Think you know what the audience for Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s flagship original series, Thunderbirds, looks like? Take a guess.
Chances are very good you’ll only be half right.
Back in 2012, probably prompted by the then upcoming reboot of the original series (aimed at boys five to 11 years old, according to ITV’s SVP, Global Head of Merchandising Trudy Hayward), several new merchandising campaigns popped up around the ‘net. One of them was a line of menswear under the slogan “I’ve Got Brains,” targeted (per ITV Studios Brand Manager Christina Lima) at men 20-35.
Also back around 2012, a survey had been done by ITV’s merchandising department, apparently, and the result had been that their stated demographic for original series fans was men, aged 35 and older.
At the Tracy Island Writers Forum, when we heard that, we raised our collective eyebrows. We don’t know who they were asking, but it certainly wasn’t us.
You see, it’s a little known fact that there are really two basic groups of active Thunderbirds fandom. One is the audience that the ITV survey apparently found: of which the most vocal are men, usually — but not always – older, who were fans of the original series (which premiered, as we know, in the mid-1960s). Their attention is very much on the show as it was, and they like to talk about the craft of making the episodes, the look of the machines and to build and admire models of the craft, as well as replicas of the marionette characters. These fans mainly gather in the largest fan membership group on Facebook, dedicated to Anderson series in general (they also have a private forum). Among the members are several very talented people who are artists, sculptors and model makers, who can command high prices for their work. Recently this group has expanded to include fans of both the recent reboots of the series concept, although for obvious reasons the debate can get a little heated at times between adherents of each reimagining!
These numbers are confirmed by the visitor stats on this site (Official Gerry Anderson), which records that visitors are predominantly male (92%). A little under half of those are within the ages of 45-54 (43%). On the flip side, 26% are between the ages of 18-44, so it’s a fairly strong showing of the younger set.
The Official Gerry Anderson stats show that only 7% of their visitors are women. But that brings me to the second group of fans that the ITV survey didn’t capture at all.
First let me point out that even in that first Facebook fan group mentioned earlier in the article, there is actually a sizeable contingent of women. The total membership numbers over 5,500, but a cursory scroll down the names on just the first few pages of members yielded 50 women very quickly. So this definitely tells us that Thunderbirds fans are not all male – even in a group that’s often geared to more “traditionally male” interests like model collecting and games.
But even beyond that, there is a whole other side of Thunderbirds fandom. It’s nearly all women, and a great many of us are writers.
Fanfiction, the art of writing stories based in and around the universe of a favorite book, film or television show, has been around for many years, but is coming into its own now as an art form. It’s been given a huge boost by the recent popularization of “geek culture,” which spans everything from science fiction and fantasy to comic books, games and superhero movies. (Yes, now we can have the Thunderbirds March as our ring tones and be proud!) Amazon, the largest bookstore in the world and always on the forefront of innovation, has paid attention to this and launched Kindle Worlds, which authorizes the writing and selling of professionally published fan fiction for a growing handful of media properties spanning all the way from science fiction and fantasy to romance and suspense, all under proper license from their creators. Fans have written in the worlds of The Vampire Diaries, Wayward Pines, Veronica Mars, Pretty Little Liars, Gossip Girl, a variety of worlds created by well-known romance novelists like Lucy Kevin, and indie bestselling authors such as J.A. Konrath (the Jack Daniels thrillers), Russell Blake (Jet) and breakout author Hugh Howey (Wool). And more worlds are being added all the time.
In the meantime, while we wait for the nod to come, we who write Thunderbirds fanfiction concentrate our output on a small handful of sites that are set up to allow authors to upload their stories into categories depending on fandom. These sites also give readers the ability to review stories and follow their favorites. These reviews can really add up if the story is going up in installments, which happens quite often!
The largest of these sites is Fanfiction.net, which hosts stories in literally thousands of different arenas. The Thunderbirds archive there contains, at current count, about 3,500 individual stories, with more being posted every day. So it’s just a little bit popular! It’s impossible to know, in exact numbers, how many times each story has been accessed and read by fans (there are many members of Fanfiction.net who don’t write, but just read others’ stories), since each author’s stats are private. But I can tell you my own experience. My unique visitors number in the thousands (my most popular episodic story has garnered 11,852 reads so far over its lifetime – at the time of writing this – and I expect more as I continue it to completion). And that’s just one story. There are many writers in this arena who are far more prolific than I, and have many times the amount of reads in their stats folders.
That’s a whole helluva lot of fans. And almost all of them, writers and readers, are women.
So who are we, this shadow group of female fans? We span all ages and several continents. Some of us, like me, are lifelong fans of the original show, having first seen it when it premiered in black and white in 1965. Some caught the bug in the reruns in the 1970s and 1990s, and still more are fans of the 2004 Universal movie reboot Thunderbirds, directed by Jonathan Frakes. And recently there has been a surge of creative interest in the new ITV reboot series launched in 2015, Thunderbirds Are Go. Whatever version of the series we are most attached to, our first love is the same – to explore the world of Thunderbirds and expand it, creating the new and ongoing adventures of the Tracy family and International Rescue.
My own group, the Tracy Island Writers Forum (TIWF), was founded in 2003 and has been through several incarnations – first as a Yahoo List Group, then moving to its own self-hosted forum when changes to the Yahoo Groups software made it become unwieldy and difficult to use. And this year we’ve added a Facebook Group. We are predominantly an original series group, but we do have members who write and read in the other two arenas. We also have an archive site, The Tracy Island Chronicles (founded in 2004), which seeks out well-written stories and votes on them via a small committee, inviting the ones we feel reflect the spirit of the original series. We write and support each other by beta reading each other’s stories, and spend an inordinate amount of our time chatting to each other about our boys in blue. And yes, many of us love the machines of IR just as much as the men.
We also have an online magazine, the NTBS Newsflash, starring, of course, intrepid globe- trotting reporter Ned Cook. The Newsflash comes out twice a year and has been in publication in its current form since 2008.
Many of us are backers of the Kickstarter campaigns for Firestorm, the Thunderbirds Co-operative Board Game and Thunderbirds 1965. We buy models, mugs, tee shirts, games and DVDs just like the guys.
So when you think of Thunderbirds fandom, don’t leave the fairer sex out of your calculations. There are more of us than you think! We might not always have quite the same interests as our male counterparts, and we can’t always be reached by the exact same promotional campaigns. But we’re out there, we’re growing in numbers, and we’re proud to be fans.
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About the Author.
The daughter of a British army officer, Jaimi Sorrell grew up in the Far East in places like Singapore and Hong Kong, and emigrated to the US in her early twenties. She’s been a writer since she was old enough to hold a crayon; when her friends in grade (primary) school were drawing pictures of ponies, she was writing about them, folding the pages into little books and giving them away. She’s since gotten a little smarter about the whole commerce thing.
Jaimi spent 12 years in the entertainment industry in Southern California, working on the NBC network publicity teams for top primetime series like ER, Friends, Seinfeld, Frasier and The West Wing. After going freelance, she continued to work with NBC actors and producers, booking and scheduling large-scale network promo shoots and arranging the participation of stars in events like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and Christmas at Rockefeller Center. She also co-owned an independent film editing service that cut trailers for various cable network channels.
Finally realizing that she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life promoting the creative work of everyone but herself, Jaimi decided it was time to leave the industry for a while and focus on her own writing career. Somewhere along the way she also became a writing coach, an editor and a publisher, all roles she thoroughly enjoys. Her first book series is scheduled to begin publication in 2016.