Fireball XL5 Review
Calling all Gerry Anderson fans. Anything can happen in the next thousand words!
Most people will have heard of 'Thunderbirds', the best known Gerry Anderson Supermarionation TV series, but how many will recall the first of his Sci-Fi puppet series to really capture the attention and imagination of schoolboys throughout the UK. Give yourself full marks if you knew it was 'Fireball XL5'.
I was probably five years old when it first aired on ITV in 1962-63 in glorious black-and-white and sat glued to our old Sobell TV for the duration. The opening shots had Colonel Steve Zodiac of the World Space Patrol and Doctor Venus on their jet scooters boarding the massive space rocket before it blasted off down its launch track and off into the atmosphere to the strains of Barry Gray's unforgettable music.
“Okay Venus?” - “Okay Steve.” - “Right, Let's go.”
So each adventure began.
The complete monochrome series has been available on DVD for some time now, but recently some clever soul has colourised one episode of the series and Network have presented it in full HD on Blu-ray. Now, I watched a colourised 'Laurel & Hardy' many years ago and wasn't impressed at all with the end result, which looked as if someone had added a weak wash of watercolour paint to the image. A few years later I saw the colourised version of the Jimmy Stewart classic 'It's a Wonderful Life' and thought it wasn't bad although it seemed that the colour didn't mix into the deep blacks.
With the colourised 'Fireball XL5' episode, it shows how the process has come on in leaps and bounds since then and it looks as if the show could have been originated in colour. The end result is very impressive indeed. No doubt the colourisation was done with a view to converting the whole series if it looked like it would make it saleable for broadcast to the modern generation of ankle biters.
For my own part, it brought back memories of going out on my three wheel trike after watching each show with the lyrics of the end title song ringing in my ears because then I was Steve Zodiac on his jet scooter.
The special effects used on the shows were quite basic by modern standards. It's quite obvious now that a sparkler was stuck in the end of Steve Zodiac's gun to simulate some kind of laser ray, but that didn't matter to a young boy fascinated by space travel who wanted to meet aliens from another world. In its day it worked very well for its target audience and in our memories it still does.
It's interesting to note the change in attitudes that have taken place over the years.
Although Dr Venus was a Doctor of Space Medicine, she was still expected to make the coffee and cook the food for the crew of Fireball XL5. Every so often, Steve Zodiac would call out, “ Hey Venus, how's that coffee coming?”
I can see that going down well today with the feminists.
The other crew members included Professor Matt Matic, an older type gentleman with pickle jar bottom spectacles and Robert the Robot - a perspex co-pilot voiced by Gerry Anderson himself, whose most famous line was a monotonous “On our way 'ome.”
The colourised episode isn't really one of the better shows from the series. 'A Day in the Life of a Space General' gives a lot of screen time to the characters of Lieutenant Ninety and wide mouthed Commander Zero before Fireball and Steve Zodiac appear. Of course, these two bit part actors really milk it and probably asked the director what their motivation was before every scene.
It's the old dream sequence routine where the hard done by Lieutenant imagines he's been promoted to the rank of Space General above his old tyrant of a boss.
The new General really lords it over his underling, just like many a new Managing Director who gets their first taste of power. We've all seen them! He commands Steve Zodiac to use Fireball XL5 to ferry Jock the maintenance man (with such a travesty of a Scottish accent that you feel they just had to be taking the mick out of someone who worked on the show - my guess is Alan Pattillo) to his holiday planet. Naturally, terrible things happen with our hero narrowly avoiding being dragged to his doom by some quicksand. Oh no! I've given the story away. Spoiler Alert! The dream becomes a nightmare as Fireball crashes into the Control Tower. Oh, heavens above! I just can't stop myself. I've done it again. I'm saying no more. Those who want to find out how it ends will have to watch the episode for themselves.
Anyone who has fond memories of the work of Gerry Anderson will love the chance to see 'Fireball XL5' in colour for the first time. The strings are all there to behold in HD. They are incredibly sharp. In the 1960's we were so used to seeing scratchy old prints of movies on TV that the strings didn't seem so noticeable. They were often mistaken for scratches on the film, but nowadays with HD they do jump out at you. All the same, it really doesn't matter as it's all part of the charm.
Also on the disc is an HD episode of 'Four Feather Falls', an earlier fantasy Western series produced by Gerry Anderson as well as an extended documentary 'A Wonderland of Stardust' about the early years of Supermarionation. This is a must for all Anderson fans.
We were fortunate enough to have the entire 'Thunderbirds' series released on Blu-ray not so long ago, but everyone complained about the fact that they'd been reformatted to fit the 16:9 TV screens rather than their original full frame 4:3 TV shape. I didn't mind as I thought the series still looked very good and losing the top of the frame hid some of the strings.
It looks as if we're going to get 'Space 1999', the Live Action Gerry Anderson series from the 1970's on Blu-ray too, fairly soon.
Now all we need is 'Supercar', 'Stingray', 'Joe 90', 'Captain Scarlet' and 'UFO' in HD. They're all currently out on DVD, but it would be great to see how good they look on Blu-ray.
It all sounds F.A.B. to me. Stand by for Action!