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.

Tag Cloud

Pet Sematary Lifetime Christmas movies 45 Fall TV FX period drama historical drama crossover CBS All Access miniseries Sony Pictures Schedule Musical cancelled medical drama sitcom Thanksgiving werewolf RT21 Amazon Prime aliens Mudbound richard e. Grant versus TCA 2017 Captain marvel series American Society of Cinematographers 2015 Awards Tour travel name the review police drama The CW 2020 psycho Hallmark Christmas movies Family Marathons Red Carpet Fox News IFC zombies composers WarnerMedia stand-up comedy Shondaland spider-man Fantasy breaking bad VICE Netflix Rocketman FXX Character Guide First Look Arrowverse cooking Women's History Month Nat Geo transformers Turner Tumblr Ovation based on movie MTV talk show X-Men Calendar TIFF ITV CNN facebook award winner Pride Month GLAAD war psychological thriller comiccon Disney+ Disney Plus Anna Paquin finale Turner Classic Movies 007 Sneak Peek Photos BBC Lionsgate Mindy Kaling CMT dragons History Reality USA Network Martial Arts A24 AMC Infographic halloween Elton John crime drama TNT Mary Poppins Returns political drama zero dark thirty Spring TV game show tv talk Peacock Apple TV+ Kids & Family Classic Film RT History Super Bowl binge Summer 71st Emmy Awards TLC Western Comedy mutant festivals canceled TV shows true crime Valentine's Day Awards Rock Brie Larson golden globes YouTube Red Epix Box Office Comics on TV Opinion 2017 The Arrangement SundanceTV Cosplay sequel Marvel Disney Channel Esquire comic APB Spectrum Originals Creative Arts Emmys Food Network harry potter Holidays ABC Family batman Amazon ABC robots Walt Disney Pictures spy thriller hispanic SXSW spain politics SDCC Crackle quibi Marvel Studios DGA Drama Black Mirror HBO Max witnail FOX PaleyFest Paramount revenge IFC Films Lucasfilm BBC America green book supernatural Ellie Kemper boxoffice Grammys Hulu sports streaming First Reviews Pop cancelled TV shows Video Games Horror Apple TV Plus anthology Comic Book President Film Festival DC streaming service Disney streaming service Syfy Freeform Trivia foreign 2018 thriller joker Biopics Crunchyroll Pixar Pirates E3 docudrama Adult Swim Chilling Adventures of Sabrina strong female leads renewed TV shows Mary poppins adventure Heroines serial killer Cannes dceu blaxploitation Tarantino Emmys spanish language Election biography Writers Guild of America Teen Music Podcast Rom-Com Marvel Television DC Comics Netflix Christmas movies USA TV renewals Masterpiece Chernobyl Reality Competition jamie lee curtis crime slashers Extras social media toy story singing competition National Geographic MSNBC what to watch Polls and Games Columbia Pictures El Rey CBS Bravo Film Universal Star Wars cartoon movies VH1 TBS Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt New York Comic Con cults Best and Worst romantic comedy TruTV canceled free movies GoT Hallmark Ghostbusters Television Academy game of thrones Oscars Starz science fiction Premiere Dates Rocky spinoff YouTube cancelled television disaster Binge Guide vampires TV Land NYCC blockbuster cancelled TV series screenings adaptation mockumentary See It Skip It hist Lifetime Country technology dc E! justice league Warner Bros. Quiz Spike theme song unscripted Acorn TV DirecTV Certified Fresh Winter TV Nominations Animation natural history Superheroes nature Toys Tomatazos Watching Series Sundance Disney Trophy Talk romance BET Interview Britbox comics indie Superheroe LGBT CW Seed Musicals Year in Review south america TCA Sci-Fi Stephen King kids Shudder Amazon Prime Video Mary Tyler Moore Set visit teaser The Walking Dead 21st Century Fox christmas movies 2016 HBO dramedy television ghosts Paramount Network children's TV doctor who rotten movies we love Disney Plus The Witch TCM cats Star Trek YouTube Premium casting Showtime The Purge book crime thriller San Diego Comic-Con TV ratings animated discovery Trailer space diversity Vudu YA Mystery Winners zombie Countdown 24 frames Action 2019 video 20th Century Fox MCU Cartoon Network Holiday WGN GIFs A&E Apple latino cops elevated horror PBS independent Comedy Central Song of Ice and Fire Emmy Nominations Logo Nickelodeon LGBTQ DC Universe Sundance Now Dark Horse Comics Christmas cinemax cars NBC anime OWN ESPN