This is the episode where the members of International Rescue show their true versatility and commitment to their mission. “Sun Probe” is one of the more iconic episodes, certainly one of the ones I watched the most frequently, back when the show was broadcast in the early nineties. Over-familiarity originally made me less enthusiastic about this episode than most, but re-watching it now has reminded me why it’s still a strong instalment, containing some great character moments, particularly for our favourite stuttering scientist.

We open on Sun Probe about to be launched. As one of the main complaints I have for this episode, the long, drawn out launch right at the start is what annoys me the most. Some of it seems unnecessarily stretched – another example of the need to extend the first ten episodes after Lew Grade’s decree. Each stage gets laboriously described by Colonel Benson in the control tower (wearing a particularly nasty dark ochre top and grey waistcoat). He wishes the three ‘solarnauts,’ Asher, Harris and, er, Camp, luck on their journey. When they go. In half an hour. I am extremely relieved that this isn’t filmed in ‘real time’. Anyway, as the rocket trundles towards launch it’s made clear that THIS IS A BIG DEAL. The countdowns emphasise Sun Probe’s immense rocket power. The fuel container disappears underground like a miniature Marineville. The countdown mercifully ends, and – Colonel Benson is thrilled – “Lift off is A-Ok! Operation Sun Probe is on!”

The Tracys – Scott, Alan and Jeff, anyway – are watching all this on Jeff’s tiny TV monitor in the Tracy Villa’s lounge-cum-study area. Tin-Tin is here too, snuggled up sweetly next to Alan. Jeff is pretty excited by the rocket launch, which “never fails to give me a kick,” and then he speculates about Brains’ whereabouts, thinking that the scientist would be interested in the historic event. No, in this world there are apparently no VCRs, DVD-Recorders or Sky+…or even Youtube. An equally baffled Scott goes off to remind Brains himself.

Brains is busy tinkering with his latest invention in the lab, Braman. Braman is a copper-covered robot with a humanoid shape, which Brains seems to be programming as his all-purpose PA-calculator-bottle-washer (basically the exact opposite of Bender from Futurama). Scott arrives to tell him about Sun Probe, but ends up perplexed at Brains’ total disinterest. Scott’s reaction to Brains’ frustration with his new metal friend is amusing, too – but it was still nice of him to try to tell Brains…

Scott leaves Brains to it and we watch more handy exposition provided by the news reporter. It turns out that the Sun Probe launch all happened a week ago and a cute low-tech animation explains the solarnauts’ mission - to fly as close to the Earth’s sun as they can, launch the eponymous ‘probe’ and return to Earth with the piece of matter from the sun’s flare. What I find the most impressive is that they’re able to accomplish this epic journey in a single week! However, they never actually explain just what they’re going to do with this piece of solar energy once it’s contained. Any fanfic takers?

Strapped safely inside the Sun Probe, the three solarnauts joke nervously about their fear of melting away, should their refrigerating gadget expire at any point. (For the record, this little scene tends to set off many puppet-likely-to-melt-related jokes in one’s parents). Anyway, the mission is still going smoothly, so far, and now it’s Jeff who tries to get Brains to come and watch Sun Probe go into orbit. Brains has now moved his robot into the bit of the lounge that’s behind a big oriental-style wooden screen. Jeff reminds him that the Sun Probe mission is about to get interesting, only for Brains to casually correct him on the timing of the orbit. In a sweet bit of characterisation, Jeff is amused to realise that his friend is “not as blasé” as he behaves and in fact knows the mission off by heart. Brains’ response is a surprisingly shrill, “Oh, no, sir!” to which Jeff says, “You could have fooled me!” But it really gives a sense of Jeff’s gruff sense of humour and the earnest tunnel-vision of our Brains when he’s working.

In the (inevitably ill-fated) Sun Probe, it’s time to fire retros to get them into position for the mission’s final stage. Its rockets sound suspiciously like one of the Thunderbird craft landing. There’s more mission dialogue and many mini-countdowns as the ‘collect a piece of the sun’ operation finally gets going.

While Sun Probe reaches its end game, Brains is trying to speed up Braman’s responses by teaching him chess. Speculating aloud, the scientist wonders if he could ever create a robot brain as fine as a human’s, before announcing ‘checkmate’ to his metallic protégé.

