Wednesday, January 18, 2012

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…

Quatermass (1979)

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.

Day of the Triffids (1981)

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.

Blake's 7 (1978-1981)

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.

Buck Rogers and the 25th Century (1979/1980)

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.

Alien (1979)

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.

Sapphire & Steel (1979-1982)

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.

Oh, and fuck SOPA.


  1. Inevitably bitty...

    Or maybe it's just that after Firefly it's tough to swallow the same basic show being done by Terry Nation.

    Or, the other way around, that after Blake's 7 I found it impossible to like Firefly because it's all too nice. I mean, yes, production-wise Firefly is better. The witty lines may not match the heights of Blake's 7 ('I don't follow you.' 'Oh but you do, that's the problem.') but they come with greater frequency. It maintains a higher baseline quality of plotting.

    But there's never any real sense that these people aren't, fundamentally, on the same side. That they aren't just a big family that may bicker but, when the going gets tough, will pull together. and the fundamental reason for that, for the safety that robs it of its edge, is that it takes the best character in Blake's 7 and changes him from a cold, intelligent, scary genius into a comedy buffoon.

    As a result there is no credible threat to the Captain's leadership, and the whole thing slips into being a spacefaring version of the Waltons, only worth watching for its dialogue which does, it has to be said, sparkle. But yawn.

    As for Alien and its concentration of experience, that is completely true. I first saw it as a child, on VHS, in a friend's living room, and was utterly unimpressed. I could not see what the fuss was about. Boring people were hunted by a not-very-interesting monster. More yawn.

    Then a few years ago I went to see the re-release and was gobsmacked. Because in a cinema, it works, and it doesn't matter that the people are boring or that the monster doesn't do anything interesting other than follow them around and kill them because you are on that spaceship. When it's dark all around, and you can't pause it to go and get a drink, and you aren't listening for your friend's parents coming home because you're not supposed to be watching an 18, you stop caring about the story and it becomes a visceral experience.

    I'll never watch it again on television, but now I know what it's about.

    Sapphire and Steel on the other hand is quintessentially television and I must watch more of it. I often think the best thing about the DVD era is the phenomena of the Complete Set: whereas because of the cost of making and distributing, not to mention of storing, VHS tapes, stories had to be released one-by-one at high price points (which is how I obtained the wonderfully enigmatically-named 'Adventure One'), the low cost of reproduction of DVDs has meant that it is economical to release all of the series in an affordable package. So I must get that.

  2. Another interesting article, Mr. Sandifer.

    You're being slightly unfair on Blake's 7 fans though, I feel. Every series ends with a cliffhanger and series four is no different. Chris Boucher has said that the characters whose actors wanted to come back were alive and the others weren't (hence Blake being shot with a different gun to the others). The series three climax was originally intended to be the actual conclusion to the show (which makes for a better story, in my opinion). Most of all, though, it's fun to play "what if?" with the shows ones enjoys.

    And Sapphire & Steel is pure gold!

    1. I also think that some people just took it seriously because they wanted to imagine getting to see Avon again on screen. He was an insanely popular character. I hated the ending when I first saw it, because I was very young and it shocked me, then as I grew older I saw just how brilliant it was. Having said that if Paul Darrow was younger I would put up with a bad rewrite of the ending just to see him on screen as Avon again.

  3. Like the condensed format. Looking forward to a "blipvert" entry for Max Headroom.

  4. I don't generally like to play "Hey, what about this one?", but it seems that Star Trek: The Motion Picture is a notably missing here. Not that I think it's a stellar film by any means, but it is significant as the return of the franchise, at least. The effects are also solid, but I'm not sure if they're anything special relative to films.

  5. I thought I would wave hello at round about this point - partly because I've been stuck in the nebulous territory of trying to work out which was the first Dr Who story I could genuinely remember (bits of Kroll, all of Destiny, none of City, everything from Creature, repeats of the Krotons etc etc.) However the observance about Day of the Triffids (great and truly scary) vs. Buck Rodgers (fun but empty) did ring a proper bell, so here I am, waving.

    Not that I have a huge amount to add - I couldn't get on with Firefly - it was ok, but didn't have the magic of youthful nostalgia to let it complete with Lorne Green in space. Unlike Sapphire and Steel, (I somehow never saw any of it until the 90's and not the whole lot until the DVD's a few years ago) which manages to be brilliant with no need for a child's pov, and both as thoughtful and scary as its broadcast slot could allow.

