As someone who has been watching
Thunderbirds since it was first broadcast in 1965, my argument
is based on the premise that the show was always set in 2065 right
from the start, and the ‘2026’ date in the final episode was an
error. To show my reasoning for this I am going to start by looking
at the evidence as it was presented to us, in chronological order.
No date was given for the series show
when it first aired at the end of September 1965, either in the
original ITC production notes, or in the TV Times, the
national TV programme guide for ITV channels
However, readers of the children’s
comic TV Century 21, which carried strips from all the other
Anderson series, were already familiar with two of the characters
featured in the first episode. Lady Penelope had had her own strip
since the first issue back in January of that year. Subtitled ‘Elegance,
charm and deadly danger’ we had seen her as a female James Bond,
defeating dastardly villains with the aid of her trusty sidekick
Parker and some useful gadgets such as dart-shooting handbags and
The TV Century 21 comic had
close ties to AP Films, the Anderson production company. It had been
set up by Keith Shackleton, the manager director of the
merchandising arm of AP Films, and was edited by Alan Fennell, who
was to write many of the Thunderbirds scripts. It was Gerry
Anderson’s idea to design the front page in a newspaper format and
to set the dateline always 100 years ahead of the week that its
young readers would be reading it, so we knew that Lady Penelope and
Parker inhabited the world of 2065.
#51 dated 8th Jan 2066
announced that from the following week stories featuring
Thunderbirds would be coming ‘direct from the danger zone;
the here and now of 2066’, which seemed to be a pretty clear
indication of when the series was set. The first
strip appeared in issue #52, dated 15th Jan 2066, ‘relayed
and after that featured regularly in headlines and
Supporters of the 2026 dateline argue
that the TV21 strip was ‘adjusted’ from its 2026 timeline to
fit in with the other comic strips. They point out that
Thunderbirds had to be set earlier than the other strips in the
comic because it shows the early days of space exploration. Jeff had
been ‘one of the first men on the moon’ and we see an aborted first
mission to Mars in ‘Day of disaster’ and two further attempts
by Zero X in the Thunderbirds are go film. They argue that
Fireball XL5, which was capable of interstellar travel, must belong
to a later date. However they conveniently overlook the fact that
once Zero X was given its own strip in TV21, Paul Travers and
the rest of the crew we had encountered in Thunderbirds are go
were soon popping all over the galaxy to meet their own
share of bug-eyed monsters.
If you follow the opposition’s
argument that a series depicting the early days of space travel
belongs in the 2026 timeline, then Captain Scarlet and the
Mysterons should also take place in 2026, as that series begins
with the first landing on Mars. However, the first episode of that
series featured a caption giving a 2068 date, leaving no room for
I think we have to see these
adventures from the perspective of 1965, when any form of
space travel was the stuff of fantasy. At that time man had not yet
left Earth’s orbit, and it would be four years before Apollo 11
touched down on the Moon. To the children reading these comics every
week, travel to the Moon, Mars, another star or another galaxy were
all equally exciting – and equally unreachable.
Apart from the last episode with its
2026 date, were viewers given any indication from the episodes
themselves of the date the series was set?
One of the first hints comes from Vault of death.
In it, Grandma Tracy says “It seems I
remember when I was a little girl my grandma told me about the old
London subway. Trains under the ground – New York had
them as well. Of course that was before this new-fangled overhead
Now, we don’t know Grandma’s age, but
we know Jeff is in his mid fifties at the start of the series, so it
is probably safe to assume that Grandma was between 20-30 when he
was born. So if she had been born between 1940-1950 in the earlier
timeline, why would she need to be told about the subways of New
York and London by her own grandmother? These cities seem much the
same as they are in our world (New York has the Empire State
Building, London has the Bank of England, London Airport and the
M1), so they presumably had their subways as well.
