps aiding it as well by forcing him in a specific direction?); the fact that he steadily chased toy licensing agreements didn’t help either regarding critics who accused him of making shows to sell toys, except to his bank account.

Often compared to pre-disaster movie Irwin Allen (who produced classic 1960s fantastic TV like Lost in Space, sentimental favorite Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Land of the Giants and many others), Anderson’s work trended darker and more macabre as the 1960s ended, whereas Allen’s shows got goofier as they moved on (Yankee optimism vs. post-war UK cynicism? Perhaps…).

Anderson’s programs and movies were pure genre entertainment that gave 110%, and were often just very weird: I mean, puppets with high-tech weapons and supersonic aircraft fighting aliens; that’s just too awesome for words. His shows may not have had the most intellectually strenuous scripts, but they had mood and pace, and looked really cool.
And routinely, big spaceships exploded spectacularly. (The death tolls on his shows were huge!)

Probably because my stepdad was high and grooving on the special effects—not that I could blame him: Anderson’s shows are chock full of eyeball kicks, if nothing else—Thunderbirds (1965-1966) is actually part of my pre-memory: as a baby, I grew up with the sounds of Anderson’s rockets and explosions as part of my audio wallpaper.

Thunderbirds is the adventures of
International Rescue, run by the five virtuous Tracy Brothers, all named after various Mercury mission astronauts, and their magnificent if often ponderous superscience machinery and equipment.

Virgil Tracy flew Thunderbird 2, the gigantic green flying cargo van with backward wings, my favorite (Gerry’s holding the toy version in the photo up top).
Fighting giant alligators and spaceship hijackers, International Rescue once even moved the Empire State Building in an episode dear to my heart. 
And quite often, big spaceships exploded spectacularly.
(Trey Parker admits that Thunderbirds was an influence of the style of his extreme political satire Team America: World Police (2004), also very highly recommended.)

If you’re unwilling to immerse yourself in the series, the 1966 feature film, Thunderbirds Are Go! (directed by frequent Anderson collaborator David Lane) is a good way to get a taste—including a bizarro proto-music video, featuring a Cliff Richards puppet, that stops the movie cold, but is supreme weirdness—and actually a welcome relief after all the supersonic aircraft and explosive mayhem. It’s a flick that deserves a wider cult.

Around 1969, with the release of the Anderson-produced film Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (a.k.a. Doppelganger; directed by Robert Parrish), it seemed that the optimism really leached out of him. The film is dopey and hardly scientific—there’s no way a planet on the other side of the sun would’ve remained hidden/undiscovered once the first satellites were in orbit—but is also a wonderful total bummer.

It’s like a lesser episode of The Outer Limits combined with one of those humorless, but grand, space exploration movies that used to be made in the Eastern Bloc.
The film becomes a feel-bad sci-fi epic as everyone’s efforts end in flames and tears. The protagonist gets a magnificent Viking funeral, but there is no redemption for anyone else.
And yes, quite often, big spaceships explode spectacularly.

After Thunderbirds, Anderson and his collaborator and wife Sylvia created the gloomy UFO (1970-1971), which—although set in a “future” where there’s a permanent if small moonbase and the Earth was protected by a secret military intelligence unit armed with high-tech weaponry—had a sense of desperation about the show’s setting:
That humanity had created these incredible machines not out of the noble search for knowledge, but in a frightened scramble to slow down an unstoppable invasion from highly-motivated opponents with even better equipment and a very sinister agenda.

Like the Andersons’ earlier Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967-68; a fun show which I watched as a kid, forgot, and had to rediscover as an adult), UFO was essentially a downer, giving the impression that despite humanity’s cool tech and mega-weapons, it was already too late to stop the alien invasion.
(In that sense, UFO was similar to the 1967-68 show The Invaders, produced by Quinn Martin and created by genre-fave Larry Cohen, where the human-disguised aliens had insinuated themselves in police forces and government agencies across the land, becoming and subverting the power structure, too entrenched to be removed.)

