Space Cadets (Courtesy Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)
Space Cadets was a British television program made by Zeppotron (a division of Endemol UK) for Channel 4. Presented by Johnny Vaughan, it was aired across ten consecutive nights beginning on 7 December 2005, with the final episode aired on the evening of 16 December 2005. It was accompanied by a behind the scenes sister show Space Cadets: The Satellite Show, with interviews and phone-ins.
The series described itself as the most elaborate hoax perpetrated in television history.
A group of twelve contestants (who answered an advert looking for "thrill seekers") were selected to become the first British televised space tourists, including going to Russia to train as cosmonauts at the "Space Tourist Agency of Russia" (STAR) military base, with the series culminating in a group of four embarking on a five-day space mission in low Earth orbit. The show and space mission contained aspects of Reality TV, including hidden cameras, soundproofed 'video diary' rooms and group dormitories.
However, the show was in fact an elaborate practical joke, described by Commissioning Editor Angela Jain as "Candid Camera live in space" and claimed by Channel 4 to have cost roughly five million pounds. Unknown to the "space cadets", they were not in Russia at all, but at Bentwaters Park (formerly RAF Bentwaters, a USAF airfield from 1951 to 1993) in Suffolk staffed by costumed actors, and the "space trip" was entirely fake, complete with a wooden "shuttle" and actor "pilots". In addition, three of the contestants (and eventually one from the chosen group of four) were also actors, included to misdirect any suspicious Cadets and to help reinforce the illusion.
Channel 4 had contingency plans if the contestants realised the hoax; Johnny Vaughan repeatedly suggested they would have to play old rerun episodes of Jamie's School Dinners, and after the "launch" some unchosen Cadets would have been used as a backup crew.
The show was originated by comedy writers Ben Caudell and Richard Osman (together with Annabel Jones).
Andrew Carter, 19, a student from London.
Sarah-Jane Cass, 19, a media studies student from Kent.
Cheryl Dearie, 23, a housing association assistant (receptionist) from Glasgow.
Paul French, 26, a plasterer from Bristol.
Keri Hassett, 25, a college administrator from Birmingham.
Billy Jackson, 25, a recruitment consultant from Kent.
Ryan McBride, 28, an electrician living in London.
Louise Nisbet, 23, a teacher from Whitstable.
Astrid Roberts, 19, a call centre worker from Glamorgan.
French, Hassett and Jackson were chosen for the fake flight.
The three actor Cadets were played by Charlie Skelton, Ranie Daw and Steve Hester. Hester dropped out on day three after a bout of gastroenteritis and after Skelton accidentally kicked his toenail off. Skelton, also a comedy writer, was chosen to take part in the flight.
The two pilots were improvisational actors, Alex Humes and Drew Leavy (Drew Dawson), who stayed in character the entire flight, even when alone. Humes, portraying a Russian pilot, became noted for his bizarre & cryptic statements due to his method acting.
Johnny Vaughan - Writer, Host
Michael Klesic - Dr. Vladimir Negovetic
Valera Riazanov (Physical Instructor)
Space Cadets - The Satellite Show cast
Johnny Vaughan - Writer
Alex Zane - Host
Jeremy Edwards (Episode 1.1)
Myleene Klass (Episodes 1.1, 1.2)
Richard X Campbell (Episode 1.2)
In order for the hoax to stand a realistic chance of succeeding, the Cadets would have to remain unaware of the true nature of the show, even given any production mistakes and implausible explanations.
As such, a strict set of criteria were applied to filter out inappropriate applicants:
Eliminating anyone who had ever served in the armed forces, or who already had a significant interest in space travel or science fiction.
