In September of 1966 the landscape of pop culture changed forever with the debut of a groundbreaking new science fiction television show that would singlehandedly transform how the genre was thought of. Blending elements of pulp and Golden Age sci-fi with a critical deconstructive eye and unique fascination with the trappings of soap operas, this show dared us to follow the adventures of a ragtag group of Space Air Force pilots in a utopian future setting where nationalism had been abolished as they set out to explore the universe beyond the realm of human knowledge and experience. I am, of course, speaking about the legendary Raumpatrouille – Die phantastischen Abenteuer des Raumschiffes Orion.
Every once in awhile you stumble upon something so unbelievably serendipitous it really does force you to stop and muse for a time on synchronicity and the effect reoccurring patterns of time and place have on human beings. There is literally no other way to explain how two groups of people on opposite ends of the planet came up with two superficially identical science fiction shows in the exact same month other than a simultaneous tapping of the shared cultural zeitgeist. It’s perhaps tempting to expect the West German production filmed in stark black-and-white on sets made out of kitchen appliances and scrap metal to be an almost hilariously shameless ripoff of the bright, flashy, big budget Technicolor Hollywood spectacle airing on major network television, were we to conveniently forget that Raumpatrouille – Die phantastischen Abenteuer des Raumschiffes Orion (hereafter Raumpatrouille Orion or simply Raumpatrouille) was filmed at the exact same time as Star Trek‘s first season and premiered within days of it. Germans wouldn’t be introduced to Star Trek until 1972, and most people on the other side of the Atlantic to this day have no idea Raumpatrouille Orion exists. And that’s a true shame, because, to be blunt, Raumpatrouille Orion is unabashedly superior on almost every single level. This show is everything Star Trek should have been in its first season.
The most immediately obvious thing Raumpatrouille just absolutely nails is its setting. While the world of Star Trek retroactively becomes an idealized or utopian society thanks to the large-scale fan reconceptualization of the Original Series in the 1970s, a reading which is bolstered by the influence of Star Trek Phase II and Star Trek: The Next Generation (which were, of course, written in the wake of this re-evaluation), the world of Raumpatrouille actually explicitly is one. In lieu of Captain Kirk’s famous “Space…The Final Frontier” monologue that opens every Star Trek episode starting midway through the first season, Raumpatrouille Orion gives us this declaration, equally famous in German science fiction circles, at the opening of each of its stories:
“What may sound like a fairy tale today may be tomorrow’s reality. This is a fairy tale from the day after tomorrow: There are no more nations. There is only mankind and its colonies in space. People have settled on faraway stars. The ocean floor has been made habitable. At speeds still unimaginable today, space vessels are rushing through our Milky Way. One of these vessels is the ORION, a minuscule part of a gigantic security system protecting the Earth from threats from outer space. Let’s accompany the ORION and her crew on their patrol at the edge of infinity.”
While Gene Coon has been steadily introducing more world-building elements to Star Trek ever since taking over as showrunner, the series as originally conceived by Gene Roddenberry didn’t seem to much care about the implications of its setting beyond its ability to get our heroes to a new place every week where they could get in some scrapes and lay down some good-old-fashioned dead weight moralizing. Raumpatrouille Orion, by contrast, wants to make it very clear that this is an idealized vision of an outer space adventure. Earth is explicitly united, and all disputes over national boundaries, gender, race and ethnicity have long since ceased to exist, which it might be beneficial to point out is something Star Trek hasn’t actually come out and said yet. Indeed, the Orion itself boasts a very diverse crew, with two female officers (who actually get proper uniforms and are treated no differently then their male co-workers to boot), one French and one Russian, an Italian computer scientist, a Scandinavian chief engineer, a Japanese navigator and a commanding officer of US-Scottish descent.
This overtly idealistic setting is also realised in a truly marvelous fashion, as Raumpatrouille Orion takes place in one of the most unique, beautiful and evocative sci-fi worlds I have ever seen. There is an unmistakeably European look about the show, and it also evokes its time in possibly the most nuanced way I’ve yet seen a contemporary show manage. Raumpatrouille‘s elegant curves and futuristic touch-screen computer displays blended with visceral, physical knobs, bulky television monitors, oscilloscopes, gears, levers and punch-cards give it an aggressively and endearingly analog feel that’s truly all its own. It’s on the one hand exactly what you’d expect the mid-20th Century in West Germany extrapolated to the far future to look like, but that’s absolutely a good thing in this case. On top of that the crew’s home base is at the bottom of the ocean and looks like a Mod bar built in a walk-through aquarium, and I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest to learn Kraftwerk got some of their inspiration for Radio-Activity listening to the countdown on the Orion‘s flight computer.
