From the pages of the Strange Skins Digital fanzine #5, our raving reporter Mrs C. L. ‘Moth’ Harris looks at the weird and wonderful world of Space Patrol.
You know how the late, great Gerry Anderson – who had nothing to do with this series, let’s make that much clear up front – used to moan about being stuck working with puppets? Well, I know the feeling now! Since I wrote ‘Stand By For Action’, an exploration of the great man’s work in Strange Skins #2, I seem to have been stuck as the go-to girl for all things puppety. At first it was Star Fleet in issue 4 and now Space Patrol, Roberta Leigh’s peculiar rival to Gerry Anderson’s Fireball XL5. I shouldn’t complain, I suppose; it keeps me off the streets.
Those of you who read my Anderson piece may recall that I was rather scathing about Ms Leigh’s work on the early AP films productions The Adventures of Twizzle and Torchy the Battery Boy. I think I called her Roberta Twee – hilarious joke there; that’s why I get paid top dollar on this magazine.* I think it’s forgivable though, because I’m sure any of you who’ve had the misfortune of seeing any of Twizzle or Torchy will agree that they are both dreadfully twee. Roberta Leigh was an author of pre-school children’s fiction and it’s pretty clear that her early work is courting an Enid Blyton Little Noddy audience. Of course I find it twee, because 40+ women in the 21st century were not its intended viewership.
Anyway, so after 26 successful episodes of Torchy the Battery Boy, Roberta Leigh was keen to embark on a second series, but Gerry Anderson had had enough and dissolved his AP Films partnership with Arthur Provis to go off and make puppet western Four Feather Falls. Leigh and Provis made a second series of 26 episodes of Torchy before eventually agreeing that the series had run its course. They went on to make 52 episodes of Sara and Hoppity, the last part of what I’m going to call Roberta Leigh’s ‘Lost Toys Trilogy’. As with Twizzle, only the first episode of Sara and Hoppity exists – a mercy for us all!
By 1963 the TV climate had changed, there was no longer an appetite for the Toytown antics of Twizzle, Torchy and Hoppity. Gerry Anderson was having great success since leaving AP Films, initially with Four Feather Falls but latterly with the more technology-based shows like Supercar and Fireball XL5. Provis and Leigh realised that to stay in the game they would have to ditch the tweeness and come bang up to date. Thus Space Patrol was born.
Now, it’s inevitable that Space Patrol will be compared to Fireball XL5; they’re both space adventure shows launched within a year of each other. It’s a kind of lazy press shorthand that you always get when two shows are seen to be similar – such as The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits – but if you actually bother to do some research, you’ll find that they’re actually quite different.
Because of Gerry Anderson’s love of aviation, Fireball XL5 (and almost all of Gerry’s subsequent shows) is inspired by actual jet-age technology. It’s all gears and levers that you might actually see on an aircraft of the time. Fireball XL5 is science fiction. On the other hand, the technology of Space Patrol is all whirling concentric circles and artistically-shaped doors. Very pretty but not remotely practical. Space Patrol is science fantasy.
The 1960s was the beginning of the space age. Russia’s Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth in 1961, followed by the American John Glenn in 1962. Science fiction was beginning to look forward to the techno-logical reality of space exploration and its effect on human beings. But Space Patrol has a more nostalgic air, looking back to the likes of Forbidden Planet (1956), with its fantastical technology that bore little or no resemblance to actual scientific advances.
At the turn of the 22nd century, the peoples of Venus, Earth and Mars have joined forces to form the United Galactic Organisation (sounds more like a transport company than a government, but never mind) who patrol the space-ways with Galaspheres, strange spinning-top shaped spacecraft with way-out main control rooms and Forbidden Planet-style cryogenic units for those long, boring journeys. In charge of Galasphere 347 is Captain Larry Dart who, with his neatly-trimmed beard is not so much the square-jawed Steve Zodiac hero as the kind of bloke you might find hanging round a folk club listening to The Spinners. I’ll bet he smokes a pipe in his more relaxed moments.
