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” intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic”: The War of the Worlds by H G Wells (1898)

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No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. .. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.

So begins H G  Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds, a book which,   perhaps  more than  other of his works,   created the genre  we now call science fiction.  When Wells  wrote his tale of the  invasion of southern  England  by an expedition of  Martians, Great Britain was the most powerful  and wealthiest nation on the planet with colonies in India and Africa and elsewhere, its power  buttressed  by its army and navy, confident in its God-given  destiny to rule over other races. In his introduction Wells makes an explicit political  point about how this confidence was punctured by the arrival of the Martians:

… we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years. Are we such apostles of mercy as to complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?

The story is told through the eyes of unnamed  narrator, a writer on philosophy,  who is taken by an astronomer friend to watch unexplained eruptions of gas on Mars over ten nights, the launching, we soon realise, of   projectiles towards the unsuspecting Earth;

One night (the first missile then could scarcely have been 10,000,000 miles away) I went for a walk with my wife. It was starlight and I explained the Signs of the Zodiac to her, and pointed out Mars, a bright dot of light creeping zenithward, towards which so many telescopes were pointed. It was a warm night. Coming home, a party of excursionists from Chertsey or Isleworth passed us singing and playing music. There were lights in the upper windows of the houses as the people went to bed. From the railway station in the distance came the sound of shunting trains, ringing and rumbling, softened almost into melody by the distance. My wife pointed out to me the brightness of the red, green, and yellow signal lights hanging in a framework against the sky. It seemed so safe and tranquil.

The first projectile falls to Earth on Horsell Common in Surrey. When it unscrews it reveals a Martian whom Wells   chooses to make  physically repulsive to Earth eyes:

Those who have never seen a living Martian can scarcely imagine the strange horror of its appearance. The peculiar V-shaped mouth with its pointed upper lip, the absence of brow ridges, the absence of a chin beneath the wedgelike lower lip, the incessant quivering of this mouth, the Gorgon groups of tentacles, the tumultuous breathing of the lungs in a strange atmosphere, the evident heaviness and painfulness of movement due to the greater gravitational energy of the earth–above all, the extraordinary intensity of the immense eyes–were at once vital, intense, inhuman, crippled and monstrous. There was something fungoid in the oily brown skin, something in the clumsy deliberation of the tedious movements unspeakably nasty. Even at this first encounter, this first glimpse, I was overcome with disgust and dread.

The Martians never attempt to communicate with humans, they simply see them as an obstacle to their posession of a new world,  mirroring the countless massacres inflicted by Europeans  in America, Africa, Australia  and many other parts of the world.  When a welcoming party approaches the cylinder the Martians kill them all with a heat ray:  they then construct metal fighting machines  which lay waste to the countryside. The narrator  describes his first encounter:

the-war-of-the-worlds

And this Thing I saw! How can I describe it? A monstrous tripod, higher than many houses, striding over the young pine trees, and smashing them aside in its career; a walking engine of glittering metal, striding now across the heather; articulate ropes of steel dangling from it, and the clattering tumult of its passage mingling with the riot of the thunder. A flash, and it came out vividly, heeling over one way with two feet in the air, to vanish and reappear almost instantly as it seemed, with the next flash, a hundred yards nearer. Can you imagine a milking stool tilted and bowled violently along the ground? That was the impression those instant flashes gave. But instead of a milking stool imagine it a great body of machinery on a tripod stand.

The army tries to stop them with artillery,  but the guns and the soldiers are burned and destroyed. By chance one shell does damage a fighting machine,  so the Martians respond by using a black poison gas to quell all opposition as though they were gassing an ants’ nest

an enormous volume of heavy, inky vapour, coiling and pouring upward in a huge and ebony cumulus cloud, a gaseous hill that sank and spread itself slowly over the surrounding country. And the touch of that vapour, the inhaling of its pungent wisps, was death to all that breathe.

The Martians appear unstoppable as more cylinders fall to Earth. They  add to their armaments with a flying machine:

Something rushed up into the sky out of the greyness–rushed slantingly upward and very swiftly into the luminous clearness above the clouds in the western sky; something flat and broad, and very large, that swept round in a vast curve, grew smaller, sank slowly, and vanished again into the grey mystery of the night. And as it flew it rained down darkness upon the land.

Wells creates a vivid  and disturbing picture of  millions of refugees fleeing  in panic from London and other towns, turning on each other as they  desperately seek some kind of safety. This is not a picture of heroic resistance, but of a society breaking down.

The narrator is trapped in a ruined  house by the  fifth  cylinder crashing to earth.  Hidden a few feet from the invaders, he discovers a dreadful secret, that the Martians  are collecting humans in order to drink their blood for food. He sees this happen,  but fortunately Wells spares us the details. Escaping from the house, the narrator makes his way to  London, a city now almost empty of people.

…it was curiously like a Sunday in the City, with the closed shops, the houses locked up and the blinds drawn, the desertion, and the stillness. In some places plunderers had been at work, but rarely at other than the provision and wine shops. A jeweller’s window had been broken open in one place, but apparently the thief had been disturbed, and a number of gold chains and a watch lay scattered on the pavement. I did not trouble to touch them. Farther on was a tattered woman in a heap on a doorstep; the hand that hung over her knee was gashed and bled down her rusty brown dress, and a smashed magnum of champagne formed a pool across the pavement. She seemed asleep, but she was dead.

The farther I penetrated into London, the profounder grew the stillness. But it was not so much the stillness of death–it was the stillness of suspense, of expectation. At any time the destruction that had already singed the northwestern borders of the metropolis, and had annihilated Ealing and Kilburn, might strike among these houses and leave them smoking ruins. It was a city condemned and derelict. . . .

He now hears  a strange cry from a Martian fighting machine  endlessly repeated:

Ulla, ulla, ulla, ulla,” cried the voice, coming, as it seemed to me, from the district about Regent’s Park. The desolating cry worked upon my mind. The mood that had sustained me passed. The wailing took possession of me. I found I was intensely weary, footsore, and now again hungry and thirsty….As I crossed the bridge, the sound of “Ulla, ulla, ulla, ulla,” ceased. It was, as it were, cut off. The silence came like a thunderclap.

The narrator finds the  fighting machines standing motionless,  and discovers that the Martians are all dead, killed,  it transpires,  by Earth’s  bacteria:

In another moment I had scrambled up the earthen rampart and stood upon its crest, and the interior of the redoubt was below me. A mighty space it was, with gigantic machines here and there within it, huge mounds of material and strange shelter places. And scattered about it, some in their overturned war-machines, some in the now rigid handling-machines, and a dozen of them stark and silent and laid in a row, were the Martians–dead!–slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared; slain as the red weed was being slain; slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.

In the final chaper the narrator brings the story up to date with the Martians,  it seems from observations,  now  having  invaded Venus. But he is not confident  that the threat has gone for ever,  and the ending of the novel  is melancholic:

It may be, on the other hand, that the destruction of the Martians is only a reprieve. To them, and not to us, perhaps, is the future ordained.

I must confess the stress and danger of the time have left an abiding sense of doubt and insecurity in my mind. I sit in my study writing by lamplight, and suddenly I see again the healing valley below set with writhing flames, and feel the house behind and about me empty and desolate. I go out into the Byfleet Road, and vehicles pass me, a butcher boy in a cart, a cabful of visitors, a workman on a bicycle, children going to school, and suddenly they become vague and unreal, and I hurry again with the artilleryman through the hot, brooding silence. Of a night I see the black powder darkening the silent streets, and the contorted bodies shrouded in that layer; they rise upon me tattered and dog-bitten. They gibber and grow fiercer, paler, uglier, mad distortions of humanity at last, and I wake, cold and wretched, in the darkness of the night.

