Archive for May, 2012


As part of my ongoing quest to put much of my archived work online, and to make up for not posting much this past week, today for you I have:

Hunter’s Run (book)  Great SF adventure collaboration between George RR Martin, Gardner Dozois and Daniel Abraham.

Dark Alchemy (book) Magic anthology about wizards by fantasy’s brightest and best.

300 (film) – Zac Snyder’s take on Frank Miller’s take on the Battle of Thermopylae

Perfect Creature (film) – Interesting if confused New Zealand steampunk, alt-reality, vampire movie (I did say it was confused).

Blade: House of Cthon (TV) The pilot of the TV show of the movie of the comic.

Time Trap: Quatermass (TV) – All-round information on that other great British SF character, Bernard Quatermass, who was like a more grown-up Doctor Who.

If you haven’t already, check out the other reviews I have here, there are quite a lot of them now, and still only a fraction of what’s to come.


So I said that I’d publish something new every weekday, I lasted a fortnight, and then fell away. Sue me! (No actually don’t. I have no money, and you will ruin me).

In truth I’m waiting on the pieces on a few projects to slot into place, because then I should have a number of excellent announcements to shout about. I’ve been waiting thinking “Oh, that’ll make a far more interesting post than what I had in mind,” and of course they have not been quite ready, and time has slipped on. I’m also stretched right now, as I’m editing a magazine for SFX and writing a novel for [CENSORED]. Normal service will resume soon.

In the meantime, there have been a number of nice reviews of Champion of Mars, at Fantasy Bytes, The Founding Fields, and Starburst, also a good one of Omega Point at Kate of Mind.

Actually, I’d like to say thanks to everyone who has reviewed my books, good and bad scores both. The biggest single problem with being a new writer is that no one knows who the hell you are. I’ve been thinking about getting your name “out there” and finding your audience, and the problems and opportunities modern tech gives us in fulfilling that aim. I may well blog on it soon. For now, thanks very much to everyone who takes time to post their opinions after reading the books. Each one helps me reach new readers.

There’ll be another one of my irregular Monday short stories on (surprise!) Monday, next week; a fantasy. Let me know what you think. I’ll try to get a bunch of reviews and that up here too soon. Honest.

Now back to twiddling my thumbs, waiting to tell you the exciting stuff I know… I mean, writing furiously to get this book for [CENSORED] finished.

Laters.


I reviewed this awful mess twice, firstly when it began, secondly when it was canned. The first review is from Death Ray 06, and I wasn’t keen. The one at the bottom is from Death Ray 13. By then it had really hit home what a pack of shite it was. Bollocks.

ONE STAR

Directors: Pat Williams, Paul Shapiro, Mick MacKay, T. J. Scott

Writers: Peter Hume, Melody Fox, James Thorpe, Gillian Horvath, Sheryl J. Anderson

Starring: Eric Johnson, Gina Holden, Karen Cliche, Jody Racicot, John Ralston, Jonathan Walker

Review #1

Calamitous reinvention of Alex Raymond’s classic space hero.

There’s a peril to being an intellectual property that survives the march of time; the terrible peril of collective ownership. This is especially pronounced if the property is but of middling power, doubly so if there is no keen-willed corporation to codify in iron what that property actually is. Sherlock Holmes for example, has enough muscle as a modern archetype to survive most indignities unscathed, while the legal department of Disney ensures no one screws with Mickey Mouse.

But those lesser entertainments of yesteryear with neither mythical status or corporate mascot-hood? They become the sport of hacks.

Poor old Flash is one such, all he has on his side is a sort of fuzzy, warm public remembrance. Resultantly he’s been reinvented so many times even he’s not sure who he is – 1930s comic book hero, 1980s camp movie icon or 1990s hoverboarding teen?

Now the Sci-Fi channel have got their claws into him, and the results are not pretty, fearlessly managing to bypass both the visual opulence and exuberant pulp energy that typify the best outings of the titular hero.

Let’s allow a little apologia for Sci-Fi. They invest a fair bit in original drama. But fantasy TV is among the most expensive of all, and they’ve only go so much money – This is the stunted twin to the same channel’s Battlestar Galactica. Flash Gordon bears the full brunt of this financial shortfall like a stoic taking a beating.

