Back in the early 60s, in the days before pop music, before modern technology and with Russia and America trying to make that first small step into space, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson decided to set their new series 100 years in the future, where space travel would be an everyday occurrence. Fireball XL5 takes a smattering of its more notable predecessors such as Flash Gordon and adds a more modern twist, though watching it over 40 years later, despite the futuristic trappings it’s very much a product of its time.
Having destroyed a missile heading for Earth, the crew of the spaceship Fireball XL5 must track the warhead back to its point of origin, the seemingly uninhabited Planet 46 in Sector 25. Steve Zodiac and Venus take Fireball Junior to explore the planet but are captured by the villainous Subterrains. Their leader puts Venus aboard the next missile bound for Earth and tricks Steve and Mat into landing XL5 where it sinks into the volcanic ash. Using a little ingenuity (and a hidden raygun), Steve is able to escape with the Subterrain leader in tow, save XL5 and then rescue Venus. In fact after destroying the second missile, he’s effectively saved everyone, everywhere.
While watching the episode, you get the impression more than once that it resembles a dry-run for later more elaborate and more successful series such as Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet. Everything is done on a smaller, more low-tech scale; the models are less elaborate, the puppets lack the interchangeable heads of later series, and the storytelling is on a more basic level. One plus point is that the series does benefit from being filmed in black and white; the barren Planet 46 looks even more eerie and unwelcoming with its dark, lifeless sky. The lighting is more dramatic, with some moody cross-lighting (something Stingray lost with the advent of colour). The alien Subterrains are suitably ugly and the XL5 crew’s Jetmobiles have a cool retro-styled look to them. The episode does have double the number of aggressors on show compared to the average installment - there are four Subterrains as opposed to the customary two villains seen in most other episodes. I’m not sure if that qualifies as ‘pushing the boat out’ or not.
Watching Planet 46 puts me in mind very much of a team learning their skills - writers, designers, effects technicians and so on... apart from the music, that is; Barry Gray is on top form from the word go, providing some fantastic sounds that veer from weird and atmospheric to jazz. His electronic score for the scenes in the Subterrains’ control room is way ahead of its time. Such a powerful soundtrack is capable of papering over the occasional crack in the visuals.
The episode, written by the Andersons, is clearly a template for the series to follow - it features a very straightforward premise of exploring space and fighting off the baddies wherever they’re encountered. Planet 46 introduces the main characters and defines their roles succinctly, while also moving the plot along well. Steve’s the manly hero (underlined by his manly preference for manly steak rather than the 21st century diet of food pills), Venus is their doctor (and housekeeper too, it seems) and Professor Mat Matic is the navigator and resident comedy boffin. The characters are drawn in very broad strokes, very like a comic strip - apart from the unexpected streak of chauvinism running though the story.
It’s a direct plot not high on subtlety or characterisation: unseen aliens launch an unprovoked missile attack on our good guys (the term ‘cold war paranoia’ springs to mind!), so it’s up to our hero Steve Zodiac to sort these Reds, I mean Green Men out. There’s no attempt to fill in any detail with the villains such as their background and motivation; they’re just bad guys plotting in the shadows who need sorting out. The fact that they send a suicide crew aboard the missile reinforces that they’re from a different culture to our own, and suggests they’re not to be reasoned with. The good guys are equally two-dimensional; the female character is there to be either admired for her beauty or rescued (or both), the scientist does the inventing and the hero’s there to save them all at the end. That’s pretty much how it pans out over the course of the series.
The episode and series as a whole tell us more about the time it was produced rather than any predicted future. This is a future where the spaceship’s course is worked out with a slide rule rather than a computer, in a ship loaded with books rather than computer files. It’s a sign of the times when Venus says, `The computers at Space City are very rarely wrong’; what exactly counts as very rarely, I have to wonder - once a week? Once a day?
The dialogue, like the characterisation, is simplified if not a little pedestrian in places. There’s plenty of exposition to help viewers of the early 60s to get to grips with this future world. We are told that a planatomic warhead is ‘a million times more powerful than a hydrogen bomb’ - something contemporary audiences would have been familiar with as they were living with the H-bomb hanging over their heads at the time. Steve chats away to his co-pilot Robert before stating ‘Gee, I keep forgetting you’re only a robot’; well gee Steve, if you keep forgetting that the transparent co-pilot with the croaky voice, limited conversation and the head shaped like an upturned beaker isn’t human, maybe you’re not the best choice to be flying this ship, Colonel!
Many of the attitudes of the early 60s are ingrained in the dialogue and plotting, probably unconsciously. Venus is a Doctor of Space Medecine, but because she’s a woman, she gets to prepare the meals and make the coffee for the men on board. The attitudes are, shall we say, charming in their naivete; well, almost. You couldn’t imagine this episode being made back in 1962 with Venus and Steve’s roles reversed. The world wasn’t ready for such a thing...or at least the writers weren’t. Worse still, at the conclusion, Mat tries to get the captured Subterrain leader to talk by holding a gun to his head. What a world - rampant chauvinism, Cold War antics and now flagrant breaches of the Geneva Convention. Never mind his human rights Mat, he’s not human so he doesn’t count!
Overall, the plot makes most of the characters look a bit thick - the XL5 crew don’t detect the Subterrains’ base in the side of the mountain (although they luckily manage to land very close by), Mat doesn’t check the stability of the ground before landing the main body of the ship, and the Subterrains fail to check Steve’s secret compartment for his hidden pistol. What a bunch.
Despite some obvious limitations, Planet 46 is still a watchable slice of old-fashioned space adventuring. There are signs of ingenuity and a promise of better things to come amongst the old-fashioned attitudes and exposition. Fireball XL5 enjoyed considerable popularity in Britain and the States before its monochrome genes led to its eventual extinction in the colourful 70s. It’s very much a product of its time, a bit rusty and dated round the edges by modern standards, but it was a giant leap forward for the Andersons at the time. Thank God we’ve moved on since 2062.