Cutting back to outer space, the Probe has successfully made it through the sun’s flare – the Tracys watch a ‘tel-radio picture’ of the event – and more of Barry Gray’s spooky ‘space music’ plays over the video. Sun Probe’s probe reconnects with the rest of the ship just as Brains enters the room. Watching the picture and totally out of the blue, Brains figures something out that the rest of the space agency appear to have overlooked. Even as he mutters, “I don’t think they’re gonna make it,” and Jeff replies, a little naively, “But everything’s going fine,” (jinx!) the announcer squeals that Sun Probe’s rockets have failed and the spaceship is now on a dead collision course with the sun! One more time - the entire space agency missed that possibility? The announcer excitedly says “Stay tuned!”

There’s a short break here, during which time the rest of the family suddenly turns up in the lounge - clearly not every Tracy was all that excited about the Sun Probe mission. I have a theory that all the coverage was buried on a dedicated satellite channel like National Geographic. Alan and Tin-Tin are still snuggled up on a seat together, Scott is beside Virgil, and for all you Gordon fans, yes, he’s finally here! Now that everyone’s gathered together, there’s rapid discussion about what could have happened to doom the Sun Probe mission.

Brains speculates that Sun Probe was unable to fire its engines due to high levels of radioactivity from the sun. It will need a boosting signal from Cape Kennedy to set them off – Scott impatiently demands why they don’t just do that? Brains says that they probably already are, but their signal is probably not strong or close enough.

They’ve clearly left the TV playing and at that point, Colonel Benson broadcasts in his full awful-ochre-shirt-with-dark-waistcoat glory. I just hate the colour scheme, ok? And the poor guy has no other outfits. Not even a proper uniform! Anyway, the Colonel has also worked out that Sun Probe is doomed, unless International Rescue, “if you are watching”, can possibly help them.

On this bombshell, the others wonder what to do, and Brains leaps into action and – starts playing chess with Braman again. Which Alan totally “doesn’t dig.” Cliff-hanger music plays and we leave Brains to tinker – I mean think.

Back in Sun Probe, the solarnauts are understandably freaked out by the change in their mission’s status from ‘darn dangerous’ to ‘certain death.’ It’s a pity we don’t really learn more about these guys, although it’s easy enough to empathise with their predicament – a nightmare that one of them has claimed to have had many times. The refrigeration gadget is already becoming less and less effective. That nightmare is now a reality.

On Tracy Island, snacks and big cups of coffee fuel a heated discussion about what International Rescue should do be doing to help. Scott figures it’s obvious – they should use Thunderbird Three to get close and send Sun Probe a rescue signal from there. Virgil disagrees strongly, pushing for Thunderbird Two’s far superior broadcasting power. Scott points out that that only counts if they were both at ground level – this is probably the only time you see these two brothers ever disagree on anything. Tin-Tin is more anxious that the whole world is waiting for IR to come up with a response and they’ve already taken three hours (three-freakin’-hours! How? Were they deciding on donut toppings?) arguing about it. Then Gordon, finally, gets a chance to prove his usefulness by pointing out the reasonably obvious facts – both craft have an equal chance of success or failure. So why not give both of them a try?

This plan is immediately agreed upon and Brains is ordered to get working on a launch for Thunderbird Three. Virgil heads off to ready Thunderbird Two’s supplies. Alan volunteers Tin-Tin to do work, or something on Thunderbird Three. By the sound of it she will be needed to press the button that operates the safety beam. Maybe she has the smallest fingers.

A short time later, Scott, Alan and Tin-Tin are lined up on the couch in the lounge. This will be Tin-Tin’s first ever mission and Jeff wishes them all luck before they launch. The couch disappears under the floor with its three passengers, beginning Thunderbird Three’s quite extravagant launch sequence. It always makes me smile because whenever they do this, the characters manage to look somewhat self-conscious, and is it just me or is Scott visibly keeping his distance from Alan and Tin-Tin?

In fact, they seem so awkward that they’ve managed to swap seats, possibly on a dare, on their way down the deep drop into the hangar beneath (in the miniatures shot). Then once the sofa inserts them into Thunderbird Three, they’re back where they started. Alan hot-foots it up to the control room, ordering them all to “take up launch positions.” This involves him getting into his uniform and standing on an automatic, swivelling control panel, whilst Scott and Tin-Tin sit in silence, on a couple of comfy recliners. Frankly, Scott has an expectant ‘and where’s my martini?’ air about him.

