SOS Mr Tracy, the Transport World is Falling (Transport from the World of Thunderbirds)

If you want to know what a society makes of the world it lives in, then the best way to find out is to look at that society’s predictions for the future. If you want to know what British people in the 1960s thought of their transport network, you can do little better than examine their vision for transport in 2065, as seen through the lens of the never-bettered 1960s British TV series Thunderbirds. It’s just been remade as Thunderbirds Are Go, screening in the UK on ITV this coming Saturday (hence this blog entry), but there will never be anything that will quite capture the kinetic, wilfully destructive spirit of the original. Practically everything brilliant Thunderbirds is summed up by its beginning sequence. Grab a 50-something British bloke and it’s odds-on that if you ask them to complete the phrase “5…4…3…2…1…” they will not say “ignition” or “lift-off” but will instead yell “THUNDERBIRDS ARE GO!” (especially if you add a loud trumpet blast between each number). It still ranks as one of the best TV title sequences of all time, and it’s a minute and a half of near-complete havoc, destruction and Big Giant Machines from start to finish.

[NB – I’m fairly sure that you won’t get this article’s embedded YouTube clips like the one above if you subscribe to this blog by email. If that’s the case, you’ll need to head over to the web version of this blog (here) to get the full experience.]

If you’re not familiar with it, Thunderbirds was produced by Gerry Anderson, who almost by accident invented the genre of “supermarionation”: the use of filmed puppets rather than actors. From a financial point of view it made great sense, and it lends Thunderbirds (and other Gerry Anderson supermarionation series) a unique character. It first screened in 1965 and has been shown on and off ever since, appealing to new generations each time.

If you’re a technology, engineering or crisis-management fan, there’s no better TV programme. Never has there been such an assemblage of gigantic, ludicrously over-engineered machines, structures and vehicles. Best of all, as far as its actual target audience of children was concerned (and the crisis managers will still love), thanks to blindingly obvious design or conceptual flaws virtually every single one goes catastrophically wrong, threatening life and limb and wreaking gleefully-depicted wanton destruction upon the world around.

Thunderbirds spoke of the 1960s British mindset that all problems, no matter how apparently intractable, could be solved through the application of technology by boffins. It even had a full-time proper boffin character, Brains the engineer, with his stereotypical large glasses, speech impediment and air of distracted genius. But it also spoke of the simultaneously held view that such application of technology was bound to go wrong, because, well, that’s what the British did best in the middle of the Twentieth Century: thinking of something clever and then bodging the job completely. I give you amongst countless others: Black Arrow (scrapped just after proving a technical success), TSR-2 (brilliant but pricey, and the armed forces couldn’t agree whether they wanted it or not), tower blocks for social housing (built on the cheap), urban motorways (total lack of consideration for the cities involved or their residents), the Bristol Brabazon (too big, too slow, too expensive, wrong technology), the Tracked Hovercraft (which was all kinds of crazy)…and many, many more.

Thunderbirds, set in the year 2065, took this experience to its logical futuristic conclusion. Need to move the Empire State Building? We’ve got a Big Giant Machine for that, but – whoops – it’s fallen over, taking the Empire State Building with it. Want to conduct a Mars mission? No problem, we’ll put the rocket on a lorry and start the automatic countdown…while it’s being transported to its launch site, with engineers on-board. What could go wrong? Oh dear, it’s fallen into a river. Want to collect a sample of the sun’s gases? We’ll just send a manned probe (and believe me, this was a 1960s’ future so manned it was, nary a woman in sight on the Sunprobe project), but, wouldn’t you know it, the tech’s gone and conked out due to the, erm, heat.

As with its general view of technologies, so with its view of transport, i.e. it’s all very clever but most of the time it’s just waiting to go catastrophically wrong. Thank goodness for International Rescue and its fleet of five Thunderbird machines plus assorted support vehicles. Dedicated to rescuing the victims of aberrant technology using technology at least as ridiculously over-engineered and single-purpose as that causing the trouble in the first place, you only had to send out a distress call for International Rescue to come to your aid from their secret island base, via the most over-complicated/utterly brilliant launch procedures of which it is possible to conceive. A strikingly progressive (for the 1960s, not the 2060s) albeit rather nepotistic employer of both men and women, but mostly men, and particularly members of the Tracy family, International Rescue was just what you needed to pluck you from burning buildings, sinking ships, collapsing mines, out-of-control Big Giant Machines (with which the world of Thunderbirds is replete) and so on. If you haven’t seen it, then you absolutely must, preferably in the company of a tech-loving child. If you already have, come revisit it with me and see what it has to say about transport.

