Captain Scarlet

The Commendable Continuity of Captain Scarlet

Through no fault of their own, most of the Gerry Anderson shows were remarkably light on episode-to-episode continuity. Very occasionally the second episode of a show would follow on from the events of its first, but even then it wasn’t always guaranteed to be shown second (as was the case with Stingray’s Plant of Doom, which first aired in the UK as episode 34!). Aside from clip shows or official two-part stories it was disappointingly rare to see the events of one episode referenced again in a later instalment.

The reason for this is a simple one. As we’ve seen previously, many broadcasters in the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and even 90s didn’t feel the need (or perhaps weren’t able) to stick to one particular broadcast order, which would potentially have made a nonsense of any running plot threads or continuing storylines. So long as the first episode was aired first, and any episodes featuring the arrival or departure of a prominent character aired soon after that (such as Paul Foster in UFO’s Exposed or Commissioner Simmonds in Space:1999’s Earthbound) nobody really paid much attention to what order the rest of the series was shown in. The virtual certainty that any particular Anderson series would probably end up being shown in whatever order broadcasters felt like largely curtailed the potential for any serialised storytelling between episodes.

Over the years Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons was often just as subject to the same scattershot broadcast runs as the likes of UFO or Thunderbirds – but surprisingly, the series paid much more attention to its own internal continuity than most other Anderson shows. The reason for this is unclear, but the writing team were obviously keen to embrace the incredible storytelling possibilities that a war between the Earth and Mars offered – and Captain Scarlet was a much stronger series for it, right from the very first episode.

“Tell me everything you remember…”

It would be almost unthinkable to open a series with a story like The Mysterons and then launch into a second episode that didn’t in some way deal with the consequences of the first. Winged Assassin doesn’t spend so much time dwelling on the events of The Mysterons that it forgets to tell a story of its own, but it does feel like almost a direct continuation nonetheless. Although no questions are posed by anyone regarding the potential dangers of trusting a former Mysteron agent to carry on with the Spectrum duties of a man he replaced, nor does Scarlet himself raise any of the moral or philosophical questions inherent in the fact that he is technically a copy of the real Captain Scarlet, Winged Assassin does address one key element of the series going forward. We ended The Mysterons with Colonel White’s triumphant (if possibly premature) declaration of Captain Scarlet’s indestructibility – and now it’s time to put that claim to the test. It’s still very early days for Spectrum’s conflict with the Mysterons, and that’s reflected in Scarlet’s own reservations regarding his new body’s miraculous healing abilities.

“So he is alive!”

Winged Assassin also continues a thread that would run through several early episodes; Spectrum being unaware of Captain Black’s presence on Earth. By the time we see the Cloudbase crew become aware that he is now the Mysterons’ primary agent on Earth (in Manhunt, the fifth episode of the series to be produced) we the audience have already seen him overseeing their activities in Winged Assassin, Big Ben Strikes Again, and Point 783. As a result, Manhunt feels like a far more significant instalment of the series that it might otherwise do had Spectrum known that Black was at large right from the very first episode. This discovery adds a new dimension to Spectrum’s conflict with the Mysterons, as well as providing a regular personification of their alien opponents that the series would go on to make excellent use of.

Dr. Magnus revealing a crucial weakness of the Mysterons in Operation Time.

You might expect to see little in the way of significant developments following the show’s first few episodes, and yet Operation Time (the sixth episode into production) introduces some more crucial elements of the series – and of the Mysterons in particular. It was here that a pair of Mysteron weaknesses were introduced; their susceptibility to electricity, and imperviousness to x-rays – and again, these discoveries would remain a part of the series for the remainder of its run. Four episodes later (in production order at least) Spectrum Strikes Back would revisit both of these weaknesses as Spectrum scientists demonstrated two new anti-Mysteron weapons inspired by their discovery, while also making specific mention of the events of Operation Time. For someone who may have missed Operation Time (as I myself managed to do both times when Captain Scarlet was repeated on the BBC in the early 1990s) this episode served as a convenient recap of the past events that had led to the introduction of these weapons; the Mysteron gun and the Mysteron detector.

