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Thunderbirds Thursday: Celebrating Tracy Island

Its location is top secret. Its origins are shrouded in mystery. Yet it remains one of the most iconic and celebrated locations in any Gerry Anderson production. This Thunderbirds Thursday, we’re celebrating the much-loved Tracy Island, location and headquarters of the International Rescue organisation!

From Black Rock to Tracy Island

A beautiful island in the Pacific? Or something more?

The luxurious paradise known as Tracy Island serves as the home of millionaire ex-astronaut and industrialist Jeff Tracy, his five sons, their grandmother and a clutch of other close members of the Tracy clan. However, this island world, cut off from the rest of the world, hides many miracles of engineering genius. Within the island’s sheer rock walls and beneath its tropical foliage, Tracy Island serves houses International Rescue’s incredible fleet of diverse rescue vehicles. Rockets, submarines, transporter craft, ground-based vehicles and further spectacular advances of engineering, all created to save lives where normal means of rescue fail, are securely on standby for near-immediate blast off when the world needs them.

Luxurious family home? Or secretive rocket launch bays? Or both!

Like many other of Thunderbirds‘ creative elements, Tracy Island has its roots in what came before in Supermarionation history. The secluded nerve centre of each series’ heroic rescue/security organisation had quickly become a visual trademark for Supercar, Fireball XL5 and Stingray, noticeably evolving in style over the course of each series. As we’ve previously explored, Supercar retroactively becomes regarded as the seed from which many hallmark of Supermarionation’s sci-fi identity flourishes from, including the series’ base of operations, Black Rock Laboratory. The sprawling designs of Fireball XL5‘s Space City and Stingray‘s Marineville bear many of the recognisable visual hallmarks which Tracy Island would elaborate on further. Tracy Island takes the self-sustaining metropolises of the past and condenses them into something more intimate and stylish, blending the safety of a much-loved home and the promise of danger and excitement in its crucial role as the HQ of International Rescue.

Tracy Island therefore represents the next logical leap in how bases of operations were realised in Century 21 Productions’ growing line-up of puppet fantasies, but infused with the hugely romantic idea of how a family of heroes would go about concealing their secretive, superhero-esque identities from the world. Tracy Island does away with the military aesthetic of Space City and Marineville, instead emphasising the base as a genuine home where a family can live in harmony, whilst still being able to leap into action when needed.

Making an Island Paradise of Secrecy

A. P. Films/Century 21 Productions constructing Thunderbird 2’s runway.

Tracy Island itself was devised by Gerry and chiefly designed by Thunderbirds‘ special effects supervisor Derek Meddings, along with its interiors being dreamt up by Thunderbirds‘ art director Bob Bell. The making of Tracy Island proved popular with Meddings and his special effects crew, including the newly hired Mike Trim. Bell in turn worked closely in making Tracy Island’s interior sets with his assistant, production designer Keith Wilson. Keith and Mike would eventually work their way up the Century 21 ranks and both eventually delivered a huge aesthetic impact on the visual style of later Anderson productions Captain Scarlet, Joe 90, and The Secret Service.

Derek and Bob embraced Gerry’s vision of a producing an idyllic location which nonetheless could function as a multifaceted launch platform of multiple different rescue vehicles. The pair worked closely together to ensure a visual coherency was in place between the model and puppet sets for the series to look as seamless as possible, which would be best evidenced during Thunderbirds‘ infamous launch sequences. These stock scenes are made up of a hearty amount of seamless editing between model and puppet units.

No rescue organisation has ever had such art deco style!

For Tracy Island’s exterior, Derek and his team produced a variety of miniature sets which could be joined together and filmed as one larger set, or as separate units, depending on the requirements of the scene or even the needs of a single shot. Building on the lavish interiors best evidenced in the apartment homes of WASP personnel in Stingray, Bell’s interior sets for Tracy Island married stylish art deco with cutting-edge space-race attitudes.

Nothing on Tracy Island is at it first appears!

Tracy Island stands as a supremely evocative fusion of decadent yet unassuming luxury with vivid space/spy technology. Tracy Island may be a dream home for us all if we could all make our millions in space technology and industrial engineering, but simultaneously, nothing is as it appears. From the Roundhouse to Tracy Villa, each piece of furniture may descend below the floor or swivel around the wall to transport you to a multitude of vast vehicle hangers where many fantastic rescue machines are on constant standby.

Tracy Island’s deceptive nature is rooted in the intense secrecy with which International Rescue must disguise itself with. As such, the Thunderbirds’ base is a world away from the comparatively exposed establishments of past series. In addition, Tracy Island benefits from having other security protocols in place, rather than limiting itself to simply matters of disguise. Whilst the International Rescue organisation remains on constant alert, any outside visitors necessitate Operation Cover-Up to swing into action. This protective procedure allows Tracy Island to reinforce its defences, appearing for all intents and purposes as truly nothing more than the Tracy’s home.

A Lasting Legacy

It’s little wonder why Tracy Island continues to capture our imaginations since Thunderbirds‘ blast off nearly 60 years ago. This self-contained world easily plays into our imaginative wonder and remains a delightful encapsulation as to why Thunderbirds has sustained its popularity after all these years. The island has enjoyed an intriguing afterlife in toys and comics outside of the TV series itself. Whilst the history of how Jeff and his family formed their island home went unspoken in the TV series, that history was eventually divulged in The Complete Thunderbirds Story.

Thunderbird 2’s hanger is just one of the many secrets hidden within Tracy Island.

Devised by former Thunderbirds scriptwriter and TV Century 21 editor-in-chief Alan Fennell, The Complete Thunderbirds Story was a hugely ambitious multi-media narrative published throughout Fleetway’s runaway hit Thunderbirds the Comic in the early 1990s. The lengthy serial told the history of how International Rescue was formed, with a heavy focus on Jeff’s personal and professional life prior to experiencing the life-changing events that would inspire him to establish a rescue organisation the whole world could benefit from – including how Jeff discovered the island that would become his newfound home. In toys, Tracy Island playsets were a mainstay of Thunderbirds‘ BBC revivals throughout the early to late 1990s, with demand being so colossal that Blue Peter came to the rescue with its make-your-own video tutorials which showed you how to build your very own Tracy Island out of everyday household items.

From its stunning design to the techno-mecha secrets hidden within, Tracy Island is a haven of comfort, mystery, and adventure!

Discover more about the origins of Tracy Island and International Rescue in our animated history – Thunderbirds Legends: The Complete Story of International Rescue!

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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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