At the start of the year I was asked to deliver a paper at the 2013 Space Wizard Convention in Nevada. It turns out that an article I’d written for this very publication had fallen into the hands of one of the event’s new organisers and they asked if I’d be interested in flying over to the States to deliver an address to a room full of fan-boys on a topic of my choosing.
I was totally blown away by the offer, especially given the volumes of work being produced about Space Wizard every year. It seems, to me at least, that in the past 10 years or so the show has become increasingly ubiquitous. The national broadcaster is showing re-runs on both ABC 1 and 2, the sci-fi channel has bought up most of all of the early seasons and seems to be programming a marathon every other week, and you can’t do a university subject in Film Studies, English, Religion or even Physics without being exposed to the most famous citizen of Advarius in some way or another.
In fact, anyone who did the HSC between the years of 2002 and 2009 will know all too well the saturation levels of Space Wizard, having been forced to study the Linka’s death-poem as a re-imagining of King Lear.
This is all by way of saying that I was excited to be asked, and I got to work.
But two weeks before I was due to leave, the organiser called me, and in a tone that I still don’t think was quite apologetic enough, told me that they’d booked Martin Hemsley instead and that my services were no longer required. That’s right, I was replaced by the actor who voiced Zephran for most of the ’70s albeit to - it must be conceded - unanimous acclaim.
So when Alice asked me if I’d be interested in contributing another piece on SW to Seizure, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to finally give this piece an audience. It will probably help to imagine that this is being read to you in a cheap convention centre and the person next to you is dressed as one of the Sycorath.
The Lost Pilot (Abridged)
I feel that lectures about Space Wizard tend to fall into two equally odious categories. On the one hand there’s the kind of drooling, doe-eyed fanboy approach, where the speaker will hammer you with how the show influenced modern television, the ground-breaking special effects, the debt that George Lucas owes to its genius and so on. On the other hand, and again, I think this is just as bad, you have an aggressively academic approach to the show, which seems to me to ignore Space Wizard’s irrepressible sense of fun and frivolity. My hope is that this paper manages to sit somewhere in the middle, or to use Space Wizard parlance – to occupy the vortex between time and space.
What I’m going to talk about today is the ‘Lost Pilot’. This should not, it must be stressed, be confused with the episode in season 2 about the WWI flying ace who crashes into Space Wizard’s castle – this refers to the actual first airing of the show in 1953, of which, for reasons that will be explained later, there remains no surviving copy.
Aside from the death of Rufus Lucksmith, this is the single biggest tragedy for fans of the show, and as such occupies a fairly strange place in the canon.
I’ve just mentioned the canon, and before going any further, I think it’s useful from the outset to explain to you what I deem, or I should say, this speech deems, to be canonical.
For the purposes of brevity, let us discount the Saturday morning cartoon, if we count The Adventures of Young Space Wizard, that’s an additional 120 hours of the show that we have to analyse, and I’m hoping to get this crystal communicator signed by Joanna Wilkinson before she leaves. (Pause for laughter) [an artefact from the earlier speech – feel free to cut this reference, BJ].
I don’t think it’s too controversial to discount any of the books of the extended universe written after the death of Rufus Lucksmith – and, yes, as much as it pains me to say, that does include the graphic novel written by Joss Whedon in 2008.
The narrative played out in the Chance cards in Space Wizard Monopoly is not counted for obvious reasons, but for equally obvious reasons, the Community Chest cards are.
Now, this is where I’m sure I’m going to come up against some pretty staunch opposition, but I count the two Christmas specials as part of the canon. If you want to argue with me in question time, which is both fine and expected, please do so, but for now Jingle Spells and I’m Dreaming of A White Spacemass are in.
Let’s also – without too much fuss I’m assuming – get rid of the shambolic 1991 film adaptation. (Recently at a fundraiser, Liam Neeson called his part in Space Wizard Returns, ‘a disaster of George Lazenby-esque proportions’, before gently being told by the MC that Lazenby was in fact in attendance at the function, then muttering something to himself and walking off stage.)
The adults-only text-based adventure game is also out.
So that leaves us, by my count, with some 849 hours of the show to trawl through. It would, of course, be 850 if not for the troublesome fact that the original episode has now been lost to history.
