Cameron Stewart takes us through his top non-screen Thunderbirds stories.
For some fans the adventures of the International Rescue team exist solely in the thirty-two episodes and two movies, (since the release of the Thunderbirds 1965 project, it’s possible the three new episodes could be included). Some people might even delve in the Frank Bellamy comics, however some like to regard those as a separate timeline of adventures.
If you’re someone like me, everything counts. From comics to short stories, to audio and even tiny two paragraph supplements, which tell of brief rescues. It’s all one ongoing parade of stories for the boys in blue. Five years ago, I set up a website called the ‘Thunderbirds Continuous Timeline’, where I have been trying to place every officially licensed story of Thunderbirds in a chronological order.
As a result I have watched, listened to and read two hundred stories in all formats. Unfortunately to say, they are not all that good. This is probably down to the fact that often writers were hired on commission had little or no knowledge of what the series was about (the Thunderbirds & Captain Scarlet Annual 1969 story Secret of the Mummy’s Tomb is a good example). If we had three categories, Very Good, Good and Bad, the majority of these stories would fall into the Good and Bad groups.
That being said, you do occasionally come across some real gems that really surprise you with either exciting rescues, or where they have managed to take the concept of Thunderbirds and expanded it to areas you would never have thought of taking it
So today I am going to show you what my top (non-episode) Thunderbirds stories are.
Blazing Danger / Comic / TV Century 21 Issue 52 – 58
Plot: International Rescue fly out to a Canadian forest where two men, Jack Farrell and Sam Lincoln, are trapped in the middle of a raging fire. However, it is Lincoln who started the fire in a plot to kill Farrell. He plans to escape, using the fire to destroy all evidence he was the culprit of the murder. Things go out of control as Lincoln is stranded with Farrell amongst the inferno with no means of escape. When International Rescue saves the pair, Lincoln proves to be a tricky customer as he steals a fire fighting pod vehicle at gunpoint, to make his get-away. Before long he is eventually caught and sent to jail.
Most fans will agree that the Frank Bellamy comics drastically deviated from the show’s initial concept (this is of course no fault of Frank Bellamy). In my opinion the best stories lie within the first year of TV Century 21 starting. Stories that had the essence of Thunderbirds but still knew how to expand the format to suit the comic’s needs.
Blazing Danger is a very simple story but has a lot of drama going on at the same time, unlike many of the future comics that have more convoluted plots. When you compare this story to the other comics; mad scientist and killer penguins in the Antarctic, one-eyed monster from out of space and the sun causing global climate problems. Then a murderer and his victim trapped in a forest fire just seems like a less intense and more straight forward read. For that reason it feels so different to every other TVC21 Thunderbirds comic, and as a result comes across as being unique. I find it a really enjoyable comic to read.
Bellamy’s art also captures the characters, crafts and interiors down to a fine point and with his very distinct colouring style it excitingly brings them to life. As the comics would go on they would start to resemble the sets and interiors less and less, and his own interpretation of modern science fiction technology would come through. It’s because of this I really feel we get the true essence of Thunderbirds transposing into this medium and in this comic.
Dead Man’s Rescue / Short Story / Thunderbirds Annual 1967
Plot: The Government Senator for Scandinavia, Axel Neilson, is assassinated by radical Eric Thrompson while on a visit to Norway. He escapes by powerboat to the sea, but then gets caught in the currents of a powerful whirlpool. The Tracy family debate whether they should go and rescue a murderer, but eventually agree it is the right thing to do. As Gordon is the one who will be rescuing Thrompson, he devises a special plan, getting Brains to program Thunderbird 4 and picking up a bag of sweets from Grandma before setting off. After arriving at the danger zone, Gordon is able to bring Thrompson onboard and get them to safety. Thrompson has other ideas and threatens Gordon with a gun. Gordon offers him a sweet, which he turns down. Gordon gives up the controls to him and takes a sweet himself. Thrompson quickly discovers that Thunderbird 4’s controls are locked, and the sweets were knockout drops that have sent Gordon to sleep. Soon Thunderbird 4 arrives back at the coast where a group of armed police await Thrompson to arrest him.
