Features from Previous Issues

This article was first published in Andersonic Issue 5 - Spring 2008

To most people, the name of Gerry Anderson is synonymous with Thunderbirds - the technical innovation, the exciting rescues, the superb soundtrack and strong moral compass made it his most popular series, and its opening episode encapsulated this perfectly. Vincent Law goes back to the end of Runway 29...

A pilot episode not only has to tell a story but also introduce the format and characters to viewers, which is quite a tall order, even in 50 minutes. The Andersons wrote most of their series’ pilot episodes over the years - when the plot and exposition mesh well, you get something slick like Breakaway, but if not you end up with something like Identified where the exposition takes over. Trapped in the Sky is more the former than the latter, weaving the larger cast and fleet of vehicles into a good story.

With more pocket money than Bill Gates, former astronaut Jeff Tracy has created International Rescue, an organization committed to saving life and employs his five young sons to do the dangerous bits. They live together on an idyllic island in the middle of nowhere but are not quite the idle rich they seem to be. All the boys are obviously trained as pilots/ astronauts/ etc, capable of flying almost anything and also fearless enough to risk their necks to save lives. The series has a much bigger scope than Anderson’s previous series - not only does it have a bigger cast, but also features more regular vehicles and many more different locations - which goes a long way to explaining its longevity.

The episode starts by introducing the series’ recurring villain, unnamed on-screen but known to us as the Hood, who lurks in his temple drooling over International Rescue’s secrets. His link with IR is that his brother Kyrano is Jeff Tracy’s man-servant on their island base, and his only motivation greed (however if you recount all the vehicles and resources he employs over the course of the series, he’s not exactly short of a few quid himself). From there we are introduced to Jeff and his sons along with their resident boffin Brains. The plot features a theme commonly used in the series, that of advanced technology, upon which the characters are reliant, going awry. The villain of the piece plants a bomb in a new aeroplane in order to create a crisis which will bring International Rescue to the scene - a long-winded, not to say callous, way of getting a few photos of them! To add some human interest, Tin Tin, Kyrano’s daughter, is on board the plane (in retrospect you should know something’s up when she reassures someone, ’Don’t worry, it’s perfectly safe’; cue the ‘minor technical fault’ which turns out in fact to be a very major bomb). Just as conventional rescue methods appear to have failed, International Rescue turn up, out of nowhere. By the time Scott (our ersatz Sean Connery) convinces the stiff upper lips at London Airport that IR mean business, they’ll only have 10 minutes to rescue the ‘plane - that’s what you call racking up the tension!

The sub-plot of the Hood’s little photographic excursion into TB1 and his subsequent escape from the airport is a convenient lead-in to introduce Lady Penelope and Mr Aitchless himself, her butler Parker. They calmly blow his car off the motorway before ‘eading ‘ome, but of course The Hood only gets a bit charred, so he can return to fight another day. Meanwhile, using their elevator cars, Scott and Virgil bring the plane down safe and sound just in the nick of time. Having earlier established that Tin Tin is aboard Fireflash, we do not see her or her fellow travellers during the rescue (probably because showing 600 passengers screaming uncontrollably while wearing their last meal would be too much for a young audience - there are enough reasons to be permanently put off flying in Anderson’s many series as it is, without showing such abject terror). It is an oversight that she only reappears again at the epilogue, apparently without a care in the world and suggests the episode’s plotting is not quite matched by its attention to characterisation.

The designs of the regular and guest vehicles such as Fireflash are based on contemporary developments and are always visually appealing; also, the scale of the models is convincing - check out that shot of Fireflash’s engines bursting into life (although those target fighters are clearly built from small scale model kits). The technical innovation required to cope with the demands of the script is streets ahead of previous series, with the innovation of the rolling road/ runway opening up the scale of the story. In fact the rescue couldn’t have been realised half as well without Derek Meddings’s new invention. The Thunderbird launches are elaborately built up, particularly in this opening episode, with Barry Gray’s storming themes the icing on the cake. At times, the camera seems to be having a love affair with the vehicles, lingering on the drawn-out launches. Having said that, they are the real stars of the show. Cynics would say repeated inclusion of the launches was blatant padding but for me they’re an essential ingredient to the build-up. The general standard of the effects suits the caricatured puppets though is not yet quite up to the seamless standard of UFO.

Barry Gray’s strident Thunderbirds march is almost a soundtrack to Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’ hitting 60s Britain at the time. Every time a new vehicle is introduced in the episode, Barry’s there with a big fanfare. Just try watching the launches or the climactic rescue of Fireflash with the sound off and you’ll realise what an essential part of Thunderbirds’ long-term appeal the music was - it’s the heartbeat of the whole series and it also papers over the odd crack. If only the music of New Captain Scarlet was half as memorable.

