Strange Magic – 1 

1 May 2005

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Tracing the history of sci-fi on television in an exciting two-part serial. Part One: Out of the Unknown

Television programme commissioners must loathe science fiction. Nothing about it makes sense from a television executive perspective.

Science fiction looks easy to make. Conversely, it costs large piles of money to make. Done well it can be fondly remembered for decades. Done badly it is forgotten by the viewers – even as they are watching it. Rarely does it pick up soap opera-style viewing figures yet, unlike EastEnders fans, the fans of a science fiction show are generally erudite, argumentative, demanding and liable to launch campaigns.

Those same fans want an equal and impossible mixture of real (or plausible) science and fantasy: get the mixture wrong and the show fails quickly. The same amorphous blob of punters who will accept the uncommented exchange of actors and nuclear waste falling on a Yorkshire village will turn away in droves because the spaceship was ion-powered last week and is warp-propulsion this week. Who needs this?

These are the last things that a television executive nowadays wants to confront. Failure is guaranteed – written into the commission, practically.

But still science fiction gets made. There are two up-front reasons for this: a science fiction show that works, works forever and becomes a cash cow. The second reason is less to the front these days but still exists in the back of the minds of the writers and producers, if not the executives: television was made for science fiction.

Science fiction as a genre has existed since pre-history. The earliest tales of humanity are full of notions that made little sense at the time: superbeings, gods from other realms, submerged underworlds populated by strange entities.

As our understanding of science grew after the Renaissance, so did science fiction. By the Industrial Revolution, humans were predicting technology gone mad or technology chained to our needs – often both in the same book.

By the late Victorian period, science fiction and its cousin fantasy had become a recognised genre with both fans and critics in equal measure.

But the 20th century brought with it the natural home of science fiction, the pulp magazine. Science fiction short stories bloomed and anthologies in book form – inevitably pulp anthologies (so named because of the cheap paper quality) – spread the word of science fiction into the drawing rooms of the middle classes.

The peak medium of the time was radio, and here science fiction flourished. But television was made for science fiction, and the arrival of television of a mass medium meant the arrival of science fiction as something everyone would be involved in, like it or not.

The success of science fiction on radio had led to the first-ever sci-fi production on television. The BBC Television Service presented a 35-minute adaptation of Czech author Karel Capek’s 1921 play RUR (‘Rosumovi Umel Roboti’ – known in English as ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’) on 11 February 1938. After the wartime shutdown, it was presented again in March 1948 as a quite different, 90-minute production (below), both being produced by Jan Bussell.

1948 BBC-TV production of RUR

H G Wells’s The Time Machine had followed in 1949, and the science fiction genius Nigel Kneale had started to thrill and terrify the British with The Quatermass Experiment in 1953.

The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II was the moment that television in the UK caught alight. But an event in the year after the Coronation propelled television from a middle-class ‘must have’ into something the majority actively feared being caught without.

In 1954, the BBC and Nigel Kneale produced a live drama (twice, there being no reliable or cheap way of repeating it beyond simply re-capturing it) based on George Orwell’s 1984. The 1948 novel, based upon the author’s experiences of the Spanish Civil War, the rise and fall of fascism, fascist propaganda and the BBC’s labyrinthine corridors in wartime, had caused a stir in intellectual circles when it first appeared.

'Big Brother' poster from 1984

But on television, the results were electrifying. People were terrorised, scandalised, appalled, compelled, enraptured. Above all, they (and many others who hadn’t watched the Television Service’s first showing) tuned into the ‘repeat’. Those who wrote to the papers to complain also watched again in order to be shocked anew. If the book had been horrifying, the BBC Television Service’s version was all the more so for appearing in the darkened front rooms of millions of unsuspecting Britons.

Peter Cushing and Donald Pleasance in 1984

Whilst The Quatermass Experiment had thrilled many, 1984 opened the door to science fiction on television, with the largest viewing audience since the Coronation. The gap between pulp and serious fiction was narrowed, allowing television to pursue the former and claim the latter.

Because television by its nature is episodic and works best when the programmes it shows are short (compared to movies), the alliance between pulp short stories and television is obvious. Detective stories, thrillers, mysteries – they all fit television well.

But they all fit radio well too, if not better in many cases. Science fiction does well on radio; but the addition of pictures, especially the claustrophobia that television does so well (sometimes even deliberately) makes it the ideal place to nurture the genre.

As television took off in the UK, science fiction programmes followed. Nigel Kneale took Quatermass a stage further with the truly inspired and terrifying Quatermass II in 1957, and the BBC Television Service continued the trend with Quatermass and the Pit in 1958.

For productions like 1984 and Quatermass, the limited budget and monochromatic cameras worked just like the pulp pages of Amazing Stories – the limits of the medium enhanced the narrative.

Specifically with television, black and white production meant that the viewers’ minds filled in a lot of the missing detail. Gaps in sets and breaks in reality are easily ignored when your mind is busy filling in the colour; the monsters gained the colour you most disliked and got the limited screen time that matched the limited descriptions in the best sci-fi short stories.

Science fiction on television thus also discovered something else: less is more. Show something in detail that you knocked up in the special effects department in living colour and people will see it for what it is. Have a single inhuman claw glimpsed briefly in a high-contrast corner of a monochrome screen and you’ve put a nation behind the sofa.

The Twighlight Zone

American television had made many stabs at the science fiction genre. Rod Serling had created the ultimate in science fiction programming in 1959 with The Twilight Zone, building upon his own reputation for spooky technical stories in Kraft Television Theater and The US Steel Hour between 1947 and 1953.

But the heavy hand of the censor in the US had forced many of his ideas into the background. It was OK to frighten an audience, but educating them was off-limits. They might be exposed to new ideas, after all.

Television in the UK was refreshingly free of these worries: indeed, providing education of sorts to viewers was seen as a respectable aim above even the claims of ratings and advertisers.

Howard Thomas of ABC, in his autobiography With An Independent Air, mentions the passion for science fiction that his head of drama, Sydney Newman, carried with him. This had produced the pinnacle of television drama in The Avengers (which became less science and more science fiction only in later years).

Newman was unhappy with his promotion prospects at ABC (with good reason), according to Thomas. He had ideas that Thomas felt were unworkable on ITV, with the broadcaster/regulator of the ITA clear that substantial investments in programmes it didn’t deem suitable would have to be written off.

So Newman went to the BBC, where a freer hand and the more artistically understanding, though no less harsh, board of governors would take his ideas on board.

Thomas claims, although it is hard to find supporting evidence for this, that Newman took with him a science fiction programme idea Thomas had turned down.

Howard Thomas depicts himself as happy with the success Newman had at the BBC, saying that he would have produced the show but he knew the ITA would be up in arms. Instead, he bought the notionally science fiction comedy-drama Lost in Space to run against Newman’s idea.

It didn’t prosper in the slot, and not just because it was terrible. It was up against the ultimate British sci-fi show: Doctor Who.

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