Joe 90 – even after fifty years just the title alone seems to annoy some people. There are several reasons for this, and one of them is the misconception that having a child character as the star automatically means that the series is much more child-friendly than previous Anderson shows. It’s less exciting than Thunderbirds or not as inappropriately violent as Captain Scarlet, and so on and so forth…
…until you actually watch the show and realise that it’s every bit as exciting as Thunderbirds and just as dark and violent as Captain Scarlet – if not more so! Setting aside for a moment the extremely questionable morality inherent in the show’s very premise (that’s an article all its own!) we invite you now to come with us as we take you on a tour of Joe 90‘s five darkest moments…
#5 – The massive body count of Splashdown
While not as immediately obvious as it is in episodes like Winged Assassin or Operation Crash-Dive Splashdown once again presents us with the charming notion of dozens of people being killed in plane crashes at sea. As this episode opens two aircraft have already been deliberately crashed in order to cover terrorist kidnappings of leading scientists that were passengers on each flight. Sam points out “theirs were the only bodies not recovered”, which once again is an uncomfortably familiar real life detail we’d rather not have to think about.
W.I.N. plans to place Mac on the next flight on the same route, and sure enough the same thing happens again. It turns out that the kidnapped scientists are being transferred to this submarine before being taken on elsewhere, but this time W.I.N. have called in the navy to stop them. Excellent! So now we can force them to surrender and thus find out where the missing scientists are being hel-
Oh, okay then. Hope those scientists enjoy their stay with the Eastern Alliance.
Oh, and just for fun, we also get this shot of the stewardess who helped with Mac’s kidnapping trembling in fear for her life when one of her male colleagues threatens her with a gun.
#4 – The Sergeant’s death from Colonel McClaine
Faced with an impassable mountain road ‘Colonel’ Joe McClaine and his men (Private Johnson and an unnamed Sergeant) decide to go around it by driving up the side of the mountain itself. This works fine at first, as Joe and Johnson make it to the top safely, but when the Sergeant follows them the tree holding his truck’s weight suddenly gives way and he tumbles back down the mountainside – right into the remaining truck.
This is a particularly standout moment because the Sergeant doesn’t get killed by some bad guy with a gun – he gets killed in a simple accident that was nobody’s fault and nobody’s intention. It’s really sad. What particularly sells the moment is that the episode goes out of its way to make the Sergeant as likeable as possible, so that when he is suddenly and brutally blown to bits you really feel the void left by his absence. The shot of Joe and Johnson watching the burning wreckage of his truck, with Johnson slowly lowering the radio into which he had just been speaking to his friend and colleague, is a particularly poignant one and a fine example of the level of emotional maturity this supposed ‘kiddy show’ was capable of reaching.
#3 – The execution scene from Three’s a Crowd
Yep, can’t not mention this one. The next time anybody dismisses Joe 90 as being too kid-friendly this is the scene to show them, because it’s staggeringly inappropriate for a child audience. Three’s a Crowd opens in a run-down fortress in the middle of nowhere as this poor chap is staked out before a firing squad being lectured by ‘the General’ about how much of a failure he is.
This scene is being watched by two men and a woman, who have been brought here to see what will happen to them if they should ever fail the General. With the pep talk over the General moves to a safe distance and then gives the order; “Firing squad, at the ready! Take aim! Fire!” The squad’s rifles hit the target easily, and the man’s dead body slides slowly to the ground. With that out of the way the General then venomously addresses the watchers; “if you work for me, success is amply rewarded, but fail and you will suffer the same fate as the wretch you have just seen executed!”
Brr. What makes it even more ghoulish is that most of the rest of the episode is a sweet little character story based mostly in Mac’s cottage, as the General’s female operative tries to seduce the good Professor while also trying not to think about what will happen if she fails.
#2 – Breakout (all of it!)
Gosh, where to start with this one? Breakout is perhaps the most violent Supermarionation episode ever made, as two escaped convicts go on the rampage in the snows of Canada gunning down anyone who stands in their way. Even Joe doesn’t escape the episode unscathed, his hand being hit by a pistol shot, but the episode’s most shocking moment is easily the scene where convicts Real and Marney escape from their prison van. While guard Pierre is interrogating Marney Real kicks the heavy metal van door into the back of Pierre’s head, no doubt causing him serious injury if not killing him outright.
Realising that something is wrong Pierre’s partner Eddie gets on the radio to report the breakout, but is shot dead by Real before he can even finish the message. We’ve seen characters get shot in Supermarionation shows before, but rarely in such graphic detail. A patch of red blood instantly appears on Eddie’s chest as the bullet hits him and the puppet slumps forward in his chair, his sightless eyes still staring ahead. It’s such a quick scene that it usually slips the attention of broadcast censors, but it’s one of the more uncomfortably realistic scenes of violence in any Gerry Anderson series.
#1 – Joe murders Coletti from Hi-jacked
In The Birthday Sam Loover describes the events of Hi-jacked as Joe’s “first real assignment“, and there’s certainly no denying that this is perhaps the definitive Joe 90 episode. It’s a perfect example of both the show’s format and some of its more unsavory elements, as Joe is thrown into a lair of ruthless gunrunners with no backup and no real plan. Does he get shot at? Oh yes. Does he suffer physical injury? Of course! Does he ultimately murder Mario Coletti, the leader of the gunrunners, with a hand grenade? You bet!
While you could make the argument that Joe was acting in self defence here it certainly seems like a massive overreaction to outright murder Coletti in so brutal and gory a manner, particularly given Sam’s comment at the start of the episode that this man was responsible for hundreds of deaths and thus really should have had to stand trial for his crimes. Joe did take one or two (dozen) more lives throughout the course of the series but none quite as spectacularly violently as he did here, and we have to wonder if any of these murders carried out by other people’s thoughts in his head caused him any mental trauma later in life.
Wow – what a bloodbath, and we know there’s more that we missed! Do you have any favourite delightfully dark Joe 90 moments that you would add to this list? Let us know in the comments below!
And if you’re now feeling a need to get into the Joe 90 spirit with some 50th-anniversary merchandise, then we’ve got you covered. More coming in the next few weeks too!