The idea that the pilot of such an influential show could ever be lost is, for the casual observer, entirely inexplicable. The BBC archives are, after all, some of the most famously thorough in the Western world. The BBCA is made up of an estimated 30 tonnes of celluloid that are housed in 20 miles of tunnels directly beneath the centre of Cardiff. Melvyn Bragg once described the BBCA as ‘The most recklessly flammable library in the history of civilization’; and in 2005, Stephen Fry quipped during a taping of QI that if the archives ever were to go up, the resulting explosion would level most of Wales. Ominously, that episode is currently part of the very powder keg to which it so accurately referred.
But it was not fire that destroyed the archives, but iron – or more accurately, an Iron Lady. No, it was not one of the terrifying Sultrons thank goodness, but Margaret Thatcher, upon whom the Sultrons were based. Ultimately, it was the cost cutting measures of the Thatcher government that saw many of the archives destroyed or taped over to make room for (and here’s where some speculate that the cull was carried out in spite more than anything else) an estimated six thousand hours of footage of empty sky.
The catalogue of lost footage includes much of the later, darker work of The Goodies, a scene in ‘Allo ‘Allo where Rene is tortured by the Nazis for information and footage of a young David Attenborough throwing a dog into the Thames for reasons unknown. And, of course, the now infamous lost pilot of Space Wizard.
Some academics refuse to believe the pilot to be lost and have spent years in those Welsh tunnels searching for it, but so far the only things to be uncovered of interest are a ‘distressingly earnest’ Benny Hill special and a box of sex tapes from the House of Lords.
Now you may well be asking yourself – if we don’t have the footage, what about shooting scripts? Rest assured that this angle has been thoroughly looked into, but the search was ultimately abandoned when it was discovered in the 90s that all shooting scripts were used as fuel to cremate Rufus Lucksmith, after he lost his heroic 30-year-long battle with rabies in 1976. It was also discovered that the ashes from the cremation were then collected by his son, smuggled on board Voyager II and blasted across the solar system. It is fitting, Carl Sagan observed, that both Space Wizard’s creator and first words should be not earth-bound, but echoing across the cosmos. He did, however, add with annoyance, it was a shame that in order to fit the ashes on board, Lucksmith Jnr jettisoned the recording of children laughing.
As for eye-witnesses – people who actually watched the show when it went to air that fateful summer’s night – we have another problem. It’s difficult to believe in light of what followed, but the pilot aired to the lowest audience in BBC history (pipped only in 1979 by Brain Blessed’s Hour of Christmas Shouting). This has been blamed on a low advertising budget, the catastrophic press tour carried out by Lucksmith in the weeks leading up to the premiere (he bit no fewer than three journalists) and the fact that the pilot’s lead-in on the evening was a solid 2 hours of static.
There is one area where we do have information about the elusive episode, and that is the meticulously preserved BBC complaints log.
Because while few people may have actually watched the episode, those who did overwhelmingly complaining about it. And it’s through these complaints that we can begin to piece together the content of the pilot.
We barely know a thing about how the early episodes were made, but this grievance from Arthur Knox of Soho gives us unprecedented insight into how Lucksmith’s fever dream became a reality. He writes:
‘Never in my life, sirs, never in my life did I think I would live to see the nation’s broadcaster transmit such unmitigated nonsense. The plot is incomprehensible, not helped, I’m sure, by the fact that the sound was a full 20 seconds ahead to the vision, and the director, a Mr Lucksmith, can clearly be heard screaming profanities from behind the camera, and seen on more than one occasion, walk into frame to strike one of the actors.’
This is especially fascinating when you compare it with the entry attributed to ‘Martin’ of Leeds, who writes, ‘As a physicist, I would like to take the opportunity to correct a few of the purported ‘scientific’ claims made by the televisual play ‘Space Wizard’ last night. To begin with, you cannot have an explosion in a vacuum, nor can you have a sword-fight or chariot race. Furthermore, in stark opposition to the claims of the show’s titular character, Wizards are not, as he suggests, just physicists without their stethoscopes and dinosaur bones. Aside from the obvious problem with this statement, he seems to have confused physicists with physicians, who he has then confused with palaeontologists.’
There are dozens more like this, all freely available on the BBCA’s website, and each complaint illuminating some aspect of the show, all of which bear at least a passing resemblance to the series that we now all know.
