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Raumpatrouille Orion

To the very limited extent that the German science fiction series Raumpatrouille Orion (full English title: Space Patrol – The Fantastic Adventures of the Starship Orion) is known in my own United States, it tends to be the victim of a certain unfair association. On those pitifully rare occasions when it’s mentioned, it’s seldom without being compared unfavorably to Star Trek – and sometimes even referred to as “The German Star Trek“, usually in the dismissive tone reserved for inferior foreign copies of iconic American brands. That Raumpatrouille is an imitation of Star Trek is unlikely, given that the series made its debut on German television within just two weeks of Trek’s initial bow in America (and quite a few years before Captain Kirk and company would make it to the German airwaves). And while the series does share some striking similarities with Trek, those ultimately just serve to highlight some even more striking differences.

Long in planning, and finally kick-started by the participation of French TV network ORTF (who had sequences with French actors shot for inclusion in the French broadcasts of the show) Raumpatrouille was produced between 1965 and 1966, and it holds the distinction of being the first science fiction series made for German television. Due to the prohibitive cost of producing the show, it was decided to terminate its run after only seven episodes, though not before a rousing finale, tying up all of the shows ongoing narrative threads, could be produced. Rebroadcasts of the show in the eighties and nineties generated a cult following in its country of origin, and allowed the aging cast to supplement their income with appearances at conventions and on nostalgia-themed TV shows. This resurgence also lead, in 2003, to the production of a theatrical film compiling footage from the show, Raumpatrouille OrionRucksturz ins Kino (English title: Space Patrol – Back from the Future), as well as the release of the series on German DVD.

Raumpatrouille Orion - Rucksturz ins Kino is not the best way to experience Raumpatrouille, but it is, for English speakers, the most accessible, given that it’s currently the only legitimately available form in which the series can be found on English subtitled DVD. The feature unwisely makes its task of condensing the series’ combined seven-hour running time into a scant ninety minutes even more of a challenge by including newly shot footage. This footage takes the form of news broadcasts (complete with unfunny commercial parodies) that frame brief narrated clips from the show. While providing some awkward exposition, these segments seem mainly intended to unnecessarily underscore the series’ kitsch elements (which are pretty in-your-face as is without anyone having to point them out), sadly doing so at the expense of maintaining narrative momentum. Still, after a somewhat jerky first half, Rucksturz ins Kino finally settles in and gives us most of the series’ gripping final episode intact and uninterrupted. As it is, the film comes off as more of a highlights reel of the series, rather than a distillation of it, but should still give the curious a good taste of what it’s all about. Furthermore, even in this truncated form, Raumpatrouille‘s colorful cast of characters–its greatest asset, I think–manages to come across loud and clear (especially loud).

Rucksturz ins Kino begins, as does the series, with the introduction of the high-speed space cruiser Orion and her crew. As with Star Trek‘s Enterprise, the Orion hails from a future Earth where harmony between the nations has lead to the formation of a unified world government. Also as with the Enterprise, that harmony is reflected in the international make-up of the ship’s crew. It should be pointed out, however, that those crew members–whether intended to be Japanese, French or Italian–are all portrayed by pasty Caucasian actors speaking in–to my untrained ears, at least–their perfect, unaccented native German. At the head of this not-so-rainbow coalition is Commander Cliff McLane: an American!

It is with the introduction of McLane (portrayed by German actor Dietmar Schoneherr) that the first resounding break with anything but an accidental resemblance to Trek occurs. For, unlike the Enterprise, whose officers have risen through the ranks over years of proud service to a benevolent authority, the Orion has a commander who appears to exist in stubborn opposition to authority in every form. In fact, when we meet McClane, we learn that his and his crew’s assignment to space patrol duty is actually a punishment–a demotion from combat duty–for the latest in a long series of thrill-seeking, rule-flaunting escapades. Throughout the series, McClane greets such official rebukes with a response drawn from a well honed repertoire of smirks, shrugs and dryly sarcastic retorts, indicating that, no matter what he’s told, he’s going to do what he wants–sometimes, as we’ll see, when it’s not even the sensible course of action, but rather out of a churlish need to simply have things his own way. Of course, authority, as it’s presented in Raumpatrouille, is wholly deserving of such contempt, as McClane’s government superiors are usually too bogged down in bureaucracy and internecine battles to act effectively, forcing him again and again to take decisive action without their approval. (In this sense, McClane is sort of like a more infantile Dirty Harry to Captain Kirk’s Joe Friday.)