    Looking forward to the dissection of the JNT era - which pretty much coincides exactly with my experience of the series from my childhood, and I'm wondering quite what you can make of it all - and all those other things we watched or failed to watch at the same time.

  6. Your entry from hell reads very well. I'm really enjoying the blog.

    Like Jon Cole, I'm starting to recognise things, and to remember their impact. When I was at primary school, my friend Helen had seen the TV Day of the Triffids and my friend Catherine had read it. So they turned it into a playground game. Groups of us stood in lines, hand in hand: several blind people (eyes shut) led by one seeing person (eyes open). Then you'd get chased by somebody being a Triffid, who would make a t-t-t noise so the blind people could hear them coming. Though it's hard to say t-t-t loudly, so if you could hear it, the Triffid was probably close.

    Playing as a blind person was scariest: you'd be led through the noise and confusion of the playground, then suddenly be yanked into a run, complete with lurching, Triffid-dodging changes of direction, while hoping that your leader didn't run you into a wall or any bigger children. It was brilliant.

  7. One significant difference between Alien and The Ark in Space: In-between there was a little movie called Halloween.

  8. I would have thought it was obvious that Wyndham's Day of the Triffids was the first modern zombie text but everyone I mention it to is deeply sceptical. There is even scoffing. But everything from Dawn of the Dead to The Walking Dead draws from it in some way.

    There's a terrific BBC radio version from the late 1950s, if you seek it out, when all the details of the book could be reproduced with a straight face.

    1. Oh absolutely right. Flesh-eating monsters that shouldn't be able to move preying on humanity...

      Though I think the idea of a flesh-eating sunflower is even more terrifying than zombies.

    2. The main part of my fascination with zombies is from seeing the BBC Day Of The Triffids as a kid.

    3. The hospital-wake-up scene at the beginning of 28 Days Later is a direct reference.

  9. Quatermass 1979 is the only Quatermass I've seen, so I'm going to come out and disagree with you slightly. I do accept the flaws you point out in it, but I think the series really works tonally. Yeah, Old People Save The Day, but they do so by NUKING THEIR OWN CHILDREN, and Quatermass dies as well. There's no heroic congratulatory moment. This isn't about Reactionary Triumphs in the face of youth, this is a story about despair. The whole thing is gloomy - the only people seem helpless, the young people seem clueless, the few middled aged people we meet, like the guy who lives in that observatory, (the weird television director doing that big banana dance number) are so wrapped in their own obsessive problems that it takes Observatory guy's family being killed for him to really kick into gear.

    Quatermass is viciously depressing, because to me it suggested that no matter what the old guard might do to save their society, it would ultimately be destructive. Yes, its reactionary, from my standpoints its a reactionary's admission that their own period has passed, and any interference they might do would be just unhelpful as inaction.

    SO depressing.

  10. By coincidence I watched Alien last night on dvd -- the first time I've seen it since it was in theatres in 1979 (when I was a kid and it was the first R-rated movie I'd ever seen). That first time I just thought it was cool and scary, but this time around I noticed just how incredibly beautifully designed, lit, and shot it is. (I also noticed a number of nods to 2001: A Space Odyssey.)

  11. By the way, I still can't agree about the Dominators. It's not an attack on hippie pacifists and youth culture; it's an attack on stodgy conservatives who lack curiosity and fear novelty, passively accepting the known and vehemently denying the unknown. They don't oppose war because they're antiwar per se; they oppose war because it's new and different.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Well, when the authors publicly say one thing and the show they've written clearly says another, I go with the show. Whatever they may have thought they were doing, the show they actually produced isn't even an incompetent attack on hippie culture -- it's not an attack on hippie culture at all. If I say I'm building a swimming pool and I actually construct a suspension bridge, that doesn't make the bridge a swimming pool -- not even a bad one.

