Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Earth is a long way from Arg!

Since the 1960s, science fiction and television have gone together like A Horse and another A Horse that love each other very much and dream of rearing a little foal. Caught up in the counterculture revolution, it was Director General of the BBC, Sir Hugh Green, who made the momentous decision to discard the first five episodes of a new drama featuring an avuncular gentleman and his struggle for PhD funding and instead expand on the final instalment, which saw the newly graduated Dr travel around various locations within a twenty mile radius of Television Centre in a police phonebox. Soon the small screen was awash with spacecraft, aliens and malevolent balloons called Rover. The public's fascination with all things science fictiony led to the commissioning of more expensive, and more successful shows, such as Star Trek in the US and Thunderbirds in the UK. When teenagers in the sixties weren't swinging around Carnaby Street in their Beatle wigs, they were sat on the sofa watching a bunch of oak-jawed puppets rescue some other puppets from puppet disasters with some futuristic puppet vehicles. Around the same time, science fiction became science fact, with the Apollo space programme landing men on the moon. And that, dear reader, is where it ALL WENT WRONG. Of course there were further series of intergalactic daring do over the next three decades, the original version of Battlestar Galactica for example, as well as The Tripods, Buck Rogers, Red Dwarf and the best-forgotten-no-matter-what-anyone-says Blake's 7, but increasingly science fiction became tethered to the mundane lives couch-based explorers had hoped to escape when they turned on the Little Black Box In The Corner Of The Room. Programmes with a science fiction theme, notably cartoons such as Transformers and Centurions, weren't so much bothered with transporting viewers to other worlds as they were with transporting them and their parents to their local toy shop where they could purchase plastic replicas of the show's main characters. Perhaps an equally cynical move was the paring of science fiction with that most unlikely of bedfellows, the gameshow. Nothing says 'the future' like Bruce Forsyth offering you the chance to win a cuddly toy and a washing machine in return for your dignity eh? Nevertheless I have fond, if somewhat hazy, memories of three particular sci-fi/gameshow cross-breeds that aired during my youth. These are they:

1) The Adventure Game

It is only in the past couple of years, thanks to extensive Google searching and expensive psycho-therapy, that I've come to accept that The Adventure Game actually existed and wasn't some made up memory of childhood caused by too much Sherbet Dip and Cherryade (a potent combination that I would only recommend to the most adventurous sugar fanatic). Ostensibly a kid's programme, the show attracted an adult audience and was moved from Saturday mornings to early evenings from series 2 onwards. And it was in this postprandial slot that I first came across the world of the Rangdo and his fellow shape-shifting dragons, the Argonds. From the planet Arg. Natch. Conveniently the dragons shape shifted into human form before the contestants arrived in order to avoid frightening them (and presumably the person in charge of the BBC special effects budget).

The programme was a sort of proto-Crystal Maze, with added C-list celebrities*. Three such 'names' appeared on Arg each week and had to solve puzzles set by the Argonds in order to win their passage back to Earth. The Argonds helped or hindered the contestants, depending on how well they were doing, and included Dagnor, who spoke backwards with an Australian accent, and the aforementioned Rangdo, who, from series 2, shape-shifted into an aspidistra atop a Doric column. It is quite possible that the creators of the show had read 'Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy'.

The puzzles were rather difficult, and much more mentally taxing than the sort of 'fill a cup with water up to a certain level' fare that appeared on the Crystal Maze. As a child I found them quite boring. What I really wanted to see was *drum roll* THE VORTEX! At the end of each show the contestants who hadn't been arbitrarily 'evaporated' by Rangdo were tasked with finding a way across a hexagonal white lattice towards the mean-spirited houseplant. They took it in turns with 'The Vortex', a sort of blue flashing smoky thing, super-imposed on the lattice by, what used to be called, 'TV wizardry'. Because of this, said The Vortex could not be seen by the celebs, so they had to use a combination of luck and guesswork (they were allowed to throw 'green cheese rolls', which they'd earned earlier in the show, at the intersections of the lattice to check for the presence of The Vortex). If they stepped into The Vortex they were evaporated, a process signalled by a red cloudy thing or a multi-coloured starburst depending on the series. To keep the show family friendly this 'evaporation' did not result in death, rather the unlucky contestants were made to walk back to Earth along the 'intergalactic highway'. Those who managed to reach the other side were rewarded with a shuttle back to Blighty. And not much else really. They truly were Simpler Timez *sigh*

Marvel at The Future, tremble at The Vortex.

