R.U.R ©BBC 1938
Originally posted on the original Moviemail website (now sadly revamped and no longer providing the same opportunity to write such pieces), this was a series of blogs tracing the apocalyptic themes of British science fiction television. It was published between August and December 2014 to tie in with the BFI’s major retrospective and celebration of the science fiction genre Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder.

These are the longer, uncut versions of the original posts with minor additions and corrections.

The earliest examples of British science fiction television, two adaptations of Karel Čapek’s 1920 stage play R.U.R (aka Rossum’s Universal Robots), from which the word ‘robot’ entered the language, bookended the span of the Second World War. Jan Bussell’s thirty-five minute version was produced for BBC’s fledgling television service in 1938. Experimental in nature, the Radio Times advertised it as “a play that should lend itself very well indeed to television from the point of view of effects.” It was remade ten years later, again by Bussell, and featured future Doctor Who Patrick Troughton as one of the robots leading a revolution against their human creators.

R.U.R touched on major themes about dehumanisation through technology and the failures of a technologically driven utopia. It seemed entirely apt to revisit such themes in 1948 as British society emerged from the privations of the Second World War, rejected the imposed austerity of the 1950s and set about considering the future.

The play traversed the technocratic idealism and scientific romance of H. G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come, published in 1933, and its extension into dystopian, totalitarianism in George Orwell’s novel of 1949, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Both were part of a British science fiction literary tradition that included Arthur Conan Doyle, E.M Forster, Rudyard Kipling, John Wyndham, Aldous Huxley, Olaf Stapledon, C.S. Lewis, John Christopher and Arthur C. Clarke.

They epitomised the then key elements of the British science fiction tradition, one quite different to the pulp American form of the 1930s and 1940s. British insularity, isolation, anxiety and apocalypse were state of the nation tropes and they would be manifested in literature, theatre, cinema and, most effectively, on television.

Both versions of R.U.R were also televisual experiments that expanded upon the innovations of radio and theatre. Their creative use of limited resources established another tradition of British science fiction television where the visually and audibly strange were presented in the ordinary, intimate, domestic environment of the viewer.

The Time Machine ©BBC 1949
This was developed further with Robert Barr’s 1949 adaptation of Wells’s The Time Machine, transmitted in January of that year, which ambitiously employed back projection, live cross fading, mixing between cameras, models and telecine inserts to depict the Time Traveller’s journey through time. Barr established the medium’s future form and gradually introduced documentary techniques into drama.

In this period, several BBC plays embraced science fiction and horror concepts.These included the alternate history of Take Back Your Freedom (1948) and J.B. Priestley’s vision of post-apocalyptic Britain in Summer Day’s Dream (1949); an adaptation of Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1950) and Wells’s little-known satire The Wonderful Visit (1952), where an angel attempts to adapt to human society. The children’s serial Stranger From Space, where a young boy befriends a marooned Martian, also ran for two series from 1951. Time Slip, screened in 1953, was the intriguing story of a man 4.7 seconds ahead in time from the rest of the world.

Writer Nigel Kneale, a key figure in the development of science fiction on British television, captured a sense of Britain’s changing fortunes in the 1950s as it was increasingly dominated by science and technology and its culture became heavily influenced by American consumerism. Kneale cut his teeth adapting 1952’s psychic alien possession drama Mystery Story and nuclear thriller Number Three in 1953 after joining the new Script Unit at the BBC in 1951. Both plays critiqued the pursuit of scientific knowledge and coincided with the optimism of the Festival of Britain, the debut of the Comet jet aircraft and the imminent completion of Britain’s first nuclear power station.
‘A countless host… with one single consciousness’
Viennese cinema director Rudolph Cartier arrived at the BBC in 1950 and worked with Kneale adapting Arrow to the Heart in 1952. The urgent need to fill a Saturday night slot in the BBC schedule gave them an opportunity to push the technical and stylistic potential of television with their ‘thriller in six parts’, 1953’s The Quatermass Experiment.

Cartier eschewed the intimacy of previous BBC dramas and brought his cinematic vision to bear upon Kneale’s human story of an astronaut who returns to Earth possessed by an alien entity. The exploits of the anti-establishment scientist with a conscience, Bernard Quatermass, gripped an audience of five million viewers and a British science fiction legend was born.

Cartier and Kneale next confidently tackled an adaptation of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and its broadcast in 1954 caused complaints and questions in Parliament. Cartier again sought a broader scale, using over twenty sets and pre-filmed inserts, to adapt Orwell’s austere, totalitarian science fiction polemic.

It tapped into the still raw emotions about the darkest days of the Second World War and the fresh anxieties about the Cold War. The play’s final scenes, the torture of hero Winston Smith played by Peter Cushing, in Room 101 proved to be too graphic for BBC viewers. Yet, despite the protests about its 12th December debut the BBC repeated the play on the 16th December.