If you thought that Thunderbird 6 was a bit dark (which it is) you’ll be surprised at this one. The third paragraph to this story is “Axel Neilson, World Government senator for Scandinavia, lay dead in the street before the house in which he had been born.” This story is interesting because, besides from the fact it takes Thunderbirds to a grittier world, it requires the brothers to morally question what International Rescue stands for. When John radios in about Thrompson needing rescuing, Alan debates whether they should rescue someone who is a murderer. Jeff naturally puts them straight, saying it’s not for them to act as a judge or a jury.
What I really liked about this is its originality. There have been plenty of stories where International Rescue had to get involved in situations that are politically motivated. However, I have never seen one where they had to save someone who really has committed one of the worst crimes imaginable.
The fact that Grandma was given a chemical laboratory and the skills of a chemist is wonderful. Some may find it out of character, although there isn’t really much to work with from the beginning. Grandma is that type of character that when they originally came up with her conception, it was nothing beyond, “why don’t we have their Grandma stay with them?” There’s little outside of that which makes up her personality or back-story. Some of the episodes used her quite effectively, but she was never going to be the writer’s preference of choice. In many ways I do see why the new series has changed her character, but it wasn’t necessarily for the better.
The best part of this is probably how Gordon deals with Thrompson once he’s rescued him. It’s really in keeping with how pacifistic International Rescue would want to be when dealing with these types of situations.
While Thunderbird 6 was just violent because the story dictated it, Dead Man’s Rescue uses violence to explore a situation Thunderbirds rarely does.
Ring of Fire / Novel / Armada Books
Plot: In South America the Yelcho Atomic power station is in danger when an eruption occurs at the volcano of Mount Yelcho. Everyone is evacuated besides Professor Jorge Silva who was trying to shut down the rector. Scott arrives at the danger zone and saves the Professor, only to become trapped himself. Vigil arrives and gets Scott out using the Mole before lava reaches the station causing the reactor to explode.
The result causes a huge rift in the Earths crust that heads towards the South Pacific. The World Navy decides that they are going to requisition Tracy Island in an attempt to stop the rift. Jeff tries to persuade Admiral Obergaus otherwise, however his request fails and Jeff is given twenty-four hours to leave Tracy Island.
The World Navy plan to test one of their new missiles by destroying Tracy Island because the rift runs right under it. However, Brains realises that this would cause the rift to accelerate to Australia and New Zealand. With the help of Lady Penelope, she gets the World President to stop Admiral Obergaus’ plan, allowing Brains to implement his scheme and successfully divert the rift, saving the world and Tracy Island from catastrophe.
Well this list wasn’t going to get away without a John William Jennison novel on it (Note: This author used the pseudonym John Theydon for a number of his works. However, we will refer to him by his original name).
I do feel Ring of Fire gets a lot of vague praise; a lot of people know it is good, but don’t why.
So much of what makes this book amazing is that you end up with three plots going on at the same time, all of which affect the main characters. Something I omitted from the synopsis is that Thunderbird 1 is damaged during the opening rescue, and requires a part to be replaced. This is whilst Admiral Obergaus is ordering Tracy Island to be evacuated so he can blow it up. Not only that, but when Kyrano and Brains fly out to pick up the part from Egypt, they crash in the desert. On top of all those things, The Hood makes a nuisance appearance that halts the plot for a chapter. Everything that could go wrong, goes wrong, keeping the plot moving and the tension high.
When it comes down to it, I don’t feel that Thunderbirds is the easiest of formats to write for. On television it worked a treat, with a fifty-minute run time for the episodes. Half the show is given up to how the rescuees get into their predicament and the other half to the main characters rescuing them. This builds up the pathos for those needing to be rescued, whilst also giving time to show us a likable cast of main characters. It works perfectly on television. When it comes to all other mediums, it becomes trickier.
For some reason, a story written exactly like an episode becomes too boring and simple. So you’ve got to produce a story that is more plot orientated. Not to mention you have to make sure the story focuses on the main characters more. It gets trickier if you try to incorporate all of the thirteen main characters (that also includes the Hood). Even John William Jennison didn’t get it quite right on his first two novels. His first one (simply entitled Thunderbirds) centres around Scott getting taken over by an alien bacterial life form, and trying to infect the entire world. The story features no rescue, and centres around Scott mainly. His second one (Calling Thunderbirds) has a rescue but he is more interested writing about a treasure hunt, and once again predominantly features Scott.
