Stingray – 18. The Disappearing Ships

Directed by David Elliott

Teleplay by Alan Fennell

First UK Broadcast – 4th April 1965

At the end of each of these reviews, I give a short summary teasing the next episode in the series. I can usually come up with these summaries from memory, having watched Stingray all the way through so many times over the years. But I have to admit, last week, I had to quickly look up the plot for The Disappearing Ships before I couldn’t confidently write anything about it from memory. The episode has, sadly, never left much of an impression on me, but I don’t necessarily understand why. The setup for the plot is a glorious recipe for tension – Russian roulette with exploding freighter ships – what’s not to love? Yet I’ve always found it to be rather forgettable. So let’s see if The Disappearing Ships is actually a hidden gem, or maintains it’s rather low position in my overall ranking of episodes…

I wonder which ships will be disappearing… could it be the three with ‘DANGER HIGH EXPLOSIVE’ plastered across their hulls?

Stingray is merrily floating alongside the freighters, seemingly unpowered by its motor and therefore, presumably, tied onto the ship itself. The models for all three freighters are gorgeous. Big, hunking, masses of steel, expertly detailed and dirtied down to show their age.

The set of the MV Argosy seen in the Supercar episode, Pirate Plunder has been considerably dirtied down and re-dressed for us in this episode, primarily identifiable by the shape of the windows.

This all looks terribly technical and impressive as a live action hand reaches in to flick a few switches. It’s got two clocks on it. Two! Really pushing the boat out this week if you’ll pardon the pun.

On the bridge, it’s just Troy and Phones who are here to explain the premise of the plot to us. The freighters are old and out of use, so instead of wasting time on breaking down and scrapping the vessels to salvage parts, they’re just going to be sailed out to the middle of the ocean by remote and blown up. Once again, we have to look at some real history, this time how the shipbreaking industry of the 1960s was changing, in order to understand how this episode was influenced. Shipbreaking is the practice of bringing an old ship into dry dock and breaking the whole thing down in order to gather re-usable materials to be repurposed, thus making the process of new shipbuilding more economical. There’s a lot of money in such a big job, but it’s also time-consuming, dangerous, and difficult. In the mid-20th century, labor costs were rising in Europe and the USA where the majority of the world’s shipbreaking work took place. Therefore, much of the shipbreaking industry moved to East Asia where labor was cheaper. That’s why Phones makes particular reference in this scene to the “valuable man hours” spent on shipbreaking, without any regard to the enormous waste involved in just blowing the whole thing up. In the futuristic world of Stingray, new materials are cheaper than labor, and explosives come cheaper than upsetting environmentalists I suppose. Sinking a whole ship, unexploded ship would at least have the benefit of allowing coral reefs to grow and flourish. But blowing the thing up comes down to pure economics. Maybe the vessels of the future simply don’t need the repurposed steel and other materials from old ships? It sure is different from the world we live in today.

Back at Marineville, the Stingray crew have joined the Shores at their apartment for a poker night. As we saw in The Ghost of the Sea, Atlanta’s bedroom connects directly with her father’s, although this is the first time we’ve seen the room itself – assuming the bedroom full of suitcases we saw in Subterranean Sea was Marina’s and not Atlanta’s because it looks nothing like this. Since the pilot episode, the Shores have had a new carpet fitted in the main living area, although this change actually happened last week in Stand By For Action, and I was just too high on Johnny Swoonara’s hairspray to notice.

I know absolutely diddly squat about poker so whatever the lads are talking about, I couldn’t begin to interpret it. So let’s instead just appreciate how much smoking and drinking and gambling is going on in this children’s programme. But frankly, I think it’s a lot better that there are real grown-ups in this show, acting like real grown-ups, and doing real grown-up things. It ends up making these artificial characters of fibreglass and solenoids feel more real as a result.

Atlanta is tearing her room apart to find an old candy box. Nobody knows why. I guess she just likes it. The structure of all the candy boxes in my life don’t survive my initial enthusiasm to get into them, so I can’t really relate. Atlanta’s leather jumpsuit is so 1960s, the type of thing being worn at the time by Cathy Gale in The Avengers. For the next few scenes, you’ll notice that Atlanta is posed in a very model-like manner, just to very clearly echo that the outfit was pulled straight out of the pages of Vogue.

