TV discussion

F.A.B! Looking back at Thunderbirds

As Thunderbirds Are Go! returns to screens, Nick Lay takes a look back at the classic 1960's show...

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…well, you know how it goes. When Thunderbirds first launched its way onto British television screens back in September 1965, few could have predicted the timeless legacy Gerry Anderson’s sci-fi puppets would go on to maintain. Despite the show’s initial cancellation in 1966, the family Tracy enjoyed an unprecedented revival during the early-90s, following the show’s first simultaneous network broadcast (in the 60s different UK regions saw it at different times or not at all) on BBC2.

What came next was a wonderfully bizarre national obsession with International Rescue and their supercool collection of supersonic air and spacecraft. By 1992 the demand for merchandise was so great that a Christmas crisis developed due to a shortage of Tracy Island toys, only for Blue Peter and a Pritt Stick-wielding Anthea Turner to step in and save the day for kids (and parents) across the country.

Fast forward another 25 years and the latest incarnation, CGI remake Thunderbirds Are Go, is going strong. As the second half of its second season gets underway, we thought a look back at the classic, original show was timely.

In 1963, having already completed several series using his unique form of electronic marionette production (known as Supermarionation) – the latest of which, the underwater saga Stingray, was his first foray into colour – Gerry Anderson sought to break into the family-friendly primetime market with a program aimed as much at adults as it was kids. His subsequent creation, Thunderbirds, was initially slated for 26 episodes clocking in at 25-minutes apiece.

When series backer Lew Grade saw the finished pilot, however, he insisted Anderson and his team double the length of each episode. With the action around a particular rescue already making up the majority of each script, the extension in runtime allowed for greater characterisation and plot development compared to the quick fire nature of shows such as Stingray and Supercar.

The result was a large cast of main, secondary and guest characters that felt familiar, but never cluttered. One of the “first men on the moon” and easily the richest person on earth, Jeff Tracy, led proceedings alongside his five sons, each of whom piloted his own Thunderbird craft – surely everyone’s favourite was the thundering, pod-dropping bad boy that was Virgil’s Thunderbird 2?

A strong female presence came in the form of Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward and her six-wheel pink Rolls Royce (nice and inconspicuous for a secret agent, eh?), while her legendary butler Parker, Tracy Island super-geek Brains, and the villainous green-eyed “Hood” provided just the right balance of comedy and menace alike.

What really made Thunderbirds standout, however, was its execution; the primary example being the Thunderbird craft themselves. Everyone remembers the unique designs of Scott’s hypersonic rocket ship, Gordon’s yellow submarine, poor John’s lonely satellite – which somehow remained undetected by all government forces despite floating there with a huge “5” emblazoned on the side – and even recurring pod vehicles, such as The Mole. The wider world of 2065 also featured awesome military (Sidewinder; Red Arrow), industrial (Crablogger) and civilian (Fireflash) land and aircraft, each of which came with a dramatic design flaw capable of putting everyone in suitable danger, and therefore requiring International Rescue’s attention.

Bringing the action to life was special effects director and long time Anderson collaborator, Derek Meddings. Using a combination of scale models, miniature sets, rolling tracks and backgrounds, and real-life explosions, Meddings turned a puppet show into a technically-superior thriller. His work with Anderson eventually saw him elevated to live action features, including multiple Bond films. As well as an outstanding voice cast, another behind-the-scenes hero was composer Barry Gray, whose stirring scores, including the main theme, lit the fuse beneath Meddings’ explosive action sequences.

With re-watches standing the test of time some 50 years later, Thunderbirds remains one of the few 1960s television shows capable of rubbing shoulders with its cinematic cousins from the same era. While it maintains ‘classic’ status, the practice of new generations seeking it out or eventually coming across it as they would, say, a Bond flick, could well be futile. The early-90s generation that holds it in high regard does so due to fortunate timing; a feat unlikely to be repeated.

Whether or not the show is destined to fade inside the minds of linear television dinosaurs like myself and my father – a fan of Anderson’s shows during their original broadcasts – remains to be seen. For now, though, anyone showing re-runs to their kids gets an F.A.B. from me.

Are you a fan of Thunderbirds? Will you be watching the new series of Thunderbirds Are Go? Let us know!

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