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Sunday, 30 December 2012

Sci-fi/fantasy movies and tv shows - A few rare or half-forgotten gems.


Yes I know. Some of you reading this blog (and big hugs and  a thank you to you if you are) may consider some of these entries as 'not bloomin forgotten at all', or possibly that some of them should actually fall into the 'should have bloomin stayed forgotten' category - particularly one or two of the TV shows. The fact is that from a purely personal standpoint, some of them have been forgotten at some point and then for some reason 'thrust themselves' as it were, back to the forefront of my tiny little mind. For instance, I was driving along the other day through the storms that we've been experiencing in the North of Scotland recently, when for no reason I started thinking abut a sci-fi show that I used to watch back in the 1970's. It isn't a show that is regarded as one of the pantheons of science fiction television, nor is it one that I would personally rank above others. It was a simply a programme that had a particular resonance, providing one of the many entertainment backdrops of my life. That in turn made me mull over some of the other shows or movies that at one time have held a special place for me.

Whenever 'best of' sci-fi shows are listed, they invariably include examples such as Star Trek, X Files, The Twilight Zone, Outer limits etc etc etc. All notable shows of course. Whether it is because of budget restrictions, creaking plots/acting or simply that it was the wrong time and the wrong place, there are sic-fi shows that seem fall into the limbo of remembrance.

So, this is not a 'best of' list. It's purely a subjective collection ( in no particular order) of six or seven shows that for one reason or another hold a special place in my Science fiction and fantasy heart. Its also my little attempt in helping to keep alive the memory of series that should not be forgotten, whether people like it or not!

1) The Quiet Earth, 1985. (Movie)

This obscure and completely underrated New Zealand film is another example of a late night discovery of mine on terrestrial television back in the day when British TV consisted of a grand total of 4 channels. It's gentle paced movie that comes with a plot concept of outlandish cleverness asking the question; What would happen if you were the last person on Earth? And if you were the last person, just what would you do?

Our protagonist, Zac Hobson is a scientist who has been working on a secret and as yet untested global energy grid project. He wakes up one day after an attempted suicide to discover that not only has there been a malfunction with the secret project, but also all human life seems to have disappeared.

I think that at least one time in our lives, we've all fantasized about what we would do in a city where we were the sole inhabitants of a city. What would we do? How much fun could we have? Zac too faces this prospect for real as he alternates between feelings of horror and delight as he runs amok through the deserted city. He literally does whatever he wants, completely indulging himself with anything that catches his fancy from the empty shops stores and buildings, after a period of time taking ownership of mansion and believing himself to be almost divine in nature. Clearly, the isolation is further inducing the onset of insanity.  

Eventually his isolation is ended, partly by his discovery of other survivors, and also due to his increasing guilt as he questions his particular role in the destruction of all life on the planet. Are the fellow survivors real or are they just a figment of his fevered ever increasing imagination? The movie rather cleverly never fully makes this clear, so I'll leave that up to you to decide if you get the chance to see the film. And indeed you must, do not deny yourself!

I won't give away the ending as Zac and his friends stage a daring plan to re-dress the earth's balance. All I will say is that 'jaw dropping' might be one apt description.

The trailer for 'The Quiet Earth' - beware, there be spoilers within!

2) Gemini Man, 1976. (TV Series)

This short lived series featured Ben Murphy as secret agent Sam Casey,  a man who was injured in a diving accident which rendered him invisible (no, really, it did). The secret agency is named INTERSECT and luckily for our hero have found a way to regulate his invisibility by the use of a wrist watch, which is called a "DNA stabiliser". Phew, thank goodness for that! 

When Sam presses a button on the watch it makes him invisible, which funnily enough is rather a nifty trick to have when you're a secret agent. However (there's always a however in a sic-fi series) he can only manage this for 15 minutes per day or else he will become permanently invisible. Cue in each episode Sam going down to the last few seconds available on his watch before saving the day, of course.

Yes, I know it's hokum, cliched and predictable. But it is pure unadulterated enjoyable hokum from an era in Television which wasn't particularly inventive or risk-taking in pursuing fresh ideas in science fiction.

It was also an era when shows didn't immediately garner a following then they were ditched, often midway through first season production. This too was one of many shows cancelled in the 1970's, well before it began to reach it's potential - another prime example of this cut-throat approach to TV making is shown in the last of this very list. A pilot of the series aired on May 10, 1976, and the series began airing on September 23 of that year. As a matter of fact, we in the UK were a little luckier than our American friends because only 11 episodes were ever produced, only five of them were broadcast in the USA before the show was cancelled,  although the entire series was seen on this side of the Pond. 

And yet, this 11 episode series still holds a special place in the hearts of some of us die-hard sci-fi fans.

3) Quatermass, 1979 (TV serial)

No, this is not the classic 1953 serial or the couple of it's excellent sequels and subsequent movie adaptations that regularly feature in fond recollections of classic British science fiction. My choice for this list is the fourth and final television outing for the brilliantly crafted British scientist Bernard Quatermass, reaching British TV screens more than 20 years after the character's last appearance in Quatermass and the Pit. 

In this marvellous four-part series, Britain has crumbled and disintegrated into a mess of the  hippie-esque ‘Planet People’ cult, older deprived bunker-dwellers, and an over-zealous and notorious privatised police force that in some ways parallels the time it was made. In short, it is a country which has descended into virtual anarchy.

