01: THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO
I’m sure most readers would agree that the 32-episode run of Thunderbirds was sadly all too short. And while we were fortunate enough to score two feature-length movies out of Thunderbirds’ brief run, I think most of us would have preferred another full season of Thunderbirds to round us out (and give us another DVD box-set to lust after). The first Thunderbirds movie, Thunderbirds are Go, was sandwiched between the final episode of Season 1 ('Security Hazard'), and the first episode of Season 2 ('Atlantic Inferno'). And while Thunderbirds are Go is only half an hour longer than a standard Thunderbirds episode, in terms of stylistic content it is literally worlds away. The differences are evident the moment the MGM lion roars, followed by the staccato United Artists drum roll, and the futuristic and shiny new logo for Century 21 Cinema Productions. This is followed by five colourcoded arrows slicing across the screen to the announcement (decidedly not by Jeff Tracy), that Thunderbirds are GO! But wait — we’re only a couple of minutes into the movie and the thrills are not over yet! A brand new set of introductory panels of our heroes are trotted out, their freshlychiselled visages profiting well from the new format.
And when I say ‘freshly-chiselled,’ that’s exactly what I mean. The expanded format naturally came with an expanded budget, so everything has had an overhaul. Or, at the very least, a very good cleanup. The cinema screen is far less forgiving than a television screen, so the sets and models have been re-made, revamped and revitalised to take this into account. Most interestingly, and to mixed effect, the characters’ heads have been remodelled — hairstyles have been updated and in some cases re-coloured, make-up has been applied (some of our heroes might have gone a bit too heavy on the blush), and the wardrobe has been pulled straight from a Mary Quant catalogue. In the words of Austin Powers, our heroes are now groovy, baby! By far the most exciting thing about Thunderbirds are Go is the use of Cinemascope, with its widescreen format. Visually, the movie has utilised the best of this technology, and the marionettes are filmed as often as possible with the tops of their heads cut off in order to minimise the visibility of the strings. The only problem with this is that it showed us more of the marionettes bodies than we are used to seeing. Consequently the bodies have been modified to be less squat and boxy than they were in the television series. As a result, our heroes are now physically much closer to human dimensions — although not quite to the human proportions that were later showcased in Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons.
And to round off the human-like effect, the producers have injected as much ‘realism’ into the characters as they could by placing them into more naturalistic poses. Visually, it seems they have thought of everything. It’s just a shame that, well, they didn’t think as much about the rest of the movie. Thunderbirds are Go is, at its core, an extended episode in which everything takes an extended time to happen. It is a sophisticated rehash of Episode 8, 'Operation: Crashdive', with the Fireflash replaced by the Zero-X, and the Zero-X being the victim of sabotage — only in this retelling it is Alan, as opposed to Gordon, who is winched aboard to hold the fuses together. In terms of character development, Thunderbirds are Go is significant for the following: 1. The character focus shifts to Lady Penelope and Alan; 2. Alan’s subconscious mind reveals he prefers older and blonder women than Tin-Tin (refer to point 1); 3. Gordon bares his naked chest (not as good as it sounds); 4. Alan and Scott have learnt to backcomb their hair (again, not as good as it sounds); 5. Seatbelts have been fitted into FAB1 (no doubt to minimise the recoil effect whenever Parker uses the machine guns, as opposed to any regular safety issues); 5. Thunderbird One gains a passenger compartment (Scott being tired of his guests staring straight up his nose); 6. Jeff and Scott discover terry-towelling makes an excellent wardrobe staple (I wholeheartedly agree); and 7. It is the first time (the way he tells it) that Scott has ever been to a nightclub. Thunderbirds are Go is a handsome film to look at, suffering only from the pacing. It’s also very much a product of movie-making at the time, which unfortunately dates it in a way that the television episodes have not dated. However it IS still Thunderbirds, and there is plenty of material to keep fans happy, not least of which is the wonderful use of Cinemascope to bring our heroes to life – almost to the point where they are popping off the screen.
