Thunderbirds – the date controversy

Like many boys (and girls) in the 1960s, I was an avid fan of Gerry Anderson’s science-fiction ‘Supermarionation’ TV shows. The decade was spanned by Supercar, Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet & the Mysterons, and Joe 90. With the exception of the last, all found their way into the legendary boy’s magazine TV 21. Girls had Lady Penelope, featuring the eponymous Thunderbirds London Agent. Joe 90 was briefly given his own magazine, but it was eventually merged with TV 21.

A question that has exercised enthusiasts for decades is, in what year was Thunderbirds set? It is commonly assumed to have been set a hundred years in the future (i.e. in the 2060s), as were Fireball XL5, Stingray, and Captain Scarlet. Indeed, TV 21 presented all four strips as if they were current events being reported in a 2060s newspaper. But is this assumption correct?

The only series to formally establish a date was Captain Scarlet where the opening sequence informs viewers that the year is 2068 AD. In Fireball XL5, the date is established through dialogue on several occasions as being 2062. The Stingray episode The Lighthouse Dwellers establishes the year as 2065 when a dedication plaque reveals that the newly-decommissioned Arago Rock Lighthouse was in use from 1890 to 2065.

With Thunderbirds, though, matters are rather less clear cut. On several occasions during the show’s run, we are shown mocked-up newspapers where a date can just be made out – dates include 1964, 1965, 2007, and 2065. The mock-ups have news item relating to the episode pasted over an otherwise standard 1960s newspaper. Some news items of the day (for example the approach of the bright comet Ikeya–Seki of 1965) can be recognised. The first time this device was used, obviously nobody bothered to amend the date. The dates are actually difficult to see without freeze-framing, which of course was unavailable in the 1960s. Possibly it was realised that a keen-eyed viewer might notice, so dates were subsequently altered.

The only date seen in clear sight is a calendar in the very last episode to be shown, Give or take a million, which aired on Boxing Day 1966. The calendar is dated 2026. On the face of it, this is no more and no less tenuous than the Arago Rock Lighthouse dedication plaque, which is the sole indication of a date given during the entire run of Stingray. The question is, can Give or take a million be classed as a proper Thunderbirds episode? The series was just six episodes into its second season when it was abruptly cancelled after ITC boss Lew Grade failed to obtain a deal with TV networks in the United States. Give or Take a million was a Christmas show rather than a regular episode. It did not feature a rescue and the plot revolved around Brains’ snow-making machine and a kid from a children’s hospital spending Christmas on Tracy Island. To provide something vaguely resembling excitement, after a failed bank heist two crooks take shelter in a rocket that is to be used to deliver toys to the children’s hospital. On Tracy Island, the kid is shown with some (actual) Thunderbirds toys – but given the Tracys’ aversion to their machines being photographed, such toys could not have existed in the world of the TV series. As such, the canonicity of this episode is suspect, but it has started a 2065 vs 2026 debate that continues to this day.

The 2065 camp will point to Zero-X, the spacecraft featured in the movie Thunderbirds are go that went on to appear in the first episode of Captain Scarlet & the Mysterons. Zero-X, which was also given its own strip in TV 21, is the only example of a continuity between two different Anderson shows, and it implies that Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet are set in the same universe (even if the other shows were not). Captain Scarlet, as we have seen, is set in the 2060s therefore, it is argues, so must Thunderbirds. The Anderson enthusiast blog Security Hazard makes the point “...unless the Zero-X program has been running, unaltered, for over 40 years that pretty much shuts down any thought of Thunderbirds taking place in 2026.” But given that the Zero-X project was “the most costly yet devised by man” it is entirely possible that Zero-X spacecraft could still be in service after 40 years. US Navy aircraft carriers such as the Forrestal and Kittyhawk classes remained in service for fifty years. The Boeing B-52 Stratofortress first flew in 1952 and is still in service – indeed it could remain so into the 2050s. Even the Space Shuttle was in use for thirty years.

I will now argue that both dates are wrong, and that Thunderbirds probably takes place no later than the 1990s. In the first episode, Trapped in the Sky, it is established that former astronaut Jeff Tracy was one of the first men to land on the Moon. The episode aired four years before the first actual Moon landing, but Project Apollo was well advanced by this time and a landing was planned for before the end of the decade.

