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Schlock & Awe: THUNDERBIRD 6 (or, Why Puppet Action is Awesome)

Schlock & Awe: THUNDERBIRD 6 (or, Why Puppet Action is Awesome)

At the risk of sounding Andy Rooney-ish, CGI, while a wonderful tool to better realize filmmakers’ imaginations, is mainly used as a crutch. You know how most movies now end with roughly 35 minutes of credits, 30 of which are to tell you all of the computer animators and artists who make the not-real stuff in the movie? Time was, you had a small crew of model makers to do your special effects, and I still think they look great. I’m so in love with miniature effects that I can’t help but love the work of Gerry Anderson, and specifically a feature film called Thunderbird 6.

Thunderbird 6 is the second spin-off movie to the 1965-1966 TV series, Thunderbirds. For a bit of context, Gerry Anderson (and later with his wife Sylvia Anderson) began, in 1960, to create a brand new type of children adventure series, using what he dubbed “Supermarionation,” which were just fancy marionette puppets and miniature sets, rather than using live action or traditional animation. This began with the western Four Feather Falls but he’d hit pay dirt with science fiction shows for Britain’s ITV, Supercar, Fireball XL5, Stingray, and then their most popular (and expensive) series to date, Thunderbirds. However, after 32 hour-long episodes were produced, Lew Grade of ITV wanted Anderson to move on, but that didn’t mean the worlds didn’t still love Thunderbirds.

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MGM wanted to produce Thunderbirds feature films, so while Gerry was busy producing the next show, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, Sylvia took a small crew and began prepping what would be the two movies. The first was 1966’s Thunderbirds Are Go, which was perfectly all right, but didn’t focus very much on our main characters at all. It proved successful enough for a second film to be commissioned, for 1968, called Thunderbird 6, and for my money it’s the perfect feature encapsulation of the adventures of the Tracy family and their adventures.

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For those unaware, the basic premise of Thunderbirds is this: Retired astronaut millionaire Jeff Tracy has built a fleet of vehicles, each flown by a different one of his five sons, and created the private, supposedly secret organization known as International Rescue. The vehicles were all designed by Brains, the boy genius who also supplies the Traceys with tech. For missions requiring espionage, the team has their London agent, Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward (voiced by Sylvia Anderson herself) and her all-purpose butler and chauffeur Aloysius Parker.

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The main draw of both the show and the movie is the effects/model work, designed by Academy Award nominated effects artist Derek Meddings. The five vehicles became iconic: Thunderbird 1 was an all-purpose hypersonic rocket-plane; Thunderbird 2 (my favorite) was a massive flying carrier vehicle that could hoist things, carry other vehicles, or transport equipment; Thunderbird 3 was an interstellar rocket; Thunderbird 4 was a submarine; and Thunderbird 5 was a space station used to monitor transmissions and distress calls. But, for the purposes of this movie, we’d not only get these awesome vehicles, but a massive airship, and the eponymous Thunderbird 6.

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The plot for the film concerns Brains pitching a huge airship to an aeronautics company, getting laughed at mercilessly, but they ultimately decide to build it. Meanwhile, Mr. Tracy has seen fit to ask Brains to design a Thunderbird 6, but a good portion of the story has Brains come up with new ideas and each one gets summarily rejected by Mr. Tracy. Lady Penelope and Parker have been invited aboard the maiden voyage of Brains’ new airship, Skyship One, and the youngest Tracy brother, Alan, and Tin-Tin, the daughter of the Tracy’s Malaysian manservant, join them, flying in a tiny prop plane. The problem, however, is that the crew of the ship has been murdered and replaced by a team of hijackers.

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The good news is that the ship’s systems are all automated, so it can make the scheduled stops (New York, the Grand Canyon, Rio de Janeiro, and India) without incident; the bad news is that International Rescue’s archenemy, the Hood, is the one who hired these impostors and he is waiting for just the right time to strike. Parker becomes aware of the suspicious nature of the crew, and Lady Penelope begins gathering intel to send coded messages back to Tracy Island, while Brains frantically works on a solution. The hijackers have begun secretly recording Lady Penelope’s speech and editing it to make a false transmission that the ship needs International Rescue, so that help would be sent, and the Hood could hijack Thunderbirds 1 and 2. High-flying action ensues, of course.

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It’s sort of amazing how complex the plot to this movie is, but that’s actually fairly common for a Gerry Anderson storyline. There’s always a ton going on. And, while the first movie, Thunderbirds Are Go, was perhaps TOO convoluted and relied heavily on hard sci-fi (or hard-ish), this one gave audiences much more of the action they’d come to expect, and put fan-favorite characters Brains, Lady Penelope, and Parker in a much larger role, with the Tracy brothers, Alan excepted, given a much more supporting role. But, it’s actually to the film’s benefit, because if there’s no need for rescuing, the Tracys aren’t much good.

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What I’ve always loved about the Anderson shows and movies is that they never talked down to their often very young audiences. The plots were very grown up, and the circumstances and peril were often incredibly harrowing. There’s a definite nod to the spy genre of things like the James Bond movies in here, and it works great. And the action is truly spectacular. Even if you can see the strings on the marionette characters, the vehicles were exceptionally well photographed and feel like you’re watching heightened reality at times.

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Both Thunderbirds films are available in a Blu-ray set from Kino Lorber, complete with a bevy of extras and interviews. These movies are a heck of a lot of fun and hearken back to a time when you could have entire series and films done using puppets and miniatures and it was not only not a joke, but was treated as seriously as a live-action adventure film. I kind of miss that; we’d definitely never get something like that today.

Images: MGM

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. He writes the weekly look at weird or obscure films in Schlock & Awe. Follow him on Twitter!

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