Our story opens in the only way that Thunderbirds knows how – with a long shot and a slow pan as we are introduced to Glen Field airfield and the majestic Zero-X, all of which is accompanied by the requisite thematic awesomeness of Barry Gray. One pauses at this early juncture to wonder if the magnificence of the Zero-X might somehow diminish were it minus Barry’s swelling strings, but we aren’t given any time to ponder as the Zero-X, a multi-section aircraft currently being assembled under the somewhat dour auspices of Assembly Control, trundles in bits and pieces onto the tarmac. The centre section lines itself up on the runway as Lifting Bodies (technospeak for ‘wings’) One and Two connect themselves to the main body of the craft, followed at excruciating leisure by the cockpit and nose cone. This assembly process takes up some seven minutes of screen time, which one imagines would equate to hours in real time. The Zero-X is huge, the parts look heavy, and the mission sounds dangerous. Space Captain Travers seems suitably nervous as the tarmac is cleared and the Zero-X prepares for its launch to Mars. Barry’s music is silenced to make way for the rockets to explode into life, and Zero-X sets off at speed down the runway. Despite the 10 billion pounds of thrust all those rockets must be generating, it heaves itself reluctantly from the ground before begrudgingly hitting Mach 1. Unknown to the crew, however, a saboteur lurks somewhere in the engines, his identity revealed as The Hood when his foot becomes trapped in the elevator control. The Hood is, as you know, made of pretty stern stuff. While the squeezing of the elevator control has split the skin of his foot like the peel of an overripe papaya (one of those red papayas, given all the blood that has stained his sock), the bones of his foot are tough enough to stop the elevator control in its mechanical tracks, and he is still able to, somewhat grimacingly, drag his way to an escape hatch. Unfortunately, however, the aforementioned cast iron bones of The Hood have spelt doom for Zero-X. Without elevator control, the great beast nosedives towards the ocean, necessitating the ejection of the crew before Zero-X explodes in a ball of flame on the surface of the sea.
Two years later (I did warn you all that this was a loooong movie, according to the relative terms of space-time as we understand them) and Space Centre personnel have gathered to discuss the 862-page incident report that has only, just now, been completed. The report concludes that Zero-X crashed as the direct result of sabotage (the investigators having found some incriminating pieces of foot in the elevator control, I would imagine). Despite the threat of further sabotage, Zero-X Mark 2 awaits the next launch window. One of the committee, however, feels that security has been somewhat lax, and suggests they hire the services of International Rescue. Eighteen minutes (and two years, relatively speaking) into the movie and we finally cut to Tracy Island — in widescreen format. Niiiiice. Inside the villa, the newly scrubbed, peeled, coiffed and plasticised Tracy Family anxiously await Jeff’s decision as to whether IR is going into security or not. Jeff’s having trouble deciding – he wants to please his sons, but is wrestling with his self-imposed rules of only launching when people really need rescuing.
Deciding to ‘ah hell, screw it,’ he dispatches Scott and Virgil to Glen Field, and Alan is sent off to orbit Earth in Thunderbird 3, in case Zero-X actually makes it into orbit. At this point in the proceedings one must step from the narrative path to consider what has been happening on Tracy Island since the last episode of Season One. Scott seems to have had a nose job and cheek enhancement surgery in the interim, which fortunately (for us) hasn’t altered his voice one bit. Virgil’s summer surgery, on the other hand, has been less visually invasive, but resulted in dire consequences for his singing career. It seems he has had his adenoids removed, which has caused a significant alteration to the timbre of his voice.
Jeff, meantime, has discovered the rejuvenating effects of stem cells, while Gordon has gotten into Alan’s bleach bottle. Alan, of course, is as handsome as ever (although his eyebrows look as though they might be preparing to spin their cocoons any day now). And John? Say, where is John? Oh... I’ve been advised he’s still at the hairdresser. Back in the narrative, Jeff calls Lady Penelope on her teapot (Note to Lil: never, EVER, put the teapot in the dishwasher), and sends her to the States in the cunning guise of a newspaper reporter. At the Space Centre press conference, Penny flirts up a long distance storm with the handsome Captain Travers from across the crowded amphitheatre. Waving her cigarette seductively, she sends across a homing beacon cunningly disguised as a St Christopher medal, which Travers fondles affectionately. Don’t feel so special, Travers – she sent one to everybody! Twenty-eight minutes into the movie, John still hasn’t been sighted and we’re back reassembling Zero-X again, while Penny and Parker sit in the carpark keeping tabs on the crew. They quickly ascertain that the fifth member of the crew, Dr Grant, is not where he should be. Penny alerts Scott, who enters the cockpit and unmasks ‘Dr Grant’ as,,, The Hood! The Hood pulls a gun and escapes (his prosthetic foot being more than up to the task), and the real Dr Grant is reunited with the crew. Penny and Parker take off after The Hood in Fab 1, causing havoc in the carpark and taking out a number of security gates in the process. The chase takes them to the bay, where The Hood swaps his car for a boat and Fab 1 follows over the waves by using her hydrofoils. The Hood is looking quite handsome in his blue jumpsuit, so it’s a shame that Parker has to blow him up. (Don’t worry, boys and girls, I’m sure we’ll see him again. The Hood has more lives than a cat.) Zero-X, meanwhile, has lifted off successfully with its full complement of crew and St Christopher medals intact. Alan watches wistfully as it leaves the atmosphere at Mach 3.2, ejects its lifting bodies, and sets off for deep space.
