A while ago I contributed some work I’d done to a knowledge warehouse database at IBM. I also put it up for download on the Intranet. It was a set of templates which basically let you build dynamic auto-indexing web sites in the standard IBM look and feel in a few hours, using Lotus Domino.
It turned out that there’s a rewards program, and my contribution was voted the biggest time saver contributed that month. I got a gift check as a prize, and I spent the check on the complete DVD set of Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds—which arrived today.
Gerry Anderson’s TV series were a very important part of my childhood… Thunderbirds, U.F.O., Joe 90, Stingray, Space:1999, Captain Scarlet, Terrahawks… I even watched Space Precinct, though I think I’d count that one as a failed experiment. I’m a pretty major league fan; any time there was a Gerry Anderson show on TV, I’d watch it. I remember watching the TV pilot for Into Infinity, which is obscure enough that it got forgotten when they were assembling the (otherwise excellent) Complete Gerry Anderson Episode Guide.
Some of the series were truly strange. Secret Service concerned a Parish priest who was an undercover agent for an intelligence service called B.I.S.H.O.P., and who went on missions with his assistant—who was miniaturized and able to fit in a suitcase. Umm… yeah.
Another interesting one was U.F.O., which was almost the reverse of The X-Files: in U.F.O. the heroes are a shadowy organization defending the earth against alien invasion, whilst at the same time keeping everything secret from the general population. All this plus ESP, organ thefts, and posession by alien cats… Some episodes were as mysterious and mindbending as The Prisoner, which isn’t entirely surprising since some of the same writers and directors worked on both shows.
However, Thunderbirds has always been Gerry Anderson’s best-loved series, in the UK at least. My grandfather worked at the film studios where they made the series, and somehow managed to get me one of the Thunderbird 5 models!
What made Thunderbirds exceptional was the special effects. Derek Meddings pioneered many techniques that were later used in big-budget movies; indeed, Meddings went on to produce the effects for the Superman movies, Batman (the movie), and several Bond films. The thing is, ironically Gerry Anderson didn’t want to make puppet shows for kids—so he made puppet shows with the production values of live-action movies, or as close as he could manage. Detailed sets, innovative puppet designs to enable automatic lip-synching, and lavish effects shots.
Another thing that distinguishes the shows from many other series is that they were positive, without being saccharine. Gerry Anderson managed to come up with a wonderful formula that could be suitable for kids of all ages, yet still exciting. The heroes aren’t renegade cops or strange beings with superpowers; they’re more like the firefighters we’ve suddenly rediscovered as heroes since this time last year. The International Rescure team are the sons of an ex-astronaut, who place themselves in danger to save other people’s lives. Sure, they’re helped by amazing vehicles and other technology invented by “Brains” Hackenbacker, but really they’re just ordinary guys trying to save innocent people.
It was a world kids really wanted to believe in, which is why so many of them still watch the episodes today as adults. Sure, it was just puppets and models, and the sci-fi science was often dubious, but so what? Has there ever been a true Hard SF TV series? Just sit back and suspend your disbelief, anthropomorphize the puppets, and let yourself be engaged by it…
Watching City of Fire this evening reminded me of the mythic power of the world of Thunderbirds. In that episode, the 350 storey Thompson Tower catches fire after an explosion; gasoline from parked cars explodes into an inferno, and before long the tower has crashed to the ground. A family is trapped beneath the burning rubble, and only International Rescue can save them…
It may sound ridiculous, but almost a year ago I was watching an eerily similar event, wishing International Rescue were going to appear, asking myself why The Mole doesn’t really exist, why International Rescue don’t really exist…