Stop me if you’ve heard this one: two Englishmen, an Australian, and a Canadian walk into a space ship…
Sounds kind of like the set-up to a joke, doesn’t it? But actually it’s the character line-up of Journey into Space — a seminal and surprisingly enduring British science fiction radio series that first began in the 1950s. And is even now enjoying yet another re-airing on BBC Radio 4 Extra — episodes available for on-line listening listed as, I believe, Charles Chilton – Journey into Space (so under “C” as opposed to “J”).
I’ve said before that I like radio drama and would like to write more about it — but I keep getting sidetracked by my hobbyhorse: Canadian film & TV, and Canadian culture and identity. After all, you can find a few places on the web where people write about radio drama…not as much about Canadian pop culture (at least, not with my somewhat bullish view of it). Heck, google “Journey into Space” and you’ll find all you could want to know!
But, in a way, that description of the lead characters in Journey into Space (“Jet” Morgan, Lemmy, Mitch, and Doc) kind of neatly ties the two themes together — not just about Canadian culture, but about regional identity in pop culture in general.
Journey into Space was produced for Britain’s BBC radio and was a series of science fiction serials set in the (then) not-too-distant future (the 1960s and 1970s). The original three serials (which have come to be known under the titles of Operation Luna, The Red Planet, and World in Peril) were rather epic. Comprised of half hour episodes, the latter two were 20 episodes each (and, indeed, comprise two halves of one grand epic). The original serial was also 20 episodes — in its original form. But the existing version is a re-recording (done just a few years after the original) in which they dropped the first few episodes, because audience reaction was that the story started too slowly. Operation Luna is certainly an okay listen — particularly with allowances made for the time (it’s kind of corny, and juvenile at times, and the plot, which mainly does just revolve around only the four characters, can feel a bit repetitive at times). But I’d argue it’s the later series that are even better (perhaps benefitting from bigger casts, allowing the plot to spread out more) — particularly The Red Planet which does boast some surprisingly eerie and creepy sequences, even listened to decades later.
Honestly, I’m surprised no one’s thought to mine it for a motion picture.
Apparently Journey into Space was the last time, in England, a radio series actually beat TV in the ratings!
But let’s get back to that cast of characters. The premise revolved around a Commonwealth space program, hence the national line-up of the four principals (with supporting characters in the subsequent serials boasting various other accents, such as Welsh, Irish, etc. — I think even Indian). One can see that as a kind of parochial snub of the Americans — but then again, maybe not so much when you consider the time. As I say, it was made in the 1950s — before the Apollo program, heck, before Sputnik. Perhaps it was no more fanciful for series creator Charles Chilton to imagine a united Commonwealth space program (launching from the Australian outback!) exploring the heavens than it was to imagine the Russians or the Americans dominating space. We tend to forget now that it was actually Canada — yes! Canada! — that was only the third country in the world to put a satellite into orbit.
At the time, the race for space could be credibly assumed to have had more than two horses!
Though the fact that it’s a Commonwealth enterprise perhaps indicates that, even at the time, it was recognized England realistically couldn’t do it alone — even in fiction! Still, employing a multi-national cast of characters representing the Commonwealth was perhaps surprisingly progressive (as opposed to doing it simply about an all-British cast). Cockney Lemmy is even identified as Jewish (though a bit ham handedly at times). A decade and some later, Star Trek would popularize the idea of globally united, multi-national space programs…but I’m not sure that was really en vogue in the 1950s. And in Star Trek, well, there was still a definite feel it was American…with a few token foreigners on the crew.
Still, it’s perhaps reasonable to assume that, even at the time, there was something a bit self-consciously British — and Commonwealth — about the story. I mean, regardless of whether Chilton could legitimately have envisioned England as still having a shot at the stars, even he must’ve been aware the Americans and the Russians would be major players in the field — yet I don’t recall there being much reference to them either way (as having a space presence…or explaining why they don’t have a space presence). So in that sense, there was perhaps a bit of national ego massaging going on — at a time when England’s dominance was fading, Chilton offers up one final hurrah. A hurrah for his countrymen, sure, but though the Commonwealth conceit, also for all the medium and little countries who suspected their chairs were being re-located to the kid’s table without even a by-your-leave, sidelined by the Eagle and the Bear who had decided the second half of the 20th Century belonged to them alone.
