Small Triumphs, Big Disasters

Science Fiction on British Screens: 1953-1963

An essay for 'Living Apart Together: British Film and Television 1960-1982'
MA in History of Film and Visual Media
David Mitchell
March 2002


Notes:

  1. Although there is an overlap, much of this essay is concerned with what happened before the specific period covered by the 'Living Apart Together: British Film and Television 1960-1982' module. There is some justification for my choice of period within the body of the essay.
  2. Much of the argument rests on a definition of science fiction. There are many such, but as Peter Nicholls says:
  3. There really is no good reason to expect that a workable definition of science fiction will ever be established. None has been so far. In practice, there is much consensus about what science fiction looks like in its centre; it is only at the fringes that most of the fights take place. (1)

    This essay is concerned with the centre, not the fringes, and the definition I have given would be accepted by many science fiction readers, authors and critics. (2) It may be unfamiliar to those responsible for assessing this essay however, so it seemed important to make it explicit (see pages 1-2).

  4. Todorov, in justifying the notion that one may discuss a genre without having studied (or at least read) all the works which constitute it, claims:

    It is not the quantity of observations but the logical coherence of a theory that finally matters. (3)

    This seems to me a highly dangerous notion; after all the Phlogiston theory of combustion was logically coherent but was abandoned precisely because the 'quantity of observations' ruled it out. However I have to confess that I have not watched all the films and television programmes that fall within the scope of this essay, though I have seen (too) many of them. I have illustrated my argument with what I hope are representative films and programmes - space does not allow more.


They say 'ninety percent of science fiction is crud'. Well, they're right. Ninety percent of science fiction is crud. But then ninety percent of everything is crud!

- Theodore Sturgeon (4)

Sturgeon went on to complain that science fiction was dismissed as 'pulp fiction' because, unlike other genres, it was judged by its worst examples, not its best. It is perhaps a side effect of this dismissal that while some literary genres have transferred well to the cinema screen - the western, the detective novel or the spy thriller for example - science fiction has not been so fortunate.

This essay is concerned with the science fiction films and television programmes made in Britain between 1953 and 1963, the ten years following Sturgeon's outburst. As we shall see, over this period British cinema focussed almost exclusively on the 'crud', producing a succession of dismal failures. Why should Britain, a country with a strong science fiction tradition, a country that twenty years before had produced a landmark film like Things to Come (Korda, 1936), (5) have produced so little of cinematic value? (6) More to the point, why did British television not suffer the same fate, producing instead some of the best science fiction ever to appear on the screen?

There are several reasons for choosing 1953 as a starting point. The growth in the number of television sets associated with the broadcast of the coronation in June 1953 meant that television could at last be regarded as part of British popular culture. The year also saw the first major science fiction series on British television as well as the first science fiction films from Hammer Film Productions. There is an equally important reason for taking 1963 as an end point. It was on 22nd November of that year, the day after JFK was shot, that the first episode of Doctor Who was screened on BBC television; an event that marked a turning point in science fiction on British television. It was also the year that once again intelligent science fiction films began to be made in the UK.

Before going any further I should clarify what I mean by science fiction. Like any genre, the edges are fuzzy, but a science fiction story has two key features. Firstly, it is not set in the world we know, but in one that differs from ours in a way that is fundamental to the plot. This is sufficient to distinguish science fiction from 'conventional' fiction. Second, however great the differences between our world and the world of the story, those differences must be plausible, logically consistent and free of contradictions; broadly in line with what is known of the laws of nature at the time the story is written. (7) This distinguishes science fiction from related genres such as horror and magical fantasy. (8)

Thus science fiction is about events that 'have not happened yet but could'. One implication of the definition is that ideas, rather than gadgets, often play a key role and several authors and critics have suggested that 'speculative fiction' might be a better name for the genre. There is little point in asking 'What if?' unless the question and its answer are relevant to the narrative, which makes much science fiction didactic, polemical or both. Although it is generally set in the future, science fiction is usually not intended as prophecy. Instead it is often allegorical, transposing current issues into the future; in much the same way that Arthur Miller's The Crucible uses the witch-hunts of 17th century Salem as a metaphor for the McCarthyism of the 1950s.

