It’s the fiftieth anniversary of Thunderbird 6 this year. This second cinematic outing for International Rescue was released in 1968, two years after the unsuccessful first film Thunderbirds Are Go and the same time since the show went off the air. United Artists still figured they could make Thunderbirds work on the big screen, though, so they threw another big pile of money at Gerry Anderson and Century 21 Studios and off they went. The result was a mixed bag, but is unmistakeably Anderson.
Brains is drafted by the board of the New World Aircraft Corporation to design for them a revolutionary new aircraft. Unfortunately this is at the same time as Jeff Tracy deems the design and construction of a new Thunderbird machine to be of utmost urgency, meaning Brains must miss the maiden voyage of his incredible design, the luxury airship, SKYSHIP ONE. Nevertheless, International Rescue send a delegation consisting of Alan Tracy, Tintin, Lady Penelope, and Parker. Along the way, the original SKYSHIP ONE crew is thrown overboard and replaced by criminals. Why do they want to record Lady Penelope’s every word? Who is the mysterious Black Phantom? And will the team get to the bottom of this insidious plot before SKYSHIP ONE completes its voyage?
The Supermarionation works of Gerry Anderson can be a challenge to write about because I find them impossible not to enjoy. But as I’ve discussed before, in just about every aspect other than voice work and visual standards they are incredibly flawed. Thunderbird 6 is no different. Almost the entire film is devoid of the action and excitement for which Thunderbirds is known. Instead, they opt for a slow burn espionage-themed drama which is enjoyable and well paced, but ultimately a little light-on for the film’s 89 minute runtime.
It’s a reflection of the later Supermarionation period that a story like this feels out of place in a Thunderbirds setting. After Thunderbirds, the Supermarionation series would become cosier and more character-driven, and this is most noticeable in Joe 90 whose production was contemporary to Thunderbird 6. Making a character-driven story out of the Thunderbirds characters is a challenge because none of them actually have any character beyond the crudely drawn stereotypes that they are. In lieu of character development, then, we have a soft reboot. Jeff Tracy is cast as a patronising, inconsiderate, sexist old fart. Brains becomes an angry, sassy, under-appreciated genius at breaking point. Lady Penelope is a pompous fool who doesn’t know when to stop talking. Alan is a gung-ho youth instead of the whiney jerk of old (which is obviously an improvement). The devolution of Tintin from university-educated tech genius to “Alan’s Girlfriend” is completed here. But most egregious is what the script does to Parker.
Parker is supposed to be a clever Cockney ex-cat burglar who has spent time “inside” and come out on the straight and narrow. In the TV series he is seldom portrayed as fool, just a bit of a cheeky bounder. However, in Thunderbird 6 any of his smoothness is gone. Despite being voiced by the same actor, his voice is a little weedy, and he seems to be permantely frazzled. Lady Penelope condescends to him terribly and it doesn’t help that the script makes him the butt of as many jokes as possible and there is an unpleasant undertone of snobbery about this.
Broadly the plot is preposterous. The criminals aboard SKYSHIP ONE are tasked with recording Lady Penelope’s every word so they can assemble a fake radio message to dupe International Rescue into sending Thunderbirds One and Two to an abandoned airfield, where their pilots will be murdered and the Thunderbird machines hijacked. If you’ve ever watched a mashup where a famous personality is made to sing an incongrous song you’ll understand what a ridiculous task this recording is. And yet, after they get the last words it sounds like Lady Penelope has read it straight off the page. Fortunately of course, the IR team finds out about this and manages to warn Scott and Virgil before they exit their aircraft at the abandoned airfield.
This results in a classic Thunderbirds “Every life is sacred except those which belong to criminals” moment. Without hesitation, Scott and Virgil blow the airfield to kingdom come, which means we never find out the identity of Black Phantom, the mysterious ringleader of the whole operation. He is either meant to be The Hood or not meant to be The Hood, depending on which member of the production team you believe. But who knows, because now he’s in bits.
