Pathfinders to Venus. Episode Eight – Planet on Fire

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With the jungle on fire, Conway and the others struggle to reach the safety of the rocket ….

Brown’s fanaticism – he broadcasts back to Earth a message that everyone else is dead and the planet is hostile – is plainly on show here.  His attempt to sabotage the rocket is a little half-hearted though (since Conway is able to quickly to reverse his damage).

There’s another example of Brown’s disregard for the others – Wilson is attacked by a Venusian in the forest and Brown elects to leave him there.  But what’s worse is that Wilson was looking after Hamlet at the time.  So poor Hamlet’s lost in the forest – clearly Brown is a monster of the first degree …..

Will Wilson and Hamlet make it back to the rocket before Conway has to blast off?  Hmm, I wonder.

The dramatic music goes into overdrive as Conway believes they can’t leave the planet as the Russian rocket, carrying the fuel for the return trip home, appears to have crashed.  So they seem doomed to spend the rest of their lives on Venus.  If so, how will they live?  Brown’s rather keen, but the others less so.

The sudden unexpected appearance of Colonel Korolyov (Robert James) therefore comes as quite a surprise as he tells them that there’s no reason why they can’t return to Earth.  Given that the Cold War was still icy at this point, it’s possible to view the image of Korolyov and Wilson, working together in harmony, with a rather jaundiced eye.

But there’s also a subtler reading that can be made.  Wilson admits that his secret mission in space was to establish an outer-space telephone relay system.  Korolyov genially tells the others that he’s glad there was no other motive for Wilson’s flight (which still leaves us with the inference that Wilson hasn’t been completely straight with them.  Maybe there was another – military – motive behind his mission).

Brown stays behind on Venus but the possibility that the Russians or Americans (or even the British) would return one day to plunder its natural resources remains a possibility.  Whilst Pathfinders to Venus generally presents an optimistic picture of space exploration, there’s still the hint that the future might see political or monetary concerns win out over pure scientific research.

Pathfinders to Venus might be a couple of episodes too long, but you can’t help but be impressed by it’s scope and scale.  Attempting to mount an epic tale with a less than epic budget took some nerve and whilst it’s easy to view all three of the Pathfinders tales purely in terms of the way they anticipated Doctor Who, they still stand up as engaging serials in their own right.  Pulpy fun, it’s true.  But fun nonetheless.

Pathfinders to Venus. Episode Seven – The Valley of Monsters

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The episode title – The Valley of Monsters – would no doubt have raised the audience’s expectations, so possibly that was why our first sight of the monsters – stock footage of animated flying reptiles – provided the previous episode with its cliffhanger.  At least that way most people would know what they were going to get here.

This instalment was especially fascinating since it was used for an academic study into children’s viewing habits and opinions.  To this end, eight deliberate production mistakes (in addition to any inadvertent ones) were introduced into the episode.  Several groups of children were then shown the episode, with their interest levels and comments closely monitored.

It was discovered that young children were just as demanding and critical as any other viewing group.  As producer Sydney Newman later noted. “The most important thing we learnt is that if anyone thinks a young audience can be fooled or won sloppily or ‘on the cheap’ he is sadly mistaken”.  No doubt these lessons would have been taken on board when Newman moved to the BBC and initiated the creation of Doctor Who.

I have to confess that none of the production mistakes were particularly apparent.  Maybe I was just unobservant or possibly too wrapped up in the story?

Our heroes manage to escape the dangerous stock footage flying reptiles and they then proceed to make their way through the forest on the long trek back to the rocket. The forest clearing, where they pitch up for a rest, is pretty bare but a later sandstorm is effectively done.

There’s more animated stock footage (a Tyrannosaurus Rex battles a Stegosaurus as our heroes look on in awed wonder). The models are a little small and grubby, but the dramatic music – and acting – sells the illusion resonably effectively.

Latest Kisswatch update – Conway and Mary enjoy a passionate kiss on the lips. Hurrah! Marriage doesn’t seem to be on his mind though, unless he’s being very subtle. But he does ask if they can work together when they return to Earth, so maybe this is the first step in his plan to woo her.

We return to Buchan Island for the first time since the opening episode. The Russian rescue rocket has nearly reached Venus, but with no evidence that Conway and the others are still alive, it’s likely to just turn around and go home.

Malcolm Hulke tended to pepper his Doctor Who scripts with political, moral or environmental messages. Pathfinders never really went down these routes but this episode – for example, Wilson sees a chance to make a great deal of money by plundering Venus of its plentiful diamond supply – does supply us with a vague message.

It does mean that Wilson, up until now a level-headed chap, suddenly turns into an avaricious monster. This moment quickly passes, but the discovery of uranium is another flashpoint. Wilson paints a vision of Venus as a colonised world, its natural reasources mined for the benefit of Earth (America), a prospect which disgusts Brown. Wilson tells Brown that “you can’t stop progress”.

It’s interesting thar Brown’s desire not to see Venus strip-mined isolates him from the others. But when the way back to the rocket is blocked by raging forest fires, he gleefully tells them that nobody will ever leave the planet. Instead, they’ll become the first of the new Venusians ….

Pathfinders to Venus. Episode Six – The City

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In yet another remarkable coincidence, Margaret and the Venusian child locate Conway and the others.  That just leaves Brown to free from his polystyrene rock and then everyone will be back together.

Brown is remarkably noble (“save yourselves” he tells the others).  But they’re not prepared to leave him to the mercy of the approaching lava and after considerable effort (I wonder if they taught this type of acting – pretending that lightweight objects were very heavy – at RADA?) they manage to free him.

They’re all delighted to finally have emerged from the caves into the open air.  And I have to confess, so am I.  The city they can see in the distance is impressive.  Brown calls it “the creation of an advanced people with a sense of beauty of form”.  But how does that connect with the mute primitives they’ve already tangled with?

Eventually Conway decides that they’ll all take a look at the city.  But Brown can’t wait for Conway, so he sets off alone.  Hasn’t he learnt by now that bad things happen when they split up?  Tsk, he’ll never learn.  As Brown makes his way towards the city, we’re privy to his internal thoughts as he ponders the best way to make contact, which is a nice little touch.

For those keeping track of the Conway/Mary kisswatch, this episode he’s heading closer to her lips (via a peck on the cheek).  But maybe his close attention was something of a plot point, since he notices a mark on her face.  Made by an insect possibly?

This episode (and the final one – Planet on Fire) were directed by Reginald Collin (the other six were directed by Guy Verney).  This was Collin’s first directing credit, although he’d later be more prolific as a producer (notably on Callan).

All of Brown’s hopes are dashed after he learns that the city isn’t a city after all – instead it’s a massive tomb where the Venusians bury their dead.  It’s a pity that after all this effort the city turns out to be nothing more than a Maguffin.  Oh well.

But his disappointment quickly moves into the background as Mary begins to falter – the insect bite is clearly more serious than it first appeared and the others need to come up with an antidote quickly.

This T/R isn’t in a great shape – very notable tramlines throughout – but given that a good deal of this era of television doesn’t exist at all there’s no point in grumbling.

With Mary still weak, they have to improvise a stretcher to carry her (which they knock up very quickly and impressively, it has to be said).  Venus is a planet full of surprises – this week’s cliffhanger finds them menaced by flying dinosaurs!

Pathfinders to Venus. Episode Five – The Venus People

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The lights are even lower at the start of this episode then they were at the end of the previous one, so the Venusian cave-man is much less distinct than he was before.  This low-lighting seems to have foxed the vision mixer – at one point Margaret screams that he’s “breaking though” as the camera cuts to what appears to be an empty frame.

As the Venusian (Bob Bryan) ambles out of the cave, we get a closer look at him.  I think it’s fair to say that he’s possibly not going to be a terribly interesting conversationalist.

The Venus People gives us a break from watching everybody traipsing through the forest as instead they spend their time traipsing through caves instead.  As ever, things aren’t straightforward – Margaret gets separated from the others but (as luck would have it) she runs into Brown and Wilson.

Brown has to do a little bit of quick talking since he’d convinced Wilson that everyone else on the rocket was dead.  He does admit that he lied, but Wilson doesn’t seem too bothered about being deceived.  During these scenes you have to admire Hester Cameron. Margaret has been forced to carry Hamlet for some time, which must have been a little irritating.

Brown finds a narrow ledge which he believes leads to the city.  He’s happy to risk his life crossing it, but Margaret and Wilson are less keen.  But when they hear the wails of the Venusians, she has no choice but to follow.  There’s a bit of a technical blip here – we see Brown cross over, but then George Coulouris walks through the back of  the frame, presumably making his way to the next set.

Wilson meets up with Conway and the others and they too attempt to cross.  The dramatic stock music goes up a few notches as Brown is trapped by a large rock.  A Venusian child (Brigid Skemp) appears to offer Margaret a way out ….


Pathfinders to Venus. Episode Four – The Creature

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By this point the narrative has split four ways.  Geoff is alone in the jungle, Mary and Margaret are trapped in the rocket (whilst something large and unfriendly appears to be attempting to force its way in), Conway has disappeared whilst Brown and Wilson are making their way to what Brown believes is a Venusian city.