Meanwhile, Marina is helping Troy cheat at poker. It doesn’t come across terribly well on screen for obvious reasons. Were Marina not a puppet with limited movement and expression, this would probably work quite well. But to us, the whole thing couldn’t be more blatant, and one wonders how on earth they’re getting away with it. Incidentally, Marina is now wearing the pink skirt designed for the dream sequence in Raptures of the Deep as part of her regular outfit in a nice little change up for her.

Troy says a thing, then Shore says a thing, and Barry Gray’s music helpfully indicates that Troy has made a blunder. I told you I know nothing about poker.

Shore absolutely delights in Troy’s misfortune, reporting that the captain now owes him $7,300,080. I think that means Troy isn’t very good at this game. Look at the commander’s happy little face. Ain’t it cute?

I fear that Atlanta’s hands may be glued to her hips.

A couple more poses for the camera before the fashion shoot is over. Atlanta starts getting wasted on absinthe, drowning her sorrows because daddy has thrown out the old box she loved so much.

It falls to Troy to spell out for us that like the candy box, the three freighter ships being sent out to sea are also old things that are no longer useful and being thrown away. I hope you lot at home can keep up with the complex poetry of all this.

As Troy points out, the freighters are sailing along to their deaths quite peacefully on remote control. Autonomous cargo ships are quite a hot topic right now, with many maiden voyages having taken place in 2021 and 2022 for unmanned cargo vessels with input from plenty of top engineering and tech companies all invested in safer, cleaner, and cheaper shipping. As long as they don’t wire the vessels up to explode I’m sure everything will be fine.

The set for the deserted bridge is a rusty version of Captain Black’s control room from the beginning of Treasure Down Below but with a new helm.

The bombs are still very much active, but some spooky old codger has come along to switch off the automatic bosun. This is bound to end well.

As the camera spins around, we can get a cheeky, if blurry, look at the very human looking member of the AP Films crew who has dressed up for this live action insert.

Previously when alien hands have been shown in live action, the stand-in has worn rubber gloves in the appropriate colour, but this time the hands have been painted to match the puppet. The sluice valve is opened. That’s probably important.

The ships start to sink quite rapidly. I guess that valve really is quite important. Do all cargo ships have a valve fitted for the sole purpose of sinking the entire boat with one convenient control wheel? Or is this just a special case? Regardless, it looks rather beautiful, in a way, under the moonlight.

The alarm sounds at Marineville. Fisher is ejected from his chair faster than Captain Blue gets flung out of an SPV on those days when his colleague is feeling particularly indestructible.

The little blip on the radar tells Fisher everything he needs to know. He calls up Commander Shore and informs the team that the freighters have sunk. Everyone is very upset by this, but hang on, wasn’t sinking the ships the whole point of the exercise? They were about the blow the darn things up. Nobody was aboard. Could just be the ships were so old they finally rusted away. Not exactly worth losing sleep over. But of course, that wouldn’t be in the spirit of the show. It must be foul play, so Stingray is ordered to investigate immediately. Quite right too.

Just to spell it out nice and clearly, the first ship is going to blow up in two and a half hours, and it’ll take Stingray two hours to get to the area, leaving them half an hour to figure out what’s happened. Yes, thanks for the math, Phones. There’s really not a lot of complexity to any of this. There’s no comedic edge or fantastical element to this episode, really. It’s just your straightforward, run of the mill, race against time before the thing goes bang type of plot. Fortunately, a few flakes of orginality do filter through a bit later, but so far, I’m not exactly on the edge of my seat to figure out what’s going to happen next.

Back at Marineville, Fisher attempts to engage the commander in small talk. He’s not interested though, wishing he were thrashing Troy and poker instead. Can’t say I blame him. I’d rather be watching them all play poker, and I don’t even like poker. Atlanta arrives, sporting the rarely seen WASP hat as part of the uniform. She’s all about big fashion statements this week.

