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Friday, 8 April 2016

What did Gerry Anderson think of Star Wars? The Thunderbirds creator told Look-In magazine in the 1970s

Gerry Anderson of Thunderbirds fame: What did he think of Star Wars?

Gerry Anderson was a huge figure in millions of childhoods from the 1960s onwards, giving us the television series Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and the MysteronsStingray, Space: 1999 and more. He also, unwittingly, cost Star Wars a fair amount of money. 

But what did he think of the film that threatened to replace his series in kids’ affections? Fortunately, a cutting from the British young people’s magazine Look-In lets us know.

Gerry Anderson on Star Wars: ‘The Worlds of Gerry Anderson’ in Look-In magazine

When Star Wars was released in 1977, Gerry Anderson’s shows were hugely popular with young people, even though his run of successful series had just come a sad halt. For years, he had been one of the handful of people keeping science fiction alive on television. (Not that there was much science in most of his shows, especially Space: 1999, in which the moon is sent hurtling from one solar system to another without its residents getting flattened. See this post from for an amusing account of that series’ logical shortcomings.)

Anderson had given the world Supercar (1960-61), Fireball XL5 (1962), Stingray (1964), Thunderbirds (1964-66), Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967-68) and Joe 90 (1968-69), all filmed with puppets (or ‘in Supermarionation'), before moving into live action with UFO (1970) and Space: 1999 (1975-77). His eye for a merchandising opportunity might also have inspired George Lucas, since model kits and Dinky Toys vehicles based on his shows were widely available.

Anderson was one of the few behind-the-scenes figures whose name meant something to millions of young people, which would have been why he was awarded the honour of a regular column in the hugely popular weekly magazine Look-In, the ‘junior TV Times’ in the UK. Each week’s column ended with an invitation to write to him at Pinewood Studios for a sticker badge, a newsletter and a Dinky catalogue.

In one week’s column, from early 1978 (I’m afraid my cutting doesn’t have the date), he responded to requests to tell his readers what he thought of Star Wars.

Gerry Anderson: ‘I wish I’d made Star Wars

Gerry Anderson's Look-In magazine column
containing his view of Star Wars

Anderson starts his piece on Star Wars by acknowledging that while SF films have been “steadily progressing”, he thinks “Star Wars has taken a bigger jump than any of its predecessors and taken sci-fi movies into its next, and most exciting, phase”, adding: “I can honestly say that I wish I had been the one who made it!”

He goes on: “The first 20 minutes of the film, I felt, were quite dull but then it flowered marvellously, shot for shot, into the most excitingly visual film of its kind I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t that the shots they used were of a higher standard than average, but the speed at which they were used mad them that much more stunning: for example, when an Eagle is travelling through space in Space 1999 it is a slow moving shot, whereas for the same kind of scene in Star Wars a spaceship would zoom across the screen providing a more exciting, breathtaking effect.”

Star Wars is a “new kind of science fiction I call ‘fantasy fairytale’,” Anderson says.

“Although a vast majority of adults will enjoy Star Wars it is basically aimed at children who, like myself, do not particularly need a strong story-line, but enjoy plenty of action and spectacle and I for one would be very surprised if there were a single boy or girl in the whole country who wouldn’t like to see this truly entertaining film!”

The Eagle from Space: 1999 and the Millennium Falcon: How Gerry Anderson cost Star Wars money

An Eagle from Space: 1999: Too much like the original Millennium Falcon

Space: 1999 had already come to an end by the time Star Wars reached Britain. Anderson had made two series, but plans for a third never came to fruition. However, the show had caused something of a crisis for Lucas and the Star Wars team.

Returning to the US in late 1975 from a trip to London, where the first series of Space: 1999 premiered that September, George Lucas announced to his visual effects crew that they had a problem. The pirate ship they had created for Han Solo looked too much like the Eagle spacecraft from Anderson’s show. Which was unfortunate, because the model makers had just finished making it the previous weekend.

Concept artist Joe Johnston's vision of the original Millennium Falcon

The film’s chief model maker, Grant McCune, estimated that the ship had cost around $25,000 to make – around a third of the total budget for models. It was seven feet long and had 400 cycles of electronics inside.

JW Rinzler’s book The Making of Star Wars (2007) quotes Lucas as saying: "They had spent an enormous amount of money and time building that other ship, and I threw it out. It's one of those decisions that was very costly, but I felt that we really needed the individuality and personality of a better ship."

Abandoned: The original Millennium Falcon model, which was modified to become the Rebel blockade runner. Picture:

Lucas had come up with the idea of a “hamburger-shaped” Millennium Falcon instead, and work started on creating something to that design. In the meantime, the original Falcon model did not go entirely to waste. Its cockpit was removed and put on the new ship. A new “hammerhead” front was put on the original model and it was reborn as Princess Leia’s Rebel blockade runner (or the Tantive IV, as it would become known some years later). The visual effects team would have the task of making the blockade runner look smaller on screen than an Imperial Star Destroyer for the film’s all-important opening shot – even though the Rebel ship was, in fact, the bigger model. 

Gerry Anderson after Star Wars

Gerry Anderson might have taught George Lucas something about
merchandising: a Space: 1999 Eagle model. Picture:

Gerry Anderson speaks in his column of Star Wars “opening the door to a new kind of science fiction” which has “endless scope for scripts, direction and special effects and will undoubtedly lead to a glut of these films over the next few years”.

He might have expected to have been one of the people making those films. In fact, he never again produced anything to rival his 1960s productions in popularity. However, his previous work remains popular to this day – especially Thunderbirds, which seems to undergo a serious revival every few years. And while children of the 1970s became Star Wars-obsessed, there was always a place in our hearts for the spectacle and excitement of Gerry Anderson at his best.

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