Sunday, March 09, 2008

SF Iconoclasty 101

(The following article was originally written for Death Ray magazine, but ended up being too long to fit anywhere. It's about the legacy of Nigel Kneale, although readers should note that it doesn't necessarily agree with the orthodox version of British SF history. You know. The version you get in BBC4 documentaries.)

Between the late 1950s and the early 1970s, a sizeable chunk of American society - brought up to believe that anything which hadn't been trimmed to regulation length was either a sign of moral degeneracy or the work of Commie infiltrators - looked around at the dissent, disorder and racial turbulence at large in the nation, and concluded that the whole of human civilisation was on the verge of collapse. With hindsight, this seems absurd: less than a generation after the trauma of World War Two, anyone half-rational should have realised that you've got to expect a few unsightly cultural trends and a modicum of rioting if your society's in the process of reinventing itself. But America likes to think in terms of catastrophes, so forty years on, the modern American right is founded on the belief that the '60s saw the world itself being brought to the edge of annihilation by left-wing agitators and people with loose morals. It's the neo-conservative version of the Story of the Flood.

Meanwhile, in Britain, Nigel Kneale also noticed the rumblings of the coming generation. His own response was to write Quatermass and the Pit, in which it turns out that humans are doomed from birth to hate, hunt and kill each other, because their genetic development was influenced by evil tribalist Martians. These three-legged space-grasshoppers have essentially given us Original Sin, and that's the real reason for the race-riots in Mississippi and Notting Hill. We're just born bad, so self-destruction is all we're good for.

We can probably assume that nobody on the planet has ever taken the "Martians" story at face value, but what's notable is that both these versions of human history come from the same core anxiety. In essence, both are panic-reactions to an aggressively unpredictable world, in which a few local flashpoints are treated as proof that the whole of humanity is about to wipe itself out. There are many, many precedents for this lack of perspective in literature, and SF writers are quite wonderfully prone to it (we might especially remember H. G. Wells' Mind at the End of Its Tether, in which the author took his own depression as evidence that the entire universe was being unravelled by a malevolent invisible force… amazingly, this was supposed to be a work of non-fiction). Of course, modern-day, liberal-minded SF fans would immediately question the notion of '60s America as a literal Gomorrah. On the other hand, it's de rigueur to regard Nigel Kneale as a visionary.

Was he ever really a visionary? These days, he's routinely portrayed as the Grand Old Man of SF television, and it's often said that the scripts he wrote in the first half of his TV career were scarily prescient of things to come. But with Kneale himself now among the departed, and his admirers making numerous improbable claims about his achievements, it may be time to re-evaluate his impact on British TV. Because far from accurately pre-empting the future, much of his work seems to have difficulty getting to grips with the present.

Perhaps the most telling case-study here is his script for the final Quatermass serial, made by ITV in 1979. Older readers may recall that in Britain, the 1970s was an age of strikes, fuel shortages, powercuts, and punk rockers scaring everyone's mum. Extending this into the near-future, Kneale gives us a dystopian society in which human civilisation is (go on, guess) on the verge of collapse, where thuggish working-class youngsters in leather jackets rule the cities, and - according to the astonishingly po-faced opening narration - a "primal disorder" has been let loose on the world. The thing to note here is that this seemed ridiculous when the story was broadcast, never mind 29 years later. The suggestion that petrol rationing and a ten o'clock TV blackout would lead to a New Dark Age was bizarre even before the election of Margaret Thatcher, but the real subtext of the 1979 Quatermass is that any world which involves Johnny Rotten swearing on television is obviously doomed to oblivion. Except…

…except that in this final Quatermass story, the villains are hippies. Which is to say, the hippies are the brutal, mindless cultists who assemble at stone circles in order to worship evil man-mincing aliens. The presence of malevolent flower-children makes more sense when we consider that the first draft of the script was written seven years before the final version reached the screens, but even in 1972, this would have been a dubious attempt at satire (anyone who's seen the Star Trek episode "The Way to Eden" will know why). The kind of hippy-kids who liked to paint their faces with yin-yangs and hang around ancient monuments had become positively quaint by this stage, yet their sporadic minor skirmishes with policemen are taken by Kneale as proof that Britain is a hair's-breadth away from civil war. Then again, the story doesn't really make a distinction between the hippies and the murderous urban terrorists. In Kneale's world, all latter-day cultural movements become indistinguishable, so the script can confidently inform us that there's no difference between hairy people gathering on Salisbury Plain and the Nuremberg Rallies.

The fact is that in the Quatermass continuum, only sensible middle-class people over the age of forty are allowed to be civilised. Anyone else is a walking demonstration that human beings are genetically stupid. The "funny" working-class couple whose home is demolished by a space-capsule at the beginning of The Quatermass Experiment are, sadly, the rule rather than the exception. In the same vein, we should be thankful that Kneale's script The Big, Big Giggle was never filmed. The tale of a teenage suicide craze, it was vetoed for fear that it might provoke copycat incidents, but its embarrassment factor would have been far worse than its body-count. This was the work of an author so dismissive of modern culture, and so ignorant of the real reasons behind These Young People Today taking drugs and starting riots, that he honestly thought teenagers were prepared to slit their own wrists just for a laugh. You might find yourself reminded of one of those '50s American "information" films, about schoolchildren turning into psychotic killers after smoking marijuana.

