Culture, TV & Radio

Thunderbirds Are Go: the tropes of a bad reboot

Thunderbirds Are Go, ITV, press image, 01 (2070x1164)Gerry Anderson must be turning in his grave. Harsh, yes, but that’s the thought that crossed my mind upon glimpsing ITV’s Thunderbirds reboot when it premiered on Saturday, April 6.

Since then, I’ve watched the entirety of the 45-minute, two-part premier, titled ‘Ring of Fire’, on catch-up TV. I haven’t watched the latest episode. And nor do I wish to watch anymore of this painful abuse of my childhood. With all due respect to the folks behind the CG show, Thunderbirds Are Go has to be one of the worst television reboots of the 21st century.

The characters look like plastic Bratz counterparts with lifeless expressions. Barely any attention has been paid to design outside of the five Thunderbird craft themselves. Its limp score pales in comparison to Barry Gary’s dramatic themes (which many seem to miss). And the plot is so eager to be labelled “action-packed” that it’s clear the writers are constantly afraid their iPad-savvy target audience may switch over at any moment.

Television of our childhood
With regards to TV series, and especially those aimed at children, some of these shows were works of their time. They shouldn’t necessarily be brought out of the IP closet, given a lick of CG paint and forced in front of the youngsters of today. Besides, while some of us, myself included, may not consider certain contemporary children’s shows to be anywhere near the standard of shows of our youth, at least creator’s are making original series to capture the imaginations of the new generation and give them characters to identify with.

There was no reason whatsoever for Thunderbirds – a cult TV series that has inspired the creators of Wallace & Gromit, Spaced and Gorillaz, to name just a handful – to be revived, unless ITV Studios and Pukeko Pictures understood what made the original so remarkable in the first place, and intended to make their reboot relevant to today’s children (and adults) through equally captivating storytelling.

Setup, or events leading up to an episode’s eventual disaster, was a big part of the original show. These moments offered exposition, tension building and, crucially, made you feel something for whoever was about to be in danger. I can see how TV execs could look at the original Thunderbirds and consider such sections “boring”. Eight-year-old me used to think so. However, TAG’s desire to stop audiences switching over is so ravenous it flings mindless action sequence after mindless action sequence at you, glued together with trivial character moments. The result is skull-numbingly bland.

For instance, in the first episode, the writers throw an underwater disaster at our rescuers almost from nowhere. Soon after, London agent, Lady Penelope (made so famous by Sylvia Anderson’s exquisite RP voice in the original show), is tasks with investigating leads related to this strange disaster. Next, she conveniently shows up in a warehouse to move the plot forward, having done no visible investigating.

Despite the involvement of Weta Workshop (Lord of the Rings, King Kong, Avatar), the CGI looks about 15 years old and gives the entire show a cheap, children-won’t-notice-if-it’s-shoddy image at best. Lip syncing reaches new levels of awkwardness here, as the stiff-lipped, CG automatons chew their way through underwhelming one-liners and hammy dialogue. (Brains speaks in some pseudo-Indian accent, but his petrified pink skin is like no Asian complexion I’ve come across.) The practical effects (known as Supermarionation) pioneered by Anderson’s suite of animated productions, which used puppets, occasional live-action clips and intricately designed models to bring their worlds to life, still stand up. The same cannot be said for the CGI on display here, especially where water is concerned.

Failing to treat the audience with intelligence
Reboots and remakes frequently fail to treat their audience with the respect or intelligence that the original productions did.

The original may have used puppets and taken place in the far future, but it stuck to rules that gave it a level of dramatic realism which meant it could, and can still, be enjoyed by adults. Natural disasters, toxic environments, mechanised machines on rampage and terrorism; Thunderbirds could never have been described as containing “mild peril”. Sure, it had its camp moments, but was always intended to be a tense watch, where the victims and rescuers themselves faced catastrophic perils.

By contrast, the bonkers pace of TAG – where the plot bumps from rescue to rescue with little to no setup, and thus no reason to care – is more befitting of a series of toy adverts, than a reboot of one of the smartest children’s programmes ever created. In the two-part premier alone, there are underwater rescues, a suspiciously diminutive city saved from harmful sunrays, space adventuring, earthquakes, ransom demands, a HALO drop, espionage and an encounter with International Rescue’s arch nemesis, the villainous Hood.

Thunderbirds be gone
Reboots don’t have to be dismal at all. Look at Russell T Davies’s 2005 reboot of Doctor Who. Or, to go further back, Ghostbusters Extreme, Beast Wars: Transformers, Batman of the Future and X-Men: Evolution. These were all animated children’s shows that took their original properties and approached them in ways that kept the core tenets of their forerunners, while coming up with juicy stories that would be interesting even without their iconic namesakes.

The original Thunderbirds was a triumph of technical skill and artistic vision over the impossibly costly task of producing the same show entirely in live-action. Moments of the show were as densely packed as a blockbuster film or primetime TV series, and still it retained a humanity that made the on-screen puppets feel alive. Thunderbirds Are Go achieves none of this. It has talent behind it. Shame they’ve neglected to be more critical of their attempts to rescue this celebrated series from its 60s time bubble.

Image: ITV/PR