ITV review: Thunderbirds Are Go! (Episodes 1 to 3)
James R | On 11, Apr 2015
You can tell a lot about a TV show from its title. Thunderbirds Are Go! – with the emphasis firmly on that exclamation mark – takes the Gerry Anderson puppets of old and puts them in motion. And then some. These Thunderbirds don’t just go: they keep on going.
It’s exactly the approach that our modern world would seem to dictate: we like everything to be instant. For kids aged six to 11, the hyperactive target audience of the show, it’s perhaps no surprise that the team behind this reboot should ramp up the speed to such a degree.
But that high-octane pace is also the problem with this updated take on the Tracy family’s heroics. The opening two episodes, which were broadcast as a double-bill on ITV, demonstrate that in no time at all: we begin with a boy and his dad plunging to their death in a hot air balloon, which is swiftly fixed by Thunderbird 1. How would International Rescue even be aware of an isolated accident? There’s no time to worry about that, because the Thunderbirds are too busy going.
They don’t stop from then on: within an hour, countless people are rescued, a sharp change to the old format of the show. There’s an underwater research laboratory. A string of seaquakes along The Ring of Fire in the Pacific. A city in peril. And even Thunderbirds 4 gets trapped in a collapsing cave.
In all the chaos, we barely get a time to get to know our heroes – which is ironic, given that the onslaught of action seems designed to introduce all of the characters at once. Need a scan of the ocean? Over to Thunderbird 5! Want to investigate further? Deploy Thunderbird 2!
The ships themselves are superbly rendered: much like the Star Wars video games, the on-screen models feel as tangible as your own toys. Weta combine their digital effects with live-action miniature sets, which only adds to the physicality of it all. They’re shiny. They’re fetishised to within an inch of their wingspan. And they’re constantly engaging in launch sequences, blasting off from between trees, or carrying out technical tasks. “Deploying grabbing arms!” our pilots cry, just to emphasise how much their machines are going.
If the ships themselves are lovingly brought to life, though, the same cannot be said of the people behind the wheels. Preview stills of the new-look Thunderbirds was enough to send the CGI willies up fans of the original and, if anything, the Tracy family are weirder to see in action. The designers have attempted to come up with a halfway house between cutting edge computer animation and a tribute to the 1960s, but the hybrid sits firmly in uncanny valley: the combination of wide eyes, wooden expressions and unnatural seating positions makes it look your favourite puppets have had Botox.
The voice cast are lively enough, with David Graham returning as Parker, Rosamund Pike reprising her role from the recent live-action film of Lady Penelope, and Love Actually’s Thomas Brodie-Sangster playing Gordon and John, joined by David Menkin (Virgil) and Rasmus Hardiker (Alan and Scot). But the brothers blend together somewhat, despite the attempts to include a back-story by killing off Jeff – no, we’re not keen on that either – and replacing him with over-bearing matriarch Grandma Tracy (Sandra Dickinson).
Clunky dialogue from head writer Rob Hoegee doesn’t help matters – jokes about Grandma Tracy’s cooking fall flat, while the welcome new addition of Covert Operations specialist “Kayo” (Angel Coulby) is undermined by a hinted romantic subplot with John (Thunderbird 5). “Most guys would kill to have you as a babysitter!” he says, before awkwardly digging upwards out of the Hole of Embarrassment.
Even the return of The Hood, who declares war upon International Rescue with hostages, feels generic. “That list of demands is right out of a bad movie!” says one, hitting the nail bang on the hand.
A twist in Episode 2, though, and the ensuing chapter (now on ITV Player) suggest a hopeful future for the reboot: a space mine locked to Thunderbird 5 on a 30-minute timer sees Episode 3 unfold with real-time tension. The single focus and a bigger role for Parker and Lady Penelope (who improves once you get used to her Barbie-like younger appearance) give more time to slowly develop the characters away from the hectic introductions and exposition.
Most impressive of all is the programme’s secret weapon (and we’re not talking about Kayo’s hidden ship): composers Ben and Nick Foster. With combined experience on Torchwood, Doctor Who and Blue Valentine, they dust off Barry Gray’s theme (sadly not intact) with respect and a rousing ear for bombast; the opening tune (complete with Peter Dyneley’s sampled countdown) is nicely reworked for quiet and loud moments, given a modern polish that complements its orchestral scale. When the Thunderbird ships are flying, backed by that music, it’s undeniably treat to see them go, for new fans and old fans alike. You just wish they’d stop every now and then.
Thunderbirds Are Go! is broadcast on CITV and ITV at 8am on Saturdays. You can catch up with episodes for 30 days after broadcast on ITV Player.
All photos: ITV Studios / Pukeko Pictures / Weta Workshop