Rücksturz in die Zukunft – “Raumpatrouille Orion” at Fifty

1966 was a landmark year for science fiction television. It saw the premieres of Time Tunnel, Mission Impossible, the Adam West Batman series, The Green Hornet (which also introduced Bruce Lee to western audiences) and of course, Star Trek. What is more, 1966 also marks the first appearance of the Cybermen in Doctor Who as well as the first time the world saw the Doctor regenerate.

Amidst all these international anniversaries, one anniversary remains a bit overlooked. For 1966 was also the year that science fiction arrived on (West) German television, when the space cruiser Orion 6 took off from its underwater base for the first time in the TV series officially called Raumpatrouille – Die phantastischen Abenteuer des Raumschiffs Orion (Space Patrol – The fantastic adventures of the space ship Orion), though it’s mostly referred to as Raumpatrouille Orion these days.

Want to see what it was like? The entire seven episode series is available on YouTube. Here is the first episode:

Raumpatrouille Orion is often called Germany’s answer to Star Trek, because both shows feature a spaceship with a maverick captain and an international crew having adventures in groovy 1960s settings. However, this is incorrect, for both shows premiered in September 1966 within nine days of each other (Star Trek on September 8 and Orion on September 17), much too close together for one to have influenced the other. Instead, the similarities between both shows are due to both Gene Roddenberry and Orion creator Rolf Honold being influenced by ideas floating around the zeitgeist of the mid 1960s.

Besides, the similarities between the two shows are largely superficial and Raumpatrouille Orion is very much its own beast. The series chronicles the adventures of Major Cliff Allister McLane, commander of the fast space cruiser Orion, and his crew, chief engineer Hasso Sigbjörnson, weapons officer Mario de Monti,  astrogator (Orion term for navigator) Atan Shubashi and surveillance and communication officer Helga Legrelle. In the first episode, the crew is joined by security officer Lieutenant Tamara Jagellowsk, who has been assigned to the Orion to keep an eye on the authority-challenged McLane and his crew.

I first saw Raumpatrouille Orion as a kid in the late 1970s, around the same time as the original Star Trek, Time Tunnel and Space 1999, all of which impressed this budding SF fan greatly and also had a lot of influence on me. Indeed, all these shows got hopelessly mashed up in the memory to the point that I spent years trying to identify a particularly scary Star Trek episode, only to find that it was really an Orion episode. BTW, those who’ve read my In Love and War series, may notice a lot of Orion references. For example, most Republican worlds mentioned are named after Orion characters.

The plots of the seven Raumpatrouille Orion episodes are borrowed straight from US science fiction of the 1930s and 1940s. Orion creator Rolf Honold was obviously a fan and indeed had been trying to get an SF series off the ground since 1960. And so the stories contain a lot of the old standbys of the golden age such as hostile aliens, prison planets, robots malfunctioning due to a conflict of the Three Laws of Robotics (which are actually quoted, though without attribution), intergalactic superweapons, hypnosis rays, invasion via brainwashing and an undiscovered tenth planet inhabited by a matriarchical society ruled by a beautiful queen. Longterm science fiction fans can probably name the source material for every single episode. However, one must not forget that Raumpatrouille Orion was made for an audience unfamiliar with science fiction, for whom all of those old genre tropes were brand-new. And indeed, reviews from the mid-1960s often complained that the series was pseudo-scientific nonsense and the dialogues way too complicated.

To be fair, the dialogues can be techno-babble heavy at times, which is even more notable, because Raumpatrouille Orion used its own terminology such as astrogator instead of navigator, Lancet instead of shuttle, wholly imaginary Omicron rays and “Rücksturz” (return fall) instead of landing. Though it would be interesting to see if you can find those terms in German SF translations and original science fiction from the 1950s and 1960s or if the Orion writers made them up.

Besides, it’s not as if anybody watches Raumpatrouille Orion for the plots, at least not nowadays. No, the main attraction are the characters and the delightfully retro-futuristic look of the show.

