When ITV launched Thunderbirds Are Go in April of 2015, their half CGI/half model reboot of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson‘s Supermarionation classic Thunderbirds, optimists were forced to cover their ears as cries of despair radiated from the more excitable fans bemoaning the lack of strings suspending the characters. A year on from that blast off, many of those cries have faded away into oblivion, but were those cries justified in the first place?
In the world of sci-fi TV, Thunderbirds Are Go had it rough from the start. The original series is held in high regard as an undisputed classic of retro-futuristic entertainment, and is easily placed alongside such other classics as Star Trek and Doctor Who as an example of stellar television. However, unlike those two shows, Thunderbirds doesn’t have a wealth of continuations, spin-offs or sequels to its name. Where Trekkies have no problem discussing Star Trek: The Next Generation with equal reverence as they do with the original series, and where New Who is arguably analysed deeper than the classic Doctor Who, Thunderbirds has none of that. Such is the focus on the original series, Thunderbirds Are Go didn’t get off to a great start when it came to convincing the more excitable fans to give this remake a chance.
Now that Series One has come and gone, it’s something of a relief to say that Thunderbirds Are Go is definitely worth more than a tense chance. Possibly spinning out of Anderson’s own plans for a CGI Thunderbirds dating back from 2005, Thunderbirds Are Go is a show full of effortless charm, natural wit, colourful adventure, quick-footed action and superb acting. It may lack the grizzled, slow-burning atmosphere of the original series, but if you’re going to remake something, what’s the point of making it exactly the same as the original?
Thunderbirds Are Go follows the efforts of International Rescue as they dart across the world responding to the most disastrous of distress calls via their supersonic rockets, planes and submarines. The world of 2060 is a time of technological wonder, and very often its creators are at the mercy of their own devices. However, it’s a seemingly infinite struggle for Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John – Jeff Tracy, their father, is missing. Thought to have been killed by their arch nemesis The Hood, the band of brothers struggle to keep International Rescue as a functioning outfit without their dad for guidance. Despite this, the Tracy brothers have their wise-cracking Grandma, genius inventor Brains and head of security Kayo to help them. But there are secrets hidden within the Tracy family, the Hood is hell-bent on world domination, and a regular stream of desperate emergencies need answering. This can only mean one thing – Thunderbirds are go!
A co-production between ITV and Pukeko Pictures, with CGI and miniatures courtesy of Lord of the Rings stalwarts Weta Workshop, the first thing one notices about Thunderbirds Are Go is the blending of CGI characters and Thunderbird craft with model sets. It’s a fairly unique method of production for a children’s show (yes folks, Thunderbirds was, is, and will always be a children’s show.), and an endlessly handsome tip-of-the-hat to how Thunderbirds was made, but it’s not without its faults. Several times throughout the series, the fusion of the digital and the tangible just doesn’t blend well. A different pair of eyes from mine may see this differently, these things are subjective after all, but such a blend looks disorientating at times. Fortunately, it’s only a scattershot complaint, as most of the time it’s barely noticed, and an odd cause for concern in general given how we, as audiences, judge television dramas, but because Thunderbirds was a show that placed so much emphasis on the aesthetics, there’s no denying this new incarnation had a lot to live up to.
In other areas, Thunderbirds Are Go lives up to that standard splendidly. The CGI itself has an idiosyncratic yet well-crafted feel to it, with the Tracy brothers retaining a touch of the big-headed, large-eyed expressions their former puppet incarnations had. However, the CGI really gets to strut its stuff when its bringing the legendary Thunderbird craft themselves to life. The new Thunderbirds 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 may not have the rounded smoothness of the classic craft, but they look fresh, modern, practical and gorgeously made!
But let’s diverge from how Thunderbirds Are Go looks, there’s more to a television show than its appearance after all, even if the classic Thunderbirds may well be the exception to that rule! Series 1 consists of 26 half-hour episodes, something which those aforementioned excitable fans used as ammunition for shooting Thunderbirds Are Go down before it had a real chance to take flight. Indeed, the scaling-down of the episode length has been a common complaint amongst fans, not because it doesn’t work, but because Thunderbirds Are Go leaves us wanting more. The scope of the show carries the retro-futuristic pretensions of the original deftly into the modern, digital age, meaning that each episode not only builds on the TAG universe, but introduces key concepts worth almost every instalment. There are times when it’s exhausting to keep up with this all-encompassing yet limited world Thunderbirds Are Go is set in, where technology is just as dangerous as it was in the original series, but in general those writing the show have worked their way around such restrictions.
The plot of the series itself, pieced together by head writer Rob Hoegee (Generator Rex, Ben 10: Omniverse, Teen Titans, Totally Spies, Transformers: Animated) and series director David Scott (The Lord of the Rings, Superman Returns, Avengers Assemble, Star Wars Lego: The Padawan Menace) is a step-up from the classic Thunderbirds in terms of multi-layered storytelling. Series 1 follows a vague yet intriguing story-arc that sees The Hood’s complicated relationship with International Rescue’s head of security, Kayo, which is also backed by the Tracy brother’s maturing lives as they attempt to run International Rescue without Jeff Tracy. The majority of the series maintains an episodic nature, driven by standalone stories who’s individual nature adds to a larger picture. This routine nature looses steam in certain areas, but it gives space for expanded characterisation, something extremely welcome for an Anderson show. True or untrue, the original John Tracy spent his time stuck up in Thunderbird 5 all alone because Gerry detested the character, but in Thunderbirds Are Go, John comes into his own as a fully-rounded character. The most level-headed of the Tracy brothers, he fill’s Jeff’s role somewhat as leader of the rescues.