Thunderbirds 2.2 – Path of Destruction (take seven hundred)

I wasn’t planning on writing a blog post tonight. I wasn’t even planning on leaving Atlanta at all until about right now. I took our son for a long, long delayed trip today, but he had a terrible time and so we left about seven hours early. How bad was it? He needed some comfort TV. The hour that provides him the most security and comfort, in all of television, is, bizarrely, this utterly, utterly ridiculous hour of Thunderbirds. We first watched it together more than five years ago, in this blog’s earliest days. He has watched it seven hundred times since.

I may exaggerate, but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this episode, in whole or in part, more times than I have watched anything else that Gerry Anderson ever produced, combined. There have been days where he has watched it “again and again” like a toddler transfixed by Teletubbies. Now sure, it truly has been a while. Most recently, his poison is Star Wars: The Clone Wars. He got stuck into that for three and a half hours yesterday. Tonight we suggested that he pick whatever he wanted for family TV time, and we’d have sat through a couple more Clone Wars, but he immediately said “the Crablogger episode…?” Or any other episode of Thunderbirds or Thunderbirds are Go or Captain Scarlet…? “Nah, I just want to watch ‘Path of Destruction’ again.”

I love the fact that our son has his go-tos among all his desires to sample things that he doesn’t remember well. Another one is the MacGyver installment “Three For the Road”. Whenever he’s bored or indecisive and we make suggestions about something he might want to revisit, I might glance at the shelf and say “Well, we’ve got Kolchak, Land of the Lost, Logan’s Run, MacGyver…” and he’ll reply “Oooh, yeah! ‘Three For the Road’!” I might then reply “You know, there are about eighty episodes of MacGyver that we didn’t watch, you wanna try…” Nope. Never.

Like tonight. “Say, we haven’t seen ‘Attack of the Alligators’ in a while…” Nope. The kid needs his comfort TV.

Thunderbirds always got a lot of mileage from the breathtaking, unnecessary complexity of everything. This time, the crew of a runaway super-machine have been given the worst case of food poisoning on the planet by Sancho and his “wery special” concoctions from his rat-filled kitchen, and the runaway super-machine doesn’t have doors or an off switch. They’re sealed in, unconscious, while Lady Penelope and Parker get the shutdown code for the runaway super-machine’s reactor from a sleeping man while convincing him that he’s dreaming. Everything is desperately urgent but done as slowly as possible. They don’t even get the guy to give his explanation to Virgil and Brains live; they record him, go outside, and then play the tape.

Seven hundred times I have watched this tomfoolery, brilliantly made tomfoolery though it may be, and it never occurred to me before tonight that somehow it’s the middle of the night in Britain and noon in South America.

Updates on Thunderbirds, Old and New

Since this blog mostly has both eyes in television’s past, here’s an update we might have missed. The new series of Thunderbirds are Go will begin broadcasting in the UK this weekend, starting Saturday the 22nd with two episodes, and continuing through the end of the year. In the US, these thirteen half-hours will be available for streaming to Amazon Prime members starting on November 4. We’ll be a bit behind the curve with these, as I am old-fashioned and like shiny plastic disks, but look forward to seeing them in 2017.

Speaking of Thunderbirds, I wanted to draw your attention to one of the sites on the little linkroll to the left. Security Hazard is the unofficial Gerry Anderson blog, and one of its weekly features is an astonishingly detailed and image-packed series of episode studies for the original 32 Thunderbirds episodes, spotting reused props and puppets, material shot at different times, and analyzing what footage might have been in the original half-hour versions of the episodes before they were expanded to a full hour. It’s done with lots of love and humor but must be an absolute bear to produce, so do check out this great work and give the writer a thumbs-up so he’ll keep going; this is the sort of incredibly intensive writing that would almost guarantee burnout if I was the fellow trying to do it.

In other quickie updates about material that’s been mentioned in these pages…

* I did buy the Electra Woman & Dyna Girl movie. It’s not suitable for little kids, so we won’t be looking at it together for this blog. It’s not awful, but it’s not making anybody’s top twenty list.

* If Amazon has made any kind of announcement about picking up that Sigmund and the Sea Monsters pilot, I haven’t seen it.

