I’ll make it even easier for the defenders that say “everything 2015 is awesome”; give them all they need for a perfect ad hominem attack aimed in my direction: I loved the 2004 “Thunderbirds” movie with Bill Paxton and Sir Ben Kingsley, and bite my thumb at those who say it wasn’t in the spirit of the original Thunderbirds. Well, true fans will know the episode “Cry Wolf”, where kids get into the action. The 2004 movie was no different. All it demonstrated was the wrong thinking that franchises like “Spy Kids” tried to embed: that children like seeing other children have adventures. Children, in fact, much prefer to see adult heroes they can hope to one day emulate.
So, by this point, those who like these garish, noisy, wham-bam new adventures of the Tracy brothers will probably have surfed off to another page. Which means I am now whispering to all those who feel tremendous guilt for not liking what has been done with one of their favourite formats of all time.
There was tremendous anticipation for this new series. The preview YouTube clips looked absolutely on-the-money. They were done with poise, with care, and as much was the case with the 2004 movie, the vehicles looked like they should do (the only abomination in the Frakes film was what they did to Thunderbird 4).
To show how important this show is to me, it’s worth noting that my wife and I met at a Thunderbirds convention in 1992, where we were both volunteers helping to run the darn thing. So, we’re fans united, and have been so since a very young age – at a time when we would have been the target audience for this new show.
We made the time to watch the Reggie Yates documentary “No Strings Attached” on ITV2 on Thursday 2 April 2015 at 8.00pm. David Graham, the voice of the original Parker and returning to that role for the new show, gave his seal of approval to the new format, as did the original Lady Penelope herself, Sylvia Anderson, who will do a voice cameo in an episode. All looked good when on Saturday 4 April 2015, two episodes were bolted together and screened at 5.00pm on ITV. Almost prime time! Yes, this WAS designed as a 2-part adventure, probably with the thought that they could be shown together as a premiere, but in which case why were launch sequences repeated in their entirety? Straight away, they had caused me to frown.
Rewinding back to 1965, the original Thunderbirds was NOT pitched as a children’s show. It was a family show, which is why ATV screened premieres of episodes at 7.00pm at night. Hmmm. Can you think of another FAMILY show which has returned at a similar time of night as that, over the last decade? Yes, that would be Doctor Who. And look how that defied all the odds and has even become a staple of Christmas Day viewing ever since its return? That SHOULD have been what this new series of Thunderbirds Are Go was aiming for.
But after all the hype, the following week, post premiere, Thunderbirds Are Go was relegated to 8.00am on Saturday mornings. That’s 4 to 7 year-olds’ territory, if I read the anticipated demographics correctly. It’s almost like ITV is saying it does NOT want anyone of other ages to be watching the show.
Another recent example of this sort of mad corporate thinking has been exhibited over at BBC Radio 1. Nick Grimshaw, the breakfast show presenter, and now new X-Factor judge as well as being heralded by Chris Evans as the new host of TFI Friday should it return following its recent celebratory one-off, is at the centre of a typhoon concerning Radio 1’s demolishing of audience numbers. Taking over from Chris Moyles, Grimshaw lost a million listeners in his first three months. And now, ratings have dropped by 800,000 more. Putting it in perspective, as few people listen to Radio 1 now as they did in 2003, when Sara Cox was shown the door for poor audience numbers.
And what was the attitude of Radio 1 controller, Ben Cooper, to this calamitous collapse? He praised Grimshaw for “scaring off the over-30s”, who accounted for around 90% of the decline in listeners. Of course, the PR gurus will continue to milk the line that this is a demonstration of the BBC looking to cater for increasingly niche audiences.
What we have in terms of ITV and Thunderbirds Are Go is little different. They want this production to press all the buttons of their target audience, and by association ensure that the merchandisers have a very prosperous Christmas season. Of course, this is wrong thinking, as who actually BUYS this merchandise for the ‘little nippers’, as Parker would be keen to say? Oh dear, yes, that would be people you would be excluding from who you want to be watching.
