Friday, 1 June 2012

The Colganology Podcast - Episode 8 - Deconstructing Thunderbirds

This week - 13 minutes of silliness on the subject of Thunderbirds.


Hello again.
My grandchildren have recently discovered the joy of Thunderbirds and I'm so pleased. Thunderbirds was one of my favourite shows as a child. I had the toys and the books (no videos or DVDs back then) and I went to see the two Thunderbirds movies several times. I had several Viewmaster reels (remember them?) where I could see International Rescue at work in glorious 3D. I subscribed to TV21 and Countdown as both comics carried the Anderson shows plus other great stuff like Doctor Who, The Tomorrow People and The Avengers. That's the British Avengers of course; the one with the bowler hats and umbrellas.

But it’s very different watching it through adult eyes. I’m thoroughly enjoying the show all over again but the magic has been stripped away by the logic and knowledge that comes with adulthood. I'm too knowing now. Lift the soft and fluffy blanket of nostalgia that’s draped over the show and what remains is a seething cauldron of inconsistency and contradiction. I’ve been deconstructing Thunderbirds all week.
Frankly, I’m amazed I ever fell for any of it, even as a kid.
The trouble with working on TB5 was having to sleep outside on one of the two pole-mounted beds.

The show, as you doubtless know, follows the adventures of International Rescue; an entirely non profit-making, altruistic organisation with amazing technology at its disposal that flies around the world rescuing people from seemingly impossible-to-rescue-people-from situations.

In charge of International Rescue is grizzled, silver-haired, gruff-voiced Jeff Tracy. Well, he would be gruff wouldn’t he? He always has a fag on - the man practically chain-smokes in every episode. Even his radio is disguised as an ashtray. But I digress. Tracy, a retired US astronaut, has bought a small island in the South Pacific and has turned it into a family home … and a secret base. Quite how he did this is a complete mystery. Just look at the logistics involved. Firstly, there’s money.

Somehow, Jeff Tracy has funded the design, development, construction and continued operation of a fleet of amazingly futuristic aircraft, spaceships and highly specialised rescue vehicles. As we hear constantly, these machines are more technologically advanced than just about anything else on the planet. So just how rich is Jeff Tracy? Bear in mind, he’s also had to hollow out a South-Sea island to make the hangars and launch pads for his vehicles. And he’s built and equipped a space station. The real-life International Space Station is rumoured to have cost around $100 billion and that isn’t a patch on Thunderbird 5 which has artificial gravity and everything. Just sending the twin exploration rovers to Mars cost the US taxpayer $800 million. Jeff Tracy must have more dosh than Bill Gates and that bloke who owns IKEA combined.

And there must be ongoing costs too. Presumably, the Thunderbird craft drink fuel like it’s going out of fashion. Or they have atomic power. In which case, where is Jeff buying his Plutonium? He must have invested wisely is all I can say. I don’t suppose Neil Armstrong is doing quite so well.

I notice that there’s no Mrs Tracy … I do know that she was called Lucille and allegedly died due to complications during the birth of Alan, their fifth child. Maybe she was some kind of heiress? Or maybe Jeff had a huge insurance policy set up in her name …

Gordon Tracy in TB4 attempts to make some pocket money by salvaging Megatron from the sea floor.

However it happens, the funds were, and continue to be, obtained from somewhere. Which is just as well as the Tracy Island project must have cost gazillions and taken years to finish. And that raises another issue …

International Rescue is supposedly a top secret organisation. How they can be ‘top secret’ when the boys keep telling people their real names and wear no form of disguise? It’s beyond me. Presumably they went to school somewhere. Some fan sites and old annuals even have full biographies for the lads and, if they are to be believed, the brothers all went to university and some even did a stint in the military. So how can they possibly remain secretive? And you can’t tell me that no one ever asked any questions about the massive amounts of earth-moving equipment, tons of steel, millions of gallons of concrete, electronic components, rocket engines etc. that needed to be built and shipped to a small island? The CIA would have latched onto that like a shot.

There would have been hundreds of workers employed on construction … did none of the workers sell their story to the tabloids? Or did Jeff, like some modern-day pharaoh, have them all buried in the foundations of Thunderbird 1’s hangar, maybe along with his wife?

Thunderbird 3. You entered it through its bottom. While sat on a sofa.

Turning to Brains – or Homer Newton III as he is properly named – we find the man who designed the incredible Thunderbird machines. The man is a genius; a world-class scientist. But he’s no superman. He couldn’t have built the vehicles all by himself, surely? He would have needed an army of technicians, engineers, electricians, metal workers, fabricators, mathematicians... and it’s not just the five Thunderbirds; there’s a multitude of specialist rescue vehicles like the Mole and the Firefly. And there are many others in Thunderbird 2’s enigmatic pods that seem to be purposely designed for single, unique rescue operations – such as the four platform cars that were used in one episode to help an ailing supersonic passenger plane –Fireflash - land safely.

