For the past 32 weeks, I have set out to closely analyse and review every episode of the Thunderbirds television series. When I started out in August 2016, little did I know that this would be a gargantuan task weighing in at just over 200,000 words in total. The mission was simply to pay close attention to the audio and visuals on the high definition transfers provided on the Shout Factory blu-ray boxset. I would then point out items of interest including re-used models, puppets, sets, props, and costumes; continuity errors and plot inconsistencies – some of which were brought about by the need to extend episodes from the original half hour format to the full 50 minute running time; and some bloopers which we were probably never supposed to see. It was a fun and extremely educational process which taught me a heck of a lot about how Thunderbirds was made, and hopefully those of you who have been following along at home have also learnt a lot about the series.
So what exactly have I learned about Thunderbirds, and how has the experience of watching, analysing and reviewing one episode every week changed the way I look at my favourite show?
Well the good news is that despite getting dangerously close to dissecting every single shot, I can still report that it is indeed my favourite show. That isn’t to say that it is anywhere near perfect – far from it. As you know, I could often be devilishly snippy and ruthless when coming across a sequence in an episode that didn’t make sense, or I found particularly dull. I’m happy to say that most people were in on the joke. Of course I don’t hate any part of Thunderbirds with that much of a passion, but it is true that there are some bits that are better than other bits – because of course there are, nothing can be consistently perfect across 32 episodes, with a punishing schedule spanning across months of production, and subject to different interpretations from various writers and directors all with different approaches and styles.
Some readers took great offence to my desire to point out imperfections and the notion that not everything about the series was 10/10 every single time. The greatest stir was probably caused when I announced that to me, The Cham-Cham was a fairly average episode because the story didn’t quite pack enough of a Thunderbirds punch in my eyes. I realise a lot of people love the episode for its stronger elements and high production values, and I can’t deny that those do provide some of the best sequences in the series, but when looking at the overall package I decided that it wasn’t a firm favourite of mine. I received messages afterwards that questioned whether I even liked Thunderbirds because I was pointing out so many errors and weak plot points. At no point, however, did they say that I was factually inaccurate to point out those errors, just that I ought not to, as if there was some sort of spell that I was breaking.
But the real magic of Thunderbirds is the fact that after all that scrutiny and pulling apart, I still love it. The bold cinematography, the stunning visual effects, the engaging characters, and the extraordinarily ambitious stories are all clearly evident, whether you take in the episode as a whole, or break it down to its component parts.
Some episodes stood up to the process of analysis better than others, and quite often my opinion of an episode would be completely transformed just from watching it again. Much of this was due to the fact that I was giving each episode equal weight. I would sit down to watch every episode with a fresh perspective, whether I’d seen it a gazillion times before and loved it, or had generally avoided re-watching it because of a bad first impression. This levelled the playing field and opened up my mind to learning new things about each episode, spotting elements on screen or in the story that I never had before, and allowing my opinion to be changed.
City Of Fire stands out to me as an example of an episode which I initially didn’t have a very high opinion of, focussing as it did on three ordinary people stuck in a basement after countless brand new Thompson Tower safety features failed to contain what should have been a fairly small fire in the parking garage. While I still consider the plot to be rather far-fetched and flawed in places, I was opened up to the brilliance of the subplot featuring the Tracy family’s fear of Brains’ new gas. This subplot does much to enhance the characterisation of the Tracy boys, and gives us much more investment in the efforts of International Rescue to save this small family. The special effects are also stunning and the struggle of the Firefly to clear the rubble is superbly executed on screen. These elements of the story were in fact added to the episode later when the demand came from Lew Grade to extend the first eleven episodes from half hour stories to 50 minutes.
Indeed, much of my early analysis was dedicated to working out and understanding where additional material had been inserted into the first eleven episodes, and analysing the effectiveness of the new subplots in improving, or in some cases weakening the episode overall. You can read my full article, Thunderbirds – Extending The First Eleven, to learn more about my discoveries.
Then we started to come across episodes which were originally written as half hour scripts but were extended before production began, and eventually the stories became fully fledged 50 minute scripts from the outset. During this period, Thunderbirds hits it stride and constantly does things to shake up the format and throw International Rescue into different situations.
