For those of you who aren’t aware there are now 35 episodes of Classic Thunderbirds. The Thunderbirds 1965 project was funded by Kickstarter backers and produced by Stephen La Rivière and the Pod 4 Films team. They attempted to bring three Thunderbirds audio adventures to the screen using classic Supermarionation techniques. The finished results are superb pieces of work which recreate the Thunderbirds formula, warts and all. After all, no episode of Thunderbirds is perfect in terms of continuity or sophistication. The Thunderbirds 1965 team have worked tirelessly to artistically capture the essence of those slight imperfections which are still incredibly enchanting to watch. This resulted in 3 episodes that truly feel like episodes of Thunderbirds made in 1965, something which only a dedicated team of Supermarionation experts could have achieved.
In this series of articles I intend to take a close look at each of the three new episodes, often looking at individual shots, and analysing what makes them so much of an authentic Thunderbirds experience. Today I’ll be taking a look at Introducing Thunderbirds, based on the Century 21 mini album of the same name released in October 1965. This is a prequel to the series which sees Lady Penelope and Parker travel to Tracy Island and meeting Jeff Tracy for a tour of the International Rescue headquarters.
Written by Alan Fennell
Directed by Justin T. Lee
Forget Trapped in the Sky, this is the first episode of Thunderbirds. From the outset, the minutest details line up to convince the viewer that they are watching an episode produced in the aftermath of Stingray and Trapped in the Sky was in pre-production.
Following the original 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 countdown from the glorious high definition prints of the series yet to see a full release in the UK, the attentive viewer is met by the familiar Thunderbirds theme. Well, sort of. You see, Trapped in the Sky features a unique version of the opening theme which was changed on future episodes. It is also the only episode to feature sound effects during the teaser montage following the countdown. Introducing Thunderbirds utilises this same version of the theme and also includes sound effects in order to give the impression that it was produced around the same time as Trapped in the Sky before changes were made to the series on episode 2, Pit of Peril.
When I first heard this version of the theme at the premiere screening on January 4th 2016 I knew that dedicated Thunderbirds fans were in for a treat. A great level of care had clearly been taken by the production team to satisfy those who knew the series inside out. It was a brave move to not include the “proper” version of the Thunderbirds theme on the first episode but it illustrates that Thunderbirds is full of inconsistencies and in order to recreate the series truly, those inconsistencies and imperfections had to be carefully included in the new episodes. They don’t cause distraction or ruin the experience but enhance it and make the viewer believe that they are watching Thunderbirds as it would have been produced by the original AP Films team.
The episode opens with stock footage of Tracy Island, as seen in Trapped in the Sky, set to music from Stingray. Music from the previous Supermarionation series makes up the majority of the soundtrack for Introducing Thunderbirds which maintains the illusion that this episode was produced immediately after shooting had finished on Stingray. This is solidified further by the shots of Lady Penelope’s yacht which follow. Imagine if this episode were produced in 1964, and Gerry and Sylvia Anderson themselves had said “Well, we’ve just filmed 39 episodes of Stingray which had a lot of water shots. Derek Meddings and his team must be good at them by now, so maybe we’ll start our next show with some water shots too, that way we know they’ll be decent.”
Of course the special effects shots directed by Stephen La Rivière and Justin T. Lee here are beyond just being decent. A birdseye view shows FAB 2, Lady Penelope’s yacht, cruising across the screen from left to right. The way craft appear to move on screen in all the Thunderbirds 1965 episodes is very reminiscient of the original series. They move in the direction they’re going either by remaining stationary with the background moving behind them, or they enter screen one way and exit the other way. It’s a basic cinematic language which reflects the punishing schedule of filming in the sixties, and how miniatures were shot as a whole back then. The Thunderbird 1965 could have filmed their models in a more complex and dynamic way, but by retaining these simpler shots, the result is much more authentic. The way the boat moves, combined with the very blue and, rippling water, the lighting, and the quality of the model itself all add up to a shot that could easily have appeared in the original series.
