Tomorrow's Worlds: The Unearthly History of Science-Fiction Episode Four: TimeBookmark and Share

Sunday, 14 December 2014 - Reviewed by Martin Ruddock

Transmitted BBC2, 13th December 2014

BBC2's landmark four part history of Science-Fiction and its influence on culture concludes with a wheezing, groaning noise and a trail of tyre-fire with a journey through Time.

This is a lighter and less focused ride than the previous episodes, but still watchable and highly entertaining, with some interesting turns.

As with episode two (Invasion), we begin with H.G. Wells, and this time Dominic Sandbrook uses The Time Machine and Wells' riffing on his own social concerns as a jumping-off point.

Before long, we jump to a lengthy section on Doctor Who - generously represented by a glut of clips, plus interviews with David Tennant and Steven Moffat. Sandbrook gets to visit the Doctor Who Experience, where he's clearly having a whale of a time. Surprisingly though, the main message here is basically that Doctor Who is great. The time travel juxtaposition stories, the tales of paradox or dilemmas about changing history, even the time-wimey elements of more recent years are passed over in favour of a clips package. It's good to watch for a Who fan, but actually it's slightly jarring when we move on to Back to the Future - again, well explored and thought out, with a Delorean photo opportunity, but it misses out discussing the clever sequel - which is more a deconstruction of the events of the original film, which is a shame.

Things take an abrupt detour about the halfway mark, when all of a sudden we're not talking about time travel any more, but have moved on to dystopian futures, like Metropolis and Blade Runner, via high-rise brutalist architecture and J.G. Ballard. All interesting and thought-provoking stuff with more good talking heads material from Edward James Olmos and Rutger Hauer, but it goes quite off-piste until we return to time travel with Chris Marker's haunting La Jetee, composed of haunting stills, to be remade thirty years later as Twelve Monkeys - and ultimately its spiritual successor Looper.

The theme of being stuck in a single moment rears its head with Groundhog Day - time travel as metaphor for making a difference, writing wrongs, and saving yourself, neatly dovetailing with Quantum Leap, but largely skipping over A Christmas Carol. 

This is a strange oversight, but we do get Donald P. Bellisario's explanation of the germ of the series, an encounter he wished he could have changed with hindsight - his fractious meeting with a Pravda-reading fellow conscript whilst serving in the Marines in the 1950s - one Lee Harvey Oswald.

The romantic, yearning side of time travel is addressed briefly with The Time-Traveller's Wife, but we're soon back with Doctor Who - as Sandbrook concludes by meditating on the Doctor's relationships with his human companions and the emotional price of this. As Neil Gaiman aptly remarks, for the Doctor it's deferred bereavement just becoming friends with him.

Despite this heavy concept, we end on a note of childlike excitement, with Sandbrook on the set of Peter Davison's TARDIS, pointing out that if you could time travel - you would. With a press of a button, the central column rises, and he's gone.

Tomorrow's Worlds has been a real highlight. Occasionally it's wandered slightly off-book with some of the material used, but that's forgivable when you have four episodes of this quality, with such good interviewees and such a motherlode of archive footage so ably strung together into compelling stories by the excellent Sandbrook. Here's to tomorrow.




Tomorrow's Worlds: The Unearthly History of Science Fiction Episode Three - RobotsBookmark and Share

Sunday, 7 December 2014 - Reviewed by Martin Ruddock

Transmitted BBC2, 6th December 2014

In the third of a strong run of themed documentaries that have so far examined Space and Invasion, this week, Tomorrow's Worlds takes on Robots.

Starting off in Oxford, Dominic Sandbrook pores over the original manuscript of Frankenstein, arguing convincingly that it is the first true Science-Fiction novel, and highlighting the original, oft-forgotten subtitle of Mary Shelley's tale - The Modern Prometheus.

Frankenstein is a very early manifestation of a fear of where exactly scientific hubris could lead man, should he try to play god. Society develops an interest in robots, of which Victor Frankenstein's intelligent, yet tortured creature is a clear ancestor - but yet, argues Sandbrook, our techno-fear has never quite left us, particularly when we anthropomorphise robots. The bottom line is that we don't really trust them, especially when they mimic our behaviour and try and be like us, a theme he comes back to later on.

