RSS Feed

Category Archives: 1970s

We come in peace: Looking back at the Doctor Who serial “The Ambassadors of Death” by Malcolm Hulke (1970)

ambassadors-1“The Ambassadors of Death”  is perhaps Mac Hulke’s least  satisfactory contribution to Doctor Who.  Originally called “The Carriers of Death,”  the serial  started life as a commission  for David Whitaker in 1968.  Whitaker was Doctor Who‘s  first story editor, overseeing some 51 episodes in the series’ first year. He also wrote a number serials,  including “The Crusade” (1965), “The Power of the Daleks” (1966)   and  “The Wheel in Space” (1968).

Despite this pedigree Whitaker’s script on the theme of aliens landing on Earth was  deemed unsatisfactory by the production team: his rewrites even less so. Eventually Terrance Dicks decided that Whitaker was never going to be able to produce a satisfactory script  and it was agreed in November 1969 that he  would be paid for his work and a new writer brought in.  Whitaker would still be credited as the writer, which seems quite generous. According to Dicks, Whitaker was relieved at being off the story.

Terrance Dicks called in his old friend Mac Hulke, with whom he had worked on The Avengers in the early 1960s  and  on “The War  Games,” a  10 week serial  which  they wrote together at great  haste in early 1969,  and featured Patrick Troughton’s final appearance as The Doctor.  It seems that  Terrance and Mac  worked together on this seven part serial,  now renamed “The Ambassadors of Death.”

ambassadors-2The story centres on a British spaceship Recovery Seven,  sent into space to investigate what has happened to the previous  Mars Probe  Seven.  It locates the  ship,   but then stops communicating. The Doctor and the Brigadier  are called in,  who  succeed in tracing  a mysterious signal to the Probe to a warehouse where a gun battle takes place with a number of military men commanded by a General Carrington.

Probe Seven returns to  Earth  with three occupants, who are  seized by Carrington’s men  in a dramatic scene. Carrington tells the Doctor and the Brigadier that it was neccessary to put the astronauts into protective custody as they had been infected by radiation. However, the Doctor believes that they are not the human astronauts. They  are now seized by Reegan, a man working for Carrington,   and  kept in a sealed  room where they are fed radiation.

The Doctor goes into  space and is taken into an alien ship where he learns that the earth astronauts are on board:  the astronauts on Earth are in fact   ambassadors from the aliens, who  threaten war unless they are returned.  Reegan kidnaps the Doctor’s assistant, Dr. Liz Shaw,  and makes her  work looking after the astronauts. He  forces the aliens to carry out raids, killing people with one touch with intense radiation, and also kidnaps the Doctor when he returns to Earth.

Meanwhile Carrington is planning  a global television. We learn  that he was on a previous Mars probe when his fellow astronaut was  killed by a touch from the aliens, and he believes  that they are a threat  to the whole world. He intends to show them on television  and call on the world to destroy the alien ship. The Doctor and Liz are rescued by the Brigadier and stop the broadcast. Carrington is taken into custody: the aliens will be returned to their ship.

One of the familar themes in Mac Hulke’s work, derived perhaps  from his membership of the Communist Party,  is  the notion that what we are being shown or being told is not really what is going. His work for Doctor Who often features a conspiracy which  is manipulating  events from behind the scenes; in this  serial  and in “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” it’s soldiers, politicians  and scientists;  in ” Frontier in Space” it’s  the Daleks; in “Colony in Space”  it’s the IMC mining expedition.

The Doctor plays much the same role as he did in “The Silurians,” seeking to mediate and prevent conflict.  He tells the alien commander; “Now let me go back to Earth and I will give you my personal l assurances that your ambassadors will be retuned to you.” And  is often the case in Mac Huike’s work even  the anti-hero Carrington is shown driven  not by personal greed or adesire for power,  but a mistaken belief  in an alien threat.

