Looking Back At STINGRAY - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At STINGRAY

Tony’s going swimming.
Of all the Gerry and Sylvia Anderson ‘Supermarionation’ puppet shows, there may be more to admire about Stingray – at the very least from a technical perspective – than any other.

First British TV show to be made entirely in colour?

That’d be Stingray.

First of the Anderson productions to give their characters interchangeable heads, so they could actually have more than one facial expression?

That’d be Stingray.

We could go into detail about the ingenious ways it was filmed too, if you like, but the chances are, if you tuned in to the adventures of Troy Tempest, “Phones” Sheridan, Commander Shore, Atlanta Shore, and the mysterious Marina, you cared not a jot about how it was made.

Set, like many Anderson productions, in 2060 (almost a hundred years after they were made), the first premise of Stingray is that by that time, the seas of the world have ceased to be the lawless wilderness they once were. Now, there’s WASP (the World Aquanaut Security Patrol) to enforce order on the oceans. And WASP’s ultimate deterrent, which naturally enough given the title of the show, was deployed every week, is Stingray – a nuclear submarine that can travel at up to 600 knots (for which, read “bloomin’ fast”) and is equipped with advanced ‘Sting’ missiles to blow any oceanic ne’er-do-well to Davy Jones’ Locker.
All of which in itself may well have been much more prophetic than the Andersons ever dreamed – with plastic and pollution threatening the very basis of our food chain through oceanic embuggerance, the idea of a force like WASP actually coming to exist is probably more believable in the 21st century than it was back in 1963, when Stingray was made. Back then, it was simply another great idea for a Supermarionation adventure series. Sea Police! Who wouldn’t watch that? After all, they’d watched Supercar and Fireball XL5.

But there was an issue. If you kept to just that premise, you’d need a steady string of diabolical human geniuses to all be concocting evil sub-aquatic plans, mmmore or less at the same time, so Stingray could go out week after week and foil them.

What you needed was to make it almost like a space exploration show. You needed aliens, but under the sea. And maybe not alien, just different. You needed to have lots of different humanoid, but not human, species, with their own civilisations, under the sea!

Basically, you needed to invent the premise of Star Trek two years before Star Trek was broadcast, and then take it to oceanic space, rather than outer space.

Did we mention the things to admire about Stingray? Yeah – more or less Star Trek, BEFORE there was Star Trek. Take a spectral bow, Andersons. Take a good, deep, spectral bow.
That then was the premise of Stingray. In a move that (not to hammer home the comparison) would be used in the first episodes of both Star Trek: Deep Space 9, and Star Trek: Voyager, Troy Tempest and the gang are already pretty cool when they start the show, protecting the Earth’s oceans and so on. When they suddenly discover that the oceans have intelligent civilisations in them, their importance is massively amplified, and Stingray becomes (to borrow from another franchise entirely) the Earth’s “first, last, and best line of defence” against the aggression of sub-aquatic gittery, while also having something of an explorative function when it’s discovered that there’s a lot more to discover than we previously thought.

The first episode does a LOT of the show’s worldbuilding – in particular, it introduces the character who would go on to be the show’s Big Bad, Titan, lord of Titanica (yes, really), gives him a reason to hate all Terraneans (that’s us land-dwelling apes, in case you had trouble keeping up), and also introduces us to his mute Pacifican slave-girl, Marina. Naturally, she turns against him, frees the Stingray crew when he captures them, and goes on to become a fully-fledged member of the gang.

While this develops as time goes on, Marina’s arrival in the world of WASP goes on to cause additional drama, because Atlanta, stuck as she usually is in the WASP control tower (don’t ask why an underwater organisation has a control tower, it looks great in the model-work, OK?) has designs on the square-jawed Troy, but he finds himself more and more attracted to the sea-girl who can’t answer him back. Again, if you dwell too long on the sexual politics of Stingray, you mmmmmay just have a little too much time on your hands, but it probably reflected patriarchal ‘normalities’ in its day, and may have played into ongoing patriarchal attitudes in the generation who first watched it.

Now, while the whole “WASP exploring the endless oceanic depths and tangling with new civilisations” thing is a great premise, it has to be acknowledged that some of the plots were either perilously thin or outright bonkers.
Example? Stingray goes to investigate the mystery of the Loch Ness Monster. Because reasons. An admiral on a sailing ship loses his memory and turns hostile, suddenly deciding to go all Spanish Armada on Stingray and her crew. Episode 18, The Cool Cave Man is literally a 20-odd minute dream sequence inside Troy Tempest’s head. Come to that, so is episode 22, Tom Thumb Tempest – though there’s an extra trope in that one, where Troy and the gang are shrunk down to miniature size and overhear a meeting of all WASP’s sub-aquatic enemies.