Above we have the deck of FAB 2 and our first glimpse at the marrionettes. The camera pans up as Parker walks towards Penelope. The way the puppet walks certainly doesn’t convince anyone that the characters are anything other than puppets, but the walking in the original series never convinced the viewer of that either. In fact I have to say that this walking shot is one of the best I’ve ever seen in Supermarionation, immediately indicating the care that went into shooting the puppets for these episodes. The Penelope and Parker puppets that star in all three episodes are absolutely stunning. The marrionettes crafted by Barry Davies for this mini-series are excellent recreations and Penelope in particular is a triumph. As one of the less-caricatured faces in Thunderbirds, recapturing her features must have been difficult, but Davies has really succeeded here.
When the characters speak, the dialogue isn’t new. The adventure was originally recorded for release on LP in 1965. The recording has been cleaned up by Mark Ayres and in the case of Introducing Thunderbirds, the story has been changed little in this screen adaptation. Cuts have been made to the more descriptive dialogue now that the audience can see what’s going on, but beyond that the episode is a straightforward visual interpreation of the original recording with a few bits and pieces added or taken away.
As they approach Tracy Island, Penelope and Parker take to the water in FAB 1. A beautiful model of FAB 1 is combined with a fantastic recreation of the puppet scale FAB 1 set. Behind is a set of FAB 2’s cargo hold. The sets were built by Hilton Fitzsimmons against a tough schedule and when combined with similar lighting to the original series, they look like they could have been designed and built by Bob Bell. The sets feature the same props, instruments, patterns and fonts that were used to detail the sets back in the sixties, with Fitzsimmons often sourcing the same materials.
FAB 1 sails through the water with little splashes appearing on the windscreen and drives up the ramp onto Tracy Island. Jeff Tracy awaits them. There are lots of things I love about this shot.
1. The palm trees swing back to make way for FAB 1 because of course they do.
2. The miniature of Jeff standing on the runway is just like the poorly detailed little figures that the special effects team on the original series always used.
3. The flat angle that this shot is filmed from is very remeniscient of shots of FAB 1 from the original series.
4. FAB 1 is completely dry after its dip in the ocean. I doubt any of the directors on the original series would have remembered to make the model or set vaguely damp either. A classic bit of Thunderbirds discontinuity.
Jeff Tracy meets Lady Penelope and Parker for the first time on screen. He’s sporting his best flamingo shirt for the ocassion. Jeff had some questionable fashion choices in the original series, and Liz Comstock-Smith has brilliantly captured this and the distinct look of all the characters’ costumes perfectly. It was an excellent choice to create all new designs for the characters rather than borrowing all of them from previous episodes. New additions like these costumes are an exciting treat. It wouldn’t be as much fun if every single element was an exact copy of something from episodes 1-32.
However, there was one aspect of the series that did have to be an exact copy. The Tracy Lounge.
The huge Tracy Lounge set was beautifully recreated for the Thunderbirds 1965 project using measurements taken from 3D computer renderings of shots from the original series to ensure that everything was exactly the right size. The details are superb, with paintings, plants, furniture, books and other props made to look exactly like they did on the set as it appeared in the first 26 episodes of Thunderbirds with one exception. In place of Penelope’s portrait, a painting called ‘Mexican Plain’ from the Supercar episode, A Little Art. We’ll get to why that is later.
Parker brings in Penelope’s suitcases, providing a great deal of light humour which is what makes Thunderbirds so enjoyable to watch. Meanwhile, Jeff begins to explain the details of the International Rescue organisation to Penelope. First he talks through all of the portaits on the wall as the camera pans across the five Tracy Brothers.
The original images used for the portraits in the first series of Thunderbirds no longer exist, so the team carefully captured the images from the episodes themselves and included them in the set. It simply would not have looked right to see the later portraits used in the series 1 version of the set.
After falling over several times, Parker’s shins become bruised. Though not specified in the dialogue, the team decided to dirty Parker’s trousers to suggest his many falls. Wonderful detail. Then Jeff begins to describe the function of the space station Thunderbird 5, a sequence which is opened by what is possibly my most favourite shot from the entire Thunderbirds 1965 project.
What a great shot. The camera gazes up at Jeff with his sharp eyes looking up into space as if he can see all the way into orbit. His flamingo shirt really is absolutely fabulous. This composition really reflects Thunderbirds’ striking comic strip style and brings the character to life. This is a shot that sums up the incredible excitement of Thunderbirds. I’m so glad that this pose made it onto the cover of the DVD and Blu-ray. Absolutely love it.
