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The penultimate puppet adventure television series before their best-known Thunderbirds show, Stingray is an amusing Gerry & Sylvia Anderson production aimed squarely at male children who like fanciful vehicles and fantastic inventions, laced with lots of action and explosions. This bulky DVD set has a high price tag, but it includes the entire 39-episode series: almost seventeen hours of colorful juvenile fun.
Stingray is a silly but captivating kiddie show, with enough clever design, invention and puppetry fun to turn adult heads, particularly those with an interest in toys and miniatures. For the year the show was made, the level of production is marvellous, as every character, setting, vehicle and prop in every scene had to be specifically made from scratch. For style, Stingray is corny but energetic. Each 20 minute episode starts with the announcement 'Stand by for action!', clearly designed to fetch a houseful of kids in the direction of the television. With good showmanship, the screen changes from b&w to color, announcing this as the Andersons' first color series. The proud SuperMarionation logo springs forward to fill the screen, establishing the company's credentials: this is quality goods.
If the later Thunderbirds shows were sometimes padded with repetitive countdowns and drawn-out suspense sequences, the shorter Stingray has less room in which to tell its simpler stories. The eternal struggle with the Aquaphibians never develops beyond its basic gimmick - a boat is attacked, or treasure hunters get in trouble - and even though the principal characters are clearly involved in a struggle to the death with an implacable foe, the tone at Marineville is always a cheery business-as-usual. Exactly what humanoid races are living beneath the ocean floor is rather confusing. Besides Titan and his mermen -like underlings, who treat him like an emperor, there are warrior flunkies who look like the Creature from the Black Lagoon, but can pilot submarines.
W.A.S.P. (an inadvertent acronym for this all-white puppet universe) encounters peaceful Aquaphibians as well, including some who misinterpret little gestures from the Marineville leadership, like firing atomic missles into suboceanic areas 'just in case' there might be villains there. In one episode, a peaceful tribe tangles with human oil-drillers, but eventually makes peace and allows their underwater reserves to be tapped for free, like 'nice' Arabs. The show ends with a 'happy' scene of a gusher splattering crude oil all over the ocean's surface. Ecology gets no mention in these plots.
Sort of a variation on the Atlantis theme, Stingray's underwater foe is one of those primitive-but-technologically advanced civilizations noted by Raymond Durgnat, the kind who have pagan rites and magic, but also wield weapons and gadgets advanced far beyond our own. In the unforced, apolitical puppet millieu, the themes come out in a raw form - there's no inclination to make any of this into social comment. It's all completely non-condescending, unconscious commercial kiddie story telling. In other words, ripe material for thought! 1
Most of the time, the evil Titan uses his fish-shaped, torpedo-firing subs to threaten Stingray, or plots other clever ways of destroying Marineville. But scattered throughout are interesting episodes with welcome detours from the central aggression theme: A ghost story underpins an entry about a Spanish Galleon. A backstory explains how Sam Shore became crippled (and it isn't so the puppeteers don't have to make him walk!). The mystery of the Loch Ness Monster is solved. Various misunderstandings and feuds break out among the characters; suspected traitors are investigated. Titan's ace agent X-2 is constantly infiltrating Marineville, kidnapping visitors or attempting to impersonate or poison someone.
Although the dramatic quotient is feather-light, the characters do have a certain charm. Early on, Marineville plays permanent host to an Aquaphibian refugee, the beautiful but mute Marina. This establishes a mild sexist tension with W.A.S.P.'s resident female/den mother, Atlanta (voiced by Lois Maxwell, Miss Moneypenny herself), whose official function doesn't go much beyond offering to serve coffee and snacks. Atlanta immediately sizes up Marina as romantic competition. As dated as the attitudes are, from the trigger-happy attitude of W.A.S.P to the boy's club atmosphere of Marineville, the little interpersonal intrigues are charming in their own silly way. One episode creatively concerns itself with a romantic dream Troy has about the two female leads!
Considering the show's basic theme, the creators manage to vary Stingray's content, bringing in jazz bands, movie crews, awards shows, vacations, and many other situations that require new settings and props. Of all their puppet series, the actual vehicles in this one have the least variety. The more elaborate world of Thunderbirds packs in more spectacle, but the 'people' stories here are slightly more interesting. After seeing the sub cruise past aquarium bubbles for the fiftieth time, it's easier to appreciate Atlanta & Troy's mild sexist relationship.
Stingray still has the same drawbacks stemming from the puppets themselves; characters rarely walk and instead slide down poles and ride in all kinds of contraptions, giving the vehicles all the movement but making the people scenes rather static. Almost every capture by Aquaphibians ellipses difficult-to-film interaction, skipping straight to static talking scenes instead. The unchanging neutral expressions on the characters can become weird or sinister after awhile, and the occasional cutaways to closeups of human hands are obtrusive.
A big plus is the corny retro music, that blends rhythms to form Marineville's alarm system, and gives the show an appropriately over-hyped mood. On the other hand, listening to the title and credit tunes 39 times might drive one nuts - "Sting-ray! Sting-Ray! Stiiinnggg - Rayyy!"
A&E's deluxe set of the Complete Stingray tv series is very thorough. The color transfers are fine, with only a hint of fading here and there, and the merciful menu system takes us through a minimum number of screens to reach the episodes, with a minimum of repetitive film clips & animation. The extras are exemplary, with a 20-minute docu covering the show nicely put together from interviews with directors, writers, effects people and puppeteers. Two lady puppeteers partially disassemble a puppet head to show us the workings inside; the 'magic toyshop' atmosphere is conveyed in the modest but elaborate tales of multiple shoots proceeding simultaneously on several sets.
A tone of objectivity about the show and its creators is maintained in a lengthy Gerry Anderson bio piece, which names his unsuccessful and unsold show attempts as well as his successes, something an American studio piece wouldn't tolerate. Just the idea of an individual expressing a personal thought on a big studio DVD, brings out the disclaimers: "The opinions on the commentaries do not reflect the ... ". Four of the episodes are given commentaries, two by Gerry Anderson himself, and two with other members of the creative staff.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Stingray: The Complete Series rates:
1. Political comment related to Stingray only in the 'lessons' commonly taught by
kid entertainment: A 'kiddie' column in the LA Times Calendar section called The Kids Reading Room is currently
running a multi-part tale called Being Scared. In it a grandfather, a veteran of D-Day, paternalistically calms
his frightened daughter with a condescending explanation for our currently threatened war, a Dick-and-Jane speech almost
identical to the one that starts the trailer for We Were Soldiers. 'Bad people' want to hurt America, so we 'might
have to go to war', he explains, equating our situation with Hitler and Nazidom. The little girl can still invite her
neighbor Ayasha (I.D.'d as her friend from Iraq) for cookies, so all will be okay.