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Thunderbirds (TV series)

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Thunderbirds
Series title, "Thunderbirds", set against thunderclouds
Genre Science fiction, action,[1] adventure,[2] children's television[3]
Created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson
Written by Tony Barwick, Alan Fennell,
Dennis Spooner, Alan Pattillo, Donald Robertson
Directed by Desmond Saunders, David Elliott, David Lane, Alan Pattillo
Voices of Peter Dyneley, Shane Rimmer, David Holliday, Matt Zimmerman, David Graham, Ray Barrett,
Sylvia Anderson, Christine Finn, Jeremy Wilkin, Charles Tingwell, Paul Maxwell, John Tate
Opening theme "The Thunderbirds March"
Composer(s) Barry Gray
Country of origin United Kingdom
Original language(s) English
No. of series 2
No. of episodes 32 (64 in half-hour format) (list of episodes)
Production
Executive producer(s) Gerry Anderson (Series Two)
Producer(s) Gerry Anderson (Series One)
Reg Hill (Series Two)
Cinematography John Read
Running time 50 minutes approx.
Production company(s) AP Films
Distributor ITC Entertainment
Release
Original channel ATV
Picture format 35 mm film (VistaVision)[4]
4:3 aspect ratio
Audio format Mono
Original release 30 September 1965 (1965-09-30) – 25 December 1966 (1966-12-25)
Chronology
Preceded by Stingray
Followed by Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons
Related shows Thunderbirds 2086
Turbocharged Thunderbirds
Thunderbirds Are Go

Thunderbirds is a British science-fiction television series created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, filmed by their production company AP Films, and distributed by ITC Entertainment. It was produced between 1964 and 1966 using a combination of marionette puppetry and scale-model special effects sequences – a hybrid filming technique known as "Supermarionation". Two series and thirty-two 50-minute episodes were filmed; production came to an end after the Andersons' financial backer, Lew Grade, failed in his bid to sell the programme to American network television.

A follow-up to Four Feather Falls, Supercar, Fireball XL5 and Stingray, Thunderbirds is set in 2065. It concerns the exploits of International Rescue (IR), a life-saving organisation that is aided in its humanitarian mission by technologically advanced land, sea, air and space rescue vehicles, which are fronted by the Thunderbird machines and launched from Tracy Island, a secret base in the Pacific Ocean. The main characters are ex-astronaut Jeff Tracy, the founder of IR, and his five adult sons, who pilot the Thunderbird machines.

Thunderbirds debuted in the UK on ATV's franchises in 1965 and has since been broadcast in at least 66 other countries.[5] Periodically repeated by the BBC and other networks, the series was adapted for radio in the early 1990s and has influenced numerous TV programmes (including a Japanese remake) and other media. It has also entailed several merchandising campaigns, and has been followed by three feature-length films and a mimed stage adaptation. A charity, the International Rescue Corps, is named after the organisation depicted in the series.

Widely considered the most popular and commercially successful series created by the Andersons,[6][7] Thunderbirds has received considerable praise for its effects (directed by Derek Meddings) and musical score (composed by Barry Gray).[2][8] The series is also remembered for its title sequence, which opens with an often-quoted countdown by voice actor Peter Dyneley: "5, 4, 3, 2, 1: Thunderbirds Are Go!" A partly computer-animated, partly live-action remake, Thunderbirds Are Go, premiered on ITV in April 2015.[9]

Storyline[edit]

Thunderbirds follows the adventures of the Tracy family, which is headed by Jeff Tracy, an American ex-astronaut turned multi-millionaire philanthropist. Jeff is a widower whose five adult sons – Scott, John, Virgil, Gordon and Alan[Note 1] – are named after Mercury Seven astronauts (namely Scott Carpenter, John Glenn, Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Gordon Cooper and Alan Shepard).[10] Unknown to the rest of the world, the Tracys are the force behind International Rescue (IR): a top-secret organisation dedicated to saving human life. They are assisted in this mission by technologically advanced land, sea, air and space vehicles and equipment, which are called into service after conventional rescue techniques have proven ineffective. Foremost is a fleet of five machines called the "Thunderbirds", each assigned to one of the five Tracy brothers:

  • Thunderbird 1: a 115 feet (35 m)-long, hypersonic, variable-sweep wing rocket plane used for fast response and rescue-zone reconnaissance, and as a mobile control base. Piloted by primary rescue co-ordinator Scott Tracy.
  • Thunderbird 2: a 250 feet (76 m)-long, supersonic, VTOL, lifting body carrier aircraft, which transports rescue vehicles and equipment to disaster zones in detachable capsules known as "Pods". Piloted by Virgil.
  • Thunderbird 3: a 287 feet (87 m)-tall, vertically-launched, re-usable, single-stage-to-orbit spacecraft used primarily for space rescue. Manned alternately by astronauts Alan and John (with Scott as co-pilot).
  • Thunderbird 4: a 30 feet (9.1 m)-long utility submersible used for underwater rescue. Piloted by aquanaut Gordon and typically launched from Thunderbird 2's Pod 4.
  • Thunderbird 5: a space station, 296 feet (90 m) wide and positioned in permanent geostationary orbit, which monitors SOS transmissions and relays communications within IR. Manned alternately by "Space Monitors" John and Alan and serviced by Thunderbird 3.[11][12]

Along with the engineer Brains (the inventor of the Thunderbird machines), the Malaysian manservant Kyrano,[13] Kyrano's daughter Tin-Tin (who is Alan's romantic interest) and Jeff's elderly mother,[14] the family reside in a luxurious villa on Tracy Island, situated in the South Pacific Ocean.[Note 2][15] In this remote location, IR is safe from criminal and spy elements who envy the organisation's technological superiority and seek to acquire the secrets of its machines. That Tracy Island serves as IR's base is not evident from the air, as the Thunderbirds and Pod Vehicles are housed in underground hangars accessible only via hidden launch chutes. Visitors to the island are kept ignorant of the Tracys' double life with the aid of the "Operation Cover-Up" security protocol, which physically erases evidence of IR's presence.

While the organisation's principles are humanitarian, some of IR's rescue operations are not the result of misadventure, but by deliberate sabotage driven by greed for power and wealth. For missions that require criminal investigation or military intelligence, the organisation incorporates a network of undercover agents, headed by English aristocrat Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward and her Cockney butler Aloysius "Nosey" Parker. Based at Creighton-Ward Mansion in Kent, Penelope and Parker's primary mode of transport is FAB 1 – a pink, amphibious Rolls-Royce. The most persistent of IR's enemies, meanwhile, is the criminal known as the Hood.[Note 2][16] Operating from a temple in the Malaysian jungle, and endowed with powers of hypnosis and voodoo-like dark magic, he is a master of physical disguise and exerts a strong telepathic control over his estranged half-brother, Kyrano. Exploiting Kyrano's weak-mindedness and inside knowledge of IR, the Hood regularly manipulates the Tracys into rescue missions that unfold according to his own nefarious designs; this gives him opportunities to spy on the Thunderbird machines and become rich by selling their stolen secrets.

According to the official scriptwriters' guide, the events of Thunderbirds open in 2065, a year consistent with the 2060s settings of the earlier AP Films series Fireball XL5 and Stingray.[17][18] The series finale, "Give or Take a Million", is set in December 2067.[19] Gerry Anderson envisaged a timeframe "100 years into the future",[20] which is supported by visual evidence in the episode "30 Minutes After Noon",[21] as well as tie-ins such as the TV Century 21 comic strip[22] and the Century 21 mini-album "Thunderbird 3".[23] Some episodes point to earlier settings; for example, a wall calendar prop indicates that the events of "Give or Take a Million" occur in 2026.[19] However, Anderson refuted these, stating that the year on the calendar, for example, was simply a continuity error.[20]

Though spoken as an initialism, the IR call sign "F.A.B." was not conceived as one.[24] According to Anderson, it stands for "absolutely nothing! ... The abbreviation 'fab', as in 'fabulous', was all the rage and I just changed it a bit."[25] He also described it as a "futuristic equivalent for 'Roger', i.e. 'Message received and understood'".[26] The code is defined by Collins English Dictionary as "an expression of agreement to, or acknowledgement of, a command".[27]

Production[edit]

I started to think that there really ought to be dumps around the world with rescue gear standing by, so that when a disaster happened, all these items of rescue equipment could be rushed to the disaster zone and used to help to get people out of trouble ... I was thinking, 'Rescue, yes, rescue, but how to make it science fiction? What about an international rescue organisation?

