Stingray – 8. The Ghost Ship

Directed by Desmond Saunders

Teleplay by Alan Fennell

First UK Broadcast – 18th October 1964

This episode has a very special place in my heart for the very simple reason that it was, most likely, my first. Since before I was born, my family owned Volumes 4 and 5 of Stingray on Channel 5 VHS tapes for many years, before I then took on the job of tracking down the rest. So The Ghost Ship is the first in a batch of episodes from early-to-midway through the series which I watched an awful lot growing up, and would consider to be the golden era of Stingray. It’s certainly the period I have the strongest nostalgia for. But for this viewing I tried to remove my rose-tinted glasses and just appreciate The Ghost Ship on its own merits. I mean, it’s still a fantastic episode, rose-tinted or otherwise, but I just want you to know I tried really hard not to be swayed…

Starting the episode, there’s already a lot to love here just in the first shot. There’s the music which sets the tone perfectly throughout the entire episode. Then there’s the model of the galleon itself which we’ll get a closer look at in a moment. Then, in this shot, something very clever is being done where the water tank is actually placed in between the model set, and some more plants and detail in the foreground, so that the bubbles really look like they’re floating up from the seabed, rather than just popping up in front of the camera. It’s completely seamless due to the lighting effect of the water rippling being matched on the foreground plants and on the set. And as the lifeless galleon floats to the surface, its menacing presence can clearly be felt. Oof it’s a good opening moment I tells ya.

The ship surfaces, with a prolonged amount of time spent focusing on all the water roaring and gushing out. There’s something so intimidating about watching the ocean being ejected from the hull with such force and noise. And wow, what a magnificent model. I assume it’s based on a kit but nevertheless, it must be praised for being such a detailed and beautiful piece of modelmaking which holds such presence on screen.

Guess I’m Mr. Thicko, because despite the countless number of times I’ve seen this episode, it’s only just dawned on me that the mysterious fog that everyone is baffled by later is being produced from the ship itself. For some reason that particular fact never, ever clicked for me in the past. I always assumed the fog was just a freak occurence. It just goes to show, you can always gain something new from a fresh viewing of something. Even the things you think you know, you don’t really know.

From out of nowhere, the cannons open fire with seemingly little intent, just adding to the notion that this ship is haunted and a bit out of control. No dialogue or exposition is needed. It’s just a very simple opening which tells us something bad is happening and it’s real scary.

At Marineville, the WSP Commander is back and, you guessed it, he’s got a completely new voice again, this time provided by David Graham – who is back in good form after being mostly absent from the previous couple of episodes. He delivers the plot to us on a silver platter. The jetliner Arcadia has been sunk, having reported a galleon sighting in a fog moments before. Now if I had one criticism, it’s the fact we’re told how fantastic the Arcadia was, but we never actually see it. Presumably the prior scene was meant to represent that moment of the galleon opening fire on the Arcadia, so it’s just a shame we missed the spectacle of its destruction.

Nevertheless, the gang get straight to work. The fog is a mystery. The galleon is a mystery. The Arcadia being sunk at all is a bit of a mystery. So this is one of those mystery-busting Stingray episodes and I’m all for it. It’s a formula which fits the flexible format of the show really well.

Oh but there’s a catch. Commander Shore wants in on the action, and so will be joining the Stingray crew on a mission for the first time in the series. I’m all for it. We’ve seen very little of Shore up to this point, but The Ghost Ship wastes no time putting him at the heart of the action, while also developing a tense dynamic between the Commander and Troy right from the off. We know Shore hasn’t been entirely approving of Troy’s wrecklessness in the past, like in Treasure Down Below for example, but now we get to see them clash firsthand and boy is it gonna be juicy.

Stingray is launched, with Shore seemingly taking on full command this week. Troy is remarkably okay with that, at least for now. We don’t see exactly how Shore boarded the craft, whether it was via a specially adapted injector tube for his hover chair, or some other means. Travelling at rate six, previously reported in the pilot episode to represent a speed of 600 knots, Troy estimates they’ll reach the area in 4.5 hours. By my math they’re journeying somewhere in the region of 3,000 miles away from Marineville, so deep into the lonely heart of the Pacific Ocean.

