The Scarlet Files #1: Captain Scarlet’s Utopian Apocalypse

❉ The first in a series of essays by Fred McNamara celebrating Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s darkly adventurous War of Nerves.

Pop culture writer Fred McNamara has captured over 50 years of Captain Scarlet history in ‘Spectrum is Indestructible’, a comprehensive and passionate celebration of the series Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. Featuring extensive reviews of all 32 episodes, in-depth retrospectives of the series’ spin-off media, interviews with people who worked on the series and more, ‘Spectrum is Indestructible’ is a heartfelt tip of the hat to Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s darkly adventurous War of Nerves, described by Jamie Anderson (son of Gerry Anderson) as “…an exhaustive examination of the series in a way that few would dare to tackle…”

To celebrate its publication, We Are Cult are delighted to share a quartet of essays by the book’s author, breaking down specific themes found inCaptain Scarlet and the Mysterons  – this bonus content is exclusive to We Are Cult!

Spectrum Is Indestructible (Paperback)

Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons boasts a chilling message about the fallout of accidental war-mongering, but with that stern ethos, it’s a series that packs in some sense of warm familiarity. The image of Scarlet himself being routinely decimated is counteracted by the reassurance of his inevitable resurrection, to do the same thing all over again. It’s an oddity, isn’t it, how we share in this sense of a sort of comforting death? However, one might argue that Captain Scarlet’s greatest paradox can be found in ourselves, Captain Scarlet’s audience. We share in Colonel White’s enduring reassurance when we bear witness to Paul’s regular streams of death, secure in the knowledge that he’ll rise from the grave in time to fight another battle against the Mysterons. Isn’t that somewhat strange – a series that defines itself by asking its young target audience to accept that your heroes can die, when in fact they’re back again the next week on your TV screens?

The answer possibly lies in how the series depicts the oncoming apocalypse of 2068. The invisible, all-seeing Mysterons command an endless supply of power and aggression, able to convert anyone and anything to their own form and mentality. Their overall mission is to bring the Earth to its knees, conquest by conquest, before unleashing their final annihilation when the planet is at its weakest. Suffice to say, if anyone is bringing the apocalypse, it’s them.

Despite these warnings of humanity’s ultimate end, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons chooses to display this oncoming storm in a utopian manner, in which both heroes and villains aren’t quite willing to unleash all-out anarchy on each other, whilst the war itself is depicted in an unequivocally self-sustaining manner, each side lending each other favours in their weekly battles to ensure the war never ends. This War of Nerves feels less like a conquest for who may obtain the higher position, but rather as an exercise in existence in which by fighting each other, both Spectrum and the Mysterons give each other a true, definitive purpose to live by. By the TV series’ own logic, prior to the War of Nerves, with neither side knowing of each other’s existence, they lived in a peaceful, passive state. The War of Nerves proceeds to give each side a sense of agency.

The apocalypse itself, whether it’s delivered by the Mysterons, the Hood or Titanica, can be rendered as bearing a wholesome quality to it that’s comforting in itself. This is something Wheeler Winston Dixon explains; “there’s something comforting in the thought of imminent destruction. All bets are off, all duties executed, all responsibilities abandoned.”1 He goes on to illuminate the watertight fact that the apocalypse cares not for skin colour, gender or social background; “What makes this appealing is the thought that if none shall survive, then, at last, all class, social, racial boundaries will have been erased.”2

Spectrum & Mysterons

Both Spectrum and the Mysterons exude this barrier-less motif prior to their knowledge of each other’s existence, setting the stage for the utopian nature of this coming apocalypse. For starters, Spectrum presents itself as a very classless organisation, unrestricted by race or gender. This extremely cosmopolitan outfit boasts workers of British, American, Irish, Japanese, African-American, Australian, French and South African ethnicities. Not one of the five-piece Angel squadron share the same ethnic identity. This multi-cultural group strengthens its diverse persona thanks to Cloudbase, their headquarters. At least, being a HQ is its primary function, however it also serves as their home, meaning that Spectrum feels less like a military outfit and more like a metropolis, a community separate from the rest of the world. The Angels themselves function as a community within a community, their own racial mixture adding to their easy co-habitation with one another.

Elsewhere, Captain Ochre, Captain Magenta and Captain Black all have tragic backstories that are somewhat rectified by joining Spectrum. Magenta lead a villainous existence in New York’s underbelly of organised crime, Ochre failed to achieve educational requirements needed to go to university, and Black was orphaned during an atomic war. As if to further the harmonious stature of Spectrum, Black falls into tragedy once more only when the Mysterons take control of him. Separated from Spectrum, he becomes the ultimate agent of evil. This joining together of multiple races serves as an explicit reflection of Spectrum’s trans-national status, something that Jonathan Bignall suggests that “…American isolationism or exceptionalism had been replaced by a participation in a world system.”3

The World of 2068

Elsewhere, the Mysterons bear their own idealised sense of community, reinforcing a harmonious type of warfare. Reflecting Cloudbase’s own detached communal culture from the world, the Mysterons live encased in a computerised city, but a step up from Spectrum’s multi-cultural individuals is the fact that the Mysterons transcended physical boundaries, thus removing any separation of race or sex. They refer to themselves as a collective, existing as a shared conscious, rather than an individual.

