“Anything can happen in the next half hour,” Commander Samuel Shore trumpeted dramatically at the beginning of every episode.
It’s OK, relax. You have not stumbled across the opening lines of a less than proficient novelist’s work prone as it often is to unnecessary overuse of adverbs. Yet at times, at first glance Stingray might come across just like that. Scratch through the surface though and we see something a bit more complicated.
Consider that they aimed this at young children then look into nearly any episode for more adult tropes to emerge. In one episode, Raptures of the Deep, the plot dictates that a pair of beatnik ‘hepcats’ who have thrown together an old bucket of a sub and unwisely taken it several fathoms down should inevitably get into trouble so that Stingray can rescue them. I vaguely got the message as a kid about the stereotypically free loving, establishment-averse, lazy of thought amateurs fooling around with things they did not understand, but I did not really get the joke. The joke was an adult one.
That type of thing was not a one-off. In the same episode, we revisit from another angle the recurring Marina / Troy / Atlanta Shore love-triangle; yes, really. No actual sex involved, but week after week, we understood that Troy longed for Marina while Atlanta longed for Troy and all the while, she looked sideways to see what the competition was doing.
Remaining in this episode for a moment, the raptures of the deep referred to in the title are in fact a result of Troy experiencing Nitrogen Narcosis. While at a point of near asphyxiation Troy, set free from the normal ethical constraints that we all feel when properly awake indulges himself in his darkest dreams, which are to become Emperor of the undersea world, wealthy beyond his imagination and waited upon hand and foot by all the people with whom he normally associates. The women, by the way get the job of stroking his ego, waving a palm or two punkawallah-style over his imperial brow and feeding him grapes. Significantly, both Marina and Atlanta are left in waiting, but their gentle animosity seethes just below the surface.
Really, by today’s standards, it is the stuff of everyday drama of a certain kind and you cannot help now asking the question: for whom was Stingray broadcast?
It is easy for modern-day sophisticates to poke fun at any of the supermarionated puppet shows when seen merely as attempts to replicate adult stories. I mean, imagine if you wanted to reproduce modern-day drama as a Gerry Anderson-style puppet show? In the 22nd century aliens have infiltrated The World Presidency in Geneva and Inspector Sarah Stormlund of the C.O.P.S. (Copenhagen Orbital Police Squad) are called in to investigate the murder of a young intern. Equipped with state of the art Volvomat patrol skimmers, (primarily because making puppets walk convincingly is difficult) their inquiries take the crack team to a remote, yet dismal part of Sweden where it turns out Nanna Birk Larsen did it after all. You see what I mean. I can poke fun at it without there even being a show!
To a generation brought up on CGI, trained in media studies to A** level and able to see the World news almost before it happens, Stingray might appear tame. The show of course was made for people of the era and sometimes how you watch television can be as important as why you watch it. I get the feeling that quite a few adults sat down to watch over their children’s shoulders at the time. While we youngsters were simply entertained fretting if Troy Tempest would get to the surface of the sea before his air ran out, they were probably wondering if there would be a fight at the funeral should the hero actually die.
And that’s what is so good about Stingray. I think it managed to appeal on many levels. The submarine itself was, to the child’s eye the most beautiful looking machine. To the adult forced to watch, (you know, like those ‘forced’ to watch Thomas The Tank Engine or The Sarah Jane Adventures later on), Stingray had an interesting back story. Television might present shows for kids or teenagers, but in Stingray’s case, there was more to it than that. There was human interest, there were jokes, there was good characterisation relevant to the day and a pretty good yarn rapidly unfolded in most episodes.
Anderson’s third series in Supermarionation brought a new level of emotional literacy to the genre, albeit one difficult to define. Gradually the move had been made and puppetry was continuing to move toward greater realism, but let’s not get this out of proportion; it was not the end of innocence.
Puppetry of the Gerry Anderson variety, despite being set in an imaginary future began to appear more relevant at a deeper level for the audience of the day. The transaction in any learning process depends upon emotional involvement and increasingly the puppet series got you involved. I remember seeing sometimes in the 1980s a soapy show called Triangle involving a shipping line – at least when I was bored enough I watched it. It is probably fashionable to deride it these days for its production values, clunky script or some such reason, but I cannot even do that. The reason for this is that it was eminently forgettable to me. Its stories were irrelevant, its emotional content was unrealistic, they did not work at a personal level, and therefore, I forgot them. That is not the case with Stingray, Fireball XL5 or any of Anderson’s other series.
If you have been following these essays of mine on the Supermarionation puppet shows you will notice that I do not dwell for too long upon their bad points, of which I believe there to be few. Any move toward too much realism in a puppet show might prove counterproductive in the end and by depicting the world too realistically; you are in danger of stifling the imagination. Develop a plot involving real people in everyday circumstances, but with extraordinary dynamics in play, e.g. Misfits, then you have a winner. Largely Stingray had achieved just that in its own way.