Accompanying Captain Dart on most of his missions are Slim, a svelt Venusian and a Martian called Husky who, with his high fore-head and spiky hair, is a dead ringer for Ant McPartlin. In fact, if they ever made a live action version of Space Patrol, Ant and Dec would be ideal casting for Husky and Slim. If you’re outside the UK and have no idea who Ant McPartlin is, trust me – the absolute spitting dabs! The Venusians are elfin in physique and speak in a high-pitched voice, while the burly Martians speak in a gruff voice. In black and white it’s impossible to see whether their skins are supposed to be any different colours (no colour photographs exist) but the voices and the general physique are a nifty shorthand for the two basically humanoid races.
The other aliens who appear in the series are generally pretty weird. Ground Control’s Professor Aloysius O’Brien O’Rourke Haggarty (always give your characters a name that just trips off the tongue) and his daughter Cassiopeia (O’Brien O’Rourke Haggarty, presumably) have a peculiar Martian parrot thing called a Gabblerdictum Bird and when the residents of Jupiter crop up in an early episode, they’re indescribable fat feathery things with twisty necks that speak in a strange warble. Luckily, Captain Dart is able to switch his translator box to ‘J’ for Jupiter and he can understand them perfectly. Isn’t technology wonderful?
There are no women on board the Galasphere, which is odd considering that the series was created and written by a woman. In fact, the only regular female characters are the aforementioned Cassiopeia and Dart’s boss Colonel Raeburn’s Venusian assistant Maria. Maria might be super-smart, but she’s essentially a secretary and appears mainly over a view screen to tell the big strong men what they need to do.
Visually, Space Patrol is very different from the series that Gerry Anderson was making at the time. As I mentioned early, its technology has a fantastical edge which neither needs nor offers explanation. The Galaspheres glide through space while a flashing force field rotates around them; the similarity to an old-fashioned spinning-top cannot be ignored – perhaps Roberta Leigh created them with merchandising in mind? Space Patrol’s base is that kind of amazing ‘machine city’ that you’ll often see in movies of yesteryear like Things to Come or Forbidden Planet, full of inexplicably massive moving parts. The end credits roll over an impressive image of the city.
Speaking of credits brings me neatly onto the subject of music. No Barry Grey bombast here, the music for Space Patrol is all weird electronic sounds created by Roberta Leigh herself. I hate to keep harking back to Forbidden Planet like a stuck record, but there’s a real sense of the ‘electronic tonalities’ from that film about the Space Patrol music. The main ‘theme’ is four electronic tones repeated twice, followed by a sequence of five tones and then a cymbal crash. It’s quite odd, but very effective. In one of the early episodes, the harsh electronic tones are replaced by the same notes played on what sounds like a glockenspiel, making the viewer feel like they’re back in Twizzle territory again. Oh, the horror! Thankfully, that’s quickly dispensed with.
The stories of Space Patrol are simple but effective and mainly fall into three categories: the natural threat, the alien invasion and the mysterious object. In the natural threat stories, there’ll be either an enormous meteor coming to destroy the solar system (or the galaxy, as they like to call it) or some strange virus ready to destroy people and crops alike. The alien invasion plot speaks for itself. And the mysterious object stories usually revolve around the discovery of some previously unknown artefact that turns out to be either sinister or benign as the story dictates.
You’ll read a lot of analyses from fans of Space Patrol claiming that the plots are very sophisticated, but don’t be fooled; they’re really not. I mean, sure – this stuff is light years beyond Torchy the Battery Boy, but it’s still quite simple fare aimed at young children. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The adult fans of children’s TV are always trying to suggest that there’s something very clever and subversive about their favourite show, but in 99% of cases this is just wish fulfilment ‘cos they feel a bit silly about watching a kids’ series. If they just sat back and admitted that they get an unsophisticated thrill from watching a simple show that they enjoyed as a child then the world would be a far better place and the internet would be a lot less full of hateful bullshit.
