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Consent and the Space Cadets

Yesterday something reminded me of the Space Cadets:

The series described itself as the most elaborate hoax perpetrated in television history. The title is a comical reference to the slang phrase, which is used to describe vacuous, gullible fools, untethered to reality (compare airhead).[citation needed] It was not clear if the contestants were 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.

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 £5million. Unknown to the “space cadets”, they were not in Russia at all, but at Bentwaters Parks (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”. Indeed, during the shooting of Space Cadets, smokers amongst the production crew were given Russian cigarettes to smoke in case any of the cadets discovered the butts. The production crew went so far as to replace lightswitches and electrical outlets in the barracks with Russian standard. In addition, three of the Cadets were actors, included to misdirect any suspicious cadets and to help reinforce the illusion.

At the time I talked about it a great deal, as everybody did, but I could not watch it for more than a few seconds at a time. Too close to home. On discovering that it was a hoax one of the cadets said, “I was planning my speech about achieving my childhood dreams. I’m a little bit broken-hearted.” I was a little bit broken-hearted for her. I, too, had grown up dreaming of space. The cruellest aspect of the show was that it made clear to the world that the cadets had been selected for their credulity and lack of scientific knowledge. Like many of those reading this I would have “failed” that particular test. But let us not put on airs; it is proverbial among scammers that there is good hunting to be had among educated people who think they could never be fooled by anything.

Why am I still thinking about these nine innocents sold a pup when a whole decade has gone by? Millions agree to take jobs and find them not as advertised. Billions agree to take spouses and find them not as advertised. Such is the way of the world. At least the cadets were handsomely paid. Enough, I assume, to head off any lawsuits about breach of contract – and I would imagine that those contracts were written by clever lawyers in the first place. If the cadets had been the type to read every sub-clause in a contract they would not have been chosen to be filmed larking around in a wooden replica spaceship allegedly equipped with gravity generators.

My memory was triggered (not, like, triggered triggered; just triggered) by all the talk now about consent. I am not thinking primarily about sexual consent, although that is relevant, but about the increasing sensitivity around posting any photographs and films of people without their permission. This new sensitivity isn’t just politically correct wailing. Brian Micklethwait of this parish finds it entirely consistent with his libertarian principles to take care to hide the faces of ordinary people he photographs, as he mentions here, even as he points out that the case is different for public figures. The world has changed. The internet never forgets a name. It is getting closer to never forgetting a face. When the cadets signed their contracts that wasn’t so obvious.

32 comments to Consent and the Space Cadets

  • Yeah, that’s a pretty cruel hoax. I can’t say I’m a fan of programmes which set up ordinary people to look like complete idiots in such a drawn-out manner (pranks can be funny, but are as often annoying). What does amaze me though is a show I am currently fixated on called Ex on the Beach where various members of the feral underclass who happen to have a beach-ready physique are dumped in a villa, plied with unlimited alcohol, and encouraged to have sex with one another. Then they start introducing ex girlfriends and boyfriends, apply more alcohol, and just let the cameras roll. It is horrific, like watching a car crash. It staggers me how cruel some people are towards one another when sex and alcohol are involved. Of course, the process is helped by ensuring half the volunteers are mentally ill to begin with.

  • I completely missed this (and am so not sorry!), due to working abroad on a contract during the whole period. Natalie’s post is the first I ever heard of it.

    Had I seen it I would have had a hard time believing the hoax was not on the viewers, with the naive cadets being in fact actors (I note some of them were so, presumably to help keep their team ‘mates’ deceived).

    It would be interesting to know the political views of those genuinely naive cadets who participated (both when they started and now, after they’ve ten years to think about it), and of those who liked watching it, as against Natalie (I’d have been the same) who could not endure it. (Presumably, the views of those who did it resemble those of mainstream media generally.)

    The only blight on my sympathy is the idea that any of them could swallow the “30%-gravity in near-space” explanation. One must remember they were chosen to swallow it.

    I am reminded of the “Potemkin collective farms” shown to visiting lefty ‘useful idiots’. They too were in a sense selected, and imagined they knew more than they did. I have more sympathy for the cadets than for Stalin’s willingly-deceived western fans.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Niall Kilmartin writes, “I would have had a hard time believing the hoax was not on the viewers, with the naive cadets being in fact actors”

    Speculation on exactly those lines was extremely widespread, and persisted for some time after the big reveal.

    Via the Wikipedia page, I found this link to the web page of a guy who was involved in programming the motion simulators used for the “shuttle” and who also played the role of a lecturer helping “train” the recruits. Whatever one thinks of their ethics, one has to admire the thoroughness shown by the programme makers.

