Thunderbirds is a 2004 film adaptation of the classic 1960’s puppet television series, only without the puppets (and it’s not a television series either, obviously). It has a reputation that precedes it to an even greater extent than Parker’s nose precedes his face as he enters a room. It’s fair to say that quite a few people dislike the film for various reasons, some of which I’m sure I will cover over the course of this review.
Learning from the weaknesses of the Thunderbirds Are Go feature film which premiered to a much smaller audience than originally expected in December 1966, Thunderbird 6 went into production in May 1967 alongside the production of Captain Scarlet which had started in January. The Century 21 studio divided once again with one team tackling Thunderbird 6 while the other continued to produce episodes of Captain Scarlet. This lasted for 4 months. The film was completed and classified by January 1968, but was then shelved for 6 months for release in July. More than 18 months had passed since a new episode of Thunderbirds had been broadcast, and when Thunderbird 6 went into production it had been at least 6 months since the team had worked on any major Thunderbirds productions. How did such a long break affect the finished product and its reception? There’s no doubt that Thunderbird 6 addresses some of the weaknesses of Thunderbirds Are Go, but does it present other problems? Ultimately, this is the final adventure for the International Rescue team produced in the 60’s by the original Century 21 team – so was this film one last hurrah, the glimmer of a new direction for the format, or the reason it all came to an end?
“Excitement is Go! Adventure is Go! Danger is Go! Thunderbirds Are Go! Now on the BIG SCREEN in Technicolor – and Techniscope. THUNDERBIRDS – ARE – GO!” So declared the trailer for International Rescue’s first adventure on the big screen – Thunderbirds Are Go. When the project went into production in March 1966, it must have really felt like Thunderbirds was going to take over the world, having achieved great success on television in the UK, receiving the commission for a second series, and the promise of a network sale to the United States. But the added boost of launching Thunderbirds into cinemas across the world would have surely sealed the deal that the franchise was going to be around for a really long time. But how did the team on the Slough Trading Estate handle this gargantuan task of polishing up the distincitve Thunderbirds look and feel for the big screen, while also producing the television series at the same time. We’re about to find out as we dive into the tale of Zero-X’s voyage to the planet Mars…
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.
It’s worth remembering that nobody intended for Give Or Take A Million to be the end of the Thunderbirds television series. It would be wrong to judge it against other series finales because for the production team, this was not considered to be the end of Thunderbirds. It looked as though A.P. Films, now Century 21, had found their winning format and would continue making Thunderbirds for as long as there was a demand for it. Hopes were also high for the Thunderbirds Are Go movie to launch International Rescue into a string of adventures on the big screen. Although the movie failed to perform at the box office, there was still hope for further success, and so Thunderbird 6 was commissioned. But for the television series, the plug was pulled very suddenly by Lew Grade when the sale of the series to the American networks fell through – a result of him raising the price too high. But that high value sale was necessary for the production of Thunderbirds to continue being financial viable to Grade, it was something he had counted on – and without it, the most expensive television series in the UK at that time simply could not continue. And so, rather unluckily, the last episode we have been left with is this Christmas special – a merry escapade for a Christmas Day evening, but when weighed against the rest of the series, is lacking some pretty vital components.
In the mid-1960’s, the UK was gripped by the Radio Caroline phenomenon, a pirate radio station broadcasting from a ship off the English coast without a government license. It was popular for bravely busting the BBC’s broadcasting monopoly and circumventing the restrictive music broadcasting rules of certain record companies. Something about this cool and rebellious concept struck a chord with Gerry Anderson, who theorised that in the future, pirate radio ships would be replaced with pirate radio satellites broadcasting from orbit without a license. It’s a wonderfully inventive notion, and one which I feel is extremely well executed in this episode. The story also gives us a rare Thunderbird 3 mission, a fun guest character, and it gives us a little break from the Penelope based adventures which otherwise dominate the second series.
Two new names are brought to the credits of this episode, with a script written by Tony Barwick, and direction from Brian Burgess. Neither of them were new to the world of Thunderbirds. Barwick was hired during the first series to write additional material for the episodes originally created as half hour stories. He continued to work with Gerry Anderson on a number of projects until his death in 1993. Barwick had essentially taken over script editing duties from Alan Pattillo who had turned away from his full time role at the studio by this point. This episode appears to have been Brian Burgess’ first job as a director. He is also credited as production coordinator on Thunderbirds Are Go, and went on to direct five episodes of Captain Scarlet as well as working as visual effects production manager on the series. Burgess then worked as production manager on the live action Anderson feature film, Doppelgänger. Burgess was presumably filling in the gap left by David Elliott and Alan Pattillo after their departures as directors for the series. Lord Parker’s ‘Oliday, and the following Barwick/Burgess episode, Ricochet, perhaps give us a taste of what the series would have been like had it continued past Give Or Take A Million, with new talent rising up through the ranks of the studio to provide their interpretation of the format.
Alias Mr. Hackenbacker isn’t exactly one of the most talked about episodes of Thunderbirds. Indeed, before sitting down to watch this one I had no idea what I was going to make of it. The simple fact is that I really enjoyed it. There’s lots of action, intrigue, entertaining characters, great technology, all building to a thrilling conclusion… which admittedly does match the climax of Trapped In The Sky almost shot for shot. Maybe that’s the issue here, or maybe it’s the somewhat cheesy fashion show plot that puts people off this one. The plot elements don’t necessarily gel together perfectly, but for me there’s still a good mix and balance between the fashion show stuff and the revolutionary new aircraft getting hi-jacked stuff. Let’s dive into it!
Path of Destruction brings the Thunderbirds format right back to basics. A big, yellow, dangerous machine goes out of control and causes mass destruction – International Rescue have to stop it. That’s what it boils down to and that’s probably why people love this story so much. Maybe it’s too simple and contains much that is highly unlikely and highly unfortunate, but hey – this is Thunderbirds and that’s why we love it. There’s a lot that is imperfect, but suspend your disbelief and enjoy this cracking good story.
In order to kick off the second series of Thunderbirds just right, Atlantic Inferno gives us a disaster of epic proportions. The special effects team tackle the difficult task of filming both fire and water in ways which make them look far from miniature. The incredible production value continues to rise from where we left off… it’s almost as if the team were making a movie… well as a matter of fact they were. At the end of the last series, a two month or so break in shooting was taken. In that time all of the sets, models, and regular cast of puppets were revamped to stand up to the scrutiny of appearing on the big screen. On March 3rd 1966, filming began on Thunderbirds Are Go, a feature film starring International Rescue and the Zero-X crew. We’ll talk more about that later. It was deemed possible for the production team and the studios to split down the middle and expandeven further to tackle shooting the movie at the same time as new episodes of the television series. Generally speaking, the more senior members of the crew went to work on the movie while the juniors rose to the challenge of maintaining the high standard of the television series. The division of people and resources meant that the standard schedule of two units shooting two episodes every four weeks was no longer an option. They were down to one unit shooting one episode every four weeks. Let’s see how the changes implemented for Thunderbirds Are Go really affected the second series as we dive in to Atlantic Inferno.