Friday, 27 May 2016

Televisual Reality and Telefantasy - an Excerpt

I'm really excited to have been asked to contribute a chapter to a forthcoming book looking at the social and political factors influencing science fiction television during the period when I was growing up; that is the seventies and eighties.  A friend is compiling the book and each chapter looks at a different aspect in more detail.

The chapter I've been asked to write concerns the influence of real space exploration during this period on the telefantasy productions of the time. It's a fascinating subject to research and I learned a great deal from looking into this, both about the cult TV shows that I loved and of course about the history of space exploration.  

The following is an excerpt from the start of my chapter and sets the scene by considering Project Apollo and its human missions to the Moon. In retrospect, this extraordinary historical period set the tone for much of science fiction television in the coming decades, especially when a more realistic or what is sometimes called "hard" style of science fiction was desired. I've not included my footnotes; you'll have to await the finished book for those!

Televisual Reality and Telefantasy

“Whoopee! Man, that may have been a small one for Neil, but that’s a long one for me.”

Pete Conrad, Commander of Apollo 12, on becoming the third person to walk on the Moon, November 1969. 

Following from the historic Apollo 8 mission of 1968, the opening years of the 1970s saw the fulfilment and finalizing of the Apollo lunar missions.  Walking and later living and working on the Moon marked a break in human history like never before.  Prior to Apollo, humanity was a one world species.  Afterwards we were more than that.

That the geo-political context of Apollo was the stone faced confrontation of two political blocs of thorough going hostility and irreconcilable ideological differences barely seemed to be noticed.  The Saturn V moonship was, in essence, a mega-ICBM of unprecedented range and power.  Guidance good enough to take a crew to the Mare Tranquillitatis could mercilessly deliver a thermonuclear warhead to any infant school in the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union had years before the triumph of Apollo gained an ascendancy in access to space with two agenda setting firsts: the first object in space with Sputnik 1 in 1957 and the first human in space with Yuri Gagarin in 1961.  The USA was outraged and panicked. How could the Russians, seemingly a backward, peasant nation industrially, technically and scientifically have beaten the world’s pre-eminent nation, the nation that had after all been the first to develop the atomic bomb? The Soviets had, terrifyingly, created their own nuclear arsenal shortly after World War II and thus abruptly curtailed an interval of pure American dominance of the globe when they were only ones with atomic weapons. Now the Soviets had also reached into space and the skies above them.  It could not be allowed to continue.

“We chose to go to the Moon”, President Kennedy proclaimed at Rice University in 1962.  His wonderful, stirring speech so powerfully bespeaks how human exploration of space would enlighten the spirit, stir the heart, create jobs and make everyone rich. Yet the historical context was much starker.  The Soviets were breaking free of their agricultural and peasant class culture and not even gravity could stop them. Their new vigorous military might along with enormous technical and scientific gains threatened the USA. The startling and literally otherworldly battleground of space had opened up and the race to the Moon of the sixties provided a symbolic struggle for military dominance. The Moon was a proper target for this contest yet here again the Soviets’ already had an advantage. They were the first to land an object on the Moon with the unmanned probe Luna 2 in 1959. With a global nuclear holocaust likely to slingshot humanity straight back to the Neolithic, the Moon race provided a demonstrable yet safe arena for the superpowers to display their missiles’ might.  

The Soviet lunar programme is of course much less well known in the West than Apollo as the Kremlin ensured that much of it was kept secret at the time.  Yet after the fall of communism more knowledge about its extent and ambition has become clear.  Now we know that in the sixties the Soviet Union was engaged in a full programme aimed at human lunar exploration to rival Apollo with the aim of beating NASA to the lunar surface.
Yet serious technical challenges beset the Soviet lunar plans.  The first stage of their huge N-1 rocket launchers were a collection of thirty individual engines.  In comparison the first stage of NASA’s Saturn V consisted of only five of the F-1 engines, the most powerful single chamber rocket engine ever built.  Four launches of the N-1 were attempted. All were total failures and one, less than a month before the landing of Apollo 11 in 1969, was so catastrophic it is ranked as one of the most powerful non-nuclear explosions ever.  The collectivist style Soviet launcher proved so unreliable in comparison to the more individualistic Saturn V approach that it lead to the abandonment of the Soviet lunar programme, especially after the success of Apollo 11.  For many years, the Soviets denied that there had been a race to the Moon, denied they had a lunar programme and instead set endurance records for staying in orbit under the pretext they were obtaining data on long duration flights in the build up to a human mission to Mars. Only the fall of communism lead to this hidden chapter being opened up to the West. 

The origin and context of the race to the Moon as a struggle for dominance between the superpowers is obvious especially now that much more is known about the Soviet lunar programme.  Yet at the time and for long years afterwards the undoubted historic and scientific attributes of Apollo were much more proudly proclaimed.  Apollo is seen as a triumph of human achievement; an exemplary model of the best of a modern industrialist, capitalist democracy. Not only the pinnacle of the urge to explore in its most modern manifestation, it also provides a testament to engineering and technical excellence and the ability of a human society to cooperate and coordinate over long periods of time and space.

The preferred narrative about Apollo then is one of the triumph of human achievement rather than an opportunity for the superpowers to safely joust at each other.  A study of the science fiction television of the times reveals a great deal about society’s response to the extraordinary feat of the Apollo moon landings and the broader Cold War context.  Telefantasy has an excellent opportunity to seek inspiration from real space exploration in an imaginative and potentially provocative manner. As we shall see, the excitement that real space exploration engendered in the television viewing audience is utilised, often in a very direct way, to invest telefantasy productions with instant credibility and power. In comparison to the immediacy of the role of real space exploration in telefantasy, the broader Cold War setting and especially the full horror of global nuclear war could only be glimpsed in a more distorted, fantastic fashion.

These concepts are rather neatly woven together in an episode of the BBC series Doomwatch, a creation of the very early 1970s, entitled “Re-entry Forbidden”.  This series sought to take current scientific issues, often environmental or technological in nature, and explore them in a set of powerful dramas.  In this particular episode shown in March 1970, a NASA space mission using an experimental nuclear powered rocket goes somewhat awry. One of the crew of three happens to be a British astronaut and the focus of suspicion is on him.

The story appears set in the near future and to ensure it has the power to touch on current concerns is, like all the Doomwatch episodes, presented in a serious tone and seeks a level of realism.  A viewing of this episode reveals a number of points that are common to other series that reach for this realistic style.  Actual footage from the then very recent Apollo missions is used to support the real world context; as all of this was declared to be in the public domain by NASA it also meant a lot of money could be saved on special effects.  The public, then as now, was familiar with these shots and the effect is to link the imaginative, near future setting directly with the historical facts of space exploration.  This builds credibility with an audience, drawing them into what is supposed to be a drama with an imaginative plot. To bolster this linking, there is even a post-modern appearance by the British television presenter James Burke, playing himself as a reporter, who was also familiar to audiences as one of the BBC’s chief correspondents for the moon landings. 

As well as visual aids, NASA space missions more broadly provide a great deal of source material for the dialogue and terminology.  During the scenes with the astronauts in space, much of the script is inspired by the technical and numerical communication between NASA mission control and the crew in space.  The technical terms employed, the repeated use of abbreviations, the importance of marking the passage of time and so forth will all be familiar to the audience from several years of watching and listening to real space missions. Again, the technique is a short hand for adding credibility and realism to an otherwise futuristic and imaginative story, helping to root it in the familiar here and now.  The efficient, serious and sparse feel of the dialogue is highly reminiscent of Apollo and is even off set the by the occasional attempt at American exuberance such as “go baby!” at one point.

The linkage to NASA missions is also strengthened by a reference to the reminders allegedly Neil Armstrong had to be issued with to get a contingency sample of moon dust. In addition, although perhaps less well known in the years immediately after Apollo 11 as it is now, reference in the episode is made to a possible computer malfunction due to being overloaded with data.  This is exactly what happened during the descent of Apollo 11 which thereby became a relatively difficult landing, far more risky than is commonly realised.   All of these details add verisimilitude to the production at the risk, to those interested in real space exploration, of a certain degree of blatant copying from the original source material.

We are also introduced to another trope that runs through British telefantasy of the seventies and eighties: the British human space programme.  

