Pathfinders to Mars – Falling into the Sun

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Falling into the Sun doesn’t get off to the best of starts as a very obvious camera shadow looms behind our heroes as they make their way to the rocket.  Luckily for them Brown isn’t able to take off, as the rocket is infested with that pesky lichen.

This lichen is a little animated (although the wires holding it up are painfully obvious at times).  Henderson quickly works out a way to kill it off – heat – and within a matter of seconds it’s no longer a menace.  Margaret and Geoffrey are very upset though – Hamlet was in the rocket and didn’t have a spacesuit, so surely he would have been killed.  I have to confess to being slightly less concerned about the hamster’s fate than they are, but animal lovers everywhere needn’t fear as Brown shielded it from harm.

As Mary says (a little ironically) this is a point in his favour – he might have been ready to leave them all to perish on the surface, but at least he didn’t let the hamster die.  It’s interesting that Brown’s anti-hero status is therefore still firmly in place – he didn’t decide to stay because he had a change of heart about those he’d be leaving behind, he was only prevented from leaving because of the lichen.  The Doctor might have been a little untrustworthy in the early Doctor Who stories, but he was never so heartless.

How will they get back to Earth?  Brown has the solution – they have to set the controls for the heart of the Sun.  This possibly isn’t as crazy as it sounds (well not quite) as the Sun’s gravitational pull will generate the extra power they need.  We drop back in on Buchan Island where they’re keeping an eye on things and it’s plain that Ian’s doubtful of their chances.  But watch him when they make it – he starts jigging around like nobody’s business!

So they’re nearly home, but Brown doesn’t fancy going back to Earth (he thinks Venus looks much more interesting).  The others look on with indulgent smiles, although if I was them – remembering how many times Brown’s actions have endangered their lives – I’d probably be less sanguine.

Pathfinders to Mars doesn’t quite have the same impact that Pathfinders in Space did.  Harcourt Brown is the main reason for watching, since the plot is rather thinly spread over the six episodes.  As touched upon before, after being teased about intelligent life on Mars it comes as a disappointment to find that there’s nothing there.  So the later episodes turn into something of a run-around with various not terribly exciting dangers (lichen, crevices, quicksand).

Maybe Malcolm Hulke and Eric Paice were aware of this problem, as the trip to Venus sees them abandon the last vestiges of scientific credibility.  If you want Venusians and Venusian dinosaurs then Pathfinders to Venus has them …..

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Pathfinders to Mars – Zero Hour on the Red Planet

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Gerald Flood, what a trooper!  He spends the first few minutes of Zero Hour on the Red Planet doing his very best to convince the audience that he’s being attacked by Martian lichen.  Alas, it’s painfully obvious that the lichen is plastic and inanimate, which requires Flood to wriggle about frantically in order to sell the illusion that the plants are moving.  It’s not at all convincing, but you have to give him top marks for effort.

As for the others, Brown reveals that the life he’s observed is plant-life.  After four episodes of his imaginative world building, it’s something of a disappointment that we haven’t met the thriving Martian civilisation he promised us.  This highlights the way that the Pathfinders series to date has trod a delicate line between science fiction (a twelve year-old girl with no space experience wants to become an astronaut? No problem!) and science fact (throughout the serial Brown has been the only one to believe that there could be intelligent life on Mars, with the others – even the children – adamant that only plant life could exist).

I did fleetingly think that a Martian was going to make an appearance at 6:41  during this episode, but it was only a guest appearance from a camera!  It quickly bobs out of shot in a rather apologetic way.

Stewart Guidotti demonstrates that Geoffrey’s concerned about the fate of Henderson and Mary by shouting an awful lot.  It’s very much a performance that’s lacking in subtlety (to put it mildly) and with Hester Cameron emoting in a similar way, the pair of them are rather trying.  Thank goodness for George Coulouris.  Harcourt Brown may have been forced to accept that his vision of a Martian civilisation is now looking very unlikely, but he chooses to underplay, rather than overplay, his scenes.

