Around the margins of mid-60s sci-fi was the British TV series, Thunderbirds. The series only ran two seasons, but spawned two feature films, both of which eventually played in America in 1968. While the TV series was popular in the UK, the films did not do well in America. The first film, Thunderbirds Are Go (reviewed in brief in the Notes section) played like an hour-long episode seriously padded out to movie length. The second film, Thunderbird 6 (TB6) was a stronger story, though a bit less sci-fi than the first.
Quick Plot Synopsis
The board of directors of New World Aircraft listen to "Mr. X" (Brains) give his proposal for a revolutionary new type of aircraft. He proposes an air ship. The board laugh derisively, but build Sky Ship One anyhow. For SS1's maiden voyage, Alan, Lady Penelope, (and her butler/driver, Parker) and Tin Tin would fly as guests. A band of hijackers kill the captain and crew, taking their places. Lady P arrives in her pink Rolls. Alan and Tin Tin arrive in a vintage Tigermoth biplane. SS1 powers up. A bank of spinning magnet rings produce anti-gravity which provides lift. SS1 flies to several spots around the world featured in various TV episodes. Captain Foster and his hijackers scheme to record Lady P saying strings of particular words. From this, the edited recording, they will radio Jeff Tracy to send Thunderbrid 1 and Thunderbird 2 to a deserted airfield where other hijackers will steal them. Through a series of run-time padding scenes, the hijackers eventually get all the right words recorded. Lady P and Alan are suspicious of Captain Foster, but know their rooms are bugged. Foster send the fake message. TB 1 and 2 are sent, but Lady P warns Jeff just in time. The plot is foiled. A recurring parallel story is that Jeff Tracy wants Brains to design a new rescue craft to become Thunderbird 6. Brains tries several ideas, all of which are rejected by Jeff. Brains is comically frustrated. Meanwhile, aboard SS1, Alan and the others have armed themselves. A shootout ensues between them and the hijackers. A stray bullet takes out the autopilot computer. SS1 is stuck going straight ahead and is losing altitude. (the magnet rings stopped spinning). The air ship gets stuck atop a radio tower. Below the tower is a missile base which begins evacuating. TB 1 and 2 cannot rescue the people on the stranded SS1 because their jet wash tips the air ship dangerously. Jeff sends Brains in the Tigermoth, which eventually lands on SS1. Foster hijacks the Tigermoth, planning to kidnap Lady P. Everyone else jumps aboard, clinging to the wing struts as it takes off. An ongoing shootout in the struts results in all the bad guys shot off and the engine damaged. SS1 (now empty) gets too heavy for the tower to support. It falls onto the missile base causing many fireball explosions. The Tigermoth eventually makes a rough landing in a field. The good guys are all safe. Brains unveils his "proven" design for Thunderbird 6 -- The Tigermoth! The End.
Why is this movie fun?
As the Monty Python crew used to say, "And now for something completely different..." A story told entirely with marionettes and models is just too different NOT to be fun. The model props and sets rival those of Toho Studios' many kaiju films. The young boys like the cool rockets and many grand explosions. The young girls can revel in Lady Penelope's pink bubble-topped Rolls Royce equipped with just about every gizmo a Barbie Bond agent could want: skis, pontoons, jets and a machine gun the that big chrome grill.
Cold War Angle
There is little of the Cold War in TB6. The plot is essentially a hijacking drama. The highly explosive missile base is a visible reminder (even in a kids' movie) that the Cold War was never far away.
As Seen on TV -- Gerry and Sylvia Anderson created several kids shows for British television whose stars were all marionettes. The sets and props were all models. Earlier shows, such as "Supercar" (1961-62), "Fireball XL5" (62-63) and "Stingray" (64-65) featured gee-whiz vehicles and adventures full of danger and explosions. "Thunderbirds" expanded this pattern to five gee-whiz machines. The series ran two seasons in 1965 and 66. While this run sounds short, given its popularity, it seems like a typical life-span for such a show. Its predecessors all lasted about as long. The shows featured the adventures ex-astronaut Jeff Tracy and his five sons -- each of whom pilot one of the five Thunderbird machines. Each hour-long episode centered around a rescue by Tracy's International Rescue team.
First Movie -- The Thunderbirds' first feature film (also seen in America in 1968) was titled, Thunderbirds Are Go (TAG). It was a weaker story amounting to an episode's worth of material stretched into a film. Much footage is spent on watching the model of the ship Zero-X being assembled, flying, crashing and it's twin going through the same. Eventually, Zero-X gets to Mars and is attacked by fireball-spewing "rock snakes". It returns to earth, suffers a failure during reentry and (like Zero-X 1) crashes in a great fireball. The IR team rescue the astronauts. TAG appealed to TB fans, but there weren't enough of those in America to make it profitable at the box office.
Supermarionation -- The word was coined for Anderson's special hybrid puppets. They had super-thin control wires (often invisible on low-res television screens, but more visible in high-res venues), but they had solenoids in their heads (hence the large bobble-head look) to make their mouths move. Impulses were fed in via the thin control wires, from the audio track of the actors speaking. This made the puppet's lips move in synch. TB6 featured the newer model puppets with the solenoids were moved to the chest cavity. This let them have somewhat smaller heads.
Super Models -- Arguably, the models were as much the stars of the production as the characters. Much footage was spent on watching them take off, fly around, zoom, and land. TB 1 was the swept-wing interceptor. TB 2 was the large-body cargo jet which usually ferried in the other cool rescue vehicles. TB 3 was the red rocket. TB 4 was the yellow submarine vehicle. TB 5 was the orbiting space station. Fans of the TV show were sure to be tantalized at the title "Thunderbird 6". But, note too, the careful attention to detail in all of the set models. Even the towns that get blown up show a fascinating amount of detail.
Toying Around -- Part of the appeal of Thunderbirds was that they were essentially toys having adventures. Episodes amounted to the kinds of things young boys imagined while playing with their toy jets, trucks and rockets. Anderson and the producers capitalized on all this with simultaneous marketing of toys and comic books.
Roots of Wallace & Gromit -- Fans of Nick Parks' Wallace and Gromit shorts will see several familiar scenes. In particular his short named "A Close Shave" recreated visuals Parks probably watched on TV as a boy. A few notable ones include: the complicated system of chutes and trap doors to install the pilots in their machines, the various hidden launch doors (such as under the swimming pool) and the aircraft flying low over model of rural English landscape. It seems Parks was paying a small homage to Anderson's contribution to his childhood.
Bottom line? TB6 is a light-hearted diversion from overly-serious sci-fi. Yet, despite being played out with puppets and models, the plot is not particularly childish. Several characters are shot and killed. Fans of extensive model work will have a lot to like. It's best to watch Thunderbids with your inner child than your inner movie critic.