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EARLY RELEASE: Thunderbirds 2086 - the Anime Thunderbirds

by Chris Dale

Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, Thunderbirds fans would have occasionally found themselves faced with another television series also claiming to be an iteration of Thunderbirds. While it certainly featured an organisation called International Rescue, a flotilla of futuristic rescue vehicles known as the Thunderbirds, and was even occasionally promoted using the same Thunderbirds logo as the original television series…it was clearly not of the same production stable as the classic Supermarionation series! Instead, Thunderbirds 2086 was a Japanese animated series that had started life as a different show entirely, before being rebranded as a Thunderbirds series and then disappearing for good in the space of just over a decade!

Although very much a product of the 1980s the roots of the series can be traced back in 1977, to that post-Space:1999 period where Gerry Anderson could no longer look forward to commissions from ITC (following Lew Grade reaching ITV’s mandatory retirement age and his decision to move into film production). Aware that his shows had always been very popular in Japan, he met with producer Banjiro Uemura looking to produce a new animated science fiction television series; Thunderhawks.

The idea for the series would undergo much revision (including a new title; Terrahawks: Order to Recapture Earth) as various ideas were thrown around, but ultimately the project went nowhere due to the belief among Japanese networks that science fiction was no longer marketable. With the Japanese release of Star Wars however came a sudden urgent need for science fiction on film and television - and one man was ready for it.

Uemura returned to the ideas he had devised while in consultation with Anderson and revised them into a concept that would essentially follow the format of Thunderbirds (a series he enjoyed and had homaged in previous works) as closely as he dare. This was to be a twenty-four episode animated series by the name of Kagaku Kyūjo Tai Tekunoboijā, or Scientific Rescue Team Technoboyager. The series would follow the adventures of the agents of a futuristic global rescue service and their fleet of seventeen rescue vehicles, the Technoboyager craft.

Unfortunately, the series was not a hit in Japan when it first aired in 1982, with only eighteen of its twenty-four episodes being broadcast. However, it was to find an afterlife thanks to Uemura’s connections at ITC. Presented with a ready-made series featuring various futuristic craft saving the day with the letters ‘TB’ (for Technoboyager) on their hulls, it was obvious that an English language dub could be produced that would capitalise on the already-established Thunderbirds name – so obvious in fact that it may always have been Uemura’s plan to try to adapt the series in this way!

The 1983 English-language version of Technoboyager created by ITC America would be rechristened Thunderbirds 2086, and the show’s characters would receive various re-namings and personality changes in the new show. The original opening and closing titles were also changed, with the new opening titles featuring narration that explained the purpose of the International Rescue organisation. This narration would sound familiar to anyone who had seen the trailers for the Thunderbirds Super Space Theater compilations, both for sharing the same narrator and the immortal phrase “conceptions in rescue that can challenge the impossible!” Several names associated with those 1980s compilation movies can be seen on the end credits of 2086, most notably editor Gunter Glinka, animator David Gregg, and producer Robert Mandell. Another link to the compilations, and the original Supermarionation series, was the 2086 redub’s use of additional music from the Barry Gray library, plus occasional bursts of Derek Wadsworth’s score for Space:1999’s second season - as well as several sound effects, most notably the Moonbase Alpha travel tube sound on the opening titles.

Although the series features the adventures of the Thunderbirds machines of International Rescue, it does not make any mention of the Tracy family or any other familiar element of the Supermarionation original - beyond a very occasional cry of "Thunderbirds are Go!". Instead, the International Rescue of Thunderbirds 2086 was a far larger organisation which operated out of a vast city known as the Arcology, built upon a manmade island. Although the organisation apparently employs hundreds of people, the main cast of heroes was limited to seven characters. The Thunderbirds machines would be manned by a group of captains (despite being called cadets during the opening titles narration) under the command of Doctor Warren Simpson, 2086’s equivalent of Jeff Tracy. The Thunderbird 1 space shuttle was piloted by daring young hotshot Dylan Beyda, while the hypersonic transport Thunderbird 2 was co-piloted by would-be space cowboy Jesse Rigel and Jonathan ‘Little John’ Jordan, Jnr. Thunderbird 3, a multi-purpose ground vehicle, would be commanded by Gran Hanson – who also served as the team’s leader for most missions. Thunderbirds 1 2 and 3 could also combine to ensure maximum preparedness for any emergency situation. The sole female member of the team, Kallan James, was in charge of International Rescue’s primary underwater craft, Thunderbird 4. Rounding out the regular cast – whether you liked it or not – was Commander Simpson’s seven-year-old nephew ‘Skipper’.

