Thunderbirds – 2. Pit Of Peril

Directed by Desmond Saunders

Teleplay by Alan Fennell

First Broadcast – 7th October 1965

Join me as I dive into the Pit of Padding… sorry, I mean Pit of Peril. 

Pit of Peril introduces us to the regular opening theme music and a teaser montage with no sound effects. Lots of vehicles and fireballs on display. It must be an exciting episode!


Sorry to shatter the illusion, but yes, in one of the more desperate attempts to fill the new 50 minute running time, the decision was taken to include as much stock footage of jungle and animals as possible in this opening sequence. And even if this was in the original half hour version of the episode, it’s still a bizarre idea because the stock footage (like most stock footage) doesn’t blend at all with the miniature jungle created in the studio.

It’s basically implied that the Sidewinder is a giant metal monster and all the animals are scared of it so they run away. Unfortunately it just looks more like someone dumped half a nature documentary in the AP Films cutting rooms and insisted that they use it somehow.


General Peters and his right-hand man, Ralph, look on with pride as their giant monster-like machine tears up the jungle. It’s also worth noting that while the cabin of the helijet is shown as having a canopy from the outside, the number of times the puppet set is just clearly shown as not having a canopy to allow the puppet wires through is a tad disappointing. The back of the set is clearly taller than the rest of it and the result is that it just doesn’t look finished.


The dialogue and Barry Gray’s eccentric music finally give up the illusion that a monster is tearing up the jungle, as the Sidewinder steps out into the desert. Derek Meddings and his team have to be praised for making the best of a pretty whacky idea with the design and movement of the Sidewinder. As a kid I totally bought the idea that the Sidewinder could walk. Upon re-watching, it does look a little shakey. It’s a good thing, as the episode title ominously suggests, that the Sidewinder won’t be walking for much longer. I’m sure Derek Meddings was happy to chuck the thing into a pit of fire because it looks like it was darn tricky to make it move properly.


Colonel Sweeney was previously seen as Captain Hanson in Trapped In The Sky while Frank is portrayed by the same puppet (minus his shades) that played Hanson’s co-pilot. There’s a lot of rather scary lines said by the characters in this scene. When remarking on how well the Sidewinder handles, Sweeney adds, “nothing can stop the army now, sir.” What are the U.S. Army planning exactly and why would anyone be wanting to stop them?  General Peters claims that the Sidewinder will stop “these bush-fire wars that keep springing up.” Bush-fire wars are supposedly smaller wars that are fought to prevent bigger wars. Just little skirmishes which I guess the army now wants to stamp out by annihilating everyone with their giant walking monster. That definitely annoy anyone to the point of declaring World War 3.

With the test run successfully completed, the Sidewinder heads for rendezvous point nine to meet the relief crew. But suddenly, something very strange happens. There’s a shot of a crack appearing in the dirt as the legs hit the ground, then the inside of the control room is shown turning over. Thank goodness for the foreboding music or one might get a tad confused.

The Sidewinder disappears into the ground and a huge puff of dirt shoots up. Has the Sidewinder been eaten?


The next thing we see is the Sidewinder upside down in what one can only assume to be the ‘Pit of Peril’ that the episode title teased us with. It’s surrounded by black smoke and fire, with a bit of rubble strewn about here and there. As you can probably tell, this sequence seems a bit disappointing to me. Thunderbirds often prides itself on gratuitously showing you every painful moment of a disaster. Ever single spark and squeal of the Fireflash emergency landing is played for all the drama it’s worth. The fall of the Sidewinder just all happens way too fast. One second it’s happily trundling along, the next it just isn’t. There’s no tense build up to it, there’s just one shot teasing that the ground might collapse… and then it does. No cries of “We’re not gonna make it!” or “The instruments have gone haywire, what’s going on?!” It’s about the only thing that happens quickly in this episode and the only reason I can guess for this is that the AP Films crew just couldn’t work out a satisfying way to shoot such a bizarre moment, so they decided not to. I appreciate the shock value in having something like this happen quickly, but with such a complex, unexpected and highly unlikely disaster like this, the audience sort of needs to see it to believe it. Yes, Brains goes some way to explain it later on, and that doesn’t make much sense either.


And considering the Sidewinder has been tipped upside down, how on earth are the crew lying on the floor and not the ceiling?


General Peters and Ralph are utterly confused by what’s just happened. They see a large column of black smoke in the distance in a rather nicely done shot. It looks like the shot is made up of three layers. The trees in the foreground look to be painted on glass in front of the set. Behind that is the model set, letting off the plume of smoke. Then behind that is a backdrop painted with more sand dunes and sky. The result is a rather attractive and vast landscape.


In close-up, the black smoke has turned back to brown dirt.


By the time Copter Watchdog arrives back on the scene, we’re back to black smoke.


Sweeney looks like he’s twisted his neck around a little too much.


