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” I remember everything”: Red Planets by Una McCormack (2018)

This Doctor Who audio adventure from Big Finish  features the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy), accompanied by Ace (Sophie Aldred) and Mel (Bonnie Langford). In essence it’s  an  “alternative history” story, a genre that I am  a bit of an addict for, my favourite being Pavane by Keith Roberts.

The story weaves together three threads whose connections only slowly became apparent:  Phobos, a   Communist spaceship on its way to Mars with a solo woman cosmonaut who proclaims “Good morning, brother Mars, we come in peace from all the people of Earth but then picks up a  mysterious signal from the red planet :  Ace’s adventures in East Berlin in November 1961 where she has been dropped off by the Doctor for a short break,  but immediately gets caught up  in a John le Carré-esque  espionage plot when she rescues an agent Tom Elliot  who has been wounded trying to cross the  newly built Berlin Wall; and finally, the Doctor and Mel’s  arrival in  London in  2017 to investigate a time ripple.

But they land in  a very different London, a London which is part of the People’s Republic of Mokoshia. And Mel is behaving  very oddly, recalling events that never happened in our time line, the take-over of Western Europe by Communism  in the  mid 1960s. If nothing else,  this story is worth listening to hear  just to hear  Mel  sing a snatch of The Internationale.

Back in East Berlin, Ace  finds that strange  things are happening, streets are vanishing, the city is disappearing,  and a deadly fog is killing people. In London the Doctor is trying to work out what  has caused the change in history,  “Nothing here is right,”  but finds himself in the hands of people who seem to know a lot about him. And on Mars  the expedition is heading for a rendezvous….with something impossible. Can the Doctor reverse history or will Mokoshia “unite the human race.”

This  is a  serious-minded story, which I enjoyed, driven by the idea that single events matter, that they can  send history down  a different  route. It’s also surprisingly violent with a number of characters not making it to the finale.

 

By the way, if you like me, you are womdering where “Mokoshia” comes from, Comrade McCormack tells me that she got it Mokosh, a Slavic goddess of women’s work and destinies. Mother Russia,  in fact.

More information here.

 

 

 

 

 

A god of death is born …The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin (1972)

Ursula Le Guin is one of the most important science  fiction writers of the twentieth century, whose works such  The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossesed   continue to be very influential.  Ursula  was an activist in the USA in the campaign against the Vietnam War,  and The Word for World Is Forest clearly emerged from that experience. Much of the  war was fought in forests between the Americans,  who had vast  military techonology, and the guerilla army of the  Vietcong, who had no such weaponry, but  were armed instead  with an  unrelenting desire to be free.

The novel  is set on Athshe, a planet  entirely covered by forests  in which live the Athsheans, a  small,  peaceful,  highly intelligent,  humanoid  race whose bodies are  covered  with green fur.  The planet is colonised by  several thousand Earthmen –   who rename  it New Tahiti   –  and begin cutting down the forests and shipping  the wood  back to Earth. They make virtual slaves of the Athsheans,  using them as labourers or  for sexual  gratification as there are few  Earth women.

The  three  main characters are the Earthman Davidson,  the Earthman Lyubov,  and the Athshean  Selver. Davidson is a military man who regards the Athsheans  (or “creechies” as the colonists call  them) with contempt: “the creechies are lazy, they’re dumb, they’re treacherous, and they don’t feel pain”. He personifies the masculine mindset,  reflecting  to himself: “the fact is the only time a man  is really and entirely  a man is when he’s just had a woman or killed another man”.  Lyubov,  by contrast,   tries to underestand the Athsheans, their culture of singing , their  symbiotic relationship with  the forest, and the fact that the Athsheans dream when  they are awake as well as when they are asleep.

