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Thunderbirds Thursday: Celebrating the Pod Vehicles

The five main Thunderbird vehicles of the International Rescue organisation can always be relied upon to save the day. With their compelling designs and versatile capabilities, each of the five Thunderbird machines boasts unique, technologically advanced rescue features. However, International Rescue’s mechanical marvels don’t end there. The organisation also commands a sprawling fleet of smaller yet equally useful rescue vehicles, collectively known as the pod vehicles. This Thunderbirds Thursday, we’re uplifting these lesser-known vehicles of Thunderbirds!

Introducing the Pod Vehicles

International Rescue’s pod vehicles each serve a specialised function which the more general Thunderbird machines may struggle to serve.

Each of the five main Thunderbird machines is designed to perform key rescue functions that can be applied in universal ways. This ensures that International Rescue has a focused operational mentality in understanding which Thunderbird craft is best suited for whichever disaster John Tracy may receive over the airwaves aboard Thunderbird 5. However, the pod vehicles bring with them an unpredictable narrative edge to any given episode that they appear in. The many pod vehicles housed within Thunderbird 2’s line-up of six interchangeable middle sections are each designed to perform highly specific tasks that may be beyond the general capabilities of the main Thunderbird craft. As such, they serve as a vital practical link in International Rescue’s operations.

The pod vehicles are responsible for performing some of International Rescue’s most arduous rescue operations. From ensuring that atomic airliners are able to land safely to burrowing beneath impossibly inaccessible terrain, International Rescue appears to have a compact solution to every emergency thrust upon itself!

Designing the Pod Vehicles

Unlike the five main Thunderbird craft, which were designed prior to the series’ production, the pod vehicles had quite the opposite gestation process. Pod vehicles weren’t designed in advance; they were instead produced on an episode-by-episode basis and were generally the invention of the individual writers working on the series. Between Alan Fennell, Dennis Spooner, Alan Pattillo, and Donald Robertson, a plethora of small yet mighty machines and other rescue technologies were devised that would be transported to the danger zone by Thunderbird 2 and made to perform any number of deadly rescues.

Pod vehicles, then, were mostly designed in relation to the rescue scenarios conjured up by the writers. As such, it was quite rare to see any of the pod vehicles make more than one appearance over the course of the series. Across Thunderbirds‘ 32 episode run, only 14 unique pod vehicles make appearances, nearly all of them confined to their respective episodes.

Much like the Thunderbird machines and the vast majority of other futuristic vehicles seen throughout Thunderbirds, the designing of the pod vehicles often fell to Derek Meddings. However, there may be some debate as to which pod vehicles were the work of Meddings or a young Mike Trim, a newer model maker working in Meddings’ special effects department. Thunderbirds marked a vast upscaling in A.P. Films’ television output and was a much larger-scale production than the likes of Fireball XL5 or Stingray had been. With an increasingly sophisticated special effects unit under his ownership, Meddings’ workload likewise experienced a stratospheric increase.

With these soaring demands, the artistically talented Mike was given the responsibility of creating various Thunderbirds vehicles, designing anything that otherwise fell outside of Meddings’ priorities. The Recovery Vehicles from ‘Pit of Peril’ were one of Trim’s earliest efforts in designing pod vehicles, and caught Meddings’ attention enough to help convince him that Trim could be entrusted with the designing of International Rescue’s smaller fleet of auxiliary vehicles.

Much like the Thunderbirds filming models, pod vehicles were often built with working internal mechanisms for increased realism.

The building of the pod vehicles mostly fell between Trim and fellow model makers Roger Dicken and Ray Brown, though we may safely presume other members of Thunderbirds‘ special effects crew had a hand in building the pod vehicles. Brown, in particular, was a former worker for Mastermodels, which was the company chiefly responsible for the construction of many classic Supermarionation vehicles. Most of the pod vehicles we see throughout the series were designed for traversing tricky terrain and facing heavy obstacles; thus, they were often conceived as tractor-based vehicles with a strong reliance on caterpillar tracks.

It would be Brown’s and others’ responsibility to take Meddings’ designs and conjure forth fully working models, usually constructed from wood or fibre glass. Amusingly, the pod vehicle models had to be pulled along the miniature set rather than attempt to rely on built-in motors. The reason for this was to avoid having the model vehicles travel over the dust-ridden sets, which had caused considerable problems in previous Supermarionation shows! Other features included the Mole, surely Thunderbirds‘ most famous and best-loved pod vehicle, being one of the few pod vehicles to have an actual working motor to bring its drill to life, along with chemical tablets placed on the underside of the pod vehicles to create a convincing trail of smoke and dust as they travelled.

“What a machine!”

The Mole remains Thunderbirds’ best-loved pod vehicles.

