Friday, 22 March 2013

Why Stingray Is Actually an Influential Comedy

(AKA Stingray: Flipping Great Wodges of Mental)

As discussed, every right thinking human being ever to exist loves Stingray. I, for example, being of sound mind and judgement, seem to remember possessing Stingray pyjamas. I loved it that much. I also had a Thunderbirds backpack, which produced occasional bouts of ridicule. Still, where are you now Gareth Brown, erstwhile mockery instigator? Please get in touch. I have always admired you from afar.

Stylish and economical

One of the reasons people adore it so is because Stingray is proper bwibbling insanity on stilts. It’s effervescently mad at times, so you'd be forgiven for thinking it was primarily a comedy. Its second most prolific writer is Dennis Spooner, a man who dramatically increased the potential of Doctor Who during the Hartnell era. Certainly, the man who brought us The Time Meddler and large segments of quality Dalek yarns seems to have had a whale of a time writing for Gerry Anderson shows.

Hence, five episodes in, we have The Loch Ness Monster. For those of you who have seen the Garth Marenghi's Darkplace episode Scotch Mist, imagine they made a version of it for children's television. For those of you who haven’t, go and watch it immediately.

Good wasn’t it?

Anyway, back to StingrayThe Loch Ness Monster contains a dream sequence where Phones imagines he becomes a true Highlander/Scotch Person, and as vivid and haunting an image of Inverness-shire as will e'er be depicted on television. If there was a raven involved, he’d be quothing Aviemore.

Then there's the episode where Troy suffers from oxygen deprivation and hallucinates that he is the richest man in the world, and the rest of the characters are his slaves in an undersea palace. You know. That old chestnut. The final episode of Stingray to be produced involved Troy waking up with a hangover from his ‘Aquanaut of the Year’ winner’s party, only to be confronted by the host of This is Your Life. Obviously peacekeeping forces are a much bigger deal in the future. Somehow, Troy shares the tale of his hallucination that only he experienced in flashback with the millions of viewers watching. It’s the equivalent of Tony Blair going on The Graham Norton Show and joshing candidly about his fever dreams of John Prescott feeding him grapes and performing the dance of the seven veils.

Possibly in response to this madness, Alan Fennell (the most prolific of all the Gerry Anderson writers), came up with Tom Thumb Tempest, an episode in which the main characters shrink, and find themselves trapped at a dinner party attended by most of their enemies. Because that’s what evil undersea races dedicated to the destruction of mankind get up to. Ask your Nan.

This is just scratching the surface of Stingray’s deliriously entertaining disregard for sense, but none of this compares to the ruthless anti-logic of Surface Agent X20’s grand schemes to destroy Marineville. If I’m enjoying something, I’m prepared t indulge a needlessly tortuous complexity, and Surface Agent X20’s plans deliver every time on this front. Consider the following plan for the destruction of a vitally important military base, from Spooner’s Count Down:

  • Write polite letter to head of World Aquanaut Security Patrol asking if you, a respected scientist on speech therapy, can hold a lecture at their Marineville headquarters. The Commander of the World Aquanaut Security Patrol will read this letter (after all, it is addressed to him) and decide to accept the request even though it falls quite far outside the remit of the World Aquanaut Security Patrol.
  • Someone will notice that Marina, the beautiful mute girl from under the sea, could maybe get some help from an expert in speech therapy. Maybe they'll invite him to do some sessions that would involve Troy Tempest recording the kind of thing he might say on board the fleet’s finest submarine, and Troy Tempest will go along with this without much fuss.
  • If challenged by the endearingly awful security team on the front gate, point out that you are clearly the expert on speech therapy who gave a talk at Marineville several days ago, and therefore it’s perfectly normal that you would be leaving through the main gate in as suspicious a manner as possible.
  • Use the recordings to gain access to Stingray’s underground pen in your own submarine, there to plant a bomb that will blow up Marineville and give Surface Agent X20 massive kudos with Titan, as long as he doesn’t ask why you didn’t just leave a bomb in Marineville earlier when everyone thought you were a harmless professor instead of a terrorist.
  • Fail to realise that verbal communication is not the only form of communication.
  • Fall into water. Splash around for a bit. Forget that you are a creature of underwater origin and that this shouldn’t really be a big deal.

This enjoyably daft yarn is not even the weirdest of X20’s plans. Let us not forget the time he kidnapped a pop star, or pretended to be a film director. But don’t let that fool you into thinking that the bad guys have got dibs on the show’s stupidity quota. Phones, for a man whose main talent is hearing things, isn’t great at processing information. Fans of demarcation can rest assured that it has a firm place in the workplaces of the future, because otherwise Phones is too demonstrably thick to be a member of an undersea peacekeeping force. You don't see characters in Kathryn Bigelow films spending all their money on treasure maps when they're supposed to be guarding their submarine with a pet seal in Mortonocco. Nicholas Cage films, yes, but not Kathryn Bigelow films.

Fans of The Mighty Boosh watching Stingray will note several striking similarities. Not only do many of the voices for characters overlap (Titan and Sandstorm are near-identical, and possibly cousins of Mr Susan), but the style of self-contained dreamlike Technicolour adventure permeates both. It feels inconceivable that this didn’t influence The Mighty Boosh or Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace.

Watching Stingray back as something resembling an adult, it’s apparent how the adventure aspect appealed to me as a child and the knowing silliness entertains me now I’m old enough to appreciate it. It’s similar to the Adam West Batman TV series, which nothing less than the adventures of Batman to a five-year-old-me. Stingray is a show that completely embraces its ridiculousness, and is all the mightier for it.

March 2013.