space maydays: space – the anderson frontier – fireball xl5 pt. 2

SPACE – THE ANDERSON FRONTIER:

FIREBALL XL5

Part Two

Good evening and welcome once again to Space – the Anderson Frontier. The Gerry Anderson frontier that is. Gerry Anderson was an extremely prolific director and producer who, along with his wife Sylvia, produced children’s shows, live action sci fi, and action adventure. Because this month is Space Maydays, last week we took a look at Anderson’s first foray into space operas – FIREBALL XL5. That was part one now we have part two. 

FIREBALL XL5

The interplanetary adventures of the World Space Patrol’s FIREBALL XL5 as it patrols Sector 25 in the year 2062. 

Created by: Gerry and Sylvia Anderson

Written by:      Gerry and Sylvia Anderson

                        Alan Fennell

Anthony Marriott

Dennis Spooner

Producer: Gerry Anderson
Associate Producer: Reg Hill
Directors: Gerry Anderson, Alan Pattillo, David Elliott, Bill Harris & John Kelly
Production Supervisor: David Elliott
Director of Photography: John Read & Ian Struthers
Art Director: Bob Bell
Special Effects: Derek Meddings
Music Composed, Arranged & Conducted by Barry Gray
Title Music Arranged by Charles Blackwell

SYLVIA ANDERSON

AP Films’ third puppet series was a western fantasy called FOUR FEATHER FALLS (1959). Provis left the partnership but the company retained the name AP Films. Despite the success of FOUR FEATHER FALLS, Grenada did not commission another series. Anderson took a job directing a crime thriller film that flopped. AP Films was in financial trouble and couldn’t find a buyer for their next puppet series. Enter Sir Lew grade who offered to buy the show. This began a long friendship and successful professional association between Grade and Anderson. 

The new series was SUPERCAR – developed by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson and Reg Hill based on a story written by Sylvia Anderson. Sylvia became a partner in the company and SUPERCAR was the first official debut of Supermarionation. 

Supermarionation: The word is a portmanteau of “super,” “marionette.” and “animation” coined by Gerry Anderson. The puppets were electronic marionettes with a moveable lower lip that opened and closed in time to pre-recoded dialogue by means of a solenoid In the puppet’s head or chest. The term was first used during the production of SUPERCAR.

AP Films next series was the space adventure FIREBALL XL5. At the time it was their biggest success having the honor of being sold to an American TV Network – NBC. But with success comes imitation. Most notably SPACE PATROL (also known as PLANET PATROL) used similar techniques to Supermarionation and was made by former associates of Anderson, Arthur Provis and Roberta Leigh. 

Trivia

  • The show was originally supposed to be set in the 30th Century in the year 2962. It was later decided to make the show exactly one hundred years in the future in the year 2062. 
  • This was the first Gerry Anderson Supermarionation series to appear on US network television (NBC – Saturday mornings – 1963-1965). 
  • The characters often floated around in deep space with no helmets or protection whatsoever. The explanation was that they used “oxygen pills” that not only supplied them with air but also protected them from the vacuum of space, as well as lethal radiation, and temperature extremes. This meant they did not need spacesuits. In reality, they didn’t wear spacesuits because costume changes meant they literally had to rip off the previous costume from the puppet to sew on the new one. They would have exceeded the show’s production schedule as well as the budget. 
  • The voice of Robert the Robot was done by Gerry Anderson. This is the only time he performed on one of his own shows. 
  • Gerry Anderson never watched any of his old shows. If he came across them on TV he would change the channel. I can relate to that. 
  • FIREBALL XL5 debuted on British television on 28th October 1962. 39 episodes were made but only 35 were shown. Four were held back for the next season. This is why on the list of what order to watch the series there are 1963 airdates mixed in with 1962 airdates. 
  • The idea to use oxygen pills as a substitute for spacesuits came from Terry Nation – who went on to create the Daleks for DOCTOR WHO.
  • Christine Glanville made the puppet head for Venus. After sculpting several prototypes and presenting them to Sylvia Anderson she could not get approval. In desperation she asked her father for advice and he said to make the puppet look like Sylvia. It worked and that was the one they went with. Sometimes fathers do know best. 
  • In 2015, the Cult TV Awards recognized the works of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. For animated character, Steve Zodiac of FIREBALL XL5 was added. For female lead actress Wanda Ventham of UFO was added, and the documentary FILMED IN SUPERMARIONATION (2014) was hailed as presentation of the year. 
  • Sir Lew Grade – head of ITC – sold FIREBALL XL5 to NBC where it performed better than anyone had expected. This prompted Grade to buy Anderson’s company, A.P. Films. 
  • FIREBALL XL5 originally had the title NOVA X 100 before getting renamed. It was as CENTURY 21that it was presented to Sir Lew Grade. Anderson claims that the inspiration for the eventual title came from the motor oil Castrol XL. 
  • Gerry Anderson was not happy that they were never able to perfect the puppet’s walk. I remember as a kid my friends and I making fun of the “puppet walk.” It looked sort of like the way the Thermians walked in GALAXY QUEST (1999). I wonder if that is where that came from. It was because of Anderson’s frustration that Reg Hill came up with the jet scooters for the characters to get around in and not have to walk. 
  • Despite the ingenuity – and you can’t get anymore ingenious than Derek Meddings – the design team owed a debt of gratitude to their local Woolworth. Meddings and his team were regular customers buying up packets of Airfix kits which were then cut into bits and pieces and used to make their own designs more interesting.  
  • FOUR FEATHER FALLS (1960) was Gerry Anderson’s earlier puppet series. On FIREBALL XL5 it can be seen on TV screens. This happens mainly when Commander Zero’s son Jonathan watches TV.  
  • Just like later sci fi shows that used models, the spaceship Fireball XL5 came in a variety of sizes. A five-inch model was used for space shots. A twenty-four inch model was used for take-offs and landings. And there was a seven-foot model used for close-ups of the various parts of the ship. This included scenes using Fireball Junior.  

