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.

Online sales websites – how to lose customers

More than fifty years ago, shortly before Britain adopted decimal coins, I was one of many schoolboys who joined the new craze for coin collecting. People hastened to collect date sets of old pennies and other predecimal coins before they disappeared from our change forever. One day I found a penny in my change with an unusually thick rim. Naturally, I kept it. Fast forward 25 years and during one of my periodic revivals of interest in coin collecting I read in a magazine that that the thick-rimmed penny was a rare variety worth up to £200. I duly took my penny to a coin-dealer, only to be told that it was a worthless fake.

A few years later, the thick-rimmed penny story surfaced again on a coin-dealer’s website where there was an appeal for information from anybody who might have seen one. Although my coin had turned out to be fake, the fact somebody had taken the trouble to fake it back in the 1960s suggested that these coins were known about and sought after even then.

Thinking my story might be of some interest, I recounted it on the form, added my contact details as requested, and pressed ‘Save’. Up came one of my pet hates – “County must be entered”. I hate any site that makes ‘County’ a mandatory field because I live in London and – as I usually respond – “LONDON IS NOT IN A BLOODY COUNTY”. But this particular website was especially egregious because for want of “County” being filled, it had not only refused to save the details I’d entered, it had thrown them away. Including the story I’d spent several minutes typing. Needless to say, I did not retype it – indeed I never went near that coin dealer’s site again.

To be fair, this was some years ago, and the design of online sales websites have improved considerably. Yet their capacity for finding ridiculous reasons for rejecting user registration input never seems to abate.

This morning, I spent several minutes entering my details on an online sales site operated by a very well known UK business, and pressed ‘Continue’. Highlighted in red, up came the utterly infuriating “There is information on this page that is required or not properly provided. Please correct the following and resubmit the page. Area Code must begin with zero”.

No it must not. The site was displaying a country code pre-populated with +44 for the UK. The zero should be omitted from the area code.

I nevertheless added the zeros and again pressed ‘Continue’.

“There is information on this page that is required or not properly provided. Please correct the following and resubmit the page User name, password, and security question must be entered”.

So, all these details, which I had already entered, had been thrown away because I had (quite correctly) left off the zero from the Area Code.

Guess what? I’d been contemplating a moderately expensive purchase, but as a result of this unsatisfactory user experience I decided against it. First impressions are important. It might sound harsh but I take the view that if your website is crap it’s very likely that the rest of your business will be as well.

SMS Scharnhorst (1906)

On 4 December this year, a team lead by British marine archaeologist Mensum Bound announced that they had found the wreck of the German armoured cruiser SMS Scharnhorst in 1,610 m (5,280 ft) of water, 98 nautical miles (181 km; 113 miles) southeast of the Falkland Islands. The announcement followed a search that began in 2014 for the ships of Adm. Maximillian Graf von Spee’s ill-fated East Asia Squadron, sunk in the opening months of World War I at the Battle of the Falkland Islands.

Named for the Prussian military reformer Gerhardt von Scharnhorst, Seiner Majestät Schiff (‘His Majesty’s Ship’) Scharnhorst was launched on 23 March 1906. Her one sister ship, SMS Gneisenau, was launched on 14 June 1906. The Scharnhorst class, as they were known (Gneisenau was ordered first, but a shipyard strike delayed her construction), displaced 12,780 long tons with a full load. They were 144.6 meters (474 ft 5 in) in length, 21.6 m (70 ft 10 in) in beam, with a draft of 8.37 m (27 ft 6 in). Their triple-expansion engines produced 26,000 metric horsepower (19,000 kW) for a maximum speed of 22.5 knots. The ships had a main armament of eight 8.3-inch and six 5.9-inch guns and a secondary armament of eighteen casemated 3.5-inch gun. In addition, they had four torpedo tubes – one forward, one aft, and two broadside. Their armour ranged from 8 to 15 cm (3.1 to 5.9 in), with the maximum thickness along the waterline and at the midships ‘citadel’. They were superior to earlier German designs and were a match for any non-capital ship of their day.

