Stingray – 2. Plant of Doom

Directed by David Elliott

Teleplay by Alan Fennell

First UK Broadcast – 23rd May 1965

Bizarrely, this second episode which follows on directly from the plot of the pilot episode, was broadcast incredibly late in Stingray‘s first run on television. It was common practice back in the day to push early episodes to later in the broadcast order, with the supposed reasoning that initial episodes weren’t as good as later ones. So to keep viewers tuning in during those crucial first few weeks of broadcast, heavy hitters from later in the production order of episodes would be brought forward. In the case of Stingray, it was decided that the episode Emergency Marineville be broadcast second, and Plant of Doom was moved all the way to slot number 34. While fairly nonsensical in terms of the plot and it’s bearing on other episodes of the series, is this indicative of the quality of the finished episode itself? Let’s dive in…

We’re back in Titan’s throne room. He’s got his fountain turned on which was there in the pilot episode but distinctly dry. A new twig has also been dragged in from outside the studio to represent the distinctly dead-looking tree that was present on the set in the previous episode. The position of the sun/flower/sunflower sculpture on the left of frame is also ever so slightly adjusted from its appearance in the pilot. Anyway, the point is, the set hasn’t really changed all that much since its last outing.

Ray Barrett is giving almost all the beans with his Titan performance this week. It’s still not quite as full on as we get later in the series, but it’s certainly turned up a few notches from the pilot, and the puppeteers respond with a few more over the top gestures. Titan is monologuing about the treachery of his former slave, Marina, who ditched him last week for a better life with the WASPs. The implication is that this was a very recent event. For all we know it could have been a few minutes ago. It probably wasn’t, but it could have been.

Titan calls upon Teufel, his big dumb fish, to heal his broken heart. Keen Stingray VHS owners will know that this scene was repurposed with dialogue cut together from other episodes to form the opening of the 1986 compilation movie, Invaders From The Deep. In the pilot episode it isn’t really indicated whether Teufel is actually an intelligent being, or a poor defenceless fish that Titan happens to worship, or pretends to worship in order to mess with Troy. This scene clears that up a bit. Teufel actively responds to Titan’s request for guidance by opening his mouth to reveal a blinding white light. I think this effect is achieved with a mirror placed inside the puppet and a studio light being pointed directly at it. It’s a haunting image. I take it all back. Teufel really is a mighty god with magical powers to be feared and respected. Either that or he swallowed a flashlight…

So here’s a consistent nit-pick I have about this episode. When people or objects are shown in close-up they frequently appear in soft focus. It’s particularly noticeable following the pilot, in which every shot was sharp as a knife. I can’t account for why this is except to flag that smoke was probably a pain in the broadside to capture convincingly at such a small scale, and the shots seen in the finished episode might have just been the best they had. It’s not that big of a problem, but if anyone has a better explanation please let me know. I know there are experts on the struggles of shooting on film out there.

What’s happening here needs just a little bit of interpretation. Teufel has drawn Titan’s attention to the blue coral flower which sits innocently on the table. It begins to visibly smoke while Teufel’s guiding beam of light still shines upon it, and Titan is overcome by the exotic perfume which he has never known before. The implication is, therefore, that blue coral flowers don’t normally hold this property and Teufel is actually using some mysterious power to turn the thing toxic before our eyes.

For the benefit of the audience at home, Titan explains in some detail the effect that the plant is having on the air as it stifles and chokes the life out of him. He sweats, and his eyelids are heavy thanks to some additional plasticine likely applied over the top of his eyes. It’s an opportunity to admire the incredible crafstmanship that went into creating the puppet. Christine Glanville once recalled the heartbreak of hearing the completed Titan head being dropped on the floor and smashing as soon as she had handed it over to the wardrobe department. Work had to start all over again. Echoing that moment, Titan decides to save his skin by knocking the plant off the table…

