Fireball XL5: Special Limited Edition Review
Poor Steve Zodiac. I can’t shake this mental image I have of him as he would be today, living with all his fellow Supermarionation stars in the Anderson Home for Retired Puppets. Every day I see him going through the same, heart-breaking ritual when the mailman arrives laden down with the latest crop of fan mail from around the world. All the residents congregate in the hall to collect theirs; Lady Penelope, still elegant and refined after all these years, always gets the most of course, while Scott Tracy and Captain Scarlet are in a perpetual competition as to who comes second. Troy Tempest doesn’t do badly either, all things considered, while even the Hood, that master criminal, gets a steady stream of correspondence, mainly from jailbird admirers telling him that they’re just days away from perfecting his eye-glowy thing, and thus world domination. But for Steve Zodiac? Nothing. Nada. Nowt. Every day he turns up alongside the others, hanging at the back but still clinging to the hope that someone, somewhere will have remembered him, but it's always the same: once the crowd has dispersed he’s still there, left standing on his own, waiting for letters that never come. The mailman, heading for the door, suddenly realises there’s still someone there and turns round, heart melting at the forlorn sight, to say sadly, “Nothing today, Steve. Maybe... maybe tomorrow.” Steve, hero that he still is despite his advanced years, always manages a wan smile and a quiet “Yes, maybe tomorrow” before turning away sadly to go and watch Scott and Scarlet furiously counting their own hauls whilst glaring across at each other in the Lounge. It is, as he would put it, a real tooty situation.
The problem is that, unlike Thunderbirds, Stingray, Captain Scarlet, hell even Joe 90 from time to time, Fireball XL5, in which he was the hero, has never been reshown on TV. It was Steve’s misfortune to star in the last series Gerry Anderson shot in black and white, exceptionally so when you consider that that crucial fact is about the only thing which would have stopped the show having a similar Nineties revival to all those other Supermarionation greats. Visually it’s inevitably not quite as sophisticated as the later series, and has an amusingly unprogressive attitude towards gender equality, but in every other regard the adventures of Zodiac, Dr Venus, Professor Mat Matic and Zoony hold up remarkably well nearly fifty years after they were made, far more so than the episodes of its immediate predecessor Supercar which now looks really dated. Originally Anderson intended Fireball to be a second season of the former, as Supercar had been a huge hit in the States, but it was quickly decided a new series would have greater commercial appeal and allow Anderson’s company to develop their techniques. As a consequence Century 21, as it was originally named, had characters very similar to those in Supercar: instead of the heroic (if mildly odd-looking) Mike Mercury there was now Colonel Steve Zodiac, the World Space Patrol’s youngest and bravest commander, replacing Prof Popkiss we have the similarly eccentric Prof Matic, Fireball’s engineer and scientist, while there’s even an outer space equivalent of Mitch the Monkey in Zoony, Fireball’s “lovable” pet. The one allowance to changing times was the introduction of a prominent female character, Dr Venus, the first major character to be voiced by Sylvia Anderson’s, Gerry’s wife. Together the crew patrols Sector 25 in outer space, protecting the Earth from a whole host of alien meanies who want to sink their string-operated claws into the planet.
Viewed today, many of the clichés associated with Anderson’s shows are especially prevalent in Fireball. The puppets’ famously comical jerky walks crop up in nearly every episode, their heads are very oversized (to accommodate the electrical system needed to make their lips move) and the wires particularly thick and visible. And yet, although it looks (and sounds) like a period piece, it’s hard not to be impressed, even today, with what the company, working in an industrial estate in Slough, achieved, and marvel at the sheer ingenuity of some of the stuff they managed to pull off. In terms of evolution of the techniques used in Supermarionation Fireball was a pivotal series – compare the difference between the last episode of Supercar and the first of Stingray, which immediately followed Fireball, and the difference is staggering. Effects genius Derek Meddings, who had come to work full time for Anderson on Supercar, really began to flex his muscles on the new show, and you can see as the episodes progress both him and the rest of the team growing in confidence and boldness, experimenting with what could be done and how far they could take the visuals given the limitations they were working with. Even today, when much of the work looks inevitably simplistic, the scale of their ambition is clear. Extensive use of back projection make for striking, complex shot layouts, most notably in the remarkably effective sequences of Fireball approaching a planet, seen through the cockpit itself, and a more layered look to outer space than just a simple backdrop. Time and again the camera refuses to be bound by the constraints you would assume the medium puts on it – there’s even one tour de force shot which makes a full three-hundred and sixty degree pan around the interior of Prof Matic’s station on Fireball (admittedly at rather a high speed.) Admittedly some of the techniques work better than others: for example, experiments in incorporating live action footage show are bold, but not always terribly successful, such as the jarring inclusion of a lion attacking in one shot, while there are even a couple of scenes (aside from the famous real hand close-ups) in one episode in which a real human leg can be seen "acting" against the puppets. Some shots are clearly still a work in progress. For some reason the black and white photography accents the disparities in scale between the different models used depending on the distance of the shot - sequences in which we see our heroes in miniature zooming on their jetmobiles over an alien vista don't come across nearly as well as similar scenes in later shows, while even Fireball itself, in the opening sequence, looks more like a dinky toy than a super-powered jet. But such issues are minor considering what it is we’re watching, and are amplified by the large screens and cleaned up visuals of today; I have no doubt that such matters were not even considered back when the show was first screened on the tiny 405 screens of the early Sixties.
