And so, fifty years after International Rescue first revealed itself to the world to prevent all aboard the Fireflash from being killed when it landed at London Airport, Thunderbirds is back. Is it a remake? A reboot? A sequel? A prequel (yes seriously…)? The terminology doesn’t matter: the key thing is that, at least on the evidence of this opening episode, it works.
As with Doctor Who, which had a similar resurrection at Easter ten years ago, there are those who will never accept the 21st century version of their beloved, classic show. Some won’t be able to see beyond the transition from puppetry to CGI, others will bemoan the children-friendly elements of the new show (such as the spider-robot Max assisting Brains). And there’s no denying that something of the original’s charm has got lost in the mix… but (and this may be deemed heresy to say so) there are episodes of the original series which were below par and which I have hardly watched again over the years.
Part of that comes from the running time: as with the animated Star Trek series compared with its live-action predecessor, the halving of the story-telling time means that something has to give. In the case of Thunderbirds, as the new series’ head writer Rob Hoegee pointed out at the BFI screening last week, you’ve got to have the peril, you have got to have the iconic launches of the craft, you’ve got to get the boys into the danger zone and find that they have to improvise to save the day, and then the said day has to be saved… That doesn’t leave an awful lot of time for scenes that don’t drive the plot forward. The two-part format of Ring of Fire did allow for some, and the show benefitted from it.
The characters are definitely younger than they were in the original series – in fact, the evidence that it’s a prequel is there if you choose to look for it. Thunderbirds was set in 2065; Thunderbirds are Go takes place five years earlier. That’s most clearly shown, in terms of the character look, in Penny and Parker, but in terms of characterisation, most clearly in Alan, whose scenes with Tin-Tin Kayo, and the way that he’s still a trainee to an extent, are reminiscent of the adolescent portrayal in the 2004 movie (which, it must be said, is successfully wiped from memory by this… although I will forgive it a lot for the scene where Thunderbirds 1, 2 and 3 land by the London Eye).
There’s no Jeff: again, we were given an insight into the choices behind that at the BFI by Hoegee, who explained that the character would have dominated the show had he been there, particularly in the shorter format. Children’s shows now ensure that the driving force of the plot are those nearer to the target audience age, so this was a change that would have been inevitable no matter who had resurrected the show.
Jeff’s disappearance at the hands of the Hood (apparently) is obviously going to be a running subplot, but I do hope that it gets sorted by the end of the second season: that doesn’t mean he has to come back for the third year, since it will be obvious by then that the boys know what they’re doing. Jeff’s absence may also explain where Kyrano is…
The upshot of this is that there’s a much bigger role for John than previously – the use of hologram technology allows them all to communicate far more easily than in the original, and the idea of TB5 being the hub works well. There’s a nice visual nod to the 20th century incarnation of the space station, but of all the craft, this had had the biggest update, and definitely so far, so good.
As for the other craft, the launch sequences have remained very faithful, if rather speeded up a bit from the originals. There’s still the lemon squeezer on the wall of TB1’s launch pad (and I can’t believe I missed that until it was pointed out in Filmed by Supermarionation!); Virgil still uses the rocket painting; the couch transports Alan and passenger to TB3. And there was a deserved cheer when the palms went back for TB2’s launch. The only element that I can see becoming annoying rather quickly is the repetition of “5,4,3,2,1, Thunderbirds are Go!” each time a craft takes off… I’m assuming at this stage that that isn’t heard by the characters! Both TB1 and TB3’s take-offs pay tribute to real world rocket launches, a nice little visual, and I grinned widely when the reason for the “Lego” arms of TB3 became apparent right at the start of the episode. (The grin was wider when I saw the programme that people wanted to see…)
The model work by WETA is as incredible as you’d expect, and I’m sure that the mixing of the CGI craft and the models will only get better as the series continues. There are a few issues with depth of field, and the “weight” of the craft (one particular shot of TB2 prior to take-off I’m afraid did remind me of playing with the Dinky Thunderbird 2 model), but there’s another 50 episodes to go and I know from comments made by the production personnel that tweaks will continue to be made to the episodes.
Those who were hoping that Barry Gray’s iconic theme would be retained in its entirety will be slightly disappointed, but I personally think the decision to do a “Star Trek: The Next Generation” type mix of old and new was the right way to go. (That combined the opening of the original series with a new theme.) Ben and Nick Foster’s theme has stuck in my head since the screening. The score beneath is more pervading than Gray’s was in the original, but that’s really an unfair comparison: Thunderbirds are Go has to be part of the television landscape of 2015, not 1965, and the incidental music does have a larger role nowadays. The Fosters use the orchestra colours well, incorporating the theme as appropriate, and I won’t be surprised if a CD of the score is high on the agenda for release.
I’ve left the computer generated elements to last, and apart from (ironically!) some problems with the characters walking (what the hell is Virgil doing when he walks to the TB2 launch rocket?!) the creators take advantage of the medium’s differences from puppetry, or indeed live action. The “porcelain” look is meant to pay homage to the marionette originals, and it does give them a degree of sheen that makes their appearance distinctive. Of all the creative choices, this is the one that I will need more persuasion over.
The voices are, of course, markedly different. We’re so used to Shane Rimmer, Matt Zimmerman, Sylvia Anderson and David Graham that it will take time to get used to Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Kayvon Novak, Rosamund Pike and…er… David Graham, but again, I’m happy to give them time to bed into the roles. Certainly, no-one sounds markedly wrong.
Looking purely at the opener, Hoegee has had to walk a fine line between introducing the concept to a completely new audience and drawing in those who know the show (gee, that sounds familiar…) We get to see all of the craft in action, and the relationships between the brothers, Kayo, the Hood and Grandma are given sufficient detail to be credible. There’s some lovely nods to the original: listen out for the name of a doctor who needs rescuing, for example.
Will Thunderbirds are Go have the legs to survive 50 years like its predecessor? No one can tell at this stage. Gerry and Sylvia Anderson didn’t set out to make a show that would last forever in the hearts and minds of those who watched it. They made an entertaining, involving show with characters we came to love. In six months’ time when all 26 episodes of this series have aired, we may have a better idea – but on the basis of this opener, I for one will be there for the journey.
Verdict: Better than anyone had a right to expect, Thunderbirds are Go for a new generation. 8/10