When I was 9 or 10, I remember seeing a show called Supercar for the first time. My brother and I were apoplectic–a futuristic flying car fighting bad guys! And the puppets, I mean marionettes, looked real except for the weird bouncy walk! But they had eyebrows, mouths that seemed to move with the words, and cool sets. This was way better than the “hand up the ass” puppets on Captain Kangaroo or Howdy Doody! And immediately cartoons, except Bugs, lost their luster. We were hooked!
Not long after, I found my personal favorite marionette show: Fireball XL5. As a young boy, that rocket ship looked so real to me, and I was already a science nerd. There were flames and smoke coming from the rocket engine as it raced down the launch track, and then off it went, into space! And there was Colonel Steve Zodiac and his girlfriend Venus, who rode around on hoverbikes, and there was even a co-pilot robot named Robert. I remember building a replica out of Legos since no models were available at that time. And I got into model rocketry soon after (who remembers Estes Rockets?) All because of marionettes!
When I recently saw Elon Musk’s Mars Spaceship, I saw an eerie similarity to my beloved Fireball XL5!
These shows, and several others, were the creation of Gerry Anderson, a British producer in the ’60s and ’70s. He pioneered “Supermarionation,” a more advanced puppet technology improving motion, eye control, and actually synchronized mouth movements electronically to pre-made recordings, resulting in a more realistic experience.
His most successful show was Thunderbirds, originally produced from 1965 to 1966, which led to several movie versions, including a live action one in 2004 directed by Star Trek‘s Jonathon Frakes. This was about a family of scientists, including handsome teenagers, a studly dad and a sexy secret agent, Lady Penelope, with a cool pink car, who started an International Rescue Organization that fought bad puppets and helped with natural disasters! They lived on a private island that housed their secret base. The merchandising for the Thunderbirds was epic–I had all of the rockets in multiple versions! My parents wouldn’t buy me Lady Penelope. Probably for the better.
Anderson went on to produce live action shows, the most famous being Space 1999 in 1975 with Martin Landau and Barbara Bain. By now I was older, and I was glad Barbara wasn’t a puppet! It also was a sci-fi show, this time about survivors on a moon base after the moon is ejected from Earth’s orbit. Interesting premise but, again, thank God for Babs!
In 2004, South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, in an homage to Anderson’s productions, produced Team America: World Police. They took “Supermarionation” to a new level, with better puppet motion, realistic equipment like mini-uzzis that fired, and sex scenes that were hilariously uncomfortable. I made the mistake of watching this when it was released with my young daughters, unaware of the marionette merriment to come. Awkward!
Anyway, it was, at least technically, a worthy salute to Anderson’s creation.
Gerry Anderson died in 2012, but left a lasting imprint on the entertainment business with his unique creations. I, for one, would love to see more of these marionette movies, but alas, with the high quality CG in movies today, it’s unlikely. In the meantime, take a stroll down memory lane with the kids or grandkids. They’ll love these shows. Except Team America. That’s for you.