Thunderbirds Are Go (1966) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

Sci-fi adventure, family entertainment, and puppets bring a new level of fun to Sci-Fi Saturdays this week.

With the dour and depressing dystopian films from the last two weeks, who’s up for an all out, family-friendly, good-time movie with Thunderbirds Are GO? Sci-Fi Saturdays are GO!

First Impressions

Based on a television series called simply Thunderbirds, this trailer showcases the characters and the action in Technicolor and Techniscope, really trying to draw the audience into the cinema. The film is created using puppets, and miniatures to tell the entire story, which includes lots of action, danger, and a trip to the “swinging stars!” Wholesome entertainment for everyone! So let’s get ready to blast off for Thunderbirds Are Go!

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Sci-Fi Saturdays

Thunderbirds Are Go

Thunderbirds Are Go title card.

The Fiction of The Film

Sometime in the future, the Zero-X spacecraft prepares to send a crew to Mars. Captain Paul Travers (Paul Maxwell) and four other astronauts take off from Glenn Field (sometimes shown as Glenfield on signage), on their way to the red planet. A saboteur, known as the Hood, who is a master of disguise, has stowed away on board. Attempting to take some photographs of the ship, his foot gets caught in a hydraulic pump which causes the aircraft to plummet back towards Earth. The Hood manages to escape, but the five crew members of the Zero-X must bail out as the spaceship crashes into the ocean and explodes.

Twenty-four months later, a group of 13 individuals from the Martian Exploration Center meet to discuss the report on the Zero-X crash. They conclude that it was in fact sabotage. One of the board members suggests that International Rescue be present at the next launch. At the remote island base for International Rescue, director – and patriarch – Jeff Tracy (Peter Dyneley) talks to his sons about the impending second launch of Zero-X. He instructs Scott (Shane Rimmer) to take Thunderbird-1, and head for Glenn Field. Virgil and Alan (Jeremy Wilkin & Matt Zimmerman) are to take Thunderbird-2 and Thunderbird-3 respectively and escort the spacecraft. Gordon (David Graham), who normally pilots the submersible Thunderbird-4 should remain on standby.

At the press conference prior to the launch, Lady Penelope (Sylvia Anderson), an associate of the Tracy’s and honorary member of the squad – designated as Fab-1 – masquerades as a reporter and provides St Christopher medallions for the crew. These medallions are secret homing beacons. At the launch the next day, one of the scientists beacons is offline. Scott investigates and discovers the Hood, in a lifelike mask of the scientist, is stowing away. He is chased off the plane, and pursued by Lady Penelope and her chauffeur Parker (David Graham) in her pink Rolls Royce. Using a hidden machine gun in the front grill, they shoot down the Hood’s escape helicopter. Zero-X makes it into space and is on its way to Mars.

Thunderbirds Are Go

At the Martian Exploration Center, the council meets to discuss the Zero-X project, specifically the second launch.

In an interlude, Alan, the youngest Tracy, is denied going to a club called “The Swinging Star” with his brothers. That night he has a dream about accompanying Lady Penelope to the club where they see Cliff Richards and The Shadows perform. He awakens abruptly having fallen out of bed. Six weeks later the Martian Exploration Vehicle (MEV) has landed on Mars. Captain Travers, Space Captain Greg Martin (Alexander Davion) and the two scientists drive around investigating the surface of the planet.

The scientists see some strange rock formations and use their guns to shatter a grouping to gather a sample when suddenly all the other groupings come to life as “Rock Snakes,” which shoot fireballs from their mouths. The MEV tries to escape back to the landing zone but there are too many snakes attacking. They instead blast off and connect with the command module on its way to rendezvous with them. The Zero-X then heads back to Earth.

As the spacecraft re-enters Earth’s atmosphere, it must sync up with two lifting bodies (wings) allowing it land. One lifting body clips the ship damaging both. International Rescue is called in to help. Virgil, Alan and Gordon show up in Thunderbird-2, while Scott and Brains (David Graham) provide instruction from Mission Control. Virgil flies Thunderbird-2 under Zero-X so Alan can make an emergency repair to the damaged escape unit circuit, which is preventing the astronauts from evacuating. Zero-X is also on a collision course with the town of Craigsville, which IR is able to evacuate. Alan makes the fix just in time and the five astronauts manage to utilize their escape pod, with Zero-X, once again, crashing in a spectacular fireball. Alan celebrates with Lady Penelope at the Swinging Star nightclub, where he discovers his entire family is also dining. F.A.B!

