Lemon Juicers in Space: The Adventures of Pirx (1972–1973)


SFRA Review, vol. 52, no. 1

On the Edge: The Fantastic in Hungarian Literature and Culture


Lemon Juicers in Space: The Adventures of Pirx (1972–1973)

Daniel Panka

One critic jokingly describes it “[a]s if Ed Wood was on mushrooms and collaborated with Andy Warhol to remake 2001: A Space Odyssey for television” (Sepsi 61); another claims that “even mentioning its title elicits death screams” and hopes that “its copies are hiding under thick dust in a storage room” (Géczi 4). [1] Besides introducing what I believe to be an important part of Hungarian science fiction television history, I will also attempt to explain why The Adventures of Pirx failed to achieve the same appeal as similar SF works of its era. I argue that it works largely within the “cynical” sentiment, one that I previously examined in relation to another Hungarian animated series (Panka 341–62). Pirx translates certain cultural codes of Kádárian Hungary into a future in which Hungarians (or at least, Hungarian-speaking people) are a space-faring nation, and I argue that the peculiarity of the series lies not only in the way it clumsily incorporates Kádárian material culture into its visual code, but also in its exposure of the future as the present. Pirx unwittingly performs an oblique critique of the then-present and embodies the cynicism that images of the Future engendered in socialist Hungary—its failure is that it does so without any self-reflection and humor.

“Electronic poetry”: András Rajnai and the Blue Box Technique

The mastermind behind the technical aspects of Pirx was András Rajnai, a television director and entrepreneur who understood his cultural and political context especially well. As technical director Ferenc Ormos also notes in a documentary (Izing), the Hungarian audience was keen on SF, which is indicated by the popularity of TV shows such as the West-German Raumpatrouille – Die phantastischen Abenteuer des Raumschiffes Orion [Space Patrol – The Fantastic Adventures of the Spaceship Orion] (1966) and the Hungarian animated series Mézga család [The Mézga Family] (1970), as well as the success of Kozmosz Fantasztikus Könyvek [Cosmos Fantastic Books], a paperback series dedicated to SF. However, censorship in Kádár’s Hungary did not allow for the subversive and provocative energies of SF to flourish—as Schreiber notes, “only the spectacle could stay” (40). [2] Rajnai recognized the opportunity and seized it—his efforts to popularize SF in Hungary are commendable and indisputable (Németh 13, Vecsernyés 82–83), but he also worked diligently to make his name synonymous with special effects technology (chiefly chroma keying, more commonly known as “green screen”) and to monopolize the movement that he called “electronic art” (or even “electronic poetry”) under his guidance. He created the “Electronic Research Group” in 1974 and later the “Video Innovation Editorial Office” in 1982 at the state-owned MTV (Magyar Televízió, ‘Hungarian Television’), the only television company at the time (Vecsernyés 82). In his quasi-autobiography Sugarakból teremtett világ [World created by rays], alluding to cathodic rays, Rajnai chronicles the “press campaign” he started in 1969, the numerous replies to his essays, and the “incomprehension” that his “theory” had to face (13–14).

Another, more practical advantage is of a financial nature: Rajnai claims that “spectacular” results can be achieved with the help of chroma keying for a fraction of the budget of Hollywood blockbusters (13). Accordingly, the originally estimated 96 million HUF (approximately 21 million USD today) budget of Pirx was countered by Rajnai with a 4 million HUF (876 thousand USD today) budget (Garai 19). [3] After these introductory remarks and a chronology of his works, Rajnai goes on to explain his theory of “electronics” with examples and ideas taken from evolutionary biology, ornithology, behavioral psychology, Buddhism, Christianity, and Western philosophy. Not surprisingly, this eclectic mixture fails to cohere into a unified theory of his art that would go beyond the central tenet that “electronics” opens the way to a new form of artistic expression. An illustrative example of Rajnai’s long list of debates is his bout with Bernáth on the pages of the magazine Filmvilág [The World of Film] from 1982: Bernáth accuses Rajnai of being somewhat of a con artist who continually manages to secure funding for his ill-conceived ideas (56–58) which Rajnai counters in a response by saying that Bernáth and his cohort simply do not understand him and the possibilities of “electronics” (58–59).

