Space Patrol Review
At first glance Space Patrol looks like a Gerry Anderson production. Space Patrol sounds like a Gerry Anderson production. Space Patrol feels like a Gerry Anderson production. With the instantly recognisable marionettes, retro-chic futuristic setting and Boys Own sci-fi adventures how could it be anything else? And yet, Space Patrol is not a Gerry Anderson production, and those for a feel for the world of Supermarionation will swiftly appreciate that while sharing almost exactly the same basic DNA as its more illustrious contemporaries this is tonally a subtly different beast.
Its creator Roberta Leigh was by trade a writer who had originally teamed up with Anderson and Arthur Provis, his film-making partner at the time, to make a low-budget puppet show based on her children’s stories The Adventures of Twizzle. This was Anderson’s first foray into the genre, and its modest success led to the trio collaborating on a further show, Torchy the Battery Boy. By the time that had ended Anderson and his team were already getting more ambitious, and he soon parted company with the more conservative Provis who was worried, amongst other things, that his friend was getting overly ambitious as to the limits of what puppet films could do. Which is a bit ironic, considering his next move was to end up making Space Patrol with Leigh, a series with a premise SUSPICIOUSLY SIMILIAR to that being worked on concurrently by Anderson, Fireball XL5, just with about a tenth of the budget. I don’t know which way the spies were working but the coincidences are too great: both series follow the adventures of the crew of a space ship keeping law and order in the cosmos, based on Earth, headed by an all-American-sounding Captain (Steve Zodiac on Fireball, Larry Dart on Space Patrol) and backed up by a collection of exotic or comedy sidekicks including a talking cutesy-poo alien. In fairness the concept is pretty generic, especially given the fact it was made in the early Sixties, but still... Both shows ended up making 39 episodes – unfortunately, Leigh and Provis didn’t have the burgeoning empire of Anderson, and failed to interest many overseas buyers in their show. Fireball went on to have an afterlife in comics and toys, Space Patrol ended up largely forgotten for thirty-odd years, believed lost to the archives bar the odd episode, until in the late Nineties Leigh discovered a complete set of 16mm prints in her attic, leading eventually to the DVD release of the series a few years ago.
Perhaps inevitably the comparisons between the two shows are not especially favourable to the underdog. Taken on its own Space Patrol works extremely well. The design is imaginative, the characters distinctive (helped along by a decent voice cast), and the puppetry both competent and technically the equal of if not Fireball then certainly Supercar, that show's immediate predecessor. Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that Leigh's characters are the more memorable of the two: Captain Larry Dart, rather than being the clichéd-lantern jawed blonde haired all-American hero, rakishly sports a very Beatnik-style beard, probably modelled after Dick Vosburgh who voiced him, while the Venusians, with their elf-like appearance and strictly logical outlooks on life are startlingly close to Star Trek’s Vulcans, still three or four years in the future. Just as Fireball has its comedy scientist and cute alien, so does Space Patrol, with talking parrot Gabbler (yep) being a considerably more amusing kid-friendly stooge than Fireball’s annoying Zoonie who sounded as though he’d had some kind of unfortunate haemorrhage. There are many parallels between the two cast, A SUSPICIOUS NUMBER INDEED, but Space Patrol does not fall short here, even if Vosburgh gives a far more low-key than Paul Maxwell as Zodiac. Leigh also introduces far more novel sci-fi ideas than Fireball: the Galasphere which flies our heroes round uses anti-grav propulsion rather than normal rockets, overall the alien races are more varied and less humanoid, and space feels properly big, with Captain Dart and co often taking ages to get to their galactic destinations.
But, and here’s the crucial difference and why you can still put Anderson’s series on TV today and Space Patrol you really couldn't: the Supermarionation shows are made purely for hyperactive little boys who like big rockets and big explosions and have the attention span of a mildly forgetful goldfish. There are few dull moments in any of his shows, and when there are we get a blast of Barry Gray’s extraordinary scores to get the blood pumping again – there are numerous scenes, especially in Thunderbirds which sometimes really struggles to fill its extended running time, of a camera slowly drawing back over a rocket which would be murder without Gray’s music telling us this is the coolest, most advanced and yesdamnit sexy ship we’ve ever seen in our lives. “Stand by for action!” warns the beginning of Stingray, and that was the overriding mantra for everything he did.
Space Patrol is not like that. Although the episodes have, at 26 minutes each, pretty much the same running time as Fireball’s they feel about three times as long, and the pace is often painfully lethargic. The show has long scenes of the puppets just talking to each other about nothing in particular while we wait for the story to get going - The Robot Revolution, one of the two episodes featured on this disc, features a lengthy exchange between Dart and Husky his assistant about where they might go on holiday, which is nice but hardly what we paid our ticket for. There’s no sense of urgency. Leigh wrote all the episodes herself and it shows as she pads furiously to fill out the time without being able to turn to Barry Gray to rescue her. The absence of his music, or any real music, ties in with this. Leigh uses an all-electronic track, the first series to do so, which certainly lends the series a ethereal, almost mediatative feel. It makes one feel how vast the cosmos is, and how extraordinary it is we’re seeing a ship flying about in it. What it doesn’t do is get us in the mood for some space dogfights or showdowns with killer robots. Which, frankly, in a series called Space Patrol is what we really want.
