Friday, January 15, 2010

Thunderbirds S1 Ep2: Pit Of Peril

It's FAB FRIDAY People! Welcome back to the wonderful world of all things Gerry Anderson!
Yes, it's that time again friends. It's FAB Fridays with all things good from the world of Gerry Anderson. I neglected to mention earlier, but like any classic show, there are certain episodes of Thunderbirds that shall forever be burned into the memory banks. There are just those shows that are dear to our hearts that we'll just never forget. I had a voracious appetite for Thunderbirds as a youngster and there were a good number of installments that fall into this category. Trapped In The Sky, End Of The Road and Pit Of Peril are three such examples. I swear I have seen these several times. There are others and I'll be curious which ones strike me as bran, spanking new.

As many of you know, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson worked on a number of puppet series pre-Thunderbirds including: Supercar [1960-1961], Fireball XL5 [1961-1962] and Stingray [1962-1963]. They worked on post-Thunderbirds series including: Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons [1967], Joe 90 [1968] and The Secret Service [1968-1969]. Thunderbirds fell in the middle at the height of their Supermarionation success. Chris Bentley from his book The Complete Book Of Thunderbirds: "Looking back now, many of the series' creators feel that the design of the puppet characters in Thunderbirds was the pinnacle of the Andersons' achievements in Supermarionation: the earlier puppets were too exaggerated and 'cartoonish', and the later true-proportion puppets too stiff and featureless." This hammers home an aesthetic truth about the puppets that was worth noting. Thunderbirds had all of the right elements or variables in play at the right time. It was the perfect fusion and these puppets are simply beautiful in their realization.

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When I was a young boy my father would take me to the annual Santa visit at our local American Legion. Santa gave all of the kids one gift. Of course, the gifts were provided to Santa from our parents. I hope I didn't spoil that for anyone. HA! Just the same, we all believe in the spirit of the occasion don't we? Anyhow, I remember this one Christmas I opened my gift to find a die-cast metal Thunderbird 2. It was blue in color, not the traditional green. I always found it striking and unique and it gave me much pleasure for many hours on end. Well, it is noted in Writer Chris Bentley's The Complete Book Of Thunderbirds that blue was the intended color for T2 before they settled upon green. Anyway, it included a little plastic Thunderbird 4 in its Pod bay belly to boot and it was not only the joy of the season for me, but it was the toy of the season. I loved that thing. It was dinged up pretty good when I was through with it. It landed in mud, launched from the arms of mustard yellow, couch arms, landed in swirling oceans [cough, bathtub] and tackled large monstrous beasts [cough, my smooth fox terrier]. Those were the days. We sure wish we had our old toys and action dolls, err, figures. ebay has certainly made things easier.

When I think about it, perhaps that's exactly why we look back to our pasts to those things we once loved. We look back on those things which once comforted us. Old shows, however nostalgic, cheesy or wonderful, bring us home and remind us of people we loved or made us feel loved. Thinking of my father when I see Thunderbird 2 brings me back in some small way to those innocent days. Isn't that worth revisiting the adventure? Let's turn back the clock to one of the many exciting episodes from Producer Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds with Series One, Episode 2, Pit Of Peril. And you know any installment using the word 'peril' has to be good. Thunderbirds are go!

The entry opens with live footage of the jungles. We get some nifty shots of lions, alligators, zebra, monkeys, elephants until cutting to the miniatures. It's like Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. Animals begin going absolutely ape-shit [no pun intended] upon hearing the sounds of an experimental craft dubbed the Sidewinder. The U.S. Army vessel walks across the landscape a bit like an AT-AT Walker from Star Wars. And, may I remind you, exactly who came up with the idea first? It's long arms use metal grapplers to uproot trees and other obstacles stirring the jungle animals into a frenzy. This new weapon will be an effective tool for war prevention [I think]? That's a little unclear as the puppet kind of mumbles. With the jungle test complete the Sidewinder is returning to its base location. Suddenly the ground gives way and the Sidewinder descends into, umm, well, a PIT OF PERIL! So much for tough weapons of war.

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The Helicat chopper loses contact with the lobster-like craft and reports to the site of the mishap. Black smoke billows from the ground as the men make every attempt to communicate with the men inside the... PIT OF PERIL! As would be expected the men on board the Sidewinder have been knocked unconscious. The men begin regaining consciousness. The chopper crew exclaims, "Thank heavens your safe." Um, they are in a hole 300 feet below the surface engulfed in flames and smoke, I wouldn't exactly call them safe just yet puppet friend. Unfortunately to get them to safety, they are going to need to hoist the 500 ton Sidewinder to the surface. Sounds like this is a job for International Rescue!