The crew begin to awaken and we get to hear voice artist Shane Rimmer’s portrayal of Johnny. There’s no denying that Shane’s voice for Scott Tracy is a pleasure to listen to. It is, however, rather distinctive, so on the few ocassions when Shane plays another character, one does tend to notice. Johnny rather underplays the absolute catastrophe he’s just lived through with his first line:”What hit me?”


General Peters successfully makes contact with the Sidewinder crew and they work out what’s happened. The helicopter pilot announces that they should probably get out of the way of the raging inferno. This is the first character in the series to be voiced by Matt Zimmerman. It’s quite a minor character and I do have my suspicions that in the original half hour edit, the character was voiced by someone else. Seeing as Matt Zimmerman had yet to be hired when Trapped In The Sky was recorded, and multiple episodes were usually recorded at the same time, it’s possible that Matt also wasn’t around for this one originally either. His main character, Alan, doesn’t feature in this episode at all. This theory is solidified further by what happens in the next episode, City of Fire. Stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion of ‘What Happened to Matt Zimmerman?’ next week!


Can you see anything that vaguely resembles a canopy on the roof of that cockpit? Or does it just look like something’s missing? I promise not to mention it again.


Notice the two cylinders on the side of helicopter. It would appear that they might be cunningly disguised batteries powering the rotors on the helicopter model.


The camera pans over the reveal the arrival of a helijet. This is where the majority of the episode’s additional material shot to extend the story appears to begin. It’s possible that the helijet model was built for it’s appearance in episode 14, End of the Road, and was then used in the additional material shot for Pit of Peril and City of Fire. 


The yellow helijet cockpit uses the same set as Copter Watchdog with the addition of the winch control last seen in the TX-204 Target Carrier in Trapped In The Sky‘s added scenes. The helijet pilot is also voiced by Matt Zimmerman, which makes sense as these scenes were recorded later on in the production of the series.


In order to give the Sidewinder crew a little more time to allow for the additional scenes, we see Frank highlight that the machine has an automatic cooling plant. Sweeney points out that it’s powered by an atomic (uh-oh) reactor that’s due for refuelling and therefore won’t last forever. Because, as with the Fireflash, atomic reactors aren’t built to last in Thunderbirds.


General Peters and his men begin to make plans. Rather cutely, the second mini plasticine figure from the left (Sgt. Reynolds) does a little turn on the spot.


Lt. Mead, General Peters and Ralph all have their ‘thinking cigars’ out.


Mead reveals his absolutely bonkers plan to be lowered into the flaming pit in order to “assess the situation.” That’s it, that’s all he’s planning… he’s going to risk his life in order to take a gander down the pit…


He informs the Sidewinder crew of his plan. They all tell him he’s mad. Charlie the helijet pilot is also enjoying a thinking cigar.


John is listening in on the situation as Mead is lowered into the pit and informs the team on Tracy Island.


He gets further and further into the pit, despite complaints that his blood is boiling. Such bravery.


Mead starts to flail around in severe pain. Time to get out! Good thing he gets to look at the Sidewinder for a split second, or all that would have been pointless.


His clothes smoke and his face is scorched from the severe heat.


Meanwhile, Scott, Virgil and Jeff have been listening to his terrible screams of pain, and Scott suggests it might be a good idea to help them out. But Jeff is unmoved by Lt. Mead’s cries, telling Scott that International Rescue can’t get involved in case the army are horrifically burning their own men on purpose. This is the second episode in a row where International Rescue have just had to sit back and listen to other people attempt their own rescues to little avail. But Jeff’s excuse that the army could be working on some sort of top secret training exercise is a little poor. At least he puts Scott on emergency standby – which means we don’t get to watch the Thunderbird 1 launch sequence – boo!


Oh my goodness. Even Captain Scarlet didn’t imply or show this level of injury on screen. The magic of Thunderbirds relies on its slight distance from the real world. Models and puppets acting like real vehicles and people and allowing viewers to believe that they’re real, but also not associating them too much with vehicles and people in the real world. This image of Lt. Mead is just a little too close to the real world. The sudden shift in tone can be received in two ways. It’s either too dark and horrible because of Mead’s injuries, or it’s a touch comical because the show is taking itself too seriously. Either way it sticks out and is rather uncomfortable to watch.


But now the episode’s padding gets even weirder as Ralph and Sgt. Reynolds fight over who will be next to seriously injure themselves in the pit.


Part 1 comes to an end with the Sidewinder’s reactor starting to fail, and Reynolds’ planning to go down into the pit and attach a line. Yes, that’s right, all that stuff we just went through with Mead going into the pit, we get to do it again with another character we don’t really care about.


Reynolds reaches the bottom of the pit, much better able to withstand the heat of the pit than Mead. He looks tiny compared to the tow cable and the Sidewinder’s foot.


You can just about see a floor puppeteer’s fingers trying to help Reynolds out with getting the cable around the Sidewinder’s foot.

Charlie seems to have nodded off and gets a good telling off from General Peters when he completely ignores requests to winch Reynolds out of the pit.


Here we go again.

Mead and Reynolds are taken to hospital while Copter Watchdog attempts to drag the Sidewinder using the cable. There’s a huge build up of tension but eventually the line fails and the Sidewinder falls back over. As with Trapped In The Sky, we’ve had an extended sequence of setting up a rescue and attempting to add to the story, which completely falls apart as soon as the subplot achieves absolutely nothing to affect the main plot. All of those lives are risked for nothing. That is unfortunately the issue with the idea of adding an extra subplot to an episode that already exists as a half hour story; it’s difficult to add something to a finished story. Trapped In The Sky and Pit of Peril are the most noticeable offenders for having completely valueless subplots, and fortunately, the writers become much more skilled at adding to their episodes later on in the series.


Ralph threatens us with yet another pointless excursion into the pit, but fortunately the rest of the episode kicks in before he gets a chance to persuade the General. They eventually work out who they should call. 

John contacts base. A shot from Trapped In The Sky is reused to show Jeff’s ashtray/microphone flipping over. He suddenly changes outfits.


Thunderbirds Are FINALLY Go!


John’s had plenty of time to do some research and has put together all his facts on a little clipboard. The puppet operator does a great job of making it look like John is reading as his eyes move from left to right.


Jeff has a clipboard to match. Under Scott’s orders he dispatches Virgil and Brains in Thunderbird 2.


We get to see Brains enter using the passenger chute for the first time.

Thunderbird 1 soon arrives on the scene as the hull of the Sidewinder starts to crack. The pace is noticeably starting to pick up and one actually starts to feel like the crew are in very real danger.


No wonder the Sidewinder’s air purifier isn’t working properly, it’s just a collander stuck to the wall.

Scott launches the Remote TV Camera which is somehow stowed in the cockpit of Thunderbird 1. For some reason Scott has his angry face on. He’s super serious about his TV Camera and is absolutely furious when General Peters questions its strength. The camera is, however, a rather flimsy looking model that wobbles a bit.

Thunderbird 2 comes in to land and because its big and green and awesome, she completely blocks Thunderbird 1 from view.


I’m sure the puppeteers were thrilled to hear that the set needed to be lit on fire, and that the puppets they worked so hard to build were going to be dangled in front of it. I love how this shot is cleverly set up to make it look like Johnny is holding the fire extinguisher. Credit has to go to the technicians and floor puppeteers that have to be crouched out of shot to make this kind of stuff work on screen.


Wow Thunderbird 2 looks epic in this shot.

I love this shot which tracks through Pod 5 revealing the Mole, the Recovery Vehicles and the TB2 Laboratory. While it does detract somewhat from the grand reveal of the pod vehicles driving out of the pod, it’s fun to see just how much cargo Thunderbird 2 can carry.

Via the TV Camera, Scott, Virgil and Brains discover U.S. Army wreckage in the pit. Everyone has their angriest expressions on for some reason.


Brains just about manages to explain what actually happened to the Sidewinder, and some poor soul in the art department had to draw a diagram to explain it. At first I didn’t quite believe that spontaneous combustion so deep underground was possible, but it turns out that subsurface landfill fires are a real occurence as a result of the enormous heat generated by decomposition. For the pit to not be baracaded and sign-posted, or for the military to not have any awareness of its existence, is a little hard to believe. I mean if the U.S. Army were testing their new super machine, you’d have thought they’d check the route first. But despite how implausible it all sounds, the reasoning behind the pit’s existence is actually pretty sound. Brains’ plan to blow up the rest of the pit and drag the Sidewinder up the side of it just about makes sense, although seeing as Virgil gets lowered into the pit anyway, one wonders why exactly he doesn’t just cut into the control room and get the crew out that way. Everyone seems a little preoccupied with rescuing the Sidewinder itself for some reason – the thing’s a piece of junk anyway by this point, why not just leave it down there to burn? Although I guess it probably is a good idea to move something with an atomic reactor away from a massive fire.


Lucky Virgil gets to be the third person to be lowered into the inferno. He looks really happy about it. Looks like someone’s thrown a reel of film down there. Maybe it’s the original three-hour director’s cut of Trapped In The Sky?


Meanwhile, the Mole struggles a little getting out of the pod and gets a bit stuck on the top of the exit.


Still looking furious, Scott’s at the controls with the plan to burrow into the pit and pick up Virgil. It looks to be the same piece of set that is usually used as Scott’s mobile control unit.


If you watch carefully, Brains says the line “Fine, Scott. Ready to detonate explosives on your instructions,” without moving his lips.

