So, SF on TV: what was it that we had, back in the 60s, out there on the edge of civilization, that stirred a young person’s blood?
And to get this into perspective, please realise that I’m speaking of Zambia, a butterfly-shaped, landlocked country in the middle of southern Africa, that had a total population of around 4 million at the time – and where television only came in in the capital city (Lusaka) in around 1966.
Seriously: in 1966. In black-and-white, and with only one channel. Television Zambia, it was called then, and it broadcast for around 5 hours a day.
We were a very British-influenced country, being a former British protectorate and all, so we got a majority of our programming from the UK. Thus, both inevitably AND fortunately, we got Dr Who. Oh, and Steptoe & Son, and On the Buses, and various other comedies – but these paled into insignificance for my 8-year-old brother and I, who discovered The Doctor. We started with Series 1, Episode 1 – and the theme music and intro sequence remain so firmly embedded in my memory, that I thought I was hallucinating when it came on at the beginning of the 50th Anniversary show recently (to which I was alerted by @WWEnd, incidentally). It was always credited to the “The BBC Radiophonic Workshop” – which I discover recently was in fact largely one woman, Delia Derbyshire – who pretty much invented what would later become techno.
My brother was far too young for Dr Who, in retrospect: he was so terrified of Daleks that he used to hide behind the couch and cry when they were on screen. It got so that all I had to do to completely incapacitate him was scream “Exterminate!” in a Dalekey sort of accent – but he got his own back a few years later, because his next favourite show was British wrestling, and he picked up moves I didn’t know existed from some worthy named Mick McManus, and used them on me.
Be that as it may: Dr Who was a revelation in many ways. It introduced us to a new SF concept every week; it explored deep themes of death and loss; it hinted at almost unknowable technologies – and it scared the pants off us on a regular basis. Daleks aside, I can still remember as if were yesterday The Doctor and his companions alighting from what were in effect glass submarines – having just negotiated their way across a mystery lake – and discovering that a crack in a submarine resulted in the occupants dissolving. Because the lake turned out to be a strong acid, as proved by TD with Ian Chesterton’s tie – something I thought was a very apt use for a tie, incidentally.
I refused to watch after the Second Doctor appeared – I thought he was a trivial clown – and therefore pretty much missed everything from the 1970s through to the end of the series in 1989. Part of the reason for this was that I was in South Africa more or less full-time since 1974, and while SA did get TV in 1975 (really: only in 1975), there was next to no British programming, thanks to a cultural boycott.
Then something wonderful happened: the reboot of the series in 2005, just in time for my children to enjoy it. Since then, watching the Doctors has been a semi-religious family event (well, for three of us, anyway – my good wife seems immune to the addiction), right up to the Christmas special this year which introduced the Twelfth Doctor. With my children now 21 and 18, sadly, this may be one of the last times we all do it together. The special effects are SO much better; the Doctors are almost as good – and it seems we (or I) can depend on seeing Doctors into the foreseeable future, given the reboot of his regeneration cycle.
Incidentally, I and the young ones enjoyed the very excellent Torchwood spinoff series too, despite it supposedly being “adult” themed, and them only being 14 and 11 at the time it kicked off (2006).
Because there’s another thing that changed: we now get BBC-E on satellite TV here in South Africa, so we see things when the UK does – and there’s no boycott anymore….
A British SF TV offering which made an impact on me in the 1960s was the two BBC miniseries of Fred Hoyle and John Elliot’s’s A for Andromeda, and The Andromeda Breakthrough, made in 1961 and 1962 respectively. These were adult-themed – they assembled a woman from the interstellar message that was the reason for the first series, and I seem to remember her not wearing much – so we competed with our parents to watch. I remember them as being good TV, the second not so much as the first, but they were stand-alones in terms of never being followed up. They were also pretty good in terms of realistic physics, if not for the slightly optimistic biology.
Another series that really caught my attention was Out of the Unknown: this ran stand-alone episodes, each based on an SF short story by authors like Isaac Asimov, JG Ballard, Frederick Pohl, John Wyndham and others – and by then I was reading New Writings in SF and other collections, so I even recognized a couple of them. Very, very good – and very much along the same lines as the later offerings of The Outer Limits, which I only saw in the late 1990s, but which impressed me equally.
We did also get some other non-British programming in my childhood in Zambia: prominent in my memory is Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, from Australia, and Flipper, from the US. They made enough of an impression that I can still sing both theme tunes (Skippy, and Flipper), but they were always fluff. So too was the SF series Lost in Space, which we tolerated at the time, but which couldn’t hold a candle to Dr Who. The times I wanted to blow that stupid robot to pieces, when it started shaking its arms around…. The way every episode had to end with the family enjoying a laugh together – cloying beyond belief, even for an 11-year-old. Bewitched was more of the same: cutesy-poo beyond belief, and often seriously gagworthy.
What the US gave us that was of lasting value, back there in 1966, was Star Trek.
Here was something you could suspend disbelief for; here were muscular heroes (and heroines: you would not BELIEVE how popular Lt Uhura was in Zambia) for a new age; here were actual starships, and aliens, and advanced technology. And Captain Kirk, and Spock, and Scotty and Bones; Chekhov and Sulu. Oh, and redshirts: those ever-dependable, disposable redshirts. Though I saw a red boiler suit die the other day, and a blueshirt for that matter: a rerun on the Fox network on satellite TV here in South Africa, series 3, episode 17.
Mind you, any discussion of red- or blueshirts back in the Zambian viewing days would have been academic: we only ever saw them in monochrome then; the first time I saw Star Trek in colour was in the US, while on academic sabbatical at Cornell U in Ithaca, NY, in 1990-1991. My lab colleagues in the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research did look at me rather strangely early in our stay, when I explained why it was we left in a rush every weekday.
It was because they were screening the original Star Trek every day at 5 pm, followed on one of the days by the then-new ST: The Next Generation. It is hard for a non-fanatic to understand the thrill: revisiting the old Star Trek, 24 years on, in colour – and then a regular dose of the new!
I introduced my children to Star Trek as well, of course, as soon as it became available on satellite TV in SA: sadly, they thought the original was far too dated, but we followed ST:TNG semi-religiously. Which led into Deep Space 9, which finally got good, there towards the end as they got more into galactic politics; Voyager, which I simply lost interest in because it just went on and on, without resolution, and Enterprise, which we quite liked.
Then, of course, came Babylon 5…and the world was never the same again. Sublime – again, especially towards the end, where large-scale and multi-episode political and military themes dominated, as they had in Deep Space 9. And it DID end, properly – after some very serious politics, and war and genocide.
I suppose no discussion of SF on TV would be complete without Battlestar Galactica – and I, of course, am old enough to have seen the original series just after it came out in 1978, here in South Africa. This really wasn’t very good: it suffered, sadly, from what one can only term typical US-type serialization of what started out as a good idea, with what were effectively stand-alone episodes neatly being wrapped up, every week, without an ending in sight.
The reboot in 2004, on the other hand, was a different beast altogether: this was a much more complex, much better staged series, with multiple overlapping story arcs meshing with each other in very complicated ways. Casting Starbuck as a woman was also a bold, and very successful move. I still have to watch the whole thing; however, the final episode was one of the most satisfying conclusions to a TV series that I have ever seen.
I think it is a measure of the value of something that it can be successfully revived or rebooted, and another generation can experience the wonder all over again. It certainly happened just in our family, with both Dr Who and with Star Trek. It will probably happen yet again with Star Trek on TV; I can even see another Babylon 5 kicking off as well. And if they could do Firefly, which we discovered all together as a family (well, three of us, anyway), then life would be good.