Scharnhorst was commissioned on 24 October 1907 and after completing her trials, she was assigned to the High Seas Fleet, where she participated in training exercises and fleet manoeuvres. In March 1909, she was reassigned to the East Asia Squadron, where she ‘flew the flag’ touring Germany’s East Asian and Pacific colonies. In March 1911, she was joined by the Gneisenau and on 4 December she became the flagship of the squadron’s new commander, Konteradmiral  (Rear-Admiral) von Spee. Promoted to Vizeadmiral (Vice-Admiral) the following year, von Spee would retain command of the East Asia Squadron for the remainder of its existence.

In August 1914, when war finally broke out, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau had been in service for less than seven years, but they were already obsolete. The intervening period had seen a revolution in warship design. At the beginning of the twentieth century, armoured cruisers and battleships were large warships of roughly equal size: however battleships possessed heavily-armoured hulls and were armed with a mixture of high and medium calibre guns; cruisers by contrast were less heavily armoured and had only medium-calibre guns – but they were considerably faster. Their role was to act as the ‘eyes’ of a battle-group and were fast enough to run away from anything they couldn’t fight. They could also operate on detached duties or – as with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau – the lead ships of a squadron in distant waters.

All this changed in 1906, when British First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher came up with the idea of an ‘all-big-gun’ warship, which dispensed with secondary and intermediate calibre guns and was powered by the new Parsons turbines rather than reciprocating engines. The first ship built to this design was HMS Dreadnought. At 20,730 long tons, she displaced only slightly more than the preceding Lord Nelson class battleships, but at 21 knots she was significantly faster, and she had more than twice the firepower of any other ship afloat. With ‘pre-dreadnought’ battleships rendered obsolete at a stroke, a naval arms race broke out between Britain and Germany – but Adm. Fisher had another brainwave up his sleeve.

What would happen if you put big guns into a fast but lightly armoured ship? The result was HMS Invincible. Comparable in displacement and armament to HMS Dreadnought, she could make an astounding 25.5 knots – but at the expense of armour. Launched in 1907, the Royal Navy classified her as an armoured cruiser, but the media referred to her variously as a dreadnought cruiser, a battleship-cruiser, and finally as a battlecruiser. In November 1911, the Royal Navy adopted the latter term.

At the outbreak of hostilities, von Spee’s squadron comprised the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and the light cruisers Emden, Nurnberg, and Leipzig. On 13 August, the Emden, commanded by Karl von Muller, was detached to act as a commerce raider. Emden captured over twenty Allied freighters and sank the Russian cruiser Zhemchug and the French destroyer Mousquet before she was finally overpowered by the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney at the Cocos Islands. Von Spee’s squadron was reinforced by the arrival of the light cruiser Dresden.

On 1 November, von Spee’s ships encountered the British Fourth Cruiser Squadron off Coronel, Chile. The resulting Battle of Coronel was a one-sided affair. The British force, commanded by Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock, comprised the armoured cruisers HMS Good Hope (flag) and HMS Monmouth, the light cruiser HMS Glasgow, and the armed merchantman HMS Otranto. Cradock, on the lookout for the Germans, had left behind the elderly but sturdy pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Canopus, whose 12-inch guns could at least have kept Scharnhorst and Gneisenau at bay. Silhouetted against the setting sun, Good Hope and Monmouth were sunk with all hands; only Glasgow and Otranto escaped the rout. The German squadron suffered minimal casualties and damage – but they had expended over half of their ammunition in the battle.

Word of the defeat soon reached London, where Fisher wasted no time in dispatching the battlecruisers HMS Invincible and HMS Inflexible to the South Atlantic to hunt down and destroy von Spee’s ships. Vice-Admiral Doveton Sturdee was placed in command.  On 26 November, the battlecruisers rendezvoused with the remnants of Cradock’s force, along with the armoured cruisers Kent, Carnarvon, and Cornwall, and the light cruiser Bristol. The force proceeded to the Falkland Islands where HMS Canopus was grounded at Port Stanley to act as a guardship.

Meanwhile, von Spee’s squadron had captured a British collier and now had all the coal they needed, but there was no possibility of replenishing their ammunition. Von Spee decided to return to Germany, but first he proposed to attack the Royal Navy base on Falkland Islands. His captains mostly opposed the plan, but they were overruled.

