Egad, zounds, and gadzooks! What’s all this bloody television business doing on a film website!? Simple answer friends: I’m pulling a fast one with a loophole.
As any industry veteran can attest to, the pilot film is one of the staples of getting any series off the ground, the spearhead with which to gain financial backing and the greenlight from network executives. And for every pilot that cuts the mustard and makes it to air, there are dozens that have failed to do so. What makes these failures even more fascinating is when you discover who they are from.
Today, we take a look at two creatives with success to their names that came up short. In one corner, a children’s author who decided to have a go at producing science fiction, in stark contrast to her usual output. In the other is a producer extraordinaire, whose exciting puppet films and striking adult dramas made him an industry legend.
The woman is Roberta Leigh. The man is Gerry Anderson. And the films are pilots that never made it to air. Two different decades, two different visions, two different films.
Let’s dive in.
The Solarnauts (1967)
While some may look at The Solarnauts and see it as no more than an attempt at a British Star Trek style program (and find it landing squarely in Moon Zero Two territory), this failed 1967 sci-fi pilot represents the terminus of Roberta Leigh’s attempts at producing science fiction.
The creator of kiddie-winkie classics like The Adventures of Twizzle and Sara and Hoppity seemed to have a bit of a complex after parting ways with AP Films producer Gerry Anderson. Her and remaining business partner Arthur Provis would created a Space Age puppet show of their own when the Andersons’ Fireball XL5 took off in 1962.
Their program, the dark and mysterious Space Patrol, enjoyed a similar level of success as the Supermarionation classic, including a run of exactly 39 episodes, and managing to find a home on American television, albeit in syndication. It followed the exploits of another interplanetary defense force, and attempted to play things more realistically than the pulpy XL5. Unfortunately, the show became hampered by comically dated sensibilities in regards to its characters, in yet another echo of its rival, slang-spewing show.
After production wrapped, Leigh and Provis tried to keep the momentum up with pilot film Paul Starr in 1964, the exploits of a top agent for the Space Bureau of Investigation. The color production highlighted the worst of Leigh’s writing in the genre, relying on paper-thin and unpleasant characterization throughout, a bizarre far cry from the full-bodied personalities of the Anderson classics, and even Space Patrol itself. Though in spite of its failings, the program did lay claim to introducing future Captain Scarlet and UFO star Ed Bishop to the world of puppetry.
But in 1967, Leigh would finally manage to get the jump on the Andersons, by making a move they wouldn’t make until 1970; live-action television. Thus enter The Solarnauts.
The show held promise. The basic concept of a space-based police/military force designed to protect the solar system from all alien threats was ripe for the episodic format. There was a charm to the miniature effects (aided by the fact that many models were recycled from Space Patrol) and the overall Space Age look of the sets. It also helps that inveterate composer Johnny Hawksworth goes for broke on the raucous score, replete with a sci-fi staple; the Theremin.
Veteran TV director John Llewellyn Moxey managed to keep the half-hour show running at a white-hot clip, and setting scripting aside, the cast includes a sizable quantity of veteran character actors. Such players including early Bond actress Martine Beswick as scientist “Kandia,” TV’s own John Ringham as hard-ass controller “Tri-S,” and a gung-ho Derek Fowlds of Yes Minister & Basil Brush fame as “Tempo,” the sidekick to David Garfield’s “Power.” And yes, THAT David Garfield, son of screen legend John Garfield. The crown jewel of the bunch, however, is Alex Scott (best remembered as “Dr. Hargreaves” from The Abominable Dr. Phibes) as alien antagonist Logik.
In other words, the only actor with role worth making something of.
And that should be the most telling tidbit of all. Leigh has yet again written a clunker of a pilot. There is zero characterization worth engaging with beyond what Scott pulls from the Logik role and the minimal development the rest of the cast is allowed. Leigh’s penchant for writing cartoonishly angry bosses (controller “Tri-S” being a toned-down version of the insufferable SBI Chief in Paul Starr), her comically quaint portrayal of gender dynamics beggars belief at times, and the story seems to be left on autopilot, with no dramatic drive, felt stakes, or even a modicum of excitement. If there was ever a time to push for an hour-long format, this may have been it.
But in the end, if you’re a fan of British sci-fi and are curious to see the final destination of Leigh’s trip into space, The Solarnauts is a neat little curio that ought to kill some time.
Space Police (1986)
Before Gerry Anderson broke his own personal record for “most expensive television program” with the ’94 cult favorite Space Precinct, Anderson and then-production partner Christopher Burr laid the ground work in an hour-long pilot film in 1986, and a rather fun one at that.
Space Police is a rowdy little time capsule of Anderson’s mid-80s days. Just as production and broadcasting of another Anderson cult classic, the electric and borderline satirical Terrahawks, had been winding down, and some time before unsuspecting Channel 4 viewers were treated to the delightful pun-laden future-noir of Dick Spanner, P.I., Anderson and Burr worked on reviving the live-action side of the producer’s output with an offbeat, overt (and perhaps unintentionally) cyberpunk takeoff on American classic Hill Street Blues.
With a cast led by “Scott Tracy” himself, Shane Rimmer, as the NYPD Lieutenant Brogan, Space Police follows the officer and his place in the eponymous organization, caught up in a white-knuckled race against time to save a planet’s president from destruction within the clutches of a disgusting mob boss. It’s all hands on deck from Brogan’s alien colleagues as they work to prevent the world leader’s assassination.
In a mixed-media menagerie employing everything from sophisticated animatronics (dubbed “Galactronics” in a classic Anderson play for marketability) to the “Supermacromation” puppetry that served as the bedrock of Terrahawks and its unique look, to even spots of stop-motion among the jaw-dropping miniature effects work of Steven Begg, the show seemed primed as another Anderson romp from the get-go.
The characterization isn’t exactly as full as it could be (with Rimmer doing best he can above all else), most of characters being likeable but substantially one note, coupled with oddball pacing that plagues the film. But even with those faults in mind, it still stands as a wildly entertaining chapter in Anderson’s legacy, one full of the fantastic visuals and a fun cast, and even a spot or two of John Carpenter-like music from the synthetic ivories of none other than Anderson and Burr themselves. Simply put, Space Police is a hell of a seed for an oak like Space Precinct to grow from. Well worth a look for Anderson fans and enjoyers of 80s sci-fi oddities.
I’ll confess that I’m a bit hard on Leigh for The Solarnauts (and brutal when it comes to Paul Starr), but it comes largely from the respect I hold for her when it came to Space Patrol. Whereas Anderson managed to identify the formats that played best to all ages, and used each previous production as a stepping stone to the next, Leigh and Provis managed to fumble the ball quite spectacularly in jumping from the moody and mature Space Patrol to the juvenile failings of Starr and Solarnauts, both pilots descending into Johnny-Come-Lately status as they chased trends in a half-baked and haphazard manner, instead of creating something bold and unique like the aforementioned series.
But on the flip side, Space Police is somewhat flawed in its premise because of its puppetry, with Anderson, in probably the first time in his career since the gangbusters success of Supermarionation, trying to make it a viable and marketable asset. With the program acting as a response to American networks rejecting Terrahawks and their humanoid puppets, leading man Rimmer winds up ostracized from the main action thanks to the conceit, making for a climax and final third that aren’t bad, but sideline the headlining actor.
What both films do succeed at is showing how even the most successful of creatives aren’t immune to failure, but how even in their failings, sparks of imagination and creativity can still emerge. Hats off to Leigh and Anderson, whom generations of children can salute for providing much entertainment over the years. Cheers!