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The Doctor who fell to Earth: looking back at the classic Doctor Who serial, “Spearhead From Space” by Robert Holmes (1970)

Opening titles

With the departure of Patrick Troughton in 1969  Doctor Who  teetered on the edge of cancellation  as the ratings had  fallen  to not much above 5 million for his  final  ten part serial, “The War Games”.  In the end the BBC decided to give it  another  season, which some suspected might well prove to be the last.  Against the odds the series was re-invigorated and re-established itself as a Saturday teatime must-see  for another generation of young people, including myself. This was brought about by four  key factors:

the Brigadier

Firstly, the producer Derrick Sherwin –  who bridged the transition from  the Second to  the Third Doctor – opted for a new story line, anchoring the Doctor on Earth (having  been exiled by the Time Lords at the end  of “The War Games”)  where he becomes  the scientific advisor to UNIT (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce), a  quasi-military outfit first encountered by the Second Doctor. UNIT is   led by  Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney)  who  had first appeared as a regular army officer in “The Web of Fear” and then as the commanding officer of UNIT in “The Invasion”.

The programme makers felt that the format had become tired and wanted to show the Doctor battling his enemies on Earth, rather than on far distant planets. The Earth in question  in fact  turned out to be the Home Counties, subject to an surprisingly high number of alien invasions. This format  harked back to the Quatermass  serials of the 1950s in which  Professor  Bernard Quatermass  also grappled with alien  invasions.

Secondly,  the new serials were filmed in colour,  which allowed a fresh  look (although it was not without problems when the screen showed less than convincing monsters and  questionable  sets). Of course,  to begin with  many people would still have watched  Doctor Who  in black and white as colour TV sets were very expensive to begin with: just  200,000  sets had been sold by the end of 1969. By 1976, however, over 1 million had been sold and  the sales of colour sets  had overtaken those of black and white sets.

Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks

Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks

Thirdly,  the new series was driven forward by  the script editor, Terrance Dicks, and the  new producer, Barry Letts,  who took over  from Sherwin  when he departed after producing  the new Doctor’s first  serial, “Spearhead in Space”.  Letts and  Dicks  formed a very close professional working relationship which was instrumental in popularising Doctor Who to a fresh  audience. From the interviews they seem quite different characters:    Letts is  the intellectual,   interested  subjects such as  Buddhism for instance,  whilst   Dicks is the practical  man of television  dedicated to ensuring,  as he says,  “that the screen doesn’t go blank at 5.30pm”.

And finally the inspired choice of Jon Pertwee as Troughton’s replacement, whose selection  was  a surprise to many.  Jon came from a “clan” (as he termed of it) of writers and actors.  When the Second World War started he joined the Royal Navy, avoiding  the RAF as,  according to Jon,  he had a fear of being trapped in a burning aircraft. If you look closely at his arm  in some episodes you can see his naval tattoo of a scarlet and green cobra, acquired after a very drunken night out.  Jon  served  for a time on HMS Hood, where he was a spotter up in the spotting top.  Jon  was transferred off the ship by the Captain   for officer training which was  very lucky for him, for, on 24 May 1941,    HMS  Hood was attacked  by the Bismarck and exploded  within minutes with the loss of 1, 415 men.  Just  three  crewmen survived.   Jon says, “It was such a dreadful thing to happen. I lost all my friends, all of my mates. All of them…You never really escape things like that. They stay with you all of your life”.

Jon Pertwee in navyLooking back Jon  was adamant about the horrors of  war:

“War is terrible. Anyone who tells you different is a liar…I realise I was very lucky to survive the war. There were a lot of times I nearly died. Once I was with some shipmates on leave in London and there was an air-raid. I had premonition and went down into the underground station to take shelter, but my shipmates wanted to get home to loved ones. …Next morning, I made my way back to my barracks, horrified by the damage done during the attack. It really was all smoke and ruins. I was the only one who got back to barracks. All of my mates had been killed during the bombing…A lot of nights it really did feel like the end of the world.” Doctor Who magazine, 457, March 2013, Interview with Jon Pertwee, p.25.

After the war Pertwee forged  a career as  a comic actor mainly on the radio,  his most well-known role being that of  Chief Officer  Pertwee  in The Navy  Lark  from 1959 to 1977  (which is still  being repeated on Radio Four Extra, by the way).  Jon was offered the part of Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army  but turned it down  as he was appearing on  Broadway in A Girl in My Soup. When  the role of the Doctor  came up Pertwee asked his agent to apply for the role,  and was surprised to find he was already on the shortlist. He was actually the second choice,  Ron Moody being  the first,  but was unavailable.   Jon had not watched the series much before taking the role.

Jon Pertwee

Jon was given a wardrobe which exactly suited his character and patrician personality, cutting an Edwardian dash in frills, velvets, hat and cape. They also gave him a retro car, Bessie.  In contrast to Pat Troughton quixotic clowning, Jon is very much the  action man. He often uses  Venusian Akido, felling his opponents with a single  touch.  In “The Time Warrior” he fights  the   medieval knights  with a sword,  and even swings across the room on a chandelier,   Errol Flynn style.  In  “The Curse of Peladon” he fights  the King’s champion, Grun,  in single-combat –  and wins.  In “Colony in Space” he fights off an attack from the Primitives who are armed with spears. The Doctor is launched into space in  “The Ambassadors of Death” and goes on a space walk  in “Frontier in Space”.  Jon never  missed an opportunity to include a gadget or some mechanised  method of transport  into the role.

He is also presented as a scientist. The serials often open with the Doctor sitting in a laboratory conducting an experiment or tinkering with sa piece of the Tardis,  as he tries to overcome the Timelords’ prohibition on his leaving the  Earth. In “The Silurians”  he works to find a cure for the plague spread by the Silurians. In “The Sea Devils” he rejigs a transistor radio to transmit a distress signal.  In “The Time Monster” he rigs up a Heath Robinson gadget which he calls a “time flow analogue “ to interrupt the Master’s experiments  with time.

The Third  Doctor is  an anti-authority figure,  impatient with red-tape or bureaucracy,  and very short-tempered  with the establishment  figures  he comes across such   Whitehall civil servants in pin-stripes,   army generals, businessmen  and scientists.

There are occasional flashes  of Jon’s  talent  for comedy.  In “The Green Death” he dresses up as  milk-man with a Welsh accent  to infiltrate the headquarters of   Global Chemicals,  and later on in the same serial  masquerades as  a char-lady in a scene straight out of a Carry On film.

Barry Letts says:

“Jon was a kind and unselfish man as well; indeed, his sensitivity was extended to everyone else. He did a lot to turn our casts and crew into a cohesive and happy company. For example, when a newcomer (even playing a small part)  arrived in the rehearsal room, he’d wander over  and introduce himself. ‘Hello,  I’m Jon Pertwee, I play the Doctor’. He made good friends of all the stunt men and other actors who were regularly cast. He was amusing and charming,  and could surprise you with flashes of unexpected humility”. Barry Letts, Who & Me (2007) , p25.

Robert Holmes

Jon was introduced as the Doctor in “Spearhead from Space”, written by Robert Holmes, probably the most influential writer the show has ever had. After serving in the army  during the war in Burma where he became an officer and joining the police on returning to England, he started working as journalist. He then progressed to writing for television including scripts for The Saint, Public Eye and a science fiction series, Undermind. Holmes  began writing for Doctor Who,   working with Terrance Dicks on  “The Krotons” to fill a gap in the schedule,  and then wrote “The Space Pirates”.

Caroline John

Jon’s  companion  for his first season was Caroline John, who plays a  Cambridge scientist, Dr Liz Shaw.  Caroline had worked mostly worked in the theatre and had struggled to get any roles on television.   When she went for the interview they talked  to her about The Avengers and how they wanted to make it more sophisticated with Jon Pertwee taking on the role as the Doctor. Caroline says that when the filming started for the first serial she was “a bundle of nerves”. She recalls Jon as being totally  professional  and an excellent actor and says they got  on very well “in a sort of father-daughter relationship”. As a character Liz  is clever, self-assured, cool, not at all  over-awed by the military men or male scientists with whom she is  usually  surrounded,  and sticks up for herself when neccessary. She never gets to travel in the Tardis, or even see inside.

“Spearhead From Space”   opens with  meteorites falling to Earth, part of an invasion by the Autons, a collective intelligence, which has seized control of a plastics factory and is creating replicas in readiness to take over the Earth. At the start of the first episode the Doctor is shown falling out of the Tardis and spends much of the first  and second episode in a coma, recovering from his regeneration. Meanwhile Lethbridge- Stewart has recruited Liz Shaw  to advise on the scientific implications of the meteorites. The Doctor finally wakes up, escapes from hospital in borrowed clothes,   steals a car and makes his way to UNIT HQ,  where he convinces the Brigadier that he is indeed the Doctor, despite his new appearance.

The AutonsThe invasion begins when shop dummies spark to life and terrorise the high streets of England  in a classic scene (although to Derrick Sherwin’s chagrin, the BBC budget did not stretch to the dummies being shown smashing their way through the shop windows). Finally the Doctor puts together a device  with Liz’s help which defeats the Autons. The serial ends with the Brigadier offering the Doctor a job as their scientific advisor  as “Doctor John Smith”

Unusually “Spearhead from  Space”  was shot entirely on location in 16mm  without the use of studio sets because there was a strike at the BBC,and the studios could not be used. This meant that the direction  is  fluid and  dynamic (just watch the press scrum scene at the hospital),   and  looks great more than forty years later.

Overall it’s a great season opener and harbinger of  even greater things to come. When  Russell T Davies brought back Doctor Who in 2005, out of all the possible alien threats  from Doctor Who’s past, he chose the Autons to appear in the very first  serial, “Rose”, his  fitting tribute to  a classic era of Doctor Who.

In future posts I will be looking back at other Third Doctor serials.

Further reading and useful links

Barry Letts, Who & Me (2007)

Richard Molesworth,  Robert Holmes: A Life in Words (2013) published by Telos publishing

interview with Caroline John (1990)  Wine and Dine

 

 

Nuclear and mental meltdown: Brainrack by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis (1974)

brainrack

In a previous post I discussed  Mutant  59: the  Plastic Eater, the first novel by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis,  who worked together on Doctor Who,   and then created  the early 1970s ecological thriller series Doomwatch.

Their second novel Brainrack was published in 1974 by Souvenir Press,  and followed a similar trajectory to their first novel,   exploring  the  dangers  of what unregulated  scientific advances might do to people and  society.

The “hero” of the novel is a scientist Dr Alexander Mawn, who is that familiar  science fiction character –  the maverick –  at odds with  the scientific establishment. He believes  that an unidentified phenomenon is causing people to suffer from diminished intellectual abilty with possible disastrous consequences for society. He calls this “brainrack”.   Mawn’s  discovery  is unwelcome news to a number of politicians and businessmen who attempt to  publicly discredit him. After his laboratory is attacked and his assistant killed,  Mawn goes in pursuit of the man behind the attack – millionaire Brian Gelder –  who is building a nuclear power station in Scotland for the government. Mawn teams up with research psychologist Marcia Scott and,  through his Whitehall contacts,   manages  to get themselves invited to witness the opening of the Grimness  reactor.  Mawn believes the safety of the reactor been compromised by  “brainrack” affecting the operators whom he and Marcia  have tested.

The core of the book is a gripping and horrifying  second -by-second description of a nuclear accident at the reactor, caused by  faulty  heat sensors,  which successfully  brings together Pedler’s scientific knowledge with Davis’ writing ability. It’s worth remembering that  this  was written long before before accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

13.45 + 60 seconds

Inside  the core, the explosive reaction between the melting fuel cans and water culminated in one long shock  wave which   slammed through the whole assembly hammering against the steel shell…

13.46 +   2 seconds

The whole building shook and there was a deep echoing boom followed by the howling scream of gases escaping under pressure. Glass showered down from breaking florescent lights  in the ceiling of the Control Room . There was a second heavy explosion and an instrument panel sheared away from its wall mountings and fell massively forward,  strking one technician on the shoulder….

13.46 + 10 seconds

…the concrete floor erupted like a volcano as one of the pumps burst like a huge grenade,  flinging jagged cast iron fragments into the air like shrapnel. The room  filled with  clouds of roaring steam as fragments of the pumps careered and ricocheted off the walls…

Many  of the operatives die in the explosion or  from  massive radioactive poisoning,   but a small group  includng Mawn, Marcia and Gelder survive,  and manage to make their way out of the wrecked  reactor  and through the wintry countryside  to safety. Back in London Mawn now enjoys renewed  credibility with the government  and heads a research project which   eventually identifies a component in petrol as the cause of “brainrack”. He persuades the government  to agree to  an experiment  in which all traffic in London  is banned for four  days. After a shaky  start  the levels of the pollutant start to fall. The books ends  with Mawn addressing a crowd in  a car-free  London street:

“…Every one of us is going to make a full and final decision. From now on  every car owner  who starts his engine is going to be fully aware of what he’s doing. There’s no way for him to get out of it”.  He put his arm around Marcia’s  shoulder and started to move away.

“Over the next forty years or so, we’re going to be forced to adjust the whole of our life style – the whole of our technology to cater for millions of adults…  who are never going to recover.  So present  my apologies to the Prime Minsiter and tell him that the choice is really quite simple. It’s cars or the minds of our children, and  God knows which we shall choose.”

Brainrack  is a novel of ideas and action,   rather than character  and development. I am not sure if I even like Mawn very much , while  Marcia never amounts to much more  than his  eventual bed-partner, which  is par for the course for women characters in much of  early 1970s fiction.  From the late 60s onwards Kit Pedler was increasingly disillusioned with the  notion  that unfettered scientific research   would  lead to greater happiness for all. He came to believe that  much scientfic research  was in fact  driven solely  by corporate interests or national prestige and was destroying the planet  – and   needed to be stopped before it was too late. Forty years on, with global warming unchecked and London choking from diesel fumes,  it feels as though we should  heed these warnings more than ever…

Further reading

Michael Seely has produced an excellent  biography of Kit Pedler: The Quest for Pedler:the Life and Times of Dr Kit Pedler (2014), published by miwk.

You can watch one  episode from Mind Over Matter, a television series presented by Kit in the spring in 1981, which looked at the possibility of telepathy and other  paranormal activity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Time Travel with a Twist: October the First is Too Late by Fred Hoyle (1966)

october-the-first-is-too-late

Fred Hoyle

Fred Hoyle

Fred Hoyle was a well-known scientist who appeared regularly on television  and  in the press  in the 1950s and 1960s. I have written in more detail about his career in a previous post about  the 1961  television series A for Andromeda.