On the morning of 8 December 1914, the East Asia Squadron was sighted by civilians at Fitzroy, who alerted the navy base at Port Stanley. The entire British squadron was coaling, but as von Spee’s ships approached Stanley the Canopus opened fire and Kent was making her way out of the harbour. With the bulk of the British ships still at anchor, von Spee might yet have been able to press home his attack. But sighting the tripod masts of the battlecruisers, he realised that he was up against a superior force and decided to make a run for it.

It was 10:00 before the battlecruisers left port and von Spee’s ships were 13 nautical miles ahead. But Invincible and Inflexible could outrun and outgun Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. By 13:00, the battlecruisers had closed the range and opened fire. To give his smaller ships a chance of escape, von Spee turned back with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and engaged the British ships. Scharnhorst repeatedly attempted to close to within torpedo range of the battlecruisers, but without success. By 16:04, her smokestacks had been shot away, she was on fire, and listing. At 16:17, she sank with all hands; the British ships, still in action against the Gneisenau, were unable to attempt any rescue of survivors. The Gneisenau fought on bravely, but at 18:06 she finally succumbed. Invincible and Inflexible hastened to pick up survivors, but only 190 men were rescued. Meanwhile, Nurnberg, Leipzig, and Dresden fled the battle, hotly pursued by Kent, Glasgow, and Cornwall. Nurnberg and Leipzig were sunk with the loss of all but a handful of men; Dresden escaped though she was later cornered and sunk off the Juan Fernández Islands on 14 March 1915.

German losses were 1,871 officers and men, including Admiral von Spee and his two sons. A total of 215 survived. British casualties were just ten men killed and 19 wounded.

The Battle of the Falkland Islands proved to be the finest hour for the battlecruiser. The light armour was its Achilles heel: three were lost at the Battle of Jutland in 1916 and in 1941, HMS Hood was sunk while engaging the Bismarck in the Denmark Strait. In the mid-1930s, the new German navy, the Kriegsmarine, built two battleships named for Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Again, though, they were no match for British capital ships and the second Scharnhorst was sunk by HMS Duke of York at the Battle of the North Cape. The Gneisenau, which was undergoing a refit that would have upgraded her armament, was scrapped on Hitler’s orders. Adm. von Spee was commemorated by the ‘panzerschiff’ Graff Spee,  which was scuttled at Montevideo on 20 December 1939 on the orders of her captain, KptzS Hans Langsdorff, after sustaining heavy damage from British warships at the Battle of the River Plate. Three days later, Langsdorff killed himself despite having conducted himself in an entirely honourable manner throughout.

To this day, 8 December is a public holiday in the Falklands, and on that day in 2014 – the hundredth anniversary of the battle – the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust instigated a search for von Spee’s ships. The search was unsuccessful, but a second attempt was made in December this year with four deep-sea robot submarines operated from the search vessel Seabed Constructor. After just three days the Scharnhorst was located. She is standing upright in a debris field, her hull largely intact although little remains of her superstructure. The Falkland Maritime Heritage Trust will seek to have the site protected in law. The search for the three other ships sunk in the battle will continue.

The London Planetarium

Built on the site of the Tussauds Cinema, which was destroyed during the Blitz, the London Planetarium was opened by HRH the Duke of Edinburgh on 19 March 1958. Public presentations began the next day. The Planetarium was an immediate hit with the public, and it considerably boosted attendances at the adjoining Madame Tussauds gallery.

The Planetarium’s 18 m (60 ft) dome seated an audience of 330 who viewed presentations from a Zeiss Universal Mk IV star projector. This mechanical and optical wonder remained in use for nearly half a century before being replaced by a digital system in 1995.

Sadly, by the beginning of the millennium, attendances were no longer sufficient to keep the Planetarium going as a separate visitor attraction. Astronomical presentations ceased in 2006 and Madame Tussauds repurposed the building for shows about celebrities. Now known as the Stardome, it still features ‘stars’ – just not those up in the sky.

This beautifully-produced brochure dates to around 1960 and was sold for the very reasonable sum of one shilling (about £1.00 at today’s prices). The text is uncredited, but in his 2003 autobiography Eighty not out the late Sir Patrick Moore claimed to be the author. Moore turned down the opportunity to become the first Director of the London Planetarium because he did not wish to move to London; the job went instead to astronomer and author Dr. Henry C. King.