Thunderbirds are Go(ne): A Tribute to Gerry Anderson

By Zack Smith

My reaction to first seeing the “Supermarionation” puppet shows of the late Gerry Anderson was probably the same everyone else had – “Dude, what the (bleep) is this?”

And like everyone else, I couldn’t look away.

Anderson, who passed away recently, left behind a legacy of some of the weirdest and most wonderful shows for younger viewers to ever grace the small screen – a world of toys come to life.

Though his work was more popular in its native United Kingdom, there is still many a Baby Boomer and their progeny who can recall coming across the likes of Thunderbirds, Stingray or Captain Scarlet one Saturday morning.

You couldn’t miss them. Anyone who’d ever seen PBS knew about children’s shows with puppets, but Anderson’s were different – they blew up things. Lots of things.

And like the Muppets or Romper Room, you didn’t care if you could see the wires and strings moving the puppets hands, or hauling the rockets across the sky (or sky-like backdrop). In a way, it made it seem all the more impressive, because it wasn’t a cartoon – it was “real,” actually happening right before your eyes.

Though Anderson’s heyday as in the 1960s and 1970s, his shows had a way of showing up on reruns in syndication at some ungodly hour, or on some cable channel, such as the Saturday morning lineup of the early years of the SciFi (now Syfy, sigh) Channel.

Once you saw one, it stuck in your head. Here was a sub, jumping out of the water, followed by a giant fish! Jets launching from a top-secret fortress in the sky! Heroes with names like Steve Zodiac! Troy Tempest! Lady Penelope, whose high-tech Rolls-Royce was so cool it didn’t matter if it was pink – she OWNED it.

Also, as mentioned before – explosions. So many explosions.

There was a certain handmade quality to those shows that made them last. There was a sense that if you had some models and puppets (and some dynamite), you could create those adventures yourself, on your own time, and be the one shouting, “Thunderbirds are Go!”

Of course, it wasn’t that easy, as many learned the hard way (I never even got around to assembling a model kit). Even South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who made Anderson’s style familiar to a new generation with their Thunderbirds-inspired Team America, admitted that the process was so painstaking that Anderson had to have been insane to use it time and time again.

And of course, even Anderson had to use a few tricks to pull off his shows – as Neil Gaiman points out in his intro to his rendition of the Fireball XL5 theme with Amanda Palmer, that particular show managed to get around the challenge of making the puppets realistically walk by keeping them on “space scooters.”

Of the Anderson shows, I’ll give Stingray the most exciting opening credits, the aforementioned Fireball XL5 the catchiest closing credits, and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons the coolest premise.

Featuring more detailed, human-like (and therefore unsettling) puppets than Anderson’s previous shows, Captain Scarlet tapped into Cold War paranoia and James Bond gadgetry with the titular agent of Spectrum pitted against the human-replacing Mysterons of Mars, who had a pretty good reason to be ticked at Scarlet, what with his destroying their city on Mars and all. In fairness, they reconstructed it right away with effects that sort of looked like footage run in reverse, but there was a gray area there.

 

Scarlet’s “retro-metabolism” that let him recover from any demise predated Wolverine’s “healing factor” by almost a decade, and conveniently let Anderson and company destroy puppets whenever they wanted. “They crash him/and his body may burn,” sang the closing credits. “They smash him/But they know he’ll return/To live again.”

(I’d be remiss if I didn’t give props to the great British artist Bob Embelton, who did not only the closing credits, but many of the Captain Scarlet and Stingray comics. You can check out his work at this great Captain Scarlet fan site.)

The fact that every episode opened with a character being killed and replaced by an alien Mysteron (guided by the eerie, corpse-like Captain Black) along with the RAF-meets-Bond look of Spectrum’s uniforms and vehicles, gave Captain Scarlet a unique look and feel that’s helped make it one of the most influential of Anderson’s series.

You can see touches of Captain Scarlet in many a film, TV show and comic book, from the hat occasionally worn by the character of Rimmer in the SF-sitcom Red Dwarf to the crazed retro-vehicles of Grant Morrison and Chris Weston’s Vertigo series The Filth. There’s certainly something Morrison-esque in the “Spectrum Pursuit Vehicles,” which had ten wheels and required drivers to face backwards and navigate via TV monitor (it was easier to not have to show the puppets looking out on an actual highway, I suppose).

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention some of Anderson’s live-action series, notably UFO and Space: 1999. Though most remembered for the purple-wigged, catsuit-wearing operatives of alien-battling organization SHADO’s moon base, UFO had several of the most shocking and emotional moments in an Anderson series, particularly in the episodes dealing with Commander Straker (Anderson regular Ed Bishop) losing his family as a result of his mission.

Space: 1999 is perhaps Anderson’s best-known show outside of Thunderbirds, and a mainstay of SF TV reruns. Yes, the science was wonky – even if a nuclear explosion knocked the Moon out of orbit, it probably wouldn’t get hurled into another galaxy. Yes, 1999 was probably too optimistic a date to predict a moon base in the 1970s

But again – it had a look and feel unlike anything else on TV. Each week had some cool aliens – and of course, cool vehicles. The “Eagle” crafts used by the residents of Moonbase Alpha to journey to whatever oddball world they drifted past each episode were some of the best-designed vehicles on TV -- and toys of them are still highly coveted among collectors.

Anderson’s shows were far from perfect – his characters were vivid but often, pardon the pun, wooden. Many episodes are dragged down with exposition, and there’s the matter of the occasional painful stereotypes that sneak into even his later shows – ha ha, Lt. Hiro in Terrahawks repeatedly pronounces “l”s as “r”s! Because he’s Asian! Get it?

Despite this, I still want the Terrahawks theme played whenever I enter a room.

Anderson’s work continued to be rediscovered and reinvented in the years leading up to his death, thanks in part to DVD and remakes of his classic shows. The less said about the 2004 Thunderbirds movie the better (Anderson himself disowned it, and rightly so – there were no puppets!), though the New Captain Scarlet from 2005 did some interesting things with CGI, albeit with a certain “uncanny valley” weirdness. At least it resulted in some new action figures from Bandai, which you can get here. There was talk of a CGI Thunderbirds revival before he died.

We might never know what new twists on his concepts Anderson might have brought forth if he lived longer. But in his 83 years, he left behind more than enough of a legacy – a world of Thunderbirds, and Mysterons, and ships that glided on strings with firecrackers coming out of their tails. He left behind worlds that made an indelible impression on anyone who saw them – even if it was just to ask, “Dude, what the [bleep] is this?”

Special Thanks to the excellent 1970s toy catalog blog Plaid Stallions for letting us use their Space: 1999 pictures, and to the Gerry Anderson online toy store FabGearUSA for their merchandise pics.

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