Sunday, October 22, 2017

Thunderbirds Are GO! (Associated Television Overseas Limited, Century 21 Television, 1966)

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

In addition to the Fireball XL-5 episode and the spoof Superthunderstingcar, last night’s Vintage Sci-Fi screening ( contained two full-length movies, also by British producer Gerry Anderson in partnership with his wife Sylvia. The first “feature” on last night’s program was Thunderbirds Are Go!, a 1966 attempt by Gerry Anderson and his wife Sylvia (a collaborator through all of these as well as voice for the heroine — though she was born in South London two years before her husband she did her voice work in an affected pseudo-Eastern European accent that made her sound like Zsa Zsa Gabor with a head cold) to take one of their cheap, tacky black-and-white TV show and build an entire feature film in color (or “colour,” as the Brits would say) around it. The Thunderbirds are part of an international space rescue team headed by John Tracy (Ray Barrett) and there are five members of it: Jeff Tracy (Peter Dyneley), Gordon Tracy (David Graham), Scott Tracy (Shane Rimmer), Virgil Tracy (Jeremy Wilkin) and the Sad Sack of the bunch, Alan Tracy (Matt Zimmerman). At first I was wondering if the Thunderbirds were like the Ramones — you had to take the last name “Tracy” to join — but it soon turned out that we were supposed to believe that all the Thunderbirds were John Tracy’s biological (or manufactured) offspring. The show begins with the launch attempt of a new spacecraft called “Zero-X,” which is supposed to be the first human-piloted vehicle to land on Mars, only a sinister stowaway gets caught in the gears joining its various stages (Gerry Anderson did some really cool bits of animation showing the various parts of the ship being driven down runways before they are joined together for the launch — which, as in Fireball XL-5, he showed as being horizontal, like a normal airplane takeoff, rather than vertical like a real rocket launch) and the rocket is unable to lift off — instead it drives into the sea, the humans on board manage to eject themselves in a yellow capsule, but the ship itself blows up underwater. Two years later the space agency that launched the Zero-X, or tried to, are ready to try again — only they’re concerned about another sabotage attempt, so they call in the Thunderbirds. John Tracy tells them that they’ve never provided security for a launch before it happened — their only purpose up until now has been to rescue people in space after a spacecraft failed — but he reluctantly agrees to take on the assignment. There’s an awful lot of pseudo-military palaver — Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, who co-wrote the script, seemed in love with dialogue containing terms like “Roger” and explaining in depth what the procedures would be for launching the second Zero-X (they didn’t change the name to Zero-X-2 or something, probably because the Andersons wanted to reuse the exact same animated model footage of the first launch to represent the second).

There’s also another character, who’s pretty peripheral to the action even though she’s by far the coolest person in the film — and she drives by far the coolest car: she’s Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward (Sylvia Anderson) and her car is called the FAB 1 (we’re not told what the initials FAB stand for, if anything, but this film was made at the height of “Swinging London” and the word “fab” — short for “fabulous,” and meaning, well, fabulous — was a popular slang term). It’s a pink Rolls-Royce convertible with six wheels — two pair of wheels in the front and one in the back — and it has many special capabilities, including being able to go underwater and also to fly and fire rockets at enemy aircraft. (At the time this film was made there actually was a car being manufactured called the Amphicar — it couldn’t submerge or fly, but if you had one you were supposed to be able to drive it into the water and use it as a powerboat. The commercials for it showed their test driver doing just that.) She actually has a butler drive it for her — these were the characters Peter Cook and Dudley Moore so devastatingly caricatured in their spoof Superthunderstingcar — and at one point she offers Alan Tracy a date to go with her in the car and attend the “Swinging Star” nightclub, where they see a band perform a song of that title. The band is billed as “Cliff Richard, Jr., and The Shadows,” and the actual performer is Cliff Richard, Sr. and the real Shadows (though by the time this film was made their lead guitarist, Jet Harris — the only member of the band the Beatles ever admitted to liking; George Harrison recalled how he tried to learn Harris’s guitar introduction to the song “Move It” but never could until he saw them on TV and was able to watch how Harris’s fingers moved as he played the lick — had left to pursue a solo career). Cliff Richard was the most popular British rock star of the 1950’s, though in his one attempt at a U.S. tour he bombed completely, and like a lot of the people who followed in the wake of Elvis he was a decent crooner with a nice, respectable voice; later he became a born-again Christian and hooked up with Billy Graham to make an “inspirational” film called Two a Penny, a worldwide flop. His song here — he just sang one, though there are several other bits of the instrumental score played by his backup band, the Shadows — is decent enough pop but hardly what was “happening” on either side of the Atlantic in 1966. The “Shooting Star” sequence actually represents Alan Tracy’s dream, since at the last minute his dad forbids him to go on an actual date and he has to stay at home in bed — but it’s also by far the most entertaining part of the film.

Eventually the “Zero-X” 2.0 takes off and this time makes it to Mars but goes awry and crashes on its way back to Earth — and of course the Thunderbirds have to come to the rescue. I don’t always agree with the reviews that come up when you look up a film on, but the one that materialized when I looked up this one (by “bob the moo” from the U.K.) was right on and pinpointed the biggest failing of this movie: it basically seems like a 26-minute Thunderbirds TV show padded out to a 90-minute running time. After it ends we see the leader of the Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines — and quite frankly, after 90 minutes of watching jerky puppets it’s a relief to see an actual live human appear on screen in this film! — and then the camera pulls back to show the entire band playing the “Thunderbirds Are Go” march, and the band members use their bodies to form the words “THE END” as the film, well, ends. Then there are a number of what would call “Crazy Credits” that, while maybe not as funny as the one at the end of The Asylum’s 2005 production of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (“Why are you still reading this? Go back to the video store and rent another Asylum film. You know you want to”), have their own dorky appeal: “The producers gratefully acknowledge the co-operation of: Space Colonel Harris of the Martian Exploration Center Cape Johnson; Jim Glenn, President of the New World Aircraft Corporation, Designers and Manufacturers of the Zero X; Commander Casey; [and] Commander in Chief Glenn Field, without whose help this motion picture would not have been possible” (those are all names of characters who appear in the film rather than any real-life people who helped make it), “Martian Sequences filmed by Century 21 Space Location Unit,” and my favorite, “None of the characters appearing in this photoplay intentionally resemble any persons living or dead ... SINCE THEY DO NOT YET EXIST!”