When I discovered Terrahawks on DVD as a kid I was instantly hooked. I was very familiar with Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionation work in the 1960’s and that he had then ventured into live action in the 1970’s, but to discover that he had then produced a series in the 1980’s which used a different form of puppetry, I was more than a little curious to discover what that show looked like. I had seen a few pictures in books but knew nothing about the show until I chanced across the first four episodes on a single volume.
Little did I know that those first few episodes are generally considered by fans to be some of the least strong of the series. I for one absolutely loved them and kept watching again and again until finally getting the full series boxset.
In this article I have attempted to identify five elements of the show that particularly appealed to me and what made Terrahawks the mischevious but endearing younger cousin of Thunderbirds.
It wouldn’t be a classic Gerry Anderson series without an array of impressive vehicles. The designs are functional but also have hints of fantasy along with them. Leading the fleet is Battlehawk which carries all the gear to trouble areas, while Hawkwing engages enemy craft in flight. Treehawk acts as a shuttle to Spacehawk, a space satellite which forms the first line of defence against alien attack. HUDSON is an automated Rolls Royce which makes for one of the many entertaining supporting characters in the series. The supply Overlander is perhaps the most impressive piece of kit on display in the series as it trawls across the desert and often gets into trouble along the way.
Often a controversial point about the show is its use of humour. The Supermarionation shows often had a lighter side but for the most part they weren’t works of all out comedy, instead providing engaging drama for people of all ages. Terrahawks realised that one other way to engage an audience of kids and adults was to include jokes – some crude, some subtle, some outrageous, and most importantly, some good and some bad.
Yes I could never say that Terrahawks was the most ingenious work of comedy ever devised, but it does make me laugh, even the worst of the ‘Stein’ writer pseudonyms. Some people may not be able to make it through an episode without gritting their teeth at the attempts at humour and dislike the show because of that, but people who love the show will also grit their teeth at the humour, nevertheless finding that to be the element whic makes the series a cult classic.
As I mentioned in my introduction, I had only seen a few photos from Terrahawks before watching the show in full. I knew the puppets were different to what had been presented in the Supermarionation shows, but I didn’t really have any idea how they worked or how they moved. I distincitly remember my reaction when the opening titles started rolling on episode 1 and Dr Tiger Ninestein popped up on screen and declared, “Terrahawks! Stay on this channel! This is an emergency!” I was amazed to see that the character’s entire jaw was moving in sync with his dialogue, not just his lower lip.
The Terrahawks ‘Supermacromation’ puppets were, to me at least, a captivating step-up from the Supermarionation puppets because they were so much more animated, although perhaps not as attractive as their fibre-glass predecessors.The Terrahawks puppets feel so much more alive because the puppeteers have direct contact with them and it means the whole series feels very lively and spontaneous.
The Heroes and Villains
Terrahawks is fundamentally a battle of good versus evil as Dr Tiger Ninestein and his team defend the Earth from alien android Zelda. With this simple formula, there are plenty of opportunities for certain characters to shine, some being fleshed out with more personality than others. Ninestein may not be a cuddly figure but I do find him to be an enjoyable character regardless because he gives us something different in hero. His dry sense of humour and direct nature make him intriguing and unpredictable. On the flip side of that, Zelda is completely predictacble because she’s an unstoppable force of insanity filled with hate. She is, quite simply, a classic villain and Denise Bryer is so superb at playing her.
Then of course, there are the Zeroids who act as the foot soldiers in the fight against Zelda and her gang of monsters. These spherical robots are an ingenious creation and a fantastic pieces of prop-making. The likes of Sgt. Major Zero, Space Sgt. 101, and Dix-Huit, steal the show as far as delivering amusing dialogue and throwing themselves into the action.
The Big Finish Audio Stories
Thanks to Big Finish, we have more Terrahawks stories to enjoy in audio form. If anything held back the television series, it was a lack of budget to provide jaw-dropping visuals, shot as it was on 16mm film and with much less money than Lew Grade had been able to provide in the 1960’s. In the audio adventures this issue is a thing of the past. Anything can happen in this medium, and believe me the variety of material provided in the first two series has been astounding. The episodes are written by people who know the series inside and out, with Denise Bryer, Jeremy Hitchen, and Robbie Stevens returning to lend their voices which have only gotten better 30 years later. There’s a mixture of great comedy and serious drama which means all bases are covered. Basically, if you love Terrahawks, these Big Finish stories are essential listening, but are also worth a try for those that look upon the original series less favourably. The Big Finish stories have an identity all of there own, and attempt to improve upon the weaknesses of the television series, as well as providing many other Anderson treats tucked away here and there.
In a very exciting turn of events, Terrahawks is currently being released on blu-ray. I’ve yet to treat myself yet but it’s certainly clear that these are the releases the series deserves, with the original DVDs now looking very tired indeed! Treat yourself!