Looking Back At TERRAHAWKS - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At TERRAHAWKS

Tony’s Terrafied.
Gerry and Sylvia Anderson dominated the Sixties with their innovative and futuristic puppet science-fiction shows. Supercar, Fireball XL-5, Stingray, Thunderbirds – they’re all names that ring in the hearts of sci-fi fans everywhere, evolving every time the Andersons put a show together, and becoming more emotionally complex, with more and more super-vehicles saving the world from the forces of terror, both domestic, aquatic and even, in Thunderbirds, looking out to space – just in case.

Between these highlights and Terrahawks (Gerry Anderson’s early Eighties puppet show), quite a lot had changed, both in the world and with the Andersons themselves.

By 1983, when Terrahawks hit British screens, the Andersons were neither living nor working directly together on projects, so Gerry Anderson’s return to the world of puppet drama (after, for instance, the live-action UFO and Space:1999), saw him collaborate with producer Christopher Burr.

It was the first of Gerry Anderson’s productions not to be released on ITC, too. And – perhaps most significantly in terms of the technical elements, the traditional Supermarionation puppets of the successful Sixties were replaced by a much more Eighties alternative.

By the time of Thunderbirds, the puppet heads were made of something called Bondaglass (a mixture of fibreglass, resin, and putty). For Anderson’s return to puppet science fiction, the Terrahawks marionettes had heads made of latex, and were operated without strings, more in the style of Jim Henson’s Muppets than anything Supermarionationtastic.

That should have been a winner all ways round – latex puppets were much cheaper to make and use, and they allowed for much more realistic mouth-syncing to the words the characters were speaking. Plus of course, for anyone whose suspension of disbelief had only ever extended as far as “You can see the strings!”, the latex, unstrung versions looked and felt much more immersive.
Never short of a made-up name for a handy process, Anderson christened this way of working “Supermacromation.” Because it sounds impressive and like it’s adding value of what you’re about to watch, that’s why.

So much for the tech. What about the story? What the heck ARE the Terrahawks?

This is where things start to get a little less innovative. In some ways, Terrahawks benefited from the fact that Blade Runner had been released in 1982, blowing minds all around the world. That meant that when Anderson and Burr launched their show with an entirely android threat, it didn’t hit the audience in 1983 completely out of the blue.

But on the other hand, there was equally a sense of “Oh, like Blade Runner?” complacency to overcome, because yes, the Earth-invading, outpost-destroying threat in Terrahawks was a bunch of androids from the planet Guk (yes, really) who had rebelled against their indolent human masters and decided to come home and set up their own android utopia.

For reasons more to do with comedy and a striking visual than any storytelling sense, the androids’ leader was modelled on the oldest (and allegedly, wisest) person on the planet, and named Zelda. Think Android Space Witch and you’re not too far wrong.
The Terrahawks, then, are a whole bunch of people – and crucially, super-vehicles – who form the much less sexily-named Earth Defence Squadron. You’re absolutely right, nobody’s going to call it that when you can call it “the Terrahawks” – which is why very few people do.

Anderson had found throughout the Sixties that the more super-vehicles you had, the more interest you could generate, with people, for instance, picking their favourite Thunderbird. And in the intervening decades, there had been plenty of hardcore merchandising that took advantage of that Thunderbird-diversity.

In Terrahawks – a little ironically, set 40 years BEFORE Stingray and Thunderbirds in 2020 – it’s just possible Anderson and Burr went into full-on super-vehicle overkill mode. Want to know how many Terrahawks there were?


There were twelve Terrahawks. Across three series, totalling just 39 episodes. More or less one new Terrahawk every 3-4 episodes.


Damned if we thought so back in the mid-Eighties. New Terrahawk? Bring it on!
In fairness, the audience in the early Eighties – in fact, the audience throughout the whole decade – was dedicated to the principle that more was better, so Terrahawks caught the mood of the time with its dutiful dozen world-saving super-vehicles.

It also caught the national mood of the decade by adding a lot more humour into events than the relatively straightlaced Sixties Supermarionation shows. Can we just remind you – Alien Android Space Witch. Added to which, she had a ‘sister’ who played the dumb sidekick role, and an android ‘baby’ without as yet a designated gender.

Annnd then there’s Windsor Davies.

The Terrahawks were a badass world-saving organisation, to be sure, and they had more super-vehicles than you could shake a nuclear stick at, but they also had floating balls.

