Let’s get this out of the way: no, I’m not 65 years old! Like most of you, I am a child of the 90s who had the great privilege to witness the reruns of the classic shows, and Gerry Anderson’s “Thunderbirds” happens to be one of them. Apart from the obvious that we all know and love (looking at you Star Wars and Batman: The Animated Series), I wanted to talk about a cultural landmark that can easily fall under the radar, but still played an important part in my childhood.
For many among you, I can hear you think “what the hell is that”? A puppet show for kids? Well, it’s way more than that. In 1965, when the show first aired on ITV in the UK, this was quite a cultural phenomenon. So much so that, 50 years later, the show was rebooted as an animation cartoon by ITV and there was even a live-action adaptation in 2004 (not very good, though). It’s the first thing to have cool Supermarionation special effects (that was the name at the time) and a great score, but it’s another thing to have truly compelling storytelling only from using puppets,. That’s the true magic of it! Hardcore fans of the series, still to this day, like to revisit it.
Produced and created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, here is their greatest creation. For those who might be familiar with the names, they are also the creators behind Supermarionation classics like Captain Scarlet and Stingray in the 60s.
However absurd the show is, we can’t deny there’s a good dose of originality, in both the conception of the titular rescue vehicles and the story.
Set in the 2060s, humankind made huge progress in the aeronautics industry, as a variety of air and space ships are being manufactured. Billionaire ex-astronaut Jeff Tracy lives on a big island in the middle of the Pacific, alongside his five sons: Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John. Having raised them to be excellent pilots, the Tracy family will launch International Rescue, an organization with the unique purpose to rescue people trapped in dangerous situations all over the globe. To help them in their missions, Jeff commissioned a scientist and friend named Brains to build five Thunderbird rescue vehicles. Thunderbird 1 is a grey and blue hypersonic rocket plane, Thunderbird 2 (my favourite) is a green heavy-duty transporter aircraft, Thunderbird 3 is a red space rocket, Thunderbird 4 is an efficient yellow little submersible and Thunderbird 5 is a grey and gold Earth-orbiting space station that monitors all communications broadcasts. Together, they are deployed on a variety of missions for the benefit of humanity. Each Tracy brother piloting his own craft, they will save the world, one TV episode at the time, as we see their vehicles launched from their island. To help them in their day-to-day hard work, they will require the service of a British spy and Bond girl Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward, and her butler Parker, in her own revolutionary vehicle: a pimped-out pink Rolls Royce named FAB1. Sometimes, they will have to face off against The Hood, a recurring nemesis who wishes to get his hands on the Thunderbirds machines.
In other words, just good fun!
As a young boy, I always saw myself as a Tracy brother. I used to ask myself questions like which machine would I like to pilot and what kind of uniform would I wear with that. In a day and age where we worry about the amount of violence that kids consume in their everyday entertainment and video games, I feel blessed that I was geeking out on Thunderbirds. It sets a good example, as our manly ideals fly super cool ships and save the average citizen, regardless of their country of origin. In primary school, nothing for me was cooler than space rockets and superheroes (and they still make the list to this day, amongst other things).
One of the elements that makes this show a classic to revisit today in 2022 are the characters and the cool design of the machines. Each Tracy has his own personality and it is well fleshed out during their mission (it is even better executed in the animated reboot). For example, Virgil Tracy was always my favourite for his artistic personality and chill attitude, but we all have to admit that, as young boys, we compare ourselves to Alan, who is young and clumsy at times, both at work and with the girls.
Regarding the machines, despite the fact that they look like toys, they are to be taken seriously. Even true engineers and flight aeronautics experts took a closer look at the Thunderbirds machines to answer this popular question: could such design be adequate for flying? Well…no, but they still took the time to consider them (that’s still something). International Rescue has also many other land vehicles at their disposal, which they dispatch differently in each episode.
Of course, I know that this show won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s totally fine. Supermarionation and technicolor technology are not synonymous with cool and hip when you can bring to life characters through CGI in great fashion. The show feels a little dated for that reason, but you can easily marvel at the special effects and admit that what the Andersons brought to the screen is quite unique. No one (ever) attempted and succeeded in producing Supermarionation shows of that quality. The models and set design to this day still look great, as well as the close-ups of the characters’ movements where they use real human stand-ins. On the negative side, many scenes become repetitive episode after episode – you’ll see the Thunderbirds take off 100 times, which can become a little frustrating (depending on your mood).
Although I’m not a dad, I guess I can make a friendly suggestion. If you are wondering which shows and movies to present to your kids between the age of 5 to 8, boys and girls, I strongly recommend the 1960s Thunderbirds, as well as the more modern animated reboot. Very easy to watch and understand! Who knows, you might get a nostalgic geek like me in your family (wink wink).
Of course, if you’re not familiar with the show, two seasons back to back for a total of 32 episodes can be a bit of a stretch. I have you covered, I made a list of the essentials from both seasons, you can refer to them. You can watch them online on Shout Factory TV.
BEST EPISODES TO WATCH
– Trapped in the Sky (season 1)
– Sun Probe (season 1)
– The Uninvited (season 1)
– Day of Disaster (season 1)
– Move – and You’re Dead (season 1)
– The Perils of Penelope (season 1)
– Terror in New York City (season 1)
– End of the Road (season 1)
– Desperate Intruder (season 1)
– The Man From MI5 (season 1)
– The Cham-Cham (season 1)
– Atlantic Inferno (season 2)
– Alias Mr. Hackenbacker (season 2)
ALSO…DON’T FORGET THE MOTION PICTURES
Thunderbirds Are Go (1966)
Thunderbird 6 (1968)
On that note, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1….THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO!