The Crichton Factor

The science fiction of Michael Crichton

First published in Geeky Monkey magazine in 2016.

The Admirable Crichton

During a forty year career, the fertile mind of Michael Crichton created numerous stories featuring deadly plagues, rebellious robots and resurgent dinosaurs. With a new TV version of Crichton’s Westworld striding boldly towards us this October, Geeky Monkey takes a look at the work of a man who left a huge indelible footprint on the history of science fiction…

WORDS: CHRIS HALLAM

In November 2008, with the news dominated by the election of Barack Obama, another news story could easily have slipped by unnoticed: Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton had died aged just 66.

As the man behind one of the biggest cinematic hits ever, Michael Crichton was a towering figure in every sense (he was 6ft 9). But he had a somewhat mixed record as both an author and of director of science fiction.

Michael Crichton wrote books, directed films based on his own books, directed films based on other people’s books, directed films not based on his or anyone else’s books and saw his own books adapted by other directors. Not all of the novels or directorial projects are of the type which piques Geeky Monkey’s interest: for example, neither Disclosure or Rising Sun fit into the sci-fi or fantasy bracket and so don’t expect them to be discussed much here. But whether good or bad, Crichton’s medical experience was always evident. Whether it was a version of one of his own books or one of his own original screenplays, it was as if Michael Crichton had injected himself into every frame.

The Andromeda Strain

Book (1969). Filmed: 1971, TV version: 2008

The danger that humanity may be threatened by an unstoppable outbreak of an incurable and fast spreading disease is sadly one of the more plausible apocalyptic scenarios. Crichton tackles this head on in his breakthrough novel, which centres on the aftermath of a space satellite’s return to Earth. It soon emerges that everyone in the surrounding Arizona area where the satellite has crashed down is dead, some of them having died in bizarre mysterious ways. A dispassionate scientific analysis begins: was the satellite harbouring a deadly microorganism?

Published when Crichton was still embarking on a medical career in his twenties (he apparently once overheard two senior doctors discussing his own book), The Andromeda Stain made Crichton a star. It achieves the difficult feat of being both scientifically credible and a compelling enjoyable read.

And, happily, the film wasn’t bad either. Directed by Robert Wise (the man behind the not very similar Sound of Music although he would later do the first Star Trek film), The Andromeda Strain was largely faithfully brought to the screen and was notable for its early use of special effects from 2001: A Space Odyssey wizard Douglas Trumbull. A modest box office hit, it is still very watchable and  became an influence on everything from Outbreak (1995) to Contagion (2011) the last of which saw an apocalyptic plague start after Gwyneth Paltrow shook hands with a chef who hadn’t washed his hands after some bats pooed on the food he was about to serve.

Sadly, a “reimagining” of the book staring Benjamin Bratt worked less well as a TV mini-series in 2008. A very loose adaptation indeed and very unmemorable: The Amnesia Strain might have been a better title.

The Terminal Man

Book: 1969. Film: 1974

The second Crichton sci-fi book to be adapted drew direct inspiration from his medical career:

“I saw a patient in a hospital who was being treated with electrodes implanted in the brain, hooked up to a monitoring computer,” Crichton later wrote.  “I thought this treatment was horrific and I was amazed that the research seemed to be going forward with no public discussion or even knowledge. I decided to write a novel to make such procedures better known.”

The experience (of a treatment which is now no longer carried out) provided the basis for The Terminal Man. The novel centres on one Harry Benson who undergoes a futuristic version of electronic brain implantation similar to that witnessed by Crichton to cure him of the epileptic seizures he has begun to experience since suffering injuries in a car accident. Benson soon becomes incredibly violent as a result. Critically well received as a book, despite receiving some criticism for linking epilepsy to violence, the film which starred George Segal is generally less well liked. Roy Pickard has argued (in the book Science Fiction At The Movies) that it is in some ways superior to anything in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Despite this, Crichton was aggrieved that he lost his role as director to Mike Hodges, the man who would later direct Flash Gordon (1980). Crichton later admitted that he liked The Terminal Man less than any other books.

Westworld

Filmed: 1973

Sequel: Futureworld (1976)

TV series: Beyond Westworld (1980)

HBO TV series due: 2016

Imagine a holiday in which you can sample the thrill of being in ancient Rome, medieval England or the Wild West. Peopled by robots, Delos, the holiday resort in Westworld, offers all of these things and more. Our heroes (played by Josh Brolin and Richard Benjamin) are drawn to the wild west sector where an android gunslinger played by Yul Brynner (wearing the same outfit he had earlier worn in the western, The Magnificent Seven) is obligingly shot down to please the tourists every day.

But then the robots start going wrong. Previously obliging medieval serving wenches become uppity and slap their clients (“My Lord forgets himself!”) while the robots all over the three worlds suddenly go into revolt, Brynner’s gunfighter becoming especially lethal…

Hands up if you jumped to Westworld in this feature straight away? If you did, we certainly don’t blame you. Westworld is Crichton’s most fun pre-Jurassic Park creation. It was the first film ever to use CGI (on a limited scale). It was also the first to demonstrate Crichton’s talent for imagining futuristic theme parks and then have them go horribly wrong.

Indeed, there is an element of the Jurassic Park issue here – scientists have used technology which they don’t really understand leading to an ultimately deadly environment. As one Delos scientist explains: “We aren’t dealing with ordinary machines here. These are highly complicated pieces of equipment, almost as complicated as living organisms. In some cases, they’ve been designed by other computers. We don’t know exactly how they work.”

Crichton originally conceived Westworld as a novel but ended up writing it as a screenplay and directing it as a film where it soon enjoyed success. Crichton had nothing to do with the 1976 sequel Futureworld starring Peter Fonda which lazily attempted to recreate the formula of the original on a larger scale even featuring Brynner’s gunfighter only in a rather pointless dream sequence. The 1980 TV series Beyond Westworld was a flop too. Featuring a plot to use the androids of Delos to take over the world, the show was canned after only three out of five episodes had been aired.

The new HBO series Westworld due out later this year looks much more promising, however, not only in terms of cast  (it features the distinguished likes of Sir Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden and Jeffrey Wright) but in terms of depth.

Judging by the trailer, the new series not only promises to explore the three worlds of Delos in greater detail but promises to be a dark intelligent affair featuring Blade Runner style mediations on the nature of existence. If the series lives up to the promise of the trailer, it seems likely Crichton himself would have approved.

Congo

Book: 1980

Filmed: 1995

Apes have a difficult legacy on film. For every King Kong (1933), there’s a King Kong (1976). For every Planet of the Apes (1968), there’s a Planet of the Apes (2001).

Congo sadly slips into the “awful” category thanks largely to some terrible acting performances from Tim Curry and Ghostbusters’ Ernie Hudson, but also because, in common with the aforementioned Dino de Laurentiis King Kong remake and, indeed, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984), it is rendered ridiculous by the use of silly looking gorilla costumes. This was just about acceptable when Planet of the Apes came out in 1968 but was already pushing it a vit, in the 70s and 80s when King Kong and Greystoke used them. By 1995, soon after the release of Crichton’s own CGI-filled Jurassic Park, it looked completely absurd.

Congo, is in truth, not one of Crichton’s better books anyway. After a series of mysterious deaths occurs in the Congo, an expedition is sent out which discovers a dangerous race of hyper-intelligent human-gorilla hybrids. Although definitely science fiction, Crichton attempted to inject some of the feel of the 19th century adventure story like H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines or Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (a name Crichton would consciously poach later).

Crichton actually sold the film rights in 1979 before completing the book and was optimistic about Sean Connery being cast. But the film didn’t end up being made until Crichton’s post-Jurassic boom period and Connery didn’t appear.

CGI was briefly considered but ruled out. But in truth gorilla suits are only part of the problem with Frank Marshall’s frequently ridiculous film. It would have been all over the place anyway, good special effects or not.

But against all odds, Congo didn’t flop. It was a solid commercial hit.

Looker

Filmed: 1981

Perhaps the least remembered of any of Crichton’s film, some would argue that as a critical and commercial flop, Looker is best skipped over quickly. The film sees Albert Finney play a plastic surgeon who becomes suspicious after a series of already beautiful models approach him seeking minor and indeed apparently imperceptible physical alterations. He becomes even more intrigued after the models start being murdered and he finds himself under suspicion of killing them. What is going on and how are the sinister Digital Matrix research firm involved?

Though not a success, Looker deserves to be remembered for one reason at least: the film featured the first ever CGI human character. Filmsite.org’s Film Milestones in Visual and Special Effects explains:

“The visual effects in Michael Crichton’s high-tech science-fiction thriller featured the first CGI human character, model Cindy (Susan Dey of The Partridge Family fame).  Her digitization was visualized by a computer-generated simulation of her body being scanned – notably the first use of shaded 3D CGI in a feature film. Polygonal models obtained by digitizing a human body were used to render the effects.”

Not bad for 1981.

Runaway

Filmed: 1984

It is a well-known fact that actor Tom Selleck was forced to turn down the role of Indiana Jones due to his contractual obligations to the hit TV series Magnum P.I. Selleck’s disappointment at what might have been is only to understandable and obvious:  a number of subsequent films saw Selleck apparently trying to emulate Harrison Ford in Indy-type roles. Runaway, directed and written by Crichton, is quite different, however. On paper at least, Selleck seems to be emulating Ford in another film entirely: Blade Runner.

Selleck plays Sgt. Jack R. Ramsey, a police officer in a near future environment in which household robots have become commonplace. Aided by his enthusiastic young partner (played by Cynthia Rhodes), Ramsay is part of the “Runaways Unit” dealing with robots who have malfunctioned, known as “runaways”. Most of his work is quite mundane, until one day he finds himself investigating something that should be impossible: a robot who has broken his programming so dramatically that he has committed murder, having wiped out a whole family. What would Brian from Confuse.com say? It’s certainly enough to make Metal Mickey turn in his grave.

Runaway certainly isn’t terrible and perhaps the Blade Runner similarities are only superficial. In one respect, it is like Blade Runner, however: it flopped. And unlike Blade Runner, its reputation has not soared in the years since.

Sphere

Book: 1987

Filmed: 1998

“An adventure 65 million years in the making” would be the tagline for the film of Crichton’s biggest success Jurassic Park. And though none of Crichton’s works actually took that long to produce (obviously), many did have a long gestation period. Crichton began writing Sphere back when he was in his twenties, seeing it as a potential companion piece to The Andromeda Strain. As it turned out, he didn’t finish it until the late 80s, having basically got stuck, the film appearing a full decade after that.

Sphere begins from an intriguing premise with the discovery of a mysterious craft bobbing along at the bottom of the beautiful briny sea. A mystery begins: is the craft from Earth? Is it an alien ship from space? Or could it even have been sent back in time from hundreds of years in the future?

The book of Sphere was actually decent and with veteran director Barry Levinson (best known for Rainman) at the helm and a cast led by Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone and Samuel L. Jackson (the last actor by then far more famous than he had been when he appeared in a supporting role in Jurassic Park five years before) the movie version really should have been the same.

Sadly, it was not to be: Sphere was fatally dull.

Rotten Tomatoes damned it thus: ”Sphere features an A-level cast working with B-grade material, with a story seen previously in superior science-fiction films.”

Sphere sank without trace to the bottom of the box office ocean.

