The spaceships of Gerry Anderson – by Gerry Anderson

The master of SF TV chats about some of the classic space vehicles that adorned his shows...

Some of the great spaceships from Gerry Anderson shows

Having chatted with us a couple of times, Gerry Anderson consented to talk a little about some of the superb spaceships from UFO, Space:1999, Fireball XL5 and other shows that he produced, as background for Top 75 spaceships in TV and movies.

Gerry also gave a little insight into the difficulty of shooting these models, so I thought you might be interested to hear a less abbreviated version of the chat… ON FIREBALL XL5:

Over the years there have been so many stories, and they may or may not be true. Generally speaking, when we started a new show, if it was hardware then Derek Meddings or a member of his team would design it. The point is, I can’t draw [laughs]. But I used to write in the script as graphic a picture as possible, as to the way I saw it. Then the script would be circulated and people such as Derek or his assistants would come in with sketches, and I would say either yes or no or ‘what about…?’.

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In most cases what Derek Meddings designed I would say yes to, because he was a wonderful designer. Derek ended up with three special-effects crews, when he was working for me, that were shooting all the time. Being the head of that, Derek Meddings has to take the accolades. There was of course a big unit under him that also made a contribution.

Fireball XL5 took off horizontally, not vertically. The reason for that was that rumour had it that the Russians were going to launch their rockets horizontally. There was a British space-scientist that I knew, whose name escapes me now, and he designed a reusable rocket called HOTOL, and that too was to have a horizontal launch along a rail. It wasn’t actually made, and therefore never took off. But XL5 was grounded in science-fact, based on what was going on.

Having the head separate from the main body was a very simple decision to make; I always tried, with all my shows, to make them as believable as possible, and having seen the way that Fireball XL5 was launched…if one took one’s imagination now to a planet where they were going to land, how were they going to find a piece of flat ground where a rocket that weighs God-knows-what could land safely without sinking into the sand, or mud or whatever? So that was the key to having a ‘Fireball 2’ that could land and leave the mothership in orbit. It was all based on, common sense and the knowledge we had at the time.


The Eagle was designed by Brian Johnson [special effects supervisor on Space:1999]. I talked to Brian and told him how I saw it, and he went off and he came back with something utterly, utterly different, inasmuch as it didn’t look like either a rocket, or a vehicle or a car or anything. Because it was designed to move around in space, it didn’t have to be aerodynamic, and therefore there was no point in carrying all the extra weight of a fuselage. But that was very much his idea, and I didn’t contribute to that at all. As a toy, it certainly did sell very very well indeed.

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Thunderbird 3 was conventional science-thinking inasmuch as it took off vertically. And of course it took off from a silo, which was apparently next to a nice-looking little house. I can’t prove this because Derek Meddings is no longer with us. But I think in those days he probably would have designed a rocket as we know today, with a pointed nose-cone and engines at the base, but he then wanted to make it look different, but he then wanted to make it look different to all the other space-ships in the world, so he added the vertical wings. That was not science-fiction so much as making it an attractive vehicle.


The original Mike Trim interceptor – we have a great interview with Mike coming up soon!

Mike Trim worked with us – he was part of the crew. He designed stuff that at a later date I found out that he had designed, rather than Derek. We were working at such a pace at that time; we were turning in one picture a week – even though we had two puppet units and three special-effects units working simultaneously, it was still a race against time, and we were all madly busy. So some of the detail of who designed what, I missed. And of course some things, when they were originally designed, were not going to be featured that much. There was a description [of the interceptor] in the first script, and as the series began to form, we began to assume that the interceptor was to be a very important space-craft, and we looked to improving it

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The Eurosec rocket design was totally Derek Meddings’. We were making stuff where all the vehicles were miniature, and in this particular case Derek – in his own words – wanted to ‘shoot it against God’s sky’. The rocket was probably something like six feet high, and the shots were absolutely spectacular. Even today I think it’s amazing, and I think that was Derek doing absolutely his best work.


The models weren’t made to last, but I can describe one particular shot that we would have done many times, to give you some idea of the care that was taken. Let’s assume it was a saloon car racing along a country road – in the studio we would build a road and make it look as realistic as possible, and then we spread Fuller’s earth evenly sprinkled along the road so that you wouldn’t notice it.

Then the car would come out of the workshop beautifully made and painted, and from there it went into the ‘dirtying-down’ shop, where they would turn it from a model into something that looked very realistic. For example they would make the side of the vehicles’ tyres dusty and dirty; they would put a certain amount of wear on the paintwork, around the handles; they would sprinkle a bit of dirt on the windscreen. In other words it would look like a car that was in use, not just a model.

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The next thing was to put in an onboard power system – in other words a battery – and underneath the car they had a fan facing downward. As they pulled it along the road, that fan was blowing down and blew up a certain amount of dust behind the car. To complete the illusion, the roadway was obviously a bit bumpy, and the little model would bump along looking totally unrealistic. But we filmed at very high speed, which slowed the action right down and made the bumps very realistic.

In order to hold focus from the little model car, which might have been perhaps nine inches long, to the painted background twenty-five feet away, we had to have an enormous amount of light, because film was not that fast in those days. So the camera would run at high speed as they pulled the car along, also at great speed, and by the time it got to the end of the roadway, all the paintwork was bubbling from the heat of the lights! [laughs] So you can see how difficult it all was – and what I’ve just described is one shot

Gerry Anderson, many thanks!

Fireball XL5 is newly released in a special DVD edition.

Interviews at Den Of Geek