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

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Looking Back At SUPERCAR

Tony’ll be in motor.
There’s something about the idea of cars that do extraordinary things that has been the stuff of geek heaven for at least six decades. From Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to Doctor Who’s Edwardian Roadster, Bessie, and his much more hovercraft-style “Whomobile” in the early Seventies, through the gizmo-filled Bond vehicles (spoiler alert – they’re not in the books, they were added to the movies precisely to feed this love of… erm… supercars), to Knight Rider, the idea of cars that do more than any cars you know hits the geek imagination where it lives.

It hits the spirit of play and fantasy, where our hero is backed into an impossible corner, and there should be no escape, when – their car takes to the skies! And so our hero’s skin is saved for another exciting adventure. Tune in next week…

Before all of those other supercars though (yes, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang wasn’t launched on the world in book form until 1964, and even the Bond movies didn’t kick off until 1962 – the same year the Jetsons cartoon with their car-cum-spaceship hit small screens), there was Gerry Anderson’s Supercar.

Running from 1961-1962, Supercar was in many ways the beginning of the Anderson phenomenon. Sure, he’d done things like Torchy, the Battery Boy and Four Feather Falls, but Supercar was the start of something not a little magical. It was his first Spectacular Vehicle series. The first fully credited “Supermarionation” show. The first show to introduce Sylvia Anderson (Sylvia Thamm, as she then was) to voice work. And the first of Anderson’s shows to use what would become a firm fan-favourite element of all Anderson’s supervehicle shows – the ‘launch sequence’ where the vehicle at the heart of the action were prepared to go into the fray (while simultaneously saving the studio money by frequently being able to re-use recorded footage every time).

There are also plenty of Anderson fingerprints in Supercar that would be repeated time and time again throughout the history of Supermarionation productions.

Pilot with a silly name? Check – here’s bold, brave Mike Mercury with the scariest eyebrows until the arrival of Peter Capaldi.

Backup crew who live in a relatively isolated compound? Check. It may not exactly be Tracy Island, but the Supercar gang live alone in a facility in Black Rock, Nevada. For Reasons.

A small team including the brains, the bravery, and the command function? Check – Supercar is the joint creation of Professor Rudolph Popkiss (George Murcell in Series 1, Cyril Shaps in Series 2) and Dr Horatio Beaker (David Graham), and they’re mostly restricted to base in Black Rock, while pilot Mike Mercury (Graydon Gould) goes out in the cool car, being all brave and wonderful.

Additional characters for cut-away plotlines and occasional quirkiness? Check – while they’re no Marina from Stingray or Lady Penelope and Parker from Thunderbirds, Supercar has young Jimmy Gibson (Sylvia Thamm) and his mischievous pet monkey, Mitch (David Graham).

Believe it or not, Jimmy lives with his brother, Bill (David Graham – again!), but after Supercar rescues the pair of them from both the sea and a confounded fog in the first episode, it’s young Jimmy and his monkey who go to live with the two old men and the dashing Supercar pilot, despite Bill himself being a trained pilot (and so arguably a bigger asset to the team).

Staggeringly one-note villains with minimum-effort names? Check. Supercar introduced us to Masterspy (George Murcell in Series 1, Cyril Shaps in Series 2, neatly establishing Masterspy as the Moriarty to Professor Popkiss’ Holmes), Zarrin, a henchman (David Graham continuing to earn his keep), Mr Harper, your typical posh English villain (Murcell), and Benn Judd, a Cockney thug (Graham). None of this is especially innovative stuff, but it never really needed to be. The villains in Anderson productions were almost always there to give the audience a figure to boo, and to kick off an unlikely storyline. Beyond that, there was little psychology – this was kids action TV, if you spent too long analysing Masterspy’s motivations (as there’s little doubt some geek or other will subsequently have done), you were kind of missing the point.

As you’ll have noticed by now, the cast was incredibly compact, with most of the actors taking many more than one defining role in the show.

That underlines something it’s important to understand about Supercar. While it’s the beginning of a great deal that would make Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionation productions the kind of TV that stuck in children’s imaginations for generations, and warrants us writing about them sixty years on, there’s something distinctly primitive and spit-and-sawdust about Supercar compared to later offerings from the Anderson stable. It’s not just that it’s filmed in black and white – it would have been exceptionally unusual for it to be in colour in 1961.

There’s a clunkiness and an almost caricature, comic-book style to the faces of the puppets, too, and there’s a certain logic to Anderson’s quote that he only invented a show about a vehicle so that he could avoid having the puppets walk, which he never felt looked right in Supermarionation. He was right, it never did, and it led to decades of scorn and satire – but that means that, in Supercar particularly, there’s scene after scene of puppets sitting, delivering early-era Anderson production dialogue.

The scripts themselves are no less loopy or coincidental than anything that would come later in Stingray or Thunderbirds, and let’s be absolutely honest, here – you don’t watch Supercar, any more than you watch the other two, for the gritty complexity of its plots. And where Stingray would, for instance, use the more popular absurdity of the Loch Ness Monster as a plot point, at least Supercar went deeper into Scottish myth for its episode exploring the idea of a phantom piper.

Its collection of villains were, as we’ve said, nothing particularly special, but they frequently provided enough pretext to watch the opening credits, the Supercar launch sequence, and to stay in front of your screen watching for any new cool ability the car might have gained since last week.

But where by the later productions, Anderson and his team had mastered the art of adding dynamism to their shots and dialogue, Supercar is more of a testing ground show, where a handful of things about the making of this kind of show were being worked out, ironed out, and occasionally not being sufficiently ironed out by the time the show got to air.

So yes, Supercar is one of the clunkier Anderson productions (at least until we get to the likes of Captain Scarlet, and The Secret Service), but for all that, watching it again in the 2020s, you can definitely get the whiff of incipient genius coming through the screen.

With a touch more Swiss Family Robinson than most of the Supermarionation shows to follow it (and therefore, technically, a touch more Lost In Space – though again, Supercar pre-empts the sci-fi version of the classic story by a couple of years), Supercar remains the fundamentally science fiction idea of a car that could go anywhere – on land, sea, air, or even technically space.

A definite precursor of all those supercars that followed in its dust, it invites its audience to dream of not only science fiction storylines, but also of the impressive engineering potential of humanity and its ambitions.

It’s also jussst possible that Anderson, seeing the reaction to the show, realised he was onto something big with the whole ‘supervehicle’ concept. After all, he followed it with Fireball XL5 (a show centred on a space vehicle), and Stingray (a show centred on a sub-aqua vehicle), both of which essentially took the Supercar concept and re-ran it with intriguing tweaks. And he followed them all finally with Thunderbirds, where the joy lay in using a multiplicity of supervehicles, complete with launch sequences for each of them to cut down the costs and multiply the viewer-excitement by a factor of five.

Supercar is not on the same level as those later Anderson productions – it’s possible to make the case that the further involved Sylvia Anderson got, the better the productions became. But it’s engaging early Anderson fun, and sixty years on, you watch it with the added weight of knowledge of where the Supermarionation series would go, so you see it not just as an engaging puppet adventure series but as the first floor on which the House of Thunderbirds would eventually be built.

For that, as much as for its own storylines and the imaginative thrill of a car that goes any damn place it likes and has more gadgets than Adam West’s utility belt, a Supercar re-watch is in order whenever it’s possible.

And now that the show has come to Britbox, it’s probably more easily possible than ever before.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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