CARRINGTON: I had to do what I did. It was my moral duty. You do understand, don’t you?
DOCTOR: Yes, General. I understand

There seems  quite a big nod  to the first Quatermass serial The Quatermass Experiment (1953)  in which a space expedition returns  to Earth with a single astronaut instead of the three sent into space; it transpires that an  infection  from space has merged them tnto a single alien  entity. The idea of the astronauts carrying out raids and killing with a single touch harks back to two Avengers serials:  “The Cybernauts” (1965)  in which a robot created by Dr. Clement Armstrong (Michael Gough) is sent to kill his business rivals; and The Positive Negative Man (1967)   in which a scientist (Ray McNally) harnesses  electricity within a human body  and sends out  a man to kill with a touch.

ambassadors-3What  might have worked as a four part serial becomes quite threadbare when stretched over seven parts, leaving the viewer sufficient to time to ponder on some of the more improbable aspects of the  plot. Why is  the space control centre in charge of  the Mars probe expedition run by just four people? If the aliens are so powerful judging by the size of their ship, why not simply swoop down and rescue their ambassadors? Why is Reegan single-handedly able to run rings around UNIT, kidnapping and killing  at will? Why is  the space scientist Taltalian, who holds the Doctor and Liz Shaw  at  gunpoint in episode 2,  allowed to carry on working there and the incident  forgotten, after which he plants a bomb and tries to blow up the Doctor? And finally where did Liz Shaw buy her stylish hat?

The  serial enlivened by the set piece action sequences ie the gun  fight in the warehouse  and the seizure of the capsule in which Havoc, the stunt company run by Derek Ware,  pulls out all the stops and turn the scenes  into something resembling a James Bond film on a fraction of the budget.  Liz Shaw (or rather Roy Scammell, a stuntman standing in for Caroline  John, is dramatically  chased by villains  across Marlow Weir. The outdoor scenes with the astronauts shot against a low sun, with accompanying eerie music,  work well.

I was surprised on watching it again at the level  of casual violence  in a children’s tea-time serial. For instance  two of Reegan’s  operatives die  from radiation  when they get into a van with the aliens  and are just dumped in a gravel pit. Perhaps we children and teenagers  in the 1970s were tougher than t0day…

Overall not a classic.

“This is our planet”: looking back at the classic serial “Doctor Who and the Silurians” by Malcolm Hulke, (1970)

“Doctor Who and the Silurians” was the first script by Malcolm (Mac) Hulke for the new team  now running Doctor Who, ie producer  Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks. Terrance  and  Mac were old friends,  having worked together to  write episodes for The Avengers  in the early 1960s. Mac then wrote two serials for Doctor Who in the late 1960s: “The Faceless Ones” (1967)  and “The War Games” (1969), the final serial of the Patrick Troughton era. I have written about Mac’s career here.

In an interview Mac  commented that Doctor Who is “a very political show. Remember what politics refers to, it refers to relationships between groups of people. It doesn’t necessarily mean left or right…so all Doctor Who’s are political, even though the other group of people are reptiles, they’re still a group of people”. Mac says of this serial  that  he was asked to do something in caves,  and that in science fiction there are only two stories. ”They come to us or we go to them and I thought, they come to us but they’ve always been here”.

silurians-5

In a previous post “the Doctor who fell to earth”  I have  written about the first Jon Pertwee serial, “Spearhead from Space”. This second serial it establishes his character  more firmly, as a somewhat  brusque and patrician figure, impatient  with  authority in all its forms;  and also as a scientist, with the Doctor spending a good deal of time in the laboratory in this  serial. He is  also a man of action, acquiring a fast bright yellow retro car nicknamed  “Bessie”, and venturing into the caves several times on his own.

The story begins with UNIT being called into  investigate  unexplained incidents and  power losses at an experimental  nuclear reactor  beneath Wenley Moor, with the reluctant consent  of the Project  Director, Lawrence.  We eventually learn that these are being caused by the Silurians, a highly  intelligent and technologically advanced  reptile race race who once ruled the earth  tens of millions of years ago . They retreated underground into hibernation  when they believed that the surface of the Earth   would be destroyed by an approaching small planetary body, probably the Moon. Their technology failed them , and they did not revive until they were disturbed by the building of the  reactor.  The Doctor attempts to negotiate peace but fails, and hostilities commence. The  Silurians plant a virus among humans which spreads quickly until the Doctor finds a cure. He also defeats their attempt to use the nuclear reactor to destroy the Van Allen belt and make the earth uninhabitable for humans, but not  for Silurians.  At the end of the serial  UNIT blows up the Silurians’  caves.

