Pathfinders in Space – Convoy to the Moon

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Target Luna and the subsequent Pathfinders trilogy (Pathfinders in Space, Pathfinders to Mars and Pathfinders to Venus) are of interest for several reasons.  Firstly because you have to admire the sheer gumption of the programme-makers (attempting to depict space travel to the Moon, Venus and Mars with a shoestring budget back in the early sixties certainly took nerve!) but also because of the proto-Doctor Who feel of the series.

Target Luna (sadly wiped) and the Pathfinders trilogy (rather amazingly all twenty one episodes still exist) were broadcast on ABC television during 1960 and 1961 and all four serials were produced by Sydney Newman.  It can hardly be a coincidence that when Newman jumped ship for the BBC a few years later and was looking for a Saturday tea-time serial to run throughout the year, the show that eventually became Doctor Who bore a strong resemblance to Pathfinders.

Both featured a strong, reassuring leading man (Conway Henderson in Pathfinders, Ian Chesterton in Doctor Who) and there was also a “kid to get in trouble” (three of ’em in Pathfinders in Space/Susan Foreman).

But most striking of all, the later Pathfinders serials (Mars, Venus) featured an older man “with some character twist”.  To begin with, we were never meant to identity with him directly – since he tended to do things which endangered our heroes – but ultimately he would demonstrate that his heart was in the right place.  The proto-Doctor in the last two Pathfinders serials was Harcourt Brown, played by George Coulouris.  Coulouris had worked with Orson Welles, most notably in Citizen Kane, and was no doubt (like William Hartnell later on) seen as rather a left-field choice to play in a children’s science fiction series.

And one last Doctor Who link – the scripts were written by Eric Paice and Malcolm Hulke.  Hulke would – after several abortive attempts – become a respected Doctor Who script-writer.

But although the connections to Doctor Who are of undoubted interest, do the serials hold up as good examples of children’s serial television in their own right?  That’s what this rewatch will discover …..

After opening with some dinky-looking model work, a well-dressed man, Conway Henderson (Gerald Flood), turns up at the gates of the Buchan Island Rocket Research Station.  This was still very much the era of Quatermass, so formidable (and British!) installations such as these were the order of the day.  It’s a slight pity that the opening dialogue between Henderson and the security guard is a little clunky (the guard greets him with the words “och, it’s yourself, Mr Conway Henderson”).  Why would the guard greet Henderson by telling him his own name?!  But on the plus side it helps to introduce him straightaway and the script also wastes no time in explaining that Henderson is a scientific journalist.

You may be wondering how a journalist manages to wangle his way aboard a rocket for seven weeks of action-packed adventures.  Good question!  There’s something endearingly charming about the way that Pathfinders in Space is so casual about space-travel.  In a way it harks back to the classic BBC radio serials of the 1950’s (starting with Journey into Space) and it’s possibly not a coincidence that the first Wallace & Gromit adventure, A Grand Day Out, seemed to have a similar vibe.

Henderson bumps into Valerie Wedgewood (Gillian Henderson), a rather squeaky girl.  Also somewhere on the base are her brothers, Geoffrey (Stewart Guidotti) and Jimmy (Richard Dean).  Their father, Professor Wedgewood (Peter Williams), is in charge and tells Geoffrey that he’s going to keep an eye on all of them – no more jaunts into space for his kids (as seen in Target Luna).  I wonder how successful he’s going to be.

It’s probably fair to say that the amount of pleasure which can be derived from Pathfinders in Space is strongly connected to how irritating you find the juvenile leads.  Geoffrey is the older, more sensible one, Jimmy is always worried about his pet guinea pig Hamlet, whilst Valerie spends her time worrying about the other two.

Professor Wedgewood’s trip to the Moon is announced in a very matter of fact way.  The scene where he briefs the other crew-members is a classic – the rocket hasn’t really been tested at this distance before, but no matter as he cheerily tells them that this will be the test flight!  He then states that there will be two rockets – the other one will carry supplies and be computer-controlled. Wedgewood’s crew have no need for spacesuits when they blast off – comfortable cardigans are the order of the day.

