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

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Tony’s counting down.

You’re invested already, aren’t you? Even without seeing the kickass models of the five Thunderbird vehicles, each of them in action, the countdown is enough to make you look up from whatever else you’re doing, and pull you from a state of calm to “Ooh! Adventure!”

Add Thunderbird 1 – the hypersonic rocket – exploding into life from its launchpad, a spark of lightning across the screen and a positively World War II movie ‘bravery’ musical theme with no lyrics, and you’ve got a spine-straightening proposition.

And with that, and a handy set of ‘cast’ photos, showing you which of the Tracy brothers operates which Thunderbird, you’re off, for what has undoubtedly become the best-known and most marketed of the Gerry and Sylvia Andersons’ Supermarionation creations.
Here’s the thing about Thunderbirds, though.

While series like Stingray not only got broadcast in the UK, but got syndicated on American TV, Thunderbirds originally FAILED to get US syndication, and so ended after just two series in the UK.

Yeah, we didn’t believe it, either. Thunderbirds – less successful in its day than Stingray?

On the surface, there’s no logic to it. And certainly, in the intervening years, Thunderbirds has more than made up for any initial perception of it as a failed show.

But think about it from a pure storytelling point of view, and you can see the development of the Andersons’ capabilities, ambitions, and overall power.

Firstly, most of the early Supermarionation series put the focus strictly on a single super-vehicle – Fireball XL5, Supercar, Stingray, etc. The ambition in Thunderbirds is already five times larger, simply because there are five times as many super-vehicles – and so, five ’times as many potential ways to take the storylines.

Let’s break it down for those just joining us.
5…is a private space station, for ‘space monitoring.’ John and Alan Tracy take shifts on the monitoring station.

4…is what, for the Tracy family, is a little underwhelming – a standard-looking yellow submersible (you won’t believe how hard we had to work not to describe it as a Yellow Submarine… Damn it!). Usually the vehicle of choice of Gordon Tracy, and usually launched from Thunderbird 2, via a kind of floating shed.

You have to wonder, given that Thunderbirds and Stingray are set in the same period, and the WASP organisation that runs Stingray had police control over the oceans, whether the Tracys were banned from anything more tooled-up and offensive for oceanic work…

3…is a space rocket that works in a single stage (unlike anything that existed in the 1960s,m but functioning like a space shuttle). Piloted in shifts by Alan and John Tracy, with brother Scott as their reliable co-pilot.

2… is a green transport aircraft for moving supporting craft and equipment (including Thunderbird 4). It’s also supersonic, so it’s a relatively rapid response Thunderbird. Virgil Tracy’s baby.

And 1…is a hypersonic rocket plane. When supersonic is just not fast enough, you deploy Thunderbird 1 and Scott Tracy.

See what we mean? Five times the potential adventure.
Add in Lady Penelope, the “London Agent” and her chauffeur Parker, and you immediately take the likes of Stingray and put it in much more of a “realistic” world, expanded so that other places on the Earth matter. One of the potential failings of Stingray was that its sub-aquatic world and civilisations sometimes divorced it from the world its viewers knew. Lady Penelope and Parker make the Tracy boys and their International Rescue organisation feel like they at least live in the same world as we do – they just live about a hundred years in the future from the broadcast date of the show, in the 2060s.

Add a chief scientist – the cliched, bespectacled and awfully sweet “Brains,” and you get still more storytelling options.

The chief difference, apart from the much expanded world, the hugely increased number of super-vehicles, and the international dimension, between the likes of Stingray and Thunderbirds is that with the aquatic show, when the Andersons were envisioning the owners and users of such super-vehicles, they went with an official organ of the state and of world organisations, open to everyone – even mute non-mermaids from an undersea city.

Thunderbirds is a very much more…Iron Man approach to the whole thing. Jeff Tracy, father of the five Tracy boys, is an ex-astronaut and an industrialist. It’s a somewhat capitalistic, and of course family-orientated version of world peace and protection – which again, makes it surprising that Thunderbirds didn’t get syndicated in the US.