The thing about Star Trek‘s sets and props is that they look pretty much exactly like what they were: Bits of plywood and lumber lashed together on a Desilu studio and painted with bright primary colours to make it all stand out. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, and it certainly helps add to the show’s theatrical appeal. That’s said, there’s something to be said for conveying narrative and mood through the visual aspects of the production on a work of visual, cinematic media and that’s one area in which Raumpatrouille Orion truly excels. This is even more remarkable given that while the show’s 360,000 DM budget (about € 642,000 as of 2009) was not insignificant, the production values the team had to work with were still definitely not giving Hollywood or even the BBC a run for their money at the time. The reason why Raumpatrouille looks as singular and stunning as it does is because the art design is an absolute masterpiece, which is not entirely surprising: The set designer, Rolf Zehetbauer, would eventually win an Oscar for Cabaret and special effects artist Theo Nischwitz would once again collaborate with him on Das Boot. Together, they did more with pencil sharpeners, irons, upended furniture, drinking glasses and dolled-up spools of thread then I’ve seen some high-profile directors and producers manage with unlimited special effects budgets and the latest modeling and CGI technology.
An atmosphere as singular and gorgeous as this would probably have been enough to shoot Raumpatrouille Orion to classic status by its own merits, but thankfully the show’s characters are equally as memorable and well done, and the ideas it deals with are surprisingly sophisticated and forward-thinking. While they operate one of the fastest, most modern ships in the fleet, the crew of the Orion are far from the darlings of the force, and Commander Cliff Alister McClane has a reputation as something of a rebellious thorn in everyone’s side. Although McClane is not averse to showing off every once in awhile, such as when he attempts a risky landing on Rhea in violation of orders in the first episode, he’s mostly persona non grata because he doesn’t keep in lock-step with his superiors and frequently disagrees with official policy: The Rhea landing, far from a bit of adolescent showboating, was actually intended as a scientific experiment meant to demonstrate such a landing was possible, thus breaking new ground for stellar navigation. Regardless, this is one stunt too many and McClane and his crew get demoted to patrol duty (and it’s interesting to note here routine patrol duty is seen as a step down for McClane’s crew) and assigned an overseer in the form of Lieutenant Tamara Jagellovsk, who is assigned to make sure the Orion crew stays out of trouble.
What Jagellovsk and her superiors don’t quite grasp, though, is that McClane is actually far from a hothead, simply preferring to operate his ship by its own special code of loyalty and morals. Because of this, the crew of the Orion have an extremely close, and extremely obvious, sense of kinship, and camaraderie with one another that really does go above and beyond anything contemporaneous Star Trek was doing. It helps that while McClane is clearly one of the central characters, equal time is afforded to every member of the crew, and the show goes out of its way to provide a healthy amount of scenes where the characters engage in small-talk with each other, which strongly reinforces their humanness and relatability as well as the close bond they share.
The unique way the ship is organised also allows Raumpatrouille Orion to avoid one of the biggest logical pitfalls Star Trek suffers in all its incarnations: If these ships are staffed with hundreds or thousands of officers, why is it always only the senior staff who beam down into dangerous situations (I mean, besides the obvious answer: You want the characters you care about to be actually involved in the plot)? Well, the Orion‘s crew literally only comprises the six main characters (counting Lieutenant Jagellovsk) as it’s a much, much smaller ship then anything in Starfleet, so naturally they’re the only ones who can go on away team missions and get into action scenes. This also adds another level to the crew’s fierce loyalty, because they know they have nobody except each other other to rely on out in the depths of outer space. Some of the show’s most gripping and enjoyable scenes are when two of the crew leave the ship and run into trouble, while the remaining officers (even McClane) are forced to double up on shipboard duties and harden their already steely resolve, as leaving someone behind is completely unacceptable to them. Every single member of the Orion‘s crew must be equally proficient with every station on the bridge as they have no “relief officers” and neither the chain of command nor classism have a place in this environment: There’s no sitting back and sending underlings to do your dirty work for you here. Everyone truly is an equal on this ship.
What this allows Raumpatrouille Orion to do is look very carefully and very seriously at the concept of authoritarian power structures and the ability of people within them to rebel and formulate their own identities, and perhaps even to subvert the structure entirely. While McClane works for the military wing of Earth he is, as I mentioned, someone very few people within it like to talk about. His only two real fans are his former superior and sole frontline commander General Lydia van Dyke, who shares his perspective, if somewhat less inclined to act on it quite as frequently and publicly as he does (and when does Star Trek get female captains and flag officers? Not until halfway through Star Trek: The Next Generation, if memory serves me) and his new commanding officer, Winston Wamsler, who, as a retired soldier, has an extremely high respect for individualism and a contempt for government and bureaucracy. Everyone else in the minor cast seems either highly suspicious of or openly disdainful towards the Orion crew.