When last we left off, the Zero-X was piercing through the outer layers of Earth’s atmosphere at Mach 3.2, and Scott and Virgil were calling home to ask permission to go with Penelope to the Swinging Star nightclub. As I said at the time, a likely story,,, Well, whatever the story, that’s what they’re telling their father, and that’s what Alan overhears as he returns to the lounge from Thunderbird Three’s silo. The news is more than enough to turn Alan’s smile upside down, but he bravely attempts to salvage the situation by inviting Tin-Tin to the mainland for a bit of swinging on their own. Jeff nixes the idea immediately, though, the refusal sending Alan off to bed in a huff. And since it seems to be about 2.00pm in the afternoon, that’s quite some huff! At this point the movie enters what appears to be the drug-fuelled inner ramblings of one of those addled rock stars from the 1960s. Mick Jagger, maybe, or Malcolm McLaren? Actually...noooo... it’s the sugar-and-light dreamscape of none other than Cliff Richard (Junior), and it goes something like this...
Alan, having gone to bed in a snit, now tosses and turns in his sleep, moaning fitfully as the disembodied voices of Scott and Jeff echo tauntingly inside his head. Harp music signals a transition from Alan’s exterior condition (rumpled bedclothes and rumpled hair) to his internal condition (glitter-striped tuxedo and powder-blue top hat), where he waits in a fathomless black void for the arrival of Lady Penelope and Parker – who is resplendent in a pale pink chauffeur suit. Alan hops into the FAB1 in what can only be described as a state of awe at Lady Penelope’s, well, awesomeness, and Parker ferries them to the Swinging Star nightclub. Not the same Swinging Star that Virgil and Scott are currently carousing in, but a much better, and sparklier, one. (We assume, therefore, that the other Swinging Star must be a dark and dingy affair, with vomit-stained floors and spittoons decorating every corner,,,) Entering said Swinging-Sparkle-Star, Penelope and Alan are welcomed by the guitar ministrations of The Shadows (who are all wearing their own glitter suits) and are seated at the star table (it’s actually the star table. With star carpet, and starry sparkly curtains behind it). As Alan fondles the champagne bottle, our friend Cliff Richard (Junior) makes his spangly appearance and begins grooving spastically across the glitter-strewn stage. Cliffie then reveals he has a rocket placed strategically inside his anatomy and takes off on a plume of smoke into the air. A shooting star will shoot you And Mars will go to war The Man in the Moon will jump on you If you don’t love me no Mooooore... The song continues in this vein with Cliff alternately igniting said rocket in his youknow-what, sliding around on the moon and dancing atop a giant guitar. Despite the ludicrousness of the song and dance number, the entire sequence seems staged to highlight an unexpectedly flirty playfulness between Alan and Penelope, with Alan making repeated overtures and Penny lightly rebuffing him.
The sequence ends with Alan being paged by Jeff and called back to International Rescue. Work must always come before pleasure, and Penny shows her understanding of that by immediately diving into the back of FAB1, which then floats tauntingly out of Alan’s reach. Alan has a moment of panic that he won’t be able to get back into the car (‘Mind the gap, Alan...’), but attempts to do so and ends up crashing back to Earth. In reality though, he has fallen out of bed, with the crash loud enough for Jeff to hear him from the office and come to investigate. The next day sees Scott and Virgil home from their shenanigans (let’s not mention them again, eh?) and keeping up the playboy appearances by busying themselves poolside. Gordon and Tin-Tin romp noisily in the water, with Brains, Scott, Virgil and Jeff studiously ignoring them, not even glancing up when Tin-Tin swallows some water and coughs it up delicately. Over the sound of the splashing, Jeff and Scott are trying to have a three-way conversation with Brains, who is showing off his smarts by playing chess with Virgil at the same time. Alan is huffily ignoring the lot of them, only lifting his head to grumble when Gordon lobs a beach ball at his face. Jeff sits back amongst all this merriment to reflect that John is missing all the fun (because lobbing balls at Alan’s head is, apparently, fun), and the family pauses briefly in memoriam. But the break lasts only long enough to engage the audience in a scene change to Thunderbird Five, and poor John, the only member of International Rescue who is actually doing any work.