Next thing, Thunderbird Three is blasting off – this is Scott’s cue to ditch Tin-Tin and go help Alan. We get a lovely shot of Thunderbird Three’s fiery rocket flame creating heat-haze as it leaves the green orbit of Earth. Alan calls Tin-Tin to ask her to start work, which she says she’s already doing. There isn’t a moment to waste – after all, if they’re going to catch up with Sun Probe, they’ll probably be at the Sun in less than a week!

Please bear this week long delay in mind, as that seems to be how long Virgil and Brains have spent on loading Thunderbird Two with appropriate equipment. The optimum point for Thunderbird Two to broadcast from is way up in the Himalayas. Grandma has apparently rustled up some freezing weather gear. Virgil and Brains play a strange version of the Generation Game’s conveyor belt (except Virgil has a list, cheating slightly) and they tick each box off with (apparently wholly inaccurate) reference numbers. They’re almost done when Brains suggests that they pack one of his super computers, just in case...

Thunderbird Two rumbles out to a rather quiet launch. There’s a lovely shot from outside TB2’s cabin, looking in at Virgil piloting while Brains reads an in-flight magazine...or, ok, it’s probably a file about the mission. Jeff and Gordon are on the balcony watching them go and Jeff admits to some uncertainty about their ability to succeed this time.

After a short break, we’re back with the hapless crew of Sun Probe, who have just twenty-four hours left. They’re getting frazzled and almost don’t believe it when Alan’s voice reaches them on the radio. Scott and Alan inform the crew of their plan, to fire Sun Probe’s retros with their own signal, which Tin-Tin is now ready to send. Scott’s already worried about the vast increase in heat from the sun. They all anxiously watch the display telling them how close they are to success.

It turns out that they’re still four hours short of where they need to be, whilst Thunderbird Three is in increasing danger from the heat. Alan radios Jeff with the bad news. Jeff frets at asking Tin-Tin to risk her life like this, but her father and Jeff’s loyal servant™, Kyrano, assures Jeff that she’s willing to do whatever it takes, especially as he and his daughter owe Jeff their lives. Another snippet of back story worth wondering about, which is never fully explored in the show proper.

Still concerned about Thunderbird Three, Jeff calls up Virgil in the Himalayas to see what their progress is. Somehow it has taken a week to get Thunderbird Two ready to do her part in the mission. Jeff asks about the weather conditions and Virg responds with a laidback, “Pretty stormy, Father. Pretty stormy.” He isn’t kidding – it may be the understatement of the 21st Century. In one of the most vivid scenes in the show, Thunderbird Two glides through snow blasted mountain tops. Thunderbird Two’s almost totally covered in snow by now. Virgil brings her in to land on a ledge that, he’s confident, should be directly below them. They must have some decent GPS in there. Once they land, Virgil calls base again and says they’re setting up on Mount Arkan and are about to get out the Transmitter Truck (never named here, but generally known to fans as ‘Jodrell 6’). Virgil seems optimistic as he brings out this Big Truck, which is basically a giant satellite dish stuck on top of sturdy caterpillar wheels. Inside it, Virgil and Brains are wearing some nasty white and splodge coloured fur hats – also, pale blue snowsuits are NOT a good look for poor Virgie.

Still, this scene really feels authentically cold and there’s a nice shot of the sun being almost invisible through the thick cloud and snow cover.

Much, much closer to the sun, in Thunderbird Three, Alan is now trying to persuade Tin-Tin to use an escape pod before they get much nearer to burning up. She refuses, saying that there is no time and they must rescue Sun Probe’s crew. They try the beam again – and a visibly too-hot Scott sounds ragged and irritated when he sees they’re still two hours short of success. Thunderbird Three isn’t built to endure these conditions, and Alan fervently hopes that they can all stand up to the heat.

Neatly mirroring Alan’s line, Virgil hopes that he and Brains can stand up to the cold. He patiently listens to Brains spell out a tech-babble-heavy plan, (i.e., he will make some calculations, then send the signal), before gallantly offering to make them both some hot coffee.

Things aren’t looking good for Sun Probe. The heat is worse than ever, nothing is working, and they haven’t heard from their potential rescuers in four hours. The crew of Thunderbird Three aren’t in the coolest shape, either – the heat is having a very bad effect on Scott and Alan, and Tin-Tin almost doesn’t hear the order to try the signal again. To their utter horror, it’s still not working!

