Watching Thunderbirds 40 years on, it is no surprise that Stanley Kubrick tried to hire the masterful innovator Gerry Anderson to work on 2001: A Space Odyssey.
MPAA rating: N/A
First date: 1965
US Release Date: 2008-01-22
This set contains all 32 episodes of what is arguably Gerry Anderson’s most successful TV series. The added bonus sections decipher a few of the many production secrets used to make his marionette characters appear to do many things that were really beyond them. This believability did not come cheap: each episode of Thunderbirds cost the equivalent of two million dollars in today’s money.
An allergy to plaster meant that Anderson abandoned his ambition to become a set designer and, with wife Sylvia, made films for British television. His team included composer Barry Gray, puppeteer Christine Glanville and special effects pioneer Derek Meddings. A first production, The Adventures of Twizzle (1957) was a children’s show about a character that could elongate his legs, and perform rescues. Torchy the Battery Boy and the western themed Four Feather Falls followed in 1960.
A year later the team released Supercar, their first official venture into Supermarionation: a blend of marionettes and animation that was, well, super! One of the important facets of the Supercar series was the introduction of the launch sequence, something of a creative building block for the studio.
A vehicle also allowed the string-bound heroes to avoid tricky situations, like walking. This solution continued with Fireball XL5 set in outer space and Stingray which took place largely undersea. Anderson’s team made technical advances with each show so that Thunderbirds tackled a wider variety of terrain with a larger cast of vehicles and equipment to assist the marionettes.
Set 100 years in the future, Thunderbirds are incredible machines used by mega-rich ex-astronaut Jeff Tracey and his five sons for their operations as International Rescue. Located on a secret island, the team are the last hope for anyone suffocating down a mine, stranded in the desert, trapped underwater, about to crash into a mountain, or on a collision course with the Sun. Those in peril need only broadcast an emergency request on any radio frequency, since all are monitored by the satellite-space station Thunderbird Five!
None of the show’s emergency situations are too outlandish, so the subsequent rescues, though incredible, are always believable. As well as the launch sequence, an invariable element is the race-against-time. Despite the limitations of the marionettes, the willing suspension of disbelief is aided by the fact that these are human dilemmas solved by human ingenuity. No one has incredible powers like Superman.
There is no tongue-in-cheek get out for impossible situations, as when Dr Who remembers to “reverse the polarity”. Nor is there a convenient location from which all evil is emanating, as sometimes occurs in Star Trek, or an exploding villain’s lair, as in the invariable Bond film endgames.
In Thunderbirds the stories, pace, characters and detail are such that viewers do not need to forget that they are watching puppets to care about the outcome. Seeing the occasional wire merely adds to the charm and their dialogue is a welcome contrast to the tiresome, frenetic, wisecracking of so many modern computer-generated characters.
The Tracy boys are named after real-life astronauts Scott Carpenter, Virgil Grissom, Alan Shephard, Gordon Cooper and John Glenn and the name of the series originates from Anderson’s brother Lionel, who wrote home from his RAF training base called Thunderbird Field. Other inhabitants of Tracy Island are Grandma Tracy, Brains (the scientific genius and engineer), as well as servant Kyrano and his daughter Tin-Tin.
International Rescue also includes reformed safe-cracker Parker, chauffer for glamorous blond London agent Lady Penelope. Housed in a model of real life Stourhead mansion, Penelope is quite the style-warrior sex-kitten (for a puppet), and her intelligent sophistication seems more of a match for daddy Jeff Tracey than any of his sons. Sexuality and libido does not really come up in Thunderbirds, apart from the suggestion that Alan and TinTin are in love, perhaps because of the isolated location of Tracy Island and the boys spending long hours either rescuing or on standby.
Lady Penelope’s sex-appeal is not in question, though, not least because the notion of whether or not a marionette could be alluring had already been answered in Stingray. Captain Troy Tempest’s love-object: the gorgeous, floating, mute, Aqua Marina spawned almost as many schoolboy crushes as Julie Christie or Elizabeth Montgomery.
In interview, Anderson illustrates the painstaking creative design and innovation needed to film a puppet controlled by 12ft strings apparently walking into a room. He also talks about the large size heads necessary to house equipment to synch actor’s voices with marionette lip movement. In the later Captain Scarlet, the heads had evolved into correct proportion.
In this age of CGI we tend to think that special effects can do anything, but in the '60s it required physical solutions such as making multiple models of craft and buildings in different sizes, striving for detail in realism by putting wakes behind boats, dust trails behind vehicles, sweat on brows, and original ideas such as the “dirtying-down” procedure to make the vehicles look like they had seen some action. Several heads per marionette were also prepared to allow for quick change of emotions in the same character.
Barry Gray’s music is probably most noticeable during launch sequences. Some fans may prefer the bongo frenzy of a Stingray launch to any of those accompanied by the Thunderbird March, but all effectively announce the action moving into rescue mode. Elsewhere, the use of sound is measured and, thankfully, avoids the modern cinematic tendency to depict a slap to the face as if it was a cracking glacier.
