Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski’s favourite TV show as a child
Anybody who was a child in the 1960s is likely to remember at least some of Gerry Anderson’s ‘Supermarionation’ science-fiction series, which included Supercar, Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. In the same genre, but far less well known was Space Patrol. It was created and produced by British author and television producer Rita Lewin under the pseudonym Roberta Leigh, with cinematographer Arthur Provis.
Provis was Anderson’s former business partner (the ‘P’ in their company AP Films Ltd.), and he and Anderson had previously collaborated with Leigh to make The Adventures of Twizzle and Torchy the Battery Boy. However, he felt that Anderson was taking too many risks with the business, so he eventually decided to leave. Anderson kept the name AP Films for the company until 1965, when he renamed it to Century 21 Productions Ltd.
Space Patrol is credited to National Interest Picture Productions and Wonderama Productions Ltd, and was produced in 1962. As seems to have been a common practice at the time, 39 b/w episodes of 25 minutes each were produced in three blocks of 13.
In common with the Anderson productions, Space Patrol relied upon voice-synchronised puppets, although these were more realistic-looking than those used by the former in any series prior to Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. In contrast to the Barry Gray scores and incidental music associated with the Anderson productions, Space Patrol featured electronic music composed by Fred Judd, a pioneer in the field.
Space Patrol is set in the year 2100. The eponymous Space Patrol’s operating authority is the United Galactic Organisation, which despite the name encompasses only Earth, Mars and Venus (the series was prone to use the term ‘galaxy’ to describe planetary systems, a mistake which was repeated in the slightly later TV classic Lost in Space). Space Patrol is headquartered in a futuristic city, identified in the pilot as New York, but never so referenced again. The introduction states that “Men from Earth, Mars and Venus live and work there as guardians of peace.” A rhythmical clanking sound pervades the city at all times. Transport within the city is provided by single-person pods that move through a transparent travel-tube.
The series focusses on the adventures of Galasphere 347 and its crew, comprising goatee-bearded Captain Larry Dart, Venusian navigator Slim and Martian engineer Husky. The elfin Slim was the Mr Spock of the series; the burly Slav-accented Husky devotes a fair bit of time to thinking about his next meal. The trio will not hesitate to put themselves in harm’s way if the circumstances demand it, which they often do. In overall charge of operations is Colonel Raeburn, assisted by his super-efficient Venusian secretary Marla. Raeburn regularly threatens Dart with court-martial, but his bark is rather worse than his bite. Never hiding his anxiety when Dart and co are in peril, he frequently rewards them with extra leave when they return from a dangerous assignment.
The team regularly need to call on the services of eccentric Irish genius Professor Haggerty, his daughter Cassiopeia, and Gabblerdictum the Martian parrot. The appearance of this trio was generally preceded by an establishing stock shot of the then-new Empress State Building in West London. Recurring adversaries in the series include the plant-like Duos of Uranus and Tyro, ruler of Neptune. Anybody much younger than forty will be shocked by the pronunciation of Uranus.
The series was not entirely free of the sexism characteristic of that era, but the blonde and highly intelligent Marla would often remind Raeburn that “There are no dumb blondes on Venus.” It should be noted that Roberta Leigh was the first woman producer in Britain to set up her own film company.
Galaspheres have superseded rockets as the space vehicle of choice, but unlike Fireball XL5 they remain largely confined to the Solar System, with realistic travel times to the planets. Pluto is six months away, Jupiter twenty days. A galasphere consists of a ring-shaped crew section connected to a central stem by three spokes. They have three modes of propulsion: a primary drive for take-off and landing, an orbital drive for low-speed planetary operations, and meson power for interplanetary travel. Gamma rays and ‘yobba’ rays also need to be activated before a galasphere can take off.
Meson power can sustain speeds of up to 800,000 miles per hour (1.3 million km per hour), and in an emergency can be boosted to up to one million miles per hour (1.6 million km per hour) for short periods. However, boosting the meson power is risky. It is not clear why galaspheres cannot simply continue to accelerate once they reach a certain speed (presumably the writers were unfamiliar with Newton’s laws of motion). When in flight, galaspheres are surrounded by a rotating spherical field and emit a distinctive warbling sound. Galaspheres can hover above the surface of a planet, or even travel underwater. They are armed with a laser gun, but this has to be operated by setting it up in the airlock and opening the outer vacuum door before it can be fired. The term ‘galasphere’ (galaxy sphere) was possibly inspired by ‘bathysphere’ (deep sphere). If so, given that the spacecraft were not spherical, ‘bathyscaphe’ (deep ship) might have been a better choice, to give ‘galascaphe’ (galaxy ship).
During interplanetary travel, the crew go into a freezer for a pre-set period of time and a robot takes over. In the event of an emergency, the timer can be overridden from Earth by a faster-than-light ‘zirgon’ ray. Regardless of where a galasphere is at any time, instantaneous communications between it and Earth are apparently possible. A recurring problem for the Space Patrol is that galaspheres require a metal called plutonite for their construction. Plutonite is only found on Pluto, and stocks are all but exhausted. Fortunately, a supply is later discovered on an asteroid.
Hover bikes are used for surface travel similar to the type that were ubiquitous in the Anderson shows. The crew carry gamma ray guns but typically use ‘plastifoam’ guns to render an opponent immobile without harming them.
Although the number ‘347’ suggests that the Space Patrol operates large numbers of galaspheres, it only has landing facilities for one at a time: a pad atop a tall, broad-waisted building, which for some reason swivels through 180 degrees and extends upwards before a galasphere lands. The pad remains in the rotated and extended position until the galasphere takes off again, at which point it promptly returns to its original position.
Despite a very low budget, Space Patrol proved to be very popular. It was broadcast regionally in the UK on the ITV network, first appearing on Sunday, 7 April 1963 on ABC Television in the Midlands and North regions. In the London area, it was shown on weekdays by Associated-Rediffusion. ABC did not broadcast the final episodes until summer 1968.
Space Patrol was sold overseas and broadcast in the United States, Canada and Australia. It was retitled Planet Patrol in the United States to distinguish it from an earlier US series, which had also been titled Space Patrol. J. Michael Straczynski, creator of the 1990s science-fiction series Babylon 5 described Space Patrol as his favourite TV show as a child.
Unlike the Anderson shows, Space Patrol was never repeated in the UK, and it was considered lost until 1997, when Leigh discovered that she had a complete set of 16 mm prints in her lock-up garage. The series was subsequently released in VHS and later DVD formats.
Roberta Leigh continued to work until a year before her death in December 2014, a few days short of her 88th birthday. Arthur Provis made commercials until his retirement. He died in May this year, aged 91.