In this latest version, Professor Quatermass (played by the ever excellent John Mills) has ceased to be the strong-willed man of action that was seen in the earlier incarnations. Instead, he is now burdened by weariness and confusion, a man of out time in a society that he can barely relate to let alone understand. Quatermass is searching for his missing granddaughter who has joined  the Planet People cult  who believe that society is on a path to extinction and the only hope for humanity's salvation is from alien life. However, we know that they in in fact the victims of an extraterrestrial force which causes them to gather in vast numbers across the planet, before being harvested. Quatermass comes to the inevitable conclusion that there is only one, shattering solution to the theta to the planet. 

Again, this is a production that hasn't acquired the the level of appreciation in part to the success and love for its predecessors. However, it should be judged its more on it's merits as an immense piece of British science fiction. The adaptation is brutally uncompromising in it's depiction of anarchy and desperation that a society could find itself in. Believe me, speaking as a connoisseur of horror, there are some genuinely disturbing moments contained within each episode.

In addition, John Mills is his usual excellent self in the part of the genius professor trying to save what's left of humanity. His performance at the time was much criticised by Quatermass purists and some other critics who felt that the character had lost too much of the qualities that he originally had. Hence, in truth missing the point quite spectacularly of where the character was now in this stage of his life.  For me, this production is perhaps the most spellbinding and disturbing of all the exploits of Professor Quatermass adventures.

4) Alphaville , 1965 (Movie)

Jean-Luc Goddard's futuristic masterpiece features a haggard FBI agent called Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) who is sent to an ultramodern city run by a master computer, where his mission is to locate and rescue an agent who is trapped there and also to  assassinate Professor von Braun, the architect of a state whose people are ruled by logic and science and have been purged of emotion with the aid of an almost-human computer called Alpha 60 that regulates all life in the city.. While on his mission, Lemmy meets and falls in love with Natacha (Anna Karina), the daughter of the scientist who designed Alpha 60. Their love becomes the most significant challenge to the computer's dominance.

Often referred to as a science fiction film without any special effects, Alphaville is quite rightly regarded in some quarters as a sublime piece of film making, in part satirising both film noir and Sci-fi without ever succumbing to blatant parody or insult. Not forgetting that it is also a wildly romantic allegory depicting a computer-controlled Orwellian society which has no room for with artists, philosophers, and lovers. 

On watching this movie for the first time some years ago my first reaction was to be both astonished and delighted in the most delicious of measures. All the elements of the film fuse together beautifully. Raoul Coutard's cunning black-and-white photography turns everyday objects and settings – a hotel lobby, a swimming pool, a room full of  computers, a jukebox, an old camera, the neon-lit Paris suburbs at night, into the contents of a genuinely authentic dystopian future. While the lovely soundtrack score from Paul Misraki brings moments of genuine tension and emotion.

The movie isn't easy to watch, indeed some call it baffling and incoherent in parts. Maybe that's the way great art should be.

5) 2046,  (movie, 2004)

This stunning film is a loose sequel to Wong-Kar Wai's 2000 ' In The Mood For Love'. Though anyone who hasn't seen the first film can easily watch 2046 as it works perfectly on it's own as a stand alone piece of work. Wong brings by equal measures a peculiar and breathtaking story which at face value seems to be about a man and the women he has loved, and lost. The story begins in the mid-'60s, recovering emotionally from a relationship with a married woman, journalist Chow plunges himself into a procession of romances that have no hope of success. He slowly becomes obsessed with the number of the room where he and the woman had their assignations motivates him to write 2046, a science fiction story about a place where people go to forget. The present-day sections are interwoven with the main character’s visions of a future in which robots interact alongside people and an enormous train system connects the world. 

 is a near-masterpiece; a beautiful movie about the extent of regret, lost opportunities, and heartfelt torment. The director Wong-Kar Wai succeeds in producing a heady mix of existential drama, romantic suffering and science fiction fantasy. Yes it has a slow pace which wouldn't necessarily fit well with some modern day audiences. However, the slow pace and emphasis on tone only helps you to lose yourself in the stories and let them simply wash over your conscious like a warm summer breeze. 

The deeply textured atmospheric qualities accompanied by a  beautiful and melancholic music score increase the emotional connection emotions to a level that stays with you long after you experience it first hand. 2046 should be regarded as one of the most original and thought-provoking movies ever made. - if only more people would see it.

6) Planet of the Apes, 1974 (TV Series)

My introduction to the Planet of the Apes universe wasn't via the classic Charlton Heston movie, or or indeed any of it's sequels in that progressively dire Movie franchise. No, it was through the short lived spin-off television series from 1974 that first became my introduction the post-apocalyptic world.

Set around a dozen years after the first movie takes place a second spaceship crashes on planet Earth, a planet where human civilisation has been virtually destroyed, and a dominant race of apes has supplanted them as the authority in the world. Unlike the early films, the humans in this version of the Ape planet can talk, read, and live side by side in communities with the apes, although always to assorting degrees under ape control.. The two survivors of the crash are quickly captured by authorities but catch the interest of a sympathetic young chimpanzee scientist, Galen, played by the excellent Roddy McDowell who was essentially re-creating his role from the movie franchise. With Galen's help the astronauts manage to escape and now roam the Planet trying to find a way back to their own time. All the while being hunted by the military commander General Urko, perhaps the most compelling character in the series, who seeks to suppress all technology and make sure the apes maintain their supremacy...

Planet of the Apes: The Television Series lasted only 14 episodes and was cancelled due to low ratings so abruptly it lacks any resolution, the final episode showing the characters adrift on a raft in the sea after once again evading the chasing Apes. Nevertheless it is a much loved series, perhaps even more so on this side of the Atlantic where there were brief attempts to have the show produced financially from this side of the pond whilst keeping the filming in America.


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