Thunderbirds Thursday: The Secrecy of International Rescue

International Rescue is often the first port of call for those suffering extreme disasters. That fantastic organisation commands such a high profile that anyone from anywhere around the globe and by any means of communication can contact them for help. In contrast to this availability, International Rescue operates under a strict cloak of secrecy. No-one knows who they are or where they come from, but come they do, and help they bring – albeit so long as nobody attempts to track them down!

The superhero-esque nature of the Tracy family maintaining secret identities adds a delightful sense of covertness to how the organisation functions. But how successful is this facet of the original TV series, how did it progress over time, and how did other incarnations of Thunderbirds tackle this aspect? This Thunderbirds Thursday, we’re examining the secrecy of International Rescue!

The First Mission

Thunderbirds‘ debut episode, Trapped in the Sky, best explains exactly why International Rescue adhere to such strict levels of security. Jeff Tracy, head of the Tracy household and founder/leader of International Rescue, explains that the outfit’s life-saving technology is years ahead of its time, and that if the Thunderbird machines wound up in enemy hands, that technology could become a force for destructiveness. As such, International Rescue function as humanitarian vigilantes, framing themselves as the last possible resort when all other means of rescue have either failed or just aren’t possible.

The senior crew of London International Airport witness International Rescue’s debut mission in operation.

The way in which International Rescue’s profile develops over the course of the series takes a variety of intriguing directions. Since Trapped in the Sky features International Rescue’s first mission, it’s also the first instance of International Rescue revealing itself to the world. It’s low-key bizarre to think that whilst International Rescue quickly become the go-to outfit people call upon to come to the rescue, its very first mission sees them muscling in uninvited on somebody else’s territory!

The initial reactions of the senior crew of London Airport, led by Commander Norman, to the arrival of Scott Tracy piloting Thunderbird 1 is surely an iconic moment for the series. This here marks the first public unveiling of International Rescue, who are finally ready to out themselves to the world they’ve been set up to serve. Having attempted their own failed rescue of the atomic airliner Fireflash and left with no alternative other than for the Fireflash to land in the unfounded hope that the bomb strapped to its undercarriage will failed to explode, Norman and company can only quickly accept International Rescue’s offer of help.

Fortunately, International Rescue’s debut mission proves to be a complete success and the crew and passengers of the Fireflash are saved. With the gratitude and trust of the London Airport crew secured, Scott solidifies things further by maintaining that the Thunderbird machines must not be tracked when leaving the danger zone, which the men comply with. From here, International Rescue’s presence and purpose is solidified and its secrecy understood.

Military Perceptions

It’s interesting to note that Trapped in Sky becomes the only isolated case of International Rescue having to justify themselves and their secrecy to the people they rescue. From here, the outfit rapidly becomes a household name. In Pit of Peril and City of Fire, which are the earlier episodes closest to Trapped in the Sky in production order, International Rescue has become a known entity and the outfit is easily entrusted to carry out hugely jeopardous rescue operations that are beyond the remit of the U.S. military and the ground management crew of the Thompson Tower, respectively.

International Rescue’s secret status goes unquestioned for most of the series’ run. It’s widely accepted that the world is in need of this vigilante outfit, and that its own secrecy is justified. Peppered throughout the series however are instances that show up just how vulnerable I.R.’s own self-entitled levels of secrecy are.

Military powers aren’t always welcoming of International Rescue’s helpfulness!

Terror in New York City serves as the strongest example of how International Rescue’s secrecy can in fact be easily punctured, and not strictly by antagonistic forces. The US Navy warship Sentinel accidentally shoots down Thunderbird 2 when it incorrectly identifies the transporter craft as an unknown entity. Thunderbird 2’s description as being ‘too fast for an aircraft and too slow for a missile’ shows how the Thunderbird machines aren’t easily identifiable and that I.R.’s technology allows them to be perceived as suspicious by official military forces. Only when it’s revealed aloud that the unknown vessel is in fact a machine belonging to International Rescue does the US Navy realise its mistake. Intriguingly, other military powers maintain their suspicions even when I.R. attempts to assist in crisis.