… thus completely cancelling out its effects. The plant spells doom for the Stingray crew, hence the title Plant of Doom. Sometimes the episodes just name themselves. Titan is determined to make use of the flower again, despite completely wrecking it. Hopefully the aquaphibian gardeners have some more just outside in the potting shed. The scene cuts off rather suddenly, almost as if Titan had something more to say but an editor came in with some scissors…

So on that topic, and while Marina stares out of the window in tears, let’s talk about the script for this episode. Plant of Doom was Alan Fennell’s first writing assignment for the series and thankfully a copy of the original script survives to this day. It is noteable for running to a much greater length than the finished episode, and many scripted scenes are packed with additional dialogue. The script also contains a lot of detail on set pieces and intricate camera work which never made it to the screen. I highly recommend this article by Elliot Pavelin for a quick analysis on the key differences between the script and the final product.

Troy realises how upset Marina is and yells “What are we gonna do?!” as if she’s some sort of nuclear power plant about to go armageddon. Atlanta’s a bit less bothered and doesn’t think there’s anything to be done. I mean, at least pass her a box of Cleanex or something just to pretend you care.

Through vigorous head shaking and nodding from Marina it becomes established that although she likes Marineville, she is also feeling a little homesick. Troy can’t help but be a gallant hero about the whole thing and offers to take Marina for a trip to her home in Stingray. What a nice guy.

Troy sells the idea to Commander Shore as a vital diplomatic mission to explore a new underwater city. For some reason Shore thinks Atlanta is the one who will really need convincing. It’s an odd line of dialogue in this context, but the original script clearly indicates that this scene was trimmed , and Atlanta’s frustration and jealousy over Troy’s sudden interest in Marina was planned to be much more apparent than it is in the finished episode.

One of the largest cuts to the episode is the lengthy launch of Stingray itself which on screen simply thunders forth from the ocean door with Phones at the controls. The original plan was for Stingray to exit the launch tunnel onto the surface with more dialogue hinting at Atlanta’s bitterness.

Phones activates the automatic-bosun and joins Troy and Marina down in the navigation area (there’s probably a technical submarine name for that). The machine Phones stands in front of is labeled as an ‘AUTOSERV’ which one assumes is some kind of food dispenser. The plan is to navigate to Marina’s home via trial and error, with Troy asking simple yes and no questions related to their position. Since she seems to know where they are and where her home is, why doesn’t she just point to it on a map and we can all get on with our lives? Come to that, why doesn’t Marina just write down anything she wants to say? She doesn’t have trouble writing a letter in the audio mini album episode, Marina Speaks. Oh what’s that? Having her write down all of her dialogue would break all the dramatic tension? Well, yeah, I suppose there is that.

Meanwhile, cut down footage from the pilot shows us the transformation of X20’s living room into a communications hub. Via the “interceptor monitor” X20 has ascertained that Stingray is bound for Pacifica with Marina aboard. So, the original script with Stingray travelling along the surface and close to the Island of Lemoy would have made it obvious how X20 came by this information. But we just saw X20 walk away from the window with a pair of binoculars. So either there’s definitely something we’ve missed, or X20 is a weirdo who calls his window an “interceptor monitor,” and has binoculars so powerful they can see several miles underwater… oh and overhear conversations too. Titan orders the peeping tom straight to Titanica for further orders. Gotta be honest, the sheer amount of material cut from this episode is starting to suck the life out of it a bit for me. Apparently we now miss a whole sequence where X20 was supposed to take an elevator down beneath the surface to a cavern where he boards his submarine and journeys to Titanica. It sounds really cool in the script, and rather more interesting than the actual plot.

Anyway, here’s Marina confirming that Troy has found her home on a map, even though she probably could have pointed it out for herself. Note the join between her neck and chin where we can see a crack or some sort of paint application issue. It’s okay, Marina, I have paint application issues under my chin too.

