Fireball XL5 is a science-fiction television series produced by AP Films and aired from October 28, 1962, to October 27, 1968. It is considered as one of the most popular television shows in Britain during the 1960s, and it was also able to become a well-known series in the US thanks to it being in syndication a few years after its production ended. To understand how it became such a popular show, here is an introduction to Fireball XL5.
Conceptualization and Production
The show was created and produced by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson, a husband and wife duo that previously formed a production company called AP Films (APF). AP Films was founded in 1957, and it is mostly known for producing children’s adventure marionette television shows, such as Thunderbirds, Supercar, and Stingray. AP Film was the defunct in 1977, years after media proprietor Lew Grade’s buy-out in 1962 expired. Gerry and Silvia Anderson, along with art director Reg Hill, founded Group Three Productions to continue producing marionette shows.
While thinking of a name for a space-themed show, Gerry Anderson thought about a brand of motor oil out of the blue. This brand was Castrol XL. He then changed Castrol to Fireball and initially named the show “Fireball XL.” However, after a few days, he added the number 5 in the title to make it more fun and exciting to read and say aloud.
Like most of the shows produced by AP Films, Fireball XL5 featured the Anderson’s Supermarionation, a style of puppetry that involves puppets with electronic parts, which allow them to move without being controlled by hands. The electronic parts are connected to a solenoid, a type of electromagnet that produces magnetic fields, and these magnetic fields enable movement in the metal parts of the puppets. The Supermarionation technique was invented by the Andersons and was first used in the third puppet TV show produced by Gerry Anderson in 1960 titled “Four Feather Falls.” Anderson was then able to perfect the puppets’ movement in the 1961 show Supercar. Since then, the marionettes would appear in various shows by AP Films.
There are seven main characters that appear in almost all episodes of Fireball XL5, but there are also five characters that show up in some of the segments. The main protagonist is Colonel Steve Zodiac, the commanding officer and pilot of the Fireball XL5, a long rocket ship that can travel through outer space at amazing speeds. Steve Zodiac is regarded as one of the best pilots in the universe. The navigator of the Fireball XL5 is Professor Matthew “Matt” Matic, who also serves as the engineer in the team. Doctor Venus is a doctor of space medicine who was personally selected by Zodiac to be the medical expert in the Fireball XL5 team. The co-pilot of the ship is Robert the Robot, a highly intelligent artificial man that was created by Professor Matic and regarded as the Earth’s most advanced mechanical being. Zoonie the Lazoon is the alien pet of Doctor Venus, who gradually expands his vocabulary as the show progresses. The commander of the World Space Patrol and Space City (the hub of the Fireball XL5) is Commander Wilbur Zero, who cares about the team even if he is not showing it. The last main character is Lieutenant Ninety, the assistant of Commander Zero in the Space City Controller, who always gets scolded by the commander for being inexperienced.
The recurring cast of characters are Jock Campbell, the chief engineer of Space City and born in Scotland; Eleanor Zero, the wife of commander Zero; Jonathan Zero, the son of the commander; Captain Ken Ross, pilot of the Fireball XL7 and sometimes the damsel-in-distress for the Fireball XL5 crew; the Space Spies Griselda and Boris, who has antagonistic tendencies towards Zodiac and his team; and The Subterrains, an alien race originating in Planet 46.
The first episode of Fireball XL5 aired at ITV on October 28, 1962, and the last episode aired on October 27, 1963. The show lasted for only 1 season, although it was able to produce 39 episodes that have a run time of 25 minutes.
Even though some of the shows that the Andersons have produced have been in syndication in the United States, it was only Fireball XL5 that was aired on a US network, mainly because it was the most popular show by AP Films during the 60s. The US network that picked up Fireball XL5 was NBC, who aired it first in 1963 and scheduled reruns from 1964 to 1965.
Similar to most of the marionette shows created by AP Films, Fireball XL5 was released through DVD in partnership with A&E Home Video. A 2009 Blu-ray release of the Fireball XL5 Collection then added a colorized version of a popular episode titled “A Day in the Life of a Space General.”