by Ricky Young
If this look-back at the 1983 BBC2 science-fiction season has a theme, it’s that if you’re a simple God-fearing man (or, to a lesser extent, woman), just trying to make his way in the world in the shadow of that first cracked atom, then whatever you do, for heaven’s sake give scientists a wide berth.
In nearly everything we’ve covered so far, men of science have either directly or indirectly been responsible for alien invasion, alien near-invasion, alien semi-invasion, or just alerting aliens to our existence so they can stage – yes! – an invasion. It’s almost as if American society in the 1950s went to bed at night afraid of sudden and total destruction from a massive yet amorphous enemy far away.
Not that such mattered to me, watching these films after my tea every Tuesday night for four months, a stripling of nine tender years. I’ve tried to revisit as many as I can, and I’ve found that it’s less the stories and the dialogue that have resonated over the ensuing three decades, but certain images, sound effects and colours.
It also sort-of explains why I blew up that government aerospace research lab that time, with everyone deliberately trapped inside. Goddamn good-for-nothing scientists.
Which is why we’re going to kick off with 1953’s Invaders From Mars, a film which had stayed with me only in the vaguest sense, in that I couldn’t remember nearly anything that actually happened, but scene after scene hit me as powerfully familiar.
There is a reason for this: it’s wildly, crazily, hypnotically terrible.
Little David MacLean, nine-year-old (…..um, okay) lad and typical, punchable 50s yank scrapper, spots a flying saucer landing in the field behind his house. His father goes to investigate, is sucked underground by means nefarious, and returns with an implant scar on the back of his neck, a new and displeasing personality and the gimlet eyes of someone with strong opinions about the benefits of collective farming.
While his father was still missing, his mother calls the police. Two typical bulls turn up, and offer the brilliant line in questioning – ‘Did your husband ever disappear like this before? Look, no offense, but you know how these scientists are sometimes’.
Naturally, young David freaks out. So far, so Bodysnatchers, you might be thinking, but things start getting a lot weirder than that. As more and more people turn up alien-ified, he hooks up with a sympathetic lady doctor, and they go and visit his friend, Dr Kelston who runs the local Observatory, where ‘things have been getting a little hush-hush round here’.
No wonder – Kelston offers a number of theories, with hindsight suspiciously unprompted, about Martians living in underground caves, and having synthetic humans (or ‘mutants’, pronounced ‘mu-TANTS’) to do their bidding. Simply brimming with lovely paranoia, Dr Kelston then (apropos of fuck-all) rattles off perhaps the ultimate distillation of 50s labour-saving ambition:
“You see, once we can shoot a rocket far enough into space, it will just anchor there, then it’s merely a matter of time until we set up interplanetary stations, equipped with atomic power, and operated by remote control. And if any nation dared attack us, just by pushing a few buttons we could wipe them out in a matter of minutes.”
Yeah. If they DARE attack us! That Dr Kelston’s mannerisms are the spit of Dr. Spaceman from 30 Rock doesn’t help at all.
Peculiar design heightens the thick, fevered and dream-like atmosphere – that each scene seems somehow disconnected from the next almost certainly wasn’t on purpose, but adds to the effect. The colours chosen are gloopy and wan, and the interior sets are elongated and deliberately askew. There’s only one real exterior – a somehow off-perspective rise that shields the aliens’ landing-place – but it’s shown so often and with such a sense of menace that it begins to look evil in and of itself.
But please don’t mistake any of this for excitement. As soon as the military get wind of the goings on, the local general orders tanks to surround the suspected alien ship. And more tanks. And more tanks. How much stock footage did the Army have going spare, of tanks? Plenty is the answer, and it’s ALL in this film. Tanks driving, tanks stopping, tanks getting loaded onto trains, tanks sitting on trains, tanks moving on trains, tanks getting off trains. You want tanks? Here they are. Are you a communist? You shouldn’t be, because as you can clearly see, WE’VE GOT ALL THE TANKS.
Look, I’m sorry about that, I had no idea there was so much screen-time devoted to tanks, but my notes for this film seem to consist of one sheet of A4 with the word ‘tanks’ scribbled all over it in tiny, tiny writing. Then folded into an origami tank.
Once the military breach the alien ship (still hidden underground at this point), the final 30 minutes of the film consist of the Martian leader…
… and his velour-clad Mu-TANTS being chased around caves back and forth, repeating corridor footage over and over again to ever more wearying effect. Until we finally get our closure, the aliens are destroyed, and in one of the most forehead-slapping endings I can ever recall, the entire film turns out to be one of little David’s dreams. If it WAS his dream, he’d better have grown up to be a tank designer, that’s all I’m saying.
Wiki tells me that the British distributor baulked at the ending, quite justifiably, and insisted on reshoots. They’re included with the DVD, and show a more conventional finale, but David’s clearly grown about three inches taller in the meantime. Also, I think I preferred the previous “Will this do? It fucking BETTER!” batshittery.
So, avoid this film, because if you don’t avoid it there’s every chance it could mess with your brain, just a little bit.
A better viewing experience, but one unlikely to stay with you in the same manner, is the brilliantly titled It Came From Outer Space! Made in the same year as Invaders from Mars, it’s a pretty good companion-piece, as it goes, although it was picked from the MostlyFilm shelf in no particular order.
Similarly, there’s a natural outsider, one John Putnam, who spots the suspicious landfall of a mysterious object, and then goes on to worry that the subsequent alien force is taking over the locality and controlling his acquaintances. Again, just like those blimmin’ commies.
Older than little David, but no less gobby and annoying, Putnam goes on a single minded journey to expose the menace within via the medium of endless haranguing of everyone around him. It works, too, as eventually he’s got the area’s law enforcement roundin’ up a posse and fixin’ to stomp them some outsiders.
