Thunderbirds Are Go/Thunderbird 6 Box Set Review
Before this review begins let’s make one thing perfectly clear. I watch Thunderbirds in the same way I did when I was seven ie extremely seriously. As such you will find herein no jokes about wooden acting, no clever usage of the phrase “no strings attached,” no comment on funny walks or big heads or speculation about how exactly they manage to walk through doors. And if anyone so much opens their mouth to mutter the word “camp” they will be invited to kindly leave this review forthwith. FAB.
The two films are being reissued both singly and as part of a box set.
Thunderbirds are Go!
The first manned space mission to Mars is about to launch. Zero-X, a state of the art vessel with speeds enabling Earth-Mars travel in just six weeks, prepares to take off from Glenn Field on her historic mission, carrying five astronauts and scientists, the world watching with bated breath. Little do any of them realise that Zero-X’s voyage is to be an ill-fated one, doomed to danger at every turn. The first attempt to launch ends in disaster when the ship is sabotaged by the mysterious enemy agent known only as the Hood, with the result of delaying the Martian project by another two years. When the ship finally does launch and arrive at Mars the scientists will find themselves under attack by strange rock-snakes (the Mysterons’ pets, perhaps?) precipitating a hasty about turn back to Earth as quickly as possible. And when they get back to Earth? Their landing gear will fail, naturally. Through all this, there’s only one organisation that can help, only one that can try and save the lives of the brave men onboard, only one phrase that can mean saviour for them - Thunderbirds are Go!
By the end of 1965 Thunderbirds was such a hit on television that the green light was given to move the franchise to the big screen. To be filmed concurrently with the second season of TV episodes, Thunderbirds Are Go was hoped by many in AP Films (the production company Gerry Anderson had co-founded and which was responsible for all of his puppet series up til then) to be their big break, pushing them towards a glittering future of feature film production. The puppets and models were extensively redesigned before filming began, as it was felt that the imperfections that could be gotten away with on the small screen would become glaringly obvious on the big, producing more detailed versions of the Thunderbirds craft and new life-like puppets among the innovations. One of the show’s regular directors, David Lane, was employed to direct the action, and a decent budget was allocated to make the most of Thunderbirds’ big chance.
There was only one problem. Gerry and Sylvia Anderson wrote the script. Gerry Anderson is a genius who has made some great shows over the years, but writing is not one of his strengths. On nearly all the series he created he wrote (or co-wrote with former wife Sylvia Anderson) the pilot and then let his staff get on with the regular episodes. This system worked very well as even he himself would admit he wasn’t the greatest plotter in the world. This doesn’t take anything away from the man at all, it’s just that his strengths lay elsewhere. However, as Thunderbirds was his baby, it is understandable, if regrettable, that he felt it necessary to take on the burden of writing the film. Sadly, the story is what lets the feature down.
The phrase “feels just like a long TV episode” is often used when talking about features that have been spawned from TV shows, sometimes more accurately than others. Thunderbirds are Go goes one step further – it feels like two episodes with different stories that have been stuck together, joined only by the adhesive of a truly dreadful dream sequence. The first half, dealing with International Rescue’s attempts to ensure Zero-X’s successful launch and uncover the saboteur, has little connection with the second, which deals with Zero-X’s arrival on Mars and then return home (other than the ship itself, of course). The overriding storyline, the Martian expedition, just isn’t strong enough to maintain interest throughout, as International Rescue themselves aren’t in the thick of the action, leading to a middle which, despite the attack by the rock creatures, is rather dull. The dream sequence (featuring a puppet version of Cliff Richard and the Shadows) is ghastly, a dire holdover from earlier Anderson series (nearly all of which featured an episode in which a character had bizarre adventures before waking up to find it was all a dream), which feels like extra padding to get the film up to feature length. It also doesn’t help that the whole feels like a retread of the original pilot episode (which the two Andersons also wrote), which featured a similar set up and rescue at the end.
However, just as writing isn’t his best skill, so production values are. The film looks fantastic, with the stars of the show being the puppets and models themselves. Needless to say, all the extra work on the models and puppets pays off – the Tracy brothers have never looked finer, the Thunderbirds themselves shine, and it’s difficult to say whether years of watching the show enable one to filter them out, but the strings are much less noticeable than in the series. Principal visual effects director Derek Meddings, who went on to become so famous for his work on films such as The Spy Who Loved Me and Superman, really goes to town on the designs, bringing in new rooms for Tracy Island (including a sequence in which the puppets play pool!) and an eerie Martian surface set, albeit one that is more grey than red. The effects, too, are first rate, and the final sequence of destruction feels likes Meddings and his production team were revelling in the chance to create mayhem on an increased scale. The only moment that lets the side down is in that wretched dream sequence again – the sight of Cliff Richard suddenly zooming off into space, while perhaps apt metaphorically, looks rather ridiculous, looking as if he’s being yanked away by the hand of God (or, at least, that of a rather enthusiastic puppeteer).