Mary eventually twigs the way that Brown deceived them – chopping a few words out of Wilson’s tape recording – whilst the tension of Geoff, Mary and Margaret’s predicament quickly dissipates.  Geoff returns to the rocket and the mysterious creature disappears.

The logical Professor Mary Meadows believes that the creature only appears when they’re alone, so Geoff decides they should rope themselves together and that’ll deal with it.  Eh? I’m not entirely convinced about this statement.

Brown and Wilson continue their slow trek to the city.  They find a cave which displays evidence that the Venusians have discovered fire (and presumably are flesh eaters).  This doesn’t chime with Brown’s assertion that the Venusians are harmless and friendly, but he’s not downhearted and quickly bounces back.  At this point poor George Coulouris suffers a line fumble worthy of William Hartnell.  “Three thousand miles, err three thousand, three hundred years ago …”

The point about fire is an interesting one – in the previous scene Mary was confident that they could use it as a weapon, since she thought it was unlikely the Venusians would have discovered it. Although as no-one ever mention fire again it turns out to be a totally redundant plot-point.

A few clips of stock footage are used throughout the serial.  This episode is slightly more low-rent though – as we hear the sound effect of thunder followed by a picture of lightening.  It’s only on the screen for a second so they just about get away with it.

Gerald Flood’s had an easy episode so far.  We don’t see him until we’re about half way through when Conway promptly wakes up, calls for Geoff and the others – who just happen to be close by – and they’re all happily reunited.

Brown and Wilson debate the ethics of technology.  Brown despairs about the way that scientific progress has ravaged the Earth and fears that the same thing will happen one day to Venus.  Wilson makes the logical point that without science they’d never have reached here in the first place.  Then Wilson reaches for a cigarette.  It’s somewhat jarring to see an astronaut having a quick puff (unless they were special space cigarettes) but then it was the early 1960’s.

The most entertaining part of the episode is poor Hamlet’s plight.  Trapped inside a flesh eating plant, it looks like curtains for the space-faring guinea pig.  Margaret doesn’t take this trauma at all well –  she’s frantic with worry as Conway manfully attempts to rescue Hamlet from within the flappy plant. Don’t worry, Hamlet fans, he eventually escapes unharmed.

The last few seconds give us our first sighting of a Venusian.  He’s lurking in the shadows somewhat, but think cave-man and you’ll be on the right track.

Pathfinders to Venus. Episode Three – The Living Planet

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As also often happened with Doctor Who, the end of episode cliffhangers were re-recorded the next week.  This is very evident here, since both Stewart Guidotti and Hester Cameron are much more restrained at the start of this episode than they were at the end of the previous one.

Geoff and Margaret, locked inside Wilson’s rocket for safety, are pondering exactly what powerful creature could have caused such damage.  Geoff has plenty of ideas.  “For all we know it might have been a reptile, or a bird with a huge beak. Or an insect with some kind of nippers like a crab”.  Given the series’ budget, I’ve a feeling it’ll be somewhat less impressive than these wild imaginings ….

It’s plain that they’re not alone though.  For a while, the camera has sometimes shot from behind flapping branches, giving the impression that someone or something is observing them.  As with the previous serials, this one is also in no hurry to show its hand (understandable, with eight episodes to fill).

So The Living Planet concerns itself with the continuing hunt for Wilson whilst Brown burns with a desire to explore what he believes to be a Venusian city.  The parallels between this story and The Daleks seem pretty obvious, was this a coincidence or did Terry Nation tune in back in 1961?  One difference is that Brown just decides to wander off by himself to explore the alleged city (unlike the Doctor, who had to trick the others into accompanying him).

Another Doctor Who connection is the distinctive piece of stock music which appears some ten minutes about ten minutes in, which also cropped up during the Hartnell era, The Space Museum to be precise.

Brown meets up with Wilson and the pair head off for the city together.  For those keeping a watch on the Conway/Mary relationship, there’s another kiss here – albeit it’s just a smacker on the top of her head.

Graydon Gould, as Wilson, starts to emerge as a more defined character in this episode, helped by the fact he finally has someone to talk to.  Gould might not have been an American, but he was the next best thing (Canadian) so at least he sounds pretty authentic.  Brown and Wilson don’t exactly see eye to eye – Brown believes that the only aggressors in the solar system are to be found on Earth and despairs that the Americans rocket was kept a secret (presumably because it contained military secrets).

You probably won’t be shocked to learn that Conway and Geoff venture out to find Wilson and Brown whilst Mary and Margaret remain behind in the safety of the rocket.  Although maybe it’s not that safe since something breaks into the rocket and begins to menace the girls.

