Fireball XL5 was the second of Gerry Anderson’s ‘supermarionated’ offerings. First appearing in 1962, the full series of 39 episodes was extraordinarily successful since it was the only one of all Anderson’s puppet shows to have been syndicated in the U.S.
It was hugely popular. The closing theme song was a hit in the U.K. charts for songwriter Barry Gray and singer, Don Spencer. TV Comic magazine, then TV Century 21 after it carried Fireball XL5 as a very long running series; also, annual books were published and many different forms of merchandise were produced ranging from ray guns to action figures and replicas of the fabled spaceship.
This much and more is accurately reported on Wikipedia but I don’t need to go there to find these facts out, because in those days I was proud possessor of the ray gun water pistol, two of the annuals and a largish, plastic top button pin in the shape of wings with the XL5 logo on it that I had to smuggle out of the house under the noses of my parents, as they thought I looked somewhat ridiculous wearing it! At least, I used to do so until the teachers at school made me take it off…for looking ridiculous.
Was it that kids in those days were extraordinarily bored and that any old fantasy would do to occupy their time? Perhaps they believed implicitly anything you fed them; they lived in a time more innocent and all that?
No, at the back there, the real question is not: how did this guy make it to grown-up. The real question of course is: why did it inspire so many of us.
Fireball XL5 was by no means a realistic depiction of space flight. If Steve Zodiac, all-action space captain and heart-throb to medic Venus ever needed to perform a space-walk then he simply popped in an oxygen pill before sailing off into the radiation and its minus 273.15ºC vacuum without so much as an overcoat for protection. Neither did the production ever mention faster than light travel before episode 32 to explain how the ship zipped around Sector 25 covering distances in a day that, even then the public at large understood Einstein had defined illegal. Come to think of it, where exactly was Sector 25 in the Solar System, populated as it was with planets we had never heard of? I could not tell you what planets there were in the real Solar System when the series began, but I could by its end and a whole lot else about astronomy too.
I do not see though, why Gerry Anderson should be singled out for constructing universes out of a preposterous fabric of unscientific theory. The Quatermass films were by then making their way onto TV, also Doctor Who was just around the corner in 1963, together with Space Patrol; things like Star Trek, The Stone Tape and Doomwatch would follow. Once more, in Fireball XL5 the truth that we imagine what needs to be imagined had been realised. It’s the point. Space becomes a place for us to make up our own stories; it is not a place for pedants capable only of pointing out the improbable.
In depicting the future we often see in Fireball XL5 a form of ‘scientific magic’ solving problems rather than something emanating from hard science, which is a risky business in any age let alone when this was filmed. It’s usual to refer to Deus ex machina issues at this point as something pejorative, but I want to point out that sometimes as a plot device it is a good thing.
Scientific improbability should never be allowed to become a basis for disbelief. Even accepted facts such as the existence of Australia for those that have never experienced it need some faith, (with apologies to anyone reading this in a place they believe is actually Australia) and it is merely a writer’s duty to give us the barest surface upon which we can construct a convincing scaffold of reality in our minds.
Robert The Robot, voiced by Anderson himself is an interesting case in point if you compare him to equivalent machinery from other fiction. He is more machine than Artificial Intelligence, more robot than android. Give him an illogical command and smoke will begin to rise from his transparent body before he overheats and falls into an electronic coma. Does that make him more or less believable than Roy from Blade Runner, who was able to wonder if all the things he had seen were no more than tears washed away in the rain.
Is Anderson’s stuff SF, Fantasy or neither? This is a returning theme that comes up with each series – the universe behind the play. If you look closely it is definitely the case that, either intentionally or not the supermarionated series pushed the philosophical boundaries in every direction, just like good backdrop creation should in either SF or Fantasy.
It was the age of the space race, Telstar and Joe Meek’s Tornados. Good theme tunes about a widening horizon in the stars were almost inevitable and whether Fireball XL5 is the best of Anderson’s series I do not know. I do know however, that it and Stingray that follows are my favourites. The line drawn between the puppet as prop for imagination and the necessary skein of scientific reality had been achieved to just the right degree. That is the balancing fulcrum between success and failure throughout all the puppet show series, but more of that as I revisit them one by one.