Another chance to see… Joe 90 

6 January 2022 tbs.pm/73645


Century 21/ITC/ATV

Century 21 for ITC, 1968-1969

I’m not totally happy with this one. I have always loved the Gerry Anderson ‘Supermarionation’ shows, both as a child where I was watching them as ‘first runs’ and latterly as a grown-up (I use that term lightly) seeing them on re-runs and then in their DVD box sets (purchased for research purposes, I assure you…).

This one premiered on Sunday 29 September 1968 at 5.35pm on ATV Midlands and Tyne Tees Television. I was livid! Why were the Midlands and some place up north getting to see this before us in London? It would be a couple of weeks before London Weekend Television finally put things right, a lack of pre-publicity meaning the first episode passed me by unnoticed so I joined in on episode two where I found myself a little bit lost.

You remember buying that album by your favourite band, the one that you’d been saving up for, then putting it on the turntable in eager anticipation only to find it’s not quite what you were anticipating? This is your favourite band, this can’t be happening, so you sit through it convincing yourself that, well, maybe it’s not the record, it’s just that it needs further listening and more commitment from yourself. It will get better. Surely? Well that’s how my first encounter with Joe 90 left me. Unbelievably, a Gerry Anderson show had failed to wow me from the start. I just had to watch again next week to ‘get into it’ and then try again the following week.

The real let down here was the lead character, a nine-year-old boy, same age as myself at the time. At nine years old I wanted a hero I could look up to, not someone of my own age, in fact I’m not always convinced that children actually like watching other children as their heroes or role models. To make things worse, this kid was the one you’d really hate at school, too eager to please and never putting a foot out of place. Never mind, this is a Gerry Anderson show so there’s bound to be some superb piece of kit flying around or diving under the sea or catapulting itself into space? Sadly there was not, the show was entirely character-led.

The plotline was dodgy to say the least. The year is 1998, Joe 90 (real name Joe McClaine) is the adopted son of Professor Ian McClaine (‘Mac’), himself a widower, living an idyllic life in a cottage somewhere in Dorset. Deep below the cottage is the Professor’s laboratory where his new invention the BIG RAT (Brain Impulse Galvanoscope Record And Transfer) resides. It’s a computer that can record the knowledge and experience from leading experts in various fields and store them on tape. The Professor uses Joe as his guinea-pig for the experiment of transferring his own brain patterns from the tapes into the mind of another human being, a process involving Joe being seated with electrodes pinned to his head and placed in a huge spinning cage with a lava-lamp display pulsing in the background (it’s purpose according to the 1968 Joe 90 Annual being to “relax the subject”… yeah, right, errr… it’s behind you!). Having been subjected to this mildly psychedelic experience Joe now has the brain pattern containing the Professor’s full knowledge and expertise. For this to work he has to wear a special pair of glasses (real geeky ones at that) to ‘activate’ the brain patterns, without the specs he is just his normal self. Would you really conduct a dangerous experiment like this on your child?

 

 

It gets worse. Enter Sam Loover, a family friend who is also a senior agent of the World Intelligence Network. He persuades Mac to dedicate the services of the BIG RAT along with nine year old Joe to the organisation. Being fed with the brain patterns of various experts Joe can become a leading field operative for WIN, being put into situations where no one would suspect an innocent nine-year-old. So basically a secret organisation is using untried and fairly untested technology to brainwash a young child into carrying out dangerous missions, some of which involve committing acts of murder. Cue the NSPCC cancelling all weekend leave.

Inevitably I did grow to like the show, I was the same age as Joe so I could equate with the character to a certain degree but this was also a major downfall for it. In relying on a nine-year-old being a hero to children of a similar age, re-runs of the series could not enjoy the timeless appeal of the other Anderson shows, its target audience now growing up and having little empathy with the lead character. I still remember feeling that I might have preferred an adult in the lead role. I also felt cheated by the lack of any real hardware in the show. While Joe’s predecessor Captain Scarlet was character-based, there were still the SPVs, Angel Interceptor aircraft and the magnificent Cloudbase to drool over. All this series could muster were the gizmos in the laboratory and a strange looking two-seater car that could fly, courtesy of an over-sized jet engine.

It did, however, have two saving graces. Firstly, and most importantly, being from the Anderson stables the stories were of the same high quality as those from the preceding series. In fact, if you take the dodgy child-hero element out of the equation the plotline becomes thoroughly likeable and at times surprisingly dark. Joe does get into a few scrapes, even having his hand injured by a stray bullet in one episode. There are several death scenes too, some quite chilling and one quite sad where Joe witnesses a colleague getting killed in an accident. Having watched a couple of episodes recently the show does actually work and is very enjoyable once you remember that while Joe is a child, the bespectacled Joe 90 is an adult.

Its second redeemable feature (and definitely its most memorable) is the brilliant opening title sequence with one of Barry Gray’s best ever themes, definitely a product of its time. Sadly and despite all of this, the show was not a major success, Joe 90 being the first of Gerry Anderson’s ‘Supermarionation’ series that failed to sell across the ITV network with only eight of the fifteen regional companies taking it. The following year its successor The Secret Service would sell to only three. Perhaps the puppet adventures were finally running out of steam.

Maybe the lead character was too middle-class and too squeaky-clean. Casting it now I’d have Joe as a bit of a bruiser with some street cred, although it’s hardly likely that a child in that position would have been adopted by a Professor leading such a comfortable existence, but it’s worth contemplating should a remake ever be considered. Should such a thing happen you’d have to ditch that weird looking flying car, but despite a lack of any apparent use, the spinning cage could stay for dramatic effect. Along with the groovy opening titles of course.

Let us not forget though that while the show is over fifty years old, Joe 90 himself is now in his early sixties. What effect are all those brain-pattern transfers having on his mentality? He could be really screwed up by now.

Maybe not a remake, maybe a sequel?

▶︎ Buy Joe 90 on Blu-ray at Amazon

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2 responses to this article

Zaph Camden 6 January 2022 at 4:04 pm

Minor point of order, but if the show was set in 1998, Joe would now (in 2022) be only in his early thirties.
But that sequel does sound like it’s got legs…I mean, let’s face it, they’ve remade almost everything else!

Geoff Nash 9 January 2022 at 11:20 pm

Zaph Camden you are correct! In the words of Captain Mainwaring “I was wondering when someone would notice” ……

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