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A fairly brief (124 pages) but comprehensive guide to the best known Supermarionation show. A lot of things that I hadn't realised about Thunderbirds - that there were only two seasons, with only 32 pisodes (26 in the first series, 6 in the second); that the original half-hour episodes were bulked out to full hour length after Lew Grade demanded that they be made longer; that there had been two feature films in the 1960s which both crashed dismally in the theatres; that the real-life International Rescue Corps was deliberately named after the fictional International Rescue.

I was also a bit surprised that there was so little crossover with Doctor Who, which was in its early years at the time Thunderbirds was being made. Several of the lead voice actors appeared once or twice in Who, but the only person from behind the scenes whose name I spotted was Dennis Spooner, who must have gone straight from his job as script editor for Verity Lambert to writing six episodes for Gerry Anderson, possibly even doing both at the same time. I scrutinised the summaries of Spooner's Thunderbirds stories (for the record, they were Day of Disaster, End of the Road, Vault of Death, The Mighty Atom, The Imposters and Cry Wolf) to see if I could spot common themes with The Reign of Terror, The Romans, The Time Meddler and the second half of The Daleks' Master Plan, but I'm afraid I drew a blank.

I was surprised to read that the two 1960s films did so badly, considering that the Peter Cushing movie versions of Doctor Who, which came out at about the same time, performed at least respectably. I suppose that the large screen does puppets very few favours, where at least human actors still look like human actors when in close up. Perhaps there were failures of marketing as well.

Now that we are almost half way from 1965 to the stories' setting of 2065, it is interesting to consider how Anderson's vision of the future is at variance with our reality. One point that really struck me was the impossibility of International Rescue keeping its location and methods secret. In 1965, photographs were real concrete objects which could be stolen, confiscated, hidden or destroyed. Nowadays any Thunderbird mission would find itself instantly on YouTube, and Tracy Island would be a popular sight on Google Earth. It's also interesting that the show had non-white characters in it from the start, even if one of them is the villain and the other two, though allies of the Tracy family, are vulnerable to his mental powers.
Anyway, it makes me inclined to do a full watch-through of Thunderbirds - I don't think I have seen even half of it - at some time in the future when other projects are complete.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 26th, 2011 01:20 pm (UTC)
Thunderbirds was also quite popular in Japan, and is still well-known.

If I remember correctly the episodes were pushed to one hour to allow for the show to be sold to the US - the one hour included time set aside for commercial breaks without them breaking up the flow of the episode.

From childhood memory, and more recent re-runs, Thunderbirds still has it. However dated the puppetry is the incidental music is just perfect for ratcheting up the tension and keeping it high until the end.

You might also want to add UFO to your watch list - Anderson without the puppets...
Tim Roll-Pickering
Jun. 26th, 2011 03:54 pm (UTC)
The version I heard was that Lou Grade was so impressed with the early episodes that he ordered them extended and extra material was worked into already made episodes - just look at the number of times in the early years that there's a lengthy attempted rescue carried out before International Rescue arrive which is otherwise never mentioned or hinted at.

But wasn't Thunderbirds originally set in 2025? Isn't there some dispute over this?
Jun. 26th, 2011 04:03 pm (UTC)
Re your first point - yes, that's certainly what I meant to say, but perhaps sumamrised too brutally.

Re your second point - I had not realised this, but indeed a calendar is seen in the very last episode which specifies the year as 2026. There is a forensic analysis of the issue here. My own instinct is that 2026 was a mistake and 2065-66 was the intended setting, but there's clearly as much room for debate here (and for about as much use) as for the UNIT dating controversy.
Jun. 26th, 2011 04:12 pm (UTC)
The thing with the date is that Anderson didn't particularly specify a date in the original brief, he just said "100 year into the future", which was interpreted variously (similarly, no-one really specifies the date for the original Star Trek). The 2065 date was adopted by TV21 (who also applied it to Stingray). The only onscreen date is on a calendar in one episode, and is 2026. But this wasn't necessarily the date intended by the Andersons. Both the movies have onscreen dates in the 2060s - 2067 and 2068, though they are only vaguely mentioned, I think. Certainly, the date for Thunderbirds is not as emphatically stated as that for Captain Scarlet or UFO.
Jun. 26th, 2011 04:02 pm (UTC)
Well, the Anderson shows were always timed to allow for commercial breaks within their 30 or 60 minute lengths, as they were always sold in the first instance to British commercial television. I think it wasn't specifically to sell to the US that the episodes were bulked up (the 30-minute Stingray had already been sold to US syndication), but because Grade thought that the show was of sufficient quality to sell for more prestigious hour-long slots. He seems not to have been wholly successful in this, as the next show, Captain Scarlet, dropped back to 30 minutes to make it easier to sell.
Jun. 26th, 2011 04:35 pm (UTC)
Given the length of production for Thunderbirds (the copyright date at least on the first episodes is 1964), if anything, Spooner went from working for the Andersons (for whom he had worked before on Fireball XL5 and Stingray) to working on Who.

There's actually very little cross-over between Who and the whole ITC adventure stable - they each had their own preferred group of writers, and the only major crossovers I can immediately think of are Spooner and Terry Nation.
Jun. 27th, 2011 02:29 pm (UTC)
I suppose that the large screen does puppets very few favours, where at least human actors still look like human actors when in close up.

In the climax of Thunderbird Six [SPOILER] a bunch of people are rescued by a Tiger Moth biplane. In long shots, it is seen flying over the rolling English countryside and is very obviously not a model, but a real Tiger moth with stuntmen clinging to its wings and struts. Flabbergasting.

As Barry Gehm said, "This stunt was too dangerous to risk losing valuable puppets."
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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