The first of a brainy three-part history of British science fiction looks at the preoccupation of genre writers with evolution. The programme explores the progress-v-decay debate through the work of professors of the prescient from HG Wells to Arthur C Clarke. It uses psychedelic visualisations and book extracts read with sonorous gravity by Peter Capaldi, while well-chosen clips from Doctor Who, Things to Come and 2001: a Space Odyssey distract from periods of excessive chin-stroking.
– Mark Braxton
Because heaven forbid a television documentary take science fiction seriously.
Did anyone else watch this? I have to say I was impressed, and there isn’t even an implied “for tv” in that statement. The Martians and Us is one of the flagship programmes in the “Science Fiction Britannia” season that BBC Four is running at the moment. It looks like a pretty good season in general, to the point where, if I’m not careful, I can see myself doing nothing but watching BBC Four for the next three weeks. For example, tonight at 10.55 there’s an extended interview with Iain Banks ; and on Monday 27th there’s what looks like an interesting drama based on a Wyndham short. I’m not sure when whatever programme is going to use the footage filmed at last month’s ton is going to air, but I’ll be keeping an eye out for it.
It’s tempting to wonder whether the season got commissioned, in whole or in part, off the back of the success of Russell T. Davies’ Doctor Who, not least because damn near the only present-tense moment in the first episode of this series is a clip from Rob Shearman’s first-season episode “Dalek” — specifically, the death of the last Dalek — complete with narration that assumes familiarity with, say, Rose in a way that familiarity is clearly not assumed when talking about even H.G. Wells. That aside, though, whoever’s behind it all has indeed taken science fiction seriously, lining up an impressive array of talking heads, giving them enough space to say useful things, and structuring the episodes (or at least episode one) around reasonably sensible arguments. If I have a reservation about the series, it’s that it looks like it’s going to cut off at about 1980; rather than being a linear history, the three episodes seem to describe three strands of british sf. Episodes two and three are “dystopias” and “the end of the world“, respectively — for which read “Orwell” and “Wyndham”, I assume — and episode one, which took as its theme “evolution”, didn’t get past 1968.
But that’s ok, because it allowed the episode to deal with its touchstones — Wells; Stapledon; Quatermass; The Midwich Cuckoos; and Arthur C. Clarke — in some depth, with sidebar trips into Doctor Who, Buck Rogers and others. The use of evolution as an organising principle puts the focus squarely on the scientific romance tradition, and mostly works well, as in the moment when, after a long discussion of The Time Machine, the focus switches to Doctor Who, and a shot of the first Doctor meeting primitive savages. They’re in the deep past, not the deep future, but after the preceding discussion about how evolution does not guarantee progress, the narrator’s comparison — “meet the Morlocks” — still feels apt. Similarly, The War of the Worlds is linked to the we-are-the-Martians ending of Quatermass and the Pit, and both are used to develop, in combination with the “education turns you into an alien” theme identified in The Midwich Cuckoos, a more general theme of alien intervention in human development, most particularly as explored in Clarke’s work.
This is a series, then, focused on the literary history of British sf, with media (by and large, rightly) seen as responding to or adapting earlier work, and it’s a focus that’s also evident in the featured commentators. There are critics (Roger Luckhurst, Patrick Parrinder), writer-critics (Brian Aldiss, Brian Stableford, Kim Newman), and writers (Doris Lessing, Stephen Baxter, China Mieville, and from tv-land, the late Nigel Kneale), with a relative (Mary Shenai, daughter of Olaf Stapledon) and a biologist (the eminently reliable Steve Jones) rounding things out. There are, in other words, a bunch of people who really like science fiction, and really get science fiction — the whole awe and wonder and majesty bit — and whatever Mark Braxton may say about chin-stroking, for me that shone through. So Kim Newman gets to be Kim Newman, throwing off irreverent but somehow telling trivia; Brian Aldiss reads the famous opening of The War of the Worlds, and can’t quite stifle a little yelp of glee when he’s done; China Mieville talks about H.G. Wells’s love of the weird; and Doris Lessing and Stephen Baxter wax lyrical about the mind-expanding effects of Starmaker. The narration is mostly good, too, striking just the right balance between witty and informed. On Stapeldon, for instance: “By night he taught philosophy; by day he thought up plans for the future of mankind.” On the arrival of American sf in Britain after World War Two: “Overcoloured, overblown, and over here.” And on the world before Darwin and deep time, before The Time Machine: “There was time, but not much of it.”
And there’s Arthur C. Clarke, who provides what is probably the episode’s most powerful moment. Towards the end of the episode, the discussion shifts to how the reality of space travel overtook science fiction; and having just been talking about Childhood’s End and 2001, the director goes back to Clarke for a comment. And he says, slowly, something like, “I really thought there would be much more space travel than there has been.” Pause. “That’s a failure of imagination, I suppose.” There was for me something tremendously sad about that pause, but tremendously dignified, too. It’s a moment that would have made the episode worth watching even if I’d been gritting my teeth the rest of the way through, because it says that science fiction should be about possibilities, not dreams. And that (it says, and I agree) is an important distinction.