It is worth mentioning the Hungarian origin of the central technique of Rajnai’s “electronics,” namely chroma keying. Evidence is scarce about Hungarian inventor Theodot Vrabély, who Rajnai also identifies as the “tragic-fated inventor” of the principles behind chroma keying technology (8). To my knowledge, Vrabély is virtually unknown in the English-language literature on chroma keying, which is not surprising if one considers the scant evidence available about his life. A contemporary article from 1934 in the newspaper 8 Órai Ujság [8 O’clock News] reports that the thirty-two-year-old lawyer, who is also interested in physics as a hobby, won the “city’s prize” and the “gold medal” in Marseille at the competition of the “International Association of Inventors” (B. Gy. 4). [4] His two inventions are improvements upon “far-viewing technology” (a then-used Hungarian expression for television)—one of them grants a sharper image, and the other “enables us to use any moving or static image as a background for footage shot within four empty walls” (B. Gy. 4). According to Vrabély himself, he invented the fundamentals of “far-viewing technology” already in 1929 but did not have the money to make it ready for patenting. Vrabély eventually patented his invention in England but later lost the patent because he could not pay certain fees (“Vigyázzunk” 5); other sources claim that Vrabély eventually secured the patent in the UK through the Marconi Company in 1934, but he received no recognition at all for his work and died unknown as a clerk for the state-owned chain of pawnbrokers in 1970 (Vajda 32). Vrabély supposedly had other inventions as well which were destroyed by his older sister after his death (Potoczky 43).

The reason Vrabély’s story is interesting here—besides my wish to record his name for an international audience—is that the tragic narrative might have fueled Rajnai’s missionary spirit. In a 1990 interview, Rajnai claims to have learnt about the “tragedy” and “genius invention” (Szibilla 12) after Vrabély’s death from one of the inventor’s friends. I do not wish to speculate as to Rajnai’s intentions and his mindset, but it is possible that the Hungarian origins of chroma keying might have helped sell his agenda. To his credit, Rajnai mentions the inventor in his autobiography as well and seems to be striving to reinstate Vrbély’s pedigree whenever he has a chance to do so.

Contemporary and Later Reactions

The final aired version of The Adventures of Pirx has five one-hour episodes, each of them a self-contained story with the same characters. The mini-series revolves around Pirx, who is freshly out of the academy in the first episode and becomes a more seasoned pilot throughout. Other recurring characters include his love interest Glória, his classmates and later colleagues, and various authority figures of the Space Military and its corollary agencies. The episodes are loosely based on Stanisław Lem’s short stories collected in Tales of Pirx the Pilot (first Polish publication in 1968).

The main space station that houses the Space Academy—ingredients include lemon juicers and plastic breadbaskets.

Huge interest was generated around Pirx in Hungarian magazines before its premiere, but the first reviews were generally not favorable. [5] Bence Inkei and Csaba Kalmár deftly collected contemporary reactions in retrospective articles in 2019, citing criticism mostly aimed at the technical inadequacies of the show and its treatment of the source material (Inkei, Kalmár). Inkei wonders whether Bernáth’s vitriolic essay from 1982 might have contributed to Rajnai’s virtual disappearance and cites passages from Bernáth that also target the clumsy special effects. Rather than revisit the same writings that the two journalists found, I would like to highlight two noteworthy points from contemporary criticism: the show’s lack of humor and its non-reflective vision of the future appeared as shortcomings in reviews as early as 1973.

István Gáll notes that the show “made Lem serious which does not become him” (27), but his bigger problem with the show is its “view of the future fashioned to teenage fantasy” (27). In this future, one does not have to study a lot, machinery is easy to operate, robots are there to be fought, and “girls do not understand a thing” (27). Women in Pirx, according to Gáll, are “concerned with their clothes[,] . . . they gossip, argue, and try to be important” (27). Pirx rehearses all the worst 1970s Hungarian stereotypes about women and projects those attitudes and power structures into the future as well.

István Pálffy argues that while excitement in Western SF like The Invaders (1967–1968) and Doctor Who (1963–) is derived from fear and by extension these nations are occupied by such feelings, Hungarians “are not afraid of the unknowns of the next century” (94). This is in line with official party ideology and completely wrong; Schreiber convincingly shows that Eastern Bloc-socialist SF was teeming with fear and paranoia (40–2). Nevertheless, Pálffy laments that Pirx fails to generate any kind of excitement, not just the Western type, and it also fails to supplant excitement with other things, for example humor. He cites The Mézga Family as a counterexample, an SF show that is humorous and overall well-made (94).