As with the previous episodes, Sandbrook engagingly draws some neat lines and parallels, detouring away from the prevailing image of the evil killer robots for a while, he looks at the good ones. He moves neatly through Asimov's Laws of Robotics and Robbie the Robot from Forbidden Planet to reach the cute, non-humanoid Hewie, Dewie, and Lewie from Silent Running, and their famous successors R2-D2 and C-3PO. Threepio is humanoid, (and owes a clear, acknowledged debt to the iconic Maria from Fritz Lang's Metropolis) but Artoo of course is not, it's the humanised performances of Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker that lends the droids their unthreatening, likeable character in the same way that Arnold Schwarzenegger's remorseless, cold-as-ice Terminator characterises the classic killer robot. Daniels smilingly speaks of a meeting with roboticists in which he points out that they don't know what it's like to be a machine and he does, but this is an actor's sense of hype more than anything else. Nobody could ever really know.

Sandbrook moves from here back to more familiarly dystopian territory, to the man-machine hybrid of the aforementioned Terminator, but more importantly the faceless, automated threat of Skynet, which had much in common with Ronald Reagan's infamous 'Star Wars' orbital defence system. The possibility of machine turning on man when man does something that doesn't fit with programming or 'the mission' is illustrated by the still-chilling sequence in 2001 where HAL politely tells Dave Bowman that he's sorry, he can't open the pod bay doors.

The promethean theme of Frankenstein returns with Spielberg's AI, where a robot child tries to be loved, and to be human, with the human-infiltrating Cylons of Battlestar Galactica, and most compellingly, with the Creature's punk grandson - Blade Runner's Roy Batty.

Sandbrook moves seamlessly from machines trying to be men to men becoming machines, first in passing where he points out the dubious morality in essentially trying to lobotomise Alex in A Clockwork Orange, and then more fully when he looks at everyone's favourite tragic spare part surgery enthusiasts, the Cybermen. David Tennant and Neil Gaiman pop up to discuss their enduring appeal, illustrated by clips from Tomb of the Cybermen and their 2006 revival under Russell T. Davies. The clips from Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel aren't the best illustration of the Cybermen's chilling body horror, but time slots are limited, and there is a huge amount of ground to cover here, which Sandbrook does expertly. The haunted, reticent Six Million Dollar Man and Paul Verhoeven's savage satire Robocop are both referenced as a not-so far gone example of where Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis's nightmare vision of repairing ourselves could lead. Interestingly, Star Trek's famous Borg, a similarly chilling premise based on assimilation and absolute conformity, don't get a look in.

The contributors are excellent value throughout, John Landis, Douglas Trumbull, Peter Weller, Paul Verhoeven, Keir Dullea, Gale Ann Hurd, a scarily grown-up Haley Joel Osment, Brian Aldiss, a thoughtful Edward James Olmos and Ron Moore, and best of all, a twinkling Rutger Hauer, who reprises his wonderful "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe..." speech from Blade Runner.

Things only drift a little off-piste at the end, when we move to William Gibson's coining of the concept of cyberspace in Neuromancer and segue into the VR world of The Matrix. Relevant? Yes. Robots? Not so much. Also, Tron rather unfairly misses out on the party here, a much earlier version of a virtual world and man versus machine - less edgy, but still pioneering.

Nevertheless, minor quibbles aside, this is still an excellent, thoughtful hour of television. The full series probably deserves a director's cut of sorts, trying to cover such a lot of ground coherently in an hour timeslot is always going to be a headache. Sandbrook signs off neatly by suggesting that we are still not entirely comfortable with creation, and that's why these stories keep on coming.

Next week: Time. Or was that last week?




