This Friday's battle moves into a different arena - television. And who better to lead the discussion of obscure television shows than Paul Cornell? As well as his work in comics and books, Mr. Cornell wrote some of our favorite episodes of Doctor Who (plus many, many other shows). At this very moment (well, depending on the moment), he's the Guest of Honour at EasterCon, so we're extra-delighted at his presence on the blog today.
Magnus Anderson and Rebecca Levene step into the fray this week. Bex is a Pornokitsch regular (and Kitschies judge and Stories of the Smoke contributor). Magnus is one of our frequent guests (and Stories of the Apocalypse contributor), and can also be heard at EasterCon, where he's speaking on games-related panels this evening (8pm) and Monday at noon.
Enough foreplay, let's flip on the television, shall we?
So I'm trying hard not to be that "TV and comics guy"; I've had all those short stories published, I've got a novel coming out this year. But what do I do when Zack and Miri Porno ask me to write one of their "Friday Fives"? I leap straight for the visual. Because obscure telefantasy is one of my favourite things in the world. I find it restful to watch something from before there were production values. It won't taunt me with my own lack of televisual triumph. I can luxuriate in the slow boil, well, more of a simmer really, of a Pathfinders or a Doomwatch while doing other things, because the characters onscreen will wait for me, and resume talking about the same bit of plot when I get back.
When I was growing up, the SF canon, in movies and TV, was so limited that one assumed that, through late night screenings on BBC2, one might one day actually see it all. Said canon was described in loving detail, with always the same stock photos, in books like Fantastic Television, or The TV Times Encyclopaedia of TV Science Fiction, which listed everything, full stop. This was before special effects became cheap enough that whole channels devoted to landfill telefantasy opened up, producing series that, well... Earth: Final Conflict, okay?
I've tried hard to present here five shows which most people won't have in their DVD collection, but of course one person's obscure is another's Come Back Mrs Noah Appreciation Society.
Phoenix Five (1970)
This was shown on Saturday afternoons on BBC2 (I think) when I was very young, and looked from the title sequence to be absolutely terrifying, in the beautiful frightening way of all things to do with space. In my twenties, blurry VHS copies of it were passed under the table at conventions, and it became clear that this Australian space opera is, well, hilarious. These are the voyages of the Phoenix Five, the most sophisticated craft in the Earth Space Control Fleet. (The least sophisticated is presumably a stick.) She's commanded by calm and rather too mature Captain Roke, who leads impetuous Ensign Adam Hargraves and very girl Cadet Tina Culbrick and, fighting Tina for bottom of the ladder, the Computeroid... Carl. They're threatened distantly, and impotently, really, by Platonus, who acts like a midnight movie host, has a cape, and claims to be influencing what he sees the crew doing on his monitor screen. But honestly, he might just be delusional. The episode I loved most was "Slave Queen", where the ship lands (we see it happen from inside) in the outback close to Sydney, I mean on an alien planet, to rescue a Queen who was kidnapped as a child by a warlike race, and is now being held in a little brick building, guarded by a bald man with a sword, the only member of his species we see. There's some thumping, the ship takes off (seen from inside) with the Queen, and Tina has to teach her about being a woman. "Honestly," says Roke, "you leave the women alone for five minutes and they start talking about frocks". Which is perhaps the least sexist line. Phoenix Five is brilliantly akin to playing Star Trek in the woods. I'm not usually one to criticise something for its low budget. For goodness' sake, I'm a Doctor Who fan. But to meet that low budget head on with such a grandiose lack of imagination that every single cent might as well be accounted for on an onscreen pie chart displays a bravery that verges on the Wagnerian. You know when in How I Met Your Mother we see glimpses of Robin's earlier career is a Canadian teen idol? This is like that with Australia and space.
Orion was a space musical, the only telefantasy written by Melvyn Bragg, shown one afternoon on BBC2 (I think), and repeated just once after that. It is that rarity: generation starship musical theatre, about the anagrammatic Hoan, who leads the survivors of Earth to a new world. From what I remember, it's pretty good, like someone staged Hair on the sets of Blake's 7. The villain, who doubted our hero in a reasonable manner in a rather similar way to Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar (which Bragg also wrote the screenplay of), got sucked into space in a particularly nasty way.
Most telefantasy series set in the near future display an extraordinary faith in the speed of progress (I'm looking at you Gerry Anderson, with your moonbases in 1999 and your alien invasions in 1980, like you wouldn't still be alive and making television then!) But 1990 was quite careful in its dystopian world-building. It's only a sequel to 1984 in spirit, creating its own bleak future of, interestingly, socialist tyranny, in a spirit of 'if this goes on' that reflected the fears of pre-Thatcher Britain. Edward Woodward stars as Jim Kyle, an investigative reporter for one of only three remaining newspapers, in a UK of re-education centres and controls on emigration. From what I remember (and no, I shouldn't have been up that late), the despotism feels modern and nuanced, a deliberate attempt to be more grounded than 1984, with the state continuing to convince most people as business as usual, and, rather like modern China, wielding its weapons with a frightening level of subtlety. I think this is a show that would speak to today pretty well, and it's a shame it's not out on DVD. In the year of its second season, Terry Nation took the same feelings into space with Blake's 7, and five years later Alan Moore played on the same mechanisms of dystopia in V for Vendetta. I think 1990 is an unacknowledged influence on both.
One of 1990's signs of quality is that it has episodes written by Arden Winch, the playwright who made the last episode of Moonbase 3 hugely more watchable than the rest of it, with credits on shows like Cribb, Secret Army and The Sandbaggers. Watching writer credits on series television, and being excited whenever an N.J. Crisp, a Murray Smith or an Edward Boyd showed up was a major sport of my youth, something from the age when television drama was more like theatre, which I, in my declining years, now feel is confined to Doctor Who.
That may be the first "things were better in my day" sentence I've ever set free in public. I hope it's not the tip of the iceberg. I feel sullied already.
Mid-table respectability in terms of obscure telefantasy can be defined by three series, often read about in the books of my youth, seldom seen, apart from glimpses at conventions: Undermind (1965) (Robert Holmes writes an "aliens invading psychically" chiller that's chiefly interesting for the historical picture he paints of the society being undermined, out on DVD next year); The Corridor People (1966) (just four episodes of its far out man quasi-Avengersness from the short era where everyone in the British media decided that because of drugs plot had stopped being important, but it's Edward Boyd so it's probably cool as well as groovy, and is out on DVD now) and, and this is my choice for my fourth entry...
The last black and white telefantasy show, ending a week before colour came to BBC1, this is an extraordinary collision between ITC-style adventure and the New Wave. Our hero, Simon King (not Jason King, no) is an alien, sent to Earth to stop other aliens who are planning to wipe out the human race and take the planet. But Simon King is played by Jon Finch (Jerry Cornelius from The Final Programme), who sulks like Jagger in a long coat, lives in a post-groovy comedown pad and seems more about ennui and J.G. Ballard than fistfights and Terry Nation. The show was created by good old fashioned hoofer Tony Williamson (Department S, Adam Adamant), but featured scripts from Anthony Skene (again, sign of quality, The Prisoner et al), erm, Cyril Abraham (The Onedin Line and every other calming piece of historical fiction), Dick Sharples (In Loving Memory, George and Mildred) and even an early piece from the doyen of Coronation Street and Byker Grove, Adele Rose. It must have been touch or go whether or not to do a second season in (presumably bleak and washed out) colour, but a certain "let's get it over with"mentality seems to have been in place, because, and this is the main reason I picked it, one episode of Counterstrike is, without question, the most obscure piece of telefantasy ever. The episode "Out of Mind" was bumped from the schedules by a documentary, and the following week (perhaps because of the impending arrival of all-colour programming), it wasn't shown, but the following episode was. Then it, along with the last five episodes of the ten-part series, were wiped from the BBC archives. So it's possible that the only two people who ever saw that episode were director Henri Safran and producer Patrick Alexander. Unless you know of an episode of SF television with an audience of one, that's got to be the winner.
For my last entry, well, I could mention Helping Henry (1988) ("that's why we crossed the universe/disguised as dining chairs"); Cover (1981) (the epitome of one eyebrow raised office-based too clever for its own good spy fi) or R3 (1964-1965) (a proto-Doomwatch with Oliver Reed, of which no episodes or almost anything else exist, created by N.J.Crisp!), but I think I'll settle for...
Bleep and Booster (1963-1977)
(Why that clip starts with a second of Droids I have no idea.) This wasn't exactly a TV show, in that it was a segment of long-running BBC1 children's magazine show Blue Peter, and in that, well, it wasn't actually a series of moving pictures, but a series of still pictures about which the camera panned, while voice artist Peter Hawkins performed all the parts. This ran to 313 episodes. Bleep was an alien from the planet Miron, who owned a spaceship, and his friend Booster was a young human, and the two of them ran errands for Bleep's Dad. This was, at its heart, a youthful depiction of the grand commonwealth of space that the British often envisaged in those days (in Dan Dare, for instance). I remember chiefly encountering the stories as an odd (and of course, scary) presence in the Blue Peter Annuals, so appearances on the show itself must have been sporadic towards the end of that timescale above.