Mid-life Crichton

As the 1980s neared their end, Crichton then in his late forties might have looked back on these years with some sense of disappointment. None of his books had been adapted into films during the decade, the three films he had directed himself during this period (Looker, Runaway and 1989’s non-science fiction Physical Evidence) were all failures and he would never direct any more films. Despite the novels Congo and Sphere, Crichton was still best known his 1970s work and he was clearly less successful than some younger emerging novelists like Stephen King and John Grisham .

But as a new decade dawned, Crichton’s life was about to change forever…

Jurassic Park

Book: 1990 Filmed: 1993

Jurassic Park: The Lost World

Book: 1995 Filmed: 1997

Steven Spielberg is famed for knowing what the public want before they even know it themselves. Whether it’s sharks, cute little aliens or heroic archaeologist cum adventurers, Spielberg has his fingers on the pulse of the film-going zeitgeist. He had known Michael Crichton since the seventies. When Crichton began talking about his latest unfinished novel about a theme park populated by resurrected dinosaurs, Spielberg was very interested. Recognising that CGI technology was at a point where it could bring Crichton’s vision brilliantly to life, he bought the rights.

The results almost speak for themselves.

As Gloria Hunniford famously put it, in Jurassic Park the special effects are so good “’you can’t tell where the fake dinosaurs end, and the real ones begin.” But the film is not just a special effects bonanza. Spielberg both took things away and added things to Crichton’s book and screenplay: a child being killed by a dinosaur early on was deemed too horrific, Attenborough’s creator Hammond is less sinister in the film than he was in the book, the famous shuddering glass of water in the first great tyrannosaurus rex scene is largely down to Spielberg’s masterful direction, not Crichton’s prose. But the book and the idea were Crichton’s and he deserved the millions he made from it.

Jurassic Park is the biggest grossing film of all time on its release worldwide and is currently the 21st on the list which is unadjusted for inflation, the only film which is over 20 years old to be in the current top 50. Jurassic World from 2015 is at number 4 (all these figures come courtesy of Box Office Mojo).

Or in other words, you have seen Jurassic Park, your dentist has seen Jurassic Park and anyone anywhere currently in your range of vision has seen Jurassic Park unless they are a baby, a dog or Audrey Hepburn in an advert on your TV.

Indeed, probably virtually everyone in your mobile phone address book has seen it. Don’t believe us? Call them now and check. Go on. We can wait.  We’ll still be here when you get back.

In 1994, Crichton achieved a first. Jurassic Park was number one at the box office, E. (which he had also created) was number one on US TV and Crichton’s novel Rising Sun (also made into a film soon after) was at the top spot in the book charts. Top of the book bestsellers, the TV ratings and the box office charts. No one has ever achieved this triple whammy  before or since. A very tall man anyway, Michael Crichton really did seem to stand astride the world like a colossus.

Little wonder he was soon under pressure to do a sequel. The Lost World Jurassic Park was Crichton’s first and only sequel and he made compromises: Jeff Goldblum’s Dr Ian Malcolm returns, for example, despite being killed off in the first book (but having survived the film). In truth, the sequel was far from Crichton’s best book and is probably one of Spielberg’s worst films. But it was a huge box office hit and two more films have appeared since.

Michael Crichton wrote many books in his last years, some of which (although only one more sci-fi book) were filmed. But creatively, he never scaled the heights of the Jurassic Park again.

Timeline

Book: 1999

Filmed: 2003

A truly rubbish film, it seems a shame to end with Timeline, a silly adventure based on Crichton’s enjoyable sci-fi thriller about a group of modern day scientists traveling back in time to 14th century France to rescue their professor.

Crichton’s final years saw him produce more science fiction. Prey (2002) is a thriller dealing with the threat posed by the creation of artificial life and nanobot technology. The rights have been bought by 20th Century Fox although Prey has never yet been filmed. State of Fear (2004) centres on a plot to commit mass murder by a gang of eco-terrorists. By this point, Crichton, now in his sixties, had nailed his colours firmly to the mast of those who like President George W. Bush were in total denial about the existence of climate change. Many felt Crichton’s promotion of his own views on this subject rather marred the novel.

Next is er… Next(2006)  which centres on the genetic experimentation on animals. It is, incidentally, nothing whatsoever to do with the Nicholas Cage sci-fi film Next of 2007 which was in fact based on a Philip K. Dick story. His final unfinished sci-fi work Micro (published posthumously in 2011) meanwhile is being planned as a film by Dreamworks.

Nearly eight years after he died, Crichton’s legacy is undeniably mixed with some huge successes and some epic failures. Some films based on his books were terrible as were some of the films he directed himself and indeed some of his own book were quite bad.

But with the Westworld and Jurassic franchises flourishing to this day, Crichton’s contribution to science fiction is undeniable. He wrote science fiction in the truest sense, using his medical expertise to inform hugely entertaining stories. And when at his best as in The Andromeda Strain, Westworld or Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton could be very entertaining indeed.

Box out: Also by Michael Crichton…

Michael Crichton didn’t just write and direct science fiction. Here are just some of the other many strings to his bow…

The young doctor?: A Harvard Medical School graduate, Crichton spent years on clinical rotation in hospitals but never formally gained a licence to practice medicine, choosing to write instead. He came to believe many patients took too little responsibility for their own health.

Weird science: He was sceptical about man-made climate change or global warming. but was interested in aura viewing and clairvoyance.

Tall stories: He wrote some early books under the pen names Jeffery Hudson and John Lange (“lange” is the German word for “long”: Crichton, as mentioned, was very tall). Michael also wrote a book with his brother Douglas under the name “Michael Douglas” in 1970. By coincidence, the now famous actor Michael Douglas (who had still largely been unknown in 1970) would later star in Coma (1978), a medical thriller directed by Michael Crichton as well as Disclosure (1994), a controversial film based on Crichton’s bestselling novel.

Twister (1996): Crichton co-wrote the screenplay for the tornado-based drama starring Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt. He was aided by his then wife Anne-Marie Martin (he married five times). The film was the second biggest grossing film of 1996 and certainly the biggest grossing film of that year which didn’t feature Will Smith repelling an alien invasion.