Tomorrow's Worlds: The Unearthly History of Science Fiction Episode Two - SpaceBookmark and Share

Monday, 1 December 2014 - Reviewed by Martin Ruddock

Transmitted BBC2, 29th November 2014

After a strong opening instalment delving into man's exploration of space, BBC2's excellent documentary series brings us back down to Earth with a thoughtful examination of one of Sci-Fi's favourite party tricks - the alien invasion.

Starting off strolling through a field in Surrey, Dominic Sandbrook weaves together a compelling tale of how man's hopes and fears have informed tales of invasion ever since the height of the British Empire, when H.G. Wells put pen to paper to create the godfather of all alien invasions - The War of the Worlds. Sandbrook points out War of the Worlds' origins in late-Victorian fiction, the aliens replacing French and German invaders in 'What If' tales that dared to imagine if the empire fell to its european neighbours.

He also looks at how Wells' tale has been famously recast and relocated over the years from its original, less flashy setting - taken to New York by Orson Welles on the radio, to Los Angeles by George Pal, and lastly, in true 1990s 'more is more' fashion - given a bombastic global makeover by Roland Emmerich for Independence Day. Many of these riffs on the original story, Sandbrook points out, are coloured by growing public unease at current events of the time - the rise of fascism in 30's Europe, and 'Reds under the bed' in McCarthyite America. The Pal version of 'Worlds' created a huge ripple, and arrived between two films offering similarly paranoid competition - The Thing From Another World, and Invasion of the Bodysnatchers - both concerned with the fear of enemies in our midst.

Back in Blighty, Sandbrook posits that homegrown competition such as Village of the Damned draws as much on juvenile delinquency and the new phenomenon of the teenager as it does on alien incursion. By this time, Sci-Fi has become big business, and captures the public's imagination in the jet age. The BBC launches Nigel Kneale's Quatermass serials in the same year as Pal's hit version of War of the Worlds, and by the time of Quatermass and the Pit five years later, ten million viewers are tuning into Kneale's sophisticated meditation on how mankind could have been cultivated by aliens throughout history.

With Sci-Fi now firmly part of the mainstream by 1964, our old friends the Daleks trundle into view, with special attention played to Doctor Who's first alien invasion blockbuster, The Dalek Invasion of Earth - coinciding nicely with the story's 50th anniversary. The Daleks-as-Nazis comparison and the profound effect of WWII on Terry Nation are fleetingly explored, but we move on rapidly to Steven Moffat, David Tennant, and a still crop-haired Karen Gillan basically discussing what great and greatly-designed bad guys the Daleks are. Unfortunately the 'modern' Dalek clips are mainly of the underwhelming Supreme Dalek from The Stolen Earth/Journey's End, which is one of the least impressive versions that the modern show has offered up.

From here, the remit of this episode broadens considerably, but almost overreaches itself by trying to fit too much into a limited runtime; taking in the peaceful first contact of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the child's-eye view of E.T., the apartheid allegory of District 9, the all-out paranoia of John Carpenter's remake of The Thing, Ray Harryhausen's stop-motion wizardry, and the horrific A-Bomb-inspired origins of Godzilla.

Sandbrook finds something of value worth discussing in each, and the talking heads are great value, but the tail-end of the episode feels slightly rushed due to so much being squeezed in. Obviously, Earth invasion stories are plentiful, but Alien Nation features whilst the landmark V bafflingly doesn't, - and the amount of time allocated to Men in Black and the slightly tenuous inclusion of Jurassic Park means that The X-Files gets surprisingly short shrift.

Nevertheless, this is still a fine watch, full of great footage and top-class talking heads (Richard Dreyfuss, John Carpenter, Neil Gaiman, Chris Carter, Roland Emmerich, the aforementioned Tennant, Moffat, and Gillan, plus effects gurus Phil Tippett and Doug Trumbull), all thoughtfully stitched together by Sandbrook, who gives weight and context to what could be simply a clip show in lesser hands. Next stop: Robots.




Tomorrow’s Worlds: The Unearthly History Of Science FictionBookmark and Share

Thursday, 20 November 2014 - Reviewed by Martin Ruddock
BFI Preview Screening 12 November 2014

The BBC loves a good documentary series, and when it does it well, it really earns that licence fee, with thoughtful, lavishly-packaged hours full of insight and A-list talking heads.

