13 March 2016

TV Review: Thunderbirds - Trapped in the Sky

I can't remember how old I was when I first saw Thunderbirds, but it was probably somewhere around the age of four or five. For the next few years it was favourite thing, but my enthusiasm gradually waned as I approached double figures. In many ways, I suppose that's a similar experience to a lot of Doctor Who fans' memories, although perhaps if Thunderbirds had still been producing new episodes when I was growing up it wouldn't have slid off the radar too much. After watching an episode here and there every few years for nostalgia, I've decided (along with seeing a crazily reduced box set in HMV) to do a marathon of the whole lot. So, here goes...

I feel like I've seen Trapped in the Sky about a thousand times so was really tempted to skip it, but reaffirmed that I have to do all the episodes else what's the point? And I'm glad I did rewatch this because it was a totally different experience, now that I'm (subconsciously) trying to think of things to say about it in a review. It's very much a standard Thunderbirds episode, but then that's exactly what you want from an introduction, and it's structured so carefully. We start off at the Hood's hideout as he delivers some well-crafted exposition telling us who he is, what he wants and showing us his powers. Straight away we know our heroes have made a formidable enemy.

Across the rest of the episode, the Hood tries to tempt International Rescue to the scene of a disaster he's staged - and it works. He places a bomb in the landing gear of the new Fireflash - an aircraft capable of flight at six times the speed of sound. Although the science is a bit dodgy, I really appreciated Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, who wrote this opening instalment, using some pretty advanced terminology that I only know otherwise from my degree. It shows that they're not playing it down for the kids (although this definitely is a children's programme) and that's reciprocated across the whole story.

There's also a race against time as Fireflash's crew and passengers threaten to be exposed to a fatal dose of radiation from the engine after a certain amount of time. Again, it's probably nonsense but what I do like is how the writers have thought about how they can use what they've already set up, and tie the aircraft's impressive abilities to a necessary time constraint. We're shown why International Rescue is necessary when the only solution Air Traffic Control can think of fails and then, crucially, we see they're not infallible themselves as one of their machines fails and explodes. These points are so important in establishing the series as a whole, as we see without International Rescue these people would certainly have died.

The Hood also succeeds in his plan to photograph the Thunderbirds, which is another important point because it shows us that he really is a serious enemy. He's caught by the team's glamorous London associate Lady Penelope, with Parker shooting him off the road - quite over-zealously I thought. I was surprised he hadn't died after his getaway car rolled down the hill and exploded, which is probably the darkest moment of this show, yet it's underlined with a musical comedy wail as The Hood's mask falls off. He promises he'll be back and I know that's true (I've a vague recollection of Brains buried up to his neck in the desert) but I've no idea how soon that will be as I don't think I ever saw any two episodes in order.

The characters themselves seem a bit prototypey, with Scott coming across as a self-important grump and John's a bit of a useless div, hovering by his radios for twenty minutes before actually telling his dad about the mortal danger the Fireflash is in. Also, how the hell does he concentrate on what anyone's saying with a hundred signals blasting into his ears all the time? Stuck up in space by himself all the time, it must drive him mad. Virgil is presented as the hero of the hour, actually doing the legwork of the operation while Scott sits in his booth bossing him around. We don't see very much at all of Alan or Gordon here but that's understandable given their vehicles (a space rocket and a submarine respectively) are hardly appropriate for the situation.

It's hardly an original comment, but the show is so well produced. It has really high production values, which is obviously easier to achieve at a smaller scale but the time and effort that's gone into everything is staggering. It looks especially good on these nice new DVDs, rather than the half-wiped VHS I'm used to. How smooth and professional it all looks is a credit to the entire original crew. It's hard to imagine people putting the same effort in now. In 2016 (indeed, probably for the new Thunderbirds Are Go tosh) it's a second's work to texture a floor or pillar in a bit of CGI software, but it would have taken someone an incredible amount of time to do the same by hand 50 years ago - and all in the knowledge that no-one would probably ever notice. The wealth and quality of sets is to be applauded. 

The camera work and direction are first rate through this whole episode, but possibly my favourite bits are the camera moves through the sets which look so slick and probably better than would be achieved now at full scale. Tracy Island looks magnificent here, but it does make you wonder what Jeff's layabout sons did before he thought up the Thunderbirds project. The inclusion of Tintin - basically a member of the extended family - being on Fireflash gives things another personal dimension, but sadly we barely here from her after the craft gets into difficulty. All in all though, this is a very good-looking episode. Alan Pattillo sadly doesn't seem to have worked on much outside of the Anderson universe, but I'm glad they kept him on to direct a few of these.

What's probably obvious is that I really enjoyed this. Despite always being a great advocate of the series I expected it to be a bit stagy and, well... naff, but I was happily disappointed. The storytelling structure fits neatly with what a viewer is used to in 2016 (whether that shows the Andersons were forward-thinking or TV has cycled back around is a question for another time) and despite obviously being made for children this is a very grown-up piece. It doesn't talk down to the kids at all, which is perhaps this opener's greatest achievement. The soundtrack is also one of Trapped in the Sky's strongest assets, Barry Gray providing a layered and surprisingly thoughtful element to proceedings. It must also be said that the sound effects add an awful lot of authenticity.

All in all, this isn't the greatest piece of television I've ever seen, but it is a phenomenally strong start that reminds me a lot of Spearhead from Space, and is more like a feature film than anything else. I can't wait to get the next one on.

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