George Orwell's novel 1984, to which we will return, is an excellent illustration of the definition. Written in 1948, it was set in a future in which a perpetual 'war' provides the excuse for totalitarian control, a world in which omnipresent 'telescreens' ensure that the population is always under surveillance. History is continually (and literally) rewritten to suit the party line, while the very language people speak is being altered to make even 'thoughtcrime' impossible. (9) Although these dystopian ideas are central to the plot, Orwell did not mean them to be predictive. He saw his book as a warning, a criticism of trends he saw in both the USSR and in the West. (10)

By contrast, when futuristic technology is merely used as a backdrop, the result is hardly science fiction at all. (11) For example Outland (Hyams, 1981, GB) is actually High Noon (Kramer, 1952, US) loosely remade in outer space. While High Noon was a triumph as a western, Outland lacked all of the earlier film's virtues (including the HUAC sub-text) and used a science fiction setting merely to lure an audience. What little science it did contain was riddled with holes. (12)

It might be argued that the definition is too restrictive, excluding many interesting films and television programmes. One purpose of the definition is to limit, without being too arbitrary, the number of films and television programmes to be considered. (13) More importantly, it also serves to provide an additional scale for measuring the quality of a science fiction film or programme. Just as any film may be let down by bad acting, stilted dialogue, clumsy direction or plot loopholes, so a science fiction film can also be let down by implausible or contradictory 'science'.

So just how bad was British science fiction cinema between 1953 and 1963? There were perhaps forty British science fiction films released over this period, (14) so Sturgeon's Law would lead us to expect that three or four of these might be worthwhile. It is hard to find more than one - most are truly dreadful by any standard, particularly when we compare them with the science fiction literature of the time. (15) This may not be too surprising; the USA, which produced many more science fiction films over the period, had an even lower proportion of successes. (16) Discussing these American films, Susan Sontag claimed:

Science fiction films are not about science. They are about disaster, which is one of the oldest subjects of art. (17)

Sontag is not alone in seeing a difference between science fiction cinema and literature, (18) but her essay largely ignored British films and she had almost certainly never seen the British television programs that concern us here. The dozen or so science fiction television programmes broadcast in the UK (19) over the period were about science and were superior to the vast majority of the films. What makes the contrast all the more pointed is the way British cinema borrowed several television successes and yet managed to turn them into 'crud' too. It is this contrast which this essay will explore.

Science fiction on British television actually began well before 1953, in fact before the Second World War, with a broadcast of Karel Capek's play, R.U.R., on 11th February 1938. (20) A new production of the same play was broadcast after the war, in 1948; while in 1949 the BBC showed an adaptation of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. None of these early broadcasts were recorded and the number of television sets, and hence the audience was very small, so they have had very little impact.

Just a month after the June 1953 coronation the BBC broadcast The Quatermass Experiment, a six-part serial written by Nigel Kneale to fill a gap in the summer schedules. Despite the cheapness of its special effects (21) it caused a major stir. Kneale was not known at the time as a writer of science fiction, but his serial was believable, logical, intelligently written and intensely gripping.

The story concerns the first manned space flight, which results in the infection of the three-man crew by a space-borne alien life form. Only one of the crew returns, though it transpires he contains the memories and perhaps even the minds of the other two. Back on earth he gradually absorbs other living things, transforming into a huge protoplasmic mass, which eventually reaches the point where it is about to release its spores and infect all life on earth. Professor Bernard Quatermass, the director of the British Experimental Rocket Group that launched the rocket, finally manages to persuade what remains of the human intelligences inside it to kill the creature by committing suicide.

Two years later, while Kneale was working on the second Quatermass serial for the BBC, Hammer Film Productions was turning the first one into a film, renamed The Quatermass Xperiment. The paranoia of the cold war, coupled with the publicity surrounding the development and testing of nuclear weapons and guided missiles, was being exploited by American filmmakers who produced a succession of horror films with a science fiction setting. (22) The UK release of films such as When Worlds Collide (Paramount, 1951), The Thing (RKO, 1951) and Them! (Warner 1954) had shown there was a market for such films in the UK too.

Hammer had made two previous science fiction films, Spaceways and Four Sided Triangle in 1953, both directed by Terence Fisher. B movie thrillers with little science (or horror), both have sunk without trace. Quatermass was a different matter. Its story, while more thoughtful than most American science fiction films, clearly fitted the public's taste for being frightened, as the reaction to the television serial demonstrated. Hammer had already made several bargain-basement films based on BBC scripts and characters (23) and bought the rights to Quatermass from the BBC. Kneale, a BBC staff writer when he wrote the original script, had no rights in it and no influence over the film. It was directed and co-scripted by Val Guest, who claimed not to have seen the serial.

As the punning title suggests, the film was given an X certificate. (24) This was a deliberate policy by Hammer, who were in financial trouble at the time and hoped to make the X a major selling point. The film was in reality little more shocking than the television serial, which had been shown without protest on public television at 8.15pm on Saturday evenings. Still, the tactic worked and when the film, known in the USA as The Creeping Unknown, was released in 1955, its success restored Hammer's finances.

The adaptation of the television serial into the film was to prove typical of the way the British film industry treated science fiction throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. To ensure a US distribution deal for the film, the role of Professor Quatermass was given to Brian Donlevy, whose fading Hollywood career and serious drinking problem left him open to overseas offers. Guest and Donlevy turned Kneale's thoughtful and worried scientist into a bullying egomaniac. The ending was made more explicitly horrifying but less ingenious, with Quatermass electrocuting what had become merely an evil, protoplasmic monster, with no trace remaining of the three human minds. Kneale was very unhappy with the result. Where the focus of his serial was on psychological conflicts - something common to much of his work as we shall see - the film converted this into a simple 'brain versus brawn' battle. As the art critic David Sylvester noted:

The film plays down some of Nigel Kneale's more outlandish ideas. The general tendency of the adaptation, in fact, is to build up human conflicts at the expense of the exposition of ideas. Thus, in the television serial, the main source of conflict was an intellectual disagreement - involving personal jealousies, it is true - between Quatermass and a member of his research staff who does not figure at all in the film, whereas in the film the principal conflict is between Quatermass, with his devotion to science, and Judith Carroon, with her devotion to her husband's well-being. One important consequence of this tendency in the adaptation is that the exposition of the scientific background of the story is fragmentary and confusing. The film, in fact, jettisons much of what is most curious in the television serial in favour of stock dramatic situations.
.....
For the most part however, the Xperiment is a scrappy and unconvincing film by comparison with Hollywood's best essays in science-fiction. (25)

A year before the Hammer version appeared, and as a direct result of the success of the first serial, the BBC had commissioned Kneale to adapt George Orwell's last novel, 1984, published a few years earlier, as a two-hour television play. Produced and directed, like the Quatermass serials, by Rudolph Cartier, (26) it was a complex live production involving twenty-eight sets and several film sequences. The budget was high by the standards of the day at £3,249, including the cost of an orchestra that played a specially conducted score from a second studio during the play. The result, broadcast live on Sunday, December 12th, 1954, was one of the most controversial UK television productions of the 1950s.

The Times remarked that while the play was:

not so much Orwell's vision as a pictorial simplification of it Ö the vividness with which many parts of it came through would, perhaps, have pleased the author. The two-minutes' Hate was, for instance, a wonderfully riotous orgy of vindictiveness. (27)

Others were not so sympathetic. The following Tuesday, a motion was tabled in the House of Commons by five Tory MPs deploring 'the tendency, evident in recent BBC television programmes, notably on Sunday evenings, to pander to sexual and sadistic tastes'. The BBC received hundreds of telephone complaints and was under pressure to cancel the planned repeat, but Prince Philip came to its defence in a speech at the Royal Society of Arts. The second performance went ahead as planned on Thursday 16th December and attracted the highest television audience since the Coronation.

Orwell's1984 was also turned into a 'British' film, in 1956, though completely independently of the BBC production. The film rights had been sold to American producers in 1951, a year after Orwell's death. By 1953 they had passed to Peter Rathvon, a former president of RKO who had become an independent producer based in Europe. He had made films for the US Information Agency, who saw the book as an ideal piece of cold war propaganda, with the USSR as a model for Orwell's police state. In exchange for a secret subsidy of $100,000 Rathvon gave them script approval. (28) The success of the BBC production spurred Rathvon and his partners to shoot the film in England, though once again second rank American stars (Edmund O'Brien and Jan Sterling) were used to secure US distribution.

As with Hammer's Quatermass, the adaptation simplified and weakened the story's science fiction elements and fatally compromised Orwell's bleak vision. Thus where the novel ends with Winston finally loving Big Brother, in the UK version of the film he overcomes the effects of brainwashing and shouts 'Down with Big Brother!', before being gunned down by the thought police. Orwell's widow protested vigorously at the many changes and refused to attend the London premiere. (29)

Back at the BBC, Kneale's second six-part serial, Quatermass II, was broadcast in October/November 1955, just at the time that Hammer's first Quatermass film was released. The plot again concerned an alien invasion of Earth, but by more subtle means, a shower of meteorites containing a parasitical hive-mind species that infects and controls humans as a first step towards planetary take-over. The story echoed several public concerns at the time - the building of secret military installations and the bureaucracy of post-war Britain - as well as themes that The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956, US) would explore less plausibly a year later. Once again Kneale demonstrated his ability to create intensely gripping, innovative science fiction for television and the serial was as successful as the first.

Hammer's Quatermass film, for all its flaws, was also very successful, perhaps as a result of the publicity surrounding the second TV serial. Keen to exploit this success, they quickly produced a follow-up, scripted by Jimmy Sangster (who would go on to write many of Hammer's later horror films), intending it as a sequel. Kneale refused to let them use the Quatermass name however, and the film was released in 1956 as X the Unknown, again with an X certificate. An American actor again played the scientist hero, Royston. This time it was Dean Jagger, who insisted that the intended director, Hollywood exile Joseph Losey, was a 'Red' who must be replaced. The story, about the escape of radioactive, intelligent mud from the earth's core, was scientifically preposterous and the film's virtues, such as they were, were its horror scenes. (30)

Kneale's final Quatermass serial for the BBC, (31) Quatermass and the Pit, was broadcast starting in December 1957. The plot involves the discovery of a spaceship, millions of years old, during construction work on a London building site. Human skeletons are found inside the ship, then, in a sealed compartment, large insect-like creatures. It turns out to be a Martian spaceship that crashed on returning to earth with a cargo of genetically modified humans. The excavations reactivate the ship, causing workers on the site to start seeing horrific visions. At the climax the ship, projecting an enormous image of a horned creature (for the Martians had implanted the devil, and much else, in our subconscious race memory), is finally destroyed by the self-sacrifice of an American colleague of Quatermass. The combination of a thought-provoking and scientifically plausible story, well-drawn characters and a large budget for special effects resulted in what is generally regarded as the best piece of science fiction that British television has ever produced.

By then, however, Hammer had embarked on a new strategy. Though they had bought the rights to Quatermass II and indeed turned it into a moderately successful film released in 1957, (32) they rightly identified the horror scenes as the selling point of their science fiction films. At the time television's ability to evoke horror was limited, both by its lack of colour, and by the strictures of the Broadcasting Act. Cinema could show more, with the added attraction of an X certificate. Hammer identified another source of exploitable material - the horror films produced by Universal Studios in the 1930s. In 1957, just before the third Quatermass serial was shown on television, they released The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) a loose remake of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931).

As soon as Universal heard that Hammer was at work on a remake they warned them not to copy anything from the film that was not in the Mary Shelley novel, particularly the makeup. Hammer wrote a new script and designed new make-up and props. Though no more faithful to the original story, it was significantly darker than the 1931 version. Peter Cushing's Victor Frankenstein was a far cry from that of Clive Colin back in 1931 - this time the Baron himself was a monster, progressively corrupted by evil - while Christopher Lee's savage brute had none of the pathos of Boris Karloff's creature. (33) Instead of the black-and-white they had used for Quatermass and their other science fiction films, the film was shot in colour and did not skimp on the gore. It was tremendously popular, eventually grossing over seventy times its production cost.

Hammer were not slow to capitalise on their success, quickly producing two more loose remakes of Universal horror films. Dracula, a remake of Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931) was released in 1958 and was followed a year later by The Mummy, a remake of The Mummy (Karl Freund, 1932). All three films were written by Jimmy Sangster, directed by Terence Fisher, starred Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and were of course certificate X. All three were outstanding successes and established Hammer as the 'House of Horror'.

Hammer's good fortune was science fiction's loss. Dracula and The Mummy were horror fantasies, with no science fiction in them at all. As for The Curse of Frankenstein, while Mary Shelley's novel is perhaps the first true science fiction novel, it was conceived as Gothic horror, and it is this characteristic that cinema has always emphasised. Ignoring the bulk of the novel and its ideas, it has focussed instead on blood, violence and the horror of the monster's creation and appearance. (34)

So from 1957 Hammer specialised in horror, particularly Gothic horror fantasy, producing several Frankenstein and Dracula sequels. They did occasionally produce other science fiction films - for example in 1963 they released The Damned, directed by Joseph Losey. Absurd as science fiction, (35) it featured a group of deliberately irradiated children kept isolated to serve as humanity's survivors in the event of a nuclear war, and topically, a motorcycle gang led by Oliver Reed.

Hammer was not the only British company to make science fiction films in the 1950s and early 1960s, though they produced more than most. Of the roughly forty films released between 1953 and 1963, Hammer produced perhaps ten (both totals include several Frankenstein films). A brief look at some of the others should demonstrate that Hammer's treatment of the genre was actually superior to most. (36)

In Devil Girl from Mars (1954) a leather-clad female alien, armed with a ray gun and accompanied by a menacing robot, comes to Earth to collect Earth's men as breeding stock. Fire Maidens from Outer Space (1956) features astronauts landing on a moon of Jupiter to find it populated with sixteen beautiful young women looking for mates. (37) In Behemoth, the Sea Monster (1959) the dumping of radioactive waste in the ocean disturbs a prehistoric monster than can project electric shocks and radioactive beams. First Man into Space (1958) steals the basic plot of The Quatermass Xperiment and has the first pilot to leave Earth's atmosphere running into a cloud of meteor dust and returning to earth as a vampire! The Day of the Triffids (1962) is a travesty of John Wyndham's novel, with triffids that look like oversized broccoli. Howard Keel, yet another American actor, plays the hero very much tongue-in-cheek, in a film in which 'all of Wyndham's atmosphere has been excised in favour of love interest and adventure shenanigans'. (38) According to David Pirie, the film:

provides an extraordinarily good example of all the things that seem to go wrong when a company turns its attention to the genre. (39)