Tomorrow's Worlds: The Unearthly History of Science Fiction doesn’t disappoint. It’s an expansive look at the many worlds of Science Fiction - quite rightly recognised as a major part of modern popular culture, something that captures imaginations in the media, in technology, and in everyday life.

Ably fronted by historian and broadcaster Dominic Sandbrook, Tomorrow's Worlds takes a thematic approach to exploring Sci-Fi’s reach within popular culture. The first episode of four, Space, features Sandbrook exploring various depictions of mankind reaching for the stars through film, TV, and literature. Starting off with an obvious crowd-pleaser in Star Wars, Sandbrook uses this as a jumping-off point to examine a glut of takes on space exploration and colonisation such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, the impressionistic work of Georges Melies, Dark Star, Avatar, Alien, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Frank Herbert’s Dune and Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy.

The aforementioned Le Guin and Robinson offer insights here, as do a host of other luminaries including John Carpenter, Richard Dreyfuss, William Shatner, Nichelle Nichols, Anthony Daniels, Keir Dullea, Neil Gaiman, Edward James Olmos, and Ronald Moore.

There are some familiar tales for the initiated. A glum George Lucas complains to Dreyfuss about wanting to make an art movie. Nichelle Nichols speaks of her experiences with Martin Luther King and NASA. Veronica Cartwright trots out her anecdote about her infamous reaction to the Alien chest-burster scene.

But, we also get to see Anthony Daniels be surprisingly scathing about Star Wars, to hear Keir Dullea’s take on the surreal final scenes of 2001, and the thought-provoking argument that Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision of the future shows a harmonious, integrated mankind free of war, disease, and debt - but, beneath these trappings, it’s a lot closer to Wagon Train and Bonanza than immediately meets the eye. Trek’s mankind is arguably an updated version of the frontiersman, moving from civilisation to civilisation and showing each in turn the error of their ways. Glen A. Larson’s Mormon faith informs his original vision of Battlestar Galactica. Very real fears about the price of progress and splits in society riddle the Mars Trilogy. This is all expertly teased out by Sandbrook, who is clearly in his element not only as a historian, but a fan of SF, as demonstrated by the lengthy conversation he shared with Reviews in Time and Space about the Doctor Who season finale over a drink afterwards.

This first episode was premiered as part of BFI South Bank’s epic Days of Fear and Wonder season, and was followed by teaser clips from the remaining episodes: Invasion, Robots, and Time, variously touching on Doctor Who, Frankenstein, Blade Runner, and Quatermass. At the Q&A that followed, moderated by Samira Ahmed - Sandbrook and producers John Das and Ben Southwell spoke with great pride about the series, a co-production with BBC America. They revealed amongst other things, that the decision to split the episodes by theme was taken to avoid repetition - and showed some regret at not having a fifth episode to explore SF dystopias, and Sandbrook lamented the lack of space in the final cut for Blake’s 7.

You may know a lot of the stories in Tomorrow's Worlds, and the stories behind the stories, but episode one of this series succeeds in telling them in a new and interesting way, and in its themed approach, it barely scratches the surface.

Tomorrow's Worlds airs on BBC2 on November 22nd at 9:45pm.




The Best of MenBookmark and Share

Thursday, 16 August 2012 - Written by Matthew Kilburn
Written by Matthew Kilburn
The Best of Men
Written by Lucy Gannon
Directed by Tim Whitby
Broadcast on BBC Two - 16 August 2012
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK preview of the episode.

