Thunderbirds Are Go: Heroism in Thunderbirds and Rescue Heroes

For my birthday recently, my dad bought me the technical manual from one of my favourite childhood TV programmes: Thunderbirds.

Most people in the US won’t be familiar with this iconic piece of 1960s British television, unless it’s via the 2004 film remake, but it’s fairly similar in concept to the Rescue Heroes TV show my kids watch (which is a spinoff of the Fisher-Price toy line of the same name).

Thumbing through the pages of my book in an unashamed nostalgia trip, I’ve been struck by both the similarities, and more importantly the differences, between the two shows, particularly in the area of what heroism is about.

Both shows follow the adventures of an international team of heroes who serve as a last-ditch emergency response team who can save people where no-one else can reach. For Rescue Heroes, this organisation is known as the “Global Response Team” (or more popularly as the “Rescue Heroes”; in Thunderbirds, “International Rescue” (the “Thunderbirds” are the amazing machines and vehicles they use to perform their rescue duties). Both are set in a futuristic world, though Rescue Heroes is a lot closer to the present day. Both teams of heroes utilise advanced technology to perform their amazing rescue adventure feats. This is far more obviously the case in Thunderbirds, but no less true of Rescue Heroes: where would they be without their Rescue Jet or all the other gadgetry they use?

But it’s the differences I find most informative.

There are the obvious differences in format and intended audience. Rescue Heroes is a cartoon based on a series of children’s action figures. Thunderbirds was intended for a whole family audience accessible and enjoyable by both children and adults, and was filmed using Gerry Anderson’s iconic mix of live-action model shots and marionette puppetry. Sometimes you could clearly see the strings, but no-one cared because the stories were engaging and this was the 1960s: virtually the Dawn of Time as far as special effects went.

These differences create a vast divergence of look, particularly where the main characters are concerned, by virtue of the constraints of their origin, but I find the differences oddly symbolic.

The Rescue Heroes, given their origin as action figures, have huge feet and gigantically muscular upper bodies with tiny heads. The first part of this is in reality a way to make sure the action figures stand up easily; I can sympathise, remembering the fine balance needed to stand up some of my childhood Star Wars figures in anything like a realistic pose. The second part of it is to emphasise their qualities as macho men of action. The female characters aren’t anything like so broad-shouldered and muscular, but neither boys nor girls are generally thrilled with a female action figure built like a cross between King Kong and Popeye the Sailor.

The men of International Rescue (we’ll get into the issue of diversity in a minute) were marionette puppets, and thus had disproportionately large heads in order to help accommodate their internal workings. Their bodies, by comparison, were smaller and more sticklike. It wasn’t that they weren’t strong; it was that physical strength played second fiddle to their expertise in piloting their specialised rescue vehicles. With advanced machines to do most of the heavy lifting, they needed to be smart much more than they needed to be physically strong and fit.

Rescue Heroes is all about a group of people who have the extensive training and physical fitness to do hard physical jobs (rescuing people). By contrast, Thunderbirds was, in a sense, all about the vehicles. The crew weren’t the Thunderbirds, except by extension; the Thunderbirds were the five major vehicles they operated. Thunderbird 1 was the reconnaissance and situation assessment jet, Thunderbird 2 the heavy transport, Thunderbird 3 the space rocket, Thunderbird 4 the submarine and Thunderbird 5 the orbital monitoring station. Even many of the minor vehicles had names: the Mole, the Firefly, the Thunderizer. By contrast, most of the Rescue Heroes’ vehicles don’t even have proper names. Jake Justice’s “Justice Cycle” is about as flamboyant as it gets.

All this makes for a very different kind of heroism. Besides the courage common to both bands of heroes, in Rescue Heroes, it takes raw physical power and the training to make the most of it to make a hero. They aren’t stupid, but intelligence is not their prime qualification for their role, rather, physical fitness and training. In Thunderbirds, it’s far less about strength and physical training and far more about high technology and the skill and delicate touch to operate it at peak utility. Perhaps this is why I’m far less focused on the raw physicality of AMerican machismo (I don’t hunt, fish, do sports or shoot big guns for fun). Even in my favourite TV programmes as a child, it was about brains, not brawn.

Another obvious difference is that Rescue Heroes has a far more diverse cast. As ought to be expected in a modern children’s TV programme, men and women serve on equal footing, and there are a diversity of races represented. The team leader Billy Blazes (one of the annoying features of the show, and a legacy of its origins as a toy line, is the nomenclative cheesiness. Billy Blazes is a fireman. Jake Justice is a police officer. Ariel Flier is a pilot. Roger Houston commands their version of Thunderbird 5) may be a white male, but his effective second-in-command is a woman (Wendy Waters). The usual main point-of-view character is the relative newbie: climber Rocky Canyon, a young black man. Ariel is Hispanic as well as a woman, and in the rotating cast of second-stringers there are Brits and Australians and probably Japanese and others, too. The deliberate internationalsm of the main cast is not something you get very often in America, and it’s one of the reasons I put up with its cheesy names.

