You know Gerry Anderson? Yeah, you know Gerry Anderson. You might not know his name, but if you’re anything like me, you think of the 1960s as “The Puppet Decade.” And that’s Gerry Anderson’s doing. Thunderbirds was his biggest hit, but he churned out series after series of hopping inhuman action and, like all puppeteers, he was secretly evil. To prove that, you’ll have to come with me to Joe 90.
You won’t have to come very far.
The first episode opens on the Brain Impulse Galvanoscope Record and Transfer, a computer that captures a human being’s entire essence and temporarily overlays it on another person’s brain.
So far it’s only been tried on one person: the inventor’s adopted son, Joe 90. I assume the boy’s real name is Bradley or Terrence or Churwith, and calling all the orphans Joe # just makes it easier to track how many he’s burned through.
To reiterate: The acronym is BIGRAT and it is a computer for stealing innocence.
These are not the villains our heroes fight.
These are our heroes.
Puppet Jorah Mormont over here is Mack, inventor of the BIGRAT and a man on his fourth orphan punch card. Two more and he gets a free waif! It’s great villainous coding that in his very first scene he already has the “my god, what have we done” glasses pull out of the way.
I’ll come clean. I have an agenda. I have a theory that this show knows it’s evil and it just wants to see how far it can go before you catch on. Aside from the evil premise, the evil computer, and our first main character (evil), there’s Joe 90.
Every single time we see Joe 90 we have to do a long, slow zoom on his obvious despair.
Hey, can you read lips? Puppet lips? Because this is his first line in the show. In a timid English accent he quavers “is this it, dad?”
Joe 90 has big Social Services energy. He moves like a boy who once knocked over a vase and will die before he lets it happen again. I don’t need any more information to know that this child cries at loud noises. And we are going to steal his brain and send all 56 damp pounds of him into danger. Jesus. This is not a children’s show, this is a fable you show a scientist so he’s more careful with his monkeys.
For the test run of BIGRAT, Mack recorded his own brainwaves and is going to put them straight into his son. I’m pretty sure that’s the plot of Friday Night Lights, and it’s illegal everywhere but Texas High Schools. Since the knowledge only lasts as long as the special electrodes are attached, Mack mocked up science glasses that keep his mind-theft going as long as Joe wears them.
Every single episode starts like this – with Joe 90 getting into a funkadelic identity-erasing machine while wild ‘60s groove assures us it’s okay, and the camerawork promises it is not.
That’s the actual title card! Just a long, slow zoom on quiet despair as the fake name given to him by science blocks out a frightened boy’s face. I’m telling you: This was not a show. It was meant to test the inherent morality of children. It was supposed to come with a little buzzer you hit when you spotted something wrong, only the lab shipments got mixed up. The Revlon guys got a bunch of NOT OK buttons and a generation of British children got this accidental Sociopath Guide and a free makeup bunny.
The bunnies did not last long.
There is a way to do this that makes a delightful premise for a kid’s tv show. Little boy temporarily downloads the abilities of specialists with a lifetime of experience? That rules! He can be a ship’s captain! A daring explorer! An astronaut!
You deeply fuck up that premise when you include all of the adult’s memories. Mack is middle-aged and this takes place in the 1960s – I promise the 1941 version of Mack is squatting in a trench somewhere inside Joe 90’s head, just waiting for a whiff of mustard to unleash the time he gutted eight Nazis at the Somme.
I’m just saying, unless the plan is to load little Joe up with the ghost of an enemy soldier and ship him off to kill Russians, putting complete adult brains in a child of the ‘60s has at least one pitfall.
Puppet Jerry Orbach here is Sam, a stooge for the World Intelligence Network who has sinister designs on the project. Sam is American, but they made up a fake organization to keep things apolitical… then Joe 90 straight up calls him Uncle Sam because we didn’t invent subtlety until 1973, and we didn’t use it until sometime in 2011.
Uncle Sam is still not the villain! Our heroes love him! They know all about his plans to weaponize the BIGRAT! They think that rules!
Having agreed that possessing a child is great and should be done at least 90 times, our heroes leave the lab and emerge into an old-timey english cottage –
Which Sam thinks is strange, but Mack answers, “that’s the way we like it, Sam. A combination of the old and the new!” He pats Joe’s shoulder.
The implication is not lost on Joe.
Uncle Sam takes off to set up a meeting with his superiors, so Mack and Joe follow. They slip into a rustic garage that should house nothing but quaint pornography and possums, and out pops their flying car.
The implication is still not lost on Joe.
“Do you get it yet, son? My experiment is like this, but backwards – I’m the OLD car and you’re my fancy NEW garage!”
