By Bob Clark
Celebrity deaths, so the common wisdom of the morbidly curious goes, usually come in threes, and this past Christmas was no exception. We lost two of our best character actors in Jack Klugman and Charles Durning, whose collective contributions to film and television cover a generously wide span of content– everything from hardboiled dramas and lighthearted sitcoms to great American theater and raunchy modern animation. Both of them were lesser-known names than many of their contemporaries, but odds are you’d recognize them by their faces or the parts they played, which isn’t something you could say very easily about the third part of this mortuary trifecta. How many people nowadays know the name Gerry Anderson right off the tip of their tongues? Fewer still would be able to place his face, or even claim to have seen him on television or in a magazine. As a producer, writer and creator on television, he’s much more likely to be known by the works he made rather than any facetime with his audience, and for somebody engaged in creating works of children’s television you’ve got the automatically receding half-life of nostalgia. Unless you grew up withhis programs in their original runs or maybe in reruns, odds are you only know about them if making a concerted effort to track down all the curiosities of quasi-animation and puppet stylings on the big or small screens from the past half century or so. And perhaps the best thing that can be said about Thunderbirds or Captain Scarlet is that, for all their flaws, they’re worth the effort.
At the time of this writing, it’s easy enough to find most Thunderbirds episodes on YouTube, conveniently compiled with their back-to-back cliffhangers wrapped up, two half-hour episodes at a time. Easier still to find for Netflix subscribers is the 1966 feature Thunderbirds Are Go, and even its sequel Thunderbird 6 is occasionally shown on Turner Classic Movies every now and again. For most contemporary viewers, these widescreen films will probably best resemble Gerry Anderson’s distinct brand of “Supermarionation” in the form that they’re most familiar with it– Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Team America: World Police, where the South Park creators used the same mix of marionette characters and expansive model work to tell their satire of global military intervention run amuck. What’s interesting there is that they picked a form that would be immediately recognizable to a small niche of their own generation, but harder for anyone outside of that limited draw and age-range to get on an intimate basis. It hadn’t even been the first time that anyone had used the “Supermarionation” form for the sakes of satire, either, MTV’s Super Adventure Team having done much the same thing back in 1998. At this point, it seems almost a given that more people at or under the age of 30 are probably more familiar with the stylings of Gerry Anderson from works that were inspired by him, much in the same way that today’s audiences are more likely to be introduced to a stop-motion SpongeBob Squarepants Christmas special than anything from Rankin/Bass, or to late-night reruns of Moral Orel than Art Clokey’s Davey and Goliath.
But is it possible to enjoy something like Thunderbirds apart from irony? The idea of incredibly inarticulate wooden puppets being used to act out stories of adventure, rescue and espionage on an international scale (or an intergalactic one, in the case of Captain Scarlet) sounds preposterous at once, and watching any example of the method for long enough clearly shows why. Even in the most skilled of hands, Anderson’s marionettes are too stiff and static to be of much good in dramatic scenes, everything down to the movement of their mouths looking either too mechanical or wobbly and imprecise. Yet at the same time they’re not much good at anything else, as that very imprecision makes it impossible to even think of them being used in action set-pieces, or anything more physically demanding than lifting a hand without shaking on a string. Parodies like Super Adventure Team and especially Team America would later make use of that awkward puppeteering to great effect, going out of their way to push the limits of what their marionettes could do, no matter how ridiculous it looked (or, in the case of Team America‘s notorious puppet-sex scenes, precisely because of how ridiculous it looked). In their hands, the use of “Supermarionation” was really more of a way to satirize the conventions of gung-ho patriotic American action films from the era of Jerry Bruckheimer onward, and in that sense the limitations worked wonders.
Yet at the best moments of Anderson’s own works on television, he and his crew managed to work their way around those very limitations and deliver bitesized chunks of adventure entertainment that can sometimes be surprising for how engaging it is, in spirit if never quite in verisimilitude. Without the ability to portray convincing physical puppeteering for any of the main characters, Anderson’s focus on the larger-than-life aircraft, space-ships and submarines of Thunderbirds and other programs allowed him and his teams of directors and puppeteers to stage an inventive series of life-or-death emergencies, following the exploits of International Rescue and its ongoing mission to prevent disasters both natural and man-made alike. Especially effective was the way that Anderson & Co. managed to use the freedom of their miniatures to build all manner of locations that could never be built for a live-action series, making up for some of the stilted mannerisms of the marionettes for a lavish, eye-popping production scale that could be unmatched, at times, on the small screen. There’s a great use of period pop-art design and color at any of the various sets or vehicle props throughout the show, and the ways that various directors stage the filming throughout helps inject a life into the story that the puppets themselves couldn’t– with a camera more animated than the show’s marionettes, an extra element of energy and urgency was added, livening up everything on screen.
That visual urgency helped pump up the dynamism of the televised version of the show, where each 30 minute segment was brimming with cliffhangers and plot-twists to keep the viewer on the edge of their seats. It was an essential ingredient to keep audiences from questioning the realism of a program built on the premise of marionettes, and something the feature-film renditions of Thunderbirds could never quite manage– not only are they scripted without any of the economy and clip of the fast-paced show (everything slowing to a tedious crawl whenever something has to take off of a runway, with minutes of NASA-like preparation beforehand) but there are lapses into the utterly absurd with long dream-sequences and musical interludes stretching out in the middle, as well as trips beyond the reaches of Earth that barely resemble the Solar System as we knew it even in the 60’s (seemingly nobody was on staff to check what color Mars is). At the same time, perhaps there was an element of savvy in pushing the surrealness of their production far past the point it could be taken seriously– all of them arriving about midpoint in Thunderbirds Are Go, they occur just about the point that an average adventure on television would be concluding, which is about as long at a time as any ordinary viewer would be able to take it seriously on their own, anyway.
The Thunderbirds films make excellent use of the CinemaScope canvas, and at times some of their work comes close to matching, or at least scraping the undersurface, of sci-fi spectacles from around the same time (Kubrick was impressed enough to hire some of Anderson’s crew to work on 2001, at the very least). But if you want the best possible experience of that program or any of Gerry Anderson’s work, the best option is to watch his television series, and best yet, to pace yourself and only watch one half hour at a time. Back away from the cliffhanger and keep from unbridging your suspension of disbelief, and you might just be able to look at his work with the same kind of childlike eyes that would’ve greeted his jet-set fantasies of idealism and rescue back in the 1960’s. There’s at times a faint whiff of nostalgia for the heyday of the British Empire with all of the international inverventionism on display, and a hefty dose of the American brand just as it was coming into its own as a superpower. But beyond the Cold War cynicism there’s a genuine sense of awe to all of the wonders of science and technology his heroes build and pilot, and the sense of epic scale comes through like a candy-colored version of NASA exploits, bringing in a whole host of Kennedy-era optimism, even after its standard bearers were cut down. In every half-hour of Thunderbirds there’s a glitter from the inheritance of those early years, a dream that technology could help us make the world a better place for all mankind. Forget “Camelot”– once upon a time, this was the New Frontier.