— Gerry Anderson on the premise[28][29]

Thunderbirds was the fourth Supermarionation puppet TV series to be produced by AP Films, founded by the husband-and-wife duo of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson with Reg Hill and John Read. Pitched in late 1963, the series was commissioned by Lew Grade of ITC on the back of the positive response to Stingray.[14][30]

Gerry Anderson's inspiration for the series' underlying concept came from the West German mining disaster known as the Wunder von Lengede ("Miracle of Lengede"). In October 1963, the collapse of a nearby dam had flooded an iron mine in Lengede, Lower Saxony, killing 29 miners and trapping 21 more underground.[31][32] The authorities, lacking the equipment necessary to drill a rescue shaft, had been forced to requisition a heavy-duty bore from Bremen (approximately 100 miles, or 160 kilometres, away), and the considerable time required to ship the device by rail had severely reduced the trapped miners' chances of survival.[28] Recognising the advantages of swifter crisis response, Anderson devised the concept of an "international rescue organisation" able to transport specialised rescue equipment over long distances by means of supersonic aircraft.[28][29]

Anderson wanted to distinguish his new, 26-episode series from AP Films' earlier productions, with stories that would appeal to adults as much as children and a family-friendly primetime (rather than children's late-afternoon) transmission slot.[33] Sylvia Anderson explains that "our market had grown, and a 'kidult' show ... was the next step."[34] The Andersons retired to their holiday villa in Portugal to develop the premise, script the pilot episode, and compose a scriptwriters' guide.[33][35] Of the writing process, Sylvia remembers: "There was a division of labour, whereby I would create the characters and Gerry would devise the action sequences of the plot. The storyline was a blend of the two."[35] The decision to cast a widower father and his grown-up sons as the main characters was inspired by the make-up of the Cartwright family from the American TV series Bonanza.[36][37] In addition, Sylvia, sensing an opportunity to widen the series' appeal, had suggested that the scripts focus on more than one hero.[37]

The series' title was derived from a letter sent from Arizona by Gerry's brother, Lionel, while serving overseas as an RAF flight sergeant during the Second World War.[38] Lionel, who was killed in action in 1944, had made reference to Thunderbird Field, a nearby United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) base.[38][39] Attracted to the "punchiness" of "Thunderbirds", Anderson dropped his working title, "International Rescue", and renamed both the series and the IR rescue craft (which had originally been designated Rescues 1 to 5).[38] For the launch sequences of Thunderbirds 1, 2 and 3, Anderson drew inspiration from contemporary United States Air Force (USAF) take-off procedure: he had read how the US Strategic Air Command kept its pilots on permanent standby, seated in the cockpits of their aircraft and ready for launch at a second's notice.[40]

In the 2000 DVD documentary The Thunderbirds Companion, Anderson described how Thunderbirds was effectively "made as an American show" because AP Films' shooting costs had risen significantly, making a source of overseas distribution revenue essential.[41] During the character development and voice-casting process, the Andersons' top priority was to ensure that Thunderbirds provided trans-Atlantic appeal, thus maximising the chances of winning the support of an American network and the higher viewing figures that the US market had to offer.[33][42] Such was the investment in this illusion that scripts were typed in American English and printed on US-style quarto-size paper.[43]

Filming[edit]

Thunderbirds was shot at AP Films' studios on the Slough Trading Estate, Berkshire between 1964 and 1966.[44] In preparation for the filming, the number of full-time crew was expanded to 100.[45] Shooting commenced in September 1964 after five months of pre-production[14][46] – due to the series' technical complexity, a period longer than for any of AP Films' earlier productions.[39][47] To speed up the filming, episodes were recorded in pairs, at a rate of one pair a month, on separate soundstages and by different crews (designated "A" and "B").[48][49] By 1964, AP Films was the UK's largest commercial user of colour film, consuming more than three million feet (570 mi; 910 km) of stock per year.[50]

Alan Pattillo, a veteran scriptwriter and director for AP Films, was appointed its first official script editor in late 1964.[51] This move was aimed to reduce the burden on Gerry Anderson who, while reserving his producer's right to overall storyline and editorial control, had grown weary of revising scripts himself.[52][53] Direction of episodes was assigned in pairs: Pattillo and David Elliott alternated with the less experienced Desmond Saunders and newcomer David Lane for each month's filming.[51][54] Due to the difficulties of setting up takes, shooting was slow: even on a productive day, it was rare for more than two minutes of puppet footage to be filmed.[55] In a press interview, Hill stated Thunderbirds contained several times as many shots as a typical live-action series; the fast editing was influenced by the characters' lack of facial expression, and their resulting inability to sustain viewer interest for more than a few seconds at a time.[56]

Lew [Grade] watched ["Trapped in the Sky"], and at the end he jumped up shouting, 'Fantastic, absolutely fantastic! This isn't a television series – this is a feature film! You've got to make this as an hour!' ... I'm glad we did it, because it made the series much bigger and much more important. But it was still a very, very difficult job.

— Gerry Anderson on the format change[57]

Thunderbirds was the first AP Films series to be broadcast in a one-hour timeslot.[57][58] In December 1964, Grade viewed the completed 25-minute pilot, "Trapped in the Sky", at ATV's London headquarters.[56][57] By the end of the screening, he was so pleased with the result that he ordered Anderson to double the episode length and increased the series' budget per episode from £25,000 to £38,000 (approximately £452,000 and £688,000 today).[14][57] As a result, Thunderbirds became not only AP Films' highest-budgeted production to date, but also one of the most expensive TV series ever to have been produced at the time.[59] The crew, who had been filming at a rate of two 25-minute episodes per fortnight, faced significant challenges during the transition to the new format, since eight episodes had already been completed,[60] scripts for up to 10 more had been written,[57] and substantial re-writes and re-shoots would be necessary to satisfy the extended running time.[48][61] Anderson lamented: "Our time-scale was far too drawn out. ITC's New York office insisted that they should have one show a fortnight ... Everything had to move at twice the speed."[62] More than seven months was spent lengthening the existing episodes.[63]

Tony Barwick, who had impressed Pattillo and the Andersons with an unsubmitted script for Danger Man, was recruited to assist in the writing of filler material and subplots.[64][65] He found that the longer running time presented opportunities to strengthen the characterisation.[57][66] Science-fiction writer John Peel argues that it is "small character touches" that make the puppet cast "much more rounded" and allow the viewer to see "much more of the Tracys as characters than we ever were of the inhabitants of previous series"; he compares the writing favourably to that of live-action drama.[67] The new footage proved useful to the writers during the development of the first series finale, "Security Hazard": since the episodes "Attack of the Alligators!" and "The Cham-Cham" had considerably overspent their budgets, Pattillo devised a flashback-dominated clip show containing only 17 minutes of original material to reduce production costs.[68][69]