*Including 80s stalwarts Bonnie Langford, Johnny Ball, Noel Edmonds, John Craven, Keith 'Cheggers' Chegwin and the wondrous Sarah Greene *swoon*

2) Cyberzone

The Adventure Game had included a super basic
BBC Micro powered puzzle, in which a dog had to be guided round a maze, but it wasn't until the 90s that Television People seemed to cotton on to the fact that 'ver yoof' were more likely to be squirrelled away in their bedrooms fiddling with Mario and Sonic than rolling a hoop around their estate or playing hopscotch. Unfortunately Cyberzone tried to make up for this belated realisation by using the, then cutting edge, 'virtual reality' technology. I say unfortunately because virtual reality was, quite frankly, shit. Home gamers had just been wowed by Mortal Kombat's 'realistic' graphics, modelled on real actors, and Star Fox's 3D worlds and VR looked hideously clunky in comparison. Although similar in graphical style to Star Fox, VR's frame rate was painfully slow and the environment created for Cyberzone was dull and blocky. I still made a point of watching it every bally week though.

The show was hosted by Craig Charles, who also starred as Lister in the Beeb's science fiction sitcom, Red Dwarf, which had just finished its third series. Despite annoyingly shouting "awooga" at every possible opportunity (years before John Fashanu adopted the same catchphrase when presenting Gladiators), Charles's humour was infectious and he pretty much saved the show. Although the graphics weren't much cop they needed ALL the processing power available in 1993, which meant that, when contestants strapped on their virtual reality helmet and gloves, they were presented with such 'puzzles' as 'shoot the duck' and 'move the box from one place to another'. Although visitors to the Cyberzone could walk and perform an 'action', they could not do both at the same time and the collision detection was so bad that my main memory of the series is Charles corpsing while a contestant ran into, or rather ran somewhere near, the corner of a computer generated house, over and over again, wondering why they weren't progressing towards their goal. Laughs aside, Cyberzone did not make for a particularly satisfactory televisual experience and was cancelled after its first series.

 "Awooga" indeed Mr Charles.

3) GamesMaster

The year before Cyberzone aired on BBC2, Channel 4 had produced their own sci-fi inspired computer game gameshow. GamesMaster took place first in a church and then on an oil rig in a vaguely post-apocalyptic future/present. The programme featured game reviews, a cheat section, whereby viewers would be granted an audience with the eponymous GamesMaster (Patrick Moore's head superimposed on a computer generated background) to ask for help and advice with their favourite video games, and several 'Golden Joystick challenges', with contestants battling against each other/for the highest score on classic titles such as Street Fighter II and Tetris. God it was good. Presenter Dominic Diamond had a cynical, surly sense of humour, and occasionally seemed to step over the line of acceptable behaviour expected from the host of a teatime show. This obviously went down very well with my early teenage self. The reviewers were snarky too and the fleeting glimpses of as-yet-unreleased games set my heart a-quiver. Sadly Channel 4 had to go and spoil it by saying something stupid like... Dexter Fletcher. For reasons best known to themselves, GamesMaster's broadcasting overlords replaced Diamond with the boilersuited mockney tosspot for series 3. This change coincided with the frequent disappearance of the review section and an increasing reliance on 'joystick challenges' with celebrity guests. Diamond was brought back from series 4 until the show was eventually cancelled in 1998 after seven seasons, but it was never quite the same.

 GamesMaster Series 1. The REAL freakin' deal.

Friday, 23 November 2012

'The diagram of her bones...'

