Looking back at Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons
Andrew takes a look back at Captain Scarlet, the classic series that featured deep-voiced aliens, an indestructible hero, and lots of explosions…
Six pm on BBC Two was a cherished slot on the TV schedules in the 90s. It introduced me to all manner of Star Trek, Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica and various Gerry Anderson Supermarionation series. Fish fingers, spaghetti hoops, and wonderful sci-fi of yesteryear: that's what six pm on BBC Two meant to me. It was here that I first witnessed Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons.
Rather bravely, the opening montage tells you what's going to happen to the title character. Like the fate of Anakin Skywalker in Revenge Of The Sith, it's how it happens that makes us want to watch. The first episode is tailor made to appeal to small boys and men-children. It opens on Mars, a grey and alien world of ever shifting dust, and then we see an alien city. There’s all manner of vehicles, all of which travel ridiculously fast and blow up with loud explosions. Some of them are hidden around the landscape in unlikely situations, meaning any large container could hide them. The aliens speak in a deep, easy-to-impersonate voice. The little microphone on the captains' hats flips down, and this is well cool.
And, of course, it has the best segue ever. I think this country would be about three per cent happier if every 500th opening of doors on public transport was accompanied by the Captain Scarlet segue music. Imagine, you're having a knackering day, and at the end of it you get off the bus and then... Dun dun dun derderder-dun. Get on it, minister of transport.
Captain Scarlet’s also full of subtle world building. There's an Earth president. He plays three-dimensional Chess. Humanity can travel to Mars, and there are jetpacks. There's a worldwide security force. Car parks are now about the size of Runcorn. It's one of those brilliantly British optmistic/pessimistic visions of the future. Yeah, we've got all this amazing technology and the good guys live in the sky, but we're also being attacked by incredibly sinister aliens with a voice that could trigger childbirth in heavily pregnant women.
There's a rich story universe in there, mined further in the TV Century 21 comics (sadly, they never went the whole hog with a crossover into the Stingray or Thunderbirds universe, except for a brief appearance by a Mysteron-ised W.A.S.P. agent). It's an optimistic version of the future, sadly curtailed by the inconclusive ending to the TV series, with the comics taking up the slack.
After the recent Gerry Anderson's New Captain Scarlet series, the lack of character development in the original might seem problematic, but for the time it was made in, there's a lot of background hinted at on screen. It’s important to always consider the time the show was made in, after all, and as Team America has shown us, marionettes are perhaps not the best medium to portray any sort of romantic involvement.
Captain Scarlet is noticeably less camp than other Gerry Anderson series. The marionettes are more realistically proportioned, and they emote, bleed and die more horribly. The aliens can kill you from space, take over your body, and you cannot kill them. They can control vehicles. They will turn an avatar of you into a suicide bomber, and kill people you love. They've got an endearingly pulpy name, but they're still scary.
The crux of the plot is that the main character dies in every episode. There is absolutely no one in it as annoying as Alan Tracy. Yet it's still unmistakeably a children's show, plugged straight into the minds of anyone who likes gadgets and vehicles, Lego and Meccano, while also giving them a multi-cultural vision of a technologically advanced future. It's still got more than a hint of 60s atmosphere to it, in the design of the Mysteron city, and in the rambunctious closing credits’ rock and roll tune. The lyrics are sublime, and bear almost no resemblance to actual events in the show:
“He's the one who knows the Mysterons’ game/and things they plan.”
No he doesn't. He feels a bit ill every time there's a Mysteron near, except when he doesn't. Narrative necessity is a harsh mistress.
“To his Martian foes a dangerous name/a superman.”
Possibly. To be honest, I think they did the right thing in not showing the Mysterons’ board meetings, as they debate strategy and try to avoid mentioning Captain Scarlet's name in case it sets one of them off.
“As the Angels are flying, wing to wing/Into the scene/Spectrum is Green.”
Love that bit. Anyway:
“Though the Mysterons plan to conquer the Earth/This indestructible man will show what he's worth.”
Technically, he's showing his worth because Martians are invading, rather than in spite of the fact. To be honest, that talent's going to be useful in the security services no matter what the global situation.
There's some poor sod called Captain Brown. Imagine the Reservoir Dogs-style bickering when everyone got allocated their rank, from the slightly embarrassing Magenta, an Irish ex-safe-cracker - to the pathetically mundane Ochre, an ex-policeman who would surely be played by Aaron Eckhardt if ever a film were to be made. Captain Brown not only got arguably the worst name (depends how mature the rest of the Spectrum Agents were, really), but also gets killed in the first five minutes when he’s turned into a walking bomb. That's quite an unnerving thing to watch.
A criticism often levelled at Captain Scarlet is that, as its hero is indestructible, there's a lack of drama involved. If you're a child watching, this isn't really a problem. Indeed, there's a sort of grim curiosity involved in seeing exactly how he was going to die each week. However, the reverse is true of other shows: you didn't tune in to Thunderbirds thinking, “Wow, I wonder if Brains will finally get that massive aneurysm he's been heading for this week?”
People watched these shows not for the threat of imminent death, but for the adventure, the enjoyably mild peril, and the frankly brilliant combinations of futuristic vehicles, things going wrong, and everything crashing and exploding so people have to come and rescue them. Captain Scarlet combined things exploding at high speed with a series of cunning plans devised by a race of sentient computers from a galaxy far, far away. There's something both rubbish and endearing about the Mysterons’ attempts to harass humanity into submission with their decidedly piecemeal approach. Most alien invasions just go for the “Big machines go smash smash fwizzle boom” approach. Few go for the “Convolutedly assassinate a really good surgeon” option.
Thunderbirds may have been Gerry Anderson's triumph, but Captain Scarlet is only less popular, not unpopular. Standing alone, it's a very different beast, but attempts to do something different with the combination of action, heroics, and things going boom. As it was made after Thunderbirds and Stingray, it made sense to make the shows more adult as time progressed, as the audience was presumably growing up.
Now, there's a huge market for 12A-rated action, and Captain Scarlet has enough meat on its bones to provide a more intelligent variation on the usual plotless Bayhem. That, or it'd be like G.I. Joe with stupider hats. I think it's worth the risk.