October The First Is Too late is one of  a series of science fiction novels he  wrote in the 1960s,  which were popular at the time,   but largely forgotten nowadays. In his introduction to this novel Hoyle writes: “The ‘science’ in this book is mostly scaffolding for the story, story-telling in the traditional sense. However, the discussions of the significance of time and of the meaning of consciousness are intended to be quite serious…”

Hoyle’s novels often have a scientist as the main protaganist,  but in this novel  it is a musician  and composer named Dick: accordingly each chapter is named after  a musical theme or style eg “Fugue” and “Coda”.  The novel begins in 1966 when he runs into an old university friend John Sinclair, now a scientist,  and on an impulse they set off  together on a trip to Scotland. Something very odd happens here. Sinclair  disappears   for half a day,  and on returning cannot explain or recall what has happened to him. Later,  when  swimming Dick  notices that a birthmark Sinclair previously  had on his back has vanished.

The trip is cut short when  Sinclair is recalled to the USA to assist in the investigation of a strange  solar phemonena.  Dick  accompanies him to California where he has a brief affair with a young actress. They  then journey on to Hawaii, where  Sinclair  and others establish that the Sun is somehow being used as a signalling device with an enormous amount of data being transmitted.  Barely have they absorbed this astonishing fact when  all contact is lost with the USA,  and it is feared that a nuclear war has begun.

Dick and Sinclair manage  to get  places on a plane sent to investigate what has happened. Flying above Los Angeles there is no sign of  a war: the city is simply no longer there,  just woods and grassland in its place. Journeying on, they see the same across the continent:

Truth to tell I think everybody wanted to take a look  at New York. It was much the same story as we flew over the Applachians in the fading light. But there were far more signs of life here, far more primitive shacks. It all looked as America might have looked around the year 1800. Darkness came on. We saw little more, except twice there were flickering lights below us, fairly obvious camp fires. Then we were out over the Atlantic.

First world warCrossing the Atlantic they find to their relief  that the England of 1966  is still there. After landing they are taken  to meet the Prime Minister and  defence staff  to tell them of  what they have seen. They learn that Britain has lost touch with Europe:  planes sent to investigate did not come back.  Then boats from the Continent  begin to arrive at English ports,  and they discover that Europe has gone back to September 1917 and the First World War is raging.

John Sinclair tells Dick:

..like all of us in our daily lives, you’re stuck with a grotesque and absurd illusion…the idea of time as an ever-rolling stream. The thing which is supposed to bear all its sons away. There’s one thing quite certain  in this business: the idea of time as a steady progression from past to future. I know very well  that we feel this way about it subjectively. But we’re the victims of a confidence tick. If there’s one thing we can be sure in physics is that all times exist with equal reality. If you consider the motion of the Earth around the Sun, it is a spiral in four dimensional space-time. There’s absolutely no question of singling out a special point on the spiral and saying that particular point is the present position of the Earth. No so far  as physics is concerned.

Sinclair suggests that what has happened is that the people in the various time zones are in fact copies,  which explains  the signalling they detected:

It’s as if the present  world were built out of copies of bits of the old world. Do you remember the day on the moor below Mickle Fell?  Don’t you realise it was a copy that came back to the caravan that night. Not quite a perfect copy, the birthmark was missing….Different worlds remembered and then all put together to form a strange new world. We shall find out more as we go along. This isn’t the end of it. 

The British government makes contact with the armies fighting in Europe and bring about a ceasefire. Meanwhile Dick and  Sinclair  embark on a further flight to see what other time zones there might be.  Where Russia once  was, there  is now  a vast unbroken plain of molten glass,  while  the Aegean is in the time of  the Ancient Greeks;  they fly over an intact Parthenon. This  discovery leads Dick to join an expedition of scholars and others  which sails from England  to Athens. He takes his piano  with him.

Atnens

On arrival the Athenians welcome them and accept their story that they are from a far-off  northern land, although they soon take their ship from  them  when they realise how fast it will travel with engines. It is the year 425 BC and Athens is at war with Sparta. Dick’s skill with the piano, an instrument unknown  in this era, makes him a popular guest.

Dick  resumes composing,  and on a visit to a temple comes across a tall,  very attractive young woman, looking quite unlike the other women in Athens. He assumes that she is a priestess,  and their meeting finishes with an agreement to engage in a musical  contest which  ends in a draw. After spending the night with her,  Dick  wakes somewhere  completely different in a room with advanced technology.

Unexpectedly John Sinclair is also there. After searching the world he had  found  this time zone, which is 6,000 years in the future. The “priestess” Melea is in  fact from this time,  and they learn from  her and their other hosts that  after the  C20th the world had gone through a cycle of civilisation leading to war  and  then a new civilisation and then a war  many times until they made a conscious decision to stop the cycle.  The population of the world is just 5 million,  with only what used to be Mexico is inhabited: the rest of the world is grassland.

They tell the two men  that what has happened with  the different time-zones is an experiment by an unknown intelligence, and that only this future time will survive. An elder explains:

Your people exist only in a ghost world. For a little while your world may have a vivid reality, but very soon, now that we have made our decision, it will be gone. It will go in a brief flash, just as it arrived.

Melea  adds:

...the different  time zones of the Earth will change  back to what they were before. The Greece in which me met, the temple, will be gone. It will gone more completely  even more than the ruined remains of your own time. It will be gone almost without trace. It will be gone, except for the records in our libraries. Europe too will be gone, so will the great Plain of Glass. It will only be this zone here that will remain.

Sinclair attempts to explain to Dick  what has happened, that their lives have forked in two directions:

There’s no connexion between them. You’re either in the one or in the other. It’s the sequence all over again. Whichever one you’re in you never know of the other. In this sequence you can never know what happened when you returned to Los Angeles. In that other sequence you can never know even a single thing about this one. The two are utterly separated. In the other sequence neither you and I will know about the future…

Sinclair  decides to leave,  as does Dick, but then  changes his mind at the last minute and decides to stay in the future. Two years later he reflects:

The prognostications were correct. Within a few hours of the departure of John Sinclair, the world reverted to ‘normal’.  The England of 1966,  the Europe of 1917, the Greece of 425  BC, all vanished just as remarkably as they had appeared. I have not seen John again, nor do I think there is the smallest possibility I will ever do so…More and more the old life has become vague and remote, like the memories of distant  childhood. This gradual evaporation of a life which at one time was so intensely vibrant has come upon me with profound sadness…I have no doubt now that it was the real John Sinclair who was sent out from here – into oblivion. The irony and tragedy is that to the two of us it was the world of 1966 that was the real cul-de-sac.

This is first and foremost a  novel of ideas and possibilities.  Hoyle is not a great writer, his prose is often pedestrian,  and  we never feel particularly  engaged with the characters, in fact I found Richard rather smug and self-obsessed.  As a character  Melea is present mainly  for sex interest. The  central  conceit of a world of different time zones is what  holds your  interest  and keeps you reading, waiting for an explanation,  although in the end  we never get a definitive answer  to the mystery, we never learn who is behind this  experiment.  Also  Hoyle has a habit of bringing the narrative to a shuddering halt while his characters  engage in pages of philosophical  or scientific discussion: at times it does feel  rather like a lecture series disguised as a novel.

