Arrival (Villeneuve 2016)

arrivalIt’s fifteen years since I read ‘Story of Your Life’ (1998), so my memory of it was extremely vague, but I decided to not re-read Ted Chiang’s deservedly Nebula- and Sturgeon-winning novella until after seeing Arrival, Denis Villeneuve’s 2016 adaptation of it. There will be more than enough people complaining that the film is not as good as the story – I find that kind of statement pretty meaningless, even if the screenplay is by the Eric ‘Hours‘ Heisserer, the man who also wrote 2011 The Thing remake/prequel.

Arrival very sensibly cuts a lot of the material about the investigation into the alien heptapods’ knowledge of physics in favour of an even stronger focus on learning to comprehend their language, on interspecies communication. Moreover, once the film has established the distinction between the heptapods’ spoken language (Heptapod A) and their semasiographic written language (Heptapod B), it focuses on the latter, which is presented with a beautiful simplicity visually extrapolated from the behaviour of the heptapods’ nearest terrestrial analogues – as is the sound of Heptapod A.

Indeed, as one might expect of Villeneuve, the consistently not-uninteresting but oddly over-rated director of Incendies (2010), Prisoners (2013), Enemy (2013), Sicario (2015) and the in-production Blade Runner 2049 (2017), the overall look of the film is as picturesque as ever (no-one does helicopter shots looking down on and heading into non-urban terrain as well as him, whether his dp  is Roger Deakins (Sicario) or Bradford Young (Arrival)); and as always, this picturesque sensibility cannot avoid moments of tedious obviousness. The visual design of the aliens, their ships and their environment is quite beautiful, though. All of which is a real bonus, since Chiang’s story follows in the grand Asimov tradition of more or less indistinguishable heads talking to each other in barely described places (although the proleptic passages come closer to delineating character and human interaction).

The film does a lot to round out Chiang’s linguist protagonist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and the physicist, Gary, renamed Ian (Jeremy Renner), with whom she falls in love. In the novella, they are more (Gary) or less (Louise) ciphers. As in the novella, Louise is kept front and centre in the film, while Renner lurks, Hawkeye-like, in the background. Perfectly cast as a bit of a dick, he is slowly humanised with an early pratfall and even more so by the decision to sideline the physics. However, this, along with the reworking of the novella’s proleptic passages, exaggerates the gender politics in the story’s DNA. The woman does language, communication, intuition, caring, nurturing; the man does physics, reason, emotional stuntedness. Possibly the worst line in the film – ‘You want to know about science, ask your father’ – comes from Louise, herself not only a scientist but the one making all the breakthroughs with the aliens. And since the physics is pushed aside, Ian becomes sufficiently competent in linguistics in a matter of days to make a key breakthrough in the enigma posed by a mass download of Heptapod B (although since he ‘compliments’ Louise by saying she approaches language like a mathematician, maybe this is only him being better at maths than her, which of course he would be, being male and all).

imagesVilleneuve’s tricky reworking of the proleptic material from Chiang’s novella brings the story much closer to the kind of play with temporality found in European arthouse time travel movies, such as Alain Resnais’s Je t’aime, je t’aime (1968). This, despite the occasional picturesque cliché, adds a strong sense of melancholy, mourning and loss, as well as yearning and hope, to Chiang’s rather dry and unadventurous musings on free-will and determinism (those that are directly stated rather than those instantiated by the form his story takes).

However, this also reinforces (along with elements of the visual design) that always-present Hollywood tendency to equate women with motherhood (if not in quite the relentless over-the-top manner of The Girl on the Train (Taylor 2016)).

And the naming of Louise’s daughter is a nice touch, even if you spot the reason for it before it is explained – but not as nice a touch as the moment during the second ‘interview’ with the heptapods when, in contrast to the Voyager plaque, it is an active woman who steps forward with a raised hand to greet the aliens, while the man lingers passively behind.

Changing the nicknames of the two key heptapods – from the novella’s Flapper and Raspberry – is also a good move in terms of getting an to audience to take them seriously; and it makes sense, in terms of his character, for Ian to come up with Abbott and Costello, but why is it always the guy who gets to name shit, and why must the names he chooses be gendered ones? (Not being a fan of Jeremy Renner, who keeps saying dumb sexist things in interviews, helps at moments like this cos you can enjoy blaming him for things he is clearly not responsible for. See, he’s even made me end a sentence with a prepostion. Damn him.)