* It looks like Chattanooga is not actually getting the Fathom release of “The Power of the Daleks,” so we’ll probably just start watching that on BBC America on November 19 until the Region 2 DVD gets here.

That’s all for now. More to come tomorrow, and, as four kids in Tranquility Forest used to say, “Don’t forget… to write. We love to hear… from you!”

Thunderbirds 3.3 – The Stately Homes Robberies

The team who made these new Thunderbirds episodes were working on them for freaking ever, and even obtained the services of one of the original puppeteers and, with episode three, one of the original series directors, David Elliot. That’s an awful lot of work for ninety minutes of entertainment, but they saved the best for last. “The Stately Homes Robberies” is a visual triumph.

As an original story, it’s a goofball throwaway. I think that “stealing the crown jewels from the Tower of London” must be every bit as much of a hoary chestnut in British children’s entertainment as “stealing the gold from Fort Knox” is in American kidvid, and you really have to put your brain in neutral to accept that the baddies could get away with any part of their plan, much less its climax.

But just look at it! I’m not suggesting that the ice caves in the previous story didn’t take a lot of work to create, but they’re not on the same level as the remarkably detailed rooms full of art treasures in this one. The villains, Mr. Charles and Dawkins, look so absolutely perfect that they surely must have been locked in an airtight vault since 1965, right? I love all the silly tech, it all looks like the original designers made every nut, bolt, and colored light. What a challenge this must have been: in 1965, the designers were imagining the world of a hundred years in the future. Today’s designers had to imagine what designers fifty years ago would have predicted.

As with the previous adventure, this one’s bulked up a little with some extra material involving the Tracy brothers. The original 7-inch record was strictly an adventure for Lady Penelope and Parker, but this adaptation finds a way to include Virgil, Scott, and Gordon for a few minutes. It’s absolutely great, escapist fun, a terrific and silly half hour that we enjoyed very much. Daniel, you may recall, loves Thunderbird 4 most of all the vehicles, and not only does this episode include the submarine briefly, it opens with an absolutely mammoth explosion when one of the stately homes is blown into pieces by the villains. If your own five year-old, real or inner, doesn’t love this, something may be wrong with him.

To Stephen La Rivière, Justin T. Lee, and all the rest of the Pod 4 crew, thanks enormously for all the work you put into this project. Very best of luck to you all in your future film and television work!

There’s more Supermarionation in the future for our blog! Stay tuned for more action later this summer!

Thunderbirds 3.2 – The Abominable Snowman

Yes, this episode has a good deal more meat to it than the previous one. It’s a really zippy half hour in which the Hood has another convoluted scheme to blow up a bunch of uranium processing plants while simultaneously abducting slave labor in the Himalayas to work in his own mine, while also leaving some “abominable snowman” footprints to frighten the locals into calling for International Rescue so that he can kidnap whomever they send.

On the one hand, yeah, that’s about as convoluted and ridiculous a scheme as some of his other sixties tomfoolery – “Martian Invasion” certainly comes to mind. On the other hand, this is actually the only time that the Hood actually confronts our heroes in person in this continuity. He gets away and they never learn his name, but he straps Lady Penelope to a beam to menace her with a Goldfinger-style industrial laser, and then trades gunfire with Scott, who comes to the rescue.

Stephen La Rivière directed this episode, and he and his team deserve credit for alarming our son for the first time in quite a while. The scenes of Lady Penelope threatened by the laser really did freak him out a little. I can’t remember the last time that Thunderbirds had him worried. “Attack of the Alligators,” maybe?

I thought the story was certainly slight and dated, but there’s not a lot that could be done about that. It’s probably a little more impressive than the original audio adventure, though. Bulked up with six or seven minutes of additional material, it actually starts with a big explosion-filled rescue at a uranium plant – named for Derek Meddings, which is awesome – using some dropped-in vocal lines for Scott and Virgil from TV episodes, and it looks fantastic. The Himalayas material also looks really good. There’s one medium shot of the puppets fleeing from the soon-to-explode mine – what happened to the prisoners? – where I think they’re moving a little faster than the marionettes ever did in the sixties, but otherwise it’s another very solid recreation of the original style, so seamless that you can easily pretend this was an original half-hour episode that Gerry Anderson and his team elected to shelve rather than bulk up to an hour when Lew Grade decided the show should be hour-long episodes.

