“This is the voice of Lew Grade, from a galaxy a million lightyears away – we have observed the cancellation of the The Secret Service and would strongly suggest you don’t try this live-action/Supermarionation crossover thing again. Gerry Anderson has selected an earth boy and girl to star in another one though. Through John and Julie he’s going to make a really bizarre pilot episode which won’t make your world a better place.”
The Investigator is a pilot film that was devised and directed by Gerry Anderson in 1973. The film returned to the practice utilised in The Secret Service of combining live actors with 1/3 normal-size Supermarionation puppets. It was shot entirely on location in Malta, following a visit made by the crew of Anderson-produced live action series The Protectors. It features the vocal talents of Peter Dyneley (Jeff Tracy) as The Investigator, Shane Rimmer (Scott Tracy) as John, and Sylvia Anderson (Lady Penelope) as Julie.
The half-hour pilot has much to entice Anderson afficinados with the three Thunderbirds cast members taking on roles and this being the final Supermarionation production. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite deliver the best performances or Supermarionation artistry that had been honed over the previous decade by the AP Films and Century 21 crew at the Slough Trading Estate. This feels like a few of the crew took a holiday to Malta and decided to take some of the uglier puppets with them and make a little home movie.
That said… I do love it. There’s so much wrong with it that I can’t help but enjoy the bizarre madness of it all. I hope that will become clear in my commentary, or I’ll discover that I actually secretly detest it. Anyway, in a similar style to my Thunderbirds 1965 articles, I am going to disect The Investigator, the Supermarionation series that never was. Prepare for the loudest, most conspicuous spy car you’ve ever heard, some funky tunes, and a man pretending to fly a plane which clearly hasn’t left the ground.
Story by Shane Rimmer
Screenplay by Sylvia Anderson
Devised and Directed by Gerry Anderson
The episode begins with a very weirdly animated shot of the Earth which we zoom towards while The Investigator declares that because the human race has screwed up, he’s going to help out with the assistance of a boy and a girl called John and Julie with the intention of making the world ‘a better place’. Quite a claim. And a fairly exciting premise really. A mysterious alien intelligence with unknowable powers training two inexperienced but dedicated kids to tackle international espionage, environmental disasters or political corruption has a huge amount of potential for mystery, suspense and action. It’s pretty similar to Joe 90 in that respect but with the added draw of an alien presence that we don’t know much about – similar to the Mysterons in Captain Scarlet. So a sort of Joe 90/Captain Scarlet crossover sounds pretty cool, and pretty identifiable as a Gerry Anderson concept.
But then, once the opening narration is over, something happens. The theme tune and a horrendously fast-cutting montage kicks in. I like the tune, its catchy and cheesy, but it doesn’t exactly sell the idea that this show is worth taking seriously. Barry Gray’s music for the previous Supermarionation series never sent up the fact that the stars were puppets – it took them seriously and worked with them to create great drama, action and sometimes comedy. Vic Elms’s theme for The Investigator is fairly generic and basically all it does is fill the space where some opening and closing music was needed.
As I’ve said, the montage itself goes way too fast – mainly because the music doesn’t set a pace for it all that well. Unfortunately faster editing doesn’t always equate to generating excitement and tension. I’m forced to take the teasers in the opening of every Thunderbirds episode as an example to demonstrate what’s wrong here. The Thunderbirds teasers show just a few carefully selected moments from each story which tease the progression of a disaster and builds to the moment just before International Rescue saves the day, then cuts abruptly to the rest of the opening titles. It generates intrigue and excitement, showcasing the established format and the established characters and vehicles and demonstrates how they will be put to use in this week’s episode. Whether the situation will be resolved successfully is left until the end of the episode and keeps the viewer hooked. In contrast to this expertly paced editing in Thunderbirds, The Investigator opening montage takes the entire episode and squeezes it into 30 seconds that one cannot possibly make sense of because it jumps around all over the place due to the rushed nature of the plot. All the viewer can really take from it is that there are some boats, a weird red car, some puppets, some people, some more cars, a plane that can’t fly that well and a police car turning up at the end. Stay tuned for a story with all that stuff in it… and absolutely nothing else!