Whitby Davison Productions were once one of the standard bearers of period television drama in Britain, producing several series of Bramwell for ITV via Carlton. This success was followed by the less well-remembered and less admired Servantsfor the BBC. After almost a decade the partnership of Harriet Davison and Tim Whitby return to their old stamping ground of historical drama with a medical subject. With them is Lucy Gannon, still a respected television writer and once the toast of ITV for her 1990s hit series Soldier Soldier, Peak Practice and the aforementioned Bramwell, but whose first play, Keeping Tom Nice, concerned the suicide of a father of a disabled son. The Best of Men returns Lucy Gannon to the subject of disability with the tale of Ludwig Guttmann, a refugee Jewish German neuroscientist from Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland), who after five years relative inactivity in Oxford was returned to active hospital life in 1944 as founding director of the National Spinal Injuries Unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Buckinghamshire, leading (among much else) to the foundation of what would become the Paralympics.

The BBC had chosen to shape much of the July television schedule around the build-up to the 2012 Olympics, where they were the only traditional broadcaster to have the rights to show the games in the United Kingdom. Bert and Dickie (reviewed on this site by Matt Hills) was an example of this. With The Best of Men, the BBC now join the build-up to the Paralympics, where they only have sound broadcasting rights. By contributing this play, the BBC are arguably demonstrating that they remain at the centre of national cultural life and have responsibilities even towards events where they are not the sole intermediary between the games and the remote public.

National cultural life is indeed important to this play - and I use the term play rather than film because while cinematic in picture grain and use of music the staging and careful use of locations points to its heritage in television drama - because it depicts the struggle of its protagonist Ludwig Guttmann to make both the authorities and wider society accept that his patients are not “moribund incurables”, as dialogue has it, but potentially active and useful men, who can be put to work. Sport is both an end in itself and a means to an end. In the words of the historical Ludwig Guttmann himself, as quoted on the website of the British Paralympic Association: "The aims of sport for the disabled, as well as the non-disabled, are to develop mental activity, self-confidence, self-discipline, a competitive spirit and comradeship." More prosaically, as The Best of Men's Guttmann says, it is the right of his patients to have the same problems as everyone else, to pay rent and taxes, and have more besides, and not to be treated as “smiling, dependent children.”

The build-up to the London Paralympics has seen a determined attempt to make Ludwig Guttmann a more widely-recognised historical figure. A statue of Guttmann was unveiled at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in June. One of the Olympic mascots, Mandeville, is named after Stoke Mandeville to recognise its role as the birthplace of the Paralympics. A range of publications have run stories about Guttmann, inspired by this play and by the imminent Paralympics. The challenge The Best of Men faces is to have the self-confidence and self-discipline to assert its own identity and not simply be a smiling trailer.

In the halcyon days of studio drama, this topic might have inspired a six-part serial, but nowardays budgets are tight and the filmic model is preferred. The result is a vastly simplified narrative which condenses the events of four years into ninety minutes and adopts a lot of familiar dramatic devices while still allowing room for some subtlety. In this, there are echoes of the personality of the historical Guttmann himself - this play's Guttmann refers in detail to his past in Germany and the unfolding only once, when he needs to assert his authority over the truculent physical training instructor Quartermaster Hill ('Q', of course). Even at home he insists to his wife (an unrecognisable Tracey-Ann Oberman, whose blousy screen persona from EastEnders and Doctor Who days is absent here) that even endearments must be in English. Guttman's difficulties in adapting to wartime Britain are more often shown in his discreet discarding of Sister Edwards's sugary tea (despite the ration?) or the stiffness with which he sits outside the pub, clutching a pint of bitter alongside Q. The Britain of the mid-1940s is depicted as unaware of the mass murder of the Jewish population or at least of the implications of official anti-Semitism for the futures of Germany and the “bloody Kraut” Guttmann. The contrast with the knowledge of the viewers of 2012, for whom the Holocaust is part of education and perhaps the defining fact of the Second World War, is an irony pressed gently.

Eddie Marsan's portrayal of Guttmann is as measured and determined as the man himself might have been, emphasising a persistence which knows when to be quiet and when to be loud, and which never loses a sense of what it means to be a refugee. The patients and staff at the spinal unit become Guttman's new extended family, addressing him as 'Poppa', and there are a few glimpses of how his domestic life suffers but remains sustaining.

