Thunderbirds 1.18 – 30 Minutes After Noon

Many years ago, I read a book about The Muppet Show which had some fascinating behind-the-scenes shots. I had never realized how much forced perspective was required to make puppets interact with humans. “30 Minutes After Noon” has lots of really neat, really clever shots and camera tricks. None of it’s strictly necessary; it’s just the director wondering whether he can make the episode more interesting to watch. It works. Apart from the use of a human hand in place of a puppet’s, pictured above, there’s a really cool tracking shot through a couple of doors before the action on the puppet stage.

This is one of the fastest-paced Thunderbirds episodes, because it’s broken into two halves, two separate emergencies several days apart thanks to the action of a criminal gang. It means there’s nowhere near the padding that other episodes have, with lots of excitement. It’s a very good, very entertaining episode, although Daniel surprised us by saying his favorite part was Lady Penelope and Parker arriving in the nick of time and blasting the bad guys’ helicopter out of the sky. After all the neat stuff on display, that was it? Well, he giggled and wowed and loved it to pieces, which was the important thing.

We still have five episodes of Thunderbirds to watch, but we’re going to take a break and come back to those in a few weeks. And then, I hear, we’ll have three brand new episodes as well. Stay tuned!

Thunderbirds 1.17 – Desperate Intruder

WOW. This episode is AMAZING. The Hood is back, but he’s not the comedy wonk-wonk-wonk barely competent Hood that we sometimes see. This time, he ambushes and hypnotizes Brains and Tintin, beats their professor friend unconscious (offscreen, of course), and buries Brains in the desert sand up to his neck, demanding to know where the underwater treasure they’re seeking can be found. He is pure angry evil, not played for laughs at all, and he scared the absolute bejesus out of Daniel.

Daniel spent more than a couple of minutes either behind the sofa or in the library, and we weren’t surprised. This is an uncommonly intense episode, and, as we often see with his reactions watching Batman when Robin is endangered, he reacts badly when characters who are less able to defend themselves get in trouble.

In a really neat development, Scott, Virgil, and Gordon all choose to stay overnight with their craft to protect the others while waiting for the professor to be evacuated in a medical copter. Brains, rescued but feeling terrible for being a burden, goes out to find the treasure, dives back underwater and the Hood ambushes him AGAIN. Daniel ran for the hills.

The attention to detail in this episode is wild. Sure, there are problems with the plot as there always are, but the intensity of the situation covers up most of them, and the really neat production covers the rest. Brains spends most of the episode with chapped and inflamed lips after his morning trapped in the sun, and Scott and Virgil didn’t have time to shave before rescuing him the second time and the puppets have morning stubble!

Thunderbirds 1.16 – Edge of Impact

Hooray, the Hood is back! Amusingly, the villain’s never actually named in the show, and so it wasn’t until we watched the 2004 film that we learned his name. And by “we,” I mean Daniel, because I know that’s his name. But this gave me the first opportunity to tell Daniel, “Oh, no! It’s the Hood again!”

And this time he has strings. Lots of strings. You know, normally, I can just ignore all the strings in these shows, but somebody was asleep at the wheel this week. Even the experimental Red Arrow fighter jet has a whacking great unavoidable hole cut in the top of the cockpit for strings about as big around a cowboy’s lasso to waggle the pilot’s head around. Quit interfering with my suspension of disbelief, strings!

Well, if you can ignore the strings, this is a fun one, especially if you enjoy family life on Tracy Island, because this has lots of good moments. It’s a good rescue, too, with two technicians stuck atop a TV transmission tower after the jet has crashed into it. Daniel had his usual blast watching it, and he seemed to like the Hood driving over a dismantled bridge and dropping into a river best.

Thunderbirds 1.15 – Day of Disaster

Well, some episodes of Thunderbirds are better than others. This is one of the others.

Daniel got a huge kick out of it. He enjoys Lady Penelope and Parker, and Thunderbird 4, and this has all of them in a big rescue. A bridge has collapsed while a space rocket was being driven across it to its launch site. The rocket is manned and full of fuel, which probably increased its weight a whole heck of a lot, and the countdown to ignition starts when it hits the bottom of the river, which is up there with “I said ‘lunch,’ not ‘launch’!” in the dumb astronaut sweepstakes.

