September 29, 2013

THE PRISONER & CAPTAIN SCARLET ANNIVERSARY

It was on this day in 1967 that two groundbreaking programs made their debut: Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner and Gerry Anderson's Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. If mystery/adventure of the early-to-mid-1960s captured the youthful energy of a new jet-setting generation, these two programs marked a growing sense of consequences and uncertainty for agents of the space-age.


McGoohan's Danger Man had been on the air since September, 1960. His stories often exposed the darker sacrifices deemed necessary to protect the common good. His John Drake, though slightly insubordinate, presented the image of a man who could recognize -but look beyond- the distasteful consequences of his job in order to carry out his duties. As a viewer, I felt this sense of distaste rose to a boiling point that finally exploded in his next project, The Prisoner (1967-1968). McGoohan's character in The Prisoner, now an unnamed spy, has resigned his job on a matter of principle. He has been kidnapped and placed in a remote village, where he undergoes constant psychological torture to determine why he resigned and whether he will spill his secrets. Capturing a later-60s mistrust of authority, he never knew if his torturers were the enemy or his own people (or indeed, his own mind). Known as Number 6 in the Village, McGoohan's spy established the theme of individual freedom at the beginning of each episode, proclaiming, "I am not a number. I am a free man." There was a 2010 mini-series based on The Prisoner, starring Ian McKellen. Although it didn't quite measure up to the original, the story did a good job bringing the "Village" concept up to date in the form of the complacent, consumeristic communities we see developing around globalization.


Gerry Anderson's Supermarionation programs, high-octane Sci-Spy adventures, had appealed to kids throughout the early 1960s. After establishing himself with inventive programs like Supercar, Fireball XL5, and Stingray, he found international success with Thunderbirds (1965-1966). The show had Anderson's familiar cocktail of futuristic gadgets and intrigue, but now featured blockbuster stories that focused on a network of global rescuers determined to keep the world safe. Like Bond's Thunderball, Thunderbirds was an ambitious large-scale effort by Anderson, which was followed by the inevitable later 1960s tendency to go deeper and darker.


Anderson's next project, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967-1968), began with a team of space explorers discovering a mysterious city of energy. They were excited and filled with wonder, as most Space-Age viewers would have been at the time. But the sense of dark consequences, which began to prevail during the Vietnam War and the Cold War, was destined to set the dramatic conflict for the entire series. In a single act of misunderstanding, the explorers mistook an innocent Mysteron gadget as a weapon and swiftly obliterated the city from the planet. As it turned out, the aliens could re-create any matter that has been destroyed. The city magically returned and the Mysterons vowed to take revenge on humanity for its cruel nature. The program was a much more violent affair. Even the hero, Captain Scarlet, began the series as an alien-constructed double agent assigned to assassinate the world's president. There was even a devastating suicide-bomber scene in the pilot. Once Scarlet was killed, he was able to regenerate and escape alien control. This established the arc of each episode, where the hero ultimately experienced a brutal death and resurrection. His colleague, Captain Black (below), remained a rogue killer-agent for the enemy. Children's programming? Dark times indeed!


If these two programs illustrated transitions in the popular imagination, the trend seemed to take an odd turn by the following year. In a visit to the 1968 Exhibit in Oakland, I was struck by the odd juxtaposition of truly violent historical experiences in the news, public anxiety and protest, and the strange effort of mainstream TV to create a lulling oasis with shows like Green Acres, Beverly Hillbillies, and I Dream of Jeanie. Filmmakers had more liberty to present subversive material, creating films like Easy Rider, The Monkees Head, and Night of the Living Dead. The Prisoner and Captain Scarlet illustrated a culture trying to cope with the circumstances of the times within a mainstream medium. Whether it was questioning freedom and individuality, or consequences and culpability, these programs stand the test of time because they weren't afraid to ask questions and to frame them in ways that evoked excitement and real empathy. Happy anniversary to The Prisoner and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons.


Get ready to meet MIKI ZERO, Japanese fashion model and spy! The creator of Spy Vibe has written a novel called Elevator Girl, inspired by his love of Ian Fleming and based on newly declassified intel from the Cold War. More info at Whiton's website here. Recent Spy Vibe posts: David Tennant's Ian Fleming audio books, Peter AsherGerry Marsden tour, Elio Petri on Blu-ray, Sophia Loren, new Beatles BBC album, new Hercule Poirot novel, Beatles fall 2013 releasesA Hard Days Night cinematographer diesMagic Christian on Blu-ray, Early Beatles image archive, Julie NewmarErno GoldfingerHitchcock tribute, Ian Fleming memorial, Emma Peel Megaset returns

Recent Ian Fleming posts on Spy Vibe: Erno GoldfingerIan Fleming Music Series links: Noel CowardWhispering Jack SmithHawaiian GuitarJoe Fingers Carr, new Ian Fleming CatalogJon Gilbert interview, Double 007 Designs, Bond audio book reissues, discovery of one of Ian Fleming's WWII Commandos, James Bond book coversIan Fleming's Playboy interview for Kindle, Spy Vibe's discovery of a rare Ian Fleming serialization, rare View to a Kill, Fleming's Royal gold typewriter, Ian Fleming's memorial address

2 comments:

  1. What a day that must have been for a television-viewing genre fan! In the States, it was a bit later before we had the chance to see either series.

    Given the coincidence in premiere airdates, it's interesting to note that three months after the final episode of The Prisoner, the final episode of Captain Scarlet turned out to be "The Inquisition" -- a story in which Captain Blue is sedated, abducted, and wakes up to find himself in a deserted Cloudbase, interrogated by Spectrum intelligence agents after a three month disappearance. The agents insist that Blue surrender confidential codes to prove his identity, but Blue refuses to give in to their demands and resolves to escape. It may be a coincidence but it's a remarkable coincidence, wouldn't you say?

    (Just the idea that Spectrum had its own "Internal Affairs" division and they were not at all nice struck the young me as more disturbing than the Mysterons...)

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  2. That's a really interesting observation, Richard! I'm not sure I've seen The Inquisition episode, so it's very interesting to put together, as you say, re: the timing with The Prisoner. I notice that the episode writer, Tony Barwick, later apparently wrote a spec script for Moonraker with Anderson that was rejected. Now I need to do a dbl feature of Prisoner and The Inquisition story. Thank you!

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