Thunderbirds Are Go: no, the film didn’t go well at all

David Lane, “Thunderbirds Are Go” (1966)

Based on the famous British children’s television puppet action adventure series “Thunderbirds”, this film could have garnered an international audience for the series but ended up being a box office failure. Apart from the possibility that the TV show didn’t translate well to the big screen – the full-length feature film version had to appeal to all age groups, not just its target family audience – “Thunderbirds Are Go” suffers from a poor story line, lack of tension and very minimal characterisation. The film plays like three poorly written episodes stitched together with no connections between or among them. There are sequences in the film that do very little to advance the plot or even to sketch out characters in more depth.

Set in the year 2065, the film revolves around the first human mission to Mars in the spacecraft Zero-X. The first attempt to send the Zero-X craft to Mars ends in disaster as, unbeknownst to the craft’s crew and ground control, the criminal Hood has stowed away on board to take photographs of the craft’s wing. His foot is caught in the craft’s hydraulics, causing them to jam and send the ship out of control. In the nick of time, the Hood frees his injured foot and parachutes to safety. The four-man crew also escape the craft and Zero-X crashes into the ocean and explodes. 

Two years later, an inquiry into the crash and explosion concludes that sabotage was the cause of Zero-X going out of control. A member on the board of inquiry urges that International Rescue provide security to a second Zero-X craft and the resumption of the mission to Mars. International Rescue agrees to provide security to the second launch by sending Scott Tracy (Thunderbird 1) to monitor the situation on the ground, and Scott’s brothers Virgil (Thunderbird 2) and Alan (Thunderbird 3) to escort Zero-X into space. IR’s London agent Lady Penelope arranges for the crew members to wear homing devices. In this way, Scott Tracy and Lady Penelope are able to flush out the Hood attempting to board Zero-X. The Hood escapes, pursued by Lady Penelope and her chauffeur Nosey Parker, over land and sea. The Hood transfers to a speedboat and then a helicopter but Lady Penelope’s Rolls Royce car (also a hydrofoil outfitted with a machine gun) shoots down the helicopter.

With all its proper crew on board, the second Zero-X travels to Mars with no further incidents and at this point, the plot goes awry with Alan Tracy having a rather strange and surreal dream in which Lady Penelope takes him to an interstellar night club. Meanwhile the crew of Zero-X encounter problems with the native wildlife on Mars and decide to hurry back to Earth, their mission aborted. (Of course, shooting at the wildlife first does not help the humans’ cause.) From here on, Zero-X has issues re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, compelling International Rescue to send Tracy brothers Scott, Virgil, Alan and Gordon along with IR scientist Brains to repair the ship’s escape circuits and allow the Zero-X astronauts to eject before the ship crashes and explodes.

With the Hood put out of the way early on, the film loses momentum and Lady Penelope and Parker, always the most interesting characters in the TV series, quickly fade into the background. Apart from Alan, the Tracy brothers have little to do, and their respective Thunderbird machines are no more than emergency vehicles. The emphasis on Alan Tracy, suggesting that the film is being pitched to teenagers and young adults with money, might appear rather unrealistic to viewers not already familiar with the TV series: the youngest of the Tracy brothers, Alan comes across as petulant and immature, with a crush on Lady Penelope, yet he is called upon to undertake risky and dangerous missions on an almost routine basis. A movie like this should be foregrounding the technologies featured – no matter how dated they or the ideas and concepts behind them have now become – yet even the technologies along with the characters are tossed aside in a bid by the film-makers to appeal to trend-conscious teenage audiences in the mid to late 1960s – and failing quite badly at that.

The whole film really should have gone back to the drawing boards for a better plot that features the Thunderbird technologies performing the most awe-inspiring feats and / or with their human pilots engaged in situations that test their mettle and show them as both individual heroes and a heroic collective.