But Thunderbirds has the most calming effect on him, no matter how wild and crazy he is beforehand, and today he was so full of energy that I was afraid he was going to pop. He sat patiently and wide-eyed, asking understandable questions about the show, and asking us what certain words on the screen said, and was completely wowed by the whole experience.

This show was made for kids, and not adults, and while every so often they contrived a completely ridiculous situation, and filled the story with incredibly dumb characters – the same “the bridge can’t possibly collapse!” guy turns into “we don’t need International Rescue!” guy, making him doubly tedious – but we can forgive missteps so dopey when they’re so exciting to their young fans.

Weird symmetry department: Remember how, in the last episode of Batman that we watched, two nights ago, we had a wacky German psychiatrist diagnosing Bruce Wayne because of his “planning to marry a cute crook” issues? Well, Brains spent seven or so hours in the company of “we don’t need International Rescue!” guy, talking to the Tracys via his wristwatch, and somehow once the day gets saved, Brains ends up on the couch of some wacky German psychiatrist because of his “talking to his watch” issues, until Lady Penelope rescues him. It doesn’t make any sense, just go with it…

Thunderbirds 1.14 – End of the Road

One thing this particular episode really drives home is how lonely the Tracys’ lives can be. Alan spends the entire series quietly pining for Tintin, but in this episode, he has a rival. An old friend in the construction business, Eddie Houseman, shows up unannounced on their island to woo her for a couple of days, and Alan, with all the one-note sadness of a character who’s appearing in a TV show that will get broadcast in random order on stations across the world and can’t actually develop, pouts about it. But it also shows that they can’t have guests, other than Lady Penelope, since they can’t launch a mission if anybody’s on their island.

The mission this time is rescuing Houseman himself, because he’s an impetuous blowhard who will risk his life to save his company. He gets in a ridiculous scrape and is trapped in a genuine cliffhanger that reminded me of the end of the movie The Italian Job, with added explosives. When Eddie’s vehicle is lifted by Thunderbird 2 via a magnetic clamp, and starts to slip, Daniel had to hide under his blanket because it was so exciting.

The production is absolutely first-rate, but our older daughter Ivy, who’s seventeen, joined us and raised an eyebrow about how dated it appears to her jaded teen eyes. Hmph! I’d like to know what show from 1966 was willing to film the wild things this series did. At one point, the Eddie puppet is halfway up a mountain, jackhammering into it to plant explosives while being pelted by artificial rain. All in a day’s work for the Supermarionation crew!

Thunderbirds 1.13 – Terror in New York City

Hooray! We’re back for more Thunderbirds, which Daniel will happily tell you is the very best show ever.

Ages ago, A&E Home Video released Thunderbirds in six silly-priced box sets. I bought four of the six at slightly more sensible prices, but, having made the investment, I didn’t feel like double-dipping when Shout Factory/Timeless put out a much, much more sensibly-priced eight-DVD box set. So extra special thanks to our Fire-Breathing buddy Matt for finding used copies of the missing A&E sets 3 and 5 for practically pennies at the excellent McKay Books‘ Chattanooga location.

(Incidentally, in October, we dropped by 2nd & Charles in Kennesaw, which keeps disappointing me. I brought a small stack of old books to trade in, maybe thirteen in all, and they offered me the princely sum of $11.49 in credit. I kept the books, took them to McKay the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and received literally four times that amount. This is why Atlanta book lovers include McKay in their Chattanooga itinerary.)

Anyway, skipping from episode 12 to episode 19 like we did, I sort of felt that we were getting a little more of the secret agent and comedy stuff and not enough mayhem. “Terror in New York City” is one disaster after another, a situation that starts bad, with Thunderbird 2 being knocked out of commission when a trigger-happy naval commander mistakes it for a hostile craft, and then the jawdropping events in New York that happen.

The world of Thunderbirds is one where generals and criminals and titans of industry come up with great big ridiculous plans without ever once considering whether their idea is actually a good one. This time, some bozos decided to redevelop all the area around the Empire State Building, and move the building – just pick it up and MOVE IT – two hundred yards. This doesn’t work. The ground gives way and the Empire State Building is destroyed. It’s just amazing. The whole building and the enormous super-contraption they made to move it goes down into pebbles and matchsticks.