TV star: In 1994, Crichton created and produced the medical TV drama ER. He only wrote the first episode basing it on a script he’d first written in 1974. He effectively launched a show which would last until 2009.

Dr Who?: The name “Dr Ross” appears at least four times in Crichton’s writing. Most famous is Dr Doug Ross the role which made George Clooney’s name in ER. In Congo (1980), the main expedition to uncover the cause of the mysterious deaths is led by Dr Karen Ross (she is played by Laura Linney in the film). Both the book and film of The Terminal Man (1972/1974) feature Dr Janet Ross, Benson’s attractive psychiatrist (Joan Hackett).  In Zero Cool (1969), an early Crichton book (written as John Lange), Dr Peter Ross is a radiologist and the main character.

Other big non-sci-fi successes for Crichton were The Great Train Robbery (1975) filmed by Crichton himself as The First Great Train Robbery (1979) starring Sean Connery  and Rising Sun (1992) and Disclosure (1994), both later made into films, the former also starring Connery.

The 13th Warrior (1999) starring Antonio Banderas is based on Crichton’s 1976 novel Eaters of the Dead (1976). Crichton himself took over the reins as director uncredited from onetime Die Hard director John McTiernan when the film ran into trouble. But he still could not stop it from becoming one of the biggest cinematic flops ever made.

CHRIS HALLAM

When the Tripods came to TV

First published: 2018

Chris Hallam examines an alien invasion saga with a difference…

It is now been over fifty years since the Tripods first strode boldly onto the British science fiction landscape.

Alien invasion stories were, of course, nothing new, even then. The difference was that in the Tripods’ case, the invasion was already over. Planet Earth was long defeated and seemingly totally in thrall to their new metallic masters: gigantic hemispheres supported by three gigantic legs. Creator John Christopher later admitted he’d “unconsciously stolen” the idea of the Tripods’ appearance from the Martian conquerors of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. He was being modest. There are definite similarities between the two. But there was rather more to the Tripods than that.

The first book to feature the metallic monsters, The White Mountains written by John Christopher (whose real name was Sam Youd) appeared in 1967. Two more books, The City of Gold and Lead and The Pool of Fire soon followed. Then, in the mid-Eighties, the first two books were made into two BBC TV series. A final book, a prequel, When The Tripods Came appeared in 1988. Primarily aimed at a teenage audience, the Tripods had become a science fiction franchise in their own right.

The enemy within

At first it seems as if there is nothing wrong. Aside from a few ominous references to “Tripods” and people being “Capped,” the first few pages of the opening volume (The White Mountains) suggest the book is set at some point in England’s past, specifically Winchester, perhaps in or around the year 1800. Only gradually do we learn the truth. Early on, the young main characters are confused by an ancient sign: “Danger, 6,600 volts”. It means nothing to them, but to us, the meaning is only too clear. This is the future: perhaps a century or more from now. But it is a future where human development has been pushed back to pre-industrial levels. The main characters have never even heard of trains, cars or electricity. It is as if the industrial revolution never happened.

As in Orwell’s 1984, the populace has been fed a misleading portrait of the pre-invasion world. “We know it was the Black Age,” says one character. “There were too many people, and not enough food, so that people starved and fought each other and there were all kind of sicknesses…” It is not simply propaganda which is blighting the path of human development, however.

We do not have to wait long before we meet the source of the problem. The gigantic robotic Tripods stalk the Earth “Capping” humans in a special ceremony organised by the already Capped adults for their young as soon as they reach adolescence. The Caps are metal plates fused to the heads of the humans through which the conquered native population receive orders from the Tripod conquerors. The Capped are not zombies, not exactly. They still talk, eat, drink, do jobs, get married, farm and cook. But their minds are no longer truly their own.

As if this wasn’t chilling enough, we soon learn that as many as one in twenty Cappings fail: the Tripod’s messages are unable to reach the human brain properly, leaving the wearers in a state of perpetual confused delirium. The result is that a sizeable swathe of the populace is made up of the consequences of these malfunctions: sad wandering figures known as “Vagrants”.

It is from one such ‘Vagrant’ – in fact, a man pretending to be one, who goes by the name “Ozymandias”- that the book’s hero, Will Parker comes to realise the truth, only days before he is due to be Capped himself. Discouraged by the slavish Stepford Wife-like quality that befalls the personality of his friend Jack after his Capping (a process that involves being drawn into and briefly taken off by a Tripod), Will is determined to avoid such a fate. He flees and begins a perilous journey, ultimately joined by two colleagues: his cousin Henry and a tall, highly intelligent French boy known as “Beanpole”. They travel to the one region of the planet apparently free of Tripod influence: the white mountains of Switzerland.

Fifty years on, the book remains a compelling read. The Tripods themselves appear relatively infrequently, ensuring maximum impact when they do appear: sometimes as a distant but still unnerving presence lumbering across the horizon or occasionally looming up and lashing out, attacking ships or people apparently on a whim. There are even stories of the Tripods letting captured humans run free before hunting them down for sport. The book has some similarities to John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids in which another group of futuristic children escape their pre-industrial homesteads, albeit for very different reasons.

Origin of the species

But who or what exactly are the Tripods and where do they come from?

Ozymandias, the man who inspires Will’s journey, has a couple of ideas. “There are two stories about them,” he begins. “One is that they were machines made by men, which revolted against men and enslaved them…The other story is that they do not come from this world at all, but another.”

Both of these stories turn out to be partly true. The Tripods do come from outer space but the means by which they took power turns out to be through the man-made medium of television. Once in charge, they ensured humanity reverted to a pre-industrial level of technological development, perhaps to protect themselves from a sophisticated military assault or at the very least to prevent nasty rumours being spread about them on the internet.

