Thunderbirds have returned to our screens after an absence of fifty years. But will the adventures of the Tracey brothers and International Rescue still hold up today?
Gerry and Sylvia Anderson had a slew of television shows in the 1960’s including childhood favourites Fireball XL5, Joe 90 and Stingray. In 1965 they launched the first episode of their newest show, Thunderbirds.
Thunderbirds was the story of five brothers who were all part of unique team entitled ‘International Rescue’ which was run by their father. As the name implies they answered distress calls from anywhere in the world and used a selection of futuristic technology to aid them in completing their missions.
One of the most famous aspects of the show was the five Thunderbird vehicles. Each one was designed with a specific task in mind.
Thunderbird 1 was a sleek rocket ship designed to get the problem area fast, assess the situation and if possible start proceedings.
Thunderbird 2 was a large green ship which could carry a huge cargo pod. Each pod contained a set of tools designed for a specific type of rescue. Thunderbird 2 would choose the right pod before leaving for a mission. This equipment was then deployed on site.
Thunderbird 3 was another sleek rocket that was used for space missions or to transport crew members up to the space station Thunderbird 5.
Thunderbird 4 was a small agile submersible craft for use in the water and delivered to site by Thunderbird Two in the aptly numbered cargo pod 4.
Finally, as already mentioned, Thunderbird 5 was a space station orbiting the Earth. Its job was to monitor the radio signals from earth and listen out for any distress calls.
Thirty two episodes were produced with a fifty minute runtime. Each show was packed with drama and suspense as International Rescue performed their duty to help out those in trouble. The show also featured an overall story arc with a mysterious figure known as The Hood who caused a lot of the trouble as he wanted to steal the Thunderbird craft and machinery for himself.
Probably the most famous aspect of the show was it production technique as this was not created with real actors. Thunderbirds were filmed with marionettes. These were twenty two inch puppets that featured caricatured representations of a human form with a larger head. This was due to the complex electronics needed for control of the mouth and eye movement.
What I remember most about Thunderbirds was the beautiful miniature work by the late Derek Meddings, who later worked on some of the Bond films. This was the 1960s, way before any form of CGI. Everything was built practically, from the Thunderbirds vehicles themselves, to large table top settings presenting a new location, e.g. an airport or power station.
The show was a hit with children and adults here in the UK but was unfortunately cancelled when the shows financial backer couldn’t sell it to the American television networks.
Thunderbirds has never lost any of its charm though and created a whole new generation of fans when the show was rerun in the 1990s.
Now for the fiftieth anniversary the Thunderbirds have returned in the new form of ‘Thunderbirds Are Go!’. But how does it stand up in today’s world of children’s television?
The first thing you’ll notice is the visual style. It could’ve been so easy to simply remake the show 100% CGI but it would’ve been lost amongst all the other programmes that fill up the children’s television.
Instead they’ve decided to pay homage to the originals. The main characters are all 100% CGI and they look good. They’ve even decided to make them look similar to the original marionettes by giving their skin a waxy look. I also noticed that mouth movement seemed very limited and at first thought this was attributed to cheap production. Then I realised that they were mimicking the style of the original marionettes, a nice touch.
A special mention must also go to the Thunderbird craft. Whilst they have been slightly redesigned they still keep the look of the original 1960 designs and look fantastic.
Now I must mention the aspect of the Thunderbirds Are Go that pleases me the most. Like the original show all of the sets and locations, basically anything that isn’t people or the Thunderbird vehicles, are created with highly detailed miniature sets once again. Yes I’m biased but I think they look great and it’s interesting to note that these have been built by the talented folk down in New Zealand known as WETA. These are the talented guys and girls who have worked on the Lord of the Rings saga of films.
However, whilst I enjoyed the two separate elements, it’s once they are placed together in a scene that it feels weird, I’ll try to explain. There is a photography trick known as tilt shifting. This is when different focuses are used within the same picture which creates the illusion that a real life scene is in fact a small miniature model. Tilt shifting is a great effect and can produce some awesome results. Unfortunately to me it feels like I’m watching the whole episode through this effect and found it a little off putting.
Despite that little gripe (oh and perhaps the music mix was a little too loud and overbearing at times), I found the show enjoyable and this special two part opener flew by in what felt like minutes due to its use of fast cut editing. It was enjoyable and I may continue to watch and see how it develops, if not then just to admire the work that goes into the show.
A special mention must go to the UK broadcaster of the show ITV. The first two parts were broadcast as a single block of fifty minutes on a Saturday tea time slot which I feel made it perfect viewing for the whole family, a mixture of old fans and the soon to be.
However, this turned out to be a one off as the following episodes have now been relegated to ITV’s children channel were it will be broadcast at 8am on Saturday mornings. I feel like ITV have really missed a trick here and would’ve been better off keeping it in a more family friendly time slot.