This classless society was no happy accident either, but rather an extremely precise tactic on Gerry Anderson’s part to promote a world that saw itself as a unified community. When pressed about this very topic in his interview with Nicholas J Cull in British Science Fiction Television: A Hitchhiker’s Guide, Gerry explains that he “had all sort of fancy ideas about the future. You know, we had the United Nations and I imagined that the world would come together and there would be a world government and, with all the modern materials that were available, everybody would dress superbly; everything would be neat and tidy.”4 It’s obvious he’s talking about the likes of Spectrum here, but it’s just as applicable to the Mysterons.

With this very deliberate vision of a utopian world, it becomes impossible to argue with that vision – the world of 2068 scarcely has a marionette or miniature set out of place. Not even the War of Nerves itself seems able to destabilise the unity that Spectrum’s world has crafted for itself. Expanding on the technological paradise of Thunderbirds, in which engineering, space exploration and other factors have achieved eureka-like developments that serve the needs of the world, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons displays a world that is forever ambitioned by creating mechanical miracles, from the computer-controlled, near-indestructible army tank Unitron from “Point 783” to the construction of the World Expo in “Expo 2068”.

Spectrum’s own fantastic fleet of vehicles ticks all the boxes for securing peace across the globe, with the battle-ready SPV’s and Angel Interceptor jets standing alongside the more passive Spectrum Patrol Cars and Maximum Security Vehicles. Their overt tech readiness, reflective of the hyper-gadgetries of the Thunderbird machines encapsulate Susan Sontag’s own theory; “Science – technology – is conceived of as the great unifier.”5 However, at odds with those optimistic words is the grim background of these vehicles. The majority of Spectrum’s fleet originate from the World Army Air Force, the outfit’s quest for passive, peaceful end to the War of Nerves is disrupted by the destructive genesis of their own tools for peace.

Curiously, there was no great plan in giving Captain Scarlet a specific feel. “When the series began we continued to build sets as we had always done,” says model maker Alan Shubrook. “There was no great thought that the buildings we were making should be designed with a 2068 design feel to them.” This feeling is shared by Mike Trim, designer of the Spectrum Passenger Jet, the MSV, SPC and more. “Although the show may appear cohesive, there were never any decisions taken that set to style for the series.”

Medical advances are unlocked too, thanks to Doctor Magnus’ deft handling of the risk-negating cerebral pulsator in brain operations. Both mechanical and the humane wonders unite together in the form of Cloudbase, which is complimented by its moon-centred neighbour, Lunarville 7.  The latter has particular emphasis on the utopian mind-set of the Mysterons’ apocalyptic ambitions; despite Lunarville 7’s accidental destruction at the end of its namesake episode, which Colonel White later describes in no subtle terms as a holocaust, the other Lunarville outposts carry on as usual, unaffected by the loss of their seventh station! This sense of worldly is reflected in the production of the series itself. Alan noted how the sets, models and miniatures of Captain Scarlet were specially designed to complement this world of utopian devastation; ”There were far more crashes which all ended in fatality, something that never happened in Thunderbirds. Most models had to be built to be blown to pieces at one point or another during filming each episode. The reconstruction process of the Mysterons meant that a plane, car or truck would be destroyed and replicated at the start of each show.”

Lunarville 7 isn’t the only instance in which the Mysterons acquire the upper hand in their War of Nerves, yet the world in which they attempt to conquer rolls onward. In the television series alone, the Mysterons achieve several victories, including assassinating the Director-General of the United Asian Republic, the destruction of the K14 Observatory and its crew and the Second National Bank of New York. These tragedies for Spectrum are treated with the solemn grace they deserve, and yet forgotten about by the time the next adventure needs to begin. After K14’s obliteration in ‘Shadow of Fear’, Colonel White concludes the episode with the triumphant decision that Operation Sword, of which the K14 was a part of, will carry on as planned. After the end credits role, we never hear from this Operation Sword again.

This encapsulates how this trio of tragedies do indeed have fallout in their respective episodes and help to paint the wider, tragic picture of Captain Scarlet (especially the pitch-perfect comment of ‘The Heart of New York’ on how humanity’s gluttonous nature will lead to its doom), but within Captain Scarlet’s own narrative, they don’t register any impact. The result isn’t strictly an absence of the consequences of this war being firmly felt, given how they function within their own episodes, but rather, it becomes a level of equality between Spectrum and the Mysterons – both are allowed victories, adding to the utopian nature of this world, neither party can be seen as truly holding the advantage when both score points against each other.

Admittedly, out of the thirty-two episodes that make up Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, these three victories of the Mysterons are a rather disparate handful. The unpredictable triumphs of the Mysterons still manage to spread across other mediums that tell the Captain Scarlet story. In the TV21 comic, the Mysterons’ victories include the assassination of the president of Bereznik and obliterating the undersea base Indestructible. Following the mythos established by the television series, such slips in Spectrum’s efficiency made the Mysterons appear ferocious and unstoppable, but in doing so it equates to the status quo of equality of both sides’ respective conquests against each other, something engrained by Captain Scarlet’s television incarnation, and thus maintaining the equilibrium.

