diamond geezer

 Saturday, April 05, 2003

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Looks like it's the perfect date to talk about Thunderbirds.

Very few science fiction series made in the 20th century but set in the 21st century still get shown on TV in the 21st century. Most of them look far too dated. They're full of whirring computers, 70s hairstyles, Habitat furniture, plastic clothing, Sinclair technology, Morris Minors and 70s hairstyles. It's impossible to believe that a programme was ever meant to be set in the future when the technology being used is still the size of a 1995 mobile phone and all the actors have droopy moustaches. Thunderbirds is the exception. By using puppets, Gerry Anderson future-proofed his most famous creation. There was something just unreal enough about the puppets of Scott, Virgil and Alan for us to suspend our disbelief, ignoring the blatantly obvious strings, and just enjoy the adventures.

International Rescue - now there's an organisation we could do with today. Not least because nobody ever died in Thunderbirds, not once in 32 episodes. The team just flew in, wobbled about a bit, revealed some magnificent piece of engineering from a pod in Thunderbird 2 and saved the day. None of this swanning around in the desert for three weeks. The Thunderbirds team were in and out in under an hour and back round the piano without a hair out of place.

It was a great idea for a series. A family with a suspiciously huge amount of money, living on an island miles from anywhere, with a technological arsenal hidden beneath the swimming pool, their very own space station orbiting overhead, dashing off occasionally to rescue small boys from deserted mineshafts. Total secrecy of operations was maintained, despite the fact that the world's radar would surely have picked out the signatures of two huge flying craft lumbering across the sky well before the end of Episode 1. And they saved a fortune in animation costs by showing the same five minute sequence of Thunderbirds 1 and 2 launching every week, which we didn't mind because it was still fantastic every time you saw it.

Any great series also needs characters with great names. The five Tracy brothers were named after the first five US astronauts in space - John Glenn, Gordon Cooper, Alan Sheperd, Virgil Grissom and Scott Carpenter. Had there been seven Thunderbirds, the series would have immortalised the names Walter and Donald as well. The organisation's inventive genius could only have been called Brains, role model for speccy childhood geeks everywhere. And Lady Penelope and Parker, surely one of the great double acts of all time, have names that perfectly suggest rich, suave and pink, and old, reliable and downtrodden. Fab.

The show has timeless appeal. Children watching today probably have parents who remember the series first time round. Tracy Island still sells well, even 10 years after it was the country's most sought-after Christmas toy, and remains Blue Peter's most successful 'make' ever. Original 60s Thunderbird merchandise is still avidly sought after by collectors (not that I'm in any way bitter at the mysterious disappearance of a genuine Thunderbird 5 from our family's toy cupboard at some point during my adolescence, you understand), and the puppets exchange hands for ridiculous amounts of money. There's even a Hollywood feature film in production, featuring Ben Kingsley as evil villain the Hood, and due for release sometime next year. It's a far cry from a few puppeteers filming in Supermarionation somewhere on a trading estate in Slough 40 years ago. Somehow, however, I suspect it'll still be the classic original puppet series our great-grandchildren will be watching in 2065.

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