The new ‘Thunderbirds’ – fab or fail? I know what I think…

There’s no getting around it. Just about every bloke of A Certain Age in Britain and its former Empire was brought up with Gerry Anderson’s TV sci-fi classic Thunderbirds. It was at once charming, cheesy, funny, serious and melodramatic, but also hip and very, very cool.

A photo I took of the Corgi Thunderbird 2 model I've had since forever... And it's not tilt-shift. This is what happens on a focal length of 190mm at f 5.6, natural light with exposure time of 1/100.
The Corgi Thunderbird 2 model I’ve had since forever… and yes, I KNOW Thunderbird 4 is a submarine.

Thunderbirds captured the imagination of virtually every kid who saw it when it came out in 1965 – whatever their age, for it also turned Anderson into a pop-culture sensation in Swinging Sixties London. The show’s iconic radio call-back line, ‘FAB’ – not an acronym but a reference to the pop-culture word – summed it up. For me the show was inspiring. Among my books are several on engineering. Guess what got me on to it.

One of my earliest memories of TV – snowy black-and-white, miraculous to a 4-year old me – is watching the ‘Mole’ wobble out of Thunderbird 2’s pod and burrow to the rescue with the help of its rear-mounted rockets. I mean, how cool (if impractical) is that? Not to mention the Thunderbird machines themselves, invented by the stuttering genius engineer ‘Brains’ (aka Hiram J Hackenbacker). In true 1960s style these were atomic powered super-planes.

My favourite was always Thunderbird 2, a forward-swept wing frog capable of 8000 kph. Then there were the marionettes with their big heads, because the solenoid moving their lips couldn’t be made smaller. Their bounce-walk got so embedded in pop-culture that, even a generation later, advertisers were able to subvert the clunkiness without fear of people not ‘getting’ the joke:

Into this flowed Airfix and Revell kit-bashing  curious hybrids of B-58 Hustlers, F-104 Starfighters, Saab Drakkens and so forth. The Mole was made up of bits of Atlas booster, B-58 Hustler and the Airfix railway truss bridge, all poised, like many Thunderbirds vehicles, atop a 1/16 Vickers Vigor tractor chassis. Just for the hell of it, here’s the real Vigor with its Christie-style suspension:

Atlas booster with Mercury MA-9 atop. NASA, public domain.
The Thunderbirds Mole. No – the Atlas booster for real. NASA, public domain.

One of the big appeals of Thunderbirds was its effects complexity. Vehicle suspension really worked – this in small scale, no less. The Tracy brothers entered their craft via complex sliding couches, couch-trolleys, extensible platforms and so on. Thunderbird 1 didn’t just take off. It ran down a conveyor belt for no apparent reason and only then blasted off from a hangar with a real-world lemon-squeezer glued to the wall, hurtling skywards via a sliding swimming pool (well, how else do you launch a VTOL swing-wing hypersonic aircraft?). And then there was Thunderbird 2 with its pivoting palm-tree runway.

The man behind it was Derek Meddings, whose SFX work was leading-edge for the day – so good that when Stanley Kubrick was looking for effects experts for 2001: A Space Odyssey, he called Anderson.

Then there was the ‘2065’ setting with its secrecy schtik – this last a feature in most of Anderson’s work, never explained logically, but very cool nonetheless. And that’s without Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward and her faithful butler, Aloysus Parker – the comedy turn, but what a character.

My favourite model. I've had this Dinky toy of it since I was a kid. For some reason, I've never tossed it out...
My favourite model…

There was always talk of a remake, but the problem was re-creating the charm of the original. When the first effort happened in 2004 – live-action – it was panned. Rightly, too. And now we have another remake. Made in my own city of Wellington by Pukeko Pictures, owned by Sir Richard Taylor. I was at a book launch late last year and spotted him in the group, but I didn’t manage to talk to him. A pity, I’d have liked to have had a chat.

So how’s he done? I guess everybody’ll have their opinion. As for me? Well, the double-length pilot reprised the main disaster of Lord Parker’s ‘Oliday, which was pretty cool. But it all ran at breakneck pace – there was no time to savour the settings or enjoy the story, as there had been in the more leisurely original. Inertia seemed to have disappeared, too – epitomised by Thunderbird 2, all 400 tonnes of it (or whatever an 80-metre long freighter aircraft is meant to weigh) flipping about as if it was a Dinky toy. The original – for all its cheesiness by today’s standards – conveyed a proper sense of momentum and inertia.

Plus side is that it’s embraced modern effects tech, blending it – subtly – with carefully chosen model-work. The sensibilities have moved on too. There was a lot about the original, including its 1930s-style “Oriental villain”, smoking, implicit sexism, and other period touches that are either unacceptable today, or meaningless to a modern audience. We’ll see where Tintin Kyrano’s reinvention as Tanusha ‘Kaya’ Kyrano, with her own special Thunderbird, goes as the series unfolds.

So yeah, it’s different, but they’ve nailed today’s entertainment needs the way Anderson nailed those of the 1960s. Anderson always was up-to-the-minute; so I suspect that, if Anderson was doing it today, and had access to today’s CGI, this is how he’d have done it too.

And did anybody notice – apart from quick-fire references to Hackenbacker and Meddings – the really specific Space 1999 Eagle command module in the first episode?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


13 thoughts on “The new ‘Thunderbirds’ – fab or fail? I know what I think…

  1. I watched some of the Thunderbirds when I was a kid, but i think i preferred Stingray – He was more handsome, ha! Aside from his looks, what did you thing about Stingray and those evil things!! ??

    1. Stingray was pretty cool. It was pretty much the same visual style and effects tech as Thunderbirds, as I recall. It’s a looooong time since I saw any of it.

  2. I’ve only seen the movies. I thought the campiness really had a certain charm. It’s almost like using Ray Harryhausen special effects now, even though CGI is readily available. It’s a deliberate retro-style.

    1. Some of that campiness has been lost in the new series. But not all. The blend of cgi with (deliberately) old school models really works. Incidentally, the next major Weta model project is a diorama of Gallipoli with 3000 individually painted soldiers being put on display for the centenary of that battle next week. A friend of mine is the historical consultant. I hope to post on it soon.

  3. Eagle command module on the “underwater research station”..
    Yes I noticed it.. I was curious to see if other saw that…
    It is how i found your blogue…

    1. You’re the only one so far who’s mentioned it, besides me. I’m sure Weta did it very deliberately, of course – and I wonder what else they’ve slipped in there!

  4. I like the “maquette & models” look they give to the CGI to ger closer to original series.. Something they try to avoid with the “new captain Scarlet” of 2005 made by Anderson. I only watch 3 episodes… Will see if I stick to it.
    I will keep my eyes open for any other Gerry’s show borrowed tech as Gerry was doing himself
    CM.
    Calgary

    1. Just read on wikipedia thay they really used live action models then integrated cgi to it…. Cool..

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