Thunderbird 6: flying a bit higher than its predecessor

David Lane, “Thunderbird 6” (1968)

Despite the box office failure of “Thunderbirds Are Go”, United Artists had enough faith in the British television show’s creators Gerry and Sylvia Anderson to finance a sequel and in 1968, “Thunderbird 6” was up and flying on the big screen. In contrast to its predecessor, “Thunderbird 6” has a plot that manages to stay the entire 90-minute course and features plenty of heart-stopping tension involving the TV show’s most interesting (or perhaps most annoying) characters: Lady Penelope, her trusty chauffeur Nosey Parker, Alan Tracy who pilots Thunderbird 3, International Rescue’s resident scientist / aircraft designer Brains and Brains’s assistant (and Alan Tracy’s love interest) Tin Tin. Unexpectedly perhaps, Brains is the first to appear in the film’s opening sequence when he proposes to the board of directors at New World Aircraft Corporation that he will design and build a futuristic airship for the company. The directors think his idea hilarious but they take his idea on board and build Sky Ship One, a fully automated airship powered by an anti-gravity field. Once completed, the ship is sent on a trip around the world with Lady Penelope, Nosey Parker, Alan Tracy and Tin Tin representing International Rescue as honoured guests. Unbeknownst to the passengers, the ship’s proper crew has been murdered and replaced by agents working for the Black Phantom (the Hood in disguise). The agents record Lady Penelope’s voice and edit samples of her voice to produce a tape that sends a message to International Rescue to send Thunderbirds 1 and 2 to a remote airfield in Casablanca where the Black Phantom intends to hijack both craft. Lady Penelope and Parker discover the bug and Alan works out the agents’ scheme but not before the message is sent to Jeff Tracy. Lady Penelope sends a warning to Jeff Tracy and he manages to warn Thunderbird 1 and 2 pilots Scott and Virgil respectively. When the two craft arrive at the airfield, the pilots promptly destroy the Black Phantom’s base with rocket launchers.

However the Black Phantom agents are still up to no good on Sky Ship One, taking their passengers hostage. During a gunfight, the airship’s anti-gravity mechanism is damaged, the craft loses altitude and gets tangled in wires at a radio mast over a missile base at Dover. Thunderbirds 1 and 2 fly to the missile base and attach cables to the airship to hold it up but they cannot do more without their thrusters upsetting the ship. Brains, who is on Thunderbird 2, flies out to the crew and passengers on the airship in an old Tiger Moth plane but himself is taken hostage. The plane then takes off with all crooks and airship passengers either in the cockpit or hanging off the wings and landing gear.

Thunderbirds 1 and 2 do all they can to keep Sky Ship One stable while the missile base is being evacuated and Alan fights off the crooks on the Tiger Moth while Lady Penelope tries to fly the plane and Brains, Tin Tin and Nosey hold on for dear life.

The round-the-world trip allows the plot to develop gradually and to build suspense while at the same time portraying the characters of Lady Penelope, Alan Tracy, Parker and Tin Tin and their interactions in more detail than was done in the television episodes. Tin Tin is shown as more than just another pretty face and Sylvia Anderson’s voice work for Lady Penelope demonstrates more maturity for this character. Alan demonstrates real heroism and intelligence in dealing with the Black Phantom’s agents. As for Parker, he is treated as little more than the butt of jokes even as he discovers and works out for himself what the crooks were doing with the recorded tape samples of his employer’s voice. The other Tracy men are their usual reliable if underdeveloped selves.

There are plenty of plot howlers throughout the film – how Alan Tracy manages to shoot the crooks without killing Tin Tin or Brains is nothing short of a miracle, and even how everyone else manages to hang on without superglue while Lady Penelope flies the Tiger Moth upside-down far stretches belief – and much of the film defies the original premises of the television show, with the guests on Sky Ship One becoming rather too friendly with the ship’s villainous crew. The film never explains why Jeff Tracy decides a new Thunderbird vehicle has to be built, apart from keeping Brains out of trouble. Why Brains doesn’t just pack his bags and head for New World Aircraft when Jeff Tracy rejects his ideas and designs for Thunderbird 6 will keep audiences scratching their heads. The plot may be slow for young viewers and the desperate attempt to keep Sky Ship One steady and afloat turns out to be anti-climatically dull.

The film is likely to appeal more to older viewers than younger ones, and there are scenes of violence and death that may upset little ones. “Thunderbird 6” is an improvement on “Thunderbirds Are Go” but not enough to justify making any more sequels. The entire series and concept were laid to rest afterwards while Gerry and Sylvia Anderson turned their attention to “Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons” and later to live-action sci-fi thriller TV shows like “UFO”.