Posts Tagged ‘Science fiction’

The last ever Ten Minute Guide from Death Ray, and this one never published. I liked writing these articles, but although quite a few people read them don’t expect me to create any more specifically for this website – they take ages to research, so this really is the very last.

Leafy Concerns

We all feel stupid for laughing at the hippies now we’re all about fry on fires stoked by our own greed. And guess what? SF was there fairly early on, warning us all to cut it out…

Science Fiction with an ecological slant is a very broad topic, because many, many writers like to put their characters in extreme situations. What can be more taxing than an extreme environment, of an alien world, or one created by mannish foolery or nature’s wrath right here on good old Earth? Said environments, through the mechanisms of evolution, also force change upon our fleshy shells, another favourite of SF authors through the ages. We’re talking science fiction encompassing everything from tree-hugging flicks like Silent Running to The Time Machine, whose brutal social-Darwinian message of mankind’s fragility in the uncaring face of time still gives us the willies, frankly. (more…)



Tomorrow I’ll be attending the HarperVoyager virtual SF festival. So, I suppose as it’s virtual I won’t be attending, but I will. If you get me.

Run by the publisher in conjunction with the BFI’s Days of Fear and Wonder film festival it’ll highlight the literary side of Science Fiction and its influence on film.

Instead of me bumbling about and paraphrasing poorly (my writing brain is not yet fired up. I need more tea) here’s what they had to say about it themselves:

The festival will take place on social media. The program will reflect the 3 main themes of the BFI’s film season:

Tomorrow’s World – from post-apocalyptic wastelands to megacities to far-flung dystopia – best described by Ray Bradbury as ‘sociological studies of the future’

Altered States – the science fiction of ‘inner space’ mad scientists, mutants, man-machines and mind-bending trips – what points us towards the fragile and untrustworthy thing that is consciousness.

Contact! – the alien can tell us a lot about where we’re at as a species. Time to explore life from all corners of the universe and across multiple dimensions.

We aim to explore story-telling and the impact of literature on film. On the Sunday we will specifically focus the discussion on young adult and women of sci-fi.

Our overall aim is to create lots of buzz and excitement around science fiction.

We have some very cool people involved – authors Jeff Vandermeer, David Cronenberg, Nick Harkaway, and scientists Marcus Chown and Rowan Hooper and many others.

And me, naturally. There are twenty-plus other authors involved, including the likes of Jon Courtenay Grimwood and Margaret Atwood. Find out more at the HarperVoyager UK website.

Register here to take part – it’s free. I’ll not be appearing as a Darth Sidious-style hologram unfortunately, but rather more prosaically on Twitter, where I’ll be talking about SF colony stories, colony ships gone wrong (one of my favourite mini-subgenres) and general space exploration in SF. Join me @guyhaley with @harpervoyageruk, #BFIVoyager and #BFISciFi at 2.30pm tomorrow! I look forward to your questions.

This is my “definitive” article on Star Wars, the film that made me fall in love with science fiction in the first place. My mum took me to see it in 1978, when I was five. I still vaguely remember the trip. Apparently I talked all the way through. In the weeks before I drew an awful lot of TIE fighters at school, and was very envious of the kids who had seen it the first time around. I got some Star Wars figures before I saw the film. In following years, I built up quite a collection of Star Wars toys, but was forced to sell them after I returned from living in Poland as I was flat broke. This initial handful, however, I kept and passed them on to Benny 35 years later.

This article was originally published as part of Death Ray #21‘s “Time Trap”, which looked at the year 1977.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, science fiction was about to change forever…

In 1977 the most influential science fiction film of all time came to cinemas. George Lucas’ Star Wars has had such a large influence on the genre it is hard to quantify. Naturally, space opera movies became a dime a dozen in the 1980s, but it had effects as diverse as speeding the restructuring of the way Hollywood financed its movies, introducing the ‘worn’ future, heralding breakthroughs in special effects that were to transform cinema, and cementing the idea of the Summer event movie. Some of these seismic shifts stemmed from 1975’s Jaws, the first modern blockbuster, but Star Wars accelerated them.