International Rescue, and the Thunderbirds operation, is based on Tracy Island – oh, did we not mention, they own their own island? Yeah, there’s that, so again, if you approach Thunderbirds with too much seriousness in your heart, you have to wonder which governments have allowed the Tracy family to set up their organisation.
Let’s under no circumstances approach Thunderbirds with too much seriousness, because that would be to suck some of the joy out of the wonderful model work. One of the fantastic things that marked out earlier Supermarionation productions was their set-piece reveals and crewing of their super-vehicles. And in Thunderbirds, each of the Thunderbirds has their own set-piece by which they get their required Tracy on board, and then launch. Most of the time, that turned Thunderbirds into a roulette wheel – would your favourite Thunderbird be deployed this week? It was an ingenious use of the expanded number of super-vehicles, and it guaranteed you watched every available episode.

While it’s true that you mostly watched Thunderbirds for the slogans – “Thunderbirds are go!”, “FAB,” etc – the joyous set-pieces, the super-vehicles, the exquisite model work and special effects, the show also kept up previous Anderson standards of complex family relationships. While it might seem a bit like a life of ghastly monasticism, five brothers and their dad, alone on an island, it wasn’t QUITE that barren an environment. Brains had an assistant by the name of Tin-Tin, who was going out with Alan Tracy, and her father Kyrano, was the family’s faithful old retainer – think Albert to Bruce Wayne. And Jeff Tracy’s mother was part of the gang too, though it would take a 21st century reboot before she really got to shine as part of International Rescue.

Still…it takes a real dedication to International Rescue to stay on the island under those conditions. But then, the Tracys are really quite the dedicated family. Again, it beggars belief that it never got initially picked up in the States.

As we say, it’s more than made up for that in subsequent years with a huge amount of merchandising and a couple of movies – and even at the time, while it missed out on American syndication, it was sold to around 30 countries, so it was never exactly the failure we initially made it out to be. It’s just that American syndication would have meant there were more than the initial two series.

Where things might have gone wrong is that while previous Supermarionation shows had come in at around the 25-minute mark, Thunderbirds – in line with the greater ambition than many of its predecessors, went out in full, 50-minute episodes.

Storywise, though, there was frequently more cunning and convolution going on than in some previous shows from the same stable – naturally, there would have to be to fill double the run-time.
The Big Bad in Thunderbirds was a moderately odd choice. A supervillain named The Hood, who hung out in the Malaysian jungle and more or less spent his days plotting fake emergencies to lure the International Rescue team into. It helped just a little that he was the estranged half-brother of the Tracy family retainer, Kyrano.

But perhaps as important as that, roughly six years before other British science-fiction shows like Doctor Who worked out that even HAVING a Big Bad throughout a whole series was a good idea – before, in fact, the Master turned up in Jon Pertwee’s time – Thunderbirds had a distinctly ‘foreign-looking’ evil lord, who used both disguises, hypnotism, misdirection and dark magic to get the good guys in his power.

Sure, you can also see the Hood as an avatar of wily Eastern mysticism as opposed to the mechanical and engineering might of the West, as represented by the clean-cut Tracy boys and their mega-machines, but again, that might be a sign of taking life seriously. Which is absolutely not what Thunderbirds is about.

Adventure, action, fantastic set-pieces and more super-vehicles than you can shake a Supermarionated stick at – that’s what Thunderbirds is about. And the air of the triumph of the right and the just about the theme tune and incidental music by Barry Gray gave it an upbeat, must-watch air that even when the plots were a little repetitious – “Oh look…the Hood’s forcing an emergency…” – made many young viewers into die-hard Thunderbirds fans.

The series is still as engaging today as it was 60 years ago (yes, really, it’s that old. No, absolutely, it doesn’t look it). And that whole lack of US syndication gig means there are just 32 episodes, of 50 minutes each. That’s practically a picnic to a modern series-binger. Get your International Rescue on, and shout “Thunderbirds are go!” today.

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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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