Ring of Fire is all about rescues and everyone, including Kyrano, gets something to do. Not to mention that the overall story effects the main characters, meaning you get a chance to worry about them rather than the people they rescue. What is the point the of main characters if you are not concern for their well being?
John William Jennison’s writing alone is worth the read. I work on the assumption that the amount of reference material he was given was fairly minimal in the 60’s. However, whenever I read any of his books, it feels like he’s captured everything and everyone that makes the show what it is. The locations, the settings, and the feel of the launch sequences come across as very genuine. You don’t feel you are reading someone else’s version or interpretation. A lot of care and attention has been put into recreating those moments. This really would have made an excellent movie.
Island of Fear / Comic / Thunderbirds Annual 1968
Plot: Whilst travelling by helicopter to go on holiday, Brains, Tin-Tin and Kyrano crash in the ocean when a freak storm hits them. They manage to make it to an Island, where they discover the place to be inhabited by human sized dummies. They realise that the island is being used to test a hyper-hydrogen bomb and it could go off at any time. Brains spends several hours trying desperately to defuse the bomb, with no success. Tin-Tin eventually discovers a radio transmitter and sends a message to International Rescue.
On Tracy Island, they receive the message and know of the danger they are in, and the fact that the bomb will go off in fifty-minutes. Thunderbirds 1 and 2 scramble, knowing that they won’t reach the island in time, and upon arrival it explodes. Just when it looks like nobody could have survived the blast, a faint distress signal comes through and they land. They find Brains Tin-Tin and Kyrano alive, as it turns out that for once Brains used his strength and dug an anti-blast shelter allowing them to survive.
I was born on the very cusp of the cold war coming to an end. Really, I was not aware of any of it. Every time I discover something new about that long period of diplomatic tension, both politically and socially, I am quite fascinated and terrified at the same time. Island of Fear taps into that.
The scene in which the three discover the Island of Tibor is populated with human dummies is down right creepy. The fact that they are unable to contact anyone remotely connected with the experiment, not only represents their helplessness, but also illustrates how ordinary people had no say in the way governments and military organisations prepared them selves for wars only they were going to start.
If anything one of the scariest parts is where you discover Brains, Tin-Tin and Kyrano are absolutely powerless to do anything, besides send out a basic S.O.S. This is specially illustrated when International Rescue cannot provide any help, purely based on the time it would take to reach the island. The fact that the trio only survive by chance shows that even our main characters are not indestructible.
My only complaint, if any, is how Tin-Tin is portrayed in the story. The best example would be a line from Jeff just before the trio are about to set off. “My chief engineer, my manservant, even my manservant’s daughter…” It’s sad to say that whoever this writer was, was not aware that Tin-Tin has an engineering qualification. If they had then we would have seen more of Tin-Tin trying to solve the problem of defusing the countdown system.
Fight For Survival / Comic / Thunderbird Annual 1967
Plot: Whilst celebrating Christmas day on Tracy Island, John reports a volcano that has been erupting under the Antarctica for a week, has caused the sea water to rise. As a result the ice-shelf has begun to melt making unsafe for an isolated hospital. All the patients but one have been evacuated. The last patient is desperately ill and cannot be moved as well as any of the apparatus, which is keeping him alive.
The Tracy brothers, Brains and Jeff all go to sort out the rescue. When they arrive they carefully start cutting the patients room from the building with laser cutters and sealing up any holes with quick drying plasti-foam seal. At the same time they connect the power for the room to Thunderbird 2’s power generator, and remove the debris as the patient’s room is on the second floor, meaning the floor beneath has to be removed. Using four strong stabilises on a hovercraft and Gordon’s steady hands, they successfully remove the room with barely a sign of movement. Once it is safely onboard Thunderbird 2, Virgil takes off, flying the patient to a new and safer hospital.
Give or Take a Million, while not being one the worst Thunderbird episodes, is generally disappointing. This is because it’s meant to be the Christmas episode of the show, and yet our main characters have very little to do in the overall plot. Fight For Survival is the Christmas story Give or Take a Million should have been.
