A good idea is effectively timeless and this is certainly the case with fiction. No matter how old a good story concept gets, it will continue to resonate with audiences for generations to come. This is clearly the case with the works of the late Gerry Anderson.
Anderson is famous in the British public consciousness for his involvement with several thrilling science fiction shows, but Thunderbirds probably stands proudest among them. Using advanced marionette puppets and elaborate sets and miniatures (a technique dubbed ‘supermarionation’), the series charted the heroics of International Rescue, an independent aid group founded by former astronaut Jeff Tracy and staffed by both his five sons and a selection of close allies. Using their advanced rescue vehicles dubbed Thunderbirds, International Rescue would face situations too dire for other rescue services to handle, spanning the Earth and Outer Space while occasionally clashing with international saboteur the Hood, who sought to claim their technology for his own ends.
I myself became a fan of the show back when it was repeated in the early 1990s, creating a runaway success that few could have predicted. I even somehow managed to receive the infamously hard to find Tracy Island toy that Christmas (no Blue Peter fact sheet for me!). The show has been repeated a few times since and always enjoyed at least modest success but there’s never really been an attempt to reboot it, barring a mostly unpopular live-action movie ten years ago. However things look set to change with a brand new television series coming from an alliance of ITV, Pukeko Pictures and Weta Workshop.
At its core, this is very much the same show as its timeless predecessor. Reboots often have a bad habit of completely missing what made a story work in the first place, but this one understands perfectly. Many will have likely heard that the show is CGI, an unsurprising fact in the current entertainment landscape. However, many may not be aware that the show isn’t fully reliant on CGI technology. Thunderbirds always aimed to present cinematic adventures on a TV screen and a large part of that was the amazing practical model effects for both the futuristic vehicles or the elaborate locales. The new show retains that sensibility, using CGI primarily for the characters and keeping almost everything else as sets and miniatures, with the two composited in post-production. Weta are most famous for their work on Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth film adaptations so it should be no surprise that the models produced here are gorgeous.
The CGI characters themselves strike a balance between real humans and the original marionettes. It would be easy to get this wrong and create something creepy, so full credit to the animators for giving us something that instead tips its hat to the roots while justifying the update by doing things that would have been near impossible with physical puppets. One of the iconic visuals of Thunderbirds has always been the activation sequences, where paintings and furniture in the Tracy family home prove to be secret doors and lifts to the hidden hangars. The new show retains the basics of these sequences, but the new animation style allows us to see the characters get suited up in transit in a way reminiscent of Iron Man in the Marvel live-action movies. These are really dynamic and heroic looking sequences whose sensibilities are retained once our heroes are out in the field saving lives and risking their own.
The plot for the premiere works well at easing new viewers into the Thunderbirds world, but possibly implies this might be a continuation of the original as opposed to a straight reboot. A series of earthquake devices installed along the ocean floor sees International Rescue once again contending with the Hood, the man they believe to have killed Jeff Tracy. The episode juggles a perfect balance between establishing setting and characters, presenting amazing rescue set pieces, and setting the foundations for a long-term plot thread. I think there’s a very basic human desire to want to help others, and Thunderbirds has always tapped into how that feeling made us love the emergency services as children. The cold opening perfectly establishes the selfless heroism of our protagonists, but the animosity felt towards the Hood and just what exactly he’s planning provides something deeper that may connect even more solidly for older viewers. At this stage there isn’t much I can say about the characters individually, as this opening is primarily focussed on establishing the entirety of the regular cast in addition to the aforementioned plot thread. There is a healthy implication that each character will get truly defining moments as the show continues, along with some well done subtle moments which imply how the loss of Jeff has shaped how each of the brothers handles their rescue work.
Thunderbirds Are Go is shaping up to be something really special. The show is striking the ideal balance of respecting an older work by keeping the timeless heart and updating only what could be done better. The multiple layers (the heroism, the adventure, the cinematic presentation, etc) are all there and waiting to be found by a whole new generation of fans.
Thunderbirds Are Go Premieres Saturday 4th April at 5pm on ITV.