Gerry Anderson had made several puppet series in the late 1950s but it was his Supermarionation series, starting with Supercar in 1961, which brought him fame and success. Supercar was followed by Fireball XL5 which ran for 39 half-hour episodes from 1962 to 1963.
While the most notable thing about Gerry Anderson’s 1960s Supermarionation series was the extraordinarily rapid technical progress made in short a short period. Supercar back in 1961 was great fun but fairly crude. By 1967, with Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, Anderson’s series had become technically rather sophisticated and the special effects were often quite impressive.
There was another feature of these series that is worth noting. It’s almost as if Anderson was following the same cohort of kids as they gradually grew a bit older. Supercar and Fireball XL5 which followed a year later were very much children’s series. Stingray in 1964 gave the impression of being aimed at slightly older kids. By the time we reach Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons in 1967 we’re dealing with more what could be described as a young adult series rather a children’s series. The kids who watched Supercar six years earlier would now be a least approaching the young adult bracket. The much darker themes, the more realistic feel, the more life-like puppets, all these things make sense if we assume that all these series were watched by essentially the same group of kids.
The puppets in Fireball XL5 still have the exaggerated overtly puppet-like facial features that they had in Supercar. This would be toned down somewhat in Stingray and Thunderbirds. Opinions vary on the merits of the “big-headed” puppets used in all the series up to Thunderbirds compared to the naturally-proportioned puppets of the later Captain Scarlet and Joe 90. The earlier puppets do have a bit more personality.
Every Gerry Anderson series had to have a gimmick associated with the headquarters of whichever organisation was featured in the series. In Stingray Marineville can be made to disappear beneath the ground in the event of an attack, International Rescue’s headquarters in Thunderbirds is hidden on a remote island. In Fireball XL5 the main building of Space City rotates. I have no idea why it rotates but it adds the right futuristic touch.
Colonel Steve Zodiac is a typical Gerry Anderson square-jawed hero with an American accent (he was voiced by a Canadian actor). The crew of Fireball XL5 also includes the glamorous Frenchwoman Dr Venus (a doctor of space medicine, and voiced by Sylvia Anderson), Professor Matthew Matic (your basic absent-minded genius professor type) and Robert the Robot (voiced by Gerry Anderson, his only acting credit).
One of the fun things about shows like this is spotting the outlandish scientific errors. In Fireball XL5’s case the most obvious is that the characters can leave their spaceships and zip around in the vacuum of space without space-suits (although they do take oxygen tablets). Equally amusing is the idea (illustrated in Spy in Space) that during weightlessness you rise straight up to the roof of the spaceship cabin and you can’t get down again. Of course no-one would think of putting hand-holds inside a spaceship for such eventualities.
On the other hand the idea that the nose-cone of Fireball XL5 (Fireball Junior) can be detached to make landings on other planets while the rest of the ship remains in orbit is an interesting anticipation of the Apollo program.
In Spy in Space a bungling master spy is trying to steal FireballXL5.
Space Pirates is an enjoyable little romp, with a couple of pirates straight out of Treasure Island, complete with eye-patches, cutlasses and classic pirate talk.
In Space Pen daring thieves make their escape from Space City with top-secret material and they have even burgled Steve Zodiac’s own quarters. Fireball XL5’s pursuit of the thieves leads them to a prison planet where Steve, Venus and Professor Matic pose as gangsters. This is a fine episode.
In Plant Man From Space the Earth is menaced by monstrous plants from another planet. Steve and his crew will have to go to that planet to find a hormone that will prevent these plants from strangling the Earth. In this episode we see Fireball XL5’s predecessor, the Fireball XL1.
In Prisoner on the Lost Planet Fireball responds to a distress signal from uncharted space. It seems that a beautiful Amazon princess, marooned alone on a distant planet, needs to be rescued. Venus soon starts to suspect that Steve Zodiac will have to be rescued from the clutches of the Amazon princess! A fun episode.
1875 is an amusing little time travel story, with Steve Zodiac finding himself sheriff of a one-horse town in the Wild West, while Venus and Commander Zero are daring bank robbers.
These are all mainly comic episodes but there are some slightly more serious stories.
XL5 to H20 is a particularly good episode. It has a well thought-out and fairly exciting storyline, there’s a hint of real danger and we learn something new about Fireball Junior’s capabilities - it can act as a submarine. Steve Zodiac and his crew are on a mission of mercy to rescue the last two survivors of an entire civilisation but they find themselves in danger from a rather nasty alien.
The Last of the Zanadus tells the story of the sole survivor of a civilisation, and his plans for revenge on those who destroyed his people.
In The Sun Temple a missile from Earth aimed at an asteroid belt is mistaken by two crazed priests on the planet Rejusca for an insult to their sun god. Only a human sacrifice can atone for this insult! A reasonably entertaining episode.
In Mystery of the TA2 the crew of Fireball XL5 find the wreckage of a Space Patrol ship that disappeared forty-eight years earlier. The pilot apparently tried to reach a nearby ice planet - could he have survived in such an inhospitable world? Could he have survived there for half a century?
The Triads is a promising story in which Steve Zodiac and his crew are marooned on a planet where everything is three times bigger than on Earth. Unfortunately there’s just not quite enough plot to take advantage of the setup.
Special mention should be made of the delightfully sappy but oddly charming closing theme song, sung by Don Spencer.
Gerry Anderson wanted very much for each of his series to be superior to the one that preceded it and he communicated that determination to the entire production team. The most dramatic leap forward was probably that between Fireball XL5 and Stingray. Stingray wasn’t just technically more polished it was also slightly more sophisticated in its storytelling techniques. Everyone involved intended that Stingray would be a better series than Fireball XL5 and it is. But Fireball XL5 still has a certain charm. Recommended, and if you're a serious fan of Gerry Anderson's TV work you'll certainly want to see it.