Despite this, my wife and I decided we weren’t going to be put off by ITV’s decision to dump the show at 8.00am on Saturdays. A complete change to our weekend routine followed. I would get up early enough to prepare mugs of hot chocolate, and even fruit salad on occasion. We’d sit down, and for 11 weeks in a row we watched every episode, wanting desperately to have the same sense of wonder, the same sense of elation as we obtained watching the original episodes, as per our first time around.
Everything was going well, until about six weeks in to the run on Saturdays. There’d been some episodes which were a lot stronger than others, and there were things where I unconsciously found myself shaking my head in disbelief, but this was Thunderbirds Are Go, and we simply MUST like it, or we’d be disloyal to a major part of our lives. But all of a sudden, the façade slipped. The cheerleading stopped. After just a handful of episodes plots were drowning in repetition, particularly in methods of rescue.
As I’ll detail in a few examples, a combination of scenes whose visuals jarred you out of your suspension of disbelief, grating characters, and dumb plot points conspired against us being able to keep the rose-tinted spectacles on. We kept going back to that concept that ‘we’re not the target audience’ and that it was somehow the pair of us at fault. However, whatever your age, bad special effects are still bad, poor characterisation is still poor, and conflicting story continuity still conflicts.
In the original series, there were times when you would feel your spine tingle at the heady concoction of sound and vision being presented to you. This happened just once in the 13 episodes of this first run – and that was with the recreation of the classic scene from the original episode “Trapped in the Sky”, rebadged “Fireflash”, as the elevator cars were about to feel the huge air liner land on them. Why did I get the shivers in the remade episode? Because suddenly the music from the original episode kicked in. It had all the power, emotion, and the embodiment of frantic peril which was present in the first telling of the story.
It proved categorically that the music for the new series is simply not up to the job. Responsible for the cacophony are Ben Foster and Nick Foster. Ben’s work has mainly been as an orchestrator and conductor, a role he fulfils on Doctor Who by taking hold of Murray Gold’s compositions, as a cursory glance at his IMDB page will show. He did get the composer gig on Torchwood and Scott & Bailey, but can YOU remember any tracks from those? I wonder if the conversation on who to employ was along the lines of: “Hey, why don’t we get the guy who does the music on Doctor Who?”
However, instead of bringing Barry Gray’s original music into extensive use in the series, Ben and Nick decided to make it ‘modern’ by bringing in 007-inspired riffs for Lady Penelope and other cinematic ‘tributes’ here and there. When Barry Gray is not present in the influences, what is on offer is totally forgettable.
And the overuse of Peter Dyneley’s original ‘5-4-3-2-1’ countdown proves that less really is more. Just in the opening credits will be fine, NOT peppered throughout almost every vehicle launch!
Much has been said about the re-allocation of the ethnicity of Brains to eastern climes (wonder if this will be evident in any foreign language dubbing, and will foreign buyers consider this change just a little patronising?). Of course, all most of us can think of is Raj Koothrappali in The Big Bang Theory.
Then there’s the renaming of Tin-Tin to Kayo (apparently Hergé had a problem with the name, for the first time in 50 years – if this was a genuine objection, it would have been thrown out of court due to previous usage! It would also have been noted that in Thunderbirds Tin-Tin is hyphenated, whereas in the adventures of Tintin it isn’t). In this first run of episodes, we see very little of Kayo’s ‘Thunderbird S’, so precisely why does she need a ‘covert ops’ vehicle, or indeed why would International Rescue as a whole get involved in such? Rescue is their business, not spying. No doubt we will discover in the fullness of time.
If any sort of spying is needed, then London agent Lady Penelope and her chauffeur Parker (who according to the press release is now a ‘driver’) are present in the format – Rosamund Pike is a good choice to play against the return of David Graham, but Penelope is now very lightweight – you wouldn’t be comfortable if you were expecting her to ‘have your back’ in a dangerous situation. And Parker gets positively schizophrenic in a couple of episodes – in one he goes to great lengths to steal a paper file, and then in a later episode he’s waxing lyrical about how long it’s been since he’s seen a piece of paper! There is just no consistency in this fictional world, something a story editor should be nailing down.