If however, Grandma was not born
until 1980-1990, then a viewer watching in 1965 could suppose that
by that date the subways had been replaced by monorails (which in
the 1960s were being suggested as the transport system of the
Other episodes were linked to the
later dateline when a Thunderbirds summer special appeared on
the newsstands during 1966. This contained pictures of various
auxiliary vehicles from the series, including the Firefly and craft
that had appeared in Edge of Impact/The Impostors/The
Duchess assignment all under a heading ‘Dateline 2066’
Audio versions of episodes were
available in the shops. (Note for younger readers here: back in the
1960s there was no way of recording programmes or buying videos or
DVDs to watch again. The nearest we could get was to buy a vinyl
record with an audio version of the programme, close our eyes and
use our imaginations.) The records that were produced based on some
of the Thunderbirds episodes had additional narration by one
of the cast (e.g. Shane Rimmer as Scott describing the landing of
Fireflash in Trapped in the sky).
The audio version of Sun Probe
was issued in October 1966 with narration by Matt Zimmerman as Alan.
It opens –
“Thunderbird Three calling Earth.
This is Alan Tracy in outer space.
I am en route to Thunderbird Five
with spares and stores for John and I’ve been watching a video show
recalling the news highlights of 2065. One flashback has just come
up which was nearly the end for Thunderbird Three. We called it
Operation Sun Probe.”
1966 also saw the publication
of Thunderbirds stories in book form. John Theydon wrote
several novels that tied in closely to the series (making references
to events in various episodes). The first in this series is set ‘some
months since … (Scott’s) first rescue operation’ and includes a
reference to the 2066 dateline on p.61 when Britain is described as
‘the island that had not known the tread of conquerors’ feet for
exactly one thousand years’
(41). Now this may not seem like an
obvious date reference, but to the book’s target audience, a
10-year-old British child, the allusion is clear. If there is one
date every Briton knows from their history lessons it is 1066, the
date of the Battle of Hastings when William the Conqueror became
king of England. This was especially true in 1966 when we were
celebrating the 900th anniversary of that event. Note
that the quote is ‘exactly one thousand years’. Not ‘almost’,
not ‘about’, but clearly 2066.
The third novel in the series (Ring
of fire) contains a reference to an earthquake in Chile ‘a
century ago’. The most powerful earthquake yet recorded took place
in Chile in 1960, and would still have been fresh in the author’s
mind when he wrote this book a few years later.
The same year Kevin McGarry’s Lady
Penelope novel Gallery of thieves also described a scene set
in the London of 2066.
A Thunderbirds annual produced for the
market of 1966 gave biographies of all the characters. These did not
include any dates per se, but Gordon’s profile stated that he
was a former member of WASP – and earlier that year a TV21 Summer
special had given us some background on the creation of the World
Government in 2034, with WASP as its nautical arm – which would make
it a bit difficult for Gordon to have been a member prior to 2026
Supporters of the 2026 dateline may
argue that all these dates in Thunderbirds merchandising were
‘altered’ to fit in with the rest of the TV21 products. But
altered from what? At that point we had had no mention of any
I am sure that had you asked any
Thunderbirds fan before Christmas Day 1966 what date the series
was set, they would have no hesitation in saying ‘100 years in the
future’ because at that point we had seen nothing to contradict it.
I am making no attempt to argue the
thorny issue of whether any of these products should be considered
‘canon’ or not. My argument is to show what evidence had been
given to the fans of the show at that time.
Those who argue that the earliest
cited reference to a dateline should be taken as the ‘correct’ one
should therefore be satisfied that the 2065 dateline was well
established before any mention was made of the earlier date. There
is certainly enough proof that the 2065 timeline did exist from when
the series was first broadcast and was not, as some have said, a
‘revisionist version’ created retrospectively for the 2000 relaunch
of the series.
Then on Christmas Day 1966 we
saw the episode Give or take a million, which featured a
calendar showing a 2026 date
(32). Did we notice it? I certainly
don’t remember seeing it at the time, and bear in mind there were no
videos to go back and look at it again.
