Thunderbirds (TV series)

From Academic Kids

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Thunderbirds Logo

Thunderbirds is a mid-1960s Sylvia and Gerry Anderson television show which used a form of puppetry called "Supermarionation".


Cast, crew, and production notes

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Thunderbirds was the fourth children's action-adventure series made by AP Films (APF) for the British television company ATV, and it remains by far their most successful and enduringly popular production. Two seasons were produced, comprising thirty-two episodes in total. Production commenced in 1964 and the series premiered on British television in September 1965.

The show's title derived from a letter written to his family by Anderson's older brother, while he was serving in the United States during World War II. In the letter, he referred to an American airbase called "Thunderbird Field"; years later, Anderson decided to use the name because of its romantic sound.

Many of the crew came directly from APF's previous production Stingray, but for Thunderbirds the crew was expanded, and it was shot in a new and much larger studio facility in Slough. It was also APF's first one-hour series. Thunderbirds had been in production for several months when ATV boss Lew Grade was shown the completed pilot episode, "Trapped In The Sky" and he was reportedly so excited with the result that he immediately instructed Anderson and his team to expand all the episodes from 25 minutes to 50 minutes. Many fans believe this was a wise decision that enhanced the series with more complex plots and characters that drew considerable viewer interest.

The voice cast were all experienced character actors and several were already (or became) regular Anderson performers. Interestingly, David Holliday (the original voice of Virgil in Series I) was the only real American cast in any voice role in the series; all the others were British, Australian or Canadian.

Versatile Australian actor Ray Barrett provided the voices of John Tracy and The Hood, as well as many other one-off character parts. He was regularly used by Anderson and voiced both Commander Shore and King Titan in Stingray. Thanks to his extensive experience in live radio back in Australia, he was adept at rapid changes from one voice to another and he could also perform both English and American accents convincingly. By the time that "Thunderbirds" began, Barrett was a major star on British TV and since his return to Australia in the Seventies he has become one of the nation's senior film and TV actors.

Veteran Canadian actor Shane Rimmer (Scott) went on to appear in -- and occasionally write scripts for -- many subsequent Anderson productions. Rimmer has an extensive list of prominent TV and movie credits, but he is probably best known for his appearances in several James Bond films and for his role as Capt. G.A. 'Ace' Owens in Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove. Rimmer has appeared in many action, thriller and science fiction films, including Star Wars, and has often been cast in military or political roles.

David Graham, one of Anderson's longest serving voice actors, had previously worked on Supercar, Fireball XL5 and Stingray and was also one of the original voices of the Daleks in Doctor Who in 1963.

Voice cast

  • Sylvia Anderson .... Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward / various characters
  • Ray Barrett .... John Tracy/The Hood / various characters
  • Peter Dyneley .... Jeff Tracy / various characters
  • Christine Finn .... Tin-Tin / Grandma / various characters
  • David Graham .... Gordon Tracy / Brains / Parker / Kyrano / various characters
  • David Holliday .... Virgil Tracy / various characters
  • Shane Rimmer .... Scott Tracy / various characters
  • Jeremy Wilkin .... Virgil Tracy (1966) / various characters
  • Matt Zimmerman .... Alan Tracy / various characters

Story background

Set in the 21st century (stated to be 2026 in the series, retconned to 2065 in the movie Thunderbirds Are Go), Thunderbirds depicts the adventures of the Tracy family, which consists of millionaire former astronaut Jeff Tracy and his five sons, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John (all named after Mercury astronauts). Together with Jeff's elderly mother, the scientific genius and engineer "Brains", the family's servant Kyrano and his daughter TinTin, the Tracy family live on a remote, uncharted Pacific island. They are, in secret, the members of International Rescue, a private and highly-advanced emergency response organization, which covers the globe and even reaches into space, rescuing people with their futuristic vehicles, the Thunderbirds.

Tracy forms the idea of International Rescue after the tragic death of his wife, Lucille. Buying a small island in the Pacific and secretly converting it into the secret rescue base for IR, he convinces engineering genius Brains (aka Hiram K. Hackenbacker) to help him bring IR into operational reality, designing and constructing a series of fantastic machines and equipment. Key to this are the five Thunderbird craft and the many Pod Vehicles transported by TB2.

