Thunderbirds: The basics
Thunderbirds first launched onto British television in 1965, and for many fans remains the pinnacle of the Gerry Anderson legacy. The series centred around the exploits of International Rescue, a global response organisation founded by billionaire ex-astronaut Jeff Tracy on a beautiful island somewhere in the Pacific. His five sons, each named after a real life astronaut, took control of the five Thunderbirds machines, a fleet of rescue craft designed by the engineering genius Brains. These included Thunderbird 1, a hypersonic rocket piloted by Scott, Thunderbird 2 (the heavy transporter piloted by Virgil), Thunderbird 3 (the space rocket flown by Alan), Thunderbird 4 (a submarine operated by Gordon), and Thunderbird 5 (an orbiting space satellite we most often saw manned by John).
Other regular characters on Tracy Island included Grandma (Jeff Tracy’s mother), engineer Tin-Tin, and her father Kyrano – while deep in the Malaysian jungle Kyrano’s sinister half-brother the Hood plots his latest diabolical scheme to capture International Rescue’s secrets. Jeff Tracy could also call on a worldwide network of agents to assist in operations, but the most often seen were British agent Lady Penelope Creighton Ward and her faithful manservant Parker who carried out their missions in style in the famous pink Rolls Royce Fab 1. Whenever disaster struck, be it an accident or deliberate sabotage, it’s Thunderbirds are Go! And if the situation requires specialised rescue equipment, Thunderbird 2’s pod will always be carrying exactly what is needed to save trapped people or stop a runaway machine.
From Half-hour to FIfty Minutes
Originally planned as a series of half-hour episodes the Thunderbirds format was expanded to a full hour on the orders of ITC head Lew Grade, who was extremely impressed by what he saw in the opening episode, Trapped in the Sky. Right from the start the series promised and delivered action and spectacle on the scale of a feature film, and continued to do so throughout its first season. The longer running time now allowed for a greater emphasis on the characters and their relationships as well as action and excitement, and viewers also got to spend time getting to know each episode’s guest characters before they were thrown into mortal danger. Despite this the show’s star attractions were always the machines, with both the Thunderbirds craft and guest vehicles alike lingering in the minds of viewers long after the programme had ended.
The show’s format of disasters and rescues enabled the writers to come up with more exciting and action-packed scenarios than ever before, with the special effects and model department then realising those ideas on a scale that even today still stands as some of the best work ever produced for television. Along with dynamic vocal performances from the cast and a stirring brassy musical score from Barry Gray, every element of Thunderbirds came together almost perfectly to produce a series that very quickly became a hit with audiences worldwide. Crucially, it managed to capture the attention of adults as well as children, which perhaps made paying for the flurry of merchandising that came along with the show slightly more bearable.
The Failed Big Screen Attempt(s)
Thunderbirds was now an international phenomenon, and it only made sense to transfer that success to the big screen. 1966 saw the release of the movie Thunderbirds are Go, which was expected to be a box office sensation…but things didn’t turn out that way. Alongside the film a second season of the television series was being shot, but this was to be cut short after just six episodes when Thunderbirds was cancelled following a failed attempt to sell the series to an American network. Believing that this sale was crucial to the show making its money back, Lew Grade ordered that Anderson and his team should get to work on a brand new series.
A Cultural Phenomenon
Thunderbirds had come to a sudden and unexpected end, but the exploits of International Rescue were not over yet. A second feature film, Thunderbird 6, was to follow in 1968, albeit to similar public indifference as the first, yet the television series continued to endure in the memories of fans. Over the next 20 years nostalgia continued to grow and in 1991 the series was repeated on BBC2 – resulting in a massive resurgence of interest that at times seemed to almost exceed that from the original 1960s showing. Another equally successful repeat run followed in the early 2000s, along with a live action big screen adaptation that proved popular with children but controversial among fans – including Gerry Anderson himself. The film was a box office flop but continual interest in the original television series has lasted into the 21st century, and the concept has recently been revived again in the form of CGI remake Thunderbirds are Go! and Supermarionation revival Thunderbirds 1965, which adapted three audio stories from the 1960s using the original puppetry and model techniques of the classic television series.
More than 50 years after it first appeared on our screens, Thunderbirds continues to thrill and delight audiences young and old around the world! Its unique blend of high action adventure and toys-to-life magic of the ever-appealing puppets and models, makes it an almost perfect family show. Although it only ran for 32 episodes, the series has become an enduring television phenomenon, and it will no doubt continue to inspire and entertain future generations for at least another 50 years. F.A.B.!
Producer: Gerry Anderson
Associate Producer: Reg Hill
Directors: Alan Pattillo, Desmond Saunders, David Elliott & David Lane
Director of Photography: John Read
Character Visualisation: Sylvia Anderson
Lighting Cameraman: Paddy Seale & Julien Lugrin
Art Director: Bob Bell
Supervising Special Effects Director: Derek Meddings
Special Effects Directors: Brian Johncock & Ian Scoones
Music Composed and Directed by Barry Gray
Peter Dyneley, Shane Rimmer, Sylvia Anderson, David Holliday, Matt Zimmerman, David Graham, Ray Barrett, Christine Finn, John Tate
Check out some of our fantastic Thunderbirds merchandise from over at official Gerry Anderson Store.