It’s particularly the latter aspect that helped Raumpatrouille Orion achieve cult status via late night marathons in art house cinemas. In the 1990s, I attended such a marathon with a Trekkie friend at a local disco/concert venue/cinema, because in the pre-DVD/pre-streaming era, this was the easiest way to watch the show without breaking out the VCR tapes recorded from a TV rerun. It was kind of obvious that ninety percent of the crowd were not SFF fans, but were watching the show for the camp factor and found the whole things totally hilarious (which was rather irritating, if you actually want to watch the show).

Nowadays, Raumpatrouille Orion is notorious for its supposedly bad special effects and a set design incorporating common household objects such as pencil sharpeners, bathroom taps and – most infamously – a clothes iron which is part of the Orion’s engine room control stand. However, this is unfair and probably due to the fact that many younger people have never seen pre-Star Wars, if not pre-CGI science fiction. Because the special effects in Raumpatrouille Orion were actually excellent by mid 1960s standards, lightyears ahead of anything in Doctor Who and on par with, if not ahead of Star Trek (it’s difficult to tell, because Star Trek was shot in colour, whereas Orion was shot in black and white, which is more forgiving of ropey effects). The German Wikipedia entry explains how the different effects were achieved. Coincidentally, Raumpatrouille Orion was the most expensive German TV production at the time and indeed the high costs per episode probably contributed to the fact that there was only a single seven episode season.

As for the set design incorporating common household objects, Orion‘s set designer was Rolf Zehetbauer, Germany’s most famous set designer at the time. He would go on to work on Das Boot, The Neverending Story and Enemy Mine among others and won an Oscar for his work on Cabaret. He not just furnished the Orion‘s bridge with futuristic looking household objects (and the clothes iron is the only really obvious one, because every family had that clothes iron in the 1960s and 1970s), but also filled the space colonies and underwater bases with classic mid century modern designer furniture by the likes of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Charles Eames, Eero Saarinen, Harry Bertoia and Joe Colombo. While Star Trek quickly went for a swinging sixties look with miniskirts and psychedelic colours, the visuals of Raumpatrouille Orion are a bit more Mad Men era mid century modern. It still looks great, though.

Fun fact: While the Daleks of Doctor Who fame were famously armed with a plunger and an egg whisk, Raumpatrouille Orion‘s robots were armed with an ice cream scoop and an ob-gyn forceps. I know which I find more scary.

Indeed, what sets Raumpatrouille Orion apart from other science fiction TV shows of the 1960s is that some of the top talent in German filmmaking at the time worked on the show. The music was by Peter Thomas, one of Germany’s best film composers. The famous dance scenes frequently seen in the background in scenes set at the so-called Starlight Casino may look terribly goofy today, but were created by a star choreographer. The cast were well known TV and film actors of the day. A lot of them worked on the Edgar Wallace and Jerry Cotton movies. Coincidentally, there is quite a lot of crossover between the Wallace and Jerry Cotton movies on the one hand and Raumpatrouille Orion, both in front of and behind the camera. And of course, Peter Thomas provided his squeaky jazz tunes for all three.

Indeed, the fine actors even in small roles are a large part of what makes Raumpatrouille Orion so good. Many of the characters are familiar types: the gung-ho spaceship captain, the drink-happy crewmember, the no-nonsense security officer, the shouty general and the icy general, the inept bureaucrat, the clueless and naive writer, the alien Amazon queen who is only looking for a real man and so on. In the hands of lesser actors, these characters would have been forgettable stereotypes. But in the hands of the cast, they came to life.

At the centre of the cast is Commander Cliff Allister McLane, played by Austrian actor Dietmar Schönherr. On the occasion of Dietmar Schönherr’s death in 2014, I wrote the following:

Cliff Allister McLane is basically your typical gung-ho space hero, a guy who goes into danger guns blazing, for whom orders are just optional suggestions and who regularly wrecks his spaceship (twice on screen and five times before the start of the series), which gets him demoted to patrol duties in the pilot episode and regularly brings him into conflict with the straight-laced security officer Tamara Jagellowsk. McLane is something of a womanizer, extremely loyal towards his friends and a “rather average kisser” according to Tamara Jagellowsk. In the hands of a lesser actor, McLane would have been a sterotype. Dietmar Schönherr turned him into an icon.

