Best Episodes Ever: Action

by thethreepennyguignol

So, thanks for all your support and clicks on last week’s inaugural entry into the Best Episodes Ever series! This week, I wanted to do something a little different – less narrative, more genre, in the form of a dissection of a great episode of action.

And I thought long and hard about what I should put here. Game of Thrones‘ brutal classic Hardholme? Daredevil’s hallway fight scene? Something from the always-thrilling Vikings action canon? But those kind of scenes – where action tends to equal some form of violence – have been dissected to death, and frankly, I didn’t think I could add anything new to the discussion about them. So I decided to take it back, all the way back, to my childhood as told by puppets and VHS tapes – to Thunderbirds.

You can debate the relative of Thunderbirds versus Captain Scarlet any day of the week (in fact, my dad did just that over on his blog in an article that provides a pretty good introduction to the Anderson canon if you need a reminder), but for me, Thunderbirds is the finest of the shows to spring from the mind of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. I’d be stunned if anyone reading this didn’t at least have a passing acquaintance with the premise of the show, but in case you’ve somehow made it this far without watching a single episode: a secretive team known as International Rescue, led by Jeff Tracy and staffed by his five sons and a few other miscellaneous characters, use their superior technology (most significantly in the form of the titular Thunderbirds) and general decency to take care of unlikely disasters all over the world. From the music to the utter innovation in special effects to the fact that Virgil Tracy saying “F.A.B, Scott” still does things to me, Thunderbirds is one of the very first shows I ever really fell in love with, and when it came to action, I knew I had to come back here.

The episode I picked this week is Terror in New York City (which you can watch right here if you’re so inclined), widely considered the finest episode Thunderbirds put out in it’s thirty-two episode run, and a great example of how the show builds tremendously exciting action without having to hack anyone’s head off with a sword or throw someone down the stairs. So, stick the utterly superb theme song on a loop and let’s take a look at the classic episode.

One of the things I think that this episode gets so right is that every bit of action is an integral part of the story or themes that Terror in New York City is trying to share with it’s audience. And there’s a real range of action here – from the chase scene at the start as Scott hounds a news van in Thunderbird 1 (objectively the coolest Thunderbird) to ensure footage of the Thunderbirds isn’t released, to the mistaken airborne attack on Thunderbird 2, to the collapse of the Empire State Building, to the race-against-time underwater climax, the show is constantly pushing for something new, as opposed to just having Matt Murdock punch people in a variety of different settings (I’ll stop dragging Daredevil now, I promise).

The episodes revolves around someone trying to move the Empire State Building (yeah, alright, I know), when an underwater estuary leads to it’s collapse and the trapping of two reporters who were previously on the scene; a rare appearance from Thunderbird 4 is required to rescue them from the rapidly-rising water level, but Thunderbird 2, which would have no problem dropping off 4 at the scene in a matter of minutes, is out of action and time is running out for the waterlogged reporters as they must find another way to get Thunderbird 4 to the scene in time.

Now, I think a lot of shows might just have had Thunderbird 2 down for maintenance or something hand-wavey like that in order to invoke the conflict of the race-against-time, but Terror in New York City actually dedicates a good third of it’s runtime to showing Thunderbird 2 being taken out of action: on the way back from securing an oil rig fire, Thunderbird 2 is mistakenly fired on by a military boat and it’s pilot, Virgil (my first crush), is nearly killed as it sustains terrible damage and only just makes it back to Tracy Island in flames. It’s probably the most effective action scene in the episode in terms of tension and sheer thrill, as Thunderbird 2 plunges towards the water with a comatose Virgil at the controls while his brother Scott tries to talk him through the crash from Thunderbird 1, but it also sets up the out-of-action Thunderbird 2 with some real panache and excitement.

But just as important is the notion that the Thunderbirds are fallible. Virgil is seriously injured and unconscious for several days after the crash – I remember watching this when I was a kid, and that smash-cut to him trapped inside the burning craft really freaked me out. Like all great action, it underlines the point that our heroes are far from invincible. Where’s the excitement if they can just swing in and save the day every single time without facing any significant danger? Later in the episode, Scott has to talk Gordon (pilot of Thunderbird 4, objectively the least cool Thunderbird) through a perilous underwater rescue mission, and the work the episode did showing us how badly wrong things can go lends this sequence some real tension. The plot strands tie together beautifully, and allows Thunderbirds to invoke their traditionally breathless climactic style with some real grounding.

And that climactic style is on full display here, as the episode goes to delightfully absurd ends to keep that tension high. It’s really impressive watching these episodes again, fifty years after their first broadcast, and appreciating the sheer effort that went into ensuring that these action scenes make sense: the problem I have with many of the CGI-clusterfuck third acts of action movies over the last few years is that they often lack a sense of basic cohesiveness; who is where, where are they in relation to each other, what are they doing, why is that happening?

Usually, that’s replaced with a bunch of Big moments that feel as though they have little grounding in the established reality of the sequence (pretty much all of the DC movies are great examples of this, but Batman versus Superman is a particularly good bad example). But Terror in New York City keeps things relatively small – with just two people to save and one Thunderbird on the scene – and goes to great lengths to keep tabs on everything that’s happening and how it relates to everything else. Nothing is unexplained, nothing hand-waved away: it’s simple, sure, but you can trace the throughline of the disaster from beginning to end, and that’s why the action works.

A variety of action that informs both the themes and the plot of the episode and the show at large is what makes Terror in New York stand out, not just as an excellent episode of Thunderbirds, but an excellent example of how to write good, exciting, coherent action sequences. Nothing is there for the sake of looking cool (though a lot of it still does; the very specific charm of the lo-fi puppetry and special effects work renders Thunderbirds instantly recognisable and invokes an immediate nostalgia that’s hard to beat) – it’s there because the story requires it to exist. It’s taut, lean, and still thrilling despite the fact it’s performed by puppets with a single facial expression and visible strings. More than anything, Terror in New York City is a reminder that you don’t need blood, guts, or a ten-million-dollar budget to make good action: just a focus on character, story, and coherence, and maybe the Empire State Building blowing up into the bargain.

Tune in next week for the next part of this series, where I’ll be taking a look at how to pull off a brilliant twist. If you enjoyed this series and want to see more stuff like it, please consider supporting me on Patreon for access to exclusive articles or check out my other site No But Listen for my movie-related writing with another pop culture blogger.

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