Sunday, 5 April 2015

Thunderbirds Are Go - Updating a Classic

Back in the 1990's, I would say I went through several main transitions in terms of loving certain entertainment franchises. First of all, it was Thomas the Tank Engine...Then I transitioned into Thunderbirds and then finally Star Wars. (Before the latter, Power Ranges were also in there for a little while...)

Must be an attraction to big vehicles and such!

Saturday 4th March saw the return of Gerry Anderson's International Rescue team in the form of a new series:

As the original series were repeated in the '90's (most likely due to the advance of home media...VHS!) I'm very much familiar with the '60's puppets-on-strings, the miniature sets, the near-nuclear-age vision of the future in the designs of the sets and vehicles...Now you'd expect me to have those memories engrained in nostalgia and also for that nostalgia to be ruined by any reinterpretation of any kind. HOWEVER in recent years I consider myself to be an open-minded person, so I welcome reinterpretations...Especially if they make sense. Of course the best reason to update stuff these days is due to the advances in technology. The last time a Gerry Anderson series was updated was with Captain Scarlet back in 2005 (by the lead of the creator himself) with a complete visual overhaul via CG animation (I remember watching it...It was in the same vein as Max Steel and such...)

Anyway, back to this series! It seems now enough time has passed from the 2004 Thunderbirds film to reinsert the franchise back into the conscious of the general public again. And since it was a childhood thing I stuck on to the marketing...I let newsletters drop into my inbox, just out of curiosity. But as soon as information started being revealed I could see what they were aiming for. Then...Intrigue! Potential excitement! From the off, it felt like the marketing was done absolutely brilliantly; designed to showcase each of the characters and vehicles, showing off the updated looks and even including videos that ultimately made me sit up and say 'I have to see this':

Sets! Miniature sets! Actual physical, material-built, tangible, in-camera sets! Of course this take for the exterior stuff meant that the blend with CGI would give it a unique look. And it did! The mix meant that the CGI would certainly have a basic look to work with, but the blend itself reminded me of the mix of puppet action and live-action human hands for close-ups in the original series. It's this mix of different styles that give both series their own identities...In the case of today, so that it can stand out from the many childrens' programmes that solely rely on CGI. The sets for Thunderbirds Are Go automatically give the CGI artists a luxurious palette as a point of reference. The end blend is indeed a unique treat!

Basically marketing on this series has been done right! And they even had Thunderbird 4 on the River Thames a few days before broadcast:

Alright, before the main reasons for liking the new series (or at least the first two episodes...The premiere was technically a double bill), I'm going to get the faults out of the way, because I feel that there are a few...Not many, but nothing's perfect after all! First of all, as good as the music is by Ben Foster (he tends to aid Murray Gold with Doctor Who), HOLY MACKEREL is it loud! And that's what I'd say for the sound effects too. It's like they were both slightly on overdrive! Though I do wonder if it was due to it being the premiere and making sure it got audience attention (which wouldn't be necessary if they had confidence in their brilliant marketing...Interesting). Having said that, the music itself is very much as rousing and wonderfully grandiose as the original theme.
   Secondly, the voice-direction was a bit lacking...Felt quite raw and unregulated (didn't help the sound-levels, etc.). The actors themselves were good, but coupled with the SFX and music, it did feel like the makers didn't quite get how to control the audio! But you know what, it's only the beginning and they've just got catching up to do with the years of experience of series like Star Wars: The Clone Wars/Rebels.
   Thirdly, and I suppose the least important, but still a niggle, was the editing and pace of the story...Not overall, but just the first part before the adverts. It felt like they were trying to get a rush on to establish all the key elements of the series. At least they held off on Thunderbird 1! (Well, something had to be delayed, I suppose!)

