Thunderbirds – 3. City Of Fire

Directed by David Elliott

Teleplay by Alan Fennell

First Broadcast – 6th January 1966

Produced 10 years before The Towering Inferno, here’s a Thunderbirds tale of epic proportions which almost proves to be a match for International Rescue.

No International Rescue to be seen in the teaser montage, but don’t worry, they’re much more involved in this episode than the previous two.

The green World Television helijet was last seen in Pit Of Peril painted yellow. The set of the helijet is also the same as the one seen in that episode. This is the first episode to introduce reporter Eddie Kerr. The same character (or at least a very similiar character) also appears in The Mighty Atom and The Impostors. 

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The triumphant music that plays over the appearance of episode titles every so often in Thunderbirds always makes me chuckle. CITY OF FIRE is proudly displayed over a shot of the tower that is clearly going to catch fire during the episode.

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Eddie explains that Thompson Tower is essentially a city housed inside one building with 350 floors. Just to put that in context, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, currently the world’s tallest building, has 163 floors and stands at 2,722ft. Eddie claims that the Thompson Tower is 2 miles deep (just over 10,000 feet), yet at the start of the episode the helijet is flying at just 3,000 feet before it starts to descend the entire length of the tower from the top. Eddie describes the incredible hotels and shopping malls inside the tower – unfortunately we don’t get to see any of it which is a shame because I’m certain Bob Bell would have done a beautiful job designing some futuristic stores. We’re also told that the sub-basement has a parking lot for 10,000 cars and is connected to the main building via a monorail 4 miles in length. We never see this monorail, but it sounds cool. Of all the things we could have seen in this engineering marvel, all we get to see is some boring corridors and a bit of the parking lot.

Here’s a new shot of Tracy Island which when compared with the shot of the island seen in Trapped In The Sky, looks to be a completely new model almost perfectly recreated from the original. It was probably produced part-way through the series which suggests that this was added to the original half-hour episode to extend it.

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Scott and Virgil are testing out the oxyhydnite gas that is used later in the episode. It would appear that this test, and the later concerns that International Rescue have about using it in the danger zone, is a sub-plot that has been carefully added to the episode in order to extend the running time. There are a few indications during the episode that suggest this which we’ll go into as we come to them.

There’s a subtle difference between the way the effect of cutting through the door is being achieved in these two shots. On the left shot, no gas or flame is coming from cutting equipment, but all the sparks are being set off on the door itself. On the right shot, Virgil’s cutter is actually pumping out gas which has been lit.

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As Scott and Virgil mysteriously start to become weakened, Jeff can only look on with worry at his sons. This is exactly the sort of additional material that should have been added to Trapped In The Sky and Pit of Peril. The viewer gets to learn more about the family dynamic between the main characters, rather than the story being solely focussed on the big disaster of the week.

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The speaker through which we hear Scott and Virgil’s breathing looks suspiciously like a plate with a grille stuck to it.

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With a great amount of tense build up, Scott and Virgil eventually pass out.

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With Scott and Virgil laid up in the sick bay, Jeff and Tin-Tin pay them a visit. I love Tin-Tin’s painted fingernails and toenails. Little details like that just show the level of care that was taken to make the puppets look good and more real on screen.

This also includes Virgil and Scott’s five o’clock shadows and ruffled bed hair. It’s enough to demonstrate that they’ve been through a rough time but are basically okay – it’s believable without going too far. Not like the ridiculously heavy bandages we saw last week. One does also wonder exactly what an ‘Auto-Nurse’ does, as displayed above the beds.

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Brains’ verdict is that there’s nothing actually wrong with the boys but there’s something about the gas which has affected them by entering through their pores. Brains has a mystery to solve. What a simple but effective sub-plot.

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On the road to Thompson Tower we’re introduced to the Carter family driving their rather old-fashioned car. In fact a lot of the cars seen in this episode are very 60’s in their styling. It could be to match the back projection footage, or it could be that the designers didn’t have a vision for what cars of the future might look like in this early stage of the production. One thing I’ve always found strange about this shot is why Blanche is sitting in the back with Tommy. From a practical perspective, on camera it does look slightly neater than if Blanche were sitting in the front, blocking Tommy. But one wonders whether there might be a deeper agenda behind it, considering all the comments made about women drivers during the episode. She’s shown clearly in her role as a mother by being positioned next to her son, rather than having any control over the journey which Joe, the father figure, is in sole control of. Could this shot symbolise the view of women as subordinates that was still prevalent in the 1960s? Oh and another important question… why are there drawer handles on the bonnet of the car?