Thunderbird 2 from Mobile Control. You are clear to land.
Mobile Control from Thunderbird 2. F.A.B.” – Scott and Virgil Tracy

Thunderbirds Are Go

Parker and Lady Penelope run their own mission, chasing after the mysterious Hood.

History in the Making

By the mid 1960s films like Thunderbirds Are Go were attempting to get audiences back into the theaters. Television sci-fi shows had taken off and were in no hurry of stopping. American producer Irwin Allen was beginning his television franchise with a small-screen adaptation of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea as well as The Time Tunnel, Land of the Giants and his most successful series Lost in Space. Sci-Fi/Horror anthology series such as The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits had just completed their run, and by the end of 1966, Star Trek set off on it’s three-year voyage to the stars. Meanwhile Great Britain was producing the Doctor Who series, which is still running as of this writing, 56 years later, as well as their own sci-fi anthology series Out of the Unknown. They also had a number of series based on Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionation technology such as Supercar, Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds, and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons.

Thunderbirds Are Go was released in between the first and second series (season) of the show’s original run of 50 minute episodes. While Thunderbirds was being shot in color, only some of the audience would have been able to see it that way due to the preponderance of black & white television sets of the time. The Andersons, the producers of the British series’, decided to create a spectacle film that was both in Technicolor, a vibrant color process for film, and Techniscope, an ultra widescreen process. These processes, plus the longer format offered by film, would provide audiences something that they could not get at home.

The film was aimed squarely at the youth market as well. While there were films for children in the theater, Thunderbirds Are Go was a singular sci-fi offering for the kids. And while this film may not appeal to adults, unless they were privy to supermarionation in the youth, it’s the sort of wholesome, family-entertainment that was needed in the genre to help hook younger viewers. It also featured a first for the time, which was the cameo appearance by a modern pop star, in Cliff Richard. Certainly an additional draw to put the “butts in the seats.”

Thunderbirds Are Go

In Alan’s dream, Cliff Richards and The Shadows perform for he and Lady Penelope.


While there’s no information provided in this film in particular, Thunderbirds Are Go takes place in the mid-21st Century, approximately 100 years ahead of the year the film was made. The world seems relatively utopian, with the exception of The Hood as an antagonist. It contains numerous scientific advancements such as the Zero-X spacecraft and the manned trip to Mars. But there’s also much about the future that is similar to the modern era, such as clothing, and the non-technical furnishings in the buildings. The sci-fi advancements of the film (and the show) however, appear to be a by-product of the technical limitations of the puppeting process.

Due to the weight of the puppets, with their oversized heads, creating a realistic looking walk cycle was difficult. As such, many of the characters used motorized platforms to move around, or just sat in their vehicles for the majority of the dialogue scenes. This lead to many fun advancements, such as the Zero-X’s passenger chairs being able to zip into the escape pod on tracks, thus negating the need for the characters to get up and move. Futuristic and practical. It does seem like it’s quite a sedentary lifestyle, which might lead to the obesity seen in the film Wall-E. Though somehow I think these are two separate futures.

The Thunderbirds organization, International Rescue, is also the product of a futuristic ideal. In this case, a family run organization where they see no borders and help anyone in need. In fact there doesn’t seem to be borders of any kind. The Mars Project also appears to be run by an international consortium. Placing this sort of effort to depict global unity into a show made for kids is obviously a choice to create a positive series of role models.

Thunderbirds Are Go

Scott, Virgil, Alan, & Gordon get their orders from their father about the Zero-X mission.

Societal Commentary

As a film aimed at younger audiences, Thunderbirds Are Go doesn’t have any sort of social commentary. At least not in the way that Fahrenheit 451 or Seconds did. But to say that there is no affect on society from this film would be disingenuous. It’s a simplistic film, possibly meant to market toys to children, but it’s not without its messages. Its theme of family is paramount, containing a strong paternal figure in Jeff Tracy. He looks after his boys with care and respect, something they exude back at him. The conflicts are minimal and trivial, in comparison to the jobs they hold. The biggest interpersonal issue audiences are shown in the film is Alan being denied from going to the nightclub, as no one would be available for monitor duty.

