It's the marvel of the age!
Let's face it: it's about time to give monkeys their due. No, we don't owe them any monetary compensation or some manner of subhuman bill of rights. Indeed, what a macaque would do with the privilege of free assembly or line item veto power is anyone's guess. No, what we need to do is stand tall, with pride in our hearts and poo in our hands, and acknowledge a massive entertainment debt to our non-naturally selected brethren. You see, for years now, apes and chimps have been saving all manner of motion picture and televisual amusement from being totally dull, derivative dreck (you can put the poo down, now. Thanks). When a fall needed to be pratted or a stick needed to be slapped, a willing marmoset or carefree capuchin would oppose their thumbs, prehensile that tail (if indeed one was owned), and add just the right amount of primate perfection to the comic moment. But it wasn't always with dignity intact. Sometimes they were demeaned, forced to wear disgraceful human clothes, imitate irritating people poses, or act with Clint Eastwood. From the degrading go-go of the organ grinder's sidekick to Lance Link's lockjaw lunacy, it has not always been a noble road for our admirable ancestor. Every once in a while though, an ape was allowed to stretch, to move beyond the tick picking jester he or she had been pigeonholed into and offered the chance to stretch as an animal actor. Movies like Link and Phenomena allowed the simian thespian the dark, moody, non-masturbation oriented roles they so desperately sought. But it was a puppet show, of all things, that gave the world the greatest monkey role and monkey performer of all time. Watching all 39 episodes of the 1960-62 British kid's program Supercar on the recently released DVD box set, you come away with one inescapable conclusion. If it weren't for Mitch and his manic ape antics, the members of the Supercar team would have been dead a thousand times over. And only half as entertaining.
Facts of the Case
Supercar is the name of the experimental vehicle manned by the crew of the top-secret Black Rock Laboratories in Nevada. The team consists of the following members:
• Mike Mercury, the cocky, self-assured test pilot. Quick with a
quip and so square jawed that he actually dreams about his supersonic flying
automobile, his heroics help keep the Supercar staff safe and sound.
Since every protagonist must have his arch nemesis, Mike Mercury and the Supercar crew—when they're not battling foreign governments or weird one-off criminals—always seem to be fighting these four fiends:
• Masterspy: this apparently Russian adversary is part Boris
Badinoff, several sizes of Sydney Greenstreet, and all wickedness. His ultimate
goal? To own Supercar. Oh yeah, and rule the world, if that happens too. There
is not an evil enterprise this portly provocateur hasn't tried.
There are 39 episodes on this DVD box set, representing Supercar's entire series run. For a plot description of each show, we go directly to the write-up on the DVD covers (with some slight paraphrasing):
"Rescue": Supercar's first flight rescues Jimmy and Mitch, whose plane has crashed in the sea.
"Amazonian Adventure": Mike and Dr. Beaker are captured by a tribe of headhunters.
"Talisman of Sargon": The evil Masterspy plots to steal a magical ancient jewel.
"False Alarm": Masterspy and his assistant Zarin are foiled in their attempt to steal Supercar.
"What Goes Up": Supercar blows up a wayward Air Force balloon carrying dangerous fuel.
"Keep It Cool": Supercar's new fuel needs refrigeration, a fact Masterspy ignores when he steals it.
"Grounded": Supercar is sabotaged and forced to take to the road to catch a thief.
"Jungle Hazard": Masterspy tries to cheat a plantation from Dr. Beaker's cousin Felicity Farnsworth.
"High Tension": Masterspy kidnaps Dr. Beaker and demands Supercar as ransom.
"A Little Art": Dr. Beaker buys a painting that holds a secret.
"Ice-Fall": Dr. Beaker is trapped while exploring a mountain cave.
"Island Incident": The deposed leader of Pelota enlists Supercar's help to bring peace to his nation.
"The Tracking of Masterspy": Masterspy finally steals Supercar, but he doesn't keep it for long.
"The Phantom Piper": The Supercar team heads to Scotland to solve a ghostly mystery.
"Deep Seven": During a deep dive test, Supercar is trapped by a submerged cable.
"Pirate Plunder": The Supercar crew sets a trap for a modern-day raider of the high seas.
"Flight of Fancy": Jimmy dreams of using Supercar to rescue a princess.
"Hostage": The two-bit criminals Judd and Harper hold Mike captive.
"The Sunken Temple": A bandit tries to keep Supercar from discovering his submerged secret.
