Carolyn Percy talks about her enduring passion for the Thunderbirds franchise and draws comparisons between the original TV series and the new Thunderbirds Are Go.
A while back, I wrote an article for Wales Arts Review about my love of the work of Gerry Anderson. Towards the end I mentioned that, in April 2015, ITV, in collaboration with New Zealand based animation studio Pukeko Pictures, launched a new series of Thunderbirds called Thunderbirds Are Go. It’s been mostly well received, making the British Academy Children’s Award shortlist in 2015 and 2016 and is now halfway through its second season with a third commissioned. Obviously the technological, social and cultural landscape has changed a great deal over the 50-odd years since the original show, so here I’m going to discuss the differences between them, as well as address a few fan complaints I’ve heard.
Let me say, straight off, that I won’t be comparing the two shows to determine which one is better: both have their good and not so good points, the new series improves on the original in some areas but not all, and it’s fair to say that, without Thunderbirds, Thunderbirds Are Go wouldn’t exist. (In other words, I’m one of those fans who loves both and categorically refuses to choose between them.)
So, strap yourselves in and get ready to fire retros: here we go!
First, some context. Between the end of the original series in 1966 and the premiere of Thunderbirds Are Go in 2015, Thunderbirds had – as well as a wealth of tie-in and spinoff media – three further outings in the form of feature films: Thunderbirds Are Go (hence why, to avoid confusion, I will from now on refer to the Thunderbirds Are Go TV series as TAG), was a spectacular looking film with an underwhelming story; Thunderbird 6 plays like an extra-long episode of the TV series and was probably the film they should’ve made first; 2004’s Thunderbirds was fine as a kids/family adventure film but was disappointing as an adaptation of its source material. And what made it so disappointing was that it could have been good – it’s well shot, well directed, has a great score (Busted’s end credit song, also called Thunderbirds Are Go – just to confuse matters – is one of the highlights) and, for what little they had to work with, the cast acted their socks off – but was hindered by a lackluster script and the direction the studio chose to take it in. None of them were as critically or financially successful as was hoped or expected. The original series has been repeated numerous times, gaining gained new fans with each generation (especially with the advent of home video and DVD). But, for a long while, there wasn’t anything new (there was an attempt in the early 2000s by Carlton – whom I believe owned the rights at the time – to create a new series [Thunderbirds IR] but, aside from producing some test footage, sank without trace after Carlton merged with Granada).
So when it was announced by ITV that, in its 50th anniversary year, there would be a new Thunderbirds TV series, the news was met with a mixture of cautious excitement and trepidation. This continued as we were gradually drip-fed information over the months leading up to the premiere. Then, on April 4th 2015, the first two episodes of TAG (“Ring of Fire” parts 1&2) were broadcast simultaneously on CITV & ITV and, personally, I let out a sigh of relief and a great whoop of joy: this was a show clearly made by people who loved the source material (the list of Easter eggs could be an entire article on its own); these were still the characters we knew and loved; this was the new series the original deserved.
Once again, let’s start with the visuals. Inevitably, given the limitations of the original marionettes (and the expense), the show uses CG animation (Anderson himself was always looking toward the future, hence the use of not just CG animation but motion-capture to make the New Captain Scarlet series) and, even more inevitably, this news was met with disappointment or outright hostility from some.
Disappointingly, this became one of the main things that was focused on in the run-up to the series, to the point where it was erroneously reported as being entirely CGI several times. Let’s correct that. TAG incorporates the best of both worlds when it comes to visuals: the characters (and some of the vehicles) are CG but most of the sets and effects are practical (both of which are provided by the world famous New Zealand special effects and prop company – who have worked on, amongst others, all the Peter Jackson Lord of The Rings & Hobbit films – whose co-founders & creative leads are also the creators of Pukeko Pictures).
The result is more dynamic action and characters who are capable of much more expression, but still with the same sense of scale and feel of the original. (It’s a testament to Weta Workshop & the quality of their work that people have expressed surprise when they find out that a lot of the sets and miniatures are not CG.) Another thing I’d like to address is the animation style: it’s incredibly similar to the original puppets, but one frequent complaint I heard once the designs for the Tracy brothers were revealed was “they look like [insert whichever boyband you find annoying here].”