    3. Nice analogy BerserkRL :) If you’re suggesting that a production team can take a script and alter it or present it in a way that it no longer presents the originally intended themes this is very true but I don’t believe this to be the case. The Dulkan’s are clearly presented as pacifists; they are named as such several times. Their pacifism is clearly represented as unwise and mocked not only by the Dominators but by The Doctor, Jamie and Zoe and within the narrative it is proven to fail. So I certainly wouldn’t say the anti-pacifism theme is non-existent. Are you suggesting this or just that it fails as an attack on hippie culture as perhaps the Dulkans aren’t clearly representative of the hippies [perhaps afghans and beads would have got the point across better :)].
      It is true early in the narrative the Dulkans are criticised for their unwillingness to accept the Dominators existence. I feel this is introduced to present the Dulkans as weak and fearful of danger not to the unknown. After all war is not unknown to them their weapons base shows they’ve known war in the past. As for lack of curiosity, the Dulkan’s are shown to be very curious. They form survey teams to study the waste lands and once the Dominators are proven to exist they discuss them in great detail. Perhaps you’d like to present some evidence to support your theory as it has always saddened me that Doctor Who has produced what I consider a mean spirited serial and I’d rather like your theory to be true :)

    4. p.s Sorry it's Dulcians not Dulkans :)

    5. I don't deny that they're pacifists; what I'm saying is that their pacifism is presented as being an expression of their hidebound conservatism and lack of curiosity, and that would hardly be a diagnosis of the 60s counterculture.

      As for curiosity, Cully says, "this girl's got an enquiring mind; she can't possibly come from Dulkis," and also, "typical Dulcian behaviour: something strange, something you don't understand and you switch off," to which Balan replies "we don't all have your childish curiosity."

      The Dulcians initially deny the possibility of life on other planets; but once it's proven, they accept it with the same calm passivity with which they earlier denied it; one says "We are taught to accept facts, it being foolish to contemplate fantasy in the face of reality."

    6. Thanks BerserkRL this is all true :) I wonder if these themes were added by the production team or were already there and they decided to bring them to the fore. It would be interesting to here the producers and directors thoughts on the themes they were presenting. I haven’t got the DVD, have you and do you know if they give any incite? I know Meryn Haisman and Henry Lincoln fell out with the production team partly due to changes to the story but from what I’ve read the reason was the loss of a sixth episode. In the DWM interview I quoted in my original comment Mervyn Haisman suggests he was perfectly happy with the aired story and the fall out was primarily due to the BBC giving away the rights to use the Quarks in TV Comic without his permission. Perhaps he was unaware of the productions teams refocusing of the stories themes [like the rest of the population] or perhaps he’s giving false information.
      It’s a bit like something I came across when researching ‘The Day the Earth stood still’ for a college project. Some people excuse it of having an underlying fascist message as the aliens force earth to comply with them through threats. But that’s exactly the opposite message the production team wanted to present :)

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    9. *It would be interesting to hear the producers and directors thoughts on the themes they were presenting. I haven’t got the DVD, have you and do you know if they give any insight?

    10. I still find the remaining underlying anti-pacifist theme a little distasteful but I’m pleased to have been presented with evidence that the production team may have honourably tried to alter the theme.
      Thank you for instigating my reassessment of a story I once saw as an unredeemable blotch on Doctor Who’s otherwise principled philosophy and showing that perhaps The Dominators isn’t so mean spirited after all.

      I wonder if the character of Cully featured in the original script and if so was he personified in the same manner? As although he’s played by a man approaching forty, he seems to be representative of rebellious youth battling the rigid old order, which seems like if anything an endorsement of the counterculture.

  12. I think if you viewed Quatermass in the context of the Winter of Discontent it seemed very plausible in 1979. Yet again though, if you didn't live through it, how would you know there were still hippies in Glasgow even in 1984, smoking dope in the Student Union, listening to Santana and busking Dylan songs in Argyle Street?
    You can read about the Metropolitan experience of London but it would be fallacious to assume it reflected the whole of Britain in the late 70s.

    1. I agree with you there. Although this was only 2 years after punk had peaked and died, the long-haired hippy decked out in beads and afghan was still a common stereotype, having lasted from '68 till '75 or so. For the purposes of Quatermass' youth, dazed and dippy, the archetypal hippy fit the bill far better than the punks, who were still seen as aggressive and violent. I have to say, in hindsight (having lived through those years) that the punk aesthetic is seen as more important now than it was back at the tail-end of the 70s. Back then the punks appeared to have gone, absorbed into the mainstream after flaring brightly and so briefly.

  13. completely agree about sapphire and steel, which works on so many different levels that its what completely bums me out about the JNT years: their lack of cohesion and tone. JNT was so utterly tone deaf that it is left to the occasional script editor and writer to actually get something right.

