When you think of influential space science fiction from the 1970s, it’s essentially a given to credit Star Wars and Star Trek for their timeless influence. You may even want to go as far as to mention Flash Gordon or the original Battlestar Galactica. However, kids back then were actually enjoying solid science fiction television on Saturday mornings intermingled with their cartoon fix thanks to Filmation, the company who would later earn accolades with animated shows like He-Man and She-Ra.
Enter Space Academy, a show that consisted only of 15 half-hour episodes but ran on broadcast television from 1977-1979. This show followed up on the science fiction themes introduced the previous season’s (1976) Ark II and in fact went as far as to recycle the front of the Ark II ground vehicle into the commonly seen space shuttle craft used by the Academy (the Seeker).
The show centered on a group of young adults with various powers, skills, and backgrounds that came together in Space Academy, a sort of Starfleet University built directly into a meteor. Under the guidance of Commander Isaac Gampu (who is equal parts father figure, high school principle and college professor), the crew of Space Academy daily routine involves encountered new life forms, planetary exploration and civilization integration.
Chris and Laura Gentry were the main cadets as the captain and (respectively) co-captain of SA's Blue Team. Adrian Pryce-Jones was Chris's love interest and third in command. Fourth in the chain was Paul Jerome, an African-American transferee from Red Team. Finally rounding out the main cast was Asian Tee Gar Soom, who, in addition to possessing medical skills, boasted super-human strength.
One of the first beings they encountered was Loki, a young orphaned alien boy with the power of invisibility who joins the cast. Finally rounding out the team in their mission was Peepo, a small robot with a slightly sassy personality (not unlike say, R2-D2 but with a human voice).
The episodes themselves operated off a reoccurring formula without ever crossing the line into becoming formulaic. And like all children’s television programming at the time, Filmation was obligated to integrate sociological morality into the prose. Fortunately the lessons taught here were never much of a stretch nor do they feel like an after-thought. Considering that many of the plots centered on encountering new life forms or attempting to understand political or cultural systems not of earthen origin, the opportunity to present a positive message was never far off for the show’s production team.
The effects, which should theoretically be the weakest link of the Space Academy chain, are surprisingly quite solid- particularly the in-space segments. Thanks in no small part to special effects supervisor Chuck Comisky’s efforts, the space scenes are truly on par with what we might expect from the original (1977 version of) Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. In other words they hold up well even today while being completely cutting edge at the time of their broadcast!
About the weakest visuals come in the form of a few stop-motion aliens and some fairly restricted sets (particularly the outdoor environments). However, in the show’s defense, there was a very deliberate effort to focus the core of each episode on solid story-telling; the type of material that does not require (or depend upon) visual gimmicks to be entertaining- in a sense, the complete opposite of the current Hollywood trend of releasing films that are devoid of substance but rife with computer-generated effects.
Plots and pacing could actually be pretty closely compared to the original Star Trek series in that rather than simply rely upon the ideals of the vastness of space/advanced technology, the viewer is treated to a human-driven, almost personal tale that just so happens to take place in a scientifically-solid futuristic environment.
While my review of this property may seem strangely past due (after all, after 28 years of lying dormant, the official DVD release happened back on January 16 2007 by a company that has since gone under itself), my reasoning is that since Navarre has actually gone in and rescued several of BCI Entertainment’s orphaned titles for release (among these the 2002 He-Man collection and the animated Dungeons & Dragons series), there is hope they will pick up Filmation’s live action shows as well.
I happen to have secured a copy of the 2007 BCI release, which, though becoming increasingly hard to find, still exists in the marketplace in some capacity. Should you happen upon the 4-disc set (shown in photo), it is quite rife with special features and each of the 15 episodes is digitally remastered. Among the goodies included:
Audio commentary track on two episodes "Phantom Planet" and "Countdown
35- Minute Featurette - Back to School with Space Academy
Behind-the Scenes photo gallery
Cast Reunion photo gallery with interview clips
Memorabilia photo gallery with interview clips
Promotional photo gallery
Booklet with Episode Guide and Trivia
All 15 Scripts (DVD-ROM)
Series Bible (DVD-ROM)
Easter Eggs (which I’ve yet to discover)
Trailers - Ink & Paint Previews
In conclusion, I came away from Space Academy both pleasantly surprised and thoroughly convinced of its influence as a stepping-stone to what is considered contemporary science fiction. While I’m not diluted enough to suspect today’s CGI-charged youth will be able to overlook the technological limitations of the era in effort to appreciate the tight writing or positive message within, I can state with certainty that modern science fiction fan aficionados will find much to enjoy through this brief look into a more innocent time. And those individuals who remember the program during its original broadcast era will undoubtedly cherish every moment of this collection.
What did you think of this review?