Sunday, 23 June 2013

Sunday 23 June 1963

What can I say about Space City Special, the episode that brings the current run of Fireball XL5 episodes to an end? It's a thing of wonder: the ultimate manifestation of the surreal lunacy that's made the show such a joy to write about over the last few months.  I'll be providing quite a lot of photographic evidence to bear out this assertion: this evidence has convinced me that Space City Special was not, as for a while I thought it must be, just a particularly bizarre dream.  Come, let me take you by the hand (or whatever the most convenient appendage is) and show you sights that will make you question your sanity (or at the very least that of Gerry Anderson and friends)...

Steve Zodiac's old enemies the Subterrains are up to no good again. Their latest nefarious plan involves the brainwashing of a hapless pilot from Earth.  Why? Because he's flying the plane taking a top brass Space General to Space City to present Steve Zodiac with the Astronaut of the Year award.  The Subterrains plant deep in his mind the order to crash the plane into Space City, which should put a damper on the ceremony, to say the least.

During the brainwashing process, we're treated to this highly unexpected shot.  I have absolutely no idea why this should be.

Yes, this is all wonderfully ridiculous - but there's more, far more to come.  Unaware of their doom heading their way from the skies, the good folk of Space City are preparing for the Astronaut of the Year ceremony. It's going to be on the telly, which Commander Zero is at first typically huffy about...

...but quickly comes round when he realises he's going to get his face on the box (though if his role in the World Space Patrol is as exalted as we've been led to believe, one might think he'd be used to making appearances in the media by now).

The pilot, now placed back among humankind, is preparing for take-off.  Sharing the trip with the general is Fireball XL5's very own Dr Venus, on her way back from picking up some new qualifications.  Before catching the plane there's time for a quick chat with Steve on the videophone.

Yes - space psychology! The mind boggles as to what, precisely, this entails, but Venus has got her diploma and she's all ready to put her new skills into action.  Her first subject is the pilot, who she notices is behaving in a rather shifty fashion.  Her first idea is to give him a quick medical exam (fortunately the airport has all the equipment on hand for her to set up a makeshift examining room in the waiting area).

She can't find anything physically wrong with the pilot, and it's not until the plane's aloft that she cottons on to what's happening.  With her newly acquired space psychology qualification she should've been able to recognise the signs of brainwashing!

Indeed you are, dear.  But more importantly, how are the preparations getting on at Space City? Aburdly, of course.  TV presenter Johnny Johnson insists that the Space Patrol personnel should put on a show of some kind after the presentation.  Fame-hungry Zero quickly aquiesces, and we learn the intriguing  information that he can play drums and Venus (clearly the Lisa Simpson of Space City) is an accomplished saxophonist. Matt insists he can play the piano, although everyone else thinks he's rubbish (only a few weeks ago we saw him playing the electrorchestra with great verve, but everyone seems to have forgotten about this).  It seems, however, that not one amongst them can sing - Matt and Lieutenant Ninety both making woeful attempts at - of course - the Fireball XL5 theme song.

As Venus decides what to do about the sweaty lunatic flying her plane...

...the TV broadcast begins:brilliantly, the station ident is a parody of the one used by ATV - the company Fireball XL5's made for.

The show gets off to a peculiar start with Johnny Jackson referring to "the fabulous World Space Patrol"(which I imagine is a bit like saying "the darling police" or "the simply divine army"), Commander Zero referencing ATV star Bruce Forsyth ("I'm in charge!") and Space City's chief engineer Jock performing a tune on the bagpipes.  I love how specific the subtitles on the show's DVD release are here.

The sound proves particularly distressing to Space City's nuisance-in-chief, Zoonie the Lazoon, who, as it becomes apparent there's a plane shortly due to kill everyone, makes the situation even more stressful by stealing Commander Zero's ray gun.  Is he about to go on the killing spree that's seemed so inevitable for so long?

Not quite - yet.

Meanwhile, Venus manages to knock out the brainwashed pilot and, thanks to Steve's instructions, guide the plane down safely.  Phew!

Johnny Jackson's ecstatic that he's managed to get a real life Space City emergency broadcast to people's tellyboxes.  But the main event is yet to occur...

To show how utterly classy the Astronaut of the Year show is, we're shown elegant black-gloved hands wafting a cigarette holder about and leafing through the programme.

The recommended after-show eaterie is somewhere I think we can all agree is the absolute height of sophistication:

Steve accepts his award - and hurrah, there are special ones for Matt and Venus too.  And now it's time for the absolute pinnacle of Fireball XL5, as the Space City players get to perform for us.  But wait, there's still no singer! Don't panic - it turns out Steve has the voice of an angel after all (or at least a voice very much like that of singer Don Spencer), so the band are able to give us a rocking performance of that old standard, "Theme from Fireball XL5".

It's worth noting that Zero's ceded his place at the drums to Robert, who certainly looks far cooler bashing away at the skins.

The theme song having been incorporated into the show itself, the episode plays out with an especially wonderful instrumental version.

And there we have it, Space City Special - sheer, glorious madness.

Fantastic a way to end the show as this would be, there are happily still a few XL5 episodes yet to be broadcast, so look out for those in the autumn.  But you don't have to wait till then for more space-age puppetry - ABC's Space Patrol, from the mind of Gerry Anderson's one-time collaborator Roberta Leigh, will be joining the TV Minus 50 roster in just a couple of weeks.

In the charts this week, Gerry and the Pacemakers have overthrown the Beatles to achieve their second number 1 with "I Like It".  Meanwhile, Manchester's Freddie and the Dreamers have reached number 3 to make it an all-North West England top 5. Full chart here.


  1. The design choices of Fireball XL5 are always intriguing to look at, none more so than its choice of typefaces. They mainly use Mistral, which I suppose was relatively new and futuristic in 1963. Possibly not so much in 2013, though, as it's mainly used on the signs for mid-range bistros and hairdressers now.

  2. There's an article waiting to be written about Gerry Anderson puppet shows and their in-house bands. Thunderbirds obviously has a few examples but the one that always comes to my mind is the insanity of the final episode of Supercar 'King Cool'. Here's an extract if you haven't seen it:

  3. Space City Special written by The late Dennis Spooner for Fireball XL5 on Sunday June 23rd 1963 by Producer,The late Gerry Anderson and The Director Alan Pattillo.

    The Subterrains brainwashing Major Todd who is in charge of The Plane when Venus knocked him out cold and Steve Zodiac telling Venus who taking over in Major Todd's seat of the plane and Steve is awarded The Astronaut of The Year by General Rossiter.

    With The Thousands of people packed the theatre with Steve sang Fireball on stage alongside Venus,Zoonie,Robert The Robot,Professor Matt Matic,Lt 90 and Commander Zero.

    Fireball XL5 is The Sci-fi Series for ATV-ITC-APF Television Production from 1962-63.

    The Star of The Show is The famous voice of The late Paul Maxwell as Steve Zodiac of Fireball XL5.

    Terry Christie.