Chiang’s story happens, more or less, in a geopolitical vacuum. Arrival distributes the twelve vessels in which the aliens arrive around the globe (Russia, China, Sudan, Australia, the UK, Venezuela, Sierra Leone and others), leading to attempts at international cooperation and potential global conflict as – with the deluded self-righteousness of US cinema, it is China, Russia and Sudan who lead the way in escalating conflict. (There is a moment completely free from irony when the CIA guy points to examples of imperial powers trying to set factions against each other so as maintain their own power, but fails to mention the US backed coups in Venezuela.) In a similar unironic vein, when examples of colonial situations in which the coloniser all but eradicates the indigenous people, it is Australian Aboriginals who are mentioned, rather than, say, native American indians – and the words this time are put in the mouth of the black Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker). Rather unnervingly, for all its well-intentioned chatter about the need for humans to cooperate, regardless of nation or creed, the film resolves into a sort of hymn to ‘humanitarian’ intervention.

Some have claimed that  Arrival is the best sf film of the year (or decade). That seems to me more an indictment of sf cinema than a sensible response to a quite smart, unquestionably well-acted, film that is interesting on multiple levels – and it sure is purty to look at. It is well worth seeing. Especially if you want to know what lo-fi sci-fi[1] looks like when it has $50 million budget and goes all middlebrow.

[1] I cannot endorse the presence of Her (2013) on this or any other list. I apologise for reminding you of its existence.

The City in Fiction and Film, week 14

Farenheit451This week we continued our exploration of the US postwar suburbs (see week 13), reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) and watching Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (Siegel 1956). Both texts were framed in relation to the period’s culture of affluence and anxiety.

But first we began by placing Bradbury’s novel in relation to genre – specifically the interweaving traditions of utopia/anti-utopia, utopia/dystopia and US magazine sf.

Thomas More coined ‘Utopia’ 500 years ago this year. When spoken aloud, the first syllable is a Latin pun on ou which means no and eu which means good (and topos means place) – so utopia means ‘no place’ but also suggests ‘good place’. Utopia has come to be understood as a description of an imaginary world organised according to a better principle than our own, and to frequently involve not-always-gripping systematic descriptions of economic, social and technical arrangements. We discussed the efflorescence of utopian fiction in the wake of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888), and mentioned such key utopian authors as William Morris, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Ursula Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson. We also noted the relative scarcity of utopian worlds in cinema – Just Imagine (Butler 1930), Things to Come (Menzies 1936) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Wise 1979) being potential examples, but all of them also demonstrating potentially negative elements and being susceptible to against-the-grain readings.

This led us to anti-utopias – texts that are in more or less explicit dialogue with someone else’s utopian vision, exposing its darker, oppressive elements. William Gibson’s ‘The Gernsback Continuum’, which we read last semester, is a kind of compendium anti-utopia, while novels such as Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949) are – among other things – direct responses to the utopian vision of HG Wells, drawing out its more totalitarian elements, as does Metropolis (Lang 1927).

During the 20th century, however, the explicit anti-utopia has given way to the proliferation of dystopias (dys + topia = bad place), dark, often satirical exaggerations of the worst aspects of our world. The dystopia emphasises bad aspects of our own world so as to make them more obvious (in this, they parallel the suburban world of All That Heaven Allows). The dystopia is not an explicit critique of the utopia, but a depiction of a world worse than our own – usually totalitarian, bureaucratic, brutal, dehumanising, and sometimes post-apocalyptic. Between us, we concocted a list of novels and films, including:

Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano (1952)
Frederik Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth, The Space Merchants (1953)
John Wyndham, The Chrysalids (1955)
Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (1962), filmed as Clockwork Orange (Kubrick 1971)
Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) filmed as Blade Runner (Scott 1982)
Harry Harrison, Make Room! Make Room! (1966), filmed as Soylent Green (Fleischer 1973)
Punishment Park (Watkins 1971)
THX 1138 (Lucas 1971)
Rollerball (Jewison 1975)
Mad Max (Miller 1979)
William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)
Brazil (Gilliam 1985)
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), film (Schlöndorff 1990)
Alan Moore and David Lloyd, V for Vendetta (1988–9), film: (McTeigue 2006)
Robocop (Verhoeven 1987)
PD James, The Children of Men (1992), filmed: (Cuarón 2006)
Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Sower (1993)
Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (2005), filmed: (Romanek 2010)
Gamer (Neveldine+Taylor 2009)
Moon (Jones 2009)
Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games novels (2008-2010), filmed: Ross and Lawrence 2012-15)
Dredd (Travis 2012), based on Judge Dredd strip (1979–)
Elysium (Blomkamp 2013)

The widespread usage of dystopia and the relative decline of the utopia/anti-utopia tradition has led to an increased use of the eutopia (a term which makes linguistic sense as the opposite of dystopia) to describe imagined worlds that in some ways are better than ours, if still far from perfect. The eutopia imagines a better world, using its differences to indicate the shortcomings of our own world.

Both eutopia and dystopia are, in different ways, about the possibility of change.

We then turned to consider Ray Bradbury in the context of American sf in the 1950s. From the late 1930s, American magazine sf had been dominated by Astounding, edited by John W. Campbell. It was not the best-paying venue, but thanks to the galvanising effect Campbell – and his key authors, such as Robert A Heinlein and Isaac Asimov – had had on the field, it was the most respected and prestigious. That situation began to change after the war, particularly with the launch of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy, both of which could be characterised as being more literary, as being more interested such things as characterisation, atmosphere, slicker prose and satirical humour. Bradbury could not sell to Campbell, but published in wide range of sf magazines as well as in prestigious non-genre venues, such as Argosy and The Saturday Evening Post.

The reason for his failure with Campbell and success elsewhere has been attributed – by Brian Aldiss? – to him writing science fiction for people who don’t like science fiction (which we might more generously describe as writing non-Campbellian science fiction). Bradbury was championed by critics such as Robert Conquest and Kingsley Amis who, although they occasionally wrote and edited sf, were not sf writers per se. Within the genre community, such writers/editors/critics as James Blish and Damon Knight tended to be more ambivalent – caught between what they saw as Bradbury’ ‘poetic’ writing/ higher literary standards and his apparently blissful ignorance of science.

This ambivalence was mirrored by a number of the class, who found aspects of the novel quite compelling while also being frustrated by the ‘vagueness’ of its world-building. (I am not sure ‘vagueness’ is quite the right term, since it implies there is something that Bradbury should be doing rather than thinking about his preference for imagery over concrete images – and it might also indicate a relative lack of familiarity with sf’s specific reading protocols, which often require the reader to collaborate in building the world from the smallest of hints.)

In considering Fahrenheit 451 as an exaggerated dystopian version of the suburbs it is perhaps useful briefly to put aside its most obvious and striking feature – firemen now burn books – and instead think about the other features of its imagined world, all of which resonate strongly with the affluence and anxieties outlined last week:

  • the overwhelming impact of mass media, on everything from the design of houses  (no front porches, replace windows with TV screens, etc) to the fabric of domestic life, which is organised around consumption and pseudo-participation, and dominates social occasions
  • the alienation from other human beings, from nature, from meaningful labour
  • the reliance on tranquillisers, sleeping and other medication
  • the frequency of divorces and the virtual exile of children
  • women’s rejection of pregnancy and natural childbirth (cast as a negative, although Shulamith Firestone and others would see this as a positive)
  • juvenile delinquents racing cars around night-time streets, dying in crashes and aiming for pedestrians
  • how commonplace deliberate suicides and accidental overdoses have become
  • the absence of an urban centre (there is one, but the emphasis throughout is on seemingly endless suburbs)
  • really long billboards because everyone drives so fast
  • the degradation of language
  • the constant sound of military jets and the ultimate outbreak of the fourth nuclear war since the 1960s
  • the near-universal and – it is made clear – willing abandonment of books and reading
  • the only very occasional spectacle of state power when books are burned

We also thought about the ways in which Bradbury’s prose and imagery are ‘simple’ or ‘child-like’ – the way the novel seems to be the product of a pre-pubertal imagination. This led us in two directions.