I go to London and see the busy multitudes in Fleet Street and the Strand, and it comes across my mind that they are but the ghosts of the past, haunting the streets that I have seen silent and wretched, going to and fro, phantasms in a dead city, the mockery of life in a galvanised body. And strange, too, it is to stand on Primrose Hill, as I did but a day before writing this last chapter, to see the great province of houses, dim and blue through the haze of the smoke and mist, vanishing at last into the vague lower sky, to see the people walking to and fro among the flower beds on the hill, to see the sight-seers about the Martian machine that stands there still, to hear the tumult of playing children, and to recall the time when I saw it all bright and clear-cut, hard and silent, under the dawn of that last great day. . . .

woking-martianThis is still a very readable  novel, dazzling in its invention,  but also  prescient in its description of  the behaviour of populations and people under attack. A century after Wells wrote we are sadly all too familar with the scenes he imagined…

It is a story above all  told from the viewpoint of ordinary civilians,  caught up in terrifying events:  there are no scenes set  amongst  government ministers, scientists or the military hierarchy.

The influence of The Wars of the Worlds can be seen  in science  fiction  writing up to and including Doctor Who: pitiless repulsive creatures, encased in a metallic machine,   and armed with a death ray, now who  does that remind  you of?

Wells’ birthplace Woking has its own Martian fighting machine as seen above.

You can read the novel online here.

Review in The Observer, 27 March 1898.

“Freshness and originality are distinguishing features in Mr Wells’ compostions, and his latest work will in no sense  disappoint his readers. It is fact extremely clever. Mr Wells depicts  the attack on England of a number of the inhabitants  of Mars, and he contrats  their highly-trained scientific methods of warfare  with our puny efforts of resistance. The moral too is admirable. We had become “soft” and “effete” and some extra mundane agency was necccessary to restore vigour to national life. ..We are assured by highly competent  critics that Mr Wells owes his inspiration to Defoe, to Swift, to Edgar Poe, and even to Jules Verne. In The War of the Worlds we can trace none of these sources of inspiration. The aspect of his work is purely native – autochthonous, as the late Professor E A Freeman might have said…The literary technique is excellent, and it is in this respect that Mr Wells gains his great superiority over the mere sensation-mongers of the day. We have enoyed reading his book. It is not a novel, but it  is good fiction.”

Productions

Orson Welles  broadcast a live production on 30th October 1938,  in which  the story was transplanted to Amercica and which caused panic in some places with its  vivid descriptions of an invasion.  You can listen to this broadcast  here, The story of the broadcast was made into a tv film in 1975, The Night that Panicked America, which  you can watch here.

The BBC broadcast a radio dramatisation in six parts  in  May – July   1950, adapted by Jon Manchip White, who had just joined the BBC Drama Script Unit as an editor.   He kept the Victorian setting  and much of Wells’ dialogue. It had  Anthony Hawtrey in the main role, with Peter Cokea s Gilvy and Derek Guyler as Stent.  The producer was David H Godfrey. This production  has not survived in the archives.  There is more information about it here.

The first film version was  made in 1953 by Paramount, starring  Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, with the  story updated and moved to the USA, and bearing scant resemblace to the original novel.  It was produced by George  Pal and directed by Byron Haskin. A  sequel was later made  for television that ran for two seasons from  1988 to 1990.

The BBC broadcast another  radio dramatisation in six parts  in June and July 1967, again  using the adaptation  by Jon Manchip White,  although he says he had nothing to do with it. And yet  someone uncredited has updated it to the present day.  It had  Paul Daneman as Professor John Nicholson, , Isabel Rennie as Dora Nicholson,  Martin Jarvis as Ogilvy and Peter Sallis as the Parson.  The sound score was  by David Cain of the  BBC Radiophonic Workshop. The producer was   John Powell. (I can vividly remember listening to this). You can find out more about this production  here.   This production  has survived and  has been released on CD by the BBC.  It’s also available on Audible. You can listen to a clip here. 

In 1978 Jeff Wayne released an LP,   The War of the Worlds, which told the story through words and music, and  sold by the million. It was later turned into a  stage musical.  You can watch it here.

Another film version directed  by Steven Spielberg was released in 2005,  which I like even less than the 1953 version…

“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”.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Watch Thou For The Mutant”: The Chrysalids by John Wyndham (1955)

chrysalids-front-coverIn previous posts I have looked at The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes, both of which were set in the contemporary Britain of the 1950s,  and showed the breakdown of society when faced with an unprecedented  threat.  John Wyndham’s third novel  The Chrysalids is quite different in tone and content.

The novel set  in the future, perhaps  several centuries after our own time. The story is told through the eyes of David Strorm as he grows  up in a rural part of Labrador, called Waknuk, which is a religiously fundamentalist society, fearful of any kind of physical difference in human bodies. Every Sunday  without fail they recite a creed:

And God created man in in His own image. And God decreed that man should have one body, one head, two arms and two legs; that each arm should be jointed in two places and end in one hand; that each hand should have four fingers and one thumb; that each finger  should have a flat finger-nail..

We, the readers, soon divine that the “Tribulation” of which  they talk of was in fact a nuclear war,  and that this is the society that has somehow survived,  plunged back into a subsistence way of life, based on farming, with no technology. They use  horses for travel, and  bows and arrows for weapons, for instance.  It’s clear that the fall-out is still creating mutations in humans, “deviations”,  which when discovered  are driven out of society to “The Fringes”. David’s father  Joseph, is particularly fervent on rooting out “blasphemy”. They believe:

The penance of Tribulation that had been put upon the world must be worked out, the long climb faithfully retraced, and, at last, if the temptations  of  the way were resisted, there would be the reward of forgiveness. – the restoration of the Golden Age.

chrysalids-1As he grows up David’s austere but orderly world is disrupted by a series of events. This begins when he becomes friends with a girl called Sophie,  and  discovers one day that she has six toes, not five. He  does not report this, as she is his friend and he does not see her as a “deviation” but as a person.  Eventually, of course,  this secret  is discovered: Sophie and her family are driven out, while David is brutally beaten by his father.

watch-thou

But David has his own secret, he too is a “mutant”,   able to communicate by telepathy with his cousin Rosalind and a number of other teenagers. Somehow they have made it  into adolescence  without being discovered. David does have one ally, his uncle Axel who finds out about David’s ability,  and warns him that he must never reveal his secret. Axel is that  familar figure in Wyndham’s novels, the older man who challenges  the received wisdoms and “commonsense”  of their time. He is a close cousin to Michael Beadley in the Day of the Triffids and Alastair Bocker in The Kraken Wakes.  A former sailor, Axel  has travelled widely and seen things on sea and land  which make him very  sceptical of the rigid pieties of his own society.

“Preacher words!” he said,  and thought for a moment. “I’m telling you,” he went on, “that a lot of saying a thing is so, doesn’t prove it is.  I’m telling you that nobody, nobody, really knows what is the true image. They all think they know – just as we think we know, but, for all we can prove, the Old People themselves may not have been the true image.”  He turned, and looked long and steadily at me again.

“So,”  he said, “how am I, and how is anyone sure that this “difference” that you and Rosalind have does not make you something  nearer to the true image than other people are? Perhaps the Old People were the image; very well then , one of the things they  say about them is that they could talk to one another over long distances. Now  we can’t do that  – but you and Rosalind can.  Just think that over, Davie. You two  may be nearer to the image than we are.”

chrysalids-3

David’s mother gives birth to another child, Petra, who appears perfectly normal  until  one day, when still  a young child,   she falls into the river, and in panic  displays  astonishing telepathic power,  summoning  Michael and the others to rescue her. As she grows up they are able to teach her to use her power – and to  keep it a secret. Then one day, whilst out riding,  Petra is attacked by a  wild cat which kills her pony. Again she screams for help telepathically summoning  all the group to help her. This gathering  is observed by a passing stranger,  who becomes suspicious and starts to make enquiries. A few days  later in the middle of the night two of the group, Sally and Katherine, are seized by the authorities  and tortured to make them reveal their secret. Alerted by the sisters,  David, Rosalind and Petra steal horses and flee towards The Fringes. Another of their group, Michael, undiscovered,  is with the armed posse which sets off to hunt them down. He tells his friends;

They’re afraid of us. They want to capture you and learn more about us – that’s why there’s the large reward. it isn’t just a question of the true image – though that’s the way they’re making it appear. What they’ve seen is that we could be a real danger to them. Imagine if there were a lot more of us than there are, able to think together and plan and co-ordinate without all their machinery of words and messages : we could outwit them all the time. They find that a very unpleasant thought; so we are to be stamped out before there can be any more of us. They see it as a matter of survival – and they may be right, you know.

That “matter of survival” is the key theme of the rest of the novel, both of the travellers and  of the human race.  As they flee Petra tells them  that she has made contact  with another “think-together” person, a woman who lives  a very long way away across the sea  in a place called “Sealand” where everyone is telepathic.  The woman tells them that she will come and rescue  them because of Petra’s remarkable power.  In the meantime,  Michael, Rosalind and Petra make it to the Fringes,  where they are helped by Sophie who is living there in poverty and squalor. The pursuing posse attacks the camp and Sophie is killed, but the group is saved when the flying  machine  arrives and sprays glistening threads that  land on everyone in the camp, and bind them tight. The  Sealand woman makes her way to the cave where they are hiding:

Petra raised her hand and tentatively touched the woman’s face, as if to assure herself that it was real. The Sealand woman laughed, kissed her, and put her down again. She shook her head slowly, as if she were not quite believing. “It was worth while,” she said in words  so curiously pronounced that I scarcely understood them at first. “Yes, certainly it was worth while!” She slipped into thought-forms, much easier to follow than her words.

“It was not simple to get permission to come. Such an immense distance; more than twice as far as any  of us has been before. So costly to send the ship: they could scarcely believe it would be worth it. But it will be…” She looked at Petra, wonderingly.”At her age, and untrained – yet she can throw a thought half-way around the world!”

David  suddenly realises that the threads have killed all the attackers, but  the Sealand woman is unrepentant, explaining that they are  a doomed race and that the  “think-together” people are the future:

Your minds are confused by your ties and your upbringing: you are still half-thinking of them as the same kind as yourselves. That  is why you are  shocked. …They  can see quite well that if it is to survive they have not only to preserve  it from detioriation, but they must protect it from the even more serious threat of the superior variant. For ours is a superior variant…The essential  quality of life is living: the essential  quality of living is change; change is evolution; and we are part of it.

chrsyalids-2

The woman takes David, Rosalind  and Petra in the flying machine off to New Zealand:  Michael stays behind  to rescue another member of the group,  Rachel, promising to make their way to find them one day. The novel finishes as the machine  arrives above a sunlit city with  David sensing  something new,  a kind of suffused glow:

“What  is it?” I  said,  puzzled. “Can’t you guess, David? It’s people. Lots and lots of our kind of people”.

The Chrsyalids is Wyndham’s  masterpiece.  His chilling  vision of a dystopian  future is perfectly realised and the narative is compelling,  carrying the ring of truth  in its  depiction on how societies  can bond in fear against perceived “Outsiders” and repress dissent and change.

Wyndham wrote, of course, during the Cold War:  a time when there was a real fear that the two superpowers, the USA and  the Soviet Union – now armed with hydrogen bombs of enormous destructive power –  would  destroy the world between them. This  fear found its way  into a good few science fiction novels  and plays, some of which I have listed below  This survey is by no means exhasutive.

Novels

The Spurious Sun, by George Borodin (1948) begins  with an H-bomb-like explosion in Scotland which ignites the upper atmosphere; savage wars ensue worldwide, the UK is eliminated by nuclear weapons, and both Leningrad and San Francisco are obliterated. 

 Death of a World by J. Jefferson Farjeon (1948). An expedition to a deserted Earth turns up a diary describing the last days of Earth.

Ape and Essence by Aldous Huxley (1948) is a  satire on the potential for the destruction of humanity.

Shadow on the Hearth by Judith Merril (1950)  tells the story of Westchester housewife, Gladys Mitchell, coping with the aftermath of a nuclear attack on New York.

The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett (1955)  is set in the aftermath of a nuclear war and  it portrays a world where scientific knowledge is feared and restricted.

 On the Beach by Neville Shute (1957) is   set in Australia in the aftermath of a nuclear  war,  and follows the fate of  group of  people awaiting the arrival of  the fallout from the northern hemisphere. The government  issues suicide pills to the population. The novel was a worldwide bestseller and  was filmed in 1959 and again in 2000.

On the Last Day by Mervyn Jones (1958)  features  a Russian/Chinese invasion of Britain, during a non-nuclear Third World War , and of the successful attempt of the British government in exile (in Canada) to build a new intercontinental missile. Jones was  an activist  in CND.

Two Hours to Doom by Peter Bryant (1958)  imagines an attack on the Soviet Union by American  planes,  ordered in by a paranoid general. The USA cooperates with the Soviets to shoot the planes down, and when one plane  gets through the Americans  offer to destroy one of their own  cities as quid pro quo. At the last minute the plane fails to reach its target. The novel was the basis for the the film Dr Strangelove.

Alas,  Babylon, by Pat Frank, (1959) shows the aftermath of a nuclear war as it affects a small town in Florida, Fort Repose.

The Last Day, a novel of the day after tomorrow  by Helen Clarkson (1959).  The story takes place in a  village on the New England coast, and tells what happens in the six days following a nuclear war.   You can read it here

Level 7 by Mordecai Roshwald (1959) is the story  of soldier X-127 living with others  in an  underground military bunker,  Level 7,  who  narrates the tale of  life in the bunker  before, during and after a nuclear war that kills the rest of humanity. 

Dark December  by  Alfred Coppel (1960) is set in a world after a nuclear war. A soldier sets off on a journey to his home in California. En route he saves a captured Russian pilot.

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1960) is a  series of linked stories which begin  six  hundred years after a nuclear war.  Society rebuilds itself,  but political conflicts lead to  another  nuclear war.

Drama on television

Number Three, broadcast by the BBC on 1st  February 1953. This was dramatised from a novel by Charles Irving by Nigel Neale and  others.  Scientists at an atom research station  working on a new form of nuclear power discover  the project leader plans to  use it as a weapon.

Doomsday for Dyson  by J B Priestley, broadcast on ITV on 10th March 1958. An anti-war fantasy about a man standing trial in the afterlife for killing his family in the wake of a nuclear holocaust. It was followed by a short studio discussion on the issues raised.

Underground, broadcast  by ATV on 30th  November 1958 in the “Armchair Theatre” series.  It was written by James Forsyth, adapted from novel by Harold Rein Few Were Left, directed by William Kotcheff.  The survivors of a nuclear holocaust are trapped in the London Underground.

The Offshore Island, broadcast by the BBC on 14th  April 1959. It was written by Michael Voysey, based on a play by  Marganita Laski, an activist in CND.  A  drama about a family whose farm remains unaffected, eight years after a nuclear war. Their peace is disturbed by a force of American soldiers and then a Russsian one.

The Poisoned Earth, broadcast by  ITV on 28th  February 1961 in the “Play of the Week” series. It was written by Arden Winch. Moral problems are raised when a new type of nuclear bomb, with limited fallout range, is developed.

The Road, broadcast by the BBC on 29 September 1963.  It was written by Nigel Kneale,  and was  part of  the “First Night” drama series.  A  scientist and a philosopher  in C18th investigate  “ghosts” that appear on Michaelmass Eve each year. In the end we realise  that they are actually visions from  the future of  people fleeing down a road from a nuclear war.