Such films, like almost all those produced by British companies over the period, were little more than poor copies of the worst American science fiction films, which at least often had the virtue of providing a rare outlet for left-wing sentiments. (40) They have in common the same set of features; absurd plots, cheap special effects, fading American actors to guarantee distribution in the USA and little regard for the principles at the heart of the genre. The devaluing of ideas in favour of thrills is seen not just in the pseudo-science and the tendency to accentuate horror, but also in the frequent use of idiot plots (41) to heighten suspense while losing credibility.

Even the best British films of the period have serious faults as science fiction. The Village of the Damned, based on John Wyndham's novel The Midwich Cuckoos, was released by MGM in 1960. One day in a small English village, every woman of childbearing age becomes mysteriously pregnant. The resulting children, who all look alike, mature much faster than normal children and turn out to be telepathic. Soon they are controlling, and eventually killing, people in the village. The hero, a scientist played by George Sanders, finally manages to blow them up, blocking their telepathic probing by thinking of a brick wall. The film avoided an X certificate by scrupulously avoiding the showing of any violence - all the deaths in the film occur off camera and we never even see a dead body. It is a reasonable adaptation of the novel's basic story, but where the book's very title hinted at what was going on, and the book itself revealed more, the film leaves almost everything unexplained. Are the children human or do they just look like human beings? Where did they come from? What do they want? Why is the village "damned"? All this uncertainty makes the film more fantasy than science fiction and to make matters worse the plot contains several loopholes not in the original book.

Just as Hammer was not the only British studio to produce dismal science fiction for the cinema, so Nigel Kneale was not the only person to create good science fiction for television. Fred Hoyle, a world-famous if somewhat maverick astronomer, wrote several science fiction novels in the 1950s and 1960s. During October and November 1961 the BBC showed A for Andromeda, a seven-part serial written by Hoyle and John Elliot. Like Kneale's serials, it mixed intelligent discussion of scientific ideas, many of them controversial at the time, with an exciting plot. (42)

The story concerns the consequences of the reception of intelligent extraterrestrial signals by a massive new radio telescope. (43) Eventually the signals are decoded to reveal instructions for building a super computer. When this is constructed it kills its operator, played by the relatively unknown Julie Christie. The computer then prints a detailed blueprint for a DNA molecule. When synthesised in the laboratory, this results in the development of a human embryo that grows extremely rapidly into an adult, a virtual copy of the computer operator. The girl, Andromeda, together with the computer, turn out to have knowledge of extremely advanced technologies, and the remainder of the serial concerns the struggles, both ethical and physical, between individual scientists and various government, military and scientific bureaucracies to control or eliminate Andromeda and the computer. A six-part sequel by the same authors, The Andromeda Breakthrough, was broadcast a year later in the summer of 1962. Both serials were highly successful and demonstrated once again television's ability to create thought-provoking and popular science fiction.

Nor was science fiction on television restricted to the BBC. ATV broadcast an excellent series of thirteen science fiction plays, Out of This World, in 1962. Produced by Irene Shubik for Sidney Newman, it featured stories by several well-known science fiction authors such as Asimov, Dick, Simak and Wyndham. The series might have continued, but they both left to join the BBC where Shubik went on to create Out of the Unknown (BBC, 1965-1971) as well as playing a key role in the evolution of television drama. (44)

One British film was released, right at the end of our period of study, which was successful both as a film and as science fiction. In 1963 Peter Brook directed Lord of the Flies. In the film, and the 1954 book by William Golding on which it is based, a group of British schoolboys are marooned on a desert island as a result of a plane crash. Without adults they gradually regress into savagery. The book is not generally seen as science fiction; after all there is little apparent science in the story, though the children were being evacuated to safety during a nuclear war. But Golding's plot is a classic 'has not happened yet but could' experiment in social science and the evolving behaviour of a group of people cut off from civilisation is a common theme in science fiction. Brook, a stage director with limited film experience, played the story straight, sticking close to the original novel, and extracted excellent performances from an unknown, and largely unprofessional, cast.

We have seen that television managed to produce intelligent, entertaining and successful science fiction despite limited budgets. (45) How did it avoid producing the concomitant 'crud'? Part of the answer perhaps lies in those limited budgets. Without elaborate sets and special effects, television programme makers were forced to focus on the things that make for good drama - intelligent and believable characters, convincing dialogue and well-constructed plots. What helped even more is that the people involved, not only writers like Kneale and Hoyle, but also producers like Shubik and Cartier, believed in science fiction as a genre of ideas. Though Kneale has said:

I donít see myself as a science fiction writer, and I never have done. I find from my occasional sampling of science fiction that itís very disappointing and horribly overwritten. (46)

he has also said that H.G. Wells is one of his favourite authors, (47) and in many interviews has stressed the importance of the ideas behind the Quatermass serials.

British cinema by contrast did not value either ideas or science fiction. Or at least, those with decision-making power did not. In the early fifties they saw science fiction as a popular genre, one to be exploited, using minimal resources to extract maximum profits. When it became clear that, given the same budget, gothic horror could deliver bigger audiences than science fiction, they switched their attention and resources accordingly.

Pirie claims that gothic horror, with its sex and violence, is 'the only staple cinematic myth which Britain can properly claim as its own', (48) and that its re-emergence in the films of the late 1950s was no accident. Box office receipts certainly demonstrate its popularity with British film audiences at the time. While Pirie's arguments may explain the cinematic success of British gothic horror, they do not explain the failure of British science fiction films. To be sure, copying space-orientated themes from American science fiction cinema, themes that perhaps did not resonate so well with a British audience, was not a strategy for success. (49) But if British science fiction television could be successful, why not cinema too? Big budgets for special effects and elaborate sets are not essential for science fiction films nor does it cost much more to get the 'science' roughly right. There does not seem to be a proper answer to the question.

After 1963 things changed. The success of Doctor Who, science fiction aimed primarily at children, led to a young audience that would, as it grew older, boost the demand for science fiction films, just as Star Trek was to a few years later. (50) While Hammer continued to ignore science fiction in favour of horror, (51) other companies, particularly American ones, did not. Starting with Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (Columbia, 1964), (52) the sixties slowly saw intelligent science fiction films being made in Britain once more. This trend has continued, along with a great deal of 'crud', up to the present day.

While a later series such as Out of the Unknown (BBC, 1965-1971) proved that adult science fiction could still be popular, the success of Doctor Who paradoxically led to a 'dumbing down' of science fiction on British television. Originally intended to be educational, (53) Doctor Who revealed that Daleks (54) were more attractive than dialectics and television eventually demonstrated that it too could produce 'crud'. (55) But that is another story.

Web References:

As might be expected, there is a massive amount of material on the web about science fiction. The following sites contain material that is directly related to the issues covered by this essay.

History of science fiction on TV from 1936 onwards: http://www.625.org.uk Quatermass: http://www.geocities.com/TelevisionCity/8504/qhome.htm http://groups.yahoo.com/group/kneale/files/ A for Andromeda: http://www.csse.monash.edu.au/~lloyd/tildeImages/Film/Andromeda/ Hammer Films: http://www.hammerfilms.com/hammer_vault http://www.graveyard.ndirect.co.uk/ Science Fiction Studies: http://www.depauw.edu/sfs

Bibliography:

Footnotes:

  1. John Clute & Peter Nicholls (eds), The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (London: Granada, 1993), 314. The encyclopedia lists a dozen or so definitions. (back)
  2. See for example, James Blish, 'Science Fiction Criticism' in Thomas Clareson (ed), SF: The Other Side of Realism, (Ohio: Bowling Green University Press, 1971) 167, or Patrick Parrinder, 'Science Fiction: Metaphor, Myth or Prophecy' in Karen Sayer and John Moore (eds), Science Fiction, Critical Frontiers (London: Macmillan, 2000), 23. (back)
  3. Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: a Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1975), 3. (back)
  4. Sturgeon (1918-1985) is now more famous for this remark (known as Sturgeon's Law) made at the World Science Fiction Convention in Philadelphia in 1953 than he is for any of his novels. (back)
  5. Things to Come, for all its brilliance and ambition, was not a financial success. By contrast Universal's Flash Gordon serial, which appeared in the same year, was not worth taking seriously as science fiction, but did make money. (back)
  6. Outside the science fiction genre the period saw many outstanding British films, such as The Ladykillers (1955), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Room at the Top (1958) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). (back)
  7. Thus in 1908 H.G. Wells could reasonably write of a Martian invasion in War of the Worlds, but given how much we now know about the surface of Mars, a similar story written today would be classed as fantasy not science fiction. For a general discussion of the scientific plausibility of science fiction (literature, TV and films), see Peter Nicholls (ed), The Science in Science Fiction, (London: Michael Joseph, 1982). (back)
  8. This is not to disparage either genre, merely to point out that they operate under different 'rules'. (back)
  9. Orwell's 'Newspeak' was based on the now-discredited linguistic theory of Benjamin Whorf, whose studies of Hopi and other American Indian languages led him to believe that language conditioned thought rather than the reverse. (back)
  10. Orwell was strongly influenced by books published in the late 1940s by James Burnham, particularly Managerial Revolution, a book about the rise of bureaucracy and the corporate state. See David Seed, American Science Fiction and the Cold War, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), 69. (back)
  11. Teresa Ebert dismisses it as 'parascience fiction'. See Teresa Ebert, 'The Convergence of Postmodern Innovative Fiction and Science Fiction', Poetics Today 1:4, (1980), 90. (back)
  12. For a razor-sharp dissection of all its faults, see Harlan Ellison, 'Outland: Out of its mind but, sadly, not out of sight' in Danny Peary (ed), Screen Flights/Screen Fantasies, (New York: Doubleday, 1984), 171-177. (back)
  13. A less restrictive definition might have to consider the Bond films (with their futuristic gadgets) or the Avengers TV series (which often introduced science fiction elements, such as robots). (back)
  14. This is not an easy statistic to justify. Ian Hunter, in British Science Fiction Cinema, (London: Routledge, 1999), 185-190, lists 40 films within the period, but admits his classification is somewhat arbitrary. I have also relied on extensive searching of the Internet Movie Database. (back)
  15. Those ten years were a particularly fruitful period for science fiction literature. Asimov, Bester, Blish, Dick, Heinlein, Pohl & Kornbluth and Vonnegut and British writers such as Aldiss, Ballard, Clarke and Wyndham all wrote major novels. (back)
  16. The essay by Richard Hodgens, 'A Short Tragical History of the Science Fiction Film', Film Quarterly Vol. 13:2, Winter 1959, 30-39, paints a bleak picture of the American science fiction films of the 1950s. (back)
  17. Susan Sontag, 'The Imagination of Disaster', in Against Interpretation, (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1965), 213. (back)
  18. Peter Ohlin in 'The Dilemma of SF film criticism', in Science Fiction Studies, Fall 1974, discusses this at some length. (back)
  19. Most were serials however, so the total number of science fiction episodes broadcast was close to fifty. (back)
  20. Nick Cooper's web-site at 625.org.uk contains an excellent survey of the early days of science fiction on BBC TV (see the web references at the end of this essay). (back)
  21. The creature that appeared in the final episode was basically a rubber glove, worn and wiggled by Kneale, poked through a blown-up photograph of the interior of Westminster Abbey. Given the limited 405 line resolution, the fact that the BBC cameras were of 1936 vintage and the very small screens of the time, few would have noticed. See Daniel O'Brien, SF:UK - How British Science Fiction changed the world, (London: Reynolds & Hearn, 2000), 60. (back)
  22. For extensive analysis of the political and cultural messages embedded in American science fiction films of the 1950s, see Peter Biskind, Seeing is Believing, (London: Bloomsbury, 2000), 102-159. (back)
  23. For example, they had made several films based on radio characters such as Dick Barton and PC 49. (back)
  24. It was the second British film to be granted an X, the first being a 'baby farming' melodrama, Women of Twilight (1952). (back)
  25. See David Sylvester, 'The Anglicisation of Outer Space', Encounter, January 1956, 69-72, which contains a lengthy, detailed and penetrating review of the film, comparing it with the TV serial. (back)
  26. Cartier, a Ufa contemporary of Pressburger and Wilder, was a seminal figure who worked on many of the outstanding post-war BBC TV productions. He died on June 7th, 1994 - the same day as Dennis Potter. (back)
  27. The Times, Monday December 13th 1954, 11. (back)