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Tommy is being voiced by Sylvia Anderson who does another passable impression of a small American boy. She had been performing the same type of voice since playing Jimmy in Supercar, and she’s mastered it pretty well by this point.

Joe parks the car up carefully and responsibly. He takes his ticket from the ‘Autocheck’  which was probably made by the same people as the Auto-Nurse. In fact as a means of ensuring viewers knew the series was set in the future, almost every prop and gadget has ‘Auto’ written on it. Notice how full the parking lot is in the model shot, but the shot of the 1960s parking lot in the background of the puppet close up is considerably emptier.

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Meanwhile, the wreckless driver that the Carters passed earlier is also driving her way to Thompson Tower. A lot of convertibles are driven in Thunderbirds and it isn’t just because they look cool, it’s because the lack of roof makes for better wire access for the puppets. You have to love the leopard print seat covers… and the go-faster drawer handles that have also been stuck on the bonnet of this car. The husband drones on at his wife whom he clearly can’t stand. Now this scene is commonly cited as being one of the most anti-feminist in Thunderbirds because of the fact a woman is shown to be bad at driving. It must be noted that there’s nothing inherently sexist about a woman being bad at driving – anyone can be bad at driving. It is only at the very end of the episode, however, that it is outright stated that she must have been a bad driver because she’s a woman. It is a rather disappointing moment in an otherwise forward-thinking and timeless series.

So the driver is shown about to tap her foot on the brake but then stamps on the accelerator with all her might. I get the feeling this moment wasn’t very clearly expressed in the script, because on screen it doesn’t make much sense either. We’ve all done stupid things as a driver, but there’s absolutely no logic behind what happens here. I can accept that she might have gone to brake but missed the pedal and sped up by accident, but why does she keep on accelerating after crashing through the barrier? I’m sure in the writer’s mind, the answer was supposed to lie in the fact that she’s a woman and therefore messed it up for that reason alone, but to a modern audience that naturally just isn’t valid.

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As the car wildly slides across the parking lot and starts the fire, the occupants are seen being flung out of the car at high speed. It’s also worth noting that the green numbers on the pillars say D122 and, further in the background, 174 – making this the exact same area that the Carters parked in earlier… but a yellow car has knicked their parking spot… or the same piece of set has been used twice because the crew thought no-one would ever be petty enough to point out something like that…

Miraculously, the couple have made it back into the car, the back of which is suddenly on fire. They flee for the emergency exit. CityofFire00048.png

The car explodes and an enormous fireball engulfs the parking lot. As amazing as this looks, it is a bit of a stretch to believe that one car catching fire could wipe out a building the size of a city. Ultimately you do just have to buy that idea in order to enjoy the episode fully. I was critical of City of Fire for many years for that reason, but once you can get past that and a few other flaws with the premise, there’s a lot to love about it.

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The Carters hear a faint rumbling but quickly pass it off without any concern at all that they’ve just heard an enormous explosion. One of the other things that does disappoint about this episode is how few people are seen occupying Thompson Tower despite how much of a commercial achievement it’s supposed to be. The length of corridor seen in the background is clearly a picture at the back of the set used to create the illusion of a really long corridor. But where are the rest of the people?

With an enormous blaze raging in the basement, the fire alarms take a surprisingly long time to alert the team in the cute little control tower. It’s immediately revealed that the sprinkler systems, and the emergency sprinkler systems are not operating. Considering Thompson Tower is supposed to be brand new, that’s pretty poor for both systems to not operate when the entire parking lot is on fire. You’d think they’d be a little more prepared for a car crash in a car park. So their strategy is to get the fire department down there to tackle the fire and seal off the sub-basement corridors so it doesn’t spread. This makes sense in theory. They don’t check that the enormous parking lot has been evacuated though. Anyone who might be in there, gets sealed in straight away. But at least they go to check the corridors.

With a few modifications, the control panel used in this set appears to be the same one Virgil uses to control the Recovery Vehicles in Pit of Peril.

