Thunderbirds is a British science-fiction television series created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, filmed by their production company AP Films (APF) and distributed by ITC Entertainment. It was produced between 1964 and 1966 using a form of electronic marionette puppetry (dubbed “Supermarionation”) combined with scale model special effects sequences. Two series were filmed, comprising a total of 32 episodes. Production ceased after Lew Grade, the Andersons’ financial backer, failed in his efforts to sell the programme to American network television.
Set in the mid-2060s, Thunderbirds is a follow-up to the earlier Supermarionation productions Four Feather Falls, Supercar, Fireball XL5 and Stingray. It follows the exploits of International Rescue (IR), a life-saving organisation equipped with technologically-advanced land, sea, air and space rescue craft; these are headed by a fleet of five vehicles named the Thunderbirds and launched from IR’s secret base in the Pacific Ocean. The main characters are ex-astronaut Jeff Tracy, the founder of IR, and his five adult sons, who pilot the Thunderbird machines.
Thunderbirds began its first run in the United Kingdom on the ITV network in 1965 and has since been broadcast in at least 66 other countries. Periodically repeated, it was adapted for radio in the early 1990s and has influenced many TV programmes and other media. As well as inspiring various merchandising campaigns, the series has been followed by two feature-length film sequels, a live-action film adaptation and a mimed stage show tribute. The second of two TV remakes, the computer-animated Thunderbirds Are Go, premiered in 2015.
Widely considered to be the Andersons’ most popular and commercially successful series, Thunderbirds has received particular praise for its effects (directed by Derek Meddings) and musical score (composed by Barry Gray). It is also well remembered for its title sequence, which opens with an often-quoted countdown by actor Peter Dyneley (who voiced the character of Jeff): “5, 4, 3, 2, 1: Thunderbirds Are Go!” A real-life rescue service, the International Rescue Corps, is named after the organisation featured in the series.
Main article: List of Thunderbirds episodes
Set between 2065 and 2067, Thunderbirds follows the exploits of the Tracy family, headed by American ex-astronaut turned multi-millionaire philanthropist Jeff Tracy. He is a widower with five adult sons: Scott, John, Virgil, Gordon and Alan.[Note 1] The Tracys form International Rescue (IR), a secret organisation dedicated to saving human life. They are aided in this mission by technologically advanced land, sea, air and space vehicles, which are called into service when conventional rescue techniques prove ineffective. The most important of these are five machines named the “Thunderbirds”, each assigned to one of the five Tracy brothers:
Thunderbird 1: a hypersonic rocket plane used for fast response and accident zone reconnaissance. Piloted by primary rescue co-ordinator Scott Tracy.
Thunderbird 2: a supersonic carrier aircraft that transports rescue vehicles and equipment to accident zones in detachable capsules known as “Pods”. Piloted by Virgil.
Thunderbird 3: a single-stage-to-orbit spacecraft for space rescue. Piloted alternately by Alan and John, with Scott as co-pilot.
Thunderbird 4: a utility submersible for underwater missions. Piloted by Gordon and normally launched from Thunderbird 2.
Thunderbird 5: a space station that relays distress calls from around the world. Manned alternately by “Space Monitors” John and Alan.
With the engineer Brains and Jeff’s elderly mother, as well as the Malaysian manservant Kyrano and his daughter Tin-Tin, the family reside in a luxurious villa on Tracy Island,[Note 2] their hidden base in the South Pacific Ocean. In this location, IR is safe from criminals and spies who envy the organisation’s technology and seek to acquire the secrets of its machines.
Despite its humanitarian principles, some of IR’s operations are necessitated not by misadventure but deliberate sabotage motivated by greed for power and wealth. For missions that require criminal investigation, the organisation incorporates a network of undercover agents headed by English aristocrat Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward and her butler Aloysius Parker. Based at Creighton-Ward Mansion in Kent, Penelope and Parker’s primary mode of transport is FAB 1, a specially-modified Rolls-Royce. The most persistent of IR’s adversaries is the criminal known only as the “Hood”.[Note 2] Operating from a temple in the Malaysian jungle, and possessing abilities of hypnosis and dark magic, he exerts a powerful telepathic control over Kyrano, his estranged half-brother, and manipulates the Tracys into missions that unfold according to his nefarious designs. This allows him to spy on the Thunderbird machines and, by selling their secrets, make himself rich.
Thunderbirds was the fourth Supermarionation puppet TV series to be produced by APF, which was founded by the husband-and-wife duo of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson with their business partners Reg Hill and John Read. Pitched in late 1963, the series was commissioned by Lew Grade of ITC, APF’s parent company, on the back of the positive audience response to Stingray.
Gerry Anderson drew inspiration for the series’ underlying concept from the West German mining disaster known as the Wunder von Lengede (“Miracle of Lengede”). In October 1963, the collapse of a nearby dam flooded an iron mine in the municipality of Lengede, killing 29 miners and trapping 21 others underground. Lacking the means to drill an escape shaft, the authorities were forced to requisition a heavy-duty bore from Bremen; the considerable time necessary to ship this device by rail had significantly reduced the chances of a successful rescue. Recognising the advantages of swifter crisis response, Anderson conceived the idea of an “international rescue” organisation that could use supersonic aircraft to transport specialised rescue equipment quickly over long distances.
Seeking to distinguish his 26-episode proposal from APF’s earlier productions, Anderson attempted to pitch stories at a level that would appeal to both adults and children. Whereas previous series had been shown during the late afternoon, Anderson wanted Thunderbirds to be broadcast in a family-friendly primetime slot. Sylvia remembers that “our market had grown and a ‘kidult’ show … was the next step.” The Andersons retired to their holiday villa in Portugal to expand the premise, script the pilot episode and compose a scriptwriters’ guide. According to Sylvia, the writing process depended on a “division of labour”, whereby Gerry created the action sequences while she managed characterisation. The decision to make a father and his sons the main characters was influenced by the premise of Bonanza, as well as Sylvia’s belief that the use of more than one heroic character would broaden the series’ appeal. The Tracy brothers were named after Mercury Seven astronauts: Scott Carpenter, John Glenn, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Gordon Cooper and Alan Shepard.
