Space may very well be the Final Frontier but during the 1970s (and particularly on British television) you’d be forgiven for thinking that space and anything to do with science was just a way to attempt to escape both the horrors of Planet Earth with its Vietnam and its Watergate and its economic collapse and also a way to run screaming into the very void.
Jolly two-hearted alien Doctor Who aside, science fiction on 70s TV centred less on ray guns and gadgets and general derring-do and more on the existential mess of modern angst.
Blake’s 7 (BBC 1978 – 1981)
On the plus side, Blake’s 7 took a bunch of renegades and political prisoners, gave them an abandoned space ship, and saw them battle the gallactic dictatorship and corruption.
On the minus side, people outside of the fandom remember wobbling sets, wooden acting, and a general sense of something ambitious which was made on a shoestring budget and so the cracks showed.
But put that to one side for the moment and what you have is one of the biggest punches to the stomach in British television sci-fi history.
Rebel leader Blake initially leads this band of rogues through the galaxy and abruptly disappears. More derring-do occurs, aliens and humans come and go (along with new cast members) and then in the final episode Blake returns. Hurray! Not so fast…
Not only does his second-in-command Avon kill him, but the entire group get shot to smithereens. And then the show ends. Four series, a beloved cast of characters, a journey around the galaxy and back again, and then everyone dies. If that’s not the definition of bleak, I don’t know what is.
Sapphire and Steel (ATV 1979 – 1982)
In which Ab Fab’s Patsy and U.N.C.L.E.S.’s Illya Kuryaken turn into elements in a human form, play good cop/bad cop, and battle to Preserve the Very Fabric of Time Itself.
Several things added to the general weirdness and terror that was Sapphire and Steel.
First of all, the series went out every other night during the week (rather than every night or once a week), which lead a lot of viewers (including Joanna Lumley’s own mother) to believe they’d missed something and were actually going insane. It didn’t help that the series dealt with the flow of time and the evil forces which disrupt this.
Also, the budget was tight and so producers relied on minimal staging, special effects, and props which lent an air of claustrophobia and weird stasis to the proceedings. Sapphire, Steel, and their various cohorts (like Silver, Jet, Lead, and Copper) are not actually human, and even Sapphire’s relatively kind nature doesn’t disguise all of their aloofness and downright creepiness when they’re around people. This leads to a lot of silences, staring, and standing around in a small room. That’s just plain odd.
Everyone remembers the two stand-out episodes – the little girl and her brother in a house full of clocks and creepy nursery rhymes, and the station master caught in a time loop with a First World War soldier. These were both odd enough and disturbing enough to kick-start nightmares, but it’s the final episode (episode 4 of series 3) which sends fans over the edge.
Sapphire and Steel fall prey to a trap set by disgruntled and resentful operatives and are imprisoned in the ether in a motorway cafe for all eternity. Just the memory of Joanna Lumley’s panic-stricken face is enough to set off people of a certain age. David McCallum used to be a Russian spy and he’s a bit grumpy! But not Jo-Jo! Anyone but Jo-Jo!
The Incredible Hulk (CBS 1977 – 1982)
Modern audiences will know and love the Hulk both from the long-running and iconic series of Marvel comic books and the hugely successful movie franchise.
But comic book anti-hero aside, the US TV series put the inherent pathos and unsolvable crisis of Dr David Bruce Banner front and centre.
Haunted by the deaths of his wife Laura and his colleague Dr Marks, Banner is forced to roam America with unfathomable levels of gamma radiation coursing through his veins, unable to stop the terrifying transformation he undergoes every time he gets angry. He’s a naturally kind and placid man. But social injustice sets him off. And there’s a lot of social injustice in 70s America.
So an air of doom hangs over The Incredible Hulk, underlined by the series’ closing theme music The Lonely Man. He will never settle down, get married, have kids, find a permanent job. He will never be happy. The world is just too full of terrible things that make him angry. What’s the point? Seriously: what the hell is the freaking point, people??