Scott is almost passing out from the extreme heat and Alan encourages Tin-Tin to do whatever it takes to make the signal work. As a last resort, Tin-Tin drastically overrides TB3’s system and then resends the beam. They all watch it anxiously – and Alan’s hair is huge at this point! The signal makes a louder and more encouraging noise until, suddenly, finally, the damn thing hits the image of Sun Probe and fires the retros!

Inside Sun Probe, solarnaut Harris thinks that the ship’s about to break up. Then he realises, with considerable relief, that the rocket motors have actually fired! They’re moving away from the sun!

Triumphant music plays – the mission has been a success!

In Thunderbird Three, they’re desperate to go home. Scott admits he couldn’t have taken much more of the heat. Alan presses the button that fires the retros. It fails. Scott snaps at him to fire the retros, but Alan can’t get them to work. Nothing is working, and now they’re in the same bind as Sun Probe, Alan realises, “We’re still on a collision course with the sun!”

On Earth, the news broadcasters pick up on this bad news even before Jeff and Gordon, who were watching the TV channel report. The newscaster again sounds far too pleased about this turn of events – he chirrups that the brave International Rescue crew are headed for certain tragedy.

Jeff calls Mount Arkan, informing Virgil that Scott, Alan and Tin-Tin are unable to leave the sun’s orbit. Virgil asks Brains for help with a heart-wrenching, “What are we gonna do? What’re we gonna do?” I like how Virgil’s line is delivered with far less melodrama than you might expect from only reading it. Brains is thinking frantically out loud – at one point he stops altogether, mid-thought, and Virgil has to prompt him with a patient, “Yes?” Finally, Brains realises that Thunderbird Three’s rescue signal is draining it of power to fire its retros, and that they’ll need to figure out the frequency to jam this transmitter. Clearly no one on TB3 has been left able to switch it off themselves. Brains elects to work out the frequency needed by using the super computer packed in TB2.

In Thunderbird Three, poor Scott passes out entirely, slumping onto the control panel. Alan is barely conscious and has figured out the same thing as Brains. He forces himself up and gets into the lift, intending to switch off the transmitter that Tin-Tin was operating.

While the news people continue to sound ecstatic about Thunderbird Three’s certain demise, Virgil and Brains have returned to Thunderbird Two. They open up the crate (remember that ever-so-useful packing list?), only to discover that – gasp – robot Braman is in there instead! Brains gasps, “We’ve brought the wrong box!” Nice choice of words, brainiac, now no one gets blamed for this snafu. Argh.

Unaware of this, Alan makes it down in the lift, leaning against it with his sweaty head covered, his vision apparently blurring with it as he sees Tin-Tin unconscious on her keyboard. The transmitter is still going, and Alan makes a few steps towards it. He doesn’t get any further and conks out altogether barely a metre from fixing it! Perhaps if you’d all been in your spacesuits…?


On snow-swept Mount Arkan, Brains is stuck for an idea and Virgil is stumbling out words as he desperately tries to prompt the scientist into finding some other way of doing the calculation they need to save Thunderbird Three. Virgil suggests frantically, “That is… if you could work out…Braman’s mechanics on paper, surely you could…”

We have a winner! Brains suddenly remembers that he made Braman part pocket calculator. He quickly gets the question ready – Virgil’s face is a picture as Brains reads out the mathematical gobblegook. When he’s finished, Brains tells Braman, “Off you go, then,” and the robot starts to makes noises like a broken dial-up modem. At last, it spits out an answer. Brains just isn’t too sure if it’ll be the right one.

Jeff and Gordon are trying to reach them on the mountain. Virgil eventually answers, filling Jeff in loosely on the details, saying that Brains is going to jam TB3’s transmitter. The broadcast starts, and there’s a long, tense wait for the signal from Braman to do its work. This beam sounds like a Doctor Who monster.

It looks like it was the right answer as Thunderbird Three’s retros suddenly burst into life! Woo hoo! Even more triumphant music plays than when they rescued Sun Probe. Alan emerges from behind the sofa in TB3, as though he’d been hiding from a Dalek, realising that the ship is now moving away from the sun! Brains and Virgil have figured out the same thing, prompting Jeff to warmly say how proud he is of his International Rescue team today. He prepares a heroes’ welcome for the crew of Thunderbird Three – although there’s probably cake for Virgil and Brains in the interim, considering that it’ll take another week for the spacefaring threesome to make it back to Earth.