The model rocket taking off looks rather like a, well, model – but the brief animation of the rocket when seen above the Earth is a simple, but very effective shot (we see the secondary stage jettisoned).

Disaster!  A rogue screwdriver (no, me neither) destroys the automatic pilot in the secondary rocket.  Since this rocket is due to carry all the supplies, it spells serious problems for Wedgewood and the others.  It’ll take six days to repair the automatic pilot, but what other possibility do they have?  Luckily (well that’s one word for it) Henderson is a trained jet pilot and offers to fly the second rocket.  It seems a little remiss of Wedgewood not to have any stand-by astronauts, but I don’t think this is a series that you can really critique in too deep a fashion.

The plot’s been designed so that Henderson – and the enthusiastic kids – can pilot a rocket to the Moon.  Henderson’s happy to have the sensible Geoffrey along, whist Jimmy also bags a place.  But what about Valerie?  Her brothers aren’t happy – she’s a girl so is bound to be scared.  She seems to be reconciled to being left behind, but I’ve a feeling that the discussion about stowaways earlier in the episode was put there for a reason.

Pathfinders in Space – Spaceship from Nowhere

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In a highly unsurprising plot-twist, it’s revealed that Valerie has stowed away.  It’s also no surprise that the Professor’s far from impressed to discover that his three children are present with Henderson in the rocket.  He wants them to remain in orbit around the Earth, but Valerie – demonstrating a sly cunning – suggests to both Henderson and her father that it would be safer if they travelled on and orbited around the Moon instead.

A moment which warms the heart occurs when we see news of the Professor’s feat transmitted around the world.  In the UK this is represented by some over-acting extras, but the best is yet to come.  We travel to France (accordion music, a couple of sailors sitting outside a café), Canada (a man fishing in the wilderness with some very obvious cardboard mountains behind him) and Australia (a man in a stable with a piece of straw in his mouth).  It may be a touch stereotypical, but it’s a nice piece of shorthand that shows how, very much like the real Moon landings in 1969, this trip to the Moon was something that the whole world could share.

There’s a rather impressive weightless effect which shows Jimmy floating about.  In the years before CSO, I don’t think this inlay effect would have been that easy to produce (I can’t remember any similar examples in 1960’s Doctor Who, for example).

This episode gives us a chance to get to know the Professor’s crew.  Given the era this was made, it’s a progressive touch that a woman, Mary Meadows (Pamela Barney), is aboard.  And she didn’t have to stow away!  As we’ll see in a minute, Dr. O’Connell (Harold Goldblatt) is currently operating in full Private Frazer mode (he doesn’t go as far as telling them that they’re all doomed, but it’s close).  And for the moment, Ian Murray (Hugh Evans), hasn’t had a great deal to do.

Dr O’Connell’s a worried man.  He’s convinced that disaster awaits them if they attempt to land on the Moon – and he uses force to try to prevent the Professor from doing so.  You’d have assumed that the Professor would have screened his crew beforehand to prevent any such problems, oh well.  Luckily, once they manage to land O’Connell regains his composure and it’s smiles all round again.

I do like the scene where Mary is describing the Moon landscape, prior to the moment when they touch down.  The Moon we see through the viewscope looks pretty much like the real thing, so they clearly must have done some research.  We’ll see next time how accurate the full-size surface looks though …

Whilst the trouble in getting to the Moon has been the main plot-thread so far, the episode closes with an intriguing mystery.  The Professor spots a ship on the other side of the Moon and naturally assumes it’s Henderson.  But it’s not, so where has this unidentified ship come from?

Pathfinders in Space – Luna Bridgehead

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Following a near collision with a mysterious ship orbiting the Moon, Henderson is forced to make an emergency landing.  After a slightly tricky descent, they land safely – although they find themselves some distance from Professor Wedgewood’s rocket.  The Professor, Mary and Dr O’Connell set out to find them, whilst Henderson and the others rig up a signalling beacon.