Very abruptly the montage finishes and a shot of a headland establishes the location. Its somewhere sunny and by the coast, but that’s all we get. Hardcore Anderson fans kind of take it for granted that The Investigator is set in Malta because the story of it being filmed there is about as famous as the episode itself. However, to any casual viewer the setting is never firmly established, and there are lots of aspects that lead one to question where we actually are. I’ll come to those as the episode goes on.
We’re in a cave with two puppets. Oh. I’m sorry. Two miniaturised people…
No, I’m sorry, they are puppets, and not the most attractive puppets at that. But we’re supposed to believe that they are human beings that have been shrunk down to 1/3 normal size. How do we know this? Because John’s reading a giant book and Julie’s cooking a huge fish. So many questions already. I’m guessing John and Julie normally hang out in this cave when they’re normal size, hence all the books and the fish already being cooked, but its never confirmed. Otherwise I want to know how such tiny people caught such a big fish and dragged in all the books. Also, from a production point of view, if you’re trying to push a really abstract concept to the viewer, like people being miniaturised, and you’ve only got a few establishing shots for that to be done in, then why do it in a dark cave with only a few sort-of-large props lying around? Regular Supermarionation viewers are used to accepting that the puppets are full size humans so a few heftier hints are really needed to confirm that John and Julie have been made smaller. It would have had much more impact to have seen John and Julie surrounded by lots of huge everyday objects in a very busy environment like a city to make it really clear how small and vulnerable they are.
The Investigator speaks to John and Julie through the form of a green light which flares at the camera in a rather striking way that I actually quite like. Of course this accounts for why John and Julie speak with him in a darkened cave. The implication is, however, that The Investigator only communicates through this green light and potentially only in this particular cave. This suddenly rather limits how much the character can feature in future stories. Unfortunately, the exposition is rather limited. A pilot episode is intended to demonstrate the format of a series and essentially dump as much information for the viewer as possible while also delivering a really good story to capture and audience. The Investigator chose to leave most of the necessary exposition to the side and try to get to the “story” as quickly as possible. All that is said about John and Julie’s miniaturisation is that The Investigator did this so they could assist him more easily. This is ultimately the main failing of this pilot episode and the format as a whole. Because the simple fact is that John and Julie being made smaller is of absolutely no use to them on their mission and is much more of a hindrance than a help. It makes them vulnerable, unable to get help, and means that every piece of equipment has to be custom made for them. None of the benefits of being miniaturised are layed out except that John and Julie are harder to spot… which if proper agents had been hired for the job rather than children wouldn’t have been a problem anyway. And why does The Investigator ask two teenagers to do the job anyway? Obviously it makes them more relatable characters for the intended audience but in terms of fighting crime and getting stuff done it makes them a bit useless. And why are John and Julie wearing matching outfits? And are they brother and sister? Are they just friends? And why do they have mid-atlantic accents when they’re supposedly from Malta? Are they just tourists? Are we definitely in Malta? I have no idea. See what I mean about this making no sense?
So anyway, The Investigator starts to explain the “plot”. A bloke on a boat called Stavros Karanti is planning to steal a painting from the island (we know we’re on an island now). Julie reminds us that it’s a 14th Century masterpiece – it’s about the only thing she does know because for the rest of the episode she’s pretty thick and needs John to explain everything to her. Anyway, that’s the “plot”. That’s it. The Investigator’s hope to save mankind from itself begins with stopping a man stealing a painting. You know how I said the Joe 90/Captain Scarlet type format had a lot of potential? And that a pilot episode should demonstrate that potential to the full? Well never mind because we have two puppets trying to stop a tubby man and his sidekick steal a painting for 25 minutes. I’m being a tad harsh of course, but compared to the grand scale of the previous Supermarionation series you can see why this is a bit of a let down.
Oh wait, here’s the title. Just in case you weren’t wowed enough by the mystery and intrigue already, here’s a picture of the Earth under a square magnifying glass. It’s a nice piece of symbolism which represents the format well but I have just one question… who has a square magnifying glass?
