'Pathfinders' - the Pioneering Science-Fiction Television Series

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Pathfinders (1960-1) is a highly influential British children's science-fiction television series. More popular on first broadcast in Britain than I Love Lucy, this children's television series was broadcast on Sundays during the final 'Family Hour' period, the last 90 minutes of the day before television stopped at 6pm. An attempt to both educate and entertain, it pioneered new television effects, was the subject of a pioneering study by the Education Department of the University of Cambridge and was a direct predecessor of Doctor Who.

Like Doctor Who would be, Pathfinders was a serialised series with episodes 25-minute long. Created at the dawn of commercial television, the Pathfinders series shows the creators embracing the new medium and displaying a willingness to experiment and learn what television can do and how it is perceived by the audience.

Television of the Time

The late 1950s and early 1960s was a period in which the space race dominated headlines. Sputnik 1 had been launched by the USSR in 1957 with their Luna 1 lunar flyby in January 1959, landing Luna 2 on the moon in September 1959 followed by Luna 3 photographing the 'dark side' of the moon the following month.

While the Pathfinders series featured a fictional rocket base on 'Buchan Island' off the coast of Scotland, the Isle of Wight off the coast of England was home to a real rocket base. 22 Black Knights designed and built on the Isle of Wight and tested on High Down near the Needles were launched between 1958 and 1965, all of which were successful, followed by four launches of the Black Arrow three-stage rocket in 1966-1971.

Science Fiction

Before the 1960s science fiction on British television was considered to be for adults, and predominantly live adaptations of noted examples of the genre. The first ever example of science-fiction broadcast on television was the BBC's 1938 adaptation of RUR1 which they again adapted in 1948. Like most television of the time this was performed live and not recorded and so no longer survives. The earliest surviving British television science fiction are two of the six episodes of The Quatermass Experiment (1953) and all of Quatermass II (1955).

Getting into Orbit

Britain's 1954 Television Act created Independent Television (ITV) organised on a franchise model, with different companies each having a different region and/or week or weekend timeslot. These companies were free to purchase programmes from other ITV companies as well as abroad, with each aiming to sell their programmes across the whole ITV network. ABC2 began broadcasting in 1956 to the Midlands and Northern regions at weekends. In 1958 Sydney Newman, a famed Canadian television producer critically acclaimed for his television plays, was appointed ABC's Drama Supervisor. He immediately felt that British television was too focussed on upper class concerns and transformed ABC's flagship drama programme Armchair Theatre to tackle working class issues in plays written for television rather than adaptations of existing material.

Newman wanted to develop a children's science-fiction serial that would be educational and take part in the real solar system rather than on fictional worlds. He contacted writing partners Malcolm Hulke and Eric Paice who were under contract to ABC and had written episodes of Armchair Theatre. They wrote a six-part serial, Target Luna, which aimed to both entertain and educate.

Target Luna

Target Luna was about children, Geoffrey, Valerie and Jimmy Wedgwood and their father Professor Wedgwood during the preparations for the first rocket flight from Buchan Island Rocket Research Station. Shortly before take-off the astronaut Flight-Lieutenant Williams becomes ill and so 13-year-old Jimmy decides to disguise himself in Williams' spacesuit and go into space himself, accompanied only by his hamster Hamlet. Together Jimmy and Hamlet orbit the Moon while everyone in Mission Control is struck by the illness, leaving only the other children and Henderson, a reporter, unaffected while Jimmy is in danger of freezing to death, dying of radiation poisoning, overshooting Earth orbit and crashing into the sea.

The 25-minute long episodes were recorded onto videotape in Birmingham on Mondays in April and May 1960 with the episodes broadcast three weeks later. The actors rehearsed extensively between Wednesdays and Saturdays to perfect their performances. As videotape was new and difficult and costly to edit, the actors would perform the first half of the episode non-stop without a break, pause when reaching the commercial break at the middle of the episode and then perform the second half of the episode in one block. Minor mistakes would be put up with, as any serious mistake would require half the episode to be performed live again. Derek Freeborn made model films inserts of the four-stage rocket, showing it on Earth, launching and shedding the fuel stages and re-entry as well as of the moon's surface. The serial was directed by Adrian Brown.