The War Games

One final point. In 1969 Malcolm Hulke and Terance  Dicks wrote in great haste  a ten part serial for Doctor Who called “The War Games”. In this serial the Doctor and his companions, Jamie and Zoe,  lands in the midst of what appears to be the First World War. The Doctor tells Jamie:”We’re back in history, Jamie. One of the most terrible times on the planet Earth.” But  then  they discover that other wars from history such the Roman invasion of Britain, the Mexican Revolution and the American Civil War are taking place in different zones.  They are not on Earth at all, but on another planet where the war games are being run by an alien race so that they can create an invincible army to conquer the galaxy, assisted by a renegade Time Lord, the War Chief.

There are some intriguing similarites between October the First is Too Late and “The War Games”; the idea of co-existing time zones, one of which is the First World War.  It may be  that either Hulke or Dicks had read the novel,  and  that some of Hoyle’s notions fed  into their pool of ideas for writing the Doctor Who serial.

You can read my post about  Malcolm Hulke here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Imagining a Socialist Utopia in Manchester : The Sorcery Shop, an impossible romance by Robert Blatchford (1907)

the Sorcery shop

In The Sorcery Shop Robert Blatchford attempts to describe what a Socialist  utopia might look like, imagining  the   grimy,  smoke-clogged  city of Manchester, which he knew very well, transformed  a sunlit  city of  flowers, fountains  and crystal towers. It is of a piece,  therefore,  with other socialist  utopian novels of the period,  including Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888), William Morris’ News from Nowhere (1890),  H G Wells’ A Modern Utopia (1905)  and Men Like Gods (1923),  and Charlote Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915)

Robert Blatchford

Robert Blatchford and his friends were the  founders  in 1891 of the Clarion newspaper:  the most influential Socialist newspaper ever published in Britain,  which  created thousands of Socialists and inspired  a whole social movement.

Blatchford was born in Maidstone in 1851. He came from a theatrical family, his father John  being  a comedian and his mother Georgina an actress.  He had little schooling and was largely self-educated, spending his time reading during regular bouts of childhood illness. The family eventually settled in Halifax where Robert was apprenticed as a brushmaker. He did not go into the trade, however, instead leaving the town in  1871 and joining the army where he rose to the rank of Sergeant major.

After leaving the army he got a job as a storeman  with the Weaver Navigation Company in Northwich and  began writing short stories in his spare time which eventually  led to him  writing a column for a newspaper in Leeds. This  led him  into full-time journalism, first in London and then in Manchester where he worked for Edward Hulton, writing for the Sunday Chronicle under the penname Nunquam (Nunquam Dormio – I do not sleep.) His salary was now an astonishing £1,000 a year.

Increasingly he  wrote about slum conditions in Manchester and was taken around some of the worst cellars in Hulme and Ancoats by a local Socialist, Joe Waddington. Blatchford finally became a Socialist  after reading A summary of the Principles of Socialism, written by Henry Hyndman and William Morris, sent to him by a reader.  He   was not a theoritician  but came to Socialism because he saw it as  a practical solution to the poverty and misery he had personally witnessed.  He later  wrote, somewhat self importantly:

I have never read a page of Marx. I got the idea of collective ownership from H.M. Hyndman; the rest of my Socialism I thought out myself. English Socialism is not German: it is English. English Socialism is not Marxian; It is humanitarian. It does not depend upon any Clarion May Daytheory of “economic justice” but upon humanity and common sense.

Hulton would not let  him write about Socialism in the Morning Chronicle  so Blatchford walked out of his job and set up The Clarion, along with  his brother Montague and his friends Alex Thompson, Edward Fay and Robert Suthers. It was a huge gamble but, fortunately for them,  many of Blatchford’s  readers followed him  to the new venture  and The Clarion  soon became  a welcome weekly visitor  to thousands of  households and attracted a fierce loyalty from its readers. The Clarion was never a dry as dust theoretical  journal,  but a jovial mix of news, comment, short stories, songs and  poetry.   As George R Taylor put in his book Leaders Of Socialism, Past and Present, published in 1910:

…..Robert Blatchford…..can manufacture Socialist more quickly then anyone else. Tipton Limited sells more tea than any other firm, Bever sells more soap;  one factory makes more boots; another most chairs. Mr Blatchford and The Clarion make more Socialists than any rival establishment.

 

The Sorcery Shop

The Clarion always  carried poems, short stories and extracts from novels, many of them written by Blatchford.  He was inspired by William Morris’s News From Nowhere to write his own utopian novel  The  Sorcery Shop:  An impossible Romance, published in 1907.  Blatchford says in his introduction:

It is only reasonable  to suppose that in a wisely-ordered commonwealth the best energies of a highly-trained and intelligent people would be directed towards the improvement all the conditions of national , civic and domestic life; but I have left all that to the imagination of the reader, and have tried to show the possibility of organising and carrying on a prosperous and healthy commune without calling in  any other  mechanical aids  than those  of which we are already the masters…Poverty, crime, disease, war , drunkenness, and ignorance are all preventable evils. Were it not for the ignorance of the many, and the foolish greed and vanity of the few, we might have a happy, healthy, and beautiful England now.

 The book begins in  the Directorate Club in London, where  we meet Major-General Sir Frederick Manningtree Storm, Tory MP for South Loomshire, and  Mr Samuel Jorkle, Liberal MP, for Shantytown East.  In an argument about Socialism they meet a  third man, a stranger named  Nathaniel Fry, a magician in fact   who spirits them away to a Socialist England using a Crystal Car.  “And now gentleman, we are in an impossible country, inhabited by impossible things, and are impossibly happy. I hope you will be amused. Allow me to open the door.” They land in a great, green wood and make their way to a vantage point looking down on a plain:

It was an orchard plain, a plain of flowering trees, in the midst of which was built a city. The roofs and towers and gables of the town stood up like red and white islands out of a broad sea of blossoms…They saw red roofs glowing amid the billows of delicate pink and white.  They saw the domes and towers of marble palaces, and the graceful shaft of a tall campanile with a gleaming golden crown. They heard the rhythmic hurry of a carillon, sounding wonderfully from some distant belfry, and the throbbing and champing music of a marching band, afar off in the hidden streets...Well, gentleman” said the wizard…”this is Manchester. He waved his hand towards the flowery plain, ”this city of health and beauty, of happy homes, and noble palaces, of trees and flowers, this Paradise regained, is Manchester – Manchester under impossible conditions”. 

 road with flowersThey pass Hulme Town Hall, now “a marble place with high towers” and make their way into the city along Chester Road. The wizard tells them:

 You will observe it is wide road, with broad band of well-kept grass along each side, nearest the gardens.  You will observe that the houses are very handsome and homely, and are all detached and homely, each standing in its own garden. There are no walls nor hedges between these gardens and the road. As a matter of fact, there is not a lock nor a fastening in all Manchester.

city with towersThey enter Fountain Square:

The great square presented an animated picture of rich colour, and noble form, and eager, happy, human life. The place was a garden: a garden of green lawns, and bright spring flowers, and sparkling fountains, and stately trees – a garden surrounded by marble palaces, and canopied by a blue and smokeless sky. Here the people – the beautiful, brave, impossible people – gathered in their thousands – walking, lounging, laughing, talking, as though the square were occupied by troops of friends

 

Women

The wizard explains how the position of women  has changed:

Here if a husband leaves his wife he finds it very difficult  to find another .the women here are very proud, their ideal of purity is very high, and they are completely independent. No woman here marries for bread. No woman dreads a future of solitary indigence. There is no poverty in this country. Every wife is economically independent of her husband. …The maidens here set their entreatments at a higher rate than a demand to parley. They are free. They are men’s  equals…. I tell you and mark it well , that in this country there is no such thing  as an untaught, poor or degraded woman; there is no such thing as a courtesan; there is no such thing as the sale and barter of women’s ’s flesh and women’s honour; there is not a woman tramp, beggar, or slave; there is not a woman destitute of home, of hope, of love. 

