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Posts Tagged ‘Thunderbirds’

It goes without saying that the new Thunderbirds (aka Thunderbirds Are Go) has been made for a fresh, young audience, unencumbered by nostalgia for the original series – but should it, though? (Go without saying, I mean.) After all, when I went to a revival of the classic Gerry Anderson puppet shows last year, I was one of the younger people there, and who exactly was it who funded a new attempt at the ‘lost’ Anderson show Firestorm on Kickstarter in record time? I doubt it was the very young audience ITV appears to be gunning for.

Nevertheless, the kids are whom ITV clearly have in their sights as far as the new show is concerned, this even extending to putting first-run episodes on at 8am rather than at a more family-friendly time. Well, we’ll see: fan outcry wasn’t enough to make them give New Captain Scarlet a proper timeslot ten years ago, and I doubt it will here, either. I see they have ordered another run of episodes already (and did so well before the series even debuted). Can’t argue with confident people.

Anyway, what are we to make of the new show? Having been a fan of the original series for nigh-on 35 years it is obviously difficult for me to be properly objective about it (especially when Gerry Anderson himself gets only a very cursory credit in the end titles). I suppose the best thing to do is to look at the changes which have been made and see what they in turn tell us about how the world has moved on in the last 50 years.

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The most obvious difference, perhaps, is simply in the medium of the thing: original Thunderbirds was a mixture of (super)marionettes and physical modelwork, while new Thunderbirds has dumped the puppets in favour of CGI animation. The least one can say is that this results in a show with a very distinct (less charitable people might say ‘odd’) aesthetic, especially when CGI elements are inserted into scenes with physical models.

One might wonder why they didn’t just switch to full CGI (as New Captain Scarlet did), but I suppose the half-and-half decision is justified by the modelwork of the Thunderbirds themselves, which is frequently stunningly beautiful (and, to be honest, the thing which really kept me watching the first episode). The subtly-modified industrial aesthetic of the machines is, I suppose, the best compromise possible between the original designs and what’s credible nowadays. Set against this, I feel moved to comment on just how dreadful some of the special effects were, particularly any scene featuring FAB1 and the ‘English countryside’, which strongly brought to mind episodes of Postman Pat.

Of course, the main reason why the classic Anderson shows were so hardware-intensive was because of the limitations inherent in the use of puppets as characters: the response was to stick the puppets in rockets or subs or tanks and let the machinery carry the plot. New Thunderbirds‘ CGI characters are more flexible, and as a result it seemed to me that the Tracy boys were taking a more athletic approach to rescuing in the opening installment.

The big deal about Thunderbirds, not to mention the other shows from the same stable, was that it was the result of steely determination on the part of a film-maker forced to work in a medium he despised, but doing his damnedest to compromise as little as possible. As a result, old Thunderbirds looked like nothing else on TV in terms of its production values, and some of the scripts were not without elements aimed squarely over the kids’ heads. I didn’t see much sign of that in the new show – then again, kids TV is more sophisticated now anyway – and that garish, cartoony aesthetic didn’t really win me over, either.

I’m afraid the same goes for Ring of Fire‘s plot. It obviously remains to be seen how representative this episode is of the series as a whole, but it was a bit frantic. Will they feel obliged to use all five (sorry, six) Thunderbirds in every episode? That could result in some fairly tortuous plotting. And – this will sound strange – I was sort of disappointed that the plot actually hung together and made sense, more or less, being completely bereft of the more lunatic elements that were such an integral part of the products of the Anderson script system.

To be honest, I got an ominous whiff of JJ Abrams’ Star Trek from the series opener: permit me to explain why. This isn’t a completely from-scratch relaunch of the series, as the script takes it for granted that the audience already knows who everybody was, not to mention the nature of International Rescue and its mission statement. (The glorious pre-credits hero shot of Thunderbird 2 would probably have a lot less impact on a complete newby.) The outfit has clearly been operating for some time before the series begins, and the characters have already acquired a bit of new backstory, which is not the same as that in the original show (that was set in 2065, five years after the date given here). In short, the series is trading heavily on audience knowledge of and affection for Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds, but using this to tell its own rather different set of stories. The makers eat their cake – but, as if by magic, they still seem to have it.

