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There are some films which are timely, other films which are timeless; very few are consistently both. Like any other sane person, I was quite content for Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 movie Dr Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb to remain the latter, but – the world being what it is – some great cycle seems to be on the verge of completion and one watches it now with a queasy sense of recognition; the realisation that some things, perhaps, never really go away.

The movie starts innocuously enough, with RAF officer Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers), on secondment to Burpelson Air Force base, receiving some slightly eccentric orders from his commanding officer General Jack D Ripper (Sterling Hayden). It seems that Ripper has taken the concept of personal initiative a little too far and ordered the B-52s of the 843rd Bomb Wing to launch an unprovoked and unauthorised nuclear attack on the USSR.

Flying one of the planes is Major ‘King’ Kong (Slim Pickens), who is slightly surprised to be sent into action but determined to do his duty. (For latter-day audiences the scenes on the bomber are further distinguished by the fact that Kong’s crew includes the future voices of Scott Tracy of International Rescue and a Dark Lord of the Sith.) The bomber sets course for its target, with all appropriate counter-measures activated.

Needless to say, this is all the cause of some consternation in the Pentagon’s war room, where President Merkin Muffley (Sellers again) struggles to make sense of what is going on, trying to keep the Soviets from doing something intemperate in response, and attempting to keep his more excitably belligerent generals under control. As Ripper has predicted, the hawkish faction led by General Buck Turgidson (George C Scott) has worked out that the only way to avoid the devastation of America by a Soviet counter-attack is to support Ripper’s planes with a full-scale offensive.

Muffley isn’t having any of that, and attempts to keep things reasonable, while sending troops into Burpelson to capture Ripper and extract the code signal required to recall the B-52s. But matters are complicated by the revelation by the Soviet ambassador (Peter Bull) that the Russians have recently completed a ‘doomsday machine’ intended to obliterate all life on the surface of Earth should their country come under nuclear attack. Looking on the bright side throughout all of this is the President’s science advisor Dr Strangelove (Sellers yet again), who has his own ideas about how people might spend their time in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust…

We throw the word genius around with great abandon these days, but there is certainly a case to be made that Dr Strangelove is a demonstration of what can happen when two mighty talents collaborate in near-perfect harmony. Dr Strangelove is the blackest of black comedies, obviously, but as such it is fuelled by the contrast between the absurdity of its characters and the deadpan, near-documentary naturalism of the situations which it depicts. Much is always written about truly great movies such as this; it is quite well-known that Kubrick set out to make a ‘straight’ drama based on Peter George’s novel Red Alert, but found the scenario lent itself all too easily to dark comedy. (A sense of what the ‘straight’ version of Strangelove might have been like can be gained from the movie Fail-Safe, which tells a very similar story without humour, and came out a few months after Kubrick’s film – partly because Kubrick hit the rival production with an injunction in order to ensure his movie came out first.) I suppose we must be grateful to Columbia Pictures for taking a risk on what must have seemed like a very questionable proposition – the American President, the Cold War, nuclear weapons, and the presence in the US administration of former Nazis were not commonly the stuff of satire in the early 1960s.

Then again, it was apparently Columbia who specified that Kubrick cast Sellers in the movie, and in multiple roles, too. Reports suggest that Sellers was originally intended to play Kong as well, and possibly Turgidson too: whatever you think of this idea (and personally I find it hard to imagine anyone other than Pickens and Scott in those roles), we are certainly left with three brilliant comic creations – Mandrake, the out-of-his-depth RAF officer still talking about ‘prangs’ and fondly recalling his Spitfire; Muffley, the beautifully underplayed politician; and Strangelove himself – initially very much a background figure, until he develops into an extraordinary grotesque in the final moments of the film – other cast members can be seen visibly trying to suppress their own laughter as the doctor contends with his own body’s rebellious, fascist inclinations.

Sellers is assisted by a superb, brilliantly quotable script, stuffed with great lines – ‘You can’t fight in here! This is the war room!’, ‘You’re gonna have to answer to the Coca Cola company’, ‘A feller could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff,’ ‘One of our base commanders… he went and did a silly thing,’ and so on. Then there are the visual gags – American soldiers slaughtering each other in front of a sign saying PEACE IS OUR PROFESSION, and the surreal image of Kong, whooping and hollering as tumbles to his fate, nuclear warhead gripped between his thighs.

It’s one more piece of phallic symbolism in a film which functions, in a rather odd way, if not quite as a sex comedy then certainly a film about libidos running amok. It opens, after all, with a rather suggestive scene of planes refuelling in flight, set to the strains of ‘Try a little tenderness,’ General Ripper is obsessed with the purity of his bodily fluids (it is fairly clear which in particular concerns him), and even the Russians are impressed by Strangelove’s plan to survive the aftermath of armageddon through the creation of, basically, subterranean sex farms (‘You have an astonishingly good idea there, Doctor’). There is, of course, only one woman in the cast, Turgidson’s secretary and mistress, played by Tracy Reed. Most of the rest of it is populated by unhinged alpha males.

‘I couldn’t help thinking about Donald Trump,’ said the woman next to me as Dr Strangelove concluded its latest revival screening (part of a run of most of Kubrick’s work from the 60s and 70s). I could really see her point. We are, as I type, hours away from a summit about the control of nuclear weapons, taking place between two men who at times seem more grotesque than any of the comic monsters in Kubrick’s film. And yet here we are again, over fifty years later, still miraculously un-nuked but with that possibility still very much on the table. almost feels like a timely movie again; I suppose there is some consolation in the fact that it is also such a timeless classic.

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I think it makes a certain kind of sense to stick to what you’re good at. If so, then I am surprised there has not been more of an outcry about the British film industry’s enthusiasm for making syrupy-soft allegedly life-affirming comedy dramas aimed at old people, fairly insipid rom-coms, and dour costume dramas, for our record in this area is not much better than that of many other nations. No, what we should be producing more of – and I think a target of two or three a year is not unreasonable – is apocalyptic science fiction films, because there was a time when we led the world in films of this kind (well, good ones, anyway). Nowadays we barely even seem to bother: the last proper one I can think of is 28 Days Later, which is not far off being twenty years old (the boom in zombie movies it kick-started is still going, of course: see what I mean, we’re good at this stuff).

Near the top of any stack of British doomsday films is Val Guest’s 1961 movie The Day the Earth Caught Fire (NB: title may be figurative). It sounds like a rather excitable B-movie made in the wake of The Day the Earth Stood Still – and there are plenty of these, such as the Italian film The Day the Sky Exploded – but, being a British film, it is made with healthy amounts of thought, restraint, and good old-fashioned phlegm.

The film’s main gimmick, inasmuch as it has one, becomes apparent from the start: in the sequences that frame the story, the black-and-white picture has been tinted ochre, representing the burning heat throughout these scenes. We find journalist Pete Stenning (Edward Judd) wandering through the streets of a near-deserted London: the Thames has virtually dried up in temperatures of over a hundred degrees. Stenning goes into the offices of his newspaper and (his typewriter ink having turned to paste) proceeds to dictate the story of what has befallen the world…

In flashback, we return to more conventional times, with the men (and they are virtually all men) of the press preoccupied with a string of apparently unconnected natural disasters: floods and earthquakes, mostly. Some planes are also reporting navigational problems. Amidst all this news of the Americans and Soviets both having recently tested enormously powerful nuclear weapons at opposite ends of the globe are only a minor item. But all the news seems trivial to Stenning, who is having something of a breakdown – his marriage having ended, he is concerned for the future of his son, and is drinking too much. His job is in peril and it is only the connivance of his friend and colleague Maguire (Leo McKern) that keeps him employed.