If there’s one aspect of the episode and the series as a whole that is below par, it’s the characterisation. Although we get to see most of the cast, there isn’t enough time to learn about them all this time round. This is understandable in one episode but notably is not addressed over the series. Stingray had a similar family-based cast and featured some fleshed out characters where the humour developed naturally from their interaction, but Thunderbirds doesn’t manage to repeat this quite as well. Alan and Gordon hardly feature in the episode, but over the series it is John and Gordon who are usually kept in the background. The dialogue can be limp and routine at times - lots of ‘left left, two degrees’ - and overall much less witty than Stingray. The approach to the British class system is tailored for an American audience so everyone speaks in Received Pronunciation (e.g. ‘Jolly good show, old boy’) except for the rough diamonds like Parker and his ex-con chums. If the inclusion of ‘There’ll Always Be An England’ to represent Lady Penelope could be seen as parody, then the use of the teapot symbol on Scott’s console strikes me as going a little too far towards self mockery.

This was the mid 60s, so it’s no real surprise that the characters are predominantly male. Looking at the cast 40 years later, one has to ask where all the girls are; maybe if the series was made today, Jeff would have managed to marry some of his sons off (and get the services of his daughters-in-law for IR gratis). The absent mother is another mystery, and although Tin Tin gets to assist on a few missions, she is more often consigned to the kitchen. This just reflects a different time when many women stayed at home to keep house and/or bring up children; gender roles were more defined back then (staggeringly, at one time some American states had a law forbidding married women to work). The introduction of an independent female character like Lady Penelope is a bold move for the time and in her brief appearance here she is self-assured and no stranger to understatement. She is shown to be an essential part of International Rescue as she deals with the main villain and preserves their secrecy in one fell swoop. The writers were quick to see the potential of this unlikely double act and Penelope and Parker were to play bigger parts in subsequent episodes, adding a James Bond edge to some of the stories. Something that dates the episode is the ethnic make-up of the cast. The only non-caucasian characters are Jeff’s manservant and the main villain, although perhaps too much is made of this topic nowadays, mainly by people desperately wanting to take offence where none was meant. The cast of characters just reflected British society at the time; no-one can expect the producers to have had 20/20 foresight. Perhaps if the series was remade, Anderson would alter the gender of some of the characters to reflect modern society, as in New Captain Scarlet; Alan could be Alana, for example (it might make him more likeable). The series’ vintage is reaffirmed by the tannoy voice aboard Fireflash inviting the passengers to ‘smoke if you wish’ - after the stress of that rescue, they could all have expired from emphysema before the radiation exposure got them.

The episode introduces a view of the future where technology has advanced to near full automation, but where it can still fail when least expected - even one of IR’s own elevator cars throws a wobbler - perhaps a warning against total reliance on machinery. The technology is emphasized by Virgil carrying out the rescue with two remote vehicles, rather than having Alan and Gordon drive them, which would have racked up the tension and created more involvement for the characters. So Virgil saves six hundred lives while his two brothers stay on the sofa! It’s worth pointing out that IR always use this advanced technology in a positive way, to save life and offer help, rather than for personal gain (as the Hood would like to do, given half the chance) or military purposes. The extended hand on IR’s ingenious logo sums up their purpose perfectly.

The exposition necessary to introduce the series is woven into the plot fairly well, although the bit where Jeff sits at his typewriter talking to himself about IR’s raison d’être is badly shoe-horned in and would have been better explained in a conversation with, say, Brains, who has little to do in this episode apart from showing the doctor in. Talking to yourself is the first sign of madness anyway, Jeff. Ditto the opening scene of the Hood in his temple; the episode breaking the cardinal storytelling rule several times by telling rather than showing.

Incidentally, has anyone ever wondered whether there is a connection between the Hood’s glowing eyes and the eyes on the Tracy brothers’ portraits which illuminate when one of them contacts the base? Science versus magic perhaps? Damned if I can work it out. You may ask yourself where an ex-astronaut got the kind of funds needed to excavate an island and build a fleet of rescue vehicles to cover all eventualities. You may also ponder how an automatic camera detector operates, or you may simply just get swept up with the excitement, and not worry about such trivialities. It’s difficult to imagine in 2008 what it was like seeing something so innovative hit the screens back in the mid 60s. From the explosive opening credits to the unforgettable closing theme, the pace never lets up, simultaneously introducing the characters and the real stars of the series, the Thunderbird fleet, and building up to its tense finale. You’d never guess that this was originally filmed as a 25 minute episode then filled out to double its running time. All of Anderson’s 1960s series had a unique appeal as everything seen on screen had been specifically designed and created, always looking that little bit more interesting than their real-life equivalents. The innovation and sheer excitement more than compensate for any perceived shortcomings with the dialogue or stereotyping.

At the end of the episode, Jeff congratulates his sons, ’Boys, I think we’re in business’ - which is true of the series as a whole. Watching Thunderbirds, it often feels like their previous series could have been dry runs for what became the Andersons’ most well-known and enduring series. Trapped In The Sky is a great opener, arguably the best episode of the series, as it demonstrates all of its best features. Many consider it to be the Andersons’ finest hour and they’re probably right.

Vincent Law