Back at base, Atlanta is enjoying a chat with Lt. Fisher, who we haven’t seen at all since his brief appearance in the pilot episode. He yearns for combat duty, sewing the seed that he’s destined for further aquanaut training later in the series, just like Lt. Ninety’s character arc in Fireball XL5 before him. The photographic blow-up of Marineville’s facilities makes for some good window dressing in the background.

There’s no question that Shore is in command here, bossing the likes of Phones about in a way which Troy is usually just a bit too lazy for. Ray Barrett has now brought the full gruffness we know and love to Shore’s voice, having been slightly more subdued in earlier episodes. Oink is absent this week, and I’m sorry to say he won’t be appearing again for a little while. I’ve really warmed to the furry little fella, so I hope he’s having a well-earned rest. Oh, also, the table legs seen here have been painted green and gotten chunkier since their last appearance in The Golden Sea – presumably the height had to be raised slightly so Shore’s chair could slide underneath.

Phones quickly picks up the sound of a large vessel, but Troy’s use of the Surface Video Scan reveals nothing but a fog. Now I’m not entirely sure what the crew have been discussing for the past four and a half hours, but seeing as the Arcadia’s last report was heavy fog and a large galleon, I’m surprised the Stingray crew weren’t more prepared for this eventuality. Otherwise, what have they spent so long chatting about? Marina’s pretty seashell collection? Troy’s feelings? That one time Phones wrestled with a gator out on the bayou?

Stingray surfaces and the trusty team deploy the revolutionary technique of looking out of the window. It pays off. Troy spots something at green-zero-zero-two, which is technical jargon for “over there.” Now I may jest, but all of this is genuinely quite tense.

From the depths of the fog, the galleon emerges. There’s little about this shot which gives it away as a miniature – it looks incredible and the scale of it all is very impressive indeed. The ship absolutely dominates the screen and approaches camera as if it’s come from miles away. To think that just a few years earlier, some of the boats in Supercar sadly looked rather like toys in a bathtub. Now that sort of thing certainly has its own charm and can still be enjoyed, but the model work on display here is of another calibre, and certainly fit for the big screen.

Troy calls across on the loud hailer with a strong “ahoy there” like a proper sailor boy. The puppet sets of the deck designed by Bob Bell are revealed to be just as stunning and detailed as the model. Frankly, I can’t beleive we never got a Supermarionation swashbuckling series about pirates because the team were clearly well up for it between this and all the pseudo-pirate characters who crop up in various Stingray, Fireball XL5, and Supercar episodes. Heck, Nebula-75 has gone for it too with the episode Fool’s Gold.

Just to add more tension, Shore plans to go across to the galleon, but chooses to bring Phones along instead of Troy. That’s gotta burn. Troy tries his best not to look hurt, but he totally is. I love this little bit of character work which bubbles alongside the plot. It would be one thing if this episode were just about investigating a spooky old galleon, but the power struggle between Troy and Shore just elevates the drama up a notch.

Wristwatch radios make their first appearance here – a communication method which was advanced in Thunderbirds with the video watches, and similar technology is now commonplace in the real world today.

Phones uses a monocopter, as seen in Hostages of the Deep, to make the short trip across to the galleon, while Commander Shore remains in his own chair with a monocopter thruster simply strapped to the back of it. Presumably the chair itself only has a limited hover range. It’s also a rare sight to see Shore in his WASP hat but I guess he wants to show he means business. Or he’s worried Troy will vandalise said hat if he leaves it aboard Stingray.

