The Scarlet Files #2: Powers We Cannot Hope to Understand…

❉ In the second of our essays on Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, we looks at the series’ use of technology.

Advanced technology is the one thing that unites the Supermarionation television and film productions. Most of these supersonic fantasies are set during a relatively near future in which their respective worlds are moulded and adhere to wildly advanced technologies. Entire cities are now condensed within buildings, deserts are transformed into oceans to compensate the needs of ever-growing populations and man has conquered the moon. This is all thanks to the leaps made in technology. As these examples demonstrate, technology is routinely presented as a tool to advance the desires of the people and to accommodate vast growth in population. By that method, technology is therefore shown to be passive, objective, an assistant to the characters. However, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons evolves this method of technology as a tool to using technology as a way of symbolising good and evil.

In a series which basked in subverting the roles of heroes and villains, Captain Scarlet’s depiction of technology in showing us the difference between good and evil is rather clear-cut. Technology whose origin, mission and functionality is clear-cut is shown in a positive light, whilst technology that’s cryptic and capabilities aren’t known is deemed as negative.

The Heart of Spectrum

From individual local Spectrum HQs in ‘The Mysterons’ to our final appearance from the Spectrum Intelligence Agency in ‘The Inquisition’, Spectrum’s technological ideology is shown to be far more than just Cloudbase. Spectrum have a vice-like grip on the planet that they protect, with advanced resources everywhere. Their organisation comprises a vast array of technological masterpieces – the SPVs (which are scattered all across the globe) and the Angel jets are shown to be unparalleled strike vehicles, whilst Cloudbase itself is a wondrous feat of engineering. Spectrum are plugged into the world they defend, electrifying it with a militant attitude of defence. The outfit itself has little difficulty in shifting its focus to the Mysteron threat either when the War of Nerves begins, its technology shown to be more than adaptable in taking down Mysteron agents. More than this though, Spectrum’s encompassing nature is complimented by a desire to evolve. The construction of the Mysteron Gun and Mysteron Detector series that Spectrum are less of a security outfit and more of a living organism that adopts to its environment.

Conversely, the Mysterons’ approach to technology is shrouded in secrecy. Their ability to manipulate matter by destroying organic and artificial objects and then reanimating them is beyond anything Spectrum is capable of, and yet their abilities remain a mystery. Consider also how their locale compares to Cloudbase. Cloudbase is seen in every single episode of the series, even the fake Cloudbase in ‘The Inquisition’, the one episode in which the real Cloudbase doesn’t appear in, is presented as being an exact replica in every detail. The Mysteron city on Mars is only featured in the pilot episode. Both are presented as being technological utopias, Cloudbase’s control room housing a large, glass-like wall embedded with internal circuitry and the Mysteron City’s large, circular head that’s injected with an array of florescent tubes both allude to being inside some vast, mechanical brain. The key difference is that throughout the series, we traverse along the length and breadth of Cloudbase’s interiors, whereas this central hub is the only section of the Mysteron City we’re permitted visual access to.

Supersonic Centuries

Each sides’ respective attitude to technology can also be taken as a way of showing the split difference between the heroic Spectrum and the antagonistic Mysterons. Beyond Spectrum, the world of 2068 is abundant in technological advances. Disease and famine have become a distant memory with the wastelands of Argentina and subterranean lakes beneath the Sahara utilized to irrigate their land. Leaps in the medical world ensures that risks become reduced in brain surgery. Such socialist-minded advances to better the world are rooted in the utopian ideology of Thunderbirds. Every time an unsuspecting, snow-caked wooden hut or a run-down removal van collapses to reveal an SPV, it feels like technology of the past is falling apart to make way for the future. These components of 2068 are messaged to us via a mixture of models, miniatures and exposition. We’re both shown and told things about how advanced this world is to an extent where there’s little lingering questions over the origin and purpose of each tech-based wonder. These include the vehicle biographies found in the 1968 Captain Scarlet annual, which reveals that nearly all of Spectrum’s fleet of vehicles began life in the World Army Air/Force.

