I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

These Puppets Are Hilarious: Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons

by Jake Goldman
Dec. 5, 2011

Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons is not a raucous ska-band from Northern California. Nor is it a series of cheaply produced young-adult novels. No, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons is a darkly funny, 1960s British “Supermarionation” series. That's right. Supermarionation. This technique was invented and coined by Gerry Anderson, who helmed the former AP Films, a British company now known as 21st Century Films. The technique, which was used across several series, including the original Thunderbirds, utilized marionettes, small, hand-built sets, and toy-like vehicles. Think Team America: World Police or, the original Thunderbirds if you're a total nerd. You're a nerd, aren't you?

This technique was one of the first to combine electronic synchronization in coordination with dialogue -- meaning, there wasn't someone physically operating the mouths of all the Captain Scarlet marionettes, but rather, their mouths were electronically timed to follow voice actor's dialogue. At times, the jerky movements and unblinking eyes can be a bit jarring, but in other moments, the show is deeply funny.

Conceptually, Captain Scarlet is, for the most part, unsurprising: Scarlet himself is part of an elite band of spies and defenders of Earth, serving to stop the constant threat of the Mysterons, an alien race impervious to most forms of attack and capable of inhabiting any body or any object. That shirt you're wearing could be a Mysteron. Even you could be a Mysteron.

What sets Captain Scarlet apart, though, is its delivery and subtle self-awareness. To be sure, the show is not parodic and stays true to the sort of spy-show formula: calm beginnings leading to imminent danger, leading to what seems to be certain death, but in the last possible moment, Scarlet saves 'em all. It's effective, but I found myself not honing in so much on the action, but in the wonderfully dry delivery of dialogue and the subtle-yet-silly style of jokes. For example, the delivery of one line in particular had me snorting pretty good: this episode takes place, largely on some sort of national park / hunting preserve. At the beginning of this episode Scarlet and Blue are seated behind a rock, surveying the open plains for signs of Mysterons. When confronted by a park ranger, Blue delivers a line with such dryness, completely devoid of any discernible emotion that the show momentarily takes on an absurd tone: “I hear they serve a fine lunch at the hunting lodge.” And with that, Blue and Scarlet are free to go, without any further questioning. It may not seem like much, but the way this line cuts through the tension created by the self-serious park ranger aiming a rifle at Blue and Scarlet's throats is near perfect; I fell out of my chair. Moments later, as another one of the “good guys” is driving up the gates of the preserve, he's questioned about his business on the hunting grounds. After a somewhat uncomfortable silence he says: “I hear they serve a fine lunch at the hunting lodge,” with the same dry, emotionless tone that made me lose my shit the first time around. And somehow, that simple repetition amplifies the absurdity of the line and its delivery, setting it up to serve as one of the episode's final lines. This time, a ceiling is slowly descending and is moments from crushing several scientists and leaders within the security organization Scarlet belongs to. At the last moment, the ceiling reverses its course and one scientist remarks to another that it was a close call and that they should go back upstairs because “I hear they serve a fine dinner at the hunting lodge.” There's plenty of humor, too, in some of the show's longer stretches without dialogue, something you'd never see on American television, no matter the format. Some scenes go for stretches up to a minute and a half without anyone saying a word, and in those patient moments, it's hard not to start laughing, wondering what might come next. Though, this could be because of the diet of American television I grew up on; as we all know, serialized television here in the states gets mighty uncomfortable with pauses longer than, say, ten seconds.

Of course, my half-assed rehashing of the show doesn't do the humor much justice, especially considering its all in the delivery. But, it's these moments that make the show worth watching. With a cheap-looking set and stiff, un-human marionettes, Captain Scarlet needed that bit of humor to survive. And it wasn't done with a wink or a shrug, but more so with a nod. It was a nod that said, hey look, we're trying, we're doing this weird thing with puppets, we know and we realize this is truly silly, so here's just a bit of levity to let you know we're aware of the whole situation. And it's those small nods, those minute realizations that make you forgive the show's otherwise, overly earnest tone.   

Jake Goldman is a writer and a teacher. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.  Occasionally he writes songs.  If you are so inclined, check out Internetdogfist.com for words and Otsego.Bandcamp.com for music.