When Brains succeeds in cracking the enemy codes in The Cham-Cham that are being used to attack RTL2 air transporter craft launching from Matthews Field airbase, Jeff Tracy contacts the airbase commander to warn them of further attacks. Remarkably, the commander refuses to believe Jeff’s story. Only when Scott Tracy himself takes Thunderbird 1 direct to Matthews Field just as another transporter comes under attack from enemy craft does the commander reluctantly acknowledge that ‘International Rescue have done it again’. Between Matthews Field and the Sentinel, it’s intriguing to see the varying levels of trust that military powers are happy to place in International Rescue.

Idols & Imposters

Thunderbirds manages to find room for a lighter alternative to International Rescue’s secrecy. Where the grown-ups of the 2060s may look upon International Rescue with some not entirely unjustified weariness, Cry Wolf and Security Hazard highlight a much wittier and gentler look at how I.R. is perceived, with the outfit being idolised by a much younger demographic. Other instances where I.R.’s self-appointed security falls to a vulnerable state include Martian Invasion, in which the Hood comes the closest he’s ever been to acquiring the secrets of the Thunderbird machines, and Edge of Impact, in which family friend Colonel Tim Casey’s presence on Tracy Island unwittingly hampers I.R.’s response to a disaster caused by the Hood.

However, another contender for International Rescue’s most severe impact on its secrecy doesn’t come from the Hood’s hands at all. The Imposters sees International Rescue’s secrecy exploited by a gang of fraudsters who pose as the outfit to perform elaborate robberies. In one fell swoop. I.R. become painted as villains. The organisation’s entire existence becomes fractured seemingly beyond repair when the villains’ actions result in global military powers embark on a dangerous pursuit to track down any sighting of any Thunderbird craft and bring them to unfounded justice. Only with the help of a decidedly quirky member of International Rescue’s network of undercover operatives does the outfit stand a chance of clearing its name.

Reinventing the Secrecy

The levels to which International Rescue would maintain its secrecy and the outfit’s perception from the outside world would take some unexpectedly darker turns away from the TV series. In the pages of TV Century 21, several storylines would embrace the covert identity of International Rescue into their premises – and just how far I.R. would defend its secrecy. Talons of the Eagle sees the Tracy family scramble to keep their hidden world secure when a U.S.A.F. aircraft comes close to tracking and exposing the secrets of Tracy Island. I.R. is left with no alternative but to shoot down the craft and jeopardise the data that it’s collected. It’s a rather underhand operation played by I.R., throwing forward to the severe means employed by S.H.A.D.O. in UFO to maintain its own deceptions.

More underhand tactics come into play in The Trapped Spy, when International Rescue’s initial refusal to involve itself in a politically-charged scenario at the demands of the World President results in the World Government resorting to shockingly deceptive means to coax International Rescue into operation.

Future incarnations of Thunderbirds would greatly adjust the integral levels of secrecy, so crucial to the creative DNA of the series’ concept. Prior to the ill-fated live-action Thunderbirds movie’s release in 2004, it had undergone prolonged stages of development, including earlier script drafts posing alternate possibilities of how the movie might have gone. An early version written by Chicken Run writer Karey Kirkpatrick and Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey director Peter Hewitt would have greatly strengthened the fact that nobody knew who International Rescue were. Fast forward to the semi-CGI reboot from 2015 to 2017, any mentions of International Rescue disguising itself from the world are almost entirely absent.

Thunderbirds‘ depiction of International Rescue’s hard-earned lifestyle of elaborate disguise throws up some exciting and unpredictable avenues over the course of the original series. The Tracy family may resort to some desperate measures to maintain their independence, but as Jeff elaborates in Trapped in the Sky, those measures are justified to ensure that the Thunderbird machines remain life-saving technological miracles instead of weapons of destruction.

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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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