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).

 

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Memory Palace

Kunzru1

From 18 June to 20 October 2013, the Porter gallery in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum was home to Memory Palace. Sponsored by Sky Arts Ignition, it is the first graphic arts exhibition at the venue in over a decade. It features one eponymous novella by Hari Kunzru (published separately) and twenty installations by as many artists or studios, and attempts to see “how far [you can] push the format and still call it a book,” to provide “an experiential reading format for a story,” to “create an exhibition that can be read’ (Newell and Salazar, “Curating a Book,” Memory Palace 84, 85). It is also a work of sf.

Curators Laurie Britton Newell and Ligaya Salazar commissioned Kunzru to outline a story that would then be developed in collaboration with the artists, who would be co-creators rather than mere illustrators: Abäke, Peter Bil’ak, Alexis Deacon, Sara De Bondt studio, Oded Ezer, Francesco Franchi, Isabel Greenberg, Hansje van Halem, Robert Hunter, Jim Kay, Johnny Kelly, Erik Kessels, Na Kim, Stuart Kolakovic, Frank Laws, Le Gun, CJ Lim, Luke Pearson, Stefanie Posavec, Némo Tral, Henning Wagenbreth, Mario Wagner, and Sam Winston. This process is recounted in Hunter’s dialog-free, short graphic comic, “Making Memory Palace,” appended to Kunzru’s novella.

The British-Indian Kunzru, a former magazine journalist, who wrote about travel, music, culture, and technology, is, like David Mitchell, one of that generation of authors relatively untroubled by genre-policing. His second novel, Transmission (2005), is about a computer virus, and reads like a slimmed-down, nearer-future version of Ian McDonald’s River of Gods (2004) spliced together with one of William Gibson’s Bigend novels; his fourth and most recent novel, the historically-sprawling Gods without Men (2012), includes UFOs and aliens, kinda. A rather trendy literary author, his first novel, The Impressionist (2003), attracted a £1 million+ advance, and he has won several major awards and prizes. The central concerns of his particular brand of popular, not exactly demanding postmodernism, sometimes described as “hysterical realism” or “translit,” are non-linearity and connectivity. Kunzru’s commissioning by Sky Arts is, then, relatively unsurprising (especially as he also used to be a presenter on The Lounge, Sky TV’s own electronic arts program).

His co-creators are rather less well known. Intriguingly, in their brief biographies at the end of the Memory Palace book, not one of them self-describes as an artist. They are all graphic designers, graphic artists, typographers, illustrators, comics artists, book designers, creative directors, art directors, editors, and/or architects. One is left with a strong sense of a smug and slightly shadowy commercial world of professionals, talented but perhaps a bit glib, for whom this is just another commission to be turned in on budget and on time. This perhaps explains why the exhibition’s satirical attack on neo-liberal hegemony and state-imposed regimes of austerity and amnesia is so muted.

Kunzru’s novella, Memory Palace, is set in a post-apocalyptic London. A magnetic storm destroyed the global information infrastructure and brought the Withering, a post-literate Dark Age of totalitarian theocracy, in which Westminster is known as Waste Monster, and other moderately amusing sub-Riddley Walker (1980) wordplay thrives. The Thing (as the council of leaders is known) wants to bring about the Wilding, a future in which the remnants of humanity will live in harmony with nature. The Thing has outlawed writing and recording, thereby criminalizing the Memorialists, those who are devoted to collecting and recollecting the past, whom they now hunt. Appropriately, then, the story, while nicely written and more than competent, stirs with faint echoes: of post-apocalyptic fiction by John Wyndham, John Christopher, and Walter M. Miller; of the television series Survivors (UK 1975-1977) and the coda to the film Threads (Jackson UK/Australia/US 1984); of M. John Harrison’s seedy bedsit entropy, China Miéville’s rejectamentalism, and Evan Calder Wood’s salvagepunk.

The book version of Memory Palace is, as one would expect from such a project, a gorgeous object, lavishly illustrated with selected work from the exhibition and pictures of the physical and electronic installations. If you have read the book, though, the exhibition itself is a little disappointing (I cannot gauge what it would be like to see the exhibition before, or without, reading the book). Le Gun’s life-size model of what someone from the post-apocalypse imagines an ambulance to have looked like – part medicine show, part museum of curiosities, drawn by wolves and driven by a Día de Muertos cross between Baron Samedi and the Child Catcher – is impressively detailed,kunzru2 as is Jim Kay’s reliquary cabinet devoted to Milord Darwing, the author of Origin of the Species (1859), who is misremembered as a rogue GM scientist. In contrast, Oded Ezer’s eight short films, looped on eight separate screens, are all concept with little art, and Erik Kessel’s enormous temple built from bundles of newspapers and advertising fliers, recalling the pre-apocalyptic religious ritual of aakgo9fm2Recycling, has even less art and barely even a concept. The more straightforward illustrations – whether blown up on large light boxes (Tral), arranged in a narrative thread on a white wall so you have to move to follow them (Pearson), or presented on zinc letterpress plates (Winston) – do benefit from exhibition. And it is quite pleasing – after all the corporate profligacy, the privatization and militarization of public spaces, the peonage of cleaners and others, the jingoism and spitefulness, that the London Olympics involved – to see the stadium reduced to slums (Tral) and Anish Kapoor and Arups’ 115-meter tall ArcelorMittal Orbit, a kind of flying spaghetti Eiffel Tower, being ceremonially burned to the ground (Greenberg).

