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Turbocharged Thunderbirds

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In 1994, viewers of the Fox Kids network in the U.S.A. had been ‘treated’ to a new version of Thunderbirds; one that took the original television series and cut it down into thirteen twenty-five minute instalments featuring new voices and music. Created partly to introduce American children to a series that it was hoped would soon be gracing cinema screens in the form of a new blockbuster movie (as well as generally overhaul the show to suit the viewing expectations of a 1990s audience) the result was an underwhelming failure that was pulled from the schedule before all its episodes could air.

Within less than a year, following the collapse of the film project and the subsequent sale of the ITC media archive to Polygram, yet another attempt was made to repackage Thunderbirds for a mid-1990s American audience – despite the fact that the previous effort had demonstrably failed quite spectacularly. However, it appears that those behind what would ultimately become Turbocharged Thunderbirds realised the major weakness of the Fox Kids version; the general air of ‘that’ll do’ that permeated every aspect of the production. In short, Fox Kids hadn’t gone far enough in making enough the oh so necessary changes (nay, improvements) to Thunderbirds that kids of the Nineties were evidently waiting for. It wasn’t ‘edgy’ enough. It wasn’t ‘rad’ enough. It wasn’t ‘in your face’ enough. But all that was about to change…

Turbocharged Thunderbirds premiered on American television on December 18th 1994, and once again put new voices and music over edited versions of original Thunderbirds episodes. The premise of the revised series relocated the Thunderbirds stories to a different planet entirely; Thunderworld, which was discovered (off-screen) by live action teenage space adventurers Roxette (Johna Stewart) and Tripp (Travis Webster). Invited by Jeff Tracy to become International Rescue’s eyes in the sky aboard Thunderbird 5 (which they immediately renamed Hacker Command) these two ‘Hackers’ would try to keep a watch on the goings-on on Thunderworld, usually between arguments either with each other or with S.A.L., the Simulated Artificial Lifeform that served as the station’s computer. This occupation of Thunderbird 5 also deleted John Tracy from the series entirely, although his portrait would remain on the wall of the Tracy lounge.

The Atrocimator, doing some atrocimating.

Most of the show’s other regular characters would be retained, but the Hood would now be taking orders from a floating disembodied head known as the Atrocimator. Played by none other than Tim Curry, this would-be conqueror of the world was behind all the show’s disasters and accidents and employed additional agents when footage of the Hood was not useable (including the Zombites who, as in the Fox Kids dub, were also presented as aliens in Turbocharged).

The show’s voice cast included several notable names, including Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as Jeff Tracy, Malachi Throne as the Hood, and Glynis Barber as Lady Penelope and Tin-Tin. Perhaps most surprising of all is the presence of Dan Castellaneta, giving a curiously flat performance as Alan Tracy while also using several of his recognisable Simpsons voices for various guest characters – including Homer Simpson himself as one of the Sun Probe solarnauts! Despite only running for thirteen episodes the voice cast appears to have had a high turnover rate, with most regular characters being recast at least once.

Thirteen episodes received the Turbocharged treatment, although several would be given new ‘kiddier’ titles; Desperate Intruder became Ready Set Danger, The Uninvited became The Lost Pyramid, The Man from M.I5 became Codename Revenge, Danger at Ocean Deep became The Fog, and Atlantic Inferno became Home Alone. While the stories largely retained the same basic plots of the original episodes, certain narrative liberties were taken to allow the Hackers and the Atrocimator to participate in the stories. In particular, since Tripp and Roxette are essentially the ‘stars’ of the series, the solutions to most of International Rescue’s problems had to be devised by them – often leaving the rest of International Rescue looking clueless as to what their own function is supposed to be.

The next generation of International Rescue: Tripp and Roxette.

It’s in the existence of the ‘Hackers’ that Turbocharged’s most blatant attempts to appeal to its all-important target audience are found. Not only do they drive the episode’s narrative to a large extent by being the primary link between the rescue victims and Tracy Island, but they’re always doing something cool and hip (which therefore apparently makes them likeable), with Tripp’s hobbies including skateboarding and cyber-surfboarding and both ‘Hackers’ apparently being computer geniuses. Granted these ‘hacking’ skills don’t appear to amount to much more than ‘knowing how to turn on a monitor and use a keyboard’, but for some kids of the Nineties that might just have been convincing enough – and at least they devised hand actions to go along with their cries of “Thunderbirds are go!”

Unsurprisingly, Turbocharged Thunderbirds faired poorly in the ratings and was not recommissioned for a second season. Reception among Thunderbirds fans was lukewarm to brutal, and in his biography What Made Thunderbirds Go Gerry Anderson himself was particularly critical of the project; “I saw an excerpt from one of the shows and I thought it was the most diabolical thing I had ever seen in my life. There were a couple of horrible American kids on a gaudily painted set. They would talk a lot of nonsense, and would then switch on their television set and appear to interact with original footage of the Thunderbirds puppets. It was absolutely appalling.” Upon his request, Anderson’s name was removed from the credits of the final product; something he hadn’t even insisted on for the Fox Kids dub. He also claimed to have ordered the series destroyed, although even if he had the authority to do so that apparently didn’t occur as Turbocharged was being aired in Japan as late as 2009.

When compared to the Fox Kids redub, the people behind Turbocharged Thunderbirds certainly deserve credit for putting in more effort than the previous attempt at a Thunderbirds repackage, even if their enthusiasm arguably works against the final product at times. To put it mildly, the Nineties ‘coolness’ of Tripp and Roxette has not aged well, and is a primary source of cringe when viewing the show today – even though it has to be said actors Travis Webster and Johna Stewart did their best with some shockingly bad material.

Money well spent.

Turbocharged was also far more comedic than the Fox Kids dub, which is another reason why newcomers to the series who are familiar with the original Thunderbirds may be horrified by what they find; a series that far from celebrating Thunderbirds at times seems to be actively making a joke of it. The comedy definitely isn’t tongue in cheek, but neither is it full-on slapstick – and sometimes it’s just plain weird bordering on nightmarish. For some however, that simply is the appeal of Turbocharged Thunderbirds; a more comedic take on the series which at times (particularly in Turbocharged’s version of Sun Probe) came close to being something unique. For others however, such treatment of the original series is the ultimate turbocharged travesty.

Given the freedom to pull Thunderbirds apart and reshape it into whatever they felt would most appeal to an American audience of the 1990s, it’s interesting that two different groups of creatives chose radically different approaches – but both failed just as decisively! The overall lack of interest shown to the original series in America was unfortunate, but if it was ever going to find an audience Stateside it was perhaps best to just show the original episodes rather than repackaging them in a way that did nothing to attract those unfamiliar with them – and everything to alienate those who loved them! Thankfully, no similar such attempt has since been made, and the thirty-two original episodes of Thunderbirds have enjoyed repeat runs on several American stations, while the Fox Kids dub and Turbocharged Thunderbirds have faded into nothing but memory.

And YouTube uploads.

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