  • llamas

    Your humble servant has appeared as an on-air participant in a US ‘reality’ TV show, albeit several years ago now, in a relatively-benign form, and before this genre came to its current pass of craziness.

    Three rules I took away from that experience:

    1. Nothing that is broadcast on TV can be assumed to be real, truthful or accurate. If you’re looking for ‘the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth’, then don’t watch ‘reality’ TV. This assumption holds true (TAGOLD) for everything that is broadcast on TV, regardless of source, funding or motivation. The only 100%-neutral, non-misleading thing broadcast on TV is the test pattern.

    2. What you see on the screen is reality viewed through a soda-straw. What I mean by that is that (for example) the show that I was on was a 4-camera shoot over 6 days. That’s 240 hours of film, edited down to 48 minutes. So what you are seeing is 1/3 of 1% of what actually occurred. Adjust your idea of ‘reality’ accordingly.

    3. As in playing poker, if you can’t figure out what the plot is, you shouldn’t be playing. The producers have mapped the show out in advance – the participants are, in a sense, merely actors providing content for the already-scripted story.

    I was fortunate in that the ‘star’ or nexus of the show in which I participated made these things quite clear to the participants, right from the get-go. The producers were not happy with him for doing so.

    I’m not a bit surprised that easily-duped participants were found for the show described. My own experience in that world showed me that so-many people are so-easily convinced of non-existent ‘reality’ that I’m sure that this kind of show will find ready targets for many years to come.

    I am told that there is a TV show, currently or recently broadcast in the US, whose premise involves persuading a couple of dozen US women that they are going to the UK to compete for the affections of HRH Prince Harry. As P.T Barnum apocryphally said, there’s one born every minute.



  • Jerry

    To add a bit to Llamas –

    Nothing on a ‘set’ that you see in primarily fiction series is accidental.
    Not a picture on a wall, the placement of ANY item ( and yes, they are ALL placed where they are by someone ! ), the racial makeup and placing of ANY small group of people in a scene, it goes on and on.
    EVERYTHING is contrived, intentional and intended for a specific effect.
    The exceptions to this, are obviously, spontaneous or accidental happenings on ‘live’ programs but in many cases these are edited out thanks to time delay broadcast.

  • Regional

    Big Brother, below average people with massive egos.

  • Runcie Balspune

    The point at which Reality TV jumped the shark was when “celebrity” Reality TV started having people whose celebrity status was appearing on another Reality TV show, like a snake eating itself.

    The format seems to be the norm nowadays, obviously as they are cheap to make having unpaid or poorly paid performers (and it shows), one wonders how many leftist luvvies protest against zero-hour contracts have woken actually up to this rampant “exploitation” in their industry. Of course they’d say that people are more than willing to do this for their 15 minutes of fame, but why not so happy in other industries?

  • I don’t have much sympathy for anyone who knowingly goes on television in a situation like this; reality shows aren’t. However, real hilarity can be made from such materials. In Donald Westlake’s final novel, Get Real, a producer makes the mistake of deciding to do a reality show about burglars — and hires real burglars as technical advisors. Things do not work out as he planned.

  • Ellen,

    Recently I picked up a second hand copy of Help, I Am Being Held Prisoner from Amazon and rediscovered Donald Westlake. I really must get Get Real.

    General comment:

    Do take a look at the Guardian article linked to under the word “triggered”. It is a great and strange wonder, a sensible Jill Filipovic article:

    But generalized trigger warnings aren’t so much about helping people with PTSD as they are about a certain kind of performative feminism: they’re a low-stakes way to use the right language to identify yourself as conscious of social justice issues. Even better is demanding a trigger warning – that identifies you as even more aware, even more feminist, even more solicitous than the person who failed to adequately provide such a warning.

  • J.M. Heinrichs

    Keep in mind that Mr Donald Trump is a Reality Show Star.


  • Nicholas (Unlicensed Joker!) Gray

    “I wanna marry Harry”, an attempt to fool some American women that they would meet Prince Harry, but they were introduced to another bloke called Harry. I think it’s ratings were unimpressive. It would have worked better the other way- have them think they were being educated in British Upper-class customs, and then arrange a lunch with the real Harry! (Free lunch with pretty women- I think Prince Harry would agree!)
    Keeping in mind that Trump is a Reality Show Star, when will he reveal that it is all a hoax?

  • Thailover

    I was stationed at RAF Bentwaters next to it’s sister base Woodbridge. When the base closed, I had the opportunity to pick and choose which base I preferred to go to. Vegas it was. Yes, from one famous “visited by space aliens” base (Woodbridge) to another (Area 51, just “up-range” from Nellis AFB).