    After all, when you're in the Letts era, or the Hinchcliffe era, or the RTD era, you know where you are. in S&S, you can feel how cohesive the production is, from top to bottom. It is a high watermark of sci fi television for me. If my main complaint of the Williams era is that its more fun to discuss the ideas that actually watch the programs, then S&S gets it really right: its creepy fun to watch and interesting to dissect as well.

    and mccullum is clearly the template for the seventh doctor. without the damn jumper.

  14. It amuses me to no end to note how resolutely everyone keeps ignoring the mention of Buck Rogers.:) I was ten at the time and even then I was just ... horrified by it. Criminally stupid writing. B-Actors in ridiculous costumes (Frank Gorshin was probably the best actor to guest star in the first season). Gary Coleman showing up twice. And perhaps worst of all, the insinuation that not only would disco survive into the 25th century, but that roller disco would be considered a culturally important art form. Shudder.

  15. Surely, the end of Sapphire and Steel is much better than the end of Blake's 7, isn't it?

  16. I saw a late-twenties punk dad earlier tonight in the shopping centre. Mind you, I live in the Highlands now.

  17. David Bateman: Surely, the end of Sapphire and Steel is much better than the end of Blake's 7, isn't it?

    Actually, the end of Buck Rogers is best of all - because it means it's finally over! ;-)

    1. LOL. Well, yes, that wins hands down!

      Except that, I bet, narratively speaking of course, it N-E-V-E-R ends!

      Imagine that! They go on rollerdisco-ing into the 22nd century and beyond.

      The horror, the horror...;)

  18. Alan,

    I was ten at the time and even then I was just ... horrified by it.

    Buck Rogers was made by the same team that made (the original) Battlestar Galactica. But as cheesy as the latter could be, it had something that raised it above the level of Buck Rogers. As a kid I certainly felt the difference. That little robot was the Jar Jar of my childhood. Beedeebeedeebeedee, man.

  19. Erin Gray's a freakin' Highlander! Wiki says she's 62, but I've seen her at Cons and she could pass for 40 easily.

  20. One of the things that makes Alien so visually effective is the excellent design, and in particular the fact that it features two totally different designers. All the man-made stuff is designed by Ron Cobb, and he does a splendid job of creating a very solid, credible, convincingly engineered world for these truckers in space. It's a great example of hard-SF-as-aesthetic. Then of course the utterly alien design of HR Giger invades this space, just as the alien invades the community of humans. The clash of these two aesthetics, each internally coherent, each utterly incompatible with the other, is the great visual triumph of the movie.

  21. Buck Rodgers was glossy and exciting and had spaceships whizzing around and blowing things up. That's what six-year-old me remembers, and in that respect it was real competition for Doctor Who, however obviously rubbish it may be to more grown-up eyes.

    I don't think I watched Blake's 7 until the final season. I remember finding it very confusing, in so far as there weren't seven of them, and none of them were called Blake. Imagine my delight when an episode called "Blake" was broadcast. At last! this Blake character is going to show up and they'll all have adventures together! Oh.

    On more recent viewing, that final episode of Blake's 7 really is astonishingly well written. The key repeated phrases - "sooner or later...", "nobody's indispensable..." - the palpable sense of doom, the subtle character work, particularly between Blake and Deva, his almost-replacement for Avon... it's a strong candidate for Chris Boucher's best script.

    Funny thing about Buck Rodgers and Blake's 7, for me anyway. They were both broadcast at much the same time, and I was too young to appreciate such things at any conscious level, but in retrospect it seems clear that Servalan made a far bigger impression on my young mind than Wilma Deering. Jacqueline Pearce has a lot to answer for.

  22. Oh, and Day of the Triffids scared the fucking shit out of me.

  23. I see Blakes 7 and Firefly as tonally unrelated enough not to be comparable (even though one is clearly inspired by the other - both even contain the same gag with the same wording: "I was aiming for his head"). But Blakes 7 is very specifically '70s Britain (all dystopian concrete, campy disco, random death and confused sexuality) and Firefly is very specifically the inside of Joss Whedon's big girly head. I love them both, but both are very different things.

    I hope there will be an entry on Firefly when the time comes, because I actually think it's the biggest single influence on the new series, outside of Doctor Who itself; I also think that Moffatt and RTD are too superficial to quite pull it off (compare interviews with either, with the commentary of Objects In Space).