Simultaneously, when the makers of Nineteen Eighty-Four were described as ‘sadists and readers of Horror comics’, this reflected concerns about a creeping Americanisation of British culture through its SF and horror magazines and comic books. Hollywood’s own mix of paranoia and spectacle in the era’s science fiction film boom saw the genre gradually becoming a mass medium entertainment.

The arrival of the BBC’s commercial rival ITV in 1955 merely added fuel to the debate about high and low culture. Kneale and Cartier returned in the same year with Quatermass II, a deeply paranoid, pessimistic alien possession thriller that, as James Chapman noted, said a great deal more about ‘national impotence’ as Britain struggled to come to terms with its fading global influence. Quatermass and the Pit in 1958 upped the ante with a claustrophobic tale about humanity’s violent ancestral Martian legacy, fashioning an SF allegory from Britain’s colonial past and the race riots of that summer.

With his characteristic conservative pessimism, Kneale produced further plays in the genre in the decade that followed. The Creature, another starring vehicle for Peter Cushing and made prior to Quatermass II, was about an expedition to find the legendary Yeti. After a period working on film scripts, Kneale provided a ghost story with a twist about 18th century villagers haunted by a future nuclear apocalypse in 1963’s The Road. Sadly, the play does not survive in the archive. He also worked with director Michael Elliott in 1964 on ATV’s nuclear thriller The Crunch.

Another Kneale-Elliott collaboration The Year of the Sex Olympics in 1968, a psychedelic expression of what Adam Curtis noted as ‘the paranoia that was beginning to seep into the left at the end of the 1960s’, was a chillingly prescient satire about the influence of mass media and reality television that continues to resonate today.

The Quatermass Experiment ©BBC 1953

By the start of the 1960s the BBC’s commercial rivals ITV had captured the ratings with mass market, popular programmes, not only filling their schedules with slickly made imports but also with indigenous plays, series and serials. Associated Rediffusion and ABC produced many SF themed dramas in this period, primarily obsessing about misguided scientists and their failed attempts to launch rockets, encroaching apocalypse and its consequences.

David Karp’s One (1956), Priestley’s Doomsday for Dyson (1958), Lester Fuller’s Before the Sun Goes Down (1959), Murder Club — an adaptation of Robert Sheckley’s The Tenth Victim — and Giles Cooper’s Loop (1963), about an invasion via outside TV broadcasts, and his adaptation of John Lymington’s The Night of the Big Heat (1961) were just a few of the plays from this period.

One of the key figures responsible for the radical reshaping of drama at ITV franchise ABC was Canadian drama producer Sydney Newman. With the Armchair Theatre drama anthology he produced a series of plays that drew audiences of up to 12 million viewers and brought realism and new writers to the fore.

He also supervised children’s drama and in 1960 commissioned Malcolm Hulke and Eric Paice’s six part Sunday afternoon serial Target Luna, about Buchan Island’s experimental rocket group headed by Norman Wedgewood, his children Geoff, Jimmy and Valerie, journalist Conway Henderson and a hamster called Hamlet.

It was so successful it spawned three equally popular sequels, Pathfinders in Space, Pathfinders to Mars and Pathfinders to Venus. The various exploits of Wedgewood, the children and Henderson took them to Mars and Venus in fast paced, positivist adventure serials that blended science fact with the wonders and terrors of space exploration. While the production values were primitive, the Pathfinders trilogy set an ambitious template for popular children’s science fiction television in the 1960s.

Newman also reinvigorated ABC’s Saturday night schedule when he developed The Avengers, a Cold War espionage thriller that gradually transformed into a quirky escapist fantasy, its reassuring traditionalism and sophisticated modernity becoming the epitome of 1960s meritocratic pop. Many episodes of The Avengers, particularly when it moved from a studio VT to all film production, embraced science fiction concepts as suave British spy John Steed set out to foil diabolical masterminds of all inclinations.
‘Twenty robots… whirling through the universe with a sense of evil.’
1962’s Dumb Martian, an adaptation of John Wyndham’s short story and allegory about racism and domestic abuse that featured a space pioneer purchasing a mute Martian wife for company, was shown in the Armchair Theatre strand. Its story editor Irene Shubik had joined ABC in 1960, commissioning a number of fantasy themed scripts for Armchair Theatre and used the adaptation to launch her science fiction anthology series Out of this World. The only surviving episode, her adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Little Lost Robot, exploring the ethics of creating a race of artificial intelligences, received a welcome DVD release by the BFI in 2014.

She established contact with agent John Carnell, who had founded science fiction magazine New Worlds and had many SF writers on his books, and together they selected the short stories for adaptation. Its range of literate, thought-provoking adaptations demonstrated that American and British science fiction were contemporary bedfellows, with stories by Asimov, Clifford Simak and Philip K Dick rubbing shoulders with new scripts from Terry Nation and Richard Waring. These were connections Shubik would exploit when she and Newman moved to the BBC.