Some of the disasters attended by International Rescue are the result of accident or misadventure, but many are caused by deliberate sabotage. A recurring villain, "The Hood" (actually never named in the series, but given this name in the comics) frequently causes major accidents in order to lure International Rescue's vehicles to the scene and spy on or steal them. Another complication is that The Hood's half brother, Kyrano, is the Tracy's servant, and because The Hood has some degree of psychic power over Kyrano, The Hood is able on one occasion to compel him to sabotage Thunderbird 1's security systems. Kyrano's daughter TinTin is romantically linked with Alan Tracy, as well as participating in many IR missions.

International Rescue's London agent, international socialite Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward, and her cockney butler/chauffeur Aloysius "Nosey" Parker, are often seen chasing The Hood and other villains in the pink, amphibious Rolls-Royce FAB 1, which is equipped with James Bond-style gadgets. (Rolls-Royce actually provided an authentic radiator grille to the production company for closeups of FAB 1 (such as when the retractable machine gun was fired).)

The characters use the radio sign-off "F. A. B." rather than "Roger" or "Over and out". Anderson was often asked what F. A. B. stood for, but in fact it simply stood for "fab" (short for "fabulous"), which was a 1960s catchphrase.

Thunderbird vehicles

Primarily designed by special effects director Derek Meddings, the five main Thunderbird craft are:

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Thunderbird 1
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Thunderbird 2
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Thunderbird 3
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Thunderbird 4
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Thunderbird 5

  • Thunderbird 1: a sleek, variable geometry (or "swing wing") hypersonic rocket plane used for fast response, rescue zone reconnaissance and as a mobile control base
  • Thunderbird 2: a heavy supersonic carrier lifting body aircraft used for the transport of major rescue equipment and vehicles
  • Thunderbird 3: a reuseable spaceship used for space rescue and maintenance of TB5
  • Thunderbird 4: a submarine for underwater rescue, carried aboard Thunderbird 2
  • Thunderbird 5: an Earth-orbiting space station which monitors world broadcasts for calls for help and manages communications with the organization.
  • Thunderbird 6; a biplane introduced in the theatrical film, Thunderbird 6.

Thunderbird 2 is a supersonic heavy transporter, powered by a combination of rocket and ramjet engines. Like Thunderbird 1, it is armed with cannon and missiles. It is designed to carry specialised rescue vehicles and equipment to disaster sites, carried in one of six interchangeable pods. Pod 4, which contains the submarine vehicle Thunderbird 4 and other undersea rescue equipment, is designed to be dropped from the hovering Thunderbird 2 directly onto the surface of the water (although the series fails to show how the floating pod is subsequently recovered).

The pod vehicles which would emerge from one of TB2's pods each week were often the stars of the show. They include:

  • The Mole: a high-speed manned tunnelling machine
  • Firefly: a fire-proofed vehicle fitted with a large blade and armed with a nitroglycerine cannon to extinguish fires
  • Recovery Vehicles: One manned and one remote vehicle equipped with magnetic grappling lines
  • High-Speed Elevator Cars: one manned and three remote vehicles used to assist aircraft in landings, these can be manoeuvered into place beneath an aircraft to act as replacement landing gear
  • Domo: a restraint vehicle with three lifting arms to restrain or lift unstable structures
  • Booster Mortar: a small cannon used to fire rescue packages into high structures
  • Transmitter Truck: a converted commercial truck used for long-range communications with spacecraft

The Pod Vehicles were variously stored within the pods as necessary or in TB2s cavernous hangar.

Some episodes also feature the Fireflash, a supersonic airliner built in 2065. It has six atomic motors that enable it to stay in the air for a maximum of six months, however they must be given frequent examinations, or the passengers can only spend 3 hours maximum in the aircraft before succumbing to radiation sickness. Fireflash's maximum speed is Mach 6 (approximately 4,500 mph or 7,200 km/h), and can fly at heights above 250,000 feet (76 km). A novel feature is that the flight deck is built into the tail section. Fireflash was built especially for Air Terranean (AKA: Terranean Airways) for long flights lasting over a day by jetplane.