Thunderbirds 3.1 – Introducing Thunderbirds

I don’t pay much attention to Kickstarter, nor use the service much, but when word got around last year that a team in England was making three new episodes of Thunderbirds with ITV’s blessing, I jumped up and got the checkbook. It was perfectly timed; not only was it the fiftieth anniversary of the series, but my then four year-old was falling in love with it.

I’ve not seen Stephen La Rivière’s documentary about Gerry Anderson and the puppet shows that he and his team made in the sixties. It’s called simply Filmed in Supermarionation and features newly-shot footage in the original style. It served as a kind of pilot for this production, which is based on some old audio adventures. See, among the merchandise available in those days before home video, there were some 7-inch records, about ten minutes a side, which were full-cast recordings. There were several of these, and most were edited versions of TV episodes. But there were three that were specially made for the format, with the original voice actors. All that they needed were some visuals, and fifty years.

To be fair, the first of these episodes is incredibly slight and unsurprising. The Thunderbirds launch sequences remain, after all these years, and after rewatching them again and again with my son over the last twelve months, dazzling, complicated, and ridiculous. With the film cleaned up and the color brought into vivid life like never before, however, they look brand new. Unfortunately, there’s really not a lot that strings them (heh, I said strings) together, which sort of emphasizes that launching each of the machines just to show Lady Penelope and Parker what they look like sure was an indulgent use of fuel. But it was the sixties. They thought gasoline would always be cheap and plentiful, no matter how many oil refineries got bombed into oblivion by the Hood or the Mysterons or the Aquaphibians or Joe 90’s enemies.

No, this first episode is mostly an opportunity to see just how well La Rivière and his incredibly talented team have recreated the look and the feel of a fifty year-old show. It’s not unlike the eye-popping thrill of watching Vic Mignona and his team recreating the sixties in the Star Trek Continues web series and marveling at the seamless job, but I’m even more impressed by what La Rivière and the Pod 4 team have done. For all their talents, Mignona and company are not William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and the gang, but these are three brand freaking new Thunderbirds episodes. They look like they were made fifty years ago, locked in a time capsule, and remastered yesterday. If the first story’s just a bit of nothing, the look is nevertheless perfect, and I’m assured the next two episodes, which we’ll watch very, very soon, have a tiny bit more meat to them.

Thunderbirds 2.3 – Alias Mr. Hackenbacker

If you’ve just joined us, we watched Thunderbirds out of order via the old A&E collector sets, and so our final episode of the show came tonight after we already saw the rest of season two. It’s another Lady Penelope spy episode, with a ridiculous number of sets, no expense spared, set in three countries, culminating with a hijacking because some baddies want a miracle fabric that one of Penelope’s fashion world buddies has introduced. And he’s done it onboard an aircraft with a miracle safety feature that Brains, using the alias Hiram Hackenbacker, has developed.

Even for Thunderbirds, this is convoluted, but it’s really fun, and the incidents kept us guessing what would happen next and where this plot was going. It’s always entertaining to see the team tell stories with lots of characters in lots of places. It’s very light on the mayhem, but full of great camera tricks, incredibly detailed and intricate sets, and about a dozen costume changes for Penelope. It’s a nice one to bow out on.

From here, we’ll pick up with the final eight episodes of Captain Scarlet, and we look forward to receiving the three brand new episodes of Thunderbirds that Stephen La Rivière and his team have made. We hope to tell you all about those in a few months!

Thunderbirds 2.2 – Path of Destruction

Watching this episode, I started to wonder whether they crafted episodes like this, where literally fifteen minutes are spent with the civilians in South America who are about to be part of the crisis, to shoot chunks of it on one stage while the main character puppets are busy on another. The only entertaining thing that happened in those fifteen minutes was realizing that Matt Zimmerman, who did the voice of Alan Tracy, dubbed one of these one-off puppets and didn’t disguise his voice at all.

