User login

Space Patrol

Review by: 
Release Date: 
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Frank Goulding
Dick Vosburgh
Libby Morris
Ronnie Stevens
Murray Cash
Bottom Line: 
Click to Play

"Space Patrol" was the British, sci-fi puppet-based brainchild of Roberta Leigh -- a prolific author and creator of several early children's puppet series in the late-fifties which, ironically enough, also helped launch the career of one Gerry Anderson, whose own work in the area quickly eclipsed that of his former colleague to the extent that, although initially popular in the early sixties, "Space Patrol" soon became mired in numerous ITV franchise realignments and was for many years believed to have been lost forever, until a complete collection of 16 mm print copies were subsequently found in Leigh's personal collection during the mid-nineties. The series already bore more than a few similarities to Anderson's "Fireball XL5", which preceded it by about a year; however, the much lower budgets and primitive, homespun production methods of Roberta Leigh's National Interest Pictures outfit (the initial episode soundtracks were recorded in Leigh's own house in her converted attic, underneath a blanket used as an improvised soundproofing, before being filmed on a small set constructed in a church hall) lend this British series, which should not be confused with a US show from the fifties of the same name, an eerie style all of its own; it also has a radiophonic score of avant-garde electronical droning and bleepings that is now widely recognised to have pre-dated similar methods used on "Doctor Who" by at least seven months.

The series also notably makes use of animation, especially for the scenes of space travel, which gives it a unique quality setting it apart form the methods of  Anderson's productions. In fact, despite the show's de rigueur for the times educational remit and a hearty Dan Dare-style mission to embody a tone of moral improvement, the two re-mastered episodes on this Blu-ray special edition from Network (the only two episodes to have survived in their original 35 mm format) are downright creepy, resembling nothing so much as a futuristic puppet version of "Eraserhead" -- right down to the oppressive industrial pounding in the far off distance on the soundtrack and a slightly offbeat humour that seems often to blend into a -- probably unintentional -- atmosphere of unease, such as that which is only ever found on strange old children's television fantasy shows from years gone past. Kids must surely have been terrified by much of this!

Space Patrol's air of strangeness is immediately apparent from its introductory opening: a broiling, flaming sun in the depths of space fills the screen and what sounds like ominous, discordant industrial machine noise accompanied by the distant pounding of some kind of machine press, occupies the soundtrack. It will soon become noticeable that this Lynchian sound design was way ahead of its time and is primarily responsible for the series retaining a special, slightly odd atmosphere all of its own, despite being technically eclipsed by the more sophisticated Gerry Anderson puppet series which came after.

The scene then cuts to the depths of space where an animated metallic spinning top -- the series' deep space rocket, the Galasphere 347 -- approaches Earth accompanied by its distinctive rhythmic electronic warbles. As it cruises above a futuristic Earth cityscape and the oppressive industrial clanking becomes ever more Eraserhead-like, a clean-cut American voice-over informs us that this is Earth in the year 2100, and we are looking at Space Patrol -- a city complex where citizens from Earth, Mars and Venus work together as 'guardians of peace'. Space Patrol headquarters is a beautiful example of retro-futurism -- although the stark black-and-white imagery suggests a grand vision of a gleaming, mechanised 'hive' society that owes much to the appearance of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis", recreated in a rinky-dinky miniature model form. Here vast skyscrapers and office blocks, space needle-like towers and raised landing ports, loom above a network of great domes connected by a web of transparent, mono-rail-like tunnels, transporting the high-speed shuttles (called 'monobiles') that zoom about inside them to their destinations. At the time, the Telecom Tower was in the process of being built, and so it got incorporated into the set as an example of a futuristic piece of architecture! 

Despite clearly being only inches high, this vision of a clean, bright and efficient man-made world is indeed impressive -- though it feels strangely marred by the sinister fact that it exists in total isolation amid a vast and lifeless desert, while the sky above appears dead and dark and filled with scudding clouds! 

Despite appearing from outside to be a bustling, active, thriving city, alive with many millions, we only ever see a limited cast of just under ten characters actually inhabiting Space Centre. Overseeing the activities of Space Patrol itself is Colonel Raeburn, who spends most of his time seated behind his electronic revolving desk issuing orders, or else zooming about in his monobile. The character was voiced by Canadian actor Murray Kash, whose sometimes amusingly stilted and monotone delivery of Roberta Leigh's clunky, exposition-heavy scripts lends the series even more semi-Lyncian tonality! Raeburn issues his orders to his faithful Venusian secretary Marta -- a loyal servant with a high-pitched voice who, in both these episodes, offers to sacrifice her life in order to stay at her post when Space Patrol is threatened with destruction or invasion!