Thunderbirds Are Go also sets up a strong theme of independence and intelligence. The future’s vehicles are all exciting and fun, but they’re also technologically advanced. There’s the possibility of a manned flight to Mars, where scientists will debate the existence of life, and even discover new lifeforms that they would never imagine exist. The positive role models are even there for girls, but in a very 60s framed attitude. Lady Penelope appears to be smitten with the Tracy’s, particularly widower Jeff, and as such tries to involve herself as much as possible with the adventures of International Rescue. With her pink Rolls Royce, she has the autonomy and respect of the rest of the team, while still maintaining her femininity. There’s even the female character of Tintin, who seems as if she might be a servant of some kind, at least as far as this film is concerned, but she has responsibilities and the respect of the team as well. Nobody is looked down upon for who they are, and all the characters offer something unique to the team.

Thunderbirds Are Go

Thunderbirds 1, 2 and 3 are ready to GO!

The Science in The Fiction

The science I’d like to discuss is the real-life kind that they needed to overcome to make a movie of this kind. Puppet shows were something that had been around for a while. There were shows with hand puppets, like Kukla, Fran and Ollie or Captain Kangaroo. And the precursor of the Thunderbirds, Howdy Doody, which was a standard type of marionette. While traditional marionettes were controlled completely by strings and an operator above them the Andersons characters, dubbed “Supermarionation” utilized several types of technology.

While primarily a puppet on a string, the characters of Supercar, Fireball XL5, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons also had electronic components inside them allowing for the synchronization of their mouths to pre-recorded dialog. Remote control (RC) technology were used to operate the eyes, while a series of solenoids worked the mouth. Power was fed into the puppet via the “string” holding them up, which was actually a tungsten wire, meaning it could conduct power. The distinctive look of the characters up until the Captain Scarlet series was due to the components sitting in the characters head, thus making them appear to have odd proportions. For Captain Scarlet and beyond, the characters were redesigned to have more human proportions and the controls were moved into the torso.

The characters were approximately twenty-two inches high, necessitating a one-third scale set. All of the furniture, buildings, vehicles and props had to be custom built for the show. External locations, and the exteriors of the vehicles could be designed at an entirely different scale. Due to the use of miniatures, all special effects shots had to be shot at a higher frame-rate, which would create more of a sense of mass on the elements when played back at 24 frames per second. This also meant that the sets had to be lit stronger than would be for live-action filming in order to create a depth of field that did not look like miniatures. The physical effects, such as jet exhaust, and explosions were created in-scale to the ships utilizing similar effects as seen in the miniatures of Toho’s Godzilla films.

Thunderbirds Are Go

Alan uses a grappling hook to climb aboard Zero-X to make repairs.

The Final Frontier

Having been a fan of the Thunderbirds for quite some time, you would have thought that I would have recognized the fact that the five Tracy boys are all named after the Mercury 7 astronauts:  Scott Carpenter, John Glenn, Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Gordon Cooper and Alan Shepard. An additional shout-out occurs in Thunderbirds Are Go in naming the airport “Glenn Field” after John Glenn.

There’s really been nothing since Thunderbirds that looks like it at least until the early 21st Century. In 2004, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, creators of South Park, made a satirical film using marionette puppets that looks very much like the style of the Anderson’s shows, called Team America: World Police, but is considerably more adult-themed, and cynical. Coincidentally, that same year, a live action version of Thunderbirds was released featuring humans and not puppets. Directed by Jonathan Frakes (Star Trek: The Next Generation), this film featured Bill Paxton as patriarch Jeff Tracy, Sophie Myles as Lady Penelope, Ben Kingsley as the Hood, and focused on an adventure with Alan (Brady Corbet) and Tintin (Vanessa Hudgens).

Whether directly influenced by Thunderbirds or not, there were a lot of youth oriented shows that feature teams of military or pseudo-military groups that used iconic vehicles and costumes to stop evil doers. Shows like Power Rangers (and its original version, Super Sentai), Voltron where each team member had a different lion-ship which combined into a giant robot, and M.A.S.K. (Mobile Armored Strike Kommand) in which each member had a different vehicle that could transform into other vehicles. These shows continue to bring excitement and adventure to audiences today.

It’s good to remember that not all science-fiction work has to be geared toward adults. It’s important that positive and optimistic films be made for kids – or heck, even just for fun! Thunderbirds Are Go proves that even in the most cynical times, family entertainment was still being crafted for the enjoyment of kids of all ages!

Coming Next Week

Mars Needs Women

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