One of the incidental pleasures of hanging around certain SF-themed websites with a particular kind of militant agenda is the comments you often see. Someone actually grumbled that the Tracy brothers (that’s ‘brothers’ as in ‘male relatives sharing the same parents’) were not more diverse when it came to their gender or ethnicity. I hope the decision to give Tin Tin – sorry, Kayo – a more engaged, (sigh) kick-ass role, not to mention her own Thunderbird, will keep the Diversity Police happy. I don’t really have a problem with it. Making Brains Asian, on the other hand troubles me a little: not because I have a problem with a non-white character being a technical genius, but because I think it almost turns him into the dubious stereotype of the effete, wobble-headed Asian wimp. Naturally – I say ‘naturally’ – one of the original show’s more prominently non-white characters, the Hood, has become rather more ethnically anonymous in the new series. Diversity is a good thing, of course, but not to the point that you can have non-white villains any more. Hmmm.

All of this is fairly small potatoes compared to my biggest grumble with the series, namely: where the hell is Jeff? Without the Tracy patriarch, International Rescue just feels like a ship without a captain. Who’s in charge, anyway? It doesn’t seem to be Scott. Is it actually John? (Gerry Anderson will be spinning in his grave like a lathe.) Is the organisation some kind of free-form collective nowadays? Hmmph. Clearly, parental authority is not where the kids are at these days, and if that doesn’t tell you a lot about cultural differences between 1965 and 2015, nothing will.

Despite all this, the new show was clearing working quite hard to keep the long-term fanbase on board, with little references like Dr Meddings’ name, a casual mention of Thunderbird 1’s MIDAS system, the use of actual footage from Stingray, and – perhaps a bit tenuous, this – one model design seemingly being influenced by the iconic Eagle transporter from Space: 1999. The quality of some of the modelwork, along with the pleasure of spotting these little references, is just about enough to make me tune in again for the second episode, but I strongly doubt this is a series anyone will have very strong memories of even in ten years time, let alone fifty.

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Where there is a celebratory Gerry Anderson documentary, so must there also – while sanity has lease – be some sort of retrospective of the puppet-master’s work. And so it came to pass, twenty-four hours after the screening of Filmed in Supermarionation, that most of the same faces reconvened in the same cinema, and in many cases in exactly the same seats, for a four-and-a-half hour trip back to the days when puppets ruled children’s TV (on the independent network anyway).

Yes, I was there too, having provisioned myself for the afternoon with a family-sized bag of a popular chocolate-coated honeycombed spheroid confection (no, I was by myself). The atmosphere was certainly convivial, and I found myself dragged into a discussion with a near-total stranger as to which was the worst episode of Thunderbirds before I realised it. Clearly I was in the presence of genuine Fandersons, and it was not entirely unpleasant to feel like one of the more mainstream people in the theatre for a change.

The afternoon’s programme consisted of one episode of everything Gerry Anderson and his companies produced between 1958 and 1969. These were rather mixed up, presumably to space out the three black-and-white episodes involved, and possibly to spread out the quality a little bit. The downside of this was that it made it much harder to follow the development of Anderson’s technique across his career – not just in terms of puppetry and special effects, but also in terms of narrative and format. Anderson’s most famous shows are the embodiment of a kind of white-heat-of-technology 1960s belief in the potential of a benign technocracy, and the early series are all about the machinery and the toys. But, overall, the move towards increasingly realistic puppets is mirrored by a shift away from vehicular adventure towards a kind of spy-fi: perhaps this is why the final couple of series, which focus almost entirely on people rather than their machines, are the subject of much less affection.

As with the documentary, the programmes were linked by new sequences featuring Parker and Lady Penelope, along with behind-the-scenes material and some contemporary adverts that revealed just what a long and (presumably) profitable relationship Anderson had with the likes of Kelloggs, Lyons Maid, and Walls. One can only be grateful Sugar Smacks are no longer on the market, while a series of commercials for Fab – ‘the first ice lolly made especially for girls!’ – caused much amusement in the theatre, but would probably make the head of the average io9 writer explode.