Very little is said for the next few moments. Shore and Phones arrive on the deck and take a look around. The sheer quality of what we see on screen is absolutely perfect. The detail of the set is just extraordinary, probably the best we’ve seen so far in the series. The camera work has been meticulously planned to get around the fact that the set of the ship, although impressive, was probably limited to just a small section of what should have been an enormous galleon. The camera makes large sweeping movements from the characters’ point of views in order to convey the emptiness, but also keeps those shots tight to show off the detail of the set, demonstrate the characters’ close examination of the scene, and to give the impression of a vast ship without actually revealing too much. This, combined with some lovely close-ups of the puppets and Barry Gray’s score on top of all that, really ramps up the tension. One could easily write this sequence off as a series of shots looking around the ship where not a lot happens, but its absolutely critical to selling the mood that the whole episode is trying to create. Stingray is often praised for its big, bombastic action or its warm, snuggly character work, but not enough credit is given to the moments where the directors choose to take it slow and push the mystery and tension of our heroes facing the unknown.

Just a quick note to say that the sign for ‘The Silver Swan’ which was spotted in the background of the cave in Treasure Down Below, makes a reappearance here.

The tone of uneasiness is also being pushed further by the fact that Troy and Marina, our two most trusty heroes up to this point in the series, are not a part of the investigation. The audience shares in Troy’s nerves, and the overall feeling that something isn’t quite right. Had it just been Troy, Phones, and Marina all venturing across to the galleon together, we, the audience, would all probably be feeling a lot more comfortable with the situation. It’d still be spookym but at least everyone would be where they’re supposed to be. Shore being on active duty, and Troy being the one sat listening in on the radio is unsettling for us. Not to mention the fact that Shore has been repeatedly cold and cagey with Troy this week. In turn, you have Phones having to be ever so slightly more reserved than usual because he’s working directly with the Commander, rather than his pal Troy. The straining of the character dynamics are subtle, but it works wonders at putting the entire situation on even more of a knife edge than we would usually expect.

With some expert work from the puppeteer, Phones is very nearly almost shown coming through a doorway, something which is usually heavily cut around because of the puppet wires. They discover a hot meal waiting for them on the table. The script is pulling in all the clichés of ghost ship stories such as the Mary Celeste and playing them for all their worth. The production team really took the “ghost ship” motif and committed to it with the set, music, direction – everything.

And just like that, it all kicks off. A door slams and the floor beneath Shore and Phones is lowered down. Needless to say, things have gone a bit pear shaped. The sudden revelation that there is clearly more to this than meets the eye is very effective. It’s a real “oh no!” moment. The first act could have ended with the alien just popping out from behind a door with a gun, but instead we’re presented with this utterly inexplicable scenario of the floor dropping. Had it been a simple reveal of the alien, we would all be pretty clear on what was going to happen next. But Phones and Shore being lowered into the unknown is just that, an unknown. We have no idea where they’re being taken or why.

And Shore’s first response to all this drama? Telling Troy to keep out of it. Yes, just in case you wanted some reassurance going into the commercial break that Troy was going to come along and fix it all, what we get is the exact opposite – more tension between the characters, and Troy being further distanced from the action. Again, we have no idea what the Commander’s reasoning is for this behaviour. The uneasiness has been turned up to eleven!

Back from the commercial break, we’re treated to yet another gorgeous shot of the galleon as it passes the large model of Stingray. I mean, seriously, phwoar. Troy and Marina still don’t know what’s happening. Aboard the ship, Phones and Shore are in another room, a set which is suspciously similar to the one we just saw with the furniture moved around a bit. There is, however, the hint of a futuristic control panel in the background…

A voice which could only be David Graham playing this week’s villain is heard from behind a door. Again, it’s unsettling that we don’t just see the alien straight away. The suspense, and the possibility that this is actually a ghost, is maintained. The chest seen on the floor to the right of the door is the same one presented to The Hood by General Bron in the Thunderbirds episode, Edge of Impact.

A gun appears from the wall and absolutely blasts the heck out of the floor in front of our heroes. How does such an old fashioned gun operate by itself? Of course, we don’t know yet, so for all we know it still could be a ghost. Maybe the ghost of Tex Tucker?