    When it was time to re-up my enlistment, I said I would stay in if they could promise me that I could go “black-ops” and see what is (hidden) uprange. They said no on the guarantee, so I said no in return.

    BTW, I’m quite familiar with secret, classified, and SAP’s (Special Access Programs) protocol. The very idea that Hillary didn’t understand the basics is laughable. She supposedly didn’t know what every two-striper with a secrete clearance knows, which is absurd.

  • Thailover

    “Billions agree to take spouses and find them not as advertised.”

    Boats are beautiful, sleek and sweet, though expensive. They are also money traps. Many are tempted to buy them, but it’s better to rent than buy. It’s been said that the two happiest days of your life is the day you buy a boat, and the day you sell it. This philosophy extends to other areas of one’s life. ;-).

  • Paul Marks

    This at least appears to be a case of FRAUD.

    Yes no money was taken from the “space cadets”, but their TIME was taken – days (weeks?) of their time Taken on the basis of the lie that they were in Russia and training for a real flight. I think the company and the individuals who made the decisions, should have been sued.

  • Bruce


    Oz definition of a yacht:

    “A hole in the water into which you throw money”.

  • Paul Marks

    As for sexual matters.

    It was well established in law that a man who seduced a women with the promise of marriage was guilty of breach of promise if he did not then marry her – even if there was no written contract.

    The view of the law was that if one “whispered sweet nothings” to a woman – they had better NOT be “nothings”, they had better be meant.

    “It was just a hoax – have you got no sense of humour?” would not not have gone down well as a defence in court.

  • Paul Marks,

    Not legally, and even I, with all my qualms, must concede that it was not quite a fraud morally either. The programme makers thought of that potential problem well in advance. (Part of the undeniable fascination which this programme exercised on me was the cleverness of the preparations.) They advertised for “thrill seekers” and people “willing to try anything” on the basis that they would have a “unique experience” the nature of which would only be revealed to them once they signed up and got through the auditions. It is normal for participations in reality TV shows such as Big Brother to be isolated from news media, and of course this isolation was absolutely vital for the pretence that they were going into space to be sustained.

    Their hopes were played with. Oh, so very much. One of the scenes in the first episode which I did watch was their reaction when they were told that what they were actually going to do was “be Britain’s first space tourists” or something like that. They were all thrilled, jumping about like little kids. (They were all young people – three of them were only 19 and the rest in their twenties. Their youth probably helped with the deception.) But I cannot claim that their contracts were violated. In other contexts I have argued, and you may have too, that people do have the right to enter into contracts where what exactly the person signing up will do is out of their control. For example those who volunteer to join the army do not choose their own assignments. I was certainly sorry for the space cadets in part because they were lied to and must have suffered a huge disappointment when it turned out that when they had believed they were experiencing something that very few human beings ever had they were just in a stage set, but the most morally dubious aspect of the show was that the contestants were held up to ridicule.

    They thought they were going to be known as “that guy/girl who went into space” but it turned out they were going to be known as someone who was duped in front of an audience of millions. I hope it didn’t define their lives.

  • PeterT

    I’m with Paul on this. There was intent to deceive. That’s enough.

  • Rob Fisher

    I watched some of this. It was *very* elaborate. They had a huge projection screen showing an image of the Earth. At one point one of the volunteers said, “somehow it doesn’t *feel* like we’re in space.” I would have figured it out the moment they mentioned artificial gravity. It was pretty cruel. I suppose they got the “unique experience” they signed up for, though.

  • Rob Fisher

    Some interesting detail here from a guy who worked on computer software for the series: http://www.markbarry.com/tvcredits.html

  • Andrew Duffin

    When you read things like this, you end up thinking that it’s no surprise so many people believe in Global Warming.

  • https://youtu.be/P3c5rsqqHjE

    For those with no moral compass, you can relive the whole torment here.

  • Natalie Solent, October 4, 2016 at 7:55 am: Tom Stoppard’s play, “Professional Foul” is about the ethics of situations like this. Sometimes a “professional foul” is a contract / understanding / rule / whatever designed to be simultaneously observed technically while violating the expectations it intentionally raises. Sometimes, a “professional foul” is technically caught but the committer has calculated that their gain is well worth the penalty (in this case, everyone now knows that TV group did it and are deceitful, but has that hurt them any).

    As Rob Fisher says above, “it was pretty cruel”. The intent was that viewers have fun, with the final humiliation of the participants being not just the price of that fun but its essence – precisely the awareness of that by the viewers was the main part (there might have been a bit of “when will they realise?” suspense as well). I guess that is one reason why Natalie found it so unwatchable (and I would have). Another influence is how much arrogance one has, or lacks. Neither of us could be fooled by that particular scam – but maybe neither of us is so sure that we could never be fooled.