Newell and Salazar write that “Unlike reading a printed book, visiting an exhibition is not usually a linear experience” (85). In this case, however, the layout of the space, and the clearly marked entrance and exit, do produce a linear exhibit, whereas reading the book, with its out-of-order narrative and illustrations that tempt one to flick back and forth between them, is more successfully non-linear. Consequently, I would recommend the book over the exhibition, especially as it is available from online stores for less than £10, and unless you live in South Kensington (or “South Keen Singtown,” as it will be known during the Withering), getting to and seeing the exhibition will cost you more than that.

A version of this review appeared in Science Fiction Studies 121 (2013), 596–8.

Out of the Unknown: ‘Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come…’ BBC2 8 November 1965

Patricia 'Paddy' Russell
Patricia ‘Paddy’ Russell

The second original script for the series has, like ‘Stranger in the Family’, a contemporary setting (but is rather less adventurous in its use of location shooting – just the exterior of an old suburban home and the Putney street outside). The writer, Mike Watts, had primarily worked for various ITV companies, although in 1965 he also scripted a couple of episodes of the BBC’s The Troubleshooters (1965–72); in addition to writing original dramas and episodes, he wrote or co-wrote several British crime movies, all of them comedies, The Pot Carriers (1962), The Cracksman (1963), Crooks in Cloisters (1964), which I remember fondly but haven’t seen in about a million years, and Joey Boy (1965). The director was Paddy Russell, one of the first two women directors at the BBC. Originally an actress, she appeared in a 1950 adaptation of Karel Capek’s The Insect Play for BBC Sunday-Night Theatre (1950–59) and in two different and uncredited roles in a couple of episodes of Nigel Kneale/Rudolph Cartier’s The Quatermass Experiment (1953); she quit acting to become Cartier’s floor manager and then a director. Despite a long and varied career that lasted until around 1980, and included everything from 55 episodes of Z Cars (1962–78) to 15 instalments of the gameshow 3-2-1 (1978–87), she is probably best remembered as the director of Doctor Who’s The Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Eve (1966), Invasion of the Dinosaurs (1974), The Pyramids of Mars (1975) and The Horror of Fang Rock (1997). Here, she does an excellent job of never letting the potentially ridiculous aspects of the story teeter over into the comical.

OOTU Come buttercup Repeat 12th August 1966‘Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come…’ tells the story of Henry Wilkes (Milo O’Shea), a fishmonger and an obsessive gardener who, thanks to his weekly, year-long correspondence with the mysterious Mr Pringle, has managed to grow a number of exotic species which should not even survive in the UK. He has, in fact, grown them to monstrous size, feeding them experimental foodstuffs as well as diced rabbit and cockles. There is something odd about them, though. Birds stay away from the garden. Wilkes, who has given the plants names, also talks to them, and they respond, although we do not hear their voices or what they say; their sentience, however, is confirmed for viewers by their physical responses to his proximity and touch, and the way they extend feelers to grasp at the food he scatters on the soil. Wilkes goes as far as to steal hextellenium, a dangerous chemical, from the pharmacy next to his shop to use in an experimental formula to make Nobby, his favourite among the plants, grow even bigger and stronger.

come-04Indeed, Wilkes is so obsessed with plants as living beings that he berates his new shop assistant, Anne Lovejoy (Patsy Rowlands), for dressing the displays of fish with parsley – he refuses to stock the herb in an effort to discourage his customers from making parsley sauce – and for putting tomato and lettuce in her cheese sandwiches. She is extremely devoted to her new boss, ever so slightly a-quiver when he is around.

come-01Monica Wilkes (Christine Hargreaves) is a nervous mess, concerned her husband no longer loves her and driven to distraction by the weirdness the garden exudes. Although she has witnessed nothing in particular to distress her so, she senses it is somehow unnatural. She suffers from headaches and depression, and her only comfort is her pet dog, Mina, an obvious child surrogate whom she obsessively sketches and paints. (If the story was told from Monica’s point of view, it might be rather like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ (1892).)