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The Control Tower Assistant starts checking the corridors are empty and rather surprisingly they actually are. Again, where are all the people in this massive building?

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With fire tenders deployed, the controller asks, “How are those fire tenders coming?” Yes, that’s right folks, it’s time for the thrilling conclusion of ‘What Happened To Matt Zimmerman?’ So Matt is clearly voicing the Thompson Tower controller for most of this episode except for this moment where it sounds like Ray Barrett is voicing him. Last week with Pit of Peril I suggested that he may have re-dubbed the Copter Watchdog pilot later on in production, and that his other character, Helijet Pilot Charlie, only featured in material that was added to the episode to extend it. We assumed that Matt wasn’t present during the recording of the original half-hour version of Pit of Peril because he certainly wasn’t present during Trapped In The Sky. So what I am proposing now is that Matt also wasn’t originally around during the recording of the original half-hour version of City of Fire either. Alan Tracy only appears briefly in material that was most likely added to the episode later. The controller could have originally been voiced by Ray Barrett and re-dubbed later by Matt Zimmerman, with the exception of the one line of dialogue, “How are those fire tenders coming?” which is heard here. What I am therefore suggesting is that Matt Zimmerman was not hired until the recording of Sun Probe, which makes sense as Alan heavily features in that episode, and that whenever his voice is heard in the Pit of Peril and City of Fire, it was added later during recording sessions to extend the episodes… or Matt went for a toilet break during the recording of this episode and Ray Barrett filled in for him briefly… you decide…

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With the fire appliances on their way, the controller orders them to be directed to a part of the building where the occupants of the tower won’t see them and get scared. Because the key thing about fire safety is that you try not to tell anyone when the building’s on fire – that would be stupid obviously… Then he says “If we’re lucky we won’t need the tenders.” No sir, you will need them, because your sprinklers don’t work and the ruddy basement’s on fire. Why did you call them out if you didn’t want to use them anyway?  And rather than hiding them from people, why not position the tenders somewhere useful to put the fire out as a priority?

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Then Tommy Carter gives him self the award for “Most Annoying Child In A Supermarionation Show.” He has the incredibly bright idea of hiding in a cupboard that clearly says “KEEP OUT.” And his parents don’t seem to care one little bit.

Joe and Blache get a little too into the roleplaying and abruptly kick open the door that, as responsible adults, they should know not to open. They’ve stumbled upon the room where Thompson Tower stores random boxes of hay… and the top of the Jet Air Transporter from Move – And You’re Dead.

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So with the Carter family hidden out of sight, the corridor is sealed. What’s worse? That the Carter family enter an area that clearly says “KEEP OUT”, or that the security cameras don’t quite cover the enough of the area?

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With a dramatic spin, Joe realises that he’s been sealed in and immediately assumes foul play. What’s slightly unsatisfying is that the family never learn that it was because they were trespassing that they got sealed in.

Now that all the corridors are sealed, the control tower team are confident that the fire will burn itself out in the basement… with just 10,000 automobiles worth of fuel down there to get through… And for some reason the last thing they decide to do is seal the main vent leading to the rest of the building. Just like all the other brand new emergency systems, it fails to operate. Why did they not try to seal off the rest of the building first? And why does nothing work in this building?? So flames start to spread up the tower.

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More fire tenders are sent in. The street they drive down is made up of different buildings from the series including the London Airport Control Tower, and the generic government building which appears in The Impostors, Cry Wolf and Ricochet in various roles. The yellow fire tender itself later turns up on Tracy Island as a pod vehicle in Cry Wolf, and also as one of the rocket transporters in Day of Disaster.

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The yellow police truck later appears in Terror in New York City.

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The Control Tower Assistant has been trying desperately to shut the main vent, but it’s jammed. When the Controller suggested he “get to work on it” I thought someone might go over to the building and try to shut the thing from there, not try jabbing the button a few more times. So finally the Controller orders the fire tenders to actually get to work, despite previous worries that it would create too much panic. You know what would have avoided creating a panic? Putting the fire out!

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As the fire tenders head towards the blaze, we see the London Airport Control Tower again in the background.

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Joe tries to hammer on the door as smoke starts to pour in. It’s a rather chilling moment as the magnitude of the danger the family are facing starts to sink in.

