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TV Sci-Fi

Present fears and future shocks

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To its detractors, TV science fiction is little better than an animated comic strip, brought to life with cheap sets and rubber monsters. Fortunately, this image of Martian invaders and death rays is largely false - television's forays into science fiction have often captured the nation's attention by taking oblique looks at everyday social issues, offering a fresh perspective in the process. And sometimes they have made a lasting impact on the nation's consciousness as happened with the BBC's Quatermass serials from the 1950s.

The trio of stories featuring rocket scientist professor Quatermass, written by Nigel Kneale, were among TV's first science fiction successes and remain landmark productions for the genre. The third story, Quatermass and the Pit (1959), envisioned an alien-inspired race riot at a time when newly arrived Caribbean immigrants - the so-called Windrush generation - faced widespread daily racist abuse. The previous year there had been savage race riots in London and Nottingham that had culminated in the murder of a young black man, Kelso Cochrane, an event that would have been fresh in the minds of the Quatermass audience.

Kneale, who controversially adapted George Orwell's novel 1984 (BBC, tx, 12/12/54) for the small screen, went on to write a series of single plays that he used as platforms to explore topical themes. These included the horrors of nuclear war in The Road, (BBC, tx, 29/9/63) at a time of growing Cold War tension, and the morally corrosive effect of decadence and societal division in The Year of the Sex Olympics (BBC, tx 29/7/68) against a backdrop of '60s permissiveness.

Science fiction's ability to create entirely new worlds provides the genre with an extended armoury of creative tools and a flexibility that helped sustain the popularity of TV's most famous time and space traveller. Thanks to the elasticity of science fiction Doctor Who (BBC, 1963-89) was able to continually reinvent itself, to the point where it was able to regularly change the actor playing its central character without troubling the audience.

Over its 25-year life the series featured a number of memorable alien races but it was the exterminating Daleks that captured the nation's imagination, in the process filling toyshops with a huge variety of Dalek merchandise. To their critics they were motorised dustbins, but for a generation of children, who watched Doctor Who through their fingers, 1965 was the year of 'Dalekmania' and although their heyday is long past it is still possible to buy toy Daleks, such is their presence in popular culture. The only other science fiction programme to manage a similar feat is Star Trek (US, 1966-69) although its longevity has been sustained by a near-continual reinvention.

The growing awareness of green issues and the dangers of pollution where themes that started to shape TV science fiction at the turn of the 1970s. The eco-drama Doomwatch (BBC, 1970-73) successfully used environmental issues to headline-grabbing effect while the post-apocalypse series Survivors (BBC, 1975-77) dealt with a world ravaged by the accidental release of a man-made virus.

Survivors was devised by Terry Nation, the writer who created Doctor Who's Daleks. He was also responsible for Blake's 7 (BBC, 1978-81), a futuristic political adventure series about a group of miss-matched outlaws and their attempts at avoiding capture while at the same time trying to strike back against the oppressive Federation (a sly dig at Star Trek). The show's four seasons were liberally laced with stereotypical science fiction hokum but at its best Blake's 7 was intelligent drama which daringly resisted a cop-out resolution.

Science fiction TV also has a lighter side and has extended its reach into comedy with programmes such as The Adventures of Don Quick (ITV, 1970), very loosely inspired by The Adventures of Don Quixote (with giant windmills replaced in one episode by giant dogs), the radio transfer The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (BBC, 1981) and the highly successful Red Dwarf (BBC, 1988-99), which spoofed just about every convention of the genre during its protracted run.

Home-grown science fiction has largely fallen out of favour with UK broadcasters, despite the genre's continued popularity, perhaps because familiarity has robbed it of the power to provoke. Audience responses have clearly mellowed since the BBC first broadcast 1984. The political pressure not to restage the production days after the original transmission because of its disturbing vision of the future is an intervention unlikely to be repeated, as is a report in The Daily Express about a woman who collapsed and died while watching the play. Since the first screening of 1984 there have been no further reports of science fiction TV-related deaths.

Anthony Clark

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of A For Andromeda (1961)

A For Andromeda (1961)

BBC sci-fi series co-starring a young Julie Christie

Thumbnail image of Blake's 7 (1978-81)

Blake's 7 (1978-81)

BBC science fiction series about a band of rebels defying a ruthless regime

Thumbnail image of Day of the Triffids, The (1981)

Day of the Triffids, The (1981)

Chilling adaptation of John Wyndham's sci-fi classic

Thumbnail image of Doctor Who: Genesis of the Daleks (1975)

Doctor Who: Genesis of the Daleks (1975)

Tom Baker encounters the Doctor's arch-enemies in the trenches

Thumbnail image of Doomwatch (1970-72)

Doomwatch (1970-72)

Ecologically driven sci-fi series that caused a stir in the early 70s

Thumbnail image of Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, The (1981)

Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, The (1981)

TV adaptation of Douglas Adam's cult sci-fi radio show

Thumbnail image of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954)

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954)

Highly controversial - in its day - Orwell adaptation by Nigel Kneale

Thumbnail image of Out of the Unknown (1965-71)

Out of the Unknown (1965-71)

BBC sci-fi anthology of the late 1960s and early '70s.

Thumbnail image of Quatermass and the Pit (1958-59)

Quatermass and the Pit (1958-59)

The scientist hero confronts an ancient alien evil

Thumbnail image of Red Dwarf (1988-99)

Red Dwarf (1988-99)

Hugely popular SF sitcom that defied BBC critics to run for over a decade

Thumbnail image of Sapphire and Steel (1979-82)

Sapphire and Steel (1979-82)

Science-fiction series relating six adventures of two 'time detectives'

Thumbnail image of Space: 1999 (1975-77)

Space: 1999 (1975-77)

Moon-set science fiction drama

Thumbnail image of Stone Tape, The (1972)

Stone Tape, The (1972)

Chilling sci-fi ghost story written by Nigel Kneale

Thumbnail image of Survivors (1975-77)

Survivors (1975-77)

Apocalyptic sci-fi series set in a plague-wracked Britain

Thumbnail image of Tomorrow People, The (1973-79, 92-95)

Tomorrow People, The (1973-79, 92-95)

Cult children's sci-fi drama featuring 'jaunting' teens

Thumbnail image of Year of the Sex Olympics, The (1968)

Year of the Sex Olympics, The (1968)

Prescient drama painting a bleak portrait of future television

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