Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 24 (Quatermass, Day of the Triffids, Blake’s 7, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Alien, Sapphire and Steel)
Or, as I’ve been thinking of it all week, “the entry from hell.” Normally it’s fairly easy to pick what goes into a Pop Between Realities entry. I mean, I tend to put them in whenever the series goes on any sort of break, and I just grab two, sometimes three pieces of relevant media or history from the time period. They’ve all been very natural.
And then we come to this infuriating gap. Part of it is that the next two Pop Between Realities are no-brainer single-item entries for me, and as a result anything science fiction television from now to the start of 1982 or so is booked. I mean, the end-of-Doctor chaos of side entries is already worse than usual for the Baker/Davison transition. But also, good LORD there are a lot of sci-fi things going around on television in here that require coverage. And this isn’t even all of it! I’m not redoing Hitchhiker’s as a television series and I’m punting The Adventure Game down until Janet Fielding appears on it.
Still, in some ways this is also the perfect entry here. John Nathan-Turner and Christopher Bidmead are about to determinately reshape what Doctor Who is in order to make it work better as proper science fiction television. In which case the obvious question is… what does science fiction look like around this point in time?
Well, it looks like…
In late 1979 ITV ran a four part Quatermass serial produced by Verity Lambert simply called Quatermass. The film version for the export market went instead with the title The Quatermass Conclusion. The production was the very definition of problematic. Kneale wrote his scripts in 1973 for a BBC production that got abandoned. Following the success of Star Wars and everyone becoming re-obsessed with science fiction, however, Euston Films snapped up the rights to the scripts, having them rewritten to work both as a 200 minute serial and as a 100 minute film.
The results were frankly unfortunate. Lambert’s production values were impeccable, and the film (which is the version I got my hands on) looks quite solid. The problem here really is one of an unfixable underlying concept. Verity Lambert’s defense of the project – that there are problems inherent in any effort to update an old concept like this – isn’t entirely fair. After all, plenty of other science fiction revivals have worked. But on the other hand it’s not as though there were a long line of successful television revivals to begin with. This is probably about as good a version of Quatermass as could have been made in 1979.
The problem is just that Quatermass didn’t fit 1979 at all. And the blame here really goes to Nigel Kneale. That Kneale is a conservative writer is hardly a revelation. But by 1979 that had tipped into an unfortunate overdrive. Quatermass is so appallingly reactionary as to occasionally tip over into comedy. Its central premise involves mind-controlling aliens whose mind control doesn’t affect old people. It largely concerns itself with the dangers of hippies and how they contribute to urban decay. The other part of its premise is that there’s a cult called the Planet People, who believe that aliens are nicely transporting them to a utopia on another world when in fact they’re just being incinerated.
Kneale has said that he feels the Planet People should have been portrayed as punks instead of hippies, which makes sense, as not only are punks more intuitively connected with gang violence and urban decay, but they’re also well known for their tendency to gather in stone circles to await their alien saviors. Which is to say that the real problem here isn’t just that the script is hopelessly reactionary but that it’s carelessly and unthinkingly reactionary. Dystopian science fiction in which there is a sense of imminent danger based on existing trends is one thing, but doing “five minutes into the future” stuff in which those damn kids have ruined society and only the smart old people can save it is just bewildering. To do it with no understanding of the idea that the punk damn kids and the hippie damn kids are even remotely different is just stupid. It was vile when Hainsman and Lincoln did it in 1969 with The Dominators. A decade letter it’s just sad.
But there’s a larger conservatism to this. Kneale is still writing with the idea which government-funded elites can fix everything if only the chattering masses would shut up and leave them alone. It’s not just the loathsome politics of the piece that kills it, it’s the fact that the entire piece acts as though no valid or interesting question has been raised about the nature of authority since the 1950s that might possibly justify altering its approach to science fiction. The result is, essentially, 100 minutes of Nigel Kneale yelling at the kids to get off his lawn.
