Thunderbirds are Go episode 1 review: excitement with no strings attached

Thunderbirds mega-fan Jonathan Holmes says the remake is F.A.B.

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It’s the heads. That’s why you don’t like the new CGI Tracy Brothers. ‘Supermarionation’ was the puppet technique pioneered by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s team, and made famous on the original Thunderbirds. It involved hiding the electronic components that made the lips move inside the puppet’s head. To fit it all in, the head had to be made large compared to the rest of the body. They later developed correctly sized skulls for Captain Scarlet, but Sylvia Anderson noted that the old large noggins with small bodies made International Rescue almost look like babies. Subconsciously, they were easy to love.

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Now the Tracys are in buff proportion. Rather than float on wires, they swagger into rooms like lads walking into a club, their plaid shirts buttoned up to the top. But it works. Yes, they are much less detailed and lack character, but rescues are fluid and exciting now: a section of John Tracy moving between axes of gravity on Thunderbird 5, the camera seamlessly spinning to adjust, was enough to sell me on the change. You believe they are action heroes rather than sedentary button pushers.

(Only one thing: hats. They’re not truly International Rescue unless they’re wearing jaunty hats.)

Remaking the Thunderbird craft on a computer is a bigger risk. The original lived by its gorgeous models. No matter how good CG gets, we still know instinctively when we are looking at something real. It has a weight to it. Hell, even knowing the Thunderbirds were ‘miniature’ was not a deterrent. Kids knew that in a warehouse somewhere, the ‘real’ Thunderbird Two was waiting, the ultimate toy.

But again, you understand why the Thunderbirds are now launched from computers, rather than swimming pools. Every Thunderbird now has an almost endless bag of tricks, without disrupting the silhouette or spirit of the original craft. They’ve even made Thunderbird 3 cool! And Thunderbird 3 sucks! 

The use of traditional models for the backgrounds sometimes warps the scale –making the Tracy brothers look tiny– but they give Thunderbirds are Go a unique aesthetic. In fact, the only real crime is giving Thunderbird 2 hulking square shoulders. Thunderbird 2 is a triumph of curves, a design classic along with the Eames chair or Venus de Milo. You don’t give it a backpack. (I feel quite strongly about Thunderbird 2.)

Thunderbirds are Go is different from the original, it has to be. For one thing, we have less patience for chain-smoking puppets. Also the original was slow, very slow. Tremendously slow. I still believe children enjoy watching intricate machines easing across the screen for an hour, but TaG only has 22 minutes per episode.

Faced with this, the team behind the remake have produced a genuinely thrilling programme that stays true to the spirit of the original. Thunderbirds feels futuristic again, impressive for a 50 year-old sci-fi that asked ‘What if the Kennedy compound had nuclear powered rockets?’ What’s more, it remains a non-violent action show about saving people who need help. No-one gets punched. That alone is worthy of applause.

“But where are the strings?” you cry. “Why should the Tracys have their wires cut, when I am now tied down with a job and family and responsibilities? Why has Thunderbirds changed? Why must I?” 

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But that’s one of the central draws of Thunderbirds. It’s like a good watch, passed down through the generations. It was shown in 1965, then 1992, then 2000 and now 2015. It’s a part of everyone’s childhood. In an age of hundreds of TV channels and algorithmically generated personal web recommendations – when we retire to our rooms or slip in our headphones to watch TV – Thunderbirds are Go speaks to the whole sofa, no strings attached.