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Thunderbirds Thursday: Celebrating Trapped in the Sky

It’s not surprising that the obvious answer to where you should start with any given Gerry Anderson series is right at the beginning, with each series’ respective debut episode. But have we ever paused to think why this is? It’s not simply that they serve as showing audiences the debut security missions or rescue operations of so many of Gerry and Sylvia’s classic characters. Pilot episodes serve many purposes – to introduce the main characters, their relationships to each other, the overall story and the wider themes and ideas at work. Anderson pilot episodes are no exception, but they also serve as very deliberately crafted starting points for viewers and those who actually worked on these shows to take up the creative reigns from there.

On this Thunderbirds Thursday, as we look ahead to this year’s Gerry Anderson Day (April 14th) and with this year’s theme of welcoming new Anderfans, let’s take a look at why Thunderbirds’ pilot episode serves as hugely effective beginning for the series!

For TV shows with lengthily runs across multiple seasons, it’s not uncommon for prospective viewers to be recommended that it wouldn’t hamper their viewing experience to skip earlier episodes, or even earlier seasons entirely, and jump straight into the perceived classic seasons. Rather uniquely by comparison, many Gerry Anderson shows only lasted a single series. This rather places additional pressures on pilot episodes to perform well as quality episodes, but it also makes them all the more a unique experience. You only get one chance to make a first impression!

Scriptwriting Marvels of the Age

Throughout his classic works of the 1960s/70s, pilot episodes from 1960’s Supercar to 1975’s Space: 1999 tended to be written by Gerry alongside then-wife Sylvia, with some exceptions. The pair cut their writing teeth in the early days of AP Films’ operations by writing several episodes of Supercar‘s first series, which was chiefly written by brothers Martin and Huge Woodhouse. As Gerry and Sylvia’s personal relationship blossomed, so too did their professional one, with the pair eventually melding their respective talents together into a dynamite leadership duo, combining Gerry’s film-making technical abilities with Sylvia’s flare for visual style and characterisations.

By Supercar‘s second series, the Woodhouse brothers had been jettisoned and Gerry and Sylvia continued to sharpen their scriptwriting talents further. By the time Fireball XL5 came along, the Andersons took their first big leap in how their unique approach to scriptwriting informed each series.

AP Films would employ scriptwriters during its lifespan, but from Fireball XL5 onwards, Gerry and Sylvia took it upon themselves to write each pilot episode of their respective shows. The idea being that since Gerry and Sylvia would chiefly envision each series between them, then the pilot episode would be written by the pair as well. For the benefit of future scriptwriters working on each respective series, and its actual audience, the pilot episode would serve as something of a living series bible that would introduce all the most important characters, vehicles, locations, technology, and any other pertinent matters. It’s no accident that ‘Trapped in the Sky’ manages to squeeze in varying amounts of screentime for all five Tracy brothers as well as Lady Penelope and Parker, something other episodes would struggle to juggle.

It’s easy to dismiss pilot episodes as being the least ambitious of any given TV series, and why should they be? They’re there to introduce the tonal standard that future episodes may springboard off of from there. But that hasn’t stopped many classic Anderson pilot episodes being held in hugely high regard.

The Indestructible Pilot

Thunderbirds couldn’t not have started off with a stronger offering than ‘Trapped in the Sky’. ‘Trapped in the Sky’ may not be as witty as ‘Vault of Death’ or as jeopardous for International Rescue itself as ‘Terror in New York City’, but as the series starting point, it’s pitch perfect. It establishes the vast formula of Thunderbirds‘ varying elements – the Hood’s antagonism towards International Rescue, his desire to steal the outfit’s secrets, his elaborate concoction of the Fireflash sabotage, the secretive nature of I.R.’s functionality. All these elements dovetail together into a cinematic whole which remains one of Thunderbirds’ most celebrated efforts.

The earliest episodes of Thunderbirds placed a great emphasis on the covert nature of International Rescue’s existence by having their presence in the world not entirely known, something which makes sense to watch evolve over the course of the series, and which ‘Trapped in the Sky’ effectively highlights. The rescue of the Fireflash is naturally framed as International Rescue’s first mission. As mentioned, ‘Trapped in the Sky’ may be lacking in the humour of later Thunderbirds episodes, and a rather formal atmosphere dominates the episode, particularly in how Jeff Tracy commands the rescue operation. But doesn’t that attitude make perfect sense for the series’ pilot episode? 

Again, as further episodes would demonstrate, Thunderbirds’ 50-minute format would be toyed with in a number of creative ways, but ‘Trapped in the Sky’ sticks to a riveting straight-forward approach of clearly demonstrating why International Rescue is the Fireflash’s last hope. The near-hour episode length provides a neatly balanced palette in showing the efforts of London Airport’s own attempts to rescue the Fireflash, only for their work to fail. But just as all hope is lost, London Tower receives that fateful radio call from an aircraft approaching from the east, height 2,500 feet, speed 7.5 thousand miles per hour…

If Thunderbirds had been saddled with the usual 25-minute format per episode, it’s tricky to imagine the episode doing an equally effective job of building that well-paced momentum for International Rescue’s blast-off into its first mission.

Fireflash2

By the time we reach the episode’s end, as Jeff Tracy congratulates his family’s efforts for saving the Fireflash airliner from certain destruction, we’re left with a satisfactorily all-boxes-ticked sense of understanding as to what Thunderbirds is all about. Virgil’s piano-playing naturally surging into Barry Gray’s triumphant closing notes is a handsome encapsulation of what an effortless production ‘Trapped in the Sky is’. It’s an episode which is extraordinarily busy in set-up details without feeling like too much is going on.

Future Anderson pilots would embrace each series’ respective thematic ideas to engrossing effect – the sci-fi-horror, suspense-thriller momentum of ‘The Mysterons’ from Captain Scarlet, the downbeat covert ideals of UFO’s ‘Identified’ and the cosmically apocalyptic magnitude of Space: 1999’s ‘Breakaway’. However, there’s little else in the Andersons’ filmography that feels as suitably triumphant as Thunderbirds’ own debut. 

With so many of Gerry Anderson’s TV shows to explore, each and every series offers a uniquely thrilling starting point for fans. Which Gerry Anderson pilot episodes are your favourites? Let us know in the comments below or on our social media channels! And don’t forget to tune into this year’s Gerry Anderson Day (April 14th) for a day packed with fun, announcements and adventure!

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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