Coupled with that is the problem, as mentioned, that Leigh and Provis were working on a much smaller budget and didn’t have the genius Derek Meddings alongside them to help paper over the cracks. I’ve never actually noticed it before, but this new release, blown up on a bigger screen, really doesn’t do the show any favours in showing how sparse the sets are sometimes. That said, where the design does trump Fireball is in the shape of the main ship, the Galasphere, which is far more interesting than the conventional rocketship Captain Zodiac flies around in, and New York itself, complete with its complex walkways and mini-tubes down which various cars zoom, is an impressive if ultimately very Blue Peter washing-up bottles and plastic tubes kind of place.
And yet, all such criticism is largely unfair given the time the show it’s being made. J. Michael Straczynski cites it as a key influence on him growing up and had the show existed in a vacuum (no pun intended) it would probably be remembered more vividly than it is. It was just its misfortune that it fell within the shadows of one of the giants of British Television and his company, compared to which this is, sadly, an also-ran, although one different enough to make it worth checking out a couple of episodes.
Following her failure to sell the show overseas, Leigh learnt her lesson. “Atomic Explosions! Fire on land!” booms the voice in the opening seconds of Paul Starr, her follow-up pilot, which is also included on this disc. This warning is followed swiftly by an action-packed opening sequence of explosions and rocketships and Barry Gray-esque stirring score, all of which is very far removed from the esoteric minimalism of Space Patrol’s beginning. It works far better: it is also SUSPICIOUSLY SIMILAR to Stingray’s, down to the underwater base both the show’s main crafts dive into, although the comparison, once again, does not favour Leigh's efforts, in the same way that Transmorphers doesn't quite get up to the same level as Transformers.
Once again the design ethic of the Leigh show, coupled with its limited budget, let the side down (although there is one technical innovation, in using rubber mouths rather than the electronic solenoids in Anderson’s puppets.) However, as with Space Patrol and ignoring its rival, Paul Starr is actually very creditable, a perfectly good pilot which shows promise and is, once one gets over the similarities, both technically and stylistically far more in tune with what the genre needs. Eschewing the otherworldly atmosphere and lethargic pace of its fore-runner the show is very clearly, opening sequence on, a far more direct clone of what Anderson was doing, but it’s a very decent clone and on the evidence of this one episode it’s hard not to think it would have gone on to make a good, if admittedly more generic, follow-up to its predecessor.
The premise is virtually the same as Space Patrol’s. “Wherever there’s danger you’ll find the men of the Space Bureau Investigation,” we are told and aside from the fact the SBI’s HQ is inexplicably located undersea they do pretty much the same sort of things as Captain Dart and co. The show has a smaller cast – in addition to Starr and his Oriental sidekick Lightning, there’s a jowly Teutonic Chief who spends his day sitting in an opulent office getting cross, the sexy Dr Mann who in this pilot does nothing other than lounge on a sofa and drink tea, and an army of robot wheelies who are SUSPICIOUSLY SIMILAR to the Daleks (who were almost at the exact same moment as Starr was being made capturing the hearts of the nation) who generally run things in base while Starr goes off to save the day. The plot sees SGI-5 called in by the President of Mars to investigate a series of fires, which it turns out are being perpetrated by another jowly Teutonic chap called Darinx who sounds a bit like a stressed Jimmy Stewart. Complete with exploding bird eggs, the same sexist comments that permuted both Space Patrol and Anderson’s early work (“What a life! A woman and a robot telling me what to do!”) and a design ethic which, while still betraying its smaller budget, means the sets are more populated than the sparse sets of its predecessor, make this a good go - it even has its own cheesy crooning song over the closing credits - “Wherever there’s danger on land or on sea, whenever you’ll need him, there he will be, Paullll Starr!” There's an argument to be made that it deserved to go to series far less than Space Patrol precisely because it was trying to copy Anderson rather than do its own thing, but there's no reason the pair couldn't have co-existed side-by-side, especially given the likelihood Leigh would have once again taken it in her own different direction. As it was, the pilot was not commissioned and thus ended her and Arthur Provis's brief partnership.
This special release is available exclusively through Network's site here. The two episodes presented on this disc, Mystery on the Moon and The Robot Revolution, are the only instalments known to exist in 35mm format, from which these new, lovingly cleaned-up and remastered transfers, are taken (the DVD release of the complete series used the 16mms Leigh discovered in her loft.) I don’t know what the provenance of these prints is but they look superb, clean and unfaded with vivid black and white images and a sound clarity which is, in truth, a little unforgiving of the primitive recording techniques used for the voices, bringing a tinny quality to some of the dialogue. The improved clarity is sometimes a bit of a mixed blessing as far as the creators might have been concerned. Being able to examine the gorgeous models of New York in greater detail is a treat (but paradoxically makes the place look smaller, far more model-like, modeller Derek Freeborn having neither the money nor Derek Meddings’ ability to create sets of similar intricacy) while the famous technique used when a character spoke to another on a monitor, whereby the puppet would stand behind monitor screen in the dark until the screen was “switched on” and lit up, and vice versa, is very clear. Needless to say, though, that’s part of the charm!
The presentation of the material is cutely done, the main menu being an image of New York with a small Galasphere being your cursor. As well as the Paul Starr pilot, also included is a Gallery of 33 pictures from the show’s production, which with their limited personnel give the idea of how much more limited the operation was compared to Anderson’s factory, and include a couple of rare colour shots of the puppets. The disc is region-free but there are no subtitles.
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