The authorities at the air ministry and the meteorological office stonewall any attempts to find out what’s going on, and Stenning’s own enquiries only put him on the wrong side of secretary Jean Craig (Janet Munro). But strange events continue: there is an unheralded, unscheduled lunar eclipse, then a protracted heat-wave. Then a stifling heat-mist blankets much of the world, followed by savage hurricanes and typhoons. Stenning has (almost inevitably) got it together with Jean by this point, and it is from her that he learns the reality of what is really going on – the nuclear tests have toppled the world on its axis, and caused it to shift its orbit, taking it much closer to the sun…

There is a sense in which watching The Day the Earth Caught Fire is like looking back into a very different world, which has now almost vanished. These are the sixties before they really started to swing: the mood is still stolid, post-war, sensible. Most importantly, newspapers are still the dominant media, and most of the film is centred around the offices of Stenning’s rag. Normally when a film focuses on a paper, it’s a fictitious one (unless we’re talking about a based-on-fact movie like The Post); one of the possibly-startling elements of this film is that Stenning works for the Daily Express, an actual newspaper (one guesses that the Express movie critic was rather positive about this film). Even more surprising, the editor of the Express in the film is played (not especially well, it must be said) by Arthur Christiansen, who was the real-world editor of the paper for over twenty years. These days it is customary to dismiss the Daily Express as being one of the more excitably nutty organs of the right-wing media, so there is a degree of cognitive dissonance in seeing its staff portrayed so heroically; a scare story about the Earth falling into the sun would probably qualify as a quite a subdued piece by the paper’s current standards – no doubt it would turn out to be the fault of the EU, or Tony Blair. (An unintentionally funny moment, from a modern perspective, comes when Christiansen declares – even as the fall of civilisation takes a big step closer – ‘We must keep the tone of the paper optimistic!’)

The film is also very much of its time in its concern over the proliferation of nuclear weapons – something it shares with another great British film from about ten years earlier, Seven Days to Noon – but it also seems almost prophetic in the way it depicts wide-scale climate change as a result of human foolishness. Everything is rather exaggerated for dramatic effect, naturally, but many chords are struck – the authorities initially refuse to be pinned down on the exact cause of the punishingly hot weather, and the characters seem almost overwhelmed by the immense implications of what is happening in the film. There is also something chillingly plausible about the various reactions as the situation worsens – there are mentions of black market water dealers, severe rationing, outbreaks of typhus in London, and so on.

It’s all handled in a downbeat, naturalistic style which serves to keep the story unsettlingly credible. However, the script (by Guest and Wolf Mankowitz) isn’t quite wall-to-wall doom and despair – woven in there, alongside the main plotline, is the story of Stenning and Jean’s romance, which is equally plausible and smartly written. Edward Judd gets the ‘introducing’ credit in this film; he gives a great leading man’s performance of the kind he would continue to produce in a number of other British SF and fantasy films in the 1960s. Munro inevitably has a rather more secondary role, but she is also appealing and plausible. Leo McKern is saddled with the gravitas-provision and exposition-delivery character part in this film (the kind of thing someone like Paul Giamatti does nowadays), but also manages to find some interesting stuff to work with there. For modern audiences, there’s also a nice moment when a pre-stardom Michael Caine (aged 27) has an uncredited cameo as a police officer: his face is never clearly seen, but that voice is unmistakable.

This is one of those films which is not especially celebrated nowadays, but which seems to me to cast an extremely long shadow – it certainly anticipates several of the effects-driven SF disaster movies that Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin have been regularly producing for many years now, but I can also discern something of its tone and imagery in many other pieces of British and American SF – not just films, but also TV shows and even comic books. This is a smart, serious film, even if the print in wide circulation via DVDs and so on diffuses Guest’s original, carefully ambiguous ending to create something a little more hopeful. The Day the Earth Caught Fire isn’t about hope; it’s about anger, and fear, but in that very reserved British way. Not just a great British SF film, but a great British film, full stop.

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As chance would have it, just the other day I passed several fairly agreeable hours watching Euston Films’ 1979 pre-apocalyptic drama Quatermass, even as the telly was full of pre-launch publicity for Euston Films’ 2018 pre-apocalyptic drama Hard Sun, currently showing on BBC One. The media has also been marking the fact that it’s forty years since the TV debut of Blake’s 7, with some unusually complimentary retrospectives concentrating on the programme’s dystopian sensibility and paranoia rather the overacting and spaceships made out of hair-dryers.