Filming of Series One was completed in December 1965.[14] A second series was also commissioned late that year and entered production in March 1966.[49][68] For Series Two, Barwick took over the role of script editor from the outgoing Barwick and graduated to the position of full-time writer.[70][71] While the puppet crew re-sculpted the main cast, the art and effects departments re-built the vehicles and expanded a number of permanent sets, including the Tracy Villa lounge and the Thunderbird 5 control room.[72][73] To accommodate the simultaneous filming of the TV series and the feature film Thunderbirds Are Go, AP Films purchased two additional buildings on the Slough Trading Estate to house new soundstages.[74][75] Since crew and studio space were divided between the two productions, filming of Series Two – mostly under "B" crew – progressed at half the original speed (with the completion of one episode per month).[49] Filming on Thunderbirds Are Go was completed in June, allowing "A" crew to resume work on the TV series to film what would prove to be its penultimate episode, "Ricochet".[49]

Production on Thunderbirds ended in August 1966 with the completion of the sixth episode of Series Two and its 32nd episode overall.[14][76] In February that year, it had been reported that Grade had been unable to sell the series in the United States due to disagreements over timeslots.[77][78] In July, he cancelled the series after failing in his second attempt to secure an American buyer.[71][76] The three major US networks of the 1960s – NBC, CBS and ABC – had all bid for the series, with Grade repeatedly driving up the price; however, when NBC withdrew its offer, the other two immediately followed.[76][79]

By the time of its cancellation, Thunderbirds had become widely popular in the UK and had been distributed extensively overseas.[80][81] Nevertheless, Grade believed that without the financial boost of an American network sale, a full second series would be unable to recover its production costs.[71][77] He therefore instructed Anderson to devise a new concept – which, in his estimation, stood a greater chance of winning over the profitable US market.[71][77]

Casting and characters[edit]

Regular Puppet Cast[10]
Name Role(s) Other occupation(s) Voiced by
Jeff Tracy Leader of IR Ex-astronaut, Air Force colonel,
businessman
Peter Dyneley
Scott Tracy Thunderbird 1 pilot
Thunderbird 3 co-pilot[Note 3]
Ex-Air Force pilot Shane Rimmer
Virgil Tracy Thunderbird 2 pilot Painter, musician David Holliday
(Series One)
Jeremy Wilkin
(Series Two)
Alan Tracy Thunderbird 3 astronaut
Thunderbird 5 Space Monitor
Motor racing champion Matt Zimmerman
[Note 4]
Gordon Tracy Thunderbird 4 aquanaut
Thunderbird 2 co-pilot
Oceanographer,
Olympic diving champion,[14]
ex-WASP Aquanaut
David Graham
John Tracy Thunderbird 5 Space Monitor
Thunderbird 3 astronaut[Note 5]
Astronomer, writer Ray Barrett
Brains Engineer, scientist, inventor David Graham
Tin-Tin Kyrano Maintenance technician, laboratory assistant[14] Christine Finn
Kyrano Manservant, cook Botanist, scientist David Graham
Grandma Tracy Housekeeper, cook[14] Christine Finn
Lady Penelope
Creighton-Ward
IR's London agent Aristocrat, socialite Sylvia Anderson
Aloysius Parker Penelope's butler and chauffeur Ex-professional safe-cracker[14] David Graham
The Hood Criminal, dark magician Ray Barrett

Voice-recording sessions were supervised by Pattillo and the Andersons, with Sylvia Anderson in overall control of casting.[35][82] Dialogue was recorded once per month at a rate of two scripts per session.[83] Supporting parts were not pre-assigned, but instead negotiated by the cast among themselves.[82] Two recordings would be made at each session: one to be converted into electronic pulses for the puppet filming, the other to be added to the soundtrack during post-production.[84] The 35 mm tapes were edited at Gate Recording Theatre in Birmingham.[82][85]

In the interest of ensuring trans-Atlantic appeal, it was decided that the main puppet cast would be mostly American and therefore voiced by actors capable of producing a persuasive accent.[33][42] British, Canadian and Australian actors made up most of the voice cast.[86] The only American to be recruited was expatriate stage actor David Holliday, who was noticed by Sylvia in London's West End and given the part of Virgil Tracy.[83][87] Following the completion of the first series, Holliday returned to the United States; for Series Two, the character was voiced by English-Canadian actor Jeremy Wilkin.[88]

British actor David Graham was among the first to be cast.[86][87] He had already voiced characters on Four Feather Falls, Supercar, Fireball XL5 and Stingray; beyond the AP Films productions, he had also provided one of the earliest Dalek voices for Doctor Who.[87] Graham voiced four of the main Thunderbirds cast: Gordon Tracy, Brains, Kyrano and Parker. Cast alongside Graham was Australian actor Ray Barrett.[86] Like Graham, he had worked for the Andersons before, having voiced both Titan and Commander Shore on Stingray.[89] A veteran of radio drama, Barrett was skilled at performing different voices in quick succession and convincingly affecting both British and American accents.[86][89][90] He supplied the regular voices of John and the Hood, as well as many supporting characters. Villains would typically be voiced by either Barrett or Graham.[87] Aware of the sensitive political climate of the Cold War, and not wishing to "perpetuate the idea that Russia was the enemy with a whole generation of children watching",[91] Gerry Anderson decided to go against viewers' expectations by casting the Hood as Oriental and situating his temple hideout in Malaysia.[13][92]

Although Lady Penelope and Parker were among the first characters to be developed, neither was conceived as a central role.[93][94] Parker's Cockney manner was based on that of a waiter who worked at a Cookham pub that was sometimes visited by the production staff; on Gerry Anderson's recommendation, Graham dined there regularly for a brief period to study his accent.[94][95] For the part of Penelope, Anderson's first choice had been actress Fenella Fielding, but his wife Sylvia insisted that she perform the role.[87][96] Prior to Thunderbirds, she had voiced Jimmy Gibson on Supercar, Dr Venus on Fireball XL5 and (briefly) Marina on Stingray. Her voice for Penelope was intended to emulate both Fielding and Joan Greenwood.[87] On the subject of Penelope and Parker's secondary role as comic relief, Gerry Anderson commented that "we British can laugh at ourselves, so therefore we had Penelope and Parker as this comedy team. And in America they love the British aristocracy too.'"[42] According to Jonathan Bignell, Penelope and Parker's Britishness injects entertaining aspects of "Cool Britannia" into an otherwise exclusively American setting.[42]

As well as voicing Jeff Tracy, English-Canadian actor Peter Dyneley played the recurring role of Commander Norman, chief of air traffic control at London International Airport. His supporting character voices were typically those of upper-class Englishmen.[83] Shane Rimmer, the voice of Scott, was hired on the strength of his performance on the BBC soap opera Compact.[86] Fellow Canadian Matt Zimmerman was cast as Alan at a late stage in the process while performing in the West End.[83] He was hired on the recommendation of his friend, Holliday: "They were having great difficulty casting the part of Alan as they wanted a certain sound for him, being the youngest brother. David, who [was] a bit older than I am, told them that he had this friend, me, who would be great."[85]

Christine Finn, known to contemporary viewers as Barbara Judd from the BBC science-fiction serial Quatermass and the Pit, supplied the voices of Tin-Tin Kyrano and Grandma Tracy.[87] In addition, she and Sylvia Anderson were responsible for voicing most of the female and child supporting characters. Other minor parts were voiced by Charles Tingwell, Paul Maxwell (the voice of Steve Zodiac on Fireball XL5) and Australian actor John Tate (the father of Nick Tate), who were not credited for their contributions.[85][97]

Design and effects[edit]

The puppet soundstages were only one-fifth the size of those used for a standard live-action production, typically measuring 12 by 14 metres (39 by 46 ft) in length and width and no more than 3 metres (9.8 ft) deep.[98][99] Bob Bell, assisted by Keith Wilson and Grenville Nott, headed the art department for Series One.[100] After the simultaneous filming of Series Two and Thunderbirds Are Go commenced in March 1966, Bell attended mainly to the film, entrusting set design for the TV series to Wilson.[49][101]

Since it was necessary for the art department's interior sets to conform to the effects department's exterior plans, each team carefully monitored the other's work.[102] According to Sylvia Anderson, the challenge facing Bell was to produce complex interiors on a limited budget while resisting the effect's department's push for "more extravagant" design.[102] Interior design was complicated by the unnatural proportions of the puppets, with Bell struggling to decide whether the sets should be built to a scale favouring their bodies or their over-sized heads and hands.[103] He used FAB 1 to illustrate the problem: "As soon as we positioned [the puppets] standing alongside [the model], they looked ridiculous, as the car towered over them."[104] Ultimately, he adopted a "mix-and-match" approach, whereby furniture was scaled to a size appropriate to the puppets' bodies and smaller items, such as tableware, to their hands.[103]

For the construction of the Creighton-Ward Mansion sets, Bell and his staff paid close attention to detail, ordering miniature Tudor paintings, 13-scale Georgian- and Regency-style furniture and carpeting shaped to resemble a polar bear skin.[103][104] The realism was heightened by the addition of scrap items acquired from household waste and electronics shops; for example, a vacuum cleaner pipe serves as Virgil Tracy's launch chute.[100][105] This particular sequence, in which the Virgil puppet is flipped backwards and then slides feet-first into the Thunderbird 2 cockpit, was one of the most complex to be filmed.[106]

Puppets[edit]

Two male string puppets (roughly one-third human size): one bald and dressed in Far Eastern attire, the other dressed in a blue uniform with side cap, boots and baldric.
Replicas of the Hood (left) and Scott Tracy (right) puppets. Note the caricatured proportions.

The head puppet sculptor was Christine Glanville, who also served as main puppet operator (or "Supermarionator").[51][90] Glanville's four-person team designed and built the 13 members of the principal cast in six months at a cost of between £250 and £300 per puppet (approximately £4,525 and £5,430 today).[104][107] Since pairs of episodes were to be filmed simultaneously on separate soundstages, the sculptors were required to build the characters in duplicate.[48] The puppets' facial expressions were diversified by the use of interchangeable heads: as well as heads with neutral expressions, "smilers", "frowners" and "blinkers" were also created, for a total of five heads per main character.[46][108] The finished puppets were approximately 22 inches (56 cm) tall (roughly 13 average adult human height)[98][109] and weighed between seven and nine pounds (3.2 and 4.1 kg).[46]

Each puppet comprised more than 30 individual components, among the most important of which was the solenoid that synchronised the movements of the lips with pre-recorded character dialogue.[110] The design required that this device be housed inside the head unit; as a result, the torso and limbs appeared comparatively small.[104] In fact, the marionettes used for Thunderbirds were themselves a product of increased realism: following Stingray, the AP Films puppet department had downscaled the head and re-worked the shape of the body to more natural proportions.[90][103] The puppets' likenesses and mechanics are remembered favourably by puppet operator Wanda Brown, who preferred the Thunderbirds style of marionette over the accurately-proportioned version that debuted in Captain Scarlet: "The puppets were easier to operate and more enjoyable because they had more character to them ... Even some of the more normal-looking faces, such as Scott and Jeff, for me had more character than the puppets in the series that came afterwards."[107] Rimmer speaks positively of the puppets still being "very much caricatures", as it made them "more lovable and appealing ... There was a naive quality about them and nothing too complex."[111]

Man in his fifties with greying hair (black-and-white) Man in his thirties with dark hair Man in his thirties with dark hair (black-and-white)
Middle-aged man with greying, blond hair Man in his late twenties/early thirties with dark hair (black-and-white) Man in his thirties with dark hair (black-and-white)
Some of the personalities on whom the likenesses of the Thunderbirds puppet cast are based. Top row, left to right: Lorne Greene (Jeff Tracy), Sean Connery (Scott), Robert Reed (Alan and Virgil). Bottom row, left to right: Adam Faith and Charlton Heston (John), Anthony Perkins (Brains).

The looks of the main characters were commonly inspired by contemporary actors and other entertainers, who were typically selected from the show business directory Spotlight.[107] According to Glanville, AP Films was "looking for more natural faces" as part of its trend away from caricature.[104] The appearance of Jeff Tracy was based on Lorne Greene,[36][46] Scott on Sean Connery,[104][107] Alan on Robert Reed,[46] John on Adam Faith and Charlton Heston,[112][113] Brains on Anthony Perkins[90] and Parker on Ben Warriss.[46][114] Sylvia Anderson was to bring the character of Lady Penelope to life in both likeness and voice: after a number of test models were rejected, sculptor Mary Turner decided to use Anderson herself as the template for the character.[115][116] Virgil Tracy, meanwhile, was modelled partially on Alan; when John Brown could not decide on a particular look, Glanville suggested that he incorporate elements of her Virgil design into his own.[46][90]

The heads of the main characters were initially sculpted in either Plasticine or clay.[46] Once the general aspect had been finalised, this served as the template for a silicone rubber mould, which was laminated in layers of Bondaglass (fibreglass mixed with resin).[46] The contours of the Bondaglass shell might then be enhanced with Bondapaste, a putty-like substance.[90][117] The shell was subsequently fitted with a solenoid, leather mouth parts, plastic eyes (which were moved by remote control)[109] and incisor teeth (a first for a Supermarionation series).[46][118] Supporting characters were played by puppets known as "revamps", which had plastic heads.[119] Revamps started their working lives with only a mouth and eyes; their faces were re-moulded on an episode-by-episode basis.[120][121] Particularly striking moulds were retained and, as their numbers increased, photographed for the purposes of compiling an internal casting directory.[122]

The puppet bodies, which were made of porous plastic, were built in three sizes: "large male" (for the Tracys and the Hood), "small male" (for revamps) and "small female".[46][123] While male wigs were made of mohair, the Penelope puppet's used human hair; the latter cost approximately £30 each (equivalent to £543 in 2015).[46][124] Sylvia Anderson, in her capacity as lead costume designer, devised the main characters' attire.[35][125] To give the puppets increased mobility, the costume department generally avoided stiff synthetic materials, instead working with cotton, silk and wool.[46] Between 1964 and 1966, the department's stock comprised more than 700 costumes.[126]

It was difficult for puppets to get in and out of vehicles without a great deal of trouble. Since we always tried to minimise walking, we'd show the puppets taking one step only, then promptly cut. Through interspersing the programmes with "meanwhile" scenes – that is, showing what else was going on in the story at the same time – we would then cut back to the puppet who was now already in his craft.

— Alan Pattillo on puppet movement[127]

Each puppet's head was fitted with approximately 10 tungsten steel wires,[124][128] which were roughly a tenth of a millimetre wide (roughly twice the width of a human hair) and sprayed black to reduce their visibility.[117][129] During the filming, dialogue was played into the studio via tape recorders fitted with RC circuits that converted the feed into electronic pulses.[82] Two of the head wires relayed the pulses to the solenoid, completing the Supermarionation process.[82] To make the wires even less noticeable, floor puppeteers would also apply powder paint matching the background colours of the set.[48] Glanville explained the time-consuming nature of the preparation: "[The puppeteers] used to spend over half an hour on each shot getting rid of these wires, looking through the camera, puffing a bit more [paint] here, anti-flare there; and, I mean, it's very depressing when somebody will say to us, 'Of course the wires showed.'"[55] Using a hand-held cruciform, and assisted by a viewfinder-powered CCTV feedback system, the puppet operators co-ordinated the marionettes' movements from a gantry 12 feet (3.7 m) above the studio floor.[44] As filming progressed, the department gradually started to dispense with wires, instead manipulating the puppets from the studio floor using rods.[130][131]

The puppets were unable to walk convincingly – they were too light, and their lower-body articulation was provided by a single control wire for each leg. Consequently, scenes requiring them to move were filmed from the waist up, with a floor puppeteer holding the legs below the level of the camera and simulating motion using a "bobbing" action.[69][112] Alternatively, the necessity of walking shots was removed altogether: in an interview for New Scientist, director of photography John Read discussed the advantages of circumventing the puppets' lack of agility "so that they appear, for example, to walk through doors (although the control wires make this impossible) or pick up a coffee cup (although their fingers are not in fact jointed)."[132] Since the puppet department was unable to built jointed hands, live-action shots of human hands were inserted whenever scripts called for more dexterous actions (for example, pushing a button).[133]

Special effects[edit]

The director of effects on all AP Films series from Supercar to UFO was Derek Meddings, whose later credits included the James Bond and Superman film series.[134] Aware that Thunderbirds would be the "biggest project [AP Films] had worked on" thus far, Meddings soon found himself struggling to manage his workload with the single effects filming unit that had been used for Stingray.[51][135] He therefore established a second unit under technician Brian Johncock, and a third exclusively for flying sequences.[51][63] This expansion increased AP Films' total number of crews and soundstages to five each.[51][63] A typical episode of Thunderbirds comprised approximately 100 special effects shots (according to Read, this accounted for up to half of the running time).[4][136] The effects department normally completed at least a dozen shots per day.[137][138]

Meddings headed a staff of 50.[139] A new addition to the team was Mike Trim, who served as Meddings' assistant in designing the vehicles and buildings that populate the world of Thunderbirds.[51][140] Meddings and Trim jointly pioneered an "organic" design technique, known informally as "gubbins", whereby the exteriors of models and sets were customised with parts taken from model kits and other items, such as children's toys.[141][142] In addition, the models and sets were "dirtied down" with powder paint or pencil lead to create a used appearance.[143][144] Toy cars and vans doubled as their full-sized counterparts in long shot; for added realism, scale vehicle models were even equipped with basic steering and suspension.[145][146] To simulate dust trails, miniature fans and Jetex chemical pellets (capable of issuing jets of air or chemical exhaust) were attached to the undersides of vehicles.[52][146] Another of Meddings' innovations was a closed, cyclical effects stage nicknamed the "rolling road": consisting of two or more loops of painted canvas running at different speeds, this invention enabled shots of moving vehicles and aircraft to be filmed on a static set.[44][147] This set-up was easier to light and film, and made more efficient use of the limited studio space.[44][148] Airborne aircraft sequences were mounted on a counterpart "rolling sky", with smoke fanned across the stage to simulate passing clouds.[44]

A mansion with two adjacent wings, with a gravel drive and lawn in front
Stourhead House, designed in the Palladian style by Colen Campbell, served as the inspiration for the appearance of Creighton-Ward Mansion.[149]

One of Meddings' earliest tasks was to shoot stock footage of the Thunderbird machines (including their launches and flight) and the series' primary locations, Tracy Island and Creighton-Ward Mansion.[147][150] The completed island model was a composite of more than a dozen smaller sets that could be detached from the whole and filmed separately.[151] The architecture of Creighton-Ward Mansion was based on that of Stourhead House, located on the Stourhead Estate in Wiltshire.[149] Since head designer Reg Hill was already occupied by his responsibilities as associate producer, Meddings was further tasked with designing the Thunderbird fleet and FAB 1.[33] On his arrival at AP Films, Trim's first duty was to convert Meddings' three-dimensional concepts into technical blueprints and side-view elevations.[143][152] Scale models for the six main vehicles were built by a contractor, Master Models of Middlesex.[38][152] Models and puppet sets combined, more than 200 versions of the Thunderbird machines were built for the series.[153]

During the design and shooting of the Thunderbird machines, Meddings' priorities were realism and believability.[154] With the exception of Thunderbird 5, each vehicle was constructed in three or four scales.[155] Meddings' swing-wing design for Thunderbird 1 evolved from his wish to create an aircraft that appeared "more dynamic" than a fixed-wing, rocket-like vehicle.[156] He remained dissatisfied with the prototype of Thunderbird 2 (which was originally to have been blue instead of green) until he inverted the wings, later commenting: "... at the time, all aircraft had swept-back wings. I only did it to be different."[38] This decision was not informed by any expert mechanical knowledge on Meddings' part: "The model just looked better that way."[157][158] Made of balsa wood, the 3.5-foot (1.1 m)-long Thunderbird 2 was both Meddings' and Gerry Anderson's favourite of all the shooting models.[159][160] Meddings described the launch of Thunderbird 2 as "probably the most memorable effects sequence" that his team devised for any Anderson production.[158]

Schematic of a Soyuz space rocket
The form of Thunderbird 3 was influenced by the Soviet Soyuz rocket.[38]

The large Thunderbird 3 model, whose design was inspired by the Russian Soyuz rocket, was six feet (1.8 m) tall.[38] Thunderbird 4 was particularly difficult to shoot: since the scale of the model was inconsistent with the water inside the filming tank, inventive camera angles and fast editing were used to create a sense of realistic perspective.[161] Thunderbird 5, the hardest of the vehicles for Meddings to visualise, was based on the Tracy Island Round House; since most of the space station's appearances were supplied by stock footage, the model was rarely filmed.[103][162] The other Pod Vehicles were designed on an episode-by-episode basis and were built from balsa wood, Jelutong wood or fibreglass.[161][163] To save time and costs, other minor vehicles were built in-house from 124-scale radio-controlled model kits.[38][143]

Since the puppets of Lady Penelope and Parker would be required to fit inside, the largest of all the filming models was the 7-foot (2.1 m)-long, 13-scale plywood FAB 1, which cost £2,500 to build (approximately £45,000 today).[38][103] Both the colour and the name of the Rolls-Royce were chosen by Sylvia Anderson.[164] Rolls-Royce Ltd. supervised the construction and supplied AP Films with a genuine radiator grille for close-up shots of the front of the car.[165][166] In exchange, the company requested that a Spirit of Ecstasy be fitted to the chassis and that character dialogue make reference to the full brand name only (avoiding abbreviations such as "Rolls").[165][167]

Scale explosions were created using substances such as fuller's earth, petrol jelly, magnesium strips and Cordtex explosive.[55][168] Originally filmed at up to 120 frames per second (f.p.s.), explosion shots were slowed down to 24 f.p.s. during post-production to increase the apparent magnitude and length.[41][169] Shots of rockets firing were accomplished using gunpowder canisters, which were ignited electronically by passing current down tungsten wires; the same wires enabled a member of the crew, positioned with a cruciform on a gantry above the studio floor, to "fly" the model.[63] By far the most unwieldy model was Thunderbird 2, which Meddings remembered as being "awful" to fly.[157][160] A combination of unreliable rockets and weak wiring regularly caused problems; should the former be slow to ignite, the current quickly caused the latter to overheat and snap, potentially damaging the model and setting fire to the set.[157][170] In addition, conditions above the studio floor were frequently hazardous due to the heat and smoke.[54] Although many of the aircraft exhaust sound effects used in the series were taken from an audio library, some were recorded especially during a Red Arrows display held at RAF Little Rissington, Gloucestershire.[171][172]

By early 1966, Meddings' commitments were divided between Series Two and Thunderbirds Are Go.[68] While Meddings worked on the film, responsibility for the TV effects passed to camera operator Jimmy Elliott.[101] By this stage, the basic frame of Thunderbird 2 had undergone so many repairs that the model had needed to be rebuilt from scratch.[173] Meddings was displeased with the result, commenting that the replacement was "not only the wrong colour; it was a completely different shape ... I never felt our model-makers managed to recapture the look of the original."[173]

Critic David Garland suggests that the challenge facing the Thunderbirds effects department was of striking a balance between the "conventional science-fiction imperative of the 'futuristic'" and the "seeping hyper-realist concerns mandated by the Andersons' approach to the puppets".[174] Thunderbirds has been particularly well praised for the quality of its effects. Jim Sangster and Paul Condon, writers of Collins Telly Guide, consider the model work "uniformly impressive";[2] to Paul Cornell, Martin Day and Keith Topping, writers of The Guinness Book of Classic British TV, the effects are "way beyond anything seen on TV previously".[175] Impressed by their work on Thunderbirds, director Stanley Kubrick recruited several members of the effects department as supervisors for his 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey.[176][177]

Title sequence[edit]

The title sequence, storyboarded by Gerry Anderson, is made up of two parts. It opens with a countdown of "5, 4, 3, 2, 1: Thunderbirds Are Go!", provided by voice actor Peter Dyneley (in character as Jeff Tracy).[56] In a departure from Stingray, the Thunderbirds title sequence varies with each episode, with the first part dedicated to a unique montage that serves as a preview of the episode's plot. Simon Archer and Marcus Hearn, biographers of Gerry Anderson, compare this device favourably to a film trailer.[56]

The second part, accompanied by series composer Barry Gray's "The Thunderbirds March", features portraits of the main puppet cast superimposed on various vehicles and settings.[56] Peel describes it as "ostensibly a return to the 'series stars' concept long known in TV",[178] while Garland suggests that such imagery is demonstrative of Anderson's commitment to "incremental realism" via the convergence of human and puppet characteristics.[179] Essayist Jonathan Bignell comments that the use of portraits reveals Anderson's partiality to "visual revelation of machines and physical action".[180] The sequence concludes with an effects shot depicting the destruction of an industrial facility in an explosive chain reaction.

According to Daniel O'Brien, writer of SF:UK: How British Science Fiction Changed the World, the Thunderbirds title sequence encapsulates the reasons for the series' enduring popularity.[181] Dyneley's countdown is particularly well remembered and has been widely quoted.[182][183][184] Dean Newman of the Syfy channel website ranks Thunderbirds eighth in a list of "Top 10 TV title sequences",[185] while Martin Anderson of the entertainment website Den of Geek considers the sequence the best of any TV series.[186]

Music[edit]

The score for Thunderbirds was composed by Barry Gray, who served as musical director for all of the Anderson productions up to the first series of Space: 1999. In response to Gerry Anderson's request that the main theme have a "military feel", Gray produced a brass-dominated piece titled "The Thunderbirds March", which was recorded in December 1964 at Olympic Studios in London.[57][187] The end titles were originally to be accompanied by "Flying High", a lyrical theme sung by Gary Miller, backed by Ken Barrie; ultimately, this was dropped in favour of a variation of the opening march.[69][187] The series' incidental music was recorded over nine months, from March to December 1965.[187][188] Since much of the music budget had been allocated to the earlier episodes, later ones drew heavily on tracks recycled from the series' expanding music library.[187][188]

Science-fiction writer John Peel considers "The Thunderbirds March" to be "one of the best TV themes ever written – perfect for the show and catchy when heard alone".[189][190] Morag Reavley of BBC Online argues that the piece is "up there with Bond, Sinatra, Elvis and the Beatles in the quintessential soundtrack of the Sixties".[191] "Thunderbirds Are Go!", the track accompanying the launch sequences of Thunderbirds 1, 2 and 3, is praised by AllMusic's Heather Phares as a reflection of the "flashy, mod side" of 1960s British spy fiction.[192] More generally, Reavley praises the series' "catchy, pulse-quickening tunes", as well as Gray's aptitude for "musical nuance" and genre-mixing.[191] Phares, meanwhile, highlights Gray's homage to – and divergence from – musical norms, commenting that his score "sends up the spy and action/adventure conventions of the '60s very stylishly and subtly".[192]

Commentator David Huckvale identifies Wagnerian homage in both the series' theme music and elements of its storyline, arguing that Thunderbirds is an example of visual media "consciously or unconsciously indebted to Wagnerian idioms".[193] He observes that the theme's opening string ostinato has an effect similar to that of a recurring motif featured in Ride of the Valkyries (from Wagner's opera Die Walküre) while likening the Thunderbird machines to the Valkyries themselves: "Their function is more benevolent than those warrior maidens, but they do hover over danger, death and destruction."[193] Kevin J. Donnelly of the University of Southampton acknowledges the series' "big-sounding orchestral score", which he compares to that of a live-action film.[194] He also suggests, however, that the music is aimed partly at drawing the viewer's attention away from the physical imperfections of the puppet characters.[194]

Broadcast[edit]

Thunderbirds premiered on British television on 30 September 1965 on the ITV franchises ATV Midlands, Westward and Channel.[195] Other broadcasters, including ATV London, followed on 2 October; Granada three weeks later, on 20 October.[80][195] The series finale, the Christmas-themed "Give or Take a Million", was first broadcast on 25 December 1966.[19] Despite Grade's decision to extend the running time, episodes were split into two parts for the Midlands and Granada broadcasts.[57][196] In these areas, both 25-minute instalments aired on the same day, separated by the ITN Evening News; the conclusion opened with a summary of the first part's action, with narration provided by Shane Rimmer.[197]

Granada transmitted Thunderbirds in unedited form for the first time with the start of repeats in 1966.[197] In 1968, the franchisee briefly aired episodes in three parts due to timeslot restrictions.[197] The availability of repeats during the 1960s and 1970s varied from region to region. ATV Midlands broadcast the series regularly into the early 1970s; by contrast, Yorkshire viewers received no transmissions at all between 1968 and 1976.[76][198] Thunderbirds was last transmitted on the ITV franchises in 1981.[198]

In 1990, eight of the sixteen audio episodes released by APF Records were converted into radio dramas and broadcast on BBC Radio 5.[197] The success of the radio series inspired the BBC to acquire the rights to the TV episodes from ITC, and Thunderbirds was networked (transmitted in all regions simultaneously) for the first time in the UK on BBC 2 from September 1991.[198][199]

Since the end of the first network run, which achieved average viewing figures of more than six million,[72][200] the BBC has repeated the series six times: between 1992 and 1993 (Series One only), 1994 and 1995 (nine episodes only), and 2000 and 2001 (remastered by Carlton), and in 2003, 2005 and 2006.[201][202] Other channels that have shown repeats include UK Gold (1994–95), Bravo (1996–97), Cartoon Network (2001–02), Boomerang (2001–03) and Syfy (2009).[203][204] In Scotland, the BBC broadcast a Gaelic dub, Tairnearan Tar As ("Thunderbirds Are Go") in the early 1990s.[205]

Prior to its UK debut, Thunderbirds was distributed to 30 other countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia and Japan; pre-sales revenue totalled £350,000 (approximately £6 million today).[68][80] In the year following the series' first appearance, the number of countries increased to 66.[5] In Japan, where it was first broadcast by NHK, Thunderbirds attracted a considerable fan following and influenced series such as Ultraman, Mighty Jack and Himitsu Sentai Gorenger.[5][206][207][208] The two-part format started first-run syndication in the US, to modest success, in 1968.[36][77] Other overseas broadcasters have included TechTV and Family Room HD (US),[209][210] BBC Kids and YTV (Canada), Nine Network and Foxtel (Australia),[211] TV3 (New Zealand), MediaCorp TV12 Kids Central (Singapore) and RTÉ Two (Republic of Ireland).[212][213]

Reception[edit]

Thunderbirds is generally considered to be the Andersons' most popular series, as well as their greatest critical and commercial success.[6][7][214] In 1966, Gerry Anderson received two awards for his work on the series: a Royal Television Society Silver Medal for Outstanding Artistic Achievement and honorary fellowship of the British Kinematograph, Sound and Television Society.[76] In 2007, the series achieved 19th position in a Radio Times magazine reader poll to decide the best science-fiction TV programme of all time;[215] it was ranked fourth in the Channel 5 list show 50 Greatest Kids' TV Shows in 2013.[216]

