With the Coronavirus lockdown having taken hold, the way we normally go about our daily lives has radically changed. For those who haven’t been able to go to work, all this free time has given people a chance to do other things, like take up a new hobby, read all those books that they haven’t got around to yet, focus on exercise and working out, or make an entirely new Gerry Anderson-inspired puppet drama to a professional broadcast standard.
Never ones to let a global pandemic keep them them down, Century 21 Films Ltd – the team who were behind the 50th anniversary Thunderbirds project, known as Thunderbirds 1965 – had decided to turn lemons into lemonade, and set themselves the challenge of doing a new Supermarionation adventure, using only existing props and puppets. The crew of three who have filmed the piece happen to be flatmates, and their studio flat in London luckily happens to be home to everything they’d need, thanks to it being used to store materials they’d used in other productions.
The Century 21 Films Ltd team originally formed to make Filmed In Supermarionation, a 2014 documentary about the work of the husband-and-wife team Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, who brought us shows such as Thunderbirds, Stingray, and Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons. With some brand new puppet work being carried out specifically for this production, the team have become the custodians of the Andersons’ legacy, and specialise in model and miniature work, as well as the Supermarionation technique that the Andersons devised and refined for puppeteering.
Some of their work can be seen in their documentary film Century 21, Slough, which featured recreations of sets, props and puppets from the Andersons’ series across the years; they’ve also worked on a Thunderbirds-themed ad campaign for Halifax, as well as creating filmed inserts for the West End production of The Twilight Zone on stage. Most recently, the skills of Century 21 Films Ltd were called on by the makers of Endeavour to bring to life a made-up puppet show in the Anderson vein called Moon Rangers, as part of one of their storylines.
It’s their work on Moon Rangers which provides a lot of the basis for their lockdown challenge, with marionettes as well as other materials being reused for their wholly original 10-minute short, NEBULA-75. It’s the story of the titular ship and its crew members, who find themselves being flung 34 million miles across space by a mysterious alien force, and trying to find a way back home. Captained by gallant space adventurer Ray Neptune, the NEBULA-75 team consists of robot Circuit, and eccentric civilian medic Doctor Asteroid, before being joined by alien telepath Athena.
Given that drama production has pretty much closed down due to the Coronavirus situation, it’s a miracle this was able to be made at all, let alone for a shoestring budget, so it’s nothing short of remarkable this still looks so accomplished, not to mention authentic. The experience of the boffins at Century 21 Films Ltd means they’re well versed in creating the amazing whilst all the time feeling those purse strings tightening; even though neither Gerry nor Sylvia are with us, NEBULA-75 feels as though it’s got ‘Anderson’ written all the way through it like a stick of rock.
Helping to give it a feeling of bona fides is the production being made in a traditional 4:3 TV screen format – none of your modern widescreen in evidence here. Their use of Barry Gray’s musical scores and cues from the Anderson series, as well as genuine library sound effects, make it feel pleasingly retro and also perfectly in keeping with the era it is emulating. Visually, it feels like it bridges the gap between Fireball XL5 and Stingray – the Andersons’ first TV series to be made in colour – with its stylings fitting in perfectly, so you’d be hard pressed to know that NEBULA-75 isn’t an actual Anderson show.
The restrictive nature of the production situation hasn’t at all hampered NEBULA-75, as they’ve been able to produce something of a silk purse from the absolute sow’s ear of an unprecedented set of circumstances. The fact they not only have pre-existing stuff on hand, but also such substantial experience, means they already have a head start in getting things off the ground. Modern production techniques mean that even on a low (or non-existent) budget, you can make something that’s up to what was the gold standard decades ago, capturing the look and essence of what would now be archival television.
Given the truly short amount of time in which they’ve had to devise, shoot and carry out post-production on NEBULA-75, it stands up incredibly well, and makes you feel like you want to see the rest of this non-existent series, which is a real testament to how well they’ve done. What sweetens the pot even more here is that they’ve even gone to the extent of putting together a deliciously tongue-in-cheek ‘making-of’ short featurette, highlighting the budget of 75p making it the most expensive drama currently in production. Such a labour of love in so many ways, NEBULA-75 deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.
Can we have a full series next, please? Come on, Century 21 Films: don’t string us along like this, then leave us hanging by a thread.