Stingray – 3. Sea of Oil

Directed by John Kelly

Teleplay by Dennis Spooner

First UK Broadcast – 16th May 1965

Another early episode broadcast late in the run, Sea of Oil represents the first of what I would consider a run-of-the-mill Stingray episode, following the formula of the Stingray crew investigating X incident, and discovering Y undersea race who are behind the whole affair. It’s not exactly the most outlandish story of the series, but give ’em a break, it’s only episode three. And hey, there are definitely some hidden gems in there. Can anyone else hear an “oink”?

No arguments to be had about what this episode’s about based on its title. There’s an oil drilling platform, in the middle of the sea, hence Sea of Oil. There seems to just be the hint of a sun rising or setting behind the rig with an orange tint to the sky on the horizon. The platform itself may not look terribly futuristic from our point of view, but funnily enough, the world’s first purpose-built semi-submersible oil drilling rig, Ocean Driller, was launched the same year that Sea of Oil went into production, 1963. So at the time, this episode was covering a pretty hot topic, and it’s no surprise that the rig seen on screen here, is a pretty good match for the contemporary Ocean Driller.

Take a moment to consider how ruddy huge this puppet set must have been. A Supermarionation puppet is typically 22 inches tall, so the top of the set must have gotten pretty close to puppet bridge suspended above. One noticeable detail in the foreground is the two round jet type things which later went on to form an integral part of the Jet Air Transporter in the Thunderbirds episode, Move – And You’re Dead. And I would bet Troy Tempest’s life that the control panel on the left probably came from the set of Fireball XL5 – I just don’t know where… you’ll begin to discover over the course of these reviews that my ability to recognise things from Fireball XL5 isn’t very well honed. Sorry, I just don’t like it that much. Call me a tootie, I dare you.

Meet Preston. He likes drilling and he’s the only member of the crew we see on screen unless you count two tiny little figures at the top of the tower named Jack and some other bloke. With modest tension, we watch the drill descend into the depths of the ocean. The dial on the wall suggests it’s currently at around 50 fathoms or 300 feet – so we’re not exactly breaking depth records here.

A piece of terrain in the foreground disguises the air line in the water tank, which cunningly blows bubbles in the exact spot that the drill is working on the dry model set behind.

It soon becomes apparent that all is not well. There’s a sound like an angry jackhammer as the drill violently shudders from side to side in the water. Not quite sure how that’s physically possible but I’ll go with it.

Preston knows the drill (get it?), having experienced the inconvenience of an oil platform totally disintegrating before, and runs for cover as bits of the rig start to collapse, including a ladder which flings itself into the water like an award-winning duck.

Preston calls for help on the radio, which gives us an opportunity to admire his absolute pigsty of an office. To make up for my earlier Fireball faux pas, I will say that I’m fairly certain the whistle on the desk is from the XL5 episode, Whistle For Danger, and the charts which Preston goes to pick up were originally drawn up by Matt in the episode Trial By Robot.

Now here’s one for the really keen-eyed among you. The life preserver ring hanging on the wall underneath the ‘Rig Stores’ sign, was previously seen in the Supercar episode, Pirate Plunder, aboard the MV Cuttlefish – the lettering of which is just about still visible on the scuffed up prop. Also notice that there are only two bunks visible behind Preston in that office. The third guy must sleep on the desk.

The crew make their escape, as one lucky member of the AP Films team gets to chuck a bucket of water at the set as it collapses. The shot of the rig spectacularly tumbling apart and exploding is, of course, seen in the opening titles of every episode. If you look really, really, really carefully you can see that some tiny specks of dirt get flicked up against the sky backdrop.

No wonder the rig fell apart… apparently it was made of wood. Also, how come the plans that Preston collected so diligently before escaping still end up in the water?

Wait, so did Preston recover those charts or not? Because now they’re bone dry and on display at Marineville. Maybe there were multiple copies. Anyway, we’re on a set which was previously seen in the pilot episode as the conference room at the WSP Washington headquarters. It’s now been re-purposed as the Marineville conference room with a lovely painting of Stingray on the wall to prove it.

Shore and Troy are offering their services to investigate the trouble, because the oil is gosh darn important. Preston makes it clear that the world’s oil supply is drying up, a problem which was already a concern in the 60s, and by today’s standards sounds like an absolute no-brainer. Again, it may seem a tad dated to modern viewers that a cutting edge science fiction series is concerning itself with fossil fuels, but upon first broadcast the oil industry was big business, particularly in the United States where the series had set its sights.

