The Scarlet Files #4: Breaking Down the Shadows of Fear

Meta-Paranoia of Captain Scarlet: The conclusion of our a series of essays exploring themes found in Gerry Anderson’s series.

If there was ever a children’s science fiction drama that encased itself in a state of feverish paranoia, it’s Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. Its merciless spy-fi attitudes are apparent enough in the guise of agents either posing as colours of the rainbow or posing as everyday civilians but are in fact destructive alien agents in disguise. This schizophrenic world delivers its paranoia in spades with each episode, as Spectrum uncover Mysteron agents, ousting them from their artificial habitat and dealt with accordingly, usually involving a potent mixture of gunshots and explosions.  A minor revelation in Captain Scarlet’s mythology then is what exactly happens when Spectrum AREN’T fighting the Mysterons? Century 21 Publishing’s spin-off media for Captain Scarlet, specifically TV21, dropped many hints that a network of Mysteron agents is established on Earth, another reflection of the series’ tendencies to mirror Cold War iconography of agents on alert on both sides.

Wouldn’t this then lead to natural feelings of paranoia for the inhabitants of this world? Living in a world in which the man sitting next to you in your Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle could be a Mysteron is surely a torturous way to live. Despite lacking substantial character growth for its heroes and villains, a sense of progression could still be felt throughout Captain Scarlet. From the series’ earliest moments, it’s keen to engrain on its young viewers the idea that paranoia can be as powerful a weapon as a Mysteron Gun. As Andrew Thomas says, “…Captain Scarlet asks, what if through our paranoia, fear and ignorance we mistake a genuine move towards peace… as a hostile act?”1

In the Hands of the Mysterons

In earlier episodes, the Spectrum men aren’t shy in revealing some inner paranoia given the early stages of their unexpected war against the Mysterons, such as Scarlet’s weary reaction to the Mysteron gas attendant in ‘Manhunt’ who’s over-eagerness in letting he and Blue have their SPV arouses Scarlet’s suspicions. Likewise for Captain Blue, Colonel Storm from “Point 783”, his Mysteronised eyes gleaming as he escorts the Supreme Commander Earth Forces to view the Unitron tank, dismisses Blue’s protests at letting the Commander out of his sight.

As the series developed however, paranoia remains a resilient theme throughout the thirty-two episodes of the series, and yet its presence amongst our heroes becomes diluted. Ingenious devices such as the Mysteron Detector become standard arsenal for a Spectrum officer and the continued tactics of the Mysterons gave Spectrum something of a warning as they become more clued into the patterns of how Mysteron agents operate. The end result is that those paranoid thoughts experienced by Scarlet and Blue early on fade out into nothing as the Mysterons’ methods become second nature to Spectrum’s agents, often deduced in an instant as bearing that recognisable Mysteron scent.

Why then bother retaining this unnerving sense of paranoia throughout Captain Scarlet’s run? Why continue to envelop our heroes with the unnerving sense that any disaster could erupt right before their eyes if they become neutered to it? From the direction’s slow, oppressive atmosphere to the soundtrack’s delicate yet dreading tension, the series delights in moulding a quiet sense of terror, even when our heroes become immune to such feelings as the series continued over time. Therein lies the answers perhaps. The fact that we, the audience, see this encroaching atmosphere bubble to the surface, propelling the notion that this is a world not to be trusted and what we see is not what it appears, suggests that this paranoia is not subjected to the Spectrum men. It’s subjected to us, the audience.

We not only share in Captain Scarlet, Blue and Lieutenant Green’s voyeuristic perspective of the Mysteron complex on the Moon in ‘Lunarville 7’, we see more than we do. The bulk of our view is from the ridge where they stop the Moonmobile. Here we witness the throbbing, pulse-like construction site of the Mysteron complex, but we, the audience, also bear witness to a mid-shot of the vehicles on the ground, calmly at work. It’s a much clearer view than the one from the ridge, no neon-coated fog distorting our vision. It’s a miniscule moment, but it’s a moment we see, not the Spectrum trio. In this one additional shot, we’re allowed a greater level of freedom to acknowledge the severity of this moment more than Scarlet, Blue or Green. How far is this Mysteron complex in its construction? Where did these grotesque, alien vehicles come from? Who’s controlling them? We share the same questions that Paul and company would, but our perspective is richer and fuller in its uncertainty than theirs.

Scattered throughout Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons are instances where the audience is invited to latch onto their paranoid thoughts more than the characters themselves. What became of Lieutenant Dean and his colleague after Captain Black’s takeover by the Mysterons? Audio adventure ‘Introducing Captain Scarlet’ confirms that only Captain Black himself arrived back on Earth. Might Scarlet ever consider the fact that he’s trapped within an artificial, alien replica of his original form, and that the original, human Scarlet is still probably locked away at Spectrum New York? These are questions addressed, but never answered in the series, allowing that sweet, sweet paranoia to spill forth from the television screen and swim into our very own minds.

The Mysterons themselves are lesser contenders for feelings of paranoia. Their mechanical, computerised state hints at their constant attacks on Earth being triggered by a simple act of survival. Prior to his welcoming into the Mysteron way of life, Captain Black’s own frantic reaction to the Mysteron Complex on Mars is a more obvious encapsulation of Captain Scarlet’s depiction of paranoia. His finger on the trigger defines the mental instability that unleashes the War of Nerves.

