‘Thunderbird 6’ (1968)

John Carson shines as the villainous Captain Foster in International Rescue’s second big screen outing.

Recently reissued on DVD by Fabulous Films, Thunderbird 6 is the last of the two Supermarionation Thunderbirds movies and it’s a decidedly different package to its predecessor in many regards. Where Thunderbirds Are Go is brash, Thunderbird 6 is reserved. Where Thunderbirds Are Go is tonally whiplash-inducing, Thunderbird 6 is a much smoother, gentler ride. Does this then amount to Thunderbird 6 actually being an improvement on Thunderbirds Are Go?

Despite the uneven critical reaction and underwhelming box office response to Thunderbirds Are Go, seemingly signalling that Thunderbirds couldn’t be successfully transferred from TV to film, a second Thunderbirds film was agreed between ITC and United Artists for take-off. The precise reasoning as to why risk another Thunderbirds film remain sketchy, as Thunderbirds was already becoming a rapidly distant memory when work began on the film. Its TV reign had already been put to bed and Century 21 Productions were busy filming Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons.  This then seemed to secure Thunderbird 6’s reception before the film was even made. Despite Thunderbirds looming large over Century 21 Productions as it continued to try and put some distance between what many consider to be their masterpiece and newer works, the sub-par results of Thunderbird 6 greatly imply that audiences had simply grown disinterested in the franchise.

Not even the film itself can hide this. After the film’s opening scene of Brains, under the disguise of Mr. X, pitches the invention of a new, modern airship to the New World Aircraft Corporation (to a laughable response involving horrifically designed marionettes with very visibly detailed tonsils, which itself has ascended to meme status), the story shifts to Tracy Island, where we’re greeted by a voiceover explaining the premise of International Rescue. We then cut to Jeff Tracy counting down the names and purposes of the five main Thunderbird craft, before panning back to reveal that Jeff is addressing Brains, not the audience. Jeff is doing this due to being seized by the not entirely clear sensation that Brains needs to build a sixth core International Rescue machine. This brief yet telling sequence suggests the movie is having to remind audiences just what Thunderbirds is all about.

Thunderbird 6 does much to distinguish itself from its predecessor. The hard sci-fi is gone and in its place is a languid spy-fi caper that positions Lady Penelope and Brains as the joint main characters. The story concerns Brains’ successful efforts in convincing the New World Aircraft Corporation, despite their earlier guffaws, to build an airship – Skyship One. Members of International Rescue, headed by Lady Penelope and Parker, join its maiden voyage as its guests, along with Alan Tracy and Tin-Tin. Brains is forbidden from joining the flight, owing to Jeff’s demands for him to build Thunderbird 6. However, the nefarious Black Phantom (Is it the Hood? A new character entirely?) has secreted a team of dangerous spies on board the craft who discreetly capture the craft. Pretending to be the ship’s crew, they proceed to record Lady Penelope’s every word to fashion a false distress call to lure Thunderbirds 1 and 2 into the jaws of Black Phantom’s forces. When Captain Foster and his spies are outed, Skyship One risks crashing into a missile site, demanding the need for a creative approach from International Rescue to save the day.

Through this cumbersome premise, Thunderbird 6 is notorious for its two starring craft. Guest vehicles had become a core component of your average Thunderbirds episode; Fireflash, Sidewinder, Sunprobe, Crablogger. Here, we have the lumbering Skyship One and the diminutive Thunderbird 6 itself, a Tiger Moth, introduced in quirky fashion early on in the film so as to have a triumphant pay-off later on.

Film historian Richard Hollis describes Thunderbird 6 as “chatty”, and more character-driven than the action and adventure spectacle of Thunderbirds Are Go. The regular cast play their roles with a renewed maturity, whilst newcomers slot easily in. Sylvia Anderson and Matt Zimmerman in particular deliver commanding performances of Lady Penelope and Alan Tracy respectively, whilst David Graham injects some aggressive bite into Brains, whose efforts in building prototype models of possible contenders for Thunderbird 6 aren’t well received by Jeff. Newcomers Keith Alexander and Gary Files make their Century 21 debut with Thunderbird 6, whilst John Carson shines as the villainous Captain Foster. Coupled with a wonderfully sculpted marionette, Foster has the visual and audible manner of a classic Bond villain. Much physical comedy is to be found at Parker’s expense, too.

Foster and his gang’s logic in editing Penelope’s recorded dialogue to produce a fake message to send to Jeff feels somewhat laborious, but it also feels right out of the 1960s spy-fi playbook, and oddly throws forward to today’s deep-fake technology, albeit in analogue fashion. As Foster does his utmost to get Penelope to say exactly what he needs her to say, the crew and passengers of Skyship One pass through a multitude of exotic locations, all gorgeously rendered in marionette form, and all emphasising the relaxed pace of a film that’s in no hurry to get from A to B.

Its relaxed pace helps the interwoven story to gradually unfold into something clearer for its young target audience to wrap their heads around. However, those same fans were likely bitterly disappointed on the film’s 1968 release to discover that the usual sound and fury of the Thunderbirds themselves were replaced by the uninteresting Skyship One (despite its gorgeous interior designs) and the reveal of Thunderbird 6 itself. (As director David Lane put it, this was “as far removed from the hardware that was in Thunderbirds as anything I can think of”.)

Not even its climactic scenes can resolve this. The rescue scenes go on for much too long and are frustratingly sluggish. After a prolonged sequence of Lady Penelope struggling to land the damaged Tiger Moth, the craft and the film come to a weary crash-land, a sigh of relief surely emanating from the audience, not for the character’s safety, but for this to finally be over.

You wouldn’t have guessed that the future of Thunderbirds depended on this film. Thunderbird 6 is content to dawdle along at its own, unrushed pace. It’s low-key, low-tech, heavy character components are far more reflective of Joe 90 and The Secret Service, the then-current slate of productions coming out of Century 21 Productions, rather than the television series that Thunderbird 6 is spun-off from.

The bonus content on the recent DVD release from Fabulous Films is rather more skeletal compared to its release of Thunderbirds Are Go, perhaps showing how Thunderbird 6 captures a point in Thunderbirds’ lifespan where it ran out of runway and had nowhere else to take off from. Revivals in both CGI and Supermarionation would be decades away. For many years, Thunderbirds had come to end not with a triumphant bang, but with an oddly placid, unexciting sigh of espionage-flavoured tedium.

Special Features:

Gerry Anderson’s Countdown to Thunderbirds, Lady Penelope, Building Better Puppets, Photo Gallery, A Call From Stanley Kubrick, Tiger Moth Featurette, A Television Tribute, Original USA Theatrical Trailer, Audio Commentary with Producer Sylvia Anderson and Director David Lane, Isolated Score Track, International Rescue Danger Zone Report 02 Booklet.

‘Thunderbird 6: The Movie’ was released on DVD by Fabulous Films Ltd/Fremantle Media Enterprises on 20 September 2021. Certificate: U. Running Time: 90 mins. RRP £14.99.

  Fred McNamara is a contributing writer for a variety of digital and print publications, covering comic books, films, TV and more. His work has appeared on such websites as PopMattersWhatCulture, Flickering Myth, Grovel, the Official Gerry Anderson Blog, ScreenRelish, and in such publications as Starburst Magazine, Andersonic and Comic Scene. His work has also appeared in anthologies published by Watching Books and Who Dares Publishing.

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