Spectacle, Apocalypse and the Telepathic Fruitarian Pacifists from Mars

A_Trip_to_Mars_aka_Himmelskibet_advertisement_1920A version of this review appeared in Science Fiction Film and Television 4.1 (2010), 107–15.

Atlantis (August Blom Denmark 1913). Danish Film Institute. PAL region 0. Original ratio. 20fps. Verdens undergang (The End of the World; August Blom 1916) and Himmelskibet (A Trip to Mars; Holger-Madsen Denmark 1918). Danish Film Institute. PAL region 0. Original ratio. 17fps and 20fps, respectively.

For half a decade, beginning in 1910, Denmark was the most influential film-making nation in Europe after France. Of more than two dozen production companies, many of which lasted only long enough to make a handful of films, Nordisk Films Kompagni was the most successful.[1] Established in 1906 by cinema-owner Ole Olsen, it quickly became the second largest European production company, after France’s Pathé,[2] making, for example, over 140 films in 1915 alone. Indeed, Nordisk’s fame and influence was such that the Hungarian theatrical actor and film director Miháley Kertész – better known as Michael Curtiz – visited Denmark to study their filmmaking systems and techniques.[3] Nordisk ceased to make films in 1917, and when production recommenced after World War One, its global position was lost. Its German market was undermined by the establishment of Ufa, Germany’s state-owned studio, and Nordisk’s increasing focus on literary adaptations proved a less-successful export strategy than Germany’s development of expressionism into a cinematic mode.

Spectacle
c64e29ec5045f5683442973117c20c6f
In 1910, actor August Blom joined Nordisk’s 1700 staff as a director.[4] He soon became the studio’s leading director, shooting more than a hundred films by 1924. While Olsen preferred single reel films (up to sixteen minutes long), which had to sell about twenty prints before turning a profit, Blom wished to make longer films. After his racy three-reel melodrama Val Fœngslets Port (The Temptations of a Great City; Denmark 1911) became an international hit, selling nearly 250 copies, he increasingly got his way. Although largely forgotten nowadays, Blom was a major figure in the development of what we now think of as feature-length films, both in Denmark and internationally. He was best known for literary adaptations, including versions of Robinson Crusoe, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and a Hamlet shot at Elsinore, and for social melodramas, which depicted temporary mobility between social classes before conservatively reasserting the natural order of social hierarchies (Mottram 135–6). In 1913, he adapted German Nobel prize-winner Gerhart Hauptmann’s novel Atlantis, following its narrative very closely. It was a prestige production over which Hauptman retained considerable control; but despite the novel’s rather modern perspective, its story of the self-exiled, proto-existentialist Dr Friedrich von Kammacher (Olaf Fønss) resonated strongly with the melodramatic form Blom favoured. At eight reels (nearly two hours), it was the longest Danish film – and one of the longest films anywhere – to that date. It was another international hit, with prints prepared specifically for Danish, German, English, French, Italian, Portuguese and Russian language markets (there were two Russian versions, one with a much more tragic conclusion which is included as an extra on this DVD). For its US release, it was cut down to six-reels. According to Mottram, the excised scenes almost certainly included von Kammacher’s side trip to Paris and his brief shipboard affair with a Russian Jewess from steerage, and probably the two-shot sequence which gives the film its title and its few moments of more-or-less direct interest to readers of this journal: von Kammacher’s dream/vision of Atlantis.

Nearly halfway through the film, the overwrought von Kammacher retreats to his cabin on a liner crossing the Atlantic to the US. In his sleep, he meets a dead friend, with whom he walks through the streets of Atlantis. While Blom succeeds in giving this sequence an oneiric quality, the lost continent is rather obviously just a Danish town. This tension makes it appear oddly prescient of Ingmar Bergman’s symbolic use of Scandinavian settings in a film such as Smultronstället (Wild Strawberries; Sweden 1957), but it is profoundly at odds with the rest of the film’s realist aesthetics. In Blom’s defence, the equivalent brief passage in Hauptmann’s novel seems just as odd.

Perhaps, then, of greater interest than this fantastic element is the film’s investment in spectacle, which is increasingly treated as a defining characteristic of sf cinema. In addition to specially-filmed establishing shots of Manhattan, location shooting in Berlin (including striking material filmed from moving cars) and shots of magnificent landscapes and seascapes, there are three sequences that even more specifically evoke the cinema of attractions associated with early cinema.

First, when von Kammacher, distressed by the rejection of his revolutionary bacteriological research and by the need to commit his insane wife to an asylum, takes a holiday in Berlin, his friend Hans Füllenberg (Miháley Kertész) invites him to the debut of Ingergerd Hahlstrom (Ida Orlov). Her dance – a vaguely allegorical performance called ‘The Spider’s Victim’ – not only fills him with a desire for her against which he will struggle for the rest of the film, but also abruptly terminates narrative momentum in order to insert what is, in effect, a two-minute-and-forty-second butterfly dance film. Such short films, which featured the hypnotically swirling skirts and sleeves (often hand-painted frame by frame) of such performers as Annabelle Moore, were immensely popular in the 1890s and the first few years of the twentieth century (various sources claim that they constituted between 30–80% of all films made before 1910).

