The Mysterious Case of Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons
View-Master Test Reels
By James D. Robinson
The Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons View-Master reels that were issued as five sets of three test reels in 1994 are at best a bewildering misstep for View-Master as it limped towards its end. However, when discussing their release, it’s interesting how it parallels the public’s awareness and rediscovery of the mastermind behind the Captain Scarlet TV show which the test reels derived from, namely Gerry Anderson.
Captain Scarlet - test reels
In fact, Anderson’s many shows have gone in tandem with View-Master for far longer than this release, so let’s focus on the man and his work first, whereby we might get a better understanding of this.
Gerry Anderson began his career working on television puppet shows in the UK in the late 1950s, forming a company called AP Films with its first productions being The Adventures of the Twizzles (1957-58) followed by Torchy the Battery Boy (1958-59). Both were primitive puppet shows at an earlier point in television history, but it was the third project that Anderson’s company worked on that began to hint what a Gerry Anderson show could be.
Four Feather Falls (1959-60) was a kids’ puppet Western series featured a process that Anderson would later call Supermarionation. This process, still unnamed at this early juncture, was an electronic system that made the marionettes more lifelike and convincing on screen. It used the audio signal from pre-recorded tapes of actors to trigger solenoids installed in the puppets’ heads, making their lips move in synchronization with the performers’ voices.
Anderson used this to greater acclaim and success with his next series, Supercar (1960-61) when the name “Supermarionation” would be officially used for the process. Supercar was a very successful show at that time, made all the more profitable by Anderson’s canny licensing of the property for toys, books, comics and children’s apparel. View-Master collectors will probably already be aware that this was the first time an Anderson show made it into 3D in the form of a single reel three (B 5213) from Cartoon Carnival (B 521) entitled “Supercar and “The Cave Monster””. The other two reels, featuring cel-animation kids’ shows King Leo and Alvin and the Chipmunks, had nothing to do with Gerry Anderson, but it was a start at least. Interestingly the packet was only released in the US, despite Supercar being much more successful in Europe.
It’s a mystery why Sawyers didn’t follow up with further View-Master sets after that, as Gerry Anderson shows were gathering steam by this point. His next series Fireball XL5 (1962) was a huge success at the time, and the first to really showcase another element familiar to any fan of Gerry Anderson shows, namely incredibly detailed miniature sets featuring science-fiction rockets, vessels, and landscapes. The show also had the distinction of getting sold to NBC in America and finding an audience in the US from this.
After that came Stingray (1964) which proved to be even more popular, featuring Tory Tempest and his team in the Stingray submarine as they fought undersea dangers. At this time, for Anderson and his team of puppeteers and animators, a move to bigger facilities allowed them to make huge leaps in terms of special effects, especially the underwater sequences, as well as advances in marionette technology, with the use of a variety of interchangeable heads for each character to convey different expressions.
However, for whatever reason, neither Fireball XL5 nor Stingray were given View-Master releases (at that time anyway, in Stingray’s case, as I’ll get to presently) and it was only with the next Gerry Anderson show that View-Master would again get involved.
Thunderbirds (1965-66) is arguable the greatest Gerry Anderson show ever made. It combined amazing miniatures and Anderson’s unique form of puppeteering into a truly compelling concept. International Rescue was a covert, private team comprising five “Thunderbird” crafts all with different specialties for saving the victims of countless incredible disaster scenarios. International Rescue was actually the Tracy family, comprising an ex-astronaut father and his five sons, operating out of Tracy Island, a secret base in the middle of the ocean. This set-up allowed for humor and humanity in the stories at the same time as high-adventure. This show was a huge success in the UK and Europe even spinning off into two full-length feature films as well as spawning a plethora of toys, comics, and books. Thankfully, these many spinoffs included the next View-Master release Thunderbirds: “A Trap For A Thunderbird” (B 453), although this was only marketed to Europe via Sawyers’ Belgian plant.
The series that followed this was Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967) which only lasted one season even though the show featured another wonderful cast of characters and a superbly realized series of science-fiction vehicles and planes.
Its basic premise was that after a misunderstanding between an Earth rocket probe and a hidden race of Mysterons on Mars, the Mysterons declare war on Earth. The way they hope to achieve victory is with their ability to take over the form of this or that human, after that person has been killed. To combat them is an Earth peace-keeping force called Spectrum where every agent is designated by a color. Colonel White, Captain Blue, Lieutenant Green, Captain Magenta, etc.
The star of the show, however, was Captain Scarlet who is “killed” by the Mysterons in the first episode. However, this one time something goes wrong, and he’s resurrected instead, and from that point on is unkillable, gallantly dying over and over only to come back to face the Mysterons yet again. (Admittedly the show’s a bit vague on the hows and whys of this.)
Spectrum had an amazing array of brilliantly designed vehicles as well as a squadron of “Angel Interceptor” fighter jets flown by beautiful international female pilots all with musically themed codenames -- Symphony, Rhapsody, Melody, etc.