And then Conway disappears which is the cue for Geoff to start over-emoting again.  We must be close to the end of the episode ….

Pathfinders to Venus. Episode Two – Into the Poison Cloud

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Convinced that Wilson is trapped on the surface of Venus, Conway and the others set out to rescue him.  But before they can do this they have to work out a way to negotiate the poison cloud that surrounds the planet.

After a few minutes chat, they seem confident so once again the dramatic stock music is cued as the sweet little model rocket slowly begins its descent.  You have to respect the abilities of the regulars (attempting to sell the illusion of danger with such limited resources is no easy task).

But although it’s easy to be critical of the effects, some are very effective.  The shots of the American rocket orbiting Venus are nicely done.  The rocket isn’t particularly detailed, but the fact it’s so small means that it contrasts well with the vast planet.  And our first sight of the planet’s surface – the camera tracks down to reveal the rocket nestling amongst surprising lush vegetation – is a decent model sequence.

Brown is convinced that Venus has a breathable atmosphere and – against the advice of the others – he emerges from the rocket without his space helmet.  And wouldn’t you know it, he’s correct.  This is probably the moment where it’s pointless to worry about scientific accuracy and simply go with the flow.  One obvious plus point about this is that it means our heroes don’t have to spend the entire serial wandering about with space helmets on (which I’m sure was Hulke and Paice’s reasoning).

Since this was 1961 you shouldn’t be surprised that the boys (Conway, Geoff and Brown) immediately go out to explore whilst the girls (Mary and Margaret) stay behind in the rocket.  But it isn’t long before the ever-squeaky Margaret gets her chance to take a look outside (albeit with Geoff as a chaperone).

Conway finds the place “menacing” although at present there’s no sign of life.  On the other hand, Brown is delighted – telling Margaret and Geoff that due to Venus’ slower orbit he could expect to live for another six hundred years here.  I’m going to have to think about that one ….

Poor Wilson.  Considering that the others had come to rescue him, now that they’re jaunting around on the surface he’s rather stuck.  So he too decides to make planetfall.  Geoff, manning the radio, can’t convince Conway that the blip he’s monitoring is a rocket (which is reasonable, since they all assume Wilson has already touched down).  The scene of Wilson’s rocket crash-landing is interesting.  Let’s assume that the planet’s surface is very springy (that would explain why his rocket seems to bounce up and down).

What should you never do on a strange new planet? Split up and explore.  So whilst Conway, Mary and Brown have stuck together (with Geoff and Margaret safely in the ship) what do the youngsters decide to do?  Yep, head off under their own steam for a spot of exploration.  Oh dear.

Towards the end of the episode we get to see a bit more of Venus’ lush vegetation (which seems to include large mushroom plants).  We also have our first sign of life – a snake – as Geoff and Margaret close in on Wilson’s crashed rocket.  But Wilson’s nowhere to be found and Geoff makes a disturbing discovery.  “This damage couldn’t have been done by a crash-landing. The rocket’s been ransacked by some creature!”

Stuart Guidotti’s performance, like Hester Cameron’s, is sometimes pitched at a level of extreme hysteria – as it is here.  Possibly they were both told to go for it (as in Doctor Who, end of episode acting was a specialised skill) and it’s fair to say that neither of them are holding back as this episode concludes.

Pathfinders to Venus. Episode One – S.O.S. from Venus

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Following directly on from the events of Pathfinders to Mars, the opening of S.O.S. from Venus finds our plucky band of space explorers heading back home to Earth.  Somewhat awkwardly, the chisel-jawed Conway Henderson (Gerald Flood) decides to radio Earth with a rundown of the rocket’s personnel.

This, of course, is done purely for the benefit of new viewers who may not have caught the previous serial.  So in the same spirit, I can reveal that apart from Conway Henderson, also on-board are Professor Mary Meadows (Pamela Barney), youngsters Geoff Wedgewood (Stuart Guidotti) and Margaret Henderson (Hester Cameron) and the loose cannon that is Harcourt Brown (George Coulouris).  Oh, and Hamlet the guinea pig of course.

But when they receive a distress call from an American, Captain Wilson (Graydon Gould), trapped in an orbit around Venus, they elect to change course and help him.  Brown is delighted – his quest for exploration knows no bounds and within seconds he’s chomping at the bit to step foot on Venus.  Conway tells him that they’re only going to orbit the planet, so any jaunts to the surface are strictly out of bounds.  Hmm, we’ve been here before so the astute viewer won’t be surprised to learn that Brown will shortly get his way (otherwise, with eight episodes to fill, the story wouldn’t have been terribly interesting).

