Behold the bizarre wonder of a Supermarionation Christmas

For some shows, a Christmas episode represents the perfect opportunity to gather together friends and family, to celebrate the essential bonds that ultimately unite the people that populate a given fictional universe. But for the 1960s puppet espionage show Joe 90, Christmas was the perfect opportunity to mix together haunted churches, counterfeiters, fake angels, and jetpacks, with one intrepid, glasses-wearing 9-year-old boy on hand to tie it all together.


Joe 90 was the penultimate show made using Supermarionation, the high-tech puppetry process created by Gerry Anderson and his team in the 1960s. I've never been shy about sharing my love of the likes of Stingray, Thunderbirds, and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons — my credentials may be found here and here — and today I come to share with you one of the oddest Christmas episodes ever made, the Joe 90 episode "The Unorthodox Shepherd." The video up top includes the entire episode, but I've set it to begin at the climax, in which intrepid child spy Joe McClaine becomes a jetpack-clad avenging angel.

Like I say, this is not your traditional Christmas episode, particularly compared to the other two yuletide Supermarionation entries: the Stingray episode "A Christmas to Remember" and the Thunderbirds story "Give or Take a Million." Both of those are relatively straightforward stories in which the shows' heroes decide to give adorable little kids (an orphan in the first case, a children's hospital patient in the latter) the ultimate Christmas present: a trip to their top-secret bases, complete with oversize toy version of the shows' incredible machines, which I'm going to go ahead and assume were available at the time from all fine retailers. Both episodes throw in a little excitement to balance out the general yuletide good cheer, as the Stingray crew investigates a mysterious alien submarine and the Thunderbirds episode includes an elaborate bank heist that doesn't actually involve any members of the International Rescue team. Also, the entirety of the Thunderbirds episode technically involves International Rescue head Jeff Tracy describing at length to a young child the goals and achievements of a planning committee, but what the hey. By Thunderbirds standards, that's normal enough. So let's turn to Joe 90, because I need to share this with you nice people.

Admittedly, "The Unorthodox Shepherd" is a Christmas episode much as something like Die Hard is a Christmas movie; they're both set on the holiday, but the yuletide festivities are mostly incidental to the story at hand. The story of "The Unorthodox Shepherd" is bonkers in the way most Joe 90 episodes are, in that writer Tony Barwick somehow has to contrive an espionage story that can only be resolved through the efforts of a nine-year-old boy whose glasses give him the skills and knowledge of the world's most brilliant minds. In this case, counterfeiters are forcing a reverend in a tiny English town to help them pass almost undetectable forgeries into circulation. To that end, they have wired up the church with automation that makes it appear haunted, all so that villagers will be too frightened to go around snooping. Also, Christmas is approaching, which if nothing else provides a convenient excuse for young Joe McClaine and his father to actually bother to go to church. In its way, this is one of the more quietly religious Christmas episodes I've seen, if only because there's no talk of trees or presents, but the story does end with a trip to the church for the Christmas service.

In any event, Joe gets to show off a pair of brain patterns in this episode, first using the knowledge of a bank executive to confirm the phony bills are indeed counterfeit and later using the skills of a jetpack expert to capture the forgers by pretending to be an angel. Wait… I feel like that requires slightly more context. Although there's really only so much more I can say: Our heroes' scheme rests on the fact that one of the forgers is the nephew of the legendary criminal who masterminded the theft of the currency plates in the first place, and said legendary criminal is now buried on the church grounds. Joe, his father, and their spy ally Sam Loover take the crooks' idea of scaring people with a fake haunting and crank it up to 20, as Joe dresses up as the avenging angel of the deceased master criminal.


It's a foolproof plan, other than the minor detail that the dangerous criminals whom Joe intends to scare all have guns and aren't scared of using them. As you can see in the clip above, there's no indication that Joe is wearing a bulletproof vest or any other sort of protection – he's just working on the assumption that the crooks will be too petrified to shoot straight. Which, all things considered, isn't actually that terrible an assumption—he's certainly proven correct, inasmuch as this episode of Joe 90 doesn't end with its young hero gunned down by protagonists—but it still seems like a seriously insane risk to build a plan around, particularly when Joe's own father is one of other main visionaries behind the scheme. Still, if dressing up your own son as an angel and having him fly a jetpack straight at a bunch of armed, desperate counterfeiters isn't the true meaning of Christmas, I don't want to know what is.



A quick question for Alasdair, or anyone else who grew up on a diet of British children's television. Which is creepier: Gerry Anderson Supermarionation or Cosgrove Hall stop-motion animation?

As a kid growing up, the Joe 90/Thunderbirds style animation never phased me, but I remember cowering in terror whenever a weasel from the Wild Wood came on screen. Now, the dead expressionless faces of Joe 90/The Secret Service sets off my uncanny valley detectors big-time.