Thunderbirds

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thunderbirds.jpg

Premise:
Thunderbirds follows the 21st century adventures of the members of International Rescue, a privately-funded search-and-rescue organisation. The group achieves most of its goals through the use of five Thunderbirds: a reconaissance rocket, vehicle transporter, spaceship, submarine, and space station.

Created in the 1960s in Britain, Thunderbirds is notable and distinctive for its use of 'Supermarionation', an animation technique using complex puppetry. The series spawned several films and enjoys enduring popularity among both children and adults.

Characters:
International Rescue is led by millionaire ex-astronaut Jeff Tracy. His sons pilot each of the Thunderbirds, with Scott as pilot of the reconnaisance rocket, Virgil as pilot of the vehicle transporter, Alan as astronaut of the spaceship, Gordon as captain of the submarine, and John as operator of the space station. Other characters include Brains, the resident scientist; Lady Penelope, a socialite who acts as International Rescue's London agent; and Parker, Penelope's chaffeur.

Response:
Revisiting Thunderbirds after a twenty-five year gap was a pleasant opportunity to wallow in nostalgia under the pretence of introducing my son to Supermarionation – Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s heroically ambitious form of puppetry. I was rabid about this series in my childhood because it had rocket ships, submarines and guns. That the action took place in the future (where’s my bloody rocket pack, by the way) and the key characters were part of a secret rescue squad also held my attention.

I recently sat down with my toddler and watched the episode “The Mighty Atom.” Much of the action in this episode occurs in Australia (yay) because the boys of International Rescue are required to help avert disaster arising from an out of control nuclear reactor (boo). Scott, Alan, Virgil, Gordon and John have the right stuff to deal with the situation, but their nemesis, Agent 79, is putting about mischief and making life hard. The plot’s not complex, and the characters have just enough depth to crack wise or tug on your heartstrings when they nobly sacrifice themselves for the good of all mankind. Excellent music scoring helps elicit audience emotional repsonses where the dialogue and body language language limitations leave gaps.

The model sets and vehicles are the best reason to watch and love Thunderbirds. They are things of great beauty, and the special effects still look cool in a way computer-generated animation has yet to match. The vehicles and props have a retro-futuristic look with elements of Art Deco and late sixties design aesthetics.

The puppets are amazing. I always knew they were well made, but it’s only now that I realise how clever their construction was and how hard they must have been to manipulate with the level of élan and nuance evident in the finished shows. The quality of the models and puppets and the high production values have helped the look of the series age far better than most of its contemporaries. Team America, World Police demonstrates that if Thunderbirds were re-made with the studio technology available today (as a puppet format show rather than a cheesy live action movie), it would look pretty much the same as it did in the sixties. What remains of Hartnell era Dr Who is not holding up as well against more recent incarnations of the show.

Unforeseeable changes in the real world gave "The Mighty Atom" episode some odd elements in a modern context. The radioactive cloud floating over the Australian hinterland was discussed in jarring accents by heavy smoking reporters at the Herald newspaper. While Australians still have jarring accents, they aren’t faked by actors more accustomed to speaking with Received Pronunciation. Indoor smoking will be a foreign concept to my son, and the Herald has morphed and amalgamated several times in my lifetime, making its moniker strikingly dated, adding to my nostalgia trip at the expense of present day/future accuracy. The current discussions about the energy needs of Australia preclude any sweeping statements about whether or not Australian nuclear power stations will come to pass in the years remaining before our present overtakes the Thunderbird future.

The technology employed in the future setting of the series presaged many modern conveniences: video phones, automated security systems and geostationary telecommunications satellites to mention a few (in addition to the rocket pack I was promised would arrive with the year 2000- I want one of the cool hovering scooters the boys from International Rescue use in the giant crocodile episode). Technology this episode presaged included face recognition software and miniaturised cameras that can download images immediately after they are taken.

The show is entertaining beyond its nostalgia value, and I plan to re-visit more of the series when my son reaches an age where he can get into more than his current level of comprehension allows.

Other Supermarionation Series:
Thunderbirds followed on from Stingray and Captain Scarlett. These series also featured the adventures of high-tech heroes in the future. Only Thunderbirds got air time during my childhood in Australia, so it wasn’t till I moved overseas that I encountered the submarine heroes of Stingray and their mute companion, Marina. This pointless, allegedly telepathic, character could only wobble her head in response to any query and the writers quickly put her in the corner for the bulk of later episodes, her ambiguous role giving the series a slightly lame-duck feel. The vehicles and villains were very cool, and placing one of the key characters in a wheelchair offered a non-stereotypical role model years ahead of any other show I’m aware of. Stingray is otherwise notable only for featuring the worst pop song ever written. That it was written in parody of the music contemporary to the series is no excuse for its badness and I will avoid re-screenings of a particular episode forever so I never have to hear it again.

Joe 90 came some years after Thunderbirds and took Supermarionation to its zenith. Using super detailed (and therefore slightly frightening) puppets with more moving parts than many contemporary cars, this series told the stories of a young boy whose scientist father had turned him into a superspy by implanting various cyborg modifications. Joe foiled the plots of many a would be super villain but the unsettling premise of a child being surgically modified and used in dangerous spy missions, the creepy looking puppets and the fact that I never came across it till I was in my twenties prevented me from enjoying it on its own merits or through nostalgia.

As I have no experience of Captain Scarlett, Secret Service or Fireball XL5, other Supermarionation series whose screenings I missed entirely, Thunderbirds currently stands as the pinnacle of the Andersons’ work in my eyes. It drew on lessons about the technology, characters and plots that did and didn’t work in earlier series. It involved some violence and close calls for its main characters, but as the series never took itself too seriously, it avoided being overly frightening to my youthful sensibilities.


Reviewed by Worldslaziestbusker

Retro Fun

Having grown up in the apparently insular TV land of the U.S., I never had any childhood exposure to Thunderbirds. Even after I moved to Australia, I didn't understand the appeal. After reading this review and Matt's obvious excitement, I think the Thunderbirds are a go and will be watching them first chance I get.