An obvious attempt by A&E to cash in on Universal's big-budget summer release, Best of the Thunderbirds - The Favorite Episodes should delight those unfamiliar with the 1964-65 British puppet series, though the set offers little for die-hard fans who already own A&E's earlier (and pricier) DVD releases.
The series, one of many created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson using a sophisticated mix of marionettes and miniatures, is set in the year 2065, where on a secret island base the Tracy family run a worldwide, high-tech emergency service: International Rescue. Using five super-sophisticated vehicles, patriarch Jeff Tracy (voiced by The Manster's Peter Dyneley), sons Alan (Matt Zimmerman), Scott (Shane Rimmer), John (Ray Barrett), Virgil (David Holliday), and Gordon (David Graham), working with intellectual powerhouse Brains (also Graham) and sexy field agent Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward (Sylvia Anderson), travel all over the world (and, occasionally, outer space) saving the unfortunate from certain death.
The set includes six complete "fan favorite" episodes, reportedly the result of a poll on A&E's website. Also included is a seventh show presented in "pop-up" format (see below). The episodes are as follows:
Trapped in the Sky Written by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. Directed by Alan Pattillo. Airdate: 9/30/65. The program's first episode is sort of an airborne version of Speed, with International Rescue coming to the aid of an atomic-powered airliner whose landing gear has been rigged with a bomb set to explode as the aircraft lands.
Sun Probe Written by Alan Fennell. Directed by David Lane. Airdate: 12/9/65. International Rescue embarks on a dangerous space mission near the sun when three "solarnauts" are stranded and on the verge of being fried by the celestial body.
The Uninvited Written by Alan Fennell. Directed by Desmond Saunders. Airdate: 12/2/65. This fine episode finds Scott Tracy in Egypt, where two archeologists stumble upon a fabled pyramid Eand the lost civilization that wants to remain lost.
The Perils of Penelope Written by Alan Pattillo. Directed by Alan Pattillo and Desmond Saunders. Airdate: 10/14/65. Lady Penelope goes undercover after a rocket fuel scientist is kidnapped aboard a speeding monorail. (The train seems based on France's SAFAGE system, as seen in Fahrenheit 451.)
Terror in New York City Written by Alan Fennell. Directed by David Elliott and David Lane. Airdate: 10/21/65. Manhattan is being redeveloped, but the historic Empire State Building, after ten years of planning, is being moved several hundred yards away. Despite this nod to historic preservation, this being a Thunderbirds episode, it's only a matter of time until the building topples spectacularly (and eerily, given the events of 9/11).
Attack of the Alligators! Written by Alan Pattillo. Directed by David Lane. Airdate: 3/10/66. Inspired by H.G. Wells' The Food of the Gods, this episode has International Rescue battling giant alligators (actually baby gators roaming miniature sets) inadvertently spawned by Theramine, a new food additive. This episode was somewhat controversial because little jolts of electricity were used to prompt its reptilian cast into action.
Four of the episodes, "Trapped in the Sky," "Sun Probe," "Pit of Peril" and "The Uninvited" were included together once before, on A&E's Set One, so those considering collecting the entire series might want to consider going that route instead. ("The Perils of Penelope" was on Set Two, "Terror in New York City" on Set Three, and "Attack of the Alligators!" on Set Four.)
Thunderbirds, like nearly all of the Anderson's shows, has extremely imaginative and innovative production design. The series overflows with scientific gadgetry, all of which is believably functional, and usually better executed than that found in big budget movies being made at the same time. Though set a hundred years in the future, the show's mid-'60s influence is apparent in the costume design and some of the art direction, but after 40 years this look only makes the show seem hip in a Rat Pack/'60s-a-Go-Go sort of way.
Just as animator Ray Harryhausen aspired to make his stop-motion creations as realistic as possible, the Andersons seem cut from the same, slightly misguided cloth. With each puppet series their marionettes become more lifelike and technically complex. In Thunderbirds, they're still much more cartoony than their movie-real surroundings, but if you squint just right you'll sometimes forget you're looking at dolls on strings. (The look of the series was nailed in a hilarious, dead-on parody by Dudley Moore and Peter Cook called "Superthunderstingcar.")
Thunderbirds was a weekly orgy of special effects, but dramatically the show was rather bland, populated with one-dimensional characters (even after watching the show for years, this reviewer still can't tell one Tracy son from another) and repetitive situations. This problem extended to the Anderson's live-action shows. U.F.O. (1970-71) and Space: 1999 (1975-77) were quite remarkable from a production standpoint -- the Anderson's series always had look of fairly expensive movies -- yet both were unbelievably dull and dramatically turgid. Thunderbirds, by comparison, is both more energetic and upbeat, with an engaging sense of scientific wonder and grand adventure.
Video & Audio
As producer Gerry Anderson rightly points out, thanks to DVD technology and modern day television sets, Thunderbirds looks better today than it did when it was new. ITC's library was kept in excellent shape, judging by the consistently stunning quality of that library's shows as released to DVD through A&E. The worldwide and enduring popularity of Thunderbirds has left the program a bit more battered than, say, The Persuaders!, but the show generally looks great with good color and a sharp image. The sound is a major plus here, remixed for both Dolby Digital Stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1. For a show heavy on high-tech gadgetry and colorful explosions, this nearly 40-year-old series sounds great on DVD. Unfortunately, there are no subtitle options.
The set's special features are all located on Disc Two, beginning with "Pit of Peril" Pop-Up Episode with Onscreen Facts about Thunderbirds. The show is not accessible without the pop-up feature. This reviewer found this extra more annoying than fun. To really work, the stream of factoids need to pop-up continuously, otherwise viewers get bored waiting for the next one to appear. Moreover, the information that's presented is too often obvious or trivial. In the right hands, I can see the concept being useful and fun even on such films as Citizen Kane, though of course it should never be used in place of watching the film/TV show the first time around.
Before Thunderbirds Were Go: A Profile of Gerry Anderson is a talking head piece running 13 minutes, mixed with lots of clips, some rather inappropriately cut in such a way as to create rather adolescent sexual innuendo. Shane Rimmer, one of the familiar American-accented voices on the program (including Scott Tracy), narrates the piece. Creator Anderson, who resembles actor Philip Stone (Grady in The Shining, Alex's Dad in A Clockwork Orange), discusses the show's origins as a kind of futuristic Bonanza, with Space Age Cartwrights named after Mercury Program astronauts, through to its abrupt and unexpected cancellation.
Interview with Gerry Anderson is a 10-minute segment that plays like outtakes from the above, with the producer discussing a wide range of topics. He talks a bit about the program's new life on DVD, and rather defensively addresses American fans directly. He overstates the show's importance in the development of miniature effects, perhaps forgetting the contributions of pioneers like Willis O'Brien, Howard & Theodore Lydecker, and Eiji Tsuburaya, among others. He also tells an amusing, perhaps apocryphal, story about Stanley Kubrick.
Character Autobiographies are just that, "written" by the puppet cast. The Thunderbirds Story is more of the same, text which provides the show's back story, rather than behind-the-scenes info.
The filmmakers behind the new live action Thunderbirds have their work cut out for them. Despite all the advances in CGI technology, Thunderbirds hasn't really dated. Youngsters taken with the new movie will probably enjoy this classic show.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.