Thunderbirds Are Go is a revival of the classic 1960’s British TV series, with the marionettes and some of the models replaced with CGI, and some of the social sensibilities updated for a more modern era. Other than that, it is the same show I remember being inordinately enamored of when I could catch it in re-runs in the 1970’s, with brave heroes pulling off daring rescues with gizmos galore. This latest show premiered in the United Kingdom last year, and is now available in the United States and other countries via Amazon Prime (with a sneak preview available now and the full season coming next week). It skews to the same pre-teen audience that the original show did, but is an enormously satisfying and fun throwback.
Thunderbirds Are Go mixes reboot and re-vamp of the original series. Set in the year 2060, the series still centers on the International Rescue organization run by the Tracy family. John Tracy is acts as the group’s dispatcher from his space-based perch abord the orbiting satellite Thunderbird 5. Scott Tracy pilots rocket plane Thunderbird 1, while Virgil Tracy usually follows in the heavy-lifting transporter Thunderbird 2. Gordon Tracy specializes in underwater operations in mini-submarine Thunderbird 4. Young Alan Tracy pilots the rescue rocket Thunderbird 3 for space-based operations, when he isn’t being forced into doing his homework. Additional support comes from their engineer Brains (subtly changed to someone of South Asian descent) and his robotic assistant MAX, and Kayo, the team’s young head of security (another nice update to the original character Tintin, and also the only woman on IR’s crew). International Rescue also gets occasional support from the aristocratic Lady Penelope, whose surface glamour hides her skills as an international spy, and her faithful manservant Parker, who may be even more skilled than his employer. The Tracy patriarch Jeff, a major character in the original show, is missing in action, with broad hints dropped in the first episode that his disappearance is the responsibility of the dastardly Hood: an international terrorist with schemes of world domination.
The one-hour series premiere “Ring of Fire” nicely sums up all of the above as it goes, communicating the basic premise of the show as it presents a fairly typical day in the life of the Tracy family as they apply a mixture of high-tech, quick thinking, and good old fashioned elbow grease to save lives when things start looking bad. The added length matches up with the size of the threat, since the natural disasters that kick off IR’s efforts turn out to be not-so-natural after all. The entire tone of the show is very deliberately retro, from the old-school theme music and the overly-dramatic and overly-complex pre-launch sequences (both of which echo the original show while moving things along just a little bit quicker). However, it’s refusal to fully update with the times is part of the charm of the show rather than a detriment.
Amazon was kind enough to send over the entire season for review, and the remaining 11 episodes of the show all range from very good to excellent. They all fall into a regular pattern where an emergency is called in and the Tracy’s respond, improvising their way through the rescue as the situation steadily goes from bad to worse. The weakest episodes only suffer from emergencies that don’t seem worthy of the Thunderbirds’ involvement (such as “Runaway,” involving an experimental train that’s lost all its controls), but the overall tone and the writing ensures there is enough high-stakes excitement to overrule any real quibbles. Some especially fun episodes include “Space Race,” where Alan ends up as the prey for a re-activated space mine while the rest of the team encounters numerous obstacles trying to find the mine’s kill code; “Fireflash,” where Kayo is a passenger on an experimental supersonic airliner that gets hijacked by the Hood; “Skyhook,” where a high-altitude weather station stymies almost all of International Rescue’s efforts to extract its crew, including the millionaire who skimped on all the station’s safety features; and the season finale “Heavy Metal,” where an experimental Supreme Hadron Collider creates a gravity well that begins pulling down everything above it, including the massive World Wide Space Station.
American action animation fans should probably be warned that Thunderbirds Are Go may look like it’s setting up a season-wide story arc in “Ring of Fire,” akin to those in shows like The Legend of Korra, Young Justice, or the latest Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot, but these hints are largely un-satisfied in this first season of the show. Revelations about the Hood’s connection to the Tracy family in “Ring of Fire” is only referenced rarely, which is only frustrating if one walks into the series with heightened expectations. I must also admit a little disappointment that Thunderbirds Are Go doesn’t push a bit further in its more progressive elements. It’s great that Kayo is a competent, assertive woman who easily holds her own with the Tracy boys, but she is frustratingly under-utilized even after she earns her own totally awesome looking Thunderbird vehicle early in the season. Lady Penelope is as charming and unflappable as ever, but she was never a major player in the original show. This means that the show relies a bit too much on boys-and-their-toys. We have already gotten leading ladies like Korra, Merida from Brave, and the assorted women in the latest Star Wars shows and movies. I can understand reverence for the original property, but I wonder why one or more of the Tracys couldn’t have been gender-flipped.
Thunderbirds Are Go is unique in mixing CGI with in-camera sets and models to echo the original show as much as possible. The production was conducted with the renowned Weta Workshop, and the results are unique and surprising when compared to most other TV animation. CGI animation on TV almost always shows tighter budgets and timelines in subtle ways, limiting character models, textures, and complex sets when compared to the average feature film. Thunderbirds Are Go manages to make this limitation work for them in two different ways. The first is by melding the CGI and real-world elements so seamlessly that one can’t tell where the computer model ends and the physical model begins. The net effect is that all the in-camera elements make for far better backgrounds than the average CGI show, which makes the final product look much more polished. The somewhat limited character animation and modeling of the human characters in the show also feels less like a budgetary constraint and more like a tribute to the original marionettes in the original Thunderbirds show. Kids back then didn’t care that the marionettes were very obviously fake and we could often see the strings; I doubt they will care now that the CGI isn’t feature-film quality. The curiously uninhabited locales of CGI TV productions still persists (especially a blacked-out London in “Unplugged”), but most of the rescues happen far enough away from people that this isn’t a distraction too often.
We live in an era when modern media companies are willing to hand the keys of a property over to former fans, who can then re-launch these properties for new audiences. In the past, this only really applied to comic book superheroes, with every generation getting its own animated (and occasionally live-action) versions of Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, or the Fantastic Four. Today, it seems like everything old is new again, and although a part of me is still a bit disgruntled that we aren’t getting more new properties, I also can’t dispute the quality of the results when it comes to things like the latest Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles TV show and Star Wars animation and movies. These shows are driven by people creating something that they want to watch, perhaps even putting the show they thought they were watching on screen rather than the show that they actually got. Thunderbirds are Go happily continues this trend, producing a show that will appeal to both the youth of today and their accompanying adults, whether or not those adults have fond memories of the original show. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it; Thunderbirds Are Go proves there was very little broken in Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s original.
A sneak preview of the Thunderbirds Are Go series premiere “Ring of Fire” is now available for streaming on Amazon Prime. The full 12-episode season will be released on April 22, 2016.