The emphasis placed on displaying the wonders of Spectrum’s technology is evident in the abundance of cross-section material that exists. Illustrations, presented as blueprints and cutaways, which reveal the secrets of Spectrum’s tech have been published since before Captain Scarlet made its TV premier with cutaways of Angel Interceptors first appearing in TV21. Since then, both Captain Scarlet annuals from 1967 and 1968 feature full-page spreads that reveal the inner machinations of SPVs, Cloudbase, and more of Spectrum’s star fleet, all boasting a straight-faced, militant appeal, as if they really could be files from some top secret Spectrum report. Those annuals may now only be available through online auction sites, but the demand to see inside Spectrum’s world has rarely run dry. Publications such as Captain Scarlet: Spectrum Agents Manual, Supermarionation Cross Sections and Inside the Worlds of Gerry Anderson takes this franchise’s adoration for exploring its vehicles own workings to breathless heights of visual splendour. Perhaps it’s not just the fact that these cutaways exist, but the sheer volume of these publications adds to the notion that no stone is left unturned for the technology of the protagonists. This pristine world didn’t go unnoticed by Captain Scarlet’s writers. Shane Rimmer recalls the technologically perfected world of Scarlet with great fondness: “Not many series of this genre have covered the space world with such imagination and brilliant entertainment.”

Aside from these visual enhancements, verbal excursions into reiterating the technological stance of both heroic Spectrum and the villainous Mysterons are embedded with the series. Episodes such as ‘Fire at Rig 15’, ‘Big Ben Strikes Again’ and ‘Noose of Ice’ construct their action-focused plots using blocks of exposition that introduces whatever technological wonder is unknowingly about to be overtaken by the Mysterons, in each of those episodes cases; a highly advanced oil rig and a nuclear device for civil use. ‘Noose of Ice’ is a more extreme example, since large chunks of exposition are focused on announcing the construction of a forthcoming fleet of advanced space vehicles and the unique drilling methods used to acquire the fuel which will propel these craft.

The Mysterons possess equal wonder in delivering their approach to technology, but once again mystique is preserved. Their Mars-based city appears without warning or explanation. Whenever spin-off media did attempt to elaborate on the origin of the Mysterons, it’s done so as sparsely as possible so as to maintain a level of the unknown. The Mysterons’ biography in the 1967 Captain Scarlet annual is kept deliberately vague. Cross-sections of the Mysteron Complex have been produced over the years, found in annuals and comics, but most recently in the Spectrum Agents Manual. However, as if to add to the mystique that surrounds the Mysterons and their handling of technology, it’s the Mysterons’ moon-based complex that’s granted a cutaway, but not the Mars complex itself.

Other spin-off media take a similarly liberal approach in showing other shades of the Mysterons’ world, but avoiding the threat of revealing their genesis. TV Tornado’s The Mysterons comic strip introduced the Mysteron Controller, a colossal sentient computer who holds an undisclosed level of authority over the computerised race. Its genesis is left a mystery, but its importance is better handled, as the Mysteron Controller would evolve from TV Tornado into Captain Scarlet’s adventures in TV21 itself. Only when Captain Scarlet himself is forced to encounter the Mysteron Controller in TV21 do we get a sense of scale of this cryptic entity. The Controller is shown to be a gargantuan contraption, its enormous size, glittering control panels and viper-like aerial lending it a distinct and menacing visual identity.

Renegade Utopia

These two worlds maintain an uneven balance throughout the course of the series. Spectrum are often able to save the day, but it’s not without a few lapses into defeat via the Mysterons. Captain Scarlet, the hero of the series, can be interpreted as a representation of the worlds of Spectrum and the Mysterons colliding together into an unnatural unison. Let’s make it clear, however, which Captain Scarlet it is that we’re referring to – it’s not the original human incarnation of Paul Metcalfe that we’re treated to so briefly, but rather the Mysteron replica that houses the original’s personality and memories within. It’s this artificial recreation of Paul Metcalfe that balances the heroic and antagonistic elements of technology portrayed by Spectrum and the Mysterons. He represents the heroic factors of this series’ approach to technology by being aware, accepting and above all else, confident in his indestructible powers. However, he embodies the antagonistic factors by not fully knowing everything there is to know about those powers. Paul may well be remarkably confident in being able to return from the dead, but he has no idea how these powers function.

