Gerry Anderson Passes: Thunderbirds Weep

In the surreal world of “supermarionation,” Gerry Anderson was the man who pulled the strings.

The 83-year-old writer/director/producer, best known as the creator of the iconic 1960s sci fi puppet show Thunderbirds, passed away Wednesday in his sleep, after suffering for several years from dementia.

For all his success with marionettes — Thunderbirds was preceded by Supercar, Fireball XL5, Stingray and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons — to Anderson they were a barely tolerable means to an end, his entre into live-action TV and film.

His post-puppet career was considerably less successful, though it did include the 1970s TV cult favourites UFO and Space: 1999.

In between these two human-scaled sci-fi series, Anderson was invited to write and produce a James Bond film, which was then supposed to be Moonraker. Nothing came of it, other than an unused script and a minor lawsuit. Four other Bond movies later, a much different Moonraker was finally filmed — ironically, with former Anderson protégé Derek Meddings on special effects. Meddings would go on to work on filmed remakes of Superman and Batman.

For a disappointed Anderson, it was back to the small screen and the science-fiction adventure Space: 1999, co-starring married Mission: Impossible alumni Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, and Canadian actor Barry Morse. It was broadcast here in Canada on the CBC, where its ratings were proportionately higher than anywhere else it aired internationally.

Morse did not return for the second season, due to a salary dispute. At the same time, Anderson parted ways, personally and professionally, with his second wife Sylvia, with whom he had long shared producers’ credit. A new showrunner was hired, Fred Freiberger, who had previously helmed the final season of Star Trek.

At the time British television’s most expensive series ever, the revamped Space: 1999 was not renewed for a third season.

Anderson went through some tough times through the 1980s but bounced back briefly in 1994 with the alien police procedural Space Precinct, using a combination of more sophisticated puppets and live actors in elaborate prosthetic makeup.

At the same time, thanks to repeats in international syndication, a Thunderbirds revival was gaining momentum. An initiative to film a live-action feature began in 1996 but did not see fruition until 2004, and immediately bombed upon its release. Anderson had refused to endorse the project.

He did, however, avidly support Team America: World Police, released that same year, an affectionate and outrageous homage to Anderson’s old-school supermarionation techniques by South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

Anderson’s son, Jamie, posted the announcement of his father’s death on his website, where he also included a statement from Nick Williams, chairman of the fan club Fanderson.

“To those who met him, Gerry was a quiet, unassuming but determined man. His desire to make the best films he could drove him and his talented teams to innovate, take risks and do everything necessary to produce quite inspirational works.

“Gerry’s legacy is that he inspired so many people and continues to bring so much joy to so many millions of people around the world.”

Anderson’s legacy lives on, passed on from nostalgic boomers to succeeding generations. To borrow the catchphrase from his greatest and most enduring success, “Thunderbirds are go.”