The number of Thunderbirds machines in this new International Rescue was also increased from six to seventeen (with an eighteenth under construction in the episode Starcrusher), although several would never appear on screen. Most were substantially different from those seen in the Supermarionation series, although several borrowed heavily from those designs. Thunderbird 4 would remain a yellow submarine, while Thunderbird 16 was a gold and silver drilling machine named the Mole. Thunderbird 6 was the organisation’s Earth-orbiting space station, but manned by a crew of hundreds as opposed to one.

Thunderbirds 2086 made greater use of science fiction concepts and space travel in general than the original Supermarionation series, although its vehicles were designed with more of a functional appearance than those seen there. By and large the English redub followed the stories of the original Japanese episodes but its tone was often very tongue-in-cheek, and it wasn’t afraid to make references to other television shows and films. This was a world where evil computers would claim to control “the horizontal and the vertical”, where a convicted man would yell “I am not a number, I am a free man!” upon being sentenced, where a cynical astronaut would announce “I’ve never seen anything to make me believe there’s some mythical energy controlling my destiny!” short before encountering said Force (and then crying “I do believe in ghosts, I do believe in ghosts!”), and where absolutely all engineers were Scottish. The humour threatens to finally break the fourth wall completely at the start of the final episode, UFO, where the captain of a sailing vessel gets excited about his first appearance on television;

CAPTAIN: "I say, old bean! Here we are beginning our story, our adventure into outer space. I can’t wait to see what happens to us!"

MATE: "We’re not in this story!"

CAPTAIN: "What?"

And then their ship is promptly flattened by a tidal wave.

In keeping with the sanitised nature of many English dubs of Japanese animated shows, death was something the 2086 redub tried to avoid mentioning wherever possible, with various clearly dead characters described as being “unconscious” or announcing from off-screen that they “ejected just in time!” without any visual evidence to back that claim up. Occasionally episodes would even be reworked to remove objectionable scenes entirely, most notably Child’s Play which opens with an extensive montage of clips of the International Rescue vehicles in action in order to fill time left by the deletion of a problematic subplot from the second half of the Japanese original. In the episode Kudzilla two brand new shots were animated (either by the original animators or by some very talented imitators) to allow a character who died in the Japanese original to live in the Western redub. Other animation changes were less drastic, and included the addition of more blinking lights on control consoles and occasional insert shots of computer screens displaying useful plot information.

One additional element that came into play midway through Thunderbirds 2086’s run came with the arrival of the mysterious villain Star Crusher and his terrorist group the Shadow Axis, who were behind nefarious plots in several episodes. Although not part of the original Technoboyager series it was nevertheless an interesting attempt to provide a regular villain for 2086 through voiceover alone, since the original animation could not be altered enough to incorporate a new animated character.

The Star Crusher dialogue sequences (usually backed by Barry Gray music traditionally heard in association with the Mysterons) would often play out over the same electronic space footage created by Dolphin Productions for the two Captain Scarlet Super Space Theater compilations, as would sequences involving another 2086 addition; the IRO Datacube. Generally running to around seventy seconds, these ‘datacube’ segments would feature a briefing from the same voice artist who narrated the show’s opening titles in which he explained the plot of that week’s episode before it actually started. It’s difficult to see what purpose this sequence actually served, beyond possibly padding out the episode for a thirty-minute broadcast slot, and certain episodes currently circulating online can be found both with and without this sequence – but most of them are without!

