About two years ago, Lost in Translation reviewed the 2015 series, Thunderbirds Are Go, the CGI/miniatures remake of the classic Supermarionation series created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. That wasn’t the first attempt at adapting and updating the series. In 2004, a live action version hit movie screens. Today, Lost in Translation will review the film to see how well the series made the jump to the new format.
The 2004 film, directed by Jonathan Frakes, begins with International Rescue responding to a fire on an oil rig. From Thunderbird 1, Jeff Tracy, played by Bill Paxton, directs his sons in rescuing the trapped workers. Scott Tracy maneuvers Thunderbird 2 as close as possible so that rescue lines can be shot down to the workers. Not all of the Tracy family is there; the youngest, Alan (Brady Corbet), is watching the report from Lise Lowe (Genie Francis) on TV at his boarding school with his friend, Fermat (Soren Fulton), the son of International Rescue’s mechanical genius, Brains (Anthony Edwards). Alan and Fermat mimic using the controls of Thunderbird 2, predicting what Scott needs to do. However, one of the workers is Mullion (Deobia Oparei), a mole working for the Hood (Ben Kingsley). Mullion fires a small rocket at Thunderbird 1, where it leaves a gooey substance.
With his father busy, Alan’s ride back home comes in the form of Lady Penelope (Sophia Myles) and her chauffeur, Parker (Ron Cook). She brings Alan and Fermat back to the island in FAB-1. During the reunion, Alan expresses his desire to be a Thunderbird and follow in his family’s footsteps despite his age. The discussion ends with neither Alan nor his father satisfied with the outcome. During this, Lady Penelope gets a call; the fire on the rig wasn’t an accident.
Still upset with not being allowed to join his brothers on International Rescue, Alan takes Fermat down to Thunderbird 1. They go through the motions of the initial launch, but Alan accidentally starts the vehicle’s engines. He shuts them down, but not fast enough. Jeff calls him up. Leaving Thunderbird 1, Fermat notices the goo, a gallium compound that is electro-reactive. Alan tries to tell his father but gets grounded.
On a submarine, the Hood uses the gallium compound to find the island. His plan, take over International Rescue’s headquarters. To do that, he needs the Tracys to leave and the best way to do that is to have them rescue someone. The Hood has his other minion, Transom (Rose Keegan), launch a missile at Thunderbird 5 in orbit. John Tracy (Lex Shrapnel) is injured in the impact and gets out a mayday. Jeff, Scott, Virgil (Dominic Colenso), and Gordon (Ben Torgersen) leave on Thunderbird 3. Once Thunderbird 3 has launched, the Hood invades.
Alan, Fermat, and Tintin (Vanessa Hudgens, credited as Vanessa Anne Hudgens) notice the Hood’s sub arriving. They try to get to the house first, but the Hood is faster. Inside, the Hood uses psychic mind control to force Brains to turn over command and control to him, then cuts off the the Tracys in orbit, shutting down Thunderbirds 3 and 5. Alan and his friends, though, have snuck inside using the vents and discover the Hood’s plans; to use Thunderbird 2 to rob a number of banks, pinning the crimes on International Rescue. Fermat’s allergies, though, give the kids’ position away.
Alan figures the best way to escape is to use one of the remaining Thunderbirds. The Hood also realizes that and sends Mullion with a number of mooks to retrieve the kids. Alan’s knowledge of IR’s equipment lets the kids escape, only to be trapped by the Hood himself. He does manage to escape, discovering the Hood’s weakness, but falling through one of the vents used by Thunderbird 1 to bleed off the exhaust from the engines. Transom fires up the vehicle’s engines. Afterwards, she checks the monitors and does not find Alan, Tintin, or Fermat.
It’s close, but the three kids did survive, landing in the water just as the flames engulfed them. Alan works out that the best way to get help is to contact his father; they just have to get to the transmitter. Fermat reveals that he has Thunderbird 2’s guidance component, which prevents the Hood from leaving.
In London, Lady Penelope realizes that several disasters haven’t been responded to by the Thunderbirds. Since the only way for IR to not respond is that they’re in trouble, Lady Penelope has Parker take her to Tracy Island, after breaking several prior commitments.
At the transmitter on Tracy Island, Fermat gets a message to the Tracys in orbit and starts trying to restore control to them. Transom, though, tracks the signal and jams it before Thunderbird 5 The Hood sends Mullion out to retrive the kids. Alan knows he’s coming and goes to the junkyard where he rebuilds a hoversled. He gets the vehicle ready just in time, getting it going just as Mullion arrives. The chase ends when Alan pushes the hoversled too far, losing Tintin and Fermat, who are captured by Mullion.
