Film 2020: Thunderbird 6

Returning to the Thunderbirds boxset so quickly, for the final and less successful attempt to take the puppets to the silver screen is a choice forced on me by the combination of a Working Sunday and, for the first time in ages, the lack of available leave to avoid it.

Thunderbird 6 is the end. Series 2 had been cancelled when America wouldn’t buy the show – this is a common theme among series commissioned by Lew Grade – and the Andersons’ next notion, Captain Scarlet and The Mysterons was already in motion. But United Artists were prepared to fund another film, and Gerry and Sylvia had taken on board the criticisms of the script for Thunderbirds are Go and tried to write a more integrated, full-length story with fewer assembly sequences.

The plot breaks down into two parts. In his capacity as a renowned designer, Brains approaches the Airspace industry to discuss the future of commercial aviation. When he suggests a revival of airships, they laugh their puppet heads off but, two years later, Alan Tracey, Lady Penelope and Tintin are guests on the maiden flight of Skyship One. A flight subject to piracy and hijack by the Hood, still after International Rescue’s technology.

(Actually, though this is nowhere mentioned in the film, Sylvia Anderson maintained that the Hood himself was actually killed in the first film and this ‘Hood’ – given the name Black Phantom – is his son. Given the number of times Scott of Lady Penelope shot the Hood down in the series to stop him getting away with his microfilm, I and, I’m sure, most of the scanty audience just assumed he’d got away again.)

The other element of the film is Jeff Tracey’s stubborn conviction, backed with no rationality or concrete reason, that International Rescue will shortly, and urgently need a Thunderbird 6. Which is where the film collapses full-frontedly in its own length.

Thunderbirds are Go had its flaws – Cliff Richard Jr? – but one thing it got right was a sense of scale. It went for magnificence, for gloriousness and, when it couldn’t hit either of those it at least scored for expansiveness. Thunderbird 6 trivialises itself from the off: the aircraft designers laughing their heads off at the idea of a slow airship sets a tone the film never loses.

And what attempt at gravity the film wants to take is lost beyond recovery when Alan chooses to spend two weeks flying to England for the launch – in a garishly painted, yellow and red striped Tiger Moth biplane. It’s meant to be light-hearted and it is in keeping with Alan’s character but the effect is bathetic.

The Tiger Moth launches from Thunderbird 2’s storage bay. The palm tree’s flop to each side. But the plane is out-of-proportion small to all these efforts and what’s meant to be a joke is turned into a dismal appreciation of just how limited the plane is. It’s also a mistake on that it looks too much like what it is, a model, a real plane that you could have bought as an Aitfix kit model and glued together yourself.

There’s another piece of undermining it that Tintin is going with Alan. Jeff Tracey decides a two-week flight in a Worrld War 1 biplane is no place for a delicate young woman (bollocks: he just doesn’t want the pair shagging their way to England for a fortnight) and buys her a First Class jetliner ticket only she sneaks out and stows away any, plus she puts on a stunt flying exhibition above Creighton-Ward Manor in order to put the fear of God into Parker, who, as the only non-middle class figure in the film, is the butt of all the jokes.

The serious plot is about Skyship One. About half an hour before (fully-automated) take-off, a gang of men enter a security-heightened base, shoot and kill the Captain and stewards and take over the (fully-automated) ship. Their objective is to obtain recordings of Lady Penelope saying verious things that can be edited into a message instructing Jeff Tracey to send Thunderbirds 1 and 2 to a deserted airfield near Casablanca where Scott and Virgil will be killed and Brains and the vessels taken on behalf of Black Phantom. The International Rescue lot are already suspicious of the less-than-fully-knowledgeable crew (they’re not fully-automated) when Penny discovers the first bug. Nevertheless, the message is compied and broadcast and the boys on their way before Penny sends a real message of warning.

This is where I have a moment of pause to reflect on a contradiction. International Rescue exists to save lives. They go to extraordinary lengths to do so. And instead of getting out and falling into the trap, Scott and Virgil just draw their weapons and blast the entire airfield into blazing rubble, killing everyone there. It’s of a piece with the climax where Alan shoots and kills three of the imposters (three? There were five. Where did the other two go?) For International Rescuers, the Traceys were never too concerned about leaving a trail of dead bodies behind them. Snoop on us, would you? Pow pow pow.

The need for rescue arises when Alan confronts the hijackers in the Gravity Compensation room (a bewildering, eye-tricking array of revolving metal circles that the eye cannot keep straight). A stray shot smashes the controls, switching them off. Skyship One loses height and crashes into and becomes stranded on an Early Warning Tower above a Missile Base: yikes! What’s worse is that neither Thunderbird 1 nor 2 can get close enough to carry out a rescue because the turbulence from their jets will unbalance the airship and cause disaster.

But we’ve got this nonsense about a Thunderbird 6. It’s unfounded and unfoundable. Jeff Tracey wants a new machine capable of multiple rescue missions to fill a non-existent gap left by Thunderbirds 1 to 5. Brains is working to an impossible brief because the brief is as vague as the one I’ve given above. He’s spending weeks on models that are rejected, getting himself worked up in frustration. But he will have a brainwave and, even if you’ve never seen the film before, you’ve probably already guessed what it is.

However, the first brainwave comes from Gordon. Gordon Tracey. You know who he is, he”s the one who got shafted for screentime in the first film as well. They’ve got a ready-made slow air-speed, lightweight craft that can land on Skyship One and ferry people off and yes, it’s that bloody Tiger Moth.

So, we kids have gathered together to watch this large-scale last ever representation of our favourite and most imaginative TV show and what we’re going to get or the last twenty minutes or so is not the Thunderbirds but a bloody yellow and red Tiger Moth biplane. All right, we get a classic Thunderbirds explosion as the missile base blows up in the grand manner, but we also get this tiny little archaic plane flying around the Engish countryside. And even at the age of 12 and still unable to distinguish one American comic book artist from another, I could tell the difference between puppet scenes and real-life flying Tiger Moth scenes and it just felt wrong, and disappointing. I came here to see Thunderbirds!

It destroyswhat little merit the film has, and franky even when I saw it at our local cinema, the Burnage Odeon, in 1968, I was disappointed. It felt as if the heart had gone out of it, as if the Andersons had lost conviction. The Shark had been Jumped. Because Brains’ newly-revealed Thunderbird 6 was, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, the Tiger Moth.

That was the end of it. Lew Grade had cancelled the TV series, no more films would be commissioned. Only mesmerised kids like me still dreamed of future stories and how could this Thunderbird 6 fit into those? But then I’d never bought the premise: a Thunderbird 6 was never necessary, it couldn’t be more than the specialised rescue machinery Thunderbird 2 transported to the rescue zone, another Firefy, another Mole.

It was such a let down as an ending. Fifty-two years later, it has gained nothing. An adult perspective perceives no hidden depths, no subtleties that went over my pre-teen head then. Thunderbird 6 is still what it always was, a bust, and a bust I recognised for myself in 1968.

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