In the second half of the film, von Kammacher’s fellow voyager, the armless performer Arthur Stoss (Charles Unthan), performs amazingly dexterous acts with his feet. Again, the action halts – for three minutes – to present a sequence that resembles a short film recording of a popular variety act: Stoss plays a trumpet; shuffles, cuts and deals a pack of cards; lights and smokes a cigarette; opens a wine bottle with a corkscrew, pours and drinks the wine; types a letter and signs it with a pen.[5]

August Blom - Atlantis.avi_003806250In between these two ‘attractions’ lies the film’s most spectacular sequence, in which the liner hits a derelict ship and sinks. Some sources state that Hauptmann’s novel was published four weeks before the Titanic disaster, others that the novel was inspired by it; but regardless of this, the film adaptation a year later again evokes a genre of the cinema of attractions: the record of a catastrophe (typically opportunistic, often reconstructed or otherwise fraudulent) and the specific cycle of films purporting to contain actual footage of the Titanic sinking. Blom’s resolutely unspectacular visual style lends a sense of greater realism to shots of barely-choreographed extras milling about on the ship, of others leaping twenty feet or more into the sea and of the actual sinking of a large-scale model/set of the ship.

Apocalypse
VerdensUndergangPoster
Of more direct interest to the readers of this journal is Blom’s Verdens undergang (The End of the World; 1916), in which a comet – or its debris – strikes northwest Europe. It was shot in Sweden and Denmark while memories of the 1908 Tunguska event (probably the airburst of a meteoroid or cometary fragments) and 1910’s two major cometary visitations – Halley’s Comet and the Great January Comet, also known as the Daylight Comet – were still relatively fresh, and while World War One was consuming men and matériel in unprecedented quantities. That a residual sense of such celestial phenomena being ill omens persisted is indicated by a New York Times article on the Great January Comet, which displaces such concerns onto other peoples: ‘its appearance is reported to have caused extreme terror among the Russian peasants, who regard it as the precursor either of a great war in the Far East or of the end of the world’ and ‘warnings have been issued as to the effect it is likely to have upon the populations of North Africa and India’ (Anon). However, despite Nordisk making a number of pacifist and explicitly anti-war films, Blom ignores the potential in his material to develop such a connection with the Great War. Instead, he chooses to construct another social melodrama, which escalates as the comet draws nearer (in this, it has much in common both with the overwrought familial and homosocial melodrama of Deep Impact (Leder US 1998) and Armageddon (Bay US 1998), and with the low-key mapping of social difference in Last Night (McKellar Canada/France 1998)).

When Frank Stoll (Olaf Fønss), a wealthy industrialist, comes to a remote town to inspect his mine, he promptly falls for Dina (Ebba Thomsen), one of the daughters of its manager, West (Carl Lauritzen). She feels stifled by the strictures of her conservative, religious father, and when Stoll declares his love for her, she abandons her home and her fiancé, a miner called Flint (Thorleif Lund), for a life of luxury in Copenhagen. Several years later, Stoll’s financial machinations have made him an even larger fortune on the stock exchange. When a comet is spotted approaching the Earth, he manipulates his cousin, Professor Wisemann (K. Zimmermann), into revealing to him the Astronomical Society’s findings about the likelihood of a collision, which are supposed to be kept secret so as to avoid panic. Having already purchased stock at rock-bottom prices when news of the comet prompted a crash, Stoll forces a newspaper editor to print a false report that it will pass by harmlessly. Public confidence – and stocks – rise, enabling Stoll to sell at a massive profit before the truth comes out. He then returns with Dina to his mansion near her home town so as to shelter in the mines from the coming conflagration. On the eve of destruction, he – presumably not being familiar with Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ (1842) – throws a party for his wealthy friends, instructing them ‘Let us celebrate this evening! If we are saved, it will be we who will found the new world, and be its masters. We will salute the rush of the meteors towards the Earth with a feast. Tonight, when the sky is in flames, we will let our stars dance for us.’ Meanwhile, Flint, intent on revenge 13081308083615263611459952against Stoll, incites the miners and townsfolk to riot. As flaming debris fall from the sky – the combination of model work and location shooting remains quite effective – and as Dina performs an erotic dance for Stoll’s guests, the common people, armed with tools and guns, converge on the mansion. Class warfare erupts (in one remarkable shot, the camera looks past the workers, through a hole they have torn in a door to where Stoll’s guests return fire). Stoll hustles the injured Dina through a secret passage into the mines, pursued by Flint. She dies from her wound; Flint and Stoll, overwhelmed by toxic gases released by the comet’s impact, die; in fact, everyone dies.

