Thunderbirds Are Go is a 1966 British science-fiction film based on Thunderbirds, a 1960s television series starring marionette puppets and featuring scale model effects in a filming process dubbed “Supermarionation”. Written by Thunderbirds creators Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, directed by David Lane and produced by AP Films, Thunderbirds Are Go develops the franchise with a plot focusing on the futuristic spacecraft Zero-X and its manned mission to Mars. When Zero-X suffers a mechanical failure during re-entry, it is up to International Rescue, with the aid of the Thunderbird machines, to save the astronauts on board before the spacecraft is obliterated in a crash landing.
Filmed from March to June 1966 and premiering in December, Thunderbirds Are Go includes, in a first for an AP Films production, cameo appearances from puppets of real-life celebrities Cliff Richard and The Shadows, who also contributed to the musical score. It is also the first motion picture to have been filmed with an early form of video assist technology known as “Add-a-Vision”, and incorporated landscape footage that was shot on location in Portugal.Special effects pieces, produced under the supervision of Derek Meddings and including rocket launch sequences, space shots and a miniature representation of the Martian surface, required six months to complete.
Despite positive initial reviews, which praised the film as a well-made cinematic transfer of the Thunderbirds television series, Thunderbirds Are Go soon proved to be a box office failure for the Andersons. The disappointment of this outcome was intensified by the knowledge that Series Two of Thunderbirds would be cut down to six episodes and that AP Films’ upcoming television project would be a brand-new series, which would later be titled Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and screened from 1967. To add to the lukewarm public response, negative critical reception of Thunderbirds Are Go has targeted, besides other aspects, the characterisation of the puppet cast, the running time dedicated to model and effects shots, and the fantasy dream sequence starring Cliff Richard and The Shadows, which has been described as a poor scriptwriting idea on the part of the Andersons.
Surprised by the underperformance of Thunderbirds Are Go, the United Artists distributors authorised the production of a sequel. However, Thunderbird 6 received a similarly unenthusiastic response on its release in 1968, and the Thunderbirds franchise was abandoned until the appearance of a reboot, starring live actors, in 2004. Meanwhile, the Zero-X astronauts were featured in their own strip in the Anderson-related TV Century 21 comic until 1969.
In 2065, the Zero-X spacecraft launches from Glenn Field as the first attempt at a manned mission to Mars. Unknown to Captain Paul Travers and his crew of two astronauts and two scientists, criminal mastermind the Hood has infiltrated the ship to photograph Zero-X’s wing mechanism. When his foot becomes trapped in the hydraulics, the Hood causes a systems failure and Zero-X loses control. While the villain manages to extract his bloodied foot and parachute from the undercarriage, Travers and his crew eject in an escape pod and Zero-X crashes into the ocean before leaving Earth’s atmosphere.
In 2067, at the conclusion of an investigation into the loss of Zero-X, the Inquiry Board of the Space Exploration Center reaches a verdict of sabotage. In the meantime, a second Mars mission has been planned. Days before the launch of the new Zero-X, International Rescue agrees to a request to organise security in view of the possibility of another sabotage threat. Jeff Tracy dispatches Scott to Glenn Field in Thunderbird 1, while Virgil in Thunderbird 2 and Alan in Thunderbird 3 are assigned to escort Zero-X as it leaves the atmosphere. Posing as a reporter at the pre-launch press conference, Lady Penelope ensures that Travers and the other four crewmembers are delivered St. Christopher brooches. Ostensibly for luck, these are in fact homing devices (a plot device previously used in the episode “The Duchess Assignment”). The next day, a search for Dr Grant’s brooch checks negative. Scott unmasks the man waiting for lift-off on board Zero-X as the Hood in another of his disguises. The saboteur flees Glenn Field in a car, which Penelope and Parker pursue in FAB1. The Hood transfers to a speedboat, and then a helicopter piloted by an accomplice; Parker shoots the aircraft down with the Rolls-Royce’s built-in machine gun and the Hood is seemingly killed.[Note 2] Meanwhile, the real Grant is returned to Zero-X and the spacecraft launches without further incident.
Mission accomplished, Penelope invites Scott and Virgil to join her at “The Swinging Star”, a fashionable nightclub. Landing back on Tracy Island after escorting Zero-X, Alan feels unappreciated when Jeff insists that he remain on standby at base while his brothers spend the night partying. In bed, Alan experiences a surreal dream in which Parker “flies” him and Penelope in FAB1 to a version of The Swinging Star located in space. Present at the interstellar nightclub are Cliff Richard Jr and The Shadows, who perform a song titled “Shooting Star” and an instrumental, “Lady Penelope”. The dream sequence ends abruptly when Alan plummets from The Swinging Star back to Earth and awakes to discover he has fallen out of bed.