Maybe I’ve seen this episode too many times, but now knowing how much material was cut from the script, it really feels like we’re going through the motions here. Titan orders X20 to take the deadly flower to Pacifica, presenting it as a crafty gift of good fortune. We see all of this happen later so why couldn’t Titan have given this instruction in the prior scene? It just throws the pacing off a little bit to have the plot explained to us before we see exactly what’s being described happen on screen anyway. At least if the extended process of X20’s arrival at Titanica had been present in the final episode we would have had that to enjoy. Also X20 is in soft focus while he’s speaking which is a bit irritating. Can you sense I’m getting irritable? Maybe someone just needs to run me a nice long bath and light some candles so I’ll calm the flip down.

The Mechanical Fish launches via more stock footage, and we’re treated to our first look on screen at X20’s submarine. Also fish-like in appearance, we never really learn much about this craft during the series or get a particularly close look at it. It doesn’t have the same impact at the Mechanical Fish perhaps, but seeing as it’s designed to be more of a spy sub than a warship, that works to its advantage. The model was built on the basis of a Revel Bell X-5 aircraft kit.

The interior of the sub is rather pokey, just as X20 deserves. I rather like the round console though. The seats at the back are the same ones Troy and Phones were tied to in the pilot episode during their transportation to Aquatraz.

The Aquaphibians aboard the escort craft converse with X20 in English, rather than their unique language heard in the pilot episode. This is the first role portrayed by David Graham in the series, having been apparently absent from the recording of the pilot episode. Even though he voices no major characters, it’s reassuring to have him on the cast list for the series, and he brings some excellent guest roles to life later on.

Phones picks up the alien craft on the hydrophones, and X20 gives orders for Stingray to be attacked while he goes swanning off to Pacifica. It sets us up fairly well for an exciting second act. At least I hope it’s more exciting than the first act which really hasn’t gotten us very far in the plot outside of explaining what we’re about to see next.

In pursuit of Stingray, the Mechanical Fish, filmed against a rolling backdrop, opens fire.

Phones wakes us all up by yelling at Troy to dive as fast as possible.

And wallop! A very near miss. Finally the energy is picking up, and don’t the explosions look lovely? The following chase scene is, as you might have expected by now, cut down quite a bit from what’s described in the original script as quite a long, complex sequence. I’ll forgive it though, seeing as what we end up with here is pretty darn thrilling.

Stingray smashes to the ocean floor and we’re treated to a shot through the front window which actually uses the aquarium in front of the camera with lots of bubbles – such a simple but brilliant effect. The Mechanical Fish dives for another attack.

Troy does some sweaty manoeuvering and gets Stingray clear of the blast just in time. It’s too close for Phones who now has his concerned face on, and rightfully so.

Another missile just about dodged. High defintion reveals the wire which yanks the torpedo into the pre-broken-up rockface just before it explodes. It’s still very impressive, of course, with the touch of sunlight rippling through the water adding to it all nicely. The shots for this sequence are choreographed and edited together so well.

Here’s where you really get your money’s worth – the famous “salmon leap” which appears in the opening of every episode. It’s bloomin’ stunning. Legend has it that Derek Meddings and his team got it in one take. Sure, Derek, anything you say.

Back underwater, Stingray drops to the ocean floor again. This time though, Troy’s got a cunning plan as cunning as a fox who’s just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University.

For the first time in the series, a sting missile is fired and blows up another rock because apparently a Mechanical Fish isn’t a big enough target for Troy.

A second missile is fired and this time Troy actually manages to shoot straight, nailing the fish in a ball of flame. The motion of the Mechanical Fish sinking with its mouth flapping about is rather satisfying.

The original script would have seen the Aquaphibians swimming clear of the debris, with Troy and Marina having a one-sided discussion to confirm that they were indeed Aquaphibians who could, in fact, swim. Probably a worthwhile trim to save more pointing out of the obvious.