 Children

Children are seen as the responsibility of the whole community:

The children can find homes in a hundred households. They can take food anywhere. Every house is open, every table free to them, and, still more happily, every heart is open to them also.  No child here is denied food, no child is denied instruction, no child is denied love.

There are no schools in this society, children are taught at home by the women. There is  no distinction between the sexes:

 Nearly every child is taught to draw, to model, or to carve, or to do all those things; and every child is taught to sing, and to dance and draw  and carve, and can read and write the universal language, as well as English, before they are in their teens. They pick up other things as well; botany, astronomy, geography,  gardening – many things…the children, boys and girls, all swim, and row, and play at cricket and many other games

Work

Nobody works more than 3 or 4 hours a day,  and then after pursue other endeavours such as painting or writing. Everybody is paid the same.

Recreation

What do the masses in our towns ever see of Nature? What do the labourers in our villages ever see of art or hear of music? in our England the great bulk of the people  have no artistic nor intellectuals pleasures. Have you ever been to the average village concert?  Have you ever been to the cheap popular music-halls and theatres? Have you ever studied the cheap popular fiction?  With these people , in this new England, life itself is beautiful. 

 Evolution Not  Revolution.

Blatchford is quite vague about  how this “new England , as he calls it, came into being, but it appears not to have been a revolution. In one passage he appears to indicate that it was result of municipalisation.

You have seen the gas, trams, and waterworks pass from private hands into the control of the municipalities without bloodshed.  Why should there be bloodshed over the cotton mills and soap factories… And it is evident that such co-operation must always beat private competition, for two reasons; the first reason is that the muncipality can produce more cheaply; the second reason is that no private form can afford to trade without making some profit, whereas the municipality can do without any profit at all… The wizard blew a smoke ring and smiled. “I do not defend robbery”,  he said, “I defend the recovery  of stolen property. Socialism is not a thief, it is a policeman.

At the end of the book the two MPs are returned to present-day London where, looking through a window,  see  the unemployed march past.

They were, for the mUnemployed Leicester 1905ost part, the ill-clothed, rough-spun men of the labouring class, with here and there a better-dressed artisan. Their boots were down at heel, their hands were coarse, their faces grimy and weather-beaten. They tramped on silently, looking straight before them, or on the ground. They seemed dull and dispirited, but not angry or ashamed. With a strange stolidity of endurance, worthy of Oriental fatalists, they trudged along upon their hungry march through the wealth and ostentation of the indifferent West .

Reviews

A Neil Lyons in his book  Robert  Blatchford, The sketch of a personality, An estimate of some achievements,  published in 1910,  say that this is the least successful of Blatchford’s novels

No man has yet succeeded in inventing a satisfactory Utopia and Mr Blatchford, perhaps, has come as near to doing so as anybody else. But – John’s utopia never fits Jim. Mr Blatchford , in this picture of the Ideal State, has seen fit to deprive us of our wine and tobacco. Mr Blatchford expects too much from his fellow-man – especially from his fellow craftsman – when he asks him to consider seriously ideals which eliminate wine and tobacco.

Make your own mind up

You can read The Sorcery Shop online here

 

 

 

 

 

 

Terror from the Deeps: The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham (1953)

1075_JOHN_WYNDHAM_The_Kraken_Wakes_1960In a previous  post I discussed The Day of the  Triffids In his second novel  The Kraken Wakes John Wyndham again imagines  the  breakdown of  human civilisation, but in a very different  way and from a very different kind of menace. By contrast with  The Day of the Triffids  –  in which the Triffids were home-grown destroyers and  highly visible throughout the novel – in The Kraken Wakes  the  invaders appear  to be  from another planet,   and  are almost  never seen.

The story is told through the eyes of Mike and Phyllis Watson, radio journalists for the English Broadcasting Company, whose  profession  means  – conveniently for the narrative –  that they are either  present  at some of the key events or are in touch with the scientists or military officers trying to make  sense of what is happening. It’s quite clear that Phyllis,  like Josella in The Day of the Triffids, is the  sharper, more  prescient,  of the couple, and also has a greater imagination than Mike,  who comes across a stolid man of the 1950s: he probably wears a tweed jacket.

The story is spread  over several years as  the menace and terror  escalate a little at a time:  in fact the three chapters are titled Phase One, Phase Two and Phase Three. Phase One begins with Mike and Phyllis taking  their honeymoon  on a cruise ship from  which,  nearing the Azores, they observe  five fuzzy red  fireballs landing in the ocean and disappearing. After reporting this  when they get back home they learn that there have been  many  similar sightings around the world and that the sea areas in which  the fireballs  land correlate with the deepest parts of the ocean. The Royal  Navy sends  an expedition to investigate which the Watsons are invited to join. This  lowers two men in a bathyscope,  equipped with cameras. Finding nothing in the depths,  they think  they see something as they ascend to the surface, as Mike Watson relates:

This time we could undoubtedly make out a lighter patch. It was roughly oval, but indistinct, and there was nothing to give it scale….Again the camera showed us a glimpse of the thing as it passed  one of the bathyscope’s ports, but we were little wiser; the definition too poor for us to be sure of anything about it. “It’s going up now. Rising faster than we are. Getting beyond our angle of view. ought to be a window in the top of this thing…Lost it now. Gone somewhere up above above us. Maybe it’ll – The voice cut off dead. Simultaneously, there was a brief, vivid flash on the screen, and it too went dead.The sound of the winch outside altered as it speeded up….At last, the end  came up…Both the main and the communications cables ended in a blob of fused metal.

After this incident shipping starts to sink and the powers-that-be decide to drop an atomic bomb into the ocean near the Marianas, but with no effect. At this point Wyndham  introduces Dr Alastair Bocker into the narrative, whose analyses and predictictions are invariably derided by conventional scientific  and political opinion, but  usually turn out to be correct. Wyndham uses him to play a similar role to that of Michael Beadley in The Day of the Triffids. Bocker suggests that the intelligences in the deep have  come from another planet, possibly Jupiter, and that an invasion is under way. He also suggests that the discolouration of the ocean,  which has started happening, is  caused by the intelligences drilling communication routes between the various ocean deeps.

deep sea

In Phase Two  a string of ocean going  passenger liners  are sunk with the loss of all passengers,  forcing  the authorities to acknowledge the reality of the deep-sea menace, which  the public now reluctantly accepts, having been inclined to blame the Russians up to now. (This novel was written during the Cold War, remember). “Back room boffins”  eventually come up with   anti-attack devices , which when fitted to ships  deal with this particular threat,  but it’s far from  over.  Soon reports come in of  mysterious  raids on remote islands  in which the population vanishes: all that can be found are tracks leading to and from the sea and slime covering the ground and buildings. Mike and Phyllis go off on a expedition, led by Bocker, to an island called Escondida  where he predicts the next raid  may take place. Nothing happens for several weeks and the group takes it easy,  enjoying the sunshine. Then it starts.