Director David Lane does full justice to the great designs, taking advantage of both the wider screen ratio of the film and the chance to move the camera in ways the regular series just didn’t have time for. He reshoots some of the most well-known sequences extremely well, especially the launching of the various Thunderbird crafts – seeing Thunderbird 2 coming towards the camera must have been quite a sight on the big screen. The exploration of the Mars surface and the final rescue are particularly good, the former evoking an eerie emptiness, the latter the one time the film actually feels how a Thunderbirds film should feel, pacey and exciting.
Even people who don’t know the first thing about Thunderbirds know Barry Gray’s thrilling theme for it, and here it’s brought out in all the usual places. He also introduces a couple of variations on familiar riffs, with the Tracy Island motif adopting a more Caribbean-style to it. Although it doesn’t fit with the rest of the film, the Royal Marines band belt out the theme with particular gusto, and is a real pleasure to hear.
In fact, everything about the film is good, being exactly what you would expect of a Thunderbirds feature, aside from the screenplay. Whether it be Alan Tracy dreaming about going to space age nightclubs with Lady Penelope (which is, incidentally, completely out of character – he’s normally too busy pining after Tin-Tin, a trait completely forgotten here) or characters spouting lines such as “I don’t know about life as we know it, but I have a feeling we might encounter life as we don’t know it”, it’s the fatal flaw in an otherwise immaculate production.
The major selling point of the second Thunderbirds feature film is that a new Thunderbird is unveiled, the titular Thunderbird 6. This review is going to spoil the excitement right away by saying that it’s rubbish, a disappointment that makes Thunderbird 4 look like Thunderbird 2, and is absolutely nothing to get excited about. The annoying thing is, it does feature rather a lot…
The story follows the maiden voyage of Skyship One. Designed by Brains, the airship is the airborne equivalent of a cruise liner, capable of flying anywhere on the globe and thereby enabling it to offer the delights of New York, Rio, India and Switzerland all in the same holiday. Accompanying her on her first journey are Alan, Tin-Tin, Lady Penelope and Parker, all representing International Rescue (Lady P seemingly not to mind her cover is blown) Sadly for him, Brains is not able to be with them to see his vessel take her first steps as Jeff asks him to devote all his time on designing the new Thunderbird. Just as well, too, as all is not well onboard Skyship, and it may be that a new Thunderbird will be needed even sooner than Jeff realises.
As in the last film, the design is magnificent. Perhaps compensating for a relative lack of interesting locations in the first, in Thunderbird 6 we are given a virtual world tour, with the airship flying past such famous landmarks as the Statue of Liberty, the Taj Mahal and the Pyramids, all of which are crafted with the attention to detail for which the Anderson productions are renowned. Derek Meddings once again does the business, most notably in a beautifully crafted restaurant set when the airship stops off in Switzerland, complete with minature trains delivering the meals. The puppets have also gone through a face lift – by the time this film was shooting Captain Scarlet had begun production as well, a series which introduced mannequins with more realistic head-to-body ratios. Not wishing to lose the “large head” look of the original Thunderbirds episodes, the designers went for a half way compromise between the two, but it is still noticeable. They also tried out a couple of new techniques, including an unintentionally sinister shot of a group of men laughing, their mouths wide open, white teeth gleaming. And (dare I repeat it?) again the strings are genuinely difficult to spot.
There is a much higher ratio of real-life footage used as well, including a couple of interminable sequences featuring a Tiger Moth plane flying. While it’s nice to look at for the first couple of minutes, attention soon wanders and these scenes do smack of padding somewhat. As well as this we are given shots of New York, Rio and Egypt (again), all from the sky and all taken from stock footage. Generally it works fine, but these do have the effect of taking you out of the film – it is almost impossible to reconcile those brief shots with the world that the models live in. Overall direction, once more by David Lane, is up to the standard he set in the first, taking full advantage of shots of the Skyship against a setting sun and employing at one point an amusing set of photos depicting the holidayers’ antics in Egypt. There is also none of the framing issue that cropped up in the first.