Jimmy is given the honour of being the first man to set foot on the Moon, but later they discover strange markings in the lunar surface – which indicates that others have been here before them …..

Gillian Ferguson, as young Valerie, certainly dials up the intensity at the start of this episode.  Her film and television career was fairly short lived (her last credit, an episode of Dixon of Dock Green, was broadcast the following year, 1961), so like many child actors she never carried on once she became an adult.  Her playing of Valerie lacks a certain naturalism, shall we say, which possibly isn’t too much of a surprise since the script is pitched at rather a melodramatic level.

Hamlet’s spacesuit is either a mark of genius or the silliest thing ever.  I’m leaning towards the latter at the moment.  As for the humans’ spacesuits, the most noticeable thing about them is that they lack any visors.  This was obviously done for dramatic purposes – otherwise we wouldn’t be able to see or hear the actors – but it does take a few moments before you can put out of your mind the fact they all should have suffocated as soon as they set foot on the lunar surface.

Henderson has a good explanation as to why they’re not bouncing about on the Moon’s surface – their spacesuits help to cancel out the lack of gravity, meaning that they can stroll about just as if they were out for a walk in the park.  That’s convenient of course,  since the studio wouldn’t have been set up to deal with the problem of demonstrating weightlessness!

The model shots of the lunar landscape continue to impress, and if the descent of Henderson’s rocket is a little wobbly then it seems churlish to be too critical.  The full-size lunar landscape is a little less convincing though, but the small budget and technical considerations obviously played a part in this.

I’m quite taken with Pamela Barney as Professor Mary Meadows.  With Dr O’Connell having once again slipped into “doomed, we’re all doomed” mode, she’s called upon to be the sensible voice of reason.  Apart from a role as a nurse in the film During One Night (also 1960) all of her other credits come from the Pathfinders trilogy.

With seven episodes to fill, the serial can afford to take its time.  So in this episode we’re teased with a few more revelations – the strange ship orbiting the Moon seems to have been abandoned, whilst marks in the lunar surface suggest that the inhabitants of the shp landed – but are they still here?  It seems impossible, but you never know.

Young Jimmy falls down a shaft and discovers more evidence of their handiwork.  His gobsmacked expression is a little extreme, but it sets us up nicely for episode four – The Man in the Moon.

Pathfinders in Space – The Man in the Moon

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Jimmy’s made an impressive discovery – another spaceship – and this one’s deep in an underground cavern.  It’s a bit of a mystery though, how did the ship get there?  Henderson and the others join Jimmy to puzzle it out, but soon find themselves trapped underground ….

Budget limitations are rather exposed at the start of this episode, as our intrepid explorers puzzle over the mysterious ship.  The script no doubt called for an impressive landslide to trap them, but what we saw on screen was not so much a landslide, more of a trickle.

Professor Wedgewood’s party are hopelessly lost.  With only limited oxygen, this isn’t good news and Dr O’Connell continues to be a rather gloomy companion.  Once again, Wedgewood’s lack of forward planning is exposed – he suggests they try over there (more out of hope than from any sort of scientific judgment).  But when they find a mysterious marking in the ground – similar to the ones discovered by Henderson – it suggests they’re close to Henderson’s rocket.  This is a bit of a stretch – why couldn’t these marks be all over the Moon? – so you have to admit that the pessimistic O’Connell does have a point.  Wedgewood might be enthusiastic but he seems to bumble from one crisis to the next.

Wedgewood and the others reach Henderson’s rocket, but of course they find nobody there.  They’re still trapped in the cave and with their oxygen running out face certain death.  Jimmy responds by going a little stir-crazy (enthusiastic over-acting, shall we say) but just when it seems all is lost they’re rescued by Wedgewood.  It’s all a tad convenient, but no matter – everyone’s together and they can now set up camp and try and solve the mystery of the alien spaceship.