Psychological tests used to single out the highly suggestible and those who would conform to groupthink
Physiological tests to determine claustrophobia, including being in restraining jackets and trapped in a full lift
Being asked to dance blindfolded, without music, and with others watching, to gauge inhibition levels
Asking the candidates to nominate a friend or relative they trusted implicitly, to make a vital and important decision for them. These friends or relatives were contacted, and fully let in on the hoax, and given the final say of whether or not the Cadet should be included
The intention was to obtain a group of Cadets who were highly gullible, conformist, and ignorant about the show's subject matter; and also ideally suited to appearing in a Reality TV show (e.g. uninhibited extroverts, "wacky personalities", or characters otherwise able to capture the public's attention).
All nine contestants won a genuine trip to Russia, including a trip to Star City (a small town to the north-west of Moscow which is the home to a Cosmonaut training facility); and a ride on a parabolic flight to experience weightlessness (known as a Vomit Comet) for around 25 seconds. In addition, each Cadet won a cash prize of £5,000 each. The three Cadets who "went into space" won a cash prize of £25,000 each (£5,000 per "day in space").
The show contained moderate amounts of bizarre, surreal, or subversive show elements, in a manner similar to other Zeppotron-related productions (for example, TVGoHome.) Examples include:
Cadet lectures that were "about 80% true", the rest being ludicrous rubbish; many of these lectures were of little practical use to cosmonauts (e.g. memory tests of the planets in the solar system)
Stereotyped characters, including a slow-talking Royal Air Force Squadron Leader with a luxurious handlebar moustache
Stupid training exercises (e.g. communications training involving reporting ever more implausible emergencies, ending with monkeys rampaging through the spacecraft, and Rambo giving The Fonz a high five)
Nonsense Russian (e.g. having the Cadets salute a 'Russian Poem' which was actually the recipe for toad in the hole or having the Russian pilot wear makeup, place plastic spoons in his hair and insist the Cadets act out Alice in Wonderland)
Nonsensical space experiments, including tests to make balloon animals
The show's denouement occurred on the last day as planned. The Cadets had started to gain suspicions due to increasingly ludicrous set pieces (notably the space funeral of a fictional celebrity dog "Mr. Bimby", whose ashes were spilt and had to be vacuumed up). The Cadets were prepared for a space walk, but once in the module Vaughan showed them a montage of their suspicions, finishing with an outside shot of the simulator, which was the moment when the "cadets" knew they had not left the Earth. The module door was opened onto the studio set, complete with friends, family and the actors. Soon after, they were told they were in England, and had not actually even left the country.
Initial viewing figures were an underwhelming 2.6 million (11% share), dropping to 2 million ; although Channel 4 was reported as being 'not disappointed' and the figures were in line with that time slot, and 42% of the viewers were the crucial 16-34 year old segment.
Early viewer reaction to the show contained disbelief that such an apparently outlandish joke could be pulled off (the show claimed that Neil Armstrong had offered to eat his astronaut helmet if the show was successful).
Particularly questioned was how weightlessness, which would be present in a real space flight, would be handled on a ground-based set. The Cadets were told that they would be in "near space" (as opposed to "outer space"), causing only a 30% loss of gravity; which was compensated by "gravity generators" built into the ship. Due to the Cadet-choosing criteria, this extremely erroneous explanation was believed.
'Double hoax' theory
As the attention to detail in the hoaxed environment became clear, some viewers expressed suspicions - in particular on Channel 4's message board for the programme - that the entire show, including the apparent gullibility and abject ignorance of the Cadets, was in fact a double bluff; all the Cadets were actors and that the real target of "the biggest prank in television history" was the "gullible" viewing public. Variations on this "conspiracy theory" included the actor Cadets being unaware of this; that each Cadet believed themself to be the only actor; or that the actors/Cadets believed the viewers thought the space mission was genuine. One conspiracy theory even went as far as to suggest a real trip into space could be awarded to one of the unsuspecting actor Cadets, possibly using a company like Virgin Galactic or Space Adventures for the prize .
