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The Staff



Space: 1999's Gerry Anderson is still dreaming new SF visions in 2001

By David Soyka

W ith a career spanning over 40 years as an independent producer, the legendary Gerry Anderson is perhaps best known for his pioneering use of puppets in children's television action-adventure series. But in addition, he has a number of live-action TV and theatrical releases also noted for their special effects, as well as directing credits for commercials and pop videos, notably Dire Straits' Calling Elvis.

"Fandersons," as aficionados of the British filmmaker proudly call themselves, will welcome the new DVD versions of two Anderson productions--Thunderbirds, widely admired as his most successful children's series, and Space: 1999, a short-lived mid-1970s TV show that featured the then husband and wife duo of Martin Landau and Barbara Bain. Science Fiction Weekly recently spoke to Anderson about his long career and these two shows in particular.

A famous director supposedly once remarked that the only thing he disliked about making movies was having to deal with actors. Your career is notable for having eliminated that aspect--though you've done a few live-action series, you are most noted for filming puppetry. Do you have any preference?

Anderson: It's true that unlike some actors, puppets don't ask, "What's my motivation?" or demand huge salaries, but they have problems of their own. Their control wires have to be concealed, and there are many actions that they simply cannot perform. The simple answer--both puppets and actors have advantages and disadvantages.

Your original interest in the film business was working as a "plasterer," but you discovered you were allergic to plaster! What exactly does a plasterer do?

Anderson: The type of plastering I was involved in is called fibrous plastering and is used in making moldings and castings--the sort of thing you would see on the ceiling of a stately home in England.

Your first puppet series was The Adventures of Twizzle in 1957. How did that come about--and was your involvement in this project by happenstance or an already existing interest in puppetry?

Anderson: Having worked in feature-film cutting rooms, I started my own production company, and the only work we were offered was The Adventures of Twizzle, to be made using puppets. No, I had no previous knowledge or interest in puppetry. I believe because I succeeded in making some good puppet films, as a result I became typecast that way.

One of your most famous series, the mid-'60s Thunderbirds, has been described as "the defining series for a generation of Brits in the same way that Star Trek was for a generation of Americans." What elements about the program and the zeitgeist of the era coincided to make the show so successful?

Anderson: Thunderbirds is without question the defining series for a generation of Brits and many other nationalities. The mid-'60s was all about hi-tech aircraft and the beginning of the exploration of our solar system, and the creation of the series was heavily influenced by those factors.

Was the show in any way inspired by the actual "Thunderbirds"--the precision flying team of the U.S. Air Force?

Anderson: My brother, seven years older than me, trained to be a RAF pilot in Falcon Field near Mesa, Ariz. In one of his letters home, he mentioned that he overflew Thunderbird Field, an American airbase nearby. The name stuck in my mind and I used it for the series, which was originally entitled International Rescue.

The 39 episodes of Thunderbirds had a somewhat truncated run on American broadcast television in 1994 on the Fox Television Network. Some attribute the dramatic cuts to the need for "political correctness" to eliminate racial stereotypes, sexism and scenes where characters drink and smoke, though there hardly seems to be a half-hour of that kind of stuff to cut from each episode. What were the real reasons, and were they done with your consent and/or supervision?

Anderson: The material you are referring to was done without my knowledge or input and was produced by a bunch of people who didn't know what they were doing. It wasn't a question of political correctness, and the work was obviously not carried out with any high ideals in mind.

Thunderbirds is an example of something you call "Supermarionation." Is this a marketing term or an actual puppetry technique?

Anderson: When I first started filming with puppets the techniques we used were pretty basic. Some years later we were using advanced puppets, special effects and live-action filming techniques. At this time I was anxious to tell people that these were no ordinary puppet productions and so I combined the words "super," "marionette" and "animation" to form "Supermarionation."

The radio exchanges among the Thunderbirds characters employ much of the typical and real air military lingo, but what exactly does the frequent reference to "F.A.B." at the conclusion of these conversations actually mean?

Anderson: Pilots today use the code word "Roger" to say that a message has been received and understood. The stories of Thunderbirds took place in 2065 and so I felt the pilots needed a new and different code word. In the '60s the buzzword was "fabulous"--this become shortened to "fab" and so we used "F.A.B." to replace "Roger."