Skull from the HPS Museum
I have a problem. I’m a serial volunteer. At one stage, I even suspected I might be on the path to becoming a professional volunteer but the necessity of paid work won out in the end... One of my latest volunteer incarnations is as a taskforce member of the Museum of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, at the University of Leeds. For the past few weeks, every time I've been down to their collections store, I’ve become distracted by animal skeletons from the biology collection. I struggle to explain why I’m drawn to these old, flaking bones but there’s something about the receding surfaces and porous textures that puts me in mind of a set of ruined vessels (which I suppose, in a sense, they are). The skulls, with their decayed, uneven teeth, are like alien forms, eerie and other-worldly, yet incredibly tactile. In truth, I think part of the appeal of these bones lies in the fact that I can touch and handle them. I find myself completely absorbed, and wonder if I’m experiencing something of what J.G. Ballard calls ‘the spinal landscape’ in ‘The Coming of the Unconscious’, an essay on surrealism. Of The Eye of Silence by Max Ernst he writes:
This spinal landscape, with its frenzied rocks towering into the air above the silent swamp, has attained an organic life more real than that of the solitary nymph sitting in the foreground. These rocks have the luminosity of organs freshly exposed to the light. The real landscapes of our world are seen for what they are -- the palaces of flesh and bone that are the living facades enclosing our own subliminal consciousness.
Heavily influenced by the surrealists, Ballard’s writing frequently alludes to internal landscapes and bodily geographies. An episode from his 1970 novel The Atrocity Exhibition called ‘The Geometry of Her Face’ focuses on the character’s attempt to make sense of himself and his surroundings, which is resolved at last in the structure of a woman’s face: ‘the diagram of her bones formed a key to his own postures and musculature’. Although I’ve compared them to alien forms, I can also relate to this dull, instinctive sense of recognition through my encounter with the animal bones.
Rhino skull from the HPS Museum
The juxtaposition of the strange and the familiar has been explored by the artist William Cobbing, who cites Ballard as an influence. On a recent visit to the Wellcome Collection, I saw his work, Palindrome, a modified artificial human skeleton, with a skull for a pelvis and a pelvis for a skull. Cobbing was inspired to create the piece by a section from The Atrocity Exhibition, in which the character imagines that ‘the bones of the pelvis may constitute the remains of a lost sacral skull’. Something resonates about this anatomical reconfiguration. In viewing Palindrome, quite apart from the fact I couldn’t decide where to look, I was confronted with a superficially alien anatomy that was also irreducibly human.
So, from the University’s biology collection to the Wellcome Collection (via a few detours), those bones have got a lot to answer for...
Visit the Wellcome Collection’s blog, where Palindrome was featured as object of the month.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The Museum in Science Fiction

I recently came across an essay by Robert Crossley called ‘In the Palace of Green Porcelain: Artefacts from the Museums of Science Fiction’. Referencing the green porcelain palace featured in H.G. Wells’ novel The Time Machine, Crossley describes this as ‘the most memorable of all science fictional museums’, going on to argue that ‘Wells saw the institution of the museum as an immediately accessible icon for the narrative’s philosophical concerns with nature and culture, time and change’.

I found the concept of this essay interesting; Crossley notes the frequent appearance of the museum in SF narratives, and suggests the museum’s concern with history and the development of societies is reflected in the speculative aspects of SF, and its projections about how the consequences of historical events might play out in the future. His essay draws on examples from Olaf Stapledon (Last and First Men), Arthur C. Clarke (Childhood’s End) and J.G. Ballard (The Drowned World), where the museum is used variously as the key to decoding lost civilisations, the palace of earth’s alien overlords and a decadent monument to a world overtaken by environmental disaster.

Other examples I could think of included the Natural History Museum of China MiĆ©ville’s Kraken, which opens with the robbery of a giant squid specimen and the 1965 Dr Who story, The Space Museum, a series, I’m reliably informed (like the museum it portrays), goes to pieces after the first episode.

In at least three of these cases, as with the aforementioned palace of green porcelain, the appearance of the museum serves to highlight the fragility of humanity’s cultural achievements; the museum and its artefacts are depicted as ruins, as part of the jumble of human detritus. Aside from the obvious museum/graveyard analogy, it struck me that this general disorder disrupts the narratives of progress represented in the layout of museums. Furthermore, the SF genre itself challenges these narratives to the extent that it often explores scenarios where the events of history are cyclical, and humanity develops only to regress again.

The choice of artefacts encountered in SF museums is also interesting; the dinosaur bones and decayed books of Wells’ palace present a sharp contrast to the surrealist paintings and ceremonial altars of Ballard’s treasure ship. It got me thinking about the fact that in all the SF museums I’ve come across, I can’t recall a SF collection, a kind of history of the future, ever being featured (although I’m prepared to be proven wrong on that). What do collections of this sort tell us, I wonder? And if the museum expresses the concerns of the SF genre in a microcosm, how does the genre regard itself when it becomes one of the artefacts on display?

Dr Who: The Space Museum Trailer from Youtube.