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.

The Rise and Fall of TV 21

The 1960s will be remembered for many things, and if you were a boy at that time there is a good chance that you will remember it for Gerry Anderson as well as for the Beatles. Beginning early in 1961 with Supercar (1961-62), Gerry Anderson and his production company AP Films released a series of science-fiction themed ‘Supermarionation’ TV shows that included Fireball XL5 (1962-63), Stingray (1964-65), Thunderbirds (1965-66), Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967-68), and Joe 90 (1968-69). AP Films comprised Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, cameraman Arthur Provis, production designer Reg Hill, and producer John Reed. Provis left the partnership, but the company retained its name until 1965 when it was renamed Century 21 Productions.

Fifty-five years ago today, on 23 January 1965, the London-based publisher City Magazines launched TV Century 21, a quality boy’s magazine with a unique marketing hook. Priced at 7d (old pence), it ran comic strips based on Fireball XL5 and Stingray, presented as if they were current events in a 2060s newspaper. Every edition would have a newspaper-style front page, promoting one or both strips. The publication date would be given as one hundred years in the future, beginning with Universe Edition 1 Dateline 23 January 2065. The magazine featured Lady Penelope and The Daleks as its other lead strips. Thunderbirds would not launch until September that year, so readers would probably have been unaware that Penelope was another Anderson character. The Daleks presented the early history of Dr Who’s arch enemies several years before a rather different history was revealed in the TV serial Genesis of the Daleks. The Doctor did not appear in the TV 21 strip. Supercar was not part of the canon and ran as a comedy strip for 51 episodes. The canon also included Dateline 2065, a ‘news roundup’ with snippets of news from around the universe.

The line-up at launch also included the non-canon strips Burke’s Law and My Favourite Martian. The former was soon dropped to make way for two more ‘humour’ strips: The Munsters and Get Smart. Many non-fiction articles appeared over the course of the magazine’s run. These included The World We Share (wild animal of the week, starting with the grizzly bear), and Oceans of Mystery (underwater exploration).

The Truth about Space provides a fascinating insight into what was known about the other planets of the Solar System in the mid-1960s, at a time when space probes had visited only the Moon, Mars, and Venus. The long-standing view that Mercury always kept the same side facing the Sun had recently been disproved and a ‘sensational new theory’ (and long-forgotten) had been proposed that it was an escaped moon of Venus.  This was presumably a re-use of a 1950s theory that Pluto was an escaped moon of Neptune. Pluto was then thought to be moonless and comparable in size to Earth.

The column also featured articles about the US space program and a ‘spaceman portrait gallery. Usually, these were household names like first American in space Alan Shepard and spacewalkers Alexei Leonov and Ed White. However, issue 29 (7 August 1966) featured the backup pilot for an upcoming Gemini mission, a 34-year-old former Navy pilot by the name of Neil Armstrong.

TV 21 also cashed in on the then current spy craze. Like other children’s magazines of the time, it featured a letters page – but with a difference. The Contact 21 page invited readers to become secret agents with the Universal Secret Service (USS), a secret organisation headed up by Special Agent Twenty-One aka Brent Cleever. Starting in Universe Edition 21, Twenty-One got his own strip, set 20 years before the main timeline, in the 2040s. Then an active field agent, he reported to Air Marshal Zodiac (father of Fireball XL5‘s Steve Zodiac), code-named ‘S’. This strip did much to establish the TV 21 canon, with stories expanding on how the ‘Anderverse’ came to be.

All the major planets in the Solar System have been terraformed and colonised, with the exception of Neptune. Earth has a World Government, based at Unity City in Bermuda and a World President named Nikita Bandranaik. In addition to the World Space Patrol from Fireball XL5 and the World Aquanaut Security Patrol from Stingray, the World Government fields a World Army, a World Navy, and a World Air Force. The USS is headquartered in a toy factory on the outskirts of the city of Kahra, Mars.

Nearly every country on Earth is a member of the World Government; the Eastern European state of Bereznik is a notable exception. In one of his early adventures, Special Agent Twenty-One helps a group of rebels to overthrow the right-wing military government in Britain. The rebel leader proudly proclaims that “Now we’re masters of our own country” and Britain subsequently joins the World Government. Remember, this story ran fifty years before the Brexit vote.

