By Chris Dale
Hot on the heels of our Supercar Blu-ray release comes another classic Supermarionation series in High Definition! All thirty-nine episodes of Fireball XL5 will soon be launching onto Blu-ray from Network Distributing, in a deluxe limited edition boxset!
First airing in October 1962, Fireball XL5 saw the Supermarionation universe leap forward one hundred years into the fantastic future of 2062. Each week Colonel Steve Zodiac (voiced by Paul Maxwell) would take to the stars for a new adventure aboard Fireball XL5, one of a fleet of XL rocket ships belonging to the World Space Patrol. Along for the ride were the scientific genius Professor Matthew Matic (David Graham), the “beautiful doctor of space medicine” Venus (Sylvia Anderson), and Steve’s robotic co-pilot Robert – voiced by Gerry Anderson himself, using an artificial larynx!
Back at Space City, headquarters of the WSP located on an island in the South Pacific, operations were overseen by the lovably cantankerous Commander Zero (John Bluthal) and his eager young assistant Lieutenant 90 (Graham). Venus’ alien pet Zoonie (Graham again) was often on hand to cause trouble or save the day (sometimes both in the same episode), while technical matters were handled by Scottish chief engineer Jock Campbell (Bluthal) – predating Star Trek’s Scotty by several years!
As with Supercar, the series also featured two sets of recurring antagonists; the warlike Subterrains from Planet 46, determined to have revenge on Steve Zodiac for the capture of their leader in the first episode, and interplanetary espionage agents Boris and Griselda Space Spy. When not thwarting the diabolical machinations of both parties, the Fireball XL5 crew can often be found dealing with a variety of one-off aliens – adversaries and allies alike – as they patrol Sector 25 of the galaxy!
Fireball XL5 was originally to be titled Century 21, and was considered as one of two possible successors to Supercar. The other concept under consideration was a hybrid of Supermarionation and live action, with the live action segments featuring a small boy named Joe who each night dreamed of exploring the universe (in puppet form) as the daring space adventurer Joe 90 at the controls of the fantastic rocket ship SPV 1 Zero. While the Supermarionation universe would have to wait a little longer for Joe 90, SPVs and live-action hybrid productions, the Century 21 concept – eventually retitled Fireball XL5 – was selected to enter production, and began filming at AP Films’ Slough-based studio in February 1962.
In keeping with the Andersons’ desire to make each series bigger and better than their last, Fireball XL5’s storytelling canvas would encompass the entire universe – and the show’s writers (all new to the Supermarionation universe bar the Andersons) would take full advantage of the limitless possibilities it offered. Understandably, given its sci-fi setting, XL5 would also be a more effects heavy series than its predecessor, allowing Derek Meddings and his team the chance to design a variety of alien spacecraft and bases – as well as more opportunities to blow their creations to pieces! The puppet sculptors were now also called upon to create a variety of new alien creatures, and characters like the titular Plant Man from Space, the Aquaphibian of Zofeit, the giggling Lillispatians and the ice men of Arctan show their eagerness to let their imaginations run riot.
Part of Fireball XL5’s enduring charm, is in its earnest reflection of one of the primary cultural concerns of the era in which it was made; the space race of the early 1960s. As rockets, and then men, were launched into space, it seemed almost inevitable that humanity was about to enter a new era of interplanetary travel that would forever change our whole way of life. The imaginations of an entire generation of young viewers were captivated by the seemingly very real possibility that mankind would be walking (and living) on the Moon in just a few short years – and from there, surely the rest of the solar system (and beyond) would follow? Fireball XL5 was one of several sci-fi shows of the era that ran with that expectation and expanded it to a galactic scale, presenting viewers with an optimistic future in which the entire universe was open for exploration and colonisation – and in which planets were often named after their single defining characteristic (“Aridan! The desert planet!”) or just given a random number.
This optimism regarding mankind’s inevitable leap to the stars, was reflected in the show’s science – or perhaps more accurately, lack thereof. The XL5 crew were armed with ray guns, as all respectable spacemen of the 1950s and early 1960s were, and could use either thruster packs or jetmobiles to get around more easily (and thus save the puppets the problem of walking). However, the most notable (and infamous) element of XL5’s science came with the ‘oxygen pills’, which enabled the crew to safely leave the ship without first donning a spacesuit. When viewed today it’s certainly amusing to watch the XL5 crew launch themselves into the vacuum of space to no ill effect, but it does reflect the strength of contemporary public belief in the future of space travel on which the show was founded. Any boring scientific details could be worked out along the way; the important thing was that we would be living our lives among the stars sooner rather than later. This dream was even reflected in the lyrics of the show’s closing titles song Fireball, performed by Don Spencer – which reached number 32 in the UK music charts in March 1963.
Fireball XL5 holds the unique distinction of being the only Anderson series to have been networked in the United States, airing on NBC from 1963 to 1965, and remains especially fondly remembered Stateside. Tom Hanks himself is rumoured to have been a fan of the show, with a clip from the series appearing in his 1996 written and directed movie That Thing You Do!, and the Fireball song playing over the end credits of an episode of the 1998 HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon on which he served as co-producer. The show also saw massive international merchandising success, and UK readers would soon be enjoying new adventures of the XL5 crew in comic form, most notably as one of the initial full colour strips of the classic TV Century 21 comic.
Despite phenomenal success in its day, Fireball XL5 (along with Supercar) is now often unfairly overlooked in favour of the full colour Supermarionation shows that would follow it, and yet all of them owe a great debt to the pioneering work of both. With Fireball XL5, the AP Films team were now working in a completely science fiction universe for the very first time, where the only limits were the imaginations of the writers – and the production team’s own rapidly developing skill and sophistication in bringing their increasingly ambitious stories to life. From the Stingray-style underwater adventure of XL5 to H2O, to the Captain Scarlet-ish alien creepiness of Last of the Zanadus and Robert to the Rescue (plus plenty of just-in-time saves worthy of Thunderbirds in such episodes as Space City Special and Convict in Space), Fireball XL5 offered exciting foreshadowing of the kinds of shows that were soon to come – while also remaining a hugely entertaining series in its own right!
Fully remastered in 1080p High Definition from the original 35mm elements, this ‘real boss’ Fireball XL5 Blu-ray set also features a superb selection of physical and digital special features, so be sure to pre-order your deluxe limited edition box set today – or be left feeling like a total tootie!