Given the whole of space to play with, Meddings also provides some beautifully constructed alien worlds; while many have the same rocky vistas, each environment is lovingly crafted, meticulously detailed, with a care and attention which would put many modern productions to shame. Examine any of the many interiors of the show and the detail is astonishing, from the pictures hung on the walls to layout of consoles (again, considering the low-tech TVs of the time, this is even more impressive.) Nearly every episode has at least one set or sequence which is especially fine, while occasionally there are shots which are just stunning, like the erupting volcano sequence in one episode or the explosive final episode in which Fireball crashes into Space City. The design of Fireball itself is not, in fairness, one of the more iconic in Anderson’s shows – it’s no Stingray or Cloud City from Captain Scarlet – but its home, Space City, is an amusingly constructed place; the central skyscraper tower, which houses both the HQ of World Space Control and Steve’s apartment, spins at a frighteningly quick speed which would render all those inside sick to their stomach, but, just as with everything else, looks great, visual style overcoming logic every time.
Fireball also saw Anderson expanding his backroom staff, bringing onboard team members who would stay with him and help mould his most successful shows. No doubt worn out by scripting the vast majority of Supercar's episodes himself with Sylvia, he brought in (amongst others) writers Alan Fennell and Dennis Spooner who, between them, went on to write not only the vast majority of Fireball’s episodes but all but three of Stingray’s and many of the finest Thunderbirds hours. What the pair did was widen the scope of those shows, creating a convincing background against which all of the adventures could take place. The characters in all those series aren’t just functions, but live and breathe in a fully realised world, and again you can see that in nascent form in Fireball, whether it be scenes with Steve and Zodiac hanging out at her pad listening to the latest records or the development over the course of the series of the odd couple double act between Commander Zero and Lt 90 who man Space City’s control tower. There’s not as much variation in the styles of episodes as in the colour Supermariation shows, admittedly – most consist of some alien threat – but every so often they have the odd spasm which presaged greater things to come, like the show set entirely in a circus or one where Lt 90 becomes commander (both, incidentally, dream episodes, another signature of the Anderson brand.) One thing that is abundantly clear in all of that is which decade they were writing in: things are “real boss” (or, when they’re not, real “tooty”) and as mentioned above there are many, many derogatory jokes made at the expense of women – “Oh well, that’s pretty good ... FOR A WOMAN!” and so on. Even though Venus is the doctor of the ship the prevailing attitude is mild astonishment that she’s able to accomplish anything more complicated than taking a temperature, although admittedly she doesn’t always play the helpless maiden – it’s just as likely to be Steve or the Professor who end up tied up and in need of rescuing as her. Such sexism rapidly disappeared in Stingray but its use here, without the merest hint of irony, is perhaps the one reason, other than its monochrome status, why the show isn’t shown any more.
The show’s other strength is its soundscape. It hardly needs saying that amid all the remarkable visuals one of the things that is most remembered about Anderson’s shows is Barry Gray’s wonderful music, but again, like Meddings above, you can really hear him having fun and working out what he wants to do in his music here. Space is lent a suitably ethereal atmosphere, while Fireball's adventures are accompanied with the triumphant bombast which would go on to punctuate and celebrate the most heroic rescues of International Rescue. Many of the musical phrases that became key notes of later shows first turn up here, while the Cliff Richard-like song which ends each episode (“I wish I was a spaceman...”), sung by Don Spencer, is annoyingly catchy if very cheesy. Gray had already been with Anderson for a fair few series by Fireball as had the splendid voice artist David Graham, who here voiced both the Professor and Zoony as well as numerous other characters. Zoony, both the character and the voice, is actually a bit of a pain, the alien's attempts to learn English sounding like someone who’s had a particularly unfortunate stroke, but Graham’s voicing of the eccentric Matic is good fun. Joining them was Paul Maxwell, who imbues Zodiac with a suitably transatlantic, heroic tenor, and Anderson himself as Robert the Robot, the only time he would ever “appear” in one of his own shows. Taken together, Fireball is almost as much a pleasure to listen to as to watch.
It all adds up to a show which is still superbly entertaining. Thinking back to the time, it must have been stunning to watch; Doctor Who, by comparison, didn’t start until a year later and arguably didn’t look anywhere near as good until at least the Seventies, if ever. I remember when I was a youngster in the Summer holidays old Buster Crabbe serials being run in the early mornings, and I’m sure that, had Fireball XL5 been re-run then, it would have been just as, if not more, popular. It has everything a young 'un could want from such a show; good humour, amusing characters, exciting situations and a cavalcade of attractive or funny aliens. Its thirty-nine episodes don’t pall once and it’s such a shame that today it’s hardly remembered at all. Perhaps, thinking back to poor Steve in his rest home, the hardest thing to take is not simply that he’s been forgotten, but rather that he really doesn’t deserve to have been. A real boss show indeed.
All thirty-nine remastered episodes of Fireball XL5 are here presented on a six disc set, with eight episodes per disc and the last devoted to the extras, and are encoded for Regions 2 and 4. The set is presented with an accompanying 60 page booklet written by the TV historian Andrew Pixley, done up in the same style as the Century 21 comics at the time which featured all of the Supermarionation series. As a nice touch, each disc opens with a short clip from the show, redubbed for the set, in which Professor Matic himself passes comment on the new DVDs - amazingly, David Graham sounds exactly the same as the Professor as he did nearly fifty years ago now. The Main Menus each feature a typical setting for the show with the options Play All or Episodes. The episode selection screen, meanwhile, features Steve and Venus bobbing on their jetmobiles in front of a big monitor showing clips from the episode selected; choose to play said episode and they suddenly zoom off through the monitor. They're simple but very nicely designed.
The episodes, too, look exceptionally good given their age. Not having the prestige of later shows, I didn't think I'd ever see it looking as good as it does here; the prints are almost entirely free of blemishes, and show no signs of the normal wear and tear you'd expect of material from this time. Crystal clear, there's inevitably the odd compression artefact in the space sequences to be spied but otherwise this is a pristine set that looks simply gorgeous. The Audio is also beautifully clear, Barry Gray's scores coming across clearly and with clarity. That said, there is one episode - Space Magnet - which seems to lose its audio for about half a second, at 21:45. That aside, virtually flawless, although one negative mark against the set is that it comes with no subtitles.
The set comes with two superb documentaries newly commissioned for this set. If the word wasn’t already in the title I would describe A Wonderland of Stardust (73:34) as wonderful, a comprehensive Making Of which features contributions from the many talents involved in the programme who are still with us, including both Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. Who would have thought in 2009 we would ever get such an enjoyable, informative, in-depth look at the making of a show nearly fifty years old which few remember, and features numerous highlights such as David Graham recreating his voices (although his Prof Matic is identical, he can’t quite do Zoony anymore) and extensive behind-the-scenes footage. I can’t praise this enough. Almost as good is Drawn in Supermarionation, (37:38) a similarly detailed account of the life of Century 21, the Sixties comic book which featured all of Anderson’s shows and remains to this day one of the finest TV tie-ins this country has seen. Almost on their own, these two loving-put-together features would be worth the price of admission, and if you have the slightest interest in Anderson or his work they are indispensable.
The other extra of substance is the newly Colourised Version of A Day in the Life of a Space General, the last episode filmed (although not the last to be shown) remastered from a new HD transfer of the original film elements. Initially sceptical, I was bowled over by just how good the finished version looks – not only is the actual print as pristine as you would expect, but if you didn’t know better you would swear it had been filmed that way, the palate matching the later Anderson shows close to perfectly. I would imagine doing the whole series would be somewhat costly, but it’s lovely to imagine the rest of Fireball being done in a similar way so that it could be introduced to a whole new generation of fans like Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet were. Here's a clip showcasing the new look Network have uploaded:
And a couple of extra screen captures:
The rest of the extras are far smaller in scope, though not without interest. Bill Mevin’s Supercar Home Movies (1:41) consists of a silent reel of footage of the AP team going about their work, the most interesting thing being, besides seeing Mike Mercury in full colour, a close-up of Supercar’s console (does the fact I was thrilled to see that mean I need to get out more?) There are some craggy old Zoom Ice Lolly Adverts (0:38) – most of Anderson’s shows at that time ended up selling these – and two image galleries. Images (7:34) is full of on-set material and is more interesting than most photo galleries, while Merchandise (6:08) is full of collectible stuff from the period that makes me wish I had more disposal income to waste on eBay. The last disc also has a wealth of PDF material, including scans of the original albums, original press releases and even an old archive record of what Fireball film had been retained by 1970. It's a real treasure trove.
The only disappointment with the set – and given how good the two main documentaries are, this is far more tempered than it would otherwise have been – is the lack of any commentaries on the episodes themselves. With Graham providing new little pieces for the intro of each disc it’s easy to imagine he could have recorded a couple of shows’ worth of thoughts, and as the likes of directors David Elliot and Alan Pattillo are still very much with us it would have been nice to have heard more from them (indeed, both Graham and Pattillo have each provided a commentary in the past, for a Region One release several years ago.) That aside, and the disappointing lack of subtitles, it’s hard to find fault in this fantastic set.
8 out of 10
9 out of 10
8 out of 10
9 out of 10