Shore and Phones surrender their weapons as instructed. The WASP sidearm is certainly an interesting design. It lacks the chunky threat of the guns from Fireball XL5 of Thunderbirds, but in turn looks a tad more sleek and sophisticated. Probably not my favourite weapon design, but a worthy entry to the… errr… canon? Guns… canon… cannon… guns… ah never mind.

So here he is, our villain of the week. He’s standing in a cupboard and looks like he’s had an accident with a nail gun. Perhaps not quite as threatening as all the build up would have had us believe. He just looks like a shiny bloke in some ornate pyjamas.

The room is sealed and we’re treated to some exposition. In case it wasn’t obvious, the ancient galleon and the half-eaten meal were all a trap. Our friend is from an undersea civilisation and he wants to destroy the WASPs. Again, nothing we couldn’t have guessed. His name is “of no consequence” which really makes me want to call him “Mr Consequence” but I won’t because apparently sources give his real name as Idotee, which is much more sensible. So anyway, he wants Troy Tempest to come over for, I assume, a lovely bit of torture followed by death. Oh, also, this guy sunk the Arcadia. Again, pretty obvious but for the slow ones at the back of the class, there it is.

The tone then shifts from the exposition dripping with evil intent to something much more serious. Phones and Shore plan to follow a “law of the WASPs” which clearly unsettles them both. Top notch voice performances for this moment matched by some very subtle but brilliant puppetry. Phones and Shore’s feelings are made quite visible with just a tilting of the head and the eyes. Troy is brought up to speed with the simple request to blow the living daylights out of the galleon with Phones and Shore still aboard. Yet again, Shore keeps things under wraps from Troy who is understandably outraged by the idea.

Idotee is quick to retaliate with some terrific blasts from his cannons. Stingray is utterly engulfed in the explosions. Superb special effects, and yet another escalation of the tension in this episode. Idotee has no hesitation about blowing up Stingray, and clearly has the immense destructive power to make it happen.

More splishy-sploshy-bangy-bangy as Stingray dives and Idotee leaves no speck of water un-blown-up. Slow burning tension and spookiness is all well and good, but this episode packs a terrific punch of action too!

As Stingray descends, so does the galleon. Now sure, Idotee has probably put a lot of work into adapting the ship to perform under the water without issue, but drying out all those massive sails every time he surfaces must be a right nightmare.

Marina hasn’t wasted much time taking Phones’ place. But Troy is perched on the horns of a real dilemma and agonises over the possibility of killing his friend and his commanding officer. It’s an ethical pickle.

A much smaller version of the main galleon model is shown sinking straight down. I won’t lie to you, it’s not quite as impressive, but it’s still a nice little model considering its reduced size. The effects crew probably weren’t quite so keen on hanging the enormous main model on a couple of tiny wires in order to achieve this shot.

Shore is seriously losing his temper with the indecisive Troy now. There’s no getting around the fact that Shore is being rather unreasonable here. Considering Troy is well-known for his resourcefulness and ability to get out of a tight spot, it’s a shame the Commander doesn’t trust him a little bit more to find an answer. Then again, he’s probably doing his upmost to convince Idotee that Stingray and Troy are a credible threat. Oh all the drama. It’s a time of great peril and the heroes are bickering amongst themselves. Anything could happen!

Idotee loses his patience too and grabs the radio from Shore’s wrist, via a live action insert of some rubber-gloved hands interacting with some bare hands. Idotee’s spikey hair-do is very unusual, and far-removed from the usual wigs seen on a Supermarionation puppet. Note the slight gap in the pokey needles on the back of the head which is presumably where the join exists between the head and the removable hatch for accessing the puppet’s internal mechanisms. Troy is given 20 marine minutes to come and join the party. A conversion is never made in the series between regular minutes and marine minutes, but I’m going to take a punt and assume it’s a 1:1 ratio.