Daniel was edge-of-his-seat thrilled. He loved it to pieces, especially since Gordon and Thunderbird 4 get lots of screen time, navigating the underground river to find the two missing newsmen. When a second building gets ready to topple over onto the crash site, his eyes were as big as dinner plates, his blanket was in his mouth, and he was curled up in Mommy’s lap, holding on for dear life.

Captain Scarlet is good, but it isn’t this good!

Thunderbirds (2004)

There are people out there who really, really don’t like the 2004 Thunderbirds movie. Few of those people are in the movie’s target audience of kids. To be sure, it’s a film that groans under the weight of compromise. Jonathan Frakes, who had the unenviable job of directing the movie, was serving far too many cooks with far too many ideas. I think that objectively, Frakes, who is a really talented director, might have made the best film that he possibly could under the weight of awful, awful studio interference.

To be clear, this is a long way removed from the original series, and the mammoth decision to de-age Alan and Tintin (they’re played by 16 year-old Brady Corbet and 15 year-old Vanessa Hudgens, who was two years away from stardom in Disney’s High School Musical series) and give Brains a young son called Fermat, and make them the stars is… an odd one. The problem is that there had been these hugely successful movies called Spy Kids, and that’s what Universal wanted out of this: an action movie for children with teenage leads.

Of slightly less import, there was the peculiar change to Lady Penelope’s car, FAB-1. As I understand it, everybody involved just took it for granted that Rolls-Royce would love to resume their association with Thunderbirds, and they were completely stumped how to proceed without them. Then somebody remembered that Ford made a car called a Thunderbird, and what happened next was a see-it-to-believe it level of product placement. You want to talk about shattering the suspension of disbelief? Ford sponsors the news in this movie!

Okay, so the studio has decided to make these kids the focus, and some dimwit has made the decision to paint Brady Corbet’s lips such a deep and ugly red that Alan would still be the focus if the lights were out. That means that the script needs to sideline the rest of the Tracys. It doesn’t entirely matter, as Scott, Virgil, Gordon, and John are given absolutely nothing to do that any or all of the others couldn’t do, and they’re portrayed by and portrayed as completely anonymous bros. John’s the only one of the four who gets even one line without one of the others, and we’re only certain that’s John because he’s in the satellite. The Hood launches a missile at Thunderbird 5, and Jeff, Scott, Virgil, and Gordon launch to rescue him in Thunderbird 3, not knowing that the Hood and his associates are right offshore and shut down control of the satellite from Earth. So only the kids can save the day.

Daniel mostly enjoyed the movie, but the steady drive of one bad thing after another complicated his desire to keep watching. There are some daring escapes, and some delightfully kid-friendly action. Some firefighting foam has much the same effect as Nickelodeon slime or gak, and he just loved seeing some of the baddies encased in that. He enjoyed the launch sequences, which are all done much, much quicker than in the show, although he did add “that looked different!” every time. And he really loved the fights.

The best little bit in the movie involves one of the Hood’s villains, played by Deobia Oparei. Perhaps bizarrely, this actor has not appeared in Doctor Who despite a perfect “man who can beat up anybody” look that surely that program’s casting directors would find useful. Anyway, Oparei warns Lady Penelope that he knows this martial art and knows this martial art and knows this fighting style. Penelope replies “I know Parker.” Parker replies “Milady.” Yes, there are cosmetic changes as well as deep, deep differences between the show and this movie, but that is just plain perfect Thunderbirds.

Penelope and Parker are, by leagues, the best things about this movie. They’re played by Sophia Myles – and, two years later, she would have a very memorable role in Who – and by Ron Cook – who was on Who three weeks after Myles – and they are freaking fantastic. Their FAB-1 may be a Ford and it may fly, but those two came straight from the TV series. Myles and Cook get the voices and the characterizations and the movements just right.

The second best thing is that the movie gave us what Gerry Anderson – who was quoted, wherever possible, as hating the movie – never did, and that’s a showdown with the Hood. He’s played by Ben Kingsley, and it was great to finally put a proper name to the face for Daniel. For months, he’s called the villain “that bad guy in Thunderbirds with the glowing eyes and bald head,” which is a bit long. I had a blast leaning over to tell him “So THAT’S his name! The Hood!” and Daniel replied with a growl.