The role was voiced by Murray Kash's own wife, the Canadian actor Libby Morris (the part was later taken over by Ysanne Churchman in series two) -- who also took on several other roles in the series, notably Gabbler the parrot. Most of the series' heroic duties fall to the captain of the Galasphere 347 and his small but able crew. Captain Larry Dart is a good-humoured, bearded action hero who works in perfect accord with Raeburn. Like his doughty leader, he has that bland, mid-Atlantic drawl which was probably a requirement in those days for selling the series abroad. The part was voiced by performer and comedy writer (his impressive resume includes writing credits for Bob Monkhouse, Dave Allen and The Two Ronnies!) Dick Vosburgh.

Most '60s sci-fi shows require either an eccentric, heavy accented Scotsman or else an Irish character. "Space Patrol" plumps for the latter in Professor Haggerty: an easy-going but occasionally flighty boffin, clad in a comfortable cardigan and  cravat combination -- he's invariably to be found camped out in his laboratory at the Space Patrol Scientific Headquarters, with the requisite test tubes boiling up some esoteric bubbling brew of some kind. Next up come the two alien members of the crew: Husky is a peculiar, food-mad Martian, while Slim is the effete, graceful blonde-haired crew member who, like Marta, hails from the planet Venus. All three parts are played by character actor Ronnie Stevens. Adding slightly more comic surreality to proceedings (as if it were needed!) is the bipedal Martian parrot Gabblerdictum (or 'Gabbler' for short) who, after being taught to speak by Professor Haggerty, simply refuses to stop! Much given to exclaiming his/her/it's 'catchphrase'-of-sorts (an irritating "Ha-haaa" declaimed in an grating high-pitched squeak), during the second episode on this disc, the clever creature is even shown piloting one of the monobiles.

Although it may not have had the resources of its higher profile rival "Fireball XL5", a talented collection of individuals helped to create a show which still delivers a creditable and entertaining viewing experience even today. Arthur Provis actually founded AP Films along with Gerry Anderson, and the two worked together on Roberta Leigh's early children's puppet shows. When Provis eventually left Anderson, he found himself back with his original employer, working as the cameraman on "Space Patrol". The style of the show was initially set by Hammer art director Ken Ryan who designed the pilot's models and sets before handing over to Roland Whiteside. The puppets were worked by experienced husband and wife team Martin and Heather Granger and Joan Garrick, and they look fairly sophisticated for the time -- although the small budget meant that guest characters were simply re-dressed versions of the same marionettes used again and again, perhaps with an added beard or a different wig to attempt to disguise the fact! 

The design of the interior of the Galasphere is in many ways a typical pre-space flight idea of what interplanetary rocket technology would look like: these days we'd probably think of it more as 'steampunk', but it was probably thought to look hugely advanced at the time. It's a technology of cumbersome tickertape computers and banks of massive tape reels; dials, cables, coils and pressure gauges with flashing lights; metal piping and revolving cylinders that seem to perform no particular function. When surveying the landscape of an alien planet the crew waft slowly about on portable hover-jets, predating similar looking vehicles used on "Captain Scarlet".

Although Space Patrol is meant to be a peaceful organisation exemplifying co-operation between the planets of the solar system; and despite the show's aim of providing an uplifting, heroic, morally scrupulous example to a young viewership, these two episodes in particular seem to hint at a very dark, discontented world lurking beyond the confines of Space Centre's clinical, clean technological wonder-world, in which the heroes are required to use lethal force in order to maintain the established order. Revolution and terrorism are the themes of these episodes, and Space Patrol is battling to avoid total destruction in both. 

In "Mystery On The Moon", buildings all across the Earth are being destroyed by a gang of crooks who're directing a futuristic laser weapon at the planet from their hideout on the Moon. They're led by a ruthless bandit called Berridge who is demanding a 'freighter-full of gold' or else he will destroy Space Patrol and all its inhabitants! Raeburn's first reaction is to blow up the moon; but he is reminded that hundreds of space colonists mining for diamonds in the moon craters also live there, so that plan quickly hits the deck! Eventually, Professor Haggerty's genius and captain Dart's bravery combine to defeat the menace, when the Galasphere journeys to intercept the ray in deep space with a shield clad in a coat of reflective paint (flown in especially from Tokyo!) that reflects the ray back upon the unsuspecting terrorists' own hideout! Luckily for Dart and his crew, the reliable Berridge sticks with his declared deadline to the very second, despite having plenty of time to destroy the Earth's command centre before the Galasphere reaches the correct position between the Earth and the Moon.

