Book review: ‘Thunderbirds’ and ‘Calling Thunderbirds’, by John Theydon

2 11 2017

‘John Theydon’ was one of many pen-names used by prolific English novelist John W Jennison, who’s credited with more than a hundred mostly-formulaic novels in the thriller, western, and SF genres. It’s under the Theydon sobriquet that Jennison produced around a dozen Supermarionation tie-in novels in the space of four years from 1965 to 1969, encompassing the Supercar, Stingray, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, and Secret Service series. He wasn’t the only writer hired to produce tie-ins for these series, but he does seem to have been the most productive, with four of the ten ‘original’ (1966-1967) Thunderbirds novels appearing under the Theydon pen-name and another two credited to Jennison.

Thunderbirds

Thunderbirds, the first of the tie-ins for the show, starts with a relief mission to the (inexplicably-manned) monitoring satellite Thunderbird Five, where first John and then Alan are knocked unconscious by a mysterious asteroid in a (physically untenable) thirty-minute orbit. When the small asteroid subsequently crashes in the Gobi desert, it starts to send out strange signals which the Tracys’ pet boffin Brains is eventually able to decode as a call for rescue. So Scott heads off in Thunderbird One to investigate. But the asteroid’s ‘crew’ (which are, it transpires, extraterrestrial in origin) turn out not to be entirely benign …

It’s difficult to imbue the literally-wooden puppet characters of a Supermarionation series with much by way of personality, and Theydon sensibly seems to recognise that this would be largely a wasted effort. The closest the book comes to actual characterisation is in its exploration of the dynamic between socialite-spy Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward and her ex-crim chauffeur Parker, who play an important role in the book’s latter stages, but elsewhere the reader must make do with the unreasonably-heroic Tracy brothers and the one-dimensional he’s-evil-because-he’s-evil-ness of the psychically-adept and scarily bald-but-with-beetling-brows Hood, who usefully monologues to himself so we know what he’s thinking without actually having to be placed inside the sinister confines of his mind. (On the subject of The Hood, Jeff Tracy’s manservant Kyrano, and Kyrano’s daughter Tin Tin, it has to be said that the series’ stereotyping of Asian characters oscillates between offensive and ludicrous, but then the show was a product of its time.)

But, of course, Thunderbirds is less about the human characters than it is about the marvellous machines, and Thunderbirds One through Five all get some page time here. Theydon’s treatment of the Thunderbirds in operation is faithful to the TV show, but there are a couple of lapses: references to ‘the silver nose cone of Thunderbird One‘ (p. 28) and ‘the green underwater vessel [Thunderbird Four] was gliding down its ramp rails‘ (p. 119) suggest that he might have been watching the show on a black-and-white set (and hadn’t bothered, for the nosecone, to check the cover art). There’s also a spot on p. 118 where what is clearly meant to be Thunderbird Two is described as ‘Thunderbird Four’, which perhaps relates to the TB4 colour confusion on the next page. Otherwise, the book seems to get it right.

Overall, the plot has some silliness (to give just one example, the alien vessel requires darkness to operate but is itself continually luminous), but presents a reasonable adventure separate to any represented in the show itself.

CallingThunderbirds

Calling Thunderbirds is the second of Theydon’s ‘International Rescue’ tie-ins. It opens with a pre-emptive rescue mission to Lima, which Brains has warned of an impending earthquake. Thanks to the advance notice, no lives are lost, but the ongoing seismic activity ensures plenty of work for Firefly and the Mole. The bulk of the story, though, is concerned with the rescue of Lady Penelope and her cousin Gus, who have been kidnapped by a ruthless gang of treasure-hunters keen to track down the lost Inca emerald mine to which they believe Gus holds the map. There is, of course, the usual involvement of serial-pest-and-would-be-world-dictator The Hood; the usual excruciating stereotyping of any non-Anglo characters (in this case, Peruvians); and the usual slapdash compliance with the laws of physics (here typified most strongly by the notion that a six-wheeled Rolls Royce would be able to drive cross-country through hundreds of kilometres of Amazonian jungle without so much as scuffing its hot-pink duco). This is, though, a somewhat tighter and better-constructed story than that of the first novel, perhaps because it does not feel any necessity to showcase all of the Thunderbirds or all of the Tracys: TB3, TB4, and TB5 don’t really feature at all, and most of the wooden character interaction centres around Scott, Penelope, and Parker. It also helps that there are some moments of genuine intrigue in between the silliness this time around, and Theydon can manage some effective imagery when he gets the opportunity. I suspect that the concept ‘ideal Thunderbirds novel’ is just too riddled with internal contradictions to have any real meaning, but this one’s not bad.

Offences against the laws of continuity, this time around: there’s another reference to ‘the silver nose-cone of Thunderbird One‘ (p. 11), and elsewhere Scott muses that they’re ‘in the middle of the twentieth century‘ (p. 82; the story is set in 2066, i.e. two-thirds of the way through the twenty-first).

And I feel strangely compelled to share the following snippet (from p. 110) with you, if only because, shorn of all context, it is so gloriously open to misinterpretation:

Don’t exaggerate, dear boy,” Lady Penelope murmured. “It is only ten inches.

As historical documents, these books probably don’t rate, and they’re likely to be of interest only to Supermarionation tragics such as myself. But they do have their moments.

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