Thunderbirds Are No: The Failed Remakes of International Rescue

Counting down all of the publicly known attempted remakes of the classic Supermarionation series!

Despite Gerry Anderson’s diverse efforts in bringing the Thunderbirds concept back to TV screens under several different names, it wouldn’t be until the early 1990s that the original Thunderbirds itself would receive a cinematic makeover, one that would go through various troubled forms until its arrival from director Jonathan Frakes in 2004. Even when that movie failed, both Gerry and ITV soldiered on, with even further attempts at remaking Thunderbirds still failing to blast off.

Where all of Anderson’s efforts to bring Thunderbirds back for a modern audience had taken the form of TV shows, the one Thunderbirds revival he didn’t conceive was a cinematic endeavour. The much-maligned 2004 movie has its origins in a project stretching back almost 10 years previously, with this particular take on Thunderbirds bearing a very different flavour to what eventually materialised.

1998 Movie

The momentum for this aborted cinematic adaptation of Thunderbirds began in 1994 when ITC Entertainment, who then owned the rights of Anderson’s shows, announced a live-action Thunderbirds movie to be released during Christmas of 1995. Budgeted at $40 million, Die Hard 2 and Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master director Renny Harlin was attached to the project. Amongst the proposed but unconfirmed cast included Tom Cruise as Scott Tracy and just about everyone from Emma Thompson to Joanna Lumley being considered for Lady Penelope.

Concept art from the 1998 Thunderbirds film.

That take on the project ground to a halt when ITC Entertainment were bought up by Polygram in 1995, whose purchase included Gerry and Sylvia’s back catalogue. Whilst writer David Hughes suggests in his book The Greatest Sci-fi Movies Never Made that Thunderbirds was the one Anderson title that Polygram saw as having cinematic potential, Anderson recalls in his 1996 biography that Polygram had also expressed interest in pursuing movie adaptations of Joe 90 and Captain Scarlet. “I would dearly love to make one or all of those pictures,” he says with enthusiasm. “Or at least to be heavily involved”. Early on in the film’s pre-production, his dreams would soon be dashed when he failed to become involved in the production of the proposed Thunderbirds movie.

Nevertheless, Polygram remained enthusiastic about the potential for a big-budget Thunderbirds movie and Working Title swiftly began serious pre-production in 1997, first as a computer animated before deciding on a live-action route. Life-long Thunderbirds fan Peter Hewitt and Thunderbirds novice Karey Kirkpatrick eventually wrote a story that Kirkpatrick developed into a script. This story featured International Rescue going up against both the Hood and a new character, Thaddeus Stone. The duo of villains join forces when the Hood attempts to steal the Moon on behalf of Stone, something of an anti-Jeff Tracy figure, who is dying a slow, painful death after 20 year’ exile on his failed moon colony and whose masterplan involves stealing all of the air from Earth.

Concept art by Brendan McCarthy. Source:

Hughes recounts the writing process of the film in his excellent detail, which comes highly recommended. Highlights from Kirkpatrick’s script includes the classic series Thunderbirds craft the Skythrust crashing into Big Ben, the Hood actively seeking to expose I.R’s secret identities, a rivalry between Scott and Alan that results in Alan’s temporary quitting of the family business and Lady Penelope revealing herself to be a thuggish fighter that wonderfully clashes with her otherwise elegant and charming demeanour.

Throughout Hughes’ chapter on the film, Kirkpatrick and Hewitt speak of the difficulty the found themselves under trying to write a suitable script that combined all five Thunderbird craft whilst gearing the film as the first of a potential series of blockbusters. Casting rumours included the McGanns or the Baldwin brothers as playing the Tracy brothers, an idea Sylvia Anderson would totally dismiss. The highlight of this presumed cast involved Rowan Atkinson in the role of Brains. One of the more bizarre suggestions for a Tracy brother was Will Smith, fresh from his appearance in Men In Black when Working Title wanted to include a black actor. Whilst Gerry remained at arm’s length from the project and subsequently allowed his perspective of the film to be harshly clouded (including suggesting that it was wrong for a non-British writer to be working on the film), Sylvia took a more positive approach, praising Kirkpatrick and Hewitt’s script. Brendan McCarthy’s concept art for the redesigned Thunderbird machines shows some surreal takes on the classic craft. On his personal blog, McCarthy also suggests that Robert Redford had been lined up to play Jeff Tracy.

Concept art from the 1998 Thunderbirds film.

