In 1965, the Supermarionation puppets of renown that made up the cast of Thunderbirds etched themselves into the brain of every child within range of a television. The fun didn’t stop there, with constant re-runs and re-releases to every generation of children since ensuring the near immortality of the late Gerry Anderson’s most famous creation. There’s something extremely appealing about urbane and heroic puppets who fly some awesome aircraft and get in gunfights with baddies, and not to mention a British aristocrat and her Rolls Royce with guns and hydrofoils, even if it is hot pink.  And now, in keeping with the entertainment industry’s current modus operandi, Thunderbirds are BACK in a new format for a new generation.

In a series of posts over the coming weeks, I’ll be showing you what we can expect when Thunderbirds Are Go! blasts onto our screens in May this year. Today, we’ll have a look at the new designs for the real stars of the show: the Thunderbird machines.

The original machines, and FAB 1 (aformentioned pink Rolls Royce). It is impossible to understate how large a part of my childhood this show was.
The original machines, and FAB 1 (aformentioned pink Rolls Royce). It is impossible to understate how large a part of my childhood this show was.

Being the Supermarionation purist that I am (I consider the 2004 movie Thunderbirds an abomination against everything I hold dear, even if it was actually kind of enjoyable), I was initially very concerned that this remake would be, well, rubbish. But, when I saw what we could expect from the aerospace design team, I got excited. Things began to look pretty promising last year, when we were first treated to this action shot of the new Thunderbird One.

Thunderbirds has taken 50 years to acknowledge there are more cities in America than just New York.
Thunderbirds has taken 50 years to acknowledge there are more cities in America than just New York.

They’ve very much stayed with the design of the original Thunderbird One, but updated it to be more, I suppose, technically realistic. The sleeker delta wings are clearly influenced by modern fighter aircraft design – whether they could physically provide enough lift for the giant rocket engines at the tail end is another question entirely, but physics was never a strong suit of Thunderbirds‘. I also approve of the smaller details, especially the additional texturing, really giving the sense that this is one hell of a piece of equipment and aiding to the suspension of disbelief – this looks like a rocket that might actually be built.

Later in the year, a selection of GIFs made it onto the web which displayed 360 degree views of the new-look Thunderbirds. It’s clear the new show is being produced by people who love and respect the original, not to mention the fact that Gerry Anderson, before his death in 2013, wielded much more influence over this adaptation than the 2004 film.

“Thunderbird One: Sleek, first, and fast!”

Thunderbird One, we’ve already seen above, but it’s cool to get a bit more of a look at the trim. I like the little yellow Danger signs; again adding to the realism. This looks like a really well considered aircraft that you can really picture a company building; with the original you never really thought that deeply about it.

"Thunderbird Two: giant transporter! Carries all the rescue equipment to the danger zone."
“Thunderbird Two: giant transporter. Carries all the rescue gear to the danger zone.”

Again with the tiny wings. They’re something that always bothered me about Thunderbird Two, and why I could never choose it as my favourite despite the toy versions being by far and away the best and most playable of the 5 Thunderbirds. This update does little to allay that concern, but the little touches, like on Thunderbird One, serve to make it just that little more plausible. Certainly this craft looks like it has many more functions than just carrying stuff from A to B. They haven’t dispensed with the pod transport design which made the original so iconic, but it appears there are doors at the tail through which the pod vehicles will disembark, rather than the whole machine being raised on improbably strong telescopic legs. I’m looking forward to finding out the purpose of the round things on the sides towards the front.

"Thunderbird Three: designed for space rescues."
“Thunderbird Three: designed for space rescues.”

Of all the redesigns, this is my favourite, and it represents how much television science fiction and the perception of spaceships has changed since 1965. Here we have Thunderbird Three, in an update which takes its cues very much from more cerebral, scientifically accurate (kind of) science-fiction media like 2001: A Space OdysseyBattlestar GalacticaAlien, and the later Star Trek series. I’m no authority, but I suspect in 1965 that the general idea behind futuristic spaceships was that they would smooth out and become streamlined, like aircraft did between the beginning and end of the Second World War and the Jet Age beyond. Things haven’t really panned out that way, and it’s looking much more likely that spaceships will indeed end up looking more like they did in the intriguingly prescient designs of 2001 and all that came after. This is just such an intelligent revision of a concept; I really think it’s perfect.

"Thunderbird Four: capable of withstanding the pressure of the depths."
“Thunderbird Four: capable of withstanding the pressure of the depths.”

Thunderbird Four remains more or less identical to its original design, though now with what appears to be super strong underwater glass surrounding more of the cabin, and an airlock at the back. The floodlights which originally attached to the front of the vessel with flexible arms have been incorporated into the main body, leaving unimpeded the little gadgets which pop out of the front. Like the rest of the designs, there is a certain utilitarian style in play here that makes everything look a little more important – instead of smooth streamlining, again there are lots of angles and panels. It’s like the difference between ships in the Star Wars prequel trilogy and original trilogy. The former, set in an earlier, more ‘civilised’ age, shows spacegoing vessels which are works of art as well as functional vehicles, whereas those of the chronologically later-set original trilogy are stripped back to only the most vital components.

“Thunderbird Five: space monitor. Capable of intercepting or receiving distress calls from any part of the world.”

When you think about it, Thunderbird Five could be used for massive invasions of privacy, and indeed is frequently used to listen in on top secret military activities in the original series. Lucky International Rescue is 100% benevolent! For Thunderbirds Are Go!, Thunderbird Five is the most drastically changed interpretation of the five Thunderbirds. Earlier when I said Thunderbirds never considers physics…well, looks like I was wrong. Since the 1970s, it’s become evident that a space station like the original Thunderbird Five isn’t possible with current technology – sorry, Space Monitor John Tracy. No super cool Swingin’ Sixties interiors for you anymore! The large ring perpendicular to the rest of the structure can be seen to rotate in this launch trailer, which suggests the creators are conscious of the realities of creating gravity in space (centripetal force through rotation, or so the theory goes). Like Thunderbird Three, this is an intelligent update, with contemporary science and science-fiction contributing to this new design.

More generally, I’m really glad they’ve retained the original colour schemes, and the same bold sans-serif fonts for the ship names and numbers as painted on the fuselages/hulls. There’s a lot of reverence on display here. You may have noticed I didn’t discuss FAB1 – I’m saving that for when we look at Lady Penelope and Parker.

The machines may well be the real stars of the show, and they look fantastic, but hopefully they’ll be supported by good writing and great characters. On that note, next time we’ll check out the new look cast of characters for Thunderbirds Are Go. Until then (and I almost didn’t include this because it’s way corny), F.A.B.!

Click here for Part Two: Heroes, Heroines, and Dastardly Villains.

Click here for Part 3: It’s almost here!

To find other things I’ve written about Thunderbirds and the future, click here.