It is perhaps tempting to treat Quatermass as if it somehow implicates the more classic tradition of British science fiction and shows that it doesn’t have legs in the early 1980s. After Star Wars, when science fiction was just another flavor of action-adventure, the serious-minded science fiction of the 1950s was a relic, for better or for worse. Tempting as it may be, however, it would also be demonstrably wrong given that Day of the Triffids is visibly one of the best piece of science fiction of the 1980s.
Based on John Wyndham’s 1951 novel, Day of the Triffids can roughly be described as Survivors done right, although to be fair, it’s more accurate to say that Survivors is Day of the Triffids done wrong. Both are post-apocalyptic survivor stories in the genre that OH BUGGER LOOK THIS UP.
Day of the Triffids is another textbook example of the correct lesson from Star Wars – that the public is comfortable enough with science fiction that you can just do drama with science fiction in it and be confident about it. Day of the Triffids is, at its heart, a story about being alone in a crowd that uses a world with giant man-eating plants to tell itself. This contrasts it immediately with Survivors and Quatermass, both of which are at their core fables. Survivors is a moral parable about the virtues of good middle class English folk, and Quatermass is a moral parable about how Nigel Kneale is a cranky old man.
Whereas Day of the Triffids is first and foremost a story about people. Survivors, at least, spends some time being that at the beginning before it wanders off into stupidity, but Day of the Triffids also has the good sense to be a miniseries, to show how the big disaster affects the characters, and then to end. Its characters aren’t various versions of “the _____ one” or bland archetypes. They’re not epically deep portraits of humanity either, but they’re characters for us to think about and get to know. The first episode consists of the main character in his hospital bed waiting for a doctor that never comes to take the bandages off his eye. He narrates his story in flashback, and we spend the whole time getting to know him and his world before the post-apocalyptic stuff kicks up. It’s a gorgeous bit of structure, and one that grounds the story in people.
A glance at the production credits quickly shows what’s up. This is produced by David Maloney, better known to us as the director of Genesis of the Daleks, The Mind Robber, The War Games, The Deadly Assassin, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, and a few other stories. He’s an old pro at science fiction and one with the confidence to do what this story requires: calmly and without fuss make serious drama with man-eating plants in it. And, equally crucially, recognize that there’s a difference between serious drama with man-eating plants in it and serious drama about man-eating plants.
Sadly Maloney was not so lucky in his other major contribution to British sci-fi television of the era. Blake’s 7, and the apostrophe is strictly a lexical courtesy, is a classic example of an almost great show. It’s tempting to suggest that its key problem is that it’s created by Terry Nation – and certainly the fact that he wrote all of the scripts in the first season despite not actually having a season’s worth of ideas doesn’t help the series. But with a production team including both Chris Boucher and David Maloney that shouldn’t be that massive a barrier.
The problem is that it’s too often a BBC-budgeted Star Trek where everybody hates each other. Only one of these ideas is an inherent flaw, but to their credit the days of the BBC trying to do Star Trek are basically at an end as of here. The larger problem is that they don’t quite hit the characterization right for what they’re trying to do. The characters are all just a bit too programmatic for their conflicts and arguments to be compelling.
It is, actually, helpful to compare it to Day of the Triffids. There the characters also aren’t massively brilliant (though they’re mostly better than Blake’s 7), but in Day of the Triffids the drama isn’t centered around the fact that everybody is constantly at each other’s throats. When your drama is based primarily on everyone being furious at one another and constantly betraying each other then the bar is a bit higher.
Or maybe it’s just that after Firefly it’s tough to swallow the same basic show being done by Terry Nation. But the criticism here is merely “this isn’t a mind-blowing classic of science fiction” and not “this isn’t good.” Blake’s 7 is, in fact, extremely good. It does some things very well. Certainly it shows that people are putting a real effort into trying to do new things with the standard space formula. And the final episode bears some real mention.
