Noel Megahey takes a look at the Region 2 Fireball XL5 boxset from Carlton – an early black and white Supermarionation series from Gerry Anderson, and precursor to Stingray and Thunderbirds.
Fireball XL5 is an early Gerry Anderson series from 1962, filmed in black and white in “Supermarionation” (ie using puppets). Set in 2067, Sector 25 of space is under the watchful eye of Steve Zodiac and his crew aboard the rocket ship, Fireball XL5, providing planetary protection from alien missiles and attacks. His crew is made up of Venus, Dr of Space Medicine, scientific officer Matt Matic and co-pilot Robert the robot.
The puppets and models in Fireball XL5 lack the sophistication of the later series (and I don’t use the term sophistication ironically – Thunderbirds certainly used and developed realistic and effective modelling and pyrotechnic effects), and the plots are fairly simplistic, but the series was nevertheless innovative and the team that worked on these early shows would bring techniques developed here to later series. In fact, the 1962 series is very much the prototype for Thunderbirds and the later Captain Scarlet, on the one hand a accident-recovery and disaster-prevention team, on the other, defenders of the earth from mysterious and threatening alien races.
Fireball XL5 was also made before they had developed the “invisible” puppet strings used in Thunderbirds – not strictly invisible of course, but certainly less evident than they are here in Fireball XL5. Figure movements fare slightly better when the puppets are not made to attempt any complicated movements like walking (a problem Anderson’s puppets notoriously never managed to convincingly overcome), but as the main part of the series fortunately takes place in space, there are opportunities to move in other ways – floating in space and riding around on jet-packs and rocket-bikes. However, it is the strength of the material in Fireball XL5, the charm of the plots and the characters that, like Stingray and Thunderbirds, manages to overcome the limitations of the puppetry.
The Carlton UK Region 0 boxset of Fireball XL5 contains all 39 episodes of the series on 5 discs. They have only sent DVDTimes the first disc in the set for review purposes, which gives a sufficient view of the series to judge the quality of picture and sound, but doesn’t allow for any examination of the extra material included in the set.
Episodes – Disc 11. Planet 46 (25:07)A missile manned by a crew of suicide-bombers is heading towards Earth. Containing a planetonic bomb, the missile is powerful enough to destroy the Earth.
2. Hypnotic Sphere (23:40)While investigating the reasons behind a number of space tankers being abandoned, the XL5 crew fall under the influence of a strange hypnotic force that draws them from their path. An alien with ambitions of universal domination lies behind the hypnotic sphere.
3. Planet of Platonia (23:40)The king of Platonia, a planet rich in platinum, travels to earth to trade some of his planets resources for necessary minerals, but he is under threat from a dangerous rival. He and the crew are placed in danger when a bomb is hidden on-board Fireball XL5.
4. Space Magnet (23:43)Fireball XL7 has disappeared! And so has the moon! The Fireball XL5 team set out to find them only to find themselves dragged half-way across the universe by the powerful magnetic force of the planet Magneton.
5. The Doomed Planet (23:29)A planet has broken orbit and is heading on a collision course with Membrono. The FXL5 crew go to make sure that the planet’s inhabitants are evacuated, but the planet appears to be uninhabited. However Steve has the funny feeling he is being watched and a mysterious flying saucer follows them home.
6. Plant Man From Space (24:44)The titular planet man from space sends a missile straight towards Earth, but XL5 is out of action and XL1 has failed. The missile fails to explode, but instead appears to contain a strange plant lifeform. Only Dr Rootes, visiting Space City, knows what this strange plant is and where it has come from.
7. The Sun Temple (23:35)A missile is sent into space to disperse a cluster of meteorites that pose a risk to Earth. The inhabitants of the planet Rajusca regard the missile as a threat to the sun they worship, Miras, and seek revenge for the attack. Only Zoonie, FLX5’s pet Lazoon can help them out of this predicament
8. Space Immigrants (23:29) Venus leads a space expedition to colonise a green planet they call New Earth. However, it appears that the crew’s messages are being intercepted and forged by the Lillispatians – miniature aliens who want to enslave the primitive people of Earth.
As can probably be gathered from the above plot descriptions, the stories are fairly standard pulp science-fiction themes and not a million miles away from plot descriptions of the original Star Trek series, which was clearly influenced by this – not least in the wooden acting style. Nevertheless it is all hugely entertaining and some of the plots and situations are so cheesy they have to be seen to be believed, notably the magnificent Plant Man From Space and Space Immigrants. Also evident is a staggering chauvinism that will make your jaw drop when you hear Steve and Matt send Venus (a Doctor of Space Medicine, no less!) to cook for them, bring them coffee, do their laundry and sew buttons for them. It has to be said that this comes across more as quaint than offensive, but it is really is something we aren’t often accustomed to see nowadays. There is also some quaint and antiquated dialogue (or is it futuristic dialogue?), but you would have to be a bit of a tootie not to find it real boss.
VideoThe picture quality is excellent. In fact it is almost too good, as you can see every puppet string perfectly clearly (no, those aren’t tramlines or scratches). There are one or two minor marks here and there, but generally the black and white image is clear and sharp and free of damage. There is the occasional minor flicker and some barely noticeable compression artefacts, but you will need to be watching very closely to notice this.
AudioThe sound is surprisingly good also, demonstrating a reasonably good dynamic range. There is a slight touch of sibilance and very low levels of background noise, but otherwise this is remarkably good, strong and clear.
ExtrasWhile I can give a reasonable accurate average marking for picture and sound based on this check disc, I am unable to rate the extra features as there are no extra materials on Disc 1 of the Fireball XL5. There may be extra material elsewhere in the box set, but there are none on the particular disc we have been given to review. There is a commentary track on the Doomed Planet episode on the Region 1 set which is not present here however, so that doesn’t bode well.
OverallIt would be hard for a modern day audience to appreciate this, which is a great pity. Although primitive by today’s standards of CGI and stop-motion animation, there is a tangible 3-D quality to the puppets and marvellously detailed and inventive the sets that have never been matched. Simple but effective, the stories are full imagination, naivety and a sense of fun that is so often lacking from today’s children’s programmes. For fans of Fireball XL5 or fans of Gerry Anderson’s other series however, this is a sheer delight – nicely collected and well presented by Carlton in another marvellous boxset.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum