The Martians and Us

Here is everything that’s wrong with Radio Times:

The Martians and Us: From Apes to Aliens

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.

24 thoughts on “The Martians and Us

  1. “Here is everything that’s wrong with Radio Times:”

    But I’ll forgive them a whole bunch of condescension for that lovely phrase “professors of the prescient”.

    (am not really here, of course, actually working *really* hard…)

  2. Sf is about possibility, fantasy is about dreams, maybe? At least, dreams that the reader (and the story) can believe in.

    (am not really here, of course, actually working *really* hard…)


  3. I enjoyed the programme, but did think that using the term ‘evolution’ was a bit rich, as very little of the SF referred to had actually grasped what evolution was about. God or aliens were always there to give it a helping hand! It didn’t ‘alf emphasise the mystical. It also made me realise how much I preferred ‘Sirius’ and ‘Odd John’ to ‘Star Maker’ and ‘First and Last Men’, not to mention ‘A Fall of Moondust’ and ‘The Sands of Mars’ to ‘Childhood’s End’, mainly because of the very mystical claptrap that the programme was making so much of.

    The talking heads were good value, though. The main problem was the desperate need to use clips…

    Incidentally, ‘Spearhead from Space’, broadcast this evening, made it clear how adult and grounded ‘Dr Who’ was at this particular period. Much more so than it is now.

  4. Duncan: I have the complete series on CD somewhere but (shamefully) I have to admit that I’ve only listened to the first two parts. On that basis, I would say that both series are good, but Spufford’s comes across with a more obvious authorial voice — he’s clearly a knowledgeable enthusiast, whereas The Martians and Us is written from a more neutral perspective.

    Nic: Oh, all right, I suppose that *is* a nice phrase …

    Graham: Yes, that’s the sort of distinction I was thinking of. But it was a moment that really seemed to point up the difference between how Clarke sees science fiction and how (I suspect) Mieville sees it.

    Susan: I admit, I did cringe when Luckhurst said “the thing about evolution is, there’s always someone higher up the ladder”, or words to that effect. But I think the programme did acknowledge the mystical element — interesting juxtaposition, for instance, of Clarke and Jones on telepathy, and someone was arguing that 2001 is superior to Childhood’s End precisely because Kubrick tempered Clarke’s tendency towards optimistic transcendence. And I thought the framing of Starmaker as ‘thought experiment about alternative evolutionary paths’ was interesting. I really must read Stapledon again.

  5. Don’t get me started on the Radio Times… I know comedy geeks who are convinced that it is Evil Itself on sale at the corner shop with a photo of Billie Piper on the cover (which is arguably far more disturbing than the Necronomicon’s skin binding).

    Interesting to suggest that Stapledon is some kind of weirdy-beardy mystic. Admittedly that could be said of Starmaker but First and Last Men? That book always struck me as rather mundane, are we not calling “mystical” his rather unfashionable socialist belief in the mutability of mankind’s nature? If so then mystical isn’t really the right word.

    I’m reminded of that great line of Greg Benford’s in the foreword to the SF Masterworks edition where he talks about how Stapledon was an atheist but also a socialist and how this was his one great irrationality :-)

  6. It would be have been worth it just for seeing Clute on the tv (I’m surprised you didn’t mention him? Did you miss him?). But it was in truth BBC4 at its best, which those of use who have been around long enough remember is how the BBC used to make all its documentaries. And I thought the ‘evolution’ theme worked, providing a nice hook for such stuff as Clarke and Wyndham. (Though the notion that before Darwin everyone believed that the woreld was created in 6000 BC is, frankly, a crock of shit.) It even gave Kim Nedwman the opportunity to point out that there’s a significant difference between Clarke’s optimistic straightforward 2001 and Kubrick’s more ambivalent and opaque vision.

  7. I was watching Spooks… I’ll get my coat.

    (It is repeated later in the week, though, yes?)

    It sounds reminscent of an excellent three part documentary that C4 ran back in the mid 1990’s called New Nightmares, which was an unusually thorough discussion of SF themes along the lines of bodyshock cybernetics, and contributions from william Gibson among others. I remember that it surprised me with how seriously it took its subject matter – although my memory may be playing tricks with me. In fact it’s probably stored on a slowly decaying VHS tape in one of our cupboards.