What follows is one of the most  horrific episodes in modern science  fiction as Wyndham  presents us with   grey metal  “sea-tanks”, some 35 feet long, which  grind their way  out of the sea and into the town square. They then release white cilia, sticky  tentacles,  which ensnare the  fleeing crowd. Phyllis physically stops Mike from going out (almost certainly saving his life) so he watches from a window:

The thing that had burst was no longer in the air. It was now a round body no more than a couple of feet in diameter  surrounded by a radiation of cilia. It was drawing these back into itself with whatever they had caught, and the tension was  keeping  it a little off the ground. Some of the people it was pulling were shouting and struggling, others were like inert bundles of clothes.

I saw poor Muriel Flynn among them. She was lying on her back, dragged across the cobbles by a tentacle caught in her red hair. She had been badly hurt by the fall when she was pulled out of her window, and was crying out with terror, too. Leslie dragged alongside her, but it looked as if the fall had mercifully broken his neck.

Over on the far side I saw a man  rush forward and try to pull a screaming  woman away, but when he touched the cillium that held her hand his hand became  fastened to it, too, and they were dragged along.

As the circle contracted, the white cilia came closer to one another. The struggling people inevitably touched more of them and became  more helplessly enmeshed than before. There was a relentless deliberation about it which  made it seem horribly as though one watched through the eye of a slow-motion camera. ..the machines…still lay where they had stopped, looking like huge grey slugs, each engaged in producing several of its disgusting bubbles at different stages. …I looked out again. Half a dozen objects, looking like tight round bales, were rolling over and over on their way to the street that led to the waterfront.

After this the raids increase to a full onslaught on coasts  around the world with hundreds of “sea-tanks”  causing thousands of deaths. However the machines (if that is truly  what they are) are  vulnerable to explosive shells and eventually  by a combination of mines, weaponry and an alert public, they are held at bay:

It was the Irish who took almost the whole weight of the north-European attack, which  was conducted, according to Bocker,  from a base somewhere in the Deep, south of Rockall. They rapidly developed a skill in dealing with them that made it a point of dishonour that even one should get away…England’s only raids occurred  in Cornwall, and they too were small affairs for the most part.

The raids cease but,  as  Bocker prophesies in a radio  broadcast, “These things, whatever  they may be, have not only succeeeded in throwing us out of their element  with ease, but already they have advanced  to do battle with us in ours. For the moment  we have pushed them back, but they will return, for the same urge drives them as drives us – the neccessity to exterminate, or be exterminated. And when they come again , if we let them, they will come better equipped…”

icebergs

In Phase Three the intelligences somehow succeed in melting the Arctic  and Antarctic polar ice  and water levels around the globe start to rise rapidly.  As  London is progressively  flooded the government flees to Harrogate.  Mike and Phyllis stay on in the capital  to broadcast from an EBC studio  until   conditions  become impossible. By now the government has ceased broadcasting,  and the country has balkanised   into a series of armed enclaves of  desperate people,  ready  and willing to shoot at others seeking safety and food.  The Watsons manage to find a boat and, after a number of adventures, make their way to their cottage in Cornwall, where Phyllis, with her usual foresight,  has laid in stocks of food.

Some months later they learn from a neighbour that their names have been  broadcast by Bocker, who is  part of a Council  for Reconstruction. He wants  them to go London  to help in  the business of rebuilding a post-deluge society. What about the inteligences?  According to Bocker, scientists   have succeeded at last in building an ultra-sound weapon that is being used to systematically to kill them   and  clear the deeps.  The last words in the novel go to  Phyllis, wise as ever:

I was just thinking…Nothing is really new, is it, Mike? Once upon a time there was a great plain, covered with forests and full of wild animals. I expect our ancestors hunted there. Then one day the water came and drowned it all and there was the North Sea…I think we’ve been here before, Mike…and and we got through last time.

Stories about what might lurk in the sea and one day rise to the surface are part of folk-culture and go back centuries. Wyndham successfully plays on these primitive fears in what is a deftly plotted story, driven by  the narrative.  He also  subverts the conventional alien   invasion novel   in which “they”  crash to earth and set about  the violent destruction of humanity. In The Kraken Wakes  “they” arrive silently and stealthily: in fact we are never quite clear whether this is  really an  invasion at all: are the intelligences  simply seeking a new home for an unknown reason , but are then forced to deal with  the intrusive behaviour of humanity who will not leave them alone?

In the end  it seems the planet  cannot be shared, a conclusion that  even the humanitarian Bocker is forced to accept. The idea of the aliens “shrimping” human beings,  as Phyllis graphically  puts it,  is surely a nod by Wyndham  to Wells’ The War of the Worlds in which the Martians’ war machines use their ” long, flexible, glittering tentacles” to harvest  human beings and put them in a basket to be later used,  as Wells hints,  for some ghastly purpose.

As in  The Day of the Triffids,  Wyndham cannot resist some social  satire, poking fun at the fickleness of public opinion which demands immediate action, any action, to solve  a perceived problem,  and the stock responses of the press:

The news of the latest sinking was announced on the 8am news bulletin on a Saturday. The Sunday papers took full advantage of  their opportunity. At least six of them slashed at official incompetence with almost eighteenth-century gusto, and set the pitch for the Dailies. The Times screwed down rebukes to make the juice  run out. The Guardian’s approach was similar in intention, but more like an advancing set of circular-saws in manner…The Worker, after pointing out that in a properly ordered society such tragedies would have been  impossible since luxury liners would not exist and therefore could not be sunk, rounded upon owners who drove seamen into danger in unprotected ships at inadequate wages. 

The Sea Devils

It  can be plausibly The Sea Devilsargued  that The Kraken Wakes influenced Maclolm Hulke’s 1971  Doctor Who serial “The Sea Devils”,  in which an undersea colony of Silurians – intelligent reptiles who once ruled the earth million sof years ago –  are awoken and begin attacking ships, sinking them.  In one episode they also come ashore to attack the coast.  The Doctor tries to make  peace between the Silurians and humanity – but fails,  and they are destroyed.    As Malcolm  allegedly once said,  “What you need for science fiction is a good original idea. It doesn’t have to be your original idea.” You can read my post on the work of Malcolm Hulke here.

 

Productions

It is  surprising that The Kraken Wakes has never  been filmed or produced as a television  series, since it offers a great deal of dramatic incident, while the melting of the icecaps chimes with contemporary concerns over global warming.

The novel  has been produced as a radio series on a number of occasions.

In  1954 it was produced by Peter Watts  on the Third Programme from  a script by  John Keir Cross. Michael Watson was played by Robert Beatty, Phyllis Watson was played by Grizelda Hervey.

In 1965 the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation broadcast an adaptation starring Sam Paine, Shirley Broderick, Michael Irwin and Derek Walston. You can listen to this here

In 1998 it was produced by Susan Roberts on Radio Four from  a script by John Constable. Michael Watson was played by John Branwell, Phyllis Watson was played by  Kathryn Hunt.

In 2008  it was produced by Susan Roberts on Radio Four from  a script by John Constable. Michael Watson was played by Jonathan Cake, Phyllis Watson was  played by Sarah Todd.