The Indestructible Superman

However, it’s our hero’s super-human capabilities of returning from the dead that defines Captain Scarlet’s utopian sense of enduring apocalypse. How perfect a war is it when your main character fails to terminally succumb to the routine barrage of explosions he finds himself in the middle in? A long-standing criticism of Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons has referred to Scarlet’s indestructibility negating any sense of danger, which, despite having some truth to it, is worth probing deeper. An even more precise encapsulation of Scarlet’s character defining the type of apocalypse this series exudes is Scarlet’s dying words to Captain Blue after successfully entrapping the nuclear device in a London car park that’s in a state of construction.

Desperate to hear his friend’s reassuring voice after the explosion rocks the construction site they’re in, Scarlet responds wirily, “I will be, Captain. I will be,” before his battered and busied head slumps downward, his last ounce of life squeezed out of him. Cut to the episode’s epilogue and we find Blue, Symphony, Melody and Captain Scarlet, fully recovered, spruced up and trapped inside a chocolate-coloured tuxedo discussing the events that have transpired. This would become a similar pattern in other Captain Scarlet episode’s finales – display Scarlet’s gruesome death, then jump ahead in time to show him fully recovered before the episode’s conclusion.

Isn’t that the very definition of how utopian a war can be, that even if we must fight this war – your hero never actually dying? The sense of equality raises its head again due to Scarlet’s immortality being derived from the Mysterons, thus making them as long-lasting as Scarlet. Even in Spectrum’s eventual defeat against the Mysterons, death’s reach remains far away. The penultimate Captain Scarlet story in TV21, “The End of the Mysterons” (#234-#238), saw the Mysterons defeated by blocking their retrometabolism capabilities via a series of interlinked satellites placed around Mars, forcing them into retreat. In such a finalizing concept as defeat, this idealized equality between heroes and villains remains as strong as ever. Even with this likely unintentional symbolism found in Scarlet himself, it’s these marionette heroes themselves that actually disrupt the utopian feel that staff like Alan and Mike were working towards.

“They (the puppets) were a pain in the ass”, recalls series’ writer and director Leo Eaton. “Those new heads, the smaller heads, were much less controllable than the bigger heads. The puppeteers were always having trouble, and they’d get this little wobble quite often, you’d get them just set and then ‘bloop’, they’d lurch sideways. And also, everyone talks about the solenoids inside the head which allowed the puppets… you could just play the dialogue down through the wires and the lip sync operator sitting up in his booth would play the dialogue and theoretically the solenoid would open and close the puppet’s head as they were supposed to – that never worked. Invariably what happened was that the lip sync operator just toggled the switch to open and close the puppet’s mouth. The leather would always be getting creased or stuck, so the mouth wouldn’t open or close properly.”

Isn’t that another glorious paradox Captain Scarlet awards itself – managing to defeat a brutally destructive alien force without resorting to brute force themselves? Actually, it might not be, because I can think of one better. Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons’ comments on the tragic, hopeless reasoning for the gruesome, sinister mechanics of war is undeniably intoxicating topic for a children’ action adventure series. Given visual flourish thanks to a universe of impeccable models and miniatures, we love to see its dark nature unfold episode after episode. However, that darkness is ultimately underpinned by the apocalypse that the Spectrum v Mysteron war brings with it being wholly utopian. This perverse optimism serves Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons’ intoxication over its audiences well, it’s intrinsic to the series’ overall identity; a story of the stupidity of war and its grim fallout but maintaining a level of detachment from too disastrous a depiction of war so as to keep the younger audiences engaged. Fantasy without optimism doesn’t serve a mass audience of youngsters well, they want to see their heroes rise phoenix-like from the ashes of defeat and battle onwards toward their ultimate victory, which Captain Scarlet does eventually achieve.

If all our apocalypses could be as idealised in their depictions as the War of Nerves between Spectrum and the Mysterons, there’d be no problem, no real winners or losers, no casualties, no genuine fallout. It all adds to Captain Scarlet’s unique identity.

References

1 Dixon, W. (2003), The Tyranny of Images, p.2. Visions of the Apocalypse: Spectacles of Destruction in American Cinema.

2 Dixon, W. (2003), The Tyranny of Images, p.3. Visions of the Apocalypse: Spectacles of Destruction in American Cinema.

3 Bignell, J (2011). “Anything Can Happen in the Next Half-Hour”: Gerry Anderson’s Transnational Science Fiction, p.82. British Science Fiction Film and Television.

4 Cull, Nicholas J. (2006). The Man Who Made Thunderbirds: An Interview with Gerry Anderson, p.121. British Science Fiction Television: A Hitchhiker’s Guide.

5 Sontag, S. (2017). The Imagination of Disaster, p.196. Science Fiction Criticism: An Anthology of Essential Writings.


❉ ‘Spectrum is Indestructible’ (Chinbeard Books/Spiteful Puppet, £17.99) is a collector’s Limited Print Edition paperback available to order 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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