Always unearthing rare gems, this week Kim Newman rediscovers a 1960s Brit sci-fi flick from Saturday morning TV.
I saw Spaceflight IC-1, a short, fairly flat, nevertheless unusual British-made science fiction film on Saturday morning regional ITV in the mid-1970s, but to my knowledge it’s never shown up again in the UK — I had to order it online from a US specialist in obscure cinema to take another look at it.
Made in 1965 (but not released for two years), it has the prosaic look and minimal effects work of early 1950s poverty row rocket films, but includes speculative business familiar from written s-f which hadn’t been much seen in filmed space travel pictures (which usually went for monsters or, at a stretch, heroic pioneers). A clumsy opening, which feels as if it might have been added to pad the running time, has a jovial military man lecture the audience about the Insterstellar Colony 1 space mission as we see slides of the crew; this is followed by a tiny press conference which repeats information from the lecture and includes facts it surely wouldn’t be necessary to impart a year into a well-publicised mission (note to screenwriters — never have a character preface something said to another character with ‘as you know …’).
In 2015, a coalition of nations including the USA, Canada and Britain have formed an alliance called RULE, which began as a disarmament conference but evolved into an intrusive, totalitarian state along 1984 lines. RULE has sent IC-1 on a long voyage beyond the solar system to establish an Earth colony (the pilot of Lost in Space tried something similar), with a specially-selected crew of four healthy couples (plus some extras in 2001-style freezer cabinets), their three children (a pre-stardom Mark Lester is one of the well-spoken boys) and a cyborg severed head in a fishbowl (John Lee).
As Year Two of the mission begins, Captain Mead Ralston (Bill Williams), a gravel-voiced American amid plummy Brits, is grumpy because he and his wife, teacher Jan (Norma West) haven’t had a baby, which means he isn’t passing on permission to the other couples to try to give their sons some sisters; it’s implied but not stated that they are using mandatory contraception — the pill was a big issue when the film was made. A crisis comes when Helen (Linda Marlowe), wife of mission doctor Steve Thomas (John Cairney), is diagnosed with a pancreatic infection and we learn RULE didn’t put insulin on the ship because they wanted potentially unhealthy colonists to die in space.
When Ralston refuses Helen permission to use her remaining time having a baby, she commits suicide and Steve, backed by sarcastic Engineer Saunders (Jeremy Longhurst), thumps the Captain, locks him up in his cabin, and vaguely takes over the mission, though Mrs Saunders (Kathleen Breck) and glowering navigator Carl (Donald Churchill) disapprove. Carl, whose own wife (Margo McLennan) sides with the mutineers, eventually lets Ralston out and the Bligh-like Captain announces that he intends to execute the doctor and replace him with one of the cryo-frozen passengers, Griffith (burly Tony Doonan). However, the unfreezing process is inexact and Griffith bursts out of his container in Frankensteinian manner and kills Ralston before expiring — Steve holds hands with Jan at Ralston’s funeral and a final caption hints the resulting colony will be freer than the society left behind on Earth.
Screenwriter Harry Spalding, long-time associate of producer Robert L. Lippert, turned out a lot of genre movies (The Day Mars Invaded the Earth, The Earth Dies Screaming, Witchcraft, Curse of the Fly), and — like the similarly busy Arthur C. Pierce (who scripted the theoretically competing Mutiny in Outer Space the same year) — had a George Pal-like interest in the actual science in science fiction, but a drab, often-prosaic sense of drama and a tendency to off-the-peg characterisations. The subtlest thing on view is the head-in-a-bowl genius who has volunteered to become a cyborg human computer and rather wishes he hadn’t — but plays surprisingly little part in the story.
Spaceflight IC-1 is modestly innovative in its mix the rebellion-against-future-dystopia theme with credible deep space drama — no hokey meteor showers, just the Dark Star-like grinding resentments of folks cooped up together for too long (with a surprising emphasis on adult sexual behaviour). Even the contrivance that the Captain has a key which can blow up the space ship makes more sense than usual in the context of a totalitarian state that would rather scupper the mission than let dissent seed the cosmos.
The thing that struck me most seeing this as a kid is still unusual, but was almost certainly unintended by the American-based Lippert and Spalding, who outsourced a run of films to England for budgetary reasons. All their British pictures feature an ageing, top-billed Yank (Lon Chaney Jr, Willard Parker, Brian Donlevy) amid lower-case British support casts. The American would get the best role — usually, this would mean the hero or an antiheroic mad genius, but Captain Ralston, as played by D-lister Williams (of Space Master X-7), comes on like the tough but fair militarists who embody Yankee frontier virtues in many a space opera (cf: Captain Kirk) but is actually an impotent, neurotic, tyrannical bastard speaking for a dictatorship that has an American accent.
The fact that, rotten or not, Ralston is the best role makes this interstellar Captain Queeg a cert for the American star, but the implication is that in this future America are the baddies — while the British-accented crew believably grumble, nag, make sarcastic remarks, equivocate, avoid action unless forced to it and agonise afterwards (Ralston is decisive in his murderous smugness) and generally show weak chins rather than square jaws. In the vaguely similar Conquest of Space, the unbalanced commander is a religious nut who has to be taken down by his own son — here, Ralston has psychological problems, but has been given his position by an unjust society presumably aware of them (‘I’ve been given absolute authority, and I’m demanding absloute obedience’).
The trouble is that this theoretically interesting material still adds up to a talky hour and a bit full of sat-around-a-table meetings (it could as easily have been done on the wireless) with the silly rampage of the stuntman-like Griffith delivering not only a convenient plot solution to the Ralston problem but sorely-needed action. Whenever anyone needs to be knocked out, a two-handed thump on the shoulder-blade does it — I’d suspect director Bernard Knowles is resorting to unimaginative staging rather than suggesting a future martial arts move like the Vulcan nerve pinch.
Similarly, I’m not sure whether the fact that the children’s toy-box includes a clunky 1950s-look tin robot is a matter of renting the cheapest prop or correctly guessing that in the early 21st century such items would be around as retro-nostalgia for the ironic. Knowles began his career in the 1940s with classy Britpics like the ghost story A Place of One’s Own, the Paganini bio The Magic Bow and the bodice-ripper Jassy, and first tackled science fiction with the female robot comedy The Perfect Woman (another movie I’ve not seen since a one-off telecast in the 1970s); he had done journeyman TV (Robin Hood, Ivanhoe, Fabian of the Yard) but came to this off an even more obscure science fiction film with a cryogenesis theme, Frozen Alive, and was about to step up to his strangest credit, co-directing Magical Mystery Tour with the Beatles (!).
Two funeral-in-space scenes prefigure Alien (as do details like the Anglo-American crew and the severed cyborg head) and some thought has gone into details like the velcroed badges emblazoning ‘botany’ and ‘education’ (these serve to identify the characters early on but the crew are believably irritated at having to wear the silly things and peel them off after rebelling), the use of antidepressant pills instead of alcohol for in-flight celebrations (the Captain breaks up the party, of course), futuristic hairstyles (a kind of tucked-in beehive) of all the female crewmembers (the partnering of weedy guys with posh nubile babes suggests some Strangelovian thought on the part of male mission planners), the hologram clown (Max Kirby) who tells the children bedtime stories, and the use of algae as food source and breathable atmosphere.
Like many a minor 1960s film, it has a sensitive score from Elisabeth Lutyens. It might not be on a par with 2001: A Space Odyssey on any level, but it is closer in intent to the Kubrick film than the gosh-wow-rockets likes of Destination Moon or Flight to Mars. And — hey — it’s stuck in my mind for thirty-five years whereas some movies I saw last week have already begun to fade…