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Just before the commercial break, fire is seen engulfing several storeys of the building. Bear in mind that this is before they’ve started the evacuation. It would have been spectacular to see whole shopping malls getting wiped out by the explosions, but watching families run away screaming in terror would have been a bit much. Either way, the Control Tower staff really should have checked that Main Vent Seal a little earlier and actually bothered sending the fire tenders in when they asked for them.

After the break, the Control Tower team have got their act together and started the evacuation. We don’t get to see any of this, or the accountants furiously working out how to cover the insurance costs of the 10,000 cars fuelling the fire in the basement. But we are treated to some gorgeous shots of the fire crews attempting to extinguish the enromous blaze. To get big white sparks like that one assumes the special effects crew must have had a lot of fun throwing magnesium into the blaze. The Controller remarks that, “it’s going up like matchwood.” It’s amazing how flammable buildings of the future can be when every single emergency system decides to give up the ghost on the same day.

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The family have found somewhere to sit down during the disaster. A lot of the furniture in the Supermarionation shows  was specially made with short legs so that the puppets fitted on them a little better and had a fighting chance of being able to stand up.

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When he goes to check the cameras again, the Control Tower Assistant discovers the Carters standing in corridor D50. Now they know they really haven’t handled this fire thing all that well.

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After their quick appearance on the security camera, the Carters have sat back down again and found a snack machine. You can tell it’s a snack machine because it says “SNACKS” in large obnoxious writng. But not “AUTO-SNACKS”… that would be silly.

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Meanwhile, back on Tracy Island, Scott and Virgil have recovered from their ordeal. Virgil’s enjoying a drink before noon and Scott’s catching up on his favourite publication ‘SCIENCE’. I wonder what that’s about… It also looks like the Tracys have taken to using giant lampshades as pool umbrellas…

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Tin-Tin is enjoying a swim. What an incredibly attractive swimming cap she has there. Also it looks like her arms have been specially customised for the scene as one would normally be able to see joints at the puppets’ elbows. In Stingray, puppets could be seen diving in and out of water but I’ve always wondered how the electronic lip mechanism would have been affected by the water. However, Tin-Tin doesn’t dunk her head under in this particular shot. She does have very long fingers though…

With John hoping to come home after his spell of duty on Thunderbird 5, we get to see a brief glimpse of the sleeping quarters on board the space station. I love how neatly John’s hat is flattened on the bed, that he keeps his diploma up on the wall, and that he keeps a globe next to his bed… when he could just look out of the window and see the Earth at any time. His peace his shattered by an emergency call from Thompson Tower.

Jeff Tracy doesn’t seem like the sort of man to disrespect a piece of furniture by putting his feet on it, and he certainly looks very pleased with himself when he pulls down the magazine and his feet have quickly found themselves underneath the desk.

Jeff quickly dispatches Scott in Thunderbird 1 saying, “We won’t know all the details until you investigate.” But he then immediately calls up Thompson Tower to ask for more details… Let’s just admit now that sending Scott to the danger zone first rarely achieves anything.

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Virgil is told to take the Mole in Thunderbird 2. Just the Mole, no mention of the Firefly. I have a theory about that…

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Things are really hotting up at Thompson Tower.

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Joe Carter has managed to find a paper cup the size of his head while Blanche has knicked the family breathing tissue.

Continuity between model shots isn’t one of Thunderbirds‘ strongest points so I’ll try not to go on about it too much, but here Thunderbird 1 is established flying towards the danger zone. We cut away to Scott for just a few seconds and then cut back to a completely different shot of Thunderbird 1. I realise that continuity was heavily affected by the need to extend the early episodes, but how did no-one spot this when they were picking out stock shots of Thunderbird 1?

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The lighting suddenly gets very moody when Scott asks Virgil about cutting down on arrival time.

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The Thunderbird 1 model (the one with the dreaded ‘T’ on the nose cone) comes into land, very nearly incinerating some police cars in the process. There’s some London Airport buildings in the background.

It looks like Scott’s arrived just in time. The building starts to combust spectacularly and we’re treated to some blinding explosions as the fire tenders begin to evacuate.

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One lucky special effects technician got to chuck a whole bucket of smouldering rubble on to the set to simulate the building collapsing.

