The apocalypse in popular culture - science fiction on screen in the 1970s
Just as popular music at the beginning of the 1970s was for the most part in retreat from the increasingly grim headlines in the daily newspapers, a similar battening down of the hatches appeared to happen in those other bastions of popular culture, television and cinema.
The TV schedules were packed with crass variety shows, stuffy historical dramas and cheerfully racist sitcoms, the only sign of the socio-cultural advances of the previous few years being an increase in more risqué material reaching the screen. This was reflected in British film too – the high production values of the James Bond franchise continued to be popular with moviegoers, but it’s the low-brow naughtiness of the Carry On films that still dominated the box office, culminating in the softcore sex comedy of the wildly successful Confessions Of A Window Cleaner (1974) and its sequels.
Yet the fears and preoccupations of everyday life inevitably crept into the TV and film of the day. In Britain, there were just three television channels throughout the ‘70s, which meant that it was hard to avoid the news programmes and current affairs shows that held a mirror up to what was actually happening in the world. From real-time reports on the Vietnam War’s bloody denouement, hijacked planes on runways or sectarian violence on the streets of Belfast, to documentaries on the latest famine in Africa, the dangers of pollution or the impending energy crisis, visions of a gloomy present began to seep into the cracks of popular culture.
The likelihood of encountering unvarnished reality wasn’t so pronounced in the cinema, where audiences tended to avoid paying to be depressed, but the sense of threat and paranoia found its way into many of Hollywood’s top-grossing films of the time, particularly in the popular disaster movie genre which spawned the likes of Airport (1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974). The 1970s is also the golden age of the political conspiracy thriller, with films such as The Parallax View (1974), 3 Days Of The Condor (1975) and All The President’s Men (1976) reflecting the population’s growing unease with, and sometimes outright distrust of, the political institutions that increasingly seemed unable to provide a stable centre in people’s lives.
But the genre that was most intent on turning an apocalyptic, dystopian worldview into popular entertainment in the 1970s was science fiction. While there had always been a strong element of ‘warning’ in its portrayal of what potentially lay ahead for mankind, ‘70s SF went into absolute overdrive in depicting all manner of doomsday scenarios and bleak futures, particularly via the medium of TV and film. By dealing in the notionally fantastical, science fiction programming and moviemaking was given free rein to imagine the worst and then extrapolate onwards.
And of course, it played on many of the same concepts and ideas that Hawkwind were concurrently channelling through their music, lyrics and mythology: concern for the planet’s ecosystem; suspicion of the emerging technocratic society; contempt for the totalitarian mindset.
Just as Hawkwind used science fiction as a vehicle to not only metaphorically blast into the void, but also to dramatise the gathering darkness of the world they lived in, so too did TV and film use SF as a way to address and magnify contemporary issues – consciously or otherwise – while providing ‘escapist’ entertainment. Both embraced the psychic tenor of the times to produce popular culture in a genre that, while often derided by the critical establishment, was entirely appropriate given the genuine fear of the future that was beginning to permeate mainstream society.
Science fiction TV
There’s perhaps no better illustration of the way in which attitudes had changed in science fiction TV from the ‘60s to the ‘70s than the evolution of Saturday evening viewing staple, Doctor Who (1963-). Initially aimed at children, and still theoretically produced with a young audience in mind, the programme had quickly adopted more complex themes as it became apparent that a large section of its audience consisted of adults, from slumming intelligentsia to acid-fried freaks alike.
The programme was broadcast in colour for the first time in 1970, with Jon Pertwee taking on the role as the newly incarnated third Doctor. A defining feature of the Pertwee years was the number of stories set on present day earth – previously able to move through time and space at will, the Doctor finds himself exiled to our world and forced to become ‘scientific advisor’ to specialist military taskforce UNIT. Instead of outwitting aliens on distant planets, he’s now faced with various existential threats to humanity that chimed with the worries and paranoias of a real world seemingly on the brink of destruction.