Lucas conceived of Star Wars sometime round 1971, when he wrote an outline called ‘The Journal of the Whills’. Some of the ideas that were to later feature in the Star Wars movies were present, including the Jedi, but many were not, including the story. The structure of the first trilogy, even the idea that there were to be more movies, was not present initially, and the reconception of Star Wars as but one part of the life story of Anakin Skywalker, fallen Jedi Knight, did not occur until much later (Lucas has often said that he wrote a massive treatment, then decided to concentrate on the first third as it was too big. There is little evidence for this in Lucas’ drafts). This initial treatment, about the son of a famous fighter pilot who is training to be the ‘padawaan’ of Mace Windy, a famed ‘Jedi-Bendu’ was described as too complex to understand, so Lucas started again, this time basing his story on Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. Initially, the Star Wars was little more than an SF remake of Kurosawa’s classic, but over time and four drafts it would move further and further away from it, incorporating elements from more science-fictional sources and fairytale, crucially reintroducing the wizard-like Jedi, whose struggle with their own instincts was to form the thematic core of the entire universe. The final draft, with input from Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, was finished 1 January, 1976. Throughout the writing process the story changed, Luke’s character turned from a 60-year-old general into a dwarf. Right up until filming commenced, Lucas was toying with the idea of making him a woman. Han Solo was supposed to be a green alien with gills, C3PO a car-dealer type… Star Wars was not conceived as a saga, but more as a loosely defined universe inspired by Saturday serials, Japanese cinema and World War II movies, whose story was subject to revision right to the very last minute. There will never be a definitive version. The genesis of the film is steadily sliding into the realms of apocrypha, with the imperfect human memory the main culprit, aided by deliberate misdirection here and there. George Lucas has made many contradictory statements about the conception of the film, while stories from different people involved do not entirely match up. Was Alec Guinness as uncomfortable on set as he always maintained, requesting his own death so he could stop saying such “rubbish lines”, or was the characters’ death down to Lucas, and Guinness mostly happy at work as the director maintains? Was David Prowse dubbed because there were no black characters, as he maintains, or was it because he, like many of the other dubbed actors in the film, sounded too British? This are but a couple of examples of the many stories surrounding the film’s production, alternative versions of which can be found in numerous media.

What is certain is that it could so easily have not happened. Universal and Paramount passed on the film, seeing it as high-risk and high budget. Alan Ladd Jnr at Fox, however, saw promise in Lucas and the concept, and took it on.

The complex production was tense, and for the crew involved, bewildering. Stories about these difficulties include the crew members ridiculing the production, extras whispering ‘wanker’ at Mark Hamill as he walked past the crowd at the medal giving climax, Lucas tearing out his hair at endless British tea breaks, and union interference with the nascent ILM being seen off with a showy display of computer controlled camera work. No-one had ever made a film like this before, and many made fun of the avalanche of outlandish names that accompanied it. ILM were brilliant but disorganised, and spent half their budget on four shots Lucas rejected. The actors complained about the dialogue and about Lucas’ direction (“Faster” and “More intense” were his sole phrases). Lucas argued with cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, who thought the young director was overstepping his bounds in requesting specific shot set ups. Accidents dogged the production – on the first day of shooting in Tatouine, the area of Tunisia standing in for Tatooine, there were the worst torrential downpours in 50 years. Props didn’t work, and Anthony Daniels’ C3PO costume broke and speared his left foot.

Though Star Wars was fairly expensive for its day, Lucas had ambitions much bigger than his budget. Money was tight. He was unhappy with the effects, the costumes and props. Time ran out. Reaching crisis point as shooting fell two weeks behind schedule, Fox gave Lucas an ultimatum: wrap production in a week, or Star Wars will be cancelled. Splitting the crew into three teams, Lucas scraped over the deadline.

Scheduled for release at Christmas of 1976, there were further problems in Star Wars’ post production process. The initial cut was disastrous, prompting Lucas to replace the editor. ILM struggled, Mark Hamill (Luke) was involved in a car crash that made reshoots impossible, while an early screening of the incomplete film to Lucas’ film buddies was unsuccessful with only Stephen Spielberg enjoying the film. The release was postponed until May of the following year.

