Following Lew Grade’s failure to sell Thunderbirds to any of the American television networks in 1966, he felt it was time for Gerry Anderson and his team to produce a whole new series, rather than more adventures from International Rescue. This move may have been unexpected and viewed by many to be more than a little rash and misjudged. However, the result of this decision is what really solidified the reputation of Gerry Anderson as a producer who could deliver an incredible number of film and television classics, each one unique and special in it’s own way. To achieve this, what followed Thunderbirds had to continue to push the technical boundaries of what was possible in the medium of Supermarionation. One can’t begin to imagine just how daunting it was to produce a brand new idea that would capture the appeal and success that Thunderbirds had. Perhaps the obvious thing to do would have been to play it safe and produce something very similar. But Gerry and his team knew they couldn’t just copy what had gone before. The new series had to be brave and it had to be different to anything that had been on television previously. Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons was the result, but the format went through many variations before Century 21 had the formula to create another television classic.
The initial idea derived from a failed pitch to Lew Grade for a live action police series. Halfway through the series Gerry had planned to kill off the lead character and have a new lead take over. It would shock audiences, but Grade wasn’t impressed with the notion of having to sell a series that lost it’s leading man halfway through. However, the idea stayed with Gerry. What about killing off the main character in the first episode and replacing him with a mechanical replica that can be resurrected whenever he dies in the fight against an alien menace?
In August 1966, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson began work on a pilot script entitled The Mysterons. This saw Captain Scarlet become a Mysteron duplicate who is killed and artificially resurrected by an advanced Spectrum computer which makes him not truly human, but an android. Gerry would later revisit the android concept with the aliens in Terrahawks. Later on it was decided that rather than being a mechanical man, Captain Scarlet would be naturally healed and resurrected.
Another important decision concerning the series’ format was what form the alien menace would take. Curiosity about the possibility of life on Mars was high in the late 1960s, and it was a popular subject in science fiction. At around the same time Doctor Who claimed that Mars was home to the Ice Warriors. But Gerry believed that if the idea of Martian life was disproved he wanted the Mysterons to still be feasible. His solution was to make the Mysterons an invisible force represented only by two green rings and a deep, booming voice. That way, Gerry could say that there was still a form of life on Mars, you just couldn’t see it.
Aside from the nature of Captain Scarlet’s indestructibility, another aspect of the initial script that was changed had to do with casting. It was the producers’ initial hope that for every episode a prominent actor could be brought in to play the main guest role. In the first episode the role of the World President was intended to be played by Patrick McGoohan, star of Danger Man and The Prisoner. Due to budgetary restrictions this plan for a different guest voice artist every week wasn’t possible. The role of the World President eventually went to Paul Maxwell who also played a number of roles, including Captain Grey, in the first half of the series.
The most noticeable change between Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet was of course the new puppet design which made the marionettes correctly proportioned and exactly one-third human size. This was achieved by moving the solenoid mechanism to operate the lower lip from the head into the chest of the characters, thus allowing the heads to be reduced in size. Alongside the regular characters, over 50 revamp puppets were created to serve as guest characters. Some of these would go on to have starring roles in later Supermarionation series. The more realistic puppets significantly changed the feel of the series compared to what had gone before. Not only was the series’ premise much darker than previous shows, but the less caricatured puppets, which had even more limited movement, seemed more grown-up than the characters in the earlier series. It would be much harder to take Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons seriously if the characters had retained the larger heads and the team were still attempting to make them walk and move in the way some of the Thunderbirds characters had done. It is very fortunate that Century 21’s move towards more realistic puppets came at the same time as this attempt at a more serious concept. One without the other would have been a very jarring experience for the viewer.
Ultimately, Thunderbirds remains as Gerry Anderson’s most well remembered television series. Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons does, however, have it’s own very special appeal which also made it very successful. If Century 21 hadn’t been brave enough to try and do something quite different in style to its predecessors, the series could have potentially just been another puppet show that “wasn’t quite as good as Thunderbirds.” Instead we have a series that has lasted just as long as what came before it, and most importantly it showed that Gerry Anderson was capable of doing so much for film and television by innovating in different fields to create a career spanning across several decades and multiple generations.
Would you have preferred to have seen more Thunderbirds? Were the new puppets used on Captain Scarlet a mistake? Let us know your thoughts about Captain Scarlet in the comments below.