So as in Quatermass and the Pit, anyone who isn't a mouthpiece for the writer is an ignorant savage with an urge towards self-destruction. Because, far from being a forward-thinking visionary, Kneale's work suggests the SF equivalent of a Daily Mail columnist: an arch-conservative who considers anything new, alien or peculiar-looking to be untrustworthy and ultimately catastrophic. Why, then, is he considered such a revolutionary?

In recent years, there's been an attempt to interpret some of his scripts as prophetic, most particularly his 1968 teleplay The Year of the Sex Olympics. As this involves a futuristic "reality show" about a family trapped on an island with a goggle-eyed madman, it's said to predict the worst excesses of television in the twenty-first century, but few people who've actually watched it can take this claim seriously. In 1968, the idea of TV as a voyeuristic form of cruelty was already an old one, both in SF and in mainstream culture. And the death-game in Sex Olympics bears so little relation to Celebrity Love Island that it's hard to see the programme as a warning from history, even if you can get over the sight of Leonard Rossiter slouching around in a bacofoil kaftan.

No, the real reason for Kneale's reputation is a sentimental one. For the British geek, he's become a figurehead of "serious" science fiction drama, a sign that we were always so much more grown-up than the Americans. In particular, the original Quatermass Experiment (vintage 1953) is remembered as the BBC's first "serious" attempt at SF. The problem is that this folk-memory isn't supported by the programme's content. Take away the surface layer of middle-class smugness, and there's virtually nothing to differentiate it from a '50s American B-movie. It's certainly far less intelligent - and a great deal more reactionary - than Hollywood's It Came From Outer Space, made in the same year. When Hammer Films remade the serial as a feature film in 1955, they turned Professor Quatermass into an American, and the result doesn't even pretend to be anything other than low-budget sci-fi schlock. It's worth noting that the 1985 edition of the Science Fiction Film Sourcebook, published before Kneale was reinvented as a prophet, describes Brian Donlev's performance in the movie as "giving what was otherwise an undistinguished storyline a touch of authority": there is, quite rightly, no suggestion that this was anything other than a monster-movie runaround.

(A side-note here… the serial's one original feature, as Kneale himself liked to point out, is that the slimy tentacled space-fungus doesn't get blown up in the final episode. Instead, Quatermass appeals to its humanity and convinces it to commit suicide. This is apparently supposed to be a moral victory, yet it's blatantly just the standard "all aliens are evil and must die" schtick, dressed up in such a way that the central character doesn't get blood on his hands. Which is very middle-class indeed, as well as being a massive ethical cop-out.)

Beyond sentimentality, what do we have? The original Quatermass serials were the talk of the nation in the 1950s, it's true, yet their success lay in the context rather than the content. Look at it from the perspective of a viewer in 1953. You haven't had much time to get used to television as a physical presence, let alone the root of all Popular Culture. What's more, it's all been terribly polite so far, presenters talking in their best Reith-ese and doing absolutely nothing that might frighten the horses. Then, all of a sudden… one night, when nothing's protecting you from the darkness outside except for a pair of curtains and a wall of fog, there's a programme on the BBC that starts with the juddering DAAANNN DAAANN-DAAAAANN!!! of Holst's "Mars" and then shows you something nasty creeping around in Middle England. Now, you're used to seeing scary things at the cinema, and nothing about this killer-from-outer-space concept is particularly shocking. But in your own home…? Here, it's a kind of transgression. For the first time, monsters are being pumped straight into your living room in creepy 405-line black-and-white, rather than existing on the big screen and at a safe cultural distance.

This is why Quatermass worked: it turned fear of the unknown into something domestic, by its very nature rather than by its story. We shouldn't pretend, fifty years on, that the script was in any way revolutionary. As BBC3's wholly pointless remake proved in 2005, it… just wasn't. Take away the '50s viewing environment, and you're left with a big ugly lump of unlikely situations and bad dialogue.

What, then, has been the real legacy of Nigel Kneale's work? The answer is, tragically, that it's been almost entirely negative. The Quatermass serials have left us with a vague sense of superiority, without prompting us to question their meaning. And it's a poor sort of television that only inspires mistrust. Kneale's vision is an insular, mean-spirited one, in which everything unfamiliar is a threat; all human endeavour is worthless, if not actively dangerous; and anything which goes against the principles of old-school Britishness must be destroyed. It's significant that when Doctor Who explicitly began copying the Quatermass format in the 1970s, during one of the programme's more formulaic phases, the writers at least acknowledged the flaws in Kneale's design by raising the possibility that aliens aren't necessarily all man-eating predators and that progress isn't necessarily a dead end. After all, Doctor Who came from a more heterodox, outward-looking, big-R Romantic tradition of SF, which is why Kneale hated it. Morally and philosophically, these programmes are polar opposites.

But in the thirty years since, British SF writers have begun to copy Kneale's formula by rote, in the belief that anything in the Quatermass tradition is somehow "worthy". In truth, the scripts are no more insightful than the '50s notion that Alien Invaders = Filthy Communists, or any other kind of tabloid scaremongering. And if one message comes through in his work, again and again, then it isn't "think about the future" but "turn that radio down, you bloody kids".