    1. You reckon? Whedon is clearly a big influence on Davies' Who, but via Buffy rather than Firefly (at least, so far as Davies has openly acknowledged).

    2. Maybe I haven't watched enough Buffy...

    3. Oh, and I would make a fairly large bet that Joss Whedon played Traveller in his younger days. Firefly is basically Traveller on telly (with added Space Whores).

  24. Exploding Eye: if you haven't seen all seven seasons from start to finish, you haven't watched enough Buffy. It is a utter joy, and, sadly, *way* better than RTD-era Doctor Who.

    RTD's constant citing of Buffy as an inspiration was basically a bit like a crap indie band going on and on about how they are influenced by The Beatles in interviews in the hope that people will think that means they have even a tenth of the talent or innovation.

    On a more general note, wasn't Sapphire and Steel just the *best thing ever*? Can't believe I'd never noticed until now that Sylvester McCoy was basically playing Steel. Explains why I love his Doctor so much!

  25. I'm a huge fan of Buffy, but I wouldn't call "the Beatles of genre television." Seasons 2 and 3 were sublime, but once they got out of high school, the central metaphor of the show collapsed and it never quite recovered (despite some moments of pure genius in the later seasons -- Hush, The Body, Conversations with Dead People).

    1. Ah, no, sorry: you are quite right, Alan. I didn't mean that at all. Bad phrasing on my part!

      I simply meant that, in the interviews around the 2005 relaunch, RTD *came across* like one of those "NME This Week's Best Band In The Whole World Ever" acts who cite something immeasurably better than their own work as an "influence" in the hope of grabbing some reflected glory. He kept on saying how Buffy was "the show to beat", and then failed utterly to even get into the same ballpark.

      Buffy, much as I love it, and much as it completely outshines New Who (distressing as that is for a lifelong Who fan to admit), is absolutely *not* "The Beatles of Genre Television", no. Doctor Who is.

  26. If someone hasn't started a blog called "Joss Whedon's Big Girly Head" now, then I'm a Transuranic Element.

    I really want to watch the Sapphire and Steel WWI soldier story now! It's been about thirty years.

    I would like some clarification of the connections between Firefly and Who- don't see that...

    Buck Rogers is one of the campest things I've ever seen. In an iredeemably bad way.

    1. "I would like some clarification of the connections between Firefly and Who- don't see that..."

      Mainly the humour; but as Ian pointed out, it's probably a general Whedon thing originating with Buffy (which I don't like and never watch).

      ...Which sounds like a small thing, but the humour is so relentlessly dense in the new series, and of a very specific style, that it's a big component of the show. It's very much in the Joss Whedon mode of glib wise-crackery (which works fine for me for space pirates, less so with high-schoolers).

      Also the characterisation (especially in Moffatt's era, who I think is more a Firefly than Buffy man) of smart, tough, knowing and wise-cracking women, and somewhat clumsy, well-meaning but hapless, but also self-knowingly hapless, men. Rory in particular is very similar to Wash in both personality and looks.

  27. Though, when I caught Buck Rogers in a '90s repeat and managed to make it through most of one episode, it seemed that the sets and costumes (bar the robot) weren't that much better than ('80s) Doctor Who: flimsy-looking plain flatboard, studio floors, etc. The inside of Mawdryn's ship looked better than Buck's.

    The space shots looked a lot better, of course, and I guess the laser effects did too. And that's probably what kids noticed.

    Buffy, the Vampire Slayer has some good gags, and a smattering of great moments of high drama, particularly in the second series. But there are also hugely tedious monster-of-the-week episodes spread all the way through, and like the man says it suffers a serious case of going downhill fast as it goes on and characters who were created for exploring adolescent angst are uncomfortably forced into plots that are supposed to speak to early adulthood instead and it never quite works.

    It really should have ended at the end of the second series, with Buffy leaving town after being forced to kill her boyfriend to save the world. That's the highest point of melodrama in a series all about melodrama, and what the whole premise was building towards. After that they start having to bring the boyfriend back, undermining their one triumphant moment, and bringing in extra tedious characters like the ex-demon or the rogue vampire slayer, who get some good lines (as does everybody) but are fundamentally obvious patches to extend an idea which has already reached and passed its natural climax.

    I couldn't remember whether it was Firefly stole the 'I was aiming for his head' gag. Shameless.