Stingray soon arrives in the area but they fail to find the ships. The use of back projection for the view out of Stingray’s front windows is really very effective. Normally back projection has a tendency to look rather artificial and shakey, but the technique seems to work particularly well for underwater shots like this one.

Three trails left on the seabed indicate that the ships have been moved. They hardly look like the kind of drag marks that would be left behind by three enormous freighters. I assume the scale with the plants and rocks in this shot just isn’t quite working as intended because the trails look tiddly.

Now things are getting interesting. Three sunken galleons with lights on inside. These appears to all be new models, rather than making use of the superb galleon from The Ghost Ship.

In fact, it’s possible that the ship on the left and in the centre are just cardboard cutouts, rather than full-fledged models. It’s still pretty convincing if that is the case though. And it’s quite a striking image to see lights on in these old, sunken sailing ships.

The freighters are soon discovered, neatly arranged on the seabed in a veritable cul-de-sac of the ocean. Once again, the effects team have used the technique of placing foreground detail in front of the fish tank to achieve greater depth in the shot.

Troy reports in to Marineville. It’s time for another game of staring at the brown wall in the control room! This week, the analog clock that was installed for Stand By For Action has disappeared, although it’s possible that scenes for this episode might have been filmed first, in which case the clock hasn’t actually been added yet. I know, it’s thrilling stuff. Atlanta’s taken her hat off too. It was fun while it lasted.

Troy and Phones swim across to investigate. Trying to move away from the usual camera business of the characters swimming into frame from the left and exiting on the right, David Elliott tries to shake things up a bit with some shots taken from high above the set, and from a low angle too.

The submerged cabin is very convincing. Troy and Phones really look like they’re floating around inside the ship even though it’s actually bone dry.

A slight continuity error as the valve control on the puppet set looks quite different to the one we saw the alien operating in the live action insert earlier, having turned from silver to red, and the label becoming ‘SLUICE VALVES’ plural, rather than a singular ‘SLUICE VALVE.’ Either way, Troy and Phones figure out that this is how the vessels were sunk. Congratulations on catching up with the rest of us on the plot. Now we can get to the interesting stuff, I hope.

Now who could this be, swimming out from their ship right on cue?

Parasitica hides behind a rock holding a gun just so we can have an exciting cliffhanger before the commercial break. A fantastic puppet design with the wild wig and beard. His name is rather unpleasant, and is presumably derived from the word ‘parasite’, which tells you exactly what we’re supposed to think of him…

Troy and Phones get ready to depart. Although Troy concludes that there’s absolutely nothing they can do, he still thinks it’s worth checking on the other freighters. I suppose it’s good to be thorough, but when you’re dealing with exploding ships I would be more inclined to clear the area sharpish and let the whole thing remain a mystery.

Parasitica has other ideas though, and blows up a rock to attract the boys’ attention. Shouting “oi, you” underwater wouldn’t have been terribly effective.

Now that’s what I call a beckon. Gun in one hand, a smooth back and forth motion and palm outstretched with the other. Textbook beckoning.

Troy and Phones do as they’re told, fearing that they cannot out-swim the grumpy old man with a big gun. They are impressed by the airlock which has been fitted to one of the ships. Then again, Troy is impressed by tinned soup, so that might not be saying much.

While all this is going on, Stingray is just parked outside with Marina aboard. Even though she has the fantastic advantage of being able to breathe underwater indefinitely, they never bring her along for this kind of work and it drives me up the wall.

Surely, the logical thing to do would be for someone like Phones to be left behind with the radio, while Marina heads across to the freighters with Troy? I get that the whole situation has been engineered to add some tension and difficulty to an otherwise wafer thin plot, but it sure is infuriating if you think about it for too long.

Shore says they need to “make Marina understand.” I think you’ll find she understands just fine, and it’s you who can’t understand her. Honestly, people are all too quick to assume Marina is the problem. So this episode sees the formal introduction of the tapping code which enables Marina to communicate over the radio. One tap for “yes”, two taps for “no.” It was hurriedly used at the end of the The Invaders by Troy but we’ll say that doesn’t count because nothing about the end of that episode makes much sense anyway. It’s a pretty good code. Three taps for “six cans of strong lager and a packet of Quavers, please,” would probably be a handy addition.