Everyone, that is, but Dina’s virtuous sister, Edith (Johanne Fritz-Petersen), rescued from the sea’s VerdensUndergang3inundation of the land by a priest (Frederik Jacobsen), who then disappears, and her fiancé, Reymers (Alf Blütecher), the only survivor of his wrecked ship. She makes her way through the post-catastrophe desolation to a church tower.[6] Reymers hears the sound of church bells ringing, and the lovers are reunited, a new Adam and Eve.

Blom’s visual style in Atlantis and Verdens undergang exemplifies – some might say typifies – the Nordisk look, which strongly favoured a single camera set-up and deep focus composition, with multiple planes of action. This not only enabled an entire scene to be filmed in a single long take, but also helped to produce a film grammar less concerned with montage (as in the US) than with composition and spatial relationships within the mise-en-scene. Blom reduces the theatricality often associated with such a style by offsetting the camera so as to reduce the sense of frontality – unless frontality could be used to emphasise a character’s sense of social or psychological confinement – and by adopting (limited) panning and tracking so as to follow the action. There is little cross-cutting to build tension or parallelism between locations, and the actors, usually in medium shot, eschew melodramatic gestures, actions and emotions in favour of a more restrained, naturalistic style. Sets are well-dressed, often with very solid-looking furniture, and Blom is careful to imply the existence of real spaces on the other sides of doors and walls. He is not afraid of cramming twenty or more actors into a shot, and he is fond of mirrors as a means of extending visible space. For example, in Verdens undergang, a tableau of the lascivious but bored Dina features a mirror angled so as to depict part of the room that is out of shot, and the haste of the scheming Stoll’s return from the stock exchange is captured by thus showing him burst into the room (in the mirror) before he bursts into shot. Slightly more mystifying – at first – is the mirror that dominates one wall of West’s dining room, seemingly angled outward at the top merely to display the rug on the floor. Its true purpose is only revealed when flood waters pour in through the window, treating the viewer to a sight of the rapidly rising tide that swirls around Edith’s legs, adding to the sense of her peril without having to alter the camera set up or edit the film.[7]

Perhaps the most striking shots in Verdens undergang come when Stoll scouts out a hiding place in the mine, and later when, pursued by TOP_D_2014_Findumonde4Flint, he tries to bear the injured Dina to safety there. Each time, the characters descend into utter darkness, with only a single candle to light the way. Blom’s ingenious use of what appears to be a chest-mounted lighting rig gives halos of light to otherwise invisible figures shot from behind, and of mobile lights out of shot at the feet of the advancing characters produces moving pools of light and shadow, emphasising the deeper darkness into which they descend. There is nothing like it in silent sf – perhaps in silent cinema – until Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) pursues/rapes Maria (Brigitte Helm) with a torchbeam in Metropolis (Lang Germany 1926).

Telepathic Fruitarian Pacifists from Mars
dk682_2b
Alongside Blom, Nordisk’s other major director in the 1910s was Forest Holger-Madsen, another occasional actor, who shot forty-six films between 1912 and 1936. His Nordisk films include three overtly anti-war films: Ned med vaabne (Lay Down Your Arms; 1914), scripted by Carl Theodor Dreyer from a novel by Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist Baroness Bertha von Suttner; Pax Aeterna (1917), co-written by Nordisk-owner Ole Olsen, the poet, novelist and playwright Sophus Michaëlis and Otto Rung; and Himmelskibet (A Trip to Mars 1918), adapted by Olsen and Michaëlis from the latter’s novel of the same name.

In Himmelskibet, sea captain turned aeroplane enthusiast Avanti Planetaros (Gunnar Tolnæs) yearns for a new and worthy venture, something that will further the human spirit and the cause of peace. He finds inspiration in the work of his father, the astronomer Professor Planetaros (Nicolai Neiiendam), and commits himself to building a ‘bridge between the planets’ – to constructing a spaceship and flying to Mars. He is joined in this endeavour by his friend Dr Krafft (Alf Blütecher), who is in love with his sister, Corona Planetaros (Zanny Petersen). After two years, Avanti announces the completion of the Excelsior at a meeting of the Scientific Society. A cigar-shaped craft with a propeller at the rear and biplane wings above the front of the fuselage, it has a revolutionary power source[8] that will enable it to travel through interplanetary space at 12,000kph. Despite Avanti’s impressive presentation (he is dramatically lit at a lectern at the front of the darkened room, with footage of the spaceship matted in beside him as if it is a film being projected), he is ridiculed by the demoniacally-lit – and appropriately named – Professor Dubius (Frederik Jacobsen), who denounces the venture as madness rather than science and calls for common sense to prevail.

The contrast between Dubius and his friend, Professor Planetaros, is articulated, as one might expect, through mise-en-scene. Planetaros is a stable, bourgeois patriarch, his observatory uncluttered, his home spacious and dull, with immaculate furniture that could be decades old. Physically, he resembles one of Boris Karloff’s white-haired scientists of the late 1930s and early 1940s, but while he shares something of their melancholy, he possesses none of their madness. Dubius, with his pointed beard, shock of hair, pince-nez and cheroots, more closely resembles the owlish Dr Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) of Dr. Mabuse: Der Spieler (Lang Germany 1922). Indeed, in his rather cluttered office, strewn with books and papers, he even sits beneath a giant stuffed owl, symbolising a knowledge more arcane than modern science. He lives alone with his housekeeper; his clothes suggest vanity and he is furiously envious of Avanti. When the press turn against the expedition, Professor Planetaros, fearing for his son’s safety, is driven into physical and psychological decline by Dubius’ constant taunting. (Dubius is eventually driven mad by the expedition’s success and is struck dead by lightning.)

Among the volunteer crew Avanti recruits from the Science Society, two figures are particularly noteworthy. One is an unnamed Japanese, played by an uncredited European in yellowface with spectacles and smoothed down hair, who retains an air of formal deference despite his western dress. The other is David Dane (Svend Kornbech), a stout American adventurer with the build of a young Fatty Abuckle. He is uncouth – he enters the meeting smoking a pipe and wearing a stetson, with his jacket draped over his arm, only for one of the stewards to remove his pipe and hat and make him put his jacket back on – and, it soon transpires, a secretive alcoholic. This depiction of a modern Japanese obviously owes much to Japan’s surprise victory in the 1904–5 war with Russia and to its significant role in World War One;[9] a similar blend of modernity and orientalism is found in the Japanese of Spione (Lang Germany 1928). In contrast, Dane combines frontier accoutrements with crass materialism, unhealthy appetites and a bully’s swagger that turns out to be a coward’s front. Six months into the voyage, it is not the oriental who turns treacherous, but the American. Driven to despair by the ‘brooding darkness’ of space, Dane no longer attempts to conceal his heavy drinking and begins to plot mutiny. Only Krafft and the Japanese remain loyal to their commander.

Avanti self-consciously models himself on Christopher Columbus, talking to a portrait of the explorer that decorates his father home and copying its visionary subject’s heroic pose (Tolnæs’ overemphatic performance of heroic energy and messianic commitment is at odds with that of most of the rest of the cast; his excessive gesturality recalls Gustav Fröhlich’s often-criticised performance as Metropolis’ Freder Fredersen). And in an echo of the myth of Columbus’ voyage, it is just as the Excelsior is nearing Mars that the mutineers attempt to seize the spaceship. However, the Martian observers monitoring its approach accelerate the Excelsior to ten times its normal speed and land it safely on their planet.

imagesIt is on Mars that Himmelskibet’s pacifism comes to the fore. Martian civilisation combines elements typical of nineteenth-century utopian or lost-race fictions: pseudo-classical architecture, costume and customs; divine ancient wisdom; telepathy; social, psychological and physiological engineering, in this instance organised around a fruitarian diet; and a scattering of superscience technologies. Here, however, the emphasis is not on detailing eutopia’s radically different socio-economic structures but on the stately grace of the Martians, their social/religious rituals and the beauty of their landscape (which looks exactly like the Danish countryside, apart from the occasional ziggurat or giant flower). Premiering in February 1918, the film’s boldest move is overtly to transvaluate the God of War into the Planet of Peace.

The Martians greet the expedition with fruit, but disdain the wine they are offered in return and are repelled by cans of ‘dead meat’. Avanti shoots a bird from the sky to show the Martians that they, too, could easily add meat to their diet. The Martians, appalled by the sound of the first gunshot on the planet in thousands of years and by the murder of a living being, advance on the humans, and Dane throws a grenade, killing a Martian: ‘War and sin! Killing and blood!’ have come to ‘the planet of peace’, and ‘must be atoned for’.

Marya (Lilly Jacobson), the daughter of the Martian Wise Man (Philip Bech), appoints herself the expedition’s defender as the humans subject themselves to Martian law, which punishes them by giving them self-knowledge. They are shown scenes from Martian history – of the ‘killing with fire and iron’ that prevailed until the Wise Man brought peace to their world – and thus learn that ‘Blood screams in even the smallest murder and sin opens its gates of hell/The source of life is but pure and good, woven from every strain of blood’. The humans vow never again to kill any living creature and even Dane surrenders his weapons. Then, to their amazement, the dead Martian is revived.

Many elements of Himmelskibet remain quite impressive: the dressing of its bourgeois sets and the chiaroscuro lighting effects; the Excelsior’s interior design, its rivets, gears and wheels prefiguring the spaceship interiors of Just Imagine (Butler US 1930) and Flash Gordon (Stephani US 1936); and the blend of effects shots and actuality footage, including aerial views of Copenhagen, worked into the Excelsior’s launch sequence.

However, its attempts to depict a truly spiritual Martian people have fared less well. This is perhaps most evident in the rather curious courtship of Avanti and Marya. When he declares his love at ‘the tree of longing’ and then enters the ‘forest of love’ with her, it is impossible to tell whether these terms are supposed to have symbolic meaning within the diegesis, are part of an exegetic double-coding to make it clear that they are about to consummate their love, or just really unfortunate phrasing. Likewise, it is difficult to know what to make of Avanti fondling Marya’s breasts, especially as the rest of their interactions seem so chaste and this scene comes just after a comparison has been drawn between the Martian ‘dance of chastity’ and scenes of terrestrial debauchery and violence. Indeed, the only time the images manage to convey any sense of poetic harmony are a handful of shots depicting terrestrial workers in the early morning light of which Humphrey Jennings would have been proud.

14697181688_4dcbc8e4b7Marya joins the Excelsior on its return to Earth so as to propagate her father’s ‘message of enlightenment’. Professor Planetaros, whose suicide is narrowly averted by his son’s homecoming, welcomes her with these words: ‘In you I greet the new generation – the flower of a superior civilization, the seed of which shall be replanted in our earth, so that the ideals of love may grow strong and rich’.[10] This hopeful address to the future must have seemed bitterly ironic in the closing months of a war in which nine million combatants, most of them young people, were killed. It is, however, perhaps too much to suggest that, in such hierarchical and patriarchal sentiments, in Planetaros’ reduction of a ‘superior’ woman to a literal and symbolic womb, and in the film’s Aryan vision of superiority, its fascination with uniforms, technology and messianic heroism, that the outlines of the Next Great War can already be glimpsed.

Works cited
Abel, Richard. The Red Rooster Scare: Making Cinema American, 1900–1910. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
Anon. ‘Not Much is Known of Daylight Comet’, The New York Times (30 January 1910): C3. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9400E7D61730E233A25753C3A9679C946196D6CF.
Mottram, Ron. The Danish Cinema before Dreyer. Metuchen: Scarecrow, 1988.

Notes
[1] The longest continuously operating studio in the world, Nordisk still makes 10-15 productions and co-productions per year.

[2] The first decade of the twentieth century was the only time imported films have dominated the American screen. By the autumn of 1907, Pathé alone ‘was selling on the American market between thirty and forty million feet of positive film stock per year, nearly twice as much as all the American companies combined’ (Abel 87).

[3] He has a role in Atlantis, but there is ‘no documentation … to support [the] claim’ (Mottram 9) that he was also its assistant director.

[4] For an overview of his films from 1910-14, see Mottram.

[5] One cannot help but wonder whether this sequence inspired Tod Browning’s The Unknown (US 1927), in which Lon Chaney performs equally remarkable armless feats.

[6] A Danish audience would presumably have recognised this as the Buried Church in Skagen, the most northerly point of Jutland, which was lost – with much metaphorical commentary – to the encroaching sands during a period of desertification in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

[7] Such attention to the contents and spatial organisation of the frame may have influenced Curtiz’s own distinctive mise-en-scene, perhaps best exemplified by the interiors of Casablanca (US 1942) and Mildred Pierce (US 1945).

[8] Although its engine room seems to contain only a small five-stroke motor.

[9] After the war, Japan was awarded a seat on the Council of the League of Nations, and Saionji Kinmochi was seated with David Lloyd George, Woodrow Wilson, Georges Clemenceau and Vittorio Emanuele Orlando at the Versailles Peace Conference, although his attempts to include a racial equality clause into the Versailles Treaty failed.

[10] Rather unfortunately for the Anglophone viewer, this sentiment is followed by an ‘End’ caption in Swedish, which is ‘Slut’.

Advertisements

Out of the Unknown: ‘The Dead Past’ (BBC2 25 October 1965)

Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov

This is the first of the series’ six episodes based on the fiction of Isaac Asimov, its most adapted author. The others are ‘Sucker Bait’ (1954; 15 November 1965), ‘Satisfaction Guaranteed’ (1951; 29 December 1966), ‘Reason’ (1941; 1 January 1967 as ‘The Prophet’), ‘Liar!’ (1941; 14 January 1969) and ‘The Naked Sun’ (1956; 18 February 1969). Only the first two episodes survive.1

‘The Dead Past’ was directed by John Gorrie, who had previously worked on Doctor Who, directing ‘The Keys of Marinus’  (1964) and possibly one episode of ‘The Reign of Terror’ (1964), though this seems to be disputed, not least by Gorrie himself.

The adaptation of Asimov’s 1956 Astounding story was by Jeremy Paul, probably best known in sf circles for a pair of original Play for Today (1970-84) teleplays, The Flipside of Dominick Hide (9 Decemeber 1980) and Another Flip for Dominick (14 December 1982). Paul also adapted John Brunner’s ‘The Last Lonely Man’ (1964; 21 January 1969) for Out of the Unknown, and scripted ‘Poor Butterfly’ (9 January 1969), an original Journey to the Unknown (1968-69) teleplay, and Hammer’s Countess Dracula (Sasdy 1971).

Asimov’s story presents a particular set of problems for the adapter in that it typifies both the strengths and weaknesses of his fiction as fiction. Take, for example, the opening scene, around 800 words long, in which Arnold Potterley, a Professor of Ancient History, has an appointment with Thaddeus Araman, head of the Chronoscopy Division, to plead once more for access to a chronoscope so that he can further pursue research into ancient Carthage (primarily to prove that the ancient civilization was not a brutal regime, given to sacrificing its children by fire to appease Moloch in times of adversity, and that this idea is merely a lie spread by the Greeks and Romans). There is a brief description of Potterley’s appearance, but no clues at all as to what Araman looks like or where the scene is set – presumably Araman’s office, since he looks through a folder of papers and has a buzzer (on his desk?) with which to summon his secretary; there is also some sitting down and standing up, implying there are chairs. But overall, there are few visual cues of any kind, and no other appeal to senses whatsoever, just two talking heads expositioning at each other. (Yes, I know it’s not a verb, but at times like this it needs to be.) Readers are left to themselves to fill in as much or as little of this detail as they want.2

Yet somehow it works, probably because Asimov is such an effective writer of exposition – it is why he was drawn to the kind of logic-problem stories typical of both his sf and crime fiction, and it is why he is better as a science populariser (or vulgariser, as I seem to recall him insisting) than a fiction writer. It is also part of his role in the hegemony of Campbellian sf. Asimov’s fiction so very effectively denies human material embodiment, it could not help but appeal to readers of a genre constantly and anxiously constructing its self-image (in opposition to fantasy, horror, the weird, romance, science fantasy) as one of reason and rationality. Presumably, this denial of embodiment, emotionality, irrationality, etc, also appealed to many adolescents and to the core lower-middle-class genre readership of the period, precariously positioned just that little bit higher up the class system than their parents and aspiring to at least remain there.

dead03Of course, television drama – and particular the tradition of single plays – urgently wants to be more than just an interchange of talking heads, and this becomes difficult when depicting a future world on a budget.3 The episodes has just six speaking parts (and three extras), and nine sets, all of them interiors. The only external views are a couple of glimpses of the past on chronoscope screens and the city vista outside of Araman’s office window. Futurity is conveyed through fashion (suit jackets without lapels, collars or pockets; matching waistcoats and trousers revealed in medium and long shot to be one-piece outfits; shirts that fasten up one side rather than centrally; invisible fastenings, and especially no buttons, which seem to have become every bit as disinvented as seatbelts in the Star Trek universe) and some minor technological innovations, such as a small desktop videophone and the chronoscopes’ giant wallscreens. Dialogue can bear some of the weight, but exposition has to be briefer, tighter, sketchier when spoken than when on the page (at least within the magazine sf norms of Asimov’s time).

***

deadPart of the dilemma faced by Arnold Potterley is that he lives in a society in which the boundaries between – and indeed within – disciplines are heavily policed. As he expositions at a junior faculty member Jonas Foster, a physicist who has yet to make his first grant application, which will fix his specialism for his entire career,

Scholars … could be free only if they could freely follow their own free-swinging curiosity. Research … forced into a predesigned pattern by the powers that held the purse strings became slavish and had to stagnate. (15-16)

Actually, Asimov does not even try to stage this as a conversation between people. Foster’s thoughts soon slip into authorial exposition:

No one would advocate running a factory by allowing each individual worker to do whatever pleased him at the moment, or of running a ship according to the casual and conflicting notions or each individual crewman. It could be taken for granted that some sort of centralized supervisory agency must exist in each case. Why should direction and order benefit a factory and a ship but not scientific research?

People might say that the human mind was somehow qualitatively different from a ship or factory but the history of intellectual endeavor proved the opposite. … as knowledge grew, more and more data had to be absorbed before worthwhile journeys into ignorance could be organized. … More and more, the individual researcher gave way to the research team and the research institution. … By 1940, only the government, large industries and large universities or research institutions could properly subsidize basic research.

By 1960, even the largest universities depended entirely upon government grants, while research institutions could not exist without tax concessions and public subscriptions. By 2000, the industrial combines had become a branch of world government and, thereafter, the financing of research and therefore its direction naturally became centralized under a department of the government.

It all worked out naturally and well. Every branch of science was fitted neatly to the needs of the public, and the various branches of science were co-ordinated decently. (15-16)

This resonates with concerns voiced by JBS Haldane and Bertrand Russell in the 1920s, JD Bernal in the 1930s, Robert K. Merton in the 1930s and 1940s, among others, that the industrialization of science by states, especially for military purposes, and by corporations leads not only to secrecy but also distorts the practice of science for purposes of profit and social control. For the contemporary reader, especially if an academic in a UK university, such passages reek of the disastrous consequences – well, some of them – of the RAEs and REFs, and of the reorganization of research councils so as to channel research funding to the already-wealthiest universities and to promote top-down agendas of questionable merit.

OutOfTheUnknown2Potterley goes so far as to claim that the government is actively preventing research using the chronoscopes – time windows, which enable one to see and hear the past – and into neutrinics, the science underpinning the technology. Against his better judgment, Foster is drawn in, and recruits the assistance of his uncle, Ralph Nimmo, a science writer whose job seems to combine science journalism, ghost-writing grant applications and ghost-writing refereed journal articles (I am not sure such a career actually quite exists yet, but again this seems prescient of the significance now given to ‘impact’ in the funding of UK research).

And, of course, once Foster is able to develop a low-cost easy-to-build version of the chronoscope, it turns out that Potterley’s suspicions are well-grounded. In a pretty well-orchestrated escalation, Asimov reveals that chronoscopes can only view the past up until about a century and a quarter previously, after which the noise to signal ration becomes impenetrably high. After some moral-panicking about new media – that people will spend all their time watching this new channel, close themselves off from the world and become obsessed with trying to relive the past – a far more significant point is made. The ‘past’ actually begins a split second ago, which makes the chronoscope a highly effective surveillance device – and one that, thanks to Foster and Nimmo, anyone can now build. It is the end of privacy, the beginning of an utterly new world.

Asimov’s conclusion also includes the suggestion that what Potterley saw as state tyranny was actually the state acting in the best interests of all. This tension runs through a lot of his work – partly a typical American obsession, partly a Wellsian desire for rational management by a benevolent elite, and partly the Technocracy and Michelism, perhaps tinged with debates about radical democracy versus centralised control (Trotsky vs Lenin vs Stalin), picked up in his Futurian days. The story’s abrupt conclusion, its refusal to try to imagine the world that might be created by the widespread use of chronoscopes, is among other things a reiterated terror of the supposedly irrational (and embodied) masses.

The episode does a pretty good job of capturing the various arguments and counter-arguments driving Asimov’s story forward, but sometimes struggles to enliven them, despite a strong cast of character actors and competent direction. The latter sadly fails to transform the sense of confinement produced by the limited sets into the oppressive claustrophobia that would lend more urgency and conviction.. A small but key change to the story comes at the end of the first scene – rather than completely forgetting about Potterley, Araman sets in motion a game of cat and mouse, once more channeling into television sf Orwell’s and Kneale/Cartier’s Nineteen Eight-fours. But even when Araman visits the Potterleys’ house while Foster is working in the basement there is little real sense of tension or suspense.

Solid production design does visually elaborate on the generational gulf between the Potterleys and Foster quite effectively, though, through the contrast between their Victorian house and his one room apartment, and the set-dressing of these spaces, including rather different artworks on the walls. (Foster’s apartment includes an alcove that can be separated from the main room by one of those sliding/concertinaing plastic doors. In the early 1970s we moved to a house with one of those separating the lounge space from the dining space, and even then it seemed so modern and swish. How wrong we were! My dad, being an omnicompetent sort of chap but not an open-plan kind of guy, had by the mid-seventies ripped it out and built a partition wall, and suddenly we had a living room and a dining room. Woo-hoo!)

Oddly, the aspect of the story the episode does not capture particularly well is Asimov’s cod-Freudian attempt to create psychological depth for Potterley. His strong, seemingly irrational, aversion to cigarettes is gradually revealed as a symptom of his guilt over this three-year-old daughter Laurel’s death in a house fire twenty years earlier, for which he may or may not have been responsible. He becomes terrified that his wife, already more or less obsessed with their long deceased child, will use the technology not only to spend all her time watching the infant Laurel but also discover whether or not he caused the fire. There is also the implication – made more explicit in the episode – that this underlies Potterley’s obsession, which he thinks of as a rational cerebral pursuit, with Carthage’s fiery infant sacrifices. It is all rather clunkily schematic and unsophisticated, and the episode has the unenviable task of compressing it while also playing it down.