  28. In fairness, Blake's 7 nicked/adapted the line from The Magnificent Seven: "I was aiming at the horse". Chris Boucher and Paul Darrow were both big western buffs, and Boucher enjoyed giving Avon these sorts of lines.

  29. Ah, showing my ignorance of westerns there.

  30. Mal, of course, shot the horse.

    Isn't "Firefly" somewhat inspired by the idea of taking "Wagon Train to the Stars" extremely literally? And doing it as unlike "Star Trek" as possible?

  31. It's not even that unlike Star Trek. It's just Star Trek where Kirk is working against the Federation instead of for it.

  32. Iain Coleman,

    The clash of these two aesthetics

    Actually I think it's more subtle than that. One thing that struck me is how for the Earth tech in Alien they took the basic spaceship look pioneered by 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars and tweaked it in an organic direction. Not anywhere near as organic as the alien ship, of course, but subtly displaced in that direction. Notice the quasi-organic bulges on the wall panels in the Nostromo. And notice also that the reason the alien was able to hide in the shuttle at the end (sorry if that's a spoiler for anyone on earth) is that its head looked just like the pipes in the wall. So I see continuity more than clash; it's as though the humans have already taken one step into the alien world from the start.

    Exploding Eye,

    especially in Moffatt's era, who I think is more a Firefly than Buffy man

    Moffat tweeted just the other day that he was just watching Firefly for the first time, so if there's been influence on him it hasn't been direct.

    I can certainly see the Buffy influence. "This is my timey-wimey detector; it goes ding when there's stuff" is definitely Buffyspeak.

    1. "This is my timey-wimey detector; it goes ding when there's stuff" is definitely Buffyspeak.

      Absolutely: but in Buffy, it is funny, because the person delivering the line is a teenage girl, and we have Giles to shake his head, take off his glasses and rub his eyes in weary acceptance of how the fate of the universe rests on the shoulders of someone who calls her favourite stake "Mr. Pointy".

      In Doctor Who, Buffyspeak is just *really irritating*, because the Doctor isn't meant to be the Buffy figure, gleefully ignorant of respect due to the Ancient Mysteries of the Universe: the *companion* is. The Doctor is meant to be Giles, the older, mysterious guide along the way.

      The fundamental expression of where New Who has just plain Got It Wrong is that the "Classic" Doctor was (in some unseen adventure) Merlin: not the hero, but the hero's mentor. In New Who, he'd have been Arthur.

    2. But while the Doctor may not have been ignorant about them, he was frequently devoid of respect for the Ancient Mysteries of the Universe. It's not too hard to imagine Tom Baker saying "This is my timey-wimey detector; it goes ding when there's stuff." The Doctor isn't Giles or Buffy; he's not a solemn stuffy timelord or a smartmouth rebellious teen, he's a smartmouth rebellious timelord. He has Giles' knowledge combined with Buffy's insouciance.

    3. I can see the Tom of "The Tom Baker Show" saying that, definitely! Doctor Who is a broad church -- that is one of the best things about it. The Doctor Who Speaks Buffyspeak and the Doctor Who Is Steel are both equally valid.

      I'm more a fan of the "Merlin/Gandalf/Steel" Doctor, and also the "Victorian Adventurer Who Built His Own Time Machine" Doctor, myself, but there's no denying that for vast swathes of the show, the "Tom Baker IS the Doctor" version was what most of the viewing public wanted their Doctor Who to be like.

      When Stephen Moffat calls me and says "I fancy a long holiday, will you run the show this year?", you'll be getting 13 episodes of "Basically Sapphire and Steel, only starring Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred", true: but if my line is busy and he calls someone else instead, you might equally well get Tom Baker saying "This is my timey-wimey detector; it goes ding when there's stuff." Both these things -- and many, many more -- are valid "Doctor Who".

      (I remain completely unconvinced by the "David Tennant whinging about his girlfriend" version, mind, but that conversation will be upon us all too soon, I fear . . . )

    4. When Stephen Moffat calls me and says "I fancy a long holiday, will you run the show this year?", you'll be getting 13 episodes of "Basically Sapphire and Steel, only starring Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred"

      While I'd give them the 6th Doctor and Adric versus the Quark/Slitheen alliance.

      But only for the April Fool's episode.

