Thunderbirds at 50

It’s exactly fifty years ago today that Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s Supermarionation spectacular Thunderbirds was first aired on British television. With that in mind it would be nothing less than unthinkable not to post something here to mark this remarkable milestone for a series that has been a part of my life for such an incredibly long time; you see, before Star Trek, before Doctor Who, before anything else that I love, I was a Thunderbirds fan and still am to this day.

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Scott Tracy at the controls of Thunderbird 1.

I’m not going to go into great detail about the series here; if you’re reading this then chances are you’re already more than familiar with it, and if you’re not then what the heck are you doing wasting your time listening to me waffling about Thunderbirds when you should be out there watching it? Seriously, what have you been doing with your life? Honestly. At least give the opening titles a watch – in fact, give this a watch even if you are familiar with the show and have seen it a million times. Go on. I’ll wait.

Wow. It’s wow today, it was wow when I first saw it, and I can only imagine what the response must have been from the original viewing audience in 1965. When the opening titles of your show are more exciting and dramatic than other shows are in their entirety, you know you’re dealing with something pretty special.

Despite this being the fiftieth anniversary of a series that was first made and aired in the 1960s, in finding something to say I find myself thinking back to the first time I ever saw the show, back when it was repeated on BBC2 back in 1991.

I was hooked on this show from the moment I first saw it, it was literally love at first sight and the Friday night 6pm Thunderbirds slot quickly became the highlight of my week. As a kid nothing was as exciting as this show, it had everything that appeals to a child audience, but better still is the fact that was aimed at a family audience. It didn’t talk down to children, but it was also more than capable of operating at a level sophisticated enough to make it appeal to adults as well.

It’s rather startling to realise that I would have been only six years old at the time I was introduced to Thunderbirds, so that’s twenty-four years ago as I write this. Not exactly sure where that time went, but I do know those years were enriched considerably by the images that this one series left in my brain forever; Thunderbird 2’s elevator cars racing to save the Fireflash from certain disaster. The mighty Sidewinder ploughing its way through the jungle before succumbing to its own improbable design and falling over backwards. The Thompson Tower in flames. Sun Probe hurtling towards its fiery doom, and so on and so on.

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Pictured; stuff going all crashy-splodey.

Scenes and moments from across all the thirty-two original episodes (not so much the two feature films as I didn’t get to see them until much later) stayed with me long after the BBC repeats came to an end – useful since I had no videos or any other way of re-experiencing the them until several years later, when the BBC again broadcast the series in 2000.

Once again the response was overwhelmingly positive and for the second time in my lifetime Thunderbirds mania was sweeping the country as a whole new generation were introduced to the exploits of International Rescue – and their parents were introduced to the impossibility of tracking down the infamously elusive Tracy Island toy. As for myself I at last had the chance to revisit the series, but could it really stand up to my memories from almost a decade earlier?

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I’ll need to pick my Brains. Pick my Brains, get it? No. Oh.

Not only did it still stand up, but it really stood up. Aside from some gigglesome lapses in logic and common sense that I’d never really noticed as a child (namely that these puppets do have a worrying tendency to plug atomic reactors into anything that moves and also have the uncanny ability to announce “Nothing can go wrong!” shortly before said atomic reactor goes up in flames or falls off a cliff or whatever) the series still retained its ability to draw me in and hook me for an entire hour. Despite being a half-century old the shows never really look their age (on the surface at least, though some elements are very much of the era they were made in) and there’s one clear and simple reason for that; everyone involved with this production knew they were working on something very special and so they were constantly striving to do the very best job they could.

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You know it, I know it, we all know it – Thunderbird 2 was the best.

You can understand their enthusiasm. At its best Thunderbirds was a feature film made for the small screen, and presented large-scale scenarios and situations on a weekly basis that would have been beyond the capabilities of many Hollywood directors – but not this group of creatives housed in a relatively small studio on the Slough trading estate. Think of some of the show’s very best episodes – Trapped in the Sky, The Perils of Penelope, Atlantic Inferno, Terror in New York City – and you’ll find that they all culminate in incredibly exciting finales, where the suspense and tension builds and builds until it’s almost unbearable. Then, just when it reaches the point where you think you really can’t take any more the line “We’re not gonna make it in time!” or “If only they can hang on just a few more seconds!” will be uttered, and an already suspenseful climax becomes an absolute nailbiter. If you want to learn about to how to effectively build tension in drama, watch Thunderbirds. It doesn’t matter in the slightest that we’re dealing with puppets here, because the people behind the show treated them as real people and that comes across right from frame one.

