50 years after it first burst on to our TV screens, International Rescue makes a welcome return. It’s like Octonauts on steroids: Thunderbirds is back!
Different and yet familiar
Given how much technology in both animation and our own world has moved on, it’s inevitable that this new CGI version of Thunderbirds represents a dramatic departure from the original, which celebrates its 50th birthday this year. And yet Thunderbirds Are Go is surprisingly faithful to its origins.
Yes, of course some things are different. Let’s start with what’s changed in terms of a cast of characters which includes the vocal talents of Gone Girl‘s Rosamund Pike and Game of Thrones‘ Thomas Brodie-Sangster.
The Tracy boys’ father Jeff is no longer with us, having disappeared in an accident orchestrated by original series big bad the Hood. In the interests of diversity, Brains is no longer American but voiced by the British-Iranian actor Kayvan Novak (last seen, briefly, in Paddington).
The family’s manservant Kyrano is also absent, although his daughter Tin-Tin from the original series has been converted into Tanusha ‘Kayo’ Kyrano. Kayo is International Rescue’s kick-ass head of security – think one part Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Tasha Yar, two parts Lara Croft – and, secretly, the Hood’s niece. She remains a platonic love interest for Alan, the youngest brother and pilot of Thunderbird 3, as Tin-Tin did in the original.
Most significantly, of course, our heroes now have no strings attached, with the original Supermarionation puppets replaced by CGI counterparts. But the new show continues to use miniature models for background settings, producing an imperfect, jerky 20th century quality that is initially a little bizarre but strangely endearing.
What of the plot of this hour-long, double-length episode? It provides us with a brisk introduction to both the characters and the real stars of the show, the Thunderbirds themselves, now liberally equipped with human and remote-controlled robotic gadgetry straight out of the Alien and Matrix franchises. There are rescues galore. And there are loving nods both to the original series and other Gerry Anderson shows, including:
- When Alan fixes the TV satellite, we see that John is watching an old episode of the Anderson submarine show Stingray.
- The undersea lab which forms the basis of the first major rescue operation bears a striking resemblance to an Eagle spacecraft from the live action show Space: 1999.
- The various delivery mechanisms by which each Thunderbird pilot is delivered to his craft are identical to the original series, as are the emergence of Thunderbird 1 from under the Tracys’ retracting swimming pool and the rows of folding palm trees that conceal Thunderbird 2’s launch pad.
- The solar collector rescue around which the second half of the story revolves is a reworking of the original series story Lord Parker’s ‘Oliday.
- Parker continues to be voiced by David Graham, who played not only Lady Penelope‘s chauffeur in the original but also Gordon, Brains and Kyrano.
So there’s plenty of references for those who, like me, grew up watching the original in our childhood. But is it any good?
Actually, yes, it is.
There are a few things which don’t work particularly well. I don’t like the reworking of the show’s theme music. (Sorry, but the Thunderbirds March is a classic which should not be messed with.) I’m not overly keen on the blocky shape of the new Thunderbird 2 (although at least its iconic swept-forward wings remain). And Rosamund Pike’s delivery as the voice of Lady Penelope is curiously flat and lifeless.
Other than that, this was a lot of fun (which I expected) but surprisingly charming too (which I didn’t expect at all). It took a while for me to switch off my ‘but-this-isn’t-the-original’ filter and the pacing is frenetic bordering on triple espresso-fuelled hyperactive.
But before criticising this new version, it’s worth watching the original without rose-tinted glasses. The hour-long stories were often excruciatingly slow and obviously padded. The limitations of filming with stringed marionettes meant virtually everything had to be shot side-on. And the representation of the rescue action sequences were compromised to say the least.
Those constraints simply aren’t there in this new series. Regular episodes will run briskly to fit the standard 22-minute length required to meet a US-style half-hour transmission slot. And, if this opening episode is anything to go by, we will see International Rescue portrayed as full-on action heroes, with some glorious swooping tracking shots showing off the full capability of CGI animation. My favourites were the scenes aboard Thunderbird 5, with our point of view swooping around John as he floated around his control room in zero-gravity.
For sure, this new series doesn’t have the same simplicity and charm of the original, not by a long chalk. But once I accepted that this is now a different show for a different generation, I found myself swept along in the adventure and giggling quietly at all the loving nods to the original.
More importantly, my three kids sat transfixed in front of the screen through the entire episode. At the end of it, they were eagerly asking when the next one is on. It felt as if a window had been opened back into my childhood, a rare opportunity for my children and I to discover together the magic of a programme that captivated me as a child. And that is as good a reason to love this show as any I can think of.
Thunderbirds is back. And it’s F.A.B.