Although the serial would quickly abandon its loose grip on scientific realism, in this episode Malcolm Hulke and Eric Paice were at least still paying lip service to established scientific principles, such as degaussing.

The modelwork remains as endearingly low rent as before as do the limited special effects.  Given that this was made in 1961, that’s hardly surprising, although simple camera tricks (simulating weightlessness in space – crawling on the underside of the rocket – by simply turning the picture frame upside down) are still effective.

As has happened before, the opening episode is pretty much a bottle episode – set aboard the rocket.  This means that it’s something of a slow intro – although Conway’s space-walk is good fun.  A pity that the very dramatic stock music during this scene is rather miscued (it starts, then it stops for a few seconds, then it starts again) but such technical issues were common during this era of television.

Things seem to be going smoothly.  Conway and the others have nearly reached Wilson, whilst a Russian rescue rocket is also heading towards them.  But you can always guarantee that Brown will complicate matters and when he spots something through the viewfinder (“it’s a town! A town on Venus!”) he sets to work in order to convince the others that they should land.

The way he does so takes a little swallowing.  Since Wilson’s messages have been recorded, by chopping out a small section of the tape Brown can create the impression that Wilson is on the surface and asking for help.  That Brown is able to correctly estimate precisely how much tape he needs to remove without playing it first is a highly impressive skill …..

Pathfinders to Mars – Falling into the Sun

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Falling into the Sun doesn’t get off to the best of starts as a very obvious camera shadow looms behind our heroes as they make their way to the rocket.  Luckily for them Brown isn’t able to take off, as the rocket is infested with that pesky lichen.

This lichen is a little animated (although the wires holding it up are painfully obvious at times).  Henderson quickly works out a way to kill it off – heat – and within a matter of seconds it’s no longer a menace.  Margaret and Geoffrey are very upset though – Hamlet was in the rocket and didn’t have a spacesuit, so surely he would have been killed.  I have to confess to being slightly less concerned about the guinea pig’s fate than they are, but animal lovers everywhere needn’t fear as Brown shielded it from harm.

As Mary says (a little ironically) this is a point in his favour – he might have been ready to leave them all to perish on the surface, but at least he didn’t let Hamlet die.  It’s interesting that Brown’s anti-hero status is therefore still firmly in place – he didn’t decide to stay because he had a change of heart about those he’d be leaving behind, he was only prevented from leaving because of the lichen.  The Doctor might have been a little untrustworthy in the early Doctor Who stories, but he was never so heartless.

How will they get back to Earth?  Brown has the solution – they have to set the controls for the heart of the Sun.  This possibly isn’t as crazy as it sounds (well not quite) as the Sun’s gravitational pull will generate the extra power they need.  We drop back in on Buchan Island where they’re keeping an eye on things and it’s plain that Ian’s doubtful of their chances.  But watch him when they make it – he starts jigging around like nobody’s business!

So they’re nearly home, but Brown doesn’t fancy going back to Earth (he thinks Venus looks much more interesting).  The others look on with indulgent smiles, although if I was them – remembering how many times Brown’s actions have endangered their lives – I’d probably be less sanguine.

Pathfinders to Mars doesn’t quite have the same impact that Pathfinders in Space did.  Harcourt Brown is the main reason for watching, since the plot is rather thinly spread over the six episodes.  As touched upon before, after being teased about intelligent life on Mars it comes as a disappointment to find that there’s nothing there.  So the later episodes turn into something of a run-around with various not terribly exciting dangers (lichen, crevices, quicksand).

Maybe Malcolm Hulke and Eric Paice were aware of this problem, as the trip to Venus sees them abandon the last vestiges of scientific credibility.  If you want Venusians and Venusian dinosaurs then Pathfinders to Venus has them …..

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Pathfinders to Mars – Zero Hour on the Red Planet

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Gerald Flood, what a trooper!  He spends the first few minutes of Zero Hour on the Red Planet doing his very best to convince the audience that he’s being attacked by Martian lichen.  Alas, it’s painfully obvious that the lichen is plastic and inanimate, which requires Flood to wriggle about frantically in order to sell the illusion that the plants are moving.  It’s not at all convincing, but you have to give him top marks for effort.

As for the others, Brown reveals that the life he’s observed is plant-life.  After four episodes of his imaginative world building, it’s something of a disappointment that we haven’t met the thriving Martian civilisation he promised us.  This highlights the way that the Pathfinders series to date has trod a delicate line between science fiction (a twelve year-old girl with no space experience wants to become an astronaut? No problem!) and science fact (throughout the serial Brown has been the only one to believe that there could be intelligent life on Mars, with the others – even the children – adamant that only plant life could exist).

