This follow up to Pathfinders in Space appeared only a few weeks later. Although it was recorded in a similar way at nearly the same time, the image quality on the DVD is noticeably better (although Episode 2 suffers from some broadcast problems).
The story is again fairly economical in terms of plot. A spaceship sets off to establish an observatory on the Moon. On board are two children and an intruder, Harcourt Brown, who has sneaked on board with a view to proving the existence of intelligent life on other planets. He takes control of the ship and forces it to go on to Mars. When they finally arrive, they have to land to replenish their water supply. They encounter a super-fast-growing lichen that threatens their lives in some way. This delays their take off, making it impossible to return to Earth the normal way. After some agonising, they undertake a risky manoeuvre that will take them close to the Sun, whose gravity they can then use to slingshot their ship on to Earth.
This occupies 6 episodes of 25 minutes each.
The whole show looks slightly more expensive than its predecessor. The sets have been redesigned on a more lavish scale and the space suits are also an improvement. Again, there is a plethora of special effects of varying quality. The overused table top model of Buchan Island, that was so conspicuously inadequate in Pathfinders in Space, has been replaced by a more elaborate new model. Unfortunately, the new version is no real improvement. However, the most noticeably inadequate effect is the lichen, which seems to be made of plastic tubing.
Again, the real problem with the show is that it was recorded more or less in real time as if it was a live broadcast. This must have been a tough on the cast especially the two children. There are the expected fluffs, missed cues and intrusive microphones, but in addition there is one episode in which two of the actors find themselves struggling with a prop that refuses to work properly. For a few seconds I had a vision of them vainly wrestling with it until the final credits rolled.
As with Pathfinders in Space, this story is a strange mixture of good, solid science and far-fetched fantasy. For example, using the Sun's gravity to accelerate their return to Earth is quite a sophisticated idea for any SF show at that time, let alone a children's programme, but this is at odds with the minimal recognition given to the fact that a flight to Mars is quantum leap beyond a flight to the Moon and a craft designed for one mission could not possibly undertake the other. Similarly, Harcourt Brown is a clumsy plot device rather than a believable character and the ease with which he inveigles his way onto the spaceship would test the patience of many children.
The acting is again variable, with generally solid performances from the adults and somewhat over-emphatic ones from the two children. Gerald Flood and Pamela Barney effortlessly reprise their roles but George Coulouris struggles with the impossible Harcourt Brown clearly unsure as to whether he is supposed to be mildly deluded or completely insane. Stuart Guidotti returns as Geoffrey Wedgewood and is joined by a new child character (Henderson's niece) played by Hester Cameron. At times, her accent sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard and I am sure I would have hated her when I was a censorious twelve-year-old, but today I think she is sweet and I soon warmed to her spunky character.
Overall, Pathfinders to Mars was a good follow-up to Pathfinders in Space and was well-enough received to generate Pathfinders on Venus later that year. To enjoy it today, you have to make a lot of allowances for its tight budget and primitive technology. I can and I did, but undoubtedly nostalgia helped.
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