But do these complaints tell us anything about the plot itself? I’d like to put forward a rough outline of how I think – based on the information we have on hand – the pilot unfolded. I don’t claim for this to be canon, of course, but I will suggest that every assertion that follows is based on evidence, which I’ll put up on these slides [for this publication you’ll find in the footnotes].
The pilot opens with a cosmic storm. Out of the chaos, an old man emerges wearing tattered robes and a telltale moon staff. This is the first time we see Space Wizard. He is played by Claude Rains. Smoke fills the frame. He is on a metal planet that shimmers. It is on this planet that he first meets the orphan Lynka, who warns him about the incoming threat of Musollinox and his fearsome army. This is a threat that never materialises – either out of deceptive plotting or haphazard writing, because they soon find themselves on a planet called Trantax, where a warlock tasks them with either retrieving or destroying the Cosmic Spellbook. Regardless of the mission, it ends with Space Wizard keeping the book for his own. He then flies away in his (previously unintroduced) cauldron, leaving Lynka alone on Trantax. The show ends with Space Wizard’s death.
Now, all of this may well be true, we have no way of knowing, and in a way I find that fitting.
It may well be the romantic in me, but I think it fitting that – like Space Wizard himself – the show is bereft of an origin story. It’s left up to us to decide whether the first episode was about the building of the terror-sphere or the destruction of Advarius.
But more than this, the magic of SW – aside of course from the actual magic – has always been about the mystery of this wonderful, impossible man with his rocket cauldron and fission moonstaff.
Perhaps he put it best when,in The Lost Sunbook, Space Wizard mused to the young, intrepid Toby under the glistening moons of Davrok Prime:
‘The universe, young Toby,’ he said, ‘is a wondrous, mysterious place. She chooses to reveal herself to us only when she is ready, and we must be patient. But other times, my boy, we are better kept in the dark as to her mysteries, for the imagination is of far greater power than any telescope in the cosmos, except for this one here, which I just invented.’
And he was right when he said that – with that familiar glint in his eye – before, you may recall, taking up his staff and book and returning to his castle, leaving the young intrepid Toby staring out into at the inky blackness, pondering, like us, what mysteries it could possibly hold.
No fewer than three complaints are concerned with the opening sequence, and subsequent fits it brought on in epileptic viewers.
That Rains played the SW in the pilot is more or less undisputed. Rains mentions the show in passing in his autobiography, and his name appears on both surviving copies of the call sheet, although in Lucksmith’s personal copy, he is referred to as ‘that c**t from Casablanca’.
On the third day of the taping, the fire brigade was called to the BBC lot where the pilot was filmed. Their report says that no lasting damage was done, but one man, 75, was treated for smoke inhalation. The cause of the fire is unknown.
The pilot budget allocates 500 pounds for aluminium foil and 40 pounds for actors.
According to the call sheet, this Lynka was likely played by a young Judi Dench for half of the episode, then a series of children wearing wigs.
BBC complaints log: Margaret Winslow of Sussex complains of ‘the thinly veiled vilification of the Italian peoples.’ Now it seems to me that she has to be here referring to Governor Mussolinox. The accepted wisdom holds that neither Mussolinox or his Dago-bot army appear in SW until season two, but here he is, clear as day in the pilot, upsetting this woman from the south of England.
There can be no record found of any costumes ordered that could have feasibly been worn by Mussolinox or his army, suggesting that they are mentioned and not shown.
We know about the name ‘Trantax’ because it appears in two complaints, both pointing out that the planet is clearly the eastern corner of Hyde Park, with the Houses of Parliament visible in the background.
Call sheet has Peter Lorre playing ‘Bad man’.
The origin of SW’s Cosmic Spellbook is referenced throughout subsequent series, albeit with conflicting details.
A number of complains catalogue what would have been an understandably baffling scene.
This is probably the most surprising element of the pilot, but it is more or less irrefutable that Space Wizard dies at the beginning of the pilot. Rains’ contract signs him up for one hour of television, we know that the BBC commissioned only one episode initially, and dozens of the complaints logged by the BBCA express gratitude that at least the show was never coming back. How it got renewed for its second and subsequent series is a mystery for another time.