Supersonic Fantasies: Celebrating the Mecha of Supermarionation

Fred McNamara / January 14, 2020

The sci-fi Supermarionation shows produced by Gerry Anderson’s AP Films/Century 21 Productions offer something for every generation, and contemporary celebrations of them focus on what made them popular in the first place: the painstaking and glorious depiction of futuristic, wildly imaginative mecha—space rockets, supersonic jets, submarines, tunnelers, all capable of breathtaking maneuvers and armed with explosive firepower—that effortlessly tapped into the minds of a generation rapidly being turned on to the visual thrills of science fiction in mainstream media.

These magnificent machines often walked a fine line between accuracy and fantasy. Much has been written, for instance, about the physics of the Thunderbirds and whether or not they could actually fly, reflecting the real-world influence these shows have. Young fans at the time, however, probably didn’t concern themselves with such thoughts but simply marveled at the aesthetic joy of the models—chiefly designed by Reg Hill, Derek Meddings, and Mike Trim—being flung across rolling backdrops or back-screen projections of otherworldly landscapes. These vibrant machines are a large part of the ongoing appeal of Thunderbirds, Stingray, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, and Gerry Anderson’s other productions, so let’s examine their attributes in further detail.

A Wonderland of Monochrome (Supercar and Fireball XL5)

Despite the wonders that would explode onto our screens when the likes of Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet came along, the mecha of Century 21 had fairly primitive beginnings. Their first show to be promoted as being filmed in Supermarionation, Supercar (1961-1962), furnished the rough blueprint of all that would follow. With compact yet gaudy design by series producer Reg Hill, the titular vehicle’s abilities reflected the ambitions of Century 21 Productions, then known as AP Films, to create first-class entertainment. Though it was predominantly used as a form of aerial transport, Supercar possessed the ability to journey through the sky, outer space, on land, and under the oceans. Its quirky exterior appearance and cramped interior cockpit were less imaginative than later designs like Thunderbird 2 and the SPV, but the machine still plays an indispensable role in Supermarionation’s history. It paved the groundwork for what would follow.

Fireball XL5 was as much a leap in premise as it was in aesthetic. A bold, imposing design courtesy of Derek Meddings, Fireball had a degree of realism injected into it via the craft’s detachable, Space Shuttle-esque component Fireball Junior, which both complemented the series’ sense of adventure and, inevitably, augmented its merchandising potential. With its imposing cylindrical length enabling it to shoot across the stars like a dart, the craft looks infinitely more robust and evocative than Supercar, and, perhaps most important, it looked like it could actually fly. Enhanced by the outer space setting, the powerful aesthetic of Fireball XL5 captured young fans’ imaginations with cosmic aplomb. After all, the flagship security, rescue, and combat vessel of the World Space Patrol needs to look like it can do the job.

Stand by for Rescue (Stingray and Thunderbirds)

The Stingray, from the 1964 series of the same name, marked a progressive step forward for the chief mecha of Supermarionation. Designed by Hill, the craft’s perfectly formed amphibious appeal lay not just in its exterior, but in its interior too. The increased budget furnished by financial backer Lew Grade allowed AP Films to fashion an extremely chic, futuristic style for Stingray’s control decks, sleeping quarters, and relaxation areas, an aesthetic firmly entrenched in 1960s fashions. And Stingray was filmed in color. The swirling blue, yellow, and grey of Stingray’s exterior and its smooth, contoured shape give the craft a wonderfully distinctive vibe, effortlessly tapping into the aquatic themes of the show. The guest vehicles in the show also impressed. Some of the submarines themselves were clearly kit-bashed from other sources, such as the Big Gun from “The Big Gun,” clearly modeled on a tank, and the craft from “Sea of Oil” was quite obviously taken from a jet. With these vehicles often making an appearance in only a single episode, their interior designs were often redressed from craft to craft, with props culled from previous models.

Thunderbirds marked the point where Derek Meddings and cohort Mike Trim started working in tandem: Meddings designed much of International Rescue’s core craft, prioritizing sharp bulk and heft, while Trim took care of secondary/guest vehicles, producing more streamlined and sinuous craft. The aerial gymnastics of the sleek, supersonic first responder Thunderbird 1 starts the action of each episode, complemented by the lumbering, powerful Thunderbird 2, the most recognizable of all of the Andersons’ mecha and a craft that fills the screen whenever it takes off, soars through the skies, or lands in some danger zone. Thunderbird 3 is more of a curiosity, since we only ever see it in a handful of episodes, yet it remains another of Meddings’ fascinatingly gargantuan designs. The trim, squat Thunderbird 4 is everything Supercar should have been, while the immobility of space station Thunderbird 5 is at odds with its sophisticated, complex design and exposed mechanics.