The movie was a big flop, meaning that for all the goodwill people have for the Tracys and all the merchandise that they like to buy, there’s yet to be a successful movie in theaters. I think that British audiences stayed away after all the bad advance early press, the grumbling from Anderson, and wounded memories that the last time an American studio got behind a remake of a ’60s British cult classic, it was the 1998 Avengers with Ralph Fiennes and Uma Thurman which only I and seventeen other people on the entire planet enjoyed, and it’s not entirely certain that I just elected to be contrary on that point. I think that Americans stayed away because we already had one Spy Kids franchise and did not need a second.

It took a few years for Jonathan Frakes’ career to recover after this disaster, and he has still not been given the keys to a sixty million dollar feature film again. He’s worked in TV pretty exclusively, and is a pretty reliable go-to guy whenever a drama hour needs a light hand behind the camera for a Star Trek spoof, as we saw in a season five episode of Castle. When Brady Corbet next appeared in a movie, it was without the visible-from-space lips.

One final note: while Daniel enjoyed the movie, he didn’t enjoy it half as much as his older brother did. Julian was seven when the film came out, and I took him and his sister to see it at the AMC Parkway Pointe in Smyrna GA. I enjoyed it all right, but what I enjoyed most was my hyperactive boy making this announcement in the corridor as we were leaving: “I can’t wait to be a father, because I’m going to take MY kids to see this movie!” Got a little something in my eye when he said that…

Thunderbird 6 (1968)

The second and final Thunderbirds movie from the Andersons was made alongside production of the TV series Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and was released eighteen months after Thunderbirds are Go. Sadly, it was a box office flop, and it didn’t even have the excuse that the first one did for low ticket sales – everybody was watching the show on TV. So it’s picked up a reputation as being lightweight, and a failure.

I’d been saving it for a rainy day for many, many years now, and finally sat down to watch it with Daniel. It’s flawed, certainly, but not badly. It’s a really entertaining movie despite its sagging middle, and we had a very good time watching it together.

There’s a lot going on in this movie, but the main action is set at a very, very leisurely pace. Alan, Tintin, Penelope, and Parker are the guests of the maiden, round-the-world flight of Skyship One, which Brains has designed for New World Aircraft. The interior designs for New World, and Skyship One, are awesomely 1960s fabulous. The games room (above) is pretty amazing, but best of all – still pictures don’t do it justice – is the gravity room which keeps the ship aloft, and which is built around dozens of constantly revolving concentric circles.

So the maiden flight is a languid travelogue, stopping at various points of interest, and revealing that Alan has that very 20th Century fascination with big game hunting, unfortunately. Our heroes don’t know that Lady Penelope is being recorded. The crew are all villains in the employ of “Black Phantom,” and they’re trying to get Penelope to say all the words in a “call for help” script which they’ll edit together, and send Thunderbirds 1 and 2 to a remote, deserted airfield where they will be ambushed.

Now, a note on Black Phantom: there is not one thing in the script that identifies him as the Hood. He looks and talks like the Hood, but he doesn’t dress or act like him, he has a full head of black hair, and he’s perfectly willing to sit back in a decrepit, abandoned old airport with some other thugs for weeks, which doesn’t sound at all like the show’s impatient baddie. Nevertheless, some commentators insist this is the Hood. According to the audio commentary by Sylvia Anderson and director David Lane, Black Phantom might be the Hood’s son, but it’s pretty clearly a different guy.

So the movie goes on, and it’s all design and character fun with no real action for more than half the movie, until “White Ghost,” the head agent on Skyship One, sends the fake transmission from Penelope. Scott and Virgil take off for the airfield. Penelope and Alan put all the clues together and she sends a warning to Jeff in the nick of time, and then things get amazingly, incredibly fun.

By this point, Daniel’s interest had ebbed, and I coaxed him back into the action with “Oh, no! Scott and Virgil have landed in a trap! What’s going to happen?!” I had no idea. What happens is this: they don’t leave their ships, they don’t demand the hidden bad guys come out and surrender. They just lower their cannons without speaking and silently blow the almighty bejezus out of that airport. It’s so amazing.