Now we get our first quick glimpse at Pacifica. It’s a beautiful and brilliant model set. The way the light from the windows of the “building” shines through the water is rather magnificent. Not to mention just the idea of a sea shell doubling as a giant underwater building is a stroke of genius. It’s those touches of creativity that really make Stingray special. It’s a shame the city doesn’t have a few more buildings to look at just to fill out the scene more, but what we have is still spectacular.

We’re back to going through the motions a little bit here as X20, in the guise of a well-wisher with news of Marina, presents the toxic flower to Aphony. He, like his daughter, cannot speak. Curiously, the word ‘aphony’ actually means ‘loss of voice’, which rather implies that he’s been silent for his entire life. Now I find the placement of this scene is a little unfortunate. As with the prior establishing shot of Pacifica, it would have been nice if the Stingray crew’s arrival had been our first introduction to Aphony and his beautiful palace, rather than this short exchange which doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know or find out later. Aphony is a rather handsome puppet with an excellent green beard and age detailing. In spin-off merchandise material, like the Marina – Girl Of The Sea comic strip, we learn much more about Aphony and his people.

X20 leaves Pacifica with his mission completed. Bish bash bosh, job’s a good’un. So far in the series, our beloved surface agent hasn’t messed anything up, and hasn’t even served as the comic foil in any capacity. Right now he’s just a nasty piece of work who does what he’s told. I look forward to watching him develop into the wretch that we know and love!

The special effects team continue to find lots of interesting ways for the Stingray model to enter and exit shot, sparing us from too much “enter from the left, exit on the right” type of stuff. The shots are nice and dynamic, though not nearly to the extent described in the original script.

Troy gushes all over a slightly ropey back projection shot of the city. The spectacle suggested in Don Mason’s delivery of the line doesn’t quite match what we end up seeing. It’s good but… not that good.

Very slowly indeed the main door to the city opens and Stingray enters. I will admit that this does look pretty with all the glitter and gold. It’s also rather touching to see Marina looking so happy. There’s a genuine warmth and appreciation in her smile. Water swishes around outside the window and on the model set as the airlock drains. The water on the model set is, of course, draining out of an aquarium in front of the camera while the model of Stingray has just been dressed with a few flecks of water to make it look wet.

In a piece of textbook Supermarionation editing, we see the door opening with the Stingray crew on the other side, then cut away to a shot of Aphony at the far end of the room, and then when we cut back, Troy, Phones, and Marina have made it over the threshold unseen. All this because puppet wires can’t travel through walls. Stingray is visible in the background of the shot via a large painting over a photographic blow-up, rendered by art assistant Grenville Nott. The corridor is lined with statues. Let’s say that those are famous figures from Pacifica’s history – like Stanley the fish botherer, or Linda the bubble belcher – y’know, all the greats.

Troy and Phones watch in bewilderment as Aphony and Marina wave arms at each other to communicate during this happy reunion. Although Troy suggests that this is some form of thought transference, cuts to the original script also suggest this could be the equivalent of an embrace. Without that particular perspective on it, the happiness of the scene does get lost a little, as Marina and her father stand at a distance waving at each other. Admittedly, puppets can’t really run up and throw their arms around each other convincingly, but I’m not sure the arm waving alternative strikes the same chord with viewers. Although Troy mentions Marina’s “folks” in an earlier scene, it is quickly accepted that Marina’s mother is no-where to be found, or any other citizens of Pacifica come to that.

Aphony has laid on quite a spread of seafood – far more than four people could possibly manage to consume. Phones is attempting to eat a crab leg but doesn’t get much closer than holding it up to his closed mouth. It’s all very grand and civilised and we’re basically supposed to consider from all this that Aphony is definitely one of the good guys. The ethical issues around undersea civilisations eating fish are comically raised in the episode Tom Thumb Tempest, but overall it makes sense. A lobster is essentially the succulent pig of the ocean. In the same way we go fishing for cod or salmon, I wonder if Aquaphibians ever take a boat really close to the shore and try to go fishing for cows…

Marina dares to remove the cover of the plant which everyone seems to agree is very beautiful. However, Barry Gray’s sinister score clearly warns her that it maybe isn’t such a smart idea and she quickly puts the cover back on before it does any damage.