After a six-week flight, the Zero-X Martian Exploration Vehicle lands on Mars on 22 July.[Note 1] While investigating the barren surface, the crew are puzzled to encounter strange rock formations arranged into coils. Space Captain Greg Martin blasts one of the structures with the MEV gun and Dr Pierce prepares to leave the vehicle to collect samples. However, the other formations stir into motion and reveal themselves to be one-eyed “Rock Snakes”. Under attack from the extraterrestrials, which are able to shoot fireballs from their “mouths”, the Zero-X explorers are forced to effect a premature departure from the Martian surface. Docking with the orbiting command module piloted by Space Navigator Brad Newman, the astronauts start the flight back to Earth.
As Zero-X re-enters Earth’s atmosphere on 2 September,[Note 1] a lifting body launched to assist the controlled descent fails to interface, damaging the escape unit circuit (EUC). With Zero-X locked in descent and set to impact Craigsville, Florida,[Note 3] Jeff sends out Scott and Brains in Thunderbird 1 and Virgil, Alan and Gordon in Thunderbird 2. Winched into Zero-X’s undercarriage, Alan must risk being trapped on board the spacecraft as Brains advises him on re-routing the damaged escape circuit. With Craigsville evacuated, Alan is left seconds to detach his cable. Travers and the others eject just in time, before Zero-X crashes spectacularly into Craigsville. Collected by Penelope and Parker in FAB1, Alan is driven to the real Swinging Star and Penelope, joined by the Tracy family, Brains and Tin-Tin, all disguised to conceal their identities, propose a toast to Alan as the “hero of the day”.
When shooting on Series One of Thunderbirds wrapped in late 1965, Gerry Anderson and his ITC financier, Lew Grade, agreed that a feature film adaptation, to be shot at the same time as the prospective Series Two, would be the next logical step in the expansion of the AP Films Thunderbirds franchise. With United Artists contracted to distribute the film and the Rank Organisation to exhibit, a budget of £250,000 was set and Anderson and his wife, Sylvia, commenced work on the script at a Portuguese villa rented to them by Grade. The couple decided to base the plot on the American-Soviet “Space Race”, in particular the 1960s contest to land astronauts on the Moon, but adapt this story for the futuristic Thunderbirds universe by changing the destination of the mission to Mars.
In the pre-production stages of their next puppet series, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, the Andersons would opt to script a second appearance of the Zero-X spacecraft to link the continuities of Thunderbirds and its sequel, which is supposed to be set in the same fictional universe. Captain Scarlet would also prove to be a progression from Thunderbirds Are Go in terms of its depiction of extraterrestrial life on Mars, although the Mysteron antagonists of this series would be more ambitious than the Rock Snakes of the film by actively seeking to attack Earth. The final rescue of the crippled Zero-X emulates that of the airliner Fireflash in the Thunderbirds episode “Operation Crash-Dive”.
The role of director fell to David Lane, who had filled this position for several of the Series One episodes and also had editing and special effects experience at AP Films. Aged 24, with this appointment Lane became the youngest film director in Britain at the time. Frustrated with the creative limitations of puppets and concerned that the television series would not adapt well to a film,[Alan Pattillo, the Andersons’ initial choice, declined the role.
The insertion of Alan’s dream sequence set at interstellar nightclub The Swinging Star was spearheaded by Sylvia, who expanded these scenes with a proposed musical interlude to be performed by puppet versions of Cliff Richard and The Shadows, Richard’s backup band in the 1960s. Richard and Bruce Welch owned homes in Portugal near to the Andersons, and it was there that the two agreed to “appear” in the film as Supermarionation puppets. Also signed on to contribute to the film’s score, Richard and the band recorded a song titled “Shooting Star”, with Richard providing the vocals, and an instrumental piece, “Lady Penelope”. Anderson concedes that the sequence does not progress the plot, stating in her autobiography that it was “sheer indulgence that would not have been possible on our television budget.” Stephen La Rivière, documenting the making of Thunderbirds Are Go in his book Supermarionation: A History of the Future, considers the sequence the strangest ever created by AP Films
by simon schofield