There’s some hard – well hardish – science fiction talk as Wedgewood and O’Connell ponder over the ship.  And then Hamlet goes missing, which means that Jimmy heads off to look for him.  I think we have to be very grateful that when Doctor Who was set up they didn’t decide to give Susan a pet which would run off every five minutes and therefore create an excuse to put her into danger.  Four episodes in, I’m getting a little tired of Hamlet.

We have to wait until the final shot of the episode before Valerie discovers the man in the Moon.  It’s maybe not what was expected, but it’s a very effective cliffhanger.

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Pathfinders in Space – The World of Lost Toys

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Although Pathfinders in Space was broadcast only a few months after Target Luna, all of the roles were recast (presumably this was the choice of new director Guy Verney).  This is a slight pity as it would have been interesting to see some of the actors featured in Target Luna (Frank Finlay as Henderson, Michael Craze as Geoffrey) carry on.  And quite what the audience made of the changes at the time isn’t recorded ….

At the end of the last episode, Valerie discovers a calcified figure.  Wedgewood decides it’s a stalactite, whilst O’Connell declares that it’s been there for at least four hundred million years.  So at the time when life on Earth had barely begun, a similar looking race had landed on the Moon.  Quite how and why this humanoid became calcified is a mystery though.

Jimmy, of course, can’t resist showing the figure to Hamlet.  It’s a little surprising to learn that Richard Dean (Jimmy) was actually older than Stewart Guidotti (Geoffrey).  Dean’s small stature ensured that he played characters younger than his actual age and whilst it’s true that Jimmy is rather irritating and juvenile, when you know that Dean’s older than Guidotti it does raise the possibility that Dean was giving a skilful acting performance all along.

Scattered about the cave are children’s toys – the toys of the children from this other, long vanished civilisation.  It seems that children from all over the galaxy have similar tastes in toys – stuffed animals, spaceships – and it helps to fill in a little more background.  Although I can’t help thinking that when Henderson returns to Earth and writes his story, nobody’s going to believe him.  After all, if Neil Armstrong returned from the Moon with a cuddly toy under his arm, what sort of reaction would he have received?!

Whilst everyone else has been having adventures on the Moon’s surface (and below) poor Ian’s been stuck in the spaceship by himself.  And it’s only after his long distance games of chess with Earth that I realised who he reminds me of, Tony Hancock in The Radio Ham!  There’s an extraordinary performance by Terence Soall as a Russian technician who broadcasts an urgent message (which turns out to be nothing more than a suggestion for his next chess move) to Ian in the rocket.  Let’s be kind and say Russian accents weren’t his speciality.

The news that a shower of meteorites is heading for the Moon could spell disaster for the two precious rockets.  If they’re damaged, then Wedgewood and the others will never be able to return home.

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Pathfinders in Space – Disaster on the Moon

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Wedgewood and O’Connell, after only a very brief time with the logs of the alien craft, seem confident to tell their story.  Astonishingly, there’s also a film record as well, which shows their (admittedly, very wobbly) craft taking off and heading for the Moon.

The fate of the alien’s planet is a bleak one – two rival factions fought for supremacy and their civilisation was destroyed.  When Jimmy wonders what the invisible death mentioned in the log could be, Geoffrey replies that it must refer to radioactivity from hydrogen bombs.  In the early sixties the shadow of the bomb was never far away – so this would been a highly topical touch, even if it seems an odd inclusion in what, until now, has been fairly light, escapist fare.  It’s an effective parable though which would have left the young audience with food for thought.

Henderson suggests that this other species could also have come from the Earth and after they destroyed themselves millions of years ago in a devastating war, it paved the way for the arrival of homo sapiens.  Although there are one or two problems with this theory, it does help to ground Pathfinders in Space to a certain level of reality – it would have been tempting to introduce little green men from a totally alien civilisation, but Paice and Hulke decided to keep things more down to earth, as it were.

Back on Buchan Island, Jean Cary (Irene Sutcliffe) is starting to feel the pressure.  She’s been a comforting and reassuring presence throughout the serial but now, with the possibility of heavy meteorite showers, she’s becoming much more anxious.

