When Fireball XL5 first aired in 1962 it was the biggest and most imaginative television series yet produced by AP Films, who had been going from strength to strength over the last few years. From their humble beginnings producing relatively simple children’s puppet shows in the late 1950s like The Adventures of Twizzle and Torchy the Battery Boy, and then the more action-packed Four Feather Falls, the company had most recently enjoyed great success with Supercar. This contemporary action adventure series brought a newfound focus on cutting-edge technological development, and so devising an even more science-fiction oriented concept for their next production was perhaps the next logical step.
However, it could all have been very different.
When Gerry Anderson met Lew Grade to discuss a potential follow-up series to Supercar (the future of which was still uncertain at the time) he arrived at the meeting with two ideas. One of these came in the form of a full-colour brochure outlining essentially the same series that would soon become Fireball XL5, albeit then named Century 21. The other was something a little different; a hybrid of Supermarionation and live-action, seven years before The Secret Service would attempt the very same thing. In this series, viewers would meet a young American boy named Joe in live action sequences framed around Supermarionation stories that followed his dreams about adventuring into space as the heroic space pilot Joe 90 aboard Space Patrol Vehicle 1 Zero – or SPV1 Zero! Joe’s family members (also seen in the live action segments) would make up SPV1’s crew, along with the only character who appeared in both concepts; Professor Matthew Matic.
While this unrealised idea may sound a little bizarre and even convoluted (not to mention that it features a surprising number of names that would that go on to return to the Anderson universe later in the decade) it does point to the key demographic that Fireball XL5 hoped to capture; young minds whose imaginations had been inspired by the real-life ‘space race’ to the stars that was unfolding at that time. Amazingly, almost sixty years after it first aired, the show still retains that same appeal to young viewers – not to mention plenty of older ones too!
The 39 25-minute episodes of Fireball XL5 presented an irresistible combination of action and adventure, which continued to develop and improve upon the successes of Supercar. Once again we were presented with a memorable cast of characters; the heroic Colonel Steve Zodiac of the World Space Patrol, his XL5 shipmates eccentric scientist Professor Matthew Matic and Doctor Venus, plus their robotic co-pilot Robert (voiced by Gerry Anderson himself using an electronic vibrator!) and Venus’ pet Lazoon Zoonie. Space City itself was under the command of the lovably irascible Commander Zero, with able assistance from trainee astronaut Lieutenant 90 and chief engineer Jock Campbell. With this core cast in place, plus several other recurring friends and foes, Fireball XL5 had as much to offer in the interactions between its characters as it did in the way of action and excitement.
As exciting as developments at the Black Rock laboratory could often be, the Supercar team’s base of operations in Nevada often felt very cut off from the rest of the world. Fireball XL5 however would operate out of Space City, the Supermarionation universe’s very first stepping stone to the limitless storytelling potential of outer space. The location was realised very much as its name suggests; an entire community built around a spaceport that handled interplanetary traffic on a daily basis. Derek Meddings’ model effects department would create a memorable layout for the centre of the base with the Space City control tower itself and XL5’s launch rail running alongside it, that could then be complemented by any number of additional buildings depending on the needs of a particular episode. The result was a setting that felt larger than it really was, with this same approach also being taken towards the show’s guest planets and environments. Over the next few years other Supermarionation shows would also centre around the adventures of a world security organisation operating from a hi-tech base – but Fireball XL5 got there first!
However, despite the obvious technical skill and admirable scale of the production, it’s probably fair to say that Fireball XL5 was not the most sophisticated of Anderson series when it came to creating its universe. Everyday objects became futuristic simply by adding the word ‘space’ on the front. Planets were either named after their most distinctive feature (“Aridan! The desert planet!”) or else just numbered. Space pirates wore eye patches, carried cutlasses, and even painted a skull-and-crossbones on the side of their ship. As for those bulky spacesuits worn by the real-life astronauts – who needs them? Just swallow an ‘oxygen pill’ before stepping out into the vacuum and you’ll be fine!
However, this may account for much of the show’s appeal. Such was the insatiable appetite for space exploration fare at the time that fans didn’t need to know how it all worked; it was enough that it did, and that it allowed us to embark on weekly adventures quickly and in style. This gave the show an instant accessibility, a feeling that anything was possible, and also promised that they wouldn’t be kept waiting long for excitement to show up! That promise still holds true all these years later.
Despite being shot in black and white, which sadly often leads to the series being overlooked in favor of its full-colour Supermarionation successors, Fireball XL5 has lingered long in the minds of those fans who first enjoyed her crew’s adventures back in 1962. Even more impressively the show has gathered new viewers on VHS and DVD in the long decades since it went off the air, with the same combination of elements that combined to make it a smash hit back when it first aired still capable of working their magic on young minds even today. For those who still have warm fuzzy memories of watching the show on Sunday evenings in the UK or on Saturday mornings on NBC in the US, not to mention those in all the other countries it played in, it may be worth picking up a copy of Fireball XL5 on DVD to relive some of that childhood magic all over again!