I mention the last because Hard Sun is, by some metrics, an SF show for adults, a genre which the BBC has been reluctant to take a chance on since the failure of Outcasts in 2011. (Yes, yes: I know there is what remains of the world’s greatest fantasy series, which I no longer talk about, but here we speak of actual proper science fiction.) BBC disquiet about doing an SF series appears to have been assuaged by the fact that this is only really nominally science fiction, squatting on the border with the police procedural/conspiracy thriller genre. (The show is the brainchild of Neil Cross, who created cop show Luther and also wrote a couple of middling episodes of that fantasy series.)

The first episode establishes the tone for much of what follows, as we meet DCI Cockney Geezer (Jim Sturgess), who seems like a devoted family man despite the fact he’s quietly knocking off his dead best mate’s wife. The circumstances in which the dead best mate passed on are sufficiently suspicious for Geezer’s boss, DCS Annoying Pen-pusher, to believe Geezer may have done him in, and to this end DI Cynical Gamine (Agyness Deyn) has been planted on Geezer’s team to secretly investigate him. (I like shows which have a bit of Agy, but I’ve never seen one with as much Agyness as this one.) Gamine is doing this so her unhinged son, whom she appears to have given birth to when she was about seven, does not go to prison for attempting to murder her. One thing you can say about Hard Sun: it’s never knowingly under-plotted.

Well, in their first day on the job together Geezer and Gamine find themselves working on the case of a conspiracy-theory obsessed hacker with ASD (oh, sigh) who has turned up dead. One of his mates has got his hands on the dead guy’s USB stick, which is disguised as a Saturn V rocket but may as well just be a box with PLOT DEVICE scrawled on it. Our heroes recover the USB but find themselves pursued by the security services, intent on killing everyone who comes into contact with the information on the stick. But why?

Needless to say, Geezer and Gamine can’t resist taking a peek, hoping this will give them leverage to get the homicidal spooks to back off. It turns out that – well, here’s the thing: we never get to see what’s on the stick beyond a few blipverts of graphs and suchlike, but everyone who does look at it properly confirms that it concerns the government’s advance planning for the end of the world (codenamed Hard Sun), which is due in five years time.

Cheer up, it might never happen. Oh, hang on a minute…

 

I have to admit to being somewhat bemused by this, because the government appear to have managed to plan their response to the end of the world without ever letting on exactly what’s going to happen. Even after they’ve looked at the stick, Geezer and Gamine are left speculating as to just what is heading their way – is a comet going to hit Earth? Is it some kind of environmental catastrophe? They seem to be in the dark. Presumably this is just to maintain a sense of foreboding mystery; it also gives them a ready-made opportunity for a big reveal come the last episode of the series.

Well, the first episode reached fairly deep into the bag of Modern Cop Show cliches, but I do like a bit of apocalyptica, and I was curious to see just how the rest of the series would play out (episode one concludes with Gamine taking a redacted set of the information to the media), and just how strong the SF element would be in the mix.

Courtesy of iPlayer’s box set function and the fact I had a day with not much going on (not to mention the fact that Hard Sun is the kind of show you can put on in the background while doing something else and honestly not miss much), I ended up having watched the rest of the first series within the next day. And the answer to the ‘how SF is it?’ question is: really not very much.

Hard Sun boils down to being another of those bleak and bloody cop shows, with the difference being that this time it’s understandable why the leads are so glum all the time: the world’s apparently going to end, after all. The thing is, though, that the impending apocalypse is primarily just a mood-setting thing – the various killers that Geezer and Gamine find themselves contending with are all nutters who’ve been drawn out of the woodwork by the release of the Hard Sun info, but it’s established at the top of episode two that nearly everyone has been convinced this was a hoax. Life goes on as normal for nearly everyone; you could rewrite the middle episodes of this series to extract the impending doom/science fiction element very easily. It’s mainly just there to provide an atmosphere of existential misery – Hard Sun‘s signature bit is a scene where Gamine and Geezer sit down together in the middle of a case and wail ‘But what does any of it matter anyway? We’ve only got five years left!’, which happens in nearly every episode.