First, there are the distinctly Oedipal elements of the novel. While its depiction of women is broadly misogynistic, this is especially focused on Mildred Montag. Cast as a simple-minded and anxious nag, she also comes across as a cold and distant mother figure to her husband, who often seems like a boy in quest of a father figure (Granger replacing Faber replacing Beatty). Mildred is early on associated with the kind of marble figure you might find on a mausoleum – remember the suburban fireplace in All that Heaven Allows – and when Montag turns the flamethrower on their twin beds (after all, there is no reason for mummy and daddy to share a bed, is there?), they ‘went up in a great simmering whisper, with more heat and passion and light than he would have supposed them to contain’ (151).

There is also something just a little bit queer about Montag’s relationship with Faber, the older, educated man who first picked Montag up in a public park, slipping him his phone number even though he knew it would put him in the fireman’s power. Faber  maintains this role of mentor, and shares a strange intimacy with the Montag through the earbug the younger man wears so they can always be together.

The second direction in which this sense of Bradbury’s simplicity went was thinking about the imagery he uses. The opening page introduces, among other images, the series of oppositions between black and white: firemen are always associated with blackness, and sometimes Bradbury seems almost to recognise a racial dimension; readers and women are associated with whiteness, although sometimes this whiteness is sepulchral (Mildred) or diseased (Faber). There is also animal and other nature imagery. Sparks become fireflies, books become pigeons. Later, books will rain down around Montag like pigeons, and he will be infected, losing control over his impulses, his hands becoming like ferrets whose antics he can only observe (this sense of alienation from his self culminates in him watching his own pursuit on television, which ends with his capture being faked). As with the bizarre fantasy about the barn in the final section of the novel, there is a nostalgic current underpinning the animal imagery – making manifest the natural world that the suburban sprawl roots up, tears down, eradicates. The imagery haunts the denatured suburb, reminding us of what has been lost and is constantly being thrown away.

Invasion of the Bodysnatchers shares many of these concerns. While its mood of paranoia might lend credence to the commonplace notion that the film is somehow about fears of communist infiltration, there is in fact little in the film to support reading it that way (just a few years earlier the emotionless nature of the pods would have been projected onto Nazis rather than Commies, primarily as a denial of the profound conformism in American life and in a consumer culture). Similarly, it is not especially easy to read the film as being about fears of racial passing or queer passing, although they too might be argued – the film is certainly about ensuring difference does not intrude onto this white suburban small town. This difference takes the form of two childless, sexually active recent divorcees – former sweethearts and possibly lovers – finding themselves thrown together, and everyone around them assuming they will become involved with each other again (while elsewhere, Oedipal anxieties take the form of children thinking there parents are not their parents). It is a film obsessed with sex – Miles makes constant innuendoes and hits on women all the time; he races over to Becky’s house in his pyjamas (don’t ask what her house is doing in his pyjamas) in the middle of the night and sweeps her off to his house, where the next morning she is wearing some of his clothes and cooking him breakfast, and Jack Belicec seems to assume this is post-coital. There is Becky’s summer dress, which miraculously stays up while emphasising her breasts, and Miles’s ultimate declaration that he did not know the real meaning of fear until he kissed her. Against all this sex is cast not only the asexual reproduction of the pod people but also the mechanical reproduction of commodities and the replacement of culture (a live band) by its simulacrum (the juke box).

And, as that penultimate hurried paragraph suggests, we ran out of time. Next week, Alphaville (Godard 1965).

Week 15

Recommended critical reading
AlSayyas, Nezar. Cinematic Urbanism: A History of the Modern from Reel to Real. London: Routledge, 2006. See chapter 9, “Exurban Postmodernity: Utopia, Simulacra and Hyper-reality.”
Biskind, Peter. Seeing is Believing How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. London: Pluto, 1983. 102–59.
Bould, Mark. “Burning Too: Consuming Fahrenheit 451.” Literature and the Visual Media. Ed. David Seed. Woodbridge: DS Brewer, 2005. 96–122.
Grant, Barry Keith. Invasion of the Bodysnatchers. London: BFI, 2010.
McGiveron, Rafeeq O. “‘To build a mirror factory’: The Mirror and Self-Examination in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 39.3 (1998): 282–7.
Seed, David. American Science Fiction and the Cold War: Literature and Film. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.
–. “The Flight from the Good Life: Fahrenheit 451 in the Context of Postwar American Dystopias.” Journal of American Studies 28.2 (1994): 22–40.
Whalen, Tom. “The Consequences of Passivity: Re-evaluating Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451.” Literature/Film Quarterly 35.3 (2007): 181–90.