Although a “secret” police/military/spy organization like SHIELD, MI6 or UNCLE, there was something unsettling about UFO’s SHADO, also, as if the proximity to knowledge of the organ-harvesting aliens had corrupted them, made them heartless and almost totalitarian.
Is that why the moon gals wore kinky outfits and purple wigs?
The show was as if SPECTRE was actually working towards saving the Earth. But to what ultimate end?

The way I remember it, we never see the actual aliens, either, only the humans “adapted” to their liquid environment and then “returned” to do their nefarious bidding (like leaving doomsday bombs that get found by LSD-victims).
But this piecemeal information, combined with those weird non-Euclidian spinning-top starships with that accompanying hypnotic, eerie whirring sound;
and that the aliens are here already and seemingly everywhere: sky, sea, space and land, gives the unseen extraterrestrials a neo-Lovecraftian vibe.
Barry Gray’s very creepy electronic music for the end credits of every episode of UFO really hammers this home (go HERE, and listen around about 1:11).

[We can’t even find the non-humans’ home planet! Like with many, many NASA expeditions to much closer places, SHADO’s attempt to send a satellite to the Home Planet glitches out. If they don’t want us to know, we don’t. Could it be that their Homeworld is not even in our dimension?]

It was good for me, I think, to have become so obsessed with such a dark and existential show at an early age. UFO said that even with all these bright and shiny toys, there are ruthless and threatening forces out there, some of them with brighter, shinier toys… But what can you do? You can’t stop fighting, even if you are doomed to lose to some alien space-ghouls…

While I watched Anderson’s Space: 1999 (1975-1977) religiously during its initial run on WPIX Channel 11, I have to admit towards cooling towards it of late, but damn, if it ain’t chock-a-block overloaded with eyeball kicks!

Influenced by Star Trek, 2001 and Mission: Impossible (as well as Anderson’s own earlier shows), the first season of Space: 1999 had many episodes bordering on pure horror, and routinely brought up the existential-Lovecraftian-H.L. Mencken-esque notion that the universe is probably malevolent, but we might be lucky if all it is uncaring…

The second season suffered, in my opinion, when Anderson’s power on the show was reduced (his marital troubles with Sylvia at the time may have had something to do with this), and Fred Freiberger, the producer on Star Trek’s troubled third season, was brought on board.
FF jazzed the show up, increasing the action, while reducing costs, but usually it felt as if FF was swiping a page out of the “Carrot Man Episode of Lost in Space” playbook.

Some of his episodes, like the two-part “The Bringers of Wonder” are successful, but perhaps because that one borrows so much from other, more thoughtful genre sources, with its tale of transdimensional slime monsters with powerful ESP that need our nuclear power to survive, and can only be seen by a man with a plate in his head. Being trapped on an isolated moonbase between galaxies doesn’t help matters either, in this story.

Superb effects were key to Anderson’s shows, and
he introduced special effects wizards like Derek Meddings and Brian Johnson to the world, both of whom left Anderson for “bigger” things: Meddings became the long-time effects man on the 1970s Superman series and the 1970s to mid-90s James Bond films (whatever you might think of the movie as a whole, Meddings’ work on Moonraker is superlative), as well as Tim Burton’s Batman; Johnson went on to win Oscars for Alien and The Empire Strikes Back.

Honestly, after Anderson stopped using Meddings and Johnson, I think his shows suffered considerably (those guys could produce marvels and miracles with no budgets; and Meddings created effects technology still being used today).

While I don’t seek out his work too much anymore, it still has a special place in my heart, and every so often, I simply must revisit Anderson’s Big Three.

Probably because these shows helped form my tastes, I still get plenty of food for thought from them, as well as a great sense of nostalgia/familiarity—especially with those big spaceships exploding spectacularly.

Gerry Anderson RIP

* = this plaything inventory included Space: 1999 Eagles built from plastic model kits; SHADO mobile tanks; a die-cast metal Thunderbird 2 with a little yellow plastic Thunderbird 4 submarine inside; and the car I always wanted when I grew up: the incredible, hyper-mega-charged Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle (SPV) from Captain Scarlet, long-lost and possibly my favorite (pictured directly above, to the right).

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