Target Luna was successfully sold and broadcast across the ITV network, with every region except Tyne Tees broadcasting it on Sundays. The programme proved so successful that a second series was commissioned, which became the first series of Pathfinders. This was again written by Malcolm Hulke and Eric Paice, inspired by HG Wells' The First Men in the Moon (1901)3. It is also likely that film Destination Moon (1950) was an uncredited influence.


Following the success of Target Luna, the sequel was conceived to be a much more prestigious production. This time the story would land on the moon in two rockets. The number of regular roles was increased to include two scientists, the world's foremost selenographer, Canadian Professor Mary Meadows and chemist, geologist and pessimist Dr John O'Connell. As Adrian Brown was unavailable the second series, titled Pathfinders in Space, was directed by Guy Verney. He decided to recast every single character from Target Luna even though the events of the previous serial were frequently discussed. Hamlet the hamster was not only recast but also changed species; filming a hamster had proved difficult and so Hamlet was now a guinea pig4. Hamlet was Richard Dean's own guinea pig.

Pathfinders in Space comprised 6½×25-minute episodes. The final, concluding episode was only half the length of the others. This was because children's serials usually had few viewers in the opening episodes and peaked with the most viewers with the final episode, as more and more children became invested in the story. In an attempt to prevent the following serial's opening viewing numbers dropping it was decided to have the final episode of Pathfinders in Space only half as long as normal and have the first episode of the next children's serial, No Man's Island, following immediately after, similarly cut down to 15 minutes.

In Pathfinders in Space Professor Wedgwood, Meadows, O'Connell and Murray land on the moon in Moon Rocket MR1. Their plan was for an unmanned but otherwise identical supply ship, MR2, to land nearby and provide them with the fuel to return to Earth. Due to a faulty autopilot MR2 can only be launched into space with a crew; Henderson assisted by Wedgwood's three children and Hamlet the guinea pig. Yet MR2 is forced off course when it almost crashes with an unknown spacecraft of unearthly origin, and lands 150 miles away from MR1. Has the expedition stumbled on proof of non-terrestrial intelligence? Did aliens develop a written language seemingly based on the ABC logo? How will the world react to the discovery of a 400-million-year-old cuddly toy? How will everyone be able to return to Earth if the rockets are 150 miles apart?

Pathfinders to Mars

Pathfinders in Space was broadcast across the whole ITV network at 5:15pm on Sundays in September 1960 and was a tremendous success, gaining over 50% of the target audience. More episodes were commissioned, and Malcolm Hulke and Eric Paice took the almost unprecedented step of conducting market research, asking children in selected schools in London, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Northern Ireland for their views on the serial. Following the response the writers made a number of changes, removing the least popular characters. Professor Wedgwood was less popular than Henderson and so was sidelined in Henderson's favour. The role of his two youngest children, Jimmy and Valerie, were combined in a new character, Henderson's 12-year-old science-loving niece Margaret. Jean Cary disappeared and was replaced at mission control by Ian Murray and John Field.

The biggest change was that a villainous character, crackpot fanatic Harcourt Brown, was introduced and given top-billing. Brown was played by noted actor George Coulouris, who had worked closely with Orson Welles, including in Citizen Kane (1941) in which he played Walter Parks Thatcher, a character inspired by JP Morgan in an award-winning performance. Brown infiltrates, sabotages and hijacks the MR4 rocket, changing its destination from landing on the moon to travelling to Mars, where Brown believes he will meet with intelligent aliens. The rocket does not have enough supplies to return from that distance yet he is convinced the aliens will be able to give them the fuel and water vitally needed for the crew to be able to return to Earth.

To reflect the success of the serial, Pathfinders to Mars was given a much-increased budget of £3,000, a record for a children's serial at the time. Episodes 3 and 4 were broadcast on Christmas Day and New Year's Day 1961 respectively, the most important days in the television broadcast calendar. Only the Queen's Speech gained a larger audience.

Pathfinders to Venus

The final serial, Pathfinders to Venus, took place at the same time Russia launched probe Venus 1 to Venus and Yuri Gagarin orbitted the Earth. Under these exciting conditions Pathfinders to Venus' viewing figures were even greater than imported US sitcom I Love Lucy.