Fireflash. A disaster waiting to happen. Several times.

Which begs the question - How did International Rescue predict that vehicles like this would ever be needed or that such a disaster would occur? It’s almost as if they knew in advance. Can it be true?

Thunderbird 2. Pod 5 contained the Tracy Island septic tank.

International Rescue causing disasters deliberately? I direct you back to the evidence before us … strangely unaccountable fortunes … a missing wife … and what happened to all of the workers who helped Brains bring his designs to life … it must have been carnage on project completion day.
That aside – who maintains, fuels, cleans and fixes the machines now? If it takes a small army to service a regular passenger jet, I don’t see how Brains could do it all alone. Perhaps the Tracy boys help? It would give them something to do.

Alcohol and hard drugs were often the Tracy boys' only available form of recreation. Thankfully, Jeff thought to label all of the launch bays for those confusing 'tired and emotional' mornings after.

Life can’t be easy for five strapping lads stuck on an island with their dad. Sorry, four strapping lads; John Tracy seems to spend most of his life up in orbit on Thunderbird 5. The space station is International Rescue’s way of discovering who needs their help – its technology can monitor every frequency of radio and television transmission. Despite the series being set late in the 21st century, there’s never any mention of the internet but, presuming it exists, John would have access to every porn site on Earth. So at least he wouldn’t get bored.

But what of Scott, Virgil, Gordon and Alan? What do they do in their spare time? Yes, they have a pool – when it’s not folded away to let Thunderbird 1 take off – and there are sports facilities and a piano. But do they ever get out? Where do they meet ladies? Or men? The question must be asked. Alan seems to have a bit of a relationship with Tin Tin, daughter of the housekeeper Kyrano, but the other guys seem to be pretty celibate. I guess they could always pop over the mainland, wherever that is. I get the impression that it might be within striking distance of places like Bangkok and Hong Kong so maybe that’s where they get their kicks.

Who smells the nicest? Some estimates say that 1 in every 5 people is gay.

By the way, have you noticed how none of the Tracy boys look like each other? Was the late Lucille playing around? Or are they all actually adopted and have yet to find out? Now that would be a great episode. And how did Brains’ family react when he said that 'I'm going to go live on an island with five young single men'?

I’m not sure that Brains is the genius he’s made out to be anyway. They say that genius and madness are kissing cousins but, in Brains’ case, I suspect that they’re full-on penetrative doggy position cousins. He’s gone the long way round with all of his designs. Why all this nonsense of sliding chutes, revolving doors and elevator platforms to get to the vehicles when all he needed to do was install a simple lift? Even my local municipal car park has managed that.
And why have separate hangars for Thunderbirds 1 and 3? Why not launch both through the round house and save all the hassle of building hugely expensive and complex sliding swimming pools? Why didn’t he design Thunderbird 2 with a simple cargo bay and door like military transport aircraft? It would have been a lot simpler and certainly less time-consuming to simply load up a rescue vehicle and fly straight off instead of all of that tedious pod selection, loading, unloading and reloading business. This is the rescue business after all! Time is of the essence! Lives are at stake!
And while we’re talking Thunderbird 2 … would it really have been so hard to make the runway wide enough for the plane to trundle down? I mean to say … folding palm trees? The man is a loony. I assume it’s meant to be some kind of cunning disguise to stop people thinking, ‘Ooh, that’s a wide runway … I wonder if they keep TB2 in there’? But, as we’ve said already, the whole International Rescue set up is so badly organised that everyone must know who they are anyway. You can’t tell me that no one has ever noticed the number of vehicles coming and going from Tracy Island. There is such a thing as radar you know. And air traffic control. Someone must have seen them from space? There are thousands of satellites up there in orbit. Hasn’t any of them spotted the huge clouds of toxic fumes generated by the Thunderbirds’ frequent launches? Or the contrails? Isn’t Tracy Island on Google Earth?

If I had more time, I’d ask other questions such as where do they shop for food, clothing and cigarettes? Who made their ghastly uniforms? Why doesn’t The Hood – who has the ability to remotely control Kyrano by a form of hypnosis – simply get his half-brother to plant a bomb on the island? And why have an agent in England – the megaposh Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward – but none in any other countries? Particularly the dodgy ones? Why does everyone have enormous eyebrows and oddly non-expressive faces? And why can’t anyone walk through a doorway?

For sale: Small South Pacific Island. Riddled with underground chambers and tunnels. Would suit secret organisation or very large mole. Some rocket damage and radiation issues. Offers?

