Part one of a four-part piece, by Ricky Young
Starting on 11th January 1983, and running over 15 weeks, BBC2 ran a branded season of sci-fi films on Tuesday evenings – crucially, for those who were 10 years old at the time, in that all-important between-tea-and-bedtime slot. Alerted to this by my father, who was always on the lookout for great films in front of which he could fall asleep, I sat on the floor and exposed my brain to far more strange and dangerous cosmic rays than could possibly have been good for me.
It was quite the grab-bag of movies, ranging from early-50’s schlock, late-50’s nuclear hand-wringing, psychedelic 60s romps, 70s paranoia and masses more besides. I watched them all. Little of their importance (or lack of) or legacy (ditto) meant anything to me at the time, but the joy contained in that long string of Tuesday nights still resonated in the back of my brain as an indistinct blur of space-ships, laser-beams and sudden stabs of orchestral menace. I’m not going to get all Nick Hornby on you here, but if I had to track down what kick-started my love for the genre, chances are I’d find it in a four-month excuse for a bunch of cheap repeats.
So when the subject came up in conversation recently, with similarly vague-yet-enthusiastic recollections, I felt it my duty to MostlyFilm – Europe’s Best Website – to revisit some of these half-remembered gems and bring them into sharp and unforgiving 1080p focus. And, I’ll warn you now, take the piss a bit.
Of what did the season consist, you must be wondering? Let us look at the rundown, in transmission order:
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
It Came from Outer Space (1953)
Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
Invaders from Mars (1953)
When Worlds Collide (1951)
The Forbin Project (1970)
Forbidden Planet (1956)
This Island Earth (1955)
Silent Running (1972)
Fantastic Voyage (1966)
Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)
The War Of The Worlds (1953)
Daleks’ Invasion Earth – 2150AD (1966)
Conquest of Space (1955)
The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
Heady stuff, then – skewed towards the Technicolor America of the 1950s, where anything unfamiliar came with its own set of fears, and there was plenty of shiny new SCIENCE to get cinemagoers happily unsettled. The one thing we’ll definitely learn, though, is that once the scientists have over-reached themselves and put us all at risk, there’s nothing like getting the leading man to hit the monster with a big wrench.
I started with George Pal-produced When Worlds Collide, the earliest film on our list and just packed with end-of-the-world goodness. Rugged Danny Kaye-esque leading man Richard Derr is a pilot trusted with carrying data between scientists. Only, this data is of a terrifying nature – a rogue star named Bellus is on collision course with Earth! (There’s not much to sweeten the pill, I’m sorry to say. The Earth gets blown up real good.) We’re treated to some now-standard sci-fi characterisation (the kindly-yet-stern professor, the kindly-yet-stern professor’s hot-but-thick daughter, her useful-but-dull suitor and our leading man’s rival for hot-but-thick daughter’s affections, the power-mad and selfish industrialist) but it’s pleasing to see them all done with such conviction. Of course, international crises need international solutions, and if this wasn’t the first portrayal of the United Nations as ‘a small room filled with people unaccountably in national dress talking over one another to no avail’ then I’d like to know what was.
As the star zooms ever nearer to Earth, the plan is to build a rocket-ark in which to spirit off a selection of humanity to try and live on a planet orbiting Bellus. The selection is done by strict lottery amongst the Professor’s workers, except when it isn’t – hot-but-thick daughter gets to take both her beaus because she’s flighty and capricious, and they include a rescued waif and his mutt because cuteness trumps usable survival skills.
There’s a real apocalyptic feel to the last act, where the End Times see sacrifice (from the kindly-yet-stern professor) and betrayal (from the power-mad and selfish industrialist) get their just rewards, and while the rocket’s triumphant take-off might look like a sparkler strapped to a tin-can, I was rooting that they’d make it. I must confess I breathed a sigh of relief when they landed on the new paradise that was the planet UnconvincingMattePainting, but as a closer look at their surroundings shows the remnants of a vast and powerful civilisation, it might not be all plain sailing from here.
Sticking with adaptations of pulp sci-fi, next was 1955’s This Island Earth. I remembered only certain images from this one, and with good reason – apart from a few vivid design choices, it’s incredibly boring. The plot concerns Dr. Cal Meacham, played with baritone woodenness by one Rex Reason.
We will take a moment to admire Rex Reason’s name, and maybe a picture of his face.
Anyway, Rex is a scientist on the cusp of great things, although the first five minutes have him flying a fighter-jet from Washington to LA in a supremely manly manner, for no other reason than to reassure us that he’s not like most scientists, i.e. a communist subversive or predatory homosexual.
