Having recently rediscovered Supercar via the Network DVD boxset, I didnít get exactly what I was expecting. I had considered it to be an unsophisticated prototype for the more well-known colour series of the 60s and 70s. True, itís a more modest production, but itís no less enjoyable. As well as containing the seeds of later successes, Supercar has more to offer than received opinion might suggest.
At breakfast in the Black Rock base, Mike reads in the newspaper that the president of a small Pacific island has turned it into a police state. They then receive a phone call to fly Supercar to a meeting - the call is from General Sebastian La Guava. It turns out his brother Colonel Humberto La Guava has taken over the island, and the General wants Mike to return him to his country in Supercar. Dodging the anti-aircraft weapons on the approach to the island, Mike pretends to crash Supercar into the sea, and carries on the rest of the journey underwater. Undercover of night, Mike and the General arrive at the palace and after a brief shoot-out with Humberto, the General is restored to the Presidency.
Writers Martin and Hugh Woodhouse scripted the majority of Supercarís first series and introduced a level of wry humour that lifted their episodes above the norm. Island Incident is a fairly straightforward plot but is embellished with some great comedy inserts, particularly Colonel Umbertoís rapidfire insults (ĎGreat men always live surrounded by fools - I am no exception!í). The speeded up voice on the other end of Humbertoís phone made me laugh out loud too. Some of his comments would have gone over the heads of younger viewers - such as, íPlay up my children; tomorrow I shall put the taxes up by half! Where is the sense in being a dictator if one cannot make a profit out of oneís subjects?í.
The brief scenes with Pablo the sentry donít motivate the plot but add much to the episode. Initially Pablo mistakes Supercar for a flying saucer; the next time he spots it he is drunk at his post (Humberto has declared a holiday); ĎNothing to do with you, Pabloí, he decides and promptly collapses into his sentry box, cross-eyed.
In Supercar, we are dealing very much with caricatures and stereotypes - the fearless test pilot, the absent-minded boffin, and so on. Thereís little room for deep characterisation - it would seem out of place - but nevertheless the characters are brought alive by the witty dialogue and comedy arising naturally from their interaction. At the beginning we see Dr Beaker using some overly-complicated apparatus to make toast for breakfast - as Mike points out, íHeís using 25,000 watts of electricity to cook one slice at a timeí. However itís the same Beaker who suggests Mike fakes a crash into the sea and approaches the island from under water. Not so daft after all, although at the end he is still persevering with his elaborate toaster, and Mike still has to do without his second slice!
Thereís a nice bit of continuity as Mike refers to a previous anonymous phone call which turned out to be a trap by Masterspy (bet he didnít spend long thinking up that plan), making the Black Rock team wary of answering this call. In the end, their good nature prevails and they go to help. The two brothers are earlier versions of El Hudat and Ali Khali from Alan Fennellís Stingray episodes Star of the East and Eastern Eclipse, in both their use of arcane insults (ĎSon of a pig, brother of the daughter of a pigí is up there with ĎSand-eating scorpioní) and also their rivalry over ruling a little known state.
Contrary to Andersonís reputation, Supercar isnít wall-to-wall effects - for one thing the resources werenít available at the time. The series gets by with fewer characters, fewer locations and fewer effects shots, as Derek Meddings was on board in a more limited capacity than on later series. The star of the show, Supercar, is like a late 50s American gas guzzler with wings instead of wheels, all fins and chrome trim. Perhaps Reg Hillís design was to deliberately appeal to American tastes, with one eye on achieving a Stateside sale. I prefer it in black and white as the colour scheme always struck me as a little gaudy.
A lot of the effects shots are achieved using back projection, with Supercar filmed against footage of real clouds - the Ďrolling skyí was a few years off. More stock footage is used showing the anti-aircraft guns firing on Supercar, which jars a little with the model footage. It wouldnít be until The Secret Service that the live-action and model shots would blend seamlessly. More effective are the animated flashes on the guns during the final shoot-out. Itís a shame that Supercarís canopy is clearly open during several flying scenes and particularly the underwater sequence, as it spoils the illusion somewhat.
Supercarís world, like the world of the late 50s is a male-dominated world. The fact that there are no female characters in either the regular cast or the guest cast says a lot about the time the series was produced. Having said that, itís surprising that a female character wasnít introduced to reflect the female contingent in the production team. The sight of a puppet smoking - in this case Colonel Humberto - is bizarre for a kidsí TV programme. Itís an unnecessary realistic detail which the younger audience wouldnít have missed then or now. Nowadays, the producers would have all kinds of pressure groups breathing down their necks for that. Thatís progress, apparently.
There are several ideas used in Island Incident which were elaborated upon for later series. The build-up to each launch is the foundation of several subsequent series, culminating in the elaborate Thunderbird launch sequences several years later. The positive moral message is also there - the Supercar crew, like the XL5 crew and the Tracys, are ready to selflessly answer calls for help - something which encourages viewers to identify with Mike and company. During the shoot-out at the end, Mike doesnít shoot to kill, but renders Humberto unconscious by shooting a hanging basket down onto his head.
Supercar may be a less elaborate production that the more sophisticated series that followed, yet it has much to recommend it. The clarity of the 35mm film is exceptional - it does admittedly show up most of the strings when watched on DVD, but gives the series a vitality missing in other series of the same vintage (not that I could name many others that old). One advantage it has over some of its successors is the character-based humour which, as in Stingray, will engage even the casual viewer - there is more time and space to give to the dialogue as the effects take up less of the screen time than in later series. So was revisiting Island Incident worthwhile? Definitely. It certainly left me with an appetite to see more; most satisfactory, as you might say.