Though even then, it makes the use of the Commonwealth framework all the more fascinating. Because although within the crew, there’s a definite favouring of England (it is a British production, after all!) — comprising half the four main cast, including the lead character — England doesn’t necessarily dominate as part of the overall infrastructure, so much as it’s just one of many. First among equals, if you will (with Australia getting a fair amount of the focus).
But that’s kind of what makes the series fun — particularly heard in hindsight when the “future” Chilton was envisioning is now our distant past, and our history bears little resemblance to his future. It now can be viewed as an alternate reality tale as much as futurism, where England, Australia, and the Commonwealth are able to band together in a united enterprise and put bases on the moon and send explorers to Mars, without the need to defer to the Americans or the Russians (yet without belittling them, either — as I say: they simply are ignored).
Indeed, it’s perhaps interesting to contrast Journey into Space with something like the short lived 1980s British SF TV series, Star Cops. It was a series which, so I understand, wasn’t well regarded at the time…but has kind of gained a following, and critical respect, in the years since (I liked it when I saw it, particularly David Calder’s effective performance as the lead). It was about police officers on the moon — but their cases tended to bring them to earth, but with a multinational jurisdiction, resulting in a certain ethnic stereotyping — Americans were unshaven with pot-bellies, Japanese were into technology, etc. Though, ironically, you could maybe see it as having been an attempt to impose the usual sci-fi cliches of racial archetypes — war-like Klingons, cuddly Ewoks, murderous Daleks — to human cultures. As such, it was okay if you didn’t take that aspect too seriously… Anyway, Star Cops had a multinational cast…but it was a more typical multinational cast, focusing on the “big” boys. So the emphasis was on British heroes (naturally, it being a British series) with American, Russian, and Japanese characters. Basically representing the key countries (as perceived at the time), the same multinational line-up you might have expected from a Hollywood production…save, of course, for a few seats at the table reserved for Britain. Well, Star Cops also had an Australian — British sci-fi seeming to have retained a soft sport for their down under cousins as, in addition to Journey into Space and Star Cops, Aussies played parts in Space: 1999 and even one of the ever-changing Companions on Doctor Who was Australian. Interestingly, in the entire history of Doctor Who — the longest running, on going SF TV franchise in the world — there has never been a Canadian Companion, nor has the Doctor’s adventures ever (to my knowledge) brought him to Canada (whereas he has had American and Australian Companions, and his adventures have taken him to the U.S. and Australia…and elsewhere).
So you can see a bit of shift in attitudes over the years from Journey into Space’s cocky tip-of-the-hat to a united Commonwealth. Heck, though Space: 1999 was a British series, with a predominantly British cast — the stars were American, the makers unable to envision (or unwilling) a space program not dominated by the US.
Funnily, the Canadian crew member in Journey into Space, Doc Matthews, I don’t think is ever actually identified as Canadian, save by his vaguely North American accent (according to something I read, it was mentioned in the original serial — in the episodes that were lost when it was re-recorded). But them, technically, the other characters aren’t all that often identified by their national origins either — it’s just their accents and individual colloquialisms make it pretty obvious. I mentioned that the series/characters have occasionally been revived (for shorter, less epic productions). And in 2008s Frozen in Time, Doc’s dialogue is liberally, stereotypically, peppered with “eh?”s — which is funny, because I’m pretty sure the cliché of Canadians saying “eh?” hadn’t really been known back in the 1950s!
Anyway, I just thought this was an interesting series to reflect on, both because of my recurring reflection on cultural identity in pop culture, and particularly some of my recent posts musing on diversity, and the notion of movie co-productions between different nations. (And just because, if you’re a science fiction fan, and you’ve never heard of it — let alone heard it — it’s probably worth checking out).
There is something kind of fun and intriguing about this parallel reality where the English, Australians, Canadians, and others unite, head into the stars, encounter menaces, save the world…and do it working together, as equals, and not as hangers ons or sidekicks to another, bigger nation.