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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.

The day the Sun went out: The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle (1957)

black-cloudIn previous posts I have looked at a number of novels by Fred Hoyle: A for Andromeda, The Andromeda Breakthrough, October the First is Too Late and The Fifth Planet. In this post I will be writing about The Black Cloud, his first novel, published in 1957.

The novel begins in January 1964,  when  scientists on both sides of  the Atlantic discover that a large cloud of gas has entered the solar system,  and is heading towards the Earth. They predict  that within 18 months it  will block out the light from the Sun for at least a month, thereby bringing chaos around the world. After convincing sceptical  governments  of the validity of their observations, a British group of scientists  is established at Nortonstowe,  a manor house in the Cotswolds, led by Chris Kingsley, Professor of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, with a remit to observe and report on the progress of the  Cloud. Within months the Cloud can be observed  by all in the night sky.

By the third week in January the fate of Man was to be read in the skies. The star Rigel of Orion was obscured. The sword and belt of Orion and the bright star Sirius followed in subsequent weeks. The Cloud might have blotted out almost any other constellation, except  perhaps the Plough, without its effect being so widely noted. The press revived its interest in the Cloud. ‘Progress reports ‘  were published  daily. Bus companies were finding  their Nighttime Mystery  Tours increasingly popular.’Listener research ‘ showed a threefold increase in the audience  for a series  of BBC talks on astronomy. …Now at last the population at large was starkly aware of the Black  Cloud , as it clutched like a grasping hand at Orion, the Hunter of the Heavens.

The scientists  discover something  inexplicable, that the Cloud is firing off gas as it approaches the Sun, slowing it  down. Then on 27 August  1965 Kingsley is awaken by the manor’s handyman, Joe,  who tells him that the Sun has not risen:

He rushed out of the shelter into the open. It was pitch black, unrelieved even by starlight, which was unable to penetrate the thick black cloud cover. An unreasoning primitive fear seemed to be abroad. The light of the world had gone.

The Cloud has blocked out the Sun. After three days some light returns, a deep red hue, seemingly emanating  from the Cloud.  Massive storms sweep the world as the temperature falls,  and  a quarter of the world’s population perishes in the snow and ice.   The scientists at Nortonstowe are unable to explain why the Cloud has stopped, but to their relief they observe that the gas between the Sun and the Earth is thinning,  and on 24 October “the Sun shone again in full strength on the frozen Earth.”

Radio transmissions from the Cloud are detected by the scientists, who are  forced to come to the conclusion that it is intelligent. They  reply with tranmissions containing scientific data and basic English, and  begin to receive messages they can understand,  and which  they can  convert into speech using the voice of Joe the handyman as a basis. The Cloud tells them:

‘Your first tramsmission came as a surprise, for it is most unusual to find animals with technical skills inhabitating planets, which are in the nature of extreme outpposts of life.’

The scientists  inform the governments  of the world of their discovery, but this is not relayed to the peoples of the world.  They continue their dialogue with the Cloud on topics such as human nature, philosophy  and science. However,  the Americans and Russians  see the Cloud as a threat and fire nuclear-armed rockets  into it. The Cloud responds  by reversing the trajectory of the rockets which  fall back to earth, obliterating  El Paso, Chicago and Kiev, killing tens of thousands.

black-cloud

The Cloud announces  that it is about to leave the Solar System, but before it does so it offers the scientists to  chance to learn what it knows about the universe, using an apparatus  to communicate  directly with the human brain.  Kingsley volunteers to undergo this,  but this is terrible mistake:  he is unable to cope with the amount of knowledge downloaded, and the differences  between what he believes and  what the Cloud tells him, and dies as a consequence. The Cloud then departs,  with most of the world’s  population still unaware of its sentient nature.

