Created by Gerry Anderson & Sylvia Anderson
Thunderbirds is a British science fiction television series first broadcast during 1965 and 1966 which was devised by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson and made by their company, AP Films, using a form of marionette puppetry dubbed "Supermarionation". The series followed the adventures of International Rescue, a secretive organisation created to help those in grave danger using technically advanced equipment and machinery launched from its hidden Tracy Island base. The series focused on the head of the organisation, ex-astronaut Jeff Tracy, and his five sons who piloted the "Thunderbird" crafts. Its London agent, Lady Penelope, also makes frequent appearances. The series has benefited from periodic revivals since - as well as subsequently inspiring other television programmes and advertisements, theatrical productions, feature films and substantial merchandise.
The Thunderbirds TV series is supposedly set in the 21st century, which at the time of production was still over thirty years away. (The specific time frame remains a contentious topic amongst fans, due to contradictory dates seen on newspapers and calendars in different episodes, ranging from 1964 to 2026.) This intent was carried forward in all of the series' contemporary tie-in merchandise, such as the weekly comic strip in TV Century 21 and the Century 21 Mini-Album "Thunderbird 3", wherein Alan Tracy tells listeners that the year is 2065. 1993 vintage champagne is discussed in "Alias Mr. Hackenbacker". The date was later defined mid-2060s, as in the feature film Thunderbirds Are Go the date is shown to be June 2066, and in Thunderbird 6 it is June 2068. In addition, the Zero X spacecraft from Thunderbirds Are Go subsequently appeared in the opening episode of Anderson's next TV series, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, which was set in 2068.
The show depicts the adventures of the Tracy family, which consists of millionaire former astronaut Jeff Tracy (one of the first men to land on the moon) and his five sons: Scott (pilot of Thunderbird 1 and principal rescue co-ordinator), Virgil (pilot of Thunderbird 2), Alan (astronaut in Thunderbird 3), Gordon (aquanaut in Thunderbird 4) and John (principal duty astronaut on the space station Thunderbird 5) – each named after a Mercury astronaut – Scott Carpenter, Virgil Grissom, Alan Shepard, Gordon Cooper and John Glenn, respectively. Together with Jeff's elderly mother called Grandma Tracy, the scientific genius and engineer "Brains", the family's manservant Kyrano and his daughter Tin-Tin, the Tracy family live on a remote, uncharted island.
International Rescue's London agent, international socialite Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward, and her Cockney butler/chauffeur Aloysius "Nosey" Parker, are often seen chasing The Hood and other villains in the pink, amphibious Rolls-Royce FAB1, which is equipped with James Bond-style gadgets. (Rolls-Royce actually provided an authentic radiator grille to the production company for closeups of FAB-1, such as when the retractable machine gun was fired.) Lady Penelope's yacht is called FAB-2. Although credited as "London-based Agent", Lady Penelope lives in a mansion in Kent, which is actually a miniature copy of real-life Stourhead House in Wiltshire.
Some of the disasters attended by International Rescue are often the result of accident or misadventure, but on occasion involve deliberate sabotage. A recurring villain, "The Hood" (actually never named in the dialogue, but referred to as such in narration, in the comics, tie-in books and other spin-off media), frequently causes major accidents in order to lure International Rescue's vehicles to the scene and spy on or steal them. Although never credited as such, two characters would have recurring roles in the series, with London Airport controller Commander Norman appearing five times. Fireflash pilot Captain Hanson would appear five times as well, though three of his appearances were part of reused or archive footage.
The main characters' appearances were modelled after prominent actors. Jeff Tracy was modelled after Lorne Greene of Bonanza fame, Alan after Robert Reed, Scott after Sean Connery, and John after both Adam Faith and Charlton Heston.
The Thunderbirds' radio code "F-A-B", meaning "message received and understood", did not stand for anything, it was just supposed to sound "hip". In fact, when asked what it stood for, Gerry Anderson once replied, with some bemusement, "Fab", as though it were obvious. Later, due in part to fan-submitted stories, F-A-B came to mean Fully Advised and Briefed, in keeping with P-W-O-R (Proceeding With Orders Received), a similar radio confirmation code in the Stingray series.
All the Thunderbird pilots wear a common mid-blue uniform consisting of a polo-neck tunic, trousers, boots, and a simplified side cap. The uniform is accented by a sash bearing the International Rescue insignia and holding a sidearm and two pouches. Each pilot's sash is a different colour, and they have matching coloured cuffs to their boots:
Scott – blue
Virgil – pale yellow
Alan – white
Gordon – orange
John – lilac
Occasionally other members of the organisation are shown in similar uniforms:
Brains – with a brown, leather-like sash, seen only when he flies the Tiger Moth biplane in the 1968 film Thunderbird 6.
Jeff – a metallic gold sash, carrying the logo badge for the Dr. Barnardo's children's charity. Never actually seen in the series, this was used in publicity for the film Thunderbirds are Go (1966), and later reproduced in books and the DVD boxset.
Tin-Tin - for her single designated rescue mission aboard Thunderbird 3 in the episode "Sun Probe", and briefly in "The Uninvited", she wore a similar blue uniform with a pale blue belt but no sash.
Each episode featured model vehicles and machines primarily designed by special effects director Derek Meddings; in particular, the five Thunderbird craft:
Thunderbird 1 – Hypersonic variable-sweep wing rocket plane used for fast response, rescue zone reconnaissance, and as a mobile control base.
Thunderbird 2 – Heavy supersonic VTOL carrier lifting body aircraft used for the transport of major rescue equipment and vehicles, including Thunderbird 4.
Thunderbird 3 – Re-usable, vertically-launched SSTO (Single-Stage-To-Orbit) spacecraft used for space rescue and maintenance of Thunderbird 5.
Thunderbird 4 – Small utility submersible for underwater rescue.
Thunderbird 5 – Space station in geostationary Earth orbit monitoring broadcasts around the globe for transmissions calling for help; also manages communications within International Rescue.