What happens to Supermarionation if you take away the lavish sets, dozens of background characters, multiple explosive special effects, and the generous financial backing of Lew Grade. Is it still super?
As I am sure you are aware, much of the world went into lockdown in 2020 because, frankly, it was the most sensible thing to do. Film and television production haulted, and the Century 21 Films team (Filmed In Supermarionation, Thunderbirds 1965, Endeavour) were temporarily unable to proceed with the Supermarionation work they had in development. So what do a team of film-making pioneers do when living in a flat full of puppets, props, and models? Of course they turn their living room into a makeshift Supermarionation studio and create a brand new series tailored to the restraints of production in lockdown conditions…
I say this with my tongue rooted firmly in my cheek because it is that kind of wonderful, light-hearted spirit that has made the Nebula-75 series so enjoyable to see evolve. The hard work of the 1960s Supermarionation production team is taken quite seriously by fans. We marvel at the technicians who shielded themselves from enormous flames which blackened the ceilings of the Slough studios. We are filled with admiration for the puppeteers which squeezeed together on top of the puppet bridge, dangled dangerously over the side, holding electrical cables between their teeth just to achieve a large crowd scene. We reverently consider the heroism of fellows like Derek Meddings climbing into a pool of crocodiles and leaping straight out again at the first sign of peril. It was a serious and sometimes life-threatening job. But it was also a bit silly. Filming in Supermarionation on the Slough Trading Estate was not like working at any regular office job, or even at a regular film studio. They must have had a lot of laughs at some quite extraordinary moments while trying to make the best puppet films the world had ever seen.
That same joyous spirit is there in great spoonfuls in Nebula-75, despite the entire production being dictated by working with next-to-no budget in a small flat, only using existing materials. But to quote from the Thunderbirds episode, The Impostors, “does that matter? After all, it isn’t the equipment that interests us. No, sir! It’s the great guys who use it.”
Yes, the Century 21 Films team have used their wealth of Supermarionation experience, and incredible creativity and ingenuity to create a series which is not hampered by its restrictions but enhanced by them.
The drama is driven by the characters, all of whom are exceptionally likeable personalities. While listening to Ray Neptune tell his stories, we are comforted by his very human uncertainty about what he might be facing. Yet he is heroic, without being arrogant. Doctor Asteroid is a muddled scientist without being infuriating. Circuit is highly-strung but also charming. Every character, be they a regular or a guest, an alien or an Earthling, has a heart. Even some of the original Supermarionation characters struggle to win my affections because they are a tad one-dimensional (Fireball XL5 particularly suffers from this affliction in my opinion – Professor Mattic is about the only character I find who possesses any warmth, and even he can get a bit grating).
Time for an award-winning piece of criticism: the fact that the show is made at home means that it looks homemade and I think that is good… I know, you’re holding back your applause. Let me explain:
One feels an uneasiness when watching the first episode of Twizzle because you can see the struggle going on between what the puppeteers and director are trying to make the puppet appear to be doing, and the puppet just not quite being able to achieve it. One might argue that AP Films didn’t quite know what they were doing at this early stage. But they improved quickly, working incredibly hard to refine their skills, build puppets that were functional and more appealing, and tailoring stories to both push their talents further, while working around what simply was not possible. Those same principles have been applied to Nebula-75. Each episode is more ambitious than the last, yet still the production continues to rely on using bookcases as pieces of set decorated with cardboard and shiny tape. The Century 21 Films team have owned the fact that their show is made at home, and made it a part of the show. It doesn’t look homemade through lack of skill, or laziness. It is a choice which is not only realised extremely well (a set made out of bookcases has never looked better!), but also does not detract from the real magic of the show.
And that’s the thing, Nebula-75 and all Supermarionation projects that are done right, are magical. When a puppet comes to life on screen, with all the energy that a good dialogue performance can bring, and – perhaps most imporatantly – some highly skilled puppeteering delivered by an experienced operator, it is simply magical. An inanimate object coming to life sounds like the stuff of fairy tales, but it is what I believe Supermarionation is all about, and why it is still engaging to watch 60 years since the idea was conceived. Magic doesn’t get old. And viewers will believe that the puppet characters are alive and driving the story forward whether the sets around them cost £25,000 or £2.50.
I look forward to seeing Nebula-75 continue. It is most definitely Supermarionation. As long as the enjoyable characters remain at the heart of it all, I am certain that the series has a future, even outside of Superisolation…