John and Julie have made it down to the beach. Julie is close to being blown over by the light breeze. We get a good look at the newly made puppets by a company called Voluscene Ltd and operated by Supermarionation regulars John and Wanda Brown. There isn’t all that much to say about them really. Their faces are similar to those seen in the later puppet shows but for some reason there’s something really wrong with their eyes. John’s are bright blue in a slightly scary way, and Julie’s eyes are yellow and completely lifeless. It doesn’t help that the puppets aren’t able to be lit in the usual way because they’ve been taken on location. Puppets on location had been experimented with very briefly in The Secret Service but it’s been exploited fully here and unsurprisingly it doesn’t look right. All things considered the puppeteers do a great job and a decent effort is put into hiding the wires and photographing them as well as possible, but it still doesn’t look right. Because of their realistic proportions, the later marionettes used in Captain Scarlet, Joe 90 and The Secret Service were never able to move as freely as the earlier puppets. This was because the bodies were too small and light, and also because the more realistic puppets simply didn’t look right doing puppet-like movements. So when the puppets who can’t move like human beings are put into a real world environment that isn’t custom-built for them it just doesn’t look credible that the characters are anything other than puppets – there is certainly no way that they pass for human beings.
Then something really weird happens. Just as John and Julie discuss the uncertainty of the whole situation, a huge bang goes off and when the smoke clears a big red car appears. That’s right, a BIG red car. My opinions of the infamous Investigator car are mixed. As a piece of design by itself I think Reg Hill has made a very striking vehicle that looks great as a toy (more on that later!). The model itself looks okay, but not only does it not hold up at all well to the model making standards of the previous Supermarionation series, but the design itself simply does not fit the requirements of the show’s format.
Here’s a list of problems with this car, with consideration of the fact it is being used by miniature spies trying to remain incognito:
1. It’s too darn big – if you’re trying to drive home the fact that your characters are smaller than normal, don’t give them a vehicle that’s almost the size of a regular car!
2. It’s too darn red – even if the villain you’re trying to sneak up on hasn’t spotted the car because of it’s size, they’ll definitely spot it because of how much it sticks out. Red doesn’t camoflauge with anything!
3. It’s too darn loud – even if the villain you’re trying to sneak up on is completely blind, they’ll still think a Formula 1 racing car is thundering towards them when John revs up the engine of this baby.
To top it all off, the car is established on screen with a really camp piece of music that fails to stir any confidence in its subtlety.
John explains to Julie how all the features on the car work. How Julie got into it at all is a bit of a mystery as the car doesn’t appear to have any doors. How John came to know all about the car is explained away as basically being a special power given to him by The Investigator. Okay, fair enough, John has a special power of being able to know how technology works instantly. It’s not an amazing power but it’ll do. So what’s Julie’s special power?… Anyone? …Nope, me neither…
So the dynamic duo attempt to drive off in a sequence that doesn’t inspire much confidence in the characters or their new technology. As they aimlessly drive around the beach, the engine roars away and the characters awkwardly try to shout at each other over the awful noise. The camera operator clearly has no idea where the car is going and struggles to keep the thing in shot. All this comes as a result of the model car’s radio control system receiving major interference during filming, making it incredibly difficult to steer and keep under control. The machine was petrol powered and capable of reaching speeds of up to 30mph. That doesn’t sound like much, but when a huge red brick comes hurtling towards a film crew at 30mph completely out of control, you bet they all jumped out of its way! Gerry Anderson said that “it just went mad.” My question is though, if these shots of the car look so out of control and aren’t filmed all that well, why are they included in the finished show? Most of the episode looks like it’s supposed to be there, but this looks like some outtakes that made it in by accident. I don’t doubt that these were the best shots they got, but they could have just been cut out altogether. If this made it in, what on earth did the outtakes look like?
Eventually the car struggles up a bumpy track to the top of the cliff.
A GOAT! Why do we cut away to a goat reacting to John and Julie’s arrival? I don’t know. But it’s the not the last time an animal is going to steal the show…
Using the sonic detector, John and Julie are able to listen to conversations being had by Karanti and his sidekick Christoph from far away. Pretty neat. It also means that the film crew don’t have to get too close to the actors while they’re talking. This is the case for the majority of the live action footage. Characters are only shown talking either when they’re really far away, or they have their backs turned from the camera. Unfortunately it sticks out quite badly that all of the dialogue has been dubbed on afterwards to save time and money.