It was back to the first days of colour for the start of the programme, with the first episode of Stingray from 1963. This was perhaps most notable for Barry Gray’s extraordinary musical score, with its frenzied drumming: played through a proper cinema sound system, Gray’s music can quite easily give that of Hans Zimmer or Basil Poledoris a run for its money. The episode itself, depicting Troy Tempest’s first encounter with the malevolent Titan of Titanica, was not very memorable, however – although there is an unintentionally hilarious trial-by-fish sequence in the second half.

Following this was a somewhat jarring skip forward to 1968 and the Hi-jacked episode of Joe 90, a series I hadn’t seen in about thirty years (and never really liked anyway). The most striking thing about it these days is just how wildly dubious the premise is – a nine-year-old boy is electronically programmed to become a child spy for ‘Uncle Sam’, and then proceeds to shoot at various people and blow them up with grenades. (His adoptive father seems fairly sanguine about all of this.) It did not do much to make me change my opinion of this show, to be honest.

After Joe 90 was a genuine rarity that hardly anyone present seemed to have seen before: an episode of Four Feather Falls from 1960, not SF but a fairy-tale western, with Nicholas Parsons as the sheriff of the titular town. Even the linking material for the afternoon’s programme couldn’t find much to say about this except that it was ‘charming’, which seems to be an irregular synonym for ‘primitive’, specifically when referring to vintage film and TV. (If only the same was true in social situations.)

Everyone was well and truly plunged into their comfort zone by the next offering, which was an episode of Thunderbirds, Anderson’s most iconic and legendary series, about a secret organisation dedicated to the preservation of all human life (excepting that of people who take photos of the Thunderbirds themselves, who are ruthlessly hunted down and disposed of with explosive cannon shells). Normally I would suggest that no Thunderbirds episode not featuring Lady Penelope and Parker can really be considered first rate, but then again they did turn up a lot all afternoon elsewhere, and what we got was a memorable episode by any standards: Terror in New York City. On the way home from a mission, Thunderbird 2 is mistaken for a hostile craft and shot down by the US Navy, crashing in flames on Tracy Island. Inevitably, another disaster occurs before repairs are completed – are International Rescue going to be able to help with their main transport aircraft out of action?

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The only real problem with this episode is that it’s front-loaded with the really exciting bit (the Navy attack on Thunderbird 2), the actual rescue itself not being tremendously thrilling. It still has all the Thunderbirds strengths, though – the story is a bit simplistic, but still holds together, the characterisation is surprisingly varied, and the whole thing has a lovely, upbeat positivity about it which the later Anderson shows somehow lacked. The model work and special effects are obviously brilliant too.

The same can’t quite be said of Supercar, the first SF series made by Anderson and his team. The episode of this which we got, False Alarm, was relatively primitive without being particularly charming – and while some people criticise the mid-period Anderson puppets for not being as realistic as the later ones, at least they’re not the boggle-eyed grotesques on display here. Things felt overly dragged out even with a running time of only 25 minutes or so.

Back into colour for another relative rarity, an episode of The Secret Service from 1969. This series has barely been shown on British TV and it’s not difficult to see why – the adventures of a secret agent vicar (played by gobbledygook-spouting comedian Stanley Unwin) equipped with a shrinking ray don’t exactly scream child-appeal, nor indeed merchandising potential. The nature of the show, combining live-action performers with puppets, is madly eccentric, and the whole enterprise seems to be attempting to hit a sort of Avengers-esque note of swinging English whimsy. To be fair, it is not entirely unsuccessful, but it’s also much more of an out-and-out comedy than either The Avengers or anything else Gerry Anderson made.