The Mézga Family is a good example not only due to the use of comical elements, but also because it is technically not very advanced. One might say that it is easier to forgive technological inadequacies for an animated series, but the backgrounds of early episodes of that show do look rather empty, not to mention the changing appearance of the principal characters. If Bernáth can liken Pirx to the first Star Wars film, then one only needs to draw a comparison between The Mézga Family and any Disney production and see the gaping technological chasm. Not that such a comparison would be fair, since political, economic, and cultural factors all contribute to such differences—but the bafflement and subsequent hatred that Pirx received cannot be explained solely by technological inadequacies, even more so because the reception of chroma keying was not unanimously negative. As György Sas argued in 1975, Rajnai’s “method is viable” and “especially suited” for SF, “even if Pirx did not succeed” (27), though he does not go into detail about the reasons for its failure. Péter Kuczka, doyen of Hungarian SF in the Kádár era, wrote in 1976 that he “had and still has no problem with [chroma keying], even when others were making fun of [it]” (30).

Rajnai later disowned the series, claiming that his co-director István Kazán was responsible for removing the philosophical material from the show and replacing them with jokes and gags; Rajnai finished working on the technical aspects of the show because of legal obligations to the channel (16–17). János Papp, who plays the protagonist Pirx, claims in a 2007 documentary that he was against simplifying Lem’s material from the beginning (Izing). In the same documentary, technical director Ferenc Ormos remembers that the crew were making fun of the show as they shot it, and model creator Béla Bognár complains that he only had a month before shooting to fabricate all the special effect models (Izing). It seems that the cast and crew did not harbor delusions of grandeur and knew perfectly what they were doing—but instead of creating jovial conspiratorial rapport with the audience (as it happened in the case of The Mézga Family), the creators only managed to annoy and Pirx left a bitter aftertaste.

The Future that Looks like 1970

I have already indicated two elements that I believe are responsible for Pirx’s failure: its lack of both humor and self-reflection. The thoughtless incorporation of Kádárian material reality into the show exacerbates these problems, though in and of itself it might have been an endearing factor. Various objects repurposed in the show include a breadbasket and a lemon juicer (combined to create a space station), a coffee maker (spaceship), a toy car in a sandbox (moon rover), car tail lights (emergency warning light), and as Bognár says, “all kinds of junk” (Izing)—the main obstacle to the suspension of disbelief is that these everyday objects remain instantly recognizable. [6] Papp argues that the “show could have had charm and humor if [co-director Kazán] had ten ideas for every model to make them come alive” (Izing). Indeed, nothing is left in the final version of the show that would indicate the kind of self-awareness that the creators themselves seemingly possessed. In the second episode (“A Galilei-állomás rejtélye” [The mystery of the Galilei station]), Pirx has to solve a locked-room murder mystery on a moon base, and the solution to the conundrum turns out to be a faulty electric skillet that fatally tricks the base’s life support system. [7] This is not the only time when technology fails the protagonist: one way or another, malfunctioning equipment is central to four out of five episodes. The animated series I referred to earlier, The Mézga Family, also features futuristic gadgets, but the source of calamities is quite different from the one found in Pirx. The Mézgas are not ready to use thirtieth-century technology and that causes their downfall; in contrast, Pirx is perfectly capable of using his material environment, but it fails him constantly. In the former case, the future is advanced and awe-inspiring but not understood, while in the latter case it is almost exactly like the present.

Pirx and Gloria in a video call. The screen is housed in a plastic lampshade.

