Star Trek, Darkover, Thunderbirds and Fan Fiction: An Interview With Joan Marie Verba (Part Two)

You are now writing professional novels surrounding Thunderbirds. Many Americans may not know this franchise. What can you tell them about the series which might prompt their interest?

I was watching the Gerry and Sylvia Anderson productions (starting with Supercar) before Star Trek came on the air. The premise of Thunderbirds is that Jeff Tracy and his five adult sons and associates have a secret base on a South Pacific island. They call their organization International Rescue, and they're dedicated to helping people in danger who are otherwise unable to be reached by traditional first responders. They have aircraft and equipment which is years ahead of their contemporaries: Thunderbird 1, a rocket-reconnaissance vessel; Thunderbird 2, a heavy-rescue aircraft; Thunderbird 3, a rocket used for space rescues; Thunderbird 4, a submarine for underwater rescues; and Thunderbird 5, their communications satellite.

Each of my Thunderbirds novels is written so that readers don't have to know anything about International Rescue in order to follow it. I have had many readers coming to these novels with no knowledge of the TV series who have enjoyed them immensely.

Thunderbirds dates back to the mid-1960s, roughly the same time period as Star Trek. What similarities and differences do you see between the two? Has Thunderbirds maintained a continuing presence in British culture over the years between?

Thunderbirds is similar to Roddenberry's Star Trek in that it has an optimistic vision of the future. Thunderbirds is set in the 2060s, and the speed of light has not been exceeded, so they're limited in missions on Earth and within the solar system. As with Star Trek, Thunderbirds features a lot of futuristic technology and innovation, and the consequences of such developments (that is, new technology sometimes works great, and other times, new technology causes new problems that the characters have to deal with). In both series, the characters often wrestle with the ethics and consequences of what they're doing, debate as to what the correct approach to the situation is, and regularly have to make more than one attempt before achieving their objectives. Both series have elements of drama and humor, and in both series, each character seems to have a unique following among the fans. So there's a similar subtext as well as a similar futuristic outlook.

In Great Britain, Thunderbirds has been on the air constantly since the 1960s (much as Star Trek has been in the U.S.). Its characters are featured in commercials all the time. (I viewed 2 of them last year on YouTube.) As with Star Trek in the U.S., there are ongoing cultural references, as well. (I have seen a "Photoshopped" photo of Prime Minister Gordon Brown dressed in an International Rescue uniform, for instance, and have been told that former Prime Minister Tony Blair had the Thunderbirds theme played when he took office.)

Thunderbirds is popular in many places around the world, as well. For instance, when she was on the International Space Station, NASA played the Thunderbirds introduction as a "wake-up call" for Canadian Astronaut Julie Payette, who is a Thunderbirds fan.

I've read that Gerry Anderson is planning a new Thunderbirds series, substituting computer animation for the original puppetry. What factors suggest there may be a new potential audience out there for this franchise?

Gerry Anderson definitely wants to produce a new Thunderbirds series with CGI, similar to what he did with New Captain Scarlet, which was based on his 1960s series with marionettes. I think that CGI is the way to go, since the most common dismissal one hears of Thunderbirds is that it's "just a puppet show." For some, it seems that the marionettes distract attention from the characters and the stories.

I found, when I bought the DVD set back in 2003, and was able to study Thunderbirds at length and in depth, is that the scripts were more sophisticated than a lot of people give them credit for. The Thunderbirds TV series was written both for children and adults (which is what I also try to do with my novels). While the series can be enjoyed on a superficial level, there's an undercurrent of substance that adults can relate to as well. In seeing and reacting to "just puppets," I think a lot of people miss that subtext.

My opinion is that in order to re-create a series in any form (movie, television, novels, etc.), it's essential to have a grasp of the original text, as well as the original subtext. Yes, any re-creation of the original will be controversial among fans, because fans have so many different approaches to the original it's impossible to please them all, but a superficial approach to the original will result in pleasing no one, because it will seem "fake," even to those who have no knowledge of the original concept. In contrast, when a series seems "genuine," it appears to attract a more favorable response, even among those who aren't aware of the original series. That's the reason I think the franchise can draw a new audience.

Sheenagh Pugh has argued that fan fiction is written from a desire for "more of" and "more from" the original text. The same is often true of professional extensions. Which is the urge which led you to write these novels and how do they satisfy your fannish interest in the property?

I agree that the desire for "more" is a strong motivation. The original Thunderbirds lasted only one and a half seasons. I felt there were a lot more stories to tell, and a lot of potential that had been left untapped.

Writing officially licensed Thunderbirds novels is very satisfying for me as a fan, because I can spend time with the characters that I love and the alternate universe that is Thunderbirds, which I find very attractive. As is the case with Star Trek, Thunderbirds shows a future that I would be happy to live in.

Joan Marie Verba earned a bachelor of physics degree from the University of Minnesota Institute of Technology and attended the graduate school of astronomy at Indiana University, where she was an associate instructor of astronomy for one year. She has worked as a computer programmer, editor, publisher, and health/weight loss coach. An experienced writer, she is the author of the nonfiction books Voyager: Exploring the Outer Planets, Boldly Writing, and Weight Loss Success, as well as the novels Countdown to Action, Action Alert, and Deadly Danger, plus numerous short stories and articles. She is a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. She has served on the board of directors of both the Minnesota Science Fiction Society and the Mythopoeic Society.

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