Really. It does have one of the great final episodes in all of science fiction. They bring Blake (who left the series after the second season) back, have Avon (his replacement as main character) kill him with a fantastically large explosion of blood (on the request of Gareth Thomas, who wanted to make sure that nobody would think his character could ever come back. Apparently even he was surprised quite how much blood there was.) Then the entire cast save for Avon is shot down over the course of about few minutes, Avon is surrounded by men with guns, he smiles, and the screen cuts to black as the sound of gunfire rings out. It’s a stunning, stunning finish, and for that alone deserves some real credit.
Of course, Paul Darrow, who plays Avon, has several times pushed for a theory that suggests that Avon ducks as the screen cuts out, the dozen or so guards all shoot each other, and he escapes to create a sequel series. And fans of the series have taken this seriously. And that, I think, tells you everything you need to know about Blake’s 7 and its fans.
A fairly often discussed point regarding the “new look” John Nathan-Turner era that we’ll finally start talking about on Friday is that its ratings early on were abominable. So bad, in fact, that ITV’s attempted counter-programming of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was winning the timeslot. And it’s true, the ratings were very, very bad – bad enough that during Full Circle they fell to 3.7 million. The lowest point of the Sylvester McCoy era, for comparison, was 3.1m, and that was still better-ranked in the week than Full Circle’s nadir. Its second episode, at 170th place for the week, appears at a brief glance to be the worst chart placing Doctor Who ever attained.
Many words have been spilled to attempt to explain what the hell happened. And it’s genuinely difficult to explain. It cannot be said to be a straightforward result of Nathan-Turner’s producership because the drop happened with his first episode. Horns of Nimon 4 pulled 10.4 million and was 26th for the week. The Leisuire Hive 1 pulled 5.9 million and was 77th. And look, as bad as Horns of Nimon was, it wasn’t that bad because its ratings grew episode over episode. Then, to make it stranger, Doctor Who took a Christmas Break on December 13th 1980 with a 5.4m episode of State of Decay that was 125th for the week. It came back at 7.1m and 88th for the week and stayed in that general ballpark for the rest of the season.
But setting aside the “why” – a topic that there’s never going to be a clearcut answer for anyway – the fact remains that in 1980, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was immediately and directly more popular than Doctor Who. This fact, it must be noted, is downright depressing. Because Buck Rogers in the 25th Century is not even remotely a good show. WIth Gil Gerrard playing Buck Rogers as a sort of cross between William Shatner and Adam West except without the self-awareness that makes both of them good, some astonishingly gaudy and generic space sets, and a sense of plotting is an incompetent execution of cliches.
A fairly standard example from the episode Planet of the Amazon Women. The plot centers on a planet that is kidnapping men and selling them as husbands because its male population has been decimated. Half the scenes in the first half are based around Buck Rogers and other candidates not knowing what’s going on and figuring things out. One scene is based around characters panicking with the belief that they’re about to head off towards human sacrifice or gladiatorial games as Rogers remains calm. And it’s a perfectly good hero moment – one in which the hero knows more than the audience and thus impresses the audience.
Except that the other half of the scenes have already given away the overwhelming majority of the plot so that there’s not actually a mystery here. The entire episode, in fact, plays out as though nobody has thought even a little bit about when information is being revealed to the audience or how. Large swaths of the scenes are clearly there to tick off boxes. An entire subplot exists not because anything happens in it but to give the comedy robot, who is easily the worst comedy robot I have ever seen, an appropriate number of jokes. The show is cynical and uninterested in doing anything but stringing together action sequences with a plot basic enough that nobody will fail to follow it.
As with its creator’s previous Star Wars ripoff, Battlestar Galactica, the series enjoyed some brief popularity before getting canned. It was in no way what audiences wanted, but rather an attempt to give them something supposedly just like what they had previously enjoyed but, in practice, nothing more than warmed over and cynical attempts at capturing what Blake’s 7 can’t manage even with some top notch creators on it. For those who want to argue that Star Wars killed science fiction there is little better ammunition.