The time has come for the aquanauts to depart, leaving Marina with the choice of staying with her father or joining the WASPs for good. There’s a single tear in her eye which is difficult to make out through the unfortunate soft focus, but the emotional weight of the moment is still clear from the pauses in dialogue and the music.

Phones drags the lovesick puppy away, with Troy looking downright furious that Marina isn’t coming with them. Just a small hint of the selfish, spoilt Troy that we’ll get to see plenty of times throughout the series.

Marina and Aphony silently consult. Sorry to ruin the moment but the books that Troy was so impressed by earlier on only take up a single window sill – a further suggestion that Alan Fennell’s original vision for this episode was rather more impressive than what we got.

There’s something about this shot of Troy and the music that plays as Stingray leaves Pacifica that I really, really like. Somehow, I can feel Troy’s sadness, while the bombastic soundtrack suggests it’s aquanaut business as usual and time to get back to work. It’s like Troy has had to choose his duty over his companionship with Marina. There’s a sense that this is the harsh reality of life in the WASPs, and that a relationship between a man and his fishy underwater maybe girlfriend was never going to work out in reality. Troy is forced to look forward, not back, as he leaves Marina potentially forever.

Which is why he’s so ecstatic to see her swimming along outside the window. Yay! This is what this episode has desperately been trying to get to in a kind of long-winded way. We needed to see Marina make her own choice to stay with the WASPs and battle Titan on her own terms. Her fierce loyalty and sense of good and evil is one of the character’s best qualities. Just a shame she had to bring that ruddy toxic plant with her.

Back at Marineville, Atlanta is far from impressed by Marina abandoning her father, attempting to shove her off of Troy’s pedestal. In a stroke of bad luck, Marina decides to offer the flower to Atlanta as a gift. Seen frequently through windows are background paintings of Marineville like the one visible behind Marina here. They’re rather impressive and offer a chance to look at the full landscape surrounding the base.

Okay, I’ll cut straight to why I find this scene absolutely infuriating. Is Atlanta really concentrating so dang hard on her piano playing that she doesn’t notice the plant directly in front of her is pretty much on fire? How can she not see that? How?! This moment would have worked if Atlanta had placed the flower on the window sill behind her, but it’s right in front of her eyes!

A bit of theatre as Atlanta monologues about how she can barely breathe. What, oh what, could possibly be causing it? Playing it for all the drama it’s worth, she finally collapses on the piano. Now, obviously I’m being a tad flippant. Suffocating to death all of a sudden wouldn’t exactly be pleasant. But in this case I really, really, very, very, extremely strongly believe it could have been prevented.

Troy is at the door ringing the bell. He’s rather out of focus. The original script would have actually had Atlanta unconscious and alone for much longer while Troy and Commander Shore waited in the control tower for a call from HQ. Troy attempts to get a hold of her by phone to apologise for being late to a dinner date but gets no response. Atlanta ends up being unresponsive for a full half hour, which explains his frustration in the final broadcast scene that she doesn’t come to the door after a few rings of the bell.

The penny drops when Troy spots Atlanta through the window. He valiantly smashes the door in which is an action achieved remarkably well by the puppeteers. When Troy arrives inside, keep an eye on the bottom left corner of the frame. You’ll spot a black something-or-other moving around, presumably a floor puppeteer or technician who was never meant to be seen.

In the following scene, Shore, Phones and Atlanta suspect foul play from Marina. Troy jumps up on his high horse and indignantly declares that he “believes in Marina,” with all the petulence of schoolboy losing at conkers. His words may suggest he’s being a top bloke and a decent chap, but unfortunately the delivery of the lines makes you want to slap him. Then in the most bizarre act of pig-headedness ever, Troy decides he’s going to risk Marina’s life to prove her innocence, and to prove that he was right to trust her. By that logic, Troy’s the sort of person who would kick a pig up the backside as hard as possible just to prove that it can fly.