Look: first of all, it’s well known that the original puppets were modelled on popular figures of the day (Scott Tracy was modelled on Sean Connery, for instance); second, I have no control over what pictures accompany this article – if any – but if you compare the new designs with the old, looking past the small cosmetic differences and concentrate on facial structure, you’ll find that they’re extremely similar (Scott & John Tracy, in particular, are almost identical to their original designs). So, if we take that complaint to its logical conclusion, the original Tracy brothers looked “like [insert whichever boyband you find annoying here]” before “insert whichever boyband you find annoying here]” were even born.
Now, speaking of the Tracys, let’s move on to them and the other characters. Because market research asserts that children respond better to characters closer to their own age (an assertion I have some problems with as I don’t think it tells the whole story – children respond to story as well as character, and if they don’t respond well, it’s likely going to be due to an issue of quality regarding one or both, rather than the fact that the main protagonists aren’t children; after all, if we go by this theory, the original series, as well as other Anderson shows whose main characters are clearly adults, shouldn’t have had any young fans at all, but they did and still do) the brothers have been aged down slightly, but a situation similar to the 2004 film has been avoided by showing that Alan, though a teenager – as he learns to drive at one point in the first season I’m guessing he’s meant to be at least 16 – is already a full member of the team.
Admittedly, their ages have long been a topic of debate as it was never elaborated on in the original show and answers provided in various publicity & spin-off media have been contradictory; for the record, I’m going with the information that was, effectively, made canon in authorized books such as Chris Bentley’s Complete Book of Thunderbirds and the Thunderbirds annuals when the BBC re-aired the series in the early 2000s, which puts them at: 26 (Scott), 25 (John), 24 (Virgil), 22 (Gordon) & 21 (Alan), Brains (25), Tin Tin (25) & Lady Penelope (26). Whilst Alan’s new design might be significantly younger, the others are recognisably in their early twenties.
The biggest difference is the absence of Jeff Tracy, who disappeared when his plane was shot down prior to the beginning of the series. Fans remain divided over this, understandably, but I also think I can see why this decision might’ve been made: it adds an undercurrent of pathos and drama of the kind that was hardly in the original and, by giving the brothers more autonomy, it allows for deeper characterisation and more development; particularly John, who, due to the fact that he wasn’t Anderson’s favourite character, got the least development and has now evolved into something of a breakout character. So, although I, like many others, miss Jeff, TAG isn’t hurt by him not being there.
However, I do think it’s a plot thread that will have to be resolved – either we say goodbye to him permanently or he’s brought back to create a different dynamic and more opportunities for plot and character development; drawing it out and leaving it unresolved would be unsatisfying.
Great characters don’t change but environments do and storytelling trends wax and wane. In essence, their personalities remain broadly the same: the brothers are still big-hearted, brave and heroic, with Scott still being the leader and literal big-brother figure, Virgil the calm and level-headed peacekeeper with an artistic side, and Alan the youngest who’s always eager to play a role in the action, whilst John and Gordon – the two who received the least overall development in the original – have been characterised as a slightly anti-social loner who thrives on his role as International Rescue’s space station monitor, in charge of communication and dispatch, and a light-hearted joker respectively. But they’re allowed to be more vulnerable than their original counterparts, to question themselves, show self-doubt, making them slightly more rounded. In the absence of Jeff, Grandma Tracy has a much bigger role in the series and is portrayed less as a stereotypical sweet little old lady and more of a loving but no-nonsense grandmother whose terrible cooking is both infamous and a continual source of humour (in other words, the opposite of her original character).
Brains – who is now of Indian descent – is still the same stuttering genius scientist but seems to be a little more uncertain of himself in the field. Lady Penelope is still the suave and stylish secret agent and Parker, voiced by his original voice actor, David Graham, the man I like to refer to as “the British Frank Welker”, is virtually a direct transplant from the original series. The Hood now speaks with an English accent (no longer making him a racial stereotype and demonstrating the important fact that not all English people are white) and no longer has his trademark hypnotic powers (which you have to admit that, although they were menacing, they also weren’t in keeping with the rest of the show). He is now a much more consistently competent and dangerous villain, unlike in the original where, after a strong start, whether he was dangerous or comedically incompetent seemed to vary depending on the writer.
But the character I should give some praise to is Tanusha “Kayo” Kyrano. She is TAG’s Tin Tin (though copyright issues with a certain Belgian detective prevent her being named so). But where the original series Tin Tin – although not reduced to an object – didn’t get much to do compared to the others. In TAG, the character has been brought up to date: she’s now International Rescue’s head of Security, with her own Thunderbird (Thunderbird Shadow, designed by Shoji Kawamori, Anderson fan and creator of the Macross franchise) and storylines that don’t just focus on potential love interests. Her connection to the Hood is finally explored (it was just left to dangle with only a couple of vague references in the original) and was a suspenseful subplot throughout the first season – how long could she keep it a secret? What would her adoptive family do, say or think of her if they found out? – culminating in an emotional climax in the season finale.
