TV Discussion

Thunderbirds – Pilot Error!

Every year, of the dozens of pilot episodes that are made for TV, some don’t get picked up, while others are changed significantly or even remade when they become a full series. Our series Pilot Error! takes a look at some of them, including the ones that got away.

“Meet JEFF TRACY, LADY PENELOPE, PARKER and the fantastic THUNDERBIRDS – the machines of the future. Here are the sounds and secrets of INTERNATIONAL RESCUE as featured in the newest futuristic T.V. Series “THUNDERBIRDS”.”

Some TV programmes have a lengthy and – sometimes – a painful period of gestation between their initial conception, a pitch being made, a trial run being put together, and then being retooled to varying degrees before finally getting onto the screen. For Thunderbirds, however, things were slightly different: in this case, it actually took some five decades for a ‘pilot’ to be completed.

Towards the end of 1963, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson pitched to TV mogul Lew Grade the idea of a puppet drama series to be based around a secret organisation dedicated to carrying out daring rescues in the event of calamities or disasters; it was inspired by some real-life events known as the “Wunder von Lengede” – this related to a mining accident which took place in West Germany, and had required emergency efforts to try and free the trapped miners.

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Originally planned as a show with episodes of 25 minutes in length, like the Andersons’ earlier programmes, production was well underway on Thunderbirds when Lew Grade got to see the first episode, ‘Trapped In The Sky’. Impressed by the quality of what he’d watched, he informed the Andersons to make the episodes twice as long, doubling the budget in the process. It led to a seven month period where existing tales all had extra material added to lengthen them.

Thunderbirds saw a huge amount of merchandise due to its popularity, and this included a series of 7” EP mini-albums, 16 of which were cut-down versions of soundtracks from TV episodes. However, there were also three original tales, each running to around 21 minutes apiece, using the actual voice actors from the series, as well as music and sound effects – the mini-adventures were called ‘Introducing Thunderbirds’, ‘F.A.B.’, and ‘The Stately Homes Robberies’.

With the 50th anniversary of Thunderbirds coming in 2015, the team behind acclaimed documentary feature Filmed In Supermarionation, with support from Gerry Anderson’s son Jamie, had set up a Kickstarter for a new project, known as Thunderbirds 1965. When they’d been producing Filmed In Supermarionation in 2014, brand new sequences had been shot with character puppets from Thunderbirds, on replica sets, and employing the original voice artists, for brand new linking material between the interviews.

It gave the team the idea of bringing some new episodes of Thunderbirds to life for the big commemoration coming up the following year. Filmed In Supermarionation’s director, Stephen La Rivière, had come up with the notion of putting visuals to the three EP mini-albums, in order to create new – but genuine-looking – Thunderbirds instalments, to sit alongside the original 32 stories. With permissions obtained from Sylvia Anderson, the estate of the late Gerry Anderson, and rights holders ITV, work got underway.

The initial goal of the Kickstarter scheme, which launched on July 9th 2015, was to raise £75,000, so that one of the three mini-episodes – ‘F.A.B.’ (renamed ‘The Abominable Snowman’) – could be realised; for £120,000, they’d then be able to produce another new mini-episode, ‘Introducing Thunderbirds’; and for a minimum of £195,000, the third story – ‘The Stately Homes Robberies’ – would be able to be made. In the one month funding period, 3,378 backers pledged £218,412 in total.

Among the many enticements for any potential investors in Thunderbirds 1965 were original props and costumes from the production, visits to the set, signed scripts, a specially-produced magazine, and a copy of the episodes on Blu-ray or DVD. As a result of the overall target being passed, all of the three adventures were able to be completed, filmed in the exact same industrial facility in Slough which was used by the Andersons as a studio in the 1960s.

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As well as sets being rebuilt, and new puppets made from existing moulds used for the 1960s originals, some of the production team from Thunderbirds returned for this last hurrah, with director David Elliott helming the last episode, ‘The Stately Homes Robberies’. Musician and audio expert Mark Ayres – known for his work as a part of the Doctor Who Restoration Team, who worked on the VHS, DVD and latterly Blu-ray releases – was tasked with restoring all of the soundtracks, using copies of the vinyl mini-albums as the source material.

One of the stories – ‘Introducing Thunderbirds’ – acted as effectively a ‘pilot’ of sorts for the programme, even though it came out after the show had first aired, and was only ever intended to be on audio. In the first TV episode, ‘Trapped In The Sky’, International Rescue gets to go on their very first mission; ‘Introducing Thunderbirds’ is set before that story, and it features Lady Penelope (Sylvia Anderson) and Parker (David Graham) visiting Tracy Island, with Jeff Tracy (Peter Dyneley) demonstrating what the Thunderbirds’ capabilities are.

While technically a prequel to the TV series, it could also be considered a ‘pilot’ of sorts – especially now it’s been made into a proper episode, thanks to the newly-made visuals – as it introduces International Rescue to the audience, and it sets up the series’ concept. The soundtrack itself has been tweaked slightly, with a few minor edits in order to remove some lines of dialogue, as well as the character Kyrano, the Tracy family’s personal valet, who makes a brief appearance during the mini-album version.

In order to show that the episode comes before ‘Trapped In The Sky’, the same special theme arrangement used on that story is also included here – it was a unique version of the famous theme only ever used on the first TV adventure, so it’s been employed here to create a sense of chronology and continuity. Some of the dialogue may already be known to viewers if they happen to have heard ‘Thunderbirds Are Go! (The Pressure Mix)’ from the album Power Themes 90, as samples from ‘Introducing Thunderbirds’ were used as part of the track.

The trio of new Thunderbirds episodes were completed in 2016, and besides copies being sent to the project’s backers, the first ever ‘International Thunderbirds Day’ was held on Saturday September 30th 2017, with Vue Cinemas showing ‘The Abominable Snowman’ nationwide. For ‘Thunderbirds Day’ 2019, all three of the stories were included as part of a marathon Thunderbirds online screening, which was being streamed via Twitch. However, rights issues have prevented Thunderbirds 1965 getting a wider audience.

Well, until now, that is. On Tuesday July 21st 2020, it was announced all three Thunderbirds 1965 episodes would be joining the rest of the original series on BritBox UK, from Thursday 20th August. Forming a part of the ‘Out Of This World’ collection, alongside other cult programming such as The Prisoner, Space: 1999, Sapphire & Steel, and Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased), this will be the first chance for the wider public to have access to Thunderbirds 1965, and see the new ‘pilot’.

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The makers of Thunderbirds 1965 certainly haven’t let the grass grow under their feet. POD 4 Films has morphed into Century 21 Films, and as well as producing the documentary Century 21, Slough, all about the home of the Andersons’ puppet series, they have also made Thunderbirds advert for Halifax. However, their latest project has perhaps been their most ambitious – NEBULA-75 is a Supermarionation show which has been devised, filmed and produced entirely in lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It appears the future of Supermarionation is in safe hands, and it’s reassuring to know we can finally get to see some brand new ‘old’ Thunderbirds episodes, without too many strings being attached.

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