Thunderbirds Are (Finally) Go

8 May

Like most people who grew up with Thunderbirds, I went into the movie studio to watch the live-action movie with a great deal of anticipation … and left, shortly afterwards, feeling that I would rather sit through a reshow of The Phantom Menace than the Thunderbirds movie. That should give you some idea of just how appallingly bad the live-action move actually was. The handful of good moments were completely ruined by a set of child-stars and a plot that talked down to children and insulted adults.

Yes, folks; Jonathon Frakes would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those meddling kids.

So I was both pleased and worried to hear that a new series of Thunderbirds, Thunderbirds are Go, was on the way. On one hand, it could hardly be worse than the movie; on the other, remakes of older TV shows have a history of either failing to grasp the underlying ethos of the show (V) or trying to rely more on special effects than good storytelling. (nBSG, also some Doctor Who and Star Trek: Enterprise.) The first handful of trailors looked promising enough for me to devote some time to watching the first six episodes of Thunderbirds Are Go.

Overall, it isn’t actually a bad show.

For those of you who have never heard of Thunderbirds, the setting is quite simple. An incredibly-wealthy family, the Tracy Brothers, run International Rescue, a NGO that is dedicated to saving lives around the globe. The Thunderbirds themselves are five mighty machines – in some ways, they’re the true stars of the show (par for the course with Gerry Anderson) – each of which has one of the Tracy Brothers to fly it. From their island base, the Tracy Brothers can fly around the globe and bring their array of smaller machines to bear to rescue people in trouble. They are assisted on this mission by Lady Penelope, their chief agent; Kayo (Tin-Tin in the original series), a covert operative; Brains, a genius responsible for most of the Thunderbirds and Grandma Tracy. Jeff Tracy, the head of IR, is apparently missing, having vanished some time before the show takes place. This may be the fault of the Hood, a master criminal with a talent for disguise and zany schemes.

This has merited some adaption. John Tracy, whose role in the original series was quite limited, is effectively mission coordinator from Thunderbird 5; Kayo, whose predecessor was often a literal china doll, is a kick-ass secret agent (and secretly the Hood’s niece); Grandma Tracy, who rarely appeared in the original series, serves as the heart of the team (and apparently a ghastly cook.) All three adoptions work surprisingly well; in the case of the latter, she neatly avoids being both a butt monkey and a hackneyed cool old lady. I honestly wasn’t sold on Grandma until the very end of the first episode, where she stops trying to feed the boys various repulsive dishes and offers genuinely good advice to Kayo.

The depiction of the Thunderbirds themselves is a mixed bag. On one hand, the CGI can do things that Anderson’s models couldn’t hope to do; on the other, the gritty realism of the first set of models is simply missing. Thunderbird Two, in particular, suffers badly from this. However, overall, I would be forced to rate it as a success, as just about everything is drawn from the original series.

(This does cause a problem; episodes have a habit of repeating the launch sequences time and time again, which eats up the minutes.)

The first episode (Ring of Fire) is hampered somewhat by the need to introduce all of the Thunderbirds and their pilots. There’s a surprising amount of exposition – balanced by a handful of moments of humour – and each of the main characters gets to do something to move the plot along. However, it also introduces the Hood … and while he comes across as an effective villain, he also comes across as a lunatic. His grand plan to trigger earthquakes will cause an economic crash that will render the ransom money he wants to be paid worthless. But, overall, it’s a good introduction.

Space Race manages to do something I would have considered to be impossible and completely reverse my opinion of Alan Tracy. His debut made him out to be a teenager (he’s certainly the youngest of the brothers) and while he played a major role in saving the day, I didn’t like him. This episode, however, shows why he’s actually a great character; thrust into making a choice between risking his life and letting innocents die, he risks his life without hesitation. Lady Penelope and Parker serve as the B-Plot, hunting for information Alan needs to save his life and that of countless others.