"Trapped in the Depths": Mike and Dr. Beaker rescue the crew of a crippled bathyscaphe.
"Crash Landing": Mitch gets a girlfriend when engine trouble forces Supercar down in the jungle.
"The Dragon of Ho Meng": Trouble follows Supercar to a remote Chinese island.
"The Lost City": A mad professor plots to destroy Washington from his secret base in the Amazon.
"Magic Carpet": The Supercar crew thwarts an evil plan to steal the throne of a remote Arab nation.
"The White Line": Supercar helps Scotland Yard solve a series of bank robberies.
"Supercar Take One": While making a film, Dr. Beaker is held prisoner by an enemy agent.
"The Runaway Train": Masterspy sabotages a train with Dr. Beaker and Prof. Popkiss on board.
"Precious Cargo": A little girl sneaks into a shipment of French wine bound for Black Rock.
"Operation Superstork": Mitch accidentally sets Mike, Dr. Beaker and Jimmy adrift in a balloon.
"Hi-Jack": The Supercar team helps Jimmy's brother Bill, a pilot, deal with a problem student.
"Calling Charlie McQueen": Mike and Dr. Beaker are the first victims of a madman's bizarre plan.
"Space for Mitch": Mitch sneaks aboard a rocket at Black Rock and takes off on a solo flight.
"The Sky's the Limit: Masterspy storms Black Rock, to steal Supercar, which has disappeared.
"70-B-Lo": Mike takes Supercar to the Arctic on a desperate mission to save Professor Popkiss.
"Atomic Witch Hunt": The team stops a gang that has planted nuclear bombs across the country.
"Jail Break": Dr. Beaker saves the day when Mike is forced to help a criminal escape prison.
"The Day Time Stood Still": An alien visitor crashes Mike's surprise birthday party.
"Transatlantic Cable": Supercar thwarts Masterspy's plot to intercept vital communications.
"King Kool": Supercar's final episode sees Mitch trade places with a musical gorilla.
Once upon a time, television for children was painfully simple. Animated cats chased equally hand drawn mice until something deadly occurred. This was quickly followed by an act of unreal resurrection and the whole vicious, violent comic cycle started all over again. Yes, there were variations (duck and pig, roadrunner and coyote, walrus and penguin), but the formula was kept deceptively the same. But laying wait in the entertainment outskirts, among the debris cast off by such oddities as Buffalo Bob and his redheaded wooden wonder and the scribble on the TV screen antics of Winky Dink, there was a new, more surreal form of kid vid waiting. It first reared its ugly, unusual head in 1959, when a cartoon (that cornerstone of childhood entertainment) arrived on the small scene complete with a radical new technological breakthrough called "Syncro-Vox." This amazing invention allowed overly red human lips to be superimposed over the top of static drawings of iron jawed or jowled characters so that a real human actor mouth was speaking for the animated entity. With said novelty, Clutch Cargo proved that a totally insane idea could be used to keep the underage minor content and consumer oriented. Thus, the floodgates opened and soon all manner of misguided matinee material was dragged out in the name of keeping Betty and Billy blissfully unaware of the world around them. Rankin and Bass, Sid and Marty Krofft, and even those old pen and ink icons, Hanna and Barbera, got into the act, all using combinations of real and felt friends to realize their warped worlds. But probably the most blatantly bizarre was the work of a British couple that believed sci-fi and puppets would work wonderfully together. Thus, such classic craziness as Fireball-XL5, Stingray, and Thunderbirds was born.
But before all of those offerings, with their fancy effects and serious tales of action and exploration, there was a little comedic creation about a strange omni-terrain vehicle that could travel anywhere. Of all the Supermarionation magic that Gerry and Sylvia Anderson splashed across the creative climate of early '60s television, Supercar was their most stagy, least audacious attempt at a children's adventure series. They tried to incorporate as many scientific and sinister elements into it as they could, but they just couldn't get past certain undeniable goofball factors. In Mike Mercury, they had a tried and true heroic test pilot, the kind of guy who you could easily see capturing commies in his quest to keep American red, white, and true blue. But instead of giving him a viable support team like International Rescue or an impressive organization like the World Space Patrol to oversee his operations, he got an old German, a weird Englishman, a bratty kid, and his hyperactive chimp. And unlike the future Anderson productions that showed the miniature shape of things to come, i.e. ships, rockets, cars, and buildings, Supercar consisted of a super…car and a hangar-like building in the middle of the desert. Period. Sure, this was a first step in the direction later flights of their diminutive imagination would take, but this means that instead of being awed by Supercar's special effects, we have to love the characters and their quirks. And that can be a challenge.