First, a U.S. Army Helijet arrives that can land vertically like a chopper. "Here's the situation, the Sidewinder is on its side." That was just hysterical because the puppet delivers the line deadly serious. The puppet that earlier referred to the men as safe indicates they can't go down because it would be "suicide" as the pit is an "inferno." Well, he's changed his tune. "You could be burned alive." WOW! He really isn't singing the same song anymore. So much for 'thank God your safe.'

I'm beginning to think most vehicles in jeopardy on Thunderbirds may operate with atomic reactors. Like the Fireflash in Trapped In The Sky, the Sidewinder is built with an atomic reactor. Everything is stable so far. I suspect that will change. Many atomic fears in the years following Word War II. The Helijet plans a rescue. The Sidewinder crew indicates the temperature in the ... PIT OF PERIL, is 220 degrees Fahrenheit. They will "fry" if they try. A plastic figurine, standing in as a man, is lowered into the pit! Oddly, the man is lowered into the smoking hot pit of peril with absolutely no protective gear to speak of. Wouldn't he melt?

Up in the stars, Thunderbird 5 is monitoring the situation. John Tracy reports into father and the boys on Tracy Island. That T5 satellite can pick up communications anywhere. It could pick them up from your bedroom for cryin' out loud. The rescuer's blood is essentially boiling from the heat. He spots the Sidewinder and tells the pilot to haul him back up. The man is returned to safety and the puppet is essentially smouldering from the heat. The poor puppet is bloody singed.

Scott suggests to his father he visit the site. His father indicates the U.S. Army operation could be top secret and they musn't respond unless invited. Just the same, father puts Scott and T1 on emergency standby. Meanwhile at the Sidewinder site, the man is fully bandaged. Down in the pit of peril, the atomic reactor is beginning to become unstable as the cooling device falters. Of course, what else would you expect in a hot pit of peril? Not to mention, we need our Thunderbirds. The temp in the pit is up to 260 degrees.

Another attempt at rescuing the Sidewinder is underway. The plan is to loop one of the legs and get it upright so the Sidewinder can crawl out of the PIT OF PERIL. I'm not sure a man could survive in those conditions. The leg is looped in the smoking, fiery heat. The second man is badly burned in the process as well. The Helijet cuts the cable and leaves it to the Helicat to pull the Sidewinder up. The two burned men are airlifted to a hospital. The cable breaks and the plan fails. This is one disturbing, evil PIT OF PERIL!
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If you've seen this shot once, fear not, because you'll see it a thousand times and why the heck not!
This is a job for International Rescue! Thunderbirds are go! F.A.B.! This episode would have to be best known as the introduction to the fantastic Mole, but more on that in a moment. T1 is a go and Scott requests T2 and Pod 5. They need more than brawn. Brains is also in demand. Virgil does his typical slide into T2, but how does Brains get there? I guess he doesn't get to take the happy, fun slide. Brains has to take some kind of elevator and he makes his arrival inside the T2 cockpit. His entry is not nearly as fun. I suspect T1 and T2 will launch in nearly every episode. A pattern is developing. The routine is there for the first two entries, but what do you expect? When you're six years old and watching this, it never gets old. As an adult, it might, a little. As a six year old, give me that stock footage everytime! The One To Be Pitied believes I am six years old.

Puppet problems? Poor Puppet guy is not only stuffing the rags into the smoking crevices but his whole face! Bloody hell! For the love of God get out of there brother puppet!
Back at the Sidewinder, the atomic reactor is getting hotter. They have mere hours. To make matters worse, the hull has cracked and smoke is billowing into the cabin. "She'll break up." The radio in the Sidewinder has also ceased operation. T1 arrives on the scene. The puppet men are stuffing rags into the hull cracks. They have two hours remaining. Scott is useless as tits on a bull. He tells the Army guys he's going to set up a TV to watch, while he waits for the heavy equipment to arrive. What good is that? Virgil is clearly the man. Scott likes to direct and bark orders. Not a bad position to be in if you're Scott.

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Well, I suppose there is a purpose for Scott's preliminary findings. Digging that funky, remote, space camera sound effect. The camera is built to withstand extreme heat. Meanwhile on the Sidewinder things are going from bad to worse as the stuffed rags are now on ablaze. The Army guys are getting impatient as they stand around doing nothing. T2 arrives and Pod 5 is loaded with The Mole and two Recovery Vehicles. Those pod bays are pretty large.

As Brains schools the puppet heads, they look at a very detailed and complex map drawn by the one and only super smart Brains. See image! I do love Brains, but damn that map needs some work.
Brains assesses the PIT OF PERIL and schools the two Tracy boys as the Boy Wonder might say. "Way back in the past." That's a great line! Let's not get too detailed here. Afterall we have six year olds watching. He points to the fact that these craters were once open mines. They were later used as Army dumps after World War II. Scott doesn't get it. Is the map really that complicated Scott? He's not nearly as bright as Virgil or Brains. Virgil gets it. Brain gets it. Of course, Scott is busy giving orders. Brains indicates a crust has formed over the dump and fire has caused combustion of the old equipment that litters the old mine. More of the crust needs to be removed for the Sidewinder to be dragged up the side of the pit [OF PERIL!]. This is clearly a job for The Mole!