Special effects

The programme was notable for the high quality of its miniature special effects, and most sequences still stand up remarkably well forty years after the series premiered. The effects supervisor on all of Anderson's shows from Supercar to UFO was Derek Meddings, who went on to produce special effects for the James Bond and Superman movies. Many of the effects developed especially for Thunderbirds became standard practice in the film industry.

One of Meddings' most famous and ingenious creations was the so-called "rolling road" and "rolling sky" system. The Thunderbirds storylines called for a large number of scenes showing the Thunderbirds and other aircraft flying through the air, landing or taking off along runways, or motor vehicles travelling along roads. Meddings' team quickly discovered that the old method -- pulling or pushing models across a static base or against a static background -- produced very unconvincing results. Meddings came up with a novel solution to the problem, which he first used in the premiere episode, "Trapped In The Sky". For the famous crash-landing sequence (which so impressed Lew Grade), the Thunderbirds' remotely operated "elevator cars" had to be shown being manoeuvered into position on the runway beneath the stricken Fireflash aircraft as it came in to land, so that the aircraft could touch down without extending its landing gear, which would have triggered a bomb hidden there by IR's nemesis, The Hood.

Meddings solution was to construct an endless belt of canvas, stretched over rollers and driven by an electric motor. The miniature elevator cars were then fixed in position by fine wires on this "rolling road". The Fireflash model was suspended from wires above the elevator cars and it could be lowered onto the runway, creating a smooth and remarkably convincing descent effect. A similar roller system, painted with a sky background was built at right angles to the runway and both roller motors were synchronised to provide a matching speed for both elements.

When the lights and cameras were set up in the right position and the rollers were activated, the rolling road system created a very convincing illusion of movement. It also proved extremely helpful for the lighting and camera crews, since the miniature models did not move and were therefore much easier to light and shoot. The 'rolling sky' system proved equally effective for shots of flying aircraft, and the illusion was enhanced by blowing smoke across the miniatures with a fan to simulate passing through cloud. Unlike modern special effects, the model was still actually in front of the backdrop - at the time, this produced a more convincing (and far cheaper) effect than bluescreen technology. The 'rolling road' system was later used on several James Bond movies.

The team also quickly mastered the art of creating extremely convincing miniature explosions using materials including petroleum and Fuller's Earth. These were filmed at high speed, and when slowed down to normal speed they produced spectacular results. The team also became expert at creating a convincing illusion for rocket take-offs and landings. After an exhaustive search, they found a British firm that could make special thrustless solid-fuelled rocket canisters in different sizes, which burned for about ten seconds and which could be fitted inside the various miniatures to provide convincing rocket exhaust effects.

The show was justly praised for the exceptional quality of its miniature vehicles and sets. Some of the main Thunderbird vehicles were built by a professional model-making firm, but many others were custom-made by Meddings and his team from commercial radio-controlled motorised vehicle kits. Meddings also pioneered the technique of 'customising' models and miniature vehicles by applying pieces taken from commercial model kits, to add convincing surface detail. The Thunderbirds miniatures were also often 'aged' with paint and dust to create the convincing illusion that they were real, well-used vehicles. These techniques became standard practice in the special effects trade and were used to great effect in the building of the miniature spaceships and other vehicles for the first three Star Wars films.

Many of the effects team including Meddings and Brian Johnstone became respected specialists in the film industry. Impressed by their work on the TV series, director Stanley Kubrick poached several of the Anderson effects team to work on his science fiction masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey.


A crucial element of the show's success was its thrilling music score, composed and conducted by Barry Gray, who provided all the music for the Anderson series up to and including Space: 1999. His instantly recognisable Thunderbirds March is one of the best-known of all TV themes and has become a perennial favourite with brass and military bands around the world. Gray's original master recordings for the Anderson series were recently rediscovered in a storage facility in London and a remastering and CD re-release project is currently underway.

Production and broadcast history

A total of 32 episodes of Thunderbirds were made between 1965 and 1966 (although production began in 1964, as indicated by the show's copyright date). Its popularity led to the production of two full length feature films, Thunderbirds Are Go! (1966) and Thunderbird Six (1968).