This time the space race impacts the story as the crew of the MR4 are called to the aid of American astronaut Captain Wilson (Graydon Gould), who has been on a top-secret military mission to Venus when his V7 capsule was struck by meteorites, his oxygen supply is damaged and he is in desperate need of help.

MR4 is returning to Earth from Mars by sling-shotting around the sun due to the positions of the two planets, and detour to Venus to rescue Wilson, later hoping to rendezvous with a Russian rocket that will supply the fuel and oxygen for the return trip to Earth. Yet Brown, determined to explore Venus in the search for intelligent life, edits the recording of Wilson's mayday to make it sound like Wilson has landed on Venus rather than being in orbit around it, and so the MR4 land on the planet, discovering an Earth-like atmosphere and primeval swamps and forests. Brown believes that as the Venusian day is 31 Earth days5, his body's rate of aging will slow by living in the Venusian time zone and he will live to be over 600 Earth years old.

Fortunately, despite Venus being a world almost the size of Earth, Wilson's V7 crashes a mere half-hour walk away, but unfortunately Wilson is caught by the Venusians – which can be very painful. Wilson is 'rescued' by Brown, who lies to him and tells him that everyone else is dead and their only hope for survival is at a Venusian city he believes is the other side of a volcano. Meanwhile the others befriend a young, Venusian girl named Kiki (Brigid Skemp) who appears the same age as Margaret and who has been cut off from her tribe.

Will Hamlet be eaten by a Venusian Venus Fly Trap, or survive swamp, desert and prehistoric forest? How can the planet's inhabitants, claw-handed Neanderthals and the leopard-skin wearing and volcano-dwelling Cro-Magnon, live as neighbours alongside dinosaurs? With fist-sized diamonds scattered across the landscape, will Wilson plan to plunder the planet? Will Pathfinders to Venus use the age-old cliché of having a volcanic eruption destroying everything in sight soon after the dinosaurs appear, and if so, will the humans be marooned on the planet?


Pathfinders in Space had more ambitious effects work than Target Luna. The same set was used for the interior of MR1 and MR2 which was designed to be able to be shown as both 'vertical' or 'horizontal' depending on the rockets' position in space. Peter Williams described the set in an interview with the words,

When they asked me to play Professor Wedgwood... they forgot to tell the designers to allow for my height. Throughout the take-off I have to lie on this couch, and when I ought to be thinking about pressures, gravity and rate of acceleration, my mind is more concerned with the fact that my 6ft 2in fits only here and there.

By Pathfinders to Mars the model work had evolved even further and a new set was constructed for the interior of MR4.

One challenge was the amount of dialogue spoken when the main characters were in their spacesuits. The initial space helmet design had a visor on front, but it was soon realised that this was impractical. The visor steamed up, made it harder to identify characters and also prevented dialogue spoken by the characters from being audible. The visors were removed but to stop them from looking like unconvincing hats two wires, one horizontal and one vertical, were fixed like crosshairs across where the visor would be which gave the impression on the low-resolution television of the day that there was a visor in place. The spacesuits were extremely uncomfortable, with Peter Williams saying,

If this is what the first men bound for the Moon are going to wear, they have my sympathy.

New, more comfortable spacesuits were designed for Pathfinders to Mars as the producers had concluded the previous suits were too heavy to be practical. These would be re-used by the BBC in Doctor Who6, the Hammer horror film The Damned (1963) as well as Come Back, Mrs Noah (1977-8).

The technique of inlay7 was used to simulate weightlessness. Actors would be filmed on a brightly-lit black set, with their image mixed to appear on the main set. The inlay desk would combine the images from the two cameras in use; where the inlay camera saw black the output from the camera filming the set would be seen but where something not black was present, in this case an actor in a spacesuit, it would show the actor. By moving the inlay camera but keeping the main set camera still it allowed characters such as Jimmy or Margaret to appear as if they are floating inside the rockets or are even undertaking EVA spacewalks through the desolate vacuum of space.

Not every effect is convincing, with the Martian lichens never looking like anything other than inflatable plastic tubing. The sixth and seventh episodes of Pathfinders to Venus, set on the surface of that planet, features black and white stock footage from Karel Zeman's Czech 1955 colour film Cesta do Praveku8, which featured stop-motion dinosaurs.

