If anyone can do the impossible, it is Jeff Tracy and his sons, collectively known as International Rescue, with the help of their agents scattered across the globe including London’s Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward and on this occasion Filmed in Supermarionation producer Stephen La Rivière, who in July 2015 announced his intention to raise funds via a Kickstarter campaign to create brand new “classic” episodes of Thunderbirds.
Using the techniques of the landmark television show which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary last year, the basis of these episodes would be a series of mini-albums released in the late sixties to cash in on the phenomenal success of the show, each of them featuring the characters as voiced by the original actors, many of whom – Peter Dyneley, David Holliday, Ray Barrett – have died since in the intervening years, with Sylvia Anderson sadly passing shortly before release of these episodes.
Of the nineteen mini-albums released between October 1965 and July 1967, the majority used soundtracks from existing television episodes, cut down and spliced to fit the abbreviated format, but three, Introducing Thunderbirds, F.A.B. and The Stately Home Robberies were new stories with scripts by Alan Fennell, Desmond Saunders and David Graham, all of them with extensive experience on the show.
With an initial goal of £75,000 to fund a single episode with two more to follow in subsequent campaigns should it be well received, the campaign instead raised £218,412, becoming the most successful Kickstarter film project by a UK based production team, allowing all three proposed episodes to be created in the subsequent months within the studio space on the former Slough trading estate which housed Gerry Anderson’s AP Films/Century 21 Productions fifty years before.
With a team of designers, builders, special effects experts and puppeteers which combined new talent alongside original series puppet operator Mary Turner and veteran of over fifty episodes across five Anderson shows David Elliott returning to the director’s chair for one episode, the other two were directed by La Rivière and Justin T Lee, his collaborator on Filmed in Supermarionation who handled many of the puppets and visual effects and the main title animation for that splendid documentary.
Adhering strictly to the ethic of the late sixties, wires are visible, the motion and expressions of the puppets are limited but still capable of expressing great character, and while Tracy Island is extended by the use of archive footage of tropical islands there can no justifiable objection to this use of stock footage nor in the famous launch sequences or any repeated shots of flybys, as this was all part and parcel of the original productions.
What is undeniable is the loving recreations of puppets, props, sets and machines, from Lady Penelope’s wonderfully shiny pink Rolls Royce FAB1 to the Thunderbirds vehicles themselves, the characters themselves graced by the creations of costume designer Liz Comstock-Smith who has crafted an exquisite new wardrobe for Lady Penelope, much to the chagrin of her chauffeur Aloysius Parker who in addition to his other duties must act as porter.
“When one is visiting, one tries to look one’s best,” his employer drily responds as she arrives at Tracy Island in opening episode Introducing Thunderbirds, less of an audio adventure now granted a visual dimension than, as the name would suggest, a showcase of International Rescue’s secret base and the amazing vehicles used to perform their daring missions.
Adapted from the soundtrack of F.A.B., The Abominable Snowman offers more in the way of spectacle with big explosions from the opening moments as a fire rages at Meddings Uranium, named of course in honour of the late special effects designer Derek Meddings who worked on many Anderson shows and later progressed to several James Bond films.
The third such fire within a month, it has sent uranium prices soaring, but the answers are to be found in an unexpected place as the typically understated Lady Penelope and Parker investigate reports of a strange creature spotted in the Himalayas (“I missed winter sports this year, and I’d love to see a snowman, abominable or otherwise”) but are waylaid by International Rescue’s old enemy the Hood.
Closing the trio is The Stately Home Robberies, as “some of the most terrible crimes committed in this century” play out in the mansions of the landed classes, culminating in a daring raid on the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London; being Thunderbirds, there is of course a high-tech element both to the crimes and in how Lady Penelope and Parker foil them and restore order.
It is apparent in all three that despite the banner under which these audio adventures were sold, it is Lady Penelope and Parker who are heavily favoured in all three, but even accepting that they were the most popular characters in the show the three episodes can at best collectively be described as pedestrian.
Even by the less demanding standards of the late sixties the stories would not have excited or challenged audiences, designed for a runtime half that of a standard episode of Thunderbirds, the only Supermarionation show not made in a twenty five minute format, and necessarily simplified so as to be comprehensible without any visuals to convey the narrative.
Never intended to match the complexity of their televised inspiration these new episodes are beholden to these unavoidable limitations and there is little which could reasonably done other than make the best of the situation, but this is absolutely what La Rivière and his team have done, their devotion to their inspiration and their joy to now be directly associated with it evident not only in what they have crafted but also throughout the accompanying production documentary, presented alongside two set visit news reports and the original Kickstarter promotional video in the special features.
Without prior knowledge of the circumstances of their creation, these three mini-episodes would be utterly indistinguishable to those without intimate knowledge of the show, the whole blended seamlessly together with a determination to achieve the same level of technical perfection which was the hallmark of the original productions, no corners cut, no design compromised, no insert or reaction shot skipped for expedience, and in this they have succeeded.
A welcome companion piece to the thirty two episodes first broadcast between September 1965 and December 1966, it would be churlish to fret over shortcomings which were inevitable given the source material; instead take this opportunity to enjoy the warmth of Sylvia Anderson’s voice, the weariness of David Graham’s loyal but long-suffering Parker, the unmistakable fanfares of Barry Gray – and a light jazz interlude as Parker puts his feet up – and the unswerving dedication of International Rescue which has inspired generations.
What is regrettable is that, at this present time, these episodes are only available to those who participated in the original fundraising or were able to purchase one of the very few made available from the overrun of the original production, as they deserve to be seen and appreciated more widely and confirmed as a genuine part of the Thunderbirds universe.
This adventure completed, the question now becomes how to persuade La Rivière and his team to turn their attention to the five audio adventures featuring Captain Scarlet released by Century 21 during 1967…