My secret confession: I was never a fan of the Gerry Anderson puppet shows, such as Thunderbirds and the like. They always seemed too phony, too dated, and just too weird for me to get into. Now that Anderson’s Captain Scarlet and Mysterons has crossed my desk, it’s time to give Anderson and his plastic toys another look.
It’s the future. Spectrum is a high-tech organization devoted to protecting the Earth from the alien Mysterons. After the Mysterons possess Spectrum’s Captain Scarlet, he gets better, but there’s a side effect. Scarlet is now invulnerable to physical harm, making him Earth’s most important weapon in the fight.
Even though I’m not a fan, I’ve got to hand it to Anderson and his team for all the work done in bringing this world to life. It seems simplistic at first. Don’t have the budget for your epic sci-fi adventure? Just use puppets and models! The results, though, are far from simplistic. Instead, the show’s creators have worked damn hard to immerse you in this far flung future world. The attention to detail is remarkable. These shows are famous for being cheap, but they don’t look cheap. Sets, vehicles, and even clothes are impressively designed. Also, there are a lot of filmic techniques like sweeping camera moves and shadowy lighting. It’s all done in service of making Captain Scarlet look like a “real” action blockbuster and not just a kids’ puppet show.
That’s the other thing — for a show meant for children, I’m surprised at how not “kiddie” it is. The title sequence shows Captain Scarlet getting shot several times in the chest, only to raise his own handgun and fire right at the camera. This says to audiences, “We are not messing around.” Life and death is on the line, characters get roughed up, and there is no shortage of car and plane crashes with explosive and disastrous consequences.
I know I’m describing the show as awesome, and on a technical level it is awesome, but these are still puppets we’re looking at. The characters faces are expressionless and dead-eyed, and their movements overly stiff. Worse, they’re only characters in a loose sense. Scarlet and his fellow agents are merely “the good guys” with no other defining characteristics. The villainous Mysterons are invisible, depicted only as disembodied voices in the shadows, secretly influencing life on Earth. This gives their scenes a nifty “Cold War metaphor” vibe, but it also means they don’t have much personality either.
If you are a fan, you’ll be glad to know that this set treats the show right, with all 32 episodes on four discs. The ’60s “pop art” colors really jump off the screen. Audio is not exactly booming, but it does its job. Gerry Anderson provides a commentary on a handful of episodes, mostly discussing the show’s mythology rather than the puppetry tech. That sort of talk is reserved for several featurettes focusing on all the challenges involved in directing the show.
While I didn’t love Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, I did appreciate all that Gerry Anderson and his team accomplished with it.