Starting with The Perils of Penelope, we get a whole story where for the first time, Lady P is the main focus and it pays off extremely well in a tightly written action-adventure story full of intrigue and building to a grand climax. Then we have something like Terror In New York City, when Thunderbird 2 is knocked out of operation while the series’ most striking disaster unfolds in New York. Other examples include visitors coming to the island and restricting operations in End of the Road and Edge of Impact, while International Rescue’s entire reputation hangs in the balance in The Impostors. Two rescue missions are given equal focus in the episode 30 Minutes After Noon while the same ship runs into the same disaster twice in Danger At Ocean Deep. A whacky Duchess dominates The Duchess Assignment, while some toothy beasts lash out in Attack of The Alligators! All of this adds up to a wide variety of approaches to writing and producing a Thunderbirds adventure of epic proportions. Some approaches worked and some were a little weaker, but what has to be admired is the sheer variety and the bold ambition of this portion of the series. Even the clip show at the end of the first series, Security Hazard, has its merits. It may not have the same complex storytelling of the other episodes, but as a clip show it still does a great job at giving us more time with the Tracy boys and showing us how they deal with a unique situation rather creatively.
With the first 26 episodes completed, it was time for me to move straight on to the second series without even pausing for breath. I was faced with the task of analysing all of those design changes which took place as a result of Thunderbirds Are Go going into production for the big screen. I must admit that I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to working on those final six episodes. My opinion had always been that the design changes had taken away too much of the charm and ‘perfect imperfection’ which had made the first series seem so special. But there was actually a lot which I had found myself liking about the second series. Most of the set changes brought about a more sophisticated look which I felt suited some of the more complex and involved stories of the second series. Atlantic Inferno carries the transition perfectly with outstanding special effects work and some more complex character work as Scott takes on the pressures of command, and Jeff fears for the reputation of the organisation as a result. But because the second series is so short, there are a few bum notes which stand out a little more than they normally would – for me those would be Lord Parker’s ‘Oliday and Give Or Take A Million. Both attempt a more light-hearted approach but end up falling flat as soon as they start to take themselves too seriously.
What one can detect more-so in the second series is a level of comfort with the format and the world which the characters inhabited. There’s a cohesiveness and maturity to the second series which leans more towards realism and attempting to give the show some more adult appeal. For example, in my Ricochet review I compared the mundane, routine launching of the Telsat IV rocket to the excitement and anticipation of the Sun Probe launch in Sun Probe and The Perils of Penelope. There’s a striking shift in tone from the optimism and achievement of technological breakthroughs at the beginning of the first series, to the acceptance of certain advancements as a part of everyday life, such as rocket launchings just being something that anyone with a big enough space on their rooftop can do, as seen in Give Or Take A Million. So maybe some of that enthusiasm and spark for adventure and grand engineering schemes is starting to fade towards the end of the series – even Bruno’s cries of “it will be a great disaster” in Lord Parker’s ‘Oliday indicate a little of that pessimism.
Where would the future of Thunderbirds have lead if it had managed to sell to an American network and continued as a result? Well that shift more towards realism and maturity towards the end suggests to me that the writers were settling in to something of a routine with the series, and perhaps we would have seen more stories like that with a realistic, mature approach to the technology of the future. After all, that’s the direction that Captain Scarlet went in when Gerry Anderson was forced to come up with a new concept.
Of course, after the massive success of the first series in the UK, there were some which felt the future of Thunderbirds lay on the big screen, and so Thunderbirds Are Go was commissioned. When that inexplicably flopped at the box office, they were still persistent and Thunderbird 6 was produced, even though production on the television series had ceased. When that film performed poorly, that was it. Are the feature films therefore only to be viewed as essentially being pieces of spin-off merchandise which failed to launch the series any further? Do they have an important part in the legacy of Thunderbirds? My initial thought would be that they really don’t have that much of an impact… but hey, maybe we should put that to the test…
How about I review Thunderbirds Are Go and Thunderbird 6 just to see what these ambitious, big budget adventures have to offer? Of course they might take a bit longer than a regular episode so here’s a schedule of when to look out for them.
Friday 21st April 2017 – Thunderbirds Are Go (1966)
Friday 5th May 2017 – Thunderbird 6 (1968)
And, just to finish things off, I actually have something special lined up for you.
Friday 19th May 2017 – Thunderbirds (2004)
That’s right, a review of the 2004 Thunderbirds movie, directed by Jonathan Frakes is coming to the Security Hazard blog in the near future. But there’s a twist. I do not possess the knowledge on the production of the film that I feel would educate and inform my readers enough, so for this review I have roped in a willing(-ish) volunteer to share his wisdom on the history of this project. He knows a huge amount about how this film came to be, what works about it and what doesn’t work so well – his name is Andrew Clements and he will be guiding us through this Thunderbirds big screen adventure for the 21st Century. I’m really excited to see what he has in store for us!
It just remains for me to say a massive thank you to all of the folks who have been following the Thunderbirds reviews week after week and have been giving me the encouragement to keep going! Special thanks to Anderson Entertainment for featuring the articles in their weekly email newsletters! Subscribe to those newsletters for lots of exciting news about the worlds of Gerry Anderson. To go back and read any of my Thunderbirds reviews, visit this page for a complete list! FAB!