There’s no majesty in Flash, no Lionmen, no Sharkmen – just plain old, men. There are no glorious sets, no over-the-top costumes, no be-ribbed pistols. Instead endless conversations in rainy Vancouver, a henchman on casters and a Mongo that looks like an abandoned factory adorned with some cheap curtains.

There’s no energy to it. Flash travels to Mongo via a portal, allowing trips back and forth to Earth. This is nice for him, as it means he can attend a wedding in episode two, but bad for us, as we lose the vital drama, and, what one might legitimately say is the whole damn point of Flash Gordon, of his TE Lawrence style freedom-fighting while stranded on an alien world.

A really quite dreadful script, full of filler material, clumsy exposition and awful cliche (“This one’s for you dad”), calls for lots of the running around in the Canadian woods that modern low-budget SF seems to require by law (Though rarely do they start, as this show does, with their hero actually jogging through the woods). The cast, comprised entirely of cast-off co-stars, aren’t bad, especially Flash (Eric Johnson) and Dale (Gina Holden), but it’d take a bunch of thesps with a lot more chops than “not bad” to make this dross sparkle. They seem bored, bored, bored, with Ming (John Ralston) behaving like a depressed banker trapped in a loveless marriage, while Karen Cliche as Baylin bases her performance mostly on scowling.

As exotic as a drizzly McDonalds car park, as limp as a burger bun discarded in the same, this one’s so bad it’s simply just bad. On the basis of these first few episodes, avoid.

Did you know…?

Flash Gordon was invented in 1934 by cartoonist Alex Raymond as a rival to Buck Rogers. The original Flash flew to Mongo on a rocket ship after being kidnapped, along with Dale Arden, by Dr. Hans Zarkoff. The three were stuck on Mongo for many years, but they eventually overthrew evil Emperor Ming and returning to Earth to join the World Space Council. The theatre of their adventuring then expanded to take in more of the cosmos.


Review #2

A sorry mess of wasted opportunities, thrown over for a handful of rubbish jokes.

When Flash Gordon fell burning from the phosphor heaven of the TV screen, it became just another pile of bones on the plains of cancellation. It’ll be soon forgotten, unmourned, despite the huge fan-fuelled furore that greeted its inauguration. Yep, Flash got flamed so much on the net that he was practically barbecued in the first few minutes of his reappearance. The newspapers stamped on the ashes shortly afterward.

There is much to loathe about this series, but there were also glimmerings of potential, glimmerings that will now stay forever unrealised. There are three things at fault for this. Yes, three. Here they are in descending order of seriousness.

The first, and major, cause of Flash‘s demise were the rifts, the spangly holes in the universe that allowed Flash and his chums to go to Mongo. Not a bad idea, really, gets round the whole old-fashioned rocketship, and ties in with certain physics. A great way to travel, but they were allowed to come back. Again, and then again. They cut down on this, but by then the damage was done. I’ve said it before: Flash Gordon is about a group of people who are marooned on an exotic alien world, and fight against the tyranny they find there. This is not a show about that, it is a show where our leads can nip back for misjudged comedy weddings.

Which leads us on to number two, comedy. Sass is the slow death of SF. Witless one-liners make Flash a bouffant manchild, reduce Zarkoff to a bumbling clown, and turn Dale into a blathering encumbrance, Only the Mongo men have any testicles to speak of. It’s frat party SF, with fatherly Ming scolding the Earthlings for being wankers. If only they had listened. In SF land, nobody ever grows up nowadays. It’s like Mongo was gatecrashed by escapees from the happy bus. We’re not saying we want a return to the old serials, with overdone hams barking at each other like seals recorded on wax cylinders, but why does all SF have to be, ahem, “funny”?

Number three, exoticism. Here the show at least tried. I watched seven episodes of Flash Gordon in quick succession, and began to think that if all the Earth sequences were edited out, it might have been only half bad. The Mongo scenes, though low budget and rife with cliche, were the strongest bit of the show. Whaddya know, it’s also the heart of the Flash Gordon concept. If they nailed this, they’d have won. Imagine if Flash behaved like a hero, outraged by injustice, if a genius Zarkoff had matched wits with the excellent Rankol (one of the show’s few highlights). The duel of Barrin and Flash – we should have had more of that. But no, thought the showrunners, let’s nip back to Canada for more familial bonding and hollow quipping.

So now we won’t have any more of anything. Serves them right.


A review of the DVD release of Danny Boyle’s film Sunshine, from Death Ray 05, published in 2007. My opinion of the film has mellowed since I reviewed it initially, and I think were I to regrade it, I’d give it four stars. But the science is still silly, even though they had ubiquitous astronomy hipster Brian Cox on science consultancy duties.

FILM: THREE AND A HALF STARS EXTRAS: THREE STARS

2007 • 108 mins • 15

Director: Danny Boyle

Writer: Alex Garland

Starring: Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Rose Byrne, Michelle Yeoh

A multi-national crew race to almost certain death in an effort to re-ignite the dying sun and save mankind in this UK SF effort.

It’s a clever choice from the team behind 28 Days Later to make a film that has global cooling at its heart when we’re all running around worrying about the exact opposite, and this is one of the conceits that make Sunshine a bit brighter than your average SF blockbuster. It’s a shame then that it never quite dazzles. The good bits are as shiny as 2001: A Space Odyssey, the bad bits a nasty cross between the dark side of Solaris and Event Horizon.

For a start, a lot of the film’s science is nonsensical. For example, how can a man be vaporised by sunlight millions of miles out from the star, yet a bomb made only of metal survive unscathed in a plummet through the sun’s (very, very hot) corona? The sun is also far too small throughout (in reality it’s so big that more than 98% of all matter in the Solar System is to be found within it). There are also too many incidents of unprofessionalism on the parts of the crew for the film to convince. In real life, astronauts check and triple check everything. You’d think this would be even more the case on a last-ditch mission to save mankind, but not aboard the Icarus II. And while it is conceivable that even the best of the best spacemen might go a bit nuts when under so much pressure, the Pinbacker subplot is exceedingly silly.

Still, Sunshine manages to be both atmospheric and exciting. The interplay between light and darkness in the film is beautiful, evoking a sense of wonder that is brilliantly enhanced by the haunting score. The set pieces are masterfully executed, and the finale has you inching forward on the sofa, daft though it is.

Sunshine has design and mood down perfectly, but it is nowhere near as clever as it wants to be. Perhaps that’s asking a lot, but it does set itself up as a thinking man’s film. If you want light-drenched awe, watch The Fountain instead.

Extras: The release DVD has numerous goodies, including a director’s commentary, Brian Cox commentary, an alternative ending, deleted scenes, web production diaries and a short film. But none were included on our review copy, and this may not be the final list.

Did you know?

Though it is never stated in the film, in Sunshine the sun is dying not of old age (it’s due to run out of fuel in about five billion years) but because it has been infected with an exotic particle that is disrupting its normal behaviour.

 


This is an interview with the author Gregory Maguire who wrote the novel Wicked, which was turned into a wildly successful musical of the same name. From Death Ray 05, published in 2007.

Gregory Maguire

Gregory Maguire is an American writer with a passionate interest in children’s literature, being co-founder of a charity dedicated to furthering reading among the young.

He is primarily known for penning revisionist fantasies, often based upon well-known fairy tales. However, his most famous works take their inspiration from a more recent source. Maguire has taken L Frank Baum’s famed series of novels, borrowed his world and put his own stamp firmly upon it, often adding his own characters into crucial points of the stories, or looking at Baum’s own characters from alternative points of view. The first book, Wicked, centres on Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, and portrays her as a passionate rebel rather than as a hook-nosed harridan with a nasty allergy to water. It has been adapted into a musical that has enjoyed great success both Stateside and in London town.

Guy Haley: You are very passionate about literature for children. Why do you think that is important that children read?

Gregory Maguire:  I heard a report this week that said at the age of 10, only 43% of American kids read for pleasure. At the age of 15, that has dropped to 19%. When I hear statistics like these, I fear for the loss of certain skills that imaginative reading enhances; apprehension of subtlety, ambiguity, tolerance for differences, willingness to suspend judgment until the last page (or even beyond). I think reading for children, even more than reading for adults, is central to the survival of a literate citizenry. That is why I still write for children, even though my income is much richer and stronger when I publish for adults.

GM: Tell us a bit about your organisation, the CLNE.

