Readers know about my enthusiasm for “Star Trek,” a franchise approaching 50 years old.
Around the same time “Star Trek” hit the airwaves, far to the east, German TV had its own science fiction series, “Raumpatrouille — Die phantastischen Abenteuer des Raumschiffes Orion.”
Was ist das, you ask? From IMDB.com:
Commander McLane and the crew of the fast space cruiser Orion patrol Earth’s outposts and colonies in space and defend humanity from the alien ‘Frogs’.
To call this Germany’s — actually, West Germany’s, with assistance from France — Star Trek isn’t fair to Gene Roddenberry’s creation, though there are parallels. Roddenberry envisioned a united world with a United Federation of Planets consisting of many planets with theoretically united populations as well. By Star Trek, humanoidkind had learned to live together more or less in peace, though that didn’t apply to the Romulans, Klingons or other hostile races the Enterprise encountered.
Raumpatrouille’s Earth is united, too, but there are no alien races except the enemy “Frogs” introduced in episode 1. It’s not clear what kind of Earth government there is, though apparently the producers had concerns that viewers would see it as a bit fascist. Space travel appears to be the province of the military, with the “Secret Service,” military intelligence, kind of looming around the edges.
Interestingly, the hero, Maj. Cliff Allistair McLane, is American. (Though he speaks perfect German. I guess American Star Trek viewers wouldn’t expect Sulu to speak Japanese, Uhura to speak Swahili, or Chekov to speak Russian, not to mention Spock’s Vulcan language.) It would seem in the 1960s outside the U.S., if you wanted to portray a rules-flouting authority-defying rebel who dares do what would give those above him the vapors, you make him an American. There are certainly parallels to Capt. James T. Kirk, though Kirk’s rule-breaking is more situational — Kirk breaks rules when it’s the right thing to do — whereas McLane’s seems to be congenital, going out of his way (literally in the beginning of the first episode) to break rules. Both Kirk and McLane seem to have luck with the ladies (hey, it was the swinging ’60s).
In the first episode, McLane and the Orion 7 (McLane apparently has had seven Orion ships, because the first six were destroyed in the course of a mission) are banished from combat to the boring duty of space patrol after another McLane insubordination episode. Worse, McLane is assigned a Secret Service officer, Lt. Tamara Jagellovsk, to act as security officer and keep McLane under control.
The rest of the cast was said to be “international,” but, well, they’re all played by German actors — Lts. Mario de Monti (the armament officer and apparently the computer expert), Atan Shubashi (the “astrogator,” which apparently combines helmsman and navigator), Hasso Sigbjornson (the engineer — think of a Scandinavian Mr. Scott) and Helga Legrelle (the communications/surveillance officer). And that’s the entire cast on board the Orion. (Which makes you think they never have overnight missions, or the six-man crew needs no sleep.)
One area where Raumpatrouille deviates far from Star Trek is the significant amount of attention paid to Space Command on Earth — McLane’s boss, Gen. Winston Wamsler; McLane’s former commander, Gen. Lydia Van Dyke; and particularly Col. Hendryk Villa, Jagellovsk’s creepy boss. There is a great deal of intrigue between Wamsler and his superiors and Villa.
An apparently huge fan of the series wrote:
Unlike the disciplined heroes of contemporary American fare such as STAR TREK or VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, the crew of the Orion were incorrigible mavericks. In the very first episode the Orion is demoted from active service in the space fleet and relegated to space patrol, the equivalent of galactic traffic cops, for their latest act of disobedience. The Orion’s skipper is Major Cliff Alistair McLane (Dietmar Schönherr) a war hero, a man of unquestionable ingenuity, courage and fierce sense of loyalty, yet he is dangerously reckless with little respect for authority and an utter contempt for bureaucracy. His crew would willingly follow him into hell, knowing that if any man could get them back out it would be McLane.
Despite McLane’s habitual insubordination, his value is recognized by both his former superior, General Van Dyke (Charlotte Kerr) and General Wamsler (Benno Sterzenbach) the commander of Terrestrial Space Reconnaissance. It is Wamsler who arranges for the Orion to be reassigned to the Space Patrol, rather than have them face court- martial. However as a condition of this, he also assigns them a new crew member, Lieutenant Tamara Jagelovsk, a GSD (Security Services) agent to keep them in line. Initially at odds with his new watchdog, McLane discovers that Jagelovsk, with her cool efficiency and by-the-book nature, is not the millstone he expected and the two quickly develop a considerably less antagonistic relationship. …
It is shortly after their reassignment to the Space Patrol that the crew of the Orion discover a new and unprecedented threat to humanity, on Earth and in space – a race of technologically advanced energy creatures, nicknamed the Frogs, bent on the destruction of mankind. The Frogs and their machinations would serve as the main threat for the duration of the series’ run. Other episodes featured such familiar SF concepts as rebellious robots, deranged scientists and lost Earth colonies.
