Fireball XL5 is a science fiction themed children's television show following the missions of spaceship Fireball XL5, commanded by Colonel Steve Zodiac of the World Space Patrol. The show was produced in 1962 by husband and wife team Gerry and Sylvia Anderson through their company APF, in association with ATV for ITC Entertainment, and first transmitted on ATV on Sunday 28 October 1962. While developing his new show, Anderson thought a brand of motor oil--Castrol XL--had an interesting sound. A phonetic change created the name "Fireball XL", with the "-5" added as the title seemed a bit flat without the numeral.
The show featured the Andersons' Supermarionation, a form of puppetry first introduced in Four Feather Falls (1960) and Supercar (1961) and used again in their subsequent productions such as Stingray and Captain Scarlet. Thirty-nine black and white half-hour episodes of Fireball XL5 were made on 35mm film: all future Anderson series were produced in colour.
Several Anderson series have been shown in syndication in the US, but Fireball XL5 is the only Anderson series to have run on a US network. NBC (the National Broadcasting Company) ran the series in its Saturday morning children's block from 1963 through to September 1965.
A similar programme often confused with Fireball XL5 is Space Patrol (known as Planet Patrol in the US), produced by Gerry Anderson's ex business partner and co-founder of AP Films, Arthur Provis due to a number of similarities and settings.
The complete series is available on DVD in the UK, Australia, Canada and the US.
Set between the years 2062 and 2063, the series featured the missions of spaceship Fireball XL5, commanded by Colonel Steve Zodiac of the World Space Patrol. The crew included glamorous Doctor Venus, a doctor of space medicine; middle-aged navigator and engineer Professor Matthew Matic and co-pilot Robert, a transparent anthropomorphic robot who would most commonly proclaim ON-OUR-WAY-HOME.. Robert was the only character in an Anderson series that was actually voiced by Anderson himself, albeit with the aid of an artificial larynx.
In the series, the World Space Patrol is based at Space City, located on an unnamed island in the South Pacific, headed by Commander Zero. Zero is assisted by Lieutenant Ninety. For unspecified reasons the 25-storey T-shaped control tower at Space City rotates; in one episode a character inadvertently makes it rotate fast enough for those inside to suffer from vertigo.
Fireball XL5 patrolled Sector 25 of charted interstellar space (although there only appeared to be three sectors marked on the space chart seen in the Space City control room). The patrols were missions of three months duration but the ship was also on call when at base.
Fireball XL5 space ship:
The patrol space ship Fireball XL5 takes off utilising a mile-long launch rail that culminates in a 40-degree incline, or sky ramp, which Anderson claims was inspired by an old Soviet design, a concept also used in the film When Worlds Collide.
The World Space Patrol included a fleet of at least 30 'Fireball XL' ships (an XL30 is referred to in The Firefighters episode), of which XL5 was the most famous. The ship itself is made up of two detachable sections. The winged nose cone, known as Fireball Junior contained the cockpit and separated from the main body to land on other worlds. The rest of the ship contained a navigation bay, laboratory, huge lounge, workshops and separate crews quarters, along with fuel and main nutomic rocket motors for interstellar travel. The ship would generally remain stationed in orbit after arriving at an alien planet. When Fireball XL5 returned to Space City, the whole ship would land horizontally (i.e. without separating) using its wings and retro-rockets. In the episode 'The Forbidden Planet', the aliens use a form of transporter (similar to that used in Star Trek, but of course pre-dating it) but this technology was not available to the World Space Patrol.
Although the series used many classic early 20th-century science fiction themes reminiscent of the space opera of E. E. "Doc" Smith and as it was a children's show, it was not intended to be realistic. Fireball XL5 managed to travel handily around the galaxy without going faster than light (until the episode Faster than Light). The series observed few of the limitations of rocketry and only informed viewers that the ship's rocket motors were powered by a Nutomic reactor and that XL5 could safely travel at speeds of up to Space Velocity 7, which enabled her to reach the outlying star systems of charted space within a few months. Furthermore the crew never wore space suits; instead they took "oxygen pills" to survive in the vacuum of space, where they manoeuvred in zero gravity with the aid of thruster packs. They used neutroni radio, which allowed virtually instantaneous communication within the sectors of charted space. XL5 and her sister ships were fitted with gravity activators that generated artificial gravity fields within them.