Captain Ochre operating a Mysteron detector in The Launching.

The gun would never be seen on screen again, leading some fans to write it off as some kind of plot hole since regular pistols would be seen to dispatch Mysteron agents just fine in subsequent episodes – although when watched in production order only one Mysteron agent is assumed to be killed by a conventional bullet before this (the garage mechanic in Manhunt), so it could conceivably be that the Spectrum pistols were later redesigned off-screen to fire electrically-charged shells – and in order to do away with the Mysteron gun prop that might have proven rather cumbersome for action scenes. The continued presence in the series of the Mysteron detector however at least provides regular acknowledgment of the events of Operation Time and Spectrum Strikes Back, as well as the Mysterons’ continued weakness to electricity, and the two episodes together form a nice unofficial duology despite being vastly different from each other in style and tone.

The Mysterons’ lunar complex.

The so-called ‘Lunarville trilogy’ (consisting of the episodes Lunarville 7, Crater 101, and Dangerous Rendezvous) has to be the show’s most impressive attempt at a multi-episode storyline. In an era where action adventure shows were expected to present largely standalone episodes (and any multi-parters were generally only produced with an eye towards a potential cinema release to get some of their production costs back) it is remarkable to see a series like Captain Scarlet attempt to produce a story spanning multiple instalments. Boldly establishing the presence of a sizeable human community on the Moon for the first time, as well as setting up the plotline of the construction of a Mysteron complex on the Moon (“exactly as the film from the MEV on Mars showed it!”) the events of Lunarville 7 would be dramatically revisited in Crater 101 before reaching their unfortunately underwhelming conclusion with Dangerous Rendezvous. The trilogy provided something viewers had no doubt been hoping to see for some time; more space action, and with the added bonus of a more prominent role for the Mysterons and the very alien technology we had seen in their Martian complex all the way back in the first episode. Some broadcast orders place a six episode gap between Lunarville 7 and Crater 101, which gives the unfortunate impression that dealing with a Mysteron takeover of the Moon wasn’t of particular concern to anyone on Earth, while some of Dangerous Rendezvous’s pacing issues may be partly due to the fact that it was actually produced before Crater 101. However, this trilogy of this stories provided some of Captain Scarlet’s most memorable moments, and work so well together that it’s no surprise that the episodes were an obvious choice to be included in the first Super Space Theater Captain Scarlet compilation movie Revenge of the Mysterons from Mars in 1981.

The events of Shadow of Fear make headlines in The Heart of New York.

Occasionally references to the events of previous episodes could slip past the viewer almost unnoticed, as with a prop newspaper stand seen in various model streets in episodes of Captain Scarlet and Joe 90 from The Heart of New York onwards. Mostly only visible thanks to the High Definition picture of the Blu-ray releases, this stand displays the headline ‘HIMALAYAN DISASTER – TELESCOPE A WRITE OFF’ – almost certainly a reference to the destruction of the K-14 observatory in Shadow of Fear (an episode produced before but usually aired after The Heart of New York).

Another subtle call-back to a previous episode can be found in The Launching, as Captain Scarlet pleads with President Roberts to take the Mysteron threat seriously, reminding him that “the Mysterons killed the Director General of the United Asian Republic!” This reference to the events of Winged Assassin feels entirely natural within the story, serving as a reminder to both the President and the audience that the Mysterons can and have succeeded in destroying their targets on more than one occasion.

The latter third of the series brings us an assortment of standalone episodes that nevertheless hint at a connected and ongoing attempt to deal more directly with the Mysteron menace. In Shadow of Fear, the K-14 observatory’s attempts to photograph the Martian surface are said to be “part of a larger plan; Operation SWORD.” With the observatory’s destruction at the end of the episode, Colonel White is nonetheless certain that Operation SWORD “goes ahead, as scheduled” – although frustratingly we the viewers are never actually informed what Operation SWORD actually is or what its aims are. However, in the episode Flight 104 a conference is held at Lake Toma in Switzerland in order to decide the method and purpose of Earth’s return to Mars and the Mysterons, and although once again we are not privy to any of its findings or conclusions we later learn in Noose of Ice of a new space fleet that will soon be making the journey back to the red planet. It’s easy to assume that the developments of Flight 104 and Noose of Ice were part of the mysterious Operation SWORD, offering a tantalising glimpse at a potential return to Mars that we would sadly never see on screen.