Supporters of a 'double hoax' theory offered the following evidence (in brackets, the opposition to these arguments):
Some Cadets have apparently had acting roles before. Ryan McBride appeared as an extra in a recent UK advertisement for the National Blood Transfusion Service ; a photograph of Keri Hassett appears in a list of performers in an online showbiz directory . It has now become evident (after the trainees who did not make the "flight" exited the show) that Ryan, like many "wannabe" Reality TV contestants, is not an actor but has been on the fringes of the UK media scene for some time and appeared in the advert out of pure luck.
The lack of media interest in going to the "military base" - which was essentially just a large set - and trying to interfere with the hoax (the media were not informed of the show until the Cadets had been in the fake camp for several weeks. Additionally, a staged press conference, with actors, was held before the launch, further convincing the Cadets that the mission was real).
Supposed 'secret messages' or details implying a hoax within a hoax, such as the path of the transport plane marking out the Channel 4 logo or signs surreptitiously in English.
The large purported budget of five million pounds (with less opportunities for revenue compared to more popular reality TV shows like Big Brother), which seemed unlikely to have been greenlighted by Channel 4 given the volatile nature of the hoax.
Suspiciously co-operative Cadets; for example not opening the windows in the transport plane (though we do not see the entire trip, which took place in darkness; the flight map presented meant much of the flight occurred over the North Sea, and even if they did look they might still have believed they were in Russia if there were no obvious clues).
A more general refutation of these theories noted that the Cadets had been selected for gullibility and ignorance, and so would not notice details that were obvious to an alert and knowledgable viewing public.
In addition, some viewers complicated the issue by becoming confused themselves over the show premise or information given to them (e.g. doubting the show is "telling the truth" because there are no Russian bases in England, or that the surreal elements as a clue that the training was not genuine).
The Space Cadets were initially assembled at Biggin Hill airfield, London, before being flown to Lydd on the south east coast of the British Isles. This air-hop would normally take just 15 minutes, but thanks to a specially convoluted flight plan over the North Sea it lasted four hours. Upon arrival at Lydd the cadets were told they had reached Volgograd. They were then transferred to RAF Bentwaters, Suffolk, which they have been led to believe is the Space Tourism Academy of Russia (STAR) facility in the town of Krymsk.
During the four week period the Cadets were living on-site; their barracks and the academy building where they received their training are situated within the wooded dispersal area, which is on the south west of the airbase.
The shuttle simulator was assembled in a soundproofed hangar which was constructed within RAF Bentwaters, circa 1991. The shuttle was given the name of Earth Orbiter 1 which was referred to in message from and to the craft.
The simulator was a wooden replica built for the film Deep Impact, and also subsequently featured in Armageddon and Space Cowboys. As the Cadets spent five days inside the simulator, there was considerable attention & budget given to its plausibility, including extensive surround sound, pneumatic cushions, and a custom-built projector screen to display CGI graphics of the Earth's surface.
The hangar, called Hush House, is formed from insulated stainless steel walls and features an elaborate exhaust facility that enables the engines of jet aircraft such as the F-16 to be tested with minimal interruption to local residents and livestock. Hush House is situated south of the runway, towards the eastern edge of the site.
In total, the two programmes are together rumoured to have cost around £4.5M GBP to produce, including prize payouts, the 6-month audition process, set making, staff salaries, and profits for Zeppotron. The high cost fuelled speculation and rumors about further shows and the possibility of the producers performing a double-bluff in the future (Virgin Galactic is likely to offer initial space tourist flights for between £100 000 and £1M per ticket).
The show consistently raised the issue of how an immersive illusion can convince average people over a period of time, especially when reinforced as part of a group of believers - especially when this includes men in white coats and other authority figures. Outsiders (in this case, the viewers) see the hoax as laughable, yet 'inside' the Cadets have been slowly lulled into (as Vaughan stated) "what is, in effect, an alternative universe".
The actor Cadet on the 'mission' stated that it was easier to let himself believe the experience was genuine; trying to consciously remind himself of the hoax left him disoriented and "30% convinced, despite everything I know, that I am actually in space".
