Sunday, October 22, 2017

Fireball XL-5: “Robert to the Rescue” (AP Films, Associated Television, Independent Television Company, 1963)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “Vintage Sci-Fi” films ( were of particular interest to me because they featured the work of puppet auteur Gerry Anderson, who was born April 14, 1929 in London and created a number of cheap TV series for Britain’s commercial channel with science-fictional themes: Thunderbirds, Supercar, Stingray, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterians (which sounds like the name of a rock band!) and Fireball XL-5. The Anderson movies were filmed in a process he called “Supermarionation,” which simply meant that the lead roles were all played by puppets and voiced by human actors who dubbed in the dialogue later. Our program last night began with Superthunderstingcar (, a bizarre spoof of Anderson’s films created by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore (Dudley Moore you’ve probably heard of; Peter Cook was his sidekick and they were both members of Beyond the Fringe, the late-1950’s/early-1960’s British comedy troupe that was basically Monty Python before Monty Python), featuring great gags — in one of which Lady Penelope, a running character in Anderson’s Thunderbirds series, asks her butler why he speaks in such a ridiculous accent. “I’m just doing the Americans’ idea of a lower-class British accent,” he replies. There was also a nice bit in which the villains triumph at the end, and when the principal villain’s sidekick reminds him that they were supposed to lose, he answers, “I keep forgetting to read the ends of the scripts.” 

The works of Anderson’s own which were shown included a Fireball XL-5 episode called “Robert to the Rescue.” originally aired March 17, 1963 — Robert is the robot crew member (though since they’re all puppets he’s not appreciably less human-acting and –appearing than the rest of the cast; he’s distinguished mainly by being made of what look like upended clear toy beach buckets and speaking in an incomprehensible monotone) and he takes the lead in saving the (more or less) human crew members of the interplanetary spaceship Fireball XL-5 from the inhabitants of a hollow metal planet which hides in the solar system and whose population is so concerned about keeping their existence secret they will either kill anyone who stumbles onto them or use a transformation machine to erase all their memories and incorporate them as members of their own people. It’s one of those movies that’s cheery in its own obvious ineptitude — it was obviously made for children and I’m lucky that I first saw Fireball XL-5 when I was a child, when the independent TV station Channel 2 in the Bay Area ran them back to back on weekday afternoons with another one of Anderson’s cheap puppet series, Supercar. I also vividly remembered the theme songs for both shows — the one for Supercar sang the praises of the title vehicle (“It travels on land and under the sea/It can journey anywhere/Supercar!”) but the one for Fireball XL-5 was actually a soft-rock ballad crooned by one Don Spencer that made traveling through the universe on the titular spaceship sound like just another teenage date option: “I’d like to be a spaceman/The fastest man alive/I’d travel through the universe/On Fireball XL-5.” (He was basically a soft-rock singer in the mold of Frankie Avalon, who did a similarly dumb but campy song at the opening of the 1961 sci-fi non-epic film Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.) This is dumb entertainment and if your age is above single digits you’re not going to take a moment of it seriously, but it’s still a lot of fun.