Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Science Fiction Theatre: Postcard From Barcelona

The subject of this month’s post was selected based on a temporary move to Spain, and the ‘Postcard from Barcelona’ reference proved impossible to resist! The title is borrowed from episode 30 of the 1950s-60s American science fiction television series, Science Fiction Theatre, a forerunner to programmes like the Twilight Zone, also featured here in a recent post.

Hosted by the film actor and former war correspondent Truman Bradley, each episode would begin with a simple science experiment, related in some way to the theme of the show. The shadow of war loomed large in experiments that would demonstrate the power of electron beams or the destruction of model cities, but this was usually tempered by optimism about the potential scientific advances to be made. For example, the intro to Postcard from Barcelona focuses on the construction of solar powered space stations; Bradley comments, ‘solar power can give man a powerful weapon with which to destroy himself or it can give us scientific opportunities for discoveries that will benefit the world’.

The topic of the episode extrapolates from the idea that these space stations already exist and were built by aliens to collect scientific data about Earth. The mysterious postcards from Barcelona (perhaps a suitably exotic and alien location for 1950s America) are received by the scientist Dr Keller, found dead at the beginning of the story, who is described as ‘the greatest scientist of the age’. It transpires that both Keller’s ‘sub-quantum theory of the universe’ and the compound elements for a numerical wonder drug were posted to the doctor exactly a year before he announced them to the world. The episode ends with a final postcard, sent in the code language of cybernetics, from the life forms to whom Keller owes his discoveries. The mantle then passes to his daughter and two former colleagues to keep the secret of the alien space station orbiting Earth.

While the scientific content in the series was minimal by today’s standards, real-world technologies and scientific problems were often the point of departure for the stories. The wider popularisation of science in this period was influenced by the craze for hobbyist magazines, which would usually also publish SF (described then as scientific fiction). Titles such as Modern Electrics, Electrical Experimenter and Amazing Stories, published by Hugo Gernsback in the 1930s, were later followed by a proliferation of anthologies and cheap paperback novels during the post-WWII publishing boom. The ascendency of television in the 1950s explains the emergence of a series like Science Fiction Theatre as part of this trend.

It's not surprising, then, that in the re-imagining of 1950s America in Back to the Future, Science Fiction Theatre features as George McFly’s favourite TV programme...


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