This potential middle-class love triangle comes to the fore when Dr Chambers (Desmond Jordan) is brought in to consult on Monica’s ‘nerves’. (He is a private specialist, rather than an NHS doctor, which is significant to the class politics of the story: there are clear social hierarchies, including ones around education, the amateur and the professional.) Chambers bluntly asks Wilkes whether the source of Monica’s anxiety could be that he is having an affair with another woman.

But something else entirely is going on. Something rather queer.

comeThere is a tradition of sf/horror stories about sentient plants, from HG Wells’s ‘The Flowering of the Strange Orchid’ (1894) to John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951) to The Thing (from another World) (Nyby 1951) to Scott Smith’s The Ruins (2006). Many of these stories are obsessed with reproduction, especially Don Siegel’s version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), in which the peculiarities of human sexual reproduction are mapped onto a post-war world world being transformed by commodity production. In ‘Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come…’,  though, the plants are partly about masturbation and all about homosexual desire.

Wilkes comforts Monica with transparent – to us – lies. He is oblivious to Anne, even as he seeks her collusion in his secretive schemes; in a quite agonising scene, his efforts to make up for snapping at her lead to an intimate conversation, during which he is completely unaware of quite how likely she might be to misinterpret his sudden attention (Rowlands excels, as always, at combining self-deprecation, class aspiration, timidity and repressed desire). He has been engaged in a secretive correspondence with Pringle, a man whom no one has met and who regularly sends him odd packages. Wilkes takes special pleasure in the plant he calls Nobby. He thrusts his hands deep into Nobby’s leaves to administer a ‘morning tickle’, during which he calls the plant what sounds like ‘a little old plonker’ and then unquestionably a ‘great big silly old faggot’. And when he plunges a syringe full of his special formula into Nobby’s roots to make his favourite even bigger, the framing of the shot makes it look as if Wilkes is fumbling with his penis. Elsewhere, he describes himself to Anne as ‘the biggest cockle-eater in the business’.

And Nobby is a jealous lover. He devours Mina, and then barks like the dog so as to lure Monica to her death; and then when Anne turns up, laden with cockles for Wilkes…

outunknown8bigThe script was originally commissioned as a seventy-five minute drama; cutting it down to sixty-minutes (even then, it overruns by a minute), might be why the end seems a little rushed, fizzles a little. On the one hand, there is no revelation that Pringle is really an intelligent plant, which is probably a good thing; but there is certainly left open the unexplored possibility that Nobby or the other plants are telepathically controlling Wilkes and others…

Other things to watch out for
— Patsy Rowland’s reverse acting when the plant wraps its tendrils around her neck
— The quite astonishing line after Wilkes tears a plastic flower off one his customer’s bosoms: You can’t go out for a pair of kippers nowadays without getting raped.
— The expression on Patsy Rowland’s face when she walks out of the shop just in time to hear that line being delivered.
come-03— And Norman. Watch out for Norman. He is the pharmacist. He is also Eric Thompson, Emma’s dad and, far more significantly for world culture, the narrator of the English-language dub of  The Magic Roundabout (1965–77).

Previous episode, ‘Time in Advance

Next episode, ‘Sucker Bait

Sources
Out of the Unknown DVD 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

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.

Out of the Unknown: ‘Stranger in the Family’ (BBC2 18 October 1965)

By all accounts, although ‘Stranger in the Family’ was one of the three episodes already completed when the Irene Shubik and Sydney Newman were deciding upon the series opener, neither of them seems really to have considered David Campton’s original drama as a serious contender. Newman wanted the big name appeal of John Wyndham; Shubik, who would have preferred the Alan E. Nourse adaptation despite the relative littleness of his name, seems to have been more concerned with establishing Out of the Unknown as incontrovertibly science-fictional. Which is a shame, as whatever the merits of its competitors, ‘Stranger in the Family’ is easily the strongest drama of the three, its quiet menace well suited to the intimacy of television viewing. This should come as no surprise.

OOTU Stranger in the Family ArticleSome of this can be attributed to Alan Bridges, probably the most experienced of the first three directors to work on the series.1 He makes effective use of possibilities for location shooting provided by the story’s contemporary London setting – opening shots overlooking the flight exhibition at the Science Museum, sequences in the streets of (I think) Hammersmith and Fulham and along the south bank of the Thames by Southwark, the potent juxtaposition of a Victorian pub with a new tower block. Although lacking the overtly science-fictional images of the first two episodes, Bridges’ location shooting is a far more effective way to open up a drama than could be provided by their studio-bound extraterrestrial settings. Bridges also offers us several striking (really) high- and low-angle shots, but in the studio, especially, his careful direction works to let the story flow and a sense of threat to build.

