Sunday, January 11, 2015

DVD Spotlight: Stingray--Submarines, Marionettes, and a Love Triangle

Imagine a science fiction TV series about an organization called the World Aquanaut Security Patrol (WASP), which battles underwater threats from its West Coast headquarters in the year 2065. Commander Samuel Shore, who travels via a "hoverchair" due to paralysis, runs WASP with assistance from his daughter Atlanta. She's in love with Captain Troy Tempest, the handsome pilot of the super submarine Stingray. Troy returns her affections to a degree--but he's also attracted to Marina, a mute young woman from an underwater civilization. In fact, each episode ends with a love song about Marina ("What are these strange enchantments that start whenever you’re near?").

Now, imagine that all the characters are "played" by marionettes on miniature sets. That's Stingray, a fanciful 1964-65 British series created by innovative television producer Gerry Anderson and his wife Sylvia. On January 13th, Timeless Media Group will released a 50th anniversary edition of Stingray: The Complete Series. This five-DVD boxed set includes all 39 half-hour episodes, plus an interview with Gerry Anderson, a making-of featurette, and audio commentaries on several episodes from the Andersons and others.(Click here to view our trailer on YouTube.)

Troy Tempest and his co-pilot Phones.
By the 1960s, Gerry Anderson was well-known in his homeland for unique children's shows that incorporated an ingenious marionette process dubbed "Supermarionation." A key element in this process was the use of a solenoid motor located in a puppet's head that was synchronized to an audio filter. Thus, each puppet's mouth moved in response to dialogue on a pre-recorded tape. The size of the motor required the puppet's head to be disproportionately larger than the rest of its body. The puppets averaged 22 inches in height. Their movements were controlled by thin wires operated by puppeteers--one per character--working on a bridge eight feet over the miniature set.

Sylvia and Gerry Anderson with Troy.
Gerry Anderson's early juvenile hits included Supercar and Fireball XL5 (which NBC broadcast in the U.S. on Saturday mornings). With Fireball XL5 taking place in outer space, it only seemed logical for Gerry and Sylvia to create a show about a super sub.

Stingray was their first color series and also their most sophisticated one to date. The marionettes had interchangeable heads that were used to convey different emotions. The biggest challenge, though, was that much of Stingray took place underwater. On one of the commentary tracks, Gerry Anderson explains how the illusion of filming underwater was achieved and the dangers it created:

We used to film through a specially constructed aquarium in which we had different-sized fish. In order to give the illusion that Stingray was traveling underwater, we ordered the aquariums to be made by the same people who made aquariums for the London Zoo and so naturally, we thought the thing would be done properly and everything would be safe. When they arrived, we spent the first morning filming through the aquarium and everything seemed to work perfectly. Then fortunately, the crew broke for lunch. As they walked through the studio door in the corridor, there's this enormous bang as the aquarium exploded through the pressure of water and, of course, jagged pieces of glass blew out in all directions and the fish landed on the floor and all died. We were very lucky, because had the crew been there, I think there could have been a very, very serious accident. It's something I always think of when I see Stingray traveling, seemingly underwater.

Troy Tempest and James Garner.
The 20-minute documentary "The Thing About Stingray..." is a special treat for the show's fans. Director John Read, art director Bob Bell, special effects technicians, and puppeteers provide fascinating details about Stingray's creation and production. For example, the appearance of hero Troy Tempest was modeled after actor James Garner. The fine wires used to manipulate the puppets created some logistical challenges, such as Troy and his fellow cast members couldn't walk through a doorway--the door frame would have interfered with the wires. Anderson thought the puppet's walking movements looked awkward, so the crew employed some creative ways to minimize walking shots (e.g., puppets walk behind furniture, use of the hoverchair).

Atlanta was voiced by Lois Maxwell
(Miss Moneypenny to Connery's 007).
The Stingray TV series lasted for 39 episodes and was sadly eclipsed by the Andersons' next two endeavors: Thunderbirds (1965-66), the biggest hit of the Supermarionation shows, and Captain Scarlett and the Mysterons (1967-68). Still, in my opinion, they didn't top Stingray, which mixed lively adventures with witty comedy (e.g., in the last episode, Troy wins "Aquanaut of the Year" and reminiscences about his greatest escapades). And, of course, let's not forget about the Atlanta-Troy-Marina love triangle!

The mysterious Marina.
Despite the success of his marionette TV series, Gerry Anderson wanted to move into "live action" films and television. He almost got his big break when Harry Saltzman, who owned the James Bond film rights with Albert "Cubby" Broccoli, asked Anderson if he'd be interested in producing Moonraker in 1969. Nothing came of the discussions, though. According to some sources, Anderson later settled a lawsuit against Broccoli, claiming some elements of his Moonraker treatment were used.

Still, Gerry Anderson got his wish when he made the intriguing theatrical film Journey to the Far Side of the Sun in 1969. From there, he produced the cult TV series UFO (a personal fave), Space: 1999 with Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, and The Protectors starring Robert Vaughn.

Incidentally, the pretty closing song "Aqua Marina" was performed by Gary Miller. He had previously scored six hits on the UK record chart, with his biggest song being the theme from Richard Greene's Robin Hood TV series. Sadly, "Aqua Marina" wasn't a hit--though perhaps that was a good thing for Atlanta, who didn't have a song at all.


  1. "Stingray" was my favorite of Anderson's shows. I know that "Thunderbirds" is more famous and it was good. It just didn't have the imaginative undersea settings found in in "Stingray." I've seen another documentary on how the puppets were manipulated. Fascinating stuff.

  2. Rick, I am so delighted that you wrote this outstanding essay about "Stingray"! It was fascinating to watch and Anderson's work was legendary. The characters are interesting and there are fun plots, too, with a favorite of mine called "Raptures of the Deep" where Troy is running out of air as he is exploring an area for treasure and has a fantasy segment about living in the lap of luxury with both Marina and Atlanta waiting on him.

    You did an awesome job on the promotional video you made on the YouTube link at the top right of the Cafe page, too. I hope everyone will take a few minutes to see it as it gives a remarkable overview of the series. Great post, Rick!

  3. I'm in agreement with both of you. The term "legendary" is used too often, but it's certainly appropriate, Toto, when describing Anderson's Supermartionation series.