Karanti leaves his yacht on a speedboat to take a look at the painting he intends to steal. Actor Charles Thake does his best with what he had to work with, but most of the time he just doesn’t really look like he wants to be there. I mean look at him. He’s dressed up in a suit getting splashed with water in a tiny little boat that’s going just a bit too fast. He probably has no idea who his character is or what he’s supposed to be doing. It sadly suggests an issue with the way The Investigator was directed. No-one knew exactly why they were shooting certain things and it means the shots don’t really link together into a story. Rather than being a shot of Karanti contemplating the wicked excitement of getting his hands on a treasured piece of art, it’s just him driving a boat really fast with no sense of any feeling or emotion.
John and Julie attempt to tail Karanti without being spotted in their big, red, noisy car. Fortunately there’s no-one around to see them. But someone in the town must have wondered why a racing car was driving through at full volume.
They find an empty garage to hide the car in.
A HORSE! Here’s our second animal reacting to the Investigator car. Again, I don’t know why. I guess it’s funny.
Karanti meets the church tour group. I don’t think they’re actors. If they are, they weren’t really told anything about what they were supposed to be doing. But they do sort of look like random people dragged in off the street or members of the crew forced to go in front of the camera.
John and Julie wait until they can follow the group inside the church undetected. I like this shot of them hiding behind the canon because it shows how tiny and vulnerable they are. Unfortunately because puppets can’t run convincingly we don’t see very much of them sneaking around quickly.
Inside the church, John pops up from behind a book. With the limits of the puppetry this is the closest we get to some exciting snooping being done.
Karanti persuades… some guy… to tell him about the church’s security arrangements, thus revealing everything he needs to know to steal the painting. We don’t actually hear what these security arrangements are. We have no idea how difficult or easy it will be for Karanti to get into the church, so no tension or intrigue is created. The viewer doesn’t really learn anything about the painting, or how Karanti plans to steal it. None of this sequence matters. Nothing John and Julie have done up to this point has been important to furthering the plot. They just followed him around a bit and learned that he’s going to steal the painting, which The Investigator had already told them anyway. So the first part of this episode hasn’t really done much… but wait!
WOOOOSH! Wait? What just happened? Was that a transition? I think so. It happened very suddenly. Something span around. Not sure what. Maybe it was a supersonic jet. It sounded like a supersonic jet. I think it’s supposed to be movie code for ‘a fast passage of time’. Something more subtle would have done the job though and made it look less weird.
John and Julie sit on a cliff spying on Karanti’s yacht once again. Above is a side by side comparison of the finished shot and a behind the scenes photo showing John and Wanda Brown operating the puppets under the direction of Gerry Anderson. You can see that they’re actually holding the cables carrying the electronic impulses to the puppets in their mouths! The strings are also much shorter than what would normally be used on the previous Supermarionation puppets operated from the overhead bridge. Shorter strings would ordinarily allow for more direct control of the puppets, but they don’t really move much here, so that’s a missed opportunity I suppose. It’s good to see Gerry behind the camera on a Supermarionation production. Aside from the first episode of UFO, his last directorial credit was over a decade before The Investigator on the first episode of Fireball XL5. Although he was very involved as a producer in steering the Sixties shows, he did a huge amount of the ground work while directing the likes of Four Feather Falls, developing the way puppets should be filmed and treated on set. One can only imagine how much pressure Gerry was under to keep this extremely difficult production going in Malta. Meanwhile, Reg Hill was back in England receiving the footage and checking over what was being shot. It wasn’t good of course, but Hill decided to keep quiet at the risk of discouraging the crew.
The sonic detector rather inconveniently goes out of range. So John and Julie need to get closer in order to overhear Karanti’s plan. Fortunately they have a boat… a special one… all part of the Investigator service… yeah, really.
A super secret spy boat! And just like the super secret spy car, the boat is incredibly loud and brightly coloured so you’ll hear and see it coming a mile off. The boat struggles its way across the waves (made by the film crew’s own boat) with the characters rigidly strapped in. It lacks practicality and elegance, but again it makes a great toy (I promise to get to that later!).