Virgil goes into the pit, but at least he has the proper gear. Virgil calls it a "blast furnace." He is going to set up charges to blow the crust. Scott will be operating The Mole [and giving orders]. The Sidewinder crew has eight minutes remaining on the coolant device. Thank God for The Mole [and Scott, just ask him].

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I love Brains. He rocks! When I was six years old [because I'm not really six despite what The One To Be Pitied thinks], I never fully appreciated Brains. His stutter and big brainy head and glasses just never appealed to my six year old mind. I wanted the vehicles, plain and simple. Today, I see the value and importance of Brains especially to the adult set. The Mole arrives and picks up Virgil. So far I'm not sure why they didn't lift Virgil out of the pit the same way he went in. What is the point of the Mole other than picking up Virgil? Oh right, the six year olds. The Mole returns to the surface.

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Brains detonates all charges. "What are they trying to do? Blow us out of here!" The Sidewinder crew is really knocked about. I'm not sure it was the safest or best way to do this, but heck what do I know? I'm only human and I'm certainly no International Rescue. The command Army crew on the surface are pretty ungrateful getting all jerked off with International Rescue's pace while they jerk around. Brains informs them they are doing the best they can. Here come the Recovery Vehicles.

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Those Recovery Vehicles rock! The electro-magnets they fire pull up the Sidewinder. Only there's a catch. I'm seeing another pattern developing. We get the first rescue attempt, rescue attempt #1. Things ultimately don't go as planned of course. This results in rescue attempt #2 where the team is successful. You may be able to slip this one by the six year old, but you have to get up pretty early in the morning to trick The Sci-Fi Fanatic my friends.

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I'm surprised the crew of the Sidewinder isn't thrown around like a bunch of lifeless wooden puppets. Oh wait. The Sidewinder is like a charcoal briquette at this point. One of the electro-magnet lines fails and Virgil must reel it in with the winch and refire it for us kids at home! The design of the Sidewinder craft is eerie in construction. It looks like a real creepy monster. You have to love the design work that went into this shows vehciles by master special effects wizard Derek Meddings [see below]. The Recovery Vehicles are also extremely thoughtful in design. The miniatures are just pure perfection. In the end, it's a genuine nailbiter, but the rescue is successful and the Sidewinder is saved. "It's a miracle. They've got us out of the pit" [OF PERIL!].

They are headed back to base! "F.A.B." The One To Be Pitied comes waltzing in and tells me "F.A.G." She thinks she's funny. This show rocks! Oh and then Scott has to drone on and on to the Army about making sure the International Rescue aircraft aren't tracked and that they remain top secret. Good grief Scott put a sock in it will ya already!? He's an annoying little puppet. And so concludes another stellar rescue adventure!

Pit Of Peril: B
Writer: Alan Fennell
Director: Desmond Saunders
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Notable Thunderbirds Craft: Sidewinder/ Helicat/ Helijet/ T5/ T1/T2/ Pod 5: The Mole + Recovery Vehicles 1 & 2.

Important Player in the Thunderbirds Universe:
Derek Meddings [1931-1995]: Visual Effects wunderkind Derek Meddings is largely responsible for the appeal and look of Thunderbirds and without his genius it might never have been the same. There are a number of terrific filmographies out there citing his work. Here is a list of some of my favorites from the master: Thunderbirds [1964-1965], UFO [1969-1970], Thunderbirds Are Go [1966], Thunderbird 6 [1967], Live And Let Die [1973] [all of the classic Roger Moore 007 efforts], The Man With The Golden Gun [1974], The Land That Time Forgot [1975] [a Doug McClure classic], The Spy Who Loved Me [1977], Superman: The Movie [1978], Moonraker [1979], Superman II [1980], For Your Eyes Only [1981], Krull [1983], Superman III [1983], Supergirl [1984], and much more straight on through to Goldeneye [1995]. His apprentice Brian Johnson left his imprint on Space:1999 [1975] and Alien [1979].
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Keith Wilson, Production Designer for Space:1999, had a few wonderful words about his old friend, Derek Meddings, in FAB #24 & FAB #25. "I happen to think he was one of the greatest special effects influences, not only in this country, but in the world. If you look at his career, he did things that had never been done before. He made miniature special effects legitimate. When he got his Oscar for Superman The Movie, that was really something. He saved the film industry to a degree. Derek actually made it OK for people to think about doing shots with models. When you look at his work on the Bond films, you never know which shots are models and which are real. He was so good at it. He really was the best."

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