Space Cadets (2)
Alex Zane (Space Cadets: The Satellite Show)
Richard Campbell as "Mission Commander James Campbell"
Drew Leavy as "Cosmonaut Drew Dawson"
Alex Humes as "Cosmonaut Yevgeny Ivanovich"
Charlie Skelton as himself
Val Riazanov, Ranie Daw and Steve Hester as themselves
Zeppotron for Channel 4 / E4, 7 December to 16 December 2005 (10 episodes in 1 series)
Twelve contestants go to Russia to compete for the "ultimate thrill" - a trip into space. Unfortunately it's all a big hoax. They're not really in Russia at all, three of the contestants are in fact actors and the trip into space is faked using state-of-the-art moviemaking techniques.
The series was split up into two parts. The first consisted of convincing the contestants that they had flown to Russia, when in fact they had flown over the North Sea and back again to a disused American air base near Ipswich. An environmentally friendly show this is not. On the final reveal show, Johnny Vaughan wondered why they just didn't go to Russia for real and he has a point - wouldn't it have been cheaper?
Putting aside whether giving these people the Truman Show treatment over three weeks is cruel or not, there's a lot to commend this show. First and foremost, they actually got away with it. The contestants genuinely believed they were in space, which is a stunning achievement and you have to give kudos to that regardless of whether this was achieved at the cost of choosing impressionable (read: gullible) contestants. The actors were first class - particularly the two pilots and mole contestant Charlie. And remarkably, Johnny Vaughan seemed to work well - the first time in a while that's happened. And there were some clever in-jokes - such as claiming that they had Artificial Gravity Generators, that the city of Minsk was named after Minsky the space monkey, and namechecking the very airbase they were at.
The strange thing about this programme, reputed to cost around £4-5m for just under 2 weeks of shows, was the extreme variation in production standards. The opening was beautifully choreographed and the attention to detail was excellent. The gag titles, showing a spacecraft window with a wheel clamp notice and aliens peering in, were also a nice touch. However, the reveal on the penultimate show to the 'rejected' contestants back at base was filmed using a single camera seemingly handled by someone who'd had too much vodka the previous evening. The producers just explained the secrets verbally, with no wit or wisdom as to show them how it had all been done.
Equally, the final show was a great let down. The bizarre timing meant that under half an hour was allocated to the reveals and chats with the contestants. This was far too short a time to process all the build up of the previous two weeks, regardless of the trivial Satellite Show spin-off on E4. Furthermore, the three real contestants were shown a video compilation of their (correct) suspicions just before their 'space pod' was opened to the studio floor. While it is understandable that the three real contestants had to be brought back to Earth, in both senses, slowly, it did cheat the viewer from the true moment of surprise they had been waiting for. And by separating the main stooge, contestant Charlie, from the others, this prematurely blew one of the best secrets. It was strange how often Charlie was much funnier than the real contestants.
The main shows, consisting of one hour punctuated by three ad breaks, worked against the format. Each quarter was preceded with a Coming Up... preview which effectively blew the only interesting thing that was about to happen - and often that wasn't particularly interesting (example: an episode where one person draws a willy on another space student's notes). There were also a lot of broken promises - such as the meteor storm that never happened, and a "Live" reveal that wasn't live at all.
Ultimately, reality shows are all about the people and not, as this show tried but failed to achieve, a strange mix of Mission Impossible, Big Brother and a sci-fi film. By taking the eye off the ball in this respect, the ratings didn't hold up. They hovered around the 2m mark for most of the run - disappointing for the slot and usually well behind the competition on the other channels.
The contestants won a real trip to Russia, a zero-G flight in the Vomit Comet and £25,000 in cash - which, oddly, they won due to their stupidity. But Channel 4 will undoubtedly be disappointed by the ratings and the lack of enthusiasm from the press. Maybe people lawnmowing in the nude is more tabloid friendly than a high-concept hoax.
It's been an interesting experiment, but nothing more.
The de-commisioned RAF Bentwaters military base near Ipswich, where the series is made, was previously used as the location for X-Fire.
The "shuttle" used in the programme was originally built for the 1998 film Deep Impact. It has also appeared in the films Armageddon and Space Cowboys. For the latter, it was partly rebuilt to accomodate Clint Eastwood's six-foot-four frame. The "lab" section was built specially for Space Cadets.
Contestant Keri Hassett had previously appeared on Cruel Summer.
Contestant Ryan McBride, a 28 year old Scot with very big hair, had previously appeared on a series of blood donation adverts with chef Gordon Ramsay, leading some viewers to believe that not only was he a plant, but that the whole show was in fact a big joke on the audience, a theory that everyone at Channel 4 denies. And to be honest, we're inclined to believe them.
Quote of the series must be one "cadet" summing up the thrill of going into space as "It's like Chessington World of Adventures times a thousand!". We're sure Yuri Gagarin would have said very much the same thing, if only he'd had the advantage of home counties amusement parks as a point of reference.
Ben Caudell, Annabel Jones and Richard Osman.
Coming up next... "Murder She Wrote"!"Space mole" Charlie (second left) leads the team in making a trail for a fictitious Russian TV station.