Let’s be honest, this remake (or reimagining) of the seminal 1960s children’s show is up against it from the start. The original Thunderbirds is a huge sentimental favourite from my childhood, and despite the limitations of its puppet stars it remains in a special place in my heart that makes it impervious to criticism. Against such competition, the new 2015 Thunderbirds Are Go! is doomed to never be better than second best, but it’s to its great credit that the new version accomplishes that objective anywhere near as well as it manages to.
There’s clearly a lot of love and respect for the original series from the current team purposed with making Thunderbirds live again in the 21st century, almost 50 years on from the show’s début in 1965. The show has to be modernised of course but everything is done carefully and in the right spirit, and avoids almost all of the catastrophic missteps of the 2004 live action feature film abomination.
For one thing, the iconic designs of the four main Thunderbird craft are left largely intact but with some smart upgrades; one might quibble with Thunderbird 2’s pumped up shoulder pads, but it’s nonetheless still undeniably the same old Thunderbird 2 underneath the bulging new muscles. The only Thunderbird to get a ground-up redesign is the space station, and let’s face it – the original Thunderbird 5 was nobody’s favourite. This one is much more interesting and in line with current space technology, even down to having separate sections for weightlessness and artificial gravity that instantly make scenes set there look and feel far more interesting. Even the various launch sequences for each Thunderbird are kept recognisably close to the original show albeit making use of the greater freedom from working in CGI as opposed to puppets and cramped model sets. However there is a strange new preoccupation with the Tracy boys getting outfitted on their way to their respective ships which verges on the fetishistic, and I can only presume that it’s because dress-up International Rescue playsuits are among the deluge of merchandising winging its way to stores in time for this Christmas.
Elsewhere there are some nice tip ‘o’ the hat moments to the old days, such as the use of the iconic 1960s title sequence countdown by original voice star Peter Dyneley to launch each Thunderbird craft; and more subtle touches such as a clip from Stingray on a video screen and the nose cone of a Space: 1999 Eagle transporter repurposed as part of an underwater research vehicle in distress. The most controversial aspect of the new show is likely to be the absence of Jeff, the Tracy family patriarch and head of International Rescue, who is missing in action as part of what looks to be the show’s attempt at a series arc; however Jeff’s disappearance actually solves a lot of problems with the original set-up as it allows the new show to concentrate the attention on the five Tracy siblings. Best of all is the way that it allows John (criminally overlooked and underused in the past) to have a real function in the series as he takes over as incident controller and main play-caller, while Grandma (Sandra Dickinson) steps up to act as the responsible adult in Jeff’s place. The new show is also careful to add a much needed new female character to the male-heavy line-up, with Kayo apparently an updating of the original show’s Tin-Tin: maybe the rise in global popularity of Hergé’s boy detective in the interim was a factor in the name change. Kayo’s father is presumably the old series’ manservant Kyrano, but he’s not referred to or present in the first episode.
Otherwise all the old team are present and correct – Scott in Thunderbird 1, Virgil piloting Thunderbird 2, youngest son Alan in the space-bound Thunderbird 3 and Gordon the aquanaut in charge of super-sub Thunderbird 4. Arch villain The Hood is also back, as is International Rescue’s UK secret agent Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward along with her chauffeur and jack-of-all-shady-trades Parker, who is the only character to be voiced by the same actor (David Graham) as he was in the 1960s. The rest of the voice cast is fine but no one really stands out in the way that, for example, the distinctive Graham, Dyneley and Shane Rimmer did in the original. Presumably it’s modern political correctness that requires the portrayal of science genius Brains to roll back on the trademark stuttering, but the (presumably) Indian accent he’s given by Kayvan Novak is unsettlingly close to an Asian racial stereotype for comfort. Ironically the one voice artist that I had most confidence in ahead of seeing the pilot – Rosamund Pike as Lady Penelope – is arguably the weakest link in the line-up, with Pike working at too high a pitch to properly convey Penny’s aristocratic class and peerless secret agent prowess. She’s not a patch on Sylvia Anderson, who cameos in the series as an elderly great aunt, or even Sophia Myles in the 2004 film. (Yes, I did just say something complimentary about the abomination – I apologise, and it won’t happen again.) It’s also a shame that modern TV product placement rules mean that Lady Penelope’s car of choice can no longer be properly identified as a pink Rolls Royce.
Of course, the biggest difference between old and new is that the 1960s puppets and models are firmly consigned to the back of the toy cupboard in favour of modern CGI renderings, which instantly makes the show that little less joyously unique. That said, the makers of the reboot – New Zealand company Weta Workshop, which supplied the effects for Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies – make a respectful acknowledgement of the show’s origins by using miniature model sets wherever possible to create an interesting and distinctive on-screen mix with the CGI characters and spacecraft, and it’s definitely the best new stylistic innovation in the show.
It’s a disappointment then that the rest of the CGI looks so run of the mill. The characters lack distinctiveness or expression, although that may be a creative decision to mimic the similarly inexpressive wooden faces of the original puppets. More distracting is the way that the characters jump around the place with no sense of gravity acting upon them, like the early days of computer rendering before Pixar and the rest showed the way to a more realistic style. The end result here is that Thunderbirds Are Go! looks of slightly cheaper and inferior quality in this regard than the majority of modern kids cartoons that you find on CITV, Disney and Boomerang! from the US.
And make no mistake: this new show is emphatically one for the kids, with ITV saying that it is unequivocally intended for the 6-11 year old audience. To my mind that’s a huge mistake and throws away the possibility of making this a family viewing event as Doctor Who became when it was reborn on Saturday evenings on the BBC in 2005. By contrast, someone at the network has decided that this show will be scheduled for Saturday mornings at 8am, pretty much ruling out any family watching and throwing away all but the most dedicated of the nostalgic adult audience who might very well have tuned in at 5 or 6pm. Considering how much press and publicity ITV put into the relaunch, it seems extraordinary that dull-witted TV executives then immediately throw it overboard.
In any case, the focus on the young demographic further manifests with scripts that are both paper-thin and overburdened with exposition; I suspect that even an average 11-year-old will feel slightly patronised by the simplistic level of plotting and clunky dialogue on display here, although that may just be an issue with the pilot episode which is noticeably overdoing things in its attempts to lever in a moment for each of its recurring characters. It manages this to varying degrees of success, Lady Penelope and Parker’s brief appearances in particular seeming to be there for brand recognition alone and serving no coherent constructive purpose to the proceedings.
The biggest problem with the first episode is its pacing. To be sure, the original show was ponderously paced even by contemporary standards and positively glacial to today’s eyes, but at the same time it did at least allow that week’s deadly situation to be ratcheted up in terms of tension to almost unbearable levels before the International Rescue team arrived in the nick of time to save the day just seconds before calamity. “Ring of Fire” features at least half a dozen different scenarios that would easily have powered an entire episode in the past – and indeed in one instance of a reflecting solar dish really is lifted directly from the major threat in “Lord Parker’s ‘Oliday” from the original run. When I was a kid, each of those rescues lived in my mind for a week after seeing it and I still remember each of those 30-odd rescue operations in intricate detail. Sadly the modern show doesn’t seem to trust its audience even to remember what happened before the ad break and so puts no such efforts into making these memorable or effective. Even sitting still for two minutes without a Thunderbird taking off or something blowing up is deemed beyond today’s kiddies. Welcome to the Michael Bay generation, folks.
Hopefully things will settle down when the show begins its weekly run of 22-minute episodes where it won’t feel it has to strain so hard to earn its ADHD meds, and instead can be left to rediscover the gentle art of effective storytelling. Because really, that’s the true hidden secret at the heart of the success of all of Gerry Anderson’s shows: the power of a strong story well told. The spacecraft and secret headquarters and explosions and quirky puppets were a big part of it, to be sure, but the story is the thing wherein you’ll truly catch the lasting love and wonder of a child’s imagination. If the show can remember that and deliver accordingly, then the rest is already in place to carry Thunderbirds Are Go! to a whole new 21st century success.
Update: Interestingly, the second episode (or technically episode 3 as the one-hour pilot is classified as a two-parter) gets right pretty much all the things that the oversized season opener got wrong. It scaled back the threat to a single coherent storyline – a nuclear weapon in orbit – and concentrated the story onto just two Tracy brothers, John and Alan, with merely brief cameos for Scott and Brains. The extra time was used instead to spotlight Lady Penelope and Parker whose mission was to infiltrate a top secret vault in London. While I’m still not a fan of the new Penny we certainly got good value from the ‘Grey Ninja’ as Parker put his safe-cracking skills to good use. There was even some rather decent humour to go with the reasonably tense threat and proper characterisation in what was a markedly better script now that the show has time to settle down and do things properly. Still a crying shame about the 8am timeslot though, and the CGI cast really does look rather odd.
Thunderbirds Are Go! will air on ITV at around 8am on Saturday mornings. An initial DVD release is scheduled for June 22 2015.