It is such a dramatic and exciting story that really does present International Rescue with a near impossible situation. The scenario is set in such a far out-of-the-way location, that you do believe they’ve entered some mercilessly challenging conditions. The amount of effort they have to put into removing the section of the hospital is so time consuming that you really feel the delicateness of the operation. Also the fact that Jeff has to come along and help, hypes up the seriousness of everything. Rarely do you ever see Jeff join any rescue, although it does occasionally happen and when it does it’s always a serious matter.
My favourite part of this entire story, is the fact that International Rescue puts so much into saving one person. The fact that it is Christmas day, and the gravity of the situation, you really get a sense of the moral standards held by our beloved characters.
Not to mention the theme of good will at Christmas. In Give or Take a Million, they allow a sick boy to have the best Christmas he’ll ever remember. In Fight for Survival, they help an unknown and unnamed patient continue to live.
I strongly suggest that anyone looking for a good read of Thunderbird stories buys the 1967 Annual, which this story and Dead Man Rescue feature in. This is because it has the most consistently well-written stories I’ve ever seen in one volume. This is, in my opinion, the best annual out there.
U.N. Rescue Ltd / Comic / Countdown Issue 45 – 53
Plot: The U.N. pass a motion to set up their own government run rescue organisation, which was originally suggested by a Professor Cytak (the Hood in disguise). Jeff at first is not worried, however International Rescue is continually turning up at rescues only to discover they’re being beaten to it. This results in Scott finally resigning and joining U.N. Rescue, causing International Rescue to quit.
This was part of the Hood’s plan all along and he starts informing his U.N. Rescue staff that the World Army is planning a coup and that World President is in danger. Scott is sent to the White House were the President has been knocked out, and the Hood has taken his place in disguise.
He marks Scott as an assassin and orders to have him killed on sight. He escapes and manages to contact Tracy Island where he is collected and taken back. Explaining the situation to everyone, they all devise a plan. Jeff, Scott, Alan and John blast off in Thunderbird 1 and 3 pretending to be Lunar Surveyor crafts and dock with the U.N. space station.
Whilst on board, they pump knock out gas over the base, rendering everyone asleep. Thunderbird 4 arrives at the shoreline of Washington, and fires a missile at the U.N. barracks.The Hood (now as Professor Cytak) fears the White House is under a fall scale attack and requests a U.N. Rescue craft to take the World President away. However, unknown to him, the craft that arrives is piloted by the Tracy Brothers and they successfully save the World President from the Hood. Realising the valuable service International Rescue has done and the problems U.N. Rescue has caused, he decides to abolish the organisation altogether.
This is the story that I think as being the best way to end Thunderbirds as a whole. While some people might want to see a conclusion to how International Rescue would finish or continue going on forever, I think either of those two would be depressing. If you knew International would finish and cease to exist that would be upsetting, and if it kept on going, you still know that it would have to end eventually and the characters would have to retire, and thus we have no real satisfactory conclusion. This is because those two scenarios centre on the organisation, not the characters.
U.N. Rescue Ltd is perfect for showing how it could end. In the story, International Rescue does fold and Scott goes to work for U.N. Rescue. That could be the ending right there. Instead, once the Hood’s plan has been found out, you see the entire Tracy family get together to defeat him and tidy up the mess he has caused. As a result, this tells me perfectly what the overall ending to Thunderbirds should be. No matter what happens, the Tracys will always have each other, no matter what. This is strongly represented by the fact that Scott can go back home regardless of his rather abrupt exit.
It’s quite clear to me that whoever wrote this story (and I assume, based on the consistency of the other stories, wrote all the Countdown comics) really did love the characters and format of the show. Each one is very well written and really feels like they’re all part of an on-going series.
These are the six that I consider are the crowning glory of Thunderbirds tie in media stories. They’re the ones that excited me, enthralled me and gave me a kick when I read them. These are the ones that prove that regardless if it’s a comic, short story or novel Thunderbirds can jump between mediums very successfully. However, that doesn’t mean the rest aren’t good, there are some real crackers out there. Such stories like Depth Probe, Terror Mountain, Abominable Snowman and Killers in the Street (not to mention the entire Countdown comic range) all stand out as well. There are some real treasures out there; I really recommend that you seek them out and enjoy them.
About the author.
Cameron is a bookseller and actor by profession. He enjoys various Gerry Anderson shows including Supercar, Joe 90 and Stingray.