I sat down to watch Thunderbird 6 for nostalgic reasons. I’d never seen the film before but I remember how hilariously cheesy the television episodes were. The series premiered in Britain in 1965. It was a science fiction adventure series created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. The same crew that made the tv show was used to make the 1968 movie. Both the movie and the show were made through the miracle of supermarionation. Say that ten times fast. What this means is that the characters are portrayed by a hybrid puppet, marionette and animatronic mannequin. On the television show they were ludicrous, and clumsy caricatures. The film made them more naturalistic but kept the oversize Margaret Keane eyes.
The film itself is not really that special. The plot is ordinary, the dialogue is simple though pretty well acted. The is film is full of stereotypes and overused tropes, like the muted trumpet that goes “Wah Wah” when something comical happens. However I highly recommend seeing Thunderbird 6 for one simple reason, the set design. Its hard to imagine watching an hour and a half film just to see the sets but they are truly spectacular.
Firstly they are ambitious. The bulk of the film takes place during a world tour in an airship providing ample opportunity for the set builders to showcase their skills. They made The Pyramids, The Taj Mahal, The Grand Canon, The Swiss Alps and more. They were fearless in their willingness to make enormous and involved sets for just a few seconds of camera time.
Secondly the sets may have been miniatures but they were meticulously crafted and painstakingly detailed. The quality is amazing. With all that being said what truly make the sets worth seeing is their value as time capsules that showcase mid-century modern design and fashion. I gasped in joyful awe when I first saw the bedroom set as well as the lounge.
According to Google the budget for Thunderbird 6 was 300,000 pounds, adjusted for inflation that would be more like 2,470,903 today. Translated into dollars that would be 3,090,976 bucks. The bulk of that must have gone to carpenters, painters, electricians and designers. Thunderbird 6 may have been a children’s, adventure movie, but it is tour de force of craftsmanship.
The trailer for the film makes the various science fiction airships the main attraction. The filmmakers were most likely courting the young boy market. There are plenty of die cast toys and plastic model kits made from the movie. Toward this end the second half of the film has far fewer set pieces and much more action.
Seeing plastic mannequin’s shoot little pistols at each other and risk their lives flying through explosions is not exactly white knuckle entertainment but you can sit through the second half just to have a sense of completion.
Thunderbirds 6 was a flop at the box office but the franchise has made and remade many Thunderbirds. There are television shows, films, radio plays, comic books and even a live action version. It is a whole world unto itself. The time capsules keep generating more capsules.
Out of curiosity I sampled an episode of the 2018 incarnation of Thunderbirds. It was produced by Amazon and available free for Prime members, which seems perfectly apropos for the time capsule of our current era. Episode one is entitled Volcano! Its 22 minutes of low quality CGI that mostly stays tight on the characters and doesn’t seem too concerned with the surrounding settings.
To be fair the budget was probably pretty small. There was a certain amount of optimistic bravado that underpinned Thunderbird 6. They obviously had high hopes for the project. This new version seems a bit more practical ie. “If we don’t put too much money in we can insure a profit.”
It will be for the generation after ours to decide if today’s Thunderbirds becomes a treasured glimpse into a long past aesthetic, or just another blip in the great streaming mass of crap.