    (One show that did fool me into watching the first couple of episodes was an alleged historical recreation of the 1623 Plymouth colony – a BBC show IIRC. It began like a standard historical reenactment show with the recruits living in log-cabin houses and planting the fields, and the wrinkle that the show producer chose to include – even stress – a puritan religious element: the recruits’ leader was a US preacher and they were to hold church meetings, observe some rules from back then, and so on. This seemed needless to me but at first I thought hey, if they want to reenact that too, they’re welcome. But then it gradually became more and more obvious that the preacher and believers amongst the recruits were the ‘space cadets’: the real show was the rebellion of some lighten-up non-puritanical types, the coming-out of gays planted among the colonists, and the fun of mocking the reactions of the ‘puritans’. The intended educational lesson for the viewers was less about how people lived back then that about how superior the BBC’s beliefs were to those of the old puritans and the less with-it of the recruits – the show was designed to blur the views of 1623 puritans and millennial non-democrat voters. There may have also an element of mocking the kind of american the beeb loves to despise – the real recruits were US people whereas the beeb-planted ones were Brits, IIRC.)

    Lastly, I’d be interested to know the degree of overlap between those who delightedly watched ‘space cadets’ all the way though and those who ‘care’ so much they forbid us to say uncaring things – but I guess that must remain an unsolved question.

  • Cal

    I’m currently in a cruel reality show myself. I’m hoping it’s going to finish soon. It’s being going my whole life so far. 😉

  • Alisa

    A lie is a lie – the fact that it cannot be dealt with by legal means (which is very often the case) does not make it less of a lie.

  • Rob

    A private company that treated its clients, or anyone else, a tenth of the way this broadcaster did would be sued into a premature grave. Quite why media gets a pass on this behaviour is a mystery.

  • Alisa

    Not a mystery at all, Rob: the answer is, too many people enjoy the product, for a very low price. And I’m not sure whether the company being private or not even comes into it.

  • Paul Marks

    Natalie – “when they were told they were going to be Britain’s first space tourists”.

    In short they were LIED to – that certainly appears to be fraud (their time was wasted after that point – they were operating on a false promise, hence breach-of-promise).

    In English Law the focus is on monetary matters – so the best the people could hope for is financial compensation for their wasted time (and public humiliation – a public humiliation based upon DECEPTION). The classic example is cleaning windows – “you promised to clean the widows of this shop – you did not do so, therefore pay X amount of money to the shop owner”.

    However, in Scots Law the focus is on Specific Performance – if you promise to do something you dO it. “You promised to clean the widows of this shop, you have not done so – so GO CLEAN THE WINDOWS”.

    The show makers were lucky they did not make their show in Scotland, if they had they might well have been expected (legally) to take the “Space Cadets” into Outer Space.

  • For what it is worth, if I recall correctly, the general tenor of the programme was very tongue in cheek, and it wasn’t so much, “look at how gullible these schmucks are” as, “let’s see if we can get away with this”. As a happy audience member I warmed to the “victims” and was often wondering when and if I would have twigged that the whole thing was a charade. It was comic, in the same way Candid Camera was comic. it wouldn’t have been as popular had it not been, reckon.

  • drscroogemcduck

    how do we know the contestants were lied to and it wasn’t the audience that was deceived?

  • Rich Rostrom

    Jerry @ October 3, 2016 at 4:24 pm:

    To add a bit to Llamas –

    Nothing on a ‘set’ that you see in primarily fiction series is accidental.
    Not a picture on a wall, the placement of ANY item ( and yes, they are ALL placed where they are by someone ! ), the racial makeup and placing of ANY small group of people in a scene, it goes on and on.
    EVERYTHING is contrived, intentional and intended for a specific effect.

    It depends on how meticulous the production company is (and sometimes, what their budget is). Some dramaturges are sloppy or cheap. One doubts that the creators of the old Upstairs, Downstairs series intended to have visible zippers in costumes.

    There is another point, though: very often these choices (and bits of dialog or plot elements) express unconscious assumptions of the creators. These sensibilities are then (often literally) broadcast into the general consciousness. The fact of modern mass media means that the sensibilities of relatively small groups get propagated with very large multipliers.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Thank you, Rich, for leaving us with this happy thought to guide us into Dreamland…. [/sarc *g*]

    Perhaps for those who find insufficient oomph in Rich’s comment to propel them along the path to permanent sleep (I do not say “rest”), a further remedy for the Mortal Condition might be a dip into Greg Bear’s Blood Music, a book which Natalie and I discussed some years back.

    Guaranteed to enhance the appeal of a nice hot cuppa hemlock tea.