I did fleetingly think that a Martian was going to make an appearance at 6:41  during this episode, but it was only a guest appearance from a camera!  It quickly bobs out of shot in a rather apologetic way.

Stewart Guidotti demonstrates that Geoffrey’s concerned about the fate of Henderson and Mary by shouting an awful lot.  It’s very much a performance that’s lacking in subtlety (to put it mildly) and with Hester Cameron emoting in a similar way, the pair of them are rather trying.  Thank goodness for George Coulouris.  Harcourt Brown may have been forced to accept that his vision of a Martian civilisation is now looking very unlikely, but he chooses to underplay, rather than overplay, his scenes.

Brown, Margaret and Geoffrey set off to look for Henderson and Mary.  The pair have little oxygen and are being menaced by approaching lichen.  Normally you’d have expected Henderson to have given Mary a comforting kiss by now, but since they’re wearing space helmets it’s not possible (the clash of heads would probably be rather painful).  It slightly stretches credibility that within a few minutes they’re all reunited – although there’s a problem (Henderson and Mary are standing on the other edge of a crevice).

Cue several minutes of Brown and the children turning their supply sled into a bridge.  Mary makes her way across (Pamela Barney doing her best to convince the audience that if Mary fell she’d plummet hundreds of feet) and Henderson follows.  Hmm, for no good reason he decides to walk across agonisingly slowly – so you can guess what’s going to happen next.  The bridge collapses and he ends up clinging to the edge of the crevice for dear life. It’s another of those moments that’s problematic, which is down to the limitations not only of the studio but also the fact they were recording “as live”.  A few more takes and tighter editing would have sold the illusion much better.  This moment of jeopardy is short-lived as the others easily pull him up.

Whereas Pathfinders in Space was a rather thoughtful sci-fi parable (the story of how an advanced civilisation was destroyed by war) Pathfinders to Mars has tended to eschew that path and has gone instead for pulp thrills.  We’ve had the aggressive lichen, Henderson clinging on to the edge of a crevice for dear life and now Mary tumbles into Martian quicksand, with Henderson risking his life to save her.  And even though this serial was an episode shorter than the previous one, these moments of jeopardy feel  very much like padding – they’ve run around the Martian surface for twenty five minutes but have achieved very little.

Zero Hour on the Red Planet does have a cracking cliffhanger though – Brown elects to leave the others behind and pilot the rocket back to Earth by himself.  He can’t bear the thought that they would expose his vision of Mars as a sham – so he’s prepared to leave them all (even the children) behind to die.  But as he prepares to lift off, lichen forces itself into the control room …..


Pathfinders to Mars – Lichens!

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Given that Pathfinders to Mars must have had a pretty limited budget, the Martian landscape is an impressive set.  With dry ice providing an eerie mist it looks pretty convincing to these eyes and on the lower definition televisions of the 1960’s no doubt would have looked better still.

Margaret and Geoffrey are given the honour of being the first humans to set foot on Mars, but Henderson doesn’t want them to go any further and orders them to stay in the rocket, monitoring the radio.  Margaret’s very disappointed, but Henderson tells her that they haven’t come here to explore – all they want is to find sufficient water for the journey home.

This presumably means that they have enough fuel for the six week return journey.  Considering that the rocket was only supposed to make a trip to the Moon and back (which wouldn’t have taken more than a week) it seems remarkable they were stocked up with three months fuel.

Margaret and Geoffrey observe a large cloud of dust heading towards them at enormous speed.  Stewart Guidotti has the unenviable task of delivering the line “look at Hamlet – he’s frightened”.  Cut to a shot of a guinea pig pottering about, quite unconcerned.  But if Hamlet doesn’t look bothered then both Guidotti and Cameron are teetering on the edge of hysteria as Geoffrey and Margaret wonder if Brown was right all along.  Are the Martians coming to them?!  Short answer, no.

Henderson continues to kiss Mary.  He’s getting closer to her lips, as this one lands on her cheek.  The pair of them, along with Brown, are slowly reconnoitring the surface, looking for water.  Brown is keen to head off by himself to investigate the canals, but Henderson tells him that they’re here for one reason only – to find water – and Brown, grudgingly, agrees.  This is another moment that’s later echoed in Doctor Who – in The Daleks, the Doctor is keen to explore the city, but Ian refuses.

Henderson, Mary and Brown are caught up in the dust storm.  After it passes, Brown is missing.  Henderson decides he must have fallen down a crevice and although he’s regretful about the older man’s fate, he tells Mary that they can’t do anything to help him, so it’s best to press on and try to find the water they need.

