It’s a question that every TV producer has to face… how do you end a successful series? Go out on a bang? End on a cliffhanger? For many years, Gerry Anderson had his own answer, and it came in the form of what’s known in the trade as the ‘clip show.’
A well-used idea, more often seen in American series than home-grown product, clip shows gave producers the opportunity to recycle old material in the context of a simple narrative framing device, and offered the obvious advantage of reigning in costs at a time when a series’ budget had mostly been spent. You’d be hard pressed to find an example in today’s TV landscape, where the emphasis is on building excitement and guaranteeing an audience for your second season (assuming you even get one), but in the late 50s and early 60s, clip shows were a familiar part of the TV narrative.
Until Stingray, the swansong episodes of the Supermarionation productions didn’t receive any special treatment. Supercar had bowed out on the eccentric King Kool, while Fireball XL5 went out on a bang with the dramatic conflagration of The Firefighters… but change was afoot. Fireball XL5 had included a short montage of earlier adventures at the beginning of Drama at Space City, and now the idea would be extended to the length of a full episode.
It was Stingray’s final episode that introduced the clip show format to Supermarionation. Uniquely, two framing narratives were filmed, although one of these appears to have been intended to bookend a number of complete episodes for screening to prospective buyers. The in-series example, Aquanaut of the Year, used a ‘This is Your Life’ sprung on Troy Tempest as an excuse to revisit moments from some memorable adventures.
Thunderbirds duly followed Stingray’s example with another compilation (Security Hazard) at the end of its first series. A precedent had been established, and of the remaining Supermarionation series, only The Secret Service would fail to end on a clip show (after only thirteen episodes, it was hardly necessary, or indeed fair on the viewers). Captain Scarlet’s contribution was the decidedly downbeat The Inquisition, the bulk of which comprised footage from Big Ben Strikes Again, The Trap, and Crater 101, arguably the three best examples from the series after the pilot (The Mysterons had already been revisited – twice – in the episodes Dangerous Rendezvous and Traitor). Tony Barwick’s notes indicate that the final clip show episode was being planned well ahead of its actual production, and this cost-saving measure was evidently factored into the series’ budget.
In retrospect, the clip show looks like a bit of a cop-out: a rehash of previously seen material instead of a brand-new adventure with your favourite characters and machines; and for some of us watching at the time, it certainly felt like that. But in the era before home video, clip shows offered us the chance to do what these days we’d do on DVD, revisiting some classic moments before our favourite series took its final bow, and there must have been many viewers who welcomed this stroll down memory lane.
For this particular seven-year-old viewer, I’d happily have let Captain Scarlet end on its penultimate episode, the tense and dramatic Attack on Cloudbase. I was, of course, oblivious to the extreme over-acting of all the characters (their personalities exaggerated in Symphony Angel’s dream), and right up until the ‘death’ of Captain Scarlet, I’d been prepared to accept it as a regular episode… even if they had by this point killed off Rhapsody Angel (unthinkable!) But, heigh-ho, it was all a dream. And it had all been done before, in Fireball XL5’s A Day in the Life of a Space General, a script that allowed writer Alan Fennell to indulge in an orgy of destruction with the convenient cop-out of a dream to act as a ‘reset button’. In 1963, this was quite an innovation, although these days killing your characters and bringing them back from the dead has become a dreary old televisual trope that’s been, literally, done to death (Star Trek, Space:1999, Dr. Who etc…). It’s even tempting to speculate that A Day in the Life… sowed the seeds of Captain Scarlet, a format that would allow for the death of our hero every week.
In its own way, the dream episode was as much of a cop-out as the clip show, but by allowing the writers off the leash for a week, it could yield some memorable storylines, such as Stingray’s Raptures of the Deep or The Secret Service’s Errand of Mercy; and, of course, Attack on Cloudbase. But a dream episode was no way to end a classic series.
Perhaps the best way to end one series is to offer a sneak preview of the next… and that’s exactly what we’re doing with the deluxe edition of Captain Scarlet Vol. 4. Joe 90 is waiting in the wings, and he’ll be with you as soon as he remembers where he left his glasses…