Pertwee’s first season as The Doctor is particularly noteworthy in this respect. In ‘Inferno’, drilling into the earth’s crust to release a new energy source precipitates an environmental disaster, while in a parallel reality, Britain has become a fascist regime and the monarchy has been executed. In ‘The Ambassadors Of Death’, a space mission is derailed by a conspiracy from within the Government which results in radioactive aliens coming to earth who can kill with a touch. In ‘The Silurians’, the planet’s former reptilian masters awake to reclaim their world from the monkey upstarts who’ve taken over. And in ‘Spearhead From Space’, the alien Nestene Consciousness is able to animate anything made of plastic, from a fake leather chair to shop window dummies, a blunt metaphor for the by-products of consumer society rising up to kill us.
This theme would persist throughout the Pertwee years, with the most famous – and terrifying – example being ‘The Green Death’, where pollution from a chemical company being secretly run by super computer BOSS creates a squirming lake of giant mutant maggots in a Welsh mine. Other examples include the return of the Nestene Consciousness in ‘Terror Of The Autons’ and the Silurians’ fishy cousins ‘The Sea Devils’, while ‘Invasion Of The Dinosaurs’ sees a fanatical environmental organisation – again, in cahoots with part of the Government – attempt to return the earth to its unspoilt primordial state, a plan ominously referred to as Operation Golden Age. The sense that “we took the wrong step years ago”, and that the political/capitalist establishment can’t be trusted, is implicit throughout these stories. (1)
There’s a strong theme of militant environmentalism (coupled with anti-scientific rhetoric) in other science fictional TV dramas of the time too. Doomwatch (1970-72) (2) features a special government agency tasked with investigating bizarre accidents and events where it’s usually shown that rogue scientists or industrialists have over-stepped the mark. Threats to society’s well-being include a plastic-eating virus causing planes to fall out of the sky and attacks by rats with artificially-enhanced intelligence, while in the 1972 film version, pollution in the food chain results in deformities and homicidal behaviour on a remote Scottish island.
In Survivors (1975-77) (3), most of the world’s population is wiped out by a plague released by a careless scientist who infects himself in a botched experiment and then compounds his error by travelling to many of the world’s major cities – all of this background information is conveyed in the opening credits, by far the programme’s most chilling sequence. Polite society quickly devolves into back-to-the-land medieval agrarianism, although as the series progresses, it starts to resemble a post-apocalyptic version of iconic ‘70s sitcom The Good Life (1975-78), which itself has at its heart the ecology movement’s mantra of self-sufficiency and rejection of the rat race.
Perhaps more frightening than either of these was The Changes (1975), a children’s teatime drama series broadcast before the early evening news. In the opening episode, a high-pitched sound causes people to spontaneously destroy electrical items and machinery before abandoning the cities and returning to the countryside. Its vision of a rapid breakdown of society and a return to a pre-technological age was particularly chilling because the children involved are helpless bystanders to their parents’ destructive rage.
Also implicit was the sense that the fabric of modern life was more vulnerable than it seemed and could be torn apart in an instant. At the series’ conclusion, the cause of the disruption is found to be an ancient sentient stone re-awakened from the time of Merlin, and attempting to return the world to as it was before science had sullied man’s relationship with nature.
All of these programmes were BBC productions, but the commercial ITV channels also contributed to this very British strand of apocalyptic television – and as with the BBC, much of it was apparently aimed at scaring the living daylights out of children. Timeslip (1970-71) features its two young heroes travelling into various alternate versions of the future where once again science and technocracy are shown to be corrupting influences on mankind’s progress. The story ‘The Year Of The Burn Up’ – in which soaring temperatures due to man’s interference with the ecosystem lead to an environmental breakdown – is particularly pertinent.
