Incredible Voyage: John Theydon’s ‘Stingray’ Novels

❉ Fred MacNamara on two spirited ’60s extensions of Stingray’s world into pulp novels!

“Theydon’s pair of Stingray novels remain mostly exhilarating reads thanks to the way in which Theydon treats the oceans like an outer space wilderness, populated by surreal underwater phenomena and creatures beyond human understanding. He succeeds in drawing you into these worlds, where it feels like anything really could happen in the next half hour”

Throughout the 1960s, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s Supermarionation television empire filtered into a vast array of spin-off merchandise. Comic books, annuals, audio dramas, story books and novels blasted off into the market and were hugely successful for the company. Its shared pool of writers and editors were the architects for uniting the worlds of Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, Zero X and more into a single, cohesive shared universe when their television counterparts remained standalone. Century 21’s output of novels have mostly remained lost, including John Theydon’s duo of Stingray novels.

Theydon, also known as John W. Jennison, wrote for 1965’s Stingray and 1966’s Stingray and the Monster, and was also responsible for novels not just for Stingray, but Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and The Secret Service (TV21 alumni Howard Elson and Tod Sullivan scribed a pair of Joe 90 novels, respectively).

Theydon applies a characteristically bright, buoyant, adventure-driven style of prose to all of his Anderson novels, not really concerned with adjusting that style to suit the tone of the individual series themselves. Throughout his pair of Stingray novels, it’s a superb match for Stingray’s own vibrant dynamics. Both novels are packed with Theydon’s trademark usage of adventure-heavy story-telling with unstoppable danger, playful and upbeat character interactions and, in the case of his Stingray books, an abundance of prolonged, colourful, descriptive language used to illuminate the menacing, otherworldly underwater terrain Stingray ventures into, which at times can test the reader’s patience in how dense the language is. Theydon even throws a witty transgression into both books by constantly flirting back and forth between referring to the mighty Titan’s sea-faring war machines as Mechanical Fish and Terror Fish.

Stingray

Century 21 Publishing’s novels were done in partnership with Armada Paperbacks, meaning that the Stingray, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, Joe 90 and The Secret Service books released under the Armada banner were rubbing shoulders with the likes of Billy Bunter, Just William, Biggles and the Famous Five. In the latter’s case, it’s an apt comparison, as Theydon’s first Stingray novel often feels like an aquatic, sci-fi adaptation of the Kirrin siblings.

Troy Tempest comfortably fills the role of the heroic Julian, meaning that Phones shares the brawny comedic sidekick persona of Dick, and who never runs the risk of stealing the spotlight. The tomboyish energy of Atlanta is a good match for George, whilst the mute Marina links well with the general uselessness of Anne. Does that make Stingray itself an atomic-powered, seafaring rendition of Timmy the Dog?

This is still one of the book’s greatest strengths as Theydon teams up Troy, Phones, Atlanta and Marina off into an adventure to uncover the mystery behind the unexpected discovery of an ancient underwater craft, with possible links to Greek mythology, which sends them deep into the bowels of the Antarctica ice-cap. After a protracted and perilous journey into the aquatic unknown, they become trapped by the Zomid, an alien intelligence that fell to Earth ten thousand years ago. The Zomid has enslaved a primitive race of gruella men to defend itself whilst the Zomid harvests enough radioactive energy from beneath the Antarctica region to allow the creature to propel itself away from the Earth and re-join the stars. Doing so however will cause the ice-cap to melt and our four heroes must break free of their captors to stop the Earth from succumbing to a watery genocide. The searching nature of the threat and its alien perpetrator taps into post-war paranoia and reads like a metaphor for nuclear Armageddon.

The novel is a tense, thrilling and often unnerving ride as Theydon takes great pleasure in sending Stingray into bottomless lakes, subterranean seas and oceans within oceans as this energetic adventure blends ancient civilisations with cosmic horror to entertaining levels. As a craft, Theydon takes great delight in exploiting Stingray as a multifaceted mechanical marvel, going so far as to practically reinvent the submarine as an underwater Thunderbird 2. Extra brownie points must be awarded to Theydon for not only the novel’s referencing to the events of Stingray’s very first TV21 comic strip adventure, but for referencing TV21 itself. As well as being an actual comic book, TV21 was a fictional newspaper within this shared universe itself.