  8. Jonathan: this is why I say I need to re-read Stapledon. In fact, I’m actually not sure I ever made it to the end of Last and First Men.

    Tony: I missed Clute! I’m glad I didn’t make a comment about his absence, now. He must have been on when I went to get a muffin from the kitchen. What did he say?

    Iain: It is repeated, yes — tonight from midnight to 1am, and on Saturday night from 12.50 to 1.50am. And I never saw New Nightmares, but if you ever dig out that tape … :)

  9. IIRC (and I don’t promise that I do) he was talking about the impact of the arrival of American pulps upon the British SF scene.

    Oh, and you’ve got the days wrong on the repeats – it’s tomorrow night at midnight (and will have been on already at 7).

  10. Any idea whether we’ll be able to view these programs over teh intarwebs? This is the first time in years I’ve wished I had a TV … can someone digitally record the Banks interview this evening? I’ll pay good money …

  11. Just to confuse matters, this is the listing from the series website:

    Monday 13 November 2006 9pm-10pm; rpt Wednesday 15 November midnight-1am; rpt Sunday 19 November 12.50am-1.50am (Saturday night)

    Which doesn’t seem to list the 7pm showing.

    Paul: if I could help you out, I would; I can only see it thanks to the generosity of a friend who had a spare digibox — albeit with no remote. It can get really incredibly tedious skipping through channels one by one when there are more than five to skip through! Some days I think the BBC should just release everything it makes to torrent sites …

  12. I recorded the Banks interview digitally (and The Martians and Us – I haven’t had a chance to watch either it yet so I’m not entirely sure what the quality is like – my system is a bit Heath-Robinson). No money necessary.

  13. Mr McGrath, you are a gentleman and a scholar. If you could drop me a line via email [], telling me how I might forward you payment for a DVDR and related postage charges for sending it to me (PayPal would probably be best), I will consider myself eternally in your debt.

    I raise my hat to you, sir.

  14. I’ve never really read any science fiction… too many long words like “oxygen”! But, having stumbled onto this series, I’m captivated!

    I’ve asked BBC Four if they have a book list for each of the three themed programmes, but sadly it appears they haven’t. That’s a real pity because for a newbie, reading in themes, seems a good way to appreciate the form.

    Can anyone please help me?

  15. Barry: all I can give you is what’s listed in my original posts.

    “From Apes to Aliens”: H. G. Wells, The Time Machine; Olaf Stapledon, Star Maker and Last and First Men; John Wyndham, The Midwich Cuckoos; Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End and 2001. More recently, see also Stephen Baxter.

    “Trouble in Paradise”: Thomas More, Utopia; H.G. Wells, A Modern Utopia and The Shape of Things to Come; Aldous Huxley, Brave New World; George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four; Katharine Burdekin, Swastika Night; Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale. More recently, see Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels.

    I haven’t seen the third episode yet.

  16. The last episode, “The End of the World as We Know It” included MP Shiel, The Purple Cloud; John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids and The Chrysalids; JG Ballard, The Drowned World; Christopher Priest, Fugue for a Darkening Island; and even Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

    A useful resource for Barry would be the very comprehensive The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (Clute/Nicholls). It discusses a lot of SF Themes – including Evolution, Utopia and Disaster – with historically-based essays that make reference to a lot of novels and stories, including those in the BBC4 documentaries. It also has extensive author entries and bibliographies. It’s not as British-centric as the series, of course.

    It’s a few years old now (a third edition is in preparation) but you can get it via for as little as about £12 incl postage, not bad for a 1350 page hefty hardback tome.

  17. Re Tony Keen’s line ..”the notion that before Darwin everyone believed that the woreld (sic) was created in 6000 BC is, frankly, a crock ..”. Perhaps but even Darwin’s copy of the bible had notes in his own hand trying to calculate the age of the universe. It was a shock even to Darwin himself. I should have left that bit of the Jones interview in the film to support the arguement.

    Glad so many thoughtful people enjoyed the programmes. They were great to work on although I did want to get Zardoz into the ‘topias prog.

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