But, as with the first, the main problem with the film is the story. Once again Gerry and Sylvia write, and once again they don’t get it quite right. This time the trouble is that it doesn’t really feel much like a Thunderbirds story at all. There is only one rescue, right at the end of the film, a rescue which makes almost no use of the Thunderbirds themselves or their associated craft. The only Tracy brother who really gets anything to do is Alan, and even he isn’t particularly responsible for the successful outcome of the mission. A harsher streak is also in evidence (reflecting the direction the production team were moving in with Captain Scarlet), with the original crew getting gunned down and their bodies being dumped in the sea. Poor old Parker also gets rather a short shaft, with an uncomfortably cruel scene coming early when, having been made the victim of a practical joke, he overhears the others laughing about it and taking the mickey. The fact he doesn’t respond is a little annoying and makes the scene feel unnecessary. Having said all this, there are positives. The story itself is really rather engaging, and is much more coherent than Thunderbirds are Go. Although not many of the characters are utilised, one that is, Brains, really shines and provides the film’s most entertaining moments. Not only does he kick the whole story off, but he has many amusing scenes of displaying prototypes to Jeff, always followed by a scene of him angrily throwing his rejected model in the bin and venting steam. This is a side of him we haven’t seen before, and is easily the highlight of the film. (Not only that but he gets to shine in the final rescue as well). And there’s no dream sequence, which is always a good thing.
Barry Gray’s score is not as prominent this time – there are not as many opportunities for his key signatures to be used, as we don’t see the Thunderbirds launching sequence – but reflects the globe-trotting nature of the film well, with musical cues effortlessly providing an appropriate atmosphere. The voice actors are nearly all the same, aside from Keith Alexander, who replaces the absent Ray Barrett for John Tracy’s one scene, and do their usual peerless job in bringing the puppets to life. (It is nearly impossible to hear Shane Rimmer in a live-action film without thinking of Scott Tracy).
Thunderbird 6 is another frustrating near miss. It comes off slightly worse to the first film in that the story is too flimsy to maintain the entire length of the film, leading to multiple tiger moth interludes, but is still a joy to look at and absorb the care and attention that goes into every scene. Well worth checking out
The two disks contain identical menus, a rather good (and ironically) CGI representation of various areas of Tracy Island, of which it would have been nice to see more. There is an odd error which creeps up right at the beginning – the screen used to select your menu language sometimes lists the languages and sometimes appears blank. The films are presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic and there are subtitles for both films, although not the commentaries.
A very good transfer. There is some grain for more open shots, and the odd artefact pops up, but all internal sequences are immaculate. The colours are deep and succeed in bringing out the bright multicolour world of Thunderbirds well, but do not suffer from the sometimes excessive richness that the series DVDs had.The only problem is that the image is slightly cropped - the films were shot with a 2.74:1 ratio, and it is noticeable in the first film with a couple of shots of the Thunderbirds seemingly badly framed.
Again very good, the soundtrack could have been recorded yesterday. Voices are crisp and clear and Gray’s music comes across vibrantly.
Enjoyable commentaries on both films featuring Sylvia Anderson and David Lane. Although a shame that Gerry Anderson wasn’t involved, these two make an agreeable pair, swapping reminiscences and admiring the work that went into the films.
Building Zero X
On the Thunderbirds Are Go disk, a brief game in which you must select the correct order in which to assemble Zero X, successful completion of which produces a short clip of Sylvia Anderson. Not really challenging – if you select the wrong piece you just go back to do again – and even the younger Thunderbirds fan won’t get more than a couple of minutes’ amusement from it.
Craft Mission Match Up
On the Thunderbirds 6 disk, a similar game to the Building Zero X, only this time matching characters to the vessels they use. Mildly more fun, it once again leads to a clip of Sylvia Anderson.
Unlike some, this gallery plays itself so you don’t have to scroll through the pictures manually. A few of the pictures are a little blurry and it would have been nice to see more behind the scenes shots, but it’s not too bad.
Each disk comes with the trailer for its own movie. These prints are not in very good nick, but the trailers themselves are fun and make the films look exciting.
The two Thunderbirds features are a real mixed bag. The production side is, as you would expect, wonderful and really goes to show that CGI is not the be-all and end-all of effect work. The let down is in the writing, which is not nearly as strong as most of the episodes of the parent series. Regrettably the majority of extras were not available on the review copy but look very promising. As examples of the peerless model and effects work that was coming from AP Films and Century 21 at the time, there are no better, and the look of the films alone make them well worth a look.