Terrahawks: Made Mostly of Wood
by Ben - April 20 2009


Let’s face it, for better or for worse, we at Colony Drop are generally preoccupied with the bad. When it comes to anime few things tend to invite our righteous indignance like vapidity, pandering, lost direction and momentum, and remembering how much more charming the bad of the ’80s was. But we are not single-minded cynics, and even we grow tired of kicking anime around every now and again. Returning to the storied fields of Western geek culture we often rediscover old treasures, reaffirm traditional nerd values and recognize the commonalities that bind us all together.

In the course of that reflection, of course, we tend to unearth horrors in our own backyard. And with Terrahawks I think we may finally have trumped anime for the ability to destroy a man’s soul.

...


Terrahawks, of course, is not anime. It is a puppet show or rather, a British-made “Supermacromation” show, combining hand puppets with Toho-style remote-controlled models and lots of pyrotechnics. Created by Gerry Anderson and Christopher Burr in 1983, Terrahawks followed on the success of Anderson’s earlier “Supermarionation” show Thunderbirds, minus much of the charm and almost all of the creative integrity involved with that project. Despite all manner of apparent production horrors and leadership vacuum (a running theme in the DVD commentary with the producers seems to be decisions made over alcohol and the inability to recall details afterward), 39 episodes of Terrahawks somehow made it to British television to traumatize its young viewers for years yet to come.

The setup seems innocent enough. In the year 2020 a race of evil androids attack a NASA colony on Mars and proceed to declare war on Earth for generally debasing the solar system. Opposing them are the extra-governmental Terrahawks, who have their own spaceship and associated space planes with which to repel this alien android invasion. Things take a turn for the British grotesque when you realize that the leader of the androids has taken the form of an old crone in a nightgown, accompanied by her idiot son and her scatterbrained sister (who later figures into one of the show’s standout bizarre moments… more on that in a bit), as well as an army of expendable robot spheres to serve as cannon fodder.

The villains give the first hint at the corrosive camp to follow, as despite their dramatic music and the lighting that always accompanies their scenes, they seem to spend most of their time alternating between bickering in silly voices and cackling madly (No, seriously. There’s cackling, and then there’s Terrahawks‘ cackling scenes that often exceed the ten-second mark). This would be much less of a problem, of course, if they had any meaningful interaction with the heroes, one of the show’s biggest stumbling blocks.

Where the villains are at least amusing, if ineffectual, the titular Terrahawks seem to be a graduate study in uncomfortable moments. Led by the ostensible genius Dr. “Tiger” Ninestein, the five Terrahawks are the de facto defenders of Earth with their spaceship (apparently nobody else has one, or at least make no attempt to defend Earth with it), its detachable fighter planes (toyetic!) and the army of spherical mascot-robots with silly accents.

The four subordinates are more or less forgettable, as they exist mostly to prop up Tiger. There’s the Japanese scientist guy who talks to his flowers, the female fighter pilot who moonlights as a Minmay-esque pop star (with thankfully less-terrible songs), the amiable Texan fighter plane gunner and the female second-in-command who tries and fails to act as the voice of reason and moderating influence to her boss. Throughout most episodes of Terrahawks, these characters are good for little more than radio chatter and the odd pop singer subplot, which would be much less of a problem if they weren’t propping up one of the most unlikable protagonists in television history.


If there were an award for “least sympathetic protagonist", if not the outright winner, Tiger would at least be on the shortlist. When he’s not distracted by video games (decades ahead of the curve!) or shooting at anything that moves, Tiger acts like a COLOSSAL dick to everyone within earshot. He berates his subordinates for talking back to him, ignores sound advice, takes cheap shots at the Japanese guy’s accent, needles them passive aggressively when he’s in a GOOD mood and he often does all of this within the SAME episode. He possesses a particularly violent and irrational hatred for the cutesy Zeroid robots that serve him, which comes off less as good-natured kids-show banter than it does inexplicable robophobia (It is probably meant to be the former, but the show is so terribly written and acted that it invariably turns into the latter).

And for all of his brazen assholism, Tiger is never once (that I can recall) challenged or called on any of his questionable orders or gratuitous insults. The closest thing he has to a foil is his aforementioned second-in-command, who offers occasional meek protest when he says or does something stupid, and then clams up like a beaten housewife when Tiger invariably ignores her. He actually seems to have a better rapport with the main villain Zelda than he does with his crew. The cartoonish banter between the two seems downright civil in tone, despite the fact that they’re supposed to be mortal enemies. I don’t know about you, dear asshole reader, but I have never encountered a sci-fi protagonist less likable than Tiger. Not even in anime.

The show makes one cruel tease at humanizing Tiger very early on in the series, when they actually kill him off in the second episode and introduce one of his nine identical clones as a potential replacement (Get it? See, his name is “Ninestein", and so…). The clone in question is more or less uninvolved in the previous Tiger’s excursions and seems to be a much nicer and less abrasive fellow than his predecessor. Even the hackiest of anime hacks would probably be clever enough here to explore the use of this kinder, gentler Tiger as a new protagonist. One could contrast the new Tiger against the douchebag that once was, and explore the implications of being a clone of a scientist egomaniac sent to war against a race of evil androids despite being an artificial construct himself. But this is Terrahawks, of course, and so within twenty minutes, they inject the poor bastard with the old Tiger’s memories and consciousness and it’s back to business as usual.


It doesn’t help that the show is terribly written and awfully acted. The cast can all manage competent American accents, but can’t seem to read any of their lines without being maddeningly wooden (Insert marionette joke here). Tiger’s douchebaggery in particular is amplified by the unbelievably dull delivery of every line of dialog he speaks, almost deadpanning his way through his angriest tirades.

The real killer, however, is the downright aimless writing. Where many anime series tend to lose their direction midway through the series (often in response to an order for more episodes) or near the climax, Terrahawks is hard pressed to keep its focus for the duration of an episode. Almost all of the villains’ plots against the heroes, as well as the heroes’ response, are executed by proxy, the proxy usually being the cutesy Zeroid robots versus Zelda’s cubes. The obvious intent here was to keep the show focused on the admittedly spectacular explosives-laden model fights, in which the principal “cast” obviously could not participate due to technical constraints. But with the war between Tiger and Zelda kept to such proxy battles, the heroes and villains are more or less kept shut in with each other, unaffected by whatever is happening outside. This isn’t a problem for the villains, who are designed around bickering within their own ranks anyway. But for the heroes, such an isolated approach serves only to make Tiger more obnoxious, as well as to highlight his crew’s inability to offer meaningful contrast to his assholery.

In the absence of a relevant threat to life and limb, the show’s lack of urgency – a great strength of the earlier Thunderbirds – drags Terrahawks‘ pace to an agonizing crawl. Combine this with aforementioned meandering writing and terrible dialog that often fails to resolve an episode’s main plot (let alone its sub-plots!), and all but the most devoted of puppet pals will be turned off of this show by the end of the second episode. But for those masochistic souls who crave a few more lashes from Mistress Crapola, the monotony of the rest of the series is occasionally interrupted by some true horrors of British sci-fi grotesquery.


While Terrahawks fails to tell any kind of coherent story, it sure as hell has some bizarre set pieces as the series progresses (presumably the result of all the drinking that seems to have been integral to the show’s production). You have the token The Graduate gag with the nightmare seduction of Tiger by old-crone Zelda in the Christmas episode, made even more uncomfortably hilarious by Tiger’s complete inability to emote any kind of actual fear. You have Zelda’s idiot son engaging in the oh-so-edgy youthful pursuit of *gasp* taping pop songs off the radio! (Ah, the days before P2P…) There’s even the obligatory pop song battle between the Terrahawks and the villains, who mount a sonic assault with an adorably goofy little pop-rap number. But things really take a turn for the weird when, late in the series, Zelda’s air-headed sister (also an old lady) inexplicably impregnates herself and gives birth to a wisecracking, schizophrenic, androgynous baby with a German accent complete with a gag in which Zelda puts a crowbar between her sister’s legs to assist with the delivery (She’s actually just opening a metal crate, but still, that’s a hell of a sight gag for a kids’ puppet show!). Sensitivity be damned, if I were eight years old watching that shit in 1980s Britain, I know for a fact I would have gone straight back to bed wetting and thumb sucking until I was at least nineteen. What the fuck, Britain?

I haven’t really watched Terrahawks past that point, not so much out of trauma as out of forgetfulness. But really, unless you have a genuine fascination with the models and the puppets – which are admittedly very well made and choreographed; they’re easily the only truly GOOD part about the show! – there’s no reason to watch Terrahawks past the first episode. The crushing tedium really tends to prevail over the few spots of unintentional hilarity.

The only lasting impression you really get out of the show is the sinking feeling that however bad anime is now, it could very possibly get worse by mimicking the production of Terrahawks. And make no mistake, Japan has seen it. And if the longtime popularity of Toho films is any indication, they undoubtedly LOVED it. The seed of darkness is already sown.


Watch your back, dear reader.

9 comments

Comment from: sean [Member]

Rest of the show aside, the animated intro for the Japanese version is just about the hottest thing ever.

04/20/09 @ 22:50

Comment from: dotdash [Visitor] · http://plotshield.blogspot.com

I watched Terrahawks in the early days of my infancy. I remember next to nothing about it except that Zelda scared the shit out of me.

Recording off radio was a big deal then though, as all the “Home Taping is Killing Music” (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Home_taping_is_killing_music) logos on my Psychedelic Furs LPs still attest.

Out of all those Gerry Anderson shows, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons is the best. Huge parts of the plot make no sense, but it’s excellent at building up this atmosphere of bleak paranoia, like a loopy, alien sci-fi take on a cold war espionage thriller.

04/21/09 @ 05:23

Comment from: dave merrill [Visitor] · http://letsanime.blogspot.com

Terrahawks was shown on American television at some point; I remember seeing the ads and saying “Awesome, new Gerry Anderson on broadcast TV!” and then watching the first episode and suddenly things weren’t so awesome any more, and the next time it came on I had something else to do.

04/21/09 @ 07:38

Comment from: IKnight [Visitor] · http://animanachronism.wordpress.com

I missed most of the 80s, but people who lived through them assure me that it was a grim period of fascist rule. Maybe alcohol-fueled planning meetings and soul-destroying sight gags were a relief from that – or maybe I just know too many left-wingers.

04/21/09 @ 08:40

Comment from: ben [Member]

dotdash: Perhaps it’s just my biased Yankee perspective talking here, but 1980s British television seems to have been nothing less than a hellish ocean of psychic terror. Between the grotesquery of shows like Terrahawks and ’80s-era Doctor Who and having to see Margaret Thatcher all over TV (if there is any prominent political figure whose fearsome necromancy could defeat Putin and his jiujutsu, it would have to be the Iron Lady in her prime), it’s no wonder that so many Brits who grew up in the 80s seem to have forcibly repressed much of their memory of that era’s TV programming.

While American whelps gorged themselves on insipid but largely bloodless and/or optimistic toyetic TV like G.I. Joe and Transformers (sure, they killed Optimus Prime, but that was heroic sacrifice; that’s high tragedy right there with a great statesman who could turn into a truck), the Britlings of that era seem to have been subjected to at least half a decade of televisual terror. I for one am very thankful that I didn’t experience Terrahawks in my youth; to revisit it now and realize that I was once terrified by something so boring and stupid would be too much to bear.

04/21/09 @ 10:02

Comment from: dotdash [Visitor] · http://plotshield.blogspot.com

>IKnight
If my patchy memory of the decade is correct, the 1980s was exactly like this: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ucmCIM0rnwc

People used to trudge around beneath overcast skies, wearing long coats and indulging in selectively ironic reminiscences over their dead loved ones. In their spare time, they’d moan about Thatcher.

>Ben
As a child in the 80s, I remember I spent a lot of time watching imported shows like Battle of the Planets (Gatchaman), Mysterious Cities of Gold, Ulysses 31, Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds, not to mention He-Man, Transformers, Thundercats etc.

Of the homegrown 80s stuff, there were some quite terrifying things like The Box of Delights and the *really* weird, late 80s Doctor Who. Then there were some pretty brilliant animated shows like Count Duckula, Bananaman, Dangermouse and Trapdoor.

Bottom line is that this was the backdrop all our culture was playing against at that time: www.youtube.com/watch?v=h_DfmRt8pgU

04/21/09 @ 10:53

Comment from: ben [Member]

“It featured another reuse of the Captain Scarlet/UFO formula of a secret organization defending against aliens. Terrahawks was successful, running from 1983 to 1986 in the UK and only fell short of a four year US syndication deal by one season when the show was cancelled, scrapping attempts at making it more well known. Terrahawks retains a cult following to this day, regarded by some as being at times a “black comedy” version of many of Anderson’s older series in addition to being a straight science fiction series. In equal contrast, however, it is regarded by some fans as an unwise rehash of many of the visual concepts of Thunderbirds, and on only a fraction of the Thunderbirds budget. Anderson has claimed on record that he would rather forget the show.

I’m ashamed that I missed that during my initial “research” for the post.

04/22/09 @ 04:20

Comment from: gasteropod [Visitor]

I remember renting a cassette from a library and recording it to a blank tape at home, and it felt really naughty.

04/22/09 @ 15:15

Comment from: Little Ewe-Lamb [Visitor]

Terrahawks is possibly the best programme ever, and has the greatest theme-tune too (the British version, I mean). Yungstar is my favourite bad guy, cute in an ugly way. To quote Deniece Williams, “Maybe he’s no Romeo, but he’s my love and one-man show, let’s hear it for the boy! Let’s hear it for my man!” Zero and 101 are my fave good guys.

Why are there so many BIRD-brains who like ThunderBIRDS and all the other Anderson programmes apart from Terrahawks? I reckon they’re jealous because they’re not as adorable as the zeroids. In any case, I pray every day that they will all die of BIRD-flu (or swine-flu, or whatever). I often fantasise about the monster Sram gobbling them up, really crunching their bones up, then emitting an earth-shattering belch.

06/02/09 @ 16:29

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