Crosscut is hampered by an anti-nuclear message that is considerably out of place (unless something replaced nuclear power in the years between now and then.) Scott Tracy is sent to an abandoned uranium mine, where someone is stuck in the mine shaft … and runs into a considerable amount of trouble trying to escape. He also slips up quite badly; it takes him far longer than it should to realise that there actually was someone in the mine and it could have ended badly. Sadly, the teaser at the end has the Hood pretending to be Darth Vader and letting out a big NOOOOO …

Thankfully, Fireflash returns the Hood to his status as a major villain. This time, the focus is largely on Kayo, who is travelling on the titular aircraft when it is hijacked by the Hood. He does get a handful of banal lines, hamming it up in no uncertain manner – “someone is trying to sabotage my sabotage” – but he’s also legitimately dangerous. Most of the episode, however, has the Tracy Brothers trying to land the aircraft without crashing and killing all the passengers. The only weak moment comes from an irritating passenger who spends all his lines hitting on Kayo.

Unplugged is easily the most ambitious episode and, in some ways, it doesn’t live up to its potential. Travelling to London on Thunderbird Two, Virgil and Grandma Tracy run into a field that deactivates electric power … including Thunderbird Two. Surviving a crash that should have killed them, they start trying to track down the people responsible for the disaster, a group of idiots who call themselves the Luddites (and the Hood, who is secretly backing them.) Virgil points out that cutting the power will cause all sorts of disasters (planes crashing, hospitals losing power, etc) but we don’t really see them. On the other hand, it would be a more depressing episode if, no matter what they do, they couldn’t save the thousands of innocent victims.

It does centre, to some extent, on a question that bedevilled the original series. Are the Thunderbirds the true stars of the show, or is it the Tracy Brothers themselves? The original series tended towards the former, but this episode suggests – very much so – that it is the latter. Virgil feels useless, stripped of his technology, yet his inner heroism shines through and he actually manages to be an effective hero, without Thunderbird Two. Grandma smugly points out that older technology isn’t actually bad

… and the Luddites themselves are idiots. That much is clear. A world without technology would be a nightmare. (Read Dies the Fire, if you want a realistic portrayal of such a world.)

Overall, for a show meant to appeal to both children and adults, Thunderbirds are Go manages to bridge the gap fairly neatly.

Some of the changes are good, others are poor. Kayo has a great deal in common with the Black Widow of Avengers; she also has hints of a romantic entanglement with Alan, teasing him at one moment and showing physical affection the next. I thought it was odd until I saw Space Race; Alan can be childish and he can put his foot in his mouth, but he’s a true hero. There was something appealing about the gentle Tin-Tin; however, I suspect that modern audiences prefer a more action-orientated heroine. The Hood, on the other hand, vacillates between serving as a legitimate threat and a hammy villain for a show dedicated to children.

The missing Jeff Tracy, on the other hand, is a poor change; the series is poorer for his absence, along with Kayo’s father. There’s a great deal of back-story, I assume, that is never filled in; all we really know about his disappearance is that the Hood had something to do with it. Hopefully, these issues will be filled in, sooner or later.

Thunderbirds are Go has its problems, living up to the older series. But, in many ways, I’d say it was a worthy successor.

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9 Responses to “Thunderbirds Are (Finally) Go”

  1. Richard Parks May 8, 2015 at 7:07 pm #

    I use to watch them every Saturday when they were on, it seems like a hundred years ago. I wish that it was on here in the States.

  2. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard May 8, 2015 at 7:17 pm #

    Chris, there was never a live-action version of Thunderbirds. [Wink]

  3. andymalloch May 8, 2015 at 8:50 pm #

    Thunderbirds – the reason for having a VPN. (https://www.getcloak.com is a great one for the MAC)

  4. Dennis the Menace May 11, 2015 at 6:48 pm #

    I wish they made a remake of Gerry Anderson’s UFO (without the terrible purple ‘moon’ wigs), myself.

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard May 11, 2015 at 6:58 pm #

      IMO UFO had a good idea but poor execution. [Smile]

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