Brown, Margaret and Geoffrey set off to look for Henderson and Mary.  The pair have little oxygen and are being menaced by approaching lichen.  Normally you’d have expected Henderson to have given Mary a comforting kiss by now, but since they’re wearing space helmets it’s not possible (the clash of heads would probably be rather painful).  It slightly stretches credibility that within a few minutes they’re all reunited – although there’s a problem (Henderson and Mary are standing on the other edge of a crevice).

Cue several minutes of Brown and the children turning their supply sled into a bridge.  Mary makes her way across (Pamela Barney doing her best to convince the audience that if Mary fell she’d plummet hundreds of feet) and Henderson follows.  Hmm, for no good reason he decides to walk across agonisingly slowly – so you can guess what’s going to happen next.  The bridge collapses and he ends up clinging to the edge of the crevice for dear life. It’s another of those moments that’s problematic, which is down to the limitations not only of the studio but also the fact they were recording “as live”.  A few more takes and tighter editing would have sold the illusion much better.  This moment of jeopardy is short-lived as the others easily pull him up.

Whereas Pathfinders in Space was a rather thoughtful sci-fi parable (the story of how an advanced civilisation was destroyed by war) Pathfinders to Mars has tended to eschew that path and has gone instead for pulp thrills.  We’ve had the aggressive lichen, Henderson clinging on to the edge of a crevice for dear life and now Mary tumbles into Martian quicksand, with Henderson risking his life to save her.  And even though this serial was an episode shorter than the previous one, these moments of jeopardy feel  very much like padding – they’ve run around the Martian surface for twenty five minutes but have achieved very little.

Zero Hour on the Red Planet does have a cracking cliffhanger though – Brown elects to leave the others behind and pilot the rocket back to Earth by himself.  He can’t bear the thought that they would expose his vision of Mars as a sham – so he’s prepared to leave them all (even the children) behind to die.  But as he prepares to lift off, lichen forces itself into the control room …..

 

Pathfinders to Mars – Lichens!

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Given that Pathfinders to Mars must have had a pretty limited budget, the Martian landscape is an impressive set.  With dry ice providing an eerie mist it looks pretty convincing to these eyes and on the lower definition televisions of the 1960’s no doubt would have looked better still.

Margaret and Geoffrey are given the honour of being the first humans to set foot on Mars, but Henderson doesn’t want them to go any further and orders them to stay in the rocket, monitoring the radio.  Margaret’s very disappointed, but Henderson tells her that they haven’t come here to explore – all they want is to find sufficient water for the journey home.

This presumably means that they have enough fuel for the six week return journey.  Considering that the rocket was only supposed to make a trip to the Moon and back (which wouldn’t have taken more than a week) it seems remarkable they were stocked up with three months fuel.

Margaret and Geoffrey observe a large cloud of dust heading towards them at enormous speed.  Stewart Guidotti has the unenviable task of delivering the line “look at Hamlet – he’s frightened”.  Cut to a shot of a hamster pottering about, quite unconcerned.  But if the hamster doesn’t look bothered then both Guidotti and Cameron are teetering on the edge of hysteria as Geoffrey and Margaret wonder if Brown was right all along.  Are the Martians coming to them?!  Short answer, no.

Henderson continues to kiss Mary.  He’s getting closer to her lips, as this one lands on her cheek.  The pair of them, along with Brown, are slowly reconnoitring the surface, looking for water.  Brown is keen to head off by himself to investigate the canals, but Henderson tells him that they’re here for one reason only – to find water – and Brown, grudgingly, agrees.  This is another moment that’s later echoed in Doctor Who – in The Daleks, the Doctor is keen to explore the city, but Ian refuses.

Henderson, Mary and Brown are caught up in the dust storm.  After it passes, Brown is missing.  Henderson decides he must have fallen down a crevice and although he’s regretful about the older man’s fate, he tells Mary that they can’t do anything to help him, so it’s best to press on and try to find the water they need.

