Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Summer 2004

Challenger is about the things that fans love. Even when they go desperately wrong ...

Thunderbirds Are……

No Go!

Some notes on Supermarionation

text and art by Taral Wayne

The Thunderbirds Movie is coming.

Be afraaaid!

Actually, I was never that all that fond of Thunderbirds. The hour-long format allowed puppet master Gerry Anderson to pander to his weaknesses, but didn't add to his strengths in any way. Instead of better stories or characterizations, we just got to watch tiny remote control mecha crawl over unconvincing plaster landscapes for longer stretches. Given half a chance, I like to make fun of the typical action scene from Thunderbirds. Substituting a toy tank or Dinky Toy for one of the Thunderbirds, I push it along my coffee-table at about one inch a second, rocking it back and forth, carolling "dat da da dah! dat da da da daah! dat da da da etc." for about two minutes, until finally getting to the edge, and letting the toy fall over. But that's about as much respect as I had for that sort of nonsense. Special effects are great, but won't stand by themselves.

The other thing about the Thunderbirds were the Mickey Mouse costumes. Here we have this secret organization of pseudo-fascist rescue agents all dressed up like gas-station attendants! In powder blue yet. Q: which Thunderbirds guy is gay? A: Which of them is not? Equally questionable -- how does even a multi-millionaire invent all this stuff, which is clearly far in advance of the technological achievements of the world''s many thousands of scientists and engineers? Typically the first mission to Venus will get in trouble eight weeks after launch in some way even an idiot would have foreseen -- like a giant flaming meteor belt you could see from Alpha Centauri, or a reactor motor comes loose from the two staples holding to a wall. Brains will say, "I was afraid that would happen" -- not that he considered for one moment telling anyone that it might, apparently. Then the cloned family of Thunderbirds will slide down nifty ramps into their super-rockets, and catch up with the faltering Venus ship in a couple of hours. How'd they do that? And can't anyone track them back to their base with radar, and confiscate all those neat super-science gizmos so the rest of us can use them? At least to ensure that the next Venus mission won't be an equal botch?

Now I know it's only a show for kids and simplistic, but at that time Anderson was trying to develop a more "serious" style of puppeteering. I found that the story-lines and premises just didn't live up to more serious treatment. Better he stuck to Fireball XL5 or Stingray, which were so obviously cartoons that you didn't ask questions. (Like how come an explosion on another planet can be seen at Fireball HQ, Space City? Or how you can walk on a planet whose gravity is so powerful it yanks the Moon out of Earth''s orbit.)

Oh well, at least Thunderbirds wasn't as ponderous as some later shows, like Captain Scarlet & The Mysterions. Or as wooden as Space 1999. Still, I thought the earlier Supermarionation puppet shows -- Supercar, Stingray, and Fireball XL5 worked better, precisely because they were more cartoony. Even Anderson seemed to recognize this when he said something about how his "big head" puppets seemed more popular than the marginally more realistic puppets of later shows like Captain Scarlet. I think we can accept absurdities easier when there's no pretence of being serious, and can set aside our critical faculties willingly.

But to make a live action film of such material? It would make the Scooby-Doo movie stand out as a paragon of mature content.

Fireball XL5 was my first favourite SF show. Before Will Robinson and Captain Kirk there was Steve Zodiac! I taped all 39 episodes from TV a few years ago, and still find myself going back to them from time to time. I've even devised later marks of Fireballs, the XSs and XTs. My secret ambition is to direct Fireball: The New Generation. Computer animation maybe, rather than puppets -- like Jimmy Neutron, but not so Art Clokey retro.

Stingray was pretty good too. I always thought they failed to give any sense of the ocean being a big place, though. It seemed like the submarine base (with its HQ buildings that sank into the ground on a gigantic elevator) and the secret lair for the bad guys, were in a pool about the size of a Hollywood swimming pool. Which come to think of it, was likely the case. In one very surreal episode, the submarine Stingray actually sailed through a mysterious tunnel to surface in someone's living room fish tank!

But of course Fireball had similar problems coping with reality. My guess is that Fireball's is not our universe, but one in which "planets" are actually planetons... flat, floating islands like those in Roger Dean paintings, that drift in space like a huge south seas island archipelago. That way it made perfect sense to patrol space as if it were two-dimensional, had no gravitational influences, and all distances were on a scale convenient for rocketing back and forth. The XL5 had a patrol route in Sector 25, just as though a spaceship were a Spitfire patrolling the English Channel. This is not space as we know it.

If Ralph Bakshi can be given millions of dollars to produce films anyone in their right mind would know in advance would bomb, why not me? Perhaps with the right pitch, and a dot.com investor who can be convinced any pop cult item is potential box-office, and I too can realize a dream.

PS -- I can do a mean imitation of Steve Zodiac walking, so I might want to star as well as write, produce and direct.

"Fire main boosters, Robert!"

"Unnnnderrrrrrstooooood."

 

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