Everyone is safely back on Tracy Island. Brains chats to Braman again, relieved that, now the excitement has died down, he has a chance to work on the robot’s chess abilities. Braman promptly checkmates him. Jeff enters the room at that moment and consoles the crestfallen scientist, saying, “You’ve been working kinda hard lately…” which Brains seizes on as the answer. Bless. Jeff thanks the scientist for saving his team, and suddenly everyone is there to thank Brains. Even Braman joins in – presumably his next words are ‘Crush, Kill, Destroy…’ For now, everyone laughs as Brains gives a jaunty salute, and cheeky music signals that this is the end of a rather long review. Episode. Long episode. That’s what I meant.

In many ways this is another story that every casual viewer immediately thinks of when Thunderbirds is mentioned. The story’s influence has spread, most recently in Danny Boyle’s movie Sunshine and in more real life events over the past few years. I think it boils down to how much investment you put into Sun Probe’s unfortunate crew, and your tolerance of long, drawn out rocket launches. However, from my experience of this episode from a young age I thought it was great for sparking off debates as a kid – pointing out inconsistencies and improbabilities, like reaching the sun in seven days, or wondering why no one seems to be drinking any fluids or stripping off in the intolerable heat. I think this leads us into a much longer debate about why turtleneck jumpers seemed to be such a hit with the Tracys, living on a supposedly tropical island… perhaps Brains has invented anti-thermal underwear?

Overall, this is another important, core episode that establishes characters, machines and International Rescue’s greatest strengths – its ability to adapt to the situation and unwillingness to merely quit despite the odds.


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In the opening scene of this episode, we are witness not to the launch of a manned mission to the moon...but to the sun! The destination alone suggests trouble and sets the stage for sheer hanging on the edge of your seat, hand wringing angst. In that aspect, this episode of Thunderbirds surely stands alone. We are not that far along in the series here and in the worst case scenario, we already stand to lose virtually half of our International Rescue team.

The mission is a noble one, save three solarnauts, in a spacecraft named Sun Probe, from certain death as their equipment fails due to intense radiation emitting from their blazing destination. It's hard to believe those guys from MIT did not anticipate this problem and the solarnauts themselves do not even seem surprised by the failure of their own equipment. They do not mention NASA as an organization, but Cape Kennedy is in there. FYI, as it currently stands, the Cape is once again Canaveral and the space center is Kennedy.

It's different in the case of Thunderbird Three, as that craft was not designed with the goal of traveling to the sun in mind. So, we are not really shocked when our heroes (Scott, Alan and Tin-Tin) find themselves in a similar situation as their retro rockets also fail, due to the radiation, and they are headed straight for the sun. What creates the tension here is who on Earth will rescue the rescuers?

Jeff turns to Gordon for solace and we see early on in the episode that the pilot of Thunderbird Four is more than capable of offering valuable input in this desperate situation. An emotional display from Kyrano, due to his daughter being on board, only adds to the gravity of the situation. Now, on to our heroes. While Thunderbird Three speeds to the hottest spot in our solar system, Virgil and Brains arrive at one of the coldest places on Earth, and the best location for being able to reach the huge rocket ship with their safety beam through the atmosphere. Loved the fur hats and also the contrast here between the two environments. But oops, Brains brings the wrong luggage...but yay, it's Braman!

Meanwhile, inside Three, the crew is dropping like flies from the heat. First Tin-Tin is rendered unconscious (the delicate female-it's the 60s, remember?), then the older male, Scott. And, finally, the young upstart, Alan.

Brains' fumble not only ends up saving the day, but also serves to twist our guts yet again. Seems the genius should have had more faith in his own creation. Great suggestion you made there, Gordon, deploying both Thunderbirds Two and Three in the hope that one or the other would pay off. The safety beam from Two ends up doing the trick and our gallant crew in space is rescued. It's mission accomplished all the way around and we are cheering in our seats.

Back on Earth, after a welcome home party for Three's crew, we get to see Braman turn the tables on his maker in a game of chess. A lighthearted way to end a very intense episode and one I never get tired of watching. I really think some of the current writers penning dramas in Hollywood might learn a thing or two from some of the plot devices used here. Judging from some of the movies and series I've seen lately, a screening or two certainly couldn't hurt.

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