So Stingray is off on another mission! Commander Shore is running the control tower solo today because Atlanta is joining the Troy, Phones, and Marina on their voyage. Supposedly it’s so she can run the surface base of operations, but we all know it’s because she wants to keep an eye on Troy and Marina… and also because the plot needs her around so she can get kidnapped later. Marina looks thoroughly revolted by Atlanta’s presence. I don’t blame her. Remember how they all knowingly locked her in a room with toxic fumes last week? I know I wouldn’t forgive and forget that easily.

A short montage indicates that Stingray travels all through the night to reach its destination. We get a look at the rarely seen bedrooms aboard the ship. Considering that the bunks in real-life submarines are notoriously pokey, these beds look rather luxurious by comparison.

The next morning, Commander Shore is so exhausted he needs a helping hand from a floor puppeteer to raise an arm and cover his yawn. Yeah, yeah, I know I shouldn’t spoil the magic by pointing these things out, but just consider how many hundreds and hundreds of shots made it to the screen where the floor puppeteers don’t make an appearance. Also, in this case, the floor puppeteer does a very good job of disappearing off the set before the camera pulls back to a wider shot.

Coffee and doughnuts are on the breakfast menu aboard Stingray this morning. I cannot emphasise enough how much this series is trying harder than ever before to appeal directly to an American audience. It wouldn’t do to have Troy washing down a full english fry up with a cup of tea.

Stingray surfaces and, would you look at that, there’s a brand new rig all set up and ready to go which is identical to the old one. Presumably this is the same model that we saw earlier, and the destruction we saw was filmed after all other shots for the episode were in the can.

Preston greets the Stingray crew. It’s clearly been a while since he’s seen or spoken to a woman. He’s almost knocked off his feet by the sight of Atlanta. When Marina appears and Preston learns she can’t talk, you can almost hear his brain drop out of his head and into his trousers. This is the first of many ocassions in the series where we are reminded how supposedly marvelous it is for the menfolk that Marina can’t answer back. Obviously, these references haven’t aged well. Mercifully, the anti-woman remarks are a lot less frequent than the constant slew of insults thrown at Dr. Venus in Fireball XL5. However, it’s still a recurring nudge in the ribs which, sadly, rather downplays the significance of Marina’s character in the series. She contributes far more bravery, determination and nuance than she’s often given credit for, because of moments like these which boil her down to being a perfect woman because a) she’s beautiful and, b) she can’t speak. Oh, meanwhile, Troy is never completely satisfied with Marina for the exact opposite reason, she’s beautiful but she can’t tell him she loves him. It’s a ruddy rollercoaster of issues which we’ll dig into another time. For now though, let’s just say that Preston has been at sea for far too long.

Anyway, Atlanta sets up shop at Preston’s desk. Despite being a fairly new rig, it’s just as dirty and messy as the old one because, well, they’re the same set. There’s a neat little camera movement as Stingray prepares to dive, providing just a hint at the submarine’s descent.

Absolutely gorgeous shot here of Stingray diving down to meet the drill head on the ocean floor. Take a moment in particular to appreciate the painted backdrop. Realistically, if Stingray were an actual submarine and it were actually being filmed underwater, the footage wouldn’t look anything like this, but the special effects team have created an environment which is still totally convincing on film.

The view of the murky depths is just as impressive from the puppet set with a very elegant lighting effect to suggesting the ripples of the water. I will take a moment right here and now to say one thing though… I’ve never liked the bright green blinds covering up the rest of Stingray’s windows. From a behind the scenes perspective, I understand how incredibly difficult it would have been to show a view of the ocean from every window, but why would you put so many windows on a submarine and never use them? And why do you then choose to put up bright green drapes with thin white stripes that clearly belong in the conference room of a leisure centre?

Speaking of design mis-steps, here is probably the wrongest-looking alien submarine that we see in the entire series. I mean… it’s a plane. The model is based on a Convair F-102A Delta Dagger kit and well, it’s a bit obvious isn’t it? Why didn’t they make it look less like a plane and more like a submarine? It’s also not a particularly detailed or attractive model. It’s almost boring, which an alien submarine in Stingray should never ever be.

There’s not much wow factor to the control panel of this submarine either. Clearly these aliens are on a bit of a tight budget. I will give out some points for the fact that I genuinely can’t tell whether these are puppet hands or gloved human hands that we’re looking at here. So a tick for that I guess. But a “try harder next time” for the design department on this one.

