RIP John Hurt

article-2508559-19758e8e00000578-312_306x423[Something written pseudonymously about John Hurt for a 50th anniversary feature on Doctor Who. I have no idea by who.]

He is the one who comes between. The one we did not know was there. The one who does not count (or, at least, was not counted). Even his costume, part-McGann/part-Eccleston and bridging between them both, is interstitial, not really his own. He is the not-Doctor who says ‘no more’. As Matt Smith’s Doctor explains: ‘I said he was me, I never said he was the Doctor. … The name I chose is the Doctor. The name you choose, … it’s like a promise you make. He’s the one who broke the promise’ – and what he did to end the Time War, destroying Gallifrey and billions of Time Lords, he did ‘not [do] in the name of the Doctor’.

It now seems inevitable that sooner or later John Hurt would play the Doctor, and that when he did it would be this particular Doctor – the War Doctor – or someone like him. The one who can bear it no longer. The one who must face a Kobayashi Maru moment that is no mere test or simulation, and which cannot, Kirk-like, be glibly cheated.[1] It is not just that Hurt, the oldest actor to play the role, has been around even longer than the series,[2] and thus can bring a sense of perspective to the more infantile, gurning, gesticulatory, timey-wimey shenanigans of the relaunched series, to its peacock displays of masculinity, its violence and all the snogging. Although, edging his sorrow with an impish despair at the younger men playing his older self, he does.

Nor is just that Hurt’s sf credentials are impeccable, although they are. In Contact (Zemeckis US 1997), he portrays the billionaire funding the first contact mission as an Arthur C. Clarke lookalike, and more recently he raised Hellboy (Ron Perlman) from a pup for Guillermo del Toro. Haggard and squalid in Michael Radford’s Nineteen Eighty-four (UK 1984), his is the definitive screen Winston Smith; but one can easily imagine him taking a role in Equals, the Kristen Stewart-starring ‘epic love story’ adaptation of Orwell’s novel with which we are currently threatened, just so he can suffer again and suffer some more. It would not be the first time Hurt returned for a further dose of agony and anguish, reprising tragedy as farce. After all, his is the chest from which the alien chestburster first burst, and then again in Spaceballs (Brooks US 1987).

And it this capacity for suffering, and for provoking our sympathy, that is the key to Hurt’s persona and to his casting as the Doctor, and as this particular Doctor; that, and his aura of jaded sexual dissidence – he is, do not forget, Caligula in I, Claudius (UK 1976) – that often also leads to suffering.

He is Max, the heroin addict stuck in a Turkish hellhole prison in Midnight Express (Parker UK/US 1978) but in Love and Death on Long Island (Kwietniowski UK/Canada 1997), he is Giles De’Ath – a reclusive, modernity-hating author who stumbles into a cinema hoping for an E.M. Forster adaptation and instead gets Hotpants College II and is smitten with its star, Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestley). He is John Merrick in The Elephant Man (Lynch US 1980), disfigured, despised and turned into a sideshow freak. Yet he is also The Countess in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (Van Sant US 1993), sagely noting, ‘All of us are freaks in one way or another. Try being born a male Russian Countess into a white, middle class, Baptist family in Mississippi, and you’ll see what I mean’. In 10 Rillington Place (Fleischer UK 1971), he is the ill-educated Timothy Evans, framed and executed for murders committed by serial killer John Christie (Richard Attenborough). In Scandal (Caton-Jones UK 1989), he is Stephen Ward, the procurer at the heart of the Profumo affair, who is abandoned by his Establishment friends, scapegoated and driven to suicide (or possibly murdered by MI5). But he is also the fabulous flaming Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant (UK 1975), produced by Doctor Who’s very own Verity Lambert, and in An Englishman in New York (UK 2009).[3] He is the fearfully haunted Parkin in Whistle and I’ll Come to You (UK 2010) and the ailing vampire Christopher Marlowe in Only Lovers Left Alive (Jarmusch UK/Germany/France/Cyprus/US 2013), but he is also the world-weary assassin in The Hit (Frears UK 1984) and, in a neat reversal, Britain’s fascist dictator, the Big Brother to Evey’s (Natalie Portman) Winston Smith, in V for Vendetta (McTeigue US/UK/Germany 2005).

