Dir: Alan Pattillo
Original Air Date: 30 September 1965
Watching television that was ahead of its time twenty or so years before you were even born promises so much, yet frequently delivers little, even when contemporary context is taken into account. After all, times change, footage dates, and the medium developed light years at a time. Usually written, produced and shot efficiently for a short-term audience, so-called ‘classic’ television, unlike its silver screen cousin, for the most part comes across as frozen within a single generation, especially many examples from deepest, darkest 1960s Britain. Every now and again, however, a program came along that not only captured the minds of its contemporary audience, but hit it so hard that instead of being simply preserved as part of history, it quickly evolved to the extent that a single generation was never going to be the last to view it en masse.
Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds was one such a television show. Its epic nature was unique at the time, particularly in Britain, where there were only three channels available and no concept of home video. Rarely does a combination of great imagination, groundbreaking (and backbreaking) physical special effects, interesting writing both story and dialogue-wise, as well as terrific behind the scenes talent in the form of voice-work, scoring, and technical accomplishment, come together so well just at the right time. It’s true lightning in a bottle (Anderson’s projects both before and after, while wonderful, were no match for the T-Birds), with the look and feel of the natural precursor to big-budget action filmmaking that would eventually become the norm. In fact, overall, it follows a similar pattern, dare I say it, to the original Star Wars, produced ten years later.
I’ll spare you the history lesson – Thunderbirds expert Chris Bentley’s marvellous book on the subject more than suffices in that department – as this piece is about what made the show so engaging. And where better to start than the pilot, ‘Trapped in the Sky’, of which the finale, to this day, sends shivers down the spine of my internal five-year-old self. A quick bit of context. It’s 2065, the Fireflash, an atomic, hypersonic passenger aircraft capable of speeds of up to Mach 6, has had a bomb attached to its undercarriage, meaning a standard landing will cause it to explode, killing all on board and releasing radioactivity over a large area (in this case, London). Oh, and just to ramp up the drama a tad, the radiation shield on the atomic reactor only lasts just longer than the length of the craft’s intended flight time, meaning that, if it doesn’t land soon, all on board will be exposed to lethal doses of radiation. Serious design flaws aside, that’s some heavy shit. So of course, the chaps from International Rescue are required to intervene in order to save the day. A quick note, airport terrorism obviously wasn’t much of a thing in 1965, as Thunderbird 1, essentially a rocket travelling at 7,500mph, casually just flies over and lands without being tracked and shot down by the RAF, who probably would have shit themselves when they saw it bowling across their radar at just shy of Mach 10.
Whilst I doubt anyone will be quite as glued to a curved, 4:3 standard definition as I was a youngster, here’s the consequential scene in question (having said that, leave it in 360p for the authentic childhood SD throwback, trust me):
Now for those cracking up in the first couple of seconds, I don’t blame you. It’s a rather amusing sight seeing Scott Tracy and Co. up close after so many years, and for those young enough to have never really witnessed it much at all it must look down right amusing. As the scene begins to flow within its original context however, the drama comes to life with some genuine intensity as we proceed to the final showdown. As I said, Thunderbirds was pure action filmmaking before such a thing really existed on the big stage, with this particular race against time one of the highlights.
The first reason as to why it looked great was the special effects. Whilst the work that went into the puppets was of course exemplary for the time period (Supermarionaton, as Anderson coined it), it was the vehicular and set/background work that really stole the show in Thunderbirds, and ‘Trapped in the Sky’ was the perfect launching platform. The aircraft designs on the show are still a joy to behold to this day. The sleek Fireflash, cockpit housed in the rear below the engines, is just excellent in both imagination and execution. The Thunderbird Elevator Cars are pretty nifty too, and there’s a nice touch during the finale with the right hand car sporting the number ‘4’ instead of ‘3’, due to a crash that happened moments earlier that resulted from a real life defect during shooting. Little details like this (see also: sweat on the faces of the puppets – marvellous) go a long way to supporting the seemingly big-budget atmosphere created by Anderson and his forward thinking team.
The star of said team was visual effects supervisor Derek Meddings, the legacy of who is revered to this day, with Bond, Superman, and Tim Burton’s Batman to his credit following his years working with Anderson. On Thunderbirds he went to town right from the off with the development of the ‘rolling road’ system, a tool to match the classic ‘rolling sky’ already pioneered during previous Anderson productions. Whereas most examples of ‘rolling’ this or ‘background’ that looked rather choppy/downright awful in live-action pictures from the same era, here the road system still looks great, with the Elevator Cars appearing to truly burn rubber as they zip along in order to build speed as the Fireflash looms overhead. It also gives director Alan Pattillo, cinematographer Paddy Seale, and editors David Lane and Len Walter something of real quality to work with, and boy do they make the most of it. The build up and finale are skilfully punctuated with quick cuts to the extent that genuine human-emotion is brought out of the puppets on show. Combined with the implementation of multiple cameras, featuring top-down shots, close-ups, and low angles to name but a few, everything comes together seamlessly to create a watershed action experience.
Rounding off the dedicated work of those performing the visual drive behind the scenes is the sound. The original sound effects, unfortunately lost to time unless you own a 90s VHS copy of the show, were inexplicably altered here and there during re-mastering by ITV when they bought the rights, and although I doubt most would notice (in case you’re yet to guess, the word ‘geek’ doesn’t even begin to describe me at times), it’s a shame as they’re just not as good, with some of the bumps and explosions sounding less organic than those produced by the original team. Still it’s hardly a crisis, with the roaring aircraft effects left intact. The vocal talent also stands strong, with the actors really getting into it, including future two-time token Bond Yankee Shane Rimmer as Scott Tracy, alongside multi-voice duo Ray Barrett and David Graham, culminating in some brilliantly over the top Queens English accents from the chaps in the control tower.
The real gem sound-wise however, is the score. Barry Gray is a legendary figure in the Anderson camp, composing pretty much every well-known piece of music from his classic shows. The score here is the traditional ‘preview’ theme used during the opening credits, a powerhouse of a tune in its own right, but made all the better here by nature of the editing. During the final few minutes of preparation for emergency landing, there’s no music. Such restraint pays dividends, as the back and forth dialogue and piercing screech of the Fireflash combine with the almost eerie wide-shot of Virgil’s stationary Elevator Cars, waiting patiently, to produce the perfect calm before the storm. As the Fireflash roars into view above the runway, the score comes into play at the perfect time, kicking everything up a notch and working in complimentary tandem with the panic-stricken visual editing.
A couple of breathless minutes later and it’s all over, with everyone of course having narrowly survived and a “Jolly good show old boy” thrown in to boot. I won’t go over every close call frame by frame, as there’s no need. It’s all up there on the screen and the footage speaks for itself. The important thing here is the groundbreaking nature of the scene in a creative and executional sense. It really was way ahead of it’s time, with each team responsible surpassing itself in order to produce an action sequence that genuinely blew viewers away, and rightly so. When you look back on the grainy, black and white footage of the 1966 World Cup final, a landmark moment in British television history, then glance at what Anderson and Co. were producing the previous year from the confines of their studios on the Slough Trading Estate, it must have appeared a pretty astounding breakthrough to those who first witnessed that ATV Midlands broadcast, in colour too, no less (television set permitting of course). Jeff Tracy ends the episode by stating, “Boys, I think we’re in business”. He was right.
F-A-B everyone. Yeah, I have no shame.
See my previous article for part one of my short ‘Thunderbirds’ special double-header.