Anyway, back to the plot, sort of – Phones hears the submarine-plane-thingy pass by but Troy just assumes it’s an echo from the drill. Phones just agrees and let’s it go without investigation because it’s too early in the episode for us to encounter the aliens yet. Instead the drilling continues uninterrupted. One assumes that the aliens were scared off by Stingray’s presence this time around, which is why they didn’t immediately retaliate by making the drill go all wibbly-wobbly like they did last time.

Some time passes, and Atlanta reports in to Marineville that nothing’s happened in the past six hours. Blimey, six hours watching a drill… how very boring… (sorry, not sorry).

At least Phones’ chair has a decent amount of padding if the poor fella’s been sat there for six hours.

I’m going to guess that in the top right corner of this shot, you can just about see the brick wall of the AP Films studio. Probably a good time to mention, for those that don’t know, that Stingray was the first Supermarionation series to be produced at AP Films’ facility on Stirling Road on the Slough Trading Estate, following an injection of cash from ATV’s purchase of the company. No doubt the extra space was extremely welcome!

Right, so here’s Oink. My opinion on Oink shifts constantly. He’s a nice bit of comic relief and used sparingly throughout the first half of the series before disappearing entirely. Oink isn’t nearly as annoying as Zoonie from Fireball XL5, but also not as charming, loveable, and resourceful as Mitch from Supercar. The puppet itself is little more than a grey hairy brick. It’s not outright ugly, just not all that appealing. We’ll probably dive into Oink’s future appearances when we come to them, but for now, he’s just a seal that turns up to make everyone giggle. Harmless enough and not too silly or jarring. Also, note that Stingray’s periscope is a bit dented in this shot.

For anyone who wanted a good look at Stingray’s belly, now’s your chance. The model is even being rocked from side to side to suggest it’s floating on the surface and bobbing about.

Night has fallen and it looks great on screen. The moody low lighting is a great antidote to the misconception that Stingray‘s visual tone is all nothing but big bright bold colourful colours – there’s more nuance to it than that. Shame about the naff laminate flooring in the corridor leading up to Stingray’s bunk rooms. Marina sits on the top deck of Stingray admiring the ocean – the line of dialogue from Troy that “she said she was going to sit on the deck awhile” probably raises more questions than it answers, but we’ll assume that Troy just inferred this rather than the suggestion Marina actually said it. I really like this moment with Marina relaxing on the deck though as it just adds another layer to her character. It suggests she’s feeling more comfortable and relaxed onboard Stingray, but also feels a oneness with the ocean. Sometimes people like to just sit and look at things and think. Television doesn’t always make a lot of time for that sort of thing but it just makes it all feel that bit more real.

Oh yeah, the alien’s stuck a bomb to Stingray’s hull and has now snuck aboard without drying his feet off first. He’s got eyes on Atlanta. Now, obviously we have to question Stingray’s security a little bit. But also I’m not entirely sure how he got in. As far as we see in the series, the only hatch to get in or out is on the yellow pointy bit in front of the cabin, which is exactly where Marina was just sitting. Sure, she may have been drifting off and not had her eye on the ball, but I’m fairly sure she would have noticed a big green bloke trying to sneak in. Is there another hatch we don’t know about, maybe under the ship? If there is, someone should probably put an alarm on that thing.

There’s a splash of someone or something entering the water and Marina is finally alerted. In case anyone was wondering, this shot confirms that she definitely has webbed feet which is, well, handy for a keen swimmer, I guess. Marina immediately dives into the water to find out what’s going on. Jolly useful that she can just jump straight in without scuba gear or anything like that. It’s a talent that’s put to great use throughout the series.

Underwater swimming shots in Stingray, particularly of Marina, are frankly some of the best puppet shots in all of Supermarionation. Consider everything involved to make this work. The camera has to follow Marina’s movements from behind an aquarium filled with water and fish which is in front of the set. Marina is suspended over the set on long wires at a horizontal orientation. In front of Marina is a fan blowing in order to make her hair float about like it’s underwater. Then the puppeteer has to gently but quickly move Marina across the set in sync with the camera, while also operating her legs and generally not making the puppet look like a dead weight. Then there’s the usual complications of lighting a large set, lighting the fish tank, and in some cases filming at high speed to slow the action down and make the hair movement appear even more fluid. It’s truly remarkable.