Sam says the World Intelligence Network will buy the BIGRAT on the condition that nobody will ever know about it, and they get to use it at their discretion. It will “play a vital role in maintaining world peace.” You see where this is going – old soldiers’ skills are never lost, but transplanted straight into younger bodies. Every grunt is whatever specialist they need to be, just slap on a different pair of glasses and you can disarm a mine, fly a stealth bomber, break a code on the fly.
You saw it all wrong.
The WIN wants Joe, specifically. So far Mack has only tried the experiment on Joe, because he buys orphans in bulk. But at no point does he say it can only ever work on sad English boys who have forgotten the taste of hope. WIN just specifically wants a deadly child supersoldier and for nobody to ever ask questions about it.
I know what you’re thinking, but no: WIN isn’t revealed to be an evil front using our heroes for dastardly purposes. These are still the good guys and everybody loves them and everything they do.
Uncle Sam sits Mack and Joe down, then says “let me describe what could be his first mission…”
They’re going to load little Joe up with the ghost of an enemy soldier and ship him off to kill Russians.
Welcome to Episode 1, everybody! The best way to debut this premise!
You thought this was one of those articles where I delve deep into a harmless premise and explore how fucked up it could be, if you think about it.
You’re going to watch a brainwashed 9 year old puppet put a bullet in a commie because his emotionally distant father told him to. It happens in every episode.
So the WIN needs this experimental new Russian plane, and unattended children are Britain’s greatest natural resource. The solution seems obvious. Luckily a Russian pilot is holding a press conference in London for no reasons that are ever explained – you know how Russian pilots are always touring the world, especially enemy territory, to give interviews about their secret technology? This is that! Mack and Uncle Sam use this opportunity to steal his brainwaves, which is another worrying revelation – it didn’t take Mack years of exhaustive cataloging to capture his entire personality on tape, and it especially didn’t take consent. Just a couple minutes near an antenna and the government can steal any brain.
Then into the machine Joe 90 goes–
You can really feel the reticence in that puppet. I will give Gerry Anderson this: Nobody puts existential discomfort into a puppet-child like Gerry Anderson, except maybe Mack.
It’s been five minutes since our last long, slow zoom of despair. Cue the Brainswitch Go-Go Kiddie Freakout song!
Easy as that! Joe 90’s innocence has been put on pause, and he’s ready for the mission. Let’s go over his kit: The brainwashing glasses-
With them on you’ll have all the memories and experiences of a Russian pilot in the 1960s – his extensive training, his deadly skills, his despair at being trapped as a living weapon in a crumbling empire. But don’t lose them or you’re just timid little Joe, alone behind enemy lines! Still with the despair of being trapped as a living weapon in a crumbling empire, just without the ability to find the eject button.
Next, the pistol-
Haha, your modern sensibilities thought they’d dance around this! No, when I said Joe puts bullets in commies, I mean we watch them go in. Uncle Sam explains it’s “specially made for Joe, it’s small, light, and will fire 200 times without reloading.” We made this gun just for you, child! So your child hands can hold it steady to deliver the killshot!
200 fucking times!
They expect Joe 90 to personally kill an entire battalion on this mission, and they will not be disappointed.
And finally the communicator-
This was cool and high tech back in the ‘60s, but now it’s just a cellphone Joe 90 uses to call the men who stole his youth. If you’ve got your highschool football coach in your contacts list, you’ve got this bit of spykit in your pocket already.
That’s it! That’s all you need to be WIN’s most special agent!
That’s… actually what they call him.
Somehow this is the most heartbreaking part, the way they’re playing with his little kid’s sense of worth. Pinning pilot’s wings on him because he’s being a brave boy on the plane, making sure he knows he’s Daddy’s Best Murderer so the fun little badge keeps his child warfare nice and gamified. Six more boxtops and you get a garotte!
So what’s the plan? Easy, just sign up for one of the many tours Russians give foreign scientists of their top secret military bases!
That is a Russian tour guide explaining to a bus full of foreign scientists that they “ordinarily don’t show people the top secret plane.” But this seems like such a fun group so let’s make some noise! I can’t hear you! All the capitalist pigs in the back say M-I-G! Now just the ladies – hey, 242!”
While the party is bumping, Joe 90 runs off to hijack the plane – notice I did not say sneak, he does not think to sneak. His absence is spotted immediately, Mack has no cover story for it, and the Russians freak the fuck out.
The entire bus looks out the window to watch the Russian’s plane get stolen-
Then looks back at the empty seat to really appreciate that the only missing person is this child whose caretaker just admitted to stealing it.
I meant it when I said Mack doesn’t have a cover story. He tells the Russians everything immediately, and it’s important for you to realize this is not only a legitimate step in this plan, but an integral part of every plan in every episode of Joe 90: Much like a Scooby Doo unmasking, there’s a part at the end where Mack condescendingly explains exactly what’s going on, in detail, right to the enemy…
Then… waits for laughter! Because who would believe a government could use a child for warfare!
