Today’s guest post comes via LGG&F fan Star Chicken. Star is a European nerd who specializes mostly in old sci-fi series. She is still figuring out her place in the world together with her narcolepsy, autism, and imaginary best friend. You can find her on her Facebook page, Ace Multifandom!
I am a big fan of old television series. Watching them is a little bit like time travel, with their old special effects and stories about issues that mattered at the time. Also, just imagine that you can sit down, watch, and get excited over something people watched and got excited about 50 years ago!
With the exception of some German nerd circles, most people have forgotten about one of my all-time favorite miniseries, Raumpatrouille – Die Phantastischen Abenteuer des Raumschiffes Orion (Spacepatrol – The Fantastic Adventures of the Spaceship Orion). For simplicity reasons, I will call it Raumpatrouille in the rest of this post. (That’s also the tag used on AO3.) As you may have guessed from the title, it is German, and as such it is completely different from my usual English or American series. Okay, maybe not completely, but it is definitely one of a kind.
The series first aired in 1966, when Germany was divided in two after World War II. It was made in West Germany, but also watched in the East, and I know from what my family has told me that it was also very popular in Hungary. It was a huge project; the best of the best worked on it, and it was also really expensive, which is why they made it in black and white and didn’t do a second season.
Spoilers for the series from here on!
It is fascinating (Spock reference intended) how similar Raumpatrouille and Star Trek are. Both are set in futuristic utopias, where humanity is united and spaceships wander around the universe for different reasons. There is the one exceptional captain (or commander) who is brilliant at his job, even if he does have a habit of spontaneously disregarding the rules and following his own instincts, and there’s a more logical first officer (or security officer) running after him and being really annoyed because he won’t listen.
Both are a product of their time and respective countries. While Raumpatroille did its best to choose names from various cultures, everybody is played by white German actors. This is especially obvious in the case of Lt. Atan Shubashi, the astrogator and star cartographer. His name suggests Asian origins, but he is just as white as everybody else. I don’t know how intentional this was, depending on the available German actors of the time, but it is whitewashing, which is a thing that Star Trek generally did not do. There is also a lack of queer and disabled characters. But apart from these problems, the show is really good, and I do tend to be a little more forgiving with older things.
Protagonist Major McLane starts the series by getting into trouble. He disregards an Alpha Order and is as a consequence demoted to commander and transferred to space patrol service for three years. To make sure that he does follow his orders in the future, security officer Tamara Jagellovsk is assigned to his ship. In the very first episode, they manage to run into an alien life form. They name them “Frogs”, and the rest of the series is basically about the humans dealing with this discovery.
The Frogs seem to be hostile, but no one really knows why. What we know for sure is that they are technologically advanced, interested in the planet Earth, and don’t need oxygen. They are also the first alien life form that humans have ever encountered. However, the Orion crew also have some other adventures, and other stories deal with faulty robots, rebelling prisoners on a penal colony and a previously unknown human colony run entirely by women.
The latter is maybe the most interesting to look at. I consider Raumpatrouille to be a really feminist show, and this episode addresses the issue directly, but in a way that makes the whole society in general and McLane in particular seem out of character.
In the episode “Battle over the Sun” (“Der Kampf um die Sonne”), the humans of Earth discover the existence of a secret colony behind the sun causing an unusual high solar activity that endangers the Earth. At first, they plan to destroy it, but McLane begs to be sent there instead with an ultimatum, so that he can find a peaceful solution. To his surprise, the society on Chroma is a matriarchy. He gets on really well with the regent (not in a flirty way; they are more like two people who share the same ideas and values); they are both equally fascinated by the idea of the other gender being in command and eventually come to the conclusion that it would be best if men and women were equal. It is a really good episode dealing with the never-getting-old sci-fi trope exploring matriarchal societies. I liked the way it was executed and its main conclusion. But it still was strangely out of character given the entire world we learned to know in the rest of the series.
Everyone seemed a little sexist in this particular episode, McLane most of all by being completely surprised by the idea of women in power. Which, of course, makes sense if you want to teach the lesson that sexism is wrong. But, but… What about General Lydia van Dyke, his own boss and old friend?! She is the commanding officer of the fast space cruisers and is always present at the important government meetings, and she also commands a ship. What about the two women onboard the Orion, Lt. Helga Legrelle, surveillance and communication officer, who seems to have exactly the same rank and duties as her male colleagues, and the aforementioned Lt. Tamara Jagellovsk, security officer, whose position of authority is even a threat to McLane? Then there are all the random women in the background on the base going on doing their job just like everybody else. With the exception of “Battle over the Sun”, Raumpatrouille gave me the impression of a society where men and women are treated as completely equal. Yes, most politicians and people in the highest positions seem to be men, but this is probably due more to casting preferences than conscious worldbuilding. You could argue that their society is like the one we live in: there is still a glass ceiling, but they definitely have a fair share of badass women in positions of power. McLane shouldn’t be surprised by a woman leading a colony. In general, I’ve had the impression that this episode was trying to prove a point, even if the entire world had to behave a little off for that.
The three female leads are all strong, independent characters, especially Tamara, whom you cannot not love. None of them are sexualized, and every single episode passes the Bechdel test. General Van Dyke is not that central to the plot, but she clearly is an authority without having to prove it, and is a good friend to McLane without any romantic or sexual undertones. Helga Legrelle apparently has a crush on him, even if I mostly know that from Wikipedia (being an aromantic asexual, I tend to miss these things). That may be the main reason why she doesn’t like Tamara too much at the beginning, although it could also just be because she is an outsider to Helga. However, they have no problem working together, and Helga seems genuinely happy when Tamara ends up with McLane.
Tamara herself is just as important during the entire series as McLane. We see her grow as a character from the young and inexperienced woman thrown into a close group of people who know each other inside and out and really don’t want her, trying to prove herself, then finally finding her place. It is she, with her cleverness, who saves everyone from a Frog invasion in the end. Her relationship with McLane grows and evolves with them and feels natural all the way, without any drama or complications. They’re just two people assigned to work together, who don’t like each other very much at first, then get to know each other, fight some faulty robots, and save the world from an alien invasion. It is to date one of, if not the best, canon love stories I know.
As I mentioned before, I am aromantic asexual, so for others like me out there, and everyone else who cares about such things: there are like two kisses in the entire series, and the love arc isn’t annoying and actually makes sense. So it is completely safe to watch.
In conclusion, if I were to give Raumpatrouille a score out of five, it probably would be four and a half. It is not perfect, but very good, even by today’s standards. It is also available in its entirety on YouTube for free with English subtitles. If you like old science fiction with some unusual elements, great stories that actually are about something, strong characters and… original special effects, then it is a series you’ll probably enjoy.