Despite superficial changes from previous series, swapping secret bases and square-jawed heroes for a priest and his church, The Secret Service featured a similar underlying message to that found in most Supermarionation series, that of reliance on technology, automated or otherwise, not being a good thing; mixed in with a little of Stanley Unwin’s famous gobbledegook it puts a different spin on a familiar formula.
Father Unwin is called in to monitor the testing of the World Army’s new automated weapon, the Aquatank, which has already suffered one suspected sabotage attempt. While Matthew secretes himself aboard the vehicle, the saboteur Captain Mitchell makes his move and locks the chiefs of staff in the blockhouse, programming the Aquatank to attack it. Father Unwin is able to instruct Matthew to revert to manual control, leaving the Aquatank to destroy its original target where the traitorous Mitchell had been hiding.
On a purely surface level there are numerous similarities to the Captain Scarlet episode Point 783 - the testing of an automated and invincible tank which is hijacked by the bad guys and turned on the originator, also the traitor within the ranks and the last-minute reprieve. But looking a little deeper, in place of Scarlet’s bodycount there is a subtle subtext of faith running through the episode.
The enemy agents using the World Army’s technology against them is an obvious allegory about the hazards of complete automation, a fear addressed frequently in Thunderbirds (Brink of Disaster and Path of Destruction feature automation running away from its operators) and other series such as Doctor Who (Spearhead from Space) which question whether the technology is now in charge. The episode’s pivotal moment comes when Matthew switches the advancing Aquatank back to manual control - in other words the machinery is now subordinate to its creator once again, as it should stay.
The clerical vocation of the main character also introduces the issue of faith - the series doesn’t so much preach any religion as such but rather demonstrates people putting faith in each other. In trusting the eccentric Unwin (blind faith as it happens, as this Chaplain appears to be talking utter nonsense), Professor Graham helps to avert the disaster. Unwin circumspectly passes it off as ‘a miracle of science’, avoiding any awkward questions. In several other episodes it’s interesting that he implies his successes (achieved using the science of the Minimiser) are down to divine intervention.
The hubris of the World Army men is also highlighted - seconds after bragging about the Aquatank being unstoppable and God help the poor souls we let this thing loose on, they end up staring down its gun barrels themselves. Interesting. Unwin’s closing sermon mentions ‘those that live by the sword shall perish by the sword’ - so maybe a more appropriate ending would have seen the World Army staff blown to fragments by their own Aquatank. It’s food for thought, anyway. There is also the paradox of a priest protecting a weapon of war, but as Unwin’s more spy than priest, it’s just the sabotage he’s concerned about this time.
It has to be said that the sight of the traitor Mitchell’s shattered body lying in the wreckage at the end is a little superfluous. It doesn’t really fit with Unwin’s closing sermon as it’s more suggestive of revenge than poetic justice. Or is that just the way my mind works. We get little or no explanation as to why Mitchell wanted the chiefs of staff dead, he’s just a traitor and that’s it. Maybe he was bullied at school, who knows.
In this or any of Anderson’s series things are rarely what they initially seem. Mrs Appleby is convinced of Matthew’s idleness, while in reality he and Father Unwin are trained secret agents (shades of the Joe/Mac relationship in Joe 90). The poor old dear would faint if she knew the truth! One shortcoming of the episode and the series as a whole is that The Secret Service, like the clerical fraternity and the armed forces of the time, is an all-male club. Mrs Appleby is the sole female character in the story, though she contributes precisely nil to the plot.
The dialogue does well fleshing all the main characters out, even the sentry who is unfortunate enough to tangle with Unwin twice (‘you again’). There are several witty (and nonsensical) exchanges with Unwin tying the sentry and Professor Graham up in knots, rambling on about ‘M.I. thrifty fool’ and ‘optical deludeys’. There is a great moment just after he’s arrived when he wastes no time enquiring about the status of the Aquatank. The blank (i.e. fixed) expressions on the faces of Professor Graham and Colonel Blair actually work to the advantage of the humorous situation as they’re left speechless by Unwin’s forthright question. Unwin himself veers between eccentric and certifiable - it would take more than trusting in providence to get me to drive across a minefield in a Model T.
Barry Gray’s sedate soundtrack accompanies Unwin on his leisurely drive through the country to the World Army base. Although the script attempts to keep us guessing as to who the traitor is, the music drops several hints that it is the greasy Mitchell who is up to no good. Derek Meddings’ effects are up to their usual high standard - eye-catching futuristic tanks and plenty of exploding magnesium. The re-use of stock footage of the Angel from Captain Scarlet is a little too obvious and the redressed Unitron from Business Holiday can also be spotted if you look hard enough. Interestingly, the buildings featured in the episode are a mix of futuristic and old, reinforcing the notion that the series is not meant to be as futuristic as its predecessors. Keith Wilson’s interiors are suitably high-tech, but perhaps a little too colourful for a military base. Still, it makes a change from all that khaki and olive drab.
Automated vehicles taking on a life of their own are standard stuff in Anderson’s supermarionated series and SF in general. The format is superficially different but deals with the same themes in a slightly different way. Despite some recognizable plot elements, the episode benefits from Unwin’s marvellously absurd wordplay and the eccentric but loveable character built up around it. The basis of the story may be familiar but it's given a new spin, making it eminently watchable - and anyone who tells you otherwise is just trying to ‘pully over the wool of your eyebold’.