And Spectrum’s HQ was a massive “cloud base” hovering high in the sky with a runway that the angels took off from as if from an aircraft carrier. Hell of a concept, right?
In retrospect many, including Anderson himself, said that the series was a little two dark, with shadows and death accompanying every new threat by the Mysterons each week. However, the series still produced another incredible array of toys and comics, most notable a series of die-cast metal vehicles from Dinky Toys that are highly collected today.
But alas, no View-Master set.
According to Harry Zur Kliensmiede on Page 415 of View-Master Reels and Packets Volume 3, a planned Captain Scarlet set even had a number allocated to it (B 454) although I can find no record with Harry or anywhere that test reels were produced. Ah, if only. Then we’d have true 3D images of some amazing scenarios filled with incredible futuristic models, instead of the 2D reels that would come 30 years later.
Anyway, for whatever reason we were denied a Captain Scarlet View-Master set at the time, but Sawyers Belgium at least decided to release a packet for the next Anderson show, Joe 90 (1968). This series featured a young boy with the ability to acquire temporary adult skills as required to save the day in each episode; jet pilot, bomb disposal expert, aquanaut, etc., you name it. The show was set in the present but with a science-fiction feel and with the main character being a boy, it was a fun, appealing concept. The View-Master packet subtitled “Attack of the Tiger” (B 456) was equally fun, although again it was only released in Europe where the show had its viewership.
After that Gerry Anderson made the switch over to live action, with two science fiction series that both got packets to accompany them although by now View-Master had been acquired by GAF. These two shows were UFO (1969) (B 417) and Space: 1999 (1975-77) (BB 451). Both were more adult (and in UFO’scase oftentimes terrifying for young kids expecting the fun of Thunderbirds or Joe 90) but the View-Master packets were at least in 3D.
Anderson did other series after that, although nothing found the same success as his Supermarionation series of yore. A return to puppet shows led to Terrahawks (1983-86) which gave us another View-Master set although now in blister-pack form entitled Gerry Anderson and Christopher Burr’s Terrahawks (D 230).
And that was the last we’d see of Gerry Anderson productions appearing in tandem with View-Master packets. Or it least that would have been the case… if not for Supermarionation shows getting rediscovered by a new generation in the early 90s.
In the late 80s and early 90s people who grew up with Gerry Anderson shows, began to make references to the old shows on UK television. There was a Dire Straits music video that the Thunderbirds puppets appeared in. Likewise a series of commercials for a large UK insurance company featured Lady Penelope and her butler Parker, both beloved characters from the Thunderbirds TV show. Ultimately this led to rerelease of Thunderbirds, Stingray and Captain Scarlet on UK television where a new generation of viewers got to discover them. Obviously, to many there was a cheesy, camp quality to the shows by now, and they were enjoyed on that level. However, for others it was a genuine appreciation for what these shows were. Either way, this lead to a resurgence in demand for Gerry Anderson series toys and in far greater quantity than even in the 1960s. In fact, the vehicles and toys released at this point in time weren’t just reissues from the 1960s, but many new one from all the shows that hadn’t originally been available before. And this leads us back to View-Master…
View-Master wanted to get in on the demand for Gerry Anderson products too and rereleased their Thunderbirds set as a blister pack in 1992 while retaining its original serial number.
However, after that there was the problem that neither Stingray nor Captain Scarlet had had Sawyer’s 3D photographers on set for an episode to photograph it at the time that they were first being filmed.
Yeah, big problem.
Ultimately, View-Master decided their only course of action was to release a 2D set of reels for Stingray (D 282) while (rather sneakily IMHO) eliminating 3D from the packet description, and yet not mentioning the set was non-stereo). We can assume they intended to do the same with a Captain Scarletset, before wiser heads prevailed, going as far as releasing the aforementioned five three-reel test sets that have found their way into sundry collectors’ hands.
It should be noted that there was a strange and unsuccessful attempt to make 2D images 3D with some shots in the Captain Scarlet set by having the 2D images shifted and cropped slightly to one or other side, in the hope this would produce something approaching 3D. Obviously, this was unsuccessful due to the lack of shifting perspective from up close to far away which an actual 3D camera provides.
Captain Scarlet - test reels
Anyway, the release of this set was aborted and in the end the Captain Scarlet test reels are a tantalizing example of what might have been, had the Belgian Sawyers photographers shot an episode of the show back in 1967 as they were being made.
Captain Scarlet - test reels
What I will say is that there is a profoundly unsatisfactory feeling to viewing 2D images through a View-Master viewer. It’s the same with both the Stingray and Captain Scarlet sets, the 2D religious series that Sawyers released back in the 1950s, as well as the sundry 2D commercial reels that pop up from time to time. It shouldn’t feel as aggravating to experience this as it does, and yet that profoundly annoying feeling is the same for any lover of 3D imagery.
And so, with that in mind, the fact that the Captain Scarlet reels exit in so small a quantity is probably a blessing. Or as Harry Zur Kleinsmiede put it on Page 416 of View-master Reels and Packets Vol 3… “FORTUNATELY THIS IDEA WAS CANCELLED!”