Attack of the Alligators!
|"Attack of the Alligators!"|
When a growth chemical contaminates a swamp, giant alligators terrorise a house and its occupants. Although the episode's production values have been praised, the use of young crocodiles for scaling purposes has attracted some criticism.
|Episode no.||Season 01
|Directed by||David Lane|
|Written by||Alan Pattillo|
|Cinematography by||Paddy Seale|
|Editing by||Harry Ledger|
|Original air date||10 March 1966|
"Attack of the Alligators!" is the 23rd episode of Thunderbirds, a British 1960s Supermarionation television series co-created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. One of the final episodes of Series One, it was written by Alan Pattillo and directed by David Lane, and was first broadcast on ATV Midlands on 10 March 1966. In this episode, set in South America, alligators grow to an enormous size after a swamp is contaminated by a newly invented growth chemical. When the animals proceed to attack a house, International Rescue must save the occupants trapped inside.
Combining science-fiction and haunted house horror themes, with a plot written to be "nightmarish", the episode was filmed in late 1965. It is remembered for containing footage of actual crocodiles, doubling as re-sized alligators on scale model sets – the first appearance of live animals in an Anderson production. However, the animals' slowness and unpredictability complicated and delayed the filming, which involved the use of electric shocks to induce movement from the crocodiles. Although the AP Films Studios were briefly investigated by the RSPCA, animal abuse allegations were not upheld.
A critic and fan favourite, despite the controversy of its production, "Attack of the Alligators" is commonly ranked as one of the best episodes of Thunderbirds. Since the filming of this episode and a later instalment, "The Cham-Cham", went over-time and over-budget, the series finale was re-written as a clip show to lower costs and simplify the shooting schedule. Ten years after first airing, "Attack of the Alligators!" provided the inspiration for an episode of The New Avengers, by ex-Thunderbirds scriptwriter Dennis Spooner.
A businessman, Blackmer, visits the reclusive Dr Orchard, a scientist who lives in a remote house on the Ambro River in South America. From the local plant Sidonicus americanus, Orchard has developed a food additive called Theramine; if administered to animals, the chemical causes them to grow beyond their original size. Enlargement of animal stock would offer a simple solution to world famine and present other economic advantages. Blackmer's boatman, Culp, eavesdrops on the meeting. After a storm forces Blackmer to stay at the house for the night, Culp resolves to steal the Theramine and sell it to the highest bidder. Waiting until the other occupants fall asleep, he steals the keys to Orchard's laboratory from the housekeeper, Mrs Files. While filling a vial with a quantity of the chemical, Culp accidentally knocks the rest of the supply into a sink, and the Theramine drains into the Ambro River.
Shortly after Blackmer and Culp depart the next morning, their boat is attacked by an alligator, now enlarged because of the contamination. Orchard's assistant, Hector McGill, manages to rescue Blackmer, but Culp is believed killed. The house is quickly surrounded by three giant alligators, which throw themselves at the building with Orchard, McGill, Blackmer and Mrs Files trapped inside. On the advice of Mrs Files, McGill contacts International Rescue and John (voiced by Ray Barrett) alerts Tracy Island. Jeff (Peter Dyneley) dispatches Thunderbirds 1 and 2. Arriving at the scene, Scott (Shane Rimmer) briefly dispels the reptiles with his hoverjet cannon and accesses the house through the laboratory window. Eventually the laboratory caves in, forcing Scott and the others to move to the lounge. There, the group is confronted by none other than Culp, who survived the alligator attack and holds them at gunpoint.
Virgil (David Holliday) arrives in Thunderbird 2 and scatters the alligators with aircraft's vertical landing jets. Alan (Matt Zimmerman) and Gordon (David Graham) subdue two of the animals with heavy-duty tranquiliser guns. When the third returns to the house, Alan exits Thunderbird 2 on a hoverjet to lure the alligator away. He collides with a tree and falls from the hoverjet, but is saved by Gordon, who shoots the oncoming alligator before it can attack Alan. Culp threatens to empty the whole Theramine vial into the Ambro River unless he is granted safe passage upstream. Launching Thunderbird 4, Gordon encounters a fourth, far larger reptile that ravages Blackmer's boat and stops Culp. Virgil disposes of the creature with a missile fired from Thunderbird 2. Although it is feared at first that the vial has been smashed, Gordon retrieves it from the riverbed intact. Later, on Tracy Island, Jeff announces that Theramine will be subject to international security restrictions, and Culp will be going to jail. Tin-Tin (Christine Finn) has been away on a shopping trip and has bought Alan a present for his upcoming birthday – a pygmy alligator.
Inspiration for "Attack of the Alligators!" was derived partly from H. G. Wells' 1904 novel The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth, in which animal re-sizing is a major theme. Another source was the 1927 film The Cat and the Canary and its 1939 re-make, both of which feature haunted house premises and stalkers. Scriptwriter Alan Pattillo, who according to special effects director Derek Meddings "had tried to come up with the most nightmarish rescue situation he could", wanted to direct the episode as well; the position was ultimately given to David Lane. "Attack of the Alligators!" was filmed in October and November 1965, overrunning its one-month shooting window and forcing the production staff to work overtime, and sometimes long into the night, to complete the recording. Ian Wingrove, a special effects technician for AP Films, remembers that the episode's complex technical aspects resulted in the crew "[working] day and night ... through a weekend".