As with other programmes of this era, music and sound effects had to be added during the recording (post-production didn’t really exist).  This explains why the echo effect in the caves is rather inconsistent throughout the serial – at times it’s not really there and at others (as here) it just sounds odd, as if the correct setting hadn’t been made.  But time was at a premium, meaning that the luxury of retakes was a rarity.

As the episode title suggests, things aren’t going well.  The rocket which is due to take them all back to Earth is hit by a meteorite shower.  It’s destroyed in a blaze of stock footage whilst Ian manages to escape with his life. It’s remarkable that when he dives for cover behind a rather wobbly rock just a few feet away he doesn’t suffer any injuries. Clearly Moon rock has strange properties ….

All’s not quite lost. They can use the other rocket, but it’ll only be able to carry one adult and one child.  Cue everybody looking at everybody else as they wonder who’ll be the lucky ones …

Pathfinders in Space – Rescue in Space

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We left our heroes on the horns of a dilemma last time.  The rocket can only carry one adult and one child back to Earth, so what’s going to happen to the rest of them?  If only there was another ship they could use ….

The final instalment of Pathfinders in Space only ran for seventeen minutes (rather than the normal twenty five).  This was due to the rather unusual decision to launch a new (unconnected) serial following the commercial break.  It’s no great hardship though, since the shorter running time gives the episode a certain urgency.

Wedgewood decides that Henderson and Valerie should return to Earth.  That leaves the rest of them on the Moon with only fifteen hours of oxygen.  Wedgewood is matter of fact about their situation – it’ll give them time to complete their researches and their work will be of value to future expeditions.  Obviously it’s a bit of a pity they’re all going to die, but he maintains a suitably British stiff upper lip.

It’s no surprise that Jimmy asks if his pesky pet guinea pig can also make the trip to Earth.  His father agrees, so that’s one weight off everybody’s minds I’m sure!

The others don’t take their impending deaths with the same quiet equanimity as Wedgewood does.  Mary asks him how he can be so dispassionate when his two sons are going to die.  He doesn’t really have an answer, seemingly he just can.

But then (rather out of nowhere) he decides to pilot the alien craft back home.  This piece of dialogue by Wedgewood is priceless.  “First we’ve got to master those controls, then you’ve got to get that atomic power working, that’s going to take all of three hours.”  Work out how to pilot an alien craft that’s lain dormant for four hundred million years and restart its atomic motors within three hours?  Of course, it should all be quite straightforward ….

Since Wedgewood states that he first had the idea of piloting the ship when their rocket blew up, why hasn’t he mentioned it before?  It seems a little cruel to make his sons, not to mention the others, believe they were fated to die of oxygen starvation.

It proves to be a doddle to get the ship working and also out of the cave (although we never see this on screen).  Once it’s on the lunar surface then the wobbly ship can take flight (although the strings aren’t as visible here as they were in the last episode).  Everything so far has gone so swimmingly, but there’s a problem when they hit the Earth’s atmosphere – the ship breaks in two.  Hmm, strange that they’re not at all harmed by this catastrophe and it’s also lucky that Henderson’s on hand to mount a daring rescue.   It’s another impressive effects shot bearing in mind the era in which the programme was made (although once again, when considering the scientific plausibility of what you’re watching it’s important to suspend your disbelief).

Overall, Pathfinders in Space is very much a mixed bag.  Although it would be easy to mock the modelwork, most of it is very competently done.  It’s easier to mock some of the acting though and it’s interesting to see which characters were dropped for the next serial, Pathfinders to Mars.  In the main I think they made the right decisions, plus the introduction of George Coulouris as Harcourt Brown was a strong addition

The script, by Eric Paice and Malcolm Hulke, has a mix of pulpy moments and hard scientific facts.  It’s an odd juxtaposition, but it does work quite well most of the time.  One downside is that the production only seemed to have a handful of music cues and they do get played an awful lot (by the final episode it’s rather grating).

Not perfect then, but given the year this was made (1960) and the budget, Pathfinders in Space is never less than highly entertaining.  Now it’s onwards to Mars …..

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