❉ Now released on DVD from Fabulous Films, Thunderbirds Are Go remains a feast for the eyes.
A defining reason many fans of a certain generation will shower 1966’s Thunderbirds Are Go with praise is because this was the first instance of audiences witnessing Thunderbirds in colour. The original Supermarionation classic series from 1965 was first broadcast in black and white, as well as its puppet brethren Stingray and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, despite these highlights from the golden era of Supermarionation being produced in colour. When inspecting the film’s other elements, the logic behind these fans’ reasoning comes through rather clearly – Thunderbirds Are Go is a prime example of style over substance.
Now released on DVD from Fabulous Films, the first of two cinematic endeavours for Thunderbirds was announced to the world before the television series itself had even begun broadcasting. The need for the film to succeed is reflected in the changeover of the names of the company behind the Supermarionation juggernaut; Thunderbirds Are Go was the first production of A.P. Films under its newly christened name – Century 21 Productions. But where Thunderbirds blasted off into the hearts and imaginations of millions around the world, Thunderbirds Are Go had a more troubled lift-off. An oft-told story comes from Gerry, who, when attending the film’s premier in December 1966, spoke of how Lew Grade, financial backer for much of Anderson’s classic works, couldn’t decide whether Thunderbirds Are Go would be as financially lucrative as James Bond or more. Sure enough, the film did neither. It didn’t exactly crash-land, but it most certainly failed to take off successfully. The movie is undeniably bursting with visual splendour, so much so that there’s a distinct lack of quality control over many of the films’ other elements, mostly relating to characterisation and storytelling.
The film’s story was born out of inspiration of the space race between America and Russia. It concerns International Rescue’s involvement in the adventures of Zero-X, a gargantuan spaceship that will lead the first manned mission to Mars. Throughout the movie, Zero-X encounters explosive trouble on land, in the sky, on water and in deep space in which everyone from the Hood to alien Rock Snakes and mechanical malfunctions endanger the craft at every turn. Along the way, International Rescue occasionally pop up to lend their services when Zero-X runs into trouble. This is the core issue at work in the movie – International Rescue barely make their presence felt in their own movie. Thunderbird 2 has the most screen time, whilst Thunderbirds 1 and 3 are mere guests. Thunderbird 5 has a brief cameo or two, whilst Thunderbird 4 technically doesn’t appear in the film at all, only popping up during the opening credits.
Much of the film’s focus is on the mechanically dazzling Zero-X, the multi-part spaceship that steals each scene it’s in – just because of how big it is. Its multi-component features are a marvel of Supermarionation design on Derek Meddings’ part, whilst demonstrating why Japanese audiences in particular took Anderson works to their heart. If the colour-coded heroes of Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet throw forward to Super Sentai, then surely Zero-X provided Super Sentai with the blueprints for the giant combining robots piloted by the Sentai teams themselves.
Much of the film’s story feels geared to showcasing Zero-X’s multi-functional capabilities (the craft’s extraordinarily long assembly sequence, the Martian Exploration Vehicle’s encounters on Mars), resulting in Thunderbirds Are Go feeling closer to an elaborate backdoor pilot to a Zero-X spin-off. Curiously, no evidence exists suggesting that a Zero-X TV series or film was ever on the cards for Century 21 Productions – Zero-X’s own creative success wouldn’t be fully felt until its spin-off comic strip in the pages of TV21. Stripped of the baggage brought on by International Rescue’s inclusion, Zero-X flourished as a fantastic space horror adventure comic as Captain Paul Travers and crew embarked on further fantastic voyages into the cosmic unknown.
Barry Gray’s soaring soundtrack tries its best to animate the static scenes of Zero-X’s gradual assembly, providing Zero-X with its own ceremonious theme and injecting the overall film with an audible majesty that perfectly demonstrates why Gray’s music was perhaps always the single, unifying best thing about Supermarionation.
Not dissimilar to Zero-X itself, Thunderbirds Are Go stands, or wobbles, as a mass ensemble piece that is reduced to a series of poorly stitched-together sequences, shifting from one scene to the next with little consequence, barely an actual story to hold everything together, but the film ultimately manages to tune into Thunderbird 3 pilot Alan Tracy as the nearest thing it can claim to having a main character. The film’s visual dynamism can’t be denied. At least it looks like a Thunderbirds movie.
Between the voyeuristic shots of Zero-X’s prolonged assembly and launch sequence that make up the film’s opening scenes and the bizarre dream sequence Alan experiences of joining Lady Penelope to the Swinging Star nightclub, Thunderbirds Are Go remains a feast for the eyes. All other sense need not apply here. Cliff Richard and The Shadows, immortalised in marionette form, performing a pair of original numbers specially composed for the film, one of which (about a man subjecting his partner to domestic violence if he discovers she’s guilty of infidelity) makes for awkward viewing.
Despite these scenes showing a clear evolution for the production standards that Century 21 Productions were now able to soar to, co-writer and co-producer Sylvia Anderson would later describe (or should that be dismiss?) these sequences as indulgent. The whole sequence is hard to defend, and yet the scene’s emphasis on Alan and his desire to prove himself as much of a Tracy man as his brother’s is the closest Thunderbirds Are Go comes to an overarching plot.
Thunderbirds Are Go wasn’t the triumph all had envisioned it would be. Its awkward marriage of hard sci-fi and psychedelic novelty make for an uneven tonal balance. Only in the film’s climactic moments do its disparate pieces do their utmost to weld together. Having evaded destruction from the Martian Rock Snakes of Mars, Zero-X’s re-entry to Earth is thrown asunder when one of its remote control lifting bodies go haywire. The crew now unable to escape from the craft, International Rescue scrambles into action. Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and Brains collaborate on a rescue mission that‘s enjoyably extended in its intensity, even if it recalls the past series’ episode Operation Crash-dive a little too closely in its details. Ultimately though, the eventually evacuated Zero-X colliding with its target, the abandoned metropolis of Craigsville, is this film in a nutshell – a bang without an impact.
Not entirely knocked back though, Century 21 Productions would plough on and produce one last cinematic outing for International Rescue – Thunderbird 6.
The bonus content included in Fabulous Films’ release of Thunderbirds Are Go, previously available on Blu-ray, is a basic yet handsomely curated selection of features that do much to contextualise the film, including pocketed histories of the making of Thunderbirds, the process of Supermarionation and the production of the film itself. There’s little presented here that the well-informed Supermarionation fan likely won’t already be familiar with, but novice fans interested in learning more about the making of Thunderbirds as well as those with a general interest in Supermarionation will find much to enjoy here.
❉ ‘Thunderbirds Are Go’ released 20 September 2021 on DVD by Fabulous Films Ltd/Fremantle Media Enterprises. Cert: U. Running Time: 90 mins. RRP £9.99.
❉ 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 PopMatters, WhatCulture, 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.