GH:I helped found an educational charity called “Children’s Literature New England” 21 years ago. For two decades we met (four times in the UK) and considered topics of literary interest as they are dealt with in books for children: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”; “Swords and ploughshares”; and “The Fairytale belongs to the poor.” Writers and artists such as Philip Pullman, Quentin Blake, Maurice Sendak, Ursula K Le Guin, Philippa Pearce,  Jill Paton Walsh, Penelope Lively, Peter Dickinson, Susan Cooper, Russell Hoban, John Rowe Townsend, Alan Garner, and many others collaborated with us to consider these literary themes as expressed in books for the young. This is built on the notion that children’s literature is no less an art form than novels for older readers.

GH: Why do you choose to use the “toolbox of the fantastical” to tell your tales? Do you think that fantasy is more effective at bringing messages to children (and adults) than stories with a contemporary setting?

GM: I am afraid that as a Luddite, someone who doesn’t have an iPod, a cellphone, a play station, or a digital camera, I cannot convincingly portray our increasingly technological contemporary world with any verisimilitude. So writing stories that take place in the past or in a fantastical setting makes me much more comfortable.

That said, I also think that the kind of relaxation that once must go through in order to tolerate a “magic” story might just make one more tolerant of larger themes, too, and I care deeply about the themes of my stories – more than about the plots, characters, settings, or the mechanics of magic.

GH: Some of your greatest successes have been with stories set in Oz. Why have you chosen to use L Frank Baum’s world?

GM:  Oz – unlike Middle-earth or Wonderland – is an imperfectly realized magic land. I admire much of what L Frank Baum did, but it is what he failed to do, or did less well, that allows me license to parachute into his magic kingdom and see if I can make any more sense of its history or politics than he did. Basically, I took a land of fabulous incongruity and I tried to superimpose an orderly civilisation upon it, with its own history, religions, cultural conflicts, etc – to be an anthropologist of Oz.

GH: Do you ever feel awkward, playing in the sandbox of such a renowned man?

GM: He is conveniently dead, so I am seldom embarrassed at dinner parties.

GH: You also use fairytale a lot, especially in revisionist fantasies for adults. This seems quite popular in film and literature at the moment. Why do you think that is?

GM: As we become something of a post-literate society – or perhaps I should say that as our shared literacy becomes more audiovisual and less textual – the fairy tales, like the parables, remain conveniently portable and functional vessels of story that, because we get them young – and frequently – may in fact be the final shared narrative that most people in the west can agree that they share in common.

GH: How do you feel about the success of the musical Wicked? Are musicals as valid an art form as literature in your mind?

GM: I love the musical Wicked and am buying tickets today to see it for the 26th time. It is a different art form than the novel and as such made some changes to the plot, which do not bother me. The basic theme of the story is the same as in the novel I wrote – which is that we should beware demonising our enemies, or seeing the world in absolute moral tones of black and white.

GH: You say that you enjoy English novels. Why is that?

GM: I believe the English write more delicious prose, by and large. I also grew up in a time when English writers for children were very easy to find in the libraries in the US I loved CS Lewis at the age of 10, also the books about Mary Poppins, Paddington Bear, and Tom’s Midnight Garden.

There are exceptions. Among my favorite US writers living and working today are Jess Walters, Ron Hansen, and Daniel Handler.

GH:Who are your major influences?

GM: As to the Wicked cycle, I would say TH White’s The Once and Future King, Grahame Greene as to a spooky tone and sinister atmosphere, and perhaps Ursula Le Guin as to someone who took and takes fantasy writing with utmost seriousness.

Did you know?

Gregory Maguire is married to painter Andy Newman.


Written originally for SFX‘s Best of British Special Edition, which I also edited, in 2011.

www.sfx.co.uk

The True Nature of the Catastrophe

Cosy catastrophes? Not on your nelly! Here are some terrible ends to UK civilisation, all from off of that telly.

You might have heard the term “cosy catastrophe”; coined by Brian Aldiss in his book Billion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction, it refers to that very peculiarly British form of apocalyptic SF where civilisation is laid low by some terrible event, leaving only a few plucky survivors to pick up the pieces and build anew. Somewhat mocking, but Aldiss does have a point. There’s more of a hint of the jolly Robinsonade in British science fiction, where some plucky chap, and they’re nearly always chaps, keeps his sense of right as society degenerates into barbarism all about him, usually leaving us at the climax of their story to head off into rising sun to relaunch civilisation in comfort afforded by the decimation of the population. His chin up, motley family substitutes manfully protected, he has it somewhat easy.