Davidson rapes Selver’s wife who dies.  Selver realises that the Earthmen  intend to destroy the forest,  and therefore his people,  unless they are stopped  – and  begins to dream of a way of achieving this. He tells his people:

If we wait  a lifetime or two they will breed, their numbers will double or redouble. They kill men and women, they do not spare those who ask life. They cannot sing in contests. They have left their roots behind them, perhaps, in this  other forest  from which they come, this forest with no trees. So they take poison  to let loose the dreams in them, but it only makes them drunk or sick. No one can say whether they ‘re men or or not men , whether they’re sane or insane, but that does not matter. They must be made to leave the forest. If they will not go they must be burned out of the Lands, as nests of stinging-ants must be burned out of of the groves of the city…Tell any people who dream of a city burning to come after me..

Selver co-ordinates attacks from  thousands of Athsheans on the Earth settlements, killing many men and women,  and setting fire to the buildings.  His friend Lyubov dies in one of the attacks. Selver  pens the survivors into a compound and negotiates a truce. This is broken by Davidson who  organises attacks on the Athshean cities in the forest. Finally, Selver captures him alive, and tells him:

Look Captain Davidson..we’re both gods, you and I. You’re an insane one and  I’m  not sure whether I’m sane  or not, But we are gods…We bring each such gifts as gods bring.  You gave me a gift, the gift of killing of one’s  kind, murder. Now, as well as I can, I give you the my people’s gift which is not killing. I think we each find each other’s gift heavy to carry. 

Davidson is not killed,  but put  on a treeless island, to live alone. Emissaries from Earth and other planets  arrive who prepare to evacuate all  the surviving  Earth colonists.  One of the envoys asks Selver whether Athsheans are  now killing Athsheans. Selver replies sombrely :

Sometimes a god comes…He brings a new way to do a thing, or a new thing to be done. A new kind of singing, or a new kind of death. He bring this across the bridge between the dream-time and the world-time. When he has done this, it is done. You cannot take things that exist in the world and try to drive them back into the dream, to hold them inside the dream with walls and pretences. That is insanity. What is, is. There is no use pretending  now, that we do not know how to kill one another. 

As well as the background of the Vietnam War, there are clear resonances in the novel of the way that  native Americans were treated by European  colonists who raped and killed them and took their land; and  the similar  experience of the Aborigine peoples of Australia, who also talk of a “dream-time”.

While  Selver and Lyubov  have some complexity as  characters,  with Selver  feeling that what he has unleashed is dreadful   but also feeling that he has not other  choice, Davidson is  one dimensional,  a man in thrall to  his own needs and desires –   and with no empathy for others.   Reflecting some years later Ursula acknowledged this flaw  in the novel. “….he is purely evil – and I don’t, consciously, believe purely evil people exist. But my unconscious has other opinions. It looked into itself and produced, from itself, Captain Davidson. I do not disclaim him“.

Whether she intended or not, Ursula’s novel is very much a feminist riposte to  Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959)  – written against the backdrop of the Cold War  –  which  imagined  a  future society in which you can only become a citizen by serving in the military. It is in fact a paean to the alleged virtues of the military “code of honour” , a code unpicked  by Ursula in this novel to reveal its true reality: racism and murder.

The Word for World Is Forest had some influence  on “Kinda”,  a 1982 Doctor Who serial  written by Christopher Bailey,  his   first script for Doctor Who.  Like Ursula’s novel “Kinda ” is   set in a forest with a people  confonting colonists and is  a psychological, rather than an action serial, with layers of meaning and  a number  of spiritual  reference.  Bailey says  that he tried to write it without any people being killed, and  that he  name the main  characters after Buddhist terms, including the Mara (“temptation”),  Panna (“wisdom”),  and Anatta (“without self”).    Incidentally Panna was played by the wonderful  Mary Morris who,  among many other roles,  appeared in the BBC science fiction series  A for Andromeda and The Andromeda Breakthrough as the scientist Madeline Dawnay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 just  above five  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,  re-establishing  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 arc, 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,  a  quasi-military outfit first encountered by the Second Doctor in “the Invasion.” UNIT is led by  Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney)  who  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 fact  turned out to be the Home Counties, subject to a 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 of southern England.

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 having been sold by the end of 1969. By 1976, however, over 1 million had been sold and  the sales of colour sets  overtook those of black and white sets.

Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks

Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks

Thirdly,  the series was driven forward by  the new 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   the intellectual,   interested  in subjects such as  Buddhism for instance,  whilst   Dicks is the practical  man of television  dedicated to ensuring that, as he often says,  “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. He  was transferred off the ship by the Captain   for officer training which was  very lucky for him, for, on 24th  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 Jon 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 bur Moody was not available.   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 a 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 as   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 in th ehistory of the series. 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, however,  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 tribute to  a classic era of Doctor Who.

 

Further reading and useful links

Barry Letts, Who & Me (2007)

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

interview with Caroline John (1990)  Wine and Dine

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

 

 

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

october-the-first-is-too-late

Fred Hoyle

Fred Hoyle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Sinclair tells Dick:

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

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

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

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

Atnens

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

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

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

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

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

Melea  adds:

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can read the novel online here.

The War Games

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

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

You can read my post about  Malcolm Hulke here.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

Mutant 59

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading

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

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

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

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

 

A message from the stars: A for Andromeda (1961)

Front RT A for Andromefa

A  for Andromeda, broadcast by the BBC,  October – November 1961

Cast:  Julie Christie (Christine Flemstad and Andromeda),  Peter Halliday (John Fleming),  John Hollis (Kaufman),  Patricia Kneale (Judy Adamson),   Esmond Knight (Ernest Reinhart), Mary Morris (Madeleine Dawnay), Frank Windsor (Dennis Bridger),  and others.

Producers: Michael Hayes and Norman James.  Director: Michael Hayes

The series was created  by Fred Hoyle and John Elliot.  Hoyle was an astrophysicist at Cambridge, one of the best known in the country,  who often appeared in the press, on the radio or on television.

He also wrote science fiction eg The Black Cloud (1957),  a bestselling  novel about a sentient gas cloud which enters the solar  system and causes devastation on the Earth when it blocks the light from the sun. (It bears some  similarities to H G Wells’ short story The Star, published in 1897).  His science fiction play for children, Rockets in Ursa Major,  was performed at the Mermaid Theatre in December 1962.

The BBC broadcast a radio adaptation of The  Black Cloud   in December 1957,  and entered into discussions  with Hoyle about a six part television adaptation,  which  in the end fell through. However John Elliot, assistant head of the BBC’s script unit, accompanied by Norman James and Donald Bull, had a meeting with Hoyle in  a pub in Cambridge by the end of which (after a few pints no doubt) they had come up with the basic outline for A For Andromeda.  Hoyle provided the scientific background:  Elliot, a very  experienced writer for television, wrote the scripts for the seven episodes.

 

Fred Hoyle

Fred Hoyle

Hoyle’s involvement  meant that the science was up to scratch and up to date.  The Jodrell Bank radio telescope (undoubtedly the model for the  Bouldershaw Fell  radio telescope in the story)  had only opened in 1957,   while  the double helix structure  of DNA – the basis for the creation of Andromeda –  had only been conclusively identified by James Watson and Francis Crick  a few years earlier.

The 1950s (which I  was born in the middle of, by the way) is often portrayed as a conservative era  as Britain recovered from the war and enjoyed an unprecedented economic boom under a succession of Tory governments. There were,  however, increasing signs of change.   Britain  invaded Egypt in 1956 but then had to pull out after  the Americans  told them to:  many of its colonies were demanding independence  and  there were conflicts in places such as Kenya, Cyprus and Malaya.  There was a growing sense that Britain was no longer the world  power it was, unsettling to  many who had taken this for granted, something played  on in the series when the government realises what the computer can offer by way of technology, or appears to offer  anyhow.  In 1957 the Russians shocked the world when they put the first satellite   “Sputnik 1” into space. What  might  come next? A message from space?