Of course, Brown isn’t dead – instead he turns up at the rocket to tell Geoffrey and Margaret that Henderson and Mary are the ones who fell down the crevice.  They don’t believe a word of it though, with young Mary earnestly stating that “I don’t believe they’re dead, I won’t.”  Brown wants the pair of them to join him in his exploration of the planet.  Margaret immediately smells a rat – if they go and Henderson and Mary return, then they wouldn’t be able to take off (as she astutely observes, Brown’s attempting to use them as hostages).  But alas, she eventually agrees to go with Geoffrey (who’s much more keen) and the three of them set off.

A healthy downpour of rain sees Henderson and Mary menaced by aggressive Martian plant-life.  And that’s not a sentence you tend to type every day.  It’s an ambitious sequence which is, thankfully, brief – had it lasted any longer it would have quickly lost its credibility.

So apart from plants, is there any other life on the planet?  We’ve yet to meet Brown’s Martians, but the cliffhanger teases us that we’re getting closer.  He climbs a hill, looks over and returns to tell Margaret and Geoffrey that he has found life, although it’s not what he was expecting …..

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Pathfinders to Mars – The Hostage

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Brown tells them that the trip to Mars will take six weeks.  Given that modern estimates place the journey between six and eight months, there’s a certain amount of dramatic licence at play here.

What’s made clear is that the journey to Mars is going to be strictly one way – as even if, by some miracle, they reach their destination they’ll have no water or other supplies for the return journey.  Brown is quite calm about this – he still maintains that Mars is a thriving civilisation, so he no doubt assumes the Martians will be able to supply them with whatever they need.

Although Brown’s actions, reckless in the extreme, position him as the villain of the piece, he’s presented in a reasonable light here.  This isn’t too surprising as later episodes will see him integrated back with the others as they all combine to find a solution to their problems.  Indeed, he’s quite affable to Margaret as he explains about the canals of Mars, not taking offence when she disagrees with his assertion that they prove there must be life on Mars.  Hester Cameron impresses with the two-handed scenes she shares with George Coulouris.

Possibly the most notable part of the episode is the sequence where Henderson attempts to break into the control cabin by exiting the rocket and attempting a spacewalk.  There are several reasons why – firstly, I love the periscope that slowly turns to observe him (I think it’s probably because the notion of a periscope is such a delightfully old fashioned concept).  I also like the way that he loses his grip on a spanner which then goes flying into space.  It was clearly on a piece of wire, but it helps to sell the illusion that he’s in space.

But the main reason why this is so memorable is because the same scene, virtually unchanged, turned up thirteen years later in the Doctor Who story Frontier in Space.  That story was written by Malcolm Hulke, the co-writer of Pathfinders to Mars, so it can hardly have been a coincidence.

The lack of supplies seems to be one of the reasons why the relationship between Henderson and Mary is deepening.  He kisses her again – albeit only on the forehead, remember this is children’s television!

As The Hostage draws to a close, they finally reach Mars.  Whilst the others (now released) are still gently dismissive about Brown’s claims of a great Martian civilisation, it’s obvious that we’ll soon be able to find out for ourselves.  It may have taken three episodes but we’re finally there.

Pathfinders to Mars – Sabotage in Space

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There’s quite a lengthy recap at the start of this episode (nearly three minutes) which suggests that it was underrunning a little.  Sabotage in Space is a rather static instalment – understandable since most of the action takes place aboard the rocket.

But the enclosed nature of the episode isn’t all bad news as it allows Brown’s discordant presence to slowly become more apparent.  That he’s a fish out of water is evident right from the start – he doesn’t know how to strap himself into his take-off seat, for example – and there are numerous other signs that he’s not the man he claims to be.

Noticing that Geoffrey’s still carrying his book (although as yet nobody knows that he’s the author), he launches into an earnest debate about life on Mars which both Geoffrey and Margaret gently disagree with.  Henderson is more forthright, labelling Brown’s book as “tripe”!

Mary is far from happy.  The man that Brown replaced, Professor Hawkins, should be working with her – but Brown spends all his time glued to the radio.  When Mary complains to Henderson he doesn’t seem to be terribly bothered about her problems.  He tells her to be a good girl, gives her a kiss and saunters off!  Mary then pulls a “ooohhhhh” face which tells us all we need to know.  This may be the space age, but this scene indicates that there’s still some way to go before there’s equality between the sexes.