Atlanta gets in touch for an update and unfortunately it’s nothing but bad news for her. If you watch Atlanta very carefully as Troy says “but your father’s being held prisoner” over the radio, you can see her lip moving but no words coming out. Fortunately for us all, Troy has a daring idea to save the day. We don’t know what it is, which is brilliant for us as an audience, and Altanta’s reaction suggests it’s typically dangerous in true Troy Tempest style. Finally our boy is getting to see some action! Lois Maxwell pitches the performance perfectly here – Atlanta is understandably upset but wholeheartedly places her trust in Troy, which is just the kind of reassurance we need right now while the Commander is inexplicably bashing everything Troy says or does.

The galleon reaches the bottom of the ocean, in the exact same spot we saw it in at the beginning of the episode. It isn’t clear whether the ship can do much more underwater than go up and down. It would be quite a spectacle to see the galleon involved in a full-on underwater dogfight swering in between rocks and trenches. Or, then again, that much movement might ruin the effect of its heavy, slow, lifelessness.

Shore and Phones have been taken from one room to another. The discarded hats, and Shore’s chair, suggest there was a bit of a struggle. Such a struggle is left to the imagination though, because, let’s be honest, it probably wouldn’t have looked that good to see the Idotee puppet trying to drag Phones and Shore across the floor against their will. The skull on the wall will be popping up again next week in the episode Count Down. Idotee has some whacking great harpoons pointing directly at his prisoners because he’s such a nice guy like that.

Of course he has a marine clock on the wall which makes use of red liquid just like the one in Titan’s domain from the pilot episode. This time, however, the liquid drains from the tube rather than filling it. Interestingly, Idotee’s hand has been modified to include some sort of leather (maybe) patch stuck across the entire palm which, in turn, gives him webbed fingers. I’ve never noticed it before and now I’m curious to find out how many other undersea beings have these modified hands throughout the series, if any.

Shore is determined that Troy won’t be coming over to join them, despite the impending doom. Phones is keeping very quiet. In fact he hasn’t had much to say this week. Either he’s keeping a stiff upper lip, or he thinks the Commander has gone loopy, or he’s ruddy furious that he’s been captured yet again, or he’s hung over from the night before.

Down on Stingray’s lower deck, Troy is preparing to disembark. He takes a pill offered to him by Marina which is presumably part of the grand plan. The left sleeve on the live-action copy of Marina’s costume has sustained a suspicious brown stain. Make of that what you will, but it’s probably just some wear and tear… probably.

Shore swears that he’s going to “bust” Troy for disobeying orders. Seriously, buddy, take a chill pill.

Troy swims on to the deck, the full set proudly on display once again. The sight of this ship underwater is something to behold. With the fish swimming around, the bubbles in front of the camera, and the darker lighting, I’m totally sold on the wonderful image of Troy swimming around the mast.

Phones finally speaks up and suggests that maybe, just maybe, the Commander has been a bit harsh on Troy. What a good pal. Idotee is delighted to welcome Troy aboard and, obviously, the whole thing is a trap. Phones and Shore aren’t going to be released and Troy is going to be taken to Idotee’s base for some firm justice. Don Mason fits as many syllables as possible into that “why you double crosser” line, but it’s done knowingly.

Shore fails to pick up on the fact that Troy is clearly doing some acting, despite how over the top the acting may be. I respect Commander Shore enormously, because he’s almost never wrong, but his firm holding of the line that Troy is a fool who should have blown the ship up and be damned is incredibly harsh. Get over it, sir, Troy isn’t listening to you. And I don’t think he’s putting it on for Idotee’s benefit anymore, he just totally doesn’t get what Troy is trying to do.

Lots of extreme close-ups are used to convey the desperation of the situation. Troy has a tiny ace up his sleeve, but time really is short, and those harpoons really are very, very pointy. It’s all looking like the end is nigh.

