My sister Cynthia is a first-generation Trekker and a longtime Berliner. Thus, she’s in a good position to help us understand Raumpatrouille: Die phantastischen Abenteuer des Raumschiffes Orion, the first German science-fiction series, which not only aired in the same time frame as Star Trek (debuting Sept. 17, 1966, nine days after Trek), but also featured a similar set-up: the adventures of a starship on patrol, led by a gutsy captain who doesn’t always follow regulations.
How does the black-and-white Orion actually compare to the Technicolor Trek? In this essay from the original PopCult site (2002?), Cynthia assesses the show’s first episode and its more Germanic view of the galaxy.
* * *
In 1994, the year that the U.S. military finally left Berlin and took their TV station and its Saturday morning original Star Trek repeats with them, a German cult sci-fi series from the ’60s was rebroadcast. SPACE PATROL, THE FANTASTIC ADVENTURES OF THE SPACESHIP ORION sounded like my kind of show, so I turned on the TV and prepared to be distracted from the pain of losing Trek.
Captain McLane has disobeyed orders one too many times, and the first episode opens with the top brass arguing fiercely about him and his crew being punished by having to spend the next three years on space-patrol duty. His direct commander, Gen. Lydia van Dyke, defends him strongly but to no avail. Not only that, they now will have a member of the Galactic Security Service assigned to their ship so she can tattle whenever they break another rule. Interestingly, she’s a Russian. Just like in Trek, the writers saw the future with a unified Earth, so all the characters come from different countries. Besides Tamara Jagellovsk, the GSS agent, we’ve got Mario de Monti from Italy, Hasso Sigbjörnson from Sweden, Atan Shubashi from Japan, and Helga Legrelle from France in the crew. (Our hero, Cliff McLane, is an American. Hmmmm.) However, there must not have been too many German-speaking foreign actors handy because all the roles were played by your average German guy, no matter what the character’s heritage.
Gen. Winston Woodrov Wamsler tells Jagellovsk, “You won’t have it easy with McLane and his people,” and with a swelling of heroic music the crew of the Orion comes striding down the hallway and into the conference room. McLane receives the news of his demotion with raised eyebrows and a smirk, an expression we’ll see whenever a commanding officer tries to get tough with him.
This is definitely not Rodenberry’s view of the future, with Federation nobility of character keeping shipboard relationships and plotlines conflict-free (unless somebody happens to be taken over by an alien). On the Orion, they yell at each other all the time. It reminded me of my first years here in Berlin when I had to get used to the idea that American friendliness was superficial and hypocritical while German directness was refreshingly honest. Later, I talked with a friend about how startling I’d found the Orion’s code of insubordination, especially when I compared it to the pleasant politeness of the Enterprise crew. He had done his compulsory military service when he was 18, and he told me that that’s how the German military was in the ’60s and ’70s. In an effort to change itself so completely that the mistakes of the ’30s and ’40s could never be repeated, “independent thinking” was encouraged. He and his friends recognized the edgy attitude of the Orion crew and thought the behavior on the Enterprise to be…typically American.
The action continues with the crew now on board the Orion, getting ready for takeoff. When the security officer approaches McLane, the crew stands up, grinning, so they can get a better view of the confrontation. He tells her she should go to her cabin, “and if the trip should be too much for you, you can take one of our deep-sleep tablets.” “You’d be only too glad to freeze me, wouldn’t you!'” she replies. “What I’d like is unfortunately not up for debate. Go to your cabin now. If something should happen to you, I don’t want to be accused of murdering you.” Chuckles all around as she stalks off.
But Jagellovsk is soon back, and she spends the next several minutes arguing with McLane about each of his commands. She’s stiff and expressionless; he shouts a lot, she wins. When his buddy, who commands a deep-space communication outpost, doesn’t answer the Orion’s greeting, McLane changes course to investigate. When she wants him to inform Earth, he shouts, “Stay out of my way! With a sun storm like this, the whole communication system breaks down. Do you expect me to send them a postcard?!” The amount of anger and the volume of the yelling make the viewer search the screen for the alien cloud that must be asserting mind control. All that emotion, and there hasn’t even been a crisis yet. If this is a squabble, what is a real confrontation going to look like?
We find out in a couple of minutes. The Orion arrives at the outpost, dispatching a shuttle with two crew members. They discover the station to be without light or oxygen-and its people dead, frozen in mid-gesture. They follow sounds to find alien beings made of flickering light. They shoot immediately, but the aliens are immune to their ray-guns. Not only that, a fleet is approaching at speeds beyond Orion’s capabilities! Captain McLane flips out completely. There is no sign of a calm Federation officer, remaining cool in the face of danger so that his crew doesn’t panic. Everyone, captain included, runs from one corner to the next and yells a lot. Then Lt. Jagellovsk reminds McLane of what he must do: The station has been invaded and must be destroyed to protect Earth. His away team is either dead or captured and cannot be a consideration. After much yelling, McLane gets the weapon ready but at the last second refuses to shoot. To the warm approval of his crew, he stands up and shouts, “I have to, but I don’t want to. I WON’T!!” It turns out to be a moot point because the aliens have cut the power to the weapon.
Meanwhile, back on the station, the away team has figured out that the aliens had removed all the oxygen because it is deadly to them. They use the oxygen supply from their space suits to kill the crews of the alien fleet when they enter the station, and then start figuring out how they are going to let the Orion know they’re still alive. After a few more exciting scenes including one with a crowd of generals on Earth shouting at each other about what to do about the invasion, everyone gets saved. The episode ends with the crew of the Orion back on Earth being debriefed by Lt. Jagellovsk’s boss, the head of the Galactic Security Service. The away team tells the security chief about the funny nickname they’ve given the aliens (the Frogs), everybody laughs, and they all go back to the Starlight Lounge to have a drink.
So they’re not the pleasant fellows I’m used to from Star Trek. But you’ve got to like them. They argue with each other, disobey orders more often than not, and act like a roomful of cranky McCoys. In fact, they are a lot like we would be if we had to spend weeks at a time in a claustrophobic ship with people we know too well. The plots careen from crisis to crisis with crew members snapping and shouting and then chuckling over a whiskey together. In the last episode, McLane and his loyal crew of four (five counting the Russian spy) defeat the Frogs and save humanity. They get promotions and a three-month vacation, and we are left to wonder about a possible romance between McLane and Jagellovsk.
There were only seven episodes, but the vision of life in the year 3000 shown in them was as dense and complete as the producers could make it. Vast rooms are created with dramatic shadow and light, reminding me of German silent movies. The buildings on Earth are supposed to be underwater, so huge fish swim past view ports. The set designers combine incredibly classy objects like chairs by Eero Saarinen and Miles van der Rohe with incredibly silly things like hundreds of plastic beer glasses glued upside down to the ceiling of the Orion’s bridge. In the Starlight Lounge, people in the background dance deliciously bizarre space dances in slow motion. McLane has to sign dozens of forms on filmy plastic to satisfy the bureaucracy.
It’s not Star Trek, but it is great science fiction.