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The cartoon of the aughts?



Growing up I was a voracious consumer of sci-fi media. Of book there were plenty of choices, but much less so in terms of television. There were reruns of Star Trek (before it was retroactively tagged "The Original Series"), Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and the narrow band of Doctor Who (irregularly available), but after the effort to chase after Star Wars's monster success with the original Battlestar Galactica and the revival of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, the television networks mostly steered away from pricey new sci-fi shows.

 

As a result of the limited range of options, I made time for the less easily accessible ones. That was how I discovered the works of Gerry Anderson, who in the 1960s produced a series of iconic shows using "Supermarionation." The most famous of these was Thunderbirds, but at some point I was fortunate enough to chance upon Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. Set in the mid-21st century, it was premised on the idea that, in the aftermath of a disastrous first encounter, a race of disembodied beings declared a covert "war of nerves" against the unsuspecting people of the planet Earth, using humans who are killed and then reconstructed as their servants. Standing against them was an international agency called Spectrum, whose greatest asset was Captain Scarlet, who had been "Mysteronized" but recovered his original personality. Because the process made him indestructible, Scarlet could undertake exceptional, even suicidal, risks knowing that he will survive them.

While from today's perspective the show has its flaws — like so much of 1960s SF, it premises an optimistic future of global cooperation in which the white men are still the only ones in charge — it enjoys a resilient fan base today thanks to its often dark storytelling and its detailed modelwork. Because of this, in the early 2000s Anderson decided to revive the series, this time using CGI and motion-capture for their visuals instead of marionettes. Entitled The New Captain Scarlett, it premiered on ITV in 2005 and lasted for two short seasons. I had missed it, in part because it was only broadcast in the UK and in part because there has never been a North American DVD release. It wasn't until last year that Amazon Video started streaming the show, though I had avoided it as I felt the CGI would detract from the modelwork that was part of the original show's charm for me.

That changed a couple of days ago, when in the midst of a nostalgia kick I decided to give the series a chance. And I'm glad I did, as I quickly came to appreciate just how much better the new series is when compared to the old one. While the premise remains the same, the CGI allows for a more visually active show, which helps both in terms of the action and the interaction between the characters. The show's attitudes are also better; while the white men are still a little too prominent (the Spectrum leader's code name of "Colonel White" is getting more on-point with each passing year), women and POC feature more prominently in the revival and play a more integral role in the stories.

As I binged on the episodes, though, I started picking up on a new and more subtle factor at play in the new show, which is a deeper appreciation of how terrorism works. When I watched the show as a kid the fact that the Mysterons were waging a campaign of terrorism was largely lost on me, and the revival doesn't hammer home this point either. Nevertheless, the new show captures the underlying dread inherent in terrorism better than did the original series. Part of it is that there's more casual dialogue between the characters in the new series, which helps to provide greater emotional context. But the plot of the episodes seem to reflect this more as well, with the focus of the Mysterons less on attacking Spectrum directly or indirectly (which was their predominant goal in most of the stories in the original series) to targeting humanity more generally. It's certainly a sad reflection of our times to see this, but it helps me to appreciate the ways in which the reboot is as much an artifact of its era as the original series was of the 1960s. Hopefully the next time the series is revived its creators won't have quite the same depth of appreciation of what terrorism entails.