This is brought to life in ‘Winged Assassin’, the closest we ever get to any exploration of Paul’s newfound capabilities. Rather than expanding on what we know, that episode instead confirms what we don’t know about indestructibility, as cemented by Colonel White himself – “Captain Scarlet, the tremendous implications of all this may not yet be fully understood…” Indeed, it never becomes fully understood. Not even the ever-resourceful TV21 can provide answers, which illuminated the Mysterons’ technological identity further than the TV series by capturing the Mysteron Controller from TV Tornado, but felt it unnecessary to divulge Captain Scarlet’s immortal capabilities any further than the TV series did. Much like the Mysterons, it’s left a mystery for audiences to ponder over. Ultimately, Captain Scarlet’s infinite ability to reinvent himself shows how the two alternating perspectives on technology are forced to exist together.

However, it’s hardly culpable of Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons to not make time for this exploration alone. Many aspects of the series’ mythology come and go with little reference or consequence from episode to episode. Even when reinventing Captain Scarlet into New Captain Scarlet, Gerry Anderson himself reiterated how this programme was a series designed to showcase exciting, action-propelled stories. In an interview with TV Zone in July 2004, when pressed if New Captain Scarlet would divulge into the personal lives of its heroes, Gerry responded with “We’re making half-hour broadcast slots, and if you take off the front and end titles, it’s 21 minutes, in which we tell, in my view, wonderful action stories, and there’s not a great deal of time to go into their personal lives.”1 Anderson may well have been discussing a separate incarnation of the series entirely, but such logic illustrates why such aspects remained a mystery, despite a separation of nearly half a century.

It’s worth remembering that these things work in tandems. In this case, what comes off as lazy script-writing simultaneously offers itself to audience involvement. Such is the languid attitude Captain Scarlet, both the series and character, has in trying to unravel the character’s capabilities more that audiences are free to indulge in their own opinions on the matter.

There’s also a third form of technology represented throughout the series that we touched upon briefly, but is vital to allowing Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons’ episodic adventures to flourish – civilian tech. Rebecca Feasey describes Captain Scarlet as a programme that exploits the fears of 1960s America by presenting “the potentially negative impact of new technologies.”2 It’s difficult to ascertain which breed of tech she’s specifically referring to, but given the Mysterons’ adoration of manipulating man-made inventions, vehicles, and mechanics for their own end, it’s safe to link her arguments with that of how the civilians in Captain Scarlet hold on to their own tech. Oddly, the Mysterons rarely launch offensives on Spectrum’s own technology. The Angel craft being replicated into tools of war in ‘Seek and Destroy’ is followed up in ‘Fire at Rig 15’, in which the Mysterons aim at the very heart of what sustains Spectrum’s tech, their fuel source. These two would be the most immediate examples of the Mysterons choosing Spectrum’s tech over the civilian’s, otherwise it’s taking advantage of the wonders of the world of 2068.

What can’t be interpreted as languid is just how much emphasis is placed on the mechanised nature of Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. We’re presented with a future that, as Mike Trim describes, was presented as being futuristic yet recognisable for the audience; “Both Derek’s and my own default design style was a ‘near future’ one that built upon and stretched the technology of the day, and they sat quite happily alongside one another.” Once that realism is recognised, the dam bursts, and the sheer abundance of technology on display links up with its respective representations from both the protagonists and antagonists alike, both utilising what’s before them to their action-packed advantage. These action-packed tales, as Anderson describes, can’t be action-packed without the technology before both Spectrum and the Mysterons to use and abuse. Using technology liberally as a tool used in equal measure by hero and villain elevates Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons above its Supermarionation predecessors.

References

1 Anderson, G. (2004). Gerry Anderson’s Trip to Mars, p.47. TV Zone Special #57.

2 Feasy, R. (2008). Science Fiction and Fantasy Television: Challenging Dominant Gender Roles, p.57. Masculinity and Popular Television.


❉ ‘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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