As a representation of 1960s thinking, Thunderbirds of course has no railways in it whatsoever. In Britain, the 1960s was the time of the Beeching Report, which resulted in the closure of something like one third of the national railway network. Railways were yesterday’s technology, roads and cars were the future. This vision was extended to the 2060s of Thunderbirds. Motorways are the ‘in’ thing, and just like motorways in Britain in the 1960s, you can drive as fast as you like on roads which are almost completely deserted; devoid of other users. Here, for example, is Lady Penelope (International Rescue’s London Agent) charging down a motorway in hot pursuit of international supervillain The Hood. She owns a pink Rolls-Royce; the Rolls-Royce car being the pinnacle of British automotive engineering (no 1960s Brit could imagine that it would be owned by German automotive company BMW by 2003). Look out for the moment at 0:36 when there’s a shot of a motorway flyover. Where is everyone?

The motorways of Thunderbirds reflect the complete failure of road promoters of the 1960s to conceive of the massive growth in road traffic those very same motorways would provoke; growth that would see motorways become choked by daily traffic jams and occasional gridlocks only a couple of decades later. Induced traffic growth has no place in Thunderbirds. In Captain Scarlet, the follow-up series to Thunderbirds, there’s a huge skyscraper car park of gigantic height and no practicality at all. I can’t resist this piece of strangely beautiful but almost unusable fantasy architecture, and there’s a very brilliant rendering of the design here.

Roads are constructed willy-nilly in the world of Thunderbirds with absolutely no regard whatsoever for the environment. Again, it’s a very 1960s mindset. Chief culprits here are the Crablogger and its close relative, the Gray & Houseman Road Construction Vehicle. The first is a Big Giant Machine (uh-oh) that munches its way through jungle areas like, I don’t know, whatever is left of the Brazilian rainforest I suppose, gorging itself on trees, and creating a nice cleared path for new roads. Let’s hope the crew don’t fall victim to food poisoning while they’re driving, leaving the Crablogger out of control and heading for a huge dam, which it will also munch up, flooding nearby towns. What’s that? They just have? Better call International Rescue…and while you’re waiting, you can watch this view of the Crablogger at work/undertaking industrial-scale environmental vandalism (depending on your point of view):

The way having been cleared by Crabloggers, you can then call in machines like the Gray & Houseman Road Construction Vehicle. When we catch up with it in the TV series, it’s munching on a mountain rather than a jungle, and spewing a six-lane motorway from its back end like a 1960s transport minister on a high-fibre diet. Needless to say, as a Big Giant Machine, everything’s about to go horribly wrong and before you can say, “Don’t rush the blasting job in the middle of the monsoon season on an unstable rockface!” one of its support vehicles is teetering off the edge of said mountain. Highway engineers will probably go green with envy at this, however:

Railways were seen as being so unfashionable in the 1960s that Thunderbirds predicted even the London Underground would be abandoned. Luckily for Londoners, there’s not much likelihood of that forecast coming true.

So what was Thunderbirds‘ suggested alternative to conventional railways? Monorails, of course. Monorails are what every good citizen of the 1960s knew was the future of high-speed ground transport. This of course makes perfect sense. You would absolutely want to close down railways and underground metros and replace them with an elevated network that would require widespread property demolition and cause severe visual and noise nuisance, rushing past at high speeds. Wouldn’t you? The monorail network in Thunderbirds serves national and continental transport needs, running across mainland Europe. In true Thunderbirds fashion it can be guaranteed to go out of control, explode or derail at a moment’s notice, especially when it has been built by a greedy entrepreneur who places cost-cutting ahead of safety measures (for shame).

Buses don’t really make much of an impact in the world of Thunderbirds. Once again, we can blame a world view that saw buses as being old-fashioned and not aspirational, something belonging to the past and not the future. So when a bus does appear, it’s all the more surprising that it’s had a super-technical makeover. Move over rubber-wheeled vehicles (boring/slow/traditional/unlikely to blow up or crash), behold the Hoverbus! Yes, buses in the 2060s float, though it’s not clear if they do so on an air cushion, by some sort of mag-lev technology, or just simple anti-gravity. Here is the Hoverbus in action, and if you’re surprised that it’s not going wrong, you can reflect that it’s not big enough to qualify as a Big Giant Machine, and anyway everything else is blowing up around it. You’ll find it from 1:01.