On  October  1961, to coincide with the broadcast of the first episode, The Observer ran a profile of Fred Hoyle. “International intrigue, gunplay and cunning, romantic interlude with nubile woman security officer, alien cosmic intellience darkly  threatening over all, is this the ultimately revealing common touch?…This Hoylian swoop to the popular  level has by now become of his best known  characteristics. He first made his  mark as a straightforward populariser of science ten years ago with a series of broadcast  talks on astro-physics that were scholarly, imaginative, and lucid –  qualities that seemed to grow naturally out of his passion for the subject and that people should be on the same affectionate terms with outer space as he himself is.”

Unfortunately, due to the BBC’s policy in the 1960s  of wiping the video tapes of programmes that  it thought it no longer had any use for, only the sixth  episode, “The Face of the Tiger, ” has survived in its entirety,  along with some short filmed  extracts from other episodes,  and  the  dramatic scenes at the end  of the seventh and final  episode, “The Last Mystery”.  Fortunately,  photosnaps of the missing episodes have survived,  and  these have been  used to recreate the missing episodes for the DVD release with subtitles and  ambient  music. Viewed as a whole,  this  is enough to give a flavour of the serial, at least. Incidentally, the outside filming for the series  was done at an army camp on the coast  near Tenby, standing in for Scotland,  presumably because  it was considered equally  windy and wet.

The story begins in  1970 when the radio telescope at Bouldershaw Fell, designed by two  scientists, John Fleming and Dennis Bridger, detects a complex radio message  from the direction of the Andromeda Galaxy. Fleming realises that the message contains the design and programme for an advanced  computer and decodes it,  assisted by Bridger and a young woman,  Christine Flemstad. The government agrees to build the computer at Thorness, a remote military  location in Scotland. But other people are also  interested in the message:  Bridger is covertly  handing over information to a German  named Kaufman who works for Intel,  a shadowy international  cartel. On completion  the computer is switched on and prints out  information on how to create living cells.  A biologist Madeleine Dawnay is  brought in who  succeeds in creating a primitive one-eyed organism. Fleming has now become very suspicious of the computer and its true motives: “Dawnay thinks the machine’s given her power to create life; but she’s wrong. It’s given itself the power.” He urges them to destroy the  organism, but is ignored.

Christine (Julie Christie)

Bridger’s espionage  activities are discovered  and he is killed after falling over a cliff whilst  being pursued by Judy Adamson, ostensibly the press officer,  but also a covert  MOD security officer. Christine is increasingly drawn to the computer,  and  dies after receiving a high-voltage charge through a terminal. The computer now  produces a fresh set of instructions which  enable Dawnay to create a fully-grown young woman who,  when she comes to life,  is the double of Christine, except  her hair is blonde. She can communicate directly with the computer:  the team name her  Andromeda, Andre for short.

Frankly the series takes a long time to get going. Whilst A for Andromeda is remembered  for Julie Christie’s performance as Andromeda (she was  offered the role as she completed her final year at drama school), she does not appear  as that character  until the fifth episode. Before that she plays Christine in a dark wig.

 

The plot  up to  this point has revolved around  the message from space, the construction of the computer,  and Bridger’s spying activities. In its tone,  the series  has a lot in common  with the Quatermass serials, broadcast by the BBC  in the 1950s, with  the screen being  filled with politicians,  civil servants,  scientists and the military, almost all male.  Although set in a decade in the future there is little effort  made to show  what this might look like, except that there are more women in the main roles than was usual. Michael Hayes  suggested  that by 1970  women  would be more equal,  and the part of  Dawnay  was therefore  rewritten for a woman.

In the sixth episode the plot moves forward a good deal.  Andre provides the plans for a successful anti-ballistic missile,  and also apparently the formula   for an enzyme which can reverse cell damage.  Fleming challenges Andre:  is she  really human or merely an extension  of the computer?  Andre   tells Fleming,  “I do not understand you.  Nice, nasty, good, bad,  there is no logical distinction…You are like children with your missiles and rockets. All the same, I am going to save you. It’s quite simple really.”

Andre (Julie Christie) and Fleming (Peter Halliday)

Fleming attempts to humanise Andre by  suggesting that she wears  perfume and kissing her forcibly, not a scene you would include today.  Kaufman meets Geers, the project director, to discuss an agreement with Intel  to market the  healing enzyme, his role in the death of Bridger  brushed aside when Judy objects: “the climate has changed…the government needs world markets“.

The Prime Minister (looking remarkably like Harold Macmillan),  broadcasts to the nation, announcing that  Britain will have “a new, and  a finer  Industrial Revolution.”  Fleming is now even more   suspicious : “A year ago the computer had no power outside its own building, and even then we were in charge of it. Now it’s got the whole country depending  on it and the original team are all pushed out…This machine wasn’t programmed for our good.”  At the end of the episode  Dawnay has been poisoned by the enzyme, but  Fleming realises this  and is able to save her by creating a new formula.

 

In the final episode Andre is freed from the control of the computer after Fleming  manages to  get into the control room  and smash it. She tells him that she and the machine are slaves to an intelligence that  will take over humanity,  that she is only  human by accident: “The logic you can’t deny is the strongest chain. I did what I had to but now the logic is gone,  and I don’t know what to do...”

Fleming persuades Andre to return to the control room and burn the message, ensuring that the computer  can never be rebuilt.  Then –  in some well-handled  dramatic outdoor scenes scenes,  shot at night –  she is chased by the military. Fleming finds Andre,  uses a digger to get through the security fence,  and they head off in a boat, pursued by a launch  in which are  Judy, Quadring  and  his soldiers.

Landing on an island, they seek refuge in some caves where they get separated:  Andre vanishes, apparently having drowned after falling  into a deep pool. Fleming comments bitterly,  “We taught her everything else. We didn’t teach her to swim, did we?” Judy tells him, “…You don’t have to  do anymore…It’s all over..It’s finished“.

To truly enjoy A for Andromeda you have watch it, not with the eyes of  own era, in which  we are used to quick-fire storylines,  rapid editing,   and  an overload  of CGI effects, but with the eyes of 1961,  as best you can. At this time television drama was only just emerging from the era when it was broadcast live with actors racing  between sets in time for their cues.  A for Andromeda has  sound scripts and direction,  and a good cast. It  has also a luminous performance by Julie Christie in her first important acting role, who makes Andre both human  and alien.

The series  has some intriguing scientific  ideas (more ideas than the entire Star Wars oeuvre, in fact) mixing astronomy and biology.  It was also  in tune with the idea current  in the early  1960s that,  having lost its empire,  scientific  advances would be the way forward for Britain. The Prime Minister’s speech in episode six  anticipates  Labour party leader Harold Wilson’s speech in October 1963,  in which he spoke of a new Britain that would be forged in  “the white heat” of  a “technological revolution.”

Judy Adamson (Patricia Kneale) and John Fleming

In terms of the history of science fiction on television A for Andromeda  clearly follows on from the three  Quatermass series of the 1950s and points the way towards Out of the Unknown, four series of science  fiction stories   broadcast by the BBC  between 1965 and 1971, and also  series such as R3  (1964) and   Undermind (1965).

I do not see it  at as a predecessor to Doctor Who,  whose direct ancestor is  surely  Pathfinders in Space, written by Malcolm Hulke and Eric Paice.  (Hulke went on to write anumber of serials  for Doctor Who).  I do see a parallel with Doctor Who in so much as that,  in the mid 1960s,  its script editor Gerry Davis brought in Kit Pedler to act as the scientific advisor to the show, creating serials such as “The War Machines”,  “The Tenth Planet” and “The Moonbase”. And there is perhaps an influence in the sense that a sentient computer with a plan to dominate the  world and the ability  to exercise mind control  appears  in number of storylines; WOTAN in “The War Machines” and  BOSS in “The Green Death.

The series was very popular with the public,  with the numbers watching  rising from  6 million at the start to nearly 13 million by the end. Reviews in the press were mixed, though, as can be seen below.