In fact, there’s an oddly grisly edge to this movie. Earlier on, the villains casually dump the bodies of the crewmen that they’ve killed over the Atlantic Ocean, and the fellow who arranged that gets his own appropriate comeuppance later on. That’s after Brains comes to the rescue in a little Tiger, a 1930s biplane. By this point, the action has moved into one of the all-time great Thunderbirds disasters. Our heroes have killed about half the baddies but have surrendered after Tintin is captured. The gravity drive has been damaged and the skyship, slowly losing altitude, has crashed into a tower above a missile defense station. It’s balanced atop the crumbling tower, with Thunderbirds 1 and 2 on either side holding it up with cables while the military base is evacuated, and Brains, having no idea what’s going on, lands the Tiger ON the skyship, intending to fly everybody off one at a time.

This doesn’t go as planned. White Ghost pulls a gun as soon as Brains lands, and forces everybody on to it, far more weight than it should take. There’s a beautiful bit of character work here: Brains is armed, but of course he does not want to start shooting, so he discreetly passes his pistol to Alan.

The live-action filming for this bit of lunacy is astonishingly great fun, thanks to some amazing, and partially unplanned, stuntwork. A legendary pilot named Joan Hughes, who had trained RAF flyers for combat and ferried every manner of flying machine around the country during the war, was hired to do the dangerous stunts on a nearly-finished stretch of highway. Unfortunately, some very strong cross-winds reacted badly with the oddly-balanced plane. It had dummies on the wings and underneath to represent our heroes, and so she couldn’t keep the wheels on the ground as she went under the bridges. She was actually arrested upon landing for violating some municipal ordinance or other, and actually brought to trial, though she was, happily, found not guilty.

Since they had to scrap some of the live-action filming after their pilot was arrested, they actually had to rebuild the highway around the back of the studio in one-sixth scale and send a radio-controlled plane up and down it. I’m pretty sure that’s one of the backlot shots in the image above, but you honestly have to look at the movie shot-by-shot to determine which is which. Seen as a whole, it’s seamless.

It all adds up to a long and really exciting action sequence, and David Lane timed the few comedy bits with Parker, holding onto the wheels, just perfectly, providing giggles at exactly the right moments. It’s perhaps not surprising that poor Parker ends up in a tree, which Daniel said was his favorite part of the movie.

So why’s it called Thunderbird 6? Well, throughout the movie, Brains has been trying to fulfill his nebulous assignment to design a new vehicle for the team, and had three rejections. But in the end, he realizes that what International Rescue needs is something light and maneuverable, which has already been field-tested. The Tiger, repaired and repainted, is exactly what’s needed.

Although honestly, as cute as Thunderbird 6 is, it hardly makes up for FAB-1 being destroyed when Skyship One finally crashes. Maybe that’s why, thirty-something years later, Rolls-Royce was still holding a grudge…

Thunderbirds are Go (1966)

At the same time that one unit of AP Films was making the second season of Thunderbirds, another crew was making the first of two feature films. It’s pretty uneven, unsurprisingly, but it mostly hit the mark with the target audience in this house. Daniel really loved the first launch sequence, which runs for something absurd like twelve freaking minutes of launch porn. He exclaimed at one point “I can’t wait to see it take off!”

“It” is a rocketship called Zero-X, and the film really functions as a backdoor pilot for a Star Trek-like (or should that be Fireball XL5-like?) series in which the three astronauts and two scientists explore our solar system and run into strange alien life forms like the rock snakes of the planet Mars, which they reach after six weeks in space. Daniel loved – slash – hated the “space snakes,” and alternately said those were the best part of the movie and the scariest part, and he never wants to see them again! A TV series about Zero-X was never made, but a comic series did run in the TV Century 21 comic for quite a while, and the reprints that I’ve read are pretty entertaining.

Thunderbirds are Go is slightly notorious for a bizarre dream sequence right in the middle of the movie in which Alan imagines himself at an interplanetary nightclub with Lady Penelope, enjoying the smooth sounds of Cliff Richard and the Shadows, who contributed two songs to the production. I had to explain to Marie who the heck Cliff Richard is. For the benefit of my readers in the UK who may be amazed that Marie never heard of the guy, Cliff Richard is best known in this country, if he’s known at all, as being the silly obsession of Rik in The Young Ones. I think that the overwhelming majority of his sixty million LPs were never released here.