Ozymandias also speculates that the Tripods may be just the vehicles for the alien controllers within. We learn more about this in the second novel, The City of Gold and Lead in which Will and another boy, Fritz adopt fake Caps and are able to gain access to one of the domed cities in which the Tripods’ hideous Masters live. Conditions are appalling for humans. The gravity levels are set at a much higher level than usual, to make the Masters feel at home but making it almost impossible for humans to move. Will also discovers that the Masters’ ultimate aim is to flood out the Earth’s oxygen with their own poisonous green air, rendering human survival impossible but ensuring the Masters can wander about as they please. A spaceship providing the means to do this is apparently only a few years away from reaching the Earth.

In the final book of the trilogy, The Pool of Fire, the battle to defeat the Tripods thus becomes very urgent indeed.

The trilogy ended. But with the Tripods having conquered the Earth by harnessing the power of TV, surely it made sense that in the real world, the Tripods should try and conquer the world of TV for themselves? In 1984 and 1985, this finally happened: the Tripods came to BBC1. Whether they may genuinely said to have conquered the medium remains to be seen.

A trilogy in two parts

The first series of The Tripods was broadcast in the popular BBC 1 Saturday afternoon teatime slot, across 13 weeks between September and December 1984. It had been a long struggle: producer Richard Bates had been trying to get the series on the box since the early 1970s.

It was a busy time for sci-fi and fantasy. The US extra-terrestrial series V had just been broadcast on ITV that summer and Ghostbusters was first shown in UK cinemas in December. On the British front, the Fifth Doctor Peter Davison had just regenerated into the Sixth, Colin Baker, Children’s ITV had just shown the terrifying John Wyndham adaptation, Chocky (also produced by The Tripods’ Richard Bates) and in November, the BBC launched its dark Christmas fantasy, The Box of Delights featuring the onetime Second Doctor Who, Patrick Troughton.

The series opened with a caption stating it was the year 2089AD, followed by the appearance of a 19th century style horse and cart. What followed was a generally faithful translation of the book from page to screen. It’s always easy to mock old British TV sci-fi but The Tripods was a big deal at the time and had a reasonable budget. A 12-part series based on the second book appeared in the autumn of 1985.

There was a fair amount of publicity.  The series made the cover of the Radio Times and a computer game was produced for the ZX Spectrum. The three young main cast members, John Shackley, Jim Baker and Ceri Seel appeared on Blue Peter and were interviewed by presenters Simon Groom and the late Michael Sundin, while Goldie the dog slept on the floor in front of them. The following year, Groom alongside Peter Duncan and Janet Ellis presented another feature, exploring the second series’ special effects. Janet Ellis described the City of Gold and Lead as “a real triumph of design and special effects” while Peter Duncan (who had played a small part in the 1980 film Flash Gordon) dressed in Will’s costume and was superimposed so as to appear in the City itself where he explained the concept of colour separation overlay. Simon Groom, meanwhile, reassured any nervous viewers that the Masters, the alien controllers of the Tripods were made of nothing more than plastic foam filled with bubbles, enhanced by camera and lighting effects. A similar item appeared on BBC Breakfast Time introduced by Debbie Greenwood. The Daily Express described it as “the most imaginative and compelling teatime adventure in years”.

Some scenes had been filmed at Saltcombe Castle, residence of the famously roguish Tory MP and diarist, Alan Clark. Clark’s diaries record he took a liking to “little Charlotte Long” the aristocratic young actress playing French love interest, Eloise, undeterred by the fact Long was a teenager while Clark, at this point, was married and in his fifties. Tragically, Long was killed in a car accident, aged just 18, while the first series was still being broadcast. Her character appeared only briefly in the second series where she was played by future Howard’s Way actress Cindy Shelley.

Not all the criticism of the series was favourable. The acting was variable in quality and things occasionally got boring. The show frequently got nine million viewers but was still often beaten by the popular quiz show Blockbusters which was broadcast at the same time on ITV. A common complaint was that for a show called The Tripods, the Tripods themselves appeared fairly infrequently. Creator John Christopher himself, meanwhile, was less keen on the heroes’ four-episode digression to a French farm. The farm visit had no equivalent in the actual book, featured no Tripods and was largely irrelevant to the story. Christopher did, however, generally enjoy the adaptation. He had not enjoyed an earlier 1970s film version of his apocalyptic novel Death of Grass (filmed as No Blade of Grass) watching it on TV for a short while but apparently going to bed during the first commercial break.

On an episode of Did You See…? hosted by the Ludovic Kennedy, the sci-fi author Brian Aldiss labelled the series “a rather a clumsy piece of engineering” and likened it to a Hovis bread commercial. “What I don’t like about it is that it’s a certain type of British science fiction which is looking backwards instead of forwards,” he said.

Other guests were more ignorant but no less keen. One, at least, liked the theme music, which to anyone listening today is heavily reminiscent of the theme to long running medical drama, Casualty. (Both were in fact written by the same man: Ken Freeman). The guests also seemed confused as to whether the series was supposed to be set in the still quite recent 1970s or medieval times. None were correct.

As it is, The Tripods will always remain tragically incomplete. Much to the eternal annoyance of fans everywhere and to the lifelong regret of producer, Richard Bates, the show was cancelled before a third series was ever made.

The TV trilogy remains forever unfinished.

Back to the future

The story was not quite over, however. In 1988, twenty-one years after the first book, John Christopher produced a prequel, When The Tripods Came which aimed to explain how the Tripods conquered the Earth in the first place. Set in the near future, the book opens with an early attempt at a physical Tripod attack on Earth which centres on Dartmoor. A dog is killed and the Tripods are subjected to a blast of classical music before being speedily dispatched by jet fighters. The surprise alien invasion attempt appears to have been a lamentable failure. “A Close Encounter of the Absurd Kind,” jokes the teacher of one of the boys almost caught up in the attack. “What sort of goons would dream up something so clumsy and inefficient as a means of getting around?”

