Over the course of his long television and film career, Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionation television series inspired other creators to attempt similar puppet projects. For this list, we’re looking back at television and film productions that were brought to life using marionettes and rod-operated puppets and set in a similarly futuristic or high-tech world as many of his classic shows. Whether serious or spoof, these five projects all recognised the unique achievements of Anderson and his team and clearly owe more than a little of their inspiration to those works!
Space Patrol (1962)
After completing the first season of Torchy the Battery Boy for Roberta Leigh AP Films moved on to create their own puppet television series, Four Feather Falls, but Leigh would continue to produce a variety of puppet television shows and specials without them. Undoubtedly the most successful of these was Space Patrol (known as Planet Patrol in the USA), which is so similar to Fireball XL5 in format that many viewers often assumed that Leigh’s series was another creation of Anderson’s! Set in the year 2100, at a time when the civilisations of Earth Mars and Venus have united to form the United Galactic Organisation, Space Patrol follows the adventures of the crew of an interplanetary space vehicle Galasphere 347 (or sometimes 024) as they investigated various problems throughout the solar system. Produced on a lower budget than Fireball XL5 the series wisely chose to focus more on its characters than any stunning visuals, although the show’s regular sound effects (such as the industrial bustle of Space Headquarters or the noise of the traveling Galasphere) lent the show an unsettling quality that further set it apart from XL5.
Still enjoyed around the world to this day – and now available on blu-ray – Space Patrol remains a nostalgic favourite for many of those who saw it on first broadcast, and the pinnacle of Roberta Leigh’s television career. Despite their close broadcast proximity (Fireball XL5 began airing in the UK in October 1962, Space Patrol in April 1963) and many visual and thematic similarities Leigh’s space series and Anderson’s space series have always seemed happy to co-exist together rather than compete against each other – and there is always room for another take on a successful idea!
X-Bomber/Star Fleet (1980/1982)
First airing on Japanese television in October 1980, X-Bomber ran for 26 episodes and was filmed in what series creator Go Nagai called ‘Sūpāmariorama’ – although the show’s puppets would be operated from below using rods. The series also boasted a host of model vehicles, several of which could combine to form a giant robot called the Dai-X!
Set in the year 2999, X-Bomber opens with the Earth finally at peace – only to be threatened by the space cruiser of Bloody Mary, who demands that humanity turn over the F-01 or face annihilation! The crew of the experimental X-Bomber spacecraft are scrambled to discover what exactly the F-01 is, with Bloody Mary always hot on their heels plotting their destruction! Renamed Star Fleet for its UK dub, the show followed largely the same format as the Japanese original albeit with some character name changes (with Bloody Mary now becoming Makara). Among the voice cast for this dub was actress Denise Bryer, who was soon to return to the Gerry Anderson universe as the voice of Zelda in his next series, Terrahawks!
Star Fleet first aired on British television in October 1982, a full year before the arrival of Terrahawks – but once again, many viewers simply assumed that this another Anderson series! Unlike many of his shows though, X-Bomber also featured a serialised storyline – and a final episode that actually provided a conclusion to that story. As with Space Patrol, X-Bomber/Star Fleet may be a series that many misremember as an Anderson series, but that is to do an injustice to the talents of those who made it. The series remains an impressive and exciting technical achievement, and its serial format allowed for deeper and occasionally darker storytelling – including the death of more than one regular character over its run! This bold space epic remains beloved by fans around the world – as does Brian May’s cover version of Paul Bliss’ theme song!
Interster aired on South African television in the early 1980s, and presented a state of cold war between the Earth and the planet Krokon. Never airing outside its country of origin and with only a handful of episodes available on DVD, it remains the most mysterious of all the productions on this list since a full English dub or translation has never been attempted.
Interster is a small planetary defence force operating under the cover of an interstellar shipping company based in Cape Town, South Africa. Aboard their Impala spacecraft Captain Buks de la Ray and his co-pilot Lt Adam Buys – plus their robot Pikkie – attempt to protect the Earth from the revenge tactics of the evil Prince Karnati and his human ally Doctor Gorman. Many of the show’s storylines were at least partly inspired by the political situation that Apartheid South Africa was facing at the time, which gave the series an almost satirical edge that drew the attention of adults as well as children.
