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.

Stone Age Man in Britain

Anybody who was a child in the 1960s will remember the classic mini-hardback Ladybird books, which throughout that decade were priced at half a crown (two shillings and six pence or 12 ½ pence). The “Adventure from History” series (Ladybird 561) ran to fifty books and told the stories of such notables as William the Conqueror, Queen Elizabeth I, Christopher Columbus, Captain Cook, and Florence Nightingale. The first book, “King Alfred the Great“, was published in 1956; the last, featuring William Shakespeare, appeared in 1981. The series continues to attract great interest to this day, often bought second hand by parents for their children to provide an easy introduction to different periods of history.

Stone Age Man in Britain” was one of many titles I remember from my childhood, and when I saw this copy on a market stall I couldn’t resist paying a tenner for it. “Stone Age Man in Britain” was first published in 1961, though this copy appears to date to around 1970. My original copy featured the cover artwork on a dustjacket; this reprint has it printed directly onto the hard cover. The price is quoted in decimal as well as the old pounds, shillings, and pence – but the long-standing 2/6 | 12 ½ p has been overprinted with a ‘revised price’ of 15 p as the first effects of the inflation that became so rampant in the 1970s began to make themselves felt.

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I was interested to see how the book held up against what we know now. The answer, sadly, is not well at all. Indeed, it is not even a fair reflection of what was known in 1961. “Stone Age Man in Britain” would make a very poor introduction to any present-day child interested in the prehistory of Britain.

The book deals with the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods in Britain, although it does not name the former. Its description of the Mesolithic people, who arrived when Britain was still joined to mainland Europe, does not make comfortable reading. They were “covered in hair and had fierce animal-life faces”. They were “able to talk and think, though only in a very simple way”. They could make “some sort of clothes” but “had not yet learned how to build even the simplest houses”. On the other hand, it concedes that the cave paintings of their Upper Palaeolithic forbears in France were “amazingly well done”.

Until around thirty years ago, it was widely believed that archaic humans such as Homo erectus and Neanderthals were early forms of Homo sapiens and that the species was perhaps two million years old. But behaviourally modern Homo sapiens was a much later development that arrived in a ‘human revolution’ 50,000 – 30,000 years ago. This was announced by the spectacular cave paintings and other artwork of Upper Palaeolithic Europe. We now know that both viewpoints are wrong: firstly, modern humans are a separate and comparatively recent species, albeit they could and did interbreed with archaic people. Secondly, modern humans were behaviourally modern at least 100,000 years ago, and probably much earlier. Upper Palaeolithic (and later Mesolithic) people had the needle and thread; and often invested considerable effort in building sophisticated dwellings. Admittedly not all of this was known in 1961, but the cave paintings have been known since the nineteenth century, and it is patently obvious that they were not the work of dimwits.

Yet this nonsense continues with a description of the arrival of Neolithic people in Britain. The Neolithic people “were much more intelligent than the [Mesolithic] people who lived in caves… the cave man’s brain was underdeveloped, and he didn’t think very much. The Neolithic men had better brains…”.

The date given, 7,000 – 6,000 years ago, is reasonably accurate, albeit the book incorrectly states that Britain was still connected to mainland Europe at this stage; in fact, Britain separated from Europe – the original Brexit – more than 8,000 years ago.

We are then led to believe that a British Neolithic genius called Quick Foot decided he was fed up with living in caves and came up with the idea of building a hut. He then went on to single-handedly invent the Mode V microlithic tool tradition. Other early Brits invented the needle and thread, tailored clothing, line fishing, pottery, the use of flints to start fires, and (having originally walked to Britain) boats. To be fair, the author of the book, Lawrence du Garde Peach, was likely attempting to convey the importance of these things to children rather than start a myth that they were invented by Ancient Britons.

The British Neolithic people are incorrectly described as having the ‘big four’ farm animals (cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats), but no crops. In fact, the first agriculturalists to reach Britain possessed a full mixed-farming economy of crops and animals.

The book is to be credited for what must surely be the most simplistic (and entirely inaccurate) speculation ever to appear in print concerning the origins of cereal domestication. “Perhaps Quick Foot’s wife, or some other woman threw away some grass seeds beside the hut and noticed that they grew”. She then hit on the idea of growing some more seeds, cooking them with milk to make porridge, and then grinding them and cooking the resulting flour to make (unleavened) bread. “Everybody liked the new sort of food”.

We then learn how villages and exchange networks grew up, and how cattle rustling became a problem, leading to the construction of fortified hilltop settlements, many of which can still be seen to this day. They do indeed, but they mainly date to the Iron Age, and none predate the Bronze Age. However, we do know that there was intercommunal violence in Neolithic Europe, with grim evidence of massacres, though the motives are unknown. Theft of livestock is certainly a possibility.

In the remainder of the book, we learn about Neolithic monuments including Stonehenge, the construction of which is described in some detail, and is attributed to a “wise and powerful” paramount chief who intended it as a temple for sun-worship.

The final page of the book explains how our knowledge of these preliterate times is due to the patient work of archaeologists. It concludes that “To-day we should call these early inhabitants of Britain savages. But although the Stone Age men were a very primitive race, every now and then there would be among them some man like Quick Foot who could think better than the others. Then some small advance would be made…. They were not savages. They were the dim beginnings of modern civilisation in which you and all of us now live.”

The words “very primitive race” certainly jar, as does the implication that with a few exceptions, such as Quick Foot, Stone Age Britons weren’t very bright.

Stone Age Man in Britain” teaches us rather more about attitudes to gender and race in 1961 than it does about the prehistory of Britain. The gender stereotyping is blatant, with women relegated to sewing, making pots, and food preparation. Important discoveries would be made by ‘some man like Quickfoot’. Throughout the book, the term ‘man/men’ is used as a synonym for ‘people’ or ‘humans’.

It was known that the Mesolithic and Neolithic people were modern rather than archaic humans. But the view was then widespread that some ‘races’ were simply smarter than others, and that people who live in traditional societies as hunter-gatherers or subsistence farmers must by their very nature be a bit dim. It was an era of casual racism: for example, children were taught a version of Eeny, meeny, miny, moe that featured the N-word; and blacks and Irish were openly discriminated against. We should therefore not be too harsh in judging a children’s book that was a product of its times.