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Thunderbirds are GO! Tonight in the Mary Pickford Theater

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thunderbirds_are_go_poster_03-400For those unable to attend Friday night’s program in the film series Time Capsule: 1966, here’s a guest post by Brian Taves of the Motion Pictures, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Divsion at the Library of Congress.

I want to thank Pat Padua for selecting tonight’s program and asking if I would introduce it. He knows I’ve been a fan of Gerry Anderson’s supermarionation since an embarrassingly early age.

Now, if you’ve seen supermarionation before, you’re in for a bit of nostalgia. If you’ve seen puppet characters, manipulated by not-quite invisible strings, in fantastic science fiction vehicles, traveling from the bottom of the seas to the skies and outer space—you remember. There had never been anything like this before, and there has not been since. Throughout the 1960s, first came Supercar, then Fireball XL-5, then the first in color, Stingray, and must successfully Thunderbirds—followed by the slightly noir tinged Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and the rather psychedelic Joe 90. Although produced in England, all these showed on American television in syndication.

In fact, this succession of different series, each lasting one or two seasons, all had distinct premises, with separate characters and vehicles. It wasn’t the plots so much that drew us, as the vehicles and special effects that provided novelties and thrills. Supercar “could journey anywhere,” through the air and under the sea; the spaceship Fireball XL-5 in distant galaxies; Stingray was a submarine, and so on. The crews behind the camera, however, on each of these shows were the same, as the puppeteers refined their art and made them steadily more lifelike, the plots becoming more complex and the intended audience steadily more sophisticated children.

The term supermarionation came from Anderson’s desire to convey that these were more visually sophisticated than most children’s puppet shows, with outsize heads and evident strings. Special effects and models were by Derek Meddings, who uniquely combined the unusual, creative, ornate, and detailed in a manner that won additional acclaim when he moved on to the James Bond films.

Ironically, while Anderson’s crew fully grasped the innovative, unique television they were creating, Anderson himself least understood its magic. This was not animation, or stop-motion, and the strings weren’t the point; he failed to comprehend the charm and magic of puppetry. Realism was not the primary aim, but instead to create an imaginative universe of sights never before imagined. Back in the late 1950s, aspiring live-action filmmaker Anderson, beginning a career, discovered he could get a start producing a series of puppet stories for the very young and stumbled into it purely by accident. The problem, from his standpoint, was that it kept leading to another puppet show, and another, as the viewers increased and the shows were sold abroad.

The popularity of Thunderbirds, the only supermarionation show of hour length (including commercials), allowed bringing it the big screen, twice, in the film you will see tonight, Thunderbirds Are GO, and in Thunderbird 6. My view is that the latter, Thunderbird 6, functions better as a narrative, and it has the most adorable conceit. Thunderbirds Are GO displays slower pacing and the fascination with the vehicles themselves, and the loading of the crew—remember, having puppets walk was always awkward, so they would be placed aboard through special devices. You’ll also get the flavor of the dream interlude with Cliff Richard, as well as Barry Gray’s theme music; Gray did all the Anderson shows. Finally, the alien attack shows the shift toward an extraterrestrial theme that was increasingly evident in Anderson’s work.

The weakness of Thunderbirds Are GO may be that the inherent artificiality of the characters and vehicles is foregrounded. Traditionally, pilots in the vehicles and their blast-offs, are shown in variable length, to Barry Gray’s martial musical accompaniment, as needed to fill out the running time for Thunderbirds episodes. In Thunderbirds Are GO, however, you’ll witness a long, drawn-out commencement as the interplanetary spaceship Zero-X is literally assembled before your eyes, piece by piece—only to crumble in mid-air on its maiden flight. It is an episode than entices series viewers fascinated by the Derek Meddings vehicles, but also may be so extended as to alienate some unaccustomed to series tropes. Similarly, the Cliff Richard portion is completely expendable; the film is trying to avoid similarity to one of the television episodes by extended pacing befitting a theatrical feature. There is also the reprise of the Thunderbirds theme by the actual Band of HM Royal Marines, with the concluding note that the characters—the puppets—haven’t been born yet! Thunderbirds Are GO also distinguishes itself as not, as often happened at this time, a two-part television episode pasted together for theatrical release on the European continent.

thunderbirds_are_go_poster_01-400Neither Thunderbirds Are GO nor Thunderbird 6 achieved the anticipated commercial success, commensurate with the television series. However, the experience allowed Anderson to finally succeed in making the transition to live action, with the 1969 feature film Journey to the Far Side of the Sun. I would argue that this film should have received the recognition won by 2001—A Space Odyssey, but the press was ready to crown an established movie maker, Stanley Kubrick, not a novice like Anderson who had worked his way up via children’s fare. Moreover, Kubrick had poached much of Anderson’s talent team and their collective special effects experience during the long production and unlimited budget of 2001.

Anderson followed Journey to the Far Side of the Sun with a new live action series, UFO, which like Captain Scarlet and Thunderbirds Are GO, is a very bleak tale of alien invasions. While the early puppet series had an immense charm and lightheartedness about them, a wonderful humor, that was no longer present. The alien invasion theme reached its peak in UFO, but unable to get funding for a second season, Anderson had to retool it as Space: 1999 a few years later, both his biggest commercial success and failure.

With his attempt to move to the big screen and put supermarionation behind him, Anderson’s career never regained its momentum or regular output, with new productions sporadic until he died in 2012. Although he didn’t want to be known as a puppet meister, his truly unique contribution was with the ten years of work on supermarionation. He ultimately returned to animation later in his career, but never again repeated his earlier successes. Sadly, during a bitter divorce from second wife Sylvia, who had been a collaborator on the supermarionation and early live action, all the control and income either had over their classic work was sold.
Nonetheless, Anderson and his team had been one of the most influential figures in science fiction television from the 1960s to the mid 1970s, first with the children’s market, refining techniques of puppet and model special effects, then carrying forth the science fiction themes toward the adult market when he switched to live action.

At least from my experience, these supermarionation shows, absorbed at a young age, had a major effect on a child’s imagination. I first stumbled across this when I was a kid, maybe four years old, but with the series shown separately, I never linked them, but saw them as a style, rather than the product of the same team. Even showing at irregular times, these shows made an enormous impression, just as we were living through the Mercury and Gemini space program. Anderson’s puppet characters were involved in science fiction stories, blasting round the universe in rockets or diving beneath the sea. I was entranced—and soon had my Fireball XL-5 playset and lunch box. And I have to say that when you’ve already traveled the galaxy with Steve Zodiac and his Russian counterpart, the beautiful Venus—for this was a future where humankind cooperated— aboard Fireball XL-5, well, Captain Kirk, Spock and the Enterprise just don’t cut it. I am convinced is that my later obsession with Jules Verne, that most recently culminated with my book Hollywood Presents Jules Verne, was inspired by those supermarionation shows that formed my childhood yearnings. The Anderson classics are all now rarely broadcast but are on DVD and I urge you to go back and examine them. And tonight you have the chance to see one on the big screen as intended.

Now … is everyone F.A.B.? I didn’t say fab, I said F.A.B. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you will soon.


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