last couple of decades, Australia has produced some excellent
science-fiction series for children, such as The Girl From Tomorrow and Cybergirl, to name but
intended for children, these productions were sophisticated enough to hold
the interest of adult viewers. Such was not always the case.
In the first twenty years of Australian television, seven science-fiction
shows were produced, and all were made for children. The first was The
Stranger (1964, with a second series in 1965), followed by Wandjina!
in 1966. Then came the trilogy of The Interpretaris (1966), Vega
4 (1967) and Phoenix Five (1969), and later there was Alpha
Scorpio (1974) and Andra (1976). All were produced by or for
the Australian Broadcasting Commission, and all were serials (continuing
narratives) except Phoenix Five, which was structured as
As this website deals only with series (as opposed to serials),
Phoenix Five is the only one of these programmes to fall within
this frame of reference. However, to examine Phoenix Five we must
also look at the preceding two serials of the trilogy, The
Interpretaris and Vega 4.
Phoenix Five has been accused of ‘cheaply going where Star Trek
had boldly gone before’, a not entirely valid criticism. Phoenix Five
was certainly cheap, but it was definitely not a copy of Star Trek,
as its predecessor The Interpretaris dates back to 1966 before
Star Trek had gone to air in the United States. There were some
similarities in concept between Star Trek and The Interpretaris;
both series were set in an enlightened future with a peaceful Earth as the
centre of a federation of planets, and both featured a ‘state of the art’
spaceship, with a multinational crew and a resourceful captain at the
helm, exploring unknown areas of the galaxies. However, that is where any
direct comparison must end, as the two shows were vastly different,
Trek was intended for an adult audience, and its comparatively huge
budget ensured the
production standards were light
years ahead of The Interpretaris. It is worth noting though, that
The Interpretaris featured a Russian crew member long before Chekov
was introduced to Star Trek.
The Interpretaris was produced by Artransa Park at their Sydney
studios, in association with the ABC. It first went to air on the ABC in
October 1966, with subsequent repeat screenings on the Seven Network. This
unique arrangement was a result of the relationship between ATN-7 Sydney
and Artransa Park, so that even though the programme was commissioned by
the public broadcaster and utilised some ABC personnel, repeat rights were
slated for the Seven Network from the outset.
Six half-hour episodes were made in black and white, almost entirely
filmed within the confines of the Artransa Park studios. Scriptwriter for
the serial was Barbara Vernon, who went on to create the very successful
ABC soap opera Bellbird. Producer and Director was Kay Roberts.
The Interpretaris was set over 500 years in the future, with the
Earth at the centre of a peaceful federation of planets under the
jurisdiction of the World Council. The title refers to a spacecraft, ‘The
Interpretaris’, the flagship of the World Council fleet. The serial opens
with an evil scientist, Parta Beno, who has been found guilty of
imprisoning and reducing in size inhabitants of various planets. As
punishment he is exiled to a remote asteroid, with the only amenities being a crude laboratory. All the
specimens that Parta Beno collected were sent back to their home worlds by
the World Council, except those few that the Council had no knowledge of, let
alone any idea about the planets from whence they came. The hand-picked
crew of ‘The Interpretaris’ were given the mission of returning these
aliens to their home planets.
The three-person multinational crew selected for the mission was headed by
Commander Alan De Breck, a European played by Stanley Walsh. The pilot was
David Charmichael, an Australian played by Kit Taylor (who appeared over
ten years earlier as a young boy in The Adventures Of Long John Silver,
the first television series made in Australia). The third crew member was
female, Vera Balovna, a Russian played by Lorraine Bayly (who was perhaps
best remembered for her role as Grace Sullivan in the late 70’s / early
80’s war-time serial The Sullivans). Issues of female equality were
raised early on in the programme - Vera was hoping to be in charge of the
The crew were assisted by a computeroid named Henry - a clumsy-looking
robotic computer with artificial intelligence and almost human emotions,
operated by Gordon Mutch. There was a second ‘living’ computer on board
named Alys, a ‘female’ that looked like a mantelpiece clock, her voice
being provided by Judi Farr (who later played Rita Stiller in My Name’s
McGooley - What’s Yours? and Rita And Wally, and Thelma in
Kingswood Country). Alys was one of Parta Beno’s specimens awaiting
return to her home world, but doubled as a spy under his orders. Parta
Beno, played by Ben Gabriel, controlled Alys from his asteroid exile, and
used her to try and sabotage the mission of ‘The Interpretaris’.
The six episodes concerned the mission of returning the strange life forms
to their strange planets, and contending with Parta Beno’s attempts to
thwart their mission and gain his freedom. During the course of events,
Henry and Alys ‘fall in love’, which eventually results in Alys breaking
free of Parta Beno’s control, although at the expense of her own
existence. Parta Beno is subsequently captured by ‘The Interpretaris’ crew
and returned to exile in the final episode.
Even allowing for the fact that the programme was made for children,
The Interpretaris is not a very sophisticated production. It looks
cheap - limited cheap sets, cheap models and cheap effects, all indicative
of a small budget. There are good performances from the cast, and the crew
seem to be doing the best they can with what they have, but the overall
effect is disappointing.
In spite of the deficiencies of The Interpretaris, it was decided
to make a sequel the following year. Vega 4 was a serial of seven
half-hour episodes, this time filmed in colour. Also produced by Artransa
Park at their Sydney studios, in association with the ABC, the same
screening arrangements applied. Made in 1967, it was first screened by the
ABC in Melbourne on May 19, 1968, and in Sydney on June 2. Repeat
screenings were on the Seven Network. Producer of the show was Alan Burke,
the scripts were written by John Warwick and music was composed and
conducted by Tommy Tycho.
Vega 4 opens with a new threat to Earth detected by Earth Space
Control emanating from Galaxy Five. To deal with the situation, the
President orders the commissioning of the yet untested new spaceship,
‘Vega 4’. When it is suggested that ‘The Interpretaris’ should be sent on
the mission, it is revealed that it is not equipped for travel to Galaxy
Five and therefore the ‘Vega 4’ is the only hope for Earth to survive.
As in The Interpretaris, a three-person crew (two males, one
female) is selected for the mission: Captain Phillip Wallace, played by
John Faasen; Lieutenant James Adam, played by Evan Dunstan; and Ensign Eve
Poitier, played by Juliana Allan. They are also assisted by a computeroid
named Henry, which looks exactly the same as the Henry from the earlier
serial. When the Captain says that he thought Henry was on ‘The
Interpretaris’, he is told that “his older cousin was and still is”. This
Henry is a new and improved model.
It is soon revealed that the threat to Earth from Galaxy Five is the
handiwork of another evil scientist named Zodian, played by Eddie Hepple
(who previously had the title role in Barley Charlie and would
later appear in The Rovers). Zodian, assisted by his computer, is
seeking revenge on Earth for exiling him to an asteroid, and believes he
will succeed where Parta Beno failed. Hepple capably portrayed Zodian’s
eccentricity and added a comedic touch which softened the character’s evil
A support role in the serial was played by Ken Fraser as the President of
Earth Space Control. The seven episodes are concerned with the ‘Vega 4’
crew dealing with the threat from Galaxy Five, and in the final episode
Zodian is captured and their mission is completed.
Although Vega 4 was an improvement on The Interpretaris, not
least because of colour filming, it still suffered from a low budget
resulting in some dodgy sets, models and special effects. Vega 4
featured more location filming, but a large percentage of each episode was
still confined to a small number of studio sets. Producer Alan Burke said,
“Many special effects were used to give added atmosphere to the
That was true, but the effectiveness of the effects was severely limited
by the low budget.
The third series in the trilogy was Phoenix Five. The same formula
applied: the title referred to the flagship spacecraft of Earth Space
Control, with a crew of three (two male, one female) plus a computeroid,
and they spent most of their time outwitting an evil scientist. The same
production arrangements also applied: Phoenix Five was produced by
Artransa Park at their Sydney studios in association with the ABC. And the
same screening arrangements applied: first run episodes were shown by
the ABC, with repeat screenings on the Seven Network.
The major difference was in the structure. Phoenix Five was not a
serial, but consisted of self-contained episodes, and consequently had a
longer production run - 26 colour episodes were made, each a half-hour in
length. Production commenced on December 3rd, 1968, and
continued to mid-1969.
The episodes were introduced by a narrative, accompanied by appropriate
images, which stated:
The year: 2500 AD.
The ‘Phoenix Five’. The crew: Captain Roke, Ensign Adam Hargreaves, Cadet
Tina Kulbrick, and their computeroid Karl. Their mission: to patrol the
outer galaxies for Earth Space Control, to maintain peace, and to capture
Zodian the humanoid, who with the aid of his computers Alpha and Zeta
endeavours to become dictator of outer space.
Mike Dorsey was cast in the lead role of Captain Mike Roke, with Patsy
Trench (who later appeared in the second series of Delta) as Cadet
Tina Kulbrick, and Damien Parker as second-in-command Ensign Adam
Hargreaves. Peter Collingwood had a support role as the Earth Space
Controller, who directs the ‘Phoenix Five’ missions. As in the previous
two serials, the crew were assisted by a computeroid named Karl, whose
appearance was improved on but remained as clumsy-looking as the earlier serials
Henry’s. Karl was operated by Stuart Leslie.
Vega 4 scriptwriter John Warwick was Script Editor for Phoenix
Five, and he also wrote a number of episodes. Producer for the first
ten episodes was Peter Summerton, and episodes 11 - 26 were produced by
John Walters following Summerton’s untimely death. Director of the series
was David Cahill.
The villain of the piece was again Zodian, played by Redmond Philips (best
remembered for his later role of Colonel Cato in Spyforce). Philips
played the part in the same eccentric-with-comedic-touch style established
by Eddie Hepple in Vega 4. His appearance was altered
significantly, however - Zodian now had aqua-blue skin with a blue mouth
and eyebrows, and was always described as a ‘humanoid’. In the first
episode, Zodian escapes from custody on Earth and flees to his hideout on
the planet Zebula 9, where his twin computers ‘Alpha’ and ‘Zeta’ aid and
abet him in his nefarious deeds.
Redmond Philips made his final appearance in episode 13, ‘The Baiter Is
Bitten’, in which the ‘Phoenix Five’ crew finally manage to capture Zodian
and bring him to justice. From the next episode there was a new villain
to deal with: Platonus, who, predictably, was another warped evil scientist, played by Owen Weingott. Platonus had pointy
ears (obviously inspired by Star Trek’s Mr. Spock) and a computer
named Tommy who spoke with a Cockney accent. The opening narrative was
altered to read:
The year: 2500 AD.
The crew: Captain Roke, Ensign Adam Hargreaves, Cadet Tina Kulbrick, and
their computeroid Karl. Their mission: to maintain peace, and to patrol
the outer galaxies of Earth Space Control. Their constant threat: Platonus,
who dreams of ruling the galaxies and, by using his computer through an
innocent victim, plans to capture or destroy the ‘Phoenix Five’ and her
The last episode, No. 26 ‘General Alarm’, saw the capture of Platonus by
the ‘Phoenix Five’ crew. Captain Roke was promoted to head of Earth
Defence, and Adam was promoted to Captain of the ‘Phoenix Five’. The
episode closes with Adam and Roke in a friendly argument over who was
going to retain Tina as their assistant.
As Phoenix Five consisted of self-contained episodes, the villain
Zodian and later Platonus did not appear in every episode. Not being
constrained by one plot-line as the previous serials were, Phoenix Five
gained measurably from being able to wander around the cosmos dealing with
whatever situation the crew would find themselves in.
Phoenix Five went to air in May 1970, almost one year after
production was completed, and the episodes were shown out of order. It was
screened in a Sunday afternoon timeslot nationally, which in Melbourne put
it in direct competition with repeats of U.S. sci-fi series Star Trek
and Land Of The Giants. TV critic Veritas, writing in the Melbourne
Truth, lamented this position: “When you put Phoenix Five up
against The Land of The Giants the production looks smaller than
the ‘little people’ themselves; and up against Star Trek, Aunty
Two’s spaceship looks like a toy you can find in any department store for
a few cents. Phoenix Five, in my opinion, would have been a much
better proposition had it been given a weekday children’s timeslot.”2
An area that Phoenix Five did excel in was the costumes. Zodian was
dressed in a blue floor-length robe, and Platonus featured an elaborate
purple costume. There were more guest artists in Phoenix Five than
the earlier serials, and they were adorned accordingly: Arna-Maria
Winchester, in episode 3 ‘To End Is To Begin’, was covered from head to
foot in pink tights as a life-form from the planet Leonicus; Pat Sullivan
appeared in episode 16, ‘Slave Queen’, in regal robes as a mini-skirted
monarch; Tony Ingersent was adorned in an aquatic costume for his role of
Neptunus in episode 13, ‘The Baiter Is Bitten’; Christopher Johnson wore
weird headgear as an emissary from the planet Tylantia in episode 2, ‘Two
Heads Are Better Than None’; to mention but a few. A production spokesman
was quoted in TV Week: “The series is certainly not intended to
terrify children, but we have given full rein to our imaginations in
designing the space outfits.”3
There was more location filming in Phoenix Five, usually in rock
quarries to simulate alien landscapes. Interior scenes were filmed in the
Artransa Park studios, and exterior scenes of the spacecraft utilised
three models (two inches, eight inches and ten feet long respectively),
filmed against a black velvet background with torch bulbs used to simulate
a starry effect.
Special Effects man Peter Hicks was hampered by the show’s low budget, but
he still did the best he could with what was available. “Our biggest
problem,” he said, “was stopping a ton of ice melting when ‘Phoenix Five’
was trapped in a planet of solid ice and had to blast its way out using
rocket motors. It was done in the studio and took two to three hours of
Patsy Trench said that her part in Phoenix Five did not appeal to
her as an actress. “We seemed to spend most of our time reading dials and
talking space jargon. I did that for six months and it became very
Patsy later pointed out other shortcomings: “The script writers weren't
even aware of the capabilities of the space ship, and nobody seemed to
know what was going on.”6
Phoenix Five was an improvement on both The Interpretaris
and Vega 4, but it still suffered from the effects of a low budget.
The scripts varied considerably - some were very clever and well-written,
others were just plain silly. And the sets, special effects and model work
still looked as dodgy as ever. The episodes usually had a moral message
which was delivered in a subtle manner, minus the syrupy ‘hearts and
flowers’ that pervade most U.S. shows. As they stand, the trilogy of
The Interpretaris, Vega 4 and Phoenix Five are not in
the same league as overseas contemporaries such as Star Trek or
Doctor Who, and they pale in comparison to later Aussie sci-fi shows
such as The Girl From Tomorrow and Cybergirl. Phoenix
Five and its predecessors fall well short of their potential, in spite
of having basic concepts that were at least as visionary as some
successful overseas sci-fi programmes. It would have been interesting to
see what could have been achieved if there was a larger budget to play
Times, May 29, 1968.
2. Melbourne Truth, May 16, 1970.
3. TV Week, June 6, 1970.
4. TV Times, July 1, 1970.
5. TV Week, Feb 21, 1970.
6. TV Week, Aug 1, 1970.
opening titles were a simple affair, consisting of two still shots of a
of the 'Interpretaris': Lorraine Bayly as Vera Balovna, Kit Taylor as
David Charmichael and Stanley Walsh as Commander Alan De Breck.
cast member was Ben Gabriel, who played the evil scientist Parta Beno.
as David Charmichael and Lorraine Bayly as Vera Balovna.
of the 'Interpretaris' inside the spacecraft with their clumsy-looking
of the 'Vega 4': Evan Dunstan as Lt. James Adam, John Faasen as Captain
Phillip Wallace and Juliana Allan as Ensign Eve Poitier.
cast member was Eddie Hepple, who played the evil scientist Zodian.
Poitier and Captain Phillip Wallace wandering about somewhere in outer
Phillip Wallace giving instructions to the computeroid Henry.
Phoenix Five opening
titles consisted of numerous scenes from the series, many of which are not
of the 'Phoenix Five': Patsy Trench as Cadet Tina Kulbrick, Mike Dorsey as
Captain Roke and Damien Parker as Ensign Adam Hargreaves. In the
background is their computeroid Karl.
Philips played the evil scientist Zodian for the first 13 episodes.
A scene from
episode 3, 'To End Is To Begin'. Patsy Trench as Cadet Tina Kulbrick with
Arna-Maria Winchester covered in pink as
a life-form from the planet Leonicus.
another evil scientist. In the second half of the series, eps 14 - 26,
Owen Weingott played Platonus, whose looks are obviously inspired by Mr.
Spock from Star Trek.
'Phoenix Five' crew with the Earth Space Controller, played by Peter
Dorsey as Captain Roke.
Trench as Cadet Tina Kulbrick.
Parker as Ensign Adam Hargreaves.