A certain indestructible man will be celebrating his 50th birthday in September which put me in mind of a distinctive multi-sectioned spaceship that links him with two other Gerry Anderson franchises - possibly the unluckiest vessel to fly the space ways, Zero-X!
We first met Zero-X in cinemas as Anderson’s Supermarionation smash Thunderbirds jumped off the tv and on to the big screen. International Rescue needed something epic for their 1966 movie debut, Thunderbirds are Go. The audience arrives at Glenn Field where an elaborate ballet of wings, modules and heat shields is underway. The different segments of this mighty spacecraft come together. It is a Concorde for the stars.
The main body of the ship is given two detachable wings - lifting bodies, a command module or MEV, and an angular golden heat cover. There is also a handy yellow escape pod for emergency ejection in there somewhere.
Being an Anderson production the assembled spaceship crashes soon after take off. It’s sabotage! This prompts the powers that be to enlist the aid of the Tracy brothers in protecting the launch of Zero-X mark two, scheduled to make the first manned flight to Mars. (Which is odd, because we all know patriarch Jeff Tracy was the first man to set foot on the red planet. And it seems young Metcalfe’s dad was on the crew as well.)
We are introduced to Captain Paul Travers, voiced by Paul Maxwell who previously stalked the space lanes as Colonel Steve Zodiac in Fireball XL5. Space Captain Greg Martin was played by Alexander Davion and Space Navigator Brad Newman was played by comedian Bob Monkhouse (horse trading the role for permission to film a Stingray sketch). Dr Ray Pierce was voiced by Neil McCallum and Dr Tony Grant by Charles Tingwell.
International Rescue’s London Agent Lady Penelope exposes The Hood who has taken the place of Tony Grant just before the launch. Grant is unharmed despite having been locked in a broom closet and Zero-X heads off for Mars. Have fun with those rock snakes guys!
The MEV or Martian Exploration Vehicle goes down to the surface but is not prepared for an encounter with the indigenous life form. They escape the fire-breathing rock snakes but sustain damage. This requires further intervention from International Rescue for an explosive conclusion to the movie. The Shadows also provide a twangy-guitar version of the Zero-X Theme. Coincidentally, Cliff Richard Jr and The Shadows have a guest-starring role in Thunderbirds Are Go.
The movie proved a bitter sweet experience for the Century 21 team. After a riotous premiere that all but closed London’s West End Thunderbirds Are Go did little business on general release. A sequel Thunderbirds movie was commissioned because nobody could understand why success wasn’t a forgone result. But Zero-X lived on ...
Perhaps not surprisingly, the ship was rebuilt for comic strip adventures in TV Century 21. Written by Angus P Allan and usually drawn by Mike Noble it displaced Fireball XL5 but maintained a similar dynamic in space exploration. The Zero-X strip may even have been more popular than that indestructible man. It remained a popular colour feature through to 1969.
I quite enjoyed a run with one-eyed mind-controlling plants. It might have planted a seed for another face-hugging monster?
While the movie crew were enjoying comic adventures, the future Zero-X was also commandeered to save the world as part of Project S.W.O.R.D. For “save the world”, you should read “sell toys.”
Anderson’s marketing operation had licensed a line of space age toys from a Hong Kong firm, a range of rockets, delta wings, moon buggies and semi-realistic models. They were grouped under the Project S.W.O.R.D. banner and an assortment of activity books, annuals, and comic strips/text stories told a story of a dying Earth and an attempt to resettle the population on other worlds. S.W.O.R.D. stood for Space World Organisation for Research and Development and any stories were set around 3030.
There is some speculation that Anderson intended to make a Project S.W.O.R.D. tv show. I’m not sure that stands up to scrutiny. My memory is that the S.W.O.R.D. tales were incredibly bleak and nihilistic, particularly once they became a text feature. Boring might also be another characteristic. The initial strips appeared in Solo, a short-lived weekly launched by City Magazines which started life with a mix of Scrooge McDuck, Mary Poppins, Man from UNCLE, The Scarecrow and various humour and adventure strips. It then took a slightly harsher turn to deal with the Mysteron menace, the covers taking on a newspaper-style appearance akin to TV21.
The jury might have been out on Solo before then, but the Mysteron invasion didn’t help things and the comic merged with TV Tornado (edited by MarvelMan’s Mick Anglo). Project S.W.O.R.D. wasn’t in its new home long because TV Tornado was soon to be merged with TV Century 21.
Parallel to all this, Zero-X, or at least an MEV, made an appearance on television. In September 1967, Gerry Anderson’s latest series opened with a familiar craft exploring on Mars. No rock snakes, but they encounter a mysterious city.
It is a different crew but they have been joined by Captain Black of the Spectrum organisation who orders an attack that begins a war of the worlds. This Zero-X has just introduced us to the universe of Captain Scarlet and The Mysterons. Bom-bom-bom-bom-bom!
And that was pretty much the end for Zero-X. Although the ship and crew were supporting characters, the TV21 comic strip stayed in colour when Captain Scarlet was relegated to black and white. but didn’t survive the merger with Joe 90 Top Secret. The Noble strips were reprinted in Countdown/TV Action which might have added some new material as part of their Big Story strand.
The ship continues to have a cult status with Aoshima models that are easily obtainable if you sell your children for medical experiments. Of course, if you are Captain Scarlet that arm and leg will regrow.