My 1960 Penguin edition of The Black  Cloud has the strapline “science fiction by a scientist”, which  is the problem with this novel: the original premise captures the imagination and the consequences are most plausible,  but  the story is clogged  up with page and page of scientific discussion,  speculation  and debate. No doubt it’s all  perfectly sound scientifically, but it makes for very dull reading,  and has the feel of a chat over sherry in a Cambridge college staff  common-room.  Also the characters in the story never really come to life, it’s hard to tell one pipe-smoking scientist in a tweed jacket from another.  Even the Cloud is dull…Finally,  this is a very male world: there are a few women in the novel,   but they are peripheral to the story.

A for Andromeda and The Andromeda Breakthrough work far  better as novels because they written by John Elliot, who knew how to pen  a good story,  based on ideas provided by Fred Hoyle, an ideal partnership.

Productions

The BBC Home Service broadcast  a dramatisation  of The Black Cloud on 14 December 1957, written by Stephen Grenfell and produced by Archie Campbell. Chris  Kingley was played by Dennis Goacher, the Prime Minister  was played by Arthur Ridley, author of  the successful play The Ghost Train,  and later to find fame in  Dad’s Army as Private Godfrey.

So far as I  know no other production has been broadcast.

“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.

 

The golden-eyed Children: The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham (1957)

midwich-cuckoos-front-coverAfter the post-nuclear war landscape of The Chrysalids John Wyndham’s  fourth novel, The Midwich Cuckoos,  was a return to familiar (though  as we shall see unsettling) territory, a possible alien invasion of  the world.

It begins with a small ordinary  English village being subject to a mysterious field with renders all within it unconscious for a whole day on  Tuesday 27th September (which would have fallen in  1960).   The authorities outside cannot get in:  an aerial photograph reveals an object in the village  with “a pale  oval outline, with a shape, judging by the shadows, not unlike the inverted bowl of a spoon.” When the village come back to life the object has gone, while the villagers appear not to have been harmed by what they come to  call the “Dayout”.

Some months later, however,  every woman of childbearing age, married or single, discovers that she is pregnant. The story is told, partly at least, through the eyes of  village resident and  writer Richard Gayford and his wife, Janet, who fortunately were not in the village at the time of the Dayout.  Gayford is recruited by an old friend and government intelligence officer, Bernard Westcott,  to observe what takes place in the village after the Dayout and report back.  Gayford is the typical Wyndham protagonist, intelligent enough, but his wife is cleverer. The novel also has that familar Wyndham character, the older man who sees what is really going on, which in  The Midwich Cuckoos  is Gordon Zellaby, who lives in a large house in the village,  and writes learned books. His daughter Ferrelyn, planning to be married, is one of the pregnant women.

When the  61  children are born they appear  to be normal human children, except they all have a sheen to the skin, golden hair  and golden eyes. Soon, however, they  display mental powers, forcing those mothers who have left the village to bring them back so that they can all be together.  Zellaby carries out  some tests and realises that the Children of Midwich  are a single entity, one girl and one boy, who share intelligence, thoughts  and learning.A lready Zellaby suspects what is really going on,  but blanches at the course of action that  he feels is neccessary :

Cuckoos are very determined survivors. So determined that there is really only one thing to be done with them  once one’s nest is infested. I am,  as you know,  a humane man…As a further disadvantage I am a civilised man. For these reasons I shall not be able to bring myself  to approve of what ought to be done. Nor, even when we perceive its advisability, will the rest of us. So, like the poor hen-thrush we shall feed and nurture the monster, and betray our own species.

village-of-the-damned

The novel resembles The Kraken Wakes in that the tension and  the disturbing incidents  is built quite slowly. Unlike  his other novels all the action takes place within the village, and nowhere else, creating  a claustrophobic feeling. One of the odd things about the novel is  the chief storyteller up to now, Richard Gayford, whom the reader no doubt, expected would take the narative forward,    leaves the village with Jane  at the end of Part One,  and  is absent for  eight years.