Britain had, by 1970, an impressive technical prowess in space activities.  The British had been the first to test launch captured V2 rockets very shortly after the end of World War 2 in Operation Backfire. They had tried to persuade German scientists to join them rather than the USA or the Soviets, though to little effect. Whilst testing the V2s was admittedly more to do with missile research than space exploration an active programme of space development later commenced. This culminated in 1971 with the launch of Prospero, a British satellite, on Black Arrow, a British rocket from Woomera, South Australia.  This was the only time a British satellite was put into orbit using a British launcher.  The UK promptly abandoned its own facilities and relied on American launchers instead, purely on the grounds of cost.  The UK remains the only nation to have developed and then abandoned its own space launch capability.

In contrast to this capability, which made the UK the sixth country to ever put a satellite into orbit, there was no interest by the British government in human space flight.  There has never been a British astronaut corps.  In later years, government ministers spoke of human space flight as a rich men’s club.  Whilst a handful of astronauts to date have been British born, these have only made it into orbit by signing up with another nation’s programme, paying themselves as “space tourists” or becoming US citizens.  It is only in the last few years that there has been a sea change in this opinion with the appointment of a British astronaut as part of the European Space Agency’s compliment of personnel due to be posted to the International Space Station in the years to come.  It would be forty years at least from this episode of Doomwatch before an official British astronaut might become a reality.

An often raised objection to human space exploration is given an airing in this episode of Doomwatch. Is it all really worth it?  Can it be justified against the many pressing social or environmental problems that we face?  Space exploration, especially expensive human missions, are always vulnerable to this point being raised although it has to be noted that many other government funding projects could equally face such criticism.  There was a lot of opposition in the USA to Apollo in the build up to the Moon landings, particularly on the grounds of costs, although this is rather forgotten now.  In particular there was a vocal African American opposition to Project Apollo. Whilst children in America were hungry, huge amounts of money was being spent to land a few men on the Moon.  The protests included a march by two hundred people shortly after the launch of Apollo 14 in 1971.  Often the protesters were not against the exploration specifically but wanted as they saw it a more humane ordering of priorities for public spending.

The story features a nuclear powered space mission. During the sixties there had been a lot of work on harnessing nuclear fission for space exploration as the promise was such a rocket would have more thrust for less weight.  In particular, the Nerva project was considered a very thorough working through of these ideas and still influences thought on the subject today. Though this has never been put to practical use to date, attempts are still ongoing and it was certainly feasible in 1970 that such a mission might not be very distant in time. It remains to date a tantalising prospect of powering space missions of the future.

A more dramatic use of nuclear energy that has long been considered for space travel is powering a ship by a series of nuclear explosions behind the craft directly propelling it forward.  This idea has been proposed for interplanetary and even interstellar missions. In both ideas one of the most important factors that has stopped any practical development is unsurprisingly concern about safety, both for the crew and the public.  The implicit fear in Re-entry Forbidden is that a nuclear powered rocket, were it to go wrong, could be a serious danger.

Nuclear issues feature in other episodes of Doomwatch including an episode focussing on the loss of nuclear weapons and another on the potential use of nuclear reactor materials to create a bomb.  Some of these fears became realised in 1977 when a Soviet satellite, Kosmos 954, containing a nuclear reactor malfunctioned and re-entered the atmosphere. It scattered radioactive debris over parts of Canada leading to an expensive clean up operation for which the Canadian government eventually billed the Soviet Union.

Despite this referencing of nuclear themes in the episode, there is no connection to a broader theme of superpower rivalry, let alone the prospect of a nuclear war.  To be sure, there is a rather striking set of posters in Dr Quists’s office showing an atomic explosion over water from a nuclear test.  Yet it is interesting that Doomwatch, priding itself on dealing with pressing problems, does not deal with one of the most terrifying of all, a nuclear holocaust.

Less than a week after the showing of the Doomwatch episode, Re-entry Forbidden, a new story commenced for the popular telefantasy series Doctor Who on BBC 1 entitled Ambassadors of Death.  This story, like Re-entry Forbidden, is set in the near future and depicts a realistic setting of space missions similar to those of the time. The early seventies were a somewhat unique period in Doctor Who history as the extraordinary character of the Doctor found himself exiled on Earth and prevented from using the fabulous resources of his spacetime vessel, the TARDIS, at the decree of his people, the Time Lords.  He quickly finds himself appointed scientific advisor to UNIT, a fictional, secret section of the United Nations charged with protecting from Earth from extraterrestrial or paranormal menaces.  The precise dating of UNIT stories is the Doctor Who continuity controversy par excellence but it is reasonable to assume they must be set within a few decades at most of their original date of showing.  Whilst some fantastic technology appears in them from time to time, the setting is still in its common place aspects clearly not far removed from the familiar world the audience then inhabited.