Unless you fall instantly in rapture with this ragtag bunch of birch babies, you'll probably think 39 episodes of Supercar quite the protracted tow. Simply put, it's a show that loves constant repetition. Several minutes of each production are spent in step-by-step moments of charging and firing the engines, opening the roof doors, adjusting vertical and horizontal lift, and worrying if Mitch laid one in the corner. Now, you could find all this repetitiously wacky and "play along" by calling out, along with Prof. Popkiss, the confirmation that the "interlock is on!" or screech like jumbled Jimmy as he "worries about Mitch." You could even keep a mental note of the number of times people say "Supercar" per show. By around episode 27 the writers finally developed a kind of flight check shorthand to get through these monotonous sequences a little more quickly. But that doesn't mean that their character creations themselves suddenly stopped being their own rote echo. Each has a catchphrase or way of saying things that gets used a dozen or so times each adventure. Dr. Beaker loves to call everything, from his latest sub-atomic radar descrambler to the polite poot he passed a few moments ago "satisfactory…(long pause)…most satisfactory." Mike Mercury uses "well I'll be a…" a great deal, except he usually doesn't add "monkey's uncle" or "sexless man child" to the end. He also likes to overuse a favored group quip, one that goes something like "now, who's a fool?" Professor Popkiss, along with his tired triad of the conjoined bolts, the building's rafter aperture and various orders to "fire one!" is always calling out food queries, usually wondering if the gang wants "ham and eggs." Even the crooks get a few familiar phrases, like Masterspy's "stupid worm" insults.
Actually, there is a wonderful drinking game one could devise from the antics of Mike Mercury and the gang. One fears, however, a stiff case of alcohol poisoning if one seriously contemplated playing it. But getting liquored up is not the only way a non-believer can derive entertainment out of this ancient excuse for a Saturday morning space opera. You could imitate the characters. Each has a voice that reeks of the next-day-at-school one-man show impression fest. You could perfect the "Jimmy walk" (legs stiff, arms close to your sides, hands turned up in a dainty delicate pose, like side fins). You could incorporate the Dr. Beaker stammer pause (right before you say the last word of anything potentially important or profound, wait a moment and mutter under your breath. Then blurt out your insight in a single spurt) into your everyday speech. Or why not try and use the Masterspy method of proper etiquette (instead of referring to people as "Mr." or "Mrs.," "Sir" or "Madam," everyone is "Friend" as in "Yes Friend Zarin" and "No, Friend Mercury"). Better yet, your best bet is to stick with the ape. Mitch is such a well-rounded, fully realized furball that working out and faultlessly recreating his speech and body language patterns is a creative career unto itself. Start with the "arm fling" and the "hand shakes," the basic monkey moves. Then you can add the "simian stomp" and the "baboon bounce" to your repertoire. Finally, if you're really good, you can incorporate the "jungle jig" or the "king kool combo" from individual episodes. As said before, leave it to a primate to save Supercar from being a pseudo silly show about a non-automotive automobile.
All joking aside, Supercar is really a pretty great show (obviously this critic was won over), not so much because it accurately lives a boy's adventure tale (like The Hardy Boys, Terry and the Pirates, or Jason and the Argonauts) but because it creates its own little universe of miniature merriment and never tries to step beyond it. Watching it in one big 39-episode block is probably the best way to go, since it allows you time with the characters and the chaos they constantly find themselves in. The initial shows may be slow moving, but it's only because they are creating the familiarity one needs to follow the more amazing adventures to come. Without these extensive set-up and training missions, examples of how and what Supercar and its crew can and cannot do, we would never buy the later shows where princes are saved, undersea kingdoms are explored, and outer space rescues are attempted. Indeed, the delight is in the details with this and most all of Anderson's shows. The amount of work that goes into realizing the small-scale world is incredible. Everything, from the arid desert sandscapes to the big city skyscrapers, are fabricated with an eye for realism that makes them totally believable backdrops for the action. Equally expressive is the puppetry. Mike and his crew are oddly vacant marionettes, able to barely move their mouths and shift their eyes back and forth. And yet through their unique exaggerated design, physical body language, and careful gesturing, a whole slew of emotions are registered and retained. Together with those memorable, mockable voices, it's the cast, not their rather arid escapades, that make Supercar a terrific tall tale.
And then there's Mitch. What a marvel this wood and wire wise guy is. Initially conceived as a mere inconvenient and incontinent pet to the members of Black Rock Labs, over the course of time this merry monk became a lynchpin to many of the best episodes of Supercar, if only because of his lunatic tomfoolery. In his first stages, Mitch was an angry young ape, eager to bust up Dr. Beaker's lab or throw the wrong switch as Supercar begins (or ends) an excursion. But as he was relied on more and more to save the day, our malcontent primate became a viable source of heroism, humor, and unpredictability. Typical of most series TV, a rise in popularity meant a higher onscreen profile, and this manifested itself in there being more actual episodes based around the stuffed animal actor, showcases of his nut and banana munching method skills. Within the five DVD set here, there are three ultimate Mitch episodes, moments when Supercar stopped and smelled the simian to everyone's mutual benefit. "Flight of Fancy" finds the suave tree-swinger knee deep in Jimmy's pre-teen dream fantasy and speaking like Leo Gorcey from the Bowery Boys. Every time he refers to the redheaded reject as "Dad," it just cracks you up. Then there is "Space for Mitch," the ape's own Apollo 13. Having stolen an interstellar rocket and propelled himself into orbit, the sad little squirt is now moments away from asphyxiation as his oxygen runs low. His low moans and death growls are just heartbreaking. And with "King Kool," the series finale, we witness the potential spin-off career for this tiny ball of talent, as Musical Mitch, the hot jazz drummer.
It's the monkey that saves Supercar from being a rather routine blueprint for future Anderson Supermarionation. Oh sure, Mike Mercury has his moments of manliness and Dr. Beaker can be enduring in an odd duck kind of way, but more times than not, Supercar works as camp or kitsch, not all-out action adventure. This can also be said of later Anderson adventure series, more times than not, Fireball-XL5 and Captain Scarlet managed to find a consistent, semi-serious tone (I mean, the cast were still made of puppets, so how solemn could it be?). Supercar though would be dealing with miniature nuclear weapons one moment and then they'd show Mitch beating criminals over the head in some manner of mad monkey bongo playing. We'd get incredibly evil criminals who brandish weapons and shoot wantonly at our heroes along with exaggerated German matriarchal stereotypes. For every abusive French wine maker who beats his orphan charge, we are provided with an equally unnerving scene of Dr. Beaker trying to prepare dinner. Thankfully, that creative master of the "shines," the monkey Mitch, was and is around to add his wide-eyed wizardry and effervescent personality to temper the potential trauma. His presence, and the overall mischievous nature of the series in general, makes Supercar a supremely enjoyable citizen of the warped world of pre-advertising children's programming.
This is a real 50/50 DVD presentation from A&E, a chance to see this forgotten show in all its pristine black and white glory, but not much else. The monochrome film image, lovingly remastered, is wonderful. The show may be dated in using certain special effects (rear screen projection, forced perspective), but the transfer doesn't give it away. The show looks brand new. Sonically, the faux Dolby Digital Stereo is merely acceptable. Not much use is made of the channels except an occasional fade across that sounds very fake. But it's on the extras side where the real letdown occurs. Sylvia Anderson, who along with husband Gerry was instrumental in getting Supercar on British television, is present for one, count it one, commentary track on the pilot episode "Rescue" (which is, by the way, one of the most static Supercar's in the series). It's understandable that this first foray into the world of Black Rock Laboratories is a good place for an overview of how the show got its start, but except for making Mitch a monkey and not a dog (apparently, Sylvia had an eccentric relative with a chimp for a pet), we do not learn how the characters and the flying car itself were conceived or created. And then we are left with the dozens of questions that later episodes bring up like why Jimmy's family is tossed to the side, why Mike Mercury never got a love interest, why the puppets (and a couple of voices) were changed in Season 2, or why the so-called supersonic automobile had no wheels. A few more narrative tracks would have maybe filled in this information nicely.
