Gerry Anderson, the creator of the puppet sci-fi TV show THUNDERBIRDS, died Wednesday at the age of 83. He went peacefully, in his sleep.
A German mining disaster inspired Anderson to create a TV show – using puppets – about an elite high-tech search-and-rescue organization of the latter half of the 21st century, and it struck a chord in two generations of children. He later added to his body of work with live-action shows like UFO and SPACE:1999, but it’s Gerry Anderson’s puppet shows – THUNDERBIRDS in particular – for which we remember him best.
The THUNDERBIRDS TV show and movies and spin-offs were amazing in many ways, and they appealed very strongly to kids who admired badass hardware and liked to tinker with things. It was a world in which excitement was GO! Adventure was GO! Danger was GO! and also totally GO! was an entire panoply of exotic, thrustingly hyper-Freudian aircraft, spacecraft, submarines, u-name-it, all just screaming for a product tie-in at Toys ‘R’ Us, and expertly piloted by a clan of lantern-jawed, steely-eyed missile men, or missile puppets at least. This stuff appealed really strongly to kids who grew up to be Makers and explorers and adventurers. . . and that’s you, burner.
If you’ve never seen any of Gerry Anderson’s puppet shows, go get yourself a copy of THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO! and watch it. There’s something for everyone there. . . you can feel all smug and superior as you train your massive grown-up intellect upon the task of analyzing the psycho-fecund landscape of the film, or you can just revert to being six or seven years old and enjoy the viscerally awesome power and coolness of the T-Birds’ high-tech world and very special effects. Thanks to Lady Penelope and her pink amphibious Rolls-Royce with the machine gun that sticks out the front of the grille, even the girliest of girls can get in on the action! Think you’re too old and hep for puppet shows? Hang on to your fruitcake dungarees, ’cause there’s a Cliff Richard & the Shadows puppet music video segment for “with-it” teenyboppers like you to groove and shimmy and frug to (apparently, in the future, Cliff Richard, Jr. is the biggest rock star in the universe).
Clearly, the Thunderbirds were the inspiration for TEAM AMERICA – WORLD POLICE, but don’t let that stop you. THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO! stands on its own surreal merits in spite of the similarities. It’s defo a kid’s film, made very masterfully in a way that kids of the time could really dig, baby. I love the scene where the abandoned Zero X returning from its mission to Mars crashes into the heart of Craigsville, Virginia, completely wiping out several large apartment complexes and tons of houses and other buildings. . . and the Thunderbirds’ tense radio messages ask only about the safety of the Zero X’s crew. Once they know their guys are safe, they happily go party, since they judge their astronaut-rescuing mission a massive success without ever once thinking about the hundreds or thousands of burning, mutilated civilian corpses strewn about the wreckage of once-peaceful Craigsville. It isn’t that the ‘Birds are insensitive aerospace Nazis, it’s just that it wouldn’t have occurred to kids at play that the unseen townspeople might suffer in the fury and aftermath of the Zero X’s bitchin’ crash, so it doesn’t occur to the characters in the film.
When THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO! came out in 1966, America was still embroiled in the space race with the Soviets, and humans had not yet walked on the Moon. There were no video games, and the lives of children were spent mainly outdoors during daylight hours. Little kids with insane collections of action figures and toy rockets, planes, space stations, Hot Wheels cars, Tonka trucks, etc. would gather together to flesh out and collectively enact whatever brain-damaged little quasi-military scenarios they could come up with. Many a dauntless soldier in the Green Army was blown sky-high by enemy ladyfingers in those brave days, and entire platoons met the fearsome melting death meted out by the terrifying space-based magnifying glasses of the Soviet Union.
Part of the wonder of being a child is that words like ‘science’ can be catch-alls for pretty much any magic that needs explaining. Science is the cargo cult of children at play; in the mind of a child, ‘science’ acts as a broad-spectrum explanation that allows for a wide suspension of disbelief. There’s no impulse for a child to point and say “that’s not for reals!” if the story takes place in the future, because every kid knows the future is a glittering showcase of scientific wonders. For a child, science is the mysterious force administered by eggheads in lab coats that promises to deliver magical cargo to all our islands; kids don’t really know how it works, but they do understand it as a concept that allows them to watch and dutifully, bravely act out the adventures of their heroes and alter-egos without regard to the petty restrictions of plausibility. It teaches them how to dream of personal goals beyond what is known to be possible.
Back in those days of playing outdoors, there would always be one kid in the neighborhood who was too poor to have any really suitable toys, but at certain times of the day he’d be flying his hand around, making whooshing sounds and rocket engine noises with his mouth.
Gerry Anderson’s life was dedicated, with heaps of avuncular love, to that kid.