Yet for a children's serial of the time the effects and set design remain impressive to this day. Recordings of Pathfinders were sold to Australia's Channel 10, and although Target: Luna no longer exists, the 16mm of every episode in the three Pathfinders serials have survived.

Pathfinding Children's Viewing Habits

ABC and Professor Arnold Lloyd and his research team at the University of Cambridge's Education Department had been in negotiation to conduct a study on the effects of television series on children for two years. Episode seven of Pathfinders to Venus, 'The Valley of the Monsters', was chosen as the study's focus. The academics asked ABC to include eight deliberate production errors in the programme in order for them to study whether or not these errors were noticed by their study group, a number of boys and girls aged between 10 and 13 selected by Middlesex Education Authority. They were invited to ABC's studio and after a tour were shown into a room where they were told that the next, unbroadcast, episode of Pathfinders to Venus would soon be shown on the television. Some chairs faced the television, some had their backs to it and other forms of entertainment including comics were available. The children were remotely monitored and their behaviour analysed.

All the children, who were shown into the room in small groups, sat in chairs facing the telly. The study revealed that the older children, who all attended different schools, spent much of their time introducing themselves but were far more critical of the programmes contents than the younger children. The younger children were accepting of the plot and narrative and were interested in the dinosaur scenes but also all lost interest and started reading comics during the scene in which Henderson and Meadows kiss. The children, when interviewed, also gave responses. Most were on how the children did not believe children would be present on a space mission, and even the girl viewers gave such comments as,

The strain of the journey into space is far too much for a child... and even for a woman it would be far too much.

The report concluded that different age groups had different needs than many television executives considered. Children were also aware of how directors would position the camera to create tension or excitement and it was noted that the deliberate minor production errors added to the programme did result in loss of interest. Sydney Newman described the study with the words,

What a humiliating, funny, illuminating and humble-making experience this experiment on children's reactions was for us, the makers of the programme. For example, for about 18 of the 25 minutes of the running time, the 13-year-old test group paid no attention to the programme whatsoever! To what we thought was terrifying footage of primeval monsters trying to kill one another, a ten-year-old exclaimed, "Oh, they're models." [The] most important thing we learnt is that if anyone thinks a young audience can be fooled or won sloppily or on the cheap, he is sadly mistaken.

Dramatis Personæ

CharacterTarget LunaPathfinders
Conway Henderson, scientific journalistFrank FinlayGerald FloodSpace, Mars, Venus
Professor Wedgwood, rocket scientistDavid MarkhamPeter WilliamsSpace, Mars
Geoffrey Wedgwood, Professor's 17-year-old sonMichael CrazeStewart GuidottiSpace, Mars, Venus
Valerie Wedgwood, Professor's 15-year-old daughterSylvia DaviesGillian FergusonSpace
Jimmy Wedgwood, Professor's 11-year-old sonMichael HammondRichard DeanSpace
Harcourt Brown, sabotaging fanatic
George CoulourisMars, Venus
Professor Mary Meadows, Canadian scientist
Pamela BarneySpace, Mars, Venus
Margaret Henderson, Henderson's 12-year-old niece
Hester CameronMars, Venus
Ian Murray, pilot / Mission ControlJohn CairneyHugh EvansSpace, Mars, Venus
Jean Cary, Head of Mission ControlDeborah StanfordIrene SutcliffeSpace
John Field, pessimistic scientist
Astor SklairSpace, Mars, Venus

Michael Craze would play companion Ben (1966-1967) in 40 episodes of Doctor Who featuring William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton. Gerald Flood who played Conway Henderson would later voice the Fifth Doctor's companion Kamelion. The writers, Eric Paice and Malcolm Hulke, were next commissioned to write for The Avengers. Paice became script-editor for numerous programmes including Dixon of Dock Green and Secret Army while Hulke would later script-edit ABC's Spyder's Web (1972) and most famously wrote for Doctor Who 1970-1974, creating the Silurians.


Pathfinders was made in an era when no man or boy would even consider going into space without wearing a tie and almost every technical problem with a rocket can be repaired with a screwdriver. Everyone wears gravity boots which keeps everyone upright during spaceflight, and these are so effective hair, ties and everything else people wear behaves as normal too. Hamlet appears unaffected by the lack of gravity, however he has his own spacesuit. When in space the crew talk about Earth time, implying that there is only one time zone across the whole planet, which naturally is Greenwich Mean Time.

