The True Nature of the Catastrophe (2011)


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

www.sfx.co.uk

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.

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