Captain Eager and the Mark of Voth (Simon Davison UK 2008)

1245944274441Curiously, this low-budget movie has all the hallmarks of many a major sf blockbuster. Based on a pre-sold property, it is greenscreen- and CGI-heavy. It assumes that individual shots are more important than narrative or character arcs, and that the incoherence of its plot not only does not matter but is actually something to boast about. It trades in nostalgia for a lost patriarchal and imperialist order misrepresented as an age of certainty and fairness, while gently chiding, with no real conviction, neo-liberal globalisation. It is dull-witted and charmless, and it thinks it is funny. All at a fraction of the cost.

Square-jawed space hero Captain Eager (James Vaughan) is summoned out of retirement by middle management at Macrospace, the interstellar corporation that has taken over everything (they provide ‘infrastructure and marketing’ and thus have turned every conceivable location into a ‘sterile retail opportunity’). Eager’s mission – whatever it actually is; the film is deliberately obscure – almost fails to get off the ground because Shiobhan in Personnel (Laura Clarke) casts doubts on the suitability of the balding, greying, paunchy protagonist and his old-fashioned rocketship-shaped rocketship, the Victory. Further complicating matters is the vengeful Colonel Regamun (Richard Leaf), who has concocted an absurdly elaborate scheme to: 1) drain the lifeforce from the minds of the alien Panvolkians so as to make himself immortal; 2) turn the now-mindless Panvolkians into slave labour; and 3) kill Eager, who he blames for the deaths of his family in a long-ago war. Various poorly-paced shenanigans ensue. Limply. For a seemingly endless ninety-five minutes. Which may, or may not, be deliberate.

Captain Eager is conceived as a parody or pastiche of – or perhaps even a satire on – 1950s and 1960s sf film, television and comics, particularly Frank Hampson’s Dan Dare, created for the Eagle comic in 1950 and set in the late 1990s. However, the film falters because it is either not familiar enough with this source or fears that its potential audience would not be (for example, The Victory looks nothing like the Anastasia or any of Dan Dare’s other spacecraft, more closely resembling a cross between Thunderbird 3 from Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds (1965–6) and the rocket that took Hergé’s Tintin to the moon a decade earlier in Objectif Lune (1953) and On a marché sur la Lune (1954)). Consequently, Captain Eager flounders around rather indiscriminately, looking for other things to parody/pastiche/satirise: sliding spaceship doors, clearly made of wood and painted to look like metal, do not open properly; sets made out of painted flats get knocked over; and so on. The film even boasts that it is shot in ‘Card-o-Scope’ and that CGI stands for ‘Cardboard and Gum Imagery’. This not-exactly-nostalgia does lead to the film’s several quite good jokes: Regamun’s Ming-the-Merciless-inspired collar gets in the way every time he turns his head; when Eager and Jenny enter the darkened Victory, Eager turns on the light to the sound of a pull-cord switch echoing in a bathroom. There is also a wry pleasure to be derived from the design of certain vehicles: Eager’s eventual triumph depends upon him flying a battered old Mark 1 spacecraft, which resembles an Avro Vulcan bomber, a triumph of 1950s British aeronautical engineering, and then a glider that recalls the Colditz Cock, a home-made glider constructed by British POWs and featured in Colditz (1972–4). Such amusing moments, however, are also indicative of the film’s conceptual and tonal uncertainty, caught between recalling a 1950s vision of the future and a folk memory of the actual 1950s (and 1960s and 1970s, and 1940s).

Other revisions of Dan Dare have likewise struggled with how to update its upright protagonist. For his intermittent, downbeat and punkish appearance in 2000 AD in the late 1970s, he was thrown, via suspended animation, 200 years further into the future, where he bore no real resemblance to Hampson’s character other than a tendency to answer to the same name. When Eagle was relaunched in the early 1980s, it featured the adventures of one of Dare’s descendants (and quite bizarrely retconned the original Eagle’s stories, recreating that Dan Dare as a World War II veteran timeslipped into the 1990s, so as to explain the survival of his peculiarly mid-century Britishness at the turn of the millennium). About halfway through its run, the strip became more violent, with Dare recast as a space marine. Garth Ennis and Gary Erskine’s Dan Dare (2008) is the most successful attempt to visualise a plausible-seeming future in which, after a Sino-American nuclear war, Britain is once more the leading world power, with its navy dominating the solar system. This seven-issue miniseries introduces an older, traumatised and largely forgotten Dare (he inhabits a virtual-reality reconstruction of an idyllic village, and in reality apparently ‘sees’ the delta-wing Starfires as more Spitfire-like spaceships) to inject elements of the mythical 1950s which shaped Hampson’s fictional 1990s, while also incorporating the violent space marine adventures of the hero’s later iterations. It also contains political satire (nothing so pointed or scurrilous as Grant Morrison’s Dare (1990), though), with a Blair-like Prime Minister betraying humanity to the Mekon – fairly mild stuff until compared to Captain Eager’s toothless whining about megacorporations, the metric system and all this other new-fangled stuff, including digital technology. The latter is, of course, rather ironic, given Captain Eager’s own dependence on such technology, sometimes deploying it, humorously I’m sure, to create images of analogue technology. But Captain Eager is not the kind of film to think things through (for example, Eager’s communicator rings – hilariously – like an old-fashioned dial telephone, but the joke is rather undercut by the existence of real-world cell-phone ringtones that make the same noise).