The two other principal male characters are patients. The inclusion of Rob Brydon is a recognisable personality name might be interpreted as casting as marketing, but this is a channelling rather than a repeat of one of Brydon's comic turns. Brydon's Wyn Bowen is himself a performer - “the mighty sausage dog of the valleys” - now emasculated and consoling himself with cynical jibes and doses of sedative. His rediscovery of a sex life during his weekend at home in Port Talbot is treated lightly - the details of negotiation between husband and wife are never discussed - but its importance is in communicating that one can be a whole person with paraplegia.

The other male lead is George Mackay as William Heath. Twenty-year-old William, paralysed on his second day with his regiment, is the audience's entry point to life in the spinal unit. His dream of dancing on a hilltop with his girlfriend Ruth, intercut with his arrival at Stoke Mandeville in a sand-filled 'coffin' and with Guttmann's walk into his ward for the first time, support the opening credits. The transformation of his expectations are also those of wider society; his father, grateful for his place as a groundsman at a leading public school which has seen his son educated for free alongside the sons of the nobility, learns slowly and with resistance that he has no need to mourn his son, or treat him as a perpetual child. To recall the title of Lucy Gannon's first play, William is determined that he will not be kept nice.

Lucy Gannon's script chooses to portray Ludwig Guttmann as a plucky individualist, battling alone to overturn decisions made by a backward-looking collective. His antagonists are a general who takes the line of least resistance to overwhelming forces and a surgeon who prefers to immobilise spinal patients and let them die out of sight. The latter character, Dr Cowan, is too broad a caricature of a pompous reactionary and is associated with some clumsy signposting, as when one of his students points out an obvious gag about surgical shock. Though this portrayal undermines the barely-disguised anti-Semitism which Cowan expresses, it also weakens its portrayal and is one of the less-successful aspects of the production.

Producer Hannah Davison wrote in Broadcast that Lucy Gannon is averse to research. It's unsurprising that what emerges is impressionistic, but Gannon was employed for her authorial voice, not as a historian. The closing compilation of newsreel footage about the evolution of the Stoke Mandeville Games into the Paralympics shows that there were women participants from an early stage, but as the title indicates this play considers men, male coping methods, male attitudes to adulthood and sex. While histories of the National Spinal Injuries Unit (never named as such here) and the Paralympics emphasise the role of Joan Scruton, Guttmann's assistant and secretary, she is not included in this fictionalisation of events. Women are paralleled with being able-bodied; in his imagination, William caresses Ruth's legs. Sometimes the drama concerns the education of men away from objectification and towards a more subtle and sophisticated awareness of desire, feeling and identity, which Guttmann explicitly associates with women. This isn't the entirety of Gannon's viewpoint: Sister Edwards and her unqualified assistant Nurse Carr begin as a pessimistic Greek chorus waiting for Guttmann to give in and accept that his methods are hopeless and will only cause distress to patients and staff alike, but become disciples, proclaiming Guttmann's good news of rehabilitation through physical fitness, as well as becoming better people. With not much to work with, Niamh Cusack convincingly displays the trauma Sister Edwards experiences as she learns to communicate with her disabled charges, rather than just sedate them.

The Best of Men uses familiar methods to tell a story which it expects to be unfamiliar to its audience. If it's a wine (not, perhaps, Wyn's wife's rhubarb) it leaves hints of Potter and Rudkin on the palate. Primarily, though, it is a Gannon-authored piece, with heroes from unextraordinary backgrounds, looking forward to their prefabs, realising that conforming to the expectations of the inter-war settlement is a wrong turn, learning that they can be men and Britons still even when the outward signs of masculinity and national strength have been taken from them. Ludwig Guttmann becomes not just the advocate of a revolution in the treatment of spinal injury patients, but the prophet of a steadily more inclusive Britain and, through the Stoke Mandeville Games and the Paralympics, the world. History in broad strokes it may be, but it is certainly effective as a contribution to a national refoundation myth, and making the forthcoming Paralympics central to that myth, rather than marginalised. That the final compilation of news footage and photographs depicting the development of the Paralympics detracts slightly from the whole illustrates that The Best of Men has enough upper body strength to live on its own terms.