Thunderbirds: Are… Really… Early… Go!

Thunderbirds Are Go

Easter weekend, 10 Easters on from Doctor Who… ITV played another 1960s card. But has it proved to be a Hood-like ruse?

BRITISH TELEVISION’S HAD A TOUGH DECADE STRUGGLING TO REPEAT DOCTOR WHO’S TREMENDOUS SUCCESS. That show didn’t have a Vortex-given right to reclaim its Saturday family crowd, let alone continually prove through its continued and growing popularity and proof that weekend evenings could sustain drama. It’s not mean feat, and in the 10 years that have passed since 2005’s Rose only Merlin has come close, after Robin Hood had first fizzled in BBC One’s evening slot. ITV had worse of it, with Primeval trying hard, only to face extinction within five staggered years, while Demons failed miserably in one. And to make things worse, Who’s wake wasn’t limited to Saturday evenings. It immediately triggered a fresh torrent of new fantasy and science-fiction to British television across many timeslots, from Being Human to In the Flesh to the rather unfortunate Outcasts.

But in April 2015, as Atlantis reaches its solemn final half-season, times are quite different from those deadly mid-zeroes. Who remains at a sublime peak of course, alive and urgent as ever, with the rather woolly and pointless promise of another five years recently made. Unfortunately and crucially such a promise may have some weight, as the BBC is in far different shape than it was a decade ago. Although its budget didn’t rival that afforded an equivalent American 45 minutes at the time, Doctor Who’s return was a risky and considerable investment that could only have been made by a rather flush and secure organization. The same is true of its diminutive online precursor and canon-mate, the 40th anniversary webcast Scream of the Shalka, an outrageous undertaking for a website at any time. Ten years on, scandal, mishandles, poor defences, resignations and a right-leaning government mean the present day BBC most likely couldn’t consider either of those things.

Five Years

That five year promise may have a hidden truth, and Whovians should be ready for a very different BBC come 2020. Fellow mega-brand Top Gear’s plight might have a slight impact, as will the spilling out of BBC Studios and the success of BBC Worldwide. It’s likely that a form of license fee will remain in five years, but it may be as radically different as the UK’s state broadcaster is herself at the end of the next parliament. All things considered, it can’t be dismissed that the Doctor Who brand could be sold for a pretty psychic penny…

Across the spectrum the BBC is always considered by envious eyes. Vultures, in various states of health have circled Auntie for decades, as she’s wielded handbags of different weights in defence. At its first axing, Primeval was supposedly done in by the considerable money troubles that hit ITV late last decade, although things are similarly far different now. We’re in the early stages of ITV’s huge, high budget, high profile seizing of crowns that the BBC have held safely for many years. Or so they thought. While Downton Abbey’s ending this year – one of the few period shows that ITV could brandish at Auntie – Mr Selfridge and even one-time mega-hit (and from the mind of Who writer Chris Chibnall) Broadchurch have been subject to ratings slumps. Telefantasy is another major jewel for the taking (although with Atlantis’ demise, the crown now solely rests on the Time Lord’s shoulders). And while ITV are preparing the way for new adaptations of Frankenstein and Jekyll and Hyde they’ve found time to take on Who with the revival of another classic from the 1960s.

30 Year Cycle

While Doctor Who certainly had a prominent ‘90s comeback, it was rather stunted. The Doctor’s failure to make a sufficient impression with his American television movie left hopes for a revival at an all-time low. Thunderbirds though, they enjoyed a second coming in the 1990s, without a maquette lifting a finger. BBC Two’s judicious screening of the first series between 1992 and 1993 captured playgrounds in the UK, launching trading cards and Anthea Turner’s infamous Tracey Island moment on Blue Peter – almost three decades on from its supposed heyday. That’s where this intrepid writer discovered it, sitting prime on those wonderful old 6pm slots on BBC 2 that threw up 1960s gems from these shores and those across the Atlantic.

Frequent repeats and constant development hell kept the rumour mills wrangling until a live action Thunderbirds became Working Title’s biggest budgeted film in 2004. Even stella director Jonathan Frakes, nor the host of Thunderbirds themselves, couldn’t save that from a slide to recouping just half its $57 million budget. And so, 10 years later, when a revival seemed unlikely, comes the new coming of International Rescue.

And it’s not puppets. No, a mix of CGI and extraordinary miniaturization provided by the masters at Weta creates a new form of Supermarionation – though sadly lacking any such brilliantly over the top claim coming at the front of the episode. The first episode had as much and as little to do as it wanted. As some laughable reaction on social media after the show suggested, men in their 50s can watch the old show and leave this for a new generation… ITV were regenerating the brand, the proven brand for families and that can either go Doctor Who or Star Wars. There was a crown to be seized and they had it in their sights. While the step into CGI is the hardest digital pill of all to swallow, it has a precedence. And no, not the Japanese Thunderbirds 2086


A month or so prior to Doctor Who’s comeback in 2005, ITV began screening Gerry Anderson’s New Captain Scarlet, an update of the Thunderbirds sister show that emerged in 1967. Gone were the Mysterons in the original’s title, but Gerry Anderson’s name hadn’t replaced them without reason – he not only created but directed and wrote for it. Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons always shone strongly for me, dark, ominous and just ever so slightly grimly preposterous, with its straight-played rainbow task force of rainbow colours. Not as successful as Thunderbirds, the follow-up show opted for heightened realism in the marionettes proportions and voice acting, in Spectrum and beyond. Those changes have sometimes been credited with the show’s shorter lifespan; people just don’t take to more realism in puppets. But the early 21st century update went further, with a recognisable, reverential design and an expanded and dark take on the Mysterons and the immortal hero created combining CGI and motion capture. And being Gerry Anderson, it was correctly labelled with the fantastic moniker of hypermarionation.