Far from showing that the older style of science fiction was dead on arrival, the legacy of Star Wars increasingly shows that the generic “space adventurer” model was dead. The “SF” or “hard” model of science fiction was already dead when Star Wars hit the scene. Star Wars, however, took the space swashbuckler approach to its limit as well. Simply put, nobody was going to top Star Wars in the Buck Rogers clone department. Not even, as we’ve seen, Buck Rogers. As I’ve been yammering on about for a month now, what Star Wars did was show that science fiction could be taken for granted.
But that’s far from the death of science fiction. It’s just the death of a pair of exceedingly programmatic models of science fiction – the science logic puzzles that characterize much of the so-called “golden age” and the pulp adventure… in space! In many ways, then, it’s the birth of science fiction in a general sense – using imaginary forms of knowledge to tell stories that couldn’t be told with entirely real things and the substantial liberation of the form from its two most popular niches.
Which brings us around to Alien. If Star Wars is the film that opened the door to the possibility that science fiction doesn’t have to be an end in itself then Alien is the film that decisively walked through that door. There is nothing particularly original about Alien in its conception. It is a derivative enough piece of science fiction that despite being a near exact copy of The Ark in Space there’s no reason whatsoever to think the two have any direct connection. What Alien illustrates is not a particularly clever or novel idea but rather the sorts of things that can be done with science fiction in 1979 that, culturally speaking, couldn’t be in 1975.
Back in the Nightmare of Eden entry we talked about a style of storytelling in which concept and event are indistinguishable. Alien is a prime example, especially when contrasted with The Ark in Space. The Ark in Space is a teleplay. Its events are people acting on a set. It’s a very nice set with some real care taken in it, and the people act very well, but what happens is still people acting on a set to tell a story. That story is about aliens for whom humans are meat.
Alien, on the other hand, is a film in which every single part of the design is created to generate a coherent experience. It is a film about being chased through dark and cramped corridors by a monster. It is a film about human spaces that are violated by the horrifically other. So the spaceship is made to be effectively chased through. The alien is made to be visually horrifying and visceral and to work well in shadows and fragments. The editing is done so that the calm sterility of the beginning of the film gives way to fast editing and camera movements as characters are hunted. Everything is about being trapped and hunted. the story of Alien cannot meaningfully be separated from its experience. (Indeed, the film is thoroughly unimpressive as described, which is why it took me nearly 30 years to ever get around to seeing it. It is, of course, as good as everyone says, but its plot – a crew is hunted one by one by what is at this point a familiar movie monster – does nothing to recommend it.)
It is, unfortunately, miles beyond what Doctor Who can do in 1980. But the underlying approach works even if the specific techniques are beyond the show. With the technology that is shifting in the BBC – the introduction of steadicam back in Destiny of the Daleks, the introduction of Quantel Paintbox in the next story, and other more sophisticated techniques – the show is rapidly gaining ways to make what happens on screen and the idea behind the story into a single thing. This isn’t to say that the language of television is just a primitive form of film – it’s not, and there are techniques that Doctor Who is going to pick up that could not work in film, though most of those start in during the Peter Davison era. But Alien shows how it could be done.
But notably, a television version of this sort of storytelling also existed in 1979.
Occasionally, in the course of doing the Pop Between Realities entries, I get absolutely blown away. It’s rare. Children of the Stones genuinely impressed me. Doomwatch was considerably better than I thought it would be. And, I mean, there are other things I’ve covered that I really liked, but they were ones I knew how much I’d like going in. But Sapphire & Steel knocked my socks off. It was stunning. One of the best pieces of science fiction television I’ve ever seen, in fact.