Subsequent episodes are mostly competent but fairly undistinguished takes on the kind of story you’ve seen before – a barking ex-husband takes his children hostage, a man outraged by the cruelty of the world starts killing nice people and challenges God to intervene and stop him, a serial killer preys on suicidal people, and so on. There are lots of people in hoodies stalking darkened streets, and so much knife-related violence that it’s easy to imagine the BBC being forced to pull Hard Sun on taste and decency grounds, given the current plague of knife crime in London.

What’s really absent is any kind of moral centre, for as the series proceeds Geezer and Gamine reveal that they are prepared to do just about anything to further their cause, which only occasionally involves catching criminals. When they’re not actively beating each other up with their collapsible truncheons, the doom-conscious duo are forever disregarding standard procedure, obstructing or perverting the course of justice, or plotting the cold-blooded murder of a government employee. This sort of thing reaches its most uproarious extreme in a scene in which Geezer seems to be actively considering waterboarding a priest (one story revolves around that old chestnut of a priest not being able to reveal the identity of a killer due to the seal of the confessional being sacrosanct).

I say ‘uproarious’ because so much of Hard Sun really beggars credibility – there’s the peculiarly vague contents of the USB stick, along with the behaviour of the leads and their byzantine back-stories. Coupled to the fact that the show clearly takes itself very seriously indeed, the result is a programme which is just an unintentional black comedy more than anything else.

I suppose I could imagine the BBC making a show like Hard Sun and it being more, um, good, about twenty years ago, when even the best of us were not immune to the odd pre-millenial jitter. Nowadays, though? Not so much. One plot thread which feels like a particular misstep concerns the ominous dark apparatus of the Security Services, who pursue Geezer and Gamine throughout the series in order to get the USB stick back (despite the fact that everyone is supposedly convinced the apocalyptic data is fake). Playing their nemesis is Nikki Amuka-Bird, who played the curiously inept government minister in New Survivors and plays a somewhat more competent spook here. That’s the thing, I would say: these days we’re not worried that our governments are up to brilliantly-conceived and ultra-secret machinations behind our backs. In the time of Donald Trump and Theresa May, our main concern is that our governments really are as hapless, clueless, and incompetent as they routinely seem to be.

It would be great if the BBC actually had the nerve to make a proper SF TV series, rather than just smuggling a few SF elements into what’s essentially a very dark, very silly cop show. But there you go: such is the world we live in today. Every episode of Hard Sun concludes with a countdown timer, ticking down the days before armageddon’s arrival, and one can only conclude that the BBC and their co-producers Hulu have half an eye on this actually running for five years. Well, I’ll be surprised – but if it even makes it to a second season, the manner in which this one concludes suggests that in any subsequent outings this show will become a rather different beast. That can only be a good thing, because at present there’s at least as much daftness as darkness in Hard Sun.

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In the Earth Year 1979, one thing that everyone involved in commissioning films and TV series was absolutely certain of was that science fiction and fantasy had suddenly become very, very popular over the previous couple of years. As producing popular movies and shows is basically part of the job description for these people, the inevitable result was the late-seventies boom in SF and fantasy, which resulted in a vast number of frankly variable new projects hitting screens both large and small. Some of these were very good, many of them were extremely poor, and a few of them are clearly the work of people with only the vaguest ideas about what science fiction is.

Which brings us to the 1979 version of Quatermass, written (of course) by Nigel Kneale and directed by Piers Haggard (who had previously been in charge of the cult folk horror movie Blood on Satan’s Claw, which has a few very vague similarities to this). Also known as Quatermass IV and The Quatermass Conclusion, this had started life as a project for the BBC some years earlier, which progressed as far as some initial special effects filming before the corporation had second thoughts about the tone and expense of the undertaking. It is understandable why the commercial network ITV would want to take over a prestigious project by a celebrated screenwriter, especially given the fact that it was the late 70s and this is ostensibly an SF show, but watching the end result you can’t help but wonder if the BBC weren’t right in the first place.