And in Frankenstein Unbound (Corman US 1990), he is Dr Joe Buchanan, the inventor of an ultimate weapon that tears holes in time and space. It casts him back to the very birth of sf, to the Villa Diodati in 1817, but in an alternative history in which Mary Shelley is writing up a factual account, not a novel, of the Frankenstein affair. And then he travels forward into a future in which his superweapon has destroyed humankind.

He has done all this before. No wonder the War Doctor’s weary mantra is ‘no more, no more’. You can hear his exhaustion ground deep in that gravelly voice.

‘I’ve been fighting this war for a long time, I’ve lost the right to be the Doctor’, he tells the sentient ultimate weapon as he prepares to use it, knowing that his punishment will be to survive genociding his own people. But Hurt has suffered – has hurt – for so long, who else had the right to be the War Doctor?

Notes
[1] Although, being a Steven Moffat episode, actually it can. The scenario can be gamed, and what was written in stone can be rewritten, while handy amnesia also leaves continuity pretty much intact.
[2] Already a stage actor, his first television appearance was in an episode of Probation Officer (UK 1959–62) broadcast two years before ‘An Unearthly Child’.
[3] Sadly, he is also Kerwin, the gay cop teamed with Ryan O’Neal in the alleged comedy Partners (Burrows US 1982).

Timescape (David Twohy 1992), adapted from ‘Vintage Season’ (1946) by Lawrence O’Donnell (CL Moore and Henry Kuttner)

1eaffiche[yet another of those pieces I wrote for the book on sf adaptations that never appeared]

Lawrence O’Donnell is one of the many pseudonyms under which C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner, both already established sf authors, published collaborative fiction after their 1940 marriage until Kuttner’s death in 1958. The extent and nature of their co-authorship in any individual story is never clear. ‘Vintage Season’ is generally considered to be ‘probably a full collaboration’, drawing out both author’s ‘concerns’ in a ‘perfect blend of Kuttner’s logic, Moore’s emotional depth, and their combined irony and stylistic sophistication’ (Attebery 175).

In the final days of a glorious May, Oliver Wilson, who owns a run-down mansion overlooking a small-town, faces a dilemma. Omerie, Kleph and Klia Sancisco have rented rooms until the end of the month, but his fiancée, Sue, wants him to accept a mysterious, lucrative offer to buy the house.

There is something peculiar about the Sansiscos: ‘the beautiful clothing they wore so confidently was not clothing they were accustomed to’ and they speak ‘as trained singers sing, with perfect breath control and voice placement’ (O’Donnell 264, 265). Their queerness – they are often described as effeminate, flamboyant and decadent – intrigues him; and others like them begin to appear in town. There is sadness in Kleph’s eyes when she looks at Oliver. She shows him marvels he does not quite comprehend, intoxicates him with euphoriac tea and seduces him. She is enraptured by a recording of an uncompleted three-dimensional, audio-visual symphonia about human suffering in the face of catastrophe, but it sickens Oliver ‘to the depths of his mind’ (286). He tricks her into revealing the truth: the tourists are time-travellers from an idyllic future, but there is more to their trip than merely visiting perfect seasons – they have come to watch a meteorite destroy the town.

1emoore_kuttner
Lawrence O’Donnell

Oliver wakes up several days later. The tourists have gone, replaced by Cenbe, who is observing the aftermath to help him complete his symphonia. He lets slip that the time-travellers were inoculated to prevent a virulent disease accidentally being taken back to their own time. Oliver, already infected by the meteorite-borne disease, leaves an account of all that he has learned so that time-travellers can be identified and thus future disasters averted. But his house is dynamited in ‘the futile attempt to halt the relentless spread of the Blue Death’ (306). Cenbe’s symphonia is a ‘crowning triumph’ (306).

David Twohy’s directorial debut, intended for theatrical release as The Grand Tour, was instead released to US cable as Disaster in Time and straight to video as Timescape (it is also sometimes called The Grand Tour: Disaster in Time). It rather effectively reworks ‘Vintage Season’ as a tightly budgeted Frank Capra picture channelled through Steven Spielberg, but maintains a sufficiently dark edge to keep it from falling into the kind of sentimentalism typical of cable movies that combine problematic family relationships with fantastical elements.