On 8 January 2016 a new adaptation, written by Val McDermid, was recorded live in Media City,  Salford, with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. It  starred  Tamsin Greig, Paul Higgins and Richard Harrington. The score was composed by  Alan Edward Williams.  The First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, played herself in pre-recorded section. This production was  broadcast on Radio Four on 28  May 2016. More information here

Finally, the title of the book comes from a poem by Tennyson, The Kraken.

Below the thunders of the upper deep,
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides; above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages, and will lie
Battening upon huge sea worms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

 

 

 

 

 

“Prophets of Doom”: An interview with Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis in The Guardian in December 1973

As a follow-up to my last post,  which was  on Mutant 59; the Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, this is an interview with them  I came across in The Guardian on the occasion of the publication of the novel in paperback by Pan. The interviewer was Raymond Gardner and the interview was published  in the newspaper on 13 December 1973. It was entitled “Prophets of Doom”.

“London is melting” screams the blurb on the back cover of the American edition  of an uncomfortable  bit of predict-fiction which will hit the station bookstalls here this week. The French titled it ” La Mort du Plastique” , which if spoken slowly in a gravelly voice , has a nice doom  laden aura. In Britain we’ll just be reading “Mutant 59; the Plastic Eater”. It’s just as well that the British title  keeps its cool, otherwise London Transport might find itself with a few more recruitment headaches since the book opens with the extermination of King’s Cross station, its environs and a few thousand hapless humans. Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis have certainly devised a novel if extreme solution to the Kit Pedler and Gerry Davisproblems of one of Britain’s most grotesque city environments.

But it’s all  in the cause of science fiction, although the reader might hesitate over the book’s fictional qualities since Kit and Gerry have an uncomfortable knack of finding their creativity come true. They devised the BBC-TV’ s ecological drama “Doomwatch” and stayed with it until the fiction became larger than the science, which is to say that the originators of the series wanted a fairly tweaking sort of programme which might encourage gran to stop ditching her empty stout bottles in the canal while the BBC had its eye on a straightforwad science fiction cops and robbers. And so  “Doomwatch” lost its story editor and scientific adviser. But before their resignation the programme chalked up a few notably uncomfortable coincidences.

There was the one about the trawler which hauled up a neat piece of nuclear hardware in its nets and almost solved the problem of the fish shortage by killing off the demand. Kit and Gerry set off for the Holy Loch to confirm that their idea was feasible. They were sufficiently impressed to ditch  the story whereupon the US Air Force wrecked a neat PR job by accidentally dropping a warhead in Texas. When the top brass went to inspect their toy they discovered that five of the six failsafe devices were in the unsafe  position. Four days later Kit and Gerry emerged sleepless but triumphant with a new script for ” Doomwatch”.

Kit and Gerry are an unlikely  duo, not quite Eric and Ernie, but they have their moments. Gerry has been in television, as he puts it, for 20 years. He worked his passage to Canada on a Clyde-built tug, which  almost foundered in mid-Atlantic, worked for the CBC and the Canadian  Film Board, and returned to Britain and Granda for the early days of Coronation Street. Then he freaked out to Italy to train as an opera singer. He mumbles something about music being his hobby, a notion which  is readily confirmed since his front parlour bears more than a passing resemblance to a recording studio.

Kit graduated as a medical doctor in 1953 and practised in medicine and surgery for two years  before taking a second doctorate in experimental pathology. He then spent 12 years in brain research. His publisher obviously thinks this is a fitting start for the doom business. Pan’s PR man waxes eloquently about their author being into electron microscopy cybernetics.  Gerry says that his colleague concocts a very nice home brew.

The two met via a Horizon programme on Kit’s research. They continued their discussions at The Contented Sole, a pricey fish and chip shop in Knightsbridge. There, says, Kit. science and show business met in order to save “Dr Who” from too few Daleks and too much fantasy. It seems that when the Daleks departed “Dr Who” could only muster an audience of three million. And so Kit and Gerry devised their Cybermen. very frightening, says Kit. Not at all toylike, says Gerry. In fact the Australians refused to screen one of the Cybermen episodes, says Kit. A great seethe, says Gerry. Kit confides they did go a bit over the top with the things spewing “Fairy Liquid”  out of their joints and generally writhing around.

While contemplating  their repective soles Kit and Gerry came up with the idea of an ecological adventure series. They brought together  the story lines, wrote the first four episodes , and sold the complete package as “Doomwatch”  to the BBC. Kit was moonlighting  at the time between his university research project and the studios. The boffins didn’t like it. He says:

“While I was still working in university I got a tremendous amount of crap flung at me. I  was a popularist. I was a fiction writer. I had to take this and my skin was no thicker than  anyone else’s and it upset me a great deal. But now I’ve left the organisation within which that criticism starts and I’ve started on my own, hopefully, socially responsible science. I think that science  must turn towards the needs of people  socially. But it was a a bad time. At one point I was almost kicked out. I wrote about animal experiments which were being conducted for careerist  rather than  scientiific purposes. I knew perfectly well that it was true but I made  the mistake of saying so in a daily paper and so they tried to grind my testicles in public.”

Kit has left the university and continues  his scientific endeavours  in ecology. He has finished his first project on ecological housing, which will be published shortly. His own Victorian house in Clapham has already found itself shot into the twentieth century with a methane and gas fed generator which  provides lighting and eventually he hopes to run this from the family garbage. And just in case it all sounds a little po-faced Kit is thinking about a rate rebate when his house becomes fully self-sufficient.

Going public has had its problems for Kit. Whilst guesting on a television programme he referred to a number of atom bomb experiments in Nevada where rabbits were put in cages with  their eyelids  sewn back. Their eyes were burned. He said that this was bad science because the dosage  could have been found by calculation.  It was degrading both to the animals and to the experimenters. Next morning a lady phoned the Home Office  to complain that a British scientist called Kit Pedler  was conducting a series of brutal experiments. Kit calls it the media problem.

In “Mutant 59” a series of scientific accidents and straightforward short cuts  result in the destruction of all plastic in London. Electricity cables are exposed and ignite gas supplies and an explosive chain reaction begins. The fact  that we can read  such a book and then toddle off to bed for a peaceful night’s sleep is a small example of our conditioning which scientists like Kit Pedler would like to change. Kit believes that one of the problems of the environmental  issue is that people are saturated with horror stories. If energy sources are drying up, says Kit,  it is no use saying to people that they have been wicked  and raping the earth far too long. You must say that, but you must also suggest what they can do.

Kit says that the best title for an ecological documentary  was “Due to Lack of Interest Tomorrow has been Cancelled.” And as evidence of his concern he points out that the documentary was shown on BCc-2 to a small converted audience. Which is why he was pleased to work with Gerry Davis  on “Doomwatch.

“Mutant 59” is based on an idea being worked on at a British university which Kit refuses to name.  Their concept was of a biodegradable plastic which would  break down under ultra-violet light. It may seem unlikely  thatas the first biodegradable milk bottle goes on sale in their novel  that another scientist working in the same area of self-destruct plastic should release a plastic-eating virus into the sewers of London.  But then no one ever thought the Americans would accidentally drop a nuclear warhead in Texas.

 

 

 

 

“All that is solid melts into air”: Mutant 59:The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis (1972)

Mutant 59

The Apollo 19 space mission explodes as it re-enters the earth’s atmosphere. BEA flight 510 crashes into a suburban street on its approach to Heathrow with devastating results.  A computerised traffic system fails, bringing  chaos to central London.  A nuclear submarine, HMS Triton,  sinks with the loss of  all hands. This is the dramatic opening of Mutant  59:the Plastic Eater, a novel written by the scientist Kit Pedler and the television writer and producer, Gerry Davis,  and published in 1972.

The two men met in 1966 when Gerry was the script editor at Doctor Who, and was looking for a scientific advisor to inject a greater degree of scientific speculation  into the programme.  Kit  was head of a research unit at  the Institute of Opthamalmology  at the University of London which was investigating how the eye worked,  using an electron microscope, and whether it might be possible to devise a camera which could  restore sight to the blind.  A doctor by training,  Kit read widely,  and had  a zest for  explaining  science topics  to a wider public. (He  also read science  fiction). Kit came to the attention of the BBC after Tomorrow’s World visited his unit, and  was then  invited to meet Gerry. Straightaway they formed a close working relationship.

Kit  suggested that the newly built Post Office Tower, then the tallest structure in London, could be used by a computer to take over the capital using the telephone network to control the minds of humans. This  evolved into the serial The War Machines, broadcast in the summer of 1966, featuring the computer WOTAN and its war machines. They then  came up with the idea of the Cybermen: humanoids who have replaced so much of their  bodies with technology that they have lost all emotion and empathy.  Their first story featuring the Cybermen “The Tenth Planet”  aired in the autumn 1966. The silver monsters were a big hit with the public,  and  were quickly brought back in “The Moonbase” (February 1967) and then in  “The Tomb of the Cybermen” (September 1967).  After Gerry left Doctor Who Kit worked with Victor Pemberton on  “The Wheel in Space”  (May 1968),  and with Derrick Sherwin on another Cybermen serial “The Invasion” (November 1968).  This was Kit’s last involvement with Doctor Who.

Kit PedlerBy 1970 Kit was becoming disillusioned  by science and increasingly alarmed about the effect that  technology and the headlong rush for economic growth at all costs was having on the environment. He, and many  others around the globe,  feared   the possibility of ecological collapse. Working together again, Kit  and Gerry created a series for the BBC called Doomwatch.  “Doomwatch” is the nickname for  special government  unit established to monitor environmental and other threats to the public.  The first series created a sensation with storylines on issues such as  transplants, genetic mutation of rats,  melting plastic, chemical poisoning,  and a crashed and armed nuclear bomb on the south coast. The extensive scientific research  done by Kit  for the series meant that the storylines appeared to anticipate news stories, and he  soon became a public figure, frequently appearing on television and the radio to comment on  environmental and other scientific matters.  However, Kit and Gerry disagreed with the direction that the producer , Terence Dudley,  was taking Doomwatch  and left after the second series. The third and final series had little impact.

Kit and Gerry continued their working relationship in a series of novels published in the early 1970s,  the first of which  was Mutant 59.  This was inspired by the first  Doomwatch episode  “The Plastic Eater”,  but was not a novelisation:  instead  it was  a complete re-imagining  by Kit and Gerry of their  original  concept.   The central  character is  Luke Gerrard, a doctor  working for a  chemical company run by the scientist Arnold Kramer which has pioneered a plastic for bottles, Degron, which disintegrates after use.

Luke  investigates what is happening to plastic components  which  appear to be failing. He is  sent to to look at a robot that runs amok  in a toy shop, and then at melting cables in a Tube tunnel, along with a journalist, Anne Kramer, wife of the magnate. Whilst  they are down there there are series of catastrophic explosions  in the underground  which  bring the centre of London to  a halt. These are caused, we eventually learn,  by Degron combining with  a plastic eating virus, Mutant  59,  which has accidentally  been released into the sewer system.

The result is a virus  which melts plastic, gives off gas,  and spreads rapidly.  The central part of the novel describes Luke and Anne’s  exhausting  trek  to escape from the underground,  and the  desperate efforts of the government to stop the infection, which include a military cordon  sealing off much of London. In the final part of the novel Arnold Kramer  takes the infection onto a  trans-Atlantic  jet airliner which  melts around the crew and passengersin  mid-flight, while Luke  succeeeds in finding an antidote to the virus at the eleventh hour (as they always do in such novels.

This is a slickly written thriller, drive by incident  rather than character, which reflects Gerry’s  skill as a writer.  Kit’s contribution  is the scientific background on the creation of the  virus and  its role in  breaking down  systems, including in Chapter 8 a  detailed account of  how the melting plastic would impact on the sub-structure of London.

Down in the gas-filled Samson line tunnel two copper cables finally lay bare. One was above the other on the wall of the tunnel and slowly sagged towards its fellow. the upper carried 170 volts of electricity  and  the lower was at earth potential. They touched. There was a  small spark and power abruptly drained away.

In the Coburg Street control room, a duty engineer raised puzzled eyebrows at an unfamiliar light signal in front of him. In the tunnel came the first explosion as the trapped gas ignited. It occurred in the space between two northbound trains and so was confined to the cylindrical space of air between them. A racing wall of flame slammed into the rear of the train ahead and shattered the window of the driver’s cab in the train behind.

As the force of the explosion reached its maximum, the bolted-concrete segments of the tunnel split, carrying with them the mass of steel plates and concrete which held the overhead Metropolitan line tunnel from collapse. One of the two twenty-four inch gas mains embedded in the concrete of the roof support sheared open  releasing  a flood  of town gas into the shattered tunnel….Finally, the  the mixture of tunnel  gas reached its optimim concentration and exploded…At that moment, deep below, Gerrard and the others were thrown  to the floor of the tunnel.

On the surface, the road slowly bulged upwards, split, and flung out like a slow-motion mud bubble, bursting into a ball of orange and yellow flame which shot skywards like a small nuclear  explosion. Shock waves ballooned out into the fog, sweeping it aside in curved veils of force which flashed through the tightly packed lines of traffic.

As a character Anne Kramer seems to have been introduced principally  as the sex interest in the novel.  “She was a beautiful  woman by any standards. Tall with thick dark-brown hair, large fine hazel eyes, and a slightly olive complexion…She could certainly handle men.”  Luke Gerrard  is strongly attracted to her, particularly  when she strips to her undies to dry her clothes by a fire  when they are trapped underground. They get together, of course. All very 1970s.

One of the themes of the novel is how the pursuit of profit corrupts science. Luke went to work for Arnold Kramer because he believed in him,  but Kramer changed when the money started rolling in. “Every remark, every concept, every speculation was now directed towards the profit motive…does it, or does it not, make money!”  With her husband  perishing in the air crash, Anne successfuly schemes to place  Luke in charge of the company. He offers a new vision:”None of us  set out to do anything more than be technically  ingenious. We succeeded and London nearly  died. ..the next time it may be the whole world…we can surely find ways of being creative on behalf of society.”

The novel ends ominously  with a unmanned probe from Earth, Argonaut One, landing on Mars.  “Two hours after sunrise the following morning, Argonaut One died abruptly. Inside its shiny body, plastic began to soften…”

Further reading

You can read an interview with Kit and Gerry from 1973 about the novel  which  I have posted here.

Michael Seely has produced an excellent  biography of Kit Pedler: The Quest for Pedler:the Life and Times of Dr Kit Pedler (2014), published by miwk.

You can watch one  episode from Mind Over Matter, a television series presented by Kit in the spring in 1981, which looked at the possibility of telepathy and other  paranormal activity being scientifically possible.

This is my post on  their second  novel, Brainrack.

 

 

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