Thunderbirds for Richard Taylor a dream come true
With high-action plots that were pitched at kids yet seemed never to talk down to them, Thunderbirds was a generation-defining TV series. Created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson in 1965, it gave us the five, fabulous Thunderbird craft, their dashing "super-marionation" puppet pilots Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John, and International Rescue's stylish London agent Lady Penelope.
Decades after high-definition television exposed the puppet's strings, it remains an untouchable masterpiece, revered by those who remember it. One ambitious attempt to remake it, as a feature film in 2004, was a critical and commercial failure, largely because it failed to recapture the majesty and the inventive madness of the original.
Thunderbirds Are Go, produced by ITV Studios and Pukeko Pictures with special effects by Weta Workshop, looks far more likely to succeed. It's blend of computer-generated animation and real miniature sets creates a distinct look which, in the highly-homogenised contemporary kid's TV market, is immediately intriguing, and powerfully reminiscent of the original.
But in trying to draw a second lightning strike to the same spot, executive producer Richard Taylor, the founder and creative director of Weta, says he had to accept that his Thunderbirds, the original Thunderbirds, could not return. "Young children don't engage with those characters the way we did because they've had such a rich appetite of other complex characters on-screen," he says.
The series was announced in 2013, but in truth Taylor had been pushing towards it for more than a decade prior, following a chance encounter with the show's co-creator Gerry Anderson on a flight to the UK. Speaking to Anderson, who died in 2012, he asked his permission to pursue his dream to remake the series. "I felt that was really necessary for me, to ask for that permission," Taylor says.
Several years later Taylor then met Anderson's ex-wife, Sylvia, who had co-created the series but significantly voiced Lady Penelope. Taylor invited Anderson to the London premiere of The Lord of the Rings as his date. "Sylvia didn't know who I was from the other side of the world, but she came along," he recalls. "We had the most incredible evening."
What followed was a series of film tests, which blended CGI characters and model sets. "We knew that would give it the most unique look," Taylor says. With every aspect of the series, Taylor says, a huge effort has been made to "pay a deep respect to the core antecedents of the show."
That distinct look is key, says Taylor, to drawing attention to the program. The original Thunderbirds, he says, was "powerful, powerful television ... and in the market, at the time, there was almost nothing else to compete. In today's market there's a million other ships in the ocean. You have to make a show that looks unique, beautiful, and will capture the attention of the audience because of its special qualities."
The project also required sending the original Thunderbird vehicles back to the drawing board. In truth the results are so close as to pass muster with all but the most diehard fans. The changes come in small touches, though some of vehicles – notably the submarine Thunderbird 4 – have more new touches than others. "It required a re-design, but re-design with intense sensitivity to the aesthetic of the original vehicles," Taylor says.
Particularly Thunderbird 4. "I'm a fanatic for Thunderbird 4," Taylor confesses. "I have dreamed of owning one since I was a four-year-old." It's a surprising passion given that most kids idolised the more action-oriented Thunderbird 1 and 2, and their pilots Scott and Virgil. It also didn't help that the original puppet for Thunderbird 4's pilot, Gordon Tracy, had dodgy hair. "We hopefully have improved on the hair," Taylor laughs.
In pure engineering terms, Taylor says, breaking down the structure and style of the original Thunderbird vehicles revealed how informed the show's original designers Derek Meddings and Mike Trim were by modern, naturalistic aesthetics. "The design of the Thunderbirds is a product of its place in history," Taylor says. "There was an influence of that very organic, very almost natural form design that was coming through."
Taylor also notes the breadth of Meddings' and Trim's "conceptualised future-think", which saw the original Thunderbirds series create, for example, vertical take-off vehicles 20 or 30 years before the Harrier jump jet came into British aviation. "You have to wonder if the engineer of the jump jet had been watching the Thunderbirds," says Taylor.
In story terms, however, the original Thunderbirds was born in the 1960s, into a post-James Bond Britain, a sensibility its storytelling leaned heavily on. In 2015, the audience's sensibilities are somewhat different. And, Taylor says, the storytelling has to respond accordingly. "You couldn't make the original show today because of broadcasting rules," he says. "The Tracy brothers carry guns on their hips and shoot people and smoke liberally. That stuff can't be in there anymore."
That said, the new series does to one direct remake of an original episode: Fireflash. "It's pure disaster movie," confesses Taylor. Even today, I love watching [the original] episode. It's visceral. You're freaking out. You deeply care. They're bloody puppets. You can see the strings. But you care that they're going to die. It's a very high mountain to climb."
It also illustrates perfectly the challenge for the series, whose contemporary target audience is exposed to a much broader palette of entertainment, from complex, adult cartoons, to big-budget features like Captain America and The Avengers. "They're watching that on video, in the morning, and you're hoping they're going to engage with your show," Taylor says. "You can't hope to compete, you're not allowed, nor do you want to."
Instead, Thunderbirds Are Go delves into character. "Our guys don't have any super powers," he says. "There's no secret button that solves all problems. It comes down to ingenuity and bravery. These boys achieve unbelievable acts of heroism, for the good of people they don't even know, only then to disappear back into the shadows of their island. That's a fine message to share. Hopefully that may have some resonance, across the world."
Thunderbirds, TV2, Sunday, 7pm
- Sydney Morning Herald