The episodes are also quite samey. I’m sure it would’ve worked fine when viewed on a weekly basis, but if you try and sit down and watch a bunch of them together, it’ll soon get boring to anyone but the most undemanding of viewers. Again that is not a criticism; this is a show intended for quite small children and familiarity and repetition is how children learn. Believe me, I know! When you’ve watched the same episode of Paw Patrol 500 times, you certainly get that fact drummed into you. But children in 1963 did not have the option of watching the same episode again and again, so children’s series consciously included a degree of weekly familiarity.
Although Space Patrol lacks a Gerry Anderson-syle catch-phrase, it does have its own particular vocabulary. The galaspheres use Gamma Rays in their workings, which is fair enough. But they also use Yobba Rays. What’s a Yobba Ray, I hear you ask? Well, I’m buggered if I know, but it’s a bit similar to Gamma Ray in word structure and it sounds kinda spacey, so it must be a thing, right? So, if Space Patrol has a catchprase – ‘cos, y’know, everything’s got to have a catchphrase – it’s probably something to do with Yobba Rays. Whatever the hell they are. Maybe something to do with early 80s skinheads.
It’s probably sacrilegious to say so, but I’d say that some of the actual puppetry in Space Patrol is superior to that of the Gerry Anderson series of the time. The strings are less visible than in Fireball XL5. Also, the puppets do an awful lot of walking and they do so with a more fluid motion than the Anderson puppets, lacking that ‘floaty’ motion that we’ve become so used to. There are also some rather neat robots that have a unique walking motion. I’m not sure how those puppets were done, but it’s certainly very impressive.
The puppets of Space Patrol have a more realistic proportion than those that Anderson was using at the time, though not quite the level of proportional accuracy that Anderson would later aim for in Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. HOWEVER, what the Space Patrol puppets gain in accuracy, they lose in charm. Captain Dart and Colonel Raeburn are mainly distinguishable by their facial hair because without it, their faces have little character (as is true of a lot of bearded men in real life – ooh, controversial!). The smaller faces allow for less detail and what character is added to the puppets is painted in broad strokes. With his high cheekbones and defined lips, Husky, for example, has the look of a vent’s doll.
And this is how I find Space Patrol; it’s a mix of very good and very bad points. If you ask me if it was as enjoyable to watch as Supercar or Fireball XL5, I’d have to say no, but that doesn’t mean it’s actually bad. I do find it less charming than the Gerry Anderson stuff, and what humour there is is delivered very broadly and infrequently. There’s a distinct sense that Roberta Leigh was pushing her comfort zone and forcing herself to write something that was less natural to her ‘voice’. The production is very good indeed, and so it should be; Arthur Provis had almost 200 episodes of The Adventures of Twizzle, Torchy the Battery Boy and Sara and Hoppity under his belt. You may not rate them, but you can’t ignore the wealth of experience that lies behind them. The sets and the model work are all pretty astounding, but as I mentioned earlier, there’s a lack of charm about the whole thing.
Gerry Anderson’s early shows might sometimes appear a bit clunky, but they are simply loaded with character, from the exaggerated faces of the puppets to the crazy voices. I can’t really put my finger on what it is, but for me – and this is only a personal opinion, so if you’re a Space Patrol fan, don’t blow your stack – Space Patrol lacks that charm; it’s all just a bit sterile. I’m not sure that I would go back to Space Patrol and watch it for fun, in the way that I do with Thunderbirds or Captain Scarlet, because it just doesn’t grab me in that way. I’m not saying it’s a bad series, it certainly isn’t, it’s very well made, but it just isn’t my scene. Sorry Captain Dart, sorry Colonel Raeburn, sorry Ant and Dec. There’s a reason why you can’t go in your local Forbidden Planet and buy a Space Patrol mug or a POP vinyl figure of Husky.
*A joke, of course – actually I get sweet Fanny Adams.
The complete series of ‘Space Patrol’ can currently be streamed on Amazon Prime Video and is available on Blu-ray from Network.