In this shot, you’ve got a hatch opening in the ocean floor. The air escapes which is achieved with an air line inside the fish tank which is, of course, in between the set and the camera but lined up perfectly. Some more scenery is placed between the tank and the camera to obscure the air line. Totally convincing and looks fantastic.

The time for gushing is over though because I have several questions now. Atlanta is completely dry, despite exiting Stingray with her captor by jumping into the water. Then there’s the question of how her captor managed to drag her conscious through the water to their submarine. Next question, why is she gagged with a wafer thin bandage around her head as if that’ll stop her talking? Final question, what is that yellow thing on the wall supposed to be, and why was it in X20’s sub last week?

Marina returns to the surface and the submarine which definitely isn’t an aircraft travels towards its base along a rail. The faithful airfix girder bridge kit makes an apperance as a support for said rail. If you look at this shot of the alien craft really carefully you can actually make out the ‘U.S. AIR FORCE’ lettering on the fuselage. The wonders of high definition. I do rather like the trickles of oil running down the walls of the cave – that’s a nice touch.

It’s very easy while rewatching the series to disregard these stock shots of Marineville, but just look at this glorious little miniature town. The lights and all the little details are so, so good.

A simple little scene for Commander Shore to go through the routine of making a report about the (up until now) fairly uneventful day at the drilling rig. Again, this sort of business just adds a touch of realism and depth to the characters going about their day-to-day lives.

As Marina comes banging at the door, Troy makes a terribly witty remark about being in conference because he can’t be bothered to get out of bed. I think we’ve all been there.

The alien lair, and the aliens themselves are revealed in full for the first time. I suppose the impact of this grand moment is lost on repeat viewings or indeed anyone familiar with the formula of Stingray – by which I mean it was bloomin’ obvious it was going to be generic undersea aliens with a funky looking hideout doing all this. Speaking of the hideout, what an eclectic collection of decorations dotted about all over the set. Also let’s not forget that other than Marina, these are the first undersea aliens that Atlanta has encountered for herself. I’d love to hear her first impressions, but we can’t because of the aforementioned wafer thin bandage barely covering her face.

Very nice cliffhanger moment at the end of the act, as Troy finally catches up with the rest of us. Atlanta is indeed very much absolutely totally and utterly not on Stingray and has in fact been entirely and completely captured by some green, shiny, pointy-headed men under the water. Got it? Good.

Wait, hold on, Troy just needs a little bit more of the plot explaining to him first. Honestly mate, read the script.

Nevir and Garrett are the first of many alien double acts we encounter in the series. They start a trope of entire races of undersea civilisations being represented by just two people. David Graham usually voices one, and Ray Barrett the other, but on this occasion Don Mason is giving it a go. You can tell its Don Mason because he just sounds like Troy if Troy were rehearsing Shakespeare. It sounds amazing, but it does sound like Troy. We learn that they are peace-loving people who were sabotaging the drill to protect their habitat, and would have handed over all the oil willingly upon request. Just come on down with a bucket and help yourself. These so-called peace-lovers also let Atlanta know that they’ve planted a bomb on Stingray which will go off if the craft submerges. Now you may argue that they are just defending themselves with such a move. I would counter by saying that they probably should have mentioned to someone that there was a bomb aboard if it was intended just as a scare tactic rather than a bangy-bangy-deathy-death tactic. It’s also clear that they kidnapped Atlanta to get information. They could have just sat by her bedside and asked a few questions. But no, the peace lovers did a very war-like thing by taking a prisoner and quietly placing a bomb to cause the inevitable destruction and death of their enemies. There’s probably a reason why these are one of the few alien races in the series that they attempted to portray as a couple of good guys – it isn’t terribly convincing.

More lovely night shots as Stingray prepares to dive. All the splooshy splashy water looks great. Fortunately, the Surface Video Scan (or up and down periscope thing to us common folk) has failed and prevents Troy and Phones from continuing to dive.

Troy and Phones go up on deck to investigate. I’ve always rather liked Stingray’s hatch being a just a great big double door slap bang in the front and centre of the ship’s bow. Later in the series it allows for some lovely shots of swimmers coming in and out of the ship while others watch from the cabin.

Anyway, Oink’s got the bomb. That sure escalated quickly. First he’s a cuddly little fella sunbathing and doing no harm, now he’s about to explode. Still cheerfully oinking away though in a way that seals definitely don’t. Troy leaps into action with a plan to just dive as fast as possible and hope for the best.