Of course, Brown isn’t dead – instead he turns up at the rocket to tell Geoffrey and Margaret that Henderson and Mary are the ones who fell down the crevice.  They don’t believe a word of it though, with young Mary earnestly stating that “I don’t believe they’re dead, I won’t.”  Brown wants the pair of them to join him in his exploration of the planet.  Margaret immediately smells a rat – if they go and Henderson and Mary return, then they wouldn’t be able to take off (as she astutely observes, Brown’s attempting to use them as hostages).  But alas, she eventually agrees to go with Geoffrey (who’s much more keen) and the three of them set off.

A healthy downpour of rain sees Henderson and Mary menaced by aggressive Martian plant-life.  And that’s not a sentence you tend to type every day.  It’s an ambitious sequence which is, thankfully, brief – had it lasted any longer it would have quickly lost its credibility.

So apart from plants, is there any other life on the planet?  We’ve yet to meet Brown’s Martians, but the cliffhanger teases us that we’re getting closer.  He climbs a hill, looks over and returns to tell Margaret and Geoffrey that he has found life, although it’s not what he was expecting …..

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Pathfinders to Mars – The Hostage

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Brown tells them that the trip to Mars will take six weeks.  Given that modern estimates place the journey between six and eight months, there’s a certain amount of dramatic licence at play here.

What’s made clear is that the journey to Mars is going to be strictly one way – as even if, by some miracle, they reach their destination they’ll have no water or other supplies for the return journey.  Brown is quite calm about this – he still maintains that Mars is a thriving civilisation, so he no doubt assumes the Martians will be able to supply them with whatever they need.

Although Brown’s actions, reckless in the extreme, position him as the villain of the piece, he’s presented in a reasonable light here.  This isn’t too surprising as later episodes will see him integrated back with the others as they all combine to find a solution to their problems.  Indeed, he’s quite affable to Margaret as he explains about the canals of Mars, not taking offence when she disagrees with his assertion that they prove there must be life on Mars.  Hester Cameron impresses with the two-handed scenes she shares with George Coulouris.

Possibly the most notable part of the episode is the sequence where Henderson attempts to break into the control cabin by exiting the rocket and attempting a spacewalk.  There are several reasons why – firstly, I love the periscope that slowly turns to observe him (I think it’s probably because the notion of a periscope is such a delightfully old fashioned concept).  I also like the way that he loses his grip on a spanner which then goes flying into space.  It was clearly on a piece of wire, but it helps to sell the illusion that he’s in space.

But the main reason why this is so memorable is because the same scene, virtually unchanged, turned up thirteen years later in the Doctor Who story Frontier in Space.  That story was written by Malcolm Hulke, the co-writer of Pathfinders to Mars, so it can hardly have been a coincidence.

The lack of supplies seems to be one of the reasons why the relationship between Henderson and Mary is deepening.  He kisses her again – albeit only on the forehead, remember this is children’s television!

As The Hostage draws to a close, they finally reach Mars.  Whilst the others (now released) are still gently dismissive about Brown’s claims of a great Martian civilisation, it’s obvious that we’ll soon be able to find out for ourselves.  It may have taken three episodes but we’re finally there.

Pathfinders to Mars – Sabotage in Space

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There’s quite a lengthy recap at the start of this episode (nearly three minutes) which suggests that it was underrunning a little.  Sabotage in Space is a rather static instalment – understandable since most of the action takes place aboard the rocket.

But the enclosed nature of the episode isn’t all bad news as it allows Brown’s discordant presence to slowly become more apparent.  That he’s a fish out of water is evident right from the start – he doesn’t know how to strap himself into his take-off seat, for example – and there are numerous other signs that he’s not the man he claims to be.

Noticing that Geoffrey’s still carrying his book (although as yet nobody knows that he’s the author), he launches into an earnest debate about life on Mars which both Geoffrey and Margaret gently disagree with.  Henderson is more forthright, labelling Brown’s book as “tripe”!

Mary is far from happy.  The man that Brown replaced, Professor Hawkins, should be working with her – but Brown spends all his time glued to the radio.  When Mary complains to Henderson he doesn’t seem to be terribly bothered about her problems.  He tells her to be a good girl, gives her a kiss and saunters off!  Mary then pulls a “ooohhhhh” face which tells us all we need to know.  This may be the space age, but this scene indicates that there’s still some way to go before we see equality between the sexes.

Buchan Island discover that Professor Hawkins isn’t present on the rocket when he turns up at the base.  One point – Hawkins is supposed to be Australian, but neither Horsfall or Coulouris have the trace of an Australian accent.  It might have been fun for both of them to attempt one, but on second thoughts perhaps not.