 

The proper big movie star John Mills plays Professor Q. The story has a near-future setting which, nearly 40 years on, inevitably feels rather quaint: there are various not-very-subtle references to King Charles being on the throne, but the USSR is still a going concern. Things have not changed for the better, however – ‘in the last quarter of the twentieth century, the whole world seemed to sicken,’ intones the opening monologue of the story. Things seem pre-apocalyptic, if not actually apocalyptic, from the word go, with law and order breaking down in the UK, dead bodies in the streets, armed gangs on the rampage, and regular power cuts. (Some of which must have seemed very familiar to a country which had recently experienced the rise of punk rock and the Winter of Discontent.)

With the British Rocket Group apparently disbanded (there are vague allusions to the events of the previous three Quatermass serials), Quatermass has been living in seclusion in Scotland, and is shocked when he returns to London, ostensibly to appear on a live broadcast covering a joint Russian-American space mission. Practically the first thing that happens to him is an attempted mugging, from which he is rescued by Joe Kapp (Simon MacCorkindale), a radio astronomer booked for the same show. Uncompromising as ever, Quatermass goes on live TV and dismisses the mission as an empty display from two diseased superpowers that is bound to end in disaster, before revealing why he’s really decided to appear: his teenaged granddaughter has disappeared and he is desperate to find her. Naturally, he is yanked off the air, but moments later something mysteriously causes the spacecraft to disintegrate in orbit, killing all the crew…

Finding his suspiciously-accurate prophecy of doom has made him a person of interest to the authorities, Quatermass takes refuge with Kapp and his wife (Barbara Kellermann) at their bodged-together radio telescope installation in the countryside. On the way he and Kapp encounter members of a mystical youth cult, the Planet People, who speak of being transported to another world by mysterious forces. Kapp is scornful of this anti-intellectualism, but Quatermass is not entirely unsympathetic and decides to visit the local stone circle which the Planet People are congregating at.

While he and the Kapps are there, however, something rather unexpected happens: a blinding column of light descends from the sky, striking the circle and the hundreds of cult members assembled there, and when it withdraws only an ashy detritus remains of them. Other Planet People believe that the worthy have been transported to another world – but Quatermass and Kapp draw a different conclusion, that the young people have been obliterated. It emerges that similar visitations have been happening around the world, the first of which coincided with the destruction of the space mission.

Quatermass slowly draws the threads together and realises what is happening: an implacable alien force which first visited Earth five thousand years previously has returned and is harvesting the youth of the human race, drawing them to assembly points (many of them marked by stone circles and the like) and then vaporising them. Quatermass speculates that this is just some kind of machine, not an actual sentience, and that it is functioning on behalf of ‘unimaginable beings’ who have a taste for human protein, and nothing on screen contradicts him, naturally. But can anything be done to stop the slaughter of the human race?

I imagine that for many modern viewers, the first thing that will strike them about Quatermass is the extent to which it clearly appears to have inspired the Torchwood mini-series Children of Earth, because both programmes have basically the same plot – alien forces return to Earth intent on devouring, one way or another, the youth of the planet. In both cases the response of the authorities leaves much to be desired, and it falls to the outspoken outsider to see what needs to be done and make the necessary terrible sacrifice. That said, while Children of Earth is a pretty bleak element of the larger franchise of which it is a part, it is still in many ways a musical comedy version of the story, compared to Quatermass – many years ago I met someone who had it on VHS, and his opinion was that it was ‘the most depressing thing you will ever see’.

He kind of had a point. Most late-seventies SF, both on TV and in the cinema, followed very much in the wake of George Lucas’ first stellar conflict movie, which after all inaugurated the SF and fantasy boom to begin with – swashbuckling action, cute robots, and ray gun battles were very nearly de rigeur. Quatermass has no truck with this, being firmly ensconced in the ‘bloody miserable’ tradition of British SF. And it’s a very particular kind of miserabilism, too: on some level the story is about a clash between science and anti-intellectualism (Kneale seems to have had an almost superstitious dread of the latter – there are several scenes in which previously-sensible characters encounter the Planet People and somehow become ‘infected’ with their New Age beliefs, abandoning their former friends and responsibilities), but it’s also about the conflict between youth and age.