U.F.O. (ATV 1970 – 1971)
From the same Gerry and Sylvia Anderson puppet stable that brought us shows like Thunderbirds, Joe 90, Fireball XL5, Stingray and Captain Scarlet, U.F.O. was a live action sci-fi show starring luminaries like Vladek Sheybal, Wanda Ventham, Gabrielle Drake, and Steven Berkoff.
But the Andersons replaced the jocular and heroic tone of the Tracy Islanders with a much bleaker and darker vibe – Earth has not only sustained an attack by alien creatures, but those alien creatures have been harvesting organs from humans and then keeping the humans themselves as zombified slaves.
Even darker was the suggestion in a later episode that some of the crew of SHADO (the covert organisation employed to root out the aliens and protect Earth from further attacks) were in fact aliens themselves using human hosts as vessels. (In view of this, Parker’s curt “yus m’lady” seems highly suspect.)
Doomwatch (BBC 1970 – 1972)
We’re all familiar with 50s B-movie mad scientists – those crazed and one-off individuals who invent a serum for that and a death ray for this and attempt (and fail) to Take Over The World.
Now imagine that Gerry Davis and Kit Pedler – the men responsible for the buttock-clenching and terrifying Cybermen in Dr. Who – decide that not only are all scientists mad, but that they are engaged in a full-time plot to destroy the human race through various ecological and technological disasters.
Even the presence of erstwhile Jesus of Nazareth actor Robert Powell can’t shield us from plot lines that involve embryo research, subliminal messages, wonder drugs, dumping of toxic waste, noise pollution, atomic bombs and radiation, rabies, public executions, and the mistreatment of animals.
The series was a massive hit, granted an unprecedented Radio Times cover feature for every episode, and yet, as often happened in those days the BBC wiped all the master tapes for the episodes and despite a concerted effort by mainly Canadian fans of the show a large chunk of the series remains lost forever.
Children of the Stones (HTV 1977)
Dubbed “the scariest programme ever made for children” by BBC Radio Four, The Children of the Stones centres around the fictional village of Milbury (actually Avebury in Wiltshire) in the middle of a megalithic stone circle.
If that doesn’t freak you out from the get-go, you also have constant, discordant wailing on the soundtrack, spooky chanting, and ancient Pagan rituals to add to the mix.
Get this – a Druid priest witnesses a supernova and uses a combination of psychic powers and ritual magic to suck all the fear and anger out of the minds of the villagers into a nearby Black Hole. The subsequent zombie villagers go about their day in a docile state, but the Black Hole causes time within the circle to repeat itself, and the Druid plans to unleash all this negative hoodoo onto the unsuspecting outside world.
People get crushed to death, the brainwashing and the wailing continue, and time loops on and on. Even the apparent “good overcomes evil” ending sets up the implied premise that the stones have merely reset and the whole cycle has begun again. Hey, kids! There’s no escape!
The Tomorrow People (Thames Television 1973 – 1979)
The story goes that British television producer Roger Price worked on a special which starred David Bowie. One day at Granada Studios on a film break the chat turned to Olaf Stapleton’s 1935 novel Odd John and Stan Lee’s Marvel creation Magneto, and the term Homo Superior came up, as it tends to do in conversation.
Bowie went off to write Oh You Pretty Things and Price developed the children’s science fiction programme The Tomorrow People – but only the latter concerned ordinary, everyday British adolescents who suddenly experience horrific headaches and torturous visions and then emerge as superheroes in possession of the 3Ts – telekinesis, telepathy, and teleportation.
The Tomorrow People often goes by the nickname “the sci-fi Famous Five“, and on the surface, you have a group of jolly and well-meaning teens who fight the good fight using their strange extraterrestrial gifts.
But below the surface audiences witnessed storylines about violent racism, devil worship, prostitution, and Nazis – and all of this at tea time! Add to that the creepy and haunting opening credits and you have nightmare fodder. The Tomorrow People featured the usual UK wonky special effects and sets but even its relatively modest budget couldn’t survive British hyperinflation at the end of the 70s and the series ended.
(Price produced a revival series in the 1990s which ran for three years, and The CW Television Network ran their own US version which only lasted one season.)