Audiences Strikes Back

All of this spewing paranoia boasts a functionality as well, a genuine reason for existing – to engross the audience as deeply within this haunted, disturbed world as possible. There’s logic behind why Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons has managed to stick in our minds and hearts for half a century, despite its characters bearing next to no tangible arcs or development for us to engage with. Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons invites us to connect with it in different ways, the chief one being the level of unease it builds in its depiction of us versus them – after all, who exactly is ‘us’ and ‘them’ when the Mysterons thrill in blurring those lines? Not knowing that answer is the key that ignites the series, and something that Gerry himself was keen to exploit; “The idea of not knowing who your enemy was intrigued me. As frightening as it may be, it’s not as frightening as when you don’t know who the enemy is.”2

It achieves this unease by immersing us within the battles between Spectrum and the Mysterons. Much like how that unique shot from ‘Lunarville 7’ places us firmly within Spectrum’s perspective, consider all those other subtle moments in which Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons dispenses with the fictional world and plants us firmly in the perspective of both hero and villain. The first people to bear witness to Captain Scarlet’s Mysteronised return from the grave after his and Captain Brown’s initial execution is us – akin to ‘Lunarville 7’, we’re treated to a voyeuristic shot of Scarlet’s body being dragged through a cluster of foliage and Spectrum Saloon Car wreckage before slowly panning up to reveal the Mysteron incarnation of our hero.

Other episodes follow suit with this immersion – Macey helplessly seeing the Mysterons set the bomb in his truck from “Big Ben Strikes Again”, Symphony’s radiation poisoning in “Manhunt”, Soames’ hunt for Colonel White’s cabin in “White as Snow”, the Mysteronised Angel aircraft that shoots down Melody’s jet from “Seek and Destroy”, Dr. Breg’s Mysteronised death through his telescope from “Shadow of Fear”. Consider also that all these scenes are executed in a tightly compact close-up, as if we can’t escape what we’re seeing – Mysteron agents, Mysteron deaths, they’re presented with terror and fraught yet also unavoidable. Such a tactic makes Captain Scarlet’s take on paranoia all the more robust; planting us in the heart of the moment makes the severity of the latest Mysteron threat all the more tangible, will we or won’t we get out of this one alive?

‘Traitor’ and ‘Attack on Cloudbase’ represents the series’ peak level of paranoia slipping into its characters. Symphony’s heat-induced visions of an apocalyptic nightmare involving Cloudbase’s destruction may have its roots in giving Captain Scarlet a requisite clip episode (like so many other Gerry Anderson series before and after Captain Scarlet), but it represents something more. Symphony’s nightmare of the Mysterons unleashing their full fury feels as though her paranoia, hitherto secluded to the back of her mind like her Spectrum colleagues, has now burst through her subconscious. Likewise in ‘Traitor’, Spectrum Koala Base member Mason’s speculation over Scarlet’s lingering connection to the Mysterons, not just in indestructible prowess, but in an evil mentality, is the kind of speculation everyone else ought to be asking back on Cloudbase. In true paranoid fashion, nowhere in the episode does Scarlet offer any one-to-one reassurance to Mason of his humane intentions in his allegiance to Spectrum. As the credits role, Mason is left none the wiser over the Mysteron mystery that surrounds Captain Scarlet.

Paranoia is felt across other forms of Captain Scarlet media too. The comic strip The Mark of the Mysterons Solo, with its speculative, fear-mongering headlines of mystery attacks being carried out across the globe and eventual declaration of Solo being the only paper bold enough to report on Mysteron activity, takes Captain Scarlet’s brand of paranoia to its extremes. More of Captain Scarlet’s adventures in comic books took paranoia as a precise theme to enact their individual stories. The TV21 story-arc ‘Secret Mission’ (#158-#160) depicts the Mysterons whipping up the reclusive, antagonistic state of Bereznik into a war-ready frenzy by making them believe Captain Scarlet is responsible for triggering civil war. The later comic strip ‘Campaign of Fear’ (#213-#214) saw the Mysterons spread untrue news of assassinations to lure Spectrum into a false sense of complacency.

Captain Scarlet’s confidence in being able to make you feel the rippling tensions of the War of Nerves is very tip-of-the-hat worthy. It’s something that can be attributed to the series’ various writers and directors, who were responsible for crafting these scenes in the first place. Perhaps specifically, we can thank Desmond Saudners for this immersive paranoia. Despite only directing the first episode of the series, his overall role was that of supervising director, meaning that it was his job to make each episode as convincing in its visual execution as possible.

Throughout Spectrum is Indestructible, I explore the constant hallmarks of paradoxes that Captain Scarlet tangles itself up in. From the awkwardly-resolved aspect of Spectrum’s curious readiness for a war they were never intended for to the idea that Captain Scarlet maintains a hopelessly utopian feel to its own sense of the apocalypse, we appear to have gained yet another enjoyable paradox for the series to wrap itself up in – isn’t it downright weird that one of Captain Scarlet’s most confidently-execute aspect is the theme of paranoia?

Such a bespoke approach to this theme gives Captain Scarlet a very flavoursome tangibility, galvanised by a world inhabited by miniatures, models and marionettes. If these three elements were the pastry-equivalent of this series, then paranoia is surely its icing. Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons does everything

References

1 Thomas, A. (1990). Captain Indestructible!, p25. Dreamwatch.

2 Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. DVD commentary.


❉ ‘Spectrum is Indestructible’ (Chinbeard Books/Spiteful Puppet, £17.99) Copyright 2019 © Spiteful Puppet Entertainment Ltd.

❉  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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