When last we left off, the majority of the extended Tracy Family was frolicking by the pool, while the lone family member with a work ethic was sitting in his uniform up in Thunderbird Five, wondering where it had all gone wrong. Actually, he wasn’t wondering. Like any middle-ish child from a large family, he knew it had all gone wrong when his father had insisted on continuing to have children. (It had also gone wrong when his brothers had cashed in the face-lift vouchers their father had bought them all for Christmas.) At any rate, in the subzero void of space (nicely juxtaposed against the blistering tropical heat of Tracy Island), John is monitoring the progress of the Zero-X as it heads towards Mars.
After all the false starts (at this point one needs to appreciate that the Zero-X debacle has been ongoing for well over a year, leaving plenty of time for our heroes to do some rescuing in-between, instead of lounging by the pool the entire time as the movie quite bizarrely suggests), the Zero-X has finally landed safely on Mars and the crew have deployed what looks to be the detached Zero-X nose-cone, which apparently doubles as a kind of armoured Martian Rover thingy. The crew of the Zero-X-Martian-Roverthingy are looking for life on the red planet, but in the rocky and waterless grey wastes (oh, so Mars is not red after all?), finding life doesn’t seem likely. Only Dr Grant shows any signs of optimism in their search, pointing out some weird spirally rocks and opining that the expedition might find life as they “don’t know it.” The rocks are so unusual that the crew decide to take a sample by blowing one up (ah, we humans and our itchy trigger fingers) so they can carry off a chunk. Dr Grant must be psychic, because no sooner do they blast a rocket at one of the ‘rocks’ than they all come to creeping life, revealing big red eyes and gaping maws that spit fireworks – ah, these must be the infamous rock snakes of infamous infamy! The Zero-X crew make a horrified break for it as the assembled might of the Martian rock snakes sets about spitting their sparking missiles at the exploration pod, and the crew fire off a hurried mayday as they set off at speed back to Zero-X. (So much for the long-awaited exploration of Mars, then. The discovery of the Mysterons – who must live on the other side of the planet, well away from the rock snakes – will have to wait for another day, and another earthman with an itchy trigger finger...) The Zero-XMartian-Rover-thingy then surprises us by turning from a ground vehicle to an aerial one, blasting off into the atmosphere and returning to dock with Zero-X.
Back at Tracy Island, the party has moved to the pool room, where Jeff and Scott challenge each other to a green-velvet duel with Virgil keeping score. The game is only a device though – their minds are not on the game so much as discussing what they’ve heard about the rock snakes and the imminent return of Zero-X to Earth. True to schedule, Zero-X has arrived back home and enters Earth orbit. Given the green-light, the spaceship penetrates the upper atmosphere and prepares to reunite with the lifting bodies we last saw at the start of the movie. The Zero-X will re-dock with the lifting bodies, and under their power be brought back down to the ground. But wait. What? Oh no!!! There’s a problem with lifting body 2, and the Zero-X crew can only watch in horror as it collides with their ship and then spirals out of control and explodes in mid-air. Ground Control attempts to send up another lifting body, but are advised that it will all be too late. And even worse, the collision has damaged the escape units! Luckily for them, International Rescue’s chief eavesdropper (John, as if you didn’t know) is listening in, and he quickly relays the information to Jeff, who turns to his assembled crew to convey the sorry scenario: Zero-X is coming in on one wing, the escape pod is damaged, and the whole thing will crash to the ground in 30 minutes!
At the end of our previous instalment, the ZeroX had failed to meet up with its landing bodies, was coming in on one wing, and had only thirty minutes flight time left before she smacked into the tiny town of Craigsville (population 4,800). Would our boys in blue be able to save the Zero-X – and Craigsville – in time? Jeff certainly thinks so, despatching his team with a series of bold directives: Brains is ordered to accompany Scott in Thunderbird One, Gordon is sent with Virgil and Alan in Thunderbird Two, and Alan is ordered to board the Zero-X and fix the escape hatch — a ridiculously dangerous task that he accepts with equally ridiculous enthusiasm. Zero-X, meanwhile, is descending towards the flat, hard ground at 3,000 feet per minute (although at that rate I calculate it will pancake onto Craigsville (population 4,800) waaay under that thirty minute timeframe), and around the time that the Glenn Field flight controller realises exactly this, Scott breaks into the comms to announce his imminent arrival at the air base. While Scott arranges for a parking space at the field, Thunderbird Two is barrelling along on an intercept course for Zero-X and Craigsville (population 4,800), with Scott blithely advising over an open comm that Thunderbird Two’s pilot can be contacted on Channel 4, if anyone is interested in eavesdropping. Inside Thunderbird Two, the tension can be cut with a knife. Well, it should be thick enough to cut with a knife, but it hardly seems as though anyone is very tense at all. Gordon is sent to man the ‘astrodome’, while Alan announces he’s going to slip into something a little more comfortable.
