September 30, 2012


It was forty-five years ago on September 29th, 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 deepening sense of consequences and darkness for the space-age agent.

McGoohan's Danger Man had been on the air since September 11, 1960. His stories often exposed a sense of the sacrifices needed to help 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 that this sense of distaste rose to a boiling point that finally exploded in The Prisoner (1967-1968). His character, a now unnamed spy, resigns as a matter of principle. He is then kidnapped and placed in the Village, where he undergoes constant psychological torture. And in this later-60s perspective of doubt, he never knows if his torturers are the enemy or his own people. In celebration of this 45th anniversary, Network is having a Prisoner sale on DVDs, Blu-ray, and soundtracks until Monday afternoon. 

Gerry Anderson's Supermarionation programs, high-octane cocktails of Sci-Spy thrills, had appealed to kids throughout the 1960s. His greatest international success came with Thunderbirds, which ran from 1965-1966. The show had his familiar mixture of futuristic gadgets and intrigue, but now presented in a blockbuster package. The stories were also wider in scope, now focusing on a network of global rescuers determined to keep the world safe.

Anderson's next project, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967-1968), begins with a team of space explorers discovering a mysterious city of energy. They are excited and filled with wonder, as most viewers would have been as the Space Race progressed. The sense of consequences and darkness, that also began to prevail with the escalation of the Vietnam War and the Cold War, set the dramatic conflict for the series. In a single act of misunderstanding, the explorers mistake an innocent Mysteron gadget as a weapon and swiftly obliterate the city. As it turns out, the aliens can re-create any matter that has been destroyed. The city returns and the Mysterons vow to take revenge on humanity for its cruel and violent nature. Even Captain Scarlet himself begins the series as an alien-constructed double agent assigned to assassinate the world's president (there is even a devastating suicide-bomber scene). Once he is killed, he is able to regenerate and escape the alien control. Thus established the arc of each episode, where the hero ultimately met a brutal death and resurrection. His colleague, Captain Black (below), remained a rogue killer-agent for the enemy. Children's programming? Dark indeed!

If these two programs illustrated transitions in the popular imagination, the trend seemed to see an odd turn by the following year. In a recent 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 from the chaos. By nature, filmmakers have had more liberty to present subversive programming, which is illustrated by the new wave of young directors and writers who were given a chance to create films like Easy Rider, The Monkees Head, and Night of the Living Dead. Without losing their power as main characters, I think what figures like The Prisoner and Captain Scarlet showed us is a society trying to cope with the circumstances of the times within a mainstream medium. Whether it was questioning freedom and individuality, consequences and culpability, maybe these programs, especially The Prisoner, stand the test of time because they weren't afraid to ask the questions and to frame them in ways that evoked excitement and empathy. Prisoner images from DVDBeaver.

Check out our recent posts, including Neil Armstrong: One Last StepCelebrating 450,000 visitorsInterview with Playboy Bunny Deana, and our series, For Your Shelf Only, where guests share stories about collecting and show us some of their treasures. Series links: Jon GilbertRaymond BensonJeremy DunsPeter LorenzDavid FosterRob MallowsRoger LangleyCraig ArthurFleming ShortMatt Sherman. Check out my books Counting Sheep and Mort Walker Conversations

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