While not quite as apocalyptic in tone, but still frightening and fiendishly complex for a children’s drama, Children Of The Stones (1977) combines science fiction and pagan horror, with the inhabitants of a village brainwashed into docility by an energy beam from deep space focused by a megalithic stone circle. And even The Tomorrow People (1973-79), ITV’s competitor series to Doctor Who, features a group of teenagers who are the next evolutionary step on for mankind, the ‘Homo Superior’ prophesised by David Bowie in ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ (4)
Encapsulating all of these themes, the ITV/Euston Films production of Quatermass (1979) is surely the bleakest, most dystopian vision of Britain shown on primetime television in the 1970s. Created by Nigel Kneale, the original Quatermass serial broadcast by the BBC in 1953 became one of the first pieces of ‘event TV’, with viewers glued to the screen week after week as Kneale’s macabre tale of alien invasion by stealth gradually unfolded. In this, and the two sequels that followed, Professor Quatermass is portrayed as headstrong yet resourceful, the only man smart enough to best the various alien threats that mankind faces.
Yet in this final serial, Quartermass – as played by Sir John Mills – is an almost beaten figure, dejected by the ruined urban environment and decadent culture of a world going rapidly to the dogs. His granddaughter has fallen in with the Planet People, a wandering community of proto-New Age Travellers who assemble at stone circles in the hope of being taken away from Earth by the perennial golden people in the sky. Sure enough, one group disappears in a blinding flash of light, but it soon becomes clear that, rather than achieving a state of celestial oneness, they’ve been incinerated and harvested as food by a malevolent alien intelligence.
Broadcast at the end of the ‘70s, Kneale had actually written the final part of the Quatermass quartet in 1973 (5), and it’s almost certain that news reports on the contemporary counterculture, at a time when Hawkwind ruled the underground, would have fed into its creation. (6) In fact, what’s particularly interesting about the ITV Quatermass is its portrayal of the Planet People as a feckless and amoral mass of chanting, scruffy hippies who have turned their backs on the broken modern world rather than try to fix it, and are instead seeking salvation among the stars – Kneale might have divined this exact same scenario from the first few Hawkwind albums.
For all his rare insight as a writer into what scares us, Kneale was as confounded by the counterculture as many other members of the older generation – in Quatermass (as opposed to The Changes), it’s only the elderly who can resist the alien call to gather and be consumed, and there’s a hint of comeuppance when the self-righteous hippies end up being burnt to ash.
Science fiction cinema
The limited choice of viewing on TV meant that regular visits to the cinema were one of the few alternative sources of entertainment for young people. But here as well, science fiction had gone from creating exciting visions of the coming space age to offering umpteen premonitions of doom that reflected the uneasy mood of the 1970s. It’s also worth bearing in mind that, unlike the first golden age of SF cinema in the 1950s, the great majority of these films weren’t conceived as drive-in B-movies, but were serious A-list efforts aimed at entertaining/terrifying a mass audience.
The two most notable SF films of the countercultural ‘60s had been 2001: A Space Odyssey and Barbarella, both released in 1968 and infused with the spirit of the age. 2001 might feature a malevolent computer intent on ridding the ship of its human crew, but it was the incredible visuals that captivated cinemagoers, with the astonishing ‘star gate’ sequence in particular reproducing the intense colours and imagery of LSD – “the ultimate trip” as it would subsequently be advertised. The film’s core theme – of man’s evolution being guided by a godlike alien force – also chimes with the supposed dawning of the Aquarian Age, the birth of the Starchild at its conclusion symbolising the coming of a new state of higher consciousness.
Barbarella may be less philosophically inclined, but offers the kitsch fetishisation of technology and space travel, as well as a nod towards female empowerment (7). However, as was often the case in the real world, the tenets of free love are here equated with insatiable sexual desire, such that Barbarella avoids being pleasured to death by short-circuiting her antagonist’s Excessive Machine, womankind triumphant via orgasmic emancipation. (8)
However, once the 1970s begins, science fiction’s traditional ‘sense of wonder’ is sucked out of movie SF, with those films released in the first half of the decade in particular being uniformly pessimistic about the future. What’s also striking is how many of them are inherently critical of the countercultural impulses of only a few years previous, the rejection of the straight world conflated with more obvious end times signifiers such as war, pollution and disease.
