Monday, April 01, 2013


I somehow missed participating in the White Elephant Blogathon last year. That’s totally on me, but thankfully host Paul C. from the Silly Hats Only blog reached out to remind me this year. I had a blast being forced to review The Legend of Boggy Creek in 2011, so of course I was all in for this year’s.

If you’re not familiar, the idea behind the White Elephant Blogathon is for participants to submit the name of a movie that they’d like to see someone else have to watch and review. It can be a good, classic movie, but it’s more fun if it’s divisive or out-and-out crap. (My submission falls into that last category: The Beast of Yucca Flats.) Paul then puts all the submissions into a hat and divvies them back out again. This year, I drew Thunderbirds are GO.

Paul can pick movies for me to watch anytime, because like Legend of Boggy Creek, this is something I’ve wanted to watch for years and just needed the proper push. I’d never seen an episode of the Thunderbirds TV show and it was in 2004 that I realized that I was missing out on a large part of ‘60s pop culture. That was not only the year in which Team America: World Police parodied the show, but it was also when Jonathan Frakes directed a live-action version starring Bill Paxton, Anthony Edwards, and Vanessa Hudgens. Getting assigned Thunderbirds are GO (the 1966 feature film sequel to the TV series) was an excuse to finally see what this was all about.

To prepare for Thunderbirds are GO, I first wanted to see the show. My initial plan was to watch all 32 episodes, but I only got a couple or three in before I realized that wasn’t going to happen. The premise of Thunderbirds was pretty genius, but the execution wasn’t so much.

Thunderbirds plays off of two things that were super popular in the late ‘60s: disaster movies and James Bond. Series creators Gerry and Sylvia Anderson had the truly brilliant idea of making a show in which a wealthy family uses high tech gadgets to save people from a different disaster each week. Something else that was pretty popular in the late ‘60s was Bonanza, so Thunderbirds’ Tracy family follows a similar model to the Cartwrights, with widower Jeff Tracy living with his grown sons: Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon, and John. The sons were all named after Mercury Seven astronauts and Jeff was himself a former astronaut in the show. Also like the Cartwrights, the Tracys were served by an Eastern manservant (Bonanza had Hop Sing; Thunderbirds had Kyrano). Replace the Pondarosa Ranch with an awesome, secret island and throw in an Emma Peel-esque super spy with a tricked out, pink Rolls Royce and you have the makings of a great show. At least in theory.

Even if you’ve never seen an episode of Thunderbirds, if you’ve heard of it you know that it was filmed with marionettes instead of live actors. The Andersons used that technique on several shows including Supercar, Fireball XL5, Stingray, and the Thunderbirds spin-off Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. “Supermarionation” (as they called it) gives the show a distinctive look and helps integrate the characters better with the world of miniature models that they live in. It does take some getting used to though, and it also limits how exciting the action can be when the characters can’t run realistically or even move very fast. It’s that sluggishness that ultimately dooms the show (and the feature film that followed it).

The slowness isn’t just the puppets’ fault; it’s the whole pace of the show. I gave up my plan to watch every episode when I recognized a repeating formula after the second or third one. A disaster would occur, the local authorities would attempt a rescue and fail, then the Tracys (aka International Rescue) would get called in. Sometimes IR’s attempt would succeed on the first try, but sometimes they’d have to regroup and come up with a new plan. It was a lot like watching a real-life rescue operation on the news: interesting to see them engineer new solutions, but not very thrilling.

There would also be long sequences of just looking at the models that make up the world of Thunderbirds. To be fair, they are fantastic models and I want to live in that world. If Thunderbirds were made today, there’d be a endless line of toys and playsets to buy and I would get every single one of them. Thunderbirds is like porn for people who enjoy scale models, but that also means that the show lingers on the money shots a lot instead of moving on with the story. Thunderbirds was an hour-long show with only a half-hour’s worth of material.

In my revised watching plan, I picked out episodes that sounded less formulaic. Any episode prominently featuring Lady Penelope (the Emma Peel-like character) was bound to be enjoyable because those were spy stories. There was also a fantastic episode (my favorite that I watched) in which scientists created an animal-growth serum in their swamp lab, but it got into the swamp and turned the gators huge.

I tried watching a few episodes with the show’s recurring villain, The Hood, but those were usually the least interesting. The Hood was Kyrano’s half-brother and he had some kind of remote-control, hypnotic power over the Tracys' servant. The Hood’s plans usually involved creating some sort of disaster so that International Rescue would have to come out, then he would try to take pictures of their vehicles (the titular Thunderbirds) to sell to shady dictators or whathaveyou. It’s always understood on the show that it would be The Worst Thing in the World for pictures of the Thunderbird vehicles to get out. Absolute secrecy was a non-negotiable requirement for any rescue mission they agreed to undertake, and attempting to kill the Hood was always a justifiable response to his shutterbugging.

So I have very mixed feelings about the show. It’s slow and occasionally stupid, but the model porn is awesome and some of the stories are really cool (like the one with the runaway monorail). All of these strengths and weaknesses are magnified in Thunderbirds are GO.

The plot of the feature film revolves around (but doesn’t at all focus on) the first manned mission to Mars. On the initial launch, the Hood sneaks on board the spaceship for reasons I don’t entirely understand and accidentally causes it to malfunction and be destroyed. Suspecting intentional sabotage, the government asks International Rescue to oversee the second launch attempt. The Hood again sneaks on board (again, for a purpose that escapes me), but IR is all over him. He escapes, but Lady Penelope chases him and – after an extended sequence over land, sea, and air – shoots down his helicopter and kills him. This is all in the first twenty minutes or so of the movie, so if you’re wondering what drives the rest of the 93-minute film, you’re on exactly the same page I was at that point. Maybe you’re also like me and figure that maybe the Hood wasn’t really dead, but would return to cause more trouble. If so, you’re wrong.