Scott, Gordon, Virgil, John and Alan Tracy are all present and correct, in charge of the vehicles you’d expect them to be. The format tweaks best serve John, who now has a hell of a lot more to do aboard space monitor Thunderbird 5 than was the case 50 years ago. However, whereas in the original series each son was voiced by a different actor, for some inexplicable reason it has been decided to double-up Scott and Alan (voiced by Rasmus Hardiker) and Virgil and Gordon (David Menkin). This is a decision of total folly, as these guys are just not able to vary their voices sufficiently to assist in helping to tell who’s who, coloured sashes notwithstanding. Surely it would have been better just to hire another couple of distinct vocal performers to assist with the voice artist chores?
In terms of character development, all we really know about Sandra Dickinson’s Grandma Tracy is that she cannot cook. Seriously? Are we meant to believe that in 50 years’ time the results of anyone’s kitchen exploits is going to be anything but perfect? We’ll have gadgets that work for anything. Just look at how things have changed over the last 50 years, as was evidenced on the series Back in Time for Dinner on BBC2. And what’s with the shell suit and sneakers? Are we being told that Jeff Tracy’s mother has morphed into a chav?
It also seems that criminal mastermind “The Hood” is not going to be allowed to scare the bejeezus out of viewers, as he did to young and old alike 50 years ago. Where are those big, staring, glowing eyes, and the sonic sting which Barry Gray added to the soundtrack to make us realise that no good was happening? This incarnation of The Hood would not even be able to give Doctor Evil from “Austin Powers” a run for his money. Come back Sir Ben Kingsley, all is forgiven.
The one big, big difference in the character line-up is the absence of patriarch Jeff Tracy from the format. We are advised that he is missing in action, possibly at the hands of The Hood, maybe to feature in later stories. But what was the point of getting rid of him in the first place? Why remove all parents from the set-up, given we know that Jeff’s wife is dead? The conspiratorial mindset has to point you towards “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley, and the societal desire for the establishment to replace the family unit. Children don’t need adults, they just need society to look after them. Step forward Colonel Casey, a lady who is the substitute parent, part of the State, getting us straight into Huxley country. If you want an example of ‘predictive programming’, this is it.
International Rescue is now painted as part of the global governance of 2060, relied upon to carry out rescues with the authorisation of the world’s leaders. Apparently, this was a necessary format revision as no-one though that you could keep International Rescue’s missions a secret anymore, the way technology has progressed, thus crushing the 1960s idealism that there would always be a way to do so. In the 2004 “Thunderbirds” movie they addressed how they could still be invisible to the world most of the time, and their base kept secret, in one throwaway line from Bill Paxton as Jeff Tracy.
And in fact, in Thunderbirds Are Go, they talk of a technology called ‘Midas’ which allows them to cloak their ships just like the Klingons in Star Trek. They have therefore established the means for International Rescue to remain a secret, as this could be extended to Tracy Island itself. And maybe they could have the technology to lay down bogus flightpaths which confuse anyone trying to follow International Rescue back to base? Simple, so why didn’t they go this route instead? Back to the conspiracy: with this in place, any replacement parent figure could not be part of the state structure, and therefore we couldn’t be led into Huxley territory. Oh dear, there seems to be a hidden agenda playing out here…
Effects-wise, much was made of Thunderbirds Are Go being a mixture of CGI and live action miniatures – in essence the backdrops are real and the characters and craft are added. This sounds good on paper, but unfortunately about half the time there is a mismatch of depth of field and scaling, meaning it looks like you’re watching Dinky Toys rather than huge lumps of rescue collateral. Yes, this might be cutting edge, but quality control MUST be stepped up, or it will just continue to look naff. We know they CAN do it, as there are enough examples where the look is perfect, but maybe a bit less of land vehicles skidding around as if they are radio controlled (and less than six inches in length) would be a considerable improvement.
The new technologies used by International Rescue are dumbfounding too. The lift/elevator on a line between Tracy Island and Thunderbird 5 is a prime example – are we meant to believe that TB5 stays in an exact position above Tracy Island a lot of the time? Then there’s Alan’s use of space hoverboards which defy science. Whatever people say about original Thunderbirds, it did try to pay at least a little bit of lip service to the known science of the day. Space science here seems to have taken a backstep into the era of Fireball XL5.
And what of these wet dreams for toymakers which are the DIY kits of rescue craft in the Thunderbird 2 pods (now called modules)? Merchandisers have Christmas Day sorted - the kids can build their own crafts from components. The problem is these bits of kit are animated precisely like that – they look the size of toys in the show.