It was a solid series, taking a level and expanded approach to the material; more realistic, but understandably losing some of the charm as the 1960s were replaced with the 21st century. And what did ITV do with it? They stuck it in the Saturday morning slot, its time obscured in the prolonged run-time of children’s show Ministry of Mayhem. As Anderson quite rightly said, with much disappointment, people had to “wait and watch all the nonsense going on before the first half”. It turned out to be the last series the marionette maestro created.

Thunderbirds Are Go!

Snap forward a decade and Thunderbirds return, this time with no involvement from Gerry Anderson, sadly passed in 2012. The CGI’s come on since 2005, but the designs are even more referential to the 60s puppets, with recognisably slightly unproportioned characters.

The first episode kicks off weakly, that’s for sure – a balloon buffeted, a father and son rescued – it’s not the high octane start you may expect. And worse yet, the son recognises International Rescue! Yes, this is a kind of maybe reboot-slash-continuation. There’s history and International Rescue aren’t new. In fact they’re authorised and almost in league with the Global Defence Force.

After a suitably reverential title sequence, complete with archive countdown and the mandatory (although condensed) flash forward we soon find that some things are different. The Tracy boys have an eccentric grandmother who’s eager to cook for them. The original’s Tin has wisely changed her name to Kayo and crucially, Jeff Tracy is gone, killed in a plane crash, presumably alongside old technician Kyrano. And to blame for that nefarious deed? Why the nefarious Hood (revealed at the end to still be Kayo’s uncle).

Jeff’s departure is a narratively shrewd move. In this heightened world of telecommunications, John’s position as the space dispatcher seems even less lonely when he can successfully coordinate his brothers from orbit. It is odd that Scott sits out the early missions, far less the big brother role than we’re used to – although it doesn’t take him long to defy Brains’ orders and take Thunderbird 1 for a spin. Overall, the comparative breakdown of order among the boys helps to ease into a hipper, more modern, expanded dynamic, which aids the adventure nipping along no end.

Yes, there are no strings on this – despite the mis-step of shamelessly reusing the extended launch sequences of Thunderbird 2 (still, utterly brilliant). Easter Saturday saw the first two episodes of the series pushed together into a n hour long special – almost cruelly referring back to the solid 50 minutes of the original. But in ramping up the speed, it reveals something more obvious: there was something captivating about the often slow pace of the original, the tension where sweat dripped from a puppet’s brow. Even the deliberate and measured substitution of human hands for close-ups was captivating, – and with this series that was an example of something the show’s producers believed that CGI could overcome.

Fortunately there are still some things that reassuringly clash. The voice acting takes a bit of time to settle down (except an all too comfortable David Graham as Parker, of course). The CGI, also, looks like everyone was slightly caught by surprise at the beginning. And strangely, the lip syncing is frankly worse than the original, particularly in odd looking and unironically ‘wooden’ Lady Penelope. But outside FAB 1 there’s something quite different. Penelope and Parker spend a lot of the episode inexplicably driving through a quite bizarre countryside mix of Telly-Tubby-topia and Herne the Hunter’s Lounge. It’s a rather haunting real model effect that adds brilliantly to proceedings. Model work throughout remains excellent, bar the common difficulties with miniaturizing water. Thank goodness they chose that mix though – and who better to conjure it up than the masters of Weta. It just really is a shame that company didn’t insist on it being called Wetamarionation.

Still, that and the general approach proves that this is more just a television series than its predecessor’s highly ambitious idea of recreating cinema spectacular on the small screen. And most importantly, it’s missing the familiar overt opening percussion. Thunderbirds are Go laid out a number of intrigues, and given its unambitious start-time on a Saturday afternoon, it’s ratings of 1.74 don’t seem too bad. Well, in comparison. While there was a torrent of publicity and surely hope for more, Ant and Dec would pull in just under 5 million later that same day. Still, there was always time to build… So how disappointing that a scan of the TV guide the following Saturday nearly resulted in a call to International Rescue Rescue…

Strung Up Early

Because on 11 April, the night when BBC One rather sheepishly brought back the last of its Saturday night telefantasy dramas, and just one week after it’s Easter weekend debut, Thunderbirds… Were nowhere to be seen in the water, sky or stratosphere that afternoon. In fact you’d have had to have your eyes open at 8am that morning.

A week in, ITV immediately rescheduled the show to the New Captain Scarlet slot that had upset Gerry Anderson so much. For a series that must have cost a fair sum it can mean only one thing. Either television has shifted so much onto the importance of on demand viewing that this is where ITV want to push viewers or they’re in the same heady state the BBC found themselves a decade ago, with money to experiment. That said, maybe it’s just that they’re pushing it where a children’s show should be and ratings don’t matter, second series already commissioned and all that.

Could Thunderbirds have built to the success of Doctor Who? It’s possible, and it’s certainly true that the publicity around its rescheduling hasn’t translated into publicity that will push up viewing figures. Whatever ITV’s reason for bucking the trend of a show that saw a great resurgence in the early 1990s, that they were happy to schedule in a prime slot over Easter weekend and that could possibly stand a chance of stealing some of the Doctor’s sparkle… The fact that ITV didn’t seize the chance with International Rescue could say more about the future of telefantasy on British TV than any review of the show ever could. Saturday nights on ITV – stay tuned.

1 reply »

  1. Excellent article. Just thought you might like to know that the show has a healthy Sunday evening time slot here in New Zealand. Right in the perfect family mid zone so the kids can get excited and Mum and Dad can reminisce

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