But the real reason for the episode’s success is David Campton’s script. One of the first British practitioners of the Theatre of the Absurd, his The Lunatic View (1958) is often considered – alongside Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party (1957) – as the foundational example of the ‘comedies of menace’, a term taken from its subtitle. He was primarily a playwright – he ‘discovered’ Alan Ayckbourn – but he was active for about five years as a television writer. When Shubik commissioned ‘Stranger in the Family’, the first original piece for the series, Campton already had a couple of genre pieces to his credit. In 1966, he adapted Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’ (1839) for Mystery and Imagination (1966-70), starring Denholm Elliott and Susannah York as Roderick and Madeleine. In 1968, he adapted H. Russell Wakefield’s ‘The Triumph of Death’ (1949) for Late Night Horror, directed by Rudolph Cartier and starring Claire Bloom. Shubik would later commission him, in 1966 and 1969 respectively, to adapt Frederik Pohl’s ‘Tunnel under the World’ (1955) and Isaac Asimov’s ‘Liar!’ (1941) for Out of the Unknown. ‘Stranger in the Family’ was remade in 1969 as an episode of Journey into the Unknown (1968-69), with an entirely different cast including Janice Rule, Gerald Sim and Glynn Edwards.

strangerThe eighteen-year-old Boy (Richard O’Callaghan) flees from the Science Museum, tailed by the purposeful Hall (Joby Blanshard). Boy eventually confronts him, ordering his stalker to get away from him. Hall steps into the road and is killed by a van. But by the time Boy gets back to the flats where he lives with his ageing parents, Charles (Peter Copley) and Margaret (Daphne Slater) Wilson, another anonymous figure has him back under surveillance. The next-door flat has a new occupant, too, a man called Brown (John Paul) who makes no real effort to conceal his interest in Boy. The troubled family contemplate the need to move on – yet again – to evade their pursuers. They have clearly done this many times before and at some personal cost – Charles once worked at Harvard, but is now a lab assistant at a secondary modern school.

OutOfTheUnknown3Boy does not want to leave, though. He has fallen for an actress/model, Paula (Justine Lord), and believes she is genuinely interested in him.

More deaths follow. And they are not the first in which Boy has played a part.

For he is a mutant. His sensorium perceives the world differently, something he struggles to express in words. He is telepathic. And he is able to force others to do his will.

‘Stranger in the Family’ is a worthy addition to those British tales of an emerging posthumanity, exemplified by JD Beresford’s The Hampdenshire Wonder (1911) and Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John (1935). It recalls Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) and its adaptation, Village of the Damned (Wolf Rilla 1960), and its quiet delineation of state surveillance and hinted-at machinations adds something of the underrated Children of the Damned (Anton M. Leader 1963) and the remarkable The Damned (Joseph Losey 1963) into the mix. Despite the melodramatic incidents around which the story is articulated, it remains ominously understated. Agendas compete, shift according to circumstance. Some motives are obvious, others remain ambiguous. When the boss of the surveillance team finally talks to Boy’s parents, he speaks reassuringly of the state intervening merely to keep such exceptional individuals safe and to observe their further development. He speaks of a new species that will end war and supplant homo sapiens entirely, and he seems pleased with the former and unfazed by the latter. But he is an agent of the state, and there is absolutely no reason to believe anything he says.

Other things to look out for
girl_06One of the pleasures of these shows is recognising the actors, many of whom were never stars but had long careers on British television, appearing in an episode here and there of pretty much everything. The reason Justine Lord looks familiar is that she is Sonia, the Out of the Unknown - S01.E03 - Stranger in the Family joby blanshardgirl who was death, in the Prisoner episode ‘The Girl Who was Death’ (1968). Hall, in the opening sequence .. . is it? … yes, it’s Colin from Doomwatch. Hold on, I recognise that voice, that’s John Hall, Spencer Quist from stranger-02Doomwatch! (Peter Copley and Bay White also each did a Doomwatch.) Copley was also Dr Warlock in Doctor Who’s ‘The Pyramids of Mars’ (1975), and other cast members appeared in ‘The Sea Devils’ (1972), ‘The Invasion’ (1968) and ‘The Space Pirates’ (1969). Jack May, who was in the last of these, was also in A for Andromeda (1961) and was the protagonist’s butler in Adam Adamant Lives! (1968-69). And so on. Other genre shows crop up in more than one cast member’s credits: The Avengers, The Champions, Department S – as well as less fantastical dramas and soaps. Oh, and if Richard O’Callaghan looks familiar, he is the son of Patricia Hayes – and the actor who was brought in when Jim Dale quit the Carry On… series (see him in …Loving and …at Your Convenience).

Last episode, ‘The Counterfeit Man’
Next episode, ‘The Dead Past’

Notes
1
In 1966, Bridges would direct the Robert Holmes-scripted sf movie, Invasion, and although he continued to work primarily in television, his other films include The Hireling (1973), Age of Innocence (1977), The Return of the Soldier (1982), The Shooting Party (1985) and Apt Pupil (1987).

Sources
Out of the Unknown DVD boxset. BFI, 2014.