Thunderbirds is a puppet-based, semi-autobiographical creation of IRA leader Gerry Adams. Adams, between car-bombings, wished to exploit the remarkable success of the Thundercats and "tap the vast potential" present in the market for plush but thunderous animals.
The series followed the remarkable exploits of the Tracy family (father Jeff being the adopted son of the legendary Dick Tracy) as they travelled around the world using the eponymous Thunderbirds, mechanichal birds that came to life in order to save the world in times of distress, which seemed to occur regularly once every week.
The first episode of Thunderbirds aired one Saturday in 1965 to a controlled test audience of eighty-seven, but its popularity soon spread outside the prison walls and even reached London before year-end. Originaly running 25 minutes, network executives insisted on 50-minute episodes, a change easily achieved by adding ponderous footage of balsa-wood models smoldering and emitting sparks.
In the show, Jeff Tracy and his five sons operated mechanical birds. They faced off not against a force of nature but a talking otter called The Hoodie (a descendant of King Chav II) who hypnotised people working in oil rigs and airports by way of sabotage, typically to steal the formula for Coca-Cola.
Though the show is set "one hundred years in the future" (if you ignore the dates on newspapers and other props), the protagonists are Living Away from the Grid, having seemingly abandoned both computers and GPS. They communicate by means of scratchy radios, acknowledging orders with the inscrutable "F.A.P."
The series lasted slightly more than one season. Producers toured the United States to sell the series, but the three major networks, despite initial interest, all told the producers that it was stupid to make an action series that starred cheesy marionettes, an assertion that struck the producers as obvious, though it had never occurred to them before. They immediately shut it down. However, toy companies kept passing off cheap Sean Tracy repaints as characters who might appear in a potential third season.
Two years later, the studio produced an inept three-minute conclusion. Though long thought a fake, as it killed off everybody but Dean Tracy and the stunt marionettes from France, it has recently been confirmed to be an official episode.
The sons of Jeff Tracy took their names after heroes from Irish history: Wolf Tone, Dan O'Donnell, Charlie Parnell, Gelignite O'Riley and 'Knee Capper' Virgil. And Brains (this last, a propos of nothing in Irish history). Each wore a sash in his personal favourite colour to help the under-fives identify with them better. This was not at all gay in those days, as the Teletubbies would later make clear. Each also wears a modified Glengarry cap, though none has ever served ice-cream treats to youngsters through a side door of a Thunderbird.
At fan conventions, Thunderbirds fans are well-known for their practical jokes like phoning each other with bomb warnings and singing obscene limericks about the English.
The wild success of the series gave rise to a cartoon that focuses on the descendants of Dean Tracy and their space adventures. The cartoon is done in anime, so it can be dubbed and sold to a Japanese company, which will promptly re-dub it and release it on video in Britain. The team formed to take on a new reincarnation of the Hoodie each week and kill him at least once. They also did battle with the Lightning Birds, an evil team of rivals later revealed to be Dean Tracy's birth children and thus with an awkward inside track, over the show's heroes, on the Tracy inheritance.
The cartoon has social significance in that it moved the children's licensed apparel business firmly in the direction of more snug winter wear, also known as Hoodies.
- Sponsored by Ford
Proving again that a franchise is never quite over until it is beaten to death, Hollywood took the job of co-opting the Thunderbirds into a full-length, live-action movie for release in 2004. The subtitle The Next Generation had, unfortunately, already been snapped up, but no one patented the gimmick of using impossible new heroes under 12 years of age to snag the allowances of The Next Generation of moviegoers meeting the same description.
The Hoodie (now portrayed by the late Mahatma Gandhi) lives on as a villain, as telekinesis and apparent immortality are inexhaustible plot devices. Equally late daughter Indira delivers a comparable performance as pert socialite Lady Penelope Cretin-Ward.
The special-effects crew delivers a new vehicle known only as "the M6," and this one will not get you anywhere near Scotland. When permission could not be secured to use a Rolls-Royce as in the original productions, Ford Motor Company stepped in with a half dozen vehicles, and hundreds of shots of its Ford Motor Company nameplate in crass product placements that moviegoers are now used to seeing in movies set in a fantasy world. Unfortunately, Lady Penelope was visibly uncomfortable seated in the rear seat of a pink Fiesta, and the London police do not look pleased either. Moreover, the use of Ford Motor Company expertise meant that the M6 was susceptible to numerous product safety recalls, including brakes and windscreen wiper failures. Despite its ability to hinder pursuers by jettisoning odd nuts and bolts, and hurl each of its eight cylinders as deadly projectiles, M6 finally seized up entirely, an event requiring frantic re-scripting and post-mortem addition of some motor oil by way of diffusing blame. While the prototype came with authentic furry dice (standard equipment this year on all Ford Motor Company products), some Hollywood activists demanded proof that the animal whose fur was used is not on the endangered species list.
Oddly, the live-action movie gave short shrift to both the wondrous vehicles and their heroic pilots, and virtually forgot to do any actual rescues. After creator Gerry Adams gave his comments on the movie (in a nutshell: "A load of crap"), the new film was doomed. Ironically, co-creator Morticia Addams attended the premiere and opined, "Thunderbirds are GOO!" Anyone who watches it now is liable to find nasty claw marks in his window frame the next morning.
Subtle product placement
- ♪♪ Have You Driven a Ford...Lately? ♪♪
- That word means "titular," which is as close as you will come to seeing tit in this show.