Atlanta and the aliens watch the explosion from something that looks suspciously like a kitchenette. Footage of said explosion is just a slightly darkened version of the explosion we see in the opening titles and from when Sea Probe was destroyed in the first episode. Nevir regrets his choices as if he hadn’t really thought through the possibility that a bomb might, just might, kill people.

But the Stingray team made it through okay! And Oink survived and is celebrated as a hero for warning everyone about the bomb! Alright, I guess I like the little weasel. If only he looked less like a blob of hair stuck down a plug hole.

Garrett attempts to console a tearful Atlanta with all the warmth of a wet fish. Take a moment to admire the strong facial features on this puppet. I love all the undersea creatures the puppet workshop produced for Stingray. They had plenty of practice producing alien menaces for Fireball XL5 of course, but in colour they really are glorious works of art.

As Stingray approaches and Nevir spots it on their scanner, he once again begins to fret about the safety of their city when Atlanta suggests that maybe, just maybe, Troy might feel like blowing up their hatch to gain entry, what with the bomb and the kidnapping and the destruction of multiple drilling rigs threatening several lives and that sort of thing. This dude really needs to learn that actions have consequences. Nice beard though, can’t take that away from him.

Atlanta, who is beautifully lit by the way, suggests they leg it and try to warn Stingray before they attack. She seems to be the only one prepared to do some constructive thinking here. It redeems her character slightly considering, up to this point in the series, she’s just been a jealous pen pusher with an overwhelming desire to make Marina unhappy.

Well at least we have an answer to one of our earlier questions. The reason the yellow thing from X20’s sub is on the wall of Garrett’s sub is because it is, in fact, the exact same set with a different control panel.

Right, time for a bit of tension. Phones hears the alien craft approaching and Troy, hastily but understandably, wants to fire a sting missile at it for good measure. Normally firing a sting missile takes a couple of seconds of screen time. However, for the benefit of the plot this gets stretched out in full today because Atlanta has the bright idea to try and communicate using the sound of the alien craft’s motors. It’s a pretty wild long shot…

And oh it is nail biting because Phones doesn’t clock what’s happening until the very last moment, forcing Troy to destroy the sting missile by remote control. Phew! Yes, Atlanta successfully spelled out her own name in code using nothing but an engine. It borders on the ridiculous but I’ll allow it because communications are kind of Atlanta’s main thing back at Marineville, and Phones is an expert hydrophone operator. If anyone could make that plan work it would be these two.

You know that cheesy trope in movies when a couple or a family will reunite by running across a field or whatever towards each other and embracing in the middle? Maybe it’s the music, but I definitely get that vibe from the meeting of these two submarines.

So Troy and the gang meet the aliens and all is well. Nevir is terribly sorry for the attempted murder and destruction and all that. Troy isn’t going to take it any further because they’re getting oil out of it. Nevir mistakenly apologises for almost robbing Troy of his wives, which I guess is meant to be a wink for the audienc about Troy fancying Atlanta and Marina at the same time. To be honest though it just sounds like Nevir’s brain stopped working for a split second there.

We end the episode with Preston getting blasted in the face with oil and leaping into the air. He’s like a pig in mud. So that’s nice for him.

Shame about all the oil spilling out into the ocean. This very much isn’t supposed to happen when one strikes an oil well. Anyone got a bucket and a mop?

So that’s Sea of Oil. It’s very much your standard Stingray fare. It was probably a mis-step to have the aliens turn out to be goodies when everything they do clearly isn’t that good, but if you don’t pay too much attention the episode is a nice bit of fun with some tasty action and intrigue. The introduction of Oink gets a pass, and Marina continues to prove her worth as a member of the WASPs. It’s also nice to see Atlanta at the heart of the action. The building blocks to some of Stingray’s strongest episodes are laid for the first time in Sea of Oil, but I think it’s fair to say the best is yet to come.

Next week – a beautiful island in the Pacific. Secret home of Admiral Carson and his wife Millie, so far undetected. But when poor Millie spots an ugly looking critter standing at the window, their peaceful world is turned upside down as they become… Hostages of the Deep!

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Further reading:

www.filmedinsupermarionation.com by Century 21 Films Ltd.

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

http://www.energyglobalnews.com/ocean-driller-first-purpose-built-semi-submersible-2/ by Energy Global News.

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