Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Aussies in space!

The “space patrol” concept -- pretty much a redressing of the old “cops on the beat” format in sci-fi drag – seemed to be the strain of science fiction deemed most palatable during TV’s formative and adolescent years. Even Star Trek, for all its innovations, was just an expanded version of it. For all the mystery the universe might hold, it seemed to be the case that we Earthlings knew, whatever was out there, it needed policing.

My unerring, pinkoid, left coast leanings urge me to point to American imperialism as the cause for this. But the fact is that, just as every country seemed to at one point want their own version of James Bond, so too did they want their own space patrol. Thus Germany had the wonderful Raumpatrouille Orion and England Roberta Leigh’s puppet adventure Space Patrol – which itself was arguably modeled upon Gerry Anderson’s Fireball XL5, another variation on the “space cop” theme. In a similar vein, South Africa had Interster. And, lest we leave out the East, Japan had Captain Ultra, which adhered to classic space patrol formula by including a kid, a girl, a robot and a token alien among the titular hero’s crew.

Even Australia, a country not known for its interstellar aspirations, made a pretty enthusiastic showing in the juvenile sci-fi sweepstakes during the sixties and early seventies, the Australian Broadcasting Company producing a trio of series, each featuring an intrepid crew of astronauts charged with guarding their chunk of the universe from the unwelcome probings of various planetary riffraff. Now, before you go picturing previously undiscovered planets now littered with Foster’s cans, let me tell you that I can do nothing to allay you of that incredibly racist preconception, because I have yet to see any of these series. I do, however, thanks to sites like this and this, know something about them, which I will share with you… now. (I mean, you have time, right?)

Fortunately for you, I am not one to, out of my own insecurities, try to force something that is obviously an entertainment for children into an adult context. Yes, of course, these shows, with their simple, cops and robbers plots and toy-like effects, are tailored for the shorties first and foremost. I have lived long enough with the realization that I have extraordinarily immature taste to be comfortable with that fact. It can’t be ignored, however, that, at the time, there was very little in the form of an adult alternative to these shows, and that their makers, themselves adults with adult sensibilities, were in a unique position of having to imagine and depict a world 500 years hence. Nothing says more about a culture in its day than the way it imagines the future, and when it comes to the world of 1960s television, kiddie sci-fi was the only place you were going to see that in action.

Of the three Aussie shows I’m going to outline, only one made it to full series, the other two being serials limited to several episodes. The first of these was The Interpretaris, which debuted on Australian television in late 1966. This show has the intriguing concept of a ship’s crew being charged with repatriating a variety of aliens to their home planets after their rescue from the show’s nemesis, a mad scientist called Parta Beno (Ben Gabriel). Of course, Parta Beno is never too far away to interfere with the mission of the titular spacecraft and, at the series end, must be brought to justice by the brave members of its crew. As in all three shows, that international crew are agents of a world united in peace and ruled over by one government -- an idea that, in the idealistic 60s, could be presented completely free of sinister connotations. Fox News enthusiasts might do well to note that, if we to their left are indeed foot soldiers of the New World Order, it is less likely the coastal intelligentsia that is giving us our marching orders than it is the kiddie sci fi we grew up upon.

In time honored fashion -- given that time is either the 1950s or 60s -- the Interpretaris was manned by a square jawed captain (Stanley Walsh as Commander Alan De Breck), a strapping young pilot (Kit Taylor as David Charmichael) and a pretty lady whom I imagine was relegated to mostly science-y stuff (Lorraine Bayly as Vera Balovna), who have at their disposal a robot -- though, in this case, called a “computeroid” -- named Henry, who looks something like a hot rodded refrigerator. There is also a “female” robot named Alys who is apparently a spy for the villain, and can only be reprogrammed for virtue after a lesson in love from Henry. As for Parta Beno, he has the robed and beardy look of an evil Greek philosopher. From the available photographs, the art direction of the series was fast and cheap, with sets that could have been built in a basement rec room, though the model of the Interpretaris itself -- sporting nacelles strikingly similar to those seen on the hero vehicle of the yet to be aired Star Trek -- shows commendable imagination.

The Interpretaris was well received enough to warrant its producers, Artransa Park, coming up with a sequel series, 1968’s Vega 4, which was again named after the show’s primary spacecraft. Again the crew is made up of a sturdy skipper (John Faasen as Captain Phillip Wallace), his dashing young lieutenant (Evan Dunstan as Lt. James Adam) and a subordinate pretty female (Juliana Allan as Ensign Eve Poitier). Again the threat is provided by a recurring villain in the form of the mad scientist Zodian, as played by the wild haired Eddie Hepple. Even returning is Henry the computeroid, though this time touted as a “cousin” of the original, because god forbid someone should think the prop department couldn’t come up with another robot costume identical in every way to the first one.

Vega 4 was another threadbare production, leant a little added gloss by being shot, unlike The Interpretaris, in color. Still, in the available photographs, all the welcome cheesy accoutrements of slapdash space opera are in evidence. Seven episodes were made in all and, when it was over, Artransa Park was again moved to mount a sequel, though this time a full series that would run 26 episodes.

Unlike the previous two series, there are a couple pieces of video evidence of Phoenix Five kicking around YouTube, including the opening credits. From those I learned that Phoenix Five, produced in 1968 and 1969 and aired in 1970, boasted some seriously funky music, wah wah guitar and all. The look of the series is pretty straitlaced, however, so no getting your hopes up for something on a UFO level of grooviness. Again, the “two guys, a gal, and a robot” formula applies, this time with Mike Dorsey as Captain Mike Roke, Damien Parker as Ensign Adam Hargreaves, and Patsy Trench as the pixie cut sporting Cadet Tina Kulbrick. Again the villain is the mad scientist Zodian, though this time played by Redmond Philips. With Zodian’s ticket punched at the series midpoint, a second villain would take the spotlight; another mad known as Platonus, played by Owen Weingott.

All visual evidence points to Phoenix Five being fun and dumb as hell, with pink alien ladies in huge bouffants, ridiculous paper mache aliens, anonymous rock quarries doubling as alien landscapes, and hokey model effects. It also, like the other two series discussed here, appears to have never been released on home video. If you know this not to be the case, let me know, because I am dying to see this shit. The vision of a world whose nations are united in their love of cheesy TV space operas -- all realized according to their own national sensibilities and in their own languages -- is a type of global harmony that makes me feel especially toasty inside.


Crispin said...

Most or all of the still extant episodes of 'Phoenix 5' seem to have now been uploaded to YouTube.

I'd say only the first two are really worth watching, as most of the middle episodes are not available and the later ones suggest that money and care ran out pretty fast.
However, those first few episodes are about as colourful, kitsch, WTF-ridden, and casually sexist and you might expect.

I think a few other classic Australian science-fiction shows have also made their way to YouTube, such as 'The Stranger'

(... And speaking of the ubiquity of the 'Space Patrol' concept, were you aware that Roberta Leigh of actual 'Space Patrol' fame tried to make the jump to live action space-patrolling in 1967 with 'The Solarnauts'?
The pilot wasn't picked up, a fact that watching it on YouTube makes rather regrettable...)

Unknown said...

Thanks for the info, Crispin! I will check those out, post haste.

I wrote a lengthy post about Roberta Leigh, in which I linked to her several unsold pilots, including PAUL STARR, another marionette show in the Fireball/Singray vain.