The original ‘Thunderbirds’ are go! on Peacock and Prime Video

Thunderbirds (1965-1966) are go in Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s classic “Supermarionation” action series about a private rescue organization with really cool vehicles. Supermarionation was, yes, marionette puppets, playing action heroes against lovingly-created backdrops and props. It’s their most popular Supermarionation series and arguably their greatest, an inspired mix of Japanese monster movie mayhem, British stiff upper lip cool, and American exceptionalism.

Set in the far-flung future of 2046, it’s built around the adventures of International Rescue, basically a private, patriarchal Special Forces team outfitted with such high-tech toys as an orbiting space station, jets, submersibles, and spaceflight vehicles. This team is all in the family: the vehicles are all manned by the five Tracy brothers (Scott, John, Virgil, Gordon, and Alan, all named after Apollo astronauts) and commanded by their father, Jeff Tracy. All of them Americans, of course, though they do have a little British color thanks to their classy London agent Lady Penelope (voiced by co-creator Sylvia Anderson). The sons are bland and interchangeable, a marionette family of clean living Hardy Boys, and the series brings new meaning to the term “wooden performance”—its stars are literally puppets—but the high tech toys are like big kid fantasies come alive.

While they are on call for natural disasters and mechanical failures, their constant nemesis is The Hood, a vaguely East-Asian villain out of a bad James Bond knock-off, who dresses in exotic robes and plots his schemes of sabotage and destruction from an ancient temple in the jungle. This is true Cold War spy stuff with a science fiction vehicle fetish—they are the primary inspiration for Trey Parker’s Team America—and the characters are really only the support staff for the real stars: the magnificently designed vehicles, lovingly detailed miniatures that roll out for each mission with a sense of awe. That seriousness of the direction is quaint and cool in these days of hyperactive cartoons.



Among the highlights are the episodes Attack of the Alligators!, where real life baby alligators star as giant mutants thrashing about the doll-house sized sets and “act” with the wooden puppets (one of them actually chases a puppet hero through the jungle) and Terror in New York City, where they save the Empire State Building from toppling when it’s relocated during an urban renewal project.

Things don’t move fast in this show, which filled a full broadcast hour, but frankly it gives you more time to appreciate the high-quality miniatures featured in every episode. The special effects were impressive and not just for a kids show; Stanley Kubrick is said to have approached them before he began making 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Decades later, episodes were cut down and rereleased in half-hour episodes, moving at a much more rapid pace but losing much of the charm. And in 2016 a new incarnation of the show was launched, with CGI in place of marionette puppets but the same miniature and model effects for the rescue scenes. The originals, however, have endured and continue to have a devoted audience of fans.

TV-G

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Thunderbirds: The Complete Series [Blu-ray]
Thunderbirds: The Complete Series [DVD]
Thunderbirds: 40th Anniversary Collection (box set) [DVD]

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The Timeless Blu-ray and DVD releases feature the 45-minute documentary “Launching Thunderbirds.”

The original DVD box sets features the hour-long remembrance “The Brains Behind Thunderbirds” (hosted by Brains and filled with highlight clips from the series), the archival nine-minute behind-the-scenes “The Making of The Thunderbirds” (made for British TV in 1965), plus a history of the Thunderbirds in production notes form, character biographies (your handy dandy guide to telling the Tracy boys apart), and a biography and filmography of Gerry Anderson.

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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