As I say, I was a huge fan of Thunderbirds as a child. And when my son was a kid in the early 1990s, he got hooked on the re-runs and I could enjoy the toys and comics all over again. I'm now going through my third childhood with my grandchildren. But I relise that I've lost something; I've lost the skill of seeing these programmes through a child’s eyes. And, in many ways, that was a huge shame.

It’s often said that modern child audiences are more sophisticated than we were. They don’t accept things at face value quite like my generation did back in 1960s and 70s. Kids are better informed these days, more worldly … and they can spot a plot-hole like it was painted day-glo pink. So while my childhood peers were happy to watch programmes like Stingray, Supercar, Fireball XL5, Joe 90 and Thunderbirds into our mid-teens, these days the same shows appeal to a much younger audience; the 5-10 year olds who haven’t yet figured out just how daft it all is.

Watching Thunderbirds as an adult is a disappointment … I was one of the first people in Cornwall to see the original Star Wars back in 1977. By sheer fluke, myself and my mates Huw Williams and Phil Gendall had travelled up to London for a week’s holiday staying with Huw’s big brother (a DJ). The trip was based around us visiting the Knebworth Festival to see bands like Brand X, Devo, Jefferson Starship, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and headlining act Genesis on their And then there were three tour. But for the rest of the week we had London to explore and, wandering into Leicester Square one fateful afternoon, we found Star Wars in its opening week and went to see it because it looked by far the most interesting film on offer. We were blown away. Completely gobsmacked. We went back home to Cornwall raving about this 'amazing film we’d seen called Space Battles or something like that'. In those days, films didn’t immediately go on general country-wide release so our schoolfriends didn’t see it for at least a month after we did. It was a magical time. Yet, when I went to see Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, the magic had all gone. There was no excitement (though I’ll admit that the pod race was damned good). The adults sat there stony-faced and hugely disappointed. The kids, meanwhile, loved it. They cheered and laughed and booed. They even loved Jar Jar Binks. In fact, for many kids, Jar Jar was their favourite character.

The Tracy family pay a visit to Lady Penelope at her stately pile in Kent. L to R - Parker, Penny, Alan, Scott, Jeff, Tin Tin, Gordon, Brains, Virgil, John. John! Who's manning the space station?! Ah, must be Kyrano. He never got to go anywhere. Or maybe Lady Creighton-Ward didn't care much for Johnny Foriegner in the house.

It made me realise that, sadly, as we get older, the things we loved as children stay with us purely for sentimental reasons. We love the shows we grew up with because they take us back to our childhoods in a way that re-makes and sequels never can. George Lucas made three Star Wars films for kids. Those kids grew up and took their kids along to the cinema expecting Mr Lucas to thrill them all over again. But he didn’t. Lucas thrilled their kids. I heard something recently and I can't remember who said it - I think it was Ricky Gervais - but he said that 'No one actually wanted The Beatles to get back together; what they wanted was to be young again'. And I absolutely agree with that. Had The Beatles got back together again, the music would never have been as good as the music they created back in the Sixties.

So, yes, I still love Thunderbirds despite the fact that it’s a load of old toot really. It made me happy as a kid. It bolstered my interest in science and, just maybe, the positive role-models provided by the Tracy boys helped to make me a generally law-abiding and caring chap. It may even have pushed me into writing as, just a few years ago, I ended up working for Gerry Anderson himself … but that’s another story.

Watching Thunderbirds is a different experience at the age of 50 than it was when I was a child. I have to remind myself to suspend my disbelief and cynicism. I'd love to be able to see it again as I did years ago; through the eyes of a child. But I can't. I have to see it as a show designed for kids that has a strong moral message and some fantastic – if incredibly silly – machines.

Oop. Must rush. There’s another episode on in five minutes. I think it’s the one with the lost pyramid of Khamandides …

1 comment:

  1. Tracy is based on Kelly Johnson. And when he retired from the Skunk Works he was allowed to take a few toys with him. Before retiring and during weekends he built the island with his mates. As a thank-you from the US Govt they threw in free maintenance for his craft (that we never see), in return for his continued support. After the U2 and SR71 photographed all those bad Russian installations and secrets (don't worry about the Chronology). Boeing in receipt of huge military contracts buy his fuel. They right the cost off against tax as a charitable donation. As for the agent in the UK. The UK is Britain's greatest ally. Some of the gadgets apparently came from Q at MI5, via Parker. Hence the slightly ecentric nature of them. The palm trees, used to crash baddies cars as they race by for example. All very logical. If T2 was a cargo plane is would require crew to load and unload it. As it is T2 simply drops onto the right container (actually a precursor of the modern container) and off it goes. The Island is small hence the compact runways and also ensure it is hidden.
    I still love it, I love to see and try and work out how they filmed and did stuff.