Realistic sound, close-up shots and high-speed filming work well throughout Thunderbirds. The marionettes are old-school heroes and as such they behave better than the baddies, avoid glibness or smart-mouthed put-downs, never break ranks, and always stay calm. Their realization that blocking the prying gaze of spies is essential for International Rescue to remain effective could also stand as a metaphor for the destructive capability of celebrity. Privately, the Tracy brothers are quite the hip guys, playing piano, reading, driving fast cars, and even enjoying the occasional smoke and drink!
Maybe the series is not so much timeless as an eternal mid-'60s vision of the future. It is prophetic in its depiction of the indispensability of gadgets in everyday life, and also in placing effective power outside government. The show favors an entrepreneurial apolitical ethic. This is not so much the '60s hippie ethos of Star Trek, but an equally idealistic Space Race '60s. It is possible to suggest that techno-hero Brains predicted the rise of Gates and Jobs, and that the essentially celibate Thunderbirds forecast the HIV caution and abstinence culture that is part of our times, but that would probably be utter nonsense.
Whether anyone would choose to sit down and watch all these discs in a single sitting I can’t say. It may be ideal to view one or two episodes per week for a couple of months, but a weekend Thunderbirds marathon could be a welcome hangover cure or a crafty babysitting technique for an exhausted parent. The extra sections are rather like a docent tour of a museum.
In each episode, the repetition of the launches and the inevitability of the outcome are comforting and relaxing. Unintentional humor can arise from repeat viewings: at some point most people will wonder if the deserts of sand and space are chosen chiefly to aid the marionettes in their sweating during a crisis! Dialogue is sometimes cheerfully impenetrable: “Twenty million pounds thrust and counting. Gantry retraction Green” and occasionally both ludicrous and desirable: “Rocket fuel from water, who would have thought it possible?”
The evil presence in Thunderbirds comes from one person: The Hood, who is always seeking to steal the team’s secrets or sabotage their missions, occasionally by utilizing his psychic power over his half-brother, Kyrano. Most missions, though, are the result of either technological failure, or human fallibility in the form of unethical profiting or plain incompetence. Gerry Anderson and his team did not fall into any of those traps and they created suspenseful, glamorous and prophetic TV shows, in Slough of all places.
After Thunderbirds, Anderson made several more excellent Supermarionation shows including Captain Scarlet and The Mysterons and Joe 90 before branching successfully into live action with UFO (featuring Nick Drake’s sister, Gabrielle) and Space:1999 (starring Martin landau and Barbara Bain).
The wonderful Joe 90 was based around an adopted child who received the expert brain-pattern necessary for each mission. This idea arose from Anderson’s delight that cassette tapes could be wiped and used again, coupled with his wish to create a child hero. So, after receiving the pattern, and as long as the nine-year-old Joe McClaine was wearing his special glasses, he could become a jet pilot, concert pianist or surgeon!
One particular episode of Joe 90 provided the basis for another Supermarionation creation, The Secret Service, that combined puppets and live action featuring unique linguistic comedian Stanley Unwin (guest on the Small Faces 1968 album Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake). All of these series are worth checking out. Indeed, if Thunderbirds can be described as Anderson’s most successful series, it is hard to find anyone who does not claim to prefer Fireball XL5, Stingray, Joe 90, or Captain Scarlet.
The work of Gerry Anderson’s team predates the special effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the grime of Alien. Marionettes are not exactly a central component in TV productions these days, but his reputation for imagination and realization is secure. South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker have admired his work and noted the extreme attention to detail that has allowed the appeal of Thunderbirds to persist across successive generations. Millions of knowledgeable viewers also chuckled at Aardman Animations’ homage to the Supermarionation launch sequence, as Wallace & Gromit leaped into action to clean windows in A Close Shave.
Anderson’s slight unpredictability is great. He sounds impressed by digital effects, but mentions almost needing a sick bag to watch the overt nationalism of Independence Day, confesses to a bad temper and reckons that we humans are arrogant in our assumptions of knowledge. Despite the frustrations of working with marionettes, his comments give a clear sense of his fear that working with real people might compromise his vision and control. Indeed, when discussing Space 1999, his description of Martin Landau as a great professional is tinged with the palpable relief of a man grateful not to have had to deal with ego and unwanted intrusion.
As for Kubrick’s attempt to bring Anderson’s expertise to 2001: A Space Odyssey, the story goes that one day a driver arrived bearing the simple message: “Mr. Kubrick wants to have lunch with you.” Anderson politely declined, although he was a huge fan of the great director and considers Paths of Glory to be the greatest anti-war film ever made. The following day the driver returned with the same invitation, and was met with the same response. On the third day, the driver arrived to deliver the message that: “Mr. Kubrick does not want to have lunch with you”. Kubrick merely hired some of Anderson’s team, instead.