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.