Thunderbirds Are Go! Remaking The Future

When it comes to Thunderbirds Are Go I’ve played my cards pretty close to my chest because the internet is generally a place where you either love or hate something and any opinion in between is too complex for some to comprehend.

Overall, I’ve enjoyed the first series of 26 episodes. As a piece of children’s televison it’s pretty outstanding and I can totally understand why younger viewers would absolutely fall in love with the show – I know I would have done if I was 5 years old again.

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That said, I think a lot of fans of the classic series are a bit perplexed as to why Thunderbirds needed a remake at all. If ITV wanted to celebrate the legacy of Thunderbirds, why not just repeat the original series so that a new generation of fans had the opportunity to see it? It worked well in the 1990’s and again in the early 2000’s, why not try it again now? There are a couple of reasons why I believe this wasn’t a viable option and it has to do with a big change in the way entertainment works.

A repeat of the original Thunderbirds series in its entirety would mean ITV giving up at least an hour of air time every week for 32 weeks. The BBC weren’t affected by this so much as they don’t sell advertising space. As a result they repeated them almost constantly in various timeslots for several years. It wasn’t that much of a loss for them and saved them having to make new shows to maintain a loyal audience. ITV, however, need to sell advertising space and therefore need a strong guarantee that their shows will have strong audience figures that keep coming back every week. That is why reality TV shows and talent contests appear to be on constantly. They’re a big televisual event watched by millions who come back every week and that makes them prime advertising space.

For ITV to take an hour out of their week of scheduling and hand it over to a repeat run of a 50 year old children’s series lasting over half of the year would be something of a foolish business move. One 50 minute episode (or the three 25 minute TB65 episodes) might be a nice novelty watched by a few million people on a good day, but comitting to showing all 32 episodes would be a sure-fire way to lose some money after a while. And it’s not like relegating the series to the depths of ITV3 or ITV4 would trigger a huge revival either. As much as we may not like it, reality TV shows and talent contests dominate the schedules and generate money from advertising in a way that a repeat of our favourite Supermarionations shows never could. Instead, ITV decided to take a different route for Thunderbirds which was guaranteed to at least have some success and provide them with an opportunity to actually make a new television series – which is what big TV channels should be doing really.

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So Thunderbirds Are Go, a remake of the original series, is now being watched on TV and online all over the world. Children, by all accounts, absolutely love it. It has action, intrigue and adventure. Is it perfect? No. Was the original series perfect? No. I love Thunderbirds but I can’t deny that there are bits that I think are silly, boring or nonsensical. The same applies for Thunderbirds Are Go. For almost every mistake or bad choice made for the new series, there could be a matching one for the original series. Scott may wear fingerless gloves in the vacuum of space in Thunderbirds Are Go, but he also speaks without moving his lips in the classic series episode The Impostors. For every shot in Thunderbirds Are Go that doesn’t blend CGI with model all that well, there’s a hugely noticeable continuity error in the original series like Thunderbird 1 suddenly turning around as it comes down the launch ramp.

Neither series is perfect, but the errors in both can be ignored if you’re engaged with the show, particularly if you’re a young child who is too caught up in the excitement to care whether Alan Tracy could actually surf in space in the new series, or whether it would have made much more sense for Captain Hanson to shut the hatch of the Fireflash once Meddings was inside the plane in Trapped in the Sky. 

Now of course the main argument for Thunderbirds Are Go‘s lack of appeal to some fans is the fact it doesn’t use puppets, and that CGI just isn’t as good. I can’t deny that puppets are very appealing to watch. Miniatures being brought to life is something that every child dreams of and puppetry is a superb artistic form that with enough time, money and skill can produce incredible things. Gerry Anderson himself never really appreciated the puppets, and even he understood the benefits of making a series using CGI rather than puppets with New Captain Scarlet. The simple fact is that Supermarionation puppets are outdated and to produce a full blown television series using them would look like an enormous step backwards. The Thunderbirds 1965 series has proved that puppets are intrinsic to the charm of the original series. Firestorm from Anderson Entertainment is going to prove that puppetry technology has come along way since Thunderbirds. Those who disapprove of the new CGI characters are also just as likely to disapprove of new Thunderbirds puppets being produced with the latest technology that will be on display in Firestorm. People want the Supermarionation characters back in new adventures – by some miracle that came about with Thunderbirds 1965 because of the mini-album recordings. Beyond that, making Thunderbirds in exactly the same way as it was in the 1960s is impossible because a lot of the people who made that possible – including some of the voice artists – aren’t around any more.

The new Thunderbirds Are Go uses CGI over puppetry for many reasons including time, money and the ability to involve the characters in more action. That much is obvious. It is also worth stating that Thunderbirds Are Go chooses not to use puppetry because it would place the series in direct competition with its predecessor. The use of CGI is something that immediately seperates the new series from the classic series. It makes the shows different enough for a child to not just want to see one series but, with any luck, both series. If Thunderbirds Are Go was to utilise state of the art puppetry, the classic series would date even more than it already has and automatically become the version of Thunderbirds with the ‘less good puppets’. With two entirely different approaches, both series can still be successful in their own right and without being their own direct competition.