While the TB2 crew gets set, Scott lets the crew of the Zero-X in on the plan. A plan that the Zero-X crew quite naturally thinks is a tad suicidal. And what is this plan? Funny you should ask,,,. As soon as Virgil positions TB2 directly beneath the Zero-X , Gordon is to fire a cable into the belly of Zero-X, and Alan, suitably attired in his suicide suit, will be launched via cable into the Zero-X nosewheel housing. Should the transfer be successful (because, let’s face it, the chances of success are slim), Alan is to secure himself inside the wheel housing and set about rewiring the fuses to the Zero-X escape hatch. It won’t prevent the Zero-X from crashing, but at least the crew will be saved. Naturally, this being Thunderbirds, the abovementioned hare-brained scheme works a treat, and as soon as Alan makes the successful transfer — from TB2 to Zero-X in mid-air, at 3,000 miles per minute, with the ground getting closer every second — he requests a timecheck from Gordon, who announces that Alan only has four and one half minutes to get the job done. If Alan isn’t saying it, he surely must be thinking it... Eep!
Following Brains’ transmitted instructions, Alan finds the fuse box for the escape hatch and sets about rewiring the junctions. It’s painstaking work, no doubt made harder by the motion of the aircraft and the buffeting of the wind from the open hatch, yet despite the hazards and the countdown ticking away inside his head, Alan is doing well. But with only one minute to go, Alan drops the screwdriver, and can only watch helplessly as it falls through the open hatchway and tumbles towards the ground. At this point, Zero-X’s engines decide to explode (something to do with pilot Paul ‘over-running’ them to buy more time – fat lot of good that did, eh Paul?), leaving Alan in the position of having to use his fingers to hold the wiring together. Déjà vu, anyone? Zero-X, with Thunderbird Two in tow, is now skirting perilously close to the treetops of Craigsville (population 4,800), and with Alan fumbling at the fuses it is by no means certain that International Rescue is going to pull this rescue off in time. As the town comes into view, Virgil can’t wait any longer (a classic case of ants in the pants) and orders Scott to eject the Zero-X escape pod and Alan to jump. With only seconds to spare Alan connects the fuses, the Zero-X crew is ejected from the craft, and Zero-X slides explosively along the main street of Craigsville (population 4,800).
Mission successful, sort of, and with Alan dangling like a wet sock from the cable still attached to TB2, Gordon advises that his little brother can’t be retrieved and that Virgil is going to have to lower him to the ground. Fortunately, Lady Penelope and Parker have somehow made it Craigsville, ignored the evacuation warnings (did I mention that Craigsville was evacuated before the crash? Oh, sorry...), and found a nice spot on the highway from which to watch the shenanigans. Virgil drops Alan right at FAB1’s door and takes off, leaving Alan to the mercies of Penny and Parker. For some inexplicable reason, it is at this point that Alan’s manly and macho bravado takes an unexpected holiday and he slides all goggleeyed into the back of FAB1 and moons Penelope like a star-struck teenager. He is no doubt remembering his earlier night-time fantasy about Penelope, and unfortunately so am I. Penny, however, remains oblivious to the real reason behind Alan’s mooning, and unwittingly brings his fantasy to life by telling him she’s taking him to the Swinging Star. Yes, the real one. Alan’s dream has become reality... although it soon turns to nightmare. His candle-lit dinner with Penny is ruined by the bunch of rowdies at the next table who keep interrupting with their stinky cigar smoke and unwelcome comments, and who turn out to be none-other than the hideously disguised Jeff, Scott, Virgil, Brains and Tin-Tin... uh-oh! Alan is understandably shocked by this turn of events, but it’s difficult to say what he is more disturbed about – the hideous disguises? Being caught smoking by his old man? Or being caught-out flirting with Penelope by Tin-Tin..? In the words of International Rescue’s esteemed Field Commander: Tut. Tut.