Although it was series co-creator and producer Gerry Anderson's original plan to film with actual alligators, AP Films instead acquired a group of juvenile crocodiles from a private zoo in northern England; these would double as re-sized alligators on scale model sets and water tanks. With the exception of a five-foot (1.5 m) specimen, which was too aggressive to be removed from its box, the animals were three feet (0.91 m) long. The crew kept the on-set water tanks heated to a suitably warm temperature and used electric shocks to induce movement from the reptiles. They were unpredictable and very difficult to control and film, either bathing in the heat of the studio lights or disappearing into the tanks and remaining submerged for hours. To make the crocodiles more visible to the cameras, the crew fixed them to guiding rods and co-ordinated their movements. The heavy presence of the animals in both puppet and scale model shots resulted in a closer-than-normal degree of collaboration between the puppet and effects crews.
Objecting on animal welfare grounds, effects director Brian Johnson was one of several crewmembers who refused to participate in the production. Camera operator Alan Perry has no memory of ill treatment; series supervising director Desmond Saunders, however, recalls that more than one crocodile died of pneumonia after being left overnight in an un-heated tank. Director David Elliott, though filming a different episode at the time, remembers that another dislocated a limb after receiving an unexpected jolt from a shocker. Puppet operator Christine Glanville admitted that the filming could not have been a pleasant experience for the "guest stars", since the tanks were "filled with all sorts of dirty paint water, oil and soapy water to make it look swampy." Saunders comments: "It was scandalous. It was one of the great episodes. Nevertheless there was a price to be paid for it."
Concerns over the animals' safety prompted an anonymous telephone call to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), which dispatched a representative. Initial tests with shocking had yielded disappointing results, necessitating an increase in voltage. According to Anderson, "Meddings explained that his team were laying the crocodiles down and they weren't doing anything. They were just lying there. The RSPCA man said, well, they would, because of the warmth of the lamps. So Derek said, 'We've been giving them a touch with an electrode just to make them move.' The guy asked what voltage they were using and Derek said it was about 20 volts, and the guy said, 'Oh, they've got terribly thick skins, you know. If you want them to move, you'll have to pump it up to 60.'" Following an initial investigation of AP Films Studios, the allegations of mistreatment were not pursued further; the RSPCA officer later joined the crocodiles' handler in assisting with the filming.
Filming involving the reptiles frequently proved to be hazardous. During a promotional shoot with Supermarionation puppets, one of the crocodiles suddenly grabbed the Lady Penelope marionette (which does not appear in the episode) and, to the upset of Glanville, ripped apart one the legs. During the filming of a scene in which an alligator swims after a boat, Meddings was using a rope to guide the crocodile forwards when it was discovered that the animal had slipped out of its harness; in his book, 21st–Century Visions, Meddings wrote of the incident: "My crew never saw me move as fast as I did to get out of the tank when I pulled the rope and realised the creature was free." Of the largest crocodile, which was wetted with damp strips at the back of the stage while un-used, Wingrove recalls: "You would forget that it was there, then one day someone shouted 'Look out!' and we turned round to see this big crocodile walking across the stage – which cleared of people very quickly!"
"Attack of the Alligators!" achieved ratings of 4.78 million viewers for its BBC Two network broadcast on 20 March 1992. The BBC repeated Thunderbirds in 2000, a year known for a number of major rail accidents in the UK (notably the Hatfield rail crash; others occurred in Tisbury, Wiltshire and Hither Green, Lewisham, London). Consequently, it was decided to delay the transmission of the episodes "The Perils of Penelope" and "Brink of Disaster" (both of which feature disasters involving trains) until the end of the broadcast schedule. "Attack of the Alligators!" substituted for "Brink of Disaster", and was the 11th episode to be repeated on BBC Two.
"Attack of the Alligators!", a popular instalment, is widely considered to be one of the best episodes of Thunderbirds. It is series co-creator Sylvia Anderson's favourite episode, while commentator Stephen La Rivière judges the plot to be one of the most unusual of the series. Lew Grade, head of distributor ITC, expressed high satisfaction with the filming during a visit to AP Films Studios in 1965.
In 2004, "Attack of the Alligators!" was re-issued on Region 1 DVD as part of A&E Video's The Best of Thunderbirds: The Favorite Episodes, whose content was selected based on the results of a fan poll hosted on the A&E website. In a review for the website DVD Verdict, David Gutierrez awarded "Attack of the Alligators!" a perfect score of 100, judging it the best of the collection and praising its production values: "It's like a beautifully directed short film". He elaborated: "'Attack of the Alligators!' serves as a terrific example of how strong Thunderbirds can look. It's not Howdy Doody sporting a jetpack – it's an hour-long programme that feels like a motion picture."
Susanna Lazarus of Radio Times argues that the episode is memorable specifically for the alligator footage. The techniques used to produce the animal sequences have resulted in the episode being considered "controversial" by some sources. Mark Pickavance of the website Den of Geek is critical from a visual standpoint, suggesting that the use of scale sets and young crocodiles, "shot in super close-up to make them seem huge", does not produce a convincing illusion of giant, re-sized alligators. Author Dave Thompson relates the giant reptile plot to Swamp Thing, a hybrid superorganism featured in the DC Comics Universe.
Since "Attack of the Alligators!" and "The Cham-Cham" exceeded their allotted budgets, the scriptwriters re-wrote the Series One finale to be a clip show, "Security Hazard". A shot of a stormy sky, present at the start of the episode, later introduced the opening titles of the TV series The Prisoner. In 1976, Thunderbirds writer Dennis Spooner adapted the premise of "Attack of the Alligators!" for an episode of The New Avengers; the episode "Gnaws" features a wild rat, which grows to an enormous size after drinking from a water source contaminated by a dangerous chemical.
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