A new animated TV show, “The Trippy Show” soon begins mocking the would-be invaders. And here the trouble begins. It soon develops a fanatical cult following. Some people seem unaffected, but for others it seems to have a dramatic impact on them. The main character is horrified when his teenaged sister flies into a hysterical rage when he accidentally fails to video tape the latest episode for her. Fans soon start fleeing their homes to form communes. The Daily Mail reports on “A Trippy Brainwash?” while the teacher quoted earlier begins acting oddly. “I saw you burn that evil newspaper,” he says to some affected pupils, “They had one in the Common-Room and I burned it too…hail the Tripod!” Soon social breakdown, chaos and mass Cappings ensue. Yes, the Caps have appeared for the first time.

The Tripods are back.

Quite aside from the heroic role played by the Daily Mail in proceedings, not all aspects of the book convince. It is never really fully explained how The Trippy Show gets made in the first place. Author John Christopher was well into his sixties by this point and there’s a bit of a dated 1960s feel about the Trippy phenomenon.

Nevertheless, it’s a gripping read. John Christopher died in 2012, aged 89. Disney bought the rights to the franchise in 1997.

Have we really seen the last of the Tripods? Only time will tell.

My cinema year: 1983

So much bare flesh on display! Why didn’t someone just say, “Jabba! For God’s sake, put some clothes on!”

TOP 10 US FILMS OF 1983

(Number I saw at the cinema then: 1. Number I have seen now: 7)

  1. Return of the Jedi
  2. Terms of Endearment
  3. Flashdance
  4. Trading Places
  5. WarGames
  6. Octopussy
  7. Sudden Impact
  8. Staying Alive
  9. Mr Mom
  10. Risky Business

When I was six, my older brother took me to see Return of the Jedi.

I grew up in Peterborough, a new town in the East Midlands. As with many British towns then, there were two cinemas in the city centre in this case, the Odeon and the Canon (otherwise known as the ABC and the 123, although I’m not sure which way round it went). Even though I was pretty small, we were easily able to walk in. Later, an out of town multiplex opened and drove both of these out of business. Today, there are no cinemas in the city at all which seems appalling for a city of its size (now about 200,000 people, according to Google). I no longer live there, perhaps partly for this reason.

I loved the film. Like most people I would now agree its the weakest of the three original films but it has more memorable set pieces than, say the Empire Strikes Back and better special effects. I enjoyed the bit with Jabba the Hut, the chase through the woods and, of course, the Ewok stuff towards the end. I remember Yoda dying.

As befits a film saga which started with Episode IV, I’m pretty sure I’d never watched the first two films properly at that point, so presumably didn’t understand a lot that was going on. The first film came out when I was a baby and the second one when I was just three. I didn’t watch them properly until the 1990s. My brother was 17 then and I get the impression he’d already seen all three films more than once.

That December, I was lucky enough to get the Millennium Falcon, Jabba, Admiral Ackbar and other related toys for my Christmas and birthday presents, in addition to the CP3PO and Luke and Leia toys which I’d apparently inherited, presumably from my brother. I also remember owning a Return of the Jedi comic. Not everyone shared my enthusiasm for the franchise at this point, however. I think many people had lost enthusiasm through overexposure. This included George Lucas himself who said he would not make any more films. This contradicted earlier suggestions that he might make three prequels.

Welshman Richard Marquand directed Return of the Jedi incidentally. The importance of the Welsh sci-fi scene is often overlooked.

Awkward. Darth Vader accidentally confuses Star Wars with Star Trek. Idiot!

Otherwise, it must be said, that’s a pretty unimpressive top ten. I don’t think I’ve seen 7, 8 and 9 (I may or may not have seen Sudden Impact). I doubt Mr Mom was even shown at cinemas in the UK. Otherwise, Octopussy (which was actually partly filmed near Peterborough) is the worst James Bond film ever. Trading Places and WarGames are great ideas, poorly executed. Terms of Endearment was okay, I suppose, but surprisingly poor for a Best Oscar winner. I’m surprised Superman 3 didn’t make this list. Not that that was great either.

It should be mentioned the mid-1980s represents the absolute nadir of post-war cinema attendance. Only the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021 have been worse so far. Having peaked in the late 1940s, numbers declined steadily in the 1950s as TV and car ownership rose and went into absolute freefall in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s. Numbers recovered after 1985, helped no doubt, by the opening of the multiplexes I was moaning about earlier. I’m not sure how typical I was, as I was only a child but until about 1989, I often only went to the cinema once or twice myself.

Part of the problem, of course, was video. My family got their own first video player in 1983. The first films we rented were both time travel-related: Time Bandits and the 1960 Time Machine. I’m not sure what prompted my Dad (who generally dislikes sci-fi) to rent either. But I still love both films.

I also loved Return of the Jedi. Thirty years later, I would get to write the Star Wars Clone Wars annual. I’m glad I got to see one of the original Star Wars films on the big screen. This wouldn’t happen again until I was in my twenties.

Solo mission: If anyone can, Han can.

Book review: Stan Lee – How Marvel Changed The World

As far as the world of comics goes, Stan Lee was probably the most important person to have ever lived. Born to a Romanian-Jewish family in New York in 1922, young Stanley Lieber became involved in the world of comics early. An office boy in the 1930s, by the end of a frustrating 1950s, Lee came close to quitting the world of comics forever until his Newcastle-born British wife suggested he create a new crop of comic superheroes to challenge the near monopoly then enjoyed by Superman and Batman creators, D.C. In a remarkably short space of time, Lee created Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, Iron Man, The X-Men and The Avengers essentially establishing Marvel as the incredibly profitable global media powerhouse that it remains to this day. Happy ever after?
Well, no. Partly because, as Adrian Mackinder explains, the extent to which Lee can really claim complete credit for creating all these amazing characters remains hotly disputed. This is not a hagiography and while Lee was careful to cultivate a loveable avuncular image amongst Marvel’s armies of ‘True Believers,’ Mackinder, though clearly a big fan himself, does not shy away from exploring the less desirable elements of Lee’s character.


