❉ You might think ‘Doctor Who’ began primitively, but that’s just peanuts to ‘Pathfinders In Space’…
“We didn’t travel 60 million miles through space just to be trapped by a lot of primitive spinach!”
Included in the Christmas viewing I enjoyed this year was an amusing production entitled ‘Peter Pan Goes Wrong’. The ‘Pathfinders In Space’ trilogy, which I received as a Christmas gift, is like the sci-fi version of that. And if that sounds a bit mean, it’s a reminder how charitably we sometimes regard ‘Doctor Who’.
For starters, its increasingly frantic Morse Code theme tune isn’t quite so enthralling. But the main disadvantage ‘Pathfinders’ faces is that I didn’t grow up watching it. Indeed, I only heard about it relatively recently and I can’t say I’ve heard it talked about much in fan circles. But it is a clear predecessor to our much-beloved ‘Doctor Who’ in many respects.
The trilogy is three distinct adventure serials (of 6-8 episodes apiece) – Pathfinders In Space, Pathfinders To Mars and Pathfinders To Venus (available as a 3 disc set, with little or no restoration that I could detect) – produced by Sidney Newman, penned by Malcolm Hulke and his writing partner, Eric Paice, and starring Gerald Flood, voice of much underrated companion robot, Kamelion. And the connections don’t end there: it also features George Colouris, known to us as Arbitan from The Keys Of Marinus, and Bernard Horsfall, a semi-regular guest star on Who, as many fluffed and forgotten lines as the entire Hartnell era and Graydon Gould’s American astronaut has all the authenticity of Captain Hopper’s accent from Tomb Of The Cybermen.
Further, because of Hulke’s involvement, there are also very clear thematic links with some of his Who adventures – Pathfinders In Space uncovers evidence of an advanced Earth civilisation (in this case a previous race of humans) that pre-dated Mankind by some 400 million years and in Pathfinders To Venus, wherein we encounter dinosaurs, there are strong undercurrents of the philosophy that brought us Operation Golden Age when Professor Brown waxes lyrically, between fumbled lines, about a prehistoric world as yet untainted by Man’s touch.
But while I can happily watch The Web Planet and, faced with some of its technical deficiencies, applaud its ambition, it’s a tad more difficult to adopt that mindset here. Which is unfair. Because this series is ambitious – I would say progressively more ambitious with each subsequent serial – and it predates Who by three years. But it’s just not so easy to watch these with kind eyes and it’s far too ripe for mockery. On the one hand, yes, it is unfair. But on the other, therein lies much of the entertainment value.
It is, I think, written for a younger audience and that’s no automatic deterrent. In fact, it merits some praise from this direction for calling to mind something of the spirit of pioneering adventure inherent in the SF books of Captain WE Johns (‘Kings Of Space’, ‘Return To Mars’, ‘Now To The Stars’ etc) I used to enjoy so much as a kid. But it does have that am-dram quality so wonderfully exploited for comedy purposes in ‘Peter Pan Goes Wrong’.
Actors can be seen moving around in the jungle background as they position for their cues and one form of Venusian life greatly resembles a huge boom mike dropped into the middle of the shot. Venus itself appears as a large ball of lumpy cotton wool and the rocket in the first serial is steered by precision-guidance levers that would have looked more at home in a railway signal box. Honestly, I’m not one for so mercilessly knocking production limitations of the day – it’s a cruel and easy sport – but this is unavoidably hilarious.
There’s more laughability to be had in the characters, situations and setup and that is an open invitation to enjoy the unintentional hilarity of its other flaws. For one thing you have the strenuous contrivance that brings together a journalist and three children, plus Hamlet the guinea pig, to crew a British rocket to the Moon. By the time the ‘Pathfinders’ are headed ‘To Mars’, it’s a different set of kids, possibly the same guinea pig, and the unlikely character of Professor Harcourt Brown, who secures himself a place on board by impersonating someone else really badly. At that point you imagine he might be a spy and can only conclude that he is absolutely the worst spy ever. As it turns out, he’s more of a ‘Lost In Space’ Zachary Smith type figure, but without the (intended) humour and suffering the constraints of shorter rehearsal times.
It doesn’t help – but also helps immensely – that the whole thing is staggeringly naive. Its worst offences – and its greatest laughs – are to be found in gems of dialogue (see space spinach reference, above) and in the earnestness with which it strives to remain educational, even when the characters are facing imminent death they are attempting to explain the science behind what’s killing them and how or why certain plans won’t do them any good in the given situation. While nobody explains why the space helmets clearly have no visors, they do take the trouble to point out that the characters don’t experience low lunar gravity in the way you might expect because their space suits are heavy enough to counter the effects. (It’s a neat way to avoid the need to have the actors pretend to float about – and given the spacewalk effects seen in ‘Pathfinders To Mars’ – essentially, actors miming swimming on trolleys against a dark backdrop – it’s probably all for the good). Better yet, you have some of the bizarrest reasoning ever to be voiced aloud in a TV drama as, for example, the haplessly unwily Professor Brown theorises that because Venus has a much longer day than Earth they might all live a lot longer.
Later in the same serial, when a Venusian caveman emits a sound like Tarzan stubbing his toe and the American astronaut wonders what the noise might be, Prof Brown suggests it might be a parakeet. He is clearly not all there and yet once he is on board it is his sadly lame scheming and manipulation that drives much of the plot and stretches proceedings out to fill the 6-8 episode story runtime. As in ‘Doctor Who’, that story length can drag at times, but that is not the biggest trial to viewer patience on offer here.
However, taken with the right approach – for which I recommend alcohol and a viewing companion who can share in and help supply commentary – the trilogy is enormous quantities of fun and its significance in terms of ‘Doctor Who’ history can be measured in how much it will heighten your appreciation next time you’re slogging your way through The Space Pirates.
❉ ‘The Pathfinders In Space Trilogy’ (Pathfinders In Space, Pathfinders To Mars and Pathfinders To Venus) is available as a 3 disc set from Network Distribution