One of Pathfinders' aims was to educate, and numerous references to scientific views on a wide variety of subjects was included in every episode. Being science-fiction astronomy was naturally the major focus. As the shows were written at a time when humanity's knowledge of the cosmos was based entirely from Earth-based observation and before satellites had been sent to investigate and explore the other planets. Thus not unnaturally much of the knowledge about Mars and Venus is now known to be inaccurate, particularly the references to Mars' channels9. It has since been proved that these do not exist. Yet scientific accuracy is subservient to good story telling; instead of taking years to travel to Mars, for instance, it now only takes six weeks. Generally, as the series progresses scientific accuracy and scenes in which the children gather round the adults to listen to a lecture are increasingly sacrificed to make way for more dramatic tension.

It is also ahead of its time in many ways. The underlying message of Pathfinders to Space warns of the dangers of nuclear war, before the Cuban Missile Crisis. The women in the series have important roles, including the head of Mission Control, Professor Meadows is the world's greatest expert on the Moon and the young girl characters are seen as having a natural enthusiasm for science. The space programme is also seen as being an international achievement rather than British, with Irish, Canadians and Australians also part of the crew. The sense of the world working together in the pursuit of spaceflight was a major component of the lost Target Luna and both the British-Canadian team and the Russians fly to the rescue of American Captain Wilson.

The show had the benefit of being broadcast at a time when space was a hot topic; Pathfinders to Venus being broadcast as Yuri Gagarin made his first journey into orbit on Vostok 1. It captured the imagination of young viewers, helped by the impressive effects of the time which were pushing beyond the boundary of the standard produced for British children's television at the time.

Before the Pathfinders series had ended, Sydney Newman was approached by Kenneth Adam, the BBC's Director of Television, who wanted him to become the BBC's Head of Drama. His commitment at ABC prevented him from joining the BBC until December 1962 and shortly afterwards, in March 1963, commissioned a new 25-minute children's science-fiction series that he hoped would be as successful as Pathfinders. The show's title? Doctor Who.

Curiously, when comparing Pathfinders to the first years of Doctor Who it is easy to directly compare the Pathfinders cast to the very first companions. Brave, cheerful, athletic and scientific journalist Henderson is a prototype Ian Chesterton, Professor Meadows' mannerisms are very similar to Barbara Wright and the Doctor's granddaughter Susan is a combination of the young characters of Geoffrey and Margaret. Yet the closest character to the Doctor is the villainous Doctor Harcourt Brown. Dr Brown kidnaps his other companions and takes them unwillingly to the planets Mars and Venus to satisfy his own quest for knowledge, putting them in mortal danger of, among other things, intense radiation just as the Doctor kidnapped Ian and Barbara, taking them unwillingly to numerous planets and putting them in mortal danger of, among Daleks and other things, intense radiation.

1Standing for 'Rossum's Universal Robots'), this 1920 play gave the world the word 'Robot' from the Czech word Robota meaning forced labour or slavery.2Initially Associated British Cinemas, later Associated British Corporation, owned by film studio Associated British Picture Corporation. It should not be confused with the American Broadcasting Company or Australian Broadcasting Corporation etc.3A Ray Harryhausen film adaptation of The First Men In The Moon was released in 1963.4Hamlet would not be the only white-haired rodent to be carried into space in British science-fiction. Is he the inspiration for Douglas Adams' Frankie Mouse and Benjy Mouse in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?5In fact, a day on Venus is 243 Earth days, 18 Earth days longer than its year.6Appearing in episodes 'Mission to the Unknown' (1965), 'The Daleks' Master Plan' (1965-6), 'Frontier in Space' (1973), 'Planet of the Daleks' (1973), 'The Android Invasion' (1975) and 'The Face of Evil' (1977).7An early black and white equivalent of Colour Separation Overlay also called Chroma Key and commonly known as 'Green Screen' or 'Blue Screen'.8Also known as Journey into Prehistory and released in America with new bookending sequences as Journey to the Beginning of Time.9In 1877 astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli reported seeing canali, meaning channels, on Mars. This was translated into English as 'canals'. This was supported by Percival Lowell who mapped Mars in books Mars (1895), Mars and its Canals (1906) and Mars and the Abode of Life (1908).

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