The other big thing that happens in these first fifteen minutes is that we meet Sancho and his wife, who are deeply offensive caricatures, even accepting that they’re from an era where “si, señor” yokels were common, and who run a nasty, filthy restaurant with a hideously unclean kitchen infested with rats. Their food poisons the crew of the Crablogger, and they pass out after the big machine sets off on its preprogrammed course, so nobody can stop it or shut down its reactor or clear out all the fuel that will destroy a dam in its path, and so on.

It’s hideously overcomplicated and completely lacking in internal logic, and Lady Penelope has to spend forever finding the guy outside of London who programmed the Crablogger’s reactor and get him to dictate the shutdown sequence into a recorder while keeping her face hidden because nobody in South America has a telephone and can ask the guy for help, and he didn’t design the machine with an “emergency stop” button.

This one is so stupid that Marie and I just gave up and turned to Facebook for entertainment, which has never happened before. Daniel was completely thrilled, though, and just about self-combusted with excitement when the Crablogger threatened to topple over a narrow ridge, because that was the most amazing thing he’d ever seen, and that’s what’s important. We mock and roll our eyes because we’re boring old grown-ups, but he got to watch the Crablogger smash its way through a village, toppling walls and buildings, and had a much better time than we did.

Thunderbirds 2.1 – Atlantic Inferno

Daniel ran hot and cold with this one. We enjoyed the whole thing because it had terrific balance between the fun Tracy Island stuff and the mayhem at sea. Lady Penelope insists that Jeff take a vacation and join her at her sheep ranch in Australia for a few days, but Jeff can’t relax with anybody else in charge. Daniel got restless and waited for something to happen.

When things did happen – underwater explosions, fire jets, collapsing oil rigs, crew trapped in a diving sphere – it got so intense that he had to hide behind the sofa. Absolutely perfect, really.

Thunderbirds 1.26 – Security Hazard

Here is one of many, many examples in children’s television of a production run ending with a clip show because there’s no money left. At least they were able to go back into production after a break of a couple of months and make six more episodes after this.

Clip shows in a half-hour episode feel long. This one feels agonizing. During the four very long clips, we get quite a few desperate people shouting some variation of “We’re not going to make it!” at least three times.

Daniel didn’t mind. The format meant that he got to see all the machines in action and hear lots of thrilling music. He didn’t object at all to seeing them again. He’s rewatched many of the episodes several times already. One more won’t hurt. Neither will ten or eleven, probably.

Thunderbirds 1.25 – The Cham-Cham

Back again to Thunderbirds for the last five of the episodes that we obtained. This one’s another of the Lady Penelope spy-centered episodes, and it’s terrific fun. The plot does not make a lick of sense, and the evil baddies who are shooting down US Air Force transport planes could not have come up with a more complicated scheme if they tried, but man, it’s fun.

Honestly, it requires the most popular group in the world performing their new hit single, “Dangerous Game,” live from the Swiss hotel where they’re performing a residency via a worldwide broadcast on Radio Maxwell every night with a slightly different arrangement that contains a secret code that the baddies can translate to find the location of the USAF plane DURING the broadcast. But the plot doesn’t matter; the show is just too entertaining and fun for that.

One of the things that impressed me the most is how well paced it is. Naturally, the spy episodes are light on the mayhem that four year-old boys love the most, but darned if this one doesn’t have a perfectly-placed moment of huge slapstick levity at exactly the right moment. You could set your watch by it. At the very second that our son Daniel started to get restless and squirm because nothing had happened for too long, Parker topples a would-be assassin out of a car atop a snowy hill, and, Hanna-Barbera-style, the two go barreling down the mountain into a giant snowball. Daniel howled. I’m sure that had I seen this as a too-serious teenager, I would have cringed, loudly, but that’s gold for a kid his age. It completely brought him back into it.

The grown-ups in the room weren’t squirming. From a production standpoint, this episode is just amazing. There are several “how’d they do that?!” shots in the scenes of Tintin and Lady Penelope skiing, and there’s an amazing bit where some butterflies are dancing around her garden, completely unnecessary to the scene, just there for brilliant color. Lady Penelope even dances as she sings with the band, and it looks great. They did a truly fantastic job making this episode.