Gerry Anderson RIP (1929 - 2012)

Gerry and Sylvia Anderson in happier times.  On the set (literally!) of Stingray

Let us be generous, let us be kind, let us say Gerry Anderson was a complicated person and leave it at that.

Like most fans of my generation, I became aware of Gerry Anderson through his first American released TV show, Supercar.[1]

Fireball XL5 was my favorite of his puppet shows, and I remain a big fan of it to this day.  It seemed to be the best looking of any of his series, and avoided the top & nose heavy production design of later shows.[2]

But as much as I enjoyed Fireball XL5, and as many positive things I can say about Joe 90 and Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons, to me the two most fascinating Gerry Anderson productions were Journey To The Far Side Of The Sun a.k.a. Doppelganger and his first live action sci-fi series, UFO.

There’s something off kilter and disconcerting about both projects; they produce a feeling of unease and anxiety and most importantly not because of the sci-fi elements.

Rather they were reflections of a marriage in the last stages of disintegration.[3]

Journey / Doppelganger takes a Twilight Zone-ish idea -- there’s a world orbiting the sun on the exact opposite side of Earth that’s just like us except for One Tiny Detail -- slathered on a wholly unnecessary spy sub-plot, and crammed the whole mess into a meandering 101 minutes.

Visually it’s gangbusters, and though it’s pretty turgid plot-wise, thematically it really strikes deep and doesn’t let go.  Astronaut-for-hire Roy Thinnes finds himself trapped in a loveless marriage with a genuinely castrating bitch of a wife; when he arrives on the counter-Earth he finds himself not only stuck in the exact same relationship, but now wondering on an even more existential level if he really knows her or, for that matter, if he even really knows himself.

The one person who could shed any light on the matter, his co-pilot, dies from traumatic injuries after their crash.  Since the world they are on is the exact counter-part of the Earth they left, it’s presumed that somehow the two turned back halfway through their mission; no one thinks they may be an exact doppelganger crew from the doppelganger world.  So Thinnes' character finds himself increasingly alienated in his “own” world, unable to successfully communicate with either his wife or his colleagues.

Journey / Doppelganger sputtered out at the box office despite it’s top notch visual design and effects.  Perhaps a more action oriented plot ala Planet Of The Apes would have helped instead of focusing so tightly on marital disintegration.

But Journey / Doppelganger was just the warm-up for UFO.  By that time the Andersons' marriage was in free fall (it would prove to be a very acrimonious divorce) and that was reflected in virtually every episode of UFO.

The American TV series The Invaders[4] covered similar territory re Earth vs an invasion from space but the Andersons’ show almost regulated the aliens to the background.[5] And while The Invaders often ended with the protagonist barely escaping from some peril and often experiencing short-term defeat, the feeling was that somehow in the end he would persevere.

An example of Gerry Anderson's propensity for top / nose heavy design

UFO, on the other hand, frequently rocked its characters back on their heels, defeating and frustrating them at almost every turn, denying them any sort of satisfaction in forward progress against their enemy.

Additionally, almost every episode involved some duplicity involving either a married couple or comrades-in-arms.  It became impossible to find any good guys, and increasingly harder to sympathize with any series regulars.

This sort of storytelling works great with shows like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad; it’s not an ideal theme for a slam bang space opera, which was how the show was being sold.

ditto

UFO didn’t exactly flop, but it certainly failed to get renewed and it failed to resolve the morose plot threads entangling its characters.  It’s remember fondly now for trying something different -- and perhaps with a slightly different execution it might have clicked.

Anderson’s next series, Space: 1999, marked the official end of both his marriage and his business relationship with Sylvia and the end of his quality work.  Anderson struggled along many years after that, producing gimmicky shows of varying quality, eventually succumbing to Alzheimer’s this week.

It was a sad finish.  His shows -- their shows, actually -- brought a lot of pleasure to millions of people around the world and certainly elevated the quality of visual effects in TV, but few people knew what they were looking at was a reflection of a very painful personal life.

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[1]  While I watched the show faithfully as a kid, I never really warmed to the look of the series, finding the vehicles awkward and top heavy.  Why did I watch it?  Cut me some slack:  I was 8 years old; I’d watch anything made of pixels.

[2]  Yeah, I’m looking at you, Thunderbirds.

[3]  Credit to the late Frederick S. Clarke, editor/publisher of Cinefantastique magazine, for first noticing this.

[4]  Also starring Roy Thinnes.

[5] Indeed, one episode was a very conventional drama about the protagonist’s own marriage falling apart, with only one short scene with a flying saucer to justify its inclusion in a sci-fi series.

Anonymous Medieval Monk On The Topic Of Writing

Merry Christmas 2012