Mack admits everything, then tries on a smug little grin and waits shittily while the entire Russian airforce attempts to murder his son half a mile above his head.
That’s it! This works! There’s no clever turn here to de-escalate the conflict. This is the format of the show: Have Joe 90 sprint into danger, explain to the men trying to shoot him that they are correct to do so, and then trust that the brain trespasser ghostriding the waif remembers how to kill.
God, he does!
The Russians mobilize to shoot down the thief, but they don’t count on Joe’s contempt for human life. Again, the show wants to be very clear that this is fucked and you should know it. This is like a Highlights magazine Hidden Picture Game, but for basic human morality. It could not be made more plain that killing isn’t necessary here. Joe 90 radios Uncle Sam and says there are MIGs pursuing him, but they’re 200 miles back. Remember the entire point of this jet is that it’s faster than anything else in the air. That’s the only reason they’re stealing it. Joe 90 is reminded of this, and then says “I’m going to turn around and shoot it out with air-to-air missiles.”
Even Uncle Sam, who has sent so many kids to the meat-grinder he’s come to love the taste of the sausage, pauses at this and says “Joe, isn’t that kind of… uh, dangerous?”
Joe doesn’t even bother to answer that nonsense.
It’s time to get some blood in his teeth.
Drums of madness play as Joe gets lost in the bloodhaze, puppet eyes hard behind blocky nerd glasses. Look close, see any of that G.I. Joe shit? Little parachutes popping up? No, you do not.
We even follow that first plane down until it eats dirt and explodes just so you can be sure the kill is confirmed, and Joe!
He takes the jet into a nosedive… so he can strafe the base they came from.
Holy shit. The bodycount of the first episode of this children’s show is already in the dozens. Either the Russian pilot crawling around Joe’s brain has some deep issues with the Motherland, or those glasses are a placebo and Mack’s real experiment was mapping the Murderer Gene.
Uncle Sam radios again, telling Joe to come home before he gets killed.
In a corpse’s voice, Joe 90 answers: “They can’t really stop me now, Sam.”
To which Sam only has worried silence. There comes a point in any military operation where things have gone so sideways you realize you’ve accidentally made a Rambo. This silence is Uncle Sam filing the paperwork for a First Blood contingency, and then shakily scanning down to check off the PeeWee Division box.
Finally, Joe lands the top secret jet back in English territory and runs off into the night, his mission accomplished.
…and that’s how it COULD have gone!
Haha yes, the entire pilot episode of this show was theoretical. Remember when Sam opened the folder and said “here’s how his first mission COULD go?” This was all a godawful pitch the World Intelligence Network made to the boy’s father – this is how they WOULD LIKE to use his precious invention! This wasn’t a worse-case contingency, this was their ideal scenario! “Bear with us now: We put you and your child in mortal danger, the entire thing hanging on whether or not Russia believes children are our future, and only one thing is for certain: Your 9 year old son will take many lives.”
The whole tone of the episode shifts as Mack slams his fist into the table. The animation kicks out and it’s just furious screaming over dramatic stills and quick-zooms while Mack takes these motherfuckers to court for the dumbest god damn idea he’s ever heard in his life. Joe straight up flees the room as his father invents new, more tearable assholes for these dudes and then bursts through them like a mascot at a homecoming game.
It is exactly how any sane parent would respond to this absurd pitch. Screaming. Crashing glass, fistfighting. Fuck you for even thinking it! Nobody finishes a line, it’s just a montage of hollering, each new quote cutting off the previous one-
NO! NO! NO!
DO YOU REALLY EXPECT ME TO ALLOW-
NOW LOOK HERE! NO YOU LOOK!
HE MAY BE MY ADOPTED SON BUT I LOVE HIM LIKE A-
OUT OF THE QUESTION! SIMPLY OUT OF THE QUESTION!
ARE YOU MAD? ARE YOU QUITE MAD???
And then Mack agrees to it.
Holy shit, what? Why, Joe 90? Why the fake-out? Why the double fake-out? Why have the whole episode be an insane pitch by a psychopathic government stooge? Why show us the huge, knockdown drag-out brawl that ensues as a father refuses to sacrifice his greatest invention and his child in one fell swoop? And why the freewheeling fuck do we cut straight out of that fight to exhausted men shaking hands like somebody just sold a lightly-used Ford Fiesta?
Why… if not for my exact theory? Joe 90 isn’t a children’s show. It’s a morality test that we all failed for 30 episodes.
And I didn’t even talk about the one where they put a murdered special agent’s brain into Joe and he guns down 128 men with his Playskool Pistol for revenge!