Thunderbirds (ITV, 1965-66) is the most enduringly popular of the 'Supermarionation' shows created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. However, despite its worldwide success, the show's inability to clinch a lucrative US network transmission resulted in its cancellation early into production of its second season.
The premise for the show is simplicity itself. International Rescue is a secret organisation dedicated to saving lives, set up by millionaire ex-astronaut Jeff Tracy. It carries out its daring rescue missions using a range of highly advanced Thunderbird craft which are launched from a hidden island base, piloted by Jeff's five sons, named after the first Americans in space. According to Sylvia Anderson, the Tracy brothers were inspired by the popular US Western series Bonanza (1959-73).
Producer Gerry Anderson dreamed up Thunderbirds while travelling to work: a radio news bulletin, about a mining disaster in Germany which had left men trapped deep underground, sparked off the idea for a dedicated rescue team equipped with highly advanced rescue equipment.
But getting all this equipment onto the screen was not straightforward, according to Sylvia Anderson: "It took a little persuasion to get the green light from Lew Grade - the ATV chief and our mentor - because the new concept would mean a bigger budget."
The show's first episode, 'Trapped in the Sky' (tx. 2/10/1965), about a passenger jet that cannot lower its undercarriage because of a bomb, carefully sets out the elements that have helped keep Thunderbirds alive for more than 30 years. For example, by making International Rescue the brainchild of one man, and placing it on an isolated island of indeterminate location, the organisation exists outside of a political framework, free from geographical association. This helped to make the show's world both international and timeless. What few references are made to the real world are iconic, like the Empire State Building, which collapses with disastrous effects in the episode 'Terror in New York'.
Equally important, International Rescue's technology is never explained - all we see are its results when combined with the heroism of the Tracy brothers. It doesn't matter that the world has undergone a digital revolution since Thunderbirds first launched, since the programme never tries, or needs, to explain what we see in terms of how it works. The fact that it does - against the odds in dangerous situations - is all that matters.