I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Puppets, Sci-fi, and the Trouble with Man and Machine

by Gabriella Arrigoni
Sept. 22, 2017

Once the world of truth is lost, together with the world of appearances, the universe becomes a real one. It falls into reality in a kind of telescopic collapse. It falls into reality as a rest, as a residue, as a definitive reduction and deconstruction of the enchanted world of illusion - as a sort of final solution.” (Jean Baudrillard, Integral Reality, 2008)

For a generation of British Star Wars-addicted kids, Star Fleet was probably the first introduction to manga and Japanese culture at the beginning of the Eighties. Created by legendary Go Nagai (also the author of Getter Robo and Mazinger Z), the series didn’t prove very popular in Japan, where the public had already indulged in a decade of mecha and giant robot-based shows and didn’t find the plot and its imaginary very original. Also, its main distinguishing feature, the presence of puppets, compelled the protagonists to adopt an awkward motionlessness which wasn’t very appealing for a mature animation audience. As a result, X Bomber (this is the original title) was cancelled after just 12 of its 26 episodes. The redubbed UK version (on air every Saturday morning from October 30, 1982), howeve, was such a hit that Queen guitarist Brian May released a mini album of music inspired by the show. Moreover, British funding for the production of a second season was ready to be sent to the Japanese studio, only to find out that a fire had destroyed all models and sets, making the project impossible.

X Bomber: A genuine example of how children’s TV entertainment can reveal an unexpected parodic touch to an adult audience, especially if experienced 30 years after its creation. The classic triumphalist sci-fi soundtrack sounds uniquely inconsistent with the clumsy helplessness of the stationary puppets involved in heroic and dangerous missions. The blatantly unrealistic voices of the characters are funnily at odds with the pathos of their utterances, somehow echoing expressions we have already heard in the mouths of actors in flesh, possibly directed by George Lucas. Besides the clear presence of a Chewbecca look-alike (Kirara) and an R2D2 impostor (PPA), and some similarities in the generic plot about a powerful space ship crew fighting against evil alien imperial forces, the first source of inspiration for the show was another massively successful British science-fiction series of the mid-60s (and Network Awesome favorite): Thunderbirds.

Thunderbirds was the most famous show in a series of TV productions conceived by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson under the heading “Supermarionation”. During the Sixties, the electronic moving image was the object of strong experimentation, both in the field of video art and in TV broadcasting. Effects and possibilities offered by electronics were tested and explored for the sake of innovation, and it was in this context that marionettes found their new vocation too. The super animation of marionettes was made possible by a thin electronic wire that not only supported and controlled the puppet’s movements, but also provided the transmission of a signal to the little winding motor positioned inside the character’s head. This mechanical brain was able to filter the voice and to synchronise mouth movements to provide dialogues with a reasonably natural effect. In comparison with
Thunderbirds, X Bombers models were much more sophisticated and allowed for complex action scenes with impressive explosions and stunning battles. Of course, despite these developments, the use of marionettes still implied substantial limitations, but there is very little mileage in investigating which features compensate for the impossibility of natural movements, expressions and acting. If we instead ask ourselves what the marionettes’ distinctive qualities were and what their consequences on the audience, we might at least enjoy the pleasure of cultural criticism.

Dummies, puppets, marionettes, and dolls all imitate the human being, and are all inhuman forgeries
of the human being. Contemporary artists loved them. The Surrealists played with their fetishistic attitude, Paul McCarthy turned them into soft and stuffed incarnations of childhood traumas, Tony Oursler found out they were the perfect surrogate of existential frustration and a vehicle of self-analysis. If there is a common denominator that links the adoption of puppets in contemporary art from the Avant-Gardes to now, it is indeed that creepy feeling: the idea of a spectral presence, of a physical or psychological deficiency, a prosthetic replacement, a frosty, powerless reminder of hidden conflicts, nightmares and death. All this is radically overturned in Supermarionation, where the idea of control and manipulation implicit in the functioning of marionettes paradoxically stands as a guarantee of protection, the ideal immunizer against fear which allowed the producers to include some pretty dark subjects such as brainwashing and torture within a reassuring dimension. Fakes cannot hurt, somebody outside the scene will prevent things going awry, and tragedy will not endure without the counterbalance of a joke and a happy ending.

What fully belongs to the medium of TV is, after all, its intricate and distorted interplay between different levels of reality. If models and puppets look like the toys a child can animate playing in his room, isn’t it a delirious contradiction to stage science fiction as a pantomime? As science fiction embraces the impact of technology on society and presents fantasy as based on scientific laws or new discoveries in the realm of physics, its alliance with the puppet show requires the establishment of implicit rules to negotiate the distinction between real and unreal, the scientifically possible and impossible. Better to decide not to care about it and let the clash between scientific plausibility and the implausibility of the marionettes explode in all its contradictions. The technological aspiration to artificial life, and the unsettled relationship between human and machine, is transferred into the pair puppet-puppeteer as a direct consequence of what Baudrillard announced as the apotheosis of the ready-made: a world that no longer needs to be true, a permanent state of objectual immobility and factual illusion.

Gabriella Arrigoni is an independent curator and writer; former editor
in chief of undo.net, she now contributes to a number of contemporary
art magazine. She lives in Newcastle upon Tyne (UK) where she also
works as translator. She is part of the collective Nopasswd
in[ter]dependent contemporary culture.