1ec0414f592bfafc5c7c4df01daaeWidower Ben Wilson (Jeff Daniels) is converting a mansion into a guesthouse. He has a young teenage daughter, Hillary (Ariana Richards), a drink problem and recurring nightmares about the death of his wife Carolyn (Mimi Craven) in a car crash – he was seen fleeing the scene, but insists he was running for help. When the mysterious Madame Iovine (Marilyn Lightstone), a reworking of the pushy Hollia into Omerie’s role, arrives with half a dozen tourists, including the striking Reeve (Emilia Crow), as Kleph is renamed, Ben agrees to let them stay for a few days, despite the renovations being incomplete.

Whereas O’Donnell introduced the tourists’ strangeness by comparing them to foreigners and to people too wealthy to understand the ways of ordinary folk, Twohy depicts them as aloof, restricts their screen time, and reveals their unfamiliarity with everyday things through subtle touches, such as the bumbling Quish (David Wells) not understanding shoe laces. They claim to be from ‘south California’ and come across as European yuppies adrift in the American mid-west. Twohy also reduces the interaction between Ben and Reeve, sidestepping the demands that Kleph’s extravagant décor and advanced technology would have made on the budget; but his depiction of the initial attraction between them – Ben peers at the nearly-naked Reeve through the plastic sheeting over her doorway – looks like something from a straight-to-cable erotic thriller of the period. When Ben works out from Quish’s hints that the tourists are time-travelling ‘disaster groupies’ and moves to a hotel in town, Reeve seduces and intoxicates him to keep him from interfering in their plans.

Twohy focuses on Ben’s relationship with his daughter, and the bitterness of his dead wife’s father, Judge Caldwell (George Murdock), who obtains a writ of temporary custody over Hillary. When the meteor hits, destroying the west end of town, Ben’s concern is entirely for her. Once she is safe, he joins the search for survivors. The tourists – Quish insists he is not a sightseer but a ‘retropologist’ – are busy taking it all in. Next day, while Hillary helps out at the emergency centre established in the school, Ben discovers that the tourists have relocated to a new vantage point from which to observe a gas explosion destroying the school.

1evlcsnap-2011-04-24-22h37m40s174Ben wakes up to find a new time traveller, the Undersecretary (Robert Colbert), investigating Quish’s death while saving Ben from the explosion. Before leaving, an apologetic Reeve slips Quish’s passport, which contains a time-travelling device, to Ben. He travels back to before the meteor impact, but is caught trying to sneak Hillary out of the judge’s house. Nobody will listen to his warnings, and he has to phone his pre-disaster self to break him out of jail. Two minor plot points – the reverend’s (Time Winters) attempts to get Ben to mend the church bells, which have not rung for eighteen years, and repeated references to Für Elise, which Carolyn used to play – come together as the two Bens bash out Beethoven’s familiar bagatelle with sledgehammers on the bells. People pour in from the west end of town to find out what is going on, and are thus saved. Ben convinces them not to use the school as an emergency centre. The Undersecretary returns the time-travelling Ben to where he belongs.

In a brief coda, Ben looks at photos of Carolyn. Hillary finds his chair empty and Quish’s passport on the table beside it. From the next room comes the sound of Für Elise, played perfectly on the piano. ‘Mom?’, she asks.