Once again we come back to what will be the cognitive dissonance response to these points: “you’re not the target audience”. Well, I’ve received some disturbing reportage from friends of friends, whose children were initially hooked for the first half-dozen episodes. It’s bad news for ITV. These children have got bored with the show. Every week, it’s a variant on the same sort of rescue. Hook a line around what you are there to rescue, and pull! They even played this out in the “Fireflash” episode, the remake of the original opening story. They had a perfectly acceptable means of rescue from “Trapped In The Sky”, but instead undermined and cocked a snook at that by suggesting the Elevator Cars wouldn’t be able to take the weight of a Fireflash jet liner. Their ultimate solution? Thunderbird 2 fires a line at Fireflash!
Just back only recently is a brand new series of Clangers. Now, this is definitely a show for 4 to 7 year-olds, but can be enjoyed by the whole family. The original show was around 45 years ago, but these new episodes sit in the same universe, and they don’t write off what has gone before by being a ‘reboot’. In fact, it actually improves on the original. Equally, the stories and the narration are as engaging as they always were.
And that’s another problem with Thunderbirds Are Go. It didn’t have to be a reboot. Consider Doctor Who from 2005 onwards, it has been established as being in the same universe as the 1963 to 1996 adventures. When JJ Abrams took on Star Trek for new stories of Kirk and crew, he did it in such a way that it wasn’t a reboot; this was an alternative universe. Not a mirror universe as had been established in the original series, but one where the timeline has been altered. So, it didn’t dismiss what had gone before; these were the same characters but leading different lives.
If comparisons to reboots are to be made, Thunderbirds Are Go falls into the same tray where the 2009 restaging of The Prisoner resides. That show had all the components of the 1960s McGoohan original, but the way it had been retooled simply saw you shaking your head in disbelief. Moving the location from Portmeirion to a few huts in the desert was a prime example of where the majesty of what had gone before was simply not understood.
So, what could have been done with the return of Thunderbirds? How difficult would it have been to just move it on 30, 40, hell even 50 years from the original, and designate Scott Tracy (who could still be voiced by Shane Rimmer) as the patriarch of the family? Sons (and even daughters) would become the new crew of the International Rescue vehicles. Thunderbirds: The Next Generation. The original adventures could then sit alongside these new stories, without any thought of trying to discount what had gone before. Build on it, don’t hide it away. Except it would seem that, just like Mysterons, modern story editors decide that “first, they must destroy”.
One also has to ask why there is no Blu-ray release of these first 13 episodes, just DVD? This again is probably going back to projected audience. They really aren’t expecting an adult consumer base, wedded to HD quality, to be interested. Well, this kind of exclusion of demographic segments is a reminder of what happened with the 2004 “Thunderbirds” movie, when producer Tim Bevan of Working Title Films infamously told a press audience that he wasn’t interested in fans of the original show. Unfortunately for him, those fans amounted to some 99% of the assembled press corps. The comment, probably a guttersnipe slur at the Anderson fans in the venue that had got tickets, backfired horrendously. The movie, and its reputation ever since, never recovered.
I gather that ITV isn’t concerned with the ratings being received for the show at 8.00am Saturdays. No doubt the catch-up services are clicking merrily as episodes are downloaded and screened at times more convenient to the whole family. One wonders whether this really is an illustration that ITV is preparing to wave the white flag of surrender for broadcast television?
My wife summed up exactly what reaction we should be allowed to have to this reboot: “Why do they have to keep on disappointing me?” And that’s exactly the point. This show should be so much better. It DESERVES to be so much better, and hiding behind just saying ‘it’s only a kids’ show’ is not only patronising to the audience the series is aimed at (and left with), but also the audience that it COULD have, if only more due care and attention was paid, from the story editing stage and format set-up onwards. There’s still time for a major rescue of this show, but like the original series always noted, time is running out…
Thunderbirds Are Go - Volume 1 is out now from ITV Studios Home Entertainment. The twin DVD set has a ‘U’ certificate, a running time of 286 mins approx., and a RRP of £14.99, or get it for less at www.culttvstore.com