Buchan Island discover that Professor Hawkins isn’t present on the rocket when he turns up at the base.  One point – Hawkins is supposed to be Australian, but neither Horsfall or Coulouris have the trace of an Australian accent.  It might have been fun for both of them to attempt one, but on second thoughts perhaps not.

Ian quickly works out that the imposter is Harcourt Brown, a Mars obsessed fanatic.  But the others on the rocket remain in ignorance as Brown was able to destroy the receiver before Buchan Island could transmit the news.

As for Professor Wedgewood, he’s nowhere to be seen.  A line of dialogue explains that he’s headed off for hospital, but since he’s only got a broken arm you’d have assumed he’d have hung around a little longer to see everything was all right.  But in story terms the Professor is now surplus to requirements and his absence from the rest of the story means that the production saves a little money (that’s one less actor they have to pay).

By the end of this episode the MR4 has reached the Moon’s orbit.  Whilst Brown remains behind, Henderson, Mary, Geoffrey and Margaret rendezvous with the supply rocket which is now in their orbit.  Margaret returns with the new radio, but Brown then closes the hatch and fires up the motors, leaving Henderson, Mary and Geoffrey locked out of the control room.  He reveals his true identity and then tells them that he’s heading for Mars ….

Pathfinders to Mars – The Imposter

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Although the opening episode of Pathfinders to Mars was only broadcast a mere six weeks after the conclusion of Pathfinders in Space, quite a few changes had been made.

Jimmy and Valerie are gone, although those hoping that Hamlet the hamster would also be absent will be disappointed.  To replace them we have Henderson’s twelve-year old niece Margaret (Hester Cameron), who even at this tender age is something of a scientist.

As for Professor Wedgewood, he only appears in the opening episode – thereafter Conway Henderson becomes the male heroic lead.  Ian Murray returns, but he’s now resident on Buchan Island rather than a member of the crew.  Also back are Professor Mary Meadows and Geoffrey Wedgewood.

The cast re-jigs leave us with a better mix on the MR4 – with two groups of characters that naturally gravitate towards each other (Henderson and Mary, Geoffrey and Margaret) plus a wildcard – Harcourt Brown (George Coulouris).

Brown adds a sense of danger and unpredictability into the narrative, something which was largely missing from Pathfinders in Space.  True, Dr O’Connell did occasionally act irrationally, but his moments of madness soon passed.  With Brown we have someone who has a burning desire to pursue his own agenda, even if it means risking the lives of the others.

The opening minutes of The Imposter sees the dramatic intensity pitched to at least eleven.  Partly because of the highly melodramatic stock music, but also due to the way that Ian reacts (or overacts, depending on your point of view) with horror at the events unfolding on the launchpad.  There’s an accident, somebody’s hurt …. oh my goodness it’s Professor Wedgewood!  The tension ramps down a little when it’s revealed that he’s only got a broken arm, but it explains why he won’t be taking any part in the planned mission to the Moon.

So once again Henderson is pressed into service.  As before, he only turned up to Buchan Island to cover the launch for his newspaper but finds himself strapped into the hotseat.  Suspension of disbelief is required again  – why aren’t there more trained astronauts?  And even if there aren’t, what’s so urgent about this mission that it can’t wait until Wedgewood recovers?

Our first sight of Margaret isn’t that promising.  Like Valerie she’s rather squeaky and earnest, but maybe she’ll settle down.  After haranguing the security guard she eventually manages to gain access to the control room thanks to the intervention of Geoffrey.  The guard tells him that “she’ll be a right problem when she grows up, you’d better keep your eye on her.”  Geoffrey’s response is short and world-weary.  “Girls”!

Once Margaret knows that her uncle is piloting the ship she’s as keen as mustard to join him.  “I could look after supplies, I can cook and I know first aid”.  Wedgewood, puffing on his pipe, is sold although Geoffrey is far from pleased at the prospect.  When Mary arrives, that just leaves Professor Hawkins (Bernard Horsfall) to complete the crew.  But Hawkins is waylaid by Brown who takes his place, hence the episode title.  A pity that Hawkins didn’t join the others as Horsfall’s always an actor worth watching, but our first sight of the duplicitous Brown shows that he’s a character with plenty of scope.  He certainly contrasts nicely with some of the other more earnest (or wooden) performers.

