Saturday, July 03, 2004

Fireball XL5, Thunderbirds and the world of tomorrow

I've been doing some reflecting on my childhood as part of a spiritual-formation group I've been invited to join. Four of us are starting on a year-long process, using The Spiritual Leader's Guide to Self-Care as an ongoing guide for reflection and self-examination in a small-group setting. It seems to be a really useful book for developing skills to maintain a sense of spiritual self-care for people who are spiritual leaders - not just pastors, but Sunday-school teachers, worship leaders, church musicians, church kitchen help, you name it. And as part of the first week's activities, we have been reflecting on our childhood and youth.

One of major themes I identified while reflecting on my misspent youth was my fascination with science and science-fiction. I spent a LOT of time reading about science and science fiction...I all but sucked the ink off issue after issue of National Geographic! And the more I saw how this affair with science and sci-fi had woven itself through my life, I had to ask myself, "What was the DEAL? Why was I obsessed so much with the future and the dreams-of-what-could-be?"

At least part of the answer I found is that it was just a sign of the times in which I grew up. After all, I was 5 years old when the Cuban missile crisis hit in 1962. (Put away your calculators...the number you're looking for is 47.)

For days, the fate of the free world hung in the balance - although all I knew as a 5-year-old was that the world had somehow suddenly become a terribly dangerous place, and a lot of people were very afraid. Over the next several years, people all along my street in Clarence, NY were building bomb-shelters, and I regularly participated in "air-raid drills" in my elementary school. This was the Cold War atmosphere of fear that was part of my early growing-up.

Enter Gerry Anderson and the SuperMarionation team. As the space race was beginning, in the wake of Sputnik and the Mercury launches in the early 60's, Anderson and a team of crazy folk used a combination of marionettes (puppets) and animation to create several absolutely visionary science fiction shows which started in the UK, and quickly jumped to the US. "Fireball XL5" was the first show I remembered, involving an atomic-powered spacecraft (pretty amazing, since it was only 3 years after the first nuclear-powered submarine had been launched!) and their battles for good in the universe. And once I saw that show for the first time, I knew something, beyond doubt.

I wanted to be Captain Steve Zodiac, captain of the Fireball XL5.

Still do, in fact.

Who wouldn't have, after all? At the time, I was overweight, sickly, and not at all popular with the neighbor kids. Steve Zodiac was dashing, handsome, and in charge of the coolest spaceship anyone had imagined at the time...sure put those silly Mercury and Gemini capsules to shame! I followed our own space race with whatever abandon a 5 year-old could summon - but watching "Fireball XL5" was a religious experience for my little mind. When the undersea version of XL5, "Stingray," came to TV, I ate that up as well.

But the mind-blowing sequel to these two shows was Thunderbirds, the story of an ex-astronaut widower and his sons, running a secret organization called "International Rescue," dedicated to rescuing the un-rescuable with their fleet of seemingly miraculous craft, all bearing the name "Thunderbird." For 1963, the animation was amazing - and I fell in love with the story almost at once. Whatever else was going on in my life at the time, I was definitely not a behavior-problem-kid on the days that Thunderbirds was on!

Why? What was the big deal? Why did I connect so deeply to this fantasy, or any of the others? And why, when I learned that a live, non-puppet "Thunderbirds" movie was coming to the screen on July 30th, did I have such a visceral reaction to it, four full decades later?? Why is it, that hearing the Thunderbirds' theme music, do smiles, and tears of fond memory, come to these near-sighted eyes?

I think a lot of it has to do with those formational days in 1963, and what so many kids my age were looking to find. "Thunderbirds" and their predecessors were set in the impossibly distant year 2063...a hundred years after some people claimed that our planet would be blown to bits. The very fact that Gerry Anderson, his wife Sylvia and their production team could even imagine a world existing in 2063 was a wonderful affirmation of hope. That people of great character would face terrifying danger to commit acts of heroism to protect others just seemed to be the kind of world I wanted to be a part of. And the vision of the really cool technology - and the vision of using that technology to help others - is something that I dreamed of for years. When Star Trek came to the screen in 1966, featuring crew-members from every nation (and the planet Vulcan!), it provided still more hope that a future of peace, unity and goodness was still possible.

When I later saw shows like "Stingray" and "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" actually come alive in the journeys of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Calypso (and their amazing real-life "diving saucer", and the deep-submergence craft (bathyscaph) Trieste (which literally did take a "voyage to the bottom of the sea!) I was ready to join up in a heartbeat. (A side note - when the deep-ocean exploration was vying with the space race, it was fun to see signs like this pop up.) It may sound cheesy and corny, but to this day, when I hear John Denver's song Calypso, or the hauntingly beautiful theme to The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, I still get chill-bumps and a smile...and wish I was out there with them.

And the reason I still get those kinds of reactions? I guess it's because I still want to believe that that kind of a future is still possible. One where we don't pour billions of dollars into making stuff like "depleted-uranium tank-killer shells," let alone choose to use them. A world where pushing back the thresholds of knowledge is more important than needing to push around other nations - or be pushed around by them. A world where the words "Love one another, as I have loved you" are not ignored, especially by the people who claim a special relationship with their Author. In spite of all the insanity of this world, I would choose to be a visionary (though God knows that I can be a particularly cynical visionary, at times).

I know that the upcoming Thunderbirds movie looks like it's going to be much more of a "Spy-Kids re-do a 60's TV show"...and I guess that's OK. But I'll bet that a lot of kids will be dragged to the show by their dads, looking to recapture the magic of 40 years ago - when a few puppets and a few toy models, in the hands of visionary women and men, gave us glimpses of an amazing world of possibilities. If there's one thing that the world of Gerry Anderson taught me, it's that a world of dreams and of hopes is far, far preferable to the alternative. This day, I will choose joy, and hope, and love.

See you at the movie...


Dave said...

Wow. I hadn't thought about those shows in years. But I'm a few years younger so I think I started with Stingray and maybe Voyage to the bottom of the sea. But Lost in Space was more my thing. And I think it was all about escape, cuz life really has always sucked. I don't think I realized it then though. I just thought it would be cool to be somewhere else. Neat stuff!

Peter said...

Wow--another one who looked up, a lot.

Fireball XL-5 was fantastic--never did quite warm to Mike Mercury and the Supercar (another spinoff), or the Thunderbirds, but what the hey: amazing music, animations (brilliant touch using actual human hands in the closeups), plots. What was that robot's name...?

Let's not forget Dr Who, while we're at it, expecially the Tom Baker years!

They had an innocence utterly lost in, say, Hitchiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and that was reflected in the idea that people could and would use advanced technology for good.

And SF still speaks to the angel we are, if you look carefully: a marvelous though difficult two-book series by Mary Doria Russell has science and spirituality (and a hell of a lot more) meet head on, and work together in her The Sparrow, and Children of God.

Well, as the XL-5 robot said, "On the way home."

Taccess said...

Discovered your great site...I'm a United Methodist Clergy Person and am currently teaching Psychology and Cognitive Behavior therapy at Michigan's largest private a kid (around age 9) I was also blown away by Fireball XL5...I didn't want to be the captain though...I was just COMPLETELY in love with smart, so cool, so pretty. I wanted to grow up and marry her. I'm SURE this impacted my spiritual development..LOL! Keep up the great work. I hope kids today can find such rich myths to dream upon as we had...