Parallels can be drawn to the supposed 'group experiment' element of Big Brother which Space Cadets draws on, and in wider terms propaganda, subliminal advertising, and the consensus nature of reality. See also: Asch conformity experiments, Milgram experiment and the Stanford prison experiment.
The title, Space Cadets, is a comical reference to the slang phrase, which is used to describe vacous, gullible fools, untethered to reality (compare airhead). It is not yet clear if the contestants are aware of the show's title, although a whiteboard in the 'barracks' had "Space Cadettes" [sic] written on it during one of the parties organised in the facility. Space Cadet is also RAF slang for a member of the Combined Cadet Force or CCF.
RAF Bentwaters was the location of the famous UFO incident in Rendlesham Forest.
The motto of the establishment S.T.A.R. is '?"?? ?? ????"???"???????'. The mission commander claimed this means 'We, the adventurers', but it actually means 'It's not rocket science', a phrase meaning that something is very easy, here taking on a double meaning.
During the training lectures, the cadets were told that Russia's first cosmonaut to successfully orbit and return to earth was a monkey called Minsky (who is supposedly stuffed and kept on display at S.T.A.R.), and that the city of Minsk is named in her honour.
The cadets were also told the segments of Mission Control, referred to by acronyms, some of which are made up - CAPCOM, FlDO, LIDO, DIDO, NACAS and MUMI (only CAPCOM and FlDO are genuine positions).
According to one of the "pilots", if the shuttle was unable to land at the S.T.A.R. base in Russia, one of the back-up sites was at Woodbridge, UK. This is an in-joke as, unknown to the cadets, RAF Woodbridge was the 'twin' airbase to RAF Bentwaters. Woodbridge is also the nearest town to the actual Space Cadets production site in Suffolk.
The contestant Keri, featured in a recent recording of ITV1's revival of Bruce Forsyth's The Price Is Right, now hosted by Joe Pasquale.
Sarah-Jane Cass [on the subject of space]: "It's like Chessington World of Adventures times ten thousand."
Johnny Vaughan: "Coming up tomorrow, can we successfully convince our contestants that there's a star system called The Hazelnut Cluster?"
Johnny Vaughan: "With all these animals around it's weird that the only thing I can smell is bullshit."
Johnny Vaughan: "That's right, one of the actors we hired has landed us right in it. [Pause] Tit."
Johnny Vaughan [on various occasions after footage of the commander had been shown, due to his comical outrageous moustache]: "Good Lord, it's the commander's moustache."
"Earth Orbiter One to CAPCOM Krymsk, I can see two cosmonauts having a punch up."
"Earth Orbiter One to CAPCOM Krymsk, I can see Rambo and The Fonz doing a high five."
"Earth Orbiter One to CAPCOM Krymsk, I can see a lecturer holding a sign saying 'Don't say anything'."
Sarah-Jane Cass [talking in her sleep (in connection to the 'Russian' actors)]: "Not foreign. They're not foreign. They're not foreign..."
"Val [a physical trainer] is like Spider-Man, God, and the Terminator all rolled into one, but times ten thousand"
Actor Charlie [on being castigated in a 'lecture']: "Even though I was very well aware that he was just an actor - he wasn't even Russian... even though I knew this whole thing was just an immense charade, I was really nervous and filled with anxiety [when he said 'see me after class']... and I even, I couldn't stop myself doing it - this is the power of suggestion - I had some notes in my book, and I even made them better and put some extra notes in, so that when he'd look at my book, he'd see that I had proper notes in."
The Russian 'pilot' [on his dislike of the omnipresent cameras]: "I am like a lost sheep, trying to find a place to hide."
Billy Jackson: "I think last night was fake, but I'm just hoping the whole thing isn't. This could possibly be the biggest reality TV scam ever."
Paul French [after "Mr. Bimby"'s failed funeral]: "This is the nuttiest space... thingy... I've ever been on."
Paul French: "It all feels like a caravan, everything is very caravanny in here...."
Paul French: "We're not Astronauts. We're just asses."