Parasitica has made himself comfy while he interrogates Troy and Phones. This set, complete with the funky upholstery, was seen as the interior of the Argosy from Supercar‘s Pirate Plunder. In turns out, Parasitica is part of a race of undersea nomads who live in the old shipwrecks. He thought that the three freighters would be ideal as new homes. Seems fair enough, although it would have been nice if he’d checked that the ships didn’t belong to anyone first. That, coupled with the whole pointing a gun and Troy and Phones thing, does paint him as rather an unsavoury character.

Troy and Phones do their best to convince Parasitica that he’s made a bad property investment because of the impending detonation. Trouble is, he thinks it’s all a bluff. Ugh, how tremendously unhelpful. It’s a nice touch that nobody knows which ship is about to explode first, although it would probably be a good idea to mark the hulls clearly in future to prevent this sort of mix up from happening again. Look, do I have to think of everything?

Meanwhile, Commander Shore is attempting to persuade Marina to leave the area and get Stingray clear of the blast. She declines. I really do admire Marina’s stubborn form of heroism.

Troy and Phones are sweating buckets over the prospect of being blown to kingdom come, but Parasitica remains unconvinced. After all, why would anyone blow up a perfectly good ship full of valuable materials? It just doesn’t make sense…

Well that should set the record straight.

For some reason, Stingray is floating around when the first blast happens, even though Marina was fairly adamant about staying put. The furniture inside takes quite a tumble and Marina has been knocked to the floor. Probably no worse than the weekly drunken brawl at the Blue Lagoon though.

The lads on the ship also have a bit of a mess to tidy up, but at least it’s convinced Parasitica that the time has come to move on. I don’t blame him. That carpet is hideous.

Oh now what is it? Yes, just to add more inconvenience to the proceedings, the airlock was damaged in the explosion and now they’re all trapped inside the ship which is about to blow up. Apparently those undersea nomads are also sloppy cowboy engineers when it comes to building explosion-proof airlocks. If only there were some other way out of the ship… if only the boat had windows or perhaps one of the original doors that the crew would have used every single day… maybe something like that…

Could Marina, with instructions sent via radio, just swim across to the ships and stop the remaining bombs in the nick of time? That would have been a nice, heroic twist to the plot wouldn’t it? It’s certainly the sort of thing Marina would have tried in the early episodes like Hostages of the Deep. Impulsive, but brave and clever. That’s supposed to be Marina’s character. I admit that sitting and waiting for Troy and Phones at the risk of getting blown up herself is still quite brave, but even that is too much for Commander Shore so I can’t possibly imagine him giving her bomb disposal tips by radio. She really gets underestimated a lot even though she’s proven her ability time and again.

Nope, instead we’re stuck with a one-sided argument between Marina and Shore, and a whole lot of sitting around, or trying to open doors that won’t open. There’s tension of a kind, but the situation does rather lack action and excitement when there’s so much potential for a nail-biting rescue operation.

Parasitica is terribly, terribly sorry. He’s just been sat around this whole time, not even helping with the door. Nobody seems to be treating the situation with that much urgency, and they’ve all just accepted their fate ridiculously quickly.

So freighter number two explodes, Stingray gets knocked aside with no damage done – same old story. I don’t think any of us believed that the second ship was going to be the one with Troy and Phones aboard. Nor do I think anyone believes at this point that Marina and Stingray are in any real danger because they’ve been knocked about twice and seem basically fine. So Marina refuses to move yet again. Good for her.

As luck would have it, and because the episode needs a happy ending, the second explosion has unjammed the airlock slightly so the boys can now get out with a little bit of hard graft. And, as a bonus, that hideous carpet will be ruined by all the seawater. I mean, it’s about to get blown up anyway, but I still count it as a loss for hideous carpet designers everywhere.

