Different people enjoy watching Thunderbirds for different reasons, but one reason that perhaps unites many fans is the juxtaposition of Thunderbirds’ emphasis on the life-affirming spirit with the never-ending danger of life being in constant threat. We thrill at watching International Rescue in action because, despite the laws of fiction dictating how no episode of Thunderbirds can end with I.R. failing in their line of work (we leave that motif to Captain Scarlet…), it always seems as though we’re mere inches or minutes away from total disaster.
With that in mind, it’s perhaps easy to take for granted just how perilous some of International Rescue’s missions were. Even when some missions involved the required rescue of just the one life, the actual danger they would face is a stirring reminder of how Thunderbirds’ origins were rooted in real-life events. The threat of life under mechanical disaster was all the more palpable, what with no International Rescue at hand in the real world.
Let’s have a look then at ten of International Rescue’s most dangerous rescue missions!
10. Day of Disaster
Spectacular model work and effects, plus a starring role for Brains, gives this otherwise routine episode a much-needed blast, but the rescue itself in “Day of Disaster” remains a particularly electrifying one due to the nature of the imminent threat presented to the trapped engineers aboard the sunken Martian Space Probe. Confined at the bottom of the sea after an attempt to be transported over the poorly-prepared Allington Suspension Bridge, the impact of the crash triggers the Probe’s automatic countdown, resulting in not just the crawling launch of the rocket, but its own destruction as well.
A concept shared throughout Anderson shows is that of failing technology and its fallout. Many times in Thunderbirds, we witness planes falling out of the skies like stones, and rockets plummeting back down to Earth. Here however, intrepid engineers Bill and Frank are victim of the rocket’s own technological advances. Rather than the Probe failing to operate, the automatic countdown suggests it’s only doing what it thinks needs to be done. This reversal of fortune makes the ensuing rescue a nail-biting experience, culminating in the sight of the Probe blasting off out of the sea-entrenched rubble and into the sky, and promptly exploding, unable to resolve its own technological advancement.
This is all coupled with an added layer of danger as the entire rescue is led by neither Scott at his mobile control unit or Jeff barking out instructions. The rescue is handled by the inexperienced Brains, who’d perhaps much rather be back on Tracy Island playing chess with Braman, rather than being in charge of the rescue!
9. Sun Probe
A fearless expedition to claim a portion of the sun in the name of science goes spectacularly wrong after the rocket’s retros fail to trigger. The Sun Probe changes from being a rocket to a dart, and the sun is the bulls-eye! Alan, Scott and Tin-Tin are dispatched into deep space to attempt a rescue, but the creeping danger metamorphoses into a colossal catastrophe as Thunderbird 3 becomes locked onto a collision course with the sun as well!
The model sun as seen in “Sun Probe” may not be the most convincing sculpture of the Century 21 crew, but other rescues in Thunderbirds feel decidedly miniature when compared to the all-encompassing scale of the actual Sun. The double-whammy of both the Sun Probe and Thunderbird 3 could have a far less epic genesis however, as it may well have come about thanks to this episode being filmed as one of Thunderbirds’ original half-hour-length adventures, and thus more plot was required to fill in the allotted time.
Despite this, “Sun Probe” is an adventure that one may be hard-pushed to tell that it actually was born a half hour. The sight of Scott, Alan and Tin-Tin succumbing to the never-ending heat, whilst Virgil and Brains panic as they realize they’ve brought the wrong box on their own rescue mission to save Thunderbird 3, makes this one of the most intense situations International Rescue ever found themselves in.
8. Edge of Impact
This technology versus technology situation is given extra depth as International Rescue must save two workers trapped at the top of a crippling British Telecommunications Ltd tower whilst battling the furious forces of nature. After The Hood’s successful attempt in sabotaging the new Red Arrow fighter jet by placing a homing device within the tower and making the jet crash into it, I.R. must pull out all the stops before the torrential weather can claim the tower for itself.
There’s something desperately unsettling when watching International Rescue in action against the grim, foreboding backdrop of a powerful thunderstorm. Both the tower and the thick, menacing clouds share a bleak colour scheme, suggesting that the surrounding nature is all too keen to make the tower blend itself into the storm in any way possible. Additionally, for all of International Rescue’s fantastic rescue machinery, it seems odd to use the diminutive Booster Morter Pod Vehicle, used to shoot two jet packs to the top of the tower for workers Jim and Stan to use. Would it not have made more sense to use Thunderbird 2 to fly to the top of the tower and deploy its four-person cage as seen in “Operation Crash Dive”?
Perhaps, but at the same time, the usage of this minuscule machine only adds to the intensity of the situation, where the mega-tech of International Rescue, the World Space Control’s Red Arrow’s and British Telecommunication Ltd become smothered by the violent weather. Spin-off adventures such as John Theydon’s novel “Ring of Fire” and the TV21 strip “Chain Reaction” would expand on International Rescue’s battles against nature, but arguably didn’t come to close to the heart-stopping drama that “Edge of Impact” delivers.