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Back when you could tell how sophisticated a computer was by how many lightbulbs it had on it.

So what is it about the series that means it not only holds such a strong appeal among so many people and has done for such a long time, but is also still capable of drawing in new viewers whenever it gets an airing?

I’m not entirely sure you can reduce the show’s success and appeal down to just one particular element or one particular person – quite the opposite, in fact. It seems to me that Thunderbirds owes its continued success to a great many incredibly talented people, working with one of the very best concepts that has ever been devised for any television series. Despite the strengths of the show’s format, the sheer number of creative pioneers assembled under one roof produced a lightning-in-a-bottle effect that meant every aspect of the show was functioning at 110% efficiency.

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This is John. He didn’t get to appear much so he bribed me to include him here.

Take for instance the show’s model effects. Even today, in the notoriously unforgiving world of high-definition home cinema systems where every little flaw can be exposed and magnified the episodes and films still look unbelievably good, with only a very occasional shot that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny (usually whenever miniature characters had to appear in model effects shots). By and large though the effects work in Thunderbirds is on par with anything produced for the big screen, either at the time or since – which isn’t much of a surprise when you consider that many of the special effects crew from Thunderbirds ended up graduating to work on big blockbuster films like the 007 and Alien franchises.

Despite being such a phenomenal success Thunderbirds only ran for 32 episodes before the plug was pulled, but a truly great concept like that can never really stay dormant for long, and over the years several attempts at reviving or re-inventing the series have come along. There have even been one or two ghastly attempts at re-editing the original episodes to appeal to modern tastes – I’d post an example or two here but I’d rather not kill this blog in its infancy.

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Bloody. Iconic.

2015 has seen not one but two Thunderbirds revivals, firstly a brand new CGI series from ITV that totally revamps and reinterprets the Thunderbirds concept for an audience who really are living in Century 21. I sat through the first two episodes of Thunderbirds Are Go when they first aired back in April, and while it’s far from being the worst such attempt at a ‘new’ Thunderbirds (seriously, look up those early-90s American re-edits or the 2004 movie, and then have a good cry) I was left feeling distinctly underwhelmed by the whole thing. The CGI Tracy family were largely devoid of any real character or personality, and rushed and jumped and space-surfed (seriously? No, seriously?) from one action set-piece to another trying to save other random CGI people that we’re not really given much of a chance to care about. As generic CGI kids shows go it’s harmless enough, but the whole thing feels like something of a missed opportunity. I do hope it finds an audience though, if only to give the kids of today the kinds of fond memories in their future that I have from my childhood!

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Scott relaxing between takes on The Abominable Snowman.

More recently and most certainly more exciting is the Thunderbirds 1965 project, which takes three short stories released on audio LPs in the mid-60s and marries them up with new specially-shot visuals, with the ultimate aim being to create three brand new episodes of the show to celebrate the 50th anniversary. A teaser trailer for the first episode in production, The Abominable Snowman, has just been released, and…

Chills. A brand new episode of proper Thunderbirds made fifty years later, with two more to come yet. To say it looks terrific seems like something of an understatement.

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Lady Penelope, back on the set having somehow not aged a day in 50 years. How does she do it?

I was actually lucky enough to take a couple of visits to the set of Thunderbirds 1965 recently, and was hugely impressed by what I saw. The level of professionalism and attention to detail is astounding (this being the same team who put together the recent Filmed in Supermarionation documentary), as is the sheer number of talented creatives involved. From puppet-building to set-building to model-making to costume-designing to lighting and camera and directing, it’s a true labour of love and really reinforces what I said above about what happens when so many skilled people get together to produce something truly special.

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Finally visiting Tracy Island for real!

With the three new episodes due by Christmas, this is a very exciting time for Thunderbirds, and considering that we’re talking about one of the most exciting television series ever made that seems truly appropriate. So here’s to fifty years of great memories of a truly great show – they don’t come much better than this. F.A.B.!

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They say you should never meet your heroes. But they’re so totally wrong.