In The Omega Man (1971), Charlton Heston is the last ‘normal’ man on Earth waging a war against a vampiric ‘brotherhood’ who stalk the streets at night, the remnants of a population wiped out by germ warfare – with their cloaks and shades, and talk of the evil world of “technological man”, they function as a stand-in for ‘hippie cults’ such as the Process Church, even the Manson Family. The opening sequence has Heston driving through a deserted Los Angeles, before stopping off at a cinema to watch the Woodstock movie – the intention is perhaps to contrast the Utopian vibe of the festival with the hellish reality of the present, but as Heston tersely mouths along with Country Joe & The Fish, the curl of his lip suggests that the breakdown of civilised society starts right here.
The hermetically-sealed future world of Logan’s Run (1976) offers another jaundiced vision of what happens if you let the Woodstock generation take charge. As Dr. James Riley, cultural historian at Cambridge University, says, “This is what the world would be like if you gave into leisure and hedonism, if you allowed young people constitutional and institutional control. You would end up with a short-sighted, pleasure-oriented, non-productive culture.” And their solution to the contemporary big issue of over-population is to kill anyone over the age of 30.
A Clockwork Orange (1971) features an even less flattering portrayal of the younger generation, with gangs of bizarrely-attired youth indulging in mindless sex and violence, and generally being a menace to society. Based on the Anthony Burgess novel from 1962, which had been inspired by the rise of Teddy Boy gangs, Stanley Kubrick’s updating channels more recent moral panics around mods, rockers and skinheads, but goes relatively easy on the hippie counterculture. Not so the pseudo-documentary Punishment Park (1971) where various radicals and undesirables ie. anti-Vietnam War protesters, are rounded up, subjected to kangaroo court-style interrogations by outraged members of straight society, and then slowly hunted down by the National Guard in the Californian desert.
Ecological degradation is a key theme in ‘70s SF film as much as it is on the small screen. No Blade Of Grass (1970) begins with a protracted sequence surveying a despoiled world and a gloomy voiceover declaiming, “By the beginning of the ‘70s, man had brought the destruction of his environment close to the point of no return… And then one day, the polluted earth could take no more.” The theme song rams the point home: “We’ve circled Mars, and we’ve walked on the Moon… / But no blade of grass here and no blue above / No you and me, it’s the end of life.” (9) And that’s before the film has even properly started with its dismal tale of a plant virus that leads to global famine, food riots and attacks on decent folk by rampaging biker gangs.
In Silent Running (1972), the last of Earth’s vegetation has been blasted into orbit in a series of gigantic bio-domes. Told to abandon the mission, eco-hippie Bruce Dern refuses to comply and kills his crewmates before setting course for Saturn. With only robot gardeners for company and Joan Baez on the soundtrack, it’s little wonder he becomes increasingly deranged. Soylent Green (1973), another SF outing for Charlton Heston, also refers to “the greenhouse effect” and a year-long heatwave, but its main theme is chronic over-population. In the euthanasia clinics where the elderly are encouraged to end their lives, the soon-to-be deceased slip away to video montages of vanished forests and mountain streams – it’s the film’s most poignant and disturbing scene. And in Z.P.G. (Zero Population Growth) (1972), childbirth is forbidden altogether in a world choking on smog, with would-be parents forced instead to adopt creepy walking/talking dolls.
A fear of the coming technocratic society is also implicit in many of the SF films of this era. George Lucas’s THX 1138 (1971) is perhaps the most extreme example – a drug-numbed population under constant surveillance engages in regimented tasks in computerised factories. Sexual intercourse is forbidden, confession booths repeat pre-recorded platitudes, and shiny robotic policemen subdue subversives with long sticks (10) while cheerfully asking “What’s wrong?” There’s a strange opacity to the film which actually works as a thematic metaphor: it’s unclear how and why society has developed like this, or what the purpose of it is – all that matters is the propagation of the system itself.