Shore continues to argue with Marina about getting Stingray clear. It’s infuriating at this point that he won’t change his tune. At least Atlanta shows an awareness of Marina’s predicament. I’m glad Marina and Atlanta got done with bickering fairly early on in the series. It’s much nicer now that they support each other as friends.

Troy and Phones are getting wet and wild, and Parasitica just sits there watching the strong young men grunting and exercising while getting soaked with water and grasping a long, hard rod…

Well thank goodness that’s over.

Marina bangs on the microphone enthusiastically, showing complete disregard for the commander’s code. But we all get it, she’s pleased to see them.

So now Stingray can get clear…

Just in time for the final explosion which, of course, is much bigger than the other two because it makes for a much better finale.

The water tank in front of the camera gets absolutely showered in muck from the blast. But who cares? It was a good bang.

Stingray heads for home. It’s a two hour trip, so hopefully they’ll have time to put the furniture back where it’s supposed to go.

We’re back at the Shores’ home to wrap the episode up with a conclusion to that candy box thing from earlier that we’re all desperate to hear more about. Anyway, the old ships are now going to be given directly to Parasitica and his people so that they can be converted into homes. That is rather nice, I’ll admit, and goes some way to keeping up the idea that the WASPs do manage to have peaceful relations with at least a few undersea races. I mean, he did capture Troy and Phones at gunpoint, so Parasitica still doesn’t get a free pass in my book, but at least he apologised afterwards.

When Captain Tempest leaves for a moment, Shore decides to cancel his enormous gambling debt, suggesting that it would take 500 years to pay it off on Troy’s salary. That’s probably an exaggeration, but if that’s anywhere near accurate, Troy’s salary must be pitiful, and it’s no wonder he’s such a fuss pot.

Troy’s been dumpster diving and recovered the candy box. Marineville apparently has its own waste disposal centre which I’d be willing to bet pumps garbage directly into the ocean.

I want this to sound as insincere as possible: it’s a kitten – how cute. Yes, all for a sickly sweet ending, Troy has bought Atlanta a cat which we will never see again. I suppose it’s charming but, to be honest, it’s all just a little bit twee considering how relatively uneventful the rest of the episode has been.

That being said, I do like that Troy has done something genuinely nice for Atlanta, and it isn’t just an apology for him being a total twerp like it usually is. It shows that their relationship is blossoming, and maybe Troy is growing as a character. Maybe he’s done with being so selfish and pompous, and instead wants to put other people’s feelings first by showing his calm and caring and considerate side. Now let me check which episode is coming up next week so we can see Troy’s maturity and charm go from strength to strength… The Man From The Navy… oh well, it was fun while it lasted.

The Disappearing Ships isn’t bad by any means, it just still doesn’t do much to excite me. It’s never occured to me before just how many wasted opportunities there are. Marina sitting in Stingray and banging on the radio really wasn’t a good use of her bravery and determination. Troy and Phones don’t show any resistance to Parasitica, and when he finally believes them and they get trapped, they essentially give up on trying to escape. Shore and Atlanta aren’t much help either. The premise of being trapped on a ship primed to explode but not knowing when it will happen is a great one, but it could have been put to better use. The off-duty scenes with the poker game are nice, but I would have happily cast them aside on this occasion for a bit more meat on the bones of the main plot. More information about Parasitica and his people would have made things interesting, and made him stand out from the other villainous aliens of the series a bit more. Ah well, at least Atlanta has a new kitten. I shall name it, Teufel.

Next week, it’s Jordan vs. Tempest, Navy vs. WASPs, feminine uniforms vs. serviceable and neat uniforms! Which will go worse – a routine missile test, or Marina’s dinner party? Stay tuned for The Man From The Navy!

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Further reading:

www.filmedinsupermarionation.com by Century 21 Films Ltd.

Filmed In Supermarionation by Stephen La Rivière. Third edition published in 2022 by Century 21 Films Ltd.

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

Shipbreaker to the world. First published in 1973, by Free China Weekly.

Crewless cargo: the world’s first autonomous electric cargo ship by Frankie Youd. Published in 2022 by Ship Technology.

Autonomous ships: The next step. Published in 2016 by Rolls-Royce.

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