While I was certainly aware of the title, I didn’t really grow up with Thunderbirds, mostly because it wasn’t really on when I was a kid. I remember a brief period when they cast two young American actors to effectively introduce the old 1965 series by pretending to be part of International Rescue. Didn’t really work, but it allowed me to see some of the Supermarionation action my mom and dad both remembered so fondly. And, of course, there was Team America World Police which took Thunderbirds and the other Supermarionation shows as its inspiration. But, in truth, it wasn’t until fairly recently, as an adult, that I began watching the programs of Gerry Anderson in earnest. And, I have to admit, I kind of love them.
Last year, I wrote a piece about Gerry Anderson, but I had only seen scant few episodes of any of the series. This year, however, Shout Factory and ITV have teamed up and have been releasing DVD sets of all of these major series. To date, they’ve released Supercar, Fireball XL5, Stingray, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (my personal favorite), and Joe 90, but they saved the most famous of these series for last, and in the best format.
Thunderbirds represents Anderson and his team at their most popular and powerful. After three successful marionette action series, the third of which, Stingray, being the first in color and featuring incredibly complex underwater sets and action pieces, the story goes that Anderson went into the office of Lord Lew Grade, the head of ITC, and said he had an idea for a new show but he wasn’t sure if Lord Grade would fund it. Lord Grade allegedly pounded his desk, grabbed Anderson by the scruff of the neck, and led him into a the foyer. He pointed at the light and said, “Gerry, if you had an idea about that light bulb, I’d fund it.” That’s a kind of creative control nobody could have expected for a guy who makes little shows with puppets.
His idea was this: a family of privately-funded rescue workers get called to save people from horrible disasters and/or criminal syndicates. That’s it! The family would become the Tracy clan, consisting of a father and five sons, each controlling a different numbered vehicle (as seen in the opening above). Also helping would be a scientist named Brains and a female agent from London named Lady Penelope (voiced by Sylvia Anderson, Gerry’s wife and creative partner). The threats each week would range from terrorist plots to nuclear meltdowns to giant avalanches, and always, the team of International Rescue (which was originally supposed to be the name of the show) would countdown to action and try to save everyone.
Thunderbirds is without a doubt the grandest and loftiest production they had yet mounted. They were given an extra half-hour for their time slot, meaning each episode had to be 45-50 minutes instead of the 22 he’d used up to that point. Special effects director Derek Meddings (whose feature film work included several James Bond movies, the first three Superman movies, and Tim Burton’s first Batman) created some of the most impressive and rather epic-looking models he’d ever made. And, yes, they’re a little cheeseball today, but just have a look at this sequence where Thunderbird 2 launches.
Or this little clip of rescue vehicles in action.
Because of the support the series had, it was kept in pretty pristine condition over the years, all shot on 35mm film. Hence, all 32 of these classic episodes could have been and were upgraded to High Definition and made their way to Blu-ray, unlike the other Gerry Anderson releases which still look good but are on DVD only. This is absolutely the way to see these things. No matter which you watch, you’re pretty much in for a treat. Aside from the awesome pilot episode “Trapped in the Sky,” some of my favorites include “Desperate Intruder” which features great underwater stuff, “City of Fire,” which basically feels like a puppet version of Towering Inferno, and “The Cham-Cham,” which has Lady Penelope trapped in a runaway ski lift.
If you like this kind of puppet-based action, and who doesn’t, this Blu-ray set is for you. There’s also a really great 45-minute making-of and retrospective documentary featuring interviews with the late Gerry Anderson. Well worth a look.