In the UK throughout the 1960s, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson produced a series of science fiction TV shows aimed at younger viewers using puppets, specifically marionettes—Stingray, Thunderbirds, and Captain Scarlet to name a few—and although the marionettes’ strings were evident and facial expression was limited in the beginning, after further development the strings grew thinner and stronger, and lip movements became electronically synchronized with pre-recorded dialogue, hence Gerry Anderson’s trademarked Supermarionation.
This was hard "sci-fi" for kids. Flying cars, spaceships, space travel, aliens, piranha fish submersibles, rockets, tunnel borers, futuristic (at the time) espionage and global terrorism, future-tech gone disastrously awry, and villains that the James Bond franchise would be proud of. Some of the later shows grew very dark and morally ambiguous, too: Captain Scarlet, for example, crossing swords with the Mysterons, against whom we’d fired the first shot.
And while the 1960s were evolving into a place where women couldn’t do this or that—too weak, too distracting—these shows offered a different view, where men and women were working together (Imagine that!) on a variety of tasks, on land, in the air, and in space.
First and foremost, Sylvia Anderson deserves a major hat-tip. Co-creator, co-writer, co-producer, and responsible for character development and costumes within the shows, she also provided the voices for Thunderbirds’ Lady Penelope and Fireball XL5’s Doctor Venus. And although critics argue that most of the initial female characters are stereotypically white, blond, and big-eyed, by the time we arrive at Captain Scarlet, its all-women team of fighter pilots is multi-national and could easily pass the Bechdel Test.
In Fireball XL5, Doctor Venus has five years of space adventure under her belt and is a doctor of space medicine. A full member of the ship’s crew, she is frequently in the midst of the action on behalf of the World Space Patrol, occasionally with stethoscope in hand, helping to save the day.
In Stingray, and despite their romantic inclinations being focused on the same guy (Troy Tempest, naturally), Lieutenant Atlanta Shore and Pacifican mermaid Marina still maintain a firm friendship, and as members of the World Aquanaut Security Patrol (WASP), keep the oceans safe from Titan and his fleet of Terror Fish. At the beginning of every show, we’re told, “Anything can happen in the next half hour!” It can, and does, and the women are always in the thick of it.
Thunderbirds is perhaps the most famous of the Supermarionation shows and possesses its very own Scarlet Pimpernel in the form of Lady Penelope Creighton-Ward, International Rescue’s London agent. Poised and unflappable, she (and her safe-cracking butler, Parker) thwarts many a villain throughout the series, invariably getting her hands dirty while hiding behind an aristocratic and socialite façade.
Finally, in Captain Scarlet's “war of nerves” against the Mysterons, Spectrum’s Cloudbase is defended by a multi-national squadron of women fighter pilots—code names Melody, Destiny, Harmony, Symphony, and Rhapsody Angel. This is a much darker show, but instead of remaining in the background while their male counterparts are shot, blown up, and buried, over and over, the women are on the front lines, similarly under threat.
Like a lot of older shows, they’re probably dated by now and will certainly have their flaws, but they undoubtedly inspired this little girl back in the day, by offering me a world of can-do, rather than can’t. During this Thanksgiving, I shall raise a glass: To the women of Supermarionation!