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Eventually, Thompson Tower completely breaks apart in a huge fireball. Huge sections of the building are seen plummeting to the ground. What an incredible sight. This looks like International Rescue’s most dangerous assignment so far. It’s a pity that the full potential of the inferno wasn’t explored in the story with no glimpses of the inside of the building itself. That would have been a great and exciting way to extend the length of the episode. But the choice to develop existing characters and put members of International Rescue itself at risk was also a very good idea by the writing team who added to the script.

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I just noticed that Blanche Carter decided to wear her lucky horse shoe brooch for her trip to Thompson Tower. It hasn’t worked out too well for her so far but fingers crossed.

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After the commerical break, all that remains of Thompson Tower is a burning pile of rubble.

There’s a very sudden cut just before Scott suggests to Virgil that they need to use Brains’ gas. This potentially confirms that the whole sub-plot about the cutting gas being a hazard was indeed added later.

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Virgil being the brave super hero that he is declares that if lives depend upon it, they must risk it. What a guy!

Back on Tracy Island, Tin-Tin appears to be typing on a typewriter with no paper in it. Scott calls in to inform them that they’ll be using the oxyhydnite gas. The tension in the room suddenly increases because they’re clearly a family unit who care very much about each other. Jeff unwillingly agrees, and even has a quick snap at Tin-Tin for suggesting they take breaks in between using the gas. He’s worried for his sons but is also aware that there’s no point wasting time.

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Virgil touches down in Thunderbird 2 and Scott informs him that they’ll need to drill down to the basement using the Mole “to get to the folks in corridor C17.” Funny, it’s been mentioned a couple of times now that the Carter family were in D50, Scott even points it out on the map himself… Anyway, first Virgil needs to clear a path for the Mole using the Firefly.

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See? D50. I don’t think Scott’s been listening.

Here’s a rather touching scene between Joe and Blanche as he tries to reassure her and restores some hope. Disaster strikes when Tommy dramatically keels over on the sofa. It’s as if he takes one more breath of smoke and his body just gives up and takes a dive. Probably not all that realistic but it makes for good drama.

Virgil brings out the Firefly to start clearing rubble. By his side in the control room is the winch control unit last seen in the yellow Helijet in Pit of Peril and in the TX-204 in Trapped In The Sky, both scenes that were added to their episodes later. When Virgil left the island he was only told by Jeff to take the Mole. It’s possible that this whole sequence with the Firefly was adding to extend the running time. It’s a sequence that does actually contribute something to the plot of the episode so one can’t help but feel the writers have got the hang of padding the half-hour shows out now. The best thing about it is I can’t be 100% sure that this is an additional sequence… which is sort of the point.

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Scott plans to join Virgil in the Mole. The Controller says the line “I’ve got a fast car ready for you outside,” without opening his mouth.

The shots of the Firefly struggling through the burning rubble look incredible. The amount of dirt smeared over the Firefly suggests the pleasure the effects team took in making the models look as grubby and real as possible.

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There’s something rather odd about seeing a member of International Rescue driving an ordinary car. There aren’t even any drawer handles on the bonnet…

The Firefly cannon certainly packs one heck of a punch! And the model gets absolutely filthy driving through the debris.

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The Firefly victoriously raises its scoop and rendezvouses with Scott in the Mole. Two questions. 1) How does Virgil get out of the Firefly and climb up into the main body of the Mole? 2) Is it just me that thinks the Firefly looks like it’s whistling?

The Mole reaches the drilling position and in a blast of jets and dirt it begins descending into the ground. The sound effects really help to sell the incredible power of the machine.

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As the Mole burrows down to the sub-basement corridors, Scott and Virgil discuss their plan. Scott says, “We know those folks are in D50.” Do we Scott? You didn’t seem to earlier. He continues, “and the nearest corridor we can get through is C17.” You said earlier that they were in C17. Unless you meant something different. Who knows. It’s also established that “all electronic systems have failed” except for the emergency power plant which operates the lights. Why it doesn’t also operate something as simple as the doors is a bit of a mystery but seeing as it’s the only emergency system that’s ever worked in Thompson Tower I won’t complain about it.

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I could also complain about this shot, but I won’t… some things are just beyond criticism. They’re actually rather nice little models of Scott and Virgil.

Scott and Virgil arrive at the first door and discuss their hopes that this will go better than the test. It’s difficult to tell whether this was shot later or has simply been re-dubbed thanks to the fact the characters are wearing gas masks. Virgil delicately lifts his leg over the hover bike in a brilliantly puppeteered movement. This is the first time we see the hover bikes in the series. They’re just the next in a long line of hovering personal transport seen in Supermarionation shows in order to prevent the puppets having to walk long distances.

The cutting equipment is a completely different design to what was seen earlier in the test chamber aside from the flashing green light which is only seen in a quick cutaway shot anyway. This, again, suggests that the sub-plot of the oxyhydnite being dangerous was added after the half-hour episode was completed.

The build up of tension in this sequence is great. The rescues in the previous two episodes have certainly had a lot more going on visually with the Elevator Cars and Recovery Vehicles, but with Barry Gray’s music and the fact we know the Tracy boys themselves are at risk, this rescue is just as exciting without all the machines in use. I’m also sure the puppeteers loved dangling Scott in front of all those flames and sparks.

Joe Carter’s day is just getting worse and worse. Completely consumed by the smoke, he desperately pleads at the door for some rescue, but then his legs just seem to snap in half and he falls over backwards. I think the implication is that he is feeling considerably weakened and therefore collapses, but the way he falls just doesn’t look very natural.

Scott and Virgil finally break through into the corridor and quickly pick up the rest of the Carter family. It’s hard to make out but it looks as though Virgil has Tommy and/or Joe on the back of his hover bike (as well as the gas cylinder from earlier) while Scott has somehow managed to get Blanche to sit up straight on the back.

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They clear the area at the last second before the roof finally caves in with enormous explosions seen above ground.

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The Controller immediately assumes that International Rescue have perished… and probably starts wondering how much Scott’s Mobile Control Unit will fetch on eBay…

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But the Mole successfully returns to the surface absolutely covered in dirt.

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Disappointed that he now can’t make a wad of cash from selling off Mobile Control, he at least gets to have a go at using the radio. At least he doesn’t sit in Scott’s special seat…

With everyone back at base, Brains explains the mystery of the gas. He says that because of the heat of the fire, the gas vapours evaporated before they could enter the pores of the skin which is why Scott and Virgil were unaffected. I’m no scientist so someone else can explain to me whether that makes any sense or not. Meanwhile, note that Jeff is sitting right at the back of the room on his own.

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Virgil asks what Tin-Tin is reading. Jeff seems to have moved forward slightly.

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The camera moves around, suggesting this is where the scene originally started. Jeff has moved forward even further and John is suddenly standing in the corner of the room, smoking. I guess Alan did pick him up from Thunderbird 5 after all.

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Scott just has to go there and ask whether the driver of the car that caused the accident was male or female… because apparently that matters. Tin-Tin doesn’t mind being the butt of the joke by revealing that the driver was indeed a woman. Oh ha ha…

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Somehow the husband and wife duo have returned with exactly the same car that they had before – leopard print and drawer handles included. In fact they’re wearing exactly the same outfits too. It’s a bizarrely comical ending to see them joking about how bad at driving other people are. It doesn’t quite fit considering the magnitude of the disaster that they caused. It would have been rather more satisfying to see the pair of them banned from driving or banned from teaching people to drive ever again. Meanwhile Mr Thompson, who designed Thompson Tower’s absolutely useless safety systems, must be getting hung, drawn and quartered…

Overall, if you can set aside some of the more unfortunate and unlucky aspects of the disaster, such as all the safety systems failing on the same day, City of Fire is a really solid episode of Thunderbirds. The characters are given a little more to work with thanks to the first decent sub-plot of the series. The special effects are absolutely spectacular and the pacing is much improved.

Next week we’ll be looking at a personal favourite of mine, Sun Probe. Will International Rescue’s first venture into outer space stand up to scrutiny?

2 thoughts on “Thunderbirds – 3. City Of Fire

  1. Another fascinating write-up there – great work. We’re watching all the episodes again (for the first time in years) in tandem with your posts, so thanks for all the info that’s certainly added to our viewing pleasure!

    Like

  2. Pingback: Thunderbirds – Extending The First Eleven – Security Hazard

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