Sunday, November 12, 2006

Excellent new science fiction documentary debuts on BBC4

Produced as the centrepiece of a week long stream of programs celebrating the importance of British science fiction, part one of this ambitious documentary series lends the subject all the gravitas you would expect of a BBC production, delving deep into the origins of modern science fiction and specifically the vital role played by H.G. Wells in the creation of several key tropes of the genre. Contributions come from a galaxy of star names; many of them revered as royalty in science fiction circles. Brian Aldis, Arthur C Clarke and Nigel Kneale (who we tragically lost just a few weeks ago) lend weighty and authoritative opinion as representatives of the generation of writers closest to Wells, while up and coming talents like China Melville, Stephen Baxter and Brian Stableford signal their own debt to a writer whose ideas are still being liberally borrowed from today.

The core focus of "From Apes To Aliens" is the vexed question of evolution; an idea that the program argues persuasively has always been a key component of British science fiction. Of course Wells himself returned to the theme several times in his novels, first in The Time Machine and again in The War Of The Worlds, though surprisingly the program makes no mention of the fact that he was tutored by T H Huxley, the greatest evolutionary proponent of the day (he was known as Darwin’s Bulldog) and surely therefore a huge and important influence.

The program makes use of archive footage and modern day interviews with writers and scientists, as well as occasional dramatic sequences. These recount key moments in Wells’ life and scenes from his books, though interestingly and quite effectively, the writer and his characters are here presented as essentially one and the same, thus Wells is seen not only writing his books, but constructing his Time Machine and exploring the underground caverns of the Morlocs. This seems a perfectly reasonable dramatic device given that Wells certainly interjected some autobiographical material into his novels. As an interesting aside, it’s not the first time this has been done, most successfully in the superb Nicholas Meyer directed movie Time After Time.

Given that this program is part of a retrospective season of British science fiction, it not unnaturally plunders the BBC archives for causal connections with Wells, and so there is no great surprise that Doctor Who is presented as an important antecedent. The insightful point is made that the time travelling doctor (as first presented to the British public by William Hartnell) was played very much as if he were a Victorian or Edwardian gentleman, and his Tardis was full of the sort of old clutter and bric-a-brac that you might find in an English home of those periods. As critic Kim Newman observes, the Time Traveller of H.G. Wells was dressed in the attire of his time, so it made sense for the Doctor to be dressed in the same way, rather than the modern uniforms of Star Trek. It is also worth remembering that the very first voyage of the Doctor was to the far past and a meeting with cavemen that evoked memories of Wells’ bestial Morlocs.

Readers of this site will be pleased to learn that The War Of The Worlds is also afforded due deference, though an error is made in crediting Wells with the inspiration for the story. It is certainly true to say that the idea for the War Of The Worlds was suggested during a walk by Wells and his brother Frank, as attested to by H.G himself in his autobiography. Along the way, they were discussing the plight of the Tasmanian natives who were then facing the genocidal attentions of colonial invaders, but Brian Stableford suggests erroneously that it was H.G. Wells who offered the observation, “suppose some beings from another planet were to drop out of the sky suddenly?” It was in fact his brother who made this hugely salient observation, though of course H.G developed the idea and made such capital of it, using his story to smash the smug assumption that the British Empire was an unassailable power in the world.

It would have been nice to see a few more references to the incredible legacy of The War Of The Worlds, such as the Orson Welles radio broadcast, and you can’t help but smile when Doctor Who is once again trotted out for comparison, with the slightly more tenuous connection offered up between Wells’ Martians and the Daleks. The program leaves direct discussion of Wells at this point to look at the equally worthy work of Olaf Stapleton and then briefly touches on American influences. There is a quaint bit of Yank bashing here from Kim Newman, who gently chides the primitive early American television science fiction shows such as Captain Video, contrasting these with the much more polished and grown up BBC series Quatermass. Of course this is not to say that Quatermass does not deserve our wholehearted praise. The series had the British viewing public glued to their sofas every week and had palpable connections with The War Of The Worlds. The third series even focused on the discovery of a long buried Martian spacecraft beneath London.

The rest of the program works through several more of the greats of British science fiction, with welcome discussion of the work of Arthur C Clarke, with Clarke himself providing much in the way of comment. Of course pride of place is given to his magnum opus 2001 A Space Odyssey, but it is nice to see his less well-known (though I think equally good) Childhood’s End acknowledged as the prototype for that archetypal science fiction vision; as giant spacecraft hover over our cities in mute testimony to their overwhelming technological superiority. It is an idea since revisited many times on television and film, most notably in the excellent mini series V and of course, Independence Day, which (though not mentioned in the program) was of course an unacknowledged remake of The War Of The Worlds.

This first episode is an excellent series opener, full of detail and respect for the genre and I think one of the few times it has been treated with anything approaching the respect it deserves. The program does however end on a sad note, with a visibly upset Clarke lamenting the failure of science to emulate the great ideas of science fiction, notably in the lost promise of the Apollo moon program. Alas, as will be covered by the second program in the series, science fiction, and British science fiction in particular, has had far more predictive success with matters of an unsettling and depressing nature.

Martians And Us, From Apes to Aliens can be seen on BBC4 on Monday 13 November 2006 9pm-10pm; rpt Wednesday 15 November midnight-1am; rpt Sunday 19 November 12.50am-1.50am (Saturday night)