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Of course, one of the biggest controversies about the new series was the decision to show it at 8am on a Saturday. The Saturday morning slot infamously killed any chance that New Captain Scarlet  had of being successful in 2005, so people were naturally concerned when a similar slot was announced for Thunderbirds Are Go. There are a few differences between what happened with the scheduling of these two shows, however. New Captain Scarlet was a dark series with violence, politics and fear at it’s core, but because it was animated, and the fact it was based on puppet show, the series was painted with the children’s show brush. Because it was buried in amongst the Ministry of Mayhem Saturday morning programming, it also did not have it’s own specific timeslot. All in all, New Captain Scarlet did not belong in such a slot and was never produced with this in mind. It had much more adult appeal than ITV gave the series credit for. Thunderbirds Are Go not only had it’s own designated timeslot every week (something even Doctor Who can’t seem to pin down these days) but is also much lighter in tone and fits in better with the traditional idea of what a kid’s Saturday morning cartoon series should be.

Would the show be more popular if aired on a Saturday evening instead of the morning? Possibly. Can ITV make more money showing something like The X Factor on a Saturday evening instead of Thunderbirds Are Go? More than likely. That doesn’t mean Thunderbirds Are Go is being mistreated in the same way that New Captain Scarlet was. Episodes get multiple repeat showings during the week and are available to watch online at any time. The series is available to buy digitally and on DVD. It has sold all over the world and been well advertised and supported by ITV and beyond. The series couldn’t really be given much of a better chance. I would rather it was on during Saturday evenings instead of what ITV normally have on, and most Thunderbirds fans would say that too. But the rest of the British public probably don’t mind all that much. Thankfully, there’s more to the success of a television show than what time it’s on these days, and that stuff Thunderbirds Are Go does well. It utilises all modern methods of marketing and merchandising to ensure that it is successful beyond just being another show that you see on a Saturday morning.

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But what about the show itself? Well it’s made some changes to the original characters and format – most I like and were essential to updating the series. Kayo has replaced Tin-Tin. Some people can’t even get over the fact the character’s been renamed. How, I don’t know, it seems pretty simple to me. But once you’ve wrapped your head around that abstract concept you realise that it basically had to happen. Tin-Tin doesn’t do much in the original series except get upset and be Alan’s love interest. Her role as a scientific assistant to Brains is kept fairly minimal. Kayo’s role as head of security for International Rescue doesn’t come to the forefront until the end of the first series of Thunderbirds Are Go but the developing arc of her character really gives the show a strong backbone. She has hidden depths which make her way more interesting and important than her 1960s counterpart could be.

Jeff Tracy has disappeared. His character is still referenced and has an important role in the series’ ethos despite not actually being there. I was initially confused by the decision to write out Jeff but when Rob Hoegee, the head writer, explained the reason for Jeff’s disappearance at the premiere screening of Ring of Fire, I was convinced that it was the right thing to do. He said that in the original series, the Tracy boys were driven by asking their father what to do, whereas the new series sees the boys using their own initiative and asking what Jeff might do. There’s no denying that Jeff is a great and memorable character, but the new series functions perfectly well without him, expands John’s role in the show considerably, and gives the boys a chance to think on their feet and do even more dangerous and spur of the moment stunts to save lives.

©ITV Plc  / Pukeko Pictures / Weta Workshop

Brains is now Indian… apparently that’s a big deal to some people. I cannot begin to understand why people criticise this, because it’s not like their criticism is particularly complex or justified. They get about as far as saying that having an Indian Brains isn’t as good… and then don’t actually back it up. Aside from being a different race, the Brains of the new series is almost exactly the same character as he was in the original show, so he isn’t actually any different at all in terms of what he contributes to the series. Simple as that. Having more diversity in Thunderbirds Are Go is, undoubtedly, a good thing.

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Lady Penelope has a dog called Sherbet. Yes, okay, I must admit, this is a tad childish for my tastes. Thunderbirds was the first Gerry Anderson puppet series to not feature some form of animal as a main character and it was a better show for it. But hey, I’m sure some kids find Sherbert hilarious and he’s never the central character, so I can let that one go.

 

Grandma has changed too, but only in the sense that her cooking has gone from being amazing, to being terrible. I cannot decide whether the constant jokes about Grandma’s cooking start to grate a little, or whether I actually find them a little bit funny. It’s no worse than some of the humour that comes up in the original series. Remember the edible transmitter interlude in Day of Disaster? Did you laugh out loud at that? I know I didn’t. Thunderbirds humour isn’t really supposed to be funny, just light, entertaining and for the most part – padding. The humour in Thunderbirds Are Go strikes a similar chord.

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The action of the show is great. As the series progressed things got more and more intense as the explosions got bigger and bigger. Initially I was sceptical, but now I’m glad they saved up the bangs – it gave us something to look forward to.

The re-designs of the International Rescue craft are not to everyone’s taste, but for merchandising purposes, and to fit the new design of the rest of the series, it made perfect sense for the machines to get an update. Thunderbirds 1-4 aren’t all that different to their classic series counterparts. Thunderbird 5 is considerably more functional and credible in the new series although I must admit to actually really liking the design of the original TB5. Introducing a new machine in the form of Thunderbird Shadow is made a little unnecessary by the fact it hardly appears in the first series, although I’m sure we’ll see more of it in action once series two arrives.

Ultimately, Thunderbirds Are Go succeeds in doing everything it needs to do. It has a life of it’s own which allows it to co-exist with the original series without degrading or competing with it. You can choose to ignore it, or embrace it whole-heartedly, or you can sit on the fence and like bits of one series and bits of the other. Yes the puppets might have more charm, yes I might prefer Thunderbird 5’s chunkier backside, but at the end of the day, a wise man in a movie which was also called Thunderbirds Are Go once said “the only bad publicity, is no publicity.” Thunderbirds Are Go is a show made with good intentions which cleverly uses the trends and oddities of modern television to its advantage and has made Thunderbirds a well known name for a whole new generation.

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