The series’ title was derived from a letter written by Gerry’s brother, Lionel, while he had been serving overseas as an RAF flight sergeant during World War II. While stationed in Arizona, Lionel had made reference to Thunderbird Field, a nearby United States Army Air Forces base. Drawn to the “punchiness” of “Thunderbirds”, Anderson dropped his working title of “International Rescue” and renamed both the series and IR’s rescue vehicles, which had previously been designated Rescues 1 to 5. His inspiration for the launch sequences of Thunderbirds 1, 2 and 3 originated from contemporary United States Air Force launch procedure: Anderson had learnt how the Strategic Air Command would keep its pilots on permanent standby, seated in the cockpits of their aircraft and ready for take-off at a moment’s notice.
In the DVD documentary The Thunderbirds Companion, Anderson explained how a rise in filming costs had made overseas distribution revenue even more important and essentially caused Thunderbirds to be made “as an American show”. During the character development and voice casting process, the Andersons’ main priority was to ensure that the series had transatlantic appeal, thus increasing the chances of winning an American network deal and the higher audience figures that this market had to offer. Scripts were typed in American English and printed on US-style quarto-size paper.
Thunderbirds was filmed at APF’s studios on the Slough Trading Estate between 1964 and 1966. In preparation, the number of full-time crew was expanded to 100. Shooting began in September 1964 after five months of pre-production. Due to the new series’ technical complexity, this was a period longer than for any of APF’s earlier productions. To speed up the filming, episodes were shot in pairs, at a rate of one per month, on separate soundstages and by separate crews (designated “A” and “B”). By 1964, APF was the UK’s largest commercial user of colour film, consuming more than three million feet (570 miles or 910 kilometres) of stock per year.
Alan Pattillo, a veteran scriptwriter and director for APF, was appointed the company’s first official script editor in late 1964. This move was aimed to reduce the burden on Gerry Anderson who, while reserving his producer’s right to overall creative control, had grown weary of revising scripts himself. Direction of episodes was assigned in pairs: Pattillo and David Elliott alternated with the less experienced Desmond Saunders and newcomer David Lane for each month’s filming. Due to the difficulties of setting up takes, progress was slow: even on a productive day, it was rare for the crew to complete more than two minutes of puppet footage. In a contemporary interview, Hill noted that Thunderbirds contained several times as many shots as a typical live-action series. He explained that rapid editing was necessary on account of the characters’ lack of facial expression, which made it difficult to sustain the viewer’s interest for more than a few seconds per shot.After viewing the completed 25-minute pilot, “Trapped in the Sky”, Lew Grade was so impressed by APF’s work that he instructed Anderson to double the episode length and increased the series’ budget per episode from £25,000 to £38,000. As a result, Thunderbirds became not only the company’s longest and highest-budgeted production, but also among the most expensive TV series to have been made up to that point. The crew, who had been filming at a rate of two 25-minute episodes per fortnight, faced significant challenges during the transition to the new format: eight episodes had already been completed, scripts for up to ten more had been written, and substantial rewrites would be necessary to satisfy the longer running time. Anderson lamented: “Our time-scale was far too drawn out. ITC’s New York office insisted that they should have one show a fortnight … Everything had to move at twice the speed.” APF spent over seven months extending the existing episodes.
Tony Barwick, who had impressed Pattillo and the Andersons with an unsubmitted script that he had written for Danger Man, was recruited to assist in the writing of subplots and filler material. He found that the longer format created opportunities to strengthen the characterisation. Science-fiction writer John Peel suggests that “small character touches” make the puppet cast of Thunderbirds “much more rounded” than those of earlier APF series. He compares the writing favourably to that of live-action drama. The new footage proved useful during the development of the first series finale, “Security Hazard”: since the previous two episodes had overspent their budgets, Pattillo devised a flashback-dominated clip show containing only 17 minutes of new material to reduce costs.
Filming of Series One was completed in December 1965. A second series was also commissioned late that year and entered production in March 1966. Barwick became a full-time member of the writing staff and took over the role of script editor from the outgoing Pattillo. The main puppet cast and vehicles were rebuilt; in addition, the art department expanded some of the standing sets, including the Tracy Villa lounge and the Thunderbird 5 control room. To accommodate the simultaneous filming of the TV series and Thunderbirds Are Go, APF purchased two more buildings on the Slough Trading Estate and converted them into new stages. As crew and studio space were divided between the two productions, filming of the TV series progressed at half the previous speed, as APF’s B crew produced one episode per month. Filming on Thunderbirds Are Go was completed by June, allowing A crew to resume work on the series to shoot what would prove to be its penultimate episode, “Ricochet”.
Production of Thunderbirds ended in August 1966 with the completion of the sixth episode of Series Two. In February that year, it had been reported that Grade had been unable to sell the series in the United States due to disagreements over timeslots. In July, he cancelled Thunderbirds after failing in his second attempt to secure an American buyer. The three major US networks of the time – NBC, CBS and ABC – had all bid for the series, with Grade repeatedly increasing the price. When NBC withdrew its offer, the other two immediately followed.
By the time of its cancellation, Thunderbirds had become widely popular in the UK and was being distributed extensively overseas. Grade, however, believed that without the financial boost of an American network sale, a full second series would fail to recover its production costs. He therefore asked Anderson to devise a new concept that he hoped would stand a greater chance of winning over the profitable US market. This became Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons.