“Thirteen to Centarus” was broadcast on 13th December 1965
Script: Stanley Miller
Director: Peter Potter
Designer: Trevor Williams
Producer and Story Edtor: Irene Shubik,
Associate Producer: George Spenton-Foster.
J G Ballard was one of the most influential post-war British writers. His work includes novel such as The Drowned World, The Crystal World, Crash, High Rise and Concrete Island. Whether or not he was a science fiction writer in the classic sense is open to debate – his preoccupations are often inner space, rather than outer space – coupled with dystopian tales of modernity in Britain: Ballard’s manor is the world of supermarkets, motorways and high rises.
“Thirteen to Centaurus” is a short story which was first published in Amazing Stories in April 1962. This adaptation follows the story closely with some minor alterations.
Set in a station whose purpose is yet to be revealed, it begins with the funeral of the captain with those present heartily singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” as the coffin is dispatched into, well, where exactly?
In this community, numbering just a dozen, Dr Francis wields much authority, constantly monitoring the behaviour and thoughts of the crew. He orders a young woman Zenna to report for conditioning which he says is weakening in her: we see the inhabitants working out in the gym to the accompaniment of a recorded voice, endlessly repeating: “This is the world and the whole world. There is no other world but this. There are no other creatures but the chosen, and their children shall the universe. This is the world and the whole world…”
But a young man called Abel (who suffers from a recurring dream of a burning disk) is asking pointed questions of Francis. Abel is the Einstein of this tiny world. In his essay about the station he called it “The Closed Community” and worked out that the station appeared to be revolving at about two feet per second. Francis decides is now time to tell Abel the truth and puts him under the conditioning to bring back his memories.
“When you wake up you you will know the truth: that this station is in fact a spaceship. We are travelling from our home planet Earth to another planet million of miles away. Our grandfathers always lived on Earth. We are the first people to attempt such a journey. We were chosen from all people. You can be proud of that Abel.. You were chosen before you were born. Your grandfather was a great man, he volunteered to come – and so you are here too. Never forget …The station must be kept running properly…this is a multi-generation space vehicle. Only your children will land and they will be old when they do.”
He explains to Abel that the ship set out 50 years ago and is heading for a planet that revolves around the Alpha Centauri.“The social engineering that went into the building of this ship was more intricate than the mechanical side….One day the project will be you responsibility.”
So now we and Abel know the truth. Except we don’t know. For on one of Francis’s screens showing the starfields a shadow of a man appears, prompting him to go through a hatch to find himself…not in outer space, but firmly on the ground on Earth.
The station is in fact a scientific project to test the ability of humans to endure centuries of travel to the stars. They have been conditioned not to question why Dr Francis is not an old man. But the mood of the government and public has changed since the project began 50 years before. One of his colleagues tells Francis. “Even the public is beginning to feel that there is something obscene about this human zoo. What began as a grand adventure has dwindled into a grisly joke.”
The new commander General Short tells Francis that a decision has been taken to shut down the project. “What we propose is a phased withdrawal, a gradual re-adjustment of the world around the crew, that will bring them down to Earth as gently as a parachute. Some of you may have other suggestions. But however we do it, Project Alpha Centari will be discontinued…The returned crew will have to be given every freedom and every tv station and newspaper network in the world will want to interview each of them a hundred times.”
Francis vehemently objects; “It’s crazy. They will be bound to find out the truth… I don’t think you know what you are saying General. Bring them back? How can you bring back the dead? How can you restore the lost hundred years?… The task of the original project was to get them to Alpha Centauri. Nothing was said about bringing them back. ..I/m thinking about the crew. If it takes 50 years to get them there, it should take the same time to bring them back. ..What I don’t know is how each individual is going to react. The people inside that dome hav veen taught to believe since they were children that they are living in a world of their own..and that they would never meet anyone else in the whole of their lives. …The people inside that dome do not want to come out. “
Francis suggest a chilling alternative solution: that the project continues but with no further children being born until the crew are all dead as the life span within the dome is only 40 years on average.
Back inside the station the balance of power begins to shift from Francis to Abel who has started an experiment, conditioning Francis every day for hours on end and unsettling him by changing the meal times. Francis stops leaving the station, which worries the controllers of the project. They prepare to send in a recovery crew, but Francis threatens to reveal the nature of the project to the station crew and the raid is called off. Finally he cuts off all communication with the outside world with the words, “I’m going to Alpha Centauri.” Short wonders, “Whose really in control?”
We discover that Abel in fact knows there are people outside the station, something he seems to have known for some time. When Francis discovers he tells him he should leave and be free Abel responds, “Free? What does that mean? Neither of us is free. This is our whole world and these are our people. The burning disk is the eye of God and Abel is his servant,chosen of the Lord.”
Abel continues his experiment on Francis, conditioning him to lose his memories of the outside world. and to make him believe that he is flying to Alpha Centauri but will never live to get there. At the end of the episode Abel plays a recording he has made himself: “This is the voice of the chosen of the Lord. This is a spaceship. We are the first people to undertake such a journey Doctor Francis. This life is your only life. This ship is your only world. You will never see another. You are flying to Alpha Centauri. You can be proud of that, Doctor Francis.”
In his epic poem Paradise Lost Milton gave a now famous line to Satan: “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” Is that the choice that Abel has made?
This is a successful production, creating a distinct claustrophic intensity and makes good use of the array of solid acting talent eg Noel Johnson and Robert James available to the director. James Hunter is particularly good as Abel, moving convincingly from gaucheness to authority in the course of the episode.
Where Have I Seen Them Before?
John Abineri appeared in Doctor Who in “Fury from the Deep” (1968) as Van Lutynes, in “The Ambassadors of Death” (1970) as General Carrington, in “Death to the Daleks” (1974) as Richard Railton and in “”The Power of Kroll” (1979) as Ranquin
Robert James appeared in Doctor Who in “The Power of the Daleks” (1966) as Lesterson and in “The Mask of Mandragora” (1976) as the High Priest.