Recommended reading
E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” (1909) anticipates surburban consumerist isolation.
Suburbia became a regular setting for postwar sf: Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” (1950) and “The Pedestrian” (1951), Judith Merril’s Shadow on the Hearth (1950), Frederik Pohl’s “The Midas Plague” (1954), Philip K. Dick’s Time Out of Joint (1959) and Pamela Zoline’s “Heat Death of the Universe” (1967).
Examples of suburban horror include Anne Rivers Siddons’s The House Next Door (1978) and M. John Harrison’s subtler “The Incalling” (1978) and The Course of the Heart (1991).

Recommended viewing
Bradbury’s novel was filmed by French New Wave director François Truffaut as Fahrenheit 451 (1966). Other sf and fantasy films depicting the dissatisfactions of suburban living include Invaders from Mars (Menzies 1953), Forbidden Planet (Wilcox 1956), The Stepford Wives (Forbes 1975), E.T. – The Extra-terrestrial (Spielberg 1982), Poltergeist (Hooper 1982), Parents (Balaban 1989), Edward Scissorhands (Burton 1990), Pleasantville (Ross 1998), The Truman Show (Weir 1998) and Donnie Darko (Kelly 2001).


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’

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.

Xavier de Maistre’s Voyage autour de ma chambre and Expédition nocturne autour de ma chambre

Back in the mists of time, around a decade ago, there was a plan for an ever-expanding online collection of short critical essays on key works of the fantastic. The plan fizzled and died, but not before I wrote nine pieces for it (which I just found). This is another of them.

51FWUCxEkvL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Originally published: 1795 and 1825 respectively
Edition used: Xavier de Maistre, A Journey Around My Room and A Nocturnal Expedition Around My Room, translated by Andrew Brown (London: Hesperus 2004)

Confined to his room for 42 days, the narrator undertakes an expedition around it.[i] His closely observed account of its content and disposition wanders off into recollections, fancies, speculations and other digressions. Thirty years later, and without the company of his valet or his dog, he undertakes a similar journey around a different room over the course of a single night.

These two humorous short tales gently mock the conventions of sentimental fiction in a way not dissimilar to Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768). At the same time, de Maistre’s digressive manner owes something to Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67) – Voyage not only alludes explicitly to the hobby horse of Tristram’s Uncle Toby, but also has a distinctly Sterne-ian chapter twelve, consisting of a lengthy ellipsis in the middle of which appear the words ‘the mound’ (17).

But what makes de Maistre’s diptych interesting to the scholar of fantasy lies elsewhere.

In Voyage, the narrator offers a pseudo-Cartesian metaphysics in which

man is composed of a soul and a beast. – These two beings are absolutely distinct, but so closely fitted together, or one on top of the other, that the soul must have a certain superiority over the beast to be in a position to draw a distinction between them. (9)

350px-Guillaume_pour_MaistreAs evidence for this dualism, the narrator offers an example that seems to equate the beast with an autonomic, almost machinic, material substratum, and the soul with the imagination (while also offering a provocation to the reader of a book which seems incapable of fastening its attention on anything for very long):

 When you read a book, sir, and a more agreeable idea suddenly strikes on your imagination, your soul straight away pounces on it and forgets the book, while your eyes mechanically follow the words and the lines; you come to the end of the page without understanding it, and without remembering what you have read. – This comes from the fact that your soul, having ordered its companion to read to it, did not warn it of the brief absence on which it was about to embark; as a result, the other continued to read even though your soul was no longer listening. (10)

Why would the explorer and adventurer need to leave his room, if the mere act of being handed a wet sponge with which to wipe clean the portrait of a lover can make his

soul sweep across a hundred million leagues in a single instant. (21)

Or if one can find in fictional worlds a spur to the imagination (51)?

From the expedition of the Argonauts to the Assembly of Notables, from the lowest depths of hell to the last fixed star beyond the Milky Way, to the confines of the universe, to the gates of chaos – this is the vast terrain which I wander across in every direction at leisure; for I do not lack time any more than I lack space. It is here that I transport my existence, on the trail of Homer, Milton, Virgil, Ossian, etc.
All the events that occur between these two eras, all the countries, all the world and all the beings who have lived between these two limits – it is all mine, it all belongs to me just as much and just as legitimately as the vessels that entered the Piraeus belonged to a certain Athenian. (53)

What is refreshing about this advocacy of imaginative indulgence is its absolute lack of moralism. The narrator is clearly something of an amorous adventurer when unconfined, and so when (in chapter 39) his soul berates his beast

‘What!’ said my soul, ‘so that’s how it is: during my absence, instead of restoring your strength by having a peaceful sleep, and thereby making yourself more able to execute my orders, you have insolently decided’ (the term was a bit strong) ‘to succumb to transports of delight that my will had not sanctioned?’ (57)

131215101517673575it is singularly unconvincing, not least because his soul, before waking, had clearly been engaged in an erotic dream about Mme de Hautcastel. The narrator’s disavowal of his wet-dream and its physiological consequences follows precisely the same logic as that which underlies cyberpunk’s spurning of the flesh in favour of disembodied cyberspatial elation two centuries later – as does the narrator’s solipsism.

The narrator’s reveries turn to matters cosmological in two key passages in the sequel story, in which he sits astride his window sill and contemplates the night sky. While the combination of confinement and flights of fantasy is common enough – see, for example, Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), Jack London’s The Star Rover (1915) and those Gothic fictions in which a socially-entrapped heroine misinterprets mundane events as supernatural – these moments in Journey seem to hint at something specifically science-fictional: not so much the cognitive breakthrough conclusions of stories like Robert Heinlein’s ‘Universe’ (1941) or Isaac Asimov’s ‘Nightfall’ (1941), which convert the profound ontological revelation of humanity’s cosmic insignificance into a plot twist, but something closer to Olaf Stapledon’s Starmaker (1937), in which the night sky observed from a hillside is subsumed into an escalating spiral of immensity. The response of Journey’s narrator to immensity is to proffer a thesis whose paradoxical nature acknowledges its own inadequacy. Chapter 16 reads:

The system of the world

I believe, then, that as space is finite, creation is also finite, and that God has created in his eternity an infinity of worlds in the immensity of space. (95)

And should one be tempted to misread this as something profound, the following chapter commences with the narrator admitting that he does not himself understand it

any better than all the other systems that have hitherto been hatched […]; but mine has the precious advantage of being contained within a couple of lines. (96)

The other eight entries I wrote were:
Voltaire, Candide
Godwin, Caleb Williams
France, Thais
London, The Iron Heel 
Gernsback, Ralph 124C 41+
Smith, The Skylark of Space
Schuyler, Black No More
Sturgeon, Venus Plus X

This period of confinement coincides with the punishment meted out to de Maistre for a duelling incident.

Out of the Unknown: ‘Sucker Bait’ (15 November 1965)

05dd3gnThis is the one with the inestimable Burt Kwouk – not the first actor of colour in the series, but the first one with a substantial role. Called upon, it seems, whenever British television or film needed a Chinese, a Japanese, masonan unspecified oriental, he is part of the furniture of my life; I suspect I will be devastated – not Elisabeth Sladen or James Garner devastated, but devastated nonetheless – when he dies. (I seem to have always known that he was born in Warrington, but what I did not know was that he was raised in Shanghai, his family only returning to Britain during the Chinese revolution; in my mind’s eye, I see him in the streets of thirties Shanghai, running into a young JG Ballard –  only to appear 50 years later as Mr Chen in Empire of the Sun (1987).)

This is also the one – actually the first of three – directed by Naomi Capon, one of just two female directors at the BBC at the time (the other, Paddy Russell, directed the previous episode, ‘Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come…’ .) British-born, Capon worked on American television before returning to the UK to commence, in 1951, a twenty-year career as a director and producer, almost exclusively of drama. She also directed ‘The World in Silence’ (17 November 1966), based on John Rankine’s 1966 ‘Six Cubed Plus One’, and ‘The Prophet’ (1 January 1967), based on Asimov’s ‘Reason’ (1941), one of the stories collected in I, Robot (1950). Capon’s set designer has clearly learned the dangers, so evident in ‘Time in Advance’, of signifying futurity through shiny surfaces. If the spaceship interiors are not quite as impressive as those in ‘The Counterfeit Man’, the multilevel set becomes impressive when you realise it contains an actual elevator, rather than trickery, to move between levels (although the bridge set then looks quite silly because it involves climbing up ladders to reach the door). Videoscreens and oscilloscopes abound, accompanied by some groovy radiophonics.

After ‘The Dead Past’, it is the second of six episodes based on stories by Isaac Asimov. It was adapted by Meade Roberts from Asimov’s 1954 Astounding story, ‘Sucker Bait’, collected in The Martian Way and Other Stories in 1955 (published in the UK by Dennis Dobson in 1964). The adaptation was originally commissioned as a 75-minute drama, presumably for Story Parade. (Roberts also adapted the following episode from Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Fox and the Forest’ (1950).)

OOTU Sucker bait articleAs with ‘The Dead Past’, this is a story built around the problem of specialisation – the idea that as knowledge develops, scientists will increasingly specialise, leading to a potential hazardous compartmentalisation of information and ideas. In Asimov’s future – distant enough in time for humanity to have colonised 83,200 worlds but still be feeling population pressures, and for the ‘2755 para-measles epidemic’ to be an historical event akin to ‘the 1918 influenza epidemic, and the Black Death’ (163) – specialisation has reached the point that it has become necessary to institute an experimental method of education in order to produce individuals capable of remembering every fact and idea they encounter, regardless of discipline. The teenage Mark Annuncio is one of the first hundred such ‘Mnemonics’.

The Trojan planet Troas, which is in a stable orbit around the differently coloured binary stars Lagrange I and II, was long ago the site of attempted colonisation. But after the entire colony, more than 1300 people, died, apparently of a disease, the world was forgotten until Mark discovered an account of it in the archives. He is included as part of the scientific expedition to investigate the world, to find out what destroyed the colony and whether it is habitable by humans. The expedition consists of single scientists from individual disciplines who accept without question each others’ views – one simply does not query specialists in different disciplines. Character names suggest that they are rather a multicultural bunch, but the only exception to their whiteness seems to be

Miguel Antonio Rodriguez y Lopez (microbiologist; small, tawny, with intensely black hair, which he wore rather long, and with a reputation, which he did nothing to discourage, of being a Latin in the grand style as far as ladies were concerned). (156)

The crew of the spaceship, however, know nothing of the mission, and knowledge of the failed colony and the possibility of fatal disease is deliberately kept from them.

out-of-the-unknown-sucker-bait-1965-001-men-and-telescopes_0The story chugs along, readable enough but distinctly minor Asimov, until Mark, ostracised by the specialists, must take desperate action to save the expedition from the same fate that befell the colony – something only he can discern, thanks to his disregard for disciplinary boundaries and his amazing powers of recall (and his chance reading of an old book some years before).

The dilemma Mark faces once he solves the mystery is very Asimovian – like those faced by robots and computers who know what is best for humanity, but must proceed indirectly and find ways to circumvent the rules constraining their action. Mark’s solution is a little surprising since, like the Book People of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953), he is such a curiously passive figure. If he is in some way intended to serve as an argument in favour of generalists, of inter- and trans-disciplinary thinkers and processes, of more efficient and effective communication between disciplines, it might have been an idea to allow him some kind of creative or imaginative role, rather than casting him as a cross between a database, a search-engine and a sulky teen.

Indeed, in the adaptation, Mark (Clive Endersby) mostly comes across as an argument for sending sulky teens to their rooms without any dinner.

The main point of interest in Asimov’s story comes in the way in which it can be used to map claims for the relationship between science and sf. There are various infodumps, showing off the time Asimov has put into designing Troas as a plausible planet, including two pages (153-155) in which

Boris Vernadsky (geochemist; dark eyebrows, wide mouth, broad face, and with an inveterate tendency to polka-dot shirts and magnetic clip-ons in red plastic) (133)

belabours the atmospheric composition. Most of the information is unnecessary, other than that it situates the story within the hard-sf norms developed at Astounding and provides both a plausible framework and essential camouflaging for a latter tidbit of information, the relevance of which only Mark can realise. I honestly cannot tell whether the clue that is thus slipped into the story – and hidden by it – was ever enough for a reader to beat Mark to the solution. (It involves beryllium, which is just not used in this future universe, although the reasons for abandoning it have been long forgotten; they would perhaps have been quite fresh in the minds of many of the story’s early readers.)