By this point, supermarionation fatigue was threatening to set in, plus I was down to my last few Maltesers, and the prospect of an episode of Fireball XL5 from 1963 was not a promising one. However, this turned out to be an unexpected highlight of the afternoon, thanks to a superbly off-the-wall script incorporating a Manchurian Candidate-ish assassination plot to kill the World President, and an almighty kerfuffle at Space Control Centre as the personnel attempt to mount a musical performance on TV. This was a genuinely funny and entertaining episode, and it was no surprise when the writer turned out to be Dennis Spooner, one of the unsung heroes of British telefantasy in the 1960s and 70s. Admittedly, the climactic performance of I wish I was a Spaceman brought back alarming memories of my own wedding, when I dimly recall performing the same number a cappella to several dozen baffled Kazakhs (no, video is not available), but you can’t have everything.

Things finished on a high with the first episode of Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons from 1967. I suspect that, when it comes to all things Gerry Anderson, most people are either in the Thunderbirds camp or the Captain Scarlet camp, and much as I love the adventures of the Tracy boys, for me it’s the latter series which is in many ways the zenith of Anderson’s work – not simply in terms of the production values, which are awesome, but in the way the effects and model-work are put to work servicing plots and a format which, putting it bluntly, frequently make No Sense Whatsoever.

Why exactly are the enigmatic Mysterons quite so mercurial and touchy? Why do they bother radioing ahead every week to tell Spectrum exactly what their plan is going to be? How does Captain Scarlet shake off their baleful influence? How does his much-vaunted ‘indestructibility’ work, exactly? All this, coupled to stories which are often surprisingly bleak with a very high bodycount for a kids show, means that Captain Scarlet is often ultimately dark, humourless, and somewhat baffling, but intensely watchable nevertheless.

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The first episode is a great introduction to the series. A manned mission to Mars inadvertantly provokes the disembodied Mysterons to declare war on Earth, with the assassination of the World President their first objective. So far, so good, until the President is captured by a Mysteronised Captain Scarlet, who is told by his masters ‘we need him alive’. If nothing else, this indicates that the Mysterons haven’t quite grasped the fundamentals of assassinating someone yet, but this is par for the course in the world of Captain Scarlet. Set against all of this is a jaw-droppingly ambitious climax involving a battle with jet-packs, armoured cars, attack helicopters and jet fighters in and around a three-mile-high multi-story car park: the plots may be morbid gibberish, but it’s still terrific entertainment.

The same could be said of most of Gerry Anderson’s output, of course: a monumental legacy, and one which may not be quite done and dusted even now. Rumours of a new, live-action Captain Scarlet were circulating at the screening, while a new CGI version of Thunderbirds is due next year. Jamie Anderson himself is intent on mounting a new production of the ‘lost’ Anderson series, Firestorm – the Kickstarter campaign for which smashed its initial goals in a matter of days. But then you might have expected nothing less. Gerry Anderson inspires devotion, but it’s by no means undeserved. Anyway, you must excuse me now: I think I can hear the voice of the Mysterons, so a call to International Rescue may be in order…

 

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If you want to talk about figures with serious pop-cultural clout, you can’t do much better than Gerry Anderson. Literally generations of British children grew up watching the various TV series he made between the 1950s and the 2000s: a hugely distinguished career, and a seriously impressive legacy. So there is something entirely appropriate about Anderson’s glory days being the subject of a feature-length documentary, in the form of Stephen la Riviere’s Filmed in Supermarionation.

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This is, shall we say, a somewhat niche production to receive even a limited cinema release, and I don’t think I will come as a surprise to many if I reveal that the screening I attended was made up almost entirely of men of a certain age (and girth). ‘Made by enthusiasts, for enthusiasts!’ proclaimed the guy in the seat next to me, who went on to sing along with the theme tune to Fireball XL5 and initiate a round of applause when the film finished. But this isn’t really surprising: Gerry Anderson’s shows inspire this kind of devotion – adoration, even. I wouldn’t even call myself one of the hard core, but I still recall coming across an unscheduled repeat of Thunderbirds at the age of about six and being instantly, almost painfully, hooked.