The following scene is rather unpleasant to watch. It begins with Marina seemingly having a charming moment learning how a piano works for the first time (despite her people being so darn cultured). She sits down to play in front of the flower, under the supervision of her judge, jury, and executioners in the other room. The test is simply that if she smashes the plant or tries to leave, she must be guilty of being Titan’s spy because it proves she knew the plant is toxic. And if she weighs the same as a duck, she’s made of wood and must therefore be a witch. Yet again, the dramatic tension falls down because it’s pretty dang obvious the plant is toxic as soon as we see all the fumes pouring out of it. But no, Marina is completely unaware of it apparently, and continues to hammer at the keys of the piano as all the air is sucked from her lungs… or gills… I don’t really know. Shore in particular is absolutely insistant that justice be done and quite happily watches her suffer until she passes out, thus confirming her innocence, apparently.

Atlanta apologises profusely for doubting Marina, despite the fact it was actually Troy’s idea to put her through that ordeal. Marina very clearly isn’t doing okay, struggling to keep her eyes open. Instead of getting her to a hospital urgently, Troy jokes about the quality of her piano playing. Marina, get out of there! These people are sick! From the perspective of satisfying character development, this final section of the episode would have been so much more effective if Marina had been the one to discover Atlanta was unconscious in the apartment. If Marina had bravely risked her life by entering the smoke-filled room to save Atlanta, whom she barely knows, that would have more naturally formed a bond between the two characters and proven Marina’s loyalty to the WASPs – without anyone having to be put on trial.

To end, we get this sickly-sweet scene around the piano which rather pushes the warm, familial atmosphere a bit too far in my opinion. At the end of the pilot, that tone felt genuine and natural. Here, probably because everyone’s just tried to kill Marina, it feels forced and bizarre and makes me want to throw up a bit. Maybe it’s Troy waving his arm to conduct the music as if he’s directly mocking Marina and her father… maybe its Atlanta’s slightly sinister smiling face… maybe it’s the horrendously jaunty and over the top rendition of Chopsticks, but I don’t like this at all.

Now then, let’s sum up the positives of the episode. Visiting Pacifica and teaching us more about Marina and her people without giving too much away about the mystery surrounding their silence gets a big tick from me. Exploring Marina’s character and proving her loyalty to the WASPs is an important point in her development. The big fight between Stingray and the Mechanical Fish also scores highly. There are a few other brief moments of excellence, but the rest is mediocre at best and unlikeable at worst. The concept behind the deadly flower is threatening enough, but the way that gets executed on screen is poor. In my opinion, this should have been a very different episode in which Titan launches an attack on Pacifica, knowing that Marina and the Stingray crew are visiting. Marina could have done something very brave to win the battle for her father and the WASPs, and still had the difficult decision at the end of the episode to choose between staying at home, or continuing the fight by joining the Stingray crew. Or something like that. Beyond the disappointing plot, this episode also lacks some of the exciting, highly polished comic-book style direction seen in the first episode, with a handful of standout shots to praise and the rest being quite average or technically iffy with soft focus or odd lighting. Sorry folks, they can’t all be winners. It’s only episode 2 though, so there’s plenty of room to grow… like a plant… of doom!

Next week, Sea of Oil – an oil drilling project becomes a nightmare plagued by a phantom, as rig after rig spontaneously collapses in the middle of the ocean. The Stingray crew are on the case to investigate. Can anyone else hear an oink?

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Further reading: by Century 21 Films Ltd.

Stingray: Adventures In Videcolor by Andrew Pixley. First published in 2022 by Network Distributing.

Stingray: Script To Screen by Ian Fryer. FAB Magazine: Issue 69 published in July 2011 by Fanderson.

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