What actually happens for the rest of the movie that actually has anything to do with its plot is that the spaceship goes to Mars and the astronauts have a pretty cool fight with some awesome-looking Martian rock-snakes. This has nothing to do with the Tracys, but there is a random mechanical failure on re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere, so International Rescue gets to come in for that part. While the astronauts are on Mars though, IR’s simply having some downtime, with youngest brother Alan pouting about having to stay at home with dad while older brothers Scott and Virgil hang out with Alan’s crush, Lady Penelope. There’s an extended dream sequence in which Alan fantasizes about going with Penelope to a space nightclub, which would be enough to get Thunderbirds are GO on the White Elephant list all by its lonesome.

Having struggled so much with the TV show and Thunderbirds are GO (I couldn’t bring myself to watch the second feature film, Thunderbird 6), I hoped that Jonathan Frakes’ live-action Thunderbirds would be exactly what I needed. I remembered it being panned in 2004, but I was still hopeful that live actors and good CGI could do exciting things with this cool concept. Unfortunately, I couldn’t even finish the thing.

About halfway though, I realized what was going on and got on IMDB to check a theory. Sure enough, Spy Kids was released in 2001, with two sequels following in 2002 and 2003. In 2004, there was no new Spy Kids movie and Universal saw the opportunity to fill that hole. It’s just too bad they used Thunderbirds to do it.

Instead of being about a retired astronaut and his five, grown sons, the live-action Thunderbirds has Bill Paxton as a still-active Jeff Tracy leading his four oldest sons on rescue missions. Picking up the theme from Thunderbirds are GO, youngest son Alan feels left out, but it’s because he’s a freshman in high school. While he’s home on Spring Break, the Hood (played by Ben Kingsley in a performance that reminds me how nervous I should be that he’s in Iron Man 3) takes over Tracy Island and incapacitates the older members of International Rescue. Alan teams up with the children of Kyrano and Brains (the nerdy inventor of the Thunderbirds in the TV show) to save the day and prove that kids can be heroes too or some such stuff. Brains didn’t have a kid in the TV show and Kyrano’s daughter was a grown woman, so a lot of tampering had to be done to force Thunderbirds into the Spy Kids mold. I turned it off, longing to see marionettes punching each other.


Erik Johnson Illustrator said...

I remember they used to show "Thunderbirds" episodes late at night on TechTV (currently G4, and I don't think they show them anymore) I think I saw about a dozen episodes of the show plus "Thunderbirds Are Go" before going to see the live action Thunderbirds movie, which I had high hopes for at the time and, well lets just say it was a let down that killed any interest I had in the series after that.

Even back when I first saw the school in middle school a lot of the plots seemed implausible, in regards to how such small incidents could lead to such big disasters and the often goofy "scientific" solutions" that they would employ.

Your look back on the show reminds me something I tried to do last summer; watch the old Hanna Barbera cartoons like the original Scooby Doo and Johnny Quest and came to the conclusion that they were really just well written radio programs that had some moving pictures for you to look at while listening to the show.

Michael May said...

Your radio show comparison is interesting. I'll have to think more about that, but my thinking's going to be pretty limited. I still love the original Scooby Doo, Where Are You?, but my opinion of it is inextricably intertwined with memories of Saturday mornings in front of the TV with my brothers and a bowl of Fruit Loops.

Ivan said...

MM: "Model porn"--love it!
Yeah, the show and the movie are thisclose to snoozeville, but since they were childhood faves, I can't hate too much. But I'd never force them on someone, either...
Great job!

Stacia said...

No less than a month ago I tried to re-watch this movie, and as much as I love the gorgeous models and look of the show, Thunderbirds are GO! always puts me to sleep. When the spacecraft is getting ready to launch in the beginning, the slowness of the models to open doors, move down the runways, etc. is interminable. And you can tell the voice actors are having to slow everything they say down to match the marionette action; the butler's "Yes, milady" gets so slow sometimes it reminds me of the horrible dubbing of the monster in Flesh Gordon.

And the Hood accidentally sabotaging the craft is hilarious. It's not supposed to be, but it is.

Michael May said...

The Hood's accidentally getting his foot caught in the machine was my favorite part of the whole movie (well, that and the Martian snakes); made even more wonderfully ridiculous by his bloody sock afterward.

Stacia said...

And the limp! I'm just gonna say it: Marionettes that limp are adorable.

Don Marks said...

You can thank/blame me for submitting the film. I commend you for going above and beyond the call of duty in watching both the tv series and unfortunate remake.

One of the things I found interesting about the film is its almost complete lack of characterization. The only puppet who is shown to have an internal life, Alan, is roundly mocked for his fantasies.

Michael May said...

Don, I'll thank you. Thunderbirds have been nagging at me to watch them for nine years, so I'm grateful to have those voices quieted. :)

Excellent point about the characterization. That's also a problem in the show and another way that the porn comparison is appropriate. The characters are there to drive the vehicles and the plot, but don't serve any other purpose. It was refreshingly shocking to learn that Alan had a crush on Penelope.

Emanuela Betti said...

Thanks for sharing, interesting post. I used to watch the TV show and I still love it. I actually enjoy how goofy it is, and I think it suits the goofy moving marionettes. I never got a change to watch Thunderbirds are GO (although I did see Thunderbirds 6 in a $3 DVD bin a few times. I didn't know what to think, so never picked it up). I must agree, I loved the world they lived in, with that exotic island and the phony backdrops. I'll always have a childish devotion to that show!

Paul C. said...

The Thunderbirds thing is something I missed as a kid, so if nothing else your post here makes for a pretty decent introduction. Doesn't make me want to watch the show or movie, but it's an interesting read all the same.


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