The future in Pirx, be that material environment or societal and political structure, is not entirely congruent with the official dogma of perpetual progress in 1970s socialist Hungary. The future being fundamentally similar except for a few technological innovations means one of two things. Either 1970s Hungary is almost perfect, therefore there is no need for fundamental adjustments, which would clash with people’s everyday experience; or the promise of incessant progress failed miserably, which would go against official ideology. These two interpretations, however, can work simultaneously and create the “cynical” attitude that Alexei Yurchak identifies as the primary mode of experience in the late-stage Soviet Union. Yurchak argues that “the late socialist subject experienced official ideological representation of social reality as largely false and at the same time as immutable and omnipresent” and that “[i]n such conditions it became irrelevant for subjects whether they believed official ideological messages or not” (162). Yurchak claims that the among the main vehicles for “intricate strategies of simulated support and . . . ‘nonofficial’ practices” (162) were political jokes and humorous stories that exposed the reality behind the façade and shed light on the absurdity of official ideology, while at the same time condemning the subjects and tellers of the jokes themselves for following it. As Yurchak explains: “[The jokes’] hidden message was: ‘we recognize the official lie but find enough reasons to act as if we do not and to avoid even thinking about it’” (178). As I understand it, this mental attitude acts as the catalyst for the “cynical” mode, in which every seemingly appropriate ideological statement is doubly layered and contains its own refutation. Pirx comes close to cynicism, but it fails to fully exploit the possibilities of the attitude. Bearing in mind that at least some of the creators involved were perfectly aware of the comical potentials of the show, it is difficult to ascertain where the process has gone astray.

Consider the example of the faulty skillet mentioned earlier: it seems indeed absurd that the hyper-advanced life support system on a Moon base would be paralyzed by such a device or that the engineers of the base would not plan for such a contingency in the first place. The mystery is solved, and no one seems to notice the farcical nature of the entire affair. To be fair, two weak jokes are aimed at Pirx’s behavior—he prepares the eggs as “if the maker is turned on anyway” and proceeds to eat the omelet, to which one of his friends (wrongly) says that he “ate his evidence.” Between the two jokes, however, is a lengthy summation scene in which the whole mystery is laid out to TV viewers by a serene man (this scene does appear in the original text, see note 7). The fact that an electric skillet causes the death of three people in this manner is ridiculous, and the creators deliberately employ this element to make fun of the official version of 1970s Hungary in which no equipment breaks, everyone works diligently, and technological progress is inevitable. On the other hand, the lack of self-reflexive humor arrests the cynical process and prevents it from complete realization: the serious plot and tone of the episode (a triple fatal accident, the creepy isolation of the base, the tense atmosphere, etc.) do not generate the mischievous rapport with the audience. This type of cynicism only works if both the sender and the receiver are on the same page and are able to laugh at each other. Without that element of humor, Pirx only gives its audience a serious version of the future which exposes many aspects of their present as unpleasant but offers no comic relief.

Pirx and Gloria in a Mars resort. The robot armchair offers Pirx some refreshments—in the background, the Martian landscape.

To return to the visuality of the series, I think part of the reaction to the models and the obviously fake environments could also be explained by the imperfect operation of the cynical attitude. According to Ormos, the crew “had a good laugh” about the visuals—the problem, it seems, is that director Kazán failed to transfer this atmosphere to the show itself (as mentioned above, actor János Papp notes his lack of ideas in the documentary). If the show in any way indicated that it was not taking itself seriously, the cynical mode would have been properly established. As Bernáth notes in his article, Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope masks the reality behind its illusions so perfectly that the original objects are not instantly recognizable (Bernáth 58)—a viable alternative for Pirx would have been to self-consciously establish these objects as both the fictional and the real, alluding to the cynical attitude towards socialist make-believe ideology. Of the better examples are the robot butlers that Pirx and Gloria encounter in their hotel suite on Mars: these are actors dressed up as United States-style lounge chairs, with the actor’s hands readily recognizable as armrests. When Pirx and Glória sit down, the chairs start caressing them and they have to dissuade the chairs’ friendly attempts. There are several layers of irony at work here: first, future access to comfortable “Western-style” furniture is tainted by the fact that said furniture is slightly dysfunctional. Second, the way the robots are portrayed also alludes to the tendency of Soviet-style production and engineering to use manpower over automation. These factors combine into the cynical sensibility towards the idea of the socialist automated household: the supposedly advanced devices require human oversight and often laborious manual operation, but the Western comfort level will be achieved eventually—no reason for complaints, and everyone carries on. [8] Unfortunately, these gags are not common in the show because generally the audience is expected to accept drinking glasses as glass corridors and toilet brushes as antennae.