Anyway, let's get onto the good stuff! And goodness, there's so much! I didn’t expect how much effort had gone into it to make it an update of a classic that not only made sense, yet not governed by nostalgia; only the premiere has aired as of this writing, but I can really see the love for the original series within. So where to begin? Well, let's have a look at the characters; for the original characters the five brothers are back, as are London operatives Lady Penelope & Parker. As well as Brains, Grandma Tracy and of course, the evil Hood.One noticable absence is the character who started International Rescue; Jeff Tracy. Numerous allusions are made to the fact that he is no longer with us due to suspicious circumstances. However, we are still treated to the legendary voice of Jeff Tracy counting down as the Thunderbird vehicles prepare to take off. But will we see him in the future in any form? So far, we can't tell. And apart from an initial surprise that he isn't a part of the series, I'm okay that he isn't...It ties in to a story arc for the newer elements.
   For one thing, International Rescue are no longer a secretive organization; they now work in co-operation with a world security council, a little bit like the one that S.H.I.E.L.D. answers to in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, etc.) and the figure that IR answers to is Colonel Casey (voiced by Doctor Who's Adjoa Andoh). The fact that Tracy Island with all the disguised launch bays for the title vehicles still exist tells us that in this new continuity, IR was secretive at one point, but something must have happened (perhaps tying into the lack of Jeff Tracy...?) that made the Tracy family become more transparent.
   And of course, the main addition to the IR roster is the island's Head of Security; Tanusha 'Kayo' Kyrano. From a feminist stand-point, I cannot help but love that the female presence has been increased (I include the more prominant role of Grandma Tracy and Col. Casey with that, too). She's not a Tracy family member, but it feels like Kayo has always been there as part of the team. This feeling was cemented at the end of the premiere, where she was granted with her very own vehicle; Thunderbird S(hadow).

Which leads us onto the very reasons for the programme and therefore arguably the most crucial aspect to the entire thing...The Thunderbirds themselves! They all have more details (like panel lines and warning/caution labels) than the original Thunderbirds, for a sense of added realism. One overall aspect of the vehicles is that all of them (except maybe TB3) have considerably shrunk in size. For instance, this screencap from the original series shows you how much of a behemoth Thunderbird 2 (and the Mole) was:

(The cars really help for scale!)
Now have a look at this screencap from the latest series; you can gage how small the new TB2 is compared to Virgil (if that car from the previous screencap was there, it'd stretch around two thirds of TB2's cockpit/head):


The Tracy Space Station that receives and monitors communication between distress calls, satellites and the other Thunderbirds. TB5 is the one vehicle that has undergone the most radical update from the original series. However, the general colour-scheme and main circular-body silhouette do remain. With the advances in space technology and the advent of projects like the ISS since the sixties, TB5 has been given an overhall that gives it details you'd find today like solar panels...As well as features that you'd absolutely believe are in development at the moment, such as an artificial gravity generating ring (very 2001: A Space Odyssey) and a central orb that contains a holographic interface with an inverse map of the world so that Alan can monitor, communicate, calculate and pinpoint for anything happening in the world; it's a system that would make Tony Stark jealous.


The only other yellow submarine the Beatles desired! The new TB4 looks very close to its predecessor, except for the new glass panels on the back and the underside, so that Gordon can have a good look around during his underwater rescues. These extra viewing panes are coupled with a pair of retractable grabby-arms that give the vehicle some realistic grounding in that its functionality is comparable to a deep-sea probe-pod-thing. (At least it doesn't resemble so much a deep-sea probe-pod-thing that it may as well be one of those and not a distinct Thunderbird 4 *Glares at the 2004 film TB4*) But yeah! The new 2015 Thunderbird 4 has turned out to be one of my favourite updates, despite the fact I wasn't really bothered about the original.


Probably the most underused vehicle from the original (I don't actually even remember seeing it take off), TB3 seems like the most simple of the vehicles; it's a space-rocket, basically...And the most obvious reflection of Jeff Tracy's astronaut past. Piloted by the youngest brother, Alan, the ship has been given a few upgrades; nothing that changes the iconic profile too much, but like all good updates, it makes sense of existing designs. For instance, the three arms that seemingly used to be there for purely aesthetic purposes are now large-scale utility arms to use on satellites and such. Clever! And the most obvious difference are the engine arrays; increased for stability, adding to the realism and such...For some reason, it's too fascinating to look away from!  Another extensive change is mainly internal; the cockpit now rotates behind a 360-degree viewport around the fuselage, so that Alan always remains the right-way up in space, relative to the Earth. Genius.


Perhaps the most desired and popular Thunderbird, TB2 is the Millennium Falcon of the fleet, serving as the heavy-duty. This is undoubtedly one of the updates that would couse a stir among hardcore fans, due to the classic look being both iconic and impractical (in an aeronautic sense). As we've established, the original TB2 was SUPER FRIGGIN' HUGE. But now it's roughly half the size, making the small wings (at least) seem to make a little bit more sense (what's more, they fold away when not in use, too). Overall, I'm really digging the new slimmed-down, more streamlined TB2, as it's look reminds me of the big Sikorsky helicoptors, especially with the cool protruding refuelling and comms. relay rods from the nose and the hefty sides that lead to the engines. Like the original, it's also reminiscant of the huge cargo-hauling C-17 planes used by many military forces around the world. But along with that, the new version also has vertical take-off-and-landing (VTOL) outlets that function like a Harrier Jump Jet. Damn, if I didn't love this before, I certainly do now.