1ehqdefault

It is not uncommon to use a short story as a film’s opening act or sequence, deriving name recognition or kudos from the pre-sold property before finding ways to elaborate upon material that is too scanty to sustain an entire film. Timescape does not quite fit this pattern. Based on a substantial novella, which provides almost half of the film, it makes nothing of its source or authorship, which are probably too little known to be particularly marketable anyway. Twohy discards the O’Donnell’s selfish, bullying Sue, freeing Oliver to become less of a dupe as he is transformed – thanks to Jeff Daniels’ typically precise performance – into the loving and vulnerable Ben. While the film eschews O’Donnell’s sweetly detached, apocalyptic ironies, preferring to reassert the nuclear family and a safe domestic sphere, Twohy’s simple time-loop narrative results in a more persuasive vision of a man learning the error of his ways than the better-known Groundhog Day (Ramis 1993). The key scene comes after the prison breakout as the two Bens drive to the judge’s house to grab Hillary and flee the town. The pre-disaster Ben, on learning of the imminent catastrophes, accuses the post-disaster Ben of cowardice, just like when he – they – fled the car-crash rather than saving Carolyn. In this moment of heightened anxiety, Ben voices what he has known all along, and earns redemption by drawing on this self-knowledge to save others. It is not the kind of thing one finds in the fiction of Moore and Kuttner, individually or collaboratively, but in moving away from the substance and tone of their story, Twohy creates an affecting and genuinely science-fictional moment. It is unsurprising that his subsequent career as a writer and director of sf films has been pretty successful: while accommodating the demands of big-budget Hollywood filmmaking, he continues to display kinds of sf thinking more typically associated with the literary tradition.

References
Brian Attebery. ‘C[atherine] L[ucille] Moore (1911–87)’. Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction. Ed. Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts and Sherryl Vint. London: Routledge, 2009. 171–76.

Lawrence O’Donnell. ‘Vintage Season’. The Astounding-Analog Reader, Book Two. Ed. Harry Harrison and Brian W. Aldiss. London: Sphere, 1973. 263–30.

Must-see TV this weekend

 

Glamorous but tough cop and psychiatrist ill-suited to psychological profiling team up to fight crime.

 

Barnabas: The Cornish Years

 

David Lynch’s long-awaited return to television, with a series set in the catering department of a sprawling labyrinthine castle

 

Three descendants of the Crawley family move into an inner city apartment with a disreputable distant hippy relative, and teach the local hip-hop crew the ultra-posh moves they need to win the national face-off competition.

 

Hyacinth Bouquet joins the Marvel Netflix universe

 

On a break from fighting crime in NYC, Sherlock Holmes takes a riverboat holiday in Derbyshire while Joan Watson catches up on that reading she’d been meaning to do about the gastrointestinal tract

 

 

The City in Fiction and Film, week four

SH_BLUE-01One of the many other things to take into account when designing a coherent degree programme is when and where to fit in all the other things that a HEI is now often expected to provide during scheduled classes – things like study skills, careers, etc, etc. So rather than screen a film this week, this module was responsible for the first library training session, beginning with basics (such as where the library is and what resources and services it provides) and building up to a detailed online workbook (locating different kinds of sources, assessing their reliability, how – and why – to quote and/or paraphrase them, how to reference them, etc). The workbook takes maybe two hours to complete – and in a couple of weeks, students will have their first assignment – an online quiz that tests their knowledge of the library, referencing, etc. Our Faculty Librarian designs and presents this workbook and the quiz, and machines mark it for me!

Back in my day, you were given a library card and told the card catalogue was probably quicker to use and more reliable than the rather basic computer catalogue… Kids today, honestly they don’t know they’re born!

Class began with an informal test about all the semiotic terminology encountered last week – students were free to draw on any resources to help them reformulate the ideas in their own terms to a) probe their understanding of those ideas; b) probe the ideas themselves; and c) tame an alien vocabulary and make it useful.

Next, we took on the James Bond exercise we did not have time for last week. At the start of chapter 25 of Ian Fleming’s From Russia, With Love (1957), called ‘A Tie with a Windsor Knot’, Bond is joined on the Orient Express by psychopathic SMERSH assassin Red Grant posing as an MI6 agent sent by M called Captain Norman Nash. After an exchange of codewords, we are treated to a description of Nash through Bond’s eyes from which Bond extrapolates the character and life story of his new acquaintance. Several codes are evoked to suggest that Nash is untrustworthy or at least unseemly.

He has ‘thick lips’ which writhe briefly rather than forming a smile – whether a friendly greeting or an ironic grin at the ‘childish’ password ‘ritual’. Those lips suggest a racialised sensuality – rather than possessing the British character associated with a stiff upper lip, Nash has stayed behind in the Mediterranean after the war, to ‘avoid the rigours of England’ and to take a foreign girlfriend or marry an Italian.

