The pioneering and popular British science fiction TV series that has become lost in time and space.
TV history is a funny thing. Some shows become beloved and iconic, remembered for many years after they were first shown or having runs that last decades, while others – equally popular at the time – are quickly forgotten. Pathfinders from Space and the sequels and spin-offs that emerged in its wake from 1960 are rather ignored these days, their thunder possibly being stolen by Doctor Who, which appeared a few years later and was aimed at the same ‘family’ (i.e. child-friendly) audience. Of course, Doctor Who continues to this day while much of the Pathfinders series was thought lost until recently, so it’s perhaps not that surprising. Nevertheless, at the time this was popular enough to run for three series with two spin-off shows, all of which had pretty high ratings. You’d expect it to be better known than it is. I’m not going to claim that the better show lost the battle for hearts and minds – but there seems as much potential here as in Doctor Who for both ongoing stories and reboots. Then again, given the state of modern-day Who, perhaps we should be glad that no one has decided to rework this for modern audiences yet.
Pathfinders in Space, in fact, is not where the story begins. The first season was actually a follow-up to Target Luna, a series that seemingly is lost (the screenplay is included in the very welcome DVD release of the Pathfinders trilogy for completists) and was a pioneering ‘realistic’ space travel show, eschewing the more obvious sci-fi elements like space monsters and alien invaders. Writers Malcolm Hulke and Eric Paice took the same approach with this show – at least in the first series. One notable aspect of the Pathfinders series is how, over three seasons, 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 an automatic pilot. But when this fails to work, the second ship is instead manned by visiting journalist Conway Henderson (Gerald Flood) and Wedgewood’s children, Geoffrey (Stewart Guidotti), Jimmy (Richard Dean) and Valerie (Gillian Ferguson) – British astronautical qualifications apparently being ‘whoever was in the room at the time with no age limits. The two rockets land 150 miles from each other (the trek from one to the other is shown as time-consuming but not the least bit tiring – hooray for a lack of gravity), and the crews eventually 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 – but as such, it unexpectedly works quite well. While the idea of children in space is of course inherently laughable, the show does avoid most sci-fi clichés – there are no moon monsters for the crew to battle and the dangers come from rather more realistic threats like meteorites. The twist in the tale is quite a smart one, as we discover the origins of the ancient space rocket. It’s a bit Chariots of the Gods and 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, made the same year but 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 are now surplus to requirement), as well as his niece Margaret (Hester Cameron), whose 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 sources of 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. Then again, Star Trek still used the ‘flying around the Sun’ bit in the late 1980s, so we shouldn’t scoff too much.
The final series, Pathfinders to Venus from 1961, 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 cavemen 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 – like much British TV well into the 1970s – 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 and you rather wish that the schedule and budget had allowed for at least a few retakes.
Flood makes a solid enough hero, albeit one who doesn’t exactly seem enthused with scientific curiosity – you might’ve thought that being 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.
Although not exactly a sequel to the Pathfinders in Space series, City Beneath the Sea – not to be confused with the 1953 film or the 1971 TV movie of the same name – and its follow-up Secret Beneath the Sea are very much of the same ilk, reuniting cast members Gerald Flood, Stewart Guidotti and Peter Williams – though in new roles – and having much the same mix of action, drama, mystery and pseudo-educational dialogue.
The 1962 series City Beneath the Sea sees scientific journalist Mark Bannerman (Flood) and his assistant Peter Blake (Guidotti) aboard a submarine that is hijacked by renegade Boat commander Kurt Swendler (Denis Goacher, sounding more Swedish than German) and taken to an underwater base, where assorted kidnapped scientists are working on something or other (quite what most of them are doing isn’t exactly made clear, but it’s doubtless something nefarious). The base is run by Professor Ludwig Ziebrecken, who is played by the deliciously slimy Aubrey Morris – so you know his claims about wanting to share his discoveries with the whole work are dubious. Bannerman and Blake do their best to alert the outside world to their location, as well as persuade others in the base that Ziebrecken’s stack of nuclear warheads is not being held for peaceful purposes.
Secret Beneath the Sea appeared a year later and had Bannerman and Blake returning to the undersea base, now controlled by the United Nations. Swendler, who is written out early in the opening episode, has somehow or other obtained a rare metal that can absorb heat without getting hot itself, and which is found beneath the base. A corrupt mining company wants to sabotage the base’s operations so that the UN will allow the company to take over and mine the precious, but apparently undiscovered metal (how Swendler and the company found out about it remains another of the series’ unexplained mysteries that we are presumably not supposed to dwell on). As Blake and his new teenage sidekick Janet (Ingrid Sylvester) investigate, they find themselves blamed for the acts of sabotage and it’s down to Bannerman to clear their names and uncover the identity of the mole.
Like its predecessor, City/Secret Beneath the Sea is solidly entertaining, though often clunky – again, it was filmed ‘as live’, so various performers get tongue-tied delivering their lines along the way and there is a continual air of desperation as if everyone is trying very, very hard to remember which bit of pseudo-scientific gobbledegook is coming next. You will not be surprised to hear that none of it was filmed underwater, which would have admittedly been a tad difficult for a show like this to manage. Instead, an unconvincing mix of swirly light and plastic sheeting stands in for the ocean. Ironically, the early 1960s videotape production values of the show manage to render this more ethereal than it might have otherwise been, and while never ‘realistic’, it does look decidedly odd.
Neither Beneath the Sea story quite matches the Pathfinders series for excitement or drama. Still, they are lively enough, and Guidotti seems to have learned to contain the perpetual sneer that marred his performance in the earlier series, making the lead character more agreeable. Writer John Lucarotti would go on to write shows like Dr Who, The Avengers and Star Maidens, while producer Sidney Newman would move on to launch Doctor Who, the series that effectively put these in the shade.
It’s easy to dismiss shows like this because of their age, the limited production values and the general theatricality of it all. I won’t pretend that these shows will hold up now, should you try to introduce your kids to them. But for those of us with a taste for vintage pleasures, these five series still hold up surprisingly well. While they sometimes perhaps lack in action, they are still by and large pretty interesting and ambitious, and the first two Pathfinders and the Beneath the Sea series are arguably more substantial efforts than Pathfinders to Venus, which is much more of a traditional space opera and so prone to silliness and absurdity. Of course, you might well prefer that and I couldn’t blame you if you did. All of the shows are worth a look though, if only to remind ourselves that TV history, like more or less all history, is written by the victors and series like this often find themselves written out, forgotten or dismissed from the wider discussion.
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