John Elliot wrote a novel of A for Andromeda,  based on his scripts, which was published by Souvenir Press in February 1962,  and sold well. It has been republished several times since. Elliot did much more than reproduce the script:  he added characterisation,  incident and detail and it stands up extremely  well as a novel in its own right. This is an extract from when Andromeda first communicates with the computer:

She went reluctantly, her face strained and set. When she reache the panel, she stood there,  a terminal a few inches from each side of her head., and the lights began flashing faster. The room was full of the hum of the computer’s equipment. Slowly, without being told , she put her hands up towards. the plates… As the girl’s hands touched the metal plates, she shivered. She stood with her face blank, as if entranced, and then she let go and swayed unsteadily….”It speaks to me,” said the girl. “It knows about me.”

The ending is  different to the broadcast ending, and  bleaker. Judy does not arrive with the soldiers. Instead Fleming is on his own after  Andre  vanishes in the caves:

He never found anything more. They had taught her so much, he thought grimly, but they had never taught her to swim. He was stricken by a great pang of sorrow and remorse; he spent the next hour in a morbid and hopeless examination of the cave, and then went wearily back to the beach where he propped himself between two rocks until dawn. He had no fear of sleeping; he had a greater, half-delirious fear of something unspeakable coming out of the tunnel mouth – something unquenchable from a thousand million miles away – something that had spoken to him first on a dark night such as this.

Nothing came, and after the first hour or so of daylight a naval launch swept in from seaward. He made no attempt to move, even after the launch reached the island, and the crew found him staring out over the ever-changing pattern of the sea.

In 1971 the Italian television company RAI made their own  version, A Come Andromeda, which  followed  the original version very closely, even to the extent  keeping the English names of the characters.  If you have good Italian (there are no subtitles), you can watch it here.

In 2006 BBC Four showed a remake of A for Andromeda, written by Richard Fell,  which lasted  a mere 85 minutes with a number of plot  and character changes. Personally,  I thought it completely failed to capture the feeling of the original,  and was a pointless exercise and wasted opportunity.

More positively in 2006,  the BBC released  a DVD   comprising  A for Andromeda and The Andromeda Breakthrough. This  included the surviving episodes and telesnaps, extensive notes on the history of the  production of both series prepared by Andrew Pixley (which  were  invaluable for this post),  and interviews with  some of then surviving  cast members, including Peter Halliday,  Michael Hayes, Patricia Kneale, Frank Windsor and Susan Hampshire. Sadly since then we have lost Peter Halliday  and Michael Hayes.

You can watch episode 6 of A for Andromeda  on Daily Motion.

Reviews in the press

Although it is encouraging to have the authority of Professor Fred Hoyle for the scientific credibility of the new BBC science fiction serial  A for Andromeda, which  he has written with Mr John Elliot, evidently it is the skill of Mr  Hoyle the novelist which will mainly be called upon to hold our attention for the next six episodes.  In the first episode last night it was well in evidence. The tensions and cross-currents in the scientific establishment , where a new giant radio telescope is about to be inaugurated,  were economically hit in the first few minutes: the little bouts of feline malice among the scientists, the general disaffection among the staff  so far as the tactical aspects of the work are concerned (they are all ex-Communists, Aldermaston marchers and other ‘undesirables’ by western alliance standards), the mysterious new ‘press officer’ who is clearly not what she seems. Interest has certainly been piqued and, if one major character,  the angry  young physicist Fleming, who is drunk for much of the time and transported by wild-eyed attacks of hysterical fury when sober, seems likely to prove wearing, in compensation the series promises us Mary Morris as a leading player in later instalments.” The Times, 4 October 1961, p. 16

“Fred Hoyle is my favourite cosmologist and  astronomer. The news that he written a science  fiction serial script for the BBB to be this autumn’s Quatermass equivalent would have excited me had I not read or failed to read his science fiction thriller. The first instalment of A for Andromeda was as dense as one of those White Dwarf  stars a pinch of whose dust weighs a ton. There may be a nice globally  significant plot working out with messages from Andromeda coming through on the radio telescope,  but the earthly characters  are terribly hard to believe in yet. They telegraph their punches like old pugs.” Maurice Richardson, The Observer, 8 October 1961, p.26.

