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Thunderbirds Set 3
In early 60s kiddie TV, only one producer knew perfectly how to appeal to prepubescent boys: Gerry Anderson. While American outfits were finding ways to make cartoons without movement or wit, these Englishmen knew what mattered: TOYS. Starting with SuperCar and Stingray and Fireball XL-5, we LOVED these explosion-filled, rocket powered adventure stories, at least when our poor television reception could pull in the lower-watt Los Angeles TV stations. Meticulously scripted and produced, Anderson's crowning achievement was Thunderbirds, an hour-long color confabulation of mayhem, noise, and cool gadgets. At the time, we didn't appreciate the marionette stars, and, frankly, I'm not sure I do yet. But there's no denying the fun of Derek Meddings' intricate International Rescue miniatures.
The antiquated Empire State Building is mechanically shifted from its foundation to be repaired, but unmapped (!) subterranean waterways undermine the huge grabbers holding it, and it collapses into a titanic pile of rubble. A pair of nosy newsmen are buried deep below in a quickly-flooding hollow, and International rescue uses underwater scout Thunderbird 4 to effect a rescue.
Equipped with a gigantic road-laying machine, Houseman Engineering cuts safety corners to put a four lane highway through a cut blasted into a mountain. In a foolhardy attempt to stabilize the crumbling sides of his cut, Eddie Houseman gets trapped on a clif-face in a teetering tractor with an Atomic detonator on board. Thunderbirds 1 and 2 team up to pull him out of his scrape.
A giant Mars probe is being shipped to its launching pad, and must pass over a huge suspension bridge along the way. Naturally the whole shebang collapses, trapping two space technicians at the bottom of the river, in a rocket already pre-programmed to launch itself in ten hours!
First one experimental fighter plane crashes at its base, and then a second one impacts with a TV tower. The rescue is complicated by the fact that the plane's project manager is a guest at Tracy Island (the home of International Rescue) who can't be let in on their secret identities.
A recurring villain known as The Hood traps Brains and Tin-Tin on a treasure hunting expedition, and uses his hypnotic powers on Scott, Virgil, and Gordon, when they race to see why contact has been lost.
The notorious Erdman gang is using bombs to rob deadly plutonium - and International Rescue has to pluck one of their victims from a fiery elevator, while helping the Secret Service track them down - while all the while, a time bomb is ticking away.
You get the general idea. International Rescue is a secret family operation run from a tropical island. Jeff Tracy supervises his six sons (all named after Mercury Astronauts) in their super-advanced rockets, submarines, and what-nots, all of which are launched in colorful ways - a swimming pool retracts to let Thunderbird 1, for instance, rocket up from underneath. Also getting into the action are Brains, a genius who wears red spectacles like Buckaroo Banzai; Lady Penelope, a silken-voiced aristocrat who drives a six wheeled car; and Tin Tin, the butler's daughter, who often serves as a romantic focus.
Many of the stories are concerned with keeping the International Rescue boys' identities a secret - there's always somebody who knows them involved in the rescue. In one gag Richard Nixon would have enjoyed, A newsman's videotapes are degaussed by remote control from a Thunderbird craft, foiling an attempt to 'out' the secret clan.
Interestingly, there's very little padding in the shows. Many of them have more than one rescue, or manage to make one disaster catapult into another. The favorite device is the race against time, as represented by ticking bombs, preprogrammed computers, and the like. There's a lot of brand new construction in every episode, with only a few shots of launches recycled. And the show goes out of its way to place the action in situations like rainstorms and floods, making miniature photography all the more difficult.
Savant hasn't much use for the marionettes, whose interchangeable faces aren't very attractive. After a few minutes, they start to look a little creepy, actually. Jeff Tracy looks and sounds suspiciously like Jeff Morrow in This Island Earth, which is very weird. The boys just aren't individualized enough, and the staring, bugeyed Grandma character now looks too much like the monster at the end of Cronenberg's The Fly. There's always a stereotyped Asian character around, but usually they're handled with some sensitivity, all except for Tin-Tin, a literal China doll. The eight strings or so that come from each puppet's head don't bother Savant, but the fact that none of these humanoids can take a convincing step, does. Therefore the sets and the ships are designed so that everything is automated - we never see anybody climb into their cockpits, and except for pushing buttons, steering joysticks, and waving their arms ineffectually, these Tracys never get a lick of exercise. Maybe the resulting atrophy has made the wires necessary.
But those models! Effect whiz Derek Meddings went on to do superb work on big budget movies, including many hard-to-detect miniatures in James Bond thrillers. He was something of a legend around miniature shops in 1977, and a favorite of my old boss Greg Jein, who had Thunderbirds ARE GO! posters all over our office. The rather toy-like ships are so well constructed and manipulated, that many shots are almost good enough for a live action film. Meddings later got his big break with the Thunderbirds-like miniature spaceships in 1969's Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (Doppelganger) which are only a little more sophisticated than the work done here.
A&E has packaged this third set of episodes (2 discs, volume 5 & 6) in a colorful sleeve that looks like an old-fashioned box a Christmas toy might come in. The stirring Thunderbirds theme plays during the menus; it's too bad it's overused, because it starts to get a little numbing after awhile. As does the campy title sequence, with its countdown of vehicles and its superduper-font titles: "Videcolor" ... "Filmed in SuperMarionation". I get it, the puppets are marinated.
The remixed 5.1 soundtracks augment the various explosions with punchier impacts, that hit the bass pretty hard. Each episode comes with some 'production stills' which might as well be still frames.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Thunderbirds Set 3 rates:
Supplements: Still galleries
Packaging: Amaray cases in card sleeve
Reviewed: April 2, 2002