 

Returning to London for a short visit he bumps into Westcott,  and accompanies him on a return trip to Midwich, during which he is brought up  to date with what has happened whilst he has been away.   The Children grew up much quicker than human children  – by the time they were nine, they were the size of teenagers – and eventually the authorities decided  that it was  best to set up a special  school in The Grange  to look after them together.  Westcott is  returning  for an inquest into the  death of a young man,  Jim Pawle, killed when his car hit a wall. The verdict is accidental death, but  Gayford learns  the truth from Zellaby, that the  car hit one of the Children by accident,   and they appear to have  deliberately made Pawle crash.

After the inquest Pawle’s brother, David,  shoots and wounds one of the Children,  who then make him shoot himself. This leads to an attaks by the villagers on the Grange which ends in deaths and injuries when the Children use their mental powers to make them attack each other. Afterwards, one of the Children gives Westcott  and the others a chilling warning

I will put it more plainly. It is that if there is any attempt to interefere  with us or molest us, by anybody, we shall defend ourselves. We have shown that we can, and we hope that that will be warning enough to prevent further trouble.

Zellaby  explains that he believes an interplanetary  invasion is under way:

we have not grasped that they represent  a danger to our species, while they are in no  doubt that we are a danger to theirs. And they intend to survive.

Westcott now  reveals there were other Dayouts in other parts of the world. In most  cases the Children were killed at  birth, but  in the Soviet Union one group of Children  survived in a town called Gizhinsk,  which  he has just learned, has  been wiped out by an attack by an atomic cannon, killing the entire population. The Soviets then issued a warning calling  on all governments to “neutralize” any such known groups as the Children were “a threat to the whole human race.” Zellaby sums up  the dilemma  they are now  facing:

In a quandary where  every course is immoral, there still remains the ability to act for the greatest  good of the greatest number. Ergo, the Children ought to be eliminated at the least possible cost, with least possible delay. I am sorry to have to arrive at the conclusion. …It is the right step…But of course, our authorities will not be able to bring themselves to take it…

At the end of the book it is  Zellaby who takes on the moral responsibility for dealing  with  the dilemma. Gayford accompanies him to the weekly film show that  he runs for the children at the Grange and  reflects as he watches them help Zellaby unload the equipment:

There was nothing odd or mysterious about the Children now…For the first time since my return I was able to appreciate that the Children “had a  small ‘c’ too”. Nor was there any any doubt at all that Zellaby’s was a popular event. I watched him as he watched them with a kindly, half-wistful smile. I had a confused feeling that these could not be the Children at all; that the theories, fears and threats we had discussed  must have to do with some  other group of Children.

Shortly after Gayford returns to Zellaby’s home he sees a flash of bright light and a blast hits the house, smashing the windows, He realised that Zellaby has blown up himself with all the  children. His wife Angela finds a note which  reveals that Zellaby  had a terminal illness and ends:

As to this –  well we have lived so long in a garden that we have all but forgotten the commonplaces of survival…If you want to keep alive in the jungle, you must live as the jungle does.

The core of the novel  is the moral  question of how  to act  against invaders who arrive,  not in spaceships or cylinders as in Wells; The War of the Worlds,  but in the form of children. Step by step Wyndham leads us  down  the path to a dreadful conclusion, that the Children must be killed. He emphasises the horror  of this of this by making the Childrem seem, just before this happens, the most like children they have been for the whole novel.

This is not Wyndham’s best novel,  but it is certainly his most unsettling one, sonething he perhaps empphasis  by  placing the action in the archetypal English village, where nothing ever happens. Is there a nod here,  perhaps,  to Went the Day Well? Alberto Cavalcanti’s 1942 film in which an English village  resists  a German invasion (the Germans are disguised as British soldiers).

Films and radio

The novel was filmed in 1960 by MGM , retitled  somewhat senastionally as The Village of the Damned.  The Richard  Gayford character does not appears , the film’s hero is Gordon Zellaby,  played George Sanders, whilst his wife is played by Barbara Shelley (who also appeared in the film version of Quatermass and the Pit in 1967) . You can watch a trailer here.