Many of the comments made about Re-entry Forbidden also apply to the depiction of space exploration in Ambassadors of Death.  One of the elements of the plot is a mature British space programme capable of launching large rockets and this part is realised in a way that is very suggestive of the NASA missions of the times.  The Doctor, deprived as he is of the use of the TARDIS, at one point volunteers to launch into space on such a rocket and becomes an ordinary astronaut. Certain elements of the plot might be thought of as an attempt at realism and principally these are the hard science fiction depiction of the British space programme and, for Doctor Who, the strikingly violent gangster subplot.  Other elements, such as the Doctor himself and the aliens along with their spacecraft and technology, are fantasy or what might be termed soft science fiction.

Again, the hushed, ultra-serious language of NASA’s mission control is portrayed incorporating its sparse tone and technical vocabulary.  Humorously the Doctor parodies this style of dialogue whilst on his own astronautic adventure.

The story features a James Burke style presenter although this time not actually James Burke himself.  Later in an interesting twist, the presenter starts to become somewhat embroiled in the plot rather than simply commenting on it.  This throwing together of fact and fiction is a tremendously fertile approach to telefantasy.  In Ambassadors of Death like so much other science fiction television of the time, what had been science fiction only a few years before had become science fact. Humans on the Moon had gone from being a dream to an historical achievement.  Elements of this new, fantastic reality were now integrating themselves into tales of the fantastic imagination.

The model rocket used in the special effects sequence are vaguely reminiscent of the NASA Gemini programme.  Interestingly, one difference from NASA missions of the time is that when a capsule lands, it descends onto land rather than the ocean.  At one point during the story, the danger of solar flares is mentioned.  This is no fanciful danger as solar flares may pose a serious threat to astronauts seeking to travel beyond low Earth orbit.  The energetic protons found in solar flares causes biochemical damage when passing through the body. It was purely the Apollo astronauts’ good luck that there were no substantial solar flares heading their way during any of their missions as that might have been fatal to them.

Another element of the story also appears inspired by the Apollo missions. In Ambassadors of Death, three British astronauts have unwittingly been taken hostage by the aliens and believe they are being held in quarantine after completing their own mission. This is based on the initial Apollo lunar landing missions, Apollo 11,12 and 14, in which the crews were kept in quarantine upon their return to Earth.  There was at first some concern that astronauts visiting the Moon might be contaminated by lunar life forms.  These fears of what is called back-contamination, of the Earth or the human race being infected by extra-terrestrial disease or virus, were given an outlet in the novel The Andromeda Strain by Michael Chricton in 1969 and later adapted into a film with the same name in 1971.  After Apollo 14 in 1971 it was decided that there was no apparent threat from lunar life forms and so the practise was discontinued.

One interesting point that The Ambassadors of Death and Re-entry Forbidden share is the use of the same set for the interior of the space rocket.  It is shot from different angles in the two shows and in both makes for a distinctively realistic setting especially compared to more fantasy based productions. This was carried out purely to save costs.

There is one further, purely coincidental point that the two productions share.  The Doomwatch episode was broadcast on 16th March 1970 and the Doctor Who story commenced with episode on 21st March 1970.  Part 4 of The Ambassadors of Death was broadcast on 11th April 1970 which was also the day on which the well known Apollo 13 mission launched from Cape Canaveral, its mission to become the third human landing on the Moon. In between Episodes 4 and 5, the drama of Apollo 13 played out whilst the world watched in breathless suspense until thankfully the crew finally returned safely to Earth on 17th April, the day before Episode 5 was broadcast.  Re-entry Forbidden, with its tragic tale of astronauts lost in space would have been coincidence enough but the episodes of Doctor Who broadcast at the time of Apollo 13 see the Doctor bravely setting out to personally rescue stranded astronauts himself in a capsule that also goes wrong.

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