In 1960 Gerry Anderson and his wife Sylvia started an empire of imagination called Supermarionation. Gerry Anderson had a broad and bold imagination that saw drama played out large and in explosively exciting manners. Unfortunately, that level of production is very costly and as an unproven producer, he had difficulty in earning the trust of a TV station or film production company. Using marionettes in place of live actors, Anderson found a loophole and presented his bold visions in miniature. His Supermarionation productions paved the way for special effects that would astound audiences in the James Bond films, but his more lasting legacy is in crafting the most mind-blowingly original children’s TV programs.
Screened in 1962, Fireball XL5 follows Supercar and predates Thunderbirds, two of Anderson’s more popular Supermarionation projects. As such, it often gets lost in the mix which is unfortunate as it is really very very fun.
Set in the near future, Fireball XL5 follows the deep space adventures of the dashing Steve Zodiac, brilliant Professor Matic and the lovely Dr. Venus, ship physician.
Co-piloting the massive space craft is Robert the Robot, a perspex creation that is a visually stunning marionette. A full three years before the Cybermen used the strange modulated voice, Robert the Robert sent shivers down my spine with his weird robotic tones (spoken by series creator Gerry Anderson!). Given that Anderson’s crew were constantly up against the limitations of the puppets they were working with, the design of Robert is terribly ambitious as it leaves nothing to the imagination. The clear exterior exposes every wire, motor and bulb.
It’s a great character and has a lasting impact on the viewer.
I have been working my way through the Gerry Anderson mythology including Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, Joe 90, Thunderbirds, etc. When the box set of Fireball XL5 arrived I was overjoyed. When my wife’s business trip occurred the next day, she was too.
I had the entire weekend to spend with my puppet pals. The cast is actually rather dull and combined with the limited early puppetry and black and white image, Fireball XL5 almost put me to sleep on first viewing. Then… it happened.
During the episode ‘The Hypnotic Sphere,’ a screaming brain preserved in a cake saver with a giant eye on a metal stand tried to conquer our heroes.
I was in heaven.
While Captain Scarlet was an action adventure science fiction series that never stopped astounding and Thunderbirds was a bizarre mixture of every disaster film ever made, Fireball XL5 was more subtle. It is set in a 1950’s era pulp sci-fi world with square-jawed heroes who make women swoon and dastardly villains who plot in the shadows. However, within this relatively safe setting, you get the screaming brain in a cake saver. It’s brilliance sneaks up on you and when it strikes… it strikes hard.
In a later episode, Steve Zodiac pilots his sky bike over a sea of flames only to be confronted by a pair of gun-toting aliens who launch into view in pneumatic plastic tubes. This series may lack the dynamic energy of other Supermarionation programs, it is definitely worth checking out.