Jeff, Penelope and Parker leave to make their tour around the island. Parker is charged with the burden of carrying Jeff’s mobile control console. It’s a heavy, clunky, bright red piece of Thunderbirds technology. It has that typical 60s view of future technology that the series is well known for with lights, bright colours, and lots of buttons to press. Note the kit part under the side handle.
We get to our first commerical break with the screen fading to black in a way that looks exactly like it was shot and edited on film.
Jeff, Penelope and Parker stop FAB 1 at a point on the island which Thunderbirds fans have never seen before, a vantage point overlooking the swimming pool. That’s another treat that comes from this project, getting to see locations or shots that didn’t appear in the series.
Jeff turns on his control unit to watch the launching of Thunderbird 1. The high definition stock footage has been treated very skillfully to look like the slightly flickering and blurry images that appear on screens in Thunderbirds owing to the way the effect was originally achieved.
The launch sequences are the same as those originally shot for Trapped in the Sky and reused throughout the rest of the series. The use of stock footage in Thunderbirds 1965 has two purposes. It allows the production team to show things on screen as they appeared originally without having to go to the enormous expense of shooting a very similar sequence again – a technique used well, and not so well, in the series. The second purpose, as I’ve just touched upon, is the fact that stock footage is reused constantly in the original series anyway so it’s something of a staple of Thunderbirds. Sometimes it matches up with specially shot sequences, sometimes it really doesn’t. The reuse of footage is the thing that contributes a huge number of continuity errors. That footage is, however, an important part of what makes Thunderbirds, Thunderbirds. So quite rightly, the TB65 team have used shots from the original series whenever necessary in their episodes in order to expand on certain elements and achieve things that their limited budget couldn’t accomodate.
Once Thunderbird 1 has blasted off, the trio drive to the other side of the island to watch the launching of Thunderbird 2. Parker admires the “photo” in the lounge which Virgil uses to access the launch slide. Penelope corrects him, stating that “Parker always calls paintings, photos.” Her voice oozes with condescension which is brilliantly reflected in the way the puppet’s eyes shift, Jeff gives a little look and Parker furiously drops the control unit. A great example of the marionettes being used to show very human emotions.
The brilliant Thunderbird 2 launch sequence begins. Doesn’t she look beautiful?
With the aid of modern editing, I assume it would have been easy, or at least possible, for the editors to fix the continuity error pictured below from the original stock footage. Despite selecting Pod 4, Pod 2 is seen on the left of Thunderbird 2 before it leaves the hangar when it should be Pod 3. Due to the constant reuse of this shot, the same error occurs multiple times in the original series. Therefore, to allow for the authentic Thunderbirds experience, the error has been retained here. It just wouldn’t have been Thunderbirds if it had been fixed so that the ‘2’ became a ‘3’. Instead, they kept the original stock footage as any director or editor on the original series would have done. As I’ve said before and will continue to say again, Thunderbirds is by no means perfect so to go back and fix those errors wouldn’t produce the same result as the episodes made in the 60s.
Now I could be wrong, but is this a new shot of TB2 on the runway?
I don’t recognise it but it looks so much like an original part of the launch sequence that I’m torn between saying whether it was shot by Pod 4 Films, or AP Films. Now that’s how talented the people behind these episodes are. The Thunderbird 2 model used on this project which features more prominently in The Abominable Snowman is a stunning replica of the first Thunderbird 2 model used in the original series.
Parker looks out across the ocean as Thunderbird 2 takes off with the sun in his eyes. Such a clever detail which makes the whole world seem so believable and makes the puppets seem like real people.
Pod 4 is dropped in the ocean and Parker watches the launch of Thunderbird 4 through some binoculars which is a really lovely prop. The classic ‘looking through binoculars’ effect which is used so much in Thunderbirds is put to use here over the stock footage of Thunderbird 4 hurtling down the launch ramp into the water.
Next, the characters head up to the Round House to watch the launch of Thunderbird 3. The camera moves down from looking out at the ocean to Jeff, Penelope and Parker standing at a railing. It’s a charming shot for many reasons. The viewer gets a good look at the ocean backdrop which looks exactly the same as what can always be seen out of the windows of the Tracy Villa in the original series. The effect is achieved by simply sticking pieces of tinsel to a dark blue backdrop and allowing them to shimmer in the light. With the talent of people like Anderson stalwart Richard Gregory on the team, they could easily have come up with a more sophisticated effect that looked more convincing on screen. But in order to make it look more like Thunderbirds, they had to go with this more primitive approach which looks superb.