  28. At the time the US Information Agency was a front for the CIA. Rathvon's CIA contact was Howard Hunt (later of Watergate). The animated film version of Orwell's Animal Farm (1955) was similarly funded and subjected to script editing. See Frances Saunders, Who paid the piper? The CIA and the cultural Cold War, (London: Granta, 1999), 294-298. (back)
  29. For details of the changes see Allen Eyles, '1984: Orwell Compromised' in Peary, op. cit., 107-111. The ending of the American version was closer to the book. (back)
  30. For a detailed critique of the plot, see Patrick Lucanio, Them or Us - Archetypal Interpretations of Fifties Alien Invasion Films, (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987), 39-40. (back)
  31. He did write one more Quatermass screenplay, in the early 1970's, but the BBC decided it was too expensive. It was eventually made by Euston films for £1Million and shown on ITV in 1979. See Manuel Alvarado & John Stewart, Made for Television: Euston Films Limited, (London: BFI, 1985), 85-87 for the reasons behind its disappointing reception. (back)
  32. Kneale, who had by that time left the BBC, adapted the script himself. Donlevy, by then 'very drunk indeed' according to Kneale, was once again cast as Quatermass and the film was a pale imitation of the serial. (back)
  33. For an interesting comparison of the Hammer and Universal versions, see Andrew Tudor, Monsters and Mad Scientists, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), 142-143. (back)
  34. This was true even in the early days of cinema. Edison produced a 16-minute version in 1910, full of violence. Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994) is an exception and was roundly condemned as a result - for lacking the horror of the original 1931 film! (back)
  35. The science is indeed absurd, but in all fairness I should mention that there are those who rate the film highly, though for its style and Losey's direction, not for its science fiction content. (back)
  36. For details of many of these films see Ian Hunter, op. cit., particularly 7-10, 61-65 and 88-97. (back)
  37. Halliwell claims this is a contender for the worst movie ever made. (back)
  38. John Clute, SF: the Illustrated Encyclopedia, (London: Dorling Kindersley, 1995), 267. (back)
  39. David Pirie, A Heritage of Horror, (London: Gordon Fraser, 1973), 135-6. (back)
  40. For example The Day the Earth Stood Still (20th Century-Fox, 1951) had an anti-war message that was extremely brave for the time. See Biskind, op. cit., 145-159. (back)
  41. An 'idiot plot', according to the science fiction novelist James Blish, is one which is kept in motion solely by virtue of the fact that everyone involved behaves like an idiot. Thus Alien (Scott, 1979, US) starts as science fiction but turns into a horror film driven by an idiot plot when the alien bursts from John Hurt's stomach. At that point the crew, despite knowing there is a dangerous monster on the loose, wander off in ones and twos rather than staying together for safety. See Scott Bukatman, Terminal Identity, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 262-267. (back)
  42. For an interesting discussion of the A for Andromeda and the Quatermass serials, with a particular focus on gender and class issues, see Joy Leman, 'Wise Scientists and Female Androids' in John Corner (ed), Popular Television in Britain: Studies in Cultural History (London: BFI, 1991), 108-124. (back)
  43. Another world-famous astronomer, Carl Sagan, explored a similar theme in his book Contact (1985), filmed by Robert Zemeckis in 1997. (back)
  44. Shubik, like Newman and Cartier, was a science fiction aficionado. See Irene Shubik, Play for Today, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1975), 36-38. ATV filled the slot with the second series of The Avengers. (back)
  45. The BBC budget for The Quatermass Experiment was around £3000 as was the budget for 1984. By contrast, Hammer's budget for Quatermass II was £92,000 (see the Hammer web-site in the web references at the end of this essay). (back)
  46. Julian Petley and Kim Newman, 'The Manxman', Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol. 56, no. 662, (March 1989), p.91. (back)
  47. He later wrote a screenplay for First Men in the Moon (Columbia, 1964), based on Wells' novel. See the interview with Paul Wells, 'Apocalypse Then!', in Ian Hunter, op. cit., 55 and O'Brien, op. cit., 54-55. (back)
  48. See David Pirie, op. cit., 9. By contrast he labels British science fiction films of the period 'pseudo-American'. Ibid., 133. (back)
  49. This was truer in the 1960s. In the 1950s it was less obvious that Britain would never have a significant space industry Ė Britain's ballistic missile program was not cancelled until 1960 and the UK remained a part of ELDO (the European Launcher Development Organisation) until the late 1960s. (back)
  50. For a detailed look at the effect of Doctor Who and Star Trek on television audiences, see John Tulloch and Henry Jenkins, Science Fiction Audiences, (London: Routledge, 1995). (back)
  51. Hammer eventually produced a colour version of Quatermass and the Pit in 1967, Kneale having refused them the film rights until enough time had passed to recast the eponymous hero. Andrew Keir played the part. (back)
  52. Made with American money of course, but like Kubrick's other science fiction films, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1971), made in the UK with a largely British crew. (back)
  53. For details of Sidney Newman's original intent and its subversion by the Daleks' success, see Hunter, op.cit., 116-118. (back)
  54. Milton Subotsky at Amicus did to Dr Who what Hammer had done to Quatermass a decade earlier, producing a series of Dalek films with none of the intelligence or polysemy of the original TV programmes. See Ian Hunter, Ibid., 118-121. (back)
  55. Space 1999 (ITV, 1974-78) and Blake's 7 (BBC, 1977-82) were perhaps the most egregious examples, but there have been plenty of others. (back)

Back to Film Studies Page