Special Agent Twenty-One’s main adversaries are Bereznik and a terrorist group known as the Solar Organisation for Revenge and Murder (SOFRAM). In another percipient story, Twenty-One determines to wipe out SOFRAM, and launches a war on terror that proves to be no more successful than that launched by George W. Bush after 9/11. Other recurring characters were the Astrans, aliens resembling large jelly-beans that maintained an at-times uneasy alliance with the Solar Empire.

The magazine was edited by Alan Fennell, who had written many of the episodes of Fireball XL5 and Stingray. The stories were illustrated by many of the leading comic artists of the day, including Vicente Alcazar, Frank Bellamy, John Cooper, Gerry Embleton, Ron Embleton, Richard E. Jennings, Mike Noble, Ron Turner, and Keith Watson.

TV 21 was an immediate success, not least of all because Fireball XL5 and Stingray slotted neatly into its carefully constructed universe. But Thunderbirds was not such a good fit. In the Thunderbirds universe, there were no colonies on the other planets of the Solar System and attempts were still being made to reach Mars. Possibly this explains the delay before Thunderbirds made its appearance in TV 21. The series began running on the ITN network in September 1965, but it did not make it onto the pages of TV 21 until January 1966. At the same time, Lady Penelope was given her own magazine.

One solution to the continuity problem might have been to avoid stories involving the spacecraft Thunderbird 3. Throughout the entire run of the television series, it only featured in three rescues and only one of these – Sunprobe – involved it venturing beyond Earth orbit. However, the writers of TV 21 adopted the opposite approach. In common with the other Thunderbird machines, Thunderbird 3 was portrayed as being far in advance of anything else in existence, including the World Space Patrol’s XL class ships, and undertaking missions that the World Space Patrol could not.

Many of the stories featured crossovers: for example, in one episode of Stingray, the Hood joined forces with Titan.

A problem for the publishers of TV 21 was that by late 1966, an increasing portion of the magazine’s target audience were now too young to remember Fireball XL5, or even Stingray. In the meantime, the Thunderbirds television series had been cancelled six episodes into its second season after ITC boss Lew Grade failed to obtain a deal with TV networks in the United States. The last episode, Give or Take a Million, aired on Boxing Day 1966. This meant it would be nine months before the next Anderson series aired.

To inject new blood into the magazine, the canon but non-Anderson strip Catch or Kill was introduced in October 1966, then from 21 January 1967 the Zero-X spacecraft featured in the movie Thunderbirds are Go was given its own strip. This caused even more problems with the continuity. In the movie, Zero-X made the first landing on Mars; its missions in TV 21 took it back to Mars, then Jupiter, Saturn, the asteroid belt, Mercury, and Uranus – all of which were portrayed as either uninhabited or inhabited by aliens.  Mercury was portrayed as having one side permanently facing the Sun, more than two years after this view had been disproved and reported by The Truth About Space. After exploring the Solar System, Zero-X was upgraded for interstellar travel. In what was the only ever crossover between two Anderson television shows, Zero-X later went on to appear in the first episode of Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons.

In mid-1967, another new strip, Front Page, was launched about the newspaper TV 21 in the year 2067. The main purpose of the strip was to introduce the upcoming Anderson series Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, which debuted on ITN on 29 September 1967; when TV 21 reporter Pete Tracker investigates the secretive Spectrum organisation, it results in TV 21 being given exclusive rights to cover their missions. Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons launched as a TV 21 strip just days after it began its television run. At the same time, the Universal Secret Service was dumped in favour of Spectrum: the Contact 21 page gave way to Shades of Spectrum as readers were enrolled as Spectrum ‘Shades’ rather than USS secret agents. The magazine dropped ‘Century’ from its masthead to become simply TV 21, the name by which it had in any case long been known. The Spectrum logo was added to the masthead and ‘front page stories’ almost always promoted the current Captain Scarlet story. Two months later, the ‘newspaper’ concept was abandoned altogether, with Captain Scarlet moving to the front page from issue 155, published on 6 January 1968. Fireball XL5 was downgraded to black-and-white, it briefly became a text story, and then it was dropped altogether. Stingray was replaced by an interminable story, also now in black-and-white, about Troy Tempest’s attempts to clear his name after being falsely accused of shooting down a World Air Force jet.