Anderson’s career is unique, and very British – that of a driven, hugely ambitious film-maker forced to work in a medium he despised, but who through sheer determination succeeded in lifting it to an unprecedented level of sophistication and success, in the process giving the first opportunities to a group of model-makers and special effects technicians who would come to define their industry. As the title suggests, Filmed in Supermarionation concentrates exclusively on the puppet series made by Anderson and his companies between 1957 and 1969, so there’s no UFO or Space: 1999, and certainly no sign of Terrahawks, but even so the film has to move fairly briskly to meet its remit.

Gerry Anderson died in 2012, but archive interviews mean he is a central presence in the film. Actual narrating duties, however, are handled by Lady Penelope and Parker, with technical exposition handled by Brains, all the characters appearing in newly-filmed (and rather charming) sequences. Elsewhere, a bevy of former APF/Century 21 puppeteers are taken on a tour of their former production facilities by the maestro’s son (and de facto keeper of the flame of all things Anderson), Jamie, and various special effects men and other luminaries pop up to either detonate the scenery or deliver an anecdote.

As I mentioned, the film has to hustle along to cover all the necessary ground, and there is perhaps a little more on the origins of Anderson’s operation and his very early series – The Adventures of Twizzle, Torchy the Battery Boy, and Four Feather Falls – than one might have expected. This seems to have come at the expense of a more in-depth look at his most famous, most celebrated series – there’s perhaps a bit less on Thunderbirds than you might expect, although the astonishing climactic sequence from Trapped in the Sky obviously makes an appearance, and to my mind a definite dearth of coverage of the engrossingly weird Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. Your mileage may differ, of course.

Then again, you could certainly argue that the film plays to the Anderson series’ strengths by focusing on the technical craftsmanship and behind-the-scenes wizardry involved, as opposed to examining the actual scripts and storytelling too closely. However, I don’t want to run the risk of sounding too negative about Gerry Anderson or his programmes, and I’m sure an opportunity to write about the series themselves will present itself before too long, so I will just say that the writing on these shows was perfectly pitched for the type of programmes they were.

Filmed in Supermarionation isn’t entirely hagiographical – the commercial failure of the two Thunderbirds feature films is acknowledged, while the acrimonious resolution to the relationship between Anderson and his long-time professional collaborator and wife Sylvia is delicately alluded to – but on the whole this is a celebratory endeavour, and why not? The family atmosphere amongst those working on the Anderson shows is evident throughout, and Gerry Anderson’s own kind of tongue-in-cheek humour also permeates the movie – ‘I nearly vomited on the floor,’ the great man says, fondly recalling the moment he discovered he would be starting a career in puppet film-making, while the rather idiosyncratic working practices of long-time financial backer Lew Grade are the subject of a number of anecdotes. Due respect is also paid to the other resident genii of the Anderson operation, particularly special-effects guru Derek Meddings and composer Barry Gray.

I think in the end how you respond to this film is going to be entirely personal: if you know and love Gerry Anderson’s work, and there are a lot of people who do, then Filmed in Supermarionation is a bit of a treat, clearly a labour of love. If puppet SF shows from fifty years ago are not your thing, you are probably going to be better off staying away. But personally I had a really good time, and learned a few things too.

 

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published July 22nd 2004:

Whether you consider Gerry Anderson to be a scandalously-overlooked national treasure, a ‘vicious enemy of proper science fiction who should be burnt in effigy by fans of the genre’ (the considered opinion of the academic periodical Foundation), or just a grumpy old sod, you can’t deny the place in public affections his puppet SF shows have held in the four decades since their original broadcast. Yet another revival looms, but this time taking the form of more than just another re-run: Anderson himself is working on a CGI remake of Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, while zooming soon into a cinema near you is, finally, a live-action Thunderbirds movie, directed by Jonathan Frakes (probably best known as the beardy bloke from Star Trek: The Next Generation).