To Peel, Thunderbirds is "without a doubt the peak of the Supermarionation achievement".[217] Arguing that the series is pitched at a "more adult" level than its precursors, he adds that its sense of adventure, effective humour and "gripping and convincing" episodes ensured that "everyone in the audience found something to love about it."[218][219] Journalist Simon Heffer, a fan of the series in childhood, comments positively on the series for The Daily Telegraph: "All the elements we children discerned in whatever grown-up television we had been allowed to watch were present in Thunderbirds: dramatic theme and incidental music; well-developed plots; goodies and baddies; swaggering Americans, at a time when the whole of Britain was in a cultural cringe to them; and, of course, glamorous locations ... Then, of course, there was the nail-biting tension of the rescues themselves ..."[220] Film critic Kim Newman describes the series as a "television perennial".[221]

John Marriott comments that beyond its sizeable fanbase, Thunderbirds has been both technologically and ideologically influential.[222] In his foreword to Marriott's book, Thunderbirds Are Go!, Anderson put forward several explanations for the series' enduring popularity: it "contains elements that appeal to most children – danger, jeopardy and destruction. But because International Rescue's mission is to save life, there is no gratuitous violence."[223] According to Anderson, Thunderbirds incorporates a "strong family atmosphere, where Dad reigns supreme".[223] Both O'Brien and script editor Alan Pattillo praise the series' positive "family values";[224][225] in addition, Heffer and others recognise its strong cross-generational appeal.[220] Prior to the series' return to BBC 2 in 2000, Brian Viner of Radio Times remarked that it was on the point of "captivating yet another generation of viewers".[226] At the time of the series' first run, Stuart Hood of The Spectator praised Thunderbirds as a "modern fairytale"; he also recommended that parents and children watch it together (because "it can sometimes be frightening").[227] Writing for Dreamwatch in 1994, Andrew Thomas suggested that Thunderbirds is only "nominally" a children's TV programme: "Its themes are universal and speak as much to the adult in the child as the child in the adult."[228]

Jeff Evans, writer of The Penguin TV Companion, argues that the series' longer, 50-minute format allows for stronger character development and more effective "tension-building".[229] O'Brien is less positive in his appraisal of the scriptwriting, asserting that the plots "tended towards the formulaic" and were sometimes "stretched to snapping point" by the extended running time.[181] Cornell, Day and Topping are critical; they consider the writing to be at times "woefully poor" and argue that Thunderbirds in general is "often as clichéd as previous Anderson series".[230] By contrast, Peel praises the series' plotting and characterisation; however, he also opines regretfully that it contains less of the "tongue-in-cheek" humour of Stingray.[217][231] Where Thunderbirds improves on the previous series, Peel claims, is its rejection of fantasy plot devices, child and animal characters, comic and stereotyped villains, and the "standard Anderson sexism": marginalised in Anderson's earlier series, the female characters are more commonly seen to play active and sometimes heroic roles.[218][232]

Recognising the detail of the series' launch sequences, Jonathan Bignell argues that part of the motivation for dedicating large amounts of screentime to the Thunderbird machines is the need to compensate for the limited mobility of the puppet cast.[180] The series' focus on futuristic vehicles has also been explored by cultural historian Nicholas J. Cull, who comments that of all Anderson's series, Thunderbirds is the most evocative of a recurring theme: the "necessity of the human component of the machine", whereby failures on the part of new technology are overcome by "brave human beings and technology working together".[13][40][233] The future presented in Thunderbirds is thus "wonderfully humanistic and reassuring";[13] O'Brien also praises this optimism, comparing the Tracys to guardian Übermensch.[181] Author Warren Ellis, writing for Wired UK, suggests that the series' scientific vision has the potential to inspire a "new generation of mad and frightening engineers", adding that Thunderbirds "trades in vast, demented concepts ... immense and very beautiful ideas as solutions to problems."[234]

Thomas suggests that the world of Thunderbirds is broadly similar that of the 1960s in so far as contemporary capitalism and class structures have survived mostly unchanged. He also observes, however, that wealth and high social status are often presented as flaws rather than strengths.[8] According to Thomas, a contributing factor to the series' lasting popularity is the realism of IR's machines.[228] Newman, for his part, suggests that "the point isn't realism. The 21st century of Thunderbirds is detailed ... but also de-populated, a high-tech toyland".[221] He is more negative in his comparisons of contemporary and future values, noting the "square, almost 50s" attitudes to race, gender and class.[221] With regard to stereotyping, Hood comments that he "would be happier if [villains] didn't seem to be recognisable by their pigmentation".[227] Cull, in contrast with Hood and Newman, considers the series to be generally progressive on the subject of race, arguing that its rejection of stereotyping is most evident when it is actively used to positive effect – for example, in the characterisation of Kyrano and Tin-Tin, who are Malaysian.[13] By contrast, he considers many of the one-off villains to be derivative, remarking that such characters are typically presented as "corrupt businessmen, spivs and gangsters familiar from crime films".[13]

Various critics – including Bignell, Cull and O'Brien – have also discussed Thunderbirds as a product of the Cold War era. Bignell comments that the Hood's Far Eastern appearance and mysterious powers draw parallels with James Bond villains and concerns about China acting "as a 'third force' antagonistic to the West".[181][235] Cull observes that despite the series' regular focus on the dangers of nuclear technology, the Thunderbird machines themselves are excluded from this recurring theme: there, "an image of technology associated with the threat of Cold War mass destruction – the rocket emerging from the hidden silo – was appropriated and deployed to save life rather than to take it."[40] He suggests that Thunderbirds adheres more closely to cultural norms by subscribing to the "cult of the secret agent whose skills defend the home from enemies unknown" (for which it can be compared to The Avengers or Danger Man).[236]

The series' presentation of smoking was the subject of a study published in the medical journal Tobacco Control in 2002. Despite identifying examples in 26 of its 32 episodes, Kate Hunt of the University of Glasgow concluded that Thunderbirds does not actively promote smoking – a view opposed by the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation at the time of the series' re-launch on BBC 2.[237][238] Rejecting the RCLCF's proposal that the remastered episodes be edited to digitally erase visible cigarettes and cigars, the BBC replied that the series "does not glorify or encourage smoking" and described the activity as "incidental to the plot".[238]

Merchandise[edit]

Since the series' first appearance, more than 3,000 Thunderbirds-themed products have been marketed.[201] To accommodate the high consumer demand for tie-ins, AP Films established three subsidiary companies: AP Films Merchandising, AP Films Music and AP Films Toys.[239][240] Some British commentators dubbed the 1966 end-of-year shopping season "Thunderbirds Christmas" in acknowledgement of the series' popularity.[76] In the early 1990s, Matchbox launched a new range of tie-in toys to coincide with the BBC 2 repeats.[198] Sales figures for Christmas 1992 were exceptionally high; the success of the series' revived merchandising campaign surpassed that of the Star Wars trilogy.[199][241] Demand for Matchbox's Tracy Island Playset overwhelmed supply, resulting in shop fights and a substantial black market for the toy.[198]

A comic strip featuring the characters of Lady Penelope and Parker debuted in the early issues of APF Publishing's children's title TV Century 21 in 1965.[22][242] A full-length "Thunderbirds" strip appeared a year later, at which point the "Lady Penelope" strip was given its own comic.[22][243] Thunderbirds, Lady Penelope and Captain Scarlet and Thunderbirds annuals appeared in the late 1960s;[244] during the same period, eight original novels, written by John William Jennison and Kevin McGarry, were also released by APF Publishing.[245] In 2008, the Minnesota-based company FTL Publications launched a new series of tie-in novels.[246]