Loving the Alien: Fifth Planet by Fred and Geoffrey Hoyle (1963)

fifth-planetIn previous posts I have looked at the science  fiction writing  of Fred Hoyle in the television  dramas A for Andromeda and The Andromeda Breakthrough,  as well as his novel, October the First is too Late Written with his son Geoffrey Hoyle,  Fifth Planet  echoes the plot  of  Fred’s earlier novel The Black Cloud (1957) in which  a sentient  gas cloud entered the solar system and caused glocal catastrophe before moving on. In  Fifth Planet a star named  Helios, accompanied by its planets,  enters the solar system in the late c20th.

The central character  in the novel is Hugh Conway, a scientist  who works at the Helios Centre in the UK which  is planning a Western  expedition to land on Helios’ fifth planet, Achilles.  The Soviet bloc  is also planning an expedition.  Conway  is married to  the beautiful Cathy,  but after ten years  they  share no common interests, and she  is serially unfaithful,  including with one of the astronauts, Mike Fawsett,  as Conway knows. Although set in the future, this is clearly the world of the early 1960s with Conway reading The Times over his breakfast.

There is a good deal of scientific detail about the difficulties of rendezvousing with a moving object like Achilles and the kind of massive rocket  that would be needed to make the journey there and back.  This becomes tedious after a while.  Finally, and as a reader you are quite relieved,  both expeditions set off towards Achilles.  By the way the Soviet expedition includes a woman, Tara Ilyana, which was prescient of the Hoyles. They wrote the novel  in August 1962: on 16 June 1963 Valentina Tereshkova spent three days orbiting the earth in a Soviet Vostock capsule.

The Soviet expedition arrives first but crashes on landing,  killing one crewman and injuring another. They are rescued by the Americans after they  have landed. The atmosphere on Achilles is breathable, but there is no sign of any life,  the landscape comprising lakes and grass;

grass-and-lake

Now they knew what the green stuff was. Nothing but grass.  Grass that stretched  away from them in all directions , over hill over dale. It came up to their calves  and it had a nice soft pile. They weren’t botanists so they couldn’t tell  whether it was different from the grass back home…Even so it looked  pretty much like a clover field.  There was a light  wind that produced a slight stirring of its surface. They walked a few hundred  yards away from the rocket. The sky, they noticed, was very blue, a little richer than on Earth. The wind and the grass were producing a very gentle whispering.

Achilles seems to be an Eden, but turns out to have a serpent as  the members of the expedition start to suffer from hallucinations and other mental  disturbances. Fawsett thinks he  sees Cathy, for instance, and then has a breakdown,   while two men drive in circles, unable to escape. Another pair of  astronauts  come across a set of vertical translucent sheets on a hill:

Now that they had found something  both Larson  and Bakovsky began to think along the same lines. Theirs was the natural human reaction. What could they do to change things? They didn’t understand it, but perhaps if they could fiddle with something or other, something would happen, and  then they would begin to understand it. Fiddle with it first and think about it afterwards.  That was the thing to do…

The “fiddling” involves hurling   a hand grenade at the sheets, which turns out to be very bad idea indeed. Larson  dies on the spot “his whole personality, his very self, was lifted upwards and dissipated like puff of smoke”; Bakovsky runs for half a mile “his face strained with the utmost terror” until he reaches a lake and runs straight  in until he vanishes under the water.

Finally  the remnants of both expeditions blast off back to  Earth,  where the  Soviets and  the West are bemused and then increasingly  suspicious as to what really happened on Achilles.  Cathy is summoned to the bedside of  the traumatised Fawsett who dies in her presence.  Conway takes her home, already  aware that she is no longer his wife but someone else. “..in the first brief moment when she’d looked up at  him he’d known – he’d  known that it  was not Cathy.” An alien has travelled from Achilles  in the mind of Fawsett and then transferred to Cathy, who tells Conway she has come to find out about Earth, ” for the same reason  that you came to our planet.”nuclear-bomb

Cathy now   has  prodigious   mental  power to influence  the minds of humans which,  on returning to Britain,  she uses to create  a worldwide illusion that a nuclear war has started, though humanity eventually  divines  that it was an illusion;

Conway hadn’t realised how remarkably quick his own  recovery had been. It took the rest of the world more than  three hours to make the same  recovery. The people rose  up from the pavement, they came out of the fall-out  shelters, they came out of their graves, and they found that the sun was still shining and that their children were still alive. For the most part they broke down and wept as they had not done since they were young themselves. They didn’t know how it had happened  but they knew that in some way a hellish disaster had been avoided.

The governments of the world  realise that this illusion resembles the illusions experienced  on Achilles,  and  suspicion soon  falls on Cathy. In the final, and best  part of the novel,  with some genuine tension at long last,  Cathy and Conway go on the run,  hunted   by the army and police.  Whilst recovering from a bullet wound she tries to explain to him  how  their planet  works:

He was delighted when he realized that the nature of the animating force of life was an irregularity in a wave surface, like a flash of radiation.  As it travels in respect of time so our lives are propelled through the electrical circuits in our brain….the wave surface over a short period of time would appear like a standing wave in the four dimensional.

No,  I didn’t  understand that either.  At the  end of the novel Cathy uses her mental powers to get them  on a shuttle into space  and  the pair takes over a rocket that will get her back to Achilles. Conway is  now deeply in love with this new version of Cathy, who  has been  transformed from a housewife principally  interested in shopping and  sex  to a highly intelligent and powerful  woman,  and makes  a last minute  decision:

He looked far down the ship to where Cathy was standing, still watching him. He stood still for a moment and then with a muttered exclamation  he began to move towards her again. He stopped for a few seconds to put his arm around her waist and draw her to him, then he went over to the big control panel. Quickly he released the transit, and only then pressed the switches that started the big motors. A very faint trembling seemed to fill the ship, and at last he reached down and pressed the main control lever.  In an instant he could feel the drive   beginning, he could feel the pressure in his legs. The great rocket began to swing outwards from the Earth, it began the journey for which it had been made, the journey to the planet of the whispering grass.

In their prologue to the novel the Hoyles explain that they wrote the novel to explore some scientific ideas;

four-dimensionsfPhysics   regards the world as  four dimensional,  all moments  of time exist together.  The world can be thought  of as a map, not only spatially , but also with respect to time. The map stretches away  both into the past and into  the future. There is no such thing as  as “waiting” for the future. It is already there in the map.

I think the novel shows up Hoyle’s strengths and weaknesses as a science fiction writer. The ideas  about  space and time are intriguing,  but  the story  is often lacklustre and cliched.  The characters never really come to life off the page, except perhaps the alien  Cathy.  The idea of an alien  visitor showing humanity that nuclear war  would be disastrous seems to be a nod to the film The Day They Earth Stood Still (1951),  while the motion of an alien taking over the mind of a returning astronaut seems to be a nod to the   The  Quatermass Experiment  (1953).

Reviews

In Fifth Planet the astronomer and his son bring originality to three familiar themes: the interplanetary space race, the alien  world with disturbing novelties, and the symbiotic life-form inhabiting a human being. This last – the human being in question is the hero’s wife – achieves an uncommon pitch of conviction and even pathos. Interspersed are the attacks  on politicians as a group  and the technocratic bias which  one has come to expect from Hoyle pere. There are also references  to development  in sociology and psychology  which will have made these studies scientific, an unscientific notion, although I couldn’t quite make out whether  the Hoyles believe it or not.  They do seem to think that certain individuals are “basically”  interchangeable. This is unscientific. 

Kingsley Amis, The Observer,  8 December 1963, p.24

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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.

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

Opening titles

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

the Brigadier

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

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

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

Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks

Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks

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

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

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

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

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

Jon Pertwee

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

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

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

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

Barry Letts says:

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

Robert Holmes

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

Caroline John

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading and useful links

Barry Letts, Who & Me (2007)

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

interview with Caroline John (1990)  Wine and Dine

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