So, the new Thunderbirds series. After 50 a year gap and a Hollywood-burned movie, my expectations were low. Nothing could top the New Captain Scarlet series, and TAG seemed to be aiming for a younger audience.
That said, this is the first reboot pilot I bothered to check out on first broadcast since… Doctor Who in 2005. Quite how much support it has though… I mean moving it to CBBC at 8am only a week after launch on ITV seems a tad dismissive, especially as we have another 24 episodes to follow.
I was expecting some considerable changes to the format and the characters, and was surprised to see just how much of the original survived. Sadly this didn’t quite include the original theme tune, although there were enough beats to trigger nostalgia, and the end product is definitely a lot closer to the original than the trails had led me to expect.
The WETA workshop’s take on the classic lines of the Thunderbirds themselves really do work. The boy band look and poses of the Tracy boys had certainly set alarm bells ringing, but with the appearance of the episode itself my reservations about the CGI evaporated.
The Thunderbirds themselves look good, retaining most of the original designs and launch sequences, with only Thunderbird 5 bearing any significant changes. The characters, From their the shiny skin to the sometimes clunky poses, certainly recreates the feel of supermarionation. So much so, I fact, that I was expecting the process to be given an Anderson style name. Digimation, perhaps.
Before I review the episode proper (SPOILERS from here on in, folks), perhaps it’s worth looking at the differences.
I understand from the date (2060, as opposed to the original series set five years later) that the show is set before the original. This threw me a little, because some aspects scream sequel, while others cry prequel. In practice this seems to be a reimagining, but sticking very closely to the original so that some original episodes can perhaps fit right into the story arc.
And that’s the weird thing. Instead of thinking no, this isn’t the same, I’m already thinking about the continuity. The rebalancing of the characters works, and perhaps this is where I should start:
Jeff Tracy is nowhere to be seen. mission in action (although keeping the voice of original Jeff actor Peter Dynely for the countdowns was a nice touch). Taking the dad out of the equation keeps the focus on the boys, but if it precedes the original series it sort of spoilers his return. Jeff’s mother (played by Sandra Dickinson) is transplanted into Tracy Island instead, although she reminds me a little too much of Grue’s mum from Despicable Me. Only time will tell if she is a permanent fixture, and I can’t say I’m enamoured.
Scott (Thunderbird 1) seems absolutely the same as the original. I swear that the new voice, Rasmus Hardiker, even sounded like Shane Rimmer at one point.
Virgil (Thunderbird 2), now played by David Menkin, is pretty much unchanged from the original, and I still get him and Scott mixed up, just like I did in the sixties!
Alan (Thunderbird 3), also played by Rasmus Hardiker, is clearly much younger than in the original, but this – along with his early team-up with KayO, reflects the Hollywood film and its Spy Kids style origin. This show may well expunge the live action film from memory, but the younger Alan works, and it gives film fans at least one point of familiarity. My one gripe is that Alan seems far too ungrateful, bemoaning that he has to be babysat, even though he is the one who gets to GO INTO SPACE all the time!
Gordon (Thunderbird 4) the Aquanaut, doubled up by David Menkin, is another straight transfer from the original. At least gets a nice new glass bottom ex makeover for his sub.
John (Thunderbird 5), dogged by the unnecessary holographic excesses of 21st Century TV SF, seems the most unchanged character, although I’m sure his appreciation for Stingray should have gone to Gordon.
Brains, played by Kayvan Novak, is perhaps the biggest surprise, having been turned into an Indian! My fears for an all-white boy band were offset by what they’ve did to him, but I’m not sure if swapping one dodgy accent for another works. That said it’s a not-unwelcome interpretation. His robot sidekick Max does ring a bell though, reminding me of the Fantastic Four’s HERBIE, Johnny 5 and Wall-E all at the same time. Given how the robots of Short Circuit and Chappie were given genius Asian sidekicks, though, he feels a touch cliched.
KayO Kyrano (Thunderbird S), voiced by Angel Coulby, is more an expectation than a surprise. She appears to be the original Tin Tin, but updated for a modern audience. As Head of Security/Covert Ops she’s less of a yellow-faced pulp stereotype, and given a serious role that sets her apart from the boys. Giving her a Thunderbird of her own seemed the right way to go – it would have been a spoiler, but as her portrait sits alongside the other pilots it was pretty well telegraphed (in the credits no less) even if we haven’t yet seen what her ship can do. The fact it didn’t get branded as Thunderbird 6 felt right (and I hope the Tiger Moth will get a role later in the series). As with Jeff Tracy, her father is nowhere to be seen. Whether she is an amalgamation of the two characters, or whether Kyrano is set to return alongside Jeff Tracy, remains to be seen.
Lady Penelope, now voiced by Rosamund Pike, has already been dub led less posh by some critics, but to me she just seems more 21st Century posh than Sylvia Anderson’s 20th Century posh. I dislike her static hair, and I perhaps took too much of a shine to Sophie Myles’ live action version to fully appreciate the character, but I look forward to hearing Sylvia Anderson’s return to the show in later episodes as… Great Auntie Sylvia.
Oddly, Parker looks older than the original, and his voice is reprised by the original, David Graham. That said, he didn’t sound the same, and his appearances were far too short.
I did like that in its chase scene, the Rolls was pitted against a car remarkably similar to the Bugatti Veyron. They seem suited to each other, and it gave a fresh air to the pink supercar.
The Hood is less… Melodramatic. His Asiatic origins have been downplayed and he is less like Fu Manchu than the original, which can only be a good thing. He and KayO/Tin Tin would otherwise have reflected the casual racism of the sixties. So again, another good decision.
Which brings me to the plot. Ring of Fire may not be the most chortle-avoiding title, and has issues when viewed in a single block (it works much better in its two parter for at than as a pilot movie) but overall it does work. All of the principal characters are introduced, the island is explored, all of the Thunderbirds are used and the role of International Rescue is established. Full marks there.
The pacing is, however, a little mercurial. Episodes are shorter than the originals, yet the story still felt like it was progressing at a steady pace. I worry that this might jar for modern audiences, but some older viewers fed back to me that there was too much going on, which left me thinking I had watched a different show!
There were also some nice some lovely blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nods to other Gerry Anderson shows (with a cameo from Stingray itself) and, all in all, TAG is a show that oozes love and affection. It bravely changes only what it needs to, making a few compromises along the way, but it retains much of the spirit of the original, and I found myself forgiving its flaws out of respect for some brave decisions more likely to appeal to the older fans rather than to a new generation. Ultimately, this might cost viewers, which would be sad, although two seasons have already been confirmed, which just begs the question why, if ITV seems committed, do they plan to muck about with the time slot so much?