The BBC had, meanwhile, scored another success with the seven part serial A For Andromeda in 1961. Noted astronomer and cosmologist Fred Hoyle and producer John Elliot created an eerie story about a group of scientists who receive extra terrestrial instructions to design and build an advanced computer and create a life form, Andromeda. Once again, it was a drama focused on Cold War suspicions and paranoia, fears of technological advancement as well as the moral and ethical conflicts between idealistic science and government bureaucracy. Its sequel The Andromeda Breakthrough in 1962 developed the themes further into a critique of the degradation of science under capitalism.

Doctor Who ©BBC 1963

When Sydney Newman moved to the BBC in December 1962, he set about reorganising the Drama department. Prior to this Alice Frick, Donald Bull and John Braybon of the BBC Survey Group had compiled internal reports about science fiction, drama and audiences, referencing A for Andromeda and Out of this World. The reports would stimulate Newman’s desire to create a new series for Saturday tea time. He recruited his former ABC production assistant Verity Lambert to produce what would become the longest running science fiction series in the world, Doctor Who.

In November 1963 a British cultural phenomenon made its debut and Doctor Who then cemented its success when Lambert convinced Newman that Terry Nation’s seven-part story The Daleks (aka The Mutants) did not violate his rule against ‘bug-eyed monsters’ or his remit for the series to be scientifically and historically educational. The series’ longevity was assured when the Daleks made their first appearance in December 1963. Since then, its format has embraced hard science fiction, historic adventure, fantasy, Gothic horror and satire. Its appeal to generations old and new continues unabated by dint of the production team’s remarkable decision in 1966 to 'regenerate' its leading man.

Nation’s renewed affinity for science fiction also inspired Irene Shubik, who also moved with Newman to the BBC, and she asked him to adapt Isaac Asimov’s novel The Caves of Steel for drama anthology Story Parade in 1964. Starring Peter Cushing as detective Elijah Bailey, the play concerned itself with his investigation of the murder of an eminent scientist and the developing relationship with his partner on the case, the robot R. Daneel Olivaw. A detective mystery, it also provided Shubik with a social commentary on xenophobia, over-population and the impact of technology on human behavior.

During production of Story Parade, Shubik proposed a science fiction anthology to Newman and commissioned the first 13 scripts for what became the landmark BBC2 series, Out of the Unknown. Shubik produced a daring, provocative and ambitious showcase of British and American writers, resolutely using science fiction as a vehicle to examine contemporary anxieties and concerns through allegory, metaphor and satire.

Out of the Unknown ©BBC 1966

Stories by Pohl, Ballard, Asimov, Simak, Brunner were adapted by the cream of British scriptwriters and, later, new scripts were commissioned from Nigel Kneale, Brian Hayles and Michael J Bird. As Mark Ward eloquently notes within the BFI DVD release of the 20 surviving episodes, its space age, swinging sixties currency may be passé but the series’ examinations of ‘the individual, the state, human identity, law and order, education, consumerism, medicine, war and so on, still concern us.’

While Out of the Unknown engaged intellectually with the genre, ABC’s Undermind in 1965 offered more of the same with its post-Quatermass alien conspiracy theme about an anarchic alien fifth column threatening Britain’s security. The BBC attempted to emulate the stylish heroics of The Avengers and ITC’s action adventure series with displaced Edwardian crime fighter Adam Adamant Lives! and Bondian alien secret agents led by Simon King, thwarting alien invasions in Counterstrike.

ITV’s schedules were also dominated by American imports from the Irwin Allen stable including Lost in Space, Land of the Giants and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Homegrown series for ITV were primarily the responsibility of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson who scored enormous success with their filmed Supermarionation puppet series.

Supercar, Fireball XL5, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, made for ITC during the 1960s, captured the essence of the space age and the post-war utopian ideal man working in harmony with technology. Crucially the blend of action and adventure with innovative visual effects, transnational settings and instantly recognisable signature music secured lucrative international sales and broadcast.

Similarly ITC film series such as The Champions and Department S featured many episodes with a science fiction flavor but their jewel in the crown was surely The Prisoner. Like Kneale, its star Patrick McGoohan anticipated the ‘fall out’ from the swinging Sixties and the consequences of the culture wars between the establishment and the counterculture. His strange, surreal series about a secret agent who resigns and is interned in a bizarre Italianate detention centre to have his mind scoured for valuable information, was full of moral and ethical questions about freedom and conformity.

The Prisoner expressed something of the postmodern qualities of British science fiction literature as it underwent a radical transformation under Michael Moorcock’s editorship of New Worlds magazine. It had become a medium of ideas and styles and the sounding board for great social and cultural changes.

Television and film iterations also attempted to reflect the counterculture movement’s determination to put issues about environmentalism, poverty, racial and sexual equality on the mainstream agenda. By the 1970s, science fiction offered an opportunity for producers, writers and directors to comment on the unfulfilled utopian promises of the 1960s and explore many alternate coming of age realities.

Next time: Part Two / 1970–75: ‘Waiting for the collapse’ — From Doomwatch to The Changes

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