By Jonathan Bignell
The British television series Joe 90 (1968) was one of several children’s programmes in the 1960s that used puppets and numerous special effects in action-adventure storylines set about 30 years in the future (Bignell 2011).
The series protagonist was the adopted nine year-old son of a scientist, Professor McClaine. Joe and his father worked for WIN (the World Intelligence Network) and his father could transfer the brain patterns of selected individuals into Joe’s special eyeglasses from a high-tech machine, the BIG RAT (Brain Impulse Galvanoscope Record And Transfer). Thus Joe was able to undertake secret missions by posing a child, then using the specialist knowledge that he had assimilated from an adult in order to accomplish dangerous and exciting tasks. These might include piloting a supersonic aeroplane, or becoming an astronaut to rescue a space station’s crew. So John R. Cooke (2006: 110), for example, places Joe 90 among a group of television series that “mediated in their different ways the utopian hopes and dreams of a new Aquarian order of enlightenment and rationality led by the young.”
The science fictional world of the series was conceived by its creator Gerry Anderson as an opportunity for the visual revelation of technologies and physical action. This emphasis is clear from the opening credit sequence: each Joe 90 episode began with a lengthy two-minute sequence showed the operation of the spinning spherical BIG RAT computer, with Joe inside it. Episode storylines were constructed around spectacular effects, and the settings and design were conceived using bright primary colours, for example in the bright red of the laboratory, though colour broadcasting had only just begun. Music was also important, using distinctive motifs that combined traditional orchestral instruments with futuristic, electronic instruments. This pop mise-en-scene is sometimes referred to as “the Modtastic world of Gerry Anderson” (Barr 2012).
The fictional world of Joe 90 became the foundation for fan culture and consumer products including comics, toy vehicles, dress-up costumes, LP records and confectionary. The series was planned to entertain both child and adult audiences, and bring them together. A promotional brochure for Joe 90 claimed, for example, that this was “fantasy adventure that will soon have every boy and his Dad playing JOE 90” [emphasis in the original]. Contemporary Cold War threats were present in the series, since it was basically a spy adventure, but in each episode problems were given reassuring and spectacular resolutions. Television links domestic space to the world beyond, but the home and the demands of growing up were a consistent theme in Joe 90 because of the parent-child relationship between Joe and his father. As a secret agent Joe explored slippages between those roles since the premise of Joe 90 was that a boy could masquerade as an adult with the aid of technology. While being in many ways a conservative Cold War thriller series, Joe 90 was a product of the moment of 1968 in exploring the potential of childhood in a techno-utopian future.
Barr, F., ‘The Modtastic world of Gerry Anderson’, at https://www.flickr.com/photos/modern_fred/8238074825/in/photostream/
Bignell, J., ‘”Anything can happen in the next half-hour”: Gerry Anderson’s transnational science fiction’, in T. Hochscherf and J. Leggott (eds), British Science Fiction Film and Television: Critical Essays (Jefferson: McFarland, 2011), pp. 73-84.
Cooke, J., ‘The age of Aquarius: utopia and anti-utopia in late 1960s’ and early 1970s’ British science fiction television’, in British Science Fiction Television: A Hitchhiker’s Guide, ed. by J. Cooke and P. Wright (London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2006), pp. 93-115.