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Pilots in Parallel: Fireball XL5 v Stingray

Gerry Anderson programmes often feature similar premises, vehicles, characters and wider thematic ideas at work. Quite often, it falls to each series’ pilot episode to introduce each of these key elements to the audience. But just how similar are these ideas? Does one series execute these shared themes better than the other?

We’re pitting two similar Anderson pilots against each other to determine which one stands as the best viewing experience. In this instalment, we’re facing off Fireball XL5 and Stingray!

Stand By for the Future

The early 1960s were an exciting time for Gerry and Sylvia Anderson and their company, A.P. Films (eventually renamed Century 21 Productions). A.P. Films had succeeded in acquiring entertainment mogul Lew Grade to financially back their first foray into science fiction puppetry with Supercar (1960), which proved to be a runaway success, so much so that Supercar remains the only other Century 21 puppet production after Thunderbirds to have two series. Rather crucially, Supercar wasn’t just a homerun in its native UK, but was a hit in the all-important American market. Gerry Anderson therefore had little trouble convincing Grade that his next series, Fireball XL5 (1962), would be another smash hit.

Fireball XL5 marks a fantastic evolution for A.P. Films’ growing confidence in creating science fiction.

Fireball XL5‘s own rapid success would give way to Stingray (1964) and both remain two of the Andersons’ most successful pre-Thunderbirds efforts. Intriguingly, both Fireball XL5 and Stingray share many similar thematic elements – a worldwide security organisation defending the Earth from alien marauders; their outfits spearheaded by a super-star, merchandise-friendly vehicle; an all-American daredevil action-man hero as the series’ protagonist. At first glance, there appears to be little to distinguish between the two series – the only major difference is that one is set in outer space whilst the other is set beneath the Earth’s oceans. Yet both series maintain unique strands of identity, and their pilot episodes are remarkably separate efforts.

Planet of Destruction

Steve Zodiac falls victim to the Subterrains!

Planet 46 marks the beginning of Fireball XL5 in both the series’ running order and production order. From all angles then, this particular episode marks A.P. Films’ giant leap towards the stars. Having pursued mostly Earth-bound premises with Supercar and with relatively few attempts made to take Supercar into deep space, Planet 46 may be considered the first substantial space-based sci-fi effort by A.P. Films. In this debut adventure, a planetomic missile capable of destroying the entire Earth is launched from the elusive Planet 46. After succeeding in stopping the missile, Fireball XL5 is tasked with investigating the source of the missile. On the seemingly barren Planet 46, Steve Zodiac and Doctor Venus are captured by the villainous Subterrains, who plot a second attack.

Planet 46 neatly packages many of Fireball XL5‘s core aspects into a pleasing debut that establishes much of the series’ status quo. We’re introduced to much of the core cast, including Commander Zero and Lieutenant 90, while Zooney the Lazoon has yet to grace us with his destructive presence! We get to witness the working mechanisms of the World Space Patrol as an outfit, along with how Fireball XL5 sits within its structure. It’s made relatively clear to us that, compared to the contemporary setting of Supercar, we’re now firmly in the far-flung future where space travel and alien lifeforms are commonplace. Likewise, everyone’s roles are displayed to us, although Doctor Venus’ role as XL5’s medical officer is rather squandered in favour of presenting her in a ‘damsel in distress’ motif once she and Steve investigate Planet 46.

XL5 sings beneath the surface of Planet 46!

The episode goes to great lengths to showcase Fireball XL5 as a vehicle without feeling too forced, although we’re missing the much-loved launch sequence, though this is compensated by its inclusion in the series’ title sequence. From the shuttle-esque Fireball Junior to many of the craft’s interiors (cockpit, laboratories, navigation bay, luxury living quarters), it’s little wonder why Fireball XL5 captured so many young imaginations as a spectacular vehicle design that latched onto the space-age zeitgeist.

Gerry and Sylvia’s script, along with Gerry’s directing, moves at a brisk pace, its firm embrace of sci-fi tropes lends a renewed focus compared to their admittedly lightweight stories for Supercar‘s second series. The episode’s events climax in a well-executed manner, with the dual peril of XL5 sinking into quicksand on the planet’s volatile surface and Venus being captured aboard the Subterrains’ second planetomic weapon. As an overall package, Planet 46 remains a solid, uncomplicated adventure, but Stingray‘s pilot would end up refining the approach taken here to better extremes.

Discovery of Titanica

Stingray’s pilot episode highlights the warm friendship between Troy and Phones.