No tanks are involved.
But a lone encounter with a deep-voiced and persuasive alien has Putnam realise that they only want to repair their space-ship and be on their way. He’s been wrong all along! Oh, this paranoia-led jumping-to-conclusions can only lead to miscarriages of justice and a society based of fear and suspicion, and isn’t that a lesson we all could learn? Yeah, take that, Invaders from Mars. Tanks don’t solve everything.
Classily acted, designed and shot, it makes a fairly brave stance for its time (Putnam is in a racy, unmarried relationship, too) and is a solid, clean-lined counterpoint to IoM’s surreal, gung-ho lunacy. And I’m not saying the scene where the telephone engineer in the desert wistfully describes his many years of service, the loneliness of the job, and the effect the whistling of the wires has on his outlook actually inspired Jimmy Webb in the writing of ‘Wichita Lineman’, but it certainly made me sit up and take notice.
Next, it’s Robinson Crusoe on Mars. A gag about our hero being stranded all alone with no Martians for company because they’re all off invading the film before last would be cheap and regrettable, so we’re not doing that. But this could be the lost gem of the 1983 series; hard to acquire through regular means, but luckily it’s all there on YouTube to enjoy.
A routine orbit over Mars has to swerve to avoid a meteor, and the two pilots have to eject in separate pods. Captain Adam West (yes, that one) is killed, but Commander Christopher ‘Kit’ Draper manages to survive, and thus faces a grim existence on the suspiciously Death Valley-like surface of the red planet. He’s a resourceful one, though, and despite his plight being nowhere near reality (i.e. he didn’t instantly die), within the framework of the film’s depiction of the Martian surface, it’s a surprisingly gritty and consistent portrayal of survival.
Things step up a gear when Draper finds his dead colleague’s pet monkey, named Mona, the upside of which means he gets a companion, the downside being that the movie is stolen from underneath him with every little trill and squawk. Still, the charm and effort put into creating a fully realised alien world carry us past contrivances like handily oxygen-giving rocks, and underground pools with plants that yield what looks like chorizo.
Also, when he temporarily loses his monkey, he goes out into the desert shouting ‘Hey, Mona!’, making this the world’s strangest Craig McLachlan impression.
But, what’s this? Footprints? That’s right, after seeing a strange space-ship in the sky, Draper stumbles upon a proper companion this time, an escaped slave from a mining facility over the hill. It’s not quite made clear who’s doing the mining, or who these slaves are or where they came from, but now Draper has a mute Friday whom he can teach English, lightly threaten in that good, old-fashioned Earth way, and with whom he can latterly form a surprisingly touching and – let’s face it – sexy bond.
Space-Friday, however, has evil pain-giving wrist-bands that act as a beacon to the slave-masters, and they want him back. Their mining ships, that flit across the sky in a horribly alien way and blast the earth with a sound-effect that I now realise has infected my dreams for, ooh, 28 years, are genuinely unsettling. They won’t leave our budding civil partnership alone, and they’re chased through underground canals, all the while being fired on relentlessly from above, to the polar ice-cap, where it’s extremely fortunate that they’re rescued by a passing Earth lander. Cue the now-familiar hard-stop common to most of the films I’ve covered, where the narrative just ends unexpectedly, with the suddenness of a mafia whacking.
Bright, modern-feeling – even if the technology on show is of a lovely 60s vintage – and inescapably drenched in vivid red-toned colours, this is one to revisit, even if you do have to watch it in ten-minute bursts. Thanks, the internet!
We should finish with the last-made film on the list, 1972’s Silent Running – only a decade old when featured in our season. If the offcuts from 2001: A Space Odyssey were rescued from Stanley Kubrick’s bin by a burnt-out hippy, then stuck together with patchouli-scented saliva, that would be Silent Running. Not to say it isn’t entertaining – it is – but you’ll feel like you’ve spent 89 minutes being ranted at by a psychopath. That’s because you’ll actually have spent 89 minutes being ranted at by a psychopath.
Freeman Lowell is one of four crewmen on board the Valley Forge, part of a fleet of ships entrusted to carry biospheres containing the last of Earth’s forests, because conditions at home are too grim to ensure survival – what’s that? What’s that you’re saying? That none of this makes a lick of sense in the slightest and your mind is filling with questions about the absurdity of this situation?
Doesn’t matter. Plants = good. Humans = bad. There, that’s all you need to know. The thing is, Lowell is the only one who cares for the forests at all, and he’s BATSHIT INSANE. It helps that he’s played by Bruce Dern, a man who – going by all evidence – isn’t happy in front of the cameras unless he’s in the middle of a wild-eyed, horse-faced freakout.
Less than ten minutes into the film, the order is given from Earth to eject the biospheres and blow them up, for some reason. The other three crewmembers are delighted they get to go home, but Lowell takes a slightly jaundiced view. He kills them all, replacing them with service droids and fires off past Saturn to keep his last forest safe.
All alone, he retreats into a hippy reverie, wandering through the forest in a filthy smock and welling up as he paws his Conservation Pledge hanging over his bed, cursing humanity and its misguided ways as Joan Baez hammers the message home on the soundtrack.
But the other ships catch up with him, and so he decides – again, For Some Reason – to jettison the last forest into deep space with only a droid to tend them as he blows up his own craft in a last gasp of long-haired defiance. There’s too much left unexplained about the entire situation for it to have the punch the film-makers wanted, but I can’t deny I looked slightly more affectionately at the cactus on the kitchen window-sill afterwards – which is what Bruce would have wanted, I’m sure.
I’ll return to wrap up the last seven films on the list in the New Year, but now, if you’ll excuse me, I do believe the neighbours are harbouring dangerous communist sympathies. Where did I leave that wrench?