The enclosed universe that Gerry Anderson created with his run of Supermarionation TV series was so seamless and meticulous in its detail that one would have to assume it was the product of a singular, obsessive vision. This makes it all the more surprising that Anderson's role as master of marionettes wasn't so much a calling as something that was thrust upon him -- specifically when, in 1957, he was commissioned to bring the doll-like hero of children's author Roberta Leigh's The Adventures of Twizzle to British television screens. The truth is that Anderson started out wanting to make films with actual people in them, just like a real boy, but soon found himself overseeing an operation scaled exclusively for stringed stars of less than three feet tall.
Still, whatever brought him to them, there's no question that, when viewed against the generally shoddy background of commercial children's programming then and now, Anderson's puppet series stand out for their high level of craft, imagination and commitment to technical excellence. They also stand out for being strange. My first exposure to them came via Saturday morning viewings of Fireball XL5, at a time when I was just old enough to recognize that what I was seeing was not a cartoon, but nowhere near worldly enough to guess at what was giving apparent life to the odd figures within. These wobbly beings would pleasantly haunt me from that point on, drawing me toward their every new iteration. And while their origins remained mysterious to me, I nonetheless recognized them as gifts. Anderson's generosity reached a peak of sorts with Thunderbirds, an hour long show that -- with it's hyper-real color, globe spanning action, large cast of characters, wide array of futuristic vehicles, and reliable doling out of massive explosions at regular intervals -- seemed like an epic scale, no-expense-spared attempt to stimulate every last pleasure center within the brain of the average ten year old boy.
In both his autobiography and the interviews with him that I've read, Anderson struck me as being something of a melancholy sort, and that darkness eventually started to express itself through his work. UFO, his first live action series, expanded upon the paranoid alien invasion scenarios and creeping police state fantasies of his puppet series Captain Scarlet with characteristically addictive results. A flawed masterpiece, the show countered its shiny futuristic trappings with stories focused on intractable moral dilemmas, Pyrrhic victories, and heroes who were not only not always likeable, but whom often seemed to not even like each other all that much. Like the Altamont to Star Trek's Woodstock, UFO was TV space opera adapted to the darkening expectations of the late 60s and early 70s, and with it Anderson resoundingly made good on his potential to create futuristic television fantasy within a distinctly adult context.
Gerry Anderson's passing at the age of 83 strikes a personal chord with me, because his work contributed to my adult life its most abiding nerd totems. This at one point extended to my driving up an enormous credit card debt in the accumulation of a large collection of vintage Thunderbirds merchandise. Most of that's gone now, except for the one token of Anderson devotion that I allowed myself to keep: a die-cast toy of Lady Penelope's bubble-topped pink Rolls Royce that I can see on the shelf as I'm writing this. Obviously, those afternoons spent watching Thunderbirds on the living room floor left an impression on me. It's not that I had more to escape from than any other kid my age at the time, but that, when I needed it, the escape Gerry Anderson offered me was so total. Like magical gatekeepers, his puppet heroes asked for a leap in the suspension of disbelief that, once made, kept you in happy orbit, momentarily free from the cares of an unstrung world.