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December 23, 2009

Thunderbirds Are Go

The brilliantly creative mind of one Gerry Anderson concocted Thunderbirds in 1963 - and gave birth to what would become one of Britain's most beloved television cult classics. Those wild and wacky puppets of the International Rescue, based out of a top-secret location in the South Pacific, thrilled and delighted with their supermarionated, world-saving exploits. Just as exciting, however, as the Tracy family (all named after astronauts), Lady Penelope, Tin Tin, Kyrano, The Hood and crew, were the fantastic "crafts", or Thunderbirds, that transported the gang and equipment to and fro, could travel at amazing speeds and sparked the imagination as to what the future could hold (the show was set, after all, in the far off world of 2065!). But did you know the story behind Thunderbirds?

Gerry Anderson was just wrapping up work on his 39-episode Stingray, and needed an idea for his next project. A disaster was his inspiration. There was a collapsed mine in Germany that had almost 30 men trapped hundreds of feet below the earth's surface - a story that was making worldwide headlines and, though gruesome, caught his attention. Anderson got to thinking about the huge drills that were being used in the rescue effort, and had the idea that such drills, along with other rescue gear, should be kept in strategic places around the world in anticipation of such disasters.

The Thunderbirds, the International Rescue, and the idea that Gerry needed for his new program were the direct result of this thinking. He created a group of characters who would fly into danger zones and, with the aid of highly advanced crafts, could go underground and utilize the rescue equipment necessary. He based these folks in the South Pacific, and threw space satellites (for transmitting emergency messages to their tropical hideaway) into the mix.

While rescue and espionage were all the rage in the mid-'60s, what really made Thunderbirds stand out from the crowd was the fact that the main characters were puppets. And they were unlike anything the world had ever seen because they were "supermarionated". This was a technique invented by the Thunderbirds crew especially for the program - and it involved your run of the mill marionettes (in this case, they were 20-24" tall and made mostly of wood and leather), operated by fine wires and electronics. This made their mouths move in sync with their words.

The only thing more unique than the way the characters were operated was the characters themselves. With just enough of the fantastically bizarre injected into their appearances and personalities, they are every bit as cultishly delightful today as they were in the '60s (perhaps even more so). From Air Force hero Scott Tracy's puppet good looks to the race-car driving Alan Tracy's golden brows, from Lady Penelope's quintessentially proper English appearance to Brains' hilariously oversized glasses, each character has their own distinguishing characteristics that are just overdone enough to make them perfect.

Needless to say, the show spawned a huge following and hundreds of collectibles, toys and other memorabilia. You can find Thunderbirds on DVD.

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