Austrian SF legend Dietmar Schönherr dies

Austrian actor and television personality Dietmar Schönherr died yesterday aged 88. Here are two obituaries from Die Welt und Der Tagespiegel as well as a video obituary courtesy of kulturzeit.

In spite of the surfeit of world news on this day, all news and cultural programs made room for tributes to Dietmar Schönherr. However, most of them focussed mainly on his time as a host of game and talkshows in the 1970s as well as on his humanitarian work (more on that later). And indeed Dietmar Schönherr introduced the talkshow to German television in 1973 (we shall forgive him for that, for he knew not what he wrought). And Wünsch Dir Was (Make a wish), a gameshow Schönherr hosted together with his wife Vivi Bach in the early 1970s caused not one but two TV scandals, when a game got out of hand and nearly drowned a family who had been lowered with their car into a swimming pool and when a when a 17-year-old contestant paraded across a catwalk in a transparent blouse (mild nudity alert). Particularly the transparent blouse is something of a giggler today, since only a few years later, such blouses were normal everyday wear. My Mom had a very similar blouse in the mid to late 1970s.

Beyond half-drowned families and transparent blouses, Wünsch Dir Was was one of the first interactive gameshows on German language TV. However, in those days before televoting participants in selected towns voted for the winner via switching on the lights in their homes or flushing their toilets! Which is a lot more bizarre than transparent blouses could ever be.

But German SF fans (and even many non-fans) will forever associate Dietmar Schönherr with the role of Major Cliff Allister McLane, commander of the space cruiser Orion 7 in the TV series Raumpatrouille – Die phantastischen Abenteuer des Raumschiffs Orion (Space Patrol – The fantastic adventures of the spaceship Orion).

Raumpatrouille Orion is often called Germany’s answer to Star Trek. But this is wrong, because Star Trek and Orion both debuted within two weeks of each other in September 1966 and thus had to be developed independently of each other. I guess it was a case of an idea that was simply floating around in the Zeitgeist at the time. And there certainly are superficial similarities between Raumpatrouille Orion and Star Trek, since both shows star a spaceship with a multi-national crew and a dashing gung-ho commander. What is more, both shows tackled the social issues of the era, disguised as SF.

IMO Raumpatrouille Orion wasn’t quite as successful as SF as the best of Star Trek, since the SF components were mostly rehashes of well-worn golden age tropes (one episode plays very much like an Asimov robot story). On the other hand, Orion was generally better acted. It also had better and more regular female characters. The regular Orion crew consisted of four men and two women, including the wonderful security officer Lieutenant Tamara Jagellowsk, who is still one of my favourite female SF characters of all time. Female space fleet general (and apparently a former lover of McLane’s) Lydia van Dyke (played by Friedrich von Dürrenmatt’s wife Charlotte Kerr) appeared in several episodes and Margot Trooger guest-starred as the queen of the space amazons (like I said, the series had a thing for hoary tropes). The crew was diverse with regard to nationality and consisted of a Scotsman, a Russian (in the middle of the Cold War!), an Italian, a Swede, a Japanese and a Swiss woman. Alas, Raumpatrouille Orion was a 100% white show due to being made in what was still a very white country. One crewmember, astrogator Atan Shubashi is supposedly Japanese, but played by white actor Friedrich Georg Beckhaus.

Though Raumpatrouille Orion‘s special effects get some flak today, since many of the futuristic machines were assembled from common household devices (the navigation clothes iron is particularly notable), they were outstanding for their time and are lightyears ahead of mid 1960s Doctor Who and even edge ahead of Star Trek at times (though unlike Orion, Star Trek was shot in colour, which is less forgiving of ropey effects).

But what made Raumpatrouille Orion so special were the characters, particularly the Schönherr’s Commander McLane and his security officer Tamara Jagellowsk (played by Eva Pflug), whose sparring and chemistry created enough sparks to power not just the Orion but the underwater base where she was docked when not in service as well. They finally got together in the final episode.

Cliff Allister McLane is basically your typical gung-ho space hero, a guy who goes into danger guns blazing, for whom order 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 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.

As a product of the 1960s, Raumpatrouille Orion reflects West German anxieties about rearmament following WWII and a deep scepticism not so much towards the military itself (unlike the Enterprise, the Orion is a military vessel), but towards generals with little concern for human lives (McLane repeatedly acts against orders to save lives). Characters like the shouty General Wamsler and the icy intelligence officer Colonel Villa show how the average West German viewed the military, particularly its higher ranks.

Though part of the military himself, our hero McLane is closer to the counterculture of the 1960s. McLane isn’t a pacifist and indeed is perfectly willing to fight the shadowy aliens known only as “the Frogs”. However, McLane is a rebel. Orders are totally optional for him and definitely not to be followed blindly. Indeed, in one episode he berates two of his crewmembers for blindly following one of his order and thus putting themselves into danger. And – sorry Horst Schimanski – but Cliff Allister McLane was the first person to utter the word “shit” on German TV, albeit in adjective form.

Indeed, I can trace many of my problems with the “Rah, rah, space marines” strain of military SF right back to Raumpatrouille Orion. Because after seeing Cliff Allister McLane yelling at two of his crewmen and friends for following his own orders and thus risking their own lives in the process, the blind obedience and “Yes, sir, no sir” attitude of much military SF was difficult to accept.

Ironically, Raumpatrouille Orion caught some flak in the late 1960s from the usual suspects for its military content and was even called “fascistoid” at one point, which was the favourite accusation of certain leftwing pop culture scholars of the time to hurl at any kind of popular entertainment at all. It makes you wonder whether those people ever actually watched the show. But then those are the same people who called Captain America “a fascist idol” (Steve Rogers weeps and Hulk smashes) and who also accused Perry Rhodan, another German space hero, of “fascistoid tendencies”, even though Perry Rhodan allies himself with peaceful aliens against a militaristic Earth in his very first adventure and proceeds to destroy all nuclear weapons on Earth, instantly ending the Cold War by pissing off East and West enough that they unite against him. Fascistoid indeed. To quote Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Dietmar Schönherr was as much of a rebel in real life as on the the screen. Though he came from an aristocratic military family and made his screen debut in a Nazi propaganda film, he was active in the peace movement, was arrested while protesting the deployment of nuclear missiles and once called Ronald Reagan an “arsehole” live on TV. He also did a lot of humanitarian work, particularly in civil war-stricken Nicaragua.

As for Raumpatrouille Orion, you do not have to take my word for how good it was, but you can see for yourself, for all seven episodes are available on YouTube. So let’s rewatch a few episodes in memory of Dietmar Schönherr.

This entry was posted in TV and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Austrian SF legend Dietmar Schönherr dies

  1. Sherwood Smith says:

    Thanks for the write up of this show. I have got to watch it!

    • Cora says:

      It’s very good for the period and the chemistry between Dietmar Schönherr and Eva Pflug is amazing. The acting is top-notch as well.

  2. Pingback: Star Trek Discovery suddenly remembers that season 1 existed with “Point of Light” | Cora Buhlert

  3. Rick Moen says:

    Dear Cora: I’ve just finished watching the last of the seven episodes, with subtitles enabled because I didn’t want to miss any of the banter. It was wonderful, and my life has thereby been enriched. Thank you! Ave, Herr Schönherr.

    • Cora says:

      Glad you enjoyed it, Rick. Raumpatrouille Orion truly is an underrated gem and the banter is a large part of what makes it so good.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *