Film 2020: Thunderbirds are Go

Some of my memories of my childhood are very specific, up to a point, the point being where the urge to construct the story introduces elements that are true so far as memory insists, but not in reality. I loved the Gerry Anderson puppet shows back to Twizzle. I loved Thunderbirds above all the television series of my childhood, Thunderbirds was awesome. Thunderbirds was so great, they made a full-length feature film of it. When it came out in the cinema, my Grannie and Grandad took me into the Centre of Manchester one morning, to the old Odeon, a proper big-screen cinema, to see it without my waiting for it to come round to the local, cheaper cinema. It was a Monday morning, the first day of the Xmas holiday from school. Xmas Day was on the Thursday.

Or was it?

It was indisputably true about Grannie and Grandad, and the Odeon. It wasn’t the first time they’d taken me to the cinema in Manchester, althugh the only other occasion had been for a reissue of The Wizard of Oz at the even older Gaumont. But December? The start of Xmas? In my memory, yes. Was it then? Aye, there’s the rub, was it then? According to Wikipedia, it almost certainly was. And according to Wikipedia it was an absolute flop.

I can’t think why. I wanted to go and see it as soon as possible and, with a house move literally only days behind us, my grandparents volunteered to take me. But up and down the country, families were failing to take their kids because, according to Gerry Anderson, the kids weren’t clamouring to go see it. Thunderbirds was a TV show. You could watch it at home, in your slippers, with a glass of Jusoda or some other fizzy orange drink without having to traipse out to the cinema and oh, yes, at home it was in black and white and this was glorious colour, but making cinema films of tv series? It would never catch on.

It was more than fifty years ago, it was a TV show made with puppets, and fifty four years later, it is still bloody magic.

Though I’m aware of the flaws and failings in the film, all of which spring from a lack of imagination in the writing, invention having been expended on the models and the sets, I am still awestruck by the size of everything. There is genuinely a different scale to the film, a sense of confidence and of relaxation in the knowledge of time to do everything properly. And here I am, contrarian as usual, for the consensus opinion is that this is padding, bloating, needlessly expanding a thin plot that amounts to no more than a tv episode writ large. The critics have a point.

Take, for example, the opening sequence. The Zero-X spaceship launches on its expedition to land on Mars. There is a massive site built, the Glennfield rocket base. Zero-X is housed in a sliding hangar. It all but comes in kit form, five separate sections that remotely track and cross to complete assembly, the aircraft-style launch, still following Fireball XL5 rather that NASA’s Apollo missions… and then the sabotage, the Hood, the infamous, inevitable Hood inadvertently causing the craft to crash at sea but escaping.

It’s over eighteen minutes in length, up to and including the mission meeting two years later, preceding the second attempt, during which the magic words International Rescue are first mentioned as being requested to guard the take-off and at last we go to Tracy Island and Jeff Tracy saying FAB, and the simultaneous launches of Thunderbirds 1, 2 and 3, which is what we’re here for, and it’s been slow going and still I watch it in utter fascination, for its stateliness, for its improbable but still believable vision of what things would be like in a future than a hundred years hence, for its refusal to go in for unnecessary haste or concern.

The Zero-X mission is the spine of the film and gives it its three act structure: take-off, Mars landing and return/rescue. The Thunderbirds have nothing to do in the first Act except set-up and watch: their job will be to rescure the five man crew on its disastrous return, the usual last-second save carried out with applomb by the youngest Tracy, Alan. Would it have been more realistic to, once in a while, have had a rescue completed with time to sit back with coffee and chocolate digestive biscuits afterwards? Of course it would, but not just ten year olds would have regarded it as a gyp if there had even been time left over to mop a sweaty forehead.

The second Act broke into two unexpected parts. The latter part, the Zero-X on Mars part, heavily foreshadowed the future Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons by having the MEV (Mars Excursion Vehicle) undergo violent attack from native Martian lifeforms, here being one (red-)eyed rock snakes hurling fireballs like spitballs. This was in keeping with the film overall, but the first part wasn’t. In fact, this part of the film is the most controversial bit of Thunderirds ever, a sequence that’s now derided, not without justification, and that even Sylvia Anderson, who conceived it, admitted was a pure indulgence. This is the bit about the Swinging Star.

