Monday, June 8, 2015

DVD Review: Thunderbirds (on Blu-ray) Are Go!

On June 9th, Timeless Media Group will release Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's classic TV series Thunderbirds on Blu-ray for the first time. The most popular of the Andersons' Supermarionation TV shows has led to at least three theatrical films, a revival TV series, and hundreds of toys and games. However, the series' dedicated fans have been eagerly anticipating a Blu-ray set that captures--in exquisite detail--the colorful, imaginative world of International Rescue, its fantastic Thunderbird machines, and, of course Lady Penelope and Parker.

Gerry Anderson with two fan favorites.
In 1964, following the success of the Andersons' submarine series Stingray, Gerry Anderson approached British television mogul Lew Grade with an idea for his next venture. In the 45-minute documentary "Launching Thunderbirds" (included as a bonus in the set), Anderson explains that he wasn't sure Grade would want to finance an expensive show about a family that executes elaborate rescues. Grade's reaction was to grab Anderson by the scruff of the neck, drag him into a room with a light bulb, point at it, and state he'd finance a show about a light bulb if that's what Anderson wanted to make.

The house on Tracy Island.
In a departure from their previous outings which focused on a single principal male hero, the Andersons made Thunderbirds an ensemble series. Widower Jeff Tracy lived on his own South Pacific island with his five sons, each of whom was named after an American astronaut: Scott (named after Scott Carpenter), John (John Glenn), Virgil (Virgil Grissom), Gordon (Gordon Cooper), and Alan (Alan Shepard). Jeff and his sons comprise International Rescue, an independent team that uses high-tech vehicles and equipment to rescue anyone in need. One of the sons, usually John or Alan, monitors radio distress signals from a space station called Thunderbird 5 (it's a tough job since the T5 rotation lasts for a month at a time).

The well-named Brains.
The island's other residents include: Brains, the nerdish genius that created the high-tech wizardry; Jeff's mother; the family manservant Kyrano; and Kyrano's daughter Tin-Tin, who is Alan's girlfriend. The final members of the team are International Rescue's "London agent" Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward and her butler/chauffeur "Nosey" Parker, a former Cockney thief. As others have pointed out, the initial premise recalls the Western TV classic Bonanza, with the strong-willed widower interacting with his sons. However, as the series progressed, the other characters started playing large roles in the plots, especially Lady Penelope. Brains participated in some rescue missions like the one in "Lord Parker's 'Oliday" and Tin-Tin even played a key role in the espionage episode "The Cham-Cham."

Unlike the other Supermarionation series, Thunderbirds was one-hour long. It was originally conceived as a half-hour show, but when Lew Grade saw the pilot episode, he was so enthusiastic that he told Gerry Anderson to expand it into an hour. Grade, who always had his eye on the international markets, thought Thunderbirds might sell better overseas in the longer format. The challenge for the Andersons was that ten episodes had already been completed or were deep into production based on the half-hour format. Therefore, they had to go back and revise the scripts and shoot additional footage. As a result, some of the early episodes seem padded with subplots that don't propel the action with the same urgency as the earlier Stingray or the later Captain Scarlet. However, given the show's large cast of characters, the longer running time eventually works to Thunderbirds' advantage.

Thunderbird 2 lowering a pod.
Of course, for many fans, the "stars" of Thunderbirds are the five "crafts," which are each piloted by one of the Tracy sons. Thunderbird 1 is a rocket-like plane, typically flown by Scott, used for quick response missions. It is stored beneath the family's swimming pool, which slides open as Scott takes off. Virgil flies Thunderbird 2, a large storage craft that can transport pods containing various vehicles and equipment required for rescue missions. As it emerges from the side of a mountain to launch, fake palm trees fall to the side so the massively wide craft can pass. Thunderbird 3 is a space rocket piloted by Alan or John. Gordon navigates the submersible Thunderbird 4, which is small enough to be stored in one of the pods. Finally, there's the aforementioned space station Thunderbird 5.

Sylvia Anderson and Lady Penelope.
Among the the human characters, the breakout "star" was Lady Penelope. Although there had been strong female characters in other Anderson shows (e.g., Marina in Stingray), Lady Penelope--with a major assist from Parker--seemed to grab the viewers' attention. She was feminine, but decidedly tough, just like her pink Rolls Royce with the FAB 1 license plate. Her famous car, which was modified by Brains, featured two pop-out machine guns, a turbo-charged engine, hydrofoils for traveling on water, skis for traveling on snow, and bullet-proof tires. As for Lady Penelope, she was modeled after Sylvia Anderson, who provided her voice.

Although there are some strong rescue episodes (the pilot "Trapped in the Sky" is a humdinger), my favorites expand the typical rescue formula with Lady Penelope often playing a key role. "The Perils of Penelope" has Penny (as Jeff calls her) trying to find a kidnapped professor aboard a monorail. In "The Cham-Cham," she masquerades as a singer at a ski resort called Paradise Peaks and winds up channeling Marlene Dietrich as she warbles an original Barry Gray tune. And, in a non-Lady Penelope episode, giant 'gators attacked a swampy mansion in "Attack of the Alligators," which was inspired by the Bob Hope comedy The Cat and the Canary.

All 32 episodes of Thunderbirds are available from Timeless Media in a set of six Blu-ray discs or eight DVDs. I reviewed the Blu-ray set, which features pristine prints with vibrant colors. In addition to the documentary mentioned above, the bonus features include a vintage publicity brochure.

Timeless Media Group provided a copy of Thunderbirds for review.

1 comment:

  1. Rick, my favorite parts of "Thunderbirds" included the many pods that were used and contained different things and Lady Penelope. You couldn't help but notice all the "p" references to her: she wore pink and pearls, communicated through her compact by lifting the powder puff, her cool automobile was pink, she was assisted by Parker, had a great parasol, and I am sure had many others that escape me at present. On a final note, the brothers wore hats that made me always want to order an ice cream soda. Thunderbirds Are Go!