Director: Albert Barillé
Airing date: October 9, 1982
After the success of ‘Il était une fois… l’homme’ (Once upon a Time… Man) Albert Barillé returned with the boldest and most artistic children series of his entire career.
Largely abandoning education, the raison d’être of his last series, he embarked on a fictional and after a while remarkably integrated story, set in the far future, telling about a United Nations-like intergalactic union, and its problems.
Even more than the previous series, ‘Il était une fois… l’espace’ (Once upon a Time… Space) is a vehicle of Barillé’s highly personal views on the world and mankind. The series expresses a strong love for nature and mutual understanding, and an aversion to imperialism, war and, to a certain extent, technology.
New is a strong spirituality, embodied by the mild, and vaguely South American-looking girl Psi, who possesses psychic powers. Unlike the other main characters, she had not been in the original series, and she is less stereotypical than the rest of the cast. Her role in this first episode (in which she’s introduced as ‘Mercedes’, but everyone calls her ‘Psi’) is still minor, but soon she would become as important as Pierrot (Peter), the series’ main hero.
Pierrot, like all other good guys from ‘Il était une fois… l’homme’ has been redesigned and fixed into a single role. Pierrot now is a guy in his early twenties. Petit Gros (Jumbo), too, has changed. He is less dim, less strong and less obese than in the original series. In fact, he’s only recognizable by his red hair. His dad is equally slender and has grown a blonde mustache, while a stern-looking Pierre, head of the intergalactic police, is fixed at an older age (say 50).
The most surprising transformation may be that of Pierrette, who is head of the Union, and who has received a modern hairdo and some fancy glasses. By placing her as head of the union Barillé makes a strong feminist statement that was still pretty bold in the early 1980’s. The only characters to remain the same are Maestro, and the two villains Le Nabot (The Dwarf) and Le Teigneux (The Pest). Remarkably, children are totally absent from the series.
In this first episode of ‘Il était une fois… l’espace’ Maestro conceives the little robot Metro, who would play a major part in the series, eclipsing his master, while Le Teigneux and le Nabot are introduced as the ambassador and general of Cassiopeia, a galaxy with militaristic ambitions, but which is part of the Union nonetheless. Taking time in introducing all these characters, there is very little action in ‘La planète Omega’. Nevertheless, the stage is set when the Union is confronted by an unknown spaceship of some supreme alien race…
Apart from Barillé’s original story and its classic characters, ‘Il était une fois… l’espace’ is a highlight of television animation because of its great music by Michel Legrand and its superb designs by René Borg. The latter clearly draws inspiration from contemporary science fiction illustrators like Lukas Foss, Colin Hay, Angus McKie and Tony Roberts.
The animation itself, by the Japanese Eiken studio, is better than in ‘Il était une fois… l’homme’, but it’s still mediocre and uneven, and especially the designs of Psi are far from consistent. This would remain a problem throughout the series, together with a sometimes terribly slow narration. These drawbacks, however, do not overcome the series’ merits, and ‘Il était une fois… l’espace’ may be praised as Barillé’s masterpiece.
Watch an excerpt from ‘La planète Omega’ yourself and tell me what you think:
This is the 1st episode of ‘Il était une fois… l’espace’ (Once Upon a Time… Space)
To the 2nd episode: Les Sauriens (The Saurians)