What of air travel in 2065? This brings us back to the large blue aircraft seen in the beginning sequence clip at the start of this article. One of the most gorgeous planes never to fly in reality, this is a Fireflash supersonic airliner operated by Air Terranean. In the 1960s, with the UK-Franco Concorde project under development, it was obvious that supersonic air travel was the future of flight. This turned out to be completely wrong, of course, and we now prefer to travel more slowly than Concorde, in giant planes, squashed in like sardines and enduring extreme claustrophobia (that last bit might be just me). There’s time to put this right before 2065, I suppose, because I really want to travel in a Fireflash. It’s a double decker (well, they got that bit right, because the double deck Airbus A380 entered service in 2007), it has panoramic lounges in the wings, the cockpit is in the tail, the engines are above that, and because it is nuclear powered (uh-oh…) like many things in Thunderbirds (including the kitchen oven on Tracy Island, if memory serves) it could in theory fly for months without refuelling. Unfortunately, because this is Thunderbirds after all, the shielding around the nuclear reactor is good for only a few hours. In what now has a more sombre resonance than on its original broadcast, a terrorist bomb is planted on the Fireflash, which will explode when the aircraft’s wheels touch the ground upon landing. Luckily, International Rescue has a fleet of vehicles on which aircraft can make a “wheels-up” landing (naturally) and the day is saved.

Fireflash, however, is unlucky even by Big-Giant-Machines-in-Thunderbirds standards. A few episodes later, several Fireflash aircraft are sabotaged by a rival aircraft design company, crashing into the sea. Luckily, the diminutive Thunderbird 4 submarine saves the day, on one of the few occasions where it gets anything interesting to do (my favourite was big orange rocket Thunderbird 3, which also suffered from severe under-employment; everyone else liked Thunderbird 2 the best, you see). Here’s a Fireflash test crew attempting to find out what went wrong on the previous flight. Little do they know that they have been sabotaged in a similar manner. Watch out for the pilot with a handlebar moustache, and the cut-glass British accents all round.

The colour scheme of Air Terrainean is clearly based on that of BOAC, the 1960s predecessor of British Airways, a corporate identity which was almost unspeakably glamorous then, and remains so to this day, never really having been bettered since.

Thunderbirds the TV series eventually spawned two movie sequels, the first (Thunderbirds Are Go) featuring the Zero-X, the biggest giantest Big Giant Machine of them all with a launch sequence even more complicated and absurd than that of the Thunderbirds craft, and the second (Thunderbird 6) featuring an intriguing transport proposition: airships. Tasked with inventing a new transport project (I would love that job: Transport Planner to the World, Without Portfolio) Brains realises that in an increasingly fast-paced world, what people want is to relax in luxury, to go slowly, and how better to do that than on an airship? The New World Aircraft Corporation laughs at first, and then it builds Skyship One, an antigravity-lofted luxury airship. It’s just the job for airborne world cruises. The only thing that Brains has failed to factor in is that he has designed a Big Giant Machine, about the riskiest proposition possible in Thunderbirds, and sure enough it’s only a matter of time before it impales itself on the mast of an early warning system (the threat of global nuclear war was a constant in the 1960s, and who could have imagined the immeasurably more complicated variety of threats we face today?). The movie’s trailer gives a good sense of the plot. And lots of things get blown up.

The startling thing about Skyship One is that it’s one of the few transport predictions Thunderbirds got right, albeit with the wrong type of vehicle entirely. When Thunderbirds was created, the era of the great ocean liners had just come to end, usurped by jet aircraft. Travel was now all about getting to your holiday destination at top speed, not travelling for travelling’s sake. At the time, it must have seemed inconceivable that the shipping industry would go on to reinvent liners as cruise ships, on which you can enjoy a luxury holiday at a sedate pace. It’s big business today, exactly the same concept as Skyship One, except on the water. And without the explosions, of course.

I’ll watch Thunderbirds Are Go, and only partly because I want to see what predictions it makes about transport. But it just won’t be the same as the original, and that’s how I know I’ve got old.

further reading

If you want to find out more about Thunderbirds, you could start by buying the DVDs. Or you could buy me the DVDs. Either is good.

This Thunderbirds wiki is a mine of information (and a valuable check against false memory syndrome. I was sure the Crablogger laid down roads too, but it didn’t).

The official Gerry Anderson fanclub is Fanderson, and it’s here

The official website of the new series, Thunderbirds Are Go, is here

5 thoughts on “SOS Mr Tracy, the Transport World is Falling (Transport from the World of Thunderbirds)

  1. I suspect the lack of cars on the motorways might be more to budget than predictions.

    However, I wish the 21st Century had been designed by Gerry Anderson rather than the people who really did it.

    1. Yep, agree with all that! I wouldn’t mind living in a Gerry Anderson world (lack of technologies like iPads excepting). There would certainly be a lot more Microgramma Bold Extended around…

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