This is theme is reiterated on the ship itself, as the primary source of tension early on in the series is the warring worldviews of Commander McClane and Lieutenant Jagellovsk. Raumpatrouille‘s (far less amiable) version of the Kirk/Spock/McCoy split involves McClane’s flagrant anti-authoritarianism and belief in responding to situations on a case-by-case basis clashing with Jagellovsk’s unfettered faith in rules and regulations and doing things by-the-book. In many ways this means Raumpatrouille becomes Jagellovsk’s show, as she frequently must learn that blindly following orders makes a person less than human and that clinging to a blinkered view of the world when faced with the vastness of the universe is not only impractical but ludicrous. However, McClane has things to learn as well, as his impulsiveness has a history of getting himself and his crew into unnecessary trouble, and he frequently needs someone like Jagellovsk to appeal to reason and get him to occasionally re-think his split-second choices.
The first big test of this happens in the premier episode, when the Orion stumbles upon an extraterrestrial invasion force that has snuck into the solar system undetected and captured an Earth outpost, slaughtering the entire crew. This is a situation nobody is prepared to deal with, and both McClane and Jagellovsk screw up horribly and dangerously: For her part, Tamara clings feverishly to a book of rules Cliff continuously has to remind her are hopelessly outdated as there are no procedures for alien invasions because nobody writing them was expecting one (this actually results in one of McClane’s best scenes in the series, where he calls Jagellovsk out on the anthropocentric arrogance of her and her superiors, asking if she truly thought in the entire universe humans were the only species intelligent, special and important enough to become a spacefaring civilization). But McClane, and really the entire military is also far too willing to wage all-out war and in the end the only reason the crew is saved is because Jagellovsk’s boss Colonel Villa gets the generals on Earth to call off a massive retaliation strike at the last second, correctly pointing out that just because the aliens have committed a hostile act does not mean they should be condemned before Earth is able to communicate with them and find out who they are and why they did what they did, let alone if they even share the same set of values as humans.
The aliens, who go on to become reoccurring antagonists, are perhaps part of the reason there’s been a lot of hand-wringing by contemporary critics that Raumpatrouille Orion is flagrantly fascist. There is perhaps an argument to be made here, as the aliens are immediately seen as dangerous and are given the derogatory nickname “frogs”: We never do get an examination of their culture or motives, and they’re pretty clearly an Other. One could read this as the show telling us the real purpose of uniting people is not for communal benefit and exchange of ideas, but to protect and strengthen the group against even bigger, scarier outside threats. But I don’t think that’s what Raumpatrouille is actually about: The whole point of the first episode seems to be that shooting first and asking questions later is actually a really terrible idea, and after this the show prefers to concern itself with natural disasters, Golden Age-style logic puzzle plots, a mysterious lost colony of humans, institutionalized corruption and even a delightfully metafictional episode where the crew takes on (and regularly ribs) a science fiction author.
Because of this, and despite its space patrol setting, I really don’t buy the accusation Raumpatrouille Orion is militaristic. On the contrary, the military (save the rebellious, unorthodox Orion crew and van Dyke) is shown to be just as incompetent and ineffective as the rest of Earth’s organisational structure, and there are more than a few episodes split in half between the Orion in mortal peril struggling to resolve a crisis at the other end of the solar system and a lot of shouty exchanges back on Earth as representatives from the government, the military and galactic security would much rather argue with each other and demand their group be given total control over the situation then to actually do anything that might be beneficial, productive or useful. To me a much more intriguing and nuanced reading would be that the show is grappling with issues of authoritarianism and self-governance, best embodied in the split between McClane and Jagellovsk. Throughout the series they’re frequently required to cooperate and compromise and each one has to admit on a number of occasions the other has an approach that’s better suited to some things. But these characters are written as people, not walking philosophical symbolism, and both McClane and Jagellovsk grow closer to each other in temperament as the series progresses and even become a couple in the final two episodes. Far from advocating a police state, Raumpatrouille Orion seems to be making the claim only cooperation, reasoned discourse and empathy will pave the way forward.
