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Thunderbirds 1994: The Fox Kids version

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The early 1990s was something of a renaissance period for the Gerry Anderson shows. Repeats of Thunderbirds and other Supermarionation series were proving a phenomenal success on British television, while other international regions were also reporting a similar resurgence of interest in Thunderbirds in particular. However, the series had previously failed to make much of an impact in America, but now ITC Entertainment began making preparations to relaunch the show Stateside.

This was not to be the original uncut Thunderbirds television series however, but instead a redubbed, reedited and repackaged version designed to maximise appeal to American viewers – and the action-crazed child audience of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers in particular. It wasn’t only television success that ITC had their sights set on, as around this time plans were already afoot to bring International Rescue to the big screen in a new live action Thunderbirds feature film. This reedit of the original series would therefore also serve as an introduction to the world of International Rescue and its characters before they hit cinemas in Christmas 1995. As we all know however, there was no Thunderbirds film released in 1995 – and even if there had been, this new incarnation of Thunderbirds would have had little impact on it, as it ended up running for just eight episodes.

Whether you like it or not!

Premiering on the Fox Kids network on July 2nd 1994, each episode of this new version of Thunderbirds (often referred to among fans as Thunderbirds Fox Kids or similar) would take episodes of the original show and edit them down to twenty-five minutes in length. Most Thunderbirds fans will be aware that the original 1960s television series had begun life as a twenty-five minute show, before being expanded to fifty-minute episodes on the orders of Lew Grade. Episodes which had already been filmed as twenty-five-minuters were then expanded with newly filmed material, often involving a failed rescue attempt before International Rescue arrived on the scene. As a result, some of the earliest produced Thunderbirds stories lent themselves well to being edited back into a twenty-five minute length and required only minimal additional changes on top of that to fit a reduced running time. Most of the Fox Kids re-edits therefore followed the same plots (and often dialogue) as the original episodes, with the notable exception of The Uninvited, which became The Uninvited: Alien Attack for its redub. This saw the Zombites of the original story rebranded as aliens who had occupied the lost pyramid of Khamandides as the first part of a plot to enslave humanity and take over the world.

VHS release for the first episode of Fox Kids’ Thunderbirds.

The only way to have the freedom to make such drastic changes to the episodes was to completely remove their original soundtracks, and replace them with a new voice cast and new music. In contrast to the large voice cast of the original series, only four voice actors worked on the Fox Kids redub and the episodes often feel like their first readthrough of each script was also the final take. The show’s voice acting is lacklustre throughout, and a long way from the quality performances on the original series, but also retains several obvious errors (everything from incorrect dialogue to inconsistent accents and even actors breathing on mic) which suggests the redubs were recorded in a hurry. Notably, several of the Fox Kids episodes that were released on VHS made use of alternate (and slightly better) performances, albeit from the same actors who all sound thoroughly bored throughout.

To make the original episodes more palatable to American sensibilities, any use of the word ‘death’ (or sometimes even the possibility of such) were removed or altered. Firearms now became lasers, and anybody who had been killed in the original episode now earned dialogue explaining that they had lived – even if, like Culp in Attack of the Alligators!, that was pushing credibility to breaking point! Attempts were also made to remove Lady Penelope’s infamous cigarette holder, either by zooming in on the image or by some less than impressive digital trickery.

The show’s famous musical score was also replaced with a new soundtrack composed by Randall Chrissman, which although adequate (if often intrusive) fell far short of the rousing orchestral march of the original. This is absolutely evident in the opening titles of the Fox Kids redub, which sacrificed all the drama and excitement of the original series in favour of this tepid intro:

An interesting inclusion in the show’s opening title sequence were the ‘top secret’ schematic designs of craft from other Anderson shows, including Stingray, a UFO, a SHADO interceptor and an Eagle transporter, although it’s doubtful that the Fox Kids redub team had their sights set on adapting any more Anderson shows since their take on Thunderbirds would ultimately prove to be a disaster. Of the thirteen episodes produced, only the following eight are confirmed to have aired thanks to surviving off-air recordings; Trapped in the Sky, Pit of Peril, The Uninvited: Alien Attack, Attack of the Alligators!, Terror in New York, Edge of Impact, Sun Probe, and Brink of Disaster. It is possible that the show’s increasingly poor ratings meant it was pulled from broadcast before all thirteen could be shown, and although none of the episodes that had been shown were ever repeated four of them were released on VHS around the same time. Curiously, a trailer for this VHS release survives featuring the original Thunderbirds voice cast; a mistake, or perhaps a clue which suggests that revoicing the show wasn’t part of the original plan for the Fox Kids version?

Anyone attempting to repackage a show as beloved as Thunderbirds is going to have their work cut out for them when it comes to producing a product acceptable to both new viewers and old fans, but with the goal of the Fox Kids redub supposedly being to introduce Thunderbirds to a new generation ahead of a major motion picture release it’s surprising just how little effort seems to have been put into the project. Few areas of its production can be described as anything other than ‘competent’, while the voice acting in particular is shockingly poor. Even the show’s most dramatic moments are delivered in a monotone that suggests a lack of time for the actors to get to grips with the material they were working with and make something special out of it; the exact opposite to the creative spirit of the original series they were attempting to ‘improve’ upon.

The Fox Kids version of Thunderbirds might have remained a brief and best forgotten footnote in the show’s history…but unfortunately, just over a year later, another attempt to repackage Thunderbirds for the kids of 1990s America would be unleashed – and this time, for better or worse, actual effort would be put in.

Thunderbirds was about to be Turbocharged.

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