So what conclusions can we draw? –
The series had always
been set in 2026, though all the accompanying merchandising was set
in 2065, and the programme makers decided in the final weeks of
production to reveal this in the last episode.
There is no way of proving this –
even if it did make sense.
2) The series was set in 2065 and the
2026 date that we saw on screen in the last episode was wrong.
Thunderbirds' art director Bob Bell
has gone on record as saying that this was a mistake perpetrated by
one of his assistants. This statement has been echoed by Alan
3) The series had been set in 2065
when it was first made, but it was decided in the final weeks of
production to change this to 2026 in the last episode – so from now
on we should expect to see nothing but the 2026 date.
But that is not what we find as
we look at the events of 2067 as reported in the TV21 comic.
Thunderbirds continued to occupy the headlines in almost half the
issues of that year. In addition, three of the Thunderbirds
stories featured a 2067 date in the story themselves
while issue #130 nominated one of its ‘reporters’ as ‘columnist
of the year 2065 for his feature on Thunderbirds’. A 1967
Thunderbirds special comic featured Thunderbirds 2, 3 and 4 in
events with 2067 captions and both the Thunderbirds and the
TV21 annuals produced at the end of 1967 gave Thunderbirds
a 2067 date.
1968 saw a similar picture;
three of the Thunderbirds stories in the weekly comics had
plotlines that were based on a 2068 date
International Rescue occupied the ‘stop press’ as hot news in 10
issues, while the annuals for this and subsequent years continued to
make references to a century ahead
All this is very much in keeping with
a saying in the TV industry that once a mistake has gone out, you
can’t suck it back, however much you might wish to do so. Instead
you just keep on repeating the correct version and hope everyone
forgets your error. (No videos or home recordings, remember!)
Give or take a million
with its contentious date was the last episode to be shown, but two
feature films appeared after that. The
Thunderbirds are go
film was released at the end of 1966, and most viewers would have
gone to see it in their cinemas in 1967. The film does not mention
any year, but shows a calendar with two dates, Friday 22nd
July and Friday 2nd September. Both these dates are
Fridays in 2067 (one hundred years in the future) but not in 2026 or
The TV21 comic was used to publicise this and featured
headlines involving Zero X several weeks running – with 2060s dates.
film has an even clearer date reference, as we see Lady Penelope
reading a newspaper with a 2068 date (and remember this was on a
full-size cinema screen so the date would have been clearly visible
to the audience) (34).
The series was repeated sporadically
in various TV regions across the UK in the 1970s and 1980s, but it
was only when the BBC bought the rights in the early 1990s and gave
the series its first nationwide screening that interest in
Thunderbirds soared once more.
Various publications were rushed out
to capitalise on this, all of which used the 2026 dateline based on
the date in the last episode.
Or did they? Let’s look a bit closer.
Thunderbirds: the comic
was produced by Fleetway from
October 1991 and edited by Alan Fennell who had also been editor of
TV21. It started by reprinting some of the strips that
Fennell had written for TV21, and over the comic’s whole run
was to use 28 of the 50+ Thunderbirds stories that he had
written or edited for the earlier title. Six of these original
stories had contained a 2060s reference either in a caption or as
part of the plot. How many of these did Fennell choose to reprint?
All six of them. The first date mentioned in Thunderbirds: the
comic was in issue #4 when a reference is made to 2067 in the
story Operation depthprobe
The comic also featured cutaway
illustrations drawn by Graham Bleathman, and in the next issue one
of these appeared with a 2024 date for the construction of
Thunderbird 5 (43a).
Bleathman would go on to draw several craft featured in
Thunderbirds during the comic’s run, each time using the 2026
date – though all this proves is that the artist was taking his cue
from the calendar in
Give or take a million.
Throughout its run, the
Thunderbirds comic was to feature both stories from the TV21s
with the 2060s dates and Bleathman’s drawings that used the 2026
dateline. Six issues of the comic even mentioned both dates in the
same issue! Young readers who knew nothing of the background of the
TV21s of their parents’ generation, must have found this all
From issue #35 the Thunderbirds
comic ran The complete Thunderbirds story, written by Alan
Fennell and filling in the backstory of how Jeff came to found IR.