In the second episode, "The Robot Revolution", some underwater robot workers on a sea farm (where they're being used to 'process' seaweed around the clock) are affected by a mineral released by an underwater volcano, that mixes with seawater to make an acid which rots away the part of their robot 'brain' that obeys human commands. The five thousand robots promptly stage a revolution and emerge from the depths of the sea to take over space centre. This is particularly weird episode. For a start, the army of five thousand robot revolutionaries is  portrayed on screen with a grand total of two robot puppets. They're oddly scary though, and wheedle up to people silently and clunk them over the head with a spanner! At one point, one of the robots is seen entering Marta's office on Raeburn's monitor -- and the screen goes blank just as she lets out a piercing scream! The robots quickly take control of the city and not even the United Galactic Army can stop them. In this episode, it is all down to Gabbler and a humanoid plant that speaks in robot-disabling ultra-sonic frequencies when the Parrot accidentally feeds him on bird seed, to save the day. 

Weird, imaginative and charmingly naive all at the same time "Space Patrol" stands up well today and its quirkiness and unusual fantastical elements make it well worth revisiting as a largely unheralded piece of cult children's telefantasy. These two restored high-definition 35 mm episodes look absolutely pristine here, and could have been produced yesterday they look so sharp and defined. This is also the case for the full colour pilot episode (the only episode produced in fact, since the series was never taken up) of Roberta Leigh and Arthur Provis's follow-up series "Paul Starr" which looks absolutely gorgeous as the special features extra also included on this Blu-ray disc. This episode plays like a precursor to Gerry Anderson's "Thunderbirds" or "Stingray", with the same emphasis on a fetishisation of high tech rocketry and convoluted but dramatic launch processes, and a more conventional music score. The problem is the series came after "Stingray" not before it, and is very much in the shadow of its larger budgeted contemporary. Then again, the Grangers this time were involved in producing and designing the puppets as well as just operating them, and came up with an innovative flexible mouth which really was far in advance of anything seen in the Gerry Anderson puppet series.

"Paul Starr" features the adventures of space agent Paul Star and his assistant Lightning, who work tirelessly for the Space Bureau of Investigation. The series has a colourful, offbeat tone: the Bureau's chief ( a middle-aged executive with a double chin and a comb-over) works from an underwater secret base in an office gaudily decked out in guilt-edged antique French furniture, while perched on a velvet-lined throne in his smoking gown. He has to cope with a new, beautiful, woman assistant -- shock! horror! -- called Miss Mann, sent against his will by Land Control and the Bureau is staffed by a fleet of dalek-like brightly coloured cylindrical robots. When Chief is visited by a Martian delegation (feathery, green bug-eyed creatures that look a bit like Orville the duck) who inform him that a General Darinx is sabotaging Martian atomic power stations and is threatening to continue to do so unless he is handed total control of Mars's atomic capabilities, Paul Starr and Lightning are sent undercover as security agents. There is an amusing incident when Starr thinks he has captured a Martian saboteur but it turns out to be a worker listening to a guitar-based beat band on his illicitly smuggled-in transistor radio (Martians have a taste for pre-Beatles '60s chart music it seems) but eventually, the series goes off on its own fantastical and colourful tangent in which Mars is shown to be a colonised red desert where pterodactyl-like 'Pelling' birds cruise the skies above the gleaming atomic station, leaving their large coloured eggs on its gantries. Paul Starr seems a much more unashamedly gung ho character than his Space Patrol predecessors and there is a peculiarly military triumphalist air to the show's treatment of futuristic technology. When General Darinx's hideout (inside a Martian icecap!) is located, Starr not only blows it up without too much compunction,  but a huge mushroom cloud is seen to bloom ominously above the carnage (from footage taken from real test bomb footage) with very little irony seemingly evident! 

This excellent Blu-ray from Network Releasing also comes with a brief photo gallery of stills from "Space Patrol", a few of them in colour. Reasonably priced and with all three episodes looking completely stunning, this is a recommended purchase for fans of cut sci-fi TV.             

Your rating: None