Now then, the next little bit of business comes across on screen about as well as one could hope. Laughing gas is being released from Troy’s dummy airtank, which Troy is immune to because he took the antidote. Shore, Phones, and Idotee are thrown into unstoppable laughter but the time is still ticking down. Obviously, showing the effects of an invisible gas is quite challenging visually, but fortunately the change in the puppets’ facial expressions really sells it. Shore and Phones have their smiler heads on, and Idotee has had some plasticine applied over his eyes to suggest his weariness. There is an element of uneasiness for the audience, but I think that’s intentional. We still haven’t been totally clued up on Troy’s plans, so we have no idea whether this spontaneous laughter is a part of it, or whether Troy will still be able to save his colleagues in time.

Shore says it best – “That sure was close!” The uncontrollable laughter is slightly disturbing, fitting the uneasy tone of the episode, but it’s also very nice to have a bit of fun and humour at the tail end of a rather serious episode. Plus, it contrasts deliberately with Shore’s incredibly strict and grave behaviour throughout. Suddenly it all makes sense. If Shore hadn’t been so dour and salty to Troy all day long, we wouldn’t have had this magnificent pay off with him finally breaking a smile.

Bizarrely, Shore passes out with his blinker head on in close up, but then we cut back to the two-shot, and both Shore and Phones have passed out with their smiler heads on, and their eyes wide open. Now that is a creepy image. Phones in particular looks decidedly dead with a smile etched permanently onto his face.

Idotee was certainly a worthy adversary for the WASPs. There’s no denying that his galleon trap completely worked. He probably should have tried a bit harder to just blow up Stingray and kill Troy that way, but I suppose he wanted the satisfaction of drawing it out. His grasp of technology is also fairly advanced, having seemingly converted the galleon single-handed. Overall, an excellent villain. In a rare bout of actual WASP justice being done, he’ll be put on trial for blowing up the Arcadia, rather than Troy blowing his brains out by default.

So Troy saves the day again, laughing, or rather not laughing, in the face of fear and beating all the odds. And he managed it all without being too annoying this week. Well done that lad.

But back at Marineville, Shore is laying into Troy with both barrels. This time, the control room has acquired a safe beneath the 24 hour clock, presumably installed for the next episode, Count Down.

Fortunately, the speech is all just for show, and Troy won’t be facing a court martial. Now, I’m rubbish at decoding handwriting, but there are four charges listed on the sheet which is dated April 24th, and it looks like the propmaker who wrote this up was taking the whole thing very seriously using phrases like “In that he did on the 15th” and “the good order.” I can’t make out the rest, sadly.

Anyway, Shore was wrong, Troy was right, and so the episode ends happily. Everything is tied up, the relationship between these two characters is restored, and all in all the WASPs are bloomin’ magnificent.

The Ghost Ship doesn’t put a foot wrong in my opinion. The highest praise must be given to the production team for delivering a full blown galleon without making any cutbacks. The music fits the tone perfectly. The story and its direction builds slowly, and plays the mystery of the galleon extremely well against the feud between Shore and Troy. I’ve used the word “uneasiness” a lot in this review but I think it sums up what this episode tries to do best, and is what keeps the whole thing exciting. Yes, this episode takes a slower pace with lots of long dialogue scenes and shots of people walking around looking at things – but it’s all done with the purpose of making the audience slightly uneasy and delivering a gripping plot which starts to play around with the show’s formula, and test the dynamics of its characters.

Next week, X20 is back, and this time he means business. Yes, for the first time, X20 is in the hotseat to come up with a plan to destroy Marineville all by himself! And it all starts with the promise of teaching Marina to speak… tune in for excitement with a review of the episode, Count Down.

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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.

Abandoned Ship: The Mary Celeste by Jess Blumberg. Published in 2007 by Smithsonian Magazine.

One thought on “Stingray – 8. The Ghost Ship

  1. Great review as always ,Jack. I never spotted the thruster on Shore’s hoverchair before. It makes me wonder how many feet off the ground it can move? Given how the galleon re-appears in Set Sail For Adventure, do you think it is posisble that the staff at the maritime musuem restored the ship to it’s flormer glory?

    Like

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