Monday, 29 June 2009

DVD Review: Fireball XL5 - Special Edition boxset (out now)

DVD's strip-mining of the UK TV archives continues with much stirling work done by the folks at Network DVD who have, over the years, unearthed a veritable treasure trove of classic TV material, some of it at best barely remembered, and reintroduced it to an intrigued public who must almost inevitably watch in awe whilst muttering "They just don't make 'em like that any more..." And they really don't. Much of the time I'm convinced today's British TV execs wouldn't even know how to try to make some of the shows which are making their way onto DVD these days. They've shown, fairly recently, that they've no idea how to handle and market the work of the great TV pioneer Gerry Anderson (witness the witless, disgraceful way ITV treated Anderson's recent CGI reboot of Captain Scarlet which, due to ITV idiocy, sank without trace a few years back). Fortunately people like Network DVD are rather more clued-up and can appreciate the value of good classic TV and, when the show deserves it, pull out all the stops to give a cult classic the lavish treatment its audience demand and deserve. Kudos then to Network for this brilliant new 6-disc edition of one of Anderson's early work, Fireball XL5, available from today (29th June). Originally released in a bare-bones set some years ago, this new set and its generous and fascianting extras - more of which later - is pretty much an essential purchase for Anderson fans and anyone with a hankering for a bit of good old TV from the inncoent black-and-white days.

You know Fireball XL5, of course. Following on from Anderson's earlier puppet-show successes Four Feather Falls and Supercar (both also available on DVD), Fireball XL5 saw Anderson pick up on the increasing interest being shown in the notion of space travel in the early '60s (the time of the space race) and in many ways created a template for future series which he revisited time and again throughout the decade and beyond. Here a fleet of sleek, sophisticated and, let's face it, iconic space rockets called Fireballs, patrol the space lanes from their base at Space City, defending Earth from any number of outlandish alien aggressors and cosmic threats. Pilotting Fireball XL5 is square-jawed blond-haired hunk Steve Zodiac along with fellow crew-members Dr Venus (space doctor), bumbling scientist Matt Matic and the ship's co-pilot Robert the (transparent) Robot (voiced by Anderson himself). All 39 episodes of the series are contained in this colourful box set and, even if you've never seen the show before and are of the opinion that creaky kid's puppet shows from the early 1960s are best left in the memories of those who saw them at the time, you really need to think again. This is gorgeous, insane, delightful stuff, a boxset to savour, and, once you've attuned yourself to the style of production and the basic, innocent level of story-telling, you'll find yourself flying through the episodes at a rate of knots and probably falling in love with these fibre-glass characters, every supporting wire visible on the screen in an image far more detailed than the show's makers would ever have intended.

These are fast and furious little sci-fi stories, Anderson and his team clearly relishing the opportunity to explore space and all its mysteries - from magnetic planets, hypnotic planets, deadly missiles, plant men, weird aliens with big eyebrows. Each episode sees Fireball blast off - and what a blast-off! - from Space City to combat some new alien threat and it's all such fun because it's so naive and yet, for its 1962 audience, probably all very new indeed (remember this is three of four years before Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek, a series which could almost be seen as a live-action verison of Fireball). There's some rudimentary characterisation here too; Professor Matic is your archetypal bumbling absent-minded scientist, Venus has a crush on Steve even though he's unaware of it, and the controllers of Space City develop a comedic love/hate relationship. But don't expect great story arcs here - this isn't Babylon 5 or Battlestar Galactica. Each twenty-five minute episode bounds along, punctuated by Derek Meddings' then-state-of-the-art special effects (most of which still stand up to inspection today), Barry Gray's strident theme and incidental scores and it's all wrapped up nicely at the end with no-one killed or injured and everything back to normal and as it should be in the Universe. Lovely.

All 39 episodes have been remastered to the point of looking brand new. The images and clear and pinpoint sharp (those wires!!) and it's hard to believe these shows were made nearly fifty years ago. Good grief, I feel old...

The sixth disc is where classic TV fans will find the real magic in the form of as comprehensive a bunch of special features as I've seen on any classic TV boxset outside Dr Who. Here we have a glorious and absorbing seventy-odd minute behind-the-scenes documentary narrated by Shane Rimmer chronicling the genesis and the making of the series with contributions from practically everyone still alive involved in the show's production. Comic strips fans will revel in the wonderfully engrossing thirty-plus minute documentary chronicling the history of Fireball in comic strips form, from the days of TV Comic, the legendary TV21 and on into Countdown and TV Action in the 1970s. Ah, such memories... Then we have some home movie footage filmed on set by comic strip artist Bill Mevin and a beautiful colourised version of one episode from the series. It looks astonishing - so how about a fully-colourised boxset, Network? Or am I just being greedy? There's also a chunky 60 page booklet by TV historian Andrew Pixley for you to devour if you need to know more...

My shelves are groaning under the weight of dozens and dozens of TV series boxsets. Few of them scream 'labour of love' the way this Fireball XL5 set does, from its design, the menus, the look of the episodes and the special features. It's a brilliant, enchanting set and it really couldn't come much more highly recommended. Just buy it!

Fireball XL5 Special edition is released on 29th June 2009 in the UK. Many thanks to Network DVD for providing Stuff's review copy.


Sunshine Superman said...

I was always a Fireball XL5 man. That and Stingray. Then later, Captain Scarlet. The most popular one of them all, Thunderbirds, good as it undoubtedly was, always came fourth in my love of GA's shows.

KWW-NOA said...

I remember what I assume was the first of the Gerry Anderson's: Supercar! Mike Mercury, Professor Popkiss, Dr Beaker and Little Jimmy. Bad guys Master Spy and Friend Zarin always up to no good. But does anyone recall an even earlier puppet show (Not a GA) called Space Patrol? Some of the scariest aliens on TV!