Now this really is a quirky TV multi-series from independent company ABC back in 1960-61, produced by Sydney Newman and written by Malcolm Hulke and Eric Paice.
The British are preparing to launch two rockets to the Moon from Buchan Island in Scotland, the first manned and the second to be an unmanned vessel carrying food and air supplies. When the second rocket has a malfunction, reporter Conway Henderson (actor Gerald Flood) offers to pilot it and the Professor Wedgewood’s precocious three children, Geoff (actor Stuart Giodotti), Jimmy (Richard Dean), Valerie (actress Gillian Ferguson) and one pet guinea pig called Hamlet come simply because they can do the things he can’t but likes being smoothed and fed. The fact that Henderson can fly a plane shouldn’t make him any better at flying a rocket wasn’t taken into account back then.
They land 60 miles apart on the Moon, although both note another spaceship, possibly alien, in orbit. They also note an outside temperature of 230F but bear in mind when it came out and how much we know about the Moon since then that is unlikely. While Wedgewood (actor Peter Williams) and most of his team make their way, Henderson and the children drop through a hole and find an alien spacecraft and a carbonised humanoid. When the others arrive, they do a thorough investigation.
Still puzzling how they can estimate the aliens were from 400 million years ago without any half-life equipment they can gauge it, beats me. A Geiger counter alone won’t do. They do piece together various bits of information before home base alerts them to a meteorite shower. They manage to rescue from Wedgewood’ rocket blows up, left with the first rocket, but there’s only enough fuel in the second rocket to save one adult and one child. Henderson qualifies as the pilot and Valerie are chosen to go.
They plan to get the alien spacecraft working and come back on it. However, the spacecraft is a lot more fragile than anticipated.
You have to make allowances for the special effects. The rockets still look like half washing up liquid bottles and, well, really cheap but so was the budget. Back then, there was thoughts that the Moon was a bog of dust right up to the Apollo flight which proved otherwise.
I do like the cheat with their space helmets with a few wires in the place to indicate a visor. In those days, it also appears anyone can become an astronaut with no training, although they did take into account the problems of acceleration.
The inclusion of children was to make something identifiable to the junior television it was on but you do have to wonder at the lax security when the middle child Jimmy and Hamlet actually does the earlier maiden trip around the Moon by mistake.
It must have done well at the time to spawn two sequels. The first, ‘Pathfinders To Mars’, has all the core cast, with the exception of two of the children, away catching up at school after the first adventure. Jimmy’s pet guinea pig Hamlet accompanies Geoff (actor Stewart Guidotti) the eldest son, though, and a quaint reminder he was the British’s first animal in space and got back, if you remember the fate of Laika. To make up the number of children, Henderson brings his niece, Margaret (actress Hester Cameron), to the launch and who is equally precocious and scientific. With 6 instead of 7 episodes this time, their reusing sets and meant a little more budget for the special effects which have improved a lot. Not perfect but workable.
This time there is a double jeopardy with a second trip back to the Moon. Without knowing what he currently looks like, the late arriving. In the meantime, Wedgewood has an accident and a broken arm, so Henderson is roped in as pilot again. The crew then consists of Professor Mary Meadows (actress Pamela Barney), the two kids and at the last moment, Professor Hawkins from Australia. Except it isn’t Hawkins (actor Bernard Horsfall) but alien investigator Harcourt Brown (actor George Coulouris) posing as him with his own agenda, getting away with it initially as no one knows what Hawkins currently looks like. No doubt photographs don’t work in this reality. The Buchan Island base discover the deception when the real Hawkins arrives but Brown has damaged the radio and so they can’t be told, although there are already suspicions.
After getting their supplies, Brown takes Margaret hostage and locks the other three in the bottom of the rocket as he takes the rocket towards Mars instead, thinking there is life there. More than think, he wrote a famous book on the subject. There are supplies on both sides of the door but only by rationing them and the water that Henderson, Meadows and Geoff can last. An attempt to change the temperature in the control cabin fails. Now here’s a problem. We never see the heads (read that as toilets) or on which side of the door they are or indeed are there duplicate sets so you have to wonder how they handle that problem. Back then and even today, some things rarely come up in SF TV series or even films, but 21st century minds have to wonder on that subject, especially when you have mixed sexes. To be fair, Brown sleeps next to the door and tells Margaret he is a light sleeper, preventing her opening it. Even so, three weeks is a long time to keep that up.
Eventually, Margaret falls ill from lack of water and Brown relents and lets the others in, pointing out that they have gone too far to turn back, although I did raise an eyebrow on how much fuel have they got to return to Earth. Brown is convinced that the Martians will help them with fuel and other supplies.
