What’s your favourite model? A tribute to Gerry Anderson’s sci-fi

What’s your favourite model? It’s a question one answers with care when it comes from your wife. ‘Thunderbird 2,’ I said cheerfully.

Thunderbird 2 was the heavy-lift rescue aircraft of Gerry Anderson’s iconic 1960s series Thunderbirds. To this day I have memories of watching it on a black-and-white TV. I was four.

Anderson died today aged 83. And he has, I think, left an indelible mark on pop-culture, certainly for the generation brought up with his sci-fi TV shows.

As a kid I was glued to Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, Joe 90, UFO and Space 1999. And so was everybody I knew. We got them later than everybody else, here in New Zealand, and what I didn’t know was that back in the swinging 60’s, Thunderbirds were hip. Anderson and his first wife Sylvia were the darlings of the London set. Even the Thunderbirds call-sign ‘F.A.B.’ echoed the moment. What did it mean? Nothing, according to Anderson – it was a reference to the in-word of the day. Fab(ulous).

All was done with models, mostly in 1/72 scale, often using kit parts, and with 1/3 scale puppets rigged with solenoids to make the mouths move in synch, a technique Anderson dubbed ‘Supermarionation’. Even the live-action shows UFO (which tackled adult themes and was edgy for 1970) and Space 1999 pivoted on top-rate model-work and special effects. The man responsible was Derek Meddings, and to my mind his work still stands up today, the UFO ‘moon’ effects, particularly.

The imagery is iconic – here’s ‘Brains’, in-show inventor who built the nuclear-powered Thunderbirds rescue aircraft – break-dancing in a recent advert .

Anderson’s future was a heroic, optimistic world of engineering marvels that made anything possible. Nuclear power was a boon. What’s more, in the “2065” of Thunderbirds, interplanetary travel was a rarity and humans hadn’t reached Mars – something, I suspect, that will prove more prescient than we think.

For the rest – well, reality hasn’t co-operated. But we can’t fault the optimism. Or the pleasure Anderson gave to generations of children – and adults.

Have you seen these shows? What impact did they have on you?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

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10 comments on “What’s your favourite model? A tribute to Gerry Anderson’s sci-fi

  1. Elisa Nuckle says:

    I haven’t watched any of these shows, but I know people who have. Didn’t know Anderson passed away today though! :(

    • He had alzheimers, apparently – I’d heard he was working on a CGI update for “Thunderbirds”. The original is worth checking out if you get the chance, looking back it’s very much “British/RAF” thinking, very much a “1960s period piece”, but that gives it a charm of its own, quite apart from the special effects which are all model-work-and-squibs. I have no idea how they did some of them – easy enough today with CGI, but back then, for real, at 1/72 scale? Apparently Stanley Kubrick tried to nab some of Anderson’s effects gurus for “2001: A Space Odyssey”, but Anderson wouldn’t let them go.

      • Elisa Nuckle says:

        Interesting. I will definitely look into trying to watch Thunderbirds at least, since that’s the one that sounds vaguely familiar. I didn’t know that about A Space Odyssey either! The graphics in that movie weren’t bad at all for the time! Definitely curious.

        Also I like that old British-y style. It’s something I’m not used to, so it seems very new and unique whenever I watch something along those lines. Guess that’s what happens when your cultural knowledge outside of the US is next to nothing, huh? I’ve been expanding in that area though, ever since I joined WordPress and started blogging.

        • Anderson’s material was thoroughly ‘British’, though the weird thing is he was trying very hard to break into the US market – hence the Tracy family, who ran the Thunderbirds rescue aircraft, were all-American boys. He had only one genuine US voice actor, I believe. It didn’t quite work, I felt – came across more as ‘this is how the British think the US works’, but that didn’t detract from the show which was very thoroughly mid-century British in so many ways. The whole thing was lampooned quite recently – did you ever see Parker & Stone’s ‘Team America: World Police’? It absolutely parodied the whole THunderbirds-puppet-model approach, even down to the problems the puppeteers had getting the puppets to walk convincingly.

  2. I have to admit I was a big Thunderbirds fan as a kid and my favourite model was Thunderbird 2, although I do recall getting a Thunderbird 4 bath toy for Christmas one year :-)
    Although the series looks very dated now, at the time is was ground-breaking with real stories in each episode to keep young viewers enthralled.
    I hadn’t heard Gerry Anderson had passed away – it’s always sad when a person who brought enjoyment to so many passes with such an awful condition.

    • He apparently never stopped working until close to the end – and had a new CGI version of Thunderbirds in hand. He bought so much pleasure to so many people – and for all the jokes people made about the hokey puppet-work, the fact remains that he offered great stories that captured and held a generation – and more. I was always intrigued, incidentally, with ‘Space 1999′; many of the first season stories were more ‘mystic’ than ‘hard SF’.

  3. Matt- You always take me back to places I thought I had forgotten. Everyone I knew watched them religiously. Great stuff.

    • Thank you. They were pretty iconic – we didn’t get them in NZ until well after they were made, but they were staple TV watching, along with Dr Who. I have to confess, when the ‘Thunderbirds’ DVD box set came out, I bought it. I didn’t bother watching the 2004 movie, though – didn’t want my childhood memories ruined!

  4. arteis says:

    The first TV programmes I remember ever watching (at a friend’s house, as we didn’t own a TV then) were ‘Fireball XL5′ and ‘Supercar’, both Anderson series.

    I understand those two early shows were preceded by a western called ‘Four Feather Falls’ – while I vaguely recall the name of this programme, but can’t remember ever seeing it.

    So far as ‘Thunderbirds’ is concerned, I too loved Thunderbird 2 the best. I remember saving up my pocket money to buy a plastic model of Thunderbird 2 at a shop in Bishopdale mall, Christchurch.

    • I never saw those. I saw ‘Stingray’, which was the immediate predecessor to Thunderbirds, but that was later. Also ‘Captain Scarlet’. About that time I was given a ‘Dinky’ die-cast SPV. I still have that and the ‘Dinky’ die-cast Thunderbird 2 I saved up and bought when I was about 15. :-)

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