Scandalously, Anderson’s name doesn’t appear once during the stylishly animated credits of the new movie, for all that it’s superficially very faithful to the original show. The premise is the same: in the near future, billionaire ex-astronaut Jeff Tracy (Bill Paxton) has set up a secret organisation named International Rescue, based on his private Pacific island. Most of the time he and his sons live the life of Riley, but when peril threatens they hop into the high-powered Thunderbird machines designed by their scientist Brains (Anthony Edwards, who apparently used to be in Holby City, or something) and go off to save the day.

However the youngest Tracy brother, Alan (Brady Corbet), is not allowed to go off on missions, basically because he’s about thirteen. So he spends all his time moping about with his friend Fermat Hackenbacker (Soren Fulton) – yup, he’s Brains’ son, although the identity of Mrs Brains is not elaborated upon. But all this moping must stop when psychic supercriminal the Hood (Ben Kingsley) invades Tracy Island, traps Jeff and the other boys in a crippled Thunderbird 5, and plans to go ram-raiding in Thunderbird 2. It’s up to Alan, Fermat, and Tin-Tin (Vanessa Anne Hudgens) – also about thirteen in this version – to save the day, but not without the help of posh totty secret agent Lady Penelope and her chauffeur Parker (Sophia Myles and Ron Cook).

Now Thunderbirds is a movie that’s had quite toxic pre-release word-of-mouth, and I can sort of understand why. This is a movie based on a TV show which nearly every male in the UK under the age of fifty has enormously fond memories of, and the decision to radically re-imagine it along the lines of a Spy Kids movie was always going to be controversial. Personally, I’ve been waiting for this film for over twenty years, and ironically it seems to be aimed at an audience over twenty years younger than me. Do I have the right to feel aggrieved? Hmmm, well, I don’t know: but the fact is that, as kid’s movies go, this doesn’t seem too bad at all.

Because this is a kid’s film, not family entertainment. Fanderson purists will be appalled at the slapstick comedy (villains getting gunged a la Noel’s House Party, cartoony ‘BONG!’ and ‘KA-DUNG!’ sound effects punctuating the fight scenes), the juvenile leads, and the frankly crass and unpleasant barrage of gags about anyone with bad teeth, poor eyesight or a speech impediment. Frakes’ direction, while occasionally inventive, mostly has a lot in common with his acting. And anyone who liked the show will be dismayed about how nondescript and interchangeable the Tracy brothers are: Scott and Virgil (the main characters first time around) get virtually nothing to do, and I couldn’t tell which was which anyway.

Along similar lines, but slightly more serious, is the way the film discards the main reason everyone watched the Anderson shows in the first place: to see lovingly detailed and intricate model vehicles hovering in front of a lovingly detailed and intricate model backdrop, which then explodes. There’s a tiny bit of this sort of thing right at the start, but the next hour of the movie is basically a runaround on Tracy Island. There isn’t much Thunderbird action until quite near the end, and even then the actual rescuing seems a bit shoehorned in.

But having said that, the special effects are excellent, striking just the right balance between old and new. The Thunderbird designs are mostly quite faithful, and even where they’re not this is usually an improvement (Thunderbird 4 no longer resembles Del Boy’s van quite so much). I’ve always thought that the Anderson shows were built around a weird combination of peerless model and effects work, and absurd scripts and terrible acting, and so you could argue that the movie is in its own way quite faithful to this formula.

Having said that, I should mention that Ben Kingsley gives a splendid performance as the Hood, doing his considerable best with the part and lending the movie a genuine touch of class. Of the rest of the cast, Paxton, who’s normally a reliable and charismatic performer, just doesn’t get the material he needs to make a real impression. Anthony Edwards seems to spend the entire film wondering what the hell he’s signed up to. Sophia Myles and Ron Cook bring just about the right note of camp unflappability to Lady Penelope and Parker, no doubt due to a much-publicised script-polish by Richard Curtis (‘Put me down! This outfit is couture!’ snaps Lady P as an evil henchman carries her off).

I’m a notoriously poor judge of this sort of thing, but I think Thunderbirds should do quite well with the tweeny audience it’s obviously aimed at. And there’s just about enough there to satisfy the legions of fans who should be old enough to know better by now. It’s not F.A.B., but neither is it a total disaster.

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