But it was now that things began to come together. A new edit gave the film its famous pace, Lucas spliced together a load of dogfights from war films to inspire the effects house, while both Ben Burt’s innovative, organic sound design and John Barry’s bombastic martial score, recorded in just 12 days, brought the film to life.

Star Wars‘ final budget was driven from $8 million to $11 million. Lucas was a nervous wreck, suffering from hypertension and exhaustion. He was thus gratified by the response of the Fox brass – they all loved it, and one broke down in tears. The film was a difficult sell to reluctant cinemas. Fox threatened to withhold the more eagerly anticipated movie The Other Side of Midnight if cinemas did not show Lucas’ film.

Star Wars was, as we know, a huge hit, so successful that 20th Century Fox’s share value doubled in weeks. Alone, Star Wars has earned more than $700million dollars in its lifetime. The estimated lifetime takings of the franchise it spawned, merchandising and all, is put at around $20billion.

The cultural impact of Star Wars has been immense, not least in its refocusing of Hollywood on spectacle after a decade of thoughtful, arty films. Some have called this a betrayal, others a re-engagement with the audience. Either way, effects-heavy thrill-rides became the default setting for big-screen success.

The first SF blockbuster’s effect on the genre was complex. It is arguable Star Wars destroyed the credibility of science fiction at a time when it was just becoming an excepted form. Book companies redirected their efforts toward juvenilia, and the more cerebral cinematic SF efforts of the 60s and 70s gave way to numerous Star Wars imitations. Although a wave of great SF films trailed Star Wars’ success, they were outnumbered by cheap, unimaginative copycats. Such movies as Space hunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone did much to earn SF its status as a pariah genre in the 90s. When you hear of critics dismissing SF, it’s not Alien or The Terminator or Mad Max they’re thinking of, but the bad sets, ropey effects and cardboard characters of TV and straight-to-video Star Wars rip-offs. To them, ‘science fiction’ stinks of the unsophisticated mindset of the nursery.

But this was but a reactive dip, one SF has come out of now, in the main, and we can thank Star Wars also for SF’s renaissance, for the creative types who fill our screens and bookshelves with weekly wonders had their minds’ eyes opened wide by Star Wars as children. And that, dear readers, includes your friendly correspondents here at Death Ray.

The Expanded Universe

It wasn’t the films that made Lucas his fortune, but millions upon millions of tiny plastic toys…

When Lucas negotiated with Alan Ladd Jnr. for his fee, he settled on a relatively modest sum of $150,000 in return for 40% of the merchandising rights and rights to any sequels. It is this canny deal that has made Lucas a billionaire, and allowed him to operate largely outside the studio system for much of his career.

At the time, Hollywood made little money from merchandising. The days of themed Happy Meals and action figure toy lines were ushered in by Star Wars. Fox provided little direct marketing support for the film, leaving marketing director Charles Lippincott to find other ways to publicise the movie. He sold the toy rights to Kenner (who invented the three and three-quarter inch action figure size still popular today for the film). Over 300 million of these figures were sold between 1977 and 1984, but Kenner initially under-produced. The toys were so popular that Kenner rapidly ran out of stock round Christmas of ’77, prompting them to fill shops with empty boxes containing a promissory note. The back orders took three months to fulfil.

Lippincott also looked to print media to provide a push to the movie, negotiating a pre-release comic adaptation with Marvel. A novelisation of the film was published under Lucas’ name, although it was actually written by Alan Dean Foster. Titled Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker, it was based on the screenplay and released six months before the film. The book interestingly contains several minor departures from the book, including the cut Tosche station scenes filmed for the movie’s opening, and differences in detail here and there.

But it is the book that followed, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, also by Foster, where things get interesting. This novel was intended to form the basis of a cheap sequel should Star Wars perform poorly. When the film became a smash hit, this idea was dropped. Instead, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, along with Star Wars comic issue 7, formed the basis of Star Wars‘ enormous Expanded Universe.

Many popular SF franchises have Expanded Universes, but Star Wars is among the largest of all, rivalled in scale only by Star Trek‘s. It encompasses books, comics, roleplaying and video games, toys, audio dramas, cartoons, and TV shows, telling stories in the Star Wars universe from 10,000 years in the past until 100 years in the future (Lucas, intending to one day make a prequel trilogy, barred authors from delving into the history of the Empire, Anakin, or Palpatine). Like most such things in the genre, these stories are not considered canon, and yet they have had a profound influence on the film series itself, with many characters and locations working their way into the movie series.

The Star Wars expanded universe is remarkably consistent, although not immune to shifts in the story and retconning. This consistency can be credited to West End Games. Their RPG products, beginning in 1987, were so detailed they were often sent out to other licensees as reference materials, leading to a situation where West End found itself, in later years, producing supplements based on stories which had been generated with the help of their products.

After the release of Return of the Jedi, Star Wars fever abated somewhat, though the Expanded Universe remained a lucrative industry. With the release of Timothy Zahn’s Admiral Thrawn trilogy in 1991, the acquisition of the Star Wars comic book license by Dark Horse and renewed speculation about further films, it really took off, paving the way for the return of the franchise to the big screen.

Did you know?

The 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special was the first televisual outing for the expanded universe. A collection of musical skits, comedy segments and unused footage from Star Wars, it featured all the main cast in a story loosely centred on Chewbacca’s return home for Life Day (Wookie Christmas), and the struggle he and Han Solo have as they try to get back to the Wookie world of Kashyyyk. Through the medium of television watched by Chewie’s son Lumpawarrump, we get a musical interlude from Jefferson Starship, a 10-minute cartoon about one of Chewie’s earlier adventures, as well as cameos from various other Wars’ stars, such as Luke, who is shown having mechanical trouble with his X-Wing fighter. This all takes place as Imperial forces search Chewie’s tree house, so there’s an air of totalitarian absurdity to it.

Aside from the cartoon, which introduced Boba Fett, the Holiday Special is widely disliked by fans and those involved, with Lucas himself being particularly unhappy with the show. (he said once he wished he could hunt down every copy. It has only ever been screened once, and has never been released in any home entertainment format. Bootleg copies, however, can be had for the right price. We’d never condone illegal activity, but it is one of the most deliciously bad pieces of television ever to have been made.

Ah, Death Ray, how fruitful plundering your corpse is for my blog… This article originally appeared in Death Ray 08, back in 2007, as part of our insanely crammed “Ten Minute Guide…” series. These were among my favourite articles to write; packed full of detail, and no transcribing involved. I’ve put this one up as my review of the Flash Gordon TV series of 2007/2008 is one of the most viewed articles on this site by a long, long way. General searches for “Flash Gordon” take people there, so curiosity about this primal member of the modern SF heroic pantheon still abounds.

Flash Gordon: Perennially popular cosmic adventurer


The original, and the best. Click the pic for more on the comic.

Golden-haired saviour of Earth, Flash has been protecting us from the art-deco hell of Ming the Merciless’s Planet Mongo for 70 years, often in a pair of tight trunks. In a word: Pulp.

Flash’s adventures are ones of swash-buckling, over the top, Prisoner of Zenda style derring-do in space. The stories are simple stuff, simply told, their enduring popularity down to the sumptuousness of Alex Raymond’s art and the on-screen extravagance it inspired. If scantily clad slave girls, finned rocket ships, weird alien kingdoms and decadently luxuriant palaces are your thing, step this way… (more…)

At last! I can tell you about some of the very exciting things that I know about and that you don’t, or rather didn’t know until now!

Today I can finally reveal not one, but two of my Black Library novels. In case the picture above doesn’t give it away, one is Skarsnik, about the infamous night goblin warlord.

I’m a big Warhammer fan, as you might know. I started playing in 1984 with the first edition of the fantasy game. That’s right, when there was none of this new fangled Warhammer 40,000 business and Toughness values were represented by letters. I was 11. I’m now 39, so I’ve been playing for 28 years. And I still play. I love it. (Playing for so long puts on odd perspective on things – I bought myself a little birthday gift on Wednesday, a box of plastic bikers for my 40k ork army. I’ve wanted these for ages. To me they are “new models”. They came out five years ago).