FAB-1 arrives at the island. Lady Penelope and Parker march into the house and confront the Hood. He has Mullion and Transom try to capture the pair, but Parker’s sordid background lets him stand toe-to-toe with the Hood’s heavy with the occasional assist from Lady Penelope. The Hood, though, uses his psychic abilities to stop the pair. When Alan arrives, the Hood demands the guidance component back. Not wanting Lady Penelope or Parker to suffer, he hands over the component. The three heroes are taken to the freezer where the rest of the captives are being held. With the guidance component returned, the Hood and his minions launch in Thunderbird 2 to go rob the Bank of London.
In the freezer, Lady Penelope and Parker untie themselves then the rest of the captives. Parker unlocks the door, letting everyone out. Fermat restores control to Thunderbirds 3 and 5 just in time. With Thunderbird 3 too far to reach London in time, it’s up to Alan, Fermat, Tintin, and Lady Penelope to stop the Hood using Thunderbird 1.
In London, the Hood uses a tunnelling vehicle to get from Thunderbird 2 to the Bank of London’s vault. He takes the direct route, which damages supports for the monorail. When Thunderbird 1 arrives, one of the monorail cars falls into the Thames. Alan, realizing that the only people who can help are he, Tintin, and Fermat, runs to Thunderbird 2 to begin the rescue. Working as a team, the three kids get the monorail car back to the surface as the rest of Alan’s family watches.
Lady Penelope leads the charge into the Bank of London to stop the Hood. She and Jeff are taken prisoner by the Hood. However, Alan knows the Hood’s weakness – the villain gets tired after using his psychic abilities. He forces the Hood to overextend himself and, with Tintin’s help, defeats the villain.
Thunderbirds was aimed at kids. The protagonists are young, the film was rated PG, and there’s a level of humour that comes through even during intense sequences. However, the original Supermarionation series was also aimed at kids. The villains are frightening but not overwhelmingly so. The fight between Mullion and Parker is light-hearted. The main themes are of friendship, family, and responsibility. The movie is a family-friendly action flick.
As an adaptation, there was an effort to stay to the feel of the TV series. While getting actors who look like marionettes is difficult, the casting managed to pull it off. Of note, Lady Penelope, Parker, Brains, and the Hood are close to perfect casting. Ben Kingsley not only looked like the Hood did in the original, he made sure the character came off as competent. The villain didn’t luck out, nor did the villain make a simple mistake; the heroes had to work for their victory. Ron Cook as Parker was also note perfect, with the right accent and attitude. Even the Tracy boys had hairstyles that their characters had as marionettes.
The draw of Thunderbirds is the vehicles. Again, there was an effort to make sure that the Thunderbirds looked like they did in the TV series while still updating the looks to reflect modern sensibilities. Thunderbirds 1 and 2 were sleeker but still recognizable. Only Thunderbird 4, the sub carried by Thunderbird 2, had a major change. The sub also had the least screen time, with most of that time spent showing the interior as Alan piloted it. FAB-1 also changed, more out of necessity. The studio couldn’t get permission to use the Rolls Royce marque without using an actual production model, none of which have six wheels. Ford stepped in, providing a modified Thunderbird for Lady Penelope that harkened to FAB-1 in the TV series.
The story itself would fit with the original TV series. International Rescue remained a rescue service, not a crime fighting unit. Lady Penelope handled the investigation side of the plot, as she did in the series. While the focus was on Alan, Tintin, and Fermat, the latter being a new character, the Tracy family still were in character. The only real issue, if it can be called one, was the focus on Alan. The nature of the film and its target audience required a younger protagonist. Yet, Alan was still a Tracy.
Overall, while there were elements that diverged from the TV series, Thunderbirds worked to be a successor, keeping with the look and feel of the original. The effort pays off; the movie is very much a Thunderbirds story, even if there isn’t any Supermarionation involved.
Technology is constantly changing, updating and upgrading as new techniques are discovered. As has been mentioned before, new technology has been the motivation behind remakes and adaptations. The advent of computer animation has made some expensive or time-consuming effects of the past easier to do today. Stop-motion animation has given way to CG animation. Practical effects, though, still exist. It can be easier to film a practical effect and enhance it with CG than to start from scratch with computer animation. That said, the use of CG animation can sometimes lose the charm of a work. The temptation to tinker can be great, but too much tinkering can lose the audience. It’s a fine line.
In 1964, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, the minds behind Supermarionation, created Thunderbirds. The series featured the Tracy family and International Rescue, an organization dedicated to helping people in danger. Jeff Tracy, the family patriarch, funded the organization and its vehicles, piloted by his five sons. Aiding the Tracies were Kyrano, his daughter Tin-Tin, the engineer, Brains, and International Rescue’s London Agent, Lady Penelope and her butler, Parker. Together, International Rescue performed daring rescues and battled the nefarious Hood.