That’s fairly cosy. But that’s only part of the story. British science fiction has postulated some brutal ends to our society. In even the The Day of the Triffids, which Aldiss singled out as particularly cuddly, violence and horror abounds, and the protagonists of these tales really do have to have the toughest of moral fibres.

For all the romance of it – the idea of being able to start afresh in a less crowded Britain – it’d be hell, and telly does not let us off lightly. Apocalyptic fiction is often at the more realistic end of SF, properly speculative. Think on this, some of it could just happen, and most of us just would not cope.

Here we’re going to take a look into the alternate worlds imagined by British SF where things really didn’t work out quite as well as they did here (crikey, it’s arguable things aren’t going brilliantly on Earth Prime). Buckle up, there’s some scary stuff ahead.

Survivors

Vector of Collapse: DISEASE

Broadcast: 1975-1977 and 2008-2009

Was it any good?: The original was a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall pipe-dream paradise without ghastly proles, the new one decidedly average.

Cosy factor: Four (of five) sofas.

Likelihood: Four (of five) mushroom clouds.

Every other year there seems to be some major panic about a flu pandemic, primed to carry us all off to our (mass) graves. Survivors, in both its incarnations, posits exactly that.

Originated by Doctor Who writer and Blake’s 7 creator Terry Nation, Survivors has a genetically engineered virus accidentally released to kill 95% of the world’s population. Initially following the adventures of Abby Grant (Carolyn Seymour) as she searches for her lost son Peter, the show had a different feel to each of its three series. The first is very much a depiction of the aftermath of “The Death”, the second depicts the survivors trying to establish a community, the third takes us on a journey across a Britain made up of many different, small societies linking up and reinitiating trade and steam-powered railway travel. Derided for being middle-class and overly concerned with self-sufficiency tips at the expense of drama, Survivors is nevertheless fondly thought of.

Nation himself only stayed on for the first year, leaving after he fell out with the series producer. He wrote a book based on this initial run, with a radically different ending: Abby finds Peter, only to be shot by her own son as he does not recognise her.

A remake was launched in 2008, although for legal reasons it was billed as being based on Nation’s book, and was written by Adrian Hodges. To better reflect Britain’s changed ethnic make-up, two muslim characters were introduced, and Tom Price was reimagined as a convict on the run. The show managed good character dynamics, but was ultimately undone by a convoluted plot involving a secret society of scientists hiding out somewhere, who may have been responsible for the plague.

In some regards the cosiest of all catastrophes, Survivors still engenders unease – its mass, disease-prompted die off is worryingly plausible.

Class War

Is the original Survivors a middle-class Good Life fantasy? You decide…

Points for:

Most of the characters are posh.

Many scenes take place in large kitchens with agas in them.

In the second episode, Anne says “and then father had to send the servants away.”

Tom Price is the only “commoner”, and he’s a shifty Welsh tramp.

Arthur Wormley the show’s big bad, is a trade unionist.

The first episode has Peter Bowles in it.

They all seem quite happy pottering about in the garden, making their own beer.

Points against:

Um…

The Day of The Triffids

Vector of collapse: CELESTIAL PHENOMENON/GIANT CARNIVOROUS PLANTS

Broadcast: 1981 and 2009

Was it any good?: 1981 version very, 2009 version not so much.

Cosy factor: Three (of five) sofas

Likelihood: Two (of five) Mushroom clouds

Pity poor Bill Masen, he’s been hospitalised by giant tulips plenty of times now, chalking up two TV series and a film, with another cinematic outing in development. He’s the hero of John Wyndham’s classic, a triffid farmer spared the blindness that afflicts most of the population after they observe strange lights in the sky. Masen’s laid up with his eyes bandaged after an accident in a lab involving triffid venom, and awakens to a world suddenly thrown into chaos. Masen struggles against man and triffid – giant, ambulatory plants of unknown origin which are farmed for their oil – before finding refuge on the Isle of Wight where he mulls man’s inhumanity to man.

The Day of the Triffids was not Wyndham’s first book, but it was the first under the Wyndham name, and remains his most famous.

Both TV adaptations were made by the BBC, the first in 1981 starring John Duttine as Masen. In the main the plot of the book was followed closely, unlike the 1962 film, and is still highly regarded.