This is the source relied on most by the 2026 supporters, though the
setting is curious, seeing as it comes from the writer who wrote
several of the stories we have seen so far that include a 2060s date
(e.g Sun Probe /Operation depthprobe)
Alan Fennell is unfortunately
no longer with us to ask about this, but Graham Bassett, who wrote
strips for later in the comic’s run, recalls ‘Alan having problems
with his story being blue-pencilled by ITC…and muttering ‘I
should know when Jeff Tracy was born’
which makes you think that Fennell wanted to use the 2065 timeline
that he had always used before, but was not allowed to by the
current copyright owners.
Two annuals were published
during this time (1992 and 1993), one of which repeated one of
Bleathman’s illustrations with the 2024 date and the other a time
chart for the earlier timeline
However, the Thunderbirds
comics had proved so popular that a series of six compilation books
were published by Ravette, each containing several of the comic
strip stories and some of Bleathman’s artwork. Three of the books
contained stories with a 2060s reference, but none of Bleathman’s
drawings contained any dates, so anyone buying this series would be
left with the impression that Thunderbirds was set in the
later timeline (45a,
In 1992 John Marriott produced his
Thunderbirds are go book, giving background information on the
series but using the earlier timeline to provide birthdates for the
characters. This book is endorsed by Gerry Anderson, but so is the
later Bentley book which uses the 2065 timeline, so neither camp can
take much support from this fact
Marriott’s book gives the impression
that it was written in a hurry to capitalise on the rise in
popularity of the show, and that the author doesn’t know the series
quite as well as some of its fans. Several pictures are attributed
to the wrong episode and he says that Grandma Tracy’s relationship
to the family is ‘not known’ though in various episodes we see Alan
and Scott address her as ‘Grandma’, Jeff as ‘Mother’ and Tin Tin as
‘Mrs Tracy’ – what more does he need?
Another book that came out about the
same time was Simon Archer’s Fab Facts. In this the author
lists all the Anderson series and the year in which they were set,
and says that Thunderbirds ‘was set in 2026, though the
adventures in the TV21 comic were set in 2065’. One can only
presume that if Mr Archer had researched a bit more thoroughly he
might have changed this to ‘the last episode of
Thunderbirds was set in 2026, though the adventures in the
TV21 comic/ annuals/ summer specials/ novels/ audio versions and at
least one of the films were set in 2065’
The next event in this date debate
saga came in 1993 when Bob Bell was interviewed at the Space City
Fanderson convention by Chris Bentley. Bell spoke eloquently about
Gerry Anderson’s vision of a world 100 years in the future that was
revealed through all his Supermarionation shows, and dismissed the
2026 date in the last episode of Thunderbirds as a mistake by
a junior in his department.
Up to this point, Bentley had
been a firm advocate of the 2026 timeline, but this interview
changed his mind, leading him to write his own article on the date
debate for Fanderson’s FAB news
and to use the 2065 timeline when he wrote his ‘Complete book of
Thunderbirds’ in 2000
This led the accompanying comics and
annuals to be geared to the later dateline when Thunderbirds
was re-released for the third time in autumn 2000
My final piece of evidence comes from Gerry Anderson
himself. When asked directly what date Thunderbirds was set
in the ‘Ask Anderson’ section of
FAB news #58,
his answer was ‘2065’ (50c).
He may have endorsed books giving the 2026 date, but in all the
research I have done for this debate covering sources from the last
45 years, I have not been able to find a single quote from any of
the production team saying that the series was set in 2026.
Bob Bell says Thunderbirds was
set in 2065.
Alan Fennell says the same.
So does Gerry Anderson.
They made the show; they ought to
I rest my case.
My thanks to Shaqui le Vesconte and
the Project 21 Yahoo group for their help with this article.