❉ Who Started the Shockwave? The latest in our series of essays on specific themes found in Captain Scarlet.
Like the Supermarionation series that would come before and after, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons is a series that presented a (mostly) clear cut of good versus evil, but what lingers in the mind when watching the series is the question of who exactly are the protagonists and who are the antagonists? Inevitably, the Earthmen are presented as being the heroes whilst the faraway, invisible aliens are the villains, but the entire crux of the series rests on the fact that one initiates the other into action. Resting on this strange bed then, morality is presented as something that’s more flexible for Spectrum and less so for the Mysterons. Whilst both parties appear to forge they’re own definitions of right and wrong, their own ideologies often clash with their respective roles, blurring the lines between good and evil throughout the series.
On the Trigger
Spectrum is presented as being duty-bound to defend the Earth from the Mysterons, an act that propels its characters to achieve some semblance of resolve in the War of Nerves, whether it’s through force or reasoning with the Mysterons. This is galvanised by Spectrum’s military-esque persona. It’s an organisation built on hierarchy, with a singular Colonel leading a small army of Captains and Lieutenants. However, this mentality is rooted more in following the Supermarionation tradition of chain of command, with Fireball XL5 and Stingray both featuring a military-like commanding figure who led the charge. Even the family-run enterprises seen in Thunderbirds and Joe 90 had their commander in the form of a father figure. Reflectively, the Mysterons’ morals lie in being resolute in their punishment of Spectrum for their unprovoked attack. The idea of subversion comes from their respective reasons for having such morals, since it was Spectrum who plunged themselves into this War of Nerves, whilst what little we see of the Mysterons prior to Captain Black’s attack suggests they bore a pacifist nature.
Indeed, the 1967 Captain Scarlet annual will have you believe the Mysterons have been in existence for thousands of years, but only through Captain Black’s Mars-based expedition do we first discover them, implying they have remained deliberately obscure, hiding in plain sight, preferring not to engage with any hostility whatsoever. It stands at odds with the imperialist world of Captain Scarlet, where Spectrum’s militant nature is emphasised by the vast levels of army-based professionals, including the Supreme Commander of Earth’s Forces, or technological outposts, such as Base Concorde and the Frost Line Outer Space Defence System, something Mark Bould points out in that the series “inevitably sided with a global military.”1 Seven of Captain Scarlet’s 32 episodes deal with overt military themes, either as the episode’s focus or a backdrop.
This rather bitter aftertaste is counteracted in the harmonious, transnational government appeal of Spectrum, something that Jonathan Bignall describes as supporting the idea that Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons showed that “American isolationism or exceptionalism had been replaced by participation in a world government.”2 Despite being rarely addressed in the series itself, Spectrum is shown to be an extension of a unified world authority, evident in global commanders such as World President, Triumvirate of Europe and the Director General of the United Asian Republic. The World Air Force from ‘The Trap’ seems to encapsulate this clash of ideals, with the ‘World’ element conjuring up a frictionless relationship, whilst ‘Force’ implies attack. This sense of unity masks the underlying threat the world continually seems ready for, the Mysterons’ very presence justifying these war-ready morals.
The Mysterons themselves displayed a tendency to rely less on direct, tangible means of destruction and shift towards more subtle methods of planting seeds of doubt within Spectrum, causing internal strife and having their own moral compass to shift. ‘Traitor’ and ‘The Inquisition’ see the Mysterons warn Spectrum of a rogue agent within their own confines, but ‘White as Snow’ shows that tension bubble over the surface, an odd feat of accomplishment, given that the target of the episode isn’t to cause rifts within Spectrum, but simply an assassination on Colonel White. A Mysteronised communications satellite begins a collision course on Cloudbase, but its retrometabolised nature is unknown to Cloudbase’s inhabitants. Captain Scarlet’s routine obedience in preserving life is itself locked onto a collision course with Colonel White’s mentality to protect Cloudbase, no matter the threat. By the episode’s end however, Scarlet reaffirms both his own moral compass and his disdain for White’s authoritative stance by sneaking on board the submarine and saving his life from a Mysteron intruder.