The novel was adapted by William Ingram in three 30-minute episodes for the BBC World Service, first broadcast in  1982. It was directed by Gordon House. Yiou can listen to this  here.

Another  adaptation by Dan Ribellato in two 60-minute episodes for Radio Four  was broadcast first in  2003. It was directed by Polly Thomas.

Surprisingly no television  version has been made.

Other posts

In my previous posts I have looked at Wyndham’s previous novels

The Day of the Triffids

The Kraken Wakes

The Chrysalids

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  similar sightings around the world and that the sea sectors in which  the fireballs  land correlate with the deepest parts of the ocean.  The Watsons are invited to join a Royal Navy  expedition to investigate which lowers two men in a bathyscope,  equipped with cameras. Finding nothing in the depths,  they think  that 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 they are held at bay   by a combination of mines, weaponry and an alert public:

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 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, which  slowly rachets up the tension.   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 in the deeps, 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 in their sea raids,  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 alien 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. 

It  can plausibly  be 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 millions of 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 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.

 

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

 

 

 

“fantasies of possibility”: classic science fiction in books, on television and in film

H g wells

I will be writing  in this blog about science fiction in books, on television and occasionally on film. I have taken the title from H G Wells since  this  is what he himself called his work, he  never called it  “science fiction,” a  term  then unknown.

In  a preface to  a new edition of The Sleeper Awakes, published in 1921  by Odhams Press,  H G  wrote

It is the first of a series of books I  have written at intervals…they are all “fantasies of possibility,” each one  takes some great creative tendency, or group of tendencies , and develops its possible consequences  in the future.

I think H G summed  up in his inimitable style   what has always attracted me to the genre of science fiction:  the ideas and imagination which at their best can make you look at the world in a different way.

Marlow Library

Marlow Library

I have been reading and watching  science fiction  for more than  fifty years. As an eight  year old I watched the first episode of Doctor Who, “An Unearthly Child”, on 23 November 1963 –  and have been watching ever since.

I read the Doctor Who novels written  by David Whitaker,  The Daleks and The Crusade, and then moved on to other works, essentially  all the science fiction  novels which  Marlow Library  possessed. I read the classics – Jules Verne, H G Wells, John Wyndham, Ray Bradbury.

In addition I also read many  of  the science fiction  novels which were published by Victor Gollancz in distinctive yellow covers,  and were  therefore easy  to pick out on the shelves.  Naturally I went  to see the Doctor  Who films in 1965 and 1966 , either at the Regal Cinema in Marlow or The Palace in High Wycombe (both buildings sadly demolished).

I  also went to see 2001: a Space Odyssey  in 1968 which I enjoyed,  but struggled to understand, especially  the last section. As a child  I spent a lot of time off school with asthma  and thus books were a godsend. One of our neighbours, lent  me  back issues of an American  science fiction magazine ( I cannot recall the title),   and I read them from cover to cover, often several times.

stand on zanzibar

By the 1970s I was reading novels  by John Brunner such as  Stand on Zanzibar and The Shock Wave Rider, James Blish’s  Cities in Flight series,  and Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand  of Darkness:  on television I  was still watching Doctor Who with Jon Pertwee and then Tom Baker as the Doctor,   and also  watched series such as DoomwatchSurvivors and Blake’s Seven.

Recently  I have been reading works by Ian Banks,  Neil Gaiman, Kate Griffin,  Ken Macleod,  Ian McDonald,   China Mieville and Cherie Priest.

I have also been revisiting  some  of those novels  that  I first read as a teenager : H G Wells, John Wyndham,  Fred Hoyle, for instance. Over the next few months I will be  writing  about these,  and how they seem to me now.  Of course in some sense you can never read a book twice in the literal sense;  you are never the same person as when you read it for the very  first  time.

I would be delighted to hear from anyone who shares this passion. My email address is: fopsblog@gmail.com