It’s unlikely that even the staunchest fan of the much-missed Gerry Anderson would be minded to argue that 1968’s Joe 90 represented anything like the very best of the Supermarionation supremo’s formidable body of work from the 1960s and 1970s. History now records how Anderson’s powerhouse Century 21 Productions had peaked with the legendary Thunderbirds in 1965/6 and scored a lesser success with the much more nihilistic Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons in 1967. Audiences could have gorged on new series of Thunderbirds for years, but this was a time when producers and studios rarely considered squeezing a franchise until it squeaked, and Anderson’s ITC paymaster Lew Grade was anxious for Century 21 to move on to the next series, the next potential big thing, as soon as production had wrapped on one series, no matter how successful it might have been.
To be fair, Anderson was never one to rest on his laurels, and in Joe 90 he and his then-wife Sylvia were clearly keen to move away from the explosive action-packed formula of most of their previous puppet productions. Joe 90, by contrast to those which had preceded it, was a much more sedate and understated affair, and whilst it doesn’t always work – it’s hard to reconcile the visually-drab style and general lack of spectacle of Joe 90 with Century 21’s more popular shows – it’s really quite remarkable, viewed some fifty years later, that Anderson was prepared to throw his baby out with the bathwater and tell a different type of story in a significantly different way.
The show’s format would send today’s po-faced furrow-browed guardians of everyone’s morality into uncontrolled paroxysms of outrage. Top scientist “Mac” Maclaine allows his adopted nine year-old son to work for secret security organisation WIN (World Intelligence Network) as its “most special agent”, utilising Maclaine’s incredible brainwave technology which allows the knowledge and expertise of another individual to be downloaded into Joe’s brain. Joe, cherubic and monotonously squeaky-voiced, is pitched into any number of potentially-lethal situations - battling spies and kidnappers, flung into space on a rescue mission and, more often than not, gunning down baddies without a moment’s thought. Did no-one think of the children?!
Joe 90 is, in truth, a bit dull but that’s mainly because Stingray, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and co quite clearly weren’t. The lack of memorable Anderson hardware is fatal; all we get is the cage-like Big Rat in which Joe is cerebrally transformed (and yes, we get to see the show’s title sequence/transformation effect in virtually every episode, usually accompanied by another magnificent Barry Gray signature tune), and Mac’s big green space-car, but that’s really about it – slim pickings for kids who’d spent hours in the playground with their toy Thunderbirds and Spectrum vehicles.
There’s precious little in the stories to set the pulse racing either. It’s clear that the Andersons were trying to move into more character-based drama (a difficult proposition with expressionless marionettes, no matter how better-proportioned they’d become), but episodes like “Three’s A Crowd” in which Sam’s new girlfriend isn’t quite who she appears to be, and the quaint Christmas episode “The Unorthodox Shepherd” show a remarkable maturity within the potentially-limited genre in which they’re being told.
Ultimately Joe 90 doesn’t quite work despite its best intentions, mainly because in trying to move away from the ground-breaking spectacle of his earlier work, Anderson forgot that this was what had made his shows so successful and memorable in the first place. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It’s highly unlikely you’ll work your way through the whole series but Anderson completists won’t want to miss a chance to pick up this crisp, budget-priced DVD box set from ITC which, if nothing else, is a bit of a steal at around fifteen quid.
Special features: Character profiles, galleries, merchandise, alternative credits.
JOE 90 – THE COMPLETE SERIES / DIRECTOR: VARIOUS / SCREENPLAY: VARIOUS / STARRING: LEN JONES, RUPERT DAVIES, KEITH ALEXANDER, DAVID HARRIS, SYLVIA ANDERSON / CERT: U / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW