Pathfinders/City Beneath Sea

Monday, 17 October 2011 18:15

Between 1960 and 1963, ABC produced the Pathfinders in Space Trilogy and City Beneath the Sea Duology, a couple of ground-breaking children’s SF serials that pre-empted Doctor Who and took young viewers on incredible journeys into the furthest reaches of space and the murky, unexplored depths of the sea. Links to Who include Sydney Newman as producer and writers Malcolm Hulke (Pathfinders) and John Lucarotti (City). Pathfinders was also co-written by Eric Paice (The Avengers, Star Maidens).

The central concept of both black and white serials concerns a small but intrepid crew of adults and children venturing into the unknown and encountering all manner of technological, environmental and espionage-related disasters but somehow always managing to pull together, keep a positive attitude and survive. Prolific TV actor Gerald Flood (Kamelion in Peter Davison era Doctor Who) headlines in both serials, though as two slightly different characters.

The Pathfinders in Space Trilogy comes to DVDIn Pathfinders, Flood is Conway Henderson, a multi-talented journalist who happens to be able to pilot space craft! He is involved in three separate rocket missions, firstly to the moon and then to Mars and Venus. The first mission is led by Professor Wedgewood (Peter Williams – “The Bridge on the River Kwai”, Blake’s 7) who subsequently takes a back seat in mission control.

Also in the initial crew are lunar expert Professor Meadows (Pamela Barney), maths and geology professor O’Connell (Harold Goldblatt), and Wedgewood’s three children – mischievous little Jimmy (Richard Dean), older brother Geoff (Stewart Guidotti) and Valerie (Gillian Ferguson). Oh, and we cannot forget Hamlet the space-faring guinea pig (who has his own cute little spacesuit)!

In Pathfinders to Mars and Venus, Jimmy, Valerie and O’Connell drop out, to be replaced by the very meddlesome and alien-believing stowaway, Harcourt Brown (George Colouris – “Citizen Kane”, “Papillon”), and Conway’s teenage niece Margaret (Hester Cameron). Also appearing in the final chapter is Graydon ‘Supercar’ Gould as Captain Wilson, an American astronaut on a secret assignment that goes very wrong.

Part of the trilogy’s endearing charm is that the child characters always manage to wangle their way onboard the space expeditions. They are often precocious and typically fearless no matter what disaster threatens them, often sniffing out trouble when the adults are oblivious, and tracking down the cause of sabotage like those pesky kids always did in Scooby Doo. The acting is often wooden but always heroically enthusiastic and colourful, with Dean’s Jimmy and Guidotti’s Geoff leading the way. They will have you in stitches, such is the delightedly stilted manner of their dialogue delivery.

Of course the narrative sometimes demands that the grown-ups require tangible evidence from the finger-pointing kids before stories of misdeeds or theories of impending catastrophe are to be believed and acted upon, but the general relationship is commendably mature and respectful. The audience is likewise treated as though they have some intelligence, and the scripts commonly inject and explain some interesting science to educate as well as entertain.

Henderson brims with charisma and understanding in the face of disobedient children, terrible peril and more challengingly Harcourt Brown’s unswerving determination to hijack the mission to prove his theories on the existence of aliens, even if it means endangering the other crew members.

The Pathfinders Trilogy is supremely entertaining and very well put together. It may be fifty years old now but it takes no time at all to get sucked into the pioneering spirit of adventure. The special effects and sets (space craft interiors and exteriors, jungle, caves, rocky planetary surfaces) range from excellent to cheap and wobbly (wire-removal was not a primary concern – or even feasible - in those days!), but the swift pacing, close-quarters direction and perhaps most importantly the conviction of everyone involved keeps you glued to the TV and rushing to jump straight from the end credits of one episode to the start of the next. Who and Flash Gordon-style cliffhangers abound, and each serial piles on the tension with little time to pause for a breath.

It is not unusual to catch members of the crew lurking in the background of scenes behind some foliage, or set equipment such as large fans and the boom mike momentarily appearing in-frame. Actors also fluff their lines on quite frequent occasions but all of these symptoms are presumably because of the rushed and technologically-limited production methods common of the time (William Hartnell for one was of course not unfamiliar with stumbling over his lines!). None of this really harms the immersive nature of the entertainment and, as with some of the ropey effects or slightly jarring use of stock footage from time to time, the viewer willing rolls with it.

City/Secret Beneath The Sea come to DVD via the Network Online ShopCity and Secret Beneath The Sea introduce a change of tone as well as a new environment and characters. As indicated above, Flood is now playing Mark Bannerman, editor of a scientific magazine. Guidotti becomes Peter Blake, his snap-happy assistant, and Williams is Captain Payne, commander of the Cyana, a state of the art atomic submarine that is taken over by pirates. The pirates are working for a crazy Bond-style baddy called Ludwig Ziebrecken (gurn-tastic Aubrey Morris – “A Clockwork Orange”, Babylon 5). Chief henchman is ex-U-boat commander Kurt Swendler (Denis Goacher in an adorable, spectacularly scenery-munching turn).

Ziebrecken runs a covert underwater base called Aegiria, from which he plans to hold the world to ransom or else destroy it (much as Karl Stromberg would in the 1977 James Bond adventure “The Spy Who Loved Me”). As this suggests, City and Secret have a more grown-up feel to them, and the plotlines are more serious and challenging to boot. World domination, industrial espionage and death sentences are order of the day now, and Bannerman and Blake are up against it. Peril met the characters at every turn in Pathfinders but now, in these two later serials, it feels more substantial and real.

Both Pathfinders and City/Secret feel like they have one foot in the Cold War. There is a focus on the space race, cloak and dagger plotlines and spies, and potential alien threats. In most cases, though, unlike the black and white footage, characters have shades to them and sometimes complex motives.

Finally, the music in both sets of serials is highly evocative, especially in Pathfinders, where common refrains will have you humming along in no time. My partner and I had fun trying to guess when the signature bass drum ‘bong’ noise would feature at the end of a key scene (complete with characters looking thoughtfully into the distance, stroking their chins)!

The two box sets feature the following extras:

Pathfinders in Space Trilogy:

  • Image Gallery (including behind the scenes images)
  • Pathfinders prequel Target Luna script PDFs
  • Production booklet by archive television historian Andrew Pixley

City/Secret Beneath the Sea:

  • Image Gallery (including Behind the Scenes images)
  • Production booklet by archive television historian Andrew Pixley

By Network’s normally high standards this list is a little disappointing, and it would have been nice to have some archive interview footage (audio or visual). Still, the excitement and massive entertainment value of the main features is easily strong enough to permit me to wholeheartedly recommend these releases to both adults and children.

Pathfinders in Space Trilogy and City/Secret Beneath the Sea (1960-1963) are both out now, courtesy of Network DVD. The “Pathfinders” box set (3 discs) has a running time of 525 minutes approx, and. They both carry a ‘PG’ certificate and retail for £29.99 and £24.99 respectively, or less from www.culttvstore.com

The City/Secret set (2 discs) has a running time of 325 minutes approx, also with a ‘PG’ certificate, and has a current online price of £15.00, with this set available exclusively from Network DVD.

 

Last modified on Thursday, 10 May 2012 16:37

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