Regular characters were voiced by Paul Maxwell, Sylvia Anderson, David Graham and John Bluthal. In common with many of the Anderson puppet shows, most of the important characters have American accents, with some notable exceptions: Dr. Venus is French, Jock the engineer is Scottish and some of the aliens have remarkably sedate British accents (e.g. episode 33, the Day the Earth Froze). Language issues between alien races and Earth were rarely encountered as most races appeared to speak perfect English.
Theme song and merchandising:
Fireball XL5 had separate opening instrumental theme music and a closing theme song. The closing theme, Fireball, written by Barry Gray and sung by Don Spencer, became a minor hit in Britain. Gray would have a long relationship with the Andersons' productions, writing themes for such series as Thunderbirds and Space: 1999. Don Spencer would become Australia's premier children's entertainer and founder of the Australian Children's Music Foundation. A group, The Flee-Rekkers, produced by Joe Meek, came out with an instrumental version in the style of Telstar.
In addition to the theme song, the series spawned a number of other licensed merchandising spin-offs including toys, an MPC playset with rocket ship and figures, model kits including a plastic kit of Fireball XL5 itself, puppets, ray guns, comic strips and annuals. In Britain, a 2-page black-and-white Fireball XL5 comic strip appeared in the weekly TV Comic between 1962-1964 before moving to the newly launched weekly TV Century 21 comic in January 1965 for another 5 years. The strips that appeared between 1965-1968 were in colour only reverting to black-and-white in 1969. Four hard cover Annual books were published in Britain by Collins between 1963-1966 featuring colour and black and white comic strip and text stories, while in the United States Gold Key Comics printed a single-issue colour comic book in 1963. Little Golden Books published a hard-cover colour illustrated story book in 1964 (later released as 'Fireball XL5 - A Big Television Book' in Britain).
During the mid 1960s there were also three soft cover colouring/puzzle books published in Britain and one soft cover colouring/story book published in the United States.
Home video releases:
Like most of Anderson's Supermarionation series, this one was given a "complete series" release in Region 1 by A&E Home Video. A Region 2 version featuring new bonus material was released on DVD in those territories in 2009, superseding a 2004 release with no extras. On 22 October in Region B territories, an individual Blu-ray featuring a colorised version of the episode A Day in the Life of a Space General was released. The disc also includes an episode of Four Feather Falls and an extended version of the Wonderland of Stardust documentary released as a bonus on the Region B box set released earlier in 2009. 1
Cast of characters:
Colonel Steve Zodiac, pilot and commanding officer of Fireball XL5 (voiced by Paul Maxwell). Commander of Fireball XL5. Zodiac was awarded Astronaut of the Year in the episode "Space City Special".,
Doctor Venus, Doctor of Space Medicine, of French origin. Personally chosen to be part of his crew by Steve Zodiac and with 5 years of service on the XL5 according to the episode "The Last of the Zanadus" (voiced by Sylvia Anderson).,
Professor Matthew "Matt" Matic, engineer, navigator and scientist of XL5 (voiced by David Graham, speaking in a voice similar to the actor Walter Brennan).,
Robert the Robot, co-pilot of XL5, a transparent robot invented by Professor Matic and Earth's most advanced mechanical man (voiced by an uncredited Gerry Anderson using an artificial larynx and the only main character Gerry Anderson ever voiced in one of his series).,
Zoonie the Lazoon, lazy, semi-telepathic pet of Dr. Venus from planet Colevio (voiced by David Graham). During his first appearances, he couldn't say anything but "welcome home" but his vocabulary grew as the series progressed, often due to him mimicking other characters.,
Commander Wilbur Zero, Operational Commander-in-Chief of the World Space Patrol and Space City's Chief Controller (voiced by John Bluthal). Despite his gruff exterior, he cares deeply for his subordinates and respects them, especially Steve.,
Lieutenant Ninety, Assistant Space City Controller (voiced by David Graham). Ninety is young, inexperienced and the character most often on the receiving end of Commander Zero's scathing attitude. Despite the seeming high tension between him and Zero, Zero called him "the best lieutenant Space City has.",
