Aquatic Adventures in Inner Space: The Documentaries of Ron and Valerie Taylor
The real-life Steve Zissou - our DVD specialist Gerard Elson takes a look at the remarkable underwater adventuring of Ron and Valerie Taylor.
Despite its connotations of introspectiveness or psychic landscapes, ‘inner space’ is actually now-mostly-defunct slang for ‘underwater’. If you’ve never encountered the term before, the title of Ron and Valerie Taylor’s 1973 documentary-adventure series Inner Space (not to be confused with the movie Innerspace, Joe Dante’s late-80s comic riff on Fantastic Voyage, which saw a miniaturised Dennis Quaid injected into Martin Short’s bloodstream) could evoke expectations for another sort of program entirely. But that notional program wouldn’t be anywhere near as remarkable as these documentaries.
From the early 1960s to the late 1990s, Valerie and Ron Taylor were, delightfully, a self-styled wife/husband photography and ‘underwater adventure’ team. (The word ‘adventure’ crops up a lot around Ron and Val. Today it might seem kitschy or camp, or carry uncomfortable imperialist implications. But for Val and Ron, circa the 1970s, it was right on the button).
Eager to move away from the recreational violence of competitive spear-fishing – the sport which first brought them together – in order to devote themselves fully to underwater photography and filmmaking, Inner Space was the natural corollary of their mutually refocused interest. After all, scuba diving is expensive, and the remuneration for National Geographic photo spreads and scientific research-gathering expeditions only went so far.
And far from waiting for work to come to them, the intrepid couple were constantly experimenting in their own garage, customising camera mounts to enable extreme close-up sub-aquatic photography, or devising new ways for divers to guard themselves against shark attacks (it was Ron who first suggested draping full-body chain-mail over a wetsuit; a costly solution, but a successful one that’s still used by contemporary professionals, like so).
Indeed, across these 13 episodes, it’s not uncommon to find either Ron or Val – or, on some occasions, the marital unit – on external assignment. The first installment finds them collecting sea snake specimens for the Australian Museum. Another has Val searching for coral-eating shells at the request of an independent researcher. Oftentimes, though, they’re simply exploring for the sake of their own curiosity.
Given the time of its production – the more permissive early-to-mid-1970s – much of Inner Space’s appeal comes from footage garnered by what, to modern viewers, may seem jovially invasive techniques; they’re forever prodding and poking, hoping to rouse their often indolent subjects into action for their cameras. In one episode, Val, overcome by tender empathy, even shuttles a clutch of newly-hatched pig-nosed turtles to the ocean via bucket, thus thwarting an expectant flock of hungry, waiting seabirds, and with them, the natural order of things. You don’t get that from Attenborough.
The tersely poetic narration from none other than William Shatner (once again relating the pioneering exploits of humans boldly going where – if not none, then certainly few – have ever gone before) continually reassures that Val and Ron are practiced handlers of these inner space organisms. And they are, of course. Sometimes, however, things don’t go to plan.
One such sequence – arguably the show’s most astonishing – sees Val, unarmed, imperiled by a circling blacktip reef shark. With no other option, Ron’s forced to spear it. Inspecting its carcass, he finds the belly distended. Curiosity wins. He slices it open. Egad! The late predator was heavy with pups—which Ron then delivers, severing the gloopy umbilical cabling to free the newborns to life.
Elsewhere, there’s footage of real scientific interest, such as the discovery of the strange, symbiotic relationship between a fish and a shrimp. While the former stands sentry at the ingress of a shallow, sandy warren, the latter forages inside for food. The fish doesn’t eat the shrimp as it’s more advantageous to keep it alive as a sort of personal footservant. The shrimp, on the other hand, knows it won’t last nearly so long without the protection of its piscine guard. Another bizarre sequence sees a poor fish lose its mind when confronted for the first time by its own reflection. What would Lacan make of that?
Buoyed by the squiggly jazz melodies of Sven Libaek’s now-classic score, Inner Space is a long-unavailable gem of the Australian television canon, and Madman are to be applauded for its renewed circulation. Most excellently, Val and Ron, now in their late 70s, by all accounts remain active, as passionate marine conservationists and – yes! – adventurers.
Gerard Elson works at Readings St Kilda.