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A&E Home Video presents

Fireball XL5: The Complete Series (1962)

Steve: Ok, Venus?
Venus: Ok, Steve.
Steve: Right. Let's go!- Paul Maxwell, Sylvia Anderson

Stars: Paul Maxwell, Sylvia Anderson
Other Stars: Gerry Anderson, John Bluthal, David Graham
Director: Gerry Anderson, Various

Manufacturer: DVDL
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (puppets in peril)
Run Time: 16h:54m:00s
Release Date: 2003-02-25
Genre: television

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Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
B+ BA-B B-

 

DVD Review

Gerry Anderson is most often remembered as the creator of the popular 1960s television series Thunderbirds and its unique cast of "Supermarionation" characters. He is also fondly thought of by genre fans for Space 1999, his saga of Earth's "future." But few seem to remember that the influential producer established himself with a lesser-known puppet-based series, 1962's Fireball XL5.

The series, more clearly aimed at a young audience than Anderson's later works, was extremely popular in its day (even spawning a top pop hit in the title song), but for one reason or another (likely because it was shot in black & white) it never had much of a life in syndication, and has been rarely seen since it originally aired. And that is a shame. Though it isn't as ambitious an undertaking as Thunderbirds, it has the same retro charms, and a comforting naiveté all its own.

In the year 2063, the World Space Fleet is aiming to expand man's reach into space. To do so, they need brave explorers who are willing to venture into the uncharted regions; people of character, willing to fight for mankind. Such a man is Colonel Steve Zodiac, the dashingm square-jawed commander of the starship Fireball XL5, a rocket on patrol in the mysterious Sector 25, where unknown races populate countless alien worlds. Aiding him is his intrepid crew, including Professor Matthew Matic, Robert the Robot, and Steve's confidant, the lovely Venus.

Operating from a simplistic sci-fi premise of exploration, the show sends its characters off on formulaic adventures as they encounter the "villain of the week," from the devious Mr. and Mrs. Space Spy to the dangerous Dr. Rootes. The stories are slow-paced and simplistic, and frequently drawn out by long special effects sequences or "tense" countdowns, but their good-natured innocence means such shortcomings are easy to forgive. Sure, the hokey plots crumble when faced with the jaded cynicism of the 21st century, but space adventures, largely free of Cold War-era paranoia and propaganda, still invite a sense of childlike enthusiasm for discovery. So while I do scoff a bit as the characters expose themselves to the vacuum, protected only by "oxygen pills," I can't help but imagine my dad watching as a child with a huge grin on his face.

This five DVD set collects and remasters all 39 original episodes of Fireball XL5. It is certainly nice to have the whole set, but I wouldn't suggest trying to watch more than a handful of episodes at a time, lest you suffer nostalgia overload. Even though the stories themselves rarely surprise, the episodes aren't all cookie-cutter space adventures. In Sabotage, the crew must discover if there is a traitor onboard after a bomb explodes on the XL5. In Robert to the Rescue, the loveable Robert the Robot (certainly one of Anderson's most unique creations) takes center stage and saves the day. 1875 takes our crew back to the Old West, and Ghosts of Space sees them investigating a spooky, abandoned town. My favorite was the clever Space City Special, in which the Fireball crew is invited to participate in a TV special honoring the explorers. Dealing with the aliens trying to conquer Earth takes a backseat to dealing with rowdy fans and disorganized TV personalities. In the end, the Fireball XL5 band takes center stage for a rousing performance of the show's theme song.

Many can't get past the obvious problems of working with puppets—the visible strings, the stiffness of movement, the problems of scale—but if you are able to accept these limitations as a part of the series, its charms are readily apparent. The camerawork (particularly in the later episodes) is sophisticated enough that it doesn't feel like the characters are simply being manipulated from offstage, and the uniformity of the visuals, from the intricate costumes to the miniature props and decorations, helps to diminish the intrusiveness of the strings. The show only truly falters on a technical standpoint where it tries to go beyond what can be captured with a puppet, resulting in awkward scenes of characters walking and odd cutaways to real human hands working dials and controls.

