Regular visitors to this blog will know that I’m totally fascinated by the early days of television. Starting from the very first early, primitive attempts to achieve the impossible on a shoestring budget, it’s great to see people striving for the best in their new medium. Sometimes they fail. More often, they succeed. Either way can be equally rivetting. Two very fine examples of television reaching for the sky (and the bottom of the ocean) arrive on DVD this month from Network. I never thought it would happen, but they’ve done it, and the previously shrouded-in-mystery “Pathfinders” series will shortly emerge into the sunlight for the first time since the early 1960s. “City Beneath The Sea” and “Secret Beneath The Sea” are slated for release at the same time. While not a direct sequel, the latter serials take certain elements from their predecessors which makes them a sort of loose continuation – at least, in terms of the production crew and cast which are carried over. Both are well worth seeking out.
It started – as such things so often do – with Sydney Newman. Canadian Broadcasting’s enfant terrible took up residence at ABC television in the late fifties and immediately started to shape things to his own satisfaction. Armchair Theatre was the most highly visible recipient of his attentions, shifting away from adaptations into a more hard-nosed, down-to-earth kitchen-sink drama.
He set up “Police Surgeon” with Julian Bond, and cast Ian Hendry. When he realised it wasn’t quite working he commissioned “The Avengers” instead for Hendry. I doubt even Newman – visionary though he was – could have been quite as prepared for the twists and turns “The Avengers” took over the next 10 or so years.
Upon leaving ABC for the BBC he instantly shook down the long-standing structure of the drama department, taking no prisoners as he did so. By the middle of 1963 he was working on an idea he had for a tea-time drama series for the family. Legendarily created to fill the gap between the sports reports and “Juke Box Jury” on a Saturday evening, “Doctor Who” became rather popular. Or so I’ve heard.
While he was still at ABC Newman decided he wanted a science fiction series for children. There’d been attempts at SF before, of course. The Quatermass serials are an obvious starting point but even before that the BBC had tried adapting Karel Capek’s “RuR”. Several other examples of juvenile SF had been tried as well.
Writers Malcolm Hulke and Eric Paice were chosen to script the new serial. They’d previously impressed Newman with a piece for the BBC’s “Television Playwright” in July 1958. Their script “This Day In Fear” starred the young Patrick McGoohan as an ex-IRA man whose past life caught up with him drastically. It’s a superb piece – tense, well directed by George Foa and with a never-better McGoohan delivering his traditional man-on-the-edge performance, the script matching him all the way. As a calling card, it’s pretty much unbeatable. The writers soon came on board. Oddly enough, McGoohan would find himself in orbit in an Armchair Theatre entry not long afterwards. “The Man Out There” is also well worth seeing.
Hulke and Paice set to work, delivering scripts for a six-part show they called “Target : Luna”. With most television still being broadcast live or “as-live” we have no visual record of the serial. However, the scripts still exist so we can form an idea of what the storyline was like.
The serial concerns the efforts of one Professor Wedgewood to get a manned vessel into space and then into orbit round the moon. Working from the remote Buchan Island in the north of Scotland (shades of the soon-to-come “A For Andromeda”, which would air the following year), Wedgewood is in the final stages of his preparations when the pilot falls ill with radiation poisoning. Thankfully (or not) his three children are staying with him for the hols, as all children must do in these things.
Geoffrey is a precocious 15 year old who has a keen engineer’s mind and can thus be relied upon to provide the exposition necessary to ensure the audience isn’t kept in the dark. In this initial serial he’s played by Michael Craze, soon to appear as a regular in “Doctor Who” as able seaman Ben Jackson. If his performance here is anything as good as his work on “Who”, the serial had at least one reliable anchor. Lurking around on the base looking for a story is a young journalist, name of Henderson (Frank Finlay). At this stage he doesn’t contribute much, but that will soon change.
Also at large in this top-secret base are Geoffrey’s two younger siblings. Veronica doesn’t seem to contribute much, but young Jimmy (Michael Hammond) somehow manages to sidestep any security protocols and ends up on board the rocket when it launches. Being the first twelve year old in space doesn’t seem to faze him, as he brings along his pet hamster Hamlet (of whom more later, but for now suffice it to say that Hamlet is made of stern stuff and neither take-off or latter splashdown affect him in the slightest. Odd, when any hamster I’ve ever known dies of shock if it falls off the arm of a chair).
Jimmy and Hamlet somehow manage (with a little help from the ground crew) to land the ship safely and everyone breathes a sigh of relief. Not for long, as Sydney Newman instantly commissioned another serial from Paice and Hulke. “Pathfinders in Space” would loosely follow on from the first serial, but would be completely recast.
Peter Williams came in as Professor Wedgewood. Stuart Guidotti took over as Geoffrey. The rest of the family were quietly recast as well, with Gillian Ferguson taking over as Valerie and little Richard Dean as Jimmy. Fans of “Star Cops” and I know you’re out there – it can’t just be me – might be amused to know that Guidotti would turn up as an Italian copper in that show, attempting to frame Nathan Spring. As with Craze before him, the bulk of the explanatory dialogue would fall on him. Guidotti has a breathless, slightly excited delivery which serves him well, and contrasts nicely with Jimmy’s gosh-wow-gee-willikers performance. Guidotti’s resemblance to a certain Mancunian Monkee is rather striking too. Hamlet – well, he remains what he is. For now, anyway. He’s totally blasé about his second trip into space, which is just as well as he appears in almost every scene being carried by various actors. He even – and I can’t believe I’m typing this – gets his own spacesuit.
After little Jimmy’s trip into orbit, this time Wedgewood is aiming higher. He intends to land on the Moon itself and to that end he’s arranged two spaceships to do the job. One’s carrying supplies, the other himself and his two colleagues, Pamela Barney as Professor Meadows and Harold Goldblatt as Professor McConnell. Barney sports a soft Canadian accent and brings a certain gentle grace to her role, while Goldblatt reminds me of Leo Pugh from the BBC’s original “Quatermass II”. Given twelve years or so Goldblatt would find himself back on the moon, sharing a prison with Jon Pertwee in “Doctor Who – Frontier in Space”. Making up the numbers is Hugh Evans as Ian Murray – he gets the worst of it in all three serials, being stuck in the rocket for most of the first serial and then reduced to wandering exposition fairy in the others. Evans makes the most of a thankless task and does it splendidly.
Needless to say, all does not go well and before long the Wedgewood kids find themselves in the supply rocket and heading for the moon, accompanied by Conway Henderson. Again recast, this time Gerald Flood takes the part and he pretty much dominates this series. Tall, thin and with a super-heroic square chin, Flood resembles no-one so much as a young Anthony Ainley, which may go some way to explaining why in 1983 he could be found playing Kamelion in yet another “Doctor Who” serial – alongside Ainley himself.
Once on the moon it’s not long before discoveries are made, as Jimmy falls down a hole and discovers a buried spaceship. These scenes faintly echo their equivalent in “Quatermass and the Pit”, right down to the discovery of some mummified alien remains. In this case, the writers are also taking a leaf or two from the gospel as laid down by Charles Chilton in “Journey Into Space – Operation Luna”. I’ll not give away the twist, but you may well guess it quite easily.
Having explored all that the moon has to offer, our heroes soon find themselves back at Buchan Island and preparing for another shot. Professor Wedgewood is badly injured within the first five minutes of “Pathfinders To Mars”, and has to sit the next one out. Peter Williams disappears from the cast, never to return. Presumably this was to make room for George Coulouris, playing a genuine, honest to goodness nutty scientist.
I must admit that I’m fascinated by George Coulouris, being as how he’s the only person – to my knowledge – to have appeared in both “Citizen Kane” and “Doctor Who”. Here he’s Professor Harcourt Brown, a crank who is obsessed with the idea of life on other planets and inveigles his way on board. In doing so he displaces Bernard Horsfall, which is a shame. Horsfall’s always watchable, but it is not to be. The kids have been jettisoned as well with only Geoff making this trip. Oh, and that bloody hamster as well (now regenerated into an Albino Guinea Pig, I’m faintly amused to note. A new relative is coming along as well, with Hester Cameron joining the cast as cousin Margaret. Initially grating with her extreme RP accent, Cameron soon fits in well, being the only member of the crew who repeatedly distrusts Brown and his schemes. She forms a bond with Geoff and proves herself to be very handy indeed as the ship is hijacked by Brown and sent on a trip to Mars.
At this point George Coulouris begins to eat the series. Within minutes of his arrival, Hulke and Paice discover how much fun it is to have larger than life bad-guy on board and Harcourt Brown soon shifts to the centre stage. Much of the rest of the serial development hinges on Brown’s insistence that there is life on other planets, his efforts to prove it and the attempts of the others to hold him in check.
Suffice to say that there is indeed life on Mars but not quite what Brown had hoped for, and it is that life which almost proves the end of everybody once the Martian rainy season kicks in.
Once everyone is back in their spacecraft and on their way back they encounter another case of radiation poisoning. Unfortunately Hulke and Paice’s conception of just what radiation is leads us to believe that our heroes are suffering from a bad case of gyppy tummy, and not likely to suffer the symptoms for the rest of their lives. A shame, as right through the serials there is a definite attempt at accuracy with Professor Meadows delivering many painless lectures about science, geography, history – whatever is needed to ensure that the audience know enough to let the plot progress.
Once the illness is beaten and everyone is on their way safely home, “Pathfinders to Venus” begins.
For years the only episodes of the series believed to exist were one each of “…Mars” and “…Venus”. Eventually the rest of the three “Pathfinders” serials were uncovered with the exception of the first episode of “Venus”. For years it was thought to exist in audio only. Wonderfully, Network have found the entire episode, and the full serial now exists. Not only that, but you’ll find the scripts for “Target – Luna” included as PDF files on the second disk of this set.
Thanks to that discovery we can trace the journey of our intrepid heroes even further. Once again taking a lead from “Journey Into Space”, the third serial finds the team travelling back from Mars before being rudely interrupted. There’s a Flash Gordon-type American pilot in orbit round Venus. He’s in trouble, and the ship is going down. The team decide to mount a rescue mission, with both craft eventually landing on Venus.
It is around this point that all pretence of scientific accuracy goes out the window. This Venus – contrary to all known facts – not only sports lush foliage, a breathable atmosphere and local cavemen – but it also has a fine stock of dinosaurs. While they make a good cliffhanger the dinosaurs aren’t really mentioned much after they first appear. Andrew Pixley’s splendid overview gives more background to this oddness – and odd it certainly is, as episode 7 is almost entirely given over to deliberate mistakes, as part of a co-operative venture between ABC and Cambridge University Education Department,
studying the effect television has on young children and just how they perceive it. Knowing that you can forgive the appearance of multiple boom-mikes and wobbling sets for this episode. The rest of the serial has no such get-out clause. To be fair, it doesn’t need one, as the odd boom in shot doesn’t distract very much at all.
Graydon Gould’s Yankee Pilot soon joins the rest of the gang. Seeing through Harcourt Brown immediately he soon rivals Henderson for dashing and derring-do. Gerald Flood graciously moves aside to give the new boy the chance to move centre stage. Henderson indulges in a rather chaste romance with Professor Meadows while Geoff and Margaret befriend a young cave-girl called Kiki. This promising development in inter-planetary relations is cut short as the serial ends with Harcourt Brown making a fateful decision which while seemingly arbitrary is totally in keeping with the character.
Watching these last three serials in quick succession we can see that everything gets more and more competent and polished. The actors are better rehearsed. The sets become ever more ambitious. Director Guy Verney (and Reginald Collin for two episodes) pushes his crew for everything they’ve got and they respond magnificently. The music… well, Trevor Duncan’s “The Challenge of Space” (as used for recaps by the Quatermass serials) – let’s just say that it rivals Laurie Johnson’s Mysterious Theme from “The Avengers” as something you will never want to hear again when you finish watching these. There’s the odd boom mike in shot, occasionally actors can just be glimpsed waiting for their cue or the sound from one set spills over into the next. Some effects don’t quite come off. None of this matters because the cast are giving it everything, with that slightly heightened performance which – while not strictly melodrama – carries the viewer along with them. They believe in what they’re doing, and so do we. That carries them through any number of production hitches.
The prints for all three serials are in pretty good shape, give or take a few tramline scratches and blemishes. Given that they really shouldn’t exist at all, I’ll take a few dodgy patches over the ones we had before ie, None At All.
As the final credits roll, we’re left to wonder if we will ever see the Wedgewood family again. After four serials it seemed it was time for ABC to retire the concept and move on.
Flood and Guidotti would soon return, but not as Conway and Geoff. Instead, a new serial was constructed around two new characters – intrepid journalist Mark Bannerman (Flood) and his assistant Peter Blake (Guidotti). The first serial hit the screens in September 1961. “Plateau of Fear” took the characters to a nuclear power station somewhere in the high mountains of the Andes, and a series of encounters with John Barron and Ferdy Mayne. Unfortunately no trace of the serial survives, so we must instead join our heroes at the start of “City Beneath The Sea”. Directed by Kim Mills with Guy Verney moving into the producer’s chair, this six parter was written by John Lucarotti.
It’s difficult not to mention “Doctor Who” when talking about these serials, as so many of the participants would have a lot to do with the initial shape of the latter programme. Newman devised it. Lucarotti wrote two very fine serials in the first season. Coulouris would appear in “The Keys of Marinus”, also from the first season. It’s fascinating to spot these things, to make connections.
By this time the cast and crew are really flying. Everyone knows exactly what they’re doing. In every way “City Beneath The Sea” is an improvement on what went before. Practice makes perfect and “City…” and sequel series “Secret…” are as good an example of juvenile adventure fiction as you’ll find anywhere.
Probably much to his own surprise Peter Williams reappears, now playing a naval commander (with a familiar face at his side – it’s “Doctor Who” producer Barry Letts, still working his passage as an actor). The action takes place initially on a submarine, but primarily in the underwater city of Aegiria, located “500 feet beneath the surface of the waters”.
The commander of the submarine is Kurt Swendler, played by Denis Goacher in a superb, grandstanding performance.
Goacher knows exactly what he’s doing, portraying a fundamentally decent man who is forced into actions that tear him up inside. Swendler hijacks the sub and takes it to Aegiria where Professor Ludwig Ziebrecken rules both harshly and unfairly. As he is played by Aubrey Morris, he’s a tiny little man who smiles all the time, even when there’s nothing to smile about. The only person to rival Aubrey Morris at this sort of quiet psychopath role is Ronald Fraser and presumably he wasn’t available. Given the sort of part that you’ve seen a hundred times before (crackpot with underground base plans to take over the world), Morris grabs the role and shakes every nuance out of it. It’s a masterful performance. He goes from quiet menace, through to charm, raging anger and hysteria. Sometimes it’s even several serious mood-swings in one scene. He’s brilliant, and with Goacher and Morris on screen you know you’re going to get something worthwhile.
Oh, and Star Wars fans, please note – Caroline Blakiston turns up in this serial as a kidnapped scientist. Yes, Mon Mothma herself. Many Bothans died to bring you this information.
Thankfully the incidental music has decided to leave “Conquest of Space” behind, favouring more subtle atmospherics. Mills’s direction becomes ever more ambitious, only tripping up in scenes which take place in the waters surrounding Aegeria. The diving suits are fine, but the effect used to simulate underwater scenes just doesn’t work. There’s no shame in being too ambitious though – at least they tried and to be fair the effect is finessed and improved upon at the serial progresses.
following in almost indecent haste on the heels of the first. This time there’s a mysterious metal at stake. It’s completely heat resistant and therefore massively valuable to the space program (amongst other things). Everyone’s after it and Aegiria’s the only place where it can be found. Deposits of it have been found outside the base, and everyone’s out for what they can get.
Swendler makes a cameo appearance in the first episode in a rather ridiculous disguise before invaliding himself out of the serial in much the same way as Peter Williams did before him. It’s sad to see him go but this is such a busy little show that there’s barely any room for him. Mark and Peter find themselves back on Aegeria despite firm resolutions never to return. There’s a new juvenile lead with the arrival of Ingrid Sylvester. One suspects that the reason for her inclusion is that poor old Guidotti’s voice is beginning to break – in moments of high excitement he goes ricocheting up and down the scale.
Also along for the fun is Robert James. He’s one of those people who have been in absolutely everything and it’s always a pleasure to see him. Reliable character actors are something this country produced in multitudes and he’s one of the best. Here he’s a tall, beaky Scottish scientist who appears to be foreshadowing John Laurie’s Private Frazer from “Dad’s Army”, so often is he seen mooching glumly around the outskirts of the story.
As you might expect there is derring-do by the bucketload. Fisticuffs are had. Plots and counterplots abound. In fact there’s almost too much plot in both of these serials. They’re stuffed with incident, making the time pass effortlessly. They’re both wonderful and by the end of it you’ll find yourself wanting to see more of the estimable firm of Flood and Guidotti.
It wasn’t to be. Sadly after six serials together this was to be the last of our heroes. Sydney Newman was off to the BBC. He had an idea for a new teatime serial that would be just the ticket for a Saturday afternoon…
If it’s polished, slick, smooth drama you’re after, both of these releases from Network may disappoint you. This is television taking baby-steps. It frequently overreaches itself as everyone learns together just how to achieve certain sequences. Sometimes (like the spacesuit helmets in “Pathfinders”, with their obvious open fronts because the actors couldn’t be heard otherwise) it’s painfully obvious that something has fallen short somewhere. Other times though, they go for the effect and succeed, marvellously.
These five busy little serials (seven, if you count “Target – Luna” and “Plateau of Fear”) are wonderful examples of television looking around itself and thinking – “I wonder what will happen if I do this?” As such, they’re absolutely essential. If you want to see where “Doctor Who” came from and enjoy some rather didactic little lectures in amongst the drama, “Pathfinders” will hit the spot. If you just want a rip-snorting adventure the two “…Beneath the Sea” serials are the ones to go for. Both sets come with extensive viewing notes from Andrew Pixley, which is enough of a recommendation in itself. Always superb, his name on something like this guarantees that it’ll be good.
To be honest, you can’t go wrong with either of these sets. Sometimes it’s nice to go back to where things started and both releases come wholeheartedly and warmly recommended.
And yes, that bloody hamster made it all the way through.
The Pathfinders trilogy and City/Secret Beneath The Sea are released on October 17th, courtesy of Network DVD.