Good Intentions, Bad Reactions

Analysing Pirx and putting it into context will not bring about appreciation or widespread critical re-evaluation. All in all, the show is difficult to watch and its biggest problem, contrary to popular belief, is not in the visual effects department. The models and chroma key backgrounds are ridiculous for sure—but far worse is the show’s slow script and its visible effort to take itself seriously. Most of the furor surrounding the series stems from the fact that it tries to pass off a clumsy 1970s imitation of the future as a genuine Hungarian future while remaining within the socialist party’s ideological coordinates. Cynicism about the regime and its visions of the future permeated contemporary Hungarian society, and very little of this sentiment made it into the show.

The Adventures of Pirx is an interesting product of 1970s Hungarian popular culture and the era’s imaginations of the future. Its creation and its reception are bound to András Rajnai’s name, even though the creator disowned the show subsequently. Rajnai’s persistence and belief in his method (however misguided that may be) are worthy of respect, but the failure of his first widely known project [9] haunted his career for the rest of his life. Critics did not react well to a version of the future that reminded them too closely of their present and that did nothing to comment on the irony of that situation. Pirx did garner a small cult following in the general audience, chiefly among its then-young members who were hooked on anything science fictional and think back on the show with nostalgia, but it is safe to say that it does not attract new fans and it has not been rediscovered as a hidden gem.

Looking at the reception of The Mézga Family side by side with that of Pirx, an important observation to be made is that a humorous and cynical attitude towards the future resonated better with Hungarian audiences. Though far from being applicable as a general statement about the 1970s Hungarian science fiction scene (or then-contemporary Hungarian concepts of the future, for that matter), it is certainly curious that before the 1989 change of regime the comical or satirical vein in audiovisual Hungarian SF seems more successful than “serious” SF. Not only were The Mézga Family (1968–1980), Mikrobi [Mikrobi] (1975–1976), and Macskafogó [Cat City] (1986) all well-received, but they are still fondly remembered. Another aspect that ties these works together is that they are all animated—again, a simple explanation would be that imagined worlds and futuristic environments are easier and cheaper to render in animation, but animation is generally more conducive to humor and satire, too. The Adventures of Pirx is a product of a period in which the expression of a radically different future was disallowed, and a too familiar future rejected. Nevertheless, it still serves as a reminder of its creators’ ingenuity in low-budget set design and their wish to depict a future in which scientific research and exploration is spearheaded by their country.

NOTES

[1] These and the following quotations are my translations.

[2] For more on censorship in the Kádár era and its relation to it in SF, see Panka 342–48.

[3] Calculations based on the HUF/USD exchange rate on 24 June 2021 and on the historical price-adjusting calculator created by Pál Danyi at https://artortenet.hu/magyar-penzertekindex-arak-es-devizak-alapjan-1754-tol/.

[4] Short reports of Vrabély’s success also appeared in other newspapers such as Magyarság [Hungarians], Nemzeti Ujság [National Newspaper], and Dunántúl [Transdanubia].

[5] It is telling that Ludas Matyi humor magazine (roughly equivalent to the United States-based MAD) referenced Pirx twice already in 1973. One joke is about “advanced technology” (no. 16, 13), and the other is about the show having nothing to do with Lem’s work (no. 19, 4).

[6] Another example of the thin “futuristic” glaze is that the only remotely Hungarian name is Glória, all the others have international names—but they all speak Hungarian and there is no indication that they are using a translation device.

[7] The main ideas for the episodes are taken from Lem’s writings, in this case “The Conditioned Reflex.” While the short story also features an electric skillet, its role is significantly smaller than in the TV adaptation. Simply put, the malfunctions in the short stories are not necessarily pivotal elements, unlike in the series.

[8] Though the belief that Eastern Bloc engineering is much worse than its Western counterpart is not entirely true, there is a lot of evidence that the public imagination did indeed perceive it so. In a collection of political humor edited by János Homa, there are countless jokes that make fun of Hungarian and Soviet technology as compared to the Western (mostly, American) one.

[9] Rajnai produced another experimental film in 1970 using chroma key technology, but Ének a Galaktikáról [Song about Galactica] was not as well-known as Pirx.

WORKS CITED

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Daniel Panka is assistant lecturer at the Department of English Studies at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest. His interests include science fiction, popular culture, genre theory, and surveillance studies; his dissertation focuses on privacy, surveillance, and transparency in SF. He has published in Science Fiction Studies, Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies, and Science Fiction Film and Television. From January 2020 he was a Fulbright scholarship grantee as a Visiting Student Researcher at the University of California, Riverside.


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