My introduction to the world of Gerry Anderson was gradual and somewhat disconnected. It happened over the span of 15 years and several moves across the North American continent but in the end my entry to a world of future that encompassed everything from Supercar to Space: 1999 was well worth the time and effort involved.
In 1959 we moved to Little Shasta Valley in northern-almost-Oregon, California. It was like we went through a time-warp: The valley was split up into cattle ranches, I went to a one room schoolhouse which averaged a dozen students in grades one through eight, we lived 10 miles away from the closest town and the house we lived in was over a hundred years old. Since I had yet to discover comics and we could receive only one television station’s signal (Channel 7 out of Redding CA to the south) there was very little entertainment.
Luckily the Supermarionation series “Supercar” was part of that small amount of entertainment and I thrilled to the exploits of Mike Mercury and company for most of the time we lived in Little Shasta Valley. When we moved north to Alaska in 1962 I hoped “Supercar” would show up in Anchorage as well but alas it was not to be. Instead a year later I was rewarded with “Fireball XL5”. To this date my favorite Gerry Anderson production, “Fireball XL5” was the perfect program for a fifth grader.
As I wrote in a review for Amazon.com:
“Fireball XL5 is one of Anderson’s earlier “sophomore” shows produced before he hit it big with Thunderbirds and the prime-time live action shows like Space: 1999. It is not nearly as well-polished; indeed most commentaries refer to it has possessing a “naïve charm” but out of all his work it is hands-down my very favorite.
1. If the opening credits aren’t the best ever in the history of broadcast TV then they should at least be in the top ten. Classical brass orchestra music underlies Steve and Venus boarding the ship, then as the engine fires up the music breaks into a dirty bad saxophone measure as it accompanies Fireball as it is hurtling down the launch track and leaping into the sky.
2. I can share these shows with my grandkids without them getting either terrified or bored. There are lots of explosions and action, but any suspense in an episode is usually brought on by some sort of count-down rather than having some psycho armed with an ax chasing people through an old house.
3. For the conditions under which it was filmed, Fireball XL5 is visually stunning. Even though I liked the stories the budding artist inside of me was fascinated with the design aspect. Despite the slim budget the quality of their work made it very evident that the model makers and special effects crew would be going on to bigger and better things – most big-budget work like the Bond movies
4. As I mentioned before, Fireball XL5 doesn’t leave kids scared at the end of the episode. These shows were pre-Star Trek and pre- Lost in Space and at that time most other science fiction on the tube consisted of the rare ‘50s sci-fi movie shown at odd hours – and to be honest I didn’t care for most of those shows. The plots usually revolved around the monster (there was always a monster) killing and/or eating the secondary characters one by one until the hero saved the remaining crew members by killing the monster.
None of that victim crap with Steve Zodiac. First off, Fireball XL5 (the ship itself) looked, flew and fought like a freaking F104 Starfighter rather than wallowing around helplessly like most other cinematic spacecraft at the time. Colonel Zodiac wasn’t above packing heat himself and dropped more than one alien foolish enough to try and see who would blink first – though I found it odd that his sidearm was extremely versatile, being able to fire any kind of ray or projectile the script required in a particular scene.
The only problem I had with the show as the stilted manner in which the marionettes moved. Personally my innate obsessive-compulsive behavior prevented me from a simple suspension of disbelief so I concocted a back-story about a galaxy-wide epidemic that left victims with arthritic joints – which caused the aforementioned stilted and stiff movements – but to each his own.
Out of the entire series Invasion: Earth is my favorite episode – for a very special reason. I belong to a very select group of people called The Fireball XL5 Club. It doesn’t sound like it would be that exclusive, but this particular Fireball XL5 Club is made up of people who were watching the show when the Great Alaskan Earthquake of 1964 hit. It was this specific episode that was playing – but for years I didn’t know how it ended; as the tremors hit our TV tipped over, pulling the plug out and cutting the episode off with about ten minutes to go. I spent the next twenty years wondering how Steve and the gang handled the vaguely Oriental-sounding invaders but then I found a fourth-generation bootleg VHS that carried me over until A&E released the DVD set. “.
Unfortunately Fireball blasted off into the great unknown after its second season and I was left Anderson-less for the next ten years or so. I did catch an episode of Stingray when I was visiting my grandmother in the summer of 1967 but for years I had that show jumbled up with Diver Dan in my memory. There were tantalizing snippets of references to Joe 90 and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons in what little fan-related material that made it through the popular culture pipeline that tenuously connected Alaska with the lower 48 – a Fireball XL5 coloring book and low-end licensed toys – but there was nothing solid enough to develop any kind of knowledge of what was going on with what eventually became Century 21 Television Productions. Probably the most maddening hint was a 30 second TV advertisement for UFO I saw while staying with my Best Friend and her grandparents in Utah in the summer of 1972. Imagine images flashing from Skydiver to Commander Straker to Lunar Interceptors to Lieutenant Gay Ellis to a spinning UFO – with not one word of explanation.
The next solid exposure to Gerry Anderson’s work was in the fall of 1975 while I was doing my bicycle penance in Concord, New Hampshire when I was able to see a half-dozen episodes of the first season of Space: 1999. While the show has often been compared negatively to episodes of classic Trek, as an artist I was totally captivated by the stunning design and visuals. As I have a strong interest in the spiritual and mystical aspects of life I was also very interested in the way the first season “bent” towards those types of scripts and was blessedly spared the “feinbergerization” the show suffered in the second season until much later.
Over all those years I never realized that all these shows were connected until the publication of STARLOG in the summer of 1976 when the last Lego snapped into place. By reading the various articles I finally learned that the same crew that made the eponymous ship in Fireball XL5 also made the Lunar Interceptors in UFO and the Eagle transporters of Space: 1999!
I saw one or two episodes of the various shows when the VCR became popular in the 1980s – usually via compilations of episodes tacked into direct release “movies”. It wasn’t until I got my first DVD player in 2001 that I was able to finally enjoy the entire Gerry Anderson catalog – even lesser known work like “The Secret Service” and “The Protectors”.<br />
I love these shows. They are a great combination of picture, music and story. As mentioned before the visual aspects are very interesting to me as a designer and I have to admit that I’ve borrowed a “motif” in my own work. There is something basically intriguing about puppets and the shows are truly family friendly with an upbeat feeling that pervading all of them – even the darker ones like “Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons
The properties will always be a “fun” thing for me as well. I can draw all I want in my sketch book but Time and the Atlantic Ocean did a good job of preventing me from working for Sir Gerry and company as an artist. I am honestly glad that it never happened. It’s always a bit deflating to meet your heroes and by keeping my involvement restricted to “fan” instead of “pro” there will always be a bit of magic about it all.
…and magic they are!