Thunderbirds 2086 played in several international markets, including the UK, Spain, Malaysia, Italy, Portugal, Australia and Canada, but very few countries ran the entire series. In the UK a batch of thirteen episodes were broadcast on BBC 1, first in a Monday afternoon slot beginning in January 1986 and then again as part of Saturday morning series Going Live from January 1988. The series received very little in the way of merchandise in either of its incarnations. In Japan, toys of Technoboyagers 1 2 and 3 apparently never made it past the prototype stage, but fans of the show’s soundtrack could pick up a pair of vinyl records (a 7” and a 12”). Oddly, Thunderbirds 2086 would would earn itself a hardback annual, which was published in the UK by Grandreams in 1983 – more than two years before the series would actually air on British television!

The series fared slightly better in the home media department. At least two two-episode VHS tapes were released in both the USA and Spain. Two two-episode VHS tapes were also released in the UK in the late 1980s, although unfortunately with the same episode included twice; Cloudburst & Nightmare was released by The Video Collection in 1986, while Nightmare & Metalhead was released by Lollipop in 1989. When the nation was gripped by Thunderbirds mania in 1991 ITC Home Video attempted to revive Thunderbirds 2086, this time releasing sixteen episodes of the series across three VHS tapes – with volumes two and three sporting the classic Thunderbirds logo in a bid to attract new viewers! Altogether, seventeen of the show’s twenty-four episodes found their way to VHS in the UK, but the remaining seven have currently yet to receive any official release – as the series has not yet been released on DVD. It currently circulates online only thanks to the VHS releases and various off-air recordings.

While Technoboyager has been released complete on DVD in Japan (although it’s not cheap!) Thunderbirds 2086 seems to have fallen in a home media void - perhaps deliberately so? While it may have made sense back in the 1980s and early 1990s to closely associate the anime with its Supermarionation forebear in order to help sell it, the original Thunderbirds has continued to remain in the public consciousness more than fifty years after it first aired. In the UK alone the Supermarionation television series has been revived more than once to continued public interest and acclaim, and crucially does not look like a product of the 1960s. Thunderbirds 2086 however does look very 1980s, and there may be someone somewhere looking to quietly bury it lest it reflect badly on the lucrative Thunderbirds brand. Additionally, the series has always proved very polarising among Thunderbirds fans. Some appreciate an ‘alternate universe’ style take on the Thunderbirds format, while others see it as an abomination and their hatred for it is such that no amount of four-letter words can do it justice. Thanks to the show’s lack of repeats however, many simply don’t even know that it ever existed at all.

While not exactly beloved by Thunderbirds fans generally it’s important to remember that 2086 was originally a different series in its own right before it got rebranded with the Thunderbirds name, and although that rebranding may always have been in the mind of the show’s creator the entire series was inspired by his love for the original Thunderbirds. That love was the catalyst for Technoboyager, realised by a lot of talented artists and technicians. While the dubbing can at times be a little clunky the show often looks very nice, and tells sci-fi stories that the original Thunderbirds would never even consider attempting alongside the more traditional rescues. Both versions also boast a beautiful orchestral soundtrack composed by Kentaro Haneda that veers from Seventies disco to concert-level piano work with surprising gracefulness. There’s a lot here to like if you’re in the mood for a slightly wackier, more science-fiction-oriented, and occasionally scarier take on Thunderbirds, but it’s understandable that the series is maybe just too different from the original to be to everyone’s tastes.

Crucially, the existence of Thunderbirds 2086 takes nothing away from the 1965 original, and there are many who saw the show back in the 1980s (or who received a VHS from Grandma who bought it thinking it was the 1960s puppet series!) that would appreciate the chance to see it again on DVD. In a world where any number of woeful sitcoms or no-budget cash-in movies can get a DVD release, then surely Thunderbirds 2086 also deserves a shot?