Even if we ignore that reality, in the Captain Scarlet episode Lunaville 7 it is stated that humans first landed on the Moon in the 1970s (remember that Captain Scarlet and Thunderbirds are set in the same universe). So Jeff’s Moon landing must have taken place around that time. Jeff is now in his fifties, and assuming that he was in his thirties as an astronaut, then some twenty years have passed since the first Moon landings. Notably, the first attempts are being made to reach Mars (the Martian Space Probe featured in Day of Disaster and Zero-X) and there is also a crewed sample-return mission to the Sun (Sunprobe). In the 1960s, it would have seemed likely that such efforts would follow about twenty years after reaching the Moon.

Even the 2026 timeline would put the early Moon landings in the 2000s, and the 2065 timeline would delay them to the 2040s. It is difficult to believe that Gerry Anderson believed that a Moon landing lay so far in the future; also, even at the glacial speed of post-Apollo crewed spaceflight programs, humans should reach Mars well before the 2060s.


Author: prehistorian

Prehistorian & author

12 thoughts on “Thunderbirds – the date controversy”

  1. Interesting theory; as an advocate of the 2065 dating (see Andersonic #9, Spring 2010) I would point out a) art director Bob Bell admitted and a Fanderson convention that the 2026 date in ‘Give or take a million’ was ‘a mistake by a member of the Art Department’; b) in her commentary on the DVD of the Thunderbird Six movie, Sylvia Anderson mentions the 2068 date used on the newspaper Lady Penelope reads, saying they went to a lot of trouble to get the date right; c) when the series was first made in 1964, no humans had even left Earth orbit – President Kennedy might have promised to land men on the Moon ‘before the end of the decade’ but at that point no-one was sure whether this could be done.

    1. I did read that the 2026 date was ‘a mistake’, but in any case it can be dismissed as no more than the most visible of several spurious dates that appeared during the show’s run. Regardless, it appeared in a Christmas show & not in a proper ‘Thunderbirds’ episode. We can of course reject – let’s call it the ‘Neil Armstrong’ timeline – but we still run into trouble as the CS&TM episode ‘Lunaville 7’ establishes the first Moon landing in the 1970s. On the other hand, we could argue that in the Neil Armstrong timeline, nobody has been to the Moon for 50 years; it is quite possible (barring Trump’s re-election) that nobody will go back until the 2040s, and it could thus be argued that Jeff Tracy will still be ‘one of the first men on the Moon’.

      1. Just 2 questions though.
        1. Which Thunderbirds episodes have a newspaper that say “2065”?
        2. Which episodes of Fireball XL5 mention “2062”?

  2. “The Mighty Atom” features the date 1965; “30 Minutes after noon” 2007, and the movie “Thunderbird 6” 2065 – as I recall. Somebody can correct me if I’m wrong.
    In the “Fireball XL5” episode “Space Magnet”, Venus refers to Matt’s alarm clock as being 100 years old, and dating to 1962; in the episode “1875” (where Matt builds a time machine), the year 2062 is mentioned.

    1. Mighty Atom shows both 2005 & 2007. Thunderbirds Are Go (1966) has a newspaper saying 2066 & Thunderbird 6 shows 2068. Stately Home Robberies shows 2025.

      1. Interesting the 2005 and 2007 dates in The Mighty Atom as the Hood sabotaged the Australian plant 18 months before the African plant so the first part of the episode could have been set in the 2nd half of 2005 and the second part in the 1st half of 2007.

      1. Hi George – the transcript is from the Thunderbird 3 ‘mini-album’, in which Alan narrates the story of the Sun Probe rescue. As I recall, the mini albums weren’t released until after the TV series had gone into repeats. The Thunderbird 3 album contains the only spoken reference to a date (it wasn’t mentioned in the corresponding TV episode ‘Sun Probe’) and I suspect it might have been added when somebody pointed out that the year had never been established in dialogue throughout the whole of the show’s run & to make it tie in with the TV 21 timeline.

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