The 21st Century of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson (Part 2)

The 21st Century of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson (Part 2)

The 21st century is well underway by 2022 and let’s face facts, it blows moose. 

The super neato things Generation X was promised when were kids are nowhere on the horizon.  Hell, we’ve even lost ground here and there.  The last time a commercial passenger could travel at supersonic speed was nearly twenty years ago.  

Although, I will grant that most of what George Orwell was promising us has worked out even better than he was expecting.  You even have your choice of Big Brothers. Hell, we pay extravagant prices for our Big Brothers.  We flex on each other over which of us has the latest, greatest, and sexiest of them. 

And they have clearly been scientifically designed to break our will to resist.

“Alexa, put expresso powder on my shopping list.”

“sex ready fetch omission added to shopping list”

And before you start going on about how you would never let a smart speaker into your house to spy on you, I have bad news. You lost that fight the first time you bought a cellphone.  I know for a fact the NSA could listen in on those things twenty years ago… When they were turned OFF.

We’ve even had our first designer plague and the cure actually WAS worse than the disease.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this at all.

It was supposed to be a world of breakfast in Chicago and lunch in Bejing Peking.  A world of vacations on the moon and a pink Rolls Royce with six wheels.  A world of flying aircraft carriers and rocket submarines.  And if you were in trouble.  Real no kidding by god you-are-absolutely-going-to-die-no-power-on-Earth-can-save-you, trouble. A titanic green nuclear-powered jet would appear out of nowhere to rescue you.

It was supposed to be a world of…

Thunderbirds (1966)

I won’t say that every member of Generation X wanted to be Astronauts when we were kids, some of us did suck pretty bad after all.  But those of us who mattered did.

Thunderbirds played into that dream in a pretty big way.  The show was Astronaut drenched.  The Tracy family’s very patriarchal patriarch (but in a totally good way) was a former Astronaut and named all of his sons after the Mercury Seven.  They had a secret island base with three rockets and a space station.  This show was shot during the height of the Space Race and it kind of shows.

Thunderbirds was such an odd concept for a TV show. It could only have come from the Swinging Sixties (not to be mistaken for the godawful Hippy Sixties).   

Thunderbirds are without question the most famous of the Supermarianation TV shows.  It was also the biggest.  Taking Gerry Anderson at his word (risky for any producer) Thunderbirds was hugely expensive.  Lew Grade kicked open the money spigot for this one, it had an “adjusted cost of a half-million per episode.”  Even if that estimate is on the high end, the show obviously cost a packet to make and the Andersons spent it where it counted.

Comparing Thunderbirds to Supercar, Fireball, and Stingray is deeply unfair to those shows.  This program was operating on an entirely different level. Those other shows were etchings compared to a mural.  Everything was vaster and more sweeping.  The cast was the biggest the Andersons had ever created; the sets were both intricate and elaborate. And the puppets finally looked like they were meant to be representing human beings instead of a cruel mockery of God’s creation.

In fairness to the puppet artists, had started learning their craft from dead scratch only seven years before.  And they would improve quite a bit going past Thunderbirds in Captain Scarlett and particularly, Joe90.

That isn’t to say that there weren’t some hiccoughs in development.  In one documentary on the show, Sylvia Anderson went on at length over how they just couldn’t get Lady Penelope’s puppet right.  “No matter what we did to her, we just couldn’t get her to work.”  This was a real concern for Sylvia because she would be playing Penelope.  “Finally, Margert said, let me take her home.  I’ll work on her over the weekend.”  Sylvia Anderson was delighted with the result.  “I don’t know what Margert did, but Penelope was simply perfect.  Simply and absolutely perfect. She couldn’t have gotten her more right!”

Margert during her interview decided that after forty years she would reveal the secret of what she had done. “I thought it would just make things go easier if I made Penelope look as much like Sylvia as possible.”

However other things went better than expected.

Lew Grade had been so impressed with the Anderson’s first script that he changed the scope of the project.  Thunderbirds was expanded from a half to full hour episodes.  This improved the stories immensely.  The nature of the conflict in Thunderbirds’ stories was basically man vs nature (chaos). * You need time to build dramatic tension and suspense in that kind of story and now they had it.  As a writer, you have to keep your prey in trouble for a while, just long enough for the audience to creep forward to the edge of their seats.  Also, you need that audience to invest themselves in the characters that are in peril, and that usually wasn’t the Tracy Brothers.  The Andersons were having to bring in a fresh set of new victims each week.  Even an expert writer needs some time to build sympathy for a new character. 

Not that they didn’t already have a job and a half to do given the size of the regular cast.  Dad, Scott, Virgil, Gordon, John, Alan, Brains (apparently, he still doesn’t have a real name), Kyrano, Tin-Tin, Parker, and Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward.  Oh, and occasionally The Hood.

Unlike the Hood, Lady Penelope did serve a few legitimate purposes.  Being Scott’s romantic interest for starters.  That left Tin-tin with only four brothers fighting for her attention.  Well, three brothers, John was out of the running because he was always in space.  Also, John should have been congratulated for maintaining meticulous personal grooming when there was clearly no need for it in the cold, remote and lonely world of Thunderbird 5.

Lady Penelope was one of a “worldwide” group of agents that aided the mission of International Rescue.  I think their mission was force protection, and operational security but in truth, it was whatever script wanted them to do and by them, I mean Lady Penelope and Parker.  It was always just those too.

What about me?
No one remembers you Jerimiah.
NO ONE!!!

Penelope brought class, style, and a sexy, throaty voice to the party.  And FAB 1 her pink Rolls Royce.  Fans of the show were willing to forgive the live-action movie its many failings but replacing Lady Penelope’s proper marque with a filthy Ford Thunderbird was the final deal-breaker for me.  Balancing her out was her devoted manservant Parker.  A man with such a ludicrous cockney accent my mother was convinced he was played by an American.  He wasn’t.  David Graham, who played reformed criminal turned service industry professional/counterintel agent, based the voice on a waiter after the man had asked, “Would you care to see the wine list, sir?”