It is unclear quite how aware Asimov was of the Freudian imagery in his story. A cigarette is not always just a cigarette and the Carthaginian Moloch took

the form of a hollow, brazen idol with a furnace in its belly. (19)

Although the story seems to imply Laurel’s death was the origin of Potterley’s symptom, this imagery points to a more deeply rooted Oedipal trauma, an unresolved castration anxiety and a terror of the archaic mother that includes terror of engulfment, of a lack of separation from others and, once more, of embodiment. This underscored by the final images of Caroline Potterley.

dead05One real strength of the episode is its transformation of the story into a commentary on television as a medium. When it is highlighted that the past is not some fixed distant object but a constantly unfolding present-moment-just-gone, there is a moment of hesitation between archive and stream and a resonance with the transformations of television drama in the post-war period from live broadcast to recorded/edited more or less as-if-live to recorded and edited post-production. Furthermore, in a nice final touch, the episode also considers the role of audivisual media in the constitution of memory, affect and identity. Footage of a younger Potterley playing with Laurel ends with her running into the foreground and freeze-framing – a nod to the final shot of François Truffaut’s Les quatre cent coups (1959), already paid homage by Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962). But unlike these precursors, the episode then shows this fragment, which recalls home movie footage, several times, revealing Caroline Potterley as its obsessive viewer. It is a complex moment. On the one hand it emphasizes the construction of her character by both Asimov and Paul as consisting entirely of maternal neurosis – a fate shared by both Ripley and Sarah Connor – while repeating a masculine terror of the archaic mother. But it does also suggest how ungrounded that might be since she would rather take joy in seeing her daughter again than pin down her husband’s guilt and punish him.

I have no idea whether or not Bob Shaw was familiar with ‘The Dead Past’, but his Other Days, Other Eyes (1972) reworks an awful lot of this material rather effectively. The first of the stories in his fix-up novel was published in Analog (August 1966) less than a year after the episode was broadcast.

Other things to watch out for
— It is not quite clear where ultimate responsibility lies, but either Dudley Simpson, credited with incidental music, or Brian Hodgson, credited with radiophonics, or their guvnor really needs to lay off the theremin. Don’t get me wrong. I love the theremin. It so brilliantly evokes weird alien otherness, conveys a sense of futurity and even, now, of pastness (this is how the future used to sound). But it is overused in this episode – at least it now sounds overused – and without adequate attention to its connotations. The most hilarious sequence comes when Foster is slaving away, secretly constructing a chronosocope, in the basement of the Potterleys’ home. There is a montage of one or other or both Potterleys rising anxiously as if to go down and see what he is doing. But it now comes across as a couple of dissatisfied parents, whose son has returned from college without a job and is now living in the basement, trying to get up the nerve to go and complain that he is playing his theremin too loud.
— The curious maintenance of Asimov’s US framework, particularly of Foster’s education at MIT, presented as the absolute imprimatur of a properly scientific education. Even though he and everyone else in the story sounds impeccably English, and it perhaps being set in London (is the ancient dome visible among the futuristic skyscrapers from Araman’s window St Paul’s Cathedral?). Does this betray a sense of the future as being American? Of an eye being cast to export markets? Or an inattentive adaptation?

Previous episode, ‘Stranger in the Family’

Next episode, ‘Time in Advance

Notes
1
Irene Shubik had previously script-edited a 75-minute adaptation of The Caves of Steel (1953; BBC2 5 June 1964), written by Terry Nation, directed by Peter Sasdy and starring Peter Cushing and John Carson, for Story Parade (1964-65), and a 60-minute adaptation of ‘Little Lost Robot’ (1947; ITV 7 July 1962) for the Boris Karloff-hosted Out of the This World (1962), starring Maxine Audley as Susan Calvin and directed by Guy Verney, whose many other television credits include Sydney Newman’s early sf serials for ITV Pathfinders in Space (1950), Pathfinders to Mars (1960-61) and Pathfinders to Venus (1961). Only a few fragments of The Caves of Steel survive, while ‘Little Lost Robot’ is the only episode of Out of the World to survive and is available on a BFI DVD (which includes audio recordings of the series’ adaptations of Tom Godwin’s ‘The Cold Equations’ (1954; 14 July 1962), starring Peter Wyngarde (!) and Jane Asher, and of Terry Nation’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s ‘Imposter’ (1953; 21 July 1962), and the script for the series opener, an adaptation of John Wyndham’s ‘Dumb Martian’ (1952; 24 June 1962).)

2
This makes me really curious to see ‘Little Lost Robot’, and perhaps even more curious to see the script, since Terry Nation has a reputation for not including details of character or setting, arguing that that sort of things was the job of casting, wardrobe and production design. I’m guessing the director had very little to work with.

3
Asimov’s 2050s seem to have become the 2030s in the television episode, but at one point Asimov’s wording implies a much later date than the story logic demands, and the episode is rather vague about when it is set (an observation, not a complaint).

Sources
Isaac Asimov, ‘The Dead Past’, Earth is Room Enough. London: Panther 1960. 9-50.
Out of the Unknown DVD boxset. BFI, 2014.