The key  themes of the serial are the Doctor’s  strong disapproval of the military mindset of shooting first, and  asking questions later, and  his attempts to broker peace between hostile forces. This  is surely inspired by the Cold War in which the West and the Soviet Union had vast  arsenals of weapons pointing at each other. By some miracle a nuclear war never took place. This  was a theme that Mac would return to in future serials for Doctor Who.

silurians-1In episode two,  as UNIT  head to the caves equipped with small arms and grenades,  the Doctor  comments  to  his companion Liz Shaw,”That’s typical of the military mind, isn’t it? Present  them with a new problem  and they start shooting at it”. He adds, “It’s not the only way you know, blasting away at things”.

Meeting  a Silurian for the first time in Quinn’s  cottage in episode three,  the Doctor  offers his hand and says, “Look, do you understand me?..What do you people want? How can we help you?…unless you Silurians tell us what you want  the humans will destroy you”. He tells the Brigadier that what is needed is “a planned, cautious, scientific investigation of those caves. Not an invasion by a lot of big-booted soldiers.” Later in the episode he has an exchange with Liz after she has been attacked by a Silurian.

DOCTOR: Liz, these creatures aren’t just animals. They’re an alien life form, as intelligent as we are.
LIZ: Why didn’t you tell the Brigadier?
DOCTOR: Because I want to find out more about these creatures. They’re not necessarily hostile.
LIZ: Doctor, it attacked me.
DOCTOR: Yes, but only to escape. It didn’t kill you. It didn’t attack me when I was in Quinn’s cottage. Well, don’t you see? They only attack for survival. Well, human beings behave in very much the same way

In episode four when the Brigadier asks what weapons the Silurians have, the Doctor responds, “spoken like true soldier” and says “so far they have only attacked in self-defence, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt”. He goes to warn the Silurians that  the UNIT soldiers are coming, “I want there to be peace between you and the humans. This is their planet now.”  The Silurian leader  agrees to a peace, but is killed by his  younger subordinate who wants a war with the humans.

silurians-3In episode six,  as the Doctor races to find  a cure for the plague, he  is still hoping for a peaceful outcome, pleading  that “at all costs we must avoid a pitched battle”.  In the seventh and  final episode the Doctor tells the Brigadier that he wants to revive the Silurians one at a time,  “there is a wealth of scientific knowledge down here..and I can’t wait to get started on it”. Unknown to the Doctor , UNIT  has planted  explosives which  detonate as he and Liz look across the moor.

DOCTOR: The Brigadier. He’s blown up the Silurian base.
LIZ: He must have had orders from the Ministry.
DOCTOR: And you knew?
LIZ: No! The government were frightened. They just couldn’t take the risk.
DOCTOR: But that’s murder. They were intelligent alien beings. A whole race of them. And he’s just wiped them out.

Another theme of the serial is the danger of seeking scientific knowledge without  moral responsibility. The project  Director,  Lawrence,  continually complains about UNIT and the Doctor, demanding to be allowed to get back to running  the reactor and achieving his goal of “cheap, safe, atomic energy”. He refuses to accept any of the Doctor’s warnings,  and also refuses to accept the reality of the Silurian plague, even when he has clearly caught it himself.

Quinn, a scientist who works at the centre and who first discovered the Silurians, gives them  help because they have promised to  reveal some of their  scientific secrets. He imprisons one  of the Silurians  in his cottage to force it to give him their  knowledge, but it kills him.

silurians-4Finally the Doctor’s companion Liz  has been  given a bit of a makeover  from  “Spearhead from Space”, no longer quite as prim, but now sporting fashionable  skirts and longer hair.  She is  often the only woman in  a world of men  – soldiers, scientists, civil servants etc  – who frequently  patronise her,  and she  has to assert herself.  In   episode two  she objects to being left behind when the rest of them head off to the caves, asking  the Brigadier, “Have you never heard of women’s emancipation?” In episode  four she does go into the caves  with the Doctor. In episode six , when the Brigadier  asks  her to man the phones  Liz snaps back,  “I am scientist,  not an office boy”.   In 1970 the Women’s  Liberation Movement  was  beginning to make its voice heard, something that a writer as politically  attuned as Mac would surely  have noticed.

You can read Mac Hulke’s  script of this serial  here

 

Where have I seen them before?