Even with this activity going on, Polygram were getting cold feet, with suggestions that Thunderbirds’ cult status in America would hamper any chance of success stateside, an attitude which would cause Kirkpatrick to leave the film. Hewitt would also eventually depart the project after numerous rewrites began pushing the film into a new direction he wasn’t happy with. They were replaced by prolific writer Steven E. de Souza, who drastically reworked the original script but retained some of the concepts, such as Thaddeus Stone. Souza devised numerous concepts, including injecting a Batman-esque sense of mystique that posed the question “just who are International Rescue?” A much darker vibe was in Souza’s mind, with other elements including the Tracy family harbouring dark secrets from each other and being dysfunctional, Alan himself would have been some form of mercenary pilot and was detached from the family so much that he wouldn’t even know they were International Rescue and Lady Penelope and Parker acting as full-blown criminals.

Concept art from the 1998 Thunderbirds film.

Surprisingly, whilst Kirkpatrick and Hewitt’s script remained faithful to the Thunderbirds concept, it was Souza’s darker, more mysterious take on the concept that Working Title were enthused about. Alas, history would repeat itself in the form of another major company arriving on the scene to devour the previous company. In 1998, Universal bought up Polygram, leaving the future of Thunderbirds in doubt. Working Title would eventually find a new home with Universal, but given strict instruction to greenlight low-budget blockbusters, budgeted at under $25 million. The large financial demands of Thunderbirds meant that it was indefinitely put on the backburner. Even when the project was reignited, the ambition was far more modest. A total rewrite of the script came from William Osbourne, stripping the original concept of both Kirkpatrick and Hewitt’s faithfulness and Souza’s mystery. Thaddeus Stone was gone. The teens were now the heroes. The Spy Kids vibes embraced. The rest is history.

Thunderbirds: I.R.

Prior to Thunderbirds Are Go’s launch in 2015, a trailer for a proposed Thunderbirds remake produced by Carlton International appeared online in 2003, then the owners of the Thunderbirds brand. Predating the production methods that would be used in both Thunderbirds Are Go and Anderson Entertainment’s forthcoming Firestorm, Thunderbirds: IR uses a mixture of CGI backdrops with rod-operated puppets and practical models and sets.

Produced as a B2B presentation that wasn’t intended to be seen by the public, this brief glimpse into an ambitious-looking take on Thunderbirds that would have prioritised practical effects takes some very liberal redesigns. In the trailer, only Scott and Thunderbird 1 are seen, but their drastic redesigns were enough to start mumblings within the fandom that the polarising reaction to the trailer was the reason we never got a full-blown series. Scott looses his Sean Connery-styled good looks and Thunderbird 1 has a wildly exaggerated appearance. Both Scott and TB1 were redesigned by Kate McConnell of Asylum Models and Effects, who were commissioned by Carlton to produce a pilot for the proposed series. Whilst the trailer is still available to watch, the state of the pilot is unknown, publically. Greg Johnson and Bob Forward were assigned as head writers, between the pair, they’ve written on X-Men, Transformers, Fantastic Four and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Carlton’s merger with Granada and the unfavourable reception of the live-action Thunderbirds movie from 2004 were other likely factors in this remake not venturing much further, though it did help to pave the way for the eventual remake co-produced by Pukeko Pictures. What’s even more intriguing is the suggestion that a full-length pilot was commissioned, which may very well be languishing somewhere in ITV’s vaults, yet to see the light of day.

CGI Remakes (2005-2011)

Despite being locked in a seemingly unending battle of rights negotiations, Gerry remained optimistic that he would spearhead a new incarnation of Thunderbirds, stating a various points throughout 2005 and 2011 that he was in consultation with rights owners and had numerous new concepts for Thunderbirds planned. This culminated in 2011 when he revealed that an agreement between himself and ITV had successfully resulted in him producing a new Thunderbirds series, details of which remained scarce whilst he was under NDA.

Alas, Gerry passed away in December of 2012, presumably leaving his many possible scattered visions for a new incarnation of Thunderbirds untouched. It’s unknown if ITV’s own remake of the series, co-produced with Pukeko Pictures, made use of any of Gerry’s concepts. What is known is that Gerry had intended to gender-swap some of the Tracy brothers, confirmed by his son Jamie on Twitter in 2019.

The road that Thunderbirds Are Go had to travel down to be made is a long and complicated one. Thunderbirds’ history is littered with concepts at new incarnations of the series that would have taken the classic Supermarionation series in strange and wild directions. For some of these proposed remakes, it’s a great loss. For others, perhaps more of a great relief. If these continued attempts at remaking Thunderbirds are proof of anything, it’s that the great lost Thunderbirds remake Gerry wanted to produce in his life time was never realised. There was also clearly demand for new takes on Thunderbirds to be seen. That demand could have been satisfied with some wonderfully weird interpretations of Thunderbirds, but it was not to be. Who knows what other concepts may be attempted as the dust continues to settle on Thunderbirds Are Go.

❉  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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