Kim Newman on… The Terrornauts

RT Obscura 15: Exploring colourful sci-fi lost to the ages.

by | April 10, 2008 | Comments

RT Obscura with Kim Newman

RT Obscura, the exclusive column by renowned critic Kim Newman, sees the writer plumbing the depths of the RT archive in search of some forgotten gems. In his 15th column, Kim explores the colourful sci-fi, The Terrornauts.

Milton Subotsky, the creative mind behind Amicus films, was a long-time science-fiction fan — which explains his intermittent, peculiar attempts at getting away from the horror anthologies which were the company’s usual fare (Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, Asylum, Tales From the Crypt, etc) by producing adaptations of pulp stories he presumably remembered fondly. That’s how Joseph Millard’s wonderfully-titled but extremely obscure novel The Gods Hate Kansas got turned into Freddie Francis‘s plodding They Came From Beyond Space in 1967. And that mini-epic needed an even cheaper supporting feature, so veteran sci-fi author Murray Leinster’s The Wailing Asteroid (1960) earned The Terrornauts, scripted by then-hot writer John Brunner (Stand on Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up) — roughly the science-fiction equivalent of asking James Ellroy to adapt an Agatha Christie novel — and directed by veteran B-picture specialist Montgomery Tully (The House in Marsh Road, Battle Beneath the Earth).

The Terrornauts

Leinster must have thought he was on a hot streak — since another of his books (The Monster From Earth’s End) had just been filmed as The Navy vs the Night Monsters, but unaccountably Stanley Kubrick looked to Arthur C. Clarke when he was searching for ‘the best science fiction writer in the world’ and Leinster’s stock slipped in post-2001: A Space Odyssey cinema. The results look extremely quaint now, though it’s worth noting that, though the TV serial A for Andromeda was a precedent, The Terrornauts is among the first sci-fi films to deal with the Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence-type set-up later seen in the likes of Species and Contact.

The Terrornauts

The opening scenes have a cartoonish but neverthless accurate grasp of how cutting edge science gets done, or thwarted. Staid hero Dr Joe Burke (Simon Oates, in almost exactly the same performance he later gave as the macho boffin in Doomwatch) and sidekicks Ben Keller (Stanley Meadows, a fixture on every 1960s British TV series who also pops up in Performance) and Sandy Lund (Zena Marshall) have to play politics to get time on a radio telescope despite the opposition of impatient observatory boss Dr Shore (Max Adrian) and overseen by Yellowlees (Charles Hawtrey), an accountant who quibbles at spending £75 on a radio component but is taken by the idea that if he’s in the room when mankind makes first contact with an alien species he’ll get his picture in the papers.

RT Obscura with Kim Newman

Burke is obsessed because as a child he had a dream of an alien landscape (a hillside with two moons stuck on the sky) while clutching an alien crystal found inside an artefact turned up by his archaelogist uncle (Frank Forsyth). Also around the observatory is comedy relief tea-lady Mrs Jones (Patricia Hayes, of the well-remembered Play for Today Edna, the Inebriate Woman), who snorts, “people on other planets, I don’t believe it — it would have been in the papers and my husband would have told me.”

Naturally, a signal is picked up from an asteroid (Schuler’s Object) and Burke responds with a signal from Earth — whereupon the film gives up on anything like credible science and a spaceship from the asteroid lowers over the observatory and plucks one of the buildings off the face of the planet, incidentally abducting the Star Talk astronomers, Yellowlees (who is worried about meeting people with tentacles) and Mrs Jones (who hopes they won’t look like spiders). The building is set down on Schuler’s Object, in an image we’d say was outdated if Doctor Who hadn’t done something very similar with a hospital and the moon last season. The asteroid is home to a set that looks like a colour version of the cardboard minimalist futures visited by the Doctor in the show’s early days — Subotsky had written and produced the Peter Cushing Dalek movies — and is inhabited by a trundling, antenna-waving, non-anthropomorphic robot operated by Robert Jewell (a Dalek on many 1960s Who serials). “In between the kidnapping of people, they must need somewhere to put their feet up, you think?” observes Mrs Jones of the spare décor, only for Keller to spook her further with the comment, “if they’ve got feet.”

The Terrornauts

The model effects are childish, but charming — they look like something from those early 1960s puppet shows (Space Patrol, Fireball XL5) — but Elisabeth Lutyens’ score has a burbling, spacey feel that gives even the ropiest, clunkiest toys-on-strings scenes a trace of wonder. There’s play with pink and black box artefacts from an advanced civilisation, including one with a kitchen funnel stuck into it, and some alien foods which look like spiky fondant fancies. The Earth people pass elementary intelligence tests (naughty Brunner sneaks one line past the innocent Subotsky: “it’s a kind of vibrator — can’t you feel it?”), run into a truly tacky alien animal (with a red maw, an eye in its side, a single crab claw, large suckers on its head and — yes — tentacles) which turns out to be an illusion created by the vibrator, find a blue skeleton wearing a white bathing cap with wires stuck to it (a moment that vaguely prefigures a scene in Alien) and occasionally step on a platform (“you’d call it a matter transposer”) which teleports them to the two-mooned world — where the fetching Sandy is nearly stabbed by turquoise-faced tribesmen in red robes (“virgin sacrifice to the gods of a ghastly galaxy,” shrieks the American poster, rather overselling things) and Burke gets to be manly in effecting her prompt rescue. We get a reprise of the most notable effects shot in the film, as black smoke from an explosion drifts up into the sky and behind the painted moons.

In the finale, Burke puts on the bathing cap and plugs it into the sink funnel — which enables him to read aloud a message from the former masters of the asteroid which warns about “creatures we now call The Enemy” that are coming in a space fleet (and have reduced a technological species to those turquoise-faced savages). The point of the signal is to summon folks to he asteroid so they can take the controls of the anti-spacefleet guns and blast ‘The Enemy’ before they can get to Earth. Despite complaints from Mrs Jones (“I don’t want one of them readin’ devices on my head, it’s not long since I had a perm”), the three clever people put on bathing caps and plugs into funnels — just in time to orchestrate a space battle against an arrow formation of Enemy model ships and get back home (well, a mountainside in France) in time for tea (“I’ve changed the transposer plate setting for Earth”). Mrs Jones gets the last word: “Never did think much of foreign parts!”

The Terrornauts

For some reason, The Terrornauts is among the most obscure, hard-to-see British science fiction films. It’s a pantomime mix of earnest camp, so-feeble-it’s-funny-again comic relief, proper science fiction ideas, cheapskate nonsense and surprising charm. Yes, objectively, it’s bad — but it’s bad in an innocent 1967 manner that still has a peculiar appeal.

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