Today the series is a British institution. A re-run on the BBC in 1992 led to a shortage of Tracy Island models, and so the children's programme Blue Peter helpfully demonstrated how to build a home-made version.

The TV series was financed by Lew Grade's companies ATV and ITC Entertainment. It was originally intended to consist of half-hour episodes, but on seeing the preview Grade decided that it would be much more exciting as an hour-long show. Ironically, when screened in the US, episodes are sometimes split into paired half-hours.

Some versions screened on the Fox Network and in US syndication in the 1990s used re-recorded voices and music, much to the disgust of long-time fans. Even more widely disliked was Turbocharged Thunderbirds, a revamped version of the show which briefly aired in syndication c.1995, which replaced the original dialogue with "ironic post-modern" jokes, and live action introductions suggesting the events of the series take place on some strange alien world. Gerry Anderson was reportedly furious and the new version of the series quickly disappeared.

In Australia, the Channel 9 Network screened the series many times over in the 1970s and 1980s during the Saturday morning timeslot, and on weekdays during school holiday periods. The original (uncut) series was also re-broadcast several times on the Australasian Foxtel cable network in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The series was remastered with Dolby Surround sound in 2000. Gerry Anderson, who had not received any royalties on the show since signing away the rights in the late 1960s, was employed as a "remastering consultant". A North American DVD release occurred in 2002.

For approximately three years (20002003) the satellite channel Boomerang UK broadcast uncut episodes daily, meaning that the complete run of 32 episodes was screened about 34 times.

Thunderbirds was also syndicated on the now defunct television network TechTV from August 5, 2002 through June 20, 2004.


The AP Films marionette series have often been the target of satire, but the best-known Thunderbirds send-up was the sketch entitled "Superthunderstingcar", performed by British comedians Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in the mid-1960s for their BBC TV series Not Only... But Also. This sketch was closely imitated by the Australian satirical series D-Generation in the mid-1980s.

2004 feature film version

A live action feature film version directed by Jonathan Frakes, and premired on July 24, 2004. All of the Thunderbird craft seen in the live action film are based upon the original designs, but with refinements. The film garnered poor reviews with critics complaining that the plot was essentially a copy of Spy Kids that sidelined the main series characters in favour of children characters who have to rescue the adults, alienating longtime fans of the show, many of whom are adults. (In fairness, it should be pointed out that the plot of the film Thunderbirds Are Go also focused on the youngest Tracy brother, but not to the same extent). The film performed poorly at the box office with its opening weekend having the film finished out of the top ten grossing films of that period. A North American DVD release occurred in early 2005.

The original series also inspired South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker to create their own marionette-based movie, Team America: World Police using much of the same techniques as that developed by Gerry Anderson. Ironically, Team America arrived in theaters only weeks after the failure of the new Thunderbirds film, and while it also was hardly a box office blockbuster, it nonetheless earned glowing reviews from many critics, as well as favorable comments from Anderson himself.


Several companies including Matchbox and Dinky were licensed to produced die-cast metal and plastic toys based on the Thunderbird vehicles. They proved hugely popular and were one of the best selling merchandising lines of the decade. Original Thunderbirds toys are now expensive and highly sought after collectors' items.

Original novels

A number of novels were published based upon the television series, most during 1966:

  • Thunderbirds, John Theydon (pseudonym for John W. Jennison), 1966
  • Calling Thunderbirds, Theydon, 1966
  • Ring of Fire, Theydon, 1966
  • Thunderbirds Are Go, Angus P. Allen, 1966 (film novelization)
  • Operation Asteroids, John W. Jennison, 1966
  • Lost World, Jennison, 1966

In 1992 Corgi Books published four episode novelizations for children based upon the teleplays "The Uninvited", "Brink of Disaster", "Sun Probe", and "Atlantic Inferno".

The character of Lady Penelope was also featured in her own series of novels:

  • A Gallery of Thieves, Kevin McGarry, 1966
  • Cool for Danger, McGarry, 1966
  • The Albanian Affair, John Theydon, 1967

See also

External links

fr:Les Sentinelles de l'air ja:サンダーバード


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