It starts with Lady Penelope having successfully shot down the Hood after she’s unmasked his second attempt at sabotage (in truth, Parker’s done the hard work but Penny’s pulled the strings, even if all she does is agree with his decisions about timing). She’s congratulating Scott, who’s done nothing, by suggesting taking him out for the night at a night club. Aye aye, we thinks, is someone admiring Scott’s manly (puppet) shoulders, eh? The waters get deeper when Virgil butts in and practically begs to be invited as well. Three of them? Oh ho! I mean, someone once very close to me admitted that as a little girl she had a crush on ol’ Virgil. But poor old Alan’s gone back to base and is left out, and he’s further frustrated when his father won’t let him shoot off to the mainland for a night’s ‘dancing’ with Tintin.

All of which is a set-up for the dream sequence, with Alan, dressed up in a bizarre jacket of many colours, is taken out – on his own – by Lady Penelope (who’s decided she likes them young) to another Swinging Star entirely, in space! Where the house band are, wait for it, Cliff Richard Jr and The Shadows.

No, really. It’s Cliff and the Shads, recreated as Supermarionation puppets, having a whale of a time, playing an instrumental called ‘Lady Penelope’ and then this unbelievably cheesy song, ‘Shooting Star’ (a shooting star will shoot you, and Mars will go to war, the man in the moon will jump on you, if you don’t love me no more’.) Oh. My. God. It’s like Teletubbies: you have to believe these people are on serious drugs to conceive this.

As for Alan, he’s incredibly out of his depth. I can recognise all of it now, the callow, inexperienced youth out with a red-hot, gorgeous, sophisticated, internationally-recognised sexy blonde who might, in his dreams but just faintly possibly in reality, take him to bed and do all sorts of unimaginable things to him (and they say this film has no characterisation), who’s simultaneously enthralling him and scaring him to death, and he has no idea what to say to this almost alien creature!

The really Thunderbirds bit of the film comes in the final Act. Zero-X is descending but one of its Airfix-kit bits breaks off before the glue is set, they’re all gonna die unless International Rescue produces one of its ingenious and genius rescues. It has all the dynamics of the Fireflash rescue from the very first episode, and all is, as we knew it would be, well.

Time for a real nightclub date between Alan and Penny, just the two of them, him a bit more ready. Did I say just the two of them? At their table yes, but at the next table, all got-up in disguise, in one type of beard and/or moustache or another, all ridiculous, are Jeff, Scott, Virgil and Brains. And Tintin, beardless. What chance a glorified adolescent seducing a glamorous aristocrat in front of that mob…?

Yet I loved watching it, even if it’s only the little-boy-just-turned-eleven peeping out of my eyes, amazed at every second he’s watching, the glorious, vibrant colours, the angles not seen on television, unaware or uncaring that the film might be padded, because every frame of film is bigger, older and brighter, and this is not Thunderbirds but THUNDERBIRDS are Go, and Go they do more than half the way to that future we wanted to grow up and live in.

Thunderbirds are Go was filmed alongside the TV show’s second series. All the voices were back except for David (Virgil) Holliday, who’d returned to America and was replaced by Jeremy Wilkin. Among the Zero-X crew voices were stalwarts who’d worked for the Andersons before and would on future series, and one unexpected and unrecognisable voice, Bob Monkhouse, who’d said he’d do the job for nothing: lucky sod.

But it was a flop. And Lew Grade failed to sell Thunderbirds to America, his goal with every ATV series except possibly Crossroads and shut down production, which is why the second series has only six episodes, telling the Andersons to gear up the next one. Which was Captain Scarlet.

But the film was carefully entwined in the Anderson Universe. Captain Black would be part of the next Martian Excursion Vehicle to explore Mars, uncovering an enemy far more hostile and dangerous than rock snakes, and in the weekly comic TV21, Mike Noble would switch from Fireball XL5 to a Zero-X series that lasted years.

For all its flaws, Thunderbirds are Go is still in demand a half century later, and has already continued to be far longer than the live action Thunderbirds film of 2004 that I was so right in refusing to go see. There was a sequel, a much less successful thing, that I’ll be watching and discussing before long. But for today I’m going to stay happy about one of the greatest imaginative icons of my childhood, that holds up in full force today.

2 thoughts on “Film 2020: Thunderbirds are Go

  1. I was eight when Thunderbirds started, and in the fifty-five years since I still haven’t seen a more exciting TV scene than Fireflash crash landing in the first episode.

    You were very wise not seeing the live action film. While the Thunderbirds rescues at start and finish were worth watching, the film was destroyed by the festering pile in between.

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