Now take a look at those strings. Yes, we can all see them. And we can all see them in the original episodes. The AP Films and Century 21 team tried so hard in all of the Supermarionation shows to hide them. Sometimes, even under the scrutiny of high definition blu-ray players, they appear to have succeeded. But sometimes they didn’t. The Thunderbirds 1965 team sourced the same type of wire to string their puppets and as a result, the visibility of the strings is on par with the standard set by the original series. They don’t distract the viewer or reduce the integrity of the puppet performances, in fact you barely notice them. If Gerry Anderson could have had the option of digitally removing the strings back in the 60s I’m certain he would have done. Unfortunately for him, that technology wasn’t available and as a result the puppet control wires are visible to those who seek them, and therefore in order to remain faithful, they’re also just about visible in these new episodes.
I know it sounds obvious, but with Thunderbird 1 having already been launched, Scott isn’t around to co-pilot Thunderbird 3 with Alan. This makes for a bit of a problem with stock footage because most of the time when Thunderbird 3 is launched, Scott is sat right next to Alan. Fortunately, in Danger at Ocean Deep, Alan is accompanied by Brains when going up to Thunderbird 5 and the launch sequence was reshot accordingly. Therefore that is the sequence used here. Once again this shows some great expertise of the original series for the editors to know that this was the only version of the launch sequence that they could use. Thank goodness AP Films went to the effort of reshooting the launch sequence for Danger at Ocean Deep or this sequence wouldn’t have made as much sense.
Unfortunately in between getting off the sofa in Thunderbird 3 and getting in the elevator up to the control room, Alan suddenly changes into his outfit from Sun Probe, reusing shots from that episode. This is a problem with the sequence from Danger at Ocean Deep and there’s no way the makers of Introducing Thunderbirds could have gotten around this aside from building a replica of the Thunderbird 3 control room, specially creating a replica of Alan’s Danger and Ocean Deep costume, and shot for shot remaking this short scene with their own Alan puppet. Not only would this have been somewhat jarring anyway, but seeing as they didn’t bother to do it in Danger at Ocean Deep, it makes sense that they wouldn’t do it for Introducing Thunderbirds either. Again, it all helps to make this feel like a Thunderbirds episode made in the 60s with the same restrictions that they had back then.
With the tour concluded, evening falls on Tracy Island, and Penelope and Jeff are in the library. They have changed outfits – something which happens often in the Thunderbirds 1965 episodes and demonstrates the great versatility of the costume designer.
Jeff goes to open the safe where secret documentation about International Rescue is stored only to discover it’s completely empty. Penelope immediately suspects Parker who appears from around a corner, a hilarious moment which got a lot of laughs at the premiere screening.
Jeff is surprisingly chilled about Parker breaking into his safe and stealing the top secret plans of the entire organisation and remarks that with Lady Penelope and Parker on the team, ‘Thunderbirds are definitely go’. The episode concludes with an incredibly stirring montage of all five Tracy brothers in control of their respective craft set to the standard end title music. And remember that mysterious painting in place of Penelope’s portrait that I mentioned earlier? In a wonderful touch, her portrait is now revealed in its rightful place, signifying that she now has full membership to the organisation and the series is now ready to begin. Its a fantastic sequence which serves as a great tribute to a team of heroes that have been thrilling and entertaining generations of viewers for over 50 years.
The end credits utilise the Trapped in the Sky edition of the closing theme, in-keeping with the style set in the opening titles. Even the Mole is absent from the end credits as it wasn’t included as standard until Pit of Peril.
Congratulations to Justin T. Lee for directing a very fun episode of Thunderbirds. Originally, Introducing Thunderbirds was designed purely to serve as an extended piece of exposition to explain the format of Thunderbirds to those that were unfamiliar with it at the time. Turning the fairly bland script into a full episode that could stand up with the others must have been a daunting task. The team succeed in making an exciting adventure which has several treats for hardcore fans of the series, and is the perfect introduction or re-introduction to Thunderbirds for casual viewers.
Stay tuned for the next Thunderbirds 1965 article where we take a journey to the Himalayas for an encounter with the abominable snowman!