I’ve always been a massive greenskin fan, leading orcs and goblins since day one. For years they lost, but the last half decade has been kind to my green minions and they now win more often than not. It helps that Skarsnik himself is my army general. Want to see my army list? Here it is.

Skarsnik’s Stabbas

(I date all my army lists when I draw them up. This is the most recent variation on Skarsnik’s army, but it really doesn’t change that much. The last game I played with this was 7/5/2012. It represents but a small proportion of my greater goblin horde. No, I don’t have any orcs in my army, although I have Ruglud’s Armoured Orcs prepped for painting because they are very cool. Other orcs can go feed my squigs. Literally).

Naturally I was well up for it when Nick Kyme at The Black Library suggested I write a novel about Skarsnik. Nick worked for me when I edited White Dwarf magazine, now I kind of work for him. A strange reversal, but a fruitful one. Our earlier association means he knows full well how much I like my goblins.

I’ve put up a page on Skarsnik here with a brief breakdown of the plot, so I won’t repeat myself, but I will tell you some of what I am trying to do with the story. A lot of people see goblins as funny, comic relief characters (why, just check out The Black Library’s own blog post to see how prevalent this attitude is). Granted, they are funny, but they are also vicious, wicked, baby-eating horrors of the first degree. “Ooh! Look at the funny goblins”, gamers say. Yeah well, you wouldn’t want to be bound to spiky stick in a stinky cave with a lot of them standing around you. They’d have knives, and they’d be laughing. Not so funny now, are they?

Come to think of it, you probably don’t want to face mine on the battlefield either.

So, I wanted to capture both sides of this character. You’ll see how amusing and horrifying goblins are as we watch Skarsnik trick, wheedle and stab his way from sporeling to king of Karak Eight Peaks. For non-goblin fanatics there is plenty of skaven and dwarf action, with a little bit of the Empire thrown in. Truly, Skarsnik is a cornucopic fantasy delight.

Now to the other project. Sharp eyes might have seen this on Amazon. Yes, I’ve also written a Warhammer 40,000 novel called Baneblade. It’s about the tank of the same name. Although I wrote this book quite a while ago, and it is actually out some time before Skarsnik, the arcane nature of publishing dictates that I can say only that it’s about a young lieutenant of a noble house who joins a veteran baneblade crew. And that’s your lot.

By the Emperor, there’s more! I’m also writing another book for BL called [REDACTED] about the [REDACTED] and the [REDACTED] who must [REDACTED] before [REDACTED] and the [REDACTED] is [REDACTED]! I’ve not finished writing that yet but I’m having a lot of fun with it. More later when I am free to talk.

Of course, none of this is out for a while, so why not (blatant plug time! Please forgive me, I have to eat) check out my Richards & Klein books. A buddy-cop adventure series set in the 22nd century that pairs a dour, ex-military German cyborg with a wiseass super computer in a trenchcoat. Click here for more on both books, and free R&K short stories “The Nemesis Worm” and “Ghost”. You may also like Champion of Mars, an epic tale spanning millennia from the next century to the far, far future of the Red Planet.

There are further free short stories here on the site (of varying vintage, so perhaps not me at my best, but still interesting). There are some others you can buy if you wish at The Angry Robot Trading Company.

Right, you’ve been good and read my pleading for you to buy my books. In return, please feel free to ask me anything about anything – including these hot, newly announced BL titles – in the comments. Games, journalism, GW, Mantic, SFX, White Dwarf, whatever. I will answer what I am allowed to. Think of it as an interview by you, if you like.

If you’re into wargaming, you might want to follow me on this blog and/or on twitter, as there will be another announcement on the little toy men front soon. Plus there’s all the SF/Fantasy/Horror reviews, interviews, features and so forth you get regularly on this site. On twitter you might have to put up with a bunch of stuff about dogs, beer, social issues, the environment and children, but I do talk about gaming, SF and writing sometimes.

Thank you for your attention. Guy out.

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

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.


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:


The Day of The Triffids


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


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.