Technically SPACE PATROL was far superior to anything seen on American television, and, for that matter, in most contemporary theatrical films. The show abounded with complex matte shots, miniature work and optical effects, ranging from floating robots to the semi-invisible Frogs, to a giant super nova hurtling through space, to an entire planet ripping apart before the viewer’s very eyes. Every opportunity was taken to make the show look more impressive. The Orion didn’t simply launch from a pad, it rose from a gigantic hanger on the ocean floor, up through the aquatic depths, then emerged from a spinning whirlpool to lift into the sky. Even what could have been conventional sets were enhanced with complicated optical shots, such as the lounge in the frequently visited Starlight Casino which featured a transparent ceiling allowing patrons to watch giant fish swimming past as the relaxed.
Only seven episodes of SPACE PATROL ORION were produced, broadcast biweekly from September 17 through to December 10th, 1966. Unlike STAR TREK, which suffered from general viewer apathy, SPACE PATROL ORION was immensely popular during its initial run. Unfortunately in Germany the concept of audience size at that time meant very little. In 1966 there were only two television channels, WDR and ZDF; both non-commercial, government run public television services. And so, after the end of its first, all too brief run, the complex and very costly RAUMPATROUILLE ORION passed into television history.
That is all a bit of revisionist history if you believe the always-accurate Wikipedia, which claims:
As the series’ budget was comparatively low, the set designers resorted to using modified common everyday objects; for instance, electric irons, inverted clock pendulums, washing-machine console parts and designer pencil sharpeners were used as props control panels, sewing thread coils and banana plugs as futuristic machine parts, and plastic cups as ceiling lights. Many panels were produced by the then-newly invented thermoforming process. Lots of designer furniture was also used, notably Ludwig Mies van der Rohe‘s 258-type couch,Harry Bertoia‘s Diamond-type armchair, Yrjö Kukkapuro‘s Karuselli-type armchair, Charles Eames‘s Aluminium group #EA105 chair, George Nelson‘s DAF Chair and Eero Saarinen‘s Tulpe table/chair combo. Joe Colombo‘s famous Smoke-type drinking glasses were used throughout the series. …
The stage designer was Rolf Zehetbauer, who later won an Academy Award for his work on Cabaret.
“We had no money available and yet we were instructed to produce an elaborate science-fiction series. We were forced to improvise in all aspects. This ruled out completely manufacturing the spaceship’s equipment from scratch. So we used existing things that we could adapt,” is how Zehetbauer described the design work of the set.
Rumours about the considerable costs of the series having led to its termination after only seven episodes were denied by the widow of the Orion’s original screen writer, implying that it was planned from the start to have only seven installments. More episode screenplays were written than were filmed. No official reason was given for not producing a second series of episodes, but there are several reasons that were aired in interviews many years later by those involved in the production. According to Hans Gottschalk, one of the executive producers, there was a “lack of exciting script ideas” at the time. Helmut Jedele, then boss of Bavaria Film, the production company, mentioned in hindsight that the company had already undertaken too much for its resources, both in terms of staff and finance.
Another factor in planning for a second series would have been filming in colour instead of black-and-white. While this would have been required for a successful international marketing of an extension, the German production companies were not yet prepared for the necessary investment for the new equipment.
One good feature is the music, written by German composer Peter Thomas in kind of a ’60s electronic style:
It may be unfair to compare this to “Star Trek,” because to be honest “Star Trek” was considerably more thought out by Roddenberry. Recall that Roddenberry’s vision was “‘Wagon Train’ to the stars,” where the Enterprise explored space, sometimes but not every week fighting the bad, uh, beings in space. The genius of Roddenberry’s concept was that it could encompass nearly every kind of story — adventure, drama, comedy, social themes you couldn’t explore in a contemporary setting, and, well, whatever “Spock’s Brain” was.
There is a little of that, but not much, in “Space Patrol.” Most episodes focus on the Frogs, though there is one that sort of combines three “Star Trek” episodes, “Devil in the Dark” (miners) and “The Changeling” or “The Ultimate Computer” (robots gone amok).
Another episode borrows from the “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” movie, not setting the Van Allen belts on fire, but portraying an alien species playing around with our sun. Then it veers into “Spock’s Brain” or an adolescent male fantasy by having the species’ planet run by attractive women.
The last episode, “Invasion,” may have inspired the best episode of the subpar first season of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” “Conspiracy,” when the Frogs control Col. Villa’s mind and Villa leads the Frogs’ invasion of Earth.
It turns out that assigning McLane to boring space patrol saves the day in each of the seven episodes. It would spoil the fun to point out that rebels rarely reach the command rank in the real world. (Although it makes one think again that there is an opportunity for a new Star Trek franchise centered around a captain who doesn’t think the Federation and Starfleet is the be-all and end-all of existence, someone voted Most Likely to Become a Pirate in his Starfleet class, someone whose credo is that it’s easier to ask forgiveness than seek permission. For that matter, such a character could lead a new Star Wars franchise — an Empire commander who switches sides because of the Force or his realization of the evil of the Empire.)