It gets worse. Not only does he speaks with ‘a hint of … cheap brogue’, so perhaps his off-whiteness can be traced to Irish ancestry, his curious accent is probably also a consequence of speaking a ‘foreign language all the time’. He has simultaneously “gone native” and let the veneer of English civilisation slip sufficiently to reveal beneath it a not-Englishness. Perhaps that is why his calling card mentions his rank, Captain, and that he is a member of the RAC. They are desperate attempts to assert an identity he does not quite possess; and they give themselves  away as such to Bond’s trained – or perhaps merely bigoted –  eye.

Nash’s lips might be given to bestial writhing, but his eyes are at once dead – there is ‘no light in them’ – and a ‘very pale blue’, watery perhaps and lacking resolve. Certainly the career trajectory Bond imagines for him – from ‘minor public school’ (so not from one of the best English families, maybe even from an Irish family) through the Royal Engineers (perhaps not the most frontline of wartime active service, and a bit close to skilled manual labour) to stumbling into a position with MI6 because all the more senior and more qualified men returned to the ‘rigours of England’.

His clothing suggests some mismatching of colours – reddish-brown tweed, pale yellow shirt, blue and red regimental tie, a red bandana handkerchief (that flops out of his breast pocket), a ‘gold signet ring with an indecipherable crest’, a battered silver watch with a leather strap. And then there is that tie tied in a Windsor knot. To Bond, the knot signals Nash’s vanity; it is after all ‘the mark of the cad’ – and was in popular consciousness linked to Edward VII, who after his abdication was seen as a potential pretender to the throne (especially as he was not exactly as unsympathetic to Hitler as one might have hoped).

Throughout, the meanings generated by Nash’s appearance rely on the connotations evoked by specific word choices and combinations, which in turn rely on shared codes through which we understand those connotations. And we can push beyond codes to what Roland Barthes called ‘myth’ – especially around class, masculinity and the colonial imaginary – and thus to ideology.

As Jonathan Bignell explains, for Barthes, ‘myth’ refers

to ways of thinking about people, products, places or ideas which are structured to send particular messages to the reader or viewer of texts … Media texts often connect one signified idea with another, or one signifier with another, in order to attach connotations to people and things and endow them with mythic meaning. (Media Semiotics, 2nd edition, 16, 17)

Fortunately the British press, British Prime Ministers and Fox News never let you down when you want a contemporary examples, so we began by questioning why The Times (14 September 2015) described Jeremy Corbyn’s favoured mode of transport as a ‘Chairman Mao-style bicycle’. Why would a right-wing newspaper want to connect the new moderate centre-left leader of the Labour Party with the head of a brutal communist dictatorship?

We then took a look the first half at this segment from John Oliver, in which he explains why it is problematic for David Cameron to call refugees ‘a swarm’, and why Fox News cannot heavily imply all muslim men and/or refugees are terrorists while claiming that they are not implying precisely that.

In each of these examples, signifiers connote and those connotations draw upon and reinforce Barthesian myths. (We also took a look at Barthes’s own famous example of the Paris-Match cover in which a young black cadet salutes the French flag, thus apparently justifying colonialism.)

After all this (and a break!), it was time for some urban fiction, beginning with Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Blue Carbuncle’ (1892) – the one in which a lost hat and abandoned Xmas goose lead Holmes to solve the theft of the eponymous gem. Our main focus was on the passage in which Holmes performs a semiotic analysis of the hat (though we also considered the simple techniques Doyle uses to persuade us of the accuracy of Holmes’s reading).

There were some indexical signs: several tallow splashes on the hat suggest its owner, Horner, lives in a house where gas-lighting has not yet been installed; and, more ridiculously, the size of the hat leads Holmes to conclude that Horner has a large head and therefore must be ‘highly intellectual’ – later, Horner’s mannered expression and use of the term ‘disjecta membra‘ will serve to confirm this absurdity. (The story was published the year before HG Wells’s essay ‘The Man of the Year Million’, which led to the design of his Martians and thus all those later big-brained aliens with puny bodies – so clearly something was in the air, not least because Horner is also sedentary and out of shape.)