When they finally land on Mars, they go out to explore and also to look for water, leaving Margaret with the rocket. Seeing the number of containers they take, you do have to wonder how they can carry enough to last the trip home. Along the way, Brown is split from Henderson and Meadows, each believing the other has died. Brown returns to the rocket and the pair reach Mars’ snowy region and collect it in their containers for water. None of which is helped that when it rains, there is a rapidly growing lichen that is hungry for any water, including that of the human body and the cylinders carrying water. With what we know now, Mars doesn’t have rain and if it did, a carbon dioxide atmosphere would likely give carbonic acid, assuming it could. This doesn’t mean there can’t be frozen water at the poles, just not water rain from the sky. I doubt if they knew that at the time.
Much of the rest is spoiler. It’s rather interesting to see them working out how to reach Earth by sparing fuel by heading to the sun first on paper but, then, computers were multi-room affairs pre-miniature CPUs. Even so, the calculations are still complex, allowing for gravity and fuel and there is always a reminder that if they get their sums wrong they’d miss the Earth which is essentially where we leave it. In the third story, there is a reference to a computer being on-board but we never see it.
Of course, they didn’t fail or we wouldn’t have the third series, ‘Pathfinders To Venus’, this time at 8 episodes. They receive a call from an American spacecraft near Venus that has been damaged and hasn’t enough oxygen or fuel. The Russians send a supply rocket and reluctantly, the British are asked to also go to the astronaut’s rescue. I should point out that the American is Captain Wilson and a bigger surprised is the actor, Graydon Gould. I’ve only ever seen one picture of him back in TV21 years ago but was embedded in my memory as he later became the voice of Mike Mercury in ‘Supercar’. This is also, I think, the first time I’ve seen him act. Oh, Stuart Freeborn is involved in the special effects according to the credits, although he gets only one credit throughout the three series.
Back to the story. The nefarious Harcourt Brown edits a recording of Wilson’s voice and convinces Henderson that he’s landed and that there is an atmosphere below the clouds so down they go. Henderson is suspicious but concedes, more so as Wilson’s radio has given up. They also discover they can breath the air so don’t need their helmets. As Henderson, Burrows and Brown travel in the direction where they think Wilson came down, Geoff and Margaret back at their spacecraft track a signal and realise this is really Wilson coming down later, not far from them. By the time they get there, there is no sign of Wilson but something has damaged this spaceship.
The kids contact Henderson about the situation and he orders them to lock themselves in Wilson’s rocket until they arrive. Brown leaves the rest and is also abducted and awakes near Wilson and convinces him they ought to find the Venusian city. A creature breaks into the rocket and Margaret and Meadows are trapped in the top half and contact Henderson and Geoff and then the former vanishes. He gets hit as well but its only a glancing blow.
By the time Geoff gets back to their spacecraft, the creature has gone but not done substantial damage. Henderson awakens and finds himself not too far from the spacecraft when the others find him.
To evade a rainfall, not specified of what but I doubt if that cloud layer made it pure water, they duck into a cave and discover it to be a tunnel labyrinth and get lost variably in it before uniting. They also finally spot the cave-dwelling Venusians and carefully to avoid them this time. When Margaret is lost, she encounters a young girl Venusian (actress Brigid Skimp) who gets her back to the group and leads them out of the volcano after several cave-ins. Much to Brown’s dismay, his so-called Venusian city is more a graveyard than inhabited. Buchan Island, not hearing from them, assumes they are lost and even the Russians are considering going home but there’s a twist on that.
The last couple episodes owe more to Conan Doyle’s ‘Lost World’ than anything else and the limited animation is better than the budget deserves. The rest you’ll have to see for yourself.
There is a gallery of photos on the second DVD but considering they comprise of all three series, it might be wise to see them after or you’ll wonder what one of the future ‘Doctor Who’ companions, Michael Craze, is doing there, although it might be a case of mistaken identity.
I left reading the 40 page booklet by Andrew Pixley until last so not to get any preconceived ideas. He covers children’s TV a little on both BBC and ITV wanting to fill a Sunday’s children’s hour and producer Sydney Newman decided they ought to have some SF series with these three series coming out one after the other, with some scientific knowledge as was known at the time. It does look like there was an earlier series showing Geoff and Hamlet’s maiden voyage around the Moon but not as to whether it still exists. I think the biggest surprise was how 10 year-olds appreciated it more than 13 year-olds when they did some observations.
If you do get hold of this 2011 released boxset, take into account the age in which it was originally show and that on 425 line black and white TV sets probably better then than now. It’s an interesting curio as to the status of other planets at the time.
(pub: Network, 2011. 3 DVDs 525 minutes 3 series (7+6+8 episodes). Price: Oh, it varies, currently around £27.00 (UK). ASIN: 7953553)
cast: Gerald Flood, George Colouris, Pamela Barney, Stewart Guidotti, Richard Dean, Gillian Ferguson, Hester Cameron, Peter Williams and Brigid Skemp
check out website: www.network.co.uk