Three years ago I posted a reminiscence about this serial, which I vaguely recalled from a single viewing in my childhood. At the time I assumed that it had been lost forever, but I was wrong.
The original broadcasts were recorded on film for sale in other countries and the recordings of Pathfinders in Space and its two sequels survived. They have now surfaced on DVD, courtesy of Studio Canal (it seems the French take our popular culture more seriously than we do) to provide a fascinating insight into early British children's TV.
In 1960, television producers were still agonising over whether TV drama should aim for the immediacy of theatre or the permanence of cinema. Pathfinders sat on the fence. It was structured and shot very much like a movie (with quick cross-cutting between short scenes running in parallel) but was recorded on videotape in real time, like a live stage play.
It appears that there were several days of rehearsal before each episode, but the actual recording was then done as a single, uninterrupted take. This meant that fluffed lines, intrusive microphones and other glitches were retained when they might easily have been edited out of a more 'cinematic' production. In fairness, this approach was largely dictated by the difficulty of editing videotape at that time, but I still feel Pathfinders would have been a much slicker show if there had been less time spent on rehearsal and more on the actual recording.
Pathfinders also illustrates just how much story-telling conventions have changed over the past 50 years. In 1960, TV executives could still count on children to follow a single story over a number of weeks, rather than demanding instant gratification every time they tuned in. This story is spread over 7 episodes and tries to retain its young audience by having a cliffhanger at each advertisement break as well as at the end of each episode. Personally, I have always liked the serial format and this is one of the attractions of Pathfinders for me today, but there is no denying the story-telling is a bit ponderous. Today's children would understandably expect a lot more to happen a lot more quickly than it does here. In truth, there is not much plot for its three hours running time.
Two space ships set off on the first trip to the Moon, one of them carrying three children (don't ask why or how). While in Moon orbit they encounter a third ship of unknown origin. The two ships then land many miles apart and one crew sets off in search of the other ship, while the second crew explores the Moon's surface. The youngest child falls down an air shaft into an artificial cave system. In the cave they find another long-abandoned space craft, dating back an improbable 400 million years. The two crews meet up and explore this cave and its wonders, learning about the tragic history of these ancient astronauts. Meanwhile, a meteor destroys one of their ships and they have to reactivate the alien craft in order to get everyone safely back to Earth.
This is a very ambitious story for such a studio-bound production. Most of the action takes place in space or on the Moon and includes rocket launches and landings, encounters in space, an attempt at weightlessness and even some EVA. The sets look somewhat rickety even in a low resolution (405 line) TV image but are reasonably spacious and not badly designed. The costumes are variable. The crew mostly wear casual clothes that were probably supplied by the actors, but the costume department chipped in with a few white coats and some silvery space suits that are OK in design but could have been better fitted. The space helmets look as if they might have been fabricated from American Football helmets.
There are many more special effects than I had any right to expect from a cheap children's TV show. As a hyper-critical twelve-year-old, I was contemptuous of these very obvious model shots, but I am much more tolerant today. For one thing, I always give Brownie points to any of these old SF productions that attempt their own special effects, rather than relying on stock shots of V2 rockets or footage pillaged from better movies.
None of the effects in Pathfinders could be described as good, but I have seen worse. The take off of the alien ship is probably the weakest of the model shots, but the biggest mistake is the shot of Buchan Island. This is a tiny table top model that is used as visual punctuation and so appears several times in each episode. In this case, a stock shot would probably have been preferable.
The adult acting is OK, with relatively few fluffs, and is mercifully free from condescension, but the children are all too typical of British child actors of that time. With their cut-glass, stage school accents (especially Gillian Ferguson), exaggerated reactions and stilted line delivery they can be somewhat trying.
Incidentally, whatever made producers think that children like to watch other children on TV? As I recall, my friends and I loathed all child actors on sight.
Overall, Pathfinders in Space is much better than my recollections of it led me to expect and it is good to have it back in circulation. It fills a gap in my memory and has enough intrinsic merit to make for an enjoyable three hours of viewing. In fact, with the benefit of nostalgia, it looks better today than it did in 1960.
I am also gratified that the one memory of the show that I carried with me over the past 50 years has turned out to be accurate.
What more can I ask?
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