Film reviews

#499 – Destination Space (1959)

Destination Space (1959)

Film review #499

Director: Joseph Pevney

SYNOPSIS: On board an orbital space station, the launch of a new spaceship is aborted when a meteorite crashes into the station. Jim Benedict, director of the United States space programme and person in charge of the station, appears before a Senate committee hearing, attempting to justify the continued operation of the space station, despite resistance from, in particular, senator Royce…

THOUGHTS/ANALYSIS: Destination Space is a 1959 sci-fi television film that was intended as a pilot for a TV series, but the pilot was never picked up by the networks. The plot concerns the role of Jim Benedict, head of the U.S. space program, and an orbital space station designed to launch spaceships to the moon. After a meteorite strikes the space during a test launch, he faces renewed opposition to his plan, with to being described as a waste of money and too risky. Being a TV pilot, it is only fifty minutes long, and so has to fit a fair amount of content into it: the opening five minutes is decent enough, and provides enough backstory to what’s happening, with a bit of drama and suspense too. However, here is the one big problem with this film/pilot: I don’t know what the purpose of it is. They talk a lot about getting a spaceship to the moon and landing people there, establishing a colony etc. but the film doesn’t get anywhere near doing that, and instead focuses on committee hearings and inter-personal drama that isn’t particularly interesting. I suppose back in 1959 when this film was made the concept of landing people on the moon and space travel would have been more interesting because it had not been accomplished yet. The focus is not on the speculative or science-fiction aspects though, but instead rendering the logistics of space travel into a drama: the film spends more time in a senate committee hearing than it does in space. As a self-contained film it has no real climax or payoff, and no real progress is made on the objectives, which I suppose would have been part of the TV series if this pilot would have been picked up. However, I’m not sure where the TV series would have gone in that respect: would they have gone to the moon eventually? What then? More committee meetings? In making the premise so grounded and “realistic,” there seems very little scope for development and possibilities with the set up. As such, I can see why as a pilot it was not picked up for a full TV series.

The characters are a typical cast that aren’t particularly interesting or memorable. Jim Benedict is the typical male lead, like the type yo9u would see in the B-movies or serials in the 50’s: embodying the all-American ideals of ambition, adventure and such forth. The female characters solely exist as love interests for male characters, notably Jim’s girlfriend June and his buddy Dave’s girlfriend Kim. Kim also randomly confesses her undying love for Jim too, setting up a love triangle which really adds nothing to the story. I suppose there’s an effort to keep the characters grounded in line with the “realism” of the story and drama, but not making the drama between the characters compelling really leaves nothing for the viewer to hook onto.

There’s some ambition in setting the scene for the film/series; the models of the space station and shuttle orbiting earth are compelling enough for the time, though nothing special. The interior sets too are full of detail, which makes it stand out to me against the swathe of b-movies which looks like they were made on a shoestring budget. Overall though, it is easy to see why Destination Space did not get picked up for a TV series: while some of the visuals are interesting, there’s not any real indication of where the series would go other than more boring senate meetings. The decision to focus on drama and the realism behind the ideals of the space race doesn’t really offer anything because the characters are dull and uninteresting, without any unique traits to invest in. As a standalone film, it doesn’t offer the typical plot of a problem, a flowing narrative and climax, and is just really boring. Maybe it would have been of more interest at the time when the space race was more in the national conscious, but it’s got nothing to offer this long after the fact.