Marionettes in Outer Space

Who would have ever thought that a television show starring a cast of marionettes would be a huge hit? Thunderbirds, conceived by the writer/producer team of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson as a children’s show, unexpectedly proved to be popular with older audiences as well. But what was the attraction? Was it the meticulously detailed toy sets and sci-fi gadgetry? Or perhaps it was the novelty of watching puppet thespians who ran the gamut from boy toy pin-up Scott Tracy to high-society secret agent Lady Penelope and her Cockney manservant, “Nosey” Parker. Whatever the reasons, the surprise success of the 1964 TV series inspired the Andersons to produce a full-length feature – Thunderbirds Are GO (1966) – which continued the adventures of the Tracy family, an International Rescue team operated by millionaire ex-astronaut Jeff Tracy and his five sons.  

First responder and team leader of International Rescue Scott Tracy was named after astronaut Scott Carpenter and designed to look like Sean Connery (from Thunderbirds Are GO, 1966).

Released at the height of the James Bond craze, Thunderbirds Are Go certainly attempted to cash in on the popularity of the 007 franchise with its emphasis on espionage, saboteurs, and special effects. The creators even admitted that the Scott Tracy puppet was modeled on Sean Connery. But something was lost in the transition from television to movie screen and the Andersons’ lavish marionette epic failed to click with its intended audience. A pity since no expense was spared in bringing Thunderbirds to the big screen in the “Supermarionation” process.

An example of the lavish and detailed set design from the sci-fi marionette adventure, Thunderbirds Are GO (1966), directed by David Lane and created by Gerry & Sylvia Anderson.

Want to know where all the money went? Wardrobe and sets. Lady Penelope’s wide array of furs and boas alone must have cost a fortune, not to mention her pink Rolls-Royce with its arsenal of weapons and communication devices. Undoubtedly, the real jaw-dropper is the Swinging Star nightclub set which is featured in a puppet dream sequence. Yes, you read that correctly. Here is where you’ll see marionette caricatures of Cliff Richard and the Shadows performing “Shooting Star” while cavorting on a giant oversized guitar in outer space. Obviously, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson were light years ahead of their peers in their philosophy about on-camera talent.

The Shadows perform “Shooting Star” performed by Cliff Richard in this music video like interlude in Thunderbirds Are GO (1966).

Who needs big-budget stars, greedy agents, and temperamental egos on the set when you can have a cast of well-behaved puppets? The stars of Thunderbirds Are GO were relatively low maintenance (sure, they might need some paint touchups or a new head after a grueling day under the hot studio lights), required no meals, breaks, or bathroom facilities, and never embarrassed themselves by ending up on the front page of The National Enquirer.

Supermarionettes can swim? Gordon Tracy takes a dip in the pool at the Tracy villa on Tracy Island in Thunderbirds Are GO (1966).

When critics wrote that the cast of Thunderbirds Are GO gave “wooden” performances, they were just stating the obvious. Yes, sir, no cheap plastic parts for these superstars! Actually, all the marionettes were composed of interchangeable parts made out of urethane foam and fibreglass.

The Hood, the main nemesis of the International Rescue team, grimaces as his foot is crushed in a scene from Thunderbirds Are GO (1966).

The film opens with an act of sabotage by The Hood, the Thunderbirds’ nemesis. He attempts to destroy the Zero-X, the new Mars explorer craft, during its test flight but botches the job after getting his foot crushed in a piece of the plane’s machinery. The rest of Thunderbirds Are GO details the Tracy family’s long-planned exploration of Mars – where they get to battle some goofy-looking rock monsters – and their ongoing rescue operations dedicated to people in trouble, whether it’s delivering the antidote for a deadly disease or retrieving someone’s eyeglasses from a fish tank.

One of the deadly rock snake monsters encountered on Mars in Thunderbirds Are GO (1966).

But even puppets like to party and have fun after a hard day at the office. And romance? Fans have constantly speculated about the sex lives of these string-operated actors, and don’t tell us you’re never wondered if Alan Tracy and Lady Penelope did the wild thang. Just watch that subtle body language between them in the nightclub scene.

Alan Tracy and Lady Penelope enjoy a night on the town at the Swinging Star nightclub in Thunderbirds Are GO (1966).

Admittedly, Thunderbirds Are GO has its faults; the most major problem being pacing. It takes an eternity to launch ANYTHING in this movie – whether it’s a rocket or a hydrofoil. You’ll feel yourself growing older as cranes and hydraulic lifts slowly – very slowly – prepare for a missile launch. Now you’ll know why England never won the space race. And why is it that none of the voices for the characters, except for Lady Penelope, her chauffeur Parker, and Tin-Tin, have British accents since the film is so distinctively British in every other respect? Yes, even puppets observe teatime in Thunderbirds Are GO.

Lady Penelope and her chauffeur Parker are popular characters from the TV series Thunderbirds. Here they are in the feature film Thunderbirds Are GO (1966).

But enough grousing. Thunderbirds Are GO deserves to be seen for what it is – a pop culture novelty as fascinating and endearing as a favorite toy from one’s childhood. Even today, the Thunderbirds cult continues to grow and includes such celebrity fans as Mick Jagger, George Lucas, Johnny Depp and James Cameron. After Thunderbirds Are GO, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson created a sequel, Thunderbird 6 (1968), which marked the end of the Thunderbirds franchise, but they continued to work in the sci-fi genre, producing the film Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969) and TV series like UFO (1970) and Space:1999 (1975).  Thunderbirds Are GO has been released on VHS, DVD and Blu-Ray over the years by different distributors but fans of the movie and TV series will want to spring for the Twilight Time Blu-ray released in 2014 which pairs Thunderbirds Are GO with the 1968 sequel, Thunderbird 6. There is a wealth of extra features to keep you occupied for hours such as audio commentaries by Sylvia Anderson and director David Lane, isolated music scores, unseen test footage of Cliff Richards and the Shadows and various featurettes on the puppets and their creators.   *This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.

A scene from Thunderbirds Are GO (1966) features Virgil Tracy ready for action on the launch slide.

Other websites of interest:

https://securityhazard.net/2017/04/21/thunderbirds-are-go-1966/

https://cinemascopicravings.wordpress.com/2018/06/19/thunderbirds-are-go-1966/

https://www.gerryanderson.co.uk/the-characters-of-sylvia-anderson/

https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/mar/16/sylvia-anderson-obituary-thunderbirds-co-creator

https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/gallery/2012/dec/26/animation-animation

https://www.allmusic.com/artist/the-shadows-mn0000496405/biography

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3VmC4VowqDM

 

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