Gerry Anderson is a man with big ideas. He wanted to produce TV and film projects with stunning special effects and big stories that operated on a grand scale while maintaining the human element. Frustrated with the high cost of such production, he developed a new way to make TV programs that became dubbed as ‘Supermarionation.’ TV Programs were dynamic and larger than life, even though the characters in them were miniature. As a child of the Carter administration, I saw my share of Gerry Anderson productions on syndicated TV including his most famous series, Thunderbirds. Recently I’ve been delving deeper into the world of Gerry Anderson only to discover that he had created not only a new way to make TV and film projects, but Supermarionation is an entirely new genre of its own.
I recently purchased what could be called a Gerry Anderson sampler, containing a few episodes of Stingray, Captain Scarlet and Joe 90. All three are excellent series. In the coming weeks, I’ll review each one giving those unfamiliar with these gems some insight to their greatness. There is a massive fanbase for these programs, so let me stress to those of Fanderson fame that I am not an expert, just a happy newcomer.
Smaller than the puppets used in previous Gerry Anderson productions such as Thunderbirds and Stingray, the Joe 90 marionettes contain smaller solenoids used to transmit the signals sent by operators causing eyes and mouths to move. This allowed the puppets to be more detailed than ever before, both a good and bad thing as far as the puppeteers were concerned as this made every unnatural movement glaringly obvious. Both in content and in execution, Joe 90 is yet another advancement in the fine skill of Gerry Anderson’s team as they develop their genre to new heights.
In 1968, with the recent success of Captain Scarlet behind him, Gerry Anderson mounted production on his next endeavor, Joe 90. Centering on the adventures of a 9 year-old, I expected Joe 90 to be my least favorite of the trio of programs… boy was I surprised. While the pilot episode is a bit heavy on exposition, the following stories are all action. Set in the distant future of 2012, Joe 90 follows the adventures of inventor Professor ian McClaine (nicknamed Mac) and his son Joe. In the opening episode, Mac is showing off his latest invention to Sam Loover of W.I.N. (World Intelligence Network), BIG RAT, (Brain Impulse Galvanoscope Record And Transfer) which can transfer brain patterns from one subject to another.
Joe 90 ‘The Birthday’
Mac’s son Joe is the guinea pig for BIG RAT and soon enough he becomes the ideal subject for its use. In one story, the brain patterns of a jet pilot are recorded and by wearing a special pair of eye glasses, Joe can retain these skills, allowing him to steal a highly advanced jet fighter from behind the Iron Curtain.
Carrying what appears to be a simple school boy’s kit, Joe is armed with a custom-made hand gun (capable of firing 200 rounds without reloading… presumably because he has the aim of a 9 year old boy and needs all the bullets he can get), a global transmitter and badge providing him with the authority of a very special agent of W.I.N.
Stories are more like James Bond films than children’s entertainment, with the brave and stoic Joe 90 taking the place of the martini sipping bachelor. The puppets may be smaller, but the action is big big BIG. Boats explode, grenades are hurled at unsuspecting mobsters and cars careen out of control. As for the program being too intense for children, I can understand the concern. More importantly, it just sets the bar too high for producers of other kids’ shows. After a child had been exposed to a Gerry Anderson program, what could possibly top it?
Much like Captain Scarlet before it, Joe 90 is all action… only this one has a 9 year old boy in the center of each situation rather than the indestructible Captain Scarlet! This caused some concern when the show was aired, resulting in a preamble declaring that without the special eyeglasses, Joe 90 is just a boy, with them, he is a highly specialized expert. In the 1990’s when the program was aired on the BBC, it was heavily butchered in order to remove any of the violence surrounding the young puppet. I can only imagine how much the program suffered from these cuts.
Interest blossomed in 2003 as studios, looking for good ideas that can be remade into (often bad) movies, eagerly eyed Joe 90 as material ripe for a remake. After the dud that was Thunderbirds failed to maker bank at the box office, this ideas was scrapped.
If you are a fan of Supermarionation and have not watched this series, I highly recommend it.
I also strongly recommend Bigrat.co.uk as a superb resource on all things Joe 90.