I think this was my favourite one of the originals...And it must've been a firm favourite of many of the new makers because it appears to be the one with the least amount of change to it.  Aside from more subtle updates, like the increased functionality at the engine array and the cable launcher, one major difference to TB1 is the way Scott Tracy enters the vehicle; on his rotating chair which is now on an extending articulated arm. It passes through an opening of the hull that is closed with two glass doors. Like TB4, the glass panes give the pilot improved visibility (rather than the original TB1 just being a solid rocket body). Aside from this and other assorted details, the original Concorde inspiration is clearly present for this first-responder. And speaking of which, one of my favourite updates is that soon after take off, the new TB1 makes a point of breaking the sound-barrier and going supersonic. This thing is FAST. If Thunderbird 2 is the Millennium Falcon, Thunderbird 1 is an X-Wing...No question.


Alright, we've looked at the returning boys, so here's a look at the new transport joining the International Rescue roster; Thunderbird S(hadow). Created for the Head of Security 'Kayo', Thunderbird S fits neatly with the other ships (as seen in the screencap below), giving Kayo the chance to perform her own Covert Ops missions when the need arises (though it did look like she was taking it for a casual spin for her maiden flight...Which, in all fairness, I think we all would do). This clip here shows that the introduction of TBS makes a point of being part of the team, as Thunderbirds 1 & 3 very clearly fill the background. But perhaps the reason that TBS fits in so snugly with the others is because it looks to be heavily inspired by the Angel jets from another one of Gerry Anderson's series; Captain Scarlet. Having said this, one thing I noticed immediately is the resemblance to the SR-71 Blackbird, clearly drawing inspiration from real-life aircraft like the other Thunderbirds.

(The Thunderbird Shadow is revealed in the hangars of Tracy Island)
As we've just been introduced, we can't say much about her, but given the arc we've been teased for Kayo, (I hope we can) expect more from Thunderbird Shadow in the future. The female audiences have been well considered, I think (certainly in regard to Kayo & her TBS), and long may that continue and expand! ^^

I could go on about more stuff, like how the IR uniforms reflect the functionality of the respective pilots and their craft (pilot-based for Scott and Virgil, heavy-duty utility also for Virgil, scuba-suit for Gordon, space-suit for John and an amalgam of aero & space for Alan). Or I could celebrate how Lady Penelope's FAB 1 is closer to the original Rolls-Royce (than the Ford thing in 2004) without it actually being a Rolls-Royce...Or even the surprise appearence in this new series of one of the other Gerry Anderson classics in a cameo...

The matter of the fact is; Richard Taylor, who is at the helm of this new series, had blessing from Anderson himself to make this new series. And to me, it really shows. From a production standpoint, its seems that the essential core of Thunderbirds Are Go appears to be 'how would that nuclear-age vision of the future fit in and be relevent to our contemporary times?' And it seems that they have definitely got the right ideas. With the science, the technology, the diversity of the primary cast (in terms of gender and nationality), it really does feel like Thunderbirds has been kicked into the 21st Century. This is International Rescue heeding the call of the age of Transformers, mechs, superheroes and Star Wars: The Clone Wars/Rebels and oh my goodness how Thunderbirds Are Go has responded...!

And for a final thought, it's interesting that nostalgia for American kids' stuff (usually) tend to be fighting the forces of evil and other such combat-based things (Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, G.I. Joe etc.) and therefore many recent iterations of them as they try to bring them back (and look at some more of the big US cartoons today comparable to Thunderbirds Are Go; Star Wars, Superheroes...And that's just Disney's end). And yet in the UK our nostalgia is also in franchises that focus on helping others; we've brought back Doctor Who and now we've brought back Thunderbirds. These two British staples have examples of combat and war, but they're not the main reasons they are back with us. And I really hope new viewers to Thunderbirds Are Go can see that; instead of having awesome aircraft and rockets and stuff to fight and destroy, they're used to help, to aid...You could almost say they're used to rescue people on an international scale...!

And that's why, even after only the premiere, I hope Thunderbirds Are Go can achieve the popularity it deserves and needs.

Now hurry up, Vivid, and release them toys already! ;)


(Images & GIFs courtesy of ITV and Pukeko Pictures)

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