That Amazon is marketing Thunderbirds Are Go for kids is, well, for the birds. The show is a reflection of a deep cultural yearning displaced by time, at least among some entrepreneurs in their 40s and 50s. It’s hard to detect above the dystopian din, but the techno-utopian dreams of the ’60s have been incubating and are ready to be heard. Meanwhile, technological possibility has caught up with technological speculation. Despite all of the obstacles that have arisen since the halcyon days of Apollo, there remains a passion for conquering the unknown, for accomplishing the impossible, a desire for a global world of cooperation and integration.
That’s the world Thunderbirds Are Go delivered. The British Supermarionation show, named for its spacecraft (and watercraft), originally ran for two series between 1964 and 1966. Now, Amazon has relaunched the series as a 13-part animated series on Amazon Video.
Two of the most prominent of entrepreneurs aligned with the Thunderbirds vision are Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. The evidence that they aspire to the world of the Thunderbirds is easy to find: electric cars, hyperloop transportation and rockets that land vertically, and package delivery via drone.
Yet, much of science fiction has turned strikingly dystopian. Social conservatives and conservationists have converged to slow scientific progress in a vice that on one side ignores the implications of science, and on the other, fears its destructive potential. The displacement of jobs by automation, for instance, hovers on the verge of populist unrest.
For the likes of Musk and Bezos, other characteristics of the Thunderbirds’ fictional future might also have inspired them. First, International Rescue, the organization run by the Tracys and served by the Thunderbird spacecraft and various members of the Tracy family, is a private organization. Second, International Rescue is not the domain of a collective, but the purview of American multi-millionaire, philanthropist, and family man, Jeff Tracy. Third, International Rescue operates outside of the constraints of any national or international system, but seems to be well liked and cooperative with various governments and NGOs.
There remains in people like Musk and Bezos a strong desire for science to do right, to solve problems, and to positively transform our experience. For Bezos, the connection is clearly even more fundamental, since the new Thunderbirds Are Go, was produced by, and is streamed on, his Amazon Video platform.
So we have a new Thunderbirds series, a seemingly out-of-touch, computer-generated “children’s” show about a family, and the tight-knit team of spies and scientists who support them, monitoring Earth for natural and technological glitches, always at the ready to help resolve complex, usually science-based problems, within about 45 minutes.
When I watch the new Thunderbirds Are Go, however, I’m instantly transported to my 12-year old self watching reruns of the original series. My mid-’70s relationship with the Thunderbirds started about the same time as my life-long relationship with Star Trek. Both shows combined a compelling vision of a positive symbiosis between humankind and technology. While the world, or the universe, may occasional be threatened, in the end, humanity and technology prevail.
Unfortunately, like the JJ Abrams’ Star Trek Universe, the rebooted Thunderbirds hasn’t escaped dystopian influences. In one episode, a computer program festering in Thunderbird 5 becomes not just sentient, but destructively so. But, like the analog Star Trek episode, “The Ultimate Computer”, eventually the humans recover control of the technology. The Thunderbird version is much more personal, initially focusing on survival against a single member of the team, as opposed to Kirk’s Enterprise, in which several were killed by the rouge and dispassionate computer. Unlike the Bad Robot-produced Star Trek movies, Thunderbirds Are Go leans more closely to the philosophical underpinnings of the original show.
From a production point of view, the animation team has done a fabulous job of reconstructing the sets and the ships in digital form. With the exception of more natural movement of the characters and a clear lack of strings, the materials and sets all look like they remain ’60s-era props, including uniform fabrics, slowly moving waves on the water, and moss that reverberates on the edge of the runway as Thunderbird 2’s launch bay erupts from its hidden mountain sanctuary.
The voice talent is all great, highlighted by Rosamund Pike’s Lady Penelope.
Despite the availability of all the episodes, Thunderbirds Are Go is probably not best viewed in a binge; like the original, which reused shots to save costs, the repetition of moments such as the team suiting up becomes distracting when viewing one episode after another. The same is true of launch sequences. It does appear, however, that this flaw in homage was detected, with many of the later episodes less focused on establishing shots, save the 3-2-1 launch countdowns.
The science behind Thunderbirds has been updated, but not without severe flaws. The final episode explores a next-generation Hadron collider that creates a gravity well, one that threatens to suck the Worldwide Space Station into the collider. While the gravity did affect objects locally, the Thunderbirds would be unable to hover at the center of the gravity well. The uneven forces would’ve eventually torn them up, but long before that, large pieces of the building and nearby landscape would probably have destroyed the collider much as Thunderbird 5’s missiles eventually do.
Then again, scientific accuracy was never the point of the Thunderbirds (although it remains one of the purest of science fiction shows). It was the aspiration for science and the human ability to both leverage it, and remain in control, even if that control required a bit of wrestling in the process.
If you were a fan of the Tracy family and the original Thunderbirds, this series will rekindle your affection for the floppy marionettes and their well-intentioned International Rescue. For those who consider Supermarionation an anachronism, the series belies the downside of puppets with crisp graphics and smooth animation; but in every other way, Thunderbirds Are Go fulfills the vision of its creators to produce a more visceral experience in a world being subsumed by animation.
For those of you who still dream, like Bezos and Musk, about a future where science and humanity find balance, where most people find a way to get along for the betterment of all, and where capitalism and globalism prevail in their most positive scenarios, then this is a show for you. While your kids may like the adventure, older viewers who share their aspirations with the show will be reminded that they aren’t alone, that kindred spirits still share their vision of the future.
Don’t let the vapid and vitriolic US Presidential election cycle erode the positive vision clearly professed in Thunderbirds Are Go. The show’s message indicates that future remains what we make of it; there’s still time to turn our dystopian nightmares into something much more positive.