There is also plenty of evidence of myth, as the connotations Holmes draws from his perusal of the hat reach out into the dimension of Victorian morality. Horner, who is no longer as foresightful as once he was, who has fallen on hard times, who  is not as attentive to his appearance as he used to be, and who has taken to drink, is obviously undergoing ‘a moral retrogression’ and has a ‘weakening nature’, though there are vague hopeful indications that ‘he has not entirely lost his self-respect’. In this aspect of Holmes’s analysis, meanings are converted into values – myth, and behind it ideology, in action.

This can be seen even more starkly in Holmes’s conclusion that Horner’s wife no longer loves him.

This hat has not been brushed for a week. When I see you, my dear Watson, with a week’s accumulation of dust upon your hat, and when your wife allows you to go out in such a state, I shall fear that you also have been unfortunate enough to lose your wife’s affection.

Patriarchy, anyone? Normative gender roles much? (It took mere seconds to come up with a half a dozen other reasons for Horner’s hat not having been dusted recently.)

We also took a quick look at the sequence from the first episode of Sherlock, in which Frumious Bandersnatch explains his initial reading of Bilbo’s character, history and current situation – culminating in a moment in which his reliance on heteronormative codes leads him to mistake the gender of his new friend’s sibling. (Other parts of his semiotic analysis were also questionable – were Iraq and Afghanistan really the only sunny places overseas British troops were stationed in 2009/10? why are scratches around the port on the phone evidence of the previous owner having a drink problem when we already know the current owner has a hand that sometimes shakes uncontrollably? Etc.)

We also took a look at the start of Holmes’ crime-scene analysis (damp clothes indexing rain, etc). And the handy bit when we see Holmes work along syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes to make sense of the victim’s message scratched in the floor with her fingernails: RACHE. In what languages is that a word? German, meaning revenge. Doesn’t seem very likely. What letter could be added to it to complete an English word? An L? Rachel! It’s a name. That’ll do nicely.

We finally took a look at William Gibson’s ‘The Gernsback Continuum’ (1981), but we were all flagging a little by this time. Its main significance for this class is twofold:

  • that there came a point – Gibson argues for the 1930s – when design started to dominate function in the construction of commodities and thus we started reorganising the way we purchase things in terms of their readable connotations;
  • and that that we live in built environments which are to varying degrees designed, and can thus be read for their meanings, which may well change over time. (And that all around us lurk semiotic ghosts.)

 

 

 

 

Out of the Unknown: ‘Thirteen to Centaurus’, BBC2 13 December 1965

JG Ballard
JG Ballard

Scriptwriter Stanley Miller and director Peter Potter, responsible for series opener ‘No Place Like Earth’, return with Ballard rather than Bradbury for an episode that is just as talky but overall rather more effective. This is in large part down to casting of British film and television stalwart – and one-time Moonbase commander (see Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks Moonbase 3 (1973)) – Donald Houston in the lead role of Francis. Always more likely to be a sidekick  than a leading man, he is reliably reliable, a curious mix of stolidity, occasional passion and uncertain humour.

13 OOTU ArticleBallard’s story, originally published in Amazing Science Fiction (April 1962), is set up as one of those generation starship stories in which people do not realise they are on a generation starship until they and you discover that they are – like Robert Heinlein’s 1941 ‘Universe’ and Brian Aldiss’s 1958 Non-Stop (unless you had the misfortune to buy it under the US title, Starship, which kind of gave the game away) and Syfy’s plodding Ascension (2014). There is also more than a hint of Isaac Asimov’s 1941 robot story ‘Reason’ – adapted in the second season as ‘The Prophet’ – to it.

tve91644-19651213-1718Abel, who is young and problematically smart, begins to work out what is going on, so Francis, the ship’s doctor tells him all about their mission to Alpha Centauri, commenced before Abel was born and not to be completed within his lifetime. Ballard’s extra twist, of course, is that Francis is lying – the mission is a simulation. The fake starship is housed in a dome on Earth, and its crew are under constant surveillance in order to see how an actual crew would fare during a real mission. It has been running for half a century, and following the failure of moon and Mars colonies, interest has waned and budgets are being cut. Under this increased pressure, Francis – who is secretly able to enter and exit the ship – elects to join the crew permanently so as to help them survive whatever method is found to curtail the ‘mission’. Like Kerans in The Drowned World, Ballard’s novel from the same year, Francis heads further in, embracing the catastrophe rather than fleeing from it. (Ballard’s solar imagery also plays a role in the story.)

Two further Ballardian twists occur.

05-thirteen-to-centaurusFirst, Abel decides he wants to build an isolation experiment inside the starship, itself an isolation experiment – the kind of nesting of simulations within simulations found in some of Frederik Pohl’s short stories and in Daniel Galouye’s Simulacron-3 (1964) before becoming a mainstay of unsurprisingly unsurprising surprise VR stories. (One of the nice, if unintentional, things in the episode is that when Francis exits the starship and descends into the dome housing it, the landscape depicted on the studio wall in the background is obviously fake, giving an uncanny frisson to it all by suggesting that the primary narrative diegesis is also a simulation. Who knows? This might even explain why the monitors’ uniforms are way more space opera-ish than those of the starship crew. (Except it doesn’t.))

Second, it becomes clear that, at some unspecified point in the story, Abel has discovered and embraced the true truth of his situation but also that he is not the first on the starship to have done so. These are precisely the kind of thing one now expects from a Ballard story that must have been stunning at the time – they certainly wobbled my world a little when as a teenager I first read the story.

thirteen_leadThe story also always reminds me of The Prisoner (1967–68), the quintessential British sf tale of simulacral societies, isolation experiments, conditioning, paranoia and indeterminate realities. Ballard’s story is likewise an ambivalent tale of countercultural youth rebellion that doesn’t really like youth or the counterculture or rebellion, that is rather priggish and authoritarian, and that features a protagonist (or two) with whom it is impossible to empathise, difficult even to sympathise, but whose travails you nonetheless follow with interest.

The episode makes two significant alterations.

04-thirteen-to-centaurusFirst, with its opening scene of Captain Peters’ funeral it introduces a religious undercurrent into proceedings, from the crew’s dubbed singing of ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ to a religious monomania that possesses Abel – or at least becomes part of the rhetoric he introduces into the experiments in conditioning he performs on Francis.

Second, while Ballard’s story concludes on an ambiguous note, with Francis discovering that Abel and probably Captain Peters knew that the starship was a fake, the adaptation ends with the suggestion that Abel, who, like Satan, would rather reign in hell, has completely broken Francis, who now believes he really is part of a mission to Alpha Centauri.

The adaptation, however, is no more capable than Ballard of clarifying exactly who are the thirteen of the title.

In Ballard’s story, at one point a slip of Francis’s tongue reveals that he considers himself one of the 14 en route to Alpha Centauri – although there only 13 people in the crew, plus himself as an observer who knows the truth. After Peters’ death, there are 12 plus one, or possibly 11 plus two, which is how things stand at the end of the story (although the revelation that Peters’ had also known what was going on demands a further recount). In the adaptation, the early disposal of Peters forces Miller’s script to change these numbers. Francis implies he counts himself among the 13, although there are only 12 left plus himself as an observer. At the end of the episode, Abel knows they are going nowhere but Francis seems to have been conditioned into believing they are en route to Alpha Centaurus. So there remain 12 believers and one observer. But in Francis’s closing exchange with Abel, there is talk of Abel controlling the 13 people on the ship – but for that to add up, Abel must be one of the 13 Abel is controlling.

Though to be honest, having just worked all that out, I am not entirely sure I care.

 

Out of the Unknown: ‘Some Lapse of Time’, BBC2 8 December 1965

John Brunner
John Brunner

One of the things ‘Some Lapse of Time’ gets right (and would have probably got right even if it had been a 75-minute episode as originally intended) is selecting to adapt a source of appropriate length – John Brunner’s novella of the same name, originally published in Science Fantasy (February 1963) and reprinted in Brunner’s collection Now Then just a couple of months before the episode aired. A novella has more than sufficient complication for an hour-long drama without any need for additional elaboration (or padding), while also not requiring the compression that adapting a novel might entail, such as season two’s Level Seven, season three’s Immortality, Inc and The Naked Sun or season four’s Deathday.

lapse-02Dr Max Harrow – whose young son recently died of a rare disease, heterochylia, the product of a genetic mutation caused by radiation – is plagued by a nightmare of the distant past, of immiserated primitives dominated by a shaman figure. In the small hours of the morning, after the nightmare has woken him once more, a policeman arrives at the door, having found an unconscious tramp outside Harrow’s house. To the doctor’s astonishment, the tramp seems to have survived into his thirties or forties despite suffering from heterochylia, which is every bit as impossible as him even having the disease since he was born long before there were any nuclear weapons. And he somehow found his way to the doorstep of one of the handful of doctors in the country capable of recognising the symptoms…

These are not the only odd thing about the vagrant.lapse

He carries a finger bone with a distinctive curve, he speaks no known language and is, it turns out, radioactive. He is not from the past at all, but from the future. From after the nuclear war. His language is an evolved or, rather devolved, version of English (like in Threads (1985) or Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980)).

And when Harrow loses the top of one finger – accidentally slammed in a car door during an argument with his wife – and it goes missing, he realises it is the shaman/tramp’s fetish bone, used to focus his journey back in time. (Nigel Kneale’s The Road (1964) relied on a similar reversal of temporal perspective.)

Also being treated at hospital is Wilfred Fitz-Prior, the Minister of War – precisely the kind of person Harrow holds responsible for causing his son’s death. (What choice does Harrow have but to steal the Fitz-Prior’s’s amputated leg and hide it so that it’s bones, too, can become a fetish object for some post-apocalyptic shaman to use to come back and haunt the Minister?) On a rather less macabre note, when Harrow wants to carbon-date the finger bone, he consults with Gerry Anderson (presumably taking a break from filming Supercar or Fireball XL5).

Brunner’s novella is structurally a little clunky, and bows some under the weight of a compositional principle that seems to consist of cramming in everything he could think of, but this does help to generate a sense of inescapable nightmare. (A nightmare that ties in closely with Brunner’s work with the National Council for the Abolition of Nuclear Tests and with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.)

The script by Leon Griffiths – who also wrote John Gillings’ Burke and Hare movie The Flesh and the Fiends (1960), and adapted Raymond F. Jones’s  ‘Divided We Fall’ (1950) and Rog Phillips’ ‘The Yellow Pill’ (1958) for Out of this World (25 August and 30 June 1962, respectively, the latter also reworked for Out of the Unknown (25 March 1969)) – cuts away a lot of the clutter. This reduces the nightmarish quality somewhat, even as the pace of the episode teeters on the brink of hysteria.

The production design is by some chap called Ridley Scott, and includes some impressively moderne hospital spaces, especially an angular corridor. The brief exteriors – filmed at the Technical College and the School of Art in (appropriately enough) Harrow – further convey this sense of the very near future; and one shot, in which the camera hurriedly tracks alongside one side of a fence while Dr Harrow races down the other, is especially effective.

Other things to look out for:
– the copper who finds the tramp is played by a young Peter Bowles, delightfully struggling to do the accent of a rural plod
– one of the medical students lurking in the background is played by Victor Pemberton, who wrote the Doctor Who serial ‘Fury from the Deep’ (1968), as well as episodes of Timeslip (1971) and Ace of Wands (1972)

lapse-03Previous episode, ‘Andover and the Android’

Sources
John Brunner, ‘Some Lapse of Time’, Now and Then (London: Mayflower-Dell, 1965)
Mark Ward, Out of the Unknown: A Guide to the Legendary Series (Bristol: Kaleidoscope, 2004)
Out of the Unknown DVD boxset. BFI, 2014.

Monday morning in Cameron’s wasteland

In 1972 a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire the A-Team.

Sadly, just when we need them most, five years of austerity – based on a huge lie designed to redistribute wealth in entirely the wrong direction – have hit even our heroes hard. Pity the fools.

austerity a-team