Sometimes, it’s the most cursory and throwaway ideas that have the most enduring potential. I originally had the idea for this list of ‘spare time sci-fi’ at a birthday party where the host had been given a copy of The Boy From Space on DVD as a present, and a conversation involving trying to remember the name of Starships took place. It began as a feature in This Way Up fanzine, later became a full magazine article, ended up in my anthology Well At Least It’s Free (available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here), and now it’s here in a slightly modified version of the original. To be honest I’m surprised by how little I’ve had to update and amend – even if I probably wouldn’t write it in quite the same way now – although a couple of references probably do need explaining. Heroes 360, which I’ve just had to look up, was an early ‘Digital Expansion’ that allowed viewers to recieve video messages from Hana (about whom more here), follow Hiro’s blog, get clues to the onscreen action from the mysterious Richard Drucker and so on; it was way ahead of its time and was quietly dropped after the first series. Along with, apparently, most of what the majority of the audience liked about Heroes. Nick Cutter was the lead character in ITV’s dinosaur rampage Saturday Teatime thriller Primeval, and I really can’t recall whether that game actually existed or not. The irony of this now having become basically Sci-Fi That Time Forgot in itself is not lost on me.
If you’re a fan of Gene Roddenberry’s Dreamgate DSV – and there must be some out there, as indeed there must be such a series, probably – it’s no good moaning about the gap between ‘seasons’. If your withdrawal symptoms are really that bad, you’ve always got the spinoff series, the DVDs, the novels, the comics, the ‘webisodes’, the soundtrack albums, the coffee mugs, the dinner jackets and the submarine to fall back on. And if you’re really really stuck, you can start your own online fan forum and argue until you’re blue in the face with headcases who understand neither the programme nor how to formulate proper sentences.
But it wasn’t always like this. Not all that long ago, there was no Torchwood, no Heroes 360, and no Play Nick Cutter’s ‘Spot The Anomaly Game’ On Your Mobile Phone. Mainly because there was no Primeval, Heroes or revived Doctor Who, but that’s by the by. Before the home entertainment revolution, if your favourite show was off the air you just had to wait for it to come back. And wait. And, if it was The Tripods, wait some more.
If you were extremely lucky, there might be a handful of awkwardly-scheduled repeats, and if you were very rich you might even be able to buy two and a half scrappily-edited episodes on video, but mostly it was a case of trying to find something to fill the seemingly-endless gap. Which is where other completely unrelated examples of science fiction came in. No matter how much you may have been missing Kerr Avon and company, there was always something else around on television or radio (or indeed the cinema) if you looked hard enough. A stroll around your local library would reveal all manner of novels with lurid yet still laughable covers by writers with exotically American-sounding names and superfluous middle initials. And in a real emergency, there were always those books about Black Holes and Peter Davison’s Book Of Alien Planets that well-meaning relatives had bought you on being told you liked ‘space’.
Much of this Substitute Sci-Fi – and quite rightly in most cases – has been long since forgotten about. Everyone will still have their own fondly-remembered examples, though, and there’s a small amount that deserves to be remembered as more than simply what you did to while away time during that pesky eighteen-month Doctor Who ‘hiatus’. Maybe some of it’s even due a revival, possibly even with ‘webisodes’ of its own. Here are a couple of shows, books, films and, erm, card games that deserve to be (probably literally) dusted down and given some long overdue appreciation.
The Stainless Steel Rat
Before Red Dwarf, before Terry Pratchett, even before Douglas Adams, there was only one name in sci-fi/comedy crossover – Harry Harrison. His wickedly satirical tales of futuristic conman James Bolivar diGriz, the ‘Stainless Steel Rat’ of the title who commits his crimes in the name of entertainment, began with the first novel in 1961 and clocked up an impressive twelve instalments (not to mention a board game, a strip in 2000AD, and a totally unhinged parody of ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books). Along the way he’s got married, overthrown a dictator, joined a circus, and been coerced into countless time-travelling alien-battling missions by his law enforcing arch-enemies The Special Corps. If you’re thinking all of this sounds familiar then you’re entirely right – The Rat, whether knowingly or not, is the template for all of the science fiction anti-heroes that have become so beloved of audiences since, from Zaphod Beeblebrox to Captain Jack Harkness and beyond (there’s even a suspicious amount of a certain Doctor detectable in there too). At one time libraries were absolutely heaving with the books, which were eagerly borrowed by withdrawal symptom-suffering fans once they were finally allowed in the ‘adult section’, and although their following has since dwindled and some aren’t currently in print, they sold in massive numbers at the time and aren’t hard to find second hand. Harry Harrison’s written countless other books worth checking out too, including the closely-related (if slightly more straight-faced) Deathworld novels, the military-baiting Bill The Galactic Hero series, overpopulation thriller Make Room! Make Room! (later loosely adapted for the big screen as Soylent Green), and the utterly absurd parodies of a certain secret agent show, The Man From P.I.G. and The Man From R.O.B.O.T..