Between 1965 and 1967, APF Records released 19 audio episodes in vinyl EP format.[23][247] Three are original stories; the other sixteen are adapted from TV episode soundtracks, with additional narration provided by a member of the voice cast.[248][249] The series' first video game tie-in, developed for the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum computers by Firebird Software, was released in 1985.[250] Other titles have since been released for the Game Boy Color, Game Boy Advance and PlayStation 2 platforms. During the late 1980s, the series was issued on home video for the first time by PolyGram and its subsidiary Channel 5. Having been acquired by Carlton International Media in 1999, the series was digitally remastered for the release of the first DVD versions in 2000.[201] Blu-ray Disc editions followed in 2008.[251][252]

Later productions[edit]

To date, Thunderbirds has been followed by two film sequels, a live-action film adaptation, two animated TV remakes and several re-edited presentations for TV and home video release. The second of the remakes, Thunderbirds Are Go, premiered on ITV in 2015, the 50th anniversary year of the original.[9][253]

Film[edit]

Two feature-length film sequels, Thunderbirds Are Go and Thunderbird 6, were released in 1966 and 1968. The first of these was greenlit by Lew Grade before the first episode of the TV series had been broadcast.[254] Written and produced by the Andersons, and directed by David Lane, both films were distributed by United Artists; neither was a critical or commercial success, and Century 21 Cinema's plans for additional sequels were dropped.[255][256]

In the early 1980s, episodes of both Thunderbirds and other Supermarionation series were re-edited by ITC's New York offices to create a series of compilation films.[257] Marketed as "Super Space Theater", this format was intended mainly for family viewing on American cable and syndicated TV.[257] Three Thunderbirds features were produced: Thunderbirds to the Rescue, Thunderbirds In Outer Space and Countdown to Disaster.[258][259]

Plans for a live-action film adaptation were first announced in 1993.[260][261] These culminated in the 2004 film Thunderbirds, which was directed by Jonathan Frakes, produced by StudioCanal and Working Title Films and distributed by Universal Studios. It was both a critical and commercial failure, and was poorly received by fans of the TV series.[233][262]

TV[edit]

The Andersons sold their intellectual and profit participation rights to Thunderbirds and all of their other productions in the 1970s.[263][264] Consequently, they had no developmental control over adaptations of the series.[233][265] Thunderbirds was first remade for TV in the early 1980s as Thunderbirds 2086.[201][233] In this anime re-imagining, set 20 years after the original, the vastly expanded IR is based within an arcology and operates 17 Thunderbird machines.[266] It was inspired by Thunderhawks, a revised story concept that was developed by Gerry Anderson and Reg Hill in 1977 and later served as the basis for Anderson's "Supermacromation" series Terrahawks.[267][268][269]

Two re-edited series, based on condensed versions of 13 of the original episodes, debuted in the United States in 1994.[260] The first, Thunderbirds USA, featured new titles, voices and music, and was broadcast as part of the Fox Kids programming block; the second, Turbocharged Thunderbirds, was syndicated by UPN.[270][271] Developed as a comedy, Turbocharged Thunderbirds moved the storylines to a planet called "Thunder-World" and combined the original puppet footage with live-action scenes featuring a pair of human teenagers.[270][272]

In addition to Thunderhawks, Anderson developed several other ideas for a remake. Inter-Galactic Rescue 4, conceived in 1976, was to have followed a colossal, variable-configuration craft capable of performing rescues on land and sea, as well as in air and space; Anderson presented the proposal to NBC, who rejected it.[257][273] A 1984 concept – T-Force, another modernised version of the original – could not initially be pursued due to a lack of funding.[274] Development resumed in 1993, when it was decided to produce the series (now titled GFI) using cel animation; Anderson was disappointed with the results, however, and the production was abandoned.[275][276]

In 2005, Anderson re-affirmed his desire to remake Thunderbirds but stated that he had been unable to secure the necessary rights from Granada Ventures.[202] His negotiations with the company and its successor, ITV plc, continued for the next few years.[202][252] In 2008, he expressed his commitment to creating an "updated" version, ideally using CGI;[277] three years later, he announced that the production had finally entered development.[278] Following Anderson's death in December 2012, it was confirmed that ITV Studios and Pukeko Pictures had agreed to remake Thunderbirds using a combination of CGI and live-action model sets.[9][253]

References, parodies and imitations[edit]

A sign for a stage play at Aldwych Theatre reads "Four Weeks Only! – Starring The Original West End Cast – Andrew Dawson – Gavin Robertson – Thunderbirds F.A.B. (Featuring Captain Scarlet) – Inspired By The Works Of Gerry Anderson"
Billboard for the mime show Thunderbirds: F.A.B. at the Aldwych Theatre in London's West End

Thunderbirds has made a significant impact on British popular culture and has influenced TV programmes, films and various other media.[201] The puppet comedy of the film Team America: World Police was directly inspired by the idiosyncrasies of Thunderbirds-era Supermarionation techniques.[279][280] Allusion and homage have also been recognised in Wallace and Gromit: A Close Shave, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me and Spaced,[40][201][279] as well as the character design for the TV series Star Wars: The Clone Wars.[281] The BBC sketch comedy Not Only... But Also featured a segment titled "Superthunderstingcar", a parody of Thunderbirds, Supercar and Stingray.[201][282]

The mission of IR inspired the founding of the volunteer International Rescue Corps, originally made up of a British firefighting brigade that offered humanitarian services to Italy following the 1980 Irpinia earthquake.[257] The organisation has since provided assistance at disaster zones in various other countries.[257] The conglomerate Virgin Group has used the series in the branding of its services: Virgin Atlantic operates a Boeing 747-400 airliner named Lady Penelope, Virgin Trains a fleet of locomotives (all named after the main characters and vehicles) used specifically for "rescuing" broken-down trains.[201]

A mimed tribute stage show, Thunderbirds: F.A.B., has toured internationally and popularised a staccato style of movement known as the "Thunderbirds walk".[283][284] The production, which established a sales record during its 1989 run in London's West End, has been periodically revived under the title Thunderbirds: F.A.B. – The Next Generation.[266][283]

Cover versions of "The Thunderbirds March" have been released by musicians and bands including Billy Cotton, Joe Loss, Frank Sidebottom, The Rezillos and The Shadows.[201] Groups that have written songs inspired by the series include Fuzzbox ("International Rescue"), TISM ("Thunderbirds Are Coming Out"), Busted ("Thunderbirds / 3AM") and V6 ("Thunderbirds – Your Voice").[201] In 1991, Anderson directed the music video for the Dire Straits single "Calling Elvis", which featured shots of Thunderbirds-style puppets.[241][271]

In the 1960s, AP Films filmed a series of Thunderbirds-themed TV advertisements for the brands Lyons Maid and Kellogg's.[285][286] Aspects of Thunderbirds have since been incorporated in advertising for Swinton Insurance, Nestlé Kit Kat, Specsavers and the UK Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency.[287][288][289]

References[edit]

Footnotes
  1. ^ Listed by age, in descending order, as stated in Bentley 2005, pp. 53–7. According to Marriott 1993, pp. 116–17, Virgil is the second-oldest son and John the third-oldest.
  2. ^ a b The names "Tracy Island" and "Hood" are not used in the TV series, appearing only in tie-in media.
  3. ^ It is stated in one episode, "The Uninvited", that Scott occasionally operates Thunderbird 5 (Bentley 2005, p. 53).
  4. ^ Zimmerman was cast after the dialogue recording for the pilot, "Trapped in the Sky", for which Alan was voiced by Ray Barrett (Bentley 2005, p. 63).
  5. ^ Although dialogue indicates that John and Alan alternate roles on a monthly basis, John is seen to pilot Thunderbird 3 in only one episode ("Danger At Ocean Deep").
Citations
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Bibliography

External links[edit]