Target Luna and the subsequent Pathfinders trilogy (Pathfinders in Space, Pathfinders to Mars and Pathfinders to Venus) are of interest for several reasons. Firstly because you have to admire the sheer gumption of the programme-makers (attempting to depict space travel to the Moon, Venus and Mars with a shoestring budget back in the early sixties certainly took nerve!) but also because of the proto-Doctor Who feel of the series.
Target Luna (sadly wiped) and the Pathfinders trilogy (rather amazingly all twenty one episodes still exist) were broadcast on ABC television during 1960 and 1961 and all four serials were produced by Sydney Newman. It can hardly be a coincidence that when Newman jumped ship for the BBC a few years later and was looking for a Saturday tea-time serial to run throughout the year, the show that eventually became Doctor Who bore a strong resemblance to Pathfinders.
Both featured a strong, reassuring leading man (Conway Henderson in Pathfinders, Ian Chesterton in Doctor Who) and there was also a “kid to get in trouble” (three of ’em in Pathfinders in Space/Susan Foreman).
But most striking of all, the later Pathfinders serials (Mars, Venus) featured an older man “with some character twist”. To begin with, we were never meant to identity with him directly – since he tended to do things which endangered our heroes – but ultimately he would demonstrate that his heart was in the right place. The proto-Doctor in the last two Pathfinders serials was Harcourt Brown, played by George Coulouris. Coulouris had worked with Orson Welles, most notably in Citizen Kane, and was no doubt (like William Hartnell later on) seen as rather a left-field choice to play in a children’s science fiction series.
And one last Doctor Who link – the scripts were written by Eric Paice and Malcolm Hulke. Hulke would – after several abortive attempts – become a respected Doctor Who script-writer.
But although the connections to Doctor Who are of undoubted interest, do the serials hold up as good examples of children’s serial television in their own right? That’s what this rewatch will discover …..
After opening with some dinky-looking model work, a well-dressed man, Conway Henderson (Gerald Flood), turns up at the gates of the Buchan Island Rocket Research Station. This was still very much the era of Quatermass, so formidable (and British!) installations such as these were the order of the day. It’s a slight pity that the opening dialogue between Henderson and the security guard is a little clunky (the guard greets him with the words “och, it’s yourself, Mr Conway Henderson”). Why would the guard greet Henderson by telling him his own name?! But on the plus side it helps to introduce him straightaway and the script also wastes no time in explaining that Henderson is a scientific journalist.
You may be wondering how a journalist manages to wangle his way aboard a rocket for seven weeks of action-packed adventures. Good question! There’s something endearingly charming about the way that Pathfinders in Space is so casual about space-travel. In a way it harks back to the classic BBC radio serials of the 1950’s (starting with Journey into Space) and it’s possibly not a coincidence that the first Wallace & Gromit adventure, A Grand Day Out, seemed to have a similar vibe.
Henderson bumps into Valerie Wedgewood (Gillian Henderson), a rather squeaky girl. Also somewhere on the base are her brothers, Geoffrey (Stewart Guidotti) and Jimmy (Richard Dean). Their father, Professor Wedgewood (Peter Williams), is in charge and tells Geoffrey that he’s going to keep an eye on all of them – no more jaunts into space for his kids (as seen in Target Luna). I wonder how successful he’s going to be.
It’s probably fair to say that the amount of pleasure which can be derived from Pathfinders in Space is strongly connected to how irritating you find the juvenile leads. Geoffrey is the older, more sensible one, Jimmy is always worried about his pet guinea pig Hamlet, whilst Valerie spends her time worrying about the other two.
Professor Wedgewood’s trip to the Moon is announced in a very matter of fact way. The scene where he briefs the other crew-members is a classic – the rocket hasn’t really been tested at this distance before, but no matter as he cheerily tells them that this will be the test flight! He then states that there will be two rockets – the other one will carry supplies and be computer-controlled. Wedgewood’s crew have no need for spacesuits when they blast off – comfortable cardigans are the order of the day.
The model rocket taking off looks rather like a, well, model – but the brief animation of the rocket when seen above the Earth is a simple, but very effective shot (we see the secondary stage jettisoned).
Disaster! A rogue screwdriver (no, me neither) destroys the automatic pilot in the secondary rocket. Since this rocket is due to carry all the supplies, it spells serious problems for Wedgewood and the others. It’ll take six days to repair the automatic pilot, but what other possibility do they have? Luckily (well that’s one word for it) Henderson is a trained jet pilot and offers to fly the second rocket. It seems a little remiss of Wedgewood not to have any stand-by astronauts, but I don’t think this is a series that you can really critique in too deep a fashion.
The plot’s been designed so that Henderson – and the enthusiastic kids – can pilot a rocket to the Moon. Henderson’s happy to have the sensible Geoffrey along, whist Jimmy also bags a place. But what about Valerie? Her brothers aren’t happy – she’s a girl so is bound to be scared. She seems to be reconciled to being left behind, but I’ve a feeling that the discussion about stowaways earlier in the episode was put there for a reason.