In short, Mackinder not only does a commendable job of detailing the highs, lows, creative explosions, fallings out and film cameos which made up Lee’s almost 96 years on Earth but also does a commendable job of explaining the cultural context in which they occurred. In addition to Lee’s life, we also learn a lot not only about the history of Marvel comics, but also get much on how vaudeville declined in the teeth of competition from radio and cinema in the 1920s and 1930s and much of interest about ALL comic adaptations on TV and film over the decades, not just the Marvel ones. It is easy to forget, despite the renaissance in comic book based films in the 21st century,, just how many flops there also were (Daredevil, Elektra, Ghost Rider, to name but a few).
I must admit: I have sometimes written about the history of comics myself. But ultimately, I must put aside any feelings of professional jealousy and concede: Adrian Mackinder really has done an exceptional job here.
Nuff said.

Book review: Stan Lee – How Marvel Changed The World, by Adrian Mackinder. Published by: Pen & Sword, White Owl.

Book review: The Impossible Has Happened by Lance Parkin

The Impossible Has Happened

The Impossible Has Happened: The Life and Work of Gene Roddenberry, Creator of Star Trek. Author: Lance Parkin. Aurum Press. Published: July 21st 2016.

It has been fifty years since the creation of Star Trek and the franchise is undeniably going strong. A new film and TV series are both scheduled to appear later this year.

Twenty five years after his death, the reputation of the series creator Gene Roddenberry is more uncertain. On the one hand, he has been subject to a personality cult almost as elaborate as that surrounding Scientology creator and sci-fi author, L. Ron Hubbard. On the other hand, he has been sometimes unfairly demonised as a fraud, a philanderer and a phoney. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between.

He was born in 1921 and served with distinction as a pilot in the Second World War. After the war, ironically he came very close to death in a Pan Am air crash which killed seven people in 1947. He served in the US police force drifting into TV writing and creating one non-Star Trek series, a police-themed one called The Lieutenant. He then created Star Trek which ran for three series between 1966 and 1968. At the time, it was neither very successful or a failure. The TV series of Mission Impossible which ran at about the same time was probably more successful. Mr Spock actor, Leonard Nimoy indeed joined the Mission Impossible cast after Star Trek ended. But unexpectedly, Star Trek became a huge success after it had ended through syndicated repeat showings. The show just grew and grew and grew.

Many of the myths surrounding Star Trek seem to come from stories Roddenberry himself, often from tales spun by him at science fiction conventions in the 1970s. Some had the commendable aim of consolidating a following for the series, but others clearly had more to do with Roddenberry’s ego. Yes, the series did end after three series but Roddenberry’s claims that it was ended unfairly by small-minded producers don’t add up. By that stage, it had no longer been profitable and the last series was significantly worse than the others. Roddenberry also subsequently exaggerated his own role as a champion of equality and civil rights claiming falsely that he fought narrow-minded studio heads over the issue In fact, though he wasn’t racist by mid-20th century standards, the 1960s series only ever featured as many other minorities as most other US TV series of the time. Nichelle Nicholls’ Uhura, for example, was barely ever given anything important to do. She was one of many women Roddenberry had affairs with and in truth, the original series really didn’t have a progressive role towards women at all.

Leonard Nimoy certainly grew to hate Roddenberry. Roddenberry would often claim sole credit for the success of the series, ignoring the contribution of many others. He had no role at all in the making of the most acclaimed film in the series, 1982’s The Wrath of Khan (which he hated) and his own increasingly drunken, ageing cocaine-addled influence partly explains why the ultimately excellent Next Generation series had such a dull start.

Author Lance Parkin provides a balanced portrait of a man who for all his many flaws took TV on a journey where no one had gone before.

StarTrekFEATURE

Star Wars timeline: From A New Hope to The Force Awakens

forceawakens

A long time ago…

1977:

The first film, initially entitled just Star Wars is released. It is an unexpectedly big hit, easily beating its nearest rivals Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Smokey and the Bandit to become the biggest US film of 1977. Taking inflation into account, as of 2021, it is the second biggest grossing film of all time, after Gone With The Wind. None of the younger members of the cast are well known at the time of the film’s release. Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia)j is the daughter of actors Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. Harrison Ford (Han Solo), an ex-carpenter had appeared in director George Lucas’s second film American Graffiti and was due to be in the then unreleased, much delayed Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now (1979).  Mark Hamill plays Luke Skywalker, a character Lucas once envisaged being called “Luke Starkiller”.

1978:

Star Wars is nominated for the Best Picture Oscar but loses to Woody Allen’s acclaimed comedy, Annie Hall. No other Star Wars films have been nominated for Best Picture his in the years since. In fact, no science fiction film has ever won the Best Picture Oscar (although James Cameron’s Avatar appears to have come close in 2010).

The first toys and novelisations of the saga appear. Some of the books contradict things which occur later in the films. Some feature Luke and Leia marrying, for example.

The famously terrible Star Wars Holiday Special is broadcast on US TV.

star-wars-cinematography

1980:

Star Wars Episode V The Empire Strikes Back is released.  The first film is now dubbed, Star Wars Episode IV A New Hope (in 1981) and prequels are clearly planned for the future. The Empire Strikes Back is directed not by George Lucas but by Irvin Kershner. New characters include Yoda, Lando Calrissian and Boba Fett. Debate continues to rage as to whether A New Hope or Empire is the better film.

