Children's Television Part I - The Thunderbirds Blueprint

A while back I wrote about how we were trying to keep Joni away from using television. That was a good idea, and still to this day we feel that a reduction in television is a good idea, but any one who is the parent of a toddler, or a parent of two or more kids, knows that TV is a necessary evil to get stuff done. And, additionally, Joni does enoy it, and it has sparked her imagination in quite a few ways. Obviously, there are limits, but sometimes there are days where you can do nothing but let her watch a bit of TV.

Whilst watching TV a few realisations come to mind, all of which are thought provoking. One trend in Children's TV I have noticed is the trend to make almost all shows about a group of characters doing things to save other characters - I call this The Thunderbirds Blueprint.

Of course, this idea of a group of characters saving people wasn't invented by Gerry Anderson and his puppet, nay marination, style of television show. In fact, it is the tenant of all major TV shows for kids; Mutant Hero Turtles, Transformers and Thundercats, mainstays of the 80s child's nostalgia (though, oddly, not really mine) are all of the same design. But look at almost every show these days, it is hard to not see the parallels with Thunderbirds, or for that matter, Captain Scarlet, or even Stingray.

The blueprint is simple; a few characters (four is the minimum, it seems) are based on a type of home, and have missions dolled out to them by a wiser and older mentor. This applies to PAW Patrol, Octonauts, Go Jetters... even the more modern reboot of Postman Pat, where he works as a Special Delivery team member. The other major component is the need for a range of vehicles - the trucks in PAW Patrol, the GUP-(x) machines in Octonauts, and Pat's endless array of helicopters, hovercrafts, turcks and jeeps getting his parcels to the apparently rich as hell residents of Greendale.

The other part of the shows that match is the repeatability; the pups rattle off the same catchphrases each time, as is the copy and paste presentation of the run-out of the Lookout, in the same way that each Thunderbird had their own launching mechanism, or that each Captain colour had his own little vignette explaining who they were. It means that a chunk of the running time can be padded, but also that children are drilled into the phrases and they will want to act them all out.

The reason for this is quite simple; it is easily marketed as toys; the Lookout might as well be the Tracy Island of my childhood, one my mum made for my from Paper Mache, incredibly. The toys are endless, as were the Thunderbirds toys - I had 1, 2 3 and 4, just not 5 (who wants a Space Station anyway). Joni has a Marshall and Rocky truck, and a Skye figurine, but doesn't yet want the rest of the troupe, which is lucky.

Even the shows that have lasted over time have evolved into it; Thomas the Tank Engine, now known as Thomas and Friends, has something called the Steam Team, who are basically the Thunderbirds of the Island of Sodor. Fireman Sam too has eveolved into a ghaslty CGI abomination, but it has shades of the same influences.

This isn't a criticism either - the format allows for bite sized lessons on being good and helping out people, and defeating the bad guy. Some do this better; Paw Patrol and Octonauts get away without needing a real villain (at least until PAW Patrol introduced Mayor Humdinger and the Catastrophe Kitties as doppelgangers), whilst Go Jetters manage to make their Dr Robotnik style villain essentially pointless when they both randomly turn up at the same international landmarks without so much as an explanation for the coincidence. Octonauts teaches stuff about sealife, and Go Jetters geography, so the framing works.

If you've read all this and you've never seen any of these shows, good for you. Well done. Either you've had kids and you're stronger than we are, or you've yet to have kids and boy - you've got a lot to look forward to.