Appellate Judge Dave Ryan is always F.A.B.
Our reviews of The Best Of Thunderbirds: The Favorite Episodes (published July 28th, 2004), Thunderbirds (published January 11th, 2005), and Thunderbirds: International Rescue Edition (published August 19th, 2004) are also available.
Thunderbirds are go!
Do you like puppets? Who doesn't? Do you like really cool models? Who doesn't??? Well then—do I have a show for you! Oh sure, it's kind of hokey, and has the pacing of a glacier…but it's got puppets! And really, really, really super-cool models! And…um…more puppets! And occasionally impenetrable British class-based humour! And really, really, really cool models! And…and…
Okay, fine—it's Thunderbirds, the mid-60s hit from Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, the married team behind the now-legendary "Supermarionation" style of puppetry. The Andersons did several shows for English television; however, Thunderbirds was by far the most popular and successful, and is still aired (in reruns) in various parts of the world to this day. (The Andersons also produced a handful of live-action shows, the most significant being Space: 1999.)
Thunderbirds—set in the year 2065—is about the Tracy family, headed by Jeff Tracy, a former astronaut. Jeff and his sons operate International Rescue, a…well, a freelance rescue organization, if that makes any sense. Apparently the astronaut business pays extremely well, because the Tracys have about a quintillion dollars' worth of high-tech equipment at their disposal, all headquartered at a massive hidden hangar/fortress in the South Pacific. Jeff's five sons (named after five of the Mercury 7 astronauts—sorry, Deke and Wally) are the pilots of the five Thunderbird vehicles, each of which fills a specific niche in the rescue infrastructure:
• Thunderbird 1, piloted by Scott Tracy, is a rocket/aircraft hybrid capable of short takeoffs and landings. T-1 is launched vertically, like a rocket, but can land horizontally, like a helicopter. Capable of great speed, T-1 is the first vehicle to be dispatched to a rescue site; Scott's job is to assess the situation and call in other assets as necessary, i.e. to boss everyone around. Scott is (very intentionally) the spitting image of Sean Connery.
• Thunderbird 2, piloted by Virgil Tracy, is the heavy-lift cargo carrier for International Rescue. T-2 can be equipped with a variety of cargo pods, which contain job-specific tools and vehicles. (A good example is the "Mole," a digging machine.) In practice, Virgil and T-2 wind up doing most of the work for International Rescue, while Scott bosses him around and the other boys relax on the beach in the Pacific. But I digress.
• Thunderbird 3, piloted by Alan Tracy, is a single-stage rocket capable of orbital flight. I bet you'd probably say to yourself, "gee, I don't see how a rescue agency would have a ton of use for a rocket" if you sat back and thought about it. You'd be right. On a side note, Alan may or may not be one of the Beach Boys.
• Thunderbird 4, piloted by Gordon Tracy, is a small submersible. Much like Aquaman, T-4 doesn't have a lot to do, except when the occasional underwater rescue pops up. And underwater rescues don't pop up that often in the world of International Rescue, leaving Gordon plenty of time to work on his tan, by far the best tan among the boys. Gordon bears a highly disturbing resemblance to Kevin Sorbo, and may actually be Kevin Sorbo.
• Thunderbird 5, occupied by John Tracy, is an orbiting space station that serves the "sigint" function (to use some military terminology). T-5 monitors international radio and other communications channels to look for possible rescues. He's the eye in the sky, looking at you—he can read your mind. John, although by all appearances a nice and kind boy, apparently smells bad or has some kind of serious personality disorder. Otherwise, why would his family strand him alone on a space station for extended periods of time? "Um, yeah, John—we really need someone to monitor the radio signals, because, you know, despite our insane level of technological sophistication, we don't have the capacity for real-time downlinking of information from a satellite platform. And, well, Scott is busy making Virgil do all the work, and Gordon has his tan to work on, so…I'm gonna need you to move your desk up to that space station, mmkay? Mmkay."
