“The problem with the future is that it keeps turning into the present” – The rise and rise of British sci-fi TV (part one)

The history of sci-fi on British TV is very much one of a reversal of fortunes from decade to decade, and a gradual growth in the popularity of the genre with both British audiences and critics. 

RUR cover Penguin Books, 2004

RUR cover, Penguin Books, 2004

The BBC produced and broadcast the first known television sci-fi programme in 1938, only 18 months after the station was launched. This was an adaptation of a section of Karel Capek’s play ‘R.U.R.’, a play about a future world where robots revolt against their human masters. It was performed live, as all BBC programmes were at the time. Quite soon after, the BBC shut down their TV operations as the Second World War began. The entire play was performed again in 1946, when the service was reinstated.

Further adaptations of well-known literary works, such as ‘War of the worlds’ followed, but it was not until 1953 that an original TV sci-fi was produced. This was ‘The Quatermass Experiment’ by Nigel Kneale; a hugely popular six-part serial that spawned a number of sequels and feature film adaptations. The use of SF themes as allegory was apparent here, with the Martian infection in ‘Quatermass and the Pit’ paralleling real life racial tensions in ‘50s Britain. 

‘Quatermass and the Pit’ was immensely popular – anecdotally it emptied the pubs each week – and a live adaptation of George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen eighty-four’ achieved the highest rating since the Coronation, and whether to ban the repeat, as the programme was considered so subversive, was debated in Parliament. 

But despite this apparent popularity of sci-fi TV with the viewers in the ‘50s, it was still produced rarely and mainly as one-off drama on the BBC, (and there was no alternative to BBC programming until 1955 when the independent television network – ITV – was founded.)

1960s – ITV leads the way

In the 1960s, ITV got interested in sci-fi, and their more commercial outlook gave the BBC pause for thought. Whilst working for ITV franchise holders ABC, a Canadian producer Sydney Newman instigated a number of original popular science fiction serials and space anthology series including ‘Pathfinders in Space’ and ‘Out of this world’. 

In 1962, the BBC, not slow to catch on, wrote a report on the viability of creating a brand new TV science fiction series. The year after, Sydney Newman moved to the BBC to become Head of Drama, a situation which led directly to the creation of ‘Doctor Who’. Taking advantage of the research already done, and his background in creating popular sci-fi television for ABC, Newman initiated the creation, and oversaw the development of the new series, along with Head of the Script Department, Donald Wilson and BBC staff writer CE Webber.  

‘Doctor Who’ was for British television what ‘Star Trek’ was to American television; a cult programme with only a small audience at first, but which grew bigger than its roots and has impacted upon all high concept genre programmes after it; it has now become part of mainstream popular culture, successfully re-invented for today’s audience. It lasted for 26 seasons in its original form, spawned two feature films, has been revived twice after being cancelled, and is now the BBC’s flagship Saturday evening entertainment show for the whole family. The current series (started with Russell T Davies and now has Steven Moffat at the helm,) has shown a weekly level of inventiveness and playfulness that has reinvigorated the show, and brought it to a whole new audience.

Back in the 1960s, ITV-produced sci-fi looked more glossy, more American, compared to the quirky, home-grown feel of ‘Doctor Who’. Now that its programming was not all broadcast live, the BBC filmed on videotape. This gave a resulting image quality not as high as film, which was the preferred method for American production. Consequently, American sci-fi series from the same era tend to look more glossy and higher in quality. ITV used film, like the Americans, rather than videotape, so their sci-fi series – ‘Danger Man’, ‘The Avengers’ and ‘The Saint’ had an immediate, international appeal, enabling them to sell the series abroad.

Another important independent producer whose work became popular in the ‘60s, was Gerry Anderson. Although he wanted to make live action films, he couldn’t get any funding so turned instead to making animated series with puppets. He wanted to make the best puppet shows that anyone had seen but their success was a double edged sword, as the puppets came to have a more enduring quality than his later live action productions. With their generally high production values; ‘Thunderbirds’, ‘Captain Scarlet’ and ‘Stingray’, are the series the audience remembers, not ‘UFO’ or ‘Space: 1999’, his two short-lived live action series. 

1970s – Doctor in the house

Sapphire and Steel box cover picture

Sapphire and Steel, A&E Home Video, 2004

The 1970s is generally considered to have been a very fertile time for British sci-fi TV, with landmark productions for both young and adult audiences. ‘Doctor Who’ was going through its strongest period with Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker in the lead role, and there were a number of other intelligent and enduring programmes, doing what speculative fiction does best, raising thought-provoking questions using allegory. For adults, the BBC’s series of MR James’ ‘Ghost stories at Christmas’ (1971-78), ‘The Stone Tape’ (1972, by ‘Quatermass’ writer Nigel Kneale) ‘Sapphire and Steel’ (ITV, 1979-1982), and for a younger audience, where the acceptance of a greater range of possibilities is very much a part of being young, ITV’s ‘The Tomorrow People’ (1973) and BBC’s ‘Children of the stones’ (1977).

1978 saw the BBC’s creation of another landmark in popular British SF; ‘Blake’s 7’. ‘Doctor Who’ regular writer Terry Nation, pitched the idea as ‘The Dirty Dozen’ in space, and it featured a gang of criminals who escape from the corrupt Galactic Federation. The moral ambiguity of the leading characters made them interesting, and it was not afraid of shocking the audience by killing off leading characters, ending its relatively short run in 1981. 

 But after the sci-fi TV heydays of the 1970s, Britain changed; not only in the sort of programming people wanted to watch, but the mood and aspirations of the viewers…

Read Part two of this article – The ’80s onward.

What’s your favourite British sci-fi TV series?

(Title quote from Calvin and Hobbes)

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