But the point about the thinness of some of these scripts is that in many cases, they’re no thinner than the scripts of plenty of ATV live action adventure serials of the time. One might even, with a wry smile, note that they’re practically THE SAME as some of the live action adventure scripts at the time – and indeed, later. Many similarities that appear to us in hindsight benefit from understanding that in some cases, Stingray was the FIRST place those elements appeared.

While we’re on the thinness of some of the plots, it’s worth giving a healthy nod to the rank incompetence of Titan’s land-swelling operative, Agent X-2-Zero – and to some extent, the totally bonkers nature of Titan himself. That resulted in storylines including the kidnap of a pop star. Again, for…y’know, reasons, and the bombing of a jazz concert in Marina’s home city of Pacifica. Because ooh – jazz. Dangerous to the underwater way of life, don’tcha know? Weirdly enough, if you want to get meta-textual about it, you can read that either as a reference to how patriarchal types in the West had viewed both Jazz and rock and roll in their time as morally corrupting, or as a comment on the then-USSR and its clampdown on anything that might be considered frivolous or fun. Or, y’know, it could just be a fun half-hour’s bonkers sea adventure.
But before we get hung up on the daftness of some of the plots, let’s step back a second and stop taking life so seriously. Nobody really watched Stingray – or in fact, any of the Anderson productions, or come to that, really, shows like Batman or Star Trek, or later shows like The Incredible Hulk or Knight Rider (Son of Supercar?) – for the actual PLOTS. You watched them for the sheer potential adventure, and the unbelievable, imagination-flowering power of what was on your screen. Knight Rider? When does the car do cool things? The Incredible Hulk? When does Captain Mild-Mannered go green and start throwing heavy things? Batman? “To the Batcave!” and the sequence of the sliding bookcases, the batpoles, the Batmobile and out after arch-criminals. The set pieces, the slogans, the moments of transformation, that’s what stick in your mind.

The Andersons were, above all, absolute unparalleled MASTERS at this kind of TV. From the joyously edgy theme – basically, the word “Stingray” sung with increasing stridency and urgency – to the demand that you “Standby for action!” because “Anything can happen in the next half hour,” once you’d watched the titles, you were there for the episode. And it rarely disappointed. Again, it’s important to note that the “Troy and Phones sitting in chairs that went from Control down through the ocean and into Stingray (How did they never get soaked, let alone the breathing and pressure issues?) and the launching of Stingray out into the ocean” sequence predates the Batman and Robin “To the Batcave!” sequence by a couple of years, and still looks better that the Caped Crusaders’ version to this day.

The Andersons were also masters of the catchphrase. Again, “Standby for action!” and “Anything can happen in the next half hour” are catchphrase gold, heard on playgrounds all over Britain in the day. But you also got “We are about to launch…Stingray!” to prepare you for the cool launch sequence, and just as Thunderbirds would go on to have its “Thunderbirds are go!” and its “FAB,” and Captain Scarlet would have his “Spectrum is green,” WASP operatives had their - admittedly sliiiightly less inspiring – “PWOR” – “Proceeding With Orders Received.” Might not mean much in itself, but a useful piece of geek code if only you and a couple of pals knew it.

Besides that, lots of the things people would go on to love about the likes of Thunderbirds are already there in 1964’s Stingray. Superb model work on the base of operations. MOVING model work, ahead of the whole Tracy Island crew. Watch the WASP HQ in Marineville sink beneath the surface and you’ll lose your Inner Child’s mind with the potential excitement of it. Human interpersonal relationships and dramas – we mentioned the whole dysfunctional love triangle, right? Let’s not forget that Atlanta Shore, Troy’s would-be girlfriend, is also his boss’s daughter. #Awkward.

And then there are the cool vehicles. OK, in Stingray, the vehicular star of the show is the nuclear submarine, just as in Supercar and Fireball XL5, the star of the show is right there in the title. But there’s nobody who watched Stingray either on broadcast or repeat who doesn’t get that Anderson thrill when it goes into action to this day.

Add to that the likes of the mechanical fish in which Titan sends his Aquaphibians after the Terranean invaders and you have yourself a joyful party of vehicle coolness on which to overdose.
Did we mention how believably underwater the underwater shots look? Yeah – the whole thing was shot dry, by the way. Where it needed to look like it was underwater, they shot it through some thin aquaria for that wet look and occasional bubbles. That’s the kind of thinking that marks out the Anderson productions. You can see it throughout Stingray, from tiny blinking lights on control panels, to the smoothly believable model work. The plots might be thin, but by Neptune, at a young age, you’d be as convinced Stingray was ‘real’ as you would The Avengers.

Stingray revolutionised what a puppet show could look like, aim at, and achieve, week after week. If these days, Thunderbirds is more widely remembered, it’s only because a lot of the groundwork for that show was tried, tested, and succeeded beyond anything anyone had a right to expect, back in 1964’s Stingray.

Standby for action?

Too bloomin’ right!

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Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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