Thunderbirds: to a small kid, a terrifying lot of TV puppet heroes

ThunderbirdsIn the last few posts, I’ve found myself reminiscing about pop-cultural phenomena from my childhood here at the Manse, phenomena that even to me seem a very long time ago. There was that prose poem we all had on our wall, Desiderata; and the disastrous ad campaign of the Trudeau Liberals in 1972, The Land is Strong; and even that stupid and downright dangerous toy craze, Clackers. What’s next? Chez Hélène?

Well, what’s next is in fact a TV show, but it’s not Chez Hélène. That classic 15-minute-long weekday CBC show for kids will have to wait. (Until I can remember the name of the mouse who played a fairly significant recurring role, along with Hélène and Louise.)

No, the show I’m talking about is Thunderbirds. And all I have to say about Thunderbirds is this: I found it utterly terrifying.

Do you remember it? Thanks to its Wikipedia entry I have learned that Thunderbirds was filmed (and, presumably, aired) between 1964 and 1966. I was a very young child then, which probably explains why I couldn’t make head or tail of the rocket ships and other technology that its story lines featured. And perhaps also why its characters, who were puppets, were so scary. Puppets that look like ventriloquists’ dummies (as opposed to, say the Muppets) are scary, if you ask me. Like clowns are scary. Those puppets’ expressions never changed, no matter what the circumstances. Their eyes were always open, unblinking. Their bottom jaws moved woodenly when they “talked.” It was beyond creepy.

However, because I couldn’t make head or tail of the show the first time around, all those years ago, I found it interesting just now to read Wikipedia’s explanation of what Thunderbirds was all about: “It follows the exploits of International Rescue, a secret organization established to save people who are in mortal danger with the aid of technologically advanced land-, sea-, air- and space-rescue vehicles and equipment, headed by the Thunderbird fleet and launched from a hidden island base in the South Pacific Ocean. The main characters are ex-astronaut Jeff Tracy (the founder of IR) and his five adult sons, who pilot the Thunderbird machines.”

As someone who was, in childhood and well beyond, fascinated by the Apollo program and the early astronauts, I was also intrigued by this tidbit: “Jeff is a widower whose five adult sons – Scott, John, Virgil, Gordon and Alan – are named after Mercury Seven astronauts: Scott Carpenter, John Glenn, Virgil (Gus) Grissom, Gordon Cooper and Alan Shepard.” (You can read my nostalgic tribute to the astronauts, occasioned by the death last year of Scott Carpenter, here. And hey, Thunderbirds, what about Wally Schirra and Deke Slayton?)

Anyway, aside from the cool reference to my astronaut heroes, I still think Thunderbirds was wackadoodle and scary. Am I alone in having been freaked out by that show?

8 thoughts on “Thunderbirds: to a small kid, a terrifying lot of TV puppet heroes

  1. Not alone. Weird and scary, and how did they get all those fantastical things done when they couldn’t even walk properly? My little mind would not allow me to watch this. And don’t get me started on Chez Helene. Give me The Friendly Giant and Mr. Dressup every time. I’ll have nightmares tonight.

    • Oh dear, Jan, sorry about that! I hope you escaped the nightmares. For sure The Freindly Giant and Mr. Dressup bring back much happier and more wholesome (not to mention more Canadian) memories than Thunderbirds. I had forgotten about how weirdly those characters walked; you brought it all back. I am glad I am not the only person who was put off by that show!

      • The freaky little Westmount mouse was p’tite Suzie, behn sûr. And the painless way to get into Thunderbirds and similar “Supermarionation” shows from the first half of the Sixties, d’après moi, is via the Billboard-worthy theme song created for Fireball XL5. You cannot listen to this without wishing you were a spaceman, the fastest guy alive …

      • Oh man, that is so classic! I think I vaguely remember that show too, now that you’ve drawn it to my attention. And when YouTube was showing me that one, is also coughed up this, for another “Supermarionation” show called Stingray. Totally nuts:

  2. Nice. Each succeeding show got a little more sophisticated (check out Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons) until you reach the ineluctable conclusion and find yourself calling Elvis in the wee hours of a nondescript Tuesday some October.

  3. Thunderbirds was creepy; Chez Helene, to me, looked a bit stern and might nag little girls about taking one’s shoes off without untying the laces.

    (Oh no, that was my mother.)

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