There’s more on Harry Harrison, and the Deathworld series in particular, in Looks Unfamiliar with Vikki Gregorich and Jeff Lewis here.
You’re probably staring in total bafflement at the name, but time was when Radio 4’s enduring sci-fi serial Earthsearch was a very big deal indeed. So much so in fact that its fame spread beyond radio to encompass spinoff novels, cassette releases, a stage play and a frankly unlistenable sound effects album (though that Inner Airlock Door Open And Close is a real groover). James Follett’s tales of the crew of the starship Challenger and their quest to discover planets suitable for human colonisation have a suitably bleak and isolated atmosphere and were very much in the ‘intellectual sci-fi’ style that the BBC in particular favoured in the late seventies/early eighties, and while they may seem a little wordy for modern tastes and the crew may despite their non-visual nature be clearly over-bearded, like the contemporaneous Radio 4 adaptation of The Lord Of The Rings – in which many of the Earthsearch cast also appeared – they really did connect with their target audience at the time and are fondly remembered by a surprisingly large contingent of devotees. Follett also wrote a number of other similar serials for Radio 4 including Rules Of Asylum, Light Of A Thousand Suns and The Destruction Factor.
Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version Of The War Of The Worlds
It started as a jingle composed for a Lego commercial, and ended up as one of the biggest-selling albums of the seventies. For all its apparent mass-marketed popularity, Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version Of The War Of The Worlds is effectively the then-recent and decidedly non-commercial trend towards concept albums and symphonic ‘soundscapes’ given a quick polish and taken to its most slickly commercial extreme; a kind of evil twin to Tubular Bells if you want to be poetic about it. Yet despite all this, there was still something about the sonic retelling of HG Wells’ novel, ‘starring’ the likes of Richard Burton, David Essex, Phil Lynott and Julie Covington, that drew sci-fi starved genre devotees towards it long after it had finished its dominance of the album charts. Viewed as a whole it’s clearly a load of post-prog-rock nonsense, but time has been kinder to this than it has been to most post-prog-rock nonsense, and there’s an amused postmodern thrill to be had from the overambition of the project, not to mention a genuine musical thrill from some of the more inspired orchestral passages. Some may rightly point towards the superior Poe/Asimov-adapting efforts by The Alan Parsons project from which the whole idea was ‘borrowed’, or the more quirky and melodic tongue-in-cheek eco-thriller Consequences by Godley And Creme and Peter Cook, but Jeff Wayne’s moneyspinning take on the whole strange phenomenon is worth another listen. Well, one, maybe.
Low Budget Sci-Fi Films On Television
These days any old sci-fi film that comes along has one eye on the BAFTAs whilst amping up those scary-noise-and-discordant-orchestra-and-high-speed-jerky-camera-action-oh-look-it’s-gone-black-and-white bits, but time was when the entire genre could be broken up into two subdivisions – Star Wars and Everything Else. The natural habitat for Everything Else was, of course, on television on a Bank Holiday afternoon. How about the endearingly ramshackle Battle Beyond The Stars, famously shot in five weeks on sets where the paint was still drying yet somehow as enjoyable as enjoyable hokum gets? Then there’s Hammer’s lone Julie Driscoll-soundtracked excursion into science fiction Moon Zero Two, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s live action-debuting dry run for UFO variously known as Journey To The Far Side Of The Sun and (more correctly) Doppelganger, Disney’s uncharacteristically downbeat killer robot-festooned The Black Hole, Ralph Bakshi’s oddball post-apocalyptic animated comedy Wizards, the influential-for-about-three-minutes Tron, The Last Starfighter, Flight Of The Navigator, Hangar 18, The Philadelphia Experiment, *batteries not included, Short Circuit, The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension, that one about the first passenger flight to the moon, that other one about the alien that helps the high school nerd bag a date with the head cheerleader, and so many more that may not even have had names in the first place. Not one masterpiece between them, and yet they were always such a welcome sight when found sandwiched between some ice-dancing spectacular and that Guinness Book Of Records thing that David Frost used to do. You don’t see them much any more, sadly, but maybe that’s because they’re probably all available on DVD in those ‘All Films £1.99’ bins. And we haven’t even got started on illicitly-sneaked from the video shop ‘adult’ treats like Inseminoid and My Science Project…
Keeping along roughly the same lines, how many people out there went to great lengths to sneakily record this briefly notorious American big-budget miniseries (or, more daringly still, surreptitiously stayed up to watch it on the black and white portable) in the knowledge that they would never ‘officially’ be allowed to watch it? As a basic story V was one of the most clichéd in the sci-fi book, little more than a not particularly major spin on the time-honoured Evil Aliens Disguised As Kindly Humans Invade By Stealth And Crusading Journalist Uncovers The Truth format. V, however, had serious money and a crack team of scriptwriters behind it – not to mention short-lived lust icon Jane Badler as the primary antagonist – and did everything with such flair and panache that it was hard not to become hooked. Surprisingly for an American TV series of its vintage, there was a good deal of subtle and genuinely funny humour too, not least the notorious scene in which one of the carnivorous invaders scoffed a lab rat. V was a big enough hit to give rise to a second miniseries, V: The Final Battle, which proved to be misleadingly titled as it was followed in turn by a full-blown weekly series, which surprisingly fell flat on its face and was never recommissioned. The whole lot is now available on DVD, which you can pretend to be watching illicitly in the middle of the night if you want to recreate the full original viewing thrill.
…and you can hear more about the full original viewing thrill of watching V in Looks Unfamiliar with Mark Thompson here.
The Boy From Space
One of those perennial ‘what was the name of that one where…?’ TV shows, this filmed serial about a stranded alien on Earth was shown (and indeed endlessly repeated) as part of the long-running BBC Schools language development-themed show Look And Read. Although trying to follow it involved what seemed like hours of sitting through smug letter-embossed orange puppet presenter Wordy and his even more tedious still human helper droning on in their space station about what happens when you place vowels next to each other, it was well worth the effort because this was scary and atmospheric stuff, with the hapless garbled bleep-spouting spaceboy unable to communicate to his young human discoverers that he was being relentlessly pursued by a sinister ‘Thin Man’. Until they worked out a way of deciphering… well, that would be spoiling it, although Wordy was sufficiently impressed by the method to refuse to shut up about it for what seemed like a century. The Boy From Space was written by Richard Carpenter of Catweazle, Robin Of Sherwood and The Ghosts Of Motley Hall fame, and is all the more impressive given that he was asked specifically to use no more than a couple of hundred basic words throughout the ten-part serial.
Captain Zep – Space Detective
While its close associate The Adventure Game is rightly celebrated, this other post-Douglas Adams Children’s BBC sci-fi game show seems to have sadly been forgotten about. Every week Captain Zep – “a man of steel, a man of nerve” as the New Wave-tinged theme song had it – would relate one of his outer space case histories to a studio audience of youngsters from the ‘SOLVE Academy’ via a series of crudely animated watercolour renditions of alien beings and alien planets, stopping the narrative at a key point to ask if the audience could solve the case from the clues already given (“So who was the saboteur? Why was Grazarax in the Munitions Bay?”). The studio audience got to write their answers down on those ‘Magic Writing Slate’ things that wiped clean when you ran the plastic bar along them, but more excitingly you, the viewer at home, got to write in with your answer, and if you were one of the fifty lucky winners picked out from the proverbial ‘hat’, you’d receive a SOLVE badge all of your own. As dull as that may sound, this was compulsive viewing at one point. A special mention here for the unnervingly uniform futuristic fashions (slicked-back hair and orange and yellow jumpsuits with unwieldy collars), and for the fact that the actor playing the Captain changed between series, leading to a heated exchange of opinions on the BBC’s junior viewer correspondence show Take Two.