7. End of the Road
Only one life, quite literally, hangs in the balance in this rescue (and it’s a life certain easily jealous members of the Tracy family may have been too glad to help push over the edge), but the danger is no less prevalent. Akin to “Edge of Impact”, much of the drama in “End of the Road”’s rescue can be found in the atmospheric visuals.
Daredevil and heartthrob Eddie Houseman is as keen as the next guy for his construction company to reach their deadline for building a super highway through the mountainous terrains of South-East Asia. Horrendous weather won’t stop Eddie either, even if the rest of the company say otherwise! His venturing out in the dead of night to blast through an unstable peak in order to widen their construction path results in International Rescue gearing up for a treacherous rescue. The ensuing rescue delivers the iconic shot of Thunderbirds 1 and 2 carefully dragging the explosives truck off the unsafe terrain, all given serious aplomb thanks to the breathtakingly bleak surroundings.
The rescue’s set-up of Eddie recklessly choosing to blast away part of the mountain himself feels like a frightening message from nature reclaiming itself back from the technological masterminds of 2065, who are often all too willing to spread themselves out as far as they think they can go. In the end, nature still manages to succeed – although Eddie escapes once terra firma is within reach, Thunderbird 2’s magnetic claws aren’t enough to place the truck, packed with explosives, back to earth. The truck falls into the jaws of the mountain range, which then devour the explosive remains of the destroyed truck. It’s as if nature is both retrieving itself and punishing those who dare to upset its order. And who was it that said Thunderbirds was a family-friendly show? Captain Scarlet eat your heart out!
6. Terror in New York City
Behind “Trapped in the Sky” and “Attack of the Alligators”, “Terror in New York City” stands as Thunderbirds’ most memorable episode. Thunderbird 2’s grizzly fate at the hands of the U.S.S. Sentinel remains a definitive image of the show, but what’s just as dramatic is seeing how International Rescue are stretched to the limits without their heavy duty transporter. The climactic rescue involving Thunderbird 4 travelling through a vast maze of underground rivers beneath the surface of a collapsed Empire State Building, searching for intrepid/moronic reporter Ned Cook and his cameraman, is a startling powerful mixture of the eerie, the riveting and the danger.
The eerie is derived from the fact that this feels like a very post-apocalyptic mission for International Rescue. The Empire State Building has already been destroyed, having fallen to its end after an attempt to move the building on a track bed. The mixture of Scott Tracy sat at his mobile computer with the remains of the Empire State in the background, with the site control policemen looking on at his efforts, helpless to assist, and Thunderbird 4 traversing underwater landscapes never ventured by mankind before, is a haunting vision. It feels less like a Thunderbirds story and more like something out of Judge Dredd.
However, with the disaster having already occurred, the danger has barely begun. The destruction of the Empire State Building spreads, virus-like, to the far less imposing looking Fulmer Finance building. Ned and Joe, their oxygen tanks rapidly running low on oxygen, unaware of the looming threat above them and losing consciousness, can barely attempt to locate Thunderbird 4. Scriptwriter Alan Fennell leaves no stone unturned in one of Thunderbirds’ most evocative rescues, the end result being an episode that perfectly captures the race-against-time motif Thunderbirds regularly relied on, but only sometimes got as excruciatingly tense as this.
5. Attack of the Alligators
Not unlike “End of the Road”, in that there are other rescues in Thunderbirds in which the stakes are far larger, there’s no rescue in Thunderbirds that has the raw, primal terror of “Attack of the Alligators”. Many a Thunderbirds rescue relies on a context of pristine, 21st-century machinery gone haywire, or of rogue spies hatching master plans. Here, however, such complexities are eschewed in favour of monstrous spectacle. A gang of alligators accidentally grow to Godzilla-esque proportions, complete with Godzilla-esque appetites, and all hell breaks loose.
One could argue that Thunderbirds was at its best when it broke from its own formula, which could suggest how the monster-infested “Attack of the Alligators” and the Thunderbird 2-less “Terror in New York City” remain two of International Rescue’s most memorable exploits. For a show in which almost every character, vehicle, and location was some kind of model or marionette made from scratch, there’s a palpable terror to the use of genuine alligators.
Such is the danger in this mission that all four Earth-bound Tracy brothers are dispatched to the scene. Even with that amount of rescuers, Scott becomes trapped in the mansion with Dr. Orchard, his assistant McGill, Blackmer, housekeeper Mrs. Files and the villainous Culp. All around them, the ravenous alligators prowl along the house, demolishing it brick by brick.
International Rescue are forced to bring out their more violent side to deal with the situation, and take down the creatures one by one via heavy duty tranquilizer guns. Does such a tactic leave a sour taste in our mouths when, for the most part, we see I.R. acting as a heroic, all-life-saving outfit, or does it add to the fantastic brutality of this particular rescue? That may well be for you to decide dear reader, but whatever your choice, no-one can deny those shots of Thunderbird 2 swooping over the alligators, all guns blazing, as the creatures roar in retaliation, isn’t an exhilarating watch.