In light of the incredible capacities of digital special effects, coupled with the fast-paced, quick-cut action that typifies much of today's children's programming, do you think there's still a niche for shows such as Thunderbirds? Will eight-year-old boys weaned on Game Boy and Star Wars care much for puppet entertainment?

Anderson: Despite the capabilities of digital special effects and the pace of some modern production, the fact is that Thunderbirds is loved by young children of today and appeals to a family audience every bit as much as when the series was born. Thunderbirds has been running continuously for 35 years in major territories throughout the world. If I were to remake the series I would use top-end CGI [Computer Generated Imagery], ensuring that all the characters were reproduced faithfully, thus ensuring that the series lost none of its charm.

Your shows are noted for being expensive. Both Thunderbirds and the live-action Space: 1999 are often cited as being the most expensively produced shows of their time. Is the expense rooted in the nature of the science-fictional reality you're trying to create, or are you just a stickler for getting things right?

Anderson: For Thunderbirds, a combination of marionettes, special effects and science fiction was an extremely difficult series to produce, and in today's money would cost $1.4 million per episode to produce. Likewise, Space: 1999, with its high-quality cast, sets and special effects, was equally expensive--and yes, I am a stickler for getting things right.

Puppetry, particularly in the age of early television, would seem ideally suited to science-fiction subjects precisely because of the situations it needs to depict. Was this what prompted your interest in the genre? Any other SF filmmakers or authors who have inspired your work?

Anderson: Having formed my own production company, our first production just happened to be with puppets. My puppet shows that were then produced were in great demand. It was difficult to get the puppets to do much of what the scripts called for, and in particular I could not get them to walk believably. I made a show called Supercar where the characters whizzed around in a car that could fly and travel on the sea as a boat and submarine. In this way the problem of them walking was largely overcome. When the series was broadcast people started to say, "I see you're in science fiction now, Gerry," and that's what started it all. I have not been inspired by anybody else's work.

The conceit of Space: 1999 is that an atomic explosion hurls the moon and the inhabitants of Alpha Base into an unwanted interstellar voyage. Where did this notion come from? I mean, why not a Lost in Space of an actual spacecraft along the lines of Star Trek: Voyager that, at the least, would have avoided all those arguments about improbable physics?

Anderson: I am afraid I am a bit more original than wanting to copy other people's successful shows. And if you think that Star Trek is probable, then I am a monkey's uncle.

It seemed a coup to get Martin Landau and Barbara Bain just after their success in Mission: Impossible to star in Space: 1999. How did this come about?

Anderson: Because Martin Landau and Barbara Bain were in a highly successful show, the American distributors suggested I use them. I screened a feature film of mine called Journey to the Far Side of the Sun for them and they were very impressed, and came to Europe to star in the series. And very good stars they were, too.

Any particular significance to the date of September 13, 1999, as the starting point for when the moon blasts out of Earth orbit?

Anderson: Thirteen is an unlucky number and I had 12 choices for the month and chose September.

The second season of Space: 1999 saw some radical changes in both cast, costuming and storyline, allegedly in part to make the show more attractive to an American audience and to tap into the then-emerging powerful Star Trek fan base, a notion reinforced by the hiring of original Star Trek third-season producer Fred Freiberger. To what extent were these changes initiated/approved by you? In retrospect, do you think they advanced or hindered your original concept of the show?

Anderson: Firstly, we were not trying to tap into the Star Trek fanbase. Fred Freiberger was chosen because he is a good script editor, was available at the time and agreed to bring his family to Europe for the filming. He was engaged because the American office in New York believed he would give a slant to the scripts that would appeal to American audiences. Although I retained total control of the series during the second season, I gave Fred his head, since I, too, wanted the show to be acceptable in the U.S. Provided you understand this is no disrespect to Fred, I think it altered the original concept of the show. I preferred the first season.

What projects are under development that "Fandersons"--as your extensive following is called--can look forward to?

Anderson: I am hoping that I will soon persuade Carlton Television, who now own the rights to Captain Scarlet, to let me remake the series in top-end CGI. A few months ago we made a new five-minute sequence in CGI, keeping the characters exactly as they are in the series but adding all the advantages of this new technology. The reaction to this test has been sensational. We have also created a new live-action TV series which looks as if it will be made as a theatrical release.

Watch this space.

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