Peter Miles who plays   Lawrence also appears in “Genesis of the Daleks”  as Nyder and in “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” (also written by Mac Hulke) as Professor Whittaker.

 

Murder in Space : The Dynostar Menace by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis (1975)

Dynostar Menace

In previous posts I have discussed the novels Mutant 59 : the Plastic Eater and Brainrack, written by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis. The Dynostar Menace was their  third and final novel together.  It continues their  preoccupation  with threats to the environment,  but adds another element:  a murder mystery  in space.

The novel is set in 1986 in a world in which nuclear reactors have been abandoned  around the globe  following the nuclear  accident  at Grimess,  vividly portrayed  in Brainrack. With fossil fuels exhaused  a new source of potential  power  has been developed  – nuclear fusion – potentially offering humanity  safe, unlimited power. The device,   known as the  Dynostar,  is housed for safety in a satellite orbiting the earth, ready to send power back down to earth. However,  just before it is switched on, an  environmental  group, the Council of Twelve, provide conclusive evidence   that the Dynostar’s magnetic fields would destroy the earth’s ozone layer and lead  to a worldwide  ecological catastrophe. The scientists working on starting up  the Dynostar are ordered  instead to immediately shut down the device.   As they start work, three of them die,  apparently in  an accident, but  the reader  already knows that someone has murdered them.

Dynostar spacelab drawing

The  head of the  project on earth, Lee Caldor, sends a senior  astronaut, John Hayward, up to the Dynostar to supervise the operation. When other deaths follow, Caldor and Hayward realise that one of the scientists on board will stop at nothing to prevent the shut down. On earth Caldor  investigates the background of the scientists, speaking to their wives and lovers,  in a desperate effort to find a clue as to the identity of the murderer, while in space Hayward battles rising fear and paranoia  as more men are murdered,  and the ship ‘s systems are sabotaged:

Now the haggard  exhausted crew, already strained beyound any reasonable limits of control,  found their last psychological support snatched away by the battery failure. The additional knowledge that one of  them was both insane and a murderer, had completely  stripped away the reamaining  veneer of ordinary civilised behavour.

Now one by one, the elegantly balanced systems of the great Spacelab complex were failing around them. The inertial  ship orientation system had ceased to work, so that the ship was no longer rotated to even the heating effect of the sun’s rays and they were now beating down on the dorsal surface of the ship. 

In the dramatic  final pages the identity  of the murderer is revealed,   and venturing    in space on the  outer skin of the  Dynostar,  Hayward desperately  fights his opponent   to save his own  life and  stop the device  sparking into life with fearful consequences:

…for the first time, Hayward caught a glimpse of his face. It was expressionless, the eyes  set in a look of total concentration.

The flame burnt across the front of Haywards’s suit. Immediately, the epoxide fibre of the suit flared briefly and then charred, leaving a crumbling black scar across the suit. Part of the instrument bezel. softened and deformed.

He lost his grip and spun away from the walkway, striking the side of the monitor can. His umbilical suddenly tautened and sprung him back on rebound until he came to halt, spinning in the space between the monitor can and Dynostar.

Overall this is a taut and  claustrophobic scientific and psychogical thriller. Kit Peddler clearly did a great deal of  research for the novel, and sometimes the scientific detail is overdone and  clogs the narrative. Also, as in their previous novels,  there is not much  of a role for  women , other than providing the occasional sexual frisson.  But if you are interested in their  work for Doctor Who, Doomwatch etc , it’s well worth a read.

If  you would like to comment on this post, you can either  comment  via the blog or email me, fopsfblog@gmail.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

If  you would like to comment on this post, you can either  comment  via the blog or email me, fopsfblog@gmail.

 

 

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.

If  you would like to comment on this post, you can either  comment  via the blog or email me, fopsfblog@gmail.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“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 about the novel  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.

 

If  you would like to comment on this post, you can either  comment  via the blog or email me, fopsfblog@gmail.

 

 

“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  imposing a military cordon  that  seals off much of  central London. In the final part of the novel Arnold Kramer  takes the infection onto a  trans-Atlantic  jet airliner which horrifically  melts around the crew and passengers in  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 credible  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.

If  you would like to comment on this post, you can either  comment  via the blog or email me, fopsfblog@gmail.