Lieutenant Tamara Jagellowsk, portrayed by the wonderful Eva Pflug, plays the Spock to McLane’s Kirk. A security officer assigned to the Orion crew to keep an eye on the authority-challenged McLane, Tamara is the odd person out among the closely knit Orion crew. Like Spock, she is said to have no emotions (and as with Spock that isn’t quite true) to the point that the Orion crew speculates whether she is an android. However, Tamara is also important to reign in the rather impulsive McLane at times and they quickly come to respect each other, even though they argue all the time and generate enough sparks to power not just the Orion, but also the planet destroying Overkill weapon seen in two episodes.

McLane and Tamara finally kiss in the fifth episode in a prison cell in an “OMG, we’re about to die” moment (spoiler: They don’t), whereupon Tamara famously remarks, “Well, now I’m relieved, cause that was a very average kiss.” How can you not love a female character like that? Though actress Eva Pflug complained that she was typecast as the bitchy official after Orion, because Tamara Jagellowsk ordering men around was a bit too liberated for mid 1960s audiences.

In spite of rather average kisses, McLane and Tamara get together after all in the final episode, giving at least the interpersonal plot a resolution even if the larger conflict between humanity and the alien “Frogs” remains unresolved.

Tamara Jagellowsk would be marvellous, even if she were the only female character of note in Raumpatrouille Orion. But – unusual for the 1960s – she isn’t, for there are several different and well developed female characters, even if they all wear the exact same 1960s beehive. I’m not sure if every episode of Raumpatrouille Orion passes the Bechdel test, but several of them do. The Orion‘s other female crewmember, communication officer Helga Legrelle, played by Ursula Lillig, is sadly not given a whole lot to do and her pining for McLane and jealousy of Tamara Jagellowsk are way too stereotyped. However, Lydia Van Dyke, fleet general and former commander (and, it is implied, lover) of McLane is another great female character. She is played by actress Charlotte Kerr, wife of Friedrich Dürrenmatt. Ms. Kerr BTW appeared in two other German SF productions (well, borderline SF, but they definitely were when made), the apocalyptic thriller Plutonium and the black market organ thriller Fleisch (Meat) in the 1970s. Lydia Van Dyke’s ship is called the Hydra BTW in a bit of unfortunate naming (all vessels in Raumpatrouille Orion are named after constellations). Margot Trooger, best remembered as Cora Ann Milton in the Edgar Wallace movie The Ringer (see my review here) manages to give some dimension to the stock role of the Amazon queen from outer space. After she has rendered McLane speechless and has him stammering “I don’t know what to say”, Margot Trooger’s Amazon queen from outer space replies, “Well, maybe you could yell some more.” Lieselotte Quilling, finally, has a recurring part as Ingrid, the wife of Orion chief engineer Hasso Sigbjörnson, who is not happy that her husband keeps following McLane on adventures which might get him killed. Kai Schwirzke’s article about the show’s 50th anniversary at Heise Online goes a bit deeper into the gender roles in Raumpatrouille Orion.

In spite of its good record on the gender front, Raumpatrouille Orion is still a very white show made in what was still a largely white country. The Orion crew and the space fleet personnel in general is international and indeed the opening narration (de rigeur for 1960s TV science fiction) explains that nation states have been abolished. However, international in this case means white European. And so the Orion crew consists of a Scotsman, a Russian, a Swede, an Italian and a Swiss woman. One member of the Orion crew, astrogator Atan Shubashi, is supposedly Japanese – however, he is played by white actor F.C. Beckhaus, one of the two surviving actors of the main crew together with Wolfgang Völz who played weapons officer Mario de Monti. There actually were a few actors of colour working in West Germany in the 1960s and 1970s, but apparently all of them were off filming Edgar Wallace or Jerry Cotton that month.

Another thing that Raumpatrouille Orion shares with Star Trek (and Firefly, for that matter) is that it ended much too soon. The original Star Trek at least got three seasons, while Raumpatrouille Orion got only seven episodes. Since the conflict between humanity and the hostile alien “Frogs” is far from resolved at the end, it is obvious that there was probably intended to be a second season. However, in spite of the sort of high ratings that only World Cup finals can achieve these days upon first broadcast, dozens of TV repeats over the years and the show’s cult status, those seven episodes are all there is.

As for why there never was any more Raumpatrouille Orion, there are several theories, listed by Frank Behrens in this Spiegel Online article. Probably the silliest, claimed by producer Hans Gottschalk, is that there simply weren’t enough ideas for further episodes. This is profoundly silly, because the first seven episodes did pretty well borrowing from forty years of American magazine SF and five years of Perry Rhodan. Indeed, even a single yearly run of the big American SF mags of the time would have yielded more than enough ideas for further episodes.

Another complaint against Raumpatrouille Orion was that the series was “too militaristic” and even fascistoid. Of course, leftwing German pop culture criticism of the 1960s and 1970s pretty much called any popular entertainment “fascistoid” that was not aimed at raising the consciousness of the working class. G-Man Jerry Cotton was fascistoid, even though he was played by a gay actor on screen. James Bond was fascistoid. Even poor Captain America was fascistoid, which makes Steve Rogers cry and Hulk smash.

Science fiction of any kind was inevitably suspected of fascistoid tendencies, because it was not overly connected to everyday lives, which was considered the only subject worth exploring in art, and also didn’t do much to raise the consciousness of the working class. And yes, you’ll find those words pretty much verbatim in German leftwing pop culture criticism of the 1960s and 1970s. These attitudes were still lingering on well into the 1980s, as plenty of debates with German teachers who attacked students for reading speculative fiction (because attacking and belittling your students’ reading choices is such a great way to get them to read) abundantly showed. Coincidentally, a lot of the complaints of the sad puppies about preachy leftwing message fiction that has supposedly infected speculative fiction sound as if they’re arguing not with today’s genre, but with the over-the-top leftwing pop culture criticism of the 1960s and 1970s which was way past its sell-by date even when I encountered the primary sources (rather than the watered down version spouting from the mouths of teachers) at uni in the 1990s.

1970s pop culture critics accusing anything at all of fascistoid tendencies were inevitably wrong and often hadn’t actually read/watched the work in question at all. For example, SF pulp hero Perry Rhodan, who was constantly slammed for his supposed fascistoid tendencies, actually allies himself with peaceful aliens against a militaristic Earth and proceeds to destroy all nuclear weapons on Earth – yeah, really fascist. As for how anybody could call Captain America fascist (proper, pre-Hydra brainwashing Cap), honestly I have no words except “Hulk smash.”

As usual, the critics accusing Raumpatrouille Orion of fascistoid tendencies and glorifying the military were wrong. The fascism accusation is actually offensive, considering that the star of the show was an outspoken peace activist and the cast included at least one Jewish actor and one actor who was banned from working during the Third Reich because of “non-aryan origin”.

Does the military feature prominently in the show? Well, it’s called Space Patrol Orion, so of course it does. And people involved in the production have said that the military content was even stronger in the original scripts (writer Rolf Honold was a WWII veteran, whose other writing credits include a couple of war movies) and was toned down during shooting. But that the show features military characters doesn’t mean that it glorifies the military. Quite the contrary, it’s actually quite critical of military structures, very much mirroring West German attitudes about war and the military some twenty years after the end of WWII.

The various generals and other high ranking military officials, all played by the creme de la creme of postwar German acting talent, are usually portrayed as inept, overly hierarchical and bureaucratic and unconcerned about the lives of those under their command. Plenty of scenes show overzealous generals ordering preventive strikes against alien planets, space colonies potentially under the control of hostile aliens and anything else that doesn’t respond as expected, regardless of the loss of human life. There are lots of tense moments as McLane is ordered to destroy some outpost or other, usually while either members of the Orion crew or other sympathetic characters are still on board, and either refuses to follow those orders or does his best to resolve the situation before someone else can carry them out. It’s also striking that all high-ranking officers in the series are universally unlikable – probably due to the lingering memory of WWII generals sendings thousands of soldiers to die in hopeless battles – except for the above mentioned General Lydia Van Dyke and Colonel Villa (delightfully played by Friedrich Joloff), head of the galactic intelligence service and Tamara Jagellowsk’s direct superior. Indeed, Colonel Villa is often the one who keeps the overzealous Generals Wamsler and Kublai-Krim from bombing the planet or outpost of the week to smithereens. When he is brainwashed and turned into a villain for the final episode, I actually felt betrayed, even though Friedrich Joloff’s evil Villa is probably the most chilling character in the entire series.

Meanwhile, Cliff Allister McLane is part of the military, but clearly supposed to represent the burgeoning counterculture of the 1960s. McLane is a rebel, he considers orders merely suggestions and frequently ignores them. Interestingly, McLane also expects his subordinates to use their common sense rather than blindly following orders. When Atan Shubashi almost gets himself and Helga Legrelle killed maintaining an energy-intensive illusion, McLane berates him for blindly following orders rather than “switching the damn thing off”. Coincidentally, that scene is also the first instance – at least, to my knowledge – that the word “Scheiße” was uttered on German TV, fifteen years before Horst Schimanski shocked conservative audience doing the same. It’s striking that throughout the series, McLane’s first concern is always saving (human) lives, even against the opposition of his superiors and at times his own crewmates.

I often say that Raumpatrouille Orion permanently ruined me for the “Rah, rah, space marines” brand of US military science fiction, because after watching McLane go against orders again and again, I simply couldn’t take characters blindly following orders seriously. Also compare McLane refusal to bomb an outpost that has been taken over by hostile aliens, even though there are still two Orion crewmembers on board, to President Laura Roslin ordering a ship that may have been taken over by Cylons destroyed in one of the first episodes of the new Battlestar Galactica. When faux Starbuck and faux Apollo actually destroyed that ship, even though there might still be humans on board, it killed the new Galactica for me (to be fair, I disliked the show from the very beginning), because McLane would never have done that and he would have pulled it off, too.

Besides, there are plenty of hints that in spite of the optimistic opening narration, the pan-national society of Raumpatrouille Orion is not nearly as utopian as it looks at first glance. It not only has rather trigger happy military commanders, but there are also hints at widespread environmental pollution. When the Orion lands on the matriarchical planet Chroma, the crew are stunned how lush and green it is. What is more, poodles are nigh extinct, Orion astrogator Atan Shubashi is the proud owner of one of the last survivors. And when the Orion is forced to land on a prison asteroid in one episode, there is a throwaway line that the prisoners are not actually criminals but that the place is a gulag for rebels and malcontents, quite a few of them former celebrities. No, a utopia this is not. Coincidentally, I also think that in only seven episodes, Raumpatrouille Orion manages to present a more complete picture of the future world in which the series is set than the original Star Trek manages to do in ten times as many.

So if it wasn’t unfounded criticism of fascistoid tendencies, what is the true reason why Raumpatrouille Orion only lasted for seven episodes. The most likely answer is, as so often, money. For though the show was a huge success, it was also extremely costly to produce. And the impending switch to colour would have made the production even more costly, especially since sets, uniforms, etc… would all have to be redone, because as the few surviving colour stills show, everything was literally black and grey.

Of course, the question remains why – unlike Star TrekRaumpatrouille Orion was never revived. There is a single feature film, which is basically key scenes of the series edited together with a bit of new framing material. However, there never was a movie version containing only new footage, there never was Raumpatrouille Orion – The Next Generation, there never was a reboot. Seven episodes, a few spin-off novels and audio dramas are all that remains of Germany’s first SF series.

In this Tagesspiegel article published on occasion of Orion‘s fortieth anniversary in 2006, Leila Knüppel attempts to answer the question just why there was no more German science fiction after Raumpatrouille Orion and the answer is depressing as hell.

First of all, Ms. Knüppel is wrong, because there was the occasional West German foray into science fiction post Orion (and the East Germans made a few as well) such as the brilliant dystopian media satire Das Millionenspiel (The Million Game), the near future thriller Das Blaue Palais (The Blue Palace), Roland Emmerich’s directorial debut Das Arche Noah Prinzip as well as his follow-ups Joey and Moon 44 (the latter two are hybrids with an international cast, but Germans behind the camera), the Tatort episode Tod im All (Death in Space), an X-Files parody starring former Orion star Dietmar Schönherr, and the apocalyptic depression fest Die Wolke (The Cloud), based on Gudrun Pausewang’s eponymous novel. True, most later German science fiction is dystopian or post-apocalyptic, but even German space opera still exists post-Orion. Roland Emmerich’s Noah’s Ark Prinziple and the vastly underrated Moon 44, Es ist nicht leicht, ein Gott zu sein (It’s not easy being a god), the adaption of the Strugatsky brothers’ eponymous novel, and the Spaceman Ijon Tichy series, based on Stanislav Lem’s eponymous stories, are all examples, as is Bully Herbig’s Star Trek parody Traumschiff Surprise.

However, Leila Knüppel is right that there is comparatively little German science fiction and that it is extremely hard to get the funding to make an SF series or TV movie in Germany. The argument that science fiction is simply too expensive for Germans to make is wrong, because the public TV stations ARD and ZDF have a budget comparable to the BBC’s (which manages to make SF just fine) and German public film funds are wasted on Hollywood productions that just happen to shoot in Germany all the time. And of the private TV stations, RTL manages to spend roughly one million per episode on Alarm für Cobra 11 and produce a slick product that looks like a Hollywood action movie with one hundred times a budget. So the money to make a German SF series would certainly be there.

The argument that German productions could not match the special effects of US productions is bunk as well, because there are actually quite a few special effects companies based in Germany these days. However, they work on those international productions we supposedly cannot match rather than on homegrown fare.

So a far more likely answer is that there is simply no will to make science fiction in Germany, because it is assumed that German audiences simply do not care for science fiction, even though both Raumpatrouille Orion and a few years later Star Trek were big hits. Leila Knüppel offers a few quotes along those lines from a spokewoman of the TV company Sat 1 group and the head of the Bavaria Studios in Munich, where Raumpatrouille Orion was shot fifty years ago.

The Sat 1 spokeswoman declares that they used to broadcast Star Trek weekly on their flagship channel as well as daily reruns of old original series and Next Generation eps on a smaller channel, but that the ratings were too low, because audiences supposedly want programming that has something to do with their everyday lives (I hear the echoes of 1970s pop culture criticism there). Telenovelas and reality shows are where it’s at, not science fiction. What she does not say is that Star Trek Enterprise finished in 2005, so by 2006 there was no more new Trek to broadcast. As for falling ratings for the reruns, considering how often both the original series and Next Generation have been rerun, I’m not surprised that ratings were falling. She also fails to mention that those telenovelas and reality shows the audience is supposedly craving are much cheaper to make than SF shows, even imported SF shows. Though she is correct that SFF shows of any kind, whether space opera, urban fantasy, epic fantasy, post-apocalyptic, superhero shows, etc… are often shunted to small channels in graveyard slots, which never gives them the chance to find their audience. However, it’s the anti-SFF prejudices of the TV stations which are to blame for this, not the audience which never had the chance to even find those shows.

The quote from the head of the Bavaria Studios is even sadder, because he simply states, “Well, science fiction is not a German topic.”

This is not just fucking depressing – “Hey, forget about the future. That’s not a German topic. Watch this TV show about a kindly doctor or a nun harrassing a small town mayor instead.” – it also shows why everybody who wants to make science fiction or fantasy in Germany quickly escapes to friendlier climates. This attitude is why we lost Roland Emmerich and Wolfgang Petersen to Hollywood (as well as Uwe Boll, but he’s not exactly a big loss). Coincidentally, it’s also why I write in English – because I grasped early on that there wasn’t a market for what I write in Germany and what little market there is prefers US imports.

So let’s celebrate fifty years of Raumpatrouille Orion and look back at a time, when German filmmakers and TV producers still had the guts to take a chance on a science fiction series, before drowning us in a swamp of kindly doctors, concerned cops and the insipid going-ons aboard cruiseliners.

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4 Responses to Rücksturz in die Zukunft – “Raumpatrouille Orion” at Fifty

  1. Cora says:

    This is a test.

  2. Cora says:

    And another test.

  3. Pingback: New Release: Graveyard Shift, an In Love and War novelette | Pegasus Pulp

  4. Pingback: In Memoriam Peter Thomas | Cora Buhlert

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