The acting is – like the original – top notch, though I must give a special mention to the performances of David Menkin and Rasmus Hardiker, who between them have the hardest jobs to accomplish and they do so brilliantly: Menkin voices Virgil & Gordon Tracy, who in this series are often paired together so, like David Graham before him, is often essentially talking to himself; Hardiker voices Scott & Alan Tracy, the oldest and the youngest, and has to balance this without making one too deep and the other too high-pitched. The series has also attracted to some brilliant guest voices, including people such as: American comedian Rich Hall & Australian comedian Adam Hills, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Jack Whitehall, Jenna Coleman and even the late Sylvia Anderson herself in a delightful turn as Lady Penelope’s “Aunt Sylvia.”
One area I feel the original is better than the new is the music. This is not to say that Ben & Nick Foster’s music for TAG isn’t good – it is, very good, and was deservedly nominated for an award. It’s just that I think that Barry Gray’s tracks were more distinctive, I remember more of them, whereas with the new series the only tracks that really stand out for me are the even more bombastic rendition (if that’s even possible) of the Thunderbirds theme and the rousing music that plays whenever we see a suit-up & launch sequence.
Lastly, just because something stands the test of time, it doesn’t mean you would make it in the same way today. Let’s look at the changes that are to do with the changes in the social and cultural landscape in the last 50 years.
First, the episodes are 22 minutes long rather than 50, and while this does leave TAG at a disadvantage in one way – a longer run for the original series meant that the rescuers & the people being rescued got nearly an equal amount of development, despite some not unmerited accusations of padding: for example, the early scene at Tracy Island in “Attack of the Alligators” doesn’t add anything to the story & it’s never revisited but by the same token doesn’t take anything away – it’s good verisimilitude and if it wasn’t there the Tracys – the main characters – wouldn’t appear until nearly ¾ of the way through the episode – TAG’s shorter run time of TAG shows that stories can be told and told well in under 30 mins (the original series was first conceived as a half hour show after all) but the character development, because of this, is tipped in balance more towards International Rescue rather than secondary characters, something which it seems to compensate for by having more recurring characters than the original. The original series allowed for a slower pace to build more suspense but the current trend in entertainment is towards a faster pace of storytelling.
The other big change is – due to modern broadcasting rules – there are no guns, smoking, drinking or gambling. The presence of these in the original is often used as proof in some fans’ argument that Thunderbirds wasn’t a children’s programme. No. It was. A children’s show that adults can watch but still a children’s show. The difference is that past really is a different country: in the 1960s, smoking – at home & in public – was, rightly or wrongly, socially acceptable and children would have been regularly exposed to it; as for the drinking, guns and gambling (though I’m certain a casino was only featured once in “The Duchess Assignment”), well, what popular franchise had just come out in the cinema & was seen as the height of sophistication? James Bond. Yes, James Bond is not for children but children don’t always want to watch what is made for them.
This leads on to another complaint I’ve heard: that the characters in the new series are more immature (Lady Penelope sending a selfie being cited as an example, leading to accusations of her being portrayed as about 10 years younger, which is blatantly not the case for – as we’ve previously discussed – this would make her the same age as Alan, which she clearly isn’t); this is because the original characters act like people in their 20s would act in 1965, the new series characters act like teenagers and people in their early 20s would act today. Remembering that the original series was made over 50 years ago really is key to understanding a lot of the changes that have been made in TAG.
The second half of season 2 is due to begin airing on ITV & CITV sometime this September. At the time of me writing this, a trailer has been released on TAG’s official twitter channel (@ThunderbirdsHQ), which, among other things, includes two very real looking lizards. On September 30th, the first inaugural “Thunderbirds Day” is being launched at 52 Vue cinemas across the country (one for each year since the original was made), where they’ll not only be showing the first two episodes of season 2 part 2 but one of the Thunderbirds 1965 episodes – “The Abominable Snowman” – which have previously only been available to its Kickstarter backers.
The long & short of it is this: for years and years we’ve been asking for more Thunderbirds; now, at long last, we’ve got what we wanted.