In Rollerball (1975), corporations have taken over the running of the world. War has been eradicated, and instead, the game of Rollerball – a vicious mash-up of roller derby and speedway – has been invented to channel any latent aggression in the population. Designed to illustrate the futility of individual endeavour, one player inevitably bucks the system. And Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) shows just why you shouldn’t place too much faith in technology – an intelligent computer system created by the US to protect itself against nuclear attack instead teams up with its Russian counterpart to take over the running of all human affairs. (11)
Colossus: The Forbin Project is notable for being the only film of the period to explicitly reference the real world balance of terror. The previous decade had produced a series of films about how a nuclear war might start and what its immediate aftermath might be – from the serious and sombre Fail Safe (1964) and The War Game (1965) (12) to the blackly satirical likes of Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964) and The Bed Sitting Room (1969). But come the 1970s, and nuclear war has either been superseded by a new range of existential threats or is treated as a foregone conclusion with no further examination required, a convenient backdrop against which the post-holocaust drama can play out.
Beneath The Planet Of The Apes (1970) is the first of four sequels to the original film, which memorably ends with misanthropic astronaut Charlton Heston (again) discovering the half buried Statue Of Liberty and realising he’s returned to a devastated future Earth. The immediate follow-up features a group of mutant human survivors living in the underground ruins of New York and worshipping at the altar of a nuclear doomsday device. A Boy And His Dog (1975) – tagline: “a future you’ll probably live to see” – has the titular characters wandering the post-atomic wastelands in search of food and sex, and discovering an enclosed underground society that operates as a perverse parody of pre-war rural America.
The oddest entry in the 1970s’ roll-call of post-nuclear films is Damnation Alley (1977), loosely based on the novel by Roger Zelazny. Of course, this book also inspired the Hawkwind song of the same name, but even Robert Calvert takes less liberties with the source material than the movie. For a start, the nominal heroes of the film version are actually members of a missile command post partly responsible for executing the nuclear war that has devastated America and the rest of the world. And while their journey through a hostile environment infested with giant mutant scorpions is passably exciting, the film’s upbeat ending not only implies that everything’s probably going to be alright, but that by 1977, audiences were hankering once again for simple escapism in big screen SF. (13)
With the focus of movie SF in the first half of the ‘70s being almost exclusively earthbound, there’s correspondingly few films actually set in space. There’s a cluster of films released around the Apollo missions to the Moon at the end of the ‘60s (14), but the ultimately prosaic nature of the NASA space programme proved to be a turn-off for TV audiences, its fuzzy pictures of a barren, inhospitable environment and golf-playing astronauts destroying the mystique around space travel that SF cinema had previously nurtured. Judging by the apocalyptic tone of many of the movies made directly after the Moon landings, the one image that had really hit home with filmmakers was that of the vulnerable, fragile planet Earth floating alone in the void, its fate hanging in the balance.
However, there are a couple of notable, if very different, films set in space from this period. While previous representations of space in the cinema had tended to dwell on man’s destiny among the stars, the early ‘70s produce two films which focus instead on the psychological impact of interstellar travel – suffice to say, both feel very much situated in the same conceptual universe as Hawkwind. From Russia came Andrei Tarkovsky’s artful adaptation of Stanisław Lem’s Solaris (1972), where the sentient planet around which a space station orbits causes its crew to relive traumatic moments from their past, with their memories literally coming to life.
The flipside to Tarkovsky’s philosophical meditations is the nihilistic humour of John Carpenter and his first feature Dark Star (1974). From the Grateful Dead-referencing title onward, there’s a strand of countercultural mischief running throughout the film, with the crew of a planet-destroying spaceship going out of their minds with boredom. An exchange between two crew members perfectly sums up the film’s sense of cosmic ennui: "Do you think we'll ever find any intelligent life out there?" "Who cares?"