Indeed, McClane’s true defining moment comes at the end of episode two when, after having narrowly averted the total destruction of Earth from a runaway planetoid (sacrificing two fleet ships in the process) he faces a mountain of paperwork to fill out back at base. Instead of sheepishly rolling his eyes or bemoaning the distant inefficiancy of bureaucracy, he happily sits down to work with the clerk sent by the government to sort the situation out, telling him “you know, you people have it the worst of all of us, having to sort through all this. All we had to do was blow up a supernova”. To Commander McClane, bureaucrats are just as human as anyone else, and are just as trapped by the roles they play in the social order as he and his crew are. We’re all people in the end, after all.
While Raumpatrouille Orion frankly runs absolute rings around Star Trek in most areas, there are some things that are simply out of its wheelhouse. While it’s much, much better on things like gender and diegetic progressive politics, Raumpatrouille lacks, for a number of reasons, Star Trek‘s ability to be ridiculously oversignified. There’s nobody like William Shatner here, for one, though that said while Dietmar Schönherr’s Cliff Allister McClane may not be a drag action man, he is very progressive in other ways: As someone who strives for peaceful solutions to crises at all costs and who values life above just about all else, he definitely seems ahead of his time and out of place in Earth’s military. Raumpatrouille also trends very strongly to the hard side of science fiction (or at least tries to: The second episode rather infamously uses the terms “planet”, “star”, “asteroid” and “supernova” interchangeably and the show has more indecipherable technobabble than Star Trek Voyager) while Star Trek, despite its pretensions, really doesn’t. The bottom line is we’re not going to get anything like “The Squire of Gothos”, “The Alternative Factor” or Spock’s Vulcan mysticism and sexual experimentation on this show, and one thing I truly love about Star Trek is how deeply spiritual and magickal it eventually becomes.
Also, there are just some advantages that being filmed in Hollywood gives you: For example, while surveillance officer Helga Legrelle beats communications officer Uhura hands down in terms of being a memorable character and feminist role model, Star Trek does have Sulu played by George Takei, while Raumpatrouille, for some reason unknown to me but more than likely related to this being West Germany in 1966, was unable to get a Japanese actor to play the part of Atan Shubashi, forcing them to cast the *extremely* German-looking Friedrich Georg Beckhaus. However, the show deserves full credit for refusing to put him in yellowface, which is something that it absolutely could have done at this point in history and not gotten a second glance for, and instead just asking us to ignore his ethnicity (especially given as this blog has just recently come off of “Errand of Mercy”).
Then there’s the obvious thing. Star Trek is a massive pop culture phenomenon ubiquitous all over the world comprised of at the time of this writing six television shows, twelve feature films and an incalculable amount of spinoff material. Raumpatrouille Orion is a seven-episode miniseries that hardly anyone remembers anymore and that’s looked on by those who do with a slightly nervous and guilty camp fondness. There’s no Raumpatrouille: The Next Generation or Raumaptrouille: Deep Space Nine and while there is a spin-off line of tie-in novels that purports to continue the series, which is about how you’d expect a line with that sort of pedigree to be, nobody is going to call it an iconic bit of Western pop consciousness; at least not anymore and not outside its home country. Why didn’t Raumpatrouille Orion last longer? Many modern critics seem to point to its alleged fascist overtones, which I remain unconvinced of, and a popular story is that the show got canceled after only seven episodes because the networks and governments were concerned about its militarism. The wife of the original screen writer claims instead there were only ever going to be seven, but more scripts do in fact exist then were actually filmed. The more likely explanation to me is that the show was laughably expensive to produce for the time and place where it was filmed, and some reports claim it outright bankrupted parent studio Bavaria Film. All that said, however, it must be stressed that both Star Trek and Raumpatrouille Orion are vitally important TV series and the world would be a poorer place without either of them.
Did Raumpatrouille deserve more than what it got? I think so. It definitely deserves a better reputation than what it has: Raumpatrouille Orion lies midway between the straight, hard science fiction of the Golden Age and early Star Trek and the ephemeral, symbolic magic of Doctor Who and, er, later Star Trek, actually. While it’s not without its problems, I’m going to put it all on the line and declare that this is what Vaka Rangi looks like in the mid-1960s, or at least the prototypical precursor of it. Raumpatrouille is still wedded to militarism in some sense, but there’s absolutely no denying the Orion is a canoe and an island unto itself. This crew is a true community, and they know the future will be built on sustainability and cooperative self-governance, and in resisting the ineptitude and corruption of authority. It’s very telling the Starlight Casino at the Orion‘s home base is a Mod bar. The Mods, with their eyes firmly on the future and youth yet bound by predestination, have allowed us to get this far, but it’s now fallen to us to take the next step into the infinite beyond.