I grew up in Canada on a steady diet of imported British shows, including the entire Gerry Anderson oeuver. His puppet series (and later live action shows like UFO and Space:1999) were mother's milk to me, and the greatest of them all was Thunderbirds (1964). Despite being a kid's show, it was the first hour series shot in color in Britain, and one of the most expensive ever made. But it has stood the test of time, with a new generation of fans discovering it over the years, and now A&E video is releasing episodes in the US on VHS and DVD.
So what was so great about a series featuring puppets that couldn't walk convincingly? First of all, Anderson understood that kids, young boys especially, are gadget crazy, and he made sure that Thunderbirds featured the greatest (and largest) gadgets ever seen. The premise was simple: some time in the 21st Century, millionaire former astronaut Jeff Tracy has assembled five fantastic crafts, each with their own ability, and manned them with his five sons (all named after the Mercury astronauts). Based on their own private tropical island, the Tracys operate International Rescue in secret, coming to the rescue when technology fails or disaster is about to occur.
A typical episode would begin with some fancy new example of the modern age, be it a supersonic jet, earth-boring drill, or space mission. But something inevitably would go wrong, sometimes due to sabotage, and only International Rescue had the tools and talent to save the day. Monitoring activities from orbit was Thunderbird 5, which could tap into any communications network. Thunderbird 1 was an atmospheric rocket, Thunderbird 2 was a giant green cargo ship (which among other things carried Thunderbird 4, the mini-submarine), and Thunderbird 3 was a space-traveling rocket. International Rescue also used agents in Britain like Lady Penelope, an elegant aristocrat in her shocking pink Rolls Royce driven by her chauffeur, the cockney Parker.
The sets and miniature work were superb, lead by Derek Meddings who would later win an Academy Award for Superman: The Movie. Hour long episodes (originally Lew Grade of ITC had commissioned half hour shows, but quickly decided to expand the scope) allowed the stories (32 in total) to build and have a depth not seen before on shorter action-adventure series.
Because the series is so iconic, particularly in Britain, it has come in for much ribbing over the years, as well as a live stage show in the last 80s performed by two actors wearing oversized Thunderbird-shaped hats. In 1994, the series was cannibalized in the US as Turbo-Charged Thunderbirds, which had two annoying teenagers interacting with edited parts of episodes which were dubbed for comic effect. The less said, the better!
But series creators Gerry and Sylvia Anderson (best known previously in the US for Fireball XL5 which ran on NBC in 1965) have had the last laugh. The BBC reran the series in 1992 and touched off a huge mania for all things Thunderbirds, culminating in a desperate shortage of "Tracy Island" action sets that Christmas, and a Blue Peter demonstration on how to make your own resulted in hundreds of thousands of requests flooding the BBC for copies of the instructions! Every time the series has been shown in Britain a new generation of fans discover it, which in turn creates another demand for toys.
And now fans in America can check out episodes on their own, either to relive fond childhood memories, or introduce their own kids to one of the all-time classic adventure series.
Sylvia Anderson's Thunderbirds Site
Thunderbirds Are Go!