“The attack on your complex was wrong. We admit it, and deeply regret it.”

Captain Scarlet concluded the way most other colour Supermarionation shows did; with a flashback episode, in the shape of The Inquisition. The use of clips from Big Ben Strikes Again, Crater 101 and The Trap provide little more than a few memorable moments from the past, but this episode was not the first time the series had looked directly towards its own history in this way. The events of the first episode were revisited three times via clips, and while partly included to boost the length of episodes that were running short these clips also helped to strengthen certain themes within each story that they appeared in. Winged Assassin’s inclusion of the car crash that claimed the lives of Captains Scarlet and Brown makes perfect sense as part of Doctor Fawn’s examination of the new Captain Scarlet, and tantalisingly suggests that Mysteron reconstructions in some way retain the memories of the person they were based on right up until the moment of that person’s death. In Traitor, cadet Machin’s suspicion of Captain Scarlet is given more weight after Captain Blue recounts the events that occurred at London Car Vu, as well as providing a handy recap for viewers who had forgotten or never seen the events of the first episode. Dangerous Rendezvous meanwhile sees Colonel White recall Captain Black’s disastrous first contact with the Mysterons that started the War of Nerves between the Earth and Mars as he attempts to open negotiations for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. As mentioned above, Dangerous Rendezvous suffers more than any other episode of Captain Scarlet from an exceptionally thin script (necessitating entirely pointless conversations about the Spectrum caps, the Angel interceptors and the meaning of “S.I.G”) that it’s likely this flashback is only there to pad out the running time – and yet it’s the only part of Dangerous Rendezvous’s padding that doesn’t feel like padding. In attempting to end the war between humanity and the Mysterons, Colonel White would naturally look back to how it all started – and, crucially, admit to the mistakes that set off the whole sequence of events.

“Today, July 10th, is Spectrum’s first anniversary. Also we’re apparently supposed to be guarding a V.I.P. and protecting the World Capital today, but still. Time to get drunk!”

Captain Scarlet‘s continuity was never 100% perfect (we celebrate Captain Scarlet Day on July 10th precisely because July 10th is such a thorny in-universe continuity date), but few shows can boast that claim. Episodes weren’t linked together with cliffhanger endings, often only a vague promise that certain things might potentially be followed up on later. Some of those things were, and some weren’t, but Captain Scarlet always treated its viewers with enough respect to know that when it did choose to return to a particular dangling plot thread those viewers were invested enough in the show to recall what had gone before and be anxious for new developments. This was also an approach that made 2005’s New Captain Scarlet so rewarding. When viewed through modern eyes the original Captain Scarlet’s attention to its own continuity may seem rather unremarkable – but when the era it was produced in is taken into account, the show is all the more impressive for attempting several running plotlines and recurring story threads that had no guarantee of being broadcast in any order that would make sense to viewers. Even into the 1980s Captain Scarlet repeats were shown in bizarre orders that broke these carefully crafted strands of continuity, with Yorkshire Television showing Spectrum Strikes Back as the third episode (ahead of Operation Time as episode eight) while Central aired Flight to Atlantica (an episode which mentions the Mysteron detector) long before Operation Time and Spectrum Strikes Back.

Thankfully, these days we have DVDs and Blu-rays on which we can relive all thirty-two Captain Scarlet episodes in whichever order we want – and as a result, we can appreciate the show’s impressive episode-to-episode continuity the way its storytellers intended it to be experienced!

Written by
Chris Dale

Writer, editor & voice actor on Big Finish's Doctor Who, Terrahawks, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet audio ranges. Host of the Randomiser on the Gerry Anderson Podcast.

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