Hamill also appears in Sam Fuller’s World War II drama The Big Red One this year, in a largely futile bid to escape typecasting.

empire

1982:

Star Trek II changes its name from The Vengeance of Khan to The Wrath of Khan, to avoid any confusion with the forthcoming Star Wars film which is expected to be called, Revenge of the Jedi.  In the end, the Star Wars sequel’s name is itself changed to Return of the Jedi anyway.

1983:

Episode VI Return of the Jedi directed by Welshman Richard Marquand is released. It is fondly remembered for the Ewoks and for Jabba the Hutt but is usually considered narrowly the worst of the original trilogy. It is still a smash hit though. There will be no more official Star Wars films for another 16 years. Indeed, at this point, Lucas seems less keen on the idea of ever producing episodes I-III at any point at all.

President Reagan, a Star Wars fan, calls his new ambitious (and ultimately unworkable) Strategic Defence Initiative, “Star Wars”.

star-wars-return-of-the-jedi

1984:

TV movie Caravan Of Courage: An Ewok Adventure is released. A follow up Ewoks: The Battle For Endor is released in 1985.

cindel-caravan-courage-ewoks

1985-1987:

The Ewoks, an animated series aimed at younger children, runs for two series.

1985-1986:

Animated series, Droids starring C3P0 and R2D2 runs for one series, with Anthony Daniels reprising his role as C3PO. It is set somewhere before A New Hope but after the three as yet unmade prequels.

1987:

Ten years on from Star Wars, George Lucas seems to have abandoned plans for any Star Wars prequels and is distracted by Indiana Jones and Star Wars related projects as well as the aftermath of his divorce.

Star Wars has also trigged a sci-fi boom at the movies since 1977.

Carrie Fisher begins a career as a successful novelist with her semi-autobiographical novel, Postcards From The Edge. Despite a troubled personal life, she enjoys smallish roles in The Blues Brothers, Hannah and Her Sisters and When Harry Met Sally during the decade. Harrison Ford is now one of the biggest stars in Hollywood thanks more to Indiana Jones and well-received roles in the likes of Witness and Blade Runner than specifically due to Star Wars itself. Hamill, stung after being rejected for Tom Hulce’s role in Amadeus (1984) has taken a break from acting.

Mel Brooks releases his rather belated Star Wars spoof Spaceballs. Featuring Pizza the Hutt and the catchphrase “the Schwartz be with you,” it receives mixed reviews.

Jedi director Richard Marquand dies suddenly, age 49.

george-lucas-museum

1992:

Now in his forties, Mark Hamill begins voicing The Joker, for Batman The Animated Series. It proves to be probably his most successful non-Star Wars role and leads to lots of other voice work.

1993:

Lucas announces plans to make three films set before the 1977-83 trilogy, after all.

yoda-main

1994:

Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin) dies, aged 81.

1997

To mark the franchise’s 20th birthday Special Editions of all three films are all released. Although many fans are keen to see the films on the big screen, many are annoyed by the sometimes intrusive changes Lucas inserts into these and later new editions.

1999:

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is released. It is directed by George Lucas and is his first film as director since 1977’s Star Wars. He also directs the two subsequent sequels Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. The cast (with the exception of newcomer Jake Lloyd who plays young Anakin) are, unlike the 1977 film, mostly quite well known already: Ewan McGregor , Natalie Portman, Liam Neeson and Samuel L. Jackson.

The Phantom Menace makes more money than any of the first six Star Wars films (ignoring inflation).

The film disappoints many however, criticism (now often on the newly established internet) largely centring on, the racial stereotyping evident in the character of some of the alien species, the character of Jar Jar Binks and the apparent overuse of CGI (and many other things). The character of Darth Maul proves popular, however.

Phantom-Menace-screencaps-star-wars-the-phantom-menace-27341714-1280-720

2000:

Sir Alec Guinness (Obi-Wan Kenobi) dies age 86. He did not enjoy the production of Star Wars (Harrison Ford dubbed him “Mother Superior” on set) but liked the finished product when he saw it. The role did make him very rich but he disliked the fact that he was soon better known for it than anything else in his forty years on screen.

Obi-Wan-Kenobi_6d775533

2002:

Episode II Attack of the Clones is released with Hayden Christiansen (then largely unknown) joins the cast as the older Anakin. A light sabre fight featuring Yoda proves popular and generally the film is slightly better received than Phantom (although does much less business).

Star-Wars-Episode-II-Attack-of-the-Clones

2003:

Genndy Tartakovsky produces Clone Wars, an acclaimed animated series set between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.

darth_maul_clone_wars_a_l

2005:

Episode III Revenge of the Sith, the third and final prequel is released. It is much more popular than either Phantom or Clones with fans and is the second highest grossing SW film thus far (ignoring inflation). Most fans prefer the 1977-83 trilogy, however. There are to be no more proper Star Wars films for another decade.

2008:

Star Wars: The Clone Wars, an animated film is released. It is panned by the critics and flops at the box office. Despite this, a new Star Wars: Clone Wars TV series begins. Tartakovsky, who was behind the first Clone Wars series is not involved.

clone wars annual

2010:

Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner dies aged 86.

2012:

Disney buys the Star Wars franchise off Lucas for $4.05 billion or £2.5 billion. Plans for a new trilogy, the first directed by J.J Abrams, then at the helm of the two recent Star Trek films.

2013:

Clone Wars is cancelled as focus shifts towards the new films.

2014:

Star Wars Rebels, a 3D CGI animated series set between Revenge of the Sith but before A New Hope begins.

dooku

2015:

Rogue One, a spin off Star Wars film is due for release in 2016, followed by another spin-off film based around Han Solo’s early years.

Ford, scheduled to feature in The Force Awakens is slightly injured in a light aircraft crash. His 73rd birthday is in July.

Christopher Lee (Count Dooku in the prequels, though better known for many other roles) dies aged 93.

The Force Awakens is released in July.

force awakens