The Mole emerges into the pit to pick up Virgil and he grumpily stamps his way inside having laid all the charges.


I love it when the puppets are made to look like they’re perspiring. For some reason you can just believe it and it’s a small detail that makes the tension of the scene all the more credible.


As the Mole comes back up to the surface, you can see that the footage has been reversed as a trail of sand can be seen pouring back up to the trolley.

With the Mole clear, a very nervous looking Brains fires the charges. There’s some wonderful fireballs and explosions. You can just about see the ground giving way but it’s not really focussed on because it just looks like a giant slab of something falling into the pit. I’m surprised there aren’t lots of juicy shots of rocks crumbling away and falling down the pit, crashing against the hull of the Sidewinder.


Virgil takes up his position at the controls of Recovery Vehicle 1. Notice the white lego-like bricks and plates on the panel in front of him.

The Recovery Vehicles roll out of the pod. The radio controlled vehicle is the same design as the master vehicle, just missing a windscreen.


Scott’s finally smiling again, remarkably happy to be out of the Mole.

Here’s the tense and drawn out drama that we’ve been waiting for! The tracks of the Recovery Vehicles spin in the sand beautifully as the burning and smoking wreckage of Sidewinder is hauled out. This rescue is rather brilliant. I know I’ve been rather critical and luke-warm about this episode, but this sequence pays off in great tension, dramatic music and stunning special effects.


I’m sure most viewers’ hearts skip a beat when the Recovery Vehicle loses grip on the Sidewinder.


Is it me, or does the arm of the Sidewinder look like a string of paper cups?

The Sidewinder makes it out of the pit! Hurrah! And just in time, Colonel Sweeney is dangerously high on the fumes.


Here’s a cute scene with Scott checking that the Sidewinder crew are okay. He takes rather more credit than he deserves though. He claims to be “one of the guys” who hauled them out of the pit. Technically only Virgil actually did any hauling. Scott just flew the TV camera around and used the Mole as a taxi service for Virgil.


Credit to (R.I.P) for pointing out that the Sidewinder looks like it’s enjoying a pint of beer to cool off.

Rather oddly Scott suddenly switches from staring at the pit very angrily to being quite smiley and happy. He asks General Peters so ensure that no aircrafts track them when they leave. Which doesn’t make much sense seeing as part of the problem in the first place was that the area was incredibly remote and there was no-one around to help out.


Just to finish off the episode in style, Thunderbird 1 sets fire to a tree during take-off. Poor tree.

So there we go, that was Pit of Peril. In its original half hour form, this would have been a really great episode with a huge scale disaster and lots of action. All the pod vehicles on display are excellent and the Sidewinder, though a problematic design, is an incredibly cool idea. The huge billows of smoke and fire inside the pit look fantastic.

Unfortunately, the episode is massively let down by the added material which contributes nothing to the story. The shots of various different people getting lowered into the pit by helicopter seem to go on forever. The whole pace gets dragged right down because the subplot doesn’t go anywhere, and indeed can’t go anywhere because in the end, International Rescue have to be the ones to save the day. One good thing about this is that after the fairly purposeless additional material of Trapped In The Sky and Pit of Peril, the writing team do get a lot better at extending the rest of the half-hour episodes.

Next week, we’ll be taking a look at City of Fire!

6 thoughts on “Thunderbirds – 2. Pit Of Peril

  1. As with most people, I have never been keen on Pit of Peril. Its slow, obvious to the fact the production team struggled to get the episode up to 50 minutes.

    Both the Sidewinder (here called Jungle Cat) and Fireflash appeared in the Stingray comic strip Curse of the Crustavons, months before Thunderbirds began airing. (That strip is better than POP.)

    Does anyone believe the rumour about the R.E.M. song The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite being based on this episode? It’s not been confirmed/denied by the band. (The song is better than POP nonetheless.)


  2. I’d forgotten that line about the Sidewinder being for bushfire wars. At the time this episode was produced, the real US Army was engaged in a “bushfire war” in the jungles of Vietnam. So it’s actually quite a topical note that’s rather lost on us 50 years later.

    Imagine an alternative version of Apocalypse Now with Lt Col Killgore sweeping in with a squadron of Sidewinders instead of helicopters! Maybe General Peters likes the smell of napalm in the morning too…


  3. It’s just struck me that the Sidewinder is an ancestor of the AT-AT used by the Empire in their bushfire wars with the Rebel Alliance. There is something sinister about a giant walking machine that would demoralise poorly equipped fighters who were facing it, though the practical weaknesses of such machines is made clear in their respective filmic outings.


  4. Sorry to disagree, I thought this episode is one of the best episodes.
    I think it’s easy to exercise cynicism (re the padding out) when you view these episodes as an adult, but you would never have thought that as a child, and as such I found this episode nothing short of thrilling – and frightening (the screams of the two burned men rising from the pit).


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