Not so the 2009 remake, which departed considerably from the book’s storyline. Masen (played by Dougray Scott) gets bolt-on emotional baggage in the shape of an estranged dad and a mother killed 30 years ago by a triffid in Zaire, an event replayed in clumsy flashback, a move typical of our touchy-feely times, as if the end of civilisation isn’t enough to generate empathy in a modern audience. Masen, who’s a scientist in this version, has the opportunity to halt the killer plants by retrieving information from a triffid farm. He still ends up on the Isle of Wight, though.

Did you know?

John Wyndam Parkes Lucas Benyon Harris was the triffid creator’s full name, and proved handy for generating pseudonyms.

Triffic Triffids

In all many versions of the story, the Triffids have different origins. In the book it is intimated that they are the product of Soviet experimentation. They walk on three stumps, have a whiplike sting, a flower head and clackers that knock on a large bole at their base (speculated to be for communication). The 1981 BBC show followed this closely, with plants made in the main from fibreglass, operated by a man crouched in the base.

In the 1962 film they are from outer space, seeded on the Earth by comets, their sting is a projectile propelled by gas, and they are vulnerable to seawater. In the 2009 adaptation they’re from Zaire, rendered in glorious CGI with strangling, prehensile roots rather than foot stumps and a cluster of agave-like leaves. The 2009 triffids also weep oil, rather than being processed for it.

Terrifying Telly

The Day of The Triffids is not the only Wyndham book to have received the TV treatment. Creepy, unnerving and on after school, Chocky is a different kind of story altogether. Matthew is a boy whose father becomes concerned about his invisible friend, Chocky, especially when he undergoes a period of rapid mental development. And rightly so, for Chocky is actually an alien communicating telepathically with the boy. This contact puts Matthew under a great deal of pressure, worse, Chocky is of ambiguous intentions, and their link is of interest to the government…

Chocky (written in 1968) was adapted by Anthony Reed for Thames TV in 1984. An ’80s staple, the show generated two sequels – Chocky’s Children and Chocky’s Challenge. It was seriously spooky stuff. The opening titles began with a bloodcurdling scream, the show’s star, Andrew Ellams, turned in an excellent performance as the haunted Matthew, while the series’ themes of madness, isolation and fear were intensified by Chocky’s eerie, disembodied voice (Glynis Brooks).

The Tripods

Broadcast: 1984-1985

Vector of collapse: ALIENS

Was it any good?: Good effects (for the time) didn’t stop it dragging.

Cosy factor: Two (of five) sofas.

Likelihood: One (of five) mushroom clouds.

Samuel Youd is the great purveyor of global catastrophe, although you probably know him better as John Christopher. Youd is a prolific man, having written more than fifty novels from 1949 on. The Tripods trilogy is, doubtlessly, his most famous.

In the future, mankind has reverted to an agricultural existence. There are no cities. Technology is unused. Why? Aliens have taken over our brains! Exerting a form of mind control via “caps”, implanted at the age of 14, the Masters rule the Earth, awing the yokelised locals with their tripedal terror machines.

Only young Will (played by John Shackley) doesn’t want to be capped, and sets off to uncover the truth behind the tripods, discovering that the aliens are not content with ruling from their cities, but wish to xenoform our world for themselves…

The Tripods TV series was broadcast in 1984 (seven episodes) and 1985 (eleven episodes). Only the first two books were made; plans for an adaptation of the third volume were underway, but never realised. In many regards the series was faithful to the book, but was at times interminable, with the appearances of tripods few and far between as our three stars (Ceri Seel and Jim Baker joining Shackley) trudged across France. However, the sequences set within the fabled city of the Masters were pretty cool by any standard, its effects impressive for the time and the show brave in its use of non-humanoid aliens.

Killer Chris

Youd had a fine line in cataclysms. Here are some more.

A Wrinkle in the Skin (1965)

Tectonic activity redraws the map, with seafloors upheaved, and lands drowned. Survivors struggle to find loved ones and fail.

The Death of Grass (1956)

All grasses die, as that includes most of our food crops, we’re stuffed. Tragic fratricide ensues. Filmed under its alternative title, No Blade of Grass, in 1970.

The Prince in Waiting (1970)

Volcanic activity has reduced the world to medievalism, where birth defects abound. Our hero, a deposed prince, overcomes innate knobbishness to effect a new technological dawn.