The performances are rather a mixed bag, too. Lindsay Carr brings some life to Carmina, a caricature vamp with a heart of gold. As Scrutty Baker, Mark Heap, familiar from such offbeat sitcoms and comedy shows as Brass Eye (1997–2001), Big Train (1998–2002), Spaced (1999–2001), Jam (2000) and Green Wing (2004–6), adds a Gollum-like twist to his contorted, constrained, socially awkward persona, but has no room to do anything interesting with it. The suggestion that Scrutty’s repeated betrayals stem from consciously suppressing his sexual desire for Eager is merely an ambiguous throwaway line that fails even to work as commentary on Digby’s homosocial attachment to Dare in Hampson’s comic; consequently, Scrutty becomes just another mildly offensive depiction of homosexual-as-dishonest-misfit. Tamsin Grieg, however, gives a pitch-perfect, subtle and sure performance, and is really the only reason to keep watching the film. Those familiar with Grieg from the sitcoms Black Books (2000–4) and Green Wing will immediately recognise and relish her bright, brittle Jenny, brimming with deep emotions she cannot quite express. Although clearly smarter than everyone around her, she is not exactly Hampson’s Professor Jocelyn Peabody. Jenny displays ‘tremendous pluck’ and, when it comes to a scrap, she is extremely handy with her fists (and unexpectedly good at headbutting). But she also always carries a hanky in her cardigan pocket. She alone is worth the price of admission (especially as the film is now available free via

A version of this review appeared in Science Fiction Film and Television 5.2 (2012), 315–7.

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’

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.

Oblivion (Joseph Kosinski 2013)

tom_cruise_in_oblivion_movie-2880x1800and so anyway it turns out the best thing about Oblivion (2013), a film which patches together bits from every other science fiction film ever, is the way in which flying spherical robot drones manage to combine 2001: A Space Odyssey’s shuttle pods with RoboCop’s ED209 and with The Black Hole’s V.I.N.CENT and Old Bob, though sadly this also brings us to the worst thing about the movie, the way in which a bunch of cowardly philistine corporate suits lacking Joseph Kosinki’s genius and vision refused to have the drones voiced by Windsor Davies, who voiced Sergeant Major Zero in the key sf text of the late twentieth-century, Terrahawks

‘Global Recession in Century 21’, from Jason Wyngarde, Neo-liberalism and Other Economic Fantasies (Verso 2023)

The first major international organisation to fallwasp victim to the global recession was WASP, the World Aquanaut Security Patrol. Funding cuts saw it broken up into smaller national units, many of which were immediately disbanded. Marineville, that icon of postwar internationalism and sixties marineville 2design, was auctioned off to International Leisure, a division of Tracy International. It now combines a high-tech gated community with an exclusive resort. Its successful hosting of G7, G8 and G10 meetings, far from the media and even marinevillefurther from protestors, only enhanced its reputation among business elites. A retirement village for the super-rich is currently under construction.

ASP-UK, advised to expand its range of activities while right-sizing its operations, diversified into pollution monitoring, landfill management and recycling facilities. Around this time, mute amphibian beauty Marina became a marina1subject of interest to Immigration Services. Sans papier and facing internment, she quietly disappeared, apparently preferring to return to life beneathtroyatlanta the seas as one of Titan’s slave-girls. Six months later, Captain Troy Tempest, fresh from rehab, married Lieutenant Atlanta Shore. Acrimonous divorce followed within the year.

Spectrum also suffered massive cuts as European governments shifted military funding away from international collaborations. Angel Interceptors were replaced with ill-suited Eurofighters, cloudbase11band the cost of retrofitting them to Cloudbase’s unique launch systems became just one more reason to scrap this ‘airborne monument to Keynesian folly and excess’. Helicarrier_(Earth-80920)When irreconcilable differences in management styles saw attempts to share resources with SHIELD collapse, the fate of Spectrum was sealed. It slowly shrank to a clearing house for commissioning Private Military Contractors before formally disbanding.

Captain Scarlet, once the heroic face of this proud organisation, spent his final years as a Spectrum agent attending corporate events in a desperate bid to find alternative income streams. The extent of this desperation captain-scarletonly became apparent when footage of a five-thousand-dollar-a-plate event was leaked onto youtube, showing Scarlet being shot and killed – over and over again – by drunken executives at ten thousand dollars a bullet. You can see in his eyes that he knows it will never be enough.

In later years, Scarlet became the repeated victim of Joe McClaine, a stalker suffering from multiple personality disorder. As a child, Joe was the joe90subject of systematic abuse by his scientist father, apparently condoned – and certainly covered up – by his employers, the shadowy World Intelligence Network. During the course of his trial, Joe manifested as many as 90 different personalities. Ironically, Scarlet and his would-be killer are currently in separate wings of the same asylum.

One figure to ride out, and indeed profit from, the recession and era of austerity was billionairre Jeff jefftracyTracy. His reputation, however, took quite a beating. Media outlets controlled by Tracy International depict him as a very private man, withdrawn and introspective. Critics, however, insist that he no longer dare show his face in public after the scandals that rocked International Rescue. Did the CIA really subcontract extraordinary Thunderbird2rendition abductions to International Rescue? Was Thunderbird 2 being used for human trafficking? What exactly happened to that refugee flotilla that sank without a survivor less than a mile from Tracy Island?tracy island

Jeff Tracy sporadically attempts to win back public support, philanthropically endangering the lives of his poorly-trained sons (and bystanders) by disregarding health and safety regulations in emergency situations. Courtesy of striking firefighters and ambulance crews, the once-lauded Tracy brothers are now commonly known as Scab Rescue.