Space University Trent
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An Introduction to Space University Trent, by Walt Brunston
How is it that an American science fiction programme could run for three seasons and four years and never warrant so much as a single mention on That ‘70s Show? How could 72 exciting, funny and frightening episodes of the highest quality be made, starring some of the brightest stars of US television, without a convention being held in its honour (at least until the last couple of years)? Why, when science fiction bookshelves groan with the weight of a million tie-ins, does not even one of them bear the name that deserves the attention most?
That name, of course, is Space University Trent, and the answer is that it was never broadcast in the US, despite being made with (mostly) American money, starring (mostly) American stars, and being (mostly) a damn good programme. It’s a very strange story.
In 1973, impressed by the interest European channels were taking in the three produced series of Star Trek, as evidenced by the financial returns flowing across his desk, a young accountant by the name of Sidley D Bounder decided to try a new career path. Using his savings to pay the rent on a Los Angeles office for a year – an office which would often double as his sleeping quarters – he started to call himself a producer and set about putting together a deal to get his idea off the ground.
At first, his plan was simply a financial one. He saw that there was an opening on European television for slick, American-made science fiction, and he wanted to fill that opening. He knew that he wanted something enough like Star Trek to appeal to the same audience (and programme buyers), but different enough that he would not be sued by Gene Roddenberry.
Different ideas crossed his mind. A space museum? A space hospital, perhaps? He did not make enquiries with James White’s agent, due to a wish to keep his cut of the profits intact, but the influence of Sector General upon his eventual work cannot be doubted.
Suddenly he had it: a space university! History records that the genius of his idea was immediately apparent to young Sidley Bounder – his journal page for that date is covered with the scrawl, “Woweee! I’ve got it! A space university!” The beauty of the idea was its flexibility. Every faculty he could imagine that might form part of the university led inexorably to one story idea after another, and in a daze of revelation, almost as if afraid he would lose that moment of inspiration, Bounder spent three days, at least, scribbling down the outlines for one episode after another.
Then he tried to get science fiction writers involved, and many were keen. As the money began to fall into place, he lined up a number of prominent authors, but in the end the bottom line sang its heart out to Bounder, and he chose instead to work with English and, unusually, French authors, often by means of a translator, who were willing to work more cheaply, given the fewer opportunities available to them for working in television. Most worked under pseudonyms (and unfortunately no one has yet managed to do the detective work involved in drawing up a complete list of those who were involved). Unusually for television, many of those scripts arrived on-screen largely unchanged, unfiltered by the usual sensibilities of experienced script editors, and that was because everything was done on the cheap. That meant filming was done in Europe, and the crew was hired straight out of college.
A recipe for disaster, one might have thought – and certainly the US networks did think that, none of them choosing to bite at the pilot Bounder produced. Although he was disappointed, he said nothing to the cast and crew. He had amassed enough money, partly from investors, and partly from selling the show abroad, to go ahead with production of the first series regardless of US broadcast, and so he did.
What resulted was in fact far from a disaster. Those who saw the programme were astonished. It had all the adventure, thrills, spills and special effects one might have expected from a US programme, but they were harnessed to such unusual, thoughtful stories. The authors’ stories were put directly on screen, filtered by nothing other than the abilities of the acting and production staff.
At times the episodes were extremely frightening. Others dealt with very big, controversial issues, especially during season two and three, once plans to pursue US broadcast were totally abandoned. There was no longer any need to pull the punches, and stories became more intellectual, more violent, and more rewarding of multiple viewings.
The darkening tone was unmistakable. As filming began on season two, the cast began to realise that, with no US broadcast likely, to many colleagues and casting directors it would seem that they were idling away on an extended European holiday. That began to show on screen – in retrospect, another happy accident, bringing an apparent gravitas to the performances that only enhanced the more serious stories.
The final episodes of season two were burned off on a Sunday by NED1, the Dutch broadcaster which was the first to show most episodes, having invested the most money in the project. It looked as if the dream was over, but success in other European countries, such as Finland, West Germany, and some regions of the United Kingdom, led to a campaign to have the show revived, and during January 1978 new episodes finally began to appear, both on NED1, and on channels all over Europe.
However, the final episode was shown on Christmas Eve, 1978, and this time there was no revival. Ratings had dropped off, and cast members were beginning to threaten a mass walkout should they be held to their contracts.
Bounder counted his money, checked that there was enough to buy him a decent-sized mansion in Beverley Hills, and let the show fall apart without a second thought.
Originally published in Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #13.