Jock Campbell, Space City's Scottish Chief Engineer (voiced by John Bluthal). He makes it clear he doesn't think too highly of women but when Venus saves his life during an ill-fated mission, he starts to have a change of heart.,
Eleanor Zero, Commander Zero's wife (voiced by Sylvia Anderson),
Jonathan Zero, Commander Zero's young son (voiced by Sylvia Anderson). According to the Little Golden Book 'Fireball XL5' story book published in the USA in 1964 young Jonathan was lucky enough to be a passenger aboard Fireball XL5's maiden voyage which included an unscheduled stop at the planet Geminy.,
Recurring villains included space spies Boris and Griselda, with their antiquated space ship S.S.Thor (S.S. stood for Space Spy) and the evil green alien Subterrains of Planet 46.,
Many episodes of Fireball XL5 were set on exotic planets:
Amazonia - a planet mentioned in the episode Prisoner on the Lost Planet as being a member of the United Planets Organization alongside Earth and which had banished its mad queen to an unnamed planet of active volcanoes.,
Aridan - the desert planet that once had water but is now an arid wilderness seen in the episode "Space Pirates",
Conva - a regularly featured planet first introduced in the episode "Space Pen" as a planetwide prison for criminals and featured prominently in the episode "Convict in Space", in which one of its convicts escapes.,
Granatoid - home of the Granatoid robots who appear in "The Granatoid Tanks" and described (though not seen) as having a completely technocratic society, led by a robot voiced by an uncredited Gerry Anderson.,
Granvenia - a planet mentioned as the destination of fuel tankers that are being diverted to the planet Suventa in the episode "Hypnotic Sphere".,
Hedera - a planet rich in plant life that was visited in the episode "Plant Man from Space" and home of a rampant strain of Ivy called Hedera helixa.,
Herbos - a jungle planet seen briefly in the episode "Last of the Zanadus".,
Magneton - a planet visited in the episode "Space Magnet" and inhabited by the invisible Solars.,
Membrono - a planet that was nearly destroyed (by another, unnamed planet) in the episode "The Doomed Planet". An advanced alien race lived on Membrono's moon.,
Minerra - a planet rich in radioactive minerals needed for earth resources seen in the episode "Space Pirates",
Mirana - a perpetually burning planet seen in the episode "Hypnotic Sphere".,
Monotane - a desert planet inhabited by a space monster in "Space Monster".,
New Earth - a planet with a thin atmosphere and little gravity that was to be colonised by the crew of the spaceship Mayflower-3 in the episode Space Immigrants until spaceship Fireball XL7, sent out to prepare for the arrival of the Mayflower-3, was captured by megalomaniacal aliens.,
Planet 46 - home of the Subterrains and a barren planet with an oxygen atmosphere; introduced in the pilot episode Planet 46 and appearing in numerous other episodes.,
Planet 73 - a planet colonised by Earth and attacked by the Granatoids in the episode The Granatoid Tanks.,
Planet 82 - a planet renamed Robotvia by Professor Al Himber.,
Platonia - a planet featured in the episode Planet of Platonia and revealed to be rich in Platinum and inhabited by silver-skinned aliens who eat 23-course meals. A trade agreement with Earth had created a power-struggle on the planet, which the XL5 crew was sent to calm.,
Rajusca - A desert planet featured in the episode Sun Temple, in which the Earth is attacked by sun worshipping Rajuscans living in the desert.,
Suventa - an ice-planet that is home to an unnamed brain-creature which hopes to use hypnotic satellites to take control of the universe.,
Triad - a planet featured in the episode, The Triads, which is almost identical to earth in every way, except for being three times its size. Consequently, everything on it, plants, people, animals, etc. is three times the size it is on earth, also. The gigantic human inhabitants are friendly, but are at least 100 years behind earth technologically and were just attempting their first space launches when the crew of the XL5 visited.,
Zanadu - a planet that featured a mysterious temple in the episode Last of the Zanadus,
Zofeit - a planet whose inhabitants, the Zofeits,were almost wiped out (only two males surviving) by a lone alien in the episode XL5 to H20. The crew of XL5 rescued the two survivors, who were evacuated to Earth.,
(French) : Fusée XL5,
(Spanish) : El Capitán Marte y su XL5. In the version shown in Latin-American countries, Colonel Zodiac is rechristened Capitán Marte ("Captain Mars").,
(Greek) : Πύρινη Σφαίρα (pyrene sphaera = ball of fire).