Since this is an English show, there has to be some servants, and possibly a dilletante-ish nobleman of some sort. Sure enough, International Rescue has some adjunct members: Lady Penelope and her manservant "Nosey" Parker. Lady Penelope drives a massive pink Rolls-Royce, and takes care of IR's wetwork. If you need to kill a snitch, Lady P's your bitch. She ain't afraid to pop a cap in some homeboy's ass if the sitch call for it, dig? Parker, her lower-class Cockney manservant, has many hidden skills, most of which are criminal in nature. They live in what is literally referred to as a "stately home." Although an inexplicably odd couple, they're arguably more effective and efficient than International Rescue…
Every Beatles has their George Martin, and International Rescue is no different. The bespectacled Brains—about the same age as the Tracy boys—is an orphan who was adopted by a brilliant professor, then put into indentured servitude…er, I mean, then employed by Jeff Tracy to design all of International Rescue's vehicles. Yes, Brains designed all of the Thunderbirds by himself. Which is an amazing fact, since he appears to be unable to string a complete sentence together. It's probably supposed to be a stutter…but it comes off as slight retardation, or possibly brain damage. (Maybe he's an early version of Rain Man?) When they do let Brains out of his cage…er, the house, he's usually (but not always) dispatched with Virgil and Thunderbird 2, which can house a mobile laboratory for him to use. He also spends a good deal of time working on his pet robot.
Rounding out the gang are Granny Tracy (Jeff's mother), who dispenses folksy wisdom and does some home cooking for the boys; Tin-Tin (no, not that one), an Asian female who's part hanger-around-the-house, part local-squeeze-for-Alan's-pleasure, and 99 percent useless; her father/Jeff's manservant Kyrano, and their Sino-Mongolian (I assume) arch-enemy, whose name is never given, but who is referred to by fans and other ancillary Thunderbirds-related material as "The Hood." Incidentally, The Hood is Kyrano's brother, and can mentally control Kyrano. Right now, Dick Cheney is having another heart attack thinking about that particular security flaw…
Dramatically, if you've seen one episode of Thunderbirds, you've pretty much seen them all. The formula is pretty consistent: International Rescue must race against time to keep [thing in danger] from being [bad result]ed by [threatening thing]. For example: International Rescue must race against time to keep [a giant army crawling-weapon-thing] from being [melted down] by [the giant burning trash pit it has fallen into], or International Rescue must race against time to keep [the first-ever manned mission to the Sun] from being [predictably vaporized when it goes slightly off course, because it's the freaking SUN] by [the Sun]. It's sort of like Mad Libs. And the plots move sloooooowly. No steps in the rescue process are skipped by International Rescue; we know this because we see them conducting every step. Just about the only thing we don't get to see is accounting calculating the applicable wage withholding on the Tracys' paychecks. Did I mention that the plots move along slowly? (At least in the first season, this is actually an understandable thing—originally a half-hour show, Thunderbirds was quickly turned into an hour show, necessitating the "stretching" of nine shows already written and in production. But deliberate, turgid pacing has proven to be a hallmark of pretty much everything the Andersons have produced, so it's not surprising to find it here.) It doesn't help that there were only a small number of actors used to do the voice work on Thunderbirds, with each actor taking on multiple characters in a given episode. This makes the show sound a lot like a dubbed foreign film.
Now that I've mocked Thunderbirds, allow me to make the following inarguable, emphatic statement: Thunderbirds is the coolest show ever made in the history of coolness. I mean, COME ON! It's like someone took the greatest, best-est HO-scale model train set in the history of the world, crossed it with Gumby, then turned it all into a TV show. How can you not love it?????? Seriously, Thunderbirds is just fascinating to look at. The level of effort and detail that went into the model-making and art direction in this show is off-the-charts outstanding. This show dates to the mid-60s, for heaven's sake—there's no CGI, no bluescreen or Chroma-key, no computer-controlled camerawork. There's just hard work and cleverness. The point here isn't to recreate reality (as, for example, in contemporary high-end videogames); it's to create a simulacrum of reality that is recognizable to the smallest level of detail, but still clearly unreal—like an elaborate dollhouse. In the same vein, clearly inanimate marionettes are somehow given life and expression through the puppetry, while still obviously being puppets. The real/unreal tension—the striving for both simultaneously—is what makes Thunderbirds irresistible from a visual perspective. Sure, the stories are tedious and slow most of the time, but you don't care, because you just have to see what's going to appear next. A new machine? Some spectacular background scenery? A giant explosion? (The Andersons' crew became experts in the art of creating realistic-looking but miniaturized explosions, among other pyrotechnic achievements.) Some crazy but humorous use of real-sized tropical fish in "undersea" scenes? (Okay, that wasn't exactly a technical triumph…)
The bottom line is this: I dare you to watch an episode of Thunderbirds and not recapture a slice of the kind of wonder that you probably haven't felt since you were 7 years old. We all need to feel like a kid again from time to time; Thunderbirds is one way to recapture that sense of youth. All the cool kids think so; don't you? Huh?