Quatermass seems to be in his seventies in this story (Mills was 71 at the time), but Kneale was only in his late fifties when it was broadcast, and considerably younger when the project was originally conceived. So it is a little disconcerting that this should feel so much like an old man’s wail of rage and despair against a changing world. This is very Daily Mail SF: everything is getting worse and worse, society is heading for collapse, football hooliganism is a blight on society, young people don’t respect their elders and have all kinds of ridiculous ideas, the telly is filled with sex and violence. We tend to think of SF as an inherently youthful and progressive genre: but this is SF in reactionary mode, the generation gap viewed from the senior side – the central metaphor being that young people seem alien to their elders because they are indeed subject to some extraterrestrial influence that older and wiser heads are immune to.

Naturally, it falls to Quatermass and a picked team of elderly boffins to resolve the crisis (young people can’t be trusted, due to their susceptibility to the alien ‘fluence) – making tea and sandwiches for everyone is Ethel from EastEnders (there are quite a few familiar faces in supporting roles here – Toyah Willcox pops up as a Planet Person, Brenda Fricker plays one of Kapp’s team, Brian Croucher appears as a cop). Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong or necessarily stupid about this as a piece of storytelling, it’s just so very peculiar and at odds with how TV SF usually operates that you almost can’t help reacting negatively to it – the doomy bleakness of the whole thing doesn’t help much, either.

This is not to say the storytelling is perfect – the manner in which Kneale kills off both the leading female characters can’t help but feel rather arbitrary, while he can’t help letting his interest in Judaism (a feature of many later scripts) show, to no very obvious purpose. But on the whole this is a solid story, lavishly realised for the most part – although the model work on the spacecraft sequences is really quite poor. The writer, typically generous to his collaborators, apparently felt that Mills lacked the authority to play Quatermass, and that MacCorkindale was ‘very good at playing an idiot’, but all the performances in this series seem perfectly acceptable to me.

It’s not the acting that sticks with you after watching Quatermass, anyway, nor even much of the story: what stays are a few images and a general sense of the all-consuming mood of despair and hopelessness which suffuses the story from start to (very nearly) finish. This is well-achieved and sustained, but not particularly easy or relaxing to watch. This is SF, but not escapism; not a cautionary tale about how things could be worse in the future, but a jeremiad about how bad they are now. It’s competently made, but inevitably depressing: that’s really the point of it. It’s watchable, and occasionally impressive, but really difficult to warm to or genuinely like.

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M.J. Engh’s Arslan opens with a sequence out of many nightmares: an Asiatic army sweeping across the American midwest, the government having fallen ominously silent, the people left at the mercy of the intruders and their charismatic young leader. Arslan Khan makes Kraftsville, Illinois the effective capital of the new world order he is intent on forging, simply by settling there. He asserts his authority over his new dominion simply and brutally, killing on a whim and committing much worse atrocities before his first day in town is over.

Observing all this is Franklin Bond, the local school principal, who finds himself in for a change of career. Arslan decrees that the school is to close, the telephone system is to be permanently disconnected, and that Bond is to oversee the conversion of the county to a system of complete self-sufficiency. The same rules apply everywhere that Arslan’s authority extends – which means most of the planet, and virtually all the developed world – Arslan has decided that the main part of humanity’s suffering can be alleviated simply by removing modern civilisation and driving everyone back to a more agrarian mode of living. Or so, at least, is his stated aim. Bond comes to suspect he may have an even darker agenda…

arslan

Arslan is, I think it’s fair to say, a difficult and somewhat polarising book. To start with, it’s not the apocalyptic thriller that it sounds like, and Engh never seems interested in supplying the reader with easy answers, or indeed any answers at all. The effect of the opening chapter – rattling, disturbing, frightening – comes from the fact that Arslan and his army turn up in the middle of America with no-one quite understanding who he is or where he’s come from, and certainly not how he has effectively become ruler of the world. Inevitably, though, one finds oneself wondering just how the ‘abdication’ of the governments of the US, the USSR, and so on, has been brought about. It’s well into the second half of the book before Arslan reveals how the trick has been turned, and it is only just credible. (As you can perhaps tell from the premise, Arslan was written in the 1960s and 70s, and may reflect some of the attitudes of the period, particularly with respect to international and domestic American politics.)

