TV Reviews

Pathfinders In Space Trilogy – DVD Review

For all the hyperbole over the ever-expanding panoply of streaming services, there are still some fairly significant limitations which are yet to be overcome. No matter how broadly some of them attempt to cast their nets, there will always be things which end up being missed, those rather niche or obscure films and TV shows which will seemingly never end up being made available on demand, no matter how hard sought after they may be.

Thank goodness, then, for having the continuing presence of physical media, something which not only means we can still have continued access to things which may vanish without a warning from streaming providers, but also provides us with a much-needed outlet for those more esoteric productions which would otherwise be left to languish near-indefinitely in the vaults. One of the market leaders in this field has been Network Distributing, which for a quarter of a century now has been joyously bringing us rare treats from the archives, and lavishing all the care and attention which they so rightly deserve to have in their presentation.

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© StudioCanal Limited. All rights reserved.

Network’s extensive catalogue of releases has included some genuine landmarks in television which would have otherwise remained unseen by modern audiences, something which is almost unthinkable. One such example is their reissue of the long-since out of print DVD release of ABC Television’s sci-fi drama serials commonly known as the Pathfinders In Space Trilogy. While there were actually four such series under that particular umbrella, the first of them has unfortunately been either wiped or mislaid, but the remaining three-quarters of the quadrilogy – Pathfinders In Space, Pathfinders To Mars and Pathfinders To Venus – have luckily survived, and they are proudly presented by Network for all to enjoy.

Beginning in 1960 with the now sadly missing Target Luna, the Pathfinders series would cover the exploits of Professor Norman Wedgwood, his children, and the journalist Conway Henderson, in the attempts to get man into space from the remote Buchan Island Rocket Research Station. As the series progressed, the focus would turn more onto Henderson and young Geoff Wedgwood, with the efforts moving away from manned lunar orbital flight onto landings on the Moon and two of our planetary neighbours, each serial being split over several episodes. The Pathfinders saga had seemed to have slipped into relative obscurity, despite its significance as the forerunner to a bona fide British television classic.

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The original notion for the series had come from ABC’s Head of Drama, Sydney Newman, who would later go on to devise both ABC’s The Avengers and – following his move across to the BBC at the end of 1962 – Doctor Who. As the 1950s saw the dawning of the Space Race, Newman had wanted to see a children’s adventure serial on ABC which could be used as a form of ‘edutainment’, in order to enlighten young viewers about the dawning of the Space Age. Assigned with the task of co-writing the stories were Malcolm Hulke and Eric Paice, the former of whom would later go on to produce scripts for Doctor Who, as well as being jointly responsible for coming up the idea of the Time Lords as the Doctor’s people.

Like Doctor Who, the Pathfinders serials would be recorded ‘as live’, meaning that flubbed lines or technical slips would often end up being included in the final broadcast. Similarly, each episode would end on a cliffhanger, giving viewers an incentive to tune back in the following week to see how their heroes would manage to extricate themselves. Throughout Pathfinders’ run, the adults would be there to provide all the scientific exposition, with younger characters – notionally the audience identification figures – present to ask all of the pertinent questions, get themselves into scrapes and end up needing to be rescued, etc. As such, the Doctor’s DNA can be clearly seen throughout the entire series.

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As Pathfinders goes on, its relationship to science does get increasingly hazy, particularly by the point that they end up reaching Venus and encountering prehistoric monsters and cavemen. In fact, one episode of Pathfinders To Venus even has a genuine disclaimer in the end credits to explain to the audience that any mistakes or errors are wholly intentional, and were included as part of an educational study which was being conducted. Bearing in mind that at the time of Target Luna, Yuri Gagarin had yet to become the first man in space, a lot of the science was still an unknown, so the accuracy of the series was always going to come an increasingly distant second to its sheer, undeniable entertainment value.

© StudioCanal Limited. All rights reserved.

In fact, the vertical landing of rockets is something that was only achieved during the last few years, so the commonplace sight of that in Pathfinders is an anachronism which tells us the ‘science’ is on a par with that of Hollywood productions like 1950’s Destination Moon. This is a space program which cares little about wearing of pressurised suits while in flight; instead, the boffins of Buchan Island are content to let their astronauts enter orbit while dressed in casual knitwear and comfy slacks. However, this just adds to the quaintness and charm of the Pathfinders serials, which are simply rollicking good fun, and hugely enjoyable, being very much in the spirit of Dan Dare.

Leaving  all of the wonky science aside, the actual stories are quite compelling, with Pathfinders In Space feeling rather reminiscent of Quatermass And The Pit, giving us glimpses of ancient alien civilisations dating back millions of years. In Pathfinders To Mars, we first encounter the duplicitous and shady Harcourt Brown, someone whose outlandish theories have been shunned by the scientific establishment. Played with such obvious relish by George Colouris, Harcourt Brown adds a real frisson of danger as a random element bent upon following his own hypotheses, making sure nobody stands in his way. In fact, the character definitely manages to elevate both Pathfinders To Mars and Pathfinders To Venus, with the latter being agreeable nonsense.

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Gerald Flood’s portrayal of Conway Henderson provides an engaging lead throughout all three existing serials, working well on screen with Stewart Guidotti’s Geoffrey Wedgwood. A partnership which would prove so successful, the pair were later reunited in ABC’s spiritual sequels to Pathfinders, City Beneath The Sea and Secret Beneath The Sea, with both of these serials having also just been released by Network. As with that set, the extras are understandably somewhat thin on the ground, although having PDFs of all of the scripts for Target Luna is a nice touch. In addition, a detailed booklet by Andrew Pixley provides a thorough look at the making of the Pathfinders series, and is a genuine highlight of the release, adding extra value.

Network’s Pathfinders In Space Trilogy set serves up some delightfully old fashioned, massively appealing escapades. With these intrepid voyagers exploring space, Network has ensured we need to do the same – albeit that on our shelves, in order to make room for these essential DVDs.

Pathfinders In Space Trilogy is out now on DVD from Network Distributing.

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