    5. While I'd give them the 6th Doctor and Adric versus the Quark/Slitheen alliance.

      Brilliant! If you can just make the opening line "Hello! My name's Doctor Who. I haven't been to this planet since just before my grandchildren John and Gillian were Loomed", you could probably bring down the entire Internet!

    6. Especially if he adds something about being half human on his mother's side.

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  34. On the topic of influences for ALIEN, you could go back much further to the writing of A.E. Van Vogt, a Canadian science fiction author. He had two stories, DISCORD IN SCARLET and BLACK DESTROYER which are collected in his 1950 novel, "The Voyage of the Space Beagle".

    If I remember correctly, 20th Century Fox ended up being sued by Van Vogt for plagiarism, and were forced to make a public acknowledgement of Van Vogt's "contribution" to their work on ALIEN, along with a payment of some sort. Amongst the similarities were an alien stalking a crew onboard their ship, and an alien that would lay eggs inside crew members. Memory is a bit fuzzy, but there may have also been a sequence where the crew abandons the ship to get away from the alien.

    1. there may have also been a sequence where the crew abandons the ship to get away from the alien

      My memory's fuzzy also, but I think it was rather that they tricked the alien into an escape pod or lifeboat and then jettisoned it.

      In Alien, the plot with Ash strikes me as borrowing from the Hal plot in 2001 -- the A.I. with the hidden agenda and three-letter name who turns on the crew. And just as HAL is one letter backward from IBM (though the creators claim this is a coincidence), ASH is one letter backward from BTI, a prominent British computer company of the 1970s (though that may be a coincidence too).

      There's even a very similar-looking scene in which Ripley/Bowman is trying to get through a door that Ash/Hal won't open. Though alas, Ash doesn't sing "Daisy" as he gets decapitated and incinerated.

      (The final shot of Ripley sleeping in her cryo-chamber also looks a bit like the final shot of Superbaby Bowman floating above earth.)

    2. Fairly irrelevant, but: the android in Alien is named Ash. The one in Aliens is Bishop. (No android in Alien 3.) The one in Alien Resurrection is named Call. Now I know my ABCs.

    3. (But Alien 3 broke the sequence of names from Joseph Conrad.)

    4. Looks like my bad memory got things reversed. You are correct; the alien was jettisoned in the lifeboat not the crew - at least according to Wikipedia (

      I never noticed the ABC pattern before, but then again I like to pretend that ALIEN RESURRECTION was never made. :)

    5. I wonder how successful Alien would have been if they'd titled it Voyage of the Space Beagle.

      I realise it's a reference to Darwin's ship, but alas, that's not the first image that "Space Beagle" brings to mind. I fear Vogt must have had his mind in the null-A position when he chose that title.

  35. Don't forget "IT! THE TERROF FROM BEYOND SPACE".

    The better comparison would be between Servelan & Princess Ardala. Pamela Hensley did, I discovered on watchig the show again after a 20-year break, the ONLY good acting in the pilot. (And the feature film version was much better than the re-edited and expanded TV butcher job.) Every time Servelna was onscreen, I kept screaming at the TV, "It's that BITCH! When are they going to KILL that BITCH???" But Ardala... here I just wanted to F***.

    Tragic I've never seen "SAPHIRE AND STEEL". Have to take everyone's on it's influence on the 7th Doctor. I guess Sylvester McCoy is what you get if you CROSS David McCallum and Floyd Vivino.

  36. The only explanation I can possibly give to Buck Rogers' popularity in the UK is that the PAL-related time compression (the reason why all arguments that PAL is a better TV format are invalid, IMO) somehow make the series more bearable.

    Come to think of it, since the PAL compression made the show go by quicker, it *was* better than what we got in the US. ;)

  37. Having finally seen the first assignment of Sapphire and Steel, I'll chime in 2 years late with an "...I dunno..." on the 7th Doctor / Steel connection. I see where you're coming from, but at least in what I've seen so far, McCoy is WAY cuddlier than McCallum all through the 7th Doctor era. When he gets tough, I can see a little Steel in there, but Steel never even cracks a smile, let alone a joke or a wistful monologue. Their methods aren't a million miles off -- maybe that's what you mean. But their personalities couldn't be more different in tone, unless he gets way more charming as S&S goes on.

    The show's great, though. So weird, so eerie, so unapologetic. I'd only ever seen Joanna Lumley in AbFab and she's wonderful here.