This isn't the most popular of Gerry Anderson's creations, to be sure, but it does deserve to be rediscovered, and DVD is the best way to do so. A&E has produced another wonderful box set of a vintage TV series, and there will never be a better time to fly across the universe with Fireball XL5.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: These old black & white episodes have been fully restored by A&E, and they look wonderful. The prints are very clean, and they show excellent detail—so much so, that the puppet strings are probably more obvious than ever. Black level is very good, as is shadow detail in general. There is a bit of grain visible, but the presentation is very filmlike (and, at least on a small display, quite effective).

Image Transfer Grade: A-
 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno


Audio Transfer Review: The original mono audio is remixed into DD stereo, and the effect is quite nice, though obviously, the track is a little dated by today's standards. Dialogue is presented cleanly and clearly, and is perfectly understandable. The music has that bombastic, classic sci-fi/action serial feel, and it sounds decent, though fidelity is somewhat lacking, and the brassy sound can be overpowering at times. Sound effects are mixed well with the rest of the elements, though they are presented without directionality or flash.

Audio Transfer Grade:

Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 234 cues and remote access
1 Documentaries
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by voice actor David Graham for the episode The Doomed Planet; director Alan Pattillo for Space City Special
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
5 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Extended Gerry Anderson Bio
  2. 5 Photo Galleries
Extras Review: A&E's Fireball XL5 set is a little light on supplements, but what is here is nicely presented. The discs come packaged in individual keepcases housed in a handsome slipcover featuring the series' vintage logos. The menus are cleverly animated in the spirit of the show. Though no subtitles are included, each episode does have a healthy six chapter stops.

In terms of bonus features, each of the discs has a photo gallery of still from the series. Disc two also has an extended text biography for series' creator Gerry Anderson. Discs one and five also include audio commentaries for select episodes. On disc one, voice actor David Graham (Prof. Matt Matic) talks us through episode five, The Doomed Planet. Graham did a lot of voice work for Anderson, and he acts out some of his different roles, including Gordon Tracy from Thunderbirds and Mitch from Supercar. He's very enthusiastic throughout, and he provides a good picture of what it was like to do voice work for an Anderson series. He also is a bit eccentric in his old age, singing along in-character with the closing theme song.

Equally engaging is the track with Alan Pattillo, who directed episode 38, Space City Special. By the time this episode was produced, the creators were developing more and more advanced filming techniques and getting more ambitious with their special effects, and Pattillo quite drolly provides a blow-by-blow account of the shooting process. He also talks a bit about what drew him to the program, and how he reacts to it now, nearly 40 years after his involvement. He gets in some good, appropriately British understated lines about the goofy motions of the puppets in some shots (particularly when they try to walk) that keep things from getting too serious.

Disc five also includes a nice ancillary featurette, the 17-minute, hyperbolically titled The Noble Art of Fireball XL5, a chat with Mike Noble, who worked on the show's comic book spin-off. He talks about the development of his artistic style, and the work that went into producing the short stories, which were included in volumes of action comics. There is plenty of footage of his original artwork, and it is gorgeous, beautifully rendered and full of amazing detail and color. It's sad to think how dull it must have looked by the time it actually was printed on lower quality paper and distributed. The piece is a bit dry, but Noble, who also worked on the comics of Stingray and Thunderbirds, has some good stories to tell.

Extras Grade: B-
 

Final Comments

Fireball XL5 remains an entertaining children's series, even 40 years after its production. For baby boomers, revisiting the show will be an experience fraught with nostalgia, but today's MTV-addled children will probably be put off by the slow pace and low-rent effects. It's a shame; there is more charm in an episode of a Gerry Anderson production than in an entire season of lowest-common denominator pap like Beyblade.

Joel Cunningham 2003-03-24