No, really. Floating computer balls, called Zeroids – some of which were your standard sci-fi floating robots. And then – did we mention – there was Windsor Davies.

Most Brits would have recognised Windsor Davies’ voice as Sergeant Major Zero (yes, a Sergeant Major floating computer ball) from his most famous role as Sergeant Major Williams in the BBC sit-com, It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum. While the sit-com itself has long faded into an ill-advised string of stereotypes, Davies’ performance remains iconic as an example of a particular kind of British soldier (and if you’ve just joined us in the 21st century, he’s the guy from the “Oh dear. So Sad. Never Mind” gif).

The point though is that you can take the performance from its original sit-com setting, turn it into a super-intelligent flying computer ball, and it’s still Windsor Davies playing a Sergeant Major. Less sexist, less racist, and less homophobic than the It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum version, but there purely for the comedy value of having a Welsh Sergeant Major character in the ‘body’ of a flying super-intelligent computer ball.
There were other comic touches, too. Zero frequently argues with other Zeroids, in a running ‘bureaucratic power struggle between computers’ gag. Other Zeroids have other personality traits – including one that speaks French and comes with a handlebar moustache, one with a strong Scottish accent, and one (it was the early Eighties, OK?) with a comedy stutter.

And while most of the humans who control the Terrahawk machines have more obvious names than was usual in Anderson productions – Captains Mary Falconer and Kate Kestrel, Lieutenant Hawkeye, etc – the leader of the organisation is Doctor Ninestein. See what they’ve done there? Ninestein – like Einstein, but…Niney. As a comedy name goes though, the production does go to fairly absurd lengths to justify it – Ninestein is the ninth clone…created by one Dr Stein.

Yeah. Weird, complicated, not entirely necessary, but hey, they’ve made an effort.

Ninestein is also a much grumpier, more trigger-happy leader than those in almost all the previous Anderson shows. It’s a device that makes him rather more relatable than all those previous square-jawed Supermarionation heroes, and keeps him more alive a character than operatives like Troy Tempest and Captain Scarlet.

For those who watched it on transmission without having a firm background in the Sixties Supermarionatrion shows, there’s something adorable about the combination of Anderson adventure and the new comedic elements that lets Terrahawks repay rewatching even forty years later.

For those who have more of a ‘Classic Supermarionation’ background, there’s something that takes some getting used to about the combination, because the overt comedy is very, VERY overt, whereas the Sixties shows tended to underplay their comedy elements.

Perhaps oddly though, there was a more ‘Classic Anderson’ show that had aired in the UK just a few years earlier, in 1980. Even more oddly, it was a Japanese import, originally known as X Bomber, but translated, revoiced and re-named for UK consumption as Star Fleet.

Set in 2999, a peaceful Earth is suddenly threatened by the destruction of its outer space outposts at the hands of an impressive alien battle machine.

Sound familiar? It was even advertised in Japan as being filmed in Supermariorama.

Not saying. Just saying.

Star Fleet also had a longer, duller name – it was technically known as the Earth Defence Force (unlike the totally different Earth Defence Squadron that was the Terrahawks, obviously). And the two even shared a lead actress – Captain Mary Falconer of the Terrahawks and Zelda the mad alien android leader were both voiced by actress Denise Bryer, who had previously played the evil Commander Makara in Star Fleet.

And while both Terrahawks and Star Fleet used similar puppeteering techniques, there was less overt humour in Star Fleet, so it felt like more ‘classic’ Anderson than the actual Eighties Anderson production. Star Fleet also introduced a full-on story arc, where – like most of the Supermarionation productions - Terrahawks had an ever-expandable, keep-making-it-till-no-one-wants-it-anymore episodic nature.

Is one technically “better” than the other? No – it depends entirely on what you want out of your puppet sci-fi show. And crucially, if the spirit of the Eighties was ‘Bigger! Better! Faster! More!’, then back in the day, you could have the more serious, impressively modelled, story-arctastic Star Fleet AND the comically-tinged Terrahawks with its TWELVE super-vehicles and its floating Welsh computer balls, and nobody could judge you.

Nobody can judge you forty years later, either. Take a trip into the always trippy world of the Terrahawks today, and either remind yourself of its bonkers brilliance, or discover some Eighties Anderson brilliance for the very first time.

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Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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