Theydon’s interpretation of the characters is mostly excellent, too. As proudly stated on the cover, Armada Paperbacks were for boys and girls, meaning that Theydon allows the Atlanta and Marina as much page space as the Marineville men. Aside from Troy being positioned as typically reliably heroic action man, Atlanta’s extroverted keenness for adventure radiates from screen to page, whilst her and Troy’s unspoken romantic feelings provide some welcome melodrama to the story whilst her technical knowhow of Stingray adds an extra dimension rarely seen on screen. Marina’s heightened underwater sense are proved to be useful by trumping much of Stingray’s own technology.

The novel’s main threat of an immobile alien menace from outer space controlling a race of pre-human grunts in order to accelerate global warming to effect its own escape is wonderfully bizarre but also an imaginative poke around of the aquatic trappings of Stingray’s style of villains. Breaking away from Titan already shows that Theydon was taking advantage of exploring creative avenues the TV series was otherwise limited to employ. The end result is an effective, engaging and thoroughly entertaining extension of the television series.

Stingray and the Monster

Released a year later, 1966’S Stingray and the Monster sees villainous pirate Conrad Hagen, an old adversary of Commander Shore, and his daughter Helga plot to hijack Stingray to find and rob a suspected submerged Peruvian city of its legendary treasure, kidnapping Atlanta along the way as an insurance policy to ensure that they aren’t traced. Through unexpected circumstances, it isn’t Stingray that’s caught but rather WASP vessel Number 13, but Hagen’s plan otherwise kicks into gear. Undeterred by Hagen’s devious plan, Troy, Phones and Marina set out to rescue Atlanta, retrieve Number 13 and place the Hagens under arrest, an aquatic cat and mouse game ensuing as Stingray attempts to track Number 13’s journey without being spotted.

Overly packed with story elements pushing for room, Stingray and the Monster has too many ingredients in the cooking pot to result in a satisfying and flavoursome adventure. Placed so closely together in the first novel, Troy, Phones, Marina and Atlanta are rarely together at once as much of the adventure focuses squarely on Troy. Coming off on the heels of the previous novel, this approach to character dynamics gives Stingray and the Monster a disjointed atmosphere. A precious saving grace is the presence of Number 13 seemingly confirming that WASP does, in fact, command a fleet of submarines (with Stingray being the third), rather than rely entirely on Stingray alone.

Stingray and the Monster is loosely bolted together, with character motivations kept a closely guarded secret until towards the end before driving to a rushed finale involving a slightly enlarged role for Titan and X20 than the previous novel (even a cheeky reference to Fireball XL5 and the implication that Atlanta and Venus know each other personally, but these fun but disparate moments rarely fuse together and fail to prevent Stingray and the Monster from undoubtedly being the weaker of Theydon’s Stingray novels. If anything, Stingray and the Monster is a decent example of Theydon’s shortcomings, as the action sequences pummel into each other with no great consideration of the overall story at work here.

Anything Can Happen in the Next Chapter…

Theydon’s pair of Stingray novels remain mostly exhilarating reads thanks to the way in which Theydon treats the oceans like an outer space wilderness, populated by surreal underwater phenomena and creatures beyond human understanding. He succeeds in drawing you into these worlds, where it feels like anything really could happen in the next half hour. The two books were originally sent out into the world packaged with a pair of gorgeous covers from illustrator Peter Archer, whose covers appear more dynamic than those he produced for the Thunderbirds novels in the years to come or the stock stills utilised for the Spectrum File trilogy. It’s lovely to see how Theydon captures that heart and soul, whilst demonstrating how Stingray loses none of its vibrancy in prose form.

Now, Anderson Entertainment have transformed Theydon’s debut Thunderbirds novel into Thunderbirds: Terror from the Stars, it’s all but confirmed that these two spirited extensions of Stingray’s world will be transformed into audio books, likely accompanied by new editions of the books themselves. Whilst some of Theydon’s Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet novels were reprinted in the late 1990s, the Stingray novels have remained out of print since their respective publications. Their forthcoming rebirth via Anderson Entertainment is a gratifying move that ensures these hugely fun adventures can be enjoyed once again.


 ‘Thunderbirds: Terror from the Stars’ is available to pre-order now in a four-CD set that includes a behind-the-scenes documentary. Both the CD set and the hardback book are available from the official Gerry Anderson store. The digital version can be exclusively pre-ordered from the Big Finish website here

  Fred McNamara is a contributing writer for a variety of digital and print publications, covering comic books, films, TV and more. His work has appeared on such websites as PopMattersWhatCulture, Flickering Myth, Grovel, the Official Gerry Anderson Blog, ScreenRelish, and in such publications as Starburst Magazine, Andersonic and Comic Scene. His work has also appeared in anthologies published by Watching Books and Who Dares Publishing.

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