Still, the musical intermission had the desired effect of shaking up the narrative a little bit, and Daniel continued singing “Shooting Star” for a few minutes, until the rock snakes and Zero-X started shooting at each other.

So all this talk of Zero-X, launchings, and rock snakes might leave readers wondering whether this is a Thunderbirds movie at all, and the answer is barely. Our heroes are really reduced to supporting players in their own movie. This wouldn’t be the first time this happened. In season one of the show, the need to expand completed twenty-five minute stories into fifty minute ones meant that they often filmed new material around the guest casts, but there’s no excuse for that here. All of the emphasis on Zero-X means that great opportunities to spend time with the Tracys are missed.

The real loser in this is the series’ villain, the Hood. He’s killed off, apparently, meeting an ignoble and barely-acknowledged end when Parker shoots his helicopter out of the sky. He doesn’t get a womp-womp-womp comedy bit showing he survived, but there’s no follow-up at all. The whole thing just feels like a huge missed opportunity. Perhaps the modern impetus would be to focus the movie on International Rescue learning their occasional tormentor’s secrets and hunting him down across the world, and give some closure to the show’s main (only?) running subplot, but it didn’t happen, which is a huge shame.

The film was a failure in England, although United Artists concluded that it stumbled because the TV show was still on the air and audiences didn’t quite understand why they should go out and pay money at the cinema for something that was on TV every Sunday evening. The studio still believed in the potential of the property, and so they bankrolled a second film which went into production six months later.

But was it worth it? For the newly-filmed launch sequences for Thunderbirds 1, 2, and 3, and for the awesome end theme, performed by H.M.’s Marine Corps Band, yes, and the dream bit is just so strange that it’s kind of compelling, but honestly, if I wanted a Zero-X adventure, I’d read the comics!

Thunderbirds 2.6 – Give or Take a Million

The final episode of Thunderbirds is a Christmas special. It was not planned to be the series finale; work was stopped after the program’s paymaster, Lew Grade of ITC, admitted failure in selling Thunderbirds to one of the big three American networks. So they finished up the one they were making, shelved the scripts for future installments, and started looking into making feature films instead.

The only action of note in this story comes from a detailed heist, in which a pair of crooks digs into a vault to steal millions in gold. The floor is hair-trigger sensitive, so once they break through, they’re going back and forth on ropes and pulleys. It’s really fun, but the rest of the episode is pretty dull.

There is a strange little error in this one. Everything about the show’s publicity states that it is set in the 2060s, but there’s a calendar in the Tracys’ house that says it’s 2026.

Thunderbirds 2.5 – Ricochet

This one has a really funny premise. In the sixties, there were lots of pirate radio stations broadcasting from platforms all around the British Isles. This takes that to the next level, and suggests that, in the far-flung future of 2066, there will be pirate television stations broadcasting from satellites. Manned satellites – like, you launch a DJ and an engineer into space, and they transmit the top 40 countdown back to earth.

Admittedly, it seems like every agency larger than a pest control company has rockets in this series, but that still seems like a heck of an undertaking to tell the world the top 40. Again, I love how, halfway into the future that Thunderbirds envisioned, we can get a million times better results with a millionth of the risk, sitting on our couch.

There is a really good moment in this episode. The satellite’s going to crash into an oil refinery, and, thinking that Alan and Scott have rescued the pirate broadcasters, Brains is about to shoot it down from Thunderbird 2’s missile launcher. Then they hear the DJ’s transmission. He’s still on board! I really like the quick discussion that Virgil and Brains have. They agree that one life would have to be sacrificed against those of all the people in the refinery should it crash, but Brains can’t do it. He can’t kill a man in cold blood, even with the clock racing. I like that they took a moment to define that. They have to find another way.

What I genuinely don’t like about this episode is that it’s incredibly slow. The director, Brian Burgess, was new to the series with this second batch of six episodes, and perhaps he didn’t have quite the eye for pacing that the others on the team had. All the puppet work seems to be done through molasses, like the puppeteers can barely be bothered moving the characters around. When you factor in the normal deficiencies of one of these scripts, like the helpless characters trying their own rescue, which isn’t going to work, and International Rescue will have to be called in, it doesn’t really add up to a zippy episode, despite a fun script.