Part of it is simply surprise on my part. It’s an impressive little Trojan Horse of a show. An odd and inverted mirror of what it initially appears to be. On the surface it’s a straightforward show that feels almost like a light ripoff of Doctor Who. Steel and his assistant Sapphire, who appear human but aren’t, show up where odd things are going wrong with time and fix them. But beneath the surface the whole thing exists at a slight angle to expectations.
First of all, who Sapphire and Steel are and how what they do works is left unexplained – not merely unexplained in the sense of pre-War Games Doctor Who, but in a more fundamental sense. There’s an odd incoherence to the entire premise. Even the opening narration doesn’t quite make sense. “All irregularities will be handled by the forces controlling each dimension. Transuranic, heavy elements may not be used where there is life. Medium atomic weights are available: Gold, Lead, Copper, Jet, Diamond, Radium, Sapphire, Silver and Steel. Sapphire and Steel have been assigned.” The explanation of what happens – that creatures roam along the corridor of time and break in at weak points where an anachronism, including something as innocuous as a nursery rhyme, exists.
It’s also phenomenally well-made. David McCallum’s performance of Steel is so obviously an inspiration for Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor that I’m astonished the two aren’t mentioned in the same breath with great frequency. Joanna Lumley isn’t quite as phenomenal as Sapphire, but is still raw class in the role. But what’s really amazing is the way in which it makes deft use of its studio sets. It was an inexpensive program that has one location shoot in its entire run. What is usually said is that this was used to create a sense of claustrophobia, but it’s more complex than that. What the show does is look like a fairly straightforward piece of children’s television made on cheap video. It feels as though it fits seamlessly and smoothly into that genre.
But as with its basic narrative premise, it is continually not quite right. It’s far creepier and more unsettling than it has any right to be. Its narratives hold together not on science fiction logic but on associative and emotional logic. The monsters overtly feed on emotions, and though everyone involve acts as though the stories are science fiction their logic never actually follows that course. The result is a show that is deeply unsettling because the unknown is always immediately present. It’s not just a world full of lurking horrors and creepy music, but one that feels as though it is beyond understanding even as it threatens. It’s familiar enough to follow what’s going on but never familiar enough to let you feel comfortable.
And equally crucially, this is, in a very real sense, the television version of what Alien is doing. Sapphire and Steel is a show about the frisson between the familiar world and the lurking uncanny. It’s shot as an uncanny version of a familiar type of television. Its premise is enough like familiar television to be followable but not quite right or sensible. It stars familiar television actors but keeps them cold and distant and denies them showboating “hero” moments. Everything about it is made with the same slight gap between familiar and strange. It’s got a real claim to being the first piece of science fiction television to pull off the Alien technique of having every part of the production be inseparable from the act of storytelling.
Plus it’s just really well written. Its most famous moment is justly in its second storyline, with its glorious climax as Steel callously sacrifices an innocent man’s life, arguing and bargaining with the unseen monster who has possessed Sapphire and given her an impressively creepy facial prosthesis of a maggoty face. It’s a jaw-dropping piece of drama.
It’s also, of the things we’ve discussed, the one closest to the realm of what Doctor Who can take as a direct model. (Indeed, it basically is the model for the McCoy years, as I said. Ghost Light may as well be a Sapphire and Steel story.) This isn’t entirely surprising. It’s a direct heir to the Hinchcliffe era, so it makes sense that the two would be rejoined. (And, of course, PJ Hammond, who wrote the bulk of Sapphire and Steel, got picked up by Russell T Davies to do Torchwood) But there’s a more fundamental connection underlying the two. On a basic level, it’s attitude towards storytelling and genre is very compatible with Doctor Who. At their best, both shows are ones where the premise is not the point of the show but a tool to do unusual and compelling things. But what Sapphire and Steel shows – really what all of the successful things covered in this entry show – is that what can be done with a premise is rapidly expanding. And that, more than anything, is the challenge facing Doctor Who at the start of 1980: discover how to use the premise of the TARDIS in a new era of television.