Wouldn't it have been nice if the distant world of 2012 had turned out to be less 1990 and more Bleep and Booster? Right now, I'd even settle for Orion.
The 1969 TV adaptation ofThe Owl Service was just as creepy as the original book, but with a haunting hallucinogenic quality all its own. It tells the tale of three teens, two posh and one working class, who are doomed to replay a tragic love triangle from ancient myth throughout a sunny, sinister Welsh summer. ITV’s first full-colour series, it was filmed almost entirely on location and looks absolutely astonishing, still one of the all-time greatest television adaptation of a children’s book.
The 1966 black-and-white spy-fi drama The Corridor People only ran for four episodes, but every one's a keeper. It's got all of The Avengers' wit and style with the added bonus of a proto-Servalan in the form of "Persian villainness" Syrie Van Epp. They don't make TV shows like this any more, but they really, really should.
In Archer’s Goon, two schoolchildren realise that their town is controlled by seven shadowy figures when one of them sends his goon to collect two thousand from their father. Hijinks, naturally, ensue. But why, of all of Diana Wynne Jones’s works, did the BBC choose to adapt this one? As with many of her later books, the ending’s a hot mess and the story’s just too big to be in any way realisable on a kids’ TV budget. Who cares? It’s a DWJ book on telly, and that’s good enough for me. Now will someone release it on DVD?
I don’t want to say too much about Threads, the nuclear-holocaust drama set in Sheffield. I don’t want to have to think about it at all, because its horrific images are still seared on my memory from my teenage viewing in 1984. This programme psychologically scarred me, and I’m not even joking.
On a cheerier note, there’s Ace of Wands, about the magician Tarot and his pals getting into all kinds of mystical scrapes. The theme song’s genius, the whole thing’s so seventies it’s almost a pastiche of itself, and it may just include some of P. J. Hammond’s best work. The episode Peacock Pie is a brilliant portrayal of a truly banal evil.
How obscure is obscure? Shown once and then disappeared? A ratings disappointment? No DVD release? How about one of the most expensive series ever commissioned by UK independent television? The Last Train is all of these, but what else would define a post-apocalyptic fantasy of ecological disaster, where a band of half a dozen stragglers survive the asteroidicide by all being on, er, a train, with a scientist who has a vial of, um, asteroid resistant, er, protectofilm.
Richard Carpenter had a genius for making the most of a low budget when writing for television. Long before Robin of Sherwood was propping up ITV's Saturday evening with wedges of money, he faced a different, and very challenging restriction: to make an educational children's TV series that was awash with mystery, atmosphere and - if you were seven - very, very frightening. And he had to do all that with a vocabulary of 200 words. The Boy from Space is terrific for so many reasons, but knowing this makes it astonishing.
Children's television is a muddy area for obscurity: everything is half remembered, nothing has been left undocumented. Yet there is a canon, and one omission is scandalous: Luna came with far-thinking absurdities and applied speculative comedy. It even developed its own dialect, which dominated discerning playgrounds, which of course meant that it was mainly ignored. It was brilliant, perhaps ahead of its time, and yet for some reason barely mentioned, despite starring Patsy Kensit. Remember her?
Science fiction in seventies Britain may have had a tea time timeslot, but it was still labelled as an adult affair. In my youth, programmes were vetted, and often household censors would see to it that I could only follow Doctor Who or Blake's 7 through second hand reports. But Children if the Stones was scheduled under the radar - it was an adult fantasy thriller in the children's tea time slot. It had Blake in it, and, at least in theory, plenty in common with the Doctor's most terrifying adventure, "The Stones of Blood". Having seen all of these recently, if anything it's more chilling than either of it's apparent ancestors. It was a brilliant thing to have at that age - our very own secret frightshow.
The final entry is surely the most obscure of the lot. Rule 1 Violation was famous, and eventually notorious, for being in development longer than any other sci fi show. It appeared in ATV's programming lists at least three times during the seventies, and a teaser logo even appeared in a casting advert in Stage magazine. But it never materialised, which is a shame, because what little is known of it - a maverick television programme infecting reality - sounds rich with possibility. But apparently it remained a production idea with no writer attached. And it can't get more obscure than that.
(A playlist of all the clips can be found on our YouTube channel.)
What are your favorite obscure TV shows? Tell us in the comments below!