'Thunderbirds Are Go!': 'Mad Men' in rescue ships gets an update and no more strings

"Thunderbirds Are Go!" may never get to the level of popularity in the United States that it enjoyed in the United Kingdom, but that's not stopping Amazon from rebooting the franchise — slated to officially premiere on April 22 — and it did not stop fans at WonderCon from celebrating it during the show's panel.

Images from the "Thunderbirds" series — mostly the ships that they pilot and the island that the rescuers make their home — played on the large screen in front of the room before Tom McLean, editor of Animation Magazine, came to the podium to introduce the panel.

David Graham, who plays reformed criminal-turned-manservant Aloysius Parker now and in in the original series,  David Menkin, who portrays two of the heroic Tracy brothers, Andres Williams, who takes the role as the villainous Hood and head writer Rob Hoegee were introduced as the panelists.

The original show was about an adventurous group of brothers who helped people using guts, training,  technology and cool vehicles. They were cool, and they were puppets.  The way the show is made is not the only thing that has been updated.

As you would think, the panel started off telling everyone what the difference will be between the new series and the 50-year-old classic "Thunderbirds." First was that the show had to update itself since the original was rooted in the '60s.

"There are 100% less martinis — and no smoking," said Hoegee.

"And they use seatbelts.  And helmets!” said Menkin.

"The original series was a product of its time. It was 'Mad Men' with rescue ships," said Hoegee.

The other big update is the use of CGI.  The sightly strings of the supermarionettes used on the show was a fun part of the viewing experience. The reboot, as Hoegee calls it, has transitioned away from the strings to a mixture of CGI animation and live-action model sets. Weta Workshop, made famous by creating the world of “The Lord of the Rings” in New Zealand, is the digital partner in creating the look of the new show. A trailer was shown explaining how Weta built the sets, along with the cars and vehicles, spotlighting how much special care was also put into making the headquarters of the rescue group, Tracy Island.

Graham, who received lengthy applause, also told the audience what changes might be in store for Parker, a character that he’s voiced for five decades.

“Has Parker changed much? No. He’s still an old reformed villain. The voice is still the same,” said Graham. “His relationship with Lady Penelope is still … deferential.  She has to keep her eyes on him in case he goes off the rails.”

Going off the rails is easy for Menkin, who plays two of the arguing Tracy brothers.

"I get my Gollum moments," said Menkin, referencing the performance of the schizophrenic character by Andy Serkis in the "Lord of the Rings" saga. With a popular reboot, the actor also believes it's both a blessing and a curse to have premeditated expectations.

"We're being set up to fail in a good way. Fans won't immediately accept you, so be who you think he is," said Menkin.

With changes that include recent Oscar nominee Rosamund Pike in the cast, those expectations may already exist. One thing about the show that has remained constant is the importance placed on the rescue vehicles.  Pike's Lady Penelope has one of the more distinctive vehicles with her pink, Parker-driven, six-wheeled flying car.  A video during the panel shows how each vehicle fits the personalities of the pilot and are as much characters as the people.

Before the Q&A session starts, one last video is squeezed in. There's a rescue of a father and son on a runaway hot air balloon, while simultaneously a mission is undertaken to repair a wayward satellite in space. That's just how the Thunderbirds roll.

Many of the questions asked were inaudible. Probably one of the better questions asked by the audience was the first one: "Why Amazon instead of Netflix?" Hoegee's response? "Because they’re better? Yeah, because they’re better. We just wanted to find the right partner."

And lastly, the crowd was treated to the first episode of the series. A minor surprise.

Tidbits:

— Seth Laderman (executive vice president/general manager of Comic-Con HQ) was excited that the fledgling streaming service would be offering "Thunderbirds" as well as Amazon Prime.

— A fan expessed happily that she has all kinds of DVDs, etc., of the show or related to it. To which Graham replied: 'Thank you, and you're money,"

— Hoegee, speaking about Pike: "Great to have a female lead who was just in the middle of being nominated for an Oscar."

—  Sylvia Anderson, a co-creator of the show who provided the voices of many female and child characters during the show's original run — including Lady Penelope — died last week. Hoegee and the actors thanked her before leaving the stage.

— After the panel: The show has an international divide. Menkin, an American, did not remember sitting down to watch the show, though he thinks he remembers seeing it. Williams, who's lived abroad in many locales, knew the show well and knew of its immense popularity.

— Also after the panel. Hoegee talked a bit more about the decision to not use marionettes, saying, "We wanted to emulate a little bit of the marionette," but "kids today would have a hard time buying that. Kids are demanding."

Follow me on Twitter: @Storiz

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