Thunderbirds Are Go

Thunderbirds1Thunderbirds Are Back. Again. The show that won’t go away has emerged yet again re-suited and booted and fresh from a 21st century makeover for pre-teens. Again. It has to be said that whoever took on this project was on a hiding to nothing because expectations from the fifty-something original audience are so high that any attempt to recreate the show will be held up to a perhaps-unreasonable scrutiny.

On the whole this latest effort to bring back the Tracy brothers isn’t a bad stab at it but there are some fundamental problems that need to be sorted out if the show is to truly take on the mantle of its durable progenitor.

Thunderbirds9Commissioned for a run of twenty six half-hour episodes, this weekend’s transmission, Ring of Fire, was a conflation of the first two episodes and thus appeared a little repetitive. From the first seconds the audience were plunged straight into the action with a daring high-altitude rescue that was obviously designed to show the merits of the new digital effects approach over the old puppetry, the pace both breathless and relentless aided by a more-than-usually bombastic score by Ben Foster, Doctor Who’s resident composer since 2005.

The approach taken with this series has been to construct miniature studio sets to be populated by computer generated characters and vehicles, and the Thunderbirds themselves are also realised digitally. The miniature sets, courtesy of WETA Studios, are simply stunning and obviously a labour of love, created in the style of the sixties originals with a level of detailing that is breathtaking to look at.

Thunderbirds6Some of the supplementary vehicles such as the undersea lab featured in the first episode appear also to be practical miniatures, but unfortunately the same quality hasn’t been carried over to the computer generated characters who appear overly doll-like and simplistic in their movement.

The five Tracy brothers (Scott and Alan voiced by Rasmus Hardiker, Virgil and Gordon voiced by David Menkin with Thomas Brodie-Sangster providing the voice of John) have been designed to resemble the 1960s originals but the style of animation leaves much to be desired, and the short-lived digitally animated Captain Scarlet reboot of 2005 had more convincing character animation. There is also the issue of placing convincing computer generated characters into miniature sets which hasn’t been fully resolved yet, and the resulting “tilt-shift” effect cinematography can lead to characters looking like tiny animated figurines in the long shots.

Thunderbirds3Whereas Gerry Anderson’s work has always been recognised and admired for the level of craftsmanship the perfectionist producer achieved on limited budget, on this evidence Thunderbirds Are Go does not feel as ground breaking as its predecessor which defined a generation. A large part of the magic of the original was that as International Rescue work to solve the problems they were presented with, so the technicians behind the camera had to create practical means to achieve the results the scripts required.

Every frame of film had the fingerprints of dozens of skilled operators and performers utilising new techniques, reflective of the cutting edge technology they were portraying, and if they were unable to the mission failed. Replacing that ingenuity with animation feels reductive of the experience, diminishing the joy and making it commonplace.

Thunderbirds2In accordance with the perceived “needs” of its 21st century target audience, 6-11 year-olds, Thunderbirds Are Go foregrounds action and spectacle over character and this is where it falls down badly. The brothers are just blank-faced cyphers and the most egregious omission from the dramatis personae is millionaire former astronaut patriarch Jeff Tracy who is missing and presumed dead when the story starts, leaving a gaping hole at the heart of the episodes.

Every family drama has to have a senior character as its anchor and guide whether it be a chain-smoking father or a stern matriarch, but here Grandma Tracy (voiced by one time galactic hitch-hiker Sandra Dickinson) is just played for comic relief, though a worse fate has befallen the iconic Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward.

Thunderbirds7To make the character more relevant to a 2015 audience, she has been transformed from a 1960s society lady into a Made In Chelsea clone. Unfortunately Rosamund Pike, the very talented actress who received near universal acclaim for Gone Girl, does little to redeem this by delivering her lines in a chirpy monotone.

Gone is Sylvia Anderson’s delicious archness and air of authority to be replaced by a china doll accompanied by a very low-key Aloysius Parker. The only member of the original voice cast to return and now nearly ninety years of age, David Graham certainly hasn’t lost any of his charm as Parker but he has little to do and does tend to get lost in the thundering sound mix.

Thunderbirds5Interestingly, the shift in demographic of the leads and Lady Penelope’s flying FAB1 are both inherited from the critically derided and financially unsuccessful 2004 feature film revival directed by Jonathan Frakes, which did achieve a far greater degree of realism and convincing interaction with its own digitally rendered Thunderbirds, recognising that the most important characters of all are, of course, the mighty machines themselves.

Fortunately the latest redesign has been very respectful and Thunderbirds One to Four are instantly recognisable. Thunderbird Five has had the most radical makeover but benefits from acquiring a zero-g ops room with holographic interfaces which is an inspired improvement on the very static original.

Thunderbirds4The others are now far more dynamic than would have been possible with practical models but always behave within the parameters laid down in the 1960s show, and as a bonus, it is finally shown onscreen how Thunderbird Four is retrieved at the end of a mission. Of the four, TB4 has had the best makeover but unfortunately TB2 has lost much of the simplicity and grace of the original in favour of a more heavy-duty functional look.

This new iteration has a great deal going for it but there are still many flaws to be ironed out over the course of the next twenty four weeks. The hope is that it will deliver, but the decision to move the rest of the broadcast from the premiere’s mid-evening slot to Saturday early morning indicates the network regards it as entertainment solely for children rather than family viewing, a disservice to all who have contributed to the show and supported it.

Les Anderson is Geek Chocolate’s resident expert on classic science fiction and Gerry Anderson, of whom he has previously written at length




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