"Expect the unexpected!"—Dr. "Tiger" Ninestein
When I was a kid, one of my favorite shows was Space: 1999. Yes, I knew how crummy the special effects were, I could recognize the wooden acting, and I did not need much schooling in physics to know that the premise was absurd. But I loved it anyway. In the days between the death of Star Trek and the birth of Star Wars, this was pretty much all we had.
And honestly, that was about the best thing you could say about Space: 1999. You see, here was the problem in a nutshell: Gerry Anderson. In the 1960s, Gerry Anderson's shows were sublimely silly. Thunderbirds had its heroic posturing. Stingray had puppets in submarines. Puppets in submarines. These shows were like taking drugs, only set to bachelor pad music. They featured stalwart white puppet men keeping the world safe for their hairsprayed puppet girlfriends with the help of shiny gadgets. And they never seemed to take themselves very seriously. After all, you could always see the strings.
But popular culture passed Gerry Anderson by. In the 1970s, Anderson tried his hand at live action shows, and while these had a certain novelty, the actors always seemed to strain against the blithe illogic that you felt free to ignore when it was acted out by puppets. So in 1983, Anderson went back to the stuff that made him famous in the first place.
Cutting the "Supermarionation" strings for a hand-puppet technique awkwardly dubbed "Supermacronation," Terrahawks wants to be a throwback to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when men were men and ugly aliens always had a trick up their sleeves. Set in the year 2020, the show follows the adventures of a secret defense squad in their endless battles against, um, well, uh, an android named Zelda who looks for vague reasons like a decrepit hag, along with Zelda's sister (named Cystar), youngster (named cough Yung-Star), and an army of robot cubes living in a base on Mars.
Yes, I know. And it makes even less sense when you watch it. Heroic leader Dr. "Tiger" Ninestein (a clone with a perennial bad temper) leads the team, which includes a Japanese scientist with the ability to make his glasses rise and fall off his nose without touching them and a black pilot with an enormous color-changing afro who plays one of those cheesy electric organs you used to find in your creepy aunt's house.
For some reason, the surreal touches in Anderson's earlier shows still seem to work, perhaps because they tap into that anything-goes attitude that is quintessentially 60s. But Terrahawks, which is half the age of Thunderbirds, seems remarkably dated. Remember, this was the year after Blade Runner and the year before Neuromancer. Science fiction was turning a corner. Terrahawks clearly borrows more from Knight Rider (witness the talking Rolls Royce) and video games than it does from contemporary science fiction. And while the rolling robot spheres (the "zeroids" that form the bulk of the Terrahawks' security force) are momentarily interesting, the writers insist on milking them for humor by giving them funny accents (or, in the case of one recurring zeroid, a conspicuously gay persona). Enjoy the zeroids though, because none of the human characters register as anything more than ciphers. The animation in the opening and closing titles (meant to look like a video game) are not even real computer graphics: they are backlit cel animation created by the same guy responsible for the fake CG in the Hitchhiker's Guide television series. Do not even get me started on the Commodore-64-quality synthesizer score. Worse, the entire series was shot on 16mm, giving it a grainy and worn quality hardly on a par with some of Anderson's older shows.
Unfortunately for A&E, who have released the complete 39-episode run of Terrahawks in a five-disc set, even the creators of the show have difficulty finding nice things to say about it. Special effects director Steven Begg turns in a commentary for an early episode and mostly points out which props were recycled from Space: 1999 (and which of Zelda's ships later made it into James Cameron's Aliens). He hints at some dissatisfaction with the show's ultimate look, but discreetly avoids saying too much. Director Tony Bell and his father, associate producer Bob Bell (who handled art direction on some of Gerry Anderson's earlier, better shows), try to find nice things to say during their commentary for a later episode. Mostly they talk about the studio they filmed in and the problems of the puppeteers, and the elder Bell candidly admits that he did not really do very much as associate producer on the series. So why is Gerry Anderson himself not present for any of these commentaries? Is Terrahawks a show he would rather forget?
In any event, if you want to enjoy the bizarre magic of Gerry Anderson's puppet shows, avoid Terrahawks and give the 1960s shows a try. Some of them still hold up pretty well. Terrahawks, however, has all the staying power of an old Colecovision you find at the flea market. You may have a fond memory or two of it from your youth, but if you plug it in now, you will only be disappointed.
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