By contrast, Thunderbirds is something of a product of its age. When it was made, Britain was overwhelmingly mono-ethnic; it was only in the 1960s that the first wave of non-white immigrants (from Jamaica at the time) began to reach our shores. At the time, then, Britain was a very white world, and Thunderbirds reflects that. There are a few interesting highlights, though, given the much more white, male-dominated culture. The heroes are a family of one father and his 5 sons (according to the in-story explanation it was their mother’s death in a tragic accident that led Jeff Tracy to create International Rescue in the first place). Given that the market for a TV show featuring a black family at that time was vanishingly small, the fact that the main characters were all brothers does tend to skew the race statistics. Kyrano and his daughter Tin Tin were token non-whites, from somewhere Southeast Asian and exotic. Even among the regulars, Thunderbirds was never exclusively white, though it’s probably one of the reasons it won’t ever get remade as a modern TV programme.

In terms of female characters, Thunderbirds fared marginally better. Yes, the five main characters were men (the Tracy brothers Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John), but among the supporting characters were two strong female characters, Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward and Tin Tin. Lady Penelope gave the appearance of a jet-setting aristocratic socialite, but in reality was a kind of female James Bond without the messy sex life. Tin Tin was shyer and more traditionally demure, but was also portrayed as an expert pilot and lover of “dangerous” (as they were often considered) sports like skiing and rock-climbing. Not too shabby, given the age of the show and how far society has moved on since its debut.

It ties in interestingly with the question of what makes a hero, though. The Rescue Heroes are able to do their job because they are highly trained. You see glimpses of their training, and hear them gripe about how ridiculously tough their training is. International Rescue are heroes because they have access to some highly advanced rescue equipment and have a bucketload of courage and moral sense. In both worlds, anyone can be a hero, but what does it take to make you one?

The highly advanced technology of Thunderbirds leads to probably the most fascinating difference between the two shows: public profile. In-story, the Rescue Heroes are known and receive public recognition, whereas International Rescue are secret and go to great lengths to keep it that way.

The in-story reason for this secrecy was that the Thunderbirds’ technology was so advanced that villainous interests were after it for destructive purposes. To safeguard the moral use of the technology, the Thunderbirds’ base was disguised and the identities of the crewmembers were a closely-guarded secret. It is their moral sense that makes them heroes, because of this need to stop their rescue technology from falling into the wrong hands.

Though they did not wear masks, they did wear a uniform, partaking of the facelessness which uniforms help to give people.

The secrecy led to some wonderful model shot sequences: the elaborate modes by which the brothers would enter their machines, sliding down disguised chutes and riding couches down long shafts, and to the amazing launch sequences themselves, including the swimming pool sliding aside for Thunderbird 1 to launch from beneath.

Utterly impractical in real life, of course, but we willingly suspended disbelief. Like superheroes, they had secret identities pretending to be idle rich boys while saving the world.

By comparison, the Rescue Heroes are publically known. Selected from global rescue organisations by virtue of their vast individual skills, the world knows their names. People say things like “But you’re a Rescue Hero; you’re not supposed to…” Fill in the blank.

They don’t make a big deal over it, but they are known celebrities. People invite them to speak because of their status. They are publically acclaimed. You can almost imagine paparazzi dogging their steps in their off hours.

It’s a very different concept of what’s involved in heroism from what I grew up with with Thunderbirds. With Rescue Heroes, the focus is on our response to heroism. The Rescue Heroes, and the emergency response personnel they are oversteroided versions of, regularly do things that deserve our gratitude, respect and adulation, and we ought to give it to them. Public acclaim is part of what makes them heroes, because a hero is someone you acclaim and look up to. It actually helps their mission, because people listen to them because of their status. The whole show is more than a bit sledgehammer on the issue of safety, so their “Hero” status gives them a platform to speak on safety and not being an idiot.

In Thunderbirds, the focus is more on being a hero. Not to seek acclaim. The important thing is the result: lives are saved and people are helped. In the Thunderbirds universe, public acclaim would hinder the mission, not help it. True heroism is able to do the job without need of headlines, adulation and name recognition.

With this as my baseline for what constitutes heroism, it’s no wonder I’m so averse to the whole modern “reality TV” thing. I grew up on Thunderbirds, in which people saved a busload of people and no-one knew their name, and now here’s Big Brother in which people become household names for being couch potatoes with personalities more grating than anyone else’s.  Or Duck Dynasty, in which people have become heroes for being opinionated rednecks. (But entertaining opinionated rednecks).

What did you do to earn this public adulation? Nothing. Meaningless celebrity, the pursuit of fame for its own sake.

What does it take to be a hero? According to Thunderbirds, the moral courage to do the deed without the recognition and adulation. Deeds make heroes, not public acclaim.

Interestingly, Scripture shows a little of both. In the Thunderbirds mould, we are encouraged to do our giving in secret and not to be like the Pharisees, about whom Jesus said that “everything they do is done for men to see” (Mt23:5). True heroes don’t need public kudos; they do what’s necessary because they are there and it needs doing.

But in the Rescue Heroes mould we are told with respect to the Proverbs 31 “woman of valour” to “Give her the reward she has earned, and let her deeds praise her at the city gate” (Pr31:31). True women (and men) of valour are worthy of praise. Failing to give honour to one who has earned it is categorically not right.

It’s an interesting difference in perspective, no?

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