4. Lord Parker’s ‘Oliday
An oddly understated rescue for the International Rescue boys to tackle, as once again we’re presented with a mission that doesn’t rely on as much full-throttle spectacle as others. Professor Lungren’s solar generator, situated in sleepy Monte Bianco, is struck by lightning and falls to the mountainside it formally rested on. However, rather than be totally destroyed, the dish itself rests snug on the mountainside, aiming directly at the village nestled below the mountain.
Rather than evacuate the village’s residents and cause an ensuing panic, a visiting Parker and Penelope attempt to soothe the situation with bingo of all things, whilst the dish begins to slowly send the village up in smoke whilst Scott and Virgil dash to the scene.
There are perhaps stronger rescues to be found on this list, and certainly, ones that don’t rely on the comic foil of Parker and Penelope to keep a sense of threat intact. However, the idea of an entire village experiencing a horribly drawn-out death such as this is, by Thunderbirds standards, quite sadistic indeed!
3. Brink of Disaster
An immensely personal rescue for Scott and Virgil set against a darker backdrop of Thunderbirds’ technological utopia. Slimy businessman Warren Grafton is desperate to achieve commercial backing for his automated monorail company – in fact, it’s so automated he doesn’t bother with any kind of disaster-preventing methods whatsoever. Can you guess what happens next?
An invitation for Jeff, Tin-Tin and Brains to ride Grafton’s monorail in an attempt by Grafton to sweet-talk Jeff out of his millions results in a literal race against time as the train speeds towards a destroyed bridge. International Rescue blasts off to save the day, but only Thunderbird 2 can salvage this adventure. As ever, Scott arrives first, but all he can do is look on helplessly as the derailed train trickles off the edge of the ruined bridge. No time for a mobile computer, no chance for a strategic landing, and your father’s life in the balance. It’s all gloriously nail-biting stuff.
Needless to save, the day turns out to be saved. Thunderbird 2 carries the carriage everyone is in gently to the ground before the entire structure collapses around them, and Grafton receives his comeuppance. However, that downward shot of the monorail wreckage, mere moments after its collapse, is a merciless reminder of what might have been.
2. The Mighty Atom
No on-screen episode of Thunderbirds dared to be as enveloping before or after with their sense of danger. “Sun Probe” may well have had an entire star as the enemy, but “The Mighty Atom” does wonders in crafting the effects of its fallout like “Sun Probe” couldn’t muster. There’s no out-of-control vehicle in need of a desperate rescue here. Instead, an atomic plant the size of Titanica or the Mysteron Complex on Mars is sabotaged by The Hood in an effort to obtain the internal secrets of the Thunderbird craft.
Writer Dennis Spooner delicately crafts an underlying feeling of tension that matches Scott and Virgil’s efforts to push the reactor rods into place in the atomic plant’s nerve centre. In fact, the only appearance of your average level of Thunderbirds action here is when Gordon destroys the seawater intake in Thunderbird 4 to stop the ocean’s water from entering the plant.
There’s a great clash between the meditative nature of the rescue and its potentially devastating fallout should International Rescue fail. The slow, pin-drop-esque silence in the reactor control room underpins the urgency of the rescue to tremendous effect and a key example of how Thunderbirds used its extensive running time to its own advantage.
1. Trapped in the Sky
“Trapped in the Sky” perfectly personifies just how Thunderbirds was in terms of the scope of danger, the level of danger, and how the danger is dealt with. The infamous fable of 600 people with a mere forty minutes to live has a sonic thrust to its pace that keeps you on the edge of your seat. A bomb placed in the landing carriage of the Fireflash airliner on its maiden voyage is more than enough of a set-up for some terrific Thunderbirds action. But the added danger of the Fireflash’s reactor requiring servicing to prevent radiation exposure to the passengers adds an extra layer that gives “Trapped in the Sky” a kinetic jolt.
Like “Terror in New York City”, Gerry and Sylvia stuff “Trapped in the Sky”’s thrilling rescue with as much threat as possible. A malfunctioning Elevator Car? Check. Virgil swerving out of control, causing the Master Elevator Car to crash? Check. The two remaining Elevator Cars forcing Fireflash along the runway, its nosecone close to tearing up the runway itself? Check!
There are other rescues in Thunderbirds that can be considered more dangerous, thanks to their larger scale, including “The Mighty Atom”. There are some that have far more human drama attached to them, such as “Brink of Disaster”. “Trapped in the Sky” however retains a timeless, intoxicating salute to what makes Thunderbirds such a formidable viewing experience. It’s a testament to the Century 21 crew that they turned such a brutal, all-encompassing rescue mission into snug, tea-time, family viewing.
About the Author
After being fired from International Rescue for accidentally crashing Thunderbird 2 into Cloudbase, Fred McNamara has since resigned himself to a career in journalism. He primarily works as a broadcast journalist for local television but is also a contributing writer for various websites and magazines that cover the spectrum (ba-dum-tsh) of popular culture. He’s also senior editor for the superhero/indie comic book website A Place To Hang Your Cape and is terrible at puns.