You couldn’t blame my Mom.  The Andersons wanted to make this show as American as possible.  Going so far as to have his actors reading their scripts on 8.5 X 11-inch paper instead of A4.  Part of it was the absolute need for a sale to an American network.  But there was something else there as well.  This from an Australian writer, “(H)ere’s a thought experiment: Put a bunch of people of different nationalities in a kitchen, and then set the oven and the toaster on fire. What will happen? Some of those people will run away. Some will debate the best way of putting the fire out. Some will stare into the fire and start a passionate monologue about how this proves that all the world’s glories end up as ashes (looking at you, Russia). But if any one of those nationalities was going to rush forward and start swinging their fists in an attempt to punch the fire to death? That would be the American.” Really, who but a 1960s American would take on International Rescue’s insanely ridiculous job?

That cover’s the good guys but what about the bad guy?

Truthfully, The Hood didn’t really bring much to the show.  He was basically a Malaysian Fu-Manchu. That was theoretically something you could work with given that he was Kyrano’s brother, but Gerry Anderson could never figure out what that something was.  And the show was canceled before we could get to Kyrano’s dramatic confession.  But it was the mid-Sixties and Bond Mania was at its height.  And like I said, the Andersons really needed this one to sell in America, so if part of your show’s appeal is that the rescuers are operating in secret, then in 1966 you had to throw in a few spy movie tropes.  It was basically required.

International Rescue’s big secret was their equipment.  In the first episode it was made emphatically clear that in exchange for their help, the only thing IR was asking in return was that there be no photographing their equipment.  This is something that makes zero sense in today’s world, where we take it for granted there everything can and will be photographed eventually. But in 1966, at the height of the Cold War, getting just a few snaps of the other side’s tippy top-secret gear was a known and acknowledged major win.  Consider this, the US Navy thought the Yamato class was comparable to the South Dakota class because the Japanese had never let it be photographed. The Navy couldn’t have been more wrong, and they didn’t find out how big it really was until after the war. This was why 95% of The Hood’s plans involved getting pictures of the Thunderbirds. An audience would buy it back then. Like I said, it was a Cold War thing.

Who could blame the Hood for wanting to get pictures of the Thunderbirds?  We all wanted Thunderbirds of our own back then.  This was entirely due to the genius of the show’s special effects wizard Derek Meddings.  Credit where it’s due if there was one thing Gerry Anderson could do better than anyone else it was spot raw talent.   Derek Meddings had been, more or less serving an apprenticeship under Reg Hill for the Andersons’ early Supermarionation shows.   He was promoted to Special Effects Supervisor for Thunderbirds.  And he was an absolutely brilliant choice.  He designed the sets and the Thunderbirds themselves. His assistant was Brian Johnson  

Meddings created models that were simply timeless. His sets were elaborately complex demonstrating the meticulous attention he paid to even the smallest detail.  The vibrancy that he brought to his work is probably the biggest reason Thunderbirds isn’t just limited to its original audience.  CGI was very gee-whiz cool when it first came along but today people have drifted back to appreciating the craft and beauty of miniature work.  

Each of the Thunderbirds had a specific job.  Thunderbird 1 was a fast response and reconnaissance. Thunderbird 2 was the backbone of the team it was a transport that would put the C-5 Galaxy to shame.  It could travel at Mach 7, but more impressive by far was its ability to have exactly the right equipment that was needed in its cargo pod for each unique situation.  As amazing as its capabilities were Thunderbird 3’s dwarfed it.  TB-3 was an SSTO that could travel to the sun in a mere 65 hours.  Thunderbird 4 was a rescue sub carried by Thunderbird 2, so we didn’t see it too often.  And Thunderbird 5 is a space station which frankly is a little dull.  People who still write Thunderbirds stories have to come up with increasingly far-fetched reasons as to why the Tracys still need something that could be replaced by satellites.

As mighty as the Thunderbirds were, sadly, the Thunderbirds’ models suffered a tragic fate.

Thunderbirds was six episodes into its second season when word came down from Lew Grade.  The American sale didn’t go through.  Given the expense of the show, syndication, comics and toys weren’t going to put the production into the black.

Thunderbirds was canceled.

AP Films never even thought about archiving models and sets back then.  They were kept around for a short period of time in case there was some use they could be put to in another show.  But eventually, they were broken up with sledgehammers and thrown in a dumpster.  There were a few models from the show that Derek Meddings would take home for his kids to play with.  Being the children of an SF wizard, they would frequently blow them up with fireworks.

Derek Meddings himself went on to become a Hollywood legend, working on The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker, Superman, Batman and you can read his IMDB for yourself.

The Thunderbirds franchise has never died out completely.  The Tracy family has appeared in comics, audio-plays. It survived Jonathon Frakes’s hideous 2004 live-action movie.  There was an Eighties anime revival that I’ve never seen and didn’t know existed.  A recent revival featuring both CGI and live sets is surprisingly watchable.

The magnificent Andersons weren’t done with Supermarianation, there were three more series that I didn’t have room for in this post. And then they moved into live-action. So, this two-part post is going to be a four-parter at this rate.

Where to Watch: Free on Tubi, Amazon, YouTube, and who knows where else.  DVD/Blu-ray boxed sets are easy to find. However: There are three new episodes that were produced for BritBox in 2021.  They used Supermarianation for the visuals and the audio was provided by the original cast from vinyl record stories released in the Sixties.

* With only occasional problems with The Hood thrown in.

(End of Part Two)

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