Inevitably, despite these more abstract reasoning behind both side’s approach to morality, the series assists itself in defining Spectrum as the good guys by spending far more screen time with them than the Mysterons. Through siding with Spectrum, we’re situated within the protagonist’s world far more than the antagonist’s. The result of this prolonged exposure is more explorations into the consequences of what would happen if the Mysterons were to achieve their goal of destruction. Episodes such as ‘Model Spy’, ‘Winged Assassin’ and ‘Codename Europa’ feature human targets, a mixture of political figures and spy commanders. As such, these episodes go to great pains to explain the civilian chaos that would ensue if these various figures fall victim to the Mysterons. Such exposure masks Spectrum’s own faults for this war, reaffirming their position as the protagonists. We can’t say for sure what the fallout of attacks on the Mysterons would be, simply because we aren’t exposed to them as often as Spectrum.
Unleashing a Force
‘The Mysterons’ is the only episode where we bear witness to the Mysterons’ interior world itself, compared to the numerous episodes we spend exploring the Earth of 2068. Technological and medical innovation, nuclear reactors, spectacular military outposts. But Mars? Forget it. Unintentionally reflecting this sense of detachment from the Mysterons, and with it understanding their reasoning, the only other times we come close to exploring the Mysterons’ world is between ‘Lunarville 7’ and ‘Crater 101’, in which Captain Scarlet, Captain Blue and Lieutenant Green discover a new Mysteron complex being constructed on the moon. The complex itself is in a state of construction, meaning that when they explore it, they’re not greeted by any disembodied voice. They’re simply travelling through a shell, no thought or conscious, and thus no gateway into any insight into the Mysterons’ personality.
What spirals out of this detachment, the sole constant element of the Mysterons, is their apparent lack of any moral conflict when it comes to slaughtering innocent bystanders and replicating them to become Mysteron agents. A perverse pleasure in this is the fact that the Mysterons have no qualms about the qualifications that person has in order to carry out their plans. ‘Codename Europa’s Doctor Gabriel has the tools for the job, but in general there’s a perverse pleasure in how the Mysterons’ methods of execution is rather socialist. They’ll kill anyone, either a garage worker in ‘Special Assignment’ to a controller of moon-based habitation in ‘Lunarville 7’, they may have no shame in the abundance of human beings they slaughter, but they would appear to have no prejudices in their choices either. There’s something oddly commendable about that. As Wheeler Winston Dixon elaborates, “we are all equal in death.”3
Despite Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons finishing its broadcast run in 1968, further incarnations of the series would go on to give the Mysterons some semblance of morals reflective of Spectrum’s. The 1986 compilation film Captain Scarlet Versus the Mysterons did much to give the Mysterons a sense of empathy towards Spectrum. The nightmare scenario experienced by Symphony Angel involving the Mysterons destroying Cloudbase is rectified to not be a dream but in fact genuinely happened. In the aftermath of the attack, a decision made by a group dubbed the Mysteron High Council chooses to reverse the flow of time to rebuild Cloudbase and its crew. A twinge of moral outburst, as if the Mysterons are disgusted by their own actions.
This move to make the Mysterons appear less ruthless and share a desire to preserve life, akin to Spectrum’s own endeavours, hasn’t since met well with fans of the series. It’s the original episode, the one that gleefully depicts the Mysterons at the peak of their bloodthirsty decimation on life, that remains the original incarnation.
Morality then is shown to be flexible for the side we’re ordered to root for, whilst being steadfast and unflinching for the villains. One would think that Spectrum should be the ones with the unshakable morals, but a key factor in the mess they’ve produced is their apparent inability to reach peaceful debate with the Mysterons, something Colonel White says in ‘Dangerous Rendezvous’, without antagonising the Mysterons still further through routine destruction of their agents and plans. That mixture of aggression and objectivity, instilled into one party, makes Spectrum a frustrating side to root for, whilst the Mysterons’ more clear-cut reasoning makes them an easier side to understand and empathise with.
1 Bould, M. (2003). Film and Television, p.91. The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction.
2 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.
3 Dixon, W. (2003), The Tyranny of Images, p.3. Visions of the Apocalypse: Spectacles of Destruction in American Cinema.
❉ ‘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 PopMatters, WhatCulture, 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.