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Thunderbirds Thursday: The Roots of Thunderbirds

Thunderbirds is rightly celebrated for its unique combination of spectacular special effects, futuristic technology and adventurous heroism, and is held in high regard amongst other science fiction works in television and film. However, the series wasn’t conjured into life in isolation. It was the work of a team of filmmakers who’d spent several years at that point honing their skills and proving their capabilities with numerous preceding works under their belt. This Thunderbirds Thursday, we’re investigating how the pre-Thunderbirds Supermarionation series laid the groundwork for International Rescue!

Four Feather Falls

Having shed the admittedly twee, nursery audience aesthetic of The Adventures of Twizzle and Torchy the Battery Boy, AP Films’ first genuinely original puppet production, Four Feather Falls, marked the first of several key techniques and features that would become commonplace in future Anderson shows. In an effort to abandoned the frustratingly limited nature of the earlier puppets of Twizzle and Torchy, the puppets of Four Feather Falls utilised the cutting edge technology which enabled the puppets’ mouths to open and close in time with their dialogue by use of electrical impulses. This was formed by having these electrical impulses travel down the thin tungsten steel wires, use to operate the puppets themselves. By using this ground-breaking technique, Supermarionation was born.

Four Feather Falls‘ wild west setting prompted other details that would become more refined in future shows – exciting action sequences of the puppet characters wielding guns gave the puppeteers more complex action to bring to life. The rough, rugged terrain which surrounds the town of Four Feather Falls itself gave the special effects department more ambitious platform to bring various types of terrain to life. All of these would lay the groundwork for future efforts.

Supercar

The adventures of the crew of Black Rock Laboratory gave AP Films its next leap towards what would become International Rescue, introducing many recognisable firsts to the world of Supermarionation.

For starters, we have Black Rock Laboratory itself – a base of operations from which the Supercar crew would leap off into adventure. It remains rather far and removed from the likes of Marineville or Cloudbase, but giving our characters a central location becomes a clear forerunner to the more lavishly elaborate Tracy Island. Having Supercar stationed at Black Rock would yield another infamous aspect of any Anderson production – the launch sequence! Again, whilst Supercar’s own launch may not be as enthralling as Thunderbird 2 being lifted into blast off position, we surely have the act of ‘roof doors opening’ to thank for several of Thunderbirds‘ most iconic and memorable moments.

As AP Films’ first stab at science fiction, Supercar‘s cast of characters can be viewed as prototypes of what would come with Thunderbirds. In Mike Mercury, daredevil pilot of Supercar, you have the blueprint of all five of the Tracy brothers, whilst the scientific expertise of Doctor Beaker would be found further down the road in Brains. Supercar‘s globe-trotting promise of adventure, along with several episodes bearing the general premise of jeopardous cutting edge technology and deadly espionage, point towards the technology-focused future worlds which Thunderbirds would go onto inhabit so naturally.

Fireball XL5

As we’ve previously explored, Fireball XL5 marked AP Films’ most impressive leap yet into futuristic sci-fi territory. Fireball XL5 presented the company with numerous expansive opportunities for stretching its creative capabilities, with the series boasting an eclectic line-up of memorable spacecraft designs and imaginative alien puppet characters. Alien characters wouldn’t be called upon too greatly in Thunderbirds, but the diversity of character styles at work in Fireball XL5 surely helped the puppet sculptors and operators flesh out their skillset compared to the more intimate cast of Supercar.

Compared to the mostly Earth-bound settings of Supercar, filming against cosmic backdrops and alien landscapes would quickly become commonplace for Fireball XL5. As such, Fireball XL5 boasted a more varied and elaborate visual direction to emphasise the grandeur of Fireball XL5 in action and as the flagship vessel of the World Space Patrol in general. These techniques would come into play further down the road when filming the star vehicles of the International Rescue organisation.

As well as increasing what the puppeteers, directors and special effects personnel could do, Fireball XL5 presented many firsts for Supermarionation which Thunderbirds would extrapolate still further. We have our first ever global security/rescue organisation in the form of the World Space Patrol, as well as our first regular female character via Doctor Venus. The handsome hero and boffin-minded characters from Supercar are refined further with Steve Zodiac and Professor Matic, taking us one step closer to how Thunderbirds would fine-tune these stereotypes further.

Stingray

Much of Stingray takes many similar elements from Fireball XL5 and places them in an underwater setting, but Gerry Anderson was never content to entirely play the same card twice, and so Stingray refined all of Fireball XL5‘s recognisable elements. Now filming in colour, elaborate underwater sequences were naturally in abundance. These sequences captured Stingray in a variety of dynamic angles against an enthralling backdrop of underwater mystery and adventure, Despite the series’ underwater premise, the multi-faceted nature of the World Aquanaut Security Patrol lent itself to an expansive plethora of vehicular hardware. Submarines, ocean liners, atomic missiles and fighter jets give Stingray an expansive feel, something which would be naturally carried over into Thunderbirds.

So much of Marineville feels like a natural step-up from Space City. The interconnected nature of how Captain Troy Tempest, Lieutenant Phones, and Marina launch Stingray remains more well-thought out than Fireball XL5’s own launch sequence, and clearly set the standard that Thunderbirds would embrace. When embarking on their latest mission, the Stingray crew’s descent from the Standby Lounge into the launch pen below ground where Stingray awaits is the seed from which the secretive nature of Tracy Island’s hidden launch bay interiors would grow from.

A stronger balance of male and female characters would also be carried over into Thunderbirds (as well as a more positive portrayal of female heroines), whilst the puppets themselves offered a further evolution from past series with the introduction of ‘smiler’, ‘frowner’ and ‘blinker’ puppet heads, designed to increase the characters’ onscreen emotional range. With this continual push as to what the Supermarionation puppets were capable of achieving, these varying types of heads would become entirely commonplace by the time we’d reach Thunderbirds.

All of these above elements across Four Feather Falls, Supercar, Fireball XL5, and Stingray would eventually fuse together into a cohesive whole with Thunderbirds. What are your favourite elements from each of these series? How do you think Thunderbirds‘ predecessors influence the series? Let us know in the comments below or on our social media channels!

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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