The separate functions of each of the five Thunderbirds gives the show a visual depth and sense of scale. No one Thunderbird performs the same function, and that specialization enables International Rescue’s daring and eye-catching missions to be fully realized. Thunderbirds distinguished itself from past Supermarionation fare by not placing all of its toys in one sandbox: the aerodynamics of Thunderbirds 1 and 2, the space-based Thunderbird 3, the sub-aquatic Thunderbird 4, and the watchful, sentinel-esque role of Thunderbird 5 gave the series its panoramic sense of adventure.

Most Special Mecha (Captain Scarlet, Joe 90, and The Secret Service)

The post-Thunderbirds shows marked the rise of Mike Trim as the main designer of the vehicles tasked with communicating the action and energy of Supermarionation. With the more senior figures of Century 21 Productions chiefly concerned with expanding the company’s cinematic division, it fell chiefly to the younger staff to handle production of the TV series. By the time The Secret Service (1969) went into production, day-to-day operations were being supervised by Hill, with Gerry and Sylvia Anderson focusing their efforts on 1969 science-fiction film Doppelgänger.

With Captain Scarlet, for which Meddings produced Cloudbase, the SPV (Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle), and the Angel Interceptors, it was Trim’s responsibility to design the remainder of Spectrum’s wide variety of vehicles and guest mecha. Spectrum’s mecha reflect the military aesthetic of the series: gone are the vibrant colors and evocative names of the Thunderbird machines. In their place are stern, somber colors, chiefly greys and cold blues, with acronyms mainly used for naming conventions. The monolithic presence of Cloudbase, the grandest mecha of any Supermarionation show, now serves as a ubiquitous reminder of Spectrum’s watchful presence over the world.

Elsewhere, Spectrum’s core mecha veer between the bulky and the nimble. The tank-like SPV and the sorely underused MSV (Maximum Security Vehicle) further underline Spectrum’s hawkish vocation, yet even though the SPC (Spectrum Patrol Car), SPJ (Spectrum Passenger Jet), and the Angel Interceptors are far slicker, more agile vehicles, all evoke perfectly the darker attitude of the show, especially when compared to Thunderbirds. Like the guest vehicles he designed for Thunderbirds, Trim’s other mecha for Captain Scarlet continue the streamlined shapes from before, helping to give the futuristic setting of the series a visual immediacy.

Compared to the fleets of vehicles found in Thunderbirds and Stingray, Joe 90 (1968-1969) boasted a far more limited array of core mecha, Professor Mac’s car and Sam Loover’s saloon being the only vehicles that regularly appeared in the show. Mac’s car is a marked departure from past designs. Here, Meddings takes a significantly experimental approach, producing a vehicle that harks back to the days of Supercar: a cumbersome mecha characterized by exposed components, easily the least elegant thing he ever produced. Professor Mac’s car is either delightfully quirky or off-puttingly clunky, depending on your point of view. Fortunately, Trim delivers a further batch of handsome companion vehicles throughout the series that are very similar in flavor to the mecha of Captain Scarlet.

The Secret Service (1969) took things to extremes by not featuring a core vehicle of a futuristic design at all. A re-fashioned 1917 Ford Model T, Gabriel is the furthest departure from the retro-futuristic visions the Andersons were famous for producing. Again, more companion vehicles do appear scattered throughout, but the limited number of episodes for the series—a grand total of 13—meant that the blade fell prematurely on the reign of Supermarionation, and with it the eye-popping display of ingenuity and creativity of the company’s vehicle department. The Century 21 team would continue to entertain viewers with the live-action productions Doppelganger and UFO (1970-1973), but the evocative, sometimes nearly anthropomorphic designs that had defined the visual action of the puppet shows would end here.

Tomorrow’s Cross-Sections Today

Beyond the style of the craft, then, what exactly has been written about their functionality? Some basic details of the craft’s capabilities and mechanics had been mapped out by Anderson, but it would fall to those at Century 21 Publishing to flesh these details out. One of the many arms that Century 21 Productions grew as the company blossomed in commercial success, the publishing division’s in-depth cross-sections were produced to delight readers and published in both the TV21 comic and annuals produced to tie-in with each series.

Fascination with these mecha remains strong 50 years on, and book-length collections of cross-sections exist almost as a distinct subculture within Anderson fandom. As revivals of Stingray, Thunderbirds, and Captain Scarlet have come and gone since the 1990s, fresh interpretations of Anderson mecha have been produced, and books that collect past material continue to sell, as do original works, such as the pair of ever-popular Haynes Manuals written and drawn for Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet. Packed with in-depth examinations of the functionality and interior of the shows’ respective craft, these books are testament to the imaginative response the vehicles of Supermarionation continue to inspire.

Fred McNamara spends an immeasurable and unhealthy amount of time overthinking indie comics, cult television, and retro sci-fi. He co-edits the superhero/indie comic book hub A Place To Hang Your Cape. He’s also the author of Spectrum is Indestructible, the unofficial celebration of Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. He’s game for watching anything involving puppets.

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4 thoughts on “Supersonic Fantasies: Celebrating the Mecha of Supermarionation

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