Pathfinders was a trilogy of children’s space adventures packaged as part of ITV’s Sunday Family Hour in 1960-61. The serials were an early attempt at science fiction serials aimed at a children’s audience, and are regarded by many as the forerunner of Doctor Who, as both were produced by the same man, Canadian Sydney Newman.
The first in the series was a direct sequel to the series predecessor Target Luna, which had been transmitted five months previous, titled Pathfinders In Space written by Malcolm Hulke and Eric Paice. Rocket man Professor Wedgewood heads the first team of Moon explorers, and successfully blasts off from his Scottish rocket station, Buchan Island, in MR1 (Moon Rocket One). When his back-up supply rocket fails due to the automatic pilot cracking up, science reporter Conway Henderson and the Wedgewood family decide to manually pilot the ship to save the mission. As both rockets fly on towards the Moon, a third craft appears out of nowhere. The Wedgewood rockets duly land on the Moon – but they are 150 miles apart. While Professor Wedgewood treks across the lunar desert, the others explore some caverns, discovering a calcified figure and an ancient alien spaceship – evidence that a previous civilization had been there before them. As the reunited explorers prepare to return to Earth, meteorites destroy one of their rockets. Its takes a daring scheme by Professor Wedgwood to get them all home safely using the alien craft.
The serials predecessor Target Luna had featured the Wedgewood family, but for some reason, when it came to making the Pathfinders series, the roles were completely recast. Peter Williams played Professor Wedgewood, while his three children Stewart Guidotti, Gillian Ferguson and Richard Dean played Geoffrey, Valerie and Jimmy. Other cast members included Gerald Flood as Conway Henderson, Harold Goldblatt as Dr. O’Connell, Michael Guest as Michael Kennedy, Irene Sutcliffe as Jean Carey and Pamela Barney as Professor Meadows.
The Pathfinders series were much more technically sophisticated than its predecessor. The scripts for the serials were much more ambitious depicting a rocket blast from a Scottish isle, encounters with an alien spaceship and a landing on the moon. As a result, there was much more demand for special effects. One such example being the elaborate spacewalks, which was achieved by the tried and tested formula of placing the actors in spacesuits in front of heavy black drapes and backgrounds. The actors were then told to move slowly and gracefully whilst the camera was titled at an odd angle to help give the impression of weightlessness.
Pathfinders In Space consisted of 7, thirty-minute episodes that aired September 11 to October 23, 1960. The director for all 7 episodes was Guy Verney and Tom Spaulding and David Gillespie acted as designers. Sydney Newman – who was still 3 years away from creating Doctor Who – produced this, in addition to the two subsequent sequels.
Just over a year later, its first sequel, Pathfinders To Mars, again written by Malcolm Hulke and Eric Paice, followed Pathfinders In Space. Soon after his last lunar expedition, Professor Wedgewood plans a second mission to the Moon. Unable to pilot his new rocket, the MR4, due to a broken arm, Wedgwood entrusts the task to his friend Conway Henderson. With Wedgewood’s eldest son Geoffrey, Henderson’s young niece Margaret, Professor Meadows (and of course, Hamlet the pet hamster) the party await the arrival of the last crewmember, Australian scientist Professor Hawkins. However, unknown to them, they are joined instead by an impostor, Harcourt Brown, a fanatical science fiction writer determined to prove – at whatever cost – that life exists on Mars. Brown hijacks the rocket, holding Margaret hostage, and after six weeks’ enforced journey, the MR4 reaches the red planet only to find airless deserts and dust. Search for precious water for the journey back to Earth, the crew encounter terrifying quick-growing lichens and dangerous quicksand. But with Earth moving away from Mars at 20 miles a second, the explorers must leave soon or face 16 months in the lifeless Martian desert. With not enough fuel to get home, Henderson risks using the Sun’s pull to aid their efforts.
Pathfinders To Mars consisted of 6, 30-minute episodes that aired December 11, 1960 to January 15, 1961. Once again Guy Verney acted as director with David Gillespie handling the design chores.
The final Pathfinders serial – Pathfinders To Venus – aired some two months after Pathfinders To Mars. Again written by Malcolm Hulke and Eric Paice, the final serial consisted of 8, 30-minute episodes. Guy Verney returned as director but shared the duties with Reginald Collin for episodes 6 through 8. David Gillespie returned for a third time as the serial’s designer but shared credit with Douglas James on episodes 6-8. The 8-part serial aired March 5 to April 23, 1961.
While returning to Earth from their perilous journey to Mars, the MR4 intercepts a distress call being beamed from Venus by an American astronaut, Captain Wilson. Responding to the SOS, they divert to Venus, but all they find is the astronaut’s ransacked spaceship – and evidence of alien life. Harcourt Brown wanders off, finds Captain Wilson and persuades him to go with him in search of the Venusians. Pursuing them, the rest of the crew are threatened by carnivorous plants, cornered by primitive ape-men, trapped by roof-falls, menaced by molten lave and attacked by pterodactyls. Escaping all that, they head back to the MR4, only to find that the volcanic ash has turned the area into a raging inferno. Escape seems impossible but a little détente goes a long way, as a Russian ship is on the way with vital fuel supplies. Harcourt Brown, however, elects to remain on Venus to continue his quest for a higher intelligence.
The Pathfinder serials were broadcast live, with pre-recorded filmed inserts. Tele-recorded copies were made for sales overseas. Pathfinders In Space was screened in Australia in 1961, while the sequels were shown the following years. All three continued to be repeated throughout the sixties.
Audience reaction to Pathfinders In Space was very good, as were the ratings. As a result a further sequel was quickly commissioned in the form of Pathfinders To Mars while Pathfinders In Space was still being broadcast.
All three serials still exist with the exception of Episode 1 of Pathfinders To Venus (officially); although the soundtrack to this episode exists so it is possible the film print is around also.
Article by Bob Furnell
Bob is co-Editor of Chromakey