I'll say this about A&E—they certainly don't go half-assed on their DVD collections. You want Thunderbirds? BAM—here's Thunderbirds. All 30-ish hours of it. To say this set is epic is an understatement. When you have one DVD set with over a day of content—well, that's epic. As is the set's retail price tag: a cool $179. For that price, you get all 32 episodes of Thunderbirds, one episode ("Pit of Peril") that was aired in a "pop-up" format (a la VH1's Pop-up Video) by TechTV, plus about an hour's worth of additional bonus content.
The DVD presentation of the show is surprisingly good, given the show's age. The transfers (in the original full screen aspect ratio) preserve the vivid colors of the original production, giving the show a bright, Technicolor-y visual pop. There is some film grain evident, but nothing terrible—just enough to remind you that this is a filmed program, and surprisingly little print damage. It's clear that some sort of preservation or restoration has been done to the show at some point, because there are occasional segments of much poorer quality—presumably bits that could not be fully restored. Thankfully, those bits are the exception rather than the rule. The audio presentation has been punched up as well. Two options are available: a straightforward stereo remix of the original mono soundtrack, and a Dolby 5.1 surround track. The surround track doesn't provide much more directional information than the stereo track, mainly serving to split out the bass (i.e. the explosions) into the LFE channel. Both tracks are very serviceable; the surround track just highlights the explosions a lot better and makes them "punchier." One quibble I had with the audio: there's a lot of dynamic range on both tracks, arguably too much. I often had to turn up the volume to hear the dialog and subtler sound effects, only to get smashed over the head by booming explosions or orchestral cues.
The extras are worthy, if not earth-shattering, additions to the package. There are two contemporaneous "making of" featurettes about the show, one made prior to the show's debut as a "teaser" and one made during the show's first season. They offer a quick but satisfying look at exactly how the show's effects were created, and some of the tricks used by the Thunderbirds crew. The "pop up" episode is about what you'd expect, although I thought that it could have had a lot more information in it. The "Brains Behind Thunderbirds" featurette would seem to be another behind-the-scenes feature…except it's not. It's actually a streamlined introduction to the show and its characters, including clips from various episodes, hosted by Brains himself. It's actually a good little intro for people unfamiliar with the show, but it seems out of place here. Presumably you're watching the extras on Disc 12 after you've viewed the other 11 discs. Why would you need or want an introduction to the show after you've just watched every single episode of it?
The best extra of the lot is the interview with Gerry Anderson, which covers all his shows and not just Thunderbirds. He proves to be a very likeable and genial man, and his feel-good story is almost the stuff of movies itself: poor English boy is captivated by motion pictures, and raises himself from poverty to become a successful producer despite having little initial knowledge about the industry, or even about how to run a business. He's got a few interesting anecdotes about Sir Lew Grade, the former ITC head honcho and a legend in English television (and also the man behind The Muppet Show). And, of course, he's got a plethora of information about all of his shows, from The Adventures of Twizzle to Space: 1999. The most interesting nugget? That Thunderbirds was, from the get-go, designed for the American television market, because it was so expensive to produce that both Grade and Anderson felt that an eventual deal with a U.S. network was the only way the show could be financially viable. When no U.S. network expressed any interest in the show, it collapsed under its own financial weight in the second season despite its success in England.
Finally, Thunderbirds is a rare duck: a show whose plots are not too complex for kids, but are also not too stupid or simplistic for adults. All of Anderson's earlier shows had been clearly targeted at children; Thunderbirds was aimed at both kids and adults. There aren't a huge number of youth-appropriate shows that actually entertain adults, and aren't just something you have to sit through and endure for the sake of your progeny. Even rarer are non-comedies that fit that description. Of course today's kids might not have the attention spans to sit through a show with the slow pacing of Thunderbirds, but it's worth a shot.
Only you can decide if $179 is too much to pay for this orgiastic explosion of Thunderbirds on DVD. All I can tell you that you do get a lot of value for your money, and the technical aspects of the discs themselves are top-notch. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm suddenly inspired to go dig my model trains out of storage…
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• "Making of" Featurette
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