The Old Geek: Remembering Gerry Anderson’s Seminal Thunderbirds

On the day after Christmas, an important part of my childhood vanished when the world learned that Gerry Anderson passed away.

You see, I grew up pretty well in the ‘sticks.’ Oh, my sticks probably weren’t as bad as other peoples’ sticks, but it was still the sticks. I was born on a farm, but, not much later, we moved into a small town (circa 15,000) around the time that I was school-bound.

Living in the sticks back then, most families didn’t have cable television. If you were lucky, then your house had anywhere between six and ten TV channels. Rich folks had fifteen! Yes, at that time you had the major networks, but cities who thought they were bigger than what they were may’ve also had a station. They wouldn’t have premium programming to air of any sort; rather, they’d have old movies, curious programs sold quickly (and cheaply) into syndication, and Japanese cartoons, of course.

Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds was ‘the big deal.’ It aired in the after-school timeslot on one of these lesser big city channels. So I was well educated into the affairs of the Tracy family, International Rescue, and their island base of operations. I hissed at The Hood every time he appeared on screen. I was properly educated in the fine arts of Supermarionation at the same time I learned how to read, write, add, multiply, and divide, and, in my own way, I like to think I’m a better person because of it.

For the record, yes, all of us watching the program in syndication knew that we were watching puppets – marionettes, to be exact – and we never had any problem with it. (Unfortunately, no major network was interested in airing Thunderbirds when it was in active production, but syndicators were happy to scarf it up.) Those spit-and-polish characters did the best they could to convey the emotion of the moment – be it terror, confusion, or delight – though I’ll admit they were more than a bit challenged in their ability to run, jump, or flinch. Otherwise, they had enough acting chops to give Matt Damon a run for his money.

And their vehicles!

Oh, the joy at seeing Thunderbird 1 or Thunderbird 2 take flight! The rush of excitement watching Thunderbird 3’s rocket engines fire! The wonder of Thunderbird 4 roaming the depths of the sea! And who didn’t want to visit the edge of the final frontier, walking on the decks of Thunderbird 5’s space station!
Anderson’s world was pure genius. His team’s adventures were set about 100 years in his future – making it about 2065 – so the world was close enough to the present to make certain models, sets, and miniatures familiar, but it was also far enough to give him plenty of room to play with the imagination. The Tracy family – Scott, Alan, Virgil, Gordon, and John – were all named for astronauts of America’s Mercury space program, drawing a close association for audiences at the time. Plus, given the fact that this was designed to be the ultimate program for kid’s viewing, the show was easily a success for merchandisers seeking to tap into its popularity.

Years later, when I went to college, I was always the odd man out in the fraternity house. Guys love to sit around and jaw on about the programs of their youth, but no one – and I mean no one – had ever seen or heard of Thunderbirds. In fact, a few of my closest friends always thought I’d simply made it all up, that there was no such thing as Supermarionation, that I’d concocted an exaggeration to draw attention to myself. Little did they know that I’d grown accustomed to watching the Tracys save the day while they were stuck with Brady Bunch reruns.

When Trey Parker and Matt Stone launched their puppet-laden Team America: World Police in 2004, I was thankfully one of many in the audience who was “in” on the joke. Clearly, Stone and Parker were familiar with Thunderbirds (I’ve read that they’ve since publicly stated that they were never fans of the show), but, no doubt, they’d been indoctrinated by the hours of marionette programming compliments of the late, great Gerry Anderson. I thought Team America was nothing short of brilliant, though its last fifteen minutes disastrously veered off into the usual Parker and Stone inane fascination with ten-year-old pottymouth jokes, cheapening what I thought was otherwise a proper cinematic valentine to children’s TV programming of a vastly different age.

If you’re a card-carrying Geek like I am, then you’re aware of Gerry, his work, and his contribution to the world of entertainment. If you’re not, then I’d encourage you to hit the video store or purchase a bargain copy of any season of Thunderbirds. Until you experience the show on the small screen in its full glory with its wonderful, pounding symphonic score, you’ll never know what you’re missing.
And, for God’s sake, don’t bother with that awful Jonathan Frakes-directed 2004 piece of garbage starring Bill Paxton. (The studio exec who greenlighted that should be drawn and quartered.) The tepid story sidelines the entire Tracy family in favor of focusing on new, more kid-friendly characters. (Blasphemy!) Even Gerry himself dismissed the feature, calling it “the biggest load of crap I have ever seen in my life.” (Hat tip: Wikipedia)

I hold out hope that someday a studio will re-discover the genius of Thunderbirds and deliver a competent and accomplished version to the big screen. Maybe now that Gerry’s on the other side of the spectrum of our existence he can find those great big celestial puppet strings, start tugging on them, and make it happen from all the way up there. In the meantime, I’ll find comfort in his memory … and in revisiting that world thanks to my DVDs this weekend.

To that idea I say, “F-A-B!”


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One Comment

  1. i am late commenting on this article, but thanks! You and I have the same memories on this great show. Crackle has all of the episodes uploaded on youtube, so I’ve been revisiting my childhood memories myself… I have found new joy in the seriousness in which it took, to the point of cheesiness, as well as cracking up each time human hands or feet make their appearances. What a great show, and I hope others can watch it now and enjoy the retro-future greatness that it oozes…

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