As for McLane’s loyal subordinates, the booze-swilling party animals who make up the rest of the Orion’s crew provide a perfect compliment to her commander. (In fact, one higher-up refers to them collectively as “McLane and his gang”.) As adept at eye rolling, smirking and making snarky rejoinders as their leader, they seem to spend all of their leave time getting plastered in the swank-tastic cocktail lounge located in the patrol’s undersea base. (That lounge, called the Starlight Casino, is one of the series’ most memorable visual treats, complete with a glass ceiling that provides a view of some unaccountably gargantuan tropical fish – though I don’t recall there ever being any explanation given for the base being on the ocean floor). Though capable of heroic action, they are no heroes; On one occasion, when McClane proposes a plan that will save the entire human race at the expense of the Orion and all souls on board, his subordinates loudly refuse, and he is forced to devise a way for them to escape before they will agree to the plan and save the world. Overall, one gets the sense that, while the Orion does somehow run, it never does so smoothly, and only through a process that involves a lot of shouting, heckling and gnashing of teeth. Still, thanks to the uniformly high standard of acting on the part of the cast, the crews’ affection for–and devotion to–one another is always palpable.

Rounding out the Orion’s personnel is a security officer who has been assigned by McLane’s superiors to keep a watch on the unpredictable skipper and report back regarding any infractions. This, of course, is McLane’s worst nightmare. And, what’s worse, she’s a girl! “Russian” Tamara Jagellovsk (Eva Pflug) is, not surprisingly, a rigid stickler for the rules, and as soon as she and volatile loose cannon McLane have had their first verbal jousting match we can clearly see the predictable trajectory that their relationship is going to take. Despite–or because of–the fact that they are at each others throats from the moment they are introduced, I don’t think anyone would consider it a spoiler to report that the third act finds them doing the lunar lip-lock. Still, its another testament to the quality of the performances here that this thread never comes across as much like mere auto-pilot plot mechanics as it could have.

Mind you, it’s not that Raumpatrouille doesn’t find time amidst all of its angst-ridden power struggles, simmering sexual tension and enthusiastic downing of highballs to deliver some old-fashioned space opera thrills. It’s just that, being conspicuously less enamored than other examples of the genre with militaristic conceptions of valor and honor, it tends to do so with a dollop of humor that’s both pitch black and bone dry, sometimes giving off faint echoes of dark political satire reminiscent of Doctor Strangelove. Given this, it’s only fitting that the series should provide its hero with an enemy even more at odds with his resolute, cranky individualism than the stifling governmental bureaucracy he does battle with every day.

The recurring threat in Raumpatrouille is a mysterious alien race which McLane’s crew dubs the Frogs (the movie version takes a campy revisionist approach to this appellation, making it short for “Foreign Race Of Galactic Scoundrels”, though it wasn’t intended as an acronym in the original) and it’s one of Rucksturz ins Kino‘s major flaws that it rushes over their introduction. Pictured as glistening, featureless silhouettes–human in outline, but with all of their human-ness removed–the Frogs, as presented in the series, were always seen from a remove, soundlessly working, purposeful but without decipherable motive, towards some unknown but unmistakably malevolent end. Such an effective job was done at establishing their very creepiness that, once they were introduced, they managed to haunt every scene in which they did not explicitly appear. Later it would be shown that the Frogs could take control of people from afar and, given the deterministic and impersonal nature of their malignance, it would come as no surprise that, disease like, they would ultimately come closest to defeating the space patrol by opportunistically corrupting it from within its own fragile power structure. (In keeping with the disease imagery, the Frogs’ ships are very mosquito-like in appearance, not to mention swarm-like in their method of attack.)

Of course, what most people take away from their initial viewing of Raumpatroille is its eccentric–and largely budget driven–visual style. Raumpatrouille‘s primitive special effects draw on techniques that date back to the silent era and, combined with the series’ rich black and white photography, contribute to the show’s unique overall look–sort of a chiaroscuro German Expressionist take on sci fi kitted out with 1960s cocktail culture accoutrements. But it is the show’s feverishly whimsical set designs that provide its unmistakable visual signature. The command deck of the Orion, for example, is a riot of repurposed household objects, from the largely unadorned flat iron prominently fixed to one of the consoles, to the dozens of plastic pint glasses festooned across its ceiling, to the glass shower knobs that serve as dials on the control panels. The chairs the crew sit in are just normal desk chairs–though very stylish ones–and those parts of the set that aren’t comprised of readymades have a wonderfully non-functional look, as if they were designed simply to look as weird as possible. Wrapping around this woozy aesthetic package is Peter Thomas’ very contemporary musical score, a brassy mix of freak beat and lounge jazz that even ventures into some spacey, proto-electronic sounds reminiscent of Joe Meek’s I Hear a New World album. (The choreographed “futuristic” dances that the Starlight Casino’s patrons do to these tunes are best just seen and not described).

As I said, Raumpatrouille Orion – Rucksturz ins Kino is not the ideal way to experience Raumpatrouille, but it still provides a serviceable introduction. It should also serve as more than adequate proof that the show was anything but a third rate foreign Star Trek imitation. Whether it’s actually better than Star Trek is for the viewer to decide. Personally, I prefer its decidedly–and necessarily, given the country and time of its origin–more jaundiced take on grand human endeavor, not to mention its rowdy and irreverent gang of heroes. After all, as courageous and selfless as the crew of the Enterprise may be, at the end of the day, its the crew of the Orion that I’d want to hang out with.