Also included in the bonus material is a fascinating, if incredibly cursory, overview of David Meddings' career. Meddings was the mastermind behind all the marvelous miniature work in the Supermarionation canon, and this reminiscent series of interviews with those who worked with him (he died several years ago, sadly) is illuminating. But the problem becomes in the scope of the subjects it covers. This is a comprehensive overview of everything he ever did. Supercar gets about 45 seconds of screen time in this 30-minute long feature. In reality, most of the programs are glanced over for more personalized anecdotes about working with the detailed obsessed perfectionist. Meddings, by all accounts, was a workaholic who poured himself into his meticulous work, and it really does show in programs like Stingray and Thunderbirds. But this featurette feels like an all-purpose extra, the kind of bonus that could be added to any of the Anderson adventure DVD packages. So does the touching, if oddly insular, Peter Jackson tribute to Meddings. Basically a five-minute speech about the important influence the miniature maker had on the Lord of the Rings director, it feels genuine and jovial, but one wonders why it is here since there is no obvious connection to Supercar. The only conclusion that can be drawn? Jackson was (a) indeed a true fan and (b) he's currently hugely popular as a selling point. At least the galleries give Supercar its due, giving us a chance to see all the characters and sets in full color and also some of the behind the scenes puppetry necessary to bring the show to life.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Back before Comedy Central became a shill for every unfunny Hollywood hilarity fest that could find a way to market itself on the crass cable humor haven, it was a way station for original warped wackiness and cult humor programming. Back in its Comedy Channel incarnation, it featured a show, a forgotten cornball classic called The Higgins Boys and Gruber that positioned itself as a satire of local live action children's shows. The basic premise was that our coffee drinking, chain-smoking trio would sit around, all pissed off about something or other and complain a lot. Then, at a moments notice, they would turn around and introduce a cartoon or live action series. And Supercar was one of their main tangents of merriment, along with Clutch Cargo and others. In a very post-MST fashion, the episode would end and the guys would kick back, cup of Joe in hand, butt dangling from their lower lip, and dissect what they had just seen. Within the context of The Higgins Boys and Gruber commentary, Supercar was hilarious nightmare fodder on a grand scale, the kind of misguided kiddy show that startled more pre-adolescents than it satisfied. And in that regard, Supercar is a fond, friendly memory. But separated from the guy's satire and cynicism, this Supermarionation starting point is static and sorely lacking in much creative or entertainment value.
And culturally sensitive viewers need to beware: Supercar is a show that really slurs the ethnics when it gets a chance. Aside from the Popkiss' Sergeant Schultz like strudel statements, we get some "me so solly" Asians, complete with overdone speech pattern and prophet invoking Arabs who overuse the word "infidel." Every bad guy is rat faced or cauliflowered and speaks in an archetypical fashion that gives away their racial makeup, and it's usually not very flattering. Thankfully, this action adventure series existed in a world without African Americans or Native Indians to completely demean, even if the lack of diversity shows a real supremacist bent to the entire show. Sure, Supercar is reflective of its times, but that's not something to champion.
It's fitting that, as the series went on, Mitch the monkey became less a floor soiling, bed spraying pest pet and more of a viable member of the Supercar crew. Sure, Dr. Beaker wanted him to die while in orbit, but even that cold-hearted limey eventually understood Mitch's overall value to both the team and the show and helped rescue him. Supercar without the super simian would be, like most monkey-less entertainment product, dry, dull, and woefully infested with body lice. Good old Mitch, with his shifty eyes, bouncing booty, and painful bellyache wail is the reason why there should finally be recognition of the ape's advances to human heartiness and hilarity. He single-handedly makes Supercar: The Complete Series one of the better DVD packages around. But that's to be expected. He comes from a long line of limber limbed performers who've turned trash into treasure. It's just too bad that, as a people, we seem to reject these gifted givers of grins outright. Even when they entertain the ennui out of us, we still connect them to foul and fetid things. When we think of an awfully odiferous place of unpleasant scents, the words "monkey house" instantly come to mind. Or if a man is too forward in his advances or glances, the epithet "big ape" is hurled his way. Couples who canoodle in each other's crawlspace are considered to be involved in "monkey business." And let's not even get into the slanderous disservice that Marcel on Friends did for capuchins worldwide. But the time has come to take a stand, to help our single chromosome away cousins in getting the credit they deserve. So take Visa (or Mastercard) in hand and say "yes" to more primate pleasantries. Champion the chimp. Embrace the ape. Or simply do like Mitch and break stuff until you get your way. It works every time.
Supercar: The Complete Series is placed on six months probation for being a friendly, rather frivolous entry in the entire Supermarionation and kiddy show history books. Upon successful completion of its supervision by the Puppet Department of Corrections, its record will be expunged and all charges erased. All indictments against the Supercar team are hereby dropped and the Court acknowledges the special contribution Mitch the monkey brings to the cast and crew. Court adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Sylvia Anderson on Debut Episode "Rescue"
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