The pod vehicles give International Rescue the ability to tackle rescue scenarios that may call for solutions too precise or minute for the large Thunderbird machines themselves to be able to deliver upon. As such, the organisation’s armoury of smaller vehicles is designed to perform quite specialised tasks. The most enduring pod vehicle of Thunderbirds is surely the Mole. This gargantuan, cylindrical burrowing machine is capable of tearing into just about any natural or man-made surface and is often used to rescue those who are trapped below ground. The Mole itself rests atop a mobile trolly, allowing the machine to be driven like a regular vehicle, from which the Mole can be deployed at any given downward angle.

Other popular pod vehicles include the Elevator Cars, which consist of the manually-driven Master Elevator Car and several remote controlled duplicates. These high-speed vehicles assist aircraft coming into land, which may have their landing gear malfunctioned or sabotaged in some way. The Elevator Cars come armed with hydraulically-supported flatbeds to allow secure landing. The Firefly is another popular pod vehicle, sometimes teaming up with the Mole, and is the central vehicle within International Rescue’s sub-line of firefighting vehicles. The Firefly is a heavy duty clearance vehicle, able to quell raging infernos and use its heat-resistant shield to clear debris, sometimes for other I.R. pod vehicles to effect a rescue. Other firefighting vehicles and technologies include the Dicetylene Cage, one of the more unique pieces of I.R. equipment. This compact transporter is used to rescue those trapped in burning buildings. The cage is fixed into pre-existing shafts, akin to an elevator, which then allows it to access anyone trapped. The cage comes armed with extinguishers and a clamp. More traditional firefighting vehicles also form part of I.R.’s fleet.

The DOMO, another of Mike Trim’s designs, shares its design with several other tractor-based pod vehicles.

The Recovery Vehicles are similar in set-up to the Elevator Cars – one ‘pilot’ vehicle and several radio-controlled drones. Similar to the Elevator Cars, these machines can assemble into strategic positions and use their powerful suction clamps to drag damaged vehicles out of collapsed areas. Other specialised vehicles utilised in similar situations involving collapsed buildings or inaccessible mountainous regions include the DOMO – Demolition And Object Moving Operator. The DOMO is utilised to support damaged sections of architecture that may be at risk of total collapse. The DOMO is therefore often used in conjunction with other rescue vehicles in a supportive manner. Similar in design is the Excavator, which also bears functional similarities to the Mole and Firefly. This debris-clearance vehicle has the ability to not only remove collapsed rock, but crush it into a powdery substance for maximum efficiency, creating a cleared path for other vehicles to follow.

International Rescue’s pod vehicles aren’t restricted to heavy-duty operations. The Transmitter Truck is capable of beaming long-range signals into deep space and making contact with space vehicles, overriding their own malfunctioned transmission systems. The Mobile Crane is one of I.R.’s simpler vehicles, but its high-speed capabilities make it an invaluable vehicle when required. The Monobrake is one of I.R.’s more unusual vehicles, another tractor-based vehicle with an extendable arm that can attach itself to overhead monorails, allowing it to then travel like a traditional monorail.

Some of International Rescue’s smallest vehicles also serve as the most powerful. The miniscule Laser Cutter, Thunderizer, Neutraliser Tractor and Jet Air Transporter have all proved their worth as invaluable vehicles. The Laser Cutter’s powerful beam can slice through metal doorways in record time. The Thunderizer (also known as the Booster Mortar) can shoot compact projectiles containing life-saving rescue equipment to those otherwise trapped in unreachable circumstances. The Neutraliser Tractor is designed to override electronic systems using its own powerful sonic beam, while the Jet Air Transporter combines artificial gravity technology to produce secure pockets of air to allow people to jump to safety when other means of evacuation aren’t possible.

Thunderbirds‘ spin-off media also featured an equally eclectic line-up of obscure additional rescue vehicles. Much like the machines seen throughout the TV series, these extra pod vehicles would also only ever be seen in a single story and boasted even greater specified designs and features in storylines that weren’t restricted to the puppet limitations of the TV series.

The Excadigger from the TV21 storyline ‘Atlantic Inferno’ adds to International Rescue’s line-up of burrowing mechas!

With so many specialised vehicles scattered throughout the TV series and accompanying spin-off media, the pod vehicles add a hugely welcome sense of mechanical variety to Thunderbirds. It’s intriguing to note that the Mole and the Firefly proved popular enough to feature in multiple episodes, while the stories of the remaining pod vehicles all begin and end with their respective episodes (aside from a selection of cameos in Security Hazard). Alan Fennell displayed the most enthusiasm for creating new pod vehicles for Thunderbirds in his episodes, a sign of his slickly action-oriented scriptwriting.

Where the series undeniably settles into a mostly comfortable formula of Earth-based scenarios, chiefly for Thunderbirds 1 and 2 to tackle, the presence of the pod vehicles allows for varied dynamics of storytelling, and their designs and functionality enliven the series’ already high standards of special effects, constantly pushing what Thunderbirds‘ sci-fi action aesthetics were capable of producing.

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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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