As demonstrated above, it’s very easy to make Anderson productions into a punching bag. But there is so, so much to love here. The production design and art direction, as always, are breathtaking. Aboard SKYSHIP ONE, every communal space has a different theme. You have the Ball Room, Bottle Room, and another which I imagine is called the Games Room. The ship’s “Gravity Compensator Room” – the engine room – is a fantastic piece of design which bears no relation to any aerodynamic engineering or science, just like the technology it represents. There is some breathtakingly good work on the set for the Grand Canyon sequence. And Operation Escort, where Penelope and Parker are escorted to SKYSHIP ONE by Thunderbirds One and Two, and Alan and Tintin in the Tiger biplane, is poetry in motion. These must have been enormous sets, and they have been beautifully created and used to their full potential.
The costumes are wonderful too. By this time the costume department of Century 21 was used to producing convincing costumes for the much smaller scale Captain Scarlet and Joe 90 puppets and so on these larger Thunderbirds puppets the costumes really have an opportunity to shine. Lady Penelope and Tintin have especially wonderful outfits, full of bright colours and right-up-to-the-minute 1968 looks. The men are a little less successful in their clothing choices though. As always, Jeff is the worst offender throughout but Virgil and Gordon give him a run for his money in the final scene.
One thing that does jar somewhat is the new puppet sculpts done for the production. The decision was made to maintain the slightly cartoonish scale of the Thunderbirds puppets, rather than go for the newer, ultra-realistic style, but as a nod to this advancement the head and hands of the Thunderbird 6 puppets have been shrunk slightly for the sake of realism. WRONG DECISION. The hands, especially on the male puppets, look tiny and it’s quite freaky. The film is often derided for an early scene in which the board of the New World Aircraft Corporation laughs at Brains’ proposal to build an airship. However, I think it’s well put together and there’s enough movement to almost disguise the fact that these laughing faces are in fact static dummies. Mind you, I wouldn’t have wanted to come across those puppets late at night in the studio!
The model work is, as one would expect, superb. SKYSHIP ONE is a wonderful and underappreciated Derek Meddings creation and it looks every bit the part. Its inevitable destruction at the film’s climax is spectacularly crafted for maximum explosions, and you can’t help but feel for the poor old model team whose beautiful work was always being set on fire. The missile base onto which the ship crashes is filled with lots of old Supermarionation set dressing and you wonder whether perhaps the only new cost to the production for this sequence was for the explosives! Incidentally there’s a very clever forced perspective shot from SKYSHIP ONE when it first overflies the base which gives a brilliant sense of scale which would have been sickening on the big screen. The film received a lot of publicity around its stunts with the Tiger Moth aircraft throughout. During the climactic scene as it flies haphazardly down an unopened motorway, under and over bridges, it is next to impossible to distinguish the model work from the actual location footage shot with a real plane. It is a triumph of model work, camera work, and tight editing all coming together to produce a truly brilliant sequence.
No review of a Century 21 Studios production would be complete without mention of the music, and what a great score it is. Like so much else in the film, there is a stylistic development evident in Barry Gray’s work on Thunderbird 6. It is much less bombastic and militaristic than his earlier scores for Thunderbirds or even Thunderbirds Are Go. Instead, the lightness of touch, with jazzier interludes and fun comedy stylings are more reminiscent of his work for Captain Scarlet or Joe 90. Of course, the grand orchestral sound of those earlier Thunderbirds scores is retained, and even developed into the lovely travelling theme of the SKYSHIP ONE. And some other things never change – I will always question the necessity of comedy wah-wah trumpets in Supermarionation music. It’s a very easy score to listen to as a soundtrack album, which is always a bonus. It’s a great last hurrah for the Thunderbirds sound.
Ultimately it’s no surprise that this was the swan song for Thunderbirds. Promising action and giving none is a cruel, cruel trick played twice on the viewing public by the Thunderbirds films. After this one also failed at the box office, plans for a third film were put to rest. In retrospect I think we should consider ourselves lucky that UA and MGM were stupid enough to put down more cash for Thunderbird 6! It’s not a terrible film by any measure; it’s enjoyable, and gets better on repeat viewings once you know it’s not normal Thunderbirds. But it is also very easy to understand why it wasn’t successful. Fool me once, etc.