Friday, 28 December 2012

Thunderbirds are Go

"Thunderbirds are Go", but alas, Gerry Anderson is dead. It is strange that British children growing up in the 1960s and 1970s should be captivated by puppet shows, but these were not ordinary shows. For one thing, Anderson mixed superb model work with his puppetry, or used human hands for close ups. And he had great stories.

The early show - Supercar shows the origins in juvenilia. And the next show, Fireball XL5 is ponderously slow at times; there is a space walk sequence which seems to take forever, and it is in black and white. But by the time of Thunderbirds (1964-1966), the faster pace, and better story telling began to show well. The characters were more roundly drawn, especially Lady Penelope and her lubrigidous butler, Parker, and her sleek pink Rolls-Royce. "Yes M'Lady". The Hood was a memorable recurring villain. Brains supplied comedy and science. But the key fun factor was the model work. Tracy Island, with its ramps and secrets, including a rocket pad under a swimming pool (shades of James Bond's crater in You Only Live Twice), and the Thunderbirds themselves, characters in their own right. Nippy Thunderbird One. The rather overweight Thunderbird Two. The lofty Thunderbird Three. The Tiny Baby Thunderbird 4. And the Spinning Top, Thunderbird 5, which always seemed a bit of a cheat, because it didn't move anywhere like the others.

My poor mother had to take us to see Thunderbirds Are Go (1966) where Thunderbirds, and the Zero-X Craft faced hostile Martian rock snakes. I remember enjoying it, but when it was on TV a year or so ago, it seemed horribly slow; the movie length did not suit the puppets, where the intimacy of the small screen allowed them to shine. Thankfully, she was spared taking us to the second film which bombed at the box office, and we never heard about in Jersey.

Stingray, another Anderson production, also had a rich mythology. The devil fish, the evil Titan, the beautiful but mute Marina, and Troy Tempest, Phones, and the chap who was in a mobile wheelchair of futuristic design.

And all this time, I was getting a weekly copy of Century 21, which presented "fake" futuristic news stories, along with comic strips from the shows; the drawings of these were realistic, not based on the proportions or motions of the puppets, and thus were in fact much more dynamic. Art work by Ron Pembleton, Frank Bellamy and others still stands up well today, and while the scripts could be a little far fetched, they were always fast paced fun. The last page had a different show - Terry Nation's Daleks, in their own comic strip, largely, it is believed written by the first script editor David Whitaker rather than Nation himself. These were excellent stories as well, often with a cliffhanger at the end of each week. For a boy growing up in the 1960s, this comic was fantastic, and it had no football stories, which was another plus as far as I was concerned. This was the scientific revolution, Harold Wilson's white heat of technology, in a comic.

Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967) had more realistic puppets, and the strange craft in which the good Captain sat facing backwards, and viewing his forwards direction via a view screen. I wonder if it is really that easy to drive in such circumstances. It had good stories, a good villain with Captain Black, and the Mysterons who could - via two moving circles of light (all we ever saw of them) bring back to life copies of people who had been killed, complete with copies of their clothes, and even machinery that had been destroyed. It was never really explained how this was done, but the memorable theme tune made this enjoyable, although less so to me than Thunderbirds. I was probably just growing older.

The later shows, such as Joe 90, I did not take to. The plots seemed to have become very weak, and the boy protagonist himself seemed like the kind of boy I would most definitely not like to be. This I think is commonplace - contrary to what writers might expect, most boys would prefer to identify not so much with other boys of their age on TV, but heroic figures like Mike Mercury of Supercar, the Thunderbirds team (or even Brains), Troy Tempest, Captain Scarlett. I remember my friends going to see a James Bond film, and noticing how everyone swaggered in a very Sean Connery manner, smooth, suave, self-assured, as we left the cinema.

Doppelgänger (1969) also known as Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, was a change of direction for Anderson, and was a one off which used model work but live actors. Many of those would take on roles in the show UFO, the 1970s show which began by displaying a caption showing 1990, and was supposed to reflect 1990s fashion. All the flares, and the girls with purple wigs and glittering cat suits seems rather dated, as does the smoking on the moon base,  but it still remains a fast paced show, with a car whose electric doors just opened upwards to let you out. Viewers never saw the problems getting that to happen on cue, and how often they got stuck. But it had some good characters, and very quirky plots, as well as the wonderful spinning UFOs of the title.

Alongside or just after this came "The Protectors" - 52 episodes from 1972 to 1973, It starred Robert Vaughn (of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. fame) as Harry Rule, Nyree Dawn Porter (The Forsyte Saga) as the Contessa Caroline di Contini, and Tony Anholt (Space: 1999, Howard's Way) as Paul Buchet. It was 25 minutes long, during which they had all kinds of adventures, none of which seemed to make any sense, possibly because the short duration for a whole show didn't leave much room for plot.

The last TV show I watched was "Space 1999" (1975 to 1977), which seemed to still have the flared jumpsuits, now seeming less likely than before, and leads (Martin Landau, Barbara Bain) who - while excellent in other shows - seemed in this to have all the charisma of a dull wet day in November. They were supposed to be the love interest! Barry Morse provided a little bit of decent characterisation as the scientist, but sensibly jumped ship after the first season. Then in came Catherine Schell and Tony Anholt, and jackets which seemed less dull, in an effort to provide some audience identification.  The moon was sent spiraling out of orbit by a massive nuclear explosion (from a fuel dump on the moon), and somehow managed to speed up enough to reach other planets, although always slowing down when it reached them, to a speed where it meandered past, and the Australian Eagle pilot could take the Eagle landing craft over to have a look. The science really didn't seem remotely convincing.  That was the last Anderson show I watched.

It's curious to know what will survive of Anderson's legacy. How will today's youngsters take to the puppet shows, which despite the model work, are a very strange medium to tell adventure stories? Will they still enjoy the dated looking fashion of UFO, and the excessive smoking which seems to be going on all the time? Will they enjoy Space 1999, with its lack of good characterisation and often vapid unscientific plots? It certainly doesn't match up to Star Trek, even in its 1960s original series, for character. It would be interesting to see some children watch the Thunderbirds shows aged 5, 11, and 15, and see what they said. For me, they were part of my childhood, but not a part that I think I can easily return to, unlike a few of the other shows of that era, which still stand up well today. Of them all, UFO is probably my favourite, as much for the future than never was, but would have been tremendous fun if it had happened. Instead, the 1970s went to the 1980s, and the age of Thatcher, a sea change in fashion, and cultural icons.

1 comment:

James said...

In a hundred years from now, they will still be playing Barry Gray's Thunderbirds march... the vicissitudes of fate will not affect that in the way that age affects how you see the rickety sets.