This new format proved unpopular with readers and after issue 213 the newspaper format returned, along with a masthead reading “First with the Space and Spy News”. But it failed to halt the decline. The problem, ultimately, was that the later Anderson shows could not readily be accommodated into the ‘Anderverse’ established by the earlier ones. Rebooting the magazine with Captain Scarlet and Zero-X produced a far less coherent universe than the original; one that never captured readers’ imagination in the same way.

From issue 192, TV 21 merged with TV Tornado to become TV 21 and TV Tornado and in September 1969, from issue 242, it merged with Joe 90: Top Secret to become TV 21 and Joe 90. The issue number was reset to 1 and the price – unchanged at 7d  since the beginning – now went up to 8d. The most recent Supermarionation show, Joe 90, had been given its own magazine, but was merged into its parent after just 38 issues. The merger brought with it strips based on such non-Anderson shows as Star Trek and Land of the Giants. By now, in an attempt to compete with football-themed magazines, more football-related material had been introduced including Super League, a strip about Manchester Eagles FC (a thinly disguised Manchester United) in the 2060s. The only Anderson strips to survive the merger were Thunderbirds and Joe 90, both now in black and white. After 37 issues, the title reverted to TV 21 and the Joe 90 strip ended. One issue later, the Thunderbirds strip ended, ending any connection with the Anderson universe. The front page was taken over by Star Trek.

One feature that remained constant throughout these years was the Corgi Model Club news, which promoted Corgi die-cast models (to actually join, it was necessary to purchase a model).

After 105 issues, in September 1971, TV 21 was merged into Valiant and as the junior partner in the merged publication, it effectively eased to exist. The TV 21 name was retained until April 1974, when it was finally dropped.

Could things have been different? Even before the last Anderson connection was cut, TV 21 had lost pretty well everything that had made it unique. The decline really begun with Captain Scarlet/Spectrum reboot, and that was forced upon them. TV 21‘s continuing success depended upon fresh Anderson shows that could be incorporated into the Fireball XL5/Stingray/Special Agent 21 canon – but the converse might also have been true.

While Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons was another hit (albeit much darker in tone than the earlier shows), Joe 90 was less successful than the earlier Supermarionation shows (it wasn’t helped by at least one network running it against the BBC’s Dr Who). Its successor, the spy-themed Secret Service, was cancelled after just thirteen episodes. Two Thunderbirds feature films were made, Thunderbirds are Go and Thunderbird 6. Neither was a box-office hit. After this, Gerry Anderson switched to live-action productions: the feature film Doppelganger, and the TV series UFO and Space 1999. Both retain a cult following, but UFO confused networks who couldn’t work out whether it was aimed at children or adults. Space 1999 was an ambitious attempt at a British version of Star Trek, but it was not a success and it was cancelled mid-way through its second season. Anderson had always wanted to work with live-action rather than puppets – but suppose he’d persisted with the latter?

Thunderbirds was cancelled because Lew Grade could not sell an hour-long show to the US networks. Supposing that instead of making a brand-new show (Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons) Grade and Anderson had repackaged Thunderbirds as a half-hour show? Most of the first-season stories could have been compressed into half an hour by omitting extended launch sequences & various subplots. Episodes could have featured crossovers into the worlds of the World Space Patrol and the World Aquanaut Security Patrol with special guest appearances by Fireball XL5 and Stingray. When the time came to finally retire Thunderbirds, care could then have been taken to devise a show that could be accommodated within the TV 21 canon. There is absolutely no reason why Supermarionation and TV 21 could not have lasted until well into the 1970s.

TV 21′s peak lasted for less than three years, yet it is remembered as landmark in the history of children’s magazines. The Supermarionation strips have been reprinted on numerous occasions over the last half century. The combination of exciting story lines and spectacular artwork allowed fans to enjoy the Anderson shows when they were not being shown on television in an era before DVDs, VHS, and when most television sets were still black-and-white. Many of the stories are held in the same regard as the best of the television episodes.