The Thunderbirds themselves were the stars. Each vehicle had a dedicated purpose. Thunderbird 1, piloted by Scott Tracy, was a hypersonic rocket plane, capable of reaching any place on Earth quickly. Thunderbird 2, piloted by Virgil, was the heavy lifter, ferrying rescue equipment and modular pods where needed. Thunderbird 3, piloted by Alan, was a re-usable rocket used for space rescue. Thunderbird 4, piloted by Gordon, was a submarine, typically carried by Thunderbird 2 to where it’s needed. Thunderbird 5, manned by John, was a space station used for monitoring communications for calls for help. Lady Penelope had FAB-1, a pink six-wheeled Rolls-Royce as kitted out as anything 007 would drive.
The series was filmed using Supermarionation, using marionettes as the cast, with the sets built to scale. For close-ups of hands, real hands were used, allowing characters to manipulate objects as needed. The special effects were scaled down for the miniatures in use, looking very much like effects used in films. Thunderbirds ran for thirty-two episodes, each running, with ads, for an hour, and has been referenced by other works, including Reboot. Thunderbirds has been remade a few times, including the anime Thunderbirds 2086 and the 2004 live action movie. A new CG series, Thunderbirds Are Go is the latest adaptation.
Thunderbirds Are Go first aired in ITV in April 2015. The series brings back International Rescue, updating the show’s concept to reflect the changes in technology since Thunderbirds first aired. The two-part pilot episode, “Ring of Fire”, introduces the characters to a new audience while showing what each Thunderbird can do. There have been some changes; Jeff Tracy has gone missing, leaving Grandma Tracy as the head of the household. Brains is now Indian, and his stutter is less pronounced. Tin-Tin is now Kayo and the head of security for International Rescue, but her family secret is still kept. The vehicles have been updated as well, though still recognizable. FAB-1 reflects today’s car stylings, but still has the gadgets to keep Lady Penelope safe. Thunderbird 5 shows the greatest change in design, reflecting developments in space stations and featuring a rotating ring to simulate gravity and a stationary control area that lets John float around while monitoring communications. The Thunderbirds, though, aren’t CG; instead, they are miniatures, as are the sets. The mix isn’t jarring; the use of both CG and miniatures harkens back to the use of marionettes and models in the original.
“Ring of Fire” starts with a runaway hot air balloon caught in a storm, its passengers, a father and his son, calling for help. Out of the storm clouds, Thunderbird 2 appears, matching course with balloon. Virgin comes up topside and helps the son into Thunderbird 2. Before he can get the father, though, a gust of wind up ends the balloon. Virgil calls John up in Thunderbird 5 to get the father’s vector, and has Thunderbird 2 dive to get beneath. He’s able to grab the father and bring him inside before reaching the ground. Meanwhile, Thunderbird 3, with Alan and Kayo, are working on correcting the orbit of a satellite, allowing John to relax while watching his favourite TV series*.
After a breather, International Rescue gets a call from an undersea lab that has suffered damage after a seaquake. Virgil and Gordon respond with Thunderbirds 2 and 4. While approaching the lab, Gordon discovers the source of the quakes, a device that creates the seismic disruption. Worse, several more quakes occur, caused by similar devices. Lady Penelope and Parker investigate and find a warehouse with a note and a button. On pushing the button, a mysterious figure hijacks the airwaves and makes his demands; the Hood will end the quakes upon being given the Thunderbirds. International Rescue ignores the demands. With the sealab’s scientists rescued, IR work on finding the Hood. Alan and Kayo head to the satellite to try to track the Hood’s location. On the ground, Scott and Virgil rush to Taiwan to prevent a solar reflector, misaligned because of the quakes, from frying Taipei when the sun rises. Alan and Kayo discover the frequency the Hood is using, allowing Brains to trace the villain’s signal. Kayo performs a high-altitude, low-opening, or HALO, jump from Thunderbird 3 to land at the Hood’s hideout. The Hood summons his men to deal with Kayo, but she also has backup, having alerted the Global Defense Force to the Hood’s location.
The production team is making an effort to be faithful to the original’s feel while still updating the series for modern sensibilities. There are nods to the original Thunderbirds, including the episode “Fireflash”, a remake of the first original episode, “Trapped in the Sky”. Both episodes feature a supersonic jet that is in trouble and needs the assistance of International Rescue to land safely. The sealab from “Ring of Fire” resembles a damaged Eagle from Anderon’s live action series, Space: 1999. The series even has David Graham returning in the role of Parker. Thunderbirds Are Go runs thirty minutes, including ads, or half as long as the original, but the writing is kept tight, not letting up on the tension until the rescue is complete.
Thunderbirds Are Go makes use of new technology, but doesn’t let it take over the core of the series. There are changes, mostly to reflect the realities of today, but the heart of Thunderbirds has been kept.
* The show John watches is Stingray, another Supermarionation series, with a clip of the opening credits being shown. In a clever touch, the slip is shown in reverse to the audience, meaning that John is watching it the correct way.