John and Julie get aboard the yacht and learn that Karanti plans to steal the painting that night. They’re perfectly secluded and couldn’t possibly be caught. But wait… what’s Julie got her foot on? A glass? Why is she doing that? What if it fell over and made a noise? That wouldn’t be good…
Nice one Julie. Didn’t see that coming at all.
Karanti and Christoph somehow hear the tiny glass getting knocked over and decide to search the deck… even though they’d be able to see a full-size person really easily with a quick glance. John and Julie take up some really bad hiding places and stand lifelessly still.
Julie gets a good look at Christoph’s lovely new shoes. She just stares at them with her dead, yellow eyes.
Christoph is played by Peter Borg. He has a moustache… just in case you hadn’t noticed. That’s pretty much his contribution taken care of.
And it’s time for another boat ride. They certainly got their money’s worth out of the boats. So we get a rather long sequence of John and Julie chasing Karanti’s boat. Well, we get some random shots of the two boats boating around, but its implied that there’s a chase going on. The sequence goes on so long that…
WOOOOOSH! Another supersonic jet transition!
And the boat’s still going! We transitioned from a boat chase, to exactly the same boat chase! I do not understand how the editing of this thing works.
The time has come. Karanti and Christoph are going to steal the painting. Exciting!
John and Julie are ready and waiting to stop them. Or at least watch them. It’s worth noting that this sequence appears to have actually been shot during the night. ITC shows were often in the habit of shooting day-for-night which never looked terribly convincing. The lighting in this sequence is actually pretty well done. Its mysterious and the slower pace of it all actually does well to build some tension.
Suddenly the whole adventure takes a darker turn when Christoph knocks out the security guard with a blunt instrument. I know I’ve ranted already about how ineffective the heroes are because they’ve been miniaturised but this really takes the biscuit. John goes inside to somehow apprehend Karanti and Christoph while Julie is left to look after the guard. Of course she can’t actually do anything useful because she doesn’t appear to have any useful skills or abilities, but also because she’s too darn small. So far being 1/3 normal size hasn’t helped either of them out at all.
Inside the church, John is watching… always watching. Look at those eyes. Look at them.
Karanti and Christoph retrieve the painting… didn’t really take much effort.
But John has an outstanding plan to stop them!
He blasts the church organ and the haunting noise terrifies the dastardly villains!
Meanwhile, Julie just about manages to make a phone call. She’s incredibly unhelpful when talking to the very British emergency services operator. Well done Julie.
John decides the next genius step to take in apprehending the villains is to swing around a bit. I guess he’s trying to scare them off…
And it works! But… they have the painting. So all John really achieves is making them run away with the painting a little bit faster. Well done John.
He goes for another swing. Thrilling stuff.
Then Karanti gets really scared for some reason and decides to fire a gun at the swinging light fixture. Why? If you’re successfully fleeing a crime scene, and as far as you know you’ve gotten away with it without anyone spotting you, why ruin it by firing a loud gunshot in the middle of the night at a random object that happens to swing at you vaguely spookily. Why not just make good your escape? But hey, firing gun shots is exciting, so who cares if it makes sense…
Karanti and Christoph run out of the church. Charles Thake (Karanti) is running incredibly carefully across the rain-soaked courtyard to ensure he doesn’t slip over. Really adds to the drama. Peter Borg (Christoph) is less concerned for his safety and just goes for it – much more exciting.
Julie has managed to put the phone back and made her way into the church. She made it just in time to completely fail to help John apprehend the thieves. Well done Julie. Well done.
Oh my goodness! Has John been shot by Karanti? Did he just fall from swinging around too darn much? Or is he just taking a nap? Find out in part two of The Investigator!
We’ll take a break here too. I’m sure you’re all on the edge of your seats to find out how this completely nonsensical plot concludes, but you probably want to go outside and live your life for a bit.
Spoiler Alert: We never find out what happened to John. He’s okay though after the commerical break so I guess he wasn’t shot. Great drama.
Have you seen The Investigator? What did you think of it? Would you have liked to see more episodes? Let us know in the comments below.
You can pick up The Investigator and all the Lost Worlds of Gerry Anderson on DVD from Network here!