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Joe 90’s attempt to marry the visual realism of Captain Scarlet with improved characterization was a step in the right direction after the sombre Scarlet cast, but ultimately demonstrated that the puppets needed the usual fleet of vehicles to make up for their lack of expression. Project 90 is one of the more successful hardware-free episodes and is the epitome of what the series was seeking to achieve in terms of characterization.
Joe 90 reintroduced the family atmosphere which had been so central to Stingray and Thunderbirds. It is however very much a boys’ club, with Mac’s housekeeper, Mrs Harris, the only regular female character. There’s the occasional air hostess or villainess to be found, otherwise there’s not much here for the girls. The series is also more earthbound than its predecessors, the ITC series of the late 60s being a likely influence with their spy stories and well-used format of a lone American in a British scenario (e.g. The Baron, Man in a Suitcase).
The episodes of Joe 90 can be split into two distinct camps - those that feature one of Mike Trim’s superb guest vehicles, and those that do without. The latter ‘talkie’ episodes try and do something different to the norm but several fall short of the mark - King For A Day, Double Agent and Splashdown spring to mind. Project 90 succeeds despite the lack of high-tech hardware because it focusses on Joe’s family ties and features Tony Barwick’s witty dialogue and some great music from Barry Gray.
WIN’s File 90 has aroused the curiosity of the scheming Conrad Darota, who sits brooding in his clinic in the Alps. His associate Kurson’s search for information leads them to the door of Mac’s cottage in Dorset. They decide to kidnap Mac and take him back to their Alpine clinic in an attempt to extract the facts about the BIG RAT. It is left to Joe, with a little help from Sam and Shane Weston, to rescue his father.
The episode features some of the most memorable villains - if not the only memorable villains - in the series, the double act of Conrad Darota and his over-zealous accomplice Kurson, who has the makings of a grade one sadist despite his gormlessness. Tony Barwick gives them some great over-the-top dialogue which is brought to life by the voice artistes Keith Alexander and Jeremy Wilkin. Darota mutters about ‘anglo saxon farewells’ and like the rest of us, fails to see how Shane Weston got to be in charge of WIN with his ‘imbecilic puns’. Project 90 also relies heavily on one of the series’ central themes, that of Mac happily telling the truth about Joe and the workings of the BIG RAT and not being believed (Darota: ’Are you trying to insult our intelligence?). Mac’s confidence in Joe and his invention never wavers, even with Kurson’s rock drill inches from his face he sits tight waiting to be rescued.
Tony Barwick wrote the lion’s share of the series’ episodes - in common with several Anderson series, Joe 90 takes a while to get going with its fair share of leaden plots early on. The vehicle count and the dialogue improve as the series progresses, rescuing many episodes, with Mike Trim’s prototypes, jets, subs and tanks making more frequent appearances. In the absence of any hardware to speak of, it’s the dialogue that keeps Project 90 from flagging, particularly the exchanges between the increasingly frustrated Darota and cheerful old Mac, safe in the knowledge that help is coming. The voice artistes are clearly having fun with the dialogue and their foreign accents. ‘My associate is so crude’ purrs Darota, the master of understatement, as Kurson simply itches to get to work on Mac, wound up by the latter’s confidence. There is a great comedic moment when Mac reveals he knew the cottage was being bugged all along, and to Kurson’s astonishment he recounts the type and location of all the ‘inferior’ listening devices planted in the cottage, even down to the bug on the milk bottle. Eventually Darota and Kurson stop being so polite and get around to a bit of torture with an enormous and very nasty looking drill. As expected, Joe turns up and saves the day in the nick of time, leaving Sam and Shane Weston to pick up that ‘bunch of amateurs’ at the cable car station (having traced Kurson by placing a bug in his passport at customs, making him look something of a clown!). It’s also later revealed that Joe’s ballooning skills came via Mac’s brain pattern - that’s what you call keeping it in the family.
The effects are more restrained than in Captain Scarlet and take a step closer to the realism of UFO, with the scenes of Sam’s car driving through the mountains and the realism of Mac’s cottage and WIN HQ in London. The only drawback of watching the episode on DVD is that the background mountains are noticeably a painted backdrop which breaks the illusion slightly, but for something that’s approaching 40 years old, that’s not too bad. Joe’s hot air balloon is as low-tech as you can get and the scenes of it drifting across the snowy landscape work well. It’s a low-tech rescue, partly because the plot demands it (Darota would be able to detect any engine noise approaching the clinic), and also because despite being set in the future, the series eschews the wall-to-wall hardware of its predecessors. A hot air balloon is unlikely to get many young viewers’ pulses racing, but it does have some of Barry Gray’s finest incidental music to accompany it. Meanwhile, Keith Wilson makes Darota’s office a late 60s psychedelic vision, full of orange and purple and some very outlandish paintings.
In his biography (Gerry Anderson - The Authorised Biography, Simon Archer and Stan Nicholls, Legend Books 1996), Anderson said,’ The puppets had become so lifelike that I now strongly believed they could carry the action without the usual massive assistance from futuristic hardware’. However Joe 90 is proof that the puppets could not stand alone and despite the advances in puppetry, were still interdependent on their vehicles. In time, Anderson agreed - in a feature in SFX, he referred to Joe 90 as ‘the mistaken belief that puppets could carry a series on their own’. Reducing the hardware content in a Century 21 series is like taking the peanuts out of a Snickers bar - the end result becomes something very different. Project 90 is one of a handful of vehicle-free episodes that stand out (See You Down There and Three’s A Crowd also spring to mind), all benefitting from the family setting; having Joe rescue his own father in this installment emphasises that bond.
The format of the series was possibly less appealing for merchandisers, with less scope for Dinky die-casts and other toys (fewer regular vehicles on show, and who’d pick a Joe 90 playsuit over a Scarlet one - not me, mate!). Compare the number of items that could be merchandised from Thunderbirds or Scarlet to that in Joe 90; bearing in mind the relative expense of producing these series, limiting the options of generating royalties to recoup production costs was not the best business decision ever.
Although Joe 90 was not as successful as the Andersons’ previous series, it does have its moments. It may lack the urgency of Stingray and the atmosphere of Scarlet, but nevertheless it’s still eminently watchable for the most part. Despite its relative lack of popularity and being a tad turgid at times, Joe 90, like Kurson’s listening devices, is not all that inferior.