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Fireball Xl5 By Graeme Walker
The TV Series
During the early 1960's, young TV viewers (with their imaginations fueled by the heroics of the Mercury astronauts) were treated to the adventures of a twenty first century Spaceship and her brave crew - puppet style. Filmed in glorious black and white and with Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's sophisticated 'Supermarionation' puppetry techniques, Fireball XL5 took us to the far reaches of the galaxy and beyond. The Anderson's had fallen into the marionette genre by accident when their company, AP Films, was first starting out and children's puppet series were the only work opportunities available for their film studio. Frustrated with the limited animation of paper mache characters, Anderson and his creative team began pushing the envelope by improving the illusion of realism in their programs. They began to come up with their own series concepts using futuristic settings which would allow their puppet characters the luxury of moving walkways and hover cars to minimize the need for them to walk (one of the most difficult aspects of puppetry - the characters unavoidably 'bobbed along' when walking). They experimented with hollow fiberglass castings of the character's heads instead of paper mache. Micro-thin steel wires replaced the thick thread supporting the puppets which could now conduct the current needed to operate the electronic lip synch movement, via a solenoid inside the puppet's head, (Supermarionation). The quality of special effects rose dramatically when a young Derrek Meddings was hired to create futuristic vehicles, settings and those all important explosions - all in miniature. He can be credited for a number of special effects innovations: Such as using plastic model kit parts to detail the miniatures, the fine art of 'dirtying down' a model so it looked realistically 'used & grimy' and his 'rolling sky backing' which gave the on-camera illusion of vehicle movement when in fact the miniature was actually stationary.
Anderson's third original marionette series, Fireball XL5 explored the adventures of Colonel Steve Zodiac, Space Doctor Venus, Professor Mat Matic and their transparent Robot (voiced by Anderson himself) called Robert. Secondary characters included Commander Zero, Lieutenant 90, and Zooney the Lazoon, (a cute, yet annoying comic relief character), as well as an assortment of bad guys and aliens.
The MPC Toys
As Fireball XL5 was networked across the USA, producer Gerry Anderson's previous successful merchandising experience with his 'Supercar' TV show was put to good use: The half hour weekly episodes were essentially a 30 minute commercial for any licensed product based on the series and this was incentive for toy manufacturers to bank on quickly recouping their tooling-up costs. Many product licenses were issued for merchandise based on Fireball XL5 but this article will only touch on one of the most popular items manufactured at the height of the show's success. The beautifully designed XL5 Spaceship had the most potential to translate into an instantly recognizable toy format and so it was in 1964 that Multiple Products Corporation (MPC) were granted a license to produce a large Fireball XL5 spacecraft. This huge vehicle was the center piece for two Playsets ('Steve Zodiac's Fireball XL5' and the 'Fireball XL5 Space City Playset') while MPC also released a smaller boxed collection of figures and vehicles (from the Space City set) called 'Fireball XL5 Galaxy Patrol'.
MPC - 'Steve Zodiac's Fireball XL5'
A large, boxed toy with 3 color graphics on the box lid. An instruction sheet and an adhesive backed decal sheet were included. Measuring over 20 inches long, the injection-molded, gray plastic XL5 spaceship came with a detachable nose cone, (Fireball Junior) and a Main Body with drop-down colored side hatches & spring launching rockets. In comparison to the film studio model, the length of the Fireball XL5 toy was compressed to make it more manageable for a child to play with, although the actual contour and detail is remarkably accurate and certainly adds to its collectible value. The Fireball Junior had a simplistic, single-piece landing gear which pulled down from a slot underneath the cockpit. The cockpit had a clear plastic canopy, just like the TV ship and access could be gained from a sliding roof-hatch through which (one-inch-high), seated figures of Steve & Venus on their Jetmobiles could be inserted. The small figures & Jetmobiles were made of soft plastic and usually came in yellow or red.
MPC - No. 3300 'Steve Zodiac's Fireball XL5 Space City'
A large, boxed Playset with 3 color graphics on the lid. An instruction sheet and an adhesive backed decal sheet were included. The center piece of this set is the 20 inch spaceship toy described above with its 2 miniature figures & vehicles. This is complimented with a set of larger, two-inch figures and vehicles in scale with them. Standing figures of Steve, Venus, Matt, Robert, Cmdr. Zero & Zooney are included in this size along with seated versions of Steve & Venus to fit the larger scale Jetmobiles and a Jet Car. A nice, punch-out color representation of the Space City Headquarters Building could be made from a die-cut card sheet which is one of the hardest pieces to find for this set due to its fragile construction. Other plastic accessories included: a snap together Fuel Tank, an eight-inch flying XL1 and the 24 inch automatic spring powered Track Launcher for it, Fireball Transport Truck & Trailer (for the XL1), a Firing Tower & 3-stage Missile, Automatic Satellite Launcher with Satellite and a number of 'Space City astronauts' (generic, plastic MPC astronauts). In 1964, this playset would set you back a whopping $14.99 - which realistically was a lot of money back then.
MPC - Steve Zodiac's Fireball XL5 Galaxy Patrol
A smaller, (9 x 12 x3"), Window-Boxed set with 'flip cards' (Trading Cards picturing artwork scenes), on the back. This set contained the following pieces: 2-inch seated figures of Steve & Venus. 2-inch Standing figures of Matt, Robert, Cmdr. Zero & Zooney. 2 Jetmobiles, the Jet Car, Fireball Transport Truck & Trailer and the eight-inch XL1. All the above are from the Space City Playset. Since the 'flip cards' printed on the back of the box had to be cut out, very few Galaxy Patrol boxes have survived to the present day.
General manufacturing observations:
*Throughout the production run, the coloring of the large XL5 spaceship remained consistently gray, while the soft plastic figures and accessories (including the side rocket hatches for the large XL5), varied from set to set. Many colors were produced for these additional pieces including: red, yellow, orange, blue, metallic gold & silver. *The red or yellow versions appear to be the most common colors which leads me to believe that they had the largest color run.
*The decal sheet contained simplified versions of the colorful graphics present on the studio XL5 model and was of the 'die-cut, peel 'n stick' variety printed on thick paper.
*Apparently the accessory & 2-inch figure molds were still usable right up to the mid 1980's, when a special, discrete 'collectors' run was commissioned from Marx by their current owner. Any figure, Jetmobile, Jet Car or Transport Truck that appears as 'primer gray' came from the 1980's run and not the 1964 release.
There was also a limited white metal (lead) figure run produced in England in the 1990's and sold in a white box with photocopied graphics taken from the playset box. The six standing characters in the set were copied from actual figures and not cast from the original molds. This is sometimes referred to as 'the recast XL5 set'.
Today, the original Fireball XL5 playsets and accessories are highly sought after collectibles and the dealer prices reflect this situation. Their popularity is also compounded by the fact that they appeal to a number of different collecting genres. Fans of Gerry Anderson's SF puppet series in general, XL5 Fanatics, Plastic Figure Collectors, those who only collect TV Memorabilia from the 60's and Playset Collectors all express an interest in the MPC Fireball line of toys. Steve Zodiac and his brave companions are certainly worthy of this renewed attention and the contributing sculptors & artists contracted by MPC almost forty years ago should still be proud of their creation and the joy it continues to give.