Fifty years ago, there was a TV series that captured the imagination of successive groups of children, with new fans joining the ranks each time it was repeated. One of those fans – as fans often do – became so entranced by the show that he got in touch with the people who had made it. But unlike most fans, he actually wrote a history of it, and while others talked at length about producing a definitive account, he produced and directed a film charting the rise and fall of Supermarionation, the distinctive puppetry technique used for Thunderbirds. The links in that documentary featured new sequences starring three of the characters – Brains, Lady Penelope and Parker – and to many of those who saw it, it seemed inevitable that this would lead to new episodes.
And now three new episodes of Thunderbirds are about to be unleashed on the world, following ITV Studios’ agreement that Stephen La Rivière and his team could use the mini-albums that were produced alongside the TV show back in 1965-66 as the basis. That gives the team dialogue recorded by the original stars, giving authenticity that simply couldn’t be got any other way. Funded by Kickstarter, the episodes have had three screenings so far for backers (who paid at the requisite level) and those involved in its production.
And the simplest way to describe it is: there used to be 32 episodes of Thunderbirds and two feature films. There are now 35 (and two feature films).
La Rivière and his small crew have pulled off an incredible feat with these episodes, seamlessly incorporating footage from the original series (such as the craft launches) with newly shot material to the extent that unless you’re so familiar with every single frame of the original, chances are you won’t be able to tell the difference. Introducing Thunderbirds – directed by Justin T. Lee – is a bit of an oddity, in that it does what it says on the tin: it introduces Thunderbirds, via Penny and Parker being taken around the island. There’s some fun comedic business with Parker (including visual gags that have been devised for this), and clever incorporation of the launches (via screens etc.) so it doesn’t just feel like Thunderbirds’ Greatest Hits.
The Abominable Snowmen – directed by La Rivière – is my personal favourite of the three, probably because of the opening sequence set at an exploding factory! It’s a story that’s very much of its time – as Sanjeev Baskhar notes in the fascinating documentary on the making of the episodes, now up on YouTube – and any deficiencies in the storyline are in the original, rather than this recreation.
The Stately Home Robberies is directed by original series helmer David Elliott, and is undeniably the most polished of the trio. The puppet sculptors have had great fun with the over the top characters of the robbers; there’s a brilliantly done explosion; and a nice little wind-up for those who argue about the year that the series is set.
The documentary referred to above will be on the disc for the backers, but has been made available for everyone to see, and it more than demonstrates the sheer amount of effort that has gone into these episodes. I was invited down to the studio during the filming of the last episode, and it was a hive of activity, with preparations underway for the water shots, the Tower of London set being prepped for filming, and although everyone was clearly tired, a huge amount of love for what they were doing was evident – and people were going way beyond the proverbial extra mile. (I’d write more about it, but to be honest, watch the documentary – much of what we discussed then is there, plus much more!)
La Rivière, Lee and Andrew T. Smith and the many talented folk around them have reworked the 21 minute albums into true recreations of the first season of Thunderbirds into which they were meant to fit. I sat in the small cinema in Windsor last night and for 90 minutes was transported back to the kid of eight who rushed home on a Sunday lunchtime to make sure he didn’t miss an episode of the show.
Verdict: Thunderbirds are, as Jeff Tracy says, most definitely go. 10/10