Finally, perhaps the strangest of all the dystopian SF movies from the early ‘70s is Robert Fuest’s The Final Programme (1973), a freewheeling adaption of Michael Moorcock’s first Jerry Cornelius novel. The world may be coming to an end, yet in contrast to some of the more earnest productions above, the exact nature of the catastrophe remains unclear. What we get instead is a vision of pop-art decadence and the triumph of entropy, the screen packed with eye-catching imagery: Trafalgar Square piled high with car wrecks; a party of nuns playing fruit machines; a futuristic disco like something from the imagination of Hieronymus Bosch.
It’s in this latter scene that it’s possible, albeit for a very brief moment, to spot Hawkwind playing (inaudibly) in the background – Stacia swirls around in a fetching green cape, part-obscured by rollerskating majorettes. The original plan advanced by Moorcock himself was for Hawkwind to soundtrack the entire film, but this was nixed by Fuest, who wanted Billie Holliday instead, but eventually made do with some electronic grooviness. Talking about the film, Moorcock described how both Fuest and the crew disliked the band: “When Hawkwind started playing, the crew moved visibly backwards as if pushed by a wave of sound. They said, ‘Could you turn it down a bit, lads?’ and Dave Brock said, ‘We are turned down.’ It was a clash of generations as much as anything.” (15)
The Final Programme is incoherent if sporadically entertaining. Fuest, who directed episodes of The Avengers and the memorably sadistic Dr. Phibes films, clearly viewed Jerry Cornelius as some kind of countercultural secret agent figure – while visually there’s the hint of a psychedelic new wave SF aesthetic, its overall tone is campy and ironic rather than blackly humorous as Moorcock intended. It’s debatable whether a greater contribution from Hawkwind would have made the film any better, but if nothing else, it would have been apt for the band to feature on at least one soundtrack from the early 70s’ upsurge of apocalypse-obsessed SF cinema.
With grateful acknowledgement to Dr. James Riley, Cambridge University, for his input to this essay.
(1) The Pertwee years also feature ‘The Claws of Axos’, which, in a neat riposte to Bowie-esque visions of a superior alien intelligence saving us from ourselves, actually features a benevolent golden people from the sky who turn out to be hideous tentacled monsters intent on draining Earth of its energy.
(2) Created by Doctor Who alumni Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis (creators of the Cybermen).
(3) Created by another Doctor Who writer, Terry Nation (creator of the Daleks).
(4) Roger Price, the creator of The Tomorrow People, claims that Bowie actually used the term ‘Homo Superior’ after a discussion that he and Price had had about an early version of the TTP script.
(5) Directly after The Stone Tape, Kneale’s hair-raising techno/occult chiller shown by the BBC at Christmas 1972.
(6) The final part of the Quatermass saga wasn’t made at the time due to problems getting permission to film at Stonehenge, before the BBC decided the story was too expensive to make anyway.
(7) Or an invitation to gawp at Jane Fonda with no clothes on, depending on your viewpoint.
(8) Barbarella was the UK’s highest grossing film of 1968 after Disney’s The Jungle Book.
(9) Bizarrely enough, this morbid little number is lent a strange gravitas through being performed by MOR whistling king Roger Whittaker. There’s also an echo of ‘Uncle Sam’s On Mars’ in the words.
(10) Clearly modelled on the riot police deployed to quell protestors during US anti-war demonstrations.
(11) Perhaps this is how the computer-run societies of THX 1138 and Logan’s Run begin.
(12) The War Game, which detailed the aftermath of a nuclear strike on Britain, was originally made by director Peter Watkins for the BBC, but was judged too disturbing to be shown. Nevertheless, it was given a limited cinematic release and won the 1966 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. The War Game is shot in the same pseudo-documentary style as Watkins’ later film, Punishment Park.
(13) As of course Star Wars (1977) would go on to prove in spades.
(14) For instance, as well as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Barbarella, there was also the more prosaic Countdown (1968) and Marooned (1969).
(15) From ‘Q&A with Michael Moorcock for The Final Programme’, 10 August 2010.