HG Wells, Gwyneth Jones, China Miéville and others have argued that the relationship between sf and science does not depend upon the accuracy of the scientific knowledge being drawn upon, but on the persuasiveness with which scientific-sounding discourse can be deployed and manipulated by the writer (in Carl Freedman’s terms, sf is not about cognition per se, but about the creation of particular kinds of cognition effect). And of course this relationship is always a relative, not an absolute, one. Different authors and readers bring different levels and kinds of knowledge, different desires to persuade and different desires to be adequately persuaded. The nature and degree of that adequacy shifts depending on circumstances, not least because sf is far from monolithic. Claiming superiority for sf stories because of their greater scientificness is merely an attempt to impose a particular hierarchy of taste. Often reversing the polarities can be perfectly adequate and is not at all necessarily inferior. The most intriguing sequence in Asimov’s story is concerned with these ideas.

In an attempt to persuade Cimon, the mission commander, to allow Mark to accompany the expedition onto the surface of Troas, Dr Sheffield attempts blackmail. This involves using the professional protocols around specialisms so as, over the course of several pages, to trick Cimon, and then threatening to release an illicit recording of him making a fool of himself. Going into the scene, we know nothing of this scheme.

Sheffield suggests that the combined effect of the planet’s two suns – one of which casts blue-green shadows, the other red-orange – and of the light reflected from its moon could

exert a deleterious effect on mental stability [resulting in] chromopsychosis [that] could reach a fatal level by inducing hypertrophy of the trinitarian follicles, with consequent cerebric catatonia. … red-green chromopsychosis has been recorded to exhibit itself first as a psychogenic respiratory infection. … Surely you must be noticing just a small inflammation of the mucus membrane of the nose, a slight itching in the throat. Nothing painful yet, I imagine. Have you been coughing or sneezing? It is a little hard to swallow? (174-175)

sucker-02This is, of course, all nonsense, as Sheffield admits once he has panicked Cimon. But it does cut to the core of the issue of persuasion and persuasiveness. At what point does the reader or viewer spot what Sheffield is doing? This is more complex than it might sound, because the discursive register is more or less identical here as in the other passages of exposition which Asimov wants/needs the reader to accept. There is time in these few pages to wonder whether Asimov genuinely intends to extrapolate future ailments – chromopsychosis and psychogenetic symptoms – that might lie in wait for humans who travel to alien worlds. And to wonder what he might jeopardise his act of persuasion with a term as clumsy as ‘trinitarian follicles’. And, to be surprised at how it got past his editor, John W. Campbell.

I am pretty certain that when I read this story as a kid, thirty-odd years ago, I would not have spotted Sheffield’s trick until he admitted it. (I know I read the collection, but I had absolutely no memory of this story until rereading it this week.) This time around, Sheffield sounded suspicious from the get-go. But if the solution to the mystery did lie in chromopsychosis, I would have probably cut Asimov some slack – since this is a minor story, it would not have been surprising that the exposition was also weak in places.

The adaptation gives a really interesting version of this scene, thanks largely to John Meillon’s softly-spoken performance as Sheffield. He begins with a kind of boisterous uncertainty, as if to test whether he is going to get away with it, but also signalling to the audience that something is amiss with what he is going to say. This caution disappears as he quietly concatenates and escalates the threat. He ends with the claim that chromopsychosis can also affect the hearing. And as he asks whether Cinam (David Knight) is experiencing such a symptom, he drops his voice just a little. It is a delightful touch, something Asimov could not have conveyed.

Other things to watch out for
— The giant playing cards from ‘The Counterfeit Man’  put in another appearance, as does a game of multidimensional chess – well before Star Trek
— The table-top model positioned in the foreground so as to make the studio-bound planet’s surface look much bigger than it is

Previous episode, ‘Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come…

Isaac Asimov, ‘Sucker Bait’, The Martian Way (London: Granada, 1981), 123-203.
Out of the Unknown boxset. BFI, 2014.

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

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).)

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.

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).

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