THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO

Still F.A.B. after all these years

by Rob Gilhooly

Almost four decades after taking off on the TV screen, “Thunderbirds are go” once more.

When the British Broadcasting Corp. relaunched the hit ’60s series just over a year ago, some 5 million viewers tuned in. Within a matter of weeks, a new generation of “Thunderbirds” merchandise, including everything from computer games to underwear, had landed on store shelves throughout Britain: A month before Christmas, main-street stores had already sold out of a model of the show’s Tracy Island, the headquarters of the Tracy family and other members of Thunderbirds International Rescue, a top-secret team that helps people in peril around the globe.

The 32-part series, masterminded by filmmaker and producer Gerry Anderson, has also been digitally remastered for DVD release in North America and Europe, where its healthy number of followers are known collectively as Fandersons. Though technical advances may mean superior sound and picture quality, purists will be glad to hear that the program has lost none of its cheesy charm and wooden acting. (And, yes, the strings are still very visible).

Although there are no reruns planned in Japan, where the series was first aired in 1966, the DVD is scheduled for release here early in the new year, coinciding with the launch of new merchandise by toy makers Bandai and Imai, among others.

Fans can get a glimpse of these products and the first episode, “Trapped in the Sky,” in all its digitally enhanced glory at a recently opened exhibition at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography.

According to museum curator Masaaki Hirakata, the exhibition, “Thunderbirds: The World of Gerry Anderson,” was put together in anticipation of a similar resurgence here. “In Japan, it was an instant hit,” when first shown, he said. The volume of “Thunderbirds”-related goods that subsequently went out on the market here was “second to none,” he added.

Japan has undoubtedly been the most prolific producer of books, toys and other “Thunderbirds” goods — not to mention those of Anderson’s other creations, such as “Stingray,” “Captain Scarlet” and “Joe 90.” A collection of such merchandise forms part of the current exhibition. In addition to replicas of the all-time favorite rescue craft Thunderbird 2 and Lady Penelope’s pink, six-wheel Rolls-Royce (license plate FAB 1), dozens of other items such as “Thunderbirds” candy, playing cards and replica figurines are also on display.

The highlight of the exhibition, however, is three wooden puppets: of Lady Penelope, the Thunderbirds London agent who was modeled on Anderson’s former wife and co-producer, Sylvia; Aloysius Parker, her loyal chauffeur in the series; and Alan, the youngest member of the Tracy family. According to Hirakata, the latter two are the only surviving marionettes from the filming of “Thunderbirds” — Alan was used in one of two feature movies, Parker in the TV series. They were recently sold at auction in London, where a Japanese enthusiast reportedly paid more than 9 million yen for the chauffeur puppet.

The remainder of the exhibition relies on photo-driven information panels, unfortunately with no English translations. Japanese-reading “Thunderbirds” buffs will no doubt delight in the tidbits of information about the show. Scott, for example, studied at both Yale and Oxford and was modeled on the young Sean Connery (who went to neither school); Gordon, pilot of the underwater Thunderbird 4 craft, is an Olympic gold medalist in freestyle swimming; Jeff, father to the five fearless Tracy boys and head of International Rescue, was a member of the first-ever expedition to the moon (which may explain why his sons are named after celebrated U.S. astronauts of the time, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, Alan Shepard and Virgil Grissom).

There is also a collection of rare photographs that provide a glimpse into the making of the show — the idea for which came to Anderson after hearing of a mining accident in Germany, where miners trapped hundreds of meters below ground were rescued by a unique drilling machine transported from the other side of the country. One captures the shooting of a cafe scene, a dozen puppeteers crowded together on a narrow bridgelike construction high above the stage. Others show staff patching together crudely made props.

It’s a reminder of how low-tech the operation must have been, especially compared with today’s CG imaging. Yet, at the time of its release, “Thunderbirds” was hailed as groundbreaking for its special effects and Anderson’s self-styled “supermarionation,” in which sensors in the puppets’ heads picked up electric signals to ensure that lip movement was synched with the prerecorded dialog. The shows reportedly cost TV mogul Lew Grade £22,000 per episode — at a time when a comfortable annual salary was just £1,000.

Hirakata argues that it is this relative lack of sophistication, coupled with the often implausible plots, that has enabled “Thunderbirds” to maintain a healthy following — the art of kitsch, after all, has long been popular in Japan.

Another reason for the show’s success here, Hirakata believes, is its similarities with bunraku, Japan’s traditional puppet theater. “I think that ‘Thunderbirds’ was like a modern sci-fi expression of bunraku, which probably explains why it was accepted so readily here.”

Its continuing worldwide popularity, meanwhile, can perhaps be attributed to the poignancy of some of the episodes. In “Trapped in the Sky,” the Tracy clan are called out to defuse a bomb onboard a commercial airliner. A later episode, titled “Terror in New York,” evokes more recent events.

For most “Thunderbirds” junkies, however, the show’s success can be attributed to the fact that it is — like this exhibition — simply F.A.B.