“Professor Fred Hoyle’s science -fiction serial on the BBC appears to be a cooling star – but let us hope it is not a dying one.  Last night the second episode of A for Andromeda got very little further forward than the first instalment. Although one had hoped that the slowness and stodginess of the opening would loosen up and give way to some  exciting events, as the meaning of the  code message from  the Andromeda  constellation  came through,  this expectation was not fulfilled.  Very little happened in the second instalment: the events were all on the celestial  plane,  and the plot  and the dialogue were not at all arresting.  There was no hint of any thrilling or extraordinary events until the very last moment of the episode, when we were, exactly as at this time last week, left with a question which could possibly mean that terrifying posibilities were in the air.  While one still believes in Professor Hoyle’s capacities as an astronomer  and a science  fiction writer, the progress of A for Andromeda makes one doubt his ability as a television writer, something very different. Still, we must give him the benefit of the doubt,  and there are still five episodes in which  the serial can make headway and pull out something  really impressive.” Mary Crozier, The Guardian,  11 October 1961, p. 9.

Another programe that is picking up a bit is the BBC’s A for Andromeda. Its characterisation is and always be epileptic, but some combinations of producer and script-doctor seems to have provided a powerful transfusion.  Both Fleming and that almost equally hysterical woman  scientist madden me: before, they merely perplexed. The beautiful blonde zombie under the spell of the computer is a distinctly welcome addition to one’s hearth  rug. Her innocence of right and wrong is very neat: a genuine piece of science fiction, as distinct from the amorality which magistrates discern in teenagers.” Maurice Richardson, The Observer, 5 November  1961, p.25.

A for Andromeda moves towards its close next week  with little hope now  that it will ever make the grade. When the computer girl was created there was a hope that she might be really horrid but now the scientist  Fleming has started kissing her,  it looks like happy ever after. True, Madeleine Dawnay  and some of her staff are dying of a myserious illness, but in science fiction thrillers one expects an authentic jab of fear which we have never had from Andromeda. One reason may be that everyone talks too much. As a compensation Maurice Hedley has been as mischeviousky satirical as  the Prime Minister we saw making an amusing speech about television at the  BBC anniversary dinner immediately after A for Andromeda.”  Mary Crozier, The Guardian, 9 November 1961, p. 9.

Where else have I seen them?

Peter Halliday appeared in Doctor Who four  times. In The Invasion (1968) he plays Packer, Tobias Vaughn’s not very bright henchman,   and is  excellent  in the part. (The company  that Vaughn runs is called  International Electromatics, by the way, which could be shortened to Intel, perhaps). He is even better in Carnival of Monsters (1973), playing Pletrac, one of the annoying rulers of the planet Inter Minor. He had a small part in  City of Death  as a soldier, holding the Doctor at swordpoint when he goes back in time in search of Leonardo da Vinci. Finally he had a  cameo role in Remembrance of the Daleks as a  blind priest., presiding over  the burial of the Hand of Omega.

Mary Morris appeared in Doctor Who  in Kinda (1982) , playing the shaman Panna,  and is  wonderful in the role.  She  lived in Switzerland,  but  was  so intrigued by the mystical nature of Christopher Bailey’s script, one of most beguiling in the history of the show, that she drove across Europe to take part. She also appeared in The Prisoner as Number Two in an episode called “The Dance of the Dead” which  you may watch here.

John Hollis played Kantwich in The Avengers episode “The Superlative Seven”  (sounding very like Kaufuman). He played Sondergaard in the Doctor Who serial ” The Mutants“, again sounding much like Kaufman!

Michael Hayes directed three Doctor Who serials:   The Androids of Tara (1978), The Armageddon Factor (1979) and City of Death 1979), the latter story being a particular favourite amongst many fans.

Frank Windsor appeared in Doctor Who in The King’s Demons (1983)  playing Ranulf and in Ghostlight (1989) playing Inspector Mackenzie.

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

In my next  post I will be looking  at the sequel  The Andromeda Breakthrough.