Although it’s easy to mock some of the plotting, other elements are quite neatly handed.  For example, we see Geoffrey with a book which posits there might be life on Mars.  Margaret disagrees and the pair have a mildly heated argument.  As the pair leave the room, the camera focuses on the book and the author’s name – Harcourt Brown – is shown.  For the moment that wouldn’t mean anything to the first-time viewer, but all will become clear later on.  It’s a nice piece of shorthand that establishes Brown’s character – even when he’s not on the screen – and lets us know what he believes in and what his plan will be.

I’m pleased to see that the crew are wearing their spacesuits on take-off as it just didn’t seem right that they were all lounging around in cardigans last time!  So its time to strap yourself in and enjoy the ride …..

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Pathfinders in Space – Rescue in Space

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We left our heroes on the horns of a dilemma last time.  The rocket can only carry one adult and one child back to Earth, so what’s going to happen to the rest of them?  If only there was another ship they could use ….

The final instalment of Pathfinders in Space only ran for seventeen minutes (rather than the normal twenty five).  This was due to the rather unusual decision to launch a new (unconnected) serial following the commercial break.  It’s no great hardship though, since the shorter running time gives the episode a certain urgency.

Wedgewood decides that Henderson and Valerie should return to Earth.  That leaves the rest of them on the Moon with only fifteen hours of oxygen.  Wedgewood is matter of fact about their situation – it’ll give them time to complete their researches and their work will be of value to future expeditions.  Obviously it’s a bit of a pity they’re all going to die, but he maintains a suitably British stiff upper lip.

It’s no surprise that Jimmy asks if his pesky pet guinea pig can also make the trip to Earth.  His father agrees, so that’s one weight off everybody’s minds I’m sure!

The others don’t take their impending deaths with the same quiet equanimity as Wedgewood does.  Mary asks him how he can be so dispassionate when his two sons are going to die.  He doesn’t really have an answer, seemingly he just can.

But then (rather out of nowhere) he decides to pilot the alien craft back home.  This piece of dialogue by Wedgewood is priceless.  “First we’ve got to master those controls, then you’ve got to get that atomic power working, that’s going to take all of three hours.”  Work out how to pilot an alien craft that’s lain dormant for four hundred million years and restart its atomic motors within three hours?  Of course, it should all be quite straightforward ….

Since Wedgewood states that he first had the idea of piloting the ship when their rocket blew up, why hasn’t he mentioned it before?  It seems a little cruel to make his sons, not to mention the others, believe they were fated to die of oxygen starvation.

It proves to be a doddle to get the ship working and also out of the cave (although we never see this on screen).  Once it’s on the lunar surface then the wobbly ship can take flight (although the strings aren’t as visible here as they were in the last episode).  Everything so far has gone so swimmingly, but there’s a problem when they hit the Earth’s atmosphere – the ship breaks in two.  Hmm, strange that they’re not at all harmed by this catastrophe and it’s also lucky that Henderson’s on hand to mount a daring rescue.   It’s another impressive effects shot bearing in mind the era in which the programme was made (although once again, when considering the scientific plausibility of what you’re watching it’s important to suspend your disbelief).

Overall, Pathfinders in Space is very much a mixed bag.  Although it would be easy to mock the modelwork, most of it is very competently done.  It’s easier to mock some of the acting though and it’s interesting to see which characters were dropped for the next serial, Pathfinders to Mars.  In the main I think they made the right decisions, plus the introduction of George Coulouris as Harcourt Brown was a strong addition

The script, by Eric Paice and Malcolm Hulke, has a mix of pulpy moments and hard scientific facts.  It’s an odd juxtaposition, but it does work quite well most of the time.  One downside is that the production only seemed to have a handful of music cues and they do get played an awful lot (by the final episode it’s rather grating).

Not perfect then, but given the year this was made (1960) and the budget, Pathfinders in Space is never less than highly entertaining.  Now it’s onwards to Mars …..

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