This British science fiction series from 1960 is rather forgotten these days, its thunder possibly being stolen by Doctor Who a few years later, which was aimed at the same ‘family’ (i.e. child-friendly) audience. With much of the show thought lost until recently, it’s perhaps not that surprising, but nevertheless, at the time this was popular enough to run for three series, with pretty high ratings.
In fact, Pathfinders in Space – the first series – is a follow-up to Target Luna, a series that seemingly is lost (the screenplay is included in this set), a pioneering ‘realistic’ space travel show, and writers Malcolm Hulke and Eric Paice take the same approach with this show – at least in the first series. One notable aspect of the Pathfinders series is how it became increasingly outlandish, moving from relatively grounded science fiction to nonsensical space opera.
In Pathfinders in Space, British scientist Professor Wedgewood (Peter Williams) and his crew set off for the moon, followed by a supply rocket that was originally supposed to be operated by automatic pilot. But when this fails, the second ship is manned by visiting journalist Conway Henderson (Gerald Flood) and Wedgewood’s children, Geoffrey (Stewart Guidotti), Jimmy (Richard Dean) and Valerie (Gillian Ferguson) – British space exploration qualifications apparently being ‘whoever was in the room at the time). The two rockets land 150 miles from each other – though the trek from one to the other is shown as time-consuming but not the least bit tiring), and the crews discover an underground cave housing a spaceship that has been there for 400 million years.
This first series is a mix of juvenile adventure with annoying children (Jimmy in particular, with his know-it-all attitude and obsession with pet guinea pig Hamlet, is a strong argument for corporal punishment), educational dialogue crowbarred into the story, and serious-minded drama – and as such, it works quite well. While the idea of children in space is of course inherently laughable, the show does avoid sci-fi clichés – there are no moon monsters for the crew to battle, the dangers coming from rather more realistic threats like meteorites. And the twist in the tale is quite a smart one, as we discover the origins of the ancient space rocket – and it must have had religious believers choking on their dinner while watching this on a Sunday evening. Of course, there’s some silliness – none more so than the space helmets, which clearly have no covering at the front – but on the whole, this is solid stuff.
Pathfinders to Mars was the follow-up, with several cast changes. Wedgewood is disposed of immediately, breaking his arm in the opening scenes and then being quickly written out entirely. With the professor out of the picture, it’s once again down to Henderson to pilot the next moon mission (despite having been part of the first space crew on the moon, he’s still working for his newspaper). This time, he takes with him Geoffrey and Professor Mary Meadows (Pamela Barney) from the first mission (the other kids now surplus to requirement), as well as his niece Margaret (Hester Cameron), who’s only qualification seems to be that she really, really wants to go – a startling example of pester-power that should make any parent feel less weak-willed next time they give in to a nagging child, and something you imagine would result in a rather awkward conversation between Henderson and the girl’s parents when they finally get back to Earth. Joining them on the journey is Professor Dyson, who arrives at the last minute. But viewers know that this is, in fact, an impostor, Harcourt Brown (George Coulouris) – a fanatical believer in other planetary civilisations, who is determined to take over the mission. This he does remarkably easily, and redirects the ship to Mars.
On arrival on the Red Planet, the crew make a cursory exploration, and while Brown fails to find his Martian civilisation, he does make a nuisance of himself (and by nuisance, I mean he continually puts the others in mortal danger, something they seem to take with remarkable good grace). Mars turns out to be home to lichens that grow at a huge rate when near water – such as the human body – but while the view of life on Mars is rather exaggerated, the show does once again avoid bug eyed monsters. However, the final episode, where the crew try to get home by flying the rocket towards the Sun, hoping to bounce off the gravitational pull and fly by Mercury, does seem rather laughable.
The final series, Pathfinders to Venus, picks up from the final moments of the second series, with our heroes diverted from their journey home to rescue an American astronaut who has overshot his planned Earth orbit and is now circling Venus – has anyone bothered to tell NASA that inter-galactic exploration is in fact as easy as missing your exit on the motorway? Before you know it, the obsessive Brown has conned them into landing on the planet, which turns out to be a lush jungle populated by cave men and stop motion dinosaurs that were lifted from another film (Journey to the Beginning of Time). A helpful Cro-Magnon type child helps them out as they team with the US astronaut (who looks like Flash Gordon and is shallow and materialistic), while Brown once again plots and schemes.
This last series is the most overtly science-fictiony of the lot, and while more ambitious in scope, also suffers from some terrible production values – you can often see production crew members moving about behind the jungle plants, and at one point, a large fan is clearly visible. What’s more, although a recorded programme, this was shot ‘as live’, and at several points, various cast members tie themselves in knots stumbling over the dialogue. While similar errors would pop up in the first two series, it’s much worse here.
Flood makes a solid enough hero, albeit one who doesn’t exactly seem enthused with scientific curiosity – you’ve think being the among the first people on the Moon, Mars and Venus might impress him slightly, but all he wants to do is take off again and go home. Stewart Guidotti as Geoffrey, on the other hand, plays even the simplest of scenes with a ridiculous intensity that suggests his character would grow up to be a real pain in the arse. Inevitably, most scenes are stolen by Coulouris, as the most incompetent sci-fi schemer this side of Lost in Space’s Dr Smith. Ironically, by the end of the third series, when he tries to sabotage the ship to stop the crew from returning home and sending more ships to colonise Venus, you can’t help but admire him – he’s in the right, to be honest.
Production errors aside, the three Pathfinders series hold up surprisingly well. While the first two series perhaps lack in action, they are still pretty interesting, and arguably better efforts than the final story, which is much more traditional space opera. Producer Sidney Newman would move on to launch Doctor Who, the series that effectively put this one in the shade. But it’s time that the show regained some of the reputation it deserves as a pioneering piece of SF TV.