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PHOENIX FIVE


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In the 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 two. Although 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 self-contained episodes.

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, primarily because
Star 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 mission!

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 persona.

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 programme”.
1 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 crew.

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 filming.”
4

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 monotonous.”
5 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 with.

 

PHOENIX FIVE
EPISODE DETAILS

 

1. TV 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.



The Interpretaris opening titles were a simple affair, consisting of two still shots of a model spacecraft
.


The crew of the 'Interpretaris': Lorraine Bayly as Vera Balovna, Kit Taylor as David Charmichael and Stanley Walsh as Commander Alan De Breck.


The fourth cast member was Ben Gabriel, who played the evil scientist Parta Beno.


Kit Taylor as David Charmichael and Lorraine Bayly as Vera Balovna.


The crew of the 'Interpretaris' inside the spacecraft with their clumsy-looking computeroid Henry.


Vega 4 opening titles.


The crew of the 'Vega 4': Evan Dunstan as Lt. James Adam, John Faasen as Captain Phillip Wallace and Juliana Allan as Ensign Eve Poitier.


The fourth cast member was Eddie Hepple, who played the evil scientist Zodian.


Ensign Eve Poitier and Captain Phillip Wallace wandering about somewhere in outer space.


Captain Phillip Wallace giving instructions to the computeroid Henry.


The Phoenix Five opening titles consisted of numerous scenes from the series, many of which are not depicted here.


The crew 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.


Redmond 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.


Yet 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.


The 'Phoenix Five' crew with the Earth Space Controller, played by Peter Collingwood.


Mike Dorsey as Captain Roke.


Patsy Trench as Cadet Tina Kulbrick.


Damien Parker as Ensign Adam Hargreaves.