So you’ve read all your books, there’s nothing on the radio or TV, and you couldn’t possibly bear to hear Justin Hayward bleating “the chances of anything coming from Mars” one more time… how about a nice game of cards? Union Jack-logoed game-makers Waddington’s have a not entirely undeserved reputation for cheapskate ‘second division’ efforts, not least on account of their apparently fondness for ‘worthy’ (i.e. dull) dice-based Ludo variants and the dreaded inevitable Christmas present The Games Compendium, but sometimes they managed to pull something spectacular out of the Scrabble bag and this insanely addictive Game Of Outer Space was a prime example. The premise was ridiculously simple – draw random cards from a pile to assemble a very long Space Cruiser out of individual parts. But throw in a derived element of Top Trumps which allowed those in possession of the correct armaments to pilfer vital components from other players’ vehicles, and you end up with something almost disproportionately fun, fast-moving and competitive. Complete and un-scuffed copies are in high demand on certain auction sites, and it’s also worth remarking on how several of the illustrated cards had a strangely photographic quality to them. Did someone out there build their own ‘Starship’ for real??
If you were feeling a bit more ‘space age’ than a card game could cater for, you could always leave Starships in its box and have a go at this futuristic strategy game for the 48k ZX Spectrum. The primary aim of Star Trader was to make as much money as possible whilst zooming between planets to barter with large-headed Portland Bill lookalikes, dodging intergalactic pirates along the way, and making the difficult choice between a continental breakfast and the more expensive and score-depleting Full English. Slow and reliant on mathematical skills it may have been, but it boasted one crucial element that most other early home computer strategy games lacked; it did actually involve some degree of interaction with the game player, unlike the likes of Football Manager and The Great Space Race which basically required you to sit back and watch them playing themselves. It is perhaps testament to the former high status of this long forgotten game that manufacturers Bug-Byte Software still have their own star on hometown Liverpool’s long-abandoned ‘Walk of Fame’.
Redubbed Japanese Anime
One of the forgotten aspects of the pre-Home Video age was that there was literally no market for some sorts of films and shows. Never was this truer than in the case of cult Japanese animation; though massively popular and moneyspinningly merchandised in its homeland, and indeed often raved about in genre magazines over here, there was no real viable outlet for it and so it largely went unseen. That is, until, some enterprising Americans got their hands on certain long-running television series and chopped and changed them around to make them more suited to the sensitivities of English-speaking audiences. Thus it was that Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, shorn of all references to transvestism, schizophrenia and guards lacerated by flying metal birds, and with two much-derided comedy robots inserted in their place and mental space-age disco music bolted on, became the phenomenally popular Battle Of The Planets. With their curiosity aroused by this rearranged glimpse of an exciting world of entertainment they knew nothing about, said audiences also took with great enthusiasm to Star Fleet (or Bomber-X in old, erm, yen), and Ulysses 31 (Ulysses 31, believe it or not) amongst others. Nowadays, with the shelves of the average high street music store positively heaving with Manga films about someone going ‘a-a-aaaa’ when a bird’s eye glints or something, you can get the original versions with handy subtitles, but when it comes down to it we all initially fell in love with the mangled versions and don’t you forget it. And anyway, G-Force aren’t half as much fun without 7-Zark-7 and 1-Rover-1.
Even Battle Of The Planets itself was still a tad sleazy, though, and you can hear more about that in Looks Unfamiliar with Rae Earl here.
Buy A Book!
You can find an extended version of this feature in my book Well At Least It’s Free, a collection of columns and features. Well At Least It’s Free is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
There’s a huge feature on the BBC transmissions of Battle Of The Planets – and in particular their treatment of the terrifying two-parter The Fierce Flowers – in Can’t Help Thinking About Me, a collection of columns and features with a personal twist. Can’t Help Thinking About Me is available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.
V, and in particular the crashing disappointment that was V: The Series, features in Looks Unfamiliar with Mark Thompson, which you can find here.
Harry Harrison’s Deathworld series is covered in the edition of Looks Unfamiliar with Vikki Gregorich And Jeff Lewis, which you can find here.
Battle Of The Planets, and the grubbier aspects of it in particular, is given a particularly rubber-gloved discussion in the edition of Looks Unfamiliar with Rae Earl; you can it here.
© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.