The World in Winter (1962)

Solar-induced global cooling sends Brits packing to Africa, where they’re treated as second-class citizens. Protagonist doesn’t like it, and escapes to come home.

The Empty World (1977)

An ageing disease kills most people off, leaving kids to fend for themselves. Much horribleness happens, but a bright future beckons. Televised in Germany.

The Last Train

Vector of collapse: METEOR STRIKE

Screened: 1999

Was it any good?: A curate’s egg of a show; dodgy science did it no favours.

Cosy factor: One (of five) sofas

Likelihood: Three (of five) mushroom clouds

Penned by Mathew Graham, the co-creator of Life on Mars, The Last Train is an oddity, an SF series from a time when SF on British television was approached with something approaching nervous apprehension. “It’s not science fiction,” said the series producer to SFX on a set visit “it’s post-apocalyptic fiction”.

Naturally, it’s about as science fiction as you can get. The inhabitants of a train travelling to Sheffield are frozen in time when a canister of cryogenic gubbins clatters from lead character Harriet Ambrose’s (Nicola Walker) bag as the train conveniently enters a tunnel. Convenient, as the Earth is pummelled by a meteor strike that very instant.

The characters, a motley band including a thief, a cop, a pregnant girl and an unbalanced businessman, emerge into a changed world. They have one hope, a place called The Ark, built by the government in anticipation of the catastrophe, and to which Harriet is connected.

The show was a little silly. The cryo-fluid was implausible, as was crim Mick Sizer’s (Trevor Etienne) van starting up after 50 years in a shed, while the production’s attempts portray topographic and climatic upheaval were mainly restricted to hoiking an increasingly sorry collection of tropical plants from location to location. In any case, a meteor strike of sufficient size to cause that much devastation would have made a much bigger mess. Still, a brutal (two of our heroes are locked out of The Ark and crucified) if safe (they get rescued) finale for the show and a cracking first episode lift its quality.

Did you know?

The series working title was Cruel Earth, which is much, much better, really.

Ringing The Changes

Magical mayhem, thanks to Merlin

The Last Train might have taken scientific liberties, but that’s as nothing compare to the outrageous apocalypse employed in The Changes.

Based on the series of books by Peter Dickinson, this 1975 show depicted a Britain suddenly gripped by anti-machine hysteria, where technology is smashed to pieces and becomes taboo. Nicky is a girl whose adventures lead her to discover the cause of all this grief – Merlin the magician!

Sounds daft as, but it’s a successful idea (although more so in the books than the drama). Better, perhaps, to embrace out and out fantasy than embrace dodge-tastic science, a la The Last Train

Threads

Vector of collapse: ATOMIC WAR

Screened: 1984

Was it any good?: Terrifyingly so; a harrowing depiction of nuclear war.

Cosy factor: One (of Five) sofas

Likelihood: Five (of Five) sofas

The 1980s might seem all glam and greed and Ashes to Ashes now, but our current nostalgic phase for the decade misses one important point: We were all shit-scared of nuclear apocalypse. Threads, made in 1984, helpfully made us all that little bit more frightened. And they showed it in school. Thanks for that.

Speculative fiction in its truest sense (to this day, no one is entirely sure what the aftermath of a nuclear war would be like) Threads has it all – milk bottles melting in firestorms, animals writhing in agony, frantic surgeons performing amputations with wood saws, mass panic, machine gun-armed traffic wardens, nuclear winter, deformed babies, and the collapse of language itself. It is really not much fun, but absolutely fascinating.

The film presents this cheery scenario from the point of view of we ordinary joes, and follows the fates of two families ­ the Becketts and Kemps, whose children are due to be married following an unplanned pregnancy. Until they all die.

The main character, Ruth Beckett (Karen Meagher), dies blind and prematurely aged after scratching about in a field. Her mentally compromised daughter survives, has ungentle sex, and later produces a stillborn horror in a grim boarding house with one lightbulb.

Threads was not so much a prophylactic piece of SF as a snatch of the zeitgeist. People in power knew that nuclear war would be beyond terrible, and it never happened. And yet, it’s more likely than an alien invasion, isn’t it?

Did you know?

Threads was the third attempt by the BBC to make a nuclear war docudrama. The first was stalled by Winston Churchill, the second, The War Game (1965) remained unscreened for twenty years, being deemed too disturbing.