Strange parts arrive at his lab unsolicited, however, and after investigating their origin, he gets posted instructions on how to assemble them into a big triangular telly. Having passed this test, he’s recruited to a cabal of other great minds, working on ways of creating energy sources, all sequestered in a country hotel and watched over by someone who might be an alien, named Exeter. This is him, here:
Yeah, me too. But Rex isn’t happy with the situation, and so forces Exeter’s hand. It turns out Exeter is an alien, and Rex and his ladyfriend are kidnapped on an honest-to-goodness flying saucer and taken back to Exeter’s home world. It’s right about this point that the film – which hasn’t exactly been alive with energy until now – takes a numbing descent into torpidity. Arriving at the alien world, it seems that Exeter’s people are under attack from another alien race, who spend their time dropping by with big bombs as presents. (We never find out why.) The energy sources were needed for their planetary shield, and if you, Rex Reason, don’t help us with this pressing issue before we’re on the very verge of being fucked, we’re going to come and live with you guys on Earth – what do you think about that, eh? – uh oh. The planetary shield has failed. We’re now fucked. Ah well, Exeter will fly you home then crash his saucer into the ocean. Fin.
There was one good bit, when the aliens’ guard-monster hoved into view and got immediately hit with a wrench by Rex, but that just made me feel sorry for the poor thing. And he’s the one on the poster! Maybe you dig ponderous stories that go nowhere at glacial pace, though, in which case this could be right up your street.
The only British entry on the list, Daleks’ Invasion Earth – 2150AD is the second of two grim little Amicus cash-ins, based on long-forgotten Saturday teatime filler Doctor Who. No episodes were ever archived before the star (familiar post-war B-movie heavy William ‘Iron-Balls’ Hartnell) retired due to ill-health and the show was cancelled, but based on what we see here (Eccentric Time-Travelling Victorian Inventor plus Niece, Grand-Daughter and Goofy New Recruit aid and abet resistance against occupying Alien Metal Nazis in re-creations of the Blitz) we’re not missing much. Peter Cushing chirrups and head-wobbles as the ineffectual hero, looking for all the world as if he’d rather have a vampire to kill, while the villains of the piece are little more than angry fire-extinguishers. On the plus side, Ray Brooks and Andrew Keir provide hefty support; the former the dead spit of Michael Sheen, the latter’s turn foreshadowing his work on Quatermass that was to turn it into the sci-fi juggernaut it is today.
From outer-space to innerspace! That’s right, it’s time to get your shrink on, with 1966’s Fantastic Voyage.
Has there ever been a more creepy screen presence than imperial-phase Donald Pleasance? Those eyes, that shiny napper, that voice? Equally, has there ever been a more luscious screen presence than imperial-phase Raquel Welch? With all her, er, qualities? No? Well, it’s time to bung them both in a submarine, shrink it down to tiny proportions, then slam it into the jugular of a critically injured Russian scientist on a vital life-saving mission! It is, to be fair, a killer premise.
The none-more-60s opening titles – cold and clinical shots of various SCIENCEY things, set to a jarring and atonal score – give way to leading man Stephen Boyd being recruited for his all-round skillz, which have been deemed useful on a pioneering journey to the very soul of man. (Also, there’s a saboteur on the loose, and it might be Donald Pleasance – talk about casting to type – so Boyd is ready with his wrench. What did I say about wrenches?) The early exposition scenes take place in a secret government base led by the chummiest military types ever put in charge of highly classified operations, and it’s very Austin Powers. Yeah, that film ruined indoor electric buggies for everyone.
The inside of the human body, despite looking very much like the intermission projections at 1980’s ABC cinemas, is a pleasingly realised world, and the groovy sub zips hither and thither on its way to zap a blood-clot, occasionally getting into trouble and needing to stop in various arteries and lymph nodes to have the crew ‘swim’ around big sound-stages draped in tie-died cheesecloth. One such hiccup – where the Stern Scientist’s assistant, Raquel Welch, gets attacked by horrid antibodies – is written, designed, lit and shot to devote two whole minutes of the film to three middle-aged men frantically wiping a spent, cooling evil from her latex-clad bosom. I cannot say (disturbing ramifications for my psyche be damned) that this bit hadn’t stayed with me across the decades.
There’s tension and thrills galore, even if the SCIENCE on show would have Ben Goldacre rushing to ruin everything with stupid old facts, as usual. The saboteur is revealed and killed – his identity fails to surprise – and the rapidly de-shrinking survivors escape through the eyeball where nobody seems bothered that the team leader (one D. Pleasance) isn’t amongst them. Although, to be fair, between the rescue and the hard-stop of the end credits, they were probably too busy checking that Raquel’s tits were okay.
I’ll give a few days to process your feelings of relief – join me on Friday as we ponder the Red Planet, try not to get the world blown up by Intergalactic Police, and cry like a little bitch to a trilling Joan Baez – as ever – in space!