The team that brought the series to life had had plenty of experience with children’s puppet shows through the 1970s, although Interster was their first attempt at a science fiction series. The ‘puppets’ constructed for the show were essentially computer-controlled robots, which in theory would allow for more precise and exact movements than a human puppeteer could achieve. Understandably, and much like the Captain Scarlet era puppets of the Supermarionation universe, this technological sophistication came at the cost of actually being able to see the puppets walk on screen and left them reliant on other vehicles and chairs to get around. Despite this the puppets are still an impressive technical achievement even today, and although some may seem a little dead-eyed their fully articulated jaws are an impressive step beyond the traditional lip-flapping of the Supermarionation puppets.
Interster is a difficult series to discuss further without learning Afrikaans, but is well worth a look if you have even a passing interest in a sci-fi series featuring puppets that at times are even more impressive that their Supermarionation predecessors – and thankfully the first episode is available online with an English subtitle track!
Super Adventure Team (1998)
Something of a forerunner to the final production on this list, Super Adventure Team ran on MTV for just six twenty-five minute episodes in 1998 and centered around a crack rescue team utterly bogged down with their own internal squabbles. The team consisted of the cowardly Colonel Buck Murdoch, scientist Dr Benton Criswell (who constantly suspects all around him of sleeping with his wife Talia), security chief Major Landon West (the only halfway competent member of the team, frequently left fuming when Murdoch takes all the credit for his own heroic actions) and the sexually confused chief engineer Head.
Created by comedian Dana Gould (who also provided the voice of Head) the puppets used in Super Adventure Team were mostly rod-operated, but would occasionally be seen on wires. The Thunderbirds influence on the series is obvious from the opening titles sequence and in particular the Head puppet’s resemblance to Brains, but although the show’s characters (supposedly) operate a global rescue organisation its plots were prone to taking wild leaps into the world of the surreal far beyond anything Thunderbirds could ever dream up. Although certainly not recommended for viewers under the age of fifteen the show’s humour rarely strays too far into gross-out or sexual content and instead delights in being one of the strangest comedy shows you’ll ever sit through. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the show’s final episode, in which a half man/half washing machine named Crazy Barry creates a giant zombie version of Abraham Lincoln. If that sounds weird enough to make you smile, then you may just enjoy the super adventures of the Super Adventure Team – all of which are available to view on Dana Gould’s Vimeo channel!
Team America:World Police (2004)
South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s 2004 feature film is undoubtedly the biggest and best-known Supermarionation style production of the last twenty years, to such an extent that many viewers discovering the Anderson shows for the first time are surprised to find that they predate the movie by decades!
Although Parker and Stone had seen a little of Thunderbirds over the years the series itself did not interest either of them, as they felt the show took itself far too seriously. The film certainly features a few affectionate nods to familiar Thunderbirds tropes in the form of Team America’s secret base in Mount Rushmore, their high-tech vehicles and even their leader Spottswoode’s reliance on a chair to get around. However, Team America was not a spoof of Thunderbirds or any Supermarionation series in general, instead using the basic idea of the series as a springboard to lampoon America’s self-appointed role as a global policeman along with Hollywood and global politics. Originally written as a more overtly comedic film, Parker and Stone began to gradually reduce the number of jokes in the script as they realised that the strongest humour in the film simply came from seeing puppets in hugely melodramatic life-or-death situations – although they still managed to achieve South Park-style levels of violence and even a pretty explicit (for puppets, anyway) sex scene!
While some Anderson fans may argue that the film perhaps did a disservice to Anderson’s legacy the simple truth is that Team America had its sights set far above taking any swipes at his classic shows, and instead helped to introduce the Supermarionation style to many who had never seen anything like it before. The film is very definitely not for kids but was brought to life with the same meticulous attention to detail as Anderson’s classic family shows, with an admirable commitment to practical effects rather than CGI. If nothing else, Anderson himself was certainly far happier with Team America than the live-action Thunderbirds movie released the same year – even if he didn’t much care for all the naughty words!
There have certainly been many other creatives who have been heavily influenced by the work of Gerry Anderson and his team over the years, with nods to his legacy ranging from a brief mention to full length feature films that it’s almost impossible to list them all here – but what are some of your favourites? Let us know in the comments below!
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