If you reach the second half of the book, however – and it seems that many readers don’t, dissuaded by one or more of various factors including the graphic horrors of the opening chapter, the fact that not very much seems to happen for long stretches, or some jarring shifts in the narrative voice – you will by this point have figured out that Engh is more interested in character than incident.

According to the author, Arslan was written between 1966 and 1974, roughly speaking. I was quite surprised to learn this, as I would have been prepared to swear that one of the inspirations for Arslan and his regime was Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge ‘Year Zero’, instituted in 1975. Certainly the book seems to be an attempt to explain the dark charisma of this kind of warlord. When faced with the legacy of a figure like Pol Pot or Hitler, one inevitably finds oneself wondering just why they originally rose to power, what their appeal initially was, how they inspired such devotion? Arslan seems to be an attempt to answer that question: its eponymous character is a nihilistic messiah on a scale much greater than any historical figure, committing atrocities both personal and intimate, and on a global scale. And yet over the course of the book Engh sets out to make him, if not entirely sympathetic, then at least comprehensible. You can perhaps understand why he has earned the loyalty not just of his own men, but also many of his victims.

Or perhaps you can’t. Some may be put off by the studied ambiguity of the three main characters of the book – they are Arslan himself, a young male victim with whom he forms a close connection, and Bond – none of whom come through the story with their integrity wholly intact. Some may be repelled, and perhaps justifiably, by the way in which the book derives its shock opening from scenes of sexual violence, but then follows this up with a plotline where one of the victims becomes a loyal follower of his rapist. (Or, alternately, the way in which the plight of a whole series of female characters is scarcely explored: the women in the book are exclusively cast in supporting roles as wives, girlfriends, mothers, and sex objects.) Compared to some of this it almost seems a relatively minor transgression that the presentation of Arslan and the other central Asian characters is arguably fairly racist.

But, again, perhaps Engh’s intent is to take the racist stereotype of the Oriental monster and invest it with some depth and humanity. She certainly succeeds, but if she does it’s by steering the book away from the comforting certainties of the traditional narrative-driven thriller and more into the realms of (whisper it soft) literary fiction. Like a few others, I was led to Arslan by Orson Scott Card’s description of it as ‘one of the great works of literature in our time’, and Card certainly puts it into the right category…

(Things being as they are, it is almost irresistible to consider just what it is about Arslan that so appeals to an equally controversial figure like Card. A sympathetic reading might be that it appeals to Card’s literary sensibilities and appreciation of fine writing. The less sympathetic (and, dare I say it, majority) opinion might be that the story chimes with some of Card’s own beliefs: primarily that homosexuality is something one person inflicts on another, violently, producing lasting psychological damage.)

…though again I have to say that I found the much more straightforward prose style employed when Bond is the narrator rather less irksome than the pretentiously irritating one adopted by the other narrator. The book’s literary aspirations may also explain the lack of a conventional ending: the book ends with the conclusion of Arslan’s reinvention as a character, not the climax of his story as a person. The fate of the world is largely left open, along with that of all the major characters.

In the end, I have to say Arslan does not live up to the promise of its opening, simply because of its ambitions to be something more than a piece of SF – which isn’t to say that SF can’t have literary merit, but that the two can be fused more elegantly than happens here. People seem to be genuinely split over just what kind of book it is: Card suggests it’s a character study, Samuel R Delany considered it a brilliant piece of political fiction, while the author herself indicates she wrote it as an ecological novel. This is perhaps indicative of what an awkward book it is. The first half is undeniably gripping, but it almost becomes a bit of a slog by the end, and there are all the problematic elements I’ve alluded to as well. Worth reading, though, if only because it is such a unique book.

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