Ian quickly works out that the imposter is Harcourt Brown, a Mars obsessed fanatic.  But the others on the rocket remain in ignorance since Brown was able to destroy the receiver before Buchan Island could transmit the news.

As for Professor Wedgewood, he’s nowhere to be seen.  A line of dialogue explains that he’s headed off for hospital, but since he’s only got a broken arm you’d have assumed he’d have hung around a little longer to see everything was all right.  But in story terms the Professor is now surplus to requirements and his absence from the rest of the story means that the production saves a little money (that’s one less actor they have to pay).

By the end of this episode the MR4 has reached the Moon’s orbit.  Whilst Brown remains behind, Henderson, Mary, Geoffrey and Margaret rendezvous with the supply rocket which is now in their orbit.  Margaret returns with the new radio, but Brown then closes the hatch and fires up the motors, leaving Henderson, Mary and Geoffrey locked out of the control room.  He reveals his true identity and then tells them all that he’s heading for Mars ….

Pathfinders to Mars – The Imposter

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Although the opening episode of Pathfinders to Mars was only broadcast a mere six weeks after the conclusion of Pathfinders in Space, quite a few changes had been made.

Jimmy and Valerie are gone, although those hoping that Hamlet the guinea pig would also be absent will be disappointed.  To replace them we have Henderson’s twelve-year old niece Margaret (Hester Cameron), who even at this tender age is something of a scientist.

As for Professor Wedgewood, he only appears in the opening episode – thereafter Conway Henderson becomes the male heroic lead.  Ian Murray returns, but he’s now resident on Buchan Island rather than a member of the crew.  Also back are Professor Mary Meadows and Geoffrey Wedgewood.

The cast re-jigs leave us with a better mix on the MR4 – with two groups of characters that naturally gravitate towards each other (Henderson and Mary, Geoffrey and Margaret) plus a wildcard – Harcourt Brown (George Coulouris).

Brown adds a sense of danger and unpredictability into the narrative, something which was largely missing from Pathfinders in Space.  True, Dr O’Connell did occasionally act irrationally, but his moments of madness soon passed.  With Brown we have someone who has a burning desire to pursue his own agenda, even if it means risking the lives of the others.

The opening minutes of The Imposter sees the dramatic intensity pitched to at least eleven.  Partly because of the highly melodramatic stock music, but also due to the way that Ian reacts (or overacts, depending on your point of view) with horror at the events unfolding on the launchpad.  There’s an accident, somebody’s hurt …. oh my goodness it’s Professor Wedgewood!  The tension ramps down a little when it’s revealed that he’s only got a broken arm, but it explains why he won’t be taking any part in the planned mission to the Moon.

So once again Henderson is pressed into service.  As before, he only turned up to Buchan Island to cover the launch for his newspaper but finds himself strapped into the hotseat.  Suspension of disbelief is required again  – why aren’t there more trained astronauts?  And even if there aren’t, what’s so urgent about this mission that it can’t wait until Wedgewood recovers?

Our first sight of Margaret isn’t that promising.  Like Valerie she’s rather squeaky and earnest, but maybe she’ll settle down.  After haranguing the security guard she eventually manages to gain access to the control room thanks to the intervention of Geoffrey.  The guard tells him that “she’ll be a right problem when she grows up, you’d better keep your eye on her.”  Geoffrey’s response is short and world-weary.  “Girls”!

Once Margaret knows that her uncle is piloting the ship she’s as keen as mustard to join him.  “I could look after supplies, I can cook and I know first aid”.  Wedgewood, puffing on his pipe, is sold although Geoffrey is far from pleased at the prospect.  When Mary arrives, that just leaves Professor Hawkins (Bernard Horsfall) to complete the crew.  But Hawkins is waylaid by Brown who takes his place, hence the episode title.  A pity that Hawkins didn’t join the others as Horsfall’s always an actor worth watching, but our first sight of the duplicitous Brown shows that he’s a character with plenty of scope.  He certainly contrasts nicely with some of the other more earnest (or wooden) performers.

Although it’s easy to mock some of the plotting, other elements are quite neatly handed.  For example, we see Geoffrey with a book which posits there might be life on Mars.  Margaret disagrees and the pair have a mildly heated argument.  As the pair leave the room, the camera focuses on the book and the author’s name – Harcourt Brown – is shown.  For the moment that wouldn’t mean anything to the first-time viewer, but all will become clear later on.  It’s a nice piece of shorthand that establishes Brown’s character – even when he’s not on the screen – and lets us know what he believes in and what his plan will be.

I’m pleased to see that the crew are wearing their spacesuits on take-off as it just didn’t seem right that they were all lounging around in cardigans last time!  So its time to strap yourself in and enjoy the ride …..

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