dislikes

  • FIREBALL XL5 is in black and white. This means limited special effects, limited visual effects, and none of the color or pizzazz you expect from a sci fi space opera. 
  • This is a children’s show – which means do not expect deep characterization, in-depth stories, or any problems that would take more than 25 minutes to solve. 
  • Not only is this a children’s show but it’s a show with puppets. There is something inherently cutesy about puppets that offsets whatever danger you may place them in.
  • The visual effects are based on models and miniatures. Granted you cannot see the wires but you know they are there. And there are just somethings that do not miniaturize – such as water and fire. 
  • Despite a good size cast of regular characters there is a lack of any cultural or ethnic diversity. Apparently one hundred years into the future everyone is going to be white, blonde, and male – except for a token female. 
Editorial use only Mandatory Credit: Photo by ITV/Shutterstock (525489qh) ‘Fireball XL5’ – 1962 – Robert the Robot, Steve Zodiac. ‘The Woman in Black’ film – 1989

Likes

  • That ship! I am in love with the Fireball XL5 and have been since I was 8 years old. That year that was what I wanted for Christmas. I didn’t want anything else. Whenever someone – aunt, uncle, grandparents, etc. – asked me what I wanted for Christmas I said the Fireball XL5 and nothing else. And my parents, God bless them, they got it for me. It was three feet long, Fireball Junior detached, and it came with action figures that fit inside. That was the best Christmas ever!
  • It was space baby! This was not my first introduction to a space opera. My parents used to like to watch a show called MEN INTO SPACE (1959) and I used to watch it with them. I didn’t understand what I was seeing but I watched it with them. FIREBALL XL5 was something else. It was on my level. I understood what was happening. I got excited when I was supposed to, got scared when I was supposed to, and laughed when I was supposed to. 
  • I like robots – so you can imagine how I feel about STAR WARS. This show had its own unique robot – Robert the Robot – who flew the ship, was transparent, and spoke in a funny way. I could imitate the way he spoke and it drove my mother crazy. 
  • Okay I know I put down puppets as one of the dislikes but hear me out. This show was the beginning of Anderson’s Supermarionation – a way in which the puppets spoke more normally and seemed more real. After a while you would forget they are puppets – believe me. 

Okay, let’s be real here. The first four dislikes on my list don’t really count. Of course the show was in black and white, this was 1962 – everything on TV was black and white in 1962. 

This was a children’s show. It was created as a children’s show, produced as a children’s show, it was promoted as a children’s show – they did not lie. Back in the early 60s space operas were considered kid’s stuff. If you don’t believe me, take a look at any episode of ROCKY JONES, SPACE RANGER (1954). In point of fact, in terms of quality FIREBALL XL5 (puppets) surpassed ROCKY JONES, SPACE RANGER (live action) and was a better show. Don’t take my word for it, check it out for yourself. The puppets were better actors than the humans. 

And as far as using miniatures – again this was 1962 and everybody used miniatures for their special effects. This is decades before CGI. Let me point out that the special effects director for FIREBALL XL5 was Derek Meddings. In addition to his work for Gerry Anderson he went on to work on projects such as six James Bond movies, THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT (1974), SUPERMAN (1978), and BATMAN (1989), just to name a few.

I strongly recommend FIREBALL XL5 for all those who love classic television, all those who love science fiction, all who love space operas, and all those in touch with their inner child and get a kick out of puppets. 

Keeping in mind that this is a television series and with all TV show some episodes are better than others and things can be a bit uneven. Therefore, I’m giving the show an overall rating of Four Gray Geeks.

That’s it for now gang. Thank you for letting me pay you a visit. I really do love the time we spend together. This was especially a labor of love for me because of how much I love this show. Until next time, hasta la vista baby!

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