Stingray‘s debut episode, simply named Stingray, follows a similar pattern to Planet 46, but boasts several advantages. By this point in Gerry’s career, Lew Grade had taken A.P. Films directly under his financial wing, enabling the company to set up in the Slough Trading Estate and vastly expand their production capabilities. An increased budget led to improved facilities, studios, and equipment, coupled with the improving experiences the company was continually acquiring in producing entertaining and commercially successful sci-fi puppetry. This is all reflected in Stingray, enabling the episode to have a perhaps unfair advantage in overtaking Planet 46 as the stronger effort.

From production values to its narrative structure, Stingray is a hugely refined progression for how Supermarionation series introduce themselves. In this first episode, Captain Troy Tempest and Lieutenant ‘Phones’ Sheridan investigate the mysterious destruction of the World Security Patrol vessel Sea Probe. Their efforts uncover the existence of a villainous underwater alien warlord named Titan, ruler of Titanica, who wishes to overthrow the terraneans. Only with the help of his mute slave Marina can the Stingray crew hope to escape before the World Aquanaut Security Patrol bombards the area with hydronic missiles.

Stingray’s lavish set designs and special effects elevate the episode.

With its mysterious, alluring underwater setting, Stingray tells a rather more captivating story than the dryly straight-forward Planet 46. Where Planet 46 is the first episode of Fireball XL5, it certainly isn’t presented as being the first time the XL5 crew encounters an alien race. In comparison, this is where Stingray succeeds over its predecessor. The audience shares in Troy and Phones’ perspective of this episode’s events marking the first instance that humanity discovers the existence of alien civilisations existing beneath the world’s oceans. To the episode’s further credit, the inclusion of Marina reinforces the episode’s underlying moral message that some aliens are evil while others are more peaceful.

The comradery between Troy and Phones is great fun to see and is presented so naturally, offering us an insight into their trusted friendship. Phones in particular brings welcome touches of humour to the episode, from the visual gag of him reclining in the standby lounge to the quippy acknowledgement that Troy gets to be interrogated by Titan instead of himself. The clash between Troy’s intrigue at the possibility of underwater lifeforms and Phones’ scepticism is a nice balance of perspectives. Elsewhere, Stingray may not showcase the capabilities of the submarine itself to the extent of Planet 46‘s highlighting Fireball XL5, but we do get to witness Stingray’s thrilling launch sequence in full. Compared to Planet 46, Stingray feels more concerned with prizing open the mysteries of its aquatic world. Having perfected sci-fi trappings with Fireball XL5, Stingray‘s debut can’t help but feel the more uniquely enthralling episode.

Diving into the Sea

Planet 46 is as much a leap forward for A.P. Films as Supercar‘s own debut was from Four Feather Falls, but with its lush oceanic special effects, stronger characterisation, and engrossing story, Stingray is the clear winner between the two. With its outer space setting, Planet 46 marks a ambitious progression for A.P. Films’ approach to special effects. The star-speckled backdrops for Fireball XL5, the eerie, inhospitable landscape of Planet 46, and the hideout of the subterrains are clearly an evolutionary step for the likes of Derek Meddings and Bob Bell to take. However, it’s hard to ignore just how far Lew Grade’s increasing financial support goes in bringing these marionette worlds to even further life, with Stingray being a prime example of what Grade’s involvement meant for the creative success of these programmes.

Prepare to launch Stingray!

Stingray has even more of an unfair advantage over Fireball XL5 simply for being produced in colour, and whilst the black-and-white production values often lend a stark visual terror to some of Fireball XL5‘s more menacing efforts, Stingray‘s kaleidoscopic approach to visual world-building elevates its pilot episode. The enhanced techniques utilised by the special effects crew involved improving the use of water tanks to film the model and miniature sequences with, and creating more elaborate underwater locations, from convincing rockfaces and fauna to entire alien civilisations. Matching the special effects and puppetry, Gerry and Sylvia’s storytelling in Stingray shows a growing confidence in writing futuristically fantastic adventures filled with likeable characters and compelling action.

In this instalment of our Pilots in Parallel series, Stingray is the standout winner! The series’ pilot evokes an appealing sense of engrossing mystery within its sea-faring